January 5, 2016

Updates – House Edition

Projects have been happening inside the house as well as outside, especially since cold weather set in. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a semi-stay-at-home mom now, and over the summer I was taking all online courses, which meant I had quite a bit of flexibility during the day to putter around. I didn’t do anything major, just a few little things here and there, like framing some of our photos and hanging them, shuffling furniture around, putting up a shelf…you know, typical housewife stuff, ha.

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I even finished slipcovering the large couch. Finally! Slipcovers are essential when you have pets. And babies. Actually, they’re essential when humans are inhabiting your house in general.

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Although I feel I have less large blocks of free time now, I do have more little bursts of it, and I’m actually in the house more often to tackle small projects. For example, I turned the entryway of our kitchen into a disco club:

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See, there’s no overhead light in the entry, and the lighting in the kitchen itself is garish. I finally decided I’d had enough oppression, so I fixed it. I quite like the result. Mr. Smith found it entertaining.

Speaking of the kitchen, our small dining table got a bum leg back in June, so we swapped it out with a folding table we’ve been using for hangouts in the backyard. The idea was that Jason would fix the little table, but we all decided we liked the big white table so much that I gave it a fresh coat of paint and called it even.

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I was hesitant to leave it at first; we don’t have a large kitchen, and I didn’t like the idea of taking up more floor space than necessary. However, six months later, I don’t regret making the swap in the least. It’s another surface to use when cooking, it looks awesome, and we can easily accommodate friends at a meal. The only downside of having a white table is that it begins to look “distressed” pretty quickly. Kid life, you know?

We’ve also been playing move the baby’s room for a few months. Finn started out sleeping in our bedroom. When she was about seven months old, we moved her into the nursery. It wasn’t a fun decision, but she was keeping us awake, and we were keeping her awake, and moving her into her own room actually helped everyone sleep better. Her nursery is the room that we were using as a sort of dining room/laundry room/game room/room to put random crap in. I never really liked it until it became hers. We got her a rug, and it was an incredibly cozy, fun space.

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And then we moved her out of it.

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Mr. Smith has been wanting to knock out the wall between the living room and her room for some time, and replace it with a two-sided bookcase. The rooms will still be separate, but the wall will become a built in. He started the whole process in December, beginning with moving Finn out while construction is underway. We did some shuffling with the office/art room, so now she’s tucked away under the eaves upstairs. My sewing supplies are still residing up there, as well as the guest bed (which comes in handy when your baby won’t go back to sleep at four in the morning and you just need to lie down). Mr.’s desk and all office-related furnishings are hanging out in the corner of what was her room downstairs, because the desk doesn’t need naps, and therefore isn’t affected by the wall being knocked out.

While I prefer her being downstairs, her little nook upstairs isn’t bad at all. It’s a pain trudging up and down the steps with a heavy baby, but she seems to enjoy where she’s at.

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Also, we’re getting a bookcase! Do you know that we have about twenty boxes of books in storage? He’s building it out of maple, and designing it from scratch without a pre-printed plan. And no, Mr. Smith is not a professional woodworker. He’s learning as he goes along. He’s probably the only person I know who possesses just the right balance of meticulousness and raw bravery to accomplish such a feat, ha. I’m excited. I know he’ll do well, and I really can’t wait to unpack our books at last! To me, that will be the final stage of moving in.

January 2, 2016

Updates – Yard Edition

And, here we are again! I am sincerely sorry about the lack of updates. Being a mother and being a student is like working a full-time job and then punching in at a part-time job in the evenings. But, it’s winter break right now, and I finally feel like I’ve caught my breath again.

So, here are some things that happened since my last write. I have quite a few updates, so I’m planning on breaking them up into several different posts. Stay tuned, my dumplings.

