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  (Portage, Michigan)
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2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 2

I was sad when I realized that the best thing for our family was the discontinuance of our CSA. All the same, it was a peace-filled realization.

However…

I recently had an experience that was easily the saddest, most disheartening experience of my homesteading life to date. Imagine my dismay when – three days before I was to process it – I discovered that 50 gallons of pure maple sap stored in my garage was… spoiled. Sour. Unusable for syrup.

Saddest. Moment. Ever.

All of my sweet (literally) self-sufficient dreams drowned in a 5-gallon food-grade bucket of sour-smelling, cloudy liquid. Last year we had syrup from our sap but processed by Papa. This year I was really looking forward to the self-affirming experience of collecting and processing my own syrup.

Fortunately, Papa always has an abundance of syrup (he still has a ton left over from two years ago) so hopefully he’ll pity us enough to donate this year’s syrup.

Meanwhile, the thought of letting 50 gallons of maple sap go to waste made me want to vomit. I came inside… sat with my head in my hands and thought…

Maybe I could turn it into vinegar?

After an evening of frantic internet research, that’s just what I did. (Or, at least, what I made a plan to do.) Although the web is light on details about making maple vinegar, I did find enough direction to develop a plan for several different approaches. In a nutshell, they include…

Method 1: Diluted maple syrup mixed with wine-making yeast

Method 2: Maple sap with a Mother of Vinegar added

Method 3: Au natural (nothing added)

Because Method 1 involves diluted maple syrup, I decided to go ahead and process some of our sour sap all the way down to syrup. That way I could still experience (and show you) the process. What I didn’t expect is that as we got started, the batch really didn’t look (or smell) that bad. Coincidentally, Papa and I decided to process all but the 3 cloudiest buckets (15 gallons) down to maple syrup. The result is a very dark syrup that initially tastes just fine but leaves a strange after-taste. I’ve not yet dared to try it on pancakes.

wpid CYMERA 20140428 114631 2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 2

wpid CYMERA 20140428 114614 2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 2

I promise I’ll share all the details of my maple vinegar-making plan with you in a future post. Meanwhile, this post is dedicated to explaining and showing the process of taking sap to syrup.

Processing Maple Syrup 2014

As a refresher, maple sap becomes syrup when you remove the high water content, leaving behind the concentrated sugary content. The most popular way to do this is by boiling the sap to evaporate the water. The sugar content of sap varies based on many factors, but in general it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. For the homesteading maple syrup maker, a backyard evaporator is used to boil off all of that water. The evaporator can be as simple as a gas grill or it can take on a much more complicated form. For all the finer details on how an evaporator should function and how you can make one (along with how-to videos for several options) check out this post.

I was fortunate to be able to use Papa’s evaporator, featured in a post from 2013 that you can find here.

Click here for the step-by-step process, along with pictures and links to resources.

 
 

How to Freeze Eggs

wpid CAM03178 1024x759 How to Freeze Eggs

The winter of 2013/2014 was our first snowy season as chicken owners. I say was with a small amount of sarcasm since the snow just doesn’t seem to want to let go. (The three-foot-deep mounds in our backyard have melted to nothing in some places, but every few days it snows it again. Meanwhile Easter is only weeks away…) We were prepared for a reduction in egg production and made a plan for getting as many winter eggs as possible without causing too much stress to our hens. What we didn’t prepare was the most abysmally, blisteringly cold and long winter in the last thirty years. Though our egg production was decent for the conditions, it’s understanding that we went 8-10 weeks with nothing but hungry, cold hens.

It was a far cry from September days when I looked in the cupboard at three dozen eggs and thought “Well, it looks like quiche again for dinner!”

So you can imagine my delight in early March when I optimistically checked the nesting box and found… wait for it… an egg! A glorious, brown egg. (Though at the moment it looked more golden than brown. I’m pretty sure angels were ascending and descending on the coop and I heard the faint sound of harps surrounding me. At least I think…)

Double my delight when two eggs began showing up… then four… and now for the last week, we’re back up to one egg per hen – six eggs a day!

Now that I understand the feast or famine reality of owning a laying flock, I’m all the more interested in preserving our excess for use in our lean days. Otherwise stated, I want to purposefully preserve our extra eggs during warm weather to use next winter. After some research there are two options I want to explore: Dehydrating and freezing eggs.

We’ll save dehydrating for another day. Today, I want to teach you how to freeze eggs. You might not have laying hens to keep up with, but if you find a great deal on eggs, you can stock up to save now without worrying about them going bad. Here’s how it works.

How to Freeze Eggs

Visit our website for complete instructions and lots of photos. Click here!
 
 

How to Make Homemade Butter

wpid CAM03139 1024x759 How to Make Homemade Butter

When we first learned about the benefits of raw milk (and the harm of pasteurized milk from non-A2 cows) we decided it was worth switching to healthier dairy products. Buying a herd share was a no-brainer first step. Our herd share enables us to obtain raw milk from the cow we lease and yogurt and cheese made from her milk. We’re not big milk drinkers so keeping our consumption (both for straight drinking and baking) to 1 gallon a week works fine for us. Unfortunately we’re not able to purchase pre-made butter at the same time.

That’s too bad because though we don’t drink much milk, we do use a lot of butter. A lot. I seriously considered purchasing a second herd share just to have a enough cream for butter making. Unfortunately that’s not in the budget at this time. So instead, I’ve been making a habit of skimming the cream off our weekly gallon of milk and freezing it. I skimmed the milk by pouring it out of a gallon milk jug and into a gallon container with a wide mouth and lid. After a day or so the cream rises to the top and easy to scoop off. (You can see the cream line in the picture below).

wpid PicsArt 1395688899006 1024x759 How to Make Homemade Butter

After four weeks of skimming I ended up with about 7 cups of cream. These jars look very full, and they are, because of course the cream expands as it freezes. I want to be sure to say that I only filled them about ¾ full before placing them in the freezer. Filling them to the top would cause them to burst.

wpid CYMERA 20140324 135231 How to Make Homemade Butter

After collecting to jars’ worth of cream, I decided it was time for my maiden voyage into butter-making.

First I put the frozen jars into the fridge (on the bottom shelf because it is the warmest place in my refrigerator). I couldn’t tell you exactly how long it took the cream to thaw, but it was somewhere between one-and-a-half and two days.  With thawed cream on hand, I was ready to begin.

How to Make Butter from Scratch

These are the tools and ingredients I used:

  • 3.5 cups of cream (approximate)
  • A blender or food processor
  • 1 cup of ice water
  • A strainer
  • A medium to large sized bowl
  • A spatula
  • Paper towel or a cheesecloth
  • Wax or parchment paper
  • Bakers twine
  • Salt (optional)
For instructions and pictures, please visit our website by clicking here.
 
 

2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 1

wpid CYMERA 20140313 153110 2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 1

It’s maple sugarin’ season in Michigan! If I had been on my toes I would have tapped my trees on Thursday, March 6 as the weather conditions were just right for running sap – cold nights and above-freezing, sunny days. But alas, I’m a busy mom and I didn’t get to it until Tuesday, March 11. It was a beautiful, relatively warm, sunny day… and then that evening our lovely Michigan weather crashed from 40 degrees and sun to windchills below zero. (Hey, Old Man Winter – take your prozac, ok!?) Today the temperature has climbed to 22 degrees and tomorrow’s forecast currently calls for a high near 50. All of this up and down cold creates some serious weather-whiplash for us humans, butt the cold nights and warm days are great weather for collecting maple sap.

