Garden and Life Updates: Early July

Firstly, let me say that this post was delayed by about a week, so I thank you all for your patience and understanding. When I last left you, we had just gotten back from our pop-up camper test drive in Shawnee National Forest after a week of plumbing disasters leading up to Father’s Day. That was a week and a half ago.

And our plumbing woes continued. *cue dramatic music*

I actually uploaded a vlog yesterday that shows some of what I described in my previous post and contains much dramatic music, so if you’re just dying to see as well as read all about it, you can find it on the Channel. 🙂

For now, suffice to say that it is just not easy to be productive on much of anything when you have to fiddle with your plumbing just to make your shower and toilets work. Most of our days didn’t “start” until noon, and by then we were both tired and cranky, hopefully understandably so.

After five consecutive days of this routine, Brian believes he has satisfactorily tracked down every issue and knows how to resolve it. In the meantime, while we wait, he just has to pump-out the septic every other day or so to keep things flowing smoothly.

This has made the last four days or so infinitely better and more productive. We spent a good deal of time re-organizing the precious storage space inside and outside of the house, inventing new systems to accommodate changes in our lifestyle and habits since the pandemic. For example, we buy most everything in bulk now to reduce trips to a store, and those items need to be stored properly.

I had also, years ago when I started grad school and stopped selling at local farmer’s markets, given up my dedicated canning cupboard to towels and linens, leaving myself one measly shelf in the games/craft closet. This worked fine when I was only canning what I knew we’d use, and divvied items between that shelf and our regular food pantry. I’ve been canning so much so far this summer (in hopes that many of you will purchase some goodies in the Shop), but they had just been sitting in a pile in my dining room, waiting on me to figure out where in the world they would live for long-term storage. Moving games and crafts to a new shelf in the garage freed-up that entire closet, so look-out world, I’m about to be a canning wizard. 🙂

Removing clutter felt amazing. I feel so much more stressed-out when my environment is in disarray. The house got deep-cleaned, and then I felt free again to go outside and dig-in to the gardens. We’d been perfunctorily weeding, of course, and, as much as we were able, doing our morning garden walk. But many garden chores sat undone because the weight of the plumbing was just too great.

The garden is an ecosystem, not unlike a septic tank, however, and when one thing gets left untended or even fails, it impacts other items more and more. While we fought the battle for the plumbing, a few key areas of the garden began to show signs of distress and potential failure: the cabbage, the cucumbers, and the tomatoes.

As soon as we returned from our brief camping trip, I walked-out to the Main Garden and did a quick inspection, and that’s when I noticed three things: 1) something was eating our cabbage, 2) our tomatoes appeared to have grown two feet and were not only overgrown but in dire need of better support and 3) one of our cucumbers was wilted in a crumpled pile on the ground.

I bent down to the cabbage first and saw live cabbage worms and, more alarming, a veritable colony of laid eggs.

No amount of hand picking-off worms or eggs, or trying any neem oil or other method the internet told me might work, would work in time. This is why we garden-walk every morning: you have to spot these things early to get ahead of them. We were simply too late, and so I basically treated the two cabbage in question like toxic waste and hurled them far into the forest. We harvested one cabbage for immediate consumption (delicious) and then the next day I discovered a few more eggs on another, and so pulled that one, as well. We are left now with two.

After hurling the two cabbages into the forest that evening, I made a beeline for the obviously sick cucumber. Earlier in the season we had experienced some similar issues with our peppers when their leaves began to yellow, mottle, brown, then drop-off. We surmised it was a virus of some kind, likely brought-in from a store-bought pair of banana pepper plants we purchased, and then all the heavy rains had spread it to nearby plants. We started by hand-picking the infected leaves and clearing any sign of the leaves from the ground and disposing of them (not in the compost). This helped beat it back for a few days, but ultimately we had to pull the banana pepper plants, one anaheim pepper, and five bell pepper plants. I re-dug the ground well, worked in more compost, and replaced each plant with the back-ups we had in the greenhouse (I love our greenhouse!), and everyone has been happy and producing ever since.

Unlike the peppers, though, we had not caught the cucumber early, and it was now beyond saving. I immediately removed it and disposed of it (also not in the compost) and then turned to inspecting the nearby cucumber plants for signs whatever had infected and killed the first cucumber had passed-on to them. As I expected, the adjacent cucumber exhibited signs of leaf wilt and mottling.

I pruned him hard, removing any leaves with any trace and then left him for the night. When I circled back the following morning, he looked a little perkier, but by that afternoon was beyond saving. We wound-up having to pull him and one other. All three of these cucumbers had been victims of an early frost and, after some major TLC, had been brought-back, but I do think they were weaker plants as a result. I had one cucumber in the greenhouse back-up pile, and replanted him after some ground prep, so now we’re down to four cucumber plants.

And finally that evening, I spun on my heel from the cucumbers and surveyed the veritable tomato jungle that lay before me. On our garden walk the morning we left for camping, I commented that these needed pruning and more support, but that they’d be alright until we got back. It was only a few days, after all, and we’d simply been too busy handling plumbing all week to have time to get it done before we left. They looked as if they had grown two feet in our absence, though. Ah yes, somehow every summer I seem to forget how quickly things can grow in a high-summer garden. You can walk it in the morning and that zucchini will not be ready, but if you come back in the evening, it will have swelled and extended beyond the size you thought you might pick it.

It was so overgrown it was hard to discern one plant from another, and getting my hands in to check for burgeoning fruit was difficult. There wasn’t anything I could do yet that evening, but more than cabbage or cucumbers, these tomatoes became my top priority for the next day.

That morning was cool–a perfect morning to weed heavily and then get to pruning once the leaves were dry. I focused my efforts mainly on the base of the tomatoes, creating airflow and height to ensure foliage stayed off the ground (and away from pests and soil-born diseases) and then give them a rest before tending to the dense upper foliage.

I waited a few days and then went back in with my pruning shears, lopping off suckers left and right, it seemed, and yet somehow after I created three large piles for the compost, the plants still had quite a lot of foliage left on them. I opted to vlog this entire process (including cabbage and cucumber) and include my thoughts on pruning and a little “how-to”, as well, so I won’t include that here. The video does a better job of explaining by showing what it would take me paragraphs to write, and this post is already quite long. 🙂

The tomatoes are doing well and are beginning to fruit now. I do hope they decide to wait a little longer to really get going, though, because we are leaving for a long camping trip in a week! With the pandemic, and all signs pointing to a spike in cases (not a second wave because the first never stopped), we felt it best to try places that were less densely populated and traveled, and that had a lot of space, hopefully even on trails, that would enable safe social distancing on hikes. We also felt it important to not travel to places where we might be tempted into restaurants or indoor attractions: we need to stay outside for our leisure and, as much as possible, well away from other like-minded people. So, what better time, I thought, than to take the kids on a trip I took in high school and that profoundly shaped my future–South Dakota.

Of course, we decided this before we realized the President would be speaking at Mt. Rushmore a week and a half prior to our visit. That may make it busier than normal, but I’m still hopeful things will have abated by the time we make it to the Black Hills. And, as an educator, I’m not one to skip-out on an opportunity to use his speech and recent events to discuss the rights of the Sioux people and the history of this land with my children. Visiting Pine Ridge Reservation as a sophomore in high school exposed me to so much I hadn’t previously had access to, and altered the way I approached my education and my relationship to it.

I realized a few years later, as I spent a year engaged in an inquiry about the Sioux people (primarily the Oglala and Lakota) and Pine Ridge for my senior AP English class, that it would be so easy to keep my distance–my supposed objectivity–and fall into the same privileged and powered traps of the people I hoped to prove wrong, or at the very least, critique, in my project. Objectivity, as the word implies, objectifies people, making them an object of study rather than living embodied realities. This is especially troublesome when entire groups of people have historically not been able to write their own stories, especially for audiences in places of power (such as historic academia and what, for a long time, counted as “an academic text”).

