Friday, September 9, 2011

Beautiful things

Each day, I make a point to try to notice the beautiful things around me.  Today, this is what I saw.

A dahlia, plucked early,  got a silver baby cup for a vase.

Bird seed, planted by my son in his pot he made at daycamp

My 10 year old, becoming a young man

One of my 3 girls, happily finding potato christmas presents in the ground

The potato harvest overflowing from the boxes we brought to the garden

A wooly little caterpillar who happened to hitch a ride on my arm

A potato that thought he should have been born a chicken egg

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Potatoes don't sunbathe and tomatoes like dry feet

I've been gardening seriously for 12 years now, so I've made a lot of mistakes.  There are a few that stick in my mind like slug slime.  These are the mistakes, due to lack of knowledge, or experience, that cost me a whole crop of certain plants.

The first is concerning potatoes.  They are a little finicky once unearthed from their cozy abode in the ground.  Sun is their enemy.  If they are exposed to sunlight for too long, self protection mode sticks in, and they develop toxins, turning green and making themselves generally unpalatable.  I knew this in my head, but didn't think anything of allowing my potatoes to sun dry on my front porch after harvest one year.

Thank you Lord, for this lovely potato that looks like an egg/rock.  I love it.  Now, please find me an earthworm to cuddle.
My friend Lisa, a seasoned gardener, stopped by that day and told me I might want to cover them.  By then, it was too late, and most of them had turned green...even the red ones were green beneath the red.  I read up on it, and it's really not a great idea to eat lots of green potatoes.  Potatoes are in the nightshade family, and ones exposed to too much sunlight contain higher concentrations of solanine, a toxin that can disrupt the nervous system.  The occasional green bit of potato won't harm anyone, but an entire crop might do some damage, particularly to children, because their small body mass cannot tolerate toxins in amounts we larger adults can.

How to prevent this?  When I harvest my potatoes, I shake off as much dirt as possible, but do not wash them.  This prevents rot from setting in.  Somehow, the dry dirt that eventually surrounds the potatoes protects them and allows the skin to thicken.  Dry your potatoes in a cool place, spread out a beneath breathable cover, such as a board.  I usually dry mine in my lawnmower trailer and cover the trailer with some plywood, allowing cracks for air to get in.

Whenever I'm in the garage, I stir the potatoes a little, and am sure to keep the door to the garage shut until my potatoes are safely stored.  Whenever I find a rotton potato, I throw it out.  Potatoes that have been cut when harvesting can sometimes still keep, but I put them in a separate container, just in case.  Once the dirt has dried, I weed out all the seed potatoes.  These are the potatoes that measure 1-2 inches in diameter.  I save them in a paper sack for the following year.  I usually stick any green potatoes in with the seed potatoes, because they can grow normal potatoes next year.   The rest of the potatoes go in paper sacks too, tightly rolled shut, and placed on a shelf above the garage floor, so moisture cannot collect in them.  The potatoes keep until the following spring, when they decide it's time to grow, and begin to sprout.  

My healthy Roma tomatoes from this year.  Unfortunately, I have a 3 year old who loves to pluck them, and then "plant them" again in the soil so they can grow.  I have about 50 green tomatoes on my windowsill, currently.

So I learned my lesson the hard way with potatoes.  What's another lesson I learned?  Tomatoes hate wet feet.  This means that they should not be planted in consistently wet soil, no matter how tempting it may be to save on watering time.  Tomato plants that do not  have well drained soil will develop beautiful fruit, but just as they are ready to turn yellow, then red, rot sets in on the bottom of the fruit, and they are ruined.  I had this happen to a gigantic crop of 20 plants.  It was very sad, and I believe I cried.

This rot is called Late Blight because it happens late in the tomato's fruiting cycle.  It is caused by the same mold, Phytophthora infestans, that caused the Irish Potato Famine.  This mold can set in and grow quickly if tomato plants are crowded and cannot dry out fully before evening.  It can also happen if the tomatoes are in consistently wet and soggy soil and cool weather.  This is the mold's ideal place to live.

Thanks to for the specific details on this disease.  

