My Corn Tale of Woe

Let me set the stage: we moved on to these lovely 10 acres two years ago and started learning about the farmer who lived here before us.  He really had the farming thing down pat.  He had cows up in the pasture, the apple orchard for cider apples, and in the low part, by the street, he grew corn.  The whole front was corn.  Not only that, but he dry farmed it.  Meaning, after maybe an initial watering, he didn’t water it at all.  Not only that, but it was delicious.  And he used the stalks to feed his cows.

So we had to grow corn.

But instead of the wise old farmer, it was just dumb old us.  And we have no idea what we’re doing.  I picked what sounded like a good type of corn, white and sweet, and planted it.  We have no clue about dry farming; we watered our corn.  It came up, looking promising.

And then I suddenly took a full time job over the summer and basically left the whole garden to Jason.

Have I mentioned that the garden is about 1/3 of an acre?  Not all corn, of course, but it included a large patch.

Anyway, time slipped away from us and before we knew it the corn was over-ripe.  Yucky.  Gluey and tasteless.  We let it just sit there and dry up.  After the season was over, we harvested an insane amount of dried corn – seed for next year.  I wound up giving away the vast majority at a seed exchange.  But we kept some for this year.

Take two with the corn.  No excuses this time – I have taken the summer off and we’ve been down in the garden a lot.  We kept taste-testing the corn, and it wasn’t looking so good, again.  Finally, I noticed a trend: they were starting to get a little less awful.  So, today, when I picked one that tasted halfway okay, I decided it was time.  Harvested the whole lot.  Five big crates full.

An aside: hardly any photos because my bloody cell phone is on the fritz.  Again.

Anyway, Sarah and her friends helped with the harvest, and then Sarah and I shucked every single one and took a bite of every single one.  Five crates worth.  Raw.

More than half were rejected out of hand, and the others were deemed good enough or, with the tone of surprise, “Sweet!”  Those were few and far between, though, and really it was a matter of perspective.  I’m sure the professionally grown sweet corn would have put our best ones to shame.

So, tonight, I blanched, cooled, cut off the kernels and froze all the “good enough” corn.  It made three gallon-sized Ziploc bags worth.  Rather flat bags.  And the rejects are now two crates (shucked) of chicken food.  I’m hoping the lambs will eat the husks – I’ll try that tomorrow.

Cobs from "okays" on left, rejects on right.
Cobs from “okays” on left, rejects on right.

Between the initial taste-testing with Sarah, and the secondary testing I did after the blanching (some were definitively rejected), I’m REALLY SICK OF CORN.  I don’t know when I’ll ever be ready to face those bags in the freezer.  The thought makes me slightly nauseous.

Maybe we should just stick to tomatoes.

– LizzyIMG_0240

The Camper Catastrophe Caper

We were going camping – hooray!  So we loaded up our 1985 VW Westfalia camper van – hooray! – and headed out of town.  But first Jason wanted a cup of coffee at the local Starbucks, so we got only to the next town, three miles from home.  He put the coffee in the camper’s cup holder – which is all of about an inch deep – and started driving.  We didn’t even get out of the parking lot before it spilled spectacularly.

So we stopped and opened all the doors and got out all the trash bags and paper towels and mopped up.  Then we were finally on our way – hooray!  This time we got as far as the stoplight.  As we approached it, with a cop ahead of us, Sarah shouted: “The back is open!  The back is open!”

And, indeed, the hatchback was wide open.

The light was red, the cop was ahead, and we couldn’t pull over.  So we did what we could, which was switch to the right lane, stop at the light, and I jumped out and slammed the hatch closed.  Next to the cop.  Whew!  Nothing had fallen out!  But now we were in the right-turn-only lane and so we were forced to go in the wrong direction, away from the highway.

Okay, said Jason, we’ll gas up at this station up ahead.  Plus, I can get a replacement coffee there, too.  And THEN we’ll head out on our trip.  So, we gassed up, got a coffee and got into the camper.

