Saturday, January 29, 2011

When friends spur us on to good things. . . .

. . . . good things happen!

I am so grateful for my friends who have encouraged and motivated me, especially over the past couple years, through our move and starting over in a new place.  I'd like to brag on a couple of them (and this is NOT an exhaustive list - I'd need to post several people a day for a long time to properly thank everyone!):

Many, many thanks to Blondee, who reached out to us even before our move, when I posted to a home school support group online and asked for information about activities and people in the area we were moving to.  She befriended us, answered questions, and even brought over some goodies our first week so we could meet face-to-face for the first time.  She invited me to meet other mothers considering starting a co-op, and to Gym & Swim at the Y, and introduced me to some great ladies that I'm still connected to even after home school ended for us.  She's gone beyond casual friendship into the deep and real friendship of sisters in Christ, sharing her burdens and taking some of my load into her prayerful hands.  She's encouraged me in my artistic pursuits, and offered words of wisdom when I've been discouraged.  She's a real wonder-woman in my book, an awesome home schooling mother of two, a great wife to Mr. Blondee, and an all around fantastic friend.  Thanks, Blondee!

Another friend who has stood by us for a number of years now is Tamara, who writes the Living Palm blog.  We met her through our church almost 9 years ago, and my husband actually knew her husband through the worship team before I became acquainted with Tamara.  About 5 years ago Tamara's vision of our church encouraging the arts and being active in the local art community began to bear fruit.  When our church had its first juried art show, I decided to submit some work.  She was hugely instrumental in my decision to try to pursue art again, and her steadfast "You can do it!" attitude has meant a lot to me when I've been tempted to say, "Who cares whether or not I create anything?" and throw in the towel.  I participated in two more juried art shows at our church, and a totally amazing Good Friday Stations of the Cross art program that allowed me to combine my love of gardening with an artistic expression of faith.  Tamara is still a friend and cheerleader to me, and she's still deeply devoted to ministering to artists within the church.  She's a woman of deep integrity and conviction, who's not afraid to ask the tough questions of herself, and to gently lead others to consider their faith through her own honesty.  Thank you, Tamara - very, very much.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wild Life (Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Syracuse, NY)

Keeper feeding lemurs during a publicity photo shoot.

A couple days ago I went to the zoo.  By myself.  I've always loved zoos, and I've taken the kids to zoos any number of times, but I've never gone alone before.  The Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY, is having a winter photography contest with a local radio station, and just for fun I decided to see if I could get any good pictures.  I could stand and watch the animals for hours anyhow, but going with kids isn't conducive to animal watching (or photography), since the kids usually want to move on after a minute or two of looking.  This was the first time I could go and just stand and watch the animals for as long as I pleased.  It was wonderful.

I don't know if I'll submit any of these for the contest.  (Each person can submit two photos to this contest.)  I'm not sure any of them are really "winner" material.  I saw a couple other photographers at the zoo while I was there, and their expensive, high-powered digital cameras with mega-ultra-closeup lenses and enough digital power to run NASA made my little Kodak digital look positively wimpy.  But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The zoo was very quiet, and almost empty, except for a handful of adults, a couple pairs of moms with strollers out for a walk, and one preschool field trip that was easy to avoid (that's not the kind of wildlife I was looking for).  I was just as interested in the winter forms of rocks and trees as I was in the animals.  I got one picture of reindeer antlers on a pole - the image really struck me as I walked by.

The animals were pretty active outdoors, many of them being creatures from temperate to mountain to sub-arctic climates.  It was just around freezing - not too cold, although I was glad I wore my boots.

I especially liked watching the Amur tiger, one of my favorite wild animals.  It was hard to get good shots of him, for although he was quite active that day, the only visual access into his habitat was through large glass windows, which were not only slightly tinted (I don't know if they were one-way glass) but very, very smudged with hand/finger/noseprints from countless kids.  Still, watching the tiger roam, claw a tree, and even hearing him vocalize was a real treat.

The markhor antelope were just as interested in me as I was in them.  I don't know if it's because my winter coat is bright red, or if they were just bored silly and any distraction was a welcome one, but they came down their simulated "mountain" slope to get a closer look at me. 

Some of the animals looked like they were just enduring winter, waiting for warmer weather.  Because the temperature was reasonable, the lions were out that day.  They looked seriously out of place in the snow, and they were all sleeping close together on a bed of hay right beside the window to their habitat.  That's the closest I've ever been to a lion, perhaps 10 inches through the glass.  I don't like the lion habitat at this zoo, though - it's too small for three adult lions.  It just looks wrong to me, even though I'm sure the big cats are well cared for.

I spent quite a bit of time in the tropical aviary indoors.  I love the aviary, and it was so nice to be the only one in there.  Many of the birds were up near the roof (where it was warmer), but quite a few were active lower down.  I had a lot of fun imitating some of their calls and getting them to "talk" back.  I wish I'd written down which birds I photographed, because when I went back to the zoo's website to check them out, I discovered that the website isn't up to date with their aviary collection.  Nuts.

Another fun thing was seeing the zoo's newest member, a baby Patas monkey born on January 7th.  I talked with one of the keepers, who said they weren't positive, but they think it's a male.  The mom, Addie, still keeps the young one close to her at all times, but I was amused to see that he was busily engaged in expanding his horizons by trying to creep out of her embrace.  He'd gain a few inches, and she'd hug him back.  He'd try again, and the long arm of his mom would snag him before he'd gone 6 inches.  It was really cute to watch.  I didn't use a flash for those pictures, because I wasn't sure if that would bother him - hence the slightly grainy quality of the pictures I got.

