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Rockin' Nature

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Nature is truly magical, magnificent, mysterious and so much more all rolled  into one. I love the sunrises, sunsets, fall colors, spring blossoms, summer fireflies, sparkling snowflakes…I love all she has to offer. This said, there is perhaps one part of nature that probably intrigues me more than any other though. I love how things grow, especially the garden.

This year marks a milestone for me. Although I have always been in the garden, the truck patch, the fields, it was five years ago that I took a serious look at our food supply as a whole and how I was contributing with my little piece of earth that God has entrusted me with. It was then that I decided to have a garden that was all natural, from fertilizing to controlling weeds.

I prefer the words “all natural” instead of organic. That word, the big O, has been the subject of a lot of controversy in recent years. There is no middle of the road when it comes to organic. On one side of the fence are those who will always go the extra mile and always search out organic for their food supply. They pay the extra price to try and do better when it comes to what goes into their bodies.

On the other side of the coin are those that think organic is just a bunch of hype. Their argument is that we have survived for hundreds, literally thousands of years, without worrying about how we grew our food. On that note, for hundreds of years we didn’t farm with chemicals that eventually found their way into what we eat. As the demand for higher yields increased, the use of chemicals to provide that yield also increased.

As with discussing any methodology, there are those people who give organic its bad rap because, even though they say they are using all natural products, in reality they are not. Thus, the naysayers contend that folks pay the higher price for something they are not getting. But, as the saying goes, don’t let a few bad apples ruin the whole barrel.

I truly believe that when you get back to nature, with anything, it is just better for you. So, getting back to my natural garden, I think that after five years of experimenting, plowing through failures and rejoicing in successes, I can honestly say that it is not only possible to grow a thriving garden with no chemicals, but it is almost easier and more rewarding.

Let’s start with the plants themselves. Heirloom seeds and plants really have the edge. They have been around for generations and have adapted to their environment, making them stronger and more resilient to insects and diseases. Plus, it is a good feeling knowing that you are keeping varieties that have been around for generations alive.

Next, feeding these babies can be all natural too. Let me say that commercial fertilizer is not all bad, but it is well…commercial. Basically, plants need the big three, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to survive and thrive. They can grow and produce on these but if you add micronutrients, it gives them that extra boost.

Most commercial fertilizers don’t contain micronutrients, however natural sources do. Compost, coffee grounds, egg shells, Epsom salts and many other common household items supply all the food plants need to grow. What they don’t have are additives, chemicals and other nasty things. On top of that, the price is right, most of these items are by-products that get tossed anyway. You just have to know what nutrients each one provides.

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I have even conquered the bug problem. So many folks think that the only thing that “knocks them dead” are the products laden with harsh chemicals. It took a little experimenting but I have found natural products that work just as well, sometimes even better.

There are various products, made with natural ingredients, that are an insecticide, miticide and fungicide all in one. I use this religiously, even before any signs of bug infestation. It can be used on all plants, vegetables, fruits and flowers and takes care of most all things that like to chew on plants.

There are a few exceptions, like the inevitable Japanese beetles. Here is where neem oil comes in. Made from natural byproducts of the neem tree, it is both biodegradable and non-toxic, so much so that it is used in many home products such as toothpaste, cosmetics and soaps.

It only targets leaf sucking and chewing insects and kills them at all stages of development including egg, larvae and adult. It is also a great fungicide.

If you want a double whammy, try neem oil with pyrethrin which is found naturally in some chrysanthemum flowers and kills insects on contact with deadly nerve toxins. Although purely organic, pyrethrins are potent and can be somewhat toxic to animals.

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Last year I had an especially bad infestation of squash bugs. Pyrethrin, combined with insecticidal soap, killed them dead.

These are basically all the products that I use in the garden. It’s nice having only a few that will keep insects at bay and help the garden to thrive.

Now, weeds are another story. I have not found any herbicide that will only target weeds and not harm garden plants. Don’t we gardeners wish there were such a product…maybe someday. Until then, there are basically only two ways to control weeds in the garden.

I prefer the old-fashioned way of rototilling between the rows and hand-pulling the ones in the rows. This also serves the need to loosen the soil so plants can “breathe.”

The other way is to smother the weeds. Laying mulch like straw, old newspapers or other material between the rows will prevent weeds from growing. It is just a personal thing, but I like to see the soil, dig my toes into it and be able to stir it for the plants.

My garden is proof that the natural way works. For many, it is just a matter of changing how they think about gardening. Getting back to basics is healthy for plants and people both. For me, the proof positive is when you can snag a tomato, green bean or any other garden offering and eat it right then and there. There is nothing fresher or better and the best part is that you just know there is nothing bad going into your body. That’s what it is all about. Yep, I’m rockin’ nature and nature rocks!

