10 July 2014

One Quick Tip: Straw Mulching Your Garden

Dear Lissy,

Gorgeous summer weather has finally come to stay!  I'm trialing Yukon Gold potatoes for the first time this year, and using the popular raised bed/straw method.  I'm no stranger to straw, though -- I've been heavily mulching all of my crops with it for years.  Strawing is an essential part of gardening for one of my friends born and raised in Bavaria, Germany; and she got me hooked.
  • Straw keeps the soil cool and moist, which plants love.  Even hot weather crops like tomatoes grow best with "cool feet."  Cool weather crops will survive July and August heat waves when well mulched.
  • Straw keeps leaves and veg from touching the soil, cutting down on pests and blights.
  • Straw keeps weeds at bay.
  • Straw protects the tops of root crops from scorching (beets, onions, garlic, shallots, etc.)
  • Straw helps the garden look and smell amazing.
A few pointers...
  • Make sure you buy straw, not hay.   Hay is full of weeds. Straw is gold, hay is usually greenish. Horse and goat farms are usually the least expensive source of a bale or two, but a local hardware store or berry farm has straw as well. 
  • Strawing walkways is beautiful, but expensive.  Resist the urge unless you can get free straw.
  • Straw comes in huge bales, but individual "flakes" are only about 4-6" thick.  Break up the flakes, and tuck in around any plants over 8" high.  
  • Occasionally check under the straw for signs of pests.  Mice can be a nuisance if you don't have snakes, cats, or use a deterrent like garlic, onions, or mint planted around your crops.
  • Refresh the straw as needed. 
  • One bale does most of my garden.  
    • Some crops, like beans don't need straw.  Their leaves shade out the soil completely, and the fruit never touches the soil.
    • I only put a thin layer 2" layer around the Delicata, Zucchini, Summer and other squash vines.  I heavily straw cukes, though.
    • I heavily straw (6" minimum) any cool weather crops like broccoli, lettuce, spinach, onions, potatoes, and chard.  Potatoes will grow directly in the straw, yielding a clean, easy harvest with no mosaic virus.
    • Tomatoes and Peppers love a heavy straw mulch, but weed-free grass clippings are even better (and much cheaper!)
    • Pine straw mulch is best for strawberries, asparagus, and blueberries.


07 July 2014

Forward Planning in A Bullet Journal

Dear Lissy,

I've been enjoying a "One Book July" challenge and learning to use the elegant simplicity of a bullet journal.  One of the regular complaints with a bullet journal is the difficulty of forward planning.  I have no desire to create more noise in a simple bullet journal by making a calendar section or creating a page of "future events and tasks" I have to check every day.  But where do I put that pesky task for next Thursday?  I chose to use an old friend, the tickler. 

I record the future task or event right into my daily list, and then place a "T" in the bullet.  The date the task/event needs to re-appear is placed as the signifier in the left hand margin in front of the bullet.
After checking out our library books, I needed a forward reminder to return them on the 17th of July.  I placed a T in the task box, and the return date in the left hand margin.

I then place an identical bullet with a T and the date I originally wrote the task down onto the monthly calendar date it is due.
When I check the monthly calendar on the 17th, I can see that I have a task recorded on July 3 that needs to be put on the daily to do list for the 17th.
If the tickled item is further into the future than the current month, I put the Tickler bullet and date into the monthly To Do list to be migrated forward when the next month is created.

This little system creates a minimum of re-writing while maintaining the integrity of the bullet journal system.  If I come up with any more little hacks, I'll share them with you in another letter.


27 June 2014

Mom Review: QoR Modern Watercolor Paints for Students

Dear Lissy,

Well, my sweets, we received a package o' fun in the mail last week:  tubes of the new QoR watercolor paint from Golden.  They provided the paint for this review, but our thoughts and observations are our own.  We use watercolor in a wide variety of subjects and every grade Kindergarten through middle school.  In high school, we primarily use watercolors for tinting and lettering. 

