Tiptoeing into the vegetable garden

Raspberry canes

I’ve been avoiding the vegetable garden. Not out of a lack of enthusiasm. I want to be in the garden. But I’m trying to be strategic about where I spend my time right now. I want to finish the office and I want to give the flowerbeds some attention. The garden has to wait.

I’ve set May as my start date for any serious work in the vegetable garden. I say serious because I can’t deprive myself avoid it entirely.

There are a few things that needed to happen sooner.

First is unwrapping the grapes. I had covered our new vines in burlap last year hoping it would help them survive the winter. Now that the temperatures are warmer and the sun is shining, I wanted them to have the benefit of the nice weather. I’m still not entirely sure how many vines survived the winter, but I feel like at least a few are alive.

Uncovering grapes that have been wrapped in burlap

I planted a rhubarb plant that I stole from my parents’ garden. Rhubarb has been on my list for a few years, so it’s exciting to have our own plant finally. This plant seems quite happy. Transplanting early in the season is working very well for me this year. The ground is wet, temperatures are mild, sun is shining. I’ve been moving a number of plants around and they all seem to be thriving.

Rhubarb early in spring

Matt and I cut up our seed potatoes. We planted our potatoes the first of May last year, and it worked out great, so we’re trying to get them ready. The cool thing about our potatoes this year is that except for one new variety our seed potatoes are all potatoes that we grew ourselves last year. We have Russian Blues, red and Kennebecs. The Kennebecs were our favourite last year and lived up to Karen’s hype. This year we’re adding Basin Gold, which are a big baking potato. Matt had bought these at the grocery store and they happened to sprout before we ate them, so into the garden they go.

I’m not sure where I read about this chitting technique, but this has worked for us the past few years. We cut the potatoes so that each chunk has about one eye. Then we let them dry out for a few weeks so that the potatoes don’t rot when we put them in the ground. I know people say these white stringy sprouts are not desirable, but they worked well for us last year and our plants seemed to grow faster.

Methinks we’re going to have lotsa potatoes.

Seed potatoes

The other exciting garden development–and one which I’ve done nothing for–is asparagus. It’s alive! Our scraggly little plants that we started from seed last year have begat a few slender stalks. Spindly might be a better term. A step up from scraggly, but not quite slender yet. Size does not matter in this case. The fact that they’re alive is a win.

Asparagus

We’re just a few days away from May, so my self-imposed hiatus will be coming to an end shortly. Then it’s full speed ahead on the vegetable garden. I’m excited with what’s to come next.

What gardening have you been doing? Do you have any transplant or potato growing techniques?

Sweet and sour saga of syrup making

Homemade maple syrup

Maple syrup. Sap, sugar, sweetness–so much goodness. Our maple syrup making this spring has been great–except for one incident that can only be described as terrible.

I try to be a positive person, so we’ll start with the good.

We tapped five maple trees at the start of this month (about two weeks earlier than last year), and we are having such a good run of sap. Warm weather the first week of March brought 30 litres on a good day–way more than last year.

We were a bit overwhelmed. We have only so many large containers to store sap and the fridge was full of food with no space for sap–thank goodness for the cold cellar. We’re low tech syrup makers, so we boil all of our sap on our stove, which takes a long time. Getting 30 litres of sap down to syrup on an average weeknight has made for some very late nights.

But right from the start the syrup was great. Our first run gave us a bit more than 3 litres of very light syrup. (Syrup gets darker as the season progresses. I only photographed our first 1.5 litres).

Homemade maple syrup

A cold spell put the run on hold for a couple of days, then we started again and got about 80 litres of sap over last weekend. When we finished our full weekend of boiling on Sunday night, we had 2.5 litres of incredibly sweet syrup–magic. (See how it’s darker than the first run?)

Homemade maple syrup

The run continued into the start of this week, and by Tuesday evening we had about another 80 litres of sap on its way to syrup.

And then things took a turn.

