The Soil Your Undies Challenge- A Simple Home DIY Test for Soil Health

A few weeks ago, I sent my grandchildren a package with two pairs of new XL men’s cotton briefs and a batch of their favorite Italian cookies. After the box arrived, their mom Facetimed so the kids could say, “Thank You.” My grandchildren, who have been gardening with me for years, asked why I had sent them such huge undies. In my most enthusiastic voice, I explained that we were going to plant them in their new garden, and it was going to be a science experiment! My six-year-old grandson brought the phone close to his face, looked me in the eye, and in a serious yet tender voice said, “YaYa, you can’t grow underwear.”

The Soil Your Undies Challenge

 

Last fall, I participated in a whimsical citizen science experiment called the Soil Your Undies Challenge. I “planted” new cotton briefs in one of my raised garden beds on Labor Day and “harvested” them sixty days later. The Challenge is simple: if your soil is healthy, soil-dwelling organisms will dine on the cotton until it is gone. The degree of cotton deterioration is directly related to how much microbial activity is going on. The more activity, the more “alive” and healthy your soil and the healthier your plants will be. Healthy plants resist the stress caused by drought, pests, and disease.

Here is the BEFORE photo:

Here is the AFTER photo:

You can imagine my astonishment when I found the cotton had fully disappeared! Only the polycotton seams and waistband remained.

What is Soil Health?

Healthy soil is dark and crumbly, is full of nutrients, and has macroorganisms you can see like earthworms and insects, and billions of microorganisms (aka microbes) like bacteria and fungi that can only be seen under a microscope. These organisms feast on organic material like mulched leaves, grass clippings, dead plants, food scraps from the compost bucket, and sometimes buried cotton undies. Microbes rule the soil. They constantly break down organic matter creating a biological environment that allows for the absorption of nutrients by a plant’s roots. Microbial activity helps make soil porous and better able to retain water, air, and nutrients. 

The Soil Your Undies Challenge was created by a group of Oregon farmers as a way to build public awareness of how farming practices such as tillage affect soil health. Tillage disturbs soil microbes. The no-till strategy allows organisms to do their work to create more nutrient-dense soil and keeps sequestered carbon in the ground, which is healthier for the environment. Carbon that is released into the atmosphere contributes to climate change.

Nashville’s version of the Challenge was coordinated by Jeff Barrie, CEO of the Tennessee Environmental Council, and Dr. Chris Vanags, a soil scientist in the ASCEND Initiative at Vanderbilt University. They aim to help people make informed decisions when purchasing lawn and garden products like insecticides and herbicides or when performing common land management practices like mowing a lawn perhaps too frequently or tilling a garden bed.

Methodology

For standardized data comparisons, the coordinators mailed participants the same-size briefs and a video link on how to plant them. We planted undies vertically with the waistband exposed so we could locate them two months later. We mailed before and after photos to the researchers.

Below are photos of my adorable sister-in-law, Lesley, modeling for me how to plant undies. She and my brother started their raised beds with logs, sticks, and plant debris, a type of gardening known as hugelkultur. Their soil is gorgeous.

Why Use Cotton Fabric?

Cotton fibers are comprised of tens of thousands of seed hairs made of tasty carbohydrates (cellulose) that grow off of the seed coat. These hairs are present to facilitate wind dispersal of the seed for the purpose of reproduction.
 

Results

One week after we unearthed the undies and sent in our photos, we met the study coordinators, Jeff and Chris, in a Facebook Live presentation. They divided the 120 “after” pictures of undies into ten categories based on the degree of degradation.

I took this screenshot of the results. It turns out my undies fell in the number ten category. I’ll admit to a momentary feeling of pride in my hard work to keep my garden beds healthy.

