Patio Makeover

When so many people think of homesteading, they think of gardens and land space – and when we moved into our suburban homestead, we didn’t have acres of open land. We have space to work with, but what we saw most prominently before us was an empty, closed-in patio.

A line of boxwoods and a handful of yew bushes are all that were growing in this cramped patio area. It provided some lovely private seating, but not much else. We had done some research into permaculture work and decided that we should take on our patio as one of our first major homestead projects and convert these big, plastic fences into some beautiful growing spaces.

All of the posts were held in by concrete, unfortunately – so while the lattice work came down rather easily, Evan about lost his sanity trying to pry out the concrete bases from the posts, which had started to rot.

Then it was time to remove the old yew bushes – while the birds loved to hide in the bushes, they were keeping us from growing food and plants that would sustain us and, ultimately, more pollinators and birds. Thankfully, we paired up with a farmer friend who would re-plant the yew bushes elsewhere rather than chop up a perfectly good, mature plant. (Olivia helped, too!)

(We found TONS of clay buried around the plants – so we scooped up a couple of buckets-worth of clay to experiment with cobb building in the future.)

Ta da!

Now, I should preface the next section of work by clearly stating that we will probably never build garden beds using trapezoid bricks – ever – again. This was a miserable project, and while it turned out beautifully, we could have done a lot better with bricks that fit together more easily and are better orchestrated to curve and connect in circles. If you want specifics, please reach out!

We purchased three pallets (something like 500 blocks) of trapezoid bricks from Home Depot and had them delivered to our side yard, where we painstakingly loaded them into the backyard and set up building various raised beds. Some of our beds were designed to be one brick deep while others would be closer to three bricks deep. To help keep things as level as possible, we dug down into the soil and laid several inches of sand, tamped it down, and then set up a base layer of patio stones while checking with a string level to maintain height against the existing concrete patio slab.

See how each level shrinks slightly because of the lip on the stone? That caused us a marriage-testing, sanity-questioning level of frustration that we now recommend others avoid at all costs, because each level now needed stones to be cut or chipped in order to fit the next level.

Once we figured out that the geometry of fitting smaller layers on top of smaller layers was exhausting to calculate, we finally settled on just breaking stones to make the layers fit together in the odd spots. At this point, it was well into summer, so getting the work done quickly wasn’t easy in sweltering temperatures. Things finally came together in July, with four beautiful beds ready to plant!

We quickly mixed in local compost from the city and some top soil and transplanted some herbs since we were so late in the season to get started on plantings (July is headed deep into summer in Kansas). I also added some river rock and patio stones from the side yard to transition the concrete patio slab to the yard and topped things off with some solar lights to add a lovely glow in the evenings. This spring, though, is when we’ll get to really unleash the loveliness of our patio, complete with plenty of herbs and some garlic and perennials we started this fall. Stay tuned!

Patio Permaculture

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When I realized it’s been over six months since I last blogged, I realized that I had two choices when it came to my first post back: 1: Attempt to go back and re-visit every single moment that I didn’t journal, or 2: just start writing again.

Alas, those of you looking for your next novel to read will be sorely disappointed.

I’ve decided to just pick back up and start where we are now, not where I left off. It’s now the end of March, and we’re squirming to see the fruits of some early garden labor. We have four beds prepared with some cover crops to kickstart our summer grow season – radishes & turnips, oats, peas, spinach, and even some potatoes for summer! We moved to our new home in August of last year, so when the ground got cooler we set up some beds with fall cover crops to start introducing some nutrients.

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We knew three years ago that wherever we ended up, we wanted to have a main area of our garden rooted in permaculture. This idea of never-ending food and food that cares for itself is exciting for us – how else to help nature but by helping nature help itself? Plus, after the initial energy of planting, all it takes is some general upkeep and the plants will take care of themselves. A big aspect of permaculture has to do with planning and utilizing the land fully – tracking the run-off and grading of the area, plus the availability of sunlight and wind, etc.

