Tuesday, September 29, 2009

First frost

We were in a frost watch last night, so Graham and I took a stroll through the garden to look for tomatoes that showed any color. Graham was especially good at diving deep to get those last few tomatoes just out of reach. Twice I had to rescue him from the plants he said were trying to gobble him up. We did end up getting a bit of a frost, though I'm not sure if it hit the garden hard enough to kill the tomatoes. We'll see what they look like in a few days.

There aren't all that many tomatoes left, anyway. Most of my tomato plants (the ones that grew next to my blighted potatoes) show signs of disease. Except for my one volunteer cherry tomato. This volunteer grew up amidst my blighted potatoes and so far has shown no signs of damage. In fact, it is sprawling everywhere. I will be saving some seeds from those cherries to see if they are indeed blight resistant.

I am rubbing my hands with gleeful anticipation for my Brussels sprouts harvest. I am so pleased with their growth this year, and the effects of my Bt spray, that I think I will grow tons more Brassicas in next year's garden. My kids love broccili.

So much for my experiment to see if waxed rutabagas stored any better than unwaxed in my not-very-cold basement. Next year I'll wait until late June or early July to plant my storage rutabagas. I have a dozen or so slower-growing 'bagas left in the garden, waiting until the temps start to cool off. My root cellar will be built this week, so I'll have a cooler place to store them. Maybe I should try to over-winter these waxed ones in my fridge for seed production next spring.

Here is my monster potato, one pound nine ounces. Anybody else have any mutant spuds from this year's harvest?

And the award for the weirdest looking potato goes to this little guy, aka 'Frosty the Snowspud.' If I can find a little hat and scarf, I'll color in his face and put him on my kitchen window. Then when his eyes start to sprout he will turn into 'Frosty the Alien Snowspud.' I'll take all the laughs I can get to help get me through the winter.

Taking stock

At the risk of appearing insane, I am going to record here all of the foods that I have preserved so far this year. Some of you will look at this and think, 'this woman is a loony.' While others will look and think, 'this woman has made a good start, but still has a long ways to go.'

I'm a worrier by nature. I am always looking ahead to all of the things that need to be done, feeling stress and frustration and oftentimes disappointment when I can't get it all finished. So, I thought I would step back and take stock of everything that I have done this year, and celebrate my success.

Okay, here goes.

Canned: Fruit
6 quarts boxelder syrup
16 pints strawberry syrup
15 half-pints strawberry jam
10 half-pints strawberry currant jam
8 half-pints gooseberry jam
10 half-pints mulberry jam
5 half-pints black raspberry jam
6 half-pints blueberry jelly
7 half-pints chokecherry jelly
11 half-pints apricot jam
9 half-pints plum jelly

Canned: Vegetables
5 pints dilled green beans
24 quarts green beans
3 quarts, 7 pints pickled beets
11 pints dill cucumber relish
10 pints dill cucumber slices
6 pints dill cucumber wedges
2 pints tomatillo salsa
10 quarts, 25 pints tomatoes
14 pints mild regular salsa
14 quarts black bean/corn salsa
16 pints tomato sauce
4 quarts spaghetti sauce

1 gallon snap peas
1 gallon rhubarb
3 gallons strawberries
3 gallons wild plums
1 gallon onions
50+ quarts corn
1 pint spinach
1 pint nettles
1 gallon carrots
3 pints asparagus soup
2 gallons cauliflower soup
1-1/2 gallons corn chowder
1-1/4 gallons broccoli soup

3 pints currants
3 quarts tomatoes
1 cup ground garlic
Various herbs

4 pumpkins
10 pounds onions
40 bulbs garlic
6 rutabagas

There. Whew. Putting it in a list makes it seem like a lot. And there's still lots of veges left to harvest from the garden. But comparing it to what my family will eat over the winter, it doesn't seem like much. Not that I would ever be able to reach anything close to self-reliance. See, I too am wavering between 'too loony' and 'not loony enough.'

My husband is reading this over my shoulder. He votes for loony. Okay, he doesn't think I'm crazy, he just thinks I've spent way too much time doing all this stuff. But he does appreciate it.

So folks out there in blogland, what do you all think? Loony, too loony, or just the right amount of looniness? Cast your votes now!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Weekend activity

Yesterday we all packed up in the car and went to the park. It was such a beautiful day. There is a lovely trail that goes along the lakeshore. The leaves are just starting to turn colors, although steady rains have kept everything pretty green.

