Mid-summer’s Dream: The Fairy Garden

shed poincianaWith the boys gone for the summer, and Clay focused on the shed (passed final inspection, yea!) I had to find a way to occupy myself. So I immediately thought of the standard project for lonely moms: The Fairy Garden.

What?!? That’s not the first thing you think of creating when you have vast quantities of time on your hands? You need to reassess your priorities, my friend.

Fairy garden1I have a messy piece of ground in the backyard that is full of mango leaves, snakes, invasive vines and critter droppings. But it’s also glorious and shady and at least 5 degrees cooler than the rest of the yard. So why not brave the mangoes (I’m allergic), the snakes(shudder) and the spiky vines (ouch) and make a magic forest garden?

What could possibly go wrong?

FG up

Apparently, the fairies in residence were quite happy with the existing chaos, and threw everything at me to stop my determined progress. I once again confirmed that I am allergic to mango sap. For those in parts north, mangoes contain urushiol, the oily allergen that’s found in poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. That’s right, a mango tree is a giant wooden itch-maker. Urushiol is in the bark, the skin of the fruit, and in the leaf. So, for me, raking under a mango tree is foolish. Raking under 10 mango trees is lunacy.

Even taking every precaution(covering everything but my face; washing my clothes and skin immediately after working), I had not one, but two separate breakouts. One that covered my shin and wept for two weeks, and one that made my right eye swell up.FG seating

Undaunted, I shuffled around the forest like Quasimodo, pulling weeds and digging out cantankerous vines. At long last, it was cleared, and I triumphantly motored to the nearest landscaper to buy my dream path – blue flagstone.

path

But I soon learned buying Tennessee stone to use in a Florida garden is not fiscally or environmentally responsible. I just couldn’t justify it. After moping about for a few hours, I came up with another idea. Nylon rope  - a gift from a reckless Air Force uncle to even more reckless boys. We have yards and yards of it and use it for rope swings and climbing. We pinned it down with steel wire and voila, instant path. Not exactly eco-friendly, but it’s re-purposed and free. As it discolors, packs down and the plants grow up around it, I think it will look just fine.

poison All that’s left is to add the plants. I am slowly planting things here and there. I started with two coffee plants, and the first hole I dug, I thunked something hard. I thunked once more before I got down to see what it was. The fairies were still sending me some pretty dark messages, but at least this one was cool. It was a cobalt glass poison bottle. Cursory research shows from the turn of the century. Not sure what I’ll do with it yet.

FG close upSo far, I’ve planted coffee, dwarf cherry, Barbados cherry, dwarf pomegranate, Sumatra tobacco, aloe vera, citronella and rosemary. I still have lots of room left for more plants, and ample room for the fairies, of course.

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Projects and Progress

progress 068
What a difference a season makes! Spring is cautiously approaching the Tropical Homestead. We’ve had some cold air travel south from those frigid Northern storms, but weve had some beautiful days in the 80’s, too. And beautiful days mean projects are afoot!
 

 

progress shedClay made awesome progress on the shed – until he involuntarily took leave of his ladder with a heavy wooden beam in his hand. He most likely broke something in his foot, but with his stubborn refusal to seek medical attention, we’ll never know.

 

 

But one spouse’s painful, devastating blow is another spouse’s opportunity to get another project underway. I skillfully turned 6 weeks of a debilitating injury into an awesome chance for a smaller (and closer to the ground) project to shine. Aquaponics!

 

progress 008For the uninitiated, Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising fish or plants in a tank) and hydroponics (growing vegetable and other plants in a liquid environment) together. The beauty of aquaponics is that fish produce waste that nourishes the plants. Plants take up the waste, so then the water is filtered and oxygenated for the fish once it drains from the plants. A self-sustaining system!

 

We decided to start small, so we are using a 110-gallon tank for the fish, and two 40-gallon tanks, or grow beds, for the veggies. Once the system is in balance and the fish get bigger, we’ll be able to add two more grow beds.

 

progress aqua paintI’m usually the ideas person, Clay has to be the brains and the brawn for most of my schemes. But with Clay out of commission, I was in charge digging out for the tank and the foundation posts, loading, unloading and moving lumber from store-to-home-to-chop-saw-to-final position and all the painting. I loved every minute of it. Clay still was in charge of design – that’s why it looks so cool.

progress aqua siphonNow that he’s getting around better, Clay gets to be in charge of plumbing. Last night he was able to get the pump operational and the siphon drain system working. Next week we hope to get the grow media (clay pellets) and the fish. I’ll be sure to share once the whole thing comes to life!

