Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lilac Time

Lilacs are blooming outside my kitchen window, and while dandelions may be the first sign that spring is really here, lilacs are what tell my heart that the long winter is finally over.
Last year they froze just as they were bursting out, and I didn't get a single cutting for the house. But we won't mention that sadness again, will we? The lilacs are blooming, and it is spring. Anyone can see them, smell them, and feel their soul swell, their limbs stretch and strengthen, their own faces turn up to the sunshine.
But aside from their incredible sweet smell and the exuberance of their abundant blooms, lilacs are useful plants, worthy of their own corner in the edible landscape.
Make lilac sugar: This is the simplest thing to do, and flavored sugars are always a fancy little treat. Pick some lilac blossoms, clean and not buggy, and sprinkle them in a jar of white sugar, making a few layers, then cap the jar and forget about it for a couple of weeks. For a fancy tea party make little open face sandwiches with a sprinkle of lilac sugar and a few blossoms chopped into cream cheese, and a few petals for garnish, or use the sugar to make shortbread cookies. Heat up some milk, add vanilla and a dollop of whipped cream sweetened with lilac sugar for a little treat to surprise your little ones.
Lilac Syrup: Heat one cup of sugar and one cup of water to a boil, then stir in 1 cup of lilac blossoms and drop heat to low, cook 12 minutes, and strain the syrup into a jar. Keep in the fridge or freezer. Try this over crushed ice with sparkling water, or use the syrup as a pound cake glaze or ice cream.
You can make jelly, but I've never done it. My children only recently decide that they like jams and jellies, though, so maybe this year....
Lilac Muffins with lilac petals tossed in sugar and added to your favorite muffin recipe.
Here's a recipe for a spring trifle with lilac infused pastry cream that looks amazing. I do love trifle- after all, what's better than cake? Cake covered in pudding, of course!
Some people say lilacs keep bad spirits from entering the door if they're growing near. Mine is right by the back door, so I guess we're safe. Thank goodness!
People used to chew the bark and leaves to help sore mouths, and the leaves can be made into a medicinal tea to help with fevers, ridding the body of worms, and can be used as a general restorative tonic. I haven't used lilacs this way, but I love knowing how every little thing CAN be used!
You can of course get essential oil from lilacs, and make dye from the flowers (green!), leaves (green or brown), and the twigs (yellow-orange).
There was even a story on NPR about phenology (tracking natural phenomena) and using lilacs to track climate change.
Oddly this delightful, sweet flower has a sad reputation. Think of Walt Whitman's famous poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd which combines lilacs with Abraham Lincoln's death.
There's an old proverb about girls who wear lilacs never marrying, and a sad story about an Englishman who ruined an innocent girl laying colorful lilacs on her grave. In the morning they were white, as if they too had bled to death.
Most famously, in Greek Mythology, Syrinx (Syringa), a follower of Artemis, and known for her chastity was pursued by Pan through the forest, til she ran to the river's edge and begged for help from the river nymphs, who transformed her into a bush with hollow reeds that made a haunting sound when the Pan's frustrated breath blew across them. He cut the reeds and made the first set of pan pipes.
Maybe lilacs don't have the happiest ending in story, but they'll always signal the happy end of winter to me. And my old friend, Walt Whitman, has a lesser known but lovely poem that sums it up just right: Warble for Lilac Time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Homemade Yogurt

