After the recent rains, I went out to work in the yard to try and get the weeds a bit under control. It's amazing how fast stuff starts to grow with just a bit of extra moisture! I noticed that in one section of the yard, there are these somewhat impressive stalks growing. I think they might be sunflowers. This spot is close to where we had a bird feeder for a while, and the mix we used in the feeder had lots of sunflower seeds. If they're not sunflowers, they're some of the sturdiest weeds I've ever seen. They've grown really tall, really fast. Here's a closer look:Those are sunflowers, right? If they are, I'm delighted. As I mentioned in my flower post a few days ago, sunflowers make me think of my dad. I plan to plant a few different types. So if some want to volunteer themselves, I welcome it. I just hope they'll survive the frost. The coldest weather is still to come. Of course, if they aren't sunflowers I'll feel like a fool.

This is a photo of the spot where I plan to plant my herb garden. This little strip of earth, which is just around the corner from my kitchen window, was where a hedge used to be. The hedge wasn't very pretty to look at, and was ridiculously tall. I didn't like having something that thick and unruly so close to the house. Thick foliage means bugs, and I don't want them in my house. I feel like when we're outside, we're sort of in the insects' domain. We have to learn to live together. But my house is MINE. Bugs will go squish if they come inside. That is the way of things. Anyway, back to the herb garden. I figured this little strip sees plenty of sun, and it's close to the kitchen. Seems like as good an area as any. Of course, right now it has assorted weeds growing in it, so I need to do some work to get it ready. There are also those red tiles on either end, covering sections of the dirt. I'll get those out of the way to maximize the space. So, there's still plenty to do. But it shouldn't take long. In theory.

The herbs I particularly want to grow are rosemary, basil, and cilantro. Though I probably should expand that to include some dill and chives. I'm trying not to bite off more than I can chew as I start out. What other herbs would you have in your ideal kitchen garden? What do you cook with the most?

This is one of our two orange trees. As you can see, there's lots of fruit this year! And the oranges are enormous. Most are the size of softballs. I notice that these oranges have a really thick peel, though. So even though they might look gigantic, the actual fruit part is closer to average. They're delicious and sweet, though. We've had lots of fresh squeezed juice, and oranges to snack on. And, as you can see from the photo, there's still plenty of oranges to enjoy!

But my tree is suffering. We still have problems with white fly. I have some insecticidal soap to use, but I'm hesitant to bother with it now since we've (gasp!) actually had some rain around here lately. I don't want to spray the whole tree only to have the wonders of nature rinse it all off. So I'm waiting until we've harvested the fruit. Then I'll prune the tree, and I'll spray it to help with bugs. White fly isn't the only thing "bugging" this tree, though. In the photo to the left you can see how the leaves are curling and brown, and have kind of a squiggly pattern on some of them. These, according to The Internet, are classic signs of citrus tree miners. It's a moth larvae that burrow between the layers of the leaves. Stupid moths! Go have your babies somewhere else! I'm pretty sure the same insecticidal soap I need to use for the white fly will also take care of the citrus miners.

I guess I should get a book on caring for citrus trees. I bought some special citrus fertilizer, and I'm hoping that with a little extra TLC and maintenance, our two orange trees (and one lemon tree) will flourish. I guess the late winter & early spring are a good time to do maintenance on trees, because it's after the harvest and just before the new buds appear. Here's hoping I get the timing right. I'd hate to further injure or harm the poor thing.

As I start down this gardening path, I'm saying silent prayers that I will have inherited my dad's green thumb. My dad really was pretty amazing with plants - though he never really exercised that talent until the later years of his life. It was when he became a grandfather that he really took an interest in landscaping. He wanted to make the yard and beautiful and safe place where his grandchild could play. He reshaped the whole yard. But the one thing that stands out in my mind the most was how he took little clippings of geranium ivy from a neighbor's plant, and somehow managed to grow them into dozens of plants. He only got a few leaves from the neighbor, and within a year or so, the entire side bank was covered with gorgeous lavender geraniums. There are only a couple patches left, since my mom hasn't really had the time or patience to maintain the flowers since Dad's been gone. Maybe I should take a clipping or two and see if I have a little bit of the same magic within me.

