early summer refreshment

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blueberry basil lillet-jito

After seeing several references to the French aperitif wine, Lillet, online and in magazines throughout the past year, my curiosity was piqued. We picked up a bottle at our local Binny’s recently, and I’ve been mixing up a sparkling cocktail every few days since. We’ve had a lot of steamy afternoons already, and combined with the pace of outdoor chores here, a shady porch break and a cool drink in hand is a welcome respite, indeed.

There are Blanc and Rose versions of Lillet; I decided to try the white first. Every source I’ve seen encourages thorough chilling and serving on ice. I found the wine straight-up to be a bit too strong for me, but it’s a tasty addition to a mixed drink.

In case you, too, have a hankering for a light, fizzy, and fruity glass of adult refreshment as summer approaches, here’s a handful of Lillet cocktail recipes (click on the names to go to the links) you can try:

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sunday posy :: dame’s rocket

These pretty posies, growing by the creek behind our house, caught my eye a week ago. From several feet away, their sweet scent also beckoned. I wasn’t sure what this flower was nor how it would behave if I clipped a stem to take inside. Sometimes cut wildflowers quickly lose their allure, dropping their petals overnight in a flurry littered with pollen dust, seeming so sad to have lost their ability to sway with the wind and reach toward the sun.
IMG_6096 A week later, though, the blooms are still gracing our kitchen table. They also seem not to have induced any sneezing from our (allergy-prone) kids.

I finally did my homework today and discovered that these flowers are Dame’s Rocket, a wildflower that, depending on your source of information and location in the U.S., is considered either a hardy and beautiful addition to your garden, also possessing minor medicinal value, or an invasive weed you should try to banish. Because I’ve only seen this one cluster throughout our area of town, I’m going with the former definition. While I won’t go to the trouble of harvesting its seed pods later in the season to intentionally spread them, neither will I be yanking them out of their current home. IMG_6080

in the garden :: berry bushes

 

Oh, glory! We’re back in berry business! Almost two and a half years into living in what I’ll likely always think of as “the new place,” we’re finally able to delve into the creation of our own landscaping plan, which certainly includes berries. This time ’round, we selected two varieties of dwarf blueberries, shown below, and a dwarf raspberry, placing the young bushes in two rows along the rear perimeter of our yard (in line with the straw bales right now).
IMG_5983 IMG_5985With sprinkles coming in a steady sheet and an uncomfortable amount of lightning occurring, this was the fastest planting work Shane and I ever did (a few weeks ago). He dug holes, while I tugged the plants from their plastic pots, roughed up the sides, and plopped them in their new homes. I crumbled chunks of soil and hastily tucked up the plants, all ready for Mother Nature’s timely watering.
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Along the side of the garage, Shane created a planting bed bordered with hollow concrete blocks, later capped with concrete pavers. (And, yes, I have noticed that in nearly every photo snapped of Shane this spring, he has been bent over, hard at work moving earth. No wonder his back is always hurting! But he is certainly scratching off the tasks on the outside to-do list at an admirable rate.) In this area, we planted an everbearing raspberry bush. Shane is striving to contain the enthusiastic root spread of all the raspberries by planting them in large plastic pots with the bottoms cut out. IMG_6019 The two posts Shane installed this week are the beginnings of a lattice framework he’s creating for the espaliered apple tree he’s long been hoping to get. We saw several at one local shop early in the spring but Shane held off, wanting to be fully prepared. Now they’ve all been sold, so we’ll see if a special order will come through, or if we’ll have to wait another year. IMG_6088Of course, we still have quite a bit more groundwork to complete. We’ll soon be layering old newspaper, landscape fabric, and trap rock to keep weeding to the bare minimum and provide a tidy, finished look. The raspberry bush shown above will need a trellis of some sort. And I’m sure we’ll soon be battling little critters — birds, rabbits, squirrels, and maybe the local fox? — for the produce, so we’ll be putting up netting or whatever method we feel is adequate to protect our investments. Little by little, step by step…

postcards from st. louis

I jumped at the chance to be a chaperone on Molly’s class trip to St. Louis yesterday, trusting that this good bunch of kids would be fairly easy to keep track of and always appreciative of “bonus” time with one of my children. It was a great opportunity to practice matching faces with the names that Molly frequently mentions and get to know the kids just a little better… although this was a pretty action-packed trip!

