Saturday, January 31, 2009

Of Chain Saws & Generators…

Yesterday’s trip into town was just a little surreal. I fully expected to hear The Twilight Zone theme start playing any time.

My first stop was Sam’s Club to pick up Love’s prescription. Unlike the day before, Sam’s had electricity.

The trip into the store the day before was worth the experience for me and Skye, even if we wound up buying nothing. Although the auxiliary battery lights were barely glowing, the store was well lit by the many skylights. The Sam’s Club in Fayetteville is a “green store,” designed to save energy, recycle water, compost produce, and use native plantings and a bioswale to reduce its impact on the nearby Clabber Creek. I had never realized how much of the store’s daytime lighting comes from the sun. Since we had cash or checks, we were assigned a personal shopper to escort us through the store and total up our purchases. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize until we got to the pharmacy that I would need to use my HSA (health savings account) debit card to pay. But the pharmacy staff was great and actually gave me three pills from the prescription to get Love through. We also wanted bird seed, but they didn’t have any.

But, like I said, Sam’s had electricity yesterday. However, I had left my HSA card in my bill-paying caddy at home.

I trudged onward to The Hardware Store to pick up Love’s chain saw and blades that I had left the day before for sharpening. I could not find a place to park at this quiet little store where the employee-custom ratio allows great service. So I circled around and headed for the grocery store, planning to come back on my way home.

Harp’s had power. Yeah! The Harp’s closer to our home had been out of power for the past two days. I wasn’t desperately in need of anything, as I keep a well-stocked pantry and had laid in perishables last weekend. However, I still wanted some birdseed, and I thought I’d pick up the other items I had added to my list during the week. As I approached the store, I noticed a sign on the door. I was expected a “closed” sign, but it was a sign advertising generators. Does YOUR grocery store sell generators? I thought not!

Not only were they selling generators, but also chain saws. Granted, they were electric chain saws. I’m not exactly sure what you could cut with an electric chain saw, but there they were. I made my rounds through the store, gathering my items, and noticing with interest what items were in short supply: bottled soft drinks (but not bottled water), sidewalk salt, milk, frozen pizza, canned soup, and paper products. As I made my way to the checkout, I noticed the lines were not moving. It seems that their power had just come back on – it had gone off earlier in the day for the first time during the storm – and their electronic cash registers were searching for software or data or something. I wound up leaving Harp’s empty-handed, and they locked the doors behind me.

Back I went to The Hardware Store. A guy in a pickup was backing out, so I scored a parking space. Inside the store, I got in the long line to wait and watch the people. The first thing I realized that every man in the store who was not an employee was holding a chain saw. Most of the saws were the bright orange Stihls sold by The Hardware Store. I don’t know much about chain saws or motorcycles, but I recognize Stihl in the same way I recognize Harley Davidson: quality and price. Many of the saws were new, but some were there to be sharpened. One guy seemed to be in the store just to be in an environment where his chain saw could be admired. I wish I could remember its brand, but it seemed to be the envy of all the other chain saw aficionados. I learned that it could cut anything and all day, that it was several years old, and the brand is no longer made. I was so glad I was there to pick up Love’s little Pouland. While a woman could hold her head high carrying the green chain saw, I know that Love’s head would have hung low as he endured the shame of such a lowly saw in that testosterone-soaked environ.

Which leaves me wondering: new chain saws + novice users + testosterone + lots of stuff to cut. Will the emergency rooms be as busy in the next few days as the Hardware Store was yesterday?

Friday, January 30, 2009


We're starting to thaw out from the worst ice storm to hit this part of our state in many years. We've been in northwest Arkansas since 1989, and there certainly hasn't been anything like this in those years. I've never seen anything like it. Love and I both have memories of an ice storm when we were kids -- maybe the early 1970s? -- that broke trees and caused power outages like this. He was in southern Arkansas and I was in northern Louisiana then.

