Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: October!

This is the craziest fall I can remember, with muggy 90-degree heat and lightning storms, but I am holding onto hope that autumn really is coming! Here are some ways to celebrate one of my favorite months.

1. Go hiking. In St. Louis, there is no better month for hiking than October (well, usually). Check out some of the amazing fall colors along the Lewis and Clark Trail, Powder Valley Nature Center, Pere Marquette State Park, or any local park, or make the drive to Elephant Rocks or Johnson’s Shut-Ins.

2. Make some cozy hot drinks. Tea, hot cocoa, fancy coffee drinks, apple cider, wassail... ‘tis the season for hot drinks! (If you don’t know how to make any of these, Google is your friend.)

3. Don’t rake your leaves. Just joking... sort of. Instead of bagging up leaves and setting them out on the curb, think about how you can use this huge pile of nutrient-dense carbon to your advantage. Start a compost pile, mulch your garden for the winter... or give them to a neighbor who likes to garden!

4. Learn how to roast vegetables. Autumn is the beginning of a season of hearty vegetables that are best roasted in a hot oven until caramelized. Try out butternut squash, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, onions, carrots, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower with the same method: chop into bite-sized pieces, spread on an oiled rimmed sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast in a 450º oven. Check after twenty minutes by piercing one of the pieces with a knife to see if it’s soft. Toss and roast the pieces further if necessary. Roasted veggies are delicious mixed with rice or pasta, spread onto toast with a sprinkle of cheese, scrambled into eggs, tucked into a burrito, or simply drizzled with sauce (kung pao, sweet chile, herbed melted butter, gravy, and more).

5. Press some autumn leaves. Gather colorful leaves that suit your fancy, and press them between any kind of paper in a thick book. In a couple weeks they’ll be dried out and ready for fall-themed decorations! You can glue them onto greeting cards, use them for crafts, or simply scatter them around the home for decoration.

How do you celebrate October?


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Thoughts from a Bike Crash

Today when riding my bike home, I misjudged the distance between me and the car ahead of me. I hit my brakes too hard. My tires slid out on the wet pavement, my mind registered a single, “Oh crap,” and then the world flipped sideways. My body smashed the asphalt.

I was off the ground in a second, yelling, “Oh that hurts, oh that hurts!” to keep from crying as I stumbled over to the sidewalk, Zach following me trying to gather up my bike and see if I was okay. I sat on the curb, blood dripping my from elbow, and began to bawl.

It’s pretty much a representative example of the entire past month.

Sometimes life throws crises in your way, and you marathon through them as best you can; sometimes everything goes well, or at least nothing goes wrong, and you get to coast.

But sometimes, like the past month, a bunch of small to medium-sized things go wrong in a long succession. Each one individually isn’t that bad, not enough to kick you into crisis mode, but after a while you realize that you’ve been swimming through a river of low-key bad events for a long time and you want it to stop.

It’s sometimes hard to recognize this fact, since each bad thing is haunted by the specter of how bad it could’ve been. In the bike wreck, I could’ve hit the car in front of me. I could’ve broken my arm, or broken anything if I hadn’t hit the ground first on the fleshy part of my thigh. In the past, two of my three siblings have been in horrible bike crashes that racked up thousands of dollars in hospital bills, so I look at the scrapes on my arm and the road rash on my thigh and count myself lucky.

But in the meantime, my scrapes hurt every time I move my arm. My shoulder aches. My thigh is throbbing. The wounds make everything a little more difficult. 

After the wreck a police officer stopped and insisted on calling an ambulance even though I didn’t hit my head. But after a few minutes of shivering in the cold rain (I was wearing short sleeves, of course), I decided we should just bike home. Once inside, I curled up on the couch and began to cry. I laid down for a while and cried, then I got up and put the load of laundry in the dryer and cried, then I walked upstairs and heated up Zach’s lunch and still cried. At last this dissolved into whimpering and occasional bursts of tears, but by the time he left for work I felt downright calm. 

Because when you’re swimming in a tide of small bad things, you just have to keep going. You bike home. You finish the deadline. You pay for the car repairs. You feed yourself. You do what’s right in front of you and try not to think about the rest.

It’s not a long-term solution, but sometimes it’s all you can do. So that’s where I’m at right now, doing one little thing at a time and knowing that someday, eventually, I’ll swim out of the current and find my feet touching solid ground.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: September!

