Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts

Jan 24, 2017

How to Grow Epic Tomatoes

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Last weekend, I fairly devoured Craig LeHoullier's book Epic Tomatoes. Few gardeners have the experience LeHoullier has, given that he's trialed more than 1,200 varieties of tomatoes and introduced 100 new or "lost" tomatoes to the world. This guy knows his stuff.

Epic Tomatoes is really a must read for anyone who grows (or wants to grow) tomatoes. It's an interesting read, too, because the author spends some time discussing the stories behind many heirloom tomatoes - and because he has a knack for writing in a non-technical, but still precise, manner. He talks about the benefits of growing hybrid and heirloom varieties (and has found that hybrids don't outperform or resist disease better than heirlooms per really just depends upon the variety), gives us an interesting history of the tomato and tomato seeds, discusses seed saving, explains various tomato diseases, tells us his favorite varieties to grow, and even gives a short course on how to create new types of tomatoes ourselves. And did I mention all the gorgeous, mouth- watering photos?

But the section of the book that most interested me was LeHoullier's guide to growing tomatoes. And, as it turns out, you can forget any complicated procedures you may have read about elsewhere.

I've never been one to pamper my tomatoes too much, but I admit some of the author's guidelines surprised even me. So while I encourage you to read Epic Tomatoes yourself, here are some of the truths and myths I learned from a man who has grown many, many thousands of tomato plants:

1. Tomato seeds can last for 10 years or more, even with some temperature fluctuations during storage.

2. Tomato seeds can be planted densely - 50 seeds in a square inch. Seedlings can then be divided into individual pots without fear of damaging the roots or slowing down the growth of the plant.

3. Tomatoes don't need pruning. I think this one surprised me most! According to LeHoullier, pruning and removing suckers does not encourage bigger or more plentiful fruit. In fact, he says it decreases crop size. The only reason LeHoullier prunes tomatoes is to control plants that are getting too big and unwieldy for the planting space.

4. Removing foliage from tomato plants does not increase yield, quality, or flavor of fruit. In fact, says LeHoullier, removing a tomato plant's leaves invites sunscald and reduces the flavor of the fruits.
Courtesy psrobin

5. You don't need to remove flowers from tomato plants when transplanting. According to LeHoullier, this doesn't re-direct the plant's energy toward growing roots - and it will make you miss out on some early tomatoes.

6. Tomatoes may not require fertilizer. It all depends on your soil. If you've prepared the soil ahead of planting - adding finished organic matter like compost and aged manure - and if you've tested your soil and amended it as needed, fertilizing may not be necessary at all. Perhaps, the author suggests, you might use a little finished compost as a side dressing now and then. An exception is if you grow tomatoes in pots. This requires more watering, which depletes the soil of nutrients faster, which means fertilizing will be necessary.

7. It's okay to let tomato plants wilt. All tomato plants will wilt when hot sun is overhead; it does not necessarily mean they need watering. Wilting is simply the plant's way of conserving moisture. However, regular watering is still needed, particularly once plants are heavy with fruit.

8. There is no such thing as a low-acid, modern tomato. If you can, you may have heard that modern tomatoes are low acid and therefore not safe to water bath can. LeHoullier says this is absolutely false. Instead, a recent study shows the sugar in these tomatoes masks their acidity.

Courtesy Petar43
9. Color has nothing to do with flavor. Although LeHoullier says most of his favorite tomatoes aren't true reds.

10. A few heirlooms are less reliable - including some favorites, like Brandywine. One year they may do poorly, and another year, they may produce abundantly.

11. If you don't get fruit, don't blame a lack of bees. Tomatoes are self-fruitful, meaning they don't need pollination to produce fruit. LeHoullier says lack of fruit usually means the blossoms dropped before fruit could set - something that's common during hot, summer weather. Pruning may also cause lack of fruit. And, in rare cases, you might have a plant with a genetic mutation that prevents fruit setting.

* Title image courtesy of  Rob Bertholf

Oct 18, 2016

Our Favorite Christian Children's Thanksgiving & Fall Books

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As hot summer weather cools and turns into rainy fall, snuggling up with the kids and reading some great books is the perfect way to spend the afternoon. With that in mind, here are some of my family's favorite picture books about fall and Thanksgiving. May they bring as much pleasure to your family as they have to mine!

Favorite Fall Themed Picture Books

* My Basket of Blessings by Mary Manz Simon. This cute board book is engaging to look at and reinforces the important concept of counting the blessings God gives us. The book is die cut to look like a basket, and each page has die cut images of items inside the basket, giving a fun layered look. Each item is fall-related, including juicy apples that "will never match the sweetness of God's love for me," a scarecrow to remind that God made us, and a pumpkin pie, with it's wafting scent, to remind us God's gifts are everywhere.

* God's Oak Tree by Allia Zobel Nolan.This board book is beautiful to behold. The cover features a die-cut hole through which you can see a smiling acorn. Open up the book, and you'll find the pages are of different shapes, starting narrow and growing wider. Each time you turn a page, the image of an acorn hanging from a tree shifts, and on the opposite side the image of a fully grown oak tree gradually appears. Each page is beautifully illustrated, with rich nature colors, lots of wild animals, and plenty of detail. Best of all, this book explains science (how an acorn turns into a tree) from a Christian standpoint.

* Give Thanks to the Lord by Karma Wilson. Based on Psalm 92, this book celebrates the glory of nature during fall, giving God thanks for providing it. I especially love that this book makes it easy to memorize a simple Bible verse.

