Wednesday, December 17, 2014

When life hands you apples

I usually buy apples by the half-bushel from Cook's Orchard, for baked goods and applesauce. What varieties I use depends on what is available when I visit their little store. This year I wound up with a half-bushel of Macintosh and a half-bushel of Jonagold. I also purchased a half-bushel of Enterprise and Gold Rush from Bender's Orchard. I keep the apples in the garage until I get around to using them, not always the best idea. This year I lost quite a few Jonagolds to rot before I could get around to them.

My method is to wash the apples, quarter them, cook them until soft, then put them through the sauce maker (after they have cooled a bit). While reheating the applesauce, I heat the water bath with the jars in the water (saves a step). When the water starts to boil, I remove the jars from the water bath, VERY CAREFULLY dumping 3-4 quarts of water into a spare pot, in case I need to top up the water bath. Some of the boiling water is poured over the new jar lids (another saved step). Then I fill the jars to within 1/2 inch of the top, wipe the rims, add the lids and bands (finger-tight). Then CAREFULLY place the jars into the water bath rack and lower them into the water, topping with the saved water if necessary so that the jars are covered by at least an inch of water. Once the water returns to a boil, I start timing (20 minutes for quarts). When time is up, I turn off the heat and wait about 5 minutes before removing the jars and placing them on towels on the kitchen counter. They sit there for 24 hours before I remove the bands, label the jars, and put them away.

(Note to self: my "8-quart" Farberware pot holds what resulted in 6 quarts of applesauce, from about a half-bushel of Macintosh apples. A full half-bushel of Enterprise and Gold Rush yielded seven quarts.)

A couple of weeks ago I processed the Macs. I added 2 c. water when cooking down the apples to prevent scorching. The resulting applesauce was tasty but kind of watery; each jar had about an inch or so of liquid at the bottom with the applesauce floating on top. (With tomato sauce, the liquid rises to the top.) With subsequent batches, I added only one cup of water (you can also use cider), but I think some apples are just more watery than others. The following day I processed the Jonagolds. They have a really greasy feel to the peel, especially if they are overripe; this waxy layer helps provide protection from pests. I baked a couple of the Jonagolds for dessert and they were rather flavorless, but the applesauce is quite tasty. Maybe something in the processing releases more flavor?

Last week I finished by canning the Enterprise and Gold Rush (the latter is also rather waxy). Even though the two varieties were mixed in the bag, I separated them for processing, just for fun. Since there was little delay between purchase and processing, I lost none to rot, ending up with five quarts of Enterprise, one quart of Gold Rush, and one quart of half-and-half.

A little surprise I noticed this year is the different colors of the applesauces. The Macintosh and Gold Rush are brown, while the Jonagold and Enterprise are pink. I don't add any sweeteners or spices when canning, as I like applesauce just as it is. One of my favorite snacks during the winter is a half-cup of applesauce sprinkled with about a half-ounce of raw pecans.

Canning applesauce takes a certain amount of effort. I have not calculated whether it saves money, but as with knitting, that is beside the point. I have to ignore the little voice in my head that tells me this is a waste of time; it is simply something I enjoy doing. Besides, what else would I do? Watch "Dancing with the Stars"?

Friday, November 28, 2014

The dearth of birds

I shouldn't say there is a dearth of birds, but most of those at the feeders are sparrows, sparrows, and more sparrows. And they eat almost everything: sunflower seeds, peanut splits, niger, even the suet which is designated by the label as for woodpeckers. It's like a feeding frenzy out there.

The only thing they leave alone are the whole peanuts, which the blue jays ravage. After years of corvid shortage caused by the West Nile virus, I am happy to see the jays. Sparrows, not so much.

The only winter birds I have seen so far are a few juncos. No titmice, no chickadees, no nothing. Did they decide not to come this far south? Maybe that means the winter will be mild. Or did they pass by and just keep on going? Is that what happened to the finches? What do they know that we don't?

Before I retired, I worked from home as much as I could get away with. I'd sit in the West Wing and rest my eyes by gazing out the windows. Consequently, I was more aware of what species were visiting. I no longer spend as much time in that room, but when I do, I rarely see something like this guy.

Even when the feeders are birdless, I enjoy the big bluestem behind them. It is especially pretty this year.

What's outside your windows these days?

