1. Paleo Week 1: My grocery budget is crying

    Well, pals, here it is: my first paleo meal plan, as promised!

    I’m excited and thoroughly nervous about this meal plan. This is definitely the first time I’ve planned a week of ALL brand-new meals; I started here for inspiration. In the coming weeks I’m looking forward to adding more seafood, which Chris is currently not a big fan of.

    Last night, I went by Kroger to get the basics (Friday nights are my usual grocery shopping night). This morning, we woke up early and were at the Lynchburg Community Market by 7:30, where we snagged the bulk of our produce locally. After lunch, we made a pilgrimage to Charlottesville so we could go to Trader Joe’s and squeeze in a final meal at the Mellow Mushroom (pretzels and buffalo chicken pizza — yum!).

    Today I bought things I’ve never bought before, like coconut flour and mushrooms and ghee. I bought three heads of cauliflower and three different kinds of onions. I have a big old spaghetti squash sitting in my produce basket.

    Because it’s been a long day and I need to go to bed so I can get up early to make my breakfast muffins and get to church by 9, I’ll summarize: We’ve already spent approximately $150 on groceries, and I haven’t even been to the butcher yet for the meats we need this week. This fact is upsetting but I’m trying to hold it together and pray this is all worth it.

    See ya tomorrow, folks!

     


  2. Flirting with the paleo template

                Next week, Chris and I are going to eat all-paleo. If you know us at all, you know this is quite the feat. You also know that we need to change our eating habits.

                We’re 25-years-old, but we need to eat for energy and our health. We’re lucky to not have any food allergies (that we’re aware of), and I believe there are children in our future, so if we don’t develop solid eating habits now, it will never happen. I’d also like to slim down, but I’d rather change my eating habits for good instead of crash-dieting, and therefore change my energy levels long-term – energy I can expel on exercise!

                We’re a bit late for the paleo bandwagon, which is just fine with me, because we aren’t doing this to half-heartedly follow a trend. We want to change the way we look at food. So I’m working on developing a new food philosophy.

                There are conflicting views of what paleo is. In my (so far) limited research, I’m finding I want to adhere to a paleo template more than a paleo diet. (I’ll let these pros explain things to the unfamiliar on their respective blogs.) I can’t subscribe to strict paleo doctrine because I don’t subscribe to the theory of evolution. But what I like best about the generally-accepted paleo approach to food is that focuses on MEAT and FRESH PRODUCE!

                With that said, my ideal diet would be comprised of whole foods, the way humans ate 150 years ago before industrialization changed our approach to food. In this way, I am approving of an “ancestral” approach to paleo (just not one that goes back millions of years).

                To people who’ve studied this stuff, I probably sound pretty naïve. But as I explore these diets and templates, I’m looking forward to developing a more well-rounded view of food.

                So, what do I want to change about our eating habits? Our eating habits are currently rife with inconsistency and processed foods. I rarely eat breakfast, and Chris never does. During the week, we have “dinner” at lunch, because Chris goes to work at 1 pm daily. I make a lot of chicken-centric meals, and none of it could ever be accused of being “healthy.” Lots of pastas, fried foods, rice as sides, veggies as an afterthought. For an evening meal, I usually eat leftovers or grab fast-food if it’s a particularly busy day. Chris takes a turkey sandwich on white bread with mayo, a bag of chips, and a beverage to work daily. Saturdays, we’ll usually grab fast food for lunch because we’re both busy in the morning, and we’ll treat ourselves to dinner out that night. On Sundays, we might grab fast food after church, and I like to make a CrockPot meal for dinner.

                I am starting to crave more nutrient-rich whole foods. I want more vegetables and more fruit in my diets. We need to drastically cut back on our grains. We should be more careful with our dairy products and sweets should be a rare treat only, not an expectation. Above all, I’m finding it’s important to ingest as few chemicals and processed foods as possible.

                All these ambitions worry me, however.

                So what am I worried about?

    1. I was not raised in a home that encouraged me to eat lots of vegetables. I don’t know how to like them.
    2. I don’t know how to cook them.
    3. I don’t know where to find local famer’s markets and local delis/butchers.
    4. It will likely be expensive. (To prevent this from holding us back, we probably won’t worry about organic/grass fed right now.)
    5. What about those long days when I just want to grab something from a drive-thru instead of coming home to make a meal of whole foods?
    6. Chris is picky, and I’m not always all that open-minded.
    7. I won’t be able to stick with it.

