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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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

Not Your Garden Variety Garden – Part 2

Back to the garden. Now that the fence was finished (mostly), and the drip line installed, we had no more excuses – it was time to plant. But first we had to plan everything out in detail. I mean, one just doesn’t go about tossing seeds hither and thither and expect everything to pop up in nice groups, does one? No, any respectable farmer must map every section out, according to group, and allow for walkways, space for compost piles, and a place to park the truck.

This we did on a huge piece of graph paper on the floor (plan the garden, that is – not park the truck. That would have been impossible). We had already received all of our seed packets in the mail (from three separate seed companies), so we picked a morning, laid everything on the dining room floor, and got to work.

This took some doing, but after a couple of hours (and a lot of erasing) we had a pretty good garden mapped out. The seeds were bunched by group, or family: brassicas (broccoli, kale, etc.), solanaceae (tomatoes and potatoes), legumes, roots, and some miscellaneous.  That actually left us with room to spare, which will come in handy next season as we’ll be rotating all of the crops.

And what were we planting? I guess just about everything. Here’s the list, in alphabetical order: artichokes, asparagus, beans (fresh and drying), beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, collards, corn, cucumbers, fennel, garlic, kale, leeks, lettuce, okra, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, spinach, and squash (some yellow summer and a variety of winter, including pumpkins for Halloween).

Add to the list an herb garden with all the goodies and a tiny garden for Sarah to grow her own cherry tomatoes, watermelon, carrots, sunflowers, cukes, sweet peas, and cotton.

(Yes, cotton. I have no idea why, other than that we may teach her the value of hard work by making her knit her own clothing. I don’t know – I’ll have to check with Lizzy on that one.)

Now that the planning phase was over, it was time for sowing. The tomatoes and peppers were starts, and the potatoes were, well, potatoes – but otherwise everything else was in seed form, so we’d have to trench or cultivate each row before planting.

Unfortunately we had gotten a good bit of rain since the last time we tilled (before putting in the drip line), and what had been beautiful, dark, loose soil had turned, over the course of a couple of weeks, from a sticky mud pit to a hardened, unworkable crust. There was no way we could amend the entire site before planting, so we had to just go for it, forcing shallow gashes into the ground along the drip line and covering the seeds with the gravel-like lumps of dry clay. We were able cover some of our rows with a nice compost/manure mix, but most of the garden looked like the surface of Mars (you can see what I mean in the pictures below).

Which was damned discouraging, really, as the idea behind a garden this big was to have food – to eat, dry, can, store or sell – for the whole year, thus saving us valuable time we would otherwise have spent looking at US Magazine in line at the supermarket while the aromatherapist up ahead pays for her Kombucha with a check. The notion that nothing would actually grow in our garden hadn’t occurred to us.

Tomatoes & potatoes (which I now learn aren’t supposed to be planted next to each other. Oops.)

But somehow everything seems to be coming up! The last of these pictures were taken a couple of weeks ago, so it’s actually in better shape than it looks here. Lizzy figured out how to program the automatic drip timer, and we’ve even had to start weeding.

The entrance to Sarah’s garden
Corn!
Beans & cucumbers!

Potatoes!

It isn’t perfect, not by anyone’s definition: some sections seem extra dry while others flood a bit even with moderate watering. I still wince every time I look at the soil, and some vegetables, like the broccoli, cauliflower and kale, seem to be struggling. But others, like the corn, beans, potatoes, and – surprisingly – lettuce are thriving, and the tomatoes look great.

It remains to be seen, of course, if any of these grow to fruition. Until then we’ll tend to them as best we can.

Now we just have to worry about the gophers….

-Jason

From henhouse to freezer: the process of processing

So here is the chicken situation: we got 40 chicks, raised them, kept the hens for egg laying and processed and froze the roosters.  Well, almost all the roosters: we kept one for breeding.  His name is Lucky.  Believe it or not, all of this went exactly according to plan.  Well, almost exactly.

We figured a “straight run” of chicks – a chance mixture of both sexes – would come out close to a 50/50 mix.  But no.  Once they started to grow out of fuzzball stage, we started sorting them out and we found we had 12 females and 28 males!  Yikes!

That was a little more processing than we had counted on.  And fewer egg layers than we’d hoped for.  The other monkey wrench was our trip to Hawaii: we had it scheduled the day after the chickens turned 15 weeks old.  I read that our type of chickens, Barred Plymouth Rocks, should be processed between 15 and 20 weeks old.  But I didn’t want the pet-sitter to have to deal with an unruly gang of fighting, crowing roosters.  So, they all had to go – way ahead of schedule.

We learned how to process from very nice strangers who responded to my request on an online chicken forum I belong to.  I asked anyone in the greater Bay Area if they wouldn’t mind teaching us how to process, and, by gum, someone offered!  So, in November, we drove two hours to help people kill, pluck and eviscerate their chickens.  We actually had a great time and even Sarah helped pluck!

So, when it was time to do our own, we had some idea what to do.  Turns out processing chickens is slow work, so we took them in batches.  One day we did three, the next time we did six, after that we did eight, then just two (taught someone else how!), and finally finished with another batch of eight.

killing cone
dunking

Here’s the rough idea: catch a roo, hold him by the feet so he is upside down (it calms them), put him in the “killing cone”, slit his throat and let him bleed out, wait for the shaking to stop, cut off the head (he is already dead), dunk in 145 to 150 degree water a few times, hang by the feet and pluck.  Then remove feet and neck and eviscerate CAREFULLY.  This takes some time.  Plucking takes some time too.

plucking

Equipment we used: a metal cone for killing, a wheelbarrow of straw to catch the blood, a propane burner and lobster pot for dunking (and a thermometer), a rope with slipknot for the plucking area, an outdoor sink for our evisceration station, a cooler with ice for finished chickens, and VERY SHARP KNIVES.  We also bought a good vacuum sealer for sealing up the chickens before freezing them.

One thing we learned about freezing the chickens is that they need to rest in the refrigerator for three days before freezing, to go through rigor mortis.  So, you can either process a chicken and then immediately cook it (before rigor sets in) or wait the three days and freeze it.  So far we ate five fresh, gave one away, and froze 21.  That might sound like a lot of chickens in the freezer, but keep in mind these were processed quite early, so they’re little.  But they’re still yummy!

– Lizzy