Can All You Can

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I posted a photo of my canyon of canned goods the other day and some comments surprised me.  I grew up canning.  My mother canned – a lot.  We had a large garden and what she didn’t can she froze.  Everything was done with a hot water bath so there were hours spent in front of that stove or in a hot kitchen, it takes a long time to process things with a hot water bath.  She used the WWII volume of the Ball Blue Book.  I still have it but these days almost everything I do is with a pressure canner.  It saves me time, water, energy and sweat.  I am also able to can pretty much anything safely.

This time of year the concentration is on fruit with tomatoes included.  Last week I canned tomatoes, peaches and made apricot butter as well as a few jars of dill pickles.  This week will be a repeat.  I really need about 50 pints of tomatoes to last me until next summer, I’d prefer to have more but tomatoes aren’t as easy to come by this summer due to a blight that seems to have effected everyone everywhere.

The peaches are beautiful this year and I had a really great canning experience this past weekend.  I love it when everything goes smoothly.  I don’t want to fight to peel those peaches.  I read somewhere to make sure the water was at a rolling boil and to dunk only a few peaches at a time for 30 seconds then into the ice bath.  Worked like a charm.  I also made sure my fruit was at room temperature before I started.  Canning fruit at home also allows you to control the amount of sugar that is used in processing.  That’s important to me, I don’t like things really sweet, I want to taste the fruit.

Our pear tree is loaded with fruit this year – I fear for its branches.  The apple trees are the same.  I will probably make a few pints of pie filling from the apples just to see if I can make it work to my satisfaction.  The pears won’t even ripen until after Thanksgiving and I will can those in chunks like I did the peaches.

There is nothing like the taste of home canned food, especially in winter.  I know exactly what is in every jar, there are no preservatives, no additives, no GMO’s.  It’s real food.  There is also the feeling of food security which is certainly what food preservation is all about.  Having enough to eat until the next harvest comes in.  Plant enough to eat now and put by enough to get you to next summer.  We live in a world where everything is immediate.  It takes very little time to empty out a grocery store, they are restocked every day.  I don’t ever want to worry about where my next meal is coming from or not having food to feed my family.  I’m sure that comes from growing up when food security may have been a concern.  I just remember this time of year the shelves were stocked and you had choices.

130824 Canning CanyonI know when I look at this my mind is set a little more at ease.  I have good food, I took the time to make it right and now all that is left is the eating.

Garden Economics

130824 Garlic

This is my garlic harvest for this year.  A year ago about this time I was thinking I really needed to grow some of my own but when I went onto the High Mowing Seed website with the intention of ordering some and they were sold out.  Bummer I thought – then figured I’d order it for this year. Garlic is planted in the fall, like tulips and daffodils, it needs that fall and winter time to set out its roots.  It then blossoms in June or so and is ready to harvest in July (at least here it is).  The seed companies send out their garlic for planting the first week in October.

I moved on completely forgetting about the garlic. A couple of weeks later I received a package in the mail – a pound of garlic for planting from High Mowing.  I had forgotten that I had ordered it with my spring seeds back in February.  It felt like pennies from heaven because I’d paid for it back in February as well.

The garlic I had ordered is called Music.  It’s a hardneck variety which I know seems to do pretty well around here. I dug a nice bed for them in a sunny, well-drained sight and placed each clove about 3 to 4 inches deep, covered it and walked away.  When spring arrived it was the first plant out of the ground.  In June the blossoms, called scapes, emerge.  I pick all of them off – doing this puts the plants energy in forming bulbs.  The scapes are delicious – I chop them and cook them in eggs for breakfast but they are great in all kinds of things.  Two harvests from one plant.

Towards the middle of July the stalks of the garlic begin to turn brown from the ground up.  I’ve heard that timing is everything with garlic.  You don’t want to dig it up too soon- you want those bulbs as big as you can get them.  If you wait too long the bulb will no longer be tight, the cloves will have splayed out – ready to continue growing for another year.  I had to guess.  I waited until the plants were brown half of the way up the stalk and then I dug one out to see.  It was a thing of beauty.  I dug the rest.

Curing the garlic takes another 3 to 4 weeks. The skins dry to that thin paper we are all familiar with.  I just laid the whole plant on paper in the house and waited (of course a couple of bulbs were sampled along the way).  This weekend I cleaned and trimmed the crop. What you see in the photo is what I grew.  This was a pound of garlic cloves.  The cloves are very large on this garlic so it doesn’t take many to get to a pound.  For every clove you plant you get a bulb.

This garlic is so good I vowed to plant 3 times as much next year – the problem?  It would probably cost over $60 for the seed.

