Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Landscaping Project I Did After Swearing I Wouldn't Do Any More Landscaping

It started with a conversation with a friend from work. We were discussing the seeds we're starting for our summer gardens. Every year, he grows 30+ different varieties and I'd asked what was his favorite. Hands-down: Atomic Grape from Baker Creek. He said I need to try it, and--in fact--if all his seeds sprout, he'll have two extra. He'll give me one. I told him my space was small (I'd already plotted out what to plant this year!) and he said if I have to grow it in a bucket, grow it. I won't be sorry.

So I go back to my garden plans, looking for where I can add one more tomato. My friend's bucket suggestion was out. I don't do container gardening, or any growing that requires extra fertilizer and hand watering. I need a spot where I can grow in the ground, with a drip line attached to the timer in the garage.

The next conversation happened in my head between me and the part of my sub-conscious I call Evil Energy. Evil Energy always thinks I'm full of limitless power, money, and time to follow any whim that crosses my mind. It went like this:

Evil: "Add a raised bed to that spot you've been eyeing for 8 years."

Evil was referring to this one:

Me: "That's a landscaping project. I said I'd never do another landscaping project, and I don't have the money to contract it out."

Evil: "It would be a piece of cake. Here's another idea, make THREE beds, different heights. It would be that perfect separation between the garden and the rest of the yard, and it would take care of that awkward partition between the gold garden rock and the gray river rock. You know that's always bugged you."

Me: "It would be a lot of work. Backbreaking, even."

Evil (ignoring my protests): "Then you could get an arbor that crosses the two beds, and get rid of all those wires you and Tommy put up to string green beans to the shed and the house. Wouldn't that be beautiful? It would arch over the steps to the shed, like the grand entrance your space needs."

Me: "That's a lot of work and now even more money."

Evil: "You can do it! You DESERVE it!"

Me: "I deserve a little R&R."

Evil: "I thought this was going to be The Year Of The Garden. You even boasted about that on Facebook. What was the point if you're just going to plant the same old shit you planted last year?"

Me: "F&#$ you, Evil. That was a low blow."

Evil: "It'll be a piece of cake. Will take you one weekend, two tops."

Evil was wrong. It took FOUR weekends and nearly broke my back. Because Evil neglected to remind me that under the top soil in my garden is about 2" of crushed gravel from the lawn that had been there before we bought the house. And for my raised beds to do well and take advantage of that nutrient-rich clay down under, I'd need to get that gravel out before filling my beds with soil and compost. Suffice to say, it was NOT a piece of cake.

Nonetheless, I dove in.  I started by finding the right arbor then building the three raised beds.  That took two weekends, but was relatively easy (and kinda fun--shhhhh).

Next came shoveling out all the rock and peeling back the landscape fabric to expose the ground these beds would sit in.  I'd also stained the beds with weather sealing stain and lined the insides with plastic.  My hope is, these beds will outlast me.

Then came two full days of shoveling out a wheelbarrow full of crushed gravel, leveling the beds on the slant that is my back yard, and tapping into the existing irrigation line (a complete pain in the ass).

When I'd finally finished all that, the beds weren't exactly in the position I'd planned.  But the reality of what the yard "wants to do" usually takes over my ideas on where I want things.  But it is close enough for government work.

And I confess, now that it's done, I'm thrilled.

Usually, when I start a project of any kind, I have a 50/50 chance of it turning out like I'd originally seen it in my minds-eye.  I have about a 2 in 100 chance of it actually turning out better than I'd thought.  In this case, my idea of staining the beds a dark maple to contrast with the light rock made this even nicer than I'd expected.  it also gave me an opportunity to freshen up the rock that was getting thin and dirty from years of weather.

So, there you have it.  I'd said I wasn't going to do another landscaping project.  That I'm too old for this, and anything done in the future would be hired out.  I did hire out the last project.  It was expensive but worth it (replacing two of my wood garden beds with stone).  But NOW I'm done with landscaping projects.

