June 5, 2020

First Ever Cherry Harvest!

First picking (that's it!)

I can't even remember when I planted my little cherry tree—eight years ago? It has struggled ever since. A couple of times I thought it was dead. It never produced cherries. I speculated too much shade or not enough chilling hours. I just never got around to replacing it.

This spring, we were amazed that it was still alive. In fact, it produced a beautiful flush of flowers, which became a hundred or so tiny berries. The other day, I went to inspect and found five berries ready to pick. In the days that followed, I managed to harvest about two dozen cherries. That's all the birds left me.

I tossed them all in the freezer like I do my other small fruit pickings. Then, one of these days I'll make a mixed fruit jelly. This will be the first time it will have cherry in it.

June 1, 2020

Masanobu Fukuoka Was Right

On Monday last week, it wasn't supposed to rain until afternoon, so I got started on a bed to plant black turtle beans.

Blackberry vines popping up in a huge leaf pile.

Years ago this bed was an experiment in growing perennials with a few annuals and naturalized forage plants. It contained multiplier onions, chicory, lettuce, violets, heartsease, and 4 o'clocks. It looked pretty for awhile. But from that experiment I learned an important lesson. Masanobu Fukuoka was right!

"My conviction was that crops grow themselves and should not have to be grown. I had acted in the belief that everything should be left in its natural course, but I found that if you apply this way of thinking all at once, before long things do not go so well."
Masanobu Fukuoka
The One-Straw Revolution

Blackberries, honeysuckle, horse nettle, grasses, and other unwanteds gradually took over that bed until it was a mess. Last fall, I dumped wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load of leaves on it in an attempt to smother everything so I could start over. That worked fairly well until the blackberries began to bravely push through.

One of my "between raindrops" projects has been to dig out all those blackberries and plant black turtle beans. I used the shovel to loosen the blackberry roots and pull the vines. I realize I won't get all the root and they'll still come back, but it's a start. I did the same for honeysuckle roots I found. The violets got to stay. I noticed that doing nothing for the past several years did zero to improve the soil.

Blackberries removed, multiplier onions harvested, and turtle beans planted.

To plant the beans, I simply pushed the leaf mulch aside in three rows and poked the beans into the ground.

I've battled blackberry brambles ever since we first chose this spot for our garden. It was originally a neglected field that grew them readily. Even though I've been trying to eradicate them, this year in a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" moment I decided to let them grow in another bed in the garden.

Old asparagus/new blackberry bed.

Behind this bed is where I dug my very first garden swale three years ago (that story with photos here.) I filled it with sticks, stalks, and corn cobs, leaving the removed soil as a berm. I planted the berm with clover and later transplanted my asparagus there. I never got much asparagus, but instead got blackberry brambles and wiregrass. I battled those for several years and this year decided, heck with it. I'll just let the blackberries grow in hopes I'll get some berries. I've been pulling the wiregrass and horse nettle and cutting back the daffodil leaves. Then putting down wood chips for mulch.

Volunteer blackberries with a little bit of the clover I originally planted.

Well, I'm picking about a pint per day. They look pretty good too.

They aren't all this size, but a lot of them are.

I have to add that they aren't terribly sweet, and that they have large seeds. Dan doesn't care for blackberries because of the seeds, but as volunteers these are a gift. And they pack a power-punch of flavor, so I'll use them to make blackberry jelly. They will definitely need a trellis, but that will have to wait.

So gradually I'm learning to cooperate with nature and what my garden wants to grow. I realize I can't do nothing and leave it to chance, but I can continue to observe and work to meet the needs of what wants to grow there. It's all a process, isn't it?

May 27, 2020

Gardening Between Raindrops

I'm guessing most folks will agree that it's been a strange spring. When the trees leafed out early, I thought summer was right around the corner. Not so. We've had a few warm days, but mostly it's been rainy and cool. It was so damp and chilly last week that we started a fire in the woodstove one evening, something we've never done in May before!

As my blog post title suggests, gardening has been sporadic because of the rain. Still, I'm getting things done. Another thing that's strange, is that everything seems slow to germinate and slow to grow. I thought it was just me, but we bought some hay last week and the farmer mentioned how slow-growing everything has been. But slow or not, here's what's happening in my garden.

I still have a few things from my fall and winter garden.

Fava beans and lettuce. This is the first time I've grown favas.
They are a lot of work to prepare, but they are very good to eat.

