Wednesday, October 22, 2014

home is where the heart is

This past weekend I took a couple of days off work and made a long weekend trip to Raleigh for the opening weekend of the North Carolina State Fair. Raleigh isn't the part of North Carolina where I did most of my growing up, but I did spend a good chunk of years there from halfway through high school until a little while after graduating college, and I love that city. Anywhere in North Carolina is home to me, and I'm always so happy to be back.

I stuffed myself silly with fries, a grilled chicken sandwich, Dr. Pepper and a vanilla milkshake from one of my favorite local spots. This place is a stone's throw from my old high school and just a couple miles from where I used to live - if even that far! No trip to Raleigh is complete without a meal from Char-Grill.

You also can't visit without a trip to the NC Farmers' Market. It's right down the road from Lake Wheeler, where I used to work (still my favorite job ever!). The colors of all the fresh produce are amazing. The freshness is in the air. Because it's NC and the temperatures are still great this time of year, you can get practically any fruit or veggie. The biggest bounty right now though are the pumpkins of course. And not just your regular old orange pumpkin awaiting its knobby toothed fate as a jack-o-lantern. This pretty pink and green pumpkin is a Jarrahdale and I'm in love with it.

Aside from all of the usual fair attractions like the rides, food and animals, the tractor pull is the loudest, most awesome thing to do. The idea is simple: trucks and tractors pull massive weights as far as they can and the one that goes the farthest is the winner. But it is so much more than that!

The fair is also a great opportunity to see some big name bands in a relatively small venue for super cheap. Last year, the Florida Georgia Line tickets sold out before I got them. but Parmalee was a pretty good show this year. And only $10!

You just cannot get good or real sweet tea in the north, so I have to get my fill anytime I'm below the Mason-Dixon Line. Bojangles and Smithfield's in one day? Oh, Lord. Biscuits, BBQ and sweet tea make me so happy!

Back in Philly after the long weekend, and this pup was so happy for my return. She might be a Philly dog these days, but she's a Carolina girl, too. I picked my faithful sidekick up at Lake Wheeler Park, which is of course how she got her name (Wheeler). One of these days she'll get to go romp around lakeside again :)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

hunters and gatherers

The summer season is winding down and so is this season of gardening. This week's temperatures are below what we're used to seeing this time of year, so we're already dipping into the 50s overnight with daily highs just above 70.

I'd rate the summer garden as semi-successful. Certainly more successful than last year, but crops that have done really well in years past didn't produce much this year. Maybe it's time to test the soil and see if it's too depleted of certain nutrients. The big winners this year were the green beans and tomatoes, and the zucchini did okay. Bell peppers were much more successful this year than any other year, and the pumpkins and gourds have been as well. Oh and the hops have gone crazy. There are at least four full 1-gallon bags. Just like last year, the cucumbers had another bad year, when two years ago we couldn't even give away all the extra.

A new challenge this year was a team of groundhogs making an appearance any time the cruciferous veggies or potatoes had leaves. I trapped and relocated two groundhogs, and later spotted the biggest (and still at large - har har) groundhog. Broccoli had never been successful before, but this year looked like it might actually grow. The groundhogs ate the leaves off the broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage. I tried a number of repellents - dog hair, peppermint Dr. Bronner's, fox urine. The leaves grew back once, but then were all eaten again and the plants were eaten down to little green nubs. It was time to wave the white flag and forget about enjoying any of those homegrown veggies.

Before the weather gets too cold and stays that way, I think one more shot at some fall crops might be worth it. Maybe some lettuce and spinach at least. Maybe the groundhog will go into hibernation early, and if not, I have a live trap ready and waiting.

Speaking of trapping, I completed a hunter/trapper safety course a couple weekends ago and am now able to get a hunting license. And I have a deposit on a new bolt action rifle that I'll be getting in the next week or so. I never really imagined myself a hunter, but we all know how I feel about sustainability. As it is, I purchase the vast majority of any meat or fish that I eat from the co-op, which does a pretty good job of selecting farmers who raise their livestock in a respectable manner. I want to be able to do more though, to provide for myself. I worry that we have lost a lot of skills older generations knew so well, and I'd rather not trot off ignorantly into the future. One of the instructors of the course mentioned some numbers that were pretty amazing. He mentioned the cost of having a deer butchered along with the pork he paid for to blend with the venison was around $80. What it yielded though, was the really amazing part - over $400 worth of meat. So whether or not I'll have a place to hunt or go hunting is still up in the air, but I like knowing it's a possibility. And in the meantime, there are places where I can go practice with my gun and gain the skills I need to be a good hunter when the time comes.      

Friday, May 30, 2014

don't mind the mouse...*

*if you're a tad bit squeamish or a super softy, this post might not be for you...see ya next time.

By this point in our lives, we have likely had to come to terms with death - animal or human - and we certainly know what it means to live.

