Yes, it is a bit of food snobbery

There are lists with which I agree and those with which I don’t. I’m pretty much on the agree train with this one. A lot of the things on this list – corn pudding, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole – are inherently Southern, and people around these parts would be peeved if they didn’t make an appearance. That said: as much as I love marshmallows, and as much as I like sweet potatoes, I do not like them together (especially since someone insists on putting raisins in the potatoes before warming the dish, which makes it even worse, since raisins are for fresh eating and Raisin Bran cereal, and have no place in buns, cookies, or mashed sweet potatoes regardless of whether they will be topped with marshmallows or not). The green bean casserole thing is also intensely Southern, but I’ve never liked it. Maybe it would be different with fresh beans and onions, but I’m at the point in life that I’d rather relearn my eating on stuff I actually like and not stuff that brings up bad notions about food. The canned cranberry sauce that glops out on a plate when you open it is an abomination, IMO. That’s why I make my own from fresh cranberries and other ingredients. And my own gravy, because the instant stuff is loaded with salt, making it unpalatable.

I realize it may come across as snobbish, and I know people who love all of these things. But that’s the beauty of something like food: as many things there are to eat in this world – including weird things that some people could never imagine being food – you can probably find someone who absolutely loves eating it. Especially if that someone is Andrew Zimmern.

Weeding and meditation

It seems like they are odd bedfellows, weeding and meditating. They aren’t really, and it’s just the sort of mindless chore that lends itself well to allowing your mind to drift, to let it seek out whatever might be puzzling you. In my case, a couple of plot points and if the sequence of events that I believe to be the right ones to go from chapter one to the end in the book I am not working enough on is correct – or at least workable.

Beyond that, it’s a good chance to see deep down and closely what’s happening in the garden. This season, now, we are heading into the couple of months where we will have a winter and the cover crops will kill off, while the leeks and carrots will soldier through and be ready to complete their growth by the time the soil and air warm enough to begin planting peas. It’s also easy to let yourself get ahead, to spring, making mental notes about what will be planted where, and when. But today, my friends…today the primary thought on my mind while pulling weeds was dingleberries.

People with pets (or certain livestock) know what dingleberries are: those are the pieces of poo stuck to the fur around the animal’s butt, which has to either be plucked off by hand or the area shaved. Why then, you ask, if I was pulling weeds, did I think of dingleberries?

The weeds seemed to have segregated themselves: plain old grass there, purslane hither, pigweed yon, and garden spurge and gripeweed – both of which I personally think should be renamed to “what the hell is this pain in the ass, invasive crap that can seemingly grow anywhere, even when other weeds cannot”, but that’s probably too long and would not translate into Latin well – everywhere. One row in particular, where the cukes had been, but where nothing had taken their place when they had exhausted themselves, was overrun with purslane, pigweed, spurge, and gripeweed. Despite that row not having been intentionally watered, the weeds were growing rather vigorously. I suspect these are weeds the Republicans would approve on, given their bootstrappy nature of overcoming poor situations and making their presence known. The simplest way to get them out was to trowel under them and lift with one hand – to make sure the root system would be plucked out as well – while pulling a bunch off them with the other hand. There is a great deal of cow poop in the soil mixture of the rows. It’s great stuff. But just like the plants I intentionally grew, the weeds love it too. And they show their love by rooting right into poop clumps, so when the weeds are extracted, roots and all, clinging to the roots: dingleberries. Like this:

Dingleberries

Dingleberries

Since we need to keep as much of the poop in the rows as possible, weeding then becomes a multistep process: trowel under them, pull them, then knock off as many of the dingleberries as possible. Toss the weeds into the bucket and move on. Repeat until the bucket is full and needs to be emptied in the bag. When the bag is full, tie it closed and smile, because you are keeping yard waste pickup crews employed. Prepare a new bag. Repeat the entire process.

In the end, what you have is a good day’s work, and progress on getting more rows prepped to hold cover crop seed – hopefully completing the rest of the rear garden by tomorrow, as we are expecting rain on Saturday if the forecast holds. The first row in this picture is the cover crop coming in.

The middle row in this picture is not weeds, as it happens. Those are the late planted tomatoes and peppers. Unfortunately, it appears I either lost that page of my notes or forgot to write down exactly what kind of one pepper was transplanted. They are robust, sturdy, thriving plants, heavy with fruit. I don’t have any earthly idea what type they may be (not bells, that much I know), but they’re beautiful.

