Thursday, June 27, 2013

Of Compost and Courtyards

The terrace herb tower

As I promised yesterday, I have a lot of garden tales to relate. After the storm knocked down my herb tower, which I relate in my Storms and Successes post, I put it up again. Then another storm came along and knocked it right back down! While we were on vacation I took the planter apart and set each one on the ground so the herbs might have a chance to recover. They are coming back, as you can see, though in a rather lopsided fashion. Something is chewing them all up, so I'm going to have to make some more spray. The aphid spray I made with citrus juice and baby shampoo in a previous post (I think maybe the Porch Progress post) really lasted a good long time, despite all our rain. It's finally worn off, though. I think I will go ahead and harvest some of the overgrown herbs and freeze them to get the planter a but more even.

I am trying to get our flagstone terrace to have the feel of a Mediterranean courtyard. Right now it has a fence on two sides and the house and deck rail around most of the other two sides, so I just need to build up a wall of greenery along the remaining edge to give it an enclosed feel. Eventually I would like to replace the herb planter with a solar-powered fountain and add a fireplace or fire bowl. The main trouble we have is the children, who keep carrying the stones off for their games and pretending. The terrace and yard are bordered by great many Greenback Magnolia trees, obviously chosen by a non-native landscaper, as they are way too close together and to the house! These do have a more columnar shape than a standard magnolia and I think they stay a bit smaller, but we went ahead and pruned them into an umbrella shape. My university had a huge lawn planted with gigantic, majestic magnolias. They must have been at least a century old. If they had been left to grow without shaping they would have taken up the entire lawn, but they had been umbrella-pruned for many years, and as a result they were fabulous shade trees you could stretch out under on a blanket to study. I am hoping for the same eventual result here! You can see the brown spots on the fence where we took down the rotten fence planter boxes. My dad made new ones for me and once we powerwash and paint the fence we will hang those.

One of many piles of debris in our yard
Saturday before last we worked in the back yard cutting down and thinning trees for six hours. At the end of it we stood back and, except for the pruned magnolias, we agreed you can't even tell we did anything! Now that is a wooded lot! We have piles of debris everywhere, as you can see. We plan to rent a chipper/shredder to make mulch out of the trees.

Another pile of debris
The garden is getting a bit more light now, and I do think it shows. The plants really shot up while we were gone. I'm glad all the work did some good, because it wasn't without harm. When we came in I was covered in giant bruises and had a tiny itchy spot on my neck, but it stung when I scratched it. Within two hours it was a three-inch long welt and by the next morning it had spread across my chest and I had welts coming up all over my legs. We had to leave for our trip and I don't have a doctor here yet, so thank goodness I still have some steroid cream left from that wasp sting back in September! You know, back when we first moved to North Carolina I was so covered with rashes all the time the town doctor went ahead and just mixed up a big pot of steroid cream in his office and gave it to me! I sure could use that stuff again! It's too bad doctors can't do that kind of thing anymore. The bad thing this time is that our reunion was held in a water park and I couldn't shave over the rash, so I had to spend the whole time in a swimsuit with hairy welts all over my legs and a rash all over my chest and I was all swollen up from the reaction. It figures! Having to wear a swim suit to meet people you haven't seen for six years is bad enough without all that! Then, at a rest stop in Tennessee, our daughter announced she had something running down her leg. It turned out she was covered with weeping poison ivy that hadn't emerged before we left. So, we had to stop for medicine and bandages for her. Then in Kentucky our youngest had a huge nosebleed. Ah, the family road trip!

The garden is getting more light with the trees thinned out.
As I mentioned in my last, we were happy to return home to find our tropical seeds had sprouted. I wrote about trying to grow lychee and dragonfruit (or pitiya) from seed in a couple previous posts. Ours have sprouted, so we are hoping for a good outcome.

Lychee seeds sprouting.
Check out my long nails, in these photos, too! I wrote a couple weeks ago about our whey-protein and vegetable diet. I don't think I've lost much weight, but my hair and nails are sure looking good! Of course, a week into the protein shake diet my blender broke. This was a cheap $20 or less blender, and it seems like they break all the time. So, this time I went to the store and picked out a Nutri-Bullet. A friend of mine told me there's an infomercial about this, but I've never seen it. I just picked the mid-priced high-end blender. We are really enjoying it. My kids have been begging for smoothies and voluntarily drinking spinach, avocado, banana or cabbage, mango, peach smoothies! I think surely I must eventually lose weight if I can stay on it.

Dragonfruit seeds beginning to sprout.
Last night after swimming laps for a half hour while waiting for our daughter to be done with swim team practice and then walking three miles and then running on the elliptical for another half hour, I was starving. I fell off my diet and ate a whole tin of smoked oysters. So, this morning decided I'd better drag my butt out to get some exercise. My daughter helped me and we weeded the amazing number of weeds that grew while we were gone and then we decide to check the potatoes. We dug up a whole bucket of potatoes and left many more tiny ones in the soil to grow larger! I'm glad the potatoes are doing well. We never had a lot of luck with potatoes at our old house, but here peas and and peppers and things that really grew in our other garden aren't doing well. The peas keep getting eaten by something as soon as they get ripe, and a lot of the plants withered when it got hot. I suppose it will just take some time to get used to this wet, cooler climate. I am trying to talk Jerry into buying a field somewhere and just tilling it all up for a big garden and maybe raising some chickens, but so far I haven't gotten anywhere.

