I am so very susceptible to the power of suggestion.

Recently, I noticed a friend of mine had a lovely vintage handkerchief in her bag. She used it to dab some drool off her baby's chin, and so we (there was another friend there at the same time - I'm not using the royal "we") asked her where she got it and if she routinely used handkerchiefs. She said that she has several, and uses them all the time. And then this past weekend, when we were together to see a church broadcast from Utah, I noticed again that she had a pretty handkerchief that she used to hide her face when she got a case of inappropriate giggles during a very serious spiritual discussion.

Anyway, it made me think about how when I was a little girl, I remember my mom had a collection of hankies that she kept in the top drawer of her dresser. Some were floral, some were embroidered, some had scalloped edges. I thought they were neat. And I still think handkerchiefs are cool. They've got such a wonderful old time charm. And, from a green perspective, they're kinder to the earth than using Kleenex, right? Though obviously a handkerchief would be more for dabbing the occasional tear or sniffle and not for any major nose-blowing action. I'm all for saving the earth but I don't need cute little embroidered bundles of snot in my purse.

So, I've been scouting out vintage hankie auctions on eBay because now I have it in my head that I MUST own some handkerchiefs of my own. There are some really lovely little collections out there. And I'm shocked with how popular they are. I think that people cut them up and use them to make quilts and whatnot. I'm also hoping I can convince my mom to give me one of her hankies. She has this purple one with Can-Can girls on it. It must be mine.

I've been receiving emails from various seed companies, telling me that now is the time to start thinking about planting bulbs for the Spring. For some reason, a lot of them are pushing tulips in particular. Now, don't get me wrong - I love tulips. And I'm considering getting this mix of bulbs, which has a fair number of tulips in it, for my side yard:Isn't it so happy and pretty looking? I love all the purples and blues. Anyway, I've always loved spring flowering bulbs. There's something kind of magical about seeing them bloom. It's quite literally watching nature wake up after a long winter's nap. I love it. So, now that I have a yard of my own and some decent time to plan and plant, I definitely want to put some bulbs in the ground. Specifically: I want to plant hundreds of daffodils.And, fortunately for me, you can get whole bushels of daffodil bulbs. Delightful!

I think my love of daffodils in part comes from loving the poem by Wordsworth. In the literary community, I've noticed, not everyone is crazy about Wordsworth. They say he's too verbose, too flowery, too cheesy. Whatever, haters. I LOVE WORDSWORTH AND I AM NOT ASHAMED.

By William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Daffodils are the embodiment of springtime joy. I love them. I love seeing them springing up in gardens. I love seeing them in flower arrangements. I just love daffodils! I'm a little nervous, though, that they won't be very happy in our warm San Diego weather. Daffodils like to freeze. And while I know it works, I don't particularly like storing bulbs in my refrigerator to "force" them. It just feels like cheating.

This weekend I'm hoping to go to the local nursery and purchase a couple of grape plants to put in the back yard. I've been wanting to plant grapes for a while, but I really wasn't sure when the best time to start them would be. Since I was talking with the Master Gardeners about my orange trees (see my previous post), I asked them about grapes at the same time. They said that right now it's still a little too hot to put new plants in the ground, but that I could buy them and keep them on the patio for a while and then plant them when it cools off a bit. Which works out well, since I need to work a bit on building up the soil in the area where the grapes will go. I plan to plant both green and red seedless grapes.

When we moved into out house, there was a wooden structure in the corner of the yard where the previous owner had a big wisteria growing. The wisteria was alive, but it never bloomed. And it was surrounded by lots of dead brush:We worked at cleaning up all the miscellaneous plants and dead things, and eventually that area of the yard looked like this:We have since moved this little arbor thing to a different area. We cut the legs, so it's now only about 5 1/2 feet tall (before it was more like 7 feet). I plan to put green grapes on one side, red on the other, and let them climb up over the top. According to what I've read, you're not supposed to let the plants bear fruit the first year. Instead you're supposed to carefully prune them to help them grow strong, thick vines. Actually, all the articles I read said that you're supposed to "ensure they grow thick, strong wood." But that phrase made my inner 12 year old giggle, so I'll just call them vines. Hee!

