Planning for 2017

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Believe it or not, I start working on my Spring garden in the Fall. Since I am a raised bad gardening enthusiast, it makes sense to have everything ready to go before the weather gets bad. This year, we had an unseasonably warm start to Autumn, however, so I had warm-weather crops in the garden for far longer than usual. As a matter-of-fact, it is November 29th, and I just finished preserving my last tomatoes! The biggest sign that I am running late in preparing for next year is that I got my first 2017 seed catalogs, already!

So what is involved in planning for next year’s garden? The first thing I do is try to get the soil prepared before the snow flies… if it flies. You never know about the weather in Indiana. Some years we get nearly no snow at all, and other years we get much. I remember it being 85 degrees, one morning, and by 4 PM, a cold front went through, and we were battling temperatures under 20 degrees. The heater in the car didn’t work, because I ran the air conditioner in the morning, and the condensation froze the fan blades in place in the evening! The point is that since the weather in Indiana is somewhat unpredictable for long term forecasting, I try to get the beds maintained and ready to go as early in the Autumn as possible (more information in a future blog).

The next step to preparing for Spring is to make a planting plan. I use Microsoft Excel to keep track of everything I plant by creating a diagram of my raised beds. In each box, I write some information about what was just grown in each bed. Since I rotate my crops to keep weeds, disease, and insects under control, I make sure that I refer to the current year’s crops to plan for next year’s proposed plantings (I will talk about crop rotation in a future blog). Then, I simply make a plan of action for the following year.

With the world moving toward getting almost all of their information from the internet, I must say that the internet is certainly helpful when researching and buying seeds and plants. However, I love to look through seed catalogs, and I can take them anywhere with me (waiting rooms, movie theaters, airplanes, school…). They provide me with a tactile (hands-on) way to connect with my garden when the weather is too bad to be outside. The front of most seed catalogs usually highlights new and award-winning breeds and hybrids. The catalogs also offer information which I can learn from, and any day I learn something is a great day!

Finally, preparing for the garden means building (or planning for building) new or replacement structures and buying what I need (lumber, fencing, wire, seeds, compost, and other needs) for next year’s garden. This year, I used scrap landscape timbers to build some blueberry beds. Last year, I built a couple of strawberry pyramids. I think next year, I might build beds designed for a raspberry patch and growing popcorn… Well, maybe. You never know what new ideas I will come up with when I look at those seed catalogs. Check back, this Winter, and I will update you!

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Preserving Pumpkin for Cooking

How do you use pumpkin? If you eat chunks of pumpkin, you can safely can cubed pumpkin in a pressure canner. You can also dry strips of pumpkin or dry pureed pumpkin into fruit leather. I don’t eat cubed or dried pumpkin, however. I use pureed pumpkin for cooking. The experts say that it is NOT safe to can pureed pumpkin, but you can and should freeze any pumpkin that you think you can use. Frozen pumpkin puree provides the best taste and texture of pumpkin for future use.

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There are many types of pumpkins. I like to use pumpkin pulp that is meaty and creamy, not stringy. Two of the best creamy pumpkins found in Indiana are the fairy tale (tan-pink in color) and the sugar pie pumpkin (small and bright orange). They have little moisture and beautiful, thick, creamy pulp when pureed. Preparing the pumpkin is easy.

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Start by scrubbing the rind of the pumpkin. Cut off the top and cut the pumpkin into pieces which will fit into what ever vessel you use to cook your pumpkin in. Next, remove the pulp and seeds. If you like to roast the pumpkin seeds, put them in a separate bowl. Finally, scrape the pumpkin to ensure that only the pulp is left inside the segments.

After the pumpkin is prepared, you need to cook it until it is soft and easily separates from the rind when you scrape it. There are many ways to  do this. I use a pressure cooker, because I have one, and I have no more patience than I need. To bake the pumpkin, lay the rind side down in a baking dish with a small amount of water at 300 degrees for 1-1.5 hours. You can also steam the pumpkin for about 20 minutes, boil it for 20-30 minutes, or microwave it for 20-25 minutes. Pressure cooking, however, only takes about 6-8 minutes (depending on thickness of the pulp) per cooker full, and when I have a lot of pumpkin to preserve, every minute I have is nice. To make it even faster, I use two electric pressure cookers at the same time.

Once the pumpkin is cooked, use a spoon or spurtle to scrape the pulp from the rind. Let the pulp cool and puree the pulp using whatever method you prefer. One of my friends uses a fork. I know someone else who uses a handheld stick mixer and I saw someone online who used a potato masher. I have been blessed to own a Vitamix which has a variable speed engine and use it to puree everything from pumpkin to applesauce and tomatoes. Whatever method you use will be okay, as long as you make the puree whatever consistency makes you happy. If you find excessive moisture coming from your pumpkin, you can strain the puree through several layers of cheesecloth lining a colander.

