Today, I wrote to a “secret” group of homeschool (and former homeschool) moms, asking for perspective. I had a feeling they’d tell me that I’m doing just fine. So far, in fact, they have. But in this, and in other homeschool-related endeavors, I just can’t seem to find the right balance, where I’m pleased with what we’re doing.
My oldest three children are boys, and my youngest three are girls. I think I was/am pretty rigorous with my older boys. That approach has worked well on my oldest (now a university freshman on nearly a full-tuition scholarship), and for my 11th grader who is still homeschooling, but nearly independently. My rigorous requirements didn’t work fab on my 9th grader, who is thriving in his first year in a small, public charter school where they seem to value his… free spirit a little more than I do.
So, I’m really only schooling my 4th and 2nd grade girls. I also have a 2-year-old who makes things challenging and helps us to laugh and gives lots of hugs and kisses. Last summer, I told myself that I was going to make school FUN for my girls, after several years of really just focusing on my boys. I started a homeschool support/play group that has unintentionally ballooned — I now lead this group that has 179 families in it. It is a very relaxed group, a social network, really. Me “leading” is really a misnomer. I organize most events and communicate with everyone in person and online. With that group, we have weekly three-hour park days. We have one or even two field trips or activities with the group nearly every week. (This week, we’re going to the library for a decorate-your-own-journal art hour, and going to a local organic farm on Friday.) The girls are in weekly piano lessons and loving it. They play together more beautifully than I ever hoped. We spend lots of time outdoors every day. I have a veggie garden and they all putter with me. Our science yesterday was inspecting cilantro blooms and seeds in various stages of development, talking about how plants bolt, bloom, become pollinated, and develop seed that we can save. They also do seat work nearly every day (journal — writing and drawing; math; handwriting; and phonics/grammar). We have done lots of reading for fun — we’re working our way through the Little House series and are currently just beginning The Long Winter. The girls read on their own, fiction and nonfiction, a ton. My almost-10-year-old is the Arts and Crafts Queen and is working on some project all the time… She also is taking every-other-week drawing lessons from two ladies from church.
In other words, this school year is virtually everything I had hoped. HOWEVER… I’m not really an unschooler at heart. I feel much better with structure. I feel such guilt that we are on week 5 (FIVE!) of (old) Sonlight Core 2. Week five. We’ve barely gotten through anything, really.
When I read out everything I’ve written above, it seems like I should be pleased. But, honestly, I feel a little out of sorts, like I’m doing them a disservice for not being more regimented and rigorous. We are ENJOYING the school year. Yet, I have thoughts like, “I required so much more of my sons. Am I being unconsciously sexist by doing so little real schoolwork with them??” Seriously.
I don’t know what I need to be satisfied. This school year is one of the best, experientially, we’ve ever had — and this is my 14th year!! But, I just feel so uncomfortable not checking those boxes in the Sonlight Instructor’s Guide. I feel guilty.
At the other moms’ suggestions, I’m going to add more science and have them read aloud to each other and me.
But, mostly, I think I just need to adjust my own attitude and enjoy what is left of the year.
I have no mother.
If you have read this blog since 2012, you might remember that my mom passed about three years ago. I have some wonderful mothers-in-law — two of them — my husband’s biological mother and his stepmom. However, both are some distance from us, and we don’t see them as often as we had seen my mom. My mom and stepdad used to come over every week to my home for dinner… We did that for about ten years!!! So, I’ve been feeling bereft in the “grandma” category — not just the loss of my mother, but the loss of my children’s grandmother.
I mentioned earlier that I am schooling a friend’s great-granddaughter for Kindergarten — the little girl comes over for two hours, four days a week, and my toddler, Jean, goes to my friend’s home during that time. My girls have loved this, and the whole plan has worked out very well. However, an unexpected blessing I’ve received is this: Vi, my student’s great-grandma, has become SO IMPORTANT to Jean. Jean calls her “Memaw”, and absolutely delights in going to Memaw’s house. She adores time with her. Vi doesn’t understand why Jean loves her so much, but it really doesn’t matter, does it? My two-year-old knows that she is loved and cared-for by Vi. That matters. I had anticipated Jean having a rough time adjusting to being at Vi’s house, four days a week, even if it is just for two hours each time. But, no! The opposite has proven true, and I’m so thankful. Vi has become very important to Jean, and is filling a need that Jean must innately know that she has.
I’m also immensely thankful for “my” homeschool support group. In late July/early August, I was anticipating this school year, and realized that my three girls really didn’t have enough friends. For a period of about five years, our family had participated in a loosely-organized homeschool group, and it was so perfect for us…. But, that ended three years ago, as well, when my dear friend who organized it moved to Washington state. I wanted something similar: a true support group for the moms and a weekly park day for my children to run around and forge friendships. However, I couldn’t find anything like that it my area — not anything that was a good fit. Most groups now say something like, “Pay your $20 per child yearly dues and we’ll TELL you where our park days meet.” Or, they require a high level of involvement from the parents. Or, they require a signed statement of faith that is usually quite particular to a certain denomination. Or, the opposite: the group is comprised of homeschooling families who are so non-religious that, as I’m not a pagan, I was pretty sure I’d feel out of place.
So, I started a group.
I anticipated that we’d have fifteen families or so and had dreamy visions of our small, tight-knit group. However, that hasn’t been the case: The group is up to 99 families!! NINETY-NINE!! It seems to be filling a larger need that was out there, not just my own. Now, not everyone participates every week. But, last park day, there were ten families who came. A weekly grading-and-chatting night that I “host” at a local coffee shop typically has 2-4 women come. We’ve gone hiking in Sedona, touring the Musical Instrument Museum, visiting the Halle Heart Museum, attending various events at the library together, and more…
My “unexpected results” here are that:
- I never intended to start and lead such a large group.
- I never anticipated the group being such a rich blessing to me.
I wrote this to the group this morning (slightly edited to remove names):
I hope this doesn’t get too long or sappy… But I just wanted to let each of you know that I have LOVED getting to know you and as each week passes, I am becoming more thankful for what our group is becoming.
As I left Mom’s Night: Grading and Chatting last night, I was so thankful. It was “just” three of us. But, it was what I needed, after a discouraging afternoon, when, honestly, I initially thought all I wanted was a night alone. I came discouraged, and I left highly ENCOURAGED and with a huge smile on my face. I was able to share a bit with the other ladies and I hope they were encouraged by me, as well.
I had a brief message chat with another group member this morning who is going to put together a Thanksgiving celebration for our group for later this month. Again, honestly, I STINK at celebrating occasions and marking events. I’m sure that she is better than I am, and I’m SO HAPPY for her to coordinate this.
Last park day, there was an impromptu football game that was quite well-organized, completely organized BY THE KIDS. It made me shake my head in amazement and thankfulness — kids that mostly otherwise wouldn’t have known each other, and now they’re rolling in the grass, playing together. Another group of kids shared sand toys and dug for a long time! It was so precious. Two young teen girls spent a good hour or more just walking together, chatting, building a friendship. They’d never met before Thursday. I know for certain that this was such a blessing to both moms.
