Monday, September 23, 2013

This Autumn's Changes. . .

This year my favorite season brings more than just a change of seasons.  More than vibrant colors and crisp air.  More than pumpkins and scarecrows.

This year Autumn brings broken hearts.

Our neighbors--the ones who have the chickens we get our eggs from; the ones with all the kitties; the ones with the plot where we planted pumpkins--dropped a bomb on us the other day.  They are ready to sell the house.

Now, I had thought this day would come eventually, but not now.  Honestly, I always thought that they'd be there to the end, unable to give up what they had worked so hard for long.  The place they raised their daughters and the animals Mr. Bob becomes so attached to.

But circumstances are what they are, and it's too much for them anymore.  Even with our help and the help of their family, it's too much.  I get it, but still my heart aches.

We had hoped to be able to purchase the house and land from them when the time came.  For my parents to move in next door.  But my parents are not a point in their lives when they want to take on a house that needs renovating.  Especially after making their house what they want.

My husband and I would help care for the property.  I would rebuild the stalls in the barn for future horse(s), and the fix fencing around the small pen behind the barn for goats.  Bug and I would care for the chickens and goats.  My husband even said he'd rebuild the fencing around the back pastures and buy me a horse.

We'd need the lot across the street, too.  That is merely for insurance against future developers of the farm beyond.  Owning it would insure us that they couldn't put a road in right across from our house.  In fact, that piece is a hinge for us.  Without it, we may change our plans for our family's future here.

All of this makes it sound as if I don't want them to sell unless we can buy it.  And, while that would be wonderful, my heart does not break over who our neighbors may be in the future.  (Although it would also be wonderful if one of their grandkids could buy it.)  It breaks for losing the people who have planted roots in our hearts.

Bug and I have grown so close to Bob and Joan that they are like family.  We gallivant through the fruit trees and around the pond.  We search for new kittens in the barn and feed the chickens clover and long blades of grass.  We check on the produce in the garden and small orchard, harvesting what's ready.  Bug swings on the plastic tire sing hanging from the huge maple behind the house.

We visit for no other reason than, "I wanna go to Mr. Bob's."  And once inside, Bug raids the pistachios and candy closet.  He plays with the marble game Ms. Joan found for him.  He "vacuums" the sofa and floor with one of the attachments.  He talks to the kitties that live inside.  And he tells Mr. Bob and Ms. Joan all about everything going on in his life.  Sometimes he even calls them Grandmom and Grandpop.

The night I was told of this great upheaval, I couldn't sleep for visions of my little man running across the tractor-worn path under the maple on his way to the barn or pond.  I know that Bob and Joan are just as upset about this life change as I am.  Probably more.

We don't know what the future holds at this point.  All we can do is go along for the ride and make our plans as they need to be made.  For me, this means I have started looking into keeping our own backyard chickens and praying for strength and guidance.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Voyage Through the Mists of Time. . .

Back to when kings hosted tournaments to measure the strength and skill of Knights of the Realm in front of an audience of noble guests.  Lords and Ladies cheered as the knights battled fiercely to determine who would be Champion.

Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament went way beyond my expectations.  I was granted two complimentary tickets in exchange for an honest review of the show, but as I chose to take my husband on his birthday, I upgraded my tickets with the Celebration Package.  This got the two of us VIP seating in the front row, a photo of us "on the castle balcony," a slice of cake with our castle pastry, a commemorative program, a knight's cheering banner, a behind the scenes DVD (one per group), and of course a personalized announcement by the King or Princess during the show.  (Tom's announcement from the King:  "Happy Birthday to Lord Tom Baker from your Royal wife!")

When you enter the castle gates, for that's truly what it is, a castle. . .
(Silly me was so enthralled with everything, I forgot to snap some pictures in the grand entrance inside.)  Along with the expected keepsake areas selling assorted memory paraphernalia, the staff is all dressed in period costume.

We were crowned with the color of our seating cards, then led to the photo area.  The photo was shot just across from the castle bar.  (No idea what they offered as we were shuttled from place to place to get all our goodies before we went in.)  My dear husband didn't want to dress in costume for the photo--much to my dismay--but that is an option for a nominal fee.  

