"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Mexican Sour Gherkin

They look like miniature watermelons and taste like sour little cucumbers. We started growing these about 3 years ago as a novelty that adds a little pizazz to our salads. The sour little fruits get about 1-2" long and the vines readily climb any trellis provided. I have not tried it but they are supposed to be excellent pickled and will store fresh for a surprisingly long time.

The vines alone are a very lovely addition to the garden

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Birds and the Bees

Upon occasion I awake thinking that I will be accomplishing a certain task for the day but end up consumed with everything but the originally scheduled assignment, actually more often than not. A late afternoon set aside for thinning winter garden rows and freezing peppers became an effort to wrest raspberries from wasps and amaranth seed from a flock of voracious birds.

As the second and larger crop of raspberries and strawberries start to appear on our ever bearing plants we are once again involved in the daily harvest of berries. We had not been paying too much attention to the raspberries of late but were well aware the fruit was close to being ready. I happened to take notice of them yesterday afternoon and could see that enough were ripe to be worth the effort of picking. I was hoping to get away with waiting one more day to pick as we had other chores that needed tending, but unfortunately we were not the only ones to notice that the berries were ready. A closer inspection revealed that every wasp and bald-faced hornet in the vicinity were also well aware that my berries were starting to ripen.

I have a love/hate relationship with the various types of wasps that occupy our property. On one hand they do a great service in that they eat harmful flies, caterpillars, aphids, and other insects that can be destructive to the garden. On the other hand they have quite the sweet tooth, competing with the bees for nectar and us for our fruit towards the end of summer. Hungry wasps are more likely to be a nuisance in late summer as the colony has grown exponentially and is in a frenzy to collect food, often searching out ripe fruit and other sweet things like the family barbecue.

A Bald-faced hornet nest hanging in a cedar tree next to our raspberry patch.

Normally, I leave the nests undisturbed simply taking note of where they are located, be that underground, in the above trees, or the barn and greenhouse. The small nests in the greenhouse are a great teaching tool for my grandson to learn all about various wasps and bees. He is able to watch and learn up close. I have taught him how to carefully pet the back of a bumble bee in order to see the difference in the nature of the mostly docile bee compared to the much more aggressive wasp and hornet. Late last fall he got to pick apart dormant yellow jacket and mud-dauber wasp nests, and has sat with me quietly observing as bustling bald-faced hornets moved to and fro feeding the larvae in the above nest. He has a nice little bee book that teaches him all about the mysterious inner workings of the hive and is most fascinated by the insects.

Anyway, in order to reclaim my raspberries before the wasps devoured them all "I" had to get in the patch and pick amongst them, shaking the bushes as I went along in order to dislodge any wasps that had burrowed into the berries. More often then not my wife or I end up getting stung while picking this time of the year. For the most part the wasps are as interested in the fruit as I am and we all work together trying to see who can gather the most fruit, and as long as they don't get poked in the rear with my finger they simply move around us as we pick.

This valerian plant was host to a multitude of seed hungry birds.

That same afternoon I noticed a flock of small birds hanging around my seedy valerian, Belgium endive, and amaranth plants. It didn't take long for me to realize what they were up to. Luckily, I have already collected all the valerian seed I need but had yet to focus on the amaranth and endive. So between having to unexpectedly harvest berries and seeds my afternoon was spent. Tomorrow morning I will tackle the peppers and thin my winter rows...I hope.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Giant Cape Gooseberries?

Deep in the murky recesses of my mind I am forever calculating how much foodstuff we need to produce. Trying to figure out how often we eat a certain food item in order to determine what I need to grow, or gather, in order to meet our year end harvest goals. I always try to grow a little more than we should need in order to be assured of having enough. For example, we use tomatillo salsa approximately once every week and have to rely on frozen tomatillos for around 5 months out of the year. If we are lucky, the first new tomatillos ripen in July and the last ones are picked towards the end of September and can be stored fresh all the way until the first part of January. Each plant will provide us with around 2 gallons of tomatillos, often more sometimes less. So I grow at least 6 or 7 plants each year. Our objective being to freeze around 24 quarts to supplement those that are eaten fresh.

Tomatillos dehusked, washed, and ready to be made into salsa.