I guess what I’m saying is that this group is truly becoming what I hoped it would: We are sharing our strengths. We are impacting each other with advice, help, encouragement, friendship, and more. Our kids are gaining friendship and having some wonderful experiences.
So, my many heartfelt thanks to each of you who have made the time to come out to any of our events and truly share of yourself. We’re bettered and strengthened by each other. And for those who haven’t yet joined in person, I look forward to meeting you and getting to know you, as well.
Love and blessings,
Both of these situations have led me to ponder the beauty of interconnectedness. Not the “independence” we value in our American culture, but interdependence — where I contribute what I have to the community and where I receive what I need, as well, as others contribute.
13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
This verse is referenced often — and obviously — by the fact that Jesus laid down His life for us. However, it extends beyond that: It is true love when we yield our LIVES — our activities, our priorities, our time, our energy — which results in the greater whole being built up, encouraged, strengthened, renewed, even redeemed.
Which makes me think of…
11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.
Which, of course…. the homeschool group I lead is not the fullness of the Body of Christ. It’s not a church. But, we’re doing the work of Jesus when we help each other become “healthy and growing and full of love”.
And that’s good.
Be encouraged today. You may feel bereft. You may be in a situation where you’re looking around, thinking, “This is NOT what I signed up for.” I didn’t take on teaching a little kindergartener because my two-year-old needs a “grandma”; that was not on my radar in the least. I didn’t start a homeschooling support group with the intention to lead nearly 100 families; I just wanted some kids with whom my kids could play.
However, so often, my heavenly Father knows what I need, even when I don’t know it, myself.
I need to start keeping track of how many pounds and bunches of produce I harvest, because it kind of FEELS like my summer garden wasn’t very successful. But, when I confessed that to my husband, he looked at me like I was out of touch with reality, which IS definitely a possibility… But, so many of the things I planted didn’t work out well.
I was especially disappointed with my lone summer squash variety: Tatuma Calabacita. Its vines spread forever, yet it was very unproductive. I think I harvested three squash total in the two hills I planted. The beginning of September, I sowed seeds of Greyzini from Pinetree Garden Seeds in two hills, with three more hills a couple of weeks later. I was attracted by the Pinetree’s claims that Greyzini produces early and prolifically, and that I’d soon be drowning in summer squash. (Note: The “summer squash” planting season in Maricopa County extends well into the winter.) I figured if this was actually true, I could freeze, barter, sell, gift, etc., the excess. The first baby squash is now about 4″ long and harvestable, though I will wait a few more days:
My only problem right now is that I likely didn’t give the Greyzini enough room to grow, so the plants are already crowding the carrot area. But, my carrots — Atomic Red from Pinetree — are having a hard time germinating and taking off, so I figure if they’re dominated by the Greyzini, so be it.
In my “old” 8′ x 12′ I have also sown:
- White Sweet Spanish onion — These are slow to take off, as well… but onions always are.
- Bloomsdale Longstanding spinach — This is the first time I’ve planted spinach. It is having a hard time germinating, and the small sprouts that have popped up seem to be a favorite of bugs.
- A Giant Mix zinnia — these have germinated and are growing well. I’m thinking that a “giant” zinnia was probably not the best choice; as the garden veggies start struggling to soak in as many of the pale sun’s rays, I don’t want flowers shading them. If worse comes to worst, I could yank them, I suppose.
- Super Sugar snap pea — These look lovely and are a good 6-8″ tall. I’m pretty sure I had 100% germination, and they start germinating in 7-8 days, and grow quickly. It’s very satisfying to see a plant grow healthy and strong after only a week or so. I have an 8′ row in my 8′ x 12′ bed and have sown another 12′ in my new garden bed, the first of which just started sprouting a few days ago.
- My Clemson Spineless okra is still producing!! Those bushes are 5-6′ tall!! It’s pretty amazing. Now that it’s a tad cooler, they don’t grow nearly as quickly. But, they’re still alive! I’ve heard from local gardening groups and a bit of research that one can overwinter okra plants, but they are very cold-sensitive. I’m not positive, but I think I’m going to try.
My new, 12′ x 12′ bed is not fully sown. So far, I have planted:
- The aforementioned 12′ of Super Sugar snap peas.
- Lettuces — So far, both a Pinetree Lettuce Mix as well as a mix of Simpson Black-Seeded and Romaine lettuces, the seeds of which I saved from previous lettuce plantings that I let flower and go to seed. In my experience, Simpson Black-Seeded is the most successful lettuce to grow in Maricopa County. But, I’m looking forward to a greater variety of lettuces.
- Alaska Mix nasturtium — which I chose for its variegated leaves.
- Red Cloud beet. I❤ beets.
- Harris Model parsnips — I probably wouldn’t have attempted parsnips, as I know they taste better after a frost, which we’re not likely to have. However, the CSA I hosted for nearly three years, with organic produce from Crooked Sky Farms, grew parsnips very successfully. So, I’m trying it.
- Cardinal Chard — Red chard of any kind just might be my single most favorite vegetable.
- I also transplanted a bunch of I’Itois (EE-ee-toy) onions — 18 bunches, to be exact — from my containers. These green/spring onion-type heirloom, bunching onions are AMAZING. They’re holdovers from the CSA. Plant one bulb, and a year later, you have 50. They just don’t die. They go dormant in September, but start sprouting back in October. Literally, it’s year ’round “free” green onions. I haven’t purchased green onions in at least two years, maybe longer. I figure I can go without, the one month they die down.
I have also been cleaning out my containers — I’ve done eight so far. This is a HUGE PAIN IN THE @SS, as — of course — bermudagrass, that evil and invasive species — has found its way into each and every pot. So, I’m digging out all the bermudagrass stolons, roots, and “leaves”, plus doing other cleanout and refreshing of the soil that’s there with compost and some native clay dirt/soil as needed for better water retention. I have more I’Itois, a bit of parsley, a few flowers, and lots of basil already growing. I’ve sown lavender, more nasturtiums, cilantro (I actually meant to sow flat-leaf parsley seed and grabbed the wrong packet), and Crimson Giant radishes. I have another 6-8 pots to clean out and replant, and I’m planning on growing more radishes, herbs, and flowers. It’s funny, because previously, I had felt kind of grumpy about my containers, calling them my “fake garden”. But, now that I have my real garden — in the dirt — going, I view the containers as… “free” space. And, they’re especially easy to take care of in the winter. (In the summer, my containers need water at least once — often twice — daily, to keep them alive in the blistering heat.)
One more note about gardening in the winter. OK, two. Maybe three.
- Winter gardening is kind of a crapshoot. Last year, we had ZERO freeze days. The year before, we had five — with three of those being back-to-back, which is kind of unprecedented cold for the Phoenix area. The only bad news about having such a large garden is that I probably don’t have enough sheets, et al, to cover everything, if it does freeze. So, I’ll probably be praying for no freezes.
