Rhythms of Fall

It’s the beginning of fall here in Wisconsin—my favorite time of the year. Everything is getting that tired look to it and the evening temperatures are beginning to dive a little more often into the 50s and 60s. The leaves are starting to change just a little. Soon I’ll be up in the woods cutting up dead trees for winter. It’s not nearly cool enough for the first fire yet, but that will come too. Soon I’ll have the smell of woodsmoke permeating the house as I enjoy the cool fall evenings in front of my wood stove.

Last week I began picking my grapes and apples. Both have produced abundantly this year. In fact, just one cane produced a little over 40 pounds of grapes. The apples are smaller than normal, but plentiful, weighing the trees down. The pears this year suffered from a lack of activity from helpful insects and an overwhelming quantity of the harmful variety. The point is that it’s a time for picking things and preserving them for the winter. There is a certain feeling that comes over you as you begin to bring things into the house and see the larder shelves swell with all you’ve produced. Most of the fruit will go into juice this year, which means my Victorio Strainer will work overtime.

As part of my fall preparations, I’m starting to dry the herbs that have grown all summer. My herb garden is a little limited this year because the weather just didn’t cooperate as much as it could have. Still, I have plenty of celery (actually lovage) seed to use, along with the dried leaves. The rosemary, two kinds of sage, and two kinds of thyme have all done well (though the rosemary is not quite as robust as I would have liked, it’s quite flavorful). The dehydrator is up and running now, helping me preserve the herbs I need for cooking this winter.

Of course, the herb garden produces more than just herbs for cooking—it also produces a robust number of items for tea. Right now I four kinds of mint growing: lime, lemon, chocolate, and spearmint. The first three are definitely used for drinking teas only because their subtle flavors are lost in other sorts of uses. The spearmint is used for tea, cooking, and mint jelly—that essential add-on for lamb meat. Rebecca actually had eight different kinds of mint growing at one time, but they have gotten mixed together over the years or were hit especially hard by this last winter. The herb garden will need some focused attention this upcoming spring to get it back into shape.

In some respects, the combination of a hard winter, a late spring, and a cool summer conspired to make this year less productive than most. It’s the reason that you really do need a three-year plan for stocking your larder to ensure that you have enough food for those years that are a little less plentiful. Fortunately, my larder has an abundant supply of everything needed to sustain life (and quite a large number of things we made purely for pleasure as well).

There are some fall-specific things that I’ll eventually take care of. You already know about the work part of it, but there is time for pleasure too. For example, I’ll take time for my usual picnic at Wildcat Mountain after the fall color begins to peak. So, how are your fall plans shaping up? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Lessons Learned as a Child

Jars of canned goods in the pantry.
Colorful Jars of Home Canned Vegetables

Most of what I learned about self-sufficiency was done while I was hanging around my mom, aunts and uncles.  My grandmother was one of thirteen children.  My mother had ten brothers and sisters.  I have 4 sisters and three brothers. It’s a large family, but it’s a close family.  We have always spent lots of time together. As a kid, much of it was spent gathering, gleaning, cooking and eating.  I didn’t realize I was learning self-sufficiency, I just knew that if I wanted to be in the kitchen I needed to make myself useful.

The earliest lesson that I remember happened while my mom and her sisters were canning concord grapes.  My uncle had a neighbor with an overabundance of grapes.  My mom had teenage brothers who needed something to do on a Saturday afternoon. So she sent dad with the boys off to pick the grapes while the women got ready to make jelly and jams.

Since I was only 8 years old and my sister was 11, our job was washing the jars.  There were dozens of jars that had been brought up from the cellar.  We worked in a back room of the house with two tubs.  She washed and I rinsed.  It was also the job for both of us to feel the top edge of the jars to make sure there weren’t any nicks or cracks that would prevent the canning lids from sealing.  Once the jars passed our inspection, they were taken into the kitchen where they were boiled to sterilize them and filled by the adults.  It may seem like a lot of work for an 8 year old, but I still check my canning jars this way because of the lesson I have always remembered.

