The importance of self-care when living with a loved one’s addiction (and what this looks like for me)

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Small, simple acts of creative self-indulgence can make an enormous impact on our sense of well-being. This antique wheel barrow was planted with alyssum…to feed the soul.

by Patti Fish Stephens

January 26, 2017

A few months ago I promised a post on self-care for those dealing with the effects of a loved one’s addiction. It has taken me a while to write about this, but I am glad I waited, because recently I happened across another blogger’s post about self-care for persons with depression. Then a reading at a recent Nar-Anon meeting focused on grief. Reading these two pieces helped me to think about the connections among addiction, depression, and grief. I personally have struggled with depression, grieved a complicated grief, and currently live with a recovering addict, so I have had to redefine self-care for myself numerous times. What amazes me is how difficult it can be to practice during the times I most need it, and how similarly the stresses of living with addiction, depression, and grief have affected me. Here I will be sharing what has worked for me; maybe some of it will work for you, too.

On self-care

Before talking about how I personally practice self-care, I want to comment on the term itself. The blogger who wrote about self-care during depression commented that this phrase is thrown around so often in professional development programs for social workers that it has become virtually meaningless. My own experience in the workplace supports that claim; I was one of only three non-nurses in a department of more than twenty full-time and many more part-time nursing instructors at a small college. All of these nurses either had practiced or were currently practicing in area hospitals. During department meetings and professional development programs, self-care would be stressed alongside the statistics of burnout, medical errors, and other major issues of this helping profession. But during these same meetings with exhortations to take good care of ourselves –get plenty of rest, eat healthfully, exercise, drink plenty of water, etc.– I was, on numerous occasions, the recipient of thinly-veiled martyr-complex comments simply because I went to the ladies’ room. Comments like, “I have worked 12 hour shifts without ever taking a bathroom break” and “You’d never make it as a nurse” or “As a nurse you learn to hold it because you have to” were common.

These comments, although generally spoken in good humor, contained an undercurrent of judgement which I found to be not only unkind, but hypocritical. (Now, lest I sound judgemental here myself, I freely confess I have been guilty of the same kind of self-martyring comments from time to time; just ask my husband about the “definition of full handed for moms vs. dads” diatribe I have spouted at him periodically since our kids were in diapers.) Freedom from physical discomfort, including hunger, thirst, cold, heat, need to void, etc., is the most basic human requirement on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Holding it” is, therefore, a denial of a most basic human physical need, and is nothing to brag about or shame someone else for not being able to do, especially after encouraging “self-care.”

Meeting the body’s most basic physical needs is self-care, but it is only the beginning. Self-care ideally encompasses the mind and heart and spirit as well as the body, but during crisis mode–such as a bout of clinical depression, the sudden onset of grief, or living with active or recovering addiction–taking care of even the most basic physical needs can be overwhelming. This means self-care will look different not only from person to person but from time to time in the same person’s life.

Over the past year I have sincerely tried to embrace self-care, especially since my daughter’s overdose in March of 2015. When she came home from the hospital I spent so much time taking her to appointments with specialists, driving her back and forth to IOP (Intensive Out Patient therapy) each day, and making sure she took her medicine every 12 hours that I had begun to ignore my own basic needs, as well as the not-so-basic ones. What made this worse was that when she relapsed again just a few weeks after her nearly-fatal overdose, I felt betrayed. I had worked so hard to help her stay healthy. How could she do this to herself–and to me?

Nar-Anon Family Group

This is where Nar-Anon came in for me. My husband and I started attending meetings while my daughter was still in the hospital, and those meetings soon became our lifeline. It was in these meetings that I found the strength to refocus my energy on myself instead of the addict in my life. By listening to the experiences of others in the group, I was able to see that focusing on my own needs–that is, practicing self-care–was truly the only thing I could control in my life. I couldn’t control my daughter, her addiction, her recovery, or others’ response to this crisis in our family. The only thing I can control in my life is my own response to whatever occurs around me. While this has always been true, it took my daughter’s journey through addiction to teach me that this is simply another way to express the core belief of recovery: that I am powerless over anyone else’s life choices.

So, my journey of self-care began at Nar-Anon, but seeds of certain aspects of recovery had been planted before this at family programs we attended at our daughter’s outpatient and inpatient rehab. I have mentioned in previous posts that my daughter had two especially gifted rehab counselors who not only helped her but our whole family. One of these counselors suggested I try, among other things, restorative yoga to help relieve my symptoms of stress, which had reached an all-time high. I was most appreciative of her kindness but highly skeptical of her suggestions, which all sounded like New Age mumbo-jumbo to this WASPy, midwestern, middle-class mom.

