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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In Praise of Permaculture-Mulching: Summer Project #3

Tomato plant that reseeded itself in our sheet mulched garden
I have to admit that out of all the summer projects on our bucket list, moving mulch was the one I was least excited about.  My husband is the gardener of the family---as I have mentioned before---and he is always looking for a more efficient method to grow our food that is less labor intensive.  In a nutshell, he is a huge fan of permaculture.  In particular, he loves the aspect of mulching.

Our one ton pile of wood chips dumped in our yard in May
According to Wikipedia, "In permaculture, sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural forests' processes.  When deployed properly and in combination with other permacultural principles, it can generate healthy, productive, and low maintenance ecosystems."  This hill of mulch was the final step in the sheet mulching process for the one and only garden we planted this summer.  For my husband, this was the solution to the incessant weed problem in our gardens.  To me, this just looked like months of work shoveling mulch into a wheel barrow, dumping it in place, and then spreading it with a rake because we don't have any tractors here.

Our garden at the end of May.  Notice my flowers that looked so pitiful then.
However, along with a successful crop of comfrey for our livestock and enough peas and onions for us to preserve, it also laid the groundwork for a number of tomatoes reseeding themselves and growing into the plants shown in the picture at the top of this post.

A closeup of part of the garden a week ago.
Not to mention what this mulch has done for the marigolds, zinnias, and gerber daisies I planted back in early May.  These are the same flowers that appeared to be dead 2 months ago when we first applied the wood chips.  You can see there are still a few weeds and sprigs of grass creeping in, but they pull out easily, and we now only need to pull a few weeds once or twice a week as opposed to the daily weeding and hoeing we used to do.

A flower bed along the front of our farmhouse at the beginning of summer
In addition to helping the garden, we also used the wood chips in a traditional fashion as mulch in the numerous flower beds around our farmhouse.  There are still many beds to fill at various sites on our property, but most of the beds next to the house have been mulched to some extent.  This one was the worst since it was filled with overgrown bushes, many weeds, and wild raspberry shoots.  I'm embarrassed to even show this picture that was taken back in early May.

The same area now
After a few hours of some pruning, digging, and mulching by my wonderful husband and several of our strong children, this is what the bed currently looks like.  Now I can actually do something with it.  Hopefully before the summer is over, the remaining 5 flower beds will look this good, and I won't feel like we're living in a mountain jungle.

As we continue on our small farming journey, I believe we will incorporate more and more aspects of permaculture into our family's hobby farm.  The premise of it is something we believe in, and it makes complete sense to stop going against nature in traditional methods of plowing, planting, tilling, and other conventional ways of farming.  I would consider this summer project of mulching a success.  It is a bit of work early in the summer (for which I can take no credit), but it ultimately leads to much healthier soil, plants that thrive, and very few weeds.  To learn more about permaculture, check out the sites below:

