We plant a garden every year…some years it’s good, some years we look forward to the next year. We used to plant a large garden at Emily’s grandparents’ house. With all the running around we do, it became unmanageable. We still love fresh food and you can’t beat the price (although, building up the garden area ain’t cheap…though that was our decision).
So, we built a few raised beds in our back yard and planted them full of stuff. We started with the largest area built from old railroad ties. We filled it with peppers, broccoli, onions, tomatoes and potatoes. About midway through the summer, we added two 8-foot beds to the mix. You see, we didn’t have any green beans and we absolutely love home-grown green beans. I think the most we ever canned was 70 quarts one year. That might have been a bit much but we really enjoy beans.
Anyhow, with our decision not to plant a garden at Emily’s grands’ place, we were sort of without when it came to beans…on a chance, we decided to plant green beans in July, hoping to have a small crop by frost. We harvested a bunch of beans yesterday and had more than a small crop. Although not a 70-quart crop, we canned 20 pints last night!
Next year, we will be ready to plant an early spring crop as well as a July crop, hoping to double our return! It’s so cool that two small rows of seed can make us a bunch of food that we will enjoy until next year!The best part is that they were canned within a few hours of being picked…hard to get any fresher than that!
It seems like we can never start the canning process before 10pm though. Anyone who has ever canned knows that starting that late has its good and its bad aspects…it’s usually cooler later at night and canning makes things in the house pretty hot. Canning also sometimes takes a long time so starting late might mean sleep deprivation. In our case, we just never have time before 10pm so heat has nothing to do with it.
Anyhow, the other night, we started spaghetti sauce at around 10. Spaghetti sauce is a great way to use up a lot of tomatoes…our recipe calls for 30 pounds at a time. We add spices and veggies and meat and fungus mushrooms. Adding those things means we have to pressure can and boil the living fire out of the jars. Tomatoes alone are pretty acidic so any nasties can usually be killed with straight-up boiling and letting the acids do their work. Adding the other stuff prevents that so pressure canning is necessary…pressure canning simply allows the temp to get a lot higher. Our recipe calls for the canner to stay at temp for 1 hour. Talk about a late night! We did clear out most of our tomatoes though and we will have lovely vittles this winter when spaghetti will taste especially awesome!
Speaking of awesome, home-grown veggies are usually in the own league compared to store bought. I think the biggest difference comes in potatoes. Taters are easy to grow and are just so much more tender and smooth to me when I grow them. It’s striking and makes it well worth the work of digging the tubers. This year, we planted one crop which we harvested in July. We turned right around and planted another crop which appears to be doing very well! I love the idea of two tater crops this year! We usually plant once and take what we get, but the taters were just too good to pass it up!
I know, I know…you could barely contain yourself, waiting for the conclusion to the sorghum saga. In my last post, I described how we pressed the sorghum cane to extract the sweet juice using our Kentucky No. 0 Cane Mill. We didn’t really pay much attention to how much juice we actually got but it was enough to make me smile. Of course, anything greater than “none” would have made me smile. Anyhow, we got several gallons of weird looking green sorghum juice.
To make the juice into syrup, one has to cook the water off of the juice which thickens the liquid into syrup and converts sugars and starches into wholesome goodness that is otherwise known as sorghum (or sorghums as the old timers call it).
Originally, people cooked the juice on a wood fire in a large cast iron cauldron…sometimes several feet in diameter. The cauldron had a lip which allowed the cauldron to sit on a circular brick or stone wall inside of which a fire was built. Sorghum cookers got more sophisticated and built long, shallow evaporator pans with baffles which allowed the cooker to add juice to one end and move the sorghum through the pan to the other end as it cooked where syrup was eventually pulled off. Either of these options are still viable but involve a good bit of money to purchase or make. I already have a good bit of money invested in the cane mills and couldn’t see spending any more this year.
