Saturday, April 2, 2016

Garden Tips Chapter 1: Tomatoes

How many things are better than walking out your door and picking a sun-warmed, perfectly ripe tomato, and taking a big juicy bite out of it right there in the garden? Not many, if you ask me or daughter child (son child would heartily disagree, but that's ok, more for us!).

I've been growing tomatoes every year for a number of years now, and I've been on a super tight budget for at least as many years. Despite having a generally brown thumb, I've had pretty good success with my tomatoes, without having to spend a bunch of money on fancy gadgets and bits (I'm lookin at you, water walls). Now, if you use my tips, you may not have the fanciest tomato garden in town, but your tomatoes will grow and produce more fruit than you probably know what to do with. So, without further preamble:
  1. Look for smaller plants earlier in the season: Where I live, you start seeing tomato plants at the very end of March and beginning of April (I just planted 8 today). Generally, this means the plants are smaller, only 4-6 inches tall, since they are young plants. This also means cheaper plants. Rather than $3-6 per plant, I bought mine for $1.28 each. 
  2. Dig through the plants a bit and see if there are any pots with multiple plants: Don't make a mess or make a big deal about it (that's rude and starts crossing into shady territory), but go ahead and browse the pots and pick out the multiples. This sort of goes along with the last tip as well, since the smaller plants have smaller root systems and are easier to separate. Larger plants are more likely to struggle with the the root damage. Yes, sometimes even the little ones will be really tangled together, and I've lost a few plants, but so far I've always been able to keep at least one of them alive, so at worst I'm breaking even. This is how I got 8 plants, but only bought 4 pots.
  3. Toss a handful of egg shells or a whole egg in the hole when you plant: I keep egg shells around because I have chickens, but you can start collecting them in mid winter for your tomatoes too. I'm not entirely sure the egg shells break down enough to actually provide calcium to the plants, but I've definitely had fewer problems with blossom end rot (commonly caused by calcium deficiency) since I started doing this. If you use a whole egg, I recommend breaking it in the hole, then the insides will decompose and fertilize the tomato as well. You also won't risk ending up with a smelly surprise when you pull up the plants at the end of the season.
  4. Pull off the bottom leaves and plant extra deep: That's pretty much the whole tip. Pull off the bottom leaves to reduce the risk of disease, and plant so that the dirt is just under the lowest set of branches. All those little fuzzies on the stems can turn into roots, so planting extra deep will give the tomato a head start on developing a solid root base, making a healthier plant.
  5. Use milk jugs to keep them warm in the early season: Wall-O-Waters (a popular option) are spendy (~$20 for 3 on Amazon), but milk jugs are easy to come by. I start saving them at the end of February through March (for planting early in mid-April). If you don't drink milk, juice bottles, wine bottles, soda bottles, essentially any vessel that will hold water and let the sunlight in will work. They warm up during the day and keep the tomatoes from getting too cold at night, exactly like Wall-O-Waters do, but when the tomatoes outgrow them, you can just move them and throw them away. Good luck getting those water walls away from the tomatoes without crushing or flooding the plants.
    • Corrolary: I've seen some people surround the base of their tomatoes with big river rocks, which would create a good thermal mass as well. I'm not sure if the rocks will hold heat as long as water jugs, or if they would be as warm on cloudy days though. They'll also be slightly more of a pain to remove.
  6. You don't need to shell out for fancy tomato cages: Those cheap $1-3 tomato cages work just as well as the fancy ones. Even a stick works, just use old pantyhose or t-shirt strips to tie the plant to the stick. They don't look quite as nice early in the season, I will admit, but if you take good care of your garden, those plants will be huge and you won't even be able to see the cages anyway, so I don't really see the point in spending big money on them.
Well, there we have it. Six tips on growing tomatoes on the cheap. Any other warm weather vegetables can benefit from these tips too! These are certainly not all the tips that exist for growing tomatoes; I'm pretty sure there are entire websites on the subject. But there's a few things that you might not find elsewhere, and could help out if you're big on growing vegetables, but not big on spending money on them!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Birthday Cake

Today was both my daughter's birthday and her first day of  kindergarten. Thus, I took the opportunity to throw her a surprise party. Not that it was much of a surprise, since she knew she was getting cake and all, but she didn't know her cousins and grandparents were coming over, so I call it a win anyway.

I completely failed to get a picture of her before school, and didn't get a chance to get a picture of her getting off the bus, but I DID get a picture of her right when she got home.

But didn't get the chance to make it a good picture.
But the whole point here is that I really want to show off the cake I made her. She saw a cake at the grocery store with buttercream roses and pink swags on the sides, and asked me to make her a cake like it. She also asked me for a fairy cake, a polka dot cake, a princess cake, and a cake with stars on it. I've been sort of wanting a reason to play with melted marshmallow fondant, so I went the swag direction, with cutout stars being my backup.

