Monday, December 31, 2007

Seed Saving, Part 2


Now that the holidays are mostly over, we're getting into that long stretch of winter. I was the happy recipient of some old peanut butter yesterday. We cleaned out the cupboards at my grandmother's house and got old nuts, fruit, seeds, and some lard, so I think I have all the stuff I need to make suet cakes again. As if I didn't have enough things to feed already, yesterday I took the deer block my mom gave me for Christmas down into the field below the house. It weighed 25 pounds, and I should have put it in my packback, because today my arms are sore from carrying it. I'll need to go and peek in a few days to see if anything has found it. I saw a wild turkey the other day, and I know there are still deer down there.

On Christmas morning, we saw about an eight or nine point buck the size of a cow just a couple miles from the house, and there are lots of tracks out back. Those hunters are slacking! I like the new combined deer season because the hunting season gets over and done with sooner and I don't worry so much about going out in the woods, but it seems like fewer people are hunting and fewer people are getting deer. I know a lot of people think hunting is cruel, but I'd much rather see a deer on someone's table than have to wrestle the dogs off deer carcass all winter long if when one dies out back. And I really, really am in favor of anything that get people up and out of their houses doing something active and real. Espcially if it involves making people appreciate the outdoors and also participate in getting their own food.

People always think it's a little funny that the first day of deer season in Pennsylvania is like a holiday. There is no school, and I made the mistake this year of thinking the farm co-op would be open on the first day of deer! I also remember that in sixth grade, as part of science class everyone at my elementary school took the hunters' safety course. If you think about it, it was a good idea because to hunt at that age, you needed the course, and, also a little firearms safety never hurt anyone. It wasn't like they actually did in class demonstrations.

For me, this is a really exciting time of year. The seed catalogs are coming! I lived in an apartment for the first ten years of my adult life, and some times it seemed like I would never get out. I kept a few houseplants and a little herb planter on the porch, but I always loved gardens. When I was a kid and we lived in a house with a big yard, my mom always grew flowers, and we had a lots of different gardens. Shade gardens, annuals, perennials, bulbs. We usually didn't bother with vegetable gardens. Though we did have a really nice old fashioned berry patch with gooseberries, currants, and rhubarb. The college where I went had a lot of amazing gardens which were tended by a retired English professor who showed up in lots of different classes to talk about the art of garden design. I was always very interested, as I had grown up in a gardening family, but I never had the opportunity to do any gardening for a long, long time after I was out of school.

When we moved to our place out of town, it was in the middle of summer and too late to plant anything. There were a lot of established herb patches, asparagus, some raspberries and currants, and a blackberry patch that bore really well. I was able to make a lot of blackberry jam that year, but that was about it. It took a lot of work just to "reclaim" some of the gardens that year, and the following spring, which is unbelievably three years ago this coming spring, I started a new strawberry patch, and planted a vegetable garden for the first time in the established garden up near the house.

This year, at the end of the season, I kind of dived head first into saving seeds from my heirloom varieties. I've been reading a little about it since I actually collected my seeds, and I'm kind of worried about cross pollination.

In the first place, the book that I was using as a guide just said, don't allow it, and didn't say why and also just had a section of cross pollination and didn't really mention it again except in a chart that said what would cross pollinate. If anyone is interested, the book is Seed Sowing and Saving by Carole B. Turner, and it's a really good book. It has a lot of information about how to handle seeds like cold treatment and how to test for germination and things like that. It even says how to make your own hybrids by hand pollination and has a great list of open pollinated seeds and sources.

To find out more about cross pollination and whether or not I should worry about the seeds I collected at the end of the season, I turned to a different book: Heirloom Country Gardens by Sarah Wolfgang Heffner. Now, Sarah explains cross pollination a little better, and also includes in a section on each type of vegetable how to avoid it. This is very useful, as there are really big differences between how different plants need to be treated if you are trying to save a particular variety for seed. Different varieties of tomatoes for instance, need to be kept only about twenty feet apart, and they probably will be safe from cross pollination. Peas need to be kept only five to ten feet apart. There are four varieties of squash, and within those varieties, they will cross pollinate, but not without. Unfortunately, just about every kind of pumpkin or squash or gourd that is common is Curcurbita pepo, meaning seemingly very different things like pumpkins, summer squash, and gourds will all cross pollinate, and the seeds are no longer pure. Sarah Wolfgang Heffner, who is not dramatic about other things, suggests that if you are growing squash specifically to propagate a particular seed variety, plant only one a year to ensure the seed remains pure.

There are some kind of fun facts in the Heirloom Country Gardens book, too. Carrots and onions are biennial seeders, meaning they will only bloom and make seed the second year. They need to be dug up in fall and replanted in spring, and if you are saving onions for seed, you can only plant one kind or they will definitely cross polllinate. And the onion has to be a mile away from other varieties to absolutely ensure seed purity! Also, though peppers really only need about five feet apart between varieties, if a bell pepper does cross pollinate with a hot pepper, the hot taste is dominant, so you can end up with hot bell peppers.

Now, I was not careful last year about keeping my bean plants away from each other, but even Mrs.-Super-Cautious Carole B. Turner says bean plants only need limited isolation. I saved Kentucky Wonder bush bean seeds and green and yellow French beans. The Kentucky Wonders are first year, but the French beans were grown from seeds I saved two summers ago. I might have some concerns for my tomatoes, which were planted even more freely than I usually do things, and my bell peppers were definitely planted really close to my salsa peppers. And I'm still looking for a good answer on my watermelons. I have a lot of seed from sun, moon, and stars watermelons which I planted mixed in with some funny French melons which were not even in the same species or genus. Most books just say "melon", so I don't know what is going to grow, if anything, if I throw those melon seeds in the ground.

In the middle of rounding up my million and a half seed catalogs -- I'm a heavy user, all the seed companies want me! -- I've been getting ready to test the seeds I did save to see what I need to order and what I can try and grow from saved seed. Seed testing is kind of fun, because it is almost like that wonderful time just thirteen short weeks from now. That would be eight weeks before the predicted last frost when seed starting starts!

Testing seeds is a pretty simple process, and like anything to do with gardening, labeling and documentation makes things even easier. First, pick out the seed and count out a good number of them. I usually go between fifteen and twenty, but I'm testing ground cherry seeds this week, and they are tiny and slow germinators so I picked out fifty of those. I use tin foil cookie sheets as a work surface, but real cookie sheets, cake pans or even a plate or a dish will do, but it should be waterproof. Get a paper napkin or paper towel and lay the seeds out neatly. You can draw grids on the towel and count the grids and just put one seed per space if you don't want to count seeds, but I like counting seeds. Make sure you label what it is you are testing and you should really put the date on, also. Cover the seeds with another layer of paper towel and mist with water from a squirt bottle. Cover the seeds with a sheet of plastic wrap and place them in a warm, light area. I live in Northwestern PA, and there is no warm, light area, at least not until the middle of May or so, so I use a shoplight with a grow lamp that I just clamp into place wherever, a few feet above the trays of seeds I'm testing.

Keep up with this set up fir about three weeks and note the number of seeds that germinate. At the end of the period, you need to do a little math, but it's okay! Devide the number of seeds that actually did something by the number of seeds that were tested. This will give you a percentage. If fifty per cent or more grew, you are in good shape. If anywhere from fifty to twenty five per cent germinated, you might want to sow a little thicker than you normally would to make up for the number of seeds that will not germinate. If fewer than twenty five per cent of the seeds germinated, you should probably toss those out and start over with purchased seed.

Some seeds need special treatment before they will germinate. Most of the time, that means they need to be exposed to cold for a period of time. Generally, these are flower or herb seeds that if they were growing in the wild, they would just get dropped on the ground. If the seeds germinated directly, they would be used up before winter. Since I like to touch on "useful" as opposed to "pretty" plants, I'll just mention that bee balm and echinecea both need to be chilled before they will germinate. To do this, you can package up the seeds and actually bury them in a trench for the winter, or refrigerate them for a few weeks. You can cold treat (also called "stratification") right when you plant by getting the seeds into flats and getting the planting medium nice and damp. Cover this with plastic and refrigerate the whole thing. In the interests of not filling the entire refrigerator with seeds flats, a basement window or stairway blocked off from the heat will do the trick, and I stratified polygonum on a shelf in the garage for a month or so in the spring, and that worked very well.