* My Happy Pumpkin by Crystal Bowman. This cheery board book tells the story of a pumpkin turned jack-o-lantern and how it symbolizes the way God washes away our sin and shines through us. It's sure to become a
seasonal favorite, perfect for reading while your children decorate pumpkins.

* The Pumpkin Patch Parable by Liz Curtis Higgs. Very similar to My Happy Pumpkin, but targeting a slightly older age group (say, 5 - 8). A classic! (In fact, check out all the parable books in this series, each focused on a different time of year. They are excellent.)

Favorite Thanksgiving Themed Picture Books

* Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving by Eric Metaxas. If you read your children only one fall or Thanksgiving themed book this year, make it this one. Here's a part of history few people know - how Squanto's life was shaped by God at least in part to help the Pilgrims. An amazing story!

* Mary's First Thanksgiving by Kathy-Jo Wargin. A story that helps instill thankfulness, while teaching the legend of the five kernels.

* Samuel Eaton's Day & Sarah Morton's Day by Kate Waters. Filled with full color photos of reenactors from Plymouth Plantation, which do an excellent job of showing what everyday life was like for Pilgrim children. These books don't specifically mention Thanksgiving, mind you, but are still a great tie in with that holiday. (Also check out the companion book about a Native American boy of the same time period: Tapenum's Day.)

* Three Young Pilgrims by Cheryl Harness. My kids adore the illustrations in this book, and often spend days studying them. They are detailed and rich, and the story itself does a good job of showing why the Pilgrims came to the New World, how they suffered, and how they trusted God.

Jul 21, 2016

Queen of Katwe - A Review

Phiona Mutesi.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from BuzzPlant. All opinions are my own. This post also contains affiliate links. Please see FCC disclosure for full information.

"Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog. To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be a girl is to be an underdog Katwe."
    Tim Crothers, The Queen of Katwe

Young Phiona Mutesi lives in the worst of the worst slums: Katwe, in Uganda, Africa. Her widowed mother usually can't earn enough money to feed all her children. The family is often kicked out of their one room shack because they can't afford rent. Filth is everywhere, and human waste often floods the family shack when it rains. Education is unaffordable. And Phiona is angry, often battling boys in the streets without fear.

That is, until she meets a missionary who teaches her to play a mysterious game called chess. Suddenly, Phiona has a new place to direct her energy and talent. Even though she's a girl, and most males in Uganda think females can never do as well as males at anything, she quickly learns to beat boys in chess. It humiliates the boys so much, they cry. Phiona, in the way of Ugandan women, never brags, and with the Christian humility she's developed, downplays her wins.

Phiona's modesty often takes others by surprise. As does her youth and her aggressive chess technique. Even her chess coach is surprised when she gets to compete on an international scale at age 11 - and wins. In chess, very few females win competitions; but Phiona, a slum child nobody ever thought could amount to anything at all, becomes a chess champion - the "Queen of Katwe."

Tim Crothers' account of Phiona Mutesi is thoroughly engaging. The Queen of Katwe is a book that's easy to pick up and hard to put down. Some critics have complained that much of the book isn't about Phiona herself, but about the people who've helped her achieve her success. This is true - but their stories are so compelling, I didn't mind at all. In fact, The Queen of Katwe reveals the world of Uganda so vividly, it's a hard-hearted person who, after reading the book, doesn't contribute to the charity (Sports Outreach) that helps Phiona and other children achieve, while also teaching them about God.

Especially compelling to me were the scenes where Phiona went to chess competitions outside of Africa. Her coach literally had to teach her and her fellow child chess players how to eat with utensils, how to open a water bottle, and how to use a flush toilet. Along with Phiona, I found myself amazed at the modern world - and I keenly felt her depression when, after having her eyes opened this way, she had to return to the slum.

Which brings me to an important point: The Queen of Katwe doesn't offer a typical happy, Hollywood ending. Phiona is only a teenager; by no means has she reached her full potential. And while winning chess games has enabled her to help pay her family's rent, her mother's debts, and some school tuition, Phiona still lives in the slums.

But as Christians, we understand Phiona better than the world does. Yes, her physical circumstances are still heart-breaking. But we know she has something all the slum - in fact, everyone - needs: Jesus Christ.

I find myself praying for Phiona to overcome the many obstacles the slums throw her way. And with the help of  Sports Outreach, The Queen of Katwe makes me believe Phiona - and other children like her - can overcome.

And, good news! Disney has turned Phiona's story into a movie that will release next month. I pray it will touch millions of people, who will in turn support Sports Outreach, Phiona, and children everywhere who are in need.

Learn More

Sports Outreach Ministry

Queen of Katwe website (including a short ESPN documentary about Phiona)

Trailer for Disney's Queen of Katwe

Phiona Mutesi's Facebook Page

Apr 20, 2016

The Woodland Homestead: A Book Review

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information.

When you imagine your ideal homestead, what do you picture? A suburban home with a 1 acre yard? Old farmland with flat pastures? Rolling, grassy hills and barns? But did you know an increasing number of modern homesteaders are following the lead of old time homesteaders and settling into the forest? Yes, even my own family will soon trade suburban life in for a little house in the big woods. In part, because we love the forest - and in part because forested land is much less expensive than pastures and grassy hills. (In my neck of the woods - pun intended - there are even tax breaks for those who keep a certain amount of their land forested.) Indeed, choosing wooded land can make your homesteading dreams affordable and practical.

But, you may ask, how can you homestead in the woods? Won't the trees get in the way?

It is true you have to clear some of the trees to make way for a house. And it's true you have to clear away a few more for a productive garden and orchard. But the rest? It can stay there! And that's what Brett McLeod's The Woodland Homestead is all about.

