Friday, May 27, 2011

Weeds, seedlings and pine needles.

"All one hot morning, the beans were popping out of the ground. Grace discovered them and came shrieking with excitement to tell Ma. All that morning she could not be coaxed away from watching them. Up from the bare earth, bean after bean was popping, its stem uncoiling like a steel spring, and up in the sunshine the halves of the split bean still clutched two pale twin-leaves. Every time a bean popped up, Grace squealed again."
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie

I didn't actually witness any seedlings popping out of the ground today, but I swear, there were some spots that were bare when I started weeding but had brand-new chartreuse sprouts by the time I came back to them.

I have spent the past week or so fearing to walk into the garden. I didn't know where the hills of watermelons, cantaloupes, or squash were. The rows of corn, radishes, turnips and carrots were easy to find, but we put them on the back fence! To get to them, or to get to the berry bushes, I had to tiptoe around unidentified hills of seeds. When we planted them, I put a pile of compost on top of each, and at the time the black spots showed up starkly against the reddish soil. But then it rained every day for five days straight, and when I looked again, there were no more black spots warning me where not to step.

So today, as I picked grass and eagerly examined the ground for any trace of seedlings, I squealed with glee at the sight of a definitely-watermelon sprout. I gathered up some nearby rocks (see? even a curse like rocky soil can be a blessing if you're imaginative) and built a little circle around the precious seedling. I felt vaguely pagan and Druidical, as if I were making a sacred stone ring to protect the gift of Mother Earth, but in fact I was just marking off where I should not step, in such a way that I would be able to see it once I was again 5'7" off the ground.

I put rock circles around the other seedlings I could find, and in several places where I couldn't see seedlings but I imagined that the tiny clover sprouts might be melon sprouts. When I tried looking for sprouts 3 feet apart from each other (the distance we'd planted the melons) I invariably failed, so eventually I went back to picking grass.

And then I found the squash! I had begun to fear that the squash just wouldn't come up, and one of the squash patches still doesn't seem to be very active yet, but the patch that gets the most sun is coming up with a vengeance! Some of those seedlings didn't need a stone ring because even I in my blindness could see them.

When I made my way back across the garden, I built a few more rock circles for seedlings I hadn't seen before, which leads me to believe that they must have sprouted while I was working. Grow, babies, grow!

Little watermelon in a Magic Rock Circle

Peas! We have 4 hoop trellises with 2 rows of peas each.

A squash in a Magic Rock Circle. Judging by the way the mud is displaced around it, I'd say it popped up today.

Corn. And weeds. And more weeds. And more corn.

Tomahtoes. Twelve of these.

Either turnips or radishes; don't remember which we planted in which row. Also pictured: weeds.

I included some pictures of the pine-needle mulching I did yesterday. Pine needles lower the pH of the soil (make it more acidic), which I hear berries appreciate. They're also GREAT for weed control. Ever notice how sparse the grass tends to be under pine trees? YEAH. Not to mention that if you have pine trees, you have FREE MULCH.


Arranging the pine needles around the plants reminded me of bird nests.


Raspberries. Next on the agenda: train this plant onto the trellis! It's growing like crazy!

We will soon have straw to lay down for mulch on the rest of the garden. I can't wait. It helps keep the weeds from taking over, and at the same time it keeps the soil cool and moist and keeps your plants' roots from being scorched. And as it decomposes, it adds organic matter to your soil! You win all around! Some think it's not as pretty as bare soil in between rows, but I'd rather look at a lush, weed-free garden mulched in straw than a scraggly choked-out garden any day.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Quick link:

Googled "can I mulch raspberries with pine needles?"


Answer: YES, and potatoes, and blueberries and strawberries (already knew about the blueberries and strawberries; blackberries too, though she didn't list them) and azaleas. AND dump coffee grounds around them.

So concise. So exactly what I needed to know.

So putting this website on my favorites bar.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Our Favorite Bread

It has not been easy finding a bread recipe that works for our family. My ideal bread is whole wheat: flavorful, hearty, with a texture you can really sink your teeth into. I once tasted an olive bread from Central Market. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It had chunks of kalamata olives baked into it. It was quite simply the most delicious piece of bread I had ever tasted, and I still remember it with reverence.