I saved quite a few alpine strawberry seeds which need to be kept in the freezer for about four to six weeks before they will grow. The Polygonum -- also called "Prince's Feather" or "Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate" -- is just a tall, strange flower that looks neat planted next to the snake rail fence in a little area which is starting to become the tall, strange plant garden, apparently. I mention it here because it needs both scarfied and stratified. That means, the seed coating needs to be sanded (with sandpaper) before it gets planted and chilled. Think of the seed getting eaten by a bird in the fall, passing through the bird, and sitting somewhere chilly all winter.

Right now, I have two trays of seeds getting tested. One variety of beans, three tomatoes, the watermelons, ground cherry, bell peppers, and broom corn. I'm also making plans to use my lower garden patch at the growing space for things I want to save for seed. Between seed saving and regular crop rotation and my congenital inability to measure anything in a straight line, my garden planning this year is looking pretty complicated. Luckily, I expanded my lower garden patch this year and really tried to work the soil a lot with compost and green manure before I even tried to grow anything in the new areas. Luckily, all I need to do for more space is grab my shovel and get working!

And one more thing! All these fancy and expensive books that I leaf through a grab one or two pieces of information out of and never really have to look at again? I'm getting them out of the public library. I just read a great news report that young adults ages 18 through 30 are the heaviest libary users. For gardeners, there is no better resource, since there are usually incredible tons of garden books in every public library. Lots of people give memorial donations to libraries, and they tend to ask for books that the people they are commemorating would like. At my local libary, there is an amazing collection of books on weaving and fiber all in memory of one person. There are the garden books, of course. The library where I used to work was like a fantastic repository for all things fish, to the point where if I had another request for a memorial book about fishing, I had a hard time finding one the library didn't have already. I had to laugh, because when I went to the library I use all the time now to pick up books on fish over the summer, I didn't find very many, and I had just kind of grown to think that all libraries had a whole shelf of books dedicated to fishing.

I digress! The point being, the public library is a fantastic resource. Even just the website for the public library is a great source or really good information. And you get free access to a lot of things that you would never expect. I'm currently using Rosetta Stone to learn Chinese. For free! At home on my own computer! There are also databases on periodicals, geneology, marketing, car repair, full texts of books from novels to really cruchy scholarly things. Even downloadable audiobooks. And if your local library doesn't have it, they will get it for you! They are remarkable people with limitless resources! Get your library card and go and learn something, already!

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Visit to an Amish Dry Goods Store


Well, the holidays are almost over. I don't really do New Year's, but last year I babysat for my niece and nephew. It was very stormy, with rain and thunder and lightning. I remember the weather very well, because my nephew, the little jokester, locked us out of the house when we stepped out on the porch to watch some fireworks. He would have thought it was really funny if I hadn't been able to pop a lock off a different door and we'd gotten stuck counting down the new year in the garage with the stray cats.

Right now, we're in the middle of kind of a thaw. It's still pretty snowy, but the roads are melting off every few days, and it's making it really easy to get around. We were able to make a lot of visits to my grandmother's house and to my sister's house between the weekend and the holiday and, apart from a little freezing rain on Christmas Eve and Chrstmas morning, the roads were good everywhere we went. We didn't need to change any plans because of weather. I even took a break from all the visiting and treated myself to a birthday trip to the movies to see Sweeney Todd. Eek! Is it bad that my three favorite new movies from this year were Eastern Promises, No Country for Old Men, and Sweeney Todd? Cronenberg, the Coens, and Tim Burton are my favorite, favorite, favorite directors, and I got so spoiled this year. I also ended up at the movies alone, since no one in my family wants to go and see all those creepy movies about people killing each other.

This week, at different houses, we had two birthday parties plus Christmas dinner (plus brunch at my sister's), so the family got together down at my grandmother's on the day after Christmas and did a family gift exchange and ate a big meal of leftovers from the whole week. We do one of those things where you draw a number and can either steal someone's present or open a new one. The hot presents this year were a fancy hoe with a light fiberglass handle and a bird feeder. I got some barbeque tools, which I needed. Most of my cooking things are either presents or beg borrow or steal, and my grill is definitely a beg from when my dad got a new and better grill, and until now, I didn't even have a grill brush for it!

Today, I decided to take advantage of the good weather and make a trip to the dry goods store. The only thing I was really low on was spelt flour, but I can always find some good things down there. Ideally, I should get a picture of some of the store shelves and things like that, but they aren't keen on pictures. My sister and I are both convinced that the cover of People magazine that they had after the happening down in Lancaster last year of two women walking through a field were just actresses in Amish dresses. On the news, a month or so ago, they did an interview with an Amish man, and they just filmed his shadow on the grass and had his voice. Instead, I took a picture of what I bought today after I got it back to the house.

There are actually quite a few Amish stores in our area, and I do mean Amish. They are owned by Amish people, and a really interesting mix of people, mostly Amish, shop there. It's very, very common to hear people speaking "dutch" which is acutally kind of a funny sing-songy Swiss German dialect. It is an amazing experience every time. There is always some ingredient you can find that might be the next great food adventure. Or you can just get a really yummy snack while picking up the basics for bread and cookies.

The store is located off the main road down a dirt road that is a little hilly, which is why the weather is always a consideration when heading that way. On the way, you pass a mix of "anglish" and Amish farms and the usual kinds of businesses you get in this area. There's a car repair place (not Amish) plus a sawmill and a construction and roofing company. The store itself is warm little place, not much bigger than a good sized shed, maybe twenty by thirty feet or so, but they make good use of space. There is no packaging other than plastic bags, and the shelves are loaded all the way up to the ceiling. In the winter, there is a kerosene heater, and on dark days a kerosene lantern. Your purchases are rung up on a battery operated adding machine.

I usually hit the flour aisle first where they have all kinds of whole grain flours and white flour and also all kinds of mixes for breads, pancakes, biscuits, doughnuts, funnelcakes, and anything else. There is everything you could ever want to make cookies with and decorate them. Every kind of dried fruit, flavored chip, flavoring, sugar, sprinkle, filling, leavening, spice, shortening: they have it. And I mean every kind. There are those food service bags of different jelly fillings for doughnuts in about five flavors. The Amish store had the non-hydrogenated palm oil shortening for months before the regular grocery stores added it to their health food sections. And every time I hear about a "new" healthier alternative sugar, they already have had it there for a while, too.

They have lots of non-wheat flour and lots of gluten free mixes and also snacks and sweets for diabetics, too. The candy aisle is equally fantastic with all the stuff you'd expect like brandname candy plus all kinds of old fashioned stuff and just everything you might ever want. There is bulk cereal and jello and pudding mix and dip mixes and rice and soup mixes. There is also a freezer and a fridge for meats and dairy, and a different times produce boxes with things that don't really need refridgerated like onions, garlic and bananas. The last time I paid less than a dollar for a lemon was at the Amish store, and they were three for a dollar there.

Lots of stuff is organic, and everything is a few pennies per pound less than things cost at the grocery store or the co-op. A lot of the things simply aren't available anywhere else, too, so the fact that the prices are good makes it even cooler. Some things like odd candies, coffee, and really common grocery store items are more like convenience store prices, but the "real" food is all affordable.

At the back and the sides of the store, there are lots of nonfood things. There are schoolbooks and lots of cookbooks and toys and games songbooks and books in German. Also things for drawing and stamping. Greeting cards, notepapers, windchimes, knicknacks, household things like clocks that don't take electricity. There is any kind of cooking utensil you can think of including these amazing hand crank egg beaters that are made in Ohio and are like an heirloom item they are so nice. There are shoes and boots, in black only, of course. One row has bolts of cloth and quilting and sewing things. Most of the cloth is dress cloth or denim or white muslin for bonnets and household things. There aren't a lot of prints or anything like that. There are a few pre-made dresses and bonnets, but it seems more usual to make those things, though, there is a basket of pre-made bonnet strings to attatch to what people sew for themselves. You can also get Lye for soapmaking, though that is one craft I haven't tried yet.

