Early Season Canning

I’ve already been canning this season. A lot of people hear this claim and wonder just what it is that I’m canning. The first food I started canning is soup. I get the ingredients from my freezers. Anything that’s starting to get a bit old is fair game. I also save the larger bones from various meats, especially when I have the meat processed by someone else. The meat and vegetables made into soup can quite well and last a lot longer than they would in the freezer. Nothing is quite so nice on a cold winter’s day than hot soup. I usually get two or three servings out of each quart that I can (sometimes four if I add enough additional items). Given the cold winters here in Wisconsin, I can go through a lot of soup.

Once I can the soup, the freezers are less full, so it’s time to defrost them. It’s essential to defrost, clean, and reorganize your freezers every year. Doing so lets you create an inventory of what you have in stock so that you have a better idea of what you need to grow. In addition, you don’t want to keep items so long that they become unpalatable and visually unappealing. Freezer burned food is completely safe to eat, but you may not want to eat it. Some of the ways in which you can prevent freezer burn is to vacuum pack your food and to ensure you rotate it out before it sits in the freezer too long. In some cases, when food is mildly freezer burned, I’ll make it up into pet food (my animals don’t seem to mind as long as the food is prepared to their liking). However, it’s better to use the food up before anything actually does happen to it.

So far I’ve made 14 quarts of chicken soup and another 14 quarts of venison stew. Canning soup means using a pressure canner. Make sure you follow the instructions in a resource such as the Ball Blue Book and the book that comes with your pressure canner. Read Considering the Dangers of Outdated Canning Information for details on keeping yourself safe when using the Ball Blue Book.

It’s also time to can early garden items. For example, when canned properly, rhubarb makes a highly nutritious fruit dish that I eat directly from the jar. You can also make it into pie filling. So far, I’ve made up 7 quarts of plain rhubarb and 7 quarts of spiced rhubarb, both of which will be quite tasty this upcoming winter. Fortunately, you can use hot water bath canning techniques with rhubarb and other high acid foods.

In some cases, you need to mix and match items. The frozen green and wax beans in my freezer weren’t getting any younger, so I used them to make up four bean salad. Actually, it’s supposed to be three bean salad, but some of my recipes called for Lima beans, while others called for kidney beans. I decided to use both, hence four bean soup. I used up all the remaining beans and garnered 16 pints of four bean salad on my larger shelf. Doing so also used up the cans of kidney and Lima beans in my cabinets.

Finally, pickled asparagus can be quite a treat in the middle of winter. So far, I’ve only made up 8 pints of pickled asparagus, but I’ll make up more. I’ll also be freezing some asparagus for fresh use later in the year. In short, canning season has started—time to get going! Let me know about your current canning project 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.

 

Unexpected Drought Consequences

I’ve written a number of posts about the effects of global warming from a personal perspective. It does make a difference in how I view the whole issue of global warming. Whether global warming is a matter of cyclic world changes, human interaction, natural sources, or some combination of thereof isn’t the point—the point is that the earth is getting warmer, which is causing changes of various sorts that affect me as a person. Your best way to deal with these changes is to make a list of how they affect you and come up with effective strategies for dealing with them.

This summer saw a drought come to our area. There is more than a little evidence to say that the drought is just another effect of global warming. People focus on droughts during the summer months because crops are affected, grass dies, and the heat becomes oppressive. The television, radio, and newspaper blare pronouncements of impending doom from dawn till dusk each day. However, the winter effects of drought can become even more devastating than those in summer.

Consider the fact that snow acts as an insulating blanket for the earth. It helps retain some of the heat in the deep layers. When there is a lack of snow, frost tends to go further into the ground and cause all sorts of nasty consequences, especially during a heavy freeze. My reason for writing about heavy freezes is that we’re experiencing one here in Wisconsin and I’m concerned about the potential of damage to either my well or septic system. Nothing is quite as exciting as living almost four miles from town and not being able to use any water because your septic system is frozen. Once frozen, you need to call a professional to thaw the system so you can use it again. If your professional is especially busy, you may be waiting for a few days.

The problems of deep frost aren’t limited to the well or septic system. A deeper frost creates more heaving—water freezes and the resulting ice displaces some of the earth underground. The most conspicuous result of heaving is that any pavement on your property buckles and doesn’t last nearly as long as it could. It’s possible to assign an actual dollar amount to the lost longevity of your sidewalks and driveway. The effects can also profoundly affect your house’s foundation.

