Thursday, July 31, 2008

My city neighborhood

I live in a little neighborhood at the top of northeast Reading, nestled at the foot of Mount Penn under the Pagoda.

It is bounded by City Park on one end, and the large high school five blocks away at the other end. The neighborhood is only two blocks deep: from 13th Street, to the half-street Linden, then to 14th Street, with the wooded hillside starting up just beyond 14th. Nine residential blocks, 2-by-5 minus one taken up by a high school band practice field. According to the 2000 US Census block data, there are 468 houses.

We are dominated by schools. Ripley's Believe It or Not says that 13th Street is the only place in the country where you can go from kindergarten to college on a single street: it has two elementary schools, a middle school, the high school, and Albright College down at the far end. The college even offers scholarships to students that are All-Thirteenth-Street grads. A new junior high is being built on the site of a former hospital - also on 13th Street.

Since there is no school busing within a 2-mile radius of schools in the city, most of the city's teen population walks to the high school every day - all 4400+ of them. About 65% are Hispanic, 16% black, 18% white, reflecting the city mix. 91% of the 500+ elementary school kids nearby qualify for free lunches. There is a certain amount of chaos and a hint of violence, but it is surprisingly orderly as more than 5,000 people come and go past us each school day - especially when you consider how frequently the city's adults solve their problems with drugs and guns. I cannot tell you how lucky they are to have the superb elementary school crossing guard I have watched for the past 4 years.

The little Hillside neighborhood is tucked just above that passing stream of cars and students. The typical house is about 100 years old, 3-4 bedrooms, 1 bath, and costs $45-55,000. Rented houses typically cost $600/mo plus all utilities. Oil heat is common, which has been painful this past year. Parking is tight, especially the nights before the weekly street cleaning. But there are few cars during the day, a testament to the employment pattern.

The rows of houses marching up the steep streets from 13th to 14th are squarely blue-collar and always have been. People work in factories, trades, and service jobs, or are retired from similar jobs. Probably split about evenly between tenant and owner-occupied, racially and ethnically mixed, with a bit of tension over that. 14th Street is almost suburban, with an odd little public playground, a ball field, a semi-public pool, a set of condos, and a strip of ranch houses under the wooded side of Mount Penn. Most of the vehicle traffic we get is people who live in our 2-by-5 block neighborhood, or are attending ball games. It's good for kids, who can walk to school, park, pool, pizza, and convenience store without crossing a busy street.

The houses are mostly similar. 12-15' wide brick rowhouses with 40' narrow back yards to an alley. A small front planter or square of grass, although some are just concrete. I know my own block best, of course. Many of the back yards are used daily to play, garden, hang laundry, and grill. A few are weedy and ignored, or are used only by a family dog. Lots of dogs. The turnover of tenants and owners over the past few years has seen an uptick in modest backyard improvements. Yard furniture, grills, better flower and veggie gardens. The alleys are often grass and seldom used by cars, unless someone is doing construction.

We would benefit from a neighborhood group. Work at the playground and pool is monopolized by "old" residents, mostly white home-owners, and renters are ignored. But I think both renters and owners would join a garden club, if we made it bilingual. Gardening would be a good foundation for other forms of neighborliness - a potluck, cooking and canning activities for families, car playing or movie nights. There is an annual garish display of Christmas lights at the playground, with visits to Santa, which will probably need to change, with increasing electric costs. Might be a good time to propose something less blindingly commercial.

Beyond our own little park area. We are close to the city's greenhouse building in City Park, which used to be a place to buy plants, and could again become a center of gardening education in the city. The city is planning to renovate the whole Park area, which would benefit us. We enjoy the bandshell concerts on Fridays in July.

If we end up staying here, it is likely I will start something, probably to the dismay of my DH. If only the stupid house were bigger! (And less covered in shag carpet and paneling.)

What have you learned this year, so far?

Been sharing the parsley flowers with some little visitors. When they get big, we will put them in a bug box to watch them make a chrysalis and then emerge from it.

Anyway, I wrote this in response to a question on a container gardening list.

1. WATER: Invest in soaker hoses and water barrels. Manual watering is uneven and hard to gauge. Most things in containers need a self-watering feature, no matter how faithfully one plans to water.

2. FISH BOXES: Get more fish boxes - works great for greens. Focus on what we already eat: romaine, spinach, bok choy, and kale. No exotic lettuce.

3. FERTILIZER: Compost is not enough. Everything got bigger after the fish emulsion. Explore other organic fertilizers. Find a source for mushroom dirt or compost at the start of the season - small city yards cannot produce enough compost.

4. SOWING: Winter-sowing in milk jugs is good for annuals and herbs, not so much for veggies. Mid-March start for onions, lettuce, spinach, peas was good. Transplanting peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes too early is dumb. Build cold frame this fall.

