Thursday, January 30, 2014

12 Foods to Buy Organic... or Grow!

Every year I look forward to browsing the seed catalogs and ordering my garden seeds.  There's so much to choose from! It takes me several evenings of browsing to settle on the varieties that will work best in my garden; sometimes they are old favorites (Beef-Master tomatoes are the staple of my canned salsa) and sometimes we try something new (we're giving Kandy Korn sweet corn a spin in the garden this year).

I'm also trying to focus on organically growing the fruits and veggies that are traditionally the most heavily contaminated by pesticides.  The Environmental Working Group estimates that if we choose organically-grown produce for the top 12 pesticide culprits, we will reduce our pesticide exposure by 80%!  This is not only better for consumers, but better for the environment and farmers.  If I can grow some of it myself, I can also save substantial money and reduce the packaging and emissions involved in buying from a grocery store.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Photographing My Old Barn

The peak in the loft of our 19th-century barn.  The wood was hand-hewn from timber felled on our property.  The support beams are American Chestnut, a tree which now suffers from Chestnut Blight and dies off before maturity.

I'll be the first to admit that I have an eclectic variety of stuff swimming around in my head: I went to college for fine arts (major in photography), art history, art education, American studies, and museum studies.  However, a lot of what I have chosen to study has been, in some way or another, related to this 18th-century farm that I now call home.  I often included the farm, nature, and animals as subject matter in my art; and early American architecture, art, and history have been my academic passion.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Horse Thief

Gram on one of the dairy cows, probably in one of the farm's rocky cow pastures
up the side of Ragged Mountain.

"The Horse Thief", as she was affectionately and jokingly known around the farm, was my grandmother.  And, yes, she had really been charged in a court of law as a horse thief.  Many decades after the incident and after the embarrassment had worn off, she wore her title proudly and hid a smile as my grandfather leaped at the chance to re-tell her colorful story of "thievery".

My grandma, Adaline, and my grandpa were young when they got married and took over the farm from his family.  At that time, it was a dairy farm with many cows and a variety of other farm animals.  They didn't yet have a tractor (eventually Papa got a red Massey-Harris in the late 1940's, which we still have and use), so horses were a necessity.  The horses pulled the wagon and sleigh and powered farm work.

Gram had her own riding horse which was on the slow and aged side, so she decided to trade her horse and saddle for a more energetic steed.  She rode her horse over to the next town to trade horses with another woman.  She bid farewell to her old horse and got on her new, younger horse (bareback since the saddle was part of the trade) and began the ride home.

Somewhere before they reached home, the horse began acting up.  He slipped off the road and into a muddy ditch, with my grandma still on, bareback.  From how she told it, the horse rolled around in the ditch for a few seconds before gaining his footing and getting back up on his feet.  Somehow, she managed to stay on him.  She was furious, turned him around, and rode him back to the woman's house.  Gram put him back in his stall, mounted her old horse, and rode home.

Technically, I suppose Gram did steal her original horse back, and the police saw it that way too.  She was charged with horse thievery and had to hire a lawyer to defend her case.  And it was serious: according to old laws still on the books, this crime was punishable by hanging.  Amazingly, despite living in a small town where everybody knew everybody's business, she was able to keep all of this a secret from her husband.  With her counsel's help, she won her case and kept her old horse.  Decades went by, and no one in the family knew of her embarrassing mishap.

Years later, my grandpa needed a ride home from the airport.  By sheer coincidence, he shared a ride with Gram's former lawyer.  The airport is about an hour away, so the two men had considerable time to shoot the breeze.  Gram's ordeal was one of the lawyer's all-time favorite court stories and he retold it with great enthusiasm, not realizing it had been a well-kept, decades-old secret.  When he got home, Papa relished making her squirm as he dropped hints that he knew.  As the truth came out, Gram was able to laugh about it, and Papa was amazed he never knew.

Papa and my dad enjoyed teasing Gram about being a "horse thief", but she was quick with a smile and a convincing explanation of why she was justified.  At the farm, "horse thievery" became synonymous with a sense of humor and a tough-as-nails, independent young woman.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Making Super-Fresh Dog Soap

My "Wall of Soaps"... a giant stack of the soaps I made
for my sister's wedding, including 12 different varieties.
I've been enjoying soap-making for several years now.  I sold bars at a local farmer's market, at the
Stanley-Whitman House Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, and I made over 250 bars to give as guest gifts at my sister's beautiful wedding.  (That was quite an undertaking... although fun, my kitchen became a soap factory and my dining room table became a wrapping station, complete with yards of white netting and satin ribbon!)

