Monday, October 24, 2016

Affordable Fall Fun on the Fly

Halloween is right around the corner, dear readers, and if you're anything like me, you're about ready for some serious candy-checking.

Oh, my, that wrapper looks a little messed up. I'd better eat that one.

Nope, I think that one fell on the ground. Give it to Mommy.

I don't like the look of that wrapper's font. Is that Helvetica? Hand it over.

Oh I see you have four of these. I'll take three so you can have one. 

I have no idea why your bag is half-empty this morning. Are you sneaking candy? I can't believe you're sneaking candy! As punishment I am taking five pieces out of this bag right now!

Muwahahaha oh yes, I am ready. I need some type of reward for making it through the majority of this autumn season without blowing $400 at a pumpkin patch, apple orchard, or haunted house. That's right. My kids didn't do any of that stuff this year.

Why? How? What kind of mother are you? Well.... I didn't plan this year. I am typically a big planner. A couple years ago I started a Harvest Fest thing in this house. I really wanted to make the most of the season so I created invites and filled an entire weekend with fun stuff to do and places to go and things to cook, buy, and create. Of course, once the weekend eventually came someone was sick or plans would fall through or the weather wouldn't cooperate and I would always ended up feeling disappointed. I blame adorable autumn bucket lists for my feelings of failure. I'm looking at you, Pinterest. 

This year I just didn't have the time, to be honest. I kinda got busy and let autumn take its course. We knocked out chores as they came up and I just did the best I could. And you want to know something interesting? I think this was one of our best fall seasons yet.

Affordable fall fun on the fly (or frugal fall fun on the fly if you really want to challenge yourself) is exactly that - easy, cheap ways to make the most of the season. All of the ideas listed below can be done alone, with friends, or with family - I did most of them with my kiddos. And they were all admission-free!

Farm Visits - My county's farm bureau puts together a yearly farm tour. A number of farms within relatively close distance to one another open their gates and let us walk around, meet the animals, and explore their barns. They had produce and jams and honey on sale, sold hot dogs and soda, and the best part? At every stop my kids and I got to meet the actual family that lived there and worked the farm. It was incredibly fun and so, so rewarding to meet our local farmers. Many of the farms were just like the big-name "orchards" that were charging an arm and a leg to step foot on the property - except these farms were cheaper, less crowded, and supplied our county with nourishment outside of agri-tourism. If your county doesn't host an event like this try googling some local farms or checking your farmers market page for contact numbers - most farmers really love having their customers come visit and see how things operate! These beauties pictured below weren't part of the tour - they belong to a friend I work with at our local co-op. Ask around and ye shall find cuties!

Autumn Drive - Each and every year me, my big girl, and my best friend go on the Autumn Drive. Similar to the county farm tour, the autumn drive in my area hosts crafters, antique sellers, and a ton of seasonal food trucks. This is definitely less about agriculture and more like a very festive garage sale. Truth be told, you don't even need an event like this to get into the autumn spirit. Just pile into the car and go for a drive. Pack some apple juice boxes and drive around looking at the pretty leaves. This year I worked on teaching my girls some of the tree names. We've got sugar maple and oak down!

Movies - There is nothing better than lighting candles, grabbing a blanket, and curling up to watch Halloween movies. I love, love, love watching movies with my kids and every year we watch Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, The Halloween Tree, and The Ghost and Mister Chicken (classic, check it out if you have no idea what I'm talking about). Once the kids go to sleep I scare the crap out of myself by watching scary movies alone in the dark. I live on the edge, people. Pick out a few Halloween movies you love and make a point to only watch them in October. It is such an easy way to create a fun tradition!

Books - I love books more than movies, if you can believe it. Just like with our Halloween movies, I collect my favorite Halloween books and only bring them out in October. The kids love The Ghost Eye Tree, The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, and Guess Who's Just Moved in Next Door to Us? You know as I'm typing this out I'm realizing these were all books my mama read to me when I was little. Traditions don't need to cost a dime and can be as easy as flipping a few pages.

Punkin Carving and Seeds - This may sound like a no-brainer but I thought I'd throw it up here because often times I think I need to visit one of those giant pumpkin fields to get my pumpkins. Turns out the ones they sell in the grocery store come from only a few miles south of where I live and they are about ten times cheaper than the ones sold at the patches. When it comes to carving I am not picky, those suckers won't last more than a week anyway, so I have no problem picking up giant pumpkins for $4 a piece at the grocery store. The kids don't care, either. And the seeds taste just the same when baked with some seasoned salt and olive oil.