As far as power, we have been relatively lucky. First of all, we've only lost power for a total of 17 hours, and that was spread over three days. Also, we're not all electric like lots of folks. We have a wood fireplace insert and plenty of dry firewood. Even though the blower that circulates the air is electric, we still get some good wood heat: it just won't heat the entire house. We also have a gas cook stove. Even though it has electric ignition, we can light it with matches. The oven is a different matter: it's gas with electric controls -- we can't light it manually. Our central heat is gas, but its blower is electric. Perhaps our greatest blessing on these cold days is our gas hot water heater, which works just fine!

The damage to our trees is another matter. It breaks my heart to look at them. The pecans which gave us 250+ pounds of nuts this fall are devastated. I know they are resiliant and will mostly recover, but they look awful. The maples along our driveway have half their limbs on the ground. (Those maples have always been a source of amusement for me. The couple who built this house and lived in it for seven years before us set out only six trees: six maples, three on each side of the driveway. And what runs between them? The lines that feed electricity to the house. Did they actively try to find the worst site on the 2 1/2 acres to set out trees? Now it's not quite so funny.) Most of the older trees (10-15 years old) that Love and I have set out are damaged, some with large broken limbs, others with the tops broken out. Only the smaller trees (7 or fewer years old) seem to have dodged the bullet. If you want to see a more detailed account of the damage to our trees, see my gardening journal at The Place Journal. And for great pictures and a report from our dog's perspective, check out Skye's blog over at A Dog and 2 Cats.

Yesterday I took Love's chain saw blades to The Hardware Store for sharpening. Once the ice has melted from the trees, we will set to work. We won't be able to do it all ourselves, but we will start and move forward from there. And even as all this ice was coating our world, wonderful things were arriving in our mailbox. After Love used a hammer and chisel to chip the ice off our mailbox Wednesday, we found vegetable seeds from Seed Savers Exchange inside. Spring IS just around the corner!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I should have REALLY knocked on wood...

About five minutes after my last post, our power went out. We were lucky that it was only off for about 2 1/2 hours, just long enough for the novelty of candles to wear off for Skye. She and I walked over to check on our elderly neighbor, who was just fine. We are losing limbs -- maple and pecan mostly. The cracking limbs send dread through me: I hate to think of my green friends being battered. But so far, they look like they will be able to bounce back. While we have lost some large limbs, nothing has split in such a way to look life-threatening. And some ice is starting to melt enough to shower down out of the trees, so maybe the end is in sight.

Not Quite Spring Yet...

This morning we woke to a winter wonderland of ice. Skye and I are home from school, and Love is going in late to work, now that the temps are above freezing. We are fortunate that there appears to be little tree damage on The Realm, and our power has only flickered a couple of times -- knock on wood! These pics are taken from the relative safety of the front porch, as I am a bit of a weather wimp. I plan to venture out later for some more artsy close-ups. We'll see if I make it out before the melting starts.

Skye has been out and about a good bit. She reports that the daffodils on the south end of the house are free from ice. The radiant heat from the brick must have kept them a bit warmer. Or perhaps the house blocked the freezing rain from hitting them. I hope the dandelions are frozen solid, although they will probably thaw just fine!

I did go out yesterday morning before work and lay some fencing over my cold frame, under the plastic sheeting. From the back porch, it appears to be keeping the plastic from sagging to the bottom of the cold frame.

It's a good day for staying indoors and choosing a recipe from the "slow meals" section of my little wooden recipe box. We'll be having chicken pot pie for supper, with homemade yeast bread left over from last night (Skye and I got home early, as school let out a 1pm), and lemon pound cake from this weekend. Yum!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gardening Is Dirty Work

It's hard to see from this angle, but Lightning is a filthy cat. She's famous around The Realm for her filthy mouth, but she often sports filthy fur when she's in a gardening mood.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another (Dreaded) Sign of Spring

I can't help it, I detest them! I plot to eat them or make wine or jelly of them, but mostly I just curse them!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My Constant Gardening Companion & Her Constant Companion

Penny is my shadow as I move around the gardens, no matter what I am doing. If I am walking, she walks along. If I am working, she waits. Sometimes she stands to wait, sometimes she settles in for the long haul. And always with her is the ball. Sometimes it is in her mouth. Occasionally, it is beside her as in this picture. More often, it is positioned behind me so that I step on it if I take a step backward. I live to garden; Penny lives to play ball.