The garden produced this bucket of potatoes over the past week.

We should have some really good compost ready shortly. I got this Ultimate Soil Machine dual tumbler composter with my Amazon points a few months ago and the first drum is full and should be ready soon. The soil here is really good, but I think you can't ever really have too much compost to add!

My new composter

I've been very happy with the hydrangeas here. We have several Nikko Blue French mopheads and a couple nice hot pink ones. One shrub is very unusual; it seems to be half Lacecap hydrangea in a dark indigo and half indigo mophead. I have picked several arrangements and they last a really long time. I use a cut-flower food to help preserve the bouquets even longer. Here's the recipe:
Cut Flower Food
In a standard vase, drip three or four drops of dish-washing liquid and 1/4 tsp pancake syrup or corn syrup. Run water over these to mix and fill the vase. Add cut flowers, first removing any leaves or thorns below the water line. Change the water every two days, following the same recipe.

The reason this works to preserve the cut flowers is the dish soap inhibits bacterial growth and the syrup provides food for the flowers.
I've been enjoying my hydrangeas.
I love blue hydrangeas. They are the same color as chicory, a favorite flower from Ohio. I've seen chicory here and there in the North Carolina mountains, but never fields of blue like you see in Ohio. I think hydrangeas and chicory are like bit of heaven fallen to earth! My grandmother loved chicory too, and had a big poster-sized botanical print of it as the focus of her living room.

Tonight the kids have a swim meet from 5-9, so I have to cook early and pack a picnic for us to eat there. On this diet I get one traditional meal instead of a smoothie for supper. Then I have to time the swimmers during the meet, so I suppose I'd better get going to cook and get ready. This is, of course, as long as the meet isn't rained out. We have storms pretty much every night, and I woke up yesterday and today with a headache like a press on my forehead. In fact, these storms oppress me so I can feel them coming from my head all the way to my stomach and through my teeth all day. My teenager calls this my "super power", because I am much more accurate than the meteorologist in predicting rain and thunderstorms. I was quite right yesterday; it stormed all afternoon and into the night.

Lightning flares over the lake.

Oh, and I almost forgot: I'm going to get in trouble with my eBay sales consultant again. My store has been doing well, but I haven't posted a link for weeks. I promised to link my store to more blog posts during my last sales conference. So here's my link: Right now I have a lot of child and toddler dress clothes, toys, and of course, dolls.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Road Trip

Grand Lake
The summer travel season is upon us, and so we spent the past week on the road. Five states in slightly less than a week means I'm exhausted! We planned a reunion with my daughter's adoption travel group over a year ago, and then Jerry combined a business trip with our social adventure. As we publicized our itinerary relatives along the way invited us to stay, so we ended up with quite the odyssey! Unfortunately, the friend I wrote about in my Visiting the Past post died exactly one week after I rushed home to see him, just as the doctor predicted. The funeral wasn't held for over a week, though, so I missed it because we were away. We had already paid a couple hundred dollars in deposit, so we couldn't cancel. I feel at peace with it as much as I can. I saw him and said goodbye, and two of my sisters attended the service and sang for him, so we were well-represented. My friend was so well-known and loved the funeral lasted four and a half hours, because everyone wanted to pay a tribute!
I feel like we are almost obligated to visit our daughter's fellow orphans. We would stay in touch with them anyway, because we love those people. Even if we didn't though, the girls refer to one another as "cousins". They are from the same tiny village and spent their infancy in the same room at the orphanage. These are the closest to biological relatives my daughter will ever have, and I'm very happy we remain part of each other's lives.
Jerry had business in downtown Cincinnati, so we headed there first, with stops in Tennessee and Kentucky on the way. As a girl I could rattle off all the famous race horses and their descendants, so I was happy to share horse country with my own girl. We viewed a photo of a famous Tennessee Walker and I was able to show her the breed we owned when I was girl and the patient type of horse who tutored my early equestrian endeavors. Then we stopped at the Kentucky Horse Park, my childhood idea of Paradise. After our reunion we visited relatives across Ohio. I was able to see Grand Lake again, and it didn't disappoint, despite the storm clouds you can see blowing across the water in the picture. 
Gorgeous mountain views near Flat Top, West Virginia
The ride home through mountains and farmland afforded gorgeous views. I took a lot of photos in hopes of someday getting back to painting again. I wish I'd thought to photograph the fields of chicory blooming amid the dry grass outside Dayton, Ohio. The blue and gold color combination was sublime. I am trying to keep it in my mind. We arrived home to pouring rain, of course, and have had rain and storms every day since we arrived. We were excited to see tiny sprouts in the dragonfruit and lychee pots we planted and recounted in previous posts. I was dismayed, however, to find the house sitter over-watered my rosemary tree until it's now half dead. I drained it out and am hoping for a recovery.
A chicory-blue night sky
We've been home for a day and about a quarter now and I'm still working on all the laundry. My protein smoothie diet isn't working yet in terms of weight loss just yet, but I do think it's healthier, because my fingernails have gotten very long and strong. I have to add fish to any diet, of course.
I was reminded in St. Mary's, Ohio that it's time to get to work on my cold crop. I saw a nursery advertising their cold crop transplants were all ready to put out and thought I'd better get on it, since I haven't even started my seeds yet. Luckily we have some extra time to start those here! I'm sure I will have lots of gardening posts for you in the coming weeks.
I went out to walk last night once the rain mostly stopped and I was reminded we can always find beauty in this world when we take the time to seek it. The sunset and night sky were beautiful. Was your sky as lovely as this last night? I'm thankful I can share these lovely scenes with you, since we can't view them together.
A glorious sunset

