On what a gardener does in the off season

What do I do to occupy my time when I don’t have weeding to do?

I hate this stuff.  And yes, that’s snow less than a foot away.

Well, who says I don’t have weeding to do?  Have you ever heard of henbit?  This mint family weed does not let Old Man Winter stop it from growing AND flowering; it loves the greenhouse beds and paths, and it’s a bear to evict from those little spaces between lettuces.  Ahem.  Sadly, no hens like it…nor do turkeys, bunnies or goats.  That puts it in the truly worthless weed camp.

So perhaps I don’t get a vacation from weeding, ever.  But the down season does allow me to attack the list of things I had set out to accomplish, um, the year before

Too good to be sauced, yet.

…like making applesauce.  Right about now is when the putative bad apple spoils the lot (bad potatoes, too, come to think of it).  I sort through the stores and pull out the spotty and the wrinkly, or the varieties which look fine but whose texture is off, and sauce them.  The apples are kept in half-bushel baskets on our back porch/mud room.  It’s an unheated porch and it does freeze, though not that often–cool enough, then, to keep apples–and it smells great.  The half-bushels work because they’re shallow enough to find the bad ones and the bottom apples do not get as smooshed as they do in bushel baskets.  We like our sauce saucy, not lumpy; I simply cook the thinly sliced/peeled apples and run them through a chinois.  Sugar, salt and spice is added to taste, then process the jars in the pressure canner.

Molasses-smoked ham

Smoking is another.  Despite the cold I am often quite itchy to be outside, and tending the smoker is a guarantee that I am in and out all afternoon as every 20 minutes or so I’m flying out the door to verify that the smoker is indeed still smoking.  Trimmings from our apple trees and grapevines as well as the yard’s ever-shedding maples are used as smoking fodder.  I do both hot and cold smoking.  It’s an opportunity to get creative:  hams, side pork, pork belly, fresh sausages, salmon from a friend’s fish CSA, boiled eggs, home-made gouda and mozzarella…even dried whole paprika peppers are game.  Some things don’t require much smoke at all whereas others can take all day. “Whatever’s available in the time I have” remains the rule of what gets smoked when.

And it’s not quite my least favorite time of year (indoor seed starting) but we’re getting close.  I do drive my husband crazy in that I am sloppy-organized whereas he is tidy-organized (both systems work, right?) but it’s usually late January when I mess up tackle the pile of grown/saved, newly purchased and old seeds.  (Of course, I do need to upend things in order to make things tidy, don’t you?)  This year it’s been a bit easier:  I got a fabulous sieve from Fedco…what a great way to do the final shake/sort of saved seeds.  And I love that the box it came in called it the Almighty sieve.  Indeed.

The bomb

One should appreciate the off-season, and I do!

On greenhouse #3

A January 11th photo of the oldest (2007) greenhouse:  Reemay covers are off so the leaves can absorb some rare winter sun.   I planted this one with kale and salad greens back in late September.  These will be completely harvested by late March and then I’ll convert this greenhouse into a seedling nursery.  Right now, though, I take twelve gallon-size bags of salad- and braising greens a week out of the greenhouses and outdoor gardens for our customers, and we also eat about a half gallon daily.

In December, Tom and I attended a thank-you brunch for doing some fundraising for our daughter’s school.  It was held at a swanky country club in the dunes near us and, as I walked into the bar area to refill my Bloody Mary (brunch, you know) all heads whipped around to see me.

Obviously, Tom was in the bar giving away our farm, one bag of salad and one log of chevre at a time.

“Duuuude,” I hissed.  “You can’t be doing that,” I told him, grabbing him by the elbow and goose-stepping him away from the crowd, after demurring to all the other parents gathered around.  “Don’t you know I have every drop of milk and leaf of green spoken for from here to April?”  I don’t think he really did know:  he’s not involved with either gardening or milking.

“Maybe we just need another greenhouse,” he said.  “I have no problem at all building another greenhouse.”

And this is the 2008 greenhouse, the bigger one:  I planted these salad/root veg things in October.  They’re growing more slowly; they won’t be “peak” until mid-Feb. and then they’ll be “done” in late April, right about when the tomatoes go in and the warm season starts again.

It’s been on my list for a while (a third greenhouse, that is).  And it’s at this time of year that I can see why I most need one, though the greenhouses are the most busy and productive in the warm months.  My reasons for wanting another aren’t to supply the other parents’ refrigerators, though.  They’re more mundane, like, if I had a third greenhouse I could use it to grow worm-free brassicas in the summertime (joy! no Bt, no covers) and I could plant a LOT more garlic and a lot more root veggies.  It’s green greed is all (insert evil laugh).

So in April, we’ll add another.  This one will be 16’x32′.  Stay tuned…

On home-grown flour

Painted Mountain flour corn, seed gifted generously from Mike.  Riffing off my last post:  One cup medium-fine corn meal in four cups boiling water equals polenta; one cup medium corn meal plus three cups boiling water equals grits.  See how easy this all is?

One of the things most surprising to those considering a “local” diet is how truly dependent their normal diet is upon flour.  Though flour can be made of any grain, it’s wheat we Westerners are terribly dependent upon…surely there’s a way to grow one’s own?

I suppose there is; in point of fact, on commercial farms, spring wheat and regular rye are commonly grown between vegetable rows where I live (the wheat grows quickly, and its roots hold down the soil between the plastic-mulched crops of tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.).  But wheat is not the normal commodity crop ’round here (ugh, we plow down our vineyards and orchards to grow corn and soy with shocking regularly here because–get this–we can’t find enough people to pick the grapes and fruit! sigh; this is a staggeringly sad factoid in a state with chronically high unemployment).  I’ve tried my hand growing hull-less oats and rye and buckwheat; all grew.  Dang, though, you need LOTS of grain to feed your own humble self.  My grains simply aren’t grown at that scale.

Child amongst the dent corn, August 2010.

However.  I do grow corn.  Armed with a handful of seeds in spring and with a $20 corn grinder in winter, whammo:  I am self-sufficient in dried corn and corn flour.

Can I just say there is NO good way to photograph this thing in action, at least not by me, not in this kitchen.  It is a corn grinder, and I do not lie that it cost $20 plus shipping: do the googles or the amazon to find it your own self:  I got the one with the deeper hopper.  BE WARNED it is not good if you’re looking to grind your own wheat flour:  it’s great, though, if you just want cornmeal on occasion, or wish to crack some corn for your chickens.

I grow dent corn, flint corn, and popcorn.  (I don’t grow sweet corn; it’s too easily had locally to make it worth my while.)  All can be ground; all make a decent flour.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange both offers all kinds of corn AND gives a whiz-bang what-for lesson of which type is used for what:  go see for yourself.  And because I am a fool for polenta, I bought a packet of SESE’s Floriani polenta-specific corn to try this year.

This cheap thing is great for home use.  After about five passes, the meal is perfect for a good polenta; after four, it makes great grits…and I’ve used it for bean flours (garbanzo, black turtle) too to good effect.  Oh, and I’ve ground up rice in it too:  rice mush makes a great breakfast!

Give corn-growing a try this year, or, barring that, use your muscles and grind your own.  Trust me, the taste of freshly-ground corn is worth the turn!

On the one-cup cooking lesson

October-seeded radicchio, slowly forming heads in the newer greenhouse.  Winter requires lots more patience than summer gardening.

Since the gardening tasks are rather light right now, my time and efforts have naturally moved indoors.  And my favorite place to be indoors is the kitchen, that careworn farmhouse kitchen which drastically needs an expansion to make it truly inviting and efficient.  Though I may find it wanting, I do enjoy working here.

One cup.  She likes wearing her hospital bracelet (shrugs).

And since she’s been able to stand, I have involved our daughter in the daily cooking and making that takes place in this kitchen.  It started small; she could pour and stir at 2-1/2, of course.  Now that she’s nearing 8 (!!) she is able to cook certain things, start to finish, like eggs many ways or roast chicken with minimal involvement from me.  But now I am requiring her full mental abilities in cooking:  I am having her memorize recipes and formulas.

