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Country Moon

CAST IS BEST

Country MoonWhen people think of cast-iron cookware, it usually brings to mind savory beans, stews, and other foods cooked over an open campfire. There is no doubt that any food cooked outside over the fire tastes so much better. Part of that is due to the fresh air and part is due to being cooked in cast iron. Many folks forget that cast iron can be used in modern kitchens as well.

Cast-iron cookware is made by hand pouring iron into sand molds that have been carefully formed. Although this process has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, the vintage cast iron is definitely of higher quality than the more modern. In the old days, the cookware was polished until the pebbly surface was satiny smooth. By the 1950s, production was scaled up and streamlined so much so that the final polishing step was dropped from the process. Thus, modern cast iron has a bumpy, pebbly surface, which makes the vintage so much better.

Of all the brands, Griswold and Wagner are considered the gold standards. If you are lucky enough to find one of these brands at a flea market or garage sale, you have the best of both worlds since you can use it and still have it retain its value. Since this was the cookware of choice in olden days, many times cast iron pots, skillets, and other pans are found in old barns, garages, etc. Most of these finds are rusted and look as though they would be worthless. Far from it, they only need cleaned up and seasoned.

First, all rust and old food residue must be removed. There are various ways to accomplish this, depending on the severity. Many times scouring it with steel wool will do the trick. If this doesn’t seem to be removing it, heating may help loosen the residue. This can be done by putting the piece in a 400 degree Fahrenheit oven for an hour or putting it on a gas grill and “cooking” it for an hour. An added benefit of this method is that it also sanitizes the pan.

We were lucky enough to find an old Griswold skillet in our barn that really needed some tender loving care. After “firing” it in the gas grill and rubbing it with steel wool, it still needed some help. We put a solution of half vinegar and half water in the sink and soaked it, which loosened the rest of the grime. Then we poured table salt on it and rubbed some more with steel wool. That really did the trick and got it back to the iron.

After you get to this point, it is so important that you season the cookware with layers of oil. To  do this, make sure the pan is dry then put it over heat until it just begins to smoke. Then pour a thin layer of vegetable oil (or oil of your choice) in and rub it over all the surfaces, even the outside. Let it cool and repeat this process a few times. Doing this will create a nonstick surface.

The nonstick property does not come from the layer of oil, but rather from the layer of polymerized oil that is created when oil is rubbed in and heated repeatedly. This process breaks down the oil into a plastic-like substance that bonds to the surface of the metal.

This is the part that causes the big controversy with cast-iron cookware. There are staunch believers that cast iron should never be exposed to dish detergent since it is a known fact that oil and water don’t mix and detergent is known for breaking down grease and oil. Although this is true, the other side of the fence proposes that the polymerized layer is not oil so detergent will not hurt it. I am taking the fifth on this one since neither side will budge on their opinion.

Whichever way you lean on this matter, the key to keeping your cookware shiny and nonstick is to keep it well seasoned, which means repeating the seasoning process whenever it begins to lose its shine and food begins to stick. If done correctly, the seasoning is very resilient because it is chemically bonded to the metal. For this reason, metal utensils will not hurt it. If little pieces of black chip off, it is probably carbonized bits of food rather than the seasoning.

Cast iron is really pretty easy to maintain if a few simple rules are followed. First, always season a new piece, whether it is brand new or an old relic. Some new cast iron is preseasoned but it is not as good as doing this process two or three times on your own. After each use, make sure it is cleaned by scraping all food bits and residue out. Whenever food begins to stick or it lose its shine, re-season it. And the best way to keep it seasoned is to use it. The enemy of cast iron is to let it set because even one drop of water or moisture will let it start to rust. The best rule of thumb is to pamper cast iron when you first get it and be gentle with it when you store it.

Of course, like everything else, there are pros and cons. On the pro side, food served in it will stay hot longer since the iron retains heat. You can enjoy the nonstick quality without nasty chemicals that are present in other nonstick surfaces, some of which emit toxic fumes when overheated and some contain perfluorocarbons, which are associated with various health problems. It can also boost your iron consumption.