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Of Successes and Storms

I know I've been long promising to show you the 1950s Day to Nighters I recovered in my Night and Day post in situ and I finally am able to do so! I think they look quite modern in their present environment. I don't think you would look at them and instantly believe they are from the 1950s. We got the wall unit/entertainment center at Ikea. I think it goes perfectly with the mid-century modern style of the couches. We originally planned to get various bookshelves and tables on Craigslist and create our own unit, but we need so much utility and to cover so much space we decided we wouldn't be able to get the clean look I wanted. You can read all about the Day to Nighters in this post:

Our finished bonus room

I love Ikea because you can create custom furniture at a fraction of what it would normally cost. This was still awfully expensive, about $1200. We could have done it a lot cheaper, but I wanted the high-gloss doors because I believe they will stand up much better to use by the children. This unit will get all sorts of daily use. It holds a great deal of our library, as well as the TV, video game systems, DVDs, video games, toys, and photo albums. We still have some room left and I'm trying to decided between using it for toy storage or guest linens. Those couches push together to form a full-size bed when you remove the back cushions. The coffee table is a not-so-chic accessory which serves to denote this room's purpose as a play room. I painted the top with scenes like the pricey Thomas train table and bought wicker baskets that fit underneath to hold the toy trains. Someday I will get a nice adult table for this room!

We picked the entertainment center first. It is the part in the middle; our TV is hidden behind the sliding doors. It was shown in the store in faux walnut wood grain. I liked that, but I didn't think it would look built-in and I was envisioning a custom, built-in looking piece. We went to a different section of the store and noticed white bookshelves with white, high-gloss short doors on top. They are exactly the right height for the sloped ceiling of this room in our "salt-box" style home. We realized the doors had the same name as those on the entertainment center, so we asked if we could combine the two and were thrilled to discover we could. I originally liked white cabinets with light faux birch doors, but those doors didn't come in the large size or didn't fit the entertainment center or something, and I wanted all the same doors. We realized we could get all the same size doors and hang them at the same level to create the look of a unified wall. We have so much clutter in this room, the idea of a clean, minimalist wall of color seemed wonderful. I saw some teal doors next and like those but they didn't come in the right configuration for the entertainment center. It's too bad, because both of my original ideas would have been a great deal cheaper. Finally we settled on the high-gloss gray, and I am very pleased with how it looks. It was quite funny when we were at the store; even the employees hadn't thought of doing a whole wall like this and by the end of our design session we had two of them following us around exclaiming on what good ideas we have. So, take note, Ikea! You should hire me to come in and design stuff for you. I would certainly take part of my salary in store credit!

The thing I don't like about Ikea is that trying to purchase the pieces you want is challenging. Even though we got the store employees to print a list of all the pieces we needed we ended up with two extra drawers and it cost more than we thought it would. We were just in time as well to get the very last center unit in white and the last gray doors, because all that stuff has been discontinued. So, it seems like you'd better buy something right away if you like it. This all required a great deal of careful measurement, however, so we had to go home and measure several times. I definitely couldn't have done the measuring myself; I am glad to have Jerry for that! The entertainment center cost a lot more in the colors we chose than it said in the store, even when we account for the high-gloss doors, and we aren't sure why. You would think the white laminate would cost the same as the faux-wood finish.

I chose Olympic One "Misty Surf" in satin finish for the walls. I absolutely love it! I knew I wanted a gray, but I didn't want it to match the doors exactly and I wanted some blue in it. I arrived at this color by choosing the darker teal of the doors I'd seen at Ikea. Then I followed the swatches from that color family up to the gray section and picked a medium-light tone. It's a wonderful help to shop for paint at a store that arranges the colors this way because you can get the shade you want in a different tone. I didn't want dark teal walls in this room! This color really does mimic the ocean. In different lights throughout the day it looks gray, white, light green, light blue, teal, and more. It goes well with the gray-green furniture and the gray doors as well as the beige carpet.

Next we worked on the lighting. I picked up the mid-century style lamp at the Bullock-Kenilworth warehouse sale. This is an annual event from late January to mid-February in Rocky Mount, and we drove four hours to attend this year! I would say 60% of the furniture and accessories in our home has come from these sales over the years! People come and spend the night to shop here, and the churches all hold pancake breakfasts and such to cater to the sale! The lamp reminded me of a cool 60s surfboard, and I knew it would be perfect! It's high gloss birch with inlaid mother of pearl tiles around the base. The end table is a 1960s hand-me-down from my parents. I originally planned to paint it but I think the retro finish color looks good in the room. The original fan and light was a Caribbean plantation style, but we had a modern-looking one in another room so we just switched them.