Bill and I gazed at these beautiful bulbs and decided that I would use most of what I grew this year as seed for next year.  It made me a little sad to think about not eating most of what was in the basket but I could quadruple the number of bulbs next year just by planting what was in front of me.  It was sort of a no brainer, but all I want to do right now is eat garlic mashed potatoes from the garden.

Good Food

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My kids call me the doomer.  I try to tell them that I just like to be prepared.  I never want to worry about where my next meal is coming from.  In doing so I have learned to garden in good weather and bad.  This year is one of those years where some things are doing much better than expected while others are an unmitigated disaster.  Every year I seem to say to Bill, “If we had to survive on this year’s garden we would starve to death by February”.  Even though I’m getting better at my gardening and adding more and more perennial beds and plants to the ever changing array of food that I grow I know that it would never be enough for a family to survive on until the next crop comes in.

The main reason I really grow a garden is there is nothing like the taste of a warm cucumber just picked, or that summer tomato.  The real revelation came to me when I grew potatoes for the first time a couple of years ago.  Potatoes freshly dug scream “POTATO” when you eat them.  Something happens to produce the minute it is harvested – the taste begins to wane. There are only two things I grow that improve once picked – pears and long pie pumpkins.

Last weekend we made a spectacular meal of things we have grown (or in the case of the steak watched grow).  These are the meals that are memorable, the ones I like to share with friends and family.  I want them to know their food can be so much better. There is such satisfaction in knowing you started the seeds and nurtured your food.  That there are no chemicals involved in any of the food we ate.  The beef was fed grass and hay from one property, no hormones, antibiotics.  It grew up in fresh air and sunshine.  It tastes like BEEF, not the homogenized red meat you find wrapped in plastic and styrofoam at the grocery store.  There is a huge difference.

The garden surplus I will continue to can to use in the winter months.  Peaches and apricots are next on the list and I will continue with tomatoes.  Even with processing the taste of  home canned fruit of any kind is a revelation in the winter.  The first bite brings you back to summer.  That is what makes all the work of preserving your harvest in the summer worthwhile.

Let the Madness Begin

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I made a couple of quarts of dill pickles the other night and was commenting to my sister about what hot work canning is.  I do most of my canning in August when everything seems to come in at the same time in the garden.  This weekend I will probably can some new potatoes.  I’d like to do some salsa but that never seems to make it into a jar once the prep is done, it’s too good fresh.

Peaches are just starting to come in so I may do up some of them as well.  Diced this year, yes a lot of work but worth it in January.  Most of the time I just halve them and pack a jar in light syrup but I’m the only one who ends up eating them and a pint of peach halves is too much for me.  Diced ones I can just throw into my cottage cheese – nothing yummier.

Pesto, tomatoes of every kind, beans, pickles, relishes, these are all the things that I expect to have to eat each winter so the pressure is on now to get it done.

At the end of last winter I cooked a smoked turkey that I had bought from Pekarskis.  There were not a lot of people who were there to eat it and there is a lot of meat on an 18 pound turkey (it was a lovely free range bird as well).  I cut all of the meat off of it, made a stock of the bones and canned it in pints.  There were about 15 I recall.  This canned turkey has been one of the best experiments in canning ever.  I use it in jambalaya or black beans and rice and it is spectacular.  Not only does it taste wonderful with a great texture it is the ultimate convenience food.  This was my first foray into canning meat but will not be my last.

I think anyone who is considering canning should make that leap into a pressure canner.  Yes they are expensive but canning with a hot water bath limits you to high acid or sugared fruits.  I know once I got over the initial fear of the thing my canning options were exponentially expanded, it seems like there is nothing I can’t can now.  Pressure canning is faster and safer and helps you diversify your larder.  There is nothing better that wondering what’s for dinner, opening your canning closet and seeing choices.

The Joys of Cherry Season

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Cherries are my all time favorite fruit, hands down.  When they to come in each year I eat them every day.  Every. Day.  I can’t get enough.  I’ve canned them in the past and they are wonderful in the winter.  I’ve made them into pies, crumbles, cobblers and clafouties.  This years experiment is infused vodka.  Of all the vodkas I’ve infused in the past this one is the most labor intensive.  It requires you to pit and halve 4 to 5 pounds of cherries (and if you’re like me you eat a lot of them while you’re pitting).  It takes awhile, but the fruit is beautiful.

I put the halved cherries into the container and added 2 liters of vodka.  It’s sitting now in it’s dark little spot where I stir it daily.  The plan is to have it ready for July 4th.  Photos and a review will follow.  I have to confess to having  a bit of a taste this afternoon as I stirred the fruit around.  This is going to be one fabulous vodka.

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Rain, Rain, Rain

130701 Crocs

 

This photo says it all.  I wear these crocs when I work in the garden in the summer.  They are easy to slip on, hose off.  After working yesterday I hosed them off as usual and left them on the patio to dry.  They may have dried but it started raining in the late afternoon and continued off and on through the night.  The forecast for today – rain.