However, I got into soap-making when my Black Labrador-mix dog, Brodie, developed skin problems. He was constantly scratching himself until he had bald patches and had even developed a skin infection.  We had many trips to the vet and tried a variety of medications including Frontline for fleas, antibiotics, antihistamines, and Prednisone.  While these helped, they did not solve the underlying issue and we decided to test for allergies.  As it turned out, my poor boy had a lengthy list of both seasonal and household allergies, although spring and fall seasonal allergies like grasses and tree pollen, were the worst culprits.  We had a special allergy-shot serum made up to target his specific allergies and I started giving him a shot once a month.  What a difference!  As the next pollen season rolled around, there was a marked change in his health.  No skin infections, no incessant scratching, and a decreased need for medication.
Brodie with his favorite kitty, Smokey.

Despite our great results with the allergy shots, I still needed to try to keep his skin clean from pollen, dander, and oils.  During his worst seasons, I give him a bath once a week.  I developed this soap for him which includes tea tree oil (it's a natural antibacterial and fresh-smelling), vitamin E (for skin healing), and a gentle glycerin soap base.  Vegetable glycerin is easy to use (melt-and-pour), a natural vegetable product, very moisturizing, and extremely gentle on sensitive skin.  In fact, I left an extra bar in our shower and my husband and I used it... very gentle and fresh!

My Wagging Tail Dog Soap with tea tree oil,
Vitamin E oil, and cilantro in a glycerin base.

Bathing Tips:
*As with most soaps, this is not tear-free so don't use above the collar-line and keep out of eyes.  For Brodie's neck and head, I use tear-free Johnson's baby shampoo.
*Only use on healthy skin; don't use on infected or broken skin.
*For allergies, I alternate using this soap with Neutrogena T-Gel shampoo (or I use the CVS generic brand).  My vet recommended T-Gel to combat excessive skin oils.  Leave on for 5 minutes before rinsing and avoid face.
* After going outside during peak allergy seasons, I wipe Brodie's fur and face off with a damp hand towel to remove pollen.

Brodie, Benny, and Bear in 2008.
Directions: Wagging Tail Dog Soap

- Melt-and-Pour vegetable glycerin soap base (Essentials by Catalina has the best prices I've found and have a lot of other fantastic products.  Sign up for emails to get sale info.  A 20-lb. block will let you make some soaps for yourself, too!  Craft stores, like Michaels, will also have it.)

- liquid Vitamin E oil (found at pharmacies and natural health stores)

- tea tree oil (found at pharmacies and natural health stores)

- soap molds (small yogurt containers, the bottoms of cardboard milk containers, or any flexible container will work.  I use shoe-box-size Rubbermaid storage containers because the sides are straight and I can cut nice straight bars.)

- Optional: pretty additives, such as marigold petals, rose petals, cilantro leaves, etc.

- Optional: cosmetic-grade soap coloring (not food coloring, which can stain sinks)

- Optional: rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle (for reducing surface foam/bubbles on bars)


1. Melt soap base on the stove using a double-boiler.
2. Pour base into your first mold.
3. For each bar of soap, add a few drops of Vitamin E oil, tea tree oil, and coloring.  Add petals or leaves.  Stir into melted base; work quickly to stir in before a skin forms on surface.  Try to avoid stirring in air bubbles.  Lightly spray rubbing alcohol over surface to reduce foam/bubbles.
4. Continue pouring and mixing for each mold.  (You can also add ingredients to the pot of melted soap base and then pour all molds.  I prefer to mix in the molds so I can reuse the leftover base for other kinds of soap.)
5. Allow to cool and harden for several hours at room temperature.  I don't put them in the freezer or refrigerator because condensation will form.
6. Remove from molds.  Flexing the mold and then tapping upside down on the counter should work.  If using large molds, cut into bars.
7. Wrap in plastic wrap or store in a sealed plastic bag or container.  Glycerin will "sweat" during humid weather if not wrapped up, which doesn't affect its usefulness but is not so pretty. It's the same principle that draws moisture to your skin after using glycerin soap, so it's actually a good thing!

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Recipe: Best-Ever Egg Quiche (Easy!)

I never cared much for quiche until I tried this recipe... and now I make it at least once a week!  When I'm short on time or ingredients, this is my go-to dinner.  I can throw this together in 10 minutes flat and then pop it on the oven for one hour.  We always have an abundance of eggs from our hens and I can always find some form of cheese and quiche-y ingredients to throw in.

This quick dish is a good way to use up leftover meat and veggies.  I had leftover ham and broccoli for the quiche in the photos.  And there is no traditional pie crust; the layer of cheese on the bottom browns and becomes a savory crust.