Our orange tree is invested with woolly whitefly. It's disgusting and I hate it. This photo shows what woolly whitefly does to the leaves of the orange tree. I also have nasty photos of the white fluffy goop that's also globbed all over the green baby oranges. But those are especially yucky, so I thought I'd spare you. The amount of whitefly yuck seemed to come and go over time. I'm sure it probably has something to do with the season. But every time I would see an improvement I would think that the problem was going away. What can I say? I can be a master of denial sometimes. I'd heard that using a soap solution could take care of the problem. But what kind of soap was I supposed to use? And how was I supposed to apply it to the tree? How long would it take to work? I tried looking around online a bit, but finally just decided to ask the San Diego Master Gardeners.

Apparently, the woolly stuff is the egg casings from the whitefly larvae. There are lots of beneficial insects that prey on whitefly - but those beneficial insects are often chased off and/or killed by ants. There are tons of ants in our orange trees! Apparently, the whitefly suck sap (or whatever it is they eat) from the orange tree, and excrete this stuff called "honeydew." It has a lot of sugar in it that the whitefly get from the tree but cannot digest. The sugar attracts the ants. The ants kill the insects that eat whitefly. So the ant and whitefly have a good thing going, I guess. But I am determined to stop this vicious cycle. The Master Gardeners suggested I use ant bait to get the ants out of the tree. Then they told me the type of soap I needed (a special insecticidal type) and to use a garden sprayer to coat the tree and leaves with it. The soap will kill the whitefly, but won't harm most of the beneficial insects. They also said that it would be good to prune the tree first to open it up so that the soap would get to all the leaves. Because I work all week and can't get to the nursery to look for insecticidal soap, I just went to Amazon and purchased both the soap and a garden sprayer. They arrived a couple days ago, so I'm ready to get to work tomorrow! I'm hoping it will get rid of the whitefly problem and ensure lots of big, healthy oranges for us in the coming year.

I've had my eye on a tumbling compost bin for a while. I know that you don't really HAVE to get any special equipment to start composting. You just make a pile of stuff somewhere in the yard! But we have a smallish yard, and I was concerned about attracting pests (specifically rodents). So I liked the idea of having something enclosed. The Mister and I looked around at several compost bins both in stores and online. I was pleasantly surprised with how enthusiastic he was about getting a compost system started. So, ultimately we decided to purchase the Envirocycle Composter. It's a big drum which collects compost tea at the bottom. I think it's going to be perfect for our family. At least, I hope so! I think it's supposed to be delivered sometime today. Just in time for all the clippings from Saturday yard work!

Back when they were just wee things fresh from the nursery, I said that if I could get just one single tomato from my tomato-growing efforts, I would consider it a success.Success was served on a bed of Romaine with some chopped cucumbers this week! If I'm being honest, the tomatoes were a bit on the bitter side. But you'd better believe I ate them all, and was mighty proud. The Mister looked at me like I was crazy when I was taking photos of my salad. Clearly, he doesn't understand blogging.

I work full time and I have three children. Two of those children are in school, and they both play sports. One of those children is also involved in Cub Scouts. We are all quite active in our church, and spend lots of time with extended family. I'm a one the board of directors for the soccer league. My husband is a league referee. Thus, like most families, we are very, very busy! Thank goodness I have a job that allows me to take breaks - sometimes that's the only "spare" time I have! Because I am so busy, convenience is a big deal for me. For example, I do most of my shopping online. I don't want to spend the time driving around to various stores looking for something, when I could easily find it with just a few keystrokes and then have it delivered to my door within a couple days. When my daughter needed a new soccer ball, and really wanted it to be pretty and yellow, I didn't bother going to any sports stores in town. I just went to Amazon. When I needed a gardening hat, I didn't bother looking around in local stores. I just found what I wanted online and had it delivered. It's convenient.

Convenience plays a part in the foods I eat, too. Stuff that's simple and easy to grab is usually favored over stuff that needs preparation. I'm more likely to grab a couple pieces of fruit leather from the pantry rather than put together a salad. And at night when I need to cook for my family, I'm no stranger to pasta from boxes or Rice-a-Roni. Because they're convenient.

And, really, convenience is a factor in my green efforts, too. It takes effort to change habits. It's not really always convenient to avoid plastic bags. Not always convenient to use the library rather than buy a book. Not always convenient to maintain a garden. Not always convenient to save your kitchen waste for composting. Definitely not convenient to make things from scratch.

After giving it some thought, I'm realizing that "convenience," in my case, has become an excuse for laziness. Yes, I'm a busy person. And sometimes I think that striving for convenience is justified (in other words, I refuse to stop shopping online). But, everyone in their own way is busy. It would be great if everything was easy. However, no one ever made any progress by staying firmly within their comfort zone.

