A Warning

If you come anywhere near me in the next month, I guarantee you will be plied with zucchini.

I picked these over a week ago, and by the time I return from my brief Georgia adventure, I will have at least four more this big ... or bigger.

I love zucchini in pasta dishes, with salmon, in lasagna, in ratatouille, fried (oops, I haven't shared that recipe yet ... I will soon), and in bread. But that only gets me so far. Then what the heck am I supposed to do with all the rest of the zucchini?

Conservative Boy will not touch them. Conservative Dad will not touch them. Someone has to touch them besides me or I will explode from eating too much zucchini. And that would be bad, very bad.

My zucchini plant is on pace to be even more prolific than last year's. So if you come anywhere near me, you will be going home with zucchini. And I will not take no for an answer.

Talking Container Gardens

My second post for Natural Home is already live, so I thought I'd share the link. And yes, you've seen those photos before.

Gardening Rookie: Starting Containers

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the pool. Muahahaha.


Blogging at Natural Home

Are you sick of me sending you to different sites to see what I'm up to yet? I hope not, because I'm going to do it again.

Yesterday, my first blog post over at the Natural Home magazine website went live.

I'll be blogging over there once a week now, alternating between writing about green decorating on a budget and rookie green gardening. A lot of it is going to be pretty darn familiar to you, dear readers, because you hear about some of the same stuff right here quite often. But it should be a fun adventure, so I hope you'll hop on over to the Natural Home website from time to time to see what I'm up to.

This week, I write about painting the rooms in our house with low- and no-VOC paints. There are some BIG photos of the rooms we painted on the blog, so even if you don't care a lick about what I'm saying, you can take a peek at the casa where Conservative Boy and I spend most of our time staring lovingly at one another ... or, come on, let's be realistic ... disagreeing about the silliest things.

(Conservative Boy is "my honey" in the Natural Home post, in case you're wondering—I decided people might not understand his nickname over there. Such a shame.)

Here's the link to the post. I'll send you back that way once again when the first green gardening post goes live.


Sharing a Photo

Because I am random, I would like to share a photo with you.

This is a photo of My Dad, My Mom, and their dog. We never, ever, ever had a dog when I was growing up (a situation I believe I have mentioned before, which is particularly surprising considering that now that Butter lives with us I am crazy about dogs).

Before I was born, My Parents owned this magnificent creature. I don't know much about him (or her, I'm not sure), but I'm fascinated nonetheless. He's so furry he doesn't even look like he has eyes! (By the way, remind me not to complain about Butter shedding anymore; this guy looks like a beast.)

I love this picture, which my Uncle J gave me when I was home for my grandfather's funeral. My Mom looks gorgeous, of course. But can we just talk about My Dad's hair for a while, please? It's terrific. You should have seen it when it was long and PERMED. Not that I actually saw it in person, because that was back when he played college basketball and I wasn't around then, but I've seen the photos and it was awesome.

I would not make something like that up. Ever.

House Projects: The Backyard

I don't know if you got the memo or not, but I'm serious about fixing up our house on a budget.

One area that's been a thorn in my side all summer is our backyard. Some things—like the grass that has trouble growing because it's so darn shady (and because Butter tears it up every time he feels the need to announce to the world that he means business) and the unruly, ugly bushes that line the back and sides of the house—aren't going to be fixed anytime soon.

But I realized I could easily and inexpensively paint the railing, as you saw yesterday.

I also decided I could revamp the little area to the left of the patio, where an unruly, uninspiring assortment of lackluster plants spring up every year on part of the ground, and the rest of the area remains uneven, weedy dirt. Sounds lovely, right?

It's made even more so by the fact it has become Butter's favorite place to relieve himself. Here's a little warning: dog pee does not pretty plants make.

So a few weeks ago, when I was particularly angry at how hideous that side of the yard looks, I started yanking out plants. (This area is, by the way, the main thing our neighbors see when they sit on their back patio, which I realized when we went next door for a birthday party—and that embarrasses me.) So I yanked and dug until I had an almost-clean slate. (I did, however, leave a few of the plants from before, as well as a few Asiatic lilies and daylilies I planted last summer that managed to survive Butter's frequent urination.)

Then, for the other side of the little white fence, I went to the greenhouse at Ace, where I promptly rescued a box full of plants that were 80 percent off. I'm not even joking. They're so desperate to get rid of the plants over there, they're practically giving them away. That's how I spent next to nothing on the landscaping you're seeing here. I scored the jackpot with two white coneflowers, Big Blue lily turf, Professor Kippenburg dwarf aster, Husker Red penstemon, and creeping phlox.