Evil:  "At least...until next year....when it's time to replace the wood framing on those other three beds.  And since you'll want them to match these new ones, you'll need to make them yourself.  And since the crushed gravel has already been removed in those beds, replacing the wood frames will be easy.  A piece of cake!"


Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Need For More Space

Can I get a show of hands?  How many gardeners have looked at their plot and wished they had just a little more space to grow just a few more things?

Wow, that's a lot of hands.

Every spring, it's the same for me.  I'm always so filled with hope, so sure that this year, everything I plant will produce a lush cornucopia of plump, colorful fruit.  As such, I scan every empty corner of my garden space with an eye on adding a few more square feet to showcase my sumptuous bounty. 

Every year, I want more space, and every year, I don't get around to making it.  But this year, "2018 The Year Of The Garden", I am.  And the spot I've chosen is this empty space next to my workshop.

The space wasn't always empty.  Back in 2010 I put wine barrels here, lovingly arranged and colorfully stained, they were going to add a few more square feet of growing space for flowers and vegetables.  Unfortunately, container growing requires watering by hand and frequent fertilizing.  I'd thought putting these right next to the hose and only a few feet from a watering can and MiracleGro, I could keep up with it.  But alas, I am too lazy even for that.  Due to lack of care, I could never get anything to do well in these barrels.  And in the end, this photo of them empty was about as beautiful as the spot ever got.  So several years later, these barrels ended up as passengers in our bi-annual dump run.

My second try at this space will employ the same concept, though.  I like the idea of tiered planters.  This is the spot where the side vegetable garden meets the back entertainment section of our yard, so I kinda like something that will bridge the two spaces with decor and functionality.  But this time, the planters will be in the ground and with drip irrigation installed.

It will also have an arch that will trellis things like beans, cukes or tomatoes.  I just purchased this one from Hay & Needle.

So, stay tuned for updates to this project.  I have a timeline to get this done in plenty of time to plant this spring, so I'll need to hop to it!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

2018 The Year of the Garden

Last fall, I tried my hand at canning for the first time ever.  I've always been afraid of canning, fearing that if I did it wrong, I would poison all my friends and family.  But my desire to do something with green tomatoes pushed me to buy some books and materials and give canning a green tomato relish a try.  And what I found was, not only was it delicious, canning was fun and easier than I thought it would be!

Thus, I've coined 2018 "The Year of the Garden".

In typical LoriBee fashion, now that I've had one success at canning, I'm going full speed into this year's growing season with designs on doing even more.  On the list:
  • More green tomato relish.  Here's the recipe I used.
  • Fresh Packed Dill Pickles
  • Green Tomatillo Salsa or Sauce
  • Red Salsa
  • Marinated Green Beans
Granted, I don't know if I will get to all of them, but as I plan out what to plant this year, I'm making sure to grow the supplies I need for all of them.

I'm also growing a number of varieties I've never tried before.  Here's a photo shot of all the seeds I bought this year:

As my planting space is only a little over 100 sq ft, I'm packing a LOT into a small space, capitalizing on vertical gardening as much as possible.

Toward that effort is my new garden tunnel.  I'd actually put this up while in the middle of chemotherapy, and it's been sitting here all winter waiting to be showcased.  I can't wait to see it covered in beans and tomato vines!

Another thing that helps me pack a lot in a small space are my planning tools.  I have three things I live by when it comes to planning out my garden.  The first is my garden plotter.  It's basically a blank template of my garden beds that I use to decide what is planted where and when.  Here's this season's version:
As you can see, it's been marked, remarked, notated and scribbled.  (The garden is always plotted in pencil, since one glance through a seed catalog can change everything.)

I've also been pretty good about keeping a planting log of all the things I've tried, when I planted, and how well they did.  Though there are "gap years" where I didn't log much, I've found those years I did log have become invaluable to me.  While weather and circumstance never guarantee that one year will turn out exactly like the last, this helps me recollect what I've tried and what worked/didn't.  I give each "try" a grade and comment when necessary.  Though I don't always follow my own advice, it's fun to look back and see what I did.

