Monday, August 30, 2010

Reconstruction, Day...I Lost Track of the Days

We're finding that renovating the farmhouse is a bit of one step forward, two steps back. The contractor is finally done. We have a new roof, gutters, three new windows, new structural members, and a Civil War bullet. Byron hung the drywall, and since the project came in at budget, they're not going to "throw the mudding in." But that's what YouTube and the weekend are for, right? So here's our step forward and some photos to prove it:

The sills of the three new windows upstairs have been moved up 8" to allow for flashing between the porch roof and siding. So far, water isn't leaking down onto the porch anymore!
Hall with new entry door, patched drywall, and plywood floors. We're sophisticated around here.

New patio door. The gutter above seems to be keeping the area around the door dry, but I'm still wary of the brick-on-concrete patio built right against the house. We'll have to keep an eye on this since the band board has rotted in this area.

Parlor with new drywall:

Bedroom above, with new window and drywall:

We've moved our sleeping and showering quarters to the rooms upstairs. Byron and I had been sleeping on the sofa bed in the sunroom, so it's nice to actually have a place to sit now, even if the big cooler is serving as our coffee table at the moment. For now, Byron and I will be sleeping in what will be Akea's room, and we just noticed that the door to that room no longer needs to be propped open. Could it be due to the levelling that occurred during the installation of the brand new beam? It's lovely that one of the load-bearing walls in that room is no longer being supported by the old clapboard siding. As for the kids, they are sharing what will be Charlie's room. Did I mention yet that Byron's Aunt Dottie was born in that room? How cool is that!

And now for the two steps back. Apparently, the termites weren't done with us yet. We pulled up the carpet in the master bedroom, which was a relief at first. Here's why I hate carpet:

And here's why I hate termites:
It's not much damage, thankfully. But we will have to replace a few sheets of plywood and scab a joist (that means we'll have to get a 2x12 and bolt it to the damaged joist, extending it several feet on either side of the damage). This also means the master bedroom is out of commission for a while. This is primarily why we are all upstairs for the moment. There is still more parquet flooring to pull up, and we need to figure out if it's necessary to remove the glue (which will take us like, ten years) in order to install hardwood someday. Hardwood flooring needs a very level surface, otherwise it can buckle. We may possibly install very thin sheathing over the repaired plywood, and leave the rest of the parquet flooring - which extends out of the master bedroom and throughout the approximately 1,000 square foot 1980s addition - in place, though that's also not an ideal surface on which to install hardwood because the nails won't catch as well. I'm beginning to think parquet flooring is the essence of evil.

Anyway, since I'm still trying to be thankful in the midst of chaos, working in the master bedroom has had us thinking about re-designing that space. Right now the master bath (you know, the one with the blue toilet) and the half-bath for guests are right next to each other. So I'm again harnessing my latent architecture skills and have come up with several ideas that would leave us with one full bathroom, a bigger bedroom, and new closet. I'm attempting to utilize existing walls and systems as to minimize cost. This re-design would mean that guests would use the master bath, but that's how it was at our previous house (still on the market with a reduced, all-time-low price!) and I hate dirty bathrooms so it shouldn't be too much of a hassle to keep it clean. And it's one less bathroom to clean at all, which is always nice.

This is probably how things will look for a while. School began today for Byron, and I started homeschooling again. We're going to wait until it freezes to attempt pulling up the barn floor because every time Byron goes up to the loft, he gets dive-bombed by wasps...and that's two cans of wasp spray later. In the meantime, I'll attempt some mudding and try to make a decision on what color to paint the kitchen cabinets. And when our house sells, maybe we'll try to work on the master bedroom/bathroom. With the help of YouTube, of course.

Monday, August 23, 2010

These are a few of my favorite sites...

Raindrops on fruit trees and crisp apple pancakes...I'll stop while I'm ahead, but since I sound better when I sing in print, I couldn't resist the opportunity for the lame joke. Anyway, I've had several people ask me recently about canning, local food, and baking bread, so I thought I'd create a post addressing these issues.