Ryan's ideal bread is Wonderbread.

This would not be a problem - I could buy my olive bread (if there were a Central Market anywhere nearer than four hours away) and he could buy his Wonderbread, if not for the fact that we also want homemade bread. For two years we have, either one or the other or both, been unsatisfied with the bread that has come out of the oven, and our frustration was high.

Then, three weeks ago, I accidentally found a bread recipe that satisfies both of us. It has the whiteness of white bread and the healthiness of whole wheat; it has a wonderful crumb; it has a delightful crust. It is flavorful. It's a very modified version of the Potato Bread in George Burnett's The Breadman's Healthy Bread Book. I intend no copyright violation, and I think that I have modified the recipe enough to avoid any copyright violations anyway. At any rate, surely he won't sue someone who has a link up to his book on Amazon and an endorsement to buy it because it has lots of other great recipes too, right?

Hope so. Anyway, here goes.

A Friendly Home Potato Bread

In a bread machine, mix
1 cup water
1 Tablespoon butter
1Tablespoon honey
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup soft golden whole wheat flour
1/3 cup mashed potato flakes
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons yeast

Set bread machine on dough cycle. Place an oven-safe dish with at least 2 cups water on the bottom rack of your oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. When bread machine beeps, shape dough into a loaf and turn it out onto a floured baking stone. Let rest for 10 minutes, longer if you want a lighter texture, but don't let it rise so much that it will fall if you touch it. Use a serrated knife to cut lines about 1/2" in the top of your bread, to make room for oven spring. Bake on the middle baking rack, above the dish of hot water, for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Pretty simple, but there are some Very Important Rules.
1) You HAVE to use soft golden whole wheat flour. The nutty flavor that we all associate with homemade whole wheat bread comes from hard red wheat, which is the common grocery store whole wheat flour. If you like that flavor, fine, but I know sometimes it's hard to get used to, especially for all of us who grew up on grocery store bread. I use Prairie Gold from Wheat Montana Farms. Seriously, DON'T CHEAT ON THIS INGREDIENT. (before you die of a heart attack, the link is to a 50 lb bag. It's about twice as expensive as grocery store all-purpose flour. I do NOT pay $50 for a 5 lb bag of flour.)
2) Don't forget the dish of water in the oven. The steam will give you a wonderful, thin, crisp-but-not-crunchy fresh-from-the-bakery crust.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we do! If you have trouble with the recipe or if you find you have to make altitude adjustments, please let me know. I'd like to be able to post the best, most complete version I can.

More more tornadoes

Well, we survived the tornadoes last night too. And lest you think these were some paltry little Texas-style tornadoes (which I recall as usually involving some minor house damage and maybe some downed trees, but nowhere near as serious as north of the Red River), they made the New York Times. We'd been listening to the radio and watching the live satellite on the website of whatever TV station plays it - we don't have a TV, so I had to ask Ryan each time for the name of the local weather station. We watched the line of storms move from the OKC area towards the McAlester area, and right as we saw the line moving through Muskogee, our phone rang. It was Ryan's brother Erik (whom you can visit at, telling us, "Take cover! There's a tornado on the ground east of Wagoner and it's moving your way." One minute later the radio said the fateful words, "Lost City," and five minutes after that my dad called. I reassured him that we'd opened all the windows and taken all possible preparations. The satellite still showed the storm hovering safely on Muskogee, a good thirty miles away from us.

Guess that live satellite wasn't as live as the radio reports.

The sky here was calm, though not clear, and the dogs lazed about as if they hadn't a care in the world, so we guessed that we had a little bit of time. We changed out of our PJs back into real-people clothes and packed some emergency supplies in a couple of bags in case we needed them. Of course, since this house doesn't have a basement, I don't know under what circumstances we could need emergency supplies and still be around to use them, but I guess there's no harm in being prepared. We unplugged the internet (and the computers, Dad!) and listened to the radio until the storm began scrambling the signal too much. Then Ryan turned it to country, and I began freaking out because I wanted to hear a weather report, I've never been in a tornado without hearing a play-by-play weather report, every tornado I've ever experienced I've experienced in the safety of a bathroom with up-to-the-minute coverage of exactly which intersections the tornado was crossing, and THERE'S A TORNADO COMING WHY ARE YOU LISTENING TO MUSIC???? I'm from Dallas, you see.

