Archive for garden – Page 2

Garden Update – End of August

Here are a bunch of pictures that show the current status of our garden – good, bad, and everything in between.

IMG_3583  We’re getting several quarts of tomatoes every few days, but most are cherry tomatoes, so we eat what we can and if they go bad, they are chicken food.  Next year I’ll have to make sure I plant more paste tomatoes instead.

 

 

 

 

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The zucchini is doing wonderful in the straw bales.  I might not use the straw bale gardening for other things, but it sure worked well for zucchini.  No squash bugs or borers!  This is the first year in 2 or 3 years we’ve had enough zucchini to make Hannah’s favorite pineapple-zucchini.

 

IMG_3577Some acorn squash are arriving.  We won’t get a lot, but there are a few.

 

 

IMG_3585IMG_3588The kale has been taking quite a beating the past few weeks.  Cabbage moths like all the cole crops and kale is one of them.  Today the kids and I stripped all the old leaves off half of the kale and fed it to goats, chickens, ducks, and compost piles.  The picture above is after we stripped the leaves.  On the left is the other half that we’ll take care of tomorrow.  (It was lunchtime and we were hungry.)  I’m hoping that it will continue to grow up from the middle and in the meantime the moths will die off.  Or at least that we removed all the eggs and worms so the kale will be healthy.  Soon it will be colder and the worms will die off anyway.  But some of the kale stalks were rotting in the middle, so I’m guessing it won’t all come back.  I’ve considered replanting some, but it’s a little late and I don’t want to do all that work and then be disappointed.  Plus, I don’t have low tunnels to protect it when it gets cold anyway.  So I think we’ll just hope it comes back, at least for a little while.

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In the middle of the kale is a bunch of eggplant, and between the two rows of eggplant were onions.  The onion tops were all dead or dying, so we just picked all of them and set them on the benches to dry.  With them is a bowl of tomatoes and a large bowl of super big cucumbers.  That’s what happens when you don’t pick them but once a week or so.IMG_3560

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On an arch next to the driveway we planted some gourds.  They are just starting to form, as they were planted rather late in the season.  I’m not sure we’re getting anything out of them, but we tried.  The vines and flowers sure are pretty, though!IMG_3563 IMG_3564

 

 

 

 

Out front the sunflowers are finally blooming.  I planted a variety of colors and sizes.  They are so pretty along the road.  And the bumblebees are loving them!  IMG_3574 IMG_3572The VERY short one was knocked over by a garbage can that blew into it last week during the storm that dumped 5″ of rain on us.  We thought the two that got knocked down were dead, but they have bloomed anyway and are just continuing to grow up from where they are.IMG_3578

 

 

 

Other miscellaneous shots:  Sage.  Blackberries still ripening.  The arch leading to our back door which is covered with morning glories.  The black-eyed-susans which are slowing taking over our yard.  Dill and cilantro.  Cabbage.  Two large bowls of two green bean varieties.  I forgot to harvest the third kind.  Guess I’ll have to do it tomorrow.  It was a very pretty morning :)

 

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Alliums

Yes, getting fancy with the terminology.  It makes a more impressive title than “Garlic and Onions”.  Garlic an onions are both members of the allium family.  Your word of the day :)

This afternoon Keith and I were in the “kale” garden weeding for about an hour.  Now that the kale is so huge, there are only weeds in the spots where the kale didn’t come up the first time.  Or the second time.  About half of the gaps are filled now, but those gaps gave a few weeds free reign for a while which made the young kale difficult to find.  We have actually done a very good job weeding this year, so there really weren’t many – they were just large.  Because there were so few, we got the whole garden done in just an hour.  Two months ago it took 2 or 3 hours.

The “kale” garden, though mostly kale, also has a row of onions and two rows of eggplant.  While weeding I found one spot where somehow I’d planted 4 onions in a 6″ square area.  I’m not sure how I did that, but 3 of the 4 were pretty large and the 4th is pretty small.  So I picked two of the largest to make room for the other two.  Then there was another very large one at one end of the row I just had to pick to keep ready for dinners this week.  I’m so impressed with how well they did this year!  IMG_3089That large onion is 4″ in diameter.  That might not sound like much to some people, but we haven’t had any get that large in years.

