Spicy Roasted Tomato and Basil Soup

If your gardens are behaving anything like ours is, then you are probably smothered in tomatoes. Every day we get a big basket of veggies from the garden, and right now we are benefitting from some of our neighbors being out of town for three weeks. We’ve been invited to enjoy their garden in their absence. It’s a fun daily walk up to their house to discover what we’ll get to take. It’s insane how much we are harvesting!

We love tomatoes. We eat them plain, still warm from the sun. We make salsa, bruschetta, marinara sauce, salads, and anything else you can think of. My latest favorite is a spicy roasted tomato and basil soup. It’s a foolproof soup that tastes like liquid summertime. I’m always getting compliments on it, so I thought I would share my recipe. It’s so easy a caveman could do it.

First, collect all the tomatoes you want. This is an especially good way to use those tomatoes that are getting a little wrinkly. Here’s the best part. You can slice them if you want. You can leave them whole if you want. You can use large tomatoes or small tomatoes or a combination of both. You don’t need to peel them and you don’t need to take out the seeds. It’s as simple as pulling tomatoes off the vines and throwing them into a roasting pan. I’m using my favorite, well-seasoned Pampered Chef stoneware pan that has been loved for years and years.

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Garden tomatoes in a stoneware baking pan, ready for roasting!

I did end up slicing up some of my tomatoes, but it’s a completely optional step. Next, I added some more veggies. I used the following: two small onions, complete with greens; five cloves of garlic, whole; a jalapeno, seeds included; two cayenne peppers, seeds included; avocado oil, drizzled liberally; a splash of red or white wine, whatever is leftover (yes, occasionally there is some leftover); and of course salt and pepper. I just give everything a rough chop, if I feel like it. Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. It may or may not correspond to exactly how much wine is leftover.

 

Now, I like this soup spicy. If you don’t like spicy soup then I would recommend seeding the hot peppers or leaving them out completely. You could substitute chili powder or cayenne pepper flakes if you don’t have whole peppers, or even add those spices to individual bowls after the soup is done to customize the spice for each person.

Once the veggies are seasoned and ready, throw the whole thing in the oven at 400 degrees until the tomatoes are wrinkled and soggy-looking. Then add a handful of fresh basil leaves and return it to the oven for another 8-10 minutes.

 

Now here comes the best part. Dump the entire contents of your baking pan into a good blender, splash in a little half and half or heavy cream, and blend the heck out of it. I have a Vitamix blender, so it completely pulverizes the hot pepper seeds. This increases the heat by distributing the oil throughout the soup. If you don’t want it to kick your butt, then either remove those seeds or don’t blend it to death.

 

Some additional or alternate ingredients you could add would be parmesan cheese, oregano or thyme, sherry instead of wine, banana or bell peppers instead of jalapeno and cayenne, sour cream instead of half and half, or leeks instead of onions.

Once the soup is blended you should have a creamy, delicious, spicy soup that smells and tastes like summertime. I’ve eaten it hot with toast, crackers, or a grilled cheese, or served it cold as a dip for crostini.

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I hope you get a chance to try this recipe, and if you do I hope you comment and tell me how you like it. I’d love to hear about any changes you make. I’m always looking for new things to try. Also, please share links to your favorite recipes for tomatoes! We are getting so many already, and the plants are just getting started.

Also, I don’t know if you noticed, but this recipe is also vegetarian! Just an earth-friendly bonus. It’s easily made vegan by substituting the half and half for something non-dairy like a soft tofu. I wouldn’t try to swap it for soy or almond milk, because that would be too thin. But tofu would be perfect!

Bon appetit!

Quickles! Two-Day Refrigerator Pickles

The pickling cucumbers are starting to ripen, and we are so excited! We are a family that can’t get enough cucumbers. My little guy makes a killer cucumber salad, my older daughter loves cucumber sandwiches on pumpernickel bread, and pretty much all of us love pickles.

Because so many of us love pickles, we decided to grow pickling cucumbers, and lo and behold those are the first ones to ripen, so I decided to try my hand at making quick pickles. Quickles!

One of my favorite things to do is to reuse things. Even when I recycle it, I still feel bad when I buy one-use products or single-serve products that have all that extra packaging. Our Costco has the most delicious jarred sliced mangos, and I covet those jars. They are huge and the wrappers are easy to remove, leaving a plain glass jar. You can even take a little rubbing alcohol and get the expiration date stamp off.

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They are all over my house now, containing everything from rice to tea bags to spare change, and soon Quickles!

Did you know that cucumbers are on the Dirty Dozen list? I had no idea until recently, and I’m even more excited to be growing our own now. The Handyman likes his pickles a little bit spicy, and I like mine a little bit sweet, so I decided to try my hand at creating a sweet and sweaty Quickle recipe.

First, I went into the garden and harvested the best-looking pickling cucumbers I could find. Then I sliced them into chips, along with a carrot. You don’t need to add the carrot to this recipe, but I have a softness for pickled carrots, and it does make quite a nice aesthetic addition to the jar.