After that, I had to check in on my announcement for his birthday.  The young woman informed me that it would take place about forty-five minutes into the show.  (To be honest, there was absolutely no time keeping for me once we entered.)  My only issue with this part was that the counter for the announcement was on the other side from where we were to enter the arena, which made me feel rushed when they called our color and number for seating.  (There was no cause for concern. They allow ample time for everyone to be seated, and they guide you to your seats so there's no confusion.)

Commemorative Program
However, the sense of urgency went away when we were seated at the end of the front row in the blue section.  (Celebration VIP seating)  At our place were "pewter" plates and bowls, a napkin that listed the fare for the evening, and a commemorative program (also part of the package).  In the mugs were the cheering banners for our blue knight.
Napkin with "Bill of Fare"

Blue Knight Cheering Banners
When our wench came around, dressed the part, she stood in front of the section and hollered so her voice would carry to the back row.  She gave instructions on how to select your drink--Pepsi or unsweetened tea--and other various information that my hard-of-hearing self couldn't really understand. The bar wench came around regularly.

I'm no gourmet flavor expert, but my homespun tastebuds were in heaven with the food.  The tomato bisque was delicious with or without the slice of garlic bread.  When the roasted chicken half was served, I could swear she called it a "baby dragon."  Fitting, since it took up the entire plate.  The meat on both the chicken and rib was juicy and full of flavor.  The dessert was a sort of apple turnover that I found marvelous.  (We also got a slice of cake, but I'm not big on cake and it was cold, so I didn't really eat it.)

On to the show (because that's really why I went, and why you're reading) . . .

Those who know me, know that I am a horsewoman, so for me this is what it's all about.  Medieval Times is known for the rigorous training wannabe knights must endure before being knighted.  It is also known for the magnificent Pure Spanish Horses it breeds and trains.  They did not disappoint.  (Before we begin, I must tell you that I am not sure how to tell the difference between a Pure Spanish Horse (PRE) and an Andalusian, but MT refers to both.)

The arena filled with mist as a woman talked about the bond between a knight and his horse.  Then a handsome Andalusian pranced into the spotlight through the mist.  He just trotted around a bit before exiting.

Shortly after, the Lord Chancellor's voice boomed through the arena as he entered, turning to speak to the crowd from the back of his black Friesian.  (When he rode into the spotlight, my heart leapt, for a Friesian is a dream horse to me.  To be so close . . . ) He spoke of the kingdom and the tournament the King had prepared for his noble guests.  
The Lord Chancellor 

Then the Knights of the Realm were introduced.
My Knight, the Blue Knight
It was East vs. West, where each knight competed for his people and also worked as a team with his allies.  Each knight has a name and a history, rounding out their character.

Afterward, the King came out and welcomed us to the tournament.  He was followed by the knights, their squires, and the serving wenches.  (I'm not sure what they call the male servers.)  Then the knights presented themselves to the King as representatives of their people.

The King, Lord Chancellor, and a Royal Guard

Knights Presenting to the King

Royal Falconer

A surprise for me was the Royal Falconer.  She came out and did a presentation where her charge, a decent-sized bird of prey, circled the arena.  He flew over our heads, and back to her over and over, while the Lord Chancellor spoke of her purpose to the kingdom.

King's Guard

The King's Guard also put on a display showcasing exquisite drill team maneuvers.  They trotted and cantered through patterns that crossed and changed over with each other.  A delightful demonstration to behold.

Then the games started.  This is what people typically think of when someone mentions Medieval Times.  This is capturing the ring, sword fights, and jousting, among others.

We watched as the knights competed against each other capturing a flag on horseback, then tossing them back and forth on the return.  (Difficult to explain, but definitely a feat.)

Flag Race 
West Awaiting the Flag Race

They did a team effort in a horseback relay race.  I found this one particularly intriguing.  The horsemanship and physical skill needed to compete in this event was astounding.  They galloped toward each other, handing off a baton between them as the passed.

Relay Race
There was also a target-spearing event, where the knight galloped his horse down the center of the arena to thrust a spear into a target hanging in the top right corner of the entry.  (This begs the question: Just how much room do they have beyond that curtain?)  Here I have to brag on our blue knight. He hit the target dead center.