Late season garden

Late season garden

 

 

Covering up

Cover crops? In frames, you say? Yes. Cover crops have been used for eons, to keep the soil friable for the next planting, to prevent soil erosion, to add organic material back into the soil, to act as a natural mulch, and as weed suppression – for no-till farmers, an essential part of maintaining and caring for the soil. Some no-till large scale farmers even plant their corn directly through the debris of the cover crops as they are cut down at the roots. For us, on a smaller scale, we are of course no-till – that would involve backbreaking turning of the the soil in each frame by the shovelful, and that prospect is not terribly exciting. We also have a huge weed problem here, because it is rarely cold enough for long enough to put the weed seeds out of commission. Plus, I’d prefer not to have to truck in loads of dirt and poop.

So, as we head into fall, I’m putting in cover crops in the frames, and they’ll get a foothold before the lower temps slow their growth. I’ve done two so far in the past few days, clearing the weeds, breaking up the soil, spreading the seed, scuffling up the soil a little to partially cover the seed so the birds don’t eat all of it, then relaying the irrigation lines in the frame. At the end, it’s nice and neat and looks like the photo.

Clean frame

In a few days, some of the mix will start germinating, and by the end of a week, all the the various seeds in the mix should be popping up. The only trick will be to make sure that none of it gets to the seed stage, as we don’t want it to reseed itself: just stay there long enough to grow into something that can be sheared off and left as mulch through which to put the transplants when they are ready to go (and hopefully to keep the weeds down). The mulch will eventually decompose, and be taken back into the soil to help get nutrients back into the mix.

Gardening: dangerous business

Who says gardening isn’t dangerous? In today’s episode, your intrepid farmer is on weed-pulling duties. While attempting to get a particularly large-based, firmly rooted stand of grass pulled, I was pulling back with both hand and all my weight (although, as my brother says, “all my weight” means something entirely different for me than for some other people) when the roots suddenly gave way with a giant rrrriiippp from the soil, sending me falling backwards. I wound up bracing myself with one hand, straining my wrist in the process. Luckily, it’s minor, with no swelling and just a bit of pain when I move it or grip in a certain way. I forged ahead, and today’s haul: four bags of weeds to go to the yard waste guys. So far. Those guys need to earn their paychecks!

Project weekend at the ranch

First thing this morning after the fog lifted, I headed out to the bees to check them and take some frames. In two of the new hives, I found the queen pretty quickly, and they are motoring along just fine. In the third new hive, there were a LOT of bees. And they were not happy when I disturbed them by popping off the inner cover. Unfortunately, I could not keep my smoker lit for some reason, and all the pine needles out there were wet from yesterday’s rain – I’m going to have to keep a bucket of pine needles in the shed just for that. In any case, I did not spot the queen on my short trip into that hive, but there are more bees now than the last time, so I figure she’s there. I popped open established hive #2, and they were also not very happy, but I took three frames from them anyway and replaced them with empty frames. Then I dragged all my equipment on the wagon from the orchard to the garage. I can see a golf cart sort of vehicle in our future here. People may ask, why not use the tractor? It’s very loud, and the vibrations from it would disturb the bees, making them even more difficult to deal with when the hive is open.

After bringing in the frames, we had to let those wait until the afternoon, since Gabs and the monkeyboy would not be available to test out our new equipment in the morning. So, I got started on the first framing for a compost tumbler.

Cutting wood for frames

Make the Ts for the sides.

Crossing the T

Stand it up, measure 17″ from the top to drill a hole to slide the rod through.

A standing T

Drill the holes in each side T, the drill out a hole on either side of the barrel. Slide the rod through, adding the PVC bushing (outside the barrel), locknut and threaded PVC connector (inside the barrel) on either side, and slide the rod through the other T stand. Put the lid on, and presto! Tumbling composter.

Tumbling composter

I added a bracing board at the bottom to connect the two uprights for stability and strength, and trimmed the conduit on either side. The rod holes in the barrel are slightly above center, to make sure that the top part is always upright when the spinning stops. I also drilled a series of small air holes on either side of the barrel: three evenly spaced holes in each of the rings you see there on the barrel. It’s high enough on the frame that when the compost is ready to come out, a wheelbarrow will fit nicely under it so it can be dumped and shoveled out very easily.

