Green Thumb?: A Veggie Tale

After a slight rain delay, I was finally able to put in my vegetable garden this week.   One of the things I love about my house, is that it came with a detached garage. This created an area of otherwise wasted backyard that has now become the perfect spot for a vegetable garden.  When I say perfect, I mean perfect only in Texas. Typically a vegetable garden requires six hours of full sunlight.  My garden area has the potential for shade from the detached garage on one side, a neighbor’s tree on the other and a newly build shed at the back end.  This would be less than ideal if not for the brutal 100 degree days that Austin has to offer.  The sun still manages to bear down on my little garden but it is more protected than if it was in any other spot in our yard.

My attempts at veggies has been scaled back over the years.  My garden is probably 12 ft x 25 ft, perhaps a tad bit larger.  The first year, I planted mixed greens, zucchini, a variety of green beans, tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, eggplant and cucumbers. The result was very little walking space between rows. Since then, I try to be a little more methodical in planning out my rows, measuring them out so that there are at least 36 inches between rows and each plant.  But when push comes to shove, I always end up squeezing in an extra plant or two, and the garden quickly becomes more overgrown and messy than I anticipated. That is probably the case again this year.

The bulk of the garden is made up of five tomato plants. I usually plant these towards the front, but I needed to rotate out my crops (as much as one can in such a small garden), so they are towards the back of the garden bed this year. I hope they like their new home.  I have experimented with a number of varieties over the years.  This year, I went with three slicing tomatoes: Early Girl, Big Boy and Celebrity. I also planted three small sweet varieties: Sweet 100 Cherry Tomatoes, Juliet Grape and Yellow Pear. Early Girl is a new one for me. I bought it because it sets fruit before all the rest. I’ve had good luck with Big Boy and Celebrity. The Sweet 100 replaces the Mike’s Red Cherry Tomatoes I’ve planted the last few years with varying success. Last year, I planted another variety of grape tomatoes because the Juliet wasn’t available, and it didn’t produce as much. Plus, Juliette would get a real kick out of knowing the tomatoes share her name if she could realize such a thing.

I actually read the Natural Gardener instruction sheet that comes with the tomatoes for the first time and learned that tomatoes like to have their stem buried a little bit. They encourage you to remove some of the lower leaves in order to bury part of the stem.  I have always hilled my tomatoes to give them more stability (they get taller than me and over run their cages), but I planted them more deeply than I normally do at their advice and also made moats around my hills to encourage water to stay near the plant’s root system. This I learned from my Dad.

I planted four hills of straight 8 cucumbers (this basically means you should get fruit that is straight and 8″ long- can’t get any more simple than that) much too close together. I am hoping that I can set some trellises along the fence near the cukes to encourage them to grow vertically. Otherwise, they will grow into a tangled mess and start climbing up my tomato cages, which is their normal M.O.

I also planted one green bell pepper and one eggplant.  I always get nice, tall pepper plants but have yet to yield an edible bell pepper.  I had jalapeños coming out my ears one year, but I am cursed when it comes to bell peppers.  I’m hoping this will be the year that all changes.  Eggplant is also a bit of a challenge.  The problem is that by the time they set fruit, it is 100+ degrees. While you are waiting to pluck a sizable eggplant, they start actually cooking on the vine and the fruit gets all shriveled up.  Still, I am hopeful there is eggplant parm in my future.

Lastly, I planted some lettuce.  Lettuce is better suited as a fall or winter crop in Texas, but I always try to get some out of the beginning of the growing season. After all, lettuce is an essential part of the salad I’m growing.  As you recall, some butter leaf lettuce popped up from the seeds I planted last spring. I also put some seeds down for romaine lettuce and planted one malibar spinach, which is not really spinach at all but very heat resistant and similar tasting when cooked. It is a vining plant, so I placed a trellis near it to encourage it’s vertical growth.

While I was at it, I replaced some more winter casualties in my herb garden.  I managed to lose both  my spearmint and chocolate mint this year.  This is a little ironic because mint is highly invasive, and I spend a lot of time debating whether I wanted to plant it or not.  I eventually decided it was too good to pass up, but I planted it in pots sunk in the ground to discourage the runners from escaping. Alas, both mints took a hard hit this past summer. They would like a little more shade and the plan was for the rosemary to shade one, the oregano, the other. The winter did it in for good. There were no signs of life, so I marched to the Natural Gardener and got two more. A girl’s got to have mojito supplies on hand.

