This year we are decking the halls with a little help from Mother Nature. I don’t know about you, but it is enough just to buy gifts this year, so the décor budget has plummeted to a new low. But with the help of Pinterest and Google you can find plenty of ideas for décor. Natural holiday décor is exactly what it sounds like. It’s essentially doing what those before us did by bringing the outside in for the Christmas season. And best of all? It’s free!
So, where do you start? Well, start outside by scavenging for things you could use to make décor.
Evergreens: A mix of evergreens (cedar, pine, juniper, boxwood, etc.) looks fantastic wound together with some floral wire into garland, a wreath or arranged on the table under other decor. If you don’t have access to evergreens go to a place where they are selling Christmas trees and ask if you can have some of the excess branches lying around. Most will give them to you for free. Wreath forms are available at craft stores for really cheap and are reusable.
If you want to keep them from drying out too fast you can mist branches with a little water every few days. Just don’t put dry branches too close to a source of heat or fire. My mom had some overgrown pine trees so I asked if I could trim them and use the branches to make garland and a wreath. The fresh cut branches smell heavenly and can be made into mulch after the holiday season is over.
Pine cones: A large pine street has been generously dropping pine cones all summer/fall long. I can’t gripe because that tree has given me a fresh supply of pine cones for Christmas décor. Pine cones are relatively versatile. Use spray paint to give them a chic sheen (think gold, silver, maybe even pink with glitter) or leave them in their natural state. Tie some ribbon on the bottom and hang like an ornament in windows or on the tree. To make scented pine cones find some good essential oil (EO) and sprinkle a few drops onto the cones (I recommend PlantLife’s EO blend called Holiday).You can also use pinecones as place card holders on tables, bird feeders, in lovely display baskets or bowls, or you can make them into fire starters.
Terrarium ornaments: I found some clear glass ball ornaments in our Christmas stuff and decided this year to make terrarium ornaments. This is an easy craft for the whole family since you can find most of the things you need right outside. I collected everything from small pinecones to pebbles, bark to dried lavender and grouped various items into the glass balls. I found some small fake butterflies and dried moss at Hobby Lobby and added these as well. Result, custom ornaments for almost nothing.
Search online for more craft ideas and scour your surroundings for things to use. Deck the halls by bringing the outdoors in for a merry holiday.
Friday, November 25, 2011
This holiday season has been a lesson in simplicity for our family. Not so much because we do not have the funds to splurge on lots of gifts (that too), but rather because we seem to be running low on time. Work, school, home, bills, parties, etc. It’s enough to make you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of busyness. Simplicity of time is something we often forget during the holiday season. We often assemble our holiday lineup of activities and then wind up drained before Santa even shows us.
We want the perfect holiday, the perfect house, to get the perfect gifts, cook the perfect feast and take the perfect pictures. While it’s nice to have a to-do list and goals, maybe all this seeking “perfection” is actually what makes everything more stressful and less merry. Especially when we get the bills in January.
So I’ve decided to scrap the long to-do list, leave certain decorations in their boxes, pair down the annual dinner, stay within our small budget, not even set foot in the mall, and focus just on spending time with family and the real meaning of Christmas. Life will go on even if I don’t make candy for everyone on the block or fill stockings to the brim. Christmas will be just as merry even if I prepare two side dishes instead of five and don’t decorate every room in the house. It’s not how much we fill our holiday schedule with, but what we fill it with. We can easily trade in the idea of the perfect Christmas for one of simplicity and peace if we choose to.
The birth of Jesus is the best reminder of what really constitutes a perfect Christmas. While modern day manger scenes paint this surreal scene of a family, visitors and animals in a barn, the reality is, it was an imperfect night. Having to travel away from home for a mandated census, a very pregnant Mary goes into labor and the only place available has been occupied with farm animals and probably smelled, well,... like farm animals. Yikes. Talk about a bad night. And yet despite all the pain and toil, the Angels proclaim Jesus savior for all people, shepherds come to adore him and God deems the night “perfect.” It was all part of the plan; God’s, not man’s.
So whatever you have planned for the holidays I hope and pray you are willing to trade in the hustle and bustle of perfection for something a little more simple and a lot more merry. You don’t have to attempt to plan the perfect Christmas, because God already did. And you don’t have to attempt to get everyone the perfect gift because, guess what, God did that too. All without a Visa card, a tree dressed to the hilt, or a Christmas cookie exchange.
Take that Martha Stewart.
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 8:31 AM
Monday, November 21, 2011
This week in honor of Thanksgiving we’re talking turkey with Maureen Garver, urban farmer extraordinaire and someone who is way more qualified to be writing this column (you can’t argue Maureen, it’s already in print). Her and her husband Steve decided this year to forgo the usual frozen fowl at the supermarket and raise their own. While raising a turkey may have been standard back in the day, I hadn’t heard of anyone doing it now. So this was an interview I didn’t want to miss.
