Wednesday, April 16, 2014


It is time. Even though there are still snow banks in the yard, the pull of spring has me. The day lilies are peeking up through the snow this year, their biological clock claiming that it is still April, no matter the weather. And just like it happens every spring, I look up and suddenly notice that my house is filthy, smelly, and seems to have accumulated way too much stuff. I’m honestly not really quite sure how this happens. It’s not like I go on a cleaning strike all winter or anything. But every year, it is the same. The thought of the garden starts to swell, the seed catalogs arrive, and suddenly I realize that I must be living with a troupe of trolls or something if the house really looks like this. And thus begins the frenzy. It drives the cats and dog outside. It makes the humans in the house scurry out of sight and into their respective corners, lest they be caught and forced to polish something. On the one hand, to be abandoned so irks me. I didn’t make all this mess by myself (just… don’t look at the stacks of books on the table by my chair… or at the baskets of fiber-related items behind it… and, well, it would be best if you stayed out of the studio entirely). But the larger part of me is thrilled to be left to my own devices, to be able to turn the music way up, throw my hair in a ponytail, put on my apron, and work without being interrupted. As odd as it sounds, to be left to wash, scrub, polish, vacuum, and oil my way through my house after a long winter surrounded by my nearest and dearest… well, it’s quite therapeutic.

In addition to that, it is time to solidify our plans for the summer. This is always an agonizing process. All winter long we spend dreaming, but when spring comes, it is time to set limits and be realistic about what time and money can accomplish.

A month ago, I was absolutely sure that my big project for the year was going to be the medicinal herb garden. Unfortunately, my food allergies have progressed to the point where I can no longer digest grains of any kind. Nuts are still on the menu, however. When I add to that the fact that the kids went through the apple sauce and dried fruit just about as fast as I could make it last year, it has become clear that a fruit and nut orchard has to be a priority in the near future. You know the old saying, the best time to plant a fruit tree was ten years ago.

But where to put it? We have been struggling with this question since we moved in. I have finally come to terms with the fact that there is no way to put even a tiny orchard in without cutting down some trees. I am consoling myself with the idea that I am at least replacing them with more trees, and that the trees I am replacing them with will have more nutritive value for the local wildlife, not to mention us. The trees themselves will furnish fencing, heating, and mulch. None of it will be wasted. I am certainly going to need a larger chainsaw. I’m not sure if I’m more nervous or excited about that part. Chainsaws are fun.

In addition to that, as the snow has melted it has become painfully clear that we have to actually make some compost bins. The kids have been taking the compost out all winter, and let’s just say that my tidy and clearly defined piles of last summer are not to be found. So, a three bin system will have to be built, and my husband has asked if it could have a solid front, so that he doesn’t have to look at it while he is washing dishes. I’m pretty sure that that is not going to be a problem.

Lastly, there is the problem of the duck house. You see, it floods. This is what happens when you put in structures before you know your land. Every spring, as the melting starts, we have to pile up their bedding on one side of the house, and it becomes a little island. You would think, being ducks, that this would be well appreciated, but truthfully, no one likes to sleep in a damp place. So, it has to be moved. The cutting I have to do for the orchard gives me the opportunity to cut a place closer to the house for the duck house, and a covered run. The run, I am hoping, will increase our egg production during the winter, in addition to giving the ducks and geese more room and better accommodations. Currently, there are too many hungry predators during the winter months for them to roam around unprotected. Being brown, they show up too well against the nice white snow, and the poor things spend all winter cooped up. The fact that it was such a cold dark winter here in the Northeast meant that we had almost no eggs since November. So, that project has made its way to the top of the list as well.

That’s a pretty big list. There is also the fact that fruit and nut trees tend to come a bit dear, which makes it an expensive list. You notice what isn’t on that list? Yeah, my herb garden. I fretted about it, I won’t lie. Then I got sad. The herb garden is a large enough project to suck up an entire summer, all on its own. I had such plans. I was going to fence the whole thing off, to keep it safe from the marauding geese. They ate last year’s garden to the ground. To the ground. I dug beautiful beds, and lined them with stone. They are like scorched earth back there. The great big budgies even ate my rose bushes, thorns and all. I’m still grumpy about it.

Ahem. Anyway, I was going to fence it all off, and then put in big curving beds, and a seating area near the back, with a fire pit. Beautiful basket cloches, wooden trellises, glass and wooden cold frames, pebble mosaics, statues, places for my potted plants, gravel and stone walkways, the works. We won’t even talk about the plants. A whole bed of lavender. Yum. I was going to put in a summer kitchen too, right at the back, where we already have power and water lines. No more heating up the whole house during canning season, no more listening to my patient husband slowly losing it all summer long, as he tries to make dinner day after day in a kitchen that looks as though a bomb has gone off, and working around three different recipes in various states of progress. Not to mention the ease of butchering out doors. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I dream big, what can I say.