 

Next I made the brine. My jars are 42 ounces, but I didn’t want to fill it completely so I could have enough room to give it a good shake every once in awhile.  If you decide to follow this recipe, the total volumes might change according to your batch size, but I would keep the ratios about the same:

  • 3 cups sliced cucumbers
  • 1 medium carrot, sliced
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 5 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 Tbsp dried dill (use more if using fresh)

Check out those colors. Aren’t they beautiful?

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Once everything is together in the jar, cover the ingredients with enough water to just submerge everything. Then just screw the lid on and shove it in the fridge for two days. Carrots and garlic tend to sink, but cucumbers tend to float, so invert the jar a few times a day to make sure everything spends equal time in the brine.

I have picky pickle-eaters in my house, and these bad boys were a huge hit. I would not label these as spicy pickles, because even my little guy could eat them, so if you want more heat add more peppers. Next time I’m going to try some variations with horseradish and our fresh hot peppers when they’re ripe.

Bon appetit!

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Two-day refrigerator pickles. Quickles!

Triumphs and Frustrations

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks here on the Homestead. Our garden is growing, our chickens are laying, the sun is shining, and things are moving right along.

The vegetable garden is doing better than we even hoped. We were forced to make a few changes here and there, but overall we are very proud of our first serious attempt at vegetable gardening. The beans seeds that we planted were just decimated by insects initially. Over half of the seedlings’ cotyledons were eaten by something, and we were left with these sad little stumps. You can see about four in these pictures that are just stem. Poor little guys. I debated pulling them out and planting new seeds, but we decided to just see if they could recover.

And they did! I couldn’t believe that a poor little plant that was nothing but stem could make a comeback, but out of all the seeds we planted only one did not make it. That’s not bad considering the germination rate of these bean seeds is supposedly in the 70-80% range. Of course, I was kind of banking on that rate of germination so that I could have staggered plants, since all the beans will ripen at the same time on these plants. Oh well, I guess we’ll have a busy weekend of preserving them all when they’re ready. Here are the beans now:

And the potatoes, oh my word the potatoes. If you ever want to feel accomplished as a gardener, then plant potatoes. These things grow incredibly fast. I dug deep trenches in which to plant them, and then as the greens popped up I slowly buried them with soil until they were little hills instead of garden rows. This method is supposed to maximize the number of potatoes per plant.

Everything is growing fantastically, but we are being hit with the most frustrating infestation of caterpillars on our cabbage and broccoli. Every morning I go out and pick off about 15-20 of the little buggers. They’re decimating the leaves of the broccoli, and now I can see them in the beginnings of the cabbage heads. It’s quite frustrating.

There are two kinds of caterpillars: fat green ones that like to sit on the tops of the leaves, and small brown and tan ones that hide out on the underside of the leaves. We tried initially to use an organic pesticide/fungicide/miticide by Garden Safe, but I can tell you right now that stuff is worthless. Absolute junk. It doesn’t keep anything away, and I swear I saw aphids doing the backstroke in puddles of it. Our current method of treatment is a homemade combination of 2 T of Dr Bronner’s peppermint castile soap, 2 T of cayenne pepper hot sauce, and we filled a 24 ounce spray bottle the rest of the way with water. So far, it seems to be helping, but I think we may have waited too long before switching away from the worthless Garden Safe spray. I will update if there are any changes, but at this point we are seriously considering yanking the cabbage and planting something else while there is still time.

Also, our beet seeds just really never took off. They grew as expected for the first couple of weeks, and then they just stopped growing, the stems got flimsy, and a few of them just withered away. We spoke to a local garden center owner and she told us that we could give them more time, but suggested that we dig up just one to see what was happening below ground. Well, I did, and it wasn’t great. The Handyman and I decided to go ahead and pull the remaining beet seedlings and replace them with something else. With our kids in mind, we decided to plant cantaloupe. They were disappointed when we told them we weren’t going to add any melons to our garden this year, so we decided to surprise them with two varieties. And I know the chickens will love eating the leftover rinds and seeds.

Other than that, though, the garden is just spectacular. We’ve harvested a few heads of lettuce already for salads and wraps, and the pickling cucumber vines are really taking off. We have squash blossoms and baby zucchini squash too, and little broccoli heads. Also, and this may sound silly, I didn’t realize that even the blossoms on eggplants are purple. How cute is that?

In other exciting news, the chickens have started laying eggs! Well, two of them have, anyway. My favorite chicken, Edith, was the first one, followed quickly by Beatrix. I can actually tell those two apart from the rest of the chickens now, because Edith has a whiter butt and Beatrix is the only other chicken with a really red comb. Once the rest are laying I think she will get lost in the bunch. But for now, I can pick her out of a line-up. The first few eggs from both chickens were so adorable and cute, and the very first ones had double yolks. I’m very excited to have fresh eggs now, but I need some of these other freeloaders to start pulling their weight. I’ve got five hungry mouths to feed; two eggs a day is not gonna cut it.

 

And in other, even more exciting news … my ducks have returned!!!