Maureen said she got the turkey at the Feed Depot in Visalia last April. She went to buy more chickens and ended up with a turkey in tow as well. Upon returning home and seeing the new addition, Steve just smiled and said, “I guess we're going to need a bigger pen” (what a good guy!)
Maureen said that raising a turkey is a lot like raising a big chicken except that they eat like a pig and make a lot of noise.
“The gobble gobble thing is pretty intense sometimes” she said.
They named the Tom turkey “Dinner” as a reminder to not get too attached (son, Brad gets the credit for that one). And Dinner has thus proceeded to rule the roost strutting his stuff all over the yard. The Garver’s chickens simply follow his lead and peck his path. Maureen said he likes to peek into the house (one day he attempted to go in) and is not afraid of any man or beast. But one of my favorite turkey stories involves Dinner’s affinity for the Garver’s roof. This would-be-rooster loves to climb up only to not know how to get down; his cry of distress calling out from the roof. On several occasions a member of the Garver family has had to come to his rescue only to have him climb up there again.
And while turkeys have a notable reputation for not being the smartest animals, Maureen noted that this fowl is smarter than most.
“If he'd jumped, he might very well have hurt himself,” said Maureen. “Most 'dumb' animals probably would have just jumped. It was like he realized the danger and wanted to avoid it.”
The process of raising their own turkey will come to an end this week just in time for Thanksgiving. The Garvers will “process” the turkey themselves after not finding any local butchers who will process privately raised fowl (R.I.P. turkey).
Processing turkeys or most farm animals is the part that might make most decide not to raise their own. After all we are a society that likes to think that meat comes from the supermarket and not from farms. But for those wanting to try there are plenty of resources available online and in the form of books. It’s no doubt the freshest turkey you can get.
To read more about the Garver’s wonderful homesteading adventures visit http://www.weharvestlife.blogspot.com/. Do yourself a favor and add it to your favorites.
Have a very happy Thanksgiving everyone!
* Update: Dinner ended up being 40lbs, which meant plenty of leftovers for the Garvers. Maureen said they had to cut the turkey in half to even cook it. Thanks to Maureen for the photo for "Dinner" on the roof! If you would like to see and read more about the processing part click here.
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 2:07 PM
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
There’s something about the cold weather that makes us crave soup on a regular basis; that warm, full feeling is wonderful after a long day at work or school. If you ask most people how to make soup now-a-days they’ll tell you to simply open the can, maybe add water or milk and then cook. An answer that would make most grandmothers frown and great grandmothers want to smack us up the backside of the head.
Anyway, while yes, there are plenty of yummy soups available via aluminum can, homemade soups offer an easy way to add veggies into your family’s diet and let’s be honest here people, they are relatively easy to make. Whether you’re cooking on the stove or with a crockpot, making your favorite soup boils down to two basic bases.
The first base is a primarily water/stock base, usually chicken, beef or vegetable broth. If you don’t want to make your own stock (basically it’s meat or veggies boiled in water), you can use the canned or box version. From here you can add everything from vegetables to beans, pasta to meatballs. Seasonings make a big difference here since so much of the soup is stock or water. For soups like chicken noodle add plenty of seasonings along with chopped garlic, white onion and carrots. Add chopped cooked chicken (if it is not already included), then the noodles. No offense to Campbell’s, which is good, but homemade chicken noodle soup is truly amazing on cold nights or when someone is sick. The garlic, herbs and steamy broth will help sore throats and stuffy noses feel better. Even without meat, the mixture is great for colds. When I am fighting the cold/flu I will simply heat a mixture of dried herbs from the garden, fresh garlic and vegetable broth to drink. It does wonders.
The second base is for cream soups. For these you can simply melt butter, add milk or cream and then flour. Now, before we go any further, do yourself a favor and use gravy flour. No offense to regular flour, which is also good, but gravy flour mixes in really easy without any lumps prior to boiling and helps your soup develop a thick creamy texture even if you use low-fat milk. You can find it in the same grocery aisle as regular flour. From there add broth, seasonings, garlic, etc. Here’s the fun part… if you want cream of mushroom soup, add mushrooms. Cream of potato? Add some potatoes. Clam chowder? Pretend like you're making cream of potato and then throw some clams (and their juices) in there. So on and so on. Cook and stir until the veggies are soft.
I should probably include specific measurements. I basically just wanted to encourage you to try making homemade soup. It’s an easy way to use vegetables that are just sitting in the fridge or fresh ones from the garden. Partner with homemade bread, rolls or cornbread for a nice feast on cool nights.
