Friday, December 19, 2008

I am finally officially a writer!

All through college, I knew I wanted to write. I thought I would go to grad school, get a degree in creative writing, and teach writing the rest of my life. Life, however, had different plans for me, and my dreams of writing have been on hold for a long, long time. This past year, however, I subscribed to a gardening website, Dave's Garden, and found a wonderful, supportive community of people. Everyone posts their successes and failures, asks their questions, and offers their wisdom. Somewhere along the line, another member asked if I'd ever considered joining the "Writing Team" and writing articles for the weekly newsletters. She said some of my posts on learning how to compost, and venturing into new areas of canning and pickling, were practically ready-made articles. I looked into it, and quickly received an official invitation to join the Writing Team. At the time, I didn't even have any clue that I would be paid for it! Let me tell you, there is no feeling in the world like holding a check in your hand, as payment for something you've written! It isn't a lot, but it does help supplement my meager teacher's aide paychecks!

Thus far two of my articles have appeared on the website, and three more are scheduled throughout the next year, to fit with the appropriate season. I have several more in the draft stages. My list of proposed articles keeps growing, too! Best of all, I've made some wonderful gardening friends, and gained some cyber-mentors in the process.

Funny how young and vulnerable I feel every time I submit an article to the editors. Reminds me of when I'd pour my heart into an essay or story in college, and then wonder if I'd overdone it, or revealed too much of myself. My friends used to laugh at me, because they'd all be asking what the minimum length was for an essay, and I'd be desperately editing, trying to get it down to fit into the maximum length accepted!

So, those cycles in life are coming around again, and I've rediscovered my love of writing. And on a website with so many subscribers, I know someone is reading it. The difficult part of blogging is wondering if you are putting it out there for yourself only, or if anyone else ever actually reads it!

If anyone is interested, here are my first two articles. They seem very rough and amateurish to me already. . .wish I could go back and edit them now!

I've learned so much more about layout and editing since submitting those early efforts. I need to go back and double-check the ones slated for publication soon, to see if I need to further tweak anything! Nice that we can still make adjustments up until the day of publication, if necessary. My next one is due on January 8, on forcing bulbs in the classroom.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Gardening Obsession

Why did no one tell me how addictive plants are? It seems I've spent every spare moment this fall planting! I've recently planted about 150 more bulbs (mostly daffodils, some tulips and crocus), 5 clematis, and 5 varieties of garlic (about 10-12 cloves of each, so I'll be all set for next summer!). I've got several day lilies coming next week, too.

Yesterday was a busy day. I definitely made the most of the wonderful weather, and only came inside long enough to eat lunch and dinner! I got my trellis painted with Rustoleum, so I could install it and get the clematis planted beside it. I planted the 5 clematis (4 by the trellis, one out front, to twine up one of the shrub roses), mulched the new bed where I planted a lot of new named iris last month when my mom was here, planted the garlic, mulched the strawberries and garlic with straw, weeded and re-mulched the butterfly garden, and just basically did a lot of yard clean-up. I also learned to drive our new John Deere riding mower, complete with the trailer. Dave had let the boys try it, with supervision, but never had it out when I was available to try it. Took a few tries to figure out how to start it, but no worries once I had it going. I don't think I'll tell him that I know how to run it, though, or he'll expect me to mow! :o)

Our tomatoes are still producing like crazy, so I've been canning and freezing lots of tomato products. I found two new recipes on Dave's Garden website, and have been making them constantly. One involves throwing tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and whatever else you like, in a couple of 9 x 13 pans, drizzle with olive oil, and roast at 425 for 2-1/2 hours. Then run it through a food mill to remove the seeds and skins, for the most wonderful roasted tomato sauce! It is intensely flavored and has such a nice kick, if you add a hot pepper or two and lots of garlic. I know I COULD can it, but thus far I've just been freezing it in two cup quantities in freezer bags. I'm sick of all the steam of the pressure canner!

