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

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

IMG_0117

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.

IMG_3144

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!

IMG_3145

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.

IMG_3156

IMG_3159

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….

IMG_3161

IMG_3163

IMG_3185

IMG_3218

IMG_3433

IMG_3447

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.

IMG_4210

IMG_4214

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

IMG_3164

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.

IMG_2870

IMG_2872

IMG_2965

IMG_2976
Look closely and you can see the house through the trees.
IMG_3057
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.

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

Not Your Garden Variety Garden – Part 1

Hello everyone! It’s been over a month since we last posted, but I hope you’ll forgive us as May turned out to be pretty busy. Not only did we have a garden to put in, chickens to process, acreage to mow and bridges to build, but we also took a brief trip to Yosemite (where we found ourselves in the middle of a blizzard), and were lucky enough to enjoy extended visits from both sides of the family. Now that the dust has settled, the mower has replaced the tiller (which had replaced the auger) on the Kubota, and the guest room is again fulfilling its natural role as the place where I watch YouTube clips all night while pretending to write, let’s pick up where we left off.

Well, speaking of gardens, ours is finally planted! Of course last time we posted we were still in the fence-building phase, so let me back up, all the way back to April…

After installing all of the “invisible” polypropylene deer fencing, I eventually finished constructing the large, main gate…

…As well as a smaller, side gate. This in itself is remarkable as it involved the use of power tools and my somehow coming away from the experience with all of my limbs and digits intact.  Anyway the plan was to have two small gates to go along with the larger one, but circumstances have prevented me from finishing – or, rather, even starting – that final gate.  Consequently we’ve had to tear out the polypropylene at the posts where that gate should be in order to have access to the spigot near that end of the garden. Could an animal get in? Perhaps, but quick thinking on our part seems to have solved that problem: when we’re not using that entrance we just drape the section of cut fencing material back between the posts as a ruse intended to stymie any deer, skunks or, if necessary, neighbors bent on breaching the perimeter. Ha! Humans: 1; Deer: 0!

With that done it was time to move on to the drip tape. We had purchased one large, 4,100 foot roll, so we had to measure out each segment, cut them then roll them up, as tightly as possible, in order to carry them to the drip bars. This took longer than you might think; eight lengths of tape, at a hundred feet each, is nothing to sneeze at, and if you’re anything like me a strict adherence to method is required in order to avoid more work during the unrolling stage. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even roll up a garden hose without finding myself, only minutes later, struggling to untangle an impossible knotted convolution of rubber. Multiply that common experience by about a thousand and you’ll see what we were up against.

But we got it done, and soon (actually, a couple of days later) each segment was attached to the main bars, rolled back out to full length, capped off and stapled down.

Which brings us to the planning and planting stage! Stay tuned for all the excitement coming up in Part Two…

-Jason

Hard Times

We finally racked our last batch of fermented (hard) cider last week. All in all it was a pretty good first season, considering we had a surplus of apples and, initially, no clear idea what to do with them.

At first we just assumed we’d be making plain old cider. Fortunately, we have the perfect mix of varieties for the job: Red Delicious for sweetness, Newtown Pippen for tartness, and Bellflower for, well…okay, I don’t know what the Bellflower contributed. I’m sure it added something, though. At the very least it looked cool next to the others.

There they are in the above picture. That’s the Bellflower on the left. It’s a softer apple, easily bruised, with lemon-yellow skin and an oblong shape.

And yeah, we had a lot. You can see how six years of no pruning or spraying resulted not only in small, spotted and misshapen fruit, but also so much of it…

Generally speaking an afternoon’s picking would fill a trash barrel and then some.

I think that we went apple-picking four or five times over the course of the season. Ultimately we wound up with maybe thirty gallons or so of fresh pressed apple cider – and that’s after tossing apples that either failed to live up to our low standards of edibility or went bad in the lag time between picking them and pressing them (sometimes we’d pop a few bushels in water and then not get to the pressing for a couple of weeks. Oops).

Neighbors were kind enough to give us a bunch of clean, empty gallon jugs for storage. We also bought a couple dozen gallons of spring water just for the containers.

Most of the gallons went straight into the chest freezer. A few we gave away to neighbors or contractors, and, of course, we drank a couple ourselves. That still left a lot of cider. What to do with it?  Well, turn it into booze of course!

Making hard cider isn’t really difficult. In fact, with just a few small steps any average cider or juice, even store-bought, would probably ferment. If you really want to kick-start the process, however, the addition of yeast and sugar does the trick. It’s the yeast eating the sugar that, essentially, makes the cider “hard.”

The tricky part is sterilizing everything before getting started. That includes not only the fermentation tanks (called “carboys”) and measuring equipment but also the washed Corona and wine bottles we had set aside for the bottling (though those wouldn’t be necessary until much later).

Apparently keeping everything sterilized is a pretty big deal. Once the cider, yeast, and sugar are mixed up and funneled into the carboys it will sit for several weeks. You can imagine, then, how any small impurity, microbe or germ could contaminate the whole jug and sicken the heck out of any poor soul who has the misfortune to drink it.

Anyway, Lizzy measured out the sugar while the yeast was blooming in a dish of warm water. We also added yeast nutrient (probably not necessary, but we figured it couldn’t hurt), and pectic enzyme (this breaks down the pectin, which can become cloudy as the alcohol level rises).

When Lizzy was finished with the measuring we added the yeast mixture and funneled fresh cider into the tanks.

Then the carboys were fitted with special rubber plugs, into which were embedded plastic air-locks. The locks allow the gases to escape while keeping any airborne impurities from getting in. Floating on a small bit of water or vodka (which is sterile) inside the air-lock is a tiny plastic cap that bobs up and down with every rising bubble. This process, while fun to watch, is notable for another, more important reason: the yeast is converting the sugar to alcohol. Yippee!

The fizzing and bubbling lasts only a few days. After that the trick is to just be patient and let the stuff sit – it’ll take a few weeks for the scummy solids (called the Lees) to settle into the bottom of the carboy. The cider on top will be clear, with only a bit of color. At this stage it’s not unlike white wine in both looks and, surprisingly, taste.

Then it’s time to rack. Racking basically means siphoning the clear, alcoholic cider into cleaned and sanitized bottles. Now I don’t know about you, but while I’ve often heard or read about people siphoning gas out of someone’s car I’ve never really done the thing myself. Frankly, it seemed pretty complicated. In truth it’s as low-tech as you can get: you put the tank of cider on a counter top, lay out your empty bottles on the floor below, stick one end of a rubber tube in the carboy on the counter and the other end in a bottle, and let gravity do its thing.

Well, more or less.

We added a little sugar into the beer bottles in order to have sparkling cider (whatever yeast is left will eat the sugar, creating carbonation and – who would’ve thunk it – more alcohol). The cider in the wine bottles we kept uncarbonated, or “still.”

Of course the bottles have to be capped and corked. We got our cappers and corkers at the brew store and they’re pretty cheap and easy to use.

We only have two, three-gallon carboys, so we can ferment only six gallons at a time. We fermented three times, with a total of five gallons (for some reason we only filled one carboy during one of the rounds). I never got a picture of all of our bottles, but if you take the amount in the above picture and add to it the bottles in the picture below…

…you get a lot of cider. But it’s not as if we can start cracking these suckers right off the bat – no, it all goes into a cool, dark place to age for at least six months. We’ve tasted a couple of bottles (to make sure something dreadful hadn’t occurred), and they definitely improve with age.

Our first batch was racked in October, so we’ll be drinking some of them soon. I can’t wait!

-Jason