Friday, January 31, 2014

Midwinter Tropics

No, we didn't suddenly get warm.  The snow is still there.  But, happily, it is still pineapple and citrus season, which means that I can find ridiculously low priced, ripe and delicious pineapples at my local ALDI. (I love ALDI.  They have such great pricing on essential items for the pantry, plus they've started carrying more and more organic produce and dairy items.)

If you've never tackled a whole pineapple, it is really easy.  They do sell specific gizmos that make the job "simpler", but I like using my favorite kitchen knife and wooden cutting board.  While they look intimidating, it's a piece of cake to get into a pineapple.

Step 1: Cut off the green top.  The chickens like playing with this.  They nibble at the sweet stuff on the bottom, and crunch a bit on the green bit.

Step 2: Cut about a half-inch off the bottom.  This helps the pineapple stand up straight on the cutting board.

Step 3:  Cut down the side with your knife, slicing off the brown skin.  Your pineapple may end up looking a little hexagonal, but its all good.  The rabbits adore this part and nibble it away to nothing.

Step 4: Cut the pineapple into fourths.  Stand one fourth on end, and slice the pithy core off from the middle.  If you have come across any over-ripe spots, go ahead and chop these off.  They can go in with the chickens, or the rabbits.  Everybody loves a bit of pineapple as a treat!

Now all you need to do is cut it into slices.  I find that for dehydrating purposes, cutting them about 1/4 inch thick lets you get a nice chewy final product.  Otherwise, it goes more crispy--still good, but it winds up crunchy not chewy.  While it isn't necessary, I do put my slices into a bowl of water with a slosh of lemon juice in it.  It helps keep them from browning, if I have a lot of slicing to do, and it does perhaps help the final product stay golden yellow when it is dried.

I love mixing dried pineapple with dried tart cherries and a handful of walnuts, and perhaps a little sweetened flaked coconut.  Its a wonderful tropical snack mix to eat while watching snowflakes drift down.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Slow to Start

It is weeks yet before I can start my hot weather loving plants, like tomatoes and peppers, but I've got plans for some harder-to-germinate items that can be started now.  Every year, I spend oodles of money at greenhouses buying the same herbs: savory, chamomile, sage, lemon balm, basil...and usually, I either kill them off accidentally, they get eaten by something, or I forget them one frosty night and wham, down they go.

I think the reason why we all buy these things at greenhouses is because, well, they are terribly fiddly to start.  They have very specific preferences: winter savory likes light and just wants to rest on the surface of the soil, while sage needs to be 1/4 inch deep--no more, no less.  They all want to stay moist but not soggy.  They want a lot of light, but not too much heat. 

Persnickety little boogers.

Good thing it is arctic outdoors and I have nothing else to do but attempt the impossible.  If it works, I will be a heroine in my own eyes.  If it fails, ah well. 

I'm hoping for success by broadcasting seed on top of recycled plastic tubs (I cut lots of holes in the bottom for drainage and/or wicking of moisture up from the trays they are set in).  Herbs have a historically poor germination rate, so if I plant 25 seeds I may get 10 to start.  Once they are big enough, I'll break out my chopsticks and prick the seedlings out, moving them to individual small pots to continue growing.

Of course, they have to start breaking out their seedy shells, first.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Taking Root

My rosemary plant that I brought inside last fall is growing like mad.  I can't believe how happy it is--it's the first rosemary plant that I've brought in that hasn't croaked midwinter on me.  I should probably knock on wood, but first, I'm starting some cuttings for additional plants.

Starting woody plants from cuttings is incredibly simple:  First, find a spot of new growth that looks healthy.  Second, trim it off cleanly with a pair of sharp scissors.  Third, peel off any leaves, leaving a bare stem at least one inch long.
Then all that is left to do is plonk your cutting into some damp potting mix so that the stem is at least a half-inch down in the soil.  Keep it very well watered, and in a few weeks, little roots will appear.  Once you have a hearty amount of roots, take each little cutting and place it in its own pot so it can continue to grow. 
Before you know it, you'll have plenty of little rosemary plants to share with all your friends.  They make great swap items, too!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Everything But The Squeal

On Sunday, I got my half-a-pig delivered.  It barely all fit into the chest freezer on the porch!  Sausage, bacon, roasts, pork chops, ribs, a hock, an enormous healthy liver--all of it from one half of an enormous, happy pig raised in lovely pastures.

I also got this:

Yeah.  That's a head.

Stay with me now, folks.  A couple years ago, I would so have been going eeeewwwwww!  A freakin' head??? What the heck are you THINKING?  But since then, I've been reading.  And I've been watching documentaries about food waste.  And I've been watching cooking shows from the UK and other countries where they do, in fact, routinely eat things like...heads. So when the opportunity came up to be brave and give it a go, I took the head that was offered to me.

Now, saying sure, I'll take a head and actually doing something with said head are two different steps.  And I started thinking, after I had shoved the head into the last corner of available freezer space, that perhaps that head could just stay in the freezer for a while.  That idea was pretty attractive...but then I thought, no girl, you have GOT to just DO this thing.  So I went back downstairs, out onto the cold porch, and brought that frozen head in to defrost.