Getting kids involved early is key to teaching life long lessons.  Kids are naturally curious about what the grownups are doing.  Kids WANT to be included in grownup activities. There are oodles of ways to bring your kids along on the road to self sufficiency.  It’s never too early.

  • If your kids are the kind who enjoy water, set them up washing jars to prepare for canning.  Let them help wash the dog or the car.  It may end up in a water fight, but those are great fun in the summer!
  • If they like making mud pies, teach them that making bread or pie crust dough is similar, and let them try it out. Even a preschooler can help roll cookie balls (and unlike PlayDoh, you can bake and eat the results).
  • If they like picking flowers, give them a small plot or row of their own in your garden and let them take responsibility for the tending, watering and weeding.
  • If your kids who are the kind that like to read and figure out things, introduce them to recipe books and let them choose what is going to be made for supper.  It will help them practice reading as well as teach valuable math and science skills.
  • Do you have an animal lover at your house? Let them take charge of the pet care and update you on the health of the critters – keeping records like the veterinarian.

When you include kids in your activities, at their skill level  and with ample encouragement, you are opening up a whole new way of communicating with your child. They learn that adults sometimes make mistakes or have failures and have to figure things out differently.  You are creating an environment where your kids can try, succeed (or learn that failure isn’t fatal) and grow.

As the harvest progresses and the canning/freezing season is upon us, there is an opportunity to teach the value of starting early to make a great Christmas.  By canning and collecting the summer fruits and vegetables, you can fill your cupboards full of basic things like corn, peas, beans and jelly.  You can also  try special recipes for treats like  green and red colored pears, spiced apple rings, green tomato mincemeat and peach pie filling.  Then when it comes time to put together a gift basket for a teacher or putting on a Holiday dinner, your child can proudly say “I helped to make that!”

Is there any greater feeling than “real” accomplishment?  I don’t think so!

If you have stories about your self-sufficiency lessons or any questions, please share them by adding your comment to this post or contacting John at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Dealing with a Rainy Summer

It has been a rainy summer so far in Wisconsin. Thank goodness it hasn’t been the kind that sees lots of flooding, as we had in 2008 when the entire town flooded out and I was locked in the house for days at a time. No, this has been a lighter, steady sort of rainy summer. It has rained often enough that the young lad mowing my lawn has had to work hard just to find days to do it and sometimes needs to come back another day because it starts raining right in the middle of cutting the grass. However, the things that tell you most that this has been a really rainy summer are the mushrooms and the mosquitoes.

The mushrooms are interesting because they’re growing all over the place and are of such diversity that they’re simply fun to look at. I’ll often wander around in the early morning hours looking at mushrooms before the dogs get out there and rip them up (yes, Reese and Shelby can get quite frisky during their morning game of Frisbee). If I knew a bit more about mushrooms, this would be a year to stock the freezer. As it is, I’m only positive enough about button, morel, and puffball mushrooms to pick them for eating (and even then I’m extremely careful).

The mosquitoes are a bit more of a problem. There have been notices on the radio that many of them carry West Nile Virus, a disease I’d prefer not to get. So, I’ve stocked up on the usual remedies and make sure I spray myself before I go out to work in the flower beds or gardens. I’ve also been reading articles such as, “10 Signs You May Have West Nile Virus” so that I know what to look for.

The rains have had some interesting effects (other than the mushrooms) in my salad garden. The cherry tomatoes are already to the top of their cages and they’re producing blooms like crazy. At some point I’m going to be eating cherry tomatoes a bit more often than I might like. My plan is to collect enough up that I can dry them for later use. Dehydration is always a good way to preserve food for later use. Likewise, my green peppers are getting quite large. In fact, I picked my first green pepper (a tad small) the other day. The extra rain hasn’t seemed to affect the taste or quality of the peppers so far.