Convenience has been my mantra for too long.

So, remember a while ago when my tomato plants looked like this?They've really grown! Well...they're not exactly huge. But there's been progress. Now they look like this:The one on the left has gotten bigger, but it looks like the bottom part is mostly wilted and dead. The middle one can't decide what it wants to do. I think maybe its pot is too small. It will get flowers, but nothing ever comes of them. I have the most tomatoes on the plant furthest to the right - the tallest one. This week I was delighted to find that a couple of the tomatoes are changing color. One of them is almost entirely red!As I've stated before, when I first started nurturing these plants, I honestly didn't really expect them to stay alive much less produce anything. I had zero confidence in my gardening abilities. Maybe I'll only have two or three tiny grape tomatoes as garnish on a salad, but I'll be mighty proud. You know I'll be taking a picture of that salad for the blog.

The other day when I was at work, I went by the coffee cart to buy a morning scone and they had a dahlia in a vase. Dahlias are such enormous and beautiful flowers!It really made me want to grow some in my own yard. There are several different types, and of course several colors as well. In the Burpee catalog, the big ones are called "dinner plate dahlias." And for good reason - they really are that big! It would be so great to have a bunch of them growing together. It would be an explosion of color in the garden!

In addition to the coffee cart dahlia, I've also been inspired by the flower beds in a few of the gardening blogs I read, like A Gardener in Progress. I've always wanted to plant a few flowers - namely sunflowers, daisies and cosmos - but now I'm thinking that maybe I should try out a few other types. I'm looking through some seed catalogs to get some ideas. They have a lot of variety packs of seeds. Maybe that's the way to go to see what works? I'm also thinking that maybe instead of trying to revive our sad front lawn, maybe I should just tear out most the grass and instead plant flowers and herbs.

So many big gardening ideas...so little time to actually make them happen. But I can dream!

Over the years, I've made several quilts. It started out with what I like to call anarchy quilting, because I didn't measure a darn thing. I just cut fabric into reasonably square-shaped pieces and sewed them together. I didn't care if it looked uneven - I thought it just added to the charm. One year when we decided to make a quilt for my mom for Mother's Day, my younger sister bought a rotary cutter so the squares would be even. After that, I always rotary cut my fabric. But I still was pretty sloppy when it came to putting quilts together. Then a couple years ago, my youngest sister was getting married and I decided I wanted to make a quilt for her. I wanted it to be extra special. An heirloom quilt, if you will. So I bought a pattern (my first one ever!) and set to work. It took me a long time, and I tried to do things by the book. I couldn't believe how much more work it was to make a quilt the right way! I also learned the hidden, ugly secret to good quilting: buttloads of ironing. IRONING! Like, more ironing than I've ever done in my life! But I have to say, I was mighty proud of the results.

My favorite part is the border. It took forever to sew all those little squares together, but it looked so great in the end. I was so proud of that thing. And thus began my semi-obsession with quilting.

Since then, I've made quilts for several other people. Including one Christmas when I went absolutely insane and made quilts for my mom, my two sisters, my sister-in-law, and two of my best friends. All within about a 3 or 4 month period! At least with most of those, I'd bought quilt kits so I didn't have to cut my own fabric. Still, it was a whole lotta work.

Lately, I've been wanting to start quilting again. I bought a couple new patterns, and I have another pattern book on my wish list. Here are some of the quilts I want to make. First, the snail trail quilt pattern. I love this pattern, especially done with all the bright batiks like in this photo. The swirly pattern is so pretty.

Next, the "crazy quilt" or string quilt. They're made of lots of different scraps sewn together, and it's a great way to use up extra fabric - especially those awkward left over bits you don't know what to do with, but don't want to throw away. I just love these type of quilts.I've made many of these quilts before (almost all of the Christmas quilts I made that one year were string quilts, since I love them so). But never with this particular configuration. I really like that inner border. I'd like to make one like this to go in my living room. All in blues and browns to tie the color scheme together.

I also want to learn to make these puzzle quilts. I think they might require a foundation piece, though, which doesn't thrill me. But it might be worth the hassle to make something so cute.

Here's a photo from a quilt kit I recently bought on eBay. I decided that I wanted a Christmas quilt of my own, and I thought this one looked pretty. I like the little triangle border. (I'm a big fan of flashy border pieces!)I like that it's a scrappy quilt. I like the look of a lot of different fabrics together. I also love quilt kits because all the pieces are pre-cut and measured for you. It's just a matter of putting it all together! In theory that should make it quick and easy...but it still takes forever. (Because of the ironing involved!)