Canning and Local Fruit Farms:
I could sit here and type out directions for canning, but has already done it. True, it's helpful to have someone with canning experience help you the first time, and Byron's aunt was gracious enough to help me get started, but if you can't track down someone who was born prior to 1940 or someone like me, CLICK HERE for their direct link to everything canning. Scroll down for links to directions, recipes, etc. On their main page, you can navigate to find local orchards and so forth. Plan a family outing, seriously! Some of my best childhood memories are from going fruit picking with my parents and brother. And it's usually cheaper than paying for whatever was shipped from California or Guatemala "fresh" to your local grocery store.

Local Meats:
Recently, I heard Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm speak at a homeschool convention. He rightly likened the local food movement to where the homeschool movement was twenty or thirty years ago. Not totally popular yet and not necessarily accessible to it financially or otherwise. Local meats that are not riddled with hormones and antibiotics are going to cost you more than the meats at the grocery store. But I believe there's a hidden cost, as a lot of the industrial food is subsidized by your tax dollars (so you are paying more for it already) and it has led to widespread outbreaks of food-borne illness. When you feed a cow grain instead of grass, it's going to get sick. Likewise, if I ate grass for a week, I'd probably get sick, too.

I digress. For local meats, eggs, etc., try or localharvest. org. If we, as consumers, start demanding that our food is produced humanely and without artificial and unnatural feeds, fertilizers, etc. the big guys will eventually have to follow suit or go out of business.

A couple years ago I began researching grain mills and the benefits of eating bread made from freshly milled flour. Besides the fact that the whole kernel of the wheat berry contains almost all the nutrients your body needs, the insoluble fiber becomes food for the good bacteria in your intestines, which promotes the growth of your body's own immune system. And if you happen to have constipation problems, I can almost guarantee that they will go away in no time!

The most popular grain mills are the Nutrimill, which I have, and the Wonder Mill. You can google these and find the vendors with the best prices. I used to ride horses in high school and sold my saddle so I could buy mine. A bittersweet day it was.

To get started in milling your own grains, Bread Beckers is a good place to start. Their cookbook is pretty foolproof and they also have co-ops and may deliver grains, oils, honey, etc. to an area close to you. I also use The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, which is trickier but offers a great variety of whole wheat baking advice and recipes. Baking with freshly milled whole wheat is a bit of an art; don't be discouraged if you have loaves that don't turn out light and fluffy at first. I've made plenty of bricks myself.

Other options for local food are food co-ops (you pay a flat fee and go to a pick-up station every week for your share of what's in season) and farmer's markets.

CLICK HERE for some whole wheat FAQs...

Additional Info:
Food Inc. is a documentary on the food industry and something every American should watch. Seriously. Put it on your Netflix cue, like, now. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is a must-read which addresses some of the same issues in greater detail. I'm more of a fiction reader, but I motored through this book in no time. Pollan is a gifted writer and it's worth finding the time to read this book. If you're thrifty like me, you could probably pick it up at the library.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Farewell Organic Fare

A few weeks ago, some of my friends from my Bible study got together to give me a farewell dinner. I'd been warned that they had a whole menu planned out, which made me beyond curious until I finally arrived at my friend Christy's house that Monday evening. Now, I'm not exactly the type of person who cries at movies; in fact, I've been known to laugh at inappropriate cinematic moments. The only exceptions have been Romeo and Juliet (both versions - that Shakespearean language gets me every time) and P.S. I Love You, which was full of rip-your-heart-out scenes that only an Irish writer could pen. Anyway, I actually got a bit verklempt as I walked into Christy's house. The girls had prepared an amazing meal of local and organic food! I always tell people that I really don't care what kind of food they serve me, and I mean it. We're a bit picky about what we eat at home, but when I eat at someone's house I just sit back and appreciate their cooking skills and company.

In their honor, I wanted to post the recipes they used for these amazing dishes. There are more to come (Janelle, I'll post the bread play with the baby!), but here's what they've sent me so far. I miss you, my friends!

