Monday, July 29, 2013

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Traveling Tomatoes!

My tomatoes have traveled this summer.  Just before I went on vacation the week of July 4, my tomatoes began ripening.  I intend to can tomatoes every summer, and I planted about 20 plants.  Unfortunately for my plans, they ripen at various times, and their ripening speed also depends on the weather, which, this summer, has been rainy.  Because the weather has been consistently moist, my tomatoes have not suffered blossom end-rot or cracking.  The dry weather punctuated with occasional rain causes those problems.  I trellised my tomatoes, and most of them were off the ground.
Beautiful tomatoes with no cracks or blossom end-rot!  

Before I left for vacation to Charleston, I picked all the tomatoes that had begun to turn ripe, and I had the people that were watching our animals look out for ripe tomatoes.  I was afraid all the green ones would turn red while I was gone.  I carried the tomatoes I picked to Charleston with me, and we ate some of them and some I cooked every day, adding the ripening ones to the pot.  It's certainly not the best way to preserve tomatoes, but I didn't have enough to can in one batch and I had too many to eat.

I came home, canned tomatoes, and did things normally for a week or two until the painters came.  For some reason, we thought it would be a great idea to have the entire downstairs of our house painted at one time.  When the painters arrived, I was canning tomatoes in the kitchen and finished the job before they got to that area.  I picked all the tomatoes that were ripe or nearly ripe, about two bushels of tomatoes, and went to visit my mother in the Upstate of SC.  I left some of the greenest tomatoes in her spare bedroom to ripen while I went on to visit my aunt.
Canning tomatoes at my aunt's house

Always ready to help with gardening and food preservation, my aunt helped me can tomatoes, and she also helped me freeze some corn from her garden.  Although I try every year to grow corn, I can never manage to grow enough for us to eat, much less to freeze.  Critters eat my corn.
Shucked corn ready to be washed

After we shucked, silked, and washed the corn, we cut it off the cob and cooked it.
Corn cut off the cob, ready to cook

We cooked it until it turned a darker yellow, cooled it, and put it in freezer bags.

This was our view while we worked.

I left the tomatoes at my aunt's house because transporting recently canned tomatoes might break the seal, and went back to my mother's house to can more tomatoes.

Canning tomatoes at my mother's house

My mother's pressure cooker.  I remember standing in front of it as a child, carefully watching the pressure gauge, certain it would explode

My mother helped me finish canning 14 quarts of tomatoes.  I left them there to rest and came home to the disaster that was my house: covered with plastic and dust.  Every table in the house, except the toddler table upstairs, was covered with plastic, and so the upstairs guest room became our dining room, bedroom, and dog bedroom.  My dogs did not like the interruptions. 

The painters are gone, the house looks somewhat normal, and my stove is covered with more pots of tomatoes as I continue canning.  I'll have to traverse the state to pick up my tomatoes, visiting family along the way.  This experience provides a new definition for "local food."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

If your garden hasn't washed away in the rain, it's tomato canning time!

My tomatoes are ripening on the vines, and in the next week or so, provided some disease doesn’t strike the plants, some critter doesn’t destroy them, or the recent monsoon rains don't wash them away, I’ll begin canning tomatoes.  I know I’m a strange tomato-grower:  I don’t eat many raw tomatoes but I do enjoy sauces made of cooked tomatoes.  My girls love raw tomatoes and visit the garden with excitement each day to pick and to eat some of the “baby” tomatoes I grow for them. 

Here's a salad my girls made from tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese and blackberries, with a little thyme and creeping Jenny (which we didn't eat) for a garnish.  My oldest daughter was excited that I let her use a sharp knife for the first time to halve the tomatoes.

For the past couple of years I have not purchased canned tomatoes from the grocery store because I have managed to can enough tomatoes to last all winter.  Home-canned tomatoes taste better than store-bought, and  I read that the lining of the containers of commercially canned tomatoes are made of BPA, or bisphenol A, a chemical that leaches into foods and may contribute to many serious diseases.  According to Green, some food companies, including ConAgra and H.J. Heinz, have begun removing BPA from their packaging, and so canned goods may be safer than they were a few years ago.