This year I inadvertently grew around 13 plants. "Why so many Mike?" you might ask. "That sure seems like and awful lot, do you sell tomatillos?" Well yes and no, we did sell quite a few plants this spring but had no intention of selling the fruits themselves. I accidentally grew 6 extra plants in our garden because I thought they were going to be Cape Gooseberries. You see, I thought that when I purchased Giant Cape Gooseberries from the reputable "Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds" they would produce a large orange form of ground cherry. But alas, my winter fantasies of beautiful orange gooseberries "New Acquaintances In The Garden" were realized in the form of big green tomatillos. As the seeds look so much alike I am not all that upset, well maybe a bit perturbed, but more amused than anything as I wonder how many other customers ended up with unusually large green Cape Gooseberries.:) Mistakes happen. Although, Mrs. H. is not as forgiving and has threatened to give them a piece of her mind. I desperately need all the pieces of my mind so I will leave that matter in her capable hands.

The first of a large crop of tomatillos.

That said, we are looking at quite a surplus of tomatillos...not a bad dilemma to have. We picked and froze around 1/3 of our tomatillos and are only a few quarts shy of our target amount. So if I appear a little on the green side this year it's not that my health is failing but that I have been a bit of a glutton with the salsa. Oink, oink.

Slightly sweeter Purple Coban tomatillos

Tomatillos will store in their husks for around 2 months at 35 - 45°, the smaller ones even longer. When overly ripe they will turn yellow and become very sweet. We are going to try slicing and drying a few of them in this stage for the first time this year...maybe they will be good that way. Faced with a overabundance I might as well perform a little experimentation, you know.

If you ever want to save the seed off a tomatillo or ground cherry, just toss a few really ripe ones in your blender (or mash them) with a little water. Give them a whirl and then dump the contents into a small bowl. The good seeds will sink to the bottom and the rest of the pulp can be carefully poured off leaving the seeds. I remove mine with a butter knife and spread onto a drying screen for a few days until they are ready to be put away for the next season. The most important part is to not get them mixed up with your gooseberry seeds.:)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Pea Dance

Time spent in our food gardens during the next 40-50 days will, for the most part, be spent working towards the harvest of numerous crops. Some of the food we grow has already been processed and stored away for the winter months: kale for soup, basil and other herbs, many of our berries, garlic, shallots, and so on. The rest of our winter fare is, or will soon be in some stage of being processed. The end goal being to have our freezers, root cellar, and dried items at capacity in order to be secure in the knowledge that we will have more then enough food to last us through until the next growing season.

One of the items we are working on finishing up are our dry soup peas. A few gallons of peas are frozen but the majority are dried on the vine for easier storage. Nothing beats a big bowl of pea soup and cornbread for dinner, especially when it's cold out. We always save 2-3 years worth of the best peas for the following years crop. This is done so that if next years peas need to be replanted, or fail to produce viable seeds due to bad weather or other issues we will have enough. The rest are stored in gallon jars until needed for food purposes.

These boxes contain a few of our carefully separated seed peas.

Normally we process these legumes a little at a time as they dry on the vine, but sometimes we end up with a large amount at once. One of the ways we remove the shells from the peas not being used for seed is called the "pea dance." Our pea dance involves stomping on the dry seed pods in order to break them up and release the peas. This year we used our grandson, clad in sterile cowboy boots, and a small clean children's wading pool for the procedure. One bucket of peas at a time is dumped in and tromped on by him until the majority are released from their confines. We then separate the chaff by hand or thresh it through a screen. This has been a great way to incorporate our grandson into this end of season activity. The biggest issue was teaching him to tromp carefully so the peas stay in the pool...such a good lad.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Evolution of a Carrot

One of the rewards of saving your own seed is being able to watch the process from start to finish, the plants evolution if you will. I am always amazed as I watch various plants develop seeds. Each one with the same goal of procreating, but with vastly different modes of delivery.

Interestingly enough, one of the more unusual seeds I am saving this year comes from a very common vegetable...the carrot. Your average carrot, being a biennial plant, has to be overwintered before it will produce viable seed, unless it bolts like some of my Lunar White ones did...a little too hot this summer. I held over and replanted my best carrots so they could finish their life cycle and provide us with seeds for the next generation of carrots in our garden.

After the carrot flower is pollinated by insects, it forms into a rounded umbel.

Carrot seeds, and many seeds for that matter, from one's own garden are slightly different then the ones cleaned and shipped out by the seed companies. Having flowered, the carrots spiny little seeds form atop an umbel that eventually dries at which point the seed is ready to be harvested.

The dried umbels eventually break off and blow away in the wind as a tumbleweed, dispersing seeds as they roll along.

Each individual flower produces a pair of seeds, the below carrot seeds are really two seeds slightly attached.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Golden Treasure

Constant companions in the garden area, besides our ever-present cat, are our flock of Rhode Island Reds. They have around an acre surrounding the gardens to roam about chasing grasshoppers, scratching up worms, and squawking their silly heads off every chance they get. A simple clicking noise from me causes them all to come running, knowing that their kind master has some sort of treat for them. Spoiled they are, fed various greens and other garden goodies each morning and every evening. Often times even more if the kind master happens to be thinning kale or pitching overripe berries, and that is pretty often.