April's Beer Can Chicken
1 whole “happy” chicken (naturally raised at a local farm)
1 can of beer at room temp, half poured out and a large hole cut in the top (April sought high and low for ORGANIC beer!)
1 stick of butter melted
Variety of spices such as: salt, garlic, basil, paprika, oregano etc.. any combo you pick will do.

Rinse chicken and pat dry. Rub spices all over bird inside and out. Pour half of melted butter in the beer can along with 1 tsp. of spice rub mix. Drizzle left over butter on the bird as well. Place chicken top side up with the cavity placed over the beer can. It should sit upright and balanced in a large pan. You can cook this in the oven at 350° for about 1 hour- 1 ½ hours. Or you can cook this on the grill with one side heated up. Place the chicken on the unheated side, cover and cook about an hour.

Christy's Veggie Saute
Green squash from the garden
One organic onion
Organic mushrooms

Chop and toss with olive oil and sea salt. Cook over med/high heat in a skillet until it's nice and tender and parts start to brown and caramelize.

Mandy's Cous Cous
2 c. organic Chicken Broth
1.5 c. whole wheat organic cous cous
2 carrots chopped
1 onion chopped
1 zucchini chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Bring broth to a boil, pour in cous cous, remove from heat, and cover. Let stand for 15 mins then fluff with a fork. Meanwhile, saute carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, onions season to taste. Mix with cous cous!

Janelle's Homemade Bread
Janelle used the Bread Becker's receipe for Slightly Sweet but Very Simple Whole Wheat Bread, found here, using freshly milled flour.  Check out my baking posts for a series of posts with step-by-step instructions for bread making.

Natasha's Chocolate Cake
2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
Chocolate frosting (recipe follows)

1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans.
2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour batter into prepared pans.
3. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost.
10 to 12 servings.

ONE-PAN CAKE: Grease and flour 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Heat oven to 350° F. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely. Frost.

THREE LAYER CAKE: Grease and flour three 8-inch round baking pans. Heat oven to 350°F. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost.

BUNDT CAKE: Grease and flour 12-cup Bundt pan. Heat oven to 350°F. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 50 to 55 minutes. Cool 15 minutes; remove from pan to wire rack. Cool completely. Frost.

CUPCAKES: Line muffin cups (2-1/2 inches in diameter) with paper bake cups. Heat oven to 350°F. Fill cups 2/3 full with batter. Bake 22 to 25 minutes. Cool completely. Frost. About 30 cupcakes.

Chocolate Frosting
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Melt butter. Stir in cocoa. Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating to spreading consistency. Add small amount additional milk, if needed. Stir in vanilla. About 2 cups frosting.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Berry, a Cherry, and The Great Pear Mystery

One of the best things about moving to Green Acres has been taking advantage of the fruit already growing on the property. It's not like we have an orchard (yet), but I think I spent about $8 on fruit this whole summer on half a bushel of peach seconds at an orchard (did you know you could ask for seconds???). Other than that, we've taken advantage of the blackberries, wild cherries, and pears growing around us. The blackberries lasted from mid-June until the end of July, and I spent many an hour dodging thorns and buzzing insects in order to pick these little gems. Wild blackberries are a bit on the sour side, but word on the street is that when you cultivate them, they tend to be a bit sweeter. So guess what we'll be transplanting this fall? We ate most of them, but also managed to freeze several bags full.

