harvest

This past week, I attended the International Leadership Association’s (ILA) Leadership Education Academy (LEA). It was an amazing event, a cross between a conference and a work development program, created specifically for leadership educators. I met some creative, inspiring leadership professors, people who teach leadership skills to youth and young adults, and leadership professionals who teach within their organizations. The staff, all leadership professors, was fantastic, and the content of knowledge we learned is extremely helpful. You know… It was information that I will use, and use often in my career. I was so inspired and leadership focused… until I got home.

As you can imagine, in Indiana, the most important time of the harvesting season starts mid-July and runs throughSeptember, or even October… and even sometimes into November, if the weather holds out! I made sure that I had harvested everything available the day before I left for Denver.

I was gone for five days, and I was shocked at what needed to be done to get the garden caught up. As you can see, I had a boatload of green beans and peppers, as well as cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, and blackberries to harvest. Before taking that photo, I gave away two dozen peppers, a dozen tomatoes, and six cucumbers, and I cooked down enough blackberries to freeze two gallons of juice. I also set a few dozen tomatoes on my ripening table that you don’t see here. It never seems like so much is ready when I work on it, every day, but skip a week, and WOW!

Now, it’s time to decide what to do with it all. Wednesday, I will be teaching a certification class in YOUTH Mental Health First Aid, so I will be able to serve some of the peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes with our lunch. I have a boatload of kale ready to be harvested, too, so I will also take some of it to the class. I have been pickling sweet yellow and banana peppers, lately, and I have enough for a year’s worth of my family’s use. I recently saw a recipe for sweet and hot peppers which I might try, though, and I will start canning my jalapeno peppers, since they started producing. The red Cayenne peppers will be dried and used by my son on all kinds of yummy (and spicy) foods.

The tomatoes that I grew from plants are ripening, nicely, but they are mostly table tomatoes. Since my family eats a lot of fresh tomatoes, we are using them up or giving them away to friends and family. My parents could eat fresh tomatoes, especially the german- or beefsteak-style tomatoes, at every meal, so yes, they get used up, quickly. I also like to make some of the extras into stewed tomatoes or salsas.

The tomatoes that I planted from seed are a week or so behind the other tomato plants, even though they were planted at least six weeks after the others. They are they types that I turn into pasta sauce, salsa, and soups. They have very little liquid and very few seeds, so they are easy to process and have lots of meaty flesh to use. The breeds I planted were a Roma-style called “Big Mama” and “Super Sauce.”

Super Sauce is, by far, my favorite saucing tomato, because it is huge (up to 2.5 pounds each) and tasty, which make less work for me. I have made tomato sauce that fits in one quart-sized jar with just two Super Sauce tomatoes! The ones in the garden are so big on some plants that the stems started bending over, because the plant couldn’t hold them up without help. As you can imagine, I have been outside tying the heavier stems up on the stakes I use to support the plants.

Well, I guess I need to stop gushing about this harvest, because I need to go can some green beans! I have a lot to do. Anyway.. I wish you Happy Harvesting and Preserving!

Salad Season Has Sprung!

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After a long winter, I am always relieved and excited for salad season to begin. I always share my first harvests with my mother, and this year’s first harvest of salad greens was no exception. Kale, spinach, and lettuce added bit of green to a family chicken dinner.

For many years, I planted a huge variety of foods, usually including seven or eight types of lettuce, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. My family never ate it all. For the last few years, however, I decided to plant only things that my friends and family really like or use. For example, instead of planting eight different types of tomatoes, last year, I planted a few slicing tomatoes, my dad’s favorite German tomatoes, and a lot of sauce tomatoes. This Spring, I chose to grow only certain types of lettuce: Romaine, Red Sails, and Buttercrunch, since they are our favorites. I wonder if there will be any complaints, but I can say that last night’s salad went over very well.

My first harvest of salad greens is my signal to start my second planting which will take my greens harvest into the heat of summer. In a normal Indiana winter, it is also the sign that I need to prepare to plant the more frost sensitive plants, like tomatoes, green beans, and cucumbers. Since our winter was so mild, however, I already had some of my beds prepared and took a chance, planting some of those plants a little earlier than normal. I did lose some tomato and zucchini plants to an unexpected frost, so I will make sure I have my sheets ready to cover my additional plants, if another frost is imminent.