I've also been playing around with a chunky salsa recipe for canning, adding different levels of heat, trying roasted veggies, etc. That one I don't quite have perfected. I think I need less sugar, and roast everything BUT the tomatoes, because I don't like skins in my salsa. So far I've made 3 batches, and we've already eaten 3 jars of it!

The broccoli has made a surprise final showing, too. I didn't know it would start producing again when the weather cooled down. In fact, this is the first harvest I've gotten from the 5 plants I bought locally. I did get a little earlier from the two plants my sister-in-law, LeaAnn, gave me, and they are producing again, too. I guess I need to either blanch and freeze it, or get going on some broccoli cheddar soup! Mmmm, I love soup this time of year!

I harvested tons of walking onions, trying to clear out enough room to plant the garlic, and learned how hard it is to braid the tops to dry them. After a half-dozen attempts, I finally just tied string around the tops and hung them up to cure. I only learned this year that those walking onions are actually really good to eat, not purely ornamental, so this is a new endeavor, too! I sure hope that the garlic doesn't flavor the strawberries, which are next to it in the bed. I could handle garlic flavored tomatoes, but strawberries? Not so much.

Our other big adventure of the weekend was a visit from the surveyor that Dave hired. Dave and our neighbor to the west have been having an increasingly heated debate over exactly where the property line between us lies. I am relieved to have an official word on it, so there will be no more of the conflict. I grew up understanding the importance of good relationships with your neighbors, and just hated having this issue hanging between us. I'm sure the anger won't just go away instantly, but at least the definitive decision was made by an independent third party. Both Dave and the neighbor have been talking about putting up a privacy fence, because they are so angry over it. Personally, I just don't see the big deal. Six-12 inches one way or the other. . .is it worth ruining a relationship over? So they were both mowing around the row of peonies. . .so what? I do think I need to dig up and move my Pinky Winky hydrangea, a gift from my mom for my birthday, as I now know it is over into their yard a little. They said they didn't care, but I'd just as soon know it wasn't going to get sprayed or pruned inappropriately or something.

Meanwhile, as I update the yard and add beautiful flowers, the house itself suffers. We need a new roof, I really want new siding, we've GOT to get that main bathroom functional again, we need to replace flooring in the kitchen and bathrooms, I'd love to replace the ugly 1970's carpet on the front porch, we need to fix up the window sills and door frame. . .the projects just continue to pile up. I wish I knew how to do some of the work myself, but I truly have no idea, and it seems every time I dive in and tackle a project, figuring I'll learn as I go, I end up making a bigger mess than we started with. I suppose Dave feels the same way, but somehow I still feel like he should be taking a more active role in fixing up the house. I guess I've learned one important thing: we are the WRONG couple to buy a fixer-upper house.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A New Beginning

Well, all my worries this summer over what to do this fall seem to have resolved themselves nicely. I haven't even had a chance to tell anyone yet, but I did get a job as a teacher's aide at the Primary school. It was a whirlwind experience, as in driving home from a family reunion in Tennessee, going to a quick interview, accepting the job on the spot, and then heading back out for family vacation two hours later. We got home after midnight last night, and I started work this morning!

I'll be working with one individual student, helping to adjust assignments for his level, working one-on-one with core subjects, escorting to speech, OT, PT, etc. I am also going early two mornings a week to provide before-school care for the children of school employees, as their work day starts earlier than they are supposed to drop off their kids. I think it is wonderful that the district is offering this to their employees free of charge! I also have lunchroom and recess duty for the second & third graders. Sigh. Better pack my ear plugs! Not so bad this time of year, but around January/February I'll be miserable.

Anyway, just wanted to explain about the new adventure I'm embarking upon. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

New Garden Slide Show

Be sure to check out the new slide show I added at the bottom of the page. I've been documenting my garden each month, and finally got a few (!) images put into a slide show! There are a few pictures that looked rotated right in the preview, but show up rotated sideways in the slide show.
Sorry! I'll have to go back and fix them later!