What I do worry about is my herbs. So far they’re growing like crazy, but I’m concerned that they won’t dry well and that they’ll lack some of the oils that they normally do. I tried some lime mint in tea the other day and it seemed a bit weak. The rest of the summer will determine just how the herbs do. I know they’ll definitely be usable, but it may require more of them to get the same effects as normal. Fortunately, none of the herbs seems to be rotting or having other problems so far.

Did I mention that the weeds absolutely love the rain too? It seems as if I can’t pick them fast enough and the nearly constant rain causes them to grow quite large, quite fast. Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep up well with everything except my personal garden, which is a little weedier than I’d like at the moment. Let me know your thoughts about rainy summers at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Is It a Cantaloup or a Muskmelon?

It all started at the store where a sign for cantaloup was clearly incorrect—the melon in question was definitely a muskmelon—a honeydew to be exact. A little later, I was looking through the larder and saw one of the jars of pickled cantaloup Rebecca had canned for me. Then, someone else talked with me about melons in e-mail. So, I thought it was a sign that I should talk a bit about the difference between cantaloup and muskmelon.

A cantaloup is actually a kind of muskmelon, but not all muskmelons are cantaloupes. It turns out that there are actually two kinds of cantaloup, but the kind you most likely see in the store is a North American Cantaloup (Cucumis melo reticulatus). There is also a European Cantaloup (Cucumis melo cantalupensis) that looks nothing like the cantaloup Americans are used to seeing in the store (Europeans appear to be equally confused about the American variety). In fact, you can find arguments that the European variety is the only true cantaloup. I’ll leave such discussions to those who want to buck the rest of the growing community. In my mind, they’re both types of cantaloupes.

The number of muskmelon varieties is huge. However, some of the most common types are: honeydew, crenshaw, and casaba. All of them have some characteristics in common, such as the strong musky scent when ripe and a plethora of seeds in the center. However, they also have significant differences that include the skin color and texture of the fruit. Personally, I enjoy all of the muskmelon varieties and look forward to growing at least one or two of them each summer.

The flavor, odor, and sugar content of all muskmelons is greatly affected by environment. In fact, two muskmelons growing on the same vine can have different tastes simply because one of the muskmelons gets to drink from the vine first. Too much water tends to make the muskmelon less tasty because the sugars become diluted—too little tends to reduce the melon size and it may not mature at all.

Some gardeners are also unaware that muskmelons rely on gender-specific flowers: male and female to produce fruit. Hot weather tends to produce a significant number of male flowers. When a vine has all male flowers, it won’t produce any fruit at all. Unfortunately, I don’t have any sort of guideline to offer you as to detecting whether a flower is male or female, but I do know that high temperatures tend to produce vines with lots of flowers and no fruit. When the temperatures are too low, the fruit tends to rot, rather than ripen.

Muskmelons also require mulching. If the fruit directly touches the ground, it won’t mature. They also need a constant level of moisture that only mulch can provide. In short, muskmelons are picky fruit to grow and you can’t always be assured of a high quality output.

So, the next time someone asks whether a fruit is a cantaloup or a muskmelon, you can answer with a bit more authority. You can also get the sign for the mislabeled honeydew fixed in your store. Let me know your thoughts about cantaloupes and muskmelons at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Time to Check for Tent Caterpillars

A lot of the documentation I read about tent caterpillars online says that they’re relatively harmless, which is true when they appear on certain kinds of trees. However, when it comes to fruit trees, tent caterpillars can become a horrible problem. In fact, tent caterpillars nearly killed our plum trees (which are still recovering three years later).

The problem is one of tree growth. A lot of trees get a secondary growth of leaves. When the tent caterpillars do their job during the mid-spring to late-spring months, they damage the first growth of leaves. The trees can recover with the secondary growth. However, many fruit trees get just one set of leaves for the entire summer, so when the tent caterpillars damage them, the tree is stripped for the summer and can’t store enough energy for the winter months.

Tent caterpillars also tend to strip fruit trees, partly because they’re smaller than some of the other trees that are affected by them. In fact, that’s what happened to our plum trees. The foliage was stripped before we knew what was happening and the trees simply didn’t recover. After viewing other trees the tent caterpillars have attacked, it becomes obvious that they really are just a pest at times.