Saturday, November 15, 2014


This past week, I managed to get the garlic planted and mulched, one day before we received a dusting of snow. I thought I was late, but my not-very-exact notes reveal that last year I planted garlic on November 19. Previously, I planted nine cloves per square foot, but this year I gave them a little more room, in hopes of getting larger bulbs.

Today I spent about two hours outside doing this and that: putting away the lawn furniture, mulching the strawberries and asparagus with straw (note to self: one bale is not quite enough), transferring leaves donated by my neighbor from one side of the yard to the other, cartload by cartload, to build up the garden beds. My method is not very efficient, but all those trips added about 3000 steps to my Fitbit.

Sometimes I imagine my neighbors looking out their windows and wondering why in the world I spend so much time doing yardwork. Except for mowing, THEY certainly don't and don't want to. I could try to come up with some deep philosophical explanation, but the truth is much simpler: I just like it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A new toy

Several months ago, I got a bug up my butt about being able to chip and shred yard detritus. I did not want to deal with another combustion engine, so purchased a LawnMaster FD1501 Electric Chipper Shredder from Amazon. Then the thing sat in its box for months. (In all fairness to me, I was distracted by major home remodeling.)

Several weeks ago, I finally pulled the thing out and actually *used* it. Fortunately, there was very little assembly involved, so it was up and running in minutes. I put it to work on the remainders of the lilac bush I whacked not that long ago.

It did okay. Some chipping occurred and some shredding. The branches were still rather green, so with the small stuff there was more shredding than chipping. And the shreds were rather long and stringy, and periodically had to be cleared from the chute. I haven't tried it on anything thoroughly dead and dry, but I expect it will do fine. Tim "The Toolman" Taylor would be unimpressed, but this machine suits my needs and skill level.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Not too clean

Last week I wandered around the yard, clipping and yanking the thoroughly dead, no possible winter interest leftovers from summer. Things like dry stalks from daylilies and hostas, entire blackened coleus (good thing I dug one up to serve as next year's mother plant) and frosted marigolds, done in zinnias, etc. You know the drill. The so-called experts exhort us to clean, clean, clean up the garden and flower beds each fall. I do some, especially in the front of the house, but not too much. There are living things that depend on leaf litter and dead plants, plus after a long winter, I am usually antsy to be outside before it is safe to do any digging or planting, so leave some clean up for early spring.

Even the yucca stalks can wait.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Plans, I has 'em

All year round, I find myself thinking about what I want to do next in the yard and garden, but never more than at the end of the season. With successes and failures fresh in my mind, I contemplate what to repeat, what to do better, what to abandon, what new thing to try. These daydreams always chase away any gardener blues I may succumb to now and then.

Before fall cleanup

Something I would really like to improve is weed control in the vegetable garden, especially between beds. I've tried mulching with this, that, and the other, with minimal success. For my next method, I will try mowing. Toward that end, my SO helped me shift the raised beds to make the paths wide enough to accommodate the Toro.

After fall cleanup (more or less)

Next year's big "something new" will be the mini orchard, starting with apples and cherries. I think. I get a little overwhelmed with the choices of fruit trees available, but am narrowing my first choices to varieties that are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, the better to ensure some success.

It's not just the backyard that receives my scrutiny. The bed by the front walk is filling in nicely, but I am discovering the arrangement of the plants is not the best. Specifically, some taller things need to switch places with shorter ones, and some varieties would benefit from clustering together rather than standing in isolation.

This summer I filled in a few blanks with marigolds, simply because I started more seedlings than the vegetable garden could accommodate. Next year I would like to use its cousin calendula instead, which should self seed. I hope that does not turn out to be a mistake.

I'm done with the old fashioned (i.e. mildewed) lilac by the driveway, so whacked it down; an almond tree may grow in its place. The burning bush will get a severe pruning, to give the gold mop a chance to fill in all around.

I'm also done with most of the ornamental grasses in front of the house - just too floppy - and plan to move them to the backyard. I think a maple leaf viburnum would be a nice replacement by the front porch.

This 'Hameln', however, gets prettier every day in the autumn. I think I'll keep it.

I visited a tree nursery several years ago in search of a tulip poplar. The owner shamelessly flirted while extolling the virtues of the sugar maple over a tulip tree. Yes, sugar maples are striking this time of year, but I like the tulip poplar I eventually planted. So much so, I want to plant another, to someday shade the deck.