- The “days to maturity” on each packet of seed don’t count for much. Yes, things will grow beautifully here in the winter (unless it freezes), but as the sun’s rays are not nearly so strong or long as in the summertime, things take longer to grow. Still, it’s so worthwhile growing in the winter, as a greater variety of veggies do well here in the cool months: all cole/cruciferous crops, all root crops, anything leafy, plus other extreme-heat-sensitive veggies like peas.
- My permaculture ideas — going through the tremendous strain of digging out SUNKEN beds when raised beds are all the trend right now, has proven to be a good idea. Other than keeping the seeds moist for germination by light sprinkling, I’ve watered my garden NONE in the last almost-two months. The garden beds are placed at the lowest slope in our yard, so the rainwater soaks and percolates down to that area. In 110°+ heat, there’s NOTHING that can be done to gardens to preserve water; you just have to water, and usually daily. But, now that it has cooled down and we’ve had a few fall rains, the sunken bed idea is paying off.
…actually write a blog post today.
But, I’ve decided to use my rare time on the actual desktop computer to look for plans for a chicken tractor, instead. (OK, I wrote a blog post.)
I will briefly update to say:
1. My oldest son, Ethan, is doing great at Arizona State. He is getting all As, and one of his professors loves his writing so much that he is keeping all of Ethan’s writing assignments to use as examples in current and future classes. While this is a particular win for Ethan (and for me, because — yay! I didn’t really suck as a teacher!), it’s a win for homeschooling, in general. Because what does this professor want? Analysis. Synthesis. Excellent grammar. Thoughtful, insightful writing. An understanding of the topic at hand. As a homeschooling mom, this is what I want, too! I’m not just looking for my children to regurgitate information; I want them to understand and to think. Apparently, professors enjoy having students who can do this.
2. My 16 year-old, Grant, is still mostly homeschooling in the traditional way. He is, however, taking two classes at a local two-day-a-week co-op. Honestly, he isn’t killin’ it like I thought he would; it’s a struggle for him. But, that’s a good thing to figure out NOW, as a junior, rather than in his freshman year of college. He still has the Air Force Academy as his goal, and is killin’ it in Civil Air Patrol Cadets, where he is a Staff Sergeant.
3. My son, Wesley, is a freshman at a small, conservative, tuition-free charter school. I have been extremely pleased with the school itself, and shocked, frankly, with how well Wesley has integrated into “the system”. There is one class in which he isn’t doing well — French II — and it’s mostly because of conflict with the teacher, who is pretty hard-nosed. But, I’m fine with that. I’ve told Wesley that, a) it’s an elective, and he’s still actually learning to speak French quite beautifully. And, b) for his whole life, he will encounter people who don’t “get” him, or are otherwise challenging, and learning to adapt and have healthy relationship is at least as important as learning particular subjects. So, overall: he’s doing very well.
4. Audrey is in 4th grade and Fiala is in 2nd. They are both doing excellently in school. Audrey is doing 6th grade math. Fiala can spell as well as a 4th grader. It was my aim for them to have FUN this year; to have a rich, full educational experience. That is happening. Because I couldn’t find a group in my area which was relaxed and social with no fees and no “statement of faith” to sign, I started a homeschool support group. We’re up to 95 families, which is crazy. Not everyone participates in every event, of course, but I organize a weekly park day, a weekly mom’s night grade-and-chat at a local coffee shop, and usually 1-3 additional events weekly. So, we’re busy, but it’s fun-busy. We’ve been to museums and on day trips and to art classes and more. This is exactly the sort of school year I envisioned for them, even if it means that we’re making really slow progress through the structured curriculum we’re doing (old Sonlight Core 2).
5. Jeanie is two years old and absolutely crazy. She is fun, chubby, happy, very active, doesn’t nap well, and has a thing for playing with her poop, which drives me absolutely batty. Yesterday, when I thought she was napping, she actually sculpted a faux hawk for herself with her poop. Yes, it was as gross as it sounds. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU???!!??” I admit I yelled. Holy crap. Literally. It’s one of those things where my previous judgements have come back, in God’s humorous way, to bite me in the butt. Truthfully, when I had previously heard about other toddlers playing with their poop — since none of my kids had ever done that — that there must be something deeply wrong with the family, or with the child, emotionally. Or something. Playing with poop is clearly wrong and disturbed. Well, Jeanie is about the furthest a child could be from “disturbed”. But, she still plays with her poop.
6. Jeanie has been going to the home of a dear friend of mine for two hours, four days a week, and in exchange, I tutor my friend’s great-granddaughter for Kindergarten. She also goes to weekly park day with us, and on field trips. This is the first time I’ve taught a child other than my own. In the past, I’ve declined such requests, because they’re mostly along the lines of, “Hey, since you’re already home and teaching your own children, and public schools stink and private schools are too expensive, why don’t I bring my child over and you can teach her/him for free!” Which I decline. However, this particular plan is going quite well! I’m paid AND my friend keeps Jean, which really makes the whole thing possible. I had intended for Audrey and Fiala to be doing their seatwork (math, grammar/phonics, handwriting, and journal) while I work with our Kindergarten-friend. However, we’re doing Five in a Row (plus Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and Handwriting Without Tears). And, apparently, even though my older daughters are nine and seven years old, they still enjoy FIAR books and activities, which, frankly, I didn’t do enough of, with either of them. So, they are reliving kindergarten, and having a blast. (Reminder: Audrey is doing sixth grade math and can spell as well as a 7th grader, and is on-track with her other subjects; doing K won’t damage her education, thankyouverymuch.)
7. My garden is doing fab. The past summer, in my first — 8′ x 12′ — bed, the most successful things I grew were: Clemson Spineless okra — which is actually still growing, here in late October. My okra bushes — five of them — are nearly six feet tall, and still producing, though more slowly, as it has cooled a bit. I also grew Lemon Queen sunflowers, which were amazing — a good 7-8 feet tall. Armenian cucumbers grew wonderfully and were extremely productive. The next-most successful plant was Fonzy Melons, which I grew from saved seed from an organic melon I had purchased early this year. And flowers — Sulphur Cosmos. They made lovely cut flowers all summer and are self-seeding in actually a rather invasive way. It’s a nice problem to have, actually. Oh! And a volunteer spaghetti squash was quite productive. Less successful were banana squash, Tatuma Calabacita summer squash, and a musk melon. I had a number of tomato plants come up volunteer — which I’m still growing — as well as a tomatillo plant which grew humungous and was covered in flowers, but never fruited. Dumb waste of space. I yanked it. In the places where I have pulled out and re-prepped the soil in this bed, I have planted Atomic Red carrots, Greyzini summer squash (which will grow here in the winter!), Bloomsdale Longstanding spinach, Super Sugar snap peas, white sweet Spanish onions, and zinnias, all from Pinetree Garden Seeds (which, yes, I know their test gardens are in Maine. But, I’m a sucker for small, family-owned seed companies). I have had a heck of a time getting the carrots and spinach to germinate, but the Greyzini has its first tiny fruit already growing! I have prepared a larger, 12′ x 12′ bed “next door” to my first bed. That sucker took ALL SUMMER AND FALL for me to prepare, as a) bermudagrass is so, so, so, so horridly invasive; b) our clay soil is hard and heavy; c) I worked on it in my “spare” time. The bed is now waiting for me to till in all the amendments. I haven’t done that because a) it has rained so much in the last week that the ground is too wet! and, b) I bought a rototiller and a friend from high school fixed it for me, but our schedules haven’t allowed us to meet up for him to return it! And, I don’t want to till 12′ x 12′ of heavy clay soil by shovel. In the new bed, I’ll be sowing more sugar snaps, Harris parsnips, Ching Chang bok choy, more carrots, Top Bunch collards, a leaf lettuce mix, Cardinal chard, Homemade Pickles cucumbers, more onions, Red Cloud beets, Gaillardia, and nasturtiums. Although I haven’t actually planned out the space exactly to see if I can fit all that into the bed… I might have to pull the okra, which I was considering trying to overwinter.
