Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Making Space

I can now say that I have added a new skill to my repertoire; that of cutting down trees. I was already tolerably familiar with the theory, hard to escape when you live in New England, really. But I have now had the chance to put it into practice. We started cutting for the orchard. It was hard going, and not just because I happened to decide that the best place was amidst a stand of oak trees (I really never do anything small). It is not an easy thing to take a life. I honestly hope that I never get to the point where it will be. A few days before we started cutting, I went around and said thank you to the trees that are going to be giving their lives so that we can eat and prosper. Is that sentimental? I don’t think so. Quite a few of those trees are older than I am. All of them are older than my children. It sort of puts it into perspective.

The hope, though, is that the trees I replace them with will far outlive me, and may in fact outlive my grandchildren, if I have any. I dreamed of them, while doing the hard work of cutting down trees and clearing brush. Sitting under apple and almond blossoms in the spring, baskets of yummies in the fall, the pleasure of watching them grow and ripen all summer long. Plumbs, peaches, apples, and pears; made into jams and chutneys, sliced and put up in gleaming jars, dried as slices or fruit leather. Bottle after bottle of homemade wine and melomel. Nuts, hulled and stored, or roasted. Homemade nut butter, which has got to be one of the most delicious things on earth. That’s all a few years down the road, however.

This year, we must work to bring the dream to fruition. Dreams remain only that, until you put in the sweat to make them a reality. And sweat we did, let me tell you. We worked all day. First, we strung a line from marker to marker along the property boundary, to make sure we didn’t cut down any trees that don’t belong to us. It took longer than you might anticipate, as the underbrush is a dense mixture of blackberry bramble and mountain laurel. Then we stopped, and did some math. It’s all well and good to jump in with both feet (and you all know what a fan I am of doing precisely that), but orchard planning requires a bit more in the way of, um… actual planning. We measured, and found that the distance between the driveway and the property line is about eighty feet, give or take the amount of curve in the driveway. Thirty feet of that space (again, give or take) is already lawn. So if we cut back a strip from the edge of the lawn to the property line, eighty feet long, that would give us an eighty foot by eighty foot cleared space for the orchard, with the edge right up against the driveway. If we then gave ourselves a twenty foot border of open space all the way around, to prevent shading of the trees, and keep the fruit from hitting cars in the driveway, that gives us forty feet square; enough for up to twenty-five trees. I have to assume that twenty-five trees will be more than enough. Though, my kids go through applesauce faster than a horde of locusts.

Now, do I really want to cut down nearly 1/10 of an acre of trees and brush all at one go? Frankly, no I do not. Plus, we have to consider the cost. I could afford to put in all twenty-five trees this year, provided that they are all small. In which case, I would spend the next ten to fifteen years waiting for my harvest. Alternately, I can buy a lot fewer trees, but older ones that are ready to fruit immediately - as in this year, or next, depending on how well they transplant. I spend the same ten years building up my orchard, but I get fruit during that ten years. I think I know which way I want to go on this one. So we will be buying six trees this year; two Hall’s Hardy Almonds, one Chicago Hardy Fig, and three apple trees (we are still conducting delicate family negotiations as to which varieties). All of that boils down to the fact that we marked out about half the orchard to cut down. That may seem a lot for only six fruit and nut trees, but some of the trees we have to remove are quite large, and they need to come down in such a way that they won’t wipe out power lines, the house, or our fledgling orchard. Hence taking the time to do the math at the beginning of this adventure.

So with that in mind, we leaped into action. We managed to cut down about thirty small trees, and clear out most of the brush from our forty foot by fifty foot section. I say about, because most of them were the remaining sap-suckers of trees that had already been cut down and left as rotting stumps by a previous property owner. And well, then there are about a dozen large boulders we were working around. Holy hard slogging, Batman. You know, you never realize how out of shape you are until you start doing that kind of work. Three of us worked all day. My aunt and my cousin’s daughter were up visiting, so we roped in the young’un while Auntie kept an eye on children, livestock, and pets. That’s what happens when you come to visit. I’m not shy about putting people to work. I’m also not shy about being grateful, or feeding people, either, so it tends to work out. I’ll tell you, we needed the help. We ended the day with three piles of wood and brush laying in the clearing; one for firewood, one for just branches (I’m going to try my hand at wattle fencing a little later in the year, for the herb garden), and one yet to be trimmed and sorted. The last tree was also left lying where I had dropped it, because I was simply too tired to operate the chainsaw safely. I actually felted a pair of hand knit socks inside my wellies. I had to cut them off my feet. So a nice hot shower, dinner, and bed were all well in order.

