Pickling!

Two summers ago I went to a fermentation workshop at Blooming Glen Farm in Bucks County, PA with Amanda O’Brien of Phickle.com. I really enjoyed the workshop and learned a ton. I left feeling inspired and determined to eat only fermented veg from then on. But I ended up killing everything I tried! My cabbage kraut got dry and moldy and my whey-pickled carrots were just gross. I enjoyed the pickled beets we made during the workshop, but since I had been keeping them in the microwave {uncovered}, the jar ended up overflowing and pink pickle juice was everywhere. I started to think pickling wasn’t right for me.

But this summer I was determined to try again. I attended another fermentation workshop in February, this time hosted by the local chapter of the National Ladies Homestead Gathering, and something about hearing some simple recipes and tricks from women just like me made it seem 100 times more doable.

Bormioli Rocco Fido Hermetic Jars

The most important thing I learned that night was to use the swing-top, Fido brand jars for everything. The rubber gasket allows built-up CO2 to escape, and that positive pressure means no air {or mold} can enter the crock. This summer I have made at least 8 batches of pickles in my Fido jars with zero mold. I did a test batch in a regular mouth mason jar with an airlock {like this} with the same results.

Cabbage Kraut JuiceThe second most important thing I learned: If you’re mashing up some cabbage, and you don’t have quite enough water squeezing out to cover the cabbage {even after you’ve added a weight}, you can add more salted water and still have positive results. It seems pretty obvious to me now, but my very first attempt at sauerkraut, way back in 2012, was such a dry, dismal disaster I threw it out and swore I was done with homemade sauerkraut. That’s three summers of no fresh kraut. But my kids decided they love sauerkraut, so I had to give it another try. For my first batch of the season I had such an old head of cabbage, I didn’t think any amount of mashing would yield enough liquid. So after mashing and squeezing as much as I could, I just topped it off with salty water everything turned out just fine.

IMG_5164I’ve been using the Sour Pickles recipe from Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. He calls for “2 to 3 heads garlic, peeled,” but even with my “epic” garlic harvest this year {approximately 60 heads}, I don’t have enough to do that, so I usually end up doing 5-6 cloves, and 3 Tbsp. dill seeds, plus a “handful” of oak leaves {supposed to keep ’em crunchy}. I fill a half gallon mason jar with water and 6 Tbsp. of salt and shake to dissolve. Once my crocks are packed with veggies I pour the salty brine over everything. Sometimes I need to mix up a little more, but if I have extra I just save it until the next batch. I’ve used the same recipe for pickling cucumbers, beets {peeled and sliced}, and green beans {raw} all with delicious results. {Read here about why a cloudy brine is OK.}

Overall, I’ve been really excited to get pickling this summer and encourage you to give it a try!

{OvO}

In the Garden :: May 30

In the Garden 2015 May 30

Things are growing pretty well…for the most part. The onions are still completely choked with weeds, but the garlic is looking really good. I pulled a few garlic hoping to give the remaining plants more space, so we’ll see…

I harvested the teeniest little carrot the other day, while I was working with the tomatoes. These were actually seeds I planted in the fall, hoping for a “winter garden,” but nothing {no-thing} grew. I was very surprised to find these little guys growing when the weather warmed, and even more excited when I harvested a full-size, grocery-store-looking carrot this week! We haven’t eaten it yet because it’s just too awesome. I’ve been “growing” carrots since we started gardening in…2010?, and I’ve never {ever} harvested a dinner-worthy carrot. Accident or not, it’ll be good eats.

The asparagus didn’t look harvest-able for as long as I was hoping. We got maybe 8 pounds? We ate what we harvested and had asparagus every few nights for about 2 weeks. That’s probably normal but still a little disappointing. I was especially concerned when it didn’t seem like any more would grow – so we wouldn’t have anything to leave through the fall to do its thing. Fortunately, there’s a pretty decent stand of asparagus morphing into tiny trees out there now, so hopefully our patch isn’t doomed…

The raspberries should be ready to harvest soon. Lots of fruit growing. I’m concerned about the nasty fruit flies we had last year… I’m also disappointed that even though we worked and worked to tame the canes last fall, there is so much new growth you can barely even see the mature canes, better yet harvest from them without drawing blood. I’ve found a fair number of wineberry canes around the farm, so if we can harvest a good amount from them I may not keep the raspberries. {If it’s even possible to get rid of raspberries – they put out runners 6+ feet away!}

Some of our tomato starts are actually still alive. Most didn’t make it, but a top dressing of chicken house shavings seemed to help a lot. The starts we got from the farmer’s market are way more full and already setting fruit.