(Can you believe I actually noted all the names? This is so unlike me. I can only ever remember a few of the plants growing in my front-yard perennial garden. The rest I just refer to as "the one with red flowers" or the "big one with yellow flowers." I'm so scientific about this gardening stuff.)

Many of these babies are late summer and early fall bloomers, which was intentional on my part. I figure I have tons of spring and early summer color in the front yard, plus the Asiatic lilies and daylilies for early summer color in the backyard, so why not include some late-summer fun too?

After I planted, the finishing touches were easy. I spent a few bucks on a bag of mulch to help keep the moisture in around the plants and to hide all the ugly dirt I mentioned, another couple of bucks on the green fence so Butter has to leave the flower watering to me, and a few more bucks on some new mums to finish off the setting. (Yeah, I paid full price for the mums. They were too pretty to resist! I planted one in the ground and placed two in pots I scrounged up from our garage.) And prest-o change-o, our backyard just got a lot nicer.

I can't wait to sit out there in the evenings with a glass of wine and a book. Sounds like the perfect end to the day, don't you think?

Particularly since I improved the view another direction too. I finally hung up the great little copper spinny thing (admittedly, that's not the official name) My Mom sent me last year.

I had planned to hang it from the house but thought instead I'd hang it here, since I retired the pots from last year.

Things are really shaping up, wouldn't you say?


House Projects: The Railing

This was the railing on our back step before.

Ack! Eek! Blech.

Let's see that again from another angle just to underscore how nasty it was.

Now I'll stop with the "before" photos. I don't want to give you nightmares.

Fortunately, this is the railing on the back step after.

Ahh. Sweet white paint. So much nicer.

All it took was an hour or so of sanding, a good scrubbing with a wet soapy rag, a coat of paint over the whole railing, then a bit more paint to touch up a few rough spots.

And, as you'll notice, the utility meter box and pipe on the house got a paint job too.

(By the way, please ignore all the crap on the ground. This side of the patio is tucked away from view so I've made the spot behind the bushes a temporary yard waste pile. Don't hate me for it.)

The reason I painted the railing is because Conservative Boy and I started a list. It's a long list of things we'd like to do around the house. This isn't a dream list, because if that were the case he would have added carpeting and a bar for the basement and I would have just written in all caps across half the page REMODEL THE KITCHEN.

No, it's not that kind of list.

Rather, it's a realistic list. An attainable list. Of things we can actually do around the house ourselves even though we're not all that handy. Of things we can do without spending a lot of cash. In a dream world I'd have the whole list completed by the end of the summer, but since I like to do things like golf and run away to Georgia that's ... um ... not going to happen.

I did, however, make some progress on the list in the past couple of weekends. The frames were step one. The railing project was step two. And I did a few other little things in the backyard as well, but I'm saving those for another post.

You know how I like to keep you hanging.

Making Over the Frames

Remember these frames? The ones I bought at a secondhand store in L-Town for next to nothing?

I let them sit on the floor in my office for months (we'll say it was because they get better with age, OK?). It wasn't that I didn't know what I wanted to do with them—I knew exactly where they were going and knew vaguely what they would contain. I just managed to put off doing a thing with them until recently.

Now they look like this.

Any bets on how long before they actually make it to the wall?

Baby steps, people. Baby steps.


A Radio Interview

I haven't done anything with radio since I was in high school traveling the Midwest on the Truth Tour, when we'd speak the truth about the tobacco industry, if you will, at radio stations and on TV programs in the cities we visited.

Until this morning, that is. This morning I spent nearly 15 minutes on the air for an interview with WJBC, an AM radio station out of Bloomington. It was fun. We talked about Illinois Adventures, of course, and the places I've visited. And a lot about food, which you know I'm always willing to chat about.

You can hear a few seconds of the interview here. Now let's hope they fix the link to the site, because last time I checked it wasn't right!


Busy as a Bee

This weekend, I'm busy as a bee in multiple gardens. Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time weeding over at the Conservative Family Home to prepare for Conservative Mom's (brief) return from Georgia. Then, after that, I whipped a corner of our yard that needed some help into shape (more on that later). Today, I plan to tackle trimming the bushes, giving my pots in the front yard some TLC, and weeding in the perennial garden.

Oh, the perennial garden. Source of so little work and so much color. It has really taken off lately. These pictures are actually a bit old, but alas I am slow at posting so they're only now making an appearance.

There's some ivory. (Is this ivory? I think so, but I could be wrong.)

And some red.
Some yellow.
Some purple.

And some more purple. And yes, silly, I know these look pink. But they're called purple coneflowers and so, for the purpose of this post, they too are purple.

