Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Homemade Lotion

Now that Christmas is over and the gifts have been given (I hope you girls enjoy), I can share the latest family project we've been working on: making lotion at home from natural ingredients. I found several recipes online (check out here and here if you'd like to see the inspiration for this recipe), and have outlined our "personalized" approach below. The results are a bit greasier than commercial lotion, but I have loved putting it on my feet at night with a pair of socks to cover it. Resulting skin is smooth and smells great. :)


1 cup filtered water or cold brewed tea
3/4 cup oil (olive, almond, or coconut)
1 tsp vitamin E oil
3 Tbsp. beeswax (grated or pellets)
Optional essential oil for fragrance

Add beeswax to oil of choice in a glass measuring cup or mason jar. You can use pellets or, if you have beeswax from a hive or block, you can shave it. Also add vitamin E oil now.

 Heat the oil and beeswax (still in the measuring cup or mason jar) in a pot of water on the stove. Heat it until the wax has melted. You'll know this has happened when you can't see shavings or pellets anymore.
 It looks like this when it's completely melted. Remove from hot water.
 Add the oil/wax mixture to the water/tea already in your food processor or blender. Keep the water moving as you very slowly add the oil mixture. You'll see the oil mixture begin to congeal (that's the white looking stuff in this picture). If you're adding essential oil for fragrance, do it now. I added lavender to this batch.
 This is how it will look once the oil mixture has been mixed for a minute or so.
 This is a horrible picture, I know. What I was trying to show here was some water along the sides. Do you see it? You can just pour off the extra water, mix again, and pour off the extra water again until you don't see much water separating anymore.
 Once the extra water has been poured off, this is how it will look.
 You're ready to put your lotion into jars when it reaches this consistency. Notice the clean glass jar in this picture? You'll want to keep the lotion in glass because so many plastics can leech nasty chemicals into your lovely natural product.
 Here's how they look when finished. These are 4 oz jars, and this batch filled them up pretty well. The recipe makes about 2 cups, but remember that it's going to be very hard to get all of it out of your blender or food processor. I filled these jars and used the rest to give my husband and myself a nice foot rub. :)
Note that this is a natural product made without preservatives. Store it at room temp for 3 months or up to 6 months in the fridge. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Making Homemade Vegetable Stock

I can't take credit for knowing how to do this- my mother in law (via my husband, I think) taught me how to make the most of veggie scraps by making stock. I use this method now all the time because it not only makes the most of the wonderful organic vegetables we get from our local farm, but because it avoids buying the sodium-ridden stuff you can buy at the store. It's fast, easy, freezable, and healthy. Can't beat it!

First, you must save some veggie scraps. Of course you can use whole carrots, celery, onions and the like, but why? As I'm cutting veggies for other meals, I put the usable scraps (that's the edible, clean pieces that just don't make it into my dish du jour) into a repurposed yogurt container in my freezer. Flavorful veggies are best, but they all can go in. When the container is full, it's time to make stock.

Pour the veggie scraps into a large pot and cover with water. You should aim for about 4-6 cups of veggies, and you can always add a whole onion or garlic for flavor. There are no exact measurements- just put the veggies into the pot and cover with water (how much will depend upon the size of your pot- I use a 6 quart). Then turn on the burner and let it come to a boil for an hour or and hour and a half. That's right, no specific time requirement, either. Just boil the mixture until the water becomes, well, vegetable stock. You'll know it's happened when the liquid is dark and tastes like stock. Feel free to add salt and pepper to taste, although I don't bother. Then let it cool completely because it's easier to measure out when it's cool.

Regrettably, I don't have a picture of the last step, but it's pretty straight-forward. You strain the liquid from the veggie scraps. I do this through a strainer right into a large measuring cup. I measure out several one-cup, two-cup and four-cup containers (make sure they are freezer safe because you keep the homemade stock in the freezer). Label the containers and stick them in the freezer- they are good for about six months. Don't forget to reserve the remaining veggie mush for your compost pile- because it's soft and cooked down it will be a quick compost additive.

Then make your vegetable soup! The picture below is the product of the homemade veggie stock, some cubed potatoes, green beans, cubed sirloin beef, tomatoes, carrots and kale. I make this soup by adding the listed veggies to the stock (already in the pot) and boiling them until tender. Again, salt, pepper, garlic, etc. can be added to taste.