8. We’re still plugging away at our home remodel. I’m kind of weary of it, so I won’t say much about it, except to admit that it’s still in process.
9. We are still at Vineyard Phoenix and absolutely are in love with our local representation of the Body of Christ. (If you click the link, that is my hubby in the video on the front page.) God is good and moving mightily by His Spirit. People are getting saved and healed. It’s really an amazing church, and I’m so happy to be a part of it. I’m leading worship again at a small home group, which I greatly enjoy. I also am teaching the 4s and 5s Sunday morning preschool class once a month and singing on the worship team usually about twice a month. Our head pastor — whom I’ve known since I was 15 (I’m 42) — stepped down to a semi-decreased, semi-retired role in July, which gives him greater liberty to immerse himself in missions and apostolic ministry. As I type this, he’s in Zambia. My hubby’s best friend, Doug Scott, is now our head pastor. I adore Doug. I’m biased, but…. seriously…. I feel like God has given me absolutely GOLD with the church in which I get to participate.
10. As I mentioned at the beginning…. I’ve been given the go-ahead to start my chicken flock!! I’m super-excited. I just need to go now and get that figured out.
11. My husband is awesome, and I’m very grateful for him. NOTE: Awesome doesn’t mean perfect, nor does it mean that we don’t work, work, work, work on our relationship. We do. We have ups and downs. But, this November, we’ll celebrate 21 years of marriage that has been profoundly blessed and is the result of two people loving Jesus and not giving up on each other. HALF OF MY LIFE will be with that man, and it has been an honor.
My love and blessings to each of you who have read through this.
I won’t lie: I’m really happy with my garden. I go out to visit it several times daily. In the evenings, when the right-hand wall (which is on the western edge of our property) is in shade, I often sit on the walk path. The shade makes it tolerable, and the water content in the air around the garden acts as evaporative cooling. The screen — which is actually concrete “remesh” from Home Depot — makes a fabulous bird blind, even though the beans have not traveled very far up it yet. Hummingbirds and verdins flit and zoom right by my face… It’s perfect.
The water-pollination dilemma: I’m happy that this coming week, the highs top out at 105°. I’m hoping that it’s cool enough for more flowers to be pollinated before they die. This is the big dilemma in summer desert gardens: female flowers bloom, but they die before they become pollinated. And, similarly with water: we need enough water — usually daily — for the plants to grow and not die… and the most effective way to water is with an
old vintage sprinkler which I found in the shed of this house when we moved in. We had one identical to it when I was a kid. Newer sprinklers are more efficient and don’t deliver enough water to provide a good soaking. This one is pretty leaky and the drops it distributes are big. I have carved channels in the garden bed in which the “excess” water travels, making sure every corner of the garden gets soaked. However, here’s the rub: watering with a sprinkler soaks the blooms, and makes it difficult for the bees to pollinate them. So, I just water everything enough to keep it alive, and the greens are lush, but the actual fruit of the garden is not gigantic.
I’ve harvested only Armenian cucumbers so far. Three of them, and another will be ready tomorrow or so. And one okra.
- More okra (I’ll probably have enough for a meal within a week).
- More Armenian cukes.
- One getting-quite-large banana squash and several smaller ones.
- Two spaghetti squash. I didn’t plant it; it came up volunteer in the compost.
- One melon (I think it’s honeydew — again, it came up volunteer in the compost).
- One mystery volunteer squash/melon that might be watermelon — actually, there are three on the plant.
- Another melon plant that has a good 5-6 melons on it, which I am cheering on — it might be a Fonzy melon I planted from saved seeds. It’s hard to tell what’s what in the tangle of vines.
- Many tomato plants — those came up volunteer, as well. Same pollination problem: it gets too hot too fast, and they bloom and die before they’re pollinated. Historically, if I can keep tomato plants alive through the heat of summer, they’ll start fruiting in September or so.
- Lots of flowers — mostly cosmos so far, but my marigolds are about to bloom, and my first sunflower bloomed yesterday.
- My asparagus yardlong beans are flowering and there is ONE baby bean.
- My native Yoeme Purple beans aren’t doing so well, but they’re alive….
- The summer squash I was excited about — Tatuma Calabacita — is growing and climbing, but the blooms and baby squashes keep dying before they’re pollinated.
- There’s a butternut squash vine — two of them, actually — growing nicely, with darling little butternuts on it. I didn’t plant that one, either.
I also planted an apple tree, developed in Israel — an Ein Shemer — and it’s not looking great, but I’m not surprised about that. I have more hope for it, for next spring.
The only thing that has flat-out died is all the nasturtiums I planted (from seed). It’s just too hot for them.
For bugs: I have had very few problems with harmful bugs this year. Shortly after it germinated, the okra plants were beset by aphids, which kept the growth stunted and killed off one plant. I sprayed the leaves off thoroughly — especially the undersides — about once a week. There is a little aphid activity in the garden currently, but it’s really minimal. There are LOTS of
hoverflies — actually, lots of what I’ve been calling “hoverflies”, but upon research, I’ve discovered that they’re actually long-legged flies. In any case, they’re very beneficial to the organic gardener, as they eat aphids, thrips, and spider mites, all the small, soft-bodied insects which like to eat garden plants.
For feeding the garden: I’ve soaked the plants with compost tea about once every 7-10 days. There are lots of pricey compost tea systems you can purchase, but mine is a cheap hack: When I water and turn my three bins of compost, I dunk the head of the hose into an empty plastic garbage barrel. While I work on the compost, the barrel fills. I have a zip-top burlap bag from a 25-lb package of basmati rice — I’m not sure if I got it from Costco or the Asian market… I have several of them. Anyway, I just fill the burlap bag with almost-completed compost and lower it into the barrel of water. I cover it and let it stew for 1-2 days, and voila! Compost tea. I fill two garden watering cans and it takes 3-4 trips of refills to soak the garden — leaves and all — in the “tea”. It’s kind of gross, so I inevitably have to spray down my legs with the garden hose, post-feeding. Compost in general is not for the faint of heart, but that’s a post for another day. (Hint: compost needs decomposers.) This is actually the first year I’ve done compost tea. I’ve favored fish emulsion in years past, but I will never go back to that. Not only does fish emulsion smell like puke, it doesn’t wash off well, and it’s pretty expensive. Comparatively so, compost tea is less-gross, washes off completely, and is free. Win-win-win.
