July 28, 2008

Raspberries, Blueberries and Green Beans...

This has turned out to be a dreadful year for raspberries, with unending fog alternating with ceaseless humidity all accompanied by intermittent rain! What started out as a bumper crop of raspberries has pretty much mildewed on the canes. Luckily we had gotten quite a few picked and frozen before the damp and drizzly weather settled in.

That same weather can also devastate the green beans, but so far we've been lucky and the harvest continues heavy on those. I've frozen some whole, some cut, some french-cut, and I suppose I'll once again try dilly beans. They've only come out well for me one year, but I must say, those were delicious.

And then there are the blueberries, ripening as I write. Aside from the crows we share with, the berries are doing well. As we have five or six kinds, they ripen over a nice long stretch which this picker appreciates. I may make some blueberry pancake syrup for Christmas presents, but mostly I just freeze them.

So much else seems slow this year, especially the gazillion varieties of asters I grow. Some of the other flowers are flowering later than the past few years too. I just hope we don't get any early frost as I so love working with the flowers and hate to see the season end. I've been harvesting, cleaning and hanging to dry a wide array of everlastings including lots of celosia, statice and strawflowers of every color. I love seeing them hanging in neat little bundles from the nails and cup holders Bert put up all along the beam in the garage.

All and all, life is good in the garden. And how does YOUR garden grow?

July 15, 2008

Some Indispensable Garden Tools

Well, the plantings all done, the harvest has just begun with a few crops such as peas and green beans coming in, but wait! the weeds are thriving too. What to do, what to do?

I have to tell you right off that I truly love to weed, I'm an old-fashioned hands-and-knees weeder, and in spite of the mulching we do, there 's still plenty to deal with in our various gardens. Our main garden is something like 80 x 100' and there are another half dozen plots ranging from two that are 20 x 20' to some in the 10 x 10' range. And then there are the flower beds of which there are way too many!

Our two main garden weeds, probably yours too, are lamb's ear and purslane. Both are nutritionally rich, but I'd never in 1,000 years eat enough salad to use all that grows in even one corner of the garden. The purslane also does offer some mulching value as it grows way out from its roots and low to the ground preserving some mositure. It's actually a pretty efficient plant, one of many that we perhaps don't value as much as we should.

But, I just want them out of my garden! There are so many fancy garden tools available, but I've found that just three things are all I really need to manage all we grow. My trusty trowel of course, then my set of two circlehoes , and finally, my rubber knee pads.

I'm sure you have a trowel that's a favorite as I do. Mine is sturdy, stainless steel with a rubber handle, fairly broad and comfortable for my hand which is important. I'd never heard of circlehoes until a friend gave me one, whereupon it quickly became my absolute favorite go-to tool. I bought a second one, the larger size offered by Index Innovations, Inc (http://www.circlehoe.com/). They have (at least) four sizes and the mini I have cost $6.99 at a local garden center two years ago. This is the most useful size for just about all I do around and between plants, while the larger one I use on the walkways. I can't talk about my circlehoe without sounding like an ad, but please check out the website as this tool is so much more versatile and kind to your hand and wrist than any of the old "scratchers" I've used in the past.

And finally, there are my kneepads. It's easier on my back to actually kneel down and weed, and yet I don't want to wreck the knees of long pants, or get grub totally ingrained in my knees, OR, inadvertently kneel down on a sharp rock which really, really hurts! The knee pads of a rubbery material have straps that go behind the knees and clasp with velcro. At first, the straps can be stiff and somewhat annoying, but as the pads get broken in, the straps become softer and truly unnoticeable.

And now, having written this, I have GOT to head down to the garden... the weeds calleth!


July 8, 2008

And Now... Some Frugal Fishing Tips!

Last week we took a look at so many ways to have a great staycation. One thing I didn't mention was going fishing, a very favorite pasttime of mine since childhood. You don't need a lot of fancy equipment, you don't need a license (for saltwater fishing - well, not at the moment anyway, but DON'T get me started on that issue!), and bait can be free to cheap.

I'm going to focus here on freshwater fishing although there's nothing like fighting the bluefish, reeling in stripers (which we do sometimes on Sunday mornings right in the Royal River here in our small Maine town), or going way further out for haddock and some other good eating fish.