Monday, January 19, 2009

1st Buds

I noticed the first buds on my daffodils yesterday. Spring must be just around the corner! Granted these are close to the brick wall on the south end of our house, but those count, too. It's interesting to note that the row closest to the wall is further up than those less than a foot farther from the wall. Microclimates within microclimates!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Seed Orders

I just finished my seed orders. This year, for the first time, I am ordering seed rather than buying it all locally. I've spent a lot of time over the past month selecting varieties, using the book Designing the New Kitchen Garden and the UA Agriculture site. If I want to really use all this research and planning, then I can't depend on being able to buy the varieties that I've chosen locally. I'm very satisfied with my choices right now. I hope that holds true at the end of the summer.

This year will be my first year to garden in the kitchen garden surrounding the pool, so it is very important to me that it be as beautiful as it is functional. I've tried to choose varieties that capitalize on color and texture, while not sacrificing taste or reliability. I suppose I will know more at the end of the season.

I ordered from three sources: Seed Savers, Reimer Seeds, and Henry Field's Seed. You can find all of those sites along the right margin of this page. The seed I chose is a mixture of hybrid and open pollinated varieties. I'm going to try my hand at some seed-saving this summer and fall. Mother used to save certain seeds, so it is a time-honored practice in our family.

Since I did set a budget to work within, I had to cut back the orders from my original choices. It was tempting to just order every thing I wanted, as I kept thinking how much I would spend on produce (or even bedding plants) compared to the cost of seed. But I made myself trim my order, and I'm glad I did. I mean, do I really need three varieties of eggplants, when I don't even know how to cook one? (Mother always sliced them and fried them: there must be a better way!) I kept in mind my "gardening for life" mantra and approached this year as a starter year. No, it's not the first time I've grown vegetables, but it is the first time I've tried to grow them for aesthetics. I can always add more next year!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pecan Wrap-Up

We are nearing the end of this season's pecan harvest. I am down to picking up a couple dozen nuts each day as I make my walk to the compost bin. As of this evening, I have harvested 245 pounds of (unshelled) pecans this season! And friends have harvested a few pounds more. But much of the work remains to be done: we still have about 1/3 of the crop waiting to be cracked and shelled -- or given away! Want some?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Winemaking 101

Wow -- today I finally did it. I started a batch of wine. I've been thinking about it for a couple of years: I even bought the stuff about this time last year, but I just kept putting it off and putting it off. Right now, I feel like I just sat through a 3-hour chemistry exam. But I learned so much! Like how to use a hygrometer and how to convert Imperial gallons to US gallons. And that a liter and a quart are quite close in volume. And that fermentation takes place best at 70-75 degree F.

I used frozen blueberries from last summer's crop. The recipe specified that frozen blueberries work really well, as the freezing and thawing process pierces the skin of the blueberry, which is necessary for making blueberry wine.

Now, I only have to wait somewhere around 15 months to see how it turns out! I figure this wine will be ready to drink somewhere around April 2010. That's quite a wait, but we should have wine before we have asparagus, and asparagus before we have apples from the newest apple trees. That's part of why I call it "Garden for Life"!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hunting & Gathering

Since today was cold and windy, I went hunting and gathering with Skye rather than gardening. What did we find on our mission? Well, we found wine-making supplies at The Home Brewery for my first foray into wine-making, using frozen blueberries from last year's crop (more on that tomorrow).

