Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Staking My Claim in the Backyard

What you see here is a random squash plant that popped up from our compost heap. We aren't sure what it is yet since the fruit are still small, but it's narrowed down to butternut or spaghetti squash since those are the two types of squash that had scraps contributed to the compost heap. My bet is on spaghetti. Learning my lesson from this, and the pumpkin jungle that has spread over our raised garden beds, I've decided that next year I am going to try vertical gardening. Coming from a ranch with plenty of space for vines to spread out, it didn't even occur to me that space would be an issue in the backyard.

Some good news is that Lee and I have compromised and agreed that I can have a larger chunk of the backyard for gardening. At first he wanted the majority of the backyard to be lawn for the kids to play soccer. When I reasoned that the kids don't even show any interest in soccer, he started to come around. Besides, we have a rather decent sized front yard for lawn play. I haven't measured it yet, but my garden space is now roughly 50'x50', maybe a bit more. I think I should be able to produce a decent crop as long as I get the beds together before next Spring. Ugh, garden beds...

For quite a while I've been curious about Earthboxes, but they are on the pricier side, at least according to my budget. It also seemed like one of those items that you get so excited about, order impulsively and then when it arrives you are slightly disappointed because it's so simple that you could have just made it yourself. Well, I wanted to investigate the possibilities of making one before saving up the cash for a pre-fab version, so I kept my fingers crossed and did a search. I found numerous sites with tutorials on how to make your own growbox. The DIY version growbox according to one site took about $6 to make, a huge savings. There were complaints however, that the DIY version was made from new materials and was less durable, and that the original Earthbox was made from recycled materials and more sturdy. If durability and recycling is an issue, then you might want to try recycling buckets instead. There are numerous sources for finding used buckets to recycle, do some investigating and see what local business might be throwing them out or keep your eye on Craigslist & Freecycle.

I think I may try constructing a growbox this weekend just to test it out and get an idea if they will work for next Spring.  There are still a couple months before we have a frost, so I can probably plant a six pack of flowers (or clearance vegetable plants) from the nursery. If it does well, I will have the project of building more grow boxes/buckets to keep me busy over the cold months.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sunflower Forests & Pumpkin Jungles

Spot was added as a size reference.
We've got some sunflowers that are teetering on 12 feet high! These big babies came from the monstrous sized mystery flowers that appeared in the garden on the ranch last year (no one planted them, they just appeared) and ended up being over 12 feet high with flower head diameters that spanned over a foot across! These don't have quite as large faces unfortunately, but the stalks are thicker than a shovel handle.
Check out the pollen bags on that bee!
The bees are creating quite a buzz over the sunflowers. I've been standing out in the sunflower forest each morning, just watching them go nuts over the abundant pollen. One flower must supply a crazy amount of pollen for them. All of the bees I have seen hovering around the oversized, bright yellow blooms have pollen bags that are absolutely bulging! They almost look like they have three abdomens!
I spy something orange.

Our jack-o-lanterns have taken over the garden. There used to be raised beds, but no more! We also have some various squash plants mixed in there too, but I couldn't tell you what. We are still waiting for fruit to appear on most of the other vines. So far we have 5 very large jack-o-lanterns on one vine and one big boy pumpkin on the other. Haven't found the little sugar pumpkins yet, but hope we have some for Thanksgiving this year.

One of my gardening resolutions next year is to better space things out. I didn't really plan things out that well this year, but honestly I didn't think that the vines would go this nuts!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Save the Seeds!

Some people can't throw away jars, some can't throw away margarine tubs... but me, I can't bear to throw away seeds. Everything from avocado pits to squash seeds. Even if they don't grow, like most of the lemon and apple seeds, I still save them and try. A smart thing for a backyard farmer to do is allow some of their fruits to stay on the vine overtime specifically for seed collection. Really, you get so many seeds from one fruit that you don't need to sacrifice anything more than that. You get more seeds from one bell pepper than a handful of seed packets.

