Welcoming the rain

Spring rains are never such a dulcet melody as when they follow a cold, harsh winter.

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Although our first New England winter was beautiful, and most days were graced with a fresh white powder making everything magically new again, I will admit I was relieved to hear it was not a typical winter.

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10 Reasons to Make Sure You Play in the Dirt this Summer

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10 reasons to play in the dirt

Heart-shaped lessons from a white-tailed visitor

The corn was getting just tall enough to offer real promise of delicious August meals.

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The tomatoes were the size of bright green golf balls, starting to show hints of pink, longings for red adulthood.

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The cucumber plants were ready to reach out their tentacles and crawl along the ground because we had not yet built them a stick-and-twine trellis to dance on. That’s when our first furry pests paid a visit. With their heads low, eating the grass, and their tails laying laxly on their rumps, they felt at home. Thankfully, they were content with grass, weeds, and mushrooms for their evening meal, all of which lay at least 40 feet away from our own three garden plots of promise.

Our timid Labradoodle who longs to be a protector, but sometimes cannot overcome his fears, ran to tell the visitors they were on his property and not welcome near her gardens that she daily tends to, with him as her constant garden companion.

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But when the white-tailed deer flashed their namesake warning tails to each other and gracefully lunged into the cover of the maples and pines, our garden guard was glad to run back to the comfort of our barn.

We have adored every new encounter with each creature that shares our 14 acres of rural New England soil, in this, our maiden summer at Restful Falls Farm. But this particular visit did not lead to excitement, partially because we had plenty of white tailed deer in our previous backyard, 400 miles south, but mainly because these visitors threatened the promises of luscious summer meals to come. So my gardener started investigating how to keep these particular neighbors at bay.

She had learned a valuable trick from her grandfather, the one who had passed along the heritage of gardening to her. So we gathered tin pans, twine, and sticks, and built silver sentinel sculpture as produce protectors.

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She also read that deer have a great aversion to two particularly potent plants, which we happen to love: peppermint and lavender. So we trekked to town, found hearty specimens, and planted them beside our fruits and veggies. Her sister, my fellow tea aficionado, has great plans for the peppermint, plus we love the smell of it whenever we brush past it in the garden.

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And the lavender adds delicate flowering beauty among the rustic tin sculpture, simple scallion grasses, and small green tomatoes. And we will dry it this fall, turning it into wonderful sachets.

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So far, we haven’t witnessed another visit. But our silver sentinels and 70-pound, 4-legged garden guard stand ready.

Thank goodness, because if we were counting on our cockapoo to help ward off the deer, Bambi would surely dine on our delicacies.

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Once the protective measures were put in place, we did take time to learn a little more about the white tailed deer. First, we referred to our favorite source for all nature facts… Our Backyard Book, where the 2 older sisters had joined forces to make a page about deer many moons ago.

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Then we referred to our favorite Field Guide for New England, which I highly recommend to all local friends.

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As soon as you follow along on SoulyRested.com (by clicking “FollowThisBlog” in the right-hand column), you can snag a FREE 7-page, chock-full-of-information printable that will get you started on an unbelievably easy, unlimitedly rewarding journey of nature study with a child. The free printable even includes an ID page for studying mammals! And even the least science-oriented parent (or grandparent) ever can dive right in.

And love it.

Really.

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The more we read, the less guilt we felt over refusing to share our garden bounty with the deer. Our graceful, white-tailed visitors, and all mammals who stay active in the Northeast over winter–those who face the daunting task of finding food and shelter in the often brutal New England cold–are designed marvelously by an ingenious creator God to adapt. For instance, deer are…

* Wise dressers… The white-tailed deer has a thick coat of winter hairs that are hollow, therefore very insulating, even up to -30 degrees!

* Unfastiduous eaters… The sagacious deer change their diet based on what’s available. They feast on plants in the summer and shrubs and trees in the winter.

