Erin SheehanWe start our vegetable garden 100 percent from seeds. If you’re in the habit of hitting Home Depot for plants come May or June, I encourage you to give seed starting a try. It’s not that hard and very rewarding!

This year our seeds came from many sources. My mom gave me Scarlet Runner Bean seeds that her father had given to her. He had gotten them from a neighbor of his who brought them to America from Hungary more than 100 years ago. Grandpa and Mom saved some seeds every year from their plantings and have now passed them on to me. Fingers crossed that they come up!

scarlet runners

In November, a friend from Canada kindly sent me a gift of seed packages from a Canadian heirloom seed company. Lots of greens and new, fun things to experiment with. We got another seed delivery from my sister. One of her friends distributes Burpee seeds and had buckets of last year’s seeds available. She scooped up a couple dozen packages for us. Solid, traditional varieties. Finally, the community garden group has thousands upon thousands of seed packages from many companies that they provide for free to gardeners. I got at least 20 packages when I went to sign up for our plot. When the seeds are free, I dream big.

seeds  seeds2

After keeping our old seeds jumbled up in a bag for several years, I finally devised a system that works. We have no problem using old seeds so I file what we have away in an old shoebox divided up with index cards. It works well when it’s time to order, as we can easily check our inventory.


With all this bounty you would think we’d have enough seeds, but there are a couple of varieties we’re fussy about. Blight decimated our tomato crop over and over, until last year. We found a variety from Harris: Pony Express. It produced even with terrible blight. We’re also partial to New Ace peppers. So we bought those from Harris. This year I wanted to try growing mustard, not the greens type but the seeds type, for making the condiment mustard. I searched high and low and the only company that had it was Pinetree.

We have hundreds of seed packages but that never stops me from perusing the racks at the local Agway and anywhere else I see seeds. I read each catalog we get cover to cover and then read them a few more times for good measure.

Seeds have a special meaning for gardeners. We look at seed packages and imagine our garden lush and full of vegetables ready to be picked. The pictures on the front make us long for spring. In a few more weeks, Jim and I will clear off our front porch and set up the seed starting apparatus. We bought the dirt and we’re raring to go! 


Erin SheehanMom remembers drinking chokecherry juice and gooseberry juice at breakfast when she was growing up. Reason being that oranges didn’t grow in upstate New York, so orange juice was not on the menu at her house. Even though it meant some awfully tart (and not very tasty!) juice to start the day, Grandma and Grandpa believed in using what they had on hand. Bad breakfast memories aside, Mom passed that sentiment on to me. As my husband can attest, this can lead to some interesting culinary adventures.

A friend gave us a bottle of homemade limoncello as a gift a while back.


Jim and I aren’t big liqueur drinkers so I’ve been stumped as to how to use it. But I held on to it, waiting until the right opportunity to use limoncello came along. And it did. Not long ago I was looking through a magazine and would you believe I came across a limoncello cake recipe? I had never even heard of it before getting some as a gift, but happily stumbled across a recipe that features it. I made the cake this week for my mother-in-law’s 91st birthday party.


Limoncello is lemon liqueur made from vodka, lemon zest and simple syrup. It’s potent, as well as sweet and tart. Although I know a primary rule of baking is “stick to the recipe,” I modify recipes to use ingredients I already have on hand, which sometimes leads to interesting substitutions. I made a few changes in the original recipe in this case, which appeared in a vegan cookbook. Here’s what I used, in case you, too, have some limoncello to use up around your house:

1  1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup margarine, softened

1 tablespoon applesauce

1 egg

1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk

1/3 cup limoncello

3 cups flour (mix of white and white whole wheat)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon grated citrus peel (I used orange)

GLAZE: Mix 2 tablespoons softened margarine with 1/4 cup limoncello and 2 cups confectioner’s sugar. Beat until smooth.

CAKE: Cream together sugar and margarine, mix in applesauce, egg, evaporated milk and limoncello. Add remaining ingredients and beat 2 to 3 minutes. Pour batter into greased and floured Bundt pan. Bake about 1 hour at 325 F, until toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool 20 minutes in the pan, then invert onto wire rack. After cake has cooled, top with glaze, if desired.


This is one of the moistest cakes I’ve ever made. It might even work with other liqueurs, if you try it let me know!


Erin SheehanI’m pretty sure Grandma and Grandpa never heard the word “repurpose” but the idea behind repurposing was certainly central to their way of life. Having lived through the Great Depression, the phrase, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” was a household aphorism.

I learned my first lesson in repurposing visiting my grandparents as a very small child. Their dining room held a small bookshelf filled with empty metal spice tins.