And Jason turned to me and said:

“What’s gonna go wrong next, huh?!?”

Yes, he really said that.

And then he turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened.

Now, I could end the story right there, because, honestly, what’s gonna top that.  But I’ll tell you the rest of what happened.  We tried and tried, but the camper wouldn’t even attempt to turn over.  And the clutch pedal wouldn’t go down properly and there was a mysterious leak under the driver’s side.  So, Jason called triple A and I looked around and offered to walk over to what looked like a car shop.  It was the next business over, separated from the gas station by an empty lot.  I walked over.  The sign said they fix VWs.

And it was closed.  Of course.

But I noticed some sounds coming from one of the bays, which was halfway open.  And a car was up on the lift.  So, I composed in my head what I thought might convey our situation in Spanish and walked over and called out, “Hello?”

Out came a guy and said, “How ya doin’?”  Turns out he wasn’t supposed to be there but he hadn’t finished a brake job from the day before, and, sure, he’d come take a look.  He walked over and managed to do some sort of rolling jump start thing and drove our camper to his shop!  Finished the other car and got ours on the lift!  Said he’d start fixing it right then – did we want a ride home from his girlfriend?

20130330_121323Jaw on ground.  We had found the world’s nicest mechanic.  Long story short, he tried for hours but couldn’t fix everything that day, so we took the pickup truck and went tent camping instead.  Had a wonderful time.  Our fantastic mechanic fixed the camper while we were gone and now it’s right as rain.

And thinking it over we are really very, very lucky.  If Jason hadn’t spilled his coffee, we would have broken down on the highway.  Maybe causing a crash.  Possibly in the middle of nowhere.  And certainly not next to the world’s nicest mechanic who was putting in extra hours when the shop was closed.

– Lizzy

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Bumbling Along…

We didn’t mean to become beekeepers.

Not so soon, anyway.  It was on the list, but in the “some year down the road” category.  But last February I saw an ad on Craigslist for a whole setup of bee hive stuff that came with a wild swarm of bees, and we hopped in the truck to go get it all.  Got back home, set it up, and thought: “Oh crap.  Now what?”  We quickly took a beginner beekeeping class and found out all the things we were doing wrong.  We adjusted a few things, and then basically left them alone.

They started out as a very, very small colony but grew fantastically last spring.  We knew we weren’t supposed to take any honey the first year, to help them through the winter.  Over the summer they filled up two “brood boxes” with brood (babies) and some honey, as well as a “honey super” which is a smaller box just for honey.  And then we left them alone.

Which, it turns out, was a mistake.

Turns out, over the winter they filled their “brood boxes” with honey instead of brood.  Which left the queen bee with nowhere to lay her eggs.  From what we can figure, the worker bees knew eggs weren’t being laid, so they figured it must be the queen’s fault.  So they killed her and then tried to make a new queen, which didn’t work out.  By the time we looked into the brood boxes in mid-March, it was too late.  No queen, no babies, dying colony and LOTS AND LOTS OF HONEY.

At least there’s a bright side.

So, we rented an extractor and wound up with over FOUR GALLONS of honey.  We don’t even go through a quart a year.  That’s sixteen years worth of honey.  Yes, we’ll be selling some, and no, we don’t ship.  Except to our mothers, of course.

IMG_0062Jason with one frame of capped honey.

IMG_0071Uncapping with the special knife

IMG_0073The rented extractor, which spins the honey out.

IMG_0085Then we filter the honey through this fine mesh bag.

IMG_0097Pour it out into jars

IMG_0112And admire it!

IMG_0116It came out dark and complex, but with no bitterness.  Super sweet and delicious!

So that’s how we wound up, by our bumbling ignorance, destroying our colony of bees.  And getting a huge windfall of fantastic honey.  I’ve taken another beekeeping class, and it’s one of those “the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know” things.  Bee colonies are very complex, and million things can go wrong.  Several people in the class said their bees died, or left, and they got zero honey out of the deal.  So, we’ll start again with new bees next month, and try our best.  But if we screw up again, at least we’ve got sixteen years worth of honey.