I won’t go into a ton of detail about how, when and why to collect maple sap because I wrote a pretty comprehensive post about it last year. (Click here to check it out!). This year I just wanted to give you quick update and to let you know that we’re trying something a wee bit different.

Click here to read the rest of this article.
 
 

Square Foot Garden Seed Tape

how to make seed tape

Seeds come in many shapes and sizes. The tiniest seeds – such as radishes, carrots and onions – can be difficult to sow with precision. One way to address this problem is to use seed tape. Fortunately seed tape is easy to make, store and use, both in traditional row gardens and Square Foot Gardening raised beds. Seed tape helps you conserve seeds, minimizes (or eliminates) the need to thin plants later in the season, and makes a great winter-time project to give you a jump start on spring. Also gardeners with back issues will find this method of sowing seeds much less painful than bending over a garden bed. Plus if you’re a neat freak, it will give you control over having a beautifully, perfectly spaced garden. Won’t the neighbors be jealous?

For pictures and all of the instructions for creating square foot garden seed tape, click here.

 
 

Freezing Cookie Dough

Christmas means lots of things to lots of people. We have several family traditions and one of them involves baking gobs of cookies. The lineup varies from year to year but a few staples remain: Oatmeal Scotchies, Sugar Cookies and Gingerbread Cookies. (We don’t eat them all; many are given as gifts. But… we eat plenty.) In November of this year I had a brilliant idea: Wouldn’t it be cool if I whipped up some cookie dough during this I’m-not-crazy-busy-with-holiday-things-to-do time, stick it in the freezer and then (viola!) pull it out just in time to make hassle-free cookies with Christmas carols blaring in the background?

It was a brilliant idea!

I didn’t do it.

But I haven’t given up on the idea. And since pretty much any time of the year is a good time for freshly baked cookies, I’ve decided to make double batches during Christmas baking and save some for the rest of the winter. (You know, because I need extra hurdles to my diet-related New Year’s resolutions…)

I’ve personally never frozen cookie dough before. Just in case you haven’t either, here are tips I found on how to freeze both drop (chunky) cookies, such as chocolate chip, and for cut out cookies, like gingerbread and sugar cookies. I’ve also included links to my favorite recipes. Enjoy!

Freezing Cut-Out Cookie Dough

Recipe: Christmas Sugar Cookies

Recipe: Easy Gingerbread Cookies

1. Mix dough per recipe.

2. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into three roughly-equal sized sections. (Note: Refrigerating the dough for 15-20 minutes will make it easier to work with.)

how to freeze cookie dough

3. On the floured surface, shape each section of dough into a disc about one inch thick.

how to freeze cookie dough

4. Place the disc on top of a sheet of wax or parchment paper. Fold the paper around the disc. (Optional: Use a piece of tape to secure the paper.)

how to freeze cookie dough

how to freeze cookie dough

how to freeze cookie dough

how to freeze cookie dough

5. Place each disc into a freezer bag. Remove as much air as possible from the bag before sealing. Label the bag with the contents, date, proper oven temperature and number of minutes to bake.

how to freeze cookie dough

how to freeze cookie dough

6. Dough can be stored up to three months.

7. To bake with frozen dough, remove the disc from the freezer and allow it to warm at room temperature for 10 minutes (or until pliable). Roll the dough out per recipe directions and cut cookies.

Want even faster cookies the next time you have a craving? Try this:

  1. Create cookie dough per recipe.
  2. Roll dough out to desired thickness and cut cookies.
  3. Transfer cookies to a room-temperate cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.
  4. Place cookie sheet into freezer until… wait for it… frozen. (Could take 1 to 6 hours depending on your freezer’s temperature and the thickness of your cookies.)
  5. Once cookies are frozen, transfer them (quickly, to avoid a thawed, sticky situation) to a pre-labeled freezer bag and return to the freezer. Label information should include the contents, the date, proper oven temperature and number of minutes to bake.
  6. To bake the frozen cookies add an extra minute or two to the recommended baking time.

Freezing Drop (Chunky) Cookie Dough

Recipe: Oatmeal Scotchies

Recipe: Minimally Processed Chocolate Chip Cookies


how to freeze cookie dough
  1. Create dough per recipe.
  2. Place portioned scoops of dough onto a lined (wax or parchment paper) cookie sheet as you normally would. Since the cookies will not be immediately baked (and thus won’t spread out) you can place them close together.
  3. Place the cookie sheet full of portioned dough into the freezer until frozen solid. (This process will take at least six hours; you could also freeze them overnight.)
  4. Label a freezer bag with the contents, date, proper oven temperature and number of minutes to bake.
  5. Place completely-frozen cookie “balls” into freezer bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible before closing the bag. Cookies can be frozen for up to three months.
  6. To bake with frozen dough, add an extra minute or two to the recommended baking time.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally. 

 
 

How to Make Homemade Almond Extract

Life, according to my belly, can be categorized into the following seasons: Soup season, grilling season, roasting season and baking season. We, dear friends, are in the heart of baking season! Our household has no concept of portion control loves good food. And while I can’t say that the food we eat is always good for us (it’s hard to claim that cake is healthy) we do strive to make everything with natural, wholesome ingredients.

That’s why last year I kicked our artificial baking supplies to the curb. No sprinkles, no colored sugar, no artificial food dye and no artificial flavorings. The flavorings were the most difficult to part with. Fortunately I learned to make homemade vanilla extract. It’s actually quite economical, all-natural and super tasty! When we ran out mid-year I made a second batch and also created some orange extract (which I’ve yet to actually use). So far, having homemade vanilla extract on hand has met my flavoring needs… save for one: Almond.

I miss almond flavoring.

There are some things that just need an amaretto-esqe touch.

Why is it then that it has taken me all of this time to think of making my own? (Silly me!) I wish I had started this a month ago so I’d have homemade almond extract in time for Christmas goodies.

At any rate, making almond extract (or any extract, for that matter) is so easy!

Click here for the recipe!

 
 

Planting Fruit Trees in Fall

Spring is always a busy and exciting time for gardeners. I’m no exception. Logically I spent a lot of time in the garden this spring, planting, prepping and simply enjoying the sights and sounds of nature waking up from her winter nap. One of the things I enjoy most about preparing the spring garden is the sight and smell of our neighbor’s apple tree. Apple blossoms are some of my favorite flowers! This spring, for the first time ever, as I looked around me I noticed that the deluge of beautiful white blossoms gracing my neighbors tree were echoed underneath a bramble of pine branches and other tree limbs at the back of our property.

After further investigation I discovered that in the back corner of our one-acre yard there was an apple tree growing! Sadly, the apple tree was growing in the shadow of a mulberry tree (planted only few feet away) which itself was growing in the shadow of a large, scraggly pine tree (just a few more feet away). All three trees were living but doing poorly.