Restorative Yoga Classes

It’s funny what you’ll try when you feel you have nothing left to lose.

True story: I cried through most of my first yoga class. I left puddles on my mat on either side of my head where the tears silently dripped off my face as we did “legs up the wall.” Mind you, this was a Gentle 1 yoga class. In other words, the only level below this class would be sleep (which also happens to be highly therapeutic). All of the poses are done on the floor; there are no standing poses. There is nothing highly strenuous–physically or mentally–about a Gentle 1 class, as it is meant to be restorative. Yet the simple act of stretching out my over-stressed body released so much tension that it hurt, both physically and emotionally. We talk about being “stressed-out” in our society, about getting tension headaches. We know that when we are stressed, our shoulders get tight. But what happens to our bodies when we let go of that stress? There has to be a converse reaction (Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction) and this is just as true for our physical bodies as it is in science class experiments and car crashes. So when we release our tension, stress, and emotional pain, it is no surprise that we then feel physical pain, as our bodies are reacting every bit as much as our minds. This is the mind-body connection at work.

Meditation Classes

While attending weekly yoga classes I saw a flyer for six-week meditation sessions offered by the instructor I had come to trust during gentle yoga. I had, for some time, been curious about meditation, but once again my conservative upbringing judged this to be another New-Agey fad. The yoga had helped my stress levels so much, though, that I decided to give it a try. Another true story: I cried through almost my entire first Yoga Nidra session. By now my instructor knew me a little bit and I had shared some of what was going on in my life, so she probably wasn’t too shocked when the pools formed on my mat again. I, however, knew I was crying for more than stress relief: during the guided meditation of Yoga Nidra, I envisioned my brother, who had been dead for ten years by then, and physically felt his presence. New Agey mumbo-jumbo? Sounds like it. But have you ever had a dream about someone you’ve lost that seems so real that you forget for just a moment when you wake up that they are gone? That’s what this was like, except I knew this was just a visit. It was so intense and so real that I could barely contain the noise of my sobbing during the meditation. Meditation, like yoga, has both physical and emotional/mental/spiritual benefits.

Individual Counseling

I had actually begun seeing a therapist several months before my daughter’s addiction came to light. I had been having a difficult time managing several chronic health issues–mostly related to or exacerbated by stress–and had tried everything I could think of on my own. I had implemented an exercise routine, lost a significant amount of weight, and completely changed my eating habits. I had read self-help books, worked through their exercises, and tried to change my mindset in addition to my body. But still my physical symptoms persisted. I was beginning to show signs of depression from dealing with the frustration of so many chronic health issues, and that was the tipping point for me. I had tried to change everything about my self that I could control and I was still stressed beyond reason. Clearly, I needed another perspective. I did some research on the Cleveland Clinic website and found a psychologist who specialized in dealing with chronic health issues and grief, among other things.

From my first meeting with my therapist, I knew I had made the right choice for me. I know that I was lucky, as not everyone develops a good rapport with the first counselor they meet, or even the second. It helped tremendously that I live in a suburban area flush with hospitals and healthcare providers of every stripe. I had a lot of options. Not everyone is so fortunate. I also have excellent, affordable healthcare which allowed me to visit my therapist as often as once a week if necessary. I am aware that many do not have these advantages, and for what I have, I am truly thankful.

I had been seeing my psychologist for several months and just starting to get to the root of some of my issues when my daughter’s addiction came to light. All of my focus turned to dealing with this new challenge in our family. I have, for about two years now, largely been operating in crisis mode. My therapist, in conjunction with my Nar-Anon Family Group, have helped me to focus on taking care of my own needs while also trying to support my daughter in her recovery. It was my therapist who helped me give myself permission to leave a position in a workplace that was so ill-fitting and toxic that I could no longer deny it was the major source of my stress. My daughter’s disease was the factor that tipped the scales and finally gave me the impetus to leave, but it was my psychologist who helped me through the practical steps of actually quitting and embarking on a new kind of life, one that truly suited me and that helped reduce my stress levels despite being in the worst nightmare a parent could imagine.

Gardening

The summer before I left my job I had grown various herbs and tomatoes in containers on my deck. For years I had fantasized about having a garden, but it always seemed to be such an overwhelming task to undertake for someone who hadn’t grown anything since about first grade. The following winter was when our daughter’s addiction came to our attention, and by the first summer of living with her disease, the planting a real garden had taken on a great deal of symbolism in my mind. I needed something to focus on other than the physical and emotional pain I was in. This was during the time of my worst chronic health symptoms, and my therapist fully supported and encouraged planting and tending a garden as a therapeutic exercise. I was still at my job but taking extensive FMLA time to try to get my health issues under control and also deal with my daughter’s ongoing battle with alcohol and heroin addiction.

