April 2014

Happy Homemade Easter!

I have to admit, holidays stress me out.  There is so much to think about – decorations to make or get out of storage, family events to plan or attend, food to make, gifts or supplies to purchase ahead of time, haircuts to schedule for three handsome boys, fancy clothes to be dug out of the back of the closet, the list goes on and on.  And now that we have started a family of our own, we are trying to create our own family traditions that we hope our kids will one day look back upon fondly and say, “remember when we all used to dye Easter eggs together?” or “remember those family Easter egg hunts when we would run around like crazy to see who could collect the most eggs?”.  I have to be really careful that my lists of preparations don’t get in the way of making those memories.  Because I don’t want my kids to remember a stressed out Mommy that didn’t enjoy our time together on the holidays.  And I certainly don’t want them to grow up thinking that Easter and Halloween and Christmas are just about the “stuff” that they receive from a fictitious animal or a big guy in a red suit.

To give you a mental image of my internal struggle, you can imagine me with a miniature Martha Stewart sitting on one of my shoulders telling me that I can do it all by hand and make it look effortless while a teeny tiny Dalai Lama sits cross-legged on the other shoulder urging me to live in the present moment and remember the spirit of the holiday rather than the commercial side that we see everywhere we turn (watch out, the stores will be carrying Halloween decorations before you know it!).  And I know that, for me, the answer is somewhere in between.  Because the truth is that I truly enjoy the homemade recipes and crafts that go along with the holidays.  But maybe I don’t have to do it ALL.  Maybe just one recipe and one craft per holiday can be enough.  And if they don’t turn out perfectly, maybe that’s okay, too.  We will still have fun making homemade memories together as a family!

Here are two traditions that we have decided to include in our annual Easter celebrations…

 

Natural Easter Egg Dyes

homemade Easter eggs with natural food-based dyes

not bad for our first try!

We tried this for the first time last year and the kids really enjoyed it!  It was a fun family activity that we definitely plan to repeat.  It was also a great way for the kids to understand the difference between those artificial dyes that Mommy is always griping about when they are on the ingredient list and natural food-based dyes that are totally safe to eat.  We started with this wonderful blog post from EcoCrazy Mom and chose one thing from each color to try out.  I only had to pick up a few things at the grocery store – pomegranate juice and tea bags – the rest of the ingredients were already in our fridge, freezer, or cupboards.  Here are the ones that we tried:

RED – pomegranate juice

ORANGE – paprika

YELLOW – ground turmeric

GREEN – spinach leaves

BLUE – frozen blueberries

PURPLE – Red Zinger tea bags

 

Spring- and Garden-Themed Easter Basket Surprises

Easter baskets filled with homemade candy and non-traditional gifts.

Easter baskets for our three little boys

Another tradition that we talked about a lot last year was what to put in the kids’ Easter baskets.  Thousands of years ago, Easter celebrations were a way to celebrate the end of Winter and the arrival of Spring.  That seems to fit naturally with what is happening around our homestead in March and April of every year.  We are typically planting new seeds , starting new garden projects, and getting outside as much as possible.  So we decided that the Easter Bunny will be filling our baskets every year with small gifts related to Spring or gardening or the outdoors.  Last year, that meant flower seed packets and caterpillars that we grew into butterflies and released outdoors.  We also included some homemade chocolate hearts, homemade coconut treats, and finger paint.  (And some wooden toys for the one-year-old.  But we plan to include him in the fun this year!)

 

Last year, I also gave in to the mini-Martha Stewart figure perched on my left shoulder and helped my four-year-old son to make Envelope Bunnies filled with homemade dark chocolate-cherry bark for each of the fifteen kids in his preschool class plus all three teachers.

 

homemade envelope bunnies to make with your kids for Easter

A fun Easter craft – Envelope Bunnies!

While this seemed like a great idea at first, it ended up being a bit more than I wanted to take on and I spent a few late nights cursing and trying to finish cutting out all of those bunny envelopes and silly pink ears and tying pastel-colored strings around each bag of chocolate bark.  (I never seem to think about all of the parts of a craft project that the kids cannot do when I plan it out in my mind!)  So, the moral of this little story is…I think it would be a fun craft to make for one or two or three people – maybe to put in your kids’ Easter baskets or to help them make as a gift for their grandparents.  But please do not attempt to cut out thirty-six pink bunny ears in one night.  Take it from me, it will only lead to frustration and scissor indentations on your poor little fingers.  Just stick with the caterpillars, they are much easier to manage and turn into beautiful butterflies all on their own!

 

releasing a butterfly into the wild after growing it from a caterpillar

releasing our butterflies

 

What family traditions are you starting this year?  What do you include in your kids’ Easter baskets?  Do you have any favorite Easter recipes to share?  We’d love to hear from you!