Harvest totals

My harvest totals were a bit low this year. This being my fourth growing season, I’ve learned a few things about the general environment of my garden; what grows well, what doesn’t grow well, and why. In terms of what does well, tomatillos are an easy, prolific plant. I’ve grown them now for two years in a row, and I’m to the point where I find tomatillo salsa (salsa verde) preferable to tomato salsa. I use this recipe. The only downside of it is that it’s not acidic enough to can without a pressure canner. My dad also made a batch this summer and adapted it for water-bath canning, so I’ll have to give that a try next year. A word of caution with tomatillos: they take up a lot of space. They’re a floppy, leggy plant, and they often send up volunteers the next summer that don’t produce nearly as well. Now that I’m aware of this, I’ll be more diligent about pulling up the volunteers. Some of them nearly took over the potato patch this year. Other plants that did well were greens (kale, chard, and spinach), and root crops (beets and carrots). This is two years in a row that those particular crops have performed well, which tells me my soil health and texture is improving.

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My garlic harvest was wonderful. My dad gave me some bulbs from a grower local to his area, and they produced the most beautiful, uniform offspring. It’s like stock-photo garlic. I don’t know the variety, but the gentlemen he bought it from is an Irishman by the name of Flaherty, so for the time being, Flaherty garlic is now my staple garlic. I seeded just a small row of some of the other heirloom varieties in the fall. We use garlic in basically every meal we eat, and although it’s fairly inexpensive to purchase at the grocery store, there really is no comparison between the two in terms of flavor and fragrance. I’m glad to have a big bag of it down in the basement.

I also grew pumpkins again this summer, after taking a break last year. I know they’re more ornamental than practical, but I like growing them. There’s something absurd about a giant orange pumpkin just hanging out in the vines. I grow ‘Cinderalla’ pumpkins, which are a French heirloom. This year, I had three large squash set, and three smaller ones. They decorated the front porch. If I had been a bit more diligent, I could have boiled some of them down for pumpkin mash, but, well, babies. Next year I’m growing another variety in addition to ‘Cinderalla’, so perhaps I’ll set some aside for boiling down.

The final thing that performed well was a new addition: broomcorn. I’ve had an old packet of seeds sitting around for a few years, and finally got around to planting them when the weather started staying warm. Corn is a tough thing for me to grow (more on that later), but broomcorn really did great. Now, granted, it’s another purely ornamental thing, but I enjoyed the bright brooms that it produced.

Not everything grew well, though. It was a bad summer for rabbit damage. They mowed down my corn, edamame, and beans. I tried to be diligent about spraying my pepper spray, but it was hard to keep up with it, mostly because I didn’t want to be handling it when I was out in the yard with Finn. I suppose it’s nothing a good fence won’t solve, though. I’ve tried growing popcorn for three years now, and I’m determined to make it happen someday.

After an amazing onion harvest last year, this year was awful. I’m almost certain it had to do with soil texture. I rotate my crops, and the particular triangle I planted them in this year really needed some amendments. The ground was hard, and didn’t hold water evenly. Next summer, I’ll put the onions in one of the areas I’ve been amending with green manure and compost. I really, really enjoyed having onions in storage all winter, and I would like to make that a regular thing. I’ve always had trouble with tomatoes, though. I have several theories on this. The first is that my timing is off in terms of seeding dates. I’ve been starting them around the first weekend in May, because I don’t want them to get leggy under the grown lights before its warm enough to put them outside. However, they’re never quite big enough around planting time, and so I’ve been transplanting them mid-June. This year, I’ll try earlier seed dates. My other theory (one I’m hoping is NOT true) has to do with the giant black walnut tree in our neighbor’s yard. Its crown just barely reaches the far southeastern edge of my garden. Black Walnuts have allopathic properties; that is, they secret a chemical called juglione which is toxic to plants in the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers). If any of the fruit, leaves, or roots come into contact with these particular plants, it can either kill them entirely or inhibit their health. Obviously, I can’t do anything about my neighbor’s tree, so I’m crossing my fingers that this isn’t the case. I will say that I have better success with cherry/grape tomatoes than large fruits, and I also have no issues growing potatoes, so that gives me a bit of hope.

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My overall consensus is that my soil still has a long way to go. I may have to pay for another load of compost/topsoil this spring, or look into spreading some gypsum. I think my nutrient balance is fine, but the heavy clay is difficult to work with.