Part of the trail goes over a small spring-fed creek. The creekbed is stained orange from the high levels of iron in the water. Right after I clicked this photo, my middle monkey said, "Now you can take a picture of me stepping on their butts, Mom." Dad put the kibosh on that idea toot sweet.

The boys tried to skip stones in the lake, but there weren't any good flat ones. So they amused themselves by just tossing big rocks into the water and hearing the 'ker-plunk.'

Hubby has finished fencing the chickens' run extension. Today they were let out into their new area, filled with lush green growth neglected by the mower for several weeks. We still have our eighteen chickens, the ones that survived the last dog massacre. The last hen, the one I wasn't sure was going to make it, has pulled through. She is missing one eye and walks with a wobble, but she is all right. She tends to hide in the coop most of the time though. Can't say as I blame her.

This afternoon Hubby and I dug out the last of the potatoes. I have to say I am disappointed with the harvest. I'm not sure if it was the excess chicken litter, the blight, our clay soils or what, but we didn't get a lot of potatoes for the 5' x 25' patch we planted. The barrow above represents about half of the total potato harvest. And I don't think these will store well. Lots of them have green spots or blight spots or were nicked by the pitchfork on the way out. The ones that aren't damaged don't have particularly thick skins.

Next year I will change the way I plant potatoes. One day last summer our hay guy told us about the way his father taught him to plant potatoes: dig a trench, put in a line of seed potatoes, and fill it with straw. Sounds good to me.

On the plus side, our green bean patch is still producing. And our pumpkins and brussel sprouts and rutabagas all look well. Plus I have some self-seeded rutabaga and snap pea seedlings growing. Looks like I managed to get a bit of a fall garden in after all.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

I have a farm

I've never called myself a farmer, but maybe I'll start after reading this.

Would you like to have a farm?

Then have one.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Using a home

I've mentioned before that I'm a collector. Of stuff. Not just any stuff, of course -- really valuable stuff. Stuff like empty sour cream containers, broken egg shells and bread butts.

For example, some person might finish off a pint of sour cream and throw the container away. I finish off a pint of sour cream, wash the container out and store it in my bathroom for starting vegetables in my basement the next spring.

Some people throw egg shells away. When I crack open an egg, I carefully put the shell into an old coffee can underneath my sink, to dry and be crushed into tiny shards of calcium. A handful of calcium shards gets poured into every hole that is dug in my garden for tomato transplants.

Some folks would throw out the butt ends of bread, since hardly anyone likes to eat them. I lay the butt ends out on the counter top, flip them over after a few days until they are completely dried out, run the dried bread through my blender and store the bread crumbs in a mason jar for meatloaf and casseroles.

You get the picture.

I've also mentioned that my house is a mess. Or rather, very very cluttered.

This is why, when I know that people will be visiting my house, I (actually, hubby does most of the grunt work) spend about two days cleaning. Because at any given time I will have a stack of empty sour cream containers in my bathroom, bags of broken egg shells under my sink, layers of drying bread butts on my counter. Plus boxes of canning jars on the kitchen table, a bucket of vegetable scraps for the chickens, cups of fermenting tomato seeds, a buzzing dehydrator full of apple rings, a pitcher of clabbering milk, bunches of drying herbs hanging from the ceiling, piles of unread mail next to the phone, mountains of unfolded clean laundry on the dining room table, and scattered childrens toys and books on the floor.

Sometimes I envy the clean, sterile, antiseptic homes of others. Then I realize that the reason my house is constantly cluttered is because my house is constantly in use. Most folks don't USE their homes. They just hang out there. When I cook dinner the chopping board is out, the sink is busy washing or draining various things, two or three stove burners are on and the oven is probably hot. Other folks just pop something in the microwave and call it a day.

So I've decided to stop feeling guilty about my messy house. And if you come over to my house unannounced you'll be very welcome, but please watch where you step and be prepared to move a tray of tomatoes before you can sit down. Oh, and could you carry this bucket of food scraps out to the chickens for me?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Silver pearls

Today it rained and rained and rained. The boys took umbrellas out to the bus stop this morning, folding them up before climbing onto the bus. The bus picks them up at 6:50 am and drops them off at school at 7:45 am. The ride home is shorter, only 30 minutes. The school is ten miles away in town.

This morning it was just barely light out when I woke them up for school. In another month we will be watching for the bus' yellow lights in pitch blackness. Tomorrow is Number Two Son's sixth birthday, and he asked if I could drive him and his brother to school. I'll probably do it. That reminds me, I still have to bake cookies for him to bring for his class tomorrow.