McLeod has impressive credentials. Not only does he homestead on 25 acres of wooded land, but he's an associate professor of forestry and natural resources, and spent years as a forester and lumberjack. Even if you think you already know a lot about homesteading in the forest, I'm betting you'll learn a few things from McLeod's book.

To begin with, did you know that livestock don't need pastureland? That's right; even cows can thrive in thinned woods. And some livestock, including pigs, goats, sheep, and poultry not only benefit from the food the forest provides, but help keep the woods in good health. This is a win-win for the homesteader because it cuts down feed costs, results in healthier meat or eggs - not to mention woods, and the critters do a lot of work that would otherwise fall to the humans.

Yet, as the author points out, there are so many other benefits to homesteading in the woods. He not only goes into depth about understanding your forest (this is where his forestry experience becomes awesomely apparent), but he explains how to use specific types of trees for different homestead needs and how to maintain your woods through forest succession - that is, keeping the right balance between old and young trees. Have you never cut your own firewood? You'll learn how in The Woodland Homestead. Never built with cordwood? You'll learn the basics here. Want a portable sawmill? McLeod gives great advice. He even talks about using draft animals in lieu of heavy equipment.

McLeod also covers topics like living fences, building with stumps, orchards in the forest (including resurrecting old orchards and planting new ones), bees in the woods, making cider, gathering sap for syrup (Hint: you don't have to have sugar maple trees), hugelkulture (using decomposing stumps and limbs as the basis for a garden bed), and other forest edibles, like berry vines, strawberries, nuts, mushrooms, and more.

In fact, this book is packed with so much information, I had to read it twice to soak even most of it in. My only complaint is that much of the information in the book is based on the author's experience in the Eastern part of the United States. Therefore, he talks a lot about the trees that grow there, and not so much about the trees that grow elsewhere in the nation. Too, as someone who lives where frosts aren't heavy, I didn't find the answer to my long-time question: "Can I collect sap for syrup even if it doesn't get very cold on my homestead?"

Still, if you're considering a wooded homestead, The Woodland Homestead is a must read.

Jan 19, 2016

Backyard Homestead Kitchen Know-How: A Book Review

Backyard Homestead Kitchen Know How a Book ReviewWhen I first saw Andrea Chesman's The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How, I was skeptical. Was this really a book I'd find useful? After all, I regularly cook from scratch using backyard fresh ingredients, and I'm well versed in food preservation. Happily, however, Chesman's book completely exceeds my expectations.

The first three-quarters of this book were what I found the most useful. Here, Chesman gives tips on outfitting the homestead kitchen for "field-to-table" cooking; gives basic (though excellent) guidelines on how best to harvest, store, and cook fresh vegetables and vegetables; gives advice on dealing with a dried bean or grain harvests; looks at a few ways to make your own sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, and apple cider syrup); discusses how best to deal with eggs, various homestead birds, and rabbits; explains how to handle fresh milk; and explores the hands on aspects of  other homestead meats (beef, lamb, goat, and pig).

I love the author's advice on explaining to a butcher what cuts of meat you want; this is a process that can be completely overwhelming if you've never done it before. Chesman also offers interesting details on how to make boiled cider and cider syrup - something I'd never even heard of, but which is a viable alternative to syrup and molasses for those with apple trees. She also answered some of my questions about fertilized chicken eggs: Are they edible? Are they gross? And her information on handling a bird carcass in the kitchen, including how to freeze it (she favors the spatchcock method) and what to do with other edible parts (like hearts and livers, not to mention feet), is excellent. I also appreciate the details on how to properly render lard and tallow. And why is it I never thought to render chicken fat? Chesman claims it's a wonderful for cooking.

The author also covers preservation techniques, including dehydration, pickling and fermenting, cold storage (cellar or fridge), freezing (which she seems to favor), and canning. Oddly, Chesman admits she doesn't do much pressure canning; she prefers frozen vegetables and can't imagine what to do with canned meat. In fact, she claims the USDA recommends boiling canned meat before using it - something I've never read in any canning book or reliable canning site (like The National Center for Home Food Preservation). She does, however, put to rest botulism fears. (As long as you follow the basic rules, you are fine.)

There's also a section on what to make with homestead milk. Here, the author focuses on some of the easier items, like butter and creme fraiche, yogurt, ricotta, and mozzarella. Next is a section on charcuterie - or processing meats like bacon at home. I think she offers an excellent beginner's guide here, making homemade corned beef, ham, and sausage seem totally do-able.

The last quarter of the book is all recipes. I find this the least helpful section of the book, since most of the recipes I'm really attracted to (from scratch cream-of-anything soup, sourdough starter, no knead bread, making whipped cream from fresh milk, kimchi, homemade liquid pectin, etc.) are found in other sections of the book. In addition, I found some of the recipe choices odd. For example, the author mentions repeatedly that lard is a fantastic choice for pie crusts - yet there is no recipe for one anywhere in the book. Instead, she chooses to include a butter-based crust recipe.

Yet while there are some things I wish the author had mentioned (growing stevia or sugar beets, for example) or gone into more depth about (what are the best ways to use rendered fats?), the fact is, an author can only cover so much in a single volume. Yes, Chesman is opinionated (in her mind carrots are great for grilling but parsnips aren't), but I don't mind this. Her opinions come from years of experience cooking on the homestead. I may not agree with every little point she makes - but the fact is, they are just little points. Overall, Kitchen Know-How is an excellent reference and one I recommend for every homesteader or field-to-table cook.

Related Posts:
The Backyard Homestead book review
The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals book review

Dec 29, 2015

Most Popular Posts 2015 - and All Time!