Oh, and check this out... last sunday we broke into a butternut squash and found that the seeds had already sprouted inside the squash! Unfortunately there were few salvageable seeds, but the chickens absolutely loved their meal of butternut sprouts. This most likely happened because we left the squash on the counter for two weeks. In the Winter and Spring we did this all the time with no problem, but the warmer temperatures in summer obviously encouraged some growth! I would suggest storing your squash in the fridge if you aren't planning to eat it right away and if your house temperature rises above 70F degrees. Oh, and don't bother eating a squash that has sprouted seeds, the flavor won't be optimal.
If you are planning to save seeds this harvest season, here's a recycling idea. Use empty spice containers as seed storage shakers.  This prevents seed spills and fumbling with paper envelopes. You can sprinkle a small amount in your hand at a time and the avoid spilling the entire contents if the bottle is dropped.

If you started your crop with a seed packet, save the information on the packet by cutting and adhering it to the shaker bottle. You'll thank yourself later for that. A smaller spice bottle would work better for a tiny amount of seeds, but I plan to continue to fill this one. Be sure to keep in mind the size and amount of seeds you will be collecting when you choose your container. Keep all the seeds you can because you can always give away your surplus. Decorate or print off some cute envelopes and give them away as gifts for Christmas.  Or make some paper pulp, mix in some seeds, and create compostable, grow-ready cards.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Double Yikes!... er Yolks!

It's certain that by now you've heard about the salmonella outbreak and egg recall, if not then you've been hanging out in your root cellar too long. It's interesting to read how people are dealing with it, and all of the various opinions on the subject. It also makes me feel a step ahead in the game with our backyard flock. Of course, ours are as susceptible to salmonella as any chicken is, but the chances of an outbreak are lessened because a smaller flock is easier to manage than thousands of birds, as suggested on the Homegrown Evolution blog.

To shift gears a bit, it's also a good thing we don't really care to eat a lot of eggs in this house. I personally have never liked eggs since about birth, the texture and taste were never to my liking, but I was never bothered about using them as additives in recipes or for baking. When I was a full-time vegetarian who was trying out for the role of vegan, I began using EnerG Egg Replacer and I still use it quite often out of habit. A healthy habit for sure, but still there's nothing wrong with an occasional egg from a pet hen that is well cared for in your own backyard. They lay eggs regardless of whether they are fertilized, so why let them go to waste if they can be used? Our chickens are primarily pets that provide great fertilizer for our organic garden, and like I said, we don't really consume many eggs at all, but we have family and friends who do. Providing them with our ethically farmed eggs is preventing them from buying factory farmed eggs and we are helping to educate them on that issue. We see it as a positive thing.
Pepper's mutant eggs with double yolks.
In other egg news, Pepper, our first hen to start laying, has been providing us with an egg almost everyday for the last week. I used the two newest eggs to make some banana bread yesterday, but I got the other eggs mixed up in the fridge. Some had been sitting out a few days before I found Pepper's hidden nest spot. Since we've had on and off hot temperatures, I wasn't sure how this would effect some of the eggs that had been sitting outside in the nest, with them not being refrigerated.  I didn't want to take any chances, so I decided that the dogs would have a treat (yes, I had to cook them because my dogs refuse raw eggs- a good thing though, because I won't have to worry about them robbing nests.) I opened up the five eggs that were left, two were very small and three were just a tad larger, but a weird oblong shape. The latter three had double yolks!  Nothing to worry about though, it's normal for hens who just start laying.

From today on I'll be marking the eggs with the date they were laid. I think I will get a little date stamper for that purpose.  I've never liked how most foods just have an expiration date and not a "born on" date.  An expiration date tells you nothing about how fresh it is.  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Can It!