Molly and Jenny have returned from their extended vacation across the street in the Perkiomen Creek. I was correct, as it turns out, that they just ran away after being scared by the Handyman running the tractor. Then, while they were seeking refuge in the creek, a neighbor of ours thought they were particularly gorgeous (which they are) and decided to start feeding them. I guess they never felt compelled to go home. We found them while walking in the creek two days ago. I felt terribly bad pulling them from their creekside home, but as domestic ducks that can’t fly I don’t think they really stand much of a chance in the long-term. While they might not have been happy to return, they are safer now and that makes me happy.

 

However, there is a new duck problem. I was so depressed about my missing ducks, and after four weeks with no sign of them except some faint quacking (which I had finally convinced myself was just the beating of the hideous heart) I decided to get some more ducklings and start again. When I went to the breeder this time, he had a few males that were going to be euthanized if they didn’t get homes, because male ducks are much harder to sell, so I made an impulsive decision to get one male as well. So about two weeks ago I brought home three ducklings. Meet Jack, Chrissy, and Janet.

But now I have FIVE DUCKS!!

It’s a good thing we made our chicken run so large. Five ducks, sheesh! Good thing they are freaking adorable.

So I hope everyone is enjoying their early summer gardening, and I would appreciate any tips on removing cabbage caterpillar infestations. These things have me losing my damn mind.

What’s New on the Homestead

So it’s been awhile since our last project was completed, and things have been going smoothly for the most part. We haven’t done anything major, but have stayed pretty much constantly busy. Have you ever had one of those weeks (or two or three) where you feel like you never sat down but you can’t put your finger on what exactly you have accomplished? Yeah, that was us for the last couple of weeks. It feels nice to get some of that little stuff checked off the To Do list, but it’s not quite as satisfying as completing a large project.

One of the things I have been really needing for a long time is a place to keep my aprons. They’ve been cluttering up my entry way for what seems like an eternity. I never wanted to tuck them away out of sight, because they’re used just about daily, but I also was getting pretty tired of seeing them draped over the light switch. So I asked the Handyman to hook me up with a little place to hang them. He found a scrap piece of old barn wood and I scrounged up some cool looking drawer pulls at Hobby Lobby. One of the walls of our entryway is the exposed stone from the original exterior wall of the farmhouse, so that’s not a great place to hang things. The other wall is stucco over stone, which isn’t much better, but with his hammer drill and some patience the Handyman was able to make it happen. Cost: around $4.

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I don’t like things to be too matchy-matchy, so this eclectic combination is perfect for me. The middle knob is a bit too small for my current purse, so for now it’s holding this gorgeous hand-painted hairy woodpecker sign that is painted on slate. And flanking that are my two aprons: the Roo Apron that I love, love, love, and my chicken apron. Oh guess what!! The Roo is now available in just a waist apron! It’s called … wait for it … the Joey! How adorable is that? I’ll be ordering one soon, so watch for another review post!

The chickens are doing great. They’re growing like crazy things, and eating up a storm. The chicken run is working out perfectly. They get a little morning sun in the back area, but are shaded during the hot part of the day. They love getting my kitchen scraps and the weeds I pull out of the garden. These girls can decimate a watermelon rind in about two minutes. I have also started landscaping the run a little bit, starting with some rhubarb! You can’t be a Pennsylvania resident without rhubarb plants in your yard. I will post pics of the landscaping when it’s all done.

Everything is starting to bloom here on the Homestead. I can’t believe all the flowers and baby fruits that I’m starting to see! Blueberries! It will be time to cover those soon, or we will have no blueberries and very fat birds. Honestly, I am so relieved to see that we have peaches and apples growing on our trees. It’s always scary when you have to prune so much dead or diseased wood off a tree like we did. We have been keeping a close eye on the leaves, and so far have had to remove several dozen that were showing signs of peach leaf curl. It doesn’t appear to be spreading any more, though, so that’s great news! Maybe there will actually be a post on making peach preserves this year. And it is so wonderful to see my earliest flowers starting to pop up. The miniature roses opened just this morning, and though they are small they pack a lot of color in their little blossoms.

In the next few weeks I expect to see blooms on lots more things, especially in my perennial garden. I have so many plants: bee balm, lemon balm, gooseneck loosestrife, evening primrose, firecracker vine, moonflower, hyacinth bean, false sunflower, penstemon, echinacea, rudbeckia, coral bells, black adder, mountain laurel, sarsaparilla, astilbe, lily of the valley, peony, rose of sharon, and hydrangea. I love spring! I try to keep a good assortment of native plants around because it helps the local bee population, and then something native is blooming for them all season long. I’d love to start keeping bees as part of our Homestead one day.

The vegetable garden is coming along too. The Handyman constructed a trellis for the climbing cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes using some scrap pipe from a plumbing job and some cord. I plan to support the vines with garden ties as they get bigger. The potato plants are popping up so fast. They really keep me on my toes, because every day I have to pile more soil on them so they are able to grow more potatoes. Next year I will trench them even deeper.