I understand that if I one day have my dream of a little farm to call my own, I'll be experiencing life and death more frequently and on a greater scale, even if my only farm animals are chickens. This morning a mouse tested my grit for such situations. Turns out I don't have much grit.

Snap. The sound that makes you cringe when you have mouse traps set in your house. Around 1 a.m., I decided to leave the trap. I'd much rather pick up and dispose of a stiff mouse than a fresh kill.

Hours later, the coffee was brewing, the alarm was ringing and the mouse trap was in need of checking. Ugh. There it was - tail sticking out from under the was most of the trap. Confused, I took a breath, grabbed a plastic grocery bag and gently pulled the trap out from under the stove.

Noooooo no no no no no. The intruder wasn't dead! The trap had only caught his leg. Instantly I felt sad for the little guy...felt terrible that he may have suffered all night long trying to get out of that trap.

What do I do? I can't drop a suffering, squirming mouse in the trash! Chop his head off? That's what you would do with a chicken, right? Run him over with the car? Take him out back and whack him with a shovel? I sat on the kitchen floor and stared at him. My dog Marty kept running back and forth between the bedroom and the kitchen to check in. I couldn't do those things...not today. So I put him in a bag. And then another and another and another. And then...then I put him in the freezer. And there is where my once-enemy, now object of my sympathy will spend his day until I get home from work and can take him out to the trash, no longer squirming.

So please, don't mind the mouse in the freezer. He won't be staying for dinner.    

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

onward and upward

The first lesson in chasing your dreams is to never give up. Sometimes circumstances change, and with that, the path and your means of traveling it from point A to point B may also need to change. Onward and upward, friends!

Remaining in a city with dreams of farming proves challenging. Once you've filled your garden plot for the season, there's only so much weeding and watering that can be done until the plants start growing and you have to thin them, train them up trellises or can start harvesting your small crop. It's discouraging to wake up with the desire to be productive and get a little dirt under your nails when it appears there's little to no work to be done. That's when I look up. You can lay back and gaze up at the cloud-puffed sky, but I'm looking up to the roof.

When the ground is full and you have 20 more tomatoes and some herbs that need a home, and more seeds still sprouting in trays, it's time to think outside the box. Well, in the box, but outside the fence lines. I am fortunate enough to not only have a nice sized garden plot but also have access to a small portion of my building's roof that gets just the right mix of sun and shade. With the desire to dig in the ground is still very much present, it was time for another trip to the store. Soil, manure, perlite, peat moss and marigolds were on the list.

A couple beers and an afternoon later, a container roof garden was ready to grow.

Tomatoes, marigolds, herbs and other flowers potted for the roof garden.
Bamboo stalks were added in the pots to help keep those rowdy tomatoes in line.

Friday, May 16, 2014

ever changing

Dear Friends:

With the nearly three weeks of radio silence here on part of the whole comes some news. In the last two posts, you may have noticed my hinting to some anticipated changes. The changes were big...incredible...exciting! But sadly, are now off the table.

In the works were plans to move out of the city and relocate to a farm in Delaware County. Home would have been a historic cottage built in the 1700s, surrounded by creeks and open land - part of large horse farm where I already spend much of my weekends. The long commute would have been a hit, being 25 miles from work, but I imagine it certainly would have been worth it.

Ideas were sprouting for a large garden - enough to produce extra for a neighborhood farm stand. I was excited to start growing gourds and pumpkins, which could have also been sold at the farm stand. I've been collecting and reading all kinds of books about homesteading and small scale farming, saving images and building plans for potting benches and mobile chicken coops, looking at fire pit designs and lawn furniture. Maybe you know that I want to be a farmer someday, so this was the perfect opportunity to test the waters. It was a chance to get a feel for the work involved, the quality of what I could grow, the value it added to everyday life.

So, I'm disappointed to say that this plan is no longer working out. Much of what has been planted in my current garden was done so in in-ground containers for easy removal and transplanting. It's hard to put down roots when you don't know where you will grow, right? Lesson from the plants.

I was also excited to get back into regular blogging, using what would have been my new living situation and lifestyle as daily inspiration. What's it like to live by heat from firewood in a 1700s stone cottage in the dead of the Pennsylvania winter? What sort of recipes would I have been able to pull together using all the produce from my big, new garden? How successful is raising chickens when there is a fox den on the other side of the yard and two resident guard dogs (don't tell the little one he's only 17 pounds!)? Oh yeah...and how about waking up to gun shots all throughout deer hunting season? Maybe someday I'll know, but for now, it all remains unexplored territory. An unwritten chapter, if you will.      

For now, I'll keep on digging in my current ground, always dreaming about tomorrow.

