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.

 

Preparing for Planting

It may seem a bit odd to talk about planting in the middle of winter, but this is actually the time that many avid gardeners, especially those interested in self-sufficiency, begin to think about the planting season. Of course, the planning process starts in the larder. Even though there is a catalog in your hand at the moment, the catalog doesn’t do any good until you know what to order and your larder contains that information.

As part of the preparation process, you should go through the larder, ensure all of the oldest items are in the front of the shelves, verify that all of the jars are still sealed, and wash the jars to keep them clean. Make sure all of the jars are properly marked with both food type and year canned as well. The process of organizing your larder and keeping it clean is important because doing so will make it a lot easier to determine what to plant. Once you complete this task, you can perform an inventory to determine what items are in short supply. These are the items that you need to order from the catalog.

Sometimes you can use your larder as a jumping off point for dreams of things you’d like to try in the future. For example, until last year, our larder lacked pickled asparagus—now I wouldn’t be without it. However, before we could pickle the asparagus, we had to grow enough to make the effort worthwhile, which meant planting more asparagus and waiting several years for it to get old enough to produce a decent crop. Yes, the larder was the start of our dream and the catalog provided us with ideas on how to achieve our dream, but in the end, the realization of our dream happened in the garden and in the kitchen.

Our larder also holds our canning supplies and equipment. This is the time of the year when you should perform an inventory of these items as well and ensure they’re in good shape. For example, the seal and pressure relief value on your pressure canner requires regular replacement—we simply make it a practice to replace these items before the start of the canning season because doing so is inexpensive and reduces the risk of mishap in the kitchen later. No matter where you store your canning supplies and equipment, now is the time to maintain them.

Writing your needs down as you discover them is a great idea. Check out the various catalogs you receive starting this time of year to determine which products will best suit your needs. It’s unlikely that you’ll completely fill your garden with just the items you need from the larder. The catalog will also supply ideas for new items you can try. Sometimes we try a new variety of vegetable or fruit just to see how it grows in this climate. Over the years we’ve discovered some items that grow exceptionally well for us (and also experienced more than a few failures).

Don’t just address your main garden, however. It’s also time to check into herbs and address any deficiencies in the orchard. This is the time for planning. Trying to figure everything out later, when you’re already engaged in preparing the garden, will prove difficult and you’ll make more mistakes than usual if you wait.

It’s also important to start ordering as soon as you know what you need. The catalog companies won’t send you product until it’s time to plant. However, they do use a first come, first served policy. Other gardeners are already order products. If you wait, you may not get your first choice of items and may have to reorder later.

Planning is an essential part of a successful year in the garden and orchard. However, I also enjoy starting the planning process this time of the year because it makes winter seem a little less severe. A little spring in winter is like a breath of fresh air. What sorts of things do you do to prepare for spring? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Engaging in the Fall Cleanup

For many people, fall is a time when they cut the grass the last time, take their car to the mechanic for winterization, check for air leaks in the windows, and ensure the furnace will run. These common chores affect anyone involved in self-sufficiency as well. For example, you still need to get your car ready—assuming you have one.

However, fall cleanup requires a lot more from anyone engaged in self-sufficiency because there are more facets to their environment. For example, fall is the time when you need to ensure your animal cages are completely cleaned. (Yes, you also clean them at other times, but fall is when you take everything apart and really clean it up.) If some of your animals are outdoors, you need to ensure they’ll have sufficient cover for the winter months. For us, that means scrubbing down every one of the rabbit hutches and letting them dry before we put a rabbit back inside. In addition, we add any manure under the cages to the compost heap. The chicken coop needs to be cleaned completely, the old hay replaced, and the windows closed. I also make sure I wash the window so the chickens can see out. It turns out that chickens like a nice view too.

Of course, you take the garden down after picking any remaining goodies and plant your winter rye to prevent erosion. The fall is a good time to look for potential soil issues and possibly get a soil test so that you know how to deal with problems the following spring. Likewise, your herb and flower gardens require attention so that any perennial plants will make it through the winter. However, don’t put mulch on immediately. Wait until the garden is frozen and then put the mulch on. Doing so will ensure that the plants are properly prepared for the winter.