5. YIELD: Herbs, celery, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, and peppers suit us best, so far. Tomatoes, zucchini and cukes are hard to protect from bugs, and local organic can be bought easily and inexpensively. Plant lots more beans and peas. Replace some ornamentals with more medicinals.

6. NEIGHBORHOOD: Expand program of helping kids plant tomatoes in containers. Ask more neighbors if we can "farm" their unused front yard planters.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 13

Planted: Got a bunch of native yarrow on Freecycle and planted it in my mom's yard for next year's yarrow salve production.

The onion harvest freed up a big patch of dirt, and I struggle to resist planting for fall. We still expect to move, but obviously not mid-summer. What if we are still here at Thanksgiving, and I wasted a whole season? Calmed myself by planting some store-bought potatoes that sprouted. Might not pay off, but it's a good experiment, and no big loss if I have to leave them in the ground.

Harvested: White onions, now drying in a tray. We got the first eggplant, and a sweet yellow pepper from the plant the neighbor gave us, another zucchini. But the zucchini plant is dying from a Squash Vine Borer larvae I missed. I am sure I won't have any trouble finding zukes to buy inexpensively.

Preserved: Bagged the dried yellow onions in net bags. Dried yarrow leaves and flowers. In the process of trying some pickling - bread & butter pickles from purchased Kirby cucumbers. Get the impression that I do everything in a 2-foot square of yellow 70's Formica? I do!

Canned 7 half-pints of peach preserves. We've been watching a peach tree down the block at the edge of a school district athletic field. The tree is untended except to mow under it, so it's "organic." Today there was a kid in the tree picking peaches, so we leaped into action and picked almost 10 pounds of free peaches. Gave a third to a little girl that went with us, ate about a third, and turned a third into peach preserves. My mother helped me scald and peel the fruit. Froze two cups of slices to make peach sauce for yogurt later.

Made and froze 6 quarts of organic chicken stock, but I don't count that as preserving, since we do that monthly, and I don't have enough freezer space to store more than a month's worth. I keep looking for a pressure canner, so I can put up stock in jars. I notice that I am more willing to do hot summer cooking and canning in our UN-air-conditioned house. When it's 90+ and high humidity, and I turn on the oven or boil a big pot, I joke that I am toughening us up for global warming.

Cooked: DD15 wanted to do things with lentils, so we started with a recipe for curried lentils and basmati, to which she added a chicken thigh for each of us, and some bok choy from the market. Very good, but at the edge of my spicy limits (she and DH have more expansive limits). Smelled fabulous. This is a good basic recipe that we can make from storage, and a variety of meat or vegetables.

Other new experiments: perfecting BBQ chicken thighs on the new grill, bread pudding with cherries for a potluck (yum!), a new pepperoni lasagna. Used a fine-leaf basil from the herb lady - gotta grow that next year. Falling into a nice pattern of standard cooking: yogurt, burrito fillings, brewing of teas, making of zucchini bread, grilling of chicken, etc.

Prepared: Stocked pickling salt, mustard seeds, celery seed, turmeric, sunflower seeds, yet more baking soda (after learning I could use it to nixtamelize corn). I basically buy sugar, salt, vinegar and baking soda every time I go to a store.

Cleaned, organized and inventoried the freezer. Not much room left, and we didn't even freeze any corn yet. Frozen quarts of stock come and go constantly. Guess I will have to dehydrate more. I will try to use the freezer as a holding space for things to can, and less as long-term storage. Frozen pesto, butter, and fruit need to live there.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: We want to make our 2000 Jeep Cherokee last until we can afford a hybrid or some other more efficient vehicle. I figured out it costs about $0.25/mile when gas is $4/gallon. It is useful to be able to say, "It will cost $2.50 for that errand 5 miles away - am I saving enough money to justify driving further, or should I buy stuff at a slightly higher price, closer to home?" It costs $1.50 to drive to my Mom's and back.

Bought ice cube trays at a yard sale - need to be able to make an ice bath for blanching food. Also got a wooden crate, some pottery tools, and some burlap. Took some cotton flannel shirts from the freebie pile, to see if we can sew some reusable pads. At the good annual synagogue rummage, I got 8 half-pint canning jars, an extra pair of snow boots, a bundle of small white paper bags I will use as seed envelopes, a large cotton blanket, and some clothes for the kids.

We have added a second clothesline and I bought 300 clothespins. I have made it a priority in the girls' chores that someone bring up a load of laundry and hang it, every morning that there is no rain. The other day, DD11 even ran home from playing and took down the laundry when it threatened to rain! By George, I think they are catching on.

We got our car AC recharged, and it feels bizarrely decadent to use it. Car AC uses gas, but driving with the windows down uses more, and rolling them up is not an option in a black car in the summer.

Local: Someone brought mahogany rice to a church potluck, and I found out about a Vietnamese food store around Chestnut and Wunder Streets. We continue to enjoy the Sunday producer market - a new stand with stone fruit opened last week and we bought the first local peaches and plums. Eating lots of very fresh corn.