You now have a completely healthy, homemade, frugal family meal! Serve with homemade biscuits for extra yum. :)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lessons Learned in Homeschooling

"Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve." - Roger Lewin

I have been thinking a lot about this quote lately. I saw it on a friend's blog (who happens to have a home preschool) a few days ago and it struck a cord with me. I used to complain bitterly about kids in my public school classroom (when I taught high school) not being able to really question; rather, they were experts in discerning what the teacher wanted to hear and regurgitating it. We even reduced critical thinking problems to exercises in rote memory by doing the problems "together" on the board, having students copy the process, then testing them on it. Seldom did I have a student in class who was capable of hearing information, interpreting it, sharing their values and opinions, and creating a plan of action to address the problem/information. I blamed a lacking school system (and social structure, but let's not go down that road). It was so frustrating- and alarming.

Yet, what did I do when I began to teach my own children at home? What I had been taught to do in school myself- tell the children the fact, make them learn it, make them repeat it... the very same approach which had created the capricious students I taught in the public schools. Without thinking about what I was doing, I created specific hours when the children and I would sit at the kitchen table to "do school" and I mandated that we finish each lesson, each day so we didn't "fall behind". Sure, I finessed a lot more than I could in the mainstream classroom, and we often ate while we worked or wore our pajamas... but the fundamental approach was the same. Worst yet- the assumption that I was the one with all the answers to impart to the children- was the same.

At first it seemed OK because we were all excited to be embarking on this homeschooling journey together. But after a month or so the kids were complaining about doing school and I wasn't enjoying it, either. Suddenly, this freeing and exciting process wasn't either- it was plain, old school and I wondered what I was doing wrong?

So we took a break... for the month of November. Yes, the whole month. We did only the things that inspired us- when a child wanted to pull out one of the math books to do a few problems, we did. We learned to count by baking a lot. We did some fun looking science experiments we found on the internet. I set up a bulls eye with the alphabet in my kitchen and challenged the kids to hit the correct letters with a Nerf gun as I called them out. We learned how to say "I eat spinach!" in Japanese by watching dubbed over Popeye on YouTube. Don't misunderstand- we did a lot of learning, just not the way that I had learned how to learn.

Again I find myself at a crossroad. So short a time after I began my homeschooling journey I find that I must stop and re-evaluate. Typically I would see this as failure, but somehow that's not the case this time. The one constant that homeschooling has provided me and my family over the past four months has been forgiveness and flexibility, even as they apply to our perceptions of ourselves. I am slowly- oh, so slowly- beginning to realize that there is more than one way to do this well, and that the ways may change over time. I'm not failing, I'm just learning right along with the kids. I used November to read a lot of books about homeschooling, and to brush up on approaches I'd learned about in graduate school but never had the chance to practice. I am so looking forward to trying them out, scrapping some, embracing others, and discovering our own unique family blend of "school."

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Beginnings of Homeschooling

 Someone recently asked me why we would ever homeschool our children. I used to own and operate a daycare from my home, so it seemed (at least relatively) natural that I would do preschool at home to begin with, and it seemed to be reasonably accepted at first. After all, it was still "real" school to some extent, because I had a class full of kids in my kitchen each day, not just my own.

When I closed daycare last spring, and made my chief endeavor caring for the children, questions began to emerge from family and friends. We were going to send our oldest child to preschool, right? He missed the kindergarten age cut of by about three weeks, so he surely had to be "socialized" in a proper school setting before he went to kindergarten. Thank goodness he'd missed the enrollment date so that he'd have the chance!

My husband and I talked about it. And talked about it. And talked about it. We hail from very different backgrounds and therefore hold very different views about a variety of things- education included. Garrett worried that we would put our children at a social disadvantage by forcing them to "miss out" on the common experiences that public schools provide children in this country. He worried about committing to me earning only a part time salary on a long term basis. Would we really be meeting the needs of our young family if we relied exclusively on his income to provide for our family? On the other hand, I worried that our childrens' differing and unique needs (social, emotional and academic) would not be sufficiently met in the public school setting. I recalled all to well sacrificing some for the good of the majority while I was a teacher and I felt deeply committed to avoiding that circumstance for our children. We went round and round and round.

