Monday, April 30, 2012

Natural, non-toxic mosquito spray

Yep, it is that time of year.  I was working on mittens yesterday and making mosquito spray today.  Ah, spring in New England....

Sprigs of lemon balm in a quart canning jar.

Among the first plants to emerge in spite of the chill in the air are the two herbs, lemon balm and catnip.  Once you establish these plants, they are impossible to get rid of.  They multiply like crazy, so don't run out and buy them if you don't already have them in your garden....almost anyone who has them will have little plants that they can give you.  They pop up all over the place and are weeded out all spring.

 Care-free lemon balm.

To make a very easy, inexpensive, safe mosquito spray all you need are these two fresh herbs, apple cider vinegar, and two weeks.

Volunteer catnip.

Simply snip sprigs of each plant in about equal amounts and pack them into any glass jar you might have handy.  You can alternate layers, as I do, or just guess-timate and fill the jar halfway with one and then fill it up with the other, packing it down as you go.

Filled jar.

Add some apple cider vinegar to cover the herbs.  You may use a spoon to crush or pound the leaves if you wish.  I give them a few jabs before and after adding the vinegar.

Push the leaves down, removing air bubbles.

You can give the jar a shake a couple of times a day to keep them in contact with the vinegar or simply weight the herbs down with a scrubbed rock.  I keep a small box of rocks that I've collected for this purpose in a cupboard.  The summer I was on that mission, I kept two canning rings in my car so if the opportunity arose to pick up smooth, round rocks, I could use the lids to determine if they were the correct size.  It worked.  I have a nice little selection.  Scrub them, then boil them or run them through the dishwasher.  You never know if someone's dog tinkled on them.

Weighted down with a couple of river rocks.

Last, but not least, mark them with a sticky note as to when it was made (the whole five minutes it took!) and when two weeks will be up.  On that date...or later if the mosquitoes haven't arrived yet...strain it into a clean jar with a tight fitting lid.

If I don't write it down, it doesn't get done.

I like to mix it half and half with water in a spray bottle with a fine mist sprayer.  I keep one by my milking stand and one in the house.  I find that it gets me about 15-20 minutes mosquito-free, which is enough time to finish what I am doing and get into the house.  And I'm not left needing to shower off greasy, smelly, poisonous bug spray when I get in for the night.  And I can use it on my goats, too.  

This is one of the easiest projects I've done all week....and quickest.  Run right out and get some lemon balm and catnip to put in a corner of your garden this spring.  There is still time.  The mosquitoes will be out all summer and fall and you'll be glad you did!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Don't dismiss rhubarb!

The humble, old-fashioned children, didn't we all pick stems of it when no one was looking?  Later it was unripe grapes, and later in the season still, green apples.  We loved to pucker, didn't we?

Trimming rhubarb stalks

Ten years ago, when we bought this property, I dug up a couple of rhubarb plants and gave them to our former neighbor, an older Sicilian lady who knew how to eat from her yard.  She's the one who so tactfully helped me with my first vegetable garden, planted in the yard of the apartment we were living in at the time.  When she saw me doing something that just wouldn't work, she would approach the fence, strike up a conversation, and start the topic in question with, "I read an article in the paper on how to plant tomatoes...."  She was a peach.  She didn't read it in the paper.  She'd been working in the garden her entire 70+ years.  A lesson in tact, for sure.

Three years ago, I asked another older friend for some divisions of his rhubarb plants.  He gave me three.  He supplied me with rhubarb for 2 years until my plants were big enough to safely harvest from....this year.  Look at how our attitudes can change with time and knowledge and new-found appreciation.

Cut the washed stems into half inch slices.

Tart rhubarb is a vegetable that is used like a fruit.  It is one of the first things that is harvested in the spring for Northern gardeners.  I'm told that Southern gardeners can grow it, but only as an annual. 

Let me repeat something important here:  Rhubarb is a vegetable!  So rhubarb pie, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb cobbler....vegetable dishes.  Watch the sugar, though.  Use stevia, and enjoy the tartness of the dish.  Everything doesn't have to be syrupy-sweet.

I used frozen strawberries with yesterday's harvest to make a lovely strawberry-rhubarb sauce to eat with our chevre.  We got no strawberries from our patch last year due to all the rain (rotted the huge crop of berries before they could ripen) and this year the plants are flowering early due to an unusual warm spell....and now it is cold again, frosty nights, and no bees out during the day.  My hopes for a crop this year are dim.  I sent the hubster to the local grocery store to buy a bag of store brand, not organic (eek, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do) frozen strawberries.