The observant will notice some big blue stem in the photo above. It and its neighbors, a little blue stem and two varieties of asters, are destined to move to the back corner where they can spread out to their natural size. The plants I moved to the south side of the house this past summer will probably join them. Then I get to decide what to do with the newly vacated location. I get excited just considering the possibilities!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Garden cat on duty

Now that the bulk of the garden is done for the season, I'm leaving the gate open so Finn can hunt the wild rodentia, specifically voles. These little critters have ruined more than one crop in recent history. While I don't approve of the way Finn sometimes tortures his prey, I'm not too sad about their demise.

Salomon Farm is a city park near my house which, among other things, boasts a large organic garden. A good portion of this garden is completely unfenced. WTH? I fend off rabbits that girdle shrubs and trees, woodchucks that destroy sweet potato plants, tomato-sampling gophers, voles that wipe out seed potato plantings, pea-eating sparrows, strawberry-stealing robins, etc. Salomon Farm is a working 1930's farm, so maybe I need to replace my lawn with field corn and soybeans to lure the critters away from the garden.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Got pumpkin?

We've had a couple of light frosts, the last one damaging. That was good enough for me, so I harvested the squash and pumpkin. They are curing on the *new* deck. This isn't all of them - I've eaten a squash (in soup) and given away a squash and a pumpkin. I have to say I am quite pleased with the harvest, especially considering I don't usually have much success with these. My only complaint was the way the vines took over the garden, making other garden activities difficult. At least, that is my excuse.

Let them eat cucurbita

Waltham Butternut squash

Small Sugar pumpkin

Rouge Vif d'Etamps pumpkin

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Third Plate and a shifting paradigm

After hearing an interview with Dan Barber on the Splendid Table, I picked up his book, The Third Plate, at the library. Although written from a chef's perspective, this book is opening my eyes to a whole new way of seeing my yard and garden. I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about organic gardening in the backyard, but now I realize I am "old school".

I am only partway through the book, but already I am newly excited about things like weeds. Yes, weeds. Not to eat, not to eradicate, not to hate, but to use as a means of truly SEEING the soil in my garden. As an example, one of my worst enemies is Canada thistle. No matter how hard I try to beat it into submission, it keeps coming back, stronger and stronger every year. Why? Because the heavy clay beneath my raised beds is the epitome of compaction. To get rid of thistle, I need to do something about the compaction, specifically plant cover crops like spelt and red clover; both aerate the soil and suppress weeds while the latter also fixes nitrogen. Winter rye suppresses weeds as well.

Healthy soil produces healthy plants which are naturally less appealing to pests and diseases. I saw that this year, when the zucchini just went on and on (and ON). In previous years, the plants would succumb to squash beetles and/or mildew about mid-season. Ditto pumpkin and butternut, neither of which I have successfully grown before. All that horse manure paid off. Unfortunately, it is also the reason behind the proliferation of certain other weeds.

My gardening mantra has been "Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants" but there is more to healthy soil than what I have been doing. Different parts of my yard have different weed problems. I'm anxious to get a good weed reference and identify and correct those problems. Fun stuff!

Additional references:
Listen to Your Weeds
Cover Crop Planting Specification Guide

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pouches stuffed

This little guy can't get into the bird feeders, but he does a good job cleaning up beneath them.

Chipmunks hibernate during the winter, but instead of storing fat, they snack their way through to spring.

When it comes to cute, chipmunks got it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A little frosty

A mild frost Saturday night did nothing discernible to the garden except for some of the sweet potatoes. I decided to empty two bags of peat onto the blueberry bed and top that with the contents of some of the sweet potato grow bags, thereby starting the fall harvest. Those bags of dirt were heavy! To allow the use of a small garden cart, I had to remove a couple of butternut squash and a sugar pumpkin from their still green vines as they were in the way. I managed to muscle three bags over to the blueberry beds before I decided that was enough for one day.

Last year's sweet potato harvest was a total bust. This year's is not quite so bad, but it is not going to be good, either, judging by the contents of those three bags. For one thing, a woodchuck decimated the plants early on, before we built a fortress around the garden. Then my placement of the grow bags and pots turned out to be too shady once the zinnias and sunflowers reached their full height. The never-really-hot temps did not help, either; I don't think we had a single day of 90+ weather.

