Saplosion

_DSC0042We just finished our last sap boil of the season, having produced a grand total of one gallon of syrup. Right, I know this doesn’t sound like much, but it is WAY more than we produced last year in a dizzying array of colors, grades, and _DSC0040colors.

We tapped three trees this year, two taps in one sugar maple, two taps in the silver maple, and one tap in another sugar maple. We used lids on the buckets this year to keep out the snow and rain, although they are not shown here, and filtered the sap many more times during the boiling process, pro_DSC0037ducing a lot less sediment and sweeter syrup. We boiled 8 oz. glass Mason jars and poured the finished syrup directly into the jars, sealing them to give as gifts and keep for ourselves throughout the year. Nate convinced me to switch from honey to maple syrup for my coffee, morning toast, and afternoon tea, and pancakes are a weekly staple in our house, so we go through a lot of it.

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As you can see, we got quite a variety. We’re definitely not big producers. We don’t even have an evaporator. But we learned a valuable lesson about boiling sap in the kitchen this year. After a thorough spring cleaning wiping puddles of maple fog off the window sills and baseboards, I think we may have to try our hand at grilled syrup next year.

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The Last Breath of Winter

_DSC0009OK, so it was a very long, slow exhale, but winter is finally giving up. We removed the plastic wrap from the chicken run once the winds of March became calmer, and they immediately began flinging themselves against the chicken wire, thinking they were finally free. As you can see, neither the plastic nor the thermal pad in their coop prevented them from minor frost bite during this bitterly frigid and snowy winter—we received four FEET of frost—but they laid all winter long and never complained. We are removing the thermal pad and the heat lamps from their water fountains this week so that we may use the heat lamp for our new batch of chicks, arriving one day old in May.

This makes the fresh white of a winter’s day look pristine, but fuck am I glad the snow is gone. Happy Spring!

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Ode to a Frostbitten Chicken

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Winter in southern Maine,

have some ice with your deep snow,

temperatures drop below zero,

as I write this backyard chicken refrain.

Our girls are new to this kind of cold,

just want to eat insect larvae and weeds,

just want to poop and eat simultaneously,

anything but peck at this frozen leaf mold.

Twenty below zero is for the birds, man,

let’s stay inside the coop,

let’s sleep in our own poop,

we are totally starting an egg-laying ban.

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Those tall, plucked freaks who feed us

thaw our water on the daily,

they clean our heating pad gaily,

but we find this routine tedious:

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scratch the straw in the run for seeds,

eat desiccated meal worms (chicken crack),

perch on the roost, minds on one track—

how could this happen to such hardy breeds?

Just a couple of discolored combs, it could have been much worse.

And it nearly got above freezing today, nothing more to fear.

Maybe we can go outside tomorrow! High of 21 and clear!

So when the run door opens, we’ll gingerly step out, toe-first,

allow our free-ranging time to unfold,

and remember then with hovering claw,

as we utter a pissed-off, “Bu- bu- buCAW!”

That snow is fucking cold.

Well, at least we’re not dinner (lowered expectations met),

at least there’s the light from the lamp,

at least our coop isn’t damp,

Maybe it’s not so bad being a backyard pet.

A Post-Harvest Post

10387294_10154744863245142_2617158149785286504_nHere’s the thing about farmer and gardener bloggers: We have no time to blog during the growing season, which is of course when all the action happens. This is something I neglected to consider when I began this whole homesteading project. However, now that Maine’s woefully brief growing season is coming to an end, I will attempt to catch both you and myself up.

We turned the rest of the garden beds over and harvested the remainder of the chard and kale, our two crops that survived the first snowfall of the season. It was good to pull up roots, to lift the soil with pitchfork and with fingers, and to just get dirty again. I hadn’t really done any weeding since summer because all the plants were huge and thriving, so I realized I hadn’t really felt the earth for quite some time. Now the chickens are having a blast scratching around for seeds left ungerminated, stray weeds, and hearty worms.