Early Wednesday morning–very early, 1 am early–something woke me up. A couple of seconds later, the smoke alarm went off. Matt–and a whole lot of smoke–were in the kitchen when I opened the bedroom door. In fact, the smoke was absolutely everywhere. Syrup was pretty much everywhere too.

It had boiled over the pot, flowed across the stove top, overflowed the stove top, ran down onto the floor, behind the cabinet, under the stove, across the kitchen floor. It was a mess like I’ve never seen.

Matt sent the smoking pot outside, and we started sopping up the burned syrup. I’m not quite sure how to describe the next hour. Sticky. Smokey. Smelly. Not how you want to spend the time between 1 and 2 am. Those all apply.

We pulled the stove out of its spot so that we could mop behind and underneath. I mopped again the next morning before I went to work to deal with the residual stickiness. We scraped the stovetop as much as we could but there’s still a black ring of burnt syrup. I’m sure syrup is behind and under the cabinet, but I’m not moving that. The house still smells like burnt sugar three days later. The charred pot is still sitting on the lawn.

Burnt maple syrup

Burnt maple syrup

At the final minute when sap turns into syrup–around 219 degrees Fahrenheit–it gets foamy and bubbles up in the pan. We had both accidentally fallen asleep and missed this magic syrup moment. So the bubbling and foaming accelerated until it took over the whole stove and a portion of the kitchen.

Checking the temperature on maple syrup

Our frustration at losing so much syrup and so many hours of work is significant. However, we completely recognize that we only lost syrup. The red coals of charred sugar that I saw on our stove when I first entered the kitchen on Wednesday morning remind me that our loss could have been much, much worse.

We’re going to try again, though. Matt insists that we not end our syrup season this way. After sub zero temperatures for the past few days, the sap started running again yesterdays\ afternoon. We have a container of sap that will go on the stove this weekend.

And we have a new plan that all boiling stops at midnight, whether we have syrup or not.

Maple syrup. Sap, sugar, sweetness–so much goodness. Sap, sugar, smoke, spills–so terrible.

But more sweetness ahead.

Vegetable garden plans

Garden in winter at sunrise

We are officially in the month of spring. That means spring break–and that’s just what I’m going to be doing next week. I’m going to be taking a bit of time to hang out at the farm and hang out with my family. It’s going to be a week off from the blog as well. I’ll be back after the break.

The month of spring also means that garden season is dawning–even here in Canada. The green in the photo above is the winter rye I planted back in the fall. I did not expect it to be this green at this time of year, but it’s a very encouraging way to start the year.

I already talked about my plan to add blackberries and some more grapes this year. The order went in to the nursery at the start of the week.

So now I’m thinking about the rest of the garden.

As a refresher, we have a roughly 2,500 square foot garden. It is round, so our strategy is to divide it into quadrants. Raised beds run around the perimeter.

After a lot of work over the last few years to finish the fence, build the raised beds, build trellises, run a waterlineconstruct and hang the gate–and clear the garden in the first place–I’m looking forward to being able to focus on plants and soil this year.

I have a few themes that are guiding my plans.

Space planning

Last year I said we were going to use the whole garden. But I lied.

We only used three quarters of it. And the third quarter was filled with watermelons and weeds that we let run wild, so that was pretty much a cheat.

Watermelon vines growing in the garden

I realized as the summer progressed, that all of our plants could have used a little more elbow room.

We have a huge garden. There’s absolutely no need to cram things in. So this year, the plan is to give our plants lots of space and use the whole garden.

The easiest way to do that is to designate specific quadrants for specific crops. Specifically, tomatoes and potatoes will each get their own quarters.

Garden plan 2017

Crop rotation

The tomato and potato placement leads to my other priority for this year, crop rotation. Different plants draw different nutrients from the soil. Rotation is important to ensure the soil has a chance to recover.

From what I’ve read, potatoes and tomatoes are not the best of friends–as in you shouldn’t plant tomatoes where you grew potatoes the year before (and vice versa). My plan is to plant them in opposite quadrants so that we can rotate them (literally) around the garden each year and have a gap year between when potatoes and tomatoes grow in the same spot. (Does that make sense?)