More "Putting By"

This was my first year growing cucumbers, and I guess I had not realized just how prolific they might be. I've been making cucumber salad, slicing it on sandwiches and salads, and today did a marathon pickling session. I tried two different methods, one involving soaking them in lime overnight to help them stay crisp, and one without. I used different brine/spice mixtures on each batch, too, so I can compare. I also have three different varieties of cucumber (Pearl, which is white-skinned--makes pretty pickles; and Eureka and Marketer, which are green-skinned and both were listed as good pickling cukes.) I truly didn't realize how quickly they would mature from pinky-sized to the size of a water bottle! I've been picking daily, and just can't fathom how they can grow so much overnight.

My only regret is that all the dill I started from seed grew prolifically as long as I kept it in pots inside, but was quickly devoured by something (four legs or six?) shortly after getting planted out into the herb garden. Last year was my first pickle attempt, and I think they were much prettier in the jar, with the big heads of fresh dill floating with the cucumbers. Ah, well. I guess when we taste them, that will be the real test.

Matthew loves to devour dills, but found the vinegar and garlic smell a bit overwhelming in the kitchen. I think he got his fill of preservation yesterday, when he helped me freeze 8 doz. ears of corn. He and Justin husked most of them, while I blanched them, and then we all worked together to cut them off the ears and package them for freezing. Matthew is old enough to do a really good job with both a knife and the Lee Corn Cutter, and Justin did a fair job with the Lee cutter, too, though I wouldn't let him do the knife method. I just couldn't bear the thought of one of his little fingers ending up in a pan of corn.

I also decided that I need to be a little more generous with all the jams I've made the past few years. As I hunted in my basement for empty jars, I came across a surprising stockpile of jam: cherry, peach, blackberry, grape, cran-grape, strawberry, strawberry-rhubarb. I find it hilarious that we eagerly eat all the corn, beans, and pickles I can preserve, and leave the sweets on the shelf! I guess we are all too addicted to cinnamon sugar to go through that much jam. I need to start finding other ways of preserving all those fruits, that we will actually use! In the meantime, anyone want some 1-4 year old jam?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer in full swing

Tomorrow is the first day of August, and my canning and freezing season has officially begun! I've already made strawberry jam, as detailed below, and am about to embark on my vegetable preserving. My garden beans never germinated this year (though I plan to re-plant and hope for a fall crop), but yesterday I stopped by the home of Mellick family in Danvers, IL, to see how their sweet corn was coming along. I placed an order for 8 dozen ears to freeze, to pick up next Monday, and mentioned that my beans were non-existent this year. Mrs. Mellick lit up, and said, "Well, I just picked a huge batch this morning! Are you interested?" Five minutes later, I was on my way home with 7 lbs. of green beans on the seat beside me. I plan to can about 2/3 of them, eat a few, and freeze the rest. I prefer them frozen, but Dave and the boys like them better canned, and I will do whatever is necessary to get them to eat their veggies!

I also picked a nice batch of broccoli this week, which I will freeze. Broccoli is just not something I like to eat soggy! I am so thankful that I accepted the offer of broccoli plants from Keith & LeaAnn, Dave's brother & his wife, as the 5 that I planted earlier have thus far produced nothing but really lovely foliage! If not for those two last plants from Keith and LeaAnn, I wouldn't have had any broccoli to eat at all. Dave and Justin won't even LOOK at broccoli, but Matthew and I will enjoy it!

Next week, I'll blanch and freeze the corn, to enjoy all year long. There is seriously nothing so good as home-frozen corn, picked young and frozen the same day. It is sweeter, milkier, and oh, so tender! I do have to say, freezing corn is one of the messier preserving tasks. Somehow I end up with cuts on my hands from the husks, and the silks go absolutely everywhere! It is so easy, though, it is hard to believe more people don't do it. Just boil the corn for 3-5 minutes, put into a sink of ice water, and slice the corn off the cob. You can either spoon it into freezer bags or pint freezing boxes, and you're done! Well, except for finding room for them in the freezer. . .