Part of the solution is to inspect the trees carefully during pruning. Unfortunately, even a close inspection won’t reveal all the tent caterpillar clusters and some hatch. During the spring months I take regular tours of the orchard to look for the tent caterpillar nests, especially during the early morning when the night moisture reveals the nests with greater ease. (The inspections are also good exercise and are quite pleasant, so it’s not really work in the traditional sense of the word.) I hand pick the caterpillars and ensure I crush them. Removing them from the trees simply invites them to come back later.

The trees that seem most affected by tent caterpillars are plums and apples. Cherries are also affected, but the tent caterpillars haven’t acquired a taste for the Mesabi cherries for whatever reason (the yellow-bellied sapsuckers tend to avoid them as well). Untouched are the pears, which don’t seem to attract nearly as many pests at other trees on our property do.

A proactive approach to dealing with tent caterpillars is essential if you want to maintain tree vitality. Make sure you take that walk each day to mellow out, improve your health, and keep your trees healthy. Let me know your thoughts about tent caterpillars at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Cold Spring

This has been an interesting spring for people in Wisconsin. Not only did we have a cold winter that included some late snow, but we can’t seem to warm up this spring either. Generally, people plant their potatoes on Good Friday here. I haven’t heard of anyone who has actually made the attempt yet and it’s now past Easter. If the trend continues, the gardens will be late this year and we’ll have to hope for a longer fall to make up for it.

This may be a good year for brassicas, which require cooler temperatures to do well. If the weather continues as it has, we might have problems growing green beans, tomatoes, okra, and peppers, all of which require warmer temperatures and a bit of dryness as well. Trying to discern what the summer weather will be like from the clues provided in spring can be difficult and we’ve been quite wrong about them in some years. The result is that the garden doesn’t produce as well as it could. So, even though it looks like it won’t be a good year for tomatoes, we’ll plant some anyway. The best gardens are diverse and the best gardeners hedge their bets about how the weather will change.

Having a late spring means that the flowers aren’t out yet. In fact, we don’t have a single Easter flower yet. Our trees, usually starting to bloom by now, are just barely experiencing bud swell. It’s possible for a garden to overcome a late spring to some extent simply by planting items that take less time to develop. However, fruit trees are another matter. Growing fruit requires a certain amount of time and you can’t easily change the trees you have from year-to-year based on the probable weather. The hard winter is supposed to provide us with a better fruit crop this year by killing a broader range of harmful bugs, but the helpful effects of the hard winter may be subdued by the late spring. Late flowering means that fewer fruits will mature to a full size and that trees may drop more fruit should the summer become hot.

The one thing that isn’t really affected by the late spring are the herbs. Because herbs typically have a short growing cycle, a late spring isn’t as big of a problem. The only herb that might be affected is the lovage, which may not have time to go to seed (a real loss for us since the plant doesn’t produce enough seeds to hold over for multiple years).

It’ll be interesting to see how this summer turns out and what we get in the way of crops. Every year provides surprises, but the weather this year may provide more than most. How do you overcome the oddities of weather in your garden and orchard? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Late Snow

Early spring is the time for snow. However, it’s not just any snow. The snow in spring can be magical at times. It drapes itself onto the trees and other plants in ways that reveal new ways to look at the mundane. The trees and other plants take on a new appearance.

We recently had a spring snow and I took a few pictures of it. For example, here’s one of my favorite trees viewed in a new way.

A honey locust tree draped with snow.

Everywhere I looked, the snow had done amazing things to the landscape. Even our orchard looks magnificent with its coating of perfectly white snow. (This is a view of our apple orchard from the house.)

Maples and an apple orchard (background) draped with snow.

The woods can be exceptionally pretty. They take on a mystical appearance. Paths all but disappear, but are still visible when you look closely enough.

A group of trees in the woods draped with snow.