It occurred to me that a turkey fryer is not much different from an old fashioned cauldron so we decided to cook our juice in a turkey fryer over propane. I know, it is not too authentic but I had to go with what I had. One of the first things that happens when one turns on the heat under sorghum juice is that a tremendous amount of nasty foam rises to the top. This happens every time as a part of the process and the foam has to be skimmed and discarded. I had a ladle I used to dip it off of the top. We stirred the pot nearly continuously to prevent burning the syrup. It took a few hours over low heat but the juice gradually cooked down and thickened. The smell of the mixture changed from wet pumpkin (almost as bad as wet dog) to sweet…sweet something. I can’t really describe it but it was a nice smell. Finally, the color changed from green to a beautiful amber color. We tasted often and watched it thicken. I finally decided it was done and pulled off the end product. We ended up with 2 quarts plus a little of homemade sorghum syrup and it tastes great!
We learned a lot and, more importantly, spent a lot of quality together-time. We didn’t get enough sorghum to make it extrinsically worth it, but satisfaction in seeing a product through from field to jar is worth a lot to me. Seeing my kids helping out and enjoying time spent is worth a lot to me. Feeling some connection to how old farmers in WV might have produced their own sorghum is worth a lot to me. The syrup is really a secondary part to all of this, but what a sweet bonus it is!
I was headed home from harvesting honey on Sunday when I passed a friend on the road as I was coming off the ridge. I skidded to a stop on the gravel road (which is always a thrill!) and we talked about bees and stuff. Last week, my friend had offered for me to come pick grapes from his vines. I ran out of time last week, but my friend offered again and I took him up on it!
We picked a basket full of grapes without even working at it and I have to tell you, the smell of freshly picked, perfectly ripe grapes is incredible. I sort of hated to get out of the car, the smell was so incredible. If they made fresh grape cologne, I would consider wearing cologne. I would not consider it long as I do not like cologne at all, but I would consider it…it was that incredible.
Imagine my surprise Tuesday night when I walked into the house and smelled the grapes that Emily and Abigail were cooking into grape juice (and soon to be jelly!). The house was heavenly! Have you noticed how bad store-bought grape jelly is? It used to taste grapey and pretty good but now it just tastes purpley. It is awful.
Ok, sorry…sidetracked. Anyhow, I used to freak out when I saw my mom and grandma canning grape juice. They always added a few grape into the jars and as they sat upon the shelves in the cellar, I swore it looked like jars of eyeballs. No, in our grape juice, there will be no eyeballs. Our jelly will be grapey and the sun will continue to rise in the east. This is just how things should be.
We love to plant a garden and watch as everything shoots up through the ground. I don’t think much is any prettier than a recently plowed garden with loads of young plants poking up all around. We eat a lot of our meals out of the garden in a typical summer. I am a fairly new vegetarian of the year-round sort but we are all pretty much vegetarians in the summer. Well, most summers. Not this summer. We got off to a rocky start with the near constant rainfall that we had during the planting season. Stuff was late going into the ground…everything but the weeds. They thrive no matter what. Couple all of that with the incredible heat and dryness now and we have found the garden to be pretty pitiful.
I guess if I had to pick one thing that would succeed in the garden though, it would be green beans. I love green beans and could almost live on them and mountain dew. Luckily, the green beans and corn are doing exceptionally well this year. We picked and canned 34 pounds of green beans last weekend. It was a marathon canning session ending somewhere around 2 am…a mere 4 hours before the kids usually get up. Anyhow, we are in the beans this year for sure. There are tons more following the ones we picked so it will be another busy weekend. Of course, it can’t all be smooth and easy. We planted a bag full of bean seed clearly marked tenderette bush beans. I have no doubt that some of the seeds were in fact tenderettes. The majority of the beans, however, are some other sort of runners.
Bush beans grow in a somewhat compact bush where all of the beans can be picked from individual plants. Folks usually do not have to manage the plants in particular which is one of the reasons we like them. Runners, on the other hand, send out vines and are meant to be trellised or otherwise tied up. Thinking we only had bush beans, we didn’t pay any attention to the beans growing like mad in the garden until it was too late. So, instead of having nice individual rows, we have a freakin’ blob of bean plants chocked full of beans. With machete in hand, one can venture into the bean jungle and harvest, but it isn’t easy or fun.
