Fence Posts

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary…How Does Your Garden Grow?

Mary Niehaus Ralles 

How DOES my garden grow?  Lately, that question isn’t as simple as it has been in the past. If we’re talking metaphorically, as in my life, it’s exploding and branching out in every direction. It’s a season for bumper crops and my dream of moving back to the country is finally coming into focus, with more definitive plans.

My boys just finished up school for the year and I’m in that short window of time to pack up the house and find a new place before mid-August. It is indeed “go time!”

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You might recall a few weeks ago I decided to plant my garden, knowing that there was a good chance I wouldn’t be around to harvest it. I’m happy to report that while I won’t be here for the potatoes, onions, and some of my other late summer harvest, I have enjoyed some early sprouts like cayenne, banana, and bell peppers.

Due to some unpredictable spring weather, the tomatoes are just now starting to flower and the corn stalks are a mere 2-feet tall. The green beans are coming on strong, but nothing to pick just yet.

I find gardening to be a lot like life, where you spend a fair amount of time watching and waiting to pick the brightest berry or the ripest tomato. And, just like in life, sometimes we get impatient and pull something too early, realizing the mistake immediately.

In this very special window of time where I will continue to nurture my garden until I move, my most profound lesson has been to enjoy the growing season. And I’m not just talking about the plants growing outside. I have two boys growing like weeds every day. I have a better appreciation for the changes happening in their lives right now — growing past early childhood and turning into fine young men. I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the shaping and molding of who they are and will become. I’m helping them to prepare for their own futures one day, where their fence lines won’t always be adjacent to my own. This time along the way is nothing short of amazing. I sometimes think that being a mom is the ultimate gift and the truest of gardens to mind and tend to. So much care goes into the attention you invest and you run the same risks as you do in your garden. Over-watering and too much of anything can result in stunting growth or preventing a plant from reaching its full potential. I see kids requiring that same moderation and constant consideration. If I give them too much, they will never learn to stand on their own two feet. If I don’t give them enough, they might not get off to a solid start and foundation with strong roots to grow from and build upon. 

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Each morning, I look forward to taking a walk around my garden wall to see how my temporary garden is coming along. I have to resist the urge to snatch up my nearly-ripe veggies and simply appreciate the fact that I’ve played a role in nurturing them along the way. And in that same vein, I also have to resist the urge to coddle my boys or force a lesson on them that they need to learn on their own at a future date, perhaps even long after I am gone.

In my life and in all things, I am giving more consideration to my actions and behaviors. Sometimes it is enough to simply look at a piece of nearly ripe fruit, because I’ve lived long enough to know that it will be even sweeter once it has matured and ripened. And knowing when it’s ripe enough to pick is perhaps a bit subjective, depending upon individual taste. But that’s what makes life unique for all of us. I think some of the best parts of life revolve around finding beauty in the simplest of experiences and sharing that perspective with others. 

In the past, I’ve missed out on some of the simple treasures because I was too busy hurrying along, without enough thought and care into how I wanted to live my life. I have since taken on a more disciplined and perhaps deliberate approach, shifting gears from being at times merely an observer to becoming (growing into, perhaps,) a more adventurous explorer.

Instead of simply watching my garden grow, I am spending more time planning and considering planting choices, hence answering the age-old question, “How does your garden grow?” Contrary no more!

Mary Niehaus-Ralles
Ohio

Community Gardening and Paying it Forward

Mary Niehaus RallesGardening is moving into full swing here in the Midwest. We’ve survived the late frosts. And while there are still some unpredictable days where I want to turn my heat back on, it feels like a beautiful spring has finally arrived. Each morning I am greeted by a warm sunrise creeping up through the trees and into my bedroom window, illuminating the sky.

These sunrises feel even more symbolic, as I feel that each passing one brings me closer to my move out of the city and back into the country. I struggled a bit in deciding what to do about setting out a garden this year, knowing I likely won’t be here at summer’s end.