                These concerns are what are maintaining the status quo in our diets. To combat these, we’re diving right into a thirty-day paleo challenge. Starting on Sunday is good timing because the thirty days will be up well in advance of those gluttony-encouraging holidays of November and December. To hold myself accountable, I’m going to be posting updates and my paleo meal plans here each week, so check back and hold me to it! After our thirty days are up, Chris and I will be able to evaluate what we got out of the paleo template and begin slowly adding other whole foods back into our meal plans in moderation.

                I already know what I’m going to miss most, though: pastas, cheeses, and baked goods. Paleo’s gonna be rough for this amateur baker.

                Have you followed a paleo diet in the past? What did you learn from it?

     


  3. Let’s talk about the 86th Academy Awards!

    Today, Chris and I finished watching the nine nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture, plus two to cover all the acting awards! In this order:

    • Her
    • Philomena
    • Nebraska
    • Dallas Buyers Club
    • 12 Years a Slave
    • (August: Osage County)
    • Captain Phillips
    • The Wolf of Wall Street
    • Gravity
    • American Hustle
    • (Blue Jasmine)

    I enjoyed them all, in their own ways, and was interested to see how thoroughly a theme of money crime permeated several of the films? What’s up with that? And fabulous costuming? And Gravity, which stands alone in every way?

    I’m no good at assessing actors for their craft/ability, but I do know whose performances I most enjoyed: Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey, Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock (sorry, Amy Adams’s cleavage), Jennifer Lawrence (!!!), and Jonah Hill and Jared Leto. I mean, come on. The Academy members have their task cut out for them.

    My only contentious comment is going to be on the topic of who shouldn’t, but possibly will, win Best Picture. I’m looking at you, 12 Years a Slave. I don’t know the Academy’s criteria for voting here, but to me, the Best Picture should epitomize the best of film, which exists to entertain. At one point during 12 Years, I remember looking at Chris and pointing out that there hadn’t been a single light moment in the whole shebang, and that’s not a racial thing. I mean there wasn’t a jokey aside or a silly image. Nothing to break the tension. I know that was all intentional, but Gravity managed to keep me anxious from the first sweeping scene while sprinkling in some light moments. That was why I picked Argo to win last year: it was the most well-rounded film. 12 Years a Slave misses that mark, and honestly, I can’t decide who hits the mark. Gravity was near-perfect, but parts of its dialogue felt clunky. Wolf of Wall Street just had so much sex, though there were two occasions when I was surprised to be laughing so hard I nearly cried. But that’s me focusing on the films we watched most recently. I might have to go with Her as my most well-rounded pick, though from what I understand based on the blog posts of smarter people than I, it’s a reach for Best Picture.

    I logged on to the Oscars website and made my predictions; some of them are based on who I want to win, and others are based on who I expect to win.

    Last year, I wrote a similar blog post for the 2013 Oscars. I nailed my predictions for Best Picture and Best Actor! I do not expect to be as accurate this year. :)

     


  4. First-Time Cookie Decorator: A Cautionary Tale

    Hi, friends!

    So, halfway through my afternoon activity, I knew I had a blog post on my hands. That could be the only reason for my suffering; I was destined to share my tale with the baking world.

    Or, at least, with you.

    I’ve been wanting to try decorating cookies for a long time. Probably since I took my cake decorating class, so for like, a year and a half. I guess once I conquered Wilton buttercream, my logical next step was royal icing.

    Exceeept it wasn’t. I was given a pistachio KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas (ain’t nobody got better in-laws than me) (yeah, there were at least three grammatical sins in that aside) and my List of Stuff I’ve Been Putting Off Trying Because I Didn’t Have the Right Kitchen Equipment exploded. Exploded. I made cinnamon swirl bread, about four batches of black bean brownies, pretzel rolls for my husband, and Swiss meringue buttercream. But no royal icing. Zilch.

    Then, a friend of my mother-in-law (you may remember her as our wedding photographer) messaged me about a box of cookie cutters she wanted to re-home. A box. Of cookie cutters. I told her I would be elated to receive said box, and a short while (and, apparently, several batches of black bean brownies) later, I received an enormous box of cookie cutters in the mail. Y’all, there were eighty cookie cutters in there. Most of them had never been used. And they were all very suddenly mine.

    I had no excuse to not try sugar cookies frosted with royal icing now.

    I’ve blogged about my experiences volunteering with The Humane Society of Campbell County before, and, even though that blog post is a year old, I’m still spending several hours per week with these kitties! And tomorrow, we’re having an adoption fair at our PetSmart store, so I decided to bake a batch of cookies to give to humans who contribute to our donation jar.

    This decision may have been influenced by the paw print cookie cutter I found in my box of goodies.

    So I embarked on the journey I have detailed below. If you’re thinking of trying royal icing for yourself, this blog post is for you. Learn from my mistakes, baking grasshopper. They are many.