We still haven't completely come to a conclusion about what school will look like for our children. For now, I find the blessings of schooling my child (children, perhaps) at home to be very rewarding, and I remain open to the possibility of other rewarding experiences to come. So, while I cannot predict what the future holds for us, but I can remain content in what we have now.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Evolution of Chicken Ownership

Really, I don't quite know how this all started but somehow, some way, some one suggested to us that it would be neat to own chickens. This was about two years ago, at the beginning of our new-found and clear dedication to living more sustainably, so we jumped in with both feet. We found four Leghorns on Craigslist, a breed known for their superior laying but also their ornery behavior, and Garrett went to town building a coop for our new additions. I'll be perfectly honest here: we never named the chickens because we always had it in the back of our minds that if they didn't lay eggs for some reason then they might wind up as dinner themselves. That may sound cruel, but honestly we were trying to adopt a true farm mentality and have viewed our chickens as livestock, not pets, from the start. It took a couple months because they really are a picky and sensitive breed, but eventually we got eggs from our hens and were overjoyed to collect our 3 or 4 eggs per day.

Soon, however, we wanted more. There is something about this level of self-reliance which is terribly addictive to us, and we were excited to add to the flock. So the following spring we added 6 more chicks, bought "straight run," (in other words we don't know if they are hens or roosters yet) and raised them. It went well and we bought another set, as day-olds. We were also able to successfully raise this batch, although I will admit that I was very happy so see them head out to the coop to begin fending for themselves because in the very early days the chicks spent their lives in a Tupperware bin in my living room, which, toward the end of their infancy, didn't make my house smell very nice. In the interim we had a couple eaten by a fox, and wound up giving our Leghorns to a neighbor because they just couldn't seem to mingle with the new hens (and would bully them). We also discovered that one chick from the newest batch was a rooster, so Garrett bought an egg incubator and when the rooster comes of age we'll try our luck at egg incubation.

I love having chickens for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is watching my children interact with, and learn from, them. When one chicken died recently our next chicken dinner was somewhat suspicious to our son, who was absolutely sure that we were eating the deceased Americana. (We weren't, but only because neither my husband nor I have yet worked up the courage to pluck and skin a chicken personally.) It's fascinating in a natural and real way to consider the balance of their diet, the amount of time they can run around our yard versus being cooped up because we still live in a neighborhood, and their emotional well-being. (Oh yes- unhappy chickens don't lay eggs well!)

For the time being, we have 12 happy chickens and get enough eggs each week to give some away to the neighbors who put up with our rooster crowing in the early morning hours. Our son is charged with collecting the eggs from the nesting boxes, and our oldest daughter likes to sort them according to color. We eat them as a family and say our thanks for such an amazing opportunity.

My Growing Interest in Canning

I made applesauce this year from the freshly picked apples that we gathered over the weekend from a local orchard. This is something that I do every year, and isn't terribly remarkable in, and of, itself. I don't have a recipe for applesauce which I follow, but rather each year just make what moves me and add the ingredients that seem right at the time. Until this year, I've never had a complaint. Then again, this year's complaint came from a two-year-old who complains about everything, so I'm not taking it to heart. :)

The difference was that this year, rather than eating nothing but apples for two weeks straight as we usually do (think applesauce, apple pie, apple crumble, pork chops with baked apples, etc.), I decided to can the sauce so that we could enjoy it all year. I have recently become very interested- and very devoted to- the idea of canning, so I already knew how to do it and just had to find the time.

I fully admit that it's the "finding the time" part which is the most challenging. I always seem to have more "will" than "way," but I enlisted the help of the kids for a while last week and together, with one adding the sugar and another adding the cinnamon and nutmeg, we made a pretty good product. Because canning involves so much boiling water and hot glass I don't let the kids help me with that part, but they actually enjoyed themselves tremendously watching as I boiled jars and lids, set them out, added the sauce and the placed the jars into the large canning rack in the canner. They were so interested, in fact, that I began to have ideas about future homeschool lessons involving food preservation!

We have been eating our applesauce quickly, so I'm sure that it won't last all winter, but my hope is that sometime this winter, when the memories of fresh produce from the farm or orchard feel despairingly distant, we'll be able to open a can of our applesauce and enjoy not only the product, but also remember the time we spent together making it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The joy of line drying laundry

I just walked inside from hanging a load of laundry outside on the line, and I realized what a gift this simple little chore can be. OK, sometimes it's nothing more than a burden, but sometimes- most of the time- it's a few minutes of peace and quiet that I get outside with my thoughts. I steal away for five or ten minutes, and methodically hang my family's garments up to dry, being  mindful of the soothing nature of rhythmic work. I come back just a little more centered after accomplishing a little something good for my family and good for the earth.