Collage art

For artwork I decided to contrast the style a bit. The frames and colors go well, but the style is more old-fashioned. You can see how blue the wall paint sometimes looks in this photo. These collages are illustrations I made in college for a CD cover and insert booklet. This was an assignment and I chose my cousin, folk-singer Sally Rogers' Generations album. These are almost all songs about the women in our family. I had recently been given my grandmother's old sewing machine. This is a turn of the century treadle, but she was still sewing on it in the 1960s. My grandfather motorized it for her! At any rate, when my grandmother stopped using it she left everything in the drawers, so it was like a time capsule. There were 1950s sewing notions and 70s Boy Scout patches and 60s patterns and church bulletins and matchbooks. I used all these everyday objects to portray a woman's life. We might spend our years on mundane details, but in the end we find we've created an entire world.

Collages made from the contents of my grandmother's sewing table drawers

I planned to write next about my finished French Quarter type courtyard, but I had a setback today. Jerry refinished our cast iron bench for me (which was great because I've done it the last two times!) and I had my potted citrus trees placed just so. My fence boxes are complete, and I planted a tower of herbs which were just looking very full and lush. This morning I was thinking as we watered them that I'd better take a photo for the blog but I didn't and now, well, it's too late. Storms rolled though this afternoon and took the tower out! I will be able to salvage the herbs by cutting and freezing them, but it will be some time before they are filled out and photo-ready again! Luckily the planter is resin and didn't break. I do still need to make some throw pillows for the Day to Nighters, so maybe that will be the subject of my next post.

My herb tower didn't survive the storms.

I did at least have some garden success today; I picked more peas and noticed some potatoes peeking out of the soil. I dug up our first new potatoes. I didn't actually mean to harvest the tiny ones yet but I accidentally broke the stems checking their size. We have more on the way very soon. I can't wait! So Mother Nature gives as she takes.

The first new potatoes from our garden

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lychee Love

Lychee, peeled and unpeeled
Over the weekend we went home and made sure to visit the Asian grocery there. We don't have one here and we miss our favorite Chinese foods, especially the exotic fresh fruits. Lychee and dragonfruit are in season now so we picked some up. I fell in love with sweet lychee in Guangzhou, China. Guangzhou is located in Guadong Province, famous for the lychee grown there. The fabulous breakfast buffet in the White Swan hotel featured mounds of sweet, fresh lychee, and I found the fruit delicious. Lychee look a bit like sweet gum balls, but when you peel off the thin, brittle shell you find sweet translucent white flesh. There is a large pit in the center, about twice the size of a cherry pit. Lychee taste rather like tart cherries, only sweeter.
While we were in Guangzhou we tried the often-recommended Cow and Bridge Thai restaurant. The food there is delicious, although they do charge you for a napkin! At the time the menu featured seasonal concoctions and I tried the Lychee Fried Rice. It was just amazing. I can't remember if the meat used was pork or chicken. I do remember it had a distinctive sweet and salty flavor. I know the rice had lychee and cashews, and I'm pretty sure it also had cantaloupe. I know that sounds weird but it was really good. I adapted my regular fried rice recipe to replicate the Thai recipe. I didn't have any cantaloupe, but you could easily add it at the same time as the lychee. I will include the recipe below.
After we peeled the lychee we decided to see if we can grow some ourselves, since it's so hard to find around here. It is supposed to be hard to grow, but if you are successful the trees are only a couple feet tall, so easy to fit in a pot. Here's how we planted the lychee:

Push the lychee seed into wet potting soil
First, take 4 or 5 good-looking lychee seeds and plant them as soon as you take them from the fruit. Press them into wet potting soil. Cover the pot with a plastic bag and secure with a rubber band. You can see my little helper's hands in this photo! The seeds should sprout in two weeks. If more than one comes up you can separate them and move them into different spots. These are tropical plants, so if you don't live in a tropical climate you will need to move the trees indoors in winter.

Cover with plastic to make a mini greenhouse.
I've never tried to grow lychee before, so I will just have to get back to you if I'm successful. I have a lot of tropical fruits I'm trying to grow right now. I really hope at least one works out! As for my fried rice adaptation, I am happy to share.

Lychee Fried Rice
Serves 10-12
1/4 cup coconut oil. divided
2 large eggs
I cup diced meat, chopped, cooked or raw ( I used nitrate-free bacon for this recipe)
2 large bell peppers, diced
2 large sweet onions, diced
1 10-oz package frozen peas, thawed
3 cups cooked rice ( I used Thai Red Rice for extra color)
1/4 cup soy sauce or Bragg's Liquid Aminos
1 tsp chili-garlic sauce
4 green onions, sliced, or 1/3 cup fresh chopped chives
2-3 cups fresh, peeled lychee fruits, chopped
1/3 cup dried coconut shreds
1/2 cup cantaloupe, thinly sliced (optional)
1/2 cup roasted, salted cashews
When cooking rice for Asian dishes or sushi, I add 1-2 tbsp. sake or mirin and a two inch piece of dried seaweed (Dashi Kanbu) to the water and rice for flavor. Remove the seaweed when the rice is done. You can discard it or chop it and add to the dish.
For the fried rice, heat 1 tbsp. of the oil at medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the eggs, scramble them slightly, and turn once while cooking. Remove from skillet, chop and set aside. Heat the remaining 3 tbsp. oil in a skillet, add meat, peppers, and onions and stir fry 5 minutes for cooked meat or until cooked thoroughly for raw meat. Add the peas  and next 3 ingredients; stir-fry 3-4 minutes or until onions are soft. Stir in egg and remaining ingredients and toss until heated through.
Sometimes I also use brown jasmine rice for this recipe. Either option tastes very good. If you like spicy foods, add more chili sauce to suit your taste. My children won't eat this if I add more than a teaspoon. Peanut oil may be substituted for sesame oil. The dried coconut is not the sticky, sweet coconut from the baking aisle; you can find unsweetened dried coconut in the produce aisle, usually hanging next to the dried mushrooms, tomatoes, etc. It adds a great crunch to all kinds if recipes, from savory fried rice to sweet fruit crisp. I use Melissa's brand. I adapted this recipe from Southern Living Magazine's Henry Guo's Fried Rice recipe, which I've used for many years.

