Monday
Jul022012

I Need a Rototiller

I actually like to weed the graden. When the weather is good and the man-eating mosquitoes have not yet been let out of their cages, it is a very pleasant and meditative activity. I love to see how neat the rows look after I have yanked up all the weeds and tossed them aside. 

The problem is that I prefer to weed down on my hands and knees. It is hard on my wrists and that's not a good thing. I noticed yesterday that they were aching a bit when I was playing the piano in church. I have to protect my wrists and hands at all costs. 

I went out to weed yesterday afternoon and tried sitting on a 5-gallon bucket. That worked better for my hands, but it bothered my back. I am going to have to figure out a better system. I might take an inexpensive yoga mat out with me to sit on. 

[The husband is very creative when he weeds. The other day I looked over and he was lying on his side weeding the onions. He said it worked really well, but he doesn't mind getting up covered with dirt.]

After an absolutely beautiful day on Saturday, yesterday dawned rather cloudy and unsettled. When I went out to the garden to weed after church, it was actually perfect weeding weather: cool but not cold and no sun. After about an hour, though, the sun came out and it got blazing hot (it was probably only about 75 degrees, but that qualifies as "blazing hot" for me). I gave up on the tomatoes, which were in full sun, and moved over to the lettuce, which by that time of day is in shade. 

The husband had to go down the road a ways to look at a job. I suggested to him that he stop at a nearby nursery to see about getting some more rhubarb plants. I stopped at the nursery in Kalispell last week and they wanted $12.95 for—I kid you not—a gallon planter with a tiny, single-leaf rhubarb plant in it. This other nursery is not all that far from our house, but I have to make a special trip to go there and don't usually think about it. He came home with two enormous rhubarb plants in gallon containers, each of which was $13.95. Yay.

We have one rhubarb plant already, but it must be a petite variety because even after two years it has not gotten very big. It produces a small amount of rhubarb. It would be enough for one or two regular people who do not consume casserole dishes of rhubarb crisp in one sitting (that would be the husband) or people who don't want to put any in the freezer. We put the two new plants over at the end of the grapevines. One of the varieties says it can be harvested through the fall. Hopefully I can put away enough rhubarb this summer for rhubarb crisp this winter—"enough" being a relative term. 

So I have settled into yet another routine, that of working until about 3 p.m., getting dinner done, and then weeding until it gets dark. I feel like we are on top of things with the weeding, and maybe after we get it all cleaned up (and it stops raining constantly), we will have a few weeks where we won't have to have such intensive weeding sessions. 

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I've been watching the grocery store ads and noticed that Super 1 (where I usually shop) had Pepsodent toothpaste on sale this week for $0.78 a tube. I stopped in there the other day and bought 14 tubes, which should last about eight months. I do remember, however, that in December of 2011, which was the last time they had a sale and I stocked up (I keep notes on these things), the price was only $0.68 a tube. Dear Ben Bernanke . . . . 

[Honestly, I am going to end up on an FBI watch list one of these days.]

Since I am probably already on an FBI watch list somewhere, I'm going to put on my tinfoil hat now and say that I think something is going to happen this fall, and it's going to make 2008 look like a birthday party in comparison. I have no idea what it will be or exactly when it will happen, but it's a gut feeling and I long ago learned to trust my gut feelings. They are almost never wrong. 

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After I hulled yesterday's batch of strawberries, I took the hulls and one slightly overripe berry out to the chickens. They immediately began fighting over the strawberry hulls (as I knew they would), which gave me an opportunity to get the rooster by himself in the corner and give him the strawberry. Those birds are absolutely hysterical to watch. He stood there with the strawberry, making happy rooster noises, and one of the Leghorns (I call them the Camillas after Gonzo's girlfriend on The Muppet Show) came roaring past and swiped it out of his beak. She ran around with it until another Leghorn stole it from her. Then one of the teenage Buff Orpingtons ended up with it and dashed inside the coop, followed by six or seven chickens trying to get it away from her. 

They do the same thing with worms. Every so often one of them will score a big earthworm and run around the chicken yard with it dangling out of her mouth. I am thinking I might start growing some red mealworms for them. They dearly love worms. 

Time to get to work. I can't spend all day watching the chickens. 

Sunday
Jul012012

Weeds Be Gone

The rows of veggies look much better once they have been cleaned up and the weeds banished:

From right to left, those are two rows of beets, two rows of radishes, a row of swiss chard, and a row of dill. Last night I did the two far left rows, which are bush beans. Something is getting at the bush beans and they are not looking as good as I think they should right now. The pole beans, on the other hand (on the way far left of the picture) look fine. We had that same problem last year. I put in purple bush beans and they did okay, but they almost weren't worth the effort. We may just have to take bush beans off the list of crops altogether. 