Last fall, a friend of mine tilled a new garden for me in my backyard. I then trimmed it with 100+ year old granite stones and finished it off with a couple of wrought-iron stands holding clay pots with flowers. At the time it seemed so lovely and held so much promise for planting, when seeds and seedlings would slip gently into the powder like dirt, taking root and producing a stunning display of vegetables and fruits, just begging to be picked.

I considered leaving the garden fallow with the expectation that I wouldn’t be around to reap the rewards and harvest. Ultimately, I found myself unable to resist the chance to dig in the dirt, don my floppy sun hat, and plant seeds. I just couldn’t imagine wasting a planting season and summer harvest on the off chance that I might not be here to enjoy it.

So I began with a few standard staples to put in the ground: potatoes, onions, and strawberries. I had a few pepper and tomato plants I’d started from seed indoors, and I wanted to explore a few local nurseries to find more mature and hearty starters of strawberry and pepper plants. I found a great little place in Batesville, Indiana, called Five Oaks Garden, where there is a large selection of plants as well as a lovely display of candy-jar-like containers with scoops and bags for purchasing seeds.

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In fact, Five Oaks has southeast Indiana’s largest selection of bulk vegetable seed, with more than 200 varieties to choose from. And the next time I go back, I plan to try their whole wheat flour, “Billie’s in the Hood”, which is grown, cleaned, and milled in small batches on a farm just outside Oldenburg, Indiana. I have to admit, I’ve grown very fond of the lovely land and charming spots in southeast Indiana. Each time I take a road trip, scouting out land and potential home sites, I discover new local treasures — places that have been around for a long time, are locally owned and operated, and mostly untouched by the passing of time.

I ended up buying a bar of homemade soap and a beautiful, blue, glass, hummingbird feeder as well. And on the trip back home, I enjoyed a sunny afternoon drive watching the fields lined with mustard plants, bright and yellow, that seemed to go on for miles.

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Back at my current home in the middle of the city, I considered my transition from having mostly potted gardening on the patio to an open and decent-sized tilled area of ground.

Eileen the yellow lab

Given the uncertainty of my timing to move, I had to abandon my dream to have a small flock of chickens this year. Baby chick season has come and gone, and while I visited the little guys at all the local stores, I left without making any purchases. And for now, I’ll continue to grab eggs by the carton from my local grocery store.

My garden, though, is a different story. The second I committed to digging my fingers into the soil and pulling the first weed, I went from a “might do” to a “will do” attitude. I see a little more progress every day, with my pepper plants beginning to sprout tiny peppers and strawberry plants starting to run their lines to expand. I am immediately in love with my patch of land with tiny rows of promising vegetables.

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As with past years, I will share the excess and look to do a little canning, too. There will be jam and jelly. And I accept that this year could be quite unique in turning into an urban community garden, where I’ve planted the seeds and someone else will take over and enjoy walking through the garden with a small pail or basket, gently picking and collecting my labors of love. I’m happy to pay it forward and equally content to be spend a little more time here if it means I get to nurture my garden and enjoy some of the early harvest.

Mary Niehaus Ralles
Ohio

Jeepers Peepers, It's Spring!

Mary Niehaus RallesOkay, so we can look at the calendar and see that the first day of spring has come and gone. We’re already starting to see some new foliage on the trees; there are a few random bulbs and wildflowers starting to pop up in the yard. And most of us have started some vegetable seedlings indoors in preparation for a summer garden.

But sometimes, long before any of the visual landscape changes, you can actually hear the sounds of spring — beginning with the Peepers calling into the late evening and early dawn.

Not to be confused with Peeps, those wonderfully delicious marshmallow treats that show up in Easter baskets, Peepers are chorus frogs, the ones we see (and hear) as they announce the entrance of one of my favorite seasons. Their melodic chirping is so common and expected that it’s the kind of background noise you can miss if you don’t take a minute or two to listen closely as you drift off to sleep or when you wake each morning.

The sac fully extended of the Spring Peeper
Photo by AdobeStock/Brian Lasenby

Fun Facts about Peepers:

• Peepers “sing” as a part of their mating ritual.

• It’s the guys crooning to the girls, trying to draw them nearer (the universal language of love, even for amphibians).

• Spring Peepers are tough and can survive freezing and thawing (unlike some of our early flowers that fall victim to late frost).