Something that’s been on my list of things to do all week was to dig up garlic.  In the fall I planted garlic in two old compost piles.  Two years ago a bunch of barn litter was dumped in two spots outside of the garden fence.  I figured they would be perfect spots for the garlic.  After 2 years of composting, the soil was nice and soft and would make the harvest quite easy – unlike the strawberry patch where it was last time.  Ever dig garlic out of concrete?  Not fun.

Each pile had a different variety of garlic.  One softneck, one hardneck.  Apparently they finish growing at different times, too, as the one was almost completely dried up and the other is still green and standing tall.  Today I finally took a few minutes and dug up the one that was obviously done growing.  I got 16 bulbs.  A few less than I planted, but back in the spring I weeded while they were still small and uprooted several of them.  Some of the bulbs didn’t have their stalks anymore, but most did, so I looked up “How to braid garlic” on the internet and found a 2 1/2 minute video to show me how to do it.  I went out, braided my garlic, and now it’s hanging on an old curtain hook on the back porch.  Since the porch is all cleaned up after Wednesday’s cleaning event and I can open the windows again, it’s a good place for the garlic to hang and cure.

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This kind is Broadleaf Czech.  It’s a softneck variety that is able to be braided for drying and storage.  According to the Seed Saver’s catalog, it’s sweet and mild when cooked and has a full, pungent garlic flavor when raw.  To be honest – I chose it just because of the name.  I am about 87% Czech and Keith is half.  Cute story – when he and I had just started dating  in high school and his grandma found out what my last name was, she asked what nationality I was.  When she got the answer she said, “Oh!  She’ll bring it back to the family!!”  I guess she knew something we didn’t, because we’d been dating only a few weeks :)  Since the half of his family that he spent most of his time with was the Czech side, and because his name is Czech, that’s what he considers himself.  So, now and then I’ll choose a particular seed variety simply because Czech is in the name.  Silly, maybe, but how else do you choose between 20 different kind of garlic and 100 different kinds of tomatoes?IMG_3090 IMG_3089

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll be harvesting the other garlic in a few weeks after the stems start to dry out.  That one is a hardneck called German Red.  Did I mention that half of the tiny part of my heritage that isn’t Czech is German, and so is part of the other half of Keith’s??  He, he :)

 

Our Day

Here are a few pictures I’ve taken today.  Just a snippet of life around here.

This was the surprise that met me in the barn today.  Nightshade's first kid, Morning Glory

This was the surprise that met me in the barn today. Nightshade’s first kid, Morning Glory

I'm making 3 more lip balm flavors and needed more small, round baskets, which is why I went to the thrift store in the first place.

I’m making 3 more lip balm flavors and needed more small, round baskets, so I went to the thrift store. $1 for all three!

Others posted today on facebook about their asparagus.  So I went to check mine out - it's growing!

Others posted today on facebook about their asparagus. So I went to check mine out – it’s growing!

Not as many blooms as last year, but I'll take them anyway!

Forsythia – Not as many blooms as last year, but I’ll take them anyway!

 

I found this basket at a thrift store.  It's PERFECT for my table at farmer's markets!

I found this basket too – for $3. It’s PERFECT for my table at farmer’s market!

Small Acres – Part 4

The "Greenhouse"Basics of Transplant Production – Setting Up Your Greenhouse

The third session of the Putting Small Acres to Work brought us to this talk by Hans Bishop of PrairiErth Farm, in Atlanta, IL.  I was very impressed with how large Hans and his Wife, Katie, grew their small farm business in a relatively short period of time.  They plant between 7 and 9 acres of vegetables that they sell at a farmers market in Springfield.  One of my notes is “specialize in diversity.”  They don’t just grow carrots – they grow orange carrots, yellow carrots, purple carrots.  They grow beets in red, white, and orange.  And more.  Diversity!