In keeping with the idea of a staycation, we'll be, not at our own home, but visiting a lake in NH where some of our best friends live, wonderful people we also happen to be related to, our daughter and son-in-law, Heather and Tim. They have a big u-shaped dock and I'll be out there at sunup and at sundown. What do I catch off their dock? Well, one day two years ago, I had a five-species day, but mostly it's small- and large-mouth bass, nice, fat, feisty ones, including the grand-daddy known as Darryl. And, yes, we do have NH licenses.

My fishing equipment is nothing fancy and my fishing bag is old but well-stocked with extra hooks, swivels, etc. My bait is worms; I am not a fly fisherman.

Now, as some of you know, I am a vegetarian (although I guess I'm really a flexitarian as I do still eat some seafood), I am strictly catch-and-release, and I've always tried to live by Christina Rossetti's admonition to "Hurt no living thing." Soooo, a few folks have asked me, isn't there some hint of hypocrisy in all those worms I drown? What can I say?

As I've mentioned before, I keep a worm bin. Raising worms, formally called "vermiculture," is invaluable for good gardening as well as fine fishing! My worm bin is a big old plasic tub that I fill with freshly-pulled weeds, some dirt still clinging to the roots, and any worms I come across as I garden. I start the worm bucket as early in the spring as I'm in the garden, and I keep it right through the end of fishing season, the last of September. Yes, I ice fish, but use different live bait for that.

The worm box has a top that's snug, but not air-tight. I check the box once a week or whenever I'm going fishing to be sure the worms still have fresh fodder to make their incredibly rich castings. Once or twice during the summer, I empty the box, sift the castings for use as potting soil, mulch or fertilizer, restock with weeds and dirt and put back about half of the worms. The other half of the worms I scatter in garden areas that need aereating or enriching. Now, I'm dreaming of one of those worm composters that I could keep right through the winter in our root cellar... hmmmmm...

Aside from any old-fashioned frugality of fishing, or the fun of the cast, the bite, the set and the catch, there is the wonderful peace of fishing, hearing the still, small voice of God in the morning mist at sunrise, and the call of the loons helping color a glorious sunset at the end of the day. What a blessing!


July 4, 2008

Staycations: Spending a Little to Save a Lot

(Part five of a five-part series this week)

All week we've explored some ways to save money while still having fun during a stay-at-home vacation. Now it's time to look at some slight extravagances (wait, isn't that an oxymoron?), some affordable ways to do those things that truly say "vacation" to you. And just what are those things?

Take a few minutes to think about three things that you really treasure during a vacation. Is it just the downtime to sit around, maybe read or just laze on a beach, is it shopping in unusual places, or is it a truly elegant evening out?

For really relaxing, consider renting a portable hot tub for a week, one that will be delivered and set up right in your own backyard. Have a mini-spa day, with a hair stylist, make-up consultant or masseuse coming to your home. And don't think this idea isn't for the men, they like pampering too!

If a day at the beach is your choice, try a new beach and pick up a packed gourmet lunch to enjoy there. Although we in Maine have many beaches from small and rock-strewn to white-sand and almost-warm waters, Bert and my biggest beach treat is a trip to Crane's Beach in Ipswich MA. Miles of perfection overlooked by a castle! And Zabaglione's, a bakery-cafe in Ipswich, offers the best beach fare and gorgeous baked goodies you can imagine.

If you're feeling that a little bit bigger splurge is in order, stay, even just one night, right on/near your favorite beach and enjoy the sunset and sunrise walks you always miss. And, yes, the Castle Inn at Crane's Hill does offer lodging, not inexpensive but this is the most perfect mini-vacation I can imagine!

But maybe it's shopping that's a big part of your usual vacation as it is for the great majority of travelers and tourists. In your mind set a figure that you can honestly afford to...well, fritter away. Now be sure you have this amount in CASH. No credit cards, not one cent more than your cash cache.

Where to go shopping? Well, do you want to find some souvenirs to take home, even if you never left home? Are you looking for a new golf club, some funky clothes, local pottery, or would you like to just keep an open mind to whatever may fortuitously present itself?