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It’s hard to notice any changes when you see everything daily, but comparing them side-by-side makes it so obvious how much everything is growing!

Since we planted everything we have had the foggiest, rainiest, most overcast couple of weeks that I can ever remember having. It has been downright pathetic. This poor garden has had plenty of rain, but hardly any sun. Hopefully these last few sunshiney days and the nice weekend we have forecasted will give these little guys a nice boost.

In other, sadder news: We had our first big failure. Our ducks are gone. The Handyman was mowing the lawn while they were free-ranging (NO that’s not what happened!) and it must have startled them because they took off running and we haven’t seen them since. I am distraught. We live next to a pretty decent sized creek with plenty of riparian zone for them to hide in, and every so often I swear I hear them quacking from over there, but they just won’t come home. I’ve tried banging their food container, splashing in their wading pool, and doing everything I can think of to entice them to come back. The vegetation is too thick to try and track them down and catch them. I was optimistic that they’d get hungry and come home, but I guess the creek is just too inviting. With every passing day I think the likelihood of them coming back is getting smaller and smaller. I miss them. I will update if anything changes.

 

400 Square Foot Vegetable Garden Layout

Lots of things need to be considered when planning a garden. Not only do you need to have adequate soil, water, and sun, but you have to plant things in just the right place. Some plants need lots of sun, but if you live in a very hot climate they can’t handle afternoon sun. Some plants need shade, but filtered shade, not complete shade. Some plants are just buttheads and need to be isolated or they’ll take over (I’m talking about you, mint). If you buy indeterminate tomatoes or vining cucumbers then not only do you have to consider how you will support them as they climb, but you also have to place them in an area where they won’t grow up and shade nearby plants. Basically, it’s not a simple process. But fortunately, it’s not an impossible process either.

This is my first time doing honest-to-goodness, in-the-ground vegetable growing. I can grow some killer peppers and tomatoes in containers, and my herbs have done alright over the years. But I’ve never done a vegetable garden where the plants go straight in the ground. The side-effect of being a renter for so many years, I guess. So I have to plan this all out from the beginning. Time to pull out the stuff I learned in all those botany classes.

We started with a garden plan borrowed from the back of Small Plot High Yield Gardening called the 400-Square-Foot Soup Garden. This garden plan has a great selection of vegetables for cooking, like beets, beans, broccoli, potatoes, celery, carrots, onions, etc. Originally we were going to follow this plan almost to a T, until we spoke to Dax at Beets Workin’ Farm. He basically warned us against spending much time and energy trying to grow celery and carrots. Ok, so we scratched those two things off the list. We also wanted to swap spinach out for lettuce, since we eat a lot more lettuce, and decided to do more lettuce instead of peas. Did I mention we eat a lot of lettuce? We also swapped out sorrel and parsley for lots of hot peppers. The Handyman loves hot sauce, and makes a few types of his own, so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of hot peppers to use. So, basically we kept the layout of the rows along with the herb garden in the center of the path, but the varieties we planted are quite different so we had to reassess where to place everything.

Beets, which are a family favorite, do extremely well when planted next to bush beans and potatoes but far away from pole beans. Cucumbers like being next to cabbage and broccoli. Eggplant likes peppers. Peppers like tomatoes. Tomatoes like peppers, but shouldn’t be next to potatoes, because they both attract the same pests. And pretty much everything in the garden benefits from having marigolds around. Marigolds repel pests, and the chickens can eat the spent blossoms to enrich the color of their egg yolks.

So, after a lot of drawing, erasing, re-drawing, crumpling, muttering, and grumbling, I finally came up with a layout that will keep things apart that need to be apart, keep things near that like to be near, keep things east that grow quite tall, and protect things that are more sensitive. My lettuce is currently set to get strong afternoon sun, but I am planning on making shade cloth tents for those three rows, so hopefully I can still grow it there.

And then we planted everything! That was the best part. I love sinking my hands in the soil.

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It was Mother’s Day this past weekend, and my kids knew exactly what to make for me. Garden markers! The Handyman cut them some pieces of wood, and my oldest daughter helped orchestrate a painting party for everyone to make some signs. I love homemade things, and I especially love mis-matchy things. If things look too neat and orderly I start to get a little claustrophobic. I like an eclectic look. These lovely signs are a perfect addition to our garden and a great visual representation of the unique personalities each of my kids have.

 

In addition to the things we started from seed, we purchased the following seedlings from our local nursery:

  • hot peppers
  • bell peppers
  • cucumbers
  • zucchini
  • eggplant
  • purple cabbage
  • lettuce
  • mint
  • chives

The reason we purchased some things instead of growing them was purely a financial decision. We knew we wanted a lot of variety in our hot peppers, so to buy 6-7 different seed packets only to grow 1-2 plants of each variety just doesn’t make sense. We also knew we only wanted one or two zucchini and eggplant plants. When seed packets are a few dollars a piece, and your local nursery sells seedlings at 50 cents a piece, the math isn’t difficult to do. I also ended up buying two purple cabbage seedlings on impulse, because I remembered how much I love the spicy addition to my salads. Finally, my mint and chive seeds never germinated. Still not sure why.

