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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Annabelle Has Got To GO

We're down to three hens now.  Annabelle, our Blue Andalusian has had gender identity issues for a little while now and started crowing a couple of weeks ago.  This was after going broody, being cooled down in the Chicken Gaol, and resuming laying.  Yesterday on two separate occasions she hollered out her confusion and that was the third time she'd crowed this week.   Then she did it again this morning.  I live in a small municipality that allows hens but no roosters, and no one is going to believe in a crowing hen, so she had to go.  My buddy Rae came by around noon today to pick up my little miscreant and for her troubles (Rae's, that is), I sent her home with zucchini, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, turnips, turnip greens and beets.  And a very mad hen.

The remaining three are being strangely quiet...

Friday, June 26, 2015

Garden Update - June 2015

So far, this year's summer garden has been wonderful; probably the best I've ever grown.  Because of my needing to eat paleo (with a huge emphasis on the autoimmune protocol) we eat vegetables, usually at least two, with every meal, and the garden has been keeping up with us. Honestly, we're actually having a little  trouble keeping up with it.  I've been drying Costata Romanesco zucchini (on trays in the back of the car parked on the driveway- why not?), but otherwise we are sort of keeping up.  I needed to cull some rutabaga leaves because they were shading the carrots and parsnips and we've been eating them like greens with bacon and garlic (delicious), and we're finally done with the first culling.  Naturally, they need it done again.  If they don't make good bulbs this fall (they need cool weather to form a bulbous root), they will still have been worth the real estate because of their delicious leaves.  They produce a lot of food for the space they take, and that is always a plus in my book. The garden is still popping out new lettuce plants all the time; I succession planted more but that was really unnecessary.

Nasturtiums in the salad
 Summer showed up this year in early June of all times. Usually we don't get hot weather until the weekend of Independence Day, but we already have forecasts in the low 100's for this weekend.  I hope they are wrong about that because all the lettuces will bolt which will make them bitter. However, I do have cucumbers and cabbages coming right now, and those make good salads as well. I'm glad I planted nasturtiums this year; they are a nice addition to salads as well as making the garden a little prettier.
Covered winter roots in the summer
Because of the forecast I am concerned about my carrot and parsnip seed.  The carrots (Berlicum, a giant storage variety from Seeds From Italy) are starting to come up but the parsnips (Andover, Johnny's Seeds) are still thinking about it. So I spent some time this morning covering them up with Agribon to try to keep them a little cooler.  It seems a weird thing to be planting for winter when it's so darn hot outside but that is what you have to do.  This is the first year I left parts of the garden unplanted so I would have room for planting winter things, and it's also the first year I've managed to get them scheduled and in the ground on time.  More winter vegetables will go into the ground in July.

The big bed currently has new beets and leeks in it; I'll replace the beets with lettuces once they are ready.  The other side of the big bed currently has garlic and more volunteer potatoes.  I swear potatoes are the gift that keep on giving.  I think the only way to not have potatoes in the same place year after year is to turn pigs out on it, which is exactly how I'll manage one day.  In the meantime though, I'm leaving the potatoes for their 'free food' factor, and they'll come out at the end of July ready or not when I harvest the garlic.  At that time, Lord willing and the crik don't rise, I'll put metal ribs and plastic on that bed and finally get around to building my greenhouse.  Well, the ribs and ends will be built; the plastic probably won't go on until the end of September or early October. The leeks will then be protected against frost this winter, and I'll plant lettuces and chard in there as well. I discovered that the chard will go all winter if you keep it covered.

We are currently harvesting (and eating!) beets, blueberries, cabbage, cucumbers, kale, lettuces, nasturtium flowers, radishes, rutabaga leaves, strawberries, turnips and zucchini.  The carrots, cauliflower, and potatotes are almost ready.

Hopefully the hot weather won't croak my garden.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Other Pruning Season - Advice For The Home Orchardist

The summer solstice is coming, and while I won't be sacrificing virgins or throwing clams to the sun in honor of the day, I will be getting ready for it.  That's because the best time to control the size of the homestead fruit tree is right about the time of the summer solstice.

I learned this at the Mother Earth News Fair when I attended a lecture by Ann Ralph, who wrote the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree.  It was a great talk, because she distilled pruning down to three basic cuts, and two times a year, and giving the all important explanation why.