Of course, my favorite thing about springtime snows is that you get to enjoy all this beauty without any of the usual shoveling. The spring weather dictates that the snow melts sooner, than later. Anytime I get a beautiful scene from nature without any work on my part, I’m overjoyed. What is your favorite thing about springtime snows? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Waiting for Spring Weather

As I write this post, it’s a balmy 17 degrees outside my window (a mere 3 degrees with the wind chill). It’s definitely not tree pruning weather. At least, it isn’t comfortable tree pruning weather. Of course, that’s the problem of spring—trying to find time to get the pruning done in weather that doesn’t promise frostbite (at least, not immediately). There is always a race that occurs. On the one hand, you have trees that are on the verge of waking up and you need to prune them before that happens. On the other hand, you have old man winter sticking around just long enough to make life difficult.

Trying to figure out the best time is made even more difficult by the weather conditions. It pays to have some sunlight when you prune so that you can see bug infestations on the trees and pick them off. For example, this is the time of year you want to find the egg clusters of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar. However, you don’t want full sun either. For the most part, you’re looking up into the trees to see where to prune next. If the sun is constantly in your eyes, you may not prune the tree correctly (not removing enough or removing too much). So, finding a partly cloudy day when the temperatures aren’t too extreme during the most perverse weather of the year can prove difficult, if not impossible. All this also assumes you can drop everything else to do the pruning.

Generally, I find that the perfect weather is nearly unattainable and settle for something that works. A little too warm is better than not warm enough, but I also have my handy wood stove to warm up in front of should things get too cold. A little hot chocolate or broth goes a long way toward making less that perfect weather endurable. Truth be known, pruning is normally a cold affair that’s enjoyable simply because the snow has abated and there is the promise of warmer weather to come.

Of course, what warms us most this time of year is the hope of spring. Even with the weather the way it is today, you see all the indicators that spring has arrived. My personal favorite is the birds; at least, until our Easter garden starts to bloom. What is your personal favorite indicator of spring? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Replacing Salt and Sugar with Herbs, Spices, Color, and Texture

A lot of books and articles you read talk about giving up salt and sugar in order to maintain good health and ultimately save money in the form of reduced medical expenses. The whole problem with the approach that is taken most often is that people end up with boring, bland food that a normal person wouldn’t feed to anyone. If you really want to make positive changes in your diet, then you need to do something positive. The excessive salt and sugar in many people’s diets today are viewed as a negative by the medical community—simply telling someone to reduce their intake won’t have an effect because it’s a negative request. What the emphasis should be on is to replace sugar and salt with something positive. Making meals an explosion of the senses so that the salt and sugar aren’t even missed is key.

Herbs and spices are your first line of defense against excessive salt and sugar use. For example, adding four parts cinnamon, two parts nutmeg, and one part cloves at a level you can just barely taste to meats will allow you to reduce your salt usage on that food by at least half, if not more. Give it a try and you’ll find that you enjoy your meat a great deal more. Another good combination is a mix of 3 parts garlic, two parts rosemary, two parts ground ginger, and one part orange peel. This mix works especially well on white meats. Don’t overdo it—a little goes a long way. Try increasing the amount of the mixture until you can just taste it and then cut the salt dramatically (by half is a good starting point). When working with herbs and spices, the idea is to provide your nose and mouth with something interesting that will maintain your attention throughout the meal.

Some herb and spice combinations require a heavier touch. For example, when using a mix of rosemary, sage, and thyme on chicken, you want to add enough to really season the meat. A mix of paprika and garlic on pork should be somewhat heavy. Everyone has different tastes (and it would be a really dull world if we didn’t). Experiment with various combinations to see what meets your needs best. The point is to provide your mouth and nose with something interesting and stimulating.

