Thursday, March 26, 2015

How to Create an Easter Centerpiece in 3 Easy Steps

Good Morning! I'm working on some Easter decorations and thought I'd share my 3 step method for those of you that might get stuck and need some inspiration. Breaking it down into 3 simple steps makes things so much easier!

Things you already own can be used as a container!

Step #1 Pick a Container

I "shopped" around my house for options to use as a container for a centerpiece. These things all seemed to have Easter-like colors or inspired me with an idea. The clear glass kitchen canisters can be purchased at Walmart. They are made by Anchor Hocking and you can find them in the kitchen storage section. The antique Ball jar, jadeite bowl, Brush McCoy bowl, and milk glass sugar bowl were all items that I've picked up over the years.

For help finding these, check the floral department of a craft store.

Step #2 Pick a Filler

Most Easter decorations are inspired by nature: rabbits, chicks, eggs, carrots. I tried to keep in this mindset while I picked up some dried moss, raffia, Easter grass made of straw, and natural looking eggs. I found all of these at Michaels. The Easter stuff was all 40% off, plus I had a 20% off everything coupon. Sweet!

My cast of Easter characters that I used for focal points.

Step #3 Choose Your Focal Point

Find something to be at the center of your centerpiece. ;-) I've had the ducks for years; I think they actually came from Party City. The lamb has been around a while, too. Hobby Lobby, maybe? The rabbits are all new from World Market. (Oh, I love you World Market.)

Put the filler into the container and arrange the focal point. That's it!

1. Jadeite bowl 2. Straw grass and eggs 3. Bunny
1. Cake plate for a container 2. Moss and straw grass 3. Egg holder (World Market)

Same as above, except the focal point is the lamb.

1. Extra large glass canister 2. Dried moss and eggs 3. Rabbit (I did add some ribbon to this one.)
Same as above except I put in an antique book and the smaller bunnies.
1. Antique Ball jar 2. Straw grass 3. The eggs are the focal point in this one!
I truly hope this helps you create some lovely decorations for your home. I'd love to see your creations or to know what was helpful for you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A History of Country Easter Egg Decorating: a Pennsylvania Dutch Tradition

An introduction:

Today most families decorate their Easter eggs with store bought kits. I know we certainly do! The more advantageous egg decorators may even use natural dyes they discovered on Pinterest. I would like to share with you the history of how my grandparents and great-grandparents decorated Easter eggs with their kids, my dad included, while they lived in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Their ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch and these methods for Easter egg dying most likely came with them from Pennsylvania to Virginia over a century ago. I post this here in the hope that this history will not be lost. Thank you to my aunts Gail and Martha who humored me a couple of years ago with my questions, and my apologies for taking so long to publish it here.

"Easter was an important part of growing up in the country -- not only did we see Easter Sunday as the most important Sunday in the life of the church, it was a time when we kids could take part in coloring Easter Eggs, and at the same time we heard stories of an even older time!  Here is the sequence of how we did our eggs:

First, on Good Friday Mama (Grandmother Polly Will Lytton) would boil several dozen eggs -- sometimes 3 or 4 dozen depending on how many were at hand.  Once the eggs were boiled they were placed in colanders or pans -- nestled into old cotton of some sort (old dish towels, clean rags of every kind) and ALWAYS with very clean hands -- Mama did not want any oil or grease to spoil what would be the final product.  The pans of eggs were then put on the back screened porch to cool overnight -- never into the icebox (or later the refrigerator) where if cooling too fast they would "sweat".

On the Saturday before Easter, after supper, Mama would gather all the things needed to "spot eggs" --- vinegar, suet, dyes, old woolen shirts or sweaters -- she would have everything ready before she brought the eggs in from the porch.

 With all us kids hovering around and Grandma Edna and Granddad Carson near by we would start (I can't remember your Granddad Ty Cobb Lytton being involved at all -- maybe he was doing final outside chores ...or taking time to just sit aside and read the paper!)

This is how it would go:   Grandma had boiled some onion skins to make brown dye; Granddaddy would be standing by to mix the toxic black dye (kids not allowed to touch - it was cloth dye and it was toxic!); Mama would set old cups or those stained from previous Easter dye sessions around the table and carefully put the dye tablet, some vinegar, some hot water in each cup and each of us would take up a space around the table and try to stir and melt the tablet without spilling a drop (not always successful at that).  With that accomplished Mama would carefully put an egg in each cup and we would try to made sure that each egg was evenly colored.  Each colored egg was laid again in clean cotton cloth to completely dry and wait for "spotting."  We kids of course would try to outdo each other in whose eggs came most perfectly out of the dye -- not a quiet discussion.

When we were very young we would be sent off to bed to wait for Easter morning where we would find baskets of the decorated eggs -- as we grew older and stopped believing in the Easter Bunny WE were allowed to help and this is how it went:

Once the eggs were cool and colored, Mama would melt the suet in a pan on the stove -- this really was beef tallow that she saved from year to year --  from Easter to Easter -- with very clean hands we would each take an egg and using our fingers -- or for more intricate designs a straw from a REAL broom -- and dip into the tallow and make spots of tallow all over the egg -- or dip each end of the egg in tallow and put a design in tallow around the middle --or use a straw to make a design;  Mama ALWAYS took the green eggs and made a  wheat design [shafts of wheat, little tadpoles, crosses, bunny tracks, spiders] up and down the egg w/tallow using a broom straw   -- Granddaddy used the black dye to make "baldies" by dipping each end of the egg in the tallow -- then he would take a black egg and with a straw draw spiders all over the egg -- somehow I cannot remember if we decorated Grandma's onion skin dyed eggs --maybe we just admired them as brown -- I'll have to ask one of the "Lytton girls" about that ...anyway  we could make any design we could manage -- as you can imagine some of us had much more artistic talent then others!!