Sunday, July 26, 2015

10 Tips for Shopping at Farmers' Markets (From a Former Market Vendor)

     Throughout our marriage, my husband and I have shopped at various farmers' markets, both in the South and in the Northeast.  For a number of years, I have also stood on the other side of the market tables, first selling my handmade line of bath products and then selling produce from our gardens and greenhouse.  As I made my purchases at one of our local markets this past week, I thought about what I wish I had known during my first few trips as the consumer.  Remembering what it was like to be a vendor at these markets, I also couldn't help but think what I wish customers knew from our point of view.  Below I share some tips for helping you in your next shopping venture at your local farmers' market, keeping in mind that these come from someone who knows what it's like to be on both sides of the seller's booth.
  1. If you are looking for something specific, get to the market early before vendors sell out of the most popular items.  I have noticed this happens with first crops of the season, especially berries, peaches, and corn.  On the other hand, if you are not looking for anything in particular, show up an hour or so before closing time.  Some vendors will mark down items at that time rather than have to load them up and take them home.
  2. Peruse the perimeter of the market before making any purchases.  Many people spend all their money at the first few vendors' tables and never see what all there is to offer.  You might be missing out on something terrific.  I quickly scan each booth and then come back through to actually buy.
  3. Bring your own sturdy bags and cash.  Though most vendors do supply plastic grocery bags, some run out and it is an additional expense for the farmer.  Many markets now accept debit cards and some accept SNAP and EBT cards, but some individual vendors still do not have this capability.
  4. Look for vendors that sell organic, non-GMO, or naturally grown foods.  I think the majority of the farmers who do this display a sign of some sort on their tables informing the public of their practices.  However, when we first started out, we did not think to do that.  If you have any questions about how the food is grown, ask the farmer.
  5. Chat with the farmers as long as you are not holding up the line or distracting them from making sales to other customers.  Vendors who have a passion for what they do will love sharing their knowledge with other people.  This was my husband's favorite part of both selling and buying at the markets.
  6. With that being said, however, if you're going to have a lengthy conversation with a seller, please buy something from them.  This is different from asking them about their growing or harvesting practices because you want to know what you're getting for your money.  I am talking about one of those 20 minute conversations where you're asking all kinds of questions and possibly even sharing some of your own ventures into growing or creating things, and you are taking up a lot of this vendor's time.  Then it is only considerate to buy something from that booth.
  7. Don't quibble over prices without good reason.  If prices seem higher than other vendors, ask why.  It is usually more expensive for a farmer to grow naturally or organically rather than conventionally using chemicals and sprays.  The same goes for natural soaps and candles and other such items that contain all natural ingredients and essential oils.
  8. Do expect fruits and vegetables to be different sizes and colors and possibly have some dirt on them.  They are not all going to be uniform, shiny, and perfect because that's just not natural.
  9. If it is hot and humid, and especially if the tables are in direct sunlight, know that some things are going to look a bit droopy.  I am especially referring to greens and carrot and beet tops, as well as a number of herbs.  Even if they are displayed in some water, they will still look somewhat wilted as the day's heat sets in.  Put them in the crisper as soon as you get home.
  10. Keep in mind that whatever doesn't get sold at that market is highly likely to end up on that farmer's table later that day to be served to that farmer's family.  I only say this because I have seen customer's dogs' noses up against whatever is being displayed on the table.  I have seen patrons rummage through baskets of berries or sniff items while having an obvious cold or other illness.  Sometimes children with hands that are not so clean like to touch every brightly colored item that's at eye level.  Then many of these people don't buy any of it, leaving it for the next individual who comes along or for the farmer to take home.  This is also why it's a good idea to use a vinegar wash on your produce once you are home in your kitchen.
     Farmers' markets and local CSAs are such gifts to our families and communities.  They give us the opportunity to support local businesses and small family farms that are being lost in these days of mega-farms, mono-agriculture, and CAFOs.  It is also a way for us to reconnect with our food production and food providers if we are not growing or raising our own.  In the supermarket, we only have the package labels to inform us of the location and manner in which our food was grown.  With local farmers' markets and farm stands, however, we can speak directly with the growers and sometimes even visit their farms.  I encourage everyone to stop by your local market this week and see what all there is to offer.  If you're a newbie, I hope these tips will help make your shopping experience an easy and enjoyable one.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

4-H and Weekly Summer Cakes

Our 13 year old daughter has been involved in local 4-H clubs for five years, and our family has greatly benefited from the cake decorating classes and projects in particular.  For the past four summers, she has baked and decorated cakes or cupcakes weekly until the youth fair occurs in August.  At that time, all the cakes are placed in an exhibition building to be admired and judged.  It has been so much fun to watch her skills increase and to taste the delicious projects.

  The cupcakes above were made for our tea party last summer, and the fresh raspberries on top were from our farm.

This beach ball cake was made during her third year of cake decorating.

This was one of her first attempts this summer at making more advanced flowers.

These Lego cupcakes were not as involved to make but turned out so cute with the confetti and Lego brick candies on top.

This cake started out as a disaster because I recommended she use cream cheese frosting, since it was a carrot cake.  Little did I know that type of frosting melts easily, and the top layer slid right off the bottom.  She had to scrape frosting and put things back together the best she could at class.  This is why there are some yellow patches in places.  Her flowers turned out quite well, however; especially considering this was only her second or third try at making roses.

Last week we got a treat with chocolate cupcakes filled with chocolate wafers and topped with pink basket-weave or pink rose frosting.  We love it when she surprises us with chocolate or peanut butter frosting in the center.