Learned: Talked to a woman that's been married 60 years (!), who grew up with lots of canning. Her father managed orchards in New York State until he could buy his own. She recalled that her mother canned every night, as she cooked dinner. Her loaded pressure canner held 12 quarts. It would cool overnight, the jars ready to be put away each morning. Wow. A dozen jars a day, almost every day. But - it was the systematic inclusion of canning in her routine that struck me. No dramatic "Ooo, today I will can!" Just can something, day in and day out, as part of the regular cooking.

Priced parts at Lowe's to make a rain barrel, and learned how vague most water barrel instructions are. I want to make a few barrels for mom's house. Will be testing instructions in the weeks to come.

Joined lists for edible container gardening and preserving food, where I am already learning new things.

Library: After weeks of waiting for the big book sale, I didn't get to go. Had to use the book money to pay an unexpected auto repair bill. Boo hoo! I will have to do the best I can at yard sales and auctions. Did buy the latest edition of the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, replacing my vintage copy. The supermarket had Blue Books for $4.55, displayed next to the canning jars.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Circle of Life" in the alley

This image is a notecard designed by artist Adrienne Trafford, for sale through the Humane Society of Berks County.
Alert: Potential gross-out ahead, involving dead animal. Squeamish cat owners should stop reading.

Three boys around the age of 10 or 12 found a dead cat in our alley and were throwing rocks at it this afternoon. DD11 saw them from her window and told me.

I could smell it in the 90+degree heat before I got out of our gate. I had a heavy glove on one hand, and a trash bag in the other. "Is that a dead cat?" The boys affirmed, not taking off running, as I thought they might.

"I'm going to pick it up and dispose of it. I hope I don't throw up." The boys stuck around, likely hoping I would indeed vomit. "Since it's summer and the alley is close to houses, it will stink up the place if I don't do something. And since we don't know why it is dead, we also want to keep nasty diseases from spreading to other animals or kids that touch the dead cat." They stepped back ever so slightly.

I use my foot to move the rocks away from the carcass and reach for it. The boys make little excited noises, and I can almost hear them thinking, "That old lady is going to touch a dead cat!" One boy blurts, "Why doesn't it have any eyes?" If one of my kids had been there, she could have warned them not to ask questions like that.

I launch into a long explanation about how the bugs that eat dead animals have started their work. If an animal dies up in the woods, it lays there and is eaten by bugs and birds and worms and tiny little things. They start with the easy parts, like eyeballs. It is the job of those birds and bugs to eat dead things and return them to the dirt, where they fertilize plants. In the woods, the carcass would dry up over time, stop stinking, and after a while you would only be able to find a bit of fur and some scattered bones, and then nothing at all. Other wise, the woods and everywhere else would be cluttered up with smelly dead things.

I mentioned that the alley cats have hard, short lives. They have no warm place in the winter, and no regular food or water. They are attacked by other cats or stray dogs, and get hit by cars. They usually have worms and other diseases that must be painful. This particular cat was less than a year old, a small female that had already had at least two litters. We try to catch the females in a humane trap before they have kittens, but most of them are very wary of people. One of the boys agreed he hears cat fights a lot at night.

Surprisingly, the boys stayed for the lecture. Probably because I was also trying to get the limp cat in the trash bag, and I missed the first two times. It was surprisingly difficult to manage the bag in one hand and the cat in the bulky gloved hand. I stopped and showed them some big black bugs under the carcass when I moved it. They pointed out the flies, and I told them about maggots being fly eggs that hatch and eat garbage until they grow up into new flies. They had all seen garbage get maggoty in the summer, and I told them that maggots are part of the process of turning dead things into dirt. At this point, I could actually hear the Lion King theme "Circle of Life" playing in my head.

I told them to come tell me if they see any more dead stuff, so we could dispose of it. The boys wandered away after I bagged the cat, probably stunned by the sudden science lesson in the alley, and weird lady that picks up dead cats.

Even after triple-bagging, the carcass really stinks. We moved the trash can to the end of the yard. The city won't pick up trash until Wednesday morning, but I have no idea what else to do with it. It will hit the high 90's tomorrow. Ugh!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 12

Twelve weeks! That's 3 months of this effort. I am finally feeling like we've made progress. Not remotely ready if disaster struck tomorrow, but I am measurably more prepared. More importantly, we are becoming mentally more prepared. DH doesn't snicker at me so much anymore. He seemed impressed when I started making yarrow salve, instead of giving me that look that says, "I'm humoring your cute little idiosyncrasy." He doesn't think things will get as bad as I think they will. But he isn't arguing with the preparations.

Planted: Watermelon, from a pot of starts. Friday was the annual clearance sale at Glick's, our favorite nursery. We got there 4 minutes after the 8AM opening, and it was packed with people filling carts. Quart perennials were 99 cents, and 4-in pots of herbs were 50 cents. I got: Bronze Fennel, Rosemary "Gorizia", Lovage, Tricolor Sage, Mountain Mint, Horehound, and a fabulous dwarf Helichrysum italicum that smells just like curry powder. Bought some seeds half-price.