The problem now, of course, is finding the time to complete all these projects. I can barely find time to hang picture frames on my blank walls, much less spend hours hunched over at the sewing machine. I have a huge plastic tub in my garage that's full of quilt tops and fabric from the many ambitious sewing projects I've tried to undertake over the last couple years. But it's not like you see a bunch of pretty, completed quilts around my house! So...yeah. I get big ideas, and generally don't have the time/motivation to complete them. Kind of reminds me of my dieting efforts, come to think of it.

One of my all-time favorite restaurants is Buca di Beppo. We stumbled on this restaurant while on vacation with my family. We were at Universal Studios, and my sister who is a very picky eater wanted Italian food. So we tried Buca, not having ever heard of it before (even though it's a national chain). We loved their family style dining and fun atmosphere. But what we especially loved was the Chicken with Lemon. It has this buttery lemon sauce that's simply to die for. And I'd looked around for a recipe for quite some time, never finding one that quite duplicated the original. I even tried writing to Buca's corporate office to see if I could weasel the recipe out of them. No luck.

But, the internet is a wild and wonderful place. You can find almost anything if you're willing to look hard enough. Fortunately, I didn't really have to look very hard this last time. Apparently others out there were looking for the same recipe, found it, and then wanted to share. And now I'm paying it forward. Because this recipe? Awwwwwesome.

I made this with fresh lemons from my tree. I didn't have capers on hand, and my family usually doesn't like them anyway. Since the recipe is for 2 servings, I doubled everything. Actually, I cooked 6 chicken breasts. It worked well. Plenty of sauce. A word to the wise: if you're like me and love lemons, you might be tempted to put some extra lemon in there. Don't go overboard. The recipe is good as-is. If you add too much extra lemon, it gets really tart. I still liked it, but the wee ones in my family did not.

Happy cooking!

Buca's Chicken with Lemon

2 x boneless skinless chicken breasts (6 oz ea) pounded to 1/2 inch
Salt to taste
1 cup flour
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
4 large lemons
1/2 stk unsalted butter softened
A small handful drained capers

Cut three lemons in half and use for fresh lemon juice. Cut the last lemon into wedges for garnish.

Begin to heat the olive oil in a 12-inch saute pan on medium-high heat. While oil is getting hot, lightly season both sides of the chicken breasts with salt. Lightly dust the chicken breasts in the flour. Shake off excess flour. Place chicken in the saute pan.

When the chicken is golden brown, turn over and brown the other side as well. It is important to brown both sides to insure the chicken is completely cooked through. When both sides are nice and brown, add white wine and lemon juice. Continue to cook for approximately two to three minutes. The liquid should reduce approximately half.
Once the liquid is reduced, remove the chicken breasts from the pan and turn off heat.

Finish the sauce by placing the softened butter in the pan. Using rubber spatula, work the butter into the sauce as it melts. Pour sauce directly on top of chicken breasts. Garnish with capers and lemon wedges.

This recipe yields 2 servings.

A while ago, I posted about how I thought I'd killed my rose bush when I moved it from its previous location into a large plastic container. We're planning to overhaul the area where the rose was previously growing, and I wanted to move it before we reached the true dog days of summer. Of course, when I did that all the leaves and rose buds withered and eventually died. I was sure there was no hope for the rose. But I kept dutifully watering it, and my sister-in-law (who is no slouch in the gardening department) gave me a few tips. She suggested I actually strip all the dead and dying leaves off the plant. I thought this was a bad idea, but I knew that I was a novice when it came to growing roses. So I trusted her advice. The bare rose looked pretty sad. Here's a photo I took today:I took the photo to show how sad it was without leaves. But, much to my surprise - there's new growth! It's coming back!! I'm so excited! I didn't kill it after all!
And, even more exciting - there are actual tomatoes on my tomato plants! They're very small, and very green. But they're real tomatoes! I've grown something! Success!! Here's s photo of my one, single cherry tomato:Here is a photo of my unlabeled tomato plant. I have no idea what kind it is - just that it's the tallest one of the bunch. And there are a ton of wee tomatoes on it. So exciting!!I've been thinking a lot lately about how I put off planting anything this season because I wanted to spend some more time getting the garden ready. I think I missed an opportunity. I could have easily grown a single zucchini plant in a container. One zucchini plant would grow plenty for our family (since I'm the only one who's really crazy about them...everyone else just sort of tolerates them when I add them to dishes). I could have tried cucumbers, onions, beans, herbs...I really should have done more with containers! So, this winter - whether I have a proper gardening area or not, I'm planting some stuff. This is my resolve!

