Garden Musings

Despite visits from aphids, stink bugs, leaf hoppers, earwigs, slugs, cucumber beetles, and squash vine borers, last year we had our very first “successful” garden since getting married. (Not moving, living out of state and/or having serious medical issues all summer definitely helped!)

The snow has melted (at least the latest round), leaving the bare mulch-covered garden plots beckoning for me to come play in them. Months of severe winter cold have intensified my spring planting fever.

As I cozy up with seed catalogs, here are a few tips from one budding gardener to another.

Petunias-a lovely companion plant (photo credit)

Plant beautiful things, not just practical- a dear friend of mine and I were pouring over the Baker Creek seed magazine last spring while we day-dreamed about our gardens. Hers was going to be lovely, with dahlias and zinnias stealing the limelight and vegetables conveniently tucked in between them. My garden? It was going to be as practical as could be.

“Anna! Look at these beautiful flowers!” my friend said, “You CAN’T just plant vegetables! Make it beautiful, not just practical.”

I did. Sort of. I lined the garden with marigolds, petunias and zinnias (all of which are supposed to be highly beneficial for the vegetables in the garden, making them practical and beautiful choices.)

The flowers did more than just attract good bugs to fight the myriad of bad bugs attacking our garden though. Each time I looked down at the garden from my bedroom window, it was the brilliant yellow marigolds and soft pink petunias that made me want to pull out the gardening tools and play in the dirt. Beauty attracted me and encouraged me to care for the more practical things, like tomatoes or squash.

Finish what you start

Normally spring finds me dreaming of gardens and drawing and redrawing garden plans. As spring gives way to the heat of summer and bugs and heat battle for control of the garden, it’s harder to keep motivated.

Plan from the beginning to finish strong. Usually, at the end of season I let the garden debris sit for at least a month before tackling it. Sometimes it sits until springtime. This time I cleaned up the garden the day after our first hard frost. The experience was amazing. Every time I looked out the window on the nicely mulched beds it made me excited for spring to come again.

Dead-head your flowers

Much like in life, leaving a spent flower on the plant saps nutrients from going to form fresh flowers. I had no idea the difference that dead-heading flowers makes until this past year! Regularly snipping off the dead flowers kept the plants blooming beautifully all summer long. (If you’ve got littles, dead-heading is a great job for them to do supervised. They get to learn about gardening *and* use scissors. Total win.)

Surround yourself with experienced gardeners

Wise gardener friends, beautiful blogs like Deep Roots at Home, and inspiring books like “One Magic Square” (read my review here) make gardening an even more delightful experience.

Don’t Expect Perfection

Unless you have a really green thumb, use loads of pesticides and/or have a full-time gardener in your employ, don’t expect perfection. In One Magic Square, Lolo says to expect at least one crop to fail, others to do so-so and a few to do splendidly.

Even if you follow all the right steps, some years you just might not get calendula to grow. Even if you plant it four times. Supposedly it’s one of the hardiest fail-proof plants in the garden. Not my garden. At least not last year. Maybe this year I’ll have better success.

Plant Herbs

If you have time for nothing else, buy a few herbs and stick them in the ground. With the exception of calendula, the herbs I planted could hardly have been simpler to grow and it was so rewarding to step out and pick fresh parsley or basil to garnish a meal or add a few sprigs of fresh thyme or rosemary to a sauce.

Track Your Harvest

When we harvested our first ripe cucumber, we marked a tally on an empty “Produce From Our Garden” list. As the garden grew and we brought in a basket bursting with produce, we’d make tallies on the sheet: five tomatoes, two cucumbers, two squash, etc.

Real gardeners feel free to laugh, but it was such a fun way to see just how the garden did. The only problem was that when we showed Joshua our list, he realized just how little of the produce lasted till dinner time for him to enjoy with us. (Really, I’m grateful the kids love vegetables, but they’d gladly eat a basketful of vegetables each day!)

