Garden Progress: Storms and Bobcats the Second Week of April

I’m up early again. It’s 6:30 am. I’ve been up a little more than an hour.

I like the quiet time I can steal away by getting up now. I like how I’m more prepared to tackle my day after this time, after some gentle yoga, and after writing my lists and making my plans.

I dislike why I have been waking this early–anxiety. I woke from a dream I don’t remember but that left me feeling unsettled, and so my mind began to turn and grind, picking-up where I’d left off with work yesterday evening and then eventually fixating on one of its favorite obsessions right now: groceries. If my anxiety doesn’t fixate on the garden, it fixates on that. One helps the other, though, and I can’t wait for our garden to be up and running so I don’t have to worry about running out of produce.

But now I feel a vague sense of unease that threatens to gnaw at my day unless I channel this energy elsewhere. So here I am. The sun is starting to peak-up now, its pastel lavender and peach light illuminating the corner of the garden I can see from my perch on the sofa. I know if I scoot a little to the left I’ll be able to see the greenhouse, and if I scoot to the loveseat I’ll be able to see the raised bed garden. This knowledge brings a smile to my lips. Today the sun will be out and it will warm-up again after a week of freeze and rain. It’s a wonderful day to be in the garden.

Last weekend, we did so much the day before Easter my head still spins just thinking about it, but the work was necessary and the results speak for themselves. Earlier in the week, we had a very severe storm that toppled our greenhouse. Brian ran out to save it from blowing away and to anchor it more as best he could against the almost 70mph winds while I soothed our two children’s fears. If he hadn’t gone out, we’d have lost every plant in there. As it was, we only lost some tomato and pepper seedlings and three larger tomato plants.

So, knowing we had to reconstruct the greenhouse, anyway, and already planning on finishing the raised bed garden as much as possible, on Saturday we rented a Bobcat. The Bobcat would help us finish leveling and graveling the raised bed area and also help us re-use the soil we dug-up from that area to level the pit where the greenhouse stood. The pit used to be an above-ground pool before we ever lived here, and it’s been an awkward hole, a hazard of dips and little hills ever since.

As anticipated, this made the work extremely fast, and I do think Brian had quite a good time operating it, as evidenced by his wide smile in the photo above. It took us several hours to remove the soil and level both spots as best as we could, and then we had to go purchase and unload four more loads of gravel before returning the Bobcat by 3pm (lest we be charged for another day’s rental!)

We managed it. We started at 7am and didn’t stop until 3pm, when we finally ate and took a brief rest. In between bouts of helping Brian with the Bobcat and shoveling dirt to and fro, I also was busy in the kitchen with Chloe making their Easter basket goodies. Finally, by 7pm, we were ready to reassemble the greenhouse and place it back onto the newly leveled ground.

We added wood framing on the bottom to reinforce it, and Brian 3D printed more clamps and brackets to secure the PVC pipes. Then, we staked it all again (there’s still more wood frame to add, not to mention the doors), but we were due for a freeze the next day and yet another high wind advisory and were out of time and daylight. It stood up to the wind and the frost for the first two freeze warnings. By the third night, however, with heavy rain and cloud cover during the day preventing the greenhouse from heating-up from the sun, we lost more tomato and pepper seedlings. We had some fairly large and healthy tomato plants, so I’m bummed, but we do have more seedlings under the grow light at the shop, so it could be worse. The lettuces, cabbages, broccoli, cucumber, and all the berries are still quite happy in the greenhouse. It’s coming along, and will no doubt get there by winter. I’m so confident I ordered my lemon tree. ๐Ÿ™‚

With all the freezing weather and snow/rain/sleet, we weren’t able to get much accomplished during the week. We toyed around with layout of the raised beds, leveled more gravel, and determined we’d need another load. We’re up to 9 loads of gravel (each load is 1/2 a yard).

This morning after that 9th (and probably not final but we’re so close) load of gravel, we tilled-up the butterfly and perennial beds and were finally ready for soil! I’m so excited to fill these raised beds and plot out the plantings of the butterfly beds–this is the fun part of gardening, not that endless digging isn’t good, honest hard-work (and a great workout!)

Some of you may be questioning why, if we just dug-up a bunch of soil we had to Bobcat over to another place in the yard, would we now pay money to buy soil? Our soil is heavy clay. The only reason our main garden produces at the level it does is all the composting and soil turning we’ve done over the years. We do a leaf mould pile and a traditional compost heap, which gets a lot of chicken manure, wood chips and ash, and kitchen waste to keep it nutrient-rich and happy. We till all of this into the garden deeply at least once each year, but sometimes twice. The soil in the main garden is now what I would classify as a clay loam, which means it holds onto water just enough to be useful in a drought but not so much that plants get water-logged in heavy rains, and is very high in nutrients, encouraging plants to grow deep and strong roots.

The soil we turned-up from all of our leveling in the raised bed garden, though, is still heavy clay–the same we encountered that first year in this house. We could likely make bricks or pottery from it quite successfully. It is not suitable for placing in a raised bed immediately, even with a healthy dose of compost and leaf mould. So, it became fill dirt to level the uneven patch of yard, and now we’ll have to pay for topsoil. We also do not have enough compost and leaf mould for this new area, and so will have to purchase it. The topsoil is not especially nutrient-dense, so the compost will make-up for that. And drainage is especially important in raised beds, and so the leaf mould will not only add nutrients but will improve drainage. Leaf mould is far less expensive than purchasing vermiculite (especially if you make it yourself from your raked leaves!), which is what is often used in commercial-grade potting mixes, and does not come with the ecological baggage of peat, which I do not use for that reason.

We won’t necessarily be planting much in these beds this weekend. We wound up starting cucumbers and peas under the grow light (and I already have a healthy crop of lettuce in the greenhouse), so I’ll let them get established where they are at and will wait to plant them out for now. With so many days of successive freezes and some pretty demanding wind, which would not be good for tender seedlings, I feel safer with them in the greenhouse and/or grow room for now. But, having the beds filled and ready for the fun and easy part–the planting!–means we can turn our attention away from this project to more items on the garden to-do list. I get to go shopping for more plants for the butterfly garden, we need to create a new fence in our main garden, which we have already tilled, and there’s a load of brush from the forest that will need chipping for the compost heap. We have invasive honeysuckle in the forest, so each Spring we cut it back severely and otherwise tend to the trails. It’s our hope to maybe one day attend to the under-story of the forest and plant some ferns, woodland flowers, and other goodies that will help improve the forest’s health and, perhaps, help keep the honeysuckle at bay (and improve the health of the forest’s wildlife).

It may have been cold and spitting icy rain two days ago, but it’s mid-April, it’s sunny and in the mid-50’s, and we’re 3-4 weeks away from planting out the garden. It’ll be here before we know it. We’ll be ready. I can’t wait.

The Weekly Meal Plan: April 13-19 2020 and Homemade Easter Treats

Happy Easter week! This past Sunday we celebrated as a little family at the Homestead, then we took a little cake and plates of food to my parents while still staying at a distance and not going inside their house. It was strange to not have a large family gathering, but I’m thankful we got to see them for a little bit. After we left, we each set-up a board game (Catan) we both have a set of, and Zoomed together so we could play the game together. This was the set-up:

They’re on the laptop in the background. We had to set the board up exactly the same on each side, but once we accomplished that, surprisingly, gameplay was pretty much the same as if they’d been in the room with us. It was lovely.

The weather held just long enough to allow for the kids to hunt for eggs in the garden, and Chloe had helped on Saturday to make the treats for their baskets.

