Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dry Humor

Bonjour! This week we are feeling très français, because the house is perfumed with huge bunches freshly-harvested lavender hanging up to dry.

As the last of the warm, dry weather slips away, we need to wrap up our summer outdoor tasks. One of the most pleasant has been pruning and harvesting the lavender border. This was a truly surprising joy for me!

Commerically-grown lavender is usually harvested in early summer, just before the flowers bloom, when the color and scent of the cut flowers will be strongest. However, we planted ours primarily to attract pollinators to the vegetable garden. So we didn't really intend to "harvest" the flowers - just to let them grow and bloom in the garden, enjoying them right alongside the bees.

Since I've mostly grown vegetables, and moved pretty frequently to boot, I'm not that familiar with how to care for perennials. That's changed a little bit this year as I've learned to tend our strawberries and fennel. (And I'm hoping soon, some raspberries!) But I still had to do some research on how to prepare our lavender plants for fall.

What I learned is that the flowers should be cut off, allowing the plants to invest their energy into developing the healthy roots and leaves that will see it through the rest of the year. And if you do that before the rainy season, you can still preserve the flowers! Basically, if you didn't harvest in summer, pruning for the health of the plant is also a fall harvest.

Actually doing this "chore" makes me feel like some kind of seed-catalog cover model. First of all, it's easy. You just bundle up flowers in your hand and snip the stems off above the leaves. Harvesting the entire plant only takes a few cuts, and every touch releases a wave of gorgeous lavender scent. Up close, I can watch fat, fuzzy bees flitting between the flowers. I left a few of the smaller, late-blooming stems in place for them. (Pro tip: This particular aspect is only idyllic if you watch really, really carefully to make sure you don't harvest a bee. I may have had a few near misses in this area.)

Our plants are still young and fairly small, so I hadn't realized just how many flowers there would be.

This isn't even half! Waiting to be sorted, bunched, and hung.

French lavender, sorted on a marble counter, with the sunshine pouring in ... are you sure I'm not in Provence? 

Sorting and bunching actually took quite a bit of time and effort. And then I had to figure out where and how to hang it to dry for a couple of weeks. Inner MacGyver, activate!

Most sources recommend drying lavender in a dark place to preserve the purple color. Since this was late harvest, however, the color is already somewhat faded and mold and rot are bigger concerns. I decided to hang the bunches in a sunny spot to remove as much moisture as possible. What sunny indoor spot can I take over completely for a few weeks? Ah-ha - the laundry room window. (Wear those socks sparingly, hubby...)

One laundry rack, one basket, one roll of paper towel, and a lot of rubber bands and binder clips later...

Now I have a little time to think about what I want to do with all that dried lavender! I know for sure that I want to make some sachets for clothing drawers. Other than that... lavender bath salts? Selling a few bunches? Suggestions welcome!

A pensive Hermione, probably considering what to make with dried lavender. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Paint the Town White

Now that the bathroom is done, we're working on the rest of the upstairs. We're making a lot fewer changes, so this should be (comparatively) simple.

First up - paint! We're painting before laying the floor so that we don't have to worry about accidental spills or drips. It feels a little odd to be painting an unfinished room, but it is convenient. At least, it's convenient when I'm not stepping over piles of lumber or squeezing around a table saw.

We're not making any more significant changes to the walls, but they did need some minor patching before we got going. The spackling and sanding were fairly painless... with one big exception.

You may remember that we removed a wainscot-height wallpaper border a few months back. Underneath where that wallpaper had been, you can see an older coat of paint in a different color. That's the darker blue strip in the photo below.


I've been dyyyyyyiiiiiiing to paint this over. It makes the space feel really unfinished, and I knew a coat of paint would completely transform the feeling of the room. But when I got up close to the wall for the repairs, I realized it wasn't going to be quite that straightforward.

The appliqué had been applied, and then the entire wall was painted over. So where you see that strip, there was actually a small raised bead of paint along the top and bottom edges. It was just large enough that it would cause a visible line even after a new coat of paint.

I was worried about damaging the drywall, so I started gently with a drywall sanding block. When that wasn't effective, I moved to 150 grit sandpaper... then 80... and half an hour later I was shoving my entire body weight behind the orbital sander. I even had to do it a second time, when the first pass still showed a line through a test area of new paint.

Naturally, it was 80+ degrees outside, which is exactly when you want to be stuck in a face mask, goggles, and hair covering. I am officially sick of the orbital sander.


But the result is so worth it! Our walls and ceiling are painted. We still have to do the closet ceiling and the stairwell, but the real transformation has already happened - suddenly we can feel what this room will be like when it's done.

And now, for no reason other than pure happiness, enjoy this video of Hermione rolling around in the sand.