I knew right away that I needed to rescue that poor little apple tree! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have anything against pine trees or mulberry trees, but I’m an opportunist, and the idea of a ‘wasted’ apple tree already established on my own property was too much. The obvious first step was to cut down the two overbearing trees growing so intrusively nearby. That first step also lead us down the path of finally deciding where to put our micro-orchard. This back section of the property was also home to a medium-sized pine tree and a large cherry tree (not the kind with edible fruit). We never (ever ever) use that part of the yard for anything. (In fact, it probably only gets mowed a handful of times each year.) The area gets great sun so we decided to cut down the other two trees and replace each with an apple tree.

So down came the trees – Ryan and my father-in-law did most of the work (although my mother-in-law and I helped considerably with the clean up). My in-laws heat their home with a wood-burning furnace so the bulk of the lumber went to them. I kept a few logs for hugelkultur expansion and for edging a few mounded beds. I also kept some of the straightest branches to create tee-pees for caging tomatoes. But when all was said and done, the main thing we were left with was a big fat empty space.

It’s amazing how much larger that part of the yard looks without the trees there! Before I thought of it as a tiny sliver of space occupied by a random pine tree. Removing the trees has revealed its true identity – another sunny section so wide that I could easily fill it up by doubling the size of our already large garden. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not interested in adding any more space to our roughly 1,500 square foot garden.) It’s a great space for fruit trees!

Around that time we purchased two trees on sale from Lowes. We didn’t have a very big selection to choose from so we went with a good cooking variety (Macintosh) and a good fresh-eating variety (Golden Delicious). We were careful to read the labels to make sure they would pollinate each other (apples need another tree in order to pollinate and produce fruit).

And then… we got busy…

And then… the CSA season came to a close….

And then… the weather started turning cooler…

And then… it straight-up snowed…

And all the while that little voice in my head kept saying “Blerg… I need to get those trees planted!”

Finally this week we had a little warm up. (Ok, a big warm up followed by a quick cool down that caused massive storms in our corner of the Midwest!) You never know when the weather will turn in Michigan, especially during the months where seasonal transition are common (October and November are on that list) so I knew I needed to make my move this week or risk losing my chance completely.

I did some quick research about tree planting. Everyone recommends doing this in the early spring. Of course… Not surprisingly there were several cautionary tales about fall planting. But then without too much more effort I found instructions on planting trees in fall. I even found a few forums where experienced gardeners said that fall was an excellent time to plant fruit trees because it gives them a jump start in the spring. Really, I only had two other options. The first alternative idea was to “heal them in” which sounds an awful lot like just planting them to me (only in an area that will be more protected from cold and wind). I’m not a fan of planting them twice, thanks.

The other option was to overwinter them in the green house. I wasn’t a big fan of this either because of that time in late winter where the temperate outside are still very cold (mid-30s or colder) but the sun is warming the greenhouse to spring-like temperatures that might cause the trees to bud too early. I couldn’t think of a good place to move them to during this time period without sending them into shock.

So at any rate, I planted them. It was super-easy. Here’s what I did…

Planting Fruit Trees in Fall

Step 1: Dig a hole about twice the width of the root ball and just as deep as the root ball.

planting fruit trees in fall

I ended up widening this hole after taking the picture.

Step 2: Loosen the roots so that they are encouraged to grow outward.

planting fruit trees in fall

Before loosening the roots…

planting fruit trees in fall

After loosening the roots…

Step 3: Place the tree in the hole. For directions on how deep you should plant the tree, I recommend that you read this. Depth matters – big time! In summary, it’s better to err on the side of planting too shallow than too deep. Be sure to avoid planting soil above where the tree is grafted to the root system to avoid scion rooting.

Step 4: Cover the roots with quality compost. Ideally the compost would be aged. I ended up using a mixture of mulched fall leaves, rabbit manure (not composted) and compost from this year’s pile (garden clippings, food scraps, etc.). Be sure to tamp the compost down as you go along. The purpose of this is to reduce air pockets which can cause root issues.

planting fruit trees in fall

This baby apple tree has been planted with a compost mixture and tamped down to get rid of air pockets.

Step 5: Water your trees and add a layer of mulch to keep them warm and retain moisture. I didn’t read this anywhere, but for the same reason as Step 3 (scion rooting) I made sure to keep the mulch away from the base of the tree. Ironically, our mulch comes from the large branches of the trees we cut down to make room for the new apples.

planting fruit trees in fall

Ironically the mulch used to surround this tree came from the branches of the trees that came down to make way for the micro orchard.

planting fruit trees in fall

This apple tree is ready for winter (I hope)!

So after putting it off for months and months… about 30 minutes of work (maybe less) has finally made us the proud owners of a micro orchard. I can’t wait for the beautiful flowers next spring – and the amazing fruit in the future!

More to Do

Want to know a little secret? I still have a cherry tree and two blueberry bushes to plant! I planned to plant them on the same day as our apple trees but ran into some questions. The cherry tree is destined to take root very (very) near a place in the front yard where we previously had a diseased ornamental cherry tree. (We cut that little guy down at the same time as the trees out back.) I want to do some research to find out how to safeguard the second tree from the same health issues that overtook its predecessor before moving forward. Part of me is worried that I just may not be able to plant there at all (the original tree stump is still there… rotting as it sits in the ground). As far as the blueberry bushes go, I just wanted to check one last time that the site I had chosen for them gets enough sun. Hopefully they’ll be in before this weekend! I can’t wait for all the delicious fruit to come!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.   

 
 

Winter Egg Production

If you live in Michigan then you don’t need me to tell you that the weather is getting cold and the days are getting darker. Our yard has already been covered in a dual blanket of leaves and snow several times this month. Another sign at Arcadia Farms that cold weather has arrived can be found in the chicken coop. Or, more specifically, can’t be found in the chicken coop. No eggs. Our hens have stopped laying completely. We’ve been eggless for over a week now.

Making the transition from egg producers to egg consumers has highlighted how blessed we are to have our own chickens. Last Friday my grocery list included eggs for the first time in about six months. I confess that I felt almost like a fraud as I reached into the cooler of eggs at Meijer. In addition to my farmer-shame, I discovered that ‘natural’ eggs at the store are up to $4 a dozen now – Yikes! I’m eager to get our girls back into production, so here’s the plan.

Why Hens Stop Producing Eggs in Fall/Winter

why chickens stop laying eggsIn early October our hens’ egg production slowed to four or five eggs a day rather than the usual six. We suspect that the hens were in the process of molting. Molting is when chickens produce new plumage for winter and shed their summer feathers. The process is aimed at preparing the bird for winter and takes a significant amount of energy to complete. The energy normally spent on egg production is consumed by the molting process.

We’re cool with losing out on a few eggs here and there while we wait patiently for nature to do its thing. Or at least, we were, until nature started to look like an empty nesting box.

Last week our chickens abruptly stopped laying completely. The event coincided with me cleaning out the coop and refreshing the bedding. Though I knew that was an unlikely culprit in the lack of eggs, I decided to keep the hens in their paddock for an entire day to make sure they hadn’t just picked a new favorite spot to nest. No dice eggs.

Thanks to a little research and feedback from a homesteading Facebook group I discovered the other two reasons why chickens stop laying eggs as the weather cools: Lack of warmth and lack of sunlight.