The colors QoR sent us to try out:  Pyrrole Red Light, Quin Gold, Indian Yellow, Hookers' Green, Pthalo Blue, French Ultramarine Blue, Quin Violet, Raw Umber, and Neutral Tint.  We use a limited palette in school work of 3-5 shades.
QoR paint is designed for serious artists, and has been reviewed by some of the top watercolor artists in the world:  why on earth would a homeschool mom be interested?  Simple.  Every artist review I read either raved (or whimpered) about how intense the colors were and how they stayed bright and true when dry.  Those two features catapulted QoR paints to the top of my art supplies wish list for the 2014-2015 year.  But, yikes, artist grade watercolor is spendy, and would we think they were bright enough with only one or two glazes of paint?  Most artists use multiple layers of glazing over the course of days.  We might lay an initial wash, hit it with a hairdryer, and then paint the rest of the picture.  If we're feeling particularly ambitious, we might lay a third wash, but our art time is limited.  (Not to fear.  A single wash of QoR paint is dazzling...but I'm getting ahead of myself.)  I contacted Golden to see if they were interested in a home school market review, and they were kind enough to ship a box of paints with several colors we already use and a few we haven't.   If you want to see the works world class artists (and a few hipsters) are creating with QoR colors instead of just perusing home school art projects, join the QoR Facebook page or check out their website gallery at goldenpaints.com

"Whoa!  Those look like markers!"

"OH, cool!  Look at how that blends.  That is a stinkin' cool effect"  

"Mom, when can I have a turn????"

No way!  Mom, you've gotta see this!  It's still the same color it was wet." 

I don't think you and your brothers have had this much fun with art supplies, well, ever.   We started out with our standard No.8 Round Neptune, but switched to our Pentel Aquabrushes when using dot palettes.  We use watercolors in three different ways, so we evaluated the QoR paints for this review by working with all three.  All tests were done on 130# Pentalic Nature Sketch Journal paper.  Yes, we're dying to work on some 300# Arches with QoR paint, but that wasn't in the budget this week, and we never use it for school.

Pre-mixed Jars of Wash
We study color theory and create mixed media works using watercolor washes.  I typically pre-mix three to four colors of wash in small jars.  We may use a CMYK primary triad when you're little for color theory, but we generally move on to analogous or split analogous color schemes by upper elementary.
WHOA!  Our artist had a hard time with the intensity of the wash with our first wax resist.  We had to tissue the paint off the paper just to see the jellyfish.

Our second wax resist was a success once we figured out the paint.   #8 round Neptune used. 

