So this year was a bust…

I love the fall. It’s lovely to turn on the gas fireplace in my apartment and watch the flames. I love sitting with a book, making holiday treats, and watching holiday movies.

With the holidays and the New Year are on their way, it is also a good time to reassess what you did with the year just spent. Enjoy the success and hard work! Analyze the failure, and regroup for next year.

Unfortunately, I’m doing more of the latter, than the former.

This year did not work according to plan. In fact, this year began with a maniacal laugh at my plans (I had emergency surgery in January), and proceeded to run, screaming, in the opposite direction.

PLAN FOR THE YEAR: Grow some of my own food, using skills learned in my Master Gardening classes. Complete the Master Food Safety Advisor program, and put the training to use. Ferment pickles and cabbage. Can chicken, tomatoes, tomatillos, and green beans, among other things. Dry herbs and store. Begin making soap again. Begin knitting again. Begin making shampoo/facial cleaners/household cleaners again.

I might have cut off a bit more than I can chew.


Item The First: Grow my own food.

Originally, I expected to grow my own tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillos, cabbage, green beans, and an assortment of herbs. According to my plan, I would preserve the fruits of my gardening labors using methods learned in the Master Food Safety Advisors class. These methods include pressure canning, fermentation, and freezing.

And then reality hit.

My cabbage plants began wonderfully; it warmed up enough in March I could put them outside in grow bags I bought for that purpose, and I kept an eye on temperatures so they didn’t freeze. My patio is a nice little micro-climate, and doesn’t get as cold as some of the surrounding area, so I did not really need to cover them at all; merely water them once a week. I was thrilled when my raspberry plant, which I thought dead, appeared to come back. In May, when it warmed up even more, I planted tomatillos, green beans, and cucumbers. I found a thornless blackberry plant and a boysenberry plant. I bought organic potatoes and planted them in the potato grow bag I bought for them. I bought several different herbs and potted them in terra cotta pots outside my sliding glass doors. And it was good.

I checked my plants before Memorial day weekend, and watered them a couple of days before I went out of town for 2 days the first week of June. When I got back, my cabbages were full of holes from a visiting cabbage looper. They never recovered.

So, no cabbage for sauerkraut.

I did a pretty good job of keeping up with the other plants until July, when I had an extra-busy time at work. You would think a Master Gardener would remember to water the plants on her patio, but alas, it is not always so. By the time I remembered it, the cabbage was well and truly dead, the cucumbers (which had been looking pretty good!) were a dried out yellow, the beans had wilted to an unrecoverable state, and all my herbs were dried in their pots. Miraculously, the tomatillos were doing very well, and even had blooms! But they never got past the bloom stage. The boysenberry and blackberry all croaked, and I’m pretty sure the raspberries are completely dead.  I’ll be cleaning out the detritus this week, into the bag I hope will be the beginnings of compost next season.

Outcome: foiled, but with a Back-up Plan.

Item the Second; ferment pickles and sauerkraut.

Though my cabbage died, I was not entirely discouraged. No big deal, right? The stores sell cabbage! So I bought 5 pounds of cabbage, spent an hour one Sunday evening cutting it up and putting it and the appropriate amount of brine into a 5-gallon glass jar, and attempted to weigh it down with a plastic bag filled with brine, as demonstrated in our fermenting class.

For the first few days, everything was lovely. It had a tart, sauerkraut-y smell. But it never *quite* got to what I needed; about 10 days after I set it to ferment, slightly black-red spots appeared when I looked at the jar in a particular light. Nothing *too* terrible-looking, but as I had never seen sauerkraut ferment, I wasn’t sure if it was a good sign or not.

It was not. Apparently, when they say you have to pound the air out of cabbage, they weren’t kidding. There was air all through it, and I’m sure that contributed to it’s final demise. So, two months later I tossed out my 5 gallons of cabbage and brine, bought another head of cabbage (just one this time), and tried again in a smaller container. I put some brine in the jar first, and dropped the cabbage in, pushing it down as I went. I was pretty sure I didn’t have a lot of air bubbles this time around; and I used the alkaline water from my new ionized water filter.   I was so proud to use my new Kangen water machine; no dirty, chlorinated water for MY cabbage!

Such good water to drink!

SO bad for fermenting!

The extra ion aerates the water, and guess what?? Air is not a good thing for fermenting. So that got thrown out, too.

I have not tried sauerkraut again. But I will! I am determined to master it!

