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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Prep Your Garden Now!

Prep Your Garden

Prep Your GardenNational Gardening Month is right around the corner, and with it, the wonderful weather that makes it possible to re-start your garden after the winter! Take these steps to make sure your garden—whether it’s a huge expanse of your backyard or a few pots on your porch—is ready for planting in April.
  • Fix raised beds and acquire necessary equipment. If you have raised soil beds, or if you do your gardening with equipment that might need repair (such as stakes and wiring), check to make sure it’s all in good working order. Take this weekend to re-hammer planks, reinforce walls, patch clay pots, and construct new stakes, if need be. If you also need to replace equipment—say a trowel broke, or you lost a glove—replace now so you’re ready to garden soon.
  • Clear the area. Clear out any dead leaves, branches, yard toys, and whatever else may have found its way onto the soil. If you have a chipper, shredder, or mulcher, you can shred your yard accumulations like grass, dead leaves, and fallen branches, and use it with mulch; as it all breaks down, it will nourish the soil.
  • Prune. Is the surrounding shrubbery growing wild? Trim to get it into shape, and make sure you pick up and clear away all the trimmings. If your garden rests at the edge of a line of grass, prune that grass for a clear edge. Clear away any weeds that sprung up over the winter and early spring.
  • Unpack the soil. Get out your hoe or three-pronged trowel, and start digging into the soil to loosen it up! It’s been frozen in the ground all winter, so breaking up gives it the chance to breathe and gets it ready to incorporate mulch or compost. If you do container gardening and it’s a small container, replace the old soil with new. For larger containers, replace at least the top half of the soil with new soil and fertilizers.
  • Add compost and mulch. If you’re a composter, now’s the time to spread it around your garden. If you use mulch, now’s the time to start laying it down in your garden around anything you have already in place—shrubbery or bushes, for example.
  • Make a plan. Unless you’re 100% certain of what you’re planting and where this time around, start planning! Do a bit of research, whether from the library or online, what plants, herbs, or vegetables work best for planting in your region. Sketch out a plot of your garden on graph paper, and divvy up the soil so you know where to plant what.
  • Start now! Now is the perfect time to start your seedlings indoors. Egg cartons make the perfect seed-starters, as do paper cups and yogurt containers. Whether you buy your seeds from the grocery store or from the nursery, it’s beneficial to start them in smaller cartons and keep them indoors, where you can control their environment. 

Originally posted by Vocalpoint 3/27/2012

Things you didn't know that are recyclable!

Things You Didn't Know were Recyclable

Things You Didn't Know were RecyclableLittle steps go a long way, which is why Vocalpoint is such a big proponent of recycling! While you probably already recycle used paper and plastic, check out this surprising list of items that can easily fit into your recycling rotation. Mailing them in or dropping them off at a facility nearby is a small price to pay for keeping the earth clean, safe, and healthy for everyone!

Wine corks. If you’re not a collector planning to turn them into a bulletin board, collect your corks to recycle them! Yemm & Hart is a company that will take old corks and recycle them into flooring, wall treatments, and veneers that can be used for years! All you need to do is box them up and ship them to Yemm & Hart—the info for which you can find here.

Light bulbs. Whether you have fluorescent or CFL bulbs, all light bulbs should be recycled instead of trashed, as they can contain trace amounts of mercury. In one bulb, it’s no big deal and safe to have in your home. But when everyone throws light bulbs in the trash, it can become a problem in landfills! To find a place near you who safely recycles them safely, click here. And remember: IKEA stores have a CFL light bulb recycling plan, so take your bulbs with you the next time you visit!

Foam packing peanuts and more. While packaging peanuts are already composed partially of recycled materials, you can still recycle them! Many packaging places like the USPS will take back the packing peanuts to reuse them or ship to a recycling facility, but double check with The Plastic Loose Fill Council (click here to check them out) to see the locations in your area. For larger, molded pieces of foam packaging (like those surrounding new electronic equipment), check out the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recycles (click here).

Phone books. Your local recycling center should collect phone books separately from your normal haul, so call in ahead of time to make sure. You can also shred phone book pages and use them with your compost! The pages are biodegradable and help keep weeds from springing up.

Old carpet. Tearing up carpet for some renovations or replacements? You don’t have to throw it in a dumpster—call up your local recycling center to see if they take carpet or if they know any local places who would. Otherwise, check out the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE).

