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The Growing Zone Paradigm

Contrary to popular belief your growing zone means almost nothing to your vegetable garden in North America. What?? Bear with me and by the end of this post I’m sure you’ll agree.

Just a few years ago when I really delved into gardening – spending hours poring over five-star growing guides and watching breakout channels on YouTube – I was getting inconsistent information as far as what I could grow in my garden, when I needed to start seeds and direct sow, etc. This is mostly caused by an assumption that your zone dictates when and what to do with your annual vegetables. Unfortunately, your growing zone only affects perennial plantings. By definition, in fact, a growing zone is characterized by the average low temperatures in a geographical area, dictating what perennial trees, shrubs and other plants will survive the winter and come back the following year.

Wait. Aren’t most garden variety fruits and vegetables in fact.. annuals? Yes, you’re correct! And therein lies the problem. One of the things I find most infuriating about folks who are trying to teach gardening online is that they refer to gardeners by zone, as if that broad category is important enough to even warrant mention. By titling a video “When To Start Seeds in Zone 6,” you’ve created a rift in the timing that a budding gardener like myself desperately needs to understand in order to be successful, especially in a zone like mine! While north Idaho varies greatly in growing zones (ranging from 4a to 7b) for example my area has a majority zone of 6b. Within this zone there is a variance of up to a month of growing season, meaning a huge difference in first and last frost dates within the same zone!

This is imperative to remember when planning for success in your vegetable garden: your last day of frost, in the first half of the calendar year, is when your growing season begins. Your first day of frost, in the second half of the year, is when it ends. Given that there are just a handful of perennial vegetables to be grown in most of the contiguous United States, don’t you think that’s much more pertinent to your garden planning and execution?

Frost is First

So here we’ve come to the meat and potatoes of this important lesson: ditch the concern and constant mention of zone and trade it for a focus on frost. If I had known this my first season I would have saved loads of time and energy – so much so that I made it my mission to differentiate the two so that others may learn from my mistakes.

Your frost dates are what dictate when you start your seeds, when you can plant your seedlings out into your garden beds, when your first harvest will be, and when your last harvest will be. In contrast, your growing zone only describes your average low temperatures during the winter, based off historical averages in your area. This means next to nothing to when you’re going to direct sow or start indoors – you have to count backward from your last day of frost which can be found on the Farmer’s Almanac website here – because zone doesn’t tell you when you’re going to see freezing temperatures.

So if you really want to nail down your gardening timeline visit the Farmer’s Almanac, put in your zip code and get your frost dates here. For a detailed look at what a gardener’s year should look like see my post on Grow Your Own.

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Grow your Own: A Gardener’s Year

In my quest to find a comprehensive gardening calendar that fits any growing season (and sadly coming up short) I’ve compiled this collection of resources to fit any gardener in any region and any climate. Just a few supplies are needed to put together your ultimate gardening guide and can be found for very cheap, or even free!

Planning – let alone executing – a vegetable garden can seem like a daunting task, but if you take it one season at a time you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much food you can grow for your family. For this program I chose to start the year on the most unlikely day – the day that Mother Nature kills all that is green and tender! This is the day that preparations begin for the next growing season, even though you may not be finished enjoying the harvest you’ve just picked, stored, and probably thrown at anyone who will eat summer squash. Especially in colder northern climates it is a wonderful time to amend beds for their annual hibernation period.

While this is your planning period, don’t forget that it’s a time for rest and relaxation for the gardener as well. Depending on the length of your growing season this off-time may be shorter than not. Count your blessings because this means your fruitful season is longer than mine! Though winter can seem dead and dreary it is a wonderful time to curl up in front of the fire with a tablet and pencil out your allotment for the coming growing season. One of my favorite and most valuable tools in my garden is my notebook – a free download of all my printouts can be found in our online store here. A three-ring binder and some dividers are all you need to put together your very own gardening handbook.

So take the opportunity during this period of rest (for you and your garden) to prepare for the coming year and all the work it holds for you. Yes, it’s a ton of hard labor – sometimes backbreaking – but when you taste that first tomato of the season or prepare a basket of fresh veg to share with your neighbor it fills you with such incomparable joy that by the end of winter you may even be itching to wrestle with bags of soil and cart seedlings in and out of the greenhouse.

To begin, enter your zip code on the farmer’s almanac website below.

The First Season – Planning (FDOF)

Now that you’ve marked your first and last frost dates on your calendar it’s time to block out Season 1 of your Gardener’s Year – the season I call Preparation. Beginning on the day of your first fall frost, this is the time to prep (or build) your garden beds, compost the dying foliage that has been overtaken by frost, amend the soil for their winter vacation, and straighten out your shopping list for spring: take inventory of your tools and materials, order what is needed, and peruse seed catalogs. Use the seeds worksheet from my printout package to take inventory and make a wish list of varieties you’d like to try.

This is also prime time to improve the infrastructure of your garden and surrounding areas. Take this opportunity to reorganize the tool shed, shore up your fences, and do some hardscaping if needed. This will make the spring much easier when you’re trying to juggle timing, and everything is already in its proper place and in tip-top shape.

Now, make sure you leave enough time in late winter to start your seeds indoors if you’re going to go that route. In most parts of North America you’ll want to start sowing indoors at least 8 weeks prior to your last day of frost in the spring.

The Farmer’s Almanac has a comprehensive planting calendar available by your zone here.

When it’s finally time to tear open the first packet, visit my seed starting post here. It’s chock full of information I’ve gathered over the years starting my own seeds, and I’d love it if I could help you start the gardening-from-seed journey by sharing what I’ve learned.

When your seeds are started and cooking in their little plugs it’s a waiting game for the next 2 months or so. Take good care of your seedlings, read a book or two and savor the quiet and calm that is the season of snow. If you don’t get snow in your area, head for the mountains and go sledding or snowshoeing! This resting period of your year will soon be over so have your cozy winter fun while you can.