The Mill House
image from

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Back in late November I heard about a program called Graze - it's a mail-order subscription service for boxed snacks. Every one, two or four weeks, a little box gets delivered to your home (or in my case, I chose my office) with four individually packaged snacks inside. Each box costs $6. When I first heard about Graze, I used a subscription code that allowed me to get two snack boxes for free. No reason not to try it!

These types of subscription services seem pretty popular lately. I've seen other companies offering snack boxes, some for pet toys and treats, and even for beauty products. It's a pretty great idea for snacks. One less item to pick up at the grocery store, and who couldn't use a little variety? It is the spice of life, after all.

Graze offers sweet snacks, savory snacks, gluten-free options, low calorie options, high protein options and more. When you log in to your Graze account, you are able to view all of the snack offerings. Before you place your first order, or after you've tried some of the snacks, you can rate them: Try, Like, Love or Trash. Rating the snacks ensures your boxes will be filled only with what you'll enjoy.

Some of my favorites have been Scandanavian Forest (dried blueberries, lingonberries, cherry infused raisins and dried apple slices), Texan Corn Salsa (corn chips, salsa almonds, roasted corn and jumbo chili corn) and Apple Cinnamon Flapjacks (rolled oats with apple and cinnamon - like a chewy granola bar). I have lots of other favorites, but you should try them for yourself and find out what yours are!

Boxes are packed using Graze's "80/20" rule: 80% healthy, 20% treat. That keeps your snacking mostly guilt-free. Graze snacks are also free of artificial sweeteners, colors and flavors. Aside from keeping health in mind, Graze also is looking out for the environment. Almost the entire package is recyclable, including the cardboard delivery box and the individual plastic snack containers (they're each sealed with a small plastic sheet, which I throw in the trash).

Since I've been receiving Graze boxes, I've developed a taste for more varied trail or snack mixes than I used to eat, as well as more kinds of dried fruits. Because of this, I've kept my eye open when going to the store thinking maybe I'd spot one I'd like to buy in bulk and try. Whether it's the neighborhood grocery store, Trader Joe's or even my local co-op, I haven't found anything quite like what Graze puts together. And I don't know what kind of magic Graze puts in its dried fruit, but it's amazing. The apple and pineapple are my favorite - they're soft and full of flavor, unlike the hard dried fruit you might buy at the store. You know what you're getting is fresh, because if you look at the little insert that comes in each box, you'll see expiration dates for each of your snacks.

So...are you interested yet? If you'd like to try a Graze box, you can use my Friend Code, which may give you a free box or discounts: LVXH532GP (As of the posting of this entry, new subscribers get their first and 5th boxes free - you can cancel at any time, and there is no membership fee or cancellation fee. Graze makes it easy!).

A sample Graze box
( press pack photo)
Psst! This has not been a sponsored post. I purchase Graze boxes because I love them. I wrote about them because I thought you might love them, too! 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

dig in

There was a lot of digging going on today. Most of the garden beds are rich with top soil added over the past few seasons, plus fresh compost from our barrel. The top layer has grown a lot of weeds since we finished gardening late last fall, but the soil is fairly easy to till after breaking through the top layer. After a few minutes of shoveling, turning and raking the soil, it's a happy little place for new plants.

Trips to a few gardening stores this afternoon sent us home with a good mix of plugs and flowers. Normally, most of the seeds would have been started indoors and nearly ready for planting by now, but as I mentioned last time, spring seemed to have a pretty late start all around. Today's haul included cabbage, beans, cucumbers, zucchini, marigolds, onions and some perennials to attract bees and butterflies.

I snapped a couple of pictures just before dark and just before my phone died. It's a little piecemeal, but plants are getting in the ground so that's all that matters. Wheeler dog was a great helper tonight. She does a really good job of keeping the soil warm while she lounges around and supervises the work.

Bamboo is an invasive monster if you have it growing in your yard, but it can be a great asset to the garden. Cut it, give it time to dry out (to avoid having it start new roots when you put the cut poles in the ground), grab a roll of twine and you have some free trellises. The criss-cross trellis was a great support for cucumbers and beans the past two seasons, and will be used for the same again this year. Further down the bed, it also supports hops. A good watering after all the planting was done, and the "kids" are all tucked in for the night.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

waking up

It was a slow crawl through winter. We more or less escaped winter for three years here in Philly, and it finally caught up to us. Some might say our luck ran out. I think we were full of luck and finally had a winter we deserve. Snow can be a hassle, and the cold can be unpleasant, but I loved this past winter. I don't understand why people complain so much about seasons. It may not seem like it in the moment, but you know the next one is always on its way. And sure enough, while maybe a little late, spring is here.

Spring's sleepy start had a domino effect, and it wasn't until this past weekend that plants were purchased, holes were dug and the watering can remembered what it was like to be full again. This year's garden is taking a little different turn. It's a focus on longevity and lasting growth. What exactly does that mean? Fruit! Bulbs! Projects!

