Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April's gone

It’s been a busy month, and May promises to be even more hectic. As cinco de mayo approaches I’m looking forward to all the adventures planned in the coming months, and at the same time, wondering where April went… Sorting through my pictures, I realized we had quite a month.

We mourned the loss of a few favorite neighborhood trees, and are nervous about a new development possibly going in nearby. However it isn’t possible to halt progress, and as we work towards ensuring any new construction is responsible and sustainable, we have been working on getting our garden productive. A trip to Padulas Plants and Gardens supplied us with a few new native plants that are now happily growing in our raised beds, and on our way home Lauris spotted this familiar face…

Mater, right here in the Upstate!

In addition to getting the garden in order we’ve been working on some spring cleaning, and as American tradition dictates, had a yard sale to sell our junk to other people. The boys made lemonade and baked cookies (with only a little help from mom in regards to operating the oven), and made some money for their piggy banks.

We’ve had some great weather, and along with it wonderful opportunities to get out and explore areas of the Upstate we’re not so familiar with, including more of Lake Conestee Nature Park. But we’ve also stayed in some, especially during the week of rain and hail.

And that’s when this was constructed!

We’re having some sad moments too, as our good friends departed South Carolina for Minnesota last week. There was a farewell party with a couple dozen kids.

What can go wrong with a little game of 'red rover'?

Thank goodness the weather was nice and my mother-in-law was here to help, as Roberts was away on business and we wouldn’t have been able to fit that amount of people in our house if it was raining!

We celebrated Earth day and Arbor day, Australia day and Arts Alive. There was more than one trip to the children's museum.

One of the more exciting events however, may have been the acquisition of our new water table – a gift from another set of friends moving north, this family to Ohio. There’s one guy who is particularly excited…

Onward ho!

photo credit Monique

Monday, April 27, 2015

A weekend of 2 great causes - Arts Alive and Project Host

There is TONS of stuff going on in Greenville now that the weather is nicer. There is always something going on, but right around this time of year there are more festivals than you can attend! We kicked off the weekend at Arts Alive, the annual spring fundraiser for Stone Academy. With food, live music, rides, games and a silent auction we had our work cut out for us; the boys voted to start with the rides and games.

Stone Academy is one of three magnet elementary schools in Greenville County. The emphasis at Stone is on the arts, and the silent auction featured artwork created by the students. There were also a few art-related booths like the one allowing kids to take a turn at a pottery wheel, however the majority of games and rides are the sort you would find at a carnival: a dunk tank, cake walk, bounce house and so on. In my opinion the top attraction was the music lineup, which included Greenville percussion guru Jeff Holland and singer/songwriter Darby Wilcox.

Vilis watches Darby Wilcox takes the stage while Jeff Holland packs it up

After hot dogs and a snow cone the youngest member of our entourage was feeling tired, and so we headed home just as the silent auction was ending and the Rolling Stones cover band consisting of all Stone parents took the stage. You can find my 2013 Arts Alive recap here, and the one from 2014 here.

It was pure chance that we ended up in downtown Saturday for the second half of the BBQ Cookoff festival. Roberts and the boys took the trolley downtown while I was out running errands, but once I heard there was a BBQ festival on, I hurriedly took the groceries home and went to join them! In its sixth year, the people’s choice chicken wing competition was on Friday night while the judged barbeque and rib cooking contest was Saturday. We tasted pulled pork BBQ from a majority of the cooking teams including a couple of our favorites such as Henry’s.

Put on by Project Host, the event was a fundraiser for the following: Project Host Soup Kitchen, the C.C. Pearce Community Culinary School (teaching culinary and life skills to the chronically unemployed including job placement assistance), Project Host Catering (offering catering by the culinary students and benefiting the Culinary School) and the Feeding Hungry Children Project (which provides 450 healthy after school meals weekly to children who are at risk of going to bed hungry). According to the Project Host website, it is the first soup kitchen in the country to have a garden on-site. In addition, on the third Thursday of every month they host a reservations-only dinner designed to give the culinary students more practical experience. For more information on Project Host and how you can get involved in this organization benefitting our community, please visit their website,

Falls Park selfie!