In fact, I went and laid down on the bed in my jeans and boots because the music was worrying me so much that I couldn't get a grip on myself.

Then I realized that we live in.the.middle.of.nowhere, and even if there were a radio signal for the AM weather station, they would not be telling us whether the tornado was currently ravaging a town that consists entirely of a stop sign and the four houses on the corners surrounding the stop sign, nor whether said tornado was happening to bear down upon a tiny brown house on a dirt road five minutes away from the stop sign in the middle of nowhere. I took a deep breath, walked onto the porch, apologized for being silly, and watched the sky with Ryan. After all, there was no way of knowing, sitting in a bathroom, whether it was safe to come out yet, or if it had ever been unsafe to be out in the first place. There are no tornado sirens in the country.

After a while we began to see lots of lightning in the sky to the east, moving from south to north. It only barely drizzled. There was a nice breeze. If we hadn't heard of a tornado warning, we would have thought it was lovely weather to sit out on the porch past our bedtime, refusing to worry about how tired we would be in the morning. Eventually nothing happened, and we went to bed. I slept in my clothes, because I was still nervous about a rogue tornado breaking off from the main storm front, backtracking and targeting our house like a heat-seeking missile. Taking my boots off was my one concession to comfort: I wanted to be ready to jump up at a moment's notice, grab the baby and huddle in the bathroom.

At midnight on the dot (I know, I looked), some other storm about which we hadn't been warned broke upon us with a fury. There was hail, there were howling winds, there was a veritable deluge. I shook Ryan and tried to make him interested in the situation, but either he was too asleep or he really thought it wasn't a big deal. I lay in the bed and trembled for the hour in which it assailed us. I listened for anything that sounded remotely like a freight train, because that's what I've heard tornadoes sound like. Between my sleepy wishful thinking that there were no freight train sounds and my paranoia that everything was a freight train sound, I am still unsure whether I did in fact hear a freight train sound or not. It passed, however, and I haven't seen a downed tree yet this morning, so I'm inclined to believe that if there was a tornado, it at least did not touch this 10-acre valley.

So here we are, only a little sleepier for the wear. Please, though, can we be done with tornado season? This is quickly becoming obnoxious. I can't get out into the garden as long as the soil is this soaking wet, and between the weeds taking over and the seeds becoming too waterlogged to sprout, I'm getting a bit worried.

Later today I'll share the magical bread recipe I found after two years of searching which satisfies Ryan's desire for white bread and my desire for healthy whole wheat, all in one!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Front porch

This little girl knows how to relax.

Storms, tornadoes, and a really excellent fantasy book

It’s spring in Tornado Alley. Two nights ago we stood on our front porch teaching our baby about hail and marveling at a peal of distant thunder that extended for a seemingly impossible amount of time, and then doubled and even tripled its duration still after that. Yesterday morning we heard that a tornado had ravaged Joplin, MO, and we wondered if that distant and impossibly long thunder had really been thunder after all.

Last night we again stood on our front porch and watched a deluge wash over our land. Before the storm got bad enough to thoroughly jumble our satellite signal, said there was a tornado watch. Then the storm intensified and the internet died.


(We also unplugged the computers, Mom.)

It is easy for those of us lucky enough to live in first-world countries to take shelter for granted. Houses, to us, are havens, party places, do-not-disturb tranquility zones, or status symbols. It’s not often that we remember that houses are primarily shelters.

I’m reading The Wheel of Time, a fantasy series on the covers of which the author’s name is as large as the title. Believe me, this surprises me as much as it should surprise those of you who know me in person. It’s fabulous. It comes highly recommended by this hypercritical English major. If you’re looking for imagination and excitement unsullied by copious amounts of erudition and deconstructive theory, but with enjoyable and sometimes even beautiful prose, you will definitely find it here. Perfect for snuggling in an armchair and devouring while a thunderstorm rages.

