Sunday, March 30, 2014

Thin Mints Knock-Offs

My daughter is a Daisy Scout and we just got done selling Girl Scout cookies, which is the main fund-raiser for her troop.  We really appreciate all the people who support Girl Scouts by buying cookies because it helps the girls with special projects, trips, and camp.  However, there is a point (usually not too long after buying the cookies), when the last box is gone and we have to wait an entire year for the official cookies to come around again.  So during the "non-cookie" season, I found this easy recipe to make homemade Thin Mints!

Thin Mints Knock-Offs


8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips or semi-sweet baking squares
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
36 Ritz crackers


1. Melt chocolate over a double-boiler on the stove.  (Or, melt it in the microwave, but be careful to stir every 20 seconds and do not over-cook!)

2. Stir peppermint extract into the chocolate.

3. Using two spoons, dip each cracker into the chocolate and coat each side.  Scrape off extra chocolate.  Allow to cool and harden on a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper.

* Optional: Top with sprinkles or crushed candy canes.

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Baking Soda: 25 Household Uses

Baking soda is a great non-toxic cleaner, mild abrasive, and odor-remover.  It's cheap and doesn't contain harmful odors or ingredients.  My favorite uses are to scrub out my stainless-steel kitchen sink and to remove baked-on food from pots and pans.  Here are some other tips for using baking soda around the house...


1. To remove baked-on or burned food from pots and pans, sprinkle a few tablespoons in the bottom, add some hot water, and let it sit for 30 minutes or more.  For really tough jobs, simmer the water and baking soda on the stove for a few minutes and then let it sit overnight.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Easy Kids' Chore Chart & System

My 5-year-old daughter has many wonderful qualities.  She is caring, creative, enthusiastic, and loves to spend time with her little sister and pets.  However, she is not a morning person.  At least when she has to get up early for school.  Most of the time, she's a good helper and does what I ask, despite her sleepiness.  But then there are the mornings when she would rather lay on the couch and watch Curious George. It's sometimes a struggle to get her ready for school while also getting the toddler ready and myself ready for work... and out the door on time.  I often feel overwhelmed and frazzled all before 8 am!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Herb & Buttermilk Dressing

There was a time when I thought salad dressing had to come in a bottle from the grocery store.  And was really expensive and had a long list of ingredients that I couldn't pronounce.  Eventually the cheap-skate in me surfaced and I started looking up and trying homemade dressing recipes.  I was really surprised at how easy they are to make for a fraction of the cost of store-bought.  They taste much better and have fresh, real ingredients instead of chemicals.

We love this fresh-tasting Herb & Buttermilk dressing, which has definite Ranch flavor.  

Herb & Buttermilk Dressing

1 cup buttermilk*
3 tblsp sour cream
2 tblsp mayonnaise
1 tblsp dried herbs or 2 tblsp fresh herbs (such as tarragon, parsley, dill, chives or a combination)
1/2 tsp garlic powder or 1 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp dry mustard
season to taste with salt and black pepper

Whisk ingredients together in a medium bowl.  Transfer leftovers to a sealed container and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

* To make a buttermilk substitute:  Mix 1 cup milk with 1 tblsp lemon juice or white vinegar.  Let sit at room temperature for at least 3 hours to thicken.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Newspapers: Garden Tips A to Z

Do you have any other tips for growing or using corn?  Share your tips in a comment!


I love newspapers.  However, I hate to admit that I don't read too much in them, purely out of lack of time. (I have to apologize to my sister here who was a former newspaper journalist!)  I save my coupon inserts, so stay tuned for a post on my quick and easy coupon method.  And I have a neat pile of papers just waiting for their many uses in the garden and around the farm!

Garden Mulch
This is my secret weapon in the garden!  My mom used sheets of newspaper as mulch in her garden since I was a kid.  It suppresses weeds and retains moisture in the soil.  Plus, it's biodegradable so it can be easily tilled into the dirt the next spring and becomes rich compost.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Easy-Sew Hamper Liner

I've had this wicker laundry hamper for about a decade.  The top edge was starting to show wear-and-tear and the lid had unraveled a bit.  The lid has been retired to the brush pile and has now become a nice little house for a chipmunk or salamander, but I decided to give the rest of the hamper a new life by sewing a liner.  The new liner covers up the top edge, so it's not scratching me every time I reach in!

