Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Preserving the Garden Bounty

Last week was my best cycling week to date. I covered 503 miles, meeting some really nice people, eating some really delicious pancakes, and laughing over the antics of some really cute puppies (are there any other kind of puppies?). I traded in the road bike for my heavier hybrid on two of the days, mostly because I was too lazy to change out the road bike's front tire that was showing some splits in the rubber, but the two days on the hybrid were awesome. Because it is a heavier bike, I can't go as fast. Being forced to slow down was good as this has been my goal for the last two years. I find myself falling back into the mindset of needing to keep the speed up, so riding the hybrid forced me to just settle in and let the miles slowly pass by. The two days on the hybrid are two of my favorite rides so far this summer.

Now, only two weeks of my summer self-contained ride remain. Two weeks. I try not to think about being nearly finished, inching closer to having to return to work. To help with this, I've been immersing myself in fun projects. I made a wind chime out of Grey Goose bottles for a friend. Out of the 16 bottles she gave me to work with, I managed to get 5 with clean cuts. The rest ended up with cracks running up or down from the score, making them throwaways. From the discards, I played a bit with cutting some rings and firing them in the new microwave kiln I purchased, but that was a total fail. The bottle's glass is so thick there's no way to melt it down in the little kiln I bought. The glass broke inside the kiln and left a brown ring on the kiln base. The wind chime I managed to put together is kind of cool. My friend's reaction when I sent her a picture of it was, "Gorgeous!"

I also turned my attention to making refrigerator pickles out of the cucumbers piled high on the kitchen island. I've been going on the idea that my family doesn't like pickles. Every time I buy them, they sit in the fridge and end up being thrown out two years after they were opened. Then, Funny Delightful Son informed me the other day that he, in fact, does like pickles and doesn't know why I don't buy them. So I searched for an easy recipe, one that didn't involve water baths or pressure cookers. I found a simple one and set to work. Most of the cukes are now pickles. This morning, I cracked open a jar of pickles to try them. Let's just say I had a tough time not sitting down and eating the entire jar right then and there. Not quite the reaction from Funny Delightful Son, though. He tried one and said, "Too sweet." What?!? So it looks like I'll be eating the pickles all by myself.

With still more cucumbers on my kitchen island, I decided to try a recipe for cucumber ginger jelly. The reviews of the recipe raved about how delicious the jelly is with cream cheese on crackers, so being the cream cheese lover that I am, I had to see if the reviews were true. When the process was over, and the jelly in the jars, I swiped a finger through what remained in the pot. The slight ginger pop along with the soothing cucumber create a very tasty combination, the kind that makes one say, "Ohhhhh, that's good." I encouraged Funny Delightful Son and his girlfriend to taste the jelly. Both looked at me like I was asking them to suck on lemons. That look vanished, however, as soon as the jelly crossed their lips. Both smiled, enjoying the surprise that is cucumber ginger jelly. Then, Lovely Beautiful Daughter and her boyfriend sampled the jelly. They, too, exclaimed over the deliciousness. When I offered them a jar of the jelly to take home with them, the boyfriend was quick to take the jar. I'm thinking another round of cucumber ginger jelly might be in order.

With the cucumbers taken care of, I turned my attention to the basil. This is the first summer I put the basil in one of the raised beds rather than in a pot. I'm glad I made the change. I've never had such beautiful basil plants before. Like last year and the year before, I'll dry some of it, but I also wanted to do something more with the leaves. I found a pesto recipe and got to work. Funny Delightful Son sat at the bar, watching me try to figure out the food processor, mostly laughing at my inability to put the lid on correctly, and Angel Baby came down to watch after getting a whiff of the pine nuts roasting on the stove. When I removed the lid after combining all the ingredients, both boys tested the concoction and approved. We ended up making pesto-mozzarella grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, and I had plenty of pesto left to put into an ice cube tray for freezing and using later. I'm already thinking about a noodle, roasted tomato and mushroom, pesto dish for dinner tomorrow.