Old medication. It’s time to stop throwing expired or extra medication down the toilet! Not only is there a better way to recycle, but the medication dissolves and gets into water treatment facilities, where it stays in the water that you use every day. Don’t flush your meds! Instead, give your local pharmacy a call. Many pharmacies will take back expired medication and dispose of them safely, or else they know who in your area would.

Originally posted by Vocalpoint 4/3/2012

Spring Flower Gardening

What to Plant This Spring: Flowers

What to Plant This Spring: FlowersIf you’re starting a new flower garden this spring, you may be wondering what season-appropriate blooms you can start in your garden. Here’s a handy list for National Gardening Month that’ll set you on the right track for spring planting!

Pansies. Pansies can be planted in the fall and survive a hard winter, but they also do well when planted in the springtime! They do best in soft soil intermixed with 25% composted materials, mulch, or soil conditioners. It’s important not to over-water them; the soil should be damp, not saturated. Partial shade and full sun are the best locations for pansies.

Orchids. If it gets below 40 degrees outside, you’ll need to bring your orchids inside, so make sure the worst of the springtime cold fronts are over when you plant. Mist every morning with distilled or tap water at room temperature—or use the same water to give a good watering (instead of misting) every other day. Like pansies, the soil around orchids should be moist, not saturated. They may need staking as they grow. Shaded or partially shaded areas are perfect for orchids.

Begonias. Like orchids, begonias are cold-temperature-sensitive, so plant after the last of the frosts. The soil should be rich and soft, but make sure the surface of the soil dries between waterings (that is, don’t water if the soil is moist or saturated). When looking for them at your local nursery, look for the “sempiflorens” variety, which does well in outdoor flowerbeds. Trim off dead leaves or buds regularly to keep begonias flourishing. They should get plenty of sunlight, but if the sun is intense in your area, you’ll need to shelter them.

Dahlias. The soil should be enriched with mulch, fertilizer, or compost, and in a well-drained area in a sunny area. You can acquire dahlia tubers (instead of seeds, if you prefer) from your local nursery. Rainwater is usually enough to help the seeds sprout, but after the sprouts emerge from the soil, 3 times per week is enough watering, with a bit more in particularly hot, dry weather. If your dahlias grow to 3 feet or taller, staking is recommended to keep the plant thriving.

Daisies. Do note: If you plant daisy seeds now, they will bloom in their second year! If you’d like to start daisies already in bloom, you can purchase them from your local nursery. Grow daisies in rich soil that drains well, mixed with fertilizer and compost, in a full-sun area. Water daily until they take root or for a week after planting the daisies already in bloom. After that, you can hold off on watering until times of drought or when the soil appears dry. 

Originally posted by Vocalpoint 4/3/2012

Spring Vegetable Planting

What to Plant This Spring: Vegetables

What to Plant This Spring: Vegetables
Looking to plant some vegetables in your garden this year? Here’s a list of vegetables that flourish with a spring planting. Follow the directions on your seed packets for specific planting information, but follow these tips to get an idea of how to take care of them once they’re in the ground.

Carrots. Carrot seeds should usually be sown about 2 weeks before the last frost date, but early April is usually cool enough to work well. The soil should be loosened at least a foot beneath the surface, with the top layer mixed with mulch or compost, though seeds should only be planted about a quarter inch deep and a few inches apart. When they start to spring up, weed out the smaller ones so that there is 4 to 6 inches of space between them. Pull up when the roots are rich in color.

Onions. Start planting the onions soon as possible; they like the slightly cooler weather of early spring. Growing from seeds can be difficult and it will be 1-2 years before you see the (literal) fruits of your labor, so you may want to start with “sets” of onions—immature onions raised in your local nursery that will grow into mature plants. Ask your local nursery about the growing specifics for the kind of onions you buy, but in general, water only when the ground is dry, and cut off any flowering stems that you see.

Radishes. The soil for radishes should be fertilized and well-drained while remaining moist, and seeds should be sown about half an inch deep and about an inch apart. Continuously pull up the roots as they mature to edible size, which will happen quickly. Let them sit too long, and they will become spongy.

Potatoes. Seed potatoes are better for planting than supermarket potatoes, as supermarket potatoes have likely been treated with anti-sprouting sprays. You can find seed potatoes at your local nursery. To begin the sprouting process, leave them in a windowsill to get sunlight for about a week before you plant them. A day or two before you plant, cut them in pieces with one or two eyes per piece. Plant before the last frost date in your area, about 6-8 inches deep, in rows, eyes pointed upward, and cover the trenches only halfway with soil, continuing to fill as the vines and flowers creep upward. While they’re flowering, continue watering, keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged. 2-3 weeks after flowering, you can begin pulling them out of the ground, but let sit on the surface or a dry area, unwashed, for 2-3 days to let the skin mature.