When the blackberries died out at the end of July, Byron discovered the wild black cherry tree. These cherries are rather sour and very small, so they're not great for snacks. Besides, you have to be careful not to eat the pits (or stems...or leaves...or bark...) because they're actually poisonous. My kids only get to eat cherries that I've already pitted, which isn't a whole lot of fun for them. So thinking about what we could use these for, I checked the chart that came with my box of pectin and found a recipe for cherry jam. And oh, my goodness - add a bit of sugar to these babies and you can make one of the best jams you've ever tasted! Forget that it took me hours to pit these. I haven't counted, but I probably have about four quarts worth of jam that can be used on sandwiches, with pancakes, or mixed with plain yogurt. If you happen to find a wild cherry tree, they must be picked when they're rather black and as with many fruits, can be easily removed from the tree. Here's a photo of pitting in action:

By the way, I use Pomona's Universal Pectin, which can be ordered online or found in one of those cool Mennonite sort of stores...if you're lucky enough to live close to one. The advantage here is that you can use honey or other sweeteners instead of sugar. If you want to use sugar, you can get away with using a lot less. Pomona's is all natural, too, and stretches further than other pectins out there. Thanks to my friend Delia for turning me on to the stuff.

Now I'm in the midst of mystery pear season. We have two Asian pear trees in the backyard, and the previous owner told us they fruit every other year, hence the mystery. I've never heard of a pear tree that only produces every other year, especially since pear trees are supposed to be the easiest of the popular fruits to grow. So I've been on a quest to solve this quandary because pears every other year is unacceptable to the sustainable-minded. My first guess was that the pears were of the same variety and needed a different one to cross-pollinate. However, as they've matured, I've found this is clearly not the case. These are definitely two different pear types:

Next, I contacted Edible Landscaping. The folks there end up being the unfortunate recipients of any fruity questions I have that can't be solved by a simple Google search, but since I've spent money there in the past, I don't feel too badly about bugging them. They suggested that I need to thin the fruits out to 3" apart after petal fall, which should give me more consistency. Too late for that this year, but it makes sense. A tree that produces heavily one year may not have the energy to produce as well the year after. And this, readers, is a heavy pear year. Our compost currently smells like pear alcohol.

Happily, there are lots of ways to preserve pears. So far I've made pear jam, pear sauce (you know, instead of applesauce), pear syrup, and canned pears. I must warn you that canned pears are a pain, because it's recommended that you peel the pears. I think I was getting a nice cramp in my hand right about when this photo was taken:

Anyway, I gave up on that after about 12 jars or so, canned some with the skins on, and have decided that the family will be eating lots of pear sauce this winter. By the way, canning is easy. I'll have to post about canning basics sometime soon.
Here are our two pear trees. Pear trees last 25-75 years, and I think tree #2 is on year 74. I recently found an Orient pear tree (which is not an Asian pear tree, apparently) and a Keiffer pear tree dirt cheap, so they will replace these when it's time for them to become firewood.

Before I go, a word about Asian versus European pears. You can tell the difference because Asian pears are round and European pears have that traditional, bulbous bottom. I've never been a fan of Asian pears, and I think it's because they ripen on the tree and really need to be eaten or preserved right away. Oftentimes, by the time they get to the store, they're mushy. The pears in my backyard are crisp and delicious. Conversely, European pears need to be picked before they're ripe because they will begin to rot inside if they're left on the tree to ripen. Like peaches, they'll continue to ripen once you pick them.

Anyway, I was beginning to think that the only living creatures to live sustainably in the recent past at our place were the deceased termites, but I think we inadvertently have been doing some sustainable living despite being waylaid by house projects.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Union Cavalry Is Under My Dining Room

When we first moved out here, one of the first things Byron did was commandeer my brother Fred's metal detector, in great anticipation of finding a plethora of Civil War relics. But though we live near a major Civil War crossroads, the place has been picked over. Apparently even Byron's great-grandfather found buckets of bullets and such and sold them all for $5 to some lucky guy; in addition, the land has been metal detected pretty thoroughly since his time. So poor Byron - and I really do feel sorry for my U.S. history buff - has found nail, after nail, after nail.

Until the happy day we discovered that we needed to pull up all the hardwood floors in the front of the house. Well, maybe we weren't exactly happy, but at last here was a place untouched by other relic hunters. So when the floors were pulled up and stacked to be reinstalled later, Byron really went to work. Here are some of the crawl space treasures he found.