My! I can't believe a week's flown by since my last post. Things have been busy, and I was a little under the weather to boot (nothing like a dash of food poisoning to wear you out- blaming it on bad Chinese food,) and projects like the chicken coop and beehive have been stalled, so there hasn't been a lot to report. Over the weekend however, I did score on some canning supplies at the local big box (the only store that carries canning supplies in the town closest to this one.) I got the tool kit with the jar lifter, funnel, bubble remover, and lid lifter. I also picked up jars, fruit pectin, pickling spices and salt, and a few other odds and ends. Most were on clearance at 50% off. This is our expensive year, because getting set up (chicken coops, beehives, canning kits) takes a good chunk of cash, but from here on out things should start to pay off, with a little luck.
Thriftscore: $10!
About a month ago I scored a nearly brand new water bath canning pot with canning rack at a thrift store for $10, so now I am all set and just need some fresh, organic produce which I hope to obtain from our visit to the Firebaugh farmer's market Thursday evening. It's our first time visiting, so we have no idea what it will be like. Firebaugh is about as small as our town, but we just read in the paper that it's the best farmer's market Merced county has to offer (hah,which may not be saying much!) We did have a look at the Merced one last Saturday, and disappointingly I believe it was the smallest farmer's market I have ever seen.

I've been browsing over the book Put'em Up!: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook, from Drying and Freezing to Canning and Pickling and like what I have seen so far. Our mouths are watering for the Chili-Tomato Jam, which the author suggests slathering on cornbread hot from the skillet. I am going to try my hand at the Pickled Watermelon Rind because I've never tried it and it sounds so curious to me. This book isn't entirely about canning though, it's got all sorts of food preservation techniques including drying, freezing, and infusion. Never let your surplus go to rot again!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

We've Got Eggs!

Found the secret laying place!
Today is a special day!  I found Pepper's secret egg laying spot: the old doghouse that none of the dogs use.

When I told my mom about Pepper sneaking in the house (see previous post) and hopping up on the counter, she said that Pepper was definitely ready to lay and that I would have to start hunting for eggs in the yard and garden or where ever the chickens decided to hide and lay their eggs. She also told me to listen for a special "cackle racket" because the hens make a big deal about laying an egg, and I would be able to find their hiding spot if I could locate them when they make this sound.

As I was sitting here at the computer typing away, I heard a ruckus coming from the backyard. I looked out the window to see our young hens Chilly, Chipmunk, Red and Salt hanging around the door of the doghouse.  I thought, where's Pepper? I ran outside and there she was, in the corner of the doghouse so I walked away and let her have some privacy. A minute later she came out. When I looked back inside the doghouse, there was not one, but four eggs! One small one was warm, and I figured that was the one she just laid today. The other three were cold, so they had to have been laid in the last few days. They are all different sizes and colors, but I am pretty sure Pepper is the only one laying so far. My mom said that the eggs will come out all wacky and wonky when the hens first start laying but they will get more uniform in size, color and shape later on. Not that I really care! It's kinda cool having an odd assortment. As a youngster I used to love finding the mini sized eggs when I helped my grandma collect her eggs.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Oh jeez, now I have to put it together?

Bee keeping supplies for our honey super arrived, but we forgot one important part- the wax foundations for the frames. I put together the honey super and it's ready to prime and paint, but now we have to wait again to order the wax foundations- which we may just buy in Sacramento on Saturday.

We did get an entrance feeder base finally (the metal covered thing on the right in the photo.) You just add your own mason jar. I had rigged up a homemade version, but it leaked quite a bit and had to be set up on a pot near the hive rather than on the hive. I've heard that entrance feeders aren't the greatest choice because robbers can be a nuisance, but we don't seem to have a problem with hive robbers from what I've observed so far.  Thank goodness we don't have hornets around here! The yellow handled thing is a hive tool, used to pry up the lid of the hive and pry apart the frames (the bees glue everything together with propolis.) The white screen is the queen excluder, which is used to keep the queen in the lower portions of the hive and out of the honey super (because we don't find honey coated bee larvae to be very appetizing.) The box of wooden slats are pieces of the honey super and frames that I put together. They are really easy to put together yourself, and you save roughly ten dollars if you do! We got ours from Dadant & Sons, which even has a store in Fresno, CA. Unfortunately [grumble] they aren't open on Saturdays. Their catalog is quite educational and not just a list of their products.  If you are interested in beekeeping at all, request one of their free catalogs and have a look!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Waffles with Wild Blackberries

Yum, wild blackberries.
Yesterday we drove over to my famiy's ranch in La Grange, then took the kids around the corner for a quick swim at the lake. On the way home, we stopped at the corner of J59 and Turlock Road to pick some wild blackberries. The boys had  a lot of fun hunting for berries and ended up with full cups & red stained fingers. This morning we had lovely homemade waffles topped with fresh wild blackberries. Super yum!