To be honest, this year it’s been hard to celebrate September because summer has draaaagged on. We’ve finally started getting a few cool days now, so I thought I should post this before the month is up. Cooler weather is coming, and that’s always something I like to celebrate!

1. Air out the house. The stupidly hot weather can’t last forever. Let the fresh air rush in, and the scent of falling leaves and bonfires will help get you in the seasonal mood.

2. Celebrate the autumnal equinox. September 22nd (this year) is the halfway point between the summer and winter solstices, so for those of us of European persuasion, it’s time to party! Try cooking some seasonal food, go outside, and make a bonfire if the weather/fire regulations allow.

3. Go apple-picking. ‘Tis the season to head for the orchards! I know Eckert’s is a time-honored St. Louis tradition, but a quick Google search will reveal many more. And, as long as you have a ton of apples...

4. Learn some sort of food preservation technique. In September the summer harvest reaches a breaking point, so whether you’re working in your own garden or buying the cheap surplus at the farmers’ market, learning how to preserve some of it is a great idea. Freezing is one of my favorite ways, although I’ve been doing a lot of dehydrating, too. Other techniques I’m learning include curing (for sweet potatoes and winter squash) and fermenting. I’m also interested in preserving tomatoes in a confit. I haven’t tried canning yet, but I know it’s a great skill to learn! Whatever you do, learning to “put food by” for the winter is an ancient art that will keep you eating healthy, delicious food all year long.

5. Explore a new park. The nicer weather is a great chance to get out and explore somewhere new in your area. If you’re in St. Louis, check out the county parks or state parks (and, of course, Pere Marquette State Park right across the river)!

How do you celebrate September?


Friday, September 14, 2018

Homestead Update 9/14/18: Summer Abundance

Me, carrying the weight of the watermelon
on my shoulders.
 I’ll be honest: the past month or so has been rough. Really rough. Although no major crises have occurred, lots of smaller (and medium-sized) things have been piling up, which have caused or exacerbated my anxiety and depression. Car breaking down. Computer breaking down. Sickness. Friends’ heartbreak. Existential angst. Things that should be simple turning out to be very complicated. Phone calls. More angst. Life decisions and no clear direction. Apathy. Exhaustion. Did I mention the angst?

I’ve been dealing with all of it the way I usually dealt with climbing mountains on the PCT: keep walking, stop for lots of snacks, cry every once in a while, and keep walking. Do the bare minimum to keep your life running, and eventually things will get better. I can’t say I’m over the mountain pass yet, but at least I’m continuing to walk.

Anyway... homestead updates!

One of the biggest bright spots this month has been the garden. I can barely keep up with the tomatoes (I’m making and freezing so much tomato sauce!), and I’ve started harvesting butternut squash, pumpkins, kale, peppers, herbs, elderberries, sweet potatoes, huge tasty watermelons, and the occasional onion. My neighbor gave us some apples, so I made apple chips, which I’ve been eating incessantly. Our dehydrator is running almost every night. Also, I picked a couple pumpkins from my garden, roasted them, and turned them into pumpkin pie. I think that’s kind of unbelievably cool.

Elderberries, which got boiled down into syrup, an immune system booster.
Cutting, cooking, and processing these vegetables gives me something to focus on and helps me lose myself in the rhythms of the tactile sensations, which is good when my head is spinning— nothing like veggies to keep you grounded.

The chickies are doing fine, and Bobbie Dylan even started laying again! We took down the fence that had previously divided our yard in half, and the chickens have enjoyed exploring the tomato and Jerusalem artichoke forest, as well as gobbling up squash bugs (we are infested with them) and managing to find the, like, two things in the yard that they’re not supposed to eat and eating them.
Popcorn! We haven't tried popping it yet, though.

Pretty much all of our fruit trees are struggling, which is pretty stressful. I’ve spent many days staring at the leaves with a copy of What’s Wrong with My Fruit Garden? in my hands, clicking my tongue and fretting and trying to find pictures that line up with what I’m seeing (while the chickies run around me and try their darndest to get me to step on them). The remaining hazel has leap hoppers, the nectarine has spider mites, the cherry is covered in powdery mildew, and I can’t figure out what plague is sweeping through my pome fruit (apple and pears). Fireblight? Pear slug? More DEATH? 