On the negative side, it does not heat evenly since it can have hot spots where the direct heat is and the rest of the cooking surface will remain relatively cool. It also tends to chip or crack easily or rust if not kept properly seasoned.

Yes, it does take a little work to keep cast-iron cookware in tip top shape, but it is well worth it. If you have ever had cornbread, fried potatoes, bacon and a host of other foods cooked in the iron, you will never go back to other traditional cookware. Add an open flame to that cooking and it doesn’t get any better than that.

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PRIMITIVE LIVING

Country MoonThe old adage is true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our parents and grandparents remember washing clothes with the old wringer washers, cooking on wood cook stoves, and listening to the radio at the end of the day. It made life so much easier when automatic washing machines, modern stoves, and televisions were invented.

So, what is the hype now with many folks craving the old items that our forefathers were so eager to forego? Antiques and primitives are a big business with more and more people decorating their homes with primitives. I have some friends who built a new home and it is completely  furnished with primitive items, including the bathroom. What a homey feeling it has when you walk in. Butter churns, butcher-block tables, old wash tubs, and countless other items from a bygone era are the norm rather than the exception.

A person’s home is his castle and whatever style conveys warm and welcoming is what is right for that person. All tastes are different. Some love the Victorian style, some like country, others prefer modern, and some choose primitives. As for me, I fit in where most people’s tastes lay, it’s affectionately called “hodgepodge.” Yep, I have a little of this and a little of that. My personal criteria for whether an item is in the home or not is whether I like it or not.

Primitives are hot items, not only for the consumer but also for the flea market, auction, and antique markets. These items are not cheap. On the contrary, they tend to be pretty pricey. Part of it is the old law of supply and demand; if the item is really old and not a reproduction, there is a limited supply and folks will pay big bucks to own their piece of nostalgia.

primitive

This whole business can be confusing, though. We hear adjectives like primitive, rustic, antique, and vintage to describe items. Although similar, there are major differences between these terms.

Primitive is described as being the first of something made, potentially the item is simple and crude made by an early artist. Primitive styles tend to harken back to recent history and they tend to be common household items that once were normally used in every home and now are rarely or never used.

Rustic refers more to a style and not the age of something, such as a reproduction. Some of today’s craftsmen can genuinely make an item look old, just like an original, by using old barn wood, distressing the wood, etc. This is why consumers have to do their homework when out shopping for primitives. They have to be able to tell a true antique piece from a reproduction. Not to say that reproductions do not have their place. Sometimes a homeowner likes the look of primitives but does not wish to pay the high price commanded by true primitives. This is the intent for which reproductions were created.

The term antique refers to something that is really old. Usually the item has been around for at least 100 years or more and more than likely is made of wood. These are your old, musty, dusty, moldy pieces that command the high dollar.

Vintage refers to something roughly between 30 and 90 years old that is “too old to be used but not as old as Grandma.” All you grandmas don’t take offense, I just borrowed this term.

Then we have retro, which is something that is between 10 and 30 years old. It is basically something that is outdated and out of style but the seller is hoping to assign a sentimental or historical value to the item. This would be like the old time toasters and other kitchen appliances of the 1950s era.

Ahh, so many terms to define old junk...in a good way!

Since the colonial revival of the early 20th century, primitives have been popular collectibles. Anyone who decorates in this style will tell you that the hunt is half the fun. They scan flea markets, garage sales, antique shops, and auctions regularly to find their next perfect item. It amazes me not only how many items are out there, but how many folks seek them out.

In Shipshewana, Indiana, every Wednesday they have a huge auction barn filled with primitives, antiques, and the lot. All of these are auctioned off by 10 auctioneers at one time. It is just hard to grasp that there are this many items out there for this to happen weekly, and this is only one place in the country.