The Second Season – Execution

No, not death. Copious and abundant life is about to explode from your fingertips! I don’t mean a tangled jungle of a vegetable patch. Just a few squash or a bucket of thriving strawberry plants are a success to be boasted about. When you fail (and you will, we all do – every. single. year.) remember that each plant is a lesson and the garden is a classroom no matter how seasoned you are.

Now is the time to execute the cautiously laid plans that filled your handbook with goals and dreams. Harden off your starts according to your planting calculator – see my post about hardening off here – and in no time some of the tougher crops like kale, radishes and others can go out into the world even before your last day of spring frost. Direct sow what you can directly into the garden and watch the magic of cold-hardy germination unfold, and say your last goodbyes to the passel of tomato plants that have been vying for space (if you’re like me, in your already crowded laundry room.) As soon as the soil is warm enough they’re out on their own!

When you’ve finished prodding, digging, and generally violating your garden beds there’s a quiet period while things get settled in. I like to savor this time before the heat of summer waves in by taking my toddler into the garden and reading a book while he wanders around, babbling to the beans and peas he’s discovered are of the early maturing variety. Keep an eye on your calendar though, because things like legumes, greens and other early harvests can quickly get out of hand before you think much of anything is going on behind the lush greenery of spring.

As you wait for the first blossoms to form on your cherry tomatoes you might discover that gardening is a generous (if sometimes torturous) exercise in patience. Revel in the unfettered grace of mother nature, who blooms for no one. By the end of this journey you will find, along with horticulture, there are life lessons to be learned in the garden.

Water, mulch and prune as needed until you see miniature green replicas of your favorite fruits hanging from their vines. If you are inclined to do so, keep track in your notebook of which varieties set fruit and when (if you’re a northerner like me you may be hunting for cultivars that do particularly well in colder climates.)

I beg you, resist the urge to pull up a carrot or radish every day to see if they’re ready! Their eager shoulders will bare themselves when they want to be picked. The time of harvest will soon be upon you, so set reminders in your phone to keep yourself in check if you must – before you know it you’ll be swimming in more food than you know what to do with. Trust me.

The Third Season – Peak

It’s here, it’s finally here! You’ve got a basket (or a bushel) of veg that you have no idea what to do with. Browse the internet for garden fresh recipes and make the most of the early crops you get from your precious plot. The first months of summer are for fresh eating, while the later months you should reserve for putting away in the pantry what you can – more on that later.

Remember to implement healthy practices when harvesting your fruit so you can prolong the production period of each plant. Keep up on pruning and preventive treatments like neem oil and BT, and you will have a much easier time later in the season when plants get a little out of control.

Make sure your watering is sufficient and timely. The heat of summer is the hardest on your plants, so set your drip or sprinklers on timers so nothing goes thirsty. If you water by hand, enlist some help when you have a heat wave. During the peak of August just 24 hours without water can stunt even the most heavily mulched plants.

Most of all, enjoy this time of great abundance in your garden! Check your cucumbers, okras, and beans every morning, lest they grow large and become chicken fodder. As you pull the cold-hardy, spring weather crops out of your beds, succession sow them with some extra summer veggies that will produce a bumper crop in the fall. While you’re waiting for long-term crops to come to maturity, take shelter from the beating sun and clean out your pantry or root cellar; stock up on canning supplies; and frequent your local farmer’s market to round out your garden-fresh cuisine.

The Fourth Season – Retreat

The fourth and final season of a gardener’s year offers some respite from the dog days of summer and preps the garden for cold-weather survival mode. Soon you will be harvesting winter squash, cabbages, onions, and corn before the threat of frost knocks them back. Don’t forget to use the Farmer’s Almanac calendar for your late summer plantings and seed starting.

Didn’t we already do our seed starting for the year? But wait, there’s more! If you’d like to reap the reward of a succession planting, set aside time and mark your calendar for later plantings that will peak during the final weeks of frost-free weather. Some hardy crops may even keep producing far beyond when frost touches down – things like kale, carrots and radishes are even sweeter when harvested from beneath a dusting of snow! In an area like ours that has cold, snowy winters and moderately hot summers, crops like broccoli don’t perform well in spring and early summer, but rather should be saved for fall planting when they’ll finish off in the colder weather, which is their preference. There are many opportunities to extend your food production into the later part of the year, and if you want to maximize the time and energy you put into your pantry, carefully timed succession planting can be a huge asset to your food independence.

Otherwise be sure to keep up on preventive maintenance (whether your methods be organic or not) during this high season for pest and disease pressure. Keep tucking away those tomatoes and put up some food for the winter! Crisp fall days are the best time to prep and cook your lovingly grown produce into something delicious for canning, freezing, or dehydrating. Check out local farms and cooperatives to complement your pantry with things like apples, nuts, and berries that you may not have established in your home garden quite yet.

When the first fall frost is finally predicted you’ll find yourself running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying desperately to gather up every last morsel off the vine before chilly weather renders it useless. Tomatoes can be brought indoors, still on the vine, to slowly ripen in your pantry or cellar; similarly, winter squash will grow out of their green tint with some time to themselves in a cool, dark area. When you’ve brought in as much produce as you can manage it’s time to take a short rest before putting your beds to sleep for the winter, and this is when the gardeners year begins anew. When the leaves have finished falling (hopefully you’re scooping them up and into your compost bins!) you can chop and drop your mangled, dejected plants and cover them with compost and mulch to marinate for the winter season – and begin making notes and lists for the next growing season.

I hope this picture of my year as a gardener can help you follow through the dreams you’ve always had of growing an abundant vegetable garden. Oftentimes making the decision to garden can be harder than the actual gardening, so don’t be scared to get your hands dirty. You might find, like many of us, you prefer to forego the gloves and nurture your connection to the Earth in a more personal manner.