When vegetables die I shrug my shoulders, but trees are an investment in more ways than one, and I want them to do well. I’m trying to catch up on all the information about organic disease control, but it’s a steep learning curve, and I hope I can figure out what I need to do before it’s too late.
Zach harvesting sweet potatoes

Despite life (and the garden) being out of control, I’m grateful for the abundance of summer, the cuteness of my chickens, and the fact that life goes on even when I don’t think I can take one more step. Be well, my friends!


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Our Yard: July vs. August

Look what our backyard’s been doing!


Late August: Popcorn almost ready to harvest, butternut squash and sweet potatoes (and, in the background, watermelon) vying for world dominion


August: More butternut squash, 10-foot mulberry tree in the background, random Mayfeather chickie at entrance of their coop. The pink thing in a sunshade for our poor hazel, which was basically getting sunburned.


August: Volunteer squash getting wildly out of control, 10-foot tall Jerusalem artichokes, black vernissage tomatoes.


August: Newly-pruned tomatoes, zinnia explosion, lack of cucumbers because I pulled them up.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: August!

'Tis the season for tomatoes!

August has historically been my least favorite month because it’s the time when summer just... keeps... going. However, as with most things, the problem isn’t with the month itself, but with my attitude about it. This year, I’m determined to make the most of the things that make August special!

1. Scour the farmers’ market for deals. By late August, farmers (and gardeners!) usually have a glut of tomatoes, zucchini, and corn, and prices for these seasonal items drops. I’ve found organic heirloom tomatoes for 75¢ a pound at the market this time of year, or freshly-picked sweet corn for 10¢ an ear. Check out a market and see what you can find!

2. Sample some seasonal fruit. Yes, this is related to the previous point, but it bears repeating because August is peach season. If you have never tasted a freshly-picked peach, you are missing out.

3. Make your own celebration, since there aren’t any holidays. As a kid, it always depressed me that August had no major holidays. But now I realize that I can’t celebrate anything I darn well want! Make up your own holiday, or try one of these...
National Friendship Day- first Sunday of the month
Book Lover’s Day- August 9th
National Thrift Shop Day- August 17th
National Honeybee Awareness Day- Third Saturday
Just Because Day- August 27th
National Eat Outside Day- August 31st

4. Attend some live music. A lot depends on where you live, but most cities have free live music if you know where to look. For instance, St. Charles’s municipal band plays every Thursday in Frontier Park, for free. Festivals and free outdoor music events are pretty common this time of year, too.

5. Visit a butterfly garden. It’s prime season for butterflies— here in Missouri, the monarchs are passing through, but my garden is also full of black swallowtails, cloudless sulphurs, common buckeyes, and red-spotted purple admirals. You can hunt for butterflies anywhere that wildflowers grow, but a lot of conservation areas (and even public buildings, such as libraries) have gardens specifically dedicated to attracting these winged beauties. 

How do you celebrate August?


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Homestead Update 8/8/18: Cukes, Tomatoes, and Dying Things

A single day's harvest of cucumbers (the yellow ones are lemon cukes).

Yet another single-day harvest.
I told Zach yesterday, “I think I’m less fed up with summer right now than I ever have been before at this point in August.” Thanks to a two-week cool snap that allowed open windows and even— just once— long pants, I’m recharged and ready to take on the last several months of summer. (Haha, just kidding. I know summer is only going to last two more months.)

And the garden? Well, that’s a mixed bag. We have the “thrivers” (which are the majority, fortunately), the “barely survivors” (not many, but mostly the more expensive plants), and the “totally dead” categories.

The thrivers.

Our cucumbers have been producing so quickly that I can’t keep up with them, even with making a few gallons of pickles and foisting cucumbers off on everyone in close proximity. At long last the vines turned yellow and I decided to tear them up, thinking there weren’t that many cukes left on the vines. However, the vines showed me I was wrong:

The pumpkins and butternut squash show no signs of slowing down. It’s kind of terrifying how quickly they’ve eaten both the front and back yard. Not that I’m complaining— I’m just subconsciously nervous that we’re going to wake up one morning to a shattered window with butternut squash vines crawling into our room. (Plus, I found out that if I touch squash leaves I get a rash, which means I have to do all sorts of gymnastics to safely walk through the back yard.) I’m excited to have a store of squash for the winter!