    But for now, let’s start with a…

    Cookie Decorating Success #1: Acquire necessary equipment.

    I read ages ago on a forum like this that it was a bad idea to try making royal icing with a hand mixer (I have a cute little red KitchenAid handmixer, the motor on which I couldn’t bear to burn out because I bake so many cakes), so royal icing was, as I’ve mentioned, on my stand mixer to-try list. There are crazy people who make royal icing by hand, apparently, whisking it for ten minutes with just the equipment God gave ‘em. But they are worthier bakers than I, so I waited until I had a stand mixer.

    Cookie decorators also use piping bags with tips (which I have in excess due to my forays in cake/buttercream), plus handy squeeze bottles, which I finally acquired (after far too much searching) at Family Dollar? Don’t forget about pantry items you may not have on hand, like meringue powder and, in some cases, cream of tartar.

    Cookie Decorating Success #2: Bake quality cookies.

    I looked into several recipes before settling on In Katrina’s Kitchen’s Best Sugar Cookie Recipe because of those magic words: “No chilling required.” Fun story though? I still chilled it, in a way. I used straight-from-the-fridge butter, cubed, and kept sticking the dough in the fridge to keep it from getting too warm. I also reduced the oven temperature (from 350 to 325) (our oven runs hot) when the first batch came out with too-brown edges, and my subsequent batches were perfect. Huzzah!

    Don’t they look lovely? I used half clear vanilla and half almond to flavor them. Yum-o.

    So far it sounds like smooth-sailing, huh? Not so. I can handle cookie-baking, but as I started into the icing-making process, things started to get messy.

    Cookie Decorating Flub #1: Dive in without educating yourself.

    I hesitated for a few minutes after my cookies turned out so fine, worrying about my upcoming icing adventure. Had I read enough? Sure. Ages ago, pre-stand mixer, I’d read all about royal icing and envied future Ashley the gorgeous, perfect cookies she was inevitably making. I’d pinned all the pins. I’d scoured the blog posts.

    But I didn’t review.

    I went straight into the surprisingly simple recipe I’d selected (also from In Katrina’s Kitchen, though the magic words this time were “small batch”). I stirred together the sugar and meringue powder, dissolved my clear vanilla in the water, then started mixin’.

    I had no idea what my icing was supposed to look like.

    Cookie Decorating Flub #2: Continue being wildly ignorant.

    Sure, I could’ve paused the whole process and watched some YouTube videosExcept not. I was so worried about ruining the meringue magic that I just kept it up.

    Was this what it was supposed to look like? I had no idea.

    Nope. Nope, it wasn’t.

    It needed to be watered down.

    Cookie Decorating Flub #3: Be scared about watering down your royal icing.

    You have to water it down, Past Ashley. Seriously. It’s not going to work.

    Guess who tried to pipe that royal icing pictured above, at that insane cement-like consistency? I DID. I got so frustrated. I wanted to use the squeezy bottles I’d looked high and low for, but it was impossible. I reluctantly turned to my trusty pals Mrs. Piping Bag and Mr. #3 Tip but they were frustrating as well.

    And then…

    Cookie Decorating Success #3: Remember the shpritz.

    Shpritzing is a technique from One Tough Cookie I had read about ages ago and pinned for this day. All you do to water down royal icing effectively is shpritz the surface of the icing with a water spray bottle. I had one ready to go, and after liberal shpritzing my icing started to cooperate.

    Cookie Decorating Flub #4: Outlining. Just, outlining.

    My royal icing may have still been too thick at this point because outlining was a nightmare. My hand ached and cramped. I made a lot of mistakes. I’m going to tell myself, however, that this will get easier with practice.

    In the meantime, this is what I ended up with. Yikers.

    Cookie Decorating Flub #5: What is flooding?!?!?!

    Okay, so you’ve got your cookies lined (hopefully), with minimal mistakes (ha ha ha). Time to thin the royal icing down to flooding consistency.

    Yep. Easier said than done, o optimistic baker.

    Remember how much trouble I had thinning down the icing to outlining consistency? My struggles were tenfold for flooding consistency. But that brought me to my next success…

    Cookie Decorating Success #4: Shpritz and repeat.

    You’ll get there. It takes lots of spray-bottle water, but it happens.

    Cookie Decorating Flub #6: How the heck do I get this icing in those stupid squeeze bottles?

    Yeah. Yeah. Do I use a funnel? Do I pour? Do I just cry and the sadness magic from my tears makes it happen magically?

    I scooped. Yes, friends, I scooped it up with my rubber spatula and let that stuff drip right in. It worked. Try everything. Something will work.

    Cookie Decorating Success #5: Keep it simple for your first time.