This (unfired) Union Sharps carbine bullet elicited a bona fide Rebel Yell from Byron when he found it under the dining room. Apparently these were often used in guns carried by Union cavalry soldiers. Byron also found part of a Union Schenkl shell out in one of the fields.
When I first slithered my way through the crawl space to check on the structural status of the area under the dining room - and this was before we pulled up the floors, mind you - I found that there was an old tree stump under there. When the floors were removed, Byron found a Civil War era horse shoe and mule shoe by the stump. I can just imagine that this may have been a tree where some soldiers took a break to tend to their animals, hence the title of this blog.

In the photo below, the ring on the left was also found under the dining room, and it appears to have been part of a scabbard. The button in the middle was found under the hall and was perhaps part of a women's dress, though we're not sure what era it's from. And the one on the right is a mystery. A relics guy downtown thinks it may be a colonial trading bead. Possible, since the previous owner found a Revolutionary War era button on the property.

Moving again into the hallway, Byron found a 1923 wheat penny as well as an old hinge. I've never considered myself an antiques person, but I'd love to find a bunch of old hinges and locks in good condition and put them on all the interior doors.

In the parlor crawl space, Byron found this amazing pendant. As of now, we don't know what era it would have come from. When he was pulling up the floors, he also found an old needle his great-grandmother probably dropped into a crack between the boards.

And finally, here's my little contribution. I found these during my claustrophobic, pre-deconstruction army crawl. Apparently, someone liked Old Milwaukee. And that little bottle is a Fitch's hair tonic bottle. I also found some corn cobs, but I didn't take pictures of those after Byron told me what people used to use them for. I'll just say that toilet paper wasn't always a commodity. I was thinking, however, that Byron's great-grandmother brought her husband some nice corn on the cob after a hard day of working on building their home. My theory is much more pleasant, don't you think?

Anyway, if you're into relics and such, I'd welcome any insight into what we found.

Homemade Castle Cake

Last year my friend Kim showed me a really cool book on making themed birthday cakes from a 9x13 sheet cake. It inspired me to make a tractor cake for Charlie that year, and this year, I used the same concept to make a castle cake for Akea’s princess party. It was seriously easy, and though there are a couple things I would change, I was pleased, in general, with the result.

Before I begin, I want to mention that when I bake, I bake from scratch and I always use freshly milled flour in my recipes. I haven’t gotten into bread making and baking in general much on the blog yet, but let me say that the nutritional benefits of freshly milled flour from wheat berries are innumerable. The white flour you buy from the store is devoid of the bran and germ, which contain almost all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs, and the packaged whole wheat flour from the store is actually rancid, because the bran and germ spoil quickly – as well as lose those important nutrients. Though there is the initial investment of buying a grain mill (I have a Nutrimill) to consider, you will eventually save tons of money on bread and tons of time, because you probably won’t be making as many sick visits to the doctor.

I digress…but CLICK HERE for more on that. First, the architect/artist in me sketched out an idea:

I then divided the cake in half. One of the halves I divided again, to become the two towers (funny how that always elicits the Lord of the Rings theme song in my head). I then cut a square at the end of what would be the shorter tower, and made a diagonal cut to make the turrets.

Assemble the pieces:

Divide the frosting into as many bowls as you have colors, making sure to allow the proper amount for each color. For instance, I put aside just a little bit to color yellow, more to color purple, and the bulk of it to color pink. Then frost per the sketch:

Keep in mind that frosting stiffens quickly, so I had to be quick with the little beads and sprinkles. And like I said in my Disney Princess Party post, it would have been ideal to define the windows with yellow gel and the door with purple gel. And while I’m talking about frosting, I should mention that there are ways to frost using all natural ingredients; click here for a very helpful website that uses different types of veggies and berries to achieve colored frosting. I’ve tried this before and have been very successful. Happy baking!

Party Favor Pouches

I made pouches for Akea’s sixth birthday party, which had a Disney Princess theme. I figured they’d make great party favor bags and might be fun for the kids to use later as a place to put treasures. In fact, we used them for a scavenger hunt, so they did double duty. But I think the best thing about these bags is that you don’t really have to know how to sew to make them. If you can run a straight stitch on a sewing machine, you’re in business. And what’s really great is that you don’t even have to worry about cutting an accurate rectangle.