 In the morning, I started off like this:

I don't know if that is better or worse for those of you who are already howling in horror, but it is a fun fact that a pig head fits rather nicely in a standard turkey roaster.  I'll bet you didn't know that, did you?  I added sliced onion, preserved ginger, peppercorns, and a little bouquet of fresh herbs from the pots on my seed starting shelves, and topped it off with a quart or so of water.  Then it simmered, covered with a layer of foil and the roaster lid, all day long--about six hours--until it was tender, the meat was falling off the bones, and I could pull it off easily with my fingers.  There is a surprising lot of meat on a head; there is also a lot of stuff that I find completely unappetizing, so the chickens will be delighted with their breakfast in the morning.  After sorting the best bits, I wound up with a bowl filled with about two pounds of rich, dark meat.
Now, most people associate using a pig's head to make something called head cheese, or braun (similar but with a British twist).  I am not a fan of head cheese--its too smushy textured.  Bleah.  So I took my meat bits, and broke out my favorite Amish cookbook and made a batch of scrapple.  Scrapple is essentially a cornmeal pudding that you cool in a loaf pan, then slice when it is really cold and fry for breakfast.  Served with maple syrup or homemade applesauce, it is delicious.  You can even slice it into sections, and then freeze it for later (which is what I plan on doing with at least one of the two loaves I made.)

Now that I've tackled cooking a pig's head, here are my thoughts.  One, it took all day to make the end product (scrapple).  That's a pretty big time investment, and its not one that I suspect many people would undertake.  I think that's why we don't see heads for sale at the local grocery store.  Second, I'm feeling pretty proud of myself for attempting this.  These pigs had great lives, and to me, have an incredible value that goes far beyond pork chops and bacon.  So while it is a lot of work to get a few pounds of meat from a head, I'm happy to have done it.  If you like head cheese, you'd get far more meat product "stuff" than I did.  I don't mind letting my chickens feast on the remains--they've earned a treat.  And I am happy to have authentic "pudding" meat to use in one of my favorite breakfast foods.  I wound up with two one-pound loaves of scrapple, more than enough for tomorrow's breakfast with plenty to go into the freezer for a ready-made meal in the future.  I even have a cool skull to do something with.  And third, I think if more people attempted cooking a whole head, we'd all view the current food system with a more critical eye.  I mean, all those pig heads aren't solely attached to slabs of delicious bacon.  They go somewhere--and that somewhere is usually into low grade hot dogs, McRib sandwiches, commercial animal feeds, or sadly, into the landfill.  It's a sad end to a pig's life.  And if we took the time to cook down a head and deal with the willies of looking at a piece of meat that obviously looks like what it once was--the head to an intelligent, living animal--I think we'd be a little more conscious about consuming meat instead of wolfing down faceless hamburgers and chicken nuggets.

That said, it isn't a project for the faint of heart.  I admit I had a few moments where I was thinking, what the begeebers am I doing??  Let's just say, eyeballs are really really big.  And they still look like an eyeball after they've been cooked.  Shudder shudder...

I'd do it again, though.  Next time I get a half-a-pig, I'm going for that head.

Scrapple (from The Menonite and Amish Cookbook)

You'll need: 1 1/2 pounds of "pudding" pork meat (either picked off the head like I used, or you can substitute browned and drained pork sausage or ground pork); 4 cups boiling water or pork broth (the broth from cooking the head is incredibly rich and flavorful!); 1 1/2 cups cornmeal; 1/4 cup buckwheat flour; salt and pepper to taste.

Bring the broth to a boil, adding in the meat.  Return to a rolling, high boil and then slowly add the cornmeal and buckwheat flours.  Add salt and pepper.  Stir constantly until thickened.

Cover pot and reduce heat to low.  Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Turn out scrapple into prepared loaf pans.  I like to line them with waxed paper, for easy removal of the loaves.  Cool completely, then place in the refrigerator.  It is best to let them set overnight.  Once set, remove from loaf pans, slice, and then fry slices in a little butter or melted lard until golden brown on both sides.  Serve with maple syrup or homemade applesauce for a delicious breakfast.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Simple Fixes

The wind is howling outside as I type, coming straight out of the north with one heck of a wallop.  Periodically, an extra strong gust comes along and makes the entire house shudder.  Given that its an old barn made out of layers of cinder block, that's really saying something.

Of course, being an old converted barn, it means that the openings for windows and doors were chopped into the same cinder block, and the frames for each shoved into place.  Oh, they were pasted in with something--from what I can figure out by looking at it, in spots its old horsehair mixture and in others, that spray foam in a can.  Whatever it is, it has long ago given up the ghost which means that the windows and doors leak draughts like sieves when the wind blows.  I've used those plastic kits on the windows before, but the leaks aren't from the window glass, it's more the entire window frame that is the issue.

So I've come up with some simple solutions.  For the windows, I've sewn really simple custom layered fabric "shades" that bundle up and get tied into place with grosgrain ribbon.  If I'd really been thinking, I'd have either included a thin layer of batting (that thin wooly stuff that is all natural) or pre-quilted fabric on the back.  Then it would be like a window quilt...hmm.  Well, next time I get a redecorating urge, I may go for that.  But for now, it's a layer of thick decorator fabric that I found on clearance for a ridiculous $3 per yard, backed by a layer of good quality cotton fabric.  Even without the batting/quilted effect, just having the layer of relatively thick fabric that covers both the window and the frame by several inches keeps the draughts hidden between the shade and the glass.  No more cold breezes sailing through the room!

For the doors, I've actually gone with a quilt.  Really.  I was watching Larkrise to Candleford a while back, and noticed that the cottagers in Larkrise had quilts hanging by rings in front of their outer doors.  At night, to keep the cold out, they simply pulled the quilt across the entire door frame.  How ingenious.  So I made a trip to the local hardware store, bought a huge dowel, some large screw-in hooks, and made an industrial curtain rod that could hold up a heavy quilt.  I had a whole bunch of those simple curtain rings with little clips on them from previous curtains hung in old apartments, so I simply chose a quilt from my collection of ragged-by-still-useful rescued quilts that fit the door, clipped it to the rings, and hung the whole shebang from the rod above.  This really works extremely well, which is wonderful, since the back door faces north and on days like today, you can feel the breeze blowing through the cracks around the door frame.  I'll keep it drawn all day, which helps keep things nice and cozy inside.