Before you call social services, let me simply state that I am having her do things she likes to eat.  And because I am leftover-phobic, I have her make the small portions of bread-y things for the daily dinner.  This stress on “not too much” is where one-cup cooking comes in.  And because our winter meals tend to be soup or stew, the added bulk of breadstuffs helps weigh out the meal.

Like most kids, she’s a carboholic (and like most parents who watch their weight, her parents are carbophobic), so that one cup usually means flour.  One cup of flour (semolina or AP) plus one egg plus one egg’s worth of both water and olive oil makes a mean pasta…plus, she loves the French rolling pin.  One cup of flour plus one cup of milk plus one egg and some melted butter makes a nice crepe batter, shaken up in a mason jar…she’s good at flipping them.  One cup of flour plus two cups of cooked potato make a lot of gnocchi, enough for two dinners for us.  One cup of whole wheat flour plus a little salt and dried herbs, even some grated parmesan and enough water to hold it together make lovely crackers in the pasta roller.  And one cup of flour plus half a cup of chopped cold butter plus an egg’s worth of ice water makes a great crust for her favorite leek tart.

The one-cup rule applies to lots of other things too:  one cup of beans soaking overnight.  One cup of rice and two cups water in the rice cooker is plenty.   One cup of ground meat is enough to flavor any sauce or chili, or to make mini-meatballs (with a half cup of breadcrumbs and an egg to bind it together).  I could go on.  Basically, my goal is to have a child who is actively engaged and confident in the kitchen…and teaching her to be thrifty along the way shouldn’t hurt her.

I am always surprised when parents shoo their kids out of the kitchen.  Granted; she’s not interested in cooking every day, but I do encourage her to stick her head in to see what I am doing.  She does have setting/clearing the table duties, so she’s never without something to do, meal-wise.  But how else are they going to learn unless they break something or make a mess or burn something?  It’s how we all learn, and yes, it’s messier and slower.  Allow some time, and take a deep breath.

(Now, if only I could encourage my husband to cross the kitchen threshold on occasion…but that could be a slippery slope leading to his wanting to garden.  Uh, maybe not.)

On the teeth of time

The title of this post is a knockoff of a chapter title of a wonderful book I read last year.  2011 was, if nothing else, a great year for books.

I appear to be blocked!  My last whine about 2011 pertains to the kitchen sink plumbing.  Ask any architect and she’ll tell you that in her house 5% goes un-built, unfinished; in my case, it’s the sorry state of the kitchen (and its illegal drainage system).  So yes, left to right, draining dishes, nasty sink, draining sprouts and overflowing compost bucket…a normal day here.  2012 means the sink is now draining.

Ah, a new year, a blank slate; a new year, new plans.  The last year stunk on so many levels that I cringe on remembering.  Too much death, too much illness, too cold in the gardens for much bounty.  We even bookended the year with another week-long trip in the hospital with our daughter (she’s okay now; I thanked her, though, for getting ill before the new year’s high health deductible kicked in).

Flowering rosemary in the snow-covered greenhouse makes me happy

I am not one for resolutions and never have been.  Too much road-to-wellville; too much revisionism:  I suppose I am either entirely too pleased with myself as a package to change anything, or else I am too aware of the futility of such an effort…I leave you to judge which is closer to the truth.  However.  There appears to be one lingua franca, one currency, habitually common to women of my age, social status and education, and that is bitching about things, especially one’s life.  I understand the reason behind it:  sharing one’s gripes forms a (bizarre) kind of community.  How tiresome this is.  It’s wearying on so many levels I cannot begin to list them all.  Even if I am reluctant to make personal resolutions, I will resolve to not join in the whinge daisy chain.  How bad do we really have it?  Not bad at all, not bad at all.

Can’t we flip it and share what we’re happy about?

Fuzzy goats likewise make me happy

I am happy, frankly, that we’ll be putting in a new greenhouse this year.  I am on the fence about upping the CSA membership from six members to eight; we’ll see how it goes (membership typically starts in May, with all the new garden goodies), but I am so pleased to be sharing my food with people I care deeply about.  I am so glad to have my job and to have chosen a profession that I love and that is so very rarely boring.

And, of course, I am so happy to share our garden virtually with so many of you.  Happy 2012, all.

On home-crafted gifts

NOT our soap:  our camera is lost somewhere amongst the kitchen clutter.  Image from here.

Normally my kitchen and my garden are my queendoms:  places where I reign supreme, and often quite solo, in my tasks.  This holiday season however I have company in the kitchen, and it’s welcome, it’s crowded and sometimes it’s a bit loud with our quarrels…as queen, you see, I am not very used to challenges to my authority.

We make all kinds of goodies this time of year.  This year, we’re experimenting with goat’s milk soapmaking.  I used one cooked/heated recipe with beef tallow that I found in the back of my favorite goat-y book (Goats Produce Too), and Tom made an uncooked one with cocoa butter and olive oil.  Soapmaking, despite its outcome, is a sloppy endeavor.  Tom made wood box frames for the molds: you unscrew them once the soap has hardened.  Oh, and one thing we hadn’t considered?  Soap needs to cure for about a month before use!  whoops.

My daughter and I have been making gifts for the CSA and for her teachers.  Our weekend task was chevre truffles and spiced chevre balls (okay, the latter needs a better name; basically they’re my regular herbed chevre rolled in a powdered spice/salt mix, bite-sized, entirely too edible).  We also made more cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) and we canned it so it doesn’t need to be eaten right away.

In point of fact, I find that it helps if not all gifts need to be eaten right away:  like the canned cajeta, the truffles and (cough) balls are frozen.  So is the chicken liver pate and the goose rillettes; hiding under their layer of clarified butter and gently frozen solid, these jars’ contents won’t expand  and break upon freezing.  It also helps a tired queen stage her production throughout this busy season.

I like sharing my kitchen for this gift-making.  But does it mean I need to clean up twice the mess?  Uh, yes it does.  Happy crafting, all.

On winter

Because it has been such a slow slide into winter, I have been in denial that the frozen-ground, the-garden’s-truly-dead period comes along with the season.  But it’s arrived here, and our first snow (normally dumped then melted) has stayed and stayed.  Ugh.  The dark days.

Can you find Chicken Patty?  Some chickens are Rhodes scholars, some are just dumb.  Patty’s in the smart camp because she managed to negotiate the 7′ high fence around the garden…and is harvesting worms from underneath the sheet mulch.

It’s tough work chopping carrots out of the ground.

But it’s quite toasty in the old greenhouse.

Everything has been put to bed, under covers……and as you can see, things are still bright and fresh in here.  If you look closely you’ll see I have been successively taking the outside leaves of each plant for my customers’ and our own salads.

And as you can see, they’re quite tempting.  I think I will make it through winter just fine.

On heirlooms

Jimmy Nardello’s sweet Italian frying peppers:  find them in my garden and on the Ark of Taste

The true spirit of this holiday season, Greed, showed up right on time for me with Tuesday’s arrival of the 2012 Fedco seed catalog.  Whee!   Time to get out the highlighter and tally my wish list for next year’s seeds.

I have had to become a lot more serious about my gardens now that I’ve started a pseudo-CSA.  My usual mania for no unplanted ground has been a good policy, but keeping up with my customers’ vegetative demand has required that I likewise be ruthless about harvesting and doing away with any spent plants.  Precious, every square inch, that garden space!  So you would think that I would be stocking my garden with hybrids, right?  Grow big, grow fast, grow uniformly, grow hardy F1 seeds:  the great guarantee for yield!

Yeah, right.  Perhaps you should step over to a very non-judgmental description of hybrids and heirlooms right here; read it, get educated, then come on back.

Okay.  Here’s the deal:  I love heirlooms.  Heirloom, or open-pollinated, or standard plants (the names are interchangeable) appeal to me on many levels.  I am naturally thrifty, so having a plant whose seed I can save and perpetuate puts these puppies in the LIKE category for me:  I will go through the trouble of growing seed if it spares me from buying them year in and out.  I enjoy the natural variation found in a planting of seed:  they’re not all exactly alike, either as seedlings, as growing plants or as the yield of seeds (fruits) they produce…close, but no cigar.   This slight variation enables me to save seed from the plant whose qualities most appeal, whilst eating its slower-growing or smaller or leafier siblings…very nice, especially in a row of, say, cabbage, when having 18 heads of F1 plants ready and huge right now is more burden than blessing.  I’d prefer the variation of the small, the big, the wooly and the sprouting.

