Planning Our Fourth of July Celebration

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Fireworks - copyright

I have always loved entertaining, and July 4 is no different. This is usually a very casual crowd, so I won’t be pulling out the good china, but I will try to make my guests feel special. I have red plastic plates — not the disposable kind — a blue-and-white plaid tablecloth with matching napkins that I have had for years, and blue place mats.

Of course, I will create a red, white, and blue centerpiece. The one seen in this photo is one I put together many times. This year, I think I will do something different. Of course, I will make my traditional flag cake. Here’s the wonderfully easy recipe, if it can be called a recipe:

Flag Cake - mlm

Most Americans know there should be 7 red stripes and 6 white ones. I miscounted when placing the strawberries last year, so this cake has 6 reds and 5 whites.

Ingredients

  • 1 pkg. Duncan Hines Classic White cake mix
  • 1 small pkg. fresh blueberries
  • 1 small pkg. fresh strawberries
  • 1 pkg. Cool Whip

Instructions

  1. Using a 1/4 sheet cake pan, make the cake by package instructions. For a larger cake, use 2 cake mixes.
  2. Refrigerate the baked cake — this makes it easier to frost.
  3. Using a pastry brush, gently remove any loose or dangling crumbs from the sides of the cake.
  4. Frost with Cool Whip — whichever kind you prefer. I use the sugar-free kind.
  5. In placing the fruit, begin with the blueberries to ensure the “field” for the stars is the correct size and shape relative for your sheet cake. The white that shows through between the blueberries makes up the stars.
  6. Cut the strawberries into quarters lengthwise. Trim as necessary to make them fit the shape of the stripes.
  7. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Of course, there is a patriotic-style wreath on our door, and our flag is already proudly flying.

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Fastest, Easiest Way to Dry Herbs

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Basil & Oregano - ground

The supply of dried herbs in my country French kitchen has been running low lately. I finally got around to drying and grinding some. Our new stash of our most frequently used herbs is now replenished.

I planted 3 basil plants this year, so it looks as if I will be busy drying basil all summer. That’s okay with me, as I do not want to run out of basil, ever. I can continue to cut & dry oregano all winter, but not basil, as it is an annual, and will be killed by the first frost.

The Fastest Way to Dry Herbs:

I discovered this method of drying herbs by accident — oh, what a happy accident! I will not likely ever go back to my former slow method of drying my herbs, which takes 3 to 4 months. You can read about the slow method in my original article on HubPages, How to Grow and Dry Herbs. At this time, all my information about growing herbs will remain in that article.

Be Sure to Wash/rinse the Herbs Well
Washing Oregano

After washing your herbs in cold water, and allowing them to dry, spread them onto a cookie sheet. Bake them at your oven’s lowest temperature, usually about 180 or 200 degrees Farenheit. Then turn the oven off, but leave the herbs inside for at least 2 hours. Longer is fine if you have other things do do, but after 2 hours, they should be crunchy — perfect for grinding. If not, it is probably because they were still a bit damp when they went into the oven.

It is fine for them to be overlapped on the cookie sheet, but if you have too many, and they are piled too deeply, the ones on bottom may still be soft when they come out of the oven. If you have a lot of herbs, it’s better to use more than one cookie sheet, or to do two baking sessions.

Italian Oregano - mlm

Even the hard freeze of February, 2015, didn’t kill this oregano.

How This Happened:

One day I needed some dried oregano in a hurry, so I decided to speed up the drying process by spreading the herbs onto a cookie sheet, and baking them for 15 minutes on the lowest temperature setting. For my oven, that temp is 180 F. At the end of 15 minutes they weren’t dry enough to grind, so I left them in the oven, but turned the oven off. About a half-hour later, I took them out. The still were not dry enough, but close. So I closed the oven door, leaving the herbs inside, with the oven still turned off. Later, I realized I had forgotten about them, while doing other tasks. By then they were crunchy, and ready to grind. I’ve been using this method for drying herbs ever since.

Sage - mlm

Dried sage is the key to great chicken or turkey dressing.