All in all, I think I've maybe spent $100 between windows and doors to do cold weather window treatments.  They also work great in summer, and help to keep heat from getting in--it has made a big difference in the summertime AC bill, I tell you.  Although, it seems ridiculous to think of needing AC on a day like today--it is seriously arctic out there!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Guess What I'm Watching Today?

Oh yes, another historic farming series!  Just in time for the super cold, unfriendly weather outside--all I need is my pot of tea and my knitting needles.  Of course, now I'm going to want a hazel fence...and the codpieces, oh my!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Battening Down the Hatches

Another bitter cold snap is predicted starting tomorrow, with rumored coldest temperatures yet.  I'm spending today baking bread, making sure all the animals have extra feed and bedding, and bringing in as much wood as possible so I don't need to make so many trips outside to the wood pile.  The wood pile is getting shorter, so I think I'm going to need to round up some more of that sooner than later (again).

I don't mind winter, really.  It's nice to be inside, making plans, and having a little break from the physical labors of tending the Farmlette.  But this winter...well, I am not such a huge fan of chronic subzero temperatures with incredible wind chill factors.  Going outside with a jug of warm water at -45 degrees is no fun.  Plus, it is seriously depressing to watch the water start to freeze as soon as it makes contact with the water dish.  Nothing like Mother Nature to give us an exercise in humility!

In any case, its going to be a nice, putter-around kind of weekend.  If nothing else, I'll have lots of toast!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mix to Success

Sure, you can buy pre-made seed starting mix.  Its not too expensive, its easy to find, and your little seeds will like it.

But hey, let's try to do this ourselves, shall we?  It's also easy, and if you can buy two things and make another, you're all set.  The trickiest part of this adventure is making a source of the critical element: compost.

Yes, there is all kinds of concern about using compost.  It should be sterile, otherwise your little seedlings can have issues with illness and molds and damping off.  But I've used well-cooked compost from pile successfully, and not had issues, so I say know what you put into it and know whether it is "finished" compost, and you should be all set.  Of course, this year, I'm taking a little bit of a leap.  My compost heap is buried and frozen, so I'm using some homemade worm castings from my worm bin in the bathroom, combined with castings from a local worm casting business (yes, we have one of those here!).

What are the other two ingredients?  Pick up an 8 quart bag each of perilite and spagnum moss.  Combine both of these with roughly 8 quarts of your compost in a large rubbermaid tub and mix well.  Add warm water and mix until thoroughly damp--I can't tell you how much water, because it will depend on how dry everything is, but enough so the mixture feels uniformly damp but not super wet.  Do the mixing with your hands, its fun and dirty and the best way to get a feel for your mixture.

When I use this mix, I fill my containers first, then I put seeds in.  I cover the seed with a layer of garden-quality vermiculite, which is inert, holds moisture, and keeps the seed damp until germination.  Personally, I think it helps prevent damping off as well--since I started using it a couple years ago, I haven't lost a seedling due to the Dreaded Damp.

I use a teaspoon to pour a spoonful of water onto the seed, and then I set the container in a tray (usually a foil baking dish like you can bake lasagna in) and fill the tray with a half inch of water.  The container filled with seedling mixture will wick the water up to the seed and maintain a constant level of moisture, without drowning the tender emerging plantlette.  Watering from the top also tends to wash the seeds out of place, which is incredibly annoying.  I loathe finding plants in bad places.  Its always impossible to rescue them from where they've decided to sprout.

So there you have it.  Pick your seeds, round up containers, figure out your timing, rig your lights and mix your seed starting medium.  No sweat.  You've got this gardening thing down, girlfriend.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Let There Be Light

As you can see, it's obviously very important to provide your growing seedlings with plenty of light.  If you are blessed with a south-facing, warm and large window or a climate where you can have things out in a greenhouse early, you wouldn't need to set up a whole operation like the one in my living room.  But as I have a very cold sun porch to the south, and teeny north facing windows elsewhere, I need to break out the "system" as it were.

There are lots of very fancy, very expensive systems out there.  I'm sure they are lovely and the seedlings somehow know the expense and therefore grow with gusto.  But as I am a gardener on a very slim budget, here's what I did and how much it cost:
Inexpensive indoor greenhouse from the local Fleet Farm = $20 on sale, I got two of them ($40)
Two four-foot shop light kits per shelf = $12 each, three shelves x 2 lights ($72)
One "warm" fluorescent bulb per light kit = $5 per bulb ($30)
One "cool" fluorescent bulb per light kit = $5 per bulb ($30)
One 10 foot length package of #16 Single Jack chain = $5
12 S-hooks = 3 hooks per pack, $1 per pack x 4 packs ($4)
Total Cost for the Entire Set Up = $180

Compare that to a kit I recently drooled over that ran $500, lights included, and its not a half bad deal.  I also have a surge strip on a timer, which would have been about $20, but I use that from my Christmas lights so I don't factor that in.  Anyway, if an imminently reusable item costs less than $200 and can produce hundreds of pounds of food in its lifetime, I call that a good investment.

