Time to Check the Larder

The seed catalogs begin to arrive in the mail and you look upon them as a bit of pure heaven—the announcement that spring is on the way. Your eyes nearly pop out as you see the multicolored carrots, juicy tomatoes, and fragrant herbs. The new kinds of fruit trees immediately attract your attention, and what about that amazing new berry bush that will pack your freezer with sumptuous berries? You go into a mix of information and appetite overload and you consider just how those new offerings will satiate your cravings for all things fresh. However, before you go into a swoon over the latest delights, consider the fact that you probably don’t need them all. Your larder is craving things too! The items you’ve used up have created gaps in the deliciousness that your larder can provide during the winter months when fresh simply isn’t an option.

Of course, everyone loves to experiment. After all, that’s how I found kabocha squash this past summer—that delectable mix of sweet and savory that will likely find its way into a pie this upcoming fall. Had I known then what I know now, I would have planted more and canned the extra as an alternative to using pumpkin for pies. Lesson learned, more kabocha squash will find their way into the mix this year, alongside the butternut and acorn squash I love so well.

Back to the larder though. You probably don’t have any idea of where the holes are right now and you really do need to find out. That’s why you need to perform an inventory of your larder. The inventory will tell you about the items you need most. This year I’ve decided to try canning three bean salad, which means growing green, yellow wax, and kidney beans. However, I already have enough green beans in quarts in the larder, so I won’t make a big planting of green beans.

Your larder inventory should include more than a simple accounting. As you go through your larder, you should also perform these tasks:

  • Ensure all of the canned goods are still sealed
  • Wipe the jars down to remove the dust
  • Verify all of the oldest products are in the front
  • Make a list of products that are more than five years old so you can use them up
  • Place all the empty jars in one area
  • Sort the jars by type (both size and the kind of lid used)

Taking these extra steps will help you get a better handle on your larder. You should have a good idea of what your larder contains at all times and the only way to achieve that goal is to actually look at the containers. Let me know your thoughts about larder management at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Tea Time with a New Toy

What warms the hands as well as the heart, especially on a blustery Autumn night? A nice cup of tea.

How can you make a new acquaintance feel special or comfort an old friend? With a nice cup of tea.

I love to drink tea. I like it strong and I like it hot!

 

Recently, I received a gift from a friend who knows about my love affair with tea. It is called an “Almigh’ Tea Bag” from Supreme Housewares. This cute little thing is made completely from silicone. It is shaped like a tea bag with tag intact! I’ve carried it to work with me and tried it out with several different cups and mugs.

Cup, Saucer and Tea Bag
Cup, Saucer and Tea Bag

The base of the bag comes off so you can stuff the insides with your own mix of herbs and spices. Some like it strong, some like it light. With the Almigh’ Tea Bag, you can make it just like you want it.

Almigh'Tea Bag
Almigh’ Tea Bag

Here are some of the advantages that I found with this item as compared to the metal spoons or tea balls that you have in your utensil drawer at home.

  1. It is adorable.
  2. It is inexpensive.
  3. There is no metal to ruin your microwave.
  4. It travels well in your “go to work” mug.
  5. To clean out the tea leaves, simply turn it inside out. The leaves come out very easily.
  6. Small quantities as well as buying in bulk will save you money.
  7. No waste, even the used leaves can be added to the compost.
  8. Fresh tea leaves and herbs give more robust flavor.
  9. You aren’t stuck with a whole box of tea in a flavor that you didn’t like.
  10. It is easy to experiment with flavor combinations.

 

My experiment included whole cloves,              star anise and orange mint
My experiment included whole cloves, star anise and orange mint

There are also other uses for this tool that are yet to be explored. I wonder how it will do for a small “bouquet garni” in a small beef stew? I also wonder how Coffee Beans will work, if they are course ground and stuffed inside with course ground hazelnuts? As you can tell, playing with this teabag may keep me occupied for some time.  It is definitely an item that I will be adding to my stocking stuffer list for Christmas this year! The bag comes in four colors: yellow (shown), green, red, and ivory.