Recipe: Best-Ever Egg Quiche

  • 1-1/2 cups shredded cheese (1-1/4 cup Cheddar and 1/4 cup Parmesan is a good mix, but you could use any type you have on hand or a combination)
  • Filling: combination of any of the following: 2 cups broccoli, 1 package chopped spinach (squeezed out), sauteed fresh spinach, bacon bits, ham, sauteed mushrooms, onions, etc.
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 5 or 6 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 cup pancake mix (powdered)  
  • Optional: 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese


1.  Grease and flour a 10-inch pie plate.  Preheat oven to 350.
2.  Spread 1-1/2 cups cheese over bottom and up sides of pie plate.
3.  Spread filling over the cheese. 
4.  Mix with beaters: milk, eggs, butter, and pancake mix.
5.  Pour milk mixture over pie plate.  Optional: sprinkle Parmesan cheese over top.
6.  Bake 50-60 minutes at 350, until center is raised and firm and top is browned.  Let cool 10 minutes.

Join the Link Party!  This post linked up to... the Farm Blog Hop and Clever Chicks Blog Hop and The HomeAcre Hop and Link Party Palooza and Motivation Monday and Homestead Barn Hop and One Project at a Time and Backyard Farming Connection and Share Your Cup and Totally Tasty Tuesday and Tuesday Talent Show and Cast Party Wednesday and Melt in Your Mouth Monday and Wicked Awesome Wednesday and Foodie Friday

Monday, January 13, 2014

10 Interesting Egg Facts!

A day's worth of eggs from the farm.  Our Ameraucana's
blue egg and a tiny "wind egg" are in the center. 
Our feathered ladies and gent are about 10 months old now and have taught us a lot.  We've learned about priceless coop-cleaning tricks, sewing chicken "jackets", choosing breeds, and selecting the best feed.  We had a red-tailed hawk screeching as he tried to get into the enclosed outdoor run.  We've even dealt with evacuating everyone from the coop into a horse stall during a flash flood!

As we waited for our little peeps to arrive last April, I busied myself with reading everything I could about raising chickens.  I did a lot of research on breeds; we had Rhode Island Reds in the past and wanted chickens that were more docile.  We settled on Buff Orpingtons, Ameraucanas, Plymouth Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, and Speckled Sussex.  Two of them have stood out as favorites and often seek out attention from their human family: Kooky, a Sussex who enjoys perching on our shoulders, and Rainbow Girl, a brown Ameraucana who "coos" when she's pet.

I've developed a good knowledge of chicken-keeping... as well as some amusing (and sometimes completely useless) facts!

1. Egg shell color is not related to feather color; instead, the color of a hen's earlobes is often related to her egg color.  Eggs (and earlobes!) come in all shades of brown from light beige through dark chocolate-brown, white, and even pink.  However, the exception to the rule are Ameraucana hens who lay blue-green eggs and Araucana hens who lay blue eggs.  Brown-egg-layers may also lay speckled eggs.
Some unique eggs from our flock: (clockwise from top)
egg with white calcium spots, blue Ameraucana egg,
two speckled eggs from Speckled Sussex 

2. Eggs take approximately 25 hours to develop inside a hen before being laid.  Eggs start off with white shells and, right before being laid, brown pigment will be deposited on the shell by brown-layers.  Depending on age and breed, hens can lay fewer than 100 eggs per year while others may lay over 300.  Each hen produces eggs with a shape unique to her; some are more circular while other are more oval.

3. If hens don't get enough calcium in their diets, their eggs' shells can become thin and break easily. Calcium can even be pulled from their bones to make the eggshells.  Oyster-shell supplements can be fed free-choice in a small container and hens will take what they need.  Other conditions may also lead to thin shells.

4. Young hens who are just beginning to lay can sometimes produce strange-looking eggs as a result of their systems adjusting.  Extra-extra-large double-yolkers and tiny, yolk-less "wind" eggs are fine to eat (and a fun conversation piece).  It's also possible for a hen to lay a shell-less egg.

The girls and their gentleman-friend, Fabio, enjoying an
autumn day in their outside run.
5. Dark, leafy greens and berries are full of immune-boosting carotenoids.  Feeding them to your hens will result in dark, orange yolks that become carotenoid-rich nutrition for you!

6. Fresh eggs are difficult to peel after hard-boiling.  Thank you to Lisa @ FreshEggsDaily for this tip on making hard-cooked eggs:  Steam for 20 minutes and then plunge into ice water.  They will peel easily!

7. Hens who are allowed to forage on plant materials and insects lay more nutritious eggs with much higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene, vitamins A, D, and E, and lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fat.  (We have a fenced outdoor run for our chickens so pasture is limited, but we give them greens, vegetables, and fruits daily to compensate.)  All eggs are high in protein, amino acids, folic acid, zinc, and choline.  Also, research has shown that, while eggs contain some cholesterol, eggs do not raise cholesterol levels in humans.

8. Egg shells may look solid, but are actually porous.    Washing a dirty egg in warm water will draw the bacteria in through the shell.