(Not all heirloom seed produces such crazed variation.  I’m generalizing here as there are loads of other factors all along the plants’ growth that could cause those differences.  Also, I like to pick on cabbages.)

My other insistence on heirlooms has to do with the vast gene pool from which they spring.  When I picked up a copy of The Vegetable Garden (web version here) about ten years ago I began to understand just how few varieties of open-pollinated seed are available to home gardeners today.  The more I looked into it the more ill I became by how little of that seed heritage remains.  Here’s a graphic that should shock you:

which can be found in a probably more legible view at National Geographic, make sure you read its attendant article too.  We’ve squandered our inheritance, it seems to me, with our happy pursuit of Early Girls and Big Boys.

I won’t step into the waters of patenting seeds (you don’t have all day, do you?), trademarking life forms and bioengineering.  Producing F1 seeds typically enriches just one seed producer.  Problem is, a successful hybrid will most likely get bought up by a seed conglomerate who also is in the gene-splicing business.  And frankly I am not keen to support the likes of Monsanto and Cargill, even by buying a lowly packet of hybrid onion seeds.  Why feed the beast?  Here is a list of seed sellers that have signed the Safe Seed pledge, wherein they don’t knowingly* produce or sell GMO-tainted seeds.  (*”Knowingly” is telling.  It’s up to you to research that the hybrid you wish to buy is not owned by or modified by a company that genetically modifies its seeds.)

Probably the biggest reason I love heirlooms is that they’re an unbroken link to our past.  Perhaps I am simply a romantic at heart, but it’s truly humbling when I hold a handful of that savoy cabbage seed over a freshly-scratched trough of earth, as it’s a link to the past.  Think about it:  SOMEBODY, actually a whole chain of somebodies, has tirelessly grown and saved the very seeds in my palm.  It is living history.  In growing and saving seed myself, I become the latest link in that unbroken chain.  The only other thing that I have actively done that has even come close is to become a mother:  that, likewise, is a mighty long chain.

Sigh.  So Tuesday night I curled up onto the couch with my highlighter and my catalog.  Sure; 1/3 of all the seeds therein are hybrids:  hybrids equal cashmoney, after all, and even Fedco isn’t above that.  (I read and circle Fedco for its politics and its writing, of course, and not necessarily for its offerings.)  And it is equally true that my garden, likewise, is home to a few safe hybrids.  I might be strident, but I am not an absolutist, except maybe on GMOs….

Here’s a great source for home-saved heirlooms:  Become a member of Seed Savers and get their annual catalog. I love Fedco but I also support TerritorialVictory Seeds and Southern Exposure, but please, I hate Baker Creek so don’t try to persuade me otherwise.  You Canadians have lots of options:   Salt Spring Seeds and a whole bunch of others in the comments.  Lucky ducks.

Oh:  You may also be wondering why I would need more seeds if I save so many.  ahem.  Avarice!  Rapacious greed!  and an overwhelming sense that I “need” more types of veg! that’s why.   I am an American after all:  consumption is my birthright, isn’t it?

Is blogging dead? Or is it just dying?

Greenhouse lettuce and chervil

So:  What is it that makes people read other people’s blogs?  It was a Friday afternoon and my blog aggregator had been silent for hours.  Granted, historically Fridays (for whatever reason) aren’t a big day for posting…but as someone looking for a quick non-work-thought fix, I missed the lack of input.  And because my blog reader follows about 100 blogs, this silence was fairly deafening.

Where is everyone going?  Is Facebook so important a source of infotainment that it’s sucking all the communication bandwidth?  Is Twitter?  Or is it just that the blog format (words, pictures, generally more than 140 characters) is too…long both to write or to read?

Perhaps it’s just the blogs I read.  Those crowding my aggregator tend to be of the homesteady/gardeny/foody stripe:  all very much in the Look What I Can Do mode, and once someone’s accomplished something (their hens lay, their tomatoes ripen, their charcuterie dry) then it’s, well, done.  No need to revisit it, to post about it twice.  But (for what it’s worth) I haven’t particularly noticed the numbers of folks who read this blog fading…and we all know I go over the same material again and again.

[Also for what it is worth, I don’t think I plan to stop blogging any time soon:  I enjoy the writing exercise, the dialogue; and, strangely, I have a (perhaps hyperinflated) sense that what I say might be of interest to others.  I try to talk about my strange path without being too much of a pedant, too much of a tyrant.]

Anyway, wherever you are, you 100 bloggers, I miss you!  Whether I read you because you’re an emotional train wreck, because of your sparkling personality, your good stories, or because you likewise teach ME, I just wish you would post more often.

I would especially like it if you posted, say, during a long Friday afternoon?

On this particular time of year

The threesome: l-r, Cricket, Ivy and T-bell

Black Friday did not include shopping for us.  Instead, my daughter and I got two rags, hopped in the car, drove two miles north and then wiped down a neighbor’s very stinky Kiko buck.  Yes!  It was Buck Friday, the time of year when all good goat girls start thinking about making babies.  With no buck on the back forty, I needed to get a couple of buck rags to bring them into a strong heat.

My latest goat tip is a bit more easy than last year’s “show the doe the rag” trick that I had to do to Cricket 2-3 times a day.  This year, the point is to actually tie the rags on the goats’ collars.  Of course they want to consume the rags (the tin-can thing is a bit of a lie: goats do in actuality like to manipulate things with their mouths… it’s not eating per se…it’s akin to a baby’s sticking everything in his mouth to “know” it) so I needed to sew the rags onto their collars.  Unfortunately, the smell of male goat funk doesn’t do it for me, so I wore gloves.

All the fashionable does wear rags on their collars dontchaknow

But it does do it for Cricket and Ivy.  There is something quite nice about farming in that you can take the long view; there’s no need to make hasty decisions.  So as I thought about whom to impregnate this fall, I considered how much milk I was getting, and how valuable it was to me:  I get just shy of a gallon a day but only 2-3 cups of that gallon come from our new mother, Cricket.  At a year and a half, with only one baby (Ivy) and with me milking once a day, she’s not putting out that much, and needs another birth to fully develop that udder.  Which leaves me with T-bell, still milking a strong 3 quarts/day in her 23rd month of milking.  Dang.  She rocks.  So Ivy is of a size I could get her knocked up too:  what the heck, why not milk three goats a day?  (Oh yeah.  The day doesn’t contain more than its usual 24 hours, despite my thinking it does.)

It’s still been surprisingly warm here, warm enough that usual put-things-to-bed-for-winter tasks have dragged on and on…and on.  I finally harvested the last of my potatoes, again in a t-shirt, over the holiday weekend, which was strange but not unpleasant, as it’s a banner year for spuds.  And the bees have still been active.

Bees?  Bee update, and background:   I surprised the hell out of my husband last year by purchasing a beekeeping kit for him for Christmas.  I also bought him a trip to Bee School for his birthday in February.  Our bees arrived, and have been lovingly tended by my husband and my daughter all year, doing their busy bee thing, filling three boxes full of brood- and honey-filled frames.

My mouth was watering when I took this:  that frame is absolutely dripping with honey.  Sorry the pic is fuzzy, it was raining, getting dark and I didn’t have a bee suit on.

A lot of work.  It must be time to harvest all that honey, right?  Wrong.  We have decided to allow the bees to keep their honey all winter long.  We’ll harvest it in the spring after the first flowers come out.  There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that taking the bees’ food source means you need to replace it to keep the hive alive…in other words, you gotta feed them.  The standard food is sugar water!  Sigh.  That doesn’t sound “right” to us.

Stapling on pipe insulation, to soon be covered by 30# building paper

Tom’s insulating the hive too for the winter.

We hope they do well over the next few cold months.  Despite not even having harvested anything, we’re keen to invest in more hives for next year, both Langstroth and top-bar.  Why not?   Plus:  I like the idea of having an apiary, or bee yard.  A bunch of boxes filled with bees:  how, well, buzzy-busy.  The rule of thumb is one hive per acre on organic farms.  Our fruit trees did wonderfully last year, and I would like to credit the bees for their success.

