Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Through the Seasons

I've been reflecting a lot recently on how our home has looked during the different seasons we've experienced here so far. We've only lived here six months, and we moved in the height of summer, when everything was as lush and green as it could be. Now it's the darkest day of the year and everything is as un-green as possible! I'm excited to see what it looks like in the spring- especially with half the backyard surrounded by lilac trees! As we near the end of 2011, the passage of time marked by the seasons has been on my mind a lot. The half a year (!!) that we've lived here has really flown by.

(Click on Photos to Enlarge)
 Our backyard in July (above) and in November (below).

The front yard in September:
And with frost at the beginning of last week:

Our house from the street, in July:
 And in mid-December:

As of tonight I'm unplugging for the next week as Matt and I head for my hometown to celebrate Christmas with my family. We have a long drive ahead of us tomorrow, with wonderful family, snow, and a log house full of memories waiting at the end of it. 

May you all have a wonderful holiday week, wherever you are and whatever you may or may not be celebrating!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

An Afternoon of Baking

I spent almost all of Friday afternoon baking, in anticipation of a holiday party that night and the need for snacks for the coming few days and our upcoming road trip to Eastern Washington. Here's what I got up to:
(Click on Photos to Enlarge)

 From-scratch pumpkin pies, which we have been eating with every meal since.

Sesame-oregano Lavosh, a Middle Eastern flatbread/cracker, a recipe I have been wanting to try for a long time. It is from Annabel Langbein's The Free Range Cook, one of my favorite souvenirs from New Zealand. The recipes are glorious, and the achingly beautiful photos make me homesick for NZ.

This stuff is remarkably easy to make, and sooooo tasty. And completely addictive. 

Mmmm! Applesauce cake! 

What baked things are turning up in your kitchen this holiday season?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Re-usable Fabric Gift Bags

This year, most of the gifts I give will be "wrapped" in cloth gift bags. I was inspired by the fabric bags used by Soulemama (sorry, I can't get the link to the post to work, but if you search on her site for "fabric gift bags," you will find it), but I wanted the bags to be part of the gift, re-usable for whatever purpose, not just as wrapping. So I made mine with drawstrings, using fabric that is not specifically holiday-themed. All of the fabric was already in my scrap bag, a lot of it from a bundle I bought at a vintage shop this summer.
(Click on Photos to Enlarge)

These are really easy and fun to make (and I really enjoy picking out the fabric combinations!). I made the basic bags by folding the fabric face-to-face (right side in) and hemming up the sides. Then I added the band for the drawstring by essentially making my own binding. I cut a strip of fabric that, with the short ends hemmed up, was exactly the length of the opening of the bag. I folded folded the long edges under and ironed them down, then folded the "binding" in half and pinned around the fabric all around the bag opening, and sewed it on, leaving the hemmed ends of the band/binding open for inserting the drawstrings. You could also use just piece of fabric for the entire bag, doing a rolled hem for the drawstring, like you would for an elastic waistband on a skirt. I used nice sturdy wool yarn for the drawstrings, but any type of ribbon would be really nice too.

I don't like all the waste and mess that wrapping paper can create, and this is a way to cut down on that, plus it's a nice way of enhancing a gift. And they look so nice under the tree!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Green Cleaning: Dealing With Mold

I just finished up a big research project on negative respiratory health outcomes related to mold and moisture in homes and how lack of inspection of rental housing is contributing to the poor health of lower income populations. And then I realized that not once had I actually looked around our house for mold.

See, the presence of mold or continuous moisture inside a home is pretty consistently associated with poor respiratory health outcomes like asthma, strong allergic reactions, sinusitis, bronchitis, common cold, as well as other issues like fatigue and problems concentrating. If we don't look around our homes, clean up mold when we find it, and make sure our landlords (if we are renting) are responsible for any larger maintenance issues, we run the risk of damaging our bodies. You would think I would have gone and looked around our house sooner, especially since I had a sinus infection a couple weeks ago followed by a persistent cough, but no, I was "too busy." Then yesterday I pulled up a set of shades we normally leave down in the bedroom, and I found this reminder to re-prioritize when it comes to health:
Eegad- I promise we're not slobs! We just weren't paying attention when we should have been.

