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

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

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

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