That summer was a revelation. Planting and tending that garden was truly life-changing for me. Not only did it give me a place to focus my energy, it gave me tomatoes. And basil. And lemon thyme. (How did I ever cook without it?)  And a sense of purpose. And real, living proof that something I invested in did indeed reap a harvest. The garden was a tangible reminder that, despite how long it took to be visible, real growth was occurring, both in me and my daughter. In a word, the garden gave me hope.

Journaling/Writing

The first thing I did upon leaving my job that summer was to start blogging about my garden. It was the smallest of gardens, but that didn’t deter me from sharing my thoughts, experiences, successes, and failures with others. I was done with being self-critical, so I just wrote. My 4 x 4 foot garden plot was worthy of my time and attention, and it contained revelations I had never imagined. Soon I was writing about other things as well: my quest toward minimalism; the whole-food, plant based diet we had adopted; different types of exercise I had experimented with; recipes I concocted and, more recently, my experiences with my daughter’s heroin addiction.

In addition to writing on my blog, I returned to my practice of journal writing. I had kept a journal on and off for 15 or more years, ever since first reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way in the late 1990s, but while working full time I had let go of the habit. Writing just 3 pages first thing in the morning, in longhand, helps me purge my anxieties onto the page, leaving the space in my brain to process and address the more urgent issues in my life that need attention. These journal entries are never meant to see the light of day; they are not structured or planned in any way. They are free-association, stream-of-consciousness babbling with no regard for grammar, punctuation, handwriting, or even logic. They are simply a means to an end: a warm-up exercise for the brain, if you will. And you don’t have to be a writer for this practice to help you. Everyone and anyone can benefit from the practice of Morning Pages. For more information on this practice, check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron from your local library or used book store.

Walking in Nature

One of the other things that has helped keep my stress level in check these past few years has been exercise. When I first started my full-time job in 2012, long before my daughter’s addiction was on our radar, I handled the stress of all the changes in my life by hiking almost every day in Cleveland’s MetroParks. Admittedly, we have one of the best and most enviable MetroPark Systems in the country, but anyplace outside with fresh air will do. For me, the benefits were many: first, the fresh air and natural surroundings had a calming effect on me; second, the aerobic exercise was good for my circulatory system, my respiratory system, my weight, and my muscle tone; third, the time with my husband (my hiking partner) helped us stay connected and strengthened our bond; and finally, talking about our respective work days helped us work out our frustrations and celebrate our successes.

Other Exercise

Eventually I added Barre classes to my exercise regimen, and these classes, which combine yoga, pilates, strength training, and ballet, helped me lose a significant amount of weight. I also developed more core strength and muscle tone than I had ever had in my life. My husband and I purchased a pair of bicycles for each other for our 25th anniversary, and we added that to our exercise routines as well. Being active is the best anti-depressant I have ever known, and has at least as many mental/emotional benefits as it does physical benefits. But I suffered a serious injury on my bicycle in June of 2014 which has plagued me ever since, and I have not yet achieved the previous level of physical activity we enjoyed up until that time. After my injury (a tibia bone bruise) hadn’t healed in over a year, I was put in a boot in the summer of 2015. I was supposed to taper off the boot and do physical therapy starting around Labor Day, but my daughter had a major relapse that weekend and I transitioned out of the boot too quickly and delayed my physical therapy. I can see the negative consequences of not making exercise a higher priority in my self-care regimen, and plan to work very hard this spring and summer to get back on track in this area, as I know how much better I feel physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually when I am exercising regularly.

Small Creative Indulgences

I have always been creative. I loved art class in elementary school almost as much as I enjoyed writing and reading. I also loved singing and dancing. But somewhere along the way from junior high to high school, I lost my confidence in doing most of these things (as most adolescent American girls do). I still loved writing, but I felt sure I was no good at anything else. I now know that’s completely untrue, and what’s more, why does it matter if I am any good at it? If I want to draw a totally crappy drawing, who cares? If it makes me happy to paint a terribly cliche, saccharine painting of wildflowers, why shouldn’t I? There is no reason I shouldn’t. And so I have.

