Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dehydrated Asparagus Powder

Blanch for Two Minutes
Plunge Into ice Water
We love asparagus and work hard not to waste any of the spears we harvest.   To this end, we save the woody ends of our asparagus, blanch them, shred them with our food processor, dehydrate them, and grind the dehydrated spears into a fine powder.
 Shredded Spears
After 12 Hours in Dehydrator

Shredded Spears Ready for Dehydrating
We then use the powder to make
Cream of Asparagus Soup and
 also to thicken chili's and other
 homemade soups.  Hubby and
 I try to avoid consuming wheat
 so this asparagus powder works
for us as an excellent, thickening
alternative to flour.

Dehydrated Spears
after Grinding Into Powder

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Turning Dying Oak Trees Into Vole-Proof Garden Beds

The weather is cool, sunny, and breezy.  It's a great day to work in the yard.  So....

Cutting a Felled Tree Into Two-Foot Lengths
We have three red oak trees that are dying.  While they still have an abundance of lower leaves, their tops are dead, ragged and unsightly.   Today, my husband did a masterful job of felling two of the trees - placing them smack dab down the middle of our driveway - not on our neighbor's lovely white fence.  Insert sigh of relief here.  The boys are hauling the side branches to the woods where we will - in time - run them through the chipper and use them to mulch our garden paths.

Dragging Side Branches to the Woods

Enter experiment number ??
Branch Pile Waitingto be Shredded
Well really.  Who knows how many experiments we have going?  I have simply stopped counting.  Suffice it to say, I've come up with yet another one.  Vole-proof, raised garden beds. 

Here's the plan:
  • Cut the trees into two-foot lengths and then split them.
  • Use a post-hole digger, pick axe, etc. to bury the split logs on end, one foot deep, side-by-side, all around each one of our newly dug garden beds.
  • Leave one foot of log exposed above ground level to contain the amended soil.
Stacked Logs Waiting to be Split
I'm hoping this will keep the voles from digging into the beds and give me the raised beds I love without the cash outlay required to build them from milled lumber or stone.

Of course, I will post more pictures as the project progresses.

P.S.  It looks like the neighbor across the street has a few dead trees that need removing...hmmm?

St. Serenus, Pray for Us.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Volunteer Cilantro Harvested

We had a little, volunteer cilantro plant come up between our onions.  I noticed yesterday that it was beginning to go to seed, so we harvested everything, leaving three inches of stem to hopefully regrow.  Son #2 loves brown rice seasoned with cilantro so that's what we'll prepare for lunch.

Strawberry Plants Love Whey!

Strawberries on May 23
After Whey Treatment
Strawberries on May 17
Before Whey Treatment
Last week I treated one half of my strawberry bed (the end closest to the picture caption) with two quarts of diluted whey to see if it would give the young plants a boost - it worked!

In just one week the treated plants have doubled in size.

Here is a link to a great paper on the many uses of whey on the farmstead.

Chickens vs. Asparagus Beetles - Chemical Free Success!

Each morning, I linger in the sitting room, looking out over the garden, watching our four, Black Star chicks scurrying up and down the asparagus rows, and praying that they are devouring those dreadful asparagus beetles which ruin my favorite crop.  Apparently my prayers have been answered.

Yes, indeed. We harvested three pounds of sweet, succulent, beetle-free asparagus spears this morning!  The chicken vs. asparagus beetle experiment is a success.  I'm ecstatic.

The beetles ruin the asparagus patch by chewing and sucking on the spears while depositing their eggs on the spear surface - this makes the spears hard, woody and pretty much inedible.

I was determined to eradicate them without chemicals and, after just three short weeks, the chickens reign victorious. Hooray!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Yet the Lilac...

As headed out my back door this morning, I was overwhelmed by the intoxicating fragrance of lilacs.  Oh how I wish I could put a "scratch and sniff" button onto this post so you could experience this divine scent.

The mild spring is bringing out the best in my flowering plants.  Note the lovely rose blooming in the background.  Simply glorious!

"Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me."
Walt Whitman

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fertilizing with Whey

Strawberry Plants
Fertilized with Whey
Homemade Whey
I stumbled across an article on using leftover whey from cheese making as a garden fertilizer.  We have gallons of the stuff so I decided to give it a try.  I was a little worried about inadvertently killing my lovely little strawberry plants so I diluted 2 quarts of whey in a 3 gallon bucket, applied it to the plants on one end of the bed, and then watered the whole bed thoroughly.

Who knows, I may have diluted it to the point where there was little or no nutrient benefit to the plants.  Here's a picture of the plants today.  I'll take another picture next Friday to see if there is any change

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Life Without Air Conditioning - Impossible?

There are many budget items over which we have little control - mortgage, auto and health insurance, car payments, etc. However we do have control over our electric bill. Several years ago, we installed a high-efficiency, wood-burning stove into our traditional, wood-burning fireplace. When we did this, we anticipated merely supplementing our heat. Wrong! We replaced our furnace altogether and we heat our entire home with this little dynamo. Our winter electric bill runs between $174-225 per month. Not bad for 4,000+ square feet.

While it has been a cool spring, Maryland's hot, humid, summertime temps are right around the corner. How long can we go without turning on the AC? I have no idea. Plainly stated - I hate the heat. Yes - I grew up in central California. Yes - it was hot. No - we did not have air conditioning. Yes - it was miserable at times. No - it did not kill us to live without AC. No - I never got used to it. Yes - I'm getting cranky just thinking about it. Yes - I should definitely be living in New England - but I digress. Here in Maryland, July and August are oppressively hot. So we are going to take a phased-in approach to life with out AC. 
Curtains Drawn Tight by 7:30 am

Steps in Phase #1 - Mild Days/Cool Nights - Open the windows each morning around 5:30 am and leave open until approximately 7:30 am.  Insert our box fan into the open kitchen window and pull as much cool air into the house as possible.  Close everything up - including the curtains by 7:30 a.m.  Let the dogs out on the North side of the house.  The air is cooler there and won't heat the house as much as opening the back door which faces the extremely hot West side of our home.  Line Dry Clothes. We've been doing this for over a month now and have yet to turn on our AC.

Beds Placed by Windows
Open Air Sleeping
Steps in Phase #2 - Warm Days (85+ degrees)/Cool (75- degrees) - Rearrange the upstairs bedrooms so that beds are closer to the windows. Sleep in front of open windows. Use ceiling fans to provide relief when air is still. Continue to open downstairs up at 5:30 a.m., pull cool air in with the box fan, and close up everything by 7:30 a.m. Cook outside on the grill as much as possible. Turn off the heated dry cycle on the dishwasher. Take cool baths in the evening to lower your body temp before bed. This is surprisingly effective and my favorite part of Phase #2. NOTE: We started Phase #2 last Sunday and ran into our first snag last night. BIRDS! They decided to sing in the middle of the night forcing me to close the windows and turn the fan on high. So Phase #2 has a new addition - earplugs. So far, though, we are AC free.

Feeling Cooler Already
Steps in Phase #3 - Hot (85+ days)/Hot (80+ nights).   Go underground.  This is how our ancestors dealt with the summer temps and we will be no different.  We plan to set up air mattresses in the finished portion of the basement and sleep down there - where it seldom gets above 72 degrees.  August nights in Maryland are hot and stifling.  It won't help much to open the windows at night - the house will simply get hot and stay hot.  We, at least I, will continue to cool down each evening in a nice cold tub. Continue to cook outside.  Experiment with retrofitting one of the cold frames for use as solar oven.  We may have to spend a good portion of our days below ground and this is where the entire plan may fail, because even though our basement is nicely furnished and equipped, it is really our teenager's domain.  I avoid the basement like the plague. This will test my resolve.

