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The Hard Way

My Apartment Patio Greenhouse(ish) Project

Sarah SinningHello everyone! For my next installment on the blog, I’m FINALLY getting around to telling you about my little greenhouse(ish) project on the patio of my apartment. Why the –ish at the end? Well, I’ll tell you: This project is in no way an “official” greenhouse, but really more of an upright cold frame with an entirely insufficient space heater stuck in it to simply keep my plants alive over the course of the winter. That’s a mouthful, huh? Honestly, the whole project is really more of an experiment than anything else, fueled predominantly by my inability to let go of my fall garden like most sensible people would have when the temperatures started dipping into the negatives. But then again, I’m not one who often gets described as sensible.

Let’s move on to the actual garden, shall we?


As you can see in the photo below, I still have an assortment of greens going, all of which have been kicking around since the end of August. I was actually a little late getting my patio garden seeded because of a few obstacles unique to this apartment. Because my patio is west facing, it only receives light in the afternoon, which, as you experienced gardeners out there know, is not the most ideal type of sun for delicate greens. So, I seeded a little late and installed a 40 percent shade cloth over the entrance to keep at least some of the heat at bay. You can actually see the white shade cloth lining the bottom of the plastic-lined panels, since it turned into the perfect way to limit freezing cold air from seeping in under the bottom of the frames.

Container garden of greens on enclosed patio

As I was saying, this little garden began as a big experiment to see what could work in less than ideal conditions, and as you can see by some rather questionable planting arrangements – yes, I have three collard plants in one small container and more bok choy than I know what to do with – it is still a work in progress! My biggest success has to be the arugula, which you can see in the two long and narrow containers at back – and next to my son’s command center, er, exersaucer, er, whatever the heck it’s called! With only my little heat source, which you can see in the photos below, I have been able to harvest arugula ever since early October, and those skinny planters are perfect for rather densely packed arugula. Up until a few weeks ago, I actually had mustard greens planted the same way, with just a little more space between each one, since I prefer baby mustards anyway, not to mention the fact that my patio just doesn’t get enough sunlight for the big honking mustards you see sometimes. (At least I think that’s the case – I haven’t actually grown mustards before this, but from what I have read, they prefer more than just a few hours of sun per day.)

So, I have arugula, cilantro, an heirloom leaf lettuce that I simply cannot remember the name of right now, nine bok choy plants, and three collards. And because the weather seems to be taking a turn for the better, with highs in the 50s this weekend, that means that I can actually repot those collards in the center, which have continued to grow much more than I originally expected. This is why I completely harvested the mustard greens a few weeks back. Potting mix is expensive, and there’s only so much room on this little patio for expansion, so sadly, the mustards got made into a delicious casserole.

I was also thinking about replanting the baby bok choy behind the collards, but honestly, I have WAY more bok choy than I will realistically eat. I love that bok choy is amazingly forgiving for the novice gardener, growing under very limited light and much colder temps than I thought it would, but I think harvesting may be the way to go. And not harvesting in the way that I’ve been doing it – if you look at the big pot at the top left of the photo, you can maybe tell that I’ve been harvesting just the leaves and letting it grow back. I chose to go this route originally for two reasons: to see if it would in fact regrow in frigid temps, but also, and probably more to the point, because it actually pains me a bit to completely take out any plant. So, as you can see, this leaves me with overflowing pots of bok choy, which I may or may not eat in the next century.

Side note: This brings me to an important lesson for any gardener, or at least those gardeners who have an emotionally driven inability to thin seedlings that do better than expected – plant lots of what you KNOW you will eat.

So now that this post is getting a tad long, I suppose I should call it a day. I have so much to share when it comes to this little project of mine that it would be silly to squeeze it all into one post. I promise I’ll talk more next time about how I actually built the plastic-lined frames. I’ll leave you, though, with some more photos that at least show you more of what they look like. Oh, yeah, and my son playing in the dirt for the first time in his life. I. Love. That. Baby.

Baby playing in dirt for the first timeClose up of baby playing in dirt

Not So Random Acts of Kindness

Sarah SinningA funny thing just happened to me. As when most people use that term to describe an event in their lives, I of course don’t mean comical or particularly amusing – but what I do mean is out of the ordinary enough to have made a profound difference in my day. Like I was saying, something funny just happened to me, and it has left me feeling contemplative to say the least, and perhaps a little reassured in the state of the world at large.

That must have been some experience, I can already sense you thinking.