Around the time Edmund joined our family we lost track, but the tally marks had already proved the garden a smashing success. (Not that there’s really such a thing as a failed garden.)

Linked up at Mama MomentsGrowing HomeHealthy 2DayFrugal Days, Sustainable Ways,Works for MeWalking RedeemedGraced SimplicityProverbs 31, & Simple Lives

[Full disclosure: links to some products in this post are my referral links.]

 

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Want to fill your kitchen with heavenly scents? Want to create something fun and excellent quality and out of the ordinary to use in your own kitchen or give as a gift?

Make homemade vanilla.

It’s so simple and one of those fun projects that I’ve been wanting to do for ages. We were given a lovely bottle for Christmas two years ago but I’d used and reused the vanilla beans till there wasn’t any life left in them.

I bought fresh vanilla beans before Christmas and finally pulled them out of the cupboard.

Given the fact that it took all of fifteen minutes (and made the kitchen smell amazing for hours and hours) it’s pretty ridiculous it took this long to make!

Vanilla beans and alcohol= delicious pure vanilla extract

There are a whopping two ingredients you’ll need for your homemade extract: vanilla beans and alcohol. Can’t get much simpler than that….you just have to choose what kind of beans and what kind of alcohol.

Vanilla beans: there are several kinds of vanilla beans, but Bourbon (also known as Madagascar) is the popular scent we’d all instantly recognize as vanilla and the type I bought. Then there’s two grades: A and B. Grade A beans have more oil and are considered better for cooking. However, the grade B beans are generally preferred for making extract.

[I ordered my vanilla beans here or you can order certified organic and fair trade vanilla beans here.]

Alcohol: vodka, bourbon, tequila…any should work fine (just don’t use inedible rubbing alcohol!) I made one batch with vodka and one with bourbon to experiment. The bourbon lends a fun bourbon-esqe flavor, but if you’re after the true vanilla flavor, vodka is the way to go.

 (Whew, how’s that for making a simple recipe a bit more complicated!)

For a strong vanilla extract, use 1/4 pound of beans (approx. 25 beans, but it can vary a lot) to 1 quart of alcohol.

Slice the vanilla beans down the center, leaving them attached at the end if you think it looks pretty.

Place in clean glass jar. Cover completely with alcohol. Screw the lid on tightly and store for one to six months in a cool dark place stirring regularly (daily…or weekly…or whenever you happen to remember.)

Label and date, at least if you tend to forget exactly what and when you bottled as quickly as I do.

Start using when the extract smells vanilla-y enough to you. As you use the vanilla, you can add more alcohol. The vanilla won’t be as strong, but I kept reusing the vanilla beans we were given till they lost most of their potency.

Once they’re satisfactorily extracted don’t throw them away! Turn the beans into vanilla sugar. [Recipe coming soon.]

Linked up at Mama MomentsGrowing HomeWalking RedeemedGrace Simplicity, & Proverbs 31

 [Full disclosure: links to some products in this post are my referral links.]

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Pain Free: Works for Me

A few months ago my neck was so stiff I could scarcely move it. I tried not to wince when one of the kids gave me a hug. Holding baby Edmund hurt. Moving hurt, but so did laying down. I woke up in the night in pain and tossed and turned for ages trying to find the least painful position. The pain was so intense that I felt nauseous.

I’m not sure what caused the neck pain. Maybe it was flare-up from a fender bender I was in several years ago. Maybe it was falling forward down the stairs when I was pregnant and landing with a thud on my left hand. Maybe it was simply from carrying a cute chubby baby around for hours each day.

Whatever the cause, the symptoms went from occasional tenseness to sharp pain and stiffness that flared up and then lingered for days. I felt eighty, not twenty-eight.

I went to the chiropractor, took warm baths in epsom salts, and rested with cold packs. The relief was temporary. Pain medicine barely took the edge off.

Then I remembered a book that a good friend had recommended: Pain Free. I’d ordered Pain Free for Women* months ago, but let it sit on the shelf untouched until the pain simply got unbearable.