Lychee Fried Rice

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Visiting the Past

The lake at Pullen Park, in Raleigh
This past weekend we planned to travel home to visit my sisters and attend my nephew's birthday party. Just as we were leaving, however, I received word of a friend from high school. He has been fighting cancer for less than a year and, now we find the chemotherapy which cured it has left his lungs so damaged he has only a few days left on this earth. A miracle might occur to save him, and that is evidently what it will take, but those are in short supply these days.

This man first caught my notice when he was a freshman in high school and I a junior. He was in chorus with me and I wondered why he always wore a long black coat to school. This was answered when I began to see him riding his bicycle quite a long way to and from school in all kinds of weather. He needed his coat to fend off the pouring rain or beating sun or the rare instances of snow. I felt for his plight and offered to drive him home. At the time I drove my grandfather's Buick and I could fit my friend's bicycle in the trunk! As I ferried him around my friend confided his fear that he would soon end up homeless. He, as most children of the unbalanced do, realized his mother wasn't capable of sustaining both herself and a child. I don't know where his father was then, but I know he has now died. I assured my friend we would take him in if that happened, and I tried to watch out for him.

I was by no means the only person keeping watch. Our chorus teacher was instrumental in creating some stability for him, and my younger sister and her friend became very close to him. The day did indeed come when he found himself living in a car. I was away at university by that time, but my sister's friend asked her parents to take him in and they did. To this day, those two are like brother and sister and I know he considers her parents his own. They helped him find a job, bought him a car, and set up a bank account for him; in short, they gave him what he needed to succeed as an adult.

Eventually he met his lovely wife. I can remember us encouraging him to talk to her at parties, since it was obvious to everyone but himself  that she loved him. They were married and are even now much involved in their church. My friend has spent his adulthood praising God with his music, devoting himself to his wife, caring for his prodigal father as he was dying, and working hard; he is just as he ought to be. He is a husband, brother, son, and friend of whom anyone could be proud, and I am so proud of him. It is still hard for me think of him as a man, even though he's only two years younger than I. I always see that boy on the bicycle in the rain.

On Friday we arrived home to be greeted with the news that my sister didn't think our friend might live through the night. We rushed to see him. He was agitated and somewhat incoherent, but he was lucid enough to be happy to see us. We returned from the hospital just before midnight. He was worse the next morning, and then better. It was time for him to be transported to hospice. He has been in the hospital for three weeks, and his wife has been living there, so we spent most of Saturday packing their clothes and things and moving them to the new room in hospice. They are serene in their peace with God's will and submit to this turn of events. I am so angry I just want to smash something. I was able to walk with Cherre Saturday night and she told me God is supporting them right now because they are in the midst of all this, and that is how they can be at peace and not angry.

Driving to Raleigh on Friday, we traveled through a tropical storm. At one point we came upon an unearthly scene. Great dark clouds were bearing down on a stand of trees, with torrential rain obviously imminent. From some break in the clouds not visible to us the sun was shining with full force on the trees. In this strange, intense sunlight they stood super-delineated before the darkness, each leaf gilded along its edge in gold or chartreuse or lime. I thought to myself, this is how we all must live. We all stand before this onslaught; most of us just don't know when it will come until it hits us. It is our choice to stand up in the light and confront our fate, as my friend is now doing so very gracefully.

Sunday brought my nephew's party, which we could attend while many people from church arrived in town to assist our friend. This was held at Pullen Park, a historic park in Raleigh. It has a train and lake with paddle boats, and a carousel. It was the site of many a childhood school trip in my youth, and then a place I would take my young son to play. My sister's wedding photos were taken there. I stood watching the paddle boats traverse the placid lake, thinking you would never guess someone is dying in the next city. But of course, someone is always dying, and someone else always being born.

Before that we went to pick up some Chinese staples at the Asian grocery. The nearest to us here is 40 minutes away, so we aren't able to get these things easily. Besides dry goods, we picked up some dragonfruit and lychee. We shared these at my parent's so the dragonfruit are already gone. I will make fried rice tonight with the lychee. I am trying to replicate a dish I enjoyed at a Thai restaurant in Guangzhou, China. Guadong Province is renowned for the lychee grown there. When we arrived home yesterday afternoon I was in the mood to try to grow something. I need some new life amidst all this sickness. My daughter and I decided to try to get the dragonfruit and some mangoes we had to grow from seed.

Dragonfruit and mango seeds.
Dragonfruit is actually the fruit of a cactus, and it's supposed to be very easy to grow. The mangoes are trickier, I hear, but they make nice houseplants if you can root the seeds. We placed the entire mango pit, with some flesh still attached to feed the germinated plant and covered them with soil. If they both sprout then we will separate them and grow them in their own pots.