Dairy?  check.  Honey?  check.  Now, if I could only grow coffee…or even tea…

On the hidden farm

Anything hiding in the new greenhouse?

In one of his books, Eliot Coleman (my winter gardening guru, often mentioned here) talks about looking for “the hidden farm” on his own organic farm.  His land is in Maine, and they grow intensively (great soil plus close-spaced plantings and quick cycling of crops).  How can he possibly squeeze more production out of the land he already has?  Is there another farm hiding there somewhere?

How about the old still messy one?  Tomatoes (back left wall) in mid-November count I think…

One of his thoughts for “the hidden farm” is to set low hoops on outdoor (normally dormant) garden beds, sowing them with cold-loving quick lettuces and the like outside the bookends of first and last frost, like right now.  The advantage of low hoops are fairly obvious.  With cheap and easily moved materials, he is able to eke out more crops on land that was otherwise dormant.  Another thought is turning one of his cold (unheated) greenhouses into a cool greenhouse:  minimal heating (to 35 degrees at night) means he can get three crops in the time that a cold one gives him two.

Even if we’re not bent on feeding the masses or making pots of money, it behooves us all to consider “the hidden farm” within our own gardens.  Granted, Coleman mostly speaks to professional growers, though his Four Season Harvest remains the exception for “I should try that too” accessibility.  You might not on your own need to cycle three crops in one garden bed.  But what about two?

Listen:  I come at succession planting mostly out of thrift.   I am thrifty with my time, and thrifty with my seeds, and very generous with beneficial, free(ish) things like compost, mulch, rain water and volunteer plants.  It only makes sense that I yank out a plant that’s on the slowing side of production:  more stuff needs to grow, right now!  And (there’s always an “and” when I enumerate my garden tactics) more plants in a tighter space means less weeding and mulching for the time-pressed gardener.

That big thing in the back is cardoon.  It and its close relative the artichoke love the greenhouses.

So I often look for my own hidden farm, and this year I’ve begun to capture some path space between the greenhouse beds.   Shoot, things want to grow there anyway, why not make it official by closing off the last two feet or so of the path?  Oh yeah:  the one problem is that half of both greenhouses are prone to flooding, west to east, and blocking off the water’s flow isn’t my best lightbulb-y idea.  But the north halves of both greenhouses are mostly game.

And here we are on the bed opposite.  See what I mean about standing water?

Another hidden-farm idea I have put into practice is not a terribly radical one.  It just has to do with my compost pile location.  Granted, my “pile” occupies a space 10’wide and 15′ long and 4-5′ high…it’s kinda big in other words.  But I have been moving its location annually, and sowing nutrient pigs like winter squash and corn in its former location.  Those ground-based beds have the best soil on our land, I tells ya.

I also appreciate a vertical farm and grow lots of things on trellises, even if they’d rather flop all over my precious horizontal real estate (I’m looking at you, butternut squash and sweet potatoes).  My trellises range from simple teepees out of twigs to structures made out of recycled irrigation piping to repurposed cattle fencing.  I am also a huge fan of this netting: weave it over the top rail that of a 2×2 wood frame and you’re golden.

Anyway, the off season for many of us gardeners soon approacheth!  Time to start noodling around, trying to find a hidden farm or two of your own.  You’ll have lots of hours before the shovels come out again.

Does global warming count as a hidden farm?  This is by far the latest I have harvested tomatoes.  The bread just came out of the hot oven, now the toms and the cauliflower will join the pot of beans in the medium oven.  It is odd doing all this work in a t-shirt this late in the season.  I could even still hear the tree frogs.

On mudbugs

I am of course a “if you want it so badly, you get to do the work yourself” kind of parent:  2 lb lobster dives into the boiling pot

My husband was away last week (he had a teaching gig) and my daughter and I reveled in the culinary freedom that his absence gave us.  He’s a picky eater, see; fortunately for my garden, he likes vegetables, but all fish and all cheese are just plain not eaten by the guy.  While the seafood thing isn’t such a hardship for us, we do have a home dairy and…I do make a lot of cheese.  His loss.

So, we had a fish and cheese vacation ourselves.  The kid loves lobster so I figured it was time to teach her how to cook, pull apart and eat one…and those red shells make a fine stock for some of the week’s fishy dishes.  We did the usual biology quiz too (crusacea, exoskeleton, decapods, 10 legs, etc.) and I reminded her again about our yard crayfish, the land lobster.

Timing it, watching its color change

You see, crayfish (crawdads, etc.) don’t just live in streams.  Some species find the clay soil of our land quite hospitable, land that is hundreds of feet from any standing or running body of water.  These are the digging crayfish.  They reside in burrows, never actually needing a stream or a pond.

  Child’s size 12 boot for scale

This of course got her wheels turning.  “Can we bait a hook and catch them?  Can we dig them up?  Can I put some food out and catch them with my butterfly net?”  I said they didn’t come out during the day, but she was welcome to feed them, so we found the two known burrows and left some fish skin at the mouths of the holes.  It was gone the next day.  She now has visions of feeding them so they’ll breed  more and we can then harvest them.

I suppose this isn’t so far-fetched.  It’s her daily experience that our land feeds us, with our help (fruit, veg, eggs, poultry, milk…and foraged items like bolete and morel mushrooms, rose hips, elderflowers and berries, sassafras, sumac and maple syrup) so why not add mudbugs to the list?

On the feast day of summer’s end* (Halloween)

I think I found it, Mama

We tried to find something scary to show you in the garden.  As is common throughout history, when a new culture bangs in to an existing one, the conquered people’s holidays or rites are usually the most ripe for transformation by the new guys. Christianity supplanted a pagan festival with its own, All Saints, on 1 November,  and Halloween is merely the day before (the eve of All Hallows).  The old Celtic holiday, *Samhain, or summer’s end, was a day spent in reflection and stocking up at the end of autumn/beginning of winter.  It also was a period of time for the real world to touch the unreal, so you’re to keep your eye out for the supernatural.  I guess I am glad we kept that part of it; the kid does like to dress up and scare people.

But we like these harvest-based holidays around our house; they seem much more real than something arbitrary.  And personally, I like parties, especially when they reward all my hard gardening work.


Voila!  “You know, I think that thing is bigger than you were when you were born,” I told her.  She paused, and stared.  “You have GOT to be kidding me,” she said, looking over her glasses.

So behold!  The 7 lb, 5 oz cylindra beet.  This nearly filled a two gallon crock once shredded.  Fermented beets are super delicious…and it’s a fair way to stock up for winter.  Every year we get at least one or two monsters, but this year’s model has set the bar pretty high, eh?

I do like the sense of community on this holiday…even if we don’t have threshing or haying festivals any longer, or we don’t gather around the big kettle to process apple butter, I will think of all these joint events as I chase my daughter down the dark streets in town as she goes begging for sweets.  Why not.  It’s the new culture, after all.

On the upside of the end

Rewards:  long-term garden residents Buttercup squash and Romanesco broccoli

Another gift to the hard-working gardener is the harvest of the vegetables that take forever to mature, like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and winter squash.  Perhaps our tastebuds are simply trained to the harvest calendar, but it’s just about now that these things seem so darned desirable…and tasty.

And some harvests allow you to contemplate infinity.  Witness a close-up of the broccoli:

isn’t that crazy?  And I will have you know that I hosed off the cabbage moth caterpillar poop and powdery Bt before getting out the camera.  I grow both ugly and pretty, equal opportunity.  Romanescos almost never get this large for me; this is one of three impressive ones as the others are much more gnarly and small.  And: they taste more like cauliflower than broccoli, if you’re curious.

There are still more late harvests to come.  Threats of frost hustled me to get out the cabbage knife and hack off a head of tender Romanesco.  Other head- and flower-growing brassicas can take quite a bit of frost:  some of the tight cabbage heads, especially the wavy savoyed ones, will last for a while, and much of the cauliflower and most especially the Brussels sprouts will last through Thanksgiving.  But…can I wait that long?