You may not have thought of it, but all of your equipment has taken a beating during the summer months, including all of the equipment used for canning. This is a good time to scrub your pots and pans up and ensure they’re in good shape before you put them up. Make sure your pressure canner receives particular attention. Check to see if the gasket is in good shape, along with the rubber plug used for emergency pressure relief. Your stove will need a thorough cleaning and may require maintenance as well. Make sure everything is put away correctly so that you don’t have to waste a lot of time trying to find it in the late spring when you begin using it again.

Don’t think you’re finished yet. Now is the time to start walking the grounds looking for problems in your orchard. For example, it’s relatively easy to find pests that hide on trees during this time of the year. Make sure you check trees for problems associated with stress. For example, pear trees are prone to crack at the joints. You might need to mark some areas for special pruning in the spring. If a problem seems especially serious, you may want to address it now, rather than later.

Being self-sufficient means ending as well as you began. During the spring there is an excitement that builds that makes it easy to prepare for the new gardening season, but by the end of the season, all you really want to do is flop down in front of the wood stove. The time you take to prepare now will pay significant dividends in the spring. Let me know about your fall preparations at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Delicious Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote The Wonders of Queen Anne’s Lace. In that particular post, I provide a recipe for making a delicious jelly from the flower. This year’s jelly is the best Rebecca has ever made. The flowers were plentiful and extremely fragrant this year. In fact, the wildflowers as a whole were amazing this year. Something about the cool wet spring and odd summer weather caused the wildflowers to grow in such profusion that every trip to town was a joy (I just wish I had thought to stop along they way and take some pictures—such is the problem with missed opportunity). The difference was so incredible that the road department actually held off mowing the shoulders just so people would be able to enjoy the flowers longer (the shoulders have since been mowed in the interest of public safety). Wisconsin’s rustic roads received quite a workout as people enjoyed the splendor.

In thinking about my post earlier this week about every year being a good and a bad year at the same time, the profusion of wildflowers this year is definitely a good thing. However, it also brings to mind an issue that everyone needs to consider when using herbs of any sort (including Queen Anne’s Lace). The difference in potency this year is striking. Just sticking my nose into the bag I used to collect the flowers this year was overwhelming and you can definitely taste the difference in the resulting jelly. Herbal potency varies year-by-year and also location-by-location (it also varies according to the age of the plant, the part of the plant used, and a number of other factors). It’s important to consider the strength of the herbs you collect when you use whole herbs as we do. We don’t use herbs for medicinal purposes (an exception is comfrey, which I do use for foot baths and on sore muscles), but we do use them in cooking where a difference in potency can be quite noticeable and sometimes unwelcome when the result is unbalanced. In short, you need to take potency into consideration when picking and using herbs.

Some people try to overcome these differences by using a standardized herbal extract. A standardized extract contains a specific amount of the active ingredients in a particular herb. You can depend on the herb extract acting in a certain way. However, the equipment needed to create a standardized herbal extract is well beyond the means of most enthusiasts working in smaller herb gardens. In addition, there is some discussion that standardized herbal extracts leave out valuable, but less researched, components that are also useful and helpful. In short, when you buy a standardized herbal extract, you might not get everything the plant has to offer.

In looking at the beautiful jars of Queen Anne’s Lace jelly now adorning our larder shelves, I know I’ll enjoy a bit of summer this winter every time I have a bit of it on my toast. Sometimes the wonder of herbs comes from enjoying them just as they are. Even so, the smart gardener does keep potency in mind. Marking jars with perceived strength is a good idea, especially when cooking with a particular herb could lead to a resulting imbalance in the taste your food. Let me know your thoughts on herbal potency at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Really Wet Spring

It doesn’t seem possible that I was complaining about drought last year, but I did (see Unexpected Drought Consequences for details). Our spring has been incredibly wet with rain coming every other day (or, more often, several days in a row). It has been so wet that even trying to cut the grass has been a chore. I finally resorted to using a hand mower and a weed whacker to do the job—the garden tractor was hopeless, it either lost traction and got stuck or the deck would become filled with grass and refuse to do anything more. At least we’re not flooding (yet).