Maintenance stuff

I did another ladybug release this summer. This is my third year in a row. I always have good success with them, and they keep the aphids at bay. We had an unusually warm fall, and curiously, I saw a good many ladybugs clustering along the south side of the house and garage. I don’t know if this means that they’re establishing themselves in our yard, or if it was weather-related.

I also did a weird, mad-scientist-type-experiment. I ordered some beneficial nematodes and sprayed the garden/yard with them. Basically, I got this sponge full of faint, grey powder, which I had to immerse in water. The powder turned into a sort of thin sludge. Those are the nematodes. They’re invisible to the naked eye. Once rehydrated, you distribute them via garden sprayer in the soil at the base of your plants. They burrow down, where they start feasting on the larvae of pest bugs. It’s really weird. But I do have to admit, I had very few pest problems this summer. Also, the little monsters are good for keeping flea populations down in your yard. We had a horrific flea outbreak last fall, just before Finn was born, and so I’m all for doing anything to keep that under control. In a neighborhood where dogs and squirrels run amok, fighting fleas in the yard is difficult. However, both the dog and the cat haven’t had a single flea on them for months. I don’t know if the nematodes have anything to do with this, but it certainly didn’t hurt anything to send them out into the gardens.

We had an excellent compost yield this fall. Enough to put a thick layer on one of the large triangles, and a thin layer over another. Compost is so beautiful. So loamy, and fragrant, and dark.

Finally, I continued on my quest of planting for pollinators. One of the easiest ways to do this is by bordering your gardens with marigolds and nasturtiums. These plants do double-duty; the bees love the bright red flowers, and they help repel pests. Guys, I had monarch butterflies in my garden this summer. I can’t remember the last time I saw a monarch butterfly. We had honeybees, bumblebees, and hummingbirds, too. The presence of so many pollinator is a sure sign that our yard’s environment is really improving.

Fence it in

Jason dug all the posts for my fence. Gah. I love that man. I love that he loves digging holes, and making fence plans. What a guy. The posts are untreated cedar. It’s quite pricey, but it lasts a long time without needing to be treated for weatherization. And it smells like the Garden of Eden. Hopefully this summer we’ll begin to set the actual fencing in place.

Ornamental gardens

Having been inspired by my first semester in hort school, I decided that our front yard needed some help. I dug up the mailbox garden and put in two quarter-circle plots on either side of the front walk, where it connects to the sidewalk. There’s some flowering bulbs out there, waiting for spring, as well as some hollyhocks and some vining plants.

I also re-dug the front foundation gardens and set the borders on a curve, lining them with some landscaping rocks I found on a vacant lot (which may or may not have been up for grabs. I’m still not sure). After re-doing the borders, I added some ornamental grasses, native perennials, and some flowering herbs. I did most of the work in the fall, so I’ll be interested to see what makes it through the winter. If all goes well, our front yard will look much better in the future.

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Finally, I attacked the south garden. It was time. The rosebushes were getting leggy and sickly, the bishop weed was completely out of control, and what healthy perennials were managing to survive just weren’t worth it. I pulled almost everything up, leaving the healthy parts of the rosebushes, the clematis, and the honeysuckle vine. In place of the old plants, I transplanted my two lavender bushes, and purchased some ‘Elijah Blue’ grass, as well as some creeping thyme for the border. Further down, away from the concrete, I put in an ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea. It was a sad, tiny thing, on fall clearance, so we’ll see if it even survives the winter. The bishop weed is very difficult to eradicate. Since the initial clean-up, I’ve gone through four or five times already and dug up more rhizomes. I know it will be probably a good year or two before its completely gone, but I think it’s worth the effort. Bishop weed is invasive, not to mention unattractive. If everything survives, the south garden will be much more orderly and well-maintained.

Overall, it’s been the year of major design changes in the yard. We’ve lived here for enough growing seasons that I know what looks good and what is just ugly, easy-to-grow filler plant material. Next summer, I’m going to continue establishing perennials in the front gardens, keeping the south garden clear, and potentially starting a rain garden in the gully between our house and the next property to the north. As usual, there’s never a dull moment in our yard.