I managed to get half of the garden weeded but really need to get out there again and finish before the weeds take over.

All this rain has wreaked havoc for farmers of every variety over the whole of New England this year.  It’s been one of those years where you think you have the right combo of things to plant because they have grown so well in the past only to find no matter how many times you plant the seeds the conditions won’t allow them to germinate.  I’ve planted beets twice so far this year and have had one sprout.  It’s not a matter of bad seed either.  I’ve planted two varieties, new seed.  I will plant them one more time, if they grow great, if not I wait until next year. My carrots are sparse, but the rhutabagas are fine.  The potatoes are finally going after a very slow start. They are also sprouting all over the garden – apparently I didn’t dig up everything last year.  They’ve survived tillage 3 times so I guess I will just hill them where they are.

The beans are a bit disappointing as well, they have had a tough time starting.  There will be a few more seeds planted there as well.  Although my tomatoes had a rough start they are looking pretty good at the moment.  I need to tie them up for the second time this week.  Onions and garlic are very happy.  There are blossoms on my cucumber starts but I’ve come to realize that I don’t plant enough to really put up so they will probably be eaten fresh and I will have to visit the local farmstands to make pickles. My long pie pumpkins look great, they are one of my favorite varieties and they are great keepers.

The potted flowers have never been happier.  Every summer for the past few years I’ve had to have someone water them on the days when I’m not here.  No problem this year.

One of the biggest problems that has occurred this year is with haying.  It’s has rained every day for weeks, for hay you need at least a couple of dry days (dry, not exorbitantly humid like it has been).  With the weather pattern that we’ve been in the hay has been in the field too long so the quality of the feed suffers.  I’m not sure what the answer is here.  There may be more steers going to the auction in the fall because there won’t be the hay to feed them through the winter.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Farming is such a difficult way of life.  You are dealing with the unknown on a daily basis.  Each week the weather is bad you adjust your expectations for the off season.  This is something that hasn’t changed since the dawn of agriculture but each year when it happens to me it is deeply personal.

A Most Beautiful Vineyard

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One of my favorite views up the road from the Shippee home. This is looking north towards the bluff where Keuka lake forks. The grapes are in neat, wired rows. I’m always amazed at how much work goes into growing and harvesting acres of fruit. Makes you appreciate that glass just a little bit more and once again know that what you’re drinking is local.

Chive Blossom Vinegar

130616 Chives in bloomA couple of years ago I read about making chive blossom vinegar.  This has to be the easiest infused vinegar to make and one of the prettiest.

The chives are in full bloom right now.  When they are take a quart canning jar out to your garden and pick the blossoms until the jar is 1/3 to 1/2 filled.  Fill the jar to the top with white vinegar, cover and set on the counter for about 2 weeks.  Strain it through cheesecloth into a clean container.  There you have it!   No processing needed.

This is a beautiful, bright pink vinegar with a bright chive taste – perfect for salad dressings.  My favorite thing to do is make a refrigerator pickle with sliced fresh cucumber, topped with this vinegar, salt and pepper.  Let it sit for a couple of hours and you have a fresh, tasty pickle with a mild overtone of onion.  Wonderful.

 

Fruit

130615 BlueberriesThe rain has stopped – for now.  In doing my morning walk about I noticed how well the fruit on the property was doing.  The blueberry bushes are loaded this year, last year I didn’t get a single berry.  It warmed up to abnormal temperatures in February 1012.  A week or more of 70’s and 80’s fooled every early flowering plant, tree and shrub into thinking spring had arrived early.  The temperature then dropped to below freezing (where it should be that time of year) and froze every blossom on the fruiting trees and shrubs.  It also completely messed up our sugaring season.  In 2011 we made well over 100 gallons of maple syrup, in 2012 maybe 30. Our pear tree had 3 pears, the deer ate two and my sister picked the last one.

Losing your entire fruit crop is distressing in many ways.  You’ve already made plans for what you are going to put up based on previous years and suddenly you realize there will not be any fruit of any kind.  This year the pear tree is loaded once again and I’m making plans for what to do with the hundreds that will be available (barring any extreme weather event from now until frost).  I often wonder about people who plant 5 or 6 of a kind of fruit tree.  This one tree, in a good year, produces enough for a few families to eat fresh and preserve. I find that at times it has really stressed me out because I feel like I’m wasting good food by not putting more up but honestly you can only do so much.  The deer eat the drops and the ones hanging from the lower branches. I try to give them away.