Our main concern at the moment is that the garden still isn’t planted. Yes, it has gotten quite late and some items wouldn’t have a chance of producing anything at this point, but many other items will still produce something for us. The problem is trying to till the garden to loosen the soil. The other day I took out my spade to see how things were progressing. The soil in one part of the garden simply stuck together as a mud ball. Digging in another part showed water in the bottom of the hole. Obviously, any attempt to use the tiller will be futile until the garden dries out a little.

At least one reader has heard of our predicament (possibly being in the same state himself) and chided me about my comments regarding global warming. I stand by what I have said in the past—global warming is a reality. Global warming doesn’t necessarily mean things will be hot (although, the global average temperature is increasing a small amount each year). What it means is that we’ll see more extremes in weather, such as this year’s really cool and wet spring.

As with anything, I try to find the positives. I reported on one of those positives recently, our woods produced a bumper crop of mushrooms. Those mushrooms sell for $25.00 a pound if you can obtain them directly from someone who picks them. Morels are in high demand because they’re delicious. If you pick mushrooms to help augment your income, this is your year. We simply enjoyed them in some wonderful meat dishes, which is a treat considering we usually make do with the canned variety.

However, for us the biggest plus is that we’re going to be buried in fruit. The apples, cherries, plums, and pears have all produced bountifully this year. The trees are literally packed with fruit. I imagine that I’ll need to trim some of it off to keep the branches from breaking—an incredibly rare event. It has only happened once before in the 18 years we have lived here. So, for us, this year is the year we pack the larder with good fruit to eat, despite the fact that our garden will produce dismally.

Of course, we really do want a garden. At this point, my only option is to go out there and dig it up by hand and then smooth it over with a garden rake. I’ll this task right alongside of mowing the lawn using the weed whacker. We’re talking some heavy duty hours of some incredibly dirty work. Well, someone has to do it. At least I’m getting my exercise, which will help improve my health.

So how is your spring going and what do you expect from your garden this summer? Are your fruit trees literally bursting with fruit as mine are? Let me know what is happening with your orchard and garden at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Winter Cactus Color

One of the issues that we face living where we do is the bleakness of winter. Yes, it’s just lovely sitting in front of the wood stove soaking in the heat, but the short days and gray skies do take a toll after a while. Even the heartiest of us feels a certain yearning for summer months of long days and warmer climes. However, I personally wouldn’t be without winter because there is too much to see and overall, it’s a pleasant season despite the occasional bout of depression.

Fortunately, there are many ways to combat the fatigue that comes with extended cold and short days. One of the ways in which we do this is to have lots of plants in our home. My office has more than a few. I personally like cactus. They’re easy to care for, have interesting foliage, and the cats definitely don’t like to eat them. A favorite cactus of mine is the Mistletoe Cactus. The foliage really is interesting and it just looks fun. Imagine my surprise when it bloomed for the first time after I owned it for 16 years. It has bloomed again this year, much to my delight.

Cactus

The interesting thing about my mistletoe cactus is that the blooms are bright yellow, not white like many pictures you see of them. According to the source I read, there are actually 35 varieties of this delightful plant that produce blossoms in white, red, pink, and yes, even yellow. The flowers look almost like they’re made of plastic and it was quite tough to get the picture you see in my post today.

House plants of any sort can help lift your mood. If you find that you have a terrible case of the winter blahs, try getting a flowering plant to care for. A truly interesting plant can take your mind off the weather and can prove to be quite fun. I’ve had this particular plant for over 20 years now and I’ve heard of people who have had theirs for 40 or more years, so I imagine I’ll see it bloom a few more times. What are your favorite winter plants? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Loving that Lovage!

This is the time of year when our lovage plant soars and develops seed heads (ours is about 6 feet tall this year). We use the stems and leaves in place of celery. The celery taste is quite strong, so you use less lovage than you do celery in a soup or salad. Even though you can use every part of the plant, we only use the seeds, leaves, and stems. Because the celery taste is so strong and the lovage cell walls don’t lose the volatile oils that give it its taste easily, you can dry lovage and use it as an herb all winter long.

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You don’t use all of the stems on the plant. The larger stems that form the stalks for the seeds are tough. What you want to dry are the tender stems and the leaves, especially those near the bottom of the plant (shown here with our rabbit gardener).

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The plant gets so tall that the wind tends to knock it over before the seeds mature. To overcome this problem, we place the plant in a tomato cage. You can just barely see the tomato cage peaking out in this picture. Even with the tomato cage in place, a really strong wind can still knock the plant over, ruining the seeds.