My Sugar Snap Peas didn’t germinate very well. Only 50% even though I’m pretty sure I put two seeds per hole… The four plants that are growing look really great, and starting to set some pods. We’ve actually never grown this tasty snack, so I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for something edible.

I planted black beans again for drying. I had good luck with the plants in 2012 but didn’t plant enough to actually eat any. Practically speaking, I think I would need to plant hundreds of row-feet to grow enough to eat for the year. If these produce we’ll save some for planting next year and enjoy one special beans-from-the-garden meal sometime this winter. I’m still not sure if planting in the ground will be an option for us here – there are SO many rocks! My pasture management plan is focused on #1) producing healthy animals and #2) building up organic matter. {More on that later.}

That dag-on Winter Rye is still persisting! It even put out seed this month! The kids and I hacked it back and I gave it all to the sheep, hoping we wouldn’t have any accidentally seeding itself in the garden. I think I’ll cover the last remaining bed with cardboard and compost and let it sit for a while. Ugh.

I started my first potatoes this month! I’ve never grown potatoes but I had a rather large bag of spuds sprouting in the pantry to I went ahead and put them in the ground. I had very little hope for anything, but they are all {ALL} growing green leaves and looking really good! I honestly can’t believe it. I *think* they are New Potatoes, but I’m not sure if that just means young potatoes, so who knows what we’ll end up with.

How’s your garden growing?

In the Garden :: April 27

2015 Apr 27 In the Garden

Things are coming along pretty nicely these days.

Our number one biggest success has been the garlic! I planted it in October and basically crossed my fingers. I was surprised not to find any scapes this spring, but the leaves seem pretty tall and full. Out of curiosity I went ahead and pulled “one,” but I actually had 3 little scallions. How did three grow instead of one?

The garlic!

The garlic!

The asparagus seemed to take forever to start growing but we harvested our first handful this week! A friend suggested uncovering the bed, that the straw might be keeping the ground too cool. I am so paranoid about weeds that I just couldn’t imagine taking it off, so in its own perfect timing, the asparagus came up anyway.

Asparagus grows at Owl Moon Farm!

Asparagus grows at Owl Moon Farm!

And now for our biggest failure in the garden. At least, so far. I know using a cover crop is a critical part of creating organic matter in the garden. I searched and read and decided to use Winter Rye; it seemed to be highly recommended. Problem is, what they don’t tell you, is that getting rid of Winter Rye in the spring is next to impossible, at least without mechanical assistance. It just doesn’t die. I’ve spoken with a friend, and found on a few “how to get rid of winter rye” discussion boards, that Winter-killed Oats would have been a better choice, sooooooo… At least I know what I’m going to do next year.

To get rid of the grass in my raised beds I tried cutting it back. I cut the beds with loppers. A few times. Turns out, Winter Rye is crazy resilient and grew back. With gusto.

After being cut. Twice.

After being cut. Twice.

I tried to cut it super short but only had really “dead-looking” grass after I left a heap of it on the bed. It seemed to kill the grass below it pretty effectively.

After being cut back and left to rot.

After being cut back and left to rot.

Dead spot.

Dead spot.

So a friend recommended digging and turning the soil to kill the roots of the grass. It was annoying, but not terrible. Here’s the bed above after being turned:

After turning today.

After turning today.

And here’s a different bed that was turned last week:

Turned a week ago.

Turned a week ago.

Takeaway: DON’T use Winter Rye in a raised bed, especially if you’re hoping to grow something early in the season without using mechanical tillage. I’ll be using oats next fall and will keep you posted.

Seed Starting

We’ve been planning and scheming and getting ready to start seeds. Two weeks ago I thought I bought a seedling heat mat but when we got home I could not. find it. anywhere. Farmer Tripp set up the trays and the mini greenhouses in the workshop while I was at the National Ladies Homestead Gathering Annual Board Meeting in Georgia, but we still haven’t started a single seed! I searched the garden shed, the car, and finally the Google for the 4-tray heating mat I found at Fifth Season Gardening in Charlottesville, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I checked with my dad twice to make sure we didn’t leave it at his house, before finally giving up. I called Fifth Season and asked them to send me another one. These starts better be good!