My final planning tool is this great book for those of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It's my favorite garden book and I refer to it often, especially when trying something new:

So here we go into 2018!  When it comes to the garden, I've been neglectful of this blog since the advent of Facebook, but I'm bringing it back.  I find blogging is fun, and much more organized than a series of random posts.  So in the spirit of 2018, The Year of the Garden, let's get to it!

Friday, December 22, 2017

One Year Later

Gosh, it's 6:39 on a Friday night, I'm baking Christmas cookies and it just occurred to me that today is the one year anniversary of the dreaded call from my doctor that derailed my entire 2017.

I feel like I should put up a blog post about it, something thoughtful and intuitive, maybe inspirational and funny.  Unfortunately, I've been so absorbed in work, in our holiday plans, in shopping and baking and playing with Bad Kitty that I haven't thought up a solitary thing to say about it.

Which, when you think of it, says it all.

You go through shit, then you move on.  And if you're lucky, one year later you can be so over it that the significance of the date completely escapes your radar.

A few short weeks ago, I had my first follow-up mammogram.  It was clear.  My surgeon gave me an exam and said "See you in a year".  So there you have the bookends of this ordeal.  It started with one doctor asking, "Are you sitting down?" and ended with another doctor saying "See you in a year."  All the shit in between is the stuff that keeps you grounded, makes you realize what matters in your life, makes you appreciate the things you have and the people who love you, and makes you want to be a better friend and family member to others in return.

And it makes you want to do more living.

So Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays.  My wish for all of you--many of whom are going through shit of your own thanks to the events of 2017--is that you'll be in this place eventually too:  Grateful, healthy, and out the other end determined to some serious living!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Clean Out The Fridge and Pantry Ragout

By way of a recipe, I'll tell you what I did tonight.  But this is definitely a matter of learning the basics and then winging it depending on what you have in the kitchen.  In other words:  My favorite way to cook!

Learning how long things take to cook is critical.  I've learned through trial and error.  In tonight's recipe, I included the following:
  • Boneless skinless chicken breast
  • Mushrooms
  • Zucchini
  • Fresh chopped tomato
  • Bell Pepper
  • Canned pinto beans
Success comes in knowing what order to add these to the pot.  In this case, these cook from longest to shortest (i.e., throw in the pot first to last):
  •  Chicken and mushrooms, cook them on the dry/oil side to encourage browning.  Mushrooms will emit water, but allow it to cook out before adding the rest.  If you used onion, it would go here too.
  • Zucchini.  This will add moisture to the sauce so anything you want browned will stop browning once you add zucchini or any other watery vegetable such as eggplant or squash.
  • Fresh peppers.  Peppers especially you don't want to over cook.  Leave the soft peppers for fajitas.  In this dish, good body comes from allowing some of the vegetables to remain cooked but crisp, and peppers are a good choice for that.  I normally use sweet bell peppers, but today I included home grown poblanos too. 
  • Chopped fresh tomato.  This goes in at the very end.  The tomato breaks down adding flavor to the sauce, but you don't want to cook it so long that you've lost your chunks of tomato.  As such, you want to chop the pieces larger than smaller.  I include the whole tomato, seedy pulp and all.
  • Canned pinto beans you stir in at the end.  Don't worry about some of them getting mushed as you stir.  They thicken the sauce and give it body.
Other things I've used in this basic recipe are asparagus, green beans, peas, onions and any kinds of squash.

Tonight's recipe:

Combine and stir in a bowl and let marinate for at least 20-30 minutes:
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts chopped in 1/2 inch pieces.
  • 3 minced fresh garlic cloves
  • 2 T white wine, dry or sweet depending on what you like
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 tsp corn starch
While the above is marinating, chop the following at roughly the same size as the chicken pieces:
  • 2 medium sized zucchini
  • 1 sweet bell pepper
  • 2 cups chopped mushrooms
  • 2 cups chopped fresh tomato
Also set out:
  • 2 T chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 T chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp dried
  • 1 T chopped fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried
  • 3 T butter (not margarine!)
  • 2 cans pinto beans drained and rinsed
  • white wine--have a bottle handy, i.e. don't drink it all, you might need it for the recipe.
I set all the above in individual containers so it is ready to throw together while I leisurely watch my pot and drink wine.  Having it ready keeps you from accidentally overcooking any of it.