They were shameful.  Pale and unripe, they combined with the rhubarb to make a green sauce.  I went back into the freezer to get a big handful of elderberries that I'd picked and frozen last summer to add some color and some antioxidants to the sauce.

Measure the desired amount.  I used four cups today.

Put it in a saucepan with a little water, and start it simmering.

Measure out the same amount of strawberries, fresh or frozen.

I simmered it for about 20 can do this for far less time if skipping the elderberries.  Just soften the fruit.  Elderberries are poisonous unless fully cooked, so I made a sauce instead of chunky fruit.

When it cooled, I added liquid stevia to sweeten it.  If this is still too tart for you, add a bit of raw wildflower honey along with the stevia.  Skip the white sugar.  It has no redeeming value.  I use it only for fermenting kombucha and wine, since it is completely taken up by the microbes and the yeasts.

Once it was completely cooled, I layered the sauce with chevre (yogurt or strained yogurt would be great, too) to make some grab-n-go snacks for the next few busy days.  I put the rest into a quart jar to have with chocolate black bean cake.  It would also make a great sauce for pancakes (made with coconut flour for all you low-carbers)...the possibilities are endless.

The finished sauce.

Next, I chopped the rest of the day's harvest and froze it in a ziploc freezer bag.  I'll add to this bag, and start more bags, as the rhubarb continues to send out leaves.  The earliest harvests are more tender and less tart, so at some point I will stop picking them for the year.  Oh, and remember, the actual leaves of rhubarb are poisonous, so don't feed them to your family or your livestock.  I layer them around the plants as a mild weed block.

Freeze the chopped bits in a ziploc freezer bag.

You don't necessarily have to have plants to have rhubarb.  Put the word out.  There are people in every Northern neighborhood who have rhubarb plants and don't harvest it.  There are older gardeners who have too much and hate to see it wasted.  But if you have the room for it, it is a practically care-free plant that comes back every year and is actually quite decorative, and can be planted in a flower garden as a backdrop to colorful annual flowers, and to add textural interest with its gigantic leaves and thick, red stems.

Did I mention it was a vegetable?  That is used like a fruit?  Perfect for those who are on the Sugar Handling Diet and are missing all the fruit they used to eat.  If you have a great blender for making smoothies (such as a VitaMix), it is wonderful to add a few pieces to a summer smoothie.  It also adds a bit of lemony tartness to a frozen fruit sorbet.  And it is....say it with me....a vegetable!

And one more picture, just because, of one of Ginger's bucklings:

Ain't he cute?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Getting ready for more berries

Remember the   currant and gooseberry bushes I ordered?  Well, they are not here yet, but we are ready for their arrival!  For once, I won't be scrambling to get holes dug and filled with compost AFTER the box arrives on my doorstep.  All I'll have to do is plop those babies into their new spots in the backyard.

The hubster dug 14 holes, a few at a time, and put the sandy soil on my growing hugelkultur bed.  In the spirit of hugelkultur, I dropped a big chunk of split firewood into each of the holes, then filled it with compost.

We have thin topsoil and then sand, sand, and more sand.  Hence the firewood.

As the wood breaks down over the next few years, it will feed the roots of the berry bushes.  It will also retain a lot of moisture in our sandy soil, helping to protect the bushes from drought.  Although it won't be quite as drought-proof as a raised hugelkultur bed, the rotting wood will help keep the berries producing more flavorful fruits.

Filled with rich compost, mounded, and stomped well.

Every job needs a supervisor to make sure the grunts keep working.  "I lift things up and put them down," says the hubster, when doing such chores as digging holes.  On a farmlet, what with planting and fence posts, there are always holes to be dug.  Hence the need for lots of employee supervision.  Gunnar does a fine job, not being distracted by tennis balls and frisbees as Biscuit tends to be.  All bets are off, however, if a rodent of any type sets foot in the yard.

My Old Man dog.  Only semi-retired.

The hens feel the siren song of compost, and will scratch it vigorously, uprooting tender plants and digging holes where I've made mounds.  Each mound of compost over each compost-and-firewood filled hole got a square of chicken wire and a brick or stone to hold it in place.  I'll plant white clover on top to keep weeds at bay and also to discourage the hens.

4' apart in two rows, 6' apart.

Gotta go check the mail again to see if a box has come from Burgess!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hugelkultur raspberries

I'm so excited about this project!

Dad extracting a shoot from a hunk of sod.

