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Sunday photos: underfoot

Gardeners and farmers spend a lot of time looking up, for the weather, and down, for the growing things.

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I (Xan) had to go back a few years to find photos with snow, as we’ve had less than 5 inches in Chicago this year!

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I’ll be reposting Jen’s wonderful series on monthly chores and tasks throughout the year. Here’s January, originally posted on January 7, 2011 by Unearthing This Life.

So many of us are working our way toward a more self-sufficient lifestyle. With that in mind we here at NDiN wanted to share some general guidelines of what to plan for on a monthly basis. Whether you’re a gardener, a beekeeper, a forager, or you keep animals, hopefully our monthly guides will help you plan ahead for the month. Depending on your exact climate you may find you need to adjust your schedule depending on your region.

Now that Winter is officially here most of us will be spending a lot more time indoors. For those in the more Southern regions, outdoor work is manageable on warmer days. It’s a good time to focus on the indoors, keeping warm, and getting a jump on this year’s activities.

Indoors:

  • Take down and store holiday ornaments and decorations.
  • Update your address book from holiday cards and gift envelopes if you’ve saved them.
  • Clean out your files in preparation for tax time. Rid yourself of out-of-date warranty cards (update if necessary) and manuals. Schedule service appointments for extended warranties.
  • Clean out dryer vents with a wire hanger and vacuum cleaner. Wash mesh filters with soap and a scrub brush to allow for better air flow.
  • When finding new homes for holiday gifts, clean out unused items and donate those in great shape to your favorite charity.
  • It’s also a great time to photograph your belongings, room by room, for insurance purposes.
  • Start planning your spring garden. Look at gardening catalogs, websites, and blogs (like us!) to get ideas for what to do this year and when. Purchase seeds by March to guarantee delivery and stock.
  • Research and prepare for any animal purchases for the year.
  • Keep a tray of water and spray bottle near indoor plants to adjust humidity levels, especially if you have central air. Running the heater can dry them out quickly and cover leaves with dust.

Outdoors/Garden/Wildlife:

  • Keep fresh water available and free of ice for birds and wildlife.
  • If you’ve already begun to put out birdseed continue to do so. They’re now relying on you as a food source.
  • If you live in a climate with mild winters, this month may be a good time to dig new beds. You may also want to repair or build new composting bins to be prepared for this year’s cleanup.
  • Keep driveways and walks free of snow and ice. Have shovels, plows, and salt/brine accessible and stocked.

Animal Husbandry:

  • Early birthing will begin late next month for some of you. Make any preparations necessary to help mammas and babies along.
  • Keep barns and other animal shelters clean to help prevent illness and discourage wild critters from nesting. Change hay often, keep tools cleaned up, and be sure to keep water free of ice.
  • Put a light out for an extra two hours in the evening for your chickens. It will help keep their coop warm on colder evenings and promote more egg laying.

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A community of crafty DIYers? Yup, knee-deep in Christmas ornaments.

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We gave up the tree. We’d actually experimented with this a couple of times while the kids were still around, largely due to my (Xan) discomfort with the holiday, but they weren’t ready to relent. However, with the kids living on their own, we’re now on our third treeless year, and having a blast finding creative ways to use the dozens and dozens of ornaments. Being a slightly obsessive organizer, I’ve got them sorted into little box according the theme: skating ornaments, animals, ethnic, artsy, religious, santas, etc. So far this year, though, I’ve only managed to decorate the goat.Goat Xmas

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Treeless here at our house too. When we lived in Palm Springs, I (Sincerely, Emily) was still at a point where I decorated the house. As the years went on, I was working full-time and doing art shows on weekends and some evenings. Eventually, I was beading non-stop and doing arts & craft shows full -time. January was the start of a busy season of art/craft shows in my area and the tree and decorations seemed to still be up in April. There came I point that I just didn’t go all out with the decorations anymore.

I truly enjoy the decorating part, I love seeing all the ornaments and the memories as I hung them on the tree, but I really dislike the take-down part. So, even though we are in Texas now, and I am not beading up a storm and doing arts/craft shows every-other minute, I still do not put a tree up (unless my mom visits). I MAY still wander up to the attic this year and dig out some things to put around the house, and then again, I may not.