I like to freeze my pumpkin puree in pint-sized Ziploc freezer bags because they are strong and easy to freeze laying flat. Since most of my pumpkin recipes use 1 or 2 cups of pumpkin puree, I freeze it in one cup portions, so it is already measured out and ready to be used. The easiest way I have found to fill the bags is to line a one cup measuring cup with an open freezer bag and filling it to the top of the measuring cup before pushing out the air and zipping it closed. Since I only freeze pumpkin once per year, I label the bag with the year, only. I lay each bag of pumpkin flat on a cookie sheet to freeze before putting four to six bags of frozen pumpkin in a larger 1 gallon bag to keep organized and add a second layer of protection from over-freezing.

The experts say that you can store pumpkin for up to a year without affecting the taste or texture! I have kept some for as long as 18 months or longer without any obvious deterioration. If you thaw it out and see a large amount of liquid in the bag, just pour it out and use the remaining pulp. If you like to cook with pumpkin, you should try to preserve your own. You will be surprised at how much better your own frozen pumpkin will taste over canned pumpkin from the store. Yum!

Preserving Herbs

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Growing herbs is fun, and most herbs are easy to grow.Since I have not yet built my herb garden, I am using half of one of my garden beds to grow the herbs that I use the most: oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, and lavender. Several times, this season, I have cut and hung herbs to dry after using the fresh herbs that I could use. This year, the weather is unseasonably warm for Autumn, and the plants have grown out, once again, to harvest size, so I decided to cut more and dry them in my food dehydrator.

Many herb gardeners suggest that you avoid using a food dehydrator, since a standard dehydrator can over-dry the herbs causing them to lose some of those wonderful oils which make herbs so fragrant and delicious. I found, however, that using a dehydrator which has a temperature control and fan gives you more control. I have had great luck drying herbs in my dehydrator.

The first thing to note is that the plant leaves have the most moisture and natural oil in the morning hours, so harvesting in the morning results in slightly better quality herbs. Since I will be drying my herbs for use in food products (versus gathering the oils for soaps, etc…), I could have gathered the plants at any time of day, but I do think morning picked herbs are the best. Today, I picked rosemary, thyme, and oregano.

I washed the herbs and lightly patted them dry with a paper towel, leaving the leaves on the stems. I was able to get all of the rosemary and thyme, as well as about 1/3 of the oregano in my 10-tray dehydrator (I bought it at Cabelas). I turned the heat to 125 degrees and made sure that the fan was turned on. I checked the herbs every two hours until they were dry. It took about five hours. I transferred the dried herbs into a couple of large bowls to cool off while I reloaded the dehydrator with the remaining oregano.

When the herbs are cool, I put them in zippered plastic bags and squeeze out as much of the air as I can. Don’t seal warm herbs in plastic, or you may end up with moisture or condensation in the bags. On a day when I have nothing to do, I will remove the leaves from the stems and transfer the dried herbs to nicer containers. I will also use some of them to make my own Italian herb blend to store for future use in our family winter favorites… or share with with friends and family. Yummy.

Halloween Fun in the Garden

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One of the great joys of being a parent and grandparent is seeing the joy in children during special occasion events. Those of you who know me know that I do not like Halloween. I do love to watch the innocent joy of children who get to experience some of Halloween’s allure, however. One of those things is the annual carving and lighting of the jack-o-lantern.

This year, one of our closest family of friends came to the garden to carve out our pumpkins. My friend, Jane, and I each have 2-year old grandchildren who are just old enough to be able to have fun and appreciate the idea of the mess it takes to turn pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns. Their parents helped them cut off the tops and let them scoop out those icky-sticky interiors to get the pumpkins ready for carving. I was more than delighted to take all of the excess yuck, I mean seeds and stringy pulp, and added it to my composter to turn into future garden gold.

The kids used markers to draw cutting lines (which were not followed very well), and the moms, dads, and grandmas carved some pretty cool faces, fences, cats, and a minion(?) using pumpkin carving kits found at the local grocery store.

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The most fascinating thing to the kids was when we lit them up so they could see the carvings in the dark. For safety sake, we used the cool new little LED, battery-operated tea lights that flicker instead of real candles. They look like the real thing but don’t burn anyone or anything. Just a side note: I kept plenty of pie pumpkins for preserving, so stay tuned!