The difference between a greenhouse and a high tunnel (see Part 1 of this series) is heat.  A high tunnel (or hoop house) relies on the heat that can be captured from the sun.  A greenhouse has an added heat source.   The greenhouse is used to get plants started.  When the greenhouse gets too full and the plants are larger, they move some into unheated hoop houses until it’s time to transplant them into the field.

So, here are my notes:

Set up.  You need to figure out how many transplants you want to make in a year.  You don’t want to outgrow the greenhouse too fast, or have too few transplants and waste money on heating a greenhouse that is too big.  You need to figure out how many plants will be in there at any one time.  This is where having hoop houses, too, comes in handy.  Different plants need to be started at different times.  You may be able to have a smaller greenhouse for starting some plants, and then move them into a hoop house when it’s time to start something else, but the first plants aren’t able to go outside into the field just yet.  What will your heat source be?  Propane, electric, etc.  And what is the greenhouse going to be covered in?  Plastic sheeting, polycarb, glass, or something else?

What’s important?  Have systems ready to go.  Have backup systems.  Plan, plan, backup, backup.  Keep records from year to year so you can see what works and what doesn’t.

Air circulation is very important to prevent disease and produce stronger plants.  They need some exposure to gentle wind to grow strong.   You can use fans, open doors, roll up the sides if you have plastic sheeting.  Air circulation also makes the temperature inside more constant and prevents hot and cold spots.

Effective use of heated space (to save money).  Use of a germination chamber  is more practical for starting seeds in the early months.  Heat mats with a thermostat are very helpful.  You can also hang a sheet of plastic from the ceiling of the greenhouse to create a germination chamber so you’ll need to heat only that small part of the greenhouse.  A bucket heater can be used to increase humidity and moderate the temperature.

Benches.  They use 2×4’s and sawhorses to set boards on to make benches.  They’ve obtained bread trays to put the soil blocks in and those trays sit on the benches.  He believes that building your own benches is best – cheaper and you make them the size you want them.  Plywood on the top can be used to add a flat work surface where you need it – and is easily moved to another area as you work.

They make their own soil blocks to put the seeds in.  Currently they buy a mixture from someone else, but they started by mixing their own.  It’s basically 3 parts peat, 2 parts compost, 2 parts perlite or vermiculite, 1 cup of sand, blood meal, cottonseed meal, and a dash of lime.  For germination, he uses 50-cell trays and places 7 seeds per cell.  Then I wrote, “heavy duty white plastic.”  I don’t remember why…  Is it for covering the trays to keep moisture in until germination occurs?  For seeds that are difficult to germinate, he sows them in 10×20 flats or broadcast sows them in a tray.  They use bottom heat to speed up germination time.  The plants are separated into one of three different sized soil blocks when the first true leaves appear.  Most go into 1 2/3″ blocks – chard, fennel, lettuce, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, herbs, cabbage.  These are smaller plants and plants that need a shorter start time.  In 2″ blocks go tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucurbits, okra – larger plants, anything that will be in the greenhouse a longer time.  He doesn’t use 3″ blocks much, except for plants that he doesn’t think he’ll be able to plant very soon, and crops with a higher value.

To prepare the plants for the field you need to harden them off by exposing them to some wind, changing temps, and water stress.  Check for diseases.  It’s better to transplant a smaller, more vigorously growing plant than an older, stunted one.

Record keeping is crucial.  Use a field journal and then transfer that information to your computer.  Record your plans, at least what you want and how many you want in the greenhouse.  Record the germination dates, how many germinated of each variety.  That tells you what kinds do best and how many you need to restart to meet your goals.  Create a spreadsheet.  Make sure each tray is labeled clearly.  You’ll never remember all the details.

I appreciated hearing the details of greenhouse growing.  Some of the things he mentioned I wouldn’t have thought of.  He had pictures of his greenhouse, the plants, the soil, and blocking tools – which is good because I had no idea what he meant when he first talked about using a “blocker”.  There’s always new terminology to learn in this farming thing!  I don’t have a greenhouse, so I have no picture of one.  The picture above is our seed-starting table in our dining room last year.  So far this year we have only tiny cauliflower leaves and a lot of dirt.  Not a fun picture.