 

Have a very Happy Easter and enjoy making memories together!

Seed Starting!! The organic remedy for cabin fever

After the polar vortex keeping our temperatures below freezing for months on end, and over 6 feet of snow coating our region in the worst winter in my adult life, our family was in serious need of some whisper of spring.  Some hint that warmer days were coming.  In late February, there were still no signs of it, so we decided to force things along a little and do some seed starting!  Being 8-10 weeks out from our scheduled last frost date, the timing for seed starting was a week or two early but we needed a boost.  Here is how we did it.

What we used:

  • Seeds – we order ours from Terroir Seeds at www.underwoodgardens.com.  They offer a really wide variety of heritage heirloom varieties, and have a great discount membership where $30 will get you 20% off of your order, which definitely makes the money back if you are making large orders…not hard to do with the selection that they have.  We started a range of brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, pak choi, and kale) as well as some herbs (basil, chamomile, fireweed, feverfew, sorrel) and a couple of hardy fruit plants (ground cherry and strawberries)
  • Some seed flats – we used to use the 100 pan trays, but found it too cumbersome to handle each seedling individually, so we switched to 3″x5″ flats.  The kinds with lids are great t form a mini-greenhouse effect when sprouting seeds initially.
  • Fertilized soil – we use a mix of regular potting soil (for first 3-4″ of soil) and a little bit of organic seed starting mix (made of shredded coconut hulls and some other organic matter
  • Popsicle sticks and a pen – for labeling flats with the seed type
  • Watering can with water
Seed starting supplies, all ready to go

Seed starting supplies, all ready to go

Step 1: Prep the flats

Line flats with ~3″ of potting soil.  Press firmly to pack the soil down.  Add a 0.5″ layer of seed starting mix, leaving it fairly loose.  Soak flats with water until bottom tray shows some signs of water permeating.  Make some small holes to plant the seeds in, ~1-2″ apart.  For our 3″x5″ flats, we made six holes in a 2×3 arrangement.

Prepped seed flats

Prepped seed flats

Step 2: Plant the seeds

Following instructions on seed packets, plant seeds in the prepared holes in the soil at the appropriate depth.  Cover with soil and press lightly, as necessary.  Write the name of the seed type on the top half of a popsicle stick, and stick it into the soil so that you can remember what you planted.  Once you are done with a flat, cover it with the lid (if available), or use some plastic wrap, keeping it off of soil surface with the popsicle sticks that you used for labels.

Little gardeners in training

Little gardeners in training

Step 3: Put the flats in a warm, well-lit spot

South facing windows are perfect for this, but that presents a challenge in our house, as most of our good sunny windows are in high kid-traffic areas making it prone to accidents (which we experienced first hand last year when the kids toppled the whole shelving system…argh).  So, our solution was to place a shelving unit in a small unused bedroom in our basement with some grow lights (on a timer).  We have baseboard heat in our basement rooms, so it was convenient to keep one room nice and warm for the little sprouts.

The Rack

The Rack

Step 4: Manage early seedlings

Seeds will start to sprout in a couple of days to a couple of weeks.  When you first start to see the seeds sprout, remove the lid or plastic wrap, and if you are using grow lights, adjust their height to as close as the plant leaves as you can.  This will help to minimize them “getting leggy” or shooting up too quickly to get to the light, leaving them with weak, droopy stems that will not hold up when you eventually plant them.  I did a pretty poor job of this for some of our plants and they will probably be unusable.  Once most of the seeds are sprouted, thin them out to only the strongest seedling from each hole that you planted in.  I look for good color, broad leaves, and stout/stocky stems.  If the plant is something that you can eat the stems from, the thinned sprouts make a great snack or addition to a salad/sandwich!

A nice sprout snack...good addition to our salad for lunch

A nice sprout snack…good addition to our salad for lunch

Step 5: Maintain seedlings until ready to plant

After thinning, maintenance on the seedlings will go way down.  Just water them every couple of days, and adjust the height of the lights to the height of the plants, and you will be well on your way to some happy seedlings.  After 6-8 weeks, the seedlings would be ready to plant.  Since mine will be a little early, we may move them out to the greenhouse after the nights warm up a little so that we can start our next round of warm weather plants.

Seedlings after ~4 weeks of growth

Seedlings after ~4 weeks of growth

Seed starting was a great way to break our winter blues, and once you get good at it, can be a cheap alternative to buying started plants from your local nursery.  Full disclosure, my first two years of seed starting were total failures (literally, nothing made it all of the way to the garden), so prepare yourself for a little failure if this is your first time…its totally OK, and part of the process.  If you are in the northeast US, right now is not a bad time to start some of your own seeds for mid-late spring planting, like tomatoes, peppers, etc…it might be just the thing you need to get your mind on sunnier days.