Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Harvesting the last tomatoes

by Francesca

Each day for the last 10 days or so, I've wondered whether this was the day I should harvest all the remaining tomatoes on the vines. Our days are growing shorter, but the nights are still warm. However, fall officially begins tomorrow, and one of these evenings temperatures are liable to drop suddenly. When is the right time to harvest those last tomatoes?

This year I only grew the two kinds of tomatoes I like best (here): date tomatoes (possibly the same as the English "grape tomato"?), and beefsteak tomatoes.

last date tomatoes

I've had a very large crop of date tomatoes, which are wonderful little bite-sized morsels of intense flavor, and though the plants are now showing signs of decline, they're still healthy.

However, the beefsteak tomatoes, which I'm very fond of because they're excellent both raw and in a sauce, have recently become heavily infested by stink bugs.

last tomatoes

These stink bugs don't seem to harm the plant itself, but they ruin the tomatoes:

last tomatoes 2

Above you can see what the damage looks like: a discolored area on the surface of the tomato.

last tomatoes 3

And on the inside, the flesh is dry and corky.

So, I've decided to leave the date tomatoes on the vines as long as the weather holds, whereas I chose to harvest all the healthy beefsteak tomatoes, most of which were unripe, before the stink bugs got to them.

What do you do with green tomatoes? In my part of the world, we keep them in brown paper bags together with an apple: the ethylene gas from the apple encourages ripening.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Quick & Easy Composting

by Chiot's Run

Lately I've been thinking about things I can do to save time in the garden and I decided trench composting would be a great way to do this. I started composting directly in the garden areas that need the most help. Now I don't have to worry about nutrients leaching from the compost pile, which is something I've been reading about. If your compost pile isn't covered, the rain will leach nutrient from the compost into the soil below. Why let all that hard work get leached away? I started trench composting a couple months ago. My parents used to do this when I was growing up. It's a quick and easy way to compost all that stuff from canning.

All you have to do is dig a trench in the garden area and add a layer of your compostable things. Then back fill with the soil you removed. By spring it will have turned become compost and the worms will have distributed it in the garden. No turning, no layering, it's quick and easy! You can dig one long trench and simply fill along as you add the compost items.

I still have my regular compost pile for the large amounts of garden waste, but I'm thinking of starting to put this pile in the garden areas I need to amend, that way any nutrients that leach out with the rain will at least be going into a garden area I'll be using in the future.

Do you practice various forms of composting?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Garden Lessons

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

I keep a garden journal in a simple notebook. Nothing fancy, college rule size lines represent my rows in my gardens - and my hieroglyphics mostly likely would take some deciphering by anyone other than myself. I keep track of varieties, planting & harvest dates, amendments, tillage and weather. The information when set down isn't that important, it is later when I am able to look back and draw conclusions or make decisions on past events that my garden chronicle takes on its true identity.

This year while most of the U.S. baked, we grew moss on our backs, the Pacific Northwest is known for its rainfall, but this was the hardest year for gardens/crops in my garden memory. In a normal year, we have a rainy spring, and then a lull in May enabling at least some planting. This year there was no lull, which delayed planting until mid to late June. Those first plantings in May are a critical time for some of my winter roots. They need a full growing season to mature, if a month gets lopped off on the beginning, my winter stores are in jeopardy. The jury is still out on my root crops normally planted in May, they are plugging away slow and steady. Root crops I plant in June are doing well. No differences there. Definitely this has been the year for cool weather crops.

Warm weather crops have been almost non-existent in my garden this year. I have peppers only because they are planted in a hoophouse where I can exert a little more control over the temperature. With our cool nights this summer we couldn't have began to come close to the minimum heat units needed to ripen warm season type crops. I can't go by the days to maturity on a seed packet - which is just an average anyway - I have to think of heat units. For instance, at my location a 69 day early sweet corn takes on an average, 95 days to ripen. This is where my garden diary excels. Garden books are great as a baseline, but the lab that is my garden is where I get most of my new information for next years garden and beyond.

From past notes, I knew that dry beans were out if planted any later than Memorial Day, so I didn't waste my seed. It was a good thing too, they would never have matured. I just picked my first green beans this past week. Normally in early September I am harvesting those beans for seed for the next years crop, and getting ready to put the poles away for winter. While I am a little wistful about tomatoes and corn, I am not writing off the garden season as a bust. Rather, it was just different and we had to adapt. Using my garden notes of past successes and failures, I could make informed decisions on whether to plant certain vegetables on not. The cooler weather actually made my later plantings of fall and winter vegetables easier. It's sometimes a push to keep cool weather transplants stress free in August - but this year it was a snap.

My garden notations are invaluable to me in my ongoing quest to grow most of our own food. Do you keep a garden journal and does it help you make better decisions for planning your garden?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

How To Render Lard in a Crockpot or Slow Roaster

It is not my usual posting day but I simply could not wait to share this so I got special permission to make this extra post!

by Danelle @ My Total Perspective Vortex

Our butcher does not render the lard that our pigs produce for people, but they will grind it up and bag it to be included with the order. Still, rendering lard has set in our cultural imaginations as something dangerous, messy, smelly.....ect. I came across several historical accounts that involved houses burning down as a result of lard splatter during rendering or of severe, debilitating burn injuries. Most accounts talked of men with long sticks and huge kettles over open fires doing the rendering due to the danger factor.