No, as a matter of fact it wasn’t, but perhaps that’s what makes it so extraordinary. I was just standing in line at a local coffee shop during my lunch break, enjoying my one hour away from the office – even people who enjoy their work need time away for themselves every once in a while – when a man stepped into line behind me. He had a pleasant expression on his face, with nothing particularly striking about it except for a nascent kindness in his eyes. As we waited for the cashier to complete another transaction, we chatted nonchalantly about the day and our soon-to-be-realized caffeine fixes. I admittedly was more interested in purchasing my latte and taking the closest seat so I could cram in another article in the literary journal I’m reading, one of the last vestiges of my grad school days in English lit. (We working moms have to find some way to fit such things into our busy schedules.) So when he very politely stepped forward as I reached into my purse to pay, explaining to the cashier that my drink was on him, I was floored. Really and truly, this simple gesture had me almost speechless. As I mustered out a quick, “Are you sure? Seriously?” or something like that, he just smiled, got his own coffee to go, and retreated back into his own routine as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

And here I am, an hour later, sitting back at my desk and still thinking about it. I had intended to write another kind of post this afternoon – about the container garden I have managed to keep alive with a makeshift greenhouse enclosure on my apartment porch – but as I started to write, that no longer felt like the right thing to share today. When little things like this happen in my life, these seemingly insignificant moments of serendipity, I know I’m supposed to take notice and at the very least learn something from them.

I am reminded that truly kind people do exist in this world. I am reminded that even trivial actions can dramatically impact someone’s day. I am reminded that I can be a more positive force in the world on a daily basis. I am reminded that there’s something out there larger than myself.

Yes, all of this has come from an innocent interaction that lasted only a matter of moments.

Thank you, Bruce. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. 

A lovely cup of coffee
Photo by Fotolia/Maksim Shebeko

How to Make a Christmas Wreath

Sarah SinningGood morning, all! I don’t have a ton of time to write this morning, but I did want to share a little project I did at home over the weekend, which I’m actually pretty proud of. Now, this may not seem like much of an accomplishment to all you veteran crafters out there, but to a novice like me, this was a pretty major endeavor. I should also probably point out that I did this on a Sunday afternoon with a very rambunctious 1 year old to keep entertained at the same time, so I suppose getting anything done under those circumstances is a pretty big deal.

So, what did I actually accomplish this weekend? Well, I’ll tell you – I made my very first Christmas wreath using leftover branches from our tree!

Christmas Wreath

Before I get into the actual process I used for crafting this beauty – can you tell how tickled I really am over this? – let me first say a few words about this tree, which in and of itself was another big deal for me. Why is that, you may be wondering. Well, I haven’t actually put up a tree of my own in over a decade, that’s why. What with being a student and traveling a lot, I either a) wasn’t going to be home much over the holidays anyway or b) simply couldn’t afford it. As you can see in the photo below, I am a REAL tree girl all the way – does it get much better than a house full of fresh fir tree aroma? To me, it does not. Plus, I’ve always been a fan of making a trip out to the local Christmas tree farm – yes, even before it was trendy to go local. This has been a family tradition as far back as I can remember, and I’ve always looked forward to continuing it. The only issue with this tradition, though, is the price. A real tree from the farm is generally going to run you somewhere around $20 higher than the version in town on the lot (and I don’t even care to know what a fake tree would cost – in my world, Christmas trees simply have to be real). This may not seem like a lot to some folks, but to a very broke college student, that money might as well have been a fortune.

Frasier Fir Christmas Tree

But this year, even though things with a baby are still pretty tight, we decided to splurge a little and revive this family tradition. And let me tell you, even though my son does get rather perturbed from time to time since he isn’t allowed to touch the ornaments, when he sits there in front of it and points at it in wonder or even lightly pets one of the lowest limbs, this just reaffirms how totally worth it this decision was. Oh, and I guess you could say I like it, too. Wait, what am I saying – I absolutely LOVE coming home from a long day at the office to those colorful lights, that heartwarming aroma, and my son learning something new about the world and our various traditions.

Anyway, back to my original goal for the post – my adorable little wreath. (Don’t you just love how writing quickly without much of a plan can lead you anywhere but where you originally wanted to go?) To fit the tree snugly in its stand, we had to remove a few of the bottom limbs. While a lot of folks would just chuck those out back into the woods or burning pile, I unfortunately live in an apartment without either of those handy. And since I certainly did not want to just throw them into the trash, I decided to put them to good use. Now, since I had no idea whatsoever how one goes about crafting one of these, I did some quick googling and then headed on over to Michael’s for a small wire wreath base (I did see some wreath plans that used wire coat hangers for the base, but this seemed a little too advanced for the likes of me), some 26-gage green-colored wire, some needle-nose pliers, and some pretty little red berries for decoration. I’m definitely a big fan of the less-is-more philosophy when it comes to decorating, so I wanted the Frasier fir to be the real centerpiece with the red just serving as a necessary accent.