For more tips and zone-specific growing instructions check out my lessons page here. You can sign up for private lessons or group seminars through Takelessons, or shoot me an email with a question you’re just dying to get answered – and don’t forget to download the free printables package from our web store!

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4 Reasons Why I Won’t Buy Another DreaReneeKnits Pattern

Now that I’ve washed and blocked my Weekender Sweater – the second of Andrea Mowry’s designs I’ve finished – I remain unimpressed with many of her garments. While I am thrilled with the finished product (most of the credit for which lies the indie dyer I bought my yarn from, Old Soul Fiber Co.) I won’t be purchasing any other DreaReneeKnits patterns anytime soon. Here’s why.

1. Cost

As a designer I like to write patterns that are universally understandable and, of course, reasonably priced. As knitters and crocheters we already spend (sometimes exorbitant) money on yarn and tools, so why add to the cost of a handmade garment with the price of a pattern? The absolute most I will generally pay for a pattern is $4, but given the popularity of Mowry’s designs I wanted to give a few of them a shot. I can now say with complete certainty that there are patterns of comparable quality and features for at least half the cost if you’re willing to do the research. A simple search on Ravelry will provide you with many options to choose from in a much more reasonable price range.

2. Design Elements

Again, when you look at the exorbitant cost of Andrea’s patterns, I find most of them to be simple enough that a much more budget-friendly or even a free pattern would produce a garment of similar quality. Her most popular garments incorporate a few items of interest but lack any advanced shaping or design elements; they pale in comparison to designs of the caliber of Stephen West which boast ingenuity and architectural interest and run about the same price or even cheaper. Color combinations seem to be the most intriguing feature of the Find Your Fade, Comfort Fade, and other related designs, which again are pretty simplistic on their own. I love a good mindless knit, but for the price, I would find a free pattern I really liked and get creative with my own color combinations.

3. Gauge Issues

I almost didn’t finish the Weekender because the gauge was so messed up in the beginning. I am not a loose knitter, and in order to obtain the correct gauge I had to go down 2 needle sizes. But that didn’t end up being the issue on my first go around – I matched my gauge perfectly, chose the size that would provide the desired amount of positive ease (as specified in the finished measurements) and ended up with a torso that I could have used for a tent. After ripping out almost 700 yards of hard earned knitting time I took a deep breath and cast on the smallest size, which according to the measurements would not give me the desired amount of positive ease – however, it did end up with the correct fit. I understand that this could be operator error but I’ve measured and re-measured and it doesn’t add up. However, I love how it turned out and with some additional shaping added to the waist, it’s a very flattering oversized pullover. You can read the details on my project page here.

4. Popularity

I know this is a silly topic to even include but I have to mention it nonetheless: with certain designs gaining widespread popularity, they lose a bit of their uniqueness when literally 10,000 people have knit the same thing. Personally, one of the biggest reasons why I knit and crochet is to create items that are one of a kind, and with internet fame being what it is these days it’s very easy for someone like Andrea Mowry to roll out a design that will quickly amass a heap of FO’s nearly identical to the one you’re going to turn out. I consider hunting for a pattern (or conglomerating one of my own design) an enjoyable part of the creative process, rather than adding a “Most Popular” item to my shopping cart.

None of us will ever be as famous as the lovely Andrea Mowry, and I appreciate the simplistic nature of her designs. However, I wish her price point was just a little bit better given the content that is included in the purchase. In my (unpopular) opinion, the visual appeal of her patterns are top notch but I’m not willing to pay twice as much for aesthetic pleasure.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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The Birth of Leroy McCord Strube

I have gone back and forth over whether to share my experience of the birth of my son. While I don’t want to be one of those moms – always oversharing every little detail of their births – I really appreciated being able to read other women’s honest and unadulterated birth stories while I was mentally preparing to write my own; and if putting this in writing can give just one mom some peace of mind, it’ll be well worth it.

Many of the decisions I made regarding the care of my son and myself were influenced by the quality of care I received when I had an ectopic pregnancy the year prior to my first live birth. I have a longer post on that specifically which you can read here but for this purpose a quick summary will suffice: when I became pregnant with our first child in February of 2019, within just a few weeks I felt like something was wrong – with what exactly I wasn’t sure, so I called the provider that I had chosen for this pregnancy to talk about my symptoms. I had been severely bloated, having cramps and some spotting, and just had a general feeling of being off. After being brushed off by that office and as well as another provider, I finally found an OB that would see me, although after my first appointment they too effectively turned me away, saying I was being overly sensitive because it was my first pregnancy. Two days later, just shy of seven weeks pregnant, I was rushed in for emergency surgery, suffering the loss of my unborn child and the entirety of my right fallopian tube.

While I understand that it was impossible to save the baby, the tube might have been salvageable had someone caught my condition earlier. By the time I was admitted for surgery it had burst in two places and there was almost 200ml (8oz) of blood pooling in my abdomen. I was told I got there just in time because I could have hemorrhaged at any point once that degree of internal damage occurred. That’s why ectopic pregnancies can be fatal: the reproductive organs are very hard to stop bleeding after they start.

Given the serious nature of my condition the surgery went very well. After a quick recovery we were cleared to try again for a second pregnancy on the condition that I contact my OB immediately after I find out I’m pregnant again because of two reasons: women who have an ectopic pregnancy are 30% more likely to have another one, and the earlier you catch them, the better your odds are of terminating the pregnancy chemically and preserving your remaining reproductive organs. However, when I did fall pregnant a few months later, they refused to schedule me for an appointment prior to the typical 8 week checkup. Based on my health history and the recommendation of this very same OB I was trying to see, time was of the essence to do preliminary testing to rule out or confirm another tubal pregnancy. I was nearly in tears after speaking with the receptionist when she told me the doctor wouldn’t be seeing me until I was at least 8 weeks along.