– Lizzy

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Root Cellar

It’s about time I post about the root cellar. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s no way any family of three can grow this much produce without figuring out some way to store it all. That means a lot of canning, a lot of drying, and the need for a cool, ventilated room to keep it in. Plus we have plenty of six-packs and wine bottles of hard cider, currently hiding underneath a staircase, that are in need of a new home. That’s a lot of space – and space, unfortunately, is something we lack.

In many parts of the country homes are equipped with a cellar, or basement. In New England, where I grew up, we had a good 1,000 square feet of perfectly liveable, if a little spidery, extra space. That basement, which was made  up of three distinct sections, was home to my father’s work bench (seldom used), our weight bench (used even less), a laundry room (used daily), and even a decent-sized pub complete with a bar, couches, a stereo and even a bumper pool table (used the most). The damn thing even had swinging saloon doors.

Not here in the West Coast, though. For some reason every house has only a shallow, forbidding, cobwebbed mouse habitat commonly known as the crawl space.

As in, the only way to get around in there is to crawl. And if the parade of plumbers, electricians and other contractors we’ve had around here are to be believed, I, as a homeowner, should already have done plenty of crawling. I mean, you’d think that for every other new homeowner clamping a mag-lite between their teeth, kicking out the small, ground-level screen window and diving into the abyss is an act undertaken before the moving truck has even backed out of the driveway.

Me, I haven’t gone down there since moving in. Okay, so I did send Sarah down there once, but that hardly counts. I mean, she was the one who wanted to play with the flash light.

Anyway, the point is there’s no room at all to store anything down there. Skeletal remains, maybe, but quart jars of dilly beans? Not bloody likely.

It just so happens that we don’t have a heck of a lot of pantry space inside the house either, so we knew we’d have to come up with another idea.

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What we did have was a steep hill, running behind the house and abutting the parking area, that had sort of become the dumping ground for old lumber. So, we thought, why not excavate here, throw in an 8 X 10 structure, run a ventilation pipe up skyward, and fill back in? Instant Root Cellar!

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Of course I’m misusing the word “instant” here; it turned out to be a pretty large contracting job that took twice as long to complete as originally planned. Ultimately, we didn’t excavate as deeply into the hill as we would have liked (due to safety concerns), and consequently the front of the structure sticks out from, rather than is flush with, the side of the hill. That forced us to build some retaining walls on either side to prevent the still-loose dirt from sliding down and around the front due to rain or just plain gravity.

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One of the neat consequences of all this is that, for a time at least, Sarah had a very large pile of dirt to climb on and play around in for several weeks….

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Notice how easily all of that dirt could slide down around the front corners, particularly after a heavy rain. Which is exactly what happened when the project was interrupted by several days of downpours, a mess that resulted in our door being sealed closed by almost a foot of heavy, wet mud.

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And here’s what it looks like now. Inside we’ve got a dirt floor, decent ventilation, and plenty of space for shelving. No electricity, of course, but we’ve inserted a piece of PVC pipe in the cement and through a retaining wall to allow for the use of an extension cord to power any lights, fans or wide-screen tv’s we might want to have in there (you have to admit–it does look like the perfect man-cave). Come Spring we’ll throw some seeds down along the top and sides, and with a little luck we’ll eventually get some good ground cover for erosion control. I’ll build a ramp, and maybe even landscape a bit around the front.

But at least it’s done before next summer. Whew!

-Jason

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Enough About the Garden Already!

It has just this morning occurred to me, as I fired up the computer and looked over our past blog posts, that I haven’t written anything since June. As in six months ago. Ugh. I mean, it was a busy summer, don’t get me wrong, but really? Thank goodness Lizzy stepped in; if maintaining and updating this blog were solely my responsibility you’d just now be reading about how exhausting our moving day was.

I’d love to attribute my lack of posting to laziness, but there’s more to it than that. I won’t bore you about it now, though.