For this post, I did manage to unearth one of my favorite ornaments (I have several). I love the clear sparkle of glass or crystal on my tree with the white lights. I have many other ornaments of color, but love the mix in the glass & crystal for the sparkly factor they bring.

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I found these ornaments at a store in Bayfield, WI one January long long ago. Oh, I think I will head up to the attic now and find one of the smaller trees to bring out.

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What are your favorite Christmas decorations?

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October has been a busy month around here. One of the projects I have taken on is raising my raised bed – higher. You can see in the photo below that I have finished about half of the beds. I was really pushing to get them all done before I left for Minnesota and Wisconsin, but that just didn’t happen. In fact, I still haven’t finished them.

Raising the beds higher

I have two full beds of pepper still growing and producing, and I can’t bring myself to pull them out just to finished those two beds. I haven’t been able to find onion sets to plant yet, and usually don’t plant those for another 2-4 weeks anyway, so the peppers can keep on growing.  The seeds I have started (winter veg) are so far behind that I broke down (again – happened last year too) and bought things from a local nursery so I could get some of the beds planted and started before I left town. We have been still quite warm here (high 80’sF) with warm nights in the 70’s and very humid over the past few weeks. I haven’t even thought to start lettuce yet, but that’s alright, some of the volunteers are coming up in the walkways between the beds and I have transplanted them. They are growing really well and I can start picking lettuce!

planting some winter veg

The cabbage, lettuce and broccoli in the photo above where planted 2 weeks ago and are growing really well. They are growing so well that you can’t even see much of the exposed dirt anymore, they are filling out nicely!

Time to harvest the lemon grass (and some comfrey too)

I have epazote (above) that has gone to seed and lemongrass that still needs to be harvested. The comfrey is looking very very happy with the cooler temps of fall. All of my herbs have really perked up after a long, hot, dry summer. I have taken cuttings from some of them and they are ready to get planted around the various herb and flower gardens. Little by little I will take more cuttings of the different herbs to use for plants swaps and also around my gardens.

Peppers are still growing

The pepper plants are also thriving in the cooler temps. I am always thrilled if I can keep the plants alive through the hot summer months because I know once the temps get into the low 90’s and 80’s that those plants will just take off and go wild. They haven’t proven me wrong this fall and I have a counter full of peppers. The hyacinth bean vine is also showing off, finally. It grows well in the hot summer months here, but it doesn’t bloom until late September or early October. Sometimes I get frustrated waiting, but when the temps drop (again, below the high 90’s) the vines really improve overall and the flowers start blooming.

I have many more things to plant and look forward to a wonderful fall/winter garden.

Thursday night we dipped down to 60F (I know that would be a heatwave for those of you living in the north part of the Northern Hemisphere) and all day Friday we hovered around 60F. I finally feel fall!

What is growing in your garden right now?

Sincerely, Emily

You can see what else I am up to over at Sincerely, Emily. The topics are varied, as I jump around from gardening to sewing to making bread or lotion and many things in between.

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Waiting as fast as I can

As Autumn settles in, we northern zone gardeners start to think about next year, about the winter “rest,” about seed collecting, and canning, and weekends free.

And all of a sudden we realize—heavens, it’s mid September, the frost is only 3 weeks away, and I need to take the garden down! The garlic and the ornamental bulbs haven’t been ordered, let alone planted, and it’s a daily judgment call— leave the tomatoes another week? and another? and another? The last of the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants need to be picked and processed, the hoop house/cold frame built or repaired, the garlic and onions planted, the warm weather crops taken out, the soil prepped, the fences put away, the grass endlessly mowed as it starts to revel in the cool autumn days.

Oh yes, the grass. Huge swaths of the grass paths didn’t survive the last hot dry spell. Some just suddenly died for no apparent reason, some finally succumbed to the grubs (20 per square foot revealed when I peeled back the damaged turf. Ouch) I’ve patched with that seed-fertilizer-paper mulch mix, but it’s been two weeks and I’m not seeing any growth. I think my perennial decision as to whether to maintain the grass or give in and just mulch over the whole damned thing is about to be made for me.

