Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bad Beans and Black Locust


I can’t believe its late July already. This is the week where reality set in for me in terms of what is going to grow and what isn’t going to grow. The good news is, my three sisters garden is thriving. I only had one hill where some pumpkins didn’t come up, the rest at least have some. The random gourds I threw around between the sunflowers and the broom corn are also growing great. The main garden is okay, but my fancy onion sets are disappointing. I may even write to the company I got them from to mention that they were disappointing. My onions from seed are coming along slow, too, but they also didn’t cost like those sets cost, and I’ve already gotten my money’s worth from just green onion tops and little baby onions.

My sister’s husband planted carrots and onions in flowerpots this year, and they’ve been eating fresh onions and carrots for weeks and teasing one of uncles about it mercilessly. They just used potting soil and any old seed from Home Depot and leftover pots from the hanging plants my sister kills every year, and, viola, instant carrot snacks. I work and work, and my uncle has a garden you could take a picture of and put in a magazine it’s so nice, and neither of us have seen a carrot yet this year. It’s kind of funny. Just recently, I was having a conversation with a gentleman who lives and works on an organic farm in Panama, New York, and we were talking cropping systems and raised beds and soil building techniques and cover crops and all that stuff, and another girl joined in and was really proud of her garden, too, and she was like: “I just put miracle grow on it! It works really well!” So, there’s more than on way to skin a cat!

Unfortunately, it looks like all of my melons are going to be a wash this year. Nothing wanted to grow! They have little tiny buds on them , but I just don’t see how the plant is going to be big enough ever to support fruit. That is a shame because I had lots of heirloom type melons I was trying, and I ‘ad ‘opes, I tell ya. I ‘ad ‘opes. But I’ve never had anything like luck with pumpkins before, and it looks like they are going strong.

Speaking of dashed hopes, it looks like my beans are also too damaged by bunny rabbits to bear this year. Luckily, I saved the seeds for my fancy French beans that I didn’t plant. Bean seeds should last three years, so I probably won’t have to rebuy French bean seeds, though I’m going to have to start over with bush beans. I tried a new variety last year, and, unlike the original beans I planted my first and second garden years, the seeds didn’t breed true. They were Burpee Kentucky Wonder, and they bore well last year, but the saved seeds were no good. I have noticed that Burpee seeds don’t even keep from year to year in the package which is why I don’t have any salsa peppers this year. I had a whole half package of them, but they never grew. Makes me reconsider whether I will buy many Burpee seeds next year.

Anyway, my large task of the day was to cut back and clear the black locust sprouts away from the pond edge. When we moved in here, three years ago, the previous owners had allowed the pond edge to grow up in black locust. They also let the landscaping escape, and trees that should have been trimmed back to shrub size had really sprung up.

The problem with having trees on your pond dam is pretty simple. The roots infiltrate the dam. In the short run, they hold back erosion and the trees keep the pond from getting too hot, after the trees get big, the roots start breaking things apart. And if you cut the trees or the trees die or fall down, the decaying roots can weaken the dam.

For this reason, maybe it was a mistake to cut the locust trees around the pond, but they were also obscuring the view, which is very nice. When we first came to look at this house, my mother figured there would be a view, but it took imagination.

This is a picture of two of my many cousins fishing by the pond the first year we got here:

This is a picture I took this afternoon after chopping down the sprouts off the tops of the locust stumps:

For clearing brush, I use a pair of by-pass loppers, and I would say get a good pair of by-pass loppers, but I’m now convinced that there is no such thing. We started out with Fiskars, and they were okay. They chopped a lot of stuff and had a lifetime guarantee, which was good because my mother destroyed her first set inside of a year. We’ve had them replaced twice, but we eventually gave up. They have a design flaw where the handle just keeps breaking, and instead of fixing it, they just started making them in China. The loppers wore out and broke quicker, and they just made them cheaper so that they were cheaper to replace rather than making better loppers. We gave up, and I’ve been using a pair of Martha Stewart loppers with solid wood handles. They don’t that well, but there are fewer parts to break!

Anyway, I have at least one more day of chopping to get the sprouts from the swamp side of the pond, and I ended up with about a truckload of branches to give the goats. I’ll wait until they eat down what I gave them a little.

Other than messing up the view and possibly ripping the pond dam apart, I think that black locust is one of the best trees you can grow. It’s a fast grower. We counted the rings on the trees we took down, and most of them were less than ten years old. I don’t know if the locust was deliberately planted around the pond, but it does spread really well and has these pretty, feathery leaves. It also has really wicked thorns, but that is beside the point.

