Sunday, August 26, 2012

Breaking Ground

It started with a stake out, as in staking out 3 plots of 5 feet by 12 feet to become the first raised beds in our garden. Stake outs in this part of Virginia are hard work, especially when the soil is packed clay and solid from months of incessant heat. Thankfully though the temperatures from the height of summer have started to cool off and have been accompanied by increasing amounts of rain. Yesterday it rained for a soild 10 hours, most of which time I spent at the Virginia Craft Brewers Festival hosted by Devils' Backbone, where I was judging beer.

When it rains so heavily our garden becomes a mass of rivulets of water heading toward the lowest point of the neighbourhood, it also makes the top few inches of the soil moist enough to actually get stuck into it, without getting stuck in it. That's what we did this morning, started clearing the grass out of the plots, most of which came up with plenty of roots and hence got transplated to parts of the garden needing some greenery.

As you can kind of see from the picture, we got one plot completely done with, de-grassed and forked over, as well as making a start on plot two. Eventually when all three plots are broken up, we'll build the wooden frames which will keep in the soil. I am planning to have the frames be at least 8 inches high, so that we can dump in plenty of manure and compost to sit over the winter and get rotted in. Come spring next year the plan is to have beds with a good growing medium for crops of beans, tomatoes and whatever else we will grow to cut down on our grocery bill.

While we have only 3 beds at the moment, the long term plan is to expand out to at least 10 for vegetables, as well as a few plots for fruit bushes and trees, in particular I want to try my hand at growing that most magnificent of fruit, the gooseberry.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Happy Homemaking

Today is the end of my summer.  Tomorrow I begin the routine of getting up at 6 Monday through Friday and working until 4 or 5.  Tomorrow I begin the time of the year when I come home exhausted and ready to plop myself down on the couch.  It's been a great summer and although my "summer" comes to a close tonight when my head touches that pillow, I can say that I've done everything that I wanted to do.  I even worked three weeks at summer camp.

When I wasn't at work, we moved into our house, I made sure the house was clean, that dinner was on the table every night, and that I finished various projects like putting up pictures on the walls, organizing random things around the house and working on crafty stuff.  The main goal of this summer was to get settled enough in the house to feel comfortable and well... settled!  I accomplished that.

This weekend I made sure to finish up any loose ends, doing any work that might be a pain later when I've been all day on my feet.  I practically locked myself indoors last week finishing up a quilt that I began over a year ago.  I learned how to make the Pineapple Blossom Scrappy Quilt at a workshop awhile back and still had 10 blocks to construct.  Not only did I finish the blocks but I pieced all 20 together, put the sashing and border on it and began hand quilting it!

So far 4 out of 20 quilt blocks have been quilted.

I also had four pink Knock-Out roses that I bought about a month ago that were finally ready to be put in the ground.  Despite the rain that we've had this past week, the ground was not forgiving and I thought I was going to have to get some serious machinery to dig four measly holes for these things.  Our clay soil isn't going to be the easiest to "fix up" and I think landscaping is going to be a slow and laborious task.  Three blisters, and aching body and reduced energy stores later I had my roses planted - and boy do they look nice.  The aches and pains of digging in cement-like soil is definitely worth it!

Not a great view but I didn't want to get wet and muddy to take this pic!

We had plans to begin digging out the rectangles where the first of our raised beds will be but it decided to rain all day.  I'm disappointed we weren't able to get a start on it, but secretly relieved -now I can rest!  Instead I began this morning by making Lemon Bars and after a trip to Wal-Mart, I made a successful batch of 30-Minute Mozzarella!  It was probably the best mozzarella we've ever had.  I can't wait to share it with others tomorrow!

This 30-Minute Mozzarella recipe came from "The Backyard Homestead" by  Carleen Madigan
It's our go-to guide for all things self-sufficient!

All in all, I've had a great time being Mrs. Happy Homemaker this summer.  Just because I go back to the grind tomorrow doesn't mean I'll stop, it just means I'll have to slow down.  Despite not having the option to sleep in or stay up late, I'll be glad to be back in a routine.  We've got a lot of work ahead of us and just in time for cooler temperatures and little to no humidity!

And here's Honza because he's so cute!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Homemade Basil Pesto

Summertime is perfect for making and eating basil pesto.  It's light, rich and full of flavor, and because basil grows really well in the sunny, steamy summer months in Virginia, you should have plenty to spare to make a couple jars of pesto, leaving enough on your plant to use later.

Basil pesto is commonly used for pasta dishes but Al and I rarely eat pasta, so it's used more for bread dipping in our house.  You can also spread pesto on your morning bagel, put a little on baked fish, or use it in risotto.  If you're allergic to nuts, don't worry because pesto can be made nut-free too!

The ingredients are simple as is making it.  I would say that a food processor or chopper is important as it makes the process much easier.  I for one have never made it without and having made other things by hand, I can tell you it's probably best left if you don't have some way of rapidly chopping/mixing the basil.  However, you don't need a state of the art processor to do this!  Mine is a hand-me-down from a friend and is tiny.

The following ingredients are needed:

Basil (duh!)
Parmesan and/or Romano Cheese, shredded
Garlic, 2-4 cloves depending on your taste
Olive Oil, I use light tasting oil
Pine Nuts, optional
Salt and Pepper, to taste

1.  Begin by "pruning" your basil plant.  I like to cut my basil right above two opposite stems to encourage the plant to bush out.  Pick off all the leaves big and small and gently rinse them in cold water.  I read somewhere that authentic Italian pesto is made using only the small baby leaves of the plant.  I assume the purpose is to get a sweeter flavor, however most won't notice the difference if bigger leaves are used - I don't.