I also got two angel wing begonias, and some ornamentals to perk up Mom's shady yard: astilbes, bleeding heart, heuchera, and foxgloves. Mom bought more lavender, which she loves. I was tempted to buy more perennial flowers, but I am trying to stay focused on edibles and medicinals.

Harvested: Cherry tomatoes direct-to-mouth. Basil, parsley, sage, thyme. A few white onions, and some bitter lettuce that we hide in tacos. A pound of carrots, one zucchini.

Visited the organic County Line Orchard near Kempton. It was a long drive (25 miles one way), so we combined it with the trip to Glick's. We thought to be picking apricots, but there was a disappointing miscommunication. They did have blueberries for u-pick, so we picked 6# of them at $1.75/lb, bought 3# of farmer-picked apricots for jam, and a quart of sweet cherries to eat on the way home, spitting pits out the car windows. It's not worth that kind of gasoline to u-pick anything, unless we are buying some huge quantity to share with others. We passed the Dreibelbis Bridge, a wooden covered bridge that is part of our family heritage, and stopped to take photos.

Preserved: Gave up on finding counter space in my kitchen for the dehydrator. I set up a dehydrator station on the back porch, where there is a grounded outdoor electrical outlet. Dried a pound of carrot slices. Froze shredded zucchini. Froze 4# of blueberries. Froze portions of pistachio-herb pesto. Running out of room in the freezer.

Canned 2 pints of apricot preserves - my first batch of home-canned anything since home economics class in high school! A little runny, but still good on toast, and DD15 pointed out it will make good duck sauce. I will experiment with other recipes. I intended to make more, but someone ate a bunch of the apricots. It seems I generally need to get twice as much as I imagine I need, to have enough left to can.

Cooked: I made Shrimp Risotto using the lovely homemade fish stock I had frozen, for DH's 34th birthday. We had the first yummy local corn of the season from the market. I am looking for an electric carving knife to make it easier to cut and freeze corn. Tried a new recipe for pesto with pistachios and mixed fresh herbs. DD11, who does not try new things easily, liked Dragon Carrots.

Accidentally made ricotta when I was going for yogurt. The milk started to boil when the thermometer read only 203F, so the milk "broke". It would have made grainy yogurt, so I added vinegar to turn it into ricotta (actually, more like paneer). Looks like lasagna this weekend. Considering I could not make yogurt OR cheese a few months ago, I am celebrating the fact that I knew how to turn a mess-up into some other kind of food, saving a $4 half-gallon of raw milk.

Prepared: DH bought LED flashlights for us, a multi-tool for DD15, and a compass. For his birthday, we got him a portable propane grill that runs on those little Coleman-type tanks. Bought interlocking cables to secure it (and other things), since our last grill was stolen right off our back porch.

Cleaned out the shed and re-arranged the back porch to accommodate the grills and the dehydrator. Also worked on organizing our small over-whelmed kitchen. Decided to pack away my collection of vintage pretzel tins, to make room for the canners.

Bagged and labeled 8 one-pound bags of bean mix for soup. Stored 15# of unbleached flour, 15# pounds of sugar, Wondra gravy flour, demarara sugar, baking soda, laundry detergent, borax, pickling lime, canned pumpkin, pinto beans, ibuprofen, lotion. Stashed a few boxes of liquid chai mix, pineapple juice, chocolate syrup, and cream of coconut (have to hide those or they get consumed). Several vaccuum-packed bags of dried tortellini. Froze a few extra pounds of butter and 2# of frozen shrimp.

One of the local supermarket chains had a big sale on my favorite Red Zinger herbal tea, so I cleaned out three of their stores and stashed 10 boxes of tea. I can't figure out how to reproduce it myself; it has too many tropical ingredients for me to grow the components.

Researched the gun licensing and concealed-carry laws for Pennsylvania. My late father left two handguns and two shotguns at mom's house. We have decided to learn to shoot and maintain them, and will get gun safes for our house and car. We thought about learning to hunt, but DD15 wisely noted, "We are way too loud and clumsy."

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Found new plastic rain gauges at the Good Will, $1 for four. Got a brand-new Weber table-top-size charcoal grill via Freecycle. That's two new grills in one week, greatly expanding our cooking options.

Local: We are registering the kids for schools in the fall. We had been homeschoolng, but I want to get a second job to allow us to buy a house faster. DD11 will go to 6th grade at a local "magnet" school in the public system, the Gateway School for Agriculture, Science, and Ecology. The school is new, so I don't know exactly what the curriculum will be like, but I plan to be an involved parent. If public school is too unsatisfactory, we can always take her back out. DD15 is going to use a public virtual charter school from home - she does well with minimal supervision.

