gardening · what's cookin'

Day 875: Plum Preserves and Potential Prunes

Today we took a huge tub of plums to our homeschool meet-up and gave them away. Yesterday Mum stopped by and took some to give to her physiotherapist, her furniture refinisher, and one of my aunties. The day before that, we brought some to R’s orthodontist, and the day before that we dropped some off at our neighbours’ houses.

Our plum tree is still laden with fruit. It’s so heavy that the branches are touching the ground. It’s time to take drastic action.

Our oven has a “drying” setting, which I’ve never actually used; today I decided to try making prunes. There are only so many plums a person can eat, but my kids will devour prunes like they’re going out of style. So this morning I picked some fairly small plums, washed them, spread them out on a couple of upside-down cooling racks, and turned the oven on to “dry 140F.” I just checked them and they’re not done by any means, but they’re already starting to shrivel. Hopefully by tomorrow morning they’ll be done.

Plums in the oven before and after 7 hours of a drying cycle.

I’m also making a small batch of plum jam, just to see if we like it. A friend from the community orchard said that she made a syrup to put on her porridge; I might try that next.

In the meantime… anybody want plums?

gardening · Keepin' it real · whine and cheese

Day 871: It’s Joey o’clock!

There’s a guy on our street who does lawn care; he used to do ours. Joey is meticulous and takes pride in his work, which is basically why we fired him ten years ago—we felt he was too expensive, and asked him just to run the lawn mower over our grass and not worry about any of the trimming, blowing, or sweeping; he refused on grounds that he has standards.

I lose track of the days sometimes: homeschooling (and travel) means that we have very few externally-imposed routines of weekdays and weekends (aside from Shabbat.) Still, there’s one event from the outside world that anchors the week for me. It also aggravates the heck out of me, coming as it does around dinnertime every Sunday. I’ll be sitting peacefully in the hammock when I hear an engine rev and smell gasoline fumes. “Oh,” I’ll say, looking up, “is it Joey o’clock already?”

a cartoon clock face with the small hand on 5 and the big hand on 12. Instead of the numbers 4, 5, and 6, there's a cartoon guy with a loud leaf blower.

Joey o’clock stinks—I don’t mean that metaphorically. His lawnmower, trimmer, and blower are all gas-powered; they produce smelly fumes and about 85 decibels of noise. And given that Sunday afternoons and evenings are prime sitting-in-the-backyard and having-a-barbecue time, I have plenty of reasons to hate it.

Sadly, gas-powered mower bans and no-mow lawns haven’t yet caught on in this corner of the city; a pristine, weedless, clipping-free yard is still de rigeur, so there’s nothing I can do about Joey o-clock… for now. Like the chapel bells at the Lutheran seminary that woke me up every morning in fourth year university, it’s just another (annoying) reminder of the passage of time.

gardening · what's cookin'

Day 864: Crumble

First, a correction: in my post “Day 863: The Cottage”, I failed to describe our friend and host as a leonine stalwart of a man. The Sweet & Crunchy editorial team regrets this omission.

And now, back to the post.

What do you do with hundreds of litres of plums?

I’m planning to make jam, of course, and we’ll eat some fresh, but there are still many to be used. So I’ll give some away. And then? Well, we love peach crumble; why not plum crumble?

I’ll tell you why not. These plums are pretty small; even with E’s help, peeling and chopping all of them took more than an hour and a half. When I finally did get them all into the dish, I added what I thought was enough sugar.

It wasn’t enough sugar. The crumble was face-puckering, mouth-watering sour. It went down well enough with a bit of vanilla ice cream, but nobody asked for seconds except for E, who apparently likes sour things. It had potential, but between the sourness and the prep time, this is not a recipe I’ll be making anytime soon.

family fun · gardening

Day 858: Abundance

Our plum tree is so heavy with fruit that its branches are nearly touching the ground. Today we began harvesting. My inlaws stopped by, so I put them to work, and we picked and sorted around 20 litres of plums—and I can barely see where the tree is missing any fruit at all. I’m envisioning plum jam, plum brandy, and plum crumble.