Friday, September 1, 2017

In Praise of Blackberries

Since I love homegrown food, you might think I would also do a fair amount of wild foraging. Unfortunately, my plant identification game is just not that on point. I'm fairly convinced that given even the slightest opportunity, I would pull a Chris McCandless and promptly poison myself on some ersatz potatoes. But there is one plant I forage with absolute confidence and wild impunity. I'm referring, of course, to the blackberry.





If you've spent more than about ten minutes in the Pacific Northwest, you've seen blackberries growing wild in every forgotten corner. They're unmistakable. Most of the year, they're a terrible pest. The invasive, thorny vines grow like you neglected to invite a wicked fairy to your christening, forming a tangled mass that wends its way under and over and around and straight through anything that holds still.



But then late summer arrives. The berries bloom. And for a few brief weeks, you lay down your flamethrower and your enmity, and just enjoy the incredible bounty of shining ripe purple-black jewels.



Every summer, I say I'm going to pick enough blackberries to keep us in jam, pies, and smoothies all year. And every summer, the time gets away from me. So this week when I get home, I'm pulling out the kitchen colander, walking out to the corner, and filling it up with berries to freeze for later. My legs are scratched, my hands are full of thorny splinters, and my fingers and teeth are going to be stained purple for days. And I couldn't be happier.



I'm sure there's a life lesson somewhere in all of this. I'm just too busy eating wild, juicy berries to think about it.

One of my favorite berry-picking buddies.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

May this House be Safe from Vampires

We LOVE garlic, and we use it in pretty much every meal we cook. It's also fun to grow, because you can plant it in late fall and it's one of the first things that comes up in the spring. This year, we tried a few new ways to preserve our garlic harvest. Let's just say the house is very safe from vampires now - and probably from any visitors at all, for at least the next 24 hours.

For some reason, the hardneck garlic failed completely; only the softneck grew. I was initially planning to cure it in a garlic braid. However, once we pulled it up we saw that we'd left it in the ground too long, and the outer skins were damaged. That doesn't hurt the fresh garlic, but it does mean that curing it whole wasn't a good option. Time to get creative! I present: garlic preserved two ways, pickled and frozen. 

First order of business for both: clean, separate, and peel a bazillion heads of garlic.


I don't have a shortcut for pulling the cloves apart apart, but I do have one for peeling.

Cut the ends of the cloves, and put them in a metal mixing bowl.


Put another bowl on top. (Preferably the same size; we just didn't have one. You're going for more "basketball" than "UFO". )


Now hold the two together and SHAKE! Vigorously. For a while.


When you're done, the skins should slip off easily.


Ta-da!

Okay, now we're ready for an actual recipe.

Preservation Method 1: Pickled Garlic

I love the clove or two of garlic you sometimes find in the bottom of a pickle jar. So why not make a whole batch of them?

Recipe adapted from Homegrown Pantry by Barbara Pleasant
Makes 3-4 half-pint jars

2c white vinegar
2/3c sugar
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
3c peeled garlic

Mix the vinegar and sugar together, bringing to a simmer over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds. Pack garlic into clean, hot jars; fill with brine. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

We cut the recipe in half, since we didn't want to make that much. As a reminder, NEVER mess around with the basic proportions or ingredients when you're pickling or preserving. The acidity, sugar, salt, etc all contribute to maintaining a safe environment for food storage. However, you can play with the seasonings. The original recipe called for some hot peppers, which we left out because we don't like them.


I'm going to let it sit in the fridge for a few days, so the brine can mellow the heat and bite of the garlic. I can't wait to eat some!

Preservation Method 2: Freezing

For most of the garlic, we wanted to preserve it in a form we could use for cooking.Since we weren't curing whole heads, freezing seemed like the next best way to hang on to the original fresh flavor.

Apparently you can just peel and freeze individual cloves. But I decided against that, since it meant more prep when we were making meals later on. We wanted a method that would make it easy to throw some garlic into a recipe in a month.

A little research revealed that this was another handy use for my favorite preserving tool: the ice cube tray! We minced the garlic, packed it into an ice cube tray, and then filled each cube in with olive oil to hold it together. Once it was frozen, we popped the cubes out of the tray and into a freezer bag to store.

Important: garlic packed in oil should NEVER be kept at room temperature or even in the refrigerator. It's a botulism risk. This method is for freezing only, and garlic preserved this way should go straight from the freezer into your cooking pan.


We've already used part of a cube in a recipe, and it came out wonderfully. Since a lot of dishes that have garlic also use olive oil anyway, having a bit of oil in with the frozen garlic doesn't hurt anything. In fact, the flavor is even a bit more intense because the garlic infuses the oil.