What else can we plant early in Indiana? If you want the satisfaction of a fast-growing crop, you can try radishes. My mom and I love the bitter punch that radishes provide, but the taste is not for everyone. The great thing about radishes is that you can start pulling them out of the ground in as few as 20 days for small types and 27 days for larger ones. Another early Spring plant is the beet. Beets stay sweet as long as they grow in cold weather and are not left in the ground too long. They take longer than radishes, but still leave enough time, after harvest, for a crop or two of beans.

My mouth is watering just thinking about eating a salad of fresh greens with radishes and beets, a wonderful dressing, and my favorite toppings.

Wascally Wabbits Beware!

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Yes, my friends: That is exactly what you think it is… FORKS FORKS and more FORKS! Last year, I complained that when I had plants come up or planted new plants in the lettuce or cabbage families, the rabbits would eat the leaves to the ground. Someone told me to crush up some mothballs and put them in the garden, and Joila! The rabbits didn’t like it… until it rained a few times. This year, a friend of the family told me that she wanted me to try planting cheap, plastic forks around the plants… a sort of experiment.

I have no idea what the forks do. What I do know is that it works! I have not seen one eaten leaf, but every night I see the rabbits hopping around in the garden. Do you think they get their little eyes poked or something? If so, it could be a classic case of Pavlov experimentation all over again. If they get poked enough, they won’t try any more! (Not sure who Pavlov is? Just Google ‘Pavlov’s dogs’).

What ever the case may be, I am one happy camper. Now, I need some non-toxic, non-chemical, non-taste-changing ways to take care of other pests (spiders, slugs, certain insects, weeds, kids eating all of the fruit…..). So, Take THAT You wascally wabbit… Stop eating my garden produce!

Pumpkin Muffins (reboot)

In December, I received an email from a woman named Lindy who wanted to share a pumpkin muffin recipe with me that she says is the best she has ever tasted. I thought, there is no way it will beat my recipe, but guess what! I tried her recipe, and it is the best pumpkin muffin, I have ever eaten, as well. She is graciously allowing me to share it with you. Since my friends and family ate them all, I won’t be able to post a photo until i make another batch… stay tuned for that.  Happy Eating!

Mama Lindy’s Best Pumpkin Muffins (makes about a dozen)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Ingredients
2 large eggs
½ cup coconut oil, melted
1 tablespoon whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups pumpkin puree
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ cup soy flour
1½ cups all purpose flour
1. Prepare your muffin pan. You can grease muffin tins or use paper liners. I use silicon muffin cups and spray them with a very light coating of cooking spray.
2. In a medium bowl, mix together the eggs, coconut oil (in liquid form), milk, and vanilla extract until smooth and uniform in color. Incorporate the pumpkin puree.
3. Add the sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and soy flour. Beat until smooth and then beat a couple of minutes longer. You can use a hand mixer, blender, stand mixer, or do this by hand.
4. Mix in the flour until just barely mixed in and moist. Do not over mix or beat the mixture once the flour is added, or you will end up with hard muffin hockey pucks.
5. Fill each muffin cup 2/3 full of the mixture. You should get 12-14 muffins, depending on the size of your muffin cups.
6. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean, 20-25 minutes. Allow the pan to cool for 5 minutes before removing the muffins to a cooling rack.

My Vegetable Garden Soil Preparation

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I love raised bed vegetable gardening. Raised beds have many benefits. If properly (and minimally) taken care of, there are few weeds, nutrients and water can be conserved, and growing organically is easier. In addition, a raised bed can be put on most surfaces, and since soils must be added, you have the ability to mix and develop your own soil which will suit your needs.

I read a lot about soil and experimented with soil mixtures for decades until I read the, All New Square Foot Gardening: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More Food in Less Space (2nd edition) book by Mel Bartholomew. Now, square foot gardening techniques are fine for people who grow what they eat and don’t preserve a large number of vegetables, but I don’t use the technique as it is written by Bartholomew. I do use use his soil mixture, however.

