Thursday, August 27, 2009


I harvested our first pumpkin. A little early for Halloween, but never too early for pumpkin pie. Or pumpkin muffins, or pumpkin bread, or pumpkin cookies...

Hubby finished building our new clothesline. He stretched it out from one side of the playset. We've already told the boys not to use it as a zip-line. The cotton ropes stretch quite a bit when the clothes are hung, but after some tightening and weeks in the sun and the rain they should be great.

My sister lives in a suburb of St. Paul, in a housing subdivision. It's a very nice neighborhood with beautiful houses and perfectly manicured lawns. But they're not allowed to have clotheslines, apparently because they are an eyesore. We are both confused by this. How could a clothesline be an eyesore?

When I came home yesterday and saw our shirts and socks and towels and napkins hung out on the line, an incredible feeling of well-being came over me. A feeling of home, of summer, of ease and tranquility. I guess I've been brainwashed by Norman Rockwell. That, and the fact that we're saving money by not using our electric dryer, makes a clothesline an asset to any homestead, rural or urban.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Prairie bling

I took a walk through the park today. We have some native prairie, glacial till tall-grass prairie on a south-facing slope, too steep for plowing or ranching. It's amazing how colorful these native places are, how alive with flowers and grasses and insects and birds. I often wish I could go back in time to when the Europeans first came to this place, and see what it was like.

This is what was blooming:


Prairie blazing star

Greyhead coneflower

White snakeroot (this was found in a wet, shady spot along a ravine)

Jewelweed (again, in a wet spot. Hummingbirds love jewelweed).

Smooth sumac (ok, this wasn't blooming, but it is starting to turn red)

Wild onion (or wild garlic??)

This is about when my camera batteries died. So the ox-eye sunflower and all the many grasses (big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, for example) didn't make it on film. That's okay. I'm not that great a photographer anyway. You can't really capture a prairie on camera. You can take pictures of all the different plants living there, but the prairie is the cummulation of all these plants, and the soil and the rocks, and the bugs and the animals that live within it.

The color of the flowers and grasses and the blue of the sky. The smell of leaves and grass drying in the sun. The sound of insects and small animals rustling through the undergrowth. The breeze waving over the tops of the grass, pushing the clouds slowly across the sky. And the pure expanse, the sheer vastness of the prairie can take your breath away.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

No room in the freezer

Here is some of the corn post-shucking, pre-blanching.

And here it is, finished and in our freezer. Over fifty bags of corn, each lovingly prepared by my wonderful hubby. Each quart bag holds 1 -1/2 pounds. One bag is enough for one dinner and some lunch left-overs, so we are set on the corn-front for a long time.

I estimate the cost of all of this would be about $175 at the store. Food-miles-wise, this corn came about three miles from field to home freezer. It's been estimated(*) that the frozen corn you buy at the grocery store has travelled 1,426 miles from the field to store freezer. Food-miles are a way to figure out some of the hidden costs of modern, industrial food.

Of course, right under the bottom shelf of corn you can see a package of Johnsonville breakfast sausage. We aren't perfect in this ideal for local, sustainably-grown food. But we're improving.

By the way, goats LOVE corn husks.

Now, of course, we have no room in the freezer. Hmm. Maybe this is not the best time to tell my hubby about the hog I ordered for butcher at the end of September.


Friday, August 21, 2009


I got a phone call this morning from the Hutterites, letting me know they had just picked the 20 dozen ears of sweet corn I had ordered. My five-year-old and I took a quick trip down the road to the colony, helped them stuff the ears into seven gunny sacks, and drove back home. The heavy sacks were carried in and stacked in our mud room. Then I had to leave for work.

Due to a family emergency, our night worker at the park is unable to come in, so I get to pull a 12-hour shift today (and probably tomorrow). Sweet corn needs to be processed within 48 hours of when it is picked. So guess what my wonderful hubby is doing today (and probably tomorrow)?