I'm not kidding.

That doesn't work for our modern kitchens. At least not mine. I did a bit of research and found lots of links to sites that had people buying a couple lbs of lard and doing small batches on the stove top or in a dutch oven. But that's still not what I needed. Last year our butcher presented me with a full 5 gallon bag, frozen hard. It took three days to thaw mostly. I needed a way to do this thing in bigger batches and explain to customers how to do it too.

So my starting point was my experience last year. It wasn't hard, it did smell though, and the end results had some problems. This year I was having none of that.

My first batch was completed on Thursday and came out exactly how I wanted it to.

So start with the big old bag of frozen lard. This bag was about 3 gallons. I let it completely thaw in my fridge.

It would fit in my 7 quart crock pot, but I also have an 18 quart electric slow roaster that I wanted to try out. Either would have worked great. A smaller amount would work in a smaller crock pot too.

I scrubbed out all the equipment I was going to use. Any old food residue will contaminate, even dust from sitting in storage. Wash and rinse before use no matter how clean it looks.

I set the fat in the roaster and set it at 225 degrees (low on a crock pot). Some say to put 1/2 cup of water in too, but I didn't. I put the lid on and came back in 1 hr. In that time a lot of fat had liquefied so I scraped down the soft sides of the fat glob in the middle.

1 hr. later repeat.

Lots of extra room. A 7 quart crock pot would have been more than enough.
 1 more hr. later and it had all liquefied and the meat chunks that will be cracklings were floating on the top. I stirred and broke those up a bit more. No splattering involved. Not really any bad smell either. Many of the accounts I read said this is a critical time to watch though. The cracklings will soon sink and then rise up again. When they sink and then rise, it is done. If you wait too much longer then the lard will start to brown and take on a more porky flavour.

So now I was checking every 20 minutes or so and I actually saw the sinking in progress. Yay!

Very clean and clear.
Once that happened I got my containers out. Last year I used old yogurt and ice cream plastic containers. Bad idea. They looked clean, but were not. The result was that the cracklings got contaminated and spoiled fast, the lard also developed mold and growth at the bottom once thawed in the fridge. This year I used sterilized for canning (washed in hot water and soap then boiled in water for 10 minutes) glass freezer safe jars. In our experience, lard can last up to 2 years in the freezer, though the official time is more like 1 year. It is supposed to last 3 months in the refrigerator. Cracklings are more of a meat product and will last 6 months to a year in a freezer and 1 week in the fridge. So when storing cracklings think about how they will be used and store in individual servings (sandwich size freezer bags or small freezer safe 1/2 pint jars are what we use).

As it was cooling. Chad thought it was lemonade concentrate and almost tried to drink some.

To put in the jars I got out my widemouthed canning cone and some cheese cloth/mesh folded over 4 times.  I just laid it in. I used a metal measuring cup and scooped the lard/cracklings mix into the mesh. The lard drained into the jars, the cracklings separated out. When enough cracklings built up, I dumped them into a big bowl to cool. I filled the jars just below the freeze line and capped with a sterile lid.

After cooling and freezing.

No splattering since it was all done at low heat. I laid a towel out to catch drips but those were minimal.

I did put my purse in the car (in case the house caught fire) and a bowl of ice water waiting (in case of burns). Neither was necessary.

Lard can be used in place vegetable shortening in any recipe. Crisco type shortening was developed to replace lard with its longer shelf life (of like 20 years, ew). Lard should not be shelf stable, ever.

Anyway. No mess, no stink/smell, super easy, clean jars. I'd call this year's process a success!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Respite Weekend

by Abby of Love Made the Radish Grow

Things have been terribly busy around our farm this year, so much so, we haven't gotten too much respite. Last week my husband took off from work, the beginning half of which we took care of some bigger projects around the farm and about halfway through we hitched up and headed out of town. My sister stayed at our place to keep an eye on things while we enjoyed a much earned, and needed, break. I think it is easy to get so caught up with all the to-do's that we forget to stop and replenish. Living the simple life is hardly "simple". There is often more work when you are keeping an active homestead, complete with a large garden in full harvest mode, a bevy of animals, winterizing to do as well as the usual day to day. We need rest, though, lest we get burnt out. We took our weekend at this time, intentionally, as there was a swap meet the husband wanted to attend for classic car parts, and the kids and I hit many rummage sales, stocking up on the next size in clothes and shoes for the kids and fun items for me, like enameled mugs, vintage childrens' books and crochet hooks. We fished, we grilled, we knitted (okay, I knitted, and a dear friend who camped a night with us knitted) and we relaxed.
What do you do to get away from it every once a while? We only need it occasionally, but we always come back refreshed and ready to work harder than when we left, full of ideas and ambition.