But tonight I’m exhausted, so no crumble for me. Tomorrow we’re going up to visit a friend’s cottage for a couple of days. As I’m the driver, I should probably go to sleep so I’m well rested on the road. Caffeine will only take me so far.

Fibro Flares · gardening

Day 821: Can’t decide.

TL:DR: Brain fog. Still alive, but eloquence is lacking.

Another 9-hour sleep last night. I woke up and joined the kids at the nearby park: they were volunteering in the community orchard’s pollinator garden. I volunteered to do something physically easy, but I soon realized that my brain was still foggy—making decisions about which flowers were spent and should be deadheaded was far, far beyond my decision-making capabilities.

This leaves me in a strange place: I’m better in terms of pain and mobility, but still fatigued and brain-fogged. I can’t really decide what needs to be done or how to do it. I’m second-guessing my decisions about when to rest and when to push myself, which is an odd process when I know that my decision-making apparatus isn’t at its best (or even, let’s face it, at its average.)

education · gardening · Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical

Day 816: Weeds or Wildflowers?

Yesterday morning we came home to a jungle.

K mowed the lawn right before we left home for our trip. We knew the grass would get long, but we were shocked to see the waist- and chest-high plants that were dominating the front yard.

“It rained a lot,” my mum explained. She, my dad, and my in-laws are all fans of keeping the front yard neat and tidy. None of them appreciated Mr. December’s quip that this was our way of making homes in our neighbourhood more affordable.

Fearing that the neighbours would call bylaw enforcement on us, I biked out to Canadian Tire yesterday to get a new battery for our lawn mower (the old battery died before we left, and that last mowing was done with a lawnmower borrowed from the couple across the street.) This morning I told K it was time to mow; but first, I went out to pick some flowers I didn’t know we had. Now I have four flower arrangements brightening up my windowsill.

Four ceramic cups filled with wildflowers

As I snipped blossoms off their stalks, I reflected on how we wouldn’t have seen these flowers at all if we’d mowed our lawn like we’re “supposed to.” It occurred to me that these flowers are a bit like some kids:

  • They’re obviously not like the grass around them; they stand out from the crowd and don’t conform to our expectation of what a front lawn should look like.
  • When treated the same way as the surrounding lawn, they end up looking stunted and broken.
  • If we give them time to grow in their own way (instead of insisting they behave like grass) they thrive, flourish, and flower.

It’s so hard, when your child isn’t neurotypical, not to wish they could just be “normal.” Society is bent on making them fit in and behave like everyone else; but often these expectations only leave neurodiverse kids feeling like there’s something wrong with them that they need to fix. The very behaviours that make up part of who they are have been deemed unacceptable and unwanted.

But something magical happens if we stand back and observe. If we stop trying to make kids behave and learn and play like everyone else, if we give them time, our children astonish us. If we let them grow their way, they thrive. They put out flowers. They’re beautiful. They’re not weeds anymore—they never were, really—they’re wildflowers.

A weed can’t become a blade of grass no matter how often we mow it. A neurodiverse child can’t become neurotypical no matter what therapy or consequences we apply. But if we let them grow, unfettered, they will flower; and the world will be more beautiful for it.

community · Costa Rica · DIY · education · el cheapo · family fun · gardening · Homeschool · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 590: Down on the Farm

Finca Blanco Y Negro, Turrialba, Costa Rica

Ed. note: this is a continuation of yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so now.

We pulled into the driveway of Finca Blanco Y Negro (Black and White Farm) and were greeted by two women and a very enthusiastic child. E seized the opportunity for a new friend immediately: within minutes, she and this little boy were chatting—she in English, he in Spanish, neither understanding the other—as they explored the farm. The rest of us introduced ourselves and met Maria and Paola, the sisters who own the farm (the little boy, E, is Maria’s son.) It was decided that we’d tour the farm and then eat lunch, rather than the other way around.

