October 28, 2021

Not Pumpkins

It's that pumpkin harvesting time of year! Except, I don't grow pumpkins because they don't do well for me. Instead, I plant other kinds of winter squash. This year, I tried two varieties I've never grown before: a landrace variety and sweet potato squash. Amazingly, both are shaped like pumpkins.

First of my winter squash harvest

The three small ones in the center are the landrace squash. (To learn more about landrace vegetables, check out my post, "A New Paradigm for Gardening & Seed Saving.") Three was all I got, but considering that the parent stock originated in the Pacific northwest, it's amazing they managed to produce anything. I will save all the seed from these and see how they do next year.

The four larger squashes are the sweet potato squash. These are still producing, so depending on when our first frost is, I should get several more. They don't look anything like sweet potatoes, but they are said to be similar in taste and texture. I'll let you know!

Speaking of sweet potatoes, I've just started harvesting these.

Freshly dug sweet potatoes

Our first frost could be any time now, so I'd like to have all of these out of the ground before then.

Smaller ones.

For now, we're still enjoying tomatoes, okra, and green beans from the garden. Fall greens are coming up, so we're starting to get those for dinner too. Only one variety of the lettuce I planted germinated, which is disappointing, but I'm grateful for at least that. If we have a mild winter, we'll have lettuce and greens all winter.

It's hard to believe the year is almost over. I have several interesting things to show you and will get started on that next month!

October 24, 2021

Outdoor Kitchen: Wood Cookstove Top

Continued from here.

I fell a little short on taking photos for this step, but I'm sure you'll get the idea! The stove top is actually two pieces, one over the firebox for cooking and the other for the oven. For the oven top, Dan found a piece of granite.

Because the surface of the brick is rough, Dan sealed
it with gasket tape made for smokers and grills.

The "core" (firebox and smoke path) wasn't the same height as the brick (see
this post for more about the core); mineral wool was used to fill in the space.

Cutting the chimney hole on the backside of the granite.

Granite top in place.

For the cooktop, the plans called for a glass cooktop from an electric stove. We found one on craigslist for $30.


The next step was to trim the edges. This was challenging because the two oven and stove tops are different heights. 

Dan found a set of bed rails for $10 at the thrift store to use for trim.

Trim for oventop welded and being tested for fit.

Trim for cooktop installed and painted black (with engine paint).

For finishing touches, Dan welded some hooks onto the trim for me.

Last step will be installing the chimney. Then we can fire it up and test it out.

Continued here.

October 23, 2021

Problems With Embedded Comments

I'm having trouble leaving comments on some blogs with embedded comments. You know, the ones where readers can reply to individual comments. On some blogs, no problem. On others, I hit "publish" and my comment disappears with no acknowledgement from Blogger that I made it. I try again with the same result. What's puzzling is that it isn't consistent on all blogs with embedded comments. Anyway, if I usually comment on your blog and haven't heard from me in awhile, that may be why. 

This is a known problem on Blogger that I thought they resolved. But I recently switched my own blog's comments back to pop-up, after hearing from a regular reader who could no longer leave a comment when I used embedded comments. Is anyone else having trouble leaving comments on blogs?

October 20, 2021

Permaculture Notes: How to Plant a Forest Garden

In the comments of my "Forest Gardening: Planning" blog post, some of you expressed an interest in what a forest garden is and how to establish one. These notes are from my online Permaculture Design Course by Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton. I hope this outline is useful for answering your questions.

Notes from Bill Mollison's online Permaculture Design Course
Lecturers: Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton 

I. Types of forests
A. Natural and conservation - forest preservation
B. Structural - timber, lumber, poles
C. Shelterbelt and barrier - animal shelter and windbreaks
D. Fuel - firewood
E. Forage - for livestock
F. Food - forest garden
G. Combination of any of the above 

II. Layers of a forest garden
A. Canopy layer - climax trees
B. Understory trees
C. Shrubs 
D. Herbs (2 layers in temperate zones)
1. Tall
2. Short
E. Ground cover
F. Root crops
G. Climbers

III. Planting plan
A. At the start
90% support trees - 8 support trees per fruit or nut tree
10% production species
B. At maturity
90% production species
10% support species
C. Plant trees in clumps, fed by several drip points
1. Clumps of trees support one another
a. plant crown and flower bearers outside the clump
b. plant stem bearers inside the clump 
2. Individual trees 
a. Require more maintenance per tree
b. Suffer water stress, wind pruning, smothering by grasses