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the first cultural rhetorics project I ever engaged in. I realized that I am a part of the story and that I needed to attend in my project to my own engagement with this topic as a white person, as an outsider, as a high-schooler from a predominantly white, upper-class background. So, next to academic papers I wrote about land rights and treaties, I wrote poems about my feelings, included photographs of my time there, and made art collages of bits of texts I’d read. I wrote myself alongside and within the story. I also realized that all of the “academic” texts I had access to at that time were by and large not written by Indigenous Americans/American Indians/Native Americans (pausing here to note that none of these terms are value-neutral), so to juxtapose against the “academic texts” I was required to read, I included fiction, memoirs, essays, and anything else I could get my hands on (in 1999 when there was no Google) that were authored by Native people. In short, the doing and the making of that project altered the way I encounter and engage with others and the world around me and upended the way I thought about rhetoric and writing. I owe South Dakota, and the Sioux people, so much.

So, I’m excited to see it again; to take the kids, though they’re much younger than I was and I’m realistic to the fact that they may not have a life-altering shift in their thinking. It’s a magical place filled with history, wonder, and beauty, and I feel grateful beyond measure that we have a pop-up now and can take this trip. I’ll try to get a blog post up during our trip, as long as there’s wifi. We’ll also be vlogging it extensively, which is a process I find I really enjoy. As far as I’m concerned, editing a vlog is no different than editing any other kind of writing. I get to tell a story, and even to a certain extent, the genre allows me more freedom to insert other modes easier than traditional academic writing (although I have been prone to stretching the limits of “academic writing” before, having composed papers with soundtracks or on the web where I can insert links and videos). 🙂

Right. Enough nerding-out about rhetoric and writing! In the next week before we leave I’ve got some recipes to share, more garden chores to accomplish, and a bunch of prep to do before we can leave. As Captain Picard would say, “Engage!”

Plumbing Disasters but Camping Miracles

What a week it has been, friends. As I stated in last week’s Garden Update post, last Monday we had septic tank issues. After we paid a premium to have someone come out that same day AND paid to have the pipe that runs between the septic tank and our house jetted and cleared, we thought our plumbing problems would be over. Nope.

Let me back-up (pun absolutely intended). When we first moved into this house, the septic tank was not working properly, despite the system having been replaced recently (or at least recently in septic tank years–they last a long time). We paid to have it pumped out and then Brian, being the stalwart homesteading warrior bada$$ that he is, rappelled into it Bear Grylls-style and inspected it so we could know if the tank itself had any issues.

After Brian deemed the tank in good working order, we were able to obtain a diagram of the entire system from our local courthouse, where we learned that when the system was replaced, instead of replacing the existing finger drainage system, they put in a dosing tank and a splitter, allowing the septic to drain either to the old finger system in the backyard, or be moved to the new finger system and dosing tank system for the frontyard. The valve was sending all the drainage to the less efficient backyard system and all we had to do was find the valve, turn it, and problem solved. Right? Sure. For a little while.

Every so often, we’d get backups. And when I say backups, it really isn’t clean water I’m referring to, here. I was a stay-at-home mom in those days with two preschoolers that were potty training. Not having a sanitary environment or working plumbing was just not an option. Yet, we also didn’t really make a heck of a lot of money. We had graduated college and started a family pretty much at the exact same time as the Housing Bubble Bust and Market Crash of 2008, and Brian’s employment situation and compensation reflected the times. On my old blog, I wasn’t shy about disclosing our income and often wrote about how we made do on very little, and I’m honestly grateful for those lessons now as we barrel towards a Depression. (Pausing here to acknowledge that “making do on very little” in White America is still an incredibly privileged position).

Part of how “we made do,” though was learning to do stuff for ourselves. Which meant that whenever the septic tank backed-up, my husband found himself quite literally dangling inside of it, fiddling with the pipe for hours on end while I tried to be useful by doing menial things such as turning water on/off, holding a light, or fetching something. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at being his assistant and now know way more than I ever cared to about plumbing.

Actual photo of me helping Brian with the plumbing 🙂

Once, after hosting houseguests for a few days, the system decided it could not handle the additional load and we went without working plumbing for four days while each evening after work Brian and I would (but mostly Brian) would wrestle with it. We use a snake–not an official one on a pulley system with a crank. Nope… this is one we shove into one end of the pipe and hand turn by ourselves, blisters forming from the corrugated metal. We also have a wonderful device we invested in years ago called a Drain King that attaches to the end of our garden hose and then we shove into a pipe, turn on water, and the device inflates like a balloon and pressurizes before releasing, hopefully clearing the pipe.

It took four days of dangling into the septic shoving one device into that pipe, taking the toilet off so we could shove another device into the other end of the pipe, and working together to finally get it cleared. I will never forget sitting in darkness on the fourth evening at the edge of a stinky hole in the ground while staring anxiously at the pipe inside of our septic tank, watching and letting out a whoop and a fist pump as the impediment finally burst through the wall of Drain King water and plopped satisfactorily into the tank below. Victory.

This incident is why we paid to have professionals jet the line while they were out. Let’s not dangle in the septic tank if we don’t have to, right? Everything seemed fine the rest of that day until after Liam’s bath the following day, when the dreaded “gurgle gurgle blurp” sound emanated from the bathtub drain and water began leaking through the bathroom wall into my dining room, down the slight slope of our foundation, and collecting into a pool at the base of my kitchen island. Again. Because this had happened Monday. So that’s super.

Fine. We know the drill. We’ve fought the Four Day Battle and won, right? Do the snake. Do the Drain King. Done. Problem solved.

*gurgle gurgle blurp* the next day.

Are you kidding me?

Back into the septic tank Brian goes. There go all the tools. There goes our toilet, which will have to be reset and resealed–AGAIN. There goes all the water into the house. *whimpers*

What did we learn from this experience? Lots, actually, even though the cost of that knowledge was stressful and messy, interfered with Homestead plans and projects that needed to happen, and impeded our ability to get ready to go camping for Father’s Day.

So, here we are: the septic tank itself is just fine. No, the problem, friends, is the pipe that runs between the septic and the house. That pipe is OLD and it is not happy. Not happy at all. We are getting city sewer hook-up within a year or so, so we are going to try to limp it along until that time. But, I’m afraid this means much more dangling will occur before we’re done. Send happy thoughts to Brian.

With all the stress of plumbing disasters day after day last week, we fell a little behind on the garden chores and canning chores. We were supposed to leave Friday for a quick camping trip to test-out the pop-up and celebrate Father’s Day, but I ended up needing to can 3 batches of strawberry syrup, freeze strawberry puree, plant 25 bare root strawberry plants (I actually had 50 to plant, but only made it through 25), AND do all the laundry I could’t do during the week because I just kept washing every.single.towel we own over and over again, plus the normal pre-camping kitchen prep I always do: make condiments, pre-make some things, smartly package others, etc. We ended up leaving Saturday mid-morning feeling way less prepared than normal but also in dire need of a weekend away in a forest to sooth our stressed-out selves.

We made it to Shawnee National Forest by late afternoon, and got the pop-up set and ready in record time. We learned very quickly, however, that our pop-up mini fridge does not work. It was also 90 degrees and we hadn’t had time to get the AC we’d hoped to or even to buy any fans. And, as it turns out, we’d also not had time to get a large propane tank to hook-up the installed camp stove in the pop-up, so we’d have to improvise and bring our old portable camper stove inside the camper, which is not ideal. We evacuated our camp site almost as quickly as we set it up for ice cream and emergency fan procuring, only to not be able to find any stores that sell fans within 30 minutes of camp.

And then it started raining and thundering. As we ate our ice cream, Brian and I looked at each other and just started laughing. What else could we do when nothing about our week seemed to be going our way? The ice cream was cool and delicious. The kids were happy and excited about the pop-up. And the rain would cool everything off.