My tomatoes are still green and firm, and my peppers are growing larger by the day. Hopefully they will both hold out until we return from vacation! I did much prefer it when we were able to go on vacation in early July, so we weren't gone right when the garden was most in need of being tended, but with Dave's job, that is the way it works out. I got my tomatoes in late this year, and am also growing onions to use in the sauce, so perhaps the harvest will come at a better time this year.

So many people have asked me why I go to all the trouble of canning and freezing my own vegetables and jams, when they are so easy to get at the store. I COULD say I am being environmentally conscious, buying or growing locally, and preserving in re-usable containers instead of contributing to the pile of cans and jars to be recycled. But somehow, that seems more like a nice perk, rather than the reason. There is , of course, the fact that I know exactly how they were grown, and where, and that the flavor and quality is unsurpassable. Both nice benefits, to be sure. But deep down, the real reason I can and freeze is the emotional connection it gives me to my mother and grandmothers. They were all avid gardeners (Mom still is!), and preserved food for their families throughout their growing years. I remember riding the old elevator down to my Grandma Gladys' basement, and seeing all the jars lined up on shelves, full of the colors and flavors of summer. I remember going to the field to pick sweet corn, planted in the very center with coon dogs tethered nearby to scare off the masked invaders. I remember my cousins and I spending nearly a week husking and blanching, cutting and packing, and laughing and making wonderful memories at Grandma's house. It was hard work, but we had such fun with Grandma and each other that it was like a week-long slumber party, with all the hot, buttered corn we could eat!

I also remember my Grandpa Hill showing us his cider press, and watching him climb the old ladder, the wood grayed with the years, to pluck an apple for us to taste. Grandma always had a vegetable garden near Grandpa's woodshed, the rows straight and orderly, the tomatoes neatly staked, each row carefully mulched. Shiny pie pans hung at the corners to scare away raiders, and Grandma's hoe was always within reach, just inside the door, its handle worn smooth from years of use. It was Grandma Hill that introduced me to cucumbers sliced in a creamy sauce, and to new potatoes and peas, and tender new asparagus. The food was always hot and plentiful, with a basket of the piping hot rolls that she was so famous for, and we never went home without an offering of food, whether rolls, or cookies, or pints of her frozen applesauce. My favorite snack as a school child was to pull out a pint box of frozen applesauce, thaw it just slightly in the microwave, and eat it while it was still full of slushy crystals.

My mom continued the canning tradition, and was especially known for her tomatoes. We grew them in the garden each year, and put up jars upon jars of her special "tomato mix." I remember how we used to carefully cut a shallow X in the bottom of each tomato, then dip it briefly in boiling water to remove the skin. It would go into the pan firmly attached, but when lifted from the hot water, the skin around that X would peel back like the petals of a flower, and it was easy to remove almost all the skin in four large sections. That was one of the first jobs Mom gave me, as her little helper. Later, she invested in a vegetable strainer for her mixer, which greatly simplified the job of peeling and skinning the tomatoes. It was great fun to put the chunks of tomato in the hopper at the top, press them down steadily with the plunger (if we pressed too hard or too suddenly, the juice would spray up, dousing our faces and sometimes the ceiling!), and watch the rich, pulpy red sauce ooze into a large bowl, while a thin, dry worm of skin and seeds would twist it's way out the end into another bowl. My friends would always request my mom's spaghetti when they came over, as the flavor was so much richer and fresher than the Prego their moms bought.

We also canned beans, and made jam together. I always loved to hear about how Mom built a display when she was in 4-H, for all the different jellies she made. She'd perfected how to make lovely clear jelly, and was entering a project to show all the different varieties she'd made. She made a display that would light the jars from behind to make them glow like stained glass. It went all the way to State Fair, where it won a purple ribbon. That's my mom for you--great in the kitchen, but equally at home in the wood shop!