Shuck, blanch, cut, bag, freeze. Repeat.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Flower Power

Last year my sons planted a few sunflower seeds in the garden. A few of them grew, bloomed and set seed. This spring I had several volunteer sunflowers come up, and I let one of them grow in the midst of my potatoes. Seeing it now, big and beautiful and full of color, I am determined to grow more of them next year. I do love sunflower seeds on salads.

I broke off the lower leaves of my Brussels Sprouts. They look pretty darn funny. But it makes sense, that with more sunlight reaching down to the sprouts, they will grow bigger. These large, ungainly plants always remind me of England. I always saw these things growing in people's gardens over there.

My garden fence does double duty as a pumpkin trellis. Here is the inter-active portion of our blog -- how many pumpkins do you see in the picture above? And where is Waldo??

My jalapeno peppers are looking pretty good. I grew jalapenos because I need them for salsa, and I rarely get them in my CSA box and they cost 50 cents each at the farmers market. My smallest plant has three peppers. My largest have nine. Or rather, had nine. Because ...

I made salsa yesterday. Fourteen pints of mild salsa: tomatoes and green peppers and onions and jalapenos and cucumbers and cider vinegar and no cilantro (cilantro = blechy).

This past week I've frozen three gallons of creamy cauliflower soup and two gallons of creamy broccoli soup. I've canned twenty-four quarts of green beans, five pints of dilled beans, ten pints of dill cucumber relish, nine pints of dill cucumber slices, six pints of pickled beets and the salsa mentioned above. I've also made eight quarts of chicken stock and six quarts of beef stock. I'm pooped. Pleased, but pooped.

Monday, August 17, 2009

More of the same

I have heeded the advice of various folks and have chopped down my potato plants. I will let the potatoes themselves rest in the soil for a few weeks, hopefully developing a tough outer skin. Then we will dig them up and put them in our root cellar. And hope they won't rot.

The boys were outside with me for a bit and started the potato harvest a bit prematurely. It really is like digging for buried treasure. So I helped them out with the pitchfork. Litte boys are very competitive, so I had to draw a line through the middle of the patch and say, 'Ok, you can dig for potatoes on this side, and you can dig for potatoes on this side.' The thirty pounds of potatoes shown above represent about 1/10 of our potato harvest.

The five-gallon bucket of beans represents about 1/3 of our bean harvest. I actually think the non-litter side of the bean patch is producing more beans. The litter-side plants are bigger, but the non-litter side has more beans. I pickled about a gallon of the beans last night (which made five pints), and will do the rest as regular canned beans tonight. I also canned a bunch of dill pickle relish and pickle slices last night. I must remember to get more canning jars at the store today.

A storm two nights ago toppled my sweet corn plants, they are standing askew at a 45 degree angle, leaning against the fence. I looked at them this morning and it seems like they are beginning to straighten themselves out. I hope so.

Sorry these posts recently have been so garden-centric, but that is what I am thinking about most of the time. The family is all well, hard to believe that school starts in less than three weeks. I will miss having the boys at home during the day.

I am committed to making packed lunches for my schoolboys at least three times a week this year -- the food they serve at the school is horrendous. Breakfast consists of either donuts, frosted cereal or Trix yogurt (fortified with plenty of artificial colors and flavors). Lunch is a narrow variety of fried or sugar/starch entrees such as mini corn dogs, pizza, cheese sticks, chicken nuggets, beef sticks or hot dogs. The vege/fruit side dish is optional and rarely taken. And spaghetti/pizza sauce counts as a vegetable for the school's nutritional guidelines. Yes, the kids will eat this stuff. But do we really want them to?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Yesterday's harvest

I spent about half-an-hour in the garden after getting home from work yesterday. Pulled all of the onions out (I didn't plant that many--why plant onions when your whole family hates them?), two garlic bulbs that we apparently missed during the earlier harvest, a big bowl of green beans, four ripe tomatoes (our first ripe tomatoes!), and one chioggia beet.