I’m having to harvest the tomatoes a couple a day, just short of ripe, rather than letting them ripen on the vine. This is because the evil furfaces have a fine sense of the infliction of despair, getting the nearly-ripe fruits just one day before I would decide to pick them. I keep taking them off the vine greener and greener. I’ve lost probably a third of the crop this way, particularly painful this year as I planted only two thirds of my usual crop, and devoted a third of that to new varieties which didn’t do very well. Plus, the San Marzanos (more than half the pastes) are very blighty this year, so I got very poor yield from them.

Even as experienced gardeners, we fall into the trap every year— that summer is the busy time, and fall the wind down. In reality, summer is the watching time- waiting, weeding, slow and hot and lazy. Fall surprises me every year; the feeling that I am suddenly out of time, with too much to do. The frost is waiting, just around the corner.

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A few days ago, I went up to the attic and pulled out two reindeer to sit on our table. The table is sitting in the middle of the kitchen right now (not its normal spot). Somehow, I didn’t plan too well and we had all 22 of our windows replaced a week ago. Every bit of furniture has been pushed to the center of each room. All the blinds were taken down and over four days all the windows were replaced. With all the craziness and disruption of the window installation, I knew I wasn’t going to put up the tree and decorate this year.

I grew up in Wisconsin until I was 10 years old and then we moved to Minnesota. For Thanksgiving and Christmas we would always go to a relative’s house in Wisconsin and have a nice family holiday. It was either at my Great Aunt Adeline’s house or my Great Aunt Ida’s house. It was a planned potluck. I remember after we moved to MN, the requested item for us to bring was French Silk pies from Bakers Square (formerly known as Poppin Fresh Pies.)

I remember what fun it was, as a child, being with all those people. I don’t remember if it was a Thanksgiving or a Christmas get together that my second cousin, Mark, worked with me as I learned to tie my shoes. There was lots of activity around us and dinner was suddenly on the table. My brother and I were seated at the “kids table”, you know, the card table off to the side for kids. We were the youngest in the group and I don’t remember the “kids table” being such a terrible place to be. There were so many people that a few of the adults were seated there with us.

Aunt Adeline had a beautiful Victorian house, complete with a turret. The staircase had two ladings were it turned 90 degrees and kept going up. On the first landing sat her enormous Christmas cactus, always in bloom at the right time. My second cousin now lives in that house and still has the Christmas cactus, but it seems to have a mind of its own now and blooms when it wants, not when you want it to.

I remember one year I spent Christmas with my exchange family in Tasmania. It certainly was strange to be sitting out on the deck in shorts instead of being in knee deep snow in Minnesota. Then we celebrated Boxing Day complete with snags (sausages) and oysters on the barbie.  Another Christmas was spent in Kenya where my husband and I were living at the time.  We celebrated with the friends we had made there. It was a nice day and we all had many family stories to tell and share in the laughter.

Since I moved away from Minnesota in the late 90’s we have had eclectic Christmas gatherings. Where ever we are living we will invite friends and neighbors over for a meal if they are not celebrating with their family. This year we have decided to have a quiet Christmas, just the two of us.  My husband doesn’t get many days to sit and relax that I figured we would try that this year.  He has requested a few special dishes for me to cook and there will be plenty of food. I know we will enjoy the left-overs for several days.

I have been playing Christmas music, but I still haven’t found my favorite Christmas album (yup, the old round black vinyl thing). I don’t have a record player to play it on, I just want to set it out and look at it. Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer – that was my favorite album, although I did like one by Andy Williams also. And the weatherman says there is a chance of snow. While many of the northern states are still without snow, we may be getting some in South Texas!

As I reflect on our family traditions and talk with my husband about his memories, I realize that we do not have any of our own family traditions. I asked my husband if he would be alright if I made pizza for our Christmas dinner. He said he would rather have stuffing, potatoes, corn casserole, the works.  So, I guess we do have some traditions. Since I missed cooking a big tradition Thanksgiving dinner, I am thrilled to do it for Christmas, even if it is just the two of us.

It was nice to take this little walk down memory lane and think about years past and the things we have done. We have a lot to be thankful for this year, and years past. And who could forget dad and that big blinding light on the 8mm camera to capture some of our holidays on film.