What I liked...
  • Brilliant QoR watercolor is closer to tempera or dye than traditional watercolors.  All of us really enjoyed the bright, clear color.
  • Only tiny amounts of paint are necessary to create a lot of wash
  • The QoR wash stayed mixed and went on the paper smoothly.  Depending on the paint, the pigment often settles to the bottom of the jar.  QoR paints didn't settle out until they had been sitting for almost half an hour, and several of the colors never settled at all.
  • QoR Paints blend almost instantly. We didn't pre-mix colors on a foam plate or in a separate jar like we have to with other paints.  Double-dipping the brush or even mixing directly on the paper gave smooth, beautiful color and exciting results. 
  • Special effects were stunning. Salt, plastic wrap, and bubble wrap all produced great results with QoR washes.
Learning curve...
  • Professional artist paints can contain toxins.    I looked up each color we had before using them.
  • Thinner washes.  We learned to adjust the amount of wash in the brush; but we initially had frustrations with pilling, cockling, and runs.  On the bright side, our work was much looser and more artistic than it has been in the past.
  • The teeny-tiny amount of paint needed to create wash.  The first color I mixed, more paint came out of the tube just from taking off the cap (about 1/2") than I needed to make up three containers of wash.
  • QoR washes dry without fading.  Fading when dry is our #1 gripe when using watercolors for school work.  Comparison wet and dry pictures are at the bottom of this letter.
We use palettes for watercolor art projects starting in middle school.  I'll squirt about 1/2" of fresh paint in 3 - 5 colors into a simple plastic palette that has a clear lid.  Our palettes have 10 small holes and a large center well, so that allows you to mix several more colors as needed.
The bird silhouette  project again from Joy-Filled Days.   Raw Umber and French Ultramarine Blue.  We did not mix the paint on the palette...just on the paper.         #8 Round Neptune used for this project.
What I liked...
  • Palettes require far less QoR paint than with traditional watercolor.  Really, just a shmear.   No blobs.  You don't need a half inch squirt.  A shmear.
  • The QoR paint "dried" into the palette without cracking or shrinking and easily rehydratedWe have had enough trouble with paint that refuses to rehydrate that this feature of the QoR paints was a major selling point for me.  We didn't lose any leftover paint -- we simply rewet and started right in painting again.  After a week in a covered 2$ palette, QoR paint was the consistency of peanut butter.  The pill box travel palette paint was solid, but still honey-sticky to the touch after a week.
  •  Brilliant colorI can't overstate how beautifully bright and saturated the colors of QoR modern watercolor are -- they're more like markers than paint.  Even thinned out enough to be transparent, the color was vivid.
  • Color mixes beautifully, right on the brush or even on the paper.  
  • QoR paints glaze flawlessly.  We made dozens of Venn Diagrams and the glazes were perfect.  
  • QoR Paints charge easily to create beautiful effects.  Maybe it's the microfine pigment particles, maybe it's the polymer binder; but I've never had such beautiful charging effects.  Flower petals look realistic when the darker shade is charged onto the edges and base of the lighter petal color.
  • Qor watercolors work especially well with all of the special effects -- salt, saran, wax resist, bubble wrap -- except lifting.  Like most home schoolers, our paper is good but not gallery quality. We particularly liked scraping lines.  The QoR mixes enough thinner that it runs easily into the lines and creates beautiful effects.
  • QOR WATERCOLORS DRY TRUE TO COLOR!  Let me say that again in case you missed it:  QoR paints don't lighten as they dry. 
  • Golden has a color calculator on their website that gave us a good idea of how much and what color paint to mix to get the color we wanted.
Learning Curve...
  • Oh, my this was a hot mess at first!    Like using gel instead of liquid food coloring, it's hard to comprehend just how much color is in such a tiny bit of paint. Once we started using just a schmear of paint, things went much better.  FYI, QoR rehydrates so quickly the entire well becomes liquid again.  It isn't like regular watercolor that stays in a cake with a thin skim of liquid paint where you work the brush.
  • The rinse water was colored enough to show on the paper in a matter of minutes.   We started wiping most of the color off the brush onto paper towel before swishing out the rest; but even with a half gallon container of water, the water was painting a light color within 15 minutes.  We eventually used a separate container for rinse water, but aquabrushes worked much better than traditional brushes.
  • Palettes were my least favorite method of painting with QoR. Now onto our very favorite, knocked-my-socks off method....
Dot Palettes

I started using dot palettes a couple of years ago when we picked up our first waterbrushes.  I paint a dime-sized dot of each color we're using onto the journal page or a separate card. A touch from the waterbrush activates the paint and allows us to tint drawings in a nature journal or lab notebook.  The dot palettes allow you to paint without dragging out containers of water and tubes of paint.

The dot palette for a fall leaf and tree.  The artist ended up needing roughly three more dots of the Grumbacher yellow and another dot of Red Light as well.
Have I mentioned kids enjoy dark, bright colors?  Notice there's no chalkiness when dry -- just vivid color.  The remains of the dot palette are on the left hand side of the page. 

The same picture still wet.   QoR paint dries true to color.