On ugly produce

Dirty AND ugly

If someone hasn’t told you already, rely on me to say it:  Some, if not most, of the veg and fruit you will grow will not resemble grocery-store produce.

And what does this say about you, humble organic gardener?  Are you a failure for having cracked tomatoes, vole gnawed-upon carrots, the occasional sun-exposed greenish potato?  The scabby apple, the slug-eaten cabbage?  The (horrors) lacy flea beetle-eaten tatsoi, the wormy broccoli?  Do you SUCK at this growing thing?

You, most assuredly, do not.  You are simply the victim of inflated expectations. The stuff in the grocery store is frankenstein food, carefully chemically inflated, picked underripe, coated with wax and shipped long distances merely to fool you into thinking This is the Pinnacle of Produce.   Do not be fooled, and take heart.

Merely tasting any of your (painfully) (laboriously) (mother-hennishly) homegrown produce should assure you that you’re doing the right thing.  That you’ve befriended your vegetable peeler in ways that you never previously considered?  Consider this your new reality.  Get over it, and tell anyone else who would care to get over it, too.  It ain’t no beauty pageant.

That said:  even though I am now growing for lots of other families thanks to my small CSA, there is stuff I won’t share with them.  Harvesting my potatoes and cabbage recently kind of brought this home to me.  I have absolutely NO problem peeling a green potato or two (as long as it’s not overly green) and/or chopping away a thick-cored, tough red cabbage, but my CSA peeps might!  So, what to do with my harvest of Uglies?

Soup.  Soup equalizes all ugliness, and is in itself quite transformative.  In the big pot tonight are a dozen spotty beets, three wormy leeks, a few scabby apples, and about four slug-riddled red cabbages:  clean off all their bad spots and bugs, chop finely, place in that big pot simmering pot of caramelized onions and garlic, a handful of herbs and topped off with a decent (homegrown/canned) parsley/celery-based vegetable broth?  This is the basis for a wonderful vegan red soup.  Once fully softened, it gets put through the food mill.  Wine red, appropriate for the harvest.  It’s up to you, CSA member, on how to garnish it:  feta?  yogurt?  croutons?  chives?  Look in your share this week and find some inspiration.

And the rest of you homegrowers not in my CSA?  Do NOT let anyone tell you your veg/fruit children are ugly!!

On fall planning

Half bushel (with chickens):  good year for apples here, 7 bushels out of one tree alone

The one redeeming thing about the end of the growing season is that it is the end.  If your harvests were banner or bupkis, Next Year remains perfect–and perfectly successful–due mainly to your experiences with this current one.

So, onward, planning.

Should I remind you again that now’s the best time to make garden beds?  (I am such a nag, I know…that, and I am prone to ignoring my own advice.)  The winter’s freeze/thaw action will sweeten that soil, erasing some of the damage that making the beds does to soil structure.   (Tip:  feeding those soil creatures with lots of compost then tucking them in under a thick bed of mulch will make the new soil quite a hospitable place to the microorganisms, worms and insects that help make soil fertile.  Feed them to feed yourself.)  You can also save yourself some shoveling by doing a lasagna bed:  atop a patch of lawn, put down cardboard or newspaper, rake on some leaves, grass clippings; throw down some compost and maybe a touch of soil to hold the whole thing down…next spring you can plant in it.

One of a dozen new trees in the side 40

Also, now’s the time when many garden supply stores are trying to unload unsold products, like fruit trees.  One of the biggest obstacles to the success of young fruit trees and fruiting bushes is inattentive watering during their first year:  when getting established, the trees require weekly waterings…something a forgetful gardener might miss if she’s planted her trees in the spring (trust me here).  Planting them in the fall is actually easier.  Trees quickly become dormant, and fall/winter/spring precipitation will eliminate most of the need to water.

We’ve recently had a prolonged Indian Summer with its deep blue, perfectly clear skies and wonderful exuberant colors on the remaining leaves.  The leaves literally rain down:  all windows being wide open, we hear them pinging the house’s metal roofs ticktocktick.  We wait for them all to fall, perhaps not quite so patiently, before we do the last lawn mowing.  This one is the best for the compost pile:  so many mulched-up leaves, so much long grass, so few weed seeds.    It’s a great garden mulch too…and even those new trees could use a touch of the stuff.

I like the pace of the garden in the fall; I like fall clean-up.  There’s something satisfying about knowing I don’t need to weed for the next few months ahead…that, and my spring garden still looks perfect….

On negatives being positive

Uh oh:  chicken tractor and lawn furniture scattered hither and yon

My husband continuously says I am a glass-half-empty person.  He says it often enough that it makes me suspicious:  does he want me to believe this?  Tomayto tomahto I say.  Frankly, I think we could all use a dose of half-emptyness, at least some of the time.  If it does nothing else it lets you accept that Stuff Happens, and it prepares you for it, for sometimes Stuff will happen to You.

Stuff Happens, so pick up the pieces and move on.  We had a hellacious windstorm on Thursday night, preceded by a hailstorm of long length.  The hail was kind of cool to watch, and thankfully wasn’t so bad as to shed greenhouse plastic and/or leafy plants.  But that windstorm!  Wow.  Friday morning was a bit of a blur:  tree-sized branches everywhere, and the chicken tractor thrice tumbled, meat birds scattered.

Lucky Lucy, wondering where her siblings might be.  Every year our daughter commutes the sentence of one female meat bird.

So yeah, lots of damage.  We lost two chickens (gone with the wind?).  This  morning fortunately was the appointment with the butcher, so I gathered the remaining 25 Freedom Ranger birds and drove them over, avoiding fallen limbs and debris along the way.  And then, well, then I carried on.

Old greenhouse, 4 Oct 11:  Left photo shows the lone tomatoes in the front and on back wall, with green tomatoes ripening on a screen; right shows rosemary, sage, and artichoke in the foreground and the zany fig tree at the right.  All empty-looking beds have been planted with winter-hardy lettuces and greens (mizuna, arugula, kales, chickories).

Control what you can:  I cleaned the summer crops out of the old greenhouse on Saturday.  I was too depressed to do outdoor garden work, so instead I prepared the old greenhouse for winter.

But it’s still summer in the new greenhouse  where it’s tomato city, with peppers…but seedling beds are full too.  Those are some late sweet potatoes on the screen, dried beans on the chair at the right.  Lots of work to be done here too, toward the end of the month.

The next cleanup project:  re-erecting the trellis.  Those are my hops on the ground.

So indeed:  bit by bit, pick up the pieces.  I suppose I should be thankful this storm occurred toward the end of the growing season…it would’ve been more discouraging earlier in the summer.  As it is now, well…things had begun to be harvested, picked, prepared for winter before this storm.  The trellises and broken-up beds aren’t “needed” except maybe by my aesthetic sense of wholeness.  Which is motivation enough, actually, to get me moving.  Half full indeed!

On(ward) autumn

stomp stomp stomp

It is fully fall.  I cannot quite tell, though, whether this will be a stellar leaf-color year or not.  Surely the traditional heralds, the low sumac and high tree-climbing Virginia creeper and poison ivy, say this year will be gorgeous, but they’re always untrustworthy in their carnival colors.  You’d think, though, that with a bizarre weather year like this one, they’d flame out in riotous color.  So I keep watching.

Watching, and harvesting.  Apparently I am not the only one to do so:  the voles (field mice) have had family reunion-sized feasts in my sweet potato and winter squash patches.  Now, I don’t normally mind sharing a bite or two with the local beasts.  When they get half the butternut squash, though, I guess I get a little tetchy.  My loss, their gain.  But partially I blame myself for being so busy, for not watching the crops’ turning.

And yes, they turned for me in the vineyard.  Though a productive year, the grapes never reached a high level of sugars…and I kept waiting, thinking this last weekend would be the peak.  And I missed it, being blessed instead with vines full of raisins.

Not all raisins, though:  I am able to fill a 5-gallon carboy with what I hope turns out to be great homemade wine, complete with child labor!

Twelve gallon crock, 45 pound child, 7 gallons grapes

On listening to the harvest

You certainly don’t need it, but this laser-operated heat gun is a nice thing to have. 