Fusion Quilt Blends Needlecraft And Quilting

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For my grandson’s high school graduation this year I wanted something that would commemorate all the things that we have done together while he was growing up. That said, I wanted something a little more than just a photo collage.

I thought of a quilt with pictures printed on fabric where the fabric is then incorporated into the quilt pattern. My bonus daughter Elaina had done one of these years ago for us and it is unique and special.

This was a perfect idea except for one minor detail…I don't sew. I don't quilt. on top of that, I am pretty sure that learning is not in my future since I simply don’t have the patience for that; fabric does not cooperate with me.

A dear friend, Judy, has already pieced a number of memory quilts for me and I would not ask her to do another one, even when she offered. So, surfing on the Internet one evening provided the perfect solution, a fusion quilt.

Essentially, a fusion quilt combines fabric squares and crocheted squares (much like granny squares) and is set together with crochet instead of being sewn together like a regular quilt would be. Cool! I crochet, I could do this!

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I wanted the finished piece to be smaller than a quilt that you would use on a bed. Instead, I pictured a throw that would be perfect for him to use on chilly evenings while doing homework. The only thing Judy would have to do is to sew the fleece backing on it.

There would be one other little quirk to mine, it would have picture squares too. This would accomplish the idea of commemorating some of the things that we have done together.

So, last November I set to work. I decided the size would be 48 inches by 60 inches. The fusion quilts that I had seen were not for graduation, but rather for baby showers or wedding gifts. I just had to fine-tune the design. Instead of pinks and pastels, I would search for "masculine" fabrics.

The first task was to go through all my photos and choose which ones I would use. The very center of the quilt would be a large six inch by six inch square that would feature his baby picture and above and below it I would embroider his name, birth date and how much he weighed and how long he was. That was the easy part.

I knew I wanted 40 smaller picture squares. That sounds like a lot, but when you consider all the photos that I had taken over the past 19 years, well that was no small task. I really think that deciding on the pictures to use was the hardest part of all. I put everything that I found in one folder and then culled them down from there.

When I finally made my selections, there were a lot of firsts in there and some other memorable moments; the first deer he ever killed, the first time on a horse, the first steer he showed at fair, he and I handcuffed and shackled together for the Halloween that he wanted to be a cop and needed a prisoner, our trip to Pennsylvania and so many more memories.

The other reason that I chose 40 photos was because, printing pictures at 3-1/4 by 3-1/4 inches, I could get four pictures on an 8 1/2 by 11 inch fabric sheet. These sheets are not cheap, so this cut down on waste. This also left enough material so there was a quarter inch border around each photo which helped to set it off. A key note here, is that the pictures have to be positioned exactly right so you have one inch between them, which when cut will leave a half inch around each pic. This will create the border and a quarter inch to fold under.

The next step was choosing fabric. Not being a seamstress, I had not been to Joann Fabrics in quite a while. Holy moly, making the selections was no easy task. I finally ended up with 13 different patterns which included camouflage, fishing, hunting and other prints that I thought he would like. The smallest amount you can purchase is more than enough since I ended up using only four of each pattern.

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The first thing I did was set to work cutting these squares at 4-1/4 by 4-1/4 inches which left one-quarter inch all the way around to fold under to keep it from unraveling. After cutting, I actually folded all the edges under and ironed them. This made it easier to do the blanket stitch around each square. This blanket stitch kept it from unraveling and also provided a “loop” to crochet into.

The finish size of the crochet squares was also 3-1/4 square. I chose various colors of yarn and different patterns for these.

All in all, I ended up with 56 fabric squares, 40 picture squares, 20 crocheted ones and four denim ones which I embroidered sayings on and positioned these around the larger center square. The fabric, denim and pictures squares all needed blanket stitching around them. To finish the crocheted ones, I single-crocheted around each one and then added a row of double crochet just like I did around the other ones.

All in all, I had 120 small squares, perfect for ten squares across the width and ten for the length. I chose black yarn and single crocheted them together. The single crochet provided a raised border around each small square. Judy then sewed the fleece backing on and tacked the center down.

Yes, there are plenty of mistakes and things I wish I had done differently. After all, this was my first attempt. My major mistake was with the picture squares. They were so hard to sew the blanket stitch on and after the quilt was together, it was really stiff. If I had read directions on the fabric sheets, it explicitly stated: “Peel Off the Plastic Backing After Printing.” Judy pointed this out to me when she first saw it. Did I mention, I…Don't…Sew—good reason for it!

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The only other major problem was not starting early enough. Starting in November and having six months to complete the project was plenty of time….not! My initial plan was to have my part finished and to Judy by the end of March. Well, the first week of May found me working till wee hours of the morning to complete it. When you think you have started early, start earlier!

I now have a reprieve of two years before I have to have the next one done. If I am smart, I will do a little bit of it this winter and not rush myself. Perhaps the smartest thing I did was to make notes of all the things that I thought I would surely remember, like how many squares and the measurements, etc. Time has a way of eroding my memory and I don’t need to go through the design process again.