My reward, nourishing golden eggs. Eggs that are in no way similar to those pale sad little replicas that are found in the local grocers dairy section. Eggs whose yolks are colored as little golden treasures, and whose flavor is beyond compare. Eggs that make some people nervous because they are "too orange," not at all normal.

So, faced with an ever abundant amount of "real" organic free range eggs, and a seemingly constant excess of kefir (Berries, Kefir & Goats), we make quiche. One of our favorite ways to create a protein rich, nutrient dense meal. How do you make a vegetarian fat? Just feed him lots of quiche.:)

A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.

- An Egg - J. R. R Tolkien

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Land of Milk and Honey

Click to enlarge

Can you guess what we had for breakfast? Not our typical morning fare, but it sure was good.

We have been picking Oregon grapes off and on for the last few weeks. The plant is very popular for the medicinal value of it's roots but we are much more interested in the tart seedy fruits. I'm convinced they are extremely healthy but have found little information regarding the berries besides the fact that they are high in antioxidants and vitamin C. Many people use them for preserves or wine but that involves the use of a little too much sugar for my liking, so we freeze and add them to the fruit mixture that makes up our morning smoothies.

A handful of blueberries and huckleberries

A trip to beautiful Upper Priest lake provided us with more huckleberries, blueberries, and a nice hike in the forest. I have not positively identified the blue ones as a form of wild blueberry but they sure don't taste like your average huckleberry...they're very tart. We make special trips to this lake just for this particular berry that I have yet to find growing anywhere else.

At the far end of this picture is a beach that I once camped overnight on, there is a swampy area back in the forest...leeches everywhere. I call it leech beach.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Good Year For Peppers

Surprisingly, considering where we live, one of our most dependable crops is the pepper. With partial sun, sometimes rainy cold summers, and early and late frosts you would think they would be more of a novelty crop. So what's your trick Mike? I don't really know, luck and a really early start I suppose. Now before I brag too much let me say that although I have high hopes this year we hardly ever see any of those wonderful peppers turn red on the vine. The chocolate (purple beauty) and yellow banana peppers usually turn for us but the red bells, Marconi, and Italian, rarely vine ripen. We do have some luck getting the more mature ones to ripen off the vine if the plant is pulled and hung in the greenhouse or on our porch towards the end of the season. This works especially well for small bells and hot peppers.

We are growing 14 different varieties trying to find the ones that do best for us. At this point there are a few clear leaders in this year's batch:

Red Belgian is tied for first place, an extremely early and productive pepper. It's only fault may lie in the fact that the plant seems to have serious issues supporting it's own fruit.

Sweet chocolate is easily my favorite this year, a sturdy plant producing large quantities of peppers. I believe it was the first to produce this year and all of the plants look healthy and are loaded with fruit.

Mini red bell is a prolific producer of numerous small round peppers, perfect for pickling.

Yellow banana is our faithful standby, a constant producer of storage quality elongated peppers.

Pepperoncini, perfect for canning whole or using in various Italian dishes.

Sweet Italian is a beautiful pepper, but only fairly productive in our gardens.

California wonder is outperforming this year but tends to lag behind on the cooler years.

New to us, red-orange mini peppers straight from the organic section of a grocery store seem to be doing extremely well.

Red organic #2 from last year's local farmers market is also showing it's stuff. Really packing them on...to the point that I'm not sure how to get them off.:)

Fresh in salads, as a pizza condiment, or pickled right along with the dills, we love peppers any way we can get them. The jars in the background were canned a few days ago and we are preparing to do few more this afternoon (actually yesterday afternoon). We like to pickle the peppers and cucumbers at the same time. Horseradish, dill, fresh grape leaves, garlic, and a few red pepper flakes make up the spices. We do have luck storing fresh peppers and eggplants all the way into January sometimes but the rest are frozen, dried, or canned.

Toppings for a simple pizza pie we made last week. What pizza is complete without a few peppers?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Our Solar Food Dehydrator

We have been making a crude, but good, nutritious and delicious form of fruit leather using our barn's roof and the sun as a giant solar dehydrator. With berry season in full swing and the amount of space allotted for berries in our freezers already past capacity we begin to focus on other preservation methods. One of these is drying or dehydrating the fruit. We do have a small electric dehydrator that could be forced to run non-stop from now well into mid-December. That's not really an option though as it would waste a lot of electricity and be much too hard on the dehydrator that is mostly used to dry morel mushrooms in the very early spring.