Create an Electric Bill Nest Egg
Backup Plan - Using the YNAB budgeting plan, I've been budgeting $250 per month for electricity ever since the first of January.  Each month we live without using the furnace or the AC, I am able to set aside around $50 for future use.  This has grown into a nice little backup fund that we will be able to tap into during the hottest summer temps - just in case I'm feeling cranky and desperate and compelled to turn on the air conditioning.  But make no mistake, I'm determined to reduce our consumption of everything and this includes electricity.
Canine Home Security 

NOTE:  Some people have commented on the dangers of sleeping with our bedroom windows open.  This doesn't worry us.  The lower floors of the house are locked up tight each evening.  Our home security system and our three dogs (an over-sized German Shepherd (at right), a stranger-hating Doberman, and an ever-so-territorial Beagle mix) - keep us feeling safe, secure, forewarned and well guarded.   

P.S.  I've created a chart to track our progress throughout the summer.  You can follow along by viewing my "AC Free Diary."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Homemade Butter and Cottage Cheese

Whey, A Cheese
Making By-Product
We separated cream from two gallons of milk and made another pound of butter.  Then we used the leftover milk to make some lovely cottage cheese.   Here's how I did it:

  • Stirred three tablespoons vinegar into 2 gallons of milk and let stand for 24-36 hours until a nice curd formed and separated from the whey.
  • Poured separated mixture through a cheese cloth lined colander which was set into a large bowl.
  • Tied the ends of cloth together and suspended it over the bowl for approximately 6 hours to allow the whey to drain.
  • Refrigerated the whey and turned the curd into a bowl.  
  • Separated the curd into the desired curd size (I prefer lard-curd cottage cheese), and added and whole, raw milk to achieve the desired taste and creaminess.  
  • Chilled and enjoyed.  It did not last long. 
We saved the leftover whey (about one gallon)  and will use it for baking, fertilizing, and feeding to the birds.

I did not take pictures throughout the process, 
but here is a picture of the finished product.
Delicious and Creamy
Homemade, Raw Milk Cottage Cheese

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Beautiful Blooming Deutzia

Our Deutzia has really bloomed this year. 
You can see the wine-colored  irises
are just starting to pop out amid the pearly blooms.

A Quiet, Rainy Week -Progress Report

It has been raining all week long and the garden paths are standing six inches deep in water.  We did manage to move the fencing and expand the garden.  This will give us room to plant, melons, pumpkins, and other winter squash vines along with a large area of sunflowers.  We mostly worked on weeding and tidying up the flower beds around the house.  Here's what the week brought:

Friday, May 10, 2013

1917 Farm Bulletins, Asparagus Beetles, Chickens & Quail

Our two, 50-foot asparagus bed have been invaded by devilish little asparagus beetles. It is our own fault.  We did not keep the bed properly weeded last year and these tiny spotted pests like to overwinter in any old asparagus fronds and other debris which remain in the garden at the end of the season.  See all the grassy weeds among the asparagus?  Shame on us.

We will certainly do better next year, but in the meantime, I don't want to lose a single spear to these tiny, spotted insects.  I have been handpicking them every morning, but there are so many that I'd like to find a simpler and more back-friendly approach.

Asparagus Beetles and Their Control,
1917 Farm Bulletin
I love reading old agricultural books and bulletins from simpler times and while researching the beetles, I came across some info in an old 1917 Farm Bulletin:

Chickens and ducks are efficient destroyers of asparagus beetles, and as they do no injury to the plant their services are still in requisition for this purpose at the present day.

Camera Shy Hens
So you can probably guess what is coming next right?  We are going to let a few chickens run among our asparagus in hopes they will help get it somewhat weeded while they chow down on the beetles.  Since we can't keep chickens on
our property, they will only be here for a short while and then we will resell them which is easy to do in the area.  Since we bought 8-week old chicks, I'm not too worried about them scratching big holes into the bed - especially since the garden is practically under water from all the rain we've had.  There will be no dusts baths in our garden for some time.