PrairiErth Farm is another place I’d love to visit one day.  If you live in or around Springfield, you could buy their produce from the farmers market they go to.  Check them out at their website:  www.prairierthfarm.com

Small Acres – Part 2

IMG_2552This is part 2 of a 5 part series.

In the second breakout session of Putting Small Acres to Work, Keith and I split up.  I went to a session on the IL Cottage Food Law (which I’ll write about in part 3), while Keith attended Adapting to Changing Consumer Trends at Farmers’ Markets and Adding Value to Your Products.  When we got back together for the third session, he told me that he thinks I would have rather been in the workshop he was in.  Actually, the two made good companions and complemented each other perfectly – as did all the sessions we attended!

Back to the subject at hand… The session was presented by Matt & Debbie Daniels of Bear Creek Farm & Ranch, in Palmer, IL.  They’ve been on their farm for 17 years.  It has 45 acres and they raise everything naturally.  They started out like we did – raising a few (50) chickens for themselves and friends.  Then raising a few more and selling some at the farmer’s market.  They grew so much that one year they raised 4,000 chickens!  They also grow fresh produce to sell at market and a couple of stores.  They went on to say that at first they sold chicken in two forms: whole intact, or whole cut-up.  As time went on customers started asking for specific parts only, such as breasts or leg quarters.  That was a small market at first, but now about 80% of their chicken sales are parts and pieces.  This left them with the problem of what to do with the extra pieces no one wanted – backs and necks.  The only way they could sell those parts was to reduce the price so much that they would be losing money.  Their solution:  value added products.  They thought they could add value to those pieces by making them into chicken stock, cooked chicken meat, chicken salad and dog food.  This is where their story overlaps with the session I was in regarding the cottage food law.  It isn’t legal to make and sell these type of products in a home kitchen.  They decided to get a food managers license and build an on-farm certified kitchen in their garage.  This is an expensive – and extensive – project that they emphatically stated needs to be started by working with the county health department from the beginning!  If there is no way you can afford to build your own certified kitchen, you can get the food manager license and then look at finding a kitchen to rent.  Check with churches, community centers, or county extension offices.

The value added idea was expanded into other areas.  In addition to the broth and other chicken products, they could make pickles, dried herbs and peppers, butter from their milk.  These things have a longer shelf life and could extend their sales.  A head of lettuce could be sold as is, but when that lettuce was washed, cut and had other veggies added to make it a salad, they were able to sell it for a much higher price.  There are drawbacks to that – the time it takes to cut and prepare these foods, extra handling, packaging and storage.  But with some research they found that storage time could be extended by briefly soaking the veggies in a a solution of 1/2 oz of hydrogen peroxide to 1 gallon of water (which is something I’ve read in other places).  Obviously, refrigeration would also be a key component into keeping cut veggies fresh, and freezers are needed to keep frozen things frozen.

For marketing their products, they sold at farmers’ markets and stores.  When selling these types of foods at a market, you need to check with each individual market to see what is legal to sell there.  I know that at some markets you can sell frozen chicken, eggs, etc., because they have electricity at the area.  Farmers who have freezers and coolers load them in their vehicles, or some have larger trucks with freezers/coolers permanently installed, and they can plug into the power source at the market.  The one I attend does not have this option, so those items are not allowed to be sold there.  Canned foods, dried foods, baked goods and fresh produce are all that are allowed.  When marketing to a store, you need to be able to consistently supply a high quality product.  Bear Creek Farm has a buy-back agreement with stores – whatever is left after a specified period of time, they will buy it back from the store.  This seems to apply mostly to fresh food, like sprouts.  This agreement allows them to command a higher price for their product because they are assuming the risk of loss of sale, not the store.  They also do home deliveries.

