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...