Clearly, it was time to intervene. We only clean with vinegar, baking soda and other non-toxic cleaners in our house, and one of the ways that you can exacerbate respiratory problems is by using chemical cleaners. Fortunately, there are lots of good green cleaning methods for getting rid of mold. Plain white vinegar purportedly kills 82% of all mold, and tea tree oil is a strong disinfectant that is really good for getting rid of mold and keeping it from returning. That said, it is important to note that just cleaning up the mold doesn't necessarily get rid of the problem. Mold doesn't grow unless there is a moisture problem going on, and if you don't deal with the moisture problem, it will just come right back. Ususally it's a pretty simple fix, and often a seasonal problem. In our house, the place with the worst mold was this windowsill in the bedroom where we usually didn't open the shades during the day. That trapped all the condensation (from us breathing all night) between the shades and the window, leaving it nowhere to go. By opening those shades every day, the problem should mostly be solved. I did find minor mold growth on the living room windowsills, which get a lot of circulation, but moisture just gets trapped in the house regardless during the winter. It's a good reminder to open the windows for half an hour on the occasional dry sunny day to air things out.

Remember that mold isn't always obvious. Look in the places you don't normally pay attention:
  • On top of/on the underside of windowsills that are above or below your eye line. 
  • Behind furniture that sits up against a wall 
  • In crevices that might retain moisture (I found some in our bathroom in the two-inch gap between the sink cabinet and the bathtub)
  • In gaps between the lip of your kitchen sink and the backsplash- water collects here easily. 
  • Behind blinds or curtains
  • Inside cupboards that contain plumbing
  • Under loose or peeling wallpaper
I did some reading on the safest, most effective ways of cleaning up mold, and went to work. I started by wiping off as much mold as I could with a rag soaked in pure white vinegar, using an old toothbrush to get hard-to-reach corners and cracks.

I started off using a rag cut from an old towel, but found I liked using flannel cloths better. Remember leave as little moisture as possible on the surfaces you are cleaning. I cracked all the windows as I cleaned them, to allow the vinegar to dry quickly on the sills.

You can use the method I did, or else put the vinegar in a spray bottle, spray it onto the moldy surfaces, and wipe it clean with a dry rag, then spray lightly again and let it dry.

The second solution I used was a dilution of tea tree oil, made with 2 teaspoons of tea tree oil and 2 cups of water. Again, you can spray this onto moldy surfaces to dry, or do what I did, and soak a flannel rag in it, ring it out, then wipe everything down and let it dry.

Please remember to wear a face mask or a handkerchief tied over your nose and mouth while you clean up mold. You are loosening up mold spores, and you don't want to breath them in.  It's also a good idea to wear gloves- vinegar can really dry out your skin.

Remember that taking measures to prevent mold growth is more efficient than cleaning it up after the fact (now I really sound like a public health advocate!). Here are things you can do to prevent moisture from accumulating in your home:
  • Open all your blinds and curtains in the morning and leave them open all day
  • Leave doors between rooms open during the day to allow air to circulate
  • If you notice windows fogging up or condensation on the walls (this happens when I use the oven a lot), crack a couple windows to get some air circulating, and/or give the windows a wipe with a cloth to speed their drying. 
  • Check your house regularly for water leaks, excess moisture, or standing water. Places to look are your bathroom, basement, laundry, and around and under your kitchen sink.
  • If condensation is a constant problem in your home, think about installing a fan or two, or a more efficient heating system, or just use an electric space heater. If you rent, talk to your landlord and see what can be done. 
  • Air out your house regularly. We live all summer with most of the windows open day and night, but in the winter I often forget to open the windows occasionally and get some fresh air in. Try to do this on dry days, though! 
I hope this is helpful- it's an aspect of household health that often gets overlooked, but I've just been reminded by my research how important it is to prevent mold growth. Cleaning up mold is a time-consuming and nit-picky job, but it's worth it to live in a healthy home.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New Traditions and Cold Mornings

I did it-I survived my first quarter of graduate school! I finished finals on Thursday evening, and after a busy day yesterday, the feeling of freedom is just starting to sink in this morning. It's pretty great. I now have a full month off from school, which will be a wonderful break, although I did truly enjoy almost every aspect of school for those first three months.