We started with a visit to the City Museum — my first visit but Molly’s third or fourth. I was really impressed with the creative reuse of an old (shoelace, from what I hear) factory and the repurposing of many industrial parts — wheels, typesetting plates, gears, and much more — as decoration. The place is basically a huge jungle gym for kids and certainly allowed our crew to let off steam (literally… the bus had a new aroma by the time everyone had re-boarded!).

Molly & buddies

Molly & buddies

I accompanied the kids into “the cave,” which culminated in a 10-story slide. This view from the top reminded me of one of the early scenes in “Divergent,” when the main character jumps from the top of a building into a dark abyss.

Our "Divergent" moment at the City Museum

Our “Divergent” moment at the City Museum

Our group ventured next to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. I had been to the Old Cathedral by the riverfront but never before visited what is commonly called the New Cathedral downtown. We were given a thorough tour of this impressive Catholic church, which seats 1,200 and holds 41 million mosaics — an art-filled space which was worked on by father-son mosaicists for 76 years, if I recall correctly the docent’s words.

Next up was the Arch — another site our fam has visited, but not for about five years. We had little time there, really just enough to ride the tram to the top and snap a few photos then take the preteens’ requisite tour of the gift shops.

Me & my girl at the Arch

Me & my girl at the Arch

Our final stop was Union Station’s food court, where we grabbed a bite to eat, listened to the serenades of the fudge-making vendor, and corralled all the kids for a few group photos.

7th graders at Union Station

7th graders at Union Station

You’d think all this activity would result in a tired and quiet trip home. You would be wrong. One kid napped, but all the rest were as wound up as they could be! Three hours of happy chatter, movie-watching, and snack-munching later, we pulled up to the school in the throes of a rainstorm. And so thankful Molly and I are for great schoolmates, excellent teachers, safe and happy days.

track & field

Our family is several years into a fall/spring soccer routine, gamely spending time at our local pitches in every type of weather Illinois serves, requiring an assortment of hats, gloves, UnderArmour, sunscreen, water bottles, and lawn chairs to be on rotation (and typically, in our van) for months at a stretch. This spring, Molly and Finn decided to add track to the mix.  They signed up for the team sponsored by their school, which turned out to be fantastic physical training for both track and soccer. Many thanks are owed to their excellent volunteer coaches.
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Molly tried 400m, 800m, 1600m, and the 200m relay over the course of the season. Finn tried 200m, 400m, and 800m races, some of them individual and others in relay format. IMG_5929 IMG_6023 IMG_6029 IMG_6030

At Molly’s final race, sectionals at Colfax, she ran the 1600m (mile) race in 6:48:32. We’re so proud of her for fighting allergies and occasional breathing difficulties, working so hard in practice, and trying everything her coaches asked of her! Way to go, Miss Molly!!

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Finny didn’t love the running so much, but he acknowledged that it definitely got him into more of a fighting physique.  🙂  A couple weeks after beginning track practice, he mentioned that his teacher told him he looked like he needed fattening up… ha! That boy’s always trying to con us into feeding him some more treats.IMG_5947 IMG_20140517_095827_410With track complete and soccer almost so, we’re all quite ready for a summer sports hiatus (’til cross country practice begins in August!). We’ll be channeling our energy into biking, hiking, swimming, and playing catch in the yard. C’mon, sunshine!

 

in the garden :: straw bale gardening

 

I promised an explanation of our straw bale gardening experiment, and here it is!