The husband was at the other end of the garden working on the onions, leeks, garlic, and shallots. 

His potato patch is looking mighty fine this year. He mulches them with grass clippings.

I am just so in love with my lettuce crop. I don't know why, but my lettuce makes me extraordinarily happy.

I tried something different this summer and I think I will continue to do this from now on. Rather than direct seed the lettuce into the garden, I started it in the greenhouse in the trays the husband built. When it got to a certain size, I transplanted it out into the rows. Each plant formed a nice head (ooops, needs weeding!). It sounds like twice the work, but it really wasn't, and I was able to space the lettuce perfectly. 

When we need lettuce, I take a sharp pair of kitchen shears out there and whack off the head at the base. In a few days it has grown back again. I can only do that about twice and then the lettuce starts to get tough. At that point I will just pull it up for the chickens and replace the row with the next tray of starts. Two rows of lettuce is plenty for us, and that's eating at least one big salad a day. This current crop has about another week or two left in it, and then it will be time to transplant the tray that is in the greenhouse. I'll keep doing that all summer. We should be able to get lettuce until the first hard frost, and then we'll have to keep it in the greenhouse. 

The variety is called "Ruby," and it is hands-down my favorite lettuce ever. Even at the height of summer last year, it was very reluctant to bolt. 

I am also very pleased with my grapes. They are interplanted with some hyssop (true hyssop, not anise hyssop). I have one hyssop bush in the herb garden which is very prolific. Last year I read somewhere that grapes like to be planted with hyssop, so I took some of the baby hyssops and put them in a nursery bed to get bigger, and this spring I planted them between the grapes. Everyone seems happy. 

Speaking of the nursery bed, I need to move over about a thousand baby lavenders (maybe not that many, but it seems like it) into the nursery bed for next year. Some parts of this homestead are really not hard to keep going—they tend to move forward under their own inertia without a lot of input from us. I am going to have to look at the big garden to see if I can convince the husband that I need a row for some lavender plants. I could become a lavender farmer. Or maybe I can convince him to make the garden bigger. Lavender doesn't need (or want) a lot of attention once it gets established. Plus, it loves horrible rocky soil, and heaven knows we have plenty of that. It just seems a shame to waste something that needs so little help from me to reproduce and grow. 

After our weeding session last night, a nice line of showers came through (with one big gigantic crack of thunder around 2 a.m. that bounced all of us out of our beds). 

Saturday
Jun302012

Weeds

Finally, the rain has stopped. We have had a couple of days of sunshine and temps in the low 80s. It has been very pleasant.

All that rain makes plants grow, however, and not just the ones you want to grow. The husband and I have been out every night weeding the garden. It's a very companionable practice to be side-by-side in the dirt whacking at weeds. He did the corn and beans, and I got the beets, swiss chard, and dill cleaned up. DD#2 came out yesterday and worked on the rows of spinach, in between popping up to eat strawberries now and then. Last night I weeded the cauliflower while the husband cut the grass, but I was finally driven inside at 9 p.m. when someone let the giant man-eating mosquitos out of their cages. 

The food processing has begun in earnest. I am hoping that today I can try pickling some radishes, because otherwise I will have to take them to church and leave bags of them in people's cars. We can't eat them quickly enough. I also pinched the tops of all my basil plants, and the pinchings got put in a bag and stuck in the fridge for a day or two until I can try something I saw on Facebook from Pinterest, which is to chop up fresh herbs and mix them with olive oil and pour the mixture into ice cube trays. The frozen oil/herb mixtures can be used to flavor dishes while cooking. 

One of the ideas from the CoopCast podcast I've been listening to was to post a whiteboard in the greenhouse and makes lists on it of all the things that need to be done. I like lists, so that idea appeals to me anyway, but hopefully it will also help me remember when things need to be done and by whom. I noticed yesterday that the lavenders have put up stems, and DD#2 mentioned a few weeks ago that she wanted to cut the lavender and dry it when it blooms. I will remind her to start keeping an eye on it so we know when to cut it. 

[She really doesn't require reminding to go pick strawberries.]

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The husband and I are big fans of Craiglist. He watches it like a hawk every week, and I tend to check it in spurts when I am looking for something in particular. Our very handsome rooster and the raspberry starts we planted last year came from Craigslist. 

This week I was looking for bicycles. DD#2 and I would like to ride, but we need bikes. DD#1 just got a new bike after waiting 10 months (that's a whole 'nother story). However, it turns out that it's really the wrong kind for her—she needs a bonafide road bike and the one we thought she would need is more of an urban bike. DD#1 and I worked out the plan that I would buy her new urban bike back from her and she would look for a road bike. Road bikes are pretty expensive—in the $1200 to $2000 range—so she needs to find a good used one. 