For us, our permaculture will be our patio. We are blessed with a beautiful patio area, sheltered by two gum trees (we now hate gum trees – and are now taking recommendations for using those damn sticky balls!) and until spring break it was enclosed by a plastic and wooden lattice system that provided privacy but not much else.

So, we attacked it! Evan did most of the heavy lifting, while my mother-in-law and I undid screws, zip-ties, carted the lattice to the side yard, and cleaned the beds of the sticky gum balls, mulch, and excess leaves.

Now that the lattice and posts are out, we plan on widening and raising the beds with pavers. We’ve already begun the research and have started sketching the different ideas we have for the beds – certain plants benefit each other, while others are unhelpful and attract more diseases or pests in combination. (For example, blackberries and raspberries pass diseases between one another and should be kept apart.)

As of now, we’ve planned on blueberries, raspberries, herbs of all varieties, pollinator plants for the bees, birds, and butterflies, a dwarf apple tree, hibiscuses, a rotation of peas and beans, lavender, asparagus, strawberries, and then maybe onions and garlic to tuck in between. It will take a season or two, but soon we’ll have a patio alive and thriving and also providing us with food and medicinal benefits.

Limbo

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“Limbo” is an accurate summary of my last few months. We started the official house hunt in mid-March, and after one failed house closing, one lost offer, and now an offer on a third we’re waiting on pins and needles. We’ve tried for a lake house with 2 acres, a hidden country property on ten acres with plenty of moles and farm cats to go around, and now a 1/4 acre house only a few houses away from our rental with a lovely yard for a suburban garden and plenty of space for some chickens.

We’ve spent the last two months, and even the months before that, being entirely unsure of our summer plans. We agonized all Christmas over how much to plant this year – do we risk losing a garden when we move, or just plant them all in planters (a more expensive and far less sustainable method for us)? The difficulty and frustration we had over the home meant so much more time finding comforts to solve our unhappiness rather than actually keeping up the garden and seedlings (read: we watched too much Netflix rather than having the discussions we needed to about what to do with the seedlings and start a fertilizing schedule). The stress sucks. But hey, if you’ve bought a house, then you know my pain. So what to do? Succumb to the stress and barely do house chores because you might be moving, so it can wait until a deep clean during the move? (So the spiders start building bigger webs in my basement…) Start thinking about moving boxes but get so depressed after perusing Realtor.com for 15 minutes and find nothing even close to being worth it? (Those boxes are empty…)

Being in limbo is a horrible feeling. Every decision about my home and my finances (can I buy a new work shirt this week for my new summer restaurant job, or should I save it for a new security system potentially in my future?) are tied to this homestead dream. Sometimes – no, most of the time – chasing this dream feels like dating as a teenager all over again – dragged around in the misery of puppy love, flirtations, the crushing denial of being distant and cool, flightiness, and unplanned, spontaneous meetings. So tonight, contemplating what to do if yet another house lets us down, I’ve decided to make a few decisions that keep my mind more rooted and to lower my anxiety throughout this process.

First, I’m going to make sure that I’m maintaining my house as best as I can despite the potential moving process. I have patches of spackling all around the house – time to actually touch up with paint and move on. The kitchen and bathroom deep cleaning? Still need to regularly happen. My cobweb-infested basement? Yup, time to unleash the vacuum. For me, a clean home keeps a clean mind – when we have gone to see homes and they are messy and cluttered, I totally feel the resulting anxiety from viewing cramped and unkempt spaces. Why should I continue to invite anxiety into my safe space at home simply by neglecting my work?

Secondly, time to tackle the projects I’ve been putting off that don’t depend on a house structure. Our bar cabinet has crooked hinges on one side, I have a pile of teacher to-do’s regarding long-range planning and concept plans, and I haven’t had a sewing project in ages. I have a stack of coupons ready for fabric purchases – time to attack Pinterest! We’ve been half-trying to introduce our cats to my mother-in-law’s cat, and without much success – time to hunker down and start positive associations and psychology work.