How do you protect your tomato plants, you ask?  Simply be a good gardener, and obey what all the gardening books tell you to do.  Tomatoes should be planted in well drained soil in full to partial sun.  Choose a sunny, dry place in your yard where you'll remember to water them in the morning, and you're ready to go.  If you can't find this, tomatoes do really well in pots, provided they are watered regularly, and have rich, well drained soil, and if it's consistently too cold out where you live, maybe it's time for a green house.

Like potatoes, tomatos are another plant you need to be diligent with around harvest time.  When I notice fall weather beginning to set in, I start to debate about when to uproot my plants.  This is because if tomatoes are left out in lots of rain, near harvest time,  their skins tend to split.  Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, this is a pretty common occurrence.  I if you live in a place with a short growing season like me, you are usually stuck with lots of green tomatoes on the vine when the cool weather sets in.  This used to disappoint me hugely, until I discovered that the tomatoes would continue to do their ripening while sitting nice and dry on the vine...inside my garage.

How to do this:  Just before the weather turns fall-like, carefully dig your tomato from the round, removing  your tomato cage along with it.   Shake as much dirt from the roots as you can, then bring the entire plant into a cool dry place, like a garage.  Set it on a clean, dry, elevated surface, and watch your tomatoes ripen right through the end of fall!  If it begins to get too cold in your garage, you can even pluck the still green tomatoes, and allow them to ripen on a windowsill inside.

Hopefully, these few lessons I learned in a difficult way will prevent you from some of the loss that I had.  Happy gardening!

Regarding Potato and Worm Family proliferation

Saraiah regarding the ring on an earthworm: "Mom, this worm must have married another worm, because it has a ring on it." 
Me in reply: "What's the ring for?" 
 Saraiah: "Making babies."
Me:" That makes sense."

This guy was a little cuter than the married earth worm

Today was the first day of school for most kids in our town, but we were the exception.  I am glad the kids get to be home for some the best weather of the year, and also for the fall harvest.  I am reminded what a relic the summer vacation really is, and how sad it is that it no longer has a practical purpose.
When families do not grow food, they do not need the kids to help harvest it, thus summer vacation is moot, and sometimes a nuisance.  We're starting homeschool and our co-op on Monday, and we do quite a lot of work, so that when we do begin, we won't be able to get outside to work till mid afternoon.  

This means that this week is a frenzy of activity, trying to soak in the freedom of summer, while simultaneously doing the many jobs that need doing: goat shearing, chicken coop cleaning, potato and chamomile harvesting, cabbage harvest, onions too.  And on top of that, my in-laws surprised me by beginning to build me a barn for my birthday...even with my birthday over 2 months away!    
The girls and I worked hard on potato harvesting, but even at 2pm, it was very hot today.  We got a large basket filled, and then decided we had worked hard enough, and went inside for me to give Brandon (husband) a haircut.  I was very happy that the potatoes and tomatoes that I blogged about starting are all doing very well, and even in this wet summer, I was able to get one nice fat little sweet pepper from my pepper plants, with many smaller ones coming on.  The rest of the garden wasn't as productive, however, because I put all of my attention into these things, and because the wet spring rotted a lot of the seed.
proudly displaying her potato
I have decided that planting potatoes on the surface of the ground, with mounds of soil over them is the ideal way to grow on our wet property.  The little potato families of 8-10 seeds that we planted have yielded many large and healthy potatoes, mainly scab free.  The ones that had scab on them were the ones buried a little below the regular level of our soil.  I decided to try this method partially because I had read that the Azteks built Tenochtitlan, their main city, on an island in the middle of a lake.  Out of necessity, they created artificial islands on which to grow crops.  This is essentially what we created for our happy potato families, and they responded by being quite productive.

The tomato families are doing wonderfully too, even the ones that I started very late.  All the petting and pinching back we did has yielded some very healthy looking Stupice and Roma tomatoes, many of which are ripening and becoming a lovely snack/breakfast/lunch food.  The plants will be pulled up before the first frost (hopefully) and put into the garage to finish ripening the last of the crop. 