It rained all night and all morning. We stayed cool and dry in our camper. It was Father’s Day and I made a fussy breakfast of pancakes and bacon. I spent time editing videos for the vlog. The kids chilled out reading or playing games. Brian relaxed. The universe conspired to force us to stop everything for a few hours and just be. And it was lovely.

After the rain stopped, we made it to one of our favorite areas–Bell Smith Springs. Even though the trailhead was a little busy, we could maintain social distancing and then quickly became alone and isolated as we looped and trekked over rugged and slippery terrain, taking the long way to Devil’s Backbone.

We splashed and swam–completely alone in this wondrous place–for an hour before trekking back again, first through dense forest, then rocky bluffs and cliffs, and then over creeks and streams, one of them a brilliant turquoise thanks to a mineral in the two large rock outcroppings sitting in the middle, then up the steep stone stairs and back to the truck and our little camper, where we made burgers and played board games into the night.

Peace. After all the stress–stress not just from this week but the stress that had been piling on for months now–seemed to melt away. This is why we camp. This is why we hike. This is what being in nature does to us. We are so thankful to have found and been able to buy this pop-up camper. It has unfolded so many wonderful possibilities for us in this uncertain and difficult time. And we’re excited to share as much as we can of that with all of you.

So, plumbing disasters avenged–for now. We are looking forward to a quiet week at home with the gardens, the chickens, the kitties, and one another, planning for our next, and bigger camping trip. Look for our camping vlogs to be coming on the Channel soon. Until next time, friends. I hope you, too, can find a way to get outside and away from your own stresses, even if just for a little while.

Mediterranean Beans Two Ways: White Bean (or Italian Sausage) Pasta and Spicy White Bean Salad

Beans. So inexpensive. So nutritious. So tasty. So versatile. I love them. A year ago I went searching for some inspiration for quick and healthy work lunches, and found this recipe for a sundried tomato cannellini bean salad. I made it as-is the first time, and then adjusted it to my own tastes, and have tweaked it here and there ever since, and it has become a go-to favorite of mine. It’s so adjustable, as the title of this post indicates–with the flavors and same general assembly principles accommodating a bean salad, a bean salad over a greens salad, or a pasta dish, depending on my mood. It tastes fresh, bright, and lightly spicy, with a good hit of creamy (even without the heavy cream because beans have a creamy mouth-feel) and savory thanks to the garlic and onions. So today I’m sharing how to use the same beans in two ways, in a pasta or in a salad. Oh, and if you have a family that requests meat, then you can also make the same dish with Italian sausage. 😉

Spicy Italian Sausage or White Bean Pasta
Yield: 6 servings

1/2 pound cavatappi pasta
2 T olive oil
1 pound mild Italian sausage, ground or links uncased and broken-up
2 14.5 ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 small sweet onion, diced
4 cloves garlic
1 C fresh quartered campari or other small tomato, such as roma
1/2 C sundried tomatoes in oil, julienned and kept with some of their oil
1 T red wine vinegar
1 t sea salt
1/2 t black pepper
3/4 t ground rosemary
1 T dried basil
1/2 t crushed red pepper
2 C heavy ream
1/2 C feta cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat for the pasta. Meanwhile, in a wide bottomed large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat until hot, then add the onions and sausage (or white beans) and cook, breaking up the sausage and stirring it frequently. Cook until sausage is browned and onions have softened, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, and basil, and cook 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the vinegar and tomatoes, seasoning with sea salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Cook until tomatoes have softened, about 8 minutes. Add heavy cream and let simmer, reducing and thickening a little, while pasta cooks. Cook pasta to al dente in the water, about 7 minutes. Drain and add the pasta to the sausage mixture. Add the feta cheese and stir it in. Serve.

See Notes on this–This photo contains the optional baby kale and arugula wilted in

Spicy Mediterranean White Bean Salad
Yield: 4 servings

1 14.5 ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2-3 T red onion, finely diced (to taste)
1/4 C fresh basil, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 C sundried tomatoes in oil, julienned
1 T oil from sundried tomatoes
1/2 t black pepper
1/2 t crushed red peper (to taste)
3/4 t sea salt (to taste)
2 T red wine vinegar
1/4 C crumbled feta cheese
salad mix of your choice, but it works best with a mixture of argula, spinach, and other soft/baby lettuces
fresh squeeze lemon juice, for dressing
extra sea salt and black pepper for dressing

Optional (See Notes):
baby kale
extra spinach/arugula

Za’atar Pita:
whole wheat or white pita bread
olive oil
Za’atar spices

Combine everything for the beans in a lidded storage container and let the flavors come together a few hours prior to serving. Meanwhile, toast some pita bread in a small skillet with a little olive oil over medium heat. Once it has browned on both sides, sprinkle a little Za’atar on one side and let cool before serving. Serve over your preferred mixture of lettuce and use Za’atar pita for texture as croutons, then squeeze the lemon juice over top and sprinkle with a little extra sea salt and black pepper.

1. In the photo, I’ve actually lightly sauteed the whole bean mixture with some baby kale and extra arugula. I had access to baby kale (which is a wonderful treat), so opted to lightly heat the sundried tomato oil, add the greens with the crushed red pepper and garlic, and let the greens wilt for 2-3 minutes before removing them to finish the recipe. It makes this dish even more full of nutrients and was definitely a tasty addition.
2. You can also eat this without the lettuce, as a bean salad, and use the pita to scoop-up the beans.

Garden Updates: The First Half of June

Good morning and happy Monday, friends! It’s been a bit of a day here at the Homestead–our septic tank is backing up because, in all the recent goings-on in the nation and world, we neglected to make our pumping appointment. In addition, poor Liam has a nasty bug bite that has caused a swollen lymph node. This is not abnormal for him, but it is always hard as he’s uncomfortable. So, I’m shower-less, the kitchen’s a mess, and my floor is littered with whatever towels we had available to mop up all the water. It’s better to laugh than feel stressed in moments like these, so let’s fist pump the air together and yell “Everything is Awesome” somewhat sarcastically, then move on. 😉

It has been a busy few weeks here. We’ve been working steadily on the garden fence, which is coming along nicely, and overall attending to the daily tasks of making sure all the plants stay healthy–weeding, adding supports, pruning, fertilizing, and picking. We planted-out our Fall squashes and (finally and belatedly) got the last of our summer potatoes planted. The greenhouse is starting to clear-out as I make room for more tomatoes, but we still have some starts available in the Shop–peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and soon some Fall squash. Early June is also strawberry season in Central Indiana, which is really only about 2 weeks long, maybe 3 on a good year (which this hasn’t been a particularly good year). We got out to pick two days after my preferred u-pick opened for the season and picked about 30 pounds. It took me the rest of the week to turn all those berries into jam, desserts, purees, and syrups. I’ve taken a few videos while doing this, so there’ll be a vlog coming up soon about that, and the jams are making their way into the Shop.

As soon as I finished processing all the berries, I knew we needed to go pick again. On the day I felt we should go, however, we were all just so tired (the kids have been doing Baking Challenges, which are educational, adorable, and delicious, but utterly destroy my kitchen, and we did two last week). So, I opted to go the next day only to discover my preferred u-pick would be closed for the season (though they have since announced a re-opening with a note about how odd this season has been). Thanks to a tip from a Facebook friend, we found a new u-pick north of us that had opened later than the other u-pick, likely because they have a different variety or because being even just a little farther north impacted their season.

We were all set to go when Brian found a pop-up camper on Facebook Marketplace, as I mentioned in my previous post, so we decided to divide and conquer. I met-up with my parents to take the kids berry picking while he drove down south to secure our much-sought-after pop-up. Yay!

We found this amazing birds nest in the middle of one of the strawberry rows!

Even though the berries were small, they tasted sweet and juicy and we were able to pick an additional 12 pounds, just shy of my 15 pound goal. With that I can make one more batch each of strawberry-vanilla and strawberry-rose, and then froze enough whole berries for two batches of triple berry red wine jam here in a few weeks (after we pick blueberries and raspberries).