Most fast-growing trees, especially ones that grow in wet or less than ideal areas are just junky, but locust is a pretty hard wood. You can use it for firewood after it dries, but the best use for locust is as fence posts. It grows nice and straight, and when you cut it, you can peel the bark right off like a banana peel. If you miss the really wet stage though, it will com off easy after it completely dries, as well. Locust fence posts will last anywhere from twenty to forty years in the ground with no chemical treatment whatsoever.

We got a lot of use out of the locust trees we cut that first year. Most of them went into the snake rail fence that appears in some of my other posted pictures, though we did burn some. Even though the sprouts are a nuisance, they make good fodder for the goats. One year, before I had hay and snow was setting in, I drove the goats into the swamp and had them eat the leaves still on the locusts for their roughage.

One of these days, I’d like to have a locust stand farther down the hill where they won’t be in the way, but right now, the woods are almost all evergreens.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Midsummer Day's Dream


We’ve kind of reached that point in summer where the hard work is really over and the rest is just trying to keep everything balanced. The greenhouse is empty and down with plants either plunked into empty places in the gardens or tossed into Plant Heaven at the edge of the yard. I’ve been staking tomatoes and tying up vines and of course weeding, weeding, weeding.

Right now, my biggest problem is varmints! Something, probably raccoons, has been raiding the compost pile. We’ve been eating a lot of those cute little seedless watermelons, and the rinds have been irresistible to critters. I’ve tried burying the pile in tons of hay and straw. I put wire over the top. Nothing works. The wire is always peeled back or the little guys just drag stuff out right through the wire! I’m going to have to raid the scrap lumber from the goat shed to make a sturdier, non peeling-back cap for the pile. I’m a bad builder, but I’m going to have to get over that, because the old particle board closet that was left behind here that I moved into the basement and have been using as a storage cupboard is on its way out. The damp down there has finally gotten to it, and it is bowing out, and the shelves have started to drop.

Speaking of critters, I have finally taken care of a bad muskrat hole in the walkway on top of the dam on the pond. Muskrats will dig in at the water level and then build a big den uphill from the entrance. A lot of times, this will cave in, and that’s what happened here. It was getting treacherous to go over the top of the dam with the lawnmower, so I was working on getting some better drainage around the garage by chopping down the sod and regrading the yard off the cement pad there and ended up with a couple three hundred pounds of dirt and sod. I wasn’t aware that the hole was so big, but almost all that dirt and sod went into making the walkway flat again and building up the side of the pond. I always keep a good amount of grass seed and cover crop on hand to use when I do my yard repairs. It is easier than running into town every time I throw some dirt around, and they don’t always have grass seed at the feed mill. I refuse to pay what they charge for grass seed at Tractor Supply. My A-Number-One money saving tip for saving money is never buy anything there. Don’t even set foot in the store to look. Everything is overpriced, and everything is made in China.

The last thing I bought at Tractor Supply was a hose nozzle, and it was too expensive and didn’t work. How can a hose nozzle not work? Then, when I was looking for an exchange for it, I found the exact same thing in the sale bin for five dollars less except for the one that I was returning was tied to a card and the cheaper one just had a sticker on it. Same manufacturer. Same weight and features. I just returned it and went someplace to purchase a reasonably priced, made in America hose nozzle. I know they cheat people by charging too much for stuff you can get at real farm supply places, but this was a little too far, and I haven’t been there since.

Anyway, I’m lucky that the muskrats seem to have abandoned the pond. The only way to get rid of them, really is to off them, and I’m not quite ready to do that. Though, I might shoot some bunnies here very soon! They are really doing a number on my lower garden away from the house, and I really like beans. The rabbits are cute, though. They play little jumping games on the yard in the mornings, and maybe a cat will eat them and I won’t have to try and actually hit anything with my gun, though I bet I could get my sister’s husband to do it. She had a raccoon in her garbage right in town the other evening, and it was all she could do to keep him from shooting it. He really wanted to. It would have been perfectly safe. He’s a firearms instructor and a good shot, but it would have been just too hard to explain if they had actually got in trouble for shooting in the city

My uncle who was born in Kansas in the ‘40’s said that they used to catch rabbits in sacks in the summer when they mowed hay. They would mow in a square and the rabbits wouldn’t run out of the long grass, so they could just pick them right up and pop them into feed sacks. They ate rabbit all summer to the point where they couldn’t even look at rabbit, but a lot of times, that was all they had for meat in summer.