9. Fresh eggs have a small airspace, firm yolks, and a gelatinous, cloudy white.  As eggs age, the airspace grows larger and the yolk and white become watery.   If placed in a bowl of water, fresh eggs will sink and older eggs will float due to the size of their airspace.  Eggs can be stored for four weeks in the refrigerator (in a closed container to prevent drying out), up to six weeks in a cool, non-refrigerated place, or frozen in ice cube trays.  Other (and probably less-appealing) preservation methods include oiling, pickling, and "water-glass".)

10. Broody hens will sit on eggs in a nest for three weeks, until they hatch.  During this time, she will move off the nest for less than a half-hour a day and rotate her eggs every fifteen minutes!

Join the Link Party!  This post linked up to... the Farm Blog Hop and Clever Chicks Blog Hop and The HomeAcre Hop and Simple Saturday and Farmgirl Friday and Homestead Barn Hop and Natural Living Monday and Backyard Farming Connection and Tilly's Nest and Maple Hill Hop

Making Homemade Yogurt

We love yogurt in this house, especially my two young daughters.  My 5-year-old, Ella, would be completely happy eating nothing except yogurt.  My little toddler, Maggie, has been doing a great job of eating her yogurt with a spoon all by herself (although she still enjoys rubbing it though her hair on occasion... maybe this is her beauty secret!).  

As a proud penny-pincher, I wondered if I could make it myself for a lower cost and how hard it would be.  As it turns out, it's incredibly easy and about $0.30 per cup!  (Plus, I can control how much sugar goes in and we add our own organic fruits.)

I was given a Donvier Yogurt Maker as a gift and love it.  I know there are many other methods for making yogurt (after all, people have been making yogurt long before modern gadgets and electricity), but I really like how easy and fool-proof my Donvier is.  

Step 1:  Pour 4 cups (1 quart) milk into a pot and heat over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.  When steam starts to rise off the surface and bubbles form around the edges of the pot, turn off the heat and insert the thermometer into the milk.  

Step 2:  The Donvier machine comes with a thermometer that tells you when to add the starter.  When the temperature drops to the correct point, add the starter (either 2 heaping tablespoons of plain, store-bought yogurt; leftover plain, homemade yogurt; or a special yogurt starter packet) and stir it in.  (At this point, I also add a heaping tablespoon of local honey and stir it until dissolved.)

Step 3:  Pour into the 8 cups that come with the machine and put the lids on.  Put the cups in the machine.  Set the machine's timer for 11 hours.  Basically, the Donvier machine does nothing more than keep the fermenting yogurt at the correct, constant temperature for the right amount of time.

Step 4:  Take the cups out and let them cool, then put in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.  Add fruit, vanilla, or sugar.

Join the party!  This post linked on... The Homestead Barn Hop and Mostly Homemade Monday and the Clever Chicks Blog Hop and A Bowl Full of Lemons and The HomeAcre Hop and Link Party Palooza and Simple Saturday and Farmgirl Friday and Natural Living Monday and Wildcraft Wednesday

Friday, January 10, 2014

Recipe: Oatmeal-Honey Bread for the Bread-maker... and Memories of Gram's Bakery

Gram's bakery license from 40 years ago

My grandma, Adaline, had a small bakery in the back room of the farmhouse at one time.  She was a masterful baker and was locally famous in Connecticut for her breads, especially.  I heard many bakery stories over the years, attesting equally to her baking skills as much as her work ethic.

She worked hard, long hours to make the bakery work.  In her own words, Gram would "take the stairs two at a time" with all the running around the house she needed to do.  When I moved into the house, I found an old receipt for a commercial stand mixer that she had purchased, but she did all the kneading, for every loaf, every day, by hand.

There were several movie stars who would send their drivers out to the farm to get a few loaves of her
fresh-baked breads.  There also was an airline pilot who, as he flew in and out of the Hartford-Springfield airport, would point out to his passengers the little bakery below with the "best bread ever" as he flew over our property.  The bakery closed decades ago, before I was born, but people still talk about it with fond memories.  Just this fall, a woman came up to us during a tag sale were were holding.  She said that when she was a child, her entire family would drive out to the farm from Simsbury (about a half hour away) every weekend.  They would bring a stick of butter and butter knife with them in the car so, on the way home, they could all enjoy a slice of Gram's warm, right-out-of-the-oven bread spread with butter.

Gram didn't follow recipes exactly, or sometimes even use recipes at all.  She measured amounts intuitively rather than with teaspoons and measuring cups.  Almost every time I make bread, I remember her story of when she forgot to add the salt.  It was completely unpalatable for missing such a small ingredient - even the cows would not touch it when she threw it out in the pasture for them!
When she got older, she still enjoyed making bread for the family.  She thought a bread-maker was one of the best inventions ever because it took all of the work out of kneading.  My grandpa still liked it baked in a loaf pan, however, so she would transfer the dough to a pan and the oven for baking.