So how do you make these wonder bags? First, find some fabric to fit with your theme. I got half a yard of pink sateen as a remnant for 99 cents, which was perfect for the girls. For boys, something thicker, like a faux suede or leather would work, or you could even search through the upholstery fabric remnants for something masculine. The next step is to figure out about how big you want the bag and cut your rectangles. Remember to allow ¼” – ½” for seams on the bottom and sides, and allow a ¾” – 1” fold on the top, which is where you’ll run the cording so the bag can be closed. My bags were about 8”x10” when they were finished.

A basic sewing tip is to sew inside-out. After you cut out the rectangles (or sorta-rectangles), place two of them together with the “good” sides facing each other, on the inside. Then pin them together.

Next, draw a “U” on one side of the fabric. Stay about ¼”-1/2” from the edges, though there will be more fabric where the “U” curves. Sew a straight stitch along this line, and then cut away the excess fabric around the curve of the “U.”

Fold down the top of the bag about ¾”-1”, still keeping it inside out. This fold will allow space through which to run a cord. To figure out the length of the cord, measure across the width of the bag, double it, and add a few inches. This will allow you to tie a knot in the cord. When you’ve figured out how much of a fold you want, pin it down.

At this point, you have two options. You can either sew the top fold with the cord already in place, or you can fish it through later. I went with option 1, and I had to get the seam ripper out a couple times because I accidentally sewed the cord down. If you go for option 2, pin a safety pin to the end of the cord before you fish it through to make that task easier. When you sew down the top fold, you will have to leave an opening for the cord. I did this at one of the side seams.

When you’re finished, turn the bag right side out and knot and pull the cord. And there you have it – a very simple party pouch fit for a princess!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Wild Turkeys Can’t Be Shot

Every time I download pictures from my camera, I find about fifty photos of the wild turkeys that frequent Green Acres. In many of these photos, you can barely see the turkeys. That is because they are taken by my husband, who has the eyesight of a turkey (for those of you who don’t know, that’s a good thing; turkeys have “phenomenal eyesight,” to quote Byron himself). The other day I did, however, weed through the myriad of turkey photos, deleting those only a turkey would appreciate and keeping some to post on my blog to make up for my Disney Princess Party post.

Every morning, the turkeys make the rounds around our property. We initially counted three hens and fifteen poults, but one hen has been MIA for quite some time now. We believe it has to do with the two foxes we’ve also spotted on the property. Anyway, they display all kinds of antics, from simultaneous flapping and takeoff to kicking up mounds of dust when they hit an ant hill or some such treat. The kids find feathers all over the place, and love collecting them, though Charlie is in a quandary as to why they don’t grow anymore, especially when he took scissors to one he particularly liked.

As fun as they are to watch, we’re still hoping for wild turkey this Thanksgiving. Though I’m not a hunter, Byron used to hunt quite a bit, and I don’t have any ethical issues with the practice as long as the animal is used for food and not sport alone. I think as part of living sustainably, it’s something we will embrace, and we certainly don’t intend to decimate the world turkey population by taking more than we can eat. But enjoy the pictures. And maybe we’ll be blessed enough to enjoy one of these birds for Thanksgiving.

How to Have a Very Cheap Disney Princess Party

DISCLAIMER: Since Byron reminded me that my blog is about sustainability, I thought I should warn you that this entry is not about sustainability, per se. I was thinking, however, that I’d like to share some simple, inexpensive, but fun party ideas for children. If you would prefer to look at pictures of wild turkeys instead, click here. One will hopefully become our Thanksgiving dinner.

This past year, Akea has been very interested in learning about and re-enacting the lives and loves of the Disney Princesses. Whether she’s “swimming” on the bed with one of my sweaters wrapped around her legs as a makeshift mermaid tail, or taking an old, bald baby doll and dubbing it “Dopey” of the Snow White saga, the princesses have been all the rage. So it would follow that for her birthday, she requested a Disney Princess party.