    This one is a little bit deceptive. When I determined to bake and decorate cookies for this adoption fair, I imagined gorgeous cookies. I eventually pared down my mental image to mostly-white cookies (I really, really, really hate dyeing frosting) with some black and red.

    Guess what I ended up with? All white.

    It was my first time. All-white should’ve been the plan all along. Besides, you’re about to see how great they look with these:

    Sprinkles, y’all.

    But before we get there, let’s revisit our friend the poorly-outlined cookie:

    With the flooding-consistency icing in my squeeze bottle, I was ready to 40-days-and-40-nights-it-up. Ready, set —

    No.

    Not a flood.

    An incredibly ineffective mudslide, maybe.

    There’s a fix for that, though:

    A butter knife!

    It works! And you know what? Those painstaking outlines? They work, too. Spreading the flooding icing to the edges turns out looking pretty darn good. And if they aren’t perfect, didn’t you know that sprinkles cover a multitude of baking sins?

    That’s the same scary pawprint cookie I first showed you. You can hardly tell its outline was so shoddy.

    That’s pretty much it, friends. From there, I iced and sprinkled about twenty more cookies, surprising myself with how great they turned out.

    I did have one final flub for you, though…

    Cookie Decorating Flub #7: Make waaayyy too much royal icing.

    Remember the royal icing recipe I used? There was a note at the bottom about doubling the recipe. Guess who doubled it? This girl.

    Guess who now has half that doubled batch in her fridge? This girl.

    And I didn’t learn my lesson, either, because I’d rather have too much icing that I’ll probably just throw away in three weeks than not have enough.

    (These squeeze bottles were seriously perfect because of that attached cap. Without it, I would’ve lost the caps, and royal icing needs caps because you can’t let it dry out. And without that little notch on the right for keeping the cap out of your way, I would’ve dragged it all around my wet icing.)

    Well, I hope this proved at least mildly educational, or, at least, entertaining. I know the mistakes of others can be real knee-slappers. But for real, I want the takeaway to be that if I can do it, you can surely do it without making such a fool out of yourself.

    If you want actual helpful information on cookie decorating, there are TONS of resources, including this blog post which I love by Brown Eyed Baker! And if you have any royal icing or cookie stories, please feel free to share them!

     


  5. A quiet return to blogging… :)

    Hello, blog readers!

    If you’re here, I kind of can’t help wondering why. I haven’t written a post in over six months, and even then, nothing special was happening here!

    Well, “nothing special” continues to be a mainstay. But several of my friends are faithful and talented bloggers, in addition to the pros whose blogs I prowl. I know I have it in me to be better at this — despite taking all my pictures with a 3-year-old iPhone 4 and having relatively no knowledge of how to make this thing look professional — so here we go!

    2014 has begun since the last time I blogged, and I’ve made a pair of resolutions that are actually still hanging around over three weeks later! I’m:

    1. working to lose 50 lbs this year, and
    2. reading the entire Old Testament alongside my husband and our Sunday School class!

    Both tasks are going well. I’ve lost nine pounds so far through diligently spending time at the gym (five times per week for the last two weeks!) and counting calories with the help of MyFitnessPal! I am, admittedly, a teeny bit behind on reading the Old Testament, but I plan to catch up tomorrow.

    I have lots of thoughts about these two resolutions, so look forward to those here on my blog soon!

    But, for now, I wanted to share a couple of minor things related to this afternoon’s activity: baking pretzel rolls!

    I found this recipe on Pinterest, and you can check it out on Mel’s Kitchen Café!

    As you can see, my rolls didn’t turn out looking a THING like the originals. I could tell fairly early-on in the process that they weren’t going to turn out perfect. I didn’t put enough flour in the dough (for fear of overflouring), so after the initial rise, my dough was incredibly sticky and I ruined all the yeasty magic by pulling and stretching it out of the bowl to separate into rolls. I had to throw some belated flour in the mix so the dough would be manageable. (LOTS of yeast sins happening.) So I set myself up to have wrinkly, imperfect rolls before they even hit the oven.

    But you know what? I wouldn’t have been able to even attempt these two years ago, when I was shamefully ignorant about all-things-kitchen. And I’ve learned so much in these newlywed years, in our drafty basement apartment with its poorly-lit, tiny kitchen!

    As such, I’m going to share with you the few tips I’ve collected for proofing yeast dough in a cool, imperfect environment!