This brings me to the second point of this post: I'm not the only busy bee in the garden.

The last time I was out taking photos, a number of these fellows were hard at work.

I appreciate their efforts, especially when they allow me to get up close and personal with them while they're working.

Bees, in case you haven't heard, are very important. (You can hear more here.) The hornets that took up residence in our backyard last week I could do without. But the bees I love. As long as they don't sting My Mom or Conservative Boy. That would end badly.

I do not, however, have any love for these punks. We are going to have words later today.


Key Lime Pie

Three egg yolks (one broken).


One can sweetened condensed milk. Whisked.

One-half cup key lime juice (bottled if you're lucky, fresh if you're luckier) with 3 tablespoons water. Whisked.

Drops of green food coloring.


And whisked.

M.C.'s pie crust (from the freezer). Baked.

Filling in crust. Baked. Or not. Then chilled for 3 to 6 hours.

1 cup whipping cream, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Mixed in a chilled bowl with chilled beaters.

Photographed. Then devoured.


Gardening Off the Compound

Julie, Julie, gardener Julie, how does your garden grow?
With an abundance of zucchini, reluctant tomatoes,
and marigolds all in a row.

Remember this? It was my real, in the ground front-yard garden from last year. Unfortunately, it didn't make a reappearance this year. Conservative Boy decided it would be a good idea to sprinkle grass seed over it this spring before I planted. And the grass came up so nicely (it was by far the best patch of grass in our front yard), that I was convinced by a number of people that I should leave it alone.

To make up for the loss of the front-yard garden, Conservative Mom kindly offered me a patch of earth in their big, beautiful backyard in which to grow some plants. So I set off down the street, armed with my spade and my gardening gloves, and planted away.

Three tomato plants (all different varieties, including a couple of heirlooms), a red pepper, an eggplant, a green pepper, zucchini, garlic (can't see that), and plenty of marigolds to fend off the pests. Not a bad little spot, eh?

Things started off slowly, to say the least. I got concerned that nothing was going to grow because the big trees around the garden made things shadier than we realized at first.

But then, slowly, the eggplant (which got lopped off by a spring storm, to make matters worse) started to grow a bit taller. And the zucchini started to take over.

Oh boy, has it ever taken over. I'm afraid one of the pepper plants may be out of luck this year because its big, flashy neighbor zucchini is going to steal the show.

The tomato plants have really picked up in the last couple of weeks too and are taking over the fence next to them. Still, there aren't many tomatoes to show for all that growing, except for these beauties on the middle plant.

I hear the reluctant tomatoes are a common occurrence in town this year, though. So it's not just me. I'm remaining cautiously optimistic that they'll come around sometime soon.

And if they don't? I'll be headed to the farmer's market a lot more frequently to snag tomatoes. Conservative Boy is itchin' for a BLT.


A Hot Harvest

This summer I'm growing a jalapeno plant in a pot in front of our house (among other things, of course). The first jalapenos formed a couple of weeks ago, and I harvested two the other day.

Somebody was curious about them, to say the least. Given the chance, he undoubtedly would have eaten both in a matter of seconds. And then I would've been cleaning the carpet for a good hour.

Sorry, Butter, you can't eat jalapenos. I have to draw the line somewhere.

New Recipes

Sometimes when things get busy, I cook more. It seems counterintuitive that when I have too much to do I would wile away time in the kitchen, but that's often how it works.

It's not that I'm procrastinating. It's just that cooking is my escape. It's an enjoyable activity that allows me to take a break from whatever else is going on in life. And it provides a very real, very necessary product: tasty (at least most of the time!), healthy homemade food. This ensures that I eat well and eat enough when, otherwise, I'd be so distracted by what I have on my to-do list that I'd end up eating junk or sometimes not eating at all.

That's why, last week, even though I was juggling schoolwork, house projects, a big proofreading project, an article deadline, and promoting and writing for Illinois Adventures, I tried out quite a few new recipes. (Quick and easy recipes, by the way. I never said I tackle souffles when time-crunched!)

That's the other thing about cooking for me: I rarely try the same thing twice, unless it's a childhood favorite or a dish that really wows. Instead, I tear recipe ideas out of magazines and bookmark them on websites like a fiend, and then gleefully tackle them whenever I can. Sometimes they're terrific. Other times just so-so (it's a good thing Conservative Boy is such a sport). Either way, we end up with a home-cooked meal on the table.

This past week, I tried the recipes you see here. The first: Linguine in fresh tomato sauce with garlic and basil toast from Better Homes & Gardens July 2009. You can view the recipe here. It should come as no surprise that I made this while C.B. was off golfing.