Who needs a front lawn, anyway? (Butternut squash on the left, sweet potatoes on the right.)

Our tomatoes are another plant totally out of control. They are bearing so quickly that we can barely keep up, but I’ve been drying them, making them into sauce, and throwing them on pizza. We eat a lot of tomatoes these days, savoring the flavor of the season.

The Jerusalem artichokes are kind of insane. The tallest one is probably eight feet high, and they still have several weeks of growing left. We’ll see how big the tubers end up being, but the biomass alone is enough to make them worthwhile. Birds love to perch in them, beans twine up the huge stalks, and our tomatoes have started trellising on them. An all-around good plant.

Other successes include the sugar baby watermelons, peppermint, and massive sweet potato bed.

The chickens have also been happy in the cooler weather. Bobbie Dylan even started laying again, after months of striking! (It might’ve been the weather, or it might’ve been her overhearing us talking about putting her in the stew pot.)

Zach pruning out squash so we can walk in the backyard. Note the yellowed cucumbers and completely dead apple tree to the right of the photo.
The barely-survivors and totally dead.

A lot of our fruit and nut trees are in pretty dire straits. The pear trees and elderberries are growing mottled (I think it’s spider mites), our currant is covered in blotchy patches and has lost most of its leaves, three hazels are covered in spots and bug-eaten edges, our blueberries are just about to die of sadness (and acid starvation), one hazel is super dead, and one of our apple trees just dropped it leaves and flat-out died before we could figure out what was wrong with it. Losing a plant is one thing, but losing trees is really disheartening. Zach reminded me, though, that we shouldn’t be keeping plants that require babying; they have to be tough or they shouldn’t be in our yard. 

Still, we’ve got to do what we can to prevent anything else from dying. In the past week I’ve been frantically flipping through a copy of What’s Wrong with my Fruit Garden?, trying to figure out the plethora of maladies sweeping through my yard. 

The downside of planting a bazillion things is that it’s hard to keep track of them. The upside of planting a bazillion thing is that something is sure to succeed. Knee-deep in tomatoes and cucumbers, I can’t feel too sorry for myself.

What are you growing this time of year? 


Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Picture of Contentment

(I discovered this in my “to post” folder, long neglected because of computer drama. The weather has been much cooler since, and our hiking much more pleasant.)

One Sunday, despite the predictions of a heat index of 104ºF, Zach and I decided to go hiking. I had been longing to take a trip to my favorite hiking place— Pere Marquette State Park— for a while now, since we hadn’t been out there since January. The thought of the scenic drive there— a quiet two-lane highway wending between corn and soybean fields, past fruit stands with homemade signs saying PEACHES, through the tiny towns of West Alton and Grafton, and between the limestone bluffs and the glittering waters of the Mississippi River— sounded like it was worth it, even if the hiking was too hot.

As we scrambled to get our packs together, it occurred to me that we’d need dinner. Since we’re doing an Uber-Frugal Challenge right now, I figured that we shouldn’t cave and get Taco Bell on our way out. But I didn’t have any of the normal fixin’s for making a proper picnic dinner— no cheese, no olives, no tuna, no hummus. The idea of getting Little Caesar’s pizza crossed my mind. Five bucks for a whole pizza isn’t much, and then we’d have pizza! But when I ventured this idea to Zach, he said, “Don’t we still have some bread left? We can make peanut butter sandwiches.”

I balked. Sure, it was good homemade whole wheat bread, but I think it’s best when it’s fresh from the toaster, not eaten out of a backpack. I just wanted a pizza. Was it too much to ask to buy a pizza? Fortunately, there were no Little Caesar’s directly on the way, so it helped make it easier to assent to Zach’s idea and start making sandwiches. I put a ton of honey on mine, packed it up in Tupperware, threw it along with some trail mix into our packs, and we headed out.

The drive was everything I hoped it would be— I stared at the fluffy clouds through the rows of corn flickering by, spotted snowy egrets hunting for fish in shallow water, and smiled as we plunged through a brief rain shower. The hike was hotter than I expected it to be, with sweat dripping from every pore as I struggled up the hills after Zach. We slapped mosquitoes and dodged poison ivy as we hiked through the breeze-less forest, our conversation about the predominance of pawpaws in the understory punctuated by spluttering and smacking as we ran into yet another spiderweb.