If you have any ideas about what can be stuffed into the “Almigh’ Tea Bag”, or have had any experience with it, I would love to hear from you.  Please respond here or send an email to John 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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Every Year is a Good and a Bad Year (Part 2)

Each year is different. It’s one of the things I like best about gardening and working in the orchard. You never quite know what is going to do well. It’s possible to do absolutely everything right (or wrong) and still end up with a mystery result. In the original Every Year is a Good and a Bad Year post, we had a combination of personal events conspire to derail the garden to an extent, yet we still ended up with an amazing crop of some items.

This year it’s a combination of personal and weather issues. We had a really wet spring and the warm weather was late in coming. After attempting to plant our potatoes twice (and having them rot both times), we decided that this probably wasn’t going to be a good potato year. In fact, a combination of wet weather in the spring, a really late frost, a few scorcher days, followed by unseasonable coolness have all conspired to make our garden almost worthless this year. (A pleasant exception has been our brassicas, which includes items like broccoli.) Of course, that’s the bad news.

The amazing thing is that our fruit trees and grape vines have absolutely adored the weather and a bit of a lack of quality weeding time. The pears are so loaded down that I’m actually having to cut some fruit in order to keep the branches from breaking. The grapes are similarly loaded. One vine became so heavy that it actually detached from the cable holding it and I had to have help tying it back into place. Nature is absolutely amazing because there is always a balance to things. A bad year in one way normally turns into a good year in another when you have a good plan in place.

We keep seeing the same lesson from nature—variety is essential. When you create a garden of your own, you absolutely must plan for a variety of items to ensure that at least some of the items will do well and your larder will stay full. Eating a wide variety of food also has significant health benefits. Although you might read articles about the “perfect” food, there is in reality no perfect food. In order to maintain good health, you need to eat a variety of foods and obtain the nutrients that each food has to offer. It seems as if nature keeps trying to teach that lesson by ensuring that some items will be in short supply during some years.

What sorts of items do you find are highly susceptible to the weather? Which items seem to grow reasonably well each year? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Review of Fiber Planting Trays

Every spring we start by planting some seeds for later transplant into the garden. The main reason for starting seeds in the house is that the growing season for the plant is too short if you simply plant the seed in the ground. It’s always a better idea to plant seeds directly in the garden when you can to avoid the shock of transplanting. However, many items, such as tomatoes and squash, need a longer growing time and you simply have to start them early. As a consequence, we’ve tried a number of planting trays over the years. A planting tray contains some number of individual cells that you use to grow plants from seed. When the time comes, you simply remove the young plant from the cell and plant it in the garden. This year we tried a new type of fiber planting tray, the Plantation Products P72HFB Clear Dome Fiber Tray with 72 Cell Insert.

This particular product lets you plant up to 72 individual plants in a single tray. It comes with a clear dome that helps hold in moisture and give the seeds a better start. The clear dome also allows sunlight through, which naturally is a requirement for getting the seeds to grow. We actually use the really large rubber bands that come with file folders, orders from some companies, or the type you use for trash cans to hold the dome in place. Using a rubber band at either end keeps prying paws (those of our cats) out of the new plants.

Of course, there are a number of systems out there and choosing the right kind for your particular needs can be difficult. There are a number of advantages to this system over using plastic trays.

  • The cost of the trays is less than comparable plastic trays (although, the plastic trays do last several years and we don’t know yet just how long these fiber trays will last).
  • The trays are completely biodegradable, unlike the plastic trays that have to be recycled (assuming they have the right recycling number on them, which many lack).
  • The fiber actually absorbs excess liquid and releases it back into the soil, which makes it more difficult to over-water the plants.
  • The trays seems sturdier and less likely to buckle.
  • The fiber breathes better, which means that there is less likelihood of burning the tender roots—overheating the roots is a problem when using plastic trays.

Longevity is the one potential issue that might make these fiber trays a little less of a value than they could be. The plastic tends to break if you don’t handle them with extreme care, but with careful handling it should last three or four years. We think we’ll be lucky to get two or possibly three years from the fiber trays we purchased. However, given the other advantages, the fiber trays seem like a good deal to us.