That's the lettuce I mentioned in my "Ricotta Ranch Dressing" blog post.
Now that I figured out a salad dressing, it's decided to bolt! Oh well, lol.

Multiplier onions ready to harvest.

They are smaller than globe onions, but they do better for me than globes.

A few beets, volunteer potatoes, and horseradish. I thought I dug
all the horseradish root out last fall, but it's come back with vigor!

In the other end of that same bed, volunteer tomato
and a bunch of violets. All volunteers get to stay.

The winter wheat was also planted last fall and is beginning to turn yellow.
We're just hoping we get a string of nice days when it's time to harvest it!

March-planted snow peas are in full bloom. No pea pods yet.
The flowers in the background are collards, radishes, & turnips.

Also blooming, April-planted bush beans. These had severe
insect damage when first sprouting. The survivors look good.

I also planted three hills of watermelon last month. 

And these, Tatume summer squash. The seed was saved from 2013, so I
wasn't sure of viability. I dumped a bunch in two hills and it's growing well!

April-sown cucumbers.

I started tomato seeds early in April as well. I planted saved seed and Matt's Wild Cherry tomato to grow on my front porch trellis. Of that first planting of the Matt's, only one seed grew. I reseeded my little pots with the rest of the seed and transplanted the one.

First Matt's Wild Cherry tomato transplant.The picnic fly
dome is to keep the cats from using this spot as a litter box! 

A couple more from the second planting are sprouting, so I should get three plants from one package of seed.

This month (also in between raindrops) I've planted corn, okra, summer lettuce, borage, Swiss chard, calendula, dill, sweet basil, marigolds, pumpkins, peanuts, amaranth, black turtle beans, and more cucumbers and tomatoes. Dan planted sunflowers and potatoes. Also, I've been transplanting my tomato starts, but my sweet potato slips have been slow to grow. Still to transplant—sweet peppers, cayenne, and tomatoes as the seedlings get big enough. Still to harvest—garlic. Soon, I should have pictures of all that to show you.

How about you? Is the weather letting you garden?

May 23, 2020

Ricotta Ranch Dressing

May has been unusually cool and rainy, so our lettuce hasn't bolted yet!

I've been experimenting with making salad dressings for awhile. My goal is to make them from ingredients I commonly have on hand. I haven't come up with anything particularly noteworthy, but I keep on trying. Are they even necessary? I don't know, but they sure do dress up a salad, and we like them for a veggie dip too.

Ranch used to be a staple at our house, until the ingredient list on the bottled brands convinced me I no longer want to buy it. Homemade recipes for Ranch dressing call for mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk. The problem is, these aren't ingredients I keep around. I recently stocked up on coconut oil mayonnaise (75¢ a pint!), but I don't buy or make sour cream, and my buttermilk is from butter making, not the cultured kind used in salad dressings. Since I'm not inclined to go to a lot of trouble making individual ingredients for only one recipe, I'd given up on one of my favorite salad dressings.

The other day I made a soft creamy ricotta from my mozzarella whey and wondered why it wouldn't be a good base for a salad dressing. I experimented with an idea, and both Dan and I agree it's a keeper! I won't miss store-bought Ranch any more!

I'm posting the recipe here, so I'll remember what it is. With whey ricotta, skimmed milk kefir, and no mayo, it could be almost zero fat. With the kefir, it's probiotic! My measurements are in parenthesis, but this could be adapted for any amounts and taste preferences.

Ricotta Ranch Salad Dressing

Equal parts of:
  • ricotta (that recipe here) (⅓ cup)
  • kefir (and that recipe here) (⅓ cup)
To taste:
  • Himalayan salt (½ tsp)
  • black pepper (¼ tsp)
  • onion powder (½ tsp)
  • garlic powder (⅛ tsp)
  • parsley flakes (sprinkle)

Blend all ingredients until creamy. Add more kefir if needed for the desired consistency. Pour into a recycled salad dressing bottle, and refrigerate until serving. This would also make an excellent veggie or chip dip.

Future experiments:
[NOTES: After first salad and veggie dip, increased salt, onion powder, and added a dash of pickle juice. Improved!]

Parting shot: Here's what I served that salad with. . . .

Ricotta gnocchi and meatballs in pizza sauce sprinkled with
grated fresh mozzarella. The links will take you to the recipes.

A yummy meal (if I do say so myself).

Ricotta Ranch Dressing © May 2020 by Leigh

May 19, 2020

Paddock Mower

Here is Dan's latest contrivance, a paddock mower.