Mango seeds being planted.
The dragonfruit seeds are very tiny, like kiwi seeds. I made a fruit salad last night with pineapple, dragonfruit, blueberries, and mangos. I saved the dragonfruit peel with some seeded flesh still attached. We broke the peel into little bits and planted them as you see here. If most of them sprout we will have to thin them out and then pot them in individual pots. I will let you know how they grow. I am feeling the need to create some life just now.

Dragonfruit seeds being planted

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Upcycles & Updates

Pineapple plants on the porch
You might recognize the pineapple plants on my porch from my Taking Root post about growing kitchen scraps into new plants. They are both finally well-rooted so I went ahead and planted them. I believe when we toured the Dominican family farm the pineapple plants were growing in the shade under the big cocoa and cinnamon trees. If the porch proves too dark, though, I can always move them to the sunnier patio. You know, before our trip to the Dominican Republic I always thought pineapples grew on trees. I am pretty sure this is the fault of an illustration in a Curious George book I had as a child. I do believe George is pictured in a pineapple tree. But in real life pineapples grow out of the sides of rather small, spiky plants!

I was rather dismayed to see the high the prices on planters of any size when I was shopping for pots for these. I do have some new and old food tins, though, and I thought they would make cute planters. I started with the Chock Full of Nuts coffee tin we just emptied. I love Chock Full of Nuts coffee and I also love their retro, art-deco style graphics. I liked the previous can design better than this one, but this is still cool and it really does look old. I also like the plastic lid, which can be used as a base to keep the planter from leaving rust marks.

Plastic lids can be affixed to the bottom of the tin to catch drainage water and prevent rust marks.
It's really easy to upcycle a tin into a planter. All you do is find a tin with a design you like and a large enough size for your plant. Pineapple plants don't get all that big, but I will probably have to re-pot this one into a larger planter eventually. If you want to use a regular number ten can with no design, just soak off the label and spray paint the can your favorite color using a spray paint for metals, like Rustoleum. Punch several drainage holes in the base of the tin with a nail.

Punch drainage holes in the bottom of the tin.

You want enough holes, evenly spaced, that the soil can drain and you don't end up with wet spots.

Space several holes evenly across the base.
After you punch the drainage holes, all you need to do is affix the plastic lid, if the tin has one, to the base to prevent rust marks, fill the tin with potting soil, plant, and water! This is such a great way to recycle and save money on planters.
I realized as I was reading over my past couple entries, I never showed the preparation of the pineapple before you root it. Sorry about that! If your pineapple is really ripe, you can just grasp the fruit firmly and twist the top off by grabbing the leaves and twisting them around. If that doesn't work then just cut the leaves out.
If the pineapple is really ripe you can twist the leaves off.
Remove the lower leaves by just pulling them off, or cutting them off if they're stubborn. You want to just remove the leaves that would be under water when you put the pineapple in a jar so they don't rot. Sometimes as you remove the leaves you will find the pineapple is already rooting. In that case, just leave the roots on and immerse them in water to wake them from dormancy.
Remove the lower leaves; sometimes you will find roots already growing.
Place your pineapple top in a jar of water. If you only have wide-mouth jars you can poke toothpicks into the bottom to keep the leaves up out of the water. The base must be immersed, however.

After a week or two the pineapple should be well-rooted. Once the roots are full and long, the pineapple is ready to plant.
The plant is well-rooted.
You will see the ends of the leaves turning brown, but don't worry about that. If you look in the center of the plant you will see new leaves growing. Eventually those will become quite large and you can cut off the old brown leaves.
New leaves grow from the center of the plant.
The plant will set fruit on its sides. You will need to move the plants indoors in the winter, since they are tropical plants. I haven't had a pineapple set fruit yet, but my citrus trees took about two years to begin fruiting. They are also kept outside in summer and brought inside in winter. Keep this in mind when you choose your planter; try to find a lightweight option so you don't break your back moving the plants in and out! You can find more on growing kitchen scraps in my Taking Root post: and on my Pinterest Gardening board.
I have some other updates to my last couple posts as well. Yesterday was field day at my daughter's school, so I applied my homemade waterproof sunscreen to her before she left. She has very dark skin, so it looks a little weird on her since it leaves a pale film. However, I put the sunscreen on her at 6:30 AM and after swim practice at 8:45 PM water was still beading up on her skin and her sunscreen had not worn off! We did not apply the sunscreen more than once! You can find my sunscreen recipes in my Summer Sun-Days post: The one I mention here is the Waterproof recipe, using 1 1/2 TBSP of beeswax.
Jerry and I are on the third day of our whey protein, vegetable, fruit, and nut diet. I am starving and rather out of it, but so far I've lost 2 pounds. We are going to a reunion at a water park at the end of the month with some friends we haven't seen for 6 years, so I hope I can stay on the diet long enough to really look good in my swimsuit!
I have several sewing projects in the pipeline, because I just got a fabulous new professional machine. I will write more about that once I've completed the first one. I have so many projects in the works in various areas it makes my head spin! It's better for me to be busy, though, or I tend to get bored.
As far as the garden is going, today I found a box turtle in the road and relocated him to the garden. Although he won't help with the moles he should be a great defense against slugs and insects. Today our first sugar snap peas, Melting Sugar, were ready and I ate them for lunch. They were delicious! Sugar peas raw off the vine are a favorite food of mine. It looks like we will have snow peas and tomatoes ready very soon. The potato plants are huge, but the leaves haven't died back yet, so they're not ready to harvest. I may sneak some baby potatoes out when more peas are ready though, because I absolutely love new potatoes and baby peas as well. I'm glad to be a gardener; it brings so much joy to know you can craft your own world, as beautiful and delectable as you prefer.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Summer Sun-Days, or How to Make Homemade Sunscreen