Liam is impressed with his cup full of berries.
I've actually been reading up a bit more on wildcrafting lately and would like to do a lot more of it in the future with Lee and the boys.  The boys seem to really love it.  Earlier in Spring this year, we found a hillside full of miner's lettuce and they had a ball gathering it up and later grazing on it.  My grandma taught me a lot about wildcrafting when I was about Liam's age, around age 4 or 5. She and I would take long walks out in the field in late Spring and sample  all of the edible plants that we came across. I definitely want to brush up on my plant identification skills. It's one thing to grow your own food, but there's just something indescribably awesome about finding and collecting wild foods.

Friday, August 13, 2010

What the Heck?

I went outside this morning to move the sprinkler in the garden. Left the screen door open for like two minutes, and Pepper somehow snuck in and made her way to the countertop! Funny thing is, I walked right past her and didn't notice her until I walked back into the kitchen the opposite way.  She was sitting so quietly. I picked her up and put her back outside, and then cleared off the counter to be cleaned and sanitized.  About fifteen minutes later, I went out to move the sprinkler once again (didn't learn my lesson and left the screen open, doh!), wasn't gone but a couple minutes and came back to find her in the same spot!  I think she was looking for a place to lay. I guess that means that any day now we'll be seeing eggs! Now I'm off to scrub down that countertop and everything else that was on it again.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lazy Day

Since I have a sore toe, I figured it would be a good day to stay off my feet and keep my toes from being bound up in shoes. That meant no working in the garden today and I was a little bummed because I wanted to finish some beds that I had started yesterday.  My feet are pretty useful in the garden, so I decided that taking care of them for future use took precedence. Okay, I admit I wasn't that bummed after a week of hard work. I spent most of the day working on this blog (it takes me a while to figure all this tech stuff out,) as well as lazing about on the sofa with my stack of library books.

Today I finished Raising Fishworms With Rabbits. It's an ancient book (1981), but it was the only one I could find in our library system on the topic. Who would have thought that worms and rabbits would go together like peas and carrots? Apparently worms love rabbit dung!  Since we plan to get a pair of Giant Angora Rabbits next Spring for wool (I can't wait to learn to spin!) and had planned to get our worm bin filled soon anyway, we figured we might as well build some beds under the rabbit hutches and grow more worms for other gardeners as well as harvest the black gold compost.  Lee has been pining away for an English Lop like the one he had in his early twenties, so I guess we'll have a trio of bunnies. I also think these Flemish Giants are really neat. Hmm, maybe we'll have four...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

First Attempts

My first dumplings.  Check out that hip trivet.
Until last night, I have never, ever had dumplings.  I've always wondered what they tasted like, so after seeing a recipe in magazine recently I decided to make and try some for the first time.  I didn't like the particular recipe for the soup part of this dish (way too much parsley, sage and thyme,) so I would definitely try another next time.  My initial impression of the dumplings was, "hmm, tastes like a big lump of dough."

Yeah, I don't know if it was just this recipe or what, but I wasn't too impressed.  When (and if) I try dumplings again, hopefully the recipe will be good enough to share, but not this time.

In other news, Lee finally put in an order for some more bee keeping equipment.  I can't wait until it arrives!!!  We will be receiving our honey super (finally!), queen excluder (a must have to keep those little bee larvae from getting into the honey we want to steal,) and a hive tool (to pry off the hive lid which has been glued with propolis.)  And dang it, why does my spell check keep telling me that propolis is spelled wrong?  Isn't it in the Mac dictionary?  Rrr.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On a Roll!

