27 November 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

I'm just oozing with things to share:  nature adventures, garden ideas, thoughts about family culture thanks to Pete and Buzz, thoughts about my personal testimony thanks to Privacy of Light, new epiphanies from my devotional reading (as in, God putting me in a phase where I can step back, evaluate, and be fertilized for new growth), and probably more.

For now, at least during this week with my husband home and off from school, will you simply enjoy this volunteer compost pile bean plant with me?  He has survived wind and rain thus far, and I can't wait until he grows just a little taller, and we'll perhaps be able to tell whether he is pinto bean or black bean.

May your day of thanks truly be full--not of overwork or too much eating, but of grace (even for yourself), peace (as you walk it through arm in arm with peace's Prince), and moments alive with delight in those with whom you spend your day.

21 November 2013

Adding Fish Fertilizer

Even though we know it's totally disgusting (this isn't a bottle to open and smell just for fun), maybe it's inevitable that a family of Alaskan fishermen would resort to Alaska Fish Fertilizer to give our garden plants a boost while we wait for our compost pile to get rich enough to spread all over the garden.

The basil plants are growing more now, and I'd say we're up to three that look bigger than they did before, with the rest looking a little greener than they did before.  It's progress.  But we still felt like they--along with the tomato plants, peppers, and one remaining tomatillo, needed an extra boost.

These photos simply serve as the "before".  I'm hoping next week I'll be able to show you what they all look like after the fish plant food has had a chance to soak in a little.

The basil plant that has been healthy all along is about four inches tall now.  You can see that it has some splotchy yellow spots on the leaves, though, just like the tomato and pepper plants do.  My husband searched carefully for the most complete organic fertilizer so that we wouldn't be discovering and fixing one nutrient deficiency only to run to the store again to figure out a solution to the next one.  We're keeping molasses and Epsom salts in our repertoire, but we wanted our next thing to be a little more complete.

We looked at several options, and I'll just tell you we weren't impressed with the product designed to add iron to the soil....but that also contained lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxic chemicals.  We're glad we read the labels!  Actually, we're glad HE read the labels.  I would have grabbed something and run home in my efficient little mode of operation.  And then my {edible} plants would have been eating lead for breakfast.  Yikes.

The fish stuff may smell bad, but at least it's more complete and safe than a toxic product designed for one nutrient deficiency.  I'm more ready to cheer for the organic movement all the time.  Even though I don't buy that way in the grocery store very well...I ignore the facts and try to stay in budget.  That's a different story, except that maybe it's another reason why I'm glad we have even a small garden to work with.

This morning I was visiting all the plants like I do every morning, and praying at the same time.  As I looked down at this little pepper plant, I realized what a miracle everything in the garden really is.  

Before, I was upset that any of the plants were being eaten by bugs at all.  Then I realized how sad Adam and Eve must have been to see the first plants die, knowing it was their fault, only to have the greater pain later of one son murdering the other.  Our world has just gotten worse since then, and we're calloused to the "small things" like plants dying when we're surrounded by so much that's worse.  

Our gardens still suffer from the curse given to Adam--that he would have to labor harder for the food he would eat, and that thorns would be his constant garden and farmyard enemies.  Maybe it was to remind him tangibly not to get too comfortable with this world, and keep him looking forward to the promised day when the Promised Seed (Jesus) would get rid of the curses of sin.

Those thoughts have all been in the back of my mind over the last several weeks as we've researched and tried to do the best thing for our plants with Neem Oil and now the fish fertilizer.  This morning, I saw it tangibly beginning to work.  The little leaves on this pepper plant are growing on a stalk that not long ago was eaten completely empty of leaves, yet it's putting out a fresh start.

It got me thinking about what the Gardener who first planted Eden can do with a human life, no matter how hard it gets plagued and no matter how empty of any outward sign of life it may become.