Feeling betrayed by the hospital system and wary of seeking out another OB, I started researching midwives in private practice in search of a more holistic, personalized approach to prenatal care and birth. Upon calling the midwife I had settled on and giving a brief explanation of my health history they asked me, without prompting, to come in for preliminary testing to rule out another tubal pregnancy. This was the beginning of the quality prenatal care I received that I genuinely felt was a step above anything I had heard of or read about.

I very much enjoyed the “happy medium” of my midwife: I had a personalized, family-oriented type of care but had all the modern conveniences of routine testing and procedures available to me; they were very welcoming and patient with my husband, who attended more appointments (and had way more questions) than is typical for a spouse and first-time father; and I loved the homey feel of the birthing center, complete with birthing tub and located just a five minute drive from the hospital should any complications arise. I really felt like I had found where I was meant to be for my birth.

As we swiftly approached our due date questions about the birth became more and more frequent. We discussed my family history of very swift and uncomplicated births, and I was stopped in my tracks by the elder midwife who counseled me not to be so expectant of an easy labor, especially being my first time. This set the tone for what was the most frightening experience of my entire life and one that will forever be one of my biggest regrets.

When I did start early labor, it was late on Friday night and my contractions were intermittent; they were hard enough not to sleep through, so throughout the second day I was going on about 3 hours of sleep. By Saturday night I was in active labor but wasn’t making any progress – I was only dilated to 2cm and the baby had shifted back out of my pelvis, so I was sent home with orders to take a sleep aid and get some rest before the “hard work” began. Not two hours later, after more contractions and not a wink of sleep even after taking the sleeping pill, I was in full blown hard labor and we left for the birthing center.

We arrived to the unabashed annoyance of the same elder midwife who had frowned upon my hope for a quick labor and delivery. She made sure we knew she felt inconvenienced by coming in when I was only in the early stages of active labor, and upon locking the door behind us immediately retreated to the downstairs bedroom to rest while I endured the longest part of active labor completely unassisted. After three more hours I was in excruciating pain and my mom went downstairs to roust the midwife from her bed and ask if we could run the bath so I could get into the birthing tub. This helped relieve a lot of the pain but I still felt like I was doing very hard work in a short amount of time. Then I asked to have another cervical check performed, and what do you know – I had transitioned from 3cm to 9cm in just an hour and a half! My husband said later that he wished I could have seen the look on the midwife’s face when she checked me – what he described was a sheepish look when she discovered I had been right about my labor all along.

Another half hour passed and I felt like pushing, so she gave me the go ahead from behind her computer. She sat and typed away on her Macbook for what seemed like an eternity while I was finishing transition and for the first part of the birth. After two hours of hard pushing, which seemed like it took much longer than it should have, it became clear why I was having such a painful and difficult time delivering: my baby had flipped around and was full frank breech, coming out butt-first, legs folded. I was oblivious to this at the time but when I delivered enough of him to be recognizable, my mother knew what was going on. Things went very quickly from that point: I was removed from the birthing tub to deliver the rest of the baby, who got stuck by his head for about ten minutes before I could manually push him out. Breech births are inherently dangerous for this reason, among many others: the body of the infant typically doesn’t stretch the cervix sufficiently to allow for expedient birth of the head, which is important because the baby will try to breathe while still in the birth canal – which he did. Upon birth he was completely purple and had to be resuscitated before breathing on his own. I was in quite a state at this point, and with my mother blocking our line of sight so that we didn’t have to watch the two women try to resuscitate our lifeless child, the elder midwife shrieked that they “needed support for this family.”

This being more than 20 minutes after discovering my son was presenting breech, the assisting midwife called 9-1-1 and in just a few minutes EMTs arrived to monitor his vitals. He originally scored a meager 2 on his APGAR test, but was up to a 9 by the time they handed him to me about almost an hour after his birth. I remember feeling such an immense sense of relief wash over me when they finally laid him on my chest. I had been lying spread eagle, umbilical cord clamped and still hanging out of me, my husband clinging to me and my mother watching this all unfold, for nearly thirty minutes before I even laid eyes on my son. It took nearly 45 minutes before the head midwife returned to attend to the afterbirth, which again we had to do manually because I had ceased having contractions after being removed from the birthing tub – a result of shock, no doubt. After tucking us into bed and bundling the baby up in a bassinet beside me, the midwives left us to our devices to “get some rest.” After peering at my brand new, precious baby all cozy in his bassinet I fell into my husband’s arms and burst into tears for the first time since I went into labor. I got not one minute of sleep while we were at the birthing center, even after being awake for nearly 36 hours, taking a sleeping pill, and enduring a very traumatic birth.

Within about thirty minutes of lying down my son began to cry and didn’t stop for hours. We didn’t successfully breastfeed for over 24 hours after he was born. When we went home later that morning I left with a hollow, startled feeling after the birth that felt a lot like PTSD. What happened to my personalized, family-oriented experience? How did we not know that he was breech, and what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to deliver his head?

The answer is simple. My perfect, precious, healthy baby boy would have never left that building alive. This is why I have decided that when we do have more children (after I have recovered physically and psychologically from this experience) I will be giving birth in a hospital. Here are my two main reasons why:

First, I truly believe that the fact that my son had been breech would not have been missed by an OB. When he actually turned around I have no idea, because I had just had an ultrasound two weeks prior to starting labor and he was head down; I have a feeling it was close to the time of my first cervical check when the midwife said he had backed out of my pelvis. But in a hospital setting even if we had started the birthing process and he had been breech (which is unlikely), if I hadn’t been able to deliver his head, we would have had all the medical assistance we needed.