They also did the classic lancing the ring event, as well.  Each knight rode twice, attempting to aim the point of his lance through the tiny ring.

After each event, the knights who completed the task were given three red or white carnations by the princess which they tossed into the crowd in their section.  I loved watching them toss the flowers to little girls waving frantically for their attention.

They took a short break before the joust and weapon fighting, but before they left each knight tied a sash to the tip of his lance. Then, in somewhat of a role reversal, they chose a lady from their cheering section and bestowed his favor on her, pledging to set lance against shield in the joust in her honor.  (Historically, the knight would ask for the lady's favor for luck in the games.)  I was the lucky lady chosen by the blue knight to receive his favor.  I cannot begin to describe the elation this honor gave me.
They took our picture with the favor and offered it in a picture package after the show.  There was an option to add a photo with your knight for a little more money, but we declined.  (Besides, I'd want the horse in the photo, and I doubt that would be possible.)

While the knights prepared for the joust, a wonderful dressage demonstration was put on by a handsome grey Spanish Horse with a rider wearing a deep-blue cloak that draped over the horse's haunches.  For those who don't know, dressage looks like the horse is dancing through the complex movements and high steps as it drifts around the arena.
Dressage Display
When this was over, the knights returned in their jousting and fighting gear.  I didn't notice much difference, but considering what they were doing, I figured they had to be wearing some sort of armor under their tunics.

The event began with the green knight choosing an opponent.  He picked the black and white knight.  They jousted, the lances flying to splintered pieces about the arena floor.  When one knight was unhorsed the fight continued on foot with swords.  Different knights used an assortment of different weapons.  Red and yellow use the battle ax.  One used a mace.  And our own blue knight used a bola. The weapons were swung with such force they occasionally threw sparks.  (I'm not sure if something is added to cause this, or if it's just the type of metal.  You can see it in the video below.)  

I was bewitched by the choreography required to wield such weapons in true fashion.  These knights, while obviously using practiced moves, were putting their weight into the battles.  To watch the bola swing through the air and land with such precision was awe-inspiring.  Each strike and defense required both knights to know exactly where they were and what they were doing.  It was nothing short of amazing.  (You have to imagine this weapon:  a long wooden handle with a chain about the same length at the end, and a heavy metal ball at the end of the chain.)

Sword Fight on Horseback

When they used swords to fight on horseback, they only added to the complexity of the battle.  To wield a sword against another while maneuvering a horse around another horse takes more than a little skill and trust in one's mount.

The music was another aspect that I had never heard about, but one that deserves mentioning.  It was dark and deep, blending with the fog to create a mysterious atmosphere.  Or peppy and boisterous with bright lights to raise the ardor of the audience, encouraging them to cheer for their knight.
There was, of course, a story line that went along with everything.  A herald from the North brought a message to the king, and his arrival was accompanied by fog lit perfectly to appear sinister.  I won't ruin the tale, but I will say that this man ended up in battle with one of the knights of the realm.
Closing Ceremony

All in all, I'd say this was the best dinner show I've ever been to.  My heart was racing the entire time, either from the events and cheering, or from the simple presence of the horses.  I couldn't always hear what was being said, but only because the audience became deafening at times.

My understanding is that the show changes every couple of years, but the Champion Knight changes with each show.  According to Medieval Times, the crowd's involvement--or lack there of--can alter the outcome of the games.  When my son went a few years ago (three, maybe?) for his friend's birthday, he said the show was different and had different characters.

In the video below, the Blue Knight battles the Yellow Knight for the title of Champion of the Realm.  (It's at the end of the fight, and very short.)

Disclaimer:  I was granted two complimentary general admission tickets in return for an honest review of the show.  I bought the Celebration Package as an upgrade to those tickets.  All opinions given in this blog entry are my own, and I was not compensated any further than the GA tickets.

I can't wait to go back!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Pickling Party. . .

Okay, so maybe it wasn't a party, per se, but I had fun doing it.  And my little man had fun helping here and there.  Besides, alliteration sounds cool.