    Ashley’s tips for coaxing yeast dough into rising when it really doesn’t want to

    • First of all, make sure you’re using the right yeast! I’ve used active dry yeast when I should’ve used instant yeast, and you can tell a difference. There are directions on active dry yeast containers for proofing the yeast before mixing with other ingredients!
    • Yeast loves warmth! That’s why it hates drafts. Always cover your bowl with greased plastic wrap and even a tea towel to help trap heat.
    • On that note, don’t put dough in a cold bowl! Run hot hot hot water in it and then dry it out before adding the dough. Works like a charm!
    • That goes also for the bowl you mix your dough in. That stainless steel KitchenAid mixer bowl can get very chilly, and yeast hates that!
    • In winter months, I usually set my dough bowls in front of or even on top of a space heater, as long as it’s on low heat. Keep an eye on the bowl and check it frequently — it should never get very warm to the touch!

    I hope all that makes sense! Learning to bake bread has been such a challenging and rewarding experience. I’m definitely hoping to share some more things I’ve learned during my learning-to-cook journey in the days to come. :) Thanks for reading, friends!

     


  6. Garden Party: Nature’s wrath (why I hate Eric Carle’s favorite insect)

    Hi, garden friends! It’s been two months since my last garden update, and I have lots of pictures to show you.

    My milk jug herb garden is flourishing! You might remember that I’m growing sweet basil, oregano (pictured below), parsley, sage, cilantro, and (most recently) chives. The jug planters look so cute hanging by our front door.

    Also by our front door, I planted morning glories in a large container with a trellis. I’d heard mostly negative opinions regarding morning glories from some peers — apparently, gardeners hate morning glories’ tendency to spread and take over. I hope to combat that by guiding their growth with the trellis.

    They grew like mad almost immediately, and I loved watching the vines climb to the top. (I’ve been interested in climbing vines ever since I saw this time-lapse video.) But last weekend, a torrential summer rainstorm decided to flood our apartment. Among all the rescue operations like wet-vacc’ing the carpets in our living room and bedroom, our landlord had to move my morning glories pot and trellis to try to seal up some cracks in the concrete outside. I was out of town, and I have a feeling they were handled less than delicately, because when I came home, the left half of the vines were shriveled and so sad.

    I trimmed back the dead leaves and that helped their appearance a lot! Aside from all the stress with coming home to a flooded apartment, which my husband had to handle while I was gone, I was saddest to see those withered vines.

    None of my seeded flowers have bloomed yet, but I’m looking forward to it happening soon! I also have cosmos growing, and I think I can see infant buds forming on my zinnias!

    Now for some bad news. I’ve loved watching my broccoli plants grow, but they’ve also been the targets of some pretty gross pests. I naively hoped that growing my vegetables in containers would keep the garden pests at bay, but the last two days have seen my broccoli plants positively gnawed to death. Yesterday I discovered some insane little black-and-red spiders, and today I found something much worse: caterpillars.

    My friend Sara linked me to an article where I quickly learned that these caterpillars are cabbage worms. And you better believe I’m going to be looking into Bactilius Thuringiensis to take these little guys out, because my broccoli plants have finally started growing heads!

    (Aren’t those skeletal, chewed-up leaves just pitiful? I am so sad about it.)

    My other veggies are doing fine! My spinach is growing really tall and kind of strange, but I’m letting it do its thing. I’m really excited about my tomatoes, too!

    Finally, some good news. I’ve successfully harvested two of my veggies!

    I haven’t eaten the beans yet — I blanched and froze them — but the carrots were delicious!

    Despite these rookie-gardening setbacks, I’m still really enjoying the spring so far, and looking forward to summer!

     

  7. Visit the Humane Society for Campbell County on Facebook or on the web for more information about saving homeless kitties! You can also see a bigger version of the flow chart here.

     


  8. Garden Party: R.I.P. Pansies (lessons learned the hard way)

    Last Sunday, I wrote a long, self-indulgent blog post about my “garden” with lots of photos and rambling about what I’m growing. A lot has sprung up since last weekend, so I wanted to write an update.

    First off — my pansy seedlings began the transition into the great outdoors, and promptly died. As you might remember, my pansies had been seeded in a 72-cell tray and placed in our basement apartment’s only window. I decided earlier this week that five weeks’ time indoors had been enough, and set the tray outside early on Monday morning with the plastic “greenhouse” cover on it to shield the fragile seedlings from errant winds.. So far, so good.

    Except… Monday had record-high temperatures for our area. And when I peeked outside a couple of hours later, that greenhouse cover was drenched in condensation. I ran outside and pulled the cover off to reveal a tray full of withered, pitiful baby pansies.

    I haven’t felt so terrible about something in ages. I watered the seedlings with their turkey baster, and a few of them seem to perk up slightly, but the really small ones just disappeared in the muddy soil. It was really awful, and I couldn’t revive them no matter how hard I tried, so I stuck the tray in the lower shelf of the gardening bench Chris built me.