We made white chocolate bunny heads by melting white chocolate and pouring into a bunny-shaped cookie cutter lightly sprayed with cooking spray (pictured below). The small baking dish helped weigh down a freshly poured bunny so it wouldn’t leak out the bottom while they chilled in the refrigerator to harden them.

To get the bunnies safely out of the cookie cutter, we ran a small palette knife around the bottom edge, then gently pulled at the widest part (the head) until it “popped” slightly. Next, we piped melted semi-sweet chocolate faces on, chilled that until hardened, then finished with dyed melted white chocolate for the pink nose and blue eyes.

We also made nutella-cups (like peanut butter cups but with nutella). To make these, we cut some cupcake liners down by half, melted milk chocolate, and poured into the bottom of the cup.

These were less neat than the bunny heads, but that’s alright. We chilled down that layer in the fridge, then scooped nutella onto it and let that freeze-up in the freezer. The final layer of melted milk chocolate went down onto the frozen nutella, we topped fun sprinkles over it, and then let it chill in the fridge.

And the last homemade treat was sprinkle rice-krispy treats cut into flower shapes using a cookie cutter. We used the base recipe on the box, added fun sprinkles to the cereal, and then cut them with a cookie cutter sprayed with cooking spray while still warm.

My brother had sent a box of cookies, so the kids each got one in their baskets, and then we filled eggs with jelly beans I had remembered to order a while ago for this very purpose. ๐Ÿ™‚

Other than Easter, it was a very busy weekend. On Friday we took a day trip to southern Indiana, so Brian could pick-up some of the supplies from another makerspace he needed to keep making face masks for a local hospital at his makerspace. We opted to visit the local state park nearby, Falls of the Ohio. While everything was closed, it was still nice to get out of the house for a little bit, and we didn’t come into contact with anyone. The kids played on the riverbank for an hour, having invented some game that involved a rock and two long sticks and a magic spell.

Saturday was a garden day, and I will be writing a separate post about that soon. For now, suffice to say, it was a big week for the garden and I’m so excited about it. ๐Ÿ™‚

While I’m a little later on the weekly meal plan than I’d like (I have a plan for the blog to help me stay on schedule), I still think there’s use in sharing, so here we are.

Weekly Meal Plan:

Monday: refried bean and rice burritos
Tuesday: spaghetti with garlic bread
Wednesday: midwestern boil (rollover meal made with leftover Easter Ham)
Thursday: italian hobo dinner
Friday: chicken fajitas
Saturday: leftovers
Sunday: steaks on the grill (to celebrate a warm-up after the chilly weather this week!)

I’ll be posting recipes from last week and the pizza from the week before very soon. In the meantime, I hope you all continue to stay safe and warm and healthy. Until next time!

Throwback Thursday: Slow-Cooked Italian Beef Sandwiches & Homemade French-Style Bread

12/17/2012

Dear Bread: Get In My Mouth!

After all the sadness of Friday, we tried hard to begin focusing on “small good things” Saturday morning, then packed in as much fun and family into this weekend as we possibly could.  It’s a luxury I know the victims, friends, families, and residents of Newton do not get, a fact that is constantly in my thoughts – almost feverishly spurring me on to yet more family quality time.

Our small good things included Bill cock-a-doodle-doing for the first time since the dog attack, and Bert wandering into the outdoor area of their coop for the first time since the attack, too.  It also included National Hot Chocolate Day, which we made a point to celebrate more than once on Saturday.

We did the Indianapolis Christmas at the Zoo on Saturday night.  That was a very magical evening for the kids, who got to stay-up way past bedtime drinking hot chocolate, eating cookies, and looking at thousands of beautiful Christmas light displays amongst sleeping, or in some cases, not sleeping zoo animals.  We elected not to visit Santa this year, but could have that night if we wanted.

Then Sunday was our church’s Christmas Cantata service.  Liam loved all the music a little too much, and although the people in the rows behind us laughed as he loudly clapped and sang during and after each piece, I took him into the narthex where he could be jovial and still hear without being disruptive.  ๐Ÿ™‚

After that it was a birthday party with Brian’s brother’s family!  Dozens of little feet were in constant motion up and down the house, with shouts and giggles, and delicious cupcakes made by my sister-in-law added sugar-fuel to the fun-fire.  It was another fun late night.

The kids and I are snuggling this morning after a few late nights.  We’ve danced to The Wiggles and looked through all of our photo albums.  And I’m relishing some quiet time with them.

Alright, so that’s what’s been going on in our neck of the woods. ย Now it’s time to talk about FOOD. ย Glorious, wonderful, food. ย ๐Ÿ™‚

A few weeks ago I found this recipe for a homemade baguette that claimed it could be made – start to finish – in one hour.  Say what? I was dubious to say the least, but decided to test it.  Was it, in fact, too good to be true?  Would the bread be even worse than supermarket french bread?  Would French people everywhere hate me for even considering their beautiful bread could be made in an hour?

So I tested it out.

And I was impressed!

And then I was really impressed!

And then I made just a few slight changes and was really really impressed! ๐Ÿ™‚

And since then I’ve made it 5 times, using it for everything as a side for a good cup of soup, a delicious vehicle for a few good sandwiches, garlic bread for a side to pasta, and as the main component for some tasty french toast.  And each time I fall more in love with it until, now, when two baguettes come out of the oven the kids and I pounce on it as if it can’t get into our mouths fast enough, leaving one and a half baguettes in the blink of an eye.  ๐Ÿ™‚

One Hour French Bread
Yield: 2 loaves
1 1/2 C warm water – 115 degrees
1 1/2 T instant yeast
3 T sugar
1 t sea salt
3 1/4 C bread flour or AP flour if you don’t have bread* (King Arthur recommended)
1/2 C butter

Heat the water in a microwavable measuring cup to 115 degrees and add the yeast and sugar, stirring it in slightly.  Let it set 5 minutes, or until it foams.  Pour it into the base of a stand mixer, add the sea salt and mix it together with the paddle attachment.  Add the flour and mix just until it comes together, then fit the dough hook into the mixer and knead for 5 minutes.

Divide the dough in two immediately, and on a lightly floured board roll each half into a rectangle, at leasst 8 x 12 – though you can go bigger or smaller.  A bigger rectangle will make a skinner baguette, a smaller rectangle will make a thicker baguette – almost like the width of an italian loaf one buys at your generic supermarket.

Place a piece of parchment or a silpat onto a large baking sheet.  Melt the 1/2 C of butter in a microwavable bowl.  Brush just a little bit of the butter onto the silpat.

Roll up your rectangle and pinch the ends off, making them slightly narrower than the middle (this will give you that baguette shape).  Set the baguettes onto the silpat.  Cover with a tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes.  With a sharp knife, cut a 1 inch deep cranny into the middle of the bread down the length.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Bake the bread for 9 minutes, then rotate and dump ALL the butter onto the baking baguettes, being sure it drizzles all over.  Bake another 8 to 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven, let cool just enough to cut a piece off.  Taste.  MMMMMMM. ๐Ÿ™‚

Use delicious bread for the recipe below!

*NOTE* If you substitute AP flour for the bread flour, you will need to add more flour to get the right consistency, up to 1/2 C more (but start with less and work your way up).