Other ideas for value added products that can be produced are cut flowers that are made into bouquets, pumpkins or gourds that are painted or carved, making wheat grass juice, using apples to make applesauce, apple juice or apple pie filling.  They also mentioned that they are planning on adding a greenhouse and high tunnel, which will extend the growing season.  They sat in on those same sessions that day, along with us.  (Part 1 of this series is on high tunnels, Part 4 will address greenhouses.)  A note that Keith wrote down is “texting and facebook with products available”.  I’m assuming that means they use these ways to notify existing customers of what is currently available.  Interestingly enough, using social media to promote your farm will be Part 5 of this series :)

On a side note, we got to chat with Matt & Debbie for about a half hour when the whole event was over and we’ve decided that at some point this summer we would like to drive down there and visit their farm – by appointment, of course.  To learn more about their farm and where you can buy their products, go to their website:  www.bearcreekfarmandranch.com.

Stay tuned – in a couple of days I’ll post about the IL Cottage Food Law.

 

 

 

Small Acres 1

The "Greenhouse"On March 23, Keith and I attended 4 workshops designed to help people with few acres make their farms more profitable.  It was called Putting Small Acres to Work and was put on by the U of I Extension at Lincoln Land Community College.  There were three breakout sessions, each with 3 workshop choices, and then a general session for everyone.  Because some have asked, I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts on the workshops we attended.  This will not be comprehensive, but just general, and focus on what we learned and what we are thinking of doing with that information here on our farm.

The first workshop we attended was Growing Vegetables Year-Round, by Nathan Johanning of the U of I Extension.  The focus was on using high tunnels to extend the growing season.  A high tunnel is like a greenhouse, with the difference being that a high tunnel has no heat source other than the sun, whereas a greenhouse has some other additional heat source.  We also attended a workshop on using a greenhouse, but that will be post #4.  I apologize that I don’t have a photo of a high tunnel to put here, so I had to settle for one of our seeds that we started last year.  You can easily Google pictures of one online.  They are very similar to a greenhouse.

In the fall and winter we not only lose daylight, but the angle of the light is lower, which makes the sunlight much less effective than in the summer.  The goal of the high tunnel is to capture as much light as possible.  We want to capture the heat as well as the light as both are needed for plant growth.  The plants need to be planted early enough so that major growth will be finished by December and then the light and heat available should be sufficient for maintenance.  The plastic you use is also important.  Thicker plastic, or a double plastic wall will protect the plants from the temperature changes better, but also reduces the amount of light that can get it.  In addition, row covers are also generally used on the coldest nights, but need to be removed in the morning after the plants thaw so they can receive the light.  They then need to be replaced in mid to late afternoon to trap heat before the temperature drops too much.

The types of plants you choose is important.  As much as I might want tomatoes in mid-winter, they are a poor choice.  Cold-hardy crops need to be used.  Cole crops – broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower are good, as are greens like spinach, kale, chard, lettuce.  Root crops like carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips and radishes work.  So do leeks and green onions.  You can look at seed catalogs for descriptions to see which are best in colder temps.  You will also need to do some experimenting on your own to see what works best for you – be sure to keep notes because you’ll probably forget a lot of what you’ve done.

Besides what type of plants to grow, you need to figure out when to plant them, to get the majority of the growth finished before the daylight gets too low.  This is where the surprise was for me.  We have to plant much earlier than I thought we would in order for certain plants to do well.  Here in central IL, things like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower would need to be started in mid-July.  Beets, lettuce and turnips need to be started by August 1.  Fall spinach and kale in mid- to late-August, and spring spinach the first week in September.  I mistakenly thought we’d be planting everything in Sept or October.   Our thought was to put up a high tunnel in the fall over our existing garden, but that isn’t going to work, since our summer crops will just be getting into their prime producing season.  Now I’m wondering where to put one.  Maybe in front of the garden between the driveways?  The bigger issue there is that it’s more open to the wind, which can be quite nasty here.  We’ll have to think on it more.

Other details on planting and caring for the plants is that the seeds should be planted deeper than in the spring, as well as closer together.  Direct-seeded crops may be more cold tolerant than transplants.  Watering is important, but when it’s colder, the plants won’t need as much as in the summer since the crops grow more slowly and it’s more humid inside the high tunnel.  Drip tape is useful until it starts getting below freezing.  Watering in midday is best when the night is going to be a little more mild to prevent freezing of the crops.  Ventilation, when possible, is also important to prevent mildew.  Harvesting should also be at midday.  Be careful to not harvest more than 40% of the leaf area at any one time.