You also have to be careful to get the product that comes with the watertight tray. The product packaging for the product we bought said that the base was watertight. Otherwise, using this product inside your home could lead to a watery mess.

Of course, there are many different choices when it comes to planting trays, but most seem to come down to a choice between plastic and fiber. Let me know your thoughts on which is better, plastic or fiber, when it comes to planting trays at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

In Praise of Dried Beans

One of the more amazing vegetables in the garden is the green bean. Green beans typically take little work to grow, produce well, and don’t appear to have many problems (with the exception of mold in wet years). We grow the bush variety because they don’t require a trellis. You can eat green beans in all sorts of ways—raw by themselves, cooked, in salads, and even fried. What most people don’t realize is that the uses of green beans don’t end there. You can also use green beans dried. Simply let the green bean stay on the plant until the shell is completely dry (usually after a few frosts).

Dried beans have a significant advantage over other items you grow. Unlike most items, they require no preparation. You can simply pick them, put them in a bucket, put a lid on the bucket, and then stuff it in a cool, dry place. That’s it! The beans will stay good almost indefinitely. I just finished shelling the last of our dried beans from last year. There was no deterioration of the bean whatsoever. Rebecca will use them in baked beans, soups, and in salads. Dried beans are also quite high in nutrients, making them a great food value. For example, if you make them into baked beans, a single serving supplies 28 percent of your daily requirement of iron.

Before I get e-mail about the relative merits of other vegetables, yes, you can store root vegetables such as potatoes in your basement without doing anything special to them. In addition, winter squash also lasts quite well in the basement without any special preparation. However, in both cases you face the problem of having to use the items by February or (in a good year) March. The winter squash tends to start rotting by that time and the potatoes start to get soft in preparation for sprouting. Dried beans appear to have no such limitation.

Of course, the big thing is to ensure that the bean really is dried. We keep the beans on the plants until late fall after a few frosts have killed the plant completely. The beans should rattle within the shells when shaken. The outside should be a nice tan color in most cases and should feel quite dry. The shells will also be a bit on the hard side, rather than soft as a green shell will be.

Don’t worry if you see a bit of discoloration on the shell. That’s normal. If you see a little discoloration, shell a bean or two to see for yourself that the beans inside are shiny and that the skin is intact. Even if the bean is a little dirty, it’s acceptable to use as long as the skin is intact.

The one thing you must do before using beans you dry yourself is to wash them. The beans do pick up a few contaminants during the drying process. You don’t use soap and water. Just place the beans in a colander and rinse thoroughly. Make sure you move the bean around and get all of the dirt off. When you see that the water is coming out of the colander without any dirt, the beans are probably clean.

The bean is one of those items with a nearly unlimited shelf life that’s both nutritious and delicious. The fact that you can use them green or dry, raw or cooked, makes them exceptionally versatile. Even a small garden has space for some of these marvelous plants. Let me know your thoughts about beans (both green and dried) at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Picking a Delicious Ear of Corn

Nothing is quite so good as a delicious ear of corn picked fresh from the garden. A freshly picked ear of corn is sweeter and more delicious than any ear of corn you’ll ever taste. The fresher the ear, the more delicious the taste. Of course, that delicious ear of corn starts with the correct planting technique and choice of corn variety. We happen to prefer the Bodacious variety because it produces evenly colored corn with a great taste. The ears are normally full (indicating good pollination), the stalks don’t seem to break quite as often, it’s a little less susceptible to pests, and we find that the ears are often larger. We’ve also tried a number of other varieties such as Kandy Corn (somewhat sweeter) and Serendipity Bi-color Corn (interesting color combinations and ripens somewhat earlier). So far, we like Bodacious the best, but you need to choose a corn variety that works well in your area. Take factors such the type of soil, variety of pests, and weather into account when making your choice.

Planting the seeds correctly is also important. We have quite a bit of high wind in this area, so we plant the seeds one foot apart in rows and each of the rows two feet apart. If you plant the corn seeds too closely together, the corn won’t ever produce a strong stalk. In fact, a worst case scenario is that the corn won’t produce any ears. Planting the corn too far apart makes the stalks more susceptible to wind damage and reduces pollination. You may get full sized ears, but you won’t get ears that are full of kernels. You may have to plant your corn differently depending on your area to get optimal results.