As I said before, today it rained. All day long. Today at work I found myself staring out the window for long minutes at a time, having lost track of whatever it was I was trying to accomplish. I can't concentrate. I stray from one task to another without finishing the first. Perhaps it's the change of seasons, a feeling that whether we are prepared for it or not, the warm green growing days of summer are over and the cool brown harvest days of fall are now here. Time to move from summer tasks to autumn tasks. Nevermind whether we have finished all of our summer tasks or not.

Late in the afternoon as I was driving out of the park, I looked out over one of our restoration fields. This field is in the process of being restored from brome grass meadow to tall grass prairie. It was planted with native seed last fall and we've been mowing it this summer to keep the weeds down. The short stubble of green and yellow grass was covered with a cottony gauze. I stopped the car and got out to take a closer look.

I thought maybe some trees or wildflowers had gone to seed and were spreading a cotton blanket across the prairie.

But as I looked closer I saw the blanket shining.

Closer still, the blanket broke apart into tiny silver pearls of rain clinging to strands of thin grass.

Even cloudy, rainy days are beautiful on the prairie.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Extreme makeover

Here is lovely Dawn, standing patiently while I take her picture. I think she suspects something, and well she should. It is time for the biennial shearing of the goats. Angora goats get sheared twice a year, whereas sheep just get clipped in the spring.

For those professionals out there reading this, let me just say right now -- I am a horrible shearer. Yes, I get the mohair off, but I'm really slow and I get lots of second cuts and I can't seem to sort the fiber while I'm working. The good and the bad stuff all end up in the same pile. This means I have to spend about an hour sorting it through later. But, as bad a shearer as I am, I've never drawn blood.

About half an hour later, I have a large pile of mohair on my deck. Dawn has got some really nice mohair. Naturally colored, thick and consistently fine.

And here she is, newly sheared. Next comes delousing, deworming, vaccinating and hoof trimming. Then she is put out in the pen to romp and play with Eve, already sheared. They greet each other like brand new goats, circling one another, smelling and rearing and rutting. It's fun to watch.

My last batch of tomatoes is just finishing up in the canner. Tonight I did eighteen pints. I had to use pint jars, since I've run out of quart jars. But since I've got another bushel of tomatoes sitting in my mud room, I think I'll be visiting the hardware store again soon. Wish I had time to scout around at garage sales for used jars. I'm spending a small fortune on new ones this summer.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Forlorn corn

This is the extent of my sweet corn harvest. The ears that are big enough to eat, at least. The smaller ones, those with just a few dozen kernels apiece, went straight to the chickens.

I think I'll leave the corn growing to the experts, and focus my gardening efforts on stuff I know I can grow, and on stuff that doesn't take up so much space. There are lots of people around here who will sell me corn. In fact, the week following our massive corn freezing extravaganza, we had phone calls from two other local farmers wanting to sell us sweet corn.

We ate some of our corn harvest for dinner yesterday, and tomorrow I'll use the rest to make a big batch of corn chowder. Most of that will go into the freezer for winter lunches.

Graham had a great time on his birthday. He loved his cake. Oreo cookies for the wheels and orange life savers for the lights. We played musical chairs, hot potato, potato-between-the-knees race, and had a treasure hunt. He wore his new fireman accessories (hat, badge, tool belt with tools, boots) the whole day. We had to convince him to take the boots off when he went to bed.

Hubby sliced up a bunch of tomatoes yesterday and put them in the dehydrator. This morning we took them out, put them into jars, and started a new batch drying. Hubby asked me, 'What are we going to do with all these dried tomatoes, other than put them on pizza?' I said, 'Put them on more pizza.' Because I honestly don't know. I've never cooked with dried tomatoes before. Anybody got any ideas?

Benjamin knows exactly what to do with a jar of dried tomatoes. Wear it as a hat!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Voilà -- salsa!

Another (very) late night, and another job done. Thirteen quarts of black bean & corn salsa. This is more than I anticipated. The recipe called for 8 pounds of tomatoes, and I figured I had about three times that many sitting on my table, so I decided to triple the recipe. The recipe also called for 15 oz. of canned beans. Stupid me, never having cooked with dried beans before, measured out three pounds of DRIED beans and set them out to soak. Eight hours later, I had about six pounds of beans. So I ended up with lots and lots of salsa.

Better too much than too little, right?

I also used four packages of hubby's frozen corn and eight cups of chopped onions, five cups of chopped bell peppers and as many jalapeno peppers as I had on hand (about fifteen). Mix in a little tomato paste, garlic, cumin, vinegar, pepper and salt and voilà-- salsa!