It is just going to have to wait. I have promised myself a compromise, though. I am going to use some of the saplings I have to cut down for the orchard to make some fences for the beds I have. That way, I can at least have a few herbs this year, and stop all that well-composted soil from eroding. At least the ducks and geese hung out in the beds all last summer, so they are well-fertilized.

But the dream remains. Some day, I will have my garden AND my orchard. I will have beds bursting with veggies, bushes overflowing with fruit, and the orchard will be ringed in wild blackberry canes, trained into a hedge, with a gated arbor. I will take the fruits of my labor into the summer kitchen, and I will patiently squirrel them away as dried fruit and veggies, jam, pickles, soups, stews. I will have a cupboard full of tea and medicine grown and prepared with love and care. I will have all these things, even if it takes me a lifetime to get there. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. So the dream of my garden may have to sleep and wait for another spring, but every hour of effort brings me closer.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Bathroom Cleaner Recipe

This is the first of a series on homemade cleaning products. I’ve had a few requests for these recipes, so I thought I’d share them here. I’m not going to call these recipes non-toxic, as obviously anything that kills bacteria and mold is toxic, though the goal is to use substances that are not toxic to people and pets. In addition, homemade cleaners are far, far less expensive.

This is my favorite bathroom cleaner recipe, and I've been using it with great success for a few years now. I even use it in the kitchen sometimes too. It smells great, doesn’t bother my asthma, kills bacteria and mold, is the best soap scum remover I’ve ever used, and prevents mold from growing until it is rinsed off. Best of all, it costs me about $1.85 for 20 ounces.

1 tsp borax
½ tsp liquid detergent
½ tsp grapefruit seed extract
½ tsp lemongrass essential oil
½ cup white distilled vinegar
2 cups hot water

Borax is an excellent deodorizer, and loosens stuck on dirt and soap scum.
It is important to use a detergent, and not a liquid soap for this recipe. I use 7th Generation Natural Dish Liquid.
The grapefruit seed extract is powerfully anti-fungal, and unscented. You can substitute tea tree essential oil if you like. My kids complained about the characteristically pungent smell, so I decided to use the equally effective grapefruit seed extract.
The lemongrass essential oil is antimicrobial. A number of antimicrobial essential oils can be substituted here, including but not limited to: thyme (which has been shown in studies to kill MRSA), sweet orange (which can be toxic to cats), rose, clove, eucalyptus, cinnamon, rosemary, orris root, birch, tea tree, and lavender. The following essential oils should NOT be used by or near pregnant women: pennyroyal, sage, wintergreen, basil, myrrh, or thyme. For that reason, I don’t use them in my cleaner recipes.
The water needs to be as hot as possible to dissolve the borax.

Pour all of the ingredients in a spray bottle and shake to mix. It is important not to reuse a spray bottle from a commercially available cleaner, so as to avoid chemical reactions. If the borax doesn't dissolve all the way, leave it overnight, and shake in the morning. For soap scum, I spray down the surface, and let it sit for a few minutes while I do something else, then wipe it down with a hot wet rag. Easy peasy.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Creative Process

It’s my writing day. Wednesday. And here I sit, not writing. I have stared at the blank page for 10 minutes. I have checked my email, looked at new sites to host my blog, checked Facebook about a hundred times (I know, I know!), looked for some inspiration on Pinterest, and checked the news. Bupkiss. I’ve just got nothing to write about today. Ok, well, nothing I want to write about today.

I could do a book review… nah. Another recipe? No, they’re all out of season anyway. And see there? I just sat there for 2 minutes staring at the screen because I can’t think what to write about not being able to write. I mean, come on, I have the whole day ahead of me, and nothing to do but write. It’s something new I’m doing, setting aside a day. I have all my chores done, or scheduled for another day. I have turned off my phone, I have banished my husband to his office. The TV is off. There is no music playing. I have a cup of hot tea at my elbow, a belly full of breakfast, and my laptop is at the ready. Stiiiiiill ready. Yup. Staring at my screen.

You know what? Sometimes the creative process really sucks. My mother is a potter. In her studio, whenever I visit, there is almost always evidence of the vagaries of the creative process. My favorite are the lumps of clay that have clearly been whipped off the wheel and thrown against the wall in frustration. She lets them dry there, and then every so often, carefully cleans them off and recycles the clay. She says it’s rather therapeutic. I believe it, but I don’t think my laptop would fare nearly as well.

Seriously, three hundred words about not being able to write, now. This is getting ridiculous. Maybe I should go out and see if the ground is thawed in the garden? NO. It is Wednesday. It is writing day. Ugh.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My Six Year Old Activist

Like all parents, I try to teach my children what I know about how the world works. My great passion is food, and how it is grown. This has an interesting side to it, however. A goodly portion of my research involves non-standard food preparation and preservation, and as I have a rather scientific bent, I have done quite a lot of research into pathogens, how they work, and more importantly, how to kill them. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that this is a pretty handy subject to know a thing or two about. It has changed our lives in some surprising ways. It turns out that our grandmothers knew a thing or two about staying clean and healthy.