We eat a ton of yogurt. Really. Long ago I stopped buying it in those cute little containers, then I stopped getting it in quart containers, even, and moved to the big 1/2 gallon Nancy's Yogurt tubs of plain yogurt. And then my friend Jennifer encouraged me to give it a try, since I already make so much of our food from scratch. And it is easy! And cheap (I'm big on cheap!). And way yummier than store bought.
I have a Rival Crockpot Stoneware Cooker Smartpot, which I think is officially a 6 qt crock, but perfectly fits a gallon of milk. On yogurt day I dump a gallon of whole milk in the crock, turn it on high, covered, for 4 hours, til it's at 180degrees, then keep it covered but unplugged for 4 hours, til it's 110 degrees. While it's cooling I mix 1 c. of leftover yogurt, 1 c. of honey, and 1 T. of vanilla in a bowl, and let it sit out to room temp. When the milk is cool enough I whisk the yogurt mixture in, cover the crockpot again, and wrap the whole thing in a blanket for at least 8 hours. Yogurt! It thickens up more in the fridge.
Sometimes I just make plain yogurt, and then I don't add sweetener or vanilla. Occasionally I've made plain yogurt and added honey and flavoring in after, and that works just fine, and allows you to make a bunch of different flavors out of one gallon batch. My kids mostly just like vanilla yogurt, though, so that's mostly what I make. My Mom has started making yogurt too, but she makes it with 1% milk, and the cooler method that Jennifer uses, and it's really delicious and creamy- WAY nicer than store bought low fat yogurt. Here's what we do with the yogurt:
Make Greek Yogurt so much less expensive than store bought, and more nutritionally dense, perfect for little boys who'd rather run off calories than eat them... I just strain fresh yogurt for a couple hours through a dishcloth or cheesecloth lined mesh strainer, on the counter.
Make Cream Cheese This is just strained longer, several hours, and I suppose is technically yogurt cheese, but that sounds unappealing and my boys are clear about wanting "Cream Cheese". So we have cream cheese, and they eat a lot of it. It's tangy and yummy.
Make Dip With Greek Yogurt or cream cheese as a base, depending. Chopped fresh herbs, dried herbs, minced veggies, or sweet dips, like caramel-cream cheese, or tropical, with food processor chopped dried pineapple, coconut, and dried papaya.
Make Sauce Sweet sauces, for pancakes and fruit salad, with honey or maple syrup, and savory sauces like raita, with chopped veggies and appropriate spices and herbs.
Make Smoothies Yogurt, frozen fruit (I put peeled older bananas and other fruits in the freezer just for smoothies), honey, whatever else is hanging around in reach of the blender. Leftover oatmeal is a good thickener and fiber adder. We're partial to banana-peanut butter-carob, and frozen orange juice concentrate-coconut milk-frozen mango.
Make other stuff I haven't made pancakes without yogurt in years. It's my favorite pancake trick- I just substitute yogurt (sometimes a little bit thinned out) for the buttermilk in any recipe- bundt cake, pancakes, biscuits. I make whole wheat bread by soaking the whole wheat flour in yogurt overnight- the bread is soft and smooth and tangy almost like sourdough. Leftover smoothies turn into popsicles, popsicles are eaten in the bathtub and so the boys get a homemade orgainc yogurt bath. Which has to be good for their skin, don't you think?

Monday, April 27, 2009

My favorite letter!

Miles is really into Letter "M" these days. He sees them everywhere, all the time. It's pretty great, really. "My favorite letter! There it is!" he shouts with glee, and he's just as happy when it's upside down.
We haven't really done any letter stuff yet- Waldorf kids wouldn't study letters until 1st grade and I'm not in any rush with this kid. Still, he knows his "M"s. He knows their sound, their shape, their place in his heart. He just doesn't always know their name. I'm pretty sure that's why they're called "my favorite letter" instead of just "M".

Washington Weekend>>Winthrop 1

Aaron had a conference up in the Methow Valley in North-Central Washington, so we all went. My parents even came over to play and help with the kids, and we all enjoyed the outdoors and sunny, windy spring days.
The conference was here, at the Sun Mountain Lodge, which is beautiful and lovely and all. Also expensive and without the requirements I have for travel with three little children: kitchenettes and continental breakfast. Needless to say, we didn't stay there, though we have in the past, when we had just one quiet, calm, and gentle child. And it was lovely, really.
We did go for a couple of little hikes up there, though. It's impossible to NOT want to hike around, when you're surrounded by mountain tops and signs of spring, the sky is blue and the breeze is blowing. How can you keep from running, rolling, shouting, singing?
Miles, ready to get moving. Impatient with everyone else for not being instantly ready!