Crockpot Italian Beef Sammies
Yield: GOBS
Sandwiches:
1 baguette, sliced into 4 sandwiches and opened on one side
8 slices your white cheese of choice (we used deli white american – nothing fancy)
the italian beef (recipe below)

1 beef tip sirloin roast, cut in half
1 recipe homemadeย zesty italian salad dressingย (listed below)
1/2 C marsala wine
3/4 C beef stock
1 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 t dried basil
1 1/2 t dried oregano
1 t onion powder
sea salt and pepper

Zesty Italian Salad Dressing:
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1/3 C olive oil
1/3 C water
1 t lemon juice
1/4 C sugar
1 T red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 T minced onion
1 t minced fresh garlic
1 t ground oregano
pinch of paprika
sea salt and pepper

For the dressing: combine everything but the oil in a mixing bowl and with a hand whisk or immersion blender, blend in the oil until it thickens.  Alternatively, plop everything but the oil into a blender and pour in the oil with the blender running.

For the beef: pour all the liquid and seasoning ingredients into the crockpot and stir together.  Plop the meat in and cook on low for 8 hours, using the back of a spoon or some tongs to shred the meat.  Stir it into the liquid – all that is delicious.

For the sandwiches: Cut the bread into 4 equal sandwich portions, then open a slit on one side of each sandwich to stuff the fillings into.  Preheat the oven to 400 and let the bread bake, first closed, for 5 minutes, then open for 5 minutes.  This will crunch it up and make it ready to receive the liquidy meat.  Once the bread has crisped, top the meat on the bottom half, top with the cheese, and let it broil for a few minutes, until the cheese is super melty.  Serve with a salad and homemade chips or fries.  YUMMY!!!

The Weekly Meal Plan: April 6 – April 12 2020

So, it’s April 9th and I’m just now getting the weekly meal plan posted. It’s been a garden-focused week, as I mentioned in my previous post. It’s also been a week where I’ve had a little more bandwidth to handle my job, which has been welcome and necessary. I’ve been catching up on things that needed my attention at work, and also shepherding the kids back into e-learning now that their extended Spring Break is over.

While I’m certain none of you are particularly irked that I’m behind on blogging, I think it’s important to note that I was irked at myself. If I set a goal or a schedule, I like to stick to it and am one of those awful perfectionists (despite years of trying not to be) who’s knee-jerk reaction is to blame and shame myself for my inadequacies.

I think it’s more important than ever to allow ourselves to be in a space of grace. To recognize that we will not be able to do the things we once did, perhaps, or that when we do things right now it will not always be to the level of our expectations. We are all operating in a time of real trauma; trauma we likely won’t fully process for years. And for those of us entering this time period with trauma already, or with anxiety disorders, or any other mental health concern, this is amplifying the old and bringing with it new. For some of us, our coping mechanisms may be hard to obtain. For others, we simply will need more coping mechanisms. Coping takes time and energy, and it often doesn’t look the same from one person to the next.

My coping mechanism right now is the garden. I am utterly obsessed with it and allow myself to wander into that world if my brain is simply shouting at me, saying things like, “No, we’re not going to read this very important book about writing centers right now. Look, we’ve just reread that last sentence four times and we have no idea what it says!” I may want to take this time to catch-up on scholarship or writing for publication. And maybe eventually I will. But I’m not there yet. And that’s okay. I’m allowing myself to be where I am, and I hope you’ll do the same for yourself and others.

My disciplinary scholarship focuses mainly on community, so I’m interested in human connection and its corresponding dynamics (emotion, identity, and power dynamics are the big three). If you want to get super technical (which I’m certain none of you do), this all is housed under the umbrella of rhetoric, which allows me to ask and try to answer those big How and Why questions I love so much. I’ll spare you all the details (you can find my thesis online if you’re actually that invested in this), but I am letting you know this background so you understand how much time and energy and thought I’ve already put into this. So when I say that right now, this moment, this touchstone historical occurrence in which we are living–this is the time to be kind and generous with one another. This is the time to care about taking care of yourself and others. This, to me, is more important than anything else right now.

OK, enough reflecting. Let’s get down to business.

The Weekly Meal Plan:

Sunday: chicken teriyaki with basmati rice

Monday: burgers, baked beans, coleslaw, and homemade fries

Tuesday: ground turkey tacos, rice, and side salad

Wednesday: spring pea pasta

Thursday: pizza night

Friday: leftovers? Day-tripping to a state park so uncertain.

Saturday: baked potatoes and salad bar

Sunday: Easter! Glazed ham, all kinds of pasta mac n cheese, asparagus, homemade Easter Basket goodies. Maybe a quiche for breakfast.

I’ll be posting recipes from last week tomorrow. I have pizzas and chicken gyros, and then the Italian beef sandwiches should have been today’s ThrowBack Thursday post. Alas. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll re-post it from the old blog likely next Thursday.

I’m also beginning to work on categories so help everyone navigate and find recipes or the topics that interest them. It’s slow-going, but hopefully I’ll have that done soon. Until tomorrow!

Garden Progress: Early April

I’m behind on blogging this week, but for a very good reason: the garden. It’s the first week of April and the weather has been dry and fair–it’s the perfect time to work on the infrastructure and hard-scaping to be ready for planting.

In my last garden post I shared our plans for a larger main garden, a revitalized raised bed garden near the house (to use a British term, this will be the “kitchen garden,” for herbs and tender plants), and our long-awaited greenhouse. We’ve adjusted those plans since. Some slight, such as moving the fruit bushes, for example, to the east side of the garden so as not to block the afternoon light on smaller plants. And some monumental, such as the raised bed garden.

Before the chickens destroyed it and I failed to resurrect it due to grad school, the raised bed garden (pictured below) was a perennial herb and butterfly garden with a wildflower patch and a large square bed at the end. It was my first attempt at an ornamental garden and even while imperfect (Monty Don would advise me to plant closer to the path, for one thing), I adored it.

And then it became this. Well, actually, this is after quite a bit of clearing; an improvement, if you will, over what had been here for three years.

My initial plan for this space had been small and simple; something I could accomplish by myself quickly, that would result in more garden space and add back in some much needed flowers to the garden to attract pollinators for the new fruit bushes. I hadn’t expected Brian to become so enamored with my idea that he would offer to pour so much physical effort and money into it. But, he has. And I love him so much for it.

Instead of re-using the existing brick path and placing raised beds into the weedy area with some container perennials to attract pollinators to the garden, with his help, we are free to completely redo the space.

We removed the brick path, which had sunken well below the soil level and collected water and weeds, creating a drainage concern all along the foundation of the house. Then, the kids helped us till it up and then dig it all out to level it and create a subtle slope away from the house. They were champs about it for a solid two hours, and then tuckered out. I’m still super impressed with their gusto and am grateful for how invested they continue to be in our garden.

We got 4 loads of gravel in Brian’s truck that we had to unload and spread. And that took us all day. With just a hand shovel and a few rakes, it was hard work, but even just having half of it done is so invigorating. This weekend we’ll be renting a small Bobcat Digger, however, to help us move the dirt we removed to the uneven indentation in the yard from an above-ground pool (where the greenhouse sits presently) that pre-dates our purchase of the home and has been a hazard and an obstacle ever since. Then we’ll also use said Bobcat Digger to spread the other 4 loads of gravel we still need. It should take us less than a few hours to do it all and worth every penny.

We had hoped to have this done by last weekend so that our raised beds can be put into position and filled. It’s time–a little past time, actually–to direct-sow peas and other spring crops, and so I’m feeling the pressure of the calendar. We simply must get these beds finished this weekend.