I never questioned why we did so much canning when I was a kid. It was just what we did each summer. It never even occurred to me that my classmates might not be doing the same with their families. When my turn came, I took my own jars of green beans, jams, and tomato mix to the fair, and watched anxiously as the judge examined them, and popped off the top to sample the flavor. It seems I absorbed a lot more than tomato juice during all those hours in the kitchen, standing over a steaming pressure cooker. Now my kids help me hull strawberries, snap the beans, husk the corn, and pack the containers. It is more than a skill to pass on: it is their heritage.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Can it really be July already?

I had to write a check today at Farm 'n Fleet (went in for tomato cages, came out with shorts for Dave & the boys, a tank top, fungicide (for the plants, not me!), sandals, Sevin powder to get rid of the invasion of cabbage worms on my broccoli, dome lids and freezer boxes, and 8 bags of cedar mulch. No tomato cages--they were sold out of the big ones I wanted for my rambling indeterminates. Gaack!

Anyway, I think I glazed over for a minute when I wrote the check. Could June possibly be over already? Where has the summer GONE? I should be applying to schools, applying for jobs, making plans, setting goals. . .being much more motivated than I've been feeling, at any rate. I think that being turned down for the masters program in library science set me back a bit more than I realized. I feel a little hesitant to put myself out there again. I know I don't take criticism or rejection well at all, and tend to avoid it as much as I avoid confrontation. But at the same time, I am a planner by nature, and like to have a nice, neat road map of my life, and this period of limbo is anxiety-provoking. Kind of a catch-22.

I still feel like I have a few doubts about what I really want to do when I grow up, which is part of my reluctance to commit to a program of study in early childhood education. I DO love teaching, and I love preschoolers. But do I love it enough to do it long term? Will I go through 2-3 years of school, work for a while, and wish I'd done something different? Will I feel like I'm getting out of touch, as my own kids move further and further away from the preschool age themselves?

I think I need to commit myself to really praying about this, and making a firm decision. I don't want to be wishy-washy and indecisive. I want to know for sure what it is I want to do, and then do it 100% with no regrets.

Gardens are much easier than real life. If a plant doesn't thrive, you pull it and try something different, and usually no great expense has been wasted. Maybe I should go into horticulture. . .

Monday, June 30, 2008

Reading and Writing, but please, no 'Rithmetic!

I have my friend Kiana to thank for getting me started on blogging. You'll see her blog, Kids, Dogs, and Ticks, listed under my favorite links! She always has such neat features on her blog. I need to sit down and ask her a lot of questions about how she added them!

Today I changed my template and added a new background, which I think reflects my love of flowers better than the simple green one I used to have. I'm sure I'll continue to play with it and change it, as I learn more about how to format the blog!

I've always loved reading (another passion I share with Kiana) and writing, so this will be a good opportunity to get some of my thoughts out on "paper," so to speak. Just please don't ask me to do any complicated mathematics! Unless it has some practical, real-world application (like cooking, or planning a garden), I just don't want to know about it!

Right now, I am really, really in need of a good book. The last few I checked out from the library didn't do much for me, and the one I borrowed from a neighbor definitely wasn't my style. I like books that really make me think, with characters that I could believe are real, and would even like to get to know. I like a good romance, or a mystery, or even science fiction, as long as it is character-driven, not focused primarily on the technology. In fact, one of my very favorite books is science fiction, called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. If anyone has a favorite they'd like to recommend, I would be thrilled to hear about it!

Note to self: must find a good book club. There is nothing I like better than discussing a thought-provoking book, whether I actually liked it or not!

The End of T-Ball

T-ball has drawn to a close for the year. Justin's game tonight was really typical: the kids were playing in the dirt, racing each other for the ball, and even occasionally fighting their own teammates for it! I love T-ball. . .there is just no performance pressure, no one keeps score, every kid gets to bat every inning, no one has to sit on the bench, there are no strikes or outs. It is just plain fun, and such a great way to introduce the kids to the basics of baseball, without the burden of dozens of rules, and exceptions to rules. At the end of the season, every kid gets a medal, and walks away feeling like a champion.