These are the buds I hope to harvest to make Balm of Gilead

I have become good friends with an herbalist who has given me an herb to try to promote healing in my injured foot.  It's called Yerba Mansa, or Anemopsis Californica, and is one of the few plants the native Chumash people, (she is half Chumash) of California, actually cultivated, because it is that effective.  I also had a conversation with the head of Cedar Mountain Herb School, which teaches wild crafting with local herbs.  She recommended making an oil with cottonwood buds, called "Balm of Gilead", It has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.  Also, she said I could make an oil with willow bark as well. I would assume that's for pain relief, since aspirin is derived from the willow.  Even exactly one year after I injured my foot, I again am able to have hope that it might heal.  Now doing all that bark and bud harvesting...I wonder how I will get the time for that.

potato harvesting!

first we pulled away the weeds

then we dug in the hills (dry!)

Out came a potato!

Weeds and dying potato plants

Just beneath the soil

she found a baby one

this was a very coveted caterpillar among the girls

the potato patch.  Only 1/3 or 1/4 harvested. 

Happy Romas

Inchworm on my calendula flower

Did I mention there are blackberries to be gathered too?  Reminds me of the line of the hymn , I sing the goodness of the Lord, who filled the earth with food."

Parting shot:  Yesterday, we ran into our good friend while walking on a trail near the big kids' taekwondo studio.  She  always makes me smile.  You can see her walking away right behind Saraiah's helmet.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How to reupholster a dining room chair

Once your chair is upside down, find the screws in each of the 4 corners.  They are usually philips screws.  They usually are all that is holding your cushion on.  Remove those, and your cushion is free.  

Reupholstering dining room chairs is one of those skills that look a lot harder than it actually is.  I've found that most skills are like that... until I see something done and realize it's not so hard, I think it's next to impossible, and am less likely to try it.  My mom always did her chairs when I was growing up, so I was able to see how simple it is.

The way I do it is probably a shortcut, and not totally legit, but it is quick and it works, and that's all I care about.  I recover our chairs about every 3 years, or every time we get a new dining room set.  You'd be surprised how many dining room sets you're offered when you have 5 kids.

In order to decide on the amount of fabric you will need to figure out the width of the fabric off the bolt from the fabric store.  Next, you will remove one of the covers that is already on your chairs and then measure its dimensions.  If yours are too thrashed to deal with, just measure the width and length of the top, adding to those dimensions the height of the cushion plus one and a half inches for and stapling the fabric over the bottom of the cushion.  Next, figure out how many of your cushions will fit in the width of your chosen fabric.  I was barely able to fit two cushions on the width of my fabric.  Next, figure how many yards of that fabric it will take to fit all of your cushions.

a good way to turn your chair upside down

the freed cushion

remove the previous covering, and as many staples as you can.  My 5 year old did the staple removing job.

Remove leftover bits of the old fabric, so the bottom of your cushion is smooth

I had my 5 year old remove any staples that were sticking up.  She had fun!

And that's all you need.  

We were inspired to buy oilcloth to recover the chairs with this time around, after eating at a restaurant in Waikiki, called Duke's with Hawaiian print oilcloth covering their chairs.  Of course they had piping and had sewn seams on the edges and corners, but I think this still gives a similar effect, and comparable durability.  You want to use upholstery fabric, unless you use clear plastic over regular fabric.  I have done both.  I really like using clear plastic.  You can purchase it at your local fabric store in a medium thickness.  Mine held up to 5 homeschooling kids for nearly 3 years before it fell apart.  Reupholstering the chairs was what I did when I was in labor with my 3 year old, in fact!

because this is a pretty view.

all my huge  cushions, arranged just so on my fabric

this is the company I purchased the oilcloth from.  It took forever to come in, but when it came it was in great shape.

After measuring 12  times (it felt like it), being sure to account for the sides and underside, I cut.  After I cut the first one, I used it as a template to cut the rest.

I removed old decorative piping, but left the original fabric on.  The piping removed allowed me a few more millimeters of give for my fabric to fit.

One corner from beneath.  I made sure all the bunching was on the underside, so it would look better from the side and above.  You just have to keep stretching and holding the fabric in place as you staple.

view of front corner from above

completed cushion

I folded the back corners, because they were up against the back of the chair and not visible.  

Completed cushion from beneath