Returning To My Roots

I’m going back home.

Ten months ago we packed up our things and left the city of Chicago behind. This past ten months has been a series of fits and starts, fits and starts. But we’ve finally landed. We are very much in suburbia, but we are still apartment dwelling. It will be a little while until we realize our dream of home ownership, and that’s okay.

So I tried my hand at a new phase of blogging here at, but I’m not quite there yet, so I’ll leave it be. Where I’m supposed to be is back where I was, at Apartment Farm. I fell into a common trap at here – I tried to reinvent what I was doing and then I just stopped. It takes a lot of work to reinvent something. And I’ve spent so much time worrying about “content” and taking amazing photos that blogging became this really stressful concept in my mind, so I stopped doing it. If I wasn’t going to do it perfectly, then I wasn’t going to do it at all.

As it turns out, I’m human. And I’ve been missing the point. I’ve got a good life – reliable job, nice apartment, enough money to make ends (mostly) meet, health insurance for the whole family and always, always enough food on the table. I’ve got an amazing husband and a wonderful son. But the stress has literally started to eat me alive. Again, I’ve been missing the point. I’ve set the bar so high for myself that there’s no way I can clear it. So I’m coming back to square with my life. I’m going to work my job and when I clock out I will be done. As soon as I step off the elevator, my head will be clear. I’m going to start doing the things I enjoy, even if they don’t turn out perfectly and I don’t photograph them so they look amazing for the blog.

And I’m going back to Apartment Farm – for me. I started it thing so long ago as a journal of sorts, to connect with others and share my little slice of the world. I’d like to start doing that again. But you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t have incredible pics on every post and mind-blowing, inventive never-before-seen projects for you to try. I’m going to go back to being me, and I humbly invite you along for the ride.

Starting A Seed Library: Webinar with Seed Savers Exchange

I just wanted to let everyone know about an excellent free webinar that Seed Saver’s Exchange will be hosting on Monday, April 29th. The topic is “Organizing Community Seed Projects: Seed Swaps & Seed Libraries”. Seed Savers Exchange runs a monthly lecture series on various topics related to seed saving and gardening. I’ve attended a few and they’re really well done and informative with a Q&A section at the end.

The webinars are held in the evening and the seed library session for April starts at 7:30 CDT. To register to attend, all you need to do is provide your email address and name. And don’t worry – if you can’t make it on Monday night, they archive all of the webinars on their website so you can check it out when you have free time.

A Little Piece of Land

Well, it’s official! I am the proud steward of a 400 square foot plot of dirt in our area’s local community garden! I couldn’t be more excited – I’ve never had so much space to work with. It’s a good thing I’ve already laid out my plans this year using Smart Gardener. I feel ready to go. Except in the planting department… I just started a bunch of tomatoes, peppers and kale in flats this weekend. If they do anything, they will be late-season tomatoes indeed. So I’ll likely end up purchasing starts for the tomatoes and peppers – time to start figuring out where the best place to buy them is. Our local farmers market doesn’t start until June, so I’m shopping around to see which farmers have farm stands that are selling selling locally. Second to that, I’m hoping to find a good local greenhouse or store where I can pick up what I need. If conditions dry out and warm up a bit, I’m hoping to get some things in the ground in the first week or two of May.

Small Batch Sundays: Homemade Vanilla

I often find myself in the position of being too busy and/or too tired to accomplish a lot of the projects on my to do list. It can be really difficult to get motivated to do anything other than sit after a long day of being out working for pay, doing dinner and family time and helping out with housework. But I miss having the time and energy for the things I love to do, so I thought of the perfect way to kick start my motivation and fit projects back into my lifestyle – small batches. I was thinking of small batch canning specifically, but the concept can extend to anything – foodcrafting, sewing, knitting, crocheting – anything I want to do. A small batch project is one that can be completed in an hour or two. And my goal is to finish at least one small batch project per week, and post about it each Sunday.

This week’s project is incredibly simple – all I needed was some vodka (we’re not big vodka drinkers, but I keep a bottle on hand for exactly three things – home made vanilla, vodka chicken and the annual dirty martini I have in the summer), some vanilla beans and a jar.

I split the beans in half so that more surface area was exposed and plunked them in the jar. Then I filled it with vodka. It will sit in the back of dark cupboard for at least a month before it’s ready to use.

DSCN1117

DSCN1118

When it’s fully infused it’ll be a nice warm brown color and smell distinctly like vanilla extract. It’s a simple project – but a gratifying one. There’s nothing like home made vanilla in soft, chewy chocolate chip cookies!