Seed-Starting Setup

Seed-Starting Setup

Four trays with vented covers plus a 48″ shop light with 2 Kitchen & Bath (5000K) and 2 Sunshine (3000K) bulbs. Once the heating mat arrives we’ll be growing all kinds of veggies in the workshop! Can’t wait!

Germination Test 2015

After putting together the garden plan, and our 2015 seed order, I looked through our seed box and found nearly every seed we wanted already on-hand! Some of the seeds were a few years old, so I decided to do a germination test. Plus, it was a great chance for the kids to see some seeds sprouting indoors!

We placed 10 seeds of most varieties (we didn’t have quite enough for 10 of all varieties) in a wet paper towel, and placed those paper towels into two Ziploc bags. I put the bags on the mantel above the wood stove and checked them occasionally to make sure there was condensation in the bags. We checked them all after 3 days, and again after a week.

Germination Test Kentucky Wonder Bean

Kentucky Wonder Bean – 100% germination!

About a third of the seeds sprouted in 3 days, and most were sprouted within a week.

Germination Test Garden Journal 2015

Germination Test Results (Thanks C & O!)

In the end, we ordered Sungold Cherry Tomatoes from Johnny’s Seeds and Scarlet Nantes Carrots, Old Virginia Tomato and Tennessee Red Cob Corn from Southern Exposure. Now we just can’t wait to get started!

What’s in Season in October? Pumpkins (of course)!

PumpkinsPumpkins and squash are believed to have originated in the ancient Americas. These early pumpkins were not the traditional round orange upright Jack-O-Lantern fruit we think of today when you hear the word pumpkin. They were a crooked neck variety, which stored well. Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans. This took place long before the emergence of maize (corn). After maize was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with maize and beans using the “Three Sisters” tradition.[1]

Thinking about growing pumpkins on your homestead?

Planting

I think one of the most surprising and frustrating things about growing pumpkins I learned early (though not early enough) in my gardening career, is that pumpkins should be planted in the spring! Seems obvious to me now, but thinking of carving pumpkins in spring was a strange adjustment for me.

Pumpkins appreciate soil well supplied with organic matter. Mulching helps to control weeds that would be difficult to hoe out from the spreading vines. Don’t hurry to plant them. What you want is a well-developed storage crop, not a quick harvest. Planting at the end of May allows plenty of time in most areas.[2] Start pumpkins with a generous shovelful of compost or well-rotted manure in each hill. When the plant starts to develop vines, anticipate the squash borer by firming two or three shovelfuls of oil over several vine nodes to encourage auxiliary rooting. Most varieties need a kit if space; a hill will ramble over an 8-by-8 foot square of ground by summer’s end. Planting at the edge of the corn works well. The vines wander among the corn and help to discourage raccoons.[3]

Harvesting 

Pumpkins are ready to harvest when the stem has started to dry and the pumpkin skin has begun to harden. Leave about an inch of stem. Handle with care. Don’t carry them around by the stem; if it breaks off, the pumpkin won’t cure or store well. If the weather is dry and sunny, pumpkins can be cured in the field in about a week. Cover or move inside if a hard frost threatens.[4]

Saving Seeds

Collect seeds from fully ripened fruits that have developed a good hard rind. Halve the pumpkins, fork out the seeds, wash off the pulp, and dry the seeds for a week or so indoors. You’ll notice a few flat seeds. Since these lack embryos, they’ll never grow. You can winnow them off or, if you’re handling small batches of seeds, pick them out at planting time next year. British horticulturalist Lawrence Hills declares that pumpkin seeds improve with age – up to a point, of course.[3]

Storage

Pumpkins do well with more humidity than squash – 70 to 75 percent rather than 60 to 70 – because their skins are slightly more tender. Also for this reason, they don’t last quite as long in storage as do squash. High storage temperatures will make them stringy. Cook and use them in the fall or cut them in thin slices and dry them.[2]


[2] Root Cellaring, Mike and Nancy Bubel, 1991

[3] The New Seed-Starters Handbook, Nancy Bubel, 1988.

[4] The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith, 2009