The beds will be in position similar to my original plan, however, there will be a new perennial butterfly bed hugging the corner of the patio. The BBQ area will, hopefully, have a hot tub very soon (we actually had one we got for free that needed fixing, but, after a Brian inspection it was deemed a lost cause). And the raised bed section at the end of the garden will continue to function this way for now, however, leveling it and preparing this space this way enables us to begin working on master bedroom addition off the back of the house that we’ve long-planned for and that is sorely needed. I long for that second bathroom. We’ll have someone pour the foundation and Brian will be free to work on it as he has time for a bit.

In other garden news, Brian quickly mocked-up a design for a portable greenhouse that would be heavy enough to withstand strong winds (we had a wind advisory the day we built it, so I’d say we’re solid) but light enough that we could pick it up and move it. The idea being we could place it onto a section of the main garden during winter to extend the in-ground growing season for non winter-hardy crops; but still have space to over-winter the crops that do like those conditions, such as parsnips, beets, and carrots.

The kids also helped put it together. It’s made out of PVC and 6 mil plastic sheeting. He designed some kind of plastic part that holds the sheeting to the pipe that he 3D printed at the shop. We’re still working on getting some wood-framed doors in place–one in front and at back so we can have air flow in hot months–and that will also help add some weight to keep it grounded without the use of anchors. Presently it’s staked.

Quarantine pajamas, apparently. We do still get dressed sometimes, but you know. . . ๐Ÿ™‚

It was simple and inexpensive to put together and it’s working so well!! It “rains” inside the greenhouse from the humidity.

We do still have to put some infrastructure in place inside the greenhouse, but for now, there’s some happy seedlings I’ve since potted-on to help them grow until May when we can put them in the ground, and the fruit bushes arrived and are happily ensconced until planting time.

Every time I go in to the greenhouse I get a happy feeling. We were married in Garfield Park Conservatory among the tropical plants and fish because we both loved it there. And while this is a far cry from that, perhaps one day we’ll be able to carve out our own little piece of this. In the meantime, I really want to try my hand a keeping a lemon tree in there. I use so.many.lemons.

Garfield Park Conservatory in Indianapolis

In other garden news, the main garden is tilled, including the new 7 foot expansion. Once we complete the raised bed garden area, Brian wants to build a new fence before we begin to sow anything in the ground. We usually don’t plant until around Mother’s Day where we are, so he has plenty of time yet.

We also bought the kids a giant trampoline to help them burn-off some energy during shelter-in-place. It’s sitting awkwardly next to the greenhouse right now, smack in the middle of my hopefully-soon orchard, but that was the only spot in the yard level enough to have it be safe. I’m not thrilled about the aesthetics, but am so thrilled that they have this much-needed outlet right now. The orchard can wait a little while longer. Heck, we planted that weeping cherry 6 years ago as a flowering anchor for the orchard and still haven’t planted the apple trees. ๐Ÿ™‚

So, as you can see, it was a delightfully busy week in the garden. I’m so grateful to have the space and resources to do this. This year, almost more than any other year, having a garden is like a lifeline. If you’re reading this and nodding along, even if you don’t have this kind of space, Monty Don (my gardening hero) would tell you that anyone can have a garden, no matter how small. There is so much healing that can happen in the dirt, and right now, I think we all could use a little healing. Stay safe and take care. I’ll be updating with the much-delayed weekly meal plan, then recipes shortly.

Weekly Recipes: Beignets and Basic Bread

I’m a little later than anticipated on updating the blog with these recipes, so I apologize. Every week since the second week of March has been a little different, it seems. It’s all part of this new normal we’re all adjusting to and coping with, and there are definitely more-successful and less-successful days. I dislike the binary of “good” and “bad,” so I’m trying to reframe it, but I’m not much of a fan of theorizing these days in terms of “successful” either, so let’s just say that life is messy and harder than usual these days, so it makes even the best laid plans sometimes hard to achieve.

With that being said, this past week at the Hull Family Homestead was still rather lovely. We’ve been working on the garden steadily (look for an update on that soon) and the kids started their Spring Break on Friday. To celebrate, I “took” them on a trip to “Disney World.” They had a sleepover together in Chloe’s bedroom and slept in their Disney pajamas. In the morning, I surprised them with a “visit” to our favorite character breakfast at Garden Grille in Epcot, The Land Pavilion (we love the cinnamon skillet bread and the rotating restaurant with garden and ride views, not to mention we like how intimate the character interactions feel thanks to the tall booths). Mouse ears in place, we cued up some videos of other people eating at the Garden Grille while we dined on the Mickey beignets I’d woken extra-early to make. They were, as always, delicious.

Beignets

Yield: about a dozen

2 t yeast

3/4 C warm water (110 degrees Fahrenheit)

1/4 C sugar

1/2 t salt

1 beaten egg

1/2 C half n half

3 1/2 to 4 C AP flour

1/8 C coconut oil

2 – 3 inches of a wide-bottomed pan of vegetable or coconut oil for frying

powdered sugar

Instructions:

Heat water to warm, then pour into a measuring cup, testing with a thermometer if you have one. Add the yeast and sugar and stir lightly to dissolve. Let the mixture set 5 minutes until foamy.

Meanwhile, in the base of a stand mixer (if you have one) mix the salt, egg, and milk. When the yeast mixture is ready, pour it into the stand mixer liquids and mix on low. Add half the flour and mix together lightly before adding the coconut oil. Mix on low again, then add the remaining half of the flour. Knead the dough in the mixer for 5 – 8 minutes (or, if you don’t have a mixer, knead by hand for 10 minutes). Place the dough in a very lightly oiled bowl, turning to cover the dough in the oil, cover with a tea towel, and place in a warm place to rise for at least 1 hour.

When the dough has doubled in size, deflate it by placing your knuckles into the center. Lightly flour a surface and tip the dough out onto the flour. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into an even 1/4 inch thick rectangle.

For Mickey, or any other shape, use a large cookie cutter (too small and the shape won’t read in the oil. Likewise, if you leave your beignets too thick, a more intricate shape will be hard to read). For traditional beignets, cut into diamonds by criss-crossing the dough diagonally. Let your cut shapes rise on the floured surface, covered with tea towels, for another 30 – 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a wide-bottomed skillet with deep sides. It should be around 350 degrees, but I rarely use a thermometer to test hot oil. If you place a little pea-sized amount of dough into it to test it, and it begins to bubble around it, you’ve got it right. If it pops and splatters, it’s too hot.

Turn the shapes into the oil and fry on each side 1 – 3 minutes (it will depend on how many you do at once, the width of your pan compared to the width of the burner, what oil you’re using, and the thickness of your beignets, just to name a few, so it isn’t an exact science). They are done when they are golden brown on both sides and puffy.

Use a slotted spoon to take the beignets out of the hot oil and remove them onto a tea towel or paper towel. While they are still quite warm, use a sifter, shaker, or good-old fine mesh strainer filled with powdered sugar to dust the beignets thoroughly. A good beignet has quite a coating, so don’t be shy.

Repeat until all the beignets have been fried. Delicious.

After breakfast, we “went on” all of our favorite rides by searching for ride POVs on YouTube and narrating to one another what transportation we were taking to arrive there, especially if park-hopping was involved. That took us until lunch, when we opted to go to Casey’s Corner for hotdogs and french fries (I played Main Street USA background music and made hotdogs and french fries), then we had Mickey Premium Bars (that I had purchased weeks ago as a Spring Break treat).

After lunch we watched a Disney movie on Disney+, and then had a Disney animation lesson from the Disney Parks Blog on how to draw various kinds of Mickey. We finished our day enjoying a dinner in Morocco in Epcot (I made chicken tagine with saffron rice) and watching Happily Ever After Fireworks (also off YouTube). The kids had an absolute blast, and I was so happy to have provided them a fun and special memory during this time.