For more stuff happening downtown check out the City of Greenville events page here. There’s something almost every night of the week! Thursday evenings; Downtown Alive at NOMA Square on Main St. - featuring rock, blues, funk, and cover bands. Fridays are also at NOMA Square - Main Street Friday featuring jazz, blues, oldies and soul music bands. The Saturday Market reopens for the year Saturday the 2nd (Main St. at McBee Ave.), and the Moonlight Movies classic movie series in Falls Park will be starting up again on Wednesday, May 6th (click here for schedule). The Rotary Club of Greenville is hosting the annual Reedy River duck derby on May 2nd, and Artisphere is scheduled for May 8-10. If that’s not enough to keep you busy for the next couple of weeks let me know, and you can come help out here; the month of May will be all hands on deck!

Friday, April 24, 2015

An Earth Day celebration!

Our Earth Day event had been in the planning for some time. We participate in a monthly co-op down in Piedmont, and I had volunteered to plan the April event with a dozen possible projects in mind. By the time Earth Day rolled around we had narrowed it down to a few activities, and with a car packed full of supplies and kids we headed down to Piedmont, to our good friend Monique’s property.

As everyone arrived we saw our smiles mirrored in each other’s faces, as we were buoyed by the gorgeous spring day after what had been a week of thunderstorms, clouds, rain and even hail. Once mostly everyone had arrived we settled in for a story.

The Earth Book by Todd Parr explored ways that each and every one of us can live a more environmentally-friendly life, including many small but meaningful steps such as using both sides of the paper, turning the lights off when they aren’t in use and bringing reusable bags with to the grocery store. The book is printed with recycled materials and nontoxic soy inks, and it was super-easy to encourage the kids’ participation and get them talking about the ‘green’ things they do at home with the included poster.

The kids were then ready for a hands-on project, so we moved to the picnic tables and rolled up our sleeves to make seed bombs. Jennifer had suggested this activity as a great sensory experience for the little hands that like getting dirty, and it was fun seeing the looks on their faces as we encouraged the mud play! We each got some red dirt in our bowl which we added water to, forming a muddy clay. After adding pollinator seeds to the mix we rolled the product into balls, which we let dry in the warm spring air. These ‘bombs’ can be thrown anywhere – a garden, a right-of-way, the trailside, an abandoned lot – and hopefully in the coming month will grow the native flowers so important to our local pollinators. As the kids mushed and mixed and rolled Jennifer talked about how the hummingbirds, bats, bees, beetles, butterflies and flies are so important to our gardens, forests and crops. Thank you Jennifer for the initiative, the seed, the supplies and the sharing!

As the kids finished up we started right in on the next project, getting seeds started. We discussed how different seeds have different needs: some need more water, some more light, some more space. Some seeds want to climb, while others want to spread. Our local Home Depot donated bio-degradable pots so that the seedlings could later be transplanted into gardens without shocking the plants, and Greater Greenville Sanitation provided us with a rich, dark soil to fill them, and a few different seeds to plant. Padulas Plants and Gardens supplied us with the rest of the seed, giving us such a variety to choose from that the kids really had a chance to discuss what would grow best in the spaces they have available and what they would like to see/eat the most. Top choices were watermelon, sunflower, moonflower and tomato! Thanks also to Lauren for the extra seed – I think it really made the planting more fun for the kids that they got to choose what seeds went into their pots.

There was some free play  before we started the next project, planting trees in honor of Arbor Day (which is actually today, the last Friday of April - happy Arbor Day!!!). Monique had chosen a few seedlings for us to plant on her property, and so we got busy. One crew headed off to scoop some horse manure, while a second got busy digging holes. We mixed the manure and more of the Greater Greenville Sanitation soil in while discussing why we can’t just fill the hole with the good stuff (the tree’s roots will only grow in the super-fertile stuff and eventually become root-bound), the tree species (tulip poplar and western hemlock) and how to protect the tiny seedlings (Our neighbor had donated some garden fencing which will protect the trees from the dogs and lawn mower until they grow bigger – thanks Ms. Susan!).