I'm pretty happy with figuring out what to do with the cucumbers. I really didn't want them to just end up in the compost box. I want to preserve what I grow, and I am getting much better at it, but I still have a lot to learn. With the tomatoes starting to ripen, I'll be busy preserving them in a variety of ways, hopefully putting different kinds of sauces in our freezer. Who knows, maybe one cold winter day, we'll be eating chili made from my garden tomatoes along with crackers spread with cream cheese and cucumber jelly.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On Being a Long Distance Cyclist

Okay, summer can slow down. Seriously, how can it be July 12th already? I've still got so many things I want to do and only 4 weeks to do them before having to return to work. Gahhh!

Most of my summer has been spent cycling as I signed up to ride as self-contained for Bike the US for MS. While I didn't raise as much money as I had hoped, I did raise the $2000 that Bike the US for MS suggested. I can't thank my family and friends enough for their support and generosity. I know my $2100 isn't much, but it along with the donations raised by all the others cycling for Bike the US for MS adds up to nearly $300,000 this year. That money goes to research centers in Virginia, Ohio, and Washington, and it also goes to building ramps, renovating bathrooms, and making other home improvements to offer easier access for those living with MS. I'll never forget our service days during the 2012 ride--cleaning, mowing, washing windows, rearranging furniture, installing handholds, and sometimes just sitting and talking with the individual we were working for--and how thankful these individuals were that we gave a day of our ride to help. I know I walked away from those service days feeling like I was doing something purposeful. Though I don't have service days this summer, I still have that feeling of doing something purposeful each day I set out and ride. I know I'm riding to fulfill the generosity of my family and friends.

My favorite rides so far this summer have been the longer rides. I went to Paxton, a cute town still holding on to the small-town feel. I sat on the curb of Main Street, downing a sports drink and eating a candy bar before beginning the ride home, ending with 105 miles for the day. Then I went to Lincoln, a bit bigger than Paxton, and sat outside a gas station to eat a sandwich before moseying around the side streets a bit and finding the new Lincoln Museum. On my way out of Lincoln, I saw a sign telling me I was on the Route 66 Bike Route. I'd actually ridden it into Lincoln, but there'd been no signage to tell me this. I followed the same route back, ending the day with 102 miles. Then I went to Pekin, to the west, and found a beautiful bike trail that wound its way through the town. I also found the "World's Greatest Sundial" in Pekin and enjoyed spending a bit of time there before returning home, an 81 mile day. In each of these towns, I leave a Bike the US for MS calling card on a bulletin board (and I noticedwhen I returned to Gibson City last week that the one I'd left there had been taken--hopefully, whoever took it visited the Bike the US for MS website and made a donation). I have plans for other long rides over the next four weeks, and even what I'm calling an "EPIC!" ride, so still more cycling to come.

The only downside to the cycling this summer is riding alone. I invited everyone to ride with me, but no takers. I know I could ride with the women's group here in town, but they usually don't go as long as I like to go. Though I prefer to ride alone, every now and then it does get lonely. I have run into other cyclists while out, and usually we strike up conversations as we ride along, but I end up going one way and the other cyclist goes his way. At these times, I think of Eleanor Moseman, who cycled throughout Asia, and a comment she made: "[W]hat the long distance woman finds . . . is love for herself. Learning and reassuring herself . . . that she can survive and live as a solo entity, without a partner at her side to help her make decisions and keep her motivated." I have found cycling alone has made me realize how capable I truly am, and I am definitely more confident in myself, whatever I undertake. I'm not sure everyone appreciates my confidence, but I know my kids do, and that's what matters to me.

Oh, Summer, my Love,
Your warmth fills up my being,
spilling out as smiles.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Help From All that is Around Me

Three years ago, I completed my first century ride, the Swedish Days ride that's a couple hours drive north of us. Hubby and I drove up the evening before and spent the night so I could get some decent sleep before having to get up early the next morning. We planned to ride together for the first 25 miles or so, at which time Hubby would return to the start and wait on me to finish the 100 miles. After Hubby turned back, I rode on alone, being sure to follow the cue sheet and arrows on the roads, as well as making sure to stop at the rest areas to eat and drink. The final rest area was about 15 or 20 miles from the finish, and after eating some fruit and a cookie, I started off to complete the ride. Nine miles out, I turned to go east, the final leg of the 100 miles, and found myself facing a nasty headwind. I slogged on, determined I was going to finish. I finally reached the parking lot where Hubby was waiting, and as I neared the truck, I was overcome with emotion, something that had never happened to me before. I suddenly found it very difficult to breathe, and all I wanted to do was cry. I had trained for weeks to complete 100 miles on my bike, and I knew I could do 50 or 60 miles with no problem. 100 miles, though, was a completely different story. It took all I had physically and mentally.

