Saturday, September 13, 2008

Activating Compost With Yarrow

“Yarrow is always the greatest boon, wherever it grows wild in the country — at the edges of the fields or roads, where cereals or potatoes or any other crops are growing. It should on no account be weeded out... In a word, like sympathetic people in human society, who have a favourable influence by their mere presence and not by anything they say, so yarrow, in a district where it is plentiful, works beneficially by its mere presence.”
- Rudolf Steiner.

Fall is one of the easiest seasons during which to start a compost pile because of the abundance of organic material likes fallen leaves and spent plant stalks. One of the plants you'll hear about often in connection with compost is comfrey (Symphytum spp.). There's been much ado in the blogosphere and gardening/homesteading community in general about the benefits of comfrey to the garden, both as a fertilizer and as a compost activator. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten around to adding comfrey to my herb garden. There is, however, a wonderful herb that can be used in the same manner as comfrey and that I have in abundance: Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). At this time of year, her (and by "her" I mean yarrow's) beautiful heads are heavy with seed, and her time to aid in the stocking of my medicine cabinet is pretty much over. She's an herb for all seasons, though, and autumn finds her the unfailing companion of Madame TrashHeap (as The Husband affectionately refers to our compost pile).

Just like good ole comfrey, yarrow acts a wonderful compost activator to speed up the decomposition of the green and brown materials you've added to your pile. It's been said that a single yarrow leaf, finely chopped, will give you marked results in as much as a wheelbarrow full of compost materials. This activation ability is connected to yarrow's ability to concentrate both sulphur and potassium, along with other micronutrients such as copper and phosphates. This year, knowing that I'd have an abundance of stubborn sod and crabgrass to break down in my pile, I added a couple chopped leaves of yarrow along with a handful of soil between my green and brown layers. In the biodynamic community, it is recommended that the yarrow be enclosed in the bladder of a male deer because of the herb's relationship in treating that organ (in a nutshell), hung in the sun throughout the summer and buried shallowly in the soil throughout the winter, before being added to the compost in the spring.

You can also use yarrow as a fertilizing tea, in much the same preparation as comfrey. Fill a bucket, or whatever empty container you have on hand, with yarrow leaves and then fill again with water. Let this concoction sit for two weeks or so. I recommend that you cover it because the smell is not pleasant. Once you've let your tea brew for a couple of weeks, gather some of the liquid into a watering can and dilute it with water. I just eyeball it, but a 10:1 ratio is recommended. Yarrow fertilizing tea is good for potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and fruit trees. Each plant has their individual preference in so far as fertilization goes, so be sure to consult your favorite veggie growing guide for this information.

Stay tuned for Spring when you'll hear me touting Yarrow's medicinal abilities, her amazing attraction to beneficial insects and pollinators, and her helpfulness in repelling various pests.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Popcorn Isn't Just for Popping

Sharon over at Casaubon's Book is adding a wonderful new weekly segment to her blog called "Food Storage Quickie" that will concentrate on one aspect of food storage and one non-food item. This is great for me because I have trouble breaking emergency preparedness down into smaller goals, get overwhelmed, and do nothing. 'Tis my way.

This week, Sharon writes about pasta, popcorn, and matches. Pasta and matches are obvious choices for me, but I hadn't really thought about the popcorn. My thoughts quickly drifted to my Depression-raised grandma who always had popcorn in her pantry because it was a cheap source of calories. Hmmm... not a bad idea. Then I remembered a recipe for Popcorn Pie I'd seen in Mother Earth News. After reading it, I'd desperately wanted to grow popcorn but ended up opting for sweet corn instead. There's always next year, right?

Anyway, in case there are others out there not so sure that popcorn deserves a place in your food stores, I thought I'd dig up a few more recipes for you:

Thai Peanut and Popcorn Crusted Chicken
Popcorn Salad
Popcorn Soup
Popcorn Stuffing-- An actual recipe, not the joke
Popcorn Stuffed Peppers

A quick Google search will net you hundreds of links to dessert-type recipes, gourmet popcorn recipes, and more popcorn ball variations than one cook could possibly use. Now I'm off to add to my food stores!

I Can Finally Breathe...