[I long for the days of the 3-speed Schwinn, when there weren't so many choices in bikes.]

Anyway, someone had a Schwinn bike for sale here on Craigslist. DD#2 and I went to check it out on Thursday. She liked it a lot and it's the perfect size for her, so we bought it. I can ride it, too, but if I do, it's going to need a wider seat. Women who have given birth have pelvises too wide for most bike seats. I'll bring DD#1's bike back with me in a few weeks when we go to visit her. 

The cool thing about Craigslist is that you can check the lists of things for sale in other cities, so I trolled the Seattle listings to see if there were any road bikes for sale. I figured there would be a better chance of finding a used road bike there than on the Kalispell list. Lo and behold, I found a listing for a used road bike only about five minutes from where DD#1 is at. I did some checking to make sure it was a legit brand of road bike and not some cheap knock-off. The price was half of what a new one would have been. She and her boyfriend went and checked it out last night (he knows a lot about bikes), and he pronounced it a good deal so she bought it. 

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I ended up having a pretty good month, work-wise. It wasn't a stellar month, like May was, but it was better than I thought it was going to be given all the adjustments and disruptions to my schedule. This last week was a slog, though—all of my favorite doctors must be on vacation, because I had all of the doctors whose reports take forever but are only a few lines each. You can tell it's a bad week when my lines-per-hour average gets cut by more than half. A couple of times I just had to force myself to suck it up and keep going. The reports have to get done, and some money is better than no money. 

It's kind of hard to believe that in another month I will have been at this job for a whole year. And I still love it.  

Tuesday
Jun262012

Radishes and CSAs

We planted radishes this year. I have never been a big fan of radishes, but the husband wanted to try everything, so we got a packet of seeds and put them in. Yesterday, I was poking around in the garden and noticed that some were ready to pick, so I pulled a couple up and brought them in for a taste test.

When my in-laws took the girls to Italy last summer, I house-sat for them and was the recipient of their weekly CSA share. (CSA stands for "community supported agriculture"). The week I was there, the share included some radishes, along with the instruction that they would be good sliced up with a little salt. Sure, why not? I sliced up the petite little radish and popped a piece in my mouth and started chewing. All of a sudden my eyes began to water and I could barely choke it down, it was so peppery! People pay money to have their taste buds assaulted by that?!?!?! Needless to say, I left the radishes for my FIL. 

So I was not quite sure what would happen when I ate one of our radishes. I was mentally preparing my taste buds for another assault, but what I got was a very mild, almost sweet taste. Wow. What a difference. I could learn to love these. The variety is an heirloom called "Champion," developed in 1957. I am sure we will be growing these again. I took some over to our friends who had the summer solstice party last week (DD#2 and I went to cut some of their rhubarb), and Marcie pronounced them "cute." They are kind of cute. 

I also cut down the tops—the "scapes"—of the garlic, and today I made garlic scape pesto. I had some of this last summer at my MIL's, and it was phenomenal. This fall we need to put in about six times as much garlic as we have now, just so I can make garlic scape pesto next year. 

The garlic scapes, which kind of look like chives on steroids:

They were blended with Parmesan cheese, walnuts, and some quality extra virgin olive oil:

And then I put them in these nifty little containers to freeze. Some people suggest putting pesto in ice cube trays, but that is such a miniscule amount. These containers are a little bigger. I wish I could remember where I got them. I need about a hundred more. 

I had to force myself to put the pesto in the freezer and not just stand in the kitchen and eat it all by the spoonful. As it is, I ate enough that probably no one will want to be around me this evening. 

I have a great book on making pestos and one of the things I want to do this summer (besides make basil pesto from my fabulous crop of basil) is make oregano pesto. I have a TON of oregano, and mixed with walnuts and Romano cheese, it makes a wonderful addition to pizza. 

DD#2 and I brought home about 10 pounds of rhubarb from our friends' house, and it got chopped up and put in the freezer last night. This afternoon I popped out to the garden and found a couple of ripe strawberries, which I promptly ate. There will be more later this week. 

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I loaded up my iPod with podcasts to keep me company while driving back from Moses Lake this weekend. Most of the podcasts I listen to come courtesy of the husband's recommendation, but I took a chance and downloaded one I had never heard of before. It's called CoopCast and it's produced by a husband-and-wife team who live in upstate NY and run a CSA and meat-producing operation called Chicken Thistle Farm. I listened to the first one and was hooked. For six hours I listened to this couple talk about their farm—the good, the bad, and the ugly. A lot of the conversations they have sound just like the conversations the husband and I have. I found myself giggling a lot. 

