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Farm Wife in Suburbia

A Recycled Downsized Greenhouse Idea

Donna BA greenhouse? Nah. Don’t need one. We garden all year without the aid of a greenhouse. But it would be nice for me to hang out in a warm, sunny greenhouse on cold winter days. So, maybe ....

We started gathering old windows. The plan was to create a foundation and framework to hold all these lovely castaways. Rusticated charm meets practical gardening tool meets warm sauna for cold winter bones.  

 salvaged old windows

Then LIFE happened, and we decided to put the plan on hold for this year. But it turned out to be the COLDEST, SNOWIEST season we’ve experienced here in Virginia’s Tidewater area!

Scrambling with a few of the salvaged windows, a few hinges, and a few tools, the hubs quickly put together a mini greenhouse! We situated this new garden addition on the south side of the house in the vegetable garden, just under the Art Room window. A couple of windows needed a quick trim to standardize the sizes before beginning construction.

window trimming

window trimming 2

Slate pavers and pea gravel created the floor. Hinged windows completed the walls and ceiling of the mini greenhouse, allowing the front and the top to be opened a little, a lot, or wide open. I added a little shelf from the shed for my garden tools. And in went the seedlings!

hinging windows together

mini greenhouse

It’s been a sweet little helper in the garden during this unpredictable spring. Now for the full-size model next year ...

Dreaming of the Spring Garden

Donna BIn the bleak mid-winter...”

We sing that hymn in church every year around this time. And it can be pretty bleak.  Colder temperatures. Blustery days. Too many layers. Less daylight. But there are these beautiful gifts that arrive like an extension of Christmas in my mailbox, first one, then another, then another. Seed catalogs! Pages and pages of color where memories of fragrance and taste are revived!
In the summer garden
Now is the time to plan for an abundant garden season.

Seed catalogs are wonderful guides! My favorites are those featuring heirloom, organic varieties, like Baker Creek, and those best suited for my area of the country, like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Each description will detail the plant’s size, shape, color, germination and harvest times, flavor profile, and tolerances. From the catalogs I’ll choose which varieties will work best in my little microclimate. Our city is in gardening zone 7b, but our little veggie garden is more like 8a or 8b. It’s protected on three sides by houses and a large shed, it’s all raised beds, and it has a glorious Southern exposure. We also choose the appropriate number of plantings for our garden space and our family’s needs. (My husband is famous for sneaking in extra or volunteer tomato and pepper plants, but that’s another story. ...) I make a master list of the seeds ordered with short plant descriptions and the selected seed company.
Seed list
There are helpful garden design applications to help plan the perfect vegetable garden. GRIT has a nice one, as does Mother Earth News. There are online calculators to assist when deciding how much you’ll need to grow to feed your family or preserve for the following winter. But I’m an old-fashioned girl, and I always start on a lovely piece of graph paper, drawing my garden perimeter and planting areas to scale. I then map out what plants will go where. I rotate the plantings each year so I don’t plant tomatoes in the same spot year after year, inviting specific pests and diseases back for more and depleting my soil. I also make notes about early season to late season replacement crops as necessary. For instance, radishes will be planted in early Spring, but once harvested, eggplant will fill the empty spot. I also make notes of herbs and companions to be planted. Basil and borage with tomatoes, nasturtiums and marigolds in the corners of raised beds, and so on. This part of the planning is done in pencil ... a girl has to reserve the right to change her mind, after all. Once the locations for all the plantings are set, I color the garden plan ... because it’s pretty, it’s fun, and I am a 5-year-old at heart.
Garden Plan
I refer to this plan when placing my orders or purchasing seeds and plants locally. I refer to this plan when the orders arrive, making sure I have everything I need for the coming season. I refer to this plan when planting, double checking the arrangement of my plantings. I refer to this plan when replacing Spring crops with Summer ones. I refer to this plan when harvesting, making notes about which plants produced well.  And I refer again to this plan in the bleak mid-winter, when those luscious seed catalogs begin arriving.