Anyway, there is a race of people, the Aiel, in these books who refer to houses as “roofs.” They have blessings upon entering a roof and refer to the mistress of the house as the “Roofmistress.” Watching these storms during these past two days has made this concept very concrete for me. Our houses are, first and foremost, roofs under which we can shelter from the elements in safety and comfort. In ordinary circumstances I can easily find myself lamenting that a house is not big enough, does not have enough storage space, is not arranged correctly, or has bad insulation. I can do this because I see my house as an extension of myself – the place where my stuff is, where I spend my time, and where my energy permeates the possessions and even the very walls. Listening to the storm rage about me, I realized that tonight, I would be just as happy to be dry in a cave. The important thing is the roof.

And then I thought of what happened to Joplin, and all the towns that have been torn apart by tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, and I realized that even though a house seems so permanent, so concrete and owned, even a house is not always sufficient shelter.

We couldn’t even find out if anything similar was happening right then. What happens when your place of safety is turned to matchsticks by a mile-wide tornado?

I sat in my home and listened to the rain pounding on the metal roof and against the windows and thought of how small a space is confined by these walls and protected by this roof. I prayed that it would stay safe and that Mother Nature wouldn’t feel the need to let my family know that she is stronger than our concrete and steel.

I also am still praying that the garden survive all this rain. It would be a small inconvenience compared to the devastation of losing one’s house, but I would really appreciate my plants not being wiped out.

p.s.: I apologize for the awkward formatting of the Amazon links. I wanted them in a neat straight-across line under the mini-review, but they haven't progressed to click-and-drag user friendliness and I really don't know how else to move elements around. I stopped being tech-savvy when the iPod came out and I didn't get one.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rage Against the Butternut

One of our goals for living in the country is to eventually grow all of our food, with occasional dispensations for exotic foods. I also have the goal of buying local, which is somewhat incompatible given the fact that if one grows all one's own food, one by definition does not buy it. I'm sure that in the years to come we will find a balance between growing as much as we can and buying the items which are just too much trouble to grow ourselves. In the meantime, we're setting the goal of growing *all* and hoping for the result that we will therefore grow *more* than if we only set the goal of growing *some.*

Not to change the subject too quickly, but two years ago I bought some pie pumpkins with the laudable intention of turning them into a pie. They sat on the refrigerator for six months, at the end of which we found them while packing up the house to move. Ryan took one look and said, "Throw those away, they're all rotten."

Well, they weren't. One was a little soft at one spot, and in the middle of that soft spot was a tiny bit of mold. That one got thrown out. But the other was perfectly sound and edible.

The same thing happened the next winter, though the period of time was three months instead of six.

And thus I became a believer in the preservative power of pumpkins. Ryan expanded this into a belief in the preservative power of the entire squash genus. And because we want to eat food that we grew ourselves, last week he bought five varieties of squash seeds.

So we tilled up the garden, inventoried our seeds, measured the garden square footage, paced out the spacing between plants, and began planting seeds. Corn, carrots, turnips, cucumbers, watermelons and cantelopes joined the flourishing berry patch. Squash was the last thing to plant.

When we began planting our hills of squash, I noticed quite a few rocks in the soil and voiced a concern that the squash would have a hard time taking root. Ryan said, "With my luck, I could plant squash in a pit of rock and cover it up with eight inches of soil, pack the soil down and pour Roundup on it, and the squash would STILL come up."

"Aren't you being a little bit arrogant about your gardening skill?"

"No. I hate squash."

"So why did you buy five varieties of it???"

"Because it keeps well."


"The Rage Against the Butternut" was the running joke for the rest of the evening. Ryan made various aggressive man-noises as he hoed up hills for the squash, and punched the soil on top of the seeds with his fist. I came behind with my little handfuls of compost and told the seeds not to take it personally. On the last hill, he emptied the remaining contents of his seed packet all into one hole and said, "With my luck, those fifteen seeds will all sprout and won't even choke each other out."

I hope so. I hope to see shelves full of squash this fall, and if Ryan complains this winter that he's become bored with squash, I will gently remind him that he was the one who bought all those seeds. Ok, maybe I'll rub it in his face. It's no burden to me; I like squash just fine.