Overhead, there are all sorts of larger items. Giant metal mixing bowls, lamps and oil stoves and pots and pans. You can also get plates and cups and glasses. Most aisles you need to kind of duck though, there are so many things hanging. Then, there are all herbs and vitamins and supplements. Plus, medicinal teas and natural soaps and toothpaste. I haven't even mentioned snacks, pretzels, trailmixes, crackers, and cookies. There are all kinds of pectins and picking things for jelly and canning, too.

A good portion of the books and stamps and toys are religious-based which makes the store a really popular destination for homeschoolers and Sunday school teachers. Also, a lot of "special diet" people shop there. And older people who are getting the things they grew up eating at better prices than at the grocery store. I usually go for candy and flour, but I get socks there pretty often and shoes and snacks, and today I bought a bag of that brown salt that comes from Utah and my favorite toothpaste: Tom's of Maine Fennel, no flouride, no baking soda. My other purchases included graham crackers, organic oatmeal -- Wednesdays are Oatmeal for Breakfast Day -- and popcorn, plus a new pair of socks, a huge splurge for me, but really useful, as I can wear my black plain knee socks when I work, and it looks like I'm wearing tights or nylons!

I'm actually pretty excited about buying in bulk right now, since my dad got me a vacuum sealer as a combination birthday and Christmas present. It's a great present since, my basement storage area gets a little damp and moldy in the summer when I also tend to have a lot of sugar on hand for jelly making and I don't run through flour as quickly. He got me the canister set and also this really cool attatchment that will put a vacuum seal on a standard sized mason jar with a regular old lid. I know I have a quart jar from honey around here somewhere that takes a regular lid. I'm going to go and find it and seal up some of that oatmeal for storage right now!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

For the Birds!


Another ice storm! But the birds are still at the bird feeder today. Yesterday, I was going over my kitchen stuff. Everything is running low, but I had a bad can of shortening. The first part was okay, but as I went down through the gan, it got grainy and too stiff to use in cookie dough. Unfortunately I had to throw out two batches of dough before I surrendered and opened a new can of fat.

Under normal circumstances, I would write a nice letter of complaint to the company who made the shortening. This is a really good thing to do, if you suspect you have a defective food product. Most companies willingly provide some sort of refund or replacement. Last year, I had come Hershey's baking chocolate that made everything I used it in turn into a hard lump. Frosting ripped cakes to pieces. Flour wouldn't go into cookies. It was a nightmare and also inconvenient, because usually I was baking for an "occasion" where I couldn't just decide not to bring cake for someone's birthday because I didn't like the icing. To make a long story longer, I wrote a letter to the company and received Hershey's coupons.

I was about to do the same thing for the shortening when I looked out the window and realised we were going to run out of suet cakes. Again! I have a lot of spoiled birds that I even fed through the summer. Right now, they are not fans of the food I bought for them. It has too much cracked corn. I went to the farm co-op and got some other seed, and it also had a lot of cracked corn. when I have money again, I'm going to have to get something with more millet and mix the two seed batches of seed together.

Most of the birds just show up for the suet, anyway. So, I decided I would take my can of shortening and give suet cake making a try. I went to the internet first for some ideas. There are a lot of recipes. You can put fruits and nuts and grains and just about anything into suet cakes. Some of the recipes even called for white flour which I think is a mean trick to play on birds. Just like for people. White flour has a pleasing texture and will fill you up, but there is nothing in it. And a lot of the recipes called for cornmeal, too. I use my cornmeal for people, same as I use my sugar for baking and jelly. I don't feed hummingbirds my sugar, and I'm not going to take my cornmeal and feed it to the birds who are complaining right now because their food has too much cracked corn in it.

The one thing I found that just about every suet recipe had in common was a one to one ratio of fat to peanut butter, no matter whether you were using animal or vegetable fat. I usually keep a good supply of on sale store brand peanut butter for cookies and for people who don't like the good, natural stuff. That I was willing to give up for the birds.

I raided the cupboards and found some old currants, some wheat germ (which I have not been using in bread because of the blood type diet I have been trying to keep my mother on) an old, old bag of semolina flour and some quick oats. I also went out the garage and got the bucket with the offensive, too corny bird seed in it.

First, I measured out equal amounts of shortening and peanut butter: about two and a half cups apiece. I melted them in a large stock pot. When it was good and runny, I took it off the heat and I put in about three quarters of a cup of the oatmeal and about a cup and a half of the wheat bran and about two cups of the semolina flour and then threw in the currants. After that was nice and stirred in, I just started adding bird seed until I got like a big, play doughy lump.

The mixture cools and solidified pretty quickly. I had two big rectangular cake pans out. I threw a sheet of waxed paper in the bottom and slapped in a layer of the mix about two inches deep. Then, I covered it with plastic wrap (more waxed paper would work, too) and really packed it in. I did the same for the sedonc cake pan.

Then, I set them out on the porch and let them cool and harden up for a while. When that happened, I cut them into squares with a knife. I put two of the squares into the suet holders on the side of my bird feeder. The rest, I packed in stacks in a plastic bag with the waxed paper and plastic wrap from the pans to separate the layers. I put the whole thing into a sealed storage container. I get those big plastic things they package kitty litter in now from like three different people, and they make great water proof, mouse proof storage. I put the unused cakes out in the garage because I'm not sure how they'll hold up at room temperature.

My birds who had been shunning the feeder all day were back within a couple of hours of the arrival of the new suet cakes. I saw the usual suspects: juncos, sparrows, chickadees, tufted titmouse. We also get quite a few nuthatches, both the regular kind and the smaller rose breasted. The real treat at the birdfeeder is the number of woodpeckers. We probably have so many because of all the evergreen trees. Within an hour or so of hanging the new suet cakes, I was watching downy, hairy, and red throated woodpeckers hopping around on the tree and then taking their turns getting suet.

This surely is a wonderful place to watch birds. There are both hardwood and evergreen stands and hayfields all around the house, so we get an impressive cast of characters from three distinct habitats. On top of that, the pond draws a great variety of really interesting waterfowl. In the summer, I see great blue herons hunting fish around the edge of the pond. A green heron visits sometimes, and a miserable flock of migrating snipes holed up here for a few weeks during the bad cold weather last spring. As for ducks, just in the last month, I've seen wood ducks, mallards, a hooded merganser, and a golden eye on the pond before it iced over.

Just a quick note about suet. I usually don't advocate buying anything! But for suet feeding, really, just go out and buy a wire suet cake holder. Something cobbled up at home or one of those new plastic onion bags are just dangerous for the birds. And hang that suet as high as you can! Bears and critters will be very intersted in it, of course, but the worst problem I ever had with animals and suet was when my bad dogs got the feeder by climbing up and bush and bouncing off a tree trunk to drag the feeder down. They ate the suet and broke up the feeder to the point I had to throw it out. Wild animals might happen by the feeder by accident, but a determined hungry, dog who knows just where it is can do a lot of damage!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Cookies!


We seem to be suffering from a localized ice storm. There are a couple of school delays this morning, but our trees are coated with ice, the packed snow road turned into slick of ice road with about an inch of water on top. I have been consistently horrified by the really bad road maintenance in Erie County. We were in Warren County yesterday and both Davey Hill Road and Tidioute Creek Road were nice and clear, and these are just little one lane paved roads that only go to Tidioute. Over here, even Route 89 stays mostly unplowed. Concord Road, which I think is busier and more populated than Davey is a total wreck and will stay that way until it just melts on its own. We live on a little dirt farm road, and I never expect much more than to have the drifts knocked off a couple of times a week, but on a day like today, when there are school buses and Head Start buses coming over the hill and not even a delay of school, it would be nice if there were a little of that nice cinder and dirt they throw down on the road. I had to call off a half day's work today because I really don't think I could have made it back up the hill if I went down.