How is it different from a regular lawn mower? By adding oversize wheels, Dan was able to raise the mowing deck to almost six inches, rather than the typical two to four of a regular mower.

To use larger wheels, he had to extend the axles so the wheels wouldn't hit the mower deck. He made the extensions out of ¾-inch bolts. The spacers (blue below) are pex pipe.

What's the point? Well, with intensive rotational grazing, the idea is for the paddock to be grazed down about 50% of the forage height. Cattle will apparently do that, but I find goats less consistent. They take top bites off a lot of it, but ignore a lot of it too. Then seed heads start shooting up.

Before mowing.

Once plants start putting energy into producing seed, the leafy parts lose nutrients and palatability. The idea of mowing tall is to simulate grazing. This stimulates leaf production and delays seeding, although we're transitioning from winter forage to summer forage right now, which means everything is determined to finish its life cycle and produce seed anyway.

After mowing. This is how it should look after grazing.

We tried this last year with our regular lawn mower, but it cuts too short. It scalps the forage so that it takes a long time to recover to good eating height again. By cutting taller, I hope we can continue to improve grazing, and continue to improve the soil because the clippings are left where they're cut.

That's the theory, anyway. We're in another rainy spell at the moment, which means no grazing or mowing. But hopefully, it will get my summer pasture seed going.

Paddock Mower © May 2020 by Leigh

May 15, 2020

The Pantry: Starting on Phase 2

Last summer, I blogged about my pantry problems and plans. The goal at the time was a "solar pantry," by which I meant putting the auxiliary fridge and freezer located in the pantry on solar power. After much analysis and planning, we moved the fridge and freezer onto the back porch and set them up on solar there (phase 1).

Phase 2 of this project focuses on the energy efficiency of the pantry itself. As part of my analysis last summer, I kept track of the pantry air temperature, and discovered it can get into the lower 90sF (upper 20sC) in the heat of summer. Not ideal for food storage.

The plan for phase 2 is to replace the old single-glazed windows with energy efficient windows, increase insulation in the walls, and experiment with passive cooling methods. It's going to be another pay-as-we-go project, so it won't happen overnight. But we've made a start.

Dan started with this wall.

My 4-foot chest freezer used to live along this wall.

Our first idea was to take down the paneling and put this stuff between the studs.

The 4-foot by 8-foot foam board sheets come in several thicknesses, with this 2-inch having the highest R-value. At roughly $30 a sheet it's pricey, but Home Depot carries it so we could buy a few sheets at a time and gradually work our way around the room. Unfortunately, Dan found it extremely frustrating to work with.

The ad video makes it look super easy to install. The sheets are pre-scored at 16-inch intervals, so just cut and pop in. Except, our studs are 16 inches on center, meaning that 16 inches is the measurement from the middle of one stud to the next. Our wall space between the studs is more like 14⅝ inches. On top of that, it was difficult to cut the foam cleanly, and Dan completely lost enthusiasm for the project after finally finishing that one wall.

So the project sat for awhile, until one recent rainy day, when we headed over to our discount builders supply warehouse to look for replacement windows.

One of two original pantry windows.

We found two brand new, still in the wrapping, energy star rated windows, the exact same size as the old windows, for $80 each. Perfect!

The first step was to remove the window trim and wall paneling.

Old window.

We had the old window removed and the new one installed in less than an hour! That's a first for this old house, where replacing windows usually takes several days from start to finish. Having the same size replacement helps!

New window. The first thing we noticed
was how quiet the room had become!

We have the other window to replace, but also, we have to decide what to do about the walls. Adding the 2-inch foam board is out for several reasons, the first because it was so difficult to work with. Even if we did want it, Home Depot is now out of stock, which no projected restocking date. Another deterrent is that the current batting insulation is stapled to the outer wall, which would make it a mess to remove.

So the plan under consideration right now is to apply 1-inch foam board directly on top of the studs. We'd lose a couple of inches of floor space, but it would still work. The batting is R-11 and the 1-inch sheets are R-5, which would give us and R-16 insulation value for the outer walls. Then we'd have to replace the old paneling, because it pretty much splintered when Dan pulled it off. (Ha! Not heart-broken over that!)

While we're mulling that over, Dan is replacing the window trim on the outside.

Old window out, new window in.
We had a beautiful day to do this!

Besides the walls, we still have to figure out a ventilation system and explore passive cooling ideas. More on that one of these days.