Amazon wishlist link (full disclosure: if you click through on this link and decide to buy the book, I get money and you get the satisfaction of helping to support our self-sustaining adventure):

Saturday, May 21, 2011


The really glorious thing about perennials is that they stick around forever. I only made the mistake of planting perennials in front of a rent house once, and vowed to never again after driving past it two weeks after we moved out and discovering that the landlord had ripped them up. I thought, "Well darnit, I would have taken them with me if I hadn't thought that it would be nicer to leave the improvements I made to this piece of junk house."

But perennials on a farm are entirely different. On our first walk after arriving at this place, our brains began exploding with ideas, mostly centered around fruit. Apples here! Cherries there! Blueberries! Blackberries! Raspberries! Grapes! I had moved on to plans for a giant greenhouse with lemons and oranges and bananas before my husband forcibly reined in my enthusiasm and laid down the law that for the foreseeable future we would work on plants that already grew well in Oklahoma.

He didn't curb my enthusiasm much. Even without the luxury of citrus fruit, the idea of plants that bore berries free of cost still translated in my mind to abundance beyond belief. I went to a local pick-your-own blueberry farm once and still remember with awe the endless supply of blueberries. I began imagining baskets and buckets full of more fruit than we would eat in a summer, and being faced with the problem (problem?) of deciding what to do with the rest once our greedy little purple-stained mouths simply couldn't take any more.

So we went to Lowe's. I love Lowe's. We bought blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries: two of each. Then we went to the Farmer's Market. We met the lovely people of Shady Grove Natural Farm who guided us to the best variety of figs and kiwis for our soil and sunlight, and we went home poorer but happier.

We also had to buy lumber to build some trellises for the vining berries, and I wanted to paint them white.

Blackberries in the background, Raspberries in the foreground. The trellises are Ryan's design and our joint handiwork, assisted by the moral support of the Tiny Pumpkin.

One side of our garden will be devoted to perennials. We will weed, mulch and aerate, but we will never again till up this patch. The berries will be pruned back every year but their roots will grow deep and strong. Each spring they will shoot up again with more vigor than the year before and fill buckets, baskets and tummies with an abundance of fruit. I can't wait.

The Fig Tree

The Blueberry Bushes: they look sad and lonely right now, but I look forward to them becoming lush and full.

The Internet says, with its full voice of authority, that blackberries and blueberries both love the acidic soil under pine trees. We did not plant them under our pine trees because we thought there would be too much shade, but one of my upcoming projects is to rake up piles of pine needles and to mulch these bushes with them. The Internet does not specify whether raspberries also enjoy pine needles; does anyone know? It would be most convenient to me if they did, since the raspberries and blackberries are right next to each other.

The Unplanted Strawberries: At the time of the photoshoot we had not yet discussed the best arrangement for the strawberries, and I thought it best to collaborate with the Mr. before putting them in the dirt.

I hear strawberries are annuals. (Yeah, I know lots and lots about gardening. Please don't ask me for gardening wisdom; I'll probably tell you the wrong thing. Ask my husband. He'll know, or else his dad will. But don't ask me.) I have this idealistic and romantic idea in my head that *maybe,* even if the strawberries *are* annuals despite all my wishes to the contrary, I *might* be able to let some of the berries rot on the ground and have them re-seed themselves. Again, insights? Will birds devour my overripe strawberries and foil my efforts? Am I doomed to re-plant strawberries forever?

I tried to teach Heidi about earthworms, but she emphatically did not care. The day after this photo was taken she tried to eat one, but I didn't have my camera at the time so you'll have to imagine it.

I have great hopes for my garden patch and its humble beginnings.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My first blog award

Thank you to Calah at Barefoot and Pregnant for giving me my first blog award!


So, the rules:

The Rules of the Versatile Blogger Award are as follows:

  1. Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them in your post
  2. Tell us seven things about yourself
  3. Award ten recently discovered new bloggers

So. Thank you, Calah!

Seven things about me? Hmm. I'll tell you seven things I've been doing recently. My activities count as "about me," right?


Ryan and I are unexpectedly getting to live our farm-life dream! Sometimes blessings come in unattractive packages, and if this one hadn't been forced on us I know I sure wouldn't have chosen it. Suddenly unemployed, we gratefully accepted my parents' offer to be long-term housesitters on their property while they move back to Dallas. Ryan has a job helping to build the nearby monastery, and I will stay home raising the baby and trying to grow food. I thought I had another job as a houseparent, but they wouldn't let me bring the baby, nor would they pay me enough for daycare. So here we are. The tally: suddenly unemployed, not independent = 2 for unattractive; however, living rent free, growing our own food, living the farm dream a good 30 years before we thought we'd make it = WIN.