Anyway, it looks like Lizzy, in her last post, pretty much wrapped up all the garden stuff. If you read it you got the gist: we wound up with boatloads of veggies. Way more than a family of three could ever dream of eating its way through. This is, by now, old news. Still, I feel like I should post one last pic:

Lizzy, do you hate tomatoes yet?
Lizzy, do you hate tomatoes yet?

That’s a lot of tomatoes. I wish I could tell you that was our haul for the year, but no – what you see here represents maybe 1/8th of what we grew. As Lizzy alluded to in her earlier post we dried them, canned them, froze them, made them into paste, threw them at solicitors and, of course, ate them fresh – and still had many tomatoes rot on the vine.

So…maybe next year we’ll do fewer tomatoes.

Anyway, as I said, let’s consider the garden wrapped up. Enough already!

Of the many non-garden related projects we’ve undertaken these last months, the largest by far, and most significant in terms of preparing ourselves for a sustainable life, are fencing the properties and constructing a root cellar in the hill directly behind the house.

I mean, you can’t very well run a farm with livestock and such and not have a bunch of fencing, right? Apparently in many respects farm animals aren’t dissimilar to infant humans: they tend to eat lots of grass and dirt, poop everywhere, tear through neighbors’ living rooms, and then run into the street where they are instantly struck and killed by a truck delivering beef jerky to the liquor store down the road. Our plan is to avoid that sort of thing.

And a root cellar is a no-brainer if every year you’re going to grow and harvest, thanks to a garden plot the size of a football field, enough vegetables to feed the planet several times over. Did we mention that we grew a lot of vegetables? Well, we did. So many, in fact, that had we done this prior to 1984 the super group Band Aid would never have existed. That’s right – no depressing Christmas song thanking God for starving most of Africa. Heck, for all we know Bono might have given up music all together and switched to a more constructive career, like landscaping or owning a car wash. The thought absolutely boggles the mind.

Dammit, now I’m on about the garden again. Sorry.

There’s no way I’ll have enough room in this post to write about both the fencing and the root cellar, so I’ll stick with the fencing. I think we’ve written somewhere that Lizzy had found a good deal on tons of corner-posts, studded metal t-posts, and deer-fencing while browsing the Craig’s List “Farm and Garden” section.

I can't say with certainty that Sarah isn't somewhere underneath all of this.
I can’t say with certainty that Sarah isn’t somewhere underneath all of this.

They were basically half the price of brand-new material, so of course we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Unfortunately, when I write that it was a “ton” of fencing I’m not being entirely accurate. It was more like two or three tons. The stuff was so heavy we had to borrow a burly neighbor and his utility truck to transport the metal material over the twenty-ish miles from Bonny Doon to Watsonville, and it still took us several trips. Separately, we used our pickup truck to move the corner posts (8 foot, 4×8 pressure treated. Maybe sixty of them) and that took two trips and nearly killed the poor truck. The experience was, in its back-breaking potential, second only to our experiment in building our own garden fence (http://wp.me/p1OmAa-cM if you’d like to revisit it).

IMG_2876But we got it done, and having all that inexpensive fencing proved to be huge for our budget. We did have, after all, several acres throughout two different parcels of very hilly land to fence in. Naturally, we weren’t about to undertake this sort of thing ourselves, so we found a good contractor – a guy who had worked for us before and we trusted – and began the process of transforming our open land into a place that goats and wee lambs can graze and frolic in safely and happily, at least until we eat them.

Each fenced-in section covers about three acres of land: the apple orchard below the house and the “upper pasture” extending from the driveway away from the house. Each has two 14 foot gates (for truck and tractor access) and a couple of 4 foot gates (for, you know, just people). Not included in the newly fenced-in areas are an access road we carved into the hill between the house and the orchard/chicken yard, the front plateaus by the main road (where the vegetable garden, burn pile and future olive grove are) a couple of acres of brush, bramble and eucalyptus behind the house, and the house and yard itself.