A few summers ago (okay, maybe 10 or more) I was at an estate sale where I stumbled upon an old Roger Burrows coloring book from the early 1980s. I was delighted! I had had one of these as a kid and spent hours upon hours coloring the geometric designs with crayons, colored pencils, and markers. I loved the feel of the slick markers on the smooth paper, the waxy smell of the crayons, the pastel subtlety of the pencils, and the planning of what color scheme I would use. If you aren’t familiar with Burrows’s books, they are full of geometric patterns that can be colored in infinite combinations to emphasize certain patterns over others. Long before the adult coloring craze began, I bought this cast-off coloring book and rummaged around our school supply cupboard for some colored pencils and stealthily colored when no one else was home. It felt like stolen bliss. It felt like childhood. So it was no wonder to me when the adult coloring book market exploded a few years ago…my only question was, why did it take so long for others to discover this joy?

The discovery of that Burrows coloring book made me realize something else, though. And it’s that small acts of creative indulgence can go a really long way toward restoring our sanity in this crazy world, especially when we’re dealing with predators as big and scary as  depression, addiction, or grief. I have developed several creative hobbies through the years–chiefly scrapbooking and rubber stamping–and while my craft room is currently a source of stress due to my over-abundance of supplies, I try to take a creative respite at least once a week, even if only for a few minutes, and make something. Lately I’ve been making greeting cards and inspirational bookmarks. Last winter I was into coloring with glitter markers in a snowflake-themed coloring book.

And last summer, I splurged and bought two whole flats of alyssum to fill a trash-picked wooden wheel-barrow with a sea of pastels–just because it made me happy. It made me happy all summer and fall to look out my kitchen window every day and see the delicate lavender, pink, purple and cream blossoms peeking over the edge of the whitewashed wood. And it makes me happy still, every time I look at the photo I took of it. Really, what other purpose is there for us to plant flowers, other than to make us happy? Isn’t that why we buy hyacinths–or alyssum–to feed our souls?

Find what feeds your soul and do it as often as possible.

Practice self-care for your body, mind, heart, and spirit.

And remember, you don’t have to go it alone. Reach out.

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If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog to get email updates about new posts.

If you liked the idea of morning pages, regular walks, and creative indulgences, check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

If you want some sweet coloring pages, check out any of Roger Burrows’s geometric design books.

And if you want a reminder that you don’t have to go it alone, listen to “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” by U2. You can find it on YouTube, or on their excellent 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

 

 

 

 

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Practical Distractions for Gardeners in the Wintertime

I have been dreaming about tomatoes. Specifically, tomatoes in my garden. And I don’t mean I have been metaphorically dreaming about them, or daydreaming about them. I have had actual sensory-laden night-time dreams so rich with sense memories that I could feel the weight of the sun-warmed fruit resting in my hand, its lush red skin smooth and taut with ripeness. When I woke from these dreams, I swore I could feel the rich black composted soil under my fingertips; smell the earthy scent of the rain nourishing the thick stems of the tomato plants; see the tiny tendrils of new shoots growing in the sun; taste the sweet and tart juice of the warm fruit exploding in my mouth.

And when I awoke to find myself not kneeling in the damp soil of my garden but overheating in my fleece pajamas under flannel sheets, electric blanket, and thick winter comforter, I felt a sense of longing so profound that I knew I must find a way to channel it into other endeavors to distract myself from cabin fever. First, I re-inventoried my canned and frozen items from last year’s garden. This proved rather a depressing task, as nearly everything has dwindled down to almost the last jar with the exception of crab apple jelly and sweet pepper relish. So I got to thinking: what can I do in the winter that I don’t want to do in the summer? What tasks heat up the kitchen, which is welcome in the winter but not in the summer? Here are a few distractions I came up with to keep myself from tomato-deprivation depression:

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I went to my dry goods and decided to work on using up all of those beans I have accumulated over the past few months: leftovers from recipes, portions from our weekly food-buying club bags, and sales where I stocked up. Each night I choose a different bean to soak, then the following day I cook those beans and either freeze them all right away or use some in a recipe and freeze the rest. The result has been rather impressive; my freezer is already jammed full, and it had been half empty before I started this project.

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This photo shows the many jars of beans, and you will notice that I use the straight sided Ball jars of all sizes: half pint, pint, and pint-and-a-half. Having so many cooked beans on hand naturally led to making lots of soup. There are jars of potato leek soup, mushroom pinto chili, and mock cream of potato soup here. This week I will make another large batch of vegetable soup to use up the ever-growing stockpile of root vegetables I have accumulated from our weekly food-buying club bags. I also had a carton of orange juice about to go out of date, so I froze small portions of it for use in recipes where I only need a few tablespoons or so. I also froze it into ice cube trays and put the cubes in freezer bags for use in smoothies in the future.