While you tantalize your taste-buds and waft through a sea of smells, you should also give your eyes something that appeals to them. Color is essential in meals. Meat and potato combinations are blah—you have to salt them just to get rid of the sad look of such a meal. A better choice is to have a small amount of meat and possibly potato (try substituting brown or wild rice for potatoes whenever possible), but to also have some reds, greens, oranges, blues, and purples in there. For example, purple cabbage is a great addition to a meal because it has a wonderful color that doesn’t cook out and an amazing taste. There are also useful staples to a meal such as corn, carrots, green beans, and peas. Try supplementing these staples with kohlrabi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and Swiss chard (to mention just a few). The Swiss chard actually comes in a number of beautiful colors. Make your meals a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach and you’ll find that you need both less sugar and less salt to satisfy.

Most people have probably read about the use of herbs, spices, and color to make meals more interesting, but the one factor that is left out most often is texture. The simple addition of mushrooms or nuts to a meal can make the entire experience of chewing so much better. These items also add flavors and smells all their own. However, the use of texture also affects the eyes and even the sense of touch. Your hands will become involved in the eating process because forking up green beans alone is much different than forking up green beans garnished with sliced almonds or mixed with mushrooms. In some cases, even hearing becomes involved, especially when you add crunch to the collection of textures. Corn mixed with colorful sweet peppers is so much better than corn alone. Rice with walnuts and raisins tastes a whole lot better than just plain rice.

The bottom line is that you really shouldn’t be giving anything up—you should be replacing just two negatives (salt and sugar) in your diet with a whole host of positives. Over the past six weeks we’ve managed to get by without adding any sugar or salt to our diet. At this point, we don’t even notice that they’re missing. In fact, some foods simply seem too salty or sweet to enjoy at this point. Give it a try and let me know your thoughts about replacing the negative items in your diet at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Taking Inventory of the Larder

There is fresh fallen snow outside my window as I write this and more on the way. In fact, it doesn’t look like gardening season out there at all. It’s a bit past the middle of winter, but spring is a long way off. However, this is the time of the year that Rebecca and I start thinking about the garden—mainly because our mailbox is bristling with seed catalogs. Of course, the seed catalogs end up in the house and we now have stacks of them in the living room, dining room, family room, bathroom, and even in our bedroom. We could possibly start our own catalog company by simply redistributing all the catalogs that are coming from various seed companies in the mail.

Inside each catalog we see beautiful presentations of various vegetables and fruits. Given the time of year and the fact that our root cellar is becoming a bit empty, the idea of having fresh vegetables is quite appealing. Yes, canned and frozen foods will keep us quite happy and well fed, but there is nothing like picking that first asparagus spear (the first vegetable of the season) and preparing it for dinner. So, gazing fondly at the vegetables in the catalogs becomes the stuff of dreams for the upcoming season.

However, before we can order anything, we need to know what the larder lacks. This means doing an inventory. Doing an inventory is no small undertaking. If we simply needed to create a list of items to grow, the inventory would be simple enough, but that’s not the end (nor even the beginning) of the task.

As part of the inventory, we take down every jar, examine it for potential problems (such as a broken seal or rust on the lid that will eventually result in a broken seal). After that, we wash and dry the jar (remarking it if necessary). The jars are then repacked to ensure that the oldest stock is in the front. What all this work accomplishes is to ensure that what is on the shelf is actually edible and usable. The shelves can become disorganized during the winter months, so it’s essential to reorganize them so that any count we perform is accurate.

During the process of working with the jars, we’ll begin to notice that some items are lacking. For example, this year we noted that there aren’t any beets left—not even the pickled variety (a favorite of mine). The pickled okra is also gone. However, we have a surprisingly strong supply of corn in various sized jars (for specific needs), so we probably won’t grow corn this year. I also found several jars of a wonderful blueberry compote Rebecca made for me. I had thought them gone when they were simply hiding behind some dill pickles.

A well-stocked larder is a wonderful thing. You can go to bed at night knowing that you won’t go hungry—something far too many people in the world can’t say. It also provides you with high quality food of precisely the type you want. However, in order to maintain the larder, you must inventory it at least once a year (twice is better) and make sure that what you think you have is actually what you do have. Let me know if you have any questions about the inventory process at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.