• They’re cute! And their vocal ability is amazing when they “puff” out their vocal sac. Just listen:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwVEI5M-948

If you’re a light sleeper, perhaps you’re not as enamored with these little guys as I have been. As for me, I can’t wait to get back to the seasonal tunes that have a strange calming effect that helps me drift off into a peaceful slumber.

Sing, Peepers, sing! And welcome, spring!!

Mary Niehaus-Ralles
Ohio

A Day at the Farm: Generation 2.0

Mary Niehaus Ralles

With spring fast approaching, and plans underway to make my move out of the city, I’ve been thinking more and more about the summer days I spent as a kid on my grandparents’ farm.

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It was with these fond memories that I decided to take a few “field trips” of sorts with my boys, so that they could get a better feel for what to expect once we move. Right now, my boys — who are both teenagers — have mixed feelings about the move. They’re excited about having more room to roam and new adventures, but changing schools and moving away from their friends is also a worry for them. My hope was that I could help ease their fears and get them a little closer to the excitement I have in getting back to places that I love. You guessed it ... we spent a day at the farm!

Those hot summer days I spent at the farm with my brothers and cousins were among the best days of my childhood. For me, the farm meant hours of outdoor exploration — running through creek beds, catching crawdads and salamanders, fishing, and scaring away the fish while looking for tad poles. 

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I grew up in the city, moving to the farm once I entered high school, and so the chance to spend a day at the farm was exciting for us and everyone else in our neighborhood. We would beg and plead to each bring a friend. There were four of us, so it made for an interesting ride with eight kids piled in the back of a station wagon.

On the Friday night before we were to leave, we’d water the backyard and wait until it was dark so we could search for our fishing bait; night crawlers. We had great fun shining flashlights in the mud and pulling the wriggling, earthen-clad, sticky worms from the dirt. Sometimes catching the worms was almost as much fun as catching the fish, sometimes more so since we didn’t always catch a fish.

We’d start out early in the morning and load the wagon with fishing rods, tackle boxes, and us kids. We all piled into my dad’s old, blue, Chevy station wagon with the rear-facing seat and the back window that had a power roller — a new modern invention of that era, now commonplace in most cars. Looking back, thinking about growing up and learning how to drive and becoming a parent instead of a child, I often find myself wishing for a ride in that old station wagon, facing backwards, watching the miles roll by, mindful of nothing except the excitement of arriving at the farm.

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My memory as a child was that it was a very long journey. Much like growing up, it takes forever to get there, and when it happens it’s like you blinked your eyes and went from being a carefree child to a responsible adult. But we are all in such a hurry growing up. We can’t wait to be 10 or 16, then 18. 

Back then, we also couldn’t wait to get to the farm on those warm, Saturday mornings. We’d manage to muster a small degree of patience the first 10 or 20 minutes of the trip. But the excitement mounted when we’d cross the humming bridge — that’s the John A. Roebling Bridge for those of us who have crossed over into adulthood. But at the time, we sat crunched up in the back of the wagon and hummmmmmed all the way across the metal-grated bridge that took us into Kentucky from Ohio and brought us closer to where we wanted to be. I have no names for the other bridges I’ve crossed during my life, and some even had as much significance in bringing me closer to where I wanted to be. The only difference is that these days I’m not in as big a hurry to get there.

Once we crossed the bridge, we’d start the chant. The chant that, as I look back, must have driven my parents near the brink of insanity. We’d begin slowly and softly at first: “We’re almost there. We’re almost there.” Then louder as we grew closer or saw a familiar landmark: “We’re almost there! We’re almost there! We’re almost there!” And once we reached the two-lane road that would eventually take us to the turn that led to the farm, we’d chant non-stop until we arrived" “We’re almost there-We’re almost there-We’re almost there-We’re almost there!” At the turn, there used to be a white farmhouse with green shutters. We would go crazy when we saw that house and heard the sound of the turn signal. Then another quick turn, over a stone bridge, and back a winding, bumpy gravel road going up a hill and down a hill and over a cattle grate and down a hill until we went up the steepest of hills and my Granny and Pop’s house came into sight. We’d then jump out of the car and race out in all directions. Later in the day, we’d be called to supper and enjoy a homecooked country meal with fresh garden vegetables and the occasional blue gill, depending on my Granny’s mood for cleaning fish and our luck in catching them that day. What I wouldn’t give to have just one more day like that.   