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Sad mint and chives are sad

One thing I was trying to avoid, too, by buying some things and starting others, was having everything ready for harvest at the exact same time. The bush beans, for example, all ripen together. So if I plant 15 bean seedlings in my garden at the same time then I will have ten thousand beans at once. However, bean seeds only have about a 70% germination rate, and a germination period of about 10-14 days. So, I plant my seeds, two weeks later I plant more where the bald spots are, and now I have naturally staggered bean plants. Same with the lettuce. I bought green leaf lettuce that can be harvested in bits or the whole head. As it matures, I will take outer leaves from some of the heads, allowing the inner leaves to keep growing and growing, and some I will head completely. Then I will replace those heads with lettuce seeds and start the process over again. This will also keep us from getting bored by letting us swap out lettuce varieties throughout the season. Haha … letting us … let us … lettuce. (Ok, I’m getting giddy, time for bed).

Here it is! The finished garden! (Well, technically the potatoes weren’t planted at the time this picture was taken, but close enough!)

A few things we learned through the seed-starting process will hopefully help us next year. First of all, we believe we need an additional grow light in the basement. We didn’t have anything get leggy or lean, but we do feel like we could have had a better arrangement downstairs if we had more light. I also didn’t thin my seedlings. It made me quite nervous to decide which seedling was going to live and which would become chicken food, and I was worried I would pick the wrong one. Then I had this wacky idea that I could just separate the seedlings right before planting and have double the plants. Well, that was stupid and I know that now. I was only successful in separating one of my seedling sets. The rest ended up getting thinned out anyway, only the plants were bigger so I felt even worse. Next year I will thin! I promise!

Another thing that will hopefully be different next year is the starting time. We were starting from scratch this year, and we had to wait for the ground to thaw enough for us to work the soil before we could do anything. Even the silage tarp couldn’t go on until we were able to take off the first layer of grass. Next year we can put cold-tolerant plants out much earlier than we could this year, because the garden will be ready. Also, we can plant garlic this fall and have garlic in the garden next spring! Lots of things can be started earlier. The Handyman wants to build us a cold frame, too, so hopefully we can extend our growing season in both directions. I am going to spend this winter doing the research to figure out how best to get two harvests out of this garden next year.

 

Our 20 x 20 Vegetable Garden

So a few posts back I updated you on our spring activities. The Handyman and I broke ground on our 20′ x 20′ vegetable garden and we put down a silage tarp to do several things: kill off the remaining grass, warm up the soil, and draw up the earthworms for some all-natural aeration and decomposition. The silage tarp remained on the garden plot for about a month, and boy did it work!

The grass is completely dead, there are visible holes from the worms, and it was easy to feel how much warmer the ground was just by sticking your hand into the soil. That little trick saved us a LOT of work!

Every year the Handyman takes our shredded leaves and grass clippings in the fall over to a pile in our neighbors’ field. They let us borrow their wonderful tractor with a vacuum attachment on it that just mulches and sucks those things right up. Now that they’ve been sitting for a few years getting nice and composted, we want our leaves and grass back!

I’m not a compost expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know that good compost is made from a mixture of brown and green vegetation. Compost from just dead leaves will be nitrogen-poor and take years to decompose. The addition of a “green” (like lawn clippings) adds nitrogen and speeds up the composting process. That said, our compost probably still could have used another year. In the future, we are going to be more conscientious about stirring it, and possibly even add another nitrogen source. I bet we’ll have plenty of chicken manure! Still, even partially decomposed leaf compost attracts worms, and worms leave worm castings, which is fertilizer gold. It can also help to hold moisture in the ground, similar to how mulch works. So even though it’s not completely composted, we decided to go ahead and dump it on and mix it with the top few inches of soil. We even got the kids to help.

We purposely only went down a few inches into the soil to not bring up buried weed seeds or disturb the natural layers of soil. Ideally we would have used a broadfork instead of using a tiller at all, but since they run around $300 we decided to go with a more economical approach this year. The Handyman has plans to construct his own broadfork in the future. Did I mention that it was raining the entire day we did this? Baby Cakes was enjoying watching the tilling from underneath the umbrella.

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The next step was putting up the fencing. We are using the same 6′ tall 2″ poultry netting that we used for the chicken run. Buying it in bulk really saved us some money. It will be buried in the soil about a foot out from the edge of the fence, just how we did the chicken run. It won’t keep everything out, but it will deter some of the lazier critters. We are also using some more landscape timbers instead of 4×4 posts. They are considerably cheaper, and I really prefer the rustic look that they add. We also got some free labor from Matt, one of the Handyman’s friends. He dug the holes for the landscape timbers to go in. Better him than me!

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Here’s Matt, hard at work digging holes.

On a note totally unrelated to the fact that Matt was drinking beer while digging, a few of the timbers are … slightly … off. Only a foot … or two. But we now have a door we could drive the tractor through, so I guess that’s a plus.