I mentioned this hugelkultur (or is it hugelculture?) project as part of my backyard makeover.  It was a lot of work, but not really.  All the elements of this project were parts of other projects that had to be done anyways:  Cleaning up fallen trees from last October's freakish snow storm, finding a place to put the sandy soil taken out of the planting holes for the gooseberries and currants, moving the compost pile a wheelbarrow at a time...really, a shovel-full at a time....and digging and planting the raspberry shoots I was given by a friend.  It was done in stages over the course of a few weeks.  

First layer of logs.

For example, I brought a log up to the yard every time I came up from the pasture empty-handed.  Why waste the trip?  And the hubster dumped the soil on the second layer of logs as he dug the berry bush holes a few at a time over the course of a couple of weeks.  Neither of us do such heavy work on days that we have clients scheduled.  We need our energy for them.  This stuff...moving logs and hauling dirt....we do on our days off.  We go back to work to rest up.

 Added the soiled bedding from the chick brooder in the cellar. 

After the first layer of dirt was placed on the logs, I piled the remaining smaller pieces on top, cutting anything that was too curved to remain in place.  I filled in big spaces with debris from around our fire wood stacks, now also needing spring clean-up to get rid of slabs of bark and punky logs.

 I was going to burn this fallen wood...

Then came the compost....load after load of rich brown gold.  This was all leaves and hay, straw and shavings, and a bit of goat poop and garden weeds thrown in, only last fall.  The hens worked hard, scratching it to bits and speeding up the composting process.

Chicken wire keeps the hens from scratching the bed into oblivion.

Biscuit thinks a tennis ball is far more interesting than a pile of sticks.

Once the entire pile of logs was covered in compost, it was time to watch for raspberry shoots.  Our neighbor, a farmer, has a row of raspberries that puts out shoots every spring.  Most of these shoots get mowed down since they come up in the grassy area.  I asked if I could take some.  This generous couple, despising waste like I do, said sure, and offered another variety from their own backyard as well.  I checked for shoots every time I walked the dogs.  Finally, they appeared, and just in time.  Several days of rain in the forecast meant ideal transplanting conditions.

Dad and I grabbed our buckets and spading fork and headed over on the afternoon just hours before the big rain was to start.  We dug methodically from one end of the long row to the other and back again.  

See the raspberry shoot in the middle of this ball of dirt and grass?

We dug and talked, speculated on the future harvests and were thankful for the generosity of neighbors.  We came home with a few teensy plants in a couple of buckets.

Not too impressive for all the back-breaking work it took.  Or was it?

Dad took some home in one pail, and I took the rest.  He quickly planted 15 plants outside his apartment in the small garden plot he tends, and brought the remaining plants back to me.  I went out to plant two rows, about a foot apart, on my raised bed.  I figured I would plant until I ran out of plants, and then hope the coming rains stimulated more shoots to come up so I could fill out the row.

It was getting dark as I planted.  I worked my way across the 24' row and covered the entire length with plants.  Still there were more in the pail.  I planted a third row.  Still there were more in the pail.  I started planting further down the edges of the mound, squeezing in plants here and there.  It began to seem like they were multiplying in the bucket faster than I could get them re-planted!  A count the next day, in daylight, revealed about 80 plants.  We'd dug almost 100 plants!  These sell in catalogs for $5-8 each, plus shipping.  We really scored.

I feel wealthy!
Here is our miniature orchard, with plenty of room left for lawn games when we have a cook out.
 Two apple trees and a pear tree beyond the berries.

I know this is a bigger project than most people would tackle.  You can get a LOT of raspberries from one smallish clump of raspberry canes, grown like a bush in the corner of a small yard.  A few pieces of firewood or even a stump would turn it into a mini-hugelkulture bed, and would mean less stooping and bending to pick the berries.

Look may have space for some luscious berries right in your backyard!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Eggs in Purgatory

Not sure what they did to get there.   I thought they were pretty good, myself.

Cooked right in the skillet.

All good meals seem to start with the same few ingredients. 

Onions and garlic....

Diced and minced....

And a big gob of bacon grease on a cast iron skillet.

Saute the onions just until they begin to get translucent, then add a few ounces of sausage.  Homemade preferred, but almost anything will do.

Frozen sausage thaws quickly right in the pan.

Cook and crumble the sausage until it is barely starting to brown, then add the garlic and brown for a minute or two.

Now the onions might start to brown a bit...keep 'em moving.

Add a one pound bag of frozen chopped spinach, or any greens you might have, fresh or frozen.  Get them wilted a bit.  I used a bag of greens that started to thaw in the bag on the way home from the grocery store, then was tossed into the freezer and became a solid lump.  Just more proof that you don't need to be perfect to make perfectly wonderful meals.

Just get the greens thawed, mostly....

Then add a 28 oz can of diced tomatoes...or a quart of home-canned.  