The first week of preschool is done. I have three days of lovin' with all of my children. Annie said that she'd cried a bit at school yesterday because she missed me. It's okay to miss me, kid. I missed you too. I was looking forward to spending the day outside with my babies, cleaning up the yard and garden (it desperately needs it!), but that is not to be. It began storming last night and is expected to continue throughout the weekend, and Annie is coughing, Airius has a runny nose, and my throat is sore. We're getting used to all those billions of new germs courtesy of classmates and teachers. Hopefully it'll blow over by Monday in time for school, but who knows. Chicken noodle soup and orange juice are on the menu today.

All in all, preschool hasn't been that bad. I've seen some good things. It's been wondrous to see just how confident my kids are and to see that, yes, they CAN behave. lol I got to witness the beginnings of a meal at Head Start, and there was a surprising amount of good. The plates and silverware were all reusable rather than styrofoam or paper disposables. The only disposable I saw for that meal was the milk cartons. They also have "family style" meals, which means that the teachers eat with the kids at one long table, pass around bowls or platters of food, let each child serve themselves providing help only if needed, and there's a fair amount of interaction and conversation. That day, they served cheeseburgers with lettuce and tomatoes, french fries, and white milk. Not great, not horrible.

I'm also encouraged by their security measures. The yellow buses actually have harness style belts, which the bus aides help the children into. When I went to school, there wasn't a seatbelt to be found on a bus. Each child has to be signed into the bus and/or school. I have to sign them onto the bus, and I have to sign them off. They even asked for my ID the first day and will ask for the ID of anyone else that tries to sign them off of the bus to make sure they're on the list of permitted people. If I take them to school or pick them up, it's the same thing. I have to sign 'em in and out.

Each class gets 30 min. of time outdoors on the playground every single day, which I'm thankful for. Annie and Airius are used to being outside all day, so I wasn't sure how they'd handle being cooped up for 3 hours a day.

The BEST thing, though, is that I get to spend time alone with Callie for the first time in her life. She's having a hard time adjusting to being without her Booboo and Sissy, but I am really enjoying our closeness. It's apparent that I haven't missed anything about her, I always knew who she was, but just being able to cuddle her and focus on her without any competition is a huge bonus. Yesterday, we spent our entire hour before lunch and naptime "painting" on the walkway out front with water. A couple old paintbrushes and sponges and a bowl of water kept her occupied with no trouble at all. Towards the end, she started adding leaves, rocks, flowers, and twigs to the water and stirring it with the paintbrush. Her own witch's brew. I'm so proud! ;)

Still, my mind keeps drifting to homeschooling. I suspected that one of the women who lives at the end of my road homeschools, so when I saw her yesterday evening, I asked if that was the case and told her that I was considering it as an option. She pointed down our road and said, "I homeschool. The house next door to me homeschools, and the house next door to that homeschools. You certainly wouldn't be alone and would have plenty of people to go to for advice or encouragement." Bless her. I think, ultimately, I'm going to let the kids decide. I know that it's my emotions, both maternal and pregnant, that are driving my thoughts toward this.

Take a deep breath, Mama. You're in this until May...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Grandma Dorothy's Fried Squash

I promised that I'd post the recipe for my grandma's fried squash while I was showing off the mystery squash, and I finally got around to making it tonight. This was absolutely the only way I'd ever eat squash as a child. It may not be the healthiest method, but I don't mind making it for a treat once in awhile. You'll have to forgive the dreadful food photography. That is something I have yet to master. The recipe is as follows:

2-3 small summer squash, sliced into 1/4in. rounds (you can substitute zucchini if you'd like)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup milk
1/2 cup flour (plus more, just in case)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon (or your favorite seasoning/herb)
enough oil to cover the bottom of your pan thickly

First, slice your squash. 1/4in. is an approximation, of course. Just use your best judgement. You're frying these in a batter that will cook much faster than the squash itself, so they need to be thin enough that they'll be softened during the frying process but not so thin that they're difficult to handle or they get mushy from overcooking. Uniformity is the key.

Combine the eggs (slightly beaten beforehand), milk, flour, salt, and cinnamon in a small bowl. I use a fork to beat mine together because my kitchen is woefully devoid of "tools", but you can use whatever works for you. This batter is your only chance to add flavor, so feel free to experiment with your favorite spices. I am completely in love with cinnamon for those crisp autumn days where you want something to warm you up, but during the summer, I often omit it and use anise or something that feels a bit more cooling to me. While you're doing the mixing, you can put your oil on to heat up. Test the oil for readiness by letting a drop of batter fall into the oil. If the batter sizzles a bit, your oil is ready.