I wanted to start Saturday, but I didn't have enough time.  So, I washed everything and set it all out to get started Sunday.  I wasn't planning on doing it in the morning, but it was calling to me so I jumped in with both feet, coffee still in hand and the flavors of breakfast still dancing on my tongue.

My jars and lids had run through the dishwasher the night before, so I pulled the lids out and ran the jars through a hot rinse to warm them.  The lids--rings and flats--I put into a pot of water to boil.

Then I started on the dills. . .
I got the mix started first.  Mrs. Wages is the only one I've used only because I haven't found any others to try.  But I really like this one, and found it recommended by several other canners online.  Because the recipe on the bag calls for 9-11 pounds (or 50 cucumbers), I cut it in half.  This requires measuring--and a calculator so early in the morning.

So, in a pot much too large for the purpose, I combined the mix, vinegar, and water and brought it to a boil.  While it was heating, I sliced and packed the cucumbers.

I started ladling the hot dill "juice" over the cucumber slices in the jars.    ThenI remembered the funnel made especially for the purpose, and suddenly the task became much easier.

When they were filled, I put lids on and dunked them into the hot water bath for five minutes.

Tools used for grabbing the lids out of the hot water
and tightening them on the jars.

Once the dill pickles were done, I started on the bread and butter slices.  The process was the same except for the mix recipe, which called for sugar instead of water.  And, of course, the slices were chips.
Cucumber Chips

Chips waiting for pickling juice.

Ready to go into the hot water bath.

In the hot water bath.

Don't forget to label your product with what it is and the date.  I just write on the lid with a Sharpie since the flat lids don't get reused once the product is gone.  (Save those rings, though!)  You can also use a sticky label on the jar.  I have some fancy ones that I use for gift jars.

I got twelve jars--six each--of pickles for the first batch of the season.  I am pretty darn happy with that.

Linky Party Link Up!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Blanching -- A Photographic Step-by-step. . .

Blanching is a way of preparing vegetable for long-term freezer storage.  (According to my Ball Blue Book, any produce can be safely frozen without preparation for four weeks.  Beyond that, you need to give them a little help.)  Blanching is the submersion of vegetables in boiling water for a specified amount of time in order to remove surface dirt and kill microorganisms.  It also helps to preserve color, taste, and texture.  Each vegetable has its own blanching time, so be sure to check a reliable source like the Ball Blue Book.  

What you will need:

  • Large lidded pot with a strainer of some sort for boiling water
  • Large pot or bowl for ice bath
  • Kitchen Timer
  • Cutting board and favorite prep knife
  • Container for scraps
  • Freezer-safe storage containers  (I use a FoodSaver, but Ball offers plastic jars, too.)
  • Veggies!

For the green beans, I just snipped off the ends.  The squash and zucchini (not shown) I sliced, all the while wishing I had a mandolin.

Prepping Veggies

Only do one type of vegetable at a time, changing your water when you change veggies so as to avoid flavor issues.

Make sure your water is at a full, rolling boil.  (You can't tell it's boiling in the picture because of the squash.)  The green beans and squash I did required 3 minutes in the boiling water.
Boiling Water Bath

Remove the veggies as soon as the timer sounds.  (Overdoing it can cause a loss in flavor, color, and texture.)  Immediately immerse the strainer and vegetables into the ice bath to halt the cooking process.  This should be no longer than the time spent in the boiling water.  
Ice Bath

Allow the water to drain.  You'll notice that you can't tell the squash was in boiling water.  It looks like I just cut it.
Fresh Out of the Ice Bath, Ready for Packing

Using whatever freezer storage system you prefer, pack the prepared vegetables and put them in the freezer.  (Note:  Freezers for long-term storage should be kept at 0*F.)  There should be at least one inch of space between the packages until they are completely frozen.  After that you can stack them as you please. 
Zucchini & Yellow Squash
in FoodSaver Vacuum Bags

Happy Harvesting and Preserving!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Launching Into Battle. . .

It's that time of year again.  Mosquitoes and flies are sucking the life-blood out of us.  The flies are particularly bad around here this year, but I don't notice mosquitoes as much because their bites don't affect me, just everyone else in my home.  My garden is feeling the sting of summer pests as well.  