If you've never been to an auction, they generally cost nothing to attend, can be so much fun and you can find the most unexpected treasures, things you never knew you just had to have! Some are estate sales, some are more specialized featuring old fishing gear, or even art or antique firearms. GO! BUT, stick to your cash amount as it's easy to get caught up in the bidding.

Or, pick three shops, nearby or a little further afield, that you've always intended to check out. For me, that would be a jam-crammed barn filled with antiques and who-knows-what, and probably a nearby llama farm that makes and sells lovely soft yarns. I'll have to think about my third choice, but I suspect it would involve books...

And then there's that lovely dinner out that often caps your away-from-home vacations. The secret here is to treat it as a real dress-up night out, maybe complete with limo. After all, you've been pretty darned frugal all week! There are always a few totally elegant, four-star restaurants in your vicinity, places you've read about, admired and yet that you've just never dared to visit. But, you've probably spent that kind of money on one of those away vacations without a second thought. This IS your vacation, so go for it! Heck, order some champagne...

I hope you've had or are now planning - a wonderful staycation. Let me know how it goes, and please share your good ideas too.

Happy Fourth of July!


July 3, 2008

Staycations: Play Together, Save Money!

(Part four of a five-part series this week)

One of the very best parts of a staycation is that you can gather family, friends, and neighbors together and spread the cost - and work - of some great adventures. Hosting a progressive picnic, having a street dance, even a large-group camping trip can all save money, bring a new dimension to your fun, and build a sense of community that will last long past your stay-at-home vacation time.
Let's look at a few ideas where getting a group together will make a big difference. First, almost any activity that costs can cost less for a group. Say, two or three families - maybe twenty people total -have been talking about trying that new Thai restaurant in town. ASK! Contact the manager and ask about a group rate for a sampling lunch, dinner on their least busy night, or some other money-saving idea they may suggest. Always deal with the person who has the power/authority to make these kinds of decisions.
Same goes for local attractions, concerts, fairs and festivals. ASK! You'd be amazed how eager organizers can be to just get people through the front gate of their event and how willing they can be to steeply discount admissions for a group. This can apply to everything from horseback riding to astonomy programs at the local observatory.
But the best way to save some money this summer is to get together with others for at-home activities. Maybe you plan your own neighborhood field day with three-legged races, balloon tosses, penny pitches, a cake walk and such. Maybe you organize a contra or square dance checking with your local dance group to see if they'd help organize, maybe provide callers, even suggest cheap music sources. How's about a night at the drive-in, a movie shown outdoors in someone's big back yard, complete with popcorn and brown cows (the kind you drink, not the moo-ey ones).
If you plan to do anything substantial outdoors, be sure to invite/let all the neighbors know ahead of time, AND be sure to check in with your town hall, both as a courtesy and to be sure no permits are needed.
When my siblings and I were young, all the kids in the neighborhood put on a play or variety show every summer in a borrowed barn owned by one of the neighbors. I don't really remember much adult oversight, where we got our ideas, how it all worked out with kids of such a wide age range, but I do so remember all the neighbors of every age sitting on the benches in Mr. Flibbert's dusty barn, buying our lemonade, and howling with laughter at whatever we were presenting.
While today's kids may go to theater camp, I can't forget the variety show a totally nuts group of us pulled together a few years ago. One fellow who hadn't played his saxophone since high school - a long time ago - performed pretty darned credibly, one adorable little girl tap-danced, the five high school boys with their garage band were thrilled to have everyone - anyone -actually listen to them, and one of our town's oldest citizens decided to do some magic tricks. Well, every single one of those tricks came undone, fell apart somehow leaving the audience absolutely limp with laughter!
And so, anything that gathers a group, whether old friends or ones-to-be-made, can add a whole new depth to your staycation. Please let me know when the ice cream soical is as I'd love to stop by!
Tomorrow: Now, let's spend some money, a little anyway, on this stay-at-home vacation.

July 2, 2008

Staycations: Playing Hometown Tourist

(Part three of a five-part series this week)

This is a tough one as there's so much available within 25 miles of most people, things we've seen and said, "Sometime I'd like to check that out." But, we never do... until company comes and we have to play tourist in our hometown. So, even if you aren't expecting visitors right away, let's see what there is to do nearby.