I've always loved watching birds.  At the zoo I was delighted to see a number of them at close range, without gaggles of noisy kids to spook them.  I got a great shot of a peregrine falcon by holding my camera at an angle near the mesh so that you can't see the enclosure itself, just the bird - it looks like he's right in front of me, even though I was standing behind the fence and wire and just holding the camera at arms' length.

I also got a shot of the Andean condor taking a short hop from his perch to the ground.  His wingspan is amazing (10 feet or more!), and he's a gorgeous bird.  I really wish I could have been closer to his habitat, but the fence for that was considerably farther away from the enclosing mesh. The sound his wings made with just that little hop was wonderful.

This Eurasian lynx was totally ignoring me.  Such a gorgeous animal!  Again, I wish the enclosure for the lynxes were much larger.  It pains me to see captive wild cats in such small spaces.  In fact, keeping wild animals in captivity is a balancing act for all concerned - the welfare of the animals, and the preservation and propagation of the species, have to be balanced against the very real space and budget concerns by the institutions housing them.  Very few zoos have the luxury of a large enough budget to have expanded housing for every species that would benefit from it.  The Rosamond Gifford Zoo does a great job with the resources it has.  They're currently expanding and updating their Asian elephant exhibit, which I look forward to seeing this summer when it's finished.

When I was a kid, I really, really wanted to be a zookeeper or a zoo veterinarian.  I still think I would have enjoyed that career path.  Now I'll enjoy being a supporter of the good zoos in my area, and I'll look for the best in any other wildlife centers or zoos I visit.

When was the last time you went to the zoo?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

That four-letter word - DIET

I really, really dislike the word "diet."  It's a four letter word to me.  It's a short-term crash-course fix for a long-term problem, addressing the surface issues and leaving the root of the problem unchanged.  And, as Garfield famously said, "Diet is just DIE with a T." 

Anyhow, I need to lose some weight.  A lot of weight.  I need to for my health first of all, but looking and feeling better would be a great side effect.  After doing a lot of thinking about what has worked and not worked for me in the past, after thinking about what I'm willing to put into my body, and after a bit of reading, I've decided to pursue a sensible, lower-carb, low-sodium, high-protein, high-fiber diet.  I guess you'd call it Atkins Lite, since I won't be strictly following the Atkins plan and going as carb-free as possible initially.  I think this way I can live with the changes to my diet, and along the way I'll integrate reasonable and increasing amounts of exercise into my weeks.

This isn't my first time around the diet Mobius strip.  I've struggled with my weight since grade school.  I've done Weight Watchers at least 5 times in my life, twice with great success (in my teens and again in my early 30s), and three other times with no success at all.  (Counting points is a pain, and I don't want to do that any more.)  I tried Slim Fast once, and couldn't stand it.  I don't want to pay big bucks for a plan that sends me prepackaged or frozen food with enough additives and preservatives to embalm me while alive.  I've realized that my major food issues center around carbohydrates, and I need to break that cycle.  I need to do something low sodium, too.  I've decided that I want to enjoy real food in moderate amounts, not fake food from a can, packet, or little frozen box.

A little encouragement and friendly accountability is worth more than all the books and way-in-the-future incentives in the world to me.  If you want to ask me the occasional question about my food and exercise choices and my progress, it would be welcome, if you happen to think of me and my journey.  So, here I go.  Wish me luck!  And, better yet, please pray for me to have perseverance, because I don't expect this to be a quick fix, but a long, long walk.  Once a week I'll try to post a little progress report, but I don't want this to be the focus of my blog - just part of the journey.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Alice in Wonderland

I've always liked the Disney version of "Alice in Wonderland."  Today I'm reminded of the song Alice sings to herself in the woods when she gets lost:  "I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it."  I hope I follow my advice better than Alice does, but sometimes I wonder.  Reading through my old blog posts has been interesting.  I think I've learned a bit about blogging, and I hope I've been able to help, encourage, and entertain others along the way.  Here are a few past posts that I think I need to remember, for my own mental and spiritual health:

Asperger's Syndrome, Obsessive Interests, and Behavior Modification 

Pretty Babies, and a Sweet Fragrance  

Genius Does Not Necessarily Equal Grace 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Snowless Snow Day

For the first time in years, we've got a snow day due to the cold rather than the snow.  It's beautiful outside, clear and sunny.  Just looking out the window you wouldn't realize that the temperature was dangerously low this morning.  It was -12F at the city airport, with a wind chill of -20.  Whooeee, it's the kind of cold that makes the inside of your nose feel the tiny hairs have flash-frozen when you breathe in.  We started the morning with a two hour delay, and at the last minute the school went to a full day off. 

I'm not exactly thrilled with the cancellation, since I had been planning to drive to see my sister and mother today.  I could have done that within a normal school day, but the delay K. O.'d  that plan.  The closure just meant that I'd have the kids all day instead of for part of the day.  Oh well, life goes on, and I'll try to go down to see my sister and Mom later this week or early next week.  Everything in the U. S. northeast is a matter of "weather depending" from January through early March.  We just live with the understanding that whatever plans we make, the weather can trump.  Being upset is pointless.