2.  Put your clean basil leaves into the processor.  Don't be afraid to pack them in a bit.  Add about a tablespoon of oil and begin blitzing the leaves.  Every so often take a spatula and clear the sides of the processor to make sure it all gets mixed in.

3.  Add another tablespoon of oil and begin adding Parmesan/Romano one to two spoonfuls at a time.  I really like the Homestyle 4C grated Parmesan/Romano cheese found in jars in the refrigerated cheeses at your local shop.  It has a really strong flavor and is fresh without the cost of buying it in the deli section.

4.  Continue adding cheese until the pesto looks like it has white-ish specks throughout.  This is the time to add nuts if you wish.  You may want to add another tablespoon of oil at this time as well.  The pesto should be a soft consistency but not too runny.  I personally like the flavor that pine nuts give to the pesto.  They are expensive in my opinion, but worth the expense and they go a long way.  Only a handful or so of nuts is needed.

5.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

This batch made one half pint jar and one teeny tiny jar...

For those of you who get freaked out by cooking without specific measurements, here is a good place to start:
2 cups fresh basil, packed
1/3 cup Parmesan/Romano cheese
2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed or minced
1-2 handfuls of Pine Nuts, optional
salt and pepper, to taste

Some claim to have used Walnuts or Almonds instead of Pine Nuts.  I imagine you can do this, although I have never personally used anything other than Pine Nuts.

I would imagine you could also make pastes or pestos from other herbal plants like rosemary, sage, thyme, and perhaps even parsley, or mix all together for an herbal pesto!


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Getting All 'Erbal

The first post for the Country Boy part of this duo.

The most exciting part of having joined the landed bourgeoisie is just that, being "landed". Sure an acre and a half doesn't compare to the estate of Earl Granville back home in the Outer Hebrides, but for me, it is plenty to be going on with. When we started our hunt for a home I had wild fantasies of rearing pigs, sheep and chickens, growing all my own fruit and veg, and generally never going to the shop again. I am sure that anyone that has been to the average Walmart has felt the same longing never to enter the mouth of retail Hades with the octogenerian Cerberus saying "welcome to Hell...sorry Walmart" again.

Having had to rein in my dreams, we have made a modest start on our future garden in terms of turning our deck into a herbarium, and please do pronounce the "h", it would be rude to ignore it entirely. With the aid of a few planters, which us Brits call "window boxes", some terracotta pots and even some coffee cans, we now have the beginnings of herby happiness.

We have had the first planter for quite some time now, as you can see from the picture the basil is going nuts, so much so that Mrs V (as I lovingly call the missus) will be making pesto tomorrow. Also in the planter is my favourite herb, rosemary, which happens to be one of my favourite girls' names, and another herb that gets used alot in our house, dill.

Today though we added four more pots to the deck, a couple of traditional terracotta pots and a couple made from the large coffee cans in which we get our morning Joe. To make the coffee cans usable as pots I punctured a load of holes into the bottom for drainage. We bought the herbs themselves at our local farmers' market in Charlottesville, having decided to just wander around after breakfast. The herbs we bought, in order of the pictures below are sage, thyme, garlic chives and lemon verbena, which is completely new to me but which has a phenomenal lemon aroma that apparently is good in marinades, jams and jellies.

Eventually we will start work on building raised beds and trellises for the fruit and vegetables, but for the time being it is good to have a green, edible deck.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Where Do We Begin?

We've been in the house almost a month now.  The master bedroom and bathroom along with the spare upstairs bathroom have been painted and "decorated", and I have just now begun to hang some pictures and begin to organize our lives here.  Other than daily memory loss and general forgetfulness, the transition has been smooth and we are happily settling in.  Owning a home for us has been several years in the making and now we finally have the ability to begin to put together our ideas and make something of them.  But where to start?  Prioritizing is obviously important yet proving very difficult.

Here's what we have come up with so far (not necessarily in this order):
1. Fence in a portion of the back yard.
2. Begin building and preparing raised beds for a garden.
3. Re-seed the at least the front lawn.
4. Plant some trees.
5. Landscape the front of the house.
6. Build a back patio.
7. Build a chicken coop.

The chicken coop is a long-term project.  I plan on re-purposing wood from discarded pallets and will obviously need time to collect all of it.  Plus, I'm not in a hurry to get chickens at this time.  I've done a little research on the type of coop I would like to build and have drawn up a few ideas of my own.  I've found that coops can range from very simple to really chic.  Ideally I would like a mix of both - simple chic.

I like the enclosed rectangular run on this one and the overall size.

This is more what I would like to do - construct the coop from used pallets. One like this would be modified to have an enclosed run to protect the hens from predators.

A backyard fence would be wonderful as it would deter wild animals, enclose our garden, and would provide Honza a huge space to run around in.  We are surrounded by farms, many of which have farm fencing.

This would be ideal but we have no idea what a fence like this would cost.

As for trees, I would love a cherry tree and crepe myrtle in the front yard.  We have located a person in our area that is selling plum trees for $3 each.  Perhaps we will get a couple of those.

It can be overwhelming to think about all of this at one time, but I have to remind myself that this is just the beginning.  Rome wasn't built in a day!