Harvesting red potatoes

I’ve moved plants around each year but not considered rotation in a thoughtful, strategic, multi-year way.

To make the rotation work, the potatoes will grow in the same spot this year that they were in last year.

A few other things are staying in same place, more out of laziness than any strategy. The squash trellis was a success last year, and I want to use it again. However, it’s a bit of a monster (16 feet long by about 7 feet tall and about six feet wide). The prospect of moving it is daunting. The best place for the sunflowers is the south side where the sun is the strongest. I don’t think one year of repeats for the squash and the sunflowers will be too tragic.

Sunflowers on the weathered wood fence

Weed control

Oh weeds. Between 2,500 square feet of soil and my day job, I do not believe it’s possible for me to keep up with weeding the garden. Or at least I’m not willing to put in the time required.

So plan B. Mulch. Deep, deep mulch.

Straw mulch in the vegetable garden

I think I should be able to buy (or receive) some old bales of straw from the farmer who does our fields. Old bales that are already on their way to compost would be perfect.

The mulch will (hopefully) not only keep down the weeds, but as it composts it will add nutrients back into the soil.

Plant choice

The big lesson you hear from a lot of gardeners is grow what you eat. If you ask Matt, he’ll say potatoes (the Kennebecs were awesome), peppers (I’d appreciate some red bell peppers and Matt’s particularly interested in jalapenos) and onions.

For me, the fun of gardening is still trying unusual and new things. That means probably planting a row of our purple potatoes again (we have some of our Russian Blues left that we should be able to use as seed potatoes). Trying some different tomatoes (probably not our giant Sicilian Saucers again). And experimenting with eggplant, broccoli or cauliflower for something completely new.

Sicilian Saucer tomatoes

Oh and less zucchini. Again. We downsized to only a half a dozen plants last year and that was still way too many.

I’m excited for warm weather, longer days and the return of the vegetable garden. Until that arrives, I’m excited for a little pre-season vacation. I’ll be back in a week.

Do you have any garden plans yet this year? Any tips for things to grow? How about rotation or weed control ideas?

Second year for syrup

Tapping a maple tree

It’s maple syrup season again on the farm. Or we think it is.

This is only our second time tapping our trees, so we’re still pretty much guessing. Temperatures are supposed to be above freezing during the day this week and below at night. From what I’ve read and what we learned last year, that’s sap weather.

Last year, we were impressed by how easy it was and how much syrup we made. In fact, we still have syrup left. We just don’t eat enough pancakes at our house.

But we’re not letting that stop us. We enjoyed making syrup last year, so we’re going to do it again.

Like so much of what we do on the farm, this is an experiment, so we’re learning as we go.

Lesson #1: Make sure the drill battery is charged (and the back-up too) before you start tapping. Mr. Dewalt had to hang out for a little while until the bit could spin enough to get him unstuck.

Drill stuck in a tree

Matt has picked a couple of new trees. The only issue is they’re not the easiest to access. More incentive to clean up the brush and junk along the edge of the field.

Tapping maple trees

The other three buckets went on our most productive trees from last year. (Can you spot the puppy?)

Tapping maple trees

Now our fingers are crossed that the weather cooperates and the sap starts flowing.

Vintage blue leaf dishes

Blue leaf serving dishes

I love pretty dishes and special serving pieces. I do my best to pull them out regularly and not leave them shut up in a cupboard.

This set of blue leaf dishes is particularly special to me. They came–kind of–from my grandmother.

Blue leaf serving dishes

I say kind of because only one piece–the one in the centre–actually belonged to my grandmother.

My grandmother entertained regularly, but I only remember seeing her use the blue dish once. It is made up of four leaf bowls, one round bowl and a pair of leaf salt and pepper shakers. They all fit together and sit on a lazy Susan.

Blue leaf serving dishes

Blue leaf serving dishes

Despite only seeing it once, it made an impression on me. I love the colour and the form of the leaves and the way it all joins together.

When I was in university I went to an auction and all of a sudden a familiar looking blue leaf dish was on the block. It was three leaves joined together with a little handle. I bought it (probably for less than $20) and excitedly showed it to my grandmother.