Tumbling

 

It’s not terrifically heavy, but it’s heavy enough to withstand the types of storms we get around here. This was the first one, and it took less than an hour. The second one, however, took forever, and involved much cursing: the board that formed the uprights was, for whatever reason, one of those boards that seems to be impervious to drilling. I wound up with half screws and half nails in that one, because it was such a massive pain in the ass. But that is done as well, and now we have one, and Gabs can take one home. Then I’ll have to build another one or two for us here at the ranch, as we have plenty of stuff that needs to be composted.

 

Pickling factory

Marathon pickling session: complete.

Pickles in progress

 

I got 36 pints of dills done today from this batch of cukes. I do believe it’s almost time to call an end to cuke season. I’ll move on to the next kitchen season: salsa, sauce, curing peanuts, and harvesting and processing the sorghum, assuming the press arrives at some point in my lifetime.

 

Dill pickles July 2013

 

The carrots I pulled were sent to others for fresh eating, and mom shredded the rest and packaged it in two cup quantities for using in carrot cake, soups (like my potato leek soup), and other cooking that doesn’t require fresh carrots. The limas and pinto beans are starting to flower, and the black eyed peas are not far behind. We managed, between my sister and I, to salvage a number of the tomato plants that were flattened by our mini tornado, although there are some that I’ll probably need to pull since they’re not readapting well to being upright/being alive. That’s ok: I started three more flats with tomatoes, peppers, and basils (sweet, lemon, and lime) and put them in the barn under the lights.

I’m hoping there is enough time left in our long season here to get another round in, with the lessons I’ve learned about how to keep them upright, gracefully, against the inevitable storms – we are in fact in another period of hard downpours with windy conditions every day once more, that look to last about five days give or take. I’m concerned about getting the potatoes hilled up (covered with more dirt at the bottoms) as I’m worried the constant rains may be bad news for the tubers I see readying to form, or cause those more fragile stems to rot away before anything comes of them. My plan for today is to hustle some soil and poo to them after I return from a followup visit to the docs who cut open my face to allow me to open my mouth. That’s if the rains hold off for a bit longer tomorrow than they did today, as otherwise it will be a wash and I”ll have to wait until Wednesday.

Next weekend I’ll probably start in flats the things that can handle the slightly cooler temps as we head into what passes for winter here: cauliflowers of various colors, broccoli, brussels sprouts (another nod to my mom there). This week, in the breaks between the rains, I’ll be direct sowing things that can be sown directly: the next succession planting of carrots, and the first sow of leeks, something I completely neglected to begin earlier in the season, and more onions.

The garlic is not thriving, and as I was weeding today, I found that quite a number of them had rotted themselves in the ground: the earlier storms we’ve had with the inches of rain, plus the too-fast-move-from “spring”-to the furnace of summer were not kind in that regard. The next attempt at getting a good garlic crop will involve ordering only one variety (the one that looks heartier from the two varieties I put in this year) and will involve that planting being in a frame where we’ve put in some of the good dirt and poop from the mountains we have here. Since this year’s garlic went in at the end of last year, before the great dirt haul, the soil they’re in is not as ideal as it has been for everything else that’s gone into it.

Also on the agenda: another checkin with the bees: the three new packages to make sure they’re moving along as they should, and to see if they’re ready for a second brood box, and the established hives to see if there is more honey that needs to be pulled.

Sing me the song of bees

Our journey with the bees has been a slightly rocky one. Last year, when we first got our bees, we had two hives in the back orchard, and one up toward the front of the property. The front hive was not doing as well as the other two, and I realize that it spent most of the day in the shade: not a good thing for bees. It had also gone queenless at some point, probably because the queen decided it was too damn gloomy there and took off with half her workers. So we relocated the hive to the orchard, and as we moved the other two further west from their original spots, I found one of the hives had absconded. In May, we received three more packages, one of which again was struggling. However, the original two were doing fine (swarms notwithstanding), and a good frame from the strongest hive has helped this weakest one along nicely.