Sincerely, Emily

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I have been feeling the weight of the short days and dark nights. Wrapping up our first whole year as farmers has been interesting. Intense moments of extreme frustration and system failures combined with those moments I live for, at the farmers market when a mother with her three children approaches our table and thanks us for growing healthy food for her family, has had me up and down, tired and exhilarated.  It is those instances of the light, strung together, that has founded this vision of our farm and is helping me figure out where it is going in the next phases of development. The solstice is beginning to have greater and greater meaning for me as I become more centered and rooted to my sense of place and service to the Earth and my community. This year we celebrated by hosting new friends and old friends for a potluck and bonfire. Standing around the flames, watching the connections growing among these people, a season worth of brush burning on a future garden site, lit me up and fueled me to move forward with my visions. A fire cleanse on the darkest day,  my passion and energy has been renewed and I am ready for the year to come.

How did you celebrate the solstice? 

I blog more about my farm ventures and feasts, inspirations and all things permaculture at Phoenix Hill Farm

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Even in a non-religious household like mine, it’s important to remember the religious, cultural and spiritual underpinnings of this most dear of holiday seasons.  Forgotten in modern consumer focused holidays, is that Christmas is a season and not just a day.

We tend to think of Christmas as happening on December 24 and 25th, and we try to fit so much into that tiny window of time–large meals at a couple of households, religious services, family visits. And who doesn’t have a relative who has felt slighted because they “only” got to host Christmas Eve, and not Christmas Day, as though they are in competition.

But Christmas, like all the winter solstice holidays, isn’t just a day or two. Christmas is a season.

It starts with Advent, the lovely anticipatory holiday that builds to the brilliant apex. When I was a little girl, despite the fact that we aren’t Christians, I LOVED Advent calendars. Mind you, I had no clue what Advent was beyond the vague understanding that something wonderful happened at the end of it, having to do with babies (I was a little unclear on the concept that it was a specific baby). And I loved getting a surprise-a-day.

Today I see that in fact, I did understand Advent on the most important level–that every day brings gifts; sometimes anticipation is a gift in itself; that all you have to do is open the door.

But even Advent, and its end in the birth of the savior, or the rebirth of the world, depending on your spiritual outlook, is not the end of the holy season. We’ve telescoped the celebration to serve our modern idea that things, even things like worship, have an end, and a place, and a time.

Remember that Jesus himself had to wait for the blessing of the wise ones, and they didn’t get there for twelve long days.

My mother had been raised Greek Orthodox, so we stretched the season out, celebrating Christmas Eve and Day, and then again on Epiphany on January 6, the Feast of the Kings, with lovely New Year’s traditions sandwiched in between. We used to make all our friends jealous, bragging that we still had Greek Christmas to look forward to. (Off topic: Don’t get me started on non-religious families celebrating Christmas. That’s worth several years on a therapist’s couch.)

Christmas isn’t just a day. Christmas, or any of the mid-winter celebrations, with all their wonderful seasonal symbolism, celebrates our understanding that the earth is eternal, that winter has an end, that the cycle should be celebrated,  that the earth and its people are worthy of salvation.  Whether you are joyfully celebrating the birth of your Redeemer, or the imminent solstice (December 22 this year) that heralds the return of the goddess, or Chanukah, which celebrates the Almighty’s miracles, (and starts today), remember that neither God nor the goddess exists on only a single day.

Honoring the holy is a daily, and ongoing, act, and after all, the point of the entire exercise.

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Here in the Southwest, winter mostly comes at night due to our diurnal climate. It isn’t unusual to be wearing a t-shirt during the day and a coat and thermals when the sun goes down. We’ve had a couple of light freezes but the trees (well, the ones that didn’t expire from lack of rain) are still clasping their leaves. Some years it takes the new leaves of spring to push them off, thus bypassing the meaning of ‘fall’. We’re still having an Indian Summer.

 
Bee on aster

One of my few winterizing tasks is to put an entrance reducer on my beehives. This effectively cuts the bees’ front door down to a couple of bee-widths, helping to keep out the draughts and ensuring mice will not be able to make themselves a cozy home when the bees are less active.

With the recent rains we are suddenly seeing the flowers of spring, summer, and fall blooming at once. This has confounded our honeybees, some of which recently decided to swarm. Farmer Rick, my husband, was on hand outside to hear the loud drone of ten thousand bees flying overhead. Having searched for several hours, sadly I could not locate them.