By the end of the multi-mile hike, we were ready for some air conditioning. Fortunately, the park features a historic Civilian Corps lodge, and we had confirmed on a previous visit that you’re allowed to hang out in the great room and even eat your own food. Sweat literally dripping from us, we stepped into the icy room and found some seats by the window. We pulled out our sandwiches, Zach said grace over them, and we began to eat.

I had never tasted a peanut butter sandwich so delicious. It was warm and sticky, full of honey, with crispy edges because I’d toasted the bread. I ate slowly, gazing out the window at the Illinois River floating by in the near distance. The lodge’s great beams rose above our head, decorated with tapestries depicting the wildlife in this region. I looked at Zach’s glasses and saw the trees and the river reflected in them. We didn’t talk, concentrating on how delicious our food tasted.

When we finished eating, and just sat in our seats, looking out at the river, I was almost staggered by how content I felt. Just a few hours ago I had been whining because I wanted pizza, but now I had been stunned to silence by the perfect simplicity of a peanut butter sandwich, eaten with my husband in a beautiful place. How many other moments like this had I missed in my quest to find something to make me happy?

We drove home along the same scenic route, listening to Steely Dan and still enjoying the air conditioning. It was a perfect day.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Our Yard: May vs. July

I’ve enjoyed keeping a photo record of the continuing explosion of our backyard. Looking back at my April vs. May post, I chuckle at how excited I was about the growth then! Now that summer is in full swing I see tomatoes ripening, trees leafing out, spring crops withering, and squash bent on world dominion crawling over everything. Enjoy!


July: Hibiscus, popcorn, elderberry, tons of butternut squash, beans along the fence, watermelon, comfrey, and a patch of withered spring chicken forage crops that we just mowed down (we planted sweet potatoes there; we'll see how it goes).

July: Volunteer squash, pear trees, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, hordes of tomatoes, cucumber, watermelon, yarrow.

July: Tomatoes, cucumbers, comfrey in pots, zinnias and popcorn in the background, and duckweed in the pond
July: Watermelon off to the left, apple trees, kale, yarrow, comfrey, pumpkins, and corn to the right.

July: Popcorn, zinnias, black-eyed susans, and a whole lotta cucumbers!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: July!

July is my birthday month, so I’ve always held a fondness for it, even though the summer heat usually hits an unbearable level at this point. I appreciate this month more than ever now that I have a garden of summer crops; I may wilt in the heat, but my squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and sweet potatoes are in heaven! As Zach so eloquently said, “The garden makes me realize what summer is for.” Here are some ways to embrace it!

1. Make hot-weather treats. ‘Tis the season for popsicles! I pulled out some old popsicle molds and blended some peeled and seeded cucumber, watermelon, lemon juice, and a bit of honey, then froze them into delicious popsicles that hit the spot whenever I come inside after a walk. I also love freezing chunks of watermelon, then salting them right before I eat them. Don’t forget drinks, too— peppermint-infused water, homemade ice tea or lemonade, sparkling drinks, and more!

2. Go swimming. Whether it’s a local pool, a river, or a natural water feature like Johnson’s Shut-Ins, this is a great time of year to be in the water! 

3. Ask people to show you their gardens. Anyone with a garden, whether flower or vegetable, is usually happy to show off what they’ve planted, and summer is the time for seeing gardens at their best. I enjoy strolling through my neighborhood and seeing coneflowers, zinnias, and marigolds blooming everywhere.

4. Swap food from the garden. On a similar note, see if you can find people who are willing to trade food; you’ll both benefit! Even if you don’t have a garden of your own, you can offer cookies or something; or, chances are you know someone who is absolutely swimming in produce, and will thank you for taking cucumbers or tomatoes or zucchini off their hands. If swapping isn’t an option, farmers markets are still full of increasingly cheap produce for the same reason.

5. Sweat. Some people pay good money to visit a sauna, but the Midwest offers non-stop sauna conditions— all you have to do is step outside! Seriously, though, a good clean sweat is helpful for the body every once in a while, and you might as well embrace it. Sunscreen and deodorant both inhibit sweat, so try to find a shady place outdoors, or on a hot night. Walk, jog, garden, or do whatever you need to do to sweat, and when you’re thoroughly soaked, duck into a cold shower. It’s like a sauna in reverse... and trust me, you’ll appreciate air conditioning much more.

What are you doing to celebrate July?