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Finally, I turned to likely the most traditional of winter kitchen activities, baking. I have been trying to cut back on the sweets, especially refined sugar, but I still love to bake. This week I made peach crisp, apple-onion focaccia bread, banana muffins, and my best creation of the week, almond orange biscotti, pictured above. I finally perfected my method for getting them as crispy as we like, which simply involves leaving the cookies in the oven with the heat turned off for several hours after the second baking. This allows the cookies to dry out just enough but not get burnt. These are a very low fat biscotti from the Forks Over Knives cookbook that I altered a bit with my own dried orange peel and some orange extract I had languishing in the spice cupboard. (I also inventoried my spices this week. Yes, I really miss my garden!)

Next week I plan to start mapping out my garden for the spring in one of the many garden journals I have collected. Even though we won’t be able to plant here in Northeast Ohio until after Memorial Day, a girl can dream…both metaphorically and literally. And in the meantime, I’d love to hear what you do in the winter to distract yourself until gardening season.

 

 

Making the Most of Your Produce: Cook Your Own Vegetable Stock or Broth

Fresh Fork bag 10/22/2015: acorn squash, apples, apple cider, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery root, collard greens, and turnips

Fresh Fork Market vegan bag 10/22/2015: acorn squash, apples, apple cider, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery root, collard greens, and turnips

Whether you belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or Farm Buying Club, visit the Farmers’ Market regularly, grow your own produce, or glean bargains at the local market, chances are you throw away (or compost) a LOT of vegetable scraps. Recently I realized that I had been missing a prime opportunity since we joined our Farm Buying Club, Fresh Fork Market, earlier this fall. Each week as I unpacked our vegan share of produce, I trimmed the leaves off the broccoli and cauliflower, cut the tops off the carrots and beets, and pulled off the outer leaves of cabbage and sent all of these lovely bits off to the compost bin. But last week I finally realized that instead of paying $3.00 or more for each box of vegetable stock at the grocery store, I could simply make my own with all of these scraps. Genius!  We use a lot of veggie stock/broth at our house, as we use it in place of oil for sauteing vegetables, as well as all of the normal things you would do with broth, such as make soups or sauces or use as an ingredient in veggie Shepherd’s Pie. Too bad I didn’t think of it sooner…

Fresh Fork Market vegan bag 10/29/2015: acorn squash, beets, broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, eggplants, red cabbage, and red leaf lettuce.

Fresh Fork Market vegan bag 10/29/2015: acorn squash, beets, broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, eggplants, Melrose apples, red cabbage, and red leaf lettuce.

So after picking up my bag last Thursday night, I trimmed off all those extra leaves and tops again, only this time I put them in the fridge overnight until I could make the stock on Friday. (Let’s get this out of the way: I am using the terms broth and stock interchangeably in this post, because if you choose to not use the spices, you will end up with stock, but if you spice and salt yours, you will have broth, which is what I did.)

Assorted veggies from the past two weeks of our vegan share bags, plus a few other garden stragglers and scraps.

Assorted veggies from the past two weeks of our vegan share bags, plus a few other garden stragglers and scraps.

On Friday morning I pulled everything out of both refrigerators (the mini fridge in the garage has been a life saver this summer and fall) and washed it all thoroughly. I then proceeded to cut off the tops of the carrots and beets, cut off the stems of the broccoli and cauliflower, core the cabbage and peppers, and trim a few items I planned to use right away. I used all of the celery root, several whole cloves of garlic, most of an onion, and some frozen chopped tomatoes for extra color and flavor. Oh, and one sad, lonely Calliope eggplant left over from my garden.

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Add approximately the same amount of water as vegetables. Don’t stress about the amounts being exact, as this is just a guideline.

For my stock recipe, I partly followed the recipe in Alana Chernila’s book, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making; I used her recommended herbs and spices (see final recipe below), plus several of the vegetables she listed. I also did some internet searches and found that many others have had success using all scraps for their vegetable broth. The one guideline everyone seems to agree on is that you should only cook vegetable broth for 1-2 hours, as it will turn bitter after longer than that. Another helpful guideline is to make the vegetable to water ratio approximately 1:1, which I found very helpful. Meat broths can be cooked much longer to get the marrow out of the bones, but as we no longer eat meat, I only use veggie broth.

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Cook vegetable broth for only 1-2 hours, as it will turn bitter if you cook it longer.

I tasted my broth at the one hour mark and it was still way too weak at that point. So I ended up cooking mine for the better part of two hours. When the cooking time was up, I strained out the veggies and composted them, then ran the liquid through a jelly bag (cheesecloth would work just as well).