Chickens require about 14 total hours of sunlight per day to produce eggs. An article on Backyard Chickens does an excellent job of explaining why:

“Chickens are ‘told’ to produce eggs by their endocrine system, a system of different glands and organs that produce hormones.  As the daylight hours shorten in winter, changes in these hormones shut down egg production. Adding additional light triggers the endocrine system into action, causing them to produce more eggs. Continuously giving chickens light in the winter fools their bodies into thinking that the days aren’t getting shorter at all.”

Another cold-weather factor impacts egg production is (no surprise here) temperature. Chickens lay best when the ambient temperature is between 52 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures fall outside of those parameters, egg production slows or stops. Also sudden, extreme changes in temperature can trigger an equally sudden stop to egg laying. (If ‘sudden, extreme change in temperature’ doesn’t describe fall in Michigan, I don’t know what does!)

Our hens had already begun molting in early October (with a subsequent drop in eggs) but during the week of our first official snow (which contained a sudden and large drop in ambient temperatures) they stopped producing entirely.

How to Re-Start Egg Production

The prescription for getting our hens producing again is pretty straight forward. Step 1 is to provide more light. After research and discussion with experienced chicken owners, it appears that adding heat and changing diet may be helpful but don’t always prove necessary.

Winter Lighting in the Chicken Coop

Artificial lighting can be used to supplement sunlight and provide chickens with the total 14 hours needed daily to produce eggs when days are short. We’re not able to hardwire a light in our coop at this time so we’ve run an outdoor extension cord to the same light we used to keep our birdies warm when they were chicks.

lighting chicken coop

Based on my research the best practice is to add early-morning light rather than evening light. Additional evening light can have an impact on the birds’ temperaments and might also result in adjusting the birds to be afternoon layers. For some people these potential side effects might not be a burden. In the event of adding evening light, a low-tech way is to turn the light on in the evening when you’d normally turn your house lights on (5:30ish these days) and turning them off when you go to bed. For early-morning light, or for those of you who want a more hands-off approach, installing a timer will do the trick. I plan to spend between $20-$30 at a home improvement store to find the right solution to add early-morning light without having to get up in the wee hours of the morning.

lighting chicken coopI’ve talked to several homesteaders who’ve had success getting their hens to lay in winter by simply using a white light bulb (40 or 60 watt). Using a high efficiency bulb can make this an environmentally and financially friendly option. Meanwhile, using a red heat lamp (like the one used to keep little chicks warm as they grow) costs more to operate; however, the red light may actually be more beneficial to your flock. Research cited by Animalens Inc. shows that chickens who wear red-tinted contact lenses (yes, seriously) “behave differently from birds that don’t. The chickens are calmer, less prone to pecking and cannibalism; the mortality rate is lower. For a variety of reasons, some not fully understood, they also tend to eat less feed while producing, on average, the same size and number of eggs as other chickens (even a bit more).” I’m not itching to run out and buy contact lenses for my chickens (especially at $20 per pair!) but I’m willing to buy the fact that red might be overall better for the disposition (and egg production) of my birdies.

Warming the Chicken Coop in Winter

Of course using a red heat bulb in the coop helps to address both lighting and warming. If red lighting isn’t an option for you, proper insulation will go a long way to helping your chickens to stay warm. Your inclination might be to simply close up the coop tightly, but remember that proper ventilation is important! You don’t want a direct breeze blowing on the place where your hens roost, however, air flow is important to keep molds and mildews from building up as your chickens add heat and moisture (body heat and breath) to the coop. Overarching all of this is the admonition to select birds that do well in winter weather. In general heavier breeds will be more likely to thrive during cold weather.

A good point to keep in mind is that if you heat your coop your chickens will learn to depend on that warmth. What happens then when if you lose power? A natural way to add a small amount of heat to the coop is to use the deep liter method. With this method the decomposition of liter and manure will add some (not sure how much) heat to the coop all winter long.

In addition to what’s around them, chickens can be kept warm by what is in them. One site suggests feeding the chickens corn in the evening so that they are digesting during the night (adding warmth). Warmed water may also help your birds stay warm. You can buy water heaters from a store like Tractor Supply Company.

heated base chicken waterer

Or you could try something like this…

Should We Re-Start Egg Production?

You can see that re-starting egg production (or keeping it from stopping) when the days become short and cold can be very straightforward – add a heat lamp. But before you head out to the coop, consider this: Should you?

Healthy, happy chickens are likely to produce at least some eggs during the winter. Clearly adding artificial light and heat means you’re adding things that naturally-raised chickens have survived without for many, many generations. There’s some debate about whether or not adding artificial light and heat may have long-term negative effects on the health of your chickens. More specifically, there is debate about the health impact on a chicken who is forced to continue laying when she should be molting.

One fact that is not up for debate is whether or not adding artificial light will shorten the laying longevity of a hen. Chickens are born with all the eggs they will ever produce, so, inducing them to lay (by using artificial light) when they naturally would not (cold, light-deprived winter days) is essentially hastening the day when your hen will be ready to retire. For those of you keeping chickens as pets, this is a serious point to consider. For those raising chickens for their eggs, it may be of less concern.

Our Plans

I want to treat our chickens humanely and provide them with a healthy environment. However… I also want eggs. And though I am planning to keep these birdies for their whole life, I’m also planning on their life ending right about the time they stop laying (likely about 3 years). After that, I’ll keep them… in a ½ gallon canning jar on the shelf or sealed in my freezer. You can imagine then that I’m not too concerned about hastening the advent of each hen’s final egg. I am, however, concerned about raising my hens in a way that is healthy for them (and ultimately, my family). I don’t like the idea of our flock adjusting to artificial heat (i.e., red heat bulb) because I worry about the potential harm it could do to them if when we have one of those famous Michigan winter power outages. Though red light may be more soothing than white, my hope is that providing light from a regular bulb will feel more natural when delivered in the morning (kind of like an early sunrise… maybe I’m kidding myself…). If I see a change in temperament in the flock I’ll likely switch to a red light for good since I also read that switching back and forth can be even more stressful than simply using a white light.

I’ll need to do more research, but I’m considering giving our flock a good 4-6 weeks off each fall (October and November) to molt without the presence of artificial light and heat. After that time, then I think I’ll move on to adding artificial white light. What do you think? Any concerns about that plan? Any tips you can provide this rookie chicken-keeper with? You know I appreciate all of it!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.   

 
 

Pruning Blackberries

when to prune blackberries

We have blackberries. Just a small section of canes growing on a portion of our backyard fence. I didn’t plant them. Either the previous owners placed them there or nature was just crafty about placement. Whichever is the case, I have to confess that they weren’t even noticeable until the spring of 2010 (four years after we moved in) when I looked out into the yard and saw a beautiful spray of white flowers over the back fence. Ever since I’ve been making breakfast-time trips to the backyard every spring and summer to add fresh berries to my yogurt. In 2013 we received the most and biggest berries ever! Other than a bit of pruning this spring and training a few pliable canes through the fence I haven’t done much with these plants. They’re starting to get a bit unruly so I decided to look into best practices for caring for blackberries. Namely, my goal was to prune them. Here’s what I found…

Why prune blackberries?

when to prune blackberries

Pruning blackberries has several straight-forward benefits. First, pruning helps to encourage growth during the next season. Pruning enables growth in cane strength but especially encourages lateral branching (which is where new berries will come from). Pruning also reduces the ability of diseases to spread.