Spring comes mostly in sage and green in the arid inland northwest, but also in startling points of blue...

and tiny specks of yellow. You might miss it if you're not already kneeling on the ground watching ants and beetles scurrying around.

But it's good to look up, too. There's a big sky up there, and deer around every corner, if you're quiet and still and look closely.

Washington Weekend>>Winthrop 2

Winthrop, Washington. The village is done in a sort of pioneer/old west theme, and it's cute, not over done and obnoxious like some touristy places. The real draw of Winthrop is the outdoors, hiking, biking, horseback riding, river rafting and kayaking, hot air ballooning, fly fishing in the summer, skiing, snow shoeing, skating in the winter. Hotels are already booked for next Christmas! We've come a few times now to Winthrop in the spring and find it quite nice- affordable, friendly, walkable, really beautiful. This is a little picture of Winthrop's downtown- a couple blocks of little shops and restaurants.

Avery at the Shafer Museum, which was closed when he went, but, he said, just as fun, because all this old equipment is outside and touchable, examinable, kid-explorable.

Our favorite Winthrop shop is Glassworks of Winthrop where Garth Mudge works just a screen wall away from the sidewalk blowing glass into sculptures, folk art, vases, platters, pitchers. I'm totally into these sea stars, even though Winthrop isn't exactly near the coast. And he makes these cute little glass sort of mini paperweights with an embossed star, and we've started a little collection of them. The boys like to play with them, and I keep them on a tray with pretty rocks and candles.
When we're in Winthrop we always stay at the Chewuch Inn, in one of the cabins with a kitchenette, grill, sofa bed. Chewuch Inn is clean and comfortable, the owners and staff are friendly and quick to respond, and the breakfast they provide each morning is delicious and generous, with homemade granola, oatmeal, scones, muffins, fruit, make-your-own waffles (what kid doesn't like that?!), cold cereals, a different yummy frittata or similar dish. They have an assortment of games and videos, space for kids to run around and explore. We love it. It was particularly fun this year because some other young families were staying there and all the kids kind of ran around together and had fun outside and the Moms could all sort of share child-watching duties.

On the way home, just outside of Twisp, we saw an interesting modern-homesteading couple with dreadlocks and polarfleece plowing their field with a team of giant Clydesdales. We pulled our old red Volvo over and watched for awhile. What hard work! What amazing animals those giant horses are! Imagine how much sheer WORK goes into the food we eat and take for granted. Even though most farmers around here don't use horses to plow any more- it's all I can do to keep a little garden- if we had to RELY on my skills and work ethic to eat... YIKES! Thank Goodness for Farmers.

And our last stop before we finally went home was the Aplets and Cotlets factory in Cashmere. We all had to wear hairnets to take the little tour, even the baby,who hardly even has hair. He wasn't happy, as you can see. And he didn't even get to taste any candy after, either! The rest of us made a good dent in a big box of Aplets & Cotlets the rest of the way home, though. And then we fell asleep, worn out by the travel and excitement of a weekend away.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Farmgirl's ABCs