When I was a little girl, both my parents worked full time so I went to a home daycare. Of course, back then they weren't called day cares. She was Grandma Effie, and as far as I was concerned, I was part of her family. I was closer to her than I ever was with my actual grandmothers, who both lived in Minnesota. So most of my happy, grandma-related memories were of Effie. Who, technically speaking, was simply a lady who made her living by babysitting me all day. But she was very, very dear to me. Actually, saying that feels like a gross understatement. She died when I was 16. The grief of that loss will never leave me. Anyway, at her house, I remember she had this tree. I always thought it was so lovely. The branches were thin and willowy, and the tree had these beautiful purple flowers with yellow centers. When we bought our house last year, I was pleased to see the same type of tree growing on the East side of the front yard. They're pretty, and they make me think of Effie. So I adore them.

I did a rather extensive Internet search today trying to figure out what they're called. Do you know how hard it is to identify a plant when all you can type in the search bar is "purple flowering tree?" I looked at a bunch of pictures, figuring that would be the best way to zero in on what I needed. I love the Internet so much, you guys - because of course I found it. Apparently, it goes by several names: Blue Potato Bush, Paraguay Nightshade, Blue Lycianthes, Royal Robe, or Lycianthes rantonnetii. I think the ones that I see around here in San Diego are probably Blue Potato Bush. But I prefer Paraguay Nightshade. It sounds sexy, doesn't it? Nightshade makes me think of a character from Something Wicked This Way Comes. I loved that book! Um...where was I?

Oh, yes. My Paraguay Nightshade. Right now, it is situated at the southwest corner of my house. It's kind of tucked into the corner where our fence begins. Sort of on the back side of where our chimney is located. Sure, you can see it from the front of the house, but it's kind of part of the backdrop. I want it to be more of a feature in the yard. So, I have this idea of moving it into the front yard. Maybe building a little raised bed for it. Like with a circle of these type of blocks:I think it would look nice, don't you? The tree right now leans over because it was planted close to the house, and was never staked or anything to grow straight. If I move it and put a raised bed around it, maybe I can reposition it so that it's straight? Or straighter, at least? The thing is...I have no idea how to move a tree. How far down would I have to dig? What kind of roots does it have? A big rot ball? Or lots of spindly things going all over the place? I need to do some research, and maybe contact the Master Gardeners for advice. Here's hoping it will all work out. I love that tree!

We have a little arbor thing in the back yard that one day I hope will be a grape arbor. For now, it's just a wooden structure without any real purpose. I decided to hand a bird feeder there. I thought it would make a nice addition to the yard, and the kids were excited to see how many birds actually came around. It took a few days before any birds noticed there was food to be had. But they figured it out! When I first filled the feeder, it took about a week for them to empty it. Now it takes about 24 hours. There are several feathered friends who visit every day. My favorite are these birds with red chests. I don't know what type they are. My sister in law said they're probably finches.
It's neat to wake up in the morning hearing songbirds outside the window. I like welcoming the birds, though I must admit they're pretty messy. We have seed all over the place. Good thing we haven't planted anything over there. No water means no seeds are germinating. I heard that if you microwave the seed before putting it in the feeder it will prevent it from sprouting. But something in me feels like that's almost genetically altering the seeds for my convenience. How does microwaving the seeds affect the birds? So, I just let them make a mess for now. My tune will change once I get around to planting stuff.

About a month ago, my son came home from his weekly Cub Scout meeting with some potted plants. These were the first plants we were going to introduce to our garden, so I really wanted to take care of them. He came home with one pot of marigolds, and three tomato plants. The tomato plants were still in the plastic containers you get at the nursery. Not in proper pots/containers. But they seemed to be doing fine. We watered them and made sure they got plenty of sun.

The flowers on the marigolds shriveled after a few days, and my son was sure that this meant the plant had died. I explained that it was just the flowers that had died, and that more would come if we took care of the plant. So we kept watering. Now the new flowers have bloomed, and it seems to be thriving.Here are the three tomato plants. We transplanted them into these pots because I'm concerned the soil in this area is too sandy. Plus, we're going to be starting some projects back there (like the new retaining wall that I mentioned previously), and I wanted to be able to move the plants if needed. The three different plants are cherry tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, and one that wasn't labeled. They seem to be doing okay, but not many flowers on them. And no sign of any tomatoes. I figure if they're still green and growing, there's still time.
Even if we only get a couple small tomatoes to put on top of a salad, I'll consider it success!