However, I am hoping that the plans we make for our daughter's birthday next month don't get deep sixed by the weather.  Two of her guests, her cousins, will have to drive quite a way to attend, and if the weather is bad, they won't make it, and Princess Yakyak would be very sad.  She's given me an earful a number of times about having a winter birthday.  We've told her to take it up with the Lord, who wanted her born at that particular time of year.  We didn't have nearly as much say in the matter as she thinks, lol!

Since it's a totally inhospitable day outside, I've decided to make lemonade out of lemons and do some baking.  Comfort food and warming up the house at the same time are a winning combination.  Unfortunately we do have to go out later, for a dental appointment, but at least that's not till late afternoon.  I think I'll make bread today - good old fashioned white bread.  I'll make one loaf of cinnamon swirl bread too, at the kids' request.  Neither loaf will last long.  There's nothing quite as good as homemade bread, still warm and crusty from the oven, with a dab of butter on it.   

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Petopia lives in my house.

Some days I wish I could be one of my pets.  Maybe a cat, allowed to sleep at all hours anywhere I want, fed on demand, and generally loved rotten.  Perhaps one of the guinea pigs, snuggled daily and fed healthy good stuff, with somebody else keeping my living space clean.  Even with the goldfish, who have lots of room to roam, free food falling from heaven, and no responsibilities.  Yes, it's good to be a pet in this household.  My husband calls me the "critter magnet."  I suppose there are worse things to be.  We've maxed out, though - no more pets unless and until one passes on.

Cookie in his snuggle sack, on my daughter's lap.  What a tough life he lives!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tiger Mother? Or Eagle Mother?

I'm sure by now most people with a computer or TV have heard about Amy Chua, the "Tiger Mother" whose philosophy of child-rearing is debatably Chinese and completely Type A, and has caused considerable heated discussion among parents and professionals and pundits around the world.  I don't know what you think of her child-rearing methodology.  I know I could learn some useful things from her, but I could never be her (nor do I want to be her).  Frankly, as the mother of a child with special needs, her approach to parenting makes me very sad.  Her daughters are lovely young ladies now, intelligent and talented and no doubt gifted with abilities above average in many areas, which have only been honed by their mother's obsessive focus on perfection.  But I have to ask, what if one or more of her children had been born with a disability?  What would the Tiger Mother have done then?

I think Ms. Chua is right to emphasize practice and rote learning for basic skills.  She's right to encourage her children to do their best, and not stop at "good enough."  However, her parenting style is predicated on the idea that her children have the innate ability to be THE BEST in almost everything they do.  Nothing less than THE BEST is acceptable to her, therefore she will demand and pull that desired result out of her kids, no matter what.  That kind of soul-crushing pressure put on a child makes my heart ache for her daughters.  Not everyone can be the best at what they do.  By definition for every "best" there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of others at varying points below best in every subject of human endeavor, from "worst" to "pathetic" to "fair" to "good" to "close but not quite" to "silver medal."  For lack of a better term, for every "winner" there are many "losers."  And don't we hate that word?

I have to make an argument, for the sake of our children (with or without special needs) that BEST is not an objective, numbers-driven, rank-mandated, attainable goal for most people.  It's just not possible for many children to be the best at a physical, artistic, or academic skill, as defined by the world around us.  This is not to say that children with all kinds of special needs can't excel at their chosen specialties, or even just in everyday things.  But the Tiger Mother mantra of "Nothing but the best is acceptable" realistically cannot apply to most children, born average or not.  Expecting our children to do their best has to be leavened with the realistic expectation that sometimes their best will not be superior to their peers' best efforts.  And that's okay.

I want my children, with and without their own unique or special needs, to know that I love them no matter how well they perform in school or in extracurricular activities.  I've been careful to tell them that as long as they try their best, I will not punish them or belittle them for getting less than an A in a particular subject.  Yes, I want them to do well.  Yes, I push them to correct their mistakes, learn basic skills thoroughly, try hard, admit failure and pick themselves up again and keep going.  They have their gifts, but not every talent can be quantified on a test, or corroborated by winning a competition.  When they win a prize, I'm happy for them.  When they try hard but aren't Number One, I'm still proud of them for doing their best.

If I'm not a tiger mother, then what am I?  Maybe I'm an Eagle Mother:  fierce in protecting my kids, quick to give tough love when it's needed, diligent to provide for their needs, selfless to shelter them from storms that could harm them, swift to teach them what they need to know, and hopeful that my children will soar to the heights they are capable of, while enjoying the view along the way.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Cold Weather Comfort Food, Part 2: Macaroni & Cheese

Tonight I made one of my husband's favorite meals:  homemade macaroni and cheese.  Well, actually it was homemade penne and cheese, but it's the same principle.  My friend Fab asked for the recipe, so here it is for all to see.  Enjoy!

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

1 1/2 pounds whole wheat macaroni (or penne pasta)
6 cups milk (I use 1% most of the time)
1 cup light sour cream
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup flour
1 small onion, diced (you can omit this if you really don't like onion)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups shredded mild white cheddar cheese
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Cook the pasta until al dente, drain and set aside.  In a non-stick 4 quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and cook for several minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and tender.  Stir in the flour gradually and cook for a couple more minutes, stirring constantly.  Gradually add the milk, then the sour cream, whisking them into the flour/butter/onion mixture.  Add the salt, pepper, and paprika.  Bring to a low boil, add the mild white cheddar cheese, stir to combine, and turn the heat off.  Put the pasta in a large casserole dish, then pour the cheese sauce over it.  Mix gently to combine.  Sprinkle the remaining sharp cheddar over the top.  Bake at 350F for 45 minutes or so (until the cheese melts and forms a nice golden crusty top, and the sides bubble).  Remove from the oven, and serve hot.