The kids drifted in and out, leaving the moms to do most of the heavy work… but does it matter? The seeds have been planted – literally and figuratively! Over the next weeks as our little seedlings sprout, grow and get planted in gardens and on porches across the Upstate, there will be dozens of little hands watering them and caring for them, little eyes watching them grow. As the kids return to Monique’s over the next months, maybe years, they’ll be (hopefully) able to witness the trees maturing. And as we watch our little ones grow, we can hope that the love for nature has been planted in each and every one of them, so that they may learn to respect and care for the earth and its resources.

A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped make this day a reality for the kids, especially Monique, for opening up her home to us every month, to Mr. Leviner of Greater Greenville Sanitation, to Ms. McCarty at Home Depot and to Andrew Padula of Padulas Plants and Gardens!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Conestee's Raccoon Run

Happy Earth Day! The theme of this 45th earth day is “It’s our turn to lead,” and that’s exactly what I will be doing at our Earth Day activity down in Piedmont this afternoon. But more on that at a later date, because today in honor of this worldwide holiday I would like to share how our little corner of the Upstate looks this spring!

We recently joined some friends at Lake Conestee Nature Preserve to hike another one of the new trails. On our last visit we explored Sparkleberry Island via the Heron Circle Trail, and as it was early in March there was only just the barest hint of green in the woods. The forest was at the opposite end of the spectrum by the time we returned, bursting with an almost electric green in the bottomlands.

Our trail of choice on this particular day was Raccoon Run, also easily accessible from the playground at Conestee Park. A little over a mile in length, we chose to start at the North Entrance (marked #5 on this trail map). This corner of the park is completely unique, with a sandstone cliff, rock balds and a view over the old landfill. The boys being fresh and adventurous wanted to climb the cliff; luckily for us the first wall was too tall to scale.

The rocky ground equates with small, stunted pines and minimal vegetation. I wondered at the history of this portion of the park, whether there had been any sort of mining involved to influence the topography.

As we continued on the trail circled back towards the Reedy, at one point passing close to the border of the park and what was once the City of Greenville’s landfill. According to a couple walking their dogs a trail runs in that direction for a short distance, at which point there is a ‘no trespassing’ sign forbidding access.

Raccoon run then continues alongside the Reedy River, crossing the access trail leading from the North Conestee Preserve Bridge Entrance to the Reedy River Bridge. By this time we had descended into the bottomlands, and the trail was a boardwalk through a sea of green. On the other side of the river is Sparkleberry Island, and at times we could see hikers on the Heron Circle Trail. We walked on, eventually reaching the southernmost point of our hike, the East Bay Observation Deck.

We rested a while on the benches overlooking East Bay until the boys grew restless and started asking for the playground. There are a few spur trails leading to the parking lot for those wishing to cut their hike short on the way in: Sapsucker Spur and Chickadee Link. It is also possible to slightly extend the hike by continuing on Dragonfly Way, but both options emerge in Forrester Meadow before the ball fields come into view. As I was carrying Vilis on my back, and Mikus has the shortest legs of the hikers, we opted to take Raccoon Run out and circle back to the playground via the paved road, while the rest of the crew headed back through the woods and emerged back at the bridge entrance.

This is an easy hike with plenty of options should the kids get tired en route, with a pleasant change in scenery and good chances at seeing wildlife. With the north section of the trail providing an experience unlike the majority of the rest of the bottomland park, we’ll be returning to this trail often, especially as the mosquitos pick up in the wetter areas. Next goal – the western section of Lake Conestee Nature Preserve and Learning Loop 3

Monday, April 20, 2015

History Repeated: Baltics and Eastern Europe in Peril?