Ask me if I planted chioggia beets this year. Go on, ask me. [Go on, go on, go on. Father Ted -- funniest TV show ever.]

No! I didn't plant chioggia beets this year. I planted them LAST year. But there, in the middle of my (now) onion/garlic patch, was a beet. Last year that area was the beet patch. Supposed-to-be beet patch, anyway. No beets actually grew. I attributed it to either bad seed or a too-early planting. After Memorial Day rolled around and I realized I wasn't going to get any beets, I planted a few tomatoes in there instead.

How did this one beet seed survive the winter? Granted, I did put down straw to protect the garlic, so it did have a few inches of mulch. But why didn't it grow last summer? I just don't get it. Oh well.

I stayed up way too late last night canning green beans. I stayed up way too late the night before freezing cauliflower soup. Tonight I'll probably stay up way too late making pickle relish. These are called the dog days of summer because you work like a dog trying to get everything harvested and preserved before it's too late.

On Thursday afternoon I had an awesome opportunity to take a tour of our neighboring Hutterite Colony. It was a half-hour tour that ended up being two hours long. We walked through their gardens (thirteen acres of garden!), their garden shop, their preservation kitchens, their freezers and cold storage areas, their pantries and dining areas, and their workshops. It was absolutely amazing. I am still reeling from it.

They were so friendly, and answered the most stupid of questions. They make so many things from scratch, and they plan out their entire year's worth of food needs ahead of time. They know how many pickled beets and canned beets and baked beets they eat each year, and that dictates how many beets get planted in the garden each spring. They have about eighty people in their colony -- can you imagine the level of food planning needed for eighty people? Not only vegetables, but meats and grains and dairy and spices and everything else. Makes my tiny basement pantry look feeble, indeed.

Oh yeah, the picture above -- they even puff their own wheat. A very nice older man in the colony, who apparently can build/fix just about anything, built a home-made wheat puffer. By himself. He showed me how it works -- the wheat gets poured into a heavy-duty, thick-sided pressure tank, which is sealed and pressurized up to 200 psi. Then it is tipped over and opened into a large screened container beneath. The wheat puffs up when it makes contact with the air, releasing all that built-up pressure.

The man insisted I take some puffed wheat home with me. It's really good mixed with honey. We are set for breakfast cereal for the next few weeks.

And lastly, here is our kitty. She is very sweet. Still very playful, but loving as well. She likes to lick ears and noses. She likes to bite toes. She loves tunnels. Build a tunnel out of cushions, shoes, books, whatever, and she will go right in. The boys love her.

It's raining right now. It's been raining all day, and will probably keep raining 'til this evening. A good excuse to stay inside and catch up on some cleaning. Or reading. Or playing. Or napping.

Warmer days

My green beans are ready for picking. In fact, I picked a bunch yesterday in the hot hot sun. Next year I think I'll plant yellow wax beans -- much easier to see amongst the green leaves and stems.

My tomatoes are huge. This week's warm weather is finally giving the fruit some color. I anticipate many nights of canning in the coming weeks. Straight tomatoes, tomato sauce, and salsa. I've been leaving my jalapeno peppers on the plants, crossing my fingers for a tomato harvest soon.

The sprouts are looking good. I think I will cut off the lower leaves, the worm-damaged ones. I've read that encourages sprout growth. I'm not sure if it's true (I am loath to prune vegetables, thinking that the plant must know what is best for itself), but the lower leaves are full of holes anyway, so it may be a good time to test the theory.

The sweet corn is loving the warmer weather. I've heard old-timer farmers say that you can almost watch the corn grow when the days get hot. I don't have any plans to test that theory.

My potatoes. So beautiful, so promising earlier this summer. I planted this large patch in the hopes of storing several hundred pounds of potatoes in my root cellar this fall. But, as you can see, I have a problem -- a problem called blight. When a few plants started turning yellow a couple of weeks ago, I thought nothing of it -- I thought they were just dying back naturally. I had no clue. Now half of my plants are afflicted.