Frasier Fir Christmas Wreath

Making the wreath actually couldn’t be simpler. You just remove the best looking smaller branches from the larger limbs – I liked the ones that were in the neighborhood of 6-7 inches long with just a few smaller branches on them, since they help camouflage the wire base underneath better than the straight ones. They also make for more interest around the edges, as you can see in the photo. Once you have these cut – you’ll probably go through way more than you think you will – you make little bunches of them as wide and as thick as you need to cover up the wire frame. They’ll look like little fans that will eventually be arranged end to end around the frame to create the final wreath. Between 5 and 7 in each bunch worked for me, and I simply connected them with as many pieces of 26-gage wire as necessary to keep each branch in its desired place.

Once all of my little fans were created, I attached them to the base with more 26-gage wire – probably using WAY more than more experienced wreath makers, but what can you do? I then cut my little berry branches to size and once again attached them with wire – are you seeing a pattern here? These little red accents were not only great pops of color, but they also helped cover up any thin or oddly shaped spots.

And my little wreath was born! It now proudly adorns my front door, wishing “Merry Christmas” to all who pass it by.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention exactly how I was able to get this project done while minding my toddler. Well, after his favorite PBS show no longer entertained him, and after letting him play with the leftover branch pieces stopped doing the trick – which ended in my entire house being covered in fir needles – I put him in his high chair next to me and let him play with his favorite food – green bean purée. I was able to get my project done, and he couldn’t have been happier!

Messy baby and mom

I guess that’s about it for now. Please, if you have any questions about the wreath – I’m not sure how well I did at giving the instructions – post them in the comments section below. Or, if you just want to share your own family Christmas traditions or holiday craft projects, please share as well! Merry Christmas! 

A Dinner at Elderslie Farm

Sarah SinningAs part of an assignment for GRIT Magazine, I was asked to attend what I thought would be an ordinary farm-to-table dinner event at a local farm – well, relatively local, since it was about a three hour drive from where I live in Lawrence down to the Wichita suburbs. Regardless, it was a beautiful October Saturday and a perfect afternoon for a drive through the Kansas Flint Hills. Now I suppose I should explain what I mean by “an ordinary farm-to-table dinner event,” since these things really are great and part of what I live for as a trained chef and local food enthusiast – I told you, I do this stuff for real. What I really mean to say is that this event, and the family who put it on, exceeded my expectations so thoroughly that I feel the need to explain the difference. This wasn’t just another dinner out where local food was served; this was a family welcoming you into their home to enjoy the hard-earned fruits of their labor in an atmosphere, and with a menu, that rivaled some of the finest restaurants out there. Like I said, this was anything but an ordinary farm-to-table dinner experience. This was a dinner at Elderslie Farm.

Elderslie Farm Test Garden and Barn
Elderslie Farm on a beautiful fall afternoon.

Elderslie Farm Blackberry Bramble
Looking back from the blackberry bramble to the farmhouse.

Elderslie Farm Goats
The goats of Elderslie.

When I first walked into the gazebo, which was tented due to unseasonably chilly – and downright frosty – weather from the day before, I was pleasantly welcomed by a scene that can only be described as charming. The atmosphere was warm and inviting, with a small and simply yet elegantly dressed table of h’orderves directly ahead, featuring an assortment of cheeses handcrafted from the farm’s own goats’ milk by family friend, Tony Jacobs. Tony himself dished up his creations to each pair of guests with just enough Date and Dried Cherry Compote, a rich and fitting counterpart created by Katharine Elder, the culinary talent of the Elder clan and the mastermind of the menu we were all about to enjoy. Crisp and hearty Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Bruschetta rounded out the offerings, my first taste of Alexis Elder’s homegrown fare.

Dinner at Elderslie Farm
The setting was quaint and elegant. 

With plate in hand, I took my seat next to a young couple from Wichita at one of the two wooden tables set family style, with long, similarly crafted benches for seating. It turned out that every bit of woodwork in this space was both milled and put together by George Elder, who not only operates the you-pick berry operation on the farm, but also runs a small mill and carpentry shop on the property. Talk about farm to table! As I sat chatting with the pair next to me – a cameraman and news anchor from a local television station, who just happened to hear about the event through a story on the family – I munched happily away on my appetizers while sipping a nicely paired glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, eagerly awaiting what I knew would be a fantastic meal.