Next, dip each slice of squash into the batter and drop it into the pan. I always do one test slice first to make sure that the batter has sufficient flour to adhere to the squash. If it's too runny, I add flour a tablespoon at a time until the consistency seems right. I've seen some people who make this dish let the excess batter drip off of each piece of squash, but that's not how Grandma did it, and it's not how I do it! I dunk and cook immediately. Be sure to add only enough squash to the pan that you have a single layer. If they're all crammed into the pan, they'll stick together and make flipping difficult.

Fry the squash until brown on one side, then flip and let the other side brown. You don't want these to be a nice golden color. You want BROWN. Otherwise, your squash will still be crunchy. I don't like mine floppy and mushy, but I want them to be just soft enough to chew without trouble. When they're done, they should look like this:

Serve immediately. In fact, the babies you see in the picture were devoured right out of the pan, despite my scalding mouth. Mmmmmm...


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What's In YOUR Maple Syrup?

Photo of me coveting one of Mama Maple's leaves last fall.

Here's what's in my Log Cabin Original Syrup:

~Corn syrup
~High fructose corn syrup
~Contains 2% or Less of: Salt, Natural and Artificial Maple Flavor, Cellulose Gum, Preservatives (Sorbic Acid, Sodium Benzoate), Sodium Hexametaphosphate, Caramel Color, Mono and Diglycerides.

Yum. I love that the brand website shares this little factoid: "There is a good chance our grandfather’s grandfather grew up using Log Cabin syrup." Not THIS Log Cabin syrup, pal!

So now, of course, my mind has turned once again to tapping our two maple trees. Last winter, I verified that Mama Maple and Sister Maple were indeed tap-worthy species (shhhh... don't tell them I didn't know!), but as is my way, I hmmed and hawed about actually doing the tapping. I didn't have the equipment, I wasn't sure what I was doing, I'd really rather see a demonstration before I go tearing into my two beautiful tree companions, we don't use maple syrup all that often anyway, the neighbor spawn--er, kids-- will wreak havoc on my little operation, etc. The excuses are neverending. Will I take the plunge this year and go a-tappin'? Only time will tell.

Now I'm off to do some more research. ;)

Monday, September 8, 2008

All This Affluence

This is my submission for the APLS Carnival on Affluence.

"Affluent Persons Living Sustainably." APLS. That's how Green Bean and friends have chosen to describe themselves, and somehow I added myself to that list. WHAT??

I've blogged about the fact that my kids attend Head Start. That's an income based, government funded program provided to low-income families, my friends. According to wikipedia, "...Head Start is the longest-running program to address systemic poverty in the United States>." Systemic poverty.

The frugality, the repurposing, the recycling, and even the garden I blog about aren't just hobbies for me, they're necessities. It isn't always clear whether I've chosen this simple life or whether it's chosen me. But you know what? No matter how often the line between choice and requirement are blurred, the fact is that I really did opt for this. And that is exactly what makes me affluent.

Now, I know some of you will question why I would choose to "live off of the government" by sending my children to Head Start if I'm so very affluent. Isn't that, um, cheating? Let me explain.

The reason that we qualify for a program like Head Start is because we live on one income. Before the twins came along, I was working as a microbiology tech at an international laboratory. Our income was about double what it is now because we were both working, and we had plenty of money to spare. We were debt free and had a reasonable amount of savings. When our two sweet babies came along, though, our priorities shifted. We looked at the price of daycare for two infants, and it was certainly outrageous. We could have handled it, but at what cost? Our children would have been cared for by someone other than their parents, breastfeeding two babies would have been complicated further than it already was, we would have added to our commutes (I was, at that time, driving at least an hour each way), and the emotional toll on The Husband, me, and the babies was just the final nail in the coffin. I chose to stay home.

How many countries are there in the world where a woman can choose to stay home with their children or continue to pursue her career? How many countries are there in the world where a woman could do BOTH? How many countries even offer a program like Head Start?

And staying home is just one choice among hundreds that I've made in my life to live a little more sustainably, despite my affluence. According to this site, I'm in the top 5.99% richest people in the world. Remembering the long days of summer when my daughter languished in the garden to eat all the baby carrots she could or looking back on how I told my neighbor that it was okay if the squirrels ate my sunflowers because I didn't need them all or knowing that the fact that my garden is just starting and not providing me with all the food my growing family will need this winter does not mean that we will go hungry reminds me that I am affluent indeed. Affluent, rich, blessed, prosperous, plentiful, fruitful (my growing belly says so)...

