Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rooting willows and tree branch centerpieces

Are you pruning fruit trees and flowering shrubs right now?  Bring some of those branches inside as a reminder that spring is very near.  They will bloom beautifully in the warmth of your home.
My six year old stood outside with me while I was pruning fruit trees. She then "planted" all the cuttings in the mole hills we have all over the place. Because I am now addicted to pruning, I went over and started pruning the willow tree, telling her how we buried her sister's placenta beneath the tree, and even though it had been a very weak tree, it then sprouted up with great enthusiasm. We sang a sweet little song we had learned when she had helped plant an apple tree at the Padilla Bay reserve.  "Plant this your own yard... plant this your neighbor's yard..."

 I remembered that willow bark is used as a rooting hormone for starting plants and told her that, then we decided to do an experiment. We took our willow cuttings and stuck them in the muddy creek right next to the tree. We will check them in a few weeks to see if they have decided to make roots for themselves. At the end, she said "Mom, I didn't know trees were so magical, like not magical as in magicians, but as in wonderful."  

"Yes, it's amazing how they were each designed with a purpose, isn't it?"

         "What's the purpose of the Christmas trees then?  And the blackberries?"

"Christmas trees must be good for homes for all kinds of animals, and help keep land stable, so that there aren't landslides.  I know that blackberries like disturbed ground and poor soils, so they must be to keep the ground from eroding and make it healthier."  

Here are some of the fruit tree cuttings from our pruning activities., ready to bring inside to make a centerpiece that will bloom!  
And we walked inside and enjoyed the rest of our day.  I remembered that I like to bring cuttings of our red flowering currant in when I prune it, so I gathered some of the fruit tree branches too.  The currants love to flower, even indoors, and I'm hoping the fruit tree branches will do the same.  It's good to have the reminder of the imminence of spring, even if it's still very dreary out.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Easy Homemade Play-dough

We have  a play-dough problem around here.  There are always great intentions when the stuff is new, and we carefully put the dough away in its container every time we play, then as the months wear on, we get lax and somehow 4 containers become one.  Actually, I had sort of given up on playdough for a long stretch.  After five kids going through who knows how many pounds of the stuff, I had become a little cynical and wasn't even making play-dough anymore.  I thought that wasn't fair to my youngest kiddos, and I decided that this it why it's good to have an easy homemade play-dough recipe.  So we found one, tried it and love it.  It's inexpensive, easy, fast, and the kids can help.

Who doesn't love playdough?  Even I love to sit there and make little playdough snakes and cubes and maybe slightly more detailed creations.  We made this same recipe for my niece for her Christmas present and used the adorable plastic freezer jam containers made by the Ball company.

What you'll need:

A medium sized sauce pan 
Air tight containers for the playdough

1 c. Water
2T Oil
Food Coloring
1c. Flour
1/2 c. Salt
2t. Cream of Tartar

This makes enough for 2 large baseball sized balls of dough. We made a different batch for each color.  

First pour in the 1 cup of water.  
Next, add 2 T. oil,
Add about 10 drops food coloring.  You can add more later if it's not to your liking.
Mix the water, oil and food coloring.
In another container, mix the dry ingredients..the one cup of flour, 1/2 c salt, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar.  Add all at once to the liquid.  
Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture makes a ball that becomes smooth.
And you have some playdough!  Let it cool on the counter or a cookie sheet for a little bit, but get it in a container in reasonable time so it doesn't evaporate all its doughy goodness!  (yes, I did do a close up of the prettier color of playdough.  I have no idea what happened with the first batch's color)
Store in airtight containers.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

DIY Needle Felting Cushion

If there's a way to do something for free instead of buying it, I'll try it.  When I was a kid, I loved this series of kids' craft books called "Make and Do," because it used largely items that could be found around my home.

So what if a friend recently introduced you to needle felting and you bought a bunch of those one dollar needles, you have  a lot of wool, and even your own cushion, but now your kids want to join in?  Do you drive to all the craft stores looking for one, or buy a piece of foam, paying a premium?  Do you order a $5 cushion online and pay $5 to ship it?  You don't have to!

If you have access to old couch cushions, you can make your own needle felting cushions, and enough for 15 kids.  I did this recently with my girls because I'm planning to teach a fiber arts class at our local homeschool co op next year, and the girls wanted their own cushions.  Advertise to your friends that you're looking for an old cushion.  In a pinch you can always use your own couch cushion and re-cover it when you're done, but this is easier.