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Cooked stock veggies do double duty by going into the compost bin. They will live on in next year’s garden!

After straining out the vegetables and herbs, I was left with this gorgeous vegetable broth. You’ll notice that the jars are not very full; this is so that they can be frozen. I was very low on my favorite freezer jar, the pint-and-a-half (24 ounce) size. But wide-mouth quart jars can be frozen if you fill them to just below the jar shoulder, cool them to room temperature, refrigerate overnight, and freeze with the lid off or only loosely set on top. Once it is frozen solid, screw the freezer lid on. If you do all of these things, your wide-mouth quart jars will not crack or break in the freezer.

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Vegetable broth cannot be home-canned safely with a water bath canner, so the broth must be used up in a few days or frozen for future use.

So here is my final recipe for my first go at vegetable broth from mostly scraps:

  • I used a one-quart (four cup) measuring bowl and filled it with vegetable scraps until my stock pot was nearly full. For me, this was about five quarts of veggies, including: one onion; carrot tops; carrot ends; broccoli leaves and the large stem; cauliflower leaves and main stem; beet tops (greens); a whole celery root (celeriac) peeled and chopped; a bell pepper core; a small eggplant; a cabbage core; and two chopped tomatoes. Use whatever you have on hand, but onion, tomato, celery, and carrot should probably be represented at least minimally.
  • I used the following herbs and spices: several whole cloves of garlic; a bay leaf; ten black peppercorns; 1 teaspoon dried thyme (I used lemon thyme from my garden); 1 teaspoon dried parsley (or of course, fresh if you have it); and a tablespoon (or more to your taste) of salt. (If you don’t want your stock salted and spiced, leave all of this out. Or if you are on a low-sodium diet, use the herbs and spices but not the salt.)
  • I added an equal amount of water to the pot as the veggies that I measured, which was five quarts. Remember, the vegetables will give off some water while cooking.
  • Heat until the liquid comes to a boil, then turn to low and simmer for 1-2 hours.
  • Scoop out spent veggies with a slotted spoon and send to compost bin, then strain the liquid through a jelly bag or cheesecloth.
  • Cool to room temperature then put in refrigerator. Use within a few days, or freeze in freezer-safe canning jars (the straight edged ones, which come in 4, 8, 12, 16, and 24 ounce sizes, or see my directions above about using wide-mouth quart jars). Never use glass jars that have shoulders with a narrower neck, and don’t put warm or hot liquid in the freezer. Don’t screw lids on until liquid has frozen solid.
  • Congratulate yourself on a job well done. Waste not, want not!  Enjoy!

Therapeutic Thursday: Visible Growth

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6/18/2015. Lots of new growth after a very rainy week.

Last week’s post focused on being patient while growth wasn’t necessarily visible, letting water, sunshine, and soil work their magic underground and inside the plants. That patience has paid off over this extremely rainy week, and there is ample evidence of visible growth. I am hoping that the plants forgive me for making the mistake of crowding them all into a 4×4 foot plot and that, in the words of Jeff Goldblum’s character Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “Life will find a way!”

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6/18/2015. First tomato sighting of the season yesterday.

Not only have the plants grown larger, they are beginning to blossom and bear fruit. Yesterday I found my first tiny tomato, but since this is one of the four “mystery” plants we were gifted, I have no idea whether they will be grape, cherry, Roma, beefsteak, or anything in between!

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6/18/2015. More pumpkin blossoms.

The pumpkin plant is taking off into the yard, carrying with it multiple new blossoms every day. I have yet to work up the nerve to pick the male blossoms (I am told they have a pointy thing inside and they won’t bear fruit anyway) and stuff or saute them. I had the most delicately sauteed pumpkin blossoms at the Mansion District Inn B&B in Smethport, PA last year. We are headed there again at the end of this month so I will have to ask owner/chef Jovanna Porter for on tips for preparing them. I have also recently seen a recipe for cream-cheese stuffed nasturtium blossoms, and could use the same stuffing recipe for the pumpkin blossoms, replacing the cream cheese with Toffutti’s Better Than Cream Cheese non-dairy product.

6/18/2015. Pepper plant leaves twisting around the stalk.

6/18/2015. Pepper plant leaves twisting around the stalk.

I have never seen a pepper plant do what this one is doing with its leaves. I found them twisting around and growing up the plant’s main stalk, almost like a vine. The photo isn’t doing it justice, as I moved them to investigate and somewhat loosened their grip around the stalk.