The bones.
I've been working on the coop for most of the day. I came in for a lunch break and to look up the dimensions of an average nest box, which seems to be about 12" length X 12" width X 9" high. In the picture, you can see the girls inspecting my handiwork. Just call me Handy Mandy. I may not know what the heck I am doing, but it's been fun trying to figure it out.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Playing Catch Up

Drilling is done!
I did get the drilling done for the chicken coop cottage last Thursday evening, but that's about as far as I got. This weekend I had a visit from my mom and nephew Issac, and we all had one big yard sale at my house.

In between sign hanging and price haggling, we managed to sneak in a trip to the hardware store and I began to contemplate some different ideas for the chicken coop. Sure, we could buy some plywood and paneling to make it look like the one I saw at Fairytale Town without a lot of cost, but I'd much rather try and find other materials to recycle. I also like the idea of a living roof or green roof.

Welcome to Mandy Mia's Pizzeria!
While mom & Issac were here I decided to treat them to my homemade pizza. I asked how it stood up to her local take-n-bake, and mom said mine was much better, and believe me my mom never lies to flatter. Here's the easy recipe:

2.5 cups flour - whole wheat works
1 package quick rise yeast
2.5 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1 cup warm water (115F-125F)
2 tbsp olive oil

1. Combine flour, yeast, salt, sugar.  Using wooden spoon, stir until mixed.
2. Add water and oil.  Stir until rough dough forms.  Dust rolling surface with four.
3. Knead dough until no longer sticky.  Gather into ball.
4. Grease bowl with olive oil.  Place dough in bowl.  Cover and allow to rise in warm spot 45 minutes.
5. Flatten dough, roll out with rolling pin.
6. Top with your choice of sauce, cheese and toppings.
7. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes.  For crispier crust, slide off pan and allow to bake on the rack for another 5 minutes or so.
8. Enjoy!

Lee's "new" pedal go-cart.
The yard sale was a success by the way! My mom came with a truckload and left only with the tables we used to display all of our goods. Lee and I cleaned out the garage once and for all, and none of the leftover junk went back into it!  Altogether we made almost $200, which wasn't bad considering that most things were priced at .25 just to get rid of the stuff. As we were boxing up the leftovers, we were lucky enough to have a kind lady come by and refer us to a place where we could donate them, just down the street. It was nice to know that our donation would be distributed to people in need in the community (and we didn't have to worry about storing more junk or driving it to a thrift store in the next town.) The funny thing about family yard sales though, is that you end up buying each other's stuff which almost defeats the purpose of clearing things out. Lee couldn't pass up the pedal go-cart my mom was selling for $30 (those things go for a couple hundred bucks at TSC.) I might end up using it more than the kids, it's a lot of fun!

Today I am still recovering from all that excitement.  We had just so happened to plan the yard sale on the weekend that our town was having it's annual "cotton festival," and my nephew just had to go to the carnival on Saturday evening, so I was going nonstop from 6 am until 10 pm.  I got a lot of trees and shrubs pruned while my mom was over in between droves of yard sale goers on Sunday, and this morning I did a bit more in the back yard. By noon, I was ready to collapse.  Thank goodness for epsom salts and long soaks in the tub.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Behind Schedule

Yesterday I did not get to drill the 2x4's for the chicken coop cottage because house cleaning ended up taking the whole day.  (Mom's coming to visit this weekend.)  So since we won't get to go out this weekend, we also decided to have date night yesterday which cancelled out any extra time in the evening.  Sigh.  I didn't get a chance to do it today either, as I still had more cleaning to do, and a fig tree to plant.  I may be able to squeeze it in this evening before dusk...

Lola the cat inspecting the planting of the magical fig tree.
The fig tree is somewhat magical, as it just appeared out of nowhere in my old yard at the ranch. My mom has one in her own yard, but there are quite a few dozen yards in between. It must have been the result of a bird dropping a seed, but I had no idea a fig could sprout that easily. It's also a magical tree, because it's been living in a bucket in very poor soil for almost a year, with spells of neglect and no water.  It's determined to live and grow, and now it's finally got it's chance!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Construction Time Again

Yesterday I visited my mom and nephew at the ranch in La Grange, and while I was there I did some fruit and plant gathering. I came home with a bag full of green grapes and some odd plums- I have no idea what kind they are, their skin is greenish and the flesh is red. My guess is that they are Satsuma?