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Growing Our Own Coffee: Nailed It

We did it. We drank coffee brewed with home grown beans. Failure never tasted so sweet.

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We were so excited when our coffee bush was loaded with blossoms this spring. And, whoa, did they smell heavenly. All spring we lovingly weeded around the bush, checking the soil for just the right amount of moisture, and keeping a daily vigil for the rogue mole that just loved to circle around it.

coffee plant

Soon the white blossoms gave way to little green clubs, then full-on beans. So many beans! All summer they got bigger. Until the super rains, so common at the Tropical Homestead, arrived. And the beans…changed. For the worse. It was exciting at first because they started taking on a reddish hue, just as they should when they begin to ripen. But instead of turning bright red they literally turned black overnight. I’d pluck them from the branch and they would be all squishy. Heart-breaking. And incredibily unappetizing.

bean close-up

So we lost a bunch. But some remained. And once the rains slowed, they ripened to that beautiful Christmas-lipstick-race-car red. I harvested them. Not with crates or baskets or even a bag. The handful fit it my pocket. But, by Jove, it was MY handful and MY pocket!

 

bean roll

This where a little knowledge would have gone a long way. I was already dreaming of the fine roasted flavor filling the kitchen. But that waltz wasn’t even on the dance card yet.

 

bean shuck

First, you need to squish the beans out of the shells. For this, I found it’s best to employ someone with small hands that enjoys slimy fingers. We’re fortunate to have such slime-loving-itty-bitty-digits-person in residence. Griff squished out the beans like a champ.

fermentThen they have to ferment. That’s right, I said ferment. The same process that gives us wine and beer (and mead) works on coffee, too. Isn’t nature wonderful? But instead of yeast turning sugar into alcohol, the microbes at work are eating away at the aforementioned slime that coats the bean. I placed the beans in water (removing any that floated) and waited FOR DAYS. Three or four, I think; seemed like forever. I changed the water one or two times each day as not to let ne’er do well microcreepies crash the party. Once the beans felt bumpy instead of slippery, I dumped out the water and let them dry in one layer FOR DAYS. I was really impatient by this time, but the beans need to be completely dry before roasting.

Once dry we can finally get to roasting. I feel the need to remind you that I’ve waited months, and then DAYS for this moment. I lovingly dumped my pale, very dry beans into a pre-heated skillet and waited for magic. Almost immediately the kitchen filled with smoke. This is normal, so the internet said, so I opened a window and forged ahead. But alas, my beans, once again, turned black. I burned them. The skillet was too hot.

burnt beans

 I was undaunted. I would grind these little caffeinated bits of charcoal. I’d come too far to turn back now. I let the beans cool overnight. I awoke and ground the beans, grinning like a madman. This was guaranteed to be horrible, but we did it, coffee from our own beans.

carafeThe handful of beans was enough for one cup of espresso. Clay and I split it; he took his with sugar, and I made mine a sissy iced coffee drink.

It was…not horrible. Although burnt, it was a smoky flavor rather than full-on charcoal. And there was absolutely no bitterness. Very, very smooth. Smoky and smooth.

iced coffeeI learned a lot from this experience, mostly a new awareness of my utter lack of patience. But I will happily wait for next year’s harvest. And hope the skillet is a little cooler.

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Love Among the Corn Rows

corn_wampum1Saturday is the day I pamper the corn – not just any corn – but Wampum corn, which produces multi-colored corncobs most people classify as ornamental. But after grinding some Wampum corn into meal and enjoying the most blissful cornmeal pancakes, our family enjoyed a day with the energy and strength of a thousand well-fed men. We realized there’s some good stuff in colored corn you just can’t get from a box of Jiffy mix. Science backs me up on this.

 

Unfortunately, the Tropical Homestead’s latitude and climate does not lend itself to peak production on corn; between the rains, oppressive heat, humidity and bugs we’re lucky if we get a few misshapen cobs for one superhero breakfast.

fawlarvThat’s why Saturday is Spa Day for Wampum. Today I declared war on the Fall Armyworm.  A pest of luxury, it chooses to winter in southern climes and returns, refreshed, in plague-like waves to the grain belt in the summer. It burrows in the whorl of young corn and makes an unholy mess of the corn plant.

My weapon – a two-pronged pine needle I use as both chopstick and rapier, plucking them out of the furled leaves and runnin’ them through in pirate fashion. Arrgh!

corn eatenAfter about a half hour of stooping, scooping and smooshing, I reached the most beautiful corn plant we have ever grown. Tall, dark and handsome, thick leaves with no telltale infestation holes. But – Alas! I spy a dark shadow in the center of the corn. I set my jaw and prepare to deal with the interloper with extreme prejudice. Instead I find this little guy, a wee froggie. He found the frog cornperfect place, a cozy home that drains the dew like a funnel, and all he has to do is wait for the bugs to come to him. He is my new found love; an adorable security guard for our corn.