It’s another In-Between Sunday.  Sundays are my busiest:  four of my six CSA subscribers get their deliveries on Monday, the Loven is firing, and there (as ever) seems to be a lot that needs harvesting and processing.

It’s a full-on sensory experience, the weekend harvesting and cooking.  The smells and sights are sometimes taken for granted.  Other things, though, require the ears, and some actually require a bit of sensory deprivation.

So I stand at the butcher block, goggled eyes and gloved hands separating about 20 red serrano peppers from their seeds and membranes.  Today I’m making this year’s hot sauce.  This year, it has peaches in it, because, well, why not?
I stand, listening to Harry Shearer, and think about how much busier I will be next weekend.  I haven’t sat down all day and it’s 4:30 in the afternoon:  it’s, in other words, a fairly typical Sunday for me.  Next week, though, the apples and the grapes will be ready.  I need to put the little crops away like all this hot sauce.  There won’t be time when the juicing and the cidering and the saucing starts.

We grow in pairs (Asiminia triloba)

Little crops:  it was a bit of a surprise, but our pawpaw trees are producing fruit!  Never heard of a pawpaw?  More of us should grow them.  I lovingly took our one ripe fruit to a group event yesterday, passed out some of the creamy flesh, then promptly ate the rest of it myself.  Supposedly they take about 14 years to fruit but ours have been in the ground for only 5.  Black blossoms graced its midsection this spring; I held little hope.  Don’t doubt a native tree, I guess.  We harvested three Hass avocado-sized pawpaws this year.  I can’t begin to tell you how lovely this one fruit was.  They should be more widely cultivated, though I can see why they are not:  the beautiful seeds took up most of the cavity.

As I sit listening to Shearer’s weekly outrages, I am listening to the Loven’s fire crackle.  Five loaves are rising in their pans:  I am thankful it’s cool, slowing their expansion, because the wood is taking a long time to burn down.  There’s not much you can do to hurry that wood, though my husband has stuck a small fan in front of the open oven door.  It happens on occasion, but sometimes the loaves fall before the oven is ready.  Sigh.

I also listen to the Close-Enough Cassoulet bubbling in its pot.  Six types of nearly-dry beans got harvested from the garden early this morning, making a trip in the cast-iron pot with bacon ends and onions/garlic and bundle of fines herbes.  Now it’s almost time to drop in the chicken legs and locally produced Mettwurst.  I set it on the stove to a light boil:  this Dutch oven will get topped with breadcrumbs and stuck into the Loven for our dinner.  It will go in the back, behind the loaves, with dinner’s two baguettes hogging the front section.  It’s a nearly empty oven.  Two pans of tomatoes are waiting to take their overnight turn.  Even if it’s not too busy, it’s still a good day.

Pre-bubbling cassoulet, fallen loaves, and overexposed sourdough baguettes.  Awfully hot to actually adjust a camera, I must say.

On the meat harvest

Aichi (nappa) cabbage:  kimchi-ready

Ah, September!  I always love your cool nights and your warm days.  School busy-ness has changed the household routine, as has homework.  The long-season crops like cabbage and Brussels sprouts have begun to flesh out after their Summer of Despair (hot weather, too much rain).  And of those long-season crops, our eyes have cast themselves on the feather-clad crops.  How long before Winner Winner Chicken Dinner?

Dinner on the hoof

Not long at all.  The Freedom Rangers (who, though in their tractor at night, now truly range free during the day) are doing quite well, fattening up nicely.  I am growing enough of them to have enough to sell, thus tipping the meat chicken bank book into the black.  (We’ll keep 18 of the 28 for ourselves.)

Pretty little Red Hen

So too are the turkeys.  Ruby hatched enough for me to sell a few poults this spring, and I am raising two birds for others and one for ourselves, like last year.  This means the turkeys, likewise, are self-sustaining.

Uday, Raghad, and Qusay in a quieter moment

We’ll all be quite glad to see the turkeys off the farm, though.  We have two young toms and a hen, and, while the hen is no problem, the boys are thugs.  I call them Qusay and Uday.  Gobblegobble!

On tiny harvests (amongst the big ‘uns)

This bowl of unripe Concords and Niagaras made three quarts of verjus:  a quart more than last year, maybe this much will see me through until next fall

Sure, it’s September, so most of us in this hemisphere are buried in big harvests.  Did you know there are probably plenty of small ones out there waiting for you too?

I swear I am not piling on, you harvest-weary souls in bloggerland.  All I mean is there might be a few more little, perhaps overlooked things growing in your back forty that could augment your winter and spring dinners.  I am, of course, talking about rounding out your pantry by looking for…condiments!

Look under the withered buds for the seedpods:  you’ll see 2-4 of them, usually.  Try to get them while they’re still small.  They’re quite peppery!

It’s now that I attend the garden armed with little bowls.  Nasturtium seed pods are slowly ripening, you see, and so it’s time to put by a store of home-grown capers.    My patch of free-sown garlic has drying tops of bulbils singing in the breeze, and the fennel and cilantro has gone to seed:  these, too, can be pickled or dried.  I see that many of the paste tomatoes are ripening well ahead of this weekend’s timed harvest.  Tomatoes can be sliced thin, placed on parchment-lined cookie sheets and sent to the oven for a 200-degree beating overnight…insta-“sun”-dried goodness, especially if sprinkled first with sea salt and fresh thyme.  These go into the freezer to be dispatched at will this winter.

Bulbils of hardneck garlic

And then there’s the ripening apples.  Ch-ch-ch-chutney…! when paired with green tomatoes, garlic, a wee bit of hot peppers and sugar/vinegar.  The pantry has yellow and brown mustard seeds.  Those few small Italian plums left from last week might make a great mustard, paired with an apple or two.

Not-quite-ready grapes yield small very precious bottles of verjus:  lip-puckery brightness if a few drops are shaken out atop a hot dish.

Over the years I have cut out all condiments from the grocery store list, and it’s only gifts from far-flung locales that stock the top shelf of the fridge.   Cranberry ketchup, garlicky barbecue sauce…these are well within your range, especially in small batches.  Small refrigerator pickles like the nasturtium pod “capers” likewise aren’t hard (just 1T salt in a near-pint of white vinegar:  add the pods as they ripen).  Look around, find that second harvest.

I think I like fennel seeds and pollen more than I like the bulb.

And:  it’s fun doing something small when all you’ve been doing is putting huge monotonous harvests away.  Trust me on this, truly.

On summer’s end

Green tree frogs (Hyla versicolor and H. chrysocelis) live in the liner of our pool

It felt great putting on a light sweater to go milk the goats this morning.  Am I a bad person for wishing for summer’s end?  Or maybe just a bad gardener?  This summer, however, was for the record books.  And I don’t like to live my life by making records.  (Let the whining begin!)

The small person is big on little frogs

Normal years have us hitting ninety maybe three days a year.  This year topped 13.  Yes:  I shouldn’t complain, as Michigan doesn’t get hurricanes or Texas-sized droughts…we’re not even prime for earthquakes, and we live too close to Lake Michigan for tornadoes to hit us.  Somehow that doesn’t matter when there’s enough personal drama that even record rains and heat don’t register.  But sayonara, Summer.  I’ve had it with your drama, weather and otherwise.


(The pool is the concession I made to my husband years ago when I told him we can’t use the a/c any longer.  It is pleasant, and it helps maintain marital peace.)

It’s usually the second week of August where most newbie gardeners give up the ghost and leave their gardens to the weeds.  I may be no newbie, but it’s been a tough year in the epic weed/bug battle and it’s left me a bit frustrated.  I have the CSA folks to grow for now too and can I say that my fifth planting of summer squash might bear fruit this year?  Yes.  The rest of you might be swimming in zucchini…and I am officially jealous.

The budding herpetologist.

So I am thankful for my determinate tomatoes, the Bellstar Paste:  you gotta love a plant that doesn’t sprawl, is the first to set fruit and is also over and done by the third week of August.  Oh, how happy I am when I pull those plants!  Others come out too and I find myself in a flurry again, adding compost, reseeding, pulling out nonperfomers:  if summer was a wash for some things, then it stands to reason that autumn will be wonderful.  Gardeners are nothing if they’re not hopeful.