It all boils down to stored energy.  Trees store their energy in the form of sap.  In the winter, sap is stored in the trunk and roots, and in the summer it's freely flowing up until the time of the summer solstice.  At that time, the sap stops moving to the ends of the tree and growth for the year slows way down, and the sap starts to flow back into the trunk and roots.  By the time it's autumn, the sap is pretty much out of the branches and the tree goes dormant. This is why you're better off transplanting a bare root tree in the autumn and winter, rather than planting a potted tree in the spring.

So the first thing to know about pruning is that cuts made in the fall, winter, and spring will result in bushy growth, because after the cut, the tree still has a lot of energy to move, and it will expend that energy growing branches. A lot of new ones.  This is good if you're trying to get your tree to fill out, either during its first year or at a specific area in the tree.  Cuts made at or just after the summer solstice will result in less aggressive growth, so that is when you want to prune to contain the growth of the tree.

The second thing to know is that you are in control of the size of the tree at all times.  Don't worry; I didn't know that either.  But what about dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks, you say.  If you read the fine print in the nursery catalogs you'll notice that a dwarf rootstock still results in a ten to fifteen foot tree, which is way taller than you or me.  Ms. Ralph said that it really doesn't matter what the rootstock size is because you can control how big you let the tree get; what you want to pay attention to in a rootstock is how well it does in your soil and climate.  Some rootstocks are better in well drained soil and some can handle heavy clay.  You should go with a rootstock that will handle what you're going to give it, regardless of what kind it is.  So even though you wanted that Elstar apple and it's only available on a standard rootstock but you wanted a much smaller tree, you can go ahead and get it.

Assuming you bought the standard sized tree during bare root season which is the best time to get a fruit tree, once you get it into its hole and all tucked in, it's time to make the hardest cut you'll ever make to that tree.  Cut the tree off at a forty-five degree angle with a very sharp pruner or lopper so that it's now at the same height as your knee, even if it has branches on it higher up. Yes, your knee. Remember, we're growing a small tree here.  It's okay, you can do it.  When I espaliered my apple trees, I cut them all at eighteen inches and they were fine.  Come spring when the sap starts to flow, you will find lots of new branches growing on your tree.

So now it's spring and you have lots of branches.  Keep an eye on where they're growing and the direction they are heading; if you have a lot of branches growing toward the center of the tree criss-crossing each other, you'll want to take most of those out at the solstice.  All trees ripen fruit by the exposure to sun which helps develop the sugars in the fruit, so you want to keep the canopy open so that sun can reach into all parts of the canopy.

Once it's the summer solstice, you can now go in and make your cuts to control the ultimate size of the tree.  Use heading cuts to change the direction in which the branch is going, and thinning cuts to remove branches from the tree (see the illustration at right for examples). Heading and thinning cuts can also be employed in the winter for the same reasons, but bear in mind that they will probably result in more growth because the energy of the tree is in storage.

My stump cut
Last autumn I decided that I didn't like the shape or size of one of my Lapins cherries, so I steeled myself and cut it off about hip high. I wish I'd known I could cut it lower, but I think it will be okay anyway, now that I know I can still keep it in control, and more importantly, how to keep it in control. But cutting it back hard did wonders for it, and I would do it again now that I know how well it's turned out. Instead of only two branches in the same lateral plane with the trunk, the
New size and shape. Long branches
will be taken out at solstice
branches are evenly spread around the trunk at a height that will be easier for me to manage.

The other Lapins. The long branches
will be removed altogether with
thinning cuts at solstice
The other thing that Ms. Ralph mentioned is that when you're considering which branches to cut, you should take out any vertical branches, which I've heard referred to as water spouts.  These vertical branches are rarely if ever fruitful. She also mentioned that you should still prune, even if there is fruit on that branch that needs to come off.  You should also thin your fruit, particularly apples. The first reason for thinning is so that the tree can support the weight of all the fruit.  The second reason is so that you can grow larger apples.  She believes thinning fruit to be so important that the first year one of her trees fruited, it bore two apples.  She thinned it to one.