The Sunday producer market is starting to have more variety of local produce. We get eggs, local nitrate-free beef hot dogs, and local pretzels every week. I usually get herbs to dry or use for pesto. Then we get whatever produce appeals, with whatever money is left. We got fresh corn, wax beans, dragon carrots, oregano, and tarragon this past week. Talked to the beekeeper, who will have beeswax (for my yarrow salve) later in the season - he also talked about a wintershare CSA with greens and storage vegetables.

Learned: We are looking into classes for us to learn new skills. The gardening and food storage is my "skill". DD15 is considering welding - they have continuing ed classes at the VoTech. We may never become a licensed welder, but the skill is good, and is also useful for art metalwork. DH is thinking about what skill he might like to pick up... maybe leather work. DD11 wants to learn to make bread. I need to figure out how to make a floury kneading space in our cramped kitchen.

Went to a Master Gardener Demonstration Garden workshop with mom and DD11, and saw demos about rain gardens, water barrel construction, and attracting pollinators. They also had a display of about a dozen kinds of composters in use. DD11 and I are going to build a nesting box to attract Mason Bees. Their demonstration garden is all ornamentals and herbs, with an emphasis on attracting pollinators with native species. Too bad they don't have an edible demo garden. I saw a water barrel design I liked, using a lidded heavy-duty trash can they sell at Home Depot.

Library: Tomorrow (!) is the big annual book sale... this space should be filled with wonders.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Birthday Resolutions

Instead of New Year's Resolutions, we usually make Birthday Resolutions. My birthday seems to be a natural time for me to take stock, and I am more optimistic in the summer than I am at New Year. But I forgot to make any in June. Belatedly, here they are, all themed around planning for an uncertain economic future with high energy costs:

1. Build a solar cooker and learn to use it
2. Learn to can a range of food
3. Start baking bread regularly
4. Prepare for short-term energy outages
5. Store 6 months of food staples

I have lots of other goals, but achieving these 5 would make me feel very good next birthday. All of these also have intermediate steps, so I expect they will keep me busy for the year. I think I can do all of them whether we move or not.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Yarrow: Medicinal preparations

I have been looking into the use of yarrow to treat circulatory issues. I have a huge yellow yarrow plant in my yard, so I have begun preparations. I have circulation problems with my feet and ankles, so I am interested in making salve and infusions for soaks.

I got my instructions from Lisa Zahn, who passed on the knowledge from her teacher.

Caution: Consult your medical doctor if you are taking other medications. Herbs are medicine, and have side effects. Seek advice from an herbal practitioner about how and how often to use the various preparations for your particular issues. Apparently, too much yarrow can disrupt women's menstrual cycles. I would be wary of using this is if I took blood thinners or other medications that affect clotting. These instructions are just for making the various preparations, not for using them.

Harvesting: To make yarrow salve, tincture, and infusions you need to use the top parts of flowering stems when they're in flower. If you use wild yarrow, limit the cutting to 1/3 of a stem, from about 1/3 of a plant from no more than 1/3 of the plants in an area. (I use cultivated yarrow in my yard, so I can cut all I want.) For the strongest medicine, pick it on a sunny day, not when it's wet or been wet the day before.

Tincture: Use fresh leaves and flower heads only, maybe a little stem. Rip into about one inch pieces and stuff them into a baby-food-sized glass jar. The small jar will make enough tincture for a single household, but use a larger jar if you are supplying a lot of people. Pack the jar as tight as you can with herb, to the tip top. Then pour 80 proof or higher vodka or brandy into the jar, also to the tip top. Poke air bubbles out with knife, then close the lid. A day or two later, open it up and top off the vodka to the top again, to replace what is absorbed. It must be filled to the top or the alcohol will oxidize.

Place this out of direct sunlight for six weeks, then decant into another jar by placing clean cheesecloth across the top of your jar, pouring off the liquid and squeezing as much liquid as you can out of the plant material. You can then compost the plant material, say a "thank you" to the plant. Some practitioners believe that the energy of gratitude contributes to the medicine. You may want to keep the finished tincture in a dark-colored sterilized bottle and dispense with an eye dropper than has not been used for anything else. Sterilize a bottle by boiling in water for 20 minutes.

Salve: First you need to make an oil, similar to making a tincture. First, allow the herb for a day or two before packing it into a jar. Tear or cut it into one-inch pieces with some stem. Pack tightly to the top of your jar, then pour cold-pressed olive oil over to the tip top. More olive oil to the top after a day or two, to replace what is absorbed. Set the oil in the sun, on a plate to catch the leaks. You can pour that little bit of leaked oil back in, or save it in a jar for later mixing with the rest of the finished oil. You let this sit in the sun for 6 weeks. You may want to check it for mold occasionally. You can scrape any mold off the top. If it's moldy throughout, you may want to start again. In the rare case that mold is a big problem, research making oil faster with heat.