My kids won't eat this meal.  We call it "Death By Casserole," because of the anguish caused by trying to get my kids to eat it.  Can you believe they prefer the neon orange boxed stuff?  Someday they'll realize that I really am a decent cook.  They love my baked goods, but getting them to eat any entree that involves any sauce, or any kind of beef, is a total lost cause.   It doesn't help that I like things with FLAVOR.  I don't do bland.  This is probably one of the mildest meals I make, beside chicken soup.  Go figure. 

My kids seem to live on yogurt, whole grain everything (they won't eat many veggies, so I insist they eat whole grain stuff), fruit, milk, juice, popcorn, peanut butter, and whatever other healthy options I keep around the house, and various snacks and occasional goodies.  And a daily multivitamin.  Our son, Safety Guy, thinks that Kraft Mac is a staple of life.  He'd eat it every day if I let him.  Princess Yakyak would live on milk and dry cereal if we let her.  We hardly ever all eat the same thing at the same time, with the possible exception of takeout pizza.  Is this a nutrition and family dinner fail, or a Mom compromise win, for keeping my sanity during meal times and still getting healthy stuff into my kids?  Sometimes you have to pick your battles.

Cold Weather Comfort Food: Kona Banana Cake

My Mom has been making this cake for years and years, since I was about 10.  It's hands-down the best banana cake recipe I've ever had, so good that I haven't tweaked the recipe at all (and anyone who knows how I cook knows that I can never leave a recipe un-played-with).  This cake is dense and rich.  It doesn't need frosting to be delicious (my kids love it plain), but cream cheese frosting is totally amazing on it if you want to go for over-the-top awesomeness.

Kona Banana Cake

1 c. shortening
2 c. sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
3 medium ripe bananas
2 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cream shortening, sugar, and eggs until light.  Add the bananas and the vanilla and blend well.  Add the dry ingredients (except the nuts) and mix until evenly moistened - batter will be thick.  Stir in the nuts.  Spread the batter in a greased and floured 9"x13"x2" cake pan.  Bake for 45 minutes (until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean).  The center of the cake may be slightly concave once it cools, especially if you don't use the nuts.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Somebody's birthday is coming

 Princess Yakyak's birthday, four years ago.

Our daughter's birthday is coming up in a month or so.  She's been planning her party for, oh, the past 11 months or so.  I've learned to let her plan all year without offering ideas, because she changes her mind every few weeks about what kind of party she wants to have.  About a month before THE DAY we have her settle on one idea, and stick with it.

This year, though, we did tell her that it has to be a SMALL party, because we did a big one last year (a pool party at the Y, with a dozen girls and cousins).  I'm not a party plannin' super-alpha-mom, and the thought of having a horde of kids in the house for several hours in the dead of winter makes me crazy for reasons that have nothing to do with the mess and everything to do with the noise and drama with no way to escape.  So, after much consideration, she has finally settled on a horse-themed arts and crafts party, with her two girl cousins and her two best friends.  I think we can handle that level of giggling and silliness, mess and fun.  Drama is a given (after all, my girl is gifted that way - come to think of it, so is one of her girl cousins too).

I'll suggest that my husband and son get lost for the afternoon, since the noise and chaos are guaranteed to grate on every last nerve in our son's body.  I'd rather not juggle the craft party and the girl drama and the Asperger's and the cranky preteen boy stuff all at once.  It's well worth sending the guys to the movies or something.

Last night Princess Yakyak (her self-proclaimed nickname since she was 3) decided that she wants me to make a cheesecake for her birthday.  Plain, with strawberry sauce (and NOT the icky sauce you get on a sundae, but real strawberries, she says).  Okaaay, I guess that's what I'll be making, but I think I'll buy a little store-bought vanilla frosted cake for any guests who aren't into cheesecake. Just a hunch.

I can't believe my little girl is growing up so fast.  Where did the time go?

Princess Yakyak as The Bedtime Fairy for Halloween, about 5 years ago.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Homework Hassles and Why I'm Going Gray(er)

Our son has gotten much better about doing his homework since school began. The first couple months we had to sit over him to ensure he read the directions, and actually DID the work. Then we hit a short-lived nirvana where he'd come home, do his work with minimal help, and life was good. Now we've reached the winter doldrums, which, crossed with Asperger's, perfectionism, a math learning disability, and preteen angst, is rapidly accelerating the rate at which my hair is going gray.

It's not DOING the homework that's the issue right now, it's getting him to put in the effort to try to do it correctly, and to check and correct it once it's finished. You'd think this would be common sense: make sure you understand the work, do the work, check the work, and correct what you've done if you see mistakes. I'm not after perfection here - a good faith effort is fine. But our son has decided that once he's done the work once (whether or not he understood the directions), checking and correcting are just a waste of his free time. In real life, "Oh well, good enough!" is NOT good enough. "Who cares if it's wrong?" is not going to fly around here. "So what if I fail a homework?" is not an acceptable attitude. "I hate math, I stink at it, so why try?" is a frequent complaint we hear from him. Hence the head-butting, hair-graying confrontations now taking place most days over his math homework.