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While Matt and the Handyman were doing all the heavy lifting, I decided to go ahead and make my garden rows. Taking the advice I got from Dax, I decided to make my garden match my tools. The rows are about two feet wide, which seems to be pretty standard for a small garden like ours, and the space between rows is exactly as wide as our rake. It’s not an exact science, but I can definitely see how taking the time to match to your tools will save time and energy in the long run.

I got to see what it was like to have an audience while working. Look at all these big strong guys watching me do the work. No one is even pretending to help! I guess that’s how the Handyman usually feels, huh?

I ended up making a path down the middle, going around the pallet wood herb planter that the Handyman made me for Valentine’s Day this year, that split our eight 20′ rows into sixteen 9′ rows. The rows run north-to-south, so the sun will rise at the back of the garden, and the front will get the afternoon sun. I like this layout because it allows me to better arrange the plants so that the tall ones won’t shade the short ones. My indeterminate tomatoes will go along the back row, for example, so that they’ll get lots of sun without acting as a screen. I want to be able to control the shade my plants get, so the default is to give them all full sun. Soon I will be building shade cloth tents to protect some of the more sensitive plants from that hot afternoon sun as we progress into summer. My goal is to be able to grow lettuce all season long.

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So it was a lot of hard work, mostly by the Handyman, but it is finally finished! The plants we started from seed have been in the garage hardening off, getting ready to be transplanted. Mother’s Day is when my local expert tells me it’s safe to plant in the ground. I can hardly wait!

I am so excited for my finished garden. It’s funny, because the Handyman and I were so concerned that we were getting in over our heads with a 20′ x 20′ garden, but now that we see it we wish it was bigger! Luckily the Handyman thought ahead, and put it where it will be easy to expand it another 10 feet next year.

The next few projects will be planting our vegetables, running water out to the workshop and/or building a rainwater irrigation system, painting garden markers with the kids, building a duck house, and possibly another giveaway! Stay tuned!

DIY Tiered Planter Box from Pallet Wood

One of the best perks of being married to the Handyman is that I get the most amazing homemade presents! I get nightstands for my birthday, bookcases for Christmas, and birdhouses just because he loves me. All made from rescued wood! This year for Valentine’s Day he asked me what I wanted, and I requested a set of planter boxes for my herb garden.

The garden plan that we’ve chosen to use as our inspiration has an herb garden centerpiece, and I got really excited about designing one for our garden. The location of our garden is full sun, so I thought a tiered set of boxes would be the best way for me to be sure that I could grow both sun-sensitive herbs (like basil, which prefers afternoon shade) and sun-lovers (like chives) in the same area without giving up a lot of square footage. It will also help keep aggressive plants (like mint) from spreading all over the damn place. I like mojitos as much as the next person, but there are only so many I can drink.

So on an unusually warm February day, the Handyman, armed only with my request for a “tiered” system, built me the most amazing herb garden planter boxes.

He started by ripping apart some of the coolest, oldest, most deliciously weathered hardwood pallets that I’ve ever seen. These things had some serious character. He set aside the stringer boards to be used as legs, and started cutting up the slats.

As anyone who has ever worked with rescued wood can tell you, you don’t go into the project with dimensions in mind. The wood tells you how big your end result will be. Pallets aren’t any different. In this case, the six widest slats ended up being the sides of six rectangular planter boxes. The exact dimensions can be whatever you like, but the length of your pallet slat equals the perimeter (sum of all four sides) of your rectangle. A 48″ pallet slat can make a 12″ x 12″ square, a 10″ x 14″ rectangle, an 8″ x 16″ rectangle, or myriad other configurations, as long as the perimeter is 48″. Just know that the farther you get from a square, the smaller your surface area will be. 12×12 is 144 square inches, but 8×16 is only 128 and a 2×22 is only 44 square inches. If planting area is important to you, stay close to square. We decided to do slight rectangles to help with stability by spreading out the center of gravity a bit.

The little man got to help assemble the boxes.

Once the box sides were assembled, the smaller slats were cut to fit the bottom of the boxes, with slight gaps left to help with drainage.

The planter boxes are arranged in two columns of three boxes. Each set of three boxes is secured using a pallet board on the side, and the two columns are attached together using a third pallet board down the middle. You want enough height between boxes to allow for plant growth, sunlight exposure, and to let rainfall naturally water your herbs.

 

Also, remember that if you want your columns staggered you need to have the side supports longer on one side. A good way to avoid mistakes is to attach the pre-made boxes to the center support first, and then add the side supports.

 

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Side support for Boxes 1, 3, and 5 runs from the bottom of Box 1 to the top of Box 5, whereas side support for Boxes 2, 4, and 6 begins one box-height below Box 2, to elevate it above Box 1. Center support runs from the bottom of Box 1 up to the top of Box 5.

Finally the stringer boards were attached to the base to give stability. Since our boxes are going to go in the center of the garden path, the Handyman kept the stringer boards long and narrow so we won’t have to step over them as much.