Third, I want to use the time I have to work on building my creativity and options for stress outlets. I’ve been meaning to write more on my blog, to start new sewing projects, and to find new ways to organize my small office creatively. Our library has a summer reading challenge and the reward is coupons for local businesses and a wealth of additional knowledge. My day times are now free for yoga, walks, or work in the backyard – or, better yet, time spent reading or sun-bathing in a new above-ground pool we splurged on this weekend from Target.

The point is that the house frustrations can’t be the reason for my summer grinding to a halt, my stress to be through the roof, or my home and possessions to be a jumbled mess. Life continues on, with or without a new 30-year loan, and it’s time to keep going along with it.

 

Summer Goals

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It hasn’t quite hit me yet – that the usual, daily grind has been postponed for a couple of months. Part of it has to do with my current misery – I’ve been coughing and sick for a couple of days now, coming to a head last night when I came down with a low fever and spent most of my evening huddled beneath blankets and binge-watching HBO. Tonight, I’m at least upright, and this time it’s binge-watching Hulu, but still – I’m not poolside, or even gardenside, by any means.

When I have unbooked time, I habitually create goals. Sometimes it’s just vacuuming and laundry, others it’s plant a whole garden. With two and a half months ahead of me, let’s see what I can do with the time and willpower I have.

1. Grow food!

With the homestead shopping spree still remaining that – shopping, not purchasing – we have piles of seedlings in our window sill with no destination. If we plant now, we’ll move without our seedlings (I joke that’s the only way to find “the” house – by planting the garden, we’ll jinx ourselves into finding the “one” the next day). We had hoped to have a plan by now, but to be honest, there isn’t one. I’m thinking we’ll go ahead and resort to what we did four years ago at our last house – a patio garden! It’s hardly sustainable, and goes against almost all of our hopes and dreams for improving soil, but growing in pots does provide homes for our seedlings and food for our table.

2. Finish my certificate.

For the last two summers, I’ve been working on levels I and II towards my Kodaly methodology certification – each level is offered for 5 hours graduate credit at Wichita State with a two week, ultra-intense course in the beginning of June. Since getting my level I, I have found a wonderful and satisfying new path with my teaching – a child-centered approach that uses folk songs from our student’s cultural traditions, all while enhancing their music literacy abilities to the fullest. This year will be my last of three levels to complete – which will bring me not only my status up to “Kodaly-certified teacher” but also my master’s degree status to “15 hours completed” – and this fall I’ll start in on the rest of my coursework to finish a master’s.

3. Buy a @#$^ house already!

Can you tell I’m feeling frustrated? I heard an NPR report that said in this past quarter of housing sales, houses have sold faster than they ever had in a decade. I can’t tell you how many houses we’ve looked at or gotten ready to look at only to arrive and find out an offer (or 3) was already on the house. It’s exhausting. It’s tiring. We’re at the point where we are happy to get a house with a big backyard just so we can build equity with something, but even that has been hard to find! It’s really stressing me out, so that means I probably ought to…

4. Take a yoga class or learn to meditate.

This school year, especially the last few months, have been stressful. I’m ashamed to admit how often I’ve broken down in tears or how often my husband has gotten some kind of exhausted or facepalm emoji through text the last couple of months. I. Need. A. Break. I’ve barely had time for myself, none for my friends or family, much less patience for any of the aforementioned. I’m going to start with some organizing to help me feel in order and then just some plain old sleep. It’s wonderful how therapeutic being in the garden can be, so as soon as I feel up for some exposure to allergens I’ll head out to the garden to weed and explore with the kitties.

Longterm, it would not be a bad plan for my mental health to establish a yoga or meditation routine. Even YouTube has some fabulous guides and gurus, and quite honestly I just need to step up and recognize how much I need this and do it already!