Tough love makes us wade through the hassle and attitude to help him check his work, and show him how to correct his mistakes. Letting him get away with this is not an option, because letting him fail something doesn't motivate him to do better, and he learns nothing. He's done well adjusting to school, better than we might have expected, but this homework battle is worth fighting and essential to win. Letting him give up now will set him up for failure for the rest of his life. I know this is fundamentally a work ethic issue, and not that many preteens have a great natural work ethic, so I know I'm not alone in this battle. We had the same struggle with teaching him at home, so this is nothing new. Frankly, I'm very grateful to have other adults telling him that he needs to do his work and try his best, and helping him to do it. Perfection is impossible, but persistence will pay off and basic competence IS attainable for him. So, we'll keep pushing through this.

Time to go buy more hair color.

Just keep 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rambling Miscellany

For some reason I can't quite figure out, I've been down the past week or so.  Nothing specific, nothing eating at me, just a general feeling of being directionless and depressed.  So, trying to keep ahead of the tidal wave of full-blown depression, whatever its cause, I'm keeping busy today.

I'm doing the eternal chore, that is, laundry.  Sheets, towels, clothes,etc.  Washing is easy.  Folding and putting away is one of my least favorite chores.  Thankfully my husband helps with that end of things.

Dealing with senior pets, and their messes.  I love my cats, but our oldest, B. C., is having serious issues with marking his territory where he shouldn't, and having upset insides.  We know he has kidney issues.  It's time for another vet visit, although I'm pretty sure after an expensive blood test they're just going to tell me he's an old cat who has bad kidneys and should be on very expensive prescription cat food.  Anyhow, I'm washing the entry mat he's having issues with.  In the bathtub, using carpet cleaner soap and baking soda.  I feel like Lucy Ricardo squashing grapes, since I've got my jeans rolled up, and I've been walking on the mat in the tub to thoroughly work the soap into it and then rinse it out.  It's a wool rug, so I can't just toss it in the washer and dryer.

Insulating windows.  You'd think with a newer house (built in 2002) we wouldn't have window issues, but we can tell the builder cut corners all over the place.  One place was in insulating around the windows (which aren't the best quality anyhow).  I spent a little time earlier cutting some 2" foam a/c insulation into 1" strips to push into the tracks of the west-facing windows, where the draft is the worst.

I fired up the crock pot again today, to make soup out of yesterday's leftover chuck roast.  It should be just right by dinner time.  Maybe I'll be ambitious and make biscuits to go with it.

I'm still decluttering the office, which got thoroughly cluttered when we repainted the living room last week.  I want to get the last couple nagging piles cleared away, so I'll have TWO clean rooms to look at as I sit at my computer, not a view through a messy room to a neat room.

I'm also trying to keep the family room clean, an ongoing battle with the kids that has come to a head with the parental ultimatum this morning of, " Do NOT leave food, dishes or wrappers of any sort in that room, or you will be grounded!"

I'm blogging, because I can't seem to settle to one sustained task.  Everything I've done today has been in bits and chunks, with some music going in the background.

So, I think I should have my own movie now:  Scatterbrained Me, a cross between HGTV, Jeopardy, Animal Planet, and The Magic School Bus.

Time to go out and salt the driveway in the freezing drizzle.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Winter Sowing Tutorial

 Perfect weather for gardening, right?

Here's my promised tutorial for how to winter sow.  Like I said in my last post, go to for all the details and more helpful hints from Trudi Davidoff, who pioneered the method.  Winter sowing simulates "cold stratification," where seeds are refrigerated and rehydrated before planting to trick them into believing they've been through a winter or cool rainy season so they'll germinate.

I prefer to use recycled milk jugs as my primary container.  Over the years I've experimented with all sorts of containers - I've found 2L soda bottles also work well for taller plants (like cosmos, sunflowers, or vigorous tomatoes), and I've used semi-transparent cat litter jugs to start large seedlings (daylilies in particular).  Some people swear by using gallon plastic zip-lock bags, some use recycled plastic cake containers or covered foil lasagna pans, some make pots using recycled newspaper and put those pots in plastic under-bed storage boxes or plastic bags to create the "greenhouse effect."   I've seen people use paper milk and juice cartons, and tape heavy plastic wrap over the tops and cut ventilation slits in it.  Jokes about "dumpster diving" are rampant among winter sowers, who have been known to raid their neighbor's recycling bins for suitable containers to plant in.  (I've asked neighbors before I've taken recyclables - courtesy is just common sense.)

There are a few fundamentals when you pick a container:  it must be able to hold at least 2" of soil; 3" is even better, especially for plants that will develop an extensive root system (like daylilies or tomatoes, for instance).   It must provide at least 4" of head room for the seedlings above the soil, more if you expect taller plants like cosmos or tomatoes to thrive.  It must have drainage holes in the bottom (you add those), and it must have ventilation at the top.