I have to say that one of the favorite games for the dogs involves that pear tree.  When the fruit starts to drop onto the ground we go down to the tree and I toss the pears as far as I can in rapid succession in different directions.  Buddy will chase a couple, then settle down to eat one.  Sophie will run after one, tag it and run back.  Chester will fetch them all day long, every so often taking a bite out of it but always bringing it back and dropping it at my feet.  The only problem is he likes the game so much that he continually goes out in the field and brings pears up to the driveway and the lawn.  A lot of fun when you’re mowing the grass.

130615 PearFruit is always a long term endeavor.  I planted a row of raspberry plants that Carmen had given me last year.  I got a couple of berries in July (I probably would have picked more but caught Chester picking them, apparently he finds them tasty as well).  This year the patch is twice as large – raspberries propagate readily sending shoots up all over the place once the plants get going.  I will probably have enough berries for a couple of pies and maybe a small batch of jam.  I transplanted more canes this spring doubling the number I had.  I’m looking forward to a crop large enough to put up for the winter.  Now that I can see the potential for this patch of fruit I’m happy that I did it.

Growing these types of long term crops can be a difficult decision to make.  You always have to create a new bed for them and put it in a place that you know will be dedicated to that fruit.  Trees are the same way and even longer term considering how slowly they grow and the years it can take before they bear fruit.  Once that tree is planted it has to stay there, that’s a commitment.  I planted a bed of asparagus this year at the end of my vegetable garden knowing full well that it will effect how I till for years to come.  I will not be able to eat anything from this bed for another two years but once it’s going I could potentially have a healthy asparagus crop for another thirty.  I’ll take that and leave it to my kids.

 

 

When the Weather is Bad

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Garden in August 2009

 

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the blogs of young farmers across Ohio, New York and Vermont lamenting the loss of their crops due to an unexpected frost.  They had started all of their long growth veggie plants indoors, nurtured them, fussed over them, dreamed about their potential.  The weather warmed a couple of weeks early and in the eagerness that befalls us all when we think spring is here they transplanted everything into their newly tilled beds.  They were watered in, possibly staked up, fussed over some more.  The following week we had 3 days of below freezing weather – all of their sprouts were lost.  That’s a true hit for a small farmer.  You try to do everything right, avoid starts coming in from some other state or parts unknown.  You want to know how they were cared for, no one will love your little plants the way you do.

A similar thing is happening to me right now.  We’ve had very rainy, cold weather for the past week and a half.  Yes, right after I transplanted my starts and put my seeds in the ground.  I waited, I always do.  The official Memorial Day weekend this year fell on May 25 and 26 this year.  Too early to plant I said to myself, I’ve been burned before and the soil temp wasn’t high enough to germinate seeds.  I waited another week.  The weather wasn’t great but between a couple of rainy afternoons I got everything into the ground.  The following week was hot as blazes, it felt like late July.  Things were looking good.  The waiting is the most difficult for me.

It turned fairly cool a little over a week ago and it’s been raining a lot.  The sump for the cellar was running non stop last night as it does when the water table is extremely high – not a good sign.  I woke up this morning to a temperature of 48 degrees.  The rain had stopped right before dawn and I walked the garden with the dogs.  Beans and corn are up for the most part, rhutabagas as well.  Radishes, onions and all of the tomatoes look okay for now.  No potatoes yet which isn’t what I’d like to see and the Long Pie Pumpkins will probably have to be replanted.  I take heart in the fact that it’s still early enough to get a harvest from those things I have to replant but I’m also just waiting for signs of blight on my tomatoes, they’d rather have it sunny and warm you understand.

If I had to survive on the things I grow myself I would be scared right now.  There are so many crop issues that this weather has effected.  Things are slow to grow.  The fields are so wet that haying will have to wait (with a little prayer that it won’t rain like this for a while). Some times it’s difficult to put yourself into the shoes of your ancestors, so many of mine were farmers.  How must they have felt has they stood in the middle of their corn field with the plants 2 to 3 inches tall and fully a third of said field under water?  We take for granted that someone else is growing our food for us, they are the ones taking the risks.  We complain if the price of things go up or if fresh veggies are more difficult to come by but think about if food production was your whole life.

I’m convinced the day will come when a very large percentage of what I eat I will have to grow myself or in cooperation with my neighbors.  I garden because I love it but I also know that you can’t just decide one year that you are going to grow your own food.  In New England (and probably everywhere else) each growing season is different.  Every year I learn something new because I have to deal with some problem from the weather or pests.  You learn, you grow, you change.  The variety of food I grow is different from what I grew 10 years ago.  Part of that is that my garden has expanded over the years, part of it is there are things that just don’t do well in my particular spot.  Each year I try something new to see how it goes.  There are winners and losers.  I’m hoping that things warm up and dry out a little now or we will see what really survives in an adverse weather year. I’m also praying for a little more patience, things have a way of working out.