Fall Walk - Get outside and walk around. Getting out the door when it's starting to get chilly can be tough but I promise those fall colors are worth it and they won't stick around for long. We go for quick walks around my hood, nothing more than a mile, and soak in those last rays of warm sunshine while we still can. I love taking the girls on walks because I get to talk to them with few distractions, explore with them, and be outside. Simple and not at all boring.

Crafts - My mama is amazing and she sent my girls a package of Halloween crafts - and they weren't the hard projects that take forever and fall apart. These crafts were comprised of foam stickers and some ribbon - that's it. I was over the moon. The girls didn't fight, nothing has fallen apart, nobody got frustrated, and I got an adorable banner and door hanging out of it all.

Food - Next month I am kicking off a new series all about making food from scratch with your kiddos. I am very excited about the series because honestly, parents, kids can cook! It's not always easy, and a lot of the time it is actually more work to have them in there, but once they get the hang of it and develop their skills, kids can be incredibly useful helpers. So far this autumn we've baked punkin seeds, cream cheese punkin muffins, zucchini bread, biscuits, sweet rolls with icing, and we are about to make pumpkin pie in a couple weekends. I do most of the work but my kids like to stir, mix, and "check" on the things baking in the oven. Food is one of my favorite things in the entire world so of course it plays a huge role in making the seasons special for my family - plus from scratch is cheap and cooking is one of those things where the more you do it, the better you get!

Gardening - I don't think there's anything cooler than foregoing the orchards and patches because you have your own orchard and patch in your own backyard. Our apple trees are still babies but we grew a record number of sugar pie pumpkins this year. The smiles and giggles I heard coming from my girls when they realized we had pumpkins growing is something I will never forget. And what is more frugal than planting a little tiny seed in the ground? Our herb spiral was overflowing this year, too, and the big girl learned how to identify lemon balm, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, and chamomile. You're outside, you're learning, and you're eating - gardening is my favorite.

Arboretums and Botanic Gardens - I've noticed these places get a little less play in the fall than they likely deserve. What better place to take in the foliage than a tree-specific garden covered with...well... trees? We did not hit up the pumpkin-lighting fest at my local botanic garden this year (that was one of the things I considered but the day of, decided I'd rather watch Netflix. I regret nothing.) but I think I'm taking the kiddos next year. It looked incredible. Check around and see if you have any lesser-known parks in your area. Chances are if there's a park, there's a group of people making that park festive and fun for the fall season.

The best part about having fun on the fly? If you don't feel like doing anything, you don't. And if you do, you go out and do it. It was blessedly relaxing for me to keep this mind frame and the mentality of "whatever you want" took all the stress and pressure off my time with my girls. So go ahead and check out some of these ideas and relax your way into the holidays..........or don't, that's ok too :)

I'd love to hear about your fall activities in the comments down below! As always, thank you for reading and have a Happy Halloween :) Boo!


Monday, October 10, 2016

Another Day with Abby

Today's post is dedicated to the Greene family, and their sweet baby girl, Abigail.

I remember the first time I met Adam Greene. I was nervous, shy, and even a little embarrassed. You see, I was carrying his friend's baby. Hi, nice to meet you, you don't know me, but your buddy knocked me up so guess what? I'm a part of your life now. 'bout them Bears? I remember the knots in my stomach like it was yesterday. 

Truth be told I'd crossed paths with Adam long, long ago. His sister was one of my very first friends when I moved to a new school district. She and I and a strange Texan named Chad would hang out all the time on the playground. I'd seen Adam before, but never spoke to him. Nope, I didn't speak to him until I was swollen and achy and nervous and anxious. 

I was worried for nothing, it turns out. He was incredibly friendly, the epitome of a big-brother kind-of-guy, and he smiled a lot. He didn't talk too much but when he did it was typically something funny, video game-related, or genuine. He greeted me with kindness and that kindness has carried over through the years, into my wedding day, at birthday parties, and even more recently, through my divorce. He looked me straight in the eye and asked if I was ok the last time I saw him. He is one of only three guys that's done that during this insane time in my life. You remember those moments. Direct, caring, friendly. 