There is still plenty of growing time left so we may yet be surprised with what the old garden will produce. It’s all good though. Even on my deserted island of a garden, I have to one thing I could not bear to do without…Jack Sparrow needed rum…I need green beans, savvy?
It seems like this time of year finds our fingers all sorts of different colors. It really just depends on what we’re picking at the time. Last night was no different really. A co-worker of Emily’s has a bunch of grapes growing at her house. She has picked a ton and canned/preserved them every way she knows how. That’s where we come in. The grapes are still plentiful so she gave us a bunch of them…and there are more to pick so we are hoping to be able to go and harvest a bunch more. It’s hard to beat real concord grapes I think!
We cleaned them last night and are making grape jelly with the ones we have now. Do you remember when you were a kid and even the store bought grape jelly had flavor? I have tried some recently and it seems like the grape jelly is completely without flavor. I guess it’s like everything – homemade is really hard to beat. But gee whiz, the store stuff isn’t even fit for slug bait!
Anyhow, does anyone else gather grapes? What do you do with them? I remember my Mom and Grandma canning grape juice but they always left whole grapes in the jars. It freaked me out because I could have sworn they canned eyeballs! Oh, and don’t get me started on when they canned whole tomatoes…eeek! Anyone make raisins or juice or wine? I’ve nibbled on wild grapes but does anyone do anything more specific with them? I’d love to know what options I may have!
We work a pretty big garden at Emily’s grandparents’ place. It’s somewhere around the size of Delaware I think. Planting is always a ton of fun and it looks so pretty when all of the plants are just starting to come up. Sometime in June though, craziness happens there. The tomatoes pop overnight and develop hundreds of little green wonders. Without any warning at all, they go from green to red (and on to nasty if we’re not careful) overnight! This year we have somewhere around 55 tomato plants and they each make 1 ton of tomatoes. So, yesterday, in the heat of the day, we crawled out into the garden to weed and pick and work on our tans…and pick tomatoes (and other stuff too…but more on that later) We picked a good number of tomatoes last week…probably 35-40 pounds. I was pretty proud of that…until this week. We kept picking and picking and picking. We weighed in when we got home (for this week…there’s always next week too!!) and found we had collected 81 pounds of tomatoes.
(this is about 2/3 of them…in my family room…)
Now I like tomato stuff. We love to make salsa and pizza sauce and just plain old tomato sauce, but 81 pounds all at once is a bit of a chore. We are fortunate to have a tomato press but it is still a ton of work processing the little squirting devils! I really need to get the child labor bit working better…
We went to a you-pick strawberry place in Cottageville, WV on Sunday. It’s about 35 minutes away (though for the kids, it was a 2 year long trip) and was a nice Sunday drive. We got to Hartley Farms and found a huge field of the biggest and best strawberries I have ever seen (though I didn’t know that part right away). The proprietor took us over to a row and told us to, “have at it”. I fully expected to have to search and dig and really work to find a few scrawny strawberries. We picked 2 years ago at a place closer to home and it was pitiful. Hartley Farms was $0.55 per pound cheaper and there were hundreds of big fat berries everywhere!
We filled 7 ice cream buckets to overflowing and weighed in. All told, we had about 32 pounds of berries! The best part is that the kids even helped pick! We jumped in the car hoping to get home before Isaac ate every last strawberry. Though he made a run at eating 32#, we did make it home with a few berries. All four of us started making jam though the kids were tired after a batch each. They wanted to take a jar to their teachers that they had made.
Emily and I continued on into the night making jar after jar of jam. Isaac in particular like strawberry jam so the 43 half-pints we made may last us the year (and may not). We still have somewhere around 8 pounds of berries to go…not sure if that will be jam or something else yet. We have a fair bit of cleanup yet to do. Of course, it is impossible to make jam without making stuff sticky and our floor is sticky indeed. I have mopped it several times but my socks still leave little fuzzy footprints when I walk in the kitchen.
And by the way, when you make strawberry jam, make sure you use a huge pot to boil your mixture. We forgot since last time and we boiled a pot of sticky strawberry syrup over the edge of the sauce pan we had and onto the hot burner on our (wretched) glass-topped stove. You guessed it…it caramelized and tried to burst into flame. We never saw fire, but our house was full of smoke before I could get the mess cleaned up…so, word to the wise, use a huge pot to boil the mix! Luckily we had a better pot so subsequent batches were fine!