Traveling and trying to coordinate to go pick such large quantities of berries is not easy, and so I went diving into the internet to find small-space solutions for growing strawberries, hoping we could add more plants to our own collection and reduce the amount I’d need to travel to pick next year. There are quite a few ideas out there, and a few I’ve had pinned on Pinterest for several years. I eventually opted for a tower using two 5-gallon buckets that looks somewhat easy. I’ll be vlogging the project so I guess we’ll all find out together. 🙂

I bought 50 bare-root June-bearing strawberries that I’m hoping will come in soon and I can get planted so that there’s a chance they might want to produce well for me next June. Here’s hoping, at least! They’re not first-year plants, so they are capable of producing, but it’s often best practice to let strawberries get established a year prior to picking, which would mean nipping off the flowers during the season so that the plant puts all its energy into rooting. While I’m *just* missing the season, these plants will have been planted a full year, so I’m hopeful.

I like this plan because that leaves the Ever-bearing strawberries in the raised bed in the main garden, as I think they should be, but the unruly and heavy-feeding June-bearers are kept more manageable and contained (and easier to feed, quite frankly). I can move the towers into the greenhouse over winter and then move them around the yard to ensure they’re getting optimum weather and sunlight, too. I’m excited!

In addition to strawberries and the edible gardens, we’ve also spent a little time putting some ornamental landscaping in to the front of the Homestead–you know, so that when you all stop by to pick-up products you’re not left wondering why you’re pulling-up in front of this obviously abandoned, haunted house. OK, it’s not that bad, but it wasn’t pretty, let’s put it that way. This project is long overdue, to be honest, but we kept saying we’d rather just put a front porch on than mess with these difficult landscape beds. However, it’s been 4 years since we removed the unkempt hemlock bushes that blocked all the light and there’s just been weeds, the hemlock bravely trying to regrow, and one lonely winter creeper bush that’s quite happy. We don’t have the resources to put on a front porch, obviously, having spent so much money on expanding and adding infrastructure and aesthetics to the back gardens (and buying a pop-up camper). So, landscaping it is!

The house on the day we bought it. You can see a toddler Chloe in the door!

The front of our house faces west, but has a large maple tree, which means that most of the day it is in shade with a mixture of dappled light in spots or blazing, hot light in others, especially towards the end of the day. This has made selecting plants a little challenging, since most shade-lovers decidedly do not want blazing afternoon light, but most sun-loving plants need more sun than some areas in the front get. Additionally, the foundation of the house protrudes into each bed a good 2-3 feet, so that the planting area is actually much more shallow than at first glance. The soil is sandy, not the heavy clay of our backyard, and not as alive, either, which means things up there need a lot of feeding. And finally, the roof or our house, like our foundation, also protrudes a good 4 feet (which is why we thought the obvious solution was a front porch), which means these beds receive next to no natural water. Fun times.

My solution this year was lavender. Our aesthetic strategy on the exterior is a vague representation of French Country Cottage, so lavender is an obvious choice. It also absolutely adores a dry, hot, poor, sandy soil and wants as much sunlight and as it can get, which means it will soak-up all that blazing afternoon sun with lavish abandon. Using lavender as a jumping-off point, I also ordered a dwarf lilac tree, boxwoods to offset in the back, groundcover, and planted arborvitae (though they will be too big and will have to be transplanted next year, given that the roof of our house is only 8-9 feet high and arborvitae can grow 10-12 feet. Next year, I’ll special order the dwarf junipers I have my eye on, but they were so much more money and I’m tired of special ordering plants for my apparently very abnormal growing situation). There will also be a variety of perennial bulbs sprinkled throughout. The color story is green and purple with a little pink.

I added some spirea, as well, as an impulse buy at a local hardware store, since it takes part shade to part sun. We had some watering mishaps this past week, but I think it’ll bounce back and do alright. I also want to transplant the Sarah Bernhart peony to flank the lilac. Even though it’s on the south-facing side of the house and theoretically should be the sunniest location for it, we have dense trees that shade it and it’s forever reaching out each season while it’s in bloom, trying to poke its flowers around the corner to where the sunlight is.

The peony is all done for the season, but you can see where it reaches

We mimicked this same planting scheme on the other side, using the winter creeper as an anchor rather than a lilac. I am still waiting on two lavenders to go in the center and a clematis to go behind the arborvitae, which should not mind the shallow rooting conditions.

I also have two groundcover roses in a light pink coming for the pots that should spill over the sides, adding a touch of drama and messiness to the formal structure and symmetry (as any good French Country Cottage should). I’m concerned the roses won’t get enough light, so my backup plan is foxtail ferns and I’ll put the roses in somewhere because they’re gorgeous. I’m also concerned that the lavender won’t get enough sun on this side, but time will tell. So far, on the other side of the bed it’s the happiest thing out there.

I mentioned water mishaps, so I’ll elaborate. We’ve had a hose spigot in the front of the house since we moved in but it never worked, which is another reason why planting in front of the house was arduous and much-delayed. So I was lugging the watering can around to water each day since planting the first half of the bed. Last week, however, I got busy and went a few days without doing this, and the lavender was all, “this is what we live for!” and the spirea was all, “what the heck are you doing to me?!” It doesn’t look so hot presently, but I do think it’ll recover.

In happy news, this lapse and potential plant loss forced us to dig deeper into why this spigot wouldn’t work. After some investigating, we located the spigot’s source underneath the built-in shoe cabinet in my crappy built-in closet that doesn’t work and we hate. Because that makes sense. It sat in this crevice alongside the bank paperwork for a home equity loan taken out 20 years ago, that I can only assume is when they put in said awkward and not very useful built-in closets. Tearing out these closets and putting in real closets is on the to-do list eventually, but for now—water!! YES! All the plants will be so happy, except for the lavender, which, looking majestic and being fragrant, is haughtily ambivalent about the whole ordeal.

We still have new shutters coming, and some paint for the door. A nice trellis for the winter creeper and clematis, and we need to edge. But, it’s coming along nicely and really only took us two afternoons of work after some careful planning and prep. So worth it.

That’s all for the gardens right now. I’ll be posting two recipes this week, and then we are going camping over Father’s Day weekend to test out the camper, so we likely won’t have major garden news next week.

Fun Homestead Announcements & News

Hello, all! June is halfway over, if you can believe it, and the first two weeks were action-packed! Fun things are happening at the Homestead and all of our food is grow-grow-growing, so this post is going to provide quite a few updates. Because there’s quite a lot of updating to do, I’ll be writing a separate garden update post, per my usual, tomorrow, and then–as always–I have some recipes to share that I’m hoping to get-up midweek. So let’s get to it!

1. We are vlogging! And it’s so fun! We’ve got one video up so far, which is a brief tour of the growing spaces and useful spaces of the Homestead on our YouTube Channel. We’re learning to use Adobe Premiere, which excites my little English MA heart (learning new mediums and modes is always thrilling), so my editing skills are rudimentary but growing. And we filmed on an iPhone SE, which is also not the best recording device, but it’s a fun little video so we hope you’ll watch it. We’ve ordered a nice digital camera, which we’ve been wanting to do for 5 years now ever since our first nice digital camera broke, so this gave us the perfect excuse.

We have filmed A LOT of content (including the Lumberjack video from last week’s post), so there’s quite a few videos in the pipeline. Once we are more adept at editing, I would expect us to be able to post 2-3 times a week. I actually say 1-2 times in the first video, but I mapped out the content I’d like to post and we actually need to post more. This should be a hopefully entertaining and at least fun way to access and learn about the Homestead and get to know us more. I will still be blogging a lot here, as well, so no worries. I love writing too much to stop, and I think the content will compliment one another, rather than compete. 🙂

2. The Hull’s are mobile during the pandemic! We have been wanting to purchase a camper for almost a decade, and this summer we decided it was the absolute best time to do it. With a camper we feel as if we can travel more safely. If you followed the old blog, then you know we’re experienced tent campers, but I really felt it was important to have access to our own restroom facilities, rather than shared facilities at a campground, and having a little more separation from other camping families also felt like a smart move.