Finally, I replaced my basil.  I normally plant two every summer as my good intentions to overwinter the babies indoors never pans out.  I went a little overboard, planting two sweet basil and one thai basil.  Can’t wait to try the thai basil in a recipe.

Also looking forward to the fruits of my labor, so to speak. Grow baby grow!

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Green Thumb?: Every Rose Has It’s Thorn

Last weekend , it rained and rained and rained.  Not that I’m complaining, we desperately need the rain. But it was a complete wash (excuse my pun) for gardening.

I had some very big plans to top dress my lawn and put my veggies in the ground.  These tasks were pushed back, but there were some welcome rays of sunshine on Sunday (fitting, no?), and that is when I decided to prune my knock out roses and blackberry bushes.

Nothing scares me more than pruning roses. And no, it’s not the thorns that frighten me.  It’s that I’ll somehow prune off too much and ruin the shape of my rose bush or, worse, get no blooms.  After the first year of my knock-out roses being in the ground, I had a friend show me how to prune them. Dean and I watched in horror as she hacked and hacked and hacked away at the roses.  They seemed very small afterward, and we feared they would never recover, although she assured us they would grow back even larger.

Several weeks later, the roses rebounded and came back bigger and better than the previous year. Fantastic, I thought. I can do this from now on.  And so, for the last two years, I have timidly marched out to their flower bed in mid March and pruned away.  This is what I’ve learned.  You can normally take down the roses by 1/3 their total height.  If the roses are fairly large to begin with, take them down by 1/4 and then prune again sometime during the summer.  You are looking to create a “V” shape with the rose.  I usually try to make sure there are 3-5 major canes in this shape. I cut away any suckers and anything crossing the middle of the plant. Then, when I make my cuts to prune down the height, I make sure to cut above an outward facing bud to continue to encourage the bush to grow in that “V” form. So far, it has been working. Here’s a link to a helpful YouTube video  by GardenMagik that I watch before taking on this task. Helps me get up my nerve.

Here are my roses during their first growing season:

And here they are at the end of last season. I’d say they like whatever I’m doing:

Pruning blackberries is a totally new thing for me. I planted one blackberry bush last year and a new one this year.  What I learned in researching it, is that I have not been doing the right thing at all.  Apparently, you are supposed to prune out all the canes that bore fruit in the fall after fruiting has ceased and get rid of the canes so they do not spread disease. On a new plant, you are also supposed to pinch off the new growing tips of all new canes to encourage lateral shoots.  I must admit I have not been brave enough to do this yet.

Here is the blackberry  bush I planted last year. It is looking a little sad and needs it’s old cane removed:

Here is my new blackberry bush. Will I have the nerve to pinch off the new tips? We shall see:

I was able to get a lot of gardening done this week, so be on the look out for my next post on my veggie babies. Until then, good night.

A little birdie told me you might like this

My daughter’s nursery is a continual work in progress.  And yes, I am still referring to it as her nursery even though she is 15 mo old.  As long as there is a crib in there, I refuse to believe she is anything but my precious baby.  But I’m a big girl, Mommy.  Hush, there’s plenty of time for that.

Juliette’s nursery is a soft blue with white wainscoting and brown accents.  Dean and I opted not to find out the sex of our baby-to-be, so some were a little concerned when I chose blue for the nursery color.  I was not concerned, as it happens to be one of my favorite colors, and  I’m a girl. As it turns out, it’s one of Juliette’s favorites too.  There is a bird theme inspired by a room staged by Carousel Designs for their Spa and Chocolate Gumball Crib bedding. Please check it out on my original inspiration board, which I recently uploaded to Pinterest. I did not end up going with this bedding, but loved the idea of a tree hiding behind the crib and bird houses on the wall.  Fortunately, my friend Carly also loves birds and made all kinds of accents for the room, including these gorgeous hand-painted bird houses. The frames next to the bird houses are white shadow boxes that I purchased at Ikea and decorated with wallpaper samples that Carly had from her Ethan Allen days.