Some of our hometown folks have started something unique. They buy up primitives and antiques, bring them home, fix and clean up whatever needs done to them, and put them in their garages and barns. Once a month they have a “primitive circuit” where shoppers can go from one place to another and shop for their treasures. There is only one downside to this venture: Obviously, those participating are drawn to these items and sometimes they find it hard to part with them. That doesn’t make for very good profits.

Primitives connect us, our souls, to our ancestors and years gone by. Also, in this day of technology where the world is always at our fingertips, primitives take us back to a simpler time, a slower way of life. They help us remember that, although life’s chores were work, they could be rewarding work.

As I look at the butter churns, sausage presses, and other tools from our past, I can almost picture my grandparents sitting around laughing and talking while performing these tasks. This is truly becoming a lost art. Sometimes I think that we communicate with our phones more than with each other. Primitives remind us that there is a better way.

Little Willy

Country Moon

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This is the story of “Little Willy.” Little Willy is a car, well, actually, he is one-quarter of a car as he is a ¼ scale Ford Model T replica. He has quite an interesting story from his “birth” until the present. I would like to tell you his story.

I had a bachelor uncle named Uncle Harold—my Mom’s older brother—who loved the old things and old ways. He farmed the family farm for years and sometime in the 1970s he began to think about retirement and his dream was born. He did not want to buy a Ford Model T and he did not want to buy one that needed a little tender loving care and restore it himself. No, he wanted to build one of his own and run it in the parades for Memorial Day and July Fourth.

So, he set to work. The blueprint for the body and the schematics for the engine were all neatly tucked away in his head. He formulated the chassis from angle iron and used bicycle wheels for the tires. For the body, he used sheet metal and bent it in his barn, paying attention to detail so as to get the right angles and breaks so that the body was an exact replica of a Model T Ford.

The seats were made from fabric-covered plywood and leaned more toward the practical rather than the comfortable. An old riding lawn mower provided the steering wheel and a Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engine was to be the driving force.

One of the mysteries of Little Willy is his name. From the very start, Uncle Harold chose this name but would only chuckle when we asked him where it came from. “When he is all done and ready to be in his first parade I will tell you why I named him what I did,” he would always tell us. Unfortunately, Uncle Harold became ill and passed before his dream became a full reality. Thus, the name “Little Willy” is still a mystery.

So, he sat in my grandmother’s barn for the next few years until she passed since no one knew exactly what Uncle Harold had planned for him. All of us cousins were just starting our lives at the time, being in our early 20s. None of us had the knowledge nor inclination to finish our uncle’s project. Thus, he became part of Grandma’s estate sale.

Unbeknownst to me, my husband, Jim, decided to buy Little Willy for me. So, he came to live with us and, for the next 20 years, he would set quietly in our barn. We had good intentions on finishing him  but, since we were not mechanically inclined, we lacked the knowledge of how to get him running. That was until we became friends with Marv and Jerry Carman, who had been involved in racing for years.

They, along with their long-time friend Bernie Bennett, made Little Willy their winter project and gave him life. First they went to work on his “inwards.” Having set for 20 years, he needed a whole new motor and some fine tuning to get him to purr. Once they got past the necessities, it still wasn’t easy for them to stop. Little Willy had grown on them and found a place in their hearts, just like he does everyone he meets. They decided he not only would run like a fine-oiled machine, he would also look the part.

First they prepped him for a paint job and then gave him his first coat of Ford Model T black. After the finishing touches were put on came the decals. Both doors proclaimed “Little Willy” in gold lettering. Paying homage to Uncle Harold’s dream and Grandma’s distaste for anything not useful, across the back and above the rumble seat more gold lettering proclaimed, “Uncle Harold’s Dream, Grandma’s Nightmare.”

So, Little Willy was ready to go public and, following the dream, we entered him into the Union City Memorial Day parade. Jim and I were clearly too big to fit so Wyatt and Wade, our grandsons aged 11 and 9 at the time, were designated to drive him through the parade. Wyatt was designated driver and Wade was candy thrower. It really didn’t take too much prodding to talk them into performing these tasks!