Now I'm grumpy about the lack of a hard frost. This is the first year I have had such success with squash and pumpkin, and I want them to hold into the winter, which means leaving them on the vine as long as possible. It's difficult to do much of any other clean up in the garden until those vines are done, as they reach into almost every corner and bed.

The weather is usually different from year to year, but the past few years it seems more different in more ways than ever before. Can you say "climate change"?

Thursday, October 02, 2014

In limbo

The weather has been so mild lately - today is is in the upper 70's - that, when I see a tree with yellowing leaves, I think, "What is wrong?!?" Then I remember fall is coming. No hard frost in the forecast but cooler temps are on their way.

I'm starting to clear out the vegetable garden, taking the zucchini and cucumber first. There were a couple of giant examples of each hiding under all that rampant growth, all of which went on the compost pile. I did harvest a few baby zukes. The root bed offered up some radishes and turnips, and the pole beans are providing a meal every few days. The roma tomatoes are basically done, and I am done with the rest, so I will clear out those beds next; the fall planting of garlic goes in there next month.

With my SO's help, I hauled in some construction blocks (on sale at Menard's for 95 cents each) to use in the orchard to create raised beds for the fruit trees. Two beds have been outlined so far; I'll fill them with the contents of the sweet potato bags post harvest, plus some of my homemade compost. Fruit trees don't need a lot of nitrogen, so we'll skip the manure.

Usually I save plant and seed selection for the winter months, but I keep studying and sampling fruit tree varieties, to get a feel for what I might like. Have you ever had Asian pears? The flavor is nothing to get excited about, very mild, but the texture is crunchy, like an apple. And they keep, a welcome trait for this canner-weary gardener.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

16 tons

Today my SO helped me move the dirt from the patio beds to the newly located blueberry beds. It was a lot of dirt. Without his help, it would have taken me days, assuming I did no lose heart and give up. He truly helps my gardening dreams come true.

Re the rest of the garden, I can't wait for a hard frost. I am so sick of zucchini and tomatoes, and am eager to harvest the pumpkins, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes. The fall plantings show mixed results: some beans, some kale, something else as yet to be identified (turnips?), the rest no-shows.

Re the incipient mini-orchard, I have been taste testing apples. Today I went to a farmers market and picked up an apple sampler: Jonagold, Swiss Gourmet, Cortland, and Sweet 16. The vendor also turned me on to a new resource, Orange Pippin. I see an orchard tour in my future.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Continuing to wind down

I'm not much for fall clean up. Those late bloomers provide nectar and seeds for wildlife, then winter interest for the most part, especially when capped with snow, and finally something to do in March when I want to be out in the yard but it is too early to do much of anything. The only exception I make is the vegetable garden, as a good clean up makes for a better garden next year.

Toward that end, I spent an hour or so thinning the raspberry bed yesterday. While very prolific this past summer, the plants produced berries that were a bit small for my tastes. I'm new to raspberry growing, so last year simply removed the old canes. This year I also thinned the new ones, with the goal of keeping one cane for every six inches or so. This was accomplished by removing the more spindly ones. Theoretically, my efforts should result in larger berries next year. I also cut out the trumpet vine that threatens the patch (if you ever plant trumpet vine, put it out in the yard where you can control its runners with a mower), fed the bed with composted horse manure, mulched, and rearranged the fencing that holds the canes upright and keeps the bunnies out. Overall, good work and a good workout.

What are your fall garden rituals?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The end is near

As much as I love gardening, by the end of August, I am done with it. Fortunately, it is about done with me, too. The determinate Roma tomatoes have passed their peak. The butternut squash are turning a lovely shade of beige. Even the zucchini plants are slowing production (although there is a giant zuke out there I can't reach - we'll see just how big it will get). But there is still plenty to feast one's eyes on.

I'm happy to report that I have seen more monarch butterflies this summer. After reading Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior and then seeing few, if any monarchs last year, I was getting a bit concerned. Hopefully, they will hang in there.

One of the best kept secrets regarding nectar plants is the lowly zinnia. Not only do they attract butterflies but hummingbirds as well. And so easy to grow!

In the Learn Something New department, it was only after reading this gardeninacity post that I took a closer look at the seed pods on the swamp milkweed and butterfly weed plants. Very interesting.

And then there are the sunflowers. I can't tell you the varieties of these beauties, as the seeds are from a mixture. Since these are bred for cutting, the plants have multiple blossoms and those blossoms last a long time.