The death of my cucumbers (by my own hand, no less!) was especially discouraging; I adore a good pickle, and I was looking forward to fermenting kosher dill pickles I, personally, raised. But the Farmer’s Market came to my rescue! I bought several pounds of pickling cucumbers and the appropriate spices, and set them to ferment in a brine of the appropriate salinity. They did wonderfully for the first ten days! They looked pickled, they smelled pickled, and I was so excited! Technically, they were half-sours, which is good; but I prefer a full sour. So I determined to wait the rest of the time.

Then, I came downstairs one morning and saw snow on my pickles.

Literally, it looked like it had snowed in my pickle jar. I was heartbroken! All those lovely pickles, now obviously bacteria-fied.

Still, I was not going to give up. I picked up MORE pickling cukes at the Farmer’s Market, and repeated the process.   It didn’t even get 10 days before things started looking fishy.


Outcome: No pickles. No sauerkraut.

I shall conquer this. I SHALL!

Item The Third: pressure can assorted low-acid foods.

Most of the items I wished to can were low-acid foods, thus requiring a pressure canner. As I have not used a pressure-canner unsupervised, this was a bit daunting, as was the fact I did not *actually* have a pressure canner. I solved this by mentioning to my mother that I wanted to look at her pressure canner, which sits unused in the garage, and has for thirty years. My mother does not pressure can because she thought she’d blow up the house. Since she was going out of town, she allowed me to borrow it and have the gauge checked.

The gauge was perfect.

I found instructions from the manufacturer, and read them over several times. I was so excited to get started!

I prepped several jars of cold-pack chicken, put them in the canner, tightened the lid as per the instructions, vented, put on the weight to begin building pressure, and began to watch the pressure gauge.

It stopped at 8 pounds.

I waited 45 minutes, and it never got over it. The canner vented steam out one side the entire time, and I never did get it to seal.

So. All that chicken got thrown into the fridge. I took the canner back to my mother and determined to try it again.

At a later date.

With my own canner.

Outcome: pressure canning is a bust. At least I didn’t blow up the house!

I’ll have to try it with my own pressure canner; I am going to chalk that up to user error brought on by parental equipment. With my OWN canner, I’m sure it will be perfect.

Item the Fourth: Grow and preserve my own herbs. Herbs died with the garden. However, I do have a lovely new dehydrator, purchased especially for this, which I used to dry several leeks. I have a half-gallon jar filled with dried leeks now.

I also dried dill seed from the dill I didn’t use in pickling. I dried that successfully, and while attempting to separate the seed from the stems, got dill seed stuck in my flour sifter.

Apparently that wasn’t one of my brighter ideas. But I have a lot of dill seed now!

Outcome: slightly successful, and something I can continue to work on through the winter, as herbs can be grown indoors.

Item the Fifth: make soap again. This was successful! At least, I made soap once. On Memorial Day, I made a lovely lemongrass Castile soap using a cold-process method. I got 12 bars out of it, and it smelled divine. The soap cured all summer, and I began using it in September. It was heavenly, and I am dying to make soap again. Perhaps over Thanksgiving; I want to do a batch of hot process I can use immediately, and cold process I can use over the winter.

Outcome: Soap successfully made!!

Item the Sixth: begin knitting again.   I have started a new project. However, I’ve only knitted about 16 rows on it. Still, it will be a cute tea cozy. If I can ever get it done.

Outcome: Slightly successful, with a new project on the needles.

Item the Seventh: begin making homemade facial/beauty products, and shampoo/conditioner. This has been slightly successful. I have found a good facial cleanser recipe that works pretty well, but I have not found a recipe for a moisturizer that will work. I have one I’d like to try, but I haven’t had time recently to make it up- lotion requires a couple of hours to do it properly, and I haven’t been able to focus.

I found a good shampoo recipe, but it requires Castile soap, which I do not like using. However, I found shampoo soap bars, which not only work beautifully, but are something I can easily make at home with my soap-making supplies. I have found several recipes to try, and think it will work well when I can process it.

The best conditioners, surprisingly enough, are a bit of diluted vinegar. I’ve been using apple cider vinegar, and I discovered a few weeks ago I wasn’t diluting it enough; it should be 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water, rather than 1-1, as I was doing. I hope this cuts down the vinegar smell on my hair. However, it leaves my hair soft, wavy, and very clean. I’m only washing it every other day now- it doesn’t really need it any more than that.

Outcome: successful, in unexpected ways.


Well, not the year I had planned, but not entirely unsuccessful, either. Hopefully, I will have my own property next year in time for the growing season, and that will help things tremendously; it’s hard to homestead in a small apartment.

My biggest problem has been time management; working from home, it is hard to drag myself away from students and grading and the computer. So I think next year I will focus on bringing the balance I want in my life into my work and computer time.