In other events of the week, I have been a busy baker again, making our family’s weekly bread the same as I used to. I’ve made a variety of different “weekly breads” over the years, ranging from white, to wheat, to whole wheat, to wheat sourdough, to dairy-free fiber-bomb nut bread. Given the circumstances going on in the world right now, I’m starting with a very basic loaf for now, relying on my commercial-sized bag of yeast I always have on hand. I will be starting some sourdough here soon as a back-up plan, so for those of you who didn’t or cannot now get your hands on some yeast, stay tuned. (Sourdough acts a raising agent when commercially produced yeast cannot be bought because there is yeast all around us. Sourdough attracts “wild yeast” and lets you tame it, so long as you keep it fed, for use in baking). For now, my goal for this loaf is economy and flexibility, meaning I can use more or less wheat flour, depending on availability, or even trade-in a liquid oil for the butter. After some trial and error, I think I’ve come-up with a solid loaf that can be adapted to suit our ever-changing conditions.

This loaf split a little. It was the second to last batch I made, and after I opted to add a little less yeast and a little more flour

Weekly Bread (for now)

Yield: 1 1.5 quart bread pan loaf

1 1/2 C warm water (110 degrees Fahrenheit)

2 t yeast

1/4 C honey or 2 T sugar

1 t sea salt

4 T butter or oil (or a mixture of both)

3 C whole wheat flour

1 – 2 C AP flour (or 4 – 5 C flour of your choice)

Heat the water and pour into a measuring cup, using a thermometer to check the temperature. Add the yeast and let it set 5 minutes. If you’re using sugar, you may add it now.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer, add the honey (if using), butter/oil, and salt. Once the yeast mixture is ready, add it to the bowl and stir lightly with a rubber spatula. Add in all of the wheat flour and stir with the rubber spatula. Add 1 cup of the AP flour and stir that in with the rubber spatula. Turn the mixer on to low speed (the second setting) with the dough hook attachment and begin to knead. Knead for 3-4 minutes and then check the dough’s consistency. If it’s a fairly well-formed ball that isn’t sticking too the sides or much of the bottom of the bowl, keep kneading without adding more flour. If it’s a little sticky, and the bottom is significantly attached to the bottom of the bowl, add 1/2 C more flour and knead. Knead for 8 minutes.

Prepare a bowl by very lightly oiling it, then turn the dough out and around in the oil to coat it. Set the bowl in a warm place covered with a tea towel and let rise for 1 – 2 hours.

Deflate the dough by placing your knuckles into it and pressing (punching down). Lightly flour a surface and dump the dough out onto the flour. Lightly oil or butter a bread loaf pan and set aside. With a rolling pin, roll into a roughly 8×10 inch rectangle about 1/2 inch thick, being careful to roll out any air bubbles.

Starting from the long side (horizontal if you’re looking down on it), roll the dough up (it does not need to be a tight roll), then tuck in both of the vertical edges until they almost touch in the middle, pinching the seams you’ve created as you do so (kind of like a burrito fold). Roll the seams smooth on the floured surface gently and then place the bread into the prepared loaf pan. It should fill the pan from front to back (both sides touching the edges) and the top should be just about at pan-level. If this sounds like a complicated step, you can simply “plop” the deflated bread dough into a prepared pan. I like taking this extra step because it helps with consistency and shape, which helps the bread bake evenly and cut nicely for ease of use, but it’s not absolutely necessary, especially if this is your first loaf.

Place the tea towel over the bread in its loaf pan and let rise another 30-40 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the risen bread into the oven and bake 35-40 minutes.

Weekly Meal Planning: 3/28/20 through 4/3/20

As I write this it’s almost 70 degrees outside in Central Indiana and it feels glorious. It’s such a welcoming feeling–a promise of summer. It’s something I think we all need right now. This morning, as we sipped our coffee and greeted a wet, misty day, I nearly recorded all of the birdsong and woodpeckers singing the sun into the sky.

I feel so fortunate and privileged that, although we are in week three of social distancing, and heading into our first full week of official shelter-in-place orders (the order went into effect on Wednesday of this week), we have this house, in this place to be. It isn’t a vacation home in somewhere amazing. It isn’t even very big. But it’s our home. We’ve remodeled and rebuilt it together over the last 10 years, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than right here during this time.

Grocery Shopping in the Time of COVID-19: Last week, thanks to a tip from a friend, I got wind of the Governor’s impending shelter-in-place order a few hours early. I had not had time to shop much before the kids’ school got moved to e-learning the week before, but had been trying to stay at home and not go out. For several weeks, I had been following the news out of China and the early news in Italy, and had, very deliberately, been buying a little extra of things here and there, so we did, unlike some people, have plenty of TP and cleaning products. I even have Kleenex. Since I hadn’t been able to shop the week prior, though, I was aware of how bare the shelves were based on accounts from friends, so I was also deliberately allowing stores time to re-stock before ordering my first delivery. Yet, on Monday, as I learned of the shelter-in-place order, my delivery was still a few days out. I knew the stores would be even more bare after this, and so I made the difficult decision to go to the store myself.

I was very careful. I’m an obsessive hand-washer all the time, regardless, so this is not new territory for me. I don’t think I’m necessarily a germa-phobe, but I was a professional chef and all of those Serv-Safe classes really leave an impression. Trust me. I went to Costco, where I waited in a long line outside, confused at first, until I realized they were only letting so many people into the store at once. Major bonus points to Costco. I shopped with more than six feet of clearance around me, was able to get almost everything on my list (no flour, but I had bought a few extra 5 pound bags over the past month, so we have enough for now).

I went home, unloaded those groceries, and then braved Meijer, a regional supermarket chain. By the time I got there, the order had been announced and it was just starting to get busy again, but I’m a fast shopper, so I managed to beat most of the crowd. There was no line at check-out, and I did shop n’ scan on my phone to make it faster. There were a few close encounters with fellow shoppers, but I came home and changed my clothes and washed my face and hands, so, while I’m nervous about my potential exposure, I think I did as best as I could have given the circumstances. I managed to get a lot at Meijer; not much that was on my list, but given my chef’s eye I was able to make some discerning choices based on what was left that it would have been very hard to ask a delivery shopper to do for me, so I was glad I made the trip. We’ll know fairly soon if I’ll remain healthy.

The Weekly Meal Plan: This morning I woke-up and made a list of every meal I could make with the ingredients I have on hand. I filled a notebook page with two columns and then quit. I still have things I could make. Excellent. It was my goal to try to limit the number of delivery orders I would need for several weeks for all kinds of obvious reasons and less obvious ones, such as I feel inherent guilt putting another person in the line of fire while I sit at home, safe and cozy in my house. This virus has certainly made the lines of class and privilege more apparent. How fortunate I am to have my fast wi-fi internet access inside my comfortable, well-decorated and pleasant-to-be-in home with a job I can do remotely and still get my full paycheck. How fortunate I am to have been able to purchase food and goods ahead of this in amounts that exceeded my normal weekly budget; and how fortunate I am, now, to have been able to go to two stores and drop the amount of money I just did to stock-up. These societal inequalities aren’t problems I can solve by myself on this blog, but I am aware of them.