One of the things that most people don’t realize is that when you buy celery seed in the store, what you’re actually getting is lovage seed. The seeds have a strong celery taste and are used in a many of ways (none of which we’ve ever tried). One of the uses that we’ve thought about is creating dye from a tincture of the seeds. A number of sources say that you can create both permanent red and blue dyes using lovage seed, which would make it quite versatile indeed. The lovage flowers are quite pretty and the bees seem to love them.

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Lovage is a perennial and it’s nearly impossible to kill. It even survives Wisconsin winters without a problem. Every spring the lovage plant comes back up. The plant will continue to grow in circumference year-by-year. Eventually, you can break the plant apart into sections and propagate it much as you would rhubarb.

Unlike mint, lovage won’t run amok in your garden. It stays put. So you don’t need to worry about growing it in a container or digging out invasive chunks of it each year. Lovage is extremely long lived. This particular plant is 15 years old and shows no sign of giving up yet (it gets stronger year-by-year, in fact). We planted it in a location that gets full sun from around early morning (but not at sunrise) to early evening.

Have you ever tried lovage? If so, how do you use it? If not, I highly recommend this herb for everyone who likes the taste of celery. Let me know your thoughts about lovage at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Enjoying My Own Personal Flower Garden

Every year Rebecca works out a new arrangement and adds plants to her gift to me, a personal flower garden. Every morning I wake to the scene below our bedroom window of Rebecca’s hard work. I know it’s an effort because getting into that rock garden is hard. It’s on a slope that’s taxing even for me; I can’t even imagine how hard Rebecca must have to work to maintain it for me. I talked about my garden a little last year in the Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work post.

One of Rebecca’s goals is to make sure that something is always blooming in my rock garden. It’s a little difficult to accomplish, but I know that people in the past performed the same task to ensure that there would always be something pretty to see. I really respect her efforts to make the garden as pretty as possible and to keep it that way all summer. So, the pictures you see in this post are a mere snapshot of my rock garden. Later in the summer, the scene will change and then it will change again for fall.

A favorite new plant is a pincushion flower. The exquisite blue flowers are really hard to capture, but I managed to get a passable picture of them. The real world flower is even more beautiful than the one shown here.

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One of the flowers that came back from last year is the blanket flower. It’s a favorite of mine because the colors change slightly over time and I love the fact that the flowers are bi-colored. This year the blanket flower is paired up with fiber-optic grass. As you can see from the following picture, the combination is really nice.

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A few of the rock garden elements are edible. For example, the chives have some beautiful flowers that are also edible (as are the chives). I’ve always found chives to be a nice addition because they combine color and texture so well.

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Some of the flowers are quite bright. One of the flowers in this category is the coreopsis. Rebecca has them placed where their profusion of bright flowers will show up best. This is another holdover from last year. Immediately below the coreopsis in this picture is bugleweed ‘metallica crispa’, which has already bloomed for the year, but will continue to add its deeply colored foliage to the garden.

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Most of the pictures that I’ve found of wild strawberries online show white flowers. I’ve been assured that the plants in the rock garden are wild strawberries, but they have these dramatic pink flowers. As with many other plants, they’ve come up from last year.

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Another bright pink flower in the garden is seathrift (armeria). This year the seathrift is nestled in with some ferns and a happy looking frog.

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As I said last year, the view from our bedroom is for me alone. When I go out my back door though, I see some amazing beauty—the rock garden, our herb garden, the woods, and bushes surrounding our patio. Most importantly, I see the love my wife has for me in producing something so quiet and peaceful for me to enjoy.

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Get Ready…Get Set…Garden!

Every year Rebecca and I go to a special educational event called Get Ready…Get Set…Garden! In fact, I reported on it in my Ongoing Education post last year. We both feel that ongoing education is a gardener’s best friend. Otherwise, you don’t learn new ways of doing things that could save time or effort. For that matter, new techniques often help you produce food that is more nutritious or lasts longer in storage. Sometimes, the education is just fun (as it was for the hosta course we took last year), but this year was all business.