I am concerned the peppers will suffer the most from my rookie gardening mistakes. I planted them too close to the tomatoes (which I almost moved over about 6 inches closer to the edge of the bed, then changed my mind about at the last second) and the row closest is a little yellow. I can’t be certain it is due to the tomato proximity, though, because they are a different type of pepper than the other row.

6/18/2015. Ray and Elliot, our blueberry bushes.

6/18/2015. Ray and Elliot, our blueberry bushes.

We finally got the blueberry bushes into the ground last week, and my husband built little bases for them out of leftover pavers we had from the front flower bed. He secured them with some waterproof caulk and they are bungee corded together temporarily while they set. We purchased two different varieties so they could cross-pollinate, and the two varieties are Blueray (left) and Elliot (right)–hence their names.

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6/18/2015. Cherry Roma potted tomato plant.

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6/18/2015. Herb container garden with rosemary, basil, cilantro, lemon thyme, chives, flat parsley, and Italian peppermint.

The cherry Roma plant has grown at least 6 inches in just the last week. Soon I will need to give it a taller stake or tomato cage. I am truly hoping it does as well as the hanging basket we had last summer. We won’t know until these start to produce if they are indeed the same variety we had last year, as last year’s either weren’t marked or I didn’t record the variety.

Finally, my little herb garden is still struggling along. The basil continues to get eaten by little bugs. Several gardeners have assured me that when the weather heats up and dries out the basil will flourish. My first batch of cilantro has already gone to seed, so I am waiting patiently for some coriander seeds to appear. I got a new cilantro plant that will hopefully last a bit longer this time.

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It is great to see the new growth, but I must remind myself that the end goal of the garden is to produce fruit and vegetables worthy of human consumption. I must remember to be vigilant about watering between rains and weeding and staking and cutting back when necessary. All of this hard work and preparation will hopefully pay off over the next few months, not only in volume of produce but in gaining valuable experience as well as confidence in my abilities as a gardener.

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Therapeutic Thursday: Lessons from My Little Garden

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6/11/2015. Container herb garden: rosemary, lemon thyme, cilantro, basil, basil, chives, flat parsley, and Italian peppermint.

I got all of my herbs into the planter box on the deck this week. The basil is not doing well, and many of my friends have echoed the same lament. Basil was my best grower last year, so I am hoping it turns around. My go-to guy at the garden center said it has been too wet for it this spring and that as soon as it gets hot and dries out a bit it will be fine. I hope he is right. My other problem child in the herb garden is cilantro. It keeps falling over. If anyone has experience with cilantro I would love to hear what I am doing wrong and how to fix it!

I was gazing out the window, trying to decide if I should go out to my little 4×4 foot square garden just one more time to see if anything had miraculously grown or bloomed in the last 3 hours. I was thinking, I wish they would grow faster! when it hit me:  I am just as impatient with my garden plants as I have been with my own personal growth. That got me thinking about the lessons that gardening can teach us wherever we are on our journey of development as human beings. Here are a few I came up with:

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6/11/2015. 4×4 plot: 4 tomato plants, 4 red beauty bell pepper plants, 4 golden bell pepper plants, 2 watermelon plants, ping tung eggplant, calliope eggplant, and a pumpkin plant.

Lessons I am learning from my garden:

  • Be patient when looking for visible signs of growth. Even with the optimal amount of sunshine, rain, and fertilizer, plants can only grow in the correct season and at their own slow and steady pace. They must develop strong root systems, which we cannot see, before they can support large stems and leaves and heavy fruit. We may not be able to see the small increments of growth each day, but as the days and weeks add up, the growth is clearly evident. I must give them their time, and give myself my own time to grow in the areas of life I am trying to improve right now.
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6/11/2015. Cherry Roma tomato plant on the deck.

  • Bask in the sunshine. For those who live in sunnier climates, this lesson may sound trite, but Clevelanders and many others in the northern U. S. simply don’t get enough sunshine for a large portion of the year. When it is sunny I take advantage of it and get my vitamin D each day by going out for about 20 minutes without sunscreen, then applying SPF 30 or higher religiously at all other times. Sunshine always improves my mood and outlook on life.
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6/11/2015. Nessie the garden mascot. Last year a woman at the farmers market told she put rubber snakes in her tomatoes to keep birds out. It worked for us last year, so let’s see if Nessie can protect a whole row of tomato plants this year!

