Time Passes

I put my head down in early March, preparing for NaNoWriMo Camp and just today looked at the calendar. Only to discover I had arrived at the end of April. Time passes quickly!

Plenty going on in the garden. Asparagus season is rolling to a close. A ten-year old viburnum that never flowers has decided to flower.

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Jim has started the annual rebuilding of the garden wall. With Juno looking on. Love that my dogs garden with us!

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We planted two new trees, a Forest Pansy Redbud and a Red Oak. It looks like this will be a drier spring than normal, so I’m committed to hauling water hose and buckets for my baby trees.

So despite time’s fly-by, spring has been productive with only one stumble. One of our neighbors down the road rented the field behind ours and brought out a huge sprayer to cover the weeds with … what? I think 2, 4-D but I don’t know for sure. Certainly he wasn’t fertilizing those weeds?

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But he is in shirt sleeves, wearing no protective gear, so I wonder if he read the label. Assuming it was an herbicide. I walked out and stood menacingly, arms akimbo. Did he stop to tell me what he was doing? He did not! Lucky for us, our garden is quite a distance away, so I hope we didn’t get any overspray on the asparagus or garlic or baby sugar snap peas.

As a cautionary note, if you are using a pesticide, pull the label out and read the entire thing. You’ll find lots of amazing information there, including what protective gear you need and whether the target area is safe for children and pets.

I’ve marked my calendar for another Blog next week. Hopefully time won’t get away from me again!

Pick Up Sticks

As a youngster growing up in New Jersey, I got to weed trees and pick up branches off the ground. I have no fond memories of picking up sticks. A hard-on-the-back, boring task, it ranked as one of my least favorite jobs.

So imagine my dismay when I saw, after a couple weeks of 20-40 MPH winds here in Kansas, that our yard was littered with sticks. The job is even more hard-on-the-back than I remembered, and it continues to be my least favorite thing to do in the garden. Honestly, I’d rather weed.

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I have only myself to blame. I wanted trees. I planted trees. And they have grown large enough to lose branches. Although, to be honest, some of these sticks were pruned, not picked up.

And while we were outside today in this wonderful 50 plus degree weather (it’s February in Kansas, folks), I decided to water. We have had neither rain nor snow for several weeks. It’s time.

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I just wrote an article for The Republic’s spring home special section on planting trees, which I think is coming out sometime in March or April. Here’s the bit on watering. “For the first year, trees need about 10 gallons of water every week. This takes some juggling with the weather. If it hasn’t rain or hasn’t rained enough, we use five gallon buckets with a hole punched in the bottom. This guarantees that every tree gets the right amount of water. The gradual flow – it takes about 20 minutes for the bucket to empty – aids absorption. After the first growing season, water every 10 to 14 days as needed.”

The interesting bit is that watering in winter, as long as the daytime temperature is above freezing, won’t hurt the tree even if the nighttime temperature drops below 32 degrees.

Once watering was done, it was back to picking up sticks again. Although here’s a conundrum. This branch is stuck way high up in the tree.

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Here’s a shot of the tree to give you a sense of just how high it is.

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I keep waiting for the wind to knock it out, but I think it’s tangled in the other branches. Darn. I need a bucket truck to get it down.

Middle of February – two hours of yard work – and I’m exhausted. Better start getting in shape for the spring season.

Runaway Dogs

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Gardening with dogs is a challenge. Gardening with Loki (the Vizsla) and Juno (the Black Lab) has turned into my worst nightmare. They see me dig and they want to dig too. They see me pull weeds and they don’t understand why they can’t tear out flowers. They steal my small tools, want to sit on my kneeling pad, and in general make themselves giant nuisances.

But okay. I can deal.

Back when we moved in, Jim installed an invisible fence around three acres of our property. We trained our ‘then’ dogs by walking the perimeter with them and teaching them ‘watch it’ when they got too close to the boundary. When Loki and Juno came to us as pups, we trained them the same way. For the past five years, we left them outside, absolutely certain that they would stay in the yard. Other dogs came to visit. Our dogs did not break bounds.

Until this year.

“Where’s Loki?” became our favorite question. Chasing cars, running with the horses across the street, playing in our next-door-neighbor’s field, chasing squirrels and rabbits and birds.
We put up flags along the fence line. We walked the perimeter with them – again. We yelled “Watch it!” No good.

Finally, Jim (and sometimes I) had to go outside with them all the time. Even then, they’d sit at the very edge of the fence line, looking longingly off into the distance, turning every so often to see if Jim was still there and still watching.

It looked like we would always have to keep our eyes on those two!

One stormy day, Jim started talking about building a dog run from the garage door to the workshop. Not a big area, but a costly project. I started talking about walking the dogs like everyone else – on a leash. A bit weird in the country but it would keep them from going totally wild.