Sage is Also One of the Herbs in My Little Garden

When grinding dried oregano and sage, I use a coffee grinder that I reserve for herbs only. When drying basil, I have found that rubbing them between my hands gets just the right consistency. Just put some sprigs of basil between your hands, apply light pressure, and rub your hands together rapidly as if trying to warm them. Some of the basil leaves may be tougher than others. If so, just repeat the process.

Below are Some Photos of Herbs:

Basil is one of the few herbs that is an annual.

Basil is one of the few herbs that is an annual. It is also one of the most popular herbs.

 

Lavender - mlm

Lavendar can be used to make cookies, tea, etc. It can be put into your pillowcase to promote sleep. You can even put it into your bathwater.

 

 

Lemon Thyme Only

Lemon Thyme smells wonderful in your herb garden or in your home. It also has tiny white flowers.

 

Old Library Table is Now a Potting Station

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Potting Table - mlm

I went antiquing a few weeks ago, and brought home this lovely, very distressed, old Queen Anne library table to be used as a potting table/desk, and for my small gardening tools, seed packets, etc. I got the idea from an episode of Hallmark Channel’s The Good Witch when she was sitting at a table in her atrium potting herbs. My table is much smaller, but it does the job for me. A plus is that it can be cleaned off, and do double duty as a serving table when we have more than just 3 or 4 guests.

Most of the old tables I found had been restored or stripped and painted, then priced pretty high. When I told one man that I was looking for an old rustic table that I could refinish myself (or not), he gave me the name of a small store that I had never noticed before. It is called Reinvintage, and is located at 510 South Main Street (U.S. Hwy 301) in Wildwood, FL. The young woman who owns the store is delightful. I will definitely shop there again. There is no website shown on her business card, but she is on Facebook, Etsy, Pinterest, and Tumbler. She can also be reached by e-mail at reinvintageantiques@yahoo.com.

I already had some things to put on my new gardening table, such as the little black-on-white toile watering can shown below, and the canvas bag with pockets for tiny gardening tools (shown above). I found the canvas bag at Bookstone probably 15 or 20 years ago. Because the table is inside our lanai, I wanted it to look nice, so I began gathering things to hold my sometimes dirty or otherwise unsightly gardening accoutrements. So I went to Beall’s, (a local retailer) Michael’s, JoAnn’s Fabrics, and TJ Maxx. In otherwords, this was easily and inexpensively put together.

Outils de Jardin Zoomed - mlm

The aqua canister is part of a set that, fortunately, was priced separately — I did not need a whole set. I already have a canister set, thank you very much. It has a space with chalkboard paint, and comes with it’s own piece of chalk. I wrote garden tools in French: outils de jardin. I see in this photo that the words don’t appear centered, but they actually are.

See the book in the center of the above photo? It’s fake. The photo below reveals what I have hidden inside it. The Miracle-Gro is for flowers only. I do organic gardening in my little potager (kitchen garden).

Fake Book Storage - mlm

 

This (below) is my new seed holder. It is also seen in the right foreground of the top photo. I found it at Beall’s, but also saw it at TJ Maxx. It is wooden, and is divided into small sections. It reminds me of the old wooden soft drink cases from many years ago. It is perfect for dividing my seeds into categories such as flowers, veggies, herbs, etc. I had no idea I had collected so many seeds until I started going through them and sorting them. It’s a good idea to keep informed of what seeds you have on hand before buying more, because I found several duplicates in my stash.

Seed Box - mlm

This little gardening station has been lots of fun to put together. We still have to choose tile for the concrete floor, but not until we find a selection that we can fall in love with immediately. We’re considering ceramic tile that has the look of hardwood. Why ceramic tile when we refused to have it inside our home? Ah, that’s a story for another day.

 

 

Little Steps Down a Sloped Side-Yard

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Side of Driveway Steps - mlm

Isn’t it amazing what we can accomplish when we are willing to exert the effort? It’s also amazing what developers will do to avoid the high costs of better drainage when homes are built ridiculously close together.

One side of our yard is steepest near the garage, and becomes more level toward the street. After almost turning my ankle on that slope, I decided it had to go, or be conquered. Conquering it was far easier and less expensive. Prettier, too.