5. Get some thorough work done on my long-term planning.

In order to know what to teach, you need to have an end goal for your students – what do you want them to know when they leave your classroom at the end of your school year together? From there, when do you want to teach those goals, and how? With what resources or focuses? I want to take time to develop my concept plans and long-term planning, now that I’m entering my fourth year of teaching. My first several years were about experimenting, surviving, trying new things, and seeing what fits – how long it takes to teach a concept, that sort of thing. Now that I feel like I have the handle of it, it’s time to think broader, more deeply, and with more effectiveness.

 

Most of all, I want to spend time with myself, my friends, my family, and to relax. After all, it is summer.

Staying Busy

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We had the house inspection on Friday, and while there were a couple of minor plumbing and electrical issues the main hiccup is the roof – some unfixed hail damage and improper flashing installation means we need a second opinion, and maybe a new roof. Seeing as we’re already at the top of our price point, if the seller (in this case, a bank) isn’t willing to work with us, we might have to back out of this property.

I find myself relieved to know the details of the house – to know what needs attention, how old the furnace is, all sorts of things that foreclosed houses can’t tell you. While some of the best deals can be foreclosures, they can also be scarily silent about what’s transpired under their roofs – if you haven’t lived there, you can’t disclose anything about the property, so they bank can’t share a thing about the state of the fuse box, what’s hiding behind the dry wall, or the quality of the garage.

But, of course, seeing as how it’s the weekend, we must simply twiddle our thumbs while we wait for news from a roofing specialist on Monday and then begin the terrifying process of negotiating with the bank. We can’t pack, we can’t plan, even dreaming can be dangerous if the house falls through – so what can we do? Garden and keep busy, apparently!

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The last couple of weeks have been so hectic and trying that our poor seedlings haven’t gotten much attention. They have really taken off and are tangling together under the delicate warmth of their plant light, so it was time to start transplanting to larger pots with more nutrients to offer. We picked up some compost from our city compost center and I spent some of Saturday afternoon in the sun, with the kitties, transplanting the scraggly seedlings into reused pots from last year. Evan planted double what we will end up needing, so I sorted out the weaker ones for compost and planted the stronger. I spent time transplanting our butternut squash, spaghetti squash (which got pretty shocked by the transplant – hopefully they bounce back!), our Roma and heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, cayennes, and jalapeños. Our bell peppers are still too young – we had a late start planting – to be ready to move just yet.

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My potatoes are flourishing in their potato “cage”  – I hope that we can gently disturb this cage and move them successfully to the new place, because I would love to see how successful of a crop we have this year. Hopefully, the garlic will be somewhat close to ready when/if we move, as well, because WOW! My garlic is gorgeous! Thick, hefty stalks and green growth that stretches high to the sky. I’d hate to miss out on our first batch of one of my favorite culinary ingredients.

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My mother-in-law is moving up here on Friday – wow, how the days fly! – so I’m feeling anxious to clean and purge. Even if we do not move in a couple of weeks, it’s always a good exercise to step back and ask yourself if you really need seventeen different purses and that garage sale book of which you only read half. There’s no point in packing items I’ll just get rid of at the next house, so I started a big pile for Goodwill out in the garage of clothes, shoes, purses, and random electronics we haven’t touched in ages. I also spent a good deal of time vacuuming and prepping the guest bedroom for her – I’m going to be really grateful for a companion during my evenings home alone since Evan works so many evenings! Not only will I have a friend to help decode those strange sounds out in the country, but Sharon is being unbelievably generous in how she is helping us with our downpayment. We would not be looking at the land or houses we have without her love and support!

As I’m purging, however, something I can’t be too quick to get rid of are bottles! My batches of cider are starting to come around – they’ve spent somewhere between 2-3 weeks fermenting, and are now bubbling happily away! My first batch was just bread yeast and apple juice – the latest batch substituted a cup of apple juice with a cup of rosehip syrup, which I think made things very tasty and upped the level of alcohol content, as the additional sugar gave the yeast more to eat off (there didn’t seem to be much alcohol at all in the first batch).