Garden Planning via Smart Gardener

If you google “free garden planner” or any incarnation of, you get a lot of junk- most of which is free only for 30 days, then you have to subscribe. Most of them require that you download software or programs to your computer, and most of them are hardly a step above using a pencil and a piece of graph paper. Disappointing.

But all hope is not lost – there’s a hidden gem of a garden planner out there, and it’s free (always, for 99% of it’s content), it doesn’t require any downloads, it’s easy to use and it’s got a few bells and whistles that make it contemporary and awesome. It’s called Smart Gardener.

I’ve known about Smart Gardener for a little over a year and played around with it a bit last season, but didn’t dive into it too much. This year though, I may have the opportunity to get a 400 square foot plot in a community garden, if I’m lucky. I won’t know until the middle of April if I can get one, so I want to be ready to get my plants in the ground the second I know – I won’t have any time to lose. I’ve never had so much space to garden in before – last year’s collection of pots amounted to about 17 square feet of planting space. Enough for fresh eating a few times a week, but not much more. 400 square feet though – I can plant a nice little haul so I can put some by. Tomatoes spring immediately to mind – maybe, just maybe – I can harvest all I need for canning from my own little plot of earth! And maybe I can plant enough beans that I can have a supply of dried for next winter’s chili and soup recipes… the wheels are turning big time. I can make 400 square feet do a lot of work for me, with the right kind of planning. And that’s where Smart Gardener comes in.

There are three basic steps to using Smart Gardeners – outlining your garden space and preferences, selecting plants, and then managing your garden. And it couldn’t easier to use. Outlining your garden space is really easy – you just select the plot or container size that best matches your situation. There are a lot of different configurations to choose from, so it’s easy to get the right fit. I used several of the 10×4 beds to configure my 20×20 plot layout –

SG Garden Layout

You can also select your garden settings. Based on zip code, it will calculate your frost dates and the type of growing season your area has. You can also put in how many members are in your household so the program can help you recommend the quantity of each thing to plant –

SG Garden Settings

After you have your garden layout and preferences outlined, you need to select which plants you’ll grow in your garden.

SG Browse Plants

You can then populate all of the plants you’ve selected into your garden plot. There are two ways to do this – by using SmartGardener’s “Recommend Plan” or by manually placing the plants yourself. This is what happened when I used “Recommend Plan” –

SG Recommended Garden

Kind of a bit wonky – none of the tomatoes were grouped together, everything but tomatoes was crowded into a corner, and there’s no sense of crop type or the ability to rotate individual sections. Kind of a mess. This is the one feature of the site that I’m a little bit baffled by and not pleased with. But it’s quite simple to individually select and move plants, so that’s what I elected to do.

SG Editing Varieties

You can see that once you have the plants in your area, there’s a handy drop down to the upper right of each one that allows to you copy, delete, lock or select it. This is the full layout that I came up with to best utilize the space for the varieties I’m working with –

SG Planned Garden

I allowed some space for walking paths, and placed all of the plants that will need trellises or support in the same area. I really like the graphics – clean and easy to tell what’s what at a glance. And to move items around, you just click and drag – exceedingly easy. SmartGardener also has a few other features that are pretty useful, including a to-do list that populates automatically based on what’s in your garden. It’s tell you when to plant and take care of other chores, and you can set it up to send you an automated email. A peek at the to-do list feature –

SG To Do Full Detail

There’s also a garden journal feature where you chronicle pertinent notes and stats yourself, as well as upload photographs –

SG Garden Journal

Planting and information guides are another nice feature of the site. If you have a question or would like to learn more about a particular topic, there’s a resource section –

SG Garden Guide

All in all, Smart Gardener is a pretty great tool. It’s got a nice look and feel, and is really practical. The best part is, it’s free. They do have some great add-ons at nominal cost if you’re so inclined. The Succession Planting add-on for $1.99 and the Harvest Calculator for $0.99 caught my eye – and they’ve got a bunch of others. If you want to get more in-depth and use the add-ons at a small cost, it’s affordable enough to do so. But the fully free basic version is more than adequate for my needs. I’m excited to really get into using the program this year to manage the growing season, and I recommend everyone give it a try – half the fun is in the planning anyway!

Settling In & Garden Planning

Well hello, hello. We are finally more or less settled in the new apartment. There are no more cardboard boxes piled everywhere, trash bags of clothing lurking in the closets or half-built furniture. Okay, mostly. Our bar is still a pile of pieces since we managed to lose all the bolts for it and haven’t gotten around to ordering replacement ones. But pretty much, we are settled in.

We’re getting into good routines with work, trips to the library, biweekly grocery shops, and all the mundane little tasks that make up everyday life. It feels good.