So it would be for the next four years, Little Willy was one of the hits of our Memorial Day parade each year and even made one appearance in the Branch County Fair parade in Coldwater, Michigan. These are only his public appearances, for he provided a lot of pleasure giving countless kids rides around the farm.

But, just as life constantly does, things and circumstances change. Wyatt turns 16 and has his first truck and Wade is right behind him. In a very short time that happened way too soon, they both outgrew Little Willy. On top of that, Jim was such a big part of this dream that after he passed it just isn’t the same anymore.

So, I have this quandry, “What is the next chapter in Little Willy’s life?” He could retire to the barn and wait for the boys to have kids of their own. In reality, when we consider them finishing high school, college, and starting their own life, that could be quite a few more years down the road. By that time he would probably be in the same condition as he was when he got his new lease on life a few years ago. Tucked away in a barn does nothing any good. Besides, this is not what we want for him anyway. From the beginning, he was meant to bring smiles and happiness to kids and adults alike. This is what we all want for him.

For this reason, we have decided that he will be sold to someone who will love him and enjoy him as much as we do. We would much rather go and watch some other young person drive him in a parade as to visit him in the barn. It’s all about keeping a special dream alive.

Thank you for letting me tell Little Willy’s story. He has had a special place in our family for so long and sometimes a story like that just needs to be shared.

The Smell of Rain

Country MoonSpring is probably most people’s favorite season. It’s the time of rebirth and regrowth, a promise of yet another season. But it is also a time of work. Folks talk about the lazy days of summer, but for me, the lazy days are during winter. It is the time that I curl up by the fire with a book, do some painting, and generally take a long sigh and regroup.

This rest includes my muscles which, even though I regularly exercise, become lax. The first day of yard work in the spring leaves me sore from head to toe, using muscles that I have not used during the long winter months. So, when the first warm rays of spring hit, it is time to “get at it.” The soreness, the stiffness — it is a good feeling.

Bikers want to hit the road, runners hit the paths, and it seems that everyone is getting out into the warm rays to do something. But perhaps farmers and gardeners get bit by this spring fever bug the hardest. It’s the urge to get out and dig in the dirt. There is something about planting a dormant seed and seeing it sprout that’s the reassurance that — no matter the weather conditions and no matter what harvest will bring that year — there is the promise of another season.

Just as harvest changes everything, so does spring planting season. For a couple weeks every year, there is no such thing as normal. Everything and every minute is driven by one thing only ... getting the crop in the ground. This is most profound for farmers, but even us gardeners and those that plant flowerbeds and containers feel the urge. After all, why else do we eagerly await the seed catalog arrivals in January and then pore over them for days at a time, knowing that our selections probably will never look as good as those pictured? But yet, we dream.

For the farmer, it is his paycheck. Each year’s crop dictates his lifestyle for the coming year, and most of this outcome is based on his planning for spring planting. He places his seed order the year before, trying to out-guess weather conditions when it comes to how much and what variety will do best for his kind of soil. He places his order for fertilizer and chemicals early to make sure he has them when he needs them. This is all he can do; the rest is up to God and Mother Nature.

Planting season here in the Midwest can be anywhere from mid-March until the middle of June. That’s a three-month spread with a host of different variables. Rain is the big one. The seeds need moisture to sprout, and the ground needs to have the right amount of moisture to be worked up properly but not so much that farmers can’t get in the fields to work.

We watch weather reports, but know that they are only guidelines. More importantly, we know the “feel of the air” and can sense when rain is imminent. Even preparing the ground calls for soil conditions to be just right. If the dirt is too wet when it is turned then it ends up in huge clumps; if it is too dry, it becomes powdery fine and you have dust. It cannot be worked too early before planting because it will lose what moisture there is in the soil and there will not be enough for seeds to sprout. If it is worked too late, it puts more pressure on by trying to get the ground worked and plant at the same time.

