On this chilly, rainy May Saturday,

I awoke uninspired and unexcited.  It wasn’t the weather’s fault, and I knew that.  The only thing making this a less than perfect day was my own mind, which, admittedly, was slow and fogged after less than optimal sleep and yesterday’s excess of rich and salty potluck food.

Still, it was pouring rain and about 40 degrees, and there would be no eating breakfast on the porch while listening to the birds, or visiting our neighbor’s friendly cat on my morning walk, or feeling the warmth and seeing the golden tints of the sun.

I enjoy a nice rainy day that encourages me to stay inside… most of the time.  That is, when I haven’t spent nearly every day of the past 6 months mostly indoors.  But I managed to turn today around – again, in my own mind – and enjoy the rain.  A friend stopped by for tea and a long chat.  Thom vacuumed, and I purged the bookshelves and switched around the summer and winter clothing.  I sorted through papers with a purring cat on my lap while smelling the baking bread.

It’s going to rain more tonight, and I look forward to listening to the drops hitting the roof and windows, while I cozily lounge with a book.  It’s going to rain more tomorrow, and I will think of the seeds in my garden that hopefully will sprout, and the trees that need all this water for their new leaves.

Let the Gardening Begin!

Image by Buddy431, Summer vegetable garden in Roseville, MN CC BY-SA 3.0

Why do you garden?

Ilse: The first time I planted my own vegetables I was a college student.  It was spring, and the gray, cloudy days were warming. I awoke one Sunday morning with an irresistible urge to grow something, so I started some lettuce seeds in a planter on my porch.  The following year, I expanded to tomatoes, and continued growing these basic salad ingredients on various porches and balconies until I bought my first house. I love to be outside, tending to plants.

Kelli: I’ve always been drawn to the time when greenery juuuuuust starts to grow. It’s kind of spiritual. And of course, I love a good challenge and the literal fruits of my labor.

How did you learn to garden?

Ilse: I grew up with gardening, and so it makes sense that I absorbed at least some of it.  My grandparents’ small city lot was a Victory Garden in the 1940s, and although the vegetable portion of the yard decreased over time to allow some grass on which their grandkids could run around, we always ate amazing tomatoes in endless quantities during our summer visits (my childhood favorite: tomato sandwich on rye, with mayonnaise and pepper).  In addition to assorted summer vegetables, my parents produced enough broccoli and string beans for the entire winter (stored in the freezer), as well as potatoes that lasted several months beyond the growing season.

Kelli: Total trial and error, reading books, trying stuff out. My parents have a decent amount of space but it’s terrible land – it’s on what’s called the Anoka Sand Plain, which is like a huge sand beach plunked across a good portion of two counties in east central Minnesota. So it was great for the potatoes people grew back in the day, and not much else, and we never grew anything to eat growing up, though my hubby and I have had several years of pumpkin crops since. I have always had a lot of shade in the places I’ve lived as an adult, so haven’t had much in the way of veggies, but am getting better at ornamentals and design, and have lost some fear of transplanting/removing/giving away ill-suited plants.

What does your garden look like?

Ilse: My first real garden was in Arizona.  I found that the lauded raised bed made no sense there and created a sunken garden instead, to hold precious rainwater and stay cooler.  My Minnesota vegetable garden consists of 8 raised beds and various spaces in my landscaping beds where I currently grow fruits and vegetables.  I have fruit trees and berry bushes all around our 1/3-acre lot, but the vegetable garden has a deer fence around it.

Kelli: A hodge-podge of mostly hostas and some other shade-loving groundcover like wild ginger.  For edibles, it’s two new raised 4×4 beds in the sunniest corner of our lot, which is bounded by alley and parking on all sides. One will be raspberries (where is that order, anyway . . . add that to the to-do list) and the other tomatoes. At my parents’ we’ll put in pumpkins again. I plan to tuck some lettuce right close to the house and might try some in a strip next to the garage too.  A few containers with basil, and I think I’ll stick some carrots and beets in near the deck. It’s really where I can fit things in around life since the littles, dog, bunnies and squirrels have priority use of the yard, I guess!

What is in your garden this year?