After six weeks, decant the oil through cheesecloth. You can use the oil as is, keeping it in a cool place. Or, make a salve by adding beeswax. Use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of beeswax for each little salve pot you want. Heat the beeswax slowly just to melt, then take off heat and stir in the yarrow oil. One baby food jar of oil to 2 teaspoons of beeswax might be a good place to start. Adjust the beeswax to get the salve consistency you want. Pour your salve into sterile jars while it's still warm, before it sets up.

Infusion: You want to completely dry the flowers and leaves for this, as you would for making a tea or tisane (herbal tea). Add 1 teaspoon dried herb to 1 cup of boiling water and steep for 8 hours. Increase to the quantity you desire.

More information: has an extensive article about yarrow from the Alternative Medicine Encyclopedia. If you have more info about the uses of yarrow, please post in the comments.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 11

Planted: Acorn squash that might be might be too late, but the seeds were only 10 cents. There is a half-price sale at our favorite nursery on Friday, so I am waiting for that to fill in the other empty spaces for veggies and herbs.

I'm out of compost, so I tried fish emulsion fertilizer for the first time today. Wow, does that stink! And it made ME stink. I hope it works. My yard smells like a fish shop dumpster.

Last week's manual zucchini pollinating seems to have worked, and I will have new zukes soon. But it worries me that the bees were not numerous enough to pollinate. I am checking the other cucurbits to see if they need help. I see baby eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. The Bee Balm out front is buzzing - I need to plant that closer to the veggie patch.

Harvested: The first cherry tomatoes! All of the yellow onions, which were smaller than I expected. DD11 pulled more of her carrots (above). Picked cherries, at Ontelaunee Orchards this time, 4 lbs of sour cherries and 10 lbs of sweet. Picked a lot of basil for pesto. Cut yarrow.

Preserved: Froze pesto cubes. Started yarrow in olive oil to make salve. Pitted and froze sour cherries to make jelly later.

Cooked: DH made Sausage Pie (like quiche with a butch name) for dinner, and a ham quiche. Leftovers were great the next morning. Made Cherry Custard Pie, which we have eaten before, but not made for ourselves. I like it better than the usual two-crust pie. We seem to be in a Pie Phase.

Managed: Stocked canning jars, cinnamon, pinto beans, cooking oil, salt, Q-tips, shampoo, borax. An iced tea spill in the kitchen led me to move and reorganize my temporary reserve pile, when I saw how easily it could have been ruined. DH sounded interested in putting together a bucket system. The geekiness of color-coded gamma lids and oxygen absorbers appealed to him. For now, everything is in plastic tubs under the table.

Made a food storage goal list for 3 months, adapted from Sharon's list. I want to have a year eventually, but it is more manageable to start with 3 months and be eating out of it. I was able to check off some items right away, which felt good. Had everyone specify three personal treats to include, which ranged from licorice to cigarettes. Included a few luxury items with long shelf life, like coffee, cigars, and liquor, as a possible future trade reserve.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled:
My mother gave me a water bath canner from her cellar. Yay! That saved me buying one. I am watching for a pressure canner at yard sales and auctions. Mom also trash-picked some large planters for me.

Got a $95 water bill shock this month. Watering the garden, I assume, since the laundering, showering, and dish-washing were at the normal level. Our house rent was raised a bit. Only 5%, but the "rising prices" excuse seems hollow, since we pay all the utilities. I SO wish we were permitted to divert the downspouts to catch rain. The front one goes right under the pavement into the storm sewer. The back one is pop-riveted to straps right down to the sidewalk, where it drains out to the alley on the pavement. What a waste. I am starting to eyeball the neighbors' guttering...

Local: The containers I planted with the girl up the street look good - baby tomatoes are showing (above). I talked to her mother, who wants to plant more next year, and asked me if I know how to can. I am going to find out if we can organize a canning class with the help of our Cooperative Extension agent.

Learned: About the medicinal uses of yarrow from herbalist Lisa Zahn, and am collecting the materials to make tinctures and salves. I need to get some grain alcohol from the liquor store.

Signed up for an internet-based course about 'Adapting in Place' in August. I am thinking of my mother's and brother's houses. Both have suburban land, but Mom is too frail to garden seriously, and Bro is terribly anti-garden about his half-acre of riding-mower grass. If things get ugly fast, farming his sunny lot would be easier than anyone else's, and at least I can have a plan for that. I don't know where we will be living in a year, but I will be better prepared to choose an adaptable residence.

Library: Naught. Still saving my pennies for the upcoming AAUW book sale.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

More summer reading...

Someone asked me for summer reading suggestions, so I thought I would share them here:

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. It is available free on the publisher's website, if you want to read a sample. "Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired."

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen is a fun romance with quirky characters. I think all sorts of gardeners will enjoy this novel... and wish we could have a little of the magic.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. It is compared to The Divinci Code - but it follows a Jewish prayer book called the Sarajevo Haggadah. Could be a bit grim, if you are looking for light summer reading. I have not read this one, yet. Have it on reserver at the library.