That two-lane road once bore familiar houses and lots, fields and acreage. Sadly, today, when I take a trip to the farm, it is not past a few houses sprinkled here and there on either side of the road, but instead subdivisions and signs of the so-called progress in a quickly disappearing rural community. The turn, once marked by the friendly farmhouse, has been replaced by a large sub-division. There are very few familiar signs remaining from the window of my childhood memories. I sometimes question whether or not it was a child’s perspective that changed the vision, or if the rearranged landscaping muddied the picture.  

Whatever the case, I can still cross the small stone bridge, follow a bumpy road back up that steep hill, and arrive in front of my grandparents’ old house. They’ve long since passed away. I’ll never have a mess of blue gill fried by Granny again; I won’t have the chance to cower in fear from my Pop, who was stern and intimidating yet loved us just the same. I’ll never have another ride on an early morning in that old, blue, Chevy with my dad behind the wheel. He, too, has left this world.  

But I still have a chance to share these memories and this place with my kids. The farm remains still intact, and we can still go back. And this past weekend, my sons walked through the same creek beds I ran through as a child.

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The drive feels like no time at all before we get there. The magical spell that was cast upon a child has now re-ignited through the eyes of my own kids. It is still a beautiful place. It is peaceful and calm, isolated yet surrounded by progress. Farms like that succumb to progress and developers every year.  

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I pray that this place remains intact. That somehow it escapes the change of times. I can’t imagine there coming a time when it is no longer a place we can come back to. So few opportunities in life remain suspended in time, waiting for us to revisit and embrace them. Maybe a little more patience would net a bigger payoff in the anticipation of an experience of a lifetime. Maybe a lifetime of experiences would be better served enjoying every moment of life instead of moving quickly ahead and chanting, “We’re almost there.”  

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Here’s hoping we all get where we want to be and enjoy the journey as much as the destination!

GPS and Country Roads

Mary Niehaus RallesIt’s nearly “go time” for selling my house and moving one step closer to that red dirt road I joke about all the time, where I’ll branch out into a more rural Midwestern view.

I live close to a decent-sized, metropolitan area with a population of about 300,000. I get that this might not sound like a huge number, with other similar nearby cities enjoying more than double that size. But city is city, and when you’re seeing more sidewalks than fence posts, you know it’s time for a change.

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Growing up, I lived on my Granny and Pop’s farm. It was in rural Northern Kentucky, in an area with a population of about 24,000. I’m using that as my starting point for searching for a place where I can enjoy a small community while still being close enough to my job to commute each day.

So, my initial search factors for my “right-sized” community are as follows: a commute of no more than 45 minutes one-way, good public schools, scenery that includes split-rail fencing, barns of all kinds, farm equipment kicking up dirt in the fields, two lane winding roads, and a homestead I can drive up to and feel as though I have been transported to my own slice of heaven.

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I used to love driving back roads with no purpose or direction in mind. It’s kind of hard to explain, but driving through the country, and listening to country music is one of the most relaxing escapes for me. Of course, my actual search required a little more discipline than just driving mindlessly down winding roads; I couldn’t take off and get lost driving until I found a “for sale” sign, and I didn’t want to drive too far out without logging miles and commuting distances. Thankfully, I have GPS and could easily plug in addresses I found online ... or so I thought.

It never occurred to me that, while technology was a lot different than my younger days, the appeal for being further out also presents a challenge in mapping out with GPS. I learned this the hard way as I began following directions to one of the first houses I chose to look at. I picked it because it had 19 acres, a fishing pond, and beautiful level, cleared land. Realistically, 19 acres is probably more than I can take on. If I’m honest, the right size for me would be about an acre (cleared) or between 3 and 5 acres (if mostly wooded, with a fishing hole).