Our next stop was Hobby Lobby, where we found two garden-related treasures on the 80% markdown Christmas shelves: tree lights and broken candy canes. Yes, both those items are gardening treasures! The strings of 7-watt tree lights (indoor-outdoor) will help keep my hoop-beds warms after first frost next year. If all goes well, we'll have tomatoes and peppers until the weather gets really cold. And the candy canes? This, I have to admit, was Skye's idea. We're going to make mint chocolate chip ice cream with the broken candy canes! And just how does that translate into a gardening treasure? Ever since I read Phelan's recipe for mint extract last summer over at A Homesteading Neophyte, I've wanted to make some. Combine next summer's mint crop with Skye's broken candy canes, and we'll have some fine ice cream! (Although we plan to use mini-chocolate chips this year, as we think that will improve the recipe.)

Third came Harp's, our local grocery store. There Skye and I had a long discussion about how we see the produce section so differently these days. We got Red Delicious apples for Love, and Skye asked if she could get some Granny Smiths. She admitted that she had sworn she would never eat another grocery store apple after tasting our Fujis last fall, but she misses apples. And the fujis we have left are past the eating stage. In fact, I've spent the afternoon processing the last of those into applesauce. No more homegrown fruit for us until the blueberries ripen in June. :(

Our last stop was Target, where I finally bought myself a salad spinner. It's plastic and cheap, but I thought I try out a cheap model before sinking money into a better one. With leaf lettuce and mustard the only things in our garden these days, I've been washing and drying a lot of green stuff. I'm hoping the new salad spinner will improve my processing of these precious fresh veggies!

A successful foraging trip, I must say!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Not Quite What I Was Planning

"Work for money; garden for life."

So goes my six-word memoir. Check out other six-word memoirs at Smith Magazine's Not Quite What I Was Planning.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


New Year's Day was Thursday, but here at The Realm, the "real" New Year begins tomorrow. Skye will be back at school -- she's ready -- and I will be back at work -- surprisingly, I am, too! Love started a new job last Monday, so he will be heading off the place tomorrow, too. Each day we will all make our ways in the world, and return home in the evening to our haven, the place where we trust everybody and know that everybody loves us. The animals will welcome us home: the dog will dance and the cats will raise their heads and glance our way (maybe).

I have menus planned through March 14 -- Spring Break. Yes, it's obsessive. No, I won't follow it every day. But the hardest part of cooking for me is to decide what to prepare with enough lead time to be able to get it ready. If I don't plan meals ahead of time, I'm planning them in the parking lot as I leave work. When I was a classroom teacher, I avoided parking-lot planning. Why should I inflict it on those I love most?

Skye reminded me that my New Year's Resolution last year was to feed my family better, and that it was really nice for a couple of months because we came home from school to supper in the crockpot lots of days, and I made salads and bread on the weekend to enjoy during the week. I really think that's a resolution worth repeating, but I'm tweaking it for this year. Here goes:

I resolve to feed my family better in 2009 by
1. Planning meals in advance and do some food prep on the weekends
2. Growing more of our own fruits & vegetables
3. Getting chickens so we can have fresh eggs (& because I promised Skye 2 years ago!)
4. Serving good meals so Love & I snack less (I'll bet you can guess why that's important!)

So resolved!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Winter Lettuce

This winter, for the first time, I built a temporary coldframe. Six bales of straw, a doubled sheet of 4-mil plastic sheeting, and four boards --- and, viola! I've been amazed at the difference it has made. The pictures above are lettuce planted about the same time. The picture on the left is in my cold frame, the one on the right is in an open bed. We had a salad with fresh lettuce on New Year's Eve. Yesterday, we had mustard from the cold frame. This is definitely a practice I will continue. I had no idea that this little bit of shelter would make such a difference. We have had temperatures in the single digits already this winter. The worst damage to the protected plants happened while we were gone to Texas last weekend. We got 1 2/10" rain, which crushed the plastic against the plants in spots. More than 24 hours of that was pretty rough on the plants. While I do have two crossbars (tomato stakes) to help keep the plastic off the plants, this is definitely a refinement I will need to work on for next year. But I've already declared this experiment a success!