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. Alternate history that explores what would have happened if the Plague had killed off all of Europe in the Middle Ages, and Christianity had not risen beyond the level of a small cult. Very interesting resurrection theme follows a group of characters through several lifetimes. It's a big fat book, if you like that sort of thing.

Dies the Fire by S.M. Sterling. Post-apocalyptic sci-fiction with fun elements of SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), gang warfare, Wicca, university faculty senate, forced sustainable agriculture. You just have to accept the weird sci-fi event that triggers The Change: electricity and combustion suddenly stop working, throwing the world into the Middle Ages. Sex, violence, cannibalism, sword fights, kilts, people that speak Lord-of-the-Rings Elvish - what more can you ask of summer reading?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Cherry Custard Pie

The pie was better than the photo. The pie is scrumptious! A bit tedious to prepare - had to pit sweet cherries, then half them. Had to pre-bake the pie shells, and the custard takes a lot of beating. After baking, you have to cool the pies, and then, worst of all, you have to WAIT overnight (or at least 3 hours) to eat them! I recommend making at least two at a time. Worth heating up the oven on a summer night. Want the recipe?

Book Clubs

I am forever joining Book Clubs. After a few disappointments, I learned not to expect any one of them to fulfill all my reading needs. Better to collect a few, like friends that share different interests. Right now, I meet with a Club at my church, in person. This month, we are slated to discuss The Tenth Circle, by Jodi Picoult. The title reference is to Dante's description of the levels of Hell (only nine of them). Not going to review the book here, except to say that I kept feeling like I was reading a YA book, despite the fact that is it written for adults.

A new Book Club that is about to start is the Post Apocalyptic Book Club, a year-long review of books that describe the various ways the world ends or is drastically changed. July's Theme is The Classic Guy’s Apocalypse: Cannibalism, Cannons and Doom! I read this month's books in my murky science fiction past, so I re-read them for the discussion: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and the epic poem, “The Wasteland” by TS Eliot. The discussion will be blog-based, in commenting, a new format for me.

I have also participated online at Barnes & Noble's forum-based discussion groups, usually attracted by a particular author or book.

But my primary book club continues to be family-based: DH and me, sometimes one of the kids. DH and I are reading the latest from Jacqueline Carey in the Kushiel series, a double-trology of fat kinky alternative European history novels. Both DDs and I are reading the Gregor the Overlander series this summer. DD15 and I are reading the Modern Fairy trilogy by Holly Black, who young readers may know better as a collaborator on The Spiderwick Chronicles series. And I have been reading the Inspector Shan series from Eliot Pattison. They are complex murder mysteries, all set in Chinese-occupied Tibet. The author lives in the next county, and a local newspaper profile drew my attention. I haven't gotten anyone else to read those with me, yet.

Summer is a Peak Fiction Reading season for me, vacations for my brain, even if the rest of me cannot leave right now. Winter is another Peak Fiction Reading time, with long, dark days when I don't want to go outside in the arthritis-poking cold. You might have figured out, by now, that I am a voracious reader, although not as heavily as I once did. I don't speed read, I just read very fast. Books, magazines, newspapers, online zines, blog feeds. "Reader" is a primary descriptor for me.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Movie: Wanted

My interests extend beyond gardening and cooking, although it would be hard to tell from this blog. I enjoy gratuitous sex and violence, for instance, in movies and books. It's like a little vacation in surreality. Today, we managed to slip away from the kids and see a summer action movie, Wanted.

I've liked James McAvoy since the 2003 BBC mini-series State of Play (where I also first saw Bill Nighy and Danny Warren). The Last King of Scotland was incredible for McAvoy, Narnia was... odd. I didn't see him in Atonement yet. This must be the film where he tries on the action hero suit. I am not so sure it fits.

Wanted is based on a graphic novel, so the whole movie requires considerable suspension of disbelief. I didn't read the comic book, and I suspect that certain scenes were tied to it (like certain scenes in 300 were snapshots from the graphic novel). I've seen this Angelina Jolie before, as Mrs. Tomb Raider Smith. This must have been a contract fulfillment film for her - she isn't the star, just a vehicle for tattoos and eye makeup. I wanted more for the Marc Warren "Repairman" character, too. I like Warren in the BBC's Hustle series, and I was ready to see him step up to a bigger role, but this movie was not that step. He was just muscle, although he does have some memorable moments toward the end of the film. (No spoilers here.)

But don't get me wrong; I enjoyed this movie. It was full of cool visual effects and over-the-top violence. It moves fast and sometimes you catch yourself saying "Cool!" out loud. It was what it was intended to be - a summer action movie. Two hours in the air conditioning, watching people do stunts that are just beyond the edge of belief. Some reviewers are calling it a Matrix rip-off, but I don't see that. The plot is the classic "average schmuck finds out he is secretly someone way cooler." A little closer to Fight Club.