I am, admittedly, kind of foolish when it comes to bottled water. But I'm trying to make some changes. As all those Brita commercials proclaim, thousands of plastic bottles end up in our landfills every year. And even though I'm sure thousands upon thousands of plastic bottles are also recycled, it's better for our planet to cut back on plastics in general. Especially the plastic containers that are not made for continued use. There's also increasing evidence that nasty chemicals can leach into your water from the bottle. So, I went out and bought myself a trusty sports bottle type thing to replace the disposable plastic bottles I'd used before:I've been using bottles like this one for several months now, and I love them. We also have a couple stainless steel water bottles, and other sports bottles around the house. So we've cut back on bottled water in that respect. We still used a lot of bottles during soccer season, though. But I'm hoping to only use sports bottles and reusable bottles in the future.

I feel good about this change, but I'm still a fool. Know why? Because even though we don't buy individual bottles of water, we still buy big 2.5 gallon jugs of Arrowhead water at Costco. We keep them in our fridge. I guess our fear of tap water runs deep. So, we might not have a ton of individual bottles, but we still have these big plastic jugs that we use. Yes, we recycle them. But they're pretty much the least "green" thing about our household. Know why? Not only is it wasteful in terms of the plastic, but it's wasteful in terms of energy. Because they're the kind of jugs that have a little spigot on the end. We keep them in the fridge. When people want a glass of water, or to fill a water bottle, they stand there with the refrigerator door wide open while they do so.

The worst part? When we bought our house, it came with a water softening system AND one of those fancy reverse osmosis water filters:That's right. I have a very expensive filtering system right there under my kitchen sink, and it basically doesn't get used. I need to have people come out to replace the filter on that thing, but otherwise it's perfectly serviceable. And, really, it's an invaluable piece of equipment! WHY are we not taking advantage of it?

So, that's one of my "green" goals: ditch the bottles and use the filter we have!

A few weeks ago, as I know I briefly mentioned in a previous post, a friend and I watched Food, Inc. This movie gave me a lot to think about. I'm sure that's the main objective of these Shock and Awe type movies - give you something that disturbs you enough to think about things in a new way. Watching Food, Inc. made me feel almost the same way I felt when watching An Inconvenient Truth: that while I was not unaware of the problems at hand, the problems were much, much larger and more complex than I realized. In fact, both movies made me feel a sense of helplessness, if I'm being honest. The problems are so big, and I'm just one small person. What can I do? At least each movie had some suggestions at the end. That made you feel a glimmer of hope after the message of DOOM. Maybe I can't do that much to impact the whole problem of massive commercial agriculture and food culture, but eventually a bucket will fill even if it's only a drop at a time. I can do little things. I can be a little more conscientious. I can educate myself and my family. I can try to get the word out. I can make little changes.

But I doubt that I'll get the image of a fistulated cow out of my head. It was one of the most horrible sights I've ever seen. A fistulated cow basically has a hole cut in its side to access one or more of its stomachs so the farmer can assess how it's digesting food. Or something like that. But it's a hole in the side of a cow. The hole is typically ringed with a plastic or rubber collar. But it's a hole straight into their stomach! And there are lots of photos in Google Images showing people who are reaching inside the fistula all the way up to their shoulder. Shoulder deep inside a cow! Disgusting! I'm sure the fistula doesn't really bother the cow that much, after it's initially put in. It's sort of like any stoma. Just keep it clean and it will heal and be fine. But...still. That's a pretty extreme way to monitor your livestock. And then we end up eating said livestock. Bleh.

Anyway, I highly recommend checking out the movie. Just to get you thinking about food and where it comes from. Be part of the change!

Purple carrots. Tell me that's not awesome. I completely love varieties of fruits and vegetables that defy convention. Like these carrots, or purple string beans. Or orange and yellow watermelon! It's just a testament to how amazing and vivid the plant world can be. And it's also a sad reminder of how many varieties of plants fall by the wayside in the wake of commercial agriculture. Most people I know, when I mention purple carrots, are amazed that they even exist. And I admit I was one of those people until I took up an interest in gardening a couple years ago (not that I've done much actual gardening!). I thought for sure my kids would love the idea of purple carrots, too. But they were NOT enthusiastic about it. And since these Dragon Carrots are described as having an "almost spicy" flavor, I was a little nervous about actually enjoying eating them. So, I wimped out and got seeds for regular, orange carrots. But sometime in the future I'll try out the purple ones.