In the above garden pic, I’m working on prepping the bed on the right-hand side for a mid-August planting. According to the very reliable University of Arizona planting calendar for Maricopa County, that’s the next big planting “season” for a fall garden.
And that’s it, for now!!
My friend Kathy told me I need to write more. So, I comply.
Though I struggle with feeling irrelevant in this age of blogs that are perfectly photographed, engagingly-written by self-assured experts in every imaginable topic, she tells me that I do have a niche, and I fill a role… I’m still not 100% certain what that role is, nine and a half years after I started blogging.
I’m also going to — at Kathy’s urging — start to journal more on the things about which I cannot write publicly. I find that, as my children grow toward adulthood, I can’t really disclose to the faceless masses — or even friends I know and trust in real life — many of the things that truly weigh down my heart, as they are often not my secrets to divulge.
Then, when all of these thoughts and feelings and words are teeming in my mind, considered but unwritten, everything else seems like fluff — truly irrelevant and not worth the time invested in writing a blog post.
This, however: Worthwhile. To me, at least.
I did something this past weekend that I’ve never done before: gone on a girlfriends’ weekend with no kids and no husband. Well, I haven’t done anything like that since I’ve been married. For Mother’s Day, my husband surprised me with a trip to the Portland area, to see some dear friends. I had been semi-planning this trip for, oh, about a year… But, with my oldest son’s high school graduation, my second son going to Civil Air Patrol Encampment in June, a house that sucks up our remodeling budget and most of our discretionary income, a family camping trip to plan, and more — always more — I was certain that it wouldn’t work out. Unbeknownst to me, my husband had been scheming with my friends. He’s a good man.
So, while my headcold-ridden husband stayed home with our six children, I flew to PDX, and went criss-crossing southern Washington and northern Oregon with three friends for four days. Mountains! The beach! Gardens! Farmer’s market! City! Country! We packed a great deal into a short period of time.
One friend, Dee Dee, traveled up from the desert — though not the same flight as me — and we met our two friends who used to live here, but who now live in the Portland area.
This time is a treasure to me. I have no great love for the Phoenix area… Yet, as my husband says, it is the land of our anointing. It’s where God has us, and where He has blessed us. We have not plans — not any hopes, even — of ever living elsewhere. There are far too many attachments here in the desert: our beloved church, my husband’s job of 24 years, nearby family (though no one remaining who actually lives in the Phoenix area)…. So, it’s a hard balance, something I’ve struggled with — with varying degrees of success: I long for green, for water in creeks, for rain, for tolerable weather… Yet, I cannot give in to discontentment. It wants to eat my heart, and I can’t let it. I won’t.
So, any trip outside the desert is a delight, and this one was particularly so.
In my absence, my husband bought me a second-hand rototiller, so all things considered, it might have been the Best Weekend Ever.
My other favorite times:
- Hanging out in Allison’s home, with her hubby and their two sons. The living room is on the second level, and it is like being in a tree house, with massive windows on two walls, tall trees surrounding the property. We curled up, kicked back, scritched the ears of her two Westies, and chatted for hours.
- Eating. Every restaurant in the Pacific Northwest has a gluten-free menu, and even the gelato at the grocery store (Chuck’s, I think it was called) was labeled as g.f. We also ate at an Iraqi restaurant, which I wish I could transplant here.
- Kathy made a delicious dinner for all of us, which we ate in her back yard. As we waited for the meal, we had hors d’oeuvres of fresh blueberries, plucked from the bushes in Kathy’s yard. Blueberry bushes. In her back yard.
- Just the friendship of other women who know and love each other and have similar values… I feel rich in the blessings of friendship. And we laughed a lot. And exclaimed over the same things. We’re all alike enough to enjoy most of the same things, but different enough that conversation is enlightening and lively, and we learn from each other.
- On Sunday morning, as we drove to the Oregon Garden, Allison — the driver — made an executive decision that we would worship and pray aloud. We did, for about an hour — praying for each other, our families, our churches — three represented by the four of us… And we listened to the Housefires. Time flew. And then right at the end, as we were drenched in the Spirit, someone up the way started backing a 60-foot Winnebago into a driveway, and a lady strode purposefully onto the two-lane blacktop highway and held up her 5″ palm, telling us to stop. This struck all of us as hilarious, because, really… we couldn’t see the Winnebago, and we would have been lost without her direction. We were so grateful. (Much laughter.)
I must return. We’re already making plans, the four of us, to do so.
I truly still love writing. I’ve just been insanely busy. My load right now is somewhat lighter, which allows me the luxury of reflecting, here in my neglected blog. (Note: I have no idea why the sizes of fonts change throughout this post. Rather than taking the time to figure it out, I’m leaving it. Sorry-not-sorry.) Edited to add a few more things about Fiala, and to note that you may click on each picture to enlarge it, if you care to.
- My oldest son, Ethan, did receive the scholarship he was hoping for, to attend Arizona State University. I am part of a couple different groups where homeschooling parents support each other, especially where prep-for-college is concerned. I’m struck again and again how, as a homeschooling mom of a senior, it seems like the college admissions process is WAY more about how prepared and organized **I** have been as my child’s mother/teacher, and much less about how well-educated my son is. I’m happy to report that, even though I have discovered, in retrospect, that there are a hundred things I could have done better or differently, what Ethan and I did, together, was exactly right for what he needed. I’m feeling the mercy of God on that one, because truly, I’m not kidding about those “hundred things”. Ethan turns 18 this month. He isn’t altogether eager to transition to adulthood; it’s challenging for all of us, to be frank. I have told him, “We’ve never parented an adult before, please bear with us.” We’re all learning. It’s funny, because I have often urged him to DO HIS OWN RESEARCH AND MAKE HIS OWN DECISIONS, because, even though I’m complimented by the fact that he still likes the things I choose for him — it makes me feel like I really know him — it’s healthier for him to be at least a little more independent than where he’s comfortable. So, in light of this, I turned over to him the plans for his birthday party. And, whaddya know? He has planned it for a day when I’m going to be out of town. Not purposefully; that’s just the date that works best with his friends, who are hosting. However, it’s kind of good news/bad news, “You took charge? GREAT! But you left me out of it completely?? Sad face.” LOL!