Over and over, I was struck by how much research and thought went into running this farm. Blanco Y Negro isn’t a high-budget operation; in fact, part of their vision is to make organic vegetables accessible to more people than just rich people and hippies, and to develop new techniques that other small farms can use to grow organic produce. So when they were planning their mushroom-growing operation and saw the cost of all the “required” equipment, they set out to learn the reasons behind all the expensive recommendations. Then they found cheaper solutions that work just as well. Instead of a completely dark grow room, they put thick black garbage bags over the mushroom containers; in place of an expensive sterilizer, they boil the hay for three hours in a huge boiler to eliminate all microorganisms before using it as a growth medium. They built the mushroom greenhouse on the slope of the hill so that they can easily hose down the floor to keep it clean.

The kids received their first challenge in the mushroom house: who could find and pick the largest mushroom? They all scampered off, looking at every row of hanging bags to find the winning fungus. In the end, I think R might have found the biggest one. Not that it really mattered: all the mushrooms, big and small, were taken to the kitchen to become part of our lunch.

Have you ever heard a flock of ninety chickens? Just hens, mind you, no roosters at all? They are loud. As we stepped into their yard, the chickens crowded around the gate, saying “bawk?” as if to ask what we wanted. The kids got to pet a chicken, and we saw where the chickens turn kitchen scraps into high-quality fertilizer. Then we proceeded with our mission: to collect eggs for lunch. Mr. December and the kids eagerly headed into the henhouse to swipe the eggs. The chickens appeared unperturbed.

In the next pasture over, some black-bellied sheep were eager to munch on the long grasses we held for them. Then we went to see the composting shed—far more interesting than you’d think. In addition to a classic compost pile, they also have various barrels full of fermenting liquids which they use to deter insects from around the vegetable beds and to add beneficial microorganisms to the soil. Paola cracked open one barrel for us to see the bubbles forming on top of the liquid. It smelled like olives.

We explored the vegetable garden and learned about pest control without any pesticides, synthetic or natural. The results spoke for themselves: I’ve never before seen a head of lettuce with absolutely no holes or ragged edges on its leaves. The kids had a chance to plant some celery, beetroot, and arugula, which they did with more enthusiasm than I expected; N even came up with a way to streamline the planting process, by having one person place the seedlings in the correct positions while two others did the actual planting. E and her new friend worked with N and planted several rows of veggies in short order. Meanwhile, K indignantly stated that similar plants should be put together instead of mixing them up; she went to the opposite end of the row and diligently planted some celery.

The adults stood around and chatted. When Maria learned that we were homeschoolers, she got really excited: she’s also homeschooling her son, but it’s a pretty new concept in Costa Rica and she gets lots of pushback from… well, pretty much everyone. So we talked about our homeschooling experience and the homeschool community in general.

Poor R—she was sitting inside the farmhouse by this time, because all kinds of things on the farm were triggering her allergies (it hadn’t even occurred to me to bring her allergy meds with us.) Not to worry, though—Maria offered to find some of the allergy meds she had for her son so I could give R a dose. Wonder of wonders—it was the exact same prescription medicine R takes. I gratefully took the bottle and spoon and went to offer R some relief.

Finally, it was lunchtime! My kids were obnoxiously picky (we might need to have another talk about trying foods that are offered when you’re a guest somewhere) but Mr. December and I thoroughly enjoyed the tomato soup with local cheese and mushrooms, hard boiled eggs (they don’t get any fresher than that,) spring mix salad with beets (which I’m not usually a fan of, but it was delicious,) homemade bread with roasted garlic, and grilled vegetables. The kids deserted the table pretty quickly because Maria’s son called them over to see his kittens; all four of my kids were smitten and spent the rest of the time cuddling the kittens—even R, who declared that any allergic reaction she had would be worth it. Even dessert, which was homemade ice cream with berries on top, only held them for a few minutes before they went back to kitten wrangling.