If you are wondering why I use one warm bulb and one cool bulb per light kit, its because by using that combination, you provide your seedlings with a full spectrum of light at a fraction of the cost of full spectrum light bulbs.  Full spectrum bulbs cost anywhere from $15 to $20 each, which is really sad when they burn out.  I read a couple of studies on the internet (one by Cornell University) which suggested that by using a combination of warm and cool fluorescent bulbs you get the same results as using two very expensive full spectrum bulbs.  And if you don't buy into big university studies, take my word for it:  your plants will love it and be happy.
The reason for the chain and the S-hooks is simple: It allows you to adjust the height of the shop lights (which also come with a chain) to keep the lights very close to your growing plants.  You want to keep the lights as close as possible, moving them up as the plants grow taller, so that your plants develop very healthy, strong structures.  Otherwise, they'll grow leggy and weak, struggling up to the lights above them.

A final note is to have your lights on a timer.  Mine are attached to a timed surge strip, and set to turn on at 5 AM and off at 630 PM.  Yes, the lights use up a bit of energy but being on a timer instead of all the time helps a bit.  Its rather nice to simulate a "real" day for the little plants--they do get some "twilight" time from the light in the living room when I am hanging out reading or watching TV, but nothing of significance.

Next time: My recipe for homemade potting soil.  Super cheap and super easy!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Going By The Dates

As I work on rounding up my materials for planting things, there's other housekeeping that I need to take care of as well.  One of the biggest pieces is deciding when to start things.

The biggest indicator for that is reading up on the vegetable or flower seed you want to plant.  Some varieties only want to be directly sown in the garden, others you can start early but need to pay attention to the particular likes and dislikes of that seed.  Some need to be soaked overnight, others need stratification (placed in the cold for several days), while others need light or heat or specific amounts of moisture to germinate.  And there's the timing factor as well.

If you read the back of the seed packet, or the description about the plant in the catalog, you often see notations like "start indoors 6 to 8 weeks before last frost date".  That's great advice...but how do you know your last frost date?  Now, you could go old school and look back at your garden journal from years past to see when the last frost happened in your yard.

What?  You don't keep a journal?

Don't worry.  I'm not good about that either.  I always intend to, and forget it around February...this year, though, it will be different.  I'm keeping it upstairs next to the bed, and before I turn in for the night I take a minute to write a sentence or two about what I did that day, and what the weather was like.  I'm sure it will make fascinating reading to my great-great-nieces and nephews.

So if you don't have a journal, how can you find out?  Go straight for the throat and check out the Old Farmer's Almanac website and click on their Frost Dates Calculator.  You just need to enter your postal zip code and it will pop up the information you need.  Don't live in the US?  Go to the Global Freeze Dates information, provided by Utah State University.  You just need to click on the menu, select your country, and scroll down to find the city/town nearest you.

Now that you know your Last Frost Date, break out your calendar and a notepad.  Counting backwards from the date, you can determine when to start seeds for various plants.  Here's an example:
1.  I want to plant Yellow of Parma onion seeds.  I need to plant them 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost date.
2.  The last frost date for my area is roughly May 20.
3.  Counting back 10 weeks, I see that I need to plant my onion seeds roughly by March 15th.

Since I've planted onions in the past, and taking into account the kind of winter we are having and the fact that onions can be planted when the ground is still very cold, I'm going to plant my onions by February 15th.  That way, I know I will be assured of very sturdy little onion plants when I set them outside in mid-May.  If you are a new gardener, you might not feel comfortable with making a judgement call like that and would prefer to stick to the formula of Frost Date minus How Many Weeks equals Your Date to Plant Your Seeds.  No worries--it will all work out fine.  Seeds are forgiving, really.  They just want to grow.  Now you just need to do the calculations for each of the plant varieties you are starting indoors, and map out your schedule of seed sowing.

Next Episode: How Seeds Like Light

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Time for Prep

So it isn't quite time to start seeds, even though I feel the urge very strongly.  The problem with starting seeds too early is that generally, even under lights and with proper management, plants will get pale and leggy and sad if they are left in little pots too long before planting them out in the garden.  And you can't plant them out in the garden until it is spring time and the soil is right, so I must wait.

I'm working on satisfying my planting urges, though, by rummaging around and gathering up all my supplies.  I placed my order for Jiffy peat pellets last week, and I know for some people, that's fairly controversial.  I find them indispensible, though--they are the only things that have worked consistently for my onion seedlings, so I'm sticking with them, as well as for starting things that hate to have their roots disturbed (squash, I'm looking at you!)  For other things though, I like an assortment of inexpensive containers of various depths and sizes to use to both start seeds and pot transplants along.  This handy video shows one of my more favorite tools: the Red Solo Cup. 

It's not just for drinking beer around the bonfire, folks.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Thank You, Dr. King!
Today, we celebrate the memory and life work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Civil Rights Movement changed many things for the better in the United States, and created a legacy of public good works in communities across the nation.  Of all the things that have become in the years following Dr. King's passing, I am most excited by the resurgence of city gardens and city farms.  For all the things that are needed in poor, inner city communities, one of the most uplifting (I believe) is reconnecting people with the simple joy of growing good food, playing in the dirt, being out in the air and the sunshine and the light.  I've had the experience of growing food in community gardens, and meeting people of different nationalities and races, and there, amongst all the growing greenness, we've found common ground.

Dr. King had his dream.  Mine is a bit more simple: gardens everywhere, feeding communities, and bringing people together out in the sunshine.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Everybody's Dreaming in the Garden

Although the day dawned cold, somewhat snowy, and a biting wind, hardy gardeners came out in force to trade some seeds and go home with new varieties galore.  It was a good day--about 30 people came, wandering through and perusing the loads of free seeds that came in boxes, packets and recycled jars.  Here's some pictures of the day:

I love this event!  New friends, old friends, cute little kids, and always, always tons of seeds exchanging hands and heading off to new gardens.  There had been hopes that representatives from Seed Savers Exchange would come, but unfortunately there was a no show.  I'm thinking that perhaps something came up, or perhaps the road conditions deterred them.  But who knows, maybe next year!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Seed Swappin' Today!