Settling into their new spaces in the ground are three types of blueberry bushes, two plum trees, irises and Dutch windflowers. And the asparagus! A friend gave me several clumps of asparagus roots (I'm not entirely sure what to call them...they looked like stringy monsters) that are starting to grow! I've never had any luck growing asparagus before, but I'm excited by the success of these old transplants because I love to eat asparagus.

Indoors, the tomatoes are started, there's a mango tree (the seed was a remnant of a recently brewed beer) sprouting in a pot, the mail-order hops are winding their way up a sunny window and there's an evergreen seed bomb that is being willed to life...maybe it'll sprout someday soon.

Overall, things are creeping along, just like all the spring bugs. Seasons are changes, and with this season comes a bit of change to this space. Still the same ideas, the same feeling, just...more. I have dreams of becoming a farmer someday. No definition to the scale of said farming, but I want to be a farmer. That's my American dream - going back to the roots of our skills as human beings and the roots of our country. I can't wait to share the journey.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

a hearty winter meal...and what i think of hunting and modern farming

It's that time of year when hunters are enjoying the fruits of their labor - maybe a venison stew or chili. I'm not a hunter (although maybe some day), and neither is Ashley, but a friend sent him a package of bacon-wrapped venison chop steaks so we enjoyed the fruits of a hunter's labor as well.

This is the first time I ever cooked venison, and really the first time I've ever had a meal of it. I've heard cooking venison can be a little tricky, so I emailed the processing company to find out if they had any tips or recipes. The chop steaks are basically really thick burgers, and the bacon wrapped around the edge of them gives them a little moisture while they cook.

The cooking recommendation from Hudson Meats was to cook the chop steak like you'd cook a burger. Sprinkle the steaks with a little salt, pepper and garlic, or another preferred seasoning. Use high heat to sear both sides (on a grill or in a frying pan), then reduce the heat to medium to cook the steak through, reaching an internal temperature of at least 150 degrees (160 for a well-done steak).

Here's what I prepared:

Bacon-wrapped venison chop steak, mashed red potatoes
with cheese and roasted brussels sprouts with garlic.

To prepare the steak, I used:
-worcestershire sauce

Rub each side of the steak with a little worcestershire sauce, and then sprinkle with a little salt and black pepper. Sear each side on high heat, then reduce the heat and let the steak cook through. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature.

The steaks took quite a long time to cook through. I'm used to brussels sprouts taking the longest, so I put them in the oven for 10 minutes before beginning the steaks in a frying pan. Next time, I'll start them at the same time.

I haven't eaten beef in years, but when I did, I like a medium-well steak or burger. Parts of this venison steak were still a little too pink for my tastes, though. We still have a few more in the freezer, so next time I'd like to try cooking them on the charcoal grill, or perhaps under the broiler in the oven.

And...just's my two cents on hunting and why I think I'd like to hunt in the future:

Many of us are meat eaters, and meat tends to be the most expensive part of a meal whether it is chicken, beef, pork or even fish. Already being the most expensive part of your meal, that makes buying the humanely raised and slaughtered and properly fed (or wild caught, for fish) meat even more of a stretch. I've done some shopping around for local, free-range chicken and even those prices are a little shocking. However, I know the value that goes into raising and processing and animal and I do think it's worth it.

I think modern day agriculture sucks...both for produce and for meat. We use a lot of chemicals. We see the bottom line now, more than ever, and often getting there and ensuring it's the largest bottom line possible involves some short cuts. We owe a lot to the animals that live just to die for our consumption, and I don't think they get anywhere close to the treatment they deserve for such a large sacrifice. Can you imagine existing solely to die? Sometimes I wonder, considering factory farmed animals, whether we deserve to eat an animal if we can't stand to see it suffer and die. I had this thought recently while re-watching Food, Inc. and feeling unhappy as the pigs at a factory farm were run through the gates to be slaughtered. It's tough to watch. And really, what makes us so privileged that we feel we can or even should be removed from all aspects of our food's growth and production? Yeah...I can't answer that one, because I don't think we should be so removed. That's what makes it dangerous.

So anyway, I think when people hunt for food (more than for sport), they are or become more appreciative of the source of food. You spend time with the animal in its environment...maybe gain even more appreciation for nature, the resources found in it and the peace it can bring us when we take care of it. The animal you kill has lived a natural life. It hasn't been confined between metal bars, or fed antibiotics or forced to eat an unnatural diet (you do know that factory farmed cows are often fed fish meal, right? and that you wouldn't naturally find a cow chomping on an ear of corn? ...just making sure). As soon as that animal you're hunting goes down, you can thank it for its sacrifice. Not only is it feeding you, but it's allowing you to sharpen your skills...patience, hunting, relaxation, maybe even butchering. You won't find that on sale at the supermarket.