Since that first century ride, I've completed several more, one where I managed to maintain a 17 mph speed despite some gnarly hills (at the end, in the parking lot, another cyclist complimented me on my cycling, saying I rocked because I rode alone, and even though his group passed me, I always caught them at the rest stops), and one where the hills were known to make even the best have to dismount and walk their bike to the top (I didn't--I love hills). I even did a metric century on my mountain bike, a ride that was 90% gravel roads and hilly, hilly, hilly. I finished that ride feeling absolutely worn out, but so incredibly happy at having accomplished such a difficult task. After each of these rides, I didn't have the same reaction I had after the first century ride. Rather, I felt strong, capable, and accomplished.

Yesterday, I felt that same sense of strength, ability, and accomplishment as I completed a second consecutive day of 100+ miles. Friday, I rode 105 miles. Yesterday, I rode 102 miles. The toughest mileage happened during day 2, around mile 90, when it began to sink in just how tired I was. My wrists hurt, making me want to constantly change hand position on the bars. My triceps ached from being in the same position for 5 hours. My thighs were burning and thankful for each pause in pedaling (my cadence really suffered at this point since I was coasting so much). I knew I had another 45 minutes to go, and I knew I had to get out of my own head if I was going to finish the ride in a happy state of mind. That's when a line from my favorite movie--Michael--popped into my head: "Listen to the earth." Michael (John Travolta) says this as he's sitting on a farming implement in a field, with Sparky the dog sitting next to him. I figured the line popped into my head for a reason, so I turned my attention to what was around me rather than what was going on with me.

I heard the leaves whispering in the breeze blowing out of the south. I heard a robin sing what my mom called their "rain is coming" song (and she was right--last evening we received a light, steady rain). I heard the warning shrill of the red-winged black bird as I neared its nest. I heard the panicked chirp of a chipmunk as it darted into the tall grass at the edge of the road. I heard the rustle of the corn growing tall under the July sun (much taller than the old "knee-high by the 4th of July" saying I heard as a kid). Before I knew it, I was at the edge of town, just a couple of miles from home. At this point, my Garmin beeped, telling me I'd reached the 100 mile mark. Nothing could take the smile from my face. Even as I pulled into the driveway and unclipped from the pedals, I was still smiling. With the help of what is all around me, I finished a task I've been wanting to do but wasn't sure I could.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Growing Fruit Mistakes

My gardens are loving this wet, hot, humid weather. The tomatoes and cucumbers are spreading, growing out and over the sides of their raised boxes. I've had to stake the tomatoes in creative ways to keep them in check. The cucumbers have a trellis to climb, and they're making their way up, looking healthy and producing beautifully. That said, the one garden that is truly out of control is the fruit garden. The raspberry vines are taking over, pushing their way into the designated grape space, and the strawberry vines have crept into all four corners, not to be outdone by the wandering raspberry vines. I spent some time in the fruit garden last evening to try and make a dent in the chaos, but there's plenty more to be done.

Last summer, I had more raspberries than I could handle. I made black raspberry jam, red raspberry jam, and red raspberry vinaigrette. The family enjoyed the black raspberry jam but didn't appreciate the red raspberry jam like I did. I adore red raspberries. When I see them, the memory of riding my horse along a country road where the berries grew wild comes to mind. I remember feeling like I'd found a treasure. I slid off my horse and picked berries, popping them into my mouth, delighting in their warm berry scent combined with the sweet taste. The red raspberry takes me back to being 14, exploring country roads by horseback.