So here, at the risk of boring you with pictures of fences, are some pictures of fences:

Just getting started on the upper pasture.
Just getting started on the upper pasture.

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Look closely and you can see the house through the trees.
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The access road between the house and the orchard.
More access road. Access to what? How knows!
More access road. Access to what? Who knows!

So now that’s done. We’re eager to get our animals now, but first we have to provide some sort of shelter for them to sleep in. Of course that’ll involve me, lumber and power tools, so we may wait until this spring, as building anything larger than a coat rack involves more ambition than I have readily available, as well as many hours browsing YouTube for tutorials on how to use a hammer.

Next up, the root cellar!

-J.

Harvest Season

So sorry about the long delay in posting – we’ve been busy!  Summer was a blur of full-time work (for me) and trying to keep up with the garden (for Jason).  But for the last two months we’ve been trying to deal with the fruits of our labor – quite literally.  Now we really understand the concept of harvest season.  I will try to show the sheer vastness of our harvest in photos.

We grew four types of dry beans (as well as two types of fresh green beans).  When the bean pods were dry we picked them and brought them to the house, then we shelled them into this pan, then we sorted them into containers by type.  I should not have written “we”.  Jason did all this almost single-handedly over many hours and many days.  There are many, many more than this photo shows.  Shown here: Sarah running her hands through the beans – it feels great!

Here is a typical truckload in September: six crates of tomatoes, one of yellow summer squash, and another crate with cucumbers and winter squash.  We were happily inundated with tomatoes all late summer, but unhappily inundated with summer squash.  I sold a few at the farmer’s market, but many of them became chicken food.

What to do with too many tomatoes?  I ate them all summer and early fall literally for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between snacks.  Every day.  In October I finally reached my limit.  Jason canned like crazy.  He also dried them in the oven and packed them in oil (cherry tomatoes), and…

Made

tomato

paste!

  It

is

so

sweet

and

delicious!

The pear tree went crazy this year.  In the spring it bloomed before the apple trees did, and our bees (we have a hive) absolutely covered the whole tree.  It was humming!  As a result, we got a bazillion pears!  They’re more problematic to deal with in quantity than apples, since they ripen and rot so quickly.

But

boy

were

they

delicious!!!

Sarah

helped

us

by

climbing,

picking

and

eating,

of course!

We wound up with seven crates of pears!  And we couldn’t even reach the pears in the top 1/4 of the tree!  We wound up making pear butter, pear sauce, canned pears and dried pears.  How did we dry the pears, you ask?

I’m glad you asked.  I must toot my own horn about this one.  Thought it up myself, I did!  We have some very hot days in September and October here in California, and I’ve been wanting, but too lazy to build, a solar food dryer.  Instead, I realized how hot it gets in our attic and found that we have a pile of unused window screens leftover from the old windows we switched out.  We also happened to buy a mandolin (the slicer, not the instrument) for $3 at a yard sale across the street.  Combine all these and you get a perfect way to dry pears!  They came out delicious.  It worked so well I’m also drying apples as I write these words.

We also harvested three crates of potatoes, which are now being stored in the apple shed with the winter squash and the apples.  And one last half-crate of pears that refuse to ripen.  Jason fixed up the apple shed by emptying it of junk, replacing all the screens and putting new wood on the floor where hungry animals and rot had taken their toll.  The apple house is really supposed to be for apples only, and the potatoes and squash will wind up in the new root cellar when it’s finished.  The root cellar will have to be a blog all of its own – stay posted.