Grant is my son who will be 16 later this summer. I don’t think I’ve blogged about this, but what I’m going to write about here, about Grant, is kind of a big deal to me. Grant is the opposite of Ethan; he has known for YEARS where he’d like his future to be, what he’d like to do, where he’d like to go to university… He really can’t wait to get on with his adult life. A big part of that includes his plans to attend the United States Air Force Academy. To be completely honest, up until nine months ago or so, I kind of blew that off. It’s hard to get into the USAFA. Really hard. It’s even harder for homeschoolers. And, they don’t just look at academics; they look at the whole person. I had decided, in my own mind, that the chances of Grant getting into the AFA were incredibly slim. However, early last fall, I started to feel convicted. I remember having dreams while in high school, and feeling like no one wanted to help me achieve them. I remember what it felt like to be blown off. So, I started checking things out, what I could do to help Grant gain ground on his goals. I decided that I didn’t want to be an impediment to his hopes; I wanted to assist him in every way possible. So, I signed him up for the Future Falcons at the USAFA website — which is kind of a Big Deal, as it is super-official; you need the child’s Social Security number, even! I downloaded the 21-page “Instructions to Precandidates” pdf and we mapped out his sophomore to senior years of high school accordingly. And, I looked into getting Grant involved in an Air Force-related program. I first thought of Junior ROTC… But, then, I heard about Civil Air Patrol Cadets from some other homeschooling moms. Long story short, Grant has only been in CAP Cadets for a little over six months, but he is excelling. He’s actually at a week-long semi-boot-camp experience called “Encampment” at Fort Huachuca as I type this. Grant still has a long way to go, and many smaller goals to achieve before we can even apply to the Academy. But, all of us feel pretty good about his chances, which is 180° from where we were, about a year ago. In this coming school year, Grant’s junior year, he will be taking two classes at KEYS — a two-day homeschool co-op — and the rest at home. Grant will be taking Honors Chemistry and College Lit and Composition. Frankly, these are two teaching-intensive classes, and I was looking to outsource the most mom-dependent classes for Grant. Additionally, we’re looking at having Grant take all of his classes for his senior year at a local community college, and we wanted to ease his transition. Other than American History, Grant won’t need much from me in the coming school year; his other subjects — French, Economics, Algebra II, and a couple of others, won’t need a lot of input from me. I’m totally OK with that.
My son Wesley will be in 9th grade in the fall, which hardly seems possible. He’s the youngest of our three sons, and it is a challenge for me to not think of him as “little”. He has had a massive growth spurt this past year, and his voice has dramatically deepened. Whether I’m ready or not, Wesley is no longer little. He is an excellent big brother to our toddler, Jeanie. He’s in the teen youth group at church. It just feels odd to me, still. Through much thought and research and prayer, we have decided to try Wesley at an “brick and mortar” school for this coming fall. None of our kids have ever gone to a “real” school before. But… I have long felt that I just don’t quite speak Wesley’s educational language. He hasn’t suffered under my instruction, and testing shows he is on course or ahead for his grade level. However, I don’t feel like I’m best-suited to maximize his potential, since his potential is in areas where I’m not strong. There is a charter school (publicly funded, privately run) less than a mile from us; I have checked them out before, and I like their literature-based, liberal arts approach. It’s a small school: this coming year, they’ll very likely have less than 150 students, only 9th – 11th graders. Most kids bring their own lunches (which seems trivial, but with Wesley’s celiac disease, dairy allergy, and peanut allergy, I didn’t want him to feel like he’s the odd man out, bringing his own lunch every day). And then, a good friend of ours took a job as the English teacher there. This man is everything you’d hope for in a teacher: brilliant, kind, patient, thoughtful, a good leader…. I do believe he’d be an excellent teacher for Wesley for English, which has long been Wes’ poorest subject. The daughter of that teacher, as well as another friend of Wesley’s, will also be attending the school. My husband Martin and I have discussed, toured the school together, talked on the phone with the principal, e-mailed back and forth with staff, read every click on the school’s website, and PRAYED. However, neither of us have felt any strong inclination or direction from God. We both feel like He’s saying, “All right. It’s up to you. You can give it a shot.” I’d feel a thousand times better if I had heard something more specific than that. But… It’ll do, for now. This next week, I’ll be enrolling Wes.
This past year was our busiest ever, for school. With Ethan as a senior, Grant as a sophomore, and Wes in 8th grade, there were far too many days when Audrey (who just finished 3rd grade) and Fiala (who just finished 1st) would just do seat work — phonics, math, journal, and a couple of other subjects where they can work largely independently, with little help from me. In other words: the bare minimum. I have no doubt that the girls’ educational skills are up to par, or perhaps beyond their typical peers. However, I want a richer, more robust school experience for them. With Ethan at college, Grant working mostly-independently, and Wesley enrolled in a charter school, I’m VERY MUCH looking forward to a hands-on school year for the two “big” girls: art projects, science experiments, field trips, actually READING THE READ-ALOUDS in our curriculum! It should be a wonderful year. As stated in the caption of the pic at left, Audrey — who turned nine years old a couple of months ago — is artsy, funky, fun, and LOUD. All the boys did Rosetta Stone French this year, and Audrey joined in, as well. I am tickled to hear her lovely little French accent. It’s charming. Fiala, who is six years old, is loving, thoughtful, intense, unique, and can be petulant and impulsive. She loves swimming, loves playing dress up and changing her clothes in general — her clean, folded laundry stack is ALWAYS taller than anyone else’s. She loves waking up earlier than any of the other children and coming into my bed to “snug” with me. It doesn’t usually happen like that, but it’s a good day for Fi when it does. All in all, she is a delight of a child, my little green-eyes-freckle-nose, as I often call her. If Fiala was in a public school, she would have been in Kindergarten this last year, as she has a late-fall birthday. That seems crazy to me, as she was well-ready for first grade work.
Jean will be two years old next week, which also seems crazy. I tell her that if it wasn’t for her screeching in restaurants and playing with her poop, she’d be a perfect child. Seriously: up until now, my sixth child, I have had NO children interested in their poop. Jean, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to understand what “gross” means. So, when she takes a nap, I have to put this ONE outfit on her, every time — it’s a BabyGap long-legged, button-up, one-piece, short-sleeved cotton romper. It’s the only thing that doesn’t allow access to her diaper area. Actually, “Pull-Up area”, as she is nearly completely potty-trained. We went from cloth diapers to early potty training in December, and I rejoiced, but it has taken her A Very Long Time to be serious about it. She just isn’t serious. She is a joyous little bundle of… everything. She’s still chubby and overall large for her age. She has a passion for Bubble Guppies, swimming, and dancing. She is bossy. Charmingly bossy. “Hum!” she will demand, which is Jeanie-speak for, “Come!” She will pull on your hand and do everything she can to make you comply. Or, “Hi! Hi!” she will insist, patting the seat next to her. For unknown reasons, “Hi! Hi!” means, “You sit HERE, NOW!” Or, “Tiss!!” meaing, “Kiss!” Then, “O’er side!!” Meaning, “I want a kiss on the other cheek, as well!” We all adore Jean.