Fortunately, as long as the summer provides us with enough sunshine and not too much humidity we can easily dry various fruits and berries right on top of our barn roof. Any sunny spot works great for this, a car roof, the top of one's cold frame, or even an old stump. The important part is to get the product into the sun and off the ground away from, in our case, ants, cats, and small children. The barn roof works great for this as the one side is angled towards the south and gets full sun most of the day.

One of my drying screens full of shallots for next year's sets. We don't dry these in the sun.

The combination of corrugated galvanized metal roofing, slope of the roof, and the sun creates a perfect scenario for drying food. The corrugation provides air spaces under a screen or tray allowing the air to move up the roof carrying away the moisture from under the trays of food. The galvanized metal also gets hot and reflects heat back onto the food. We use old metal pizza pans for the fruit leather and I have screens for drying apples, pears, plums, tomatoes and so on. Right now we are working on drying raspberries.

Once the berries are picked we simply crush them into a puree and spread evenly onto the pans, about a quarter inch thick. Evenly is the key word as any thin spots will dry first, stick and tear holes in the leather when you try to remove it. Now if you want to be fancy, the puree can be strained of seeds. We like it in it's more natural state and leave the seeds in, besides it's a lot less work that way.

After 5-8 hours in the sun, or when the top portion appears dry but before the bottom begins to harden, the fruit needs to be flipped over to finish drying. I use a metal spatula for this and carefully work my way under the fruit folding it over as I go until it can be carefully turned. Another 3 or more hours and it should be ready. Sometimes this process takes two days to complete, one for each side. It all depends upon what you are drying. For example, it always takes me two days to dry raspberries...7 hours on one side and 4 on the other. Once thoroughly dried there should be no moist spots and the leather will hold together quite well, it can then be either frozen or stored in an airtight container, we use old gallon jars for this.

Voilà! Ready to be torn or cut up into smaller pieces for storage. What a great hiking snack this makes.

Properly dried fruit can keep this way for years, if not dried enough it may start to mold.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lightning Strikes Twice

The skies were dark, but not ominously so. Lightning flashes could be seen far off in the distance but overhead all appeared to be calm. I had just locked the chickens up for the night and was sitting down at the computer, preparing to dig up some information on eggplants...and boom! A huge explosion shook our whole house. The day, having almost turned to night, was simultaneously lit up with a blinding red-orange flash, and then all was silent. A few minutes later, having realized that it was not our lovely neighbor firing off his cannon in our front yard, we looked for smoke and fire as it became obvious that a freak lightning strike had hit within a few yards of the house. We found nothing in the dark.

It was not until early the next morning that we noticed wood shrapnel all over our driveway and the neighboring bushes. Close by was a tree with a large splinter of wood that had been unceremoniously stripped from tip to tail. The same thing happened two years ago in August to a tree not thirty feet away. That tree was much larger and managed to live, this one will not. I will remove it for firewood next spring.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Epicenter

It has been about as perfect a gardening year, weather wise, as I can remember. The temperatures have been extremely hot but we have had a decent rain every 2-3 weeks since spring...today included. We have used less water this summer than ever before, even with the close to 90-100° temperatures and an ever expanding garden.

The above picture depicts our gardens "epicenter". Isn't she a beauty? Yeah...not really. Filled with timers, modes, and valves attached to eleven hoses that stretch hundreds of feet and are attached to various soaker systems and sprinklers...the garden can literally water itself.

I set up this system a few years ago so that we could take a vacation and not worry about watering the garden in August, our driest month, it worked great. Depending upon the weather and particular location in the garden, I set the timers to water for a certain amount of time, when needed, at night. They turn on and off automatically or manually, and I am able to carefully control the amount of water I use. The timers were set up for the first time this year, a couple weeks ago, when I could no longer justify the time it took to manually water the gardens.

We use the soaker hoses on our tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, and the outskirts of the main garden. Everything else is still watered using overhead sprinklers that I hope to replace with soaker hoses over time. Some of our plants, like my "no water" tomatoes never get a drop of water. I have other crops that are deeply planted and mulched that I hand water once a week or so.

These little cherry tomato plants in the chicken run never get any water from me, and are just starting to produce a few nice little fruits.

Anyway, I like the automatic watering system and have cut my water output by at least half, perhaps even more this year, since setting it up. Hopefully as time goes on and I become more advanced in "no water" gardening I will no longer need to use it at all, but for now it is my best solution to water conservation in the garden.
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