Late Summer glory

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

This season, we find ourselves focused on crop storage and preservation. Being at home at the beginning of spring meant a re-invigoration in cooking at home and experimenting with recipes, and consequently the summer preserves and cabinets became dry and dusty by April. Our diced tomatoes and chicken stock were gone, sauerkraut running low, jams obliterated, storage potatoes long gone to eye, and pickled garlic a distant memory. And yet other freezer items remained untouched, a testament to food items that lost appeal after the growing season. (Frozen corn and I do not see eye to eye…)

So, at a time when the garden is bountiful and grocery bills minimizing, we face the real testament of dedication – setting about preserving the extra food before us.

In typical Kansas July’s, the bog-like humidity and soaring temperatures make it nearly impossible to want to spend time tending the garden beyond a quick dart outside to nab a tomato or two. To this end, we have found that morning routines are essential. Waking up around 7am, letting out the chickens, taking time to exercise and then turning our eyes to the garden has been the easiest way to avoid the stifling heat and still accomplish a lot before breakfast. It then lets us focus on the rest of our day with energy and relief that the chores are done – chickens fed and watered, garden weeded, fruit gathered, pest inspection/eradication completed. This could easily be flipped to evenings depending on your family need – this is just what works best for us when I am home on summer break from teaching and when E mostly works evenings.

This regular garden routines has helped us stay ahead of herbs bolting, vegetables rotting on the vines, and pests that would eradicate early crops, and honestly, this dedication is what we have lacked in recent years. Being proactive was not always our strong-suit, and previous reactivity led to diminished yields in the past. For example, I would do so well as monitoring my basil plants in May and June, only to be forgetful or tired or hot as we drew closer to August. I would finally check over the plants to find them flowering profusely, miserable, and yellowing from lack of attention, so the meager yields I could gather were bitter and sad. This year alone, I’ve done at least three thorough picking of basil heads just before flowers to encourage strong growth. Because of this, I’ve made multiple batches of pesto and enough dried basil to last us at least through the next winter, and here, in mid-August, we are still producing incredible flavor.

Our main “potager”, or vegetable patch – close to 700 square feet of garden beds.

This also means being willing to set aside time to process and can or freeze what we are able – it is so easy to let excess rot, get eaten by birds, or toss into compost, but we are really trying to process as much as we can for storage as we go into this fall. And yes, this means a commitment to heating up the kitchen in the middle of August with boiling stock pots and being willing to spill tomato guts all over the counter – but if it means that I have access to homegrown tomatoes in January, then I need to be willing to put in the time now.

These are some of my tips for processing foods through canning methods:

  1. Create a spill-proof area. When you are ready to can, move your warm jars out of the warm water-bath and line them on a kitchen towel and pull that up close and tight with the stockpot of whatever you are canning. That way, you can quickly ladle in your produce into all your jars and have zero clean up – just toss the kitchen towel into the wash.
  2. If you have a partner to help you, create an assembly line. For tomatoes especially, have on person in charge of a hot/ice water bath to pull off skin, and have the other in charge of dicing/chopping. It keeps the whole assembly line moving.
  3. Pick your favorite podcast, Netflix series, or movie to have on in the background. Time flies when you are having fun!
  4. Use Siri to set timers. Your hands will be sticky and wet and you’ll be preoccupied with all your batches and processes so you won’t watch the kitchen timer. Keep your phone on the counter and ask her (or Alexa) to set the timer without you having to touch a thing.
  5. Read instructions AHEAD OF TIME. Preferably, the day or night before. We like to maximize the time we have with a stockpot full of hot water – once it’s hot, keep it hot, and process as much as possible. To tackle multiple recipes, be aware of the processing requirements and which batches you can overlap. Peaches and tomatoes usually need 10-15 minutes of processing time – but meat can take 50 minutes. So I know that I can make peaches and tomatoes together, but my soup and stew recipes probably need to be processed separately.
Dilled carrots, blackberry jam, pickled beets and carrots, pickled peppers, and fermenting hot sauce.

To help maximize our produce this year, E’s daily monitoring for pests (and subsequent eradication) has been so crucial, and our lovely chicken ladies have been more than obliging to take care of the extra bugs for us. You may recall that our suburban chicken coop setup means that they are in a chicken tractor 24/7 – they are in a controlled free-range setup, but don’t have total access to the garden. Subsequently, they have been delighted by the dessert offerings we will bring them – cabbage loopers scraped off kale leaves, bagworms from the patio, grasshoppers nabbed from sunflowers and hops, Japanese beetles and squash bugs from the vines, you name it. Now that our darling girls celebrate six months in the Epperson household today (happy birthday, chicklets!), they have begun laying the most gorgeous egg yolks thanks to all the yummy protein sources (including what they scavenge) and nutritive content they glean from the yard. We are still working on converting the grass to clover and other nutrient-rich sources that double as carbon-capturing plants, but even so, the quality of their eggs is a huge testament to what lawns have lurking beneath the green carpet.