Couch cushions are the perfect texture.  The foam you buy at the craft store crumbles and gets tangled in your needle felting projects.  Try it!

Get your cushion
Remove the cover and batting inside.
Draw a grid on your cushion, using a straight edge.  I made my cushions 6 x 6 inches.  It's actually nice to have one that's about 12in. x12in. if you have enough foam.  For this project, I needed lots, so I cut them smaller.  I used serrated breadknives and sawed away.  It's quite the stress reliever.
If your cushions are used, they may be a tad dingy.  Get some soapy water and go to town.  The kids had a blast with the bubbly water.
Rinse and squeeze.

Dry on a raised surface for a week or two.  The cushions retain some moisture at first.  Decorate with sharpie pens and you've got a custom made needle felting cushion!

How to Make Roasted Sunchoke Chips

Some yummy and sweet sunchoke chips
Sunchokes can be wonderful!  I have finally proven it to my family tonight in the making of oven roasted sunchoke chips.  You'll have to know the back story to appreciate this not so small achievement.

A few years ago, someone gave me some sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichoke tubers.  Little did I know that to many experienced gardeners, they are as welcome as a gift of mint and lemon balm plants or zucchini in August.  I grew them the first year in an empty bed just outside my main fenced garden.

They grew just as tall as sunflowers (no surprise, because they're actually in the sunflower family) and had a pretty yellow Compositae family type flowers at the top.  Unfortunately, that very same year, I read a book on historical culinary plants in North America.  I was scared off by the side effect of flatulence that the sunchokes seemed to be famous for, and put off trying them.  Finally I got the courage to dig them up, and we dug up the whole bunch.  Unfortunately, sunchokes do not keep well and shriveled up before I decided what I might do with them.  This is an important thing to note when growing sunchokes...they do just fine staying in the ground.  In fact, they become very invasive, commandeering the bed you plant them in.  They can be a welcome source of food in the dead of winter, as well as a fun way to practice your baseball arm.

I have been so frustrated with my Jerusalem artichokes because they had taken over a new raised bed my father in law had built for my daughter.   I warned them that sunchokes had been there, but they decided to lay down some landscape fabric and risk it.  Anyway, the  sunchokes pushed right through it and enjoyed a happy summer in the entire raised bed!

Last month, decided I was going to use them and found them pleasantly easy to dig up, even when the first 2 inches of ground was frozen.  I shared some with forewarned friends at a seed swap, then made our family some sunchoke soup.  It was a flop.  I had made it vegetarian because my 14 year old is a non-meat-eater.  This past weekend, I attended a year round gardening talk given by the blogger at Northwest Edible Life, and what did she serve, but sunchoke soup!  Her soup was of course amazing.  The key difference seemed to be the chicken stock she used.  I'll have to try that way next time.

When I reported that I had resorted to throwing the sunchokes to my chickens with my very wimpy style of throwing, I was chastised by friends...they are so yummy, they claimed.  Well, my family hated the soup, so I wasn't eager to try again.  But they sure were prolific, so I tried the simple idea a friend suggested...the old standby of roasting in olive oil, pepper and salt.  I tried it, they liked it, and I consider it a victory.  Here's how I did it.

Sunchokes, straight out of the raised bed.  
Sunchokes are sometimes very knobby and tend to hold onto dirt.  I took a brand new stiff brush and scubbed them under water.  
I chopped an entire head of garlic for my batch that filled two cookie sheets.  It may have been 2 much for my 4 year old...either that or the pepper.  Use chopped garlic, sea salt and pepper to the proportion you normally would, keeping in mind that the sunchokes cook down and the spiciness will concentrate.  
Once the sunchokes were washed, I sliced them thinly, then rinsed again, then tossed them with olive oil, salt and pepper and the chopped garlic. (I would recommend patting them dry before adding the olive oil, salt and pepper, because they seemed to take longer to dry out than I thought they would)  I preheated the oven to 400 degrees.
I spread them thinly on the cookie sheet.  

And baked them for about 30 minutes, but this is because they were very wet.  I hadn't dried them after rinsing them in the colander.  I would recommend checking at 15 minutes, being sure to stir them around a bit so they will cook evenly.  
And there you have it.  Oven roasted sunchoke chips that, according to my husband, taste mildly like zucchini and have a lovely sweetness to them that you wouldn't expect.