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About twenty minutes outside of town, I jumped off the interstate and began following the street-by-street directions. As I started down a long and winding road, about halfway down, my trusty GPS told me to make a legal u-turn as soon as possible. I was on road with no shoulder and a deep ravine. I went with my instinct and chose to continue cautiously driving forward.

Continuing on the current path, the GPS eventually self-corrected, and I was able to find the destination, which, by the way, was a little rough around the edges. The house turned out to be a fixer-upper, and while I’m okay with rolling up my sleeves and digging in, I feel like there ought to be a barn to go with any homestead I have to put that much elbow grease into. So I decided that was a pass.

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Before venturing out for the day, I’d done quite a bit of research online about populations in neighboring towns and came across an interesting distinction for these little pockets of rural towns represent. Apparently, when you are moving farther out than a typical suburb, you are looking at something called an “exurb”. I’m not sure this buzzword fits with my homestead quest, so I think I’ll stick with my own vision of what living outside the city limits means to me!

I am still searching and didn’t expect to find that perfect spot on Day One. I am more excited, though, having driven around several communities where I can see familiar fence posts, some rusted and distressed from use and wear. And while my GPS failed me in keeping me on the right path, I know I’m on the right track, and it’s just a matter of time before this dream becomes a reality.

Mary Niehaus Ralles
Ohio

The Walking Dead and the Osage Orange Tree

Mary Niehaus RallesI’m a big fan of The Walking Dead. For those of you not familiar with the TV show, there is a small band of people who are tenacious and relentless in teaming up to survive in a world where a disease has caused the world to be overrun with "walkers," or zombies.

I’m the first one to admit that there is a very low likelihood we’ll have to plan or prepare for this scenario. But if you just consider the backdrop of a world where anyone who wants to survive must do so by learning how to live sustainably, now I think we have a peaked interest. I already know who I would hand-pick as fellow survivors I’d want in my corner if homesteading, hunting, and gardening suddenly became a necessity to survival. And, in thinking about how to be self sufficient, live off the land, and build community around a common goal, the show becomes more relevant to some of the basic staples in life we are seeking to achieve here.

In a world where homesteading and gardening for food sources might suddenly be mandatory, I would want to know I had the tenacious and resourceful community here within GRIT in my corner. The GRIT community is a powerful network of skilled craftsmen and women — talented individuals carrying forward the know-how to continue to enjoy living self-sufficiently and in a sustainable way.

So, when I was talking to a friend the other day and joking about fruits I called “brains” as a kid — my mind always goes to zombies (hence my Walking Dead intro) — I was laughing about my early impression of the Osage Orange Tree.

The Osage Orange or hedge apple
Photo by Fotolia/ctvvelve

I remember this tree as simply being the one that dropped green brains in the street that sometimes were squished by passing cars. I'm an Ohio native, where the tree was introduced during the 1800s, so they are pretty common around here.

The Osage Orange Tree, or hedge apple tree, as it’s sometimes called, is one of those rare resources that has served a bunch of different purposes:

• The fruit itself, which is about the size of a softball, has never really held favor in any century, as it is not necessarily appealing to view and has no real practical purpose in use. But back in the 1800s, the Osage Orange Tree was used as a way to build fencing, growing naturally to protect homestead borders. The stems of most Osage Orange Trees are thorny, and the branches interlace. And the combined strength of this tree was a powerhouse of usefulness for homesteaders.

• The Osage Tree earned its name from the Osage Indians, who made their bows from the wood of the tree.The wood is orange and yellowish in color and very hard and heavy. The bow was considered to be of great value in trade and was used by Shawnee and Wyandotte Indians in Ohio as well. The wood was also used to make farm wagons and wagon wheels. For fencing, when planted together, it made a great barrier for fields.

• The trees are not used for fencing much today, but they are still of enduring quality and strength; in particular, craftspeople enjoy the beauty of the wood. I found a few really cool pieces of furniture crafted of the hearty and beautifully orange-colored wood on Etsy.

Which brings us back to my initial muse: The Walking Dead. Bow and arrows are quite valuable in this series, just as they were in early settler trade. Back then, it was said that one bow was worth that of a horse and blanket. I would imagine if we were still hunting and foraging for everything, we’d consider that a fair trade.