Her most well-loved bread was Oatmeal.  I've made many varieties of breads, rolls, and pizza doughs in my own bread-maker, but I have always been on the look-out for an Oatmeal recipe that she would be proud of.  (She did not have her recipes written down, they were only stored in her head.)  I've tried many recipes, but they were not perfect - usually too dense or too dry.  Then I tried this one today and it made me smile... I think she would be proud!  It has a light texture and a slight sweetness, perfect for both toast and for dipping in a bowl of beef stew.

Gram-Would-Be-Proud Oatmeal-Honey Bread (for the bread-maker)

1 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon salt
heaping 1/2 cup old-fashioned or rolled oats
2 1/3 cups white flour
1 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
Optional: 1 heaping tablespoon dry milk powder (enhances the crispy crust)

1. Add all ingredients to the bread-maker in the order listed.
2. Set to "Light Crust" setting, if an option.
3. Set to a basic bread cycle.
4. Pretty easy, right?  Sit back and enjoy those baking bread smells!

Join the party!  This post linked on... the Farm Blog Hop and Sweet Sharing Monday and Mostly Homemade Monday and Homestead Barn Hop and Clever Chicks Blog Hop and A Bowl Full of Lemons and Mandy's Recipe Box and The HomeAcre Hop and Share Your Cup Thursday and Home Sweet Home and Link Party Palooza and Simple Saturday and Farmgirl Friday and Motivation Monday and DIY Home Sweet Home and Handy Man Crafty Woman and Down Home Blog Hop and Tuesday Talent Show  and Tuesdays with a Twist and Sunday Social Hop and Melt in Your Mouth Monday and Get Inspired: Easy Recipes, Crafts, & Projects and Foodie Friday and Fridays Unfolded and Simple & Sweet Friday and Show-Off Friday and Saturday Show-licious Craft & Recipe Showcase and Get Schooled Saturday

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Decorating with Seaside Nature

When I moved to the farm a little over 6 months ago, one of the first areas I decorated was the living room mantle.  In my previous house, I didn't have a fireplace and I really missed having one.  It's a space for treasured collections and Christmas stockings, a focal point of sculptural carvings and conversation.

This part of the house dates back to the American Federal period of architecture and was built around 1810 by my ancestor, Pelatiah Ransom.  The back room of the house was built thirty years earlier but, as his prosperity grew, so did his apparent desire for a larger, more updated home in keeping with the style of the new republic.  The living room, then called a parlor, was the center of entertaining within the house.  The elegant, hand-planed moldings around the windows and doors were the finest in the house.  The fireplace mantle and surround were equally graceful, reflecting the period's fascination with ancient Greek and Roman architecture and the symmetry, pure white color, and fine proportion that defined it.

Many years ago, the original brick beehive fireplace and chimney had to be removed, probably due to the homemade mortar disintegrating, a common problem with antique homes.  The firebox was boarded up, but the mantle remained.  When my sister and I inherited the house, there was a lot of rehabilitation that needed to be done, including removing carpets and replacing some of the damaged plaster.  Since we were doing all that work, we decided to also return the fireplace to it's original beauty.  We removed the board from the firebox and, to our surprise, found pairs of old shoes in there.  After a little research, we believe it may have been an old superstition to bring good luck.  A friend who was skilled in masonry rebuilt the brick firebox with discarded bricks and designed a lovely bluestone hearth.  (We also returned the shoes to their rightful place behind the bricks.)  The original American Chestnut floor, hidden for so many years beneath wall-to-wall carpeting, was lovingly restored with my sister and brother-in-law's elbow grease.  It's easy to see why the extraordinarily wide planks and patina are so sought-after today for their beauty, in addition to American Chestnut being a now-extinct wood.

I have a few collections that could have gone on the mantle:  small hand-made pottery that I collected in Europe and New England, wooden folk art animal figurines, British tin tea boxes, hand-blown glass from my college days in Venice, and cast-iron birds and crickets, to name a few.  I will probably keep most of the collections in storage and rotate them in and out every few months.

I decided on my seashore collection.  We took annual summer trips to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and would return with buckets of seashells, tumbled sea glass, flattened pebbles, and driftwood. One year, I found a unique grey fossil on the beach that may have been a distant cousin of a sand dollar.  For our honeymoon, JP and I went to the Cayman Islands where huge conch shells and pieces of coral wash up on the shore.  I think he rolled his eyes as I loaded shells and coral, carefully wrapped in our clothes, into our suitcases to bring home.  I also found imitation coral and starfish on the clearance rack at a home decorating store; they looked and felt almost real (and were a real bargain).

The conch shells and coral were fairly dingy and a bit green with algae.  I soaked them for a day in a mild bleach solution and then scrubbed them with a toothbrush and hand soap.  I arranged my collection on the mantle, choosing the best pieces that showed patterns, textures, and interesting shapes.  The lovely brain coral sits in the center with other pieces of varying shapes, sizes, and textures arranged to either side.