Simple Mom thinks so, too. Check out her fabulous post on the top 5 reasons to line dry clothes. I'm a believer!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Value of Imperfection

It happened to me again today as I was making dinner. That same old feeling- tonight as I tried to arrange slices of turnip into a pie plate; I became frustrated at the odd shape of the vegetable. Yes, really.  Very, very frustrated, in fact. Thanks to the differing sizes of the turnips I'd used, they simply weren't aligning to create the pattern I wanted, but instead were overlapping and creating *gasp* second layers in some places! Some were too big, some too small, some were irregular because I'd peeled to much skin away...or not enough. "Stupid vegetables," it began in my head, "why don't you just do what I want?! It's not hard, and I'm not asking for much. Just size yourselves up right so that I can make one layer of turnip in the bottom of my pie plate!" Do I sound crazy yet? Just wait- it gets better.

This line of turnip-related-coup-thought naturally gave way to a much more sinister thought pattern, of the "How I Never Get What I Want" variety. Ever been there? It's a real peach of a place to visit. A place which rockets you from a slight sense of disappointment because dinner isn't going to be as pretty as you'd imagined, to self talk convincing enough to ensure that you never attempt to cook dinner again lest the result be a similar abysmal failure. Yes, it's embarrassing but true...and it's so easy to get there.

Thankfully though, the gods of reason intervened on my behalf. Maybe it's been the ridiculous number of self-help books I've been reading lately, or the quiet coaching from my husband, or perhaps it's been the silent prayers I've been uttering for weeks begging for a break in the "it must be perfect or it's not worth doing" attitude. Whatever the reason, I stopped it tonight. I actually stopped thinking that it had to be just right.

I suddenly, and quite without warning, found myself holding a slice of turnip- imperfect as it was- and appreciating it anyway. It was a red turnip, a variety I've never cooked with before, and it had the most amazing little purple veins through the hard white flesh. When I stopped to think about it, it was beautiful in the same way snowflakes are- a marvel because they are so delicate and unique. Encouraged by this first positive thought I began to consider all the things this little turnip had going for it- it was grown organically about a mile from my house on our CSA farm. It was hand picked by farmer Steven or his wife, and chosen by my son from a bin of a hundred other turnips. It smelled fresh and pungent- I could begin to guess that the au gratin dinner I was preparing was going to offer my family some wholesome nutrition made from local ingredients. In one short hour I would be extolling the virtues of said turnip in order to solicit a bite or two from my more reluctant dinnertime diners, so why was I berating them now? Because they didn't work into the pattern I had planned? Suddenly it seemed to silly.

There is a Chinese proverb which says, "gold cannot be pure, and people cannot be perfect." I would tend to agree, and I would add that neither can things be perfect. By definition we live in a world of beauty and awe, but not perfection. We're mortals, and the best we can hope for is aspiration to improve ourselves and our circumstances; in the meantime we must seek the artistry and value in the process. We have to be content with, if not happy about, our imperfect little turnips.

And for the record, dinner was delicious.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Eating Locally

We hear so much about eating locally these days, don't we? It seems simple enough: we should try to eat food that is produced as close to home as we can. The challenge, however, is in the application. Unless you've tried to eat local foods lately you might not even be aware of how much of our food is transported from afar, creating a huge carbon footprint in the process.

So what are we to do? Start small, I say. I've compiled a few simple tips that have helped our family to enjoy the natural abundance of local foods:

1. Find a Farmer's Market. This is an easy way to integrate local food into your diet, and it supports local farmers in the process! Farmer's Markets are usually held once or twice a week and they allow farmers to come and sell consumers their foods directly, which eliminates the expensive "middle man." You may not pay any less for these foods, but your farmer is keeping more of the profit, which helps to ensure that she'll be there next year to sell you some more great food! Want to find a farmer's market near you? Click here.

2. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Once you've mastered the farmer's market, you can take it to the next level by joining a CSA. These programs are designed to generate revenue for farmers in the spring, when their costs are highest, and to allow patrons to share in the bounty of the harvest all summer long. Patrons sign up directly with the farmer and physically visit the farm (or designated pick up spot) once a week to pick up a box of vegetables which have been produced that week. Full shares tend to be around $600 for the season in our area, but that can vary significantly by region. Our family has discovered it to be great fun to go to the farm each week to pick out our produce, and then to find applicable recipes to use! This week we've had ginger beef with bok choy, turnip gallete, and taco salads thanks to the fresh produce from our farm! (Hungry yet?)