To my fellow suburbanites out there – your grass is not just grass! There are so many beneficial organisms and life cycles occurring in your yard – it deserves your love and attention, too! (And, you should know, that we haven’t done a single thing to prep the grass areas they roam – it is untreated and unfertilized, and yet they are finding so much good from this green habitat!)

I hope your late summer is proving to be bountiful and beautiful!

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.

Graduation

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It’s that time of year – wrapping up lesson plans and packing away supplies for the summer, endless graduation parties, saying goodbye to our students. For me, it’s a particularly-tough end of the year, saying goodbye to a hundred little faces that I’ve loved for the last two years. Part of the heart-wrenching part of working for a school district is just that – we work for a district, not a school, and our contract isn’t tied to a building. With numbers and circumstances changing, one of my school assignments is changing, so today I gave hugs and love to my little ones as I said goodbye on their last day of music.

While for so many, the end of the school year marks the end of an era – the end of 5th grade, the end of college, and, for some teachers, then end of a career. As I sit here on the couch, nursing a late-spring fever and miserable cough, I’m reminded that it’s never really the end, but merely the restart of another lap around the track. We’ll toast to the end of another year, schedule vacations, put our feet up, but we start the preparation for next fall as soon as our students walk out the door. Come this fall, we’ll be greeted with a similar batch of excited, beaming faces intermixed with tired, unsure ones and still need to inspire them to the same results through our teaching. We’ll face the same, miserable stacks of paperwork, exciting workshops with new ideas, complain about the same types of issues, celebrate the victories, and face that student that just makes you want to cry after trying everything. (Today, I had that student laugh at me and try to hurt me by saying that I must be getting fired if I’m moving schools, to my dismay and to the shock of all his classmates. Unfortunately, no explanation would persuade him from thinking it was the truth – and I left today hoping dearly I had made some kind of difference in this poor child’s education, with all the struggles we’ve had. It was not a good morning.)

But alas, the years don’t always get to end with a perfect, wonderful goodbye – sometimes they are messy and imperfect. All we can do is learn from each day and let it (hopefully) influence the next experience for the better. For a teacher, our years are a cycle, of hard months to exciting months, of challenging students to sweet notes on Valentine’s Day, of evening concerts to a much-needed summer vacation. While our students may close their books and move to the next school or graduate from their last classroom ever, we continue in the cycle – to rinse, refresh, be inspired, and begin again.

Happy summer, my friends.

All Quiet on the Home Front

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It’s been far too long since I’ve been able to sit down and write. In fact, this is the first night I’ve really been home and not been running off to meetings, concerts, projects, or heading out of town. My poor kitties won’t leave me alone when I’m home, they’ve missed me so much! Olivia, in the picture above, has missed going outside with me, so the last couple of days we’ve been trying to stock up on some more outdoor exploration time with her brother and I.

On the home front, all is quiet, unfortunately. We chose to retract our offer on the lake house we were pursuing a few weeks ago. It was relieving and disappointing all at once – we had made it all through the inspection process when we found out that it needed some significant electrical, HVAC, and roofing improvements in addition to nearly $200 a month in flood insurance. I’ve learned to always check the county website and verify flood insurance requirements and whether or not homeowner’s associations restrict the property FIRST, rather than find out what zoning requirements are on the land AFTER the offer has been made. To be honest, the stress of the financial burden we were facing was starting to physically and emotionally hurt. While there were 2.5 acres of promising land with which to be sustainable, the comfort gathered from growing your own food can only outweigh the risk of financial ruin so much.

We said ‘goodbye’ to this vacation home, this house with it’s own dock and hundred-year elm trees behind the pole barn. After letting go, we spent a week or so refusing to think about moving. The headache, the money we couldn’t refund from the inspection and appraisal fees, the dozens of documents we had to collect and upload to our bank – we just couldn’t do the exhausting, stressful cycle all over again so soon. We focused on moving my mother-in-law up from Wichita and being astounded at Cattigan’s new defensiveness towards the new cat in the house (a small child came to visit the house once and he hid behind the couch because the baby moved, and now the same cat is prowling around the door to the guest bedroom and is intent on jumping Sharon’s cat if she ever emerges).

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My mother-in-law definitely shares in our love of all green things – I drove back home with this happy jungle of hers in my front seat! 

After a bit, we began to see houses again, and the last handful or so have come close but not quite good enough – either no place for my mother-in-law, not enough space in the backyard, or out of our price range, or some combination of the three. We have another one to visit tomorrow, a fixer upper on 5 acres just 5 minutes from town, about which I am cautiously optimistic – there are apparently horrible urine smells and the house has been filled to the brim with hoarded items, but if the bones are good, we could do a lot with a cheap home and flip it to be our little dream home. It’s half the price of the lake house property – and we’d be paying 30% less on a mortgage than we currently pay in rent. Plus, what better time to create a truly green space – energy-efficient appliances, recycled materials countertops, energy-efficient windows, solar panels, and more.

In the meantime, I’m spending my afternoons shoving my new little flower plantings back into their containers and shooing the scavenging squirrels away as we wind down the school year. Only five more days with students and then it’s time to take 5 more hours of my masters program – and we’re off to summer!