IV. Support species
A. Pioneer species 
1. Are first responders, i.e. the first plants to grow in an area of disturbed or debilitated soil (from tilling, bull dozing, plowing, fire, clear cutting, over-grazing, production abuse, etc.)
2. Functions
a. repair and restoration
b. to stabilize the soil and establish growing conditions for a mature ecosystem to follow
3. Are fast carbon pathways
4. Usually considered weeds and eliminated
B. Choose species that will build the soil
1. Nitrogen fixers- legume trees and species
a. decompose quickly
b. hierarchy of nitrogen containing parts
i. seeds are highest in nitrogen
ii. then pods
iii. leaves
iv. twigs
v. wood (can be 5% nitrogen)
2. Dynamic accumulators - pull up subsoil minerals through their roots (phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, etc.)
C. Time stacking
1. Cover crops last 6 months
2. Bushes for 1 year
3. Shrubs 3-7 years
4. Small trees 5-15 years
5. Tall trees 20 years
D. Chop and drop
1. Why
a. for mulch 
b. for quick soil building
2. When  
a. Temperate climate
i. herbaceous mulch - cut early and mid-summer
ii. tree mulch - cut at end of summer
b. Tropics - at beginning of wet season
c. Arid climate - at start of winter 

V. To establish a food forest in an existing grove of trees
A. Start with ground covers
1 annuals first
2. add perennials
B. Then support species
1. Legumes
2. Dynamic accumulators
C. Lastly, plant production trees (fruits and nuts)


So, there it is, and I hope it's of interest. I will probably add to these notes as I come across more information. I have to admit that seeing it in outline form is very helpful for me. As with any course, there is lots of information to process in the lectures, so it's useful to organize it like this. 

October 16, 2021

Tips for Canning with Tattler Reusable Lids

Tattler two-piece reusable canning lids and rings

I've been using Tattler reusable canning lids for about eight years now. Many people like them, but many people don't. The biggest complaint is that they seem to have a higher failure rate than conventional metal canning lids. When I first started using them, this seemed to be true. But the appeal of not having to buy new lids every year was high, so I started to analyze why I was having fails. In this blog post, I'll share what I've learned, and how I've significantly increased my success rate with Tattler lids. It isn't going to be a canning tutorial, just some tips for dealing with a specific problem. To learn how to can, I'm going to refer you to The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website. It's offered as free PDF files at that link. 


Who this blog post is for: Folks who are experienced canners, want to use Tattler lids, and are willing to experiment for a better sealing rate.

Who this blog post is not for: Folks who have never canned before, or who tried Tattlers, didn't like them, and prefer metal canning lids.

Okay, here we go. In observing and analyzing the lid failure problem, I have figured out four primary reasons why my Tattler lids don't seal. 

1. Something gets caught under the red rubber ring

The first step in successful canning is to use jars with flawless rims and to careful wipe those rims after filling the jars and before putting on the lids. Anything between the rim and red ring is a guaranteed failure. Assuming I've followed the first step, I've observed two reasons for this to happen:

a. During venting, tiny bits get caught under the rubber ring.

This lid failed, with chili powder being the culprit.

During processing, air is vented under the lid, which helps create the vacuum as the sealed jar cools. We've all had jars that lose some of the liquid during canning, no matter what kind of lids we use. Proper headspace along with consistent canning temperature and pressure are supposed to prevent this. But sometimes, jar contents boil out as well. I find this especially true of powdered spices that don't dissolve and fruits with tiny seeds, such as blueberries. 

  • For the spice escape problem, the answer is to either omit spices that don't dissolve, or put them in a spice bag while cooking the canning contents. Remove the spice bag when filling the jars.
  • For the seed problem, I had a terrible time canning blueberries. If I canned them as jam or pie filling, no problem. It was only as canned berries. So, the solution is either to choose another preservation method or accept the fails for the sake of getting at least some of it canned. I figured, the lids are reusable, so, so what? I used the fails to make blueberry jam. You just have to decide if that is acceptable to you or not.

b. The rubber rings aren't spotlessly clean.

Of course, used rings are washed with hot soapy water after the jar is opened, but does that make them spotlessly clean? Not always.

Here's what I've observed; that when I scald the rings and lids, the heat sometimes lifts food residue from the ring. It's something I don't see beforehand, but after scalding, oils (I think) rise on the surface of the ring. 

This ring looked clean when I put it into the pan to
scald. But look what the scalding water revealed.