Finally, we agreed on a large kennel, one that we could move around the yard for sun or shade depending on the season. Combined with ‘watching’ them while they ran outside, giving them a playpen was the only way to keep them from running off.

And shhhhh – here’s my secret. I plan to keep them kenneled while I garden.

Cream Puffs

Channel surfing a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled onto the Kids Baking Championship on Food Network. Since I first started watching the Great British Baking Show, I’ve felt the urge to improve my baking skills.

One skill I never thought of adding was pate a choux (pronounced pat-a-shoe), the dough used to make cream puffs. Easier by far to simply buy frozen puffs in the store – something I never do because, frankly, I don’t think in terms of eating puff anything.

But the Kids Baking Championship challenged me to learn this new, intermediate baking skill. I mean, if 10 and 11 year old kiddos can make puff pastry, I should be able to make it too.

The recipe came from everywhere. The ingredients are easy to remember: 1 cup of water. 1 stick of butter. 1 cup of flour. 1 cup of eggs. 1 pinch of salt.

Really? One cup of eggs? Turns out, this means four eggs.

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The water, butter, and salt goes into a pot, brought to a rolling boil at medium high temperature. Remove from heat, then add the flour all at once. Stir, stir, stir until the flour is incorporated. Put the pot back on the heat for about a minute, still stirring, to let some of the moisture out of the dough.

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Let the dough cool somewhat so the eggs don’t scramble when you add them. I stuck my (clean) finger in the dough and figured if was safe to add the eggs as long as the dough didn’t feel hot. It was warm.

I beat the eggs into the flour, butter, and water mixture one at a time, using my stand mixer with the paddle attachment. (I imagine a hand mixer will also work). The result should be a glossy, thick dough that slowly drops off your beaters.

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Pipe into two inch rounds on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or silicone pad. Brush with an egg wash (one egg, one Tbsp. water) to keep the edges and points of the rounds from burning.

Bake in a pre-heated 425 degree Fahrenheit oven for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 375 degrees and back about another 15 to 20 minutes.

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I remembered from watching both shows that some contestants didn’t cook their puffs long enough. I may have erred on the other side. These looked a bit overdone to me.

Cool on racks. Meanwhile, put together your filling. I used whipped cream (2 cups cream, 1 Tbsp.sugar, 1/2 tsp. vanilla). When the puffs are cool, poke a hole in the bottom of each one and fill with your filling. You’ll need to use a pastry bag for this, which is more difficult than it looks. Again, I was thinking about those ten-year olds. Although I have to admit, Jim was curious and decided that my fumble-fingers needed help. Thank you, Jim!

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How’d they taste? Really, pretty bland. Since this was a first (maybe only) attempt, I kept things very basic. On my way around the Internet to find the recipe, I did see some yummy-sounding savory fillings (think cheese and mushroom) and some livelier sweet fillings (think lemon curd).

Meanwhile, the ones I made this morning might be improved by dipping them in chocolate ganache. Maybe next time…

Violets in Winter

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I spent the morning propagating new African Violets from existing plants. Why? I’m nervous about the weather. This fall, I lost a couple of plants due to a sudden cold snap before we turned the furnace on. Lucky for me, I already had some leaves propagating.

The process is fairly simple. Cut a leaf from the plant. Taking leaves from the second row is best because they’re younger than those on the outer edge. Snip the top third of the leaf and cut the leaf stem – called the petiole – on a 45 degree angle. Plant it in a small pot filled with a light soilless mixture. I like to use half African Violet mix that you can buy in most nurseries and half perlite.

The cups are simply plastic with a hole poked into the bottom. I use a hammer and an ice pick to poke the hole and then I slip a bit of yarn or nylon string through the hole to act as a watering wick. What works best for me is twisted nylon Mason line #18.

Finally, place a larger plastic cup with holes in the top for air circulation over the smaller cup. This creates a mini greenhouse for humidity.

Then you wait.

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In about three months, if you’re lucky, you’ll get something that looks like this.

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Or this.

The trick is to never over-water or under-water. Figuring that out takes some practice and, frankly, some luck. I’ve switched from plain, filtered water to water with a bit of chamomile tea. Just as the tea prevents damping off with seeds, it seems to prevent leaf rot.

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In about a year, I may have something that looks like this beautiful Bob Serbin violet.

I have several go-to places for information about African Violets. One is The Violet Barn.

Goodbye Christmas – Hello 2016

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Every year I promise to keep the holiday decorations small. And every year I need more shelf space or another plastic bin.

This year, we had just enough space for the metal skeleton tree that I brought home from Belton. I’d show you a picture but it just doesn’t photograph well. Trust me, in real life it is tres cool!