The tough part is figuring how when to pick the corn. Yes, you see the ears pop out sometime after the corn tassels (corn cross pollinates through wind action—it doesn’t depend on a pollinator to pollinate it). The tassels are the male flowering member of the plant, while the kernels (ovules) are the female flower member of the plant. These female members reside in a husk and sent out silks to receive the pollen. Pollen travels down the silks to the ovules and pollinates them. Each ovule requires individual pollination, which is why you can see ears with only a few kernels or you can see one or two ovules that didn’t pollinate in a given ear. The point is that the pollination occurs, the kernel grows, and then there is a magical period when the kernels are full of delicious sugar-filled liquid that is absolutely delightful to ingest. After that, the sugars begin to turn to a less tasty starch.

The silks are part of the key to discovering when to pick the corn. When the silks whither and turn black, you know they have done their job—the kernels are pollinated (or at least as pollinated as they’ll get). However, the kernels aren’t instantly fully sized. The dying silks tell you that pollination is over and that you’ll soon have tasty corn to eat.

The next clue is to feel the ears. Gently place your hand around an ear and you can feel the kernels growing. It takes a while, but you’ll eventually developer a touch that tells you that the kernels are getting larger. At some point, you’ll stop feeling any growth. In addition, the ears will feel solid, without any gaps between kernels.

At this point, you can peak at the ears. Gently pull the husk back to reveal the tip of the ear. The kernels at the tip develop last, so the kernels at the bottom are always riper and fuller than the kernels at the tip. When the last few rows start the look the right color and fullness, try sticking a thumbnail into one of the kernels. If you see a liquid come out, the corn is ready to pick.  If there is no liquid, carefully smooth the husk back over the ear. It should ripen normally within a day or two.

Of course, sometimes the kernels at the tip of the ear aren’t pollinated or may not grow right for other reasons. Sometimes a corn borer ruins your day. Earwigs are also a problem at times (and beneficial at others). Never allow the corn to stay on the stalk for more than a week after you feel full ears. If you have doubts, pull one ear, fully husk it, and evaluate the results. Cutting the kernels from the ear and trying a few raw will tell you quite a bit about the status of the corn.

Sweetcorn—it’s the stuff of summer. What are your experiences with corn? Do you grow it yourself or get it from a roadside stand? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Okra Pollination Problems (Part 2)

Last year I noted in my Okra Pollination Problems post that our okra had serious pollination problems—that the flowers were simply drying and falling off. What a difference a year makes! This year we moved the okra completely away from the tomatoes. Suddenly, there are all kinds of ants on the plants and the flowers are opening up as they should. In fact, we’ve already picked quite a bit of okra, which is one of the few bright spots in our drought impacted garden this year.

After talking with quite a few people about the issue, I’m becoming convinced that the okra flowers must have some sort of wax on them, much as other flowers such as peonies do. The ants are necessary to eat the wax off and help open the flowers. In addition, the ants must act as the pollinators. I haven’t seen much in the way of bee or other flying insect activity around these flowers to date and I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching. If someone else has an opinion about pollinators for okra, please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

The okra plants also seem to be responding well to heat. We’ve had to water them, but the plants are growing normally despite the heat (as contrasted to our tomatoes that don’t appear to want to grow much at all). I’d be interested in hearing other experiences with okra when it comes to summer heat. Given that this has been a hotter than normal summer (breaking all sorts of records), it’s a good test of what will happen when climate change starts to take a fuller effect. Okra seems to be on our list of items to maintain despite the heat.

The one thing we have noticed is that we’re having to be a little more diligent than normal in monitoring the okra. The individual spears are growing faster than normal and it’s possible to see a smallish okra one day that turns into something a bit too large the next. When okra get too large, they also get woody. You don’t want to pick them too small, but too large definitely presents problems. We normally pick the okra when it reaches 2 inches in length. That size seems to provide a good tradeoff between getting enough value for the time invested and not having a woody result.

How is your okra growing this year? For that matter, how is your garden doing as a whole? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.