I talked a little about drying beans the other day but I didn’t tell you what we do with the beans once they are dried. Actually, we dehydrate and dry all sorts of things actually and this applies to everything we do. As I have said before, I get hair-brained ideas fairly regularly. I wanted to be able to vacuum seal stuff in jars but I couldn’t see spending the money to get one of the fancy vacuum sealers. Foodsaver makes attachments for their powered products to evacuate the air from mason jars so I decided to give that a try with a modification of how the air gets removed. I needed something that sucks!
I can’t take sole credit for these ideas but I can’t remember where I saw a similar discussion on the idea. Anyhow, a brake bleeder sucks just fine and, in fact, even has a vacuum guage on it to tell how much it sucks. My first plan was to integrate the brake bleeder with the mason jar sealer. Although I wouldn’t want to hand pump a brake bleeder all day long, I can pull a vacuum of 20 inches of Hg in about 30 seconds. The mason jar sealer works perfectly for that.
Moving on to bigger and better, Harbor Freight (a cheap tool supplier) has a vacuum pump for evacuating hvac systems. You simply hook it up to your air compressor and it will draw around 28 inches of Hg. I couldn’t make it work as well with the jar sealer for some reason though I didn’t try too hard either. You can (as I did) fashion some sort of a cup-like end for a piece of hose. You could use a stout film canister or a small piece of tupperware or somehting similar.
Punch a hole in the lid of the jar and put a piece of duct sealing tape (the shiny silver stuff, not regular duct tape) on the lid leaving the hole exposed. Hold the cup over the hole and tape and start the vacuum. When you are finished, slide the cup off across the tape sealing the hole. The vacuum will further hold the tape in place providing a great seal.
With a little effort, you could probably use the hvac pump with the jar sealer too so it is worth a try. My “cup” solution works for things like large pickle jars or other containers that aren’t mason jar sized.
A traditional vacuum cleaner will not pull sufficient vacuum for this to work by the way. You’ll need something designed to draw (from what I have read) somewhere around 15-25 inches of Hg to be sufficient. Also, this is not a replacement for canning stuff that should be canned. We only store dehydrated stuff this way. Anyhow, it’s a pretty cool option for storing garden stuff and it can be pretty cheap depending on the junk you have laying around your workshop.
We wrapped up the summer garden last weekend. Mentally, we checked out of it a few weeks ago, completely exhausted from canning and drying and pickling and cooking. Gardening and canning is exhausting work though we both really enjoy it (don’t ask us now, ask us in February) and it gives us a lot of time to work together towards a common goal, chat about the day or the future or our dreams. It provides us with fantastic nutrition and exercise. We have no fear of a vitamin D deficiency in the summer sun. It’s just the right thing for us to do.
It is equally good to put the summer garden to rest though. We get to take a break and enjoy a bit of the work that we’ve done.
I don’t suppose to have any real idea of our ancestors who really survived on the land, but I think I feel a small bit of the relief of having food put up, of the rest of fall and winter, and the simple joy of seeing stuff transition from seed to seed.
Ok, enough pondering life. We gathered a bunch of cayenne and jalapeno peppers (will they ever end?!), black beans, green peppers and tomatoes (those are 6 gallon buckets in the first pic) at the close of the garden. We actually picked several crops of black beans that had dried on the vine over the course of the summer. Anyone pulling up the plants early to harvest dried beans is missing a huge second or third crop.
Anyhow, Emily spent a good part of one evening shelling the last crop of black beans. Mo, our cat loved the seed pods. He chased them all over the place. We dry the beans on a clothes drying rack covered with cotton fabric which is held in place with clothes pins. The cool thing is that the entire rack folds down almost flat and is easy to store.
It’s also a lot cheaper than some of the fancier racks and the cotton fabric can be washed unlike some of the window screen versions that some folks have made.
Anyhow, we are done with our summer garden. We are planting garlic tomorrow but that is fairly low key compared to everything else. ‘Tis good to have a break!