Our daughter used to make all of her cakes from scratch, but this summer we have taken some shortcuts and used boxed mixes most weeks.  Most of the frosting is homemade though.  We share below our favorite frosting and icing recipes.

My Favorites:
Peanut Butter Frosting
Beat 6 tablespoons of peanut butter until light and fluffy.  Gradually add about 2 1/4 cups of powdered sugar and beat well.  Beat in 1/4 cup of milk and 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla.  Gradually beat in remaining 2 1/4 cups of powdered sugar and additional milk if needed to make the appropriate consistency.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Beat together (1) 3-ounce package of softened cream cheese, 1/4 cup softened butter, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until light and fluffy.  Gradually add 2 cups powdered sugar and beat until smooth.  

Our Daughter's Favorites (found in her 4-H Project Book):
Buttercream Icing (for the crumb layer)
Beat 1/2 cup of butter and 1/2 cup of Crisco.  Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla.  Gradually add 1 bag of powdered sugar, one cup at a time while beating well on medium speed.  Icing will appear dry at first.  Then add 2 tablespoons of milk and beat until light and fluffy.
Decorating Icing (to use in the decorating bags)
Beat 1 bag of powdered sugar, 3/4 cup of Crisco, 1 tablespoon of vanilla, 1 egg white, and 2 tablespoons of water (more if desired) until fluffy.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Casual Summer Attire for a Middle-aged Farm Mom

Now that I have hit my mid-forties, I find it increasingly more challenging to find clothes that fit my lifestyle, personality, and my changing body.  The past two summers, however, I have been pleased to find a number of fashion pieces that are easy to mix and match, are versatile and comfortable, and don't cling to my middle or hang like a tent.  I know that JC Penney is not the store of choice for preppies, but it just so happens that the majority of my fashion finds for this post came from there.  In the rural area where we live, our choices are limited, and when I needed something in a hurry, Penneys rarely let me down.  So far, these items have held up well through many washings and line drying in the summer sun.

T-shirt: St. John's Bay from JC Penney; Crop pants: J. Crew from local thrift shop; Reversible Belt: Talbot's; Leather Sandals: Land's End
Brightly colored t-shirts and cropped pants or capris take me from our farmhouse to the grocery store to a picnic at the park with our children and friends.  My only problem is finding crops that are the right length.  These are petites and are still a bit long.  Although, I bought them from a thrift store, so maybe they're not meant to be cropped at all!

Dress: Studio One from JC Penney; Sandals: Pesaro bought many years ago from ?
Even though this dress has 3/4 length sleeves, it is lightweight enough to wear in the summer.  I love the way it hangs, and it's incredibly comfortable.  I think it's versatile enough to wear to Mass or shopping or to volunteer at the children's school.  I will probably wear it into early fall with a pair of low-heeled black pumps.

Blouse with attached camisole: Liz Claiborne from JC Penney; Skinny ankle jeans: ana from JC Penney; Wedged sandals: Yuu from JC Penney
This blouse is so flowing and breezy, and it has an attached matching cami underneath.  Since it is quite loose and long, I prefer to wear it with something more fitting on my legs.  These white jeans can be worn folded up or unfolded down to the ankle.

Sleeveless blouse: Liz Claiborne from JC Penney; Crop pants: J Crew; Thong sandals: Land's End
These are the same crop pants worn with the t-shirt above, but they're a bit more dressed up with this blouse.  I can wear this to run errands or have a casual lunch with a friend or just sit at home and blog.

The sterling silver necklace in these photos is from Silpada, and the Citizen watch was a gift from my husband from years ago.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Favorite Summer Salads

This time of year is perfect for salads with so many fresh vegetables coming from our gardens or local farmers.  Although my children are not big salad eaters, my husband and I love them.  Below are some of our favorite salad recipes that I tend to only make in the summer.

Pasta Salad
This is my favorite Pasta Salad recipe.  Cook 2 pounds of pasta al dente.  Drain, then toss with enough Italian salad dressing to coat it.  Chill in refrigerator several hours.  Slice 1-2 sweet peppers, several carrots, 2 green onions, and a can of artichoke hearts, drained and quartered.  Add these to the chilled pasta.  Finally, add 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon of dried basil, 1 teaspoon of pepper, and about half the bottle of Italian salad dressing and toss gently.  Serve chilled.  This makes a big bowl of salad that is perfect for a picnic or patio cookout---plenty to share with friends and family.