This is really easy to sew and took me just about an hour, start to finish.  And since I used leftover fabric, it was FREE!  A quick and pretty project to get done while my Little One was napping this morning.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Protecting Your Homestead Before a Death

Not an easy topic, I know.
Unfortunately, I know because I've been through it.  I know what we did right and I know what we did wrong when it came to inheriting our homestead from my Dad.  And it's so much more than simply visiting a lawyer to write up a will (although, of course, that's an important part).  There's a lot that we never thought of getting straight beforehand that came back to haunt us with time, money, and heartache during a period that was hard enough already.

Our family farm has been in the family for 234 years.  The farmhouse was built in 1780 right after our ancestor returned from fighting as a Minute Man in the Revolutionary War.  It was important that the old homestead continued to stay in the family.  When my grandparents lived here, it went through stages of being a dairy farm, tobacco farm, and bakery, always with a large garden and various farm animals.  My Dad continued with a maple syrup business, horses, chickens, and cattle.  In his late 50's, he developed cancer and was gone by the age of 62.  He had a recent will drawn up, made me executrix, and gave me health care power of attorney.  We had discussed his wishes.  He even left me with a heart-felt letter and a notebook full of important information regarding the property.  With his health failing, we thought everything was in order.  Here are the lessons we learned. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Encouraging Kids to Help on the Farm

After having our second daughter, I wanted more than anything to have our kids grow up on the family farm.  I wanted them to love being outdoors, be compassionate towards animals, and not afraid of hard work.  I wanted them to be knowledgeable about nature and the environment, learn to be independent women, and appreciate the history of their ancestral home.

Farm Girl, now five years old, started helping out as soon as we moved to the farm.  Going outside to take care of the animals is now something she looks forward to every day and takes responsibility for.  She has overcome her apprehension of the chickens (I think it was the flapping wings that scared her one day) and makes sure her sheep have hay.  She is starting to recognize that she has responsibilities and a part here.  Although we are still learning as we go, here are some ways that we have been encouraging our kids to help and take responsibility around the farm.

1.  Encourage compassion.  We've stressed being gentle, kind, and respectful of animals since Farm Girl was little.  Tail-pulling and hitting were absolutely not permitted.  When we go to take care of the sheep, she is very in-tune with Burt and Ernie.  She is extra gentle with Burt because he's more skittish.  This week, Farm Girl even brought her radio into their stable because she thought they might like some music!  I encourage her to empathize with them and think about how they are feeling.  Developing compassion is a trait that will help her not only on the farm, but to lead a full life as a member of this planet.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Spiced Carrot Bread

I was a strict vegetarian for over a decade until that one fateful day when my Mom was cooking burgers and they just smelled too good.  Up until that point, I would pass up half the dishes at Thanksgiving and made my own beans-and-grains veggie burgers.  Mom bought me a vegetarian cookbook, now dog-eared and worn around the edges, that I still use today.  I adapted this wonderful spiced carrot bread recipe from that cookbook; it's great plain or (my favorite) with a bit of cream cheese.

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup orange juice
2 cups shredded carrots (or finely chopped in a food processor)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Topping: 1 tblsp cinnamon-sugar mixture

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease and flour a loaf pan.

Sift flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and allspice in a bowl.  Set aside.

Beat oil and sugars in another bowl until well blended.  Add eggs and orange juice and beat well.  Stir in carrots, nuts, and flour mixture and mix well.

Pour batter into greased loaf pan.  Sprinkle cinnamon-sugar mixture over top.  Bake at 350 degrees for 65-70 minutes or until top is browned.  Let cool 10 minutes and then turn out of pan.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Improving Seed Germination

With spring right around the corner, the gardening "itch" is really starting to get to me.  I want to be out there in the garden!  We have a fairly large, fenced-in garden with enough room for a pumpkin patch, corn, and as many tomato plants as I want, among all the other favorites.  Over the past few weeks, I have started some of my plants indoors under our cellar grow lights, watching intensely for those first little green sprouts poking through the dirt.

I've been interested in growing plants from seed for a long time.  I've collected and saved seeds from many of my own plants and even belonged to a "seed swap" group so I could lay my hands on hard-to-find, native species.  For other plants, like tomatoes and hybrids, I order seeds from a catalog.