If I had to do it over again, I definitely would. All the pictures that were tucked away have brought back a lot of sweet memories. Hopefully, when he snuggles in it this winter, it will do the same for him. If so, every stitch was worth it!

No Space, No Problem

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Photo by Unsplash/Annie Spratt

The way folks think of gardens is changing. No longer do they have to fit the norm of being large rectangular plots on the side of the house. This is a good thing because it allows people to be able to garden even if they don’t have large spaces.

Victory gardens are a prime example of that and they are making a comeback. They made their debut back in 1943 when food was scarce during WWII. People were urged to grow whatever they could wherever they could. It is estimated that 20 million victory gardens flourished throughout the United States that year, with New York City producing 200 million pounds of tomatoes, beets, carrots, lettuce and other vegetables.

This year, thanks to the pandemic and folks worrying about the food supply chain, the victory garden has been revived, but not necessarily in traditional garden plots. People are being creative and growing lots in relatively small spaces.

Think rooftops and balconies or even sunny windowsills. One or two tomato plants can produce an abundant amount of produce. Windowsills lined with small pots filled with herbs can add lots of flavor in cooking.

Container gardens have become quite popular, and for good reason. They are portable and can be placed anywhere you have a small amount of space. A nook, a cranny or a corner that isn’t used can be exactly right for a pot which can hold lettuce, tomato plants, flowers, herbs or just about any plant. They can be scattered throughout your space or many pots can be grouped together in one location to form a garden with different crops in each pot.

But, don’t stop at just pots. Containers can be anything that will hold soil. Old washtubs, livestock watering troughs, kids’ wagons, even old shoes become plant containers with a little ingenuity. Raised beds are also popular lately and, here again, you don’t need anything fancy. A few old boards laying around can be nailed to form boxes. The important thing to remember with any vessel that you want to use for plants, is you need drainage holes.

If you want to go one step further, hydroponics (gardening with no soil) has taken the spotlight lately too. If you decide to go this route, you can use old buckets, pails and other plastic containers. These lend themselves well to vertical gardens which also save space.

If you aren’t into containers and you want to still stay the tried and true way and want to dig in the soil, you can still do this without a lot of space. Think outside the box. Around the perimeter of your house is always an excellent choice. All you need to do is dig out about a foot from the foundation and you will have enough space to plant one row of most any vegetable you want.

Ron has a chain link fence around two sides of his yard. This year, I dug up a space about a foot wide on either side of the fence. I have tomato and pepper plants in this space. If the tomato plants need staked, the fence will provide the support. I have also planted cucumbers on the other side of the fence from the tomatoes. They will climb up the fence, saving space from them vining out into the yard. A few annual flower seeds like marigolds or zinnias planted with these vegetables, will give color to the fence as well, all within only about a foot of space on either side.

Along his other fence, there are shrubs like lilac, weigela and rose of Sharon. In between these is just space that he usually sprays to keep the weeds at bay. However, this year I cleared the sod and spaded up the ground. I am putting perennials in there like daisies, iris and bee balm. Until that takes hold, I am scattering annual seeds like marigolds and zinnias in there to add color. On top of that, he will save time and money by not having to spray that area.

When planting victory gardens, regardless of whether they are vegetables, herbs or flowers, the first rule of thumb is to find the light. Most garden plants need around six hours of sunlight each day to do well. So, if your spot is too shaded by larger shrubs or plants, or is facing the wrong direction to get the light, this will be a big consideration where you decide to plant.

The next consideration should be how much space you have. Plants that grow upward take considerably less space than those that spread out. Obviously, if you only have three feet of space, you will not want to plant anything that vines out like squash or melons.

Next, decide on what to plant based on what you like to eat. Though tomatoes grow upward and work well in a container garden, don’t plant them if you don’t like them. The idea here is to grow what works in your space and also something that you will eat.

The basics of growing in small spaces is no different than growing large gardens. You need good soil and you will need to fertilize regularly as well as water enough to keep the soil moist. Remember, you reap what you sow.

It is also good to remember that even scaled-down gardening in a small space needs care. It’s great that folks want to be self-sufficient and plant part of their own food supply. However, putting the seed in the ground is only half of the equation. It still needs tender loving care to produce a harvest.

This year with so many newbie gardeners, seeds and plants have been in short supply. Many seed suppliers have already been sold out early in the season. The saddest thing is to see folks (with good intentions) by up all the seed, fertilizer and other products to plant a garden and then let it go when it gets to be more work than they bargained for.

Gardening can be so fulfilling, both physically and emotionally, but it is a commitment and does demand that you put effort into it in order to reap the rewards. Space is not a detriment. Even if you have a small space, you can be a gardener, you only have to have the will and the commitment.