So, if we ever have a need to do what we already love to do the most, who’s with me?

Mary Niehaus Ralles
Ohio

Apple Butter or Applesauce?

Mary Niehaus RallesI opened up a jar of homemade apple butter today and made myself an apple butter sandwich. I don’t know why it tasted so amazing, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that it was one of my first canning projects last fall. I love the idea that I can enjoy and savor something that reminds me of crisp fall days while I’m in the middle of winter, with barren trees waiting for spring buds. (For more on my thoughts on winter, go to There Will Be Chickens (Of Course!)).

My first canning attempts began last August when one of my best friends gave me everything I needed to start canning, from the Granite-Ware pot to the Mason jars to the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving. As an adult, it’s a rare occasion for me to get really excited about birthday gifts, but I’m pretty sure I squealed with delight when I saw the big, blue, granite pot full of utensils.

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As a kid, I remember my Aunt Barb canning every year. She had metal shelving that seemed to go on forever, with jars of green beans, tomatoes, and corn. Looking back, I have a lot of admiration for her resourcefulness and frugal nature. At the time, it all just looked like a bunch of funny glass jars, almost foreign objects compared to the canned vegetables my mom bought at the grocery store and kept on pantry shelves. Green Giant and Del Monte won out in my formidable years. And GMO and sodium content weren’t a “thing” at that time.

These days as I look back on certain periods of time in my youth, taking things for granted was a recurring theme. I can now better appreciate how extraordinary life can be if we are only willing to invest a little more time. I always went for quick and convenient. Ironically, as time unwinds, I find the slower path so much more intriguing.

So, when I set about making apple butter last fall, I gave this consideration as I worked through the process of my apple butter recipe. After going through the steps to place the softened apples through a food mill — once the peels have been removed — you return it to the burner to simmer. Applesauce comes first as you constantly stir and watch the pot (contrary to popular belief that a watched pot never boils). This stirring and watching continues for a fair amount of time as the apples become hot enough to caramelize and turn brown.

I was a little worried that I might have a mishap that resulted in failure. Probably worth mentioning I had an early (epic) fail with hot pepper jelly. I had carefully chosen a set of square canning jars, beautiful cloth for the lids, and a vintage, silver-plate jelly spoon. By no means am I bragging (as you’ll soon learn), but the finished product was almost a work of art, so beautiful were the peppers floating in the jelly. Turns out the peppers were not so much “floating” as they were permanently “set” in my jelly jars ... The closest consistency comparison I can come up with is that of Jello Jigglers (but firmer). Turns out that the pectin I bought online from Amazon was a larger package than that referenced in my Ball recipe. I will know better next time!

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hot jelly

But I’m getting sidetracked. I was talking about apple butter. I was a little afraid that if I focused solely on preparing and canning apple butter, I might make a mistake and have nothing to show for my hard work. At the last minute, I decided to pull a few jars of applesauce from the saucepan at mid-point. It was a success, and I was able to store a few jars of both apple butter and applesauce. I put it next to the strawberry jam that was my first project and success (It made it through the Christmas season until it was shared as a gift and used as the main ingredient for thumbprint cookies).

apples and peaches

In a way, everything we do in life is based upon risk and reward. Is the time required worth the results? What if you invest the extra time and it somehow still doesn’t work out? You may never know for certain if something was worth the risk if you never try.

This lesson was a safe bet, at least for cooking. Applesauce takes less time to make and is almost as tasty as apple butter. Apple butter takes a really, really long time to make, but when done right, it’s worth the trouble.

Here’s hoping we can all recognize that any choice we make in life is an important one, and we shouldn’t rely solely on immediate gratification or a sure thing. Sometimes what requires the greatest effort is more rewarding than a quick and easy win. So, when you consider your next decision point inside or outside the kitchen, remember that some of the toughest decisions are worth the trouble just as some of the hardest recipes result in the most rewarding outcomes. And the more you practice, the more adept you’ll be in seeing the difference, one ingredient at a time.

Mary Niehaus Ralles
Ohio