I think I’ve also managed to find a community garden in the vicinity where I can rent a plot – a humongous 400 square foot plot! Our town doesn’t currently have any community gardens, but I found one in the next town over, not far from where I catch the commuter train each day. It’s really cheap – $15.00 for non-residents for the season and five minutes from the train station, which would make it easy to pop over there for a little while each day when I get off the train. Cross your fingers I can get a plot – I have no idea how in demand they are, and non-residents can’t register until the middle of April, which is a full month after resident registration opens. So hopefully I can get in. I’m working on my planting schedules so I can be prepared to get everything in the ground right away if I’m lucky. And of course, I’ll have that posted for you to peruse soon.

I’m also working on a post about my massive to-do list for the apartment – it always takes awhile for everything to get to be the way you really want it after you move, so I’ve got a big project list. Including reupholstering two wing back chairs!

Radio Silence…

I’ve been MIA for a good reason lately. We’re moving into our own place again! The foray into residing with relatives is drawing to a close – on Thursday we’re packing it all into a truck and moving back into our own place. Not a house quite yet, but a spacious, newly renovated apartment. It’s a beauty. It’s back in Elk Grove Village, the suburb where we first landed and took a real liking to. It’s got two big bedrooms, the master with a nice walk in closet. It’s got good lighting. Brand new cream carpeting throughout, with new tile in the kitchen and bathroom. All new fixtures in the bathroom and kitchen, as well as brand new appliances, including a dishwasher and microwave. I don’t go in for microwaves all that much, but the dishwasher will be amazing to have. It’s got an eat in kitchen, plus a small dining “area” just off the main living room, but we’re going to use that as an office area since it also functions as the main thoroughfare to get to the bedrooms. The kitchen has a pantry, so I can’t wait to get on top of getting it organized – I’ve got to keep my eyes peeled for some more bulk storage bins.

This apartment is the biggest one we’ve lived in to date – it’s about 900 square feet. Our last place was a little over 700 square feet, so I’m excited about all of the space we’re going to have. It’ll seem a bit smaller after we get all of our stuff in, I’m sure, but it’s still a ton of space. There’s only one big drawback to this apartment – there’s no private outdoor space. No balcony or patio where we can hang out. I will certainly miss it, but there’s a big green area where the kiddo can run around, and a nice playground within walking distance. And I’m certainly experienced with indoor gardening after my Apartment Farm days. So we’ll make it work.

As soon as we’re settled there’s a lot to talk about – almost time to get some seeds planted, and there are a ton of new food projects on the horizon. Wish us luck!

Baked Egg Casserole

Mornings are insanely busy at our house, like they are for most people. How I long to be able to relax over a cup of tea and a good breakfast and take my time starting my day. But with a toddler to get going and a long commute into the city for work, that’s just not going to happen. I don’t even have time to sit down to eat in the morning; getting my son his bit of breakfast is all we’ve got time for. Unless I want to wake up at four in the morning, which I absolutely do not. I usually eat breakfast once I get to work and am tethered to my desk for the day. While the occasional doughnut makes an appearance, and I’ll choke down instant oatmeal if I’m forced to, I really like a hot substantial breakfast. But eggs and bacon and all the trimmings are out – they don’t reheat all that well and would be a pain to make up and pack enough of for a few days at a time.

Fortunately, there is an a solution to the problem. Casserole. Yep – a breakfast casserole. Easy to make, easy to portion as well as filling and tasty. Now there are a lot of breakfast casserole dishes on the internet, and I’ve tried a few and mostly found them wanting. It’s a great concept, but with a dish so simple – eggs, potato and meat – it’s easy to mess it up. A lot of them call for hash browns, which just end up turning mushy and insipid. And some of them don’t call for precooking the meat, which makes me skeevy in addition to the simple logistics of well-cooked meat paired with overdone everything else. They’re just nothing to write home about.

So I took the concept and tweaked it a bit. I precook the meat. And I swap out the flaccid hash browns for more substantial tater tots, which I brown first in the oven. It’s a winning combination, as you can see –

Breakfast Casserole

The meat is perfectly cooked. The tater tots are golden brown and substantial. And the eggs are light and fluffy. Thirty to forty minutes in the oven, and you’ve got a delicious complete breakfast for a few days. And it’s so easy to throw together. You’ll need the following –

half a package of tater tots

1 tube of breakfast sausage

6 eggs, beaten with a 1/4 cup of water and salt and pepper to taste

vegetable cooking spray

1. Start off by cooking your tater tots in the oven according to package directions.

2. While the tater tots are baking, precook the sausage thoroughly in a skillet. Set aside to drain on paper towels while the tater tots finish.

3. Once the tater tots are done, layer your ingredients in a 9×9 baking dish – sausage on the bottom, and tater tots on the top. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the entire dish.

4. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the egg is set and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

And that’s it – enjoy!

 

Pinetree Garden Seeds: 2013 Catalog Review

If you followed me at Apartment Farm, you know I’m a big fan of Pinetree Garden Seeds. I look forward to receiving the new catalog each year almost as much as I look forward to Christmas. It’s arrival is certainly a welcome event. And lo and behold, what did I find on the kitchen counter last night when I got home from work? The new catalog! And they’ve got quite the new look –

Pinetree 2013 Catalog

I like the new logo – it’s fresh and modern, while still feeling classy. But I must confess – on my first flip through, I was a bit skeptical of the new catalog format. It’s a little bit different this year. One of the things that really distinguished the Pinetree catalog for me was the fact that there were separate sections for foreign/ethnic vegetable varieties. I liked seeing everything grouped together that way and it was fun to travel around the world just by turning the page. That organizational structure has now been replaced  by a more standard grouping – vegetables, flowers, containers, etc. I was pretty disappointed, until I got to page 51, where they’ve provided a “foreign vegetable index”. Devotees of the old format can still browse by cuisine, if you will! And I do concede the point that it is easier to plan a garden out of the standardized catalog.

Other than that, the catalog is much the same as it’s always been. They continue to list days to maturity, quantity and planting instructions for all varieties, which I really appreciate. Some catalogs surprisingly don’t bother printing that info and it vexes me to no end. How can you decide to plant a variety if all you have is a prosaic description of how pretty it is? While a good description can really draw you in, if the facts aren’t provided the description is useless. Fortunately Pinetree understands that and has arranged their catalog accordingly.

They still have a great selection, with a lot of heirloom varieties. Their prices are still unbeatable – most varieties range from $0.95 – $1.50 per packet. There aren’t many places around where you can buy high quality seed for under a dollar a packet. And the catalog still offers value-added merchandise like books (pretty good selection too), gardening supplies, and soil amendments as well as soap and candle making supplies. I think all of these product lines really go hand in hand.

My criticisms of the new catalog are so minimal it’s almost ridiculous to call them such – it would be nice if the page numbers were at the outer bottom corner of the page, and not in the center. And while the planting instructions are overall very clear and expansive, the onion section is lacking a key piece of info – the definition of “long day” and “short day” onions. I would bet a lot of gardeners don’t know, or can’t keep them straight. (For the curious, long day onions require 14-16 hours of daylight and are grown in the north. Short day onions require about 12 hours of daylight and are grown in the south. Which always confuses me since you’d think the days in the south would be longer… at any rate, that’s what they mean). Overall, the catalog is highly enticing and the by the time I got to the end of it, I was won over to the new look.

So that just leaves the most important piece of information – what am I going to order? I’ve still got a little time to mull it over, but I’ve certainly got my eyes on Gold Nugget tomatoes (the ones I grew last year and we were wild about) and the Sustane Compost Tea Bags – being a container gardener, I haven’t been able to make my own compost yet, so these ready made bags to infuse in water for plant feeding are just the ticket.

Gardening, From the Ground Up

Or in my case, from the container up. Last fall when we moved from the city, we gifted all of our pots and containers to the apartment complex’s gardening efforts. While this means that I’ll have to spend a little money replacing them, I know that the old collection is getting a lot of use at the old place. Plus, shopping for new planters on a budget is fun little challenge when it’s only about forty degrees outside.

The seven gallon terra cotta-colored plastic ones that I found at the dollar store over the last two years were serviceable enough, so I’ll likely see if I can get a couple of those again. At seven bucks a piece, it’s a great price for the size. A pair of them should do it for the two tomato plants I’d like to grow. And I’ll add a third for some salad greens and scallions. I kept a small collection of my nicest glazed pottery, so those will be allocated for herbs.

But, if I can’t find the plastic pots I want again this spring, there are plenty of affordable good-looking options that I’ve come across. I particularly like  these trash bins from Ikea that are eleven gallons, especially now that they come in black –

Knodd Bin

I do have a couple in white that I’ve used in the past for soil storage, and the one drawback to them is that they do rust when exposed to the elements. One season outdoors last year really had them looking worse for wear, and they were located on a covered spot on the deck out of the weather. Another similar option would be a galvanized bin, that might hold up a little better –

Galvanized Bin

It looks small, but it’s actually six gallons, which is a great size for big, healthy tomato plant. And of course, classic copper would look great as well. I really like these Smith & Hawken copper planters, but they’re not very large so they might not be the best choice for tomatoes. They sure are good looking though –

Smith & Hawken Copper Planter

So, there are a few good options to be had, and I’m sure there will be many more to choose from as the winter progresses and retailers start to stock their spring collections. Decisions, decisions!