Secondly, and most importantly, if I hadn’t been able to deliver his head at the birthing center I shudder to think what could have resulted. I had walked into that place with the notion that everything was as it should be, and after 10 months of stellar prenatal health and normal sonograms it was perfectly reasonable to be under such an impression. Statistically, only by freak accident would I need any kind of advanced medical assistance.

I don’t even know what the chances are of this happening; from what I felt physically and psychologically, I believe he turned backwards during labor. When we went for our first postnatal appointment my midwife reassured me that late turning does happen, and not infrequently – a statement that has been scoffed at by multiple pediatricians and doctors I’ve consulted with since. I can’t find any studies or even personal blogs documenting babies turning breech after being head-down for 38 weeks. This was only the beginning of the degradation of my relationship and opinion of the midwifery.

Following the bizarre circumstances of the birth I was made to feel incredibly stupid by the elder midwife. At the first couple of follow-up appointments I had asked for more specific details of what had happened, why we hadn’t known he was breech, et cetera, and was met with sneering justifications and quickly redirected to admire the condition of my lovely, perfect little boy. Her recounting of events seemed drastically different from mine, which lead to months of self-doubt and contradicting the horrible gut feeling I had.

After discovering during that first week that my son had jaundice (not an uncommon condition for a newborn) we were sent home with a blue light bed and strict instructions for treatment and confidentiality – they weren’t supposed to be in possession of the equipment at all, she said. After a day and a half his condition hadn’t improved and his color had worsened, so I made the decision to take him to a pediatrician for testing. As it turns out, his bilirubin levels were only one point away from requiring hospitalization. Over the next few days we continued the blue light treatments and had his blood tested every 24 hours to ensure his levels didn’t continue to rise. When the midwife called a few days later (much after the point that he would have sustained permanent injury had his levels kept rising) and I reported these facts to her, she was enraged by my actions. Her goal was to keep families out of hospital, and I had undermined her authority in seeking outside medical care. She stated to me very plainly that the hospitals are “out to get her,” and the local doctors weren’t friendly with her by any means. After talking her off the ledge and reassuring her that I hadn’t disclosed that we were in possession of her blue light bed, I terminated the call and never returned to her for follow-up care.

And despite the outstanding care I received leading up to the birth, being out of hospital wouldn’t have been worth the loss of my son’s life had something tragic, and entirely preventable, happened.

I also believe that the ordeal of his birth directly caused what was described to me by my specialist pediatrician as birth trauma, and failure to thrive. The first six months of my son’s life were indescribably hard: he was severely jaundiced, which the midwife (illegally) tried to treat at home; he had an undiagnosed tongue and lip tie that severely hindered my ability to breastfeed, which in turn affected our ability to bring him up to proper weight gain; he was colicky for months which has in turn set us up for failure during sleep training; among so many other things I can’t even recount them all.

I still, a year after Leroy’s birth, cannot read this without holding back tears. I try to keep focus on the fact that he is happy and healthy. While the outcome could have been much worse, it wasn’t, so sometimes I feel like, what do I have to complain about?

But the severity of birth trauma to a mother isn’t to be underestimated, nor is it to be discounted. And if sharing my experience will help just one mom make such a monumental decision, it will have been worth the incredible pain and emotional turmoil I have endured this past year. Hopefully putting it out there will give me closure as well.

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Mixed Berry Cupcakes – Recipe

After much trial and error I have finally recreated the best cake I’ve ever had – inspired by my sister’s wedding cake (the recipe for which is closely guarded and wasn’t available to a lowly home baker such as myself), a luxurious huckleberry-infused white cake that tastes like it’s straight from heaven. Moist and fluffy, decadent and refreshing, this has quickly become a family favorite and has converted even a self-proclaimed cake-hater.

The secret ingredient that elevated this cake from its plain, dry predecessor is sour cream, one of my favorite secret weapons in baking. I use it in biscuits, muffins, and even my famous chocolate chip pancakes!

Any fresh or frozen berry can be used in this unique bake. Pair this with your favorite frosting recipe like my white chocolate cream cheese frosting for a dessert that won’t require refrigeration – there won’t be any left to tuck away!

Mixed Berry Cupcakes

My most vetted recipe to date, this deliciously moist cupcake recipe is what berry-lovers dreams are made of. The main liquid in this recipe is made of berry puree, and because of the high acid content of the fruit it doesn't rise much during baking. For a spectacular cake, bake two 8" rounds and fill with fresh berries!
Prep Time 1 hr
Cook Time 30 mins
Total Time 1 hr 30 mins
Course Dessert

Ingredients
  

  • 16 oz fresh or frozen berries
  • 2.5 oz sugar
  • 8 oz butter softened
  • 10.5 oz sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 4 oz egg whites
  • 26 oz cake flour
  • Additional berries for garnish

Instructions
 

  • Combine sugar and berries in a small saucepan on low heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened, stirring constantly, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. If seeds are not desired, press the mixture through a fine mesh sieve.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8" springform pan and/or line with parchment paper.
  • Using a stand or hand mixer at medium speed, cream together butter, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. When well combined, continue mixing at high speed until light and fluffy.
  • Reduce mixer speed to low and incorporate egg whites a little at a time. Ensure each addition is fully incorporated before adding the next.
  • To add the cake flour and berry mixture, spoon in about 1/3 of the cake flour and mix completely, then add about 1/3 of the berry mixture and mix completely; continue in this fashion until all the flour and berries have been incorporated.
  • Scrape bowl and fold mixture a few times to make sure everything is mixed propertly. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes or until firm, not browned.
  • Cool for at least 1 hour before removing from pan. Use a knife to separate cake from the sides of the pan and overturn onto a cooling rack or frosting plate. Top with your favorite icing and garnish with berries. Serve chilled.
Keyword blackberry, cakes, cupcakes, huckleberry, raspberry
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White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting – Recipe

Jump to Recipe

Cream cheese frosting is my favorite for any occasion! I don’t do a lot of fancy piping on my cakes and cupcakes so it holds up just fine for birthdays and family parties. This is a quick and easy recipe that takes a classic flavor to the next level with creamy melted white chocolate.