Here are some tips for a seashore arrangement:

- A wall painted with a light shade, especially ocean blue, is a crisp background for white shells.
- Prop a framed, beach-themed art work or mirror in the back of the display.  The shabby-chic mirror I used is perfect:  it echoes the whiteness and organic shapes of the shells, reflects light back which makes the room feel larger, and has cut-outs which highlight the blue wall color.
- Shells don't need to be perfect.  Some of my most interesting finds have been shells covered with barnacles and shells with broken pieces which reveal the spiraling interior.
- Look beyond shells to other seashore artifacts, such as faded driftwood, clear and colored sea glass, clear jars filled with beach sand, pastel stones, starfish, sand dollars.
- Mix different shapes, sizes, and textures.
- Look for interesting display methods, such as stacking stones, piling miscellaneous shells in a basket, or filling a clear vessel 
- Incorporate the ocean theme into other parts of the room.  I hung antique glass buoys in netting in front of the windows and framed family photos from a day at the beach.
- Preserve ocean wildlife: never break off or touch pieces of live coral; never collect living starfish, sand dollars, or animals living in shells; and avoid walking on off-limit sand dunes. 

An ocean collection may not have been what was originally displayed on this mantle two hundred years ago, but I feel it's a fitting connection to this house and history.  The Ransom family traces ancestors back to the 1600's from the original seaside Plymouth colony and Cape Cod.  In addition, many Americans during the Federal period were enthusiastic about representing themselves as worldly; their new-found democracy and victory prompted them to learn about other lands and collect exotic treasures.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Gardening Time-savers: Water and Weeds!

1. Weed-Block Fabric (but not the kind at Home Depot)
Over the course of many years tending a garden, I have tried a variety of weed-blocking fabrics to end the vile task of pulling weeds by hand.  (And being an organic gardener, most chemicals are not allowed.)  I tried fabrics from hardware stores, Walmart, discount stores, and local nurseries. Experimenting with all of those fabrics, despite the claims on the packages, always ended with me cursing and wondering why I wasted my money and time.  They were flimsy, would tear as I laid them down, weeds grew right through the fabric, and they would literally disintegrate into shreds after one season.  In addition, they are supposed to be completely covered with mulch because UV rays will cause damage.
When I inherited my farm, with large 1500 square foot garden, I knew I needed a better solution.  The first year, I tried controlling the weeds with a hoe and rototiller, which was very time-consuming every week and still did not suppress the aggressive weeds well enough.  Last year, I did a lot of internet searching to see if there was a better fabric.  I found my solution!  At,  I found heavy-duty polypropylene ground cover ( and ordered enough for half the garden, to try it out.  When I laid it out, I found it was thick, blocked light, and did not tear.  It's UV-stabilized, so it will last many years even in sunlight.  Since it's a woven plastic, it allows water to seep through.  The rolls were easy to roll out into straight rows, even in a big space.  I bought the 6' x 300' size for my vine plants (pumpkins, watermelons, etc.) and the 3' x 300' size for between corn rows.  I just ordered another roll to fill the rest of the garden this year.
My recommendations for using this great product?  Use the re-pins in addition to covering the edges with dirt; last spring a windy day allowed wind to get under the fabric and pulled it up along with the re-pins.  This year, after I rototill and lay down the fabric, I will use my hoe to pull some dirt along the fabric edges.
Cost:  Although covering a large space may seem expensive, the polypropylene groundcover comes out to about $0.06 per square foot and will save you both time and money over many years.  You will be weeding much less and it can be reused year after year!  (In comparison, Scotts 4' x 100' Landscape Fabric, at Home Depot, must be covered with mulch and costs more at $0.07 per square foot.)

2. Newspaper and Grass Clippings
I have to give my mom credit for this priceless, old-time gardening trick!  For as far back into my childhood as I can remember, we laid down 2-3 layers of newspapers topped with grass clippings as
garden mulch.  It's free, recycles materials, blocks weeds, conserves moisture in the soil, and is really easy to do.  Plus, the next spring you can just rototill it into the soil and it becomes compost.  (Just make sure not to use glossy paper; it will not allow water through.)  When I was around 19, I remember us spending the day before a family trip to England mulching the garden; we knew it would keep the garden in good shape for the two weeks we would be away.  This year, in my small raised beds and flower garden, I'm going to do the newspaper method with bedding (hay and wood shavings) from my sheep stall, which has the extra benefit of some manure mixed in.

3. Soaker Hoses
I know all gardeners and farmers out there will be magnificently jealous, but I am lucky enough to have my garden located over a natural, underground spring.  Soil more than two or three inches deep remains evenly damp during the whole growing season, even during dry spells.  Back when Ransom Farm was established, during the late 1700's, farmers probably scrutinized their plot carefully for the best location of a garden, and an underground spring would have been like finding gold!