This sight reminds me that we have been homesteading for three years. We have learned just a fraction of what we would need to become self-sufficient. Our failures outnumber our successes four-to-one. My own confidence gets shaken regularly but my confidence in nature grows stronger by the day. Life will find a way – to not only survive, but thrive. Sometimes all we have to do is leave it alone.

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When Trees Hug Back – Pine Resin Salve

september 2013 005We are usually all about edible landscaping at the Tropical Homestead, but in this post we pay homage to the pine tree and natural remedies. I found a website, Bear Medicine Herbals, extolling the virtues of Pine Pitch Salve and was intrigued.

But first, some disclaimers. I am not a doctor. I don’t know if this will help you heal or make you break out in gory pustules. You alone know your tolerances. So don’t sue me.
Also, pine sap is part of the tree’s natural defenses. Take only what you need and avoid new wounds on the bark, if possible. I don’t want the Arbor Day Foundation suing me, either.
fire antI haven’t ventured into natural medicine before except for the gaggle of aloe vera plants we have around the house, but this salve piqued my interest. The salve utilizes the pitch, or hardened sap, as a natural counter-irritant that increases blood flow around wounds (like splinters or bug bites) drawing the irritant or foreign object to the surface. Aside from a great splinter remedy, I wondered if it would help with healing fire ant bites. For anyone who’s experienced a bite, you have to appreciate something that might draw that burning itchy stuff out of your skin faster than normal. This is even more attractive to me because I refuse to wear anything more an flip-flops on my feet while working in the yard and the fire ants are wise to this. Their ambushes are the stuff of legends, leaving my feet itchy, scabby and scarred. Is it any wonder I was drawn to a hope that the scourge living in my backyard could also be cured by something else living in my backyard?
pine tree sapOur Florida pines aren’t the family Christmas tree types. They are called slash pines. They are big and gnarly and have out-lived more hurricanes, floods and droughts than all your Grandpappies combined. Good news for me, because the backyard is full of beat-up pines trying to heal. Finding wounds was easy. Nature has its own redunant systems and the pines create lots more sap than needed, making knots and bumps in the bark.

pine geodeAfter finding a good bump, I took a bit of drippy sap, some tacky sap and a few big chunks of hardened resin. The resin was suprisingly beautiful, with veins and textures like little tree-geodes. Though tempted to display these natural works of art, I couldn’t. They had a date with a hammer.

I wrapped the chunks in a tea towel. With a few blows of the hammer, my geodes were reduced to sticky fairy dust and I was ready to make the salve. pine meltThis is where my instruction turns down the path I like to call: “What Not to Do.” I read several different articles on pine pitch salve, and blended the recipes provided together. I melted one part sap and resin dust with two parts beewax in a makesift double-boiler set up. Or rather, I attempted to.  Beeswax melts at about 145 degrees fahrenheit. Pine resin, well…does not.  This resulted in a gooey ring of pitch around the bottom of the jar.

What I should have done is added the sap and crushed resin into olive oil (or any other stable oil) and waited. A long time. Until the pine infused into the oil. THEN I should have added the melted beeswax to make the salve. Live an learn, and no real damage done. I slowly added 4 parts oil to my melted-ish mixture and stirred. After 2 weeks, the salve has finally taken on a pine scent, which is a good sign it’s infusing nicely.

pine finishedI’m disappointed (but not sorry) to report that this remedy acts more as a talisman then a medicine. Since making it, I haven’t been bitten once, so I can’t tell you about its effectiveness on fire ant bites. But it has worked wonders on dry skin, a small scrape, and heat rash thus far. We’ll be keeping this messy but useful remedy on hand and when we use it up, I might follow directions for the next batch. No promises.

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Food Falling from the Sky: Coconuts

cocosawThe last of the summer storms blow through the Tropical Homestead in September. The blustery weather causes one of our favorite phenomena, food from the skies. A satisfying thud signals the coconut’s arrival from above, and the whole family springs into homesteading action! Clay whips out the saw and cuts into the very, very, thick husk. KA-POW!

 

monkeyfeetThen the boys use hammers, chisels, and their freaky little monkey feet to smash, claw, pry and rip the husk away from the coconut. WHA-CHA!