I also feel fortunate to have the skills that I have. I know how to cook almost anything. If you don’t feel like meal planning is necessarily something you enjoy or excel at, stay tuned: I’ll be posting tricks and tidbits as time goes on. For now, I will say that meal planning in this instance was simple because I have a record of most of the recipes I cook regularly, or have cooked in the past, and so I simply went down my lists in various places (Notes on my iPhone, Pinterest, my old blog, and a flash drive or two) and wrote down names of things that fit the ingredients I have on hand (I also shopped with these lists in mind, but my chef-brain is a recipe archive, which allowed me to be more flexible at the store). Keeping track of your most-used recipes somewhere accessible can often be the first step in making meal-planning easier.

So, on the list for this week:

Saturday: ground turkey hobo dinner

Sunday: creamy white beans and fennel casserole (NY Times recipe I’m trying out)

Monday: italian beef sandwiches

Tuesday: chicken gyros

Wednesday: broccoli & cauliflower gratin

Thursday: teriyaki chicken and rice

Friday: spring pea pasta

Upcoming on the Blog: I’ll be doing a recipe post from meals from this past week. It’s my hope to keep you all updated at least once a week with a “recipe dump,” which means that recipes from this week’s meal plan will be posted next week. I’ll also get into more details with the garden expansion progress in a post coming later this week. We’re working on the greenhouse this weekend. It’s my hope that my meal-planning posts and garden posts offer some small amount of support during this time. I don’t believe myself to be an “expert,” and indeed, I tend to feel and position myself most as a learner in life, but we are all in this together, and so whatever experiences and/or mistakes I have made and will make may be useful. At the very least, it’s heartening and even entertaining to read someone else’s trials and errors. We all mess up. Isn’t that comforting? Let’s be messy together.

Throw Back Thursday: French Onion Soup from 3/13/2014

Note: This post originally appeared on my old blog on March 13th, 2014. I’ve copied and pasted it below, but removed the links because they won’t work.

First things first….

Yes.  This is the story of the past three weeks. All four of us have been on antibiotics for over a week now.  Several of us are on the second run. I haven’t been on antibiotics in probably at least five years.  Brian? I don’t think he’s been on antibiotics in ten years.

And now.  Felled by a sinus infection.  Crazy Indiana weather.

OK, so I haven’t really been cooking anything super exciting lately.  No one has felt up to eating much, and I will admit that some nights I’ve simply been letting everyone forage for something on their own.  The kids have been eating way too many PBJ’s.  Brian and I have been subsisting mainly on plain roasted chicken.

And soup.  Lots of soup.

My Mom made us my Magic Healing Chicken Noodle Soup and brought that over in a big crockpot.  We devoured it.  Well, as much as people who can only eat things by the cupful can devour something. ๐Ÿ™‚

But then we started feeling a bit better (it is magically healing, don’t you know), and decided we could eat a little bit more….. but still it had to be soup.

And then I thought, why not French Onion? It’d been at least 2 years since I’d made it last, which I’m not sure why because Brian raved about it.

The last time I made it, I simply talked about it in a paragraph, in the middle of an enormously long blog post.  So this time I thought it deserved its own post. ๐Ÿ™‚

I also did the onions a little differently this time, based on an America’s Test Kitchen recommendation I had read about months ago and stored away in my brain, and I think that made a HUGE difference in the quality of the soup.  As ATK said, once you get past the cheese and bread in some onion soups, the broth can be enormously disappointing.  I read that and thought, “YES!” The entire process for the onions in this soup, taken directly from ATK’s recipe, is focused on getting a flavorful onion broth, that can be enhanced by the additions, but not saved by them.

Additions such as cheese.  Where is it in the photo, you ask? If that’s your thing, go for it.  For me, I haven’t been feelin’ cheese as much lately. Because of the new way I cooked the onions, and the mixture of liquors I used, the soup on its own has a very rich and complex flavor, enhanced by the herbed baguette.  When I added the gruyere, it did add a nutty niceness, but also made it incredibly rich. I ate two bites of that bowl, and while delicious, I found I simply could not eat any more. Coming off of being sick, I just wasn’t in the mood.  The soup went down a lot better without cheese.  So there you go. Cheese optional because the soup on its own is a winner. ๐Ÿ™‚

French Onion Soup with Baked Herb Baguette Croutons
Yield: about 6 adult servings
Soup:
4 to 5 large vidalia or other sweet onion, sliced
4 T salted butter, cut into small pieces
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1 C mixture of liquors/wine*
3 C chicken stock
2 C beef stock
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, minced

Herbed Baguette:
1 recipe homemade french bread
add to that recipe-
2 t dried herbs de provence
1 t ground rosemary
1 t dried chives
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil

Optional:
freshly grated gruyere cheese for the top of the soup or the top of your crostini’s

*I used an even mixture of cognac, sherry, brandy, and bold cabenet sauvignon red wine.  You can use all of these or one, keeping in mind the flavor will be more complex if you use all four.

For The Soup: In a dutch oven, cast iron pot, or other oven-safe large soup pot, add all the sliced onions, the butter, and the sea salt.  Cover and bake in a 400 degree oven for 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pot from the oven with oven mitts, open the lid and stir, scraping the bottom to get any bits up. The onions should be reduced in size and softened.  Replace the lid and bake another 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pot from the oven with oven mitts, remove the lid, and stir, scraping the pot. Place the pot over medium heat.  Cook 20 minutes, until all liquid has evaporated and onions brown, then scrape the pot, including any bits on the bottom.  Add the minced garlic, pepper, and bay leaf.

Cook 10 more minutes, add 1/4 C of the liquor mixture to deglaze the pan, and scrape everything on the bottom into the onions.  Do this 3 more times, each time deglazing with 1/4 C of the liquor mixture, to develop a deep flavor in the onions.

Stir in the stocks and remaining 1/4 C liquor and let the soup simmer 30 minutes.  Remove the bay leaf before serving.

For The Baguette: Place the herbs and pepper into the stand mixer with the sea salt, then soften the years in the water with the sugar.  Add that to the stand mixing bowl, add the flour, knead 5 minutes, divide into two, roll out, roll-up (better instructions on how to do this in the linked recipe).  Let rise 30 minutes to on hour.  Bake at 425 for 8 minutes, top with 1/4 C melted butter, bake another 8 minutes.

Let cool and slice into crostini pieces. Brush olive oil onto pieces and bake at 350 for 3 to 5 minutes.  Flip, then bake 3 to 5 minutes more, until they are just under crunchy.

You will have more herb bread than you need for the soup. It will freeze for the next soup night, or you can serve it up with good butter, cheeses, and meats on a fancy cheeseboard night.  Or make garlic bread out of it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Want to Simplify the Cheese? Sprinkle your half-baked crostini’s with gruyere and melt in oven.

Don’t want to bake your own baguette, eh? Use a store-bought loaf, slice into the crostini pieces, and add the herbs to the olive oil.  Brush onto the pieces and bake as normal.

To Serve: Place two herbed croutons in the bottom of whatever bowl you want to use (I don’t have oven-safe bowls – who does? So don’t panic about melting the cheese under the broiler, mmm k?).  Ladle the soup over.  If you want cheese, I recommend shredding it fresh and sprinkling it on top.  If you want to do the whole melty thing, you can microwave it, or use a creme brulee blow torch for added oomph. ๐Ÿ™‚  Or hey, if you’ve got those oven-safe bowls, then by all means.  ๐Ÿ™‚

Life in Stressful Times: Planning a Garden

Last week was better at first. I focused on organizing the kids’ and I into a schedule so that we could all not only get work and school-work done that needed doing, but move through our days meaningfully and with purpose. Not to mention that building in chore-time three times per day helped ensure my 1,400 square foot, 3 bedroom 1 bath home would stay tidy and happy and healthy for all of us. We took a family walk; the kids rode their bikes, laughing and screaming with delight. We played board games together over dinner. We watched our favorite shows. And then it was Wednesday.