Spice tins

Playing with those small, old boxes occupied me for hours on end. I still remember how good they smelled. Looking back, I sure am glad they thought to not throw those away and instead let me use them as a toy.

Here we are nearly 40 years later: It’s time to bring frugality back in style! When Jim and I think we “need” something, rather than heading down to the big box store for a shiny new object, we’d rather first try to cob something up right at home.

For the first few years at our little homestead we had a compost pile: no bin, no structure, just an area on the ground along a fence line. When that area started to look more than a little scraggly, Jim did some research. Well, wouldn’t you know, even something as basic as composting has been commodified. Williams-Sonoma sells a “compost tumbler” for $249.95. Plus tax and shipping, of course. What would Grandpa think of that? As it happens, our chest freezer and backyard fencing were delivered a couple years back on wooden pallets. Not knowing what we’d use them for, we held on to those pallets, and wouldn’t you know, Jim found a perfect use for them: DIY compost bin!


Jim took three pallets and anchored them to the ground using wood scraps. To fashion a front door he used two 2x6s with enough space between them and the pallet to slide a handful of boards (scrap) that he cut to size. To use the door, we slide the boards in and out. The bin works like a charm. It holds plenty and it’s right next to our garden for quick access. An easy project that didn’t cost us a dime, let alone $249.95!


It even grows volunteer tomatoes and squash come June. I’d like to think Grandma and Grandpa would be proud. 


Erin SheehanWe just renewed our community garden plot for 2014, through Capital District Community Gardens (CDCG). Community gardens are available land (may be privately or publicly owned) that has been divided into individual garden plots. CDCG has more than 850 individual plots in 50 gardens in our area. Plots start at only $30 and include access to water, compost and mulch. A great deal, we think!

CDCG rules are straightforward and easy to follow: use organic practices, keep your weeds to a minimum, and don’t steal from other gardeners. Plots vary in size; ours is about 20x30 feet.

Our primary garden is at our house, where we grow the majority of our vegetables. Our plan for the community garden plot is simple – put in things we can plant and forget, and harvest all at once in late fall. Although our auxiliary plot is only about three blocks from home, I find that weeding, watering and harvesting are a lot more likely to happen when I see the garden out the kitchen window every day. The community plot is close enough that Jim walked the tiller over and back last spring, somehow the distance seems to lengthen come July.

Garden PlantingWorking

Last year we put in butternuts, pie pumpkins and neck pumpkins at the community plot. We harvested about 150 pounds of squash and pumpkins, a great yield, in spite of severe powdery mildew and squash bugs. I watered a few times in the spring and weeded the entire plot twice over in early summer before letting the weeds have their way. We used organic spray on the PM, but generally speaking the plot didn’t require a lot of work beyond planting. We enjoyed walking over to the plot, especially in late summer, to visit our squash plants and urge the fruit on to ripeness. In the end we concluded that it was a good investment of money and effort.


CDCG rules prevent households from having more than one plot, which is probably a good thing for us. Having a third plot would stretch us very thin. This year’s expansion will be a container herb garden, but that’s a post for another day. 


Erin SheehanJim and I bake our own bread, rolls and pizza dough. I use the dough cycle of our bread maker for pizza dough and rolls. Jim does it all by hand.

Baking bread is not hard, just time consuming. Allow yourself several hours. You won’t be busy that entire time, but you’ll have to stick close to home until you’re done. The time investment is worth it – once you’ve tasted your own homemade bread, you will never, and I mean never, want to eat store-bought bread again.

Homebaked bread 

Here’s Jim’s easy-to-follow recipe for two loaves:

Wheat Bread

2 tablespoons yeast

1/2 cup warm water (105-115 F)

1/3 cup split between molasses and honey

1/4 cup shortening

1 tablespoon salt

2 1/4 cups water or zucchini milk*

3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (can substitute up to 1/2 cup oat, brown rice or other flour type)

1 cup oats

3/4 cup wheat gluten

2 cups white flour

*To make zucchini milk, take your excess homegrown zucchinis (the bigger, the better!) and liquefy them in your blender, using a small amount of water. This “milk” can be frozen in small containers for future use. We froze nearly 40 containers last summer. It adds a very subtle coloring if you use only white flour, when you use wheat you won’t notice it. No flavor change, but it ups the vitamins in your bread!

Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm (not hot!) water in large bowl. Let sit for about 5 minutes. Add honey/molasses, shortening and salt. Add remaining water/zucchini milk, oats and gluten. Add rest of flour one cup at a time, stirring after each addition. Add more flour if needed to make dough easy enough to handle. It should be slightly sticky but not runny. Knead 10 minutes. Cover, let rise in warm place until double, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough, divide in half. Roll each half into a rectangle, pressing each end to seal. Fold ends under loaf. Place seam side down in greased loaf pans, 9x5x3 inches. Cover, let rise again until double, about 1 hour. Bake at 375 F for 25 to 30 minutes. Loaves should be on low rack so tops of pans are at about the center of the oven. Bread is ready when the top is deep golden brown.

The finished product!

We bought a pizza stone last year and have experimented a bit with using it for baking round loaves without a pan. We use parchment paper to transfer the dough to the oven and it works pretty well so far. The round loaves taste the same, of course, but they are a nice change. 


Erin SheehanFor the past five autumns we’ve watched squirrels devour the hundreds of butternuts that fall from the huge butternut trees in our neighborhood. Butternuts have a high oil content, providing a lot of calories to the squirrels in the form of fat and protein.



The nuts have a large green husk that contains a dye powerful enough that it was used in the mid-19th century to color cloth. Squirrels in our neighborhood sport a dark goatee each October as the dye from the husks stains the fur around their mouths.

Harvesting butternuts is a family tradition. My mom tells me that Grandpa had a stump out back that he used to break them open. The stump had a hollowed out area to hold one nut at a time. He hit each one with a hammer then painstakingly removed the small nut meat from the shells.

This year, rather than watch the squirrels make off with all the bounty, we decided to harvest a few butternuts for ourselves. Wrapped up under our Christmas tree this year I found an industrial-strength nut cracker, from Jim.


We dried our nuts on the front porch and used gloves to remove the husks so we wouldn’t have brown hands for the next month.


Our new nut cracker goes through those tough shells like butter! Picking out the meat is time consuming but a good project while having a visit by the fire.


Cracking More 

Butternuts are considered very rich, and have a delicious flavor. We have found they do not need to be roasted, they taste great as is.


This year we only ended up with about half a cup of nuts, so we’ll just eat them fresh, but in future years we hope to harvest enough to store. They must be frozen for long-term storage or they turn rancid.


We hope that using the nuts from the butternut tree is just the beginning. We have heard that butternut sap can be boiled down to a syrup, much like maple. We’ve also read that the bark can be used to brew beer and a tea can be made from it that works as a laxative. What a treasure we have in these trees right in our own back yard! 


Erin SheehanI have been attempting simple projects lately to try to improve my sewing skills. Our old dish towels that hang on the fridge have been looking pretty beat so I decided to try a sewn towel topper.

Many patterns online use a button as a fastener, but I wanted to try something easier than sewing a buttonhole. I experimented with a couple of alternate fastening methods, and I think they both turned out great!

Towel toppers only use a little bit of fabric, so if you have some scraps and you want to try an easy and useful project, it might be perfect for you.

You’ll need one 18-by-14-inch piece of fabric. Depending on how you decide to sew your topper you’ll either need a second piece of fabric, 1-by-28 inches or you’ll need a small piece of Velcro. The pattern I hand drew is here:

Tie Topper Template 

Tie-up Topper: Fold your fabric strip (the long piece) in half (widthwise) right sides facing each other, and press well. Sew closed, leaving only about 1/8-inch seam allowance. Using a tube-turner if you have one, or a safety pin if you’re like me, open up your tube. Press it flat. Cut the tube in half to make two long ties. Fold in one end of each tie 1/4 inch or so and sew across, finishing them off.


Cut your topper out (cut 2) Pin the right sides of your topper together, inserting the ties at the top.

Step 2

Sew around 2/3 of the outside edge, using a 1/4-inch seam allowance. Leave 1/2 inch at the bottom unsewn. Also, make sure to leave your bottom end open to insert the towel. Press your seam open. Fold the bottom of your topper up 1/2 inch and press well.

Almost done!

Cut your towel in half. Insert the raw edge about 1/2 inch into the topper. Distribute the towel evenly, creating pleats so that it fits well into your topper. Pin into place. Stitch your topper closed, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the edge, making sure you catch all your layers. Sew a second row of stitching across the edge, this time about 1/8 inch from the edge. Your new dish towel is ready to hang!

Completed tie topper

Velcro Topper: If you don’t want to fuss with the ties, I tried an even simpler version. Sew up your topper, leaving out the ties. When it’s sewn up, attach a small piece of Velcro on the top of the tie and the middle of your topper.

Velcro topper

Super-easy and just as nice!

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