- This past spring just about did me in. I always felt like families who couldn’t eat dinner together were doing something wrong. Well, guess what? We became that family in 2015. Sunday nights, Martin often has events at church to attend. Monday nights, I take Grant to CAP Cadets and usually sit in a nearby coffee shop, grading papers for the 2.5 hrs of CAP. Tuesday nights, Martin led worship at a weekly small group. I was leading worship just on Wednesday nights, until a group got too big and needed to multiply, but didn’t have a worship leader. I agreed — just for the spring — to lead worship in that group, as well. So, from the end of February to the beginning of June, I was gone both Wednesday and Thursday nights. Additionally, I started hosting a CSA/farm share again for a local organic farmer, every Wednesday. I had kind of taken an six-month hiatus, but started up again in April. And, Ethan works three nights a week at Sprouts. Martin has a fairly long commute, and often isn’t home until 6:00 or so… It became like passing the baton, and the 30 minutes we’d have together before one of us needed to head back out the door was usually not at the dinner table. When you have a family of eight, dinner is loud and usually fun, but it really isn’t the place for Martin and I to connect. I’d have dinner made, but we usually didn’t sit down together. Homeschooling, church, CAP Cadets, three weekly small groups, the CSA, Martin’s commute, Ethan’s work… Lordy, I was stretched. But, small groups take a break for the summer and school is DONE, so my load is infinitely lighter. I feel much freer!!
- My other big things for the spring are: my garden — which is a scaled-down version of my original vision. I have one 8′ x 12′ bed in, and it’s growing wonderfully. I’m working daily (or nearly so) to put in a walk around the bed, and hope to have a second bed ready for mid-August planting. It is so hot here (yesterday hit 115°!!!!) that there is little that will grow in the heat of mid-summer. The bed that is growing, I planted in late April. I can’t really sow anything else until there is hope for cooler temperatures. I have sunflowers, two kinds of melon, Armenian cucumbers, okra, two kinds of heat-tolerant green beans, summer squash, and a winter squash growing, plus a variety of flowers. I also have way too many volunteer tomato plants, whose seed came from my compost, I suppose. I have transplanted as many as possible, replanting and giving away about 20 tomato plants. There are still far too many tomato plants growing in the garden — growing too closely with the other plants. It’s not really the right time to grow tomatoes here — ideally, I would have had them in by January or February. But, I can’t bear to yank them. We’ll see what happens. My garden gives me joy, exercise, and a sense of fulfillment. It keeps me sane. To me, gardening really is a kind of therapy.Of course, all of this is barely scratching the surface. There is much more happening in our home… An upcoming camping trip, me traveling to the Portland area for a girlfriends’ weekend, sewing projects, lots of canning, Bible studies, small and large challenges and triumphs, a continuing home remodel, birthdays — including my own, baseball, me going low-carb again to lose weight, books to read, and more. But, I will call it a day and go swimming with my kids.Blessings to you and yours.
For the last year or so, I’ve been discouraged and possibly even depressed over the state of a number of challenges in my life. Part of it is, we have too many needs in this home and not enough resources to make them happen. One of the things that I don’t have that I miss terribly is a garden — a real garden. I live in the Phoenix area, and it takes a LOT of effort to get a garden going. In July, it will be three years since we moved to this house, from our previous house where I had an amazing, large-ish garden that was the source of joy, provision for our family, and exercise.
Last June, impatient for a garden, and trying to take matters into my own hands, I rented a sod cutter to remove the awful, frickin’ frackin’ Bermudagrass that grows in our clay “soil” to start my new, giant garden – about 21′ x 45′. I had the garden plan all down on paper. On that paper, and in my dreams, the garden was so lovely. Well, my resources ran out: time, energy (I hurt my back badly), and money. And then, my idealism kicked in: “I want the garden that I want! A real garden! Big, with a real, Pinterest-worthy fence around it, with plumbed irrigation!” And since I couldn’t have that — that perfect plan — I pretty much gave up.
(I have 15-20 pots in which I grow quite a few veggies year ’round. Currently, I have green onions, red bell pepper, red Swiss chard, tomatillo, asparagus, and a variety of herbs: Italian parsley, thyme, basil, and rosemary. But, to me, pots are not a real garden.)
It’s creeping up on a year since I gave up my grand plans.
I decided last week that I needed to abandon my idealism and just work with what was available to me, and scale down my expectations…
We have caliche clay – really compacted, sticky, hard dirt. That picture at the top? It has taken me seven days, working 90-120 minutes per day — to dig that much. The final size of this bed will be about 8′ x 12′. That is much more modest than my hopes… But, it’s SOMETHING.
All my efforts last summer didn’t actually remove the Bermudagrass. It has grown back. If you have to good fortune to be unfamiliar, it propagates by seed, by runners, and by roots (which are technically rhizomes). It is so invasive. I’m breaking up literally every cubic inch of dirt, about 8″ deep, removing as much Bermudagrass blades and roots as possible. When I have all the border blocks in and all the dirt worked, I’ll be adding: gypsum, soil sulfur, vermiculite, Ironite, homemade compost, composted steer manure, and some organic granular garden-start food. I have a fabulous planting calendar made by a local university ag program, and from that, bought all the seed I need for planting. I hope to have all the seed in the ground by Friday.
I also bought an Ein Shemer apple tree I’m really excited about. It is a variety developed in Israel, needs very few chill hours, and is an excellent eating and baking apple. (Apple Anna and Golden Dorset are the most common varieties grown here, but both are essentially a Golden Delicious, too soft for my preference and not a good baking apple.)
That’s it. That really is all I have to report. Seven days of work, and a changed outlook. Doesn’t sound like much, but the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step… Cliche, yes, but I’ve been clinging to that. I had been intimidated by the journey.
Now, I feel a billion times better for just DOING something, instead of being upset that my “ideal” isn’t happening.
In case you’re burning with curiosity about what all is going on in our home — three sons, three daughters, two parents, two dogs, in a house in the desert — here you go!
(Well, actually, my plan was to do ONE post with ALL of us on it, but that’s going to take too long. So, I’ll just start with Ethan.*)
My son Ethan will be 18 in June, which hardly seems possible. He has a full beard, and I guess he looks like a connoisseur of ales, as folks frequently ask his opinion on craft beers at the grocery store where he works, Sprouts.
It took a while for us to work through what E would be doing in the fall. He’s such a bright young man, and has never done poor work at anything; he always produces excellent, high-quality work. But, he doesn’t love school, and wasn’t looking forward to four more years…. But, when my husband said that, if he wasn’t in college in the fall, he would be working full time, even if that meant Ethan would need to get a 2nd or even a 3rd job, suddenly E was much more participatory in the process to get him in a school, come August.
Ethan is so very different from Grant, our second-born. Grant has his future plans all mapped out. Ethan just doesn’t know. We keep waiting for inspiration or direction from God or some big audacious dream or SOMETHING that we can encourage in him, something we can help him pursue. But, no. Nothing definite.
He thinks he would like to possibly become a pastor some day… Which is not necessarily an undeniable call by the Spirit to the ministry. But, we’re running with that plan for now. He’ll be pursuing a BA in Communications at Arizona State University West campus. That is, if the scholarship estimator tool on the ASU website is accurate and that most of his tuition will truly be paid by whomever pays for such things — Board of Regents? Taxpayers? I truly don’t know. But, I thank them in advance.