Mel’s soil mixture is a little expensive to initially make (or buy pre-made), but it is easy to make, good for most plants, and my plants seem to love it. There are only three ingredients: compost, medium-grained vermiculite, and peat moss. Even easier: When you mix the first batch of the soil mixture, you use equal amounts of each ingredient. How simple is that?

I also use Mel’s suggestion of making the beds no wider than you can reach without having to step inside them. If you don’t step in them and compact the soil, you promote a light, airy soil which needs little work in the future. My beds are never more than 4 feet across. You just plant your plants, and when they are exhausted, you pull them up, add compost, and replant the garden. As you can see by the photo, the plants love it!

Mel Bartholomew’s techniques really work. I suggest that you read his newest book which was published after he perfected some of his techniques further than what was in the first book. Use some or all of his ideas, and I think you might be surprised at how much nicer your garden might be. My garden is a hybrid design between Mel’s ideas and the ideas of a couple of other gardeners… more on that at a later date! Happy Gardening!

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!

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!

We Plant Garlic in October

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I asked a friend of mine, “What is the very first think that comes to mind when you think of the month of October?” She answered exactly as I had thought she would: “Halloween!” Now, I didn’t tell her that it was a leading question to influence her answer to my next question: “What do you think of when I say the word garlic?” Of course, her thoughts went straight from Halloween to garlic repelling vampires. It appears that anyone, not just politicians, can use the power of psychological influence to make people think and act the way they want them to.

When I think of October, I think of garlic, because in Indiana we plant garlic in October. Accordingly, today was garlic planting day. In 2016, I harvested enough garlic for two or three families to use for a year. It was a nice, mild, white California garlic. I preserved some of it in jars, but the bulk of it is braided together in two braids hanging from my fireplace mantle. This year, I am planting seven different varieties, most of which are soft neck varieties.

Hardneck and softneck garlic varieties are different in a couple of basic ways. Hardneck garlic is aptly named for the long, hard stem (called a ‘scape’) which grows from the center of the garlic bulb and can be eaten on its own. It has a spicier, bolder taste than softneck varieties, as well as fewer, yet larger cloves in each bulb. The hardneck scapes are cut off about an inch above the garlic bulb before storing the garlic. Softneck varieties have a series of long leaf-like stems which can be braided together to hang many garlic bulbs for storage. They have a milder taste and a longer storage life (some varieties can be stored up to 10 months).

This year, I planted two hardneck and five softneck varieties. I chose varieties which are good for growing in areas of the country with cold winters. The hardnecks, Chesnok Red and German Red, are both streaked with red or purple colors, which should be beautiful to photograph, and will add a robust flavor to my canned soups and sauces. The softneck varieties I chose, Pioneer, California White, California Select, Extra Select, Inchelium Red, and Nootka Rose, will provide me with a wide range of heat and flavor for many of the freshly eaten dishes that I make, like tomato bruschetta, salsa and pesto, and will easily store until the garlic harvest of 2018.

So the countdown begins: 240-ish days to go until garlic harvest time! Don’t worry, though, because I saved a clove to ward off those darn vampires who come out on October 31st. Garlic is easy to grow and use, so happy garlic growing to any of you who indulge in garlic excellence.

A Trip to the Local Pumpkin Farm

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This week, we took our grandson to Tragesser Pumpkin Farm to pick out a pumpkin. We ended up coming home with 7 pumpkins, 2 gourds, and 2 squashes! The Tragesser family has a nice selection of different types of pumpkins, including the traditional pumpkin you may recognize as the kind we make jack-o-lanterns out of. They pick some, each day, but also have a field of pick-your-own pumpkins. We like that it is not an expensive,  commercialized tourist farm. Instead, it is small and intimate with caring family members working who are knowledgeable about pumpkins and gourds and are willing to share information about what to do with each type that they have available. They had a couple of photo spots set up, so families can make some photo memories, including the display in the above photo. A bonus is that the fruit prices are right, too! Tragesser Pumpkin farm is open during pumpkin season from 5 P.M. until dark, Monday through Friday, and from 11:00 A.M. until dark on Saturdays and Sundays. They are located just off U.S. 31 on County Line Road in Tipton County.

You can bet that sometime in the future, we will be sharing some pumpkin preservation tips and recipes! I absolutely love the flavors of Fall. Happy Autumn!