As a side note: for those who eat meat, CSA's are available for that market as well. Our family purchases meat in bulk from a farm about a mile down the road from us and we store it in a deep chest freezer. Some farms will also sell meat in smaller portions, so it doesn't hurt to ask. Milk, eggs, and cheese can also be purchased through CSA's. 

3. Support a local business. Another great option for securing local food is to patronize, and really get to know, your local grocer. While it might be tempting to frequent a huge box store where you can get everything on your list, it's far more important to build community relationships, keep the cash flow among neighbors, and to develop a meaningful relationship with your food supplier so that you're always comfortable knowing where your food came from.

If a local marketplace isn't an option in your area, be sure to ask for local foods at your supermarket. Some big chains are getting on the bandwagon and are now labeling food that is produced locally so that you can make an effort to choose the tomatoes grown at the farm a couple of towns over rather than in another country. If you don't see clearly labeled local food then go ahead and ask for it. One local chain in our community didn't sell any local food at all until consumers began to demand it! Especially in today's economy your purchasing dollars have a lot of sway, so make them count.

4. Grow a garden or raise some animals. I am not naturally a gardener. Ask anyone- I can kill anything green faster than it takes to say, "oops, I forgot to water the plants." That aside, I've made some strides in recent years in terms of growing food, and my husband has been good enough to take on a considerable amount of that load. We don't grow all of our food by a long shot (that's what our CSA is for!), but we do grow some. Our garden this year includes watermelon, potatoes, tomatoes, dill, mint, thyme, lemon thyme, basil, rhubarb, onions, scallions, lettuces of several varieties, strawberries and raspberries. Sounds like a lot? Not really- we've used container gardening, bag gardening and raised beds to make it more manageable. After all, we have three kids under six so it's very important that our plan is simple!

Raising backyard chickens, a dairy cow or goat or a few meat animals are also an option for some. Granted, space requirements are challenging for many (as is the desire for many more!), but some families find great satisfaction in raising animals to meet their family's needs via meat, milk, eggs, wool and more.

5. Foraging. Believe it or not, this is still a valid form of securing nutrition! Here in Maine, we find wild blueberries and strawberries all over the place and are able to make great jams and sauces. You can do this anywhere in the country, but you need to check before you eat!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Turning an Old T-Shirt Into a Skirt

This is such a great idea from Sew Like My Mom that I had to share it!

 Want to try it yourself? Go here for directions.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Basic Gluten Free BBQ Sauce

Because I have Celiac Disease, which means I can't eat most grains, I have had to come up with some creative ways to cook in the kitchen. I have to make a lot of things from scratch because mainstream products aren't gluten free and specialty items are so expensive. So, I choose to make my own!

Here is my recipe for gluten-free BBQ Sauce.

1 can, 6 oz. tomato paste
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tbs. gluten free vinegar (nothing with malt, or that has had malt added after the distillation process)
1 tbs. mustard (I like Dijon)
1 tsp. chili powder
2 tbs. honey
2 tsp black pepper
2 tbs Worcestershire sauce (Lea and Perrins is GF in the United States, but not abroad- take note)

Mix tomato paste with about 3 ounces of water (half the can). When fully mixed then add the rest of the ingredients. You can add more or less water to achieve the proper consistency. Freezes well for up to 6 months and can be stored, opened,  in the fridge for up to a week.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Farmers Market 101

Farmer's Markets are increasing in popularity all over the country as awareness around the importance of locally grown and organic foods increases. They are a great way to feed your family healthful, local meals; are fun to attend; and can even save you money.

Since our CSA (community supported agriculture) program isn't yet producing yield, our family went into the farmer's market this morning to get our produce. This early in the season there isn't always a lot of harvested produce available, but the experience is one that we want to share with our children, and we needed to replace some plants which our chickens got ahold of in the garden!

Here are a few tips from our family to yours to help you navigate the waters of the market:

1. For the best selection, get there early; for the best deals, get there late
Our market opens at 7 am, and by 7:30 all of the really neat and unique stuff is likely to be gone. So if you're looking for a special variety of garlic or a particular type of lupine, your best bet is to get there early to beat the crowds. On the other hand, if you're there for the bargain, as I am, getting there late is advantageous. Often farmers will have leftovers that they'd rather unload then bring back to the farm. This is particularly true with perishables like cut flowers or lettuces. Today I bought a $4 bag of organic spinach for $2 because we were there as things were closing down.