[They talked about how their sow farrowed 11 piglets, and the next day was out in the pasture having sex with the boar, which sows are not usually known to do after giving birth to 11 piglets. The wife saw them and exclaimed, "Why? Why are they doing that?!?" which is exactly the kind of thing I would say to the husband in that situation.]

I am intrigued with the idea of a CSA. I certainly don't need another job, but I said to the husband that we may be running something of an informal CSA this summer—we tend to share the bounty that doesn't make it into the freezer with our friends and neighbors, and this year we will have a lot of bounty (hopefully). I haven't quite worked out why a CSA intrigues me so, but what the heck. Lots of things interest me.*

As I was standing at the counter chopping up 10 pounds of rhubarb last night, I said to the husband that it is something of a spiritual experience to feed oneself from one's garden (I might not feel that way after 20 pounds of rhubarb, but last night I was waxing poetic). People are mostly disconnected from their food. Last night I was noticing how fond Mother Nature is of the color combination of red and green. The radishes were red and green, the rhubarb was red and green, and the lettuce is red and green. 

I have to give a shout out to Victory Seeds again. We bought all of our seeds from them last year, and I went straight to their website again this year when it was time to order. All of their plants are heirloom varieties, which is something I am particularly committed to. The germination rate on all the seeds we ordered was very impressive, and the plants are nice and hardy. And clearly—as evidenced by the radishes—the produce is tasty, to boot. 

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You've been hearing me complain about the excessive rainfall this month for a couple of weeks, but now we're getting angry rain that comes with wind, hail, thunder and lightning. I came down at 5 a.m. this morning and took a look at the radar. There was nothing overly concerning. Half an hour later I took another look, and decided to unplug all the computers. A few minutes later we had hail the size of golf balls falling in our yard. 

Here's the really bizare thing: We have more rain than we know what to do with, and a few hundred miles away on the other side of the mountains, it is so dry that wildfire season has already begun (over a month early). There is a wildfire burning two miles from the state capitol building in Helena that has forced evacuations of a couple hundred homes. Our fire department sent an engine over there this afternoon to help. It's the weirdest thing I have seen in a long time. 

I thought this might be a hot, dry summer, but now I am rethinking that. It might be a rainy summer. It's certainly making the weeds grow. Hopefully it will dry out enough that I can get out there tonight and weed the beets. 

*TS's wife runs an artificial insemination business (for cows). Holly, if you're reading this, could I come and watch you sometime? I think it would be an fascinating experience. Let's talk. 

Monday
Jun252012

The Mennonite Meeting

I've been gone for the past four days at the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference meeting, which was held in Moses Lake, Washington. This is an annual meeting of all the Mennonite congregations that make up the PNMC conference. The location rotates. About six years ago we hosted it at our church. It was a great deal of fun and I have wanted to attend other meetings since then, but we are usually on the east coast in June. Knowing we would be here this year, I signed up to go to the meeting as a delegate. The delegate sessions are where the business of the conference is transacted. 

The conference is led by a conference moderator, who serves a two-year term. Our pastor has been chosen as the moderator for the next two years, and his term began at the end of this year's conference. Three other people from our church attended the meeting: Ed and Joann, who are former elders, and TS, who owns Redneck Sausage, producers of that fabulous sausage that I talk about sometimes here on the blog. 

Jeryl, our pastor, had to be in Moses Lake early for meetings with the other pastors. He left on Wednesday.  Ed and Joann left Thursday. I could have driven over with them, but I needed to be back to play piano on Sunday and was going to leave the conference Saturday afternoon. They were not planning to come back until Sunday afternoon. I decided to drive myself. TS was going to go with Jeryl, but business issues kept him here in Kalispell an additional day, so he called and asked if he could drive over with me on Thursday (it's about a six-hour drive, barring any problems).

TS and I got on the road Thursday afternoon around 2 p.m. I am what my daughter calls an "aggressive driver," so I figured we'd be in Moses Lake by 7 p.m. local time (we gain an hour going that way). And then we ran into road construction, so we sat. And then, just before we got to Spokane, we ran into an accident—a very large boat had slipped off its trailer into the road. That held us up for another hour. We finally pulled in to Moses Lake around 9 p.m., checked into our respective hotels, and went and got dinner. 

[I should note that it was blessedly warm—88 degrees—and not raining in Moses Lake.]