I remember meeting Rachel, too. Where Adam carries more subtle conversations, Rachel delivers a whirlwind of words, typically fast-paced, on any subject in the book. I remember struggling to keep up and wondering if she was going to eventually realize I'm not nearly as intelligent as I must've looked because I had no idea what we were talking about. 

Rachel has the most beautiful face I've ever seen. Huge green-gray eyes. Dark, incredibly shiny hair. Perfect skin. She also smiled a lot the night I met her. And she was crazy in love with Adam, I picked up on that immediately. She shared funny stories from the past and I remember laughing and trying to picture my soon-to-be-husband as a young high schooler, acting like an idiot and wearing stupid hats. I found myself feeling so much more comfortable. A girl I can talk to who isn't judging me and is smart and nice and doesn't seem to mind that I was kinda just tossed in this little group of tightly-knit friends. 

She and her sister did our hair for my wedding day. She made me beautiful and told me I was beautiful and helped hold my huge white dress in a teeny-tiny stall so I could pee. She sent me messages while I was in Germany and hosted my second baby sprinkle and went out of her way to be nice, understanding, and inviting. She didn't have to do that. These were her friends that she'd had for years and years, I was a newcomer. But she did it anyways.

These two wonderful people decided to make more wonderful people. They were blessed with two little girls. Abigail and Emma. I had two girls, they had two girls, another couple had a boy and a girl, another had two girls, one couple had four boys (#bossstatus), another had two girls - as the years passed we added kids to the group faster than I could keep their names straight. We shared birthday parties and holidays and beach days and I still look forward to the one party every year when I am pretty much guaranteed to see everyone and I can try and pick out which leggy, sweaty kids were the little tiny babies I felt like I held just days ago. 

Abigail, the Greene's oldest, loves to talk. When she comes over she wants to know everything about the chickens. Names. What they eat. Why they are colored that way. Where the eggs are. Could she have some eggs? How many chickens. Could she hold them? Why couldn't she hold them? What liked to eat chickens. What scared chickens. But really please, could she hold them? She reminds me of my oldest.

Emma, her younger sister, is a girl of action. Much like my youngest, she knows what she wants and there's no doubt she is going to get it. At our last party I watched as she partnered with my youngest and together they dominated the mud pie kitchen and defended their riches from every other child in the yard. These women will run the world one day. 

Our kiddos play together. Not all the time, not very often, but they play together. We didn't feel pressed for time. We could always make a playdate some day down the line. When Rachel's mother passed away unexpectedly this year, my heart ached for her. I saw Rachel a few weeks later and hugged her, handed her more beer, let her know I was thinking of her. That's the same day Adam truly saw me and despite his own hardships, asked me how I was doing. We don't see each other much, but it's in these moments that we are there for each other.

And it absolutely shatters me to say now is another one of those moments.

Rachel and Adam just found out their beautiful Abby, only 7 years old, has a brain tumor. And before your broken heart rushes you into a slew of defensive thoughts about innovative medical treatments, various award-winning cancer centers, and how we've come so far technologically, please let me stop you. 

Abigail was diagnosed with DIPG. 

I want you to read these next few paragraphs. Please read them in their entirety - there's something you need to understand. 

"What is the prognosis for a child diagnosed with DIPG?

Medical advances in the past 40 years have greatly improved the survival rates for children diagnosed with most types of cancer. For some cancers, the medical advances have been extraordinary. For example, the survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia has increased from less than 10 percent in the 1960s to nearly 90 percent today. Overall, the survival rate for children with cancer is around 83 percent.

But these medical advances have done nothing for children DIPG.

Brain tumors remain the most common cause of cancer-related death in children, and DIPG is the leading cause of death from pediatric brain tumors. A child diagnosed with DIPG today faces the same prognosis as a child diagnosed 40 years ago. There is still no effective treatment and no chance of survival. Only 10% of children with DIPG survive for 2 years following their diagnosis, and less than 1% survive for 5 years. The median survival is 9 months from diagnosis." 
(Taken from

The Greene's, the lovely, wonderful family I described above, were handed that prognosis for their little girl. There is no rationalizing this away. There is no, "But what about?" This is, quite literally, every parent's worst nightmare. And it's happening, real-time, to two incredibly good people, one strong little sister, and one beautiful, brilliant ray of light with lots of chicken questions, sweet Abigail. 