I just saw the cutest idea for making the alphabet personal and real- it's beautiful and a great way to encourage your kids (and yourself) to pay atention to the world around. We're going to get started on our own version right now. Take a look here:
Only we don't have a farm or any girls, so ours will just be called "ABCs All Over the Place" or something like that. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Middle of the night nursing the baby and thinking about organizing school stuff, I came up with this great idea. Well, it's not implemented yet, so I'm not certain it's brilliant, but it seems to solve at least some of our problems: wasting school time running up and down the stairs to get supplies, having to carry stacks of stuff back downstairs again at the end of the day, my refusal to turn the main living areas of our little house over to plastic bins and utility shelving, the boys' difficulty with self-scheduling.
I already print off for Avery a schedule each week, so that he can cross off each lesson as he completes it, but he seems to need something more... physical, maybe.
So here's my idea: it hinges on these great, sturdy, big baskets from IKEA. We have one already, and I love it, though it's just full of play instruments right now. $19.99 for another big, matching basket is a small price to pay for a workable homeschool system!
First I thought I could just put each day's work in each basket, but I already do a variation of that, and I think sometimes seeing that big stack is just too daunting. I want school to be easy to start, easy for the boys to be able to find their next task, easy to keep materials for each lesson together, easy to take the lesson around the house so that work can happen while I'm folding laundry, nursing, cooking, sewing as easily as at the dining room table. Now I'm planning to sew up a BUNCH of simple drawstring bags, like these bandanna bags, so that each lesson can go in it's own bag, in the basket.
I could easily label the bags, or maybe create magnetic labels to slip in the bags, so that as each lesson is completed the kids can put the label up on a magnetic chart. I like being organized, but I'm thinking labels might be overkill. I'm in the process of making our daily chore lists into a magnetic chart, so maybe I'm just confusing these ideas into some sort of Franken-school-monster too complicated to function well in the real world. I'm aware of my problems, you don't even have to say anything. Really.
Anyway, I'm hopeful for this system, attractive baskets I won't mind having upstairs but are easily moved downstairs if space or company dictate it, an easy way for the kids to choose appropriate activities, and help themselves organize their days, at least a little bit.
How do you organize your home school?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Garden 2009:The beginning

Here we are, in the garden! I know it doesn't look like much now, but it's full of hope and plans, if not quite yet food plants. Our dear friend Bob rather spontaneously rototilled the garden with Avery on Friday, on Saturday I laid out the pathways with newspaper and Aaron dug compost into the beds. On Sunday I planted potatoes, peas, carrots, spinach, lettuce, mesclun, nasturtiums, and put up the two tall bean trellises, two shorter cucumber trellises, and all 26 posts for the tomatoes to grow up. Hopefully this afternoon I'll plant radishes, green onions, turnips, chard, beets, beans, and put up the string trellis along the fence for the peas to grow up.
There's space in the garden ready for tomatoes, basil, pumpkins, spaghetti squash, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cilantro, and parsley, zucchini and summer squash.
The blueberries are all weeded and fed, and the raspberries are coming in green and strong, so we should have a good crop this summer. I haven't got the strawberry bed dug out yet, but I haven't given up hope completely for this year. Not completely, not yet. It seems like a tired excuse by now, but I forget how much longer everything takes when you have a baby strapped to your chest and a preschooler helping with every task!


Here are the children before the big Spring Pruning of 2009. Adorable, I'm sure you'll agree, if rather shaggy and wintry. This was right before Easter, and it was still wintry here. I had an image of all my boys lined up in chairs on the deck, getting sheared one by one. I suddenly just had to have clippers of my own. Here we Go!
Here's Avery pruned and jumping into yard work. As long as it involves an element of danger, machinery, and is normally a grown-up job, he's on it. Anyway he looks a lot older to me, without hair.
And my Miles, who looked so pretty with his blondey wispy shaggy hair, now looks the way he acts- 120% BOY! I am overwhelmed with the desire to dress him up in cowboy outfits and give him a hobby horse and little toy pistols. I won't, but I look at him, and, well, it's what I see.

No, we didn't shear the baby! This is just a gratuitous baby shot. Gotta slip them in when I can!

And yes, we did do actual pruning of the yard this weekend, too. And weeding. The whole household is feeling springy. I might even take the pinecones and garlands down from the mantle. Maybe. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