Planting season makes for long days indeed. A “normal” day during planting is from sunup until way after sunset; after all, that’s why they put lights on tractors. It’s a tired-to-the-bone feeling, but a satisfied feeling that it has been a good day’s work.

It’s always a guess as to when to plant, too. Just because it is a nice day doesn’t mean it’s time to put seed in the ground. Yes, you need to plant when it is dry enough to get the equipment in the fields, but also you need to know more rain is coming to sprout the seeds. Getting the seed in the ground is only half the battle; the other half is getting them to sprout. That is why, as one farmer put it, we like to space out planting by doing some early and some a little later. That way all of the eggs are not in one basket. It makes sense.

This year for us, the corn and beans are in the ground. It was so dry that the equipment was in a cloud of dust most of the time. It was a good feeling to get the seeds in, but the elation was clouded by wondering if the rains that were predicted would actually come. The rain needed to come, but not as a downpour, for that would have drowned the seed.

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Photo by Lois Hoffman

The rain came as predicted — a steady rain that would be enough to sprout the seed. Ahh, the sweet smell of those tiny droplets, the lifeblood that every farmer and gardener depends on. Now the rest of the summer, like every year, will be a guessing game; will we get enough rain when we need it? Not only the farmer and gardener but everyone depends on rain one way or another, for it is rain that nourishes the crops that feed us all. There really is nothing quite so important as the sweet smell of rain.

The Elusive Morel

Country MoonHere in the Midwest it is mushroom season again, and many of us spend any free minutes we have hunting those elusive morels. Those earthy, nutty, and steak-like-flavored morsels of fungus that, just when you think you have figured out how and when they like to grow, change it up on you. It’s either too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, or too something. Although they are found in all 50 states, we Midwesterners claim the hotspot for them.

Morels are persnickety little creatures that like conditions just right, which brings up the question: “Can they be grown in controlled conditions?” The answer is “Yes,” although it can be a complicated process. The instructions for growing them are pretty simple, but the failure rate is high. Before even attempting to cultivate them, there are a few general things that are good to know whether you are growing or hunting them.

Temperature is a big factor. They like temps around 60 degrees F or warmer during the day and around 40 F at night, keeping the soil temperature between 45 F and 50 F. After a good warm rain is one of the best times to seek them out.

Knowing the lay of the land will also give you an advantage. They seem to prefer loamy soil, like creek bottoms, that are well drained and moist but not wet. A good mix of clay and sand with some decaying matter is ideal. A little calcium or lime is an added bonus. Back to the persnickety part: Even though these conditions are ideal, they can also be found in gravel.

Disturbed ground is also a good place to find them, places like burn sites, logging areas, and on ground that has been ravaged by wildfires. The site Global Incident Map tracks current and past eroded areas that have been torn up by large equipment, logging machinery, and flooded areas. It may be worth the effort to check this out and get a jump over those that are headed out “cold turkey.”

Knowing the different species of trees will also give you a huge advantage. Morels can be tree huggers, literally. They like to hang around elm, ash, poplar, and apple trees. Whether these trees are living, dead, or dying, they are always a good bet to find morels. But then again, morels are finicky, so they have also been found under pine trees. Generally they show up wherever they show up. Because of all these variables, there are basically two kinds of morel hunters; one type scans the ground for morels, and the other type scans the forest for certain types of trees. Either way can be a gamble.

Since growers know the kinds of conditions these mushrooms prefer, it would seem that growing morels would not be so hard. But there are two basic reasons that they are hard to cultivate. The first one has to do with mycorrhizae relationships. Mycorrhyzae are mutual relationships between fungi and plant roots. Once, scientists thought that morels were only saprotrophic, meaning that they only fed on dying or dead organic matter. Now they are believed to be mycorrhizal, where they get their nutrients from the roots of trees. This relationship benefits both the fungus and the tree, as the fungus receives carbs such as glucose that the plant produces and the plant gets to absorb more water and nutrients from the soil due to additional surface area. This fungus-plant relationship cannot easily be recreated.