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As you can tell, I was trying to keep busy with things around the house. I have a lot of worries and anxieties swirling around this potential new property, from the lack of closet space and small bedrooms (it was designed as a vacation home, therefore we have to get creative!) to flood insurance because of the river to just the sheer responsibility of owning such a large home, acreage, and the accompanying mortgage and fees. I’m in love with the place, but oh my, am I drowning in the potential adult responsibilities, plus my checkbook is steadily leaking cash throughout this process. All the calm thoughts you can send my way, the better!

I’m going to continue to keep myself busy – that’s not hard to do this time of year when you’re a teacher – and hopefully that will mean some additional blogging, as well. It’s surprisingly soothing, to take the time to document and share my journey – while it does take time, it certainly helps me understand, express, and explain our challenges and dreams. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be one step closer to a bunch of our dreams, and I will be busy in a different sense – by beginning our work on our homestead.

Hurdles

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The past couple of days I’ve just been reminding myself to breathe. We’re taking small steps at a time towards our homestead – we’re at the point of getting insurance lined up, but until I have the keys in my hand I’m not willing to call it ours! We walked around the property and thought it felt too good to be true – close to town, 2 1/2 acres, mature trees but ample growing space, a wood stove, and a dock on the lake. We’re jumping hurdles at the moment, one piece of paperwork or check from my checkbook at a time. The finish line still feels laps away, so until we’ve crossed it we won’t call it a victory just yet.

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We’re at the point in the year where students are under stress from assessments and we teachers are trying desperately to keep them motivated, interested, and engaged while also not checking out ourselves. I have a few more lessons planned with my students, mostly to wrap up some work stations with recent concepts: we presented la in 1st grade, eight & two-sixteenths in 4th grade, and we’re diving deeply into instrument families in 2nd grade. My 5th graders are working on guitar, 3rd grade trying out recorder, and my kinders wrapping up their program. We’re about to tie up a nice and neat knot on our year, and what better way than to get out some of that extra energy with some folk dancing? We’ll spend the last three or four lessons just dancing, from traditional folk dance to maybe even the Macarena or the Cha Cha Slide (I mean c’mon, I can’t have these 5th graders not ready for their middle school dances!). I’m looking forward to wearing my comfortable dancing clothes for the last couple of weeks and having little to worry about in terms of lesson planning – all it takes is gathering a list of dances for each of my grades and prepping the music to go along. Heck, we might even go outside with my Bluetooth speaker!

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After crossing the hurdles with school, it starts to come down to cleaning and prepping our rental for the move. We have our inspection on Friday for the house, and if all goes well I’ll start making moving plans this weekend. I have garlic in the ground from last fall and onions from this spring, so the time will come to decide to take them with me and try transplanting or to let them be a gift to the future tenants. They’ll love to have 93 onions, right? It will be bittersweet to leave our rental – we’ve lived here for three years and have made so many memories here, from helping install a beautiful patio with our landlord to toiling over the garden every season to try to improve the hard, clay soil. I know it’s silly, but this home is where we had our second “baby” – Olivia, our little girl cat, has only ever known this house with us, and she and her “brother” love basking outside on the patio and chasing squirrels around our yard. There’s an emotional hurdle to cross when we leave, for sure. This home has been just that – our home. I will miss it when we move, though I know we have some wonderful times to look forward to wherever we end up.

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My last hurdle is my prep for my level 3 Kodaly course – the past two summers, I’ve enrolled in level 1 and level 2 certification courses through Wichita State University as part of my master’s degree. (Am I now regretting the financial impact of enrolling in 5 hours credit for the beginning of June after settling closing costs mid-May? You betcha.) Learning a new methodology for my teaching has changed my career – it gave me direction, inspiration, creativity, and a path to lead my students to true music literacy. It’s been an exhausting and thrilling three summers, and this year is the last I need to get my certification! I’ll spend two weeks in intensive courses and there is a bunch of homework I have to complete before I head down to Wichita – close to 50 songs to analyze for classroom use and multiple others to find myself for analysis, research, and presentation. Whew!