My dear friend Cassie says she has cucumber plants and melon plants to give me. She had too many starts to put in the ground. I'm excited to take them off her hands, but I have no idea where to actually plant them. Or if I can keep them alive. I don't have much confidence in my gardening abilities. But we'll see!

When we bought this house, there was a weird little rosebush in the back yard. Actually, I shouldn't call it "little" because it was just as tall as I am. But I definitely think it's reasonable to say it was a weird rosebush because it was one single shoot. You know how there are usually several canes on a rosebush? This one was like one single stalk with a ball of leaves and flowers at the top. But it bloomed with these gorgeous pink flowers:It was growing in kind of a strange spot in the garden, right in front of a makeshift retaining wall that was made from railroad ties. The railroad ties were all rotten and ugly, and the one just behind the rosebush finally gave way. So there was a bit of a dirt avalanche. I figured it would be a good time to move the rosebush to a different location. Both to showcase it properly, and also to get it out of the way since we plan to rebuild the wall very soon.

I have never grown roses before and had no idea how to go about digging one up. Does it have deep roots? Wide ones? Are they really sensitive? I consulted with my sister-in-law who has several gorgeous thriving rosebushes in her garden. She gave me some tips AND a container to put the rosebush into while we decide where its final home will be. So I felt like things would be okay. I dug around the rosebush and found two large roots. One I dug up without difficultly. The other was going at an angle sort of up and into the retaining wall. I did the best I could, trying to ease it out of there. But I still snapped off the last 4 or 5 inches of root. I worried about what this would do to the plant. I filled the container with dirt and gave it a good soaking. Then I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The next day I went out to look at the rose, and found that all the newish growth (including, sadly, two new canes that were forming at the bottom of the plant) were all drooping. The plant did not look happy. I keep hoping that maybe it's just the initial trauma of moving the plant, but I don't know. I'm so sad to see all the new rosebuds dying.

I hope it comes back. I know I'm new to gardening, so I expect some mistakes. But I still hate to see plants die in my care. Think there's any chance those rosebuds could still make it?

A few months ago, my friends taught me how to make jam. I'd wanted to learn for a long time, but was very intimidated. Mostly, I was afraid of boutilism poisoning. I'd read these horror stories about not having properly prepared jars, and I was just sure I'd end up messing things up and killing my loved ones. But once I was shown how it was done - and how you basically boil the jars after filling to kill any nasty bacteria that might be lurking in there - I said good-bye to my fears. And hello to some of the most delicious jam I've ever had.

I don't really remember having homemade jam around the house growing up. It wasn't something my mom made. And, to be honest, I don't normally eat a lot of jam. Maybe on the occasional piece of toast or in a PB&J. That's about it. So I thought there was no way I'd ever get to the end of my 12 half-pints of strawberry jam. I gave a few jars away to family members, but kept most for myself. And, amazingly enough, we went through it all within about 6 weeks! I found that I'd seek out reasons to eat jam. I had it on pancakes, on ice cream, and on cheesecake. It was so delicious! And when we ran out (actually, we're almost to the end of the last jar...not quite finished), I knew I needed to make some more.

The past two nights, I've made jam. On my own! No friends to guide me. I made one batch of triple berry jam (raspberries, strawberries and blackberries), one mixed berry (raspberry & blackberry), and one of plain raspberries. I felt such a wonderful sense of accomplishment. And the jam is simply delicious. Especially the mixed berry. Here is what the jam looked like as it was cooking. Isn't it the most beautiful ruby red color? The mixed berry was my favorite. With that batch, I filled the jars and found I had just a bit left over. Not enough to fill a jar. So I put it into a small bowl and stuck it in the fridge. The next morning I tasted it, and it was so good I ended up eating it out of the bowl with a spoon. So delicious and sweet! And it set nicely, too. Not as runny as my strawberry jam had been.So, the kitchen smells of berries and my jam cupboard is full! My dear friend Cassie has access to an apricot tree and I'm hoping to maybe get my hands on some for jamming purposes. I also got a book about homemade preserves from the Ball Canning Company. It has lots of cool recipes. It gets me thinking about all the many things I could make and then preserve. Spaghetti sauce and salsa sound especially good to me. There's even a recipe for a lemonade concentrate!