I had every intention of getting up early and starting again the next day, never mind that it was a Monday, and Shawn had to work. There was work to do, and I was going to do it myself. I’m a big strong girl, right? Ohhh boy, was I ever wrong. The next morning, I felt like a ninety year old lady who had been through the trash compactor. I whimpered just getting out of bed. Chainsaw? Not going to happen. I could barely lift my water bottle. Couldn’t I just do laundry instead? Um, I couldn’t even touch my toes, so… maybe not. Look up over-do in the dictionary. You’ll find my picture.

So I settled down with my knitting, all the while grumbling about the fine weather, and not being able to work in it. At least I could replace the pair of socks that had been sacrificed. I could always get back to clearing for the orchard tomorrow, right? Well, as it turned out, the next day it rained, and not a little bit, either. I think we got something like an inch and a half of rain. The ducks were happy, but I was muttering under my breath. So, I spent the day wrestling with the household budget, trying to bring everything into order before our fiscal year (which starts June 1st) comes to an end. I wasn’t very successful. It seemed like every small thing that could go wrong, did, and every tiny task took ten times longer than it should have. It was one of those days. I usually have them when I am struggling with the inevitable, instead of surrendering to it. BUT THAT’S OK, because I was going to get outside and start moving my way through those brush piles and stacking the firewood in the morning, by hook or by crook.

Well folks, I got up this morning to an entire yard covered in ice, and a two hour school delay. Seriously??? It is SPRING dangit. Someone up there is having a pretty good chortle at my expense, I must say. So today I’m going to knit, and wrestle with financial information. I will not be so foolish as to try and work on ice-coated trees. I will also try and take this delay in good grace. Because at least there is always tomorrow…

Monday, April 21, 2014

All Purpose Cleaner

This is the second 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 all-purpose cleaner, the one I reach for the most. I use it to clean counters, tables, spots of dirt, and mysterious sticky substances on the tile floors. It leaves everything shiny, clean, and smelling wonderful. Best of all? It costs me about $0.09 to make a sixteen ounce bottle. Seriously, NINE CENTS. And the ingredients, once bought, are enough to keep me in cleaning solution for years. You don’t get much more frugal than that.

½ tsp washing soda OR 2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp borax
½ tsp Liquid Soap
2 cups hot water

It is very important to note that washing soda will dissolve wax. If you have a wax finish on your floors, or furniture, please use baking soda instead. With that said, parents, this stuff dissolves crayon marks like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like magic, and more than justifies the extra effort of locating the washing soda. Please read the information on the box, as this stuff should not be left where little ones can get into it. It is quite alkaline, and if swallowed in large amounts, can burn. It is perfectly safe in its diluted form in the cleaner, however.
Borax is used for deodorizing, and when the cleaner is left to soak, it helps lift stubborn dirt.
I use actual soap whenever possible. Why? Well, because there seems to be a lot of question around the safety of detergents, none around soap, and soap cleans just as well for most aplications. My very favorite liquid soap is Dr. Bronner’s, which comes in a wide variety of scents, and uses essential oils. I prefer the unscented kind, but you can use anything you like in this recipe.
The water must be as hot as possible to dissolve the borax.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What's on the Needles?

I thought I'd try my hand at a pair of boot cuffs. It's a great way to use up a bit of stash yarn, and an excellent chance to try out some new stitches without making a sweater-sized commitment. These are made with Harrisville Designs yarn, but to be honest, I'm not sure which one. I'm pretty sure it has just a little angora in it, and maybe some silk? This is the trouble with stash yarn, you see, especially yarn bought before I learned that I have to be organized about my stash. This particular yarn has been hanging around for more than a decade, and I'm absolutely sure that it is no longer available. Which is a crying shame, given that I've just fallen in love with it all over again.

The pattern is my own, and combines a braided cable, grafting (which you can actually see in this picture), a yarn over braid, and some simple ribbing. It took me about seven hours to do the prototype, but I think it'll only take me about four to finish the other one.

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.