I still stand and admire my 5 little stair-steps on the slope at the side of our garage and driveway. I did this in just two days! The stones used for the steps will also fit together in a nice shape for a patio or walk. I placed them such that the drop from one stone to the next is equal to the thickness of the stones. This required more stones than necessary, but made for a more gentle, gradual decline. Soon these flowers will grow to fill in the spaces between them, and I won’t need to buy as much pine straw mulch.

New Steps - mlm

If those 3 small rectangular stones look out of place, it’s because they are. They were left over from building our patio, are serving as temporary stepping stones, until Bo has time to remove the stump seen on the far left of this photo.

There is one good thing about the worthless sandy soil around here:  it is very, very easy to dig and move around, so building this little “staircase” was easy for me. The hardest part was lifting the stones, and that wasn’t too bad. I began at the top of the slope, and used a garden trowel (a.k.a., tiny shovel) to scoop and shift the soil into place, checked it with my level, then positioned the stone.  I then pushed some good soil into place against the sides of each stone to keep the sand from washing out from underneath, and moved down to the next step. You can see I also put in a low border with stones left over from building my kitchen garden (see the April 12 post). The bottom step is supported by one of those stones.

When the steps were done, I filled in the area around them with good garden soil, and began planting my flowers. The flowers are mulched with pine straw — the best mulch available anywhere. The plants’ roots will help hold the soil, too.

Creeping Jenny on Steps - mlm

Between the two lowest steps, there was a small space of exposed dirt. To prevent weeds from sprouting there, as well as to prevent erosion, I planted Creeping Jenny on each side of the steps, and guided the longest strands of it into that space. Within 2 weeks, the Jenny had already almost filled in the space. In my Hub Pages article,  5 Great Ground Covers for Sun and Shade, I have shown a variety of good ground covers. Creeping Jenny is the only one I know of that is slender enough, can take full sun, and is not overly invasive. There are many lovely ground covers that would be ideal for tiny spaces such as this, for example, Irish Moss, but they require shade. I had to have one that can take the harsh summer sun.

I shouldn’t be at risk of turning my ankle anymore, plus I can enjoy watching the flowers grow and bloom.

Raised Bed Kitchen Garden is Almost Complete

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Soil Is In - mlm

I am so excited. I/we have been working on this little kitchen garden for soooo long. It is finally almost done, and yards and yards of soil (a mixture of top soil and composted cow manure) were delivered Friday afternoon. Just look at all that beautiful black soil! So, I have been playing/digging in the dirt (I mean soil) this weekend. A few of the plants, such as the oregano and sage, didn’t seem to mind the sand. Most of them, however, have not done so well, especially my basil plants. Most of my gardening posts will be on In the Garden with Maria, but as I mentioned on the “About” page of this blog, it is all about establishing our new home. Putting in a small herb and kitchen garden is the first thing I have done everywhere we have lived.

My hubby, Bo, built the low wall around the garden for me, so I could have a raised bed. That will be so much better, not only for the plants, but also for my back. It’s not completely finished yet, as there are some small spaces where a 1/2 brick was needed. That can be done later when he gets a better tool for scoring them in order to break them. For now, I have 2 new basil plants waiting to go into that new soil, as well as cilantro, parsley, sage, some onion sets, tomato plants, and bell peppers.

Our soil was delivered, taken by wheel barrow from the street to the backyard, and spread by Adam Neusbaum, and his “helpers”. The price was $50 per cubic yard — no extra charge for moving it from the street to the backyard, or for spreading it for us. This is a family business, and to date, all the people who have been to our home are members of his family. We get all our pine straw and soil from Adam. You can reach him at www.CompostCowManure.com, or at 1-855-475-2225.  This is the 3rd time we have bought soil from them, and the 4th time we have had pine straw (needles) delivered. We have been very please every time.

This evening, as soon as it is cooler (it was 86 today) I will be out there digging up and potting the plants that have been in place. After my good soil is in place, I can put those little plants in their new home.

The guys from Village Palms installed our patio last winter, and when they removed the sod for the patio, they made sure to remove enough that would allow us to enlarge the garden. A portion of the patio can be seen in the first photo. Thanks again, guys! Now we have to find some chairs for this patio.