White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

This decadent frosting is just thick enough to hold its shape but isn't too rich. Use high quality white baking chocolate for best results.
Prep Time 30 mins
Chill Time 2 hrs
Total Time 2 hrs 30 mins
Course Dessert
Servings 6 cups

Equipment

  • hand or stand mixer
  • double boiler
  • piping bags and tips

Ingredients
  

  • 8 oz premium white baking chocolate
  • 16 oz cream cheese softened
  • 8 oz butter room temperature
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 4 cups powdered sugar

Instructions
 

  • In a double boiler over medium-low heat, melt white chocolate, stirring to ensure all bits are incorporated. When smooth and glossy, leave on very low heat until ready to mix into frosting.
  • Using a hand or stand mixer equipped with a whisk, cream together butter and cream cheese. Add salt and vanilla and mix well.
  • Gradually add melted chocolate and mix well, scraping sides of bowl.
  • With mixer on low speed, add powdered sugar 1/4 cup at a time, scraping sides.
  • Chill for 2 hours before spreading or piping.
Keyword cakes, cream cheese, cupcakes, frosting, white chocolate

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How to Refill a Bona Mop

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If you’re anything like me you may have reconsidered your choice of cleaning products after having a baby. I know I didn’t used to care what I sprayed all over my household as long as it worked and it was cheap! Now that my son is one step behind me (all day, everyday) I am much more conscious of what I am using on my hard and soft surfaces to keep them clean and baby-friendly.

My Bona mop is something I use every single day and couldn’t possibly live without! Aside from having a huge mop pad one of my favorite features is that it is meant to be refillable, so no expensive refills or plastic waste (ahem, Swiffer.) After scouring the internet for kid- and pet-friendly floor mop recipes I finally settled on making my own. Most of the mixtures I found online used way too much vinegar and didn’t smell that great as a result!

The streak-free, degreasing secret ingredient I use in my mop solution is Simple Green. My husband has been using this cleaner in construction for over a decade and it’s the most underrated household cleaner of the century, in my opinion. It cuts grime like a mother, it’s biodegradable, and it doesn’t have an unpleasant chemical odor you might expect from a heavy duty cleanser. We buy ours in the concentrated liquid and mix it ourselves.

I’ve included a handy printable recipe for this mop refill solution. I use lemongrass to keep my floors smelling fresh but you can use any essential oil you like. Just pop the reservoir out of the mop, unscrew the cap, and add your ingredients. Don’t forget to give it a little shake before each use to keep the essential oils mixed into the solution!

Wet Mop Refill Solution

A family-friendly solution to those powerfully perfumed chemical concoctions, you can use any essential oil you like in this homemade mixture for any floor mop.

Materials

  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 5 drops dish soap
  • 1 splash concentrated Simple Green cleaner
  • 20 drops essential oil

Instructions

  • Add all ingredients to mop reservoir and top off with warm water. Shake well before each use.
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Huckleberry Cream Cheese Turnovers – Recipe

Our family is a dessert family. That’s why when I say these turned out amazing, I am not afraid to toot my own horn! Pastry dough has always intimidated me because in order to get that perfect, flaky golden crust, the directions must be followed exactly: knead this many times, roll that many times, fold just so… And I’m just not that precise of a cook. But after a hankering for a fresh turnover and nowhere to get one during this pandemic nonsense I busted out the beloved Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and gave it a try. My husband and I have this running joke that anything that we deem exceptionally good we would put on the “bed & breakfast” menu. These are definitely b&b worthy!

My inspiration for this creation came from  a pastry of my past: when I worked for the District Attorney’s office as a file clerk a local bakery used to deliver fresh baked goodies every Tuesday, and each week for the entirety my internship there I bought a raspberry cream cheese turnover that was to die for. I have yet to find its equal. This is the very item I had in mind when I slapped together an array of recipes to get what you see here.

Since we live in Idaho I just had to make my turnovers with huckleberries. My mom and I both have a few handfuls of the juicy purple jewels left from last year’s harvest so I’ve been trying to think of new ways to use them up. These tasty turnovers were perfect for the cause! #huckleberryerrythang

One of the secrets I used to speed up this recipe is the freezer (in classic Elizabeth fashion – I have very little patience for such things.) Since puff pastry has to be chilled consistently throughout the rolling process I cheated a little and chilled the dough between each rolling in the freezer, and in just half the recommended time. It worked flawlessly and there was no difference in the consistency of the dough in my opinion. This is not a French bakery, after all, and there weren’t any left for anyone to examine that closely anyway!

Of course you could substitute pretty much any other berry in this recipe. I’m going to try raspberries next because they’re another thing we’re have stocked up in the freezer from last summer. I can’t wait!

Download or Print PDF File Below!

Huckleberry Cream Cheese Turnovers

Elizabeth Ann Strube
A "cheater" version of traditional puff pastry that is still worthy of a bed and breakfast menu! Any berry can be substituted for the huckleberries, as well as using prepared or frozen puff pastry instead of making it from scratch.
Prep Time 3 hrs
Cook Time 15 mins
Resting Time 15 mins
Total Time 3 hrs 30 mins
Course Breakfast, Dessert
Servings 6 pastries

Ingredients
  

Puff Pastry

  • 3 1/2 c flour all purpose
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c butter chilled
  • 1 c water cool

Filling

  • 1 1/2 c huckleberries fresh or frozen
  • 2 tbsp sugar granulated
  • 1 tbsp corn starch
  • 8 oz cream cheese softened
  • 1/4 c powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Icing

  • 1 c powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp half & half
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 egg white + 2 tbsp water