Happy Hydrangeas

They are vibrant, showy and naturally claim the spotlight. No wonder, in my mind, they are the “happy plant.”

 

Hydrangeas are probably the plants that you remember in your grandmother’s yard or garden. Because they steal the attention, they are often planted at corners of homes or at the focal point in gardens. It is easy to landscape around them with other perennials and annuals. Besides being showy, what captivates folks about them is the fact that they have the ability to change colors, with the most notable ones being pink and blue.

 

I never gave these much thought until we were driving some backroads last year and I noticed this large, vibrant plant with cone-shaped blooms that started out cream colored and slowly transitioned to pink. When we stopped to inquire, we were introduced to the vanilla strawberry hydrangea. I was hooked and had to have one.

 

Since then, I have become hooked on all hydrangeas. At first it was the large vibrant blooms that caught my eye but, since then, the fact that they are hardy plants that bloom year after year and add so much color and charm to gardens have moved them up among my favorite garden plants.

 

Also known as hortensia, hydrangeas are most common as shrubs but can also be trees and climbing vines. Some are so small that they can be planted in perennial borders and some vines grow as high as 100 feet.

 

Besides their big, showy flowers, people are falling in love with them all over again because of their variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Most species bloom from early spring to frost and come in shades of pink, blue, white, purple and green.

 

The word “hydrangea” comes from the Greek word hyder, meaning water and angos, meaning vessel. Roughly translated, this means water barrel which is aptly named for the up-shaped flowers which require lots of water. Here in the United States, hydrangeas are given for fourth anniversaries to symbolize appreciation and heartfelt emotion.

 

These showy flowers love sun to part sun. Since they get so thirsty, the best time to plant is in the spring or fall. The hot, dry summers are stressful on them to get started since they do require lots of water. Northern climates pose a little more diligence to bed them down for the winter so they don’t winter kill.

 

Some folks have tried to make them houseplants, usually unsuccessfully for many reasons. First and foremost, each variety needs their own amount of sunlight. Moisture and humidity are big failure factors also. Indoor air tends to dry out faster and hydrangeas like enough humidity without having wet feet. Even if you get these factors right, some varieties require cold periods of two to three months where they can hibernate.

 

Sadly, many “gift” hydrangeas from the stores are not bred to last more than one season. Their big attractive flowers are the draw but, even though they are classified as perennials, they are more like annuals.

 

Of course, the big thing about hydrangeas is their ability to change color, depending on the nutrients, or lack of, that they receive. Primarily, their colors are either blue or pink. Unlike other plants, their colors can change dramatically, all by adjusting the pH of the soil. Some change color on their own when they are planted or transplanted by simply adjusting to their new environment. For this reason, during the first year, a plant can actually have more than one color of bloom at the same time.

 

This color change has to do with the amount of aluminum in the soil. Either subtracting or adding this to the soil, determines if the blooms will be pink or blue. For this reason, it’s much easier to alter the pH of the soil if the hydrangeas are planted in pots.

 

Forcing pink blooms can be accomplished in different ways. Dolomitic lime can be added to the soil several times a year to raise the pH level. Aim for a pH of 6.0 to 6.2, if it goes higher you risk an iron deficiency. They take up aluminum best at lower pH levels, raising it will help to keep the blue color.

 

Be sure and fertilize with high levels of phosphorous since it helps protect from the aluminum creeping in. Use a ratio of 25/10/10 (phosphorous is the middle number). If aluminum occurs naturally in the soil, your best alternative is to grow hydrangeas in pots, using a soilless mixture which probably doesn’t have aluminum in it.

 

On the other hand, if you want to change the color from pink to blue, add aluminum sulfate during the growing season at a ratio of one tablespoon per one gallon of water to plants that are two to three years old. Water well in advance as adding too much can burn the roots. Another method is to add organic matter like coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peels or grass clippings. For the aluminum to be available to the plants, the pH should be low, ideally around 5.2 to 5.5.

 

When fertilizing, choose one that is low in phosphorous and high in potassium, a 25/5/30 (potassium is the last number) mixture is good. If you have high alkaline soil naturally, again it is best to grow them in pots. Another thing to watch for, test your water to make sure that it is not contaminating your soil with unwanted minerals. Also, avoid planting by sidewalks or concrete as lime can leach out.

 

Although hydrangeas are primarily found in colors of pink and blue, others are sometimes seen. White hydrangeas are white, they cannot be altered. There is no such thing as true red even though hot climates produce some almost-reds. Purple hydrangeas are some of the most eye-catching and are hard to come by. The soil conditions must be exactly right, the pH is directly centered so purple is right between pink and blue. Heredity and health of the plants and weather conditions all affect the intensity of colors.

 

Now, what peeked my interest in hydrangeas in the first place, the vanilla strawberry variety. Even the name itself is enough to draw you to it. It was developed by Jean Renault in France and is one variety of Panicle hydrangeas. Others in the group are Strawberry Sundae and Fire Light. Vanilla strawberry was voted top plant of the year by the American Nursery and Landscape Association in 2010.