Grandma, Grandpa and Aunt Kathy are here this weekend to help celebrate Graham's sixth birthday. We'll play games in the afternoon and have a homemade school-bus cake in the evening after opening presents. Graham's requested birthday dinner consists of spaghetti with Italian sausage, lettuce salad with lots of hard boiled eggs, and stir-fried baby corn with zucchini. Could have been a lot worse, I guess. At least he wanted lots of veges.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Savoring seeds

Here is yesterday's tomato harvest. Today I spent an hour in the garden and pulled out all the carrots (about two gallons' worth) and a couple of rutabagas. I was going to do the potatoes too, but it was really hot and muggy and I just didn't have it in me. I'll do it this weekend.

If I have time tomorrow night I will either make the black bean salsa or just can these plain. I'll pick a few of the best ones for seed-saving.

How do you save tomato seeds? I thought you'd never ask.

Take a really nice looking ripe tomato. Make sure it is an open-pollinated variety, and not a hybrid. Hybrid seeds won't breed true, and often will grow out to be an inferior plant. Cut the tomato in half.

Squeeze, or use a spoon to scoop all the seed goop into a cup. I like to use a clear-sided cup and label it with the name of the tomato.

If there's not about an inch or so of liquid/goop in the cup, add a bit of water. Cover the cup and put it in a warm spot out of the sun.

After awhile (one to five days) mold will appear on the surface of the goop. This is a good thing. This means that the goop is fermenting, and the mold is helping to break down the structural cohesion between the seeds themselves and the gel that surrounds each seed. You want this gel separated, because you want the seed to be bare and dry for storage.

When the whole surface has a nice layer of mold on it, take the cup and put in some water. Use a fork and quickly swish the water and goop and mold and seeds around. Then set the cup aside, and watch as the good seeds sink and the mold and goop and non-viable seeds float to the surface. Carefully pour off the mold and goop and the bad seeds, leaving the good seeds in the cup. Add more water, swish and pour off again. Do this until the water is completely clear, and all you have left are seeds.

Pour the contents of the cup into a wire strainer, draining the water out. Pat the bottom of the strainer with a cloth towel, soaking up as much water as you can. Carefully dump the seeds from the strainer onto a plate. Separate the clumps of seeds as best you can so they will dry faster. Put the plate in a safe place, out of the sun, to dry completely. This will take between one and three days.

Scrape the seeds off the plate (they will be stuck to it) and store in a moisture-proof container. I put mine in a small coin envelope, and put a bunch of those envelopes inside a mason jar. Tomato seeds will stay good for three to five years, although their germination rates will go down a bit each year. For long term storage, place them in a refrigerator or freezer.

Most tomatoes will self-pollinate, which means they usually won't cross with another variety. The seed you save will grow into a plant just like the parent. But sometimes they do cross, and you will end up with a new kind of tomato. Some people don't like crosses, some people have a lot of fun trying to create new and interesting varieties.

I save seed because I like growing my own plants from the seeds I save. I've got a dormitory refrigerator in the basement filled with several dozen varieties of vegetable, herb and flower seeds. I give out packets to friends, neighbors, and complete strangers I meet on the street.

For more info on seed saving, I recommend Suzanne Ashworth's book 'Seed to Seed.' Once you start savoring your own seed, you'll be hooked for life.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Plum tired

The end of a long weekend, the last hurrah of visitor activity at the park, the beginning of school and cooler weather. It hit 80 degrees today, so although the days are still warm the night temps are dipping into the low 50's. The leaves on the ash and cottonwood are just starting to turn yellow.

This afternoon, after all the park visitors had left, I quit work a little early and went in search of plums. I wasn't expecting to find many, since the plums have been ripe for a week or so and I figured the jelly guys would have already picked everything clean. I went to the usual spots, and my suspicions were confirmed: the plums were few and far between, and mostly out of reach. I dove into the brush searching for plums, and scratched (or got scratched) my way through a prickly patch onto the other side of a ridge line. I found a few plums that had escaped the easier pickings of the other side.

Then I happened to look a little further down the ridge, and spotted what looked remarkably like another, much larger plum patch. This one was off the road, off the trail, hiding behind a copse of sumac and boxelder trees. I grabbed by bags and set off.

As I approached the trees, I slowed down and muttered a low 'holy plums, batman.' Thousands of plums dangled from the branches, large perfect plums, dark and red and ripe. I had hit the plum mother lode.

This picture doesn't do it justice. Image this picture, times twenty. I spent an hour picking plums, and didn't reach 1/3 of them. I stopped when I reached three gallons.