Instructions
 

  • Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Cut up 1 cup of the butter into small pieces, leaving the remaining ½ cup of butter in the refrigerator to keep cold.
  • Place the cut butter into the mixing bowl and using a pastry blender (or the whisk if you’re using a KitchenAid), blend until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  • Make a well in the center of the mixture and add the cold water. Using your hands (or the dough hook) to gradually blend the water with the flour mixture, mixing just until a rough, sticky dough is formed. Wrap dough in cellophane and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.
  • Place the remaining ½ cup of chilled butter on your work surface. Using your fingers smash the butter until it can be shaped, being careful not to over-work the butter and warm it too much. Work into a 5-inch square.
  • Remove the dough from the freezer and place on a lightly floured work surface (you may want to flour your rolling pin as well.) Roll into a circle about ½” thick, being careful not to stretch or tear the dough as you would a pie crust. Place the butter square into the center of the circle and fold the edges of the dough over the butter, pressing to seal the edges. You should now have a square of butter encased in dough.
  • Using a rolling pin, roll the square into an 8”x16” rectangle. (The dough may need to be pounded with the rolling pin several times to allow the butter to become more pliable.) Fold the rectangle 3 times as you would fold a business letter.
  • Turn the dough so it faces you lengthwise and roll into another 8”x16” rectangle.
  • Fold again 3 times as you would a business letter. Wrap it back up and freeze for 30 minutes.
  • While the dough is chilling for the final time, preheat the oven to 400° and prepare the filling: beat softened cream cheese, powdered sugar, and vanilla until well combined – make sure no lumps remain.
  • Combine berries, sugar and corn starch in a medium mixing bowl. Gently toss to combine.
  • Beat the egg white with the water and set aside for egg wash.
  • For the icing, whisk together powdered sugar, half & half and vanilla.
  • Return the dough to a lightly floured surface and repeat the process of rolling the dough into a rectangle, making 3 business-letter folds, twice more. Wrap the dough and freeze for another 30 minutes.
  • Return the dough to a lightly floured surface. Roll dough 1/4" thick and use a pizza cutter to cut into six 7" squares. Add a tablespoon of each filling in the center, then fold the square in half to form a triangle.
  • Dip a finger in the egg wash and run it along the seam. Press to close. Also brush the tops of pastries using the egg wash and a basting brush. Sprinkle with granulated sugar if desired.
  • Bake for 15-17 minutes or until golden. Cool for 15 minutes, then drizzle icing on top.
Keyword breakfast, cream cheese, dessert, filling, huckleberry, pastry, turnover
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Chocolate Chip Pancakes – Recipe

Breakfast is definitely the most important meal at the cabin, especially on the weekends! Every Saturday and Sunday at the very least I make a traditional farm-style breakfast; more recently I’ve been experimenting with various baked goods, and much to my husband’s enjoyment have been blessed with wild success. One of those creations is a simple twist on a classic buttermilk pancake recipe that uses a secret ingredient: Greek yogurt! I know, it seems weird. But the savory yogurt adds a delicious creaminess and tang to your everyday pancakes that’s similar to the richness of sour cream cake. Don’t knock it till you try it! Top this treat with a whopping dollop of homemade whipped cream and you’ll enjoy the kind of breakfast that deserves a mid-morning nap.

I used to have an electric nonstick skillet that I loved cooking pancakes on but since we’ve been adding to our collection of cast iron cookware my new favorite is a flat #9 skillet. With just a small lip around the edge it makes flipping a breeze! This particular piece we found at a yard sale (!) and after my husband refinished it with a grinder and seasoned it in the oven it was back to brand new.

Chocolate Chip Pancakes

Don't let the name fool you – these pancakes are anything but ordinary! One secret ingredient takes this classic breakfast comfort food to a whole new level. If you don't have any plain Greek yogurt laying around, sour cream can be used in a pinch. Use any kind of chocolate chips you like or have on hand – milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and even white chocolate would all be delicious!
Prep Time 10 mins
Cook Time 20 mins
Course Breakfast
Servings 4 people

Ingredients
  

  • 1 egg large
  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 2 tbsp oil or melted butter
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips of choice

Instructions
 

  • In a small bowl beat egg together with yogurt, milk, and oil.
  • In a large bowl mix dry ingredients and add chocolate chips. Toss to coat chocolate.
  • Make a well in the center of the flour and add in yogurt mixture all at once. Stir until batter is just slightly lumpy.
  • Grease pan or skillet liberally with butter and heat on low. Using a 1/4c measure or a ladle, spoon batter onto warmed skillet and cook until bubbles set in edges of pancake. Flip and repeat.
  • To keep warm, set oven to lowest temperature and place cooked pancakes directly on rack. Transfer to plates when ready to serve. Top with whipped cream and syrup, if desired.
    Makes 8 count 4" pancakes.
Keyword breakfast, chocolate
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Advice from a Novice Packer

After I published my post about our visit to Shorty Peak Lookout I realized I had finally gotten to a point where I was actually happy with what I had packed for the trip. I’ve been backpacking about a dozen times now, and I’m sure if you’re a novice packer like me, every trip you find yourself wishing you’d left this, or brought that.

Please note that I am not in any way, shape or form an advanced packer, nor do I invest in expensive or specialized equipment; I have what works and what is affordable for me, and the contents of my pack reflect that.

So here’s my layout of what I bring and why.

Necessities

This includes items that I consider absolutely necessary to backpacking, but my needs may not be the same as yours: our walkie-talkies, a solar-powered battery bank, my fitness band (I wear a Garmin, more on that another time) sunglasses, lantern, headlamp, and first aid supplies. I have to take an inhaler and an Epi Pen because I have ashtma and allergies, but they’re never a bad thing to have around anyway. You never know if someone is going to get stung by a bee or bit by a spider and have a terrible allergic reaction… four hours away from civilization and outside of cell range. I also pack small quantities of Benadryl for the same reason, but all of that should be in your first aid kit. Rather than making your own, a small kit can be purchased for a reasonable price at any major sporting goods retailer.