So did this little tomatillo plant.  It's the one that had its stem nearly destroyed three times, only to have us pile more soil around it in an effort to save its life.  And you know what?  It looks a little more yellow now, but it's beginning to seem firmly rooted, and it has not been eaten through the fourth time.

If my husband hadn't been so bent on saving it, I would have given up on it long ago, and we would have missed out on the miracle of how hard it's hanging on.  Now with the fertilizer, I really think it has a chance.

That got me thinking about people too, and how again God can take a life that looks like it's on its last spiritual leg, and completely revive it and get it to start growing again.

It made me glad, actually, that our gardening this fall hadn't been perfectly smooth and pest free, because now I have this object lesson right in front of me.  It's like He wanted me remember to treat myself and the people around me with the redemptive grace He offers to all.  There may be bad bugs trying to destroy by night, but God's mercies are still new every morning.

Here are the two best looking tomato plants.  We still have a few others growing slowly but surely, but these are the ones that get the most sun.  They're also the same variety, so we'll watch over the long term to see if the other varieties just have trouble in our climate, or if the place we planted them wasn't the most ideal.

We originally planted twelve tomato plants.  Part of the time, I wish all twelve had lived and grown to this size already.  Yet at the same time, I'm grateful I didn't lose all twelve, grateful several are still making the efforts to grow, grateful these two are almost up to my knee and beginning to flower.  Grateful for what I still have, instead of losing the joy of what's here while I focus on what isn't.  Grateful for the miracle we simply call growth.

19 November 2013

Salsa Verde Recipe

If you've been reading over the spring and summer, you know we've gardened in four states this calendar year, starting seeds, moving them with us to relatives' homes for their summer fruitfulness, and starting fresh here in South Texas.

If you're a gardener, too, you know there's a lot of satisfaction in simply tending the plants and watching them grow.  If they bloom and you see healthy little honey bees pollinating them, you know you've done the world some good.  Yet if you don't get to share in the harvest, there's a little piece of the joy missing.  You're happy when at least someone can enjoy the tasty goods, but it's not like being there yourself for those delicious fall feasts.

Well, that Friday afternoon when I stepped out on my front porch to check for the mail, and found a flat rate box waiting from home-people, I just knew without needing to be told what was packed inside.

My brother excels in  picking out meaningful gifts, and regularly outdoes himself with the latest expression of generosity.  This box was no exception.  He thought of everything:  green beans, a zucchini, beets, carrots, hot peppers, tomatoes, and even tomatillos.  From our own garden.  Some of which started their lives in Virginia, bore their fruit in Oregon, and now came to the table in Texas.

We looked forward to some of our very own tomatillos for salsa verde all summer long, and now it was really happening.  I think my brother knew just how much it would mean to me to have that box of goodies.  It made my day.  No, not just one day.  It still makes my day every time I even give it a passing thought.

Have you ever made salsa verde before?  My husband learned from someone who worked in the music department of our undergraduate university, and I tried making it myself for the first time this fall.  It's delightfully easy, and it works well for those of us who like, at least every once-in-a-while, to cook by what looks right instead of by exact measurements. 

There are multitudes of other ways to make a green salsa (which is all "salsa verde" really means), but this is the one we're good at in our house.

Salsa Verde Recipe

1 green bell pepper
1 jalapeno pepper, or more if you like it with some heat (eek!  I can't find the little squiggle to go over the n!)
1 pretty small onion (or about a quarter of a large one)
1/2 avocado (or slightly less)
Dash of lime or lemon juice
Salt to taste
Chopped cilantro (optional)

Cover the bottom of a wide, medium sauce pan with tomatillos (peeled, cut in half).  Add the green bell pepper (in two halves, without the seeds), the onion or section thereof, and the jalapeno (with the seeds if you like the added heat).  Lightly steam these, until they're just tender.

Put all the vegetables, minus the water for steaming, into a blender.  Add the avocado half, and blend.  Taste the salsa now, and decide how much lime or lemon juice you want to add.  I add 1/2 to 1 Tablespoon usually, but if there's a larger avocado half in there, I add more.  Also add some salt at this point.  It's really to taste with both the salt and the lime--add a little, blend, taste, add a little more, blend....until you're happy.