I can try to save the tubers themselves by cutting the potato stems and burning them. The tubers, if not already infected, can set their skins while still in the soil, and I can harvest them later. But if they are infected, they will rot in storage. So I have a dilemma -- should I risk the rot and try to store the tubers, or should I try to salvage what I have and do a massive potato canning/freezing operation?

Blight is what caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century. I guess I should be honored that such a historically significant disease has decided to invade my meager garden. It's a fungus that lives in the plant and in the soil, spread by infected seed or by spores in the wind. It is exacerbated by cool, wet weather followed by warm, dry weather. Guess what we've had this summer?

Blight will stay in the soil from one year to the next. This makes my rotational gardening plans even more attractive. You can control it somewhat by using fungicide throughout the growing season. But I don't want to do that.

If my tubers carry the rot, I won't be able to save potatoes for next year's planting. I need to do some research into blight-resistant potato varieties for next year.

And I need to put up some sort of blockade between my infected potatoes and my not-yet infected tomatoes. In one corner of my potato patch, some of my potatoes (non-blight ones, so far) have grown so huge (thanks, chicken litter) that they have flopped over the pathway between beds, brushing up against my tomato patch. If infected potatoes touch tomatoes, then the tomatoes will get it. The blight affects both vegetables, as they are from the same family. A sheet of plywood and a few cement blocks should do the trick. I hope. Or maybe I should just mow all the potatoes down now and hope for the best.

To end on a good note, here are a few of the apples on our tree. I've long ago forgotten what variety we planted here. I can't wait to cut one of these beauties open and taste it. If it's sweet, we'll use the apples for fresh eating. If it's tart, I'll use them for pies. Mmmm. Home-grown apple pie.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Onwards and upwards

Well, two of the eighteen have died. But another two have emerged from the woods unscathed. So our numbers are holding. I hope hope hope that most of these remaining babes will grow to be hens, not roosters. I value the eggs more than meat.

I spoke to the woman who owns the dogs. She was very apologetic, almost crying on the phone. They will pay us $250 to cover (some) of our losses. They are going to put in an underground dog fence (one of those electric shock things) around their yard. That's fine, but I'm not letting my chickens out again to free range. I've seen too many dead chickens in my yard. You'd think I'd have learned after the first dog attacks last year. Or maybe after the raccoon/fox thefts of this spring. Noooo, not me.

Next week we are picking up several hundred dollars worth of fencing materials. A portion of our yard will now become the new chicken pasture. We may mow it occasionally, but the chickens should be able to keep most of the grasses down. It will connect with the goat pen, and from time to time we can let the goats into the new area. Our livestock will be able to intermingle. That should be good for a few laughs.

My sister, her 10-year old daughter and my family went apricot picking on Tuesday. This is the best year for apricots that I've seen since we moved out here, ten years ago. We picked a few gallons, then spent about ten hours back at home sorting, blanching, coring, reblanching, and food-milling the fruit to get it ready for jam. It will be a cold day in Hades before I make apricot jam again...

My sister, always a good sport, also helped me harvest the garlic from my garden. Not as big a harvest as I'd hoped, but enough to get us through most of the winter. We accidentally pulled the tops off some of the bulbs -- I peeled these cloves and put them in the freezer. They wouldn't keep in the basement without their tops.

My green beans are almost ready for a first picking. Next week's hot weather should send our tomatoes into hyper-ripe. My sweet corn is starting to tassle out. August is here and soon the harvest will be in full swing. Canning beans, tomatoes, sauces and salsas. Freezing corn and soups. No time to look backwards and dwell on our misfortune, it's onwards and upwards from here on in.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Crappy Day

I knew things were going too well.

I told you that we were going to start letting our chicks and chickens free range this week.

Guess what happened this afternoon?

Yes. Another massacre.

Different dogs this time, from people that live a mile-and-a-half north. Two springer spaniels. We caught them and threw them in the garage. Friendly dogs. Stupid owners.