 

It is characterized by emerging creamy white cone-shaped blooms in mid-summer that slowly transition to pink and then strawberry pink in the fall. It is hardy, low maintenance and sun loving. As a bush, it grows nearly seven feet high and five feet wide. What’s not to love?

 

Besides their showy blooms, the leaves of hydrangeas produce large shady areas underneath. These are perfect spots to plant shade-loving plants like hostas.  Their colorful leaves add interest and more color to the area. You can also fill in with annuals to round out a planting area.

 

It boggles my mind that I have never discovered hydrangeas before. I love the idea of a plant that offers lots of color with low maintenance. No wonder I think of them as happy hydrangeas!  

 

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Supper in a Jar

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Photo by Unsplash/Ella Olsson

Shelf-stable meals have been gaining popularity lately. The reason doesn’t really matter, whether it be a pandemic, a power outage, unexpected guests, or husbands (or wives) that can’t cook, or for days you just don’t feel like cooking, “meals in a jar” are quick, easy and have long shelf lives.

Shelf-stable meals are more than just convenient though. Made with freeze-dried meats and vegetables, they are healthy alternatives that are real food, and have real calories and real nutrients. On top of that, they are your familiar meals, comfort foods, like spaghetti and chicken and noodles that can be ready in minutes.

What really makes them suitable is their long-term storage life. They are kept in pantries or on shelves in food cellars rather than in the freezer. Frozen meals are great, but they do depend on having power.

Many of these foods can be eaten as is, right from the jar without having to re-heat or cook, which is the primary reason for having them in the first place. However, some do require powerless cooking options. I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, the freeze-dried food. Many folks think freeze-dried and dehydrated are one and the same. These processes are distinctly different. Almost anything can be freeze-dried and this process maintains the original flavor. Dehydrating often changes the texture, flavor and appearance of foods. One method is not necessarily better than the other, it all depends on how you want to use the product and how you prefer the flavor. For example, jerky and fruit jerky is much better dehydrated.

Freeze-dried foods have shelf lives up to 25 years because they are sealed in packaging with nitrogen. The process, though it requires a lot of energy to complete, is fairly simple. It is a three-step process that begins with freezing. The food is placed in a vacuum chamber under low heat where the frozen water crystals evaporate directly from ice to water vapor. Then the food goes through its second drying in which any water molecules that are left are removed using slightly higher temperatures. The food is nitrogen sealed to prevent contamination from water or oxygen.

To buy freeze-dried food can be expensive. Cottage cheese can be stored this way for up to 25 years but can sell for $65. A can of dried beef goes for roughly $53 a can while bacon and eggs are about $32 per can.

There is an alternative; you can do it at home. Home-based freeze dryers are still pricey, likely starting out at about $2000. Instead, you can flash freeze meat at home. It is a lot like drying meat on racks and adding the freezing process. Simply, cut food in small pieces and place on a cookie sheet in the freezer. The food will freeze in a couple hours but the drying process takes weeks.

This is known as sublimination and is what separates freeze drying from simply freezing. To check when it is done, remove a piece. If it turns dark or black, it is not done. Frozen food that is done will not change color. This will take a little trial and error. Once it is done, place in air-tight mylar bags (best choice) or Ziploc bags, making sure all air and moisture is out. Then store anywhere it is under 75 degrees F.

The other way to freeze dry at home is to use dry ice, which is much quicker. Find a day when the humidity is zero and place your food in a container that is twice as large as your food. With gloves, place dry ice over it in a ratio of one pound of dry ice for each pound of food. Do not seal the container as it will explode with the expanding gases. When there is no more dry ice, remove the food and place in bags immediately, making sure there is NO moisture inside. A vacuum sealer works best.

To rehydrate freeze-dried foods, place the foods in a container filled with water and allow the food to absorb the water. It will not absorb more than it needs. Then use the food as you normally would.

Freeze-dried meats, fruits and vegetables can be combined with spices and other ingredients to make your meals in a jar. However, you will need an oxygen absorber to help remove oxygen in the jars while leaving nitrogen in. Dried foods are protected against spoilage and bacteria growth in a nitrogen environment.

Basically, they consist of iron powder mixed with polymer grains to allow air circulation through the powder. The rusting of the iron powder depletes the container’s contents of oxygen.

You can easily make your own. All you need is super fine steel wool (0000), salt, paper towels and staples. Place a wad of steel wool on a paper towel, sprinkle it with table salt, working it into the fibers. Then fold the towel over and staple. The salt’s acidity activates the corrosion of the steel and the rusting absorbs the oxygen. You can make these ahead and keep them in airtight freezer bags in the freezer until you need them.

