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.