I've been blogging at Proverbs 31 Woman for six years (and have written over 1,140 posts!), but honestly, I never have any clue which posts are going to be the most talked about or viewed. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways, and judging by what posts are most popular here, I have to agree! It's always a pretty eclectic list. I hope you enjoy it!

(P.S. Want to see more popular posts from Proverbs 31 Woman? Check out the Pinterest page "Most Popular Posts at Proverbs 31 Woman.")

Most Popular Posts from 2015:

1. Why I Don't Watch HGTV (And Maye You Shouldn't Either)

2. Free Art History Curriculum: Edgar Degas (this whole series is popular, but this is the most popular post from the series)

3. How to Kill E.Coli on Vegetables and Fruits

4. No Fail Healthy Pie Crust Recipe

5. Keeping the House Cool in Summer (With and Without AC)

6. 12 Old Fashioned Birthday Party Games for Kids

7. How to Make a SCOBY for Kombucha

8. "I Am..." A Self Worth Craft for Kids

Most Popular Posts of All Time:

1. How to Train Chickens (and Get Them to Do What You Want Them to Do)

2. Best Free Apron Patterns on the Net

3. 6 Ways to Teach Kids the Books of the Bible

4. Best Ideas for Upcycling Jeans

5. How to Clean a REALLY Dirty Stove

6. How to EASILY Clean Ceilings and Walls - Even in a Greasy Kitchen

7. Canning Pickled Green Beans (Dilly Beans)

8. Easy Refrigerator Pickled Beets

9. Freezing Apple Pie Filling

Dec 17, 2015

The Hands-On Home - a review

In recent years, a handful of home keeping books have been published, and most of them were well received. None, however, have done much for me. Generally, these books start by telling readers how homemaking can be for feminists, too (sigh), and then proceed to give homemaking 101 skills. So when I first saw The Hands-On Home by Erica Strauss, I admit I wasn't particularly interested. Then I had a chance to see the book in person.

First, I was struck by the beauty of this 388 page volume. Throughout, absolutely gorgeous photographs by Charity Burggraaf are featured. They are all printed on matte paper, but somehow the photos are still crisp and clean and vivid and feature all the beauty of food and cooking. The fat hardcover also includes a bookmarking ribbon - and the sections of the book are tabbed in different colors, making using the book easier. Clearly, the publisher put a lot of thought into this volume.

And that's good, because author Erica Strauss has, too.

In fact, I think she's produced the best home keeping book of my generation. 

Strauss' premise is simple, but uniquely modern. She understands that many of us are striving to get away from the rush-rush of being away from home and instead want invest in our homes and families. She knows many of us are trying to eat healthy whole foods and stay away from expensive and potentially unhealthy store bought cleaners. She knows some of us are even looking critically at the chemicals we lather on ourselves in the form of shampoo, soap, moisturizer, and other beauty products.

Best of all, Strauss understands that modern home keeping isn't about keeping things Martha Stewart perfect. She knows that giving us a cleaning schedule to strictly follow isn't useful, and that customizing our home keeping for our own families is really where it's at.

Strauss starts her book by covering some basics. To my delight, she begins with cooking. Strauss used to cook in professional kitchens, and she actually taught me (a decent home cook) some things I didn't know. She emphasizes avoiding food waste ("The average American family of four throws out more than two thousand dollars of food every year. Pretty expensive trash or compost - that's money not available for college savings, retirement accounts, charitable giving, or travel."). She teaches that recipes aren't really necessary, if you understand a few basic techniques: braising, pureeing soups, roasting, sauteing, searing, and yes, good seasoning. ("...Heavily salt cooking water for anything starchy like pasta or potatoes, or for green vegetables you want to blanch. When the food cooks, that salt will be pulled into the food along with moisture, helping to create an evenly seasoned product.") Because when you drop processed food from your diet, you really don't have to limit salt, after all.

Strauss also covers fermenting and canning, giving excellent instructions and advice on how to do each. (Although she does perpetuate the myth that canning jars should be sterilized before filling and processing in the canner, this isn't dangerous advice; it only adds an unnecessary step. You can learn more about this topic by clicking here.)

My favorite section of The Hands-On Home, however, is the section on home care. Here, I found information I've never seen anywhere else. For example, Strauss explains the types of dirt (properly called "soil") one might find in a house: organic, inorganic, petroleum-based, and combination soil. Then she explains which cleaners (alkaline, acid, solvents, or abrasives) work best for each. ("Many commercial cleaning products are 'all-in-one' combo cleaners. Because they are trying to be all things to all soils, they take a brute-force approach, using chemical cleaners that are often far stronger and more caustic than are necessary." And, she says, because these commercial cleaners are combining alkaline and acid cleaners together, they are actually less effective.) She also gives a useful list of each type of cleaner; for example, in the "common alkaline" cleaners section, she offers details about how to use (and, if necessary, what precautions to be aware of) baking soda, liquid Castile soap, borax, powdered oxygen bleach, washing soda, ammonia, household chlorine bleach, and lye. (Strauss wisely counsels to start with the least caustic cleaners.)

Then Strauss goes on to offer advice on how to come up with a cleaning routine that works for your family. Here she discusses the importance of routines, what chores we should consider doing daily, regularly (perhaps weekly or monthly), and seasonally. What I love most about this section is that the author makes no demanding claims about what YOU should be doing. Instead, she tells us a wee bit about her journey from messy to reasonably tidy home keeper and gives us the tools to follow her path. Namely, she suggests we envision what a comfortable home looks like to us, personally. ("What state would your home have to be in for you to be able to grab a cup of tea and a favorite book and relax on your couch, or play with your kids, or spend an entire evening with your partner, without the nagging feeling that you maybe should, should, SHOULD be doing something else?") Then she encourages readers to turn that into a list, from which they can create a truly workable cleaning schedule.