I turned to the first page and started reading. At first I was skeptical, but as I kept reading, the case Pete Egoscue made grew more and more convincing. Unlike our ancestors, he argued, most of us lead sedentary lives. What little movement we do get is often repetitive. Even many of our sports and exercises only work small groups of muscles.

After spending countless hours pouring over school books or hunched over computers, our posture is compromised and our core musculoskeletal structures are highly taxed. That, Egoscue claims, leads to chronic pain and other problems.

The solution, he says, is simple. Instead of masking the symptoms, we need to correct the underlying problems with our alignment.

It seemed too simple. How could lying on my back with my knees bent over a chair and my arms stretched out help my neck? But like Naaman’s servants urged him, “If he’d asked you to do something hard, wouldn’t you have done it in order to be healed?” Of course.

The results astounded me.

After doing the neck exercises from Pain Free just once, I could move my neck and the pain was almost 100% gone.  That night I slept soundly and woke up feeling incredibly refreshed.

Egoscue recommends doing the exercises daily and not listening to music or audio. Just do the exercises and listen to your body’s signals.

I haven’t always been able to fit 20-30 minutes of quiet exercises into the day, but whenever I can it has been time well spent!

Not only am I pain free, after regular struggles with insomnia, now when I go to bed I fall asleep almost instantly. When I get woken up in the night, I don’t lay there for hours wishing for sleep, I just go back to sleep. After over a decade of not being able to wear mascara or put my hair up without getting a headache, I’ve done both. My poor posture has improved dramatically. Plus, it forces me to “be still” for a few minutes in the midst of a noisy world.

Needless to say, I’m stoked at the amazing results I’ve had. Although Egoscue claims that our spine and hips, which are incredibly designed to bear our weight without pain, are the result of lucky evolution, I think it’s just one more reason to praise and worship our Creator.

Each of our bodies are different, but if you’re in chronic pain, I’d  highly recommended trying out Pain Free.

(Aneysa and Abigail, my very hearty thanks for your recommendations!)

 Linked up at Mama MomentsGrowing HomeEncourage One AnotherHealthy 2DayFrugal Days, Sustainable Ways,Works for MeWalking RedeemedGraced SimplicityProverbs 31Natural Living, & Simple Lives

[Full disclosure: links to some products in this post are my referral links.]

*Pain Free deals with specific areas of pain, while Pain Free for Women deals more with overall women’s maintenance.

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Some sore throats aren’t that big a deal. But then there’s the kind that leaves you wincing every time you have to swallow or talk or breathe.

It was that kind of sore throat that made me gather up the courage to try Rosemary Gladstar’s “Good Gargle for a Bad Throat” from her excellent book Medicinal Herbs. Rosemary jokes that people get addicted to this nasty concoction because it works so well.

It sure worked for me.

I’m definitely not dying to have another sore throat so I can put it to work again, but am glad to have an herbal remedy at my finger tips that soothes the pain and helps the throat heal amazingly quickly, even if it is quite nasty!

Sage Leaf Rubbed, Organic

Sage fights colds and relaxes the mucous membranes (from the Bulk Herb Store)

I am not a doctor or a nurse. The only hospital I have ever worked at is a doll hospital. There, a band-aid can cure a heart attack. As always, please do you own research and talk to your health care provider if your condition is serious. 

Good Gargle for a Bad Throat

adapted from Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 T. dried sage
  • 1 tsp goldenseal root
  • 1 T. sea salt
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 cup unpasteurized apple cider vinegar

Instructions

  1. Boil water. Steep the sage and goldenseal [If the goldenseal is in its root form. If it's powdered wait.] for 30-45 minutes, keeping covered. Strain.
  2. Add remaining ingredients.
  3. Gargle 1-2 teaspoons for as long as you can stand every 30 to 60 minutes until the sore throat abates.