A big weekend for Latvians in the US! Friday saw the start of JBANC’s Eleventh Baltic Conference in Washington, DC. The Joint Baltic American Committee was established in 1961 to represent the Baltic-American communities and its three parent organizations: the American Latvian Association, the Estonian American National Council and the Lithuanian American Council. JBANC exists to help coordinate the activities of the three countries in DC with the US government and agencies dealing with issues related to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Karl Altau - Managing Director of JBANC (at podium) and Panel 2: Andrius Kubilius, Andrea Chalupa, Orest Deychakiwsky and Michael Sawkiw

With the subject being “History Repeated: Baltics and Eastern Europe in Peril?” the weekend saw panel discussions such as “Russian Disinformation and Propaganda,” “Defending Ukraine,” “What are Russia’s Intentions?” and “Western Response.” The opening keynote was delivered by Andrius Kubilius, former Prime Minister of Lithuania, and later President of Estonia, H.E. Toomas Hendrik Ilves spoke. Other dignitaries included Artis Pabriks, Member of the European Parliament for Latvia (and former Minister for Defense and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia), Baltic Ambassadors to the US Andris Razāns (Latvia) and Žygimantas Pavilionis (Lithuania), US State Department officials including John Heffern (Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs) and a host of organization leaders from the US and abroad. Political celebrities included American analyst, writer and columnist Paul Goble, and journalist Liz Wahl, whose live resignation and denunciation of RT and the network's coverage of Russian military intervention in Ukraine went viral last year.

The Femme au Foyer special correspondent on the ground in DC had this to say about the weekend:

“Past JBANC Conferences have focused on securing the independence of the Baltic States, on continuing the focus on membership in Western organizations (chief among these NATO) and economic security. This conference was History Repeated: Baltics and Eastern Europe in Peril. Several themes resonated throughout the conference, the key recommendation of many speakers and panelists was to call things by their name: The Wars of Choice that have been started by Vladimir Putin in Europe (Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine) are actual shooting wars conducted against, in the last three cases, independent states.

In sum; this was another in a long line of substantive conferences organized by JBANC and supported by its member organizations that focus on the most pressing questions facing the Baltic States. These conferences attract decision makers and opinion leaders and are attended by people committed to working for the security and economic development of the Baltic States as members of the Trans-Atlantic community of the Western Nations. The JBANC conferences also follow a noticeable trend of being attended by increasing numbers from younger generations; perhaps 25% of this year’s attendees were under the age of 35.” 

European Parliament member Dr. Artis Pabriks (left) with H.E. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia (source here)
The JBANC conference was broadcast on-line through the internet, expanding its reach worldwide.

The JBANC website here

Also to watch: Why Lithuanians feel Ukraine's pain

Friday, April 17, 2015

The modern face of urban gardening

At the forefront of the urban gardening movement in Washington DC are people like our friends Linda and Ēriks with Urban Farm Plans. In less than three years they have turned their backyard into a teaching garden, as well as started a business around building composters and greenhouses - and they’re making headlines doing it. It was on our recent trip to the nation’s capital that we had the opportunity to stop in for a visit, and just as wonderful as it was seeing good friends again was gaining inspiration from their garden – productive and growing, even in March.

I’ve wanted to see this backyard farm for myself ever since I first saw a picture of the garden gate, the beams crossing overhead bringing to mind the Latvian Jumis sign. The pagan deity Jumis represents fertility and a good harvest, and a jumja zīme over the entryway is sure to bring prosperity and luck to such a well-tended garden.

Photo: Linda

Although we started off indoors, catching up over coffee (and an elderberry/shitake cordial for the boys, but don’t worry, I made sure to get a taste as well!), it couldn’t be helped that we quickly moved outdoors. Drawn to the garden, Lauris and Mikus made themselves at home, exploring every corner of the yard and inspecting all the new growth while munching on freshly-picked kale. (With all the kale being consumed at our house this last week a frequent comment has been “I don’t like this kale as well as Ēriks’ kale…”)

As I asked question after question on how the garden had come to be, what they have planted and growing where, how they harvest and preserve, and on their future plans, I marveled at just how fully the space was utilized within the backyard. With a parking area taking up a portion of their yard they joined forces with a neighbor, doubling the space suitable for gardening. What isn’t used for growing is given over to composting, storing gardening supplies and building compost bins and hothouses. We got a peek inside one of the hothouses, and I admired a second greenhouse constructed out of an old door. Then there were the compost bins; with solid construction yet easy-to-use functionality, I’ve been mentally reworking our system at home trying to come up with something with the same aesthetics and durability.