Something called sclerotia further complicates the growing process. Part of a morel’s life cycle is that they go through a sclerotium, which is a dense collection of hardened calcium nutrients that they store when environmental conditions are not ideal. This allows the morels to survive in a resting state when weather conditions are too cold or dry — basically in winter. When winter ends, these sclerotia either produce a mushroom or begin to grow more mycelium. The temperature and water levels have to be just right for the morel to “decide” to be a mushroom. Since our winters have been warmer than usual, morels are confused as to when spring is really here.

These are two big obstacles to growing morels, however, it has been accomplished. Soil composition is the big factor. It should be sandy without a lot of clay, rock, or gravel. Some peat moss or gypsum is helpful, as are wood chips from elm or ash because they will help promote a mycorrhizal partnership. If you can put your bed at the base of an elm, ash, or apple tree, that would be an added benefit.

Andyou could recreate a burn site. Do this by making a small burn pile near the morel bed and burning organic material. This will simulate a forest fire. Then, incorporate some ashes from the burn pile into the soil in and around your morel bed. Be patient, because it may take a few years to see results; Midwestern morels occasionally do not respond to this stimulus.

On the other hand, Midwesterners have an advantage because a climate where there is a distinct change from winter to spring is more conducive to morel growth. Even the past couple years where we have had mild winters, there is still a profound change when the seasons change. This is Mother Nature’s contribution to raising morels. Keep the bed moist, but not wet.

Even with all these tips for hunting and growing morels, they are still found mostly by chance. When I was a kid they were so prevalent that each year we would drive the backroads and hunt them from the car! But an increase use of sprays have had an effect on their availability, as has the use of plastic bags to hunt them. Using plastic shopping bags from stores doesn’t allow the spores to drop through and fall to the ground to ensure the following year’s growth. For this reason, using mesh bags is a better bet.

With all this said, it still feels like they are laughing at us like little Leprechauns, popping up in the same spot we had just looked. As seasoned morel hunters will tell you, you can follow all these suggestions and you will find them where you find them — where you least expect them. But, in a worst case scenario where you get skunked, you will still have had a day in the fresh air and sunshine, and it can’t get any better than that.

Morel mushrooms on forest floor
Photo by Adobe Stock/cehermosilla

Gardening Outside the Box

Country MoonEveryone who has ever known me knows that I am a gardener at heart. When we were kids, we not only had our family garden but also a large truck garden where we raised potatoes, corn, and other vegetables for sale along the roadside. It was nothing to be out there from nearly sunup until sunset on the busy days in summer. So you would think that, as an adult, this would be the least of my interests. Instead, it is just the opposite. Each year there is the magic of planting a seed and watching it grow into a plant that gives back sometimes 2000 times itself. Yep — you can take the girl out of the garden but you can’t take the garden out of the girl. It’s in my blood.

Just like past years, I recently heard a couple of people say that they wished they had a garden but they either had no room for one or didn’t know how to start. How sad. Like with anything else, where there is a will, there is a way.

First of all, it doesn’t have to be “in the blood,” so to speak. All you need is a will, and anyone can learn. The thing is to start small. Maybe a couple herbs in pots on the windowsill is all you need to get started. This will work whether you live in a one-room apartment or on a big spread in Texas. As far as learning how, everyone’s new friend, The Internet, can talk you through anything.

Now, for the bigger problem: Many think that they have no space nor the right equipment to have a garden. Wrong again. The term “garden” encompasses much more these days than a plot of ground. True, digging up some ground, working it, and planting vegetables is the most basic way, but as more folks have gravitated to living in the suburbs and apartments, creative ways to garden “outside of the box” have evolved.

The easiest of these is to plant a container garden. All you need are a few pots that can be placed on a patio or deck. You can plant most any crop in pots including tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, beans ... the list is nearly endless. Keeping with the times, plant and seed growers have developed dwarf cherry, blueberry, orange, and other fruit trees and bushes that adapt well to containers, too. These require no permanent ground space and are mostly maintenance-free. They eliminate weeding, and harvesting the produce is much easier since they are off the ground.

container garden on front steps
Photo by Adobe Stock/geografika

If you do have some ground space, raised beds are another popular option. They are made by joining 2x4s together for whatever size is desired. You can adjust the height by adding as many 2x4s as needed to achieve the desired depth. Although these do require ground space, they are not permanent and are also easy to care for with minimal weeding.