Beets. Soak beet seeds for 24 hours before planting, then plant beets in mid-spring when the soil is workable, in well-drained, sandy soil. Water every day, just enough to keep the soil moist, and a good mulching will help retain moisture and prevent weeds. If harvesting the beets for their leaves (delicious in salads!) as well as the roots, thin out the sprouts when they reach about 2” high, cutting off the weakest-looking stalks at soil level. Harvest the roots when they’re about 1-3 inches long.

Remember: weed your vegetable gardens to keep the weeds from competing with your vegetables for nutrients. If you want to make sure your region will be ready for planting particular vegetables, check out your region’s planting zone or when your region’s last freeze date is.

Originally posted by Vocalpoint 4/10/2012

Teach the kids to garden!

Teach the Kids to Garden

Teach the Kids to Garden
With spring flowers beginning to poke up through the soil, April is a great time to begin introducing children to gardening! A simple first step in the process is to teach them about basic indoor plant care.

How you’ll integrate gardening and plant care into your child’s life depends heavily on his or her age, interest, and your own level of experience. If you’re a seasoned gardener, you may not need to do much research to get started. But if you’ve never spent much time with plants yourself, this is a great chance to learn about growing things together with your child. Here’s how to get started!

Talk to your children about a plant’s basic needs. Most plants need water, air, warmth, food, and light to survive. There are exceptions, of course, but for basic plant care, these are good conditions to aim for. Head to your local library or discount bookstore and look for kids’ gardening books—the more pictures, the better.

Let your child be involved in selecting the plant he or she wants to care for. Whether you start your plant from seeds, bulbs, or buds, your child is likely to take more of an interest if he or she is involved in the entire process. Make the process easier by pre-selecting three or four possibilities that will jive with your child’s personality, age, and interests and then let him or her choose from those options. Children will enjoy watching the progress of a plant that flowers or changes regularly.

Keep your child engaged by participating in plant care time with him or her. Let the kids take the reins on the actual care (it will mean more to them), and offer gentle guidance and praise for a job well done. Talk to them not only about how to water and feed their plants, but how those things help the plant to grow.

Record your progress! Have your child take a picture of his or her plant every day and track its growth in an online album or make a scrapbook together. Your child will love seeing the (literal!) fruits of his or her labor in photographs.

Talk about what you’ve learned together. Once your plant has matured some, talk to your child about what he or she has learned from the process, what worked or didn’t work, and what you might do differently next time. If your plant didn’t quite make it, talk openly about what you can do to nurture your next plant more effectively.

Caring for plants can be a wonderful opportunity to bond with your children!

Originally posted by Vocalpoint 4/11/2012

Make Your Own Baby Food

Make Your Own Baby Food

Make Your Own Baby FoodMaking your own baby food is a simple and cost-effective way to introduce your infant to new foods, without resorting to the less flavorful (and more pricey) store-bought kinds. To make these foods, you’ll need a strong blender or food processor (or a great sense of patience to keep on blending until smooth!). The nutritional info listed below is for the entire quantity of food prepared—not the individual portions you’ll dish out, as that varies from baby to baby.

Of course, ask your pediatrician which foods are best for your child if you’re not already sure!

Ginger Carrots with Onion
This is a simple recipe with simple flavors that will go a long way! When putting hot vegetables in a blender, cover the top with a firmly-held dishtowel instead of its plastic cap so that the steam can escape.

Makes about 1 cup

3 large carrots, peeled and chopped in even chunks
½ of a yellow or white onion, chopped in even chunks
¼ tsp fresh grated ginger

If you have a vegetable steamer, use that to soften the three ingredients all at once, or put the chopped pieces inside a deep skillet with a lid that can fit over top. Pour in half a cup of water, turn the burner to high, and steam until the vegetables are soft when pricked with a fork, about 15-20 minutes. Add more water if necessary. When done, drain the excess water but set it aside. Add the vegetables to your food processor or blender, then blend until smooth and pureed. Add more cooking water a little at a time to get the consistency you prefer. Obviously, let cool before serving! Will keep up to a week in a sealed, airtight container.

Nutritional info for the whole dish: 110 calories, .6 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 779 mg potassium, 25.5 carbohydrates, 7 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 2.7 g protein. 520% RDV Vitamin A, 18% RDV Vitamin B-6, 27% RDV Vitamin C.