2. Remember that this is still grocery shopping...
...so don't abandon your sense of a good deal.  Farmer's markets aren't designed to save you cash inherently- they are designed to support local business by funneling more profit directly to the farmer rather than through an intermediary. This is a very good thing for everyone concerned, but it's easy to get caught up in the experience and WAY overspend. So bring a grocery list that you've prepared and don't stray from it. If you see something great available at the market that you just have to try, then have your meal plan with you as well and make changes. For example, today I was able to get the last bunch of early asparagus. I hadn't included it in my meal plan, but because I brought it along I changed the side dish from one night of the week to be fresh asparagus and bought without reservations.

3. Go to the farmer's market before you go to the grocery store
Because you never know for sure what you're going to see at the market, you should go there first and buy what you can locally, and then head to your grocery store to fill in the gaps. There are some seasonal good bets- in early summer here I can count on seedlings, fiddleheads, spinach, arugula, broccoli, strawberries and carrots, but unless someone has a good greenhouse going I may still need to purchase fresh tomatoes at the grocery store. Going to the farmer's market first allows me to get what I can locally and organically before going to the next best thing.

4. Don't shop with the kiddos, or if you do, go with a plan!
OK, I didn't take my own advice during this morning's jaunt, but at least Daddy was there to help out. I have found that the millions of distractions and general lack of concrete walls to confine kids can be a real challenge (particularly when they know there's a playground just on the other side of the hill, or when one vendor is offering hula-hoops made from recycled materials!). So, I come prepared. I prepare grocery lists for the kids whenever possible, using downloaded pictures from the internet to represent vegetables for my non-readers. This way, they have a job and can keep an eye out for our target produce. I also always bring a wagon because wagons transport produce and children- whichever is the greater need. Snacks are a good bet as well, and cameras can even be great to keep kids entertained while they document their own experience. I also arm my little ones with their own bags to help carry the produce they pick out. Remember to do the little things together- count the plants, choose the bushel of parsnips, and make payments to vendors together. Kids will always stay closer to you the more invested they are in the process. Oh, and take breaks as necessary! (Here we are enjoying the benefits of the park our farmer's market is held in.)

5. Stay as "hands-free" as possible.
Go in streamlined- often markets are set up on narrow pathways in parks or in allies in the city, and you're fighting against crowds to both browse and buy. So only carry what you need to avoid being pushed out of carefully scrutinizing your products. Infant carriers and backpacks are a great option, if applicable!

6. This sounds silly to even mention, but don't forget to bring cash. 
Yes, we live in the new millennium and many vendors really do take debit and credit cards right in their booths, but it's still not smart to count on it. Bring the amount of cash you're likely to need so that you can buy the necessary products, but I don't recommend bringing your whole grocery budget unless you have serious willpower because it's all too easy to see a mint plant, for example, and to overspend in the name of saving money through it's yield all year long. Only buy what you need, with cash. 

7. Buy produce that's in season
Buying what's in season in your area is the best way to get great prices on fresh, local produce. You'll pay for the privilege if you don't. For a list of what's in season in your area, go here.

8. Be flexible. 
I went to the market today in hopes of buying strawberries because I'm having a canning party in two weeks during which time a bunch of friends and I are going to make strawberry jam. Because of the rain and cold weather we've been having though, the strawberry crop isn't ready yet. I'll have to hang on until next week- buying before the crop is really ready is going to cost me a lot more money, so I'm happy to wait.

9. If you're looking for a CSA or regular vendor, go for a couple of weeks before you commit
Not all farmers are at the market all weeks. For the best shopping and price comparing, you'll need to go for several weeks in a row to gather your data. Make a list of what you want to buy and how much it costs so that at the end of your information gathering period you'll be able to compare like products with accuracy. Today our family was looking for a new source of pastured, organic beef and not a single vendor was able to give us price quotes. Next week we may meet five vendors who can meet our needs, so it will pay dividends for us to shop around and be patient.

10. Ask your vendors about bulk options, CSAs or even Facebook!
Oh yes, technology has a place even in the farmer's market. Sometimes vendors want to develop a patronage and so they launch a Facebook page, have an email list, or will even offer Groupons to generate interest. Be sure to ask about ways that the farm is trying to communicate with people- by doing so you can help your local farmer to get the word out about her great products, but can also save yourself some money. Because I referred three friends to my vegetable CSA this year, I was able to get a discount on my share cost. These options can also alert you to upcoming produce deals for the next week, so by knowing in advance you'll be able to plan your meals around what's going to be available. Some vendors also offer bulk options for items they have a lot of, so it's worth the time to ask around. Check out this website to get started.