At the end of this fall I noticed that my blackberries had taken on the same spots as my beans and cucumbers. I’m beginning to notice a trend that plants most impacted by what I’m currently guessing to be anthracnose are often located near a mulberry tree, and my mulberry leaves are spotted as well. There’s certainly more research to be done, but that’s another post. Meanwhile, I discovered yesterday that the majority of my blackberry leaves are spotted and diseased. Time to prune for sure!

When should you prune blackberries?

There are two times to prune blackberries: Spring and fall. In the fall (or better, at the end of the summer when berries are no longer being produced) pruning is done to remove dead or 2-year-old canes. Turns out blackberries only produce food on canes that are two year sold. After they’ve produced you’ll never get fruit from them again. Cut those puppies out to make room for new growth! This is also a time to prune away diseased canes and leaves (although this can also be done in the midst of the season to promote plant health).

At spring time blackberries will benefit from tip pruning where you (brace yourself) cut off the tips. Tip pruning causes the canes to branch out and provide more space for fruit to grow.

How do you prune blackberries?

Pruning blackberries is very straight-forward. Use clean pruning shears and cut the canes off at the desired height. If your canes are not supported, keep them around 3 feet tall. For supported canes, cut them off at the height of your support (i.e. fence). I cut mine about 1 foot short of the fence this year to encourage more growth and to give me time to tie them to the fence this spring before they get too large.

I wasn’t expected my own blackberry pruning experience to be quite so… extensive. Between old growth and disease, I ended up chopping off nearly everything, including new growth. It was a little scary, but these plants are so hardy that I know they’ll come back aggressively. I plan to let the branches dry out a bit over the next few days, chop them into small sections and have a little campfire evening.

 

when to prune blackberries

Our blackberries in the spring, 2013.

when to prune blackberries

Our blackberries in the fall 2013, before pruning.

 

when to prune blackberries

Our blackberries in the fall 2013, after pruning.
{Note: Most of the green you see is just the pile of pruned canes piled behind the fence.}

when to prune blackberries

The remaining, healthy canes are now woven neatly into the supporting fence.

I can’t wait to see what the blackberries look like next spring!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  

 
 

Processing Pie Pumpkins

One of the few (possibly the only) crop I grew solely for our family this year was pie pumpkins. I only used one bed and ended up with about a dozen pumpkins. The pumpkins have been sitting around the house for a couple of weeks now, just waiting to be processed. After doing a little research (bless you, Google) and talking to a friend (bless you, Carrie) I decided to process our pumpkins using a combination of methods. I’m roasting my pumpkins in the oven and then dehydrating them to be stored in powder form. Here’s how…

Step 1: Roast the Pie Pumpkins

Dehead the pumpkin. (For those of you who don’t live with an 8-year-old boy or like to pretend you’re Eowyn, that just means “cut the top off.”)

how to process pie pumpkins

how to process pie pumpkins

Use a spoon to scrape out the seeds and stringy mess. The goal is to get rid of as much stringiness as possible. If you set the seeds aside you can roast them alongside the pumpkin!

how to process pie pumpkins

Cut the pumpkin into quarters by first cutting it in half and then halving the halves.

how to process pie pumpkins

Place the pumpkin pieces on a cookie sheet with the skin side up. This will help to retain moisture as the pumpkin pieces roast.

how to process pie pumpkins

how to process pie pumpkins

Roast in the oven at 350* for 45 minutes or until the pumpkin pieces are fork-tender. They will look like this.

how to process pie pumpkins

Step 2: Puree the Roasted Pumpkin

When the pumpkins are done roasting the skin will be soft and somewhat withered. Allow the pumpkin to cool enough that you can handle it without being burned and then peel away the skin. Don’t be impatient or you’ll burn yourself! I used both a knife and my bear hands to remove the skin. It was an easy process.

The next step is to place chunks of the roasted pumpkin into a blender or food processor. After some experimenting I found that I needed to add about 1 tablespoon of water to each batch to obtain a smooth consistency.

how to process pie pumpkins

Since I plan to dehydrate my puree, a little extra water is no big deal. If however you are planning to freeze your puree, be careful not to make it too runny. If needed, you can remove excess moisture by placing a cheesecloth in a colander and letting the puree drain.

Also here’s where our freezing friends get off the train: Carefully scoop your puree into freezer-safe bags. Seal all but a small corner of the bag then lay it on the counter to smooth out the puree into a flat layer and push out excess air. Seal her up, label that puppy and stick it in the freezer for up to six months.

Step 3: Dehydrate the Puree

For those of you riding this train all the way into the station, it’s time to dehydrate your pumpkin puree.

Spread the puree out evenly onto a tray of your dehydrator and dehydrate for about 12 hours. I tried using both the mesh liner and the solid liner that came with my dehydrator. The mesh liner was a disaster – there was no way to get all of the dried pumpkin off it and the small bits I did retrieve accounted for a teeny portion of the entire tray. Boo. The solid liner, however, worked brilliantly.

how to dehydrate pumpkin

how to dehydrate pumpkin

Dehydrating in the Oven
Unfortunately I only have one solid liner which means I can only dehydrate a small amount of puree at a time (about 1 pumpkin). As an alternative I attempted to dehydrate puree in the oven. It worked very well! Here’s how: Lay a Silpat baking sheet (or parchment paper) onto a cookie sheet. Next spread an even layer of puree onto the Silpat and ‘bake’ at 170* for 5-6 hours. Mine dehydrated for 6 hours (I was working in the garden and forgot about it) and was slightly on the burned side, though still usable. If I dehydrate this way again I’ll aim for closer to 5 hours.

how to process pie pumpkins

how to process pie pumpkins

Once the puree has fully dehydrated it should look and feel like a thin crispy wafer. Peel away and place the pieces into your blender. Then blend away until your crispy wafers are pulverized into tiny little bits (powder is the goal). Here’s what mine looks like…

how to process pie pumpkins

how to process pie pumpkins

Store your dehydrated pumpkin away from heat and light in an air-tight container. According to the food preservation section of About.com you can store dehydrated pumpkin this way indefinitely. In addition to a longer shelf-life, dehydrated pumpkin takes up much less storage space then several freezer bags of puree. Also when if we have a power outage this winter I’ll have one less thing to worry about moving to a friend’s freezer while I wait for the power to return.

How do you cook with dehydrated pumpkin?

Does the idea of dehydrated pumpkin sound unappealing? I get it. But you can use dehydrated pumpkin for all of the same recipes as pumpkin puree: Pie, cookies, bread, cheesecake, pancakes, ice cream and smoothies. I’m looking forward to trying this one: Spicy pumpkin hummus. Yummy!

Here’s how it works. For every ½ cup of dehydrated pumpkin you should add 2 cups of boiling water. Stir the mixture up well and allow it to sit for at least 20 minutes. This will enable it to fully rehydrate and also to cool. The mixture should be completely cool before you use it in your baking.

Most of my dehydrating information came from Dehydrate 2 Store, which also provides a video tutorial for creating a pumpkin pie from dehydrated pumpkin.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally. 