Campers can be so expensive, and we are certainly not the only family to have thought about the practicality of camping during this time, so we struggled to find a decent used camper that was still in-budget for a little while. We had one camper lined-up, but the seller had staged buyers in 15 minute increments. We had to arrive at our designated time (as first-up) on the dot to hand over the money, and Brian somehow managed to get stuck behind a garbage truck, a fleet of Fed Ex delivery trucks, and a huge, unprecedented line at the bank. We missed out. Then, we’d find really good ones within an hour of publishing, contact the seller, and then they’d reply it had already sold.

Yesterday morning, we were up with our coffee about to take our morning walk through the gardens when Brian just happened to be on Facebook Marketplace at the exact moment a camper fitting our desired description was posted. He contacted the seller immediately and, after a drive down south during which time the kids and I went strawberry picking for the last time this season, arrived back at the Homestead with our first and very own Hull Family Camper. The kids have named him Campy.

Campy needs a little TLC and renovating, but is in overall good condition. The previous owner used him primarily for hunting, so he didn’t travel super far, even if he is old. We have plans to add an awning and an outdoor room extension where we can set-up a portable shower and toilet situation before we tackle aesthetics, which we’ll do over the course of many months. I’m so excited we’ll be able to travel more safely this summer, and I’m super excited to be able to vlog some of those experiences, as well.

3. Sing it with me: *It’s the most wonderful time of the year!* Well, perhaps not to everyone, but to me the first weeks of June are some of my favorite of the entire year because it’s strawberry season in Central Indiana–the brief but manic weeks of June-bearing strawberries that lasts about two weeks, maybe three on a good year (which this was not). A separate vlog and blog post will be up about strawberry picking and jam specifically very soon. . .

4. But I wanted to mention it because two of my favorite jams are now available to purchase in the Shop: strawberry-rose (my favorite) and strawberry-vanilla (the Homestead’s signature flavor). I’m not shipping jam at this time. I tried to ship many years ago and found that it was costly (they’re glass jars) and worrisome (heat–such as the heat of being in a box in transport for a few days–can unseal a home-canned jar, which would be very sad and bad). This might be something I research in the future, as I know not all of our followers are local, but I can say for now that in an upcoming vlog I’ll be walking through the jam-making process and sharing my recipe, so I hope you can try to make jam at home. It’s so fun and rewarding!

Alright, friends! That’s all the updates! Now that Summer is officially almost here, things in the gardens are really starting to shine, so I’m excited to share some garden notes with you all. Today we’re adding supports to tomatoes and beans, and I’m also hoping to begin work on the other side of the front landscaping bed. And, as ever, everything needs a good weeding. Look for the garden post likely tomorrow to read and see more about it! Bye for now!

Weekly Recipes: Cold Spicy Asian Noodles and Dan Dan-style Noodles

This first recipe is one I’ve been making for years now, having found it on Pinterest from this blog, and tweaking it over the years. Many years ago, when our air conditioner was broken during the 90 degree heat and humidity of July, I started cooking and serving only cold dinners, which is when I first served this recipe. It became an easy, go-to favorite. It comes along on beach picnics and camping trips or packs nicely in a work lunch. It’s also a crowd-pleaser at potlucks. The best part? It comes together in 10 minutes and then sets all happily soaking in the sauce until serving time. It’s cool and refreshing on a hot summer day.

Cold Spicy Asian Noodles:
Yield: 6 servings

1/2 pound pasta of choice (linguini, spaghetti, or rice noodles)
1/2 t crushed red pepper
1/2 t ground ginger (or if you happen to have fresh, use about 1 T)
1/2 C sesame oil
6 T honey
6 T soy sauce
1/2 C chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 C chopped green onion
2-3 T black sesame seeds

Other optional mix-ins I’ve used over the years:
snow peas or snap peas
matchstick cut carrots
cabbage–red and/or green

Place a pot of salted water on to boil. In a small skillet heat the sesame oil for a few minutes to get it hot, then add the crushed red pepper and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute to get the pepper flavor infused into the oil. Add the ginger and let it cook just a few seconds. Remove it from the heat and strain it over a medium mixing bowl or measuring 2 cup measuring cup, so that only the pepper/ginger-infused oil, but not the flakes, goes into the bowl/cup. Add the soy sauce and honey and stir with a whisk until well combined. Meanwhile, boil your pasta of choice (I almost always use a spaghetti or linguini noodle) for 6 minutes, until al dente. Drain with a colander and pour into a storage container large enough to hold the noodles, the toppings of your choosing, and to toss everything around in the sauce in. Pour the sauce over the hot noodles and toss them–the noodles will start to soak-up the sauce. Add the cilantro, green onions, and sesame seeds, and any other toppings of your choosing, and toss until well combined. Let set in the fridge several hours–until cold–before serving.

Now, you might notice that there is only one photo for this post, and that the photo above does seem to contain some sort of meat topping. The other week I set about making lettuce wraps, and while this filling (recipe below) did indeed taste yummy wrapped in the tender outer leaves of our young romaine plants, it tasted even better when tossed with the spicy cold noodles I’d planned to serve on the side. The meat calms the heat down a little on the noodles and adds a really savory element, the two flavors combining really nicely on your palette. The end result isn’t really a traditional Dan Dan, but does have a similar look, taste, and feel. Bonus? If you still want to serve them separately, you can. Yay flexibility!

We ate this meal outside on our back patio, served family style, and it was lovely, relaxing, and delicious.

Dan Dan-style Noodles/Asian Lettuce Wrap Filling
Yield: 6 servings

1 recipe of Spicy Asian Noodles from above
1 pound ground turkey
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and diced small
1/2 t ground or 1 T peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 T olive oil
2 T hoisin sauce
1/4 C peanut butter
2 T soy sauce
2 t siracha
2 T rice vinegar
2 t sesame oil
2 T honey
sea salt and black pepper

In a wide bottom skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the meat and season with sea salt and black pepper, stirring and cooking to break the meat up for about 5 minutes, or until brown. Add the carrots, garlic, and ginger to the pan and cook another 1 minutes. Add all of the sauce ingredients and stir around, cooking another 1-2 minutes, then remove from the heat and set aside until ready to serve. You can place this on top of the Cold Asian Noodles (recipe above), or fold into tender lettuce leaves to serve as a lettuce wrap. If you do serve it as a lettuce wrap, I recommend making-up a quick sauce.

Lettuce Wrap Dipping Sauce
Yield: 6 servings

2 T olive oil
1/4 t crushed red pepper
3 T soy sauce
1 T rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T white sugar
1/3 C water

Heat the oil until hot, then add the crushed red pepper and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Strain out the red pepper and return the chile oil to the pan. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds, then add everything else and remove from the heat. Set aside until ready to use (or refrigerate if you’re making this ahead of time).

Garden: Forestry Management, Stuck Trucks, and Bee Stings

Note: Hey All, Future Kelin, here! I typed-out most of this post and then our internet went down for a few days. We’re back up and running again, but now we’re behind on posts. As a result, there will be no weekly meal plan (because the week is over). I’ve kept the post as I typed it, and then we’ll pick back up with new posts tomorrow.

Happy Wednesday morning, everyone! The sun is shining (for now) and in just a few moments we’ll be heading to a local farm to pick strawberries for the annual strawberry jam canning marathon. It’s one of my favorite times of year doing one of my favorite things, and I’m looking forward to some family time in the outdoors and in the kitchen. Plus, we get lots and lots of jam at the end, which is delicious (Spoiler: I’ll also have some to sell for local pick-up!).