Maybe that’s the lesson from this year; balance and planning will make me successful!


Onward and upward. The New Year awaits!


Class the Third

My third MG class was such fun!  I love playing with beans!

Yes, I realize that sounds crazy.  But it’s true.  We played with beans during class, so it was like a win-win situation.

This class, we talked about botany- or plant anatomy.  This included plant reproduction.  I learned some new things, and remembered a few things from my college botany class.  I won’t mention how long ago that was, only that is was a loooong time ago.

There are two big things I took away from this class.  First of all, while I might have known this in college, I had forgotten that there are imperfect flowers.  This means the plant produces male and female flowers; male flowers have the stamen and pollen, female flowers have the pistel and ovaries.  Generally, the male flowers come in first, and the female flowers later in the season.  The female plants will have the fruit behind the flower.

This explains why I had a bunch of flowers on my cucumber plants last year, but didn’t get actual cucumbers until late in the season; cucumbers and squash (including pumpkins) are some of the plants that have imperfect flowers.

This was interesting, but it did not allow me to play with beans.

The next exercise did.

Each of us had been given a few white beans, and the next section taught us about seed anatomy.  Inside each seed is a food source, an immature root, and the first, immature leaves of the plant embryo.  Different seeds have different elements, but they all boil down to these three things.  When the seed germinates, the immature root leaves the seed and becomes the first root, the leaves break through and are the first set of immature leaves on the sprout.

The biggest pick-up from this, that I did NOT know, was that those first leaves, the cotyledon leaves, are not “true” leaves; meaning they will not resemble the leaves of the plant when it matures. Nor are the second set of leaves.  The third set of leaves are the first “true” leaves.

It was interesting to look over the seeds (and I pulled apart 3 beans and several pieces of corn) to identify the different parts.  I found it all fascinating.

Next week, the class I have been looking forward to!  Propagation!

Class the Second

So yes, this is a little late.  I’ve been sick.  And busy.  But today is the day; I am less busy, and no longer sick!

The second class was fascinating.  Best of all, we had flowers at our tables!

Of course, the reason we had flowers were to check their stems, to see if they are monocot or dicot.  Monocot circulatory systems are complex, dispersed throughout the stem; dicot plants have the system arranged in a circle. This is easily distinguished when you observe the stem.  We had lilies and a couple of dyed vegetables, celery and asparagus, to illustrate this.  Celery is a dicot system, asparagus is monocot.  The lilies were monocot.  It was fascinating.

We categorized different plants by their use; this was much more difficult than it sounds.  many trees and plants have many different uses; some are vegetables, some are landscaping, some are ground-cover or houseplants, and some fit several categories.  Ivy, for instance, can be both a house plant and a ground cover.

I also learned more about trees and how their circulatory system works.  For some reason, I had thought bark was there for protection only.  Apparently, this is not true; part of the tree’s circulatory system is IN the bark!  This seems obvious when I think about it, but I generally do not spend much time wondering about the function of tree bark.

We talked about different types of growth issues in trees, and I learned more about how trees grow, how their root system works, and what kinds of things affect their growth. I learned a new term, girdling, which refers to the removal of bark around a tree.  Because the zylem, the structure that brings nutrients from the leaves and branches to the roots, is found in the bark, the tree will be able to leaf the next year, but will die because the tree is unable to transport the nutrients produced in the leaves back to the roots for storage.

I also learned about stem circles.  These are small circles on the stem, that are created by the leaf bud each winter.  These can be used to gauge how old a tree is; you can count each stem circle.  These can also give you an idea of whether the tree was under stress through an unfavorable growing season, etc.  On unfavorable years, the length between stem circles will be quite short.  However, one of the other students at my table pointed out that at a certain point, trees do not grow long stems each year, depending on the age of the tree.

We did not get all the way through the appointed lesson, so we left part of it for Week 3. Coming up, botany!!

Why am I doing this again??

Several years ago, I developed an interest in herbs.  They have an innate practicality that appeals to me, and they are useful and pretty without requiring lots of space.  I was living in an apartment at the time, and I quickly filled it with all sorts of plants; lavender (I especially love French lavender), jasmine, basil, oregano, sage, hyssop.  Everything that sounded even remotely useful (and a few that weren’t) came home with me, and I did my best to keep them alive.  I didn’t know much of anything about plants, so I asked a lot of questions of the nursery workers, and did the best I could to remember to water them as needed.

I had some success.  I had a lot of failure.  But I was hooked.