This year, once again, as I packed away four bins and three shelves with holiday stuff, I resolved never again. And that made me think about New Year Resolutions.

Last year – 2015 – I resolved to complain more. That worked out pretty well in more ways than one. It was the right resolution to make. Because I didn’t promise to diet, I didn’t binge eat in February. Because I didn’t promise to exercise more, I didn’t stop walking in March. And most important, I gave up on gardening resolutions, which kept me from giving up gardening!

Instead. I complained my way through 2015. Some neat stuff happened as a result.

Let’s see… I had two calls from vice presidents at my Internet Service Provider to tell me there was nothing to be done about the goofed-up email service. Does that seem like nothing? Did I gain anything?

Well yes. As a result of putting my name out there, the Internet folks were johnnie-on-the-spot when I had a wiring problem that interfered with Wi-Fi. Fixing my problem was better than listening to me complain again.

I complained to the retina specialist’s office manager about an over-charge, and received a refund for both the overage and the check that unbeknownst to me they cashed twice. That was nice.

I returned no fewer than ten and no more than twenty items to Amazon. I also wrote any number of one- or two-star recommendations for subpar things I bought. A couple of times I received a very nice exchange. A complaint to the insurance company (okay, it was Jim complaining) resulted in a 3 percent discount. I found a local dentist who charged a lot less for cleanings than my long-time dentist. I dropped ‘friends’ who made my life less than happy and discovered that life without them was almost like a vacation.

So, all in all, 2015 was a great year on the keeping resolutions front.

What did I learn? First and foremost, be careful when making resolutions!

I think in 2016 I will decorate the house once. Black candle sticks sound nice. Maybe with some seasonal ribbons…

Hope your 2016 is the best year ever!!

Not “Kitchen Tested” Cranberry Compote

I grew up eating jellied cranberries out of a can at Thanksgiving. Imagine my dismay on learning that my Midwest relatives do not eat jellied cranberry sauce! I thought it was the fault of the can, which led me to create something “exactly the same only different” (as my husband would say). Thus was cranberry compote devised, based on memories of my grandmother’s prune and apple compote.

Since that first foray into cranberry compote some 25 years ago, I’ve learned that the Internet has hundreds of variations on my recipe. I’ve tried many of them and still like mine best. A word of warning: as recipes go, this one succeeds by guess and by golly. It’s a new experience every time.

Despite all my work, sad to say, my Midwest relatives still don’t like cranberries. At least they don’t like my compote.

The recipe calls for simple ingredients:

2 Granny Smith Apples, peeled and chopped
2 Bosc Pears, peeled and chopped
2 bags of fresh cranberries, washed and picked through
2 Lemons, peeled and julienned (optional – you have to really like lemon)
2 cups of sugar, divided
2 tsps. cinnamon
1/4 cup of water in reserve (you may not need it)

A note about the julienned lemons. I like the sour/bitter chew that you get every so often from the strips of lemon peel. I once added three lemons, but that was a bit much, even for me. First decision is whether you like lemon peel.

And while we’re talking ingredients, let’s talk sugar. I’ve tried this recipe with sugar, fructose, honey, maple syrup, and artificial sweeteners like Aspartame and Xylitol. Frankly, sugar works best. Since the amount of sugar used varies wildly between one and two cups depending on the sweetness of the apples and pears, and since I make this twice a year, I figure: why not sugar? Okay, so maybe the sugar cancels out the antioxidants in the cranberries. But then again, on a positive note, maybe not.

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Once you’ve chopped and washed everything, put it in a pot with one cup of sugar. I use a medium sized soup pot, which is wider than most pots. Turn on the burner to medium high and wait to hear that first pop of cranberries. Then stir.

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Keep stirring until the sugar melts and the mixture starts to boil. Turn the heat down to medium low and continue to stir.

At this point, you need to decide whether to add more sugar. By this time, your compote should have developed a lot of liquid at the bottom of the pot. If it hasn’t, add about a quarter cup of sugar. If it has, leave it be.

If after you add that first extra quarter cup of sugar (and after a few stirs to let the sugar melt), it still isn’t liquid-y, add the quarter cup of water.

Let the compote simmer until it develops a pie filling consistency. When it does, take it off the heat and let it cool. Taste. Do you need more sugar? Add another quarter of a cup and stir. You may need to hit it with a bit more heat to make sure the additional sugar melts.

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As you can see, this is not one of those kitchen tested recipes, you know, the ones where you measure this and that and it turns out perfect every time. With this recipe, a lot depends on your ingredients. Even more depends on your personal taste for sweet juxtaposed with your tolerance for sour.

Did I mention that no one but me eats this?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers!!