After the tallow hardened on the egg -- and it hardened quickly on the porch-cooled eggs -- and the older the tallow the more quickly it hardened -- Mama would place the eggs in a bowl of water and apple vinegar where they would sit for a few minutes -- then out she would take them and rub with the woolens she also kept from year to year -- all the color would come off EXCEPT for that under the tallow -- can you picture that?  Of course the tallow came off too but the color underneath did not and formed the design.

Preparing/decorating Easter Eggs in this way was always attributed to our Pennsylvania Dutch/German ancestors -- I like to think of them as folk art -- while those of the Ukraine are/were much more complex and sophisticated -- I do not know of anyone who decorates eggs "our" way now -- Some of us have tried  over the years -- but the eggs are treated/coated when they come from the store - so you need straight from the hen -- the dyes are much too harmless nowadays so the color won't stick - and the tallow must be heated again and again to render it to the point when it will harden quickly --"

The eggs were a simpler version of traditional Dutch decorated eggs such as these.

This process must've produced the most beautiful and unique eggs. I don't think that I will ever actually be able to take these steps. The tallow and fresh eggs aren't realistic ingredients for me to come by. But I do think it is important for this history to be written down and remembered. There is a lot of art lost in convenience, don't you agree?

Monday, March 23, 2015

How to Prepare Your Garden Soil for Planting

Yay, Spring! If you missed my last post on my plans for my garden beds this summer, check it out HERE. Before I plant anything, I want to make sure that the soil is healthy for my plants. This will help them to produce the maximum amount of food and keep them disease resistant. Here are a few steps I take before summer planting:

#1 Turn over the soil. 
One reason I like raised beds so much is that if you don't need heavy machinery to till the soil before planting. When I prepare the garden soil for planting I like to turn the soil over to loosen it up, remove rocks, and also to search for unwanted pests. To do this, simply put in your shovel, dig in, and turn it over. Go through the entire box and dig down as deep as you can. My boxes have been there for several years, so the organic burlap that I laid on base to kill the grass the first year has now decomposed. I am able to reach down and mix in some of the Georgia red clay with the garden dirt.
Here are my 4 - 4x4 garden beds. They are about 12" deep. I'm in the process of installing garden pavers for a path through and around them, which is why there are 4 random pavers in the middle. 

#2 Check for pests. 
As I mentioned above, while you are turning over the soil look for unwanted pests. An important part of preparing your garden soil is to remove these guys. If you dig deep enough and thoroughly, you will be able to see if there are any grubs or larvae. I had a problem with tomato hornworms last year, so when going through the bed I had my tomatoes planted in I was especially vigilant for getting the hornworm larvae out. You can toss out smaller grubs and step on them. The tomato hornworm larvae are disgusting and large, so I take a shovel to them and annihilate them. I can use terms like "annihilate" with them because I hate them. Hate is such a strong word. It works here.

A tomato hornworm larva that I removed from my garden.
They are large, but blend in with the soil. If you find them, remove them and destroy them. It's much easier to remove them as a larva then after they have changed into the green, destructive pests that will ruin your tomato plants.

#3 Rotate your crops. 
A little advanced planning will help you prepare your garden soil for the next season of planting. You don't want to plant the same thing in the same spot two years in a row. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the pests that are attracted to particular crops will become a problem. Also, your soil will become nutrient deficient. Some plants use a lot of nitrogen and some feed the soil nitrogen. With quick and simple planning of how to rotate your crops, you will be able to make sure that your crops are actually producing food.
How I plan to rotate my crops over a 4 year period.

#4 Amend the soil.
With raised beds it is easy to forget that you aren't replacing the soil. Instead you are amending it, adding to it. After the first year you don't want to just dump bags of garden soil from the hardware soil into your boxes. You want to mix it with the native soil. While I am turning over the soil (see #1!) I will add a bag of compost, some bone meal, some blood meal, and some Epsom salts. If you make your own compost or buy it, 1-2 cu feet of compost per box is a good starting point. Don't overuse the blood meal and bone meal; a little goes a long way. Blood meal and bone meal are exactly what they sound like, and what they sound like are a little disgusting. But they are good, organic options to fertilize and amend the soil. Preparing your garden soil by amending it will again keep your plants healthy, making them disease and pest resistant and yielding high crops.

Just a side note, the first year you start raised beds you'll most likely need to fill them up with bags of soil from the store. In subsequent years you might need a bag or two to keepl the soil level up. What I recommend avoiding is completely replacing the soil each year. I don't think it's necessary, and it would not be cost efficient. Use these steps to amend the soil, and you won't need to replace it.

#5 Consider cold weather crops.
Another good way to prepare the garden soil is to plant something in the cooler seasons that will replace nutrients used in the spring and summer. Kale, peas, and many other foods can be grown in the colder months. (I'm in Zone 7; things may be different in your area.)

#6 Consider helpful insects.
If I happen to be digging elsewhere in the yard and notice lots of earthworms, I will take them and put them in the garden. Worms, bees, ladybugs, praying mantis and many other types of bugs and insects are friends to your garden. Consider ways to attract beneficial visitors that will either contribute to the soil or prey on harmful pests.

I hope this is helpful! Enjoy your garden.