Sometime in 2013, our local newspaper ran an AP article about a man who, like us, had moved to a residential property and quickly learned that it had been stripped of its topsoil, leaving behind a soil that was nearly pure clay that didn’t drain well and lacked a good store of nutrients for the garden he hoped to plant. He tried to think of quick ways to create a fertile plot. He recalled time spent playing on the farm as a kid and noticing that when straw bales got damp, they soon started sending out sprouts. As a man, he realized that the bales could retain heat and moisture extremely well. Not only that, but straw bales are rich in nitrogen which, as the bales break down over time, would only enrich the soil underneath.

Shane embraced the idea! We found a local farmer from whom to buy 20 straw bales. He delivered them last month, and Shane and Finn quickly went to work arranging them on our side of the ditch that divides our property from our neighbors’ (who have their own garden plot running alongside).

IMG_5976 The next step was to begin a daily regimen of watering the bales. Arranging a soaker hose on top made this much easier. Shane also gave the bales a sprinkling of bone meal a few times in this preparation phase. In the couple of weeks it took for sprouts to begin to appear (the sign that planting in them can begin), Shane and Finn set up some poles for tomatoes and beans to climb as they grow.

IMG_5984I should note that we laid down landscaping fabric underneath the bales, as well as some newspaper, to help keep weeds at bay. When the time comes to let our bales become compost, we can leave the newspaper remains, but we’ll remove the fabric. The bricks are just there to prevent strong gusts of wind (ever-present here, it seems) from rearranging everything.
IMG_6020 Yesterday I trimmed the “hair” from the tops of all the bales down to just an inch or so high (gaining a nice red blister from the metal scissor handle), and then we were ready to plant. Shane used a trowel to winnow a pocket for each young plant, and we sprinkled each with Miracle-Gro potting soil. According to our role model for this project, it is okay to place plants more closely together in the bales than they would be in the earth.IMG_6043While a little more than half of our garden plants are taking root here as young plants purchased from a gardening center, the rest will grow from seeds I planted in soil distributed in about a 2-inch layer atop those bales.
IMG_6044 I’ve taped an accounting of our planting inside our laundry/mudroom door to remind us what to expect to see growing, along with maturity dates for the seeds just planted. Later in the summer, I hope we have successes to share here… Wish us luck!IMG_6045

sunday posy :: porch pots

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Our pair of porch pots has been filled for the season… The rambler with the pink flowers is “Great Pink Ring” bacopa, and it has a sister in the mailbox planter. “Diamond Frost” euphorbia is on the right. I’m not sure of the name of the green and yellow ornamental plant in the rear. Anyone know?

First Communion

Molly and Finn have been preparing since last fall for their full participation in the Catholic faith, taking catechism classes on Sundays, studying religion at school, and attending Mass twice weekly. They also met occasionally this past fall with one of the school nuns, Sister Vianney, who helped prepare them for their first confessions. There has certainly been a circle of adults (and classmates) who helped Molly and Finn on this journey. Many were present in a special Mass last weekend at St. Matthew’s Parish for the annual celebration of First Holy Communion — not just for our kids but also for their fellow RCIC classmates and those receiving the Sacrament at the customary age of 7-8.

For this special ceremony, girls are expected to wear white dresses and shoes, as well as a headpiece — typically a veil, but a flower garland, crown, or headband is also acceptable. Molly and I found an understated white eyelet dress, eyelet ballet flats, and a white and gold headband that she felt would not make her any more conspicuous than she already felt due to being older and taller than most of her counterparts last Saturday. Still, several of the little girls asked her, “How old ARE you?” But they also flattered her by telling her they liked her dress and that her braces were pretty, too!
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Molly’s homeroom teacher kindly joined us for the Mass and a reception. She presented Molly with a congratulatory card signed by all of her school classmates. Sister Vianney, who is Finn’s science and religion teacher, made hand-knotted rosaries for both kids — very special gifts, especially for Finn, who has a small, but steadily growing, rosary collection. (He was very impressed with my Grandma Wenger’s collection of rosaries, which he saw this past fall.)