I start stockpiling milk jugs in the fall, rinsing them and letting them air dry in garbage bags hung in my garage.  Discard and recycle the caps, you won't need them.  (Last year, a friend of mine brought me a HUGE bag of milk jugs from her pre-K school.  I was thrilled!)  When I'm ready to start planting, I buy some potting soil.  (Regular Miracle Gro works fine.  ProMix is great, but I haven't found it in my area since we moved.  I wasn't impressed with the Organic Miracle Gro at all; the germination was very poor for me in the containers I used with it last year.  Cheap potting soil is worthless - it will turn into a brick and your seedlings won't like it.)  I keep the potting soil indoors, so I'm not trying to thaw a frozen brick of dirt in midwinter before I can use it.  I moisten the soil by pouring some warm water into it, gently, with the bag set on a towel to catch any drips.  The soil doesn't need to be soaking, just damp enough to not puff into a cloud of choking dust when you dig into it.  (Yes, that's the voice of experience here [cough, wheeze, hack. . . .].)

First I cut drainage holes in the bottom of the jug, usually four snips on the soft corners.  Then I cut the jugs around the middle, leaving room for 3" of soil in the bottom, and a tab of connected plastic between the top and bottom right under the handle.  The jug will open like a clam shell.

I add the soil to about 3" depth and gently firm it.  Then I sow the seeds.  Larger seeds I plant individually, usually 4-6 per container.  Some seeds need to be buried deeper than others - refer to the seed packet for guidelines.  When in doubt, 1/8"-1/4" is a good general depth.  Tiny seeds can be sprinkled thinly by hand, and left on the surface or very lightly covered with soil.  Some plants fare well when sown thickly, like alyssum.  The seedlings grow thickly and close together, and when you're ready to plant them out, you don't bother to separate each individual one - you simply break a hunk of soil off with its seedlings and plant them that way.  Winter sowers call that the HOS (hunk o' seedlings) planting method.  The strongest flourish, the weakest wither away, and you've still got a nice thick clump of plants.

Now here's the important part:  LABEL YOUR CONTAINERS.  You'd think this would be easy to remember, but in the thick of planting, it's easy to miss a couple, and be left with a some jugs of "mystery seeds."  Playing "name that seedling" in May isn't as much fun as you'd think, unless you like the element of surprise, lol.  Seriously, I've learned the hard way that labeling is crucial.  One thing I recommend is buying a good, weatherproof garden marker.  Trust me, Sharpies won't last on the surface of the jugs - they will fade out after a few months outdoors, and you'll be back to playing "name that seedling," or Wheel of Fortune with the remaining letters.  The garden marker is completely worth buying, and will last for several seasons of labeling.  The other thing I do is place an individual label inside every container, using a piece of recycled mini blind.  There are two reasons I use mini blinds - the plastic is weatherproof, and it's recycled (i.e. FREE).  You can write on the mini blind piece with the marker, or with an ordinary #2 pencil.  Funny enough, the combination of pencil on mini blind is the most weather-proof marking method I've found yet for labeling plants in the garden.  So, label the top and bottom half of the jug with the marker, and place a label inside just in case the outside markings don't last or are discarded when you remove the lid (which you'll do later in the season as the seedlings grow).

So, you've cut and filled your container, sown your seeds, and labeled everything.  Now you have to fasten the container closed.  I've found that regular clear packing tape works well for this purpose.  Cheap packing tape  sometimes doesn't last, but good quality Scotch or 3M brand tape is fine.  Duct/duck tape may not last (it's not weatherproof).  By spring most of it will have come loose, which makes it hard to handle the containers without spilling them. 

Now you need to make sure the soil in the containers is moist.  Bottom watering is the easiest way to do this.  Put about an inch of cool water in a sink or tub, and set your containers in it for a little while.  The soil inside will wick up the moisture through the holes cut in the bottom of the jug.  You can also dampen the surface of the soil with a sink sprayer or spray bottle.  You don't want the soil soggy.  This is just to give the seeds a little moisture to get started.  As the jugs sit outside in all kinds of weather, they'll get plenty of water. 

Now the fun part:  put the jugs outside in a location that gets at least 6 hours of sun every day, and ignore them until early spring.  I keep my containers on my deck.  At our old house they were on the stone patio.  The important thing is that they get enough sun.  It's okay if they get covered with snow - that insulates them on the coldest days, and provides moisture as it melts. 

The soil in the containers will start to thaw as the weather warms.  Condensation on the inside of the jugs is a good sign that the soil is moist enough for the seeds to sprout.  If the weather is warm and you see no condensation, you will know you need to water the containers.  It's especially important to make sure the containers don't dry out once the seedlings appear - nothing will kill a seedling quicker than lack of water.  Once the weather is consistently above freezing at night and getting into the 60s during the day, you should cut additional holes in the lids for extra ventilation.  You'll be amazed how warm those little mini-greenhouses can get, and you don't want to cook your seedlings.  When the weather is consistently warm (above 50F or so at night and into the 70s or higher during the day) you can remove the lids of the containers entirely.  This gradual process will allow the seedlings to harden off, or become accustomed to the daily temperature swing between cool nights and warm days.  You can plant the seedlings out after the danger of frost has passed.  (Some seedlings don't mind the frost, like snapdragons - know your plants, and you'll know which ones are more tolerant of cold and can be planted out earlier.)

I live in U.S.D.A. Climate Zone 5a/borderline 4b, which means we can get down to -20F on the coldest nights in January/February, even before accounting for wind chill.   I start winter sowing in January, planting the hardy perennials and hardy annuals first.  In the northeastern U.S. you can winter sow most perennials and annuals in mid to late February, and also some of the cool-weather vegetables (like onions, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower).  I wait until March to winter sow tender annuals like zinnias, tomatoes, and peppers.  You should look at the information on to find out more about winter sowing in other climate zones - I don't claim any expertise for the southern, central, and western/southwestern states. 