My raspberries this summer, though, have no blooms, no fruit. I have lots of vines. The leaves are a vibrant green. Nothing looks amiss except it appears there will be no berries this year. To figure out what is going on, I read a few articles. I found out I am the culprit; I went too far in pruning back the canes last fall. This year's producing canes grew last year and should have been left alone. Oops. On the bright side, next year's crop should be fantastic.

Last summer, the grape vines produced beautiful clusters of grapes. I watched the grapes grow all  summer long, going from being tiny green pea-sized fruits to glorious purple marble-sized fruits. I patiently waited until they were at the perfect stage for picking, and the day I went out to fill my bucket, every single grape was gone. Something beat me to them. I figure a raccoon had gorged itself, enjoying the sweet treat I had watched over all summer.

My grapes this summer, however, have no clusters forming. The vines are strong. The leaves are huge and green. Everything looks healthy. Yet again, after reading up on grapevines, I learned I went too far in pruning last fall. This year's producing vines had developed last summer, and I cut them off. Oops again. Next year . . . next year will be a bumper crop!

Each summer I learn from mistakes I made the summer before. The good news is the plants are healthy and doing well, so there's no need to replace them. By the looks of it, I better start prepping now for the amount of berries I'm going to have next summer. One of my to-do jobs is to create a space for my canned foods; I might get started on that now so when I have jars of jams and other goodies, I'll have the place to put them.

On a side note, today's ride took me northwest, to new roads and scenery. On my way back, I had the pleasure of witnessing this.

video

Monday, June 30, 2014

From One Little Tree

I thought it only appropriate to write June's poem about cherries since I spent several days of the month picking the small, juicy fruit. From those cherries, I made a cobbler that my brother completely enjoyed, letting everyone at the dinner table know this by the look of sheer delight on his face and the mmmmmm's he made with each bite. From those cherries, I made a peace offering to the mother of Funny Delightful Son's girlfriend (long story--kind of funny but at the same time not so funny--which I will write about soon). I haven't received any response from her concerning the cherries, but I did hear from Funny Delightful Son that she made a pie from them the day she received them. From those cherries, I bartered with a friend, giving her some in exchange for greens from her garden. And from those cherries, I made jam. Sweet, pie-filling in a jar jam that I have shared with Lovely Beautiful Daughter and good friends. The cherry tree provided a bounty to us this season, and for that I am grateful.


Simple Abundance

The cherry tree planted in the northeast corner of the yard,
near the unpainted picket fence,
after the bitter cold, snowy winter months,
overnight became smothered in white blossoms,
as if someone spent hours
patiently draping garlands of delicate blooms around each branch.
Ten years the tree has been there, offering its round fruit,
first green but with the sun's warmth turns rose then ruby,
ready to be plucked from the stems,
ready to have the pit removed then tossed into a bowl,
where sticky juice pools at the bottom,
and the fruit with its juice are ready
to become cherry pie, cherry cobbler, cherry jam,
even cherry infused grappa resting in a cupboard,
the cherries, a cinnamon stick, whole cloves, red wine
with brown sugar meshing under cover of cool darkness,
every three days shaken to release more sour,
imbue more sugar and spice until four weeks pass,
when it will be ready.
One bag of cherries remains, frozen,
to be pulled out when the cherry tree sleeps
under a blanket of snow during the winter months,
to be mixed with sugar, piled into a crust, then baked,
its sweet summer scent chasing away the day's cold.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Smokin' the Bees

I reek. From smoke. But, I did find out the hive is doing okay.

After dinner, I ventured outside to do some gardening. I looked over at the hive and noticed lots of bees outside the hive like I'd seen the other day. Many were coming and going, too, and across the street, I could see quite a few (at least I think they were some of my bees) sort of in a swirling flying pattern. Thankfully, they were maybe 25 or 30 feet in the air, so they weren't going to harm anyone walking by. I decided to go ahead and check the hive to see if anything was amiss inside, like hive beetles. I've been reading up on what could be making the bees act like petulant children, and hive beetles is one of them. I really didn't want to see beetles.