Back in my previous gardens at other homes, however, I sometimes needed to water plants.  Spraying with a hose wastes water (through evaporation and run-off) and hauling buckets, although great for the shoulder muscles, is a chore.  One year, I purchased some soaker hoses (basically garden hoses with tiny holes that drip water directly into the soil), laid them down along my tomato plants, and covered with mulch.  All I had to do was turn on the hose for 10 minutes, and my tomato plants were deeply and thoroughly watered without waste and without getting the foliage wet (which can lead to disease).  The mulch conserved the moisture in the soil until my next watering.

4. Soil "Dams"
Even when I was a kid, I liked to putz around in the garden.  At some point, I realized that watering with a hose, sprinkler, or bucket led to run-off when the soil couldn't absorb the water quickly enough.  In turn, the soil around plants didn't get deeply watered, leading to a host of problems like shallow root systems and soil that dried out quickly.  How could the water be held around each plant so that it would have a chance to soak in deeply?  Well, the answer seems so simple... a soil "dam"!  After planting, I would take a minute to build a dam out of dirt around each plant.  For most plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, a round reservoir 12" across with a dam a few inches high worked great and would last all summer, especially if lightly covered in mulch.  For "hills" or groups of plants, such as cucumbers and squash, one wider reservoir worked fine.  Instead of the water running off away from the plants, I could simply fill each reservoir almost to the top with the garden hose or bucket and watch the little pond slowly sink in.
This method also works really well for perennials that are newly planted or split and have to be watered often until they acclimate.  We rescued a huge, heirloom hosta from the yard of a mid-1800's house that was being torn down.  I split it into dozens of small plants and relocated them to a shady slope at the back of my yard.  After digging in compost and manure for each grouping, I planted them and made reservoirs.  I was able to give them deep waterings without the water running down the slope.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Homemade Vanilla Extract Recipe... and other vanilla treats! Super THRIFTY!

 A good friend gave me a wonderful gift a few years ago: a large bottle of homemade pure vanilla extract.  She also told me (a bit secretively) how easy and frugal it was to make.  For Christmas this year, I decided to try it myself to both give as gifts and to replenish my own supply.
Until now, I had always used pure vanilla extract sparingly because of how expensive bottles are in the store.  Even imitation vanilla is expensive (and I can only guess what chemicals are in it)!  In one short evening, I busied myself in the kitchen by making a dozen 8-ounce bottles of extract for about a third of the price of brand-name store-bought.  And it was fun!
You might want to make a larger batch of this to keep on hand; not only does the cost per bottle go down, but it must steep for a minimum of 5 months before using.   I've included recipes for both small and large batches. (For prices and where I purchased ingredients, see the end of this post.)

Recipe:  Homemade Vanilla Extract (makes one 8-ounce bottle)
- two vanilla beans
- 8 oz. vodka
- a tall 8 oz. bottle with cap, cork, or stopper (a reused, clean glass bottle or jar will work fine)
1. Using a sharp knife, split each bean in half lengthwise.  Do not remove the seeds.  Put beans into bottle.  (If beans are taller than the bottle, cut in half so they fit.)
2. Pour vodka over beans, leaving a little air space at the top of the bottle.  The tops of the beans should be submersed in vodka.
3. Store in a dry, dark place for at least 5 months to allow extract to steep.  Gently shake once in a while.  Extract will keep for a long time, even after opened.

Recipe:  Homemade Vanilla Extract (LARGE BATCH: makes up to fifteen 8-ounce bottles or a total of 60 ounces)
- 1/4 lb. vanilla beans
- two 1.75 liter bottles of vodka
- up to fifteen tall 8 oz. bottles with cap, cork, or stopper (reused, clean glass bottles or jars will work fine), or bottles totaling up to 60 oz.
Steps:  same as above

Don't throw away the beans from an empty bottle of extract!  Beans can actually be used twice.  Add used beans to a jar or plastic container with lid.  Cover beans with granulated white sugar.  The beans will infuse the sugar with a vanilla flavor, which can be used in tea, desserts, or my recipe for Instant Chai mix (below).

Katie's Clementine-Vanilla Bean Jam!