I feel like I'm learning a really valuable skill. Delicious food with no scary preservatives or chemicals. Next, I'm going to attempt to make yogurt. This great blog I found (Old School) has a recipe for making yogurt from powdered milk. I definitely want to try it. I also want to start making more bread at home. But one thing at a time.

We've lived in our house for almost a year now. I can't believe how the time has flown by. When we moved in, I had these big plans for the yard. I still have those big plans, but now they are tempered by a more realistic idea of how long it takes to get yard work done. Sometimes I wonder if we'll ever get it all accomplished. Will I ever have the garden of my dreams?

I guess our improvement projects are going to get a little bit of momentum soon, because my father-in-law is driving down from Idaho later this summer. He and his wife plan to "help" in our yard during their 2 to 3 week visit. They asked for photos of our yard, and what we wanted done. Of course, I have a laundry list of things I want done - not one discreet project. So I discussed that with them. Now I feel like their plans to "help" are spinning a little out of control. Like they really plan to take the reins on things. They've even talked to my sister-in-law, Wendy, about what we should do with our yard. And what she'd do if it were her yard. Wendy has a really beautiful yard, and I know that she took a lot of time to meticulously plan things. But I also know that what she wants in a yard/garden and what I want are very different. She and I have some different priorities. So I don't really think that she needs to be the consultant on this. Not that I'm really in a position to complain, right? Someone is willing - and actually WANTS - to come help me with manual labor. I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, right? And yet, I feel a little defensive and wary when my father-in-law emails me about the yard. I'm not sure I'm going to like how this all pans out.

Things I Want Accomplished in our Yard:
  • Rebuild the unstable sections of fencing on the west side
  • Replace the fallen gate on the west side
  • Remove weird trellis/mister thing from the west side
  • Rebuild retaining wall on east side with bricks/blocks
  • Remove existing plans (everything except the orange and lemon trees)
  • Build raised bed for planting (with a brick/block border)
  • Level the yard
  • Replace dead/dying grass with sod, or reseed
  • New sprinklers for the front yard

Things I Want to Plant Once the Yard is in Shape:

  • Grapes (both green and red seedless)
  • An apple tree
  • Blackberries
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Zucccini
  • Herbs (esp. Basil, Rosemary, Parsley & Cilantro)
  • Watermelon
  • Lavender
  • Assorted flowers (esp. sunflowers & cosmos)

Last Friday we decided we were going to learn to make our own cheese. This is part of what I hope will be kind of a series of learning experiments. They taught me how to make jam a few months ago when we had a bunch of strawberries on hand. This time cheese! We were inspired by a few passages in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that talk about cheesemaking. We followed Barbara Kingsolver's advice and got a cheesemaking kit from cheesemaking.com, gathered our ingredients and got to work.The cheesemaking kit that made things relatively simple. There was a booklet (with hilarious illustrations, like the goat in a graduation cap & gown) with recipes. We chose 30 minute mozzarella. It seemed straightforward enough. You start with a gallon of milk, add some citric acid and some rennet (a cheesemaking enzyme), separate curds from whey and voila! Cheese! So, we begin! Here we are warming the milk to a cozy 90 degrees. So far so good!
In this photo, the curds are starting to separate from the whey. We were instructed to slice the top curd into little cubes. (Insert your own "cut the cheese" joke here).
Now the mixture is sort of like soupy, lumpy yogurt. Are we really going to get cheese from this stuff? At this point, I have to admit I was having my doubts. Also, might I add, this is the point where the cheese-to-be started smelling less than appetizing.
In this photo the cheese had progressed to a new level. See what it looks like? It smells the same way.
Here the cheese has reached the point where we separated out the curds with a slotted spoon. It's ready for the next phase! We poured most of the mixture through some cheesecloth (who knew?) to separate everything. I wasn't sorry to see the whey go down the drain. One friend pointed out that some folks like to use whey when they make pizza dough. She even initially was trying to save it. But there was quite a bit of whey - more than we initially thought. So she let most of it go down the drain. We might save it next time.