The swags worked wonderfully. Seriously, decorating this cake turned out to be about a zillion times easier than I ever expected. It did take quite a bit of time, probably almost four hours over two days, but it really wasn't all that hard. The roses are supposed to dry for a day before you put them on the cake, though I'm not sure why, since they're pretty solid even when fresh. Anyway, yesterday I'd just put together a rose anytime I had a spare couple minutes in the kitchen. Easy.

The toothpicks are holding up the little flowers while the "glue" dries.
Yeah, the bottom looks really ragged. I was going to make a little rope or bead border for it, but that cake is already like half frosting/fondant, and I was tired, and there were balloons to blow up.

I think my flower arranging could use a little work, but it's ok for a first time.
If you've never tried marshmallow fondant, it's actually pretty good. I've only had fondant on store-bought cakes a couple times, and I remember it being pretty rubbery and with little flavor other than sugar. There's definitely tastier things than marshmallow fondant to put on a cake, but the fondant just looks so nice! And I've never had any luck piping anything fancy.

Lookit those swags!
So I'm really impressed with myself here, and all the littles thought it was really awesome. In fact, they repeatedly tried to tear it apart before we could even eat it. So I call it a win, for sure.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lemon Cheese

Did you know you can make a pretty decent cheese in about half an hour's actual work with nothing but milk and lemon juice? Well, I did, but hadn't ever done it before. I like the process of fermentation too much to be put off by the extra work it entails. So the other day when I got hit by the urge to make cheese but no starter to ferment it with, I dove into the wonderful world of acid precipitated cheese.

All you need is a quart of milk (I recommend whole, but any kind will work), and 1/4-1/3 cup of lemon juice, preferably straight from the lemon, but bottled works ok too.

Simply heat the milk on the stove until it is 180-185 degrees. If you don't have a thermometer the milk will be steaming and will hold a froth when you stir it. It is far from critical that the temperature be exactly right, but you definitely don't want to boil it or your cheese will taste like cooked milk.

Once it's hot, turn off the heat and add 1/4 cup of lemon juice and give it a good stir. It'll curdle almost immediately. Let it sit for 10 minutes. It should look like this:

Yum, right?
If the whey (the watery part) is still cloudy, add the rest of the lemon juice, stir, and let it sit another 5-10 minutes.

Place a piece of muslin or several layers of cheesecloth in a bowl and pour the whole cheese mix in there.

Tie up the corners and hang the bag over the bowl for an hour or so. This type of cheese drains pretty quickly too, which is nice.

Hanging cheese
I had just hung it up, and most of the whey just gets left behind.
When it's pretty much stopped dripping, put the cheese in a bowl. Add some salt and stir it in. Taste and add more salt as needed. You can eat it right now if you want, but I like to refrigerate it for a couple hours so it's a bit more sold and sort of sliceable. That and room temperature cheese sort of squicks me out. That's right, squicks. It's a technical term for what slightly icky but not quite gross things do to you. Anyway, this particular cheese I wrapped in basil leaves (yes, I did just read the Hunger Games, why do you ask?), which was kind of a pain in the backside, but the next day the cheese had picked up a lovely basil flavor I really liked. I do plan on doing the basil thing again with a real fermented cheese, since this type of cheese doesn't have really any sour cheese flavor at all. I think an actual goat cheese would be fantastic wrapped in basil if I could find a place to get goat milk around here for less than $20/gallon.

This is a really great option if you want to make cheese, but are worried about messing up the entire fermentation process. This process is pretty hard to mess up, even for a total beginner, so long as you're careful not to burn the milk when you heat it up.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Deku Shield DIY: Part 1

So seeing as how it's already September and both kids want Halloween costumes that I know I won't be able to find in stores (at least not without paying ridiculously huge amounts of money), I'm getting started on their costumes. They want to be Link and Zelda, at least for now, and honestly if they change their minds, tough, I'm not making a new costume! I myself decided they're going to be the younger Link and Zelda from Ocarina of Time. Mostly because those look like the simplest to make.

So I'm starting off with the Deku shield, because paper mache is fun!

The basics

I started with a cardboard box I dug out of the garage. It happens to be an extra sturdy box with two layers of corrugation, but I have no doubt that a regular box would do just fine. I made a rough sketch of the shape of the shield, and cut that sucker out.

Basic Deku Shield Cutout
Then I realized I got the shape pretty wrong, but I really didn't feel like cutting out another one. That extra thick cardboard is kind of a pain to slice through. Anyway, it's just for Halloween, it's shape is still recognizable, and I doubt there's anyone mean enough to be making snide remarks at an adorable four year old.

Since having a flat cutout like that would look too much like a flat cardboard cutout, I bent it a bit to give it a curve.

The pencil's just there because apparently my camera can't focus on cardboard.
That's the inside of the curve. I bent it gently so that the creases would only be in the inside, and only a couple bends show on the outside at all, and they'll be covered with paper mache.