4th Grade Planning

Wow! Suddenly it's spring! It snowed last week after a teaser spring peek, and now the weather has turned and winter is finally over. I had a flu bug to celebrate, and sent Avery off for a sleepover for a couple nights with his best friend. Which gave me time to cuddle and read stories and stay in my nightgown with the little ones, as well as lots of time to do my favorite school activity- plan for the coming year. Yay! It's such a perfect spring thing to do- review what's worked and not during the current school year, plan out the schedule and supplies for the next year, think about special projects, start making all of those lists. I usually end up with an order list of thousands of dollars that gets whittled down to some puny fraction of the original, but it's all fun, and if I've done a good job USING those supplies next school year will be fun for Avery and for me.
So... in case you're dying to know, this is what I've got so far:
Language Arts ($133.00)
Reading McGuffey Eclectic Readers set $47.95
Grammar Word Play $11.75; Didax Editing Skills grades 5-6 $9.50
Writing Writing Strands 3 $16.75; Evaluating Writing (WS) $17.99; Penpal; Journal
Spelling McGuffey Progressive Speller $10.50
Poetry (taught as a main lesson block) Poetry All around Me $16.95
Mathematics ($208.00)
Lab work Mathematics Made Meaningful wooden $35.95; Cuisenaire rod track $3.25; Puzzlers
Skill development Key to… complete series with keys $138.50; Calculus by and for Young People CD-ROM with worksheets $29.75; MEP math curriculum
Science ($228.00)
Nature Nature journal; stories; newspaper; Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children $14.00
Spectrum Complete Book of Science g3-4 $10.50; Complete Book of Science g5-6 $ 10.50; Math Science Nucleus
Lab work Thames and Kosmos “Milestones in Science” lab kit $58.36; Home Science Adventures Kits (microscopics/light/birds/insects/astronomy/magnetism) $134.00
Zoology (taught in 4 main lesson blocks) ($83.00)
The Human Being and the Animal World $6.95
Mammals: We are NOT getting a dog or a cat, a horse or a rabbit- don't even ask!
Reptiles: Minn of the Mississippi (HCH); maybe a chameleon? Do they have the same e-coli risks as turtles?
Amphibians: Planet Frog habitat $21.95
Birds: Home Science Adventures-birds; Seabird (HCH)
Fish: perhaps we'll attempt goldfish or a beta
Insects: Butterfly Pavilion $29.99; Home Science Adventures-insects
Arachnids: Savage Spiders kit $12.00; maybe a hermit crab habitat
Mollusks: Slimy Slugs kit $12.00
Health/Anatomy ($63.00)

331/2" human skeleton model $62.99; How We Work; The Human Body
Vikings (taught in two block lessons)($52.00)
The Norse Stories and Their Significance $13.95; D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths $19.95; Children of Odin: Northern Myths $7.75; Eric the Red and Leif the Lucky $5.25; Sword Song $4.99
United States History ($156.00)
Spectrum Geography grade 5 USA $6.95; The American Story $34.95; Landmark History of the American People $31.55; Making of America: History of the United States (National Geographic) $23.25; Minn of the Mississippi (HCH); The Tree in the Trail (HCH); Paddle-to-the-Sea (HCH); Thomas Jefferson’s America CD (Jim Weiss) $12.99; Yo, Millard Fillmore $7.95;
Cut and Assemble the Mayflower $7.95; Made for Trade game $22.99; Arrow Over the Door; Between Earth and Sky: Native American Legends of Sacred Places $7.00
Geography ($71.00)
World Geography and You hardcover text $38.30; WGY teacher’s guide $13.28; Earthsearch: A Kids’ Geography Museum in a Book $19.99; Tom Brown’s Nature and Survival for Children
Foreign Language ($445.00)
Lively Latin Big Book 1; Rosetta Stone Homeschool Edition Spanish 1,2,3 $445.00
Form drawing (taught in two blocks) ($30.00)
Creative Form /drawing Workbook 1 $30.00
PE ($18.00; $250.00)
Homeschool gym class 2 sessions @ $60 per session =$120; Homeschool gymnastics 20 weeks @ $6.50 per week = $130; Physical Education for Homeschoolers vol 1 $12.50; Beyond the Gym grade 4 $4.95; Yakima Youth Soccer Dues $65.00; Cones; Double jump rope; Whiffle ball set
Music ($960.00)
Guitar lessons 12 months @ $80 per month = $960
Artistic Pursuits Modern Art; Watercolor (weekly); modeling beeswax; plastalina
General ($32.00)
A Journey Through Waldorf Homeschooling grade 4 $32.00;
Total $1519 curriculum; $1210 lessons
I'm still over budget, and once I add in the things I haven't priced out yet- shipping costs, and the general supplies that need buying,what I'll get for Miles-I'll have to whittle it down quite a bit, I expect.