Anyway, I'm back to my usual winter day activity: baking!

I'm running low on bread, so I need to get that started. I've been doing yeast instead of sourdough which means I can just decide on the day to bake. Sourdough is a magical world of discovery where the activites of a whole week can be influenced by what needs to be done with the bread. When I build my outdoor oven and start making more sourdough, I'm going to be in heaven, and people will be driven just wild with wonderful bread.

But, I'm also making cookies today. At my mother's office, they set out cookies on Wednesdays, and I'm sending down a couple batches.

There is kind of a backlash right now again homemade baking. At schools and daycare centers, they are starting to have rules like: no cupcakes! No unwrapped baked goods! No cookies! They say it is because of fat content and the possibility of nut contamination, but is anyone else freaked by that idea? My sister was driven to distraction when she had to take snacks in for her kids' school. She bakes a few times a week, and she mostly started because her kids like those mini muffins that come in little plastic bags, and they were getting bigger and mini muffining her out of house and home. I bought her a mini muffin tin, and she gets enough mini muffins out of one little bag of mix that usually costs about a dollar for a whole week. She always sent in cupcakes and things like that, too. Now, the kids get things like a graham cracker wrapped in plastic for a snack. And if you read those allergy warnings, every single thing says it was packed in a factory that also processes nuts. How many people really have lots of nuts just floating around their kitchens? I know I don't! Everything is packed away until I need it, not pulverized by machinery and getting spread randomly around.

The talk that I went to over the fall with Dr. Shiva actually addressed this. She said the vegetable and food sellers in India are being outlawed because they don't have proper health precautions. Basically, the laws are all being written so that only industry and big corporate grocery stores are able to comply with them, and all home made food is being outlawed everywhere. Think about it. It's really awful that in schools in America, kids are being taught, essentially, that anything that doesn't come out of a box or a wrapper is not safe and is not healthy and shouldn't be eaten.

There is a little backlash to all this. I read somehwere that there was a "Cupcake Protection Act" in Texas that made it illegal to ban home baked goods in schools. I know things are not great for kids in Texas and they should have a health care act or a good schools act or something, but at least someone is standing up for the cupcake.

There can be more resistance, however, and it can start with every single person who has to bring a snack or a cookie tray to a church event or a school event or a party. Don't swing by the grocery store and just grab some dry, bland cookies made with artificial flavoring and cheap chocolate and cheap flour. Take a couple short hours away from the television set, the computer or the phone and make some cookies. Even a mix where you add your own oil and eggs is better than those things that are pumped out in some crummy old factory, wrapped in plastic and stored for months before you get the chance to eat them.

In our family, meaning my whole extended family, too, there are a few basic cookies that just put the icing on the cake for the holidays. Roll out sugar cookies, of course. Those will have to wait until next weekend, because I'm low on nice sprinkles, and I need to go the dry goods store for the really pretty ones. My grandmother makes these things that everyone just calls "those horn things. You know the ones with the cream cheese." I believe they also involve chopped dates. I would add pizelles, but I haven't had a good iron for years and I usually only get them at Christmas pageants. Also, I love the anise ones, and the other people in my family don't care for them, so pizelles have unfortunately fallen by the wayside.

The number one, only at Christmas, we-expect-these-or-there-will-be-trouble cookies are pressed spritz Christmas trees and pressed molasses camels. Obviously, they require a cookie press, but other than that and maybe a few spices, there isn't anything really exotic about them.

I currently have a Wilton Cookie press, and you can get these absolutely anywhere. Usually in the cake and candy making section at any big craft strore. Also, they carry them at kitchen shops, but I'm really spoiled because I live near an incredible kitchen shop that has almost every pan, gadget, and tool you can imagine. And if you're at a loss as to what you can buy at the tenth Pampered Chef party you have been to this year, check for the cookie press. But I remember passing up on that one because it was mostly plastic, and I didn't think it would hold up to my kitchen of destruction. Also, dig through the cupboards of older relatives' houses and borrow theirs!

I used an electric press all through the eighties, of course! I started out with a Wear-Ever before that, I do believe, with a hand crank at the top. This is where the camel shaped press thingy came from. My most recent Wear-Ever really sucked and I threw it out dough and all a few years ago, which is why my sister bought me the Wilton, which is nice (but doesn't have a camel) a few years ago as an early "birthday present" but mostly because she wanted cookies. She used to have a sweet little French cookie press which went by the wayside during one of her moves which may have been my favorite cookie press ever, but that may have been all in my head because it was French and I am a hick. A real, French cookie press, ma! It's a distinct possibility.

A cookie press, which I should have mentioned earlier, is bascially a tube that shoots out shaped pieces of dough. You need special recipe dough. There is usually a book that comes with the press to give you the right dough consistancy, but both the recipes I use are the old ones that I've had since I was a kid. You fill the press and pick a round disk with a shape punched in it to fit at the bottom of the press. Then, you hold the press straight up and flat to the surface of the cookie sheet, pull the trigger (or twist or whatever) pause a second, and lift the press straight up. If all goes well, you have a little, shaped cookie waiting for you.

Cookie pressing takes a little practice. If the dough is not right or isn't mixed well, it can be a disaster. But there is a little bit of practice and knack to it, also. You have to know how much dough you really need, even if the press has clicks or sizes or gradations marked on it. You need to get the feel for how much dough to shoot out. If you get a malformed cookie or two, just peel the dough up, toss it in with the unused dough, and when you go to reload your press, pop the rejects back in with the unused dough. Your first try with the cookie press should not be on an evening when you are expected to bring five dozen cookies to a party in an hour and a half, and you still haven't fixed your hair! But that should be no problem with the second batch! It's that easy and that much fun to make these little, attractive and yummy cookies.

The recipes:

Press Spritz

This is the recipe I use for the little Christmas trees. I like to decorate them with a "star" on top. Either those little sugar flowers you can get just about everywhere or the silver or gold balls that I get in bulk at the Amish store. Finish with any kind of sprinkle you choose. Decorate before baking.)

Heat oven to 375 Degrees. You do not need to grease the cookie sheets. The fat content in most cookies is high enough they won't stick!


2 1/4 Cups Flour
3/4 C. White Sugar
1/4 teaspoon Baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt (I always leave out the salt)

Cut in with pastry blender (or fork, knives or mash in with fingers):

1 cup Shortening (or half shortening and half butter or all butter)


Crack an egg into a 1/4 cup measuring cup. Add water to the 1/4 cup line. Add to mixture.
1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

You'll also want to add food coloring at this stage.

Mix, mash, squish and knead until consistant. Don't chill!

Load the press. Shape cookies. Decoration is optional.
Back 10-12 minutes until edges are just barely tan.

Press Molasses Spice

These are my Christmas camel cookies. I also have a dog shaped plate for the press, and I've made spice dogs at other times of the year. In high school, a friend of my sister's was baffled by Christmas camels, so I guess, outside of my family, they might not be traditional. I also don't decorate them at all.

A note on ingredients:

These cookies call for just a little bit of a lot of different spices. While nutmeg can be substituted for mace, I recommend trying to use the ingredients in the recipe. My dad says that these cookies taste exactly like ones he remembers his grandmother making. Is that not worth the extra effort? Instead of breaking the bank buying big bottles of wierd spices that you might never use again, try to find a health food store or co-op with bulk spices and just get a little scoop of the ones you need.

Now the recipe:

Preheat oven to 375. You still don't need to grease the sheets.