After separating the curds, we had to heat them in the microwave a couple times, and then pull them like taffy. The recipe book suggested wearing rubber gloves to protect you from the heat. The ones we wore (I'm not sure if these came in the kit or not) were more like surgical gloves and didn't protect us from the heat at all. And, unfortunately, using the gloves made our cheese taste like latex. Disappointing.
Here is the finished product - our cheese blob. It was so cool seeing how it changed from lumpy curds to smooth, shiny cheese.After this point, we rolled them into string cheese type logs, wrapped them in plastic wrap, and chilled them in a bowl of ice water. This helped the cheese set up nicely.
Here, Cassie tries the finished product. She looks happy, but after we took this photo she stated rather adamantly that she would not eat the latex flavored cheese and threw hers away. Can't say I blame her.
So, for our first try, I think it went rather well. I mean, other than the fact the cheese wasn't exactly palatable. It was still cool to go through the process and see everything come together! We'll definitely try it again sometime in the near future.

This experiment with cheese also made me think of the times in the past when I made my own yogurt. I'd read about how to do it in a magazine or book, though I can't really remember which one. It's a fairly simple process, and I used a crock pot set on "warm" to keep the yogurt at a good temperature while it did its thing. It's been a long time since I've made some, but I think I'll have to start again. Baby steps toward sustainability and self-sufficiency!

Now if only I could get my garden started...

At the end of last year, during my brief stint in a book club, I had the pleasure of reading Barbara Kingsolver's fab book
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life. The book chronicles Kingsolver's attempt to raise and eat only foods that she and her family raised themselves, or were locally grown. In addition, it also talks about the farming industry, the commercialization of food, where our food comes from, the resources that are used to get it to markets, and the nutritional ramifications of food commerce. It really gave me a lot to think about. It made me take a long hard look at my relationship with food, and how much I take for granted.

The book points out how fruits and vegetables being available at the grocery store year-round has made us all lose touch with our agricultural roots (no pun intended). Which is totally true. Sure, I know that oranges are in season in the middle of winter (since we have our own trees), and that Fall is typically "harvest time." But I had no idea when, say, onions should be planted or harvested. I honestly didn't have any idea. I am a typical big city American consumer. Totally out of touch with how nature works, except in the modern, commercialized way. That's not how it should be.

The first chapter of the book talks about asparagus. Now, I've seen asparagus throughout my life. I knew what it looked like, even though I admit I didn't actually eat it regularly until I was an adult. But until I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I really didn't know much about asparagus. I didn't know that the asparagus we see in grocery stores, the stuff we actually eat, is just ONE DAY'S GROWTH. It's the first little sprout that comes up out of the ground. Asparagus has to be harvested every day. Or else the little triangular bits at the top of the spear start to become little branches. Asparagus, if it's left alone, becomes a lovely ferny little tree with red berries on it. I literally had no idea. I also didn't know that asparagus is really an investment, at least in terms of time. You have to leave asparagus alone for three years after it's planted. You cannot harvest it, because the plant will get depressed and die. It needs time to grow and become well established. Even after it's well established, it's recommended that you only harvest asparagus for a few weeks. Then you need to leave the plant alone to do its thing. It needs to become the ferny thing in order to be happy and thrive. Three years of tending to asparagus before you get anything edible out of it. Now that's dedication!

I admit I'm out of touch with gardening and the concept of food "seasons." In the book, Barbara Kingsolver has a picture of something she calls The Vegetannual. It's an illustration that basically depicts a hypothetical plant that provides all plant foods, from roots to fruits, in sequence. First it puts out fresh leaves, then flowers, then seeds and fruits; in the fall, it plumps up the bigger fruits and stores sugars in its roots for winter. So the first vegetables in the spring will be greens - lettuce, kale, etc - herbs, and garlic; followed by the early stems such as rhubarb, asparagus, and green onions. Then come the "flowers," which include head lettuces, broccoli, and cauliflower. Mid-summer, the seeds and fruits will show up: peas, green beans, raspberries and strawberries, summer squash, tomatoes, cucumbers. Late summer brings the bigger fruits, such as melons, peppers, and corn. Fall is the time for apples, winter squashes, pumpkins, and the tubers such as potatoes and yams. Of course, I'm sure there are adjustments for Southern California weather. But those are the Vegetannal basics.

The main thing I took from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that food has an ethical component to it that I had never really considered. In summer, the oranges are the grocery store are flown in from Australia. Think of all the money and resources it takes to get them here. And, sadly, think of how foods are now raised - often genetically engineered - not so much to have excellent taste, but just to look good at the market and to endure the shipping process. What is that doing to us from a nutritional standpoint? And from a global standpoint? As I endeavor to be have a "greener" lifestyle, I have to consider these things. So, I am trying to eat foods that are in season. I'm trying to start my own garden. And I'm trying to buy more locally rasied foods. These are small changes. But I think they're steps in the right direction!