The peppers finally ripened, all at once, in late October.  We have a combination of sweet yellow and red, as well as a couple types of hot.  We made a big fry from sweet peppers and sweet onions and had wonderful fajitas, with lots of leftovers.  The rest of the peppers are in the fridge.  Both the sweet and the normal onions are still in the ground.  Don’t know quite what to do with all the sweet onions, since they will not store well.  Our plan for the normal onions is to hang them in the attic and under the stairs and use them all year.  Any suggestions for what to do with the sweet?  Caramelize and can them, somehow?  Our freezers are full, so it will have to be a canning solution…

Most recent harvest, late October: some parsnips and kale, a pile of pumpkins and winter squash, and the last of the cherry tomatoes (with a couple of peppers thrown in).  The rest of the parsnips are still in the ground, but will be stored in the aforementioned root cellar.  The kale we’ll just leave in the garden to continue growing.  Most of the pumpkins are sugar pumpkins for eating, but we wound up with three for carving for Halloween: two from a volunteer plant!  The closest yellow round thing in the photo is a mini-watermelon from “Sarah’s” garden.  It was ripe, but not fantastically sweet.  We won’t bother with that again next year.

As though I didn’t have enough to do, I convinced my neighbor to make jelly with me out of her Concord grapes.  It turned into a saga.  She harvested all the grapes, but half of them rotted before we could coordinate our schedules to make the jelly together.  The non-rotten half wound up being 21.5 pounds of grapes!  We followed a recipe I’d found online, which said no pectin was needed and it would thicken in 20 minutes.  Turns out it took 5 hours.  In retrospect, I should have just given up after an hour and run to the store for pectin.  Instead, I stirred that darn jelly for hours during 80 degree weather!  Here is Sarah happily helping at the beginning of the grape jelly saga.  Needless to say, her interest flagged as time wore on.  Anyway, my neighbor and I made 23 jars of jelly, but she would only take 3 jars!  What on earth am I going to do with 20 jars of Concord grape jelly?!?

And then, of course, the apples.  As you probably know, we have a whole orchard full of them.  I’m not actually sure how many trees we have – somewhere around 40.  We started harvesting in September and have been flat out ever since.  And we’re not done.  We had three weekends in a row when folks came to visit and helped us make cider!  First our friends Paula and John (pictured) who taught us how to process chickens last year, then my great friend Luisa and her daughter and daughter’s friends, then Jason’s aunt Margurite and uncle John from Massachusetts.  We have given away a few gallons and the chest freezer could only hold 10 gallons of cider this year (it’s full of 1/2 a lamb and 1/2 a pig we got from a nearby ranch).  But we have many more apples to press – yikes! Where will we put it?!?  Time to make more hard cider, clearly.  I also need to make apple sauce and, as I mentioned, am drying some too.  The “perfect” apples (few and far between) will remain in the apple shed for eating throughout the year.

I am currently in negotiations with someone who is raising turkeys locally; I’m hoping to trade 10 gallons of cider for a Thanksgiving turkey.  Wish me luck!

Sorry the post was so long, and so long overdue!  But thanks for reading!

– Lizzy

Sarah and her watermelon

Knee high by the 4th of July

The garden is really shaping up nowadays!  If we can only control the dang-blasted gophers, we should have a great harvest.  We are already drowning in lettuce, and took a stab at selling at our nearby Farmer’s Market.  Here’s a photo essay of the progress:

Here are the potatoes – flowering.
Sarah loves her sunflowers!
We grew a ton of lettuce – this is my favorite kind.
Fennel, spinach (bolting) and lettuce
Onion Land
Scarlet Runner Beans
Summer Squash
Winter Squash
Basil Land
Can you find a child in this corn?
There she is!
Tomato Land!
We like this weed (petunia!) so much we didn’t pull it.
Beans, beans the magical fruit…
We pull this weed – to cook and eat it! Purslane.
Can’t wait for the tomatoes to start ripening!
The chickens enjoy the bolted lettuce!
Ready to go to the Farmer’s Market…
Selling produce at the Market! Our first time!

You can find us – and many other wonderful vendors – at the Corralitos Farm/Garden Market, which is held in front of the Corralitos Cultural Center: 127 Hames Road.  Take a left just after the Corralitos Meat Market, and you’ll see the yellow sign and the blue awnings on the left.  The Market is open Sundays from 11:00 to 3:00.  The produce is all VERY local, organically grown, and very reasonably priced.  See you there!

– Lizzy