Our magnolia trees are in bloom.
This afternoon I am taking a little break to work on my blog because I have need of sedentary activity today. Why? Well, every muscle in  my body hurts, that's why! This weekend we competed in the neighborhood Amazing Race. Jerry and I placed 2nd in our group and our two older children won 1st Place. After the race we had a neighborhood pool party that went on all evening. I spent about two hours swimming my littlest child around in his inner tube. Right now he is quite scared of the water so I have to pry his little fingers off my arms to get him to float free in the water, even when he uses a float. I didn't feel bad on Saturday, but on Sunday my screaming muscles made it quite evident I had overdone it.
We skipped church because I was lying around, sore, in my pajamas reading the paper all morning. I felt guilty about that, though, so I got up and spent another two hours weeding the patio and sweeping it and working in the garden. I am trying to landscape the patio so that it looks like an Italian or French courtyard. Next weekend I will pick up some flower boxes my dad made for the fence and when I get them installed I will take some photos for you.
After the yard work was finished we decided to take our kayaks out on the lake. Jerry and our teenager can just drop down into the kayaks from the dock without falling out, but I of course flipped mine over and beat my head on the side of the dock. There are rocks all around the shore in our marina, and there's no canoe launch. So I have to be hoisted in and out of the water in my kayak on the boat lift like some behemoth. It's quite humiliating. Once in the water I'm fairly good at the sport. I spent a lot of time in canoes as a child and I find the kayak not much different. Today I can really tell I need to do some more strength training, though, because my arms are on fire! But for now I'm sitting down and writing for a bit. I am so bruised from our activities and from moving furniture and stuff I look like I've been cage fighting!
The warm summer weather we are used to has finally arrived, so it's time to wear sunscreen. Several years ago I read a very disturbing article in National Geographic about sunscreen actually causing skin cancer. According to a scientist who studies nanoparticles, titanium dioxide, a key ingredient in even "natural" and "organic" type sunscreens, behaves differently at the nano- level when it's absorbed in the skin and can cause cancer. It's widely known commercial sunscreens are also full of hormone disrupting agents and sketchy chemical preservatives.
I have a horrible time keeping my vitamin D levels normal, so I only wear sunscreen if I am going to be out for a long time, except on my d├ęcolletage, which has begun to look the worse for wear due to sun damage. My mother has had skin cancer twice, so I try to protect myself with clothing. I do wear hats and big sunglasses to shield my face, and I garden in one of my husband's old button-down shirts. A lot of the "hippie" natural health books and articles I read have recently contained articles about how melatonin production (i.e. tanning) can actually protect your skin from skin cancer, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out. 
When we visited the Dominican Republic absolutely everyone we talked to about sunscreen mentioned they use just pure coconut oil. I have not been brave enough to try that, but our teenager got burned while at marching band camp recently to the point he had a rash. I coated him liberally with coconut oil. The next morning the burn and rash were gone and he had a tan. That's pretty remarkable because he never tans! I make sure to use coconut oil in all my sunscreen recipes. You want to avoid citrus oils when making sunscreen, as it has recently been shown to cause sunburns. That's not surprising if you think about it; as early as the Middle Ages lemon juice mixed with olive oil was used as a beauty treatment. Italian women would apply the mixture to their hair and sit out in the sun, wearing an open-crown hat to expose the hair while shielding the face. In this way they intensified the sunlight to bleach their hair golden.
Ingredients for making sunscreen.
 I have the "dark" variety of Scandinavian skin (which really just looks yellow) so I can tan easily and don't burn much. My Chinese children are both very dark-skinned and don't ever burn one bit. They do turn brown as acorns; in China, where skin-bleaching cosmetics are the main focus of practically every ad you see, I'm sure I'd be considered a terrible mother for letting my daughter get so tan, but I think her skin is gorgeous. It's absolutely flawless. My oldest son, however, got his father's milk-pale Scottish complexion and absolutely must wear sunscreen. I really worry about using commercial sunscreen on a teenage boy. Even sunscreens marketed for children are full of nasty chemicals. So, last summer I started experimenting with homemade sunscreens. Pinterest is a treasure trove of recipes, some better than others. After a lot of trial and error I finally came up with two good mixtures, and I will share them with you here.
Waterproof Homemade Sunscreen
Waterproof Sunscreen
1/4 cup coconut oil
5 TBSP zinc oxide (don't inhale powdered zinc oxide; wear a mask)
1-2 TBSP beeswax
 essential oil, optional for scent ( I use lavender or coconut)
2-3 capsules Vitamin E, pierced and squeezed into the sunscreen (or use drops)
Coconut oil can be found next to the shortening and olive oil in the baking aisle of most supermarkets. Zinc Oxide and beeswax are available on Amazon.
Set up a double boiler, or set one pot atop a smaller pot filled about 1/3 of the way with water, over medium-high heat. Make sure you do not use the pot or any utensils for food after making sunscreen with it. Melt the beeswax with the coconut oil. I use beeswax pellets for faster melting. Once melted, remove the pot from the heat and whisk in the zinc until smooth. Stir in the Vitamin E and the essential oil. Place the sunscreen into a container.