So I donned my awesome astronaut bee suit, stoked the smoker until I had a good stream of smoke floating in the air (actually, I think I went overkill on the smoke--but it did what it's supposed to do), and went to work. Removing the super was easy, and right away, I could tell there wasn't much happening there. That's the part of the hive where the honey I'll take will be created. As of right now, there isn't any. I was a little bummed in seeing this, but I figured from the get-go that this summer I may not get any honey for us. Looks like I was right.

When I went into the box under the super, I could see lots of action happening there. I pulled out a frame from the middle of the box, a frame covered in comb. I checked a couple of the other frames and saw the same thing. What I should have done but didn't was switch the covered frames for those with no comb on them that are on each end of the box. I definitely am going to go back in and do this soon. The good news is I saw no beetles. Just busy, busy bees doing what they're supposed to be doing.

After inspecting that box, I wanted to get at the bottom box. I used my pry tool to loosen the edges of the box, but when I tried to pick it up, I couldn't. It's just too heavy with the comb covering the frames. I now am in a pickle. How am I going to get that box off the one under it? I think I'm going to have to call someone who is much more experienced with beekeeping than I am to come help me.

Seeing that everything seems to be going the way it should be in the hive makes me feel a lot better. I did some more reading after checking the hive, and one article said rainy weather accompanied by heat and high humidity will agitate bees. I'm thinking this might be the reason my bees have seemed so active. We certainly have had rainy, hot, humid weather. Hopefully, the weather will calm down and in response, so will the bees.

The next time I go into the hive, I'll try to get some pictures. The honeycomb is so cool to see, and the fact that the bees have created as much as they have in just 7 weeks is truly something.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Fun

Along with cycling this summer, I've been spending time working on the gardens. For now, I have four raised beds at the east side of the house, a garden spot on the south side of the house, and a fruit garden at the west end of the house. If it were up to me, I'd have the entire north side of the house in raised beds, but that's been a hard sell to the boys, mostly because of the mowing difficulties it would create. I'm not giving up, though. One day, the north side will be raised beds.

So far, the plants I've put in are doing well, even the bush bean plants I bought that seemed all but salvageable. I truly thought I'd wasted nearly $20 on them, but in the good composted soil where I'd buried the fish carcasses from last summer, they are now thriving. We've had enough rain that I haven't had to water, and my rain barrel remains overflowing. A second barrel is on my mind since I could always use the water from it in the fruit garden. There, the grapes are climbing the trellis I put in last summer, each day covering more and more of it. Soon the trellis will be completely covered. The raspberry plants have spread to the point I can't keep up with them. Tomorrow is the designated digging up raspberry plants to thin the patch. Same goes for the strawberries. Vines have spread beyond the little fenced area I made for them, so it's time to curtail their wanderings. To date, I've picked two quarts of strawberries from the small area, enough to make some jam, which is also on tomorrow's schedule.

Cherry jam spread on cream cheese
Unfortunately, it appears the apple trees won't bear this season. My two dwarf trees I planted last summer had their trunks gnawed away by rabbits during the winter. By the time I realized what was happening and wrapped them from further harm, the damage had already been done. I ended up having to replace both trees with new ones, and these have to go through a season or two before they'll produce apples. The one tree that did produce this season is the cherry tree. Lots of cherries. Enough for a cherry cobbler. Enough to infuse grappa to enjoy in a few weeks. Enough to make 8 half pints of jam (which, given the response from Funny Delightful Son when he tasted some, won't last long). Enough to barter with a friend for greens from her garden. And still more in the freezer for a later date, maybe a winter cherry pie to remind us of the warmth of summer.

Another job I need to complete soon is checking on the hive. When I arrived home from my 70 miler today, I looked over at the hive and noticed quite a few bees on the hive and others flying erratically around it. They seemed very agitated. It could have been caused by the weather we've had the last few days--storms, wind, heat then cool then heat again. I checked on them several times throughout the evening and saw they were settling down as the sun set, so hopefully everything is okay. I still want to check the hive, though, to make sure all is the way it should be.

In between doing these summer gardening jobs, I've started a few new bicycle art projects. My hope is to create some pieces for the craft fair later in the year. I had such fun at the craft fair last year I decided to sign up again, and thanks to Lovely Beautiful Daughter and her friend, I have lots of materials to work with. Interesting materials. So stay tuned.