While we were poking around Ēriks’ brother Andrejs showed up. In on the endeavor since the beginning, his enthusiasm for the future of their venture is contagious, and it was easy to get excited right along with him for where they’re headed this growing season. I’m looking forward to updates on the garden as well as the online how-to tutorials for DIY compost bins. These guys have a great team, a fantastic garden and boundless room to grow –especially with Jumis blessing the gate

Linda and Ēriks have a portfolio of their work as well as more information on their services on their website, Also make sure to visit their brand new facebook page for seasonal info and inspirational photos!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Goat cheese fettucine with shrimp, bacon and kale

When I was a little girl I had an aversion to all foods green. With the possible exception of cucumbers (but peeled to within an inch of their life), there was not much green that passed my lips until I finally started eating the simple stuff – salad and peas – sometime around high school. It wasn’t until living in France where access to fantastically fresh produce at the local marché is a right (not a privilege) that I started eating greens and asparagus. And although I’m still not so sure about collards and brussel sprouts, I’ve (thankfully) finally lost the one thing I had in common with President Bush Sr., the dislike of broccoli.

Look, LŪK - leeks!

Luckily my boys have not inherited this mistrust of the vitamin-rich green foods, and while there are some that they aren’t fond of, mostly they’ll give it a try. And like typical kids, what they love one day might be declined the next, so I just keep trying new things and repeating the stuff that works. It helps when there are wonderfully fresh seasonal greens (ramps and asparagus being two of my favorites this spring) available at our local stores: Swamp Rabbit Grocery, the SC farmers market and the Tomato Vine. However it’s even better when it’s coming out of our garden, and this spring I have an abundance of kale.

fresh rosemary from the garden

As kale sautéed with garlic hasn’t been as agreeably received by the rest of the lodgers as by yours truly, I’ve been working with other options. Mixed in with a fresh salad seemed to work well until it suddenly didn’t, despite the boys’ insatiable appetites for the stuff when we toured Ēriks’ and Linda’s garden in DC. And cooked into anything it always earned a big “what’s that green thing,” making it a lot more work to get them to eat it than I have patience for.

So I present to you my recipe for fettucine with shrimp, kale, bacon and goat cheese, inspired by an old Bon Appétit recipe. It’s for when you feel like making a nice dinner, or have guests coming over, but still want something rather straightforward. When you’ve been out hiking all afternoon and need a good hearty spring meal that will fill you up on a cool, rainy evening. Or when you feel like ignoring the mess in the living room and the misbehaving, mess-making boys and concentrate your energies in the kitchen. I kept the fettucine separate, thereby giving the boys the choice of eating it together or individually.  

(Oven-roasted asparagus makes a tasty side dish to the fettucine. This spring’s favorite variation is tossed with olive oil, Parmesan cheese, minced garlic and sea salt, then roasted at 425˚ for about 15 minutes.)

Fettucine with shrimp, kale, bacon and goat cheese
Serves 6

2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 thick bacon slices, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
4 cups coarsely chopped kale
1 lb fettuccine
6 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

Combine the tomatoes and vinegar in bowl, and let stand until tomatoes release their juice, about 15 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bacon and cook until crisp, about 5 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels.

Add shrimp to the same skillet and sauté until done, about 4 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

Sauté the leeks for about 3 minutes, then add garlic and rosemary, stirring all the while. Mix in the tomatoes, shrimp and bacon, and simmer until tomatoes are heated through, about 4 minutes. Finally add in kale and simmer until wilted, about 1 minute.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package. Drain.