    Above: the portrait of my shame.

    Luckily, I had noticed that the “oldest” seedling — the first to sprout, and the most mature — had started drooping when the tray was still indoors. It had developed its first true leaves, so I decided to move it from the tray to a separate container. I had bought a few small tin buckets at Target for $1, so I planted it in there. Its roots were desperately trying to find someplace to go in the shallow seedling tray, and I assumed that was the reason for the drooping, and it would appreciate having more room to grow.

    The surviving pansy is still drooping, but its stem seems to be growing stronger. I think it’ll get tall enough to not droop soon.

    Needless to say, I definitely learned how to harden off seedlings the — ahem — hard way. I’ll be growing the rest of my flowers from seed sown directly in large planters outdoors, so this won’t happen again!

    Everything else is growing really well! Our extra-warm week helped my herbs to sprout ahead of schedule, and my vegetables grew bigger quickly. My sweet basil seedlings were the most surprising, sprouting only about five days after seeding!

    Now I’ve just got to figure out how to thin them out. Those little buggers grew so fast, so close together!

    My sage has sprouted too…

    …and my parsley grew taller over the past week of bright sunshine!

    My veggies went pretty nuts this week, and my carrots, broccoli, and spinach (pictured below in that order) all sprouted their first true leaves. I thinned out my spinach seedlings and planted two more carrots.

    The tomato plant I bought hasn’t changed much that I can tell. But my bush green beans are starting to show some life already, too! (You can see a sprout forming right of the marker.)

    After obliterating my pansy seedlings, I adopted a gorgeous hanging basket from Walmart. It’s a pretty peach variety of verbena, and it makes me super happy to see every time I pass under that awning over our front door.

    The only other gardening purchase I made this week was a watering jug. I’d been using a red plastic watering jug from last summer to water my outdoor plants, and I kept it by the front door, beneath the spigot. But for some reason, that was a prime hangout spot for monstrously large spiders, and if you know any fun facts about me, they usually include a loathsome fear of spiders.

    So when I fetched my watering jug one day this week and saw a revolting black spider just chilling inside, I wasted no time holding the jug a safe distance from my body and banging it on the ground to knock the spider out.

    I also broke the jug.

    So I was in the market for a new watering pail, and found this beauty at Walmart for $5.

    Can’t beat that!

    Still loving gardening, and so surprised by the way everything’s growing (except, of course, those pansies). I was thinking of posting frequentish updates, maybe on Saturdays, but my camera isn’t working so well, so we’ll have to wait and see.

    Until next time, gardening friends!

     


  9. It’s a {Garden} Party!

    It’s the first full week of April. Yesterday saw the last frost of the season. You know what that means?

    GARDEN PARTY, FRIENDS!

    A couple of months ago, I started dreaming about having a garden — fresh veggies, pretty flowers, and something to make me get outside and enjoy myself through spring, summer, and fall. The problem is:

    I’ve never gardened before. At all. In the slightest.

    Okay, “at all” may be hyperbole. I’ve bought and repotted plants a few times, but never with much success. I’ve had a small potted tree manage to die and come back to life even after I sequestered it to the back porch because I was embarrassed that it had withered, though its resurrection  was a serious miracle and had nothing to do with me. Last summer I bought a hanging basket that I thought was beautiful, but I accidentally backed over it. (It was the week of my wedding, and I was planning to transport it to a friend’s house to care for it while Chris and I were gone — but I managed to do the exact opposite of that by forgetting to put it in the trunk and rolling right over it in my car.)

    So yeah. Maybe “at all” isn’t such an exaggeration.

    But when summer comes around, I always get that longing to grow things and prune them and care for them. I know I’m not alone in this! And I never start early enough to really invest in a garden, especially growing fresh vegetables. This time, however, I started planning in February.

    We have very generous landlords and plenty of yard space around our basement apartment, but I didn’t want to do anything so ambitious as putting down a raised bed garden for veggies, though our landlords would’ve been fine with it. I settled on growing in containers, which are usually a good option for renters and/or those who only have porches or small deckspace. Also, weather in Lynchburg is insane and largely unpredictable, and the flexibility of being able to quickly bring my plants under cover is appealing. (I’ve already had to move my veggies inside twice due to unexpected snow.) So containers it was!

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    I did a lot of research on growing container vegetables and potting flowers, on how to grow plants from seed and which ones were better to transplant, and what plants were ideal for first-time gardeners. This is what I’ve settled on for myself:

    I linked each of those to their pages on the Old Farmers Almanac website because that’s where I ended up getting a lot of helpful, insightful information when I was researching. I typed up everything, including a tentative planting calendar based on my zone (I live in Zone 7!), in a Word document and saved it on my desktop, created a Pinterest board for more ideas, and started dreaming of my garden.