For several years after the last of those plants died, I did not have any plants.  The few that I had didn’t last long; I really was not in a place mentally or physically where I could care for them.  However, I was still interested, and took a Victory Gardening class at my church in 2011, just before I moved to Chicago.  This engaged my curiosity even more, and I slowly moved back into container gardening in Illinois, with a new French lavender, orchids, and habanero and cayenne pepper plants growing in my window.

When I came back to Idaho, I brought my plants with me, and continued to expand what I grew, but I stuck mostly with herbs. I had developed an interest in herbal medicine, so I bought several medicinal plants.  I made a few discoveries:

-Calendula is a weed.

-Chamomile is a weed.

-Mint is a weed.

-Lemongrass will cut your fingers.

-French lavender will die of shock.

As I experimented, I realized there was more I didn’t know than what I did.  I started to “get the hang of” different plants.  I managed to get an orchid to re-bloom. Jade and aloe vera took up spots in my bedroom window.   I kept learning.

I enjoyed the coneflowers, and rubbed my fingers through the lavender as often as I could.  I made sure to smell the jasmine when it bloomed in June, and picked a handful of raspberries off of the vine I had growing in a large pot.

Medicinal plants came home and joined the others.  My interest in herbalism grew, as did my intention to study natural medicine.  I’ve put off applying to formal training for financial reasons, so I am doing my best to learn complimentary disciplines in the meantime.  Over the last several months, I’ve taken classes in herbal medicine, learning to prepare tinctures and teas, and homeopathic medicine.  I’ve been studying the importance of food as medicine and the need to successfully grow my own food.

What has become most apparent as I have experimented, is my utter lack of knowledge. Last year’s cucumber plants attest my ability to unsuccessfully grow food. I have calendula and chamomile reseeding each season, but I don’t know how to harvest it, and my attempts at harvesting and drying it were a disaster.  How DO you grow coneflowers?  Mine always die.  Is that plant on the greenbelt really plantain?  I don’t know.

Since I learn best in a classroom, it made sense to try something like the Master Gardener program, so here I am.  An apprentice.

It’s scary and a bit daunting, but I am looking forward to the challenge, and learning what I don’t know.


Class the First

My first class was yesterday morning.

I got lost trying to find the Extension Office, so I was a few minutes late and got to do the lovely “Late Walk” that is so embarrassing to introverts like myself.

Aside from that, I had a great time!

The first class established expectations and course requirements.  We talked about what gardening is, the learning process and our internal assumptions (“mind filters”), and went through the schedule and the syllabus.  The learning theory information was excellent; it broke adult learning theory down into simple language and illustrated how we block our education using mind filters, which edit the information we gather into different forms that we can assimilate or ignore, depending on which filter we apply.  It was well-done, and I plan to adapt these ideas for my own students.  A deeper understanding of the learning process is helpful for students in any learning setting, but particularly in a career setting when they take classes they might not agree are useful in the future.

Did I mention I teach history?  Many of my students don’t get why it’s important.

But back to the gardening.

Often times the best learning is that which opens your eyes to what you already know, but hadn’t put together.  I had two instances of that yesterday.

First, did you know that geraniums can’t be grown in Florida year-round?  They are considered a cold-weather flower, and can only be grown outside from January through March.  In California, they are a year-round perennial, and of course, here in Idaho, we grow them outside during the summer time.  We all know that different climates affect how and when plants grow, but sometimes it takes an illustration like this to piece the information together.

The second was about tree roots.  I don’t recall exactly how we got off on the subject, but when it came up, the general consensus was that tree roots went deep into the earth.  Wrong.  Tree roots stay near the top of the soil; below 24 inches, there is no oxygen in the soil, and the roots are looking for oxygen.  For some unknown reason, I believed roots were quite deep, depending on the particular tree in question, and that was the answer I was prepared to give.  When the instructor told us this was wrong, I didn’t believe him until I remembered all the picture I’ve seen of uprooted trees after wind-storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes.  All of their roots are no more than about two feet below the surface.  The root span was quite wide, 6-20 feet depending on the tree; but the roots themselves only went down to about the two-foot mark.

I sat and giggled the rest of class thinking about it.

I have a feeling I am going to get more than I bargained for out of this little venture.  Aside from the volunteer work (which I was expecting), there is the promise of identifying bugs for people at the plant clinic (which I was NOT expecting).  That’s creepy, and to a entomophobe such as myself, not a comforting prospect.

Our instructor also assured us we would not be discussing the Krebs Cycle; disappointing, since I understand that from Biochemistry a few years ago, and need the review.   I expect the composting and propagating classes will make up for this lack.

Next up, homework!