Try to can tomatoes, beans, jelly, or other foods this summer from your garden and enjoy some self-sufficiency and safe food during the rest of the year.  If you have never canned anything, the easiest thing to try is jelly or jam.  To make jam or jelly, you don’t need a pressure canner because the sugar in the jam preserves it, but to can beans or other vegetables, you need a pressure canner.  The pressure applied by the canner causes the food to boil at a higher temperature than it can boil on an open stove, and the higher temperature kills bacteria that might otherwise survive cooking.  Many people can tomatoes using a hot water bath, because the acidity in the tomatoes prevents bacterial growth in the food, but I can them with a pressure canner.

Finished tomatoes ready for winter
Using a pressure canner scares people.  Ask around and you’ll find stories of ceilings decorated with turnip greens and exploding food.  Provided your pressure canner operates correctly, and you follow directions with vigilance, canning food is safe.  I don’t usually follow directions precisely when I cook, but I check the instructions multiple times while I am canning food. 

My mother’s pressure canner has a gauge on it that measures the pressure, and when we were children, she asked my sister and me to watch the gauge for her while she did some other work so we could tell her if the pressure got too high.  I remember being afraid it would explode, but it never did.  

Mine rattles louder as the pressure increases, and it’s nice to be able to step away from it while knowing that it’s working correctly. It’s important to maintain a steady temperature under the pressure canner so that the pressure remains relatively stable; fluctuations in pressure will disrupt the canning process.  This is easy on gas or electric ranges, but both of my grandmothers canned food on wood stoves.  The next time you complain about a hot kitchen, or hot weather in general, first imagine being able to build a fire that burns steadily enough to cook food, or to operate a canner, and then think about cooking food, in an unairconditioned house, on the wood stove during July.  You, or someone in the family, cut the wood to build the fire, grew the food, and cooked it.  No wonder grandmas want you to eat all the food on your plate: they know the amount of work needed to get it to your plate.

In this post I gave more detailed instructions on canning, and this website gives many recipes and directions for canning.  Enjoy!

Friday, July 12, 2013

We burned the compost bin

No matter how noble my intentions to garden organically may be, sometimes life gets in the way.  In my case, a rotting compost bin, built by my husband, Scott, and I when we moved to our house nine years ago, derailed my organic ideals.  The compost bin was made of untreated lumber because I didn’t want to use treated lumber that might contaminate my compost with chemicals.  Of course, with constant exposure to soil and moisture, it began to rot immediately after construction.  Scott told me it would rot, but, because I was trying to garden organically, I did not want to use treated lumber, and other options were too expensive.

When we built the compost bin, we placed it in what was then the edge of the woods and out of sight of the house.  In the intervening years, we built a patio with a fireplace and a formal garden, which had an unrestrained view of the compost bin after we cut some of the pine trees that seemed to enjoy falling towards the house. 

The compost bin, built to my specifications, was 12 feet long and three feet wide, not something I could hide easily.  It had three wire bins with doors on hinges, and with my husband’s penchant for overbuilding everything, many nails.  Hundreds, even. 
Because it was rotten and unstable, we could not relocate it to a better site, and I had tired of shoveling compost over the 4-feet-tall sides from bin to bin.  Somehow, my children sucked away the extra energy I used to use for that task, and I needed an easier method of making compost.

We thought about dragging away the remains to rot in a gully on our property, but we decided against that option because after the wood rotted, mounds of wire mesh and nails would remain to puncture the soles of little feet that would surely explore the gullies one day.  Burning it became our only alternative for disposal. 

Organic ideals and necessity clashed as Scott, the lazy pyromaniac, excited about a bonfire in the yard, and without using kindling or breaking down the bin, doused the structure with gasoline and set it ablaze.  Aside from an initial burst of flame that disconcerted my daughter, and some charred wood, the fire went out quickly.  We tried again with more gasoline and some kindling, but the fire never engulfed the bin.  We did damage a fire ant nest near the fire.  I am not recommending this as a treatment for fire ants, though; the nest came back in a few weeks.

Scott had an impending trip out of town, so he saved the task for my father, another fire-lover (what man isn’t?) with many more years’ experience in burning unwanted structures around his farm.  My father set to breaking down the bin, with my help.  We salvaged wire and hinges, gathered kindling, piled the broken-down bin parts together, and set the bin ablaze.