I leap into the mix, snapping pictures and saying things like KA-POW! and WHA-CHA! This is an integral part of process, trust me. We save all the husks and the hairy insides from this process (called coir, if you are fancy and don’t want to say hairy innards). We use this for all sorts of things, like lining the bottom of planters, using it to start a bonfire, or keeping Grandpa busy, who lights it on fire just for fun.

 

cocowin

After a plethora of Wha-Chas, Ka-Pows and a few Ba-Zings for good measure, victory is at hand. Behold, the beautiful coconut, treasure chest of creamy coconut bliss.

But alas, though the boys may have won the battle, the war is far from over. The campaign moves to a new theatre, the kitchen. This is where I come in.

threecocoThe final defense of the coconut is their adorable little faces. These three are obviously pretending to be cute baby sloth-pandas. I have been fooled before, but I am older, wiser, hungrier and a lot more jaded toward cuteness in general. Sorry, infant arboreal bears, you’re going down.
I use a clean nail or screwdriver to poke open the three holes and drain the coconut water inside. I find a pyrex measuring cup works great. Once drained, I wrap the coconut in a towel to hide the cuteness and muffle the screams. Just kidding. But use a towel to keep the coconut from flying all over the place.

 cocobrokeAfter you’ve worked out all your anger issues and the coconut is cracked into five or six pieces, pry the white meat from the shell. The fresher the coconut, the easier this is. I can usually get most of it off with my hands, but I sometimes need a knife to wedge in between the white and the shell. Be careful and always push away from your other hand. I’ve gouged my left thumb more times than I care to mention. Don’t be like me.

cocofilterThis is where the universe expands and all paths open to you. You can do anything you want with this coconut, within the laws of physics and your local ordinances, of course. We usually cut up the coconut into 2-3 inch pieces and throw it in the blender with the drained coconut water to make coconut milk. Once it’s put through a strainer and muslin, we mix it with cocoa and honey for our signature Monkey Milk on ice. Heaven in a glass, my friends.

cocobarBut that’s not all, you can take the chunks left in the strainer to make some seriously addicting coconut bars (we’ve adapted this recipe, substituting 1 cup of honey for 1 cup of the brown sugar, a stick of butter for the shortening and upping the coconut wattage to 1 cup.) These will never see a plate, you will eat all of these over the pan as soon as they cool down enough not to burn off your face, mark my words.

I could expound for ages on the glorious coconut, but Monkey Milk waits for no homesteader. Cheers!

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Mead Making and Milking the Squirrel

wine rack 002We have a phrase here at the Tropical Homestead. It’s called: Milking the Squirrel. Aside from the disturbing visual it invokes, it has grown to mean a few different things. First it was meant to convey how flash-bang thrilled we were about self-sufficiency. Example: “I just designed and built a wine rack, canned some banana peppers and weeded the garden. I’m so excited I could milk a squirrel!”

IMGP0907As our newborn enthusiasm morphed into something more realistic and sustainable, it came more it became more of a cautionary question regarding effort versus reward. As in: “You want to spend $500 in materials for a greenhouse to protect a banana plant that yields $40 in bananas? Isn’t that kind of like milking a squirrel?”

Then as we eased into our third year of homesteading, setting priorities and finding what we enjoy, the phrase had a more nuanced meaning. One that a more mature and responsible couple would have figured out the first year: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Mead making seems to be falling into the third category. Clay and I never drank mead before we started keeping bees. My brother insisted we must make mead if we had bees. We tried a very expensive bottle from Total Wine and were less than impressed. But we like our wine more than store-bought versions, and we had great year with the bees, so we committed to giving up 9 pounds of honey for a 3 gallon batch.

mead ingredientsI found a recipe from the great mead making site, Storm the Castle for Orange Clover Mead, a recipe that was suggested for a first batch. We had honey, oranges from our tree and a spice rack full of all the fixin’s.

mead pot

The best part about preparing anything for fermentation is the boiling and simmering process. Mead is no different. The combination of oranges, honey, cinnamon and clove was magical, like I was a powerful wizard capable of blocking out all the terrible odors in a Yankee Candle Store to smell a blend of only the most fantastical scents. A powerful wizard, indeed.

 We waited for the oranges to sink to the bottom of the jug which was to signal the completion of fermentation. We waited. And waited. And waited. Our bad-ass oranges weren’t the type to be held down by The Man. So after three and half weeks we just racked and bottled the stuff. It was clear and golden and tasted like honeyed turpentine of the gods. Blech.

grapes 023Fast forward six months. We opened our first bottle last weekend. It was…OK. The base flavor was fine, the color and clarity perfect, but the clove and cinnamon was too much. We’ve had many people tell us to give it more time, but my wine is drinkable after four months AND I don’t have to use 9 pounds of valuable honey to make it. We milked the squirrel.