My Grandma was a very organized, very practical woman. When she died, items throughout her house were labelled with the names of who should inherit them. My name was on the blue dishes and their lazy Susan.

A few years later, I found another dish at a flea market. This one was a pair of leaves with a little handle. I hesitated, but eventually made my way back to the vendor and bought the dish (again for less than $20).

I’m so glad I did because I haven’t seen one since. There’s not a maker’s name on the underside, though they’re obviously all made by the same manufacturer. My grandmother’s set has her name on a fabric sticker on the bottom of each piece, a throwback to when she would take the dishes to church suppers.

Blue leaf serving dishes

I love that I’ve been able to amass a little set on my own. And I love putting them to use. They are perfect for Mexican night, when each dish is filled with its own ingredient. Set on the lazy Susan in the middle of the table, the big piece spins around so people can build their own tacos without having to constantly pass bowls around the table.

The double leaf dish holds fried onions and peppers, while the trio holds salsa, sour cream and guacamole (or as my MIL called it when we had them in to dinner, Guatemala. Sorry, Audrey. It was too funny not to share.)

Blue leaf serving dishes

Blue leaf serving dishes

We’re making our own memories with these dishes. Even though only one of them officially belonged to my Grandma, they all make me think of her and feel more good memories.

Who else loves dishware? Do you have any sets that you’ve collected over time? Or do you have any special pieces you’ve inherited?

Vegetable garden additions – Blackberries and more grapes

Vegetable garden covered in snow

I don’t know as gardening season ever really stops on the farm. Sure we’re not out in the garden every day like during the warmer weather (hello, -20 degree windchill and ice storm). But we’re thinking about the next season, monitoring our stores of vegetables and preserves, and enjoying the produce (curried butternut squash soup, yum).

But come February, I feel like it’s more socially acceptable to discuss gardening. I mean, we’re just 40 days away from spring, people. It’s comin’.

My plans for the garden this year are relatively modest compared to last year. Between our raised beds, trellises, hose and gate, the infrastructure is all in place.

The quadrant layout is working for us. So now I’m just thinking about how to fill those quadrants. (Reminder, here was last year’s plan).

Round garden plan for 2016

Top on my list is adding a few more perennials this year, and I’d love your input on what would work best.

You may remember that I tried to domesticate some wild black raspberries, and ended up ripping them out when they ran wild. So I have a row of raspberry trellis that’s empty. My established raspberries reproduce prolifically, so it would be easy to transplant some new canes into the empty row. But I’d love to try something different.

I’m come across Arapahoe blackberries. They’re supposed to be thornless, self-supporting (so not floppy like the wild raspberries), reasonably hardy for the Canadian climate and with smaller seeds.

Seed catalogues

The other addition I’m considering is more grapes. I’m a bit hesitant because I know nothing about grapes, and I’m not sure if the grapes I bought last year are going to be alive in the spring.

I bought eight vines last year, four red (Somerset) and four purple (Sovereign Coronation). In my mind, I’ve always considered 12–an even dozen–a nice number of grapes. Plus, I feel like four green would round out my collection.

Lakemont are supposed to be seedless, store well (my catalogue says “actually improves in cold storage”) and a “superior” table grape.

Anyone know anything about Lakemont or Arapahoes? Any other suggestions of berries or grapes to add to our garden?

How to encourage egg laying in the winter

Back in December, Sarah in Illinois shared some of the lessons she’s learned since adding laying chickens to her farm. In the post, she mentioned mentioned that their egg production had declined as winter set in. She had a few ideas to encourage more laying, and today she’s back to share what happened.

If you remember my post a couple months ago, I gave an update on the chickens and mentioned that their egg production had declined.

I thought that it was either from lack of daylight or cooler temperatures. I was willing to try to add some artificial daylight, but that I was not going to risk a barn fire by adding heat.

I am happy to report adding some light did the trick.

I went to the local home improvement store and purchased a light socket with metal shade. All you do is add a bulb and plug it in.