OK, so you have your meals in a jar and you want one, but have no power. All you need is a fuel source, which can be sun, propane, butane or charcoal. Your choice depends on personal preference, price and availability. A single butane burner is popular since it is safe to use indoors, can be shipped and is safer than propane. It works like a gas stove top. However, it is sometimes harder to find than propane and can be more expensive.

Another option is a tea light oven. Just like its name suggests, it uses tea lights as a fuel source. It can be used indoors and bakes and cooks. One gallon of tea lights will give you roughly 300 to 400 cooking hours and is relatively inexpensive at 30 cents per hour. It will cook at 300-350* and will accommodate three 9 X 5 bread pans or an 11 X 15 pan. It folds flat, takes little space, can be used as a second oven for holidays and also doubles as a dehydrator by using only half the lights.

Shelf ready meals are good to have for any situation that may arise. They are perfect companions to other methods of food preservation such as canning and freezing. They say that variety is the spice of life. Well, it may also be the best way to sustain life in difficult times.

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Photo by Mae Mu

Spaghetti in a Jar

Add all ingredients in order listed

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup tomato powder
  • 1-1/2 tsp. parsley
  • 1-1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1-1/2 tsp. oregano
  • 1-1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 T. freeze-dried onion
  • 1-1/2 – 2 tsp. salt
  • 1-1/2 T. garlic powder
  • 1 cup freeze-dried sausage crumbles or ground beef crumbles
  • 1 cup freeze-dried mushrooms
  • 1 cup freeze-dried tomatoes, diced

Directions

Place oxygen absorber in jar and seal tightly.

Add note to jar: Add 4 cups water, simmer until meat is hydrated. Serve over spaghetti. Store box of spaghetti with sauce jar.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Add ingredients in order listed

Ingredients

  • 1 T chicken boullion
  • 1/2 cup bechamel sauce powder (a white sauce made with butter, flour, milk base)
  • 1/4 cup dehydrated carrots,
  • 1-1/2 cups freeze-dried vegetables
  • 1/3 cup freeze-dried onion
  • 1 cup freeze-dried chicken

Directions

Place oxygen absorber in jar, seal lid.

Add note: Add 8 cups water, simmer 5 minutes. Add noodles, 1 cup water and simmer until noodles are tender.

Chicken Salad

Add ingredients in order, does not require heat

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup freeze-dried celery
  • 2 cups freeze-dried chicken
  • 2 T freeze-dried onion
  • 1/4 cup freeze-dried grapes and/or freeze-dried cranberries(optional)
  • 1/2 cup freeze-dried apples(optional)

Directions

Place oxygen absorber in jar.

Add note: Add 3/4 cup plus 1 T cold water, let stand 10 min

Add 1/2 cup mayo and mix well

Does Your Soil Need a Doctor?

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Photo by Pixabay/Khemanun Rugyooprasert 

Most seasoned gardeners know that the secret to healthy, productive gardens is really no secret at all. It’s in the dirt, literally. Plants need moisture and sunlight to grow and, in the right amounts, they will flourish, but only if you start with good soil.

Like us, plants need food, in their case it is in the form of nutrients. Good soil provides these nutrients and also allows plants to take them up.

However, before knowing if your soil is healthy or not, you need to decide what type of soil you have. There are three main types, sandy, silty and clay. The particles that make up the soil are what are used to categorize each type by size. Sandy soil has the largest particles, clay the smallest and silty fits in the middle.

The combination of these three is what gives soil its texture. Sandy soil is easy to cultivate, drains more easily but requires more water since it doesn’t retain it. Silty soil has good water retention and circulation and is good for growing crops. Clay soil is easily compacted, is difficult to plant or even shovel because it clumps. Although it is hard to work with, it is able to hold roots better and has a more stable environment than the other two.

DIY Soil Testing

There is an easy DIY test to evaluate what type of soil you have. Dig down about six inches where you want to test. Fill a Mason jar about half full of the soil and then fill it to the shoulder with water. Set it aside to let the soil soak up the water.

Next, put the lid on and shake it for about three minutes. Set the jar down and leave for one minute. Then, measure the amount of sediment that has collected in the bottom. This is the amount of sand in the soil. Wait four more minutes and measure again. The difference between the two numbers in the amount of silt. After 24 hours, measure again. The difference between the second and third numbers will be the clay in the soil.

Calculate the different percentages of sand, silt and clay. The three numbers should equal 100 percent. Healthy soil is typically 20 percent clay, 40 percent silt and 40 percent sand. Results of this test will help you determine what to grow since different plants prefer different soil types.  For example, silt and clay are hard to get wet but stay wet longer. Plants that like “wet feet” are happy here.

For the optimal garden, you can either choose plants accordingly or amend the soil type. For sandy soil, add humus, peat moss or aged manure. A warning about manure, it must be aged at least six months otherwise you run the risk of introducing new pathogens into your soil.