Cream together:
1/2 Cup Shortening
1/2 Cup Sugar

1 Egg
1/4 Cup Molasses

Now sift in and work by hand:

1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
1/4 Teasp. salt (I always leave this out)
1/4 Teasp. ginger
1/2 Teasp. cinnamon
1/4 Teasp. allspice
1/4 Teasp. cloves
1/4 Teasp. mace

Mix, squish, knead, until consistant. Press and Bake 10-12 minutes

There are some fun recipies. I love these cookies, and a lot of people I know do, too. Now, I'm going to go and actually do some things instead of sitting at the computer writing about doing things, and you should, too!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Getting Ready for Winter


Winter has officially set in. It started snowing in earnest Saturday night and hasn't really stopped since then. Last night was our coldest night of the year. The temperature was into the single digits.

Luckily, I got some important things done before the snow hit. I finally got the last of the carrots out of the garden, but I unfortunately did not get a cover for my in ground storage areas made up. Next week looks like a bit of a thaw, so I plan to get a bunch of the carrots out and clean and cut them up. I've discovered the biggest problem with actually using food grown in the garden is the amount of time it takes to prepare it. We're all really used to just opening a bag and maybe boiling or microwaving food -- but usually not. This is not a new thing. My sister and I used to just eat frozen vegetables right out of the bag when we were kids, and at her house, she snacks on frozen french fries.

I really like those precut baby carrots, but I also really like the really good taste of my garden carrots. They are quite a bit of work, however, and if I didn't compost, I would feel really guilty about all the waste that I would be chucking out from tops and ends and ugly spots. An older couple I know were on a juice diet for a couple of years, and when they were in town for the summer, they would give me pounds and pounds of carrot ends and pulp and tops. My mother and I would go a couple times a week up to the house of our friend who at the time was keeping our goats and feed the carrot leavings to the horses and goats and chickens. I have gotten to the point where I get an absurd amount of carrots and cut them up and put them in like gallon plastic bags so I can pretend I have precut carrots.

Speaking of the goats, they finally have hay. This has been an incredible struggle the past couple of years. Last year, was really wet, and people didn't have a lot of hay. I finally found some around the end of November by actually just asking at the farm co-op who might have some. Luckily, the gentleman delivered, and he also offers a baling service which might come in handy if I ever get the back acreage cleared. It would be nice to have our own hay.

Of course, there were issues. Because that's what happens. I was so happy to have hay, it just didn't occur to me that there are really big differences in size between some bales and other bales. I initially thought fifty bales would be good, but then I listened to people's advice and just got forty instead!

Do you know the old saying? February Second, Groundhog Day. Half your wood and half your hay.

Wood was okay-ish, but hay was short. So I was getting a bale here and there from the feed mill for the last couple months of winter and spring. Don't get me wrong, it was really good hay. Third cut with lots of alfalfa, and the goats loved it. It was really good, big bales, too that lasted about a week, but it was still five dollars a bale.

If you are not familiar with hay, there are a couple of considerations (other than bale size). One is content, meaning the kinds of grasses that grew in the field where the hay was cut. You don't want hay that has weeds and briars and junky plants in it. Timothy is good hay. Timothy grass looks like little green mini cattails when it gets long. And it's really sweet, too. Timothy stems are almost as sweet as sugar at the tender base, and stereotypical farmers don't have wheat stalks hanging out of their mouths, but rather, timothy. The alfalfa that the goats like so much both as summer browse and in hay is a legume like peas or clover. It gets pretty yellow flowers on the end and has little leaves instead of blades. I'm a little leery of hay with a lot of clover, though. I once heard from an old horse trader that clover hay will ruin a horse's wind, but you know old horse traders.

People also classify hay as first, second or third cut, meaning the same field was mowed and hayed repeatedly over the season. First cut is usually preferable, I would suppose because of nutrient content. The grass grew from spring and has all the tops and seeds on it, where later cuttings would not have such a long time growing or the nice long blades.

This year, the warm fall let people make lots and lots of cuttings of hay. My neighbors who have a huge veal and dairy operation just green chop the fields around the house here, and they must have done it five times this year, including once just a few weeks ago. The weather was really good, after the initial droughty period, and we had enough dry spells that people could actually bale. I've even seen huge wagons stacked with hay that won't fit in the barn. The problem this year was money. We put in a new chimney and a new wood furnace in October, and cash has been very short. Hay has been on my list of things to get since August, but I needed to start teaching a little, and once I did, we had wood to buy and also just about every cent was tied up in regular bills and the stove thing. It snowed a few times, but there wasn't any hay for the goats, so I just took them out a few times a day and told them to find what they could find to eat. I still had grain, so it wasn't that bad.

Last week, finally, we didn't have too many other extra expenses, and I tracked down an older gentleman who had really nice big bales of hay. I had them save me forty --I know that wasn't enough last year, but these were really big bales about three feet long by two feet wide -- we borrowed my uncle's truck, got really lost on the way there and loaded all forty bales on the truck. It was kind of fun. The farmer's daughter was a genius of hay. She tossed the bales from the ground up to the top of the pile, and they would just jump into place. I got to crawl to the top of the pile on the truck and pack the hay and tie down the load. We made it home just when it was starting to spit snow.

We also got the Christmas tree for my grandmother's house put up. Our place used to be a Christmas tree farm, and there are lots and lots of evergreens in all the popular varieties. I like blue spruce, even though they are prickly little buggers. We sawed one down and dragged it up out of the woods last week. The bottom of the tree and all the trimmed branches kept the goats happy for some of our hayless days. We hauled the tree over to my grandmother's house on the roof of our station wagon. Very funny.

Next weekend, my aunt and uncle are bringing one of my cousins over to cut a couple trees for their houses. One of the best things about living out on the hill is getting to do things for the kids in the family. They can come over and fish and jump on the trampoline in the summer and this will be the third year in a row we've been able to give Christmas trees to anyone in the family who wants them.

The most important thing that we got done this fall was getting the new wood furnace and chimney. Our old wood furnace was really holey and rusted out. We kept it in the basement, and it sucked a lot of wood up and didn't really do all that much good at keeping us warm. We kind of got tired of hearing everyone we knew complain about how bad the stove was, so we had a gentleman from a local wood stove dealership come over and asked him to give us advice as to what kind of stove would work for our house. He told us our chimney liner was cracked and the actual cincerblocks around the liner were cracked, too, and there was no use hooking a new stove to an old, cracked chimey, as the new stove would burn out, too. A chimney fire had cracked the old chimney.

With help from the stove man, we were able to submit a claim to the insurance company which picked up a good part of the costs to fix the chimney, as it was a fire hazard that could take the whole house down. It was really kind of involved, but basically, the stove and chimney guy put a high temerature stainless steel pipe down the old chimney and surrounded it with cement. Because the insurance picked up so much of the cost of the chimney, we were able to consider also getting a new wood furnace. We got a Hitzer, practically the same thing as the old furnace we took out of the basement, and it has been amazing. We use less wood, and the fire stays lit all night and can be left for as long as eight hours at a time and still has enough coals to keep thehouse warm and restart the fire quickly.

Speaking of the wood fire, I definitely need to go and check it, as I like to skimp during the day so I can build it up in the evening when I'm just sitting and knitting. Wood is like bread. It needs a whole book to really even scratch the surface. So, that's where I'm stopping today.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! Root Cellar?


Today is a gorgeous day. Sunny. Upper fifties. Very odd. But I am getting the chance to catch up on a lot of the things that kind of got shuffled to the side in the "real" fall while I was running around and spending a lot of time up in Erie. I;m almost done taking down the frame for the trampoline. My dears, everyone who lives in the country has a trampoline. Everyone. Do not ask me why. I'm going to be pulling some husks off some nuts later since they're nice and wet and squishy from last night's rain. But the real reason I'm here today is to spread the word about root cellaring. I also have bread to bake, and I started some springerle cookies yesterday. Bread is it's own lifetime's worth of storytelling, and springerle cookies belong in posts about Christmas cookies which are certainly forthcoming.