So, we have it covered that space isn’t a liability. For some, ground space isn’t the problem, but instead the problem is not having the proper tools to plow, till, and weed. There are some ingenious ways to work around this obstacle also.

First: the plowing. There is no way around this; you have to be able to “break ground” and prepare the earth for planting. The most conventional way to do this is with a mole board plow, which actually turns the earth over. There was a time when all gardens and farmers’ fields were plowed like this. In today’s world, this is no longer true. Many farmers are chisel plowing, where, instead of turning the dirt over, they just break up the sod.

This can be true for gardens, too. Most of our ancestors planted gardens to feed their families, and they didn’t have the modern plows of today. In many a garden back then the dirt was spaded up by hand. The important thing is to get it turned over and worked up until it is loose.

Last year down here at my “southern” home in Indiana, the gardener in me wanted a small garden, but Ron didn’t have a prepared garden spot. We took a small area of sod, hand-spaded it up, and worked it down to put a few potatoes out. They turned out so well that we wanted to put a few more out this year. Even so, it was still a small garden space and he didn’t want to hook up his plow just to till up a few feet. Guess what? He took his backhoe and dug up enough space. We picked the chunks of sod out and smoothed it with a garden rake. It looks pretty nice, even with plowing with a backhoe!

Even cultivating doesn’t have to be conventional. Hands down, rototillers do work the best. They keep the dirt loosened between the rows and keep the weeds down. They have the regular-sized tillers, or companies like Mantis have come out with smaller versions that are great not only for smaller garden spaces but also for larger ones in that they are much easier to maneuver.

If you don’t have a rototiller, no problem. I didn’t for years either. There is a wonderful hand tool called a weasel that has tines like a rototiller that works great with a little elbow grease. Also, laying cardboard, straw, or mulch between the rows helps keep weeds at bay. Most people think of weeding as a chore, but, call me crazy, I actually enjoy it. There is just something about going out in the cool of the morning and digging in the dirt that is so therapeutic.

So the next time you have a thought that you can’t have a garden because you don’t have the tools, think twice. It just takes a little ingenuity. As they say with most everything, where there is a will there is a way.

Two for Tea

Country MoonTea has been the go-to drink for many cultures for many years. Those of English descent are famous for their afternoon tea, which has wrapped a social tradition around a beverage. Tea is also known as a calming, comforting drink. Most problems, when paired with a cup of tea, seem easier to tackle. In summer, what is better than a cold glass of iced tea?

I have been a tea drinker for most of my life. As a senior in high school, I went on a self-proclaimed “tea diet.” I did lose my 20 pounds and thought that it was my sheer willpower. However, now I know that the tea was a major factor, as it has since been proven that green tea can be a great partner in weight loss.

Even growing up a farm girl, I had no idea how tea was grown or processed or even how the different varieties were derived. There were some interesting results when I finally looked.

The formal definition of tea is “an aromatic beverage which is prepared by pouring boiling water over leaves.” After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. Although green, black, oolong, white, and Pu-erh are the five main varieties, they all come from the same warm-weather shrub native to Asia. It has been a cultivar in China for at least 1500 years, and, although a typical bush produces around 3000 leaves, the top few leaves and the bud are the only ones used.

Tea is tea, with all varieties originating from one plant. What differentiates those different varieties is the type of processing. Even with modern technology, all tea is still harvested by hand so as to not harm the tender leaves. The same plants are harvested over and over, as many times per year as the plant vegetates, or produces more leaves. In areas where the climate is virtually summer all year long, tea is harvested all year.