For silty soil, add coarse sand (not beach sand), gravel and compost or well-rotted horse manure with fresh straw. Coarse sand is also known as yellow or builder’s sand and is not as fine as beach sand nor does it contain salt like beach sand.

To amend clay soil, add coarse sand, compost or peat moss. This will make it a little easier to work with and the sand will create pockets of oxygen to help plant roots breathe.

When you know what soil type you have, you will next want to determine what the pH level is which, in turn, determines whether the soil is acidic or alkaline. There is also a simple test to determine this. Put two tablespoons of soil in a bowl. Add 1/2 cup vinegar to it, if it fizzes, it is alkaline. By the same token, put two tablespoons of soil in a bowl, moisten with distilled water and add 1/2 cup baking soda. If it fizzes, the soil is acidic. If it doesn’t react to either test, the soil has a neutral pH.

Either a high or low pH may result in plant nutrient deficiency or toxicity. When it is neutral, microbial activity is greatest and plant roots absorb nutrients best.

Once you know what you have, you can adjust the pH of the soil. Acidic or sour soil is adjusted by applying finely ground limestone and alkaline or sweet soil is treated with ground sulfur. Keep in mind, some plants prefer acidic soil or alkaline soil so treat your soil based on what you want to grow.

Professional Testing

If you do a professional soil test, such as from the county extension office, the results will address the three elements of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. This is why fertilizers are blended with different percentages of these three elements, so they can be tailored for your soil type:

  • Nitrogen, characterized by N in a blend, helps plants make leafy growth and gives plants their good green color. It is part of every protein in the plant so it is required for every process. Insufficient nitrogen is characterized by general yellowing of the plant. Ten pounds of blood meal has the same amount of nitrogen as 20 pounds of manure, minus the organic matter.
  • Phosphorous, denoted by a P, is necessary for germination, strong root growth and producing flowers and fruit. It helps plants absorb minerals, grow strong stems and withstand disease. Bone meal is a good source.
  • Potassium, known as K, regulates the water in plant cells and is necessary for flowering, fruiting, good root development and for plant stress tolerance. Weak stems and stunted growth are the results of lack of it. Wood ashes are a good source of potash, which is where the word potassium is derived from.

Potash is really various salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form. Before the industrial era, plant ashes were soaked in water in a pot, thus the name of pot ash. It was the main source of potassium.

One more sign of healthy soil is the presence of earthworms. If you dig up one cubic foot of soil, break it apart and find at least 10 earthworms, then the soil is healthy. They aerate the soil. If you have fewer, you can add organic matter like compost, aged manure and leaf mold. This organic matter slowly releases nutrients to promote microbial activity.

I never realized how widely different soils vary until I started putting a small garden out here at Ron’s. His soil is definitely clay whereas I have sandy soil. Mine is easy to dig and plant in; his not so much. I will never forget the first time I dug potatoes down at his place. At home, we pull up a vine and shake the soil off. I was literally shaking the vine to pieces and it wasn’t coming off. He watched me for a long time before he told me that it was not going to shake off any time soon!

There is not a bad nor a good type of soil, only different types. The secret is knowing how to make whichever kind you have the best it can be for the purpose you have in store for it.

Yes, You Can Have Your Bread And Eat It Too

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Photo by AdobeStock/innazagorulko

Many folks, being stuck at home and not being able to find bread in stores, have resorted to baking their own. There is nothing better than the aroma of bread coming out of the oven. The taste is just as divine.

It is also so much better for you than the commercial bread with all of its preservatives. Actual truth, we have an experiment with a loaf of bread that has been setting on a shelf since January of 2019 and is not molded yet. Yep, you read that right, over 15 months old. It really makes you want to eat loaves with all those preservatives!

However, I have always noticed that homemade bread, although made with healthy, wholesome ingredients, almost makes me feel worse than the up-town stuff. It is like the dough is just setting in my stomach, causing bloating. I thought this was just me until Ron mentioned the same thing recently.

Nope, it is definitely not in our heads. Even though homemade has healthier ingredients, there is still a culprit. With a little digging, I found that grains have special protective layers on the outside called phytic acid. Its job is to hold all the nutrients inside the grain. When whole grain is broken down into flour, some nutrients are released but the phytic acid is also present. Not only that, but the acid also snatches up other material in our digestive tract that it uses for food, thus wrecking havoc in our intestines.

The gluten in flour has gotten a bad rap in recent years, but there is more to the story. It’s not that the gluten is present, but rather that it is not broken down, hence the job of yeast. Yeast is a good thing, it literally breaks down the starches in grains which essentially pre-digests the bread, making it easier for us to digest.

The problem lies with the kind of yeast we use. The commercial yeast we buy in those little packets is an isolated version and it only rises bread without breaking down the phytic acid to aid digestion.