1536444_10154454191830142_5357597870495628417_nSpeaking of the chickens, here is a dozen of their beautiful tri-colored eggs. We got three eggs a day pretty regularly throughout the warmer months, then Mavis, our Barred Rock, stopped laying for two weeks when the temperature at night began to drop. She’s back on track now, but Millie, the Easter Egger, who can’t make any decisions for herself, had to copy Mavis and get all barren too, so she hasn’t laid in nearly a month. We read up on seasonal shifts in egg production, so we put a grow light in the coop on a timer so that they have light for fourteen hours a day from 6:30 in the morning to 8:30 at night. So far Lady and Mavis still only lay during the day, and they still go into the coop at sundown, so the light just makes them squint and wonder when it will be time to sleep. However, it has the added bonus of heat, and since the temperature regularly dips below freezing at night now, this is a good thing. Since we had a snowstorm last weekend, Nate also wrapped the run in plastic so that they can still go outside and be protected from the wind and snow. Then we realized that they couldn’t see out of the run anymore, so he cut two square holes in the plastic and put in plexiglass windows, one over the roost and one near the ground at beady-eye level. One amusing consequence of encasing them in translucent plastic all day is their courageous free-ranging feats. Today Lady climbed up the ladder of Alistair’s playset and nearly made it to the roof before Nate noticed her. She also flew onto the car, and Millie, always the follower, came too. Chicken poop is WAY harder to clean off a car than songbird poop.

10568811_10154366382280142_6993696591962520452_nThis was our tremendous summer garden bounty before we left for vacation in July. We shared food from our garden with 11 other dear friends every night for a week, complemented by seafood from the ocean at our doorstep. I had high hopes of canning tomatoes for sauce, pickling cucumbers, and flash-freezing beans and greens, but so far we’ve just fermented a ton of stuff and dried our basil. Honestly, we ate like kings for five months, but there wasn’t really enough to save for the winter. This will be next year’s endeavor: grow more and save more.

Now we wait for the bitter cold and the abundant snow to blanket our little fifth-acre yard. We got a pellet stove installed back in October, and I have actually been enjoying the early nights in front of it. We haven’t had to turn on the oil heat once yet, and the quiet tink of dropping pellets is reassuring. We even pulled our dining room chairs in front of the stove this morning and ate breakfast there.

People, especially friends in warmer states, often ask me how I tolerate the long winters in Maine, and I tell them there is no other way than to just roll with the seasons and to be grateful for them all. Winter is a time to go in, reflect, and slow down. Yes, it’s long, but look at the rest of the year in Maine: the crisp, cool days of fall filled with gently descending leaves of every color are a gift. The muggy, slow, sandy days of summer by the ocean are a gift. The slow cascade of vibrant green and warm rain in spring are a gift. And so is the bright white of a fresh snowfall.

10534307_10154440059325142_3084212420566549474_nAnd I’ll leave you with this because, hey, we probably won’t see another anatomically correct carrot until next summer.

Fermentation Station

_DSC0634“Fermentation Station, it’s the new sensation!” Like Conjunction Junction, right?

Well, it feels that way around here as we begin our lacto-fermentation experimentation (see what I did there?). We started with these Chioggia beets, then moved on to Early carrots, and now bush beans. All of them took fewer than two weeks to ferment and were super-duper wicked easy. Here’s how we managed to not to screw it up:

 

 

 

 

_DSC0631We started with amazing produce. Luckily our garden appears to produce produce (I swear I will stop) that is exceptionally tasty. These beets are on the small side, I suspect because I didn’t thin them early enough and there wasn’t a whole lot of room to grow down into the beds. But they are perfect for lacto-fermentation.

Lacto-fermentation is the process by which harmful bacteria, like botulism, which cannot tolerate a lot of salt, are killed off, while the good bacteria, in this case lactobacillus, thrive. The lactobacillus acidifies the food, creating lactic acid, which is extremely beneficial for your gut flora.

_DSC0633A lot of people shred their beets before fermenting them because it makes them more tender after fermentation, but I cubed these because they are way prettier that way. That is a scientific fact.

 

 

 

 

_DSC0635I then added one tablespoon of sea salt per cup of warm, distilled water. In this case, I used a quart-sized mason jar and filled it up 3/4 of the way, so a ratio of 3 TBSPs of salt to 3 cups of warm water. I stirred the salt into the water until it dissolved, then I added the beets, put the lid on, and left it alone in a warm place next to the stove for three days.

After three days, the seal on the lid began to form from the pressure of the gasses being released by the fermentation process, so I “burped” the jar, basically removing the lid for a second to release the gasses. I did this one other time during the ten-day fermentation process, and then it was done.

 

 

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 That’s it. Depending on the food, the climate, and the salt:water content, fermentation takes between three and 12 days, but I have yet to let it go that long.