The remainder (and majority) of the book is divided up into seasons, covering cooking, preserving, home keeping, and personal care chores the author thinks you may want to tackle during Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. Here, you'll find lots of inspiration. There are from scratch recipes for bread and tortillas, ricotta cheese, mayo and salad dressing, yogurt, vinegar, and all manner of fresh vegetables, fruits, and some meats; there are instructions for making canned barbecue sauce, pickled asparagus and fermented dilly beans, mustard, salted preserved lemons, frozen caramelized onions, and jams made without pectin; there are lots of recipes for cleaning items like glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, carpet freshener, grout cleaner, toilet cleaner, and oven cleaner; and you'll find recipes for tooth powder, soap, hair wash, deodorant, moisturizer, lip balm, bath bombs, and gardener's hand scrub. There's even advice on line drying laundry and giving mattresses and old fashioned airing.

In short, I am a big fan of this book.  

I'd even go so far as to say every home keeper should read it.

Jul 3, 2015

Maximizing Your Mini Farm - a book review

I've found Brett Markham's book Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre (see my full review here) one of the better homesteading books available today, so when I saw his newest title, Maximizing Your Mini Farm, I was excited. Excited because, like probably all homesteaders, I'm always looking for ways to streamline - to make the most of the land, critters, and garden I have.

But, as it turns out, this book is poorly named. There is very little here about maximizing your homestead. Disappointing? Yes. But if I set aside the expectations the title gives me, I find this book is still useful.

The first chapter mostly recaps what Markham said about soil in Mini Farming. I understand why he included this short chapter; trying to grow food without making your soil awesome is an uphill battle likely to discourage gardeners. The rest of the first three-quarters of the book are chapters on how to raise particular veggies. I think the author's intention was to give readers his best tips for growing these veggies so they will get the most possible from their plants. But really, this section reads just about like any book on growing organic vegetables. He does make sure to cover pests, weeds, diseases, seed saving, and harvesting, and gives at least one recipe at the end of each chapter. Included are chapters on asparagus (including growing it from seed), beans; beets and chard; cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower; carrots and parsnips; corn; cucumbers; greens; herbs (a little info on his favorites); melons; onions; peas; peppers; potatoes; summer and winter squash; tomatoes; and turnips, rutabagas, and radishes.

I found some of these chapters a little frustrating. For example, the author writes that "the glycemic index of a potato is influenced by the variety grown, where it is grown and even how it is prepared." Yet he doesn't give us any information on choosing or growing varieties that are lower on the glycemix index. Another example is in the chapter on onions. The author mentions multiplier onions, which self sow - making them, I'd think, the perfect thing to discuss in book about maximizing your garden space. But instead, the author chooses only to discuss standard onions, like those found in grocery stores. I also found it odd that the author didn't necessarily mention how you could get the most food from certain crops; for example, he didn't mention eating radish seeds or pea greens. Still, his information on planting, care, and so on is spot on.

The rest of the book is a sort of hodge-podge of useful information: How to make your own, simple, seed planting guide; how to plant small seeds easily; how to make a heated water platform for your chicken waterer (so it doesn't freeze in winter); how to make a PVC trellis; thoughts on weed control; a primer on making wine; how to make vinegar; how to make some simple cheeses; and a chapter with tips on how to make cooking from scratch a bit easier if you're busy (mostly through making up multiple batches, instead of one each night, then freezing the extras).

Maximizing Your Mini Farm has some great information, especially for novice or intermediate gardeners. But I recommend reading Mini Farming first and consider Maximizing Your Mini Farm as a kind of (admittedly large) appendix.

May 28, 2015

My Top 4 Favorite Herbal Medicine Books

Once upon a time, all medicine was herbal, and most women understood enough herbal medicine to treat their families for many illnesses (though certainly not all). Gradually, this changed until Americans began seeking help from allopaths (modern doctors) for nearly every health complaint. Yet these days, as more and more people are unable to find help or answers through modern medicine, and as many people suffer from the side affects of prescription medicine, ever more Americans are turning to herbal medicine for many of their health complaints.

Interestingly, more scientific studies are being done on herbal remedies - but very few look at the herbs in their natural form, which means even those studies aren't necessarily all that helpful. Still, science often finds that those old time herbal remedies really do work. My personal experience tells me they do, too.

But learning about herbal medicine can be overwhelming. The internet is full of information, but how much of it is accurate? And even those who wish to pursue herbalism professionally discover there is no official certification for it - no set study that is sure to teach you all you need to know. Fortunately, however, there are a number of excellent books for the Proverbs 31 Women who wishes to learn how to treat her family with natural medicine. Here are my four favorites.

Forgotten Skills of Backyard Herbal Healing and Family Health by Caleb Warnock and KirstenSkirvin. This is a good book to start with because it focuses on just a few herbs, and therefore isn't overwhelming. Warnock is the author of several "forgotten skills" books (including one on winter gardening, which I reviewed here), and he adds plenty of personal anecdotes to this book, explaining how much herbal medicine has changed his life. His co-author Kirsten Skirvin is a Master Herbalist, with some compelling herbal medicine stories of her own. This book gives a good explanations on why you might want to use herbal medicine, and why it's important to take you and your family's health in your own hands. It explains the difference between medicinal grade herbs and varieties of those same herbs that are pretty in the garden, but not of true medicinal value. You'll also learn to make two basic forms of medicine: teas and tinctures. (The best and longest lasting tinctures are made with alcohol, so I like that the authors teach how to make such tinctures non-alcoholic for children or those who are sensitive to alcohol.) Then the authors focus on some basic herbs to start with: Cayenne, lobelia, cinnamon, garlic, and onion - plus apple cider vinegar. The next section gives formulas and examples of how to use these and other herbs for various applications, such as "healing flesh and bones" and "women's health and pregnancy." I appreciate that the authors encourage readers to learn more through some trustworthy online sources. And while I've read a lot of books on herbalism, I still learned some helpful things from this book - including how to use a weighted tuning fork to detect broken bones. (Buy this book.)