In the past, I've had major issues with tomato horn worms, cucumber beetles, stink bugs, and squash bugs.  The first one is a voracious attacker of tomato plants, eating them to stubs if not controlled quickly, but I will attack them in the next post.  The last two are somewhat similar and can be mistaken for each other, although it's more likely that the squash bug is mistaken for a stink bug.

The past two years, I was learning a lot about managing a larger garden.  I still am, which is really the point here.  I love to learn, and then to share my newfound knowledge with others.  Anyway, I was very late in identifying a problem before, thinking the brown spots were from the hot, dry weather.  Or that bacterial wilt was the cause of the wilting pumpkin and squash plants.  Even thinking some sort of parasite was responsible for the blossom-end rot on the tomatoes that first year.

(I'm going to digress here, but it's important to note that blossom-end rot is not a parasite problem.  It's a nutrient problem.  Usually it can be solved simply by adding calcium to the nutrients the plant naturally acquires.  It can be done several ways, but I won't get into that here.  For more info about blossom-end rot, go here.)

Once all my pumpkin vines had died off rather early, leaving the small fruits lying in the garden amidst the decaying matter, I noticed a plethora of what I thought were stink bugs.  (See, here's where we learn by trial and error, and then pass along the knowledge.)  When the buggers reappeared last year, I started in on the research.  

I learned that these abundant creepy-crawlies were squash bugs, so named because of their affinity for the fruits and their vines.  

Squash bugs look a lot like elongated stinks bugs.  They are similar in color, and body "style."  

They nibble on the stems, "sucking nutrients from leaves and disrupting the flow of water and nutrients."*  This causes the plant to wilt.  Usually, yellowish spots appear on the leaves before wilting.

If you notice your plants wilting, it's important to find the bug before you go diagnosing the problem.  Bacterial wilt can look like the wilt caused by squash bugs, but it is spread by striped cucumber beetles.  (More on all that later.)  If you see the squash bugs on or around the wilted plant, you can make a safe bet that they are the cause.

To further guarantee that you're treating the right wilt, look for the eggs.  They are usually on the underside of the plant's leaves, though I found some on top this year.  (I also found some on my tomato leaves, but I'm not sure what that means.  Since they were on the squash, zucchini, and cucumbers, I'm assuming that the tomatoes were used out of convenience.)  Anyway, the eggs are tiny, copper balls.  They nest in packs for the most part, making them easier to locate in a jungle of green.

These pests are one of the peskiest sorts.  Like stink bugs, nothing seems to work on them.  They don't have many natural enemies, and there are only a few effective chemicals available to us local types.  One of those is Sevin, and I have used it for the past two years, mainly because I caught the infestation so late in the game.

This year, I'm trying a different tactic.  Soapy water.  Yup, just good old Dawn dish detergent in a sprayer bottle full of water.  I sprayed it on my plants, soaking the adults I could reach with my foot in the hopes that it would suck the life out of them as they do to my crops.  I did avoid spraying the cucumbers too much because they were buzzing with bumble and honey bees.

The eggs I cut off and soaked in a tray of soapy water.  I'm hoping that the concoction will prevent hatching or kill the nymphs as soon as they emerge.  One leaf I removed completely because it had the creepy little nymphs crawling all over the underside.  

They are creepy, aren't they?  Anyway, when I put the leaf in the soapy water, the nymphs all died instantly.  I took this as a good omen.  Maybe my home remedy will work, and I'll be able to share it with the world.  

I'll keep you posted on how this works out for me.  But if it doesn't, I'll be using the "organic" method to get rid of them. . . probably on a daily basis.

Happy gardening!


Monday, July 1, 2013

Labor and Its Fruits. . ,

My garden has been planted for about five weeks now.  I know, it seems like it's been so much longer, especially when you look at the plants.  But, it was done late, everything planted late, and my crops are really just starting out still.  While everyone else is harvesting their earlier crops like broccoli, Mine is just beginning to flower.   
But I'm not complaining, and that isn't really how I want to start out.  I'm going to try to go in order here, since I haven't posted about the actual garden in a while.  

A few weeks ago, a trip to check on the then-unprotected garden, revealed cloven tracks punching through the black plastic.  The tomato plants along the upper edge were eaten down to sticks, a couple in the interior rows were nibbled, and two had been pulled out of the ground.  