These are our Early carrots. They were even easier and took less time than the beets. Again, you can shred these like you would for sauerkraut, but I chopped them.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_20140804_204008_329Since there is no need to go through the process again, I will just show you the end product. These were fermented in a pint-sized mason jar filled to the top, so two tablespoons of salt to two cups of warm water, and I think filling it all the way made a huge difference. The seal was tight by the second day, and when I burped it on the third day, it exploded in frothy bubbles to the rim of the jar. When I burped it again three days later, the same thing happened, so I tasted a carrot, and the process was complete after only six days.

On to beans. I am sure they will be as easy, delicious, and healthy as the rest. Lazy homesteaders, this one is for you.

 

Blight and Pestilence

As a farmer or gardener, one is often reminded of impending apocalypse. From evidence of a changing climate to unpredictable weather and indeterminate growing seasons, the evidence of doom is everywhere. But never is it more obvious than in giant fucking mutant bugs.

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The red spike makes them even more menacing, doesn’t it? That and the fact that they devour tomato plants faster than Cookie Monster devours cookies.

But they aren’t the only predator of the innocent tomato plant. There is also blight. I don’t know whether ours is early or late, but it’s definitely here now.

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This is only happening to the tomato plants in pots. The one in the raised bed is virtually blight free. I drilled holes in the bottom of the buckets for drainage, but I suspect the buckets still don’t drain well, and tomatoes like well-drained soil, so this might be a factor. After speaking to the Blight Guy (You want that to be your job, don’t you? It’s almost better than the Repo Man.) at a local nursery, apparently lack of calcium in the soil can also cause blight, so I got a spray-on calcium that can be used both as a fertilizer in the soil and directly applied to the leaves. I also bought a copper fungicide that can supposedly be used for organic gardening. I applied both of these only once, and the blight does appear to be contained to the lower leaves of the plants. There are also spots on the fruit, though, even on the plant in the raised bed.

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Is this blight? The fruit tastes fine, amazing actually, if you try not to think about the fact that you are probably eating a fungus-riddled tomato.

But that’s not even the worst garden problem. The worst is Japanese Fucking Beetles. This should be their technical name because they proliferate like they’re afraid of going extinct.

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Oh look, there’s a couple going at it on our apple tree sapling. We pick them off every single day and ruthlessly feed them to the chickens, who adore this wriggling protein snack, but they Keep. Coming. Back. I was already nervous about the copper fungicide. I abjectly refuse to use pesticide. Even “gentle” pesticides like neem oil kill on contact and are hazardous to the already scarce bees. Knowing that the lack of bees is also a sign of the apocalypse, which I have personally witnessed, I am not about to unintentionally make the problem worse. Bee keeping is next year’s adventure, though many of our friends lost their hives this year because of the long winter and cold, recalcitrant spring.

In the meantime, we will continue to enjoy our other giant fucking mutant lifeforms: squash.

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An Embarrassment of Riches

Seriously, I don’t know what else to call it. Our garden has exploded into such splendor that we can barely keep up. Just look at it.

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And this is after I tore out all the spinach, arugula, and cressida that had gone to seed! We are truly blessed with an overabundance of good garden juju. Today I put together five one-gallon bags of salad green mix (spinach, arugula, cressida, baby dinosaur kale, and beet greens) to give away as well as bundles of rainbow chard, collard greens, and Red Russian kale so that we could make room for our next round of planting and allow some of the other plants to thrive without the leafy green umbrella.

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Want some? No, really.

In addition to the leafy greens, we have been able to enjoy baby red potatoes, a couple Chioggia beets and early carrots, cilantro, and basil.

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If you saw my last post, then you know that small and misshapen is where it’s at right now and in no way does that affect deliciousness.

In the next couple of weeks, we can look forward to munching on sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers.

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And then summer squash and zucchini, onions, broccoli, and pole beans. The squash and zucchini are totally taking over the garden right now. The leaves are the size of serving platters, and, despite the powdery mold (more on this later), they are producing like wildfire.

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This photo was actually taken a couple of weeks ago. Now that squash is about the size of a large bratwurst and has at least five younger siblings. Even the blossoms are huge! We planted some pumpkins back in June so they’d be ready by Halloween, but they are currently fighting for space in the same bed as the squash, as are the onions. Anyone know if you can cut back squash leaves to give other plants some sun? Will this affect output or the health of the plant?

Well, that’s the good news. For some information on late blight, powdery mold, and Japanese beetles, stay tuned for “Blight and Pestilence,” my apocalyptic blog entry coming in the next few days. In the meantime, know that we are eating well and enjoying the color and abundance of our own gardens.

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