I'll make plum jelly this time. The jam I made last year was pretty tart, so I'll increase the sugar amount in the recipe. Better yet, I'll use honey. Good thing I have the next two days off. I've got salsa to make, apples to dehydrate, potatoes to dig and goats to shear. Add plum jelly to that list. And I want to bake some bread. I just hope I can find the energy to do it all after a busy week at work. That's not asking too much, is it?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Community Service

This year I have been fairly active in a group of people trying to increase the growth and use of locally produced foods in the Big Stone Lake area. Through this work I have met a great number of great folks who are passionate about food and community health. Two of these folks, John and Carol S., have lived here only two years but have already made a big impression. Beginning last year, they began working with the city of Graceville to build several community gardens in town. Recently I was able to take a tour of the gardens, and listen to John and Carol speak of their experience.

Shortly after they moved to the area, John and Carol contacted the local high school and talked to one of the teachers about building a school garden. High School students would help prepare the site, plant, mulch, weed and harvest the vegetables. The vegetables themselves would be given to the local nursing home. Not only would the students learn about gardening, but they would also learn about community service. The teacher thought it was a pretty good idea. So did the nursing home. The city thought so too, and offered the use of an abandoned residential lot across the street from the school.

The garden uses grass clippings for mulch. The clippings are collected by the city's lawn mowers as they mow the parks and municipal properties. The grass clippings do a great job of suppressing weeds and conserving water, and provide a well-balanced fertilizer for the soil. Most of the seeds were donated by local gardeners and nurseries. No chemicals are used, and there is no mechanical tilling that might upset soil structure. Everything is done by hand, and the vegetative waste is composted in the barrel-thing shown in the first photo.

John and Carol also helped to build a few smaller gardens elsewhere in the city. The picture above shows the garden near the nursing home. These gardens are intended for food and for enjoyment by the residents.

The high school shop class built several elevated planters for the nursing home garden. These planters allow people in wheel chairs to still be able to 'get their hands dirty' pulling weeds and caring for the plants. The bottom of the planters have a sloped drainage plate, allowing water to drain down onto the grass, rather than onto the sidewalk.

It's really amazing what just a small number of passionate, motivated people can do to make their community a better place to live. Amazing, and inspiring.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Matters regarding 'maters

We got back Wednesday night from a six-day trip to Grandma's house just north of St. Paul. It was nice to see our extended families again. But every time we go back there I am reminded of how much I love not living in the city. It's nice having all the shops, restaurants, museums, etc. within twenty miles of home, but those twenty miles can seem like a hundred with suburban traffic. At one point hubby and I went to Rosedale Mall to get some school clothes for our son. It's been a loooong time since I've been in a mall. I felt very out of place.

Back home now, back in place. Six days away from the garden, and everything is getting ripe at once. Pictured here on the plates are some of my Taliana tomatoes, the ones I grew from seed from the plant a lovely old lady gave me last year. They are pretty cool looking, inside and out. Outside, they are a pinkish-red color, pear-shaped but flattened, with shallow ridges. Inside, there is an open space between the seed goop and the outer flesh of the tomato, a little like a stuffing tomato. The taste is very mild.

I started the seed-saving procedure for some of the tomatoes I picked yesterday, and for one type that I got in my farm-share box. The seeds and goop go into plastic cups, then are set aside for a few days to grow mold. Then the moldy goop gets stirred around with water, and set aside. The goop, mold and bad seeds float in the water and get poured off. The seeds are dried and put into little envelopes for safe-keeping.

I only save seeds from the best looking fruit. The rest get canned. Here is a big bowl of 'maters, blanched and ready to be peeled and cored. Blanching first makes it much easier to peel off the skins.

Here they are, peeled and cored, ready for canning.

I made about seven quarts from this batch of tomatoes. Today I went back into the garden and it seems another bunch of tomatoes is nearly ripe. I have a dozen or so resting on my kitchen window sill. If you pick a tomato before it is ripe, but it is showing some color, then you can bring it inside and it will ripen in a few days. If it has no color at all, it will not ripen. Kinda bizarre, but true.

When my sweet corn is ripe, in another week or so, I will harvest it and make corn & black bean salsa with some of my tomatoes and onions. I might try dehydrating some tomatoes too, everybody raves about dried tomatoes so I think I might give it a try.

I am very happy that the garden is finally coming to fruition, but it does mean a lot of work. I gave some thought to planting a few fall crops (spinach, broccoli, lettuce) but there just hasn't been any time. Maybe I will get better organized next year, and pull it off. But I doubt it.