Next up: roast chicken with vegetables from Sunset April 2009.

This photo was snapped halfway through the process—the chicken and potatoes had been cooked on the stove, and now it was time to put them (along with the broccoli) in the oven. One faux pas with this (come on, you know there's always at least one): I couldn't find chicken thighs with bones and skin so instead I purchased chicken breasts. And they were HUGE. So it threw off the cooking time of everything. I only mentioned that to be of service to you, dear reader: you may want to pick out smaller portions of meat than I did for recipe success. Speaking of recipes, that one's here.

While you're there, look closely at the photo of the chicken. Do you really believe the skin looks that crunchy after only roasting? I'm cynical. I think the food stylist got out the fryer. But maybe I'm wrong. I have been wrong before, you know. Once.

Next up: open-face pesto-turkey burgers, again from BHG July 2009 (here's the recipe).

This was a tasty one. The recipe called for chicken or turkey; I went with turkey. But the important detail of this recipe is: I grilled it myself. And the corn we had with it too. And somehow, as crazy as it sounds, I have never grilled before. Conservative Boy usually takes care of grilling, but he had a manly spa afternoon (not kidding), so I grilled myself. Perhaps the burgers would have been a bit less charred had he been there to play grillmaster, but nonetheless they were good. And I grilled them.

(Conservative Boy, of course, wasn't impressed with my pretty presentation. So this is what he did with his. He'd like to remind you that's he's ready to start his EXTREME cooking show anytime. And EXTREME must be written in all caps so it's much more EXTREME.)

Last (but not really, because I'm saving a couple for a different post), we have avocado fries. This time we're back again to the April 2009 issue of Sunset (see the recipe here). (Can you tell I was catching up on a bit of magazine reading recently?)

These were tasty, tasty—crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside—and a great way to use avocado other than in a messy hair mask or guacamole. I actually made these twice recently—first, to hold C.B. over while that roast chicken roasted slowly, and again last night. Yum yum yum.

So, like I said, I have a few more recipes to come from the past week. But you'll just have to wait on those. These should be enough to tide you over for a day or two anyway, right?


A Tale of Three Houses (Part III)

Go ahead and boo. I know I'm lame. I gave you a tale of two houses and then left you hanging for a couple of days. That was mean. But very unintentional—I promise.

I just got distracted by studying for an environmental law exam (I thought I had two weeks before I had to take it, then found out the other day it's next Tuesday—ack!), tackling a few around-the-house projects, trying a few new recipes, and going to a luau. You'll hear about all these things soon (well, except for the exam, because I am guessing you don't care to hear about nonattainment areas under the Clean Air Act and who is considered a generator of hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—but hey, if I'm wrong, let me know).

But first, I owe you a tale of the third house.

This house came well before My Parents' condo and Conservative Parents' home. It was My Parents' first introduction to the Lake Oconee area and, if memory serves me correctly, it is also the place where the wheels started turning and Conservative Parents got serious about seeking out their own place in the area.

Can you see why yet? A nice-looking exterior (with an exceptionally steep drive). A wooded area.

All very nice. But the real draw? The reason I would drop everything and move in there right now if P-Diddy and the lovely L would have me. (And no, not that P-Diddy. But that's a swell nickname, right?)

The lake.

You can see the lake from their back deck.

And the screened porch.

And from the lower patio area under the deck (which includes a terrific outdoor fireplace). I do not have a photo of this, unfortunately, but it's a sweet spot. It's the entire lower level you see here. Now use your imagination.

But wait. I'm supposed to be showing you more of the inside of the house. Not talking about the views oustide. (Although, of course, when the weather is nice we spend most of our time outdoors.)

This is the kitchen, where lovely L has made many a fine meal and the rest of us have opened many a fine bottle of wine.

This is the formal dining room, where dinnertime takes place. Although on busy lake weekends, the bar in the kitchen, the kitchen table, and the table in the screened porch may be used for overflow seating.

This is the living room. Perfect for relaxing. If you aren't relaxed enough, from lounging on the deck, on the patio, on the dock, in the boat ... well, you get the idea.

Upstairs, you'll find bedrooms and bathrooms. Downstairs, you'll find more living space and an additional bedroom and bath. We were in the midst of a big, raucous, multi-family weekend at the lake when I took these photos, however, so I chose to be nice and leave the bedrooms and baths alone.

(You've heard about this place before, by the way. But only the lake. It make an appearance last year and earlier this summer too. Now you can say you've been there. Although, admittedly, the photos can't quite do the place justice. But isn't that always the case?)