Land management practices that contribute to soil health:

Grow cover crops:  Keep something growing in the garden year-round by planting cover crops between seasons. Cover crops nourish microbes and prevent soil erosion in the off-season. I plant a combination of buckwheat which suppresses weeds and whose blooms attract beneficial insects, a brassica like daikon radish or turnips whose roots drill down into the soil naturally breaking it up, and crimson clover, a legume that adds nitrogen to the ground through nitrogen fixation and whose red blossoms attract bees.

Start a compost pile. We throw food scraps, old bread and pasta, leaf litter, chicken poop, dead plants, and coffee grounds into our compost pile. We don’t add cooked food that might attract rodents. We spread composted mulch in our garden during the summer to keep moisture in and weeds out and to add nutrients to the soil,

Stop tilling in established beds. Tilling disrupts a garden’s microbial population. It exposes microorganisms to the elements where they dry out and die; it releases nutrients to rain run-off; and it releases sequestered carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. Instead, jiggle a pitchfork or broadfork in the ground to aerate soil. I only use a tiller when creating a new bed and even then, only when the ground is too hard to break up on my own. When removing dead plants, I cut the stems at the ground level allowing the roots to decompose in situ. Check out this post to read more.

Create garden paths in your garden to discourage compaction by foot traffic. This will help keep the nooks and crannies in soil open to air and water in the garden beds. Check out How to Build a Raised Garden Bed

I don’t use herbicides or insecticides. I know it’s pathetic, but I only stopped using them in 2010 when I became a hen keeper — I didn’t want my free-ranging chickens to eat anything that had chemicals on it! Back then, I would joke that the chickens kept me honest.

I do not spray for mosquitos. Instead, I make mosquito bucket traps that contain a bacterium found in soil that acts as a larvacide for mosquitos.

Conclusion

This study has had a profound impact on the way I think about soil. I now imagine all the microbial activity going on underground, and I am more conscious of how my chosen garden practices affect my soil. Additionally, when I give a garden tour or teach people how to start a garden, I begin with a discussion about soil health, and then I pull out my scrappy undies…

For the past year, I have volunteered at a non-profit, teaching women how to grow food. I enrolled the ladies in this year’s Soil Your Undies Challenge. They planted undies in two garden beds. As they planted the undies vertically, they quickly learned that while the topsoil was loose, the deeper soil was hard and compacted. It took a lot of work to make a slit in the ground. We’ll need to use a broadfork or pitchfork to break that soil up once the fall crops are harvested.

I am grateful to my friend Maureen May, founder of the Second Sunday Gardeners, who created a place for curious gardeners to come together to learn sustainable land management practices. She and another member, Heidi, encouraged twenty people in our group to participate in this study.

Related Stories:

Watch this excellent Nashville Public Television Volunteer Gardener clip: Soil Your Undies: How Healthy is Your Soilhosted by Julie Birbiglia, the education specialist for Metro Water Services. She and Dr. Chris Vanags dig up undies on the Vanderbilt campus and discuss the results.

Julie also did two stories for NPT’s Volunteer Gardener about gardening and raising chickens in my backyard. We talked about chicken coops, what chickens eat, keeping chickens safe, composting and cover crops. One video was a Volunteer Gardener episode called Chicken Chat and the other was a FaceTime live production.

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© 2014-2022 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may not be reproduced without the written consent of Judy Wright.

Migrating Purple Martins Pass through Nashville

Here in Nashville, Mother Nature has given us a brief diversion from COVID, #SaferAtHome, Zoom meetings, FaceTiming, home-schooling, cooking, cleaning, weeding, and searching for a good movie on Netflix.

She has given us reason to “ooh” and “aah,” followed by a peaceful, easy feelin’.

She has done it all by sending us waves and swirls of Purple Martins coming in to roost after a day spent foraging for insects along the Cumberland River. The birds come to fatten up for their 4000-mile flight to Brazil and other areas of the Amazon Rainforest. I’d call this swarming a murmuration, but I’m not sure if that term is reserved for starlings only.