We have stray cats out the ears right now. Two mother cats brought their kittens ot the garage. Three of the kittens are really gentle and nice, and the four from the other litter are wild. We’re going ot have to figure out what to do about all those cats, but I’m hoping they keep down the mouse problem. Last year, I was on the verge of getting a few cats from the farm where I buy milk. They have really pretty cats. A lot of calicoes. However, I have ten garage cats right now and one house cat. My cousins named the older little all weird names from comic books, but the nice cats are Boots, Smokey, and Billi. Billi used to be named Whitey, because he has more white than any of the other cats, but we decided he needed a less culturally fraught name, and so I called him Billi which is Whitey in Ukrainian. My grandmother always has grey cats and they are always named Sivvi, which means “grey”. She’s on about Sivvi IV or V by now!

That’s about everything going on here! I’m going to start fall crops of broccoli and cabbage very soon and the lettuces are about over until it cools down a little, too. I paid a visit to my other uncle’s garden the other day, and I may change my mind about using black plastic , since the cool weather has really slowed down my melons and peppers and he says the plastic keeps the soil warm as well as cuts down on weeding. I’ve done two batches of strawberry jam and two batches of currant jelly, and my kitchen is starting to fill up with jars. hopefully, the bunnies will leave me some pickling cukes because I’d like to try that this year.

I need to go and hang out a load of wash which is another great way to keep the electric bill low over the summer. I even hang out clothes in the basement over the winter next to the wood stove. In Ontario, they have actually made it illegal for planned housing communities to write bylaws that don’t allow people to hang out wash in an effort to keep down the drain on the grid. My sister runs central air in her very large house all summer but hangs out her clothes, and her bills are the same in summer as they are in winter! That dryer costs a lot to run! Interestingly enough, the yearly report from the power company says the peak draw for our area in 2007 was actually in February when the weather was so cold. My cousins from down south can’t believe how few people in PA have AC in their houses. We actually have an air conditioner. It’s one of those ones that hang out the window, and it’s still in the box it came in. Up on the hill, it is consistently 10 to 15 degrees cooler than it is in town, and there is always a breeze. We bought the air conditioner for my brother who was too lazy to install it even though he was living in my aunt’s upstairs apartment which was melting hot, and it’s just been passed around between different family members, none of which have actually used it!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008



We’ve been sitting through a bout of pretty bad weather the last few weeks. After it was so hot in late May and early June, it’s been cold and really wet since then. My poor melons which were outgrowing their greenhouse pots have been sitting in the ground actually getting smaller since it’s been so cold and wet. We’ve had nights in the forties and yesterday, it barely made it out of the sixties. Though all my lettuces and cabbages and left over cold weather crops are doing quite well.

Another thing doing well is berries. It is getting close to currant time, and I have also already made two batches of strawberry jam from berries in my own patch. I’m tempted to get some more from one of the berry farms around here, but I was not impressed the last time I did pick your own at the big local farm. The berries were not good quality and there were so many rules! Don’t pick any with white tips. Don’t pick across the row. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. And worst of all, they actually did not allow people to bring kids younger than twelve with them to pick. Of course, who wants their kids to be rooting around in the kind of chemicals they spray on things these days, but one of the reasons why I enjoy picking and jamming and and jellying is because that’s one of the things I used to do as a little kid with my grandparents. Even my very short stint as a strawberry picker on a big commercial farm didn’t ruin it for me. Unlike my job I had as a baseball card sorter! I hate cards. I don’t think I’ve even thought playing war or solitaire or Sorry! was any fun since then. Memory card games are sheer heck, I tell you, and if my niece starts putting non matching cards into different piles, I get really uptight.

Anyway, I did end up plowing under my patch of honeyoe strawberries. They were just disappointing. They took up too much space for the three berries that were actually picked from than patch in two years. The sparkles are really great, but I have a lot of deformed berries. Strawberries can get into really funny shapes and get stunted from even a whiff of herbicide, and I didn’t realize my next door neighbors were going to spray roundup on everything that grew when I situated my strawberry patch right next to their property line. That is definitely something I will have to revise when I do the next patch. I guess next spring or at the latest the spring of 2010, when I put in more strawberries and get rid of this bunch, I’ll need to situate a patch somewhere a little less likely to get herbicide blow off from either the corn field or the neighbor’s.

Speaking of my “conventional” gardening neighbors who use pesticides and fertilizers all over their garden. Their stuff might be bigger right now, but my dirt looks better. Theirs is all pale and tan and dried up looking, and I know they have been irrigating even with all the rain, and mine is all rich and red and moist. Ha!