So far this summer, I have only seen Iron Man (Downey *did* become an action hero), and KungFu Panda (amazing animation). Much as I like the big screen, theatre tickets are $9.50 now ($6.50 at matinee).
I am only planning to see these in the theatre: HellBoy II (Guillermo del Toro, Death Race (Jason Statham is another fav of mine), and Dark Knight (for the Ledger performance),

Waiting for Cable: Narnia II, Speed Racer, Indiana Jones, Hancock, X Files 2, The Mummy 3, The Clone Wars.
I like comedy and drama, too - but nothing is really catching my eye among the blockbusters. I don't think I ever want to see Will Ferrell again. I will have to watch the smaller films and festival prizes for that, I guess.

Memo to self: Remember to see In Bruges, which we missed in February. Been a slow year for Colin Farrell movies.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Rainy 4th of July Photos

Most activities were rained out today, including fireworks, cherry-picking, and a bandshell concert. We spent the day cooking, catching up on recorded TV shows, and reading. I took advantage of a break in the rain to take some garden photos.

The yellow onions are ready to be harvested when it dries out:

A spiderweb caught a lot of raindrops:

Potted guara leaning over to kiss the celery:

Last of the roses:

Mystery cabbages:

Lotta basil:

Japanese Bloodgrass:


Thursday, July 3, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 10

Planted: More cabbage transplants, more basil transplants. Those three flats that were labeled lettuce, broccoli, and cabbage - I am no loner sure any of them were labeled right. The "head lettuce" looks and feels like cabbage (above). Oh well, we will see what grows. If those are cabbage, I'm going to have to thin the ones in fish boxes.

Harvested: Carrots, rosemary, parsley, basil, green onions. I pulled up two potato plants that were wilted and got 1.5 lb of new red potatoes - enough for skillet-smashed taters with garden herbs.

Preserved: Froze 2 lbs. of raspberries. Dried local sage and oregano from the market. Froze fresh-squeezed lemon juice in cubes, and dried grated lemon rind. Froze mashed bananas in 1 cup baggies.

I was planning to can cherry pie filling, but we went through 13lb of cherries like locusts. Obviously, we need to pick FAR more cherries for me to have any left to can.

Cooked: Although it was hot, we made pie. DH made Coconut Sweet Potato Pie that was to-die-for, for a family picnic. My Pickled Red Beet Eggs went over fairly well - but its hard to top PIE. I also made sweet cherry yogurt, and a new banana bread recipe with spelt flour.

Baked a big spiral ham from the freezer, that I bought for only about $6 - a warehouse store near me heavily discounted Easter hams when they neared expiration. Next year, I will buy more hams. We got dinner, a large pasta salad I call "Ham on Rye", breakfast ham slices, and a lot of sandwiches from that.

Bought 4 more 8' bamboo poles at the market. Bought a year+ of red miso paste - it's a Japanese import, but I am wary of US soy products, which are 90% from GMO seeds. There are organic US producers, but none closer than Massachusetts, and I can't find it locally.

Bought a cherry pitter. Stored ketchup, mayo, cider vinegar, ground cumin, soy sauce, cane sugar, honey, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide. During a long car ride, we all worked on making a list of toiletries and other personal necessities that each person wanted to stock up, and estimated how much we would use in a year.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Bought a big box of old church candles to use and/or remelt into votives. Trash-picked 2 boxes of Gulf canning paraffin. Approached landlord about insulating attic, in case we are still here in next winter.

Local: Attended a screening of Good Food, a film about the Seattle area's organic farming community. Met a lot of new and interesting people, and heard about a group that might be starting to carpool for food shopping (too far from me, but useful as a model). Thinking harder about how to get involved, feeling a project coalescing, but feeling uncertain about our own family's future in this specific place.

Did some matchmaking at our small Sunday producer market: the soapmaker was having trouble finding lye, and I introduced her to the pretzel-maker, who also uses lye - they can buy cooperatively.

Learned: That Pennsylvania has a strong wind energy community, apparently a pet project of current PA governor Ed Rendell. Learned how to manually pollinate zucchini.

I have been collecting slow cooker recipes. I like the convenience, and it's a great substitute for the oven in the summer. Also, most slow cooker recipes will easily transfer to a solar cooker. But I hate the old "canned soup" style of recipe - I want to use fresh and whole foods. Found a good cookbook at the library: Better Than Mom's Slow Cooker Recipes, that I am buying used on Amazon. Lots of recipes with fresh herbs, beans, inexpensive cuts of meat, etc.

Ordered A Modern Herbal (Volumes 1&2) by Margaret Grieve. An older (1971), well-reviewed two-volume reference that sounds like the comprehensive guide I need.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Soapy Jug of Doom

When I went out to take down some laundry, there was a Japanese Beetle on a sheet. Argh! I went inside and made a new Soapy Jug of Doom for the season. I cut down a half-gallon jug and filled it half-way with soapy water. Then I keep it handy outside to knock beetles into. I already see some skeletal rose leaves.