* Efficient engineers… While deer eat and sleep wherever they enjoy the food supply, when the snow is too deep to travel for their food, they join together in a “deer yard.” Here, under conifers or on a south-facing slope (where less snow collects), they engineer an elaborate network of trails to food, so they can avoid difficult-to-traverse, deep snow and conserve energy. In deer yards, you will see a noticeable “browse line” where the deer consume all the lower branches on all the conifers.

* Sage conservers, right down to their toes… Turns out a deer’s foot is actually two toes (that’s why their footprint looks like a heart), with their hoof being a thick toenail over the toes. Their hooves grow quickly in the summer and slowly in the winter, allowing them to conserve their energy in the cold winter months, slowing down their metabolism, right down to their heart-shaped toes.

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If I spot heart-shaped deer prints near our plots of produce this summer, I will not only help my gardener vamp up her protective mechanisms, but also be reminded of God’s loving provision. If God has given the deer so many ways to adapt to short-comings and difficulties, I can only imagine, with Him as my provider and strength, what He can enable me to do!

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“The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” Habakkak 3:19

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A perennial, paternal harvest

It arrived via Fed Ex today. Shinny and ready to use. She was so excited. She couldn’t wait to fill it.

Not an iPod ready to be filled with apps.

Much better, in her mind–a watering can ready to tend to her beloved gardens and fruit trees.

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As I watched her shower her blueberries, I realized how proud Dad would be.

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He’s 400 miles away and hates to travel, so I doubt he’ll ever amble across the acres with her and inspect her fruits and vegetables. But he would love to.

I don’t think of summer without thinking of my father in his gardens.

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He was the one who first sprouted in her a love of playing in the dirt, planting seeds, and tending to her gardening efforts daily, consistently, responsibly.

Each new summer he thought they were just growing that year’s crop together. Crisp beans they’d pop off the vines in the hot August sun and tender squash they’d watch mature until a late September afternoon. But he was sewing so much more. And his efforts are still blooming, 400 miles north, a decade after he first taught her the value of soil packed under her fingernails and the promise of each new blossom discovered on tender stems.

Both harvests are invaluable. There was the annual, physical yield. The sunbaked, golden peppers they held in their hands together and the plump green bean pods they tossed into overflowing buckets among the narrow, even rows. And then there are the perennial, almost ethereal returns. The joys of being an intricate part of God’s springtime, life-giving miracles. Those joys he planted deep in her. This year, being separated from him with our recent move, she saw that love take root and bloom on its own, on her novel New England landscape. His love for creating the perfect growing conditions. His tenderness for a wilted, brown shoot that needed extra special care. His marvel at God’s miraculous provision for us through simple seeds. His childlike joy over emerging sprouts and buds. He’s passed them on to her now, and this year’s harvest will be stronger and more glorious than ever before. It will be one that nourishes her for a lifetime.

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“Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” John 6:27MSG

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A FEW THINGS WE’VE LEARNED in our first month of New England gardening:

The weeds and insect and mammal pests are numerous on a rural farm.

To help deter the weeds, she’s spread grass clippings over the rows of her gardens.

To help deter the deer, she planted small peppermint plants in each bed. While we love the smell when our leg brushes the aromatic plants, deer despise it enough that it truly keeps them at bay. (We were pleasantly surprised to learn that ants, aphids, and cabbage worms also dislike the wonderful aroma.)

To attract insect-devouring birds, we created our garden beds near existing mature trees and installed a few bird houses at various heights as well. Next we’re adding a birdbath. It’s easy enough to fill it with fresh water daily when we’re tending the garden,  and it’s the least we can do for our bird friends who help us with insect removal.

Since frogs and toads feed on just about any creature smaller than them (insects, snails, and slugs), to the tune of 20,000 pests per year, they’re also great to have around.

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To attract helpful gardening companions, like our new friend, a gray tree frog, we just placed a cracked pottery bowl upside down in one of our beds and added a shallow dish of water. Instant toad house. Of course, you can also buy a fancy one, if you’d like.