Processing starts within the hour of harvest. First, the leaves are withered by being lain on wire mesh, where they stay for hours. After they've dried for the appropriate amount of time, they are ready for curling, which is done with a special roller. This process presses and turns over the leaves with the purpose of leaf cell deformation to release the enzymes that enrich the future tea with unique aromas,

Next, the oxidizing — which is sometimes referred to as fermenting — stage takes place. During this phase, the leaves are left in climate-controlled rooms where the transformation of tannins starts under the influence of oxygen and enzymes. This is one of the most important steps, because this is where tea gets its liqueur color.

Skilled artisans gauge only by past experience when the oxidizing is complete. The leaves are then put in a dry chamber with very hot air where they are rapidly cooled and prepared for long-term storage.

Besides merely tasting good, tea is good for the body with a host of health benefits. The basic processing of tea is “tweaked” to make the different varieties. Thus, the different tea varieties have different health benefits.

Green tea is one of the least oxidized and minimally withered, thus the leaves retain much of their green color and grassy, vegetal taste, which is similar to green vegetables. Freshly picked leaves are “fixed” through the application of heat, done through steaming or pan firing. High in antioxidants, green tea may interfere with the growth of bladder, breast, lung, stomach, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers. In addition, it helps prevent clogging of the arteries and counteracts oxidative stress on the brain which helps reduce the risk of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and strokes. It is also touted to aid in weight loss and is an ingredient in many weight-loss products.

Black tea is made through a longer withering process, allowing water to evaporate out of the leaves while, in turn, the leaf absorbs more oxygen from the air. The results are the characteristic dark brown and black leaves which give more robust and pronounced flavors. Black tea has the highest caffeine content and forms the basis for flavored teas, like chai, and some instant teas. It may protect the lungs from damage caused by exposure to cigarette smoke and may reduce risk of stroke.

The characteristics of oolong tea land somewhere between green and black teas due to partial oxidation. The flavor is not as robust as black or as subtle as green. Oolong is extremely fragrant and is often compared to the taste and aroma of fresh flowers and fruits. Animals who are given oolong tea were found to have lower cholesterol levels.

Pu-erh tea, considered a type of black tea, it is made from fermented and aged leaves which are made into cakes. Hailing from China, it is the most mysterious of all teas. Until 1995, it was illegal to import, and the process of production is a closely guarded state secret in China. It is very strong with an incredibly deep and rich flavor and no bitterness. Prized for its medicinal properties, two of its most profound attributes are promoting less weight gain and lowering cholesterol.

White tea is uncured and unfermented, giving it the most potent anti-cancer properties. The most delicate of all varieties, it is appreciated for its subtlety, complexity, and natural sweetness. It is hand-processed using the youngest shoots of the tea plant and no oxidation.

Dark tea comes from the Hunan and Secheian provinces of China and is a flavorful, aged probiotic tea that steeps up smooth and has a natural sweet flavor. Herbal teas, for the most part, aren’t really teas at all. They are made from herbs, fruits, seeds, and roots instead.

Tea in itself is healthy. The only time it slides to the unhealthy side is when other ingredients have been added. This point would bring us to the decaffeination process. The jury is still out as to whether caffeine is good or bad for a person. Either way, some folks just can’t tolerate it. The caffeine levels in tea depend on the mode and degree of processing. By law, tea that is labeled as decaffeinated must have less than 2.5 percent of its original caffeine level. Tea and coffee are decaffeinated using solvents, carbon dioxide, or the Swiss water method. The solvent methylene chloride is put on tea leaves while they are still green. The other methods would hurt the tender leaves. Although most of the solvent is removed by heating the leaves to 40 degrees C, a tiny residue of 2 parts per million remain, which is well below the standard of 5 parts per million. Consumers have to weigh the risks of tea with a slight solvent residue or the side effects of caffeine.

Eastern culture has known the health and happiness benefit of tea for years, and it has caught the eye of western researchers. Packed full of antioxidants, flavonoids, and good taste, it is hard to find a downside to tea, so bottoms up!

Tea set
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