A month from now we will be days away from the last day of school and maybe even signing our contract on our house, and that sounds unbelievable even as I type it! Deep breath. Gotta keep my eye on the finish line.

One Year

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My goodness, have these past several weeks been a whirlwind. I apologize for the radio silence – we’ve been deep in the excitement and trepidation of homestead shopping, and it’s meant a lot of focus, stress, and intense amount of communication in our family as we count down the days to combining my mother-in-law and my husband and I into one big family moving into a home together. Without wanting to speak too soon, we are cautiously optimistic on a home that we put an offer on at the beginning of the week – there are a lot of pieces that have to fall into place (potential flood insurance, inspection, appraisal, stressful amounts of cash), so trust me, you’ll know when it’s a done deal because the three of us will be doing back-flips. In the meantime, I wanted to take a quiet moment to document a thought that has been pretty central this week.

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On the eve of our first anniversary, my husband and I got this darling card from my grandparents (HI GUYS!). It made me stop my whirlwind in the kitchen this evening, pause, and take a moment to consider how much we’ve really relied on each other and grown together over the past year. Like every couple, we’ve faced a lot of ups and downs and faced some stressful times (vacations can be stressful, but man, we handled it like pros – no shrieking children, crowded buffets, or sunburns could tear us apart!) and through every situation we’ve come out the other side relieved to have been through it together and wouldn’t exchange it for any other person. I’ve come to think of our relationship like my foundation, my home, and when stress or problems invade I retreat back to my comfort zone, which usually consists of my husband, our cats, and a fuzzy blanket on the couch. (Oh yes, don’t forget the glass of wine.)

We’ve also done so much growing in learning what we want our goals for our homestead to be and what each of our roles will be going forward – Evan jokingly says that while he’s the thinker, I’m the do-er. If you couldn’t tell from my blog already, I take DIY projects and run with them, and I spend a lot of time making sure our home runs efficiently and cleanly. Evan takes care of the growing and plant concerns (herbs and flowers are my projects), doing the digging and harvesting, and researching the best ways to be sustainable and reach our goals. We complement each other quite well, though it’s taken over six years to find that balance and we’re still not perfect.

Stepping back to the card from my grandparents, I most resonated with it because it was “us” – one year together, throughout the seasons, each one bringing new challenges, new stresses, and new rewards. Each season is different – fall brings the start of school and preserving food, winter the quiet boredom of the homestead but excitement in planning for the future garden, spring with busy schedules, summer with the promise of growth and worry of future success in the coming school year or the harvest. But through it all, he’s still my partner, my friend, the person without which I can’t imagine embarking on this journey. Here’s to year two!

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The Search Has Begun…

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We’re officially in the market for our homestead! The more we investigate, the more we think that we’ll be investing in a home with an extra large yard – in our area, houses in the country are just outrageously expensive for teacher and manager income. An existing home might be a great stair-step to help us build equity and save for building that open floor plan dream home with a pond and chicken coop out back, but there’s no reason why our first home can’t be a small, humble slice of paradise.

My mother-in-law will be joining us on the house hunt, so we’re looking for a little space to preserve the sanity of all of us, whether that means a separate wing or a separate building. (Let’s be honest – I’m spoiled by my husband working most evenings and getting to do whatever I feel like, so even having him home and around me constantly would be hard!) I am really excited to have an evening companion and to rediscover our city with my mother-in-law – we have so many fun bars or dinner spots to visit and having a companion will be so enjoyable!

We are also seeking some garden space. Ideally, I think 3/4 of an acre to an acre would be a beautiful spot for a handful of chickens, a couple of playful goats, and rows upon rows of tomato plants and veggies. Today, I visited house #4, and it just didn’t excite me. There was decent space in the yard and the bones of the house were in good shape, but my creativity juices didn’t kick in and I just didn’t feel the chemistry. We saw a house on Saturday and fell in love with it – extra den with a loft for our mother-in-law, open floor plan between the kitchen and living room, walk-in closet, even a pool, but it was next door to this hideous chemical plant that, after further investigation through the EPA website due to a weird smell outside, has apparently failed it’s environmental inspections for the last 12 quarters and had OSHA out investigating health complaints in February. It was devastating. Here was this beautiful, quaint home that boasted beautiful soil and we had to say no. I shed a few tears of frustration, to say the least.