Because I can't just get down to brass tacks, I'm going to tell a story about seeds instead. There are lots of different kinds of seeds, but I'm talking onions, carrots, and potatoes today. If you plan on eating your own "roots" all winter, it's important to choose seeds for "storage varieties". I planted yellow onions -- Johnny's Seeds Frontier Hybrid to be exact -- but I lost a lot of them to drought and naughty goats, so I don't really need to think about storage. A brown paper sack under the sink will about take care of them. I also planted Napoli carrots for sweet snacks and Bolero for storage, And I love potatoes. I love them. They are the best food ever. So I planted three varieties: Yukon gold, some kind of pink potato and Kennebec. The Kennebecs were supposedly going to be my storage potatoes, but I only harvested the Yukon gold and ate every single one of them! Late summer floods didn't really do that much to me out on the hill, but my second two varieties of taters rotted in the ground. A tragedy!

So, what I have now is bunch of carrots that need to be dug out of the garden and stored somewhere. It is possible to leave them in the garden. If the ground is not frozen, they are as well off there as anything. BUT, I also like to work my gardens over a few times a year since I don't use a rototiller. It's past time for my upper garden where the carrots are to get turned over, composted, covercropped, and put to bed for the year.

I have read of any solutions for creating a root cellar. Underground is really an ideal situation because it's cold but not freezing, and that is the natural condition for root crops anyway. You can actually dig into a hillside and construct an outdoor storage area. You can convert a portion of your basement in yoru house into a root cellar. One way to do this is use a set of outside steps that will be probably covered in snow and unsuable for the winter anyway and just stack your storage crops in baskets and bags. Also, wall off an area near a basement window and let some cool outside air in just in this spot. I have a partially finished basement, and one room is dirt floor. When the door to this room is shut, the space is very chilly and would be idea if it was also not very wet and full of wood.

We heat our house with a wood furnace in the basement, and the unheated wood room is not good for storing anything unless you think mold is yummy. So, I needed to think about outside solutions. I kept reading about buckets or even large plastic wastecans. You can layer the vegetables by variety or in different directions and put the bucket or chan in the garage. I suspected that most of these people saying that their garages stayed near freezing but did not go below very often living in slightly milder climes than I do. I struggle for a good two or three months to keep unfrozen water in the garage and the shed for the cats and the goats. Chances are good that my carrots will freeze, too.

Then, I read about how you could take one of those cheap plastic garbage cans and dig it into the ground and keep the vegetables insulated that way. Now, I know those cans are cheap, but I'm cheaper. I just couldn't muster up the seven dollars for a big garbage can. Luckily I didn't have to.

My old camping cooler, my companion of many a roadtrip and many a festival took its last trip last summer. The screws in the lid just came out one too many times, and the lid just wouldn't hold anymore. And besides, I'd been coveting one of those coolers that supposedly keep things cold for five days in hot weather. My old cooler seemed to have lost some of its integrity and was getting kind of melty during those July days sitting back in camp . Instead of a trashcan, i decided to drop my old cooler in the ground instead of just tossing it out.

I dug a hole in kind of a shady area on the edge of the yard. I filled in around the sides to pack it in good. I thought long and hard about the different storage options suggested by about twenty different books, and I went with damp coarse sane inside the cooler. laid in the carrots, and buried them.

Things did not exactly go as planned.

Problem #1: We had an abnormally warm year last year. Even after I waited until last fall to put the carrots in the container, they still grew new tops while in storage. I think this took nutrients and quality out of the roots. I may be crazy.

Problem #2: Access. When the weather was okay, it was easy to get the carrots. But there I was in the middle of a snowstorm, wanting carrots, and my carrot cooler was buried under a lot of snow. I did go out a few times in the winter and dig down through the snow to find them, but it was messy and I couldn't get the lid back on tightly because of the snow in the seal which leads to ....

Problem #3: Even though I had trouble getting into my carrots in the snow, obviously my friends the mice did not. Do not ask me how they got into a sealed cooler. I can't say. I can say that at least two or three of them never made it out. When I did get in during the winter, I had to chuck mouse corpses out on several occasions. I felt a little leery of eating the carrots raw after they had root cellared with dead mice for who knows how long.

My solutions:

1. I know I can't control the weather. I'm holding off storing my carrots until it looks like it will stay reletively cold.

2. I plan on using scrap wood and panelling to build some kind of roof over the place where my coolers are in the ground so I can get to them even when it is snowy.

3. Note that above I did say coolers, plural. I worked recycling at a music festival over the summer, and that is like dumpster diver's heaven. Grills, chairs, air mattresses, blankets, clothes, tents, even full cans and bottles of beer. People just throw stuff away at the end of the weekend, especially if it is muddy and wet. So, I found another large sized cooler with the exact same broken lid problem as my old one. I'm putting it into the ground and trying a little scientific method. I'll keep the sand in my old cooler but leave it out of the new one to see which bunch of carrots makes it through the winter better: sand or no sand.

4. I'm hoping that this year isn't such a bad mouse year, because last year was like a plague of mice. It was rediculous. I live trapped many many mice and tossed them outside. I was trying to be all nice and Buddhist about it by not using real mouse traps, but my adopted cat Syrup, who I got from my brother who really is a Buddhist, is not a Buddhist. He is a cat, and he eventually figured out that when I went down to the swamp with the live trap, I was carrying stunned mice with me, and he started following me and eating them before they had a chance to recover from their ordeals. But these mice may have deserved it, because they made my kitchen unsafe with their droppings and made my oven smell bad and chewed my bags of flour and evaded almost every trap I set for them until I got the mouse sized Have-a-Heart. Made in PA. Hooray!

Other than hoping there aren't any mice, I also think if I managed to keep snow out of the seals on the cooler lids but building a cover over them, maybe I could keep the mice out that way.

Included at the top of the page is a picture of my blackberry bushes, in bloom, in early November. They have had a rough year and been all confused by the weather, but I want to talk about berries later, too.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Weather predicting

Right now, it's raining. Typical November weather. But I can also hear rumbles of thunder in the distance. Not as usual for this time of year. We've already had one good snow fall of about six inches. Even with all the rain, there is still snow in the long grass and in the ditches. Up closer to Erie where the real lake effect snow set in, they have quite a bit of snow on the ground.

Lake effect snow, for people not familiar with it, is practically unreal. There are only a few places in the US that get lake effect, generally downwind of the Great Lakes. When the lakes are unfrozen, in early winter, late winter, or in some mild winters when the lakes don't get cold enough to freeze over, we see lake effect snow. The cold winds from Canada come in from the west and north and gather water vapor off the open water on the lakes. When all that wet air gets back on land, downwind of the lakes, there can be really heavy precipitation. Usually right by the lake is okay, but as soon as there gets to be a little elevation and distance from the lake, snow starts falling.

The lake effect show sets up in "bands" that follow geographical features. Right by the lake or even a few miles away, it can be a sunny day with no snow and a nice breeze. If you are driving on a lake effect day, you can see the bands as you approach them like a wall of white. In the bands, you can be getting so much snow, it's as dark as night, at rates of many inches of snow per hour.

People like to exaggerate about snow, but there are lots of great lake effect snow stories without even needing to make them up. I was in Fredonia, New York once and we got thigh-high to waist deep snow in an afternoon, and it got even deeper farther away from the lake. I have been in lake effect storms as far as sixty miles inland. The bands shift and drift with the wind and don't follow regular rules because they aren't really fronts or systems, more like freak accidents.

Anyway, even though we had snow, the thunder this evening reminds me of some weather things, we always say in our family. The real common thing is the wooly caterpillars. The more black on these common little orange and black guys, the worse the winter will be.

My dad always says: Thunder in fall, no winter at all.

Also, the height of the hives. If you find wasps and hornets nests built up high in the trees, then it will be a bad winter. I've seen two high hives this year. Last year I only had one low one. We had a mild winter, but a cold spring.

When I went to the feed store the other day, I got a free calandar with an almanac for weather predicting for each month, also. I'd like to see how accurate it is, but I need to wait until January for when the calandar starts.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pure Seeds

I had a very exciting weekend!
On Friday, I had a job! (I substitute teach.) On Saturday, I went with my Mom and my sister's family to the Erie Zoo and did Zoo Boo. It is really a nice thing to do and a major fund raiser for the zoo. And I got kisses from my favorite zoo animals: the llamas!