June 26, 2015

Dairy is back on the menu

We took a little trip up to Door County earlier this month. It would be a crying shame to visit Fish Creek and NOT have some ice cream, right? Right. So, I took a chance and indulged in my first taste of (cow milk) ice cream in three months.

So, I did it. I may regret it once the dairy hits Finn's system, but oh my. It was so good. Also, my nails matched my ice cream. #bluemoon #firsticecreamin3months

Yeah, I order the little kid flavors. I’m over it.

The good news is that Finn seemed to do just fine. I had a few other tastes of dairy throughout the trip – some cheese, butter in various pastries, etc. A week later and I think we’re officially in the clear. I’m still planning on using almond/coconut milk for most of my baking/breakfast needs because I’ve come to prefer the taste and texture, but I can’t lie, I’m really looking forward to having ice cream and cheese in my life again, and to not worrying about menu ingredients when we go out to eat. Hurray Little Finn! Way to mature into your Wisconsin-ness.

June 25, 2015

No E(scape)

I know, that was terribly cheesy.

It’s garlic scape season in our garden. If you’ve never heard of scapes before, they’re the flowering part of a hardneck garlic plant. It looks like a long, curly stalk. They taste like garlic (duh) but without the bite. You can use them in stir fries, omelettes, or, like me, in soups.

Scape potato soup with kale and thyme. I love eating out of the garden.

The great part about scapes is that the garlic bulbs actually grow bigger if you harvest the scape, because it redirects the energy that the plant is expending into reproduction back into the root system. See, I did learn something in Hort class.

Anyway, you probably won’t be able to find them in your local grocery store, but if you can get to a farmers market, pick up a pound or two! Below is the recipe I used for soup. It’s a combination of a few that I read online, and in typical Johanna fashion, is mostly improvised.

Garlic Scape Soup with Red Potatoes and Kale

Ingredients:
2-3 cups garlic scapes, chopped into 3″ lengths
6 cups chicken stock (more or less, depending on how thick you want your soup)
10 red potatoes, chopped into thick chunks
1 pound kale, chopped into large pieces

Saute your garlic scapes in olive oil until slightly browned and tender. Add chicken stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Puree the stock/scapes in a full-size blender (immersions won’t do the job, sorry) and return to pot. Add potatoes and simmer until spuds can be pierced easily with a fork, then add the kale. Remove from heat and let the kale soften for about five minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and thyme to taste. You could also add sausage or bacon – if I make this again, I’ll definitely be doing that!

June 17, 2015

Cheese, Please

Up until about a month ago, Finn was exclusively breastfed. We started letting her try some simple fruits and veggies recently in addition to nursing. Somewhere around her 3-month mark, we realized that any time I had dairy, she had quite a bit of difficulty digesting what came through my milk for days afterward. Lots of throwing up, runny diapers, and general crankiness. So, I did something that’s been really, really difficult for a born-and-bred Wisconsin native to do: I gave up dairy.

It wasn’t hard in everyday life. Neither Boo nor I have regularly used cow milk for anything. He likes soy, I like coconut. And almost all of our recipes could stand some easy substitutions: coconut oil for butter, applesauce for yogurt, and so on. But where it got to be maddening was when it came to “treat” foods – eating out, eating over at friend’s houses, deserts, snacks…I hated being “that person” at get-togethers or restaurants. What’s more, it’s a little convoluted to explain. People ask, “Oh, so you’re allergic to dairy?” and I have to clarify that, no, I’m not, but I’m breastfeeding and we think our baby is at least lactose intolerant and we really don’t want inconsolable bouts of crying/throwing up, so please, allow me to pass on the butter.

Trying out some avocado!

But, I mean, just look at those rolls.

Anyway, I’m optimistic that dairy might not bother her as much anymore. For one thing, she’s spending quite a bit more time sitting up or on her belly, which makes digestion easier overall. Also, she’s had a good variety of fruits and vegetables, and hasn’t reacted negatively to any of them. I’m going to tentatively try re-introducing dairy into my diet again. And, honestly, I’m probably going to start with ice cream.