I used one of the flaps from the box cut about 3/4 of an inch shorter than the width of the shield to hold the curve, and give me somewhere to attach the straps later.

A couple strips of duct tape will hold that on nicely for me.

See? The difference is subtle, but it looks a lot better now.
I covered that in a couple layers of paper mache, let that dry, and did another vertical layer with the newspaper ripped into pointy bits. I was hoping that this would give it a tree bark texture, but the newspaper is pretty thin. I'm thinking I'll do a similar layer with paper towels torn into points and see if that looks any better. I'm not sure how I'll add the texture to make the red swirl look carved out, or if it's even worth bothering, but I'll be thinking about that too.

Friday, August 16, 2013

How to trace a sewing pattern, and why you should do it

Undoubtedly other, better sewing blogs have covered this topic before, but I'm gonna DO IT MASELF.  The whole point is to chronicle what I'm doing anyway.

So, you should be tracing sewing patterns before you start sewing them. Why? Several reasons. If you need to cut a size any smaller than the biggest on the pattern, you'll never be able to make a bigger size. Not that you'll necessarily need to, but if you make a smaller size for a child, your pattern won't be any good as they grow. Tracing also makes it easier to make adjustments to the pattern, without risking the original pattern. Basically, saving the original is always a good idea.

So, how? What do we use to trace? I use tissue paper from the Dollar Tree. If you want to make things a little faster, you can use pattern tracing paper and a tracing wheel. They're quicker and easier, but the paper costs actual money, and 40 sheets of tissue paper from the Dollar Tree is more worth it for me.

My pattern, tissue, and a pencil. Simple.
I happen to be tracing the bodice of a dress now. Shockingly, tracing a pattern isn't much more complicated than tracing anything else. Put the pattern under the tissue, and trace.

I happen to be using tuna cans to hold everything in place.
A ruler makes it quicker and more accurate to trace straight lines.
Very simple, yeah? Just make sure to trace ALL the pattern markings. And double check. Twice. And make sure to record the piece numbers and the name of the pattern piece. The pattern names are really handy for when you're putting them together later.

So it's really easy to trace patterns, and it's a really good idea to do. Trace your patterns!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The BEST way to eat berries

Seriously, yum. This is by FAR my favorite way to eat berries of any kind. AND it's reasonably healthy. As a dessert, heck, sometimes just for lunch.

And it's SO easy, and you can use whatever kind of berries you have, or even any other fruit you have on hand. Peaches would be good (if you like peaches. I don't.), or maybe mangos, possibly even pineapple. I always have to have strawberries, because duh. This time I did six or seven strawberries, sliced, a handful of blueberries, and a handful of blackberries. I wish I had some raspberries to toss in, but they're too expensive to buy regularly, and sadly I don't have anywhere to put raspberry plants.

The berries are followed with a teaspoon or two of sugar. Not much, just enough to enhance the sweetness of the berries, and a tablespoon or two of cream. Yep, cream. Heavy cream, if possible.

Then, eat. Enjoy. Yum.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What to do with leftover pie crust

Every time I make pie (not often enough) I have a handful of pie crust dough leftover that I trim off the edges of the pie. Now, one could cut out small shapes and put them on top of the pie with an egg wash, which would make a lovely pie, but wouldn't use ALL the crust dough, and I just can't toss it! That's wasteful! Ok, I may be a little crazy, but these cinnamon-sugar buttery pie crust bites are tasty, and totally worth it to me!

What you need:

  • Pie crust trimmings
  • Butter, melted (1-2 Tbs, depending on exactly how much pie crust you have leftover)
  • Cinnamon sugar 
  • Pastry brush (You can easily use your fingers if you don't have one though)
I only line my baking pans with foil because they're old and gross and I'm lazy.
I wouldn't go out and buy already mixed cinnamon and sugar. That's just silly. Just put 1-2 Tbs of sugar in a little bowl and sprinkle in cinnamon and mix until it looks about right. Taste if you like. Actually, you should taste it so you'll know if you've got a good mix.

Simply tear/cut the pie crust into larger than bite size pieces. You can do bite size too, but it's really hard to butter them without making an enormous buttery mess. If you have some that are thin or just too small to really be useful, smush them together and roll out again. They'll be the slightly tougher ones, but it's pretty hard to tell unless you're looking for them.

Brush those puppies with melted butter. Don't skimp, but don't make a huge mess either or they'll just be greasy.

Sprinkle everything with cinnamon sugar. At first I tried to keep it all on the pie crust, but that was nearly impossible, so it went everywhere. I'm much more at peace with wasting a couple teaspoons of sugar than wasting pie crust. I mean, pie crust is good.

Bake it right alongside your pie for about 10-15 minutes. If you're just making pie crust yumminess that'd be 375F for 10-15 minutes. Just keep an eye on it and pull it out when it gets lovely and brown.

I failed to get a picture of the baked bites before they were devoured, sorry. They were really good.