It all starts now. Make a plan. Dig into the warming soil. Plant well. Harvest abundantly.

A Tale of Two Dishcloths

Donna BIt was the best of dishcloths, it was the worst of dishcloths ...

Before my mother passed away, she made so many colorful and useful dishcloths, hand crocheting each one from cotton yarn. They have been used daily for a few years. Some are showing their wear, some have faded, and some have gaping holes!

Tale of Two Dishcloths

So I picked up where she left off, crocheting replacements from Sugar and Cream cotton yarn. I was quite happy with these new dishcloths, patting myself on the back for being so resourceful and homey. That is until I went to a beekeeping conference with a friend ... 

Mom's dishcloths

During the 5-hour ride, during some lectures, and before shutting off the dorm room desk lamp at night, my friend quietly added stitch upon stitch with her crochet hook, creating dishcloth after dishcloth. But her technique was so different! She used 2 colors of cotton crochet thread to make her dishcloths! After our trip, I decided to put both techniques to the test!

Two fibers, two hooks

When I crochet dishcloths with Sugar and Cream Cotton Yarn, I use a size K crochet hook, a lovely wooden one gifted to me by my precious daughter. I used a self-striping coral/taupe/cream/white variety this time. Then I grabbed two spools of Royale Classic Crochet Thread, one in variegated blue and white, and one dark blue, and a size G crochet hook. 

Two fibers, two hooks

Wanting this test of the two cloths to be fair, I used the same crochet (non)pattern for each one. For the cotton yarn cloth, I chained 26, then single crocheted in the second chain from the hook, and continued with a single crochet in each chain to the end of the row. At the end of the row, I chained one, turned and repeated the single crochet process, row after row, until the cloth was a square-ish shape I liked. For the cotton thread cloth, I followed the same (non)pattern, but I crocheted with 2 threads, combining the variegated and the dark blue on the hook, and I began the cloth by chaining 52 instead of 26.

Finished cloths with corresponding fibers

The finished dishcloths were so nice I almost didn't want to use them! But I had to compare them. Into the soapy water they went ...

Testing the cloths in soapy water

The distinct differences in the two cloths was even more apparent when wet: the cotton yarn cloth was dense and more tightly woven, yet soft to the touch making it perfect for wiping down the farm table and counters or washing delicate china; the cotton thread cloth was more openly woven and had a slightly "scrubby" feel, which I had a hunch would be perfect for dried on messes that might end up in the sink.

Washing with the Sugar and Cream cotton

Washing with the Royale classic crochet thread

After washing a few things, I brought the dishcloths out to the line to dry in the sunshine. The cotton yarn cloth held its shape more consistently than the cotton thread cloth on the line. But the cotton thread cloth would probably dry faster than the cotton yarn cloth.

In the end, I decided to do more research by happily crocheting both types of dishcloth through the colder days of winter ...


Heritage Harvest Festival 2013

Donna B

Organic Gardener. Sustainability Spokesperson. Natural Beekeeper. Farm-to-Fork Cook. Small, Local Business Supporter. Committed Preserver.

These are some of the hats I wear daily here on our little plot of suburbia. My day may start with a check on the beehives, continue with a little bread baking in the outdoor ceramic cooker, and end with a crochet hook in my hand, creating dishcloths while watching a documentary on food or farms or homesteading. It's a great life! I wouldn't want it any other way! But sometimes ... well ... the neighbors and the friends think I'm a little strange. They wonder why I fill my compost bin instead of my city-provided trash container. *sigh*

Sometimes I long for community. A visit with the like-minded. A chat with the revolutionaries of our time. A moment with the dirt-under-their-fingernails crowd. I am blessed to be part of an urban homesteading group. Supportive, skilled, amazing folks sharing freely.  