  • Get enough water. Think of what your plants look like when they get parched. They get wilted and the leaves hang listlessly from the stalk, but as soon as water is added they plump back up and stand proud! This one is especially tough for me, but on the days that I sip my water continuously all day, I feel much more awake and alert. Also, it keeps me more active as I have to keep traveling to the rest room to de-water before I can re-water some more! Last summer I discovered Ball’s water infuser kit for their wide-mouth jars. It includes a lid with a seal and an infusing attachment. I much prefer to drink out of glass than plastic, so I love this gadget. My favorite infusing recipe is to combine chopped cucumbers with chopped fresh basil leaves. I use the Ball herb scissors to get the basil leaves cut into thin little ribbons.
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6/11/2015. Elliot blueberry bush which was planted later in the day.

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6/11/2015. Blueray blueberry bush which was planted later in the day. We went with two different varieties as it was recommended for cross-pollination.

  • Live in the fresh air. Plants can, of course, grow indoors–but they do not do so naturally. What I love about being outside more than anything else is the fresh air. I have run in the freezing, pouring October rain not because I am a dedicated athlete but because I desperately needed to be outside and breathe the fresh air. And while breathing in the fresh air, I invariably begin to notice the other sights and sounds and smells of being out in nature, which maybe plants notice and maybe they don’t, but I talk to mine anyway just in case they do. Listening to and watching the birds always reminds me of mornings at my grandma’s house, and I would rather have to take allergy medicine  than miss the amazing and mysterious smells of the flowering blooms in spring and summer.
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6/11/2015. First pumpkin blossom.

  • Roots must grow strong to bear fruit. Underground is where the real action happens in gardening. The soil must be rich and re-fertilized from time to time to add new nutrients for the plants to absorb. The roots must have room to spread out and grow deep. Bugs and other micro-organisms do their part to aerate the soil and make it good for plants. So it is in my life as well. While my roots are going deep into my psyche and soaking up the richness of life–by reading, gardening, walking, doing yoga, or any other activity that feeds my soul–it may look to others like I am doing nothing. I need time to grow and spread my roots before any visible sign of growth–that is “fruit” in the form of writing or other creative productivity–appears above ground. Once I have had enough nutrients and enough time to process them, I will begin to bear blossoms and soon heavy fruit. But all in good time.

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Therapeutic Thursday: In the Garden

Milton is exhausted after a hard morning of planting.

June 4, 2015: Milton is exhausted after a hard morning of planting.

This is our first garden plot, as last year we used only containers on the deck. We have graduated now to a raised 4×4 foot bed in hopes of having success with our Calliope eggplant, Ping Tung eggplant, Golden Bell peppers, Red Beauty peppers, and four “mystery” tomato varieties gifted to us by friends. After this photo was taken I added Sugar Baby watermelon plants and a Small Sugar pie pumpkin plant as well. The Cherry Roma tomatoes will be moving to their own container on the deck.

Last year we had only a small container garden on the deck, but we had great luck with a hanging basket of grape tomatoes and several varieties of peppers and basil. This year, the herbs will stay on the deck and the vegetables will go in the ground.

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Summer 2014: My first bell pepper!

I never thought I could be a Real Gardener. You see, my grandmother was an amazing gardener, with more varieties of daffodil than I have ever seen anywhere else. Her flower beds were elaborately designed, and she had acres of woods as a gorgeous backdrop to her vegetable garden, flower beds, and fruit trees. For many years, I have joked that her green thumb skipped right over me, as I have always managed to kill even houseplants. My flower bed in the front of my house is more a plant graveyard than a garden, but I discovered that for some reason, I can keep herbs and vegetables alive much easier than flowers or houseplants. Having small successes last year helped me gain the courage to expand to this year’s 4×4 foot raised bed.

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Additionally, the therapeutic value of last year’s container garden far exceeded any monetary value of the produce we grew and therefore didn’t have to buy. Every morning I would get up and before even sipping my tea or starting my breakfast, I would head out to the deck to make sure my plants were watered before I left for work. After work, I would go straight to the deck to again water my little garden and check how many new tomato or pepper blossoms I could count.

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Summer 2014: Ripening Beefsteak tomatoes.

Later, as the fruits and vegetables grew, I couldn’t wait to get home each day to see what had grown and find what we could harvest and use for dinner. The basil was so prolific that I made pesto all summer long; our favorite application was to spread it on thin slices of baguette and sprinkle finely chopped grape tomatoes on top before baking it for a few minutes for a heavenly pre-dinner appetizer. The grape tomatoes had so much more flavor than any store-bought version we had ever had!

By summer’s end, I was hooked on the feeling of awe and pride that came from growing food out of dirt with nothing more than water and sunlight. My grandmother’s green thumb gene had finally been activated and I had embodied the spirit of a Real Gardener.