So what can we do? As tears fall and hands shake, I wrack my brain trying to think about what I would want to hear. What would I want? Who would I want to see? Do they want food? How much is too much? How much is not enough? How can I even begin to understand?

And the bottom line, the real truth, is that I can't possibly understand. I do not understand what they are going through. I can't empathize my way into their world. And nothing I can do can shelter this family from the pain they are experiencing. This is their new normal and this new normal is unacceptable. And I can do nothing to change it.

But I can offer to hold the umbrella over their head for a little bit. The rain will still fall, the wind, still blow, but if I can keep the storm from hitting their faces for only a moment, it's damn well worth trying. 

Abigail Greene's website is called Another Day with Abby. There's a link where you can donate, even as little as $1, toward Abby's life. Your donation allows Rachel to stay with her daughters instead of working her full time job. Your donation allows Adam to travel back and forth from work into the city to hold his daughter's hand during treatments. Your donation helps pay for the smiling nurses and pediatricians who provide Abby's medical care. Your donation allows Abby to live life to the absolute fullest.

We can't take her cancer away, dear readers. But we can take a minute out of our lives to show love and support to a family that's continually shown love and support to others. This is our chance to show them that they're not alone. This is our chance to look them in the eye when they're not ok and say, "I am here. And I can help."

Please consider visiting Another Day with Abby and showing the Greene's that love and light can be found in even the darkest of places. You can also follow along with Abby's journey on her Facebook page, Abigail's Fight with DIPG.  

As always, thank you for reading. 


Monday, October 3, 2016

Harvest Results...How Did the Seeds Do?

It's been a heck of a start to the fall season, my dear friends. There's been quite a lot of heartbreak around these parts lately and I've decided to take a pause from the serious stuff for a minute and talk about something pure, simple, and joyful.....

....growing food. 

There's something very soothing and calming about taking a seed, shoving it in some dirt, giving it a little water, and watching it grow into a little plant. I don't think there's a single hurt in the world that cannot be soothed by just a little time outside in the dirt. It's therapeutic and natural and brings us back, quite literally, to our roots. Garden therapy is all about the process. The food that comes afterward is just a bonus.

I started growing my lil seedlings this spring - remember the Growing a Garden series I wrote alongside my 2016 gardening efforts? If you're thinking about gardening, or want to see how I started it up all by myself, check out that series. I planted a plethora of veggies this year, almost 10 new varieties, all of them heirloom and purchased primarily from Seed Savers and Baker Creek, with a few random little packets I got for free from the Mother Earth News Fair last year. PS: I am in Zone 5 - check here to find your zone. 

So which seeds panned out and which ones didn't? Let's find out :)

My zucchini rocked the house again this year. They got a late start because of the Chipmunk Fiasco of 2016 but regardless, they've given me a number of huge, quick-growing squashes that I've diced and sliced for pasta, freezing, and of course, the best, easiest zucchini bread ever. This is my second year using these seeds from Baker Creek and they didn't disappoint either year. I was able to save some seeds from the largest zucchini I found and am excited to see how they germinate next year. 

Last year I tried these in a bush-like habitat, planting them at the base of my corn and pole beans as a weed shade. They gave me one, yellowing little cucumber and almost immediately became afflicted by mildew. This year I tried them in a climbing pattern, up a trellis made of chicken wire, and unfortunately, nothing. I will be trying a new variety of cucumbers next year. Snow's Fancy, I wanted to love you, but alas, I fear it wasn't meant to be.

This lil' packet was free from the Jung table and booth at the Mother Earth News Fair. I am excited to say that despite getting them in the ground late, and seeing some pretty significant mildew on the leaves this past week, I've harvested four beautiful, adorable little sugar punkins this year. I will be planting these again next year :)

Both of these bean types germinated like crazy. My kids have furiously gathered and shelled these guys for the past few weeks. Trail of Tears had the most gorgeous flowers that were a favorite among the garden's pollinators. The Brinker Carrier's are huge and hilarious, looking like chunky little caterpillars at first glance. I let both these bean types dry on the vine and we will be storing them for use this winter as a dry bean. My only complaint (and this is more Jen Error than anything else) is the vines are quite strong - I need to work on my trellis skills. They toppled the corn over while trying to stretch to other plants!