Into a hot pan, pour your chicken mixture and cook until pieces start to whiten and lightly brown.
Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until the liquid is gone and you are left with just the oil. You want this relatively dry but not so much to burn the garlic.  If needed, add a little more olive oil if the pan gets too dry.  Salt and pepper this mixture while cooking.

Once the chicken and mushrooms are cooked through and have started to brown, add the zucchini and toss for a minute or two until it warms.  Then add the peppers, parsley, basil and oregano, keeping your pan on high heat.  Pour in a little more white wine if you didn't drink it all.  If you did, dammit, you'll have to open another bottle.  At this point, you want to start building a sauce, so a medium amount of liquid in the pan is good.  But not too much.  Tomatoes will add more liquid and you're trying to make a stew, not soup.

When the peppers have begun to cook but are still crisp, and the zucchini is just barely starting to soften, add the chopped tomato and canned beans.  Keep this at high heat while letting the tomato soften and break down a bit.  Some of the beans might mush up.  That is okay.  They will add body to the sauce.

At the very end, turn the heat off completely and add 3T of butter in pats.  The butter will flavor and thicken the sauce even further.  You want it to melt but not cook while incorporating it into your mixture.

Here is a photo of the stew in my pan.  I've cooked this in a teflon wok, but a large sauce pan works too.

Here is the final product in the bowl.  Managing the liquid is key.  I like it on the thicker and dryer side, but watch it as you go and add wine as you desire to get the consistency you want.

You can top this with grated Parmesan.  This would be delicious with crusty bread and a nice glass of wine.  Enjoy!!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Finding A New Me: The Next Step In My Cancer Journey

Thanksgiving, 2016

I was enjoying our holiday meal with two friends who had lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off over the last couple years.  As I've spent the last 8 years trying to lose the weight I'd gained from quitting smoking, I admired their accomplishment.  They were motivated by a family history of heart disease, and as we talked about it, I flippantly said, "Man, I need a health scare to get my ass in shape."

A week later, I had my mammogram, and trust me, I will never taunt fate by making a statement like that again.

But the original sentiment still stands.  Something positive needs to come out of this shitty year, and the best thing that will make me healthier and improve my quality of life would be to drop the 50+ pounds I've been carrying around for 10 years, and get my mind and body back in shape.

So tomorrow, I am starting a diet recommended by the Kidney Foundation for people like me who have a genetic disposition to kidney disease.  If interested, you can read about it here:  DASH Diet

There's nothing terribly weird about it.  It's your basic balanced diet that emphasizes more plant based food over animal products (though it's by no means vegetarian).  You cut out sugar, excess salt and processed food. Animal fat is limited to lean meat such as chicken and fish.  Alcohol only in moderation.

If you want to splurge on something, you do it once every two weeks, and I really like that.

When I was on Weight Watchers, they gave you weekly bonus points.  The concept allowed you to splurge on something once a week, as long as it remained within the bonus points allotment.  Not only did this put me in a perpetual state of having to weigh and measure everything I ate every day,  I found I never lost weight if I used those bonus points.  I'd be down 2 lbs by Friday, splurge on a couple slices of pizza Saturday and be back where I started the week before.  So this idea that you really need to go two weeks before splurging on something fattening makes more sense for me personally.

If you know me, you know there's very little I do half way.  When it comes to work, crafts, hobbies, that's a good thing.  But when it comes to eating, it is not.  When people say "everything in moderation", I literally don't know what "moderation" is.  Does that mean if I have a Sausage McMuffin for breakfast, I can't have a Big Mac for lunch?  I'll never forget one holiday season, my Doctor had said, "When Thanksgiving comes around, only have one piece of pie."  And I asked, "You mean, one a day or one for the whole holiday?"  She laughed and thought I was joking, but I wasn't!