Now I must say that party-throwing is not my thing. Even though our parties are small, somehow the thought of feeding and entertaining multiple little people intimidates me. There are easy ways to do it, such as renting one of those jumpy places with the blow-up slides and letting the kids have at it, but such luxuries are not in our budget. So my children’s parties are at the mercy of their mother’s wits.

Leading up to the big day, I visited a big box store in order to acquire some Disney Princess paraphernalia. Although the princesses grinned sheepishly at me from many plates, cups, napkins, tablecloths, favors, and other merchandise, I limited myself to buying a pack of plates, invitations, and stickers (for party favors). I think that was around $5. Since I needed more plates than the eight in the package, I bought some matching generic pink plates, napkins, and cups. What I do is put the plates together before the party in an alternating fashion: pricey Disney Princess plate, cheap generic plate, pricey Disney Princess plate, cheap generic plate, etc. In the past I’ve done this with napkins and cups, too, but this year that money has been funneled to the Termite Damage Repair Fund, and in the end, no one will notice or care until they read this blog.

Next up: activities. I go for the generic party games because at this age (Akea turned 6), kids actually enjoy that sort of thing. But I do them with a twist…a Disney Princess twist. First up is Pin the Crown on the Princess, since pinning a tail on the princess would only be funny to the boys. I picked an unsuspecting princess (Sleeping Beauty), found a picture of her, and borrowed a small, inexpensive projector from my sister-in-law to project the small image onto a larger piece of paper. I then spent about an hour one evening coloring it in, cutting out some construction paper crowns, and writing the name of each guest on a crown so each child was able to see how close they came to reinstating royalty.

Another generic party game is Duck Duck Goose. For the theme, I renamed it Beauty Beauty Beast and hoped that it wouldn’t cause any tears (I found out the hard way that musical chairs is traumatic for anyone under, say, 18). We also played Red Apple, Green Apple instead of Red Light, Green Light so Snow White wouldn’t feel left out. And I also decorated our wagon as Cinderella’s Coach. I didn’t go all out on this because I was busy eviscerating chickens the day before, but you could get some wire from the hardware store, curve it over the wagon (think covered wagon with a side entrance) and cover it with crinoline, which is that netted sort of fabric they used in the ‘80’s to plump up prom dresses. It’s pretty cheap, too.

My sister-in-law, Dawn, took this great photo of the girls playing Beauty-Beauty-Beast:


The fairy godmother was clearly too busy the night before to make a proper coach:

What I did spend some time on was Ariel’s Treasure Hunt, which is the Disney Princess Party version of a scavenger hunt. I typed up a very simple list of what the kids needed to look for, pasted Ariel’s picture on it, and made copies. Depending on age, parents may have to help read the clues. These “treasures” were then put into cloth bags I made to resemble little pouches princesses may have carried back in the old days, and viola – those were our party favors. The cloth bags are very simple to make; click here for instructions.

As for food, I tried to keep it simple. I generally don’t do a meal, though I genuinely would like to be able to do that at some point. I baked cookies and made a cake; I’ve done cupcakes in the past and they look pretty darn fancy on one of those silvery cupcake stands you can buy at a party store. As for cakes, I got an idea from a friend to bake a 9x13 sheet cake and then use that rectangle to create something different. Here is a tractor I did for Charlie last year:

And here’s the castle I did for Akea. Click here for instructions.

Ideally, I think yellow gel around the windows and purple gel to define the door would have been more aesthetically pleasing, but in the end, no one cared but me and the cake lasted less than 36 hours. That, I suppose, is success.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Composting 101

A couple weeks ago the local newspaper came out to do a story on us, and we knew it wouldn't do to be lounging around all day sipping lemonade under the big oaks, not that lounging has been on the agenda this summer. Plan A was to build a portable chicken coop, but we're currently researching what kind of portable coop we want to build. Jeff with Walnut Hill Farm suggested we build something on an old hay wagon and get some electric feather net fencing. Both are easy to move around the pasture. He also mentioned that at the scale we're thinking of going with poultry, it's just as easy to get 40 chickens as it is to 20. You put two scoops of feed in the feeder instead of one, which isn't that big a deal. So as we work on the inside of the house, we're thinking and searching for deals on used hay wagons.