Creamy Potato Salad
Out of all the Potato Salad recipes I have tried, this is definitely my favorite.  Pare and cook 6 medium potatoes (Yukon gold or red are especially good) in boiling water for about 20-25 minutes. You want them tender but not mushy.  Drain well and put in bowl.  Add 1 cup sliced celery, 1/2 cup of chopped onion, and 1/3 cup chopped sweet pickle.  If I have some on hand, I also add several strips of cooked, crumbled bacon at this time.  Combine 1 1/4 cups of whipped salad dressing, 2 teaspoons of sugar, 2 teaspoons of celery seed, 2 teaspoons vinegar, 2 teaspoons prepared mustard, and 2 teaspoons of salt (I sometimes add more of this.)  Add this mixture to the potatoes and other vegetables.  Toss lightly to coat.  Carefully fold in 2 hard-boiled eggs that have been coarsely chopped.  Cover and chill thoroughly.  If we're having a lot of people over, I double this recipe.

Ranch Dressing
For regular tossed salads, I like to use the following Ranch Dressing recipe given to me by a good friend.  To make the dry mix: combine 2 tablespoons salt, 2 teaspoons parsley flakes, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, and 1 teaspoon pepper.  Keep in an airtight container and shake or mix well before using.  When you are ready to make the dressing, add 1 tablespoon of the mix with 1 cup of whipped salad dressing or mayonnaise and 1 cup of sour cream or plain yogurt. Chill.  I add no MSG to this, and it tastes fantastic.

This post is making me hungry.  I just happen to have some pasta salad left in the refrigerator, so  I think I'll go have a bite.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Summer Evenings at Our Preppy Mountain Farm

It's taken me almost 2 months to get enough evening pictures for a post because of all of the thunderstorms and soaking rains we've been having this summer.  I've left out a few things, but this is a typical smattering of summer evenings on our mountain farm.

Hanging out in the back yard with family and friends.

Our farm friends like to hang with us in the evenings too.

The adults of the house (and guests) having a glass of wine on the front porch.

Roasting marshmallows around a campfire.  Our fancy firepits have come and gone, but this one made with rocks (built by our children) has survived.

Of course, you can't have a campfire without roasting marshmallows, and you can't roast marshmallows without making S'mores.

Then, of course, you can't make S'mores without eating them.  Rarely do we stop at one.

Games of frisbee usually played by the boys.

Probably best of all are the sparklers and fireworks.

At least, our children would say so.

We're about halfway through our summer break, and I'm wishing it never had to end.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

It's a Lego Party!

Our 9 year old son is having a birthday this coming week and loves Legos more than any other toy.  Actually, so does his 10 year old brother, but he didn't want me to throw him a Lego party back in May when it was his birthday.  There are so many cool things you can do with Legos, so I was excited to prepare for this party for school-aged boys.

Part of the fun of preparing for this party was that our son got to help with the preparations.  He built the Lego structures to hold the plasticware and the napkins, which were then set on the food table.

One of the activities was guessing how many Legos were in the Mason jar.  I rummaged through the large Lego bin the day before and tried to find a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors and then refused to give any hints as to how many there were.  The prize was a bag of Skittles because I was trying to find something inexpensive that still had Lego primary colors.  It ended up that the birthday boy had the closest guess.

The Lego slime was a huge hit, and everyone got a ziplock bag of their own.
The only ingredients I used were 2 bottles of Elmer's blue glitter glue and half a cup of liquid laundry starch.  The starch was added 1 tablespoon at a time until it was the desired consistency.
Then we added a bunch of little Lego pieces, including Lego people heads and hair and helmets.  I have to admit, it was pretty awesome, and I was the first one to get my hands in there to squish it around.  For more tips on how to make this, go to

The food was colorful, but definitely not all healthy.  We had the favorites of our son: pizza rolls, Doritos, fruit and vegetables, and cupcakes.  There was also soda, which I concede to on birthdays.