It rained the rest of the week, trapping us inside except for brief spurts of outdoor walks. And then came the next round of announcements: first came the announcement that the kids’ school would not be reconvening until May at the earliest and then came the shelter-in-place order. I was not surprised by either announcement; indeed, I’d expected each announcement and agreed with them. But the reality of confronting confinement induced a lot of anxiety. I’m claustrophobic, so the very thought of being forced to stay indoors in 1,400 square feet with three other people, two cats, and two fish, causes my heart rate to increase and a knot to form in my belly. Crowds and feeling trapped with a crowd are one of my worst nightmares. I’m also a person with high-functioning anxiety. I’m extra sensitive to loud noises, which does not play nicely with my almost-10-year-old’s need to burn-off some energy by shouting and whooping. I get anxious in messy environments. I’m also smell sensitive (see two cats and two fish and one bathroom). I think most of us have increased anxiety right now, regardless of any official diagnosis or not, so I’m positive most of you are nodding along. Even if these anxiety-inducing scenarios are not *your* anxiety-inducing scenarios, we all likely have some of these that do not play nicely with quarantine, social distancing, and/or shelter-in-place situations.

I’ve learned to handle my anxiety by controlling things I can control. So, for the past week, I’ve focused a lot of time and energy on the garden plan, which has the very nice bonus effect of also providing us food security and physical, outdoor activity while sheltering in place. It something could feel like a win during these times, it would be the prospect of gardening.

When we bought this house a decade ago, it was really because it was the only house we could afford in the location we wanted. It was not beautiful, and had been vacant for several years. It needed a lot of work. But then we sat on the rotting deck in the backyard, looked at the nearly half-acre all around us, listened to the wind rustle the forest just behind our fence, and knew we had lucked into an amazing lot. It has privacy and seclusion, which are important to me. It has direct trail access to a half-mile loop through forest perforated with evergreens, and then a meadow, which we hike or run year-round. The yard, while encapsulated by trees on all sides, is clear, allowing ample sunshine and space for a sizable garden. It was, in British terminology, the perfect plot of land for a “small holding.”

Neither my husband or I had much gardening experience, but we had dreams and goals. The idea of farming had helped bring us together, and a mutual love of nature had sealed the deal. Added with my experience as an English major and chef, and his experience as both an artist and an engineer, our skills matched neatly into a kind of super-team. We excitedly dug our first garden (by hand, with an old shovel) and planted neat, tidy rows of plants without much soil amendments or much pre-planning whatsoever. And yet, even in the clay soil that got, at best, water-logged in gentle rain, or eroded and damaged in a downpour, we managed that first year to grow food. It was miraculous.

Over the winter I started reading whatever I could get my hands on. And so, come late winter, I carefully ordered some seeds and set about planning a garden with more deliberation. I found this garden planner online and immediately fell in love.

Our first planned garden using the Garden Planner

For the next several years, our garden grew in size and production, and we learned what plants to plant together, what plants to plant where for light, drainage, and temperature, and what plants we liked working with the most when it came to preserving the garden’s bounty. We added our long-anticipated flock of chickens, and learned to handle chicken diseases, manage predators, treat chicken injuries, and maintain a healthy coop. We grew our flock from 5 chickens to 33.

And then came grad school. The chickens had free-ranged on our half-acre, destroying the fruit & herb butterfly garden and partial shade garden I had established along a brick path near our patio. We trimmed our flock by more than half and left the once beautiful, productive land go fallow. It would be reclaimed by weeds over the next three years. Our elaborate and beautiful primary garden became perfunctory, resulting in rows neither one of us had the time or energy to maintain properly, leading to several successive infiltrations of aphids, hornworms, and so.many.bunnies.

I felt like I’d lost a critical piece of myself during these years. I was so happy to be in grad school, fulfilling a dream I thought I’d left behind when we had children. And yet, it was so consuming. I hesitated to even tell people I gardened or canned, because I wasn’t *actively* doing this. I’d spent years making my own soap, baking my own bread, and living off of my own land as much as possible, and yet I felt like a hypocrite and a fraud if someone asked me a question about it and I hazarded an answer.

I’m graduated now, and enjoying the fruits of my dedication by maintaining a dream position at my local university. I’d already been itching to get in the garden again this summer, and now that we’ve all been ordered to shelter-in-place due to COVID-19, I can think of no better activity to channel all my anxiety, physical restlessness, and need for a goal than the garden.

So here we are. I’ve mocked-up around 5 different gardens so far this year, as Brian and I go back and forth on how far to reach for certain goals given the uncertainty of this time, while at the same time recognizing that garden goals, while can be an up-front cost, will often pay back that cost for years to come.

On our loftiest morning over coffee, and emboldened by one of our favorite gardening programs that has since been removed from Netflix (note to Netflix: please bring all Monty Don programming back), we mocked-up this:

It’s our regular garden expanded even more to accommodate the 4 blueberry bushes and 2 raspberry bushes I ordered a month ago, plus our chicken coop, and the addition of a new greenhouse on our sunniest south-facing patch of yard with a raised bed garden running between the greenhouse and the garden. It’s beautiful and we love it. Except for the fact that there’s a giant indentation in our yard from an above-ground pool of the previous owners’ that we never leveled; we filled it with sand and put a swing-set there when the kids were little and called it done. We’d need several loads of fill dirt and probably even an excavator to get it level enough to do this, and not only is that expensive, it’s going to require some social contact and time we just don’t want to take.

With Brian’s makerspace being a functional industrial shop (he does custom fabrication products like light fixtures, stained glass mounts, dining tables, and stair rails, as well as more practical “handyman” type stuff) that he shares with several other small businesses in the area, they’ve all banded together to create a grow room. So, at this very minute, we have very happy seedlings under a grow light. Yet, with the shelter-in-place order, even while Brian’s shop is very isolated, we should not and cannot go every day to the shop to water the seedlings, so, we need an alternative. Enter the greenhouse.

We’ve been wanting a greenhouse for years, anyway, to help us expand our growing season, and maybe even over-winter a few otherwise less cold-tolerant crops. Greenhouses, however, when done beautifully as we’d all like to see a greenhouse, are expensive. Our solution is to bend some PVC and secure UVA-rated plastic over it. Instant “greenhouse,” that is inexpensive and, most importantly, FAST to slap together. Maybe next year we’ll make it pretty, but we need a greenhouse ASAP so we can move the seedlings from the shop. It’ll sit in the indentation where the swing set once stood. *insert shrug emoji*

“Greenhouse” sorted, here’s our still expanded, but scaled-down on ambition garden plans:

The primary garden features the same expansion. It needed a new, sturdier fence, anyway, so it’s a good time to bring the west-facing border forward several feet, allowing plenty of room for the new fruit-bearing bushes. A new raised bed for the strawberries should help keep them better maintained, and we’ll cold-frame them over winter to keep them extra safe. After years of saying we needed a rain barrel, we’re also DIY-ing our own out of some barrels Brian has at the shop, and we’ll also use a barrel to make a compost tumbler while we’re at it. We previously had a two-section wood compost pile that needed hand-turning with a pitchfork. This worked nicely for awhile, but has helped attract wildlife to our yard and we often don’t turn it as much as we should.