So those are the two ways we're saving our homegrown garlic. Looks like this house will be safe from vampires for a long time to come!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Garden State

Over the past few weeks, the garden has endured a bit of benign neglect. On the bright side, being away even for a few days let me really see and appreciate how quickly things are growing. The contrast is just amazing. I'd spend every waking moment outside if I could!

I'm going to try to do a better job of writing down what I'm observing and when in the garden. I always think "Oh, I'll remember where I planted the lettuce last year" or "Of course I'll be able to keep track of which variety of tomato did the best last summer." Considering that most mornings I have trouble remembering where I took off my shoes the night before, I'm not sure why I persist in this utterly ridiculous belief.

Little pumpkin seedlings emerging in June...
One month later! And still growing like mad. The tendrils are now starting to take over the pathway.

All the pumpkins and squash are doing well in their patch. The Cinderella pumpkins were the first to come up and get established. But the one that's really bowling me over is something new to me: Sweet Mama squash. The plants are ENORMOUS and already covered in little green baby squash. I got a few starts on a whim, and I can't wait to see what the fruit tastes like! (And I hope it's really really great, because it looks like we're going to have one whole heck of a lot of it.)
We got a couple pints of strawberries a week from early June until a week or so into July.


This year, I planted two types of peas - standard sugar snaps (right) and sugar sprints (left). The difference is INSANE. It's even more noticeable now than it was in this photo from a week or so ago. The sugar sprints are three times the size, heavier yielding, and the pods are more tender. I'm definitely going all in with them next year. And as the saying goes, we're gonna need a bigger trellis.

One afternoon's harvest - snap peas, lavender, strawberries, lettuce, eggs.
The lavender also seems very happy now, but I have to say this is the one plant that did not cope well with the lack of attention. I came back after two weeks away, and although Brett was home for a week of that, he didn't have a chance to keep an eye on these plants or do any weeding. The entire border had transformed into a post-apocalyptic hellscape in which all mankind (or at least husband-kind) had died out, leaving morning glories as the dominant species on earth. The vines were twined all through the stems of the lavender, and had to be not just pulled up, but unwrapped by hand.

The tomatoes are just starting up now, and I have to say (knock on wood) that they're looking a lot better than I hoped. Tomatoes are hard in our damp, temperate climate, and I never seem to have much luck. This year I got all cherry varieties, which appear to be a little less fussy. The Sweet Millions plants look the best overall, but the first ripe tomato came from the Sungold. I'm so excited for garden-fresh tomatoes, but I'm trying to reign it in just in case it doesn't go that well.

Now time to get back out there for more weeding!

Well, some of us will weed. Others prefer to watch and sunbathe.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

We're Back!

Whew! It's been ages since the last post, and it's been a wild ride around here. Between new jobs (both of us within a month or so of each other), travel, gardening, and trying to squeeze in a little time to do some actual work in the house, I haven't had much time to do anything but collapse in an exhausted heap.

Thankfully, we've been able to enjoy some much-needed spa-like relaxation in our finished new bathroom!

We put on a few finishing touches:
Brett practicing his contortionist act while trying to caulk around the back of the bathtub. He made it!

Just after the shower enclosure glass install. Since we had to wait a couple of days before getting it wet, it's imaginary shower time!
In what feels like an incredibly significant home-renovation milestone, I have officially moved my toothbrush upstairs. WOOHOO!  Also, I may occasionally be showering/bathing twice a day now out of pure happiness. (Please send moisturizer.)

Here it is, all finished:




Of course, if you look the other direction, you'll see that we still have a ways to go on the rest of the upstairs... but that's for the next few weeks!


Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Cabinets Go Up

Every new step at this point just feels completely amazing, and adds a whole new level of functionality to the bathroom. I can't get over how fast it comes together now, especially know that literally years of work went into getting here.

So, we mounted the medicine cabinets. Because of the angled framing in our wall, we decided to go with externally mounted ones instead of inset. We bought them ages ago, and HOLY COW I had forgotten how heavy these things are.

Installation sounded simple. It uses a french cleat. Basically, you mount a bracket on the wall, and then just slide the cabinet down on top of it, so a matching bracket on the back slots in. Easy, right?

Well, first, you have to get the bracket into EXACTLY the right spot on the wall. And of course it doesn't come with a template, so you have to figure out just where the cabinet will actually sit. And it must be perfectly level (making it probably the only level thing in the entire house). And then you have to get the second one even with the first. And then you have to heft the ten million pound cabinets over your head and into place.

What could go wrong?

Long story short, we only had to re-mount the brackets a couple of times, and a cabinet only came crashing down on us once. So I'm calling that a win.



So although there are still some small things to take care of, all the main pieces are in and the look is basically finished.

Here's the original Pinterest picture that was our main design inspiration for the sink area:


And here's our finished product!


I love how it turned out. It's just what I hoped for, and best of all, it's full of natural light. I can't wait to move upstairs!