Going through the seed catalogs, there were tons of different vegetables I was interested in trying to grow myself but I felt like I should limit myself since this will basically be my very first garden. I managed to keep 3 cherry tomato plants alive last year, but that's the extent of my gardening thus far. I don't want to take on too much and then end up overwhelmed and failing! So I thought about the items I really wanted. I wanted some Brandywine tomatoes, for sure. My friend Cassie grows them in her garden, and they are DIVINE! I don't even like tomatoes, really. I usually request them off sandwiches and things because I don't like them. But there's something so delicious and downright magical about a homegrown, fresh tomato. Last summer we had a BBQ at my house and Cassie brought her tomatoes. I normally have no tomatoes, but at that BBQ I had two thick slices. There was more tomato on my burger than anything else - bread and meat included! And it was scrumptious. I want that from my garden, too. So I plan to grow some of those. And I got the carrot seeds I mentioned in the last paragraph. I also plan to grown a zucchini or two, but I didn't buy seeds for those. What I did buy seeds for were these:

These are called Boothby's Blonde cucumbers. They on the small side, and supposedly have a thin skin and great flavor. I adore cucumbers. They are by far my favorite vegetable. I don't know what drew me to this particular type. They just looked interesting. I hope they're as delicious and crunchy as I picture them being! This year I'm also hoping to try my hand at pickle making for the first time. The catalog said these cucumbers are good for Bread & Butter Pickles. I usually only like dill pickles. I wonder if these would be okay as dills as well. Guess we'll see! But even if they're just cucumbers for munching on as-is, I look forward to it!

I bought this variety of cucumber especially for pickling. These are called Snow's Fancy Pickling cucumbers. The name says it all! They only get about five or six inches long, and are about an inch across. They're short and chubby, but are supposed to be really good as pickles. Here's hoping that's true! I'm quite excited to try making pickles at home. When I was a kid Grandma Effie used to make pickles at home all the time. She had a big crock that she kept in her pantry. I think she only made sweet pickles. You'd think with all those homemade sweet pickles around that I would have learned to like them, but I certainly did not. Sweet pickles are just wrong. Why have a sweet pickle when you can have a dill? DILL PICKLES 4EVAH!!

This last item isn't a vegetable, but it was still listed along with the vegetables in the seed catalog. So why not? This is a Blacktail Mountain watermelon. I chose this particular heirloom, organic variety of watermelon because it's described as having a reliable crop of melons with seedless, crunchy flesh. Watermelon is pretty much my favorite food, but it needs to be good watermelon. It's a tragedy when you cut into a watermelon and it's mushy or mealy. I like crisp melon. I also don't like fussing with seeds so much when I'm eating them. So this Blacktail watermelon sounded perfect. Cassie tried growing watermelon a couple years ago and said that it was too difficult and she didn't want to do it again. She said it was too hard to know when they're ripe. Too often she'd pick one, only to find it was green inside. Or it would be overripe and moldy. She never knew how to find the perfectly ripe ones. Despite her warnings, I really want to try to grow these. They were raised by a farmer in Idaho, where temps get down into the 40's even in the summer. Supposedly these still do well in hot climates, too. Here's hoping!

So, the seeds are on their way. Now to get the garden into shape so I can plant stuff there! We've been having some crazy wet weather, so the weeds are growing happily! At least with all the rain the ground will be nice and soft so we can pull out the last few stumps of things. I'll post some pictures of the progress!

I put in an order for some stuff from Seed Savers Exchange yesterday! I received several different seed catalogs, but I decided to go with Seed Savers because I want to support their mission of passing along heirloom seeds. Also, they're in Decorah, Iowa which is where my grandmother was born. Chances are good that I'm related to the fine folks running the main farm there. Not that it should make a difference in the grand scheme of things. But I still felt some affection for them, seeing they were in Decorah. So...yeah. Moving on.