I did not want to paint a brown tree on the wall because I did not want the arduous task of painting over it in a year or two. Instead, I looked for a decal of a brown tree.  I found several options on Etsy but didn’t want to shell out a lot of money for something that could possibly not stick to my very textured walls.  I settled on a black tree by Roommates  that got very good reviews from people with textured walls. I also found this Bird Cage photo holder at Bed Bath and Beyond to complement the tree.

I really loved the results and have been living with it for over a year, but recently I was feeling that Juliette’s tree looked a little bare and (to be honest) a tad scary.  One of Juliette’s favorite ASL sigs is “bird” (could this be a coincidence?), so I thought she might enjoy some birdies in her tree.  I found a bird template  online which is available here at mygrafico. I used the same wall paper samples used for the shadow boxes and affixed the birds to the wall with sticky tack. It was a very easy project. Here are the results.

Since I was on a roll, I decided it was finally time to put together Juliette’s bookshelf, which was purchased at Christmas time.  I tasked the hubby with assembly and Juliette and I moved all her books off her rocking chair and onto the new shelf.

Juliette is in her glory. She has new birdies to admire, a chair that she can now sit on and a new past time- taking her books and toys on and off the shelf.  I’m glad she is enjoying her room.  Mommy enjoys it too.

Click below for a slideshow of Juliette’s nursery:

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Green Thumb?

I tend to be a high strung person.  My husband Dean is always accusing me of being uptight. I do not mind this so much. It is part of how I function.  Now that I am a Mom, though, I have even less time to relax. This is worrisome. Fortunately, I have a few go to things that help me out. The first is reading, which is pretty typical.  The second, believe it or not, is cleaning.  I love a clean house and I love the ability to get lost in my thoughts as I make it that way.  If I have a particularly bad week, you might find me polishing my stainless steel or scrubbing my baseboards. Each to his own, right?  The third and the subject of this post is gardening- AMATEUR GARDENING that is.

My Mom is absolutely amazed to hear this is one of my passions. You see, I grew up gardening. Both my grandfather and father were avid gardeners. We always, always had rows upon rows of corn, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. If he was feeling especially ambitious, we might have beans, onions, potatoes, carrots, strawberries, cantaloupe, you name it. And since my father had no sons, he had to turn to his three daughters as little helpers. So it is only natural that I should garden. My mother’s amazement comes from the fact that I did everything in the world to get out of yard work- feigning illness, claiming I had homework (in the summer!), sleeping in as long as humanly possible.

So why the turn around? I love the feeling of the earth on my hands. I love to plant something from seed and wait, sometimes impatiently, for the first signs of life. I like to know that I am able to provide food for myself. The modern American has very little in terms of survival skills. I think this is a mistake. Everyone should know at least one or two ways they could make do should there be no Wal-Mart down the road.

Spring comes early in Austin. Sometimes as early as February. And with spring comes a major landscape overhaul. On my spring gardening to do list:

  • Rake up leaves
  • Thatch the lawn
  • Weed and feed the lawn
  • Fertilizer stake all the trees and large shrubs
  • Rake up leaves
  • Weed in all garden and flower beds
  • Prune back perennial shrubs, herbs and flowers
  • Rake up leaves
  • Top dress lawn with compost and manure
  • Pray that lawn comes back and I don’t have to resod
  • Recondition soil in garden and flower beds
  • Plant vegetables and marigolds in garden
  • Replace any perennials that did not make it through either summer or winter
  • Plant annuals
  • Spray all new planted babies with seaweed
  • Fertilize garden and flower beds
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch!

This is a very lengthy to do list, and Dean and I have been working on it for several weeks now. We have only made a small dent, but one of my bigger projects was prepping all the garden and flower beds. Here are a few of my materials:

Texas soil has a lot of clay and is pretty shallow. What lies beneath is mostly limestone. So I try to bring good nutrients into my garden bed each year by adding a mix of: TX friendly topsoil, Scott’s topsoil, peat moss, compost, manure and Lady Bug brand Hill Country garden soil from Austin’s Natural Gardener.