Banana-Pear Delight
This sweet treat is great even for parents, especially after chilled in the fridge on a hot day. You could also use apples, but bake the (peeled) pieces in the oven first—about 20 minutes at 350 degrees or until soft.

Makes about ¾ of a cup

1 ripe pear
1 ripe banana
1 sprinkle of nutmeg

Peel the banana and pear, cutting into chunks, and add to the blender or food processor with a dash of nutmeg. Blend until smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides if necessary. Stores in an airtight container for about 2 days.

Nutritional info for the whole dish: 209 calories, 1.4 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1.2 mg sodium, 676 mg potassium, 53 g carbohydrates, 7 g fiber, 14.7 g sugar, 1.8 g protein. 35.6% RDV Vitamin B-6, 29% RDV Vitamin C.

Zucchini and Tomato
These ingredients also make a delicious sauce you could use over pasta—so you can give some to your baby and keep some for yourself!

Makes about 1 and ½ cups

2 medium zucchini, skins on, cut into chunks
2 medium ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks, seeds removed as much as possible
2 leaves basil
1 tbsp olive oil

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the olive oil, then sauté the zucchini and tomatoes, stirring occasionally until soft, about 10 minutes. When soft, add to the blender along with the basil leaves, then purée until smooth. If the mixture is too thick for your (or your baby’s) taste, add water a tablespoon at a time into the mixture, blending until it reaches the consistency you like. Will keep 3-4 days in a sealed, airtight container.

Nutritional info for the whole dish: 223 calories, 14.5 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 32 mg sodium, 1,370 mg potassium, 24 g carbohydrates, 7.3 g fiber, 5.5 g sugar, 4.2 g protein. 104% RDV Vitamin A, 22.5% RDV Vitamin B-6, 66% RDV Vitamin C.

If you’ve heard your pediatrician say that you should feed your baby what you eat, you can also apply the blender principle to your own food. Having pasta and red sauce? A vegetable medley? Baked apples with oats and cinnamon? Blend it up and serve it!

Originally Posted by Vocalpoint 4/17/2012

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Storing & Freezing Tips

Here are some handy-dandy freezing and storage tips! 

- Freezer storage bags, plastic ware and freezer paper are always the best products to use when freezing your food.

- Did you know that freezer burn is caused by exposure to the air and this in minimized when using plastic bags/containers? It's because of their resistance to air and moisture penetration. 

- Lay the storage bag flat for heavy items such as steak for easier sealing. 

- Freeze small items like berrie, chopped vegetables or pastries on a cookie sheet first; then place into bag/container.

- Use a large bowl/saucepan or get someone to help you when pouring liquids into storage bags. Or, you can first seal the bag to within 1 inch of the edge, insert a funnel, pour & seal.  After sealing, lay flat on cookie sheet for a more even freeze and better storage.

- Remove as much air as possible when storing food products. When using plastic bags, secure along top (zipper) almost to the end (leaving enough room to insert a straw). Use a straw in the opening and suck out all the air you can or squeeze out the remaining air to minimize the risk of freezer burn.

- Always date your frozen food! Use a permanent marker on the outside of your storage bag. Use masking tape on the outside of a plastic container or on the outside of the storage bag if you cannot use a permanent marker.

Meat:  Freeze individual steaks and chops or group them into meal size quantities.  Slip a roast into a bag. Freeze individual hamburger patties in bags or multiple patties in a large plastic container with freezer paper or wax paper between patties. Freeze meal-sized portions for ease of use. Pour a  marinade over the meat before freezing to tenderize and add ultimate flavor! I'll buy manager's special meat and prepare/freeze the product as soon as I get home. Buy a large package of ground meat and divide into individual 1lb packages to make it easier when cooking.

- Poultry:  Always wash poultry and pat dry before freezing.  Poultry can be store whole or cut into pieces. Again, you can pour a marinade over the chicken before freezing for better flavor and ease of cooking!

- Fruits & Vegetables:  When possible, choose fresh fruits and vegetables in season for freezing.  However, I'll chop/prepare any freezable vegetable that is starting to go soft. When doing this, cut away any soft/bad spot first. Rinse and pat dry. Then chop/prepare vegetable as needed.  Fruits can be frozen with or without sweetening, dry or in syrup.  Some vegetables should be blanched while others can be baked before freezing.  Cool foods quickly and store in a storage bag/container.