It's the Day of the 5th Annual Seed Swap!!  Tomorrow I hope to have some pictures of the event, as well as details about all the cool stuff and amazing people who came out.  But for now, if you happen to be in the area and wanted to come on down, here's the details once again:

  • WHAT IS IT?  A seed swap, where you can bring your extra seeds and trade them with someone else for their seeds.  Or, you can come and borrow seeds from the Seed Library.  Or, you can come and get some of the many, many, MANY free seeds that are just available for the taking.
  • WHAT TIME?  The swap starts at 10 AM and runs until 1:30 PM.
  • WHERE DO I GO?  Come to Prairie Farm Elementary School, located at 630 S. River Avenue, in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin.  We'll be taking over the Multipurpose Room in the Elementary School--look for the big red and white signs showing the way.
  • ANYTHING ELSE?  There will be coffee and snacks, and everyone is welcome!  And, just in case you don't see the seeds you've been wanting, we will be coordinating a group seed order to save on shipping and about 10% off the packet price.
See you at the Swap!

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Woodsy Romance
The past couple evenings while tending to the chickens and rabbits and whatever else needs to be done outside in the twilight (lots of shoveling), I've been treated to the start of the nightly chorus of love songs coming from the tall dark pines of the School Forest.  Every year at this time, a passionate romance is played out, starting at twilight and ending by dawn.

The Great Horned owls are back and the time is upon them to choose a mate and prepare for this year's clutch of owlets.  I never see them flying--mostly because it is dark when that is happening, and I'm inside where it is light and warm--but their calls echo across the frozen fields separating my place from their forest.  It starts with a couple of hoots as the daylight dwindles, and if I happen to be outside well after dark, I step into a world punctuated by hoots answering each other from tree to tree in the forest depths.

I love the sound of the annual Owl Romance--if they are thinking about owlets, that means that the winter is about at the halfway point and perhaps, just perhaps, spring won't be too much farther away.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Possibilty


I've been pondering the large piles of branches, still squatting in my yard after last May's wet and wild late snowstorm.  I could load them up and haul them to the village dump, where eventually they'll be set on fire...that is, if the village fathers will deign to unlock the gates and let me in to dump them.  Since they are pine, they don't make good firewood for my stove--too much sticky soot inside the chimney could result in a terrible fire accident.

So, what to do...what to do.

I've been reading a little about the idea of making hugelkulture beds, basically a raised bed formed as a mound with woody "stuff" as the base layer, then mulched heavily and planted with edible goodies.  The benefits of this kind of planting is that it doesn't require as much water as a regular garden bed--excellent in the changing, drier summer weather we get up here--and you can form it like a natural wind break of sorts if you plant it with shrubby things and perhaps add a tree adjacent to it.

I'm not sure how the dogs would feel about it, but I rather like the idea of having a bed or two in the backyard.  It would be a great way to dispose of the fallen tree branches in a useful way, and I'd get more gardening space.  I think the dogs might enjoy the fun of practicing hurdles as they do their laps.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sunchokes, Two Ways

Last summer, I planted several tubers from a friend's well established Jerusalem Artichoke bed (aka Sunchokes) in the corner of the Perennial Vegetable Bed.  All summer, they flourished, grew tall and made a tidy little circle of tall, green plants topped by teeny sunflower-like blooms in August.  When fall and frosty weather rolled around, I opted to not harvest the first year tubers--they are likely prolific, but I figured, ah what the heck, I'll give them another year to grow.  I am fairly certain that they will pop up again come spring.  I hear it is incredibly hard to kill off this hardy native species.

I stumbled across this video by The Wisconsin Gardener series (a great channel to watch, by the way) and thought: Hey, that's a good idea!  As they mention on the video, sunchokes can become a pest in the in-ground garden so if you're limited on space, growing them in containers may just be the ticket to success without risking losing your entire garden to their giant trifid-like stalks.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Thank You, Pigs.

Yesterday, I got an message from my friends at LTD Farm that it had been harvest day for the three pigs they had spent the summer, fall and early winter raising out in a cozy pasture.  These little monsters had grown from small wiggly creatures to enormously friendly beasts--it was a delight to watch their progress via shared photographs and a brief on-farm visit.  While I know yesterday was bittersweet for my farmer friends, I am so glad that the pigs' end was as peaceful as their entire lives had been.

If you've read my blog for a while, you know that I try to produce as much of my own food as possible.  Gardening for vegetables and fruit, raising eggs, chicken and rabbit...its work, but so essential to me.  For those things I can't raise on the 1/4 acre Farmlette, I am so glad to have friends who are willing to work hard and raise quality animals that are harvested humanely.  Someday, perhaps, I'll tackle my own pig raising adventure, but until then, I am terribly glad to have friends who I can buy from--and trust that the animal had a wonderful life, AND be absolutely, decadently delicious in any recipe I choose to make.

In a couple of weeks, I should have a half-a-pig ready to pop into my freezer.  Now that is an exciting prospect!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Good Reads

Since it is winter, I'm catching up on reading some books that have been on my shelf for a little while.  I finally finished paging through this particular one:
While I must admit to knowing quite a few of the "square inch" tricks to gardening throughout a small yard already, I was excited to read the author's technique of making a homemade, large sized, self-watering container.  I'm thinking that it might just working great for growing a crop of Blue Jade corn in the backyard this summer...unless, of course, I decide to make a hugelkulture bed or two instead.

Well, that's an option I suppose, but I think the self-watering containers will be useful, even if I don't do the other.