Herb Garden Then - mlm

 

This was the garden when we first moved into our new home — Even then, I knew it wasn’t the best, but I was so very anxious to get some basil and oregano in the ground. I quickly learned the soil here is almost worthless, and that serious soil amendments would be needed. I compost everything I can get my hands on, but things wouldn’t decompose fast enough. Enter Adam and his wonderfully rich soil. The little garden in this photo is a far cry from what we have now. Thank goodness!

 

 

Remembering My Dad Through His Azaleas

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My dad’s azaleas are in full bloom now. These 2 bushes are some I propagated from his huge azaleas (taller than his house) a few years ago. Each year, in spring, I have him back for about 2 to 3 weeks, while those gorgeous azaleas produce buds that grow huge, then begin to open, and almost overnight, it seems, they are covered with a vibrant explosion of color. When I brought them here, they were purple. The pH of the soil (with my composting) has changed them to a gorgeous hot pink.

Dad's Azaleas Out Window - mlm

I planted them beneath the kitchen window so that, when they grew large enough, I could see them from inside our house. That time has arrived. Of course, I covered the blinds with French lace cafe-style curtains (seen far left), in keeping with the country French-inspired decor. They are normally closed, but are open during “azalea season”. Below is a better look at those pink beauties. On a cool morning, I can sit by that window and admire dad’s azaleas.

Dad's Azalea Bud - mlm

 

Dad's Azalea 2-27-15 mlm

In just 2 years, they grew from that (below) to this (above).

Dad's Azaleas Newly Installed - mlm

These azaleas were moved from dad’s yard to our yard near Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 2010. At that time, they were little more that slender sticks. Each one had only 3 or 4 flowers. They will eventually outgrow this narrow planting bed on the side of our home. I hope that, by then, our yard will have enough shade in other areas that they can be moved to a location that will accommodate their mature size. I am trying to create as much shade as possible, as quickly as I can. Stay tuned, to see where they end up being moved.

Meanwhile, I will have my dad smiling down on the grown-up little girl who he had to force to work in the yard with him. During that time, I was learning so much about gardening, and didn’t even know it. He never would let me mow the grass, though. He said I would mess up his lawn. I think he just knew I couldn’t handle his big mower. When I became interested in gardening, it made him so happy. Over the years, we exchanged plants many times.

P.S.  Azaleas love acidic soil. Save your used coffee grounds (or grinds – whichever you prefer to call them) to sprinkle around your azaleas. The pine needle mulch also adds acid to the soil. Both of these amendments will turn pink hydrangeas to purple or even blue, if you use enough.

 

Privacy Screen for Lanai

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This blog was begun for our children and grandchildren, so they could see our new home and what we are doing to it. This post is primarily for them, but of course, all are welcome.

Other Things We Have Been Up To Lately Besides Golf:

Since we both finally got rid of the upper respiratory crud that burned its way through our neighborhood, we have been working on some things around the house, mainly our lanai. As can be seen by the reflection of the lights from inside the house, we had the lanai glassed in. The screening we had before was nice, but allowed so much dust to get in, that we bit the bullet and did it sooner than planned.

Bo is working on building a low wall around my little kitchen garden to make it a raised bed. I have been painting; below is a photo of my partially finished shutters. They are actually louvered closet doors, but for whatever reason, I find myself calling them shutters. This aqua paint is a bit too bright, and I had planned to go over it with a wash of diluted white paint, then distress them a bit. That should help to tone down the brightness. If I were going for a beach theme, this color would be perfect as it is, but…. We’re already thinking we need one more set of shutters so we can have a wider screen. Unfortunately, road construction on Hwy 466-A at US 301 makes it almost impossible to reach the little antique/junque store where I bought them. After they are all finished, Bo will attach the sets with hinges to make a screen, to keep out the morning sun which, in summer, comes in at just the right angle so that it shines in your face or on your back, depending on where you sit. It also makes it very hot out there. Here’s a photo of how they look at this time:

Lanai w Shutters MLM1

Glassing in the lanai meant that we could no longer have our gas grill on the lanai, so we had a patio laid in order to have a place to put the grill. So for Christmas, Bo got a glassed-in lanai, and I got a beautiful patio. Now the search is on for some chairs for that patio. Photos of the patio and raised-bed garden will be in a future post.