 
 

Planting Garlic

Garlic

Garlic is a staple in the kitchen for many of us. The fact that it’s so easy and inexpensive to grow means it would also be a great staple in your garden. With just a small amount of garden space you can enough garlic to be self-sufficient for the better part of a year.

If you’re like me, you’re destined to spend a decent amount of time this winter dreaming about what you’ll plant in the garden when spring arrives. But if you plan to incorporate a garlic harvest into next year’s season, you’ll need to act much sooner. Though you can plant at any time, for the best results, garlic should be planted in the fall. According to Lynn Byczynski, owner of Seeds from Italy, “Your goal should be to plant within two weeks of the first frost (32°F) so that the cloves develop roots but do not emerge above ground by the time of the first hard freeze (28°F).”

Since we experienced our first frost this week, I’m planning to have my garlic in the ground by the end of this weekend. Here are some things I’ll be keeping in mind as I go (and that you’ll want to take note of as well) for a successful harvest next summer.

Choose Between Hardnecks and Softnecks

Garlic falls into two main categories: Hardneck and softneck. The Daily Green describes the difference like this:

Softnecks, the standard garlics of commerce, are the easiest to grow in regions where the weather is mild. They keep longer than hardnecks, but they are less hardy and more prone to make small, very strong-flavored cloves. Hardnecks do best where there is a real winter and are more vulnerable to splitting – or simply refusing to produce – when grown in warm climates.

Prepare Garlic Seed

Garlic is traditionally planted from cloves which are the smaller sections that can be separated from the larger bulb. It is recommended that you plant garlic from “seed garlic” rather than from a bulb of garlic purchased from the grocery store. However, you can certainly plant garlic from bulbs purchased at a farmer’s market or from the produce section. The risk here is that garlic from the grocery store may be an imported variety that is not well-suited for growing in your climate, or it may have been treated with chemicals that make it difficult to sprout/grow. I’m going to experiment with planting from three sources: Farmer’s market garlic, seed garlic (Chesnok Red Organic) and organic garlic purchased at the grocery store.

Start your planting process by pulling the cloves apart from the bulb. Be sure to leave the papery skin intact. As an optional step, Organic Gardening recommends soaking cloves in the following mixture for two hours prior to planting in order to “prevent fungal disease and encourage vigorous growth”:

  • 1 quart water
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon liquid seaweed

Avoid planting cloves that are tiny, dried out or that show signs of discoloration and mold.

Prepare the Soil

Garlic grows best in well-drained, fertile soil. Garlic does not do well in clay soils, which means you may need to amend with sand or vermiculite if you have predominantly clay soil. The soil should also be free of weeds.

Plant the Cloves

To plant your garlic cloves (“seeds”) first dig a 3-inch-deep furrow in the garden bed. Place the seeds with the flat root section down and the pointed section up. If the weather has been dry and you don’t expect rain any time soon, you may want to water the seeds before moving on to the next step.

For those of you with square foot gardens, you can plant either 4 (large varieties) or 9 (small varieties) per square foot. For those of you who garden by the row, 6-8 inches between cloves should be your guideline.

Garlic should be planted in full sun.

Side-dress Furrow with Organic Matter

To make sure your garlic has a rich, fertile environment in which to grow, you’ll want to side-dress your seeds with organic matter. Suggested materials include composted manure, alfalfa meal, garden compost or other organic fertilizer. Personally, I plan to use rabbit manure.

Mulch Away

After you’ve planted your seed and added fertilizer, cover everything with 6-8 inches of straw mulch. I’ve also used grass clippings and mulched leaves. The mulch will help to keep weeds at bay but will also help to retain moisture and moderate soil temperature. In the spring, carefully rake back the mulch to allow the green shoots to more easily emerge and soak up some sunshine.

 

That’s it! With these few simple steps you can easily grow all the garlic your family will need for the summer, perhaps even for a whole year. Later in the season I’ll share information with you about caring for, harvesting, curing and storing garlic. But for now you know all you need to make sure you don’t miss this perfect opportunity to get out there and plant your garlic before the garden is covered in a blanket of snow.

Alternative Garlic Growing

An alternative way to grow garlic is by planting garlic bulbils. This is a method I discovered while preparing to write this post and is something I’ll spend more time studying this winter. I do love a good experiment so I hope to harvest some garlic bulbils and attempt to propagate more garlic this way in 2015. For more details, click here.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.

 
 

Finding Neem Oil

neem oil natural pesticide

{Image Credit}
Home Depot

Last year I shared this post about my great love for zucchini and my complimentary great hatred for squash bugs and vine borers. I also shared about my equally passionate distaste for white powdery mildew and anthracnose. All of these pests/problems plagued my curcurbits (zucchini, melons, squashes) in our 2012 season. Since then I’ve taken steps to minimize the impact of these Axis of Evil members on my garden, including:

1. No mulch around squashes (it provides a place for bugs to hide)
2. Companion planting of radishes as a trap crop for vine borers
3. Companion planting of beans to provide extra nutrients to cucumbers
4. A bi-weekly application of neem oil

I can’t comment on how effective my no-mulch system has been because it’s difficult to measure how much squash bugs hide. However I can say that with all of these methods combined, I have seen only one case of vine borer damage and only recently (last week) have I seen any squash bugs. Also, I have had zero anthracnose issues and only a limited powdery mildew issue on some golden zucchini. (The golden zucchini are planted in a hugelkultur bed where the soil is 100% native, sandy soil. These plants – presumably – are suffering from having fewer nutrients than our compost-planted crops in other hugels and they have struggled the most of all the producing plants this summer. That being said, they are still producing, even if only a small amount.) Though I clearly still have work to do regarding the insect invaders in my garden, I’m pleased to say that I seem to have found just the right trick to keeping mildew and anthracnose at bay: Neem oil.

What is Neem Oil?

Last year’s issues with these diseases was awful with a capital BAD! In researching the issue, I discovered that neem oil can be a natural solution. What is neem oil? So glad you asked…

According to Wikipedia:

Neem oil is a vegetable oil pressed from the fruits and seeds of the neem (Azadirachta indica), an evergreen tree which is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and has been introduced to many other areas in the tropics. It is the most important of the commercially available products of neem for organic farming and medicines.

The site goes on to say:

Formulations made of neem oil also find wide usage as a biopesticide for organic farming, as it repels a wide variety of pests including the mealy bug, beet armyworm, aphids, the cabbage worm, thrips, whiteflies, mites, fungus gnats, beetles, moth larvae, mushroom flies, leafminers, caterpillars, locust, nematodes and the Japanese beetle. Neem oil is not known to be harmful to mammals, birds, earthworms or some beneficial insects such as butterflies, honeybees and ladybugs if it is not concentrated directly into their area of habitat or on their food source. It can be used as a household pesticide for ant, bedbug, cockroach, housefly, sand fly, snail, termite and mosquitoes both as repellent and larvicide (Puri 1999)[not specific enough to verify]. Neem oil also controls black spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose and rust (fungus).