Ilse: I finally got some seeds into the garden in mid-April, about 3 weeks later than I usually plant the cold-hardy vegetables like peas, kale, collards, broccoli, spinach, etc.  My strawberries are starting to leaf out, and I am hoping that the asparagus I planted last year survived the cold January we had with no snow cover for protection. I always grow lots of leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.

Kelli: Ooh, now I want to plant kale again.  So easy! So forgiving! I still have the seeds you gave me many years ago, Ilse!  I should dig them out and see what I can get to still germinate.

Ilse: Kelli, collards are even easier to grow than kale!

Can you share any successful or unsuccessful garden experiments?

Ilse: After a couple of years of gardening in Minnesota, I realized that fantastic fresh vegetables are available for very low cost at the farmers markets, and I decided to grow more fruit.  I’ve grown strawberries for about 15 years, and they are incredibly easy to grow… and they make more and more plants, which are a fantastic ground cover. Asparagus has been less successful for me.  I’ve seen it growing wild around the area, so I know that it can grow… but my first roots died after a few years. I replanted last year, and am hoping the roots survived our vicious winter.

Kelli: Tomatillos have done really well for me both times I planted them, actually. And we LOVE growing and harvesting our pumpkins and squashes in the years we’ve done those. The year we had a full sun community garden plot we got so much zucchini we couldn’t see straight. Then I got preggo with my first and had a food aversion to . . . you guessed it . . . zucchini. Not so successful were the lingonberries the bunnies enjoyed down to nubbins.

What are your favorite plants to grow?

Ilse: The ones that grow really well!  And also herbs… I love to garden around herbs, releasing their scents as I pull weeds and harvest.  I added a smaller garden near my back door dedicated to herbs so that I can quickly get fresh basil, dill, oregano, chives, parsley, rosemary, or cilantro just before serving dinner.  I usually try to bring some of them inside for the winter, but they never last very long.

Kelli: I’ve tried that with herbs too! Maybe I should do that again as well. On the decorative side of things, I love the spring woodland perennials like columbine. We have a few different delicate kinds.

Do you have any entertaining gardening stories?

Ilse:  My second summer here, every night around 3AM, I heard the lid of our large trash bin slam.  That was the announcement that the raccoons had arrived for the night. I heard them chattering as they climbed the fence into our yard, and I knew that the next morning I would find more holes in my tomatoes.  They took a bite out of each tomato and left it hanging on the plant. That same summer I had planted what I thought was an enormous number of green beans, because I knew the rabbits would eat some of the fresh greens.  I was right about that, but not about the quantity that they would eat, because they ate all of them. That was the summer that we began construction of the deer and rabbit fence!

Easiest Frittata

frittataKelli’s thoughts about brunching reminded me of one of my standby meals.   Everyone has, or should have, a few meals that can be assembled and cooked quickly, easily, and without a recipe, for those nights when the schedule is even more compressed than usual. One of my favorites is a frittata. It is generally gluten-free, and can be vegetarian and/or dairy-free depending on your preferences and what’s hanging around in your refrigerator.

Pictured is tonight’s dinner – a spinach-summer squash frittata topped with a few bell pepper rings. These freeze well and make excellent leftovers for lunches.  Leftover vegetables or potatoes or grains from a previous dinner will speed dinner still more.  I’ve tried various ways of cooking these – stovetop, oven, and both, and I’ve found no textural or flavor differences, but I prefer the below oven method for ease. In the summer, I bake in a toaster oven on the porch to avoid roasting us all out of the house.

The 30-minute baking time is sufficient to prep a salad and clean the dishes generated in cooking, so cleanup is quick, too.

Frittata (6 servings)

  •  6 large eggs
  • vegetables, sliced thinly (tonight’s used 1/2 pound frozen spinach and 1 medium crookneck squash; onions, peppers, asparagus and green beans work well also. )
  • potatoes, in small cubes, or cooked grain or pasta, if desired
  • seasoning to taste – fresh herbs are nice when available – chives, basil, parsley
  • optional: cheese – I’ve used everything from cheddar to chèvre

Oil a deep 9″ pie plate and preheat oven to 350F.