IMG_6015With the sun shining more brightly upon us as we left the church, we headed to our favorite brunch spot, Radio Maria, with Granny and Grandpa. May the faith Molly and Finn are being introduced to bring them some comfort and strength as they travel through life. And, yes, I do believe holding hands helps, too.

 

sunday posy :: creeping phlox

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As the barometer climbs little by little, our patch of earth is coming back to life. This creeping phlox Shane and I planted last fall was first to make its colorful debut. I hope these mounds of blue-lavender buds will eventually spread into a complete arc around the base of our mailbox. More are planted along the front sidewalk. As our landscaping work continues, I’m planning to intersperse the phlox with hydrangeas, lavender, bee balm, globe allium, daisies, and craspedia. (Pinterest is so great for helping visualize what these flowers could look like planted near each other! You can see my flower garden board here, with a few additions for Molly’s plot.)

Twenty years ago, when our house was built, the developer stripped (I would say stole) the topsoil from each of the residential lots, leaving behind a thick layer of clay pocked with lots of stones. That makes for extra hard work when tilling soil and a growing pile of stones in one corner of our backyard. It also means we need to be thoughtful about adding plants that aren’t too selective about the soil they grow in (such as creeping phlox) and/or committing ourselves to regularly amending the soil as needed to nurture plants we just love and really want in our yard (such as blueberries). Our compost and straw bale gardening experiments are other methods we’re trying to improve our soil.

We’ve waited a long time to begin seriously gardening and landscaping at our “new” place, and this spring, a lot of work has commenced. I’ll share updates here. I’ll carry on the “Sunday Posy” tradition of the last few years (old posts at http://aprairieporch.blogspot.com) and also try to have a weekly “In the Garden” post. Savor all the blooms… I love to see it “raining flowers” when the wind blows!

another school year fades

Last Sunday at lunchtime you would have found me in the sunshine at Illini Grove with my little tribe of U of I students, celebrating the end of another school year, wishing our seniors farewell, and, just in my heart, realizing that this shindig was also marking a decade of advising student groups at the University of Illinois. Five of those years were with my beloved Student Alumni Association members and Student Ambassadors, and these last five have been with the LAS Leaders, who serve the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences much as SA served the U of I Alumni Association. These are excellent students and fine individuals that are always a joy to be around.

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Early in my career, when I was much closer in age to the students I advised, it was easy to grow close. We had a lot in common, and I worked all.the.time. With Shane working undercover and crazy hours, no kids yet, plus several meetings held on nights and weekends, I spent more hours at work than I did at home. The students and I had huge events to plan together, but we also spent a lot of time talking about relationships, finding jobs, travel, car problems — everything. A lot of practical jokes were hatched, and others were foiled…

Perhaps one of my fondest memories is of my students’ heads popping over the cubicle walls (not possible without standing on a chair or counter below) to say hello to me on the other side. I know we were the bane of everyone else in the office, but we sure had fun! (With a key to access our office suite in the Illini Union good ’til midnight any evening, who wouldn’t?)

Returning to work after having kids, the game is a little different. I can’t hide the silver streaks in my hair (for long, anyway). I know I’m closer to my students’ parents’ age than theirs. No one tells me about their dating problems or what bar they’re going to that night. They don’t invite me over for supper or just hang out in my office when they’re bored. I know I have their respect and trust, and those are the qualities by which our relationships should be defined.

Some of the differences between then and now are not just a result of a bigger age gap but due to circumstances, such as a weird office set-up, students’ advanced ability to work and communicate remotely, and the lesser obligations of students involved in my current group than the former ones. It can be a relief sometimes not to get so caught up in others’ personal goings-on, but I do miss that special connection I shared with the students early on.

I still enjoy my work, though. The rewards of working with and on behalf of people who are just becoming adults are many and varied. The students are fairly tireless, very enthusiastic, optimistic, idealistic, and I would just say generally refreshing to be around. And they can be so sweet… Look at that blue ribbon I left the picnic with last weekend!
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