It reminded me of an experience I had in high school. I was lucky enough to have my dad pay for my first car when I graduated high school, and I had a miserable time when we started test-driving cars. Dad picked out one he thought was suitable, I test-drove it, loved it and said yes, and the negotiating with the dealership began. Long story short, the dealership wouldn’t give as good of a deal as what my dad wanted, and he said no. I was heartbroken over losing that car, but it took that moment of letdown and frustration to approach looking at any other cars. I entered into the “shopping” with a much more level head and objectiveness than I had before and looked for cars that provided the right fit, not the one I fell in love with right off the bat.

I needed the devastation of losing that wonderful home that, in retrospect, was probably wise to let go. The sellers preferred cash and wanted to negotiate with full-asking price offers only and were proving to be stringy about the money. I needed to be let down by what I thought would be the house so that I can objectively move forward and evenly evaluate the others moving forward. It doesn’t mean that I’ll compare them to that house, but I can approach them with a level head and let them speak to me, rather than me justify their merits in my head.

Breathe, examine, think, and show patience. The house will come.

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6 Weeks Later…

Happy birthday, seedlings!

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Our little tomatoes are six weeks old today, and they’re looking strong and healthy. Their main stems are a little squiggly, but we only lowered the seed tray so they could extend their growth upward yesterday. If all goes well, these little Romas and Italian heirlooms will be in the ground by the time the next six weeks rolls around!

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Our cayennes came up in good time, but our saved seed from our jalapeños and bell peppers last year never had any luck. We purchased a new batch from Botanical Interests and they’ve taken off with gusto. Underneath the plastic wrap (my mini, DIY greenhouse cover to lock in moisture until sprouting) are germinating butternut squash, cucumbers, and spaghetti squash. I’ve fallen in love with winter squash, which really can last the winter under the right circumstances. What other kind of perfect crop is there, that only requires growing, watering, and then a cool, open-aired and dark spot to lay low for the winter? No preserving, no processing required. Easy!

Speaking of birthdays, my new project is turning 3 days old – hard cider! I’ve no clue how this will turn out – I know that you are supposed to use a wine fermentation yeast packet to have best luck, but I read that bread yeast can make for a tasty brew as well. It was easy to set up – acquire apple juice without preservatives (these will kill the yeast) and a packet of yeast! This has to sit for at least 2-3 weeks before I can pour siphon off the yeast and then ought to rest for another 2-3 weeks to “age.” Apparently, there is a lot of fun to be had with trying different yeasts, honey, fruit mixtures, sugars, you name it. I’m looking forward to kicking off my summer break with a sip of my own homemade hard cider!

If you want to see the recipe and thoughts I’m following, take a peek here and let me know what you think. I’ll be sure to keep you updated! Cheers!

Natural Bug Repellants

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This week was my spring break, and we managed to find a day off together where we spent all day outside. We grilled pizza for lunch and cooked a beef stew all afternoon – and when we pulled it off the fire, it was the most delicious and savory stew we have ever tasted. Better yet, we had made it from scratch in our own kitchen, with grass-fed and humanely-raised beef, and with vegetables we already had in our pantry and in our fridge. What an amazing day!

This spring is shaping up to be a beautiful time of year – the flowers are blooming, trees budding, birds calling, nature is waking up. Oh, and don’t forget the bugs – they’re waking up, too! (Cue exasperated sigh…)

Now, in every ecosystem and environment, everyone has a vital role. From the bacteria in the soil to the leaves decaying to the bee pollinating clover to the rabbit in the vegetable garden all the way up to the humans and big predators, we all have our own role and we must be allowed to play it. What’s unfortunate is that this line of reasoning includes the bugs as being important and critical to the cycle. (Cue another exasperated sigh.)