We placed the carrots, strawberries, canteloupe, and maraschino cherries on my serving tray (handmade by my father) in the shapes of LEGO.  I'd like to say I came up with this idea on my own, but I actually saw it on Pinterest first.

My son requested strawberry cupcakes with white frosting, which was easy to accommodate.  My 13 year old daughter frosted them and added the Lego brick candy and confetti.  She considered stuffing them with more Lego candy, but I decided they would be too crunchy and just kept them on top instead.

The Birthday Boy was being rather stubborn and didn't want me to post any pictures of him on my blog.

We finished off snacking with these Wonka ice cream novelties.  The Poppin' Pops were a hit with the little boys. 
Out of curiosity, I had to try them.  Once you hit the center of each color, they really do pop and crackle in your mouth and throat---which is a rather bizarre feeling, but definitely interesting.

Party favors were little Lego mini figures.  I had no idea what HALO was because we don't play that here, but the boys thought the Lego figures were cool.  The Littlest Pet Shop packets were for the girls.  Our younger boys helped pick these out when we went to Target because they knew what their classmates were into.

This party was so much fun to prepare for and participate in!  The only thing we would do differently is have it a different month of the year because this poor guy always seems to have a birthday party when most of his friends are on vacation or are otherwise disposed. Those of us present, however, had a great time, and for the first Saturday in weeks, the weather was beautiful!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Sprucing Up Outdoor Furniture: Summer Project #2

One of the projects on our to-do list this summer was to treat and paint our outdoor furniture.  For the wood pieces, I used Thompson's WaterSeal wood protector in clear.  The metal furniture got several cans of Rust-Oleum spray paint or Krylon Fusion spray paint.  We also used the Rust-Oleum Specialty Plastic on the resin chairs (not pictured here.)

First up was my brand new picnic table which I have wanted for years.  This one was purchased unfinished from Home Depot for me for Mother's Day this May.
I had help from my six year old adding the second coat of sealant several weeks after I applied the first one.  We have had so much rain here this summer that finding a day with no storms forecasted was a real challenge.
I'm not sure I'm satisfied with this.  The wood looks much darker than when it was unsealed, and it is starting to look like there are dark mildew patches on it even though I can see the rainwater bead up on the surface.  I may paint it a hunter green color to match the doors on our farmhouse.

Next, we tackled this small metal table on our front porch.  I couldn't find a way to easily remove the glass top, so I covered it in newspaper and tape.  We then used just one coat of the Rust-Oleum spray paint in a satin hunter green.  The clothespin flower pot and impatiens were a handmade Mother's Day gift from my 10 year old son.
I am very pleased with how this turned out, and it matches our front door.

I received this large unfinished porch swing years ago for a Mother's Day gift, and I never sealed it.
So both my daughters used the Thompson's Water Seal to protect it from any further weathering.
I purchased a pair of outdoor pillows on clearance from our local Kmart, and I bring them inside when we aren't using them to prevent the cats from taking them for their own beds.

This metal table and chairs belonged to my husband when we met, so I don't even know how old they are.  They're still in great shape but were beginning to rust, plus there were spots on the table where our older girls had spilled nail polish and Wite-Out many years ago.
With the help of my 13 year old daughter, we sprayed 2 coats of paint on the table and chairs.  Unfortunately, we ran out of paint and couldn't find an exact duplicate at the local hardware store.
We ended up having to cover all of it with a final coat of the Krylon Fusion in black satin.  I am very pleased with the results, and we realized that we love to spray paint!
I found the umbrella at Ollie's Bargain Outlet, and it has withstood our numerous storms this summer.

At our cabin, we discovered two resin chairs, but they had gray mildew stains that would not come out with bleach.
We started out using the rest of the can of hunter green spray paint, but we didn't have enough to even cover one chair thoroughly.  I definitely underestimate the amount of paint needed.
When I returned to the store to buy more, they were sold out of all colors of spray paint except dark brown and black.  The cabin has a dark brown wood exterior, and I would have preferred a color that would stand out a bit, but both chairs were only partially painted and we are expecting company this weekend, so I settled for the brown. This spray paint is made to fuse with plastic in one coat.  Hopefully, it will hold up well.  My teen daughter and her friend painted them for me yesterday, and I think they look pretty good; although, I may change the color again later.