But I digress. Since we're in think mode regarding the chicken housing, we decided to build our compost bin that day from the pallets I scored at the big box store. It's a really, really simple project and seriously cheap if you can finagle the pallets for free. Ideally, compost bins should be about 3'x3'x3', but most pallets are a bit bigger than that. However, when you account for the vertical pallets sitting perpendicular on top of the horizontal one, it takes you closer to that optimum size.

The pallets can either be nailed together as they are or disassembled, as Byron did in the back, creating the horizontal slats. The front is simply chicken wire, which we hooked onto screws so it can be easily removed when need be, and the top a piece of plywood. The back is slightly higher so the plywood slopes toward the front, allowing the rain to run off. We made two for "cooking" and one active bin. As you can see, all we have right now is an active bin in which we throw our scraps.

Composting can be done a number of ways. Some people compost EVERYTHING (including, say, the unusable parts of slaughtered chickens) and some people stick to uncooked veggie scraps, eggshells, brush, leaves, and poop from herbivores. We're kind of in the second camp right now. There is a bit of a science to successful composting, and it's important to have a combination of all the elements I've listed above. We also wet the compost down at times and turn it to allow air to enter and help break down the organic matter. The slatted pallets help with air flow, too.
Compost is done when you have something that looks like rich soil, or "black gold." It can be worked into your garden and returns nutrients the the soil that the plants deplete through the growing season. Making your own compost is probably the easiest, cheapest way to fertilize your garden.

Since we don't yet have our own animals, we're looking for a trustworthy source of horse or cow manure, in between hanging drywall and keeping up with baking and canning. If you have a source for manure, keep in mind that cow manure tends to have less weed seeds in it (multiple stomachs will do that), so using horse manure in your compost means you may have to let it cook a little longer to ensure that the weed seeds are killed off.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reconstruction, Days 4-7.5

First, let me say that the title of this post is a bit misleading. As with all construction jobs, we had a couple half-days and a day in which clean-up lasted about an hour. The problem wasn't with the contractor; in fact, we're more than pleased with the mad skills displayed by Lloyd and Rusty, the two guys they sent out. It's nice to have someone working on your house who knows what the heck he's doing.

So here's what happened in the later part of last week and the early part of this week. First, the guys installed a new front door that we had ordered ourselves a couple weeks ago. They had to cut back the entrance a bit because apparently, even though we ordered the same size door, everything is made bigger nowadays. Yup, even construction materials are supersized. So here is our new entrance hall. Can you begin to visualize what it will look like? I can!
Oh, and here's Byron and his legs installing insulation under the hall:

They also installed a new patio door. The old one had rotted because of the water from the brick patio splashing onto it during rainstorms over the years. We're really, really hoping that gutters help that problem, but if they don't, the patio will have to be rebuilt, too.

Here's the parlor. Byron had a much easier time insulating this room!

We found out last week that the windows won't be in until the 13th, and probably not installed until the week after. Even though the contractor had ordered the windows a while back, the companies will now wait to ship to a location until the truck is full. Since we have the roofers scheduled for next week, Lloyd went ahead and built up the window sills so the new windows can be popped right in (hopefully). Here's the window-to-be in the upstairs bedroom. Notice the studs the termites had eaten have been repaired.

And Tyvek is the new brick. How chic!

There is a slight chance the contractor is going to install the drywall. We bought it, so it's on site right now, but we're waiting until they run the numbers to calculate what the job has cost so far. Mudding is apparently a learned skill, and if they don't do it, it will have to be one that I quickly acquire through YouTube University.