There's also some nice advice on fermenting (which references a lot of Salvador Katz' work) and sprouting, both of which are good activities during the winter months.  Since I can't be outside planting corn, it's always nice to grow at least a little green stuff.  Or happy microbes, in the fermenting bit.

There's even a section on beekeeping, which I found interesting--not really for the information, but for the author's candid admission that this is an area that he, himself, is still learning.  While I do read these books to get an "expert's viewpoint", it is refreshing when that expert finally admits that perhaps he or she is NOT the expert on EVERYTHING.  Whew.  That makes me feel so much better in my own pursuit of homesteader perfection (ha ha).

I'm rather glad that I decided to purchase a copy of this book.  It might not be the greatest volume on my bookshelf, but it does have some good, solid information to offer and it's a very good read.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


This is my friend Raine.  I am terribly proud of her, because she just pulled off her first successful Seed Swap.  Go, Raine!
This is Mikhaila, her lovely daughter.  She was a big help at the Swap--go, Kid! 
It was a lovely, fun event with gardeners from the community coming together to talk seeds, trade seeds, and go in on discounted seed ordering,  Mostly, though, it was a great time to chat and get to know others who like to play in the dirt.  Given that it was the first ever Swap in the area, I was really impressed with the number of people who came out, as well as their enthusiasm.  When twenty strangers all come together to share seeds in a quiet, snowy corner of the northwoods of Wisconsin, you know that there is a serious interest in Swapping!  Everyone seemed to be excited about the seeds that they took home, and all of them said that they were excited to see a swap starting up in their neck of the woods.  With this kind of a start, I have no doubt that Raine will continue to have success with an annual Seed Swap.  Yay!

If you've never been to a Seed Swap, I encourage you to track down one wherever you are.  And if there isn't one, I think you should work toward organizing one.  It's a bit of leg-work, but the end result is a marvelous day.  Plus, you get really cool seeds!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saturday Swapping!

Today, I am headed up to Lac Courte Orielles to visit friends and fellow gardeners at their first annual Seed Swap.  My friend Raine of Tails from the Farm is an intern at the LCOCC Farm, and as part of her work encouraging gardening skills, food sovereignty and rescue of traditional food crops, she's organized this exciting event.  I'm bringing up my personal stash of seeds and hope to meet new folks and talk gardening on a cold January morning.  With any luck, I hope to score a new-to-me variety of something nifty--I'm always keen on a new bean or squash!

I love events like this, and while they aren't as folksy (yet) as the one depicted in Seed Swap in the Ozarks, seen in this video trailer, they are a pretty fun time.  Fun, that is, if you like talking seeds!

If you haven't yet seen the documentary film Seed Swap in the Ozarks, I encourage you to see if you can find a copy through your local library system.  I wound up purchasing a copy for the Little Free Library, so if you are in the neighborhood drop on by and check it out!  It's an entertaining and uplifting film, and the seeds...oh, the seeds!

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Leeky Issue

I've developed a taste for leeks, those sweetly flavored members of the onion family.  Unfortunately, I am not so successful at growing them.  I planted out a dozen last summer, and by the end of the summer, I had thin weedy specimens.  Well, those that survived--I think, maybe three?  Sigh.  It reminded me very much of my early failures with growing onions from seeds.  Since I finally conquered that particular hurdle, I'm on a mission to do the same with my leek issue.

Thank goodness for great little videos from our gardening friends in the UK, where the leek is essential to a proper allotment garden.  After watching the above for a handing sowing and growing process, I watched this one on how to plant them:
See, that was the second thing I did wrong.  I planted them the way you plant, say, a tomato and tucked it into the dirt.  Even if my leeks had grown, they would have been terrible gritty things.  Good thing I have all this time in January to do a little research on the mysteries of growing leeks.  Maybe this year's planting will be successful.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Safer Heat?

I've been doing some reading, which can be a dangerous proposition.  Reading tends to lead me into various new avenues and "project development"...ah, well.  It's not all bad, really.  In this case, I'm thinking it is leading me to a safer way to keep little chicklets warm.

In the past, I've always used a 250 watt, red heat lamp.  It's hot, it uses a ton of electricity, and can be very worrisome.  I've nearly lost two batches of chicks when the lamp fell in and landed on the bedding and started smoking.  Both times, I luckily came out in time to put out the small flames and scoop up my small charges.  So while it keeps the chicklets nice and toasty, I am always afraid of an imminent fire when the lamp is in use. 

I had thought about using ceramic lizard bulbs, which get warm and give off radiant heat rather than a grim red glow:
From what I have read review-wise, they work quite well.  But at 150W, they still suck up a ton of energy.  They are fairly expensive ($26 per bulb), so if you have a bulb-and-a-spare, that's roughly $50 just for bulbs.  They do sound less likely to catch flame, but there is still a risk of them heating up bedding to the point of smoking if a lamp fell in, plus cracking if they accidentally got water on them (as in when the chicks get silly and splash their water around).

But then I came across this:
The EcoGlow by Brinsea.  It uses only 18W (!!) and simulates the heat given to a chick by a broody hen.  The chick can run underneath and get warm, and then run out to explore, get food and drink, be a silly little creature, and duck back under for a nap and a warm up.  It's fairly teeny too, which is great when you are a person who typically has a small brooder set up and only 20 to 50 chicks at a go.  I suppose it would be possible to set up a couple of them for a larger group of chicklets...anyway, it's one downside seems to be that it is made of plastic (with the inherent limited lifespan) and the cost.  It's about $75 for the 20-chick size.  Not spare change, for sure, but the overall reviews are very positive and folks that buy it seem to use it year after year, for all kinds of poultry offspring.