This year was supposed to start with a session entitled Growing Small Fruits. We’re having a few problems with our blueberries and I had hoped to ask the instructor some questions about them. It turned out that the instructor never showed up. Instead, we received a master gardener short course called, “Vegetables A to Z.” A lot of the information was already familiar to us, but we picked up some tidbits of information. I especially appreciated some bug management tips for our zucchini and confirmation that the technique we use to plant asparagus is still correct (see Planting Asparagus – Part 1 and Planting Asparagus – Part 2). It turns out that we may not actually be planting our peas early enough and the winter planting of spinach should work better than it did for us (more on that later). The poor woman was roped into giving the impromptu speech, so I could hardly fault her for any flaws in presentation. Still, it’s wasn’t the usual smooth presentation and her persistent cough made things less enjoyable for everyone. Overall, we did get our money’s worth, but didn’t receive the information we really wanted.

The next session was phenomenal. It was a short course entitled, “Native Prairie Flowers and Grasses.” As a result of that course, I plan to obtain some native plant seeds and redo our septic mound. In fact, I have several really good reasons for undertaking the project now:

 


  • The mound will be less inclined to get wet because the native plants will use up the excess water more efficiently.

  • The flowers will attract helpful insects such as bees to pollinate our vegetables and fruits and parasitic wasps to deal with some of the bugs on our plants.

  • Our mound is impossible to mow in some areas due to the incline and ruggedness of the terrain—using the native plants makes mowing unnecessary.
  • Using native plants will reduce the eyesore factor of the septic system as it currently exists.


The only problem with this particular session is that the instructor had way too much information to give us in a single session. He should have requested a double session. I certainly would have paid extra for the valuable information I received. As it was, the instructor was most definitely rushed and I’ll have to refer to the handout he provided for some information regarding my septic system upgrade.

The third session, Dehydrating Fruits and Vegetables was more pertinent to Rebecca since she does all of the dehydrating in our house (I help, but she’s the one doing most of the work). I do know that she received some valuable information, such as how to preserve the color of her herbs a bit better. I may eventually write a post about the things she has learned after she has had a chance to actually try them to see whether they work. I was able to brag on my wife a bit—Rebecca always makes me wonderful dehydrated snacks for the winter and spring months and I was able to share her approach with the rest of the class.

We had a wonderful time. No, I really shouldn’t have taken the day off, but it’s the only day of the year when we get this kind of educational opportunity and I really couldn’t pass it up either. It’s essential that you do take time to educate yourself. Feeding your mind is a critical part of the human experience and you’ll be a better person if you do it. Let me know if you have any insights into any of the topics covered by our latest educational experience at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Enjoying the Spring Flowers

Spring has come incredibly early to Wisconsin this year. I’m amazed at just how fast everything has budded and flowered. We’ll actually make it to Easter this year after my spring flowers have blossomed and reached their peak. Given that we’re hustling to fit everything in, I haven’t taken a lot of spring flower pictures, but here are a few showing my tulips, daffodils, and grape hyacinth (amongst others).

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The flowers that appeal the most this spring are the grape hyacinth, which are especially fragrant for some reason. The odor is downright overpowering at times. It must be the unusually high temperatures that we’ve been experiencing. Interestingly enough, our crocus came up, bloomed, and are already gone for the season.

We have a number of different varieties of daffodils. A favorite of mine this year have white petals with yellow insides:

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They look incredibly happy. Of course, the plum trees are blooming as well. This year they’re just loaded with blooms.

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I’m just hoping at this point that we actually get to keep some of the fruit. Wouldn’t you know it, the trees just start blooming well and the weatherman has to ruin everything with a prediction of frost. Our weather hasn’t been quite as nice the last few days as it was earlier in the month. That’s part of the problem with an early spring—the trees start blooming early, which exposes them to a greater risk of frost.

Fortunately, the pear trees are just starting to get ready to bloom. The buds have started to burst open a little, but they’re still closed enough that a light frost won’t hurt them.

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The apples aren’t even as far along as the pears, so there aren’t any worries with them. I really do hope my plums survive the night. A frost would probably ruin our harvest at this point. It doesn’t pay to worry. The weather will do what the weather will do whether I worry or not, so it’s best just to let things go the way they will. Every year brings it’s own special set of challenges.

So, are you experiencing an early spring this year? If so, what sorts of challenges are you facing? How do you plan to use the early spring to your advantage? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.