We had 49 chicks & chickens. Now we have eighteen. Five of those probably won't make it. Those two dogs killed 31 of our birds. In less than an hour, I figure.

The chicks were too young to make the loud chicken squawking noises, otherwise we might have heard the commotion outside. We don't have any windows that look out to the chicken and goat area, otherwise we might have seen the slaughter from the house. The first I noticed anything was when the dogs, apparently tired of chasing chickens, started barking at our goats through the fence.

I couldn't reach the neighbors on the phone, but I did reach their grown son who lives in town. He came by to pick up the dogs. His Mom and a visiting friend are at the races in a nearby town, and he figures she asked her friend to put the dogs in the kennel before they left. He thinks the friend didn't lock the door correctly. He said he called his Dad, who trucks and is on the road somewhere. His Dad told him they will pay for the losses. He won't be happy when I tell him how much money I want.

All that work, getting those chicks eating and drinking and growing and thriving. Half-an-hour every night, feeding and watering and cleaning their brooder. I didn't lose a single one. All the hope I had for those eggs, the experience of butchering our own meat, the fridge and freezer filled with home-grown food.

I could order more chicks. But we're pushing late summer, and they would only be three months old by the middle of November when the temps really start to drop. I wouldn't order any roosters, because it would be January before they'd be old enough to butcher. The minimum order for chicks is 25. Do I want to try to bring 25 pullets through the winter?

My husband says to wait until spring, and start them early in March. My husband has concocted plans to extend the fence from the chickens' fenced run outward to the goats' fenced pasture, and let them have the run of both areas. They wouldn't be 'free-range' anymore, but they would have more than a half-acre of space. And they would be safe from dogs and foxes.

I was really looking forward to those eggs.

Crappy dogs.

Crappy day.

Monday, August 3, 2009

I have a problem

The first step in battling addiction is admitting you have a problem, right? Well, I guess I have a problem.

I am addicted. To berry-picking.

Strawberries are the gateway drug. Pick-you-own strawberry patches are everywhere, set up so neat and easy that anyone can pick them. All the plants are lined up in nice rows, no grass or weeds to deal with. Heck, some places even provide buckets. Just half-an-hour of easy picking and you've got a gallon of berries. That's how they hook you -- with strawberries.

After you've made your first batch of homemade jam or tasted your first home-made strawberry shortcake, you realize what you've been missing all these years. Store-bought just doesn't cut it anymore. You pick up a jar of raspberry jam at a farmers market, taste the sweet wild berry goodness of it, and think to yourself, 'hey, I can do this.'

You ask the jam seller where they get their berries. She eyes you suspiciously and refuses to say. You do an internet search and learn to identify raspberry plants in the wild. Soon you have hauled your family to the county park and spent three hours scouting around the woods under the guise of 'going hiking.'

That's just the beginning. Soon the raspberries aren't enough. You take your family on a vacation to the northwoods under the guise of 'going camping,' but really you are looking for blueberries. You drive endless hours along desolate country roads looking for wild plums. You trespass on abandoned farmsteads looking for mulberries and chokecherries. You peer through binoculars at rural windrows, hoping to catch the yellow speckles of apricots.

You're hard-core now. A full-blown berry-picking addict. There's no going back.

... Not that you would want to.

They're called that for a reason

Someone at the park happened to casually mention in passing, 'the chokecherries are ripe.' Little did he know ...

They are, indeed. I've never picked chokecherries before, never even knew what they looked like until yesterday. They don't really look like cherries, more like large wild grapes. And they are called chokecherries for a reason -- one taste sent my husband scrambling for a glass of water. Sour!

I decided to try to make jelly this time. Trying to put the chokecherries through a food mill with their large seeds seemed too hard a task. So I had to cook the cherries for fifteen minutes to soften them up, and mash them to release the juice and pulp. I had to be careful not to break the seeds -- they contain a form of cyanide. Eaten in concentrated amounts, they will make you sick.