First, let's talk about mindset and all those things that...well, they just aren't you. Auntie Alice, your favorite relative, is coming to visit next week. She's 79 and loves anything to do with music and art. Big John, your older brother will be along in early August and he's into cars and car racing as well as being a history buff expecially when it comes to WWII.

And then there's Bubbles, your still-exuberant, effervescent, and a bit exotic college roomie. She's into "experiences," the more daring the better. Oh, and don't let me forget, your son's friend Sergio from Spain, you know, the family he lived with during his junior year abroad, well, that friend is coming through and he loves the night life!

Okay, so what things would you plan to do with each of these guests?

Because Maine is such a summer-rich state with a gazillion free outdoor concerts, fairs, festivals. art shows, and so, so much more, it's not only hard to even begin to give you ideas, but I also need to keep in mind that, even if you don't live here, hopefully, your area offers this kind of bounty too.

Go to your nearest tourist information center and peruse all the brochures, even ones you think you'd have no interest in. After all, your "company" may have! Go online to your state and county chambers of commerce and tourist info sites. Check event listings online at radio, tv and newspaper sites, and in the many free local newspapers available just about everywhere these days.

For Auntie Alice, there are free outdoor concerts in settings from intown parks to seaside to village green. Bring a blanket, chairs, an elegant snack or picnic and enjoy. Many towns and cities now offer "art walk," once-a-month evenings when all the local galleries, artists, and even antique shops welcome visitors, some even providing music and light refreshment. Check out nearby college museums which often house unexpectedly deep collections. And finally, consider taking Auntie to a class, maybe paint-your-own pottery, island basket crafting, or even SAORI weaving.

Now for Big John, check out what's coming for car shows, especially those oldies nights of shine-and-show at the local burger joint. Here in Maine we're lucky enough to have several auto museums, and the Owl's Head Transportation Museum, covering all forms of transportation, is outstanding. They have vintage plane fly-ins, and their auto auction in August is a great day. We also have a number of short-track racing venues in this area. EVERYONE should go to at least one drag race in their lifetime and jet-cars-under-the-stars is a blast! In our area, as throughout our country, we have a number of military sites worth visiting, and especially here, some of the old coastal forts and fortifications. And one place Big John would be sure to enjoy (yup, IF you're visiting Maine) is Eagle Island, Admiral Peary's home.

Bubbles will be fun to host because possible adventures abound in the summer! There's white-water rafting, which isn't terribly expensive and is most definitely an experience! (I almost drowned the last time I went.) There's panning for gold, and digging for native gems, which here in Maine is likely to be tourmaline. You can rent canoes or kayaks, and a moonlight canoe trip can be magical. Spend a day out on the water with a local lobsterman, eating your catch at day's end. Downhill biking on ski runs is more than I could manage, but hey! if Bubbles is up to it, great! This doesn't even BEGIN to suggest all that's available, but one more idea if you do find yourself in Maine this summer: Gulf Hagis, often called The Grand Canyon of Maine is an absolutely spectacular hike!

And finally, just when you've had quite enough company, thank you! along comes Sergio from Seville. He likes the night life. Now for me, this would be a serious challenge... first staying awake past 8 at night, then the music, the chaos, the drinking... oh, this is SOOOO not my scene!

I'd take him to the local comedy club, and then I'd find some suitable guides, maybe a foreign student group from the University, for checking out the other nearby 20-something haunts. A cop-out? Sure and no qualms either! Be very aware of Sergio's age and make sure any helpers you enlist are of legal drinking age...just in case. Now, I will be the one who's sympathetic the next morning with all sorts of home remedies for whatever may ail our guest!

There is an incredible number of things to sample on your staycation as a hometown tourist. If some possibility just does not appeal to you, then that's the very thing you simply must do!

Tomorrow we look at ways to come together with family, friends and your larger community for the very best staycation fun!


July 1, 2008

Staycations: Letterboxing, Geocaching and Other Treasure Hunts

(Part two of a five-part series this week)

The whole idea of a staycation, a stay-at-home vacation, is to save money in this day of high gas-and-everything-else prices. BUT that does not mean you can't have fun and make memories as we do on any holiday. Just think about the root word of "vacation" and consider: the whole concept of a vacation really is "to vacate" - leave - your usual routine, your everyday life, to take a little respite from your constant cares and concerns. And what better way to do that than a treasure hunt!