Then stir in (don't blend) the chopped cilantro.

We love this salsa on its own with chips, in a taco salad, on a haystack (ask me if you haven't heard of one!), and on enchiladas of any kind, as well as on a baked potato with gravy for a little more zing.

14 November 2013

Life's Current Delights

I finished my October series with more things to say than I had when I began.  I felt as though I had merely touched the surface of the depths of encouragement Jesus has for us in the Bible.  Writing does that for me.  It's the beginning, not the end, of my thought processes, and the more I write, the more I am able to write.

Yet I've been a little quiet over here.  I've had to let my days flow around some other things, while my list of things to share just keeps growing.

Here's what I've been up to.

I began accompanying some of my husband's school choirs.  Have you been in a room full of middle schoolers lately?  Their energy is by turns exhausting and delightful.

A friend encouraged me to open up my sewing machine and attempt to adjust the needle alignment myself.  I'm glad I did.  I saved between $60 and $80 on what would have been a super basic fix.  I may still have it adjusted down the road sometime, because it's not completely perfect, but it's back to basic functionality.

The room in the house which once had the largest pile of boxes in it is now free from every last scrap of cardboard.  I think that means we're getting settled.  :)

I've welcomed several handymen into the house to have things repaired.  Things that needed {and got} quick attention.

A new Goodwill recently opened near my home.  Yep.  I'm one of those.  My first trip cost me less than $6, and I ended up with some great things to {wash and} wear.  I love a good deal.

For two days in a row, I got to wear sweaters, and one of the days I even got to wear cozy socks.  It felt so homey.  I think we'll be back to summer temperatures for the weekend, but having a taste of fall was priceless.

If you live where you get to rake leaves, will you jump in the pile an extra time for me?

11 November 2013

Happy Veterans' Day 2013

I have a great uncle (both in the genealogical sense and in the sense that he's one of the most amazing people I know) who served his country--my country--for three years in the South Pacific.  I can't begin to tell you the number of times his life was spared, or all the things he went through as a  medic working to save the lives of wounded men of all nationalities.  But I want to take a moment here to thank veterans of any era for giving their time, talents, and even lives to serve my home.

In a culture and time when looking out for number one means living without a thought for serving others, my great uncle's life is all the more inspiring to me.

When I talked with him today about some of his experiences, the repeated theme that came back over and over was this:  "It was a privilege to serve my country."

I've never heard my great uncle swear.  In fact, I've never heard so much as a complaint escape his lips.  About anything.  He only knows how to tell you about all the wonderful things in his life, and all the ways God has blessed him, provided for him, preserved him.  

Thus when he used the word "hell" to describe what he went through, I have to believe him.  Yet he counts those three years as privilege, not because he survived, but because he was able to spend those three years serving other people and helping to preserve a way of life we take all too much for granted.

In fact, service has been the story of his whole life, with my great aunt right at his side.  (She's equally amazing--he was given a forty-five day furlough in 1945, and not knowing the war would end and that he would be honorably discharged without having to go back to the Pacific, she married him, not knowing whether she would be a widow in as many days as she had been a wife.)  They've served not only their country, but also their Lord, with all their hearts, not only in the country of their birth, but in places about as far away from home as a person can get.

The fifteen minutes I spent on the phone with these two heroes today were among my most precious, ever.  They live a happy life, no matter their circumstances.  They have dozens of blessings to recount, without even a passing thought to anything resembling a complaint.  They each say the other gets better every day, and are just like newlyweds after decades and decades of marriage.  Neither would trade honesty and integrity for anything the world has to offer.

Perhaps their lives of service provide the key to their happiness. Counting it a privilege to serve, they've always had more than enough privileges at their fingertips, with blessings poured out on them from the King of loving service besides.