After my father bought a heat pump for the house and quit using a wood stove for heat, he doesn't get to build fires nearly often enough for his taste.  He grew up in a house in which his mother cooked on a woodstove and the only source of heat was wood, and he became skilled at building a fire.  During my childhood, he laid fires so perfectly that he could light the fire with a match and give it no more attention except to adjust the dampers on the stove to achieve a roaring fire.  Scott’s only experience with building fires seems to involve lighter fluid or gasoline; his fire building skills have improved now that we live in a house with a wood-burning fireplace.

After the fire cooled, I gathered the remaining wire and recycled it.  I swept the pile several times with a large magnet, of the type roofers use to find errant nails, to remove the nails from the ash pile.  When Scott came home from his trip out of town, he was glad that my father helped me take care of one of my projects.

When I have building projects, I still avoid treated lumber.  My father gave us cedar lumber cut from his property to build the chicken coop.  Scott built me two cold frames, and he used treated lumber because, he declared, "I'm not going to do all that work and have it rot in a year or two."  I agree with him.  My compost pile, these days,  is a jumble of ingredients on the ground that I don’t turn.  I don't have as much compost as I used to, but it’s much easier to manage.  I also leave compost ingredients, such as dead plants or trimmings, on the ground to decompose in place, or I feed them to the chickens.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Deer... I do not love you!

I know deer eavesdrop on my conversations.  I thought I won the battle against deer, but they must have decided  I was too sure of my victory against them, and they started eating my garden as if the electric fence that surrounds my property did not exist.  Almost daily, now, I see deer in the yard, and I see their white mop-like tails defiantly wave at me as they clear the fence in one jump. 

My poor apple trees!  There should be leaves all the way down the  branches.

Deer aren’t the only pests attacking my garden, and even if you don’t have deer, you probably have six-legged critters that munch on your plants.  I saw no potato bugs this year, and harvested 84 pounds of nearly perfect potatoes a couple of weeks, but they usually try to destroy my potatoes. 

One of my helpers.  Digging potatoes is a treasure hunt!
If you have potato bugs, which are little orange bugs that defoliate potato plants, knocking them into soapy water is a great way to dispose of them safely.  Knocking almost any insect into soapy water will kill it; just make sure you correctly identify it as a pest first. 
My other helper.  These girls know where potatoes come from!

I giggle to myself as I knock Japanese beetles off my blackberries, grape vines, apple trees, and roses into a bucket of plain water to give to the chickens.  I call it “chicken bobbing for apples” because I set the bucket of water in the midst of the hens, and they gleefully consume the Japanese beetles so they can, later, turn them into eggs.  See a video of this here. It’s best to pick Japanese beetles and other insects that fly to escape capture in the morning, when the dew remains on the plants, because they can’t fly well when their wings are wet.
I avoid using chemical pesticides, and I never apply pesticides to the entire garden.  Whenever I apply pesticides, chemical or organic, I apply them to kill a specific pest that I have identified correctly.  Whatever pesticide I apply can also kill bees and other beneficial insects, and spraying the entire garden will kill all insects. 

Most of the time, pests I attempt to control with pesticides are eating the leaves of the plant, not the blossoms, and bees visit the blossoms of the plant and have incidental contact with the leaves of the plant.  I can also wait until the plant has stopped blooming, because bees will stop visiting the plant when it has stopped blooming, and apply pesticides then. 

Japanese beetles are devouring my grapes.  The plants aren’t blooming anymore, because the deer ate the blossoms and many leaves.  The poor plants began to grow new leaves and now Japanese beetles are eating the new growth.  The chickens have enjoyed several episodes of “bobbing for apples” with those beetles, and I applied diatomaceous earth, a naturally occurring pesticide made from fossilized diatoms that works by dehydrating insects, to the leaves.  If the Japanese beetles persist in their attack on my grapes, I may apply a chemical pesticide, because if I don’t stop the beetles the plants may die.
I use Sluggo® and containers of beer to drown slugs and snails, and I use Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, to kill caterpillars.  I pick off large tomato hornworms, the scary-looking, but harmless to people, green worms that can defoliate tomatoes and feed them to my chickens.  Correctly identify caterpillars; Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat parsley, but I allow them to eat my parsley so that I can enjoy butterflies later. 

How is your garden?