By early May your containers should look like this:

Give it a try - and have fun!
Winter sowing is a great project for schools and home educators, and also for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of all ages.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Time to Winter Sow

 Some of last year's crop of winter sown seedlings.

This week I started my winter sowing.  I learned how to do that about 6 years ago, maybe 7 now, on the Winter Sowing Forum of GardenWeb.  It's saved me quite a bit of money each year by allowing me to start seeds at home rather than buying nursery-grown plants every spring.  Well, I still buy some plants (no gardener can resist buying plants!), but far fewer than if I didn't winter sow.  Starting my own seeds has allowed me to try new things inexpensively, saving my own seed has saved money as well, and trading seed with other gardeners is just plain fun, as well as good for preserving the biodiversity of our country.

What is winter sowing?  It's a method of starting seeds outdoors in the winter, using recycled containers as miniature greenhouses, and Mother Nature as the thermostat.  The seeds germinate at their own pace as the weather warms in the spring.  Gardeners in all climates can use this method.  It's simple, it's inexpensive, and it works.  You can learn much more about it at the site  Trudi Davidoff, who runs the Winter Sowing Educational Organization site and founded the organization, pioneered and popularized winter sowing, starting over 10 years ago.  Trudi is a hero for the environment in my book!

Tomorrow I'll post a tutorial on winter sowing, showing how I do it.  (Like any gardening method, there are variations in materials, and in personal preferences.)  We successfully did this for my daughter's Brownie troop last year, which was a lot of fun.

See you tomorrow!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Oatmeal Pumpkin Walnut Cookies

I got pretty tired of baking during the Christmas season.  Biscotti, sugar cookies, biscotti, brownies, biscotti, cranberry bread, biscotti, triple peanut butter chip cookies, and more biscotti.  It's taken me three weeks to even want to turn the oven on again.  Much to my kids' delight, the cookie drought is finally over.  I'm helping with the fellowship hour at church tomorrow, and I need to bring something to share.  This recipe is one I modified from another recipe I created a number of years ago, to use the ingredients I have on hand because I didn't want to go back out to the store today.  So, it's an original, and I think it turned out pretty well.  The kids certainly approved!  Here it is:

Oatmeal Pumpkin Walnut Cookies

1 1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
3 eggs
1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin
2 tsp. vanilla
3 1/2 cups white unbleached flour (you could use 1/2 white and 1/2 whole wheat)
2 cups rolled oats (quick oats would be fine, too)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 1/2 - 3 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (OR 1 1/2 - 2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. allspice)
2 cups chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350F.

Combine the sugars, butter, and eggs until fluffy.  Add the vanilla and the pumpkin, and blend well.  Add the dry ingredients, except the nuts, and mix until moistened.  Stir in the walnuts.

Drop dough by large double tablepoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet.  (Scoop size should be about the size of a golf ball, and separated by about 1/2" - the cookies don't spread much, they're very cake-like in texture.)  You can fit 16 cookies on one large cookie sheet.  Bake for 17-18 minutes, until they begin to lightly brown and spring back when touched gently in the middle.  Remove and let cool for a few minutes, then remove to a paper towel to finish cooling.  Frost with vanilla or cream cheese frosting.  (I bet maple-vanilla frosting would be wonderful on these - I'll have to try that next time, since I did vanilla today.) 

Yields about 4 dozen large cookies.

Simple Vanilla Frosting

1/4 cup shortening
1/2 tsp. vanilla
4 cups powdered sugar (+ extra)
1/4 cup or so cold water

Blend the shortening, vanilla, 2 cups powdered sugar and 2 tbsp. water in a small mixing bowl.  Gradually add the rest of the powdered sugar, and just enough water to form a slightly soft frosting.  If you get it too soft, add more powdered sugar to get the consistency you want.  Make it stiffer for spreading, and softer for piping from a tube or bag.  You can spread the frosting on the cooled cookies with a knife, or put it into a baggie, seal, and snip the corner to make a simple squeeze bag.  If you want to make maple frosting, substitute real maple syrup for the water.  Let the cookies sit out for half an hour or longer for the frosting to stiffen if you need to stack them on a plate or in a container. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ta DA!! It's Done!

Yes!  The living room project is finally done!  No more nasty off-white flat primer, except in the closets (and I'll ignore those).  We're really pleased with how this project turned out.  You have to see a before picture to really appreciate the difference, though.  Here goes, right after Christmas and not edited for prime time - it's pretty sad (shh! don't tell my husband he's in the shot!):

Now, here are the AFTER pictures:

We removed a couple pieces of furniture (a book shelf, and an office cabinet), and rearranged.  The organ had to stay in that corner, though - it's so massive, and that's the best place in the room for it.  I  still don't think it looks much like a real living room with only one good chair.  We'd like to get the chair reupholstered this year, since it's really comfortable and a family favorite, but it's showing its age.  My husband would like to build a nice book shelf for that room, and we might add a second chair eventually.  Having the three keyboards in that room doesn't leave much space for lounging around.  But, that's what the family room is for, so we're okay with that.