Then the pulp and juice is strained through a fine-mesh bag. The juice collects in a bowl underneath. I let this sit overnight, covered with a towel.

Tonight I will make the jelly. Never made jelly before, so we'll see how it goes.

I also picked the seed pods from my rutabaga plants yesterday. They will finish drying in this bucket. If I didn't pick them now, the pods would crack open on their own and scatter the seed every which way. I like to hear the seeds rattle in the pods when I shake them, kinda like a maraca. As you can see, I am easily amused.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ten apples up on top

Houston, we have apples! Six years ago we planted ten apple trees in our yard. We were new to the whole country living thing, and had no clue. (We still don't.) Let's just say the deer harvested much more from our little orchard than we ever did. Which isn't saying much, since we haven't harvested anything. It's hard to grow apples when the trees have no buds.

Last spring, when we built the barn and got goats, we had to move the garden. We moved it to a section of the 'orchard.' We put up a fence to keep deer and bunnies from eating the veges. I rooted out one old apple tree, but left one growing inside the garden, just to see what would happen.

Tada! This year we have apples! Ten apples, exactly. Ten perfect green-with-a-rosy-shine apples. And all it took was a little bit of fencing. We've still got several other bedraggled apple trees in the 'orchard,' hanging on by the skin of their teeth. I wonder what a little more fencing would do? Hmmm...

No ripe tomatoes yet, just lots and lots of green ones. I can't use my jalapeno peppers until I have some red tomatoes for salsa. Guess I could make green tomato salsa. I'll have to look for a recipe.

The chicks and chickens are getting along well. I am still keeping them all shut in their run. But since they can't free-range we are going through a lot of chicken feed. I think I might let them out this week sometime. Hopefully the fox or the raccoon has moved on to happier hunting grounds.

The goats are fat and sassy. It's the beginning of August, so they are due for another deworming and delousing treatment. Their hooves might need another trim, too. But their coats are lush and lovely. Next month's shearing will give me my first saleable clip of mohair. Now I just have to find someone to sell it to.

I cooked greens for the first time in my life on Thursday. The beet greens were piling up in the fridge, and it was either cook them or toss them. So I cooked them using a recipe I found on the internet with bacon, onions, red pepper, garlic, sugar and apple cider vinegar. They were actually pretty good. The kids hated them, but that was expected. Now I've got a hankerin' for more southern food. Fried chicken, corn bread, peach pie. Anybody got any grits?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Grounds and Grinds

I went to a meeting earlier this week, held at the Beardsley Elementary School. The school district closed the school a few years ago and it was bought by a local farmer/entrepreneur. He's hoping to use the school for local functions, events, etc. He has already leased the school grounds to a gardener. After the meeting we got a tour of the school and the gardens. See what you can do when you don't have to deal with an established weed-base? Grrr.

Lots of sweet corn, potatoes, onions and squash. He's got a few other gardens scattered around the county and sells by word-of-mouth to local folks. It's all organically grown. I'm thinking of placing an order for sweet corn.

The owner of the school also owns the Beardsley High School, built in 1908. This school was closed back in the 1990's. We got a tour of this building, too -- very cool stairway, doors, woodwork. The huge old coal furnace is still in the basement. I thought it would make a great kiln. Someone else suggested a crematorium. (He was joking.)

After about eighteen hours of dehydrator drying, all of my garlic was dry enough to grind. Next time I'll slice it up thinner. A few minutes of very loud whirring in the food processor and I had a bowl of very powdery garlic powder. It's ground much finer than store-bought powder, but it smells wonderful. I filled up three spice containers. Doesn't everyone keep their old spice containers to store home-grown herbs?

Since I had the processor out, I also ground up my dried basil, dill, oregano, mint and parsley. I think I'll grow more herbs next year. Goodness, it's barely August and here I am already thinking about next year's garden.

August! This summer is flying by so quickly.