 Linked up at Mama MomentsGrowing HomeEncourage One AnotherHealthy 2DayFrugal Days, Sustainable Ways,Works for MeWalking RedeemedGraced SimplicityProverbs 31Natural Living, & Simple Lives 

[Full disclosure: links to some products in this post are my referral links.]
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How to Make Kefir Water

Lime flavored kefir water, garnished with fresh mint. 

When a dear friend offered me a glass of homemade kefir water, all sorts of alarms sounded in my mind.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. It sure wasn’t a drink that tasted like an amazing sparkling limeade.

What exactly is kefir water? It’s a slightly sweet carbonated drink that’s simply bursting with probiotics. You make it by letting kefir “grains” (a gel-like combination of yeast and bacteria) sit in sugar water and minerals for a couple of days and ferment into a drink that’s refreshing and incredibly good for you.

We eat homemade yogurt regularly, but I’d been wanting to add more probiotics to our diet. After that first drink, kefir water was an obvious choice!

My friend gave me a kefir starter (thanks so much!) and I’m having a hard time keeping up with demand even with doing a gallon at a time. My 22-month-old’s name for kefir water is simply “nummy!”

We don’t even have pet fish, just pet bacteria. Thankfully, they’re about as low-maintenance as fish, plus you get a yummy drink out of them!

Kefir water recipe

(Makes one gallon—so far the gallon hasn’t lasted more than a few days! You can also half the batch.)

Ingredients

  • Heaping 1/2 cup kefir grains*
  • 3/4 cup to 1 cup raw natural sugar, depending on how sweet you want it. 
  • Small handful of organic raisins or other dried fruit 
  • 1 eggshell or trace minerals, optional 
  • 1 gallon water [Spring, well or filtered tap water are the best options. Distilled water has lost so many minerals you'd want to add trace minerals back to the water.] 
  • Flavorings, optional

Instructions

  1. In a glass gallon jar, dissolve the sugar in a little water.
  2. Add the raisins, kefir grains, eggshell/minerals (if using), and finish filling with water.
  3. Cover with cheesecloth or a tea towel and rubberband securely.
  4. Let sit on the counter for 2-4 days. If it tastes good after two days, proceed. If you want more of the sugar “eaten”, let sit for another day. Don’t let it go too long though, especially in the summer, otherwise once the grains run out of sugar to eat, they beging to starve.
  5. Removed the raisins and eggshell and toss. Strain out the grains to start a new batch.
  6. Start a new batch immediately or store the kefir grains. 
  7. You can drink the kefir at this point, but it tastes much yummier if you let it carbonate for a day on the counter. To carbonate, pour into sturdy glass jars, leaving plenty of headspace for the kefir water to expand. I leave a good 2+ inches, to be on the safe side. Add fruit, juice, food-grade essential oils, or vanilla (if desired) for flavoring. Seal tightly and leave on the counter for a day. 
  8. Refrigerate or drink immediately over ice.

Tips and tricks: 

  • If you don’t have a local friend who can give you a starter, you can order dehydrated water kefir grains online from Amazon or a kit (including minerals and a strainer) from Cultures for Health
  • To store the kefir grains, mix 1/4 cup of sugar with filtered water. Add the grains and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. 
  • Kefir grains love the added minerals from eggshells, but the thought of tossing in a raw eggshell groses me out. Instead, save the eggshells when you make hardboiled eggs and store them in the freezer. Just pop one out when it’s time to make another batch of kefir.
  • Different natural sugars contain different minerals. My friend recommends using 3/4 natural cane sugar and 1/4 sucanat. I haven’t bought any sucanat yet, and the kefir is surviving fine on just the natural cane sugar, but I’m sure it would make them even happier to add sucanat.
  • You can get organic raisins in bulk from Country Life Natural Foods for only a few cents more per pound than Aldi’s raisins. Grapes are on the dirty dozen list, so as you can expect, conventionally grown raisins tend to have quite a bit of pesticide residue! 
Have you made kefir water? If so, what’s your favorite flavoring? 
[Full disclosure: links to some products in this post are my referral links.]
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