Despite the effort put into starting seeds either indoors or sowing directly in the garden, problems can arise.  Germination may be poor or seedlings can fail to grow.  Here are some helpful tips that I've learned along the way for improving germination and helping seedlings to thrive.

Start with good seeds.  You can save seeds from many garden vegetables and fruits.  Beans, pumpkins, squash, and melons are all easy to collect from.  Avoid saving seeds from any diseased plants.  And don't bother with saving seeds from hybrids; the offspring will not be true to the parent plants.

Storage.  I dry and store seeds in labelled plastic bags until spring.  Include the variety and as much growing information as you can.  I save the silica gel packets from clothing and the dessicant packets from medicine bottles to keep in with my seeds; they will help absorb any moisture.  I then store my seed bags in a plastic bin with lid to keep out any wayward critters.

Don't throw out last year's seeds.  The germination rate may be lower so plant a few more seeds in the
same space to compensate, then thin as needed.  You can also test older seeds through this old-fashioned method:  pour seeds into a glass of water; the seeds that fall to the bottom are probably good and the ones that float should be tossed.

Keep warm.  Many plants germinate quicker and grow faster and stronger at a warm temperature, usually between 65 and 75 degrees F.  Catalogs sell special heat mats designed for starting seeds; they can be expensive but may be worth the investment over time.  The top of a refrigerator is another warm spot good for seed flats.

Lighting.  Seedlings like bright light, so choose to start them by south-facing windows for the most direct light.  If using artificial lights, be sure they are labelled as "full spectrum" or "plant lights"; ordinary light bulbs don't offer the full spectrum that plants need.  If using fluorescent bulbs, try to hang them close to the plants.  We have a long bench in the cellar for our seed flats, with fluorescent lights hanging by rope pulleys.  The lights are let all the way down to start, then we gradually pull them up as the plants grow so they are always a few inches above.

Soil.  Use a good seed-starting soil mix or seed-starting pellets.  Be sure that soil has been sterilized.  Avoid fertilizers until plants have been set out in the garden; fertilizers can easily burn young roots or cause plants to become leggy.

Harden-off plants before placing in the garden.  Bring them outside during the daytime for a few days before planting.

Stratification.  Some seeds germinate better if stratified, including lupine, peony, phlox, day lily, bleeding heart, juniper, lavender, and peach pits.  Stratification helps seeds complete their dormancy cycle and begin to grow.  Soak seeds in water for 24 hours, mix them with damp peat and sand in a plastic bag, and keep in the refrigerator for one to three months.  When you remove them from the cold, plant them as normal and they will come out of dormancy.

Scarification.   Scarifying can help seeds with hard coatings to germinate better.  Large seeds can be filed with a nail file in one spot until the coating is broken.  Small seeds can be soaked in warm water for 24 hours and then immediately planted before drying.  Seeds that benefit from scarification include nasturtium, morning glories, sweet peas, and peaches and other stone fruit.

Our garden in early March.  Snow, go away!
Direct sow.  Some plants cannot tolerate being grown indoors and then moved to the garden, so direct sowing is best.  For others, starting in pots indoors is perfectly fine (and is sometimes needed to get a head-start on the growing season, especially in colder climates).  Do research on your plants' growing needs and your area's growing season to decide which planting method is best.

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Crock-Pot Baked Beans & Cornbread Supper

For an easy dinner, I often make this baked bean recipe with a side of corn bread.  I can throw all of the ingredients in the Crock-Pot in the morning (or the night before) and let it cook during the day.  The corn bread takes a few minutes to mix up and a half hour to bake.  This is a super dish for pot-lucks too- it always gets compliments!

Crock-Pot Baked Beans

2 cans dark red kidney beans
1 can lima, pinto, or another bean
large can Campbell's Pork and Beans
1 cup tomato sauce or  Chili sauce (depending on how spicy you want it)
3 onions, sliced
1/4 pound of bacon, diced
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 cup brown sugar

Drain and rinse the canned beans (but not the Pork and Beans). 
Saute the bacon, remove bacon and saute onion in bacon fat. 
Add all ingredients to Crock-Pot and stir. Cook on low for several hours.  Add more sauce if needed.

Easy Corn Bread

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup corn meal
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten

Heat oven to 400 degrees F.  Grease an 8 or 9-inch pan.
Combine dry ingredients.  Stir in egg, milk, and oil until moistened.  Pour batter into greased pan.
Bake 25-30 minutes, until lightly browned.

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