 
Honeybee on Boneset 120311

You see, bees typically swarm in the spring when foodstuff is plentiful. Swarming is a natural process by which a large hive divides itself. Swarming at the wrong time is another example of how climate change is affecting the bee populations–and ultimately our food supply, since bees provide much of pollination.

In ‘packing their bags’ for the journey, bees are only able to take a little honey in their stomachs, so to swarm this late they set themselves up to fatal exposure to the cold nights and starvation because they have left their pantry behind. Their best hope is for a beekeeper to capture them. There is a saying:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.

A swarm in November is, well, just crazy!—not only from the standpoint of the bees survival, but also in terms of cost to the beekeeper that captures them. Last November I captured my first swarm, mainly for the challenge but also because it was terrifying students by its proximity to the local school. Once I had them re-homed in a hive I had the expense of feeding them sugar syrup for five months to keep them alive. I’ve also had the expense (and extra work) of feeding all my hives sugar syrup through the year-long drought.

 
Hummingbird vs bees sm

We’ve all been reading the news about the tainted honey from China being foisted on American markets from lack of oversight–and when you come right down to it–a lack of ethics, putting profit before people. But there are other unethical beekeeping practices of which you might not be aware.

There are beekeepers–those that put profit before bees—that would not have picked up a November swarm, and will even let their bees starve to death because it is cheaper to buy a new package of bees come spring than to outlay the expense of feeding through a drought. In areas not experiencing drought, there are those beekeepers who will rob all the honey rather than leave the obligatory 60 lbs per hive to see their bees safely through the winter. Instead they will feed them sugar syrup because ultimately sugar is 25 cents a pound and honey sells for $5 a pound, maybe more if you can tout it as local.

People have been calling wanting to buy my honey. The problem, of course, is there isn’t any–my bees have put up sugar syrup. Yet there are certainly beekeepers that will gladly extract the honey-flavored sugar syrup and sell it as honey or cut what they have with something from who knows where.

In 1900 more honey was exported from my area than any place on Earth. In fact, it was our local honey that won first place at the 1900 World Fair in Paris which gave the world the first talking picture, escalator, diesel engine, and the iconic Eiffel Tower. Today, there is little evidence of my area being the Honey Capitol of the World. I’ve noticed the one remaining commercial apiary has recently taken ‘locally produced’ off their label. I can only surmise what this means.

So when I do have honey to sell, it won’t be cheap (and I’ll still be selling it at a loss), but it will be SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and ETHICAL)

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Recently one of our autumn projects was to make these nifty painted leaves. I found this awesome tutorial via Pinterest, created by Little Wonder Days. We had all of the items available in and around our house and it was completely doable for a 7 year old with minimal guidance, and easy enough for preschool age. Of course we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. But as we were looking at our pile of shaving cream leaves, a bulb went off in my head.

shaving cream painting

Candy canes and Christmas tree ornaments!!

ornaments
These are some of the cutest and easiest decorations I’ve made. It seriously took us less than an hour to cut out and “paint” these little guys.

ornaments

candy canesWe used red and pearl acrylic paints and pink cardstock for the canes. The ornaments were made with off-white cardstock, two different blues and pearl acrylic paints. Use whatever colors and designs you can dream up!

Start with shaving cream. Smooth out a pile of shaving cream, drizzle some of the paint on top, then swirl it around with a toothpick (reminded me of those brownies I used to make…).

Lay your cut-out flat on top of the paint, and press lightly. Allow to rest for a few seconds, then remove. Do about 4-5 at a time so the paint has some time to adhere to your paper. Then, take an old spatula (that you’ll no longer use for cooking) or a palette knife and gently squeegee the extra paint off.

When you drag the paint across with the squeegee, you’ll affect the pattern, so be mindful of the direction you choose to pull your paint.

Allow to dry and choose what to decorate! I even doodled some hardware with silver metallic Sharpies on the ball ornaments.

The Kid and I will probably be making hundreds of these and some tree over the next two months as Christmas gift tags.

Enjoy!!

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Jennifer can be found at Unearthing this Life where she blargs about food, homeschooling, and life away from her farmette.


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