The final product is perfect for our rustic, rescued wood homestead. It’s been sitting outside the Handyman’s workshop since February so those cut ends are getting nice and weathered now. As soon as the garden is completely tilled and ready this sucker is going smack dab in the middle. I can’t wait for all the tasty goodness to start growing. I’ve already got my basil, oregano, and thyme hardening off and getting ready to go outside, and today I bought some mint and chive plants, since those seeds didn’t germinate. We still have frost potential, so nothing is outside yet, but next week is Mother’s Day and my local experts tell me it’s safe then. I can hardly wait!

 

“My father never told me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”  Clarence Budington Kelland

Welsh Harlequin Ducklings!

Is there anything cuter than a duckling?

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Meet Jenny and Mollie

I’ve always been interested in having ducks in our backyard flock. I love baking with the richer duck eggs. I love ducks’ quirky personalities and the way they splash around in even the tiniest puddles. I love how they can be the epitome of grace and serenity on the water, but on land they walk like a cross between a drunk man and a pregnant woman. In short, they entertain me, but they also poop breakfast!

I was able to make it through several trips to Tractor Supply Co during their Chick Days events without scooping up some ducklings. We coo’d at them in their metal troughs, but never bought any. Why?

Well, first of all I knew that I didn’t want males. Male ducks are very, well, uh … enthusiastic, shall we say … with the ladies. In fact, most experts recommend keeping at least five female ducks per male, just to keep him content and to keep the females safe. Plus, male ducks don’t lay eggs. If we do nothing else, the Handyman and I are making sure to put our effort and money into things that will give us something in return. Sorry male ducks, but you just don’t make the cut this year. And the problem with the two duck breeds that my local TSC carries is that it’s impossible to tell the two sexes apart, so you just have to roll the dice. I want two ducks, but I don’t want to end up with one male and one female (as would be the most likely scenario, statistically) because he would abuse the poor girl. I also don’t want two males, because then there are zero eggs! All cost and no return. And though there is a 25% chance that I would get two females, that leaves a 75% chance that I would just have to re-home one of the ducks or even both. I don’t like those odds. Additionally, my local TSC really only ever carries Pekins and the occasional Khaki Campbell.

The Khaki Campbells are great layers, and the ducklings are melt-your-heart cute, but they can be skittish. Pekins are probably the biggest, loudest, smelliest, messiest ducks I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how they stay so white. They are both great breeds for the right owner, just not right for us. No, the only way I would be willing to have ducks is if I could get only females of a smaller breed.

So I started looking around for other breeds in my area. I found Wood Ducks and Mandarins, which are mostly decorative and cost over $60/pair! Plus, in my state certain aspects of owning them requires a special permit. I found Muscovies, but they can fly quite well and would easily get out of my existing enclosure. I could have special ordered a different breed, but I only wanted two and it’s not really safe to ship such a small number of ducklings so most places require that you buy at least 6. But finally, after a bit of digging around, I found the perfect breed for us, and they were local.

 

Welsh Harlequins! They are descended from the Campbell breeds, so they are bred to be great layers, but they are more docile than the Khakis. They are less than half the weight of the Pekin ducks, so they won’t eat or poop as much. They are absolutely gorgeous, as you can see by the pictures above (from the Livestock Conservancy page and Moose Manor Farms). As an interesting bonus, they are classified as a Heritage breed by the Livestock Conservancy. This means they were bred to carry the characteristics that were valued the most by our forefathers, back when self-sufficiency was a necessity of life. These birds are a homesteader’s dream!

The best part, in my opinion, is that males and females look slightly different in the first few days after hatching. Males have a darker bill, and females have a lighter bill with a dark spot at the tip. This makes it possible for small-time duck farmers like us to avoid unsafe male-to-female ratios by getting exactly what we need. In the future I will consider adding more females and a male to the group, but for now it’s just us girls.

For the time being, our little Jenny and Mollie are living in a tub in our house, with a heat lamp and plenty of good food and water. Eventually they will the join the chickens out in the run, but not in The Egg Plant. They will get their own little duck house in the next few weeks. Ducks require slightly different care than chickens do, so we will make sure they get custom accommodations. Look for that post in the next few weeks, along with exactly what we do to keep our ducks healthy and happy while living amongst chickens.

Also, there’s still a little time to enter the giveaway for the Roo Apron! Winner will be chosen April 30th, 2017!

The Roo Apron Review and Giveaway!

It’s no secret that the Handyman and I hate to spend money on something we can make ourselves, repurpose, or do without. However, he and I also believe that if you have to buy something, do your research and buy the very best. If there’s anything that drives me battier than spending money, it’s spending money on something that will end up in a landfill in a season or two. So, one of my goals is to find the best of the best when it comes to those items that you just can’t make or do without.

I’m happy to say that I’ve found my very first favorite gardening product: The Roo Apron!