What I liked, er loved...
  •  QoR Modern Watercolors act as if they were custom designed for dot palettesThe paints instantly re-wet, and have brilliant color even when you barely touch the brush to the colored dot.  
  • Except for a light stain, all of the color lifts off.   There is almost no waste with this method when using QoR paints.
  •  The color is so strong, we were able to paint traditional art projects using dot palettes.  Normally we just use them for work that needs to be tinted. I extended the "dot" to a 1" x 2" square
  • Using dot palettes with QoR watercolor kept all of the watercolor work transparent and true to the medium.  If you've ever used watercolor with children, you know -- they want it bright and thick, more like tempera.  QoR colors are bright even when transparent, and the dot palettes limit the amount of paint that can be loaded onto the brush.
  • Because of the polymer binder, the paints are flexible when dry.  The dots do not crumble or crack, even when the paper is moved around.  I appreciated not having to treat the palettes with the same level of care as nuclear waste.
Learning Curve...
  • For new tubes of paint, I had to dip a toothpick into the tube rather than squeezing out a dot.  Normally a little extra paint isn't a problem, but with QoR, a 1/4" strip of paint would be enough for several pages of nature journal work.
  • We still had to be careful not to overtint our nature/lab drawings (I may or may not have obliterated an otter with a coat of raw umber that was too thick), but overall this is an easy peasy form in which to use the QoR paints.  Provide each student artist with a test sheet for best results.
  • We realized how spoilt we had become with the QoR paint when we needed a cool yellow and had to go back to Grumbacher. We went through almost 3 ml of paint trying to get the color as vivid as the QoR colors.

Mom's Recommendation:

QoR Modern Watercolors are just plain fun to use.  They're bright, and they stay vivid when dry.  QoR colors blend easily, and their online color calculator helped us determine how much of each paint to use.  QoR paints make great washes and shine brightly in dot/strip palettes, but they're trickier to use straight from a palette for younger students.  The washes are also much thinner, and can be used with dip pens.  I painted through the Watercolor Fundamentals from our 7th grade art course and adjusted quickly to the "same color wet and dry" qualities of QoR after just a few exercises. 

The 12 tube starter kit has all of our favorite colors, including Quins, and costs less than half of what I'd spend in gas for one field trip.  Combined with a handful of aquabrushes  and decent watercolor paper (see the P.S.), that much paint should provide several kids enough paint for the better part of a year unless they are taking a Watercolor course.  Because the pigment in QoR paints is so intense, the paint is a much better value than it appears at first glance, and ends up being cheaper than student grade watercolor tubes from Grumbacher or Cotman. 

QoR paints aren't toy grade:  check up on toxicity for each color before giving to a child, and plan to pre-mix washes or create dot palettes for most student work. 

Tickled pink,

P.S.  To go along with your QoR paints, I recommend these other tools.

Pick up a value pack of three Aquash brushes and the Strathmore Visual Journal with 140# watercolor paper that is heavy enough to use on both sides.  The journal has 22 sheets/44 pages -- just right for a school year. The Neptune brush may be cheaper at another source, but has free shipping for Prime members.  These are affiliate links.

***QoR paints are almost twice as expensive through Amazon as they are from the Jerry's link above.   The Visual Journals are on sale right now (June 2014) through Jerry's at a better price than Amazon, too.  I am not a Jerry's affiliate.***

26 June 2014

Commonplace Books: What Are They And Why Do You Need One (or More)?

Dear Lissy,
Hooray for summer vaca!  You'll be heading off to camp in a few weeks, but right now you're trying to keep yourself busy with everything from painting to reading to crafts.  You're old enough now to learn skills and read books that will stay with you for the rest of your life.  You've even started your very own commonplace book.

What is a Commonplace Book?  
 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a commonplace book as:  
"n.  A personal journal in which quotable passages, literary excerpts, and comments are written."
A page from my current book, started in late 2013.  Notice the blank facing page so I have room to meditate on (and maybe argue a bit) with these thoughts, or even add an additional similar idea from another source.