Now, as a teacher, I often have mixed feelings about "everyone wins" situations. I understand that hard work should be rewarded, and that not all children have the same talents or abilities. I have seen kids quit putting forth effort, or not challenging themselves, because there is no motivation to press for excellence if weak effort gets the same reward as total commitment. However, I have also watched the pressure build in baseball for my older son, as each year new rules are added, and more is expected from them. He still loves baseball, but now, as a boy entering fourth grade, there is a lot more performance anxiety. He knows he gets only 3 strikes. He knows his coach will take off his hat and cover his eyes, shaking his head, if he throws it to first when he should have thrown it to second. He knows the pitcher is going to throw it hard, and try to make him miss.

As a parent, I want my kids to grow up learning how to deal with failure as well as success, and to learn that hard work pays off. I want them to learn the value of practicing. I want them to know the thrill of attaining a difficult goal. I want them to be well-prepared for real life as adults, not sheltered from disappointment. At the same time, I am a little sad to see them leaving the stage when they have such great self-esteem, and feel like a real winner no matter what. This is when my job as a parent gets hard: when I have to make my children understand that I am so proud of them, and the effort and hard work they expend, even if they DO strike out, or lose a game, or even space out and miss a play entirely. I am proud of them for getting out there and trying, instead of sitting at home afraid of failure.

When my kids grow up, I want them to remember their mom as their #1 Cheerleader.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Strawberry Fields

My good friend Debbie told me that she and her son went to a U-pick strawberry farm, and got quite a bounty of strawberries. Boy, did that bring back memories of my childhood! My dad was a pastor, and when I was about 5, one of his parishioners had a U-pick strawberry farm. He invited us to come pick as much as we wanted each year. My mom, my brother, Lee, and I would all load up in the car and spend a few hours picking. I will never forget the feel of soft strawberries smashed under my knees, or the smell of the straw they spread between the rows. Most of all, I will never forget my brother lobbing soft, rotten bombs at me from several rows away, or slipping them down inside the back of my shirt and then patting my back to send the sticky ooze sliding down my spine. Gotta love brothers.

Anyway, today I got on the phone with the owner of the place Debbie recommended, and loaded up my own carful of kids to go strawberry picking. We'd only intended to pick enough for a load of jam, but there is something about that row, stretching out endlessly before you. You say you will stop with just one more handful of berries, but then, just beyond you, you see a cluster that beckons. Next thing you know, you have 5 buckets of berries, and juice staining your hands, knees, neck (from swatting the gnats that are attracted to the tropical fruit-scented sunscreen you oh-so-wisely applied before picking), and, of course, your mouth.

Justin was not so keen on the whole process, since he is not a fan of strawberries, but Matthew really got into it. We started talking about all the strawberries we've purchased at the grocery store, and how they are so big and lovely to look at, but have so little flavor compared to these little bombshells. We talked about where they might have been grown, who picked them, how long ago they were picked, how they traveled from far-away states to our little corner of the world, and how old they were by the time we got them. It was a real eye-opener for him. He decided that the life of a berry-picker was not for him!

All in all, we picked 29 pounds of strawberries, many about the size of my fingertip. I didn't fully appreciate the impact of this until I began hulling them. Do you know how many tiny strawberries it takes to make a cup? And how many caps and stems you have to remove? Matthew and I together hulled about 1/3 of our batch tonight, totaling about 22 cups, and just sighed at the sight of all the berries we didn't even begin to get to. Next time, moderation will be the word!

It will all be worth it, though, when in January we pull a box of strawberries from the freezer and put a little piece of summer in our mouths.

Note to Debbie: I wonder if you can make strawberry wine?

Fun Quiz: What kind of flower are you?

I am a

What Flower
Are You?

I found this quiz on another blog, This Garden is Illegal, and thought it was fun! The only question I found really frustrating was on what kind of gift you would want from your significant other. None of them seemed appropriate! Anyway, I am a snapdragon, which is good, because that is one of my boys' favorite flowers. I just hope they don't pinch my cheeks to make me open my mouth, as they do to the snapdragons we plant each summer!