Heaving also causes myriad other problems for the self-sufficient person. For example, those posts you put in for your grape vines will become misaligned—forcing you to spend time readjusting the cables and possibly damaging the vines. A deep frost can kill tree, vine, and permanent bed plant roots. You’ll also have the pleasure of picking more rocks from the garden come spring because heaving brings them to the surface (despite the perception that they grow there during the winter). I’m also wondering how a deep frost will affect our new chicken coop (despite having put the posts as deeply as we could in the ground, heaving will still have an effect on them).

There is also the direct heating costs to consider. A blanket of snow on your roof acts as additional insulation. When this blanket is removed completely, your house loses more heat. Of course, there is also a problem when there is too much snow on your roof (causing damage from the weight) and the whole issue of ice dams. However, during this time of the year, a nice insulating layer of snow can save heating dollars.

Drought causes serious problems during the winter as well as the summer. No matter where you live, you have to consider the effects of drought on your property and the structures it supports. What sorts of winter drought effects have you see in the past? Do you think the increased number of droughts is due to a natural cycle in the earth’s weather pattern or from global warming (or possibly a combination of both)? Write me about your drought observations at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Real World Global Warming

Every time I hear someone talk about global warming, they discuss the issue in terms that have no real meaning to me. Yes, I understand that the average temperature is going to increase as a result of global warming and that I’ll see weather pattern changes. However, what does it really mean to me? Why should I care? I don’t mean to appear uncaring, but prognostications of impending doom are better served with a dose of reality.

I’ve already discussed one direct result of global warming—the USDA has defined new hardiness zones as described in my Contemplating the Hardiness Zone Changes post. However, even this direct result of global warming doesn’t say much to me. It’s not an indicator that I see every day—something I can point to and say that it’s the result of putting too many of the wrong chemicals into the air.

However, this spring is providing something in the way of a wake up call to me personally. Spring came early this year; very early. Odd spring weather is nothing new to Wisconsin—we get odd weather every year. In fact, it’s the variety and uncertainty of weather that attracts me to Wisconsin. However, no one can remember a spring coming this early. Our spring has also been quite hot and dry. As a result, vegetables that normally do quite well in our garden, such as broccoli, are doing poorly.

In fact, all of our brassicas are doing poorly. I should have planted the brassicas earlier this year to accommodate the warm spring, but I didn’t. Local wisdom says not to plant too much, especially not tender plants, until Mother’s Day, which was simply too late this year. After talking to a number of other people, I find that I’m not the only one who planted too late. Everyone is complaining about how their broccoli has bolted without growing a head. Yes, you can pick the pieces and use them, but what you get is more like a second crop, rather than that perfect first crop in the form of a head.

The weeds, however, are doing marvelously. Rebecca and I can hardly keep up with them. We’re grabbing bushels of weeds from the garden at a time when we’re normally looking at light weeds and are able to mulch to keep them controlled. This year, we’re battling the weeds with vigor and mulching as soon as we get a patch freed from their grasp. However, I’m thinking that the late summer weeds we normally get poking up through the mulch are going to appear by mid-summer this year, long before we’re ready to harvest some of the end of season offerings (assuming they grow at all).

Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad.  We’ve just had the best asparagus season ever. Not only have we had spears vigorously poking their heads above ground, but the spears are thicker and more tender than usual. Rebecca has quite a few meals worth of asparagus already frozen because we can’t even contemplate eating it all without making ourselves sick. So, we’ve learned that asparagus loves exceptionally warm springs, but brassicas  don’t.

We’ve also had a pleasant surprise in the form of cantaloupes. Normally we have a hard time growing them, but we try anyway. The other day I noted that our cantaloupes are already flowering. They also appear quite vigorous this year, so I anticipate getting a lot of a cherished fruit that I often have to buy at the store as a “nicety” instead of picking it from my garden. This change in garden does lend credence to my number one rule of planting a wide variety of items to see what works and what doesn’t in a given year. Next year may very well prove to be the year the brassicas fight back, but this year I’m expecting a lot of broccoli soup.

I had mentioned in a previous post that our trees have also been affected by the spring weather. It turns out that our tree fruit harvest is just about ruined due to the odd weather because our trees simply aren’t used to it. We had thought we might get an exceptionally good berry harvest (the bushes are certainly full enough), but the exceptionally dry weather has already caused the black caps (a kind of raspberry) and the blueberries to fail.  On the other hand, the grapes apparently love our spring and are putting out more than I’ve ever seen them put out.  We can still hope that the blackberry and gooseberry harvests will be good too. The point is to look for the good and bad in the situation (as I described in my Every Year is a Good and a Bad Year post).

When you hear people discuss global warming in the news, it really doesn’t hit home. A degree or two temperature rise doesn’t quite make an impact. Even seeing the loss of ice at the poles doesn’t really hit the nail on the head like seeing your gardening conditions change so significantly that you never imagined they’d be the way they are now. Most scientists now accept global warming as a reality, but they continue to spout facts and figures that most of us can’t begin to relate to. What does global warming mean to you? How have you been affected by it? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Planting Asparagus – Part 2

Earlier this spring, the Planting Asparagus – Part 1 post discussed some basics of getting the asparagus in the ground. Unlike many other garden plants, asparagus requires quite a bit of effort to get going. However, once planted, an asparagus bed will flourish for many years without much in the way of maintenance, so the up front effort is worth it.

By this time, your asparagus has sprouted and you’ve probably weeded it more than once. It seems as if asparagus attracts weeds for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s the trencheswho knows for certain? If you’ve only seen asparagus in the store, you might have even pulled a few of the young plants accidentally. Here’s what your baby asparagus will look like:

Asparagus011

That’s right, it looks sort of like a fern on a stem. By now you should have a number of these fern-like growths in the trench. When they get this tall, you need to start adding dirt to the trench. Don’t bury any of the branches coming off the main stem. Add just enough loose dirt (don’t pack it down) to bring the trench up to the next level. Burying part of the stem will encourage the asparagus to grow taller.

Now you’ve got some asparagus to tend, but it’s still not done yet for this summer. We’ll visit this topic again. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Planting Asparagus – Part 1

The asparagus is up in our garden now. You have to look carefully because it’s easy to miss the little spears when they first appear on the scene. Our bed seems to be a bit behind the others in the neighborhoodat least one of our neighbors reported seeing the asparagus poke up a week before we saw ours. Even so, this is usually the time of year that you begin to see the asparagus. Here is what the young asparagus typically looks like.

Asparagus01

You can see the asparagus spear about in the center of the picture. Over the last several years we’ve decided that we really need to plant more asparagus. Having just one row in the permanent bed isn’t sufficient to meet our needs. Yes, we have more than sufficient for meals in the spring, but there is nothing left to freeze for later useeven if the later use is sometime during the summer months.  So this spring we decided to plant some more asparagus.

You can plant asparagus seed, but we’ve never had very good luck with it. What we’ll get instead are two year old roots when we can or year old roots when we can’t. The roots come in a bundle of about twelve. The roots are attached to a crown. Make sure you pick a sunny spot for your asparagusit loves the sunlight. Here are three asparagus roots attached to a crown.

Asparagus02

In addition to the bunch of roots, you need a good spade. Most experts recommend planting asparagus in a mix of soil and compost. Because our soil is heavy with clay, we used pure compost from our compost heap. The best advice I can provide is to have your soil checked by your local testing facility (making sure to tell them precisely what you intend to plant) and then ask advice on how to proceed with your specific soil.

The procedure for planting roots of any age is the same. You begin by measuring out a trench that will allow two-feet for each root in your bunch. If you have a standard bunch, that means digging a trench 24-feet long. The trench is 16-inches deep and about 6-inches wide (the width of your spade is fine) as shown here.

Asparagus03

The mulch is important. We use hay mulch to help control weeds, keep the ground moist, and reduce the amount of erosion/filling that occurs when it rains. This is actually last year’s mulchwe’ll do some clean up and add new mulch for this year. Fill the bottom two-inches of the trench with loose compost and/or soil. Don’t pack it downkeep things loose. Splay the roots in the trench two-feet apart. Make sure the crown is pointing up as shown here.

Asparagus04

Carefully add eight more inches of compost and/or soil over the top of the roots. Of course, this leaves six-inches of that trench uncovered. What you’ll do is wait for the asparagus to come up. As the new asparagus grows, you’ll fill in the trench a little at a time until the trench is full. This step takes until mid-summer in most cases, but could take more time.

I’ll visit this topic again as the summer progresses. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions 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.