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And then cheese. A dry, aged cheddar cheese. Heck, right now I’d settle for the $2.50 block of pepperjack.

Oh well, soon enough. I’ll probably look back on this time and wonder why it ever seemed like a big deal…right?

June 13, 2015

Backyard Camping

We have some camping plans for the summer, but weren’t quite sure how that was going to work out with a baby. So, to test the waters, we set up our tent in the backyard and slept outside last weekend. I’ll confess that we cheated a little bit; I put Finn to bed in her crib inside at the normal time, and brought the baby monitor outside while Jason and I had a bonfire and grilled out. When we got ready to go to bed, I brought her into the tent and tucked her in with me. I was sort of worried about where exactly she would sleep, but it turned out to be easy enough to share my sleeping bag. She occasionally ends up in our bed if she’s having a rough night, so I’m already comfortable co-sleeping. Plus, it solved the problem of how to keep her warm, as it got down almost in the 40’s that night.

Tent mornings. Finn slept like a champ. #campingwithbabies #babesinthewoods #backyardcamping

Another from this morning.

She slept great, which, obviously, means that we both slept pretty good, too. Turns out that she seemed to really enjoy being in the tent. She kept looking around with wide eyes when we first brought her in, and we ended up playing in there for most of the next day.

Now, let’s hope that the real thing goes just as smoothly!

June 11, 2015

Finished!

Well, it’s actually been finished for awhile, but let me present the final layout of the vegetable garden:

Finished! And it's mostly straight 😋. Now, to plant.

Truly, I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I know that, technically, I could fit in more if I did a long rectangle with straight rows, but because I spend so much time back there, I wanted the garden to be something that was aesthetically pleasing. Eventually, we’re going to enclose it with a good fence, and incorporate some built-in benches and trellises. Right now, I’m just really proud that we got this far!

Some practical stuff: I use free mulch from the Milwaukee self-help recycling center. I know that not everyone is comfortable doing that, but we’ve always used mulch from their pile and never had any problems with it. I laid down thick layers of wet newspaper underneath to help smother the weeds. I do my mulching this way for two reasons 1). It’s free. Duh. 2) Both the mulch and newspaper decompose eventually, adding more organic matter to the soil. In essence, it turns a functional pathway into another potential thoroughfare for earthworms, which are really important in my heavy clay soil. I need to do all that I can to give them cool, damp spots in the garden!

June 4, 2015

It’s that time of year

On Sunday, I:

  • Harvested six pounds of rhubarb
  • Chopped said six pounds for half an hour
  • Canned nine half-pints of my famous rhubarb ginger jam
  • Admired my shiny jars of jammy goodness with bleary eyes, because, as much satisfaction as I get out of canning, it is always more work than I remember it to be!

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June 1, 2015

Two and a half sixes

In the past two weeks, we celebrated two important “six” occasions:

Finn is six months old!

She would love to be able to crawl but just can't quite figure it out yet!

This little toot has now passed the half year mark. That cliche saying, about how quickly time goes by when you have a baby? Well, it’s mostly true. I say mostly because there’s also an aspect of it that feels just right. We love her in every stage that she’s at, and each one is more exciting than the last. She certainly does make it hard to get anything done, not just because she has an amazing amount of needs for us to fill, but also because she’s so darn awesome. Nothing is fun the way that hanging out with your kid is fun. She loves smiling, grabbing onto skin/dreadlocks/beards, giggling after a diaper blowout, and gnawing on anything she can fit in her mouth. After multiple attempts at stealing food out of our hands, we tried some solids this past month with entertaining results. Aside from avocados, she seemed to like everything we fed her, especially sweet potatoes. I’ll have to try to trick some into growing for us next year! Now that the garden is just starting to produce, I’m excited to be able to offer her lots of fresh vegetables over the summer. Although she would dearly love to get mobile and start crawling, she’s fairly stationary at the moment, which is a bit of a relief for me. I’m sure it will be highly fascinating to watch her scoot around when the time comes, but for right now, it’s nice to be able to lay her down on a play mat and not have to worry about her going too far.