Meanwhile, the Homestead is really starting to shine. The gardens are both starting to produce, the fence is coming along on the main garden, the plants are all getting growing so much in this heat that we’re putting supports in. It’s a magical time of year for a gardener, when that tiny seed you put in the ground sprouts and gets big seemingly right before your eyes. If I leave an emerging seed after a morning watering, by the time I circle back to check before bed, it will have visibly grown. Nature is amazing.

The Forest, more specifically the part just behind the Homestead, which was a huge bonus when we moved in but has been an impassable wall of honeysuckle the past few years, creeping ever closer to our back fence, is also shining now, in more ways than one.

Standing in the first half of the forest looking at the Homestead after we’d finished

It looks beautiful and we (and the wildlife) can walk into it and around in it, enjoying the heavy forest feel while being in sight of the garden. We purchased the kids a Tree Pod Lounger, which is sort-of a hammock-style fort, and are looking for the perfect spot to hang it so they can have their own tucked-away spot.

Getting this area to this point, however, took some doing. I’m suppressing a chuckle at that sentence. My word, it was hard work. If you want to see some of it, we are starting to vlog on our YouTube Channel. The vlog isn’t uploaded at the time of this writing, but it will be soon.

Believe it or not, this is after we started clearing. I’m standing at the fence looking at the same area as the photo above

The idea was straightforward, even if we knew ahead of time it would be a full weekend of work: 1) rent the chipper 2) back Brian’s truck up to the fence, 3) unload chipper, then 4) use chipper over the course of a 24 hour period to get as much done as possible because it’s somewhere around $250 a day. To best describe this process to you, I think it’s easiest if I provide a list in problem-solution (if there was one) order, then some commentary in between. Yes. Let’s do that.

Problem 1) The only local rental place with a working chipper is 30 minutes away. This is not convenient, especially since our strategy was to get the chipper late in the day on one day and return it the following afternoon, making it supposedly easier for us to manage our time (no one wants to hear a chipper going at 8am in the morning and we like our neighbors and want them to like us back). We’ll now have to start earlier in the day on the second day than we would have liked, and finish far sooner than planned to leave enough time to return it.

Problem 2) It has rained so very much lately, and the Homestead sits on the bottom of a slope–most of the water around comes through our yard. This is excellent when one wants to grow healthy plants, less so when one is hoping to back a truck into our yard all the way to the back fence to unload a monstrously heavy chipper.
Solution: Nothing to do but pull the truck to the gate of the back fence and physically push and maneuver this thing all the way to the back fence. Brian picked the chipper up in front from the hitch while the kids and I (re: mostly me) pushed with all our strength, me alternating sides because my pushing would turn it this way and that. Brian is steering, using the hitch like a rudder, but the tilt he needs to make in manageable for him means pushing requires the right element of force applied to the right location to make this work, otherwise all the pushing just pushes it straight back into the ground and forces Brian to carry more weight. This means that I have to push very low to the ground, to account for the tilt. Awesome. At times I’m practically perpendicular, using my full body weight to provide enough force. It gets stuck a bit near the greenhouse, and with some colorful words and much grunting, we managed to push and pull the however many pound thing through.

This, understandably, wore us all out. However, we’re also stubborn determined and mule-headed excited, so we worked until close to 7:30pm, clearing the piles we’d already created over the past two weeks first and then forming an assembly line where Brian would chainsaw and I would clear the large trees out while the kids cleared smaller pieces. We then chipped that second round before calling it an evening. We retreated to the house for margaritas, which taste absolutely amazing after being a sweaty lumberjack in the sticky 100% humidity after pushing and pulling a however many pound piece of machinery a third of an acre. Our progress was exciting to see, but we were behind due to the nearly hour-and-a-half we thought we’d need on the back-end to re-hook-up the chipper to the truck and drive it back to its rental location on time. Which leads me to Problem 3.

Problem 3) The question of how to get the chipper back up to the truck was something we opted to puzzle through later, after some rest; however, we knew it would take some time… like maybe an hour. And there’s a 30 minute drive after. The chipper had to be returned to by 1pm.
Solution: Which means after we wait like polite neighbors until 9am (though 10am would have been even kinder), we don’t have enough time to clear as much as we wanted.

We’ll just have to do the best we can. We make an absolutely massive pile in front of the chipper that is taller than our house, and then make two more piles the same size. And then do that once more, for a grand total of 4 chippings. The mulch pile is now taller than our house.

We clear around half of the forest (just the part behind our house, not the full forest–that would take weeks). But yay! Reclaimed space! Sunlight is streaming through the trees and hitting our garden earlier, we can see into the forest and even walk around. We targeted the biggest honeysuckle towards the end, so we know we’ll still have the ability to clear smaller trees even without the wood chipper.

Problem 4) Only, by the time we chip the last of the piles it’s 12:15 and we still don’t have a solid plan for getting the chipper back up the yard that doesn’t involve us pushing it uphill through dubiously wet ground–ground that is still fairly new because it’s the ground we filled using the dirt from the raised bed construction (it previously was a hole where an above-ground pool sat prior to us purchasing our home).
Solution: Our only option is the truck. We move the trampoline and Brian backs the truck up almost to the fence. All we have to do is push and turn the chipper so we can use the truck to pull it out from the fence, then maneuver it into position to engage the hitch and be towed securely back from whence it came.

This takes some doing, but we manage it. We’re amazing! And I am impressing Brian with my muscles. Go me! All we have to do is inch the truck forward to get the ball of the hitch to secure and then hook up the electrical doodads and ropes and things, and we’ll be off.

Problem 5) Predictably, the truck gets stuck.
Solution: Ok. Fine. We have a bunch of tree limbs lying around and all that new mulch just sitting in a pile. If I can get the tires some traction on the front and back, we should still be able to manage this.

I go for our shovel, carry it to Mount Mulch, and grip it to dig it into the pile when… ouch!!! What the heck just happened!!!!? It feels like I just got a whopper of a splinter or something, except the handle on our shovel is smooth like silk after years and years of hands gripping it. Nope, no splinter. I look between my now throbbing hand and the shovel, and that’s when I notice it: a carpenter bee has bored a hole into our shovel and has just stung the living daylights out of my hand. Really, universe? right now? And it had to be this shovel. Not any of the other shovels we have lined up. Just the exact one I grab, on the exact spot I grip it.

I holler apologies at Brian, who is still sitting in the truck waiting for me to return and give him an all clear to try the gas peddle. I run in the house and make–with one hand– a hasty paste of water, baking soda, and lavender oil in a portable container so I can soak my hand for a few minutes while still being outside. I at least provide supportive words to Brian while he continues to try to get traction to the tires.

By now it’s 12:50. Not only is the chipper due back to the rental place at 1pm, but that’s when they close for the day on Sundays. There’s no way we can get this chipper back and that’s even if we left right now, which we can’t because the truck is still stuck. My hand is now fine after my baking soda soak for a few minutes (works every time). I decide to call the rental place to see what I can do, rather than simply us no-showing with their very expensive chipper. Brian, meanwhile, decides to ask for help from our neighbor, who just happens to have a really nice, big truck and has been politely pretending not to notice what’s going on in our back yard while he’s in his installing his new pool.

I make the call and, using my kindest, sweetest “I’m trying to be responsible here and appreciate how expensive this piece of machinery is, but sometimes events happen that are outside our control,” voice. I explain the situation and am relieved and elated and super impressed with this local business when they extend our time at no extra charge. Bonus points to you, Manager Tim at Runyon Equipment Rental.

I get off the phone and fist pump the air because, honestly, I’m just so friggin’ relieved. We did not have another $250 to spend to rent this thing another day, even if we had more trees and had the physical energy and stamina to keep working. Nope. We’re done. We fought the good fight, the chipper is hooked successfully back onto the truck, we are NOT taking it off again for any reason.