I bought seeds for a few different varieties of flowers. I love flowers and our yard is sorely lacking in the color department, especially since my beloved Paraguay Nightshade (aka Potato Vine) was taken out by my in-laws during the Extreme Yard Makeover. So here are a few of the flower packets I purchased:

First, these Valentine sunflowers. My oldest son has wanted to grow sunflowers ever since we moved into our house. I think it's because at the end of my father's life, he always wanted a vase of fresh flowers in the house and sunflowers were some of his favorites. In fact, at the luncheon after his funeral my mom had sunflowers as the centerpieces. Anyway, sunflowers make us all think of my dad, so we'd like to grow some. I really liked this variety because of the pale, lemony yellow petals and also because they're on the smaller side. Valentine sunflowers are supposed to be really good for cutting and putting in a vase.

Next are these Seashell Cosmos. Daisies are my favorite flower, and cosmos, being so tall and colorful are one of my favorite varieties. Wait...cosmos are a variety of daisy, right? I'm actually not sure about that. Well, whatever, they look enough like daisies to me! These Seashell ones really appeal to me because I love the tubular petals! These flowers grow to be four or five feet tall, so I'm expecting them to be really impressive in the garden. The description in the seed catalog says they're really easy to grow from seed, so I'm really hoping that's true!

I also bought a packet of these Benary's Giant zinnias. When I was growing up, my babysitter Effie used to grow zinnias in a flower bed near her front door. They were a really tall flower. Probably just as tall as the cosmos I talked about in the last paragraph. They're beautiful and very colorful, and they make me think of Effie. They're also drought tolerant and resilient, which will be good for our climate. These are also supposed to be really good as cut flowers in a vase. Pretty!

These flowers are called Sweet Alyssum. I didn't even realize these flowers were cultivated until I was an adult. I thought they were a wildflower, because bunches of them volunteer and grow every year in my parents' backyard. I also thought they were always white, until a few purple ones sprouted one year. I was delighted to see this mix, with all different colors of flowers. I think they're lovely and sweet looking, and they remind me of childhood. So I bought some. In fact, I bought a package of 1000 seeds. I know, I know - it's a lot. But I plan to grow some at home, and then plant some at my parents' house, too.

Finally, I bought seeds for these Johnny-Jump-Ups. This is what I thought violets look like, but apparently these are violas. (Don't ask me the difference). Violas, according to the seed catalog, can be used as an edible garnish. That's a fun fact I'll tuck away. These flowers are tiny, but really colorful and pretty. They make me happy. I'm planning to grow these in containers, most likely. Maybe in a big hanging basket by my front door. I'm not sure.

So, those are my flower garden plans for this year! Tomorrow: vegetables!

There's this book called
Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day that I have added and deleted from my Wish List several times over the course of the last year. I have mixed feelings about making my own bread. I have this really inspirational friend (hi, Cassie!) who makes all of her own bread for her family. I think that's awesome. And her bread is delicious. I've made bread a few times in my life, and it's even been edible! So, it's not a matter of IF I CAN make bread. It's a matter of whether or not I want to bother. Especially by following this book, which has you making bread almost every day. See, I don't really like bread. Well, that's not true. I like bread just fine. But at home? I don't really eat it unless I'm having a sandwich, which really isn't that often. We might go through a loaf of bread over the course of two to three weeks. (Which often means it gets moldy before we finish it). But it's rare that we eat more than that. Maybe we'd eat more bread if we had hot, homemade yumminess available. But do we really NEED to eat more bread? If we eat so little of it, would making my own be worth the trouble?

My mom has this cousin from Canada who comes down for a visit every year or so. When he comes, he always baked a ton of bread. And not just bread! He makes cinnamon rolls and muffins and all kinds of delicious things. It all gets eaten eventually. We usually freeze some of the bread/rolls for later. It's tasty, and it doesn't have all the scary artificial stuff that's in store bought bread. Shouldn't I want to provide that for my family? Homemade bread looks and smells so divine. It's the embodiment of home: warm, cozy, and comforting. I like the idea of that. But making bread just so your house smells good sounds silly. And eating a lot of bread just because making it sounds like a good idea doesn't make sense either.

I think that, for me and my family, homemade bread is going to be something that I'll do occasionally. But not every week. At least, not for now. Maybe as things change for us, I'll be inclined to bake more often.

I can't believe it's 2010. That number still sounds like some distant, futuristic year when we'll all be living like the Jetsons. (I'm waiting for my robot maid to arrive!) It's been several months since I last posted, so I figured it was high time to catch up and talk about my plans for the new year.