I don’t know if we’ll get a hoop house this year.  Another option is low tunnels.  They are cheaper, though more difficult to manage since you can’t just walk into the building and shut the door.  But we may try one little row of broccoli, lettuce, and spinach and see how it goes.  Having fresh greens in the winter would be nice.  Any maybe we will actually have broccoli without worms :)

 

A Monday in mid-September

Today I want to share with you some pictures I took this past Monday.  First we were surprised by some new piglets.  We have 5 older “piglets” in pens away from the sows.  One is a female that had two brothers.  We finally remembered to separate her from her brothers when they were about a year old.  Apparently, that was about a month too late, for she had 3 piglets on Monday morning.  I won’t sell these as breeders, since they are obviously inbred, but they’ll be just as tasty as any of the others :)

Our three little inbred piglets

Our three little inbred piglets

Newborn piglet

 

Then our next task was to take care of all the tomatoes that a friend gave us on Sunday that SHE got from a friend of hers.  So they got halved and quartered and put in the roaster oven to cook until soft.  Then they got strained to separate the seeds and skin from the pulp.  After that the sauce went back into the roaster oven for the afternoon to cook down.  When the sauce was thick enough, I added a spaghetti sauce seasoning mix, and then canned it.  I got 5 quarts and 1 pint of spaghetti sauce.  Here’s the tomatoes after they were cut up:

Tomatoes in roaster oven

Tomatoes in roaster oven

 

While the tomatoes were cooking in the roaster oven, we went out to our two pear trees to start picking.  This year has been a perfect year for fruit trees.  Everywhere we go we see trees loaded with apples, pears and earlier, peaches.  We learned many years ago that pears don’t ripen on the tree.  They have to be picked and then stored someplace cool and they ripen there.  So about once a week we need to sort through them all to look for ripe ones to eat and can.  We have two varieties.  One is like a Bartlett and does well canned as halves or pieces.  The other is more mealy and doesn’t stay together well, so they’ll be made into pear sauce.  These are all the pears we picked on Monday:

 

Pears!

Pears!

And more pears...

And more pears…

 

And MORE pears!!

And MORE pears!!

And lastly, here is a picture, although blurry, of a bumblebee harvesting some of the extra honey from the honey frames I left outside after our honey harvest on Thursday.  The honeybees finally found it later that day, but for the first 3 days, only a few bumblebees found it.  I need to put it back in the hive, but for now the bumblebees are enjoying a treat.

Bumblebee eating leftover honey

Bumblebee eating leftover honey

Peppermint Tea

One of the first things we planted here after moving in over 13 years ago was peppermint.  I knew it spread easily and could become invasive, so I put it in a corner surrounded by the house, the cellar stairway and the sidewalk.  That dirt does wrap around the corner to the back of the house, but halfway over it is ended by the concrete stairs to the back door.  I put in just one plant and it has spread to fill the area in almost completely and is wrapping around that corner.  Last year we planted some flowers in that area, but most haven’t come back.  So if it all ends up peppermint – at least it’s green!

The taller, stalkier things in the photo are blackberries, (and it looks like a mulberry tree… that will need to go…,) which were planted there a year earlier.  They used to do better, but the past few years… not so much.  For two years we didn’t even get berries.  Last year we got a handful.  Maybe the peppermint is stealing all the nutrients?  I should fertilize a little.