So I very much do struggle with finding that middle ground between over-doing it and never losing weight, and getting too strict, losing 30 only to gain it all back again once I'd exhausted myself by over-dieting.

So I am approaching this next step with apprehension but a lot of hope and promise.  I want to celebrate 2018 in a big way.  We've got a cruise and a Vegas trip planned and I've got 7 months to get my body in shape for both of them.

I want to get back to this place I was before I quit smoking and was hot in leopard skin pants, LOL!

It all starts tomorrow!!  Wish me strength and discipline!!  (I need that more than luck!)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

I Thought It Would Be Weirder

They say it takes three months to make a habit.  It's now been nine months where my focus has been entirely treating and beating cancer.  Aside from working part-time and an occasional gathering with friends, every day of 2017 has been nothing but doctors, surgeries, being sick, feeling injured, more doctors, nurses, hospitals, medications, ointments, special bras, special diets.  It has literally been non-stop, day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month.

And as the end neared, I expected to have an emotional reaction once it was all over and I was free to let any repressed feelings surface. 

I wasn't sure what kind of reaction it would be.  I thought it might be giddy and celebratory.  But while it was a good feeling walking out of radiation last Tuesday, there have certainly been other times in my life where I've felt even more relieved and excited and ready to start life anew.

I also thought I might react with a sense of shock.  I'd imagined sitting in my garden over the weekend, looking around and asking myself, "Wow, what the hell have I just gone through?"  When you're in the moment, you only focus on the moment, the immediate task at hand.  I thought when it was all done, I'd finally have some sort of epiphany about this year as a whole.

And then I thought I might react with anger now that all the fear and effort is behind me.  It's not fair!  Why me?  I just lost a year of my life!

So I took these last few days off work, intentionally didn't plan to do things with friends or family.  I just wanted to have my space, spend some time alone, absorb what I've been through and allow myself to feel whatever I felt.

And you know what surfaced?

"Hmm, I should prune the roses and clear out that bed of bearded irises.  I gotta seal that post in my garden so I can get the bed ready for a fall planting of garlic.  I really want to go see IT.  I think by next weekend, I'll be in good enough shape to turn the compost bin.  Door stops.  Next time I go to Lowes I need to get some door stops."

Seriously.  I feel like a bear that was leisurely foraging for berries in the forest, got shot with a tranquilizer, tagged, captured and studied for 9 months by animal scientists, then released back into the forest, and my first thought is, "Okay so what was I doing?  Oh yeah, berries, I was looking for berries."

One might say all this will come to me later, but I don't think so.  I think there will be moments where I stop and appreciate being alive more than I might have before.  I'm also slightly more of a hypochondriac now.  I no longer have that sense that I'm immune to illness because "nothing ever happens to me".  Future mammograms are going to be extremely stressful, and I do carry around fear of ending up in this place again.

But as for any post-traumatic reaction to this, I've found the end to be very anti-climactic.  And I think it's thanks to writing this blog through it all.  I've already done the "Why Me?" thing, I've already expressed anger, fear and joy through the process.  I'm very been-there-done-that, and now that it's over, I just want to go back to my berries.

The moral of this story is, never underestimate the power of journaling.  Regardless of whether you share it with the world or keep it to yourself in a box under the bed, there is something very healing about putting your feelings down on paper as they happen.  You don't have to be good at writing.  It doesn't have to rhyme or be witty.  It just has to be you and how you feel at the moment.  Because, for me, at least, once I've written it down, it's gone I can move on.  So today, I am moving on!

Part II will be coming.  I have goals to lose 60+ lbs, and that will not be an easy thing to accomplish.  But for now, I'm just going to go outside, water some plants, and think about groceries for the upcoming week.  And believe it or not, that's a very good feeling!