    I quickly determined to save money where I could with gardening. I’m starting most everything from seeds (so far I’ve only bought a tomato transplant, and that was only about $4 at Walmart), and buying the cheapest containers I can find. I learned through researching that plastic containers are best for retaining moisture and maintaining steady temperatures (as opposed to terra cotta or clay pots, which are usually prettier but also more expensive).

    For my herb garden, I decided to recycle milk jugs as planters. We drink about a gallon of milk every other week, and I had five jugs ready to go after the last frost date. All they needed was to be trimmed up and have drainage holes added, and they were ready to go! You can see a video tutorial here.

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    I had the perfect place to hang my herb jugs — the stairs right outside our apartment door, which lead to the upper levels of the house where we live in the basement. Chris hung a wooden pole there, secured with screws, and it will be the perfect width for all six jugs when my chives are ready to be planted!

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    However, since I didn’t plan to have all my herbs planted and ready to hang at the time of placing the pole, I wasn’t able to keep the handles intact. I had to snip the base of the milk jug handles to slide them over the pole, and the weight of the soil-full jugs was causing them to buckle. So, I added the burlap wraps to both brace the handle in the back and keep the jugs from bulging. The burlap is added insulation and it’s pretty cute!

    I planted my parsley a few weeks ago, so it’s had a head start on everything else and is so far the only one that’s sprouted.

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    I also saw recycled spoon markers on Pinterest and fell in love. When we moved into our apartment, the previous tenant had left a few fistfuls of silverware behind, and we’d stashed them in the kitchen just in case. Now I had a use for them! I only needed spoons, a hammer, Mod Podge and a paintbrush, some crayons, and a Sharpie to make my garden markers.

    I think Chris thinks the jugs look kinda trashy, but he’s too nice to say. I already love them, and I think they’ll look great once the herbs start growing quickly!

    With the exception of garlic (which I haven’t yet bought a transplant for) and tomatoes, I’m growing the rest of my veggies from seed. Carrot sprouts appeared after a few chilly weeks; the cutest little broccoli seedlings sprouted after just a week; the spinach peeked out just a week or so later. The green beans were just planted yesterday, in a big ole square plastic pot that Chris found for me at Big Lots. It didn’t have drainage holes, so I asked Chris to drill some in the base, and we totally cracked it. I hope it will be okay.

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    I did the best I could with my research to find the right-shaped containers for each veggie. With my carrots, I want to plant two concentric circles over time, so I can harvest regularly. (So far I only have two carrots growing.)

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    For broccoli and spinach I planted a row of seeds in narrow window box planters. Since the broccoli sprouted so quickly, I was able to thin the seedlings out to just three in the container. I’ll do the same with the spinach when it’s a bit hardier. Once the three veggies of each plant are harvested, I’ll plant three more, until their growing seasons end in the late fall.

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    I can’t express to y’all how excited I am about my veggies! I know my little container garden won’t produce much, but maybe I can expand next year after learning so much this year.

    Finally, when it comes to flowers, all I can really talk about so far are my pansies! They were the very first thing I planted. I read that I would need to “stratify" the seeds before planting, and I did so, and was seriously holding my breath for a week after planting them in a seed-starting tray as I waited for green to appear. I left the tray undisturbed and covered on top of our washing machine, which is a nice, dark corner of the apartment. The first pansy seedling appeared after a week, and after that, they just kept coming!

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    After sprouting, I uncovered the tray and moved it to the only real window in our basement apartment. Luckily, it fit perfectly! I water the seedlings with a turkey baster so as to not disturb them too much. I love how they lean toward the sun; I have to turn the tray every other day so they don’t grow too crookedly. Most of them have their first sets of true leaves, so I’ll be moving them outdoors and planting the rest of my flowers soon!

    One issue I’m running into with our apartment is that it totally faces the west. All our direct sunlight is afternoon/evening light, but I’m hoping my little plants can pull through and make that work!

    I keep my seed packets in a glass container by the front door so I can consult them about watering, etc. So far, gardening is proving to be delightful! Stay tuned for more updates — I promise they won’t all be this long. :)

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  10. Doctor Who Review: 7.7 The Bells of Saint John

    Chris and I watched the season 7 midseason premiere of Doctor Who last night, a day late, and I wanted to write down some of my thoughts. If you like television episode reviews, you really have to check out The A.V. Club’s TV Club. You can read their review of The Bells of Saint John here.