Not actually our farm


Therefore, we tilled up our entire garden patch yesterday.

This actually IS our farm.
The schedule:
7 am: Intend to wake up. Alarm clock fail.
8 am: Actually wake up. Rush around frantically.
8:20 am: Leave the house, complete with baby; all parties (miraculously) satisfactorally hygenic and fed in a much shorter time than usual.
8:50 am: Rent tiller.
9:20 am - 5 pm: Work our butts off.

Kindly scroll back up and notice the weeds along the fence line, if you please. While not quite all the garden was that overgrown, there was enough. The first pass was a glorified lawnmowing job. Ryan tilled and I raked up piles of weeds. We found some bones from when my parents buried a dog in the garden. Returning the nutrients to the soil sounded like a great idea at the time. We found some snakes.


Not actually one of my victims, though we did find a nest of copperheads

I got queasy about killing them, though, and began handing Ryan the shovel whenever I heard him yell "SNAKE!"

My daughter is a 6 month old nature lover, and therefore she supervised from a strategic location which was both in the shade and far far away from any danger of snakes.

Though somehow this picture makes it look like I was a negligent mother and left her in the bright sun to sunburn

Her puppy dog protected her. No kidding, he never left her side.

Ok, fine, that's a fact about him and not about me. But I bet you didn't know that four days before this picture was taken he had a run-in with a neighbor's chickens (he was trying to herd them) and got shot in the butt. We treated the wound and he was a very sad Buddy for a few days, but then we poured large quantities of honey down his throat and he was up and about the next morning. Honey: it cures what ails ya, even gunshot wounds to the gluteus maximus. 

I won't let Ryan cut down this wild rose bush

until I take a cutting. If I asked, he would buy me five rose bushes at Lowe's, but I want this wild one that invaded the garden fence. I'm afraid you can't see the flowers very well, and I apologize for my finger being in the way. 

Speaking of Lowe's,

it is a dangerous and wonderful place for me, and I am happy to accept birthday and good-will presents of gift cards there in any denomination.

Some day, my farm will totally have an ornamental water element.

Ok. Ten recently discovered bloggers. I don't spend enough time in the blogosphere to have discovered TEN bloggers recently. I'll tell you about some of my friends I frequent, though:

1: Is it cheating to tagback? I read Calah a lot.
2: Ashley at The Green Lady Society. She's a lovely lovely friend of mine who has recently become a yoga instructor.
3: Denise at Lost City Knits. Not only is she a wonderful person, but her hand-dyed yarns are to. die. for. Go buy some.
4: Renee at R&R Casa. She was a fellow English major back in our halcyon college days when our main worries were paper deadlines, and now she has great things to say about incorporating Montessori into the home environment.
5: Ava is my baby niece, and she and Heidi will probably be great friends when they're old enough to play with each other. Her parents allow her to have her own blog, which you can see I won't let Heidi do. One of these days I'll let her type a blog post though.
6: The Rhodes Log is the cyberhome of  two fellow English majors who ended up marrying each other and constantly surprise me with their fascination with really excellent and unexpected things like bees.
7: Mariana at Back to the Best is like a little Better Homes and Gardens for newlyweds on a budget. Simultaneously inspiring and gigantically intimidating.
8: Debbie the Laundry Monster Slayer was one of my first knitting friends, and I have to say, knitting friends are different from all the other kinds of friends out there. Crazier, for one.
9: I read Arwen's blog and kind of feel weird about it since I don't know her at all. Stalker-ish, a little. But she just had twins, and they're beautiful little boys, and you should go look at her pictures!
10: And Meghan at Involving the Senses (blogger #2 of this whole darn list that I don't know in person) has lots of eye candy for artsy people.

There are some I would have liked to tag but who haven't posted in well over a year. It makes me sad when some of my favorite writers stop writing.

The end! Please, baby, GO TO SLEEP NOW AND LET ME GO TO BED.

For the record, she's sucking on my knee.