So, each scalded ring is examined carefully before putting it on the jar. Rings with residue are scrubbed again and re-scalded. Doing this increased my successful sealing rate noticeably.

2. The rubber rings slip a bit off the jar rim

Rubber ring slippage

This was a problem when I thought I didn't need to carefully follow the instructions from the Tattler manufacturers. In other words, I was taking a short cut which resulted in more fails! To prevent this problem:

a. Feel to make sure the ring and lid are centered on the jar rim.

b. Visually check the ring to make sure it sits flatly on the jar rim.

c. Hold the lid and ring in place while screwing on the band.

My failure rate decreased significantly when I started following those steps.

3. The metal band doesn't screw on properly.

Not all metal bands fit all jars! Seems like they should, but sometimes they don't. Perhaps that's because of variations between brands and batches in both jars and screw bands. Or, maybe the band has become slightly imperfect. What I've figured out is, that if the band doesn't screw down perfectly on the jar, the seal will fail. The band may fit another jar just fine, but if it doesn't seat properly on a particular jar, I use a different band. I eliminated a few more fails after I started doing this. 

4. Allowing the jar to cool too much before completing the seal.

Tattler lids are loosened sightly before being put into the canner. This is to facilitate the air venting process. After processing, the lids must then be tightened to complete the seal. This is easiest with waterbath processing, because the jars are removed immediately when the time is up. With a pressure canner, the pressure must return to normal before opening the canner. Sometimes, I get distracted and don't get to completing the seal until after the jars have cooled a bit. If the contents of the jars have cooled too much, they won't seal properly.

Sometimes a jar passes the seal test, but later, after it's been in the pantry for awhile, I discover the lid is loose. I believe this is from completing the seal after the jars have cooled down too much. They're still hot enough to seal, but the vacuum is too weak to maintain a good seal over time. Again, I've had less fails since I started being more diligent with completing the seals.

Old rings will eventually fail too and must be discarded. 

When you have jars that fail, always take a careful look at the rubber rings from those jars. That can help you diagnose the problem. If a rubber ring is questionable, I'll use a different color screw band (I have a few that are white) on that jar to double check it. I keep a supply of replacement rings to replace those that must be discarded.

I still have occasional fails, but they are much more rare than they used to be. When they do happen, I either add the contents back to the next batch to be canned (for broths, applesauce, tomato sauce, etc.), add it to my leftovers jar for soup, or we eat it. Nothing is wasted, and there's peace of mind in not having to rely on the annual canning equipment supply chain.

October 12, 2021

First Try at Tomato Powder

Have you ever made tomato powder? Lots of people have, usually with tomato skins reserved from canning projects. Since I use a Roma juicer to process tomatoes for sauce, I don't end up with skins. So I've never tried making tomato powder. This year, however, I have so many cherry tomatoes, that I decided give it a try. 

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomatoes. Very prolific.

First, the cherry tomatoes had to be dehydrated. Powdering dried foods requires that they are very crispy to rock hard. Because of our humidity, however, dried food goes from hard to soft as it absorbs moisture from the air. 

It took several days to get the tiny tomatoes thoroughly dried.

Experience has taught me that to powder things, I need to get them into the blender as soon as they have cooled to room temperature. 

I don't have the best blender in the world, but I was pleased that everything, including skins and seeds, powdered pretty well.

First jar of powdered cherry tomatoes.

I put them in a jar, which I vacuum sealed for pantry storage. I plan to try them in soups, stews, dips, and salad dressings. Since properly dehydrated and stored foods keep for years, this seems like a good thing to do with all those extra cherry tomatoes.

Those of you who use tomato powder, do you have any recipes to share?

October 8, 2021

Forest Garden: Poking Around in the Dirt

While Dan has been working on the outdoor kitchen cookstove, I've been working on the forest garden (you can see photos and read my planning post, here). As with all gardening projects, the first step was to grab a shovel and take a good look at the soil.

The area of the forest garden is located at a high point on our property (see link above). It is roughly triangle shaped. Contour-wise, I'm looking at this:

High and low spots in the future forest garden.

In the above photo, the yellow line represents a small, shallow ridge. This is the highest spot. The blue oval is the lowest spot, which is dish shaped. In walking the area and looking closely at the ground, I observed several things.

The ground along the ridge - no topsoil.

Trees and brush have grown here for many years. After we fenced in the pasture, the goats ate the brush, which opened up the area. Dan took out a few trees, but most of them have remained and will form our forest garden canopy layer. That means a lot of leaves are dumped on the ground every fall, yet, the top soil is pretty much washed away. 