It was time.  Past time, really.  I went to the garage and pulled out the electric fence posts.  Then my mom and I attempted to hammer the metal corner posts into the rain-softened ground, but my dear, sweet husband saw me struggling and came down to do it for me.  In the time it took me to hammer one half-way in, he did all four.  That's why I keep him around, right?  ;)

I slid the plastic ones in between the corners and ran a four-strand electric wire around the perimeter.  I left myself about five feet of room between fence and garden, to prevent reachers and give me some working room.  It also allowed me to include my tiny Fuji apple tree inside.  

I see a lot of people putting up crazy- high fences, tying ribbons and tinfoil pans around their gardens, and trying other odd things to keep the deer out.  But, I stand by my little four-strand fence.  Sure, it's a wire for an electric
fence, but it's not hot.  The solar battery died a few years back, but the deer remember to stay away.  Bug and I can slip between the wires, and I don't have to worry about him getting shocked.  Although that might deter him from eating the grape and cherry tomatoes off the vine.
Since putting the fence up all but one of my deer-damaged plants are coming back.  To be fair, the one that didn't make it was looking a little peaky before the deer got to it.

And here they are now.  My wonderfully bushy tomatoes that desperately need to be tied to their cages.

Super Sauce
Grapes & Cherries

I can never seem to space them far enough apart.

Two rows, smaller versions in front.

Super Sauce


Since our area was being tested for biblical floods, the asparagus took a bit of a beating.  The torrential rains washed three of the small plants to the end of the row, and when I replanted them, they didn't make it.  That still leaves me with seven, though, and they are nice and healthy.

I was super excited to see this on top of my corn the other day. . .
And then on Sunday, another surprise. . . The soft golden strands of corn silk!
I am new to corn, and so everything that happens with it is exciting for me.  Still, I'm worried about the plant because it's not the vibrant green you see in the fields.  It started out that way, but when the rains dwindled and the heat kicked up a notch--or ten--it started yellowing.  The smaller plants seem to have stopped growing, so I don't know what's going on there.

The squash and beans are really doing well. . .

Yellow Squash

Green Beans

Green Beans 

LOTS of Flowers!
The cucumbers. . .
Add caption

I have sixteen watermelon plants. . .

But of all these happenings, I think one of the most thrilling for me is the gift my neighbors gave me with the use of their land.  Saturday, Mr. Bob used a discing attachment behind his tractor to loosen the ground, and then--against the wishes of my husband--I used the rototiller to turn it more so it would be finer, still.
Mr. Bob discing the land.
He even gave me a bag chock full of all kinds of seeds.  So I started with my own sugar pumpkin seeds from last year's crop, planting seven hills with three to four seeds, each.  I literally made hills, dug little troughs around them, filled a hole in the top with potting soil, and planted my seeds.  

Next I planted four hills of Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins from the bag-o-seeds.  Then my Argonaut butternut squash plants.  Eight of those that I had started in four-inch pots. 

All of these I planted using my hill method.  

Next in the row came Italian squash, which I'm pretty excited to see.  Then Waltham butternut, followed by a sprinkling of basil.  These last few varieties I planted using Bob's advice. . . Dig a hole with the hoe, drop some seeds in, cover and tamp, repeat.  Much faster.
Upper row at Bob & Joan's
Argonaut Butternut Squash

I got a little crazy and planted more pumpkins at the lower end of the field, too.  So, there are fourteen sugar pumpkin hills, eleven Jack-O-Lanterns, and something else, but I can't remember what it is.  **blush**

I watered everything using a five-gallon bucket and a tin can, then I went and watered Bob's plants he had on the other side.  I picked some blackberries by the barn, and stopped at the blueberry bush by the house on the way back in.  
Blueberries from Bob & Joan's.
Raspberries from my patch.
Blackberries from Bob & Joan's
Blackberries by the barn.

My first ripe blueberries.

Concord Grapes at Bob & Joan's
Not only are Bob and Joan letting me grow crops on their land, they entertained Bug while I worked and even fed us lunch!  I am truly blessed to have such wonderful neighbors that are so like family.