Friends at Monticello Harvest Festival

Friends From the Virginia Urban Homesteaders League at the Heritage Harvest Festival

But to recharge with LOTS more folks like us, my husband and I travel each year to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello for the Heritage Harvest Festival. Imagine ... a whole weekend in the most beautiful surroundings (Jefferson's gardens are worth the trip!), learning and sharing with hundreds of people sharing your love of the land and all things homestead. This year, several friends from the Virginia Urban Homesteaders League made the trip as well.

Monticello in September

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

This festival, in its seventh year, is a weekend filled with workshops and speakers and activities celebrating the things dear to this girl's heart. My husband and I attended fantastic classes on Friday on topics such as cheese making, pig plowing, beekeeping, chicken keeping, permaculture, and companion planting. One of my favorites was a class on healing and thriving with native medicinals.  

Herb Medicinals

Native Medicinals Workshop

Saturday, a gorgeous day, started with the Seed Swap, hosted by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Just like the name declares, seeds, lovingly collected and brought to the Swap by festival-goers, are traded as freely as the advice on how to grow and harvest them. Lemon Balm was traded for False Indigo. Malibar Spinach was traded for Nicotiana. And so on. And so on.

Seed Swap at Heritage Harvest Festival

Seed Swap

The rest of the morning was filled with heirloom tomato and apple cider tastings, demonstrations by blacksmiths and weavers and spinners and food fermenters, and visits with vendors of natural soaps and garden spades and farming books and green juices.  

Tomato Table at Heritage Harvest Festival

Tomato Tasting

Weaving at Heritage Harvest Festival


Food Preservation Workshop at Heritage Harvest Festival

Traditional Food Preservation

Beekeeping Workshop at Heritage Harvest Festival


Then, the highlight of the day for me ...

Donna Rae With Hank Will at Heritage Harvest Festival

Me With Hank Will

... meeting Hank Will, editor in chief of Capper's Farmer and GRIT magazines. What a warm and welcoming soul! We had a lovely chat, comparing notes on bees, gardens, and other delightfully home-y topics. (He is quite tall, but truthfully, I'm what my husband lovingly calls a halfling.)

Later that day, my husband and I left the festival, our sacks filled with heirloom seeds, books and notes, a nice hot pepper jelly, and so much more.  On the way back to our everyday life, we smiled thankfully for the time with the like-minded, our non-geographical community of growers, keepers, and makers.

T-Shirt From Heritage Harvest Festival 2013

Heritage Harvest Festival 2013 T-Shirt

Back to (a One-Room) School

Donna BThe hazy days of summer are swiftly coming to a close. The summer crops are fading, there's a cool whisper in the evening breeze, and a lovely golden leaf floated to the grass outside my door yesterday. All this can mean only one thing: It's back to school time!  

I loved school as a child! Books that would crack when opened on that first day were filled with so many adventures and wondrous things. Pencils ... oh! the pencils! ... were finely sharpened and arranged "just so" in my pencil case. And NOTHING in the world was more intoxicating than the fragrance of a fresh ditto sheet! Today's students board modern buses with backpacks carrying digital tablets and scientific calculators. They disembark at their destinations of large, bright buildings and spend their days traveling from room to room for classes in Environmental Science, Calculus, Japanese, and English Literature. Lunch might consist of sushi or a burger with fries. For some, with schedules too filled with advanced learning, lunch may not exist.  

It was much different in my father's time. He grew up in beautiful and rural Floyd County, Virginia. He spent his summers working around the old home place, planting or harvesting, feeding animals or making hay. He was, however, a great student of all things and loved learning to the end of his days. While he was quite the prankster, deep down I know he liked going to school.