Recipe: Clementine-Vanilla Bean Jam
The day before Thanksgiving, I braved the grocery store crowds and found an awesome deal.  The store had over-ordered boxes of Clementine oranges and they were discounted to 99-cents per 5-pound box.  How could a thrifty girl pass that up?  Although my 5-year-old daughter loves "Clems", there were only so many she could eat.  I found this easy, great recipe to use up the rest.  This jam has a definite "dessert" taste, so it's best on toast, rolls, yogurt, or ice cream.
• one 5-lb. box of Clementine oranges (or regular oranges)
• 4 cups sugar
• 2 vanilla beans, split and seeds scraped out
• 1 packet powdered pectin
1. Peel and break apart oranges.  Remove any seeds.  Chop in a food processor, blender, or by hand until finely chopped, but do not liquefy.  (Don't worry about removing the white pith from the oranges, it's loaded with natural pectin and will help your jam set.)
2. Combine chopped orange pulp, sugar, and vanilla bean scrapings in a large pot, and boil over high heat. Using a candy thermometer, bring the temperature up to 220 degrees. Continue to cook for 30 minutes.
3. When the volume has reduced and the temperature is at 220 degrees, add the pectin. Stir constantly and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat.
4. Pour jam into hot, sterilized jars. Wipe rims, apply lids, and screw on bands. Process in a boiling water canner for ten minutes.
5. Remove jars and place on a towel-lined countertop. Allow them to cool to room temperature. Check the seals, and store any unsealed jars in the fridge. Store the sealed jars in a cool, dry place.

Recipe:  Instant Vanilla Chai Tea Mix
I love Starbucks chai tea, but I don't love their prices quite as much!  This is a great, easy recipe for an instant chai mix which uses vanilla-infused sugar.  This recipe makes plenty of mix, so store the extra in a lidded jar.
2 cups nonfat dry milk powder
2 1/2 cups vanilla sugar (directions above)
1 3/4 cups instant unsweetened tea mix
2 teaspoons ground ginger
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1. Add all ingredients to a large bowl and mix until combined.
2.  Optional:  Add 2 cups at a time to a food processor or blender and process until a fine powder.  This will help it dissolve quicker.
Making a cup of chai:  Fill a mug 3/4 full with hot water (or hot milk for a creamier taste).  Stir in 1-2 heaping tablespoonfuls of mix.

Shopping Sources:
I admit I'm a big fan of and think the Prime membership is worth it to get the free 2-day shipping, plus lots of streaming movies and TV shows (we gave up cable TV long ago...). Amazon had the best prices I could find on these items.

1/4-lb. Madagascar Vanilla Beans, $18.95 (These were very nice: moist and fragrant!)

Clear Glass 8-ounce bottles with caps (package of 6 bottles), $8.58  (These are pretty enough for gifts and can be reused.)

vodka: any liquor store will have 1.75 L bottles; inexpensive brands like Dubra or Popov work fine and are about $10 each

homemade pure vanilla extract (not including bottles): $0.35 per ounce
McCormick pure vanilla extract: about $1.00 per ounce
King Arthur Flour pure vanilla extract: about $1.45 per ounce

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Saturday, January 4, 2014

VIDEO: Burt and Ernie in "Whacky Snow Mode"!

If you were to check on Burt and Ernie (our two Old English Southdowns) at any given moment, you would probably find them lazily munching grass or taking a nap.  Their first big snow apparently got them so excited, however, that they began racing and bouncing around like ping pong balls.  Until I owned my own sheep, I never realized that the stereotypical bouncy gait of sheep in animations was, in fact, how they really run!

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Burt and Ernie Enjoy their First Blizzard!

Our two Old English Babydoll Southdown sheep, Burt (brown) and Ernie (white, although now a slightly grubby grey) are enjoying their first big snow... 12+ inches predicted overnight with winds at 50 mph.  The low temp for tomorrow night will be about -9.  I'm glad these guys have nice thick wool coats and a cozy stall with lots of hay to sleep in, or else they may have been sleeping in the house with us!
They put on quite a show for me this afternoon, racing around their barnyard and butting heads.  Ernie, although smaller than Burt, runs the barnyard like he owns the place.  They are surprisingly fast runners... well, it's more like a flying bounce than running.
Last year we decided to get two lambs to help keep the weeds down in the two small pastures that are difficult to mow, due to the rocks and incline.  In the smaller barnyard, the weeds were well over 5 feet tall and it was almost impossible to walk through it.  You can see the great landscaping job Burt and Ernie did in the photo!
During the summer, I also learned the art of installing electric fencing and fenced in the "night pasture", which is a pretty little hill lined with shady maples and a stone wall at the top and a small barn (originally the sugar shack for boiling maple syrup) at the base.  We decided on electric polywire, instead of traditional electric wire, which was easy to work with.  The hill is very rocky and uneven, but the sheep had a great time roaming around under the maples, eating weeds and orchard grass all day.  And what could be a more bucolic scene out my window?
Ernie started off with some "bloat" issues, where his stomach filled with excess gas.  Our vet tested him and it showed he had some severe internal parasites.  We put him on a different wormer, limited his fresh pasture time, and the vet recommended Therabloat to treat bloat immediately.  I also read that giving sheep hay before grazing can help, so we did that too.  He recovered quickly and can be on pasture all day now.  (** I couldn't find Therabloat in stores, so I ordered a case from PBS Animal Health at‎.  They had the best price and I think it's important for sheep owners to keep on hand since bloat can be fatal.)
I wonder what the boys will think of snow up past their stomachs... we will see in the morning!

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