Transfer pasta to large bowl. Add the goat cheese, 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese and the tomato/kale mixture and toss to combine.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Padulas Plants and Gardens

As you’re thinking about plants for your garden this spring, remember to think local. Not only will the small nurseries in your area have plants that are specifically geared towards your climate and soils, but they will also be able to offer better advice on what does and doesn’t work, troubleshoot issues and make suggestions. Since the plants at the big box stores often travel far distances, they can pick up diseases and pests along the way that might not manifest themselves in that exact plant, but can wreak havoc in your garden. Finally, by supporting local businesses you are supporting your local economy, minimizing the carbon footprint in terms of transportation costs and growing expenses (especially water), and fostering a community of gardeners in your area.

There are some fantastic resources here in the Upstate, one of which I mentioned in my post “What is permaculture?” - the SC Upstate Permaculture Society. I’ve learned so much about how to garden successfully in a southern climate from this group, not just about how to deal with the hot and dry conditions, but also about improving the red clay soils and about plants native to the area.

So many native plants have been labelled ‘weeds’ by society, mostly because they tend to grow well if not controlled and pop up in places they are not welcome – your turf or flower beds. However, there are endless benefits to these native 'weeds'; some are edible, others have herbal uses, and many are perfectly adapted to challenging local growing conditions. Insects and wildlife depend on these plants, and their scarcity means favorites such as monarch butterflies and honeybees are struggling.

Lauris helping with the yardwork

We have not yet taken the steps to completely eradicate grass from our yard, but it is an attractive option that is growing more popular in the urban landscape. As we're slowly designing our gardens with permaculture and sustainability in mind it helps to have local nurseries that not only sell native plants, but provide knowledgeable help. We have several here in the Upstate, one of which is Padulas Plants and Gardens. We recently had an opportunity to tour their grounds in nearby Greer.

The herbs, vegetables and flowering perennials sold by Padula’s are grown on site and without the use of chemical fertilizers. They make their own soil mix at the plant nursery, and offer many native species that are not available at the chains. It was interesting seeing several of their perennial stock gardens, where the plants were growing in a natural environment.

In the wooded stock garden

The owners regularly post beautiful pictures of their plants and fascinating videos of wildlife on their facebook site, which is also where you will find up to date information on what they currently have in stock. Padulas offers classes on basic garden design, the art of Bonsai creation and their care, perennial propagation and care, as well as various seasonal classes. More information can be found on their website and on YouTube. We picked up a few plants for our new garden beds, and I found plenty of inspiration in their gorgeous gardens. It didn’t hurt that the day we visited was a perfect spring day, with the sun warm on our backs and all the dogwoods and cherry trees blooming along the roads. The boys started counting them on the way there; they lost count at seventy-something.

More yard work. Don't ask.

We found the time this weekend to work in our garden. There have been some big changes in our backyard, and I’m looking forward to everything coming together so that I can share the results. These warm days have definitely brought an end to my winter crops, as the salad and kale are going to seed and the carrots wilting. The peas are coming in nicely, and the tomatoes have been planted. Along with plants from Padulas I’ve got seeds, shrubs and veggies from several sources (including the SC State Farmer’s Market), and slowly we’re piecing together our summer garden: a new year, a new garden and new possibilities!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Opening day!

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Just buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.

Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game.

(Did you know that this unofficial baseball anthem was composed by two men who had never attended a baseball game? “Take Me Out to the Ball Game, written in 1908 by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer and traditionally sung during the middle of the seventh inning of the game.)

The Greenville Drive won against the Augusta GreenJackets on Opening Day! Two lucky boys accompanied Roberts to the game, staying to the very end. And it was a good thing too, as the Drive scored the game-winning point at the bottom of the 9th!

With home games every night for the next week there are plenty of options to catch the Drive at Fluor Field early this season. The boys will be back soon, and hopefully Vilis and I will be able to join them for a few innings; here’s wishing our team a great season!

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