Where to Get Neem Oil

You can order neem oil online or you can buy it at most home improvement stores. I purchased Natria Neem Oil from Home Depot for about $15. Options include a concentrate which you mix with water or a ready-to-spray formula that has already been diluted with water. I selected the concentrate because I felt it would stretch farther based on the quantity in each bottle. (I also purchased a 1 gallon sprayer similar to this one so I could have a dedicated container.) The Natria Neem Oil says “for organic gardening” right on the package, however I’ve noticed since that other neem oils are listed as being organic themselves while this is not. The next time I purchase neem oil, I’ll select something from the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved list, which you can find here. The OMRI website also has a “Where to Buy” section.

How to Use Neem Oil

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you must follow the direction on the container! My neem oil is concentrated so I combine a small amount with water. Because neem oil can burn plant leaves under lots of sun exposure, its best to spray plants early in the morning or late in the afternoon. I usually spray in the afternoon because there is still enough daylight/warmth to dry the leaves but I don’t have to worry about a noon-day sun showing up a few hours later. I use neem oil on plants which tend to have disease or pest issues in my garden: Broccoli, cauliflower, squashes, melons, cucumbers and tomatoes. Although the packaging gives no limitations regarding spraying greens, I don’t spray it on any crops where the leaves are going to be eaten. The packaging for my neem oil says that weekly applications are permissible and recommends use either once a week or every-other week. I started in May with weekly applications and transitioned to bi-weekly in June. (On off weeks I fertilize the garden with diluted fish emulsion. With that said, things grew well in July and I confess that I haven’t fertilized in over a month.)

More Info

For more info about neem oil – including info on toxicity in humans and animals (hint: there is little to none) check out this link: http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/neemgen.html#whatis

So far, I’m thrilled with the results. Neem oil has enabled me to effectively stave off white powdery mildew and anthracnose in my garden. Although I can’t say for sure that it has been effective at warding off vine borers and squash bugs, its effectiveness might increase if I used it weekly instead of bi-weekly. Before I go there, my next attempt at squashing squash bugs is going to involve a hungry chicken! I’ll let you know how that goes…

Anyone else use neem oil? Other natural fungicides or pesticides? I’d love to hear your ideas!

 
 

Making Strawberry Jam for Dummies

how to make strawberry jam

Why can’t my life be simple?

Let me preface this post by saying that, when all was said and done, I ended up with delicious, beautiful, properly-thick strawberry jam. If you’re here looking simply for instructions on how to do the same – without the ‘dummy’ narrative surrounding the process – you’ll want to scroll to the end of this post. Look for the heading that says Strawberry Jam Recipe. If you’d like to learn a little about what not to do whilst making jam, read on…

Jam Making for Dummies

We had a lot going on Monday night so I wasn’t able to make jam as planned. No worries – I decided I’d go to bed early, wake up early and get crackin’ on jam right away Tuesday. And that’s just what I did – got up early, put away some laundry and filled up the canner all before 7:00 AM. Still in my jammies, I started smashing berries and going over recipes.

Berries smashed – check!

Lemon juice added – check!

Canner rolling – check!

Jars sterilizing in the oven – check!

Pectin added to berry mixture – cheee… uh… wait…

My recipe calls for tablespoons but my box of pectin tells me ounces. Do I have enough? Surely Google will know. After quickly pulling up Google’s conversion calculator and entering the pertinent numbers, I determine that I’m short on pectin. By half. Crap.

I scour the cabinets. No more pectin. I text a neighbor (who is probably thinking “Who wants pectin at 8:30 in the morning??). I think about the dreaded amount of time I’ll spend driving to the store and back if I leave now. Then I remember that I’m wearing my pajamas… and I’d have to put on real clothes and possibly bathe myself before going into public… and that seals it: I’m gonna have to wing this.

Winging It

Thank God for Google (kind of… more on that in a minute). I started searching for pectin alternatives… there are several out there, but keep in mind I’m a jam novice so some of these “just use green fruit” (which I don’t have) or “just add cranberries” (which I do happen to have but are you kidding me?) options just aren’t going to cut it. In the end, I settled on two possibilities:

  1. Cornstarch and a little sugar.
  2. Boiled down orange peels.

Cornstarch and “a little sugar” sounds like a pretty safe, almost-like-my-packet-of-powdered-pectin option. Buuutttt… then I see all these warnings about “it burns” in your recipe and also I’m trying to make jam that leans more towards natural than unnatural and who knows what’s really in my cornstarch. And how much is “a little sugar” anyway?… no one in the cyberworld seems to know.

On the flip side, we don’t eat oranges. Ever… except (!!) many months ago when they were on such super-duper sale that I bought some… and I saved the orange peels in the freezer with plans to make orange extract out of them (because, we never eat oranges and I thought having extract around would be handy for natural flavoring). In all of my Google-please-help-me searching I ran across an experienced cook’s shot in the dark at how you could get usable pectin out of orange peels. Sounds natural enough – why not?

boiling orange peels for pectin

So…

Split strawberry mixture into to two covered bowl and place them in the fridge – check!

Turn off the burner under the roaring canner – check!

Look with disdain on my 1.75 ounce bag of pectin – check!

Start boiling orange peels – check!

Put on a bra and take a shower – pshaw!

Getting Pectin from Orange Peels

So for those of you who are as new to jam making as me, you might be wondering what this magical pectin stuff even is. According to our buddies at Wikipedia, pectin is:

“a structural heteropolysaccharide contained in the primary cell walls of terrestrial plants. It was first isolated and described in 1825 by Henri Braconnot. It is produced commercially as a white to light brown powder, mainly extracted from citrus fruits, and is used in food as a gelling agent particularly in jams and jellies. It is also used in fillings, medicines, sweets, as a stabilizer in fruit juices and milk drinks, and as a source of dietary fiber.”

In short, it helps your jams and jellies to thicken rather than being a runny mess. The recipe I found for extracting pectin from orange peels looked pretty much like this:

  • Peels from 2-3 oranges (frozen in my case)
  • 2 cups water
  • ¼ cup lemon juice

Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce mixture by half (20 minutes). Remove peels. Reduce by half again. Cool in fridge… add to strawberry mixture.

So that’s just what I did. And here’s what I ended up with:

Orange Peel Pectin

Here’s hoping there’s a whole heapin’ mess of pectin in this boiled-down-orange-peel water.

Making Strawberry Jam (Finally)

What if the pectin-from-orange-peels doesn’t work? I decided not to take the chance of ruining ALL of my strawberry jam so I set out to make two separate batches – one with store bought pectin and one with orange peels pectin.

And that’s when it happened.

I opened up the pectin packet to measure out the 3 tablespoons of pectin needed for half of my strawberry jam recipe… and oddly enough, there was some left over. And oddly enough, the leftovers measured out to 3 tablespoons. Now it’s been a while since I’ve had an arithmetic test, but according to my math, 3 tablespoons + 3 tablespoons = 6 tablespoons, which is the amount needed to do the WHOLE recipe. 6 tablespoons… right there… in the little 1.75 ounce pouch I’d been looking upon with scorn all morning. Everything I needed… right there… the whole time.

Fie on you, Google conversion chart, for telling me that 1.75 ounces is only 3.5 Tablespoons!

At this point, I’m sure the sensible thing to do would have been to just mix everything back together, make the jam as designed and get on with my life. But after all the effort I’ve invested into this orange-peel-pectin thing, I’m all in now! When am I going to have (or rather, take) another opportunity to see if this works?