If you don't have a double boiler, use a large pot atop a smaller one filled 1/3 with water.
 I prefer pure Vitamin E drops if I can find them, because when I poke a hole in the capsules and try to squeeze them into the sunscreen the liquid goes all over my fingers. If you are super-human, as many other bloggers appear to be, then go ahead and squeeze your sunscreen into a squeeze bottle using a funnel or a plastic bag with a hole cut in the corner. If you are clumsy and messy like me, just forget the squeeze bottle and use a screw-top jar, like an old body butter container. Most pools only allow plastic containers, so don't use a glass jar. You can also just take your favorite lotion and mix zinc oxide into it, but good luck getting it back into the original bottle! I see bloggers blithely filling bottle with sunscreen all the time but I just can't manage it. Here's what happens when I try to put sunscreen into a small-neck bottle, using a funnel or a bag tube.
I can't ever get the sunscreen into a bottle, like the blue one, so I use a screw-top, wide-mouth tub.
 Note of caution: this sunscreen is waterproof because of the beeswax, meaning it doesn't wash off well at all. If you get it all over your hands it takes forever to get off, and you can see from my sunscreen pot, it is nearly impossible to wash off the dishes you use, so keep them separate from food receptacles. Wear a mask to prevent breathing in the powdered zinc oxide. Some bloggers recommend wearing gloves because the zinc oxide supposedly contains nano-particles. Well, actually everything contains nano-particles; the nano-level is a sublevel of matter, and your skin is still going to absorb sunscreen at the nano-level after you mix the powder into the carrier oil, but if you want to wear gloves go right ahead. Keep in mind I majored in art and writing, although I read a lot on various subjects.
A lot of sunscreen recipes follow this formula but add water or tea and aloe vera gel. I have never been able to get the water to mix with the oils. Thus the popular saying, "Oil and water don't mix." We used this recipe all last summer and no one got burned. I have no idea what SPF level it might be, but according to other bloggers, 5 tsp zinc oxide to 1 cup liquid is 20 SPF. This contains 5 tablespoons or zinc, so it's well beyond that, and it doesn't wash off. Water actually beads up on your skin for quite a while after you apply this. If you are as old as I and you can remember the Hawaian Tropic Girl giving way to old chalky sunscreens, then this will remind you of those days, because it does leave a pale film on your skin and you will look less tanned. My spray sunscreen recipe will not leave you looking pale, but it is not waterproof, so you will need to re-apply it often, and it has a lower SPF.
Homemade Spray Sunscreen
Spray Sunscreen
1/4 Cup coconut oil
5 tsp zinc oxide
3 TBSP pure aloe vera juice or gel
1 cup green tea, brewed ( I prefer Lipton Green Tea Superfruit with passionfruit and coconut)
essential oils
2-3 capsules Vitamin E (squeezed out) or about 1/4 tsp drops
Melt the coconut oil over low heat. Remove the pot from the heat and whisk in the zinc oxide. Add the remaining ingredients. Pour into a spray bottle using a funnel and shake the bottle to mix before applying. This is quite runny. To apply, spray into your palm and rub over your face and body using your hands.
 Again, I have no idea what SPF this is. To be safe I recommend applying the spray after sweating or swimming and every two hours.
In other news, I haven't done much lately except work in the yard and clean the endlessly messy house. I did go to Ikea and spend all my birthday money on a rug and pillow and the turquoise rolling cart on which I placed my magnolia blossom in the first photo. I wish I could get one of these carts for every room in the house! I have been moving it all over, placing the newspaper in it and vases and plates on it. My youngest wraps his plush piglet in a blanket and puts it to bed in the cart and then rolls it from room to room.
This reminds me of a story my mother tells. In California she was good friends with a German lady named "Ing" (Ingrid). Ing was very young, having gotten pregnant and subsequently married while visiting her American boyfriend. Ing lost a bunch of blood during the delivery, but the hospital sent her home anyway, and she was evidently a mess. My mom says she would sit around crying all the time and talking about how her dog was more fun than the baby. She had terrible headaches as well. The baby, a girl, was very cute, with black curly hair and a round face and big dimples, but Ing didn't seem interested in her. One day, however, Ing walked into the nursery and discovered her baby wasn't breathing. Luckily, the baby had just stopped breathing and was easily revived with no harm done. After that, though, Ing laid her in a rolling cart and pulled her from room to room all day and there was no more talk about the dog being more fun than the baby!
I wish I could transmit the scent of this magnolia blossom through the screen! It's a heavenly smell, about 3 parts lemon to two parts narcissus. It's such a clean smell, like soap, but somehow more lyrical. The cart will probably move to my office eventually, as I originally meant it to hold paints and art supplies, but for now I want it down where I can see it every day.
I have been gaining weight lately, which is pretty disgusting given my increased activity level. I guess since I still can't run on my foot I'm just not burning as many calories. So, Jerry and I are trying a diet where you eat only whey protein and fruits, nuts, and vegetables all day and then have one regular meal at night. It's supposed to make you as skinny as in high school. I hope we can manage it without killing each other! I will let you know how it goes.