So, here's my thought.  I am pining for the EcoGlow, but depending on finances come chick-time, I may only be able to spring for a couple of lizard bulbs.  Either option will, I think, be a big improvement over the scary Red Bulbs of Death.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Indoor Greenery

My indoor greens experiment (mark 2) is going very well!  In a week, I have four trays filled with sassy little seedlings: arugula, mesclun mix, and mustard.  I think in another week or so I should have the first of many cut-and-come-again homegrown salads--in the middle of January!!

 My large vintage wine crate of parsley is growing well, and tucked into its depths are some flourishing Good King Henry starts.  GKH is a type of "perennial" spinach.  With luck, I can transplant it gently into the back garden where it will continue to throw up shoots (cooked much like asparagus) and green arrowhead-shaped leaves (eaten like spinach) for years to come.  Eventually, it will be a happy three-foot tall hedge of goodness.
New parsley growth, after my incredible harvest a week ago!

I even have a small flowering surprise, from my straggling winter savory plant.  I'm pondering cutting it waaaaay back, to see if it grows bushier and makes more delicious little green leaves.
Even my rosemary is happy under lights.  This will be the first year I've successfully overwintered rosemary--I usually wind up murdering it by accident at some point in November, and here it's made it all the way until after the holidays!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things

One of my greatest pleasures this time of year is settling in with a pot of tea and a collection of seed catalogs.  There's just something about thumbing through page after page of glorious sounding plants that makes the starkness of winter fade, even if just for a little while.  I get armloads of catalogs in the mail, and most I put directly into the recycling bin.  So many companies out there are selling seeds co-opted by Seminis (a division of Monsanto), and I just will NOT support that devilish company, even through a privately owned seed supplier.  I've also become more and more interested in open-pollinated, heirloom varieties.  Each year, I am impressed by how resistant they are to pests and disease, and their production is typically pretty good, too. 

As I've become a seed-snob, I've whittled down my catalog favorites correspondingly.  Funny how that any case, here are my top four "favorite ever after" seed catalogs:

1.  FedCo Seeds  Based in Maine, this seed company is staunchly anti-GMO and really supports small farmers who supply them with their seeds.  As well, they offer teeny weeny seed packets, perfect for home gardeners with limited space, or those of us who like to try out new varieties but aren't sure how well we'll like them on our plates.  I also value FedCo for their willingness to support "group" ordering, which is very helpful when coordinating a seed order generated by the upcoming Seed Swap.  For the past five years, it's been great to send off a huge list of things needed and have the fine folks at FedCo do all the work of gathering the order together.  And if that wasn't enough to like about this company, the pricing is tremendously low, they offer vegetable and flower seeds, seed potatoes, and trees (plus cool books and such), and their shipping is extraordinarily reliable.

2.  Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  Located in historic Mansfield, Missouri, this seed catalog is the epitome of Gardener Porn.  Page after page of luscious color photographs, so many varieties of everything you'd ever want to grow in the garden...I plan to make a pilgrimage to their historic village business site someday soon.  This seed company is dedicated to preserving all kinds of rare and unique heirloom vegetables, and trust me--if you want it, you are likely to find it between the pages of their glorious catalog!  Pricing is reasonable, and you get a good quantity of seeds in each package.  Their customer service is simply superb, as well.  Oh, and don't miss out on the vegan recipes included in the catalog.  The butternut squash curry is ah-may-zing!

3. Seed Savers Exchange.  I love this catalog.  I love the mission of this organization.  So much, you can order seeds!  A fantastic collection of heirloom seeds, this catalog offers stories of the people who saved the seeds from extinction, plus articles of how to preserve/plant various items in your home garden.  There's lots of information tucked in there about how SSE works, too.  I encourage you to think about signing up to become a member; you get access to all kinds of seeds not listed in the catalog, through the SSE Member Book.

4.  St. Lawrence Nurseries.  This unique nursery raises cold-climate friendly fruit and nut trees--perfect for my zone 3b yard.  I've had great luck overall with their trees--I'm hoping this year to get fruit from my Duchess apple and Northern Blue plum.  They no longer have an online catalog, but you can ask them to send you one via the mail--and it is lovely!  Loads and loads of fruit trees, with lovely pen and ink drawings by a local artist.  The pricing is extremely reasonable--$23 per bare root apple tree--and they come wrapped with such care.  The root systems are typically very strong, and these little trees come ready to pop into the ground and grow.  If you live in a cold climate zone (4 or less) and have thought you can't grow fruit trees or nut trees or any kind of fruit shrubbery, think again and check this catalog!

Now, to pull out my pencil and make a list of what I want for my garden this year.  If only I had an unlimited garden budget, I'd buy up everything!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Sunshine in Winter

It is, as it seems to be everywhere, bitterly cold today.  I was meant to go back to work this morning, but as all schools seem to be cancelled and dire warnings are posted everywhere, I opted to take an additional day of vacation and stay home, where I can keep an eye on the livestock and monitor the stove.  It also, as it turned out, became a good day to tackle the box of fruit I had somewhat forgotten about.

When I opened the box, the majority of the fruit was far too ripe to enjoy eating fresh, and it was too far gone to really can safely...not that I am a fan of canned fruit slices, anyway.  So, I opted to juice everything and then come up with creative uses for the peels.

For the oranges, they were sliced into thick slabs and then popped in the dehydrator.  I added a few of the grapefruit rinds as well--once dried, I'll mix them in with some cinnamon sticks, star anise, allspice berries and cloves for a homemade stove-top simmering potpourri.  It should make lots, so I'll have plenty to spice up my house this winter.