Anyway, about jam. I really think it’s actually pretty easy. Jam is easy. Jelly is hard. Because you need cheese cloth and a strainer, and you need to juice the berries before you make jelly. Jam, you just get the leaves and stems off and mash em up. I luckily found sugar on a good sale a few weeks ago, less than a couple dollars a bag, which is what it cost a few years ago. Though, I was prepared for jelly and jam season when they had all the sugar and baking things on sale over the holidays last winter. I bought up a whole bunch of sugar and vacuum sealed it. I used the bags you cut to size and left an extra few inches on the tops of the bags so I can reuse them to seal more sugar later. The vacuum sealer has been very wonderful. I made two giant pans of lasagna for a party way back in March and froze and sealed the leftovers into individual packages, and they are still as good as they were back then.

Back to jam!

Jam and jelly are really one of the few things that I can’t put off. When the fruit is ripe, you need to put it away. Everything else gets put on hold. Luckily, the first thing that comes in is strawberries, and they are not hard to deal with. No thorns, no seeds, no tiny little stems. Elderberries are so time consuming, and blackberries are just painful.

You need good sugar to make good jam. A brand name like Domino. It really makes a difference. The last couple of years I used Wegman’s store brand sugar for jam, and it made the jam just fine, but it didn’t store well. I got the really big bag, and and the bottom of the bag, there was just a rock hard piece of sugar that was too solid to even knock apart with a hammer. If sugar gets chunky or hard, usually I can still shove it into a measuring cup and use it that way, but the big, solid pieces that clumped up in store brand sugar were just too big! I usually store even sugar that is not vacuum sealed wrapped in a few layers of plastic bag because my basement gets so damp in summer, but even this couldn’t keep the store brand sugar from turning into a rock, so I’ve stuck with Domino ever since.

A tip for saving chunky sugar:

Pour sugar with a lot of lumps in to a metal bowl. Use a dry, sturdy utensil to grind up as much as you can. A pestle or a really thick stoneware teacup will work. Pour ground sugar through a sieve and either back into the empty bag (as long as it’s dry) or into a storage container. Save any stubborn sugar lumps for the sugar bowl where you can put them in tea or coffee. Or use them in recipes. I make a loaf of bread that calls for sugar cubes dipped in cinnamon to be baked right in. Use smaller lumps to put “snow” on decorated Christmas tree shaped cookies. In airtight containers, sugar has an almost unlimited shelf life!

Like a lot of things, you really don’t need that much to do jam. Jars, of course, but you can reuse other jars as long as they have the metal lid with the “button” on top and you can get the smell of whatever they used to have in them out. You need two big pots and also a saucepan. One pot is for cooking the jam, and the other is for jar sterilization. The jar boiling pot can be any old stock pot. The jelly cooker should have a thicker bottom. You can get a hot water canner with a little rack inside for lifting jars in and out almost anywhere. My mom got mine for me at a yard sale for fifty cents. You can buy new, but check yard sales and estate sales or your older relatives’ basements first!

Also, that fruit pectin, is the same whether you get the brand name or the discount stuff. It is also sealed really well, and keeps a long, long time. I bought about forty boxes a few years ago, and I just pull one out and use it whenever I like. I do orange marmalade in the winter when the citrus fruit is on sale, and if I didn’t buy ahead and stock up, I’d have a hard time finding pectin powder in the middle of winter. I get generic “Jel-ease” at Save a Lot instead of getting the name brand, and it is like a quarter the cost and does the same thing. also, the recipes for a million different kinds of jams and jellies come on a little paper right inside the box, and it’s really good resource for getting ideas on how to preserve things.

Other helpful things for jelly and jam that you don’t need but which make things easier:

1. Long handled wooden spoon
2. Tongs and/or jar lifer to lift jars out of hot water
3. Canning funnel

And that’s it!

Basic jam steps:

1. Get fruit. The pectin you choose will tell you how much. Strawberries take two quarts. Jams don’t take a lot of fruit. Jelly takes more.

2. Get other ingredients. Generally this is just sugar, but strawberries and other less sour fruits also call for lemon juice. The acidity is what allows the fruit to be preserved. I buy the big bottles of lemon juice from concentrate. Lemons are too expensive, and those little lemon shaped squeezy bottles are not accurate.