We’ll share more of our gardening lessons (and surely failures) over the season. But for now, for lots more great organic pest control ideas, we liked this page.

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Be sure to follow along right here, on SoulyRested.com, for more nature study resources! (Just enter your email and click the “FollowThisBlog” in the right-hand column. A few times a month I’ll share tips on Keeping It Simple from my New England homestead.) It’s super easy, and then you won’t miss any of the fun nature study resources that I’ll be sharing here in the months ahead. And—to be unveiled soon—a complete nature study resource for even the least science-oriented parent (or grandparent) ever. Really.

As soon as you follow along on SoulyRested.com (by clicking “FollowThisBlog” in the right-hand column), you can snag a 7-page, detailed, FREE printable that will get you started on an unbelievably easy, unlimitedly rewarding journey of nature study with a child. Start by researching a plant in your own vegetable garden, if you’d like.

Even the least science-oriented parent (or grandparent) ever can dive right in.

And love it.

Really.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

A Long Time in the Making

We had just finished unloading the contents of the moving truck into our barn. Then she begged me to help her plant her dreams… dreams of her own mini orchards.

So the barn stayed full and the house stayed rather empty. We planted a terrace of blueberry bushes, a patch of strawberries, a plot of watermelon mounds, and a line of peach and plum trees. We worked elbow to elbow all week, accumulating dirt under our nails, deepening our passion for our land, and focusing on the promise of the harvest.

After rooting them in the rich soil she had prepared, she tended to her fruits (or the promise thereof) and watered them every day. Until we were blessed with days upon days of fresh, cool spring rains. Those days she could rest and watch the plants soak in their quenching drink from their maker, not their gardener.

Never one to keep her hands idle for long, as the rain danced on her gardens, she turned to her “crop” of strawberries we had purchased the day before.

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She was going to make her first-ever pie. She found the tattered recipe card in the small, wooden caddy on the counter. My friend–the one I have always called “best”– had presented the treasured roll-topped box to me before I married, using it to corral recipes she had collected from friends and family, near and far. Recipes that were now my daughter’s as well.

With her thick blond hair bobbing in the loose knot she had pulled it into on the top of her head, she started rolling out the dough. She stirred the cornstarch mixture over heat, and spoke about the distant future when she would be making a similar dessert with berries planted and tended to by her own hands.

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I just longed to enjoy the moment. Not rush ahead 10 weeks to pick the fruits of her labor. Not even speed up the gelling process of my favorite pie. Just watch my 13-year-old bear fruits beyond her age and across generations. She was rolling the dough on the pie board her great grandmother had given her grandmother as a wedding present, using her great grandmother’s recipe for the crust, and referring to the worn 3×5 card showcasing her Great Aunt Jeanette’s handwriting for “Easy Strawberry Pie.” All this in a kitchen that had been the home of genuine, from-scratch food preparation for more than two centuries.

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I savored the moment. The rain was gently pounding an irregular rhythm on the back window. My daughter was rolling out a dough from my childhood memories.

This pie had been a long time in the making. No need to rush it at all.

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“May the Lord bless the land
 with the precious dew from heaven above
… with the best the sun brings forth
… with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains
 and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills; with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness.” Deuteronomy 33: 12-16

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GREAT AUNT JEANETTE’S EASY STRAWBERRY PIE

1 cup boiling water

1 cup sugar

4 Tbsp cornstarch

pinch of salt

4 Tbsp strawberry jello (2/3 of a 3 oz box)

1 qt fresh strawberries (I measure out roughly 2 cups, after berries are cut)

Mix sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Slowly add boiling water to the dry mix and return to heat, mixing nonstop until it is almost clear and very thick. Remove from heat. Add jello. Let cool slightly. (We put it in the fridge for 10 minutes or so.) Add strawberries and let chill until almost set. Then put the filling in a baked, cooled pie shell. Cover and refrigerate until fully set. Top with whipped cream if desired.

Make sure you clean the berries BEFORE cutting off their tops, or water will pool inside the berries and keep the filling from setting correctly in the pie.