I don't know what it is with me and spinach but man does my spinach ever bolt quick! I tried this variety last year too and had the same issue - the seeds germinated wonderfully, but the plants grew tall and spindly and seedy within 2 weeks. Maybe that's normal? I've been spoiled by my kale, I imagine.

This kale. I cannot even describe how amazing this kale is. The bunches are huge, healthy, beautiful, and hearty. Every seed I direct sowed into the ground this spring grew into a beautiful, bountiful bush of kale. I harvest the bottom leaves and work my way up and this stuff doesn't quit - it just grows more leaves. Last year it stuck around until the first major snow of the season. A definite keeper!

I didn't think I could ever get strawberries to love my garden but alas, I'm having the best luck with these two varieties. The Old North Sea berries are new and were just planted this year so no fruit yet. They have grown substantially since planting and of the three little root bundles Baker Creek sent me, two of them took off like lush, leafy rockets. My Alexandria berries were planted last year and they came back this year with delightful success. They were working hard well into the heat of the summer and although the berries are small, my girls loved plucking them off and popping them into their mouths for the majority of the spring. Fingers crossed both varieties survive the winter!  

Insect Control
I plant marigolds and nasturtiums every year for insect control. Nasturtiums are also edible - very tangy and gorgeous in salads. Last year both varieties exceeded my expectations and provided me with beautiful blooms from summer through the fall. This year, however, I was down on my nasturtium luck. Instead of direct sowing them, I started them indoors. That will change next year - back to direct sowing them once the frost passes! My marigolds are gorgeous - honestly they made me tear up on this crisp fall morning - beautiful orbs of gold and orange. *le sigh*

My peppers did not make it at all this year. I've grown the purple beauties and napoleon sweets before and had wonderful yields. This year I added the sweet chocolates and was so excited to see all three varieties grow into healthy, gorgeous, productive bushes. I simply did not get them warmed up quick enough. I also tried companion planting them with tomatoes this year and the tomatoes went crazy, which I think made it hard for the peppers to get that precious sunshine they love so much. Next year they get their own space on the south side!

Tomatoes, oh the tomatoes, dear readers. I tried tomatoes in 2015 and it was a bust. Only one or two orbs and they had blossom end rot like crazy. I was so sad, especially when I'd read about how they're the easiest things to grow, ever. This year, much to my joy and pleasure, I had the most incredible bumper crop of tomatoes. Of the four varieties I planted, only the Bonny Best did not grow. The Hillbilly Potato Leaf are ginormous, but extremely sensitive to water. Almost all of them split, which was fine with me because I don't sell them, I eat them. The Green Zebras were perfect, but smaller than I expected. And the Moonglows were my favorite. Beautiful orange orbs of extremely fleshy, delectable goodness. Fantastic year for tomatoes!

My cauliflower decided to high-tail it to Rot City this year. In 2015 this variety produced some of the best cauliflower I'd ever eaten. This year, the heat of the spring made the leaves wilted and attracted earwigs to my precious, yellowing bundles of goodness. I have not given up on this variety yet and will be trying them again next year in a different bed. 

My herbs soared with the eagles this year, my friends. The only variety that did not go nuts was the cilantro. Everything else, including the basil I put between plants and as an insect deterrent, grew strong and healthy and bountiful. I absolutely love the purple basil and the lemon balm, they are perhaps my two favorites. My herb spiral is looking gorgeous!!

This is all my fault, really. This variety did so so good in 2015. I went nuts starting these guys and started them too early. The planters I used stunted their growth and I didn't use enough soil in the raised beds to allow them to really spread out and get big. I was able to harvest some onion, but not the gorgeous, beautiful braids I imagined when I planted them. Next year, onions are getting more space!

These little babies survived what I consider to be a murderous attempt on their very lives. I planted them way too close together, in restrictive planting material, with nowhere near enough soil for them to root. Regardless, they gave me some adorable (even if kinda funky-lookin) orange roots. They also gave me a couple yellow-tailed swallowtail butterflies. I'll do them justice next year!

The harvest isn't quite over yet but if it were to end tomorrow, I would leave the season feeling quite successful indeed. Happy gardening!!

What did you grow this year, dear readers? What are your favorite varieties? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading!