Making Dehydrated Chips

Rebecca dehydrates several kinds of chips for us to eat during the winter months. I talked about the technique used to create zucchini chips in the Making Use of Those Oversized Zucchinis post. The techniques in that post also work well for vegetables such as eggplant, which has a slight peppery taste when dehydrated. We have found that the American (globe) and Italian eggplants work best for the purpose—the thinner varieties, such as the Japanese eggplant, tend to get tough. There are a lot of different kinds of eggplants, so make sure you choose a variety that will dehydrate well.

Along with eggplant, Rebecca has made dehydrated potato chips for us and I’m sure will try other vegetables as time permits. The same technique used for zucchinis works just find for any globular vegetable that has a moderate level of moisture. You want to be sure that the chips are crispy dry when finished to ensure they have the maximum storage time and have a satisfying crisp feel when chewed. Try to get the chips as evenly sliced as possible. Rebecca used a mandoline for the purpose. I particularly like the Kitchenaid model that she has because it includes a guard to keep her fingers safe and some attachments for additional cutting methods, such as julienne.

It’s also possible to make fruit chips. For example, if you use an apple peeler, you can create spiral cut apples. Cut through the spiral (top to bottom) and you end up with individual apple slices that you can dry as chips. The basic technique for drying apples is the same as zucchini, but there are a few things to consider.

Rebecca dehydrates apples using two flavorings. Of course, the sugar cinnamon combination is a must have selection. Last year she tried using cheese powder on some apples and we liked it so much that it has become the second favorite. The cheese powder makes the apple chips taste like an apple pie with a slice of cheddar on it. In both cases, you must alter the zucchini technique a little to obtain usable results.

The first difference is that you absolutely can’t use a dehydrator with the motor on the bottom. The fruit chips will produce copious amounts of liquid that will get into the motor and cause the premature death of your dehydrator. When drying apples and other fruit, use only a dehydrator with a top mounted motor so that the liquid won’t cause problems. In fact, we highly recommend placing the entire dehydrator on a tray, just to make sure that any liquid that leaks out doesn’t make a mess.

The second difference is that you don’t dip the chips as you might do with vegetable chips. Dust the top of the fruit with the flavoring of your choice. Using this approach makes the resulting product more enjoyable because it isn’t overly sweet (or sometimes bitter). It also reduces the amount of liquid the chips produce as they dry. You get just as much flavor by lightly dusting the top as you would by dipping the fruit, but at a significantly reduced cost. When the fruit produces copious liquid, the extra flavoring you used ends up in the tray anyway, so there is no point in overindulging.

The third difference is that fruit chips tend to a be little flexible when completely dry. They won’t dry crispy like vegetable chips will. Think more along the lines of dried fruit or a fruit leather. So far we haven’t noticed any difference in longevity. The fruit chips will most definitely last a year when kept in an appropriate container.

A number of people have asked how we store our chips to keep them fresh. We use five-gallon-food-grade-buckets with tear tab lids. Make absolutely certain you use food grade buckets because buckets made with other sorts of plastic could contaminate your food. These are the same buckets used by your local restaurant for everything from pickles to potato salad. In order to get the lids off, you must have a bucket lid wrench. Trying to get the lid off otherwise will be difficult to say the least. Even with the wrench, you must work carefully around the lid top to get it off. These buckets seal extremely tight and they provide great storage even in a basement or other less than ideal setting.

Dehydrated food in the form of chips makes for ready, delicious, and nutritious snacks. None of our chips has the slightest amount of oil or preservatives in them. We’ve tested this technique for up to two years with great results. The two biggest considerations are that you must make absolutely certain that the chips are completely dry and that you seal them in an airtight container, such as the five-gallon-buckets we use. Using this approach is also good for the planet because you don’t use any electricity to keep the food usable. Once the food is dehydrated, you simply open the bucket, grab what you want, and eat.

What sorts of vegetables and fruits do you think you might try to store using this approach? Is this an approach that you find appealing? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Harvest Festival 2012

Last year I told you about some of the things we do for Harvest Festival in Fun is Where You Find It! (Part 3) post. Of course, every year has some similarities. There is the special music and it wouldn’t be Harvest Festival without a few games. Apple cider is always part of our celebration, along with plenty of samples from the garden. Our “kids” (the animals we keep as pets) always play a big role in Harvest Festival too.

As with everything else, this year’s Harvest Festival is a bit different. For one thing, our fruit trees didn’t produce anything. Things started off badly with an early spring that saw the trees bloom well before they should have. A late frost killed off a lot of the blossoms before the pollinators were even out to pollinate them. After that, some heavy winds knocked off a few more blooms. The fruit that did manage to set was killed off during this summer’s drought (we couldn’t even attempt to water all our trees). The result is that we ended up buying two bushels of apples so that Rebecca could make me some apple chips. I know that buying the apples by the bushel was a lot less expensive than buying them in the store, but even so, I wish we hadn’t had to do so.

Nothing goes to waste when we work with items from the garden. Of course, I use one of the apple peelers that produce the really long strands of apple peels. This year is the first time that we’ve had laying hens, so I was curious to see what they would make of the apple peels. They didn’t disappoint. One hen would grab an end of a peel and fly up to the nest box, while another would grab the other end to try and get the peel from the first hen. The two would then play this silly looking game of tug of war, even though there were lots of peels in the dishes. Both chickens just insisted that they really must have that single peel. By the time the chickens had played with the peels for a while, we had apples strung between the windows, rafters, nest box, and the dishes. It looked like some sort of crazy spider web created by a demented spider. By morning, all of the apple peels were gone, which also surprised me considering I had peeled 30 apples to get them. The chickens certainly like fresh fruit.

We don’t just process fruit during Harvest Festival. Our friends offered us some tomatoes and we gratefully accepted them considering our own tomatoes have had an anemic output this year. Rebecca turned the first bushel into salsa, catchup, and a canned salad. We hope to get two additional bushels for juice, whole canned tomatoes, and a bit for wine making. A lot of people enjoy my tomato wine.

It looks like this is going to be a stellar squash year. We have squash vines growing everywhere. Normally, the vines stay within the 40′ × 60′ area as long as we redirect them a bit. This year we have vines trying to grow into the grass and along the rows. There is a squash plant vying for space in one of the tomato cages and slowly edging the tomato out. I saw one trying to grow up the side of an eggplant and another is heading toward our okra. A vine that might normally produce three really nice squash has produced five, six, or possibly more (it’s such a mess out there that I’m having a hard time counting them all). Rebecca has also made all of the zucchini chips we need for the year. (See the Making Use of Those Oversized Zucchinis post for details.)

As I’ve always said, there is something interesting going on with each year. We never get bored here. One of the rewards of being self-sufficient is that you do see the changes wrought by the weather. What do you find exciting about the fall months of the year? Let me know 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).

SpringFlowers01

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:

SpringFlowers02

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

SpringFlowers03

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.

SpringFlowers04

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.

 

Trimming the Trees (Part 3)

In Trimming the Trees (Part 2) I discussed some of the specifics of pruning trees. At this point, my trees are all pruned. However, there is still work to be done. For one thing, this is the time of year when I examine the trees for egg masses of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar. Despite what you may have heard, repeated infestations will definitely kill a fruit tree, especially if the infestation is severe enough. It only makes sense. If you remove all of the leaves from a tree that only gets one set of leaves per season, the tree can’t store energy for the winter months.

Our experience has been that they’re a nuisance with apple trees. Yes, the tent caterpillars will cause a problem, but if you get in there and squish all of the caterpillars in the tent (or better yet, get rid of those egg masses in the spring), the apple hardly notices. However, plum trees seem to attract tent caterpillars like magnets. All four of our plum trees were in danger from dying at one point because we simply couldn’t keep the caterpillars under control.

We did try a number of sprays—all of which proved ineffective. Spaying the trees with a dormant oil spray in the spring helps only a little. By far the best strategy is to hunt down the egg clusters and destroy them. The secondary strategy is to look for the tents absolutely every day in the spring and summer after the trees have leafed out and destroy them by individually squishing the caterpillars by hand. We actually had two of our plum trees stripped of leaves in a single day by these pests.

While we’re looking for tent caterpillar egg clusters, we also look for other problems in the trees, such as disease, insect infestations, and so on. It’s easier to find problems after you’ve pruned the trees and there are fewer branches to check. Taking time now to check the trees will save you a lot of effort later.

Of course, now we have a pile of branches to deal with. This year we pruned our pear trees heavily because they’ve become a little overgrown. If pear trees get too overgrown, they’ll tend to prune themselves in heavy winds—usually not in a way you would have chosen. The pile of branches from all of our trees is quite high this year.

TreeTrimming0301

We’ll put all of these branches through the chipper and then use them for mulch. A lot of people would probably burn the branches up, but using them for mulch does save at least some money. I’ve been trying to figure out the environmental balance in this case. On the one hand, burning the branches would produce a lot of particulate smoke that would pollute the air for at least a while. However, using the chipper also produces pollutants, and some of those pollutants are harsher on the environment than the smoke from burning would cause.

If we had burned the branches, I would have placed the pile in the middle of the garden. That way we could have plowed the ashes into the ground where they would have provided fertilizer on top of the winter rye you can see growing in the background of the picture. So, either way, the branches wouldn’t have gone to waste. However, we really need the mulch more than the ashes, so we’re creating the mulch.

Our orchard is ready for spring at this point. Let me know about your tree pruning and bug eradication experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Trimming the Trees (Part 2)

I’m starting to get down to the last few trees in the orchard (and I may not be able to get them because the sap is starting to run). When the pruning is light, I can get through all 33 of my trees in a couple of days—assuming I can work all day at it and the weather isn’t too cold (or hot). This year it’s taking a bit longer because I’ve had a number of personal issues that have kept me from working full days outside. Even so, I normally don’t get the trees finished until the end of March or beginning of April, so I’m getting done early this year. As mentioned in Trimming the Trees (Part 1), when to prune is a matter of much debate. Some people prune their trees in the fall, some in mid-winter, and some a bit earlier in the spring than I do.

Part of pruning your trees is knowing how to prune that particular tree. For example, I visualize an umbrella shape when trimming apples. In fact, a lot of home growers use this particular shape. An umbrella shape is quite strong and tends to ensure a good harvest. In addition, the umbrella shape is easier to pick. Commercial orchards use a variety of other shapes, some of which work best when the pickers are working from the back of flatbed trucks. Some people tie down water sprouts to obtain the umbrella shape, which tends to stress the tree. I prefer to look for branches that are already heading in the right direction and trim off everything else. Water sprouts are branches that grow straight up from joints in the tree. You need to trim these off as they’ll never produce any fruit.

Our pears and cherries are dwarf trees with a strong central leader. When pruning these trees, I visualize a flame shape. The tree should be topped to keep it from growing too high. Yes, you’ll get fruit all the way up, but the problem is figuring out a way to pick it without damaging the tree. Keeping the tree down to between 14 feet and 16 feet high ensures that you can reach all of the fruit in fall. Water sprouts aren’t a problem with the central leader trimming technique. What you want to do is ensure that none of the branches are crossing and that the limbs aren’t overextended. Cherry trees require a significantly lighter hand than pears do. In fact, pear trees are quite forgiving when you over-prune them. Cherry trees are also stronger than pear trees. If you don’t trim your pear trees heavily enough, the limbs have a habit of breaking off at the crotch, especially in high winds.

Plum trees are just plain messy looking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that I would consider a beautifully shaped tree (at least, not one that produces fruit). Plum trees are normally trimmed using the open center approach. This technique relies on three or four branches attached to a main trunk. You don’t trim the tree heavily. In fact, unless there is some sort of problem with crossing branches or water sprouts, you don’t trim at all. Of all the trees, prunes are the least forgiving when it comes to over-pruning. They grow slowly, so taking off too much this year means paying for several years. Two of my prunes actually look more like a bushes than trees and I trim them quite carefully to keep them that way.

Some trees produce well every other year. My apples are this way. They’ll produce quite heavily one year and then take a vacation the next. With this in mind, I establish a pattern of trimming heavier on off years and lighter on production years. This way, I maximize the amount of fruit I get from the tree and still maintain it properly.

I haven’t personally tried my hand at growing anything more than apples, pears, plums, and cherries. However, the basic techniques I use likely apply to most fruit tree types. My next project is to try my hand at growing some nut trees. Hickory nuts and butternuts grow well in this area, so I’ll try them first. Unfortunately, we can’t grow English walnuts or you can be sure I’d be planting them. We can grow black walnuts, which work well in baked goods. The only technique I haven’t tried so far is the trellis technique of pruning for fruit trees. I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried it at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. In my last post (for now) on this topic, I plan to discuss some of the things you should look at on the tree while pruning.

 

Trimming the Trees (Part 1)

There are many different theories about trimming fruit trees. Talk to five orchards and you’ll likely hear five completely different tales of the precise technique that someone should use for trimming fruit trees. My own personal theory is to trim the trees later in the winter or early spring, before the sap begins to run, but after the majority of the hard winter weather is gone. The idea is to have fresh cuts to encourage growth, but also to let the cuts heal before the sap runs so that the tree won’t “bleed” from the trimming. Other people trim in the fall or at other times during the fall to winter season. One thing you never want to do is to trim your fruit trees after the sap begins to run because the tree will lose too many nutrients that way.

Rebecca normally does the majority of the lower cutting. It’s time consuming work because you have to decide just which twigs to cut. Every twig has the potential to bear fruit, so what you’re really doing is cutting off fruit before the tree even has a chance to produce flowers. We trim a little bit away from joints to help prevent disease as shown here:

TreeTrimming01

Rebecca prefers a ratcheted hand pruner. It helps amplify her hand strength so that trimming the tree isn’t quite so hard. In addition, you can generally prune larger branches using a ratcheted pruner than you can other hand pruner types. There are many different types of trimmers and you should choose the type that works best for you. I generally use an anvil-style hand pruner. It requires significantly greater hand strength to use, but in exchange, I get cleaner cuts, I can trim the tree faster, and the pruner itself wears longer. I strongly recommend against using bypass hand pruners on trees because the blades tend to bend and not produce a clean cut. A bypass pruner works much like a scissor and the tree branch can become wedged between the two blades.

In addition to hand pruners, your tree trimming kit should include a lopper, which is used to cut thicker branches. I highly recommend a long handled geared lopper because it will last longer, produce smoother cuts, and require less muscle to use. A good lopper will enable you to cut branches up to 2-1/2 inches in diameter in most cases. The idea is to use the lopper whenever possible because it produces a smooth cut that won’t bleed as much.

At some point, you’ll encounter branches that you can’t cut using a pruner or a lopper. In this case, you must resort to using a pruning saw. As with pruners and loppers, pruning saws come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. When working with fruit trees, you want to get a curved razor tooth saw so that the cuts are as smooth as possible and you have the fullest possible range of motion. Remember that when you cut with a saw, you start by making a counter cut on the opposite side of your final cut. Then you make the final cut. If you don’t provide a counter cut, the branch could break or the bark could end up peeled from the tree, inviting disease.

All of the tools mentioned so far will cut up to around five feet of the tree’s height, but even a short fruit tree is six or seven feet (most are more). In order to trim the rest of the tree, you need a tree pruner of the sort shown here:

TreeTrimming02

This particular tree pruner is 14 feet long. The pole telescopes so I can make it shorter or longer as needed. Believe me, the ability to adjust the length is essential. The longer the pole, the more strength required to hold it up. After a few hours of using this tool, your shoulders are guaranteed to ache. Unlike most tree pruners, this tree pruner relies on a chain for the clipper head, which means that it’s a lot less likely to become tangled in the branches or get twisted. The chain also reduces friction so you don’t use as much muscle to cut the branches.

The tree pruner also has a razor saw for cutting larger branches. You have to develop a technique for cutting the branches because when you get up this high, they tend to sway back and forth with the saw, rather than being cut by it. I find that moving my whole body in the correct rhythm (counter to the tree sway) does the trick.

If possible, get a fiberglass pole. Wooden poles tend to get heavy and can sometimes start getting weathered (making them splinter). This pole also includes a foam pad, which feels a lot more comfortable on the underarm when I’m cutting up higher than shown in the picture.

That’s the equipment needed for tree trimming: hand pruner, pruning saw, lopper, and tree pruner. To keep from spreading disease between trees, make sure you wipe your equipment down with alcohol after cutting a diseased tree (some people recommend after every tree). However, the alcohol rub will cause your equipment to rust. To keep that from happening, make sure you apply oil after the alcohol rub. Let me know if you have any questions or thoughts about equipment at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. I’ll continue this post next week with some insights into pruning techniques and things you should look for as you prune.

 

Fun is Where You Find It! (Part 3)

Anyone can create work, but it takes some effort to create fun at times. It wasn’t very long after we started becoming self-sufficient that I discovered there would be a time each year where I’d need to work full time at helping Rebecca preserve the food from our orchard and garden. Of course, most people turn such events into work. After all, you’re working relatively long hours lifting heavy things in high temperatures and humidity. This is coupled with the repetitive motions needed to peel fruit and mixed with a bit of boredom waiting for things to happen—at least, that’s what happens if you’re most people. We’ve turned the event into Harvest Festivala party of sorts that we have every year. It has turned into my second favorite week of the year, right behind Christmas week, which will always remain my favorite.

So, what makes this week so special? Well, it starts out with some special mugs and music. We use festive mugs during Harvest Festival that we don’t really use any other time of the year, except when we’re performing other food preservation tasks. In short, these mugs are special. The music is similarly special. Yes, we do listen to some of it at other times, but the collection as a whole is reserved for Harvest Festival. Rebecca also sets the mood with scented candles that give the house a warm feeling.

HarvestFestival01

There are also times where we’re waiting for something to happen. We could probably get other work done, but we’re already working pretty hard, so some fun is in order. Rebecca and I play an interesting sort of Backgammon called Acey-Ducey that I learned while in the Navy. It’s easy to learn and a lot of fun to play. The games are short, so you can play a number of them quickly. Because the game is a mix of skill and chance, no one has the corner on winning. Of course, we have to drink some apple cider while we’re playing.

HarvestFestival02

The festival begins by picking the fruit from our trees. In fact, the entire first day is spent outside at the fruit trees. Some of the fruit is quite high, so I have to use a fruit picker to get it.

HarvestFestival03

After the fruits and vegetables are in the house (or at least enough to get started), we’ll start processing it. Just how we accomplish that task depends on what we’re making at the time. Rebecca started this year with pear-sauce (think applesauce made with pears). We also made pear chunks, applesauce, apple chips, apple rings, apple jam, and a host of other fruit-related confections for the larder.

HarvestFestival04

Our “kids” get involved with Harvest Festival too. The dogs are especially fond of apple spaghetti, which is the long streamer of peel that comes off of the apple. Here’s Shelby enjoying some apple spaghetti.

HarvestFestival05

The kids are known to do all sorts of cute things during Harvest Festival. Sometimes they’ll sit with us; other times they’ll make strange noises or grab attention in some other way. Smucker decided that he was going to be extra cute to get snack from us.

HarvestFestival06

Bubba has decided that he really likes Reese’s kennel, which has Reese confused, but us laughing. We found Bubba in the kennel quite a few times during Harvest Festival.

HarvestFestival07

Because the stove is being used to process food, we don’t have any place to cook—at least, not in the house. I try to barbecue each day during Harvest Festival so we have special food as well. Normally, we don’t get any beef, but I decided to make some really thick and juicy burgers for us one day. There is also plenty of nibbling going on with all of the available fruit. Although we keep some fruit for fresh eating, I think we eat the most fresh fruit during Harvest Festival, which makes the week quite special for that reason alone.

The result of all our work is jar upon jar of food for the larder. One of my favorites this year is the pear chunks. Rebecca makes regular, minted, and spiced. They’re all different colors to make them easy to find on the shelves.

HarvestFestival08

This year we processed 500 pounds of fruit, 480 pounds of tomatoes, 72 pounds of chicken, too many zucchinis to count, and a variety of other items all in one week. The result is that our larder is looking pretty nice (this is just half of the shelveswe also have two freezers and dry storage areas).

HarvestFestival09

There is still more to process in the garden. The beans are drying at this point. We’ll also be digging potatoes soon. I’m sure the zucchinis will produce a little more and the winter squash needs to be picked. However, Harvest Festival is our big push for the season and we have a lot of fun getting the food from our gardens and orchards to the larder. If you’re planning on a self-sufficient lifestyle, you’ll probably find a similar need for a “big push” week at some point during the season, depending on what you grow. Let me know if you have any question at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Protecting Your Investment

Many people disregard the benefit of having good working animals. We currently have two dogs and three cats. Every one of them has work to do. Over the years I’ve found that working animals actually live longer and lead happier lives. It seems that everyone benefits from having work to keep them happy.

The two dogs work during the evening hours. We’re out and about enough during the daylight hours that we’ve never had a problem with the wildlife during the day. It’s at night that the wildlife comes out and causes us woe. So the dogs work all night and sleep all day. One of us takes them to work each evening and brings them into the house early each morning.

Shelby earns her keep by guarding the chickens. Everyone likes a chicken dinner. The way we have the chicken tractors constructed keeps hawks at bay. However, weasels and racoons will dig under the chicken tractors to get inside if they can’t get in any other way. The hardware cloth will delay them, but not permanently bar them. Weasels are the worst of the lot. They’ll make a small incision in the chicken’s neck, drain it of blood, and then move onto the next chicken without touching the meat of the one it has just killed. What a waste! We’ve had problems with other wildlife getting into the chicken tractors as wellI’m pretty sure a fox got into the chicken tractors at least once.

Shelby

Shelby also helps catch any chickens that get out of the chicken tractors. She’ll carefully move them toward me. I can usually catch the chicken without any problem and put it back inside. We chose a border collie because of the herding instinct.

Reese guards the apple orchard. We have two orchardsone for apples and another for everything else (pears, plums, and cherries). For some reason, none of the wildlife bothers the other orchard, but they absolutely love our apples. One season I had a wonderful harvest when I went to bedthe next morning I got up to find stems, which was all that the deer left behind after eating every apple. Rebecca says that there is still a dark cloud hanging over the orchard from the unfortunate language I used to express my discomfort with the deer’s choice of delicacy. Since we’ve had a dog out there, no one has touched the apples (or at least, not enough to matter). We chose a beagle/rat terrier mix for the no nonsense attitude toward guarding territory. Besides, she doesn’t dig (at least, not often) and she cuddles nicely in the winter.

Reese

During the late fall and most of the winter months, we store goods in the basement. It acts as our root cellar. There are usually some apples, potatoes, and squash down there. Given that the basement keeps at a nice 40 degrees, things last quite a while. We eat the last squash sometime in March in most years, along with the last of the potatoes (the apples never last past the holidays). Mice just love root cellars. Given a chance, they’ll bore through squash just enough to ruin it. Apples and potatoes make wonderful treats as well.

Two of our cats, Bubba and Smucker, patrol the root cellar. We don’t stick them down there at any given time. They ask to go down for a while, then they ask to come back up. It’s a nice arrangement for everyone. Since we’ve had Bubba and Smucker patrolling the root cellar, there hasn’t been any damage to our goods from mice. Sure, we could have used traps, but cats work significantly better.

SmuckerandBubba

Sugar Plum is Rebecca’s cuddle cat. Her main job is to keep Rebecca happy. During the daytime, that means staying with Rebecca in the kitchen or wherever else Rebecca might be at the time. It’s an important job.

All of our “kids” know how to do some simple tricks. The dogs each have their own way of asking for their breakfast and they play a mean game of fetch. They’re also trained to perform the usual commandssit, lay down, kennel, and quiet. The cats can also perform tricks. In this case, Sugar Plum is sitting up to ask for a treat.

SugarPlum

Having animals is an important part of self-sufficiency. Without these work animals, we’d never be able to hold onto the investment we’ve made. How do you work with your animals? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Early Spring – The Garden and Orchard

Spring really begins to take off with the introduction of new growth in the garden. Our permanent bed has a number of items in it; some start early, while others wait a while to make their presence known. About the earliest arrival in the garden is the rhubarb; a favorite of mine. Nothing quite matches the sour taste of rhubarb, especially the first growth of spring. Rhubarb looks like little red balls when it first appears, and then you begin seeing leaves like these shown here:

Rhubarb

Of course, it’ll be a while before I’ll enjoy any fresh rhubarb. I’ll show you how it looks later. One of the ways I like it best is freshly picked with just a tad of sugar. It’s also good in rhubarb rolls and we make wine from it (among other things).

Another early arrival are Egyptian walking onions. They’re called walking onions because they literally walk from place to place in your garden. The top of the onion sprouts a seed head. When the seed head become too heavy for the stalk, it ends up on the ground and replants itself; no extra work on your part! Here’s what the walking onions look like in the garden:

WalkingOnion1

When these onions get large enough, I’ll dig up just a few and enjoy them very much as I would green onions. The Egyptian walking onion tends to be a little stronger and a little larger than the green onions you buy in the store, but you can use them precisely the same way. Here is a patch of ground that shows the seed heads as they appear in spring:

WalkingOnion2

Each one of those tiny little heads will become another onion. We should have quite a wealth of them this year. The Egyptian walking onion is our second taste treat from the garden. The first taste treat is horse radish. The horseradish isn’t quite up yet; at least, it isn’t far enough up to tell what it is. Normally, you’d dig it up this time of year though, grind it up, add some vinegar, and enjoy.

Another spring delight is asparagus. I’ll be sure to upload some pictures of it when it comes up. Asparagus is planted very deep and doesn’t make an appearance yet for at least another two weeks (probably longer).

Part of the springtime ritual is pruning the trees. We have 32 trees in our orchard. This last Saturday we pruned the apples. Each tree has a unique pruning strategy and you’ll find that pruning strategies differ between gardeners. Here’s a typical apple tree after pruning.

Apple

See how the apple looks sort of like an umbrella or perhaps a gnarled old man? The approach we use works well for hand picking. It’s an older technique that many modern orchards have replaced with a technique better designed for picking apples from a truck.

We prune our apples every other year; the off year. Apples produce well one year and then take a bit of a vacation the next year. Yes, we’ll get some apples from our trees, but not as many as on a good year. Of course, prudent canning techniques ensures everything evens out. What sorts of spring delights do you experience? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.