I now have the time and energy to think more about the holidays and Christmas gifts, and get ready to head out of town for a week over Christmas. This is the first year Matt and I have really navigated the holidays as a couple, and it's an experience worth reflecting on. For the first two years of our relationship, we each went to our own family for the holidays, and last year we were down in New Zealand, so figuring out where and how to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas didn't prove much of an issue. This year, however, after 3 1/2 years together, it no longer makes sense (nor do we want) to spend the holidays apart. It's also the first year we've shared a home in the truest sense. And with Matt's family here in Portland and mine 450 miles away in eastern Washington (the state), and neither of them having had us around last year, we have had to figure out how to split our time while celebrating together. We both have pretty easygoing families, and it has worked out pretty smoothly so far, which is really encouraging. We spent Thanksgiving here, with Matt's family, and we're going to spend a full week over Christmas with my family in Newport and Cheney, WA. We'll get back to Portland on December 28th, and celebrate Christmas with Matt's family at New Year's. I actually kind of like it this way- it draws the holidays out and makes it like one big ongoing festival! And I'm really excited to go up to my parents' place in the winter- we haven't seen them since the beginning of September, and I haven't been up there during the snowy season in a few years, and Matt's never been there in winter. This is what it looked like a few years ago, during a particularly heavy winter:

(Click on Photos to Enlarge)

On the subject of combining and figuring out new holiday traditions as a couple, we've modified our Christmas tree slightly. We put it up last week, but I couldn't escape the feeling that something was missing. It was a little too dark, lacking something I couldn't identify. Then Matt suggested we get some tinsel to brighten it up and add some sparkle. I was skeptical, having never had tinsel on the tree growing up, but it's something that Matt always had as an integral memory of decorating the Christmas tree. So I stopped at the local thrift store yesterday and found a garland for super cheap, along with some little red, green and gold baubles. Matt did the honors, and our tree, now a combination of our childhood traditions, got exactly what it needed, and feels just right.

I also scored a perfect string of white LED lights to brighten up the dark side of the kitchen, and Matt strung them up.
 Now we're feeling exceptionally festive around here!

It's felt particularly wintery this past week, with a distinct lack of rain (usually December is one of our wettest months), but exceptionally cold, dry weather with very chilly nights. We've had frosts every night for a week, and finally a very hard frost two nights ago that did in everything that was still managing to grow in the garden. Time to till in the cover crops, I guess:

You can see the pock-marked soil where the frost has expanded it and then collapsed...

This morning there is a thick white frost on the south side of everything, including all the big sequoias on our street. It's so thick I can almost make believe it's snow!

When I went to let the chickens out this morning, their water was completely frozen over, with a solid centimeter of ice on it. Here's Lady Macbeth standing on top of it:

It's so good to be home and to not have to constantly think about school work or have it in the back of my mind that there is this other thing I have to be working on. Instead, I can relax (which I fully plan to do a lot of today), sew, read, clean, or just sit by the kitchen window and watch the chickens, one of my favorite pastimes.

Enjoying a winter snack of wheat and rye mash from the most recent batch of home brew. 

It doesn't get much better than this, does it?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Few Photos From This Week

I'm headed into finals week, so until it's over I'm just going to leave you with a few photos from this week. I'll be back with you sometime after Thursday evening, when I'll be giving my last presentation and turning in my final assignment for the quarter.

(Click on Photos to Enlarge)
Frost on the garden beds on Tuesday morning.

A collection of eggs from Penny, including the massive on on the far right, which turned out to contain two and a half yolks!

First backyard egg breakfast. So delicious. 

We put up our Christmas tree yesterday! Most of the ornaments are ones I grew up with, but my new favorites are the sailboats from Matt's parents and grandparents.