To pick yummy berries, keep in mind that your nose knows. A sweet fruity smell is more important than appearance if you’re looking for great flavor.

And fun strawberry fact: Did you known a strawberry is not really a true berry? Berries, after all, have their seeds inside. A strawberry, on the other hand, carries its 200 or more seeds around on the outside. The seeds are actually called “achenes,”  and each one is officially a fruit. So when you eat one strawberry, you’re eating 100s of fruits! No wonder they’re so good!

GRANDMOM’S PERFECT CRUST

2 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup shortening

4 tablespoons cold water

Combine flour and salt. Cut in shortening until crumbly. Sprinkle with water and blend until mixture holds together. Shape into ball. On lightly floured surface, roll to 1/8-inch thickness.

This makes two crusts, so for one strawberry pie, you will want to half this. I assume grandmom usually made a covered pie. Of course she probably quadrupled her double crust recipe, since she was baking for a family of 12. Pie for 12–now that’s a dessert that would be a long time in the making! But I’m sure grandmom’s pies, like Kayla’s, were well worth waiting for.

In fact, the wait makes the dessert all that sweeter.

For an easy-to-print PDF version of both recipes, CLICK HERE.

Dreams Taking Root

I assured her many times.

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She did not need to water her newly planted fruits today. Buckets of rainfall had provided a deserved respite from her arduous chore.

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She had carried watering cans, carted hoses and sprinklers, and inspected her plantings every day for two weeks.

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Having mini orchards to call her own had been a dream of hers for a decade, but our previous home in mid-atlantic suburbia, on less than a fifth of an acre, allowed no room for her vision. Our new home was placed on the front corner of 14 acres that lazily stretch uphill from a long, rich-soiled river front. Within only a day of arriving, she and I were turning over rich brown dirt, moving lush green sod, and planting her dreams.

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We still had a barn full of moving boxes; dark, worn, antique floors to refinish; and uneven plaster to sand and paint in every room of our early-19th-century cape cod. But her dreams were taking root and being tended to. So, although the interior of our home told a chaotic story, we were settling in just fine.

“He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.” Psalm 104:13

The Promise a Garden Holds

“Promise.” That’s what she called the withered looking strawberry plant as she gingerly opened its brittle roots and fanned them across the luscious topsoil she had lovingly prepared for it.

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She saw past its dry, ugly roots and joyfully focused on the minuscule, tender shoot that represented so much hope to her. She knew it was a shoot longing to prosper in the warm sun, rich dark soil, and refreshing water she was going to provide for it.

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How broken and ugly we must somedays appear. But God knows the promise we hold. He knows in our feeble, unpromising state we can prosper because we are the work of HIS hands. He knows we can thrive, despite our own shortcomings, because HE has planted us. He knows the “promise” we hold that will, in the end, bring him glory.

I’ll keep you posted on the strawberry patch; we’ll see if these withered roots can produce ripe berries. But in the meantime, I’m thankful God has planted me so lovingly in a new home that gives such joy and thankful for a daughter who reminded me, while planting our garden together, that even on my most fragile days I do hold great promise. Because God says I am “the branch of his planting, the work of his hands, that He might be glorified.” Isaiah 60:21

PLANTING A STRAWBERRY PATCH

First of all, take heart if your baby plants look less-than desirable. It amazed us how dead and lifeless ours looked yet within just a week in the ground showed tiny new growth and promise. (You do have to look hard still for it, but it’s there.) Also, be sure to plant the rows far enough apart that you will be able to walk between them without squashing the juicy berries on the mature plants. We placed the rows about 3 feet apart. Prepare your soil with rich compost then gently fan the tiny plant’s roots out, to cover the little mound you’ve prepared for them. Do be very gentle though, they are as brittle as they look. But there is life in the tiny hair roots, so be sure to not tear them. As the plants grow, keep the weeds under control by spreading lawn clippings between the rows.

Once we have a crop worthy of making freezer jam, we’ll share our recipe!