3. Get jars ready. Count up your jars and make sure they are clean and have matching lids. I also like to have one ore two extra jars prepared just in case the recipe turns out more than I expect. There are a lot of variables involved here including size of fruit, water content and things like that. I usually get more than what the recipe says. Jars can be prepared in one of two ways. You can either put the jars in the canner and just boil the heck right out of them for ten minutes and then leave them in the hot water, or you can fill them with water and set them upright in the canner which you then fill just to cover the jars and bring to a simmer. This second way, you need to reboil the jars for ten minutes after you fill them. This is supposedly safer. I have started doing this because I think it is faster, and easier even with having to process the filled jars. I grew up just boiling the jars and filling them with hot jam and calling it good. The idea being that if you have boiling hot sauce in boiling hot jars, you can’t get any germs in there, but I guess thinking on that has changed. Though, I use the “new” method just because I don’t like to have to wait the whole time it takes for the jars to boil up empty for the whole ten minutes.

4. Measure the sugar. You need to measure the fruit later, but measure the sugar first because the ratio of sugar to fruit is actually really important. The same measuring cup that you will use to measure the fruit should be used at the beginning when it is clean and dry to dole out the sugar. Jam is serious scientific business, and if you skimp on the sugar or blow off the lemon juice, it won’t work.

5. Prepare the fruit. The recipe will tell you what to do with specific fruit and how to prepare it. Basically get rid of leaves and smash. A potato masher is good for this, but also that pestle or stoneware cup from the lumpy sugar incident can be employed in smashing up berries. Especially if you have a cheesy “modern” potato masher that is just like a curvy piece of steel instead of a nice round one, then just use the teacup. Measure the fruit out according to the recipe. If you’re short, you can pad that with a little water.

6. Do the cooking. The jars should have simmered or boiled or whatever for their allotted times and should just be hot now. Still sitting in the other big pot, waiting for the jelly. Mix up the pectin and lemon juice and boil. Then add the sugar. Make sure the pot is big. Jelly making involves bringing many cups of sugar to a full rolling boil for a couple minutes, and there is nothing funny about letting seven or eight cups of molten sugar boil all over your stovetop. A cousin of mine also ruined her ceramic cook top by trying to scrape off burnt sugar. I have a ceramic cook top, too, which I have dumped sugar on, and the solution is just keep cleaning it regularly and let the sugar wear off. It will eventually. But a nice big pot will also cover up the burner, and protect it from stray sugar. A “full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down” is the phrase on the jelly instruction, and it’s like anything else, you’ll know it when you see it. If you’re going to reprocess the jam, let it boil a minute. If you already sterilized the jars for ten minutes, let it boil two minutes. You need to stir all the time during this part. Nothing can scorch or stuck or burn or everything will be ruined.

7. Get the lids ready. The lids need to be clean and hot and pliable, as well. In the saucepan, get them hot fast with just a little water.

8. Jar up. Pull sterilized jars out of canner. (Why you might want tongs.) Use your funnel to direct the sauce into the jars. I’ve used a ladle, but just dumping the jam into the funnel right from the pot is quicker and easier. Long sleeves are a good idea, though, in case of hot splashes. If the jars were boiled ten minutes empty, slap on the lids, and turn them upside down on a dishtowel for five minutes, and you’re done. The “modern” method where the jars are just simmering in the canner: take out the jars and fill them and put on the lids. Drop the jars back into the hot water. Do it one at a time, so the jars don’t get a chance to cool down and explode! when you throw hot sauce in them. Then, make sure there is an inch of water over top of the jars and put the lid back on the big canner pot. Bring to a boil and boil ten minutes. This sounds like extra work, but it really isn’t. And also supposed to be safer!

9. Let hot jars sit in water for five more minutes. Lift out. (This is where the jar lifter comes in handy.) Let set for a day.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t! Maybe two hours tops, counting doing the washing up and the picking. And it is a lot cheaper and better than storebought which with all the preservatives and high fructose corn syrup is kind of like jellified pop!

Energy and water and time saving tip:

Use the hot water left over in the canner to clean up. I usually dump it into the sink or the jam cooking pot. Nothing but hot water and jars ever goes into the canner so there’s n chance of getting soap on things that are finished.

I know there are ways to make jellies and jams without commercial fruit pectin. I keep reading about boiling tart apples. I haven’t tried it yet. I may, but right now I’m well stocked with powdered pectin! I have also not yet tried any jelly recipes with organic sugar or raw sugar, which I would like to do at some point in the future when I can afford to experiment and make mistakes, but right now I'm too poor and food is too expensive! Tried and true is the way to go, as long as tried and true actually works! Which in this case, it does!

Three Sisters update:

It looks like at least some of my corn is going to be “knee high by the Fourth of July” and my pumpkins and squash are starting to come up. So far so good!