We can start with the good old-fashioned Long-John-Silver-type treasure hunt, one where a weathered map leads to buried riches. If you want to do this in your own yard, neighborhood, or more general vicinity, why not print out a Google map complete with landmarks, etc. For authenticity, use parchment paper, singe the edges, crinkle and dirty the paper to age it. Write out clues such as "Thirty paces from the old oak tree with the creaking branch."

And for the treasure? At the end of any of these treasure hunts can be any treasure you choose! If I were doing this one for young kids, I'd get a whole bunch of the very inexpensive "jewels," "gold" coins and such that come in bags at the craft store. I'd throw in plenty of chocolate coins too! After the treasure's been found, there's hours more of fun as the finders craft crowns and what-have-you.

Next level of treasure hunting is letterboxing, which is most definitely for all ages! Letterboxes containing a stamp, a notebook, maybe a few trinkets are hidden all over your hometown, your state, the country and yes, the world. All you need is access to a computer, a notebook, and a stamp of your very own. I usually use one that has a witch on a broomstick or sometimes one with an ankh symbol.

To start, go to www.letterboxing.org and plug in the name of your town, county or an area you want to explore. For my hometown, there are letterboxes in the Centennial Garden at the library, in the Community Garden, hidden under a rock by the river and in a number of other places. The website gives you the clues to find each box. When you find it, you stamp the book in the box with your personal stamp, write a comment if you want, and stamp your own book with the site stamp. There is an incredible connection to others through the comments that have been left. As you venture further afield, there will be more and more letterbox stamps to collect in your book.

AND, you can set up a letterbox yourself just by putting a stamp and notebook in a small watertight box (plastic food storage containers are perfect), hiding it and then posting your clues on the website. My grand-daughter Katie asked our library if she could set up that letterbox (now known as Grannie's Box), she donated the box and notebook, picked a possible hiding place in the Garden, the library staff put in their stamp and did the clues, and Katie was absolutely thrilled to be the first to stamp that letterbox's new book.

Next, let's try geocaching, kind of a step up from the letterboxing. Again, start at a website, this time http://www.geocaching.com/ but this time you'll need a bit more equipment, mainly a GPS device... one that you know how to use! (We've had one for several years and I still don't have a clue how to use it!) You'll also need a notebook and maybe a few treasures to leave at the cache.

Like the letterboxing, you go to the website, pick a locale, get clues and you're off. It sounds deceptively simple, but, no, it can be challenging! This is a recognized sport all over the world and some of the caches are downright exotic, elaborate. Okay, so using your GPS, you follow the clues, and find the cache. You write in the cache notebook (check the website for the wide array of info and other messages folks leave) and if this is a treasure cache, you take something and you leave something. If by any wild chance, you're visiting an overseas cache, leave something American... maybe a subway token from Boston or San Francisco.

And then there's orienteering, a whole 'nother level of outdoor adventuring, and one of my very favorites. Here you use a map and compass and follow a course, at the end of which there may be a treasure or not. Check out www.us.orienteering.org This sport (it's been proposed for Olympic inclusion) is a perfect way to teach/learn some valuable outdoor skills, and is perfect for inter-generational teams. There are terrific books on setting up courses (check your library, the kids' collection first), and of course tons of info at the website.

There is something inherently exciting about a treasure hunt, the promise of that pirate's chest of glittering plunder at the end of the adventure. During Gram and Gramp Camp last week, I set up a treasure hunt for Baxter and Katie, one that started with a clue on on the breakfast table. Following more short rhymed clues (on 3x5 cards sealed in snack-size bags, hidden that morning by Bert), we went to the flower box under the high school sign next door to our house, then down to the memorial stone on the village green, to the old railway station, to "in the middle of the street, a watering trough of flowers" where a final clue directed them to walk 100 steps north on Main Street. That took us to the treasure, a $10 gift card for each of them at the brand new bookstore right across the street from where we were standing. That was truly treasure of the highest order for them!

Tomorrow in this series, we'll look at being a home-town tourist.