06 November 2013

Learning Opportunities in the Garden

We have one stunning basil plant right now.  The others (minus one) are managing to stay alive.  The latest one we planted looked like it would be a beauty, but like several other plants in the garden, got chewed almost all the way through the stem within a couple of days.  Why this lovely specimen in the back of the row is thriving (and not being attacked by bugs) when the others seem to struggle is something we haven't figured out, but we're grateful for the one!

What Basil Plants Need to Grow

We read up on what particular things make basil plants especially happy.  Many gardeners simply said that basil is an easy-to-please garden plant, growing like crazy even in less-than-ideal conditions.  We don't have it all figured out yet, but here are some things we're learning.  (For more information, you can start by reading more about basil in this article:  Enjoy Basil Year-Round by Growing it Indoors & Outdoors.)
  • Basil plants like sunshine.  [Ours get primarily indirect light.  We opted for planting them where we did because the sun here is so intense that we were afraid they would be sunburned if we planted them elsewhere.  It would be interesting to try a different location with the next few starts we have growing inside right now.]
  • Basil likes well-drained soil.  [Because it does not appear to have been worked much lately, none of our soil is well-drained.  We're composting as fast as we can, as well as adding mulch to the top of the soil, both to act as compost and reduce the need for watering.]
  • Basil likes to have air flow around it.  [Note to self:  keep the mulch a little bit away from the main stem.  This will help the water evaporate out more consistently, since the soil doesn't drain quickly.]
  • As for soil nutrients for basil plants, we have added both Epsom Salt (for magnesium) and molasses (for potassium) when we have done the same for our tomato and pepper plants.  We expect the soil to be better supplied as our composting and mulching progress, but we may need to consider a well-balanced organic fertilizer in the meantime.


I've never seen a cutworm.  We've seen some signs in our tomato and tomatillo patch that seem to indicate their presence; however, when I've dug around in the soil to see if I can find one, there hasn't been any evidence.  I do frequently see ants in the garden, but from my reading, ants are usually helpful in the garden, not harmful, so I hesitate to blame them for hollowing out plant stems.  

This particular tomatillo plant has had its stem nearly eaten through a minimum of three times now.  The first two times, my husband lovingly buried it deeper in potting soil, since tomatillo plants and tomato plants will both sprout more roots from the hairy stems if the stems are planted further down in the dirt.  Both times, the plant revived quickly, and seemed to be on a good growing spurt.

Today I found it chewed on for the third time, in a third place on the stem.  As I dug around, I found that indeed the stem had begun to root well.  Again finding no particular culprit, I buried it deeper still, and we're watching to see what happens to it.

Although it's usually something I try to do right away, we haven't managed to plant marigolds yet.  They're a good companion for any plant in the garden, and where I've had marigolds, my garden hasn't suffered nearly so much from pests and insects.  Maybe that's the next thing on the garden list--although it seems incomprehensible, our local Home Depot may just have some even in November to get us by until we can grow some from seed.  (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has a delightful collection of colors and sizes, and I'm itching to try several of them.)

Any further advice would be welcome.

Tomato Plants' Nutrient Needs

I've pinned an infographic called "Signs of Nutrient Deficiency", and I consult it often.  We first determined that the tomato plants would need a magnesium boost, which we provided with an Epsom Salts solution (one tablespoon dissolved in a gallon of water).  Later, it looked like they needed potassium, and with a little searching found that molasses--as "black" as you can get it--is a good, quick provider of potassium (also one tablespoon dissolved in a gallon of water).

Being new to town and a little short on time that day, we weren't sure where to get good black strap molasses, and settled for a milder version.  The plants loved it nonetheless, and looked quite healthy again.

These days, I'm keeping an eye on them for a possible iron deficiency, and thinking about ways to add iron to the soil.  I haven't yet found as easy a solution as the Epsom Salts or the molasses; however, black strap molasses, or molasses from a feed store that is stronger than humans usually consume, is much higher in iron content that your average "Grandma's Molasses", so we may try that if necessary.

I've also noted that there is a line of shade coming from the house each morning.  It shades a few of the tomato plants, while the others enjoy two or three hours more sunlight every day.  The plants on the sunny side are more than twice as large as any on the shadier side.  Next time we plant tomatoes, I have it in mind to plant them where they'll all get even more sun.  They'll be happy for the rays, and crop rotation is also a good pest deterrent.

Compost Solves Everything

In just about all the reading I've done on maintaining healthy soil, one thing stands out in it all:  compost solves everything.  Poorly draining soil?  Compost loosens it up.  Poor nutrient balance?  Composted manures and kitchen scraps have everything it needs.  Tired of tilling and weeding?  Compost and mulch added to the soil vastly reduce the need for both.

It's quite a lesson in patience and perseverance for me, because compost isn't an overnight solution.

I have dreams of a huge garden, where everything I could possibly want or need grows in over-abundance.  Yet I face daily reminders that in so many ways, I am still a beginner gardener, with beginner soil and lots of lessons to learn and wisdom to gain.  Some days I feel frustrated that it's not easier; other days I remember that the blessing of research, learning, trial and error, hard-won success, and patience will give me a far better garden in the long run.

04 November 2013

Neem Oil Spray Saves Pepper Plants

The hot, humid weather of south Texas, even in October and November, has been perfect for growing pepper plants.  We're told many varieties of peppers grow as perennials here, which is why we planted ours from seed soon after we arrived in early September.  Although our yard has some room for the garden to be in the ground, we opted for pots for the peppers to save room for other things in the garden beds.

Before long, however, the pepper plants (of which we started ten plants total of several varieties) began to show signs of being eaten during the night.  Each morning, I came out to find fewer leaves on the plants.  Not once did I find an actual culprit on the plant; every time the critters were gone by the time I discovered the damage.  Since we're wanting to grow our garden as organically as possible (we're learning as we go), we weren't sure just what course to pursue.

In General,  Healthy Soil Protects Plants

My great uncle swore by his theory of healthy soil makes and protects healthy plants, even to the extent that healthy plants will develop strong "immune systems" that will deter devastating attacks from insects.  While I have never been able to confirm or deny this in other sources, family gardeners that he also believed unhealthy or dehydrated plants' were more susceptible to pests and insects because leaves would emit high-pitched distress noises (perhaps as their cells dryly rub against each other) that would attract insects, which would then eat the leaves.  From his hierarchy of manures from greatest to least (sheep-chicken-horse-cow) to his recipe for adding minerals to soil, the family still passes around his gardening wisdom.

The organic gardening books I've been reading over the summer and fall tend to agree.*  Making healthy soil will make healthy plants.  Compost is key.

We've started our compost piles and put in some mulch in many places, but we knew compost wouldn't move fast enough to save us from losing our average of one pepper plant per night.

*The Organic Gardening Bible:  Successful Gardening the Natural Way, by Bob Flowerdew; and The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: a Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden Garden and Yard the Earth-friendly Way, by Fern Marshall Bradley, Barbara W. Ellis, and Deborah L. Martin.

Neem Oil Spray

Consulting with a friend as well as the book on natural pest and disease control listed above, we decided to give Neem Oil a try.  Although you can order pure Neem Oil online, and perhaps buy some at a specialized local garden store, we opted for the ready-to-use kind from our local Home Depot for two reasons.  First, at the loss of one plant per night, we didn't have time to wait for a package to arrive in the mail.  Second, it fit our budget.

The solution from Home Depot does contain some other ingredients (and we're not entirely sure what they all are, so next time we're in need we hope to plan ahead enough to simply buy the pure Neem Oil and dilute it ourselves).  However, from the time we sprayed the plants to the present moment (about four days), we haven't suffered the loss of another pepper plant.  In fact, one of the "lost" pepper plants has already sprouted new leaves, which means we won't lose any of the varieties we planted.

Three cheers for Neem Oil!