The delegate sessions started Friday morning at 8:30. I registered, found my delegate table, introduced myself to lots of other people, and then we all sat down to begin the worship service. The current moderator stepped up to the microphone and said, "Does anyone here play the piano? We are in need of a pianist for worship this morning."

Dead silence. I looked around. No one had raised their hands (including me). 

She asked again, and said, "Surely someone here plays the piano and can help us out." 

When it appeared that no one else was going to offer their services, I got up and walked up to the platform and opened the hymnal. Naturally, the hymns that had been chosen were ones that we had never sung in our own congregation, so I was up there sight-reading and playing on a keyboard in front of 150 other people. But I figure that God gave me this talent and it's my job to use it, so I took a deep breath and off we went. And it was fine. 

[It turns out that there had been a misunderstanding and the person who was supposed to play the piano had not shown up.]

The rest of the day was spent in worship, listening to the keynote speaker (the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, who was a bishop in Lancaster conference back when our pastor was a bishop in Lancaster Conference), delegate sessions, and—of course—at meals. Mennonites march on their stomachs. The conference planners did a fabulous job with providing good, nutritious food.

Saturday was much the same, and included some three-hour seminars in the afternoon. I went to the one on Appreciative Inquiry, which is a process our church is using right now. While I was getting dressed Saturday morning, though, I noticed that the weather forecast was for some violent storms in north Idaho and western Montana. I had been planning to leave around 5 p.m. and drive home, but—after some consultation with Jeryl and TS—I decided to spend another night in Moses Lake and go home after the worship service on Sunday. I didn't really want to drive over two mountain ranges in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. It left our congregation without a pianist, but they can sing a capella. 

[Some pretty severe storms did come through Saturday night, and the husband was out for several hours with the fire department helping with downed power lines and fallen trees. I had called earlier in the day to talk with DD#2, who was ready with the flashlights and knew exactly what she needed to do and did it when the storms came through.]

The best part of all of this was reconnecting with other people I knew in the conference and meeting a whole bunch of new people. I talked with Dave Hockman-Wert, whose wife wrote the Simply in Season cookbook that I use all the time. At the Mennonite Women tea, I sat next to a young woman who lives on her family farm where they milk cows and run a CSA. We are trying to fill our pulpit with guest preachers when Jeryl, our pastor, goes on a three-month sabbatical beginning next month, so I visited with some people I thought might want to come to Montana and help us out. 

Our congregation is the only MCUSA Mennonite church in all of Montana. We're way out here on the fringes. It's wonderful to be able to go to these conferences and feel like we are part of the conference and part of the larger church. 

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I have an observation from the weekend that is going to make me sound critical, and I supposed I am being critical, but it's something I take very seriously. I have worked very hard at being a church pinaist. It's not something I was ever trained for, and so I have mostly been feeling my way along for the past 12 years. Thank goodness I had Catherine to help me. I learned, from watching and listening to her, what it means to be a good church pianist, and now—when I attend worship services where I am not the pianist—I see how well she taught me. 

There has been a movement over the past number of years toward "praise songs" in church services. The idea is that young people can't connect with the stodgy old hymns, so they sing upbeat songs which are usually led by a praise band. Don't get me wrong—I like praise songs, in small doses. And I like them when they are led so that the congregation can sing along. What I don't like are praise bands that get up and lead singing in such a way that no one can sing along with them. And Mennonites can sing. 

The pianist who was supposed to be there Friday morning finally showed up Friday evening and he and his wife led the Friday evening worship. They did a couple of praise songs, and they did them in such a way that we could mostly sing along, even though they were new to a lot of people. He did play "Great is Thy Faithfaulness" so slowly, though, that it felt like a funeral dirge. And he insisted on substituting chords here and there to make it sound more interesting. Yes, that makes it sound more interesting, but when the congregation is singing in parts, it can really throw them off. Oh my. 

One of the Mennonite churches from Seattle led the worship service on Saturday night. They brought their own pianist with them. I went into the sanctuary area a little early to find a seat, so I had the opporunity to sit and listen to her. She clearly was an accomplished pianist. She was all over that keyboard like Liberace. When the singing started, however, she was not listening to the congregation. She did one hymn at such a fast tempo that we couldn't get the words out fast enough, and she ended each verse about two beats ahead of the congregation. 

I found myself getting really frustrated as a singer. The church pianist's job is not to be a performer. It is not to show off. It is not to play "interesting" chords. The church pianist's job is to be a member of an ensemble, and to support that ensemble in its singing. The church pianist should listen closely to the song leader and to the congregation, and should not pull the congregation along at a tempo which is uncomfortable for them. 

So I left feeling a lot better about my skills as a church pianist. Perhaps one of these days I will get to mentor someone as Catherine mentored me.