Here are my piles for mixing in the garden bed. This picture was taken after painstakingly weeding out the gigantic winter weeds and turning over the existing soil and raking it back out.

As you can see, there is some lettuce already growing. This was a total surprise. I planted lettuce from seed last March and it got hot so fast that barely anything came up.  I happened to look in the garden one day this winter and voila, some butternut lettuce had sprouted. Sweet.

Here is what the garden looks like after mixing in all that good soil:

Now I just have to wait until all fear of frost is behind us to plant the tomatoes currently living on my patio. I did plant some new parsley in my herb garden. Parsley is biennial. It is still kicking around year two but does not produce much edible parsley. I replaced mine with one Italian parsley and one curly leaf parsley (the garnish).

I then gave haircuts to all their new friends: Chives, Rosemary, Sage, Oregano and Thyme and also mixed in lots of good soil and compost to keep them happy.

Sadly, the rain is interfering with my plans to top dress the lawn this weekend, but it will help my parsley to grow, so I can’t complain too much. Until my next update, happy gardening Austinites!

Stripper in Training (More Adventures in Cloth Diapering)

I always knew I’d be a stripper.  My friend Jamie and I used to joke about this in college. In fact, we ever so BRIEFLY adopted the nicknames Flip and Strip (I was Flip) amongst our little group of freshman year friends because we thought we were that cool.  Little did we know, that we would both grow up to be responsible Moms who cloth diaper. And with cloth diapering, it is only a matter of time before you take the plunge and perform your first act of STRIPPING!

DEFINITION: The definition of “stripping” diapers is to remove build-up- whether it be from detergent, diaper cream, fabric softener or hard water mineral deposits- in order to solve stink or absorbency issues. Stink can involve one of two things: 1) burn your nose ammonia stinkies (my personal nemesis) or 2) a barnyard or fishy smell.

SYMPTOMS

Ammonia stinkies are the result of the breakdown of the urea in urine into ammonia. Actually, one of the main reasons we pee is to get rid of ammonia, which is toxic in large quantities. So it makes sense that anything urine-soaked will smell like ammonia after some time.  I typically wash on the 2nd or 3rd day and really notice a strong ammonia smell in my pail if I let it go to day #3.  Some folks experience the ammonia smell immediately after their child urinates in the cloth diaper or for diapers worn overnight. This is really a problem because it can lead to a chemically burned baby bottom.  In this case, the cause is usually detergent build-up. The solution- stripping with one of the methods mentioned below.

Barnyard stinkies, which I have been fortunately NOT to experience occurs when a diaper comes out of the wash looking clean but comes out of the dryer smelling fishy or like poop.  The cause is usually bacteria build-up from the diapers not getting clean enough. You are likely not using enough detergent to get the diapers clean or using the wrong wash cycle for your load . You want to make sure you use the highest water setting available and set it to really agitate those diapers.  It is also important to realize that no detergent will sanitize your diapers.  The manufacturers of my Bum Genius diapers recommend adding bleach 1x/month. In addition, I spray BioKleen bac out stain and odor eliminator on my poopy dipes before throwing them in the pail to combat the bacteria. Some people prefer to use biokleen in a prewash or presoak. Both work well.

Absorbency problems occur when buildup prevents the urine from absorbing through to the insert. Instead it is repelled and results in a dry insert and a wet baby. Not fun! Repelling often occurs from build up of non-cloth diaper approved diaper creams or detergents  (see list @ Pin Stripes and Polka Dots) or fabric softener build up. It is a no, no to use fabric softener on cloth diapers. I always used fabric softener in the wash cycle when I washed our clothes and a dryer sheet in the dryer when we dried them.  I have stopped both practices since cloth diapering as the residue in your washer and dryer can have a negative affect on your diapers.  The solution is one of the stripping methods listed below.

METHODS OF STRIPPING

For all methods, start with clean diapers.

Hot Water Stripping

Solution for: detergent build-up

Instructions: This is perhaps the easiest method if it works for you. Turn up your hot water heater to the highest setting. Fill washing machine with hot, hot water. Add a pot of boiling water if need be. Run through wash cycle and follow with a warm rinse if that option is available on your washer. If there is detergent build-up, you will see suds during the wash and/or rinse cycle despite the fact that you added no detergent. Keep performing hot water rinses until suds are no longer visible in the final rinse cycle.