My mom said that she had gotten a few ripe Asian pears, but most of the ones I saw were green on one side, so I thought I'd leave them for another week or two. The fruit trees at the ranch did really well last year, exploding with fruit that was large, plump, juicy and really tasty. This year, the fruit is barely half the size, dry and flavorless or looks ripe but is really sour. We aren't sure what's happening, but the Asian pears tasted like paper pulp. The grapevines are having trouble too, most of them have some sort of icky disease in the foliage that causes the leaves to dry up and die, and the grapes go from unripe to raisons before you have a chance to pick them. I was lucky to salvage a grocery bag full from one vine that wasn't quite as affected, and the grapes are sooo sweet.  People rave on about homegrown tomatoes, but homegrown grapes are the bomb!

Along with a couple bags of fruit, I plucked up a Bing cherry tree and a Rainier cherry tree for our backyard orchard, some Spearmint, a branch of Hens & Chicks, and a really pretty purple plant that I have yet to identify. I also finally borrowed a saw from my mom to cut the 2x4's for the chicken coop cottage project.
Today I began sawing. I only got through the first 2x4 before the blade on the electric saw broke. It was a really wimpy saw anyway, just a glorified jigsaw. I asked my mom more than twice yesterday if she was positive it would cut a 2x4. For some reason, she didn't want me to borrow the circular saw. (I think she has this idea that I don't know how to use power tools and I will wind up cutting my arm off or something.) So with the saw blade broken and 8 more 2x4's to cut, I decided to resort to sawing the old fashioned way rather than wait who knows how long before I could get access to another saw or saw blade. It took longer by hand, but oddly enough the cuts were a lot straighter!  Plus, sawing is somewhat meditative.  Try it!  Tomorrow is drill day.  Let's hope I have better luck with the power drill.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Experimenting With Honey

Yum!  Yum!  Yum!  You have to try this soup!  Susan Brackney has a recipe for Curried Honey Sweet Potato soup in her book Plan Bee, but since I didn't have exactly everything she called for, I sorta improvised and came up with my own version.  I think it's the best blended soup I've made so far.  So simple to make!  Here's my take on the recipe:

Mandy's Curried Honey Yam Soup

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion diced (I used a sweet yellow, but feel free to try another kind)
4 medium-sized cloves garlic, peeled
6 cups of veg stock
2 yams, peeled and cut in chunks
2 Yukon gold potatoes (or try white, red or russet), peeled and cut in chunks
2 tsp sea salt
6 tsp wildflower honey (you can try any flavor of honey for a little variation)
1 med bell pepper (I used green, but again, any color will probably work)
½ tsp ground ginger
2-3 tsp curry
black pepper to taste
¼ cup fresh cilantro, optional (Lee liked it better without the cilantro on top and he added a dollop of sour cream instead)

Saute onions, garlic, add soup stock, potatoes, salt.  Simmer 15 minutes.  Puree soup in batches- you'll need an extra bowl or pot to put the pureed soup in.  Put pureed soup back in original pot on low heat, add honey, bell pepper, curry, black pepper, ginger.  Simmer to taste- I simmered mine an additional 10 minutes.  Garnish with fresh cilantro if desired.  Enjoy!

All over the world there are hundreds of unique honey types , each with its own distinct flavor, from avocado to tupelo.  Each type of honey has it's own taste, texture, and color.  Some honeys are mild, other are strong and pungent.  Colors can range from clear to dark amber.  Lee and I have pledged to become honey connoisseurs.  Since we love honey and feel left out of the wine tasting loop because we don't care for alcohol, we want to taste and judge different honeys like people do wines.  If only we could fill our weekends with honey tasting tours!  Learn to how judge honey here.  You can even put together a honey tasting party.  

Over the weekend we sampled Eggman Family Honey which hails from Terra Bella, CA, south of Visalia.  It's tasty.  We've been stealing spoonfuls from the jar.  We also used it in the recipe above.  De-li-cious!  If you are reading this, leave a comment with your favorite honey flavor and the farm it comes from.  We'd love to try your recommendations!