I took it a few steps further.

First, I chose an LED bulb. I am serious when I say that a barn fire is one of my worst fears, and I was going to take no chances in using a bulb that would get hot.

An LED did the trick. It produces almost no heat at all. I can rest my hand on the metal shield while it is on and there is no chance of me, or the chickens, getting burned.

As you can imagine with a traditional bulb there is no way I would be able to touch the shield, it would burn me instantly.

The second thing I did was to secure the fixture.

It came with a clamp to attach it where you need light. There is a good chance that it wouldn’t move, but I wanted to make sure it did not fall and rest in the straw in the bottom of the coop. So I ran a screw into the clamp after I had it where I wanted it.

No crazy chicken antics will cause the lamp to fall.

My final step was to add a timer. I have it set to come on every morning from 6 to 7 am and again from 4 to 8 pm.

After I had all of this in place I waited.

After about a week I found 2 eggs in the box.

And then a few days later I started getting 3 eggs a day.

I even had a bonus day yesterday where all 4 chickens laid an egg.

I can say that this project was a complete success, and I have no fear of burning our barn down.

I also have progress to report on my project goals that I listed in my last post.

One of my projects is to make over my Grandma’s Saint Francis statue.

I started by scraping off all loose paint. I did not intend to remove all the paint, only the paint that was loose and came off easily.

For the most part the concrete is in good shape but it has broken off of the base.

I am sure there are products meant for this type of project, but I chose to use what we had sitting around. We had a partial bag of thin-set mortar that we had used to install tile in our house. It sets up extremely hard, so I thought that once it is painted, it may work just fine.

I really don’t know about the longevity for this use, but I decided that it was worth a shot. I mixed some water and made it thick enough that I could apply it with a putty knife.

I knew that I wanted to add a couple layers instead of one thick layer so I purposely left the first layer bumpy instead of smooth so that the second layer will have something to attach to. I waited for it to dry and hoped that it would work.

24 hours after I added the thin-set to the statue, I started thinking that it is not going to work. I think the thin-set is too crumbly and will not hold up long term.

But that’s okay. I tried it, and I will try something else and report back how it goes.

Way to give things a try, Sarah. I’m glad that the chickens’ light worked so well. It’s great that you’re able to get fresh eggs again. I would miss those! Hopefully you’re able to find something that works for your Grandma’s statue too. 

How I organize recipes

Open shelving in the kitchen for cookbooks

One of my favourite features of the island we added to the kitchen is the open shelving on the end that holds our cookbooks.

The books add a splash of colour to the wood and white of the kitchen. The shelves keep them organized and easily accessible. Plus I love cookbooks. I will sit and read them like a magazine or novel. (And, yes, you’re not imagining. The upper shelf is sagging a bit under the weight of all of our cookbooks).

However, not all of my recipes reside in cookbooks. I have a bunch of printouts from recipes I’ve found online (I haven’t progressed to a tablet yet), clippings from the newspaper or magazines, even a few hand-written recipes from family and friends.

To keep these recipes organized, I returned to the lessons learned in school–binders, dividers and page protectors.

A couple of weeks ago, I added a bunch of new recipes to my collection, so I thought I’d share my organization method with you.

How to organize recipes

First are the binders. I have three major categories which each get their own binder: Appetizers and Sides, Entrees, Desserts and Sweets. Entrees outgrew its single binder and is now split into two books. I use different colours for each grouping.

How to organize recipes

Within each binder, I’ve divided the recipes into subcategories.

In appetizers, the sections are appetizers, soups, salads, sides, snacks, breads and drinks. For entrees, I divided them into pork, pasta, sandwiches, beef, fish, vegetarian, poultry, other meats (venison, lamb), breakfast. Desserts starts with the most important, chocolate, and then goes to cookies, “buns” and bars (including muffins), cakes, pies, fruit, custards and Christmas.

How to organize recipes

The recipes themselves are stored in plastic page protectors. I’m not the tidiest cook, so the plastic sleeves protect the paper from spills and splashes.