This little peach is 6 months old today!

Our marriage is six years old!

Today we left our baby with @holldahl.mke and went on a real date. It was scary.

Boo and I celebrated our six-year anniversary this past weekend. Another couple from our house church graciously took Finn for the evening, and we tried out a new place for supper and an old haunt for some games and drinks afterwards. Also, Boo made me three new mix tapes, which, if you know me, you know that nothing gets me more than a good mix tape ;). In our early days of courtship, we indirectly flirted with one another by trading mix tapes. Obviously, it worked.

I won’t lie – having a baby takes its toll on a relationship. We’ve had to get used to having a lot less time for slow conversations, or random movie nights, or spontaneous trips out into the city. And while it’s quite endearing to watch each other grow as parents, we still feel it’s important to focus solely on one another. I see so many new parents shift all of their attention and affection onto their kids, and justify their relationship with their spouse by saying things like, “Oh, it’s so romantic when he changes a diaper and cuddles with the baby! I love him so much for that!”  And don’t get me wrong, I love Finn, and I also love watching Boo love her, but as hard as it is to imagine, someday Finn (and her potential siblings) will head off into the world on their own. When that happens, I don’t want to feel as though Jason and I have spent two decades of our marriage ignoring one another in light of our children. So, we do what we can. Sometimes that means sitting down to a late dinner after she goes to sleep, or planning our dates around activities that can involve a jogging stroller, but I think we do a decent job of it. I still really like him :).

It's a good day in Door County, kids.

We’ve spent three years in the little house!

And we still love it here! Now that I’m home more often, I love it even more. Our neighborhood, our garden, our way of life,..everything feels just right. The very best days are days when when all three of us hang out in the yard and watch June chase squirrels and play with the neighbor’s dog. We’ve been here long enough that things look different from the year that we moved in – paint colors have changed drastically, trees that we planted are finally getting bigger, and the garden has gone from one raised bed to a beautiful potager. We’re looking forward to the days when Finn is old enough to run wild with the other kids on our street, or to build forts in the forest at Havenwoods. Life is very good here on the north side of Milwaukee.

May 22, 2015

An Ode to the Ripe Scent of Fish Emulsion

This isn’t really any sort of ode, but I couldn’t think of a more appropriate title for my first blog post in almost a year. And I do actually smell like fish emulsion from my garden’s weekly drench.

When we parted last, I was six months pregnant. Well, obviously, I’m no longer pregnant. I’m almost six months past being pregnant, in fact. And here is what I have to show for it:

Finn loved the magnolia tree.

Finavaire Andrea came roaring into our family right on her due date, November 26. You can read her birth story here. She is absolutely amazing. We call her Finn. I never knew what a paradigm shift having a child could be, or how within mothering there exists a strange dichotomy of wanting to spend every breathing moment in all of the cuddling/giggling/facemaking/dancing that comes with the territory and yet feeling so blissfully liberated after laying her down to sleep for the night. It’s weird. Weird and really wonderful.

As if child-rearing wasn’t enough for me, Boo and I made the decision as a family that I wouldn’t be returning to my church secretary job after Finn’s birth. Instead, I finally put my big girl pants on and did something that I’ve talked about for years: I enrolled in a local technical school’s horticulture program. My last class of my first semester took place on Wednesday, which explains the fact that I actually have a few spare minutes to blog.

Obviously, there is quite a bit I could unpack about everything I’ve shared thus far, but my hope is that I will be able to blog regularly, at least for the summer, and be able to unpack things in smaller pieces instead of dumping them in piles before your curious eyes. In the meantime, I will tentatively say that it’s good to be back. I’ll also leave you with a photo of what my vegetable garden looks like, because I’m really quite pleased with how it’s shaping up.

Got more than halfway done. We need another load of mulch and more newspapers to finish, but I'm already in love with how it's turning out.

Be still, my circular-loving heart.

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