How is your garden winding up?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Coming attractions

The so-called meadow for the birds, bees, and butterflies has been a problem for quite some time, primarily because it is too large for me to maintain, even with the help of my SO. So now the plan is to turn that area into a mini-orchard. Toward that end, today my SO helped me relocate the patio beds so that they may become blueberry beds. (I know, I know, this year I planted blueberries on the south side of the house, but I decided that just was not going to work out. I'll move them next spring.)

The patio beds needed to be moved anyway. If I ever make up my mind on a contractor, the patio will become a deck and the beds were in the way. Also, their location was not very conducive to growing sun-loving plants, most of which have been relocated and most of which are much happier. My only remaining concern is the treated lumber is really old, so it may have arsenic in it. To waylay that issue, we are going to line them with cedar shingles. Blueberry plants are shallow rooted, so I think that will be good enough.

The mini part of a mini-orchard will hopefully be accomplished by following the directives for a backyard orchard culture, found at Dave Wilson Nursery. Instead of planting one tree every ten feet, I will plant four in one hole. Instead of letting the root stock determine the size the trees grow, I will keep them severely pruned. The goal is to have some fruit from many varieties instead of a lot of fruit from very few varieties. Between this strategy and the holistic orchard techniques described in The Holistic Orchard, I hope to grow tree fruit that is as close to organic as I can get. Also, I won't need to climb ladders and, theoretically, if frost threatens, I may be able to save the crop by throwing sheets over the trees.

I've had crazier ideas.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Saints preserve us

For living alone, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen this time of year, putting food by. In the future, I hope to do more canning and dehydrating, but with the remodeling going on, it is simpler to just shove everything into the freezer (which is getting *very* full).

Coffee is a necessary fuel

So far, I have grated zucchini, zucchini spread, zucchini soup base, zucchini fritters, zucchini puree. (It's a good thing I like zucchini.) There is pizza sauce and tomato basil red sauce, plus whole cherry tomatoes and Romas. The corn, green (and purple) beans, and broccoli came from a local organic urban farm, Tanglewood. They also supplied most of the strawberries, while the blueberries and peaches are from various farmer market vendors and the raspberries grew in my own backyard. For protein, there is bacon, chicken, and salmon, courtesy of Seven Sons. Like I said, the freezer is *very* full.

Running out of counter space

In the garage we have garlic, onions, and potatoes (red and blue), to be joined in the fall by pumpkin and butternut squash and hopefully sweet potatoes.

Note fluids necessary for marathon preserving sessions

The last time I harvested zucchini, I saw no new blossoms, so hopefully it is on the wane. There will be more tomatoes which I will can (because the freezer is *very* full).

March of the peaches, led by Abe Lincoln tomato

Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much effort gardening and harvesting and preserving. It is not the simple life, as it takes equipment, time, energy. How much easier it is to just go to the grocery store (the variety of which is expanding locally). I could go on and on about a philosophy behind my madness, but I doubt it would move you. There is just something very satisfying about gathering the makings of a meal from my own backyard or, when the winter winds blow, from my own stash of foodstuffs. For me, it just feels right.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Blue plate special

Here is dinner from last week: meatloaf, corn on the cob, and a baked Adirondack Blue potato. The potato tastes fine, if not as creamy and buttery as the Eva potatoes I grew last year, but I am having trouble getting past the color.

I later boiled some of the Adirondack Blue with the Adirondack Red; when I checked the leftovers a couple of days later, I thought they had turned into a science experiment. I fried the leftovers, and the red ones looked like chunks of ham. Again, taste was fine, just having trouble with the visuals.

What about you? Do colored potatoes put you off?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Must be August

In June, the gardener knows it will be a while before she reaps. In July, the harvest begins. In August, more of the long-awaited crops come to fruition, plus the fall plantings start to grow.

Onion harvest - Copra and Red Zeplin
Burpless Beauty cucumber, growing vertically
Matt's Wild Cherry and Black Cherry tomatoes
Honey and Cream sweet corn
The pumpkin in the tomato bed keeps getting bigger and more orange
Pumpkin vine trying to escape the confines of the garden
Purple Pod pole beans, for fall harvest (fingers crossed)

I love mixing some flowers in amongst the veggies. The bees friend finally bloomed, so now we know what they look like. The zinnias will add color through the rest of the season.

Bee's Friend
Lilliput Mix zinnias