So, why peppermint?  First, it was to hopefully help keep mice out of the house.  That might have worked if I had it all around the house, but that would require having a sidewalk all around the house as I don’t want it to take over my yard.  Sometimes I just grab a leaf or two now and then and smell it or chew on it for a couple of seconds.  I’ve also made some peppermint extract by filling a mason jar with leaves and then adding vodka to cover it.  Leave it for a few weeks then strain out the leaves and discard them.  Put the liquid in another jar and you have peppermint extract.  So far, though, I haven’t gotten it as strong as I want it for my Candy Cane Cookies at Christmas.  Last year I bought a new thing of peppermint extract from the store.  This year I’ll try again.  Maybe I need to use leaves from earlier in the year?  Worth a try.  And I probably need to stuff more leaves in the jar before adding the vodka.  I also found a recipe for peppermint cookies that actually uses chopped up peppermint leaves.  They are very tasty – after about a day.  Before that they kind of taste grassy with a hint of peppermint.  It seems to take a day for the grassy flavor to leave and the peppermint to be fully infused in the cookie.  Last year I started hearing about peppermint lemonade, so once I made some lemonade and added 4 or 5 whole peppermint leaves to the pitcher for a few hours.  It was good.  I’ve also dried some for making tea.  But the easiest way to make tea is to just pick a couple of leaves off the plant, rinse them under running water to remove any dust or dirt, put them in a tea cup or mug and add hot water.  Let it steep a few minutes, lift out the whole leaves and drink!  Yum :)

 

Preparing for a Spring Freeze

Learning a valuable lesson on watching the calendar more than the weather trends

Weeks ago we started growing seeds for our garden.  I’m beginning to wonder if we started a little too early.  Some of the tomatoes are doing VERY well and are about a foot tall!  Another variety is shorter.  Peppers, cabbage, onions and various flowers are doing well, but will make it a little longer in their little plots of soil.  Last week it was so warm we were thinking we should put them out.  But, alas, it’s still only the beginning of April, and these plants generally shouldn’t be put out till mid-May.  “But it’s been so warm for about 2 months, SURELY we can put them out???”  Then reality hit.  Last Friday morning it got down to 32 degrees at night.  Tonight and tomorrow will be the same.  I have two planters with spinach and lettuce sitting on my front steps, facing south.  Those I can bring in.  I am very glad that I didn’t put any of these other plants out yet.  Otherwise I’d have to figure out how to cover them to protect them from the frost and/or freezing temperature.  As it is, I will need to cover my strawberries and carrots.  And then there the fruit trees that have all bloomed in the past couple of weeks.  They ARE semi-dwarfs, but I’m sure I don’t have enough sheets to cover them.  I may go out today and buy some cheap large sheets, so I can cover them.  The other option is to do what I did last week.  Go out before dawn and spray them with a mist of water before the sun rises.  I first heard of this technique while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy.

There was a night (early morning) on July 4 that their area in New York state had a night that dropped to freezing.  Father Wilder woke up all the children (at probably 3 or 4 in the morning) and brought them out to the cornfield.  They had to pour a little bit of water onto each tiny corn plant to protect it from the freezing temperature.  But it had to be done before the sun hit the plants or the heat of the sun on the frost would cause the plant to die.  It was a strange idea to me, but I’ve looked it up and there is truth to this.  The little bit of water that turns to ice on the plant actually causes a reaction that creates heat and protects the plant from freezing. Other options include putting outdoor Christmas lights on the trees and leaving them on all night.  Leaving a sprinkler on all night to mist the trees.  Watering the ground around the trees which will absorb heat from the day and release that heat during the night.  Filling a few gallon jugs with warm water and placing them around the tree to releases the heat over night.  These last two, though, will work much better if the tree is covered by a tarp that reaches to the ground.

Apple and pear trees are supposed to be ok even if temps are in the low 30’s.  The projected low for tonight and tomorrow here is 32, so they should be ok.  The peach tree is a larger concern.  I might have enough sheets to cover it and then trust that the apples and pears will be ok – and maybe spray them in the morning before sunrise, just to be a little more safe.  Later today I’m going to water everything.  Then in the evening I’ll cover the peach tree, strawberries and carrots, and bring in my two little pots of spinach and lettuce.  And tomorrow, I’ll repeat it.  And hopefully, that will be the last freeze issue for this year.  But maybe not.  It IS still just April 9 in northern Illinois.  Those tomatoes will need to wait a few more weeks.

Eggs for dinner

It’s 4:30 pm.  “What’s for dinner?” is the question on everyone’s lips.  I’m mom, so it’s my job to figure out the answer.  The problem is that I’ve been thinking about it all day and haven’t been able to come up with anything.  And all the meat is frozen.  *sigh*  So, back to the kitchen I go to look around.  Again.