So with the berry mixture in two separate sauce pans, I begin boiling. The recipe says “Bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down.”  And that’s just what I did. The only problem is, in my haste to do two separate batches (Why did I feel the need to do both at the same time?) I unwittingly placed the orange-peel mixture into a too-small saucepan. A too-small saucepan now sporting a strawberry goo in a “rolling boil that cannot be stirred down.” It can, however, explode over the side and onto the burner. Also, because of its high sugar content, it can quickly catch on fire. But it cannot be stirred down… just so we have that part straight…

Fortunately after catching fire, it can be extinguished.

Me: Owen – pause that game, I need you to come here quickly!

Owen: Do I have to?

Me: Yes!

Owen: *Owen appears* What?

Me: Open the door and the window so the smoke can get out…

Owen opens both…

Me: Now come and stir this for me so I can catch up on the other one. I don’t want them to burn.

Owen begins stirring… two seconds later

Owen: Do I have to do this?

Me: Yes.

Owen: Mom – it’s burning me alive.

Me. No it’s not.

Owen: Yes, it is.

Me: Just keep stirring…

Owen: *singing* Just keep stirring, Just keep stirring… much like this…

 

Once everything was under control and Owen was no longer singing while burning alive, I observed that, alas, the orange-peel pectin mix was not thickening. My guess is that if I let it boil a while longer, it would eventually. However 1) I didn’t want to lose all of the goo that would evaporate to make that happen and 2) I was a little afraid of what might happen next if I kept going! So, I abandonded the experiment, added about 1.5 tablespoons of pectin and moved on.

The end result? Six hard-won jars of appropriately thick strawberry jam! And also a disastrous kitchen mess…

how to make strawberry jam

Victoriously secured in the face of both flame and mental anguish (even if they were self-inflicted obstacles…)

Strawberry Jam Recipe

What to make your own? Here’s the recipe (adapted from this one).

Ingredients

  • 5 cups crushed strawberries (about 5 lbs)
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 6 Tbsp pectin
  • 7 cups granulated sugar
  • 8 (8 oz) half pint glass canning jars with lids and bands

Instructions

  1. Fill boiling water canner and heat to boil water.
  2. Sterilize jars in the oven (225* for at least 10 minutes) or heat jars and lids in simmering water until ready for use. Do not boil. Set bands aside.
  3. Combine strawberries and lemon juice in a large saucepan. Gradually stir in pectin. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down, over high heat, stirring constantly.
  4. Add all of the sugar at once, stirring to dissolve. Return mixture to a full rolling boil. Boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam if necessary.
  5. Scoop hot jam into hot jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe rim clean and place the lid and band on tight.
  6. Process jars a boiling water canner for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lid should not flex up and down when center is pressed.
 
 

Frost! (And Other Updates)

There’s a reason why the last frost date in Michigan (the reasonable date on which you can plant outside in the spring without worrying about frost harming your plants) has been moved to May 18. Last night (May 12/13) we had a visit from good ole Jack Frost! Pretty strange considering the old Last Frost Date was May 10 and we’ve been having beautifully warm weather before this sudden cold snap. Then again, this is Michigan, and it wouldn’t be spring if you didn’t have to trade your flip flops for the winter coat all in the same week at least one time…

I’m not sure if you would call it impatience or optimism, but it was sooo warm last week that I couldn’t resist the urge to plant out at least one warm-weather crop. My original plan was to transplant just three golden zucchini plants… I planted six. Here’s what I did to keep these little guys cozy over the very cold weekend (and right through last night’s frost).

Row Cover

On Friday afternoon I covered the raised bed with a plastic row cover. The row cover is attached with utility clips to hoops made from PVC pipe. The zucchini share a bed with radishes which actually prefer the cold weather. Fortunately these are the Rat’s Tail radishes which I’m growing not for the root but for the edible seed pods. The row cover will warm them up substantially in sunny conditions, causing them to bolt (grow faster and produce a flower). Bolting is bad for regular radishes because it alters the taste and texture of the root, but in the case of these radishes, a little extra heat will just move the I-want-seed-pods process along a smidge faster.

row cover

This row cover was put in place to protect golden zucchini plants from May frost.

Cloches

In theory, a row cover should be enough to keep my precious golden zucchini plants from being frost-bitten. But since I got a little overzealous and planted out six instead of three, I decided to bring in some insurance. Enter the cloche (pronounced “klohsh”). A cloche is a tool that originated in France to keep plants from being harmed by frost and to force their early growth. The cloche is typically bell shaped and made from glass. Here’s a picture of a classic cloche.

classic French garden cloche

{Image Credit}
betterlivingthroughpermaculture.com
Click on the image for a DIY cloche idea.

I’m not fancy enough to have beautiful French cloches like the one above so I used my own micro-farm-style cloches: mason jars.

diy cloche

The zucchini plants get double frost protection – glass cloches made from mason jars and a plastic row cover.

diy cloche

The upside down jars keep the plants warm and safe from frost.

The zucchini plants were covered from late on Friday afternoon all the way through this morning (Monday). When I first placed them over the plants, it was chilly and windy but the sun was shining, and they looked like like the picture above. When I retrieved the cloches this morning, the plants looked like this:

diy cloches

The “after” shot is pretty much the same as the “before”!

diy cloche

Despite a smidge of mud on one leaf, this plant
(just like the others) looks great!

So based on my experience, the combination of row cover and cloche worked beautifully! My zucchini plants are ready for spring!

Other Plants in the Garden

Everything else that is planted out in the garden is frost tolerant – lettuce, spinach, arugula, chard, peas, carrots (teeny tiny seedlings), beets (just now coming up), onions, strawberries and a few other things I can’t think to name right now. There is one sad exception: The potato plants.

Since potatoes are planted out so early, my novice-farmer brain assumed that they are frost tolerant. But as I was coming in from the garden this morning I noticed that many of the leaves looked very frost bitten and dark. What a giant bummer because they have been coming up SO nicely (about 4 to 6 inches each)! One of the garden tasks I was planning for this afternoon was hilling potatoes. After doing some quick research it appears that I just need to trim the dead/damaged leaves and the plants should continue to grow just fine. Next year I’ll throw a row cover over these too!

potato plants

Here are the potato plants before last night’s frost. They don’t look as cheerful this morning…

The only thing planted in the Fenceline garden right now is turnips… or perhaps I should say “was” turnips. These are frost-tolerant and were coming along nicely… until one or two certain four-legged creatures who are otherwise quite lovable dug half of them up. Not. Happy. Time to get that electric fence fixed

The other heat-loving plants have been hiding out in the greenhouse snuggled together on the shelves near the heater which came back into action for the weekend. After today the heater should be going into hibernation until fall.

Also the blueberry bushes are starting to blossom! This is exciting but also a bit sad because I was planning to transplant them to their permanent home before they blossomed. (They are currently in large pots inside the garden fence.) I suppose that task will now have to wait until fall, which is ok, because I’m still not sure where I want to put them.

If you look closely you can see closed buds on the branches. There are a few open blossoms this morning.

If you look closely you can see closed buds on the branches. There are a few open blossoms this morning.

Did you have any frost issues in your garden? Is anyone out there going to be adventurous and transplant heat-loving plants before the actual last frost date? I’d love to hear what you’re up to!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  

 
 
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