Sunday was the best, though, and my mother and I went to hear one of our longtime heroes Dr. Vandana Shiva speak at Mercyhurst College in Erie. We are both very inspired by her. My mother loves reading her inspirational words about the importance of reserving natural resources like water and plants for the free use of all peoples. I'm inspired by her political activism and her efforts to save the seeds of native species of food and spices in India, often raising the ire of international corporations who are trying to commodify the seeds and make the farmers dependent on purchased seed instead of saved seed. There have been countless thousands of farmer suicides in India because the farmers are being driven further and further into debt to buy seed and there are actually laws passed to keep people from practicing traditional farming and make them dependent on modern seed varieties which cannot be grown without expensive pesticides and equipment.

I'm an entirely nonmechanized gardener, getting into hopefully large enough growing to sell next year or the year after at local farmer's markets. In a way it is a choice, but there is no way that I could afford to buy gas powered equipment. I have a shovel and some hoes and rakes and cultivators that I got used from my grandmother and that's what I use. As I get larger scale, I'd like to stay committed to not using powered machines in my gardens, but my point is the cost of tools is the most prohibitive aspect of my current scale of gardening.

In honor of Dr. Shiva, I decided to write today about seed saving.

I'm a bit on my own here, so I've only done a little of this, but I read a lot and I have the internet, so a lot of this information came from many sources. The most important part of any project I start is the initial trip to the library, however. I was a public librarian for a few years, and just by having that job, I learned a lot about the resources available through the library. Please, use any opportunity and any project to stop by the library. Get to know the reference librarian and definitely explore the stacks. You can get tons of free or almost free information and give yourself a good background in almost everything you try before you start actually spending money on books, plans, materials, or equipment. Dr. Shiva advocates a traditional planting system where seven, nine, or twelve varieties of traditional seeds are planted mixed and co-supporting each other in the field. Because of different structures and plant maturation times, there is actually no way to do this mechanically. The plant varieties represent a complete diet which is also the traditional diet which has supported humankind up to this point.

In seed saving, you have to know that there are certain kinds of seeds you can save and others that you cannot. Don't try to save seeds from your fruit at the grocery store. Most grocery store produce is from hybrid plants which means that two varieties have been cross bred. The seeds probably won't grow, and if they do they will not grow "true". Hybrid plants are really useful for a number of reasons. They take on the hardier characteristics of their parent species and are often resistant to diseases and blights. Also, hybrid plants are often bred with shelf life in mind. They will not bruise as easily and they will keep a long time in storage, so they will still be fresh when you find them in the produce department.

There are drawbacks to hybrid plants, however. The first is, that you can't save the seeds. If you grow hybrid plants in your garden, you are dependent on the seed company every year for new seed. That's fine for hobbyist, but if you are economically dependent on the seed, it allows the seed companies to control the market. Secondly, hybrid plants may be tougher and the fruits and vegetables may last longer than the old varieties, but they are often not as tasty. Hybrid plants and storebought things become the normal thing that people expect, and the old varieties which were often tailored to a specific growing area might be lost. Loss of diversity is very bad in the plant community, even in the domestic plant community. Essentially, when you deal in "monoculture" -- planting lots and lots of the same thing all in one place -- you are actually jeopardizing the food supply. One disaster or one disease can wipe out everything. Planting many vareities of the same plant is better. If something like a drough happens, you won't lose everything.

I have saved flower seeds just about my entire life. That's a pretty easy one. You see flowers you like. if they develop seed heads, pop them off and scatter them somewhere else you want them to grow. There are more involved forms of seed saving, but that is basically the idea for anything that has exposed seeds.

Saving seeds from the garden for food plants is a little different. First, you need some source for the seeds. I order from a lot of different places: Pinetree Garden Seeds, Johnny's, Jung's, and Burpee are my main sources. Johnny's and Jung's are very strict about not allowing genetically engineered seed into their inventory. (Another day, my friends!) They have lots of varieties and also their testing facilities are in the northern US, so I know they grow their seeds under similar conditions compared to where I am growing. I'd like to get into seed exchanges and that sort of thing, but I just haven't yet. Mainly, because I've not had seed to exchange up until this point.

If you plan on saving seeds, make an effort to choose what they call "open pollinated" seeds. Also look for things like "non-hybrid" or "heirloom" seeds. These are all things that can be saved for seed. Dr,. Shiva referrs to these things as "pure seed", meaning a distinct breed of plant that has not been crossed with another variety.

Last year, I planted three varieties of green beans. I took a lot of grief for it from my uncle who has a very nice, well established garden with tons of different things growing in it. I grew a bunch of beans. I grew a bush bean and green and yellow varieites of skinny french beans. Saving peas and beans is bascially the same. After you get what you want from the plants, leave a certain amount of the pods on the bush and let them grow, grow, grow until they start getting yellow. Ideally, the seeds should be loose and dry inside the pods and rattle when you shake them. This year, I pulled my selected plants a little before that because we had a rainy patch and they were starting to rot in the field. Pull the plants up and sort them. Save really healthy, really loaded plants. The healthier the seed the healtheir next year's plants. Let them hang up under some kind of cover in a garage barn or shed until they dry the rest of the way. Last year, I shelled them out by hand after they were dry, but I've also read that you can put just the dried pods into a feed sack and stomp on them to break them up and sift out the chaff. That's what I'm trying this year

My slacker cats did not do their job, and little mouse got into the cupboard where I kept my seeds, and took, oddly enough only the bush bean seeds, so I had to rebuy some of those. They left the French beans alone, and quite interestingly, the Japanese beetles also do not like my French beans. So, other than my lost bush beans, I was able to replant the Frenchies without buying new seed. They were a little droughty, and the yellow ones didn't get enough sun, but really it did work.

Today, I went out into the garden and picked up some of the heirloom style tomatoes I had set aside for seed. I tried for really ripe or even overripe tomatoes for seed. I planted many varieties this year. Of hybrids, I had some grape tomatoes, new girl, wayahead, San Marzano (a big paste tomato), and a salsa tomato from Burpee that I used for a couple of batches of salsa and sauced the rest. My heirlooms were Amish paste and Olpaka, a Polish variety, and Radiator Charlie/Mortgage Lifter. These last are a bit of a disappointment to me, but a few of them my ripen enough to save fore seed and try again next year. They basically turned into mutant blobs. The Amish and the Olpaka's are little paste tomatoes. The Olpaka's aare really bright red and the Amish pastes are a little bigger and oranger. They both made really nice sauce, I mixed them about half and half with the round salad tomatoes. I used directions from the Ball canning jar company's canning cookbook, but any public library is going to carry a million and a half books on preserving food, and I'll save sauce for a different day.

To save seed from tomatoes, you need a knife, a spoon, a cup and a little water. Since I was saving two different kinds of seed, I also took a piece of tape and wrote on each cup what I was saving. Cut the tomatoes in half and use a spoon to scoop out the middle parts with the seeds. Add water to the cup and set it aside. Let the seeds soak for three to five days, Every day, you need to pour the water with the pulp off the top of the cups and add fresh water. Eventually, the pulp will be gone and the seeds will be clean. Viable seeds sink to the bottom! Pour away the seeds that don't sink!

Let the clean seeds dry on a piece of news paper or paper towel for a few days and pack them up.

This seems like a lot of work, but really, think how much work it takes to earn the three or four dollars it costs for a packet of seeds. Also, you are participating in the active preservation of a seed variety which may be hundreds of years old. There is also the idea that if you save seed from your garden and grow from the same line of seeds year after year, eventually those seeds will be tailored to take advantage of the conditions and soil composition which is local to your garden. It's an interesting notion, and I would like to see if thing do tend to get healthier in years to come.

Before you try and plant seed that you save, you really need to test for germination. I'll get to seed testing a different day. i like to do it in the middle of winter, a litle before the seed catalogs start arriving.