However, it’s easy to slide the recipe out of the plastic and add notes about what worked, what didn’t or what adjustments I made.

How to organize recipes

Beyond the binders, I also use magazine holders to organize the smaller pamphlets and cookbooks I’ve collected over the years. I got two wooden holders from Ikea and stained them to match the countertop and cabinets.

Wood magazine holder

I love having my recipes organized.

In fact, I was so inspired that I flipped through the dessert binder and whipped up one of my favourite fall recipes, spiced apple muffins, using the apples my friend gave me from her own tree.

Apple spice muffins

With my recipes all organized, I feel ready to move on from fall baking on to Christmas baking.

Are you doing any baking, either fall or Christmas? How do you organize your recipes?

When life gives you persimmons, make persimmonies

After using a pile of persimmons in her last post to try to predict what kind of winter we’re going to have, Sarah in Illinois is back today to answer the question of what she did with all of that fruit.

Persimmons are a big commodity in Illinois in the fall. A quick search on Facebook shows the going rate for persimmon pulp is $4/pint.

As I talked about in my previous post, I have used persimmons to try to predict the upcoming winter, but I had not used them to make any type of dessert. So this year I decided I should try one.

When you taste a ripe persimmon, it is really sweet and the texture is similar to an overripe peach. But there is a catch. If you taste a persimmon that is not ripe, you will know it.

An unripe persimmon will dry your mouth out in a second. I really have not tasted anything like an unripe persimmon.

So when I picked persimmons I tried to pick mostly from ones that had fallen to the ground. If they have fallen, they are most likely to be ripe.

When I brought them home and removed the skin and the seeds, I put what was left in my Grandmother’s sieve/masher.

It has a wooden pestle that allowed me to push the pulp through the little holes. This step took a lot longer than I was expecting, but when I was done I had 2 cups of pulp.

Now I had to decide what to make.

When you say “persimmon” the first thing that comes to mind is “persimmon pudding.” A quick search on the internet will bring up more recipes than you can imagine. But that is not what I was looking for. Persimmon pudding is similar to a bread pudding, and I don’t care for bread pudding.

So my next search was persimmon cookies. Most cookie recipes call for walnuts and raisins. And I don’t care for either of those in my cookies. So what else could I make? Persimmon bread? Persimmon roll? Persimmon bars? Persimmon smoothie? Persimmon margarita?

I decided on Persimmonies which the author describes as a “cross between a bar cookie and a snacking cake.” It even has the suggestion of adding chocolate chips.

How can you go wrong with adding chocolate?

I followed the recipe exactly. I was surprised that the batter was pretty thick.

I won’t describe each step here, you can click on the website and get it straight from the author, but it was a pretty straight-forward cake like recipe.

I didn’t have chocolate chips on hand so I just used the author’s original recipe.

The results

In my opinion, it tasted like cinnamon bread, which was really, really good. I just didn’t taste much persimmon. Maybe I should have added some more pulp. And next time I will definitely add the chocolate chips, because again… chocolate.

I took the persimmonies to work and brought home an empty pan, so you could say they were a success.

Anyone made anything with persimmons? What recipe would you try? Are persimmons popular in your area?

I’ve not seen persimmons in our area, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten one–let alone made anything with them. I’m curious now, Sarah, to give them a try. And I agree… chocolate is never a bad idea.

I have to add, a very happy Thanksgiving to Sarah and all of my other American readers.

Winter rye cover crop in the vegetable garden

Winter rye sprouts in the vegetable garden

Look at our pretty green sprouts.

Fall in Ontario is about brown. Gardening season is done. Leaves, grass, flowers are all pretty drab. But we have one new crop growing.

This is our winter rye cover crop in the vegetable garden. It’s our first time trying a cover crop.

We love our garden and how productive it is. So we’re working hard to maintain the quality of our soil. Last year, I spread straw and manure all over the garden. This year, we’re going with so-called green manure.

In the spring, we’ll cut the rye and turn it into the soil.

Have you ever grown a cover crop? Do you have any green growing at your house?