Clothing

Obviously this will vary for your destination, but here in Idaho even during the summer months we have hot days and cool nights. Just last year we took a trip to Crystal Lake on the Fourth of July weekend, and the temperature ranged from 84° to 39° low. That’s a 45° differential! So we always have to take a variety of clothing, much more than I would have taken during a summer packing trip in California; but instead of packing a different outfit for each climate, it’s best to practice layering wherever you can to minimize pack weight.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that taking jeans is not worth the weight for me personally. I am totally happy wearing leggings (or shorts, or a bathing suit) all weekend long, and especially because I’d consider backpacking a recreational sport, I’d prefer to wear activewear anyway. The benefit of this is that activewear is often much lighter and more effective than your regular everyday clothing. Thus I have opted to pack leggings, thermals, and a variety of tops that I can layer to keep warm (or remove to keep cool.)

Not pictured is my American Eagle down jacket that is easily compactable, lightweight and warm. If you’re not able to invest in high-end packable outerwear a light down jacket or windbreaker is always a good choice.

Socks are a whole subject by themselves and it varies largely depending on the type of shoes you wear backpacking. I always wear hiking boots and bring a pair of flip flops which I tie to the outside of my pack. Bearing this in mind, I make my choice of which socks to bring very wisely. I am familiar with how my boots fit, so I would never take thin cotton socks backpacking; my boots would be loose around the ankles and cause blisters, which is never fun. I need to wear sturdy wool socks with my boots so that is what I bring no matter the time of year (I wear wool socks with boots all summer anyway.) Always make your choice of socks based on how they fit with your hiking shoes and if you’re not sure, try them out at home!

Boots are also an item I could do a whole separate post for, but I’ll keep it to the main point: your hiking boots should be well broken in. I don’t care what kind they are, whether they’re high or low ankle, lace-up or Velcro; you should ALWAYS put at least a few miles on a pair of boots before taking them backpacking. You are carrying a substantial amount of weight, so making sure your feet are comfortable and well-supported can make (or break) an entire trip. Trust me, I know this from experience. A bad pair of shoes can ruin everything!

So take your boots on a couple day hikes before putting them up to the task of backpacking. You’ll be thankful you did!

Also on my list is headgear. I usually bring a ball cap, a beanie and a headband, which may seem like overkill but I used all three. The reason why I like to take a headband as well as a beanie is so that i can layer it underneath my ball cap when my ears are cold but I want the benefit of shade from the brim of my hat.

Toiletries

I’m sure that men could almost skip this section altogether! My husband usually brings just soap and deodorant, so this portion of the post will mostly be for all my mountain-trekking ladies out there.

I’m going to address the least pleasant subject of toiletries first: periods. You may think that you’ve scheduled your trip while not in danger of meeting Aunt Flo, but let me tell you – we’ve all been wrong before, and it could happen again! So no matter what type of feminine products you use, always take enough to last you the length of your stay. One time I started my period literally as we were strapping up to hike in to our campsite. Luckily I had a menstrual cup in my glovebox, but had we left the car I would’ve been very ill prepared.

And if you’ve never heard of or used a menstrual cup, get with the program girl! They’re the best thing ever, especially for active women. Instead of taking a dozen tampons with me everywhere I just throw my little cup (in its carrying bag) into my purse or backpack and away we go, worry-free.

Which brings me to my next weird feminine product that I absolutely couldn’t live without: the She-Wee! Once you get over the ew factor, it’s really a wonderful thing to have around. I take wet wipes with me anyway, so when I go to use the restroom I just grab a wipe, use my funnel (no disrobing or squatting required to pee), wipe myself with the wet nap, wipe out the funnel with the same nap and you’re done! I keep one in my car at all times just in case we’re out traveling, at the shooting range, camping or hiking and there’s not a restroom available. They make collapsible models for backpacking as well, which is what I carry in my pack.

Now, on to more run of the mill products!

Shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste and toothbrush, deodorant, and other necessities I buy in travel size. The only non-travel size item I carry is bug spray, and the kind we get I want to mention specifically is a DEET-free spray we’ve been using for years that really does work: Repel brand Lemon-Eucalyptus bug spray. It’s available at Walmart in the camping section and it’s a great investment for your backpack. We take a full-size bottle because, well, sometimes you just need it.

A compact mirror, a flosser, and hair ties are little extras that come in handy, as well as a travel hairbrush. I just can’t use a comb or else I would bring one to kill the extra weight.

Accessories

I’ll put all non-necessity items under this header.

My fanny pack and walkie-talkie are two items I would almost put under the necessity header for myself because we do a lot of day hiking when we backpack, so they’re items I never leave without.

Kindle, playing cards, and knitting are things that I could probably do without but are nice to have because there are lots of opportunities for quiet time when enjoying the great outdoors, and I get bored easily. My selfie stick and Action Cam fall into the same category – not a necessity but I wouldn’t leave them behind because I take a TON of pictures when we go on trips.

My choice of camera focuses (haha) mainly on a weight to megapixels ratio. If we’re going on a short tip and I have extra room, I’ll often bring my Canon Rebel, which I enjoy using. But for this last trip, an extended stay with lots of clothing and food needed, I opted for just my phone and action camera, which I also use my stick for. Many of my pictures I post come off my Action Cam and I love that it has great quality photo and video in a small package. I used to always take my Fujifilm waterproof camera with me, but it’s an older model so it’s about the same weight as my Action Cam but the photo quality is lesser.

A Bluetooth speaker is a recent addition to my pack but we love it! Smooth jazz has been our selection for the last two trips and music always makes the hike in go much faster. We also like to announce our presence to surrounding wildlife and this is a great way to accomplish that.