- Fish:  Small, whole fish need to be packaged with water in the bag/container in order to form a cake of ice. This keeps the fish fresh. For big fish, cut into chunks/steaks/fillets.

- Shellfish:  Oysters & clams can be stored in or out of the shell.  Scallops need to be stored in their own liquid. Individual lobsters and crabs need to be steam or boiled before freezing. Store shrimp in smaller meal-friendly bags.

- Dairy Products:  Butter or lard products in 1lb blocks, pats or curls can be frozen. Freeze whipped cream in dollops (first freeze on a cookie sheet). Freeze cheese in slices or shreds; store in individual meal-friendly bags.  Packaged shredded and sliced cheese can be frozen as well. I purchase large bags and blocks of deli cheese and divide them into smaller packages. This does take up more room but it makes things easier to grab. Egg whites can be frozen as well as scrambled eggs. Make egg "pancakes" and freeze on cookie tray over night. These can be stored individually or on a breakfast sandwich!

- Prepared Foods: Make sandwiches up ahead of time and store in individual storage bags. Put frozen sandwich in lunch box before you leave for school/work and it will be thawed by lunch time! (this works with most types of bread) For easier individual servings of stocks/broths/gravies/sauces and baby food, freeze first in ice cube trays then in a storage bag. Open damaged/close to expiration  canned vegetables/soups/fruits/meats and store in bags.  Additional prepared foods that are easily frozen: Casseroles (freeze in container, then transfer contents into bag), stews, creamed dishes, diet foods and much more!

- Leftovers:  When preparing leftovers for cold storage, package and freeze small amounts of the leftovers to make one larger meal later.

- Desserts:  Cakes, cupcakes and cookies can be frozen if wrapped well and all air is removed from the container.  Uncooked frosting's can be frozen as well as pies and pie fillings.

-  Keep your freezer at 0 degrees F or lower, keep your refrigerator at 40 degrees F.

- When possible, freeze top quality foods.  Freezing will not improve the quality of the food. When freezing older food to prevent spoilage, be sure to use these first when preparing/planning a meal.  The quality is ok and is best when combined in a larger meal. For example: I froze some chopped pieces of sweet peppers that I had cleaned and cleared of bad spots. I used the peppers within a month for optimum freshness and flavor.

- When preparing foods properly for freezing or storing, be sure to check you freezer manual for helpful hints and tips as well as specific food preparation.

- Use the cookie sheet technique to freeze before packaging items such as: berries, peas, beans, diced or chopped vegetables, parsley, chives, hamburger patties, meat loaves, chicken parts, etc.. Bags can be opened, contents partially used, then resealed and stored.

- Always push air out of bags before storing or freezing.  Leave an inch of the seal open, press air out then finish sealing.

- Label all items:  date, number of servings or amount, name of food, and instructions for serving if necessary.

- Leave at least 1/2 inch head space in bags to allow for expansion when freezing.

- Pack in serving sized amounts when possible.

- Freeze foods as quickly as possible.

- Place packaged food on it's side until frozen.

- When frozen solid, freezer storage bags can be stacked to simplify storage.

- Do Not refreeze thawed foods.

Recommended maximum storage times for frozen foods held at o degree F or below:

Raw ground meat.....9 months
Cooked beef patties.....3 months
Cut poultry.....10 months
Barbecued Chicken.....10 months
Chicken ala King.....9 months
Raw steak.....10 months
Beef stew.....9 months
Pork chops.....10 months
Tuna casserole.....9 months
Raw fish.....7 months
Lamb/veal.....9 months

Baked Goods
Donuts.....9 months
Cupcakes.....9 months
Apple turnovers.....9 months
Yeast rolls.....9 months
Pies.....9 months
Cookies.....9 months

Fruits & Vegetables
Citrus fruits and juices.....9 months
Other fruits.....9-12 months
Vegetables (with the exception of potatoes).....9 months

Spaghetti sauce.....10 months
Brown gravy.....10 months
Soups.....8 months
Puddings.....8 months

Hunter's Delight Crock Pot Recipe


1/2 lbs bacon, diced                                                                 2 cans cream corn
2 1/2 lbs red potatoes, thinly sliced                                           3 TBSP Worcestershire Sauce
2 medium onions, sliced                                                            1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 lbs venison (deer), cubed                                                 1 tsp season salt

In a large skillet, cook bacon until crisp and drain.  Put potatoes & onion in slow cooker & top with venison & bacon. Combine corn, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, & season salt. Pour over top of meat & veggies.  Cover & cook on low for 6-8 hours or until the meat and potatoes are tender.