It was funny — well, not FUNNY — but as I was considering what a good major would be for Ethan, which would serve him well in ministry but also be something that he could parlay into a paying job that is not ministry-related (because who is going to hire a 22-year-old, fresh out of college, to be a full-time pastor? No one. He’ll likely have part-time, entry-level, or even volunteer posts, perhaps while he works on a Master’s in pastoral ministry or something like that….). Anyway, I ran into an old youth pastor of Ethan’s, and we were chatting about him, and she mentioned that her old pastor had done that exact same thing. And it dawned on me that I knew her old pastor, as I went to high school with him. I sent him a private message about the idea — prepping for the ministry with a degree in Communications — and he was SO VERY encouraging. That is, actually, exactly what he did — a BA in Communications from Arizona State. So, that was confirmation enough.
There are a few extra hoops for homeschoolers to jump through, to gain entry into Arizona State, but it’s nothing too challenging. Everything should be sent out in the mail either today or tomorrow. And the main portion of his application, which is online, is already done. So now, we wait.
If the scholarship doesn’t come through, we’ll reassess at that point.
I’m immensely proud of Ethan. In spite of my failings, my omissions, my misdirections, my inexperience, God is faithful, and Ethan is a fine young man.
I’m also really pleased that Ethan wants to stay at home in the fall. It’s not a “failure to launch” kind of thing; he just loves us, and isn’t ready to leave home. He’d rather stay at home while being at school. We are 100% fine with that. It’s touching, actually. Both my husband and I had poor situations at home, when we were seniors, and we COULD NOT WAIT to leave home, to get outta there. Ethan is solid in his relationships with us, with his friends, at our church… He’s healthy. That, to me, is nothing short of amazing.
*In case you’re curious: I cleared this whole post with Ethan. It has his stamp of approval, or at least, there’s nothing mortifying enough to omit.
I clipped the original recipe for this toffee from the Arizona Republic in 2002; it’s attributed to Lee Ann DeGrassi. However, I use more almonds in the toffee than she called for, and she had no temperatures listed, and some of the instructions were really unclear. So, I’ve altered it a bit.
I know this recipe seems LLLOOONGGGGGG. There are two reasons for that: Firstly, it takes a long time. If you’re pressed for time, don’t make toffee. The second reason is I’ve included a lot of parenthetical information — stuff I’ve learned the hard way, and I’m trying to spare you from ruining your expensive ingredients and wasting your time by ruining the toffee!!
I typically make a triple recipe of this. For a pan, I use heavy duty aluminum foil and fold long ends together, crimping them and folding them twice, kind of like rolling them. Smooth out very flat, especially the middle area where you’ve folded the two pieces together. Then, I fold up the edges triple-thick, about 1 1/2″ high, to form a giant pan. If you want, you can get all mathy with it. I get out my measuring tape and figure out the square inches… The recipe calls for two 9″ x 13″ pans, which is 234 square inches. My giant aluminum foil pan is 24″ x 30.5″, so 732 square inches. So, I knew a triple recipe would fit just fine.
makes 7-8 lbs
- 5 cups C&H (or other white cane) sugar — no raw or unwashed sugar; it needs to be free of all molasses and totally white
- 1 cup water
- 2 1/2 lbs (10 sticks — yes, that much) SALTED butter
- 3 cups raw almonds, whole shelled
- 36 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips (typically, three bags)
- 3 cups raw almonds, rough-ground (I use a Cuisinart Mini-Prep)
- Shortening to grease your pans (I use Spectrum organic non-hydrogenated palm oil shortening)
Large pan (6-8 quart)
Long-handled, sturdy wooden spoon or wooden or metal spatula
A candy thermometer
A silicone basting brush (please, you don’t want to risk the thick melted chocolate pulling hairs out of your standard basting brush, believe me!!)
2 – 9×13″ baking pans with a lip on the edge OR heavy duty aluminum foil
Several bath towels with which to line your counter top
Smooth out 3-5 bath towels on a wide counter top or table. Grease two 9 x 13 inch baking sheets and line with parchment paper (or fold heavy-duty foil, as mentioned above, to make a big pan, grease and line with parchment paper). Place pan(s) on the towel-lined counter top. I cracked our quartz counter top one year because it wasn’t insulated. So, please! Use those towels!!
Cut each stick of butter into 3-4 chunks and set aside.
Combine sugar and water in a 6-8 quart pan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring gently but constantly, until the mixture reaches 231° on a candy thermometer. Add butter slowly, stirring gently while you add, until all the butter is melted. (I kind of slide each chunk of butter down the spatula I use for stirring so I don’t get splashed by boiling sugar-butter!)
Turn heat down to medium and continue to cook, stirring every five minutes or so, until the temperature reaches 260° degrees. This will take 30-60 minutes. Then, stir constantly until the temp reaches 270°. (I use a long-handled metal spatula to stir — so my hand is far away from the boiling mixture, and so that I can thoroughly scrape the bottom of the pan so no sugar burns on the bottom.)
When the temperature reaches 270°, add the 3 cups of whole, raw, shelled almonds, about 1/3 of them at a time, stirring with each addition. Continue to stir constantly until the thermometer reads 290°. (Note: Toffee must reach a minimum of 285° to set. It can go up to 300° degrees and still be toffee, however, the hotter it gets, the more you risk burning the whole batch. So, I cook it to 290°, to ensure a good set, but to not risk burning.)
Take out the candy thermometer and quickly but carefully pour the toffee into the waiting pan(s). Do not spread it; the toffee will level itself. (If you try spreading it as it cools, the butter can separate from the toffee and it will ruin the whole batch.) Use a silicone scraper to get all of the toffee out of the hot pan, scraping the bottom of the pan first (it burns there the fastest — you want to get the toffee out before it burns).
Cool for about 20-30 minutes. (You want the toffee to have cooled to a non-liquid state but still be hot enough to melt the chocolate.) Sprinkle half of the chocolate chips on the slightly cooled toffee. Wait five minutes for the chocolate to soften and melt. With a silicone basting brush, brush the chocolate over the surface of the toffee to coat. Then, evenly sprinkle half of the ground almonds over the surface. With gentle pressure, press the ground almonds into the chocolate. (Otherwise, when you turn the toffee over, half of the almonds will fall off.)
Let cool thoroughly — 3-5 hours or overnight. When the toffee is completely cooled and the chocolate has rehardened, break into very large pieces and turn over, putting the toffee back together like a puzzle. Melt the remaining chocolate in the microwave or over a double broiler until JUST melted — do not overheat. Then, pour the chocolate over the toffee and spread around with the silicone basting brush. Sprinkle the remaining ground almonds on top and press in.
Wait until the chocolate is completely cooled and firm, then break into serving-sized pieces. You may need to drop the toffee on the counter top from a few inches’ height to break it. Then, eat all the crumbs and give the big, beautiful, tasty pieces to friends and family and they will love you forever and drop hints like, “I hope you’re making toffee this year!”