A little farther down on the ridge the soil seemed softer, with a few bricks lying around. I started poking around with a shovel.

Sand and buried bricks.

Under the thin veneer of decayed leaves, I discovered pure sand and buried bricks. The sand looked like builders sand, and it seems this spot was a dumping ground long ago for leftover materials from a building project.

Also found, homestead relics?

Neither absence of topsoil nor sand hold water, so I'm going to have to do a lot of work on the soil here if my forest garden is going to thrive.

In the low spot, the surface soil looked much, much better:

The ground in the blue oval in the first photo - lovely black topsoil.

When I dug here, I discovered the soil looks like this:

Thick black topsoil and clay subsoil.

The topsoil is black (indicating a lot of decayed organic matter), sandy (which is typical of our cecil sandy loam topsoil), and about five to six inches deep. That was a pleasant surprise because in most places around the homestead, black topsoil (if there is any) is less than an inch deep.

What to make of this? My theory is that most of the fallen autumn leaves are washed off the little ridge in heavy rains and deposited in the low spot. That would explain the absence of topsoil on the ridge and the thick layer of black topsoil in the low area.

I found another relic while digging in the soil here.

It was buried about 6 or 7 inches down.

The other observation that is noteworthy, is that even after several inches of rain in previous days, the soil was only moist in the top three inches or so. Beneath that, it was bone dry. That surprised me too and indicates that the ground isn't getting a deep soaking, even with a lot of rain. This information tells me that our conditioning the pasture soil with a subsoiler was a good decision. For the forest garden, the subsoiler isn't feasible, so I'll need to work on other ways to deep soak the soil.

So, this is my starting point. Hopefully, over time, I can document positive changes in the soil in my forest garden. For now, I'm pulling out all the soil building strategies I can muster, and getting ready to put them to work. 

October 4, 2021

Outdoor Kitchen: Wood Cookstove Firebox Side

Continued from here

Something unique about the wood cookstove Dan is building, is that the oven and the firebox are on different sides of the stove. The firebox is on the front, and the oven is on the back (or vice versa, depending on one's viewpoint.) Why the designer made it that way is unknown; maybe because his house was an open design and having the firebox on the living room side enabled easier feeding of the fire. I don't know. The original design had a fire viewing window at the back of the firebox. A nice feature, but unnecessary for us. We might could have put the doors on the same side, but making too many changes to an untried design didn't seem like a good idea. The plans were confusing enough as it was. On the bright side, having the firebox where it is will make it easier to toss in a little more wood to maintain cooking or baking heat.

Anyway, I hope that answers a question that might pop unto your mind as you look at my pictures. Now, on to the progress.

More on the construction of the firebox and core here.

Checking the fit of the firebox door.

The photo above shows a unique feature of the batch box firebox design. The tubular steel beneath the door is the secondary air intake. The primary intake is the slot in the door. In this design, the tube fits into a channel in the bottom of the firebox (see photo below) and channels air to the back of the firebox. This is part of the core design and results in a very clean burn of the firewood. 

Brickwork for front finished.

Close-up at a different angle.

Another question you might have (I would, if I was you) is, why is the door set so far back? Why isn't the door flush with the front brick face of the stove? That is the result of poorly written plans, and why I'm not linking to them. The plans were mostly a series of layered schematics, with little to no explanation of what was going on. Equally unfortunate, the recommended videos showed stoves with something different than the plans. It was both confusing and frustrating, and why this was almost an abandoned project! 

Firebox door in place without the 2ndary air channel.

The next step will be the stovetop, and that has become another adventure in creativity. I have to hand it to Dan. He's ordinarily quite willing to modify something as he sees fit, but this stove had him stumped. He finally decided to plow ahead in hopes that it worked out. It will still work as a cookstove, but its heat efficiency as a batch box stove remains to be seen.

Dan will also admit he isn't very satisfied with the brickwork, but I think he was at the point where he just wanted to get it done. He has found a masonry series on YouTube that has restored his enthusiasm for brick laying, so expect more brickwork projects sometime in the not too distant future. 

Continued here.

October 1, 2021

SuperMeowy (For Goatldi)

In my Random September Photos blog post, I showed you a photo of Meowy on top of a fence post. But I neglected to show you how she got there! Here it is, secret revealed. 😼


SuperMeowy (For Goatldi) © October 2021