And I’ve got hope, lots of hope.

On small-batch jams

Gooseberry in the back, mixed berry in the front, hanging out with the rest of the weekend’s canning (ketchup and tomato juice)

For the last few years I have toyed with an idea that’s relatively radical (at least for me):  the notion that I don’t need to make jam out of vast quantities of fruit.  A small quantity suffices, and I needn’t reach for the pectin packet, either. Sugar and fruit will do.

It seems that at this time of year I am stuck with a lot of “widows and orphans,” fruit-wise.  Our weekly trip to the fruit market seems to occur before last week’s fruit has been consumed, so there is usually a handful of something, a few more of something else, and bags of last year’s smoothie-ready fruit is still downstairs, right when this year’s harvest is ready to be frozen.  So here’s the recipe:

Prepare (peel/stem/chop) and weigh a certain amount of fruit

Measure out an equal weight of sugar

Put a few tablespoons of water into your largest non-cast iron skillet, add and stir the fruit and the sugar: put a lid on it and place the heat on medium.  On boiling, remove the lid and let it reduce down, waaay down, over the lowest heat, stirring on occasion so it’s neither sticking nor burning.  Once it’s thick, place the lid on it and let it sit overnight (if that doesn’t appeal, place the whole pan in the fridge).  Reheat it in the morning.  You can scrape the contents out into hot, sterile half-pint jars, place lids on them, tighten, and process (either boiling-water bath, covered by min. 1″ of boiling water, for 20 minutes or in pressure canner for 10 minutes at 10 pounds).

I find this works great for mixed fruits.  Peach/nectarine/cranberry/ginger, say; or cherry/peach/blueberry, or strawberry/blackberry.  Whatever you have.  The stuff is thick! and reliably set…and a lot less hassle than jamming, oh, I don’t know, those 20 pints of strawberry jam I made in June.  Jam on, people!  This method works really well if you don’t eat much of the stuff to see you through the year.

This is my 1000th post

and August marked my fifth year of blogging.

I love how lush the greenhouses look in the summer

So I took a week off to celebrate!  Hah.  Hardly.  As usual, we’re just terribly busy at this time of year.

The “other” ingredient in peach salsa:  fleshy tomatoes and fiery peppers

And of course the primary ingredient of peach salsa

I will mention one thing that was quite noteworthy and decidedly pleasant.  I met a blogging friend last week!  This marks the first time I have ever met a fellow blogger in the flesh, and it was a delight to break bread with The Slow Cook’s Ed Bruske and his wife Lane.  They’d been vacationing in Pentwater, a good two miles up the lake from us.  It was nice, after years of reading and commenting and emailing…to meet!  Hopefully it won’t be another five years before it happens again.

Meat chick update

Thought I would show you the chicks:  It was a big week for them.

They’re out in the tractor now!  Yes, the little darlings are less than three weeks old, yet I have cast them out onto the cruel, cruel world.  Am I heartless? Hah.  Hardly.  I have been watching the nighttime lows and eagerly watching their feather development.  The high dew point overnight is what tends to worry me.  There’s enough fluff on those babies still and when fluff, unlike feathers, gets damp, they get chilled.  But the weather has remained hot, including overnight (not-very) lows.  So they’re out.

All 28 babies are doing well in the tractor.  This tractor (6’x12′) is fine for all of them now and I need only move it once a day so far.  The high grass is fun for them, I think:  they stalk bugs and each other.  They fly about like fat sparrows, skip-hop-flapping from one end to the other, releasing the bottomless energy that seems to be the province of the young.

Still cute, yes?

They’re growing well on their chick starter feed (20% protein), but since they arrived I have been supplementing their rations with yogurt- or kefir-soaked scratch, crumbled hard-boiled eggs, and worms from the garden.  They also get poultry grit thrown in their food (rocks, basically) to help those little gizzards do the tough job of grinding up their food.

On summer pickles

Pickle Pot covered with one of the World’s Ugliest Tea Towels

Okay, so I lied a teensy bit in my last post:  I *have* been pickling nearly everything in sight, putting away for tomorrow (well, or at least next month) that which grows abundantly today.

It’s lacto-fermentation, though, that I have been relying upon to pickle my veg, not vinegar.  As far as methods go, this is as Old School as it gets.  I’ve basically been throwing grape leaves, unripe grapes, peppercorns and mustard seeds, garlic, fennel and parsley flower heads, and any nice fleshy unripe vegetable that I can get my hands on into a crock with salted water.  Cover them up (weighted down with my lovely weights and a quart jar of water) and in a week, voila, pickles!  The salt in the water interacting with the lactobaccili on the surface of the vegetables is what makes this happen.  (I could goose the process by adding whey…but then things end up tasting like goat.  No thanks.  It works fine on its own.)

Frankly, I can’t wait for all my cukes to get to adequate pickling size, even though I am growing a lot of them this year.  And–as ever–I am way behind with my dill plantings.  No matter; I look to see what’s blossoming and indeed fennel, cilantro, celery and parsley are all bearers of significant umbrelled flowers…lovely, all, for seasoning.  Italian flat-podded green beans, radish seed pods, young peppers (hot and not), eggplant, okra, thin green paste tomatoes, leek pearls, young onions, scallions, shallots, purslane:  these are all fair game to add to the limping-along cucumber stash. Even Brett’s milkweed buds and pods get harvested and thrown in the crock.

Sandor Ellix-Katz is my guru in all of this.   Perhaps he should be yours too.  Please pick up (even at the library) a copy of his Wild Fermentation.

My veggies’ weekly trips (more or less depending on the weather) in the crock yield about 7 pints of veggies:  one for each of my CSA people and one for us.   These aren’t canned, then; they’re eaten fresh from the fridge, preferably within a month or so…it’s basically slow(er) food.  And if you do eat it all, don’t worry, more is coming soon!

More information in the comments.

More lies:  here’s the first batch of paste tomatoes en route to the masonry oven.  Sundays are Oven Days so…why not hold off on picking tomatoes for the whole week and then having a steamer pan or two of cleaned, halved paste tomatoes go in for gentle cooking overnight?  When I took the bread and the chicken out of it, the Loven was about 300*.  It holds its heat overnight, but…I go check it before bed, and if it’s reduced “enough” then I will take the pans out, put their contents in half-gallon jars for the fridge, and then tomorrow after a trip through the food mill they’ll be canned.  It’s a great way to get paste.

On ripening harvests as the sword of Damocles

What can I blame it on, the weather?  food ennui?  or perhaps the lack of a deadline?  I am talking about my sincere disinterest in canning this harvest year 2011.  Maybe it’s the CSA (sure, I can blame them, those blameless people who pay me to consume my food) but I haven’t felt the normal pressure I feel at this time of year to can. freeze. dry. and pickle.everything in sight.

Striped Romas, ready

That’ll change this weekend, though:  it’s Peach Season.  Oh, and the tomatoes are here too.  Oh, and the corn.  OH!  Pressure!!  Better get moving! Here’s wishing you all bountiful harvests.

Incidentally:  I am trying a new method of tomato staking this year.  In each of the 3×6′ greenhouse beds I usually grow 6 plants and have hated doing 2 individual stakes for each one (that’s 76 plants, or 152 stakes, if you’re counting) so this year I tried Shepherd Ogden’s method of hanging them, vertically.  Basically, you tie twine around the base of the plant and hold the plant upright, twisting the twine around the stem to some jerry-rigged overhead support.  My overhead supports are tilted (4′ at low end, 7′ at high) because, well, the greenhouse roof is curved.  Upside:  I only drive 2 stakes for 3 plants!  It’s working very well so far:  no real work for the gardener once they’re up.

Update:  The meat chicks are a bit more than a week old, so they spend their day outdoors in the mini tractor (an old chick coop I rigged for my first chickens five years ago now:  they lived in it until we built the Taj Mahal).  Nights are spent in two big plastic storage tubs with 60-watt incandescent bulbs in the brooder lamps:  no need for real heat overnight, and hopefully in a week no light at all.  And I still have them on bath towels in those overnight tubs until I can trust them not to eat their wood-shaving bedding (another week hence).