11. Before you commit to buying in large quantities from one vendor, do your homework!
We'd like to think that everyone at the market is there because they love healthy, whole food, and are dedicated to nourishing families and sustaining the environment. By and large that is certainly true, but occasionally the exception arises and you don't want to fall prey to someone who isn't going to honor a deal. One vendor's pastured pork isn't necessarily the same as another vendor's so to speak, so you want to research before you buy. Check out social media like Facebook or Twitter to see what current customers are saying about your vendor, and ask for references. Buying in bulk or signing up for a CSA is a huge investment, so make sure that you're comfortable with where your money is going before you spend a dime.

Happy shopping!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Making a Natural Bug Spray

Here's a great post from Jenae over at I Can Teach My Child! about making your own, all natural, bug spray.

For the instructions, go here.

I am excited to give this a try as here in Maine the joke is that mosquitoes are our state bird! My middle child has recently been dubbed "Madam Bugbite," so an alternative to slathering her with DEET while still offering protection is most welcome around here. Not to mention that a more pleasing aroma would be nice!

"Just Plain Family" Morning

Sometimes we need to just stop what we're doing and do what we should. The idea of "should" is of course subjective, but I'm talking about leaving behind all of the job worries and bills and car maintenace pressures- everyhtihng that makes us adults- and to just letting loose and experiencing life.

Garrett's on vacation this week so we've had a chance to spend some quality time together. This is a rare opporutnity in our household and one that we've embraced whole-heartedly.

Today, we went to our favorite local bakery, owned and operated by a woman who lives in our community, and we bought breakfast. We then proceeded to a community playground where we spent a couple of hours playing and giggling. We even had the chance to feed the ducks and Canada geese at the river!

As a teacher and homeschooling mom I can pinpoint the areas of development we touched upon with our kids today; I can expound upon the benefits of healthy excersise and developing an appreciation for animals in their natural habitats, among other experiences, and I wouldn't be wrong for doing so. It's important to track the learning we've done and to have goals related to our academic paths lest we loose our way and do our children a disservice.  On the other hand, today wasn't about that. Today was about wreckless abandon and good, old-fashioned, care-free fun. It was about trying the slides, heading across the monkey bars, pushing our kids on the swings, and feeding the ducks until we had no more stale bread to give. It was about racing back to the car and about singing "Puff, the Magic Dragon" all the way home, or at least until the kids fell asleep thanks to their fun-packed morning.

Education and learning outcomes have their place- don't get me wrong. On the other hand, so does fun for fun's sake. So does family time with no agenda. And so does loosing the reigns of adult life and taking time to play-really play- as if nothing in the world mattered but the moment. It's difficult to keep such competing priorities in place during a given day, so we remain thankful for days like today when we can revel in our children and their childish ways, and even allow ourselves permission to play with them.

Making our own beer

Garrett was introduced to the idea of brewing beer by a family member and got a kit for Christmas to help him begin his new hobby. While it has taken some months to address this new venture, it is none-the-less met with enthusiasm and anticipation. He began his first brew yesterday, as is chronicled here. There is no set date for completion, as all batches vary in the amount of time they take to properly ferment, we hope to be enjoying the fruits of his labor within the next couple of weeks.

 Garrett began this adventure with a kit designed for the novice brewer. Over time one can order fewer components from the company, but for starters we're ordering it all.
 First, one must steep the grains. This is the first step in making the wort, which is what will eventually go into the fermenter. This photo shows a mixture of wheat and other grain (purchased in a package) wrapped in a cheesecloth to allow the flavor of the grains to permeate the water. (This is the same process that one uses to make tea.)
 Next, the malt extract must be added. This can be made a home by the extreme brewer, but we've elected to purchase some as part of the kit.
 While this isn't the greatest picture, Garrett's adding the hops here. It comes in pellet form within the kit he chose, and he determined how much to add and when during the steeping process. More hops makes bitter beer, less hops makes sweeter, or lighter, beer.
 The mixture has to boil for an hour, but once it's done it must be transferred the fermentor. In this photo Garrett is running the mixture through a sieve to remove any chunks of hops or other grain.
The mixture stays in the first stage fermentor for a week (7 days exactly). Then it must be filtered into a glass carboy, which will serve as a secondary fermentor. This is where the beer will ferment until it's ready to bottle. We'll know that it's ready to bottle when we see three consecutive days of a consistent hydrometer reading.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The bees are in their new home!