Then I see them – eggs!  Our hens have been giving us at least a dozen eggs a day for the past week, so we have plenty.  One of my favorite quick dinners when we have an abundance of eggs is quiche – or a frittata – or egg casserole.  Whatever you wish to call it.  It started as quiche.  I would make a pie crust and use a pie pan and everything.  One of those used to be enough, but then I had to start making 2, which was too much.  No one really likes it leftover, so whatever was left would go to the cats or chickens and that seemed like a waste.  So I started making it in a 9″ x 13″ in cake pan or casserole dish.  That was closer to the right size.  Usually, only one or two pieces would be left and I was OK with that.  Then the extra 10 minutes to make the crust, plus having the mess to clean up, extra bowl and equipment to wash got on my nerves.  So I started eliminating the crust most of the time.  Also, the quiche recipe in my cookbook calls for more milk than eggs and I didn’t always have that much milk, and I think it increases the cooking time, so that started to get reduced.  I also stopped with the two-part cooking.  Fifteen minutes at this temp and 30 at another.  With the loss of the extra milk, I didn’t feel this was necessary – plus it was an extra step I didn’t want to deal with.  I’d realized that what I was calling “quiche” really wasn’t that anymore.

So I started to call it a frittata.  But, that isn’t truly accurate either.  It doesn’t have a crust, but a frittata is started out on the stovetop in a large fry pan for a few minutes, then moved into the oven for about 15 minutes.  Faster, but too high maintenance.   Why should I have to move it?  It’ll cook in the oven just as well.  I have multi-tasking to do and don’t want to have to be there in 5 minutes to move it.

It’s almost more like the breakfast casseroles I’ve brought to church for our annual Harvest Days breakfast.  Except that those have bread in them and my dinner casserole does not.  So, Egg Casserole is the current name.  The interesting thing is that all the kids actually like it.  Really.  I never thought they would, but they do.  Well, except maybe my oldest son, but he doesn’t eat dinner with us much these days, so it’s OK.

So, here’s my “recipe”:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 9″ x 13″ pan with butter or shortening.  Crack 10-12 eggs into my blender.  The blender has liquid measure marks on the side.  I see what the amount of eggs is and add about the same amount of milk, or a little less if I want.  Sometimes I just add onion powder or dried onion flakes to the egg mixture, as well as some garlic powder and some salt and pepper.  If I feel Mexican I add chili powder.  Italian?  Some basil, oregano, fennel.  Add whatever spices you want to the blender.  Turn the blender on low to mix all that up.  Put some chopped meat and maybe some chopped onions and other veggies – chopped small or they won’t be totally cooked – into the pan.  Pour the egg mixture over the meat and veggies in the pan.  Then sprinkle on some grated cheese if you want.  Put it in the oven.  It is done in about 30 minutes.  Take it out when it’s lightly browned.  It will also be puffy coming out of the oven.  It sinks after a few minutes and will be only about 1″ thick.  Cut it up into squares and serve.  It’s that simple!

This is gloriously flexible.  Use whatever meat, veggies, spices, cheese you want.  Or no meat.  Or no cheese.  Or no veggies.  Whatever.  Our favorites are ham and cheddar with or without broccoli.  Or leftover taco meat and/or beans with chili powder and cheddar cheese, sometimes with chopped tomatoes and green pepper.  If you don’t want the veggies in it you can have them on the side or have a salad with it or carrot sticks or fruit – canned or fresh. When our garden is producing, we use different veggies in season.

Whatever you do, this is a quick and very simple meal to throw together at the last minute.  Not to mention cheap.  This meal can cost as little as $5.  It feeds 6-8 of us, so that’s less than $1 per person.  I cut it into 12 pieces.  The little kids generally only eat one, older people one or two.  It’s very high protein so very filling.  With a veggie or salad and maybe a slice of bread with butter, it’ll go even farther.   Give it a try one night and let me know what fun combinations you’ve come up with!