10 Essential Herbs by Lalitha Thomas. This is a nice supplement to Warnock and Skirvin's book, as it goes into greater detail about 10 herbs: Cayenne, chaparral, cloves, comfrey, garlic, ginger, onion, peppermint, slippery elm, and yarrow. Thomas gives some amazing stories of how she's helped heal people with these herbs, and gives plenty of specific examples of how and when to use them. Later in the book, she talks about using a specific mixture of herbs as a good remedy for many ails, and offers bonus information on using honey and echinacea as medicine. My only criticism of this book is that the author suggests using garlic directly on the skin. You can do this - I have done it - but it must be done with a great deal of care, or you will burn the skin horribly. The author gives no such warning - which is odd, because elsewhere she's good about explaining precautions. (Buy this book.)

Herbal Medicine by Dian Dincin Buchman, Ph.D.  This is an older book, but it's easy to find on Amazon and other used book sources. It covers a much wider variety of herbs than the two books I've already mentioned. Here, again, the author lists some of her favorite herbs for healing, then gives a wide ranging list of health issues - from acne to worms, with information on how to treat them herbally. Finally, there is an excellent section on how to make herbal medicine: How to dry herbs for medicine; and how to make infusions, waters, decoctions, tinctures, herbal oil, medicinal wines, vinegar, ointment, suppositories, poultices, and more. This is by far the best book I've seen for learning how to make various types of herbal medicine. (Buy this book.)

Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes by Rosemary Gladstar. This book is for the more advanced amateur herbalist, since it's focus is on combining herbs to make medicine, rather than teaching the medicinal value of specific herbs. In fact, this is a book of medicinal recipes - which are mostly broken down into four basic categories: for children, for women, for men, and for "elders." I especially appreciate the section on children, because it covers safety precautions and how to make herbal medicines appealing to kids. Cradle's cap, diaper rash, iron deficiencies, liver ailments, menstrual cramps, yeast infections, ulcers, migraines and other headaches, earaches, and a host of other common health complaints are discussed in this book, with recipes for treating each. The book ends with a brief section on specific herbs and their medicinal uses. (Buy this book.)


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Mar 16, 2015

5 Picture Books That Will Make You - and Your Child - LOL

I love a good picture book - especially if it makes my children laugh. And even more so if it makes me laugh, too. Since we can all use a good laugh now and then, I hereby present our top five favorite funny picture books.

#5. The Messy Family by Katherine Pebley O'Neal and Laura Huliska-Beith

Even if you consider your family a messy one, chances are you aren't quite as messy as this messy family. We catch them trying to clean up for company - emphasis on trying. But they just have too many other things to do, including helping an eldery couple, taking donations to the shelter, and helping to build a "habitat" house. When their company does come, though, God blesses their mess.

I do appreciate the message here - that we should focus on more important things than a spotless house - but the laughs really come in when you and your kids look at the pictures in this book. My kids never fail to crack up when the kids clean their room by stuffing things under the bed, for example, and they think it's funny that the family discovers all kinds of critters hidden in their mess.

We also enjoy The Loud Family and The Silly Family, by the same author/illustrator team - but, perhaps because we are a bit messy ourselves, The Messy Family is our fav.

#4. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett

Quite probably, you've seen the movie by this same title, but trust me - the book is almost entirely different! Grandpa loves to tell his grandchildren stories, and his yarn about a little town called Chewandswallow - whose food is supplied entirely by the weather - will fill you with chuckles, gafaws, and laughter. (We especially love how the townspeople escape Chewandswallow when the weather becomes too much - using a giant peanut butter sandwich with sails made from cheese.)

#3. The Knight Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Barbara Shook Hazen and Tony Ross

Sir Fred is an honorable man and a noble knight...but he's terrified of the dark. He keeps an electric eel in his bedroom, and a jar of fireflies on his "knight table." But when his beloved Lady Wendylyn begins to wonder why Sir Fred will only meet her once in a while (when the moon is full), Sir Fred faces his fear head on so as not to loose her. Armed with his light producing critters, he heads into the dark to meet his lady - who, with a shriek, "saves him" from the glowing creatures who are "attacking" him. In the end, Sir Fred confesses his fear, and Lady Wendylyn realizes he's even more noble and brave than she thought.

Read it and laugh, my friends!
#2. Too Many Toys by David Shannon

Laugh and learn how Spencer and his mom deal with the fact that he has way too many toys. Although going through the toys and coming up with a large box of them to donate isn't easy (afterward, Spencer's mom needs a cup of tea and a little rest), they both get a big surprise at the end of the book.

My children get big belly laughs every time we read this one - and it makes eliminating some of our household toys easier, too, because we quote the book as we go along. Who could have thought a book about children giving away their toys could be so funny?

#1. Parts by Tedd Arnold

Here's a little boy who comes to the sudden realization that he's falling apart! The flint in his belly button indicates his stuffing is coming out. The gray, wet stuff that falls from his nose must be his brain falling out. The bit of skin that fell off his foot means his skin is all peeling away. He's terrified he'll cough and his head will fall off!