Last year, I had lots of big ideas for my garden, which never materialized. Though, with the help of my very kind, generous, and slightly insane in-laws we cleared lots of space in the yard where I will eventually plant things. My father-in-law and his wife came to San Diego to visit us in the sweltering heat of August. They spent most of their 3-week "vacation" working in our yard. They trimmed back trees, pulled out dead plants, removed a dying hedge, fixed our fence, got rid of a giant & useless trellis on the east side of our house, built a patio cover, and moved my future grape arbor to a new, sunny spot. Truly, it was an extreme makeover for the yard - and not one we could have possibly handled on our own in such a short period of time. There is still much I want to accomplish in the yard. For example, we still have retaining walls made of crumbling railroad ties that need to be replaced, and I need to beef up the raised beds with decent topsoil. But, overall, I have a blank canvas to work with at long last, and I am so grateful for all the work that was done for us.

In my quest to make more things by hand, I tried making a few of my Christmas gifts last year. I made scarves for several close friends and one for my fabulous sister-in-law. I had been to an employee craft show at work, and one woman was selling scarves she made out of cotton knit fabric. They were super soft like a t-shirt, but still very warm. I was in love! And I also knew I could easily make some myself. So I bought some fabric and got to work. I hand sewed the fringe as well. I was quite pleased with how they came out. It felt good to give a gift that I'd made myself, though I had my usual paranoia that the recipient would hate what I made. I want to try making something for people every year. I don't think I'm quite to the point where I want to give *only* handmade items. But maybe someday. This year for sure I plan to give some homemade preserves. Jams, jellies, syrups, sauces...I don't know what exactly, but I'm going to put those canning skills to use!

Speaking of canning, I was delighted to received a pressure canner for Christmas from my husband's mom, sister and brother-in-law. I can't wait to give it a try. I'm really hoping to make and jar up my own caramel sauce. I don't know why I'm fixated on caramel sauce, but that was one of my main motivations for getting the canner. That, and making pickles. I don't know if you can use a regular hot water bath type canner for pickles, but now I have both types! Hooray for home preserves!

Now that it's January, the seed catalogs are arriving in the mail and I'm looking through them daily, trying to decide what I want to grow in my fledgling garden. There are dozens of things I want to try, but there's no sense in trying to grow everything in my first year. I need to start small. I plan to start an herb garden, for one thing. Some rosemary (to replace my giant rosemary bush that we removed since it was so woody and overgrown), basil, cilantro and parsley. I think those are the main herbs I use in cooking. Maybe eventually I'll branch out and expand. Dill and oregano might be nice to have as well. I also want to try some watermelon, though I might try planting that at my mom's house where there's more sun. There are some nice cucumbers from Seed Savers Exchange that I want to try. Some carrots. Zucchini. Maybe that should be it for veggies. I'd like to try growing berries, but I'm not sure of the variety to choose or which ones grow best here. And I have a few different types of flowers I want to grow. Specifically some sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos and Johnny-Jump-Ups. Is that too many? Can I actually grow all this stuff and keep it alive? Will my water bill cripple us financially? Time will tell!

My husband and I are working toward getting healthier and more fit this year. With our dieting efforts, we've stopped eating out as much and are eating more at home. I enjoy cooking, though sometimes I run out of ideas that are practical from a time perspective. I've been really trying to incorporate more vegetables, and trying to be more aware of eating fruits/veggies that are in season. I'm also trying to cut back on the amount of meat we eat. I watched Food, Inc. a couple weekends ago. It was sobering to say the least. While I was under no delusions that the meat industry was a pretty picture, I didn't realize how bad it really was. The film wasn't just about the meat industry, it also talked about all types of foods. The cheap calories, the preservatives, the artificial junk. It really made me reconsider what I eat, and what I feed to my children. We could eat much better, both in terms of nutrition and in terms of the larger social/ethical issues surrounding food. It gave me a lot to think about. In fact, at first I felt sort of overwhelmed and hopeless. Like the problems are so gigantic, and there's so much to change. Where do I even start? But, much like doing right by the environment, it's all about willingness to change and taking steps in the right direction. Maybe I can't be a perfectly green vegetarian homesteader right now. Maybe I'll never be. But I can try to make better choices, even if they're small ones. Really, I think that's what this blog - what my ambitions - are all about: making progress.