The raised bed garden runs in the same area as the original fruit & herb butterfly garden. There was a lovely brick path here when we moved in, running from the back patio off our living room/kitchen to a concrete slab where the glass back door opens into the laundry room. It was begging for something to fill it out and make it seem purposeful. The house shades the area closest to it during the hottest parts of the day, making the bottom half ideal for more tender plants, or plants that don’t like a lot of heat, like lettuces, cilantro, peas, and broccoli. The sunnier side will feature beds of herbs and flowers. I’m not sure about the placement of our potato sacks (literal sacks with some slits in the sides to allow harvesting of potatoes without pulling the plant), but they’re portable, so if they aren’t happy I can always move them to a place with more sun.

Sprinkled throughout will be containers we already have, where I’ll tuck the smaller cherry and grape-style tomatoes, a few herbs that don’t play nicely with others and like their own space (ahem, mint), and flowers. Hopefully lots of flowers. I used to rough-up a 5×4 section of this ground and spread wildflower seeds, so I might do that again. We’ll see once I get the beds in place how much room I have. We get quite a few hummingbirds and butterflies, and lots of honeybees every year, so we try to keep them fed. We do not spray for weeds in our grass and quite like the patchwork quilt of “weeds” that I think is pretty and that the bees love. The kids each want to make some fairy gardens, which I’ve always wanted, anyway, so that will be a fun project over Spring Break.

All of this planning has brought me a lot of joy over the past two weeks. It’s helped me remember pieces of myself I set aside to get another goal accomplished. It’s helped me cope in an otherwise uncertain time. It’s helped bring the family together over a common goal as we watch a garden program together of an evening, refine the plans together, and discuss our excitement. There’s something in the plan for everyone–a favorite food, a feature they’re excited about, a new challenge. We may not be RV-ing through 5 national parks and ending in Disneyland this summer, but I find I’m not super mad about that loss. We’re going to gain so much–things we thought we had lost, new memories for the kids who may not fully remember those times the same way as Brian and I, physical exercise, and lots of nutritious, yummy food. This time, while stressful and scary, holds the capacity for a rearranging of life’s priorities in such a way as to help us all make a little more sense of an otherwise hectic, loud, and invasive world. Through the magic of the garden, I find I am hopeful.

Back Home Again

It’s been four years since I left the stay-at-home-parent and full-time-homesteader life to go back to school and pursue a graduate degree in English. In those four years, I’ve gained a degree and a dream job. In those four years we’ve also lost family members, jobs, friends, and possessions, and, I think the most gut-wrenching of all, time. Pursuing a dream isn’t easy. It’s even less so when you hope to hold onto other dreams along with it. We live in a world that favors multi-tasking but diminishes multiplicity–each of us are so often defined to ourselves and others as one thing, even if that one thing switches situationally. We are always one thing first over the others in any context, and when we try to carry-in the remaining pieces and parts of ourselves, it complicates everything. I, for the last four years, have felt myself first split into exhausting buckets: mother, wife, graduate student, boss, teacher, friend, mentor, former chef, (former?) homesteader, former stay-at-home-parent. . .

When I became a stranger to myself, I tried to pour the buckets all back together again. I am always a mother-wife-graduate student-boss-teacher-friend-mentor-former chef-wannabe wishful homesteader-former stay-at-home-parent. I am all of these things at once, in every situation, in every relationship; and that makes everything harder, even while it feels more authentic and therefore easier to maintain. Everything feels like a priority when we mash all of our identities together. Everything feels urgent, important, and pressing. I once described myself as a spinner in a board game, constantly moving between endless turns played between all of my identities, forcing one hand to cook a meal, while the other responded to an email, while one eye read homework, and the other tended a sick child.

One year ago today I was on Spring Break and finishing up my thesis, convinced I was close to the finish line and that soon life would be so much easier once I shoved graduate school off my proverbial board game. I was very wrong. My thesis would drag-on into July (and I’ve subsequently not written much since, which is why I’m re-starting my blog). Also, one year ago today, my husband was still reeling from the sudden and tragic loss of a parent, grieving deeply. My husband’s grief was best described as a journey. Like any process, it’s recursive. One doesn’t neatly move through those 5 stages in a linear fashion and then “graduate” to acceptance. Grief and writing a thesis seem to be totally different things, and yet the underlying process to both was, put simply, a mess.

Sometimes our messes interfered with one another. In this mess, a few days before my birthday, mother’s day, and my graduation ceremony, my husband lost his job. I think it was the grief that did it, and a very non-understanding boss. We were to the imagined finish line; I was about to win the present board game and wave “buh-bye” to one whole bucket of identity, making life simpler, easier, “back to normal,” and it all slipped through our fingers all at once.

Normal. Once upon a time I had relished tending our large garden, our flock of chickens, and our children. I wrote regularly and with great joy on a blog that detailed our lives, punctuated by recipes for from-scratch goodies. Eventually we worked-up to selling our homestead products at a local farmer’s market and nationally-recognized farm store and restaurant. And then we stopped. I opted to return to school, imagining myself earning an income that could alleviate some of the stress and strain on our household. It was a good plan, and despite all of the hardship along the way, I still believe it was the right decision.

But, like so many right decisions, it wasn’t easy. We’ve been through a lot–more that I’m sure I’ll touch-on here in time–but we’ve also gained so very much. My husband is pursuing his dream right now, inspired by my pursuit of mine these past years and ignited in passion by his grief. He’s pushing himself to his limits to own and operate his own makerspace, igniting a movement of making and community-building in our little corner of the world. I’m so proud of him. I’m invested in my job. As the Assistant Director of the writing center at a local public university, every day I get to go in to work is a day I get to connect with people and make a difference. We’re both happy, invested, working-parents, with two active, amazing children, and, as I’m sure most parents can relate, life has been . . . hectic. . . that doesn’t seem to be a strong enough word to use here, but I’m coming up short on synonyms so we’ll go with it.

Which leads me to here. Why am I here, on a blog–again–writing if I’m so busy? Well, in case you haven’t heard, there’s a pandemic. My university has canceled all face-to-face classes, so the writing center is fully online. My children’s schools have canceled all face-to-face classes, as well, so they’re home attending fully-online school. It’s like I woke-up one day and everything had re-set to four years ago, except I still get to have a job I love and get paid to do it. I want to recognize our extreme privilege right now in that. So many people right now are losing jobs and income-sources as a result of the pandemic. It isn’t something to be seen as a good thing. It isn’t a blessing. Or a gift of time. It’s awful and is killing people. And even while I recognize my privileged position, I’m still scared.

But, the pandemic did help create the conditions, like a re-set button on a video game, under which I now find time to be quiet for the first time in many years. I’m back home again, in more ways than one. In this homecoming, my fingers are itching to be in the garden, to bake the bread, to cook delicious homemade meals; to reclaim a little piece of myself I’ve missed since I left her four years ago. And even while I hope to return to face-to-face classes, I’m not certain life will ever be exactly as it was before the pandemic ever again. Something in the world is shifting. This shift is why we started homesteading 11 years ago.

So I’m here, writing again, sharing what I’m cooking or doing around the homestead again, not because I feel like an expert, but because I believe in the power of making things and doing things together. We can’t be together, exactly, in this present moment. So I’m here. Maybe you’ll make things along with me. Maybe you’ll make other things and tell me about them. The point is, that by writing, sharing, making, and doing in this space, we can create connection, something I think we all could use a little more of right now.

I’m going to be adding some old posts and recipes from my original blog here as time goes on. I’ll also be adding new posts and recipes. It’s a new-old journey and I’m still me but also different. That’s life. Our family has grown. I hope you’ll join me in the wonder of it all.