This book is brilliant. And makes me (and, oh yeah, my kids) laugh every. single. time. That is all.

Feb 16, 2015

Backyard Winter Gardening: A Book Review

Over the years, I've read a number of books on winter gardening, but Caleb Warnock's Backyard Winter Gardening is by far the best - for the simple reason that it gives easy to follow advice on the simplest ways to grow and harvest food in the winter.

Warnock is best known for his "Forgotten Skills" books, which look at the way pioneers sustained themselves and how we can recreate these skills for modern life. So it's no surprise that the methods included in Backyard Winter Gardening are old standbys easily duplicated today. Specifically, Warnock focuses on cold frames and hot beds.

A cold frame is just a low, bottomless box with a glass lid that's set over vegetables. Warnock explains he's used many types of cold frames, including the store bought variety and cold frames made with straw bales and a piece of glass. But, he writes, his simple, inexpensive, homemade two by four cold frames work best. Happily, they are extremely simple to make and even someone without building experience should be able to create one.

The author also uses hot beds; they have the same construction as his cold frames, but before planting vegetables in them, the author puts fresh manure or green clippings beneath the soil; as these decay, they keep the temperature in the box quite warm.

Using one of these two devices, Warnock grows an abundance of vegetables in winter, including beans, cabbage, lettuce, peas, spinach, and even melons. Between these fruits and veggies and the produce he keeps in his cellar, he easily feeds his family all winter.

In addition, Warnock offers details about his geothermal greenhouse - an underground greenhouse that requires no electricity and gets quite hot (100 degrees F. or more), even in Utah's coldest, snowiest winters. Here, the author grows tomatoes year round and keeps tropical fruit trees.

Warnock also mentions overwintering some veggies. This produce isn't really growing during winter; it's just staying fresh by staying in the soil. He includes carrots, beets, and other vegetables in this list, and also shows readers how to harvest them pre-winter and store them in a cool location, like a cellar or garage. I was especially excited to see that if stored correctly in a box in a cool place, many vegetable tops will continue growing, giving fresh greens all winter.

Throughout, Warmock stresses that choosing the right seed for growing food in winter is essential. Not all varieties do well in the cold, dark months. To help readers find the right type of seed, he includes the names of some of his favorite varieties and gives advice on the best places to find winter vegetable seeds.

The only thing I feel this book is missing is some information about using tunnels for winter gardening. I do realize the author is trying to focus on the most old fashioned and easy ways to winter garden, and tunnels are more of a modern invention. But at the back of the book, the author excerpts some of his gardening journal, mentioning tunnels briefly, but never explaining why he doesn't recommend them. (Elsewhere in the book, he mentions the high winds his area receives, so I assume this is why tunnels don't work well for him. Still, it would be helpful to read what he feels the pros and cons of tunnels vs. cold frames and hot beds are.)

In addition, it's important to remember that Warnock is somewhat selective in the foods he mentions in the book. For example, he neglects to mention parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, or collards, all of which are good winter vegetables. On the other hand, he talks about his amazing trials growing cantaloupe in hot beds (!) and has a chapter dedicated to mangels, an excellent through little-known crop for livestock.

Finally, several times in the book, Warnock refers readers to his website or blog. For example, he suggests checking his blog for an update about growing cantaloupe in winter. But when I arrived at his site, the search feature wasn't working. In fact, his blog looks a little neglected, with loading problems and infrequent posts.

All in all, however, Backyard Winter Gardening is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to those who want to grow more of their family's food.

Jan 1, 2014

How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty - a Book Review

There are a lot of homesteading and self-sufficiency books available these days, but in my experience, only a few are really worth reading. How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty by Janet Chadwick is certainly one of them.

What makes Chadwick's book unique isn't so much it's scope (it covers the typical homesteading topics, from gardening to caring for animals), but the fact that she's been living a mostly self-sufficient homesteading lifestyle for some time now. The most valuable parts of her book, then, are the wisdom and (often amusing) anecdotes she passes down to the reader.

The book begins with a little information about how and why Chadwick and her family chose to homestead, then proceeds to give some great advice about what to do in your homestead's first year. The supposition is that you aren't in an urban area, but that you have at least some land. Chadwick even gives a basic idea of how much you can expect to spend doing basic homesteading activities, like gardening and caring for animals.

Other chapters teach you how to start seedlings (conventionally, indoors); plant, care for, and harvest vegetables; grow fruit; keep bees (offering one of the more realistic guides I've seen, by the way); raise goats, hogs, rabbits, poultry (chicken, ducks, geese, and a wee bit on turkeys, which the author has never raised), and a veal calf. (The author argues that a small, self-sufficient homestead can't support a milk or meat cow through grazing or the growing of grain.) Throughout, I discovered advice I'd never heard or read before, even though I read a lot of gardening and homesteading books.

Ever practical, Chadwick explains why dairy and beef cattle aren't practical for a small, self-sufficient homestead. (You can't grow enough food for them, so you'd have to bring in feed - which makes cattle raising not self sufficient.) She explains how to choose the best animals for your homestead, and all the information you need to house and care for their basic needs. The last two chapters are mostly recipes - recipes you probably won't find in a cookbook. For example, you'll learn how to cook an old hen, make headcheese, render lard, and cook a rabbit or a goat. You'll also find recipes for making basic soap, cheese, candles, and such. In addition, Chadwick gives readers the basics on how to make an indoor seed starting center (that looks something like a bookshelf, plus grow lights), a simple smokehouse, homemade dehydrator, cheese press, and many housing requirements for homestead animals.