Now, I respect the role of nature and the different roles that are played by every step of the ladder, but that doesn’t mean I want them to carry out that job on my skin or on my patio. So how do we discourage the bugs from visiting without killing the bugs, or my gut flora?

I started investigating more natural ways to create repellants and kept turning to my collection of essential oils – my husband and mother-in-law have been showering me lots of delicious oils for Christmas and my collection is always growing. I like the natural effect that aromatherapy has on improving a variety of ailments, from mood to headaches to congestion and more. Their pungent qualities make them excellent for all things bug repellant, too!

So this week, I set out to develop two new items that will join us on the patio in the coming months: candles and bug spray.

Part 1: Candles

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I’ve heard that a lot of citronella candles are only so effective because they don’t contain true citronella oil – they just contain a chemical that smells like citronella and not the real stuff. So I set out to make citronella candles with the actual citronella essential oil!

First, I gathered my materials…

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  • soy wax (paraffin wax is made from either coal, petroleum, or oil by-products, so I stayed away from that!)
  • candle wicks
  • jars for candles (Mason jars are thicker and therefore less likely to break with heat)
  • essential oils – in addition to citronella, I bought lemongrass and used the grapefruit I already had in my collection
    • Citronella is excellent at repelling most flying pests, but grapefruit is an added tick protector and lemongrass is also helpful for mosquitoes and flies

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And the items needed for assembly…

  • Double boiler or DIY double boiler (glass or steel bowl in a saucepan with boiling water)
  • Spatula to stir melting wax (avoid plastic because of high heat)
  • Hot glue gun to glue wicks to bottom of jar
  • Pencil or chopstick to prop up wick while cooling

All in all, this candle-making was quick, easy, and surprisingly not messy – all my materials and bowls cleaned up quickly because I washed them while everything was still in liquid form – no scrubbing and scratching away hardened wax!

My bowl was small, so I made enough for one candle and then repeated the process for a second.

Using a make-shift double boiler, (steel bowl over a pot filled with boiling water), I melted down approximately 4 cups of wax (equals approximately 1 to 1 1/4 cup of melted wax) and added about 3-4 drops of essential oils for each cup of wax.

While the wax was melting, I used my hot glue gun to glue the wicks to the bottom of my jars. I sat the jars next to the pot on the stove so they would stay a little warmer – you don’t want to risk them cracking when introducing hot wax to cool glass.

When the wax was all the way cooled, I poured it carefully into my first jar, using a piece of wax paper to catch any spills (that way, I could throw any wax spills away rather than scrub my counter to within an inch of its life.)

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Then, I repeated the process for jar number 2. For each, I propped up the wicks with a chopstick or pencil to keep them from leaning to the edge of the candle. It wasn’t perfectly straight, but they’ll burn fairly straight, so that’s all that matters!

Leave them to cool overnight, and you’ll wake up to scent-a-licious and beautiful candles the next morning! For all new candles, I’ve heard the recommendation that the first time you burn them you should let the wick burn long enough to melt the top layer of wax so that the wick can soak up a little and “remember” for the next burning.

 

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Part 2: Bug Spray

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If candles were easy, then homemade bug spray is the equivalent of eating Girl Scout cookies – easy, fun, and over way too quickly. This recipe was a mixture of the same essential oils from my candles but with the added witch hazel to act as a sterilizing agent (keeps bacteria from growing in the bottle).

In a dark spray bottle, mix the following:

  • 2 oz. distilled water
  • 1.5 oz witch hazel
  • 30 drops of citronella essential oil
  • 25 drops of grapefruit essential oil
  • 15 drops of lemongrass essential oil

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Keep in a dark and cool location, and break out in times of outdoor frolicking. Shake before use, as the oils and water will separate.

I’m looking forward to trying both of these products on our patio with our new patio set – I hope they will be as successful for you as I am sure they will be for me!