Store bought will do until the tomatoes are ripening late in summer.

Add your favorite flavoring herbs.  I wanted to emphasize the flavors of the sausage, so I used the same herbs:  sage, oregano, basil, parsley, salt, and a dash or two of cayenne pepper.  Simmer for 15-20 minutes to blend flavors and cook down and thicken the tomatoes.  Stir occasionally.  Do other nearby tasks.  I got my supplies ready for hand milking the three does.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.  Turn the flame off under the skillet.  (If you don't have an oven-proof skillet, you can transfer the spinach mix to a baking pan at this point.)

Make several wells in the mix with a spoon, and break an egg into each one.  You can either leave the yoke intact, or break it and slightly stir the egg.  It will look better if you break and stir in a small container, preparing one egg at a time.

You can also transfer the spinach mix into individual Corningware-type dishes and put an egg or two in each one.

It can be served like this, without cheese. 

Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the eggs are set.  It is optional to top it with shredded cheese at this point and return it to the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese.  I used a mixture of home made feta and gouda for this one.  Goat's milk cheese does not brown readily, but is delicious nevertheless.  While it is baking, you can go milk the goats.  Or fold a load of laundry.  Or....

Just starting to brown a bit on the edges...

This is an easy meal, loaded with veggies and cheap on the protein.  It is also a recipe that lends itself well to substitutions....ham instead of sausage,  crisp bacon crumbled on top,  chili seasonings instead of Italian....the possibilities are endless.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Barbecued pork ribs....oh, my!

This is what we had for supper last night:

Now that's a rack of ribs!

I marinated the ribs (recipe to follow) and then put them in the oven, covered, for a couple hours at 300 F.  I turned the oven off and let them sit there until the hubster, Master of the Grill, got home.

 The dogs enjoyed the pan drippings.

I'd planned using my homemade kickin' barbecue sauce for these ribs, but didn't realize that we'd used it all up last time we made these, and I had a long list of chores to do and didn't have time to make another batch in a hurry.  I'd just grated some fresh ginger and froze it for both tea and for making marinades....I was thinking something this was on my mind.  It had to be quick, though.
The last of the garden garlic until July or so.......

It was.  I simply coarsely chopped a head of garlic and mashed it with my mortar and pestle with a slightly larger amount of ginger root and a generous amount of sea salt.  I sauteed that in some bacon grease....probably about twice the volume of the total of the first three ingredients.  I didn't brown it, just sweated it a bit to infuse the grease with the flavors.  

 I wish you could smell this!

Then I whisked in an equal amount of raw apple cider vinegar.   I used some of the vinegar to rinse the last bits of flavor from the mortar and pestle.

Nothing is wasted here!  Not even fumes of flavor!

The hubster brushed some reserved marinate on the ribs as they were grilling.

See how easy this is?

The flavor of this marinade was wonderfully subtle, and the goodness of the pastured pork really shone through.  Amazing.  There were no leftovers.


For anyone just venturing into cooking from scratch, I hope you can see how easy this was.  The initial cooking in the oven is an easy way to get perfectly tender meat that doesn't dry out on the grill.  Then the grilling itself is mainly for browning the meat and adding more flavor by brushing on additional sauce.  There are many ways to approach barbecued ribs, but this one is pretty fool-proof and it takes very little time....just the marinating and par-baking, which can be done the day before if needed.  

Veggies were also simple....just fresh asparagus sauteed in a cast iron skillet in bacon grease and generously sprinkled with sea salt.  Dessert:  Black bean cake with chevre and berries.  A perfect simple meal to end a perfect day.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Naughty goats!

While getting several loads of compost for several spring planting projects, I made the mistake of leaving the compost pile gate open.  We used to leave it open all the time so the chickens could come and go easily.  They do a fantastic job of turning it, looking for worms, and speeding up the breakdown of its contents.

This is why we shut the gate now:

Naughty does!
Plum started this game a few weeks ago.  She is starting to move up in the herd pecking order, but still can't compete with her much larger sister, Peach.  By running up onto the compost pile, she gets a height advantage and can't get bashed too hard.  Hard enough, though, in this video.  I get a headache just watching it!
 Peach wins.

Can you see what they did to the fence?  They actually broke a pressure treated board, and the woven wire is very warped.  So warped that it has come off the boards on top and is lifting at the bottom.  

Pretending innocence when I come into their view.

When we first started closing the gate, Plum would instead run into the hoophouse and initiate the game from there.  When I booted them away from the compost pile, they turned their attention on the babies and continued their naughty streak.
It is a good thing they are cute....and rather productive!