One of the things that has changed in my house since my journey began is how we wash our hands. I used to be a member of the liquid Dial Soap fan club. Oh and hand sanitizer, you have to love hand sanitizer, right? Anti-bacterial! Kills 99% of all germs, including the flu! How could a mom not love this stuff, right? Well, it turns out that it really doesn’t cut the mustard. You know what does? Old fashioned bar soap, made with real lye, and water. And yes, LYE soap, because the change in pH is what keeps your bar of soap from becoming nasty. Seriously, that’s it. In fact, that’s what the CDC recommends you wash your hands with. Yeah, you know them, the world experts on infectious disease. Soap, water, and scrubbing. So, that’s what we do. My dad makes the soap for us, so we know exactly what is in it, and I never have to worry about it having too much lye in it and burning us. And it is so well made that our hands are as soft as tiny baby butts. So much better than any homemade or commercial soap I’ve ever tried. He even puts antimicrobial essential oils in some of them so we have something stronger to use during the eventual family pandemic. What a great dad, right? I think so. Why don’t I make my own? Tiny baby butts on the ends of my arms. The man has a gift.

Well, as with all folks living… shall we say somewhat outside of the box, we have hit a few bumps in the road over the years as the kids try to bolt up what they are learning at home, and what they are learning in public school. One of these bumps was in the way they wash their hands. My poor son has been coming home all winter with red raw hands, like someone poured boiling water on the backs of them. You can imagine my horror. As it looked like standard chapping, I gave him a lotion bar to put in his backpack, and told him to carefully dry his hands and lotion them every time he washed them. It cleared right up. I patted myself on the back and moved on. Of course, then it came back. I was racking my brain, I’ll tell you. Every vacation and weekend, his hands would get better, and then as soon as he was back in school, they were red and raw again. I began to think that he might be allergic to the soap at school, even though I could swear that it was not contact dermatitis I was seeing. Trust me, in this house, we know what that one looks like. So I sat my son down, and quizzed him, hoping that it was just that he was forgetting to lotion his hands. He assured me that it simply wasn’t the case. So I asked him how many times he was washing his hands at school. He told me he didn’t wash his hands at school at all. Can you imagine the look on my face? He assured me that his teacher told him that using the hand sanitizer was just fine, and he didn’t need to wash. So that’s what he did.

I was horrified. Folks, kids get dirty. We all know this. But here’s the thing, hand sanitizer DOES NOT REMOVE THE DIRT. And guess what is underneath and inside the dirt? You guessed it, everything from botulism to the common cold. Guess what else? That dirt was getting scraped off on my son’s food and going straight into his mouth. Now, I’m a pound-of-dirt parent. You know, kids eat a pound of dirt before they grow up. It’s good for them. I don’t concern myself overly with germs under normal circumstances. We even have a five second rule at my house, as long as the floor has been vacuumed. But I think even the most laid back parent in the world would like to believe that their children wash their hands after using a public restroom, right? Because guess what else hand sanitizer doesn’t remove? Yeah. You have to actually WASH that off. You know, with WATER.

So what is a horror-struck mother to do? I explained the situation to both of my children. In graphic detail. I don’t believe in making up reasons that are less scary or gross than the truth. Kids are people. They need to understand the reason behind the rule just as much as anyone. And they are way smarter than most people give them credit for. Boy, I’ll tell you, it did the trick. My kids are now devoted bar soap and water hand washers, and I considered the matter closed.

But it wasn’t. You saw that coming, right?

You see, yesterday, my son came home and, brimming with excitement, said to me, “Guess what I did today, Mom?” Ever interested whenever they are eager to share their lives with me, I asked what had happened. He proceeded to tell me all about how he had shared what he had learned about hand sanitizer with his whole table at school. He then proudly informed me that when it came time to get their snacks out, every member of his table went to the sink and actually washed their hands “…with soap and WATER, mom! Because you know what? My teacher is WRONG about hand sanitizer.”

I stood there, dumbstruck. Whoooboy. Didn’t see that one coming. “Good for you!” I managed to get out, and he strolled away, pleased with the world.

At first, I had a pang of concern. I mean, had my son really just staged a full-scale hand washing revolt in his classroom?? Then, well, then I was proud. Really proud. My son learned something new and important about his world. And he didn’t hide it. He didn’t hoard it. He didn’t wait until everyone else had used the hand sanitizer and then stand there and call them gross. He went straight out and shared his knowledge with people he cares about, because he wants them to be healthy. He spoke his truth in the face of the overwhelming pressure of authority, and he changed minds. I have to admit, I am awestruck. Every once in a while, these children of mine bowl me over. It gives me hope for the future. So you keep on keepin’ on, little man. Momma will have your back.