I'll bet you are too. Think about it.

Change is Afoot

Dear Airius and Annie,

Today, for the first time in your lives, I left you in the care of complete strangers for 3 1/2 hours. You were both thrilled. Though Daddy and I managed to make it through without tears, it was a bittersweet moment for us. On one hand, I'm amazed that I've managed to raise two children who feel self-assured enough that they weren't the least bit concerned with their parents leaving them. I'm in awe of the fact that you've both been classified as "outgoing" and "talkative," despite being raised in a situation where your social expression has been minimized and your father is content to go weeks without seeing another living being. I feel proud, with a sense of parental accomplishment, that both of you approached this change with unfettered optimism and excitement.

On the other hand... I'm so sad to see you go. Sitting just beyond the reach of that maternal pride is a lump of guilt and a huge feeling of failure for having sent you off to be taught by others rather than having kept you home to learn as a family. I'm so very hesitant to let you go, my two first little hatchlings that really made this nest. It's so very strange to know that some other woman will be teaching you, guiding you, shaping you, and even feeding you! Maybe I'm even just a bit jealous that someone else will wheedle their way into your affections. Maybe.

But, oh! The confidence that you both have! Annie, you didn't hesitate for a moment. I asked you three times if you wanted me to stay until all the other kids came into the classroom. You were having none of it, waving cheerily and sending me on my way, pigtails bouncing as you skipped towards the dolls laid in a mini cradle. I was strong then and walked out with my head held high after giving you a hug and kiss and snapping a photo, but I'm fighting back tears now as I remember that moment.

Airius, you stomped your foot impatiently as you waited for the morning class to file out before you could enter. One glance around the room, and you were off exploring, as is your way. A door opened here, a toy fondled there, your tiny hands (so much bigger than the day you were born, I remind myself) running over the covers of books as you decided which one to pull out. You snarled at me as I tried to catch you in my camera's viewfinder. When the teacher asked everyone to gather on the rug, you were the first there and remained rapt as she read you a puppet-accompanied story. You shouted out the answers to each question your teacher asked. Daddy told me it was time to go. When I arrived to pick you up later in the afternoon, the aide told me you'd been asking for me for the last half hour. Be still my heart!

As much as Daddy and I missed you though, there was one person who missed you more. Your little sister wouldn't show us any affection or speak to us for quite some time when she realized that we were leaving without you. Even a jaunt to a ne'er before visited park with both of her parents all to herself did little to placate her. When we pulled into the garage without her Booboo and Sissy in their respective places, she broke down. The look on her face when she saw the two of you had returned while she was napping... Well, I hope you both remember that. Pure adoration and love.

Yes, you have a wonderful family. A loving family. A close family. An imperfect family. You are blessed.

With all my forever love,

~About the photo: The kids were all too cooperative for those kinds of heart-tugging photo ops that I dreamed of for this day, holding hands on the way into the building, heads held high and not looking back towards me even once... But I just couldn't do it without choking up. So, in the interest of Mommy staying strong, I let those opportunities pass and opted instead for the obligatory pic in front of the school sign.~

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Independence Days Challenge-- Week Something or Other

I've been very lax on getting these updates put together, so I'm trying to get back on track. Here we go...

1. Planted: Nothing.

2. Harvest something: Golden Bantam sweet corn, Kentucky Wonder beans, Scarlett Runner beans, carrots, mystery squash, calendulas.

3. Preserve something: Dried calendulas.

4. Prep something: Set up my gardening expansion budget and researched the plants I'd chosen. Talked to a neighbor about collecting seeds from her goldenrod "weeds" in October when they ripen. Most of our prep here has actually related to getting the kids ready for their first day of Head Start. Lots of thrifting for clothes and shoes.

5. Cook something: Despite the fact that we checked out several cookbooks from the library, we made nothing from the books. The only new thing I cooked was maple syrup chicken, which, uh, I made up on the spot.

6. Manage your reserves: Found some old "maple syrup" in the fridge and used as much as I could get away with by pouring it on and in some chicken while it baked. It was delicious and made the house smell wonderful, but have you seen the ingredients listed for store-bought maple syrup?? Let's just say there isn't much maple anything in it. Maybe I'll post about that later...

7. Work on local food systems: Nope.

8. Reduce waste: Nothing beyond the ordinary composting, eBaying, and Freecycling.

9. Learn a new skill: Nothing.