We loved our time at the farm. By the end, I felt like we were visiting with friends. I was pleased when Maria shyly asked for my contact information—we exchanged numbers and I extended an invitation for them to visit us in Toronto. I hope they take us up on it.

DIY · gardening · what's cookin'

Day 506: On the Counter

Under normal circumstances, if you see weird equipment or supplies lying around the house, they’re for whatever harebrained scheme I’m working on this week. Mr. December is the type to clean up after himself every day, so anything that’s been left out is almost certainly not his.

Except for this time.

I’ve been sick, you know, so I haven’t been keeping tabs on when and where people leave the house; I guess that’s why I was very surprised to walk into the kitchen and see this:

Image description: a giant (two-foot high) white pail with a handle, a lid, and a clear plastic device sticking out of the top. The whole thing is sitting on the kitchen counter.

I was baffled. But the plot thickened: I noticed that the enormous tub of plums we’d picked was gone, and only a small bowlful remained. It seemed reasonable to assume that the plums were now in the bucket.

And then, a Nyquil-fogged memory came to me:

“Honey?” Mr. December appeared in the doorway, holding the car key, K peering at me from behind him. “Where’s that place where we bought the malic acid for chemistry class?”

“The home brewery store?” I croaked. “Same plaza as the trampoline place.”

Oh. Of course.

I don’t know whether he’s trying to make wine, brandy, or beer. I haven’t seen what’s inside the bucket, but I’ve been warned that three pounds of sugar will go missing from my pantry tomorrow.

I don’t care about the three pounds of sugar (little yeasties have to eat something to make alcohol, right?) What I do care about is how long it’ll take for this concoction to be drinkable. And does it have to take up all that valuable counter space?

family fun · gardening · what's cookin'

Day 501: Bumper Crop!

Five months ago, we were sure we’d have to cut down the fruit trees in the front yard. It had been well over five years since we’d had any fruit from any of them, and we decided we should just do away with them and start over.

Tonight I picked a giant bowl of yellow plums. I suspect there’s probably five times as many still on the tree. The branches are still heavy with fruit (a feature, not a bug, when you’re short) and highest branches are tantalizing us with red plums (it’s a grafted five-in-one tree) that are slowly ripening.

The plums are excellent—juicy, sweet, locally and organically grown (of course.) I think we’ll make plum crumble for dessert tomorrow. And the next day. And maybe a breakfast plum crumble for the weekend. Oh, and plum brandy, plum jam… we’ll keep going til I’m plum out of ideas.

Apathy · family fun · gardening · water you paddling?

Day 464: Bowl of Cherries

It must be summer.

This morning I saw a post on our neighbourhood FaceBook page about a lemonade stand happening today. It was just around the corner from us, so we went armed with loonies and toonies. It was even better than advertised: they had home-baked oatmeal-butterscotch cookies. I left the house with $20 and came back with $5. Money well spent, I tell you. Besides, lemonade stands are a great way to meet the neighbours.

I was feeling kind of “meh” today. No particular reason, just so. But I knew that I’d feel more energized if I went out and did something, and it was too hot to do anything that didn’t involve cold water, so I suggested an evening trip to the beach. Everyone but E said, “meh” and turned back to their devices, so I had a lovely couple of hours with E, kayaking and swimming in Lake Ontario.

When we got home I grabbed a container and went outside to the cherry tree. This tree has given us almost no fruit for the past six years; this year, for reasons unknown, it’s full of cherries. E helped me deliver a small container of them to our across-the-street neighbour, who’s been all alone since his wife died three years ago.

And now I’m sitting on our back porch. The warm breeze is playing with my hair and the sky is darkening. Just inside the door there are dozens of things for me to do, problems to solve, children to glue to their beds so they actually go to sleep… but out here there’s nothing but warmth and contentment, and a bowl of cherries.

Image Description: Cherries in a plastic container.