New Quail Baby Close-Up
Cheesing for the Camera
Our Adorable Little Quail Babies
In the meantime, we are also going to test out letting some quail simply roam the garden and hang out with us as pets.  They arrived yesterday by mail, from Furbelow Farms in Virginia, and will stay in one of the old rabbit hutches until they are a bit older.  They are so lovely and tame.  Can't wait to get to know them better and set up and little habitat for them out in the garden.  Maybe it will work - maybe not.  Beetles or no - these tiny darlings are here to stay!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Rain in Due Season and Iris Blooms

Sheltered by the Norway Spruce and warmed by the brick,
the season's first Iris offer a bright sparkle of azure
on this grey, rainy day.
Then I will give you 
rain in due season, 
and the land 
shall yield her increase...
Leviticus 26:4

Today we are experiencing a soft, gentle, on-and-off rain and more of the same is forecast for the week ahead. This is just the boost that my newly-planted seeds and seedlings needed.  When the golden rays of the sun return and share their warmth with the soil, we should see our seedlings growing taller by the minute and our carrot, beans, and corn seeds breaking free of their earthly straight jackets and reaching eagerly toward the sky.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

All Things are Accomplished by Diligence and Labor

Yesterday the four of us worked in the garden from 10:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m.  When we finished, we were sore and exhausted, but it was satisfying to see all the progress we had made.

As our labors were winding down, Number #1 Son turned to survey the work we had completed, looked at me, and with a sweep of his arm cried out, "Mother, behold your kingdom."  I looked at all our progress and pronounced it good.

Son #2 offered me a small bow and a cheeky retort.  It went something like, "Mother, behold your slave labor."  Then he offered me a sheepish grin.  I smiled back and must confess that I was very tempted to spout off some pithy quote like
 "He who labors diligently need never despair, for all things are accomplished by diligence and labor." (Meander).
But I refrained.  There was no denying that it had been a very long and arduous day.  So I thanked them again for all their help and saved the pith for another time.

We were tired and hungry, but in good humor as we made our way into the house for dinner.

Here's what our diligence and labor accomplished.

Of Fresh Herbs and Windfall Profits

Fresh Herbs
A Gold Mine of Flavor and Value
I strolled out to the garden this morning to harvest some rosemary, sage and thyme.  The thyme was beginning to bloom so even though it was only the size of a large cantaloupe, I sheered the entire plant.  It will grow back.  The total thyme harvest was seven ounces.

Then I cut six fresh rosemary sprigs (2 ounces) from our beautiful rosemary bush and maybe one quarter of a cup of sage leaves (1 ounce) from our tiny little sage plant.  The rest of the thyme and rosemary will keep in the fridge for several weeks.

About one half ounce of rosemary was placed into the cavity of one of our home grown, free-range, organically-fed roasting chickens.  All of the sage and maybe one quarter ounce of the thyme was placed underneath the skin of both breasts along with a little of our homemade butter.  Yum!

After I popped the bird into the oven.  I ran to the grocery store to pick up a few things.  While there I checked on the spices.  Holy cow!  If you don't have an herb garden - get one quick.  Fresh rosemary, thyme and sage leaves are sold in the produce section for $1.29 per one quarter ounce.  That's a whopping $82.56 cents a pound.  This means the 10 ounces of fresh herbs I harvested today saved us $51.62.  I frequently cook with herbs and sprinkle them onto our salads.  Never once have I paid attention to their cost.

Being totally blown over by these figures, I sauntered over to the dried spice aisle.  Are you sitting down?  Those cute little bottles of dried herbs average around $145 per pound!  The next batch of thyme, sage and rosemary I harvest will get popped into the dehydrator.  After they are dry, I will strip and weigh the leaves.  It's sure to be a fun experiment.

Meanwhile the aroma of chicken and fresh herbs permeates the house, my sons are off doing their thing, hubby's watching a bit of television.  I of course, am sitting here recording our windfall profits and basking in our blessings.  When through, the chicken should be just about ready.  Oh blessed Sunday, day of rest and rejoicing.