My niece, Elizabeth, was with my husband and me and captured the sky dance of the Purple Martins in this video shot at 7:00. Like I said, lots of “oohs” and “aahs” and even a “Holy S#$%” in there.

 

I learned about the Purple Martins roosting in Nashville yesterday in a New York Times column written by my friend, Margaret Renkl. Her article is definitely worth reading, as are all of her weekly Monday opinion pieces in the Times. Click here for a link to the story, A 150,000-Bird Orchestra in the Sky.

I am not sure how long the birds will be in Nashville. We drove downtown and parked in front of the Schermerhorn around 6:40 p.m. At first, we didn’t see any birds and figured we had missed them. Then, suddenly, they started to show up by the hundreds. It was exciting! We were glad we had made an effort to go downtown.

The trees were full of roosting birds.

The sky dance was extraordinary and just what I needed to get re-energized during a blah COVID-fighting week.

Take care and in the words of Dr. James Hildreth and Dr. Alex Jahangir, Nashvillians docs who have been leading our city in its fight against COVID, along with our Mayor, John Cooper, “We’ve got this Nashville.”

COVID Projects
How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Bed Starter Garden
Upbeat Movies to Watch While Social-Distancing
How to Make Gorgeous Birdhouse Gourds
How to Make Artisan Bread the Easy Way
How to Make Greek Yogurt at Home
Marion’s Crazy Good Pumpkin Bread with Chocolate Chips
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Putting Your Garden to Bed with a Blanket of Cover Crops

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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Spring Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden

A hot pink and green salad. Mother Nature is a creative genius.
DSC_0342This is a close up of the salad we had for dinner this week. We call it the Lily Pulitzer Salad. Every part of it came out of our garden: lettuce, radishes, pea pods, dill, green onions, and tasty radish flowers. I am beaming with delight! To think, these vegetables all started as SEEDS that grew in DIRT, and now they’ve become something delicious, nutritious, and gorgeous! #whywedoit

Here is the newly seeded front garden on Sunday, March 15th.
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Here it is ten weeks later.
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This garden space is 20 by 30 feet. The fence was made using a roll of four-foot chicken-wire framed by wooden posts. Eighteen-inches in from the fencing, I “planted” a necklace of recycled upside-down wine bottles to separate the planting space from the footpath. Because this garden space is never walked on, there is no soil compaction, thus no need for tilling. I reserve the center of the garden for summer crops.

The first vegetable I plant is always peas. I plant them sometime between Valentine’s Day and March 15th, depending on the weather. A few weeks before planting, I invite the chickens inside to scratch up the dirt as they look for bugs (tilling), eat the CHICKweed (weeding), and leave their nutrient-rich poop (fertilizer) — a free-for-all for them and a bonanza for me!
Veg garden

To prepare the necklace for planting, I use a pitchfork to lightly aerate the soil, trying to not disturb old roots and worms who do the bulk of the work of loosening the soil during the winter.
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Next, I plant peas along the fence for support, spring onion sets in the middle, and one row of radishes next to the bottles. I was careful to space the radish seeds four inches apart for better root formation this season. I planted many different varieties of radishes.

March 15th

March 30th

April 17th

April 30th

Here is What I Planted Inside the Front Necklace Garden:

Sugar Ann Peas
There is an old gardening tradition that says to plant your peas on Valentine’s Day. That is always the goal, but seldom the reality. This year was no exception. In fact, we were iced-in for most of February, and I didn’t get to plant anything until mid-March. This may be the reason my Sugar Ann peas failed so miserably. The other reason is they probably got crowded out by the quick growth of the onions and radishes in front of them. Next year, I may start the peas two weeks earlier than the onions and radishes or soak the peas before planting for quicker germination.

I typically plant two varieties of peas: a sugar snap and a snow pea. They grow in the same way. And both need vine support.