There is a better way. Our ancestors used wild sourdough yeast, also known as natural yeast. It grows naturally in the wild on leaves, grapes, berries and other living things. Our forefathers figured out that this natural yeast made bread rise and drinks ferment and they also knew that ingesting the gluten grains prepared with natural yeast made digestion more efficient and provided our bodies with higher amounts of nutrition. The down side to using natural yeast is that it took six to eight hours for breads to rise.

In the late 1860’s, the same Louis Pasteur who promoted the pasteurization of all milk, discovered that yeast was a living organism. He found a way to isolate the yeast in pure culture form, thus finding a way to make bread in 30 minutes. Thus, was born the Fleischmann’s and Red Star yeast we all use today, the same that led to the commercial breadmaking industry.

However, for many of us that have stomach issues for which gluten has been blamed, faster is not always better. Natural yeast, though it takes longer to “work,” has many natural benefits including breaking down harmful enzymes in grains and making the vitamins and minerals in grains more available for digestion by completely breaking down the phytic acid. This process just takes a little longer.

Natural yeast also converts dough into a digestible food source that won’t spike the body’s defenses. It predigests sugars for diabetics, breaks down gluten for the intolerant and turns calcium-leaching phytic acid into a cancer-fighting antioxidant.

We can get this natural yeast in the form of sourdough starter. It is rooted in American history since the pioneers had no choice but to collect yeast from natural sources if they wanted leavened baked goods. Sourdough got its name from the starter which, when left at room temperature developed a sour tang due to the fermentation.

The nice thing about sourdough starter is that it will literally keep indefinitely. If it is stored in the refrigerator, it will become dormant and leaving it at room temperature will activate it. Since it is a live organism, it needs to be fed once a week (instructions with sourdough recipe) which means measuring out a certain amount of yeast, adding equal parts of flour and water and placing back in a jar in the fridge.

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Photo by Getty Images/kontrast-fotodesign

Sourdough starter is easy to make. It literally requires more time than ingredients since it uses only flour and water. It can be used for bread, pizza crust, pretzels and anything that requires yeast. You can make muffins or waffles with the yeast replacing the baking powder.

The important thing to remember is it needs to be fed. If you plan on using it, set it out the day before and feed it three times to get it nice and active. If you use it less than every two weeks, take some out and replenish it with fresh ingredients to stay healthy and strong. Even if you forget it, you can revive it by feeding it twice a day.

You will know your starter is good if it looks rough and uneven on the top and multiplies when at room temperature. However, if there are too many bubbles on top, it needs to be refreshed.

The good news is that using sourdough starter for yeast allows many of us to enjoy leavened baked goods again because it does a lot of the work for our digestive system.  Baked goods made with fast-rising commercial yeast doesn’t allow the bacteria time to do any pre-digesting.

One other tidbit that I will add: I have noticed that when I toast bread, be it homemade or commercial, it doesn’t upset my stomach as much. Turns out, the scientific basis for this is that same as for using natural yeast. Toasted bread has a lower glycemic index since the heat causes carbs to break down more slowly, making it less likely to cause a blood sugar spike. Since insulin and insulin resistance is linked to weight gain, toasting bread may play a small part in weight loss and better blood sugar control.

Unfortunately, gluten gets all the bad rap for digestive issues lately, largely because stores and companies are capitalizing on their gluten-free products. Why not give sourdough yeast a chance and see if it could be the answer to your woes. You will have nothing to lose and maybe a lot to gain.

Sourdough Starter

DAY 1. Stir together 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water in a one-quart glass container. Cover loosely and leave at room temperature (not less than 70*F) for 24 hours. All-purpose  flour is fine but using whole wheat will jumpstart the process.

DAY 2. Discard half of the starter and add 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup water, mix and leave 24 hours.

DAY 3. Keep 1/2 cup starter, feed twice today by adding 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Mix and leave 12 hours, repeat in the afternoon.

DAY 4. Repeat Day 3.

DAY 5. Repeat Day 3, only discard and feed once instead of twice.

DAY 6. If starter is not rising and doubling in size between feedings and showing signs of bubbles, discard half and feed twice a day until it does.

DAY 7. Give it one last feeding.

Note: Starter is done if doubling in bulk within 6 to 8 hours of feeding. Also, if you see spots of pink or orange, it is unwanted mold and must be thrown out but spots of green, blue or black mold are harmless. Skim it off with a non-metal spoon.

Sourdough Bread

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1-1/2 cups sourdough starter
  • 3/4 t. salt

Directions

  1. Combine ingredients and knead until dough is not sticky.
  2. Place in lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until double in bulk.
  3. Turn out on floured board and knead, cover on board with towel and let rise until double again.
  4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  5. Spray dough with mister, cut an X on the top, bake on a sheet until golden brown on top and it sounds hollow when thumped on bottom, roughly 60 minutes. It should have a darker crust than other breads, so leave in the oven 5 minutes after you think it is done.






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