Saute the vegetables (if using potatoes, start these earliest, and cook until done) dry or in a small amount of olive oil until most of the moisture is removed. Stir in seasonings.

Beat the eggs until your arm is really tired. Put the vegetables into the pie plate and pour the eggs on top. Using a fork, gently move the vegetables around here and there to mix in the eggs. Make a design on top if desired, with pieces of pepper, asparagus, thinly sliced carrots, etc.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until eggs are thoroughly cooked and the frittata is beginning to brown.  Serve with salsa or ketchup if desired.

Thrifty Thursday: Bar Soap

Image © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0

When did liquid soap become ubiquitous? I recall when I made the change for handwashing in my home; I had a cat that obsessively licked bar soap, and I thought it might be bad for her. Over time I became more aware of the environmental consequences of liquid soap: more fuel for transport; unnecessary ingredients, including some that have been shown to be harmful; all those plastic containers. Once Mari was old enough to hold a bar of soap, long after the cat had spent her 9 lives, we gladly made the change back.

Pros of Bar Soap:
– Minimal packaging
– Long-lasting
– No anti-microbials
– Easily available in unscented form, or naturally scented
– Soap dishes never wear out and are easy to “refill”
– Lots of fun options for soap dishes – beautiful china, interesting rocks.  I use seashells that we collected on a family trip.
– Lower cost per handwash
– Takes up less space in the cabinet, so easier to buy in bulk, with further cost savings
– Less weight for transport (liquid soap contains water, which weighs 8 pounds per gallon)

Bar soap demonstrates the green triangle about which I first read in a simple living book: if something is good for one aspects of health, budget, and the environment, then it is likely good for the other two as well. Three priorities met with one small effort!

Retreat at Home


Set Contemplative Deco Object Group Art StonesSpace to think, uninterrupted, has drawn for me since at least my early teen years, when my favorite place was a large rock in the middle of the creek in the woods behind our house, where I would sit, write, and listen to the moving water. I was entranced by the idea of Thoreau’s Walden life, and years later, by the seaside cottage of Gift From the Sea.   Most people don’t have the option of taking a year off to build a cabin, explore nature, and write, and even a week of calm solitude can be unrealistic – I know it is for me.   But thinking about the internal and external space that this would offer has me contemplating how I could create some similar space in my upcoming weeks.

I have memories of retreat-like days. Once while traveling, I was snowbound for an afternoon in a hotel. It was lovely. I read and wrote and thought, uninterrupted, for hours. A retreat need not be solitary or academic. When I was a grad student, burned out from exams, thesis research, and winter, I spent a weekend helping my parents paint a barn. The gentle labor in the spring sunshine left me refreshed and ready to return to books and lab. More recently, Thom, Mari, and I had a weekend retreat at a friend’s cabin. We like to go there in the off season, when the lake is quiet, even if the weather is unpleasant, because that increases the coziness and pushes each of us to the activities for which we rarely find time when at home.

What gets in the way of doing this at home? Even on a weekend, there are all the activities. Driving someone here or there, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, getting ready for the workweek, fixing whatever has recently broken in the house, car upkeep, etc, etc, etc. So a retreat at home requires planning, first of all – to choose a day in advance and prepare for it to be as quiet as possible.

Preparing for a retreat at home

  • Give permission: time for deep work and contemplation is as important as the time spent on all those other activities. The reason we don’t do it more often is that it has no deadline associated with it. Give yourself permission to take a day off from everything.
  • Choose the day to minimize disruptions: a day that everyone can linger around the house in pajamas is ideal.
  • Share the plan: it’s nice If everyone in the house would like to participate, and makes interruptions less likely.
  • Plan meals in advance for easy reheating and cleanup: cook double a couple of nights during the week and put the extra meal in the freezer, in a container that is reheating-ready. In addition to saving time cooking, cleanup is greatly reduced on nights these meals are served.
  • Do essential cleaning and chores during the few evenings prior to the planned retreat. Tidy surroundings are more peaceful, and it’s nice to know that everything is done.
  • Be flexible. I was preparing for Sunday to be a retreat day, but some urgencies disrupted the weekend. It is what it is. There will be another weekend that will work.