Our neighbor arrives and hooks his truck up to Brian’s truck. So now there’s a truck, towing a truck, towing a chipper in our back yard, like some odd train. In no time at all, the truck-train has worked and Brian triumphantly pulls his truck and the chipper to the front yard.

Mission accomplished, we collapse into a heap on our sofa. It’s always an adventure at Hull Family Homestead!

The World is Hurting and I Can’t Not Write About It

As I write this, my two amazing children are engaged in a Kids Baking Show-style challenge. Their assignment? Bake 6 cake donuts with a glaze and a topping. This is the second challenge in a series. Last week they made ultimate brownies. In 20 minutes, my timer will chime and it will be time to announce their twist–you must include a fruit into your donut. We just spun homemade coffee cookies n’ cream ice cream and placed it in the freezer for another day. Over the weekend, I was physically sore and exhausted from clearing the forest, and yet still made homemade french bread because it sounded so comforting.

We seem to be stress baking, a very real emotional and mental self-care strategy.

I am sitting on the sofa, carefully listening to them chatter and read-out their recipes. Liam is learning to make a puree to go into his glaze while Chloe is chastising him on what a mess he’s making. On the table in front of me is a mason jar filled with my beautiful Sarah Bernhardt peonies, which are plump and pink and gorgeous; and make the whole room smell like Spring. My cats are sleeping beside me, occasionally yawning or stretching or purring in that content way only cats can muster. If I look up and out my sliding glass door, I can see the forest, and into it for the first time in years after we spent all weekend clearing it in a very adventurous and humorous way that I will describe in a detailed post here tomorrow.

But not yet.

I’m not there emotionally at the moment. I’m having a hard time right now. We’ve been mindful to talk with our children about privilege–we live in a very well-to-do area in Central Indiana (though we have never been especially “well-to-do” ourselves). We’ve been mindful to talk about race and the way their race provides them privilege. We’ve told them about power and authority, and how theirs will seldom be questioned, though Chloe is more likely to be questioned than Liam based on gender. And so we talked about George Floyd and the events going on in the world around us, so close we can hear the helicopters periodically flying over, but still so far removed from our idyllic small town life. As I sit here looking at our beautiful Homestead and listen to my children, the juxtaposition I feel is acute and disorienting when so many people I love and know, and people I don’t know but still love, are out rightfully protesting and needing to be heard. I ache for them. I also ache for the other innocent lives being lost in the upheaval. I ache for it all.

So, I’m in a bit of a stupor this week. I think most of us probably are. We are, as Thomas Merton described, a body of broken bones. Only love can reset the bones and the body.

“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish. There are two things which men can do about the pain of disunion with other men. They can love or they can hate“(Thomas Merton (2007). “New Seeds of Contemplation,” p.72, New Directions Publishing, emphasis mine).

This does not mean there will not be pain. This means that love, in its very nature, is painful. It requires a bending, disturbing, and at times a breaking if we are to set against another enough to work the body. Love is patient and kind, as the famous Bible verse starts, but it’s also sweaty and hard and inconvenient and self-sacrificing. It means listening without forming a response in our heads and hearts. It means perspective-taking. It means acknowledging our own culpability, failings, and short-sightedness. It means encountering another’s emotions with empathy and compassion–with a desire to understand. It means we do not need to “allow for” or even “account for” difference; it means difference is the constant natural state of our world. We need to learn to dwell within it with one another.

This is the heart and soul of who I am and what I do. It’s the backbone of the scholarly research and writing I engage in. It’s the great quest of my life–every path I’ve taken has been in search of wisdom and understanding, a way to reconcile these broken bones. The rhetoric of our nation’s President right now is more disturbing than normal. It’s the opposite of dwelling within and with. It’s the opposite of love and resetting. It’s turning my stomach.

I know you likely don’t come here to read about politics, and I try to keep this place positive and focused on topics related to our family, gardening, cooking, and our adventures. I will go back to our regularly scheduled programming after this. Thank you for reading and understanding that I needed to write these words in order to write the words that will come next.

Today is a day for contemplation and mourning. So I bake. The kids bake. We talk. And together we garden. A garden is a wondrously healing place. Tomorrow I will share the weekly meal plan and tell you the story of the clearing of the honeysuckle. We laughed. We cried. We cussed. And then we drank margaritas and stared in wonder at our work. I have several recipes cued-up and ready to post, as well. So tomorrow, my friends. Until then, be well and be with one another.

Weekly Meal Plan and a Weekly Recipe: Santa Fe Salad

Do any of you remember the Barbara Streisand movie “The Mirror Has Two Faces?” In it, as Jeff Bridges watches with affection, she methodically tackles the disparate elements on her plate, uniting them in the right proportions until she has The Perfect Bite. This is how I cook–each element on the plate can be mixed together in perfect synchrony, or if you’re one of those people who’s food absolutely cannot touch, you can keep them apart and it’ll still be nice. I’m a Perfect Bite person. And that, my friends, is why I love salad. Each bite has the potential to be the Perfect Bite.

Potential? Yes, because salad can also be pretty lame. A good salad should have a mixtures of textures and flavors, and, I always prefer to cut it up and toss it around a bunch. I mean, I get food not touching, but salad is basically a casserole–everything is supposed to be eaten together (Side Note: I love my job and this makes me think of some of the more heated debates that take place in a university writing center, one of my favorites being what constitutes a sandwich). 🙂

I remember being out with a friend for lunch once, and she, being halfway done with her meal while I was still fastidiously cutting my salad, commented how she’d never thought to do that, but she supposed this made the salad more evenly distributed. Yes, yes it does. It makes, without fail, each bite the Perfect Bite.

Salad is amazing. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to eat. Seriously, is there anything better than a salad that has a glorious, tactile mixture of textures and flavors, where every single bite you eat is perfect on a warm evening? If rice and beans is my favorite food, salad is my favorite summer food. We eat it pretty much every day during the season. This salad is one of our favorites–an old standby from when Brian and I were still dating. In fact, it contributed to us getting married–I knew he was the one when he shared my passion for vegetables, especially lettuce. The picture shows it all pre-cut and toss, because let’s be honest, it’s hard to find a photo of a cut-up tossed salad pretty. But rest assured that this salad did indeed get turned into a series of Perfect Bites as soon as this photo was taken. 🙂

Santa Fe Salad
Yield: 4 servings

1 head romaine lettuce, chopped
2 chicken breasts, chopped (see below)
1/2 C sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 C baked tortilla strips (recipe below)
chipotle-ranch dressing to taste (recipe below)

2 chicken breasts
1 t ground cumin
1/2 t ground chipotle powder
1/4 C lime juice
sea salt and pepper to taste
1 T olive oil

Tortilla Strips-
2 burrito-sized flour tortillas, cut into strips
1/2 C olive oil
1/3 C lime juice
1/2 t ground cumin
1/2 t smoked paprika
1/4 t ground oregano
sea salt to taste

Chipotle-Ranch Dressing-
1/4 C your favorite ranch dressing*
2 T your favorite salsa*
1-2 chipotle chiles, chopped (to taste)
1/2 t adobo sauce from can of chipotle chiles (to taste)
1 t strawberry or raspberry jam (to taste)*

*I will be sharing recipes for my homemade ranch, salsa, and jam eventually, but am not including them here at present because it makes the recipe seem super complicated. 🙂 For now, please know that I will happily use store-bought stuff if I don’t have homemade stuff made– it’s still delicious.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Prepare an iron skillet (or other heavy-bottomed skillet) with a tablespoon of olive oil and set it on your stovetop.

Prep the chicken–Cut the chicken across lengthwise, as you would to butterfly, and cut all the way across, giving you two whole-looking chicken breasts. Then, slice down vertically across each breast to cut it into 1 inch thick strips, then cut across horizontally to cut each strip into 1 inch cubes. Combine the spices together and toss over the cut chicken, tossing and coating the chicken all over. Let it rest while you make the dressing and tortilla strips.