I juiced and juiced and juiced--I swear, the supply of grapefruit was nearly endless.  Luckily, though, I had plenty in order to make a batch of homemade Pompelmocello, a grapefruit-infused Italian liqueur.

 Grapefruit, sugar, and vodka.  That's it.  A few weeks in a cool, dark cupboard and it will be ready to strain into a bottle.  I'm envisioning a refreshing cocktail mixed with Fresca (that crazy grapefruit-flavored soda) and a plastic sword kabob of cherries and melon, swimming in ice.  Now, that's just the thing after a hard days work in the summer garden!

After all that juicing with my vintage, hand-cranked aluminum juicer (I love that gizmo, found for $1 at a thrift store), I wound up with five pints of juice: three grapefruit, and two orange.  I plan to freeze them, hence the large amount of headspace, and use them later in various recipes calling for juice additions.  I don't drink juice, but it is nice to have a small stash of it in the freezer for later use.  I'm thinking, orange-spiked mimosas and grapefruit may be winter outside, but my kitchen is filled with citrus sunshine.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Plans for the Year

The land is a frozen tundra, but inside, it's warm and full of dreams for the new year.  Here's some of my plans for life on the Farmlette:

  • Make more efficient use of the hoop house, which is a perennial project, really...Anyway, I'm thinking tomatoes in the summer, followed by an overwintered crop of cold hardy greens.  This will mean figuring out some sort of insulation and/or minimal heat source to reduce the effects of freezing.  I think it is possible to do this, it's just a matter of figuring out what might actually work on my small scale and miniscule budget.
  • Speaking of perennials, continue to add to the Perennial Vegetable bed.  I'm leaning toward something vining or fruiting...a little fruit corner in the back garden would be lovely, don't you think?  Maybe an espalier fruit tree or a trained grape vine.
  • Devise a plan for saving water.  I'm envisioning a series of rain barrel containers, possibly with a low voltage solar pump attached to a length of hose.  This would be such a nice addition to watering needs around here.
  • Invest more time in acquiring firewood.  If the winters are going to continue to be this challenging, working in the warmer months to get more of a stash is critical.  I'd love to have three cords ready by the time cold weather rolls around, which should be more than enough for one winter in my teeny cottage.
  • For the first time ever, I plan to hatch out some chicks born and bred on the Farmlette!  I am in love with my gorgeous Buff Orpingtons, and since Dickens the rooster is happy in his fatherly duties, I'm rounding up a couple incubators and plan to start hatching eggs in the next month or so.  With any luck, I'll wind up with more beautiful hens to refresh the layers in the Big Coop.
There's a host of other projects to do, including retraining the black raspberries and pruning the fruit trees, not to mention completely overhauling the herb bed (again).  But, these are my big plans for 2014.  I guess we'll all find out if they get accomplished!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

False Alarm

Well, no kits and it's been three days past the official due date.  I do believe that the lovely Ophelia was doing a great impression of being a pregnant doe.  It's not the worst thing, actually--it's been ridiculously cold, so it may be for the best that she doesn't have a brood of tiny pink kittens to worry about.

Of course, this also means that Hercules gets to have another hot date.  I'm sure he'll be delighted.

Friday, January 3, 2014

All Gone

Well, it's official.  This winter is dang cold.

I've managed to cruise through the cord and a half of wood I had stacked in a sheltered spot against the house.  The last of it is currently in my wood box, warming up and scheduled to be burned tonight.  Luckily, friends with wood to sell are meeting up with me tomorrow morning, and I'll have a much needed influx of wood to keep the home fire burning.  That's a very good thing, as it sounds like ridiculously cold temperatures are coming in the next couple of days.  With any luck, I'll get to stack the wood before it gets too cold...there's nothing worse than stacking wood when it is far below zero.  Brr!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Seeds and Seeds

 It's nearly time for the annual Seed Swap (in it's fifth year now--wow, how time flies...) so I've been busily figuring out which seeds I've got in store and which ones I want to trade.  Take, for example, this tray of drying Costata Romanesco zucchini.  This is the best zucchini I've ever tasted, and it is the one variety that I've decided to grow forever and evah.  Seriously, it is that good.  So, given that the seeds can be slightly hard to find, I've started saving them.  My criteria for saving them is (1) pick a large fruit and let it grow until it turns yellow and hard, then (2) pick it and store it in a cool spot for a while.  Whichever fruit starts rotting last, is the one I save seeds from.  In theory, it should produce offspring that make fruits that stay on the vine without rotting for a long while...well, in theory.  Anyway, once the Final Fruit is determined by Nature's decomposing process, it's a matter of scooping out the seedy flesh and squishing it between my fingers in a bowl of water.  The good seeds sink, and then I can skim off the flesh and "bad" seeds, drain and rinse like mad, and spread them to dry in a dim area.  In a week or so, they should be completely dry and then I can store them in a glass jar until planting time.

 I've also got a stash of other seeds I've been squirreling away.  Various sunflowers, hot pepper seeds (note: use gloves and a mask when seeding them, particularly if you have a head cold and are prone to sneezing), purple cone flower, peas and beans...even some parsnips of uncertain type that made it overwinter with no effort of mine.  Now there's something to try to cultivate onward.  I even have a little envelope of Pink Brandywine tomato seeds that I saved from last summer's prolific crop.  Tomato seeds take forever to get really dry, and then you get to rub-rub-rub them to take off the fuzzy layer before you store them.

It is so satisfying rummaging through an armload of seeds while the snow falls and the cold winds blow.  It is almost as good as a vacation somewhere warm...and when you can't afford a vacation, I'll take a trip amongst my seeds any day.