Blue Dawn Strip

Solution for: build-up of detergent, fabric softener or diaper cream

Instructions: Go to the store and find the original blue Dawn.  I thought this was an easy enough task until I saw a lot of blog comments that folks had to go to the Dollar store in order to obtain this.  Why was mine so readily available at HEB? Then, I looked more closely at my bottle and saw that it was ultra-concentrated. Could explain why it took so many rinses my first strip.  Now, I just use less, but if you can get your hands on the original scent, original concentration, it is best.

Method A: Fill washer to highest level w/ the hottest water you have. Add boiling water if need be. Add about a tablespoon of Blue Dawn. Keep running hot water washes or rinses if available until suds are no longer visible in the final rinse cycle. It took me 8 cycles my first strip. 8! Yikes! That is a lot of water.

Method B: Fill bathtub with diapers and hot, hot water. Add boiling water if need be. Let them soak until diapers are cool enough to handle then agitate them with a stick. Then grab a short bristled brush and scrub the inside of each pocket diaper.

I then take the microfiber inserts only and boil them in a pot of water. Yes, I later use this pot (cleaned of course) to cook pasta. A little disconcerting. Do not make the mistake of boiling your pocket diapers. It can cause irreparable damage to the PUL material. Our first strip, before I knew it was an approved method, my husband Dean recommended boiling the diapers. I thought this was genius. Fortunately, I googled it as he was adding inserts and dipes to the water and rescued the diapers before they melted. That is what we call a near miss. Phew! But kudos to my hubby for helping me. You will see lots of bubbles in your pot from the blue Dawn and any detergent build-up.  Then, throw everything back in the washer and perform hot water wash/rinses until suds are no longer visible in the final rinse cycle. It usually takes me only 2-3 cycles.

Calgon Strip

Solution for: mineral build up from hard water

Instructions: Calgon is a water softening agent. I have yet to test this method even though I think my main problem is mineral build up from our notoriously hard TX water. The reason- it is hard to find. Word on the street is that it is found in the laundry aisle next to the bleaches and stain eliminators. I have yet to find it in the Austin HEB, Target or Wal-Marts but will continue to be on the look out. Mineral build up can prevent even a good cloth diaper friendly detergent from rinsing clean and cause the above mentioned stink or absorbency issues.  To put the Calgon to the test, fill the washing machine to the highest water level with hot, hot water. Add Calgon. It seems the general rule of thumb is half the recommended amount for top loaders, 1/4 for front loaders. Keep running hot washes/rinses until the final rinse cycle is suds free. Some Moms use calgon occasionally in their wash as a preventative method.

RLR strip:

Solution for: mineral build up from hard water

Instructions: The process is the same as for the Calgon strip. Just follow the instructions on the RLR package. I have yet to test this method also, but it is on my to do list.

Fish Ammonia Neutralizer Soak:

Solution for: ammonia stinkies not responding to any of the above methods

Instructions: This is perhaps the strangest solution I have seen. I think I read all 35 pages of commentary on the Ammonia is Gone! post on Baby Center.  The chemistry is complex but there is some speculation that the combination of urea converting to ammonia and chlorine naturally occurring in most tap water is causing the vicious cycle of ammonia stinkies. And so when all stripping methods fail, perhaps only ammonia neutralizer (commonly used for this problem in fish tanks) can solve the problem. The brands tested by these ladies are Top Fin, Aqueon and For Dummies. The most popular method used is: perform at least a cold water wash to clean the diapers of any urine or poop. Add 15 mL of fish ammonia neutralizer to hot water wash (adjust according to how much water your washer uses on the highest level). Pause wash and let soak x 3 hrs. Let wash continue with extra rinse. Follow up with a hot water wash with detergent and an extra rinse. You can add as many extra rinses as you need to make yourself confident that all fish ammonia neutralizer has been rinsed out.