 

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This apron is clearly functional, which I definitely appreciate, but it has the added advantage of being incredibly adorable too. Don’t get me wrong, being ugly is not a deal breaker for me. I have spent hours in my perennial garden in my baggy men’s overalls from Tractor Supply Co. They get the job done. But sometimes I just want to spend 15 minutes weeding while the baby is happy or while the weather is especially nice, without having to change my whole outfit. Frankly, I’m more likely to go outside and weed if I can just pop out the back door. I just want to pull a few things out when the urge strikes me, without having to plan ahead. I will easily weed 5-6 times a day for 15 minutes at a time, but I rarely have an hour and a half to spend in one clip. So the obvious answer is to throw on an apron and walk out the door.

When we first bought our farmhouse I ordered an apron from Etsy. It was made out old jeans, and it looked durable and was even kind of cute. It was also incredibly uncomfortable to have tied around the back of my neck, and there was only one medium pocket that was apparently meant to be less functional and more decorative. It has since become my chicken apron, as it’s really not comfortable to wear for much longer than it takes to clean the coop.

No, I decided what I really need is a lightweight, durable apron that is comfortable, and has a couple small pockets for tools as well as a big pocket or two for the garden harvest or big pile of weeds. I’m guilty of one obnoxious weeding habit, and that is that I pull the weeds and make nice tidy piles (usually in the garden path) and then walk away and forget about them. It has gotten to the point where my garden path isn’t flat anymore because a few piles remained there long enough to turn back into soil and create lumps! Another thing I’m guilty of is laying my gardening snips down while I’m working and then forgetting where I put them. I used to put them into my apron pocket, but the pocket was just too big and they inevitably rotated around in there so I would stab myself with the sharp end when I went to reach in for them. That’s no fun.

So, I started looking for something that would help me break those bad habits. It didn’t take long before I stumbled upon the Roo Apron, and right away it looked like it had all the features that I was after. Even more, I love that the Roo is made by a small business that is operated by a woman. It takes a lot of the sting out of spending money when I know it’s going to support a business like that. So I chose the “peony” color and the lovely owner, Tamara, sent me one to try.

Right off the bat I can tell I’m going to love wearing this apron because of the comfortable back straps. For anyone who spends a lot of time wearing an apron, you know how uncomfortable that tie on the back of your neck can get over time, especially when you have a full apron pocket pulling the whole thing down. The Roo uses a criss-cross strap that distributes the weight across your back, and has an adjustable clip. Nothing to tie! Ever!

In case anyone is wondering, if you ask your husband to take pictures of you in your new apron you will wind up with more close up pictures of your butt than anyone should ever have.

Another feature that I love is the length. I have long legs and a tiny torso, so a lot of things that are intended to fall mid-thigh on a normal person just land on the widest part of my hips instead, which is super unflattering. I know it’s just a garden apron, but when you’ve had five babies you get a little self-conscious about your hips and definitely don’t want anything drawing attention to them. And this apron is long enough that I feel comfortable in it.

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Ok, now let’s talk pockets. The Roo is designed as a harvesting apron, which means it has one extra large pocket at the base that has openings on the top and bottom. You fold the bottom up and attach it to the hooks at the top, fill it with your vegetable harvest, and then release the strings to let it out the bottom. The clips are easy to release with one hand, and you can adjust the depth of the pocket by tying knots at different locations along the cotton strings. Small enough to hold a few eggs, or large enough to hold 23 pounds of giggles and chubby rolls. It also has sturdy smaller pockets on the top half that are perfect for storing hand tools so they don’t become booby traps.

I’ve mentioned before that comfort is a big concern of mine. If it isn’t fun to do, chances are I won’t do it. With five kids I have a very limited amount of time to myself, and I’m not going to waste it being uncomfortable. This apron is fun to wear because it’s a gorgeous color, it doesn’t hurt my neck, and it holds all my tools exactly where I want them. If pink isn’t your thing, it comes in several other colors as well.

Another thing I think is completely annoying when I’m gardening is how every time I bend over I have to fix my pants when I stand back up. Last year I even got poison ivy on my waist because of it! Then a dear friend of mine, Jackie, gave me my first pair of LuLaRoe leggings, and I’ve been hooked ever since! You know what never has to be tugged on or adjusted no matter how many times you bend over or squat down? Leggings! And they come in so many adorable colors and a range of sizes. Even my wee one, who is just 14 months old, is wearing LuLaRoe leggings. If something is comfortable AND cute I’m pretty much sold. I am just loving this spring floral pair. It’s not a coincidence that they match my apron. If anyone wants to check them out, you can find Jackie here, where she will take great care of you.

 

GIVEAWAY!!

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Ok, so now for the best part! YOU can win an awesome Roo Apron! I love this thing so much that I want to share the love. There are three ways to enter; do one, two, or all three! Go to the Roo Apron online shop (found here) and then tell me in a comment what color you love! If you have Facebook, you can get another chance to win by sharing this giveaway post with your friends. Find my Facebook page here or click the Facebook link on this page. If you share directly, make sure to mention it in the comments so I can be sure you get another entry in the drawing. Finally, subscribe to the blog and you’ll be entered in the drawing again! That’s THREE chances to win! I will choose a winner on April 30, so there should be plenty of time for Mother’s Day delivery. Good luck!

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