But we haven’t given up mead making completely. I recently bought a one gallon jug and we plan to use that to experiment on small batches. We also are going to hold onto a few bottles of our first batch to try at a much later date. We’ll keep you posted.

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The Wild Wine

grapes1“It is the wine that leads me on,
the wild wine
that sets the wisest man to sing
at the top of his lungs,
laugh like a fool – it drives the
man to dancing… it even
tempts him to blurt out stories
better never told.”
― Homer, The Odyssey
 
My urban-homesteading heart is so full, it might burst. This weekend combined two of my favorite things: urban foraging and wine making [insert girlie squeal here].
 
Mid-August means three things at the Tropical Homestead: Brain-melting heat, hair-frizzing humidity, and wild fox grapes. These darling little fruits make me forget the first two and cause me to wander aimlessly through my city looking for the tell-tale vine that overtakes pine trees, chainlink fences, and slow-moving pedestrians.
 

winegrapes2

Riley and Griff usually venture out with me, but sooner or later (who am I kidding? It’s always sooner) they succumb to summertime laziness and/or dehydration and I’m left alone to tromp through urban jungles for my prize.
 
And what a prize it is.
This year was mild and warm, so the grapes were bigger and less tart. After canning a small batch of grape jelly, I thought I might attempt a small batch of wine.
 

winegrapes3

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I found a recipe for wild wine that I adapted.
I washed the grape clusters and picked out the leaves.
Leaving the stems on, I covered with spring water and brought to a  boil, then reduced the heat until the skins cracked. The kitchen smelled super grape-y at this point. Bonus.
 
 
The next step I just call “LISSY-SMASH!” I pretended to have green skin and proceeded to decimate all those little delicate orbs I lovingly picked by hand just a few hours before. Sorry to offend your sensitive nature, but it’s basic Circle of Life stuff. You have to harden yourself to these eventualities if you want to be self-sufficent.
 
winegrapes4
The mash goes through a strainer and then through cheesecloth or muslin. I have procured a specialty strainer. It’s called an old pillowcase. Just as effective.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

winegrapes6

Then the juice is measured, and matched in up to a 1:1 ratio with sugar. Remember, these aren’t table grapes, they are tart.  If you like a drier wine, you can always reduce the sugar, like I did. Once the mixture of juice and sugar cooled, I added Montrachet yeast and a bit of water. And a green balloon for a splash of color.
Now I just need to wait for the bubbling action to cease and probably rack it one more time before bottling. Then comes the fun part: drinking, singing, dancing and stories. Cheers!
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How to Train Your Dragon(fruit)

With the rainy season upon us, you might think a cactus would be the last thing we at the Tropical Homestead would be thinking of. Well, you’d be wrong. So very, very wrong. Behold the wild force of nature that is the dragonfruit.

Dragonfruit Plant

 

 

 

 

 

This spindly little creature creates the most wonderous night-blooming blossoms.
blossom
 

 

 

 

 

And then it creates and even more wonderous fruit.

Fruit

 

 

 

 

 

After seeing this most unique fruit, you know there can be no more wonderous surprises from this humble cactus. Somehow. Someway. There is yet still more wonder!

Cut fruit
 

 

 

 

 

Slice open the fruit and trumpets sound, the clouds split away from the sun and the chorus bursts into song. The juicy magenta flesh and jet black seeds defy all logic of the natural world, but there it is.

 I won’t even tell you how it tastes because you will wrent your clothes from your body in a fit of mad jealousy, and I know that’s your last clean shirt. I will only say it’s a little like a kiwi but a gazillion times better. I’ve said too much.

But alas, every rose has its thorn and every dragonfruit has its barbs (and an innate desire to climb up your home’s walls and invade its attic space). It also has hydra-like tendencies; every time you lop off a limb, three come in its place, and the one that falls to the ground grows two more. So it needed a home of its own.

dragonfruit 007

Clay built this simple yet elegant trellis out of cedar and added a drip pipe to the bottom rail for irrigation. Then he planted our dragon and all its little babies in a mix of compost, manure and our sandy soil.

 

 

Now our dragon can grow to epic proportions in a more civilized manner.trellis

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What’s Blooming?

 
Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and what better way to honor his love of the garden than getting out in the dirt! There’s plenty of work at the Tropical Homestead this weekend, like keeping up with the weeds, watering, and planting the blueberries that arrived in the mail this week. But the explosion of blossoms in the garden was a divine distraction. So instead of weeding, I did a photo shoot. I’m sure the 3rd President would understand.

Click on any of the pictures for a closer view. 

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