Also, I have quite a few other plants I want to save seed from this year including flowers, melons, and some non hybrid green peppers which will hopefully ripen up before the frost. look for further posts on saving these seeds and also on more advanced techniques like stratifying and scarifying. Planting season starts the end of March! That's just five short months away.

That's all for now!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Knitting Travels


Wrapped up grapes yesterday. I jarred up about a gallon and a half of grape juice which joins with 20 pints of grape jelly and about 25 of elderberry jelly that I have for the fall craft shows. I'm dragging a box of my knitting out to the Pennsylvania State Championship Fishing Tournament on Tidioute, PA this coming Saturday. My old hometown! They have a nice craft show at the firehall, and I've been selling socks, mittens and hats there for the past few years.

This year, I hope to have some birdhouse gourds finished before Saturday, but time is running out! They may have to wait for my November craft show in Erie.

This weekend, I'm babysitting my niece and nephew in Erie and while it seems like I won't be able to get anything done for my upcoming show since I didn't bring my giant bag of gourds -- my most successful planting adventure from last summer -- or my spinning wheel, I do have two big bags of yarn and a bunch of different kinds of needles.

My current endeavor involves funny looking hats. I made one for myself over the winter using fat yarn and big needles. When I wore it at a spring music festival in North Carolina, I was asked to make another one which I sold over the summer. That was a nice weekend. I was volunteering at a music festival and so I didn't have to pay to get in, and I sold a hat and a pair of socks over the weekend and actually came out ahead!


This is a short recipe for a hat that I think is just the perfect project for getting into knitting in the round. Knitting in the round is exactly what it sounds like. You cast on your stitches and, using either a circular or double pointed needles -- which look like a sharpened pencil on both ends, you just knit around and around like when you build a clay pot using piles up "snakes".

To do this you need:
1. A 16" Circular knitting needle in a big size. I use a 10. 16" refers to the size of the little connector between the ends of the needles.
2. A set of double pointed needles in the same size as your circular needle.
3. An assortment of "fat" yarn. Plymouth Yukon or some kind of Icelandic. I'm working with that and with some Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride doubled (two strands at a time). When I do these hats, I tend to use what they call "singles" meaning it's just one fat piece of yarn and not two or three pieces twisted together. I also tend to use all natural fibers, though I know the Yukon has a pretty hefty acrylic content.

I cast on for about a 22 to 23 inch head. The way I knit, that's 51 to 55 stitches.
Cast on the circular needle. Follow the cast on edge around to make sure there aren't any twists before you join the stitches. If you start knitting with a twist, there is nothing you can do to save it!

Joining the stitch:

Some people just start knitting the next stitch in the round. This is a less neat join, and your first row is kind of hanging in the breeze. You'll have to sew up the gab when you weave in your ends. I like to line my needles up and join the round by slipping the first cast on stitch from the left needle to the right needle and then passing the last cast on stitch from the right needle over the newly slipped first cast on stitch to the left needle. You get a neater, more secure join that way.


When joining into the round, make sure your cast on tail end is at the front facing you and your working yarn is at the back. It might be possible to stuff your yarn through your work if it's on the wrong side, but probably not!

Making the hat:

After however much ribbing you like to see on a hat, do a few rows in just stockinette stitch. In the rounds, all that means is knitting. You only work on the right side when knitting in the round, and you will hardly ever purl!

After three or so rows, start shaping your hat. Do this by increasing at regular intervals. If you want a hat that balloons out fast like a beret, increase every three or so stitches. For more gradual shaping, make fewer increases over more rows. This one is really up to the knitter. So is color. Change as much or as little as you want. Color rows do not have to go the whole way around. You can just pull some yarn off the skein and decide to knit until you run out. You might use a regular pattern. Just remember: All those color changes will have to have their little tail ends woven in before the hat is finished.


Begin decreasing after the hat gets about six or seven inches tall from the cast on edge. If you did a lot of increasing a the beginning, you might want to work in a few decrease rounds in the middle just to give is a more rounded shape before you start decreasing in earnest.

When you're ready to make the crown of the hat, start decreasing at regular intervals. I usually start by doing a round of knit 6, knit 2 together. Then, knit a plain round. Then, make the interval between the decreases one stitch smaller each round: knit 5, knit 2 together, etc. Alternate with a plain old knit round until about the row where you are knitting 2 and then knitting 2 together. then, just work the decrease round.

As your hat gets fewer and fewer stitches, you will have to switch to the double points. When the yarn is too tight, take a double pointed needle, and use it as your right hand needle and knit stitches onto the double point. When the first double point gets fullish, just keep grabbing a new needle until all the stitches have been transferred to the double pointed needles.

Decrease until you have about 8 stitches left, and draw the end of the yarn through with a big yarn needle.

Weave in the ends. Blocking is optional, I always think, and you have a silly hat!

I have made four of these things in different sizes and colors over the past week. My knitting production really picks up during football season. Go Steelers!

Coming soon:

Pictures of finished knitting projects from my Erie weekend.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

First Post! It's grape jelly day!

Hello there!

It’s a beautiful sunny day in Northwestern PA. I can’t believe I’m taking time out from my busy busy to spend time on the computer.

As this is my first post, here’s kind of a mission statement:

I’m really interested in the traditional ways of doing things. I picked the name “Folk School” because it’s funny. You figure out why. And because I hope someone actually reads this thing and learns something from it.

I hope to include recipes, how-to’s, pictures, and craft ideas. I’m also a political junkie, and I can’t keep my mouth shut. I’ll try to avoid alienating all three people who read this. But, I apologize in advance.

I’m located in Northwest PA Amish country in Erie County, about 150 yards from Crawford County and three quarters of a mile from Warren County. I don’t have a “real” farm but I do have two dogs, a cat, and two Angora goats.

Now that that’s out of the way:

It’s grape season in NW PA. Finally, all the trimming and japanese beetle flinging and covering the vines from last spring’s late frost is paying off! Two years ago, the first year I lived here with my grapevines, the vines were stressed from neglect and drought. They had not been trimmed off, and there were too many grape bunches. The grapes fell off the vines before they were even ripe. I got one good bucketfull and made one little measly batch of jelly.

Here comes the school part:

How to manage grape vines

In early winter, trim off about 80 per cent of what they call the fruiting wood. That’s the wild viney stuff that is really leafy and hanging all over the place by the end of summer. Be aggressive. They are forgiving, and too much is better than not enough and having messy, stressed vines. We get snow, ice, and cold temperatures down to minus fifteen or so in the winter, and the vines have been fine. If your winters are colder and you’ve lost grapes, it is possible to train your grapes to come off the prop wires. You can lay them on the ground and mulch them with straw or dirt. This is a lot of work and really, only do it if your weather has a track record of getting so cold you’ve actually lost grapes.

Okay, two years ago this winter, I did all of the above, except the laying down and mulching thing. Everything was just fine until last year, a week before Memorial Day, we had a freaky late May hard freeze. The temperature was in the low twenties two nights in a row. It snowed. This happens here about once every five years or so. that bad part about this was the fruit on the grapes was already set, and I lost every single bunch. No grapes and no jelly last year.

Last fall, I did the 80 per cent trimming thing. In the spring, I really watched the weather and moves about every sheet and blanket in the whole house out a couple different nights to cover up the grapes during the late frost. The fruit set, and I had tons of little bunches of grapes.

More school:

Thinning grape bunches

After the fruit sets, you can’t just let every bunch grow. You have to pinch them off. After trimming back the vines over the winter, you get to know your vines pretty well. Follow each strand and pinch off little bunches until there is about one per cane. Again. Be aggressive. If you decide to let too many grow, your grapes get stressed, and you lose the fruit before it gets ripe.

This year, my work paid off, and I had bunches and bunches of sweet Concord grapes. I lost a lot to bug and bird damage, but I still have plenty. I’m doing three batches of jelly today and about two gallons of juice tomorrow. All yummy and free of any chemicals and sprays! And (kind of) free of money cost, too, though I did have to buy sugar and jar lids.