Robert Peters

A School Photo of Robert Peters

My father would walk to school along a dirt road, carrying a metal lunch pail that held a nice hunk of cornbread. He'd arrive at a one-room school house, where children of all grade levels would hang their coats and remove their galoshes in the cloak room. All would recite the Pledge of Allegiance and bow for prayer before each day began. The teacher would lead the children in lessons in reading, writing (in cursive!) and arithmetic, and students would complete their lessons on slates or on paper using a quill dipped in the ink well imbedded in each desk. The occasional long braid found its way into my father's ink well ... but that's another story. Drinks of cool water were dipped from a pail, and the same water was dipped to a bowl for hand-washing. Cold days in the mountains were warmed by the school's stove.  

Inside School House

Inside the Restored Double Springs School

Hand Sanitizing Station

Hand-Sanitizing Station in a One-Room School

My father's cousin became a teacher and taught at one of these one-room schoolhouses. Later in life, Dorothy Vest was instrumental in restoring a one-room beauty called Double Springs School in Floyd County. It stands today, open to visitors, filled with mementos of those long ago days and desks from each era of learning at the school. When I visit and sit at one of those desks, it's not an iPad or even a fresh ditto sheet I think of; it's Daddy's mischievous blue eyes gazing out the window during lessons, dreaming big dreams like the ones he read about in the school's books, that bring a warm smile.  

Double Springs School

Double Springs School in Floyd County, Virginia

As the young ones in our community head back to school this fall, share with those around you what school was like in your childhood. Perhaps you could make them an old-fashioned afternoon snack in a pail or in a basket and spend some time hearing about their day of lessons. Encourage each one as they embark on this great adventure!

Cucumbers and Memories

Donna BHere's the thing about amending your garden soil with your homemade compost and building a trellis system from bamboo you've hacked down in a friend's yard: You create the perfect environment for a continuous cucumber harvest!  Spring right through to winter, we've got cucumbers to pick every day.

Pickling cucumbers 
Pickling cucumbers climbing a handcrafted bamboo trellis.

Pickling cucumber
Pickling cucumber hiding in the vines.

In the three months of cucumber harvest thus far, dozens and dozens of them have been lovingly cut and packed into jars, processed and placed in the pantry to wait. The moment that burger needs a topper, the evening that only a pickle will do as snack, those jars will be there. But today I couldn't face one more canner load of pickles, even though my counter overfloweth with cucumbers.

Cucumber Harvest
Daily harvest of cucumbers, grown organically on our plot of suburbia.

It was time to pull out the mandoline and slice all that green goodness into cucumber salad, just like at Grandma's house!

Sunday at Grandma's was a time of cousins running, mamas cooking, and horseshoes clanging. The table was always filled with fried chicken, biscuits and fresh-from-the-garden goodness. Green beans, potato salad, corn on the cob, and cucumber salad – simple, homey food that was more heavenly than anything money could buy.  

Cucumbers were brought in and washed, and then sliced thinly. Onions, sliced just as thin, joined them in the big bowl. A quick dressing of apple cider vinegar, sugar, black pepper, and a little water was whisked with a fork, worn and sometimes bent from years of use. Dressing and vegetables were combined in the large bowl, and it was set in the icebox until it was time to eat. That cucumber salad is still a favorite; the cool of the cucs and the bite of the onion and the sweet lip-puckering dressing bring back warm memories of a childhood spent on Grandma's lap at the kitchen table.

Cucumber and Onion Salad
Cucumber and Onion Salad, perfectly plated.

I'm sure my husband won't mind if I put it on the supper menu tonight...

Old-Fashioned Cucumber and Onion Salad

5-7 pickling cucumbers, washed and dried
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
Fresh cracked black pepper to taste 

Cut the ends from the cucumbers; slice each very thinly. Cut onion very thinly into rings. (I like to use a mandoline for this process. The slices can be made quite thin, uniform in size, AND you can choose a rippled or wavy blade when cutting the cucumbers for a really snazzy, “company’s coming” salad!) Set slices aside.

In a large glass bowl, whisk vinegar, water, sugar and pepper until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cucumbers and onions to the dressing in the bowl, gently folding to coat completely. Cover and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours, or make 1 day ahead.

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