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 11:00 AM
Monday, November 7, 2011
Brrrrr… fall/winter finally found us here in the Central Valley, but if you didn’t plant a fall garden, or even if you did and still want something fresh to eat, have no fear. Chilly weather means it is time to grow mushrooms! No, I’m not talking about the psychedelic ones… good grief. So whether you like Portabello or Shitake there’s an edible mushroom kit waiting for you and your family.
Now, some disclaimers about growing mushrooms; don’t simply go out into your yard and pick whatever mushroom is growing on your lawn or under a tree and attempt to eat it. Bad idea! Most are not edible and are in fact, very poisonous. So stick with the kits people! Stick with the kits!
Mushroom kits can sometimes be a little pricey in this economy, but I finally found some that won’t empty the wallet. I found an oyster kit for $20 at Whole Foods Market in Fresno and ordered a Portabello kit for $35 from Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply (www.groworganic.com).
I know what you’re thinking… can’t I just pick some up at the store for $4? Of course you can, but growing your own mushrooms is not only fun, it’s easy, educational for kids, and the taste is way better than something that has been sitting there for weeks in cold storage. Most kits require you to just add water and in a few weeks (or way less) …violá…. mushrooms!
Most kits include straw, sawdust, coffee grounds or compost inoculated with mushroom fungi. Based on what type of mushroom you’re growing you may need to adjust temperature and humidity. But don’t worry, mushrooms love temperatures between 50-80 degrees and can be grown inside. Mushrooms simply need many of things regular plants need: light, moisture, air circulation, and a little loving care. The kits come with plenty of instructions so don’t worry about becoming a fungi expert. Many of the kits yield several crops which means you’ll have plenty of mushrooms for everything from pizza to stuffed mushrooms, soups to salads for weeks on end.
You can also grow mushrooms using plugs that should be inserted into logs and inoculated for a designated length of time. But if you’re looking to start out with something simple for the first time I recommend ordering a White Button or oyster kit. Before you know it you’ll be harvesting fresh mushrooms and cooking up a storm.
For more information or to order a kit, check out the following sites online: www.groworganic.com, www.gardencityfungi.com, or www.fungi.com. Most of the kits on these sites are$35 or less, many of them less.
*The mushrooms in the picture above are from the Whole Foods kit I got.
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 5:01 PM
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
No running water…. no problem? Only if you are prepared in case of disaster, which I confess, we were not. So it was not exactly a disaster, but last week we discovered our shower was leaking into our walls, through the floor and into the cellar causing all sorts of damage, mold and “fun.” It’s still pretty gross down there and in order to get it to stop leaking we had to shut the water completely off till a repairman could come out (days later). So with a sink full of dirty dishes, loads of dirty laundry and without water we were forced to improvise.
It was a first hand lesson in being prepared or I guess I should say in not being prepared, which I found out really stinks. We were fortunate enough to be able to stock up on bottled water and take a shower and do some laundry at my parent’s house (thanks mom!). I ended up washing dishes in a big metal tub outside using heated bottled water, which was interesting to say the least. We also created a makeshift lavatory and no, I will not discuss that any further.
Whether a major disaster occurs or not, it’s best to follow the advice of the Boy Scouts and always “be prepared” by stocking up on supplies and making a disaster plan with your family. The Red Cross suggests that families have at the minimum the following supplies: water (one gallon per person, per day for at least three days to two weeks), non-perishable food (3day supply for evacuation, 2week supply for home), flashlight, battery powered or handcrank radio, extra batteries, first aid kit, medications, multi-purpose tools, sanitation and personal hygiene items, copies of important personal documents, cell phones with chargers, emergency contact information, extra cash, emergency blanket(s) and local maps. Families might also need to stock up on baby supplies, kids activities, pet supplies and two-way radios. Keep supplies in an easy-to-carry emergency preparedness kit that you can use at home or take with you in case you must evacuate.
Then make a plan detailing when, where, what and how families members will respond if disaster strikes. Make sure family members have contact information and know where they can go if they are not close to home. The Red Cross also suggests practicing evacuating your home twice a year. Drive your planned evacuation route and plot alternate routes on your map in case roads are impassable. They also suggest keeping a phone list of pet-friendly hotels/motels and animal shelters that are along your evacuation routes.
Again, the leaky shower/cellar weirdness was not a disaster, but a good reminder to be prepared. So yes, I went and stocked up on some essentials this past week (water, a flashlight you crank to power, extra batteries, etc.). It was a start and we’ll continue to collect more supplies over time. So take the time to prepare and plan, you’ll be glad you did… just in case.
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 3:51 PM