The majority of the ladies reported amazing results. It completely solved their ammonia problem. There is some concern about formaldehyde being a byproduct of the fish ammonia neutralizer. This was a big concern for me, but apparently it is only trace amounts similar to what is found in apple juice and many other common household products. I’ll let you be the deciding factor on this one. I had mixed results. First, I purchased the brand Microbe Lift, which seemed the least harmful. It even said that fish in a tank treated with it could be consumed immediately. Sounded pretty safe.  Well, it did not work. Still had ammonia stinkies in pail on wash day. Then, I purchased the Top Fin brand and tried again. The Top Fin brand is smelly whereas the Microbe Lift was completely odorless. Same results. Not sure what I am doing wrong, but it is not the miracle fix I was hoping for. The general consensus among the many ladies it did work for is that it generally lasts for 1 month. The effective time period may be extended by spraying urine soaked diapers with a solution of mainly water and about a teaspoon of ammonia remover before you throw them into the pail. I really recommend reading the blog post if this interests you.

My Experience

My First Strip: Absorbency issues???

I performed my first strip after I had been cloth diapering for six months. I thought I was experiencing absorbency issues because Juliette’s onesies were getting wet around the legs. I was having zero stink issues at this point even with washing on day 3. I did a Blue Dawn strip and my diapers seemed cleaner than they’d ever been but still had a leaking issue. Turns out I did not really have an absorbency issue. True repelling is pretty rare if you are using an approved detergent and diaper cream. Most of the time the issue is one of the following:

1) not enough absorbency: in other words the baby is wetting more than the insert can handle. This was our problem. Bum Genius diapers come with a newborn insert and a toddler insert.  We had already switched from newborn to toddler insert by the time we noticed the problem (8 mo old), but her inserts were always soaking wet and pee would leak out the legs. We ended up using the toddler insert together with the newborn insert as a doubler. Problem solved. DD does now sport a J Lo booty but if bulk is troublesome, you can look into other options for doubling such as hemp inserts. We use a sposie overnight but I have heard that wool is great option for overnight.

2) too much bulk: sometimes when you overstuff a pocket diaper, they get overstretched and it creates gaps either around the legs or at the back. These are prime sources of leaking.

3) improper fit: one size diapers need to be adjusted as baby grows or depending on how many layers of absorbency there are. We have found through trial and error that too short a rise causes leaking. Also snapping the diaper too loosely will cause gaps around the legs- also a source of leaking.

4) not changing diaper often enough: sposies can handle A LOT of pee. The right material cloth diaper can begin to compete but once an insert is saturated, it needs to be changed. I typically change J every 2-3 hrs for urine soaked diapers, immediately for poop.

This is just my limited experience. For more information, check out If the Diaper Leaks on the Cloth Diaper Blog. What I do know is that with true repelling, your baby’s clothes will be soaked (not just a little wet around the legs) and when you remove the diaper, the insert will be fairly dry.

My subsequent strips: ammonia issues

At around 8 mo of cloth diapering, I started to get a burn your nose ammonia smell in my pail on day 3, which was wash day. This is my main problem- not an immediate ammonia smell when baby pees.  Very occasionally, if it has been a while since my last strip, I will smell ammonia on the diaper if I let a urine soaked one sit out on the changing table or in my wet bag  for several hours before spraying with Bac Out and tossing in my pail. But even though I only have a minor case of ammonia stinkies, I experienced several instances of a chemically burned baby bottom around the same time the stinkies started.  I think the real culprit has been tomato based foods that J has eaten, but I’m sure that build-up on her diapers is not helping. So I have been doing a Blue Dawn strip about 1x/month and have tried the fish ammonia neutralizer a few times.  In all cases, the diapers seem especially clean afterward and the ammonia smell is diminished (or at least not showing up until it is just about time to wash them) but not eliminated.  I am still looking to completely cure myself of the problem.  I have also tried switching from Charlies Soap to Country Save with no real change. I plan to try Calgon and RLR  and am not sure what to do if that does not work. I have less of a problem, and sometimes none at all, if I wash every other day, but then I am only washing 8-10 diapers and using an awful lot of water.  It is a minor problem, but I am on a mission.  And if you have ever had a baby with a chemically burned bum, it just brings tears to your eyes and you want to do anything to prevent it from ever happening again. I am interested in any solutions you guys have. Leave a comment if you have any good tips.

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