After some careful planning we have installed the bees in their new home! As it turned out we didn't have sufficient southern exposure at our house (the only spot that we had outside of the backyard was in a very small clearing surrounded by trees). Bees need warm morning light (and a southern exposure) to signal them to wake up and get to work, and they need the warm morning sun to help them survive the winter. Without that sun there was some real concern as to whether or not "our girls" would survive the winter, so we were very thankful that Garrett's sister and her husband offered to have the bees at their house just a couple miles down the road. It will be convenient for Garrett to check on them regularly, but also convenient for us to have the bees in a place where our children won't be too curious! Our kids have been very interested in the bees, and rightly so, but I admit that I breathe a small sigh of relief that we won't have any mishaps with a certain young man trying to find out more on his own by opening a hive himself. Just yet, anyway. 

 This picture shows the hive in the background, and the shipping crate in the foreground. We got our bees online and delivered to our post office! (As a side note, I got a call at about 6:30 in the morning on the day they were delivered from a very nervous postmaster hoping that I would be in soon to pick up our buzzing package.) Garrett needed to transfer the bees from the shipping crate to the hive. He wore his bee veil, but did it without gloves! I was horrified, but he insists that they were calm and relaxed because they didn't have a hive to defend yet. Frankly, I'm just glad that he was the one to do the transfer!
 Garrett adding the sugar water which will help to sustain the bees while they begin construction on the honeycomb in their new hive.
 This box contains the queen, kept separate during shipping, but the bees will dig her out in the hive over the next couple of days. The right side is blocked with a piece of sugar hard candy, which the bees will eat to let their queen out. She releases a pheromone which lets the other bees know where she is so they can release her and get her to work laying eggs.
The frames are put into the hive. Each frame has the start of some honeycomb on it, called "foundation," and from here the bees will add to the honeycomb and will then fill it with brood, and eventually honey. We likely won't get a honey crop this year because our bees will be so busy building up their comb and numbers, but we were fortunate enough to receive some established, or "drawn out," comb from a friend, and maybe our bees will be able to increase production as a result. It's an amazing thing, but frames with comb from another hive (in this case, our friend's hive) can be substituted for our "empty" foundation frames to give our hive a jump start. Our friends' hive will simply make more honeycomb and honey on the new frame. What work ethic!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Preparing for the Bees

Our family, in the spirit of self-reliance and plain old curiosity, has decided to keep bees. Yes, bees. The ones that buzz, and make honey, and sting. What prompted this decision, particularly since we have young children and the two things don't ostensibly seem to mix? I honestly don't know that any of us can answer that- it simply was suggested by someone, at some point, and became reality almost on auto-pilot. Garrett read an article in Mother Earth News, one of our favorite publications, which detailed how to get started. That prompted him to take an online course several months ago about the basics of beekeeping, and he became involved with our local beekeeping society as an offshoot of that effort. He purchased a hive about a month ago, thinking that he would continue to apprentice with local beekeepers to better learn the trade before he tried his own hand at it, but when a package (of bees) became available at the end of last week, he shifted into gear and began to prep the hive for it's new inhabitants! Since our land doesn't have a southern exposure, which is necessary to keep bees warm enough through the winter months in such a northern locale, Garrett's sister has graciously offered to allow us to keep the bees at her house just a few miles down the road.

This is the new hive, prepped and ready for the apiary. It's painted white to deflect sunlight lest our hardworking ladies overheat in the summer months. (Did you know that all the worker bees in a hive are female?) The yellow cup shown here is an entrance feeder, designed to feed a new colony. Once they begin to make their own honey, we'll be able to take that off. 
 This view is looking into the hive. It's an 8-frame traditional English hive, meaning it's the historical standard for hive construction (more modern methods use 10 frames but we're old fashioned here). When the bees inhabit the hive, they will build honeycomb into the frames and will fill them with brood (baby bees) and eventually honey.
 Because we are getting our bees late this year (typically one would put up a new hive in May, depending on weather), we choose to set up a foundation of honeycomb to help the building along. You can see the wire lengths along each frame in the photo- these give the wax some rigidity and will allow the bees to build more honeycomb on top of the pattern.

We can't wait for our new residents!

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