Before Fresh Paint

Below is a “Before” photo of one set of the shutters before I began work on them. It’s hard to see in this photo, but this set had two shades of yellow on them, and both sets were very dirty. When we had our house power-washed a few months ago, I had the guys power-wash the shutters for me, too.

Shutters - Before

You can also see that this end of our lanai is still a bit of a mess. That will change when I finish decorating it. For now, we use the other end (which is larger) for seating and entertaining. We have always had a walk-out door on the side of our garage, as well as the large garage doors. In this house we do not have the walk-out door. Because of that, I find myself leaving some of my gardening tools on the lanai, rather than carting them back and forth to the garage which is on the front of the house. After we get the bare concrete floor tiled, and have the lanai completely decorated, that will have to stop. Darn it!

 

After I get the wash of white one the shutters, I will post more photos.

Finally Back to Writing and Blogging

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If you have followed this blog, you know that my husband, Bo, and I took a road trip to see New England last fall. What you may not know is that the trip had to be cut short because I got bronchitis. I’ve been away from writing so long because, just as I began to recover from the bronchitis, I relapsed. That time, it took much longer to bounce back. Bo also got sick, then our little Maltese, C.C., got a case of kennel cough. We were a sight, the three of us.

About That Trip:

I have lots of additional stories and photos from that trip to post, even though they are now old news. These are just two of the beautiful scenes we saw on that abbreviated trip.

Steeple in Fall Leaves - MLM 1

This steeple among the autumn leaves really spoke to me. Of course, it is a scene that can be found anywhere in the U.S., and in many other countries. This photo was taken on a day trip over to Dartmouth University.

 

Farrm in Killington, VT MLM 1

This is a farm in Killington, VT, that was so very peaceful-looking when seen from the highway.

More to come:

More from our New England trip coming soon, including some wonderful covered bridges, beautiful fall foliage, and some flowers that I hadn’t seen before.

 

 

I Found a Wonderful Yarn Shop and Another Covered Bridge

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I rarely pass a yarn shop without going in. I love handling the soft yarn, and seeing all the new colorways. So, when we were out walking a couple of days ago, and saw Black Sheep Yarns in Kent, CT, of course I went in. Bo even went in with me, and played with Nellie, shown below. Every yarn shop needs a resident dog, and this shop has a gem. Nellie is a puppy and, unlike most puppies, is quite calm. She laid just below the check-out counter and rolled over for a tummy rub from every customer who approached her.

Nellie

Nellie’s owner is also the shop owner, Nancy A. Hamilton. Nancy is a lovely, friendly, and gracious lady. I wish I could have hung around long enough to get to know her. I really got lucky when I wandered into this yarn shop. It seems that Connecticut Magazine voted Black Sheep Yarns the best yarn shop in Connecticut for both 2013 and 2014!

Did I buy any yarn? Of course I bought some yarn — and a pattern, too. Here they are. Nancy printed this pattern for me from Ravellry.com.

Pattern & Yarn

My next knitting project, after I finish the afghan I’m working on.

Nancy’s shop is at #12 Old Barn Road, in Kent, CT  06757, and is open every day except Tuesdays. Her phone is 860-927-3808. You can go to her website BlackSheepYarnsCT.com by clicking right here.

If we are ever up this way again, I will definitely stop at Black Sheep Yarns. Count on it.

The Bulls Bridge:

Earlier that day, we visited one of the few remaining fully functional covered bridges in Connecticut, the Bulls Bridge. The bridge dates back to 1842.

Bulls Bridge 1

Like all covered bridges, it carries only one lane of traffic, so if a car or truck has already entered the bridge, you must wait. So far, on this trip we have visited 3 covered bridges. I have a published article entitled “Alabama’s Covered Bridges”. After we return home, I will write an article on HubPages about the bridges we have seen on this trip.