On eating one’s weeds

This should make a nice blended soup, don’tcha think?

The only bad thing I find about growing the brassica family (cabbages, kales, etc.) under row covers is what it does to the gardener.  “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Because cabbages, once planted, need no care until harvest I guess I tend to forget about them.  It’s like getting a bye as far as garden work goes: they, like the potatoes, just do their growing thing out of sight until needed.  After a week away from the garden due to the oppressive heat, so many (!) things needed care that I *should* be able to ignore those cabbages another week or more, right?  Wrong.  I am a masochist, so I took a peek under the rowcovers.

Ohmahgah, purslane city!  Time for a little Revenge, Served Cold:

PURSLANE GAZPACHO, for six (Note:  I find it best to cut the purslane by first gathering up all its sprawling arms together and cutting it off, pony-tail style, about an inch above where the branches leave the ground.  Purslane can be messy to clean if you pull it up roots and all.)

  • About a gallon’s worth of purslane leaves and branches
  • Two small cucumbers, peeled
  • Two to four fleshy tomatoes, preferably the ones that are green when ripe, like Aunt Ruby’s German Green, or Green Zebra, but any color will do
  • Four large cloves hardneck garlic (or more) to taste
  • A medium red or yellow onion
  • One small hot chili, stemmed, and seeded too if it’s really obnoxious
  • 2 cups tomato juice or water to get the blender working correctly
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chives or green onions for garnish; vinegar for taste

This makes a shockingly green soup:  the more red tomatoes you add, the more muddied the color so be warned.  Clean purslane in a few changes of water, and strip off smaller branches from the larger trunk branches, discarding the trunks (unless of course they’re small then use all of it).  Core but don’t skin the tomatoes, and clean and halve onions and garlic.  Reserve part of the tomatoes, cucumber, onion, and purslane, set aside.  Blend remaining ingredients (it might take a couple batches to get it all) in either a blender or a food processor, and place contents in a bowl.  Chop reserved veggies, add to chives/green onions, and add to bowl.   Test for salt (it can take a lot of salt) and add vinegar if it needs to be brighter.  Chill, serve.

WEEDER’S FRIEND PASTA SALAD  serves six depending on how much you like salad

  • 1 lb dried pasta like oriecchette (or really any small-ish and salad-friendly pasta), cooked al dente and then cooled immediately; tossed with 2 T olive oil, then chilled until rest of ingredients assembled
  • About a quart or more of purslane leaves and small branches:  after their cold-water bath, pull leaves, chop branches finely
  • About 2-3 cups of lambs’ quarters, young leaves only
  • Fresh turnips, cucumbers, kohlrabi and/or carrots, about 2 cups’ worth once cleaned and cubed
  • 2-3 large red beets and their leaves: peel, cube and steam beets until crisp-tender and chop and reserve beet stems and greens
  • 2-5 radishes, cleaned and slivered, or 1/2 cup or more whole radish seed pods (quite edible, and tasty!)
  • 1/2 cup or more chopped fleshy herbs to taste (oregano, parsley, basil, etc.) and some thyme leaves thrown in too
  • Chopped red onions or scallions to taste
  • 3/4 cup or more of your favorite garlic-heavy dressing:  this works well with a garlic/buttermilk or garlic/yogurt dressing, or a lemony vinaigrette, or, hell, fresh aioli!
  • 1 cup goat’s milk feta, crumbled, or to taste

Toss all veggies in a very large bowl with cooled pasta and the dressing.  The beets make it nice and pink-y red.  There should be a LOT of vegetables here:  about 2 or 3:1 as far as veg:pasta ratio goes, so you will need to jigger the dressing accordingly by adding the juice of half a lemon or enough extra dressing and/or onion to make it sing.  Crumble the nice salty feta on top, don’t spare the pepper grinder, and dig in.

On the chicken tractor process

Nothing like the hottest week of the year to receive 154 chicks in the mail.

I didn’t order the weather, but I did order the chicks.  Granted, 125 of the birds are going to homes other than my own, but…I do have method to the madness of ordering chicks in July.

Chicks, let’s be clear, are a lot of work!  I find it best to let a hen raise them (either her own or foster birds) and that has worked for me in the past, but a 100% farm-hatched meat bird operation has not.  So I order in, and play Mother Hen myself.  If I have to raise them myself, I find the best time to do so is when it is warm, even hot, outside.  I only need the lamps on overnight for that first crucial fluffy week.

I supplement the home-hatched roosters with a slow-growing meat bird, tractored out on pasture.  Last year we received 25 Freedom Ranger birds.  I loved the taste and tenderness, and they grew out quickly, but…the first week was tough as I lost three chicks, and all three chicks plus three more experienced spraddle leg.  Spraddle leg can be caused by three things:  a too-slippery surface (like their transport box) for the first few days of life, old eggs, or a food deficiency.  It takes two days for the chicks to reach us by mail (coming from Pennsylvania!  go figure!) and if it happens to these birds, that’s it, no more Freedom Rangers for me.

Considering it’s one of the most commonly asked questions I get, I will document the care of these birds a bit more than I have done in the past.  They’ll be here until October, and then they’ll hang out in our freezer.  Stay tuned.

On bad eggs

Years ago my chef/farmer friend Catharine taught me to crack each egg individually into a bowl before sending it off to its final culinary destination.  “You never know,” she said, “and egg surprises really suck.”  So I have a small metal bowl handy for just this purpose.  When you eat maybe 18-24 eggs a week as a household like we do it’s best to be safe.

Phyllis, you sneak!  Darned bird:  lying amongst the angelica, these eggs just rot.

Not that my egg-managing skillz aren’t superlative (they are).  But chickens, especially bantams, can be really sneaky in their ovarian habits.  I swear there are a few birds who purposefully cycle themselves so that they can lay their eggs far, far away during their daily release from confinement (AKA Happy Hour).  And I will find their caches, eventually, squirreled away under the shrubbery, well beyond the Eat By date.  (I have learned to gingerly retrieve these eggs, placing them into a bucket half-filled with water…explosions do happen, especially with the weather this hot.  Best it happen under water and thus contain the pain.)

And it has been hot, hasn’t it?  I have been going to great lengths to keep the house cool and avoiding the stove (it’s electric: lots of ill-managed, escaping BTUs).  Yesterday was just such a day.  I cooked a 3-lb. chuck roast in a crock pot on the back porch all afternoon (larded with persillade and poached in tomato chutney, with the day’s volunteer All-Blue potatoes , red onions, and some carrots for color).  Crock pots, how 70s, how…redolent of my childhood; I had avoided them myself until my mom got me one (of course) a year or so ago.  Useful things, I suppose, and they can’t on their own heat up the house like the oven or stove…plus they do a mean turn on tough cuts of meat like this chuck steak.

So I sat in my garden habit, sipping a cold glass of post-garden-rewarding Traminette, flipping through a stack of cookbooks for some inspiration.  Slow-cooked meats yield lots of good juice and good juice needs something to sop it all up, doesn’t that follow?  And no heavy bread, thanks.  SO I picked up a handy Richard Olney tome and beheld Batter Noodles (Nouilles a la Poche).  (Re:  the late Mr Olney:  Iowa has never, before or since, produced such a snippy pretentious bit of bombast in human form.  *Love* that guy.)  “Treated as a gratin, these rich, round, tender eggy noodles are quite astonishing–simply drowned in cream and sprinkled with grated cheese (or liberally sprinkled with meat or poultry roasting juices and cheese…).” (Simple French Food, NY:  Wiley, 1974)

Four eggs, salt, a tablespoon of olive oil, and 1-1/3 cups of flour?  Sold!  You pipe it into gently simmering, salted water from a cone of parchment paper.  I may have to turn on the stove to boil a pot of water for this, but…it’ll be worth it, I thought.

And then the second egg exploded as I cracked it, sending its contents onto me, the counter edge, and the floor.  Yeesh.  But the noodles were quite good!  I had, you see, cracked that befouled egg into that handy little metal bowl.  Better safe than sorry.  Such an annoying truism.