May 21

Sugar Snaps are an edible-podded cultivar that have plump peas inside. They are a cross between shelling English peas and snow peas. They are super sweet and hardly ever make it to the kitchen.

vegetable gardens vegetable gardening

Snow peas also have flat edible pods and are not as sweet as snap peas.

5:28meltingsugar

They are often used in Asian cooking. Look for a “stringless” variety. The chickens love pea plants and often eat whatever pokes out of the fencing.

 

Spring Onions (aka Scallions or Green Onions)
Sets planted 3/15. Harvest started six weeks later and is ongoing. I plant the purple variety because I love the color, and you can’t find them in a grocery store. I planted 200 sets this year; I cannot get enough of spring onions.

For more information on growing spring onions, radishes, and turnips, go to my blog post, Urban Farming Part 1: Fall Planting.

“Easter Egg” Radishes
Seeds planted 3/15. 30 days to maturity. Started harvesting on 4/17. Sweet, mild, crispy, and colorful. Flowers and leaves are edible.

spring garden

“Red Meat” Radish (aka “Watermelon” Radish)
Planted 3/15. 50 days to maturity. Started harvesting on May 18. Crisp, have more of a bite, and have a beautiful hot pink color inside. Their leaves and flowers are edible, too.

Cauliflower and Broccoli
On each end of the rectangular garden, I planted cauliflower and broccoli seedlings. Both crops were a failure. Something ate all the leaves within one week of planting. Every spring, I swear I will not grow these two vegetables, and every year I cave when I see them at the garden center. I remember the glory days when I grew gorgeous broccoli plants but forget about the pesticides I used to keep insects away. Now that I have free-range chickens, I do not use any insecticides (or herbicides) in my backyard. I often joke that my hens keep me honest whenever I get tempted.

Here is What I Planted in the Back Raised Bed Garden:

“Premier Blend” Kale
Seeds planted March 23. Days to maturity: 28 baby-size, 55 bunching. Harvesting began in late April.
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“Bright Lights” Swiss Chard
Seeds planted 3/23. Days to maturity: 28 baby-size, 55 bunching. Harvesting began 5/26
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“Hakurei Hybrid” Turnips
Seeds planted 3/23. Days to maturity: 38. Harvesting began 5/26

These small, white, crisp, sweetish turnips have been the tastiest surprise of all the vegetables growing in my garden. When sliced, they can be used as low-cal scoops for dips like hummus. As with other turnip varieties (and radishes), you can cook the greens. I like to sauté them with green onions and garlic in olive oil.

Beets 
Planted as seedlings 4/2. Days to maturity 55. I haven’t started harvesting the beets yet because they are still small. I have, however, been harvesting the beet greens. I should have separated the seedlings when I first planted them for better root ball formation. New gardening rule: all plants with edible roots need to be planted with sufficient space around them for root ball formation!
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“Red Norland” and “Yukon Gold” Seed Potatoes
Sets planted 3/16. Harvesting began 5/26.  To prep seed potatoes for planting, slice the potatoes into 2″ chunks with 1-2 “eyes” each. This is called “chitting.”

vegetable gardening

Allow to dry out for a couple of days to form calluses to help prevent sets from rotting in the soil.

vegetable gardening

When the potato leaves turn yellow, it’s time to harvest, but you can start digging for “new potatoes” long before that.

April 4th

May 19th
garden 5/19

May 25th
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Every bit of this colorful food was harvested on April 17th!

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Related Articles:
Seed Starting in Recycled Milk Jugs @judyschickens
How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Garden Bed
Spring Porch Pots!
Morning Rounds in the Garden, April
Morning Rounds in the Garden, May
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
WWMD? A Bucket of Spring Veggies as a Centerpiece
Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2021 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may not be reproduced without the written consent of Judy Wright.

Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Little Meatballs

My high-spirited Great Aunt Bridget was the original #nofilter. Always, words were coming out of her mouth that caused us to look at one another as if to say, Did she really just say that? She had a memorable look, too: her hair was always done up, her dresses were colorful, and she rocked the cat-eye glasses look. She was comfortable in her own skin. AND, she made a great pot of chicken soup. Between the things she said, the clothes she wore, the bouffant hairdos, and the food she cooked, Aunt Bridget was memorable. And, loved. What more could we each want?

Jerome Bridget - Version 2

She and her husband, Uncle Jerome, both immigrants from Sicily, owned successful side by side businesses on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore — Bridget’s Beauty Shoppe and Jerome’s Barber Shop. They created an interior doorway between their adjoining buildings so they and their customers could visit one another all day. It was a happening place. As a little girl, I loved to sit under the hairdryer hood and basque in the attention of my aunt as she paraded her loyal customers by my chair so they could meet her grandniece.

In this photo from 1963, Aunt Bridget is standing at the forefront of her salon wearing a white uniform, and Uncle Jerome is in the back in his barber’s shirt. Aunt Bridget employed a dozen full-time “operators.” They were her girls, and they were busy. This was when women went to the beauty parlor weekly to get their hair washed and set. Upstairs from the shop, Aunt Bridget had a kitchen where she and her niece, Theresa, fed everyone — either chicken soup or spaghetti and meatballs.

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One year, in the mid-1970s, I visited my grandparents in Florida during Easter break; so did my Aunt Bridget. In the whirlwind that signaled her arrival from the airport, my aunt walked into the kitchen, opened her purse, and pulled out an “old hen,” complete with its collagen-laden feet. She announced she was going to make a pot of soup. Her nephew had brought her by the Fell’s Point Farmers Market in Baltimore to get the hen on the way to dropping her off at the airport. I regret now that I spent more time rolling my 19-year-old eyes than looking for a pen and paper to write down her soup recipe; it was the best. I have spent years trying to recreate it.

What was so memorable about Aunt Bridget’s soup was the broth’s full-bodied flavor and the light, bite-sized meatballs that floated on the surface.

In my early attempts at recreating her broth, I was left with either perfectly cooked chicken in a thin stock that had to be boosted with a bouillon cube or a great tasting stock with tasteless, limp meat. Eventually, I figured out a way to have both rich stock and tasty meat. I simmered the soup for sixty minutes, removed the chicken thighs, pulled the meat off the bones, set the meat aside, and returned the bones to the stockpot to simmer for a few more hours.

About the Ingredients

My mother taught me to use chicken thighs when making soup. As the mother of seven children, she worried about us choking on small bones, so using whole chicken breasts with ribs attached was out. That was fine with me because I love the taste of thigh meat.

Bones, cartilage, and connective tissue contain a protein called collagen. As the bones simmer in water, the collagen breaks down, and once chilled, congeals into gelatin. This gelatin is your goal in broth-making. If the broth is not cooked long enough or is too dilute, it will not gel up like this.

chicken broth

The aromatic vegetables used to flavor a stock are known as mirepoix (pronounced “MEER-pwah”). The standard French mirepoix consists of 50% onions, 25% carrots, and 25% celery. Other aromatics I use are garlic and parsley.

bridget's chicken soup

Now to get started! First, we’ll make the broth, then the meatballs, and then add the greens.

To Make the Broth

Chicken stock ingredients:
8 pounds chicken thighs, with skin and bones
5 quarts cold water
1 large unpeeled onion (1 pound), quartered
⅓ head celery, with leaves (½  pound)
4 unpeeled carrots (½ pound)
6 cloves unpeeled garlic (½ ounce)
10 whole stems Italian flat-leafed parsley
3 fragrant bay leaves
1 teaspoon black pepper, or about 20 twists of the pepper grinder
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Yield: 4 quarts of chicken stock

Instructions:
Rinse and drain chicken. Put in a large stockpot.

bridget's chicken soup

Cover with cold water. If you start with hot water, the stock could become cloudy. Bring ingredients to a simmer. Remove foam as it forms.

aunt bridget's chickens soup

Prep the mirepoix: wash unpeeled vegetables and cut into large chunks. Add to stockpot. Add seasonings: bay leaves, garlic, parsley, and pepper. I do not add salt until I decide how I’m going to use the broth.

bridget's chicken soup

Add the vinegar. Acids such as vinegar or lemon juice help break down cartilage and pull nutritious minerals like calcium out of the bones.