My only real complaint about this book is the title, which I find a little misleading. Sure, the author shows readers how to raise or grow almost all of their food, but that is only part of living. The title implies Chadwick might also discuss things such as affording the land for a homestead, clothing the family inexpensively, and energy. But she does not.

Nonetheless, Chadwick packs an amazing amount of information into a 271 page book. More even than The Backyard Homestead (another guide I highly recommend, but which lacks personal anecdotes and advice). For anyone striving toward the homestead life, How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty is a must read.

Nov 20, 2013

Interview with Jocelyn Green: Bestselling Author, Wife, and Mother

Being a writer, I'm a pretty picky reader - especially when it comes to novels. I'm also a history buff (and a published author of history-related books), so when historical novels stray from real history, I tend to get annoyed. But when I read Jocelyn Green's historical novels Wedded to the War and Widow of Gettysberg, I was impressed. Big time.

What's even more impressive, though, is the author herself. She not only writes novels, but she has several nonfiction books, too. Plus she's a mom and a homeschooler. Better yet, she's a sweet lady who loves Jesus and seeks to lead others to him.

That's why I interviewed Jocelyn (who kindly agreed to the interview even though she'd just passed a grueling deadline and just wanted to get her neglected floor mopped). But don't worry; she won't make you feel bad about not being supermom. Instead, Jocelyn tells it how it really is.

Me:  I love your novels - but I admit, I have a fascination with your personal life, too. You're a wife and a mom of two young children. How do you find time for writing?

Jocelyn: I have to fight for it, no doubt about it. Thankfully, my husband is very helpful, and my parents live 20 minutes away, so they help a couple days a week and when I’m on a deadline, too. But I’ve had to learn to let some things slide. I try to cook ahead of time and have dinners in the freezer during crunch time, but sometimes we eat cereal or frozen pizza. I don’t decorate for every season as much as I’d like to. I don’t vacuum as much as I should. Etc. I also don’t get enough sleep. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle at all, it’s just a lot of triage on my priorities from week to week, and sometimes from day to day.
Me: A lot of moms get so discouraged because they think they should do more. Thank you for being honest about the sacrifices doing more means. 

You recently started homeschooling. How do you work that into your schedule?
Jocelyn: I did! Ha! Well, to  be honest, our homeschool schedule was pretty light this fall while I finished my third novel. Now that I’ve turned it in, we are finding a rhythm that works for our family. We do school from about 8:30am to 2:30pm, and after that, I have some time to work with. Right now I’m just in the research stage for novel #4, and I can easily read while in the same room with my chattering children. But when it comes time to write again, we may need to take some “vacation days” from homeschooling, or I will just have them do independent work on their own. I really don’t know how it’s all going to work out, yet. I’ll let you know next summer.
Me: What tips do you have for moms who aspire to/need to work for money?

Jocelyn: I would say that many times, skipping the byline pays. My best paying writing jobs never gave me any “credit” but the work was steady and the income predictable. For me, that was writing for nonprofits, universities, and web sites. Work your networks and find out who could use a writer. Attend writers conferences to broaden your circle of contacts. Be willing to take smaller jobs first to build up your resume and references. Remember that being faithful in the little things will lead to bigger things. Keep in mind, too, that unless you are Karen Kingsbury or Max Lucado or Jerry Jenkins, writing books is not a lucrative venture. When I consider how many hours I spend on not just writing a book, but then promoting it afterwards, suffice it to say I could make more money working at McDonalds. Seriously. Writing books is more of a ministry for me than anything else. The actual incomes comes from writing stuff that is far less interesting.

Me: So true! Many moms have trouble juggling their mommy and household responsibilities and Bible and prayer time. How do you fit in private and family devotion time?
Jocelyn: I have my personal devotions with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. Then when the kids are eating breakfast, I read to them a devotion for kids. At night, we read straight from the Bible to the kids before bed, and before any other bedtime stories. We recently finished going through the One Year Bible with them. Granted, it took us almost two years, but we did it. 
Me:  Would you tell us a little about your journey as a writer? How did your first book come about? 
Jocelyn: My first book was Faith Deployed: Daily Encouragement for Military Wives. I was a military wife when I pitched the proposal, but by the time it was published in 2008, my husband was no longer active duty. (It took three years to get a contract.) When I was writing that one, I had a two year old and I was pregnant, and very sick. Thankfully, Faith Deployed was a compilation of devotions that 14 other military wives contributed to, so I didn’t write it all myself. That was really the key that made future book contracts so much easier...I had no interest in writing novels for years. But during the research for my nonfiction book, Stories of Faith and Courage from the Home Front, I was inspired to try historical fiction. I was so inspired by reading real diaries of women who lived in Gettysburg 150 years ago, I really wanted to give them a voice again and bring their stories back to life. I felt that a novel would be the most vivid way to do that. That’s when I conceived the idea for the Heroines Behind the Lines Civil War series.

Me: Tell us about your newest books.
Jocelyn: Widow of Gettysburg just released during the summer of 2013. It shows readers what the civilians experienced during and after the battle of Gettysburg. (For more information, including the book trailer, go here.) Next up is Yankee in Atlanta (releasing in June 2014), which follows a Northern woman who lives in Atlanta as a governess for a Confederate soldier’s daughter. Yankee is a story of divided families, conflicting loyalties, and hearts refined by fire. 

Me: I can't wait to read it! 

To learn more about Jocelyn and her books, please visit her website (which includes fun freebies like recipes, and helpful stuff like study guides) or follow her on Facebook.