And I certainly was not disappointed.

The perfectly portioned appetizers were followed by four additional courses that lived up to the hype created by the first. A slightly tart purée of butternut squash, carrots and apple fulfilled the soup course, garnished with just enough sliced green onions to make the whole dish pop. The main course of Yoder Pork Loin with Blackberry Chipotle Sauce, Garlicky Swiss Chard, and Roasted Potatoes and Garlic was served up family style, the large platters being placed in front of groups of four or five, encouraging even more friendly interaction between guests. The group I was in, however, certainly did not need this incentive for communication; we had been chatting it up on topics ranging from politics, travel, the humanities, religion, you name it, we probably talked about it! Like I said before, this event had all the makings of a truly enjoyable evening. For the vegetarians, there was also the option of Roasted Pecan Stuffed Acorn Squash, which certainly looked delicious and I’ll go out on a limb and say it was – Katharine really knows her stuff. My taste buds were more than satisfied with the pork and accompanying sides, the Blackberry Chipotle Sauce being the true star of the show. (I liked it so much, in fact, that I asked her for the recipe, which you can find here.) Our palates were then cleansed by a delicate salad of baby beet and sunflower greens before the final course made its much awaited debut – Pumpkin Caramel Pot De Crème. This, my friends, was exceptional. Rich, velvety, all the wonderful things pot de crèmes are, but made even better by homegrown pumpkin. A fitting end to a fabulous meal.    

Enjoying our dinner at Elderslie Farm.
Although we're out of focus here, you can still see myself (at center), Mrs. Elder (left) and Kara Sewell (right) enjoying ourselves very much.

I’ll end this post and impromptu review with just one more thing: an honest recommendation. If you ever happen to find yourself in the Wichita, Kansas, area, and would like to enjoy a truly unique time, head on out to Elderslie Farm. If I’ve done my job and gotten you intrigued, stay tuned to the next issue of GRIT for my more formal piece about the family and the refreshingly different farm business they’re creating. You can also check them out at

The Method to My Madness

Sarah SinningHello, everyone! My name is Sarah, and I’m an assistant editor and web editor for Capper’s Farmer magazine. Many of you may already know me from my brief stint as Capper’s Farmer blog manager. But for those of you who don’t, or maybe just didn’t spend as much time chatting with me as others – what can I say? I like to talk! – I’m hoping this blog will provide a space for us to get to know each other and maybe even learn a few new things. While I plan on sharing lots of little tidbits about my life here and what I do to live more simply, sustainably, and all-around homemade – I assure you I really do this in real life! – right now I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you a little bit about who I am and why I’m here.

I’m a creative spirit – if one actually has the right to self-apply this term – who spent almost the entirety of my twenties just trying to find my way – to a career, to an identity, to a fulfilling, authentic life in which I could feel good about participating. I’m still a work in progress, although now that I’m 30, a mom to the most wonderful 1 year old in existence, and officially working my first “big girl” job as I like to call it, I feel I’m at least heading in the right direction. I am proud, though, to have had the opportunity to spend so many years in self-discovery. And for anyone out there who’s wondering what that somewhat vague term even means, what follows is a brief taste. 

After completing my master’s degree in English Literature, with a focus on the nineteenth-century British novel – Charles Dickens is my hero, for the record – I briefly tried the whole office thing before realizing that if I were going to brave the cubicle front, it had to be ABSOLUTELY worth it. So … I quit my job, went to work at my favorite local pizza place – for barely above minimum wage, mind you – and then planned which culinary school I was going to attend. Yes, folks, I had decided to eschew the whole “doing what everyone else expected of me” thing and chose to instead pursue a budding passion for scratch cooking. No, this had very little to do with any thought of how I was eventually going to make ends meet; it had everything to do with how I was ever going to be happy. Fast-forward a couple of months, and I was living in Montpelier, Vermont, attending New England Culinary Institute – the one where Alton Brown went in case you’re interested – and gaining one of the best (and most expensive) culinary educations out there. Go big or go home, I always say … I then decided upon graduation to try my hand at farming, since let’s face it, can you really understand food if you have no idea how it’s even grown? After a couple of seasons of that, and a baby, I finally decided the cubicle thing was a challenge worth revisiting, but only if I could find a way to incorporate all of these life-altering experiences and help others experience the same journey. So, this, dear readers, is why I work at Capper’s Farmer magazine. Any questions?

mommys future farmer
My son on his very first trip to the pumpkin patch. Future farmer?

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