Bring stock to a gentle simmer and cook for 60 minutes. A hard boil will make the stock cloudy.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the thighs. Once cool enough to touch, pick off the meat and refrigerate until later.

bridget's chicken soup

Return bones, cartilage, and skin back to the stockpot. Simmer for a minimum of 5 hours. Strain through a colander positioned over a large container.

To get a couple more cups of flavorful stock, put the solids from inside the colander back into the stockpot. Add about 3 cups of hot water and stir. Run the solids and stock through the colander again, collect the stock, and add to the saved container of stock. Discard solids.

Strain the stock through a fine sieve to clarify it further.

Refrigerate stock until fat rises to the top and hardens. Use a spoon to scrape it off.

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To Make the Meatballs

bridget soup

Ingredients:
bridget soup

Yield: 70 small meatballs

1 pound of ground meat. (I use a package of combined beef, pork, and veal when I can find it.)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
½ cup grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese
¾ cup unseasoned bread crumbs
zest from 1 lemon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
2 tablespoons water

Mise en Place for Meatballs:
Grate the Parmesan cheese.

bridget soup bridget soup

To learn how to make your own bread crumbs, go here, or buy plain, fine bread crumbs.

DSC_0866

Zest a lemon.

bridget soup bridget soup

Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix gently until just blended– less than 30 seconds.

meatballs meatballs

Use a melon scoop to make bite-sized meatballs. Place on a 13″ x 18″ rimmed sheet pan. The meat mixture weighed 1½ pounds. From that, I made 70 meatballs. Set aside.

meatballs meatballs

Prep the Greens

I used spinach because I have so much of it in my garden. Otherwise, escarole or endive would be my first choice. Wash the greens. If leaves are large, chop them.

DSC_0268.

Putting It All Together

bridget soup

Ingredients:
4 quarts chicken stock, homemade or boxed
1 pound fresh spinach
About 70 uncooked bite-sized meatballs
1 pound cooked small pasta, such as ditalini, cooked separately

Bring the pot of chicken broth to a boil in a soup pot. Add the meatballs. Simmer for about 15 minutes.

bridget soup

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the greens.

bridget soup

Serve immediately while greens are still brightly colored. bridget soup

Sprinkle with freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan. If desired, serve over pasta cooked separately. Do not cook the pasta in the broth — it will soak up most of the liquid.

bridget soup

Postscript
Only the most memorable great-aunts get chickens named after them! Our two Rhode Island Reds were named Bridget and Josephine (my grandfather’s sisters who had reddish-brown hair). The two blonde Buff Orpingtons were named after my husband’s blonde grandmothers, Mildred and Alice. The two black and white Plymouth Barred Rocks were named after my silver and black-haired grandmothers, Marion and Concetta.
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Aunt Josephine and Aunt Bridget flank their older brother, my grandfather, at my wedding. They were the last of the thirteen Giordano siblings.

Other Soups
Chicken Stock from Rotisserie Chicken Bones
Mrs. Lombard’s Portuguese Kale Soup
Pasta e Fagioli, aka Pasta and Bean Soup
Award-Winning Buffalo Chicken Chili
Kelly’s Duck Stew

Other Family Favorites
Baked Ziti with Roasted Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Marinara Sauce
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
Rapini and Fettuccini
Spiralized Zucchini with Fresh Marinara Sauce
Rachelle’s Italian Sausage, Onions, and Peppers
Italian Sesame Seed Cookies
Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram @JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.