    Through “Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Snowmen”, I’ve had my misgivings about Clara Oswin Oswald as a companion character. Sure, she’s quick, and spunky, and an intellectual challenge for the Doctor – but that’s the problem. I don’t want the Doctor to be challenged intellectually by a human. I can’t speak for Classic Who, but in the new series, human companions have served largely to provide emotional balance for this very ancient alien who has spent so much time saving humanity that he often forgets why he bothers. The companions’ purpose is to remind him.

    Through the Nine and Ten years, I always say my favorite companion is Donna. She had her own very serious, very human issues to work through, and saw traveling with the Doctor as more than just a mere chance to jaunt through time and space and see wondrous things and otherwise load up on memories to think wistfully about when her time with the Doctor ended and she found herself back on Earth in the right century. Donna didn’t like herself. And that was very real. When she met the Doctor, she finally found someone who made her feel differently about who she was – she actually discovered who she could be, and rather liked what she found. So Donna’s departure from the Doctor’s side after a season of spectacular episodes was very hard for me to watch.

    As for Rose and Martha, I enjoyed them both. Rose transformed from a shop girl to a savvy traveler, one who helped the Doctor through a difficult regeneration. I wasn’t crazy about his whiny longing for her once they’d parted ways, but the circumstances under which that had happened were truly heartbreaking. And Martha caught the brunt of it, which wasn’t fair, but life isn’t fair.

    Eleven stuck with Amy Pond longer than I would have liked, but the show had picked up so very many new transcontinental fans throughout seasons five and six (many of whom have likely never bothered watching anything before “The Eleventh Hour”, but that’s a rant for another time) that I can see why they would be frightened of dumping the Pond era after a season, as was their tradition. I just wish it wasn’t so, because I never felt that Amy was anyone particularly special – I always wished little Amelia, a la “The Eleventh Hour" or "The Big Bang”, would appear again, because I liked her so very much. Grown-up Amy just didn’t delight me the way she did so many of my fellow fans, so her (and Rory’s) big exit felt long overdue for me when it finally came around. (I also groaned audibly when Amelia Williams’s name appeared on the cover of Summer Falls in this week’s episode.)

    Now we have Clara, the newest human companion to the Doctor’s escapades. But is Clara just a human? Her various incarnations – as an unfortunate surprise-Dalek in the season premiere, and then as a too-savvy Victorian woman in the Christmas special – have kept no secrets that she very well might not be. And if that’s handled properly, and no one is pretending that she’s just an ultra-smart girl who can keep up with the Doctor, then I am totally cool with that, seriously.

    So when Clara is shown in this week’s episode calling up a tech support line because she seriously can’t connect to Wi-Fi, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here, finally, is the relatable human companion from the 21st century that the Doctor is going to invite into the TARDIS/snog box, in whom I can see glimpses of myself as she travels with him and sees all the wonderful things he’s so excited to show her.

    And we all know she’s going to say yes, and accept his invitation to join him in the TARDIS for a time. Because that’s the way these episodes go.

    The A.V. Club complains mentions that, for new-companion episodes, “the formula almost requires an enemy that crumbles once the Doctor gets involved”. I agree with that. It’s important for the episode’s villain to be one that the Doctor easily conquers, but not just because seeing him conquer is what persuades infatuated companions to join him on his journeying. I think the ease with which he conquers these particular monsters – think of the Nestene Consciousness in “Rose”, the Plasmavore and Judoon in “Smith and Jones”, and Ms. Foster in “Partners in Crime” – proves to the Doctor that he is powerful, and capable of awing someone brightly impressionable. It’s why he loves humans, and human women: we love to stand in awe of something bigger than we are.

    The Doctor loves the reactions he gets from these companions, and yes, I know that it’s a television show, scripted so that the Doctor encounters less-horrible obstacles on the days that his human companions are in peril, but if the Doctor were real, these would be just as exciting days in his long life as they are in his companions’.

    From the point that the evil is extinguished, these episodes become very regimented – almost ritualistic, in a warm, delightful way. The Doctor invites his new companion inside the TARDIS, and she is surprised that it’s bigger on the inside/smaller on the outside. The Doctor watches her reactions very carefully, and sees he’s picked the right one. She’s excited, and he gets a little embarrassed, like a boy about to propose to his girl. And he finally does it – he asks her to travel with him. And she says…

    Come back tomorrow.

    Oh, Clara Oswald, that’s exactly what I would’ve said to an impatient, just-slightly-smug time travelling alien.

    So this “review” was less about “The Bells of Saint John” in particular, and more my thoughts on this type of episode and companions in general. Upon reflection, I think I liked it overall, rather a lot. But a lot of that has to do with Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara Oswald, and the way she is under no circumstances going to lose her mug of tea, even in the face of peril. Welcome aboard the TARDIS, Clara! We know you’re gonna say yes tomorrow.