Make the dressing–combine everything with a whisk in a small container with a lid and set in the fridge until ready to use. The jam adds a hint of sweetness to counteract the smoky heat of the chipotle (there’s that Perfect Bite balance of tastes and textures thing).

Make the tortilla strips–cut a burrito-sized tortilla in half, and then in quarters, and then take small strips off each quarter. In a medium bowl, combine everything but the tortilla strips and sea salt with a whisk. Add the tortilla strips and toss around to coat evenly. Lay-out the strips evenly on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake them in the preheated oven for 6-9 minutes, until browned and crisp to touch but not burnt (this can happen quickly, so keep an eye on it). Remove them from the oven and sprinkle well with sea salt. You may have to do two trays, depending on the size of your baking sheet and how thinly you cut your strips. Set the cooled strips aside until ready to use.

Cook the chicken–heat your iron skillet with olive oil over medium-high heat until rippling hot. Add the seasoned chicken pieces and cook, without disturbing, for 2-3 minutes. This is building a wall of flavor on your chicken and giving them a nice sear. If your pan isn’t big enough, consider doing this in two batches so that you don’t crowd the chicken in the pan (this will impact your sear and cause your chicken to steam. It’ll still taste alright, but the flavor will not be as intense and the texture will be off). Add the lime juice and scrape the chicken into it, scraping the bottom of the pan and turning the pieces over as you go–this is called “deglazing” and is making sure all the good bits from the bottom of the pan remain on the chicken. Cook another 2 minutes or so, until done, and remove until ready to toss the salad. Repeat if you needed to do two batches.

Prep the lettuce and cheese–cut one whole head of romaine into bite-sized pieces and wash it well. Let it dry, or spin it dry in a salad spinner. Shred the cheese with a block grater and set aside. Yes, freshly shredded cheese is worth it on so many levels. I invested in a block grater a decade ago and have been loving it ever since. I buy cheese in bulk blocks for so much less money than bags of pre-shredded, and there’s no need for any preservative coating since it’s being used immediately.

Assemble the salad–in the bottom of a mixing bowl, add the dressing, then the lettuce, chicken, cheese, and tortilla strips. .Use tongs to toss and mix until thoroughly combined. Serve immediately, as the lettuce will wilt in the dressing and the heat of the chicken.

Note: If you hope to make this salad ahead of time, you can layer it: dressing first, chicken and cheese enough to cover the dressing and protect the lettuce, then put lettuce in and top with the tortilla strips. Toss just before serving, whether to a crowd or for your lunch.

Goodness, that sounds like a lot of steps, but trust me, it’s actually very easy, I just broke it down into its components for ease of understanding. Now, quickly because this post is getting super long, let me give you the weekly meal plan. I’m late on it due to the long-weekend, but I want to make sure you all have it so you know what’s coming.

Weekly Meal Plan:
Monday (Memorial Day)–we had a cookout with my parents, naturally
Tuesday–Asian lettuce wraps and spicy noodles
Wednesday–tandoori chicken and naan bread
Thursday–risotto primavera
Friday–homemade pizza night
Saturday–salad bar
Sunday–another cookout (’tis Summer!)

Garden Updates: Last Weekend in May

Summer is still officially about a month away, but the classic Central Indiana humid heat has set-in his week. It’s not unusual for us to run 100% humidity, which, with all the rain we get in May, combined with temperatures in the mid to upper 80’s (Fahrenheit) makes for sticky, heavy, thick heat. My hair is curling and frizzing more than ever and the plants are growing at lightning speed, happily soaking-in the damp and the heat.

Our pace has also ramped-up, which is saying a lot, I think, given that we’ve been working pretty much every weekend since April Fool’s Day. This isn’t always the case for a gardener, of course, but this is what happens when we opt to re-do most of our infrastructure in one season–the weather and the plants will not wait. Blink and we’ll miss it, so we have to keep going. While we do get tired, the work is invigorating and rewarding in a deeply meaningful way. Each morning we walk-out with our coffee and tour the gardens, walking the path we are creating, the conversation between sections of our yard and the beauty of viewing them all together. If you, like me, are a fan of Regency and Victorian British Fiction, then you’ll understand the motivation–they’re forever going on long walks in their gardens. I want to do that, too, even if my yard is barely half an acre (the forest trail is much longer, which does help expanding our walkability).

To that end, we’ve been working on the main garden arbor and fence. Months ago I asked Brian if he’d be willing to make an arbor while he re-did the fence, which is something he’d already put on his to-do list, and so he agreed. I went ahead and purchased a climbing rose and clematis and have been keeping them alive (but not super happy in their small pots) in the greenhouse ever since. Our old main garden fence was a messy, unattractive (but functional) chicken wire and wood post set-up we’d put in place our first year and promptly ignored for every year since. It worked, and aesthetics were less important to us in those days than learning to grow healthy and delicious food. We know how to grow the food now, and aesthetics–the joy of the garden–are top priority this year. With Brian’s background in art, and my love of it, a marriage of form and function, beauty with purpose, is the goal.

I already detailed how we decided to move the main garden entrance to line-up with the raised bed garden path and the back fence gate that leads to the forest, creating a visually striking straight line that could unite these three spaces of the yard.

The arbor, then, becomes not just a marker of the main garden entrance, but a focal point that draws you down the path towards the main garden and through it. It creates a separate and distinct main garden space that can look and feel very different from the raised bed garden, and then keeps you wandering through it towards and into the forest (where we hope to put another focal point to keep you moving).

The main garden fence will mimic the look and feel of the arbor, which is decidedly different from the European Country Cottage vibe we’ve curated everywhere else–it’s Woodland Fairy-esque. The main garden is at the edge of the forest, and so speaks to the forest, while the climbing rose (a heritage pale pink tea variety) and clematis will help it speak to the cottage-style perennial/butterfly/herb garden on the border of the raised bed garden. The lay-out of the main garden, as well, is formal, with straight paths that wind you through and around it, and neatly aligned signs guiding you through it, making it a transitional space between raised bed/patio and forest wonderland.

I love walking the garden paths now, especially now that most of it has been planted. This weekend the kids helped me plant our 3 Sisters Bed–a mixture of corn, squash, and beans. We have sweet white corn, zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, and Cherokee black beans and Southern crowder beans. The only item missing from the main garden now is Fall squash, which I’ve got three varieties started in the greenhouse. As the season progresses I’ll be doing photo-walking tours of the garden in full glory.

Brian hopes to complete the fence today, and then we need to finish clearing honeysuckle and mulching it up in the new compost area, which we’re carving-out still and will soon start forming. It’s next to the path to the small meadow between our thicket and the main forest. The thicket is still a rather impenetrable wall, but with more clearing and chipping, will soon be passable and usable again.

I need to turn my attention to the infrastructure of the greenhouse for growing-on plants I’d like to keep in there, and Brian wants to focus on replacing the plastic we had to duct tape after so many wind storms and adding proper doors and ventilation, as well as continuing to attend to its stability and structure. It’s our goal to pick away at this over the summer so we can be ready to keep using it in winter. We already have a heater, so as long as the heat can stay safely inside and we don’t lose too much moisture in doing so, it should work.

After that it’s the pond and the potting shed on the list. And I’m also doing a mini-makeover of the front of the house. We’ve had big plans for that for years, and so have let it just be, except it looks really bad and if any of you decide to come to the Homestead to pick-up products, I want you to know we care. Plus, I’m sure our neighbors would appreciate it–our home sits rather on display, being on the other side of the one “T” of our little neighborhood, so pretty much everyone looks at it or passes it. So, it definitely could use some love, even if it’s not the Big Long-Term Plan we’ve had in our heads. I’ll be revealing that soon, too. So, you know, the work never ends, which really, that’s part of the joy of the garden. It gives you food and beauty and also purpose and physical activity in the outdoors. It’s a win-win. 🙂