The strongest hive – the one that originally was at the front of the property, as it happens – has swarmed twice this season, in March and again in May. That isn’t unheard of, but it’s rare, and I decided to go into the hive and see what was going on in there. With my sister’s help, we smoked the bees and took a look around inside. Neither of us could spot the queen, but there was a nice brood pattern, pollen stored, and honey. Lots of honey. So much, in fact, that we found two full frames of it – but they weren’t doing anything in the super I’d put on top of the hive bodies, for some reason. I decided that perhaps part of the issue was that they were honey bound: that is, they’d stored so much honey in the area where they live, the queen couldn’t lay, and couldn’t get past the honey barrier to do anything in the super (which is fine; I don’t really want her laying in the super anyway, as it will make honey extraction a pain). So we took two frames of honey out and replaced them with fresh, undrawn frames.

Honey frames June 2013

We stuck them in an empty hive body and placed the whole thing over a chafing dish. I’d not been expecting any honey this early in the season, so we have none of the things we’ll eventually need for full scale honey extractions. One of those things is an uncapping tub, which allows you to hold the frame above a tub on a nail-like surface and scrape the caps off the cells. We improvised.

Uncapping a frame June 2013

Another thing we don’t have – yet – is an extractor. After uncapping into the chafing dish…

First honey June 2013

…we set the frames back in the hive body and set the hive body back on top of the chafing dish to let the honey drip out. Gravity is our friend here.

First honey June 2013

We had used a sheet pan to hold the frame we weren’t working on each time, and wound up with a bit of honey there. Of course my mom and sister had to taste it – not me, though, as honey is too acidic for my damaged mouth.

First honey June 2013

There were a couple of bees hanging on to the edges of the frames when we brought them in. Guess who didn’t see one when grasping one of the frames to move it out of the way.

Bee sting June 2013

Another sting to add to my collection, this time on the pad at the base of my pinky finger. Unlike the ones I’d had in my ankle and shin, not too much swelling, and it only hurt for the instant of the sting itself. It mostly itched throughout the night and into the next day. Meanwhile, back at the frames, the honey was drawing down nicely into the dish.

First honey June 2013

Today, we had this.

First honey June 2013

Of course, amongst the honey is wax, pollen, probably a few bee parts here and there and so on. That’s what strainers are for.

Honey strainer June 2013

This is a coarse strainer. We also have fine and micro, but decided to start with this. The contents in the dish get poured in…

Straining the honey June 2013

… and the honey flows through to the bowl beneath it.

Straining the honey June 2013

Straining the honey June 2013

Eventually all that’s left in the strainer is the wax (and assorted bits of things).

Beeswax June 2013

Now, we wait for the honey to settle and for the bubbles to work their way up to the top.  We’ll then take a look at it and see if we want to strain it again, or just bottle it for use: Lazy Dogs Ranch honey.

 

Weighty things

There comes a point when you’re picking yet another huge batch of squash or beans or cukes that you realize how tedious it is to weigh on a basic kitchen scale, in bowls. Given how crazily everything is growing here, courtesy of the great soil we brought in, it became more evident than ever that a new weighing method was in the cards. So I got one of these: 70 pound capacity, well above whatever we’d be putting into a single picking bag at any time.

Scale June 2013

A full bag of snap beans weighs about ten pounds.

Snap beans June 2013

The slicing, dicing, salting, brining, and canning continues apace. This batch of tangy relish was done yesterday (two quarts, eight pints). I have another in progress right now, in addition to another batch of pickles for sweet relish. The season is going to be a long one.

Relish June 2013

Relish June 2013

Sweeties

When harvest season begins at the ranch, just about every day is filled with some aspect of it: picking, canning, freezing – everything involved in putting food by, as they say down here. Today: finally getting the sweet pickles chopped and into jars. The whole process to make sweet relish (or sweet gherkins) takes three days: two brines in salt water, then three turns in the sweet pickling solution. Once that’s done, remove the pickles and boil the pickling liquid for a few minutes. The pickles get a good dice, to whatever size you think is acceptable for relish. And yes, it’s done by hand for now, for however large or small a batch I happen to be making.

Prepping relish June 2013

The relish gets packed into jars, then topped with the hot pickling liquid, making sure to get all the air bubbles (or as many as humanly possible) out. The lids go on, and it’s into the canner for a boiling water bath: here, at sea level, ten minutes for pints, and fifteen for quarts. Once the time is up, the jars come out, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the metallic POP to tell you that you have a good seal.  After a cooldown, they get a tag with the date and off they go to the cold room for storage, ready to be called into duty to top hotdogs, be added to tuna or potato salad, or whatever other need beckons.

Sweet relish June 2013