The kids are still a bit confused by having both a family room and a living room.  It's all in the terminology - really, we did have two rooms like that in the old house.  The problem was, we called the living room (where the TV was) the living room, and the family room "the side room" or "the new room" because it was a later addition to the house, and is where the keyboards, organ, and Mac were.  The kids equate the "living room" idea with "where we flake out and watch TV, and where the organ is."  In this house, the family room off the kitchen/dining area has the TV and the sofas, and the living room has the Hammond, the keyboards and the Mac.  To confuse matters more, we don't use the formal dining room as a dining room at all - it's my office/art room, and coincidentally has the guinea pig cages in it.  Confused yet?  The kids are, and we've lived here over 1 1/2 years.  I still will tell one of them looking for something they've misplaced, "It's in the living room!" and they'll go to the family room, and complain that their stuff isn't there.  "No, the LIVING ROOM," I'll say, pointing in the opposite direction.  "Oh!" they say. 

By the time we have to move, they'll probably get it.  But, using the rooms this way meets all of our family needs for music, office, pet, art and family space.  I'm sure, when we move someday, the realtor will want us to put a table and chairs back in the "dining room," real furniture in the "living room," hide as much of the art/music/pet stuff as possible, and keep the whole house immaculate (with two kids, three cats, three guinea pigs, and a 75 gallon aquarium) at all hours of the day for the convenience of showing it to possible buyers at the drop of a hat.  (Can you tell I really don't want to move again?)  Until then, we'll use the house the way we want to, and phooey on the labels.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Do you like fire alarms?

I don't think I've lost my mind, but I may be seeing that possibility on the horizon.  Our son, I guess I'll call him Safety Guy for now, has developed an interest in commercial fire alarms.  This is such a totally Asperger's thing, being hyper-interested in a techie-geeky electronic thing, it's almost a stereotype.  But, I'm proud of him for trying to learn about fire alarms.  Let me tell you why.

Our son has been afraid of sudden loud noises since infancy. People clapping, people singing at a birthday party, fireworks, thunderstorms, car alarms, you name it, if it was sudden and loud, it startled him, and he was upset about it.  That anxiety went to a whole new level when he started preschool, and had to do FIRE DRILLS.  The preschool had a horrendously loud air-horn type fire alarm.  Oh my goodness, he was flat-out traumatized every time they had a fire drill.   That didn't improve when he went to early kindergarten - different kind of alarm, same kind of reaction from our son (hands over ears, crying, totally distraught).  Testing the smoke detectors at home was equally difficult for him.  I think some of the sounds actually hurt him, since his hearing is extremely acute, as well as startling him and totally disrupting his activity and routine.  It was just a BAD THING any way he looked at it, and nothing seemed to make it any easier for him to deal with.

Safety Guy quickly developed an interest in all things related to safety and dealing with emergencies or natural disasters.  Home schooling allowed us to avoid the fire drill trauma (except for the time some kids set off the church fire alarm after Easter services one year - cue the hands over the ears, and the anxious meltdown).  It also allowed us to study all sorts of calamities and emergencies and how they could be detected or prevented.  He's fascinated by disaster scenarios.  (He also loves watching automobile crash tests - but that's another post, lol.)  Then, last year, we decided it was time for the kids to return to public school.  What was our son's number one concern as soon as we told him?  Yep, you guessed it:  FIRE DRILLS.  (#2 was bullying.)

The school has handled his anxiety over this really well.  They warn his teachers ahead of time for scheduled drills, so they can in turn warn him.  His classroom has one of the alarm bells right over the door (he was NOT happy to see that).  Still, it's always unnerving to him when they happen, and although he's old enough that he doesn't cry or melt down, he still covers his ears, becomes anxious, and is frustrated by the disrupted routine.

Here's where I have to praise my Safety Guy:  A few weeks ago, he decided that the best way to learn to not be afraid of fire drills was to learn more about fire alarms.  So, being a typical kid in this Web-savvy generation, he went to YouTube to see what he could find.  Wouldn't you know that there are dozens and dozens - hundreds! - of videos on YouTube of people testing every fire alarm system known to man?  People collect and share these things, like others collect antique cars or lunch boxes.  (Just listening to some of the guys - they're all guys - narrating the videos, you can tell many of them probably have Asperger's too, or something very similar in nature.)

For the past several weeks, Safety Guy has been looking up videos of fire alarms on YouTube, learning about the different manufacturers, and especially listening to the various kinds of alarms.  He's found out exactly which alarms are in his school, his sister's school, and other places he remembers from the past or visits now.  (He just told me that the one from his preschool that started this whole traumatic journey was a SpectrAlert P241575 horn alarm.)  He's talked about being a safety engineer, or working for a company that installs alarm systems.  He says he's still freaked out by the idea of fire alarms at school (it's winter in NY - no drills until spring), but I'll bet when they go off again on the first nice day in March, he'll have his ears covered, but he'll be watching the alarms and lights and talking to everyone around him about what kind of alarm it is.

He asked me a few days ago if he could buy an old alarm system or two and set them up in the basement, so he could test them.  "Um, what makes you think the rest of us want to listen to you test fire alarms?" I asked him.  He looked puzzled -  you could just see him thinking, "Who WOULDN'T like to hear me test fire alarms?  Aren't they great?  Oh, wait. . . ."

Good for him - at least he's constructively facing his fears.  Now, if I could just get him to stop playing his fire alarm videos several times a day - I'm starting to hear them in my head. . . .