Pluot with an open fountain
shape.  All I have to do is
control its size
I have a lot of work to do.  On my little quarter acre I have eleven apple trees, three cherries, two Italian plums, and two pluots, all of which need attention, especially the apples. The plums also need special attention; I cut them back this winter and they responded by getting really bushy.  I have exactly nine plums on them this year, the most there has ever been, but I will sacrifice fruit if it means I can get the shape and size under control.
Pluot with a bad shape. It
will have to wait until next
winter to be corrected

Getting ready for all this work means getting my Felco pruners tuned up, which I did yesterday.  You can see how to do that here.  My Felco pruners have stood by me for almost fourteen years; they were the first ever birthday present that Steve got me, even before we were married, and they have been great.  If I needed to, I would definitely buy another pair.  They have kept in reasonable shape all these years and now that I've cleaned and sharpened them again they are practically like brand new, and I use them a lot.  The classic Felco pruner is the F2, and they make an identical pruner for smaller hands which is the one I have; that one is the F6.  The videos for disassembling, cleaning and sharpening, and reassembling are shown with the F2 but they work for the F6 as well.  You can expect to pay around fifty bucks for the Felco pruner. If you need to buy pruners but don't want to shell out for the Felcos, at least look for a pruner that you can take apart to clean and sharpen.  Fiskars appears to make one here for around seventeen dollars.

Today is the nineteenth of June, which means you have two days to get your pruning gear tuned up.  If you have time, it might help to go out and take a look at your trees to make mental notes about where you'll make your cuts and what you have to do. To recap, you'll be looking to thin and control the size of the tree with heading and thinning cuts on or right after the summer solstice, which is the twenty-first of June. Next winter you'll be evaluating your trees to see where you should be encouraging growth, and pruning to help shape the tree.

I am giving myself several days to get this all accomplished, because with eighteen trees to prune, I'll be pretty busy.  The good news is, this time I'll really know what I'm doing.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

I Love Big Beets And I Cannot Lie

Beets: it's what's for dinner

These are Chioggia (key-OH-ghee-a).  I don't know if it's the variety or just because they're homegrown, but they are exceptionally sweet and delicious.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Have An Idea

Today and tomorrow are the two best days of the month for planting root vegetables according to the phases of the moon, so if you're planning a winter garden, now is a good time to get that stuff in, especially parsnips.  July would be the only other month for winter roots.

You see that?

No, I mean THAT.

That's a pac choi.  I found it the other day as a huge surprise, because it seeded itself. Well, I'm not sure about that.  All I can say is that I've tried unsuccessfully for the past two years to grow pac choi so I gave it up and threw out the remainder of my seed.  But here it is, all on its own as a giant surprise.

This bed is one of several in which I've planted all manner of things in the spirit of permaculture guilds, and in which I've allowed to grow most things that sprout on their own like lettuces, cucurbits (they all look like cucumbers, unfortunately- oddly, I was hoping for zucchini), and this pac choi.  The lettuces have been a bit of a revelation, actually. New, baby lettuce plants keep coming up all over the place where I've spread compost as a mulch, which was obviously not finished and definitely not hot enough to kill seeds.  This is important, because I haven't had to succession plant any lettuce this summer.  Between the waves of new lettuce growth and the serendipitous pac choy, I have an idea.

Next year as an experiment, I'm going to mix several different seed varieties into some mulch (probably compost again) and spread that over one bed in late winter or early spring and see what happens.  I'll probably do lettuces, maybe pac choi, onions, carrots, kales, summer squashes,  possibly green beans, and anything else I can think of between then and now that I think would work.  My reasoning is that you have to thin some crops anyway, so if it all comes up too thickly, I'd just thin it.  It would take much of the guesswork and labor of succession planting out of the mix because plants would come up when they are ready and conditions are favorable.

If this idea sounds intriguing and you want to try it as well, I'd be very interested in knowing how it worked for you.  In any case, I'll report back how it worked for me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It Sonofagun Worked

"What do you think?" I asked Steve, watching his expression as he chewed thoughtfully.  After fourteen and a half years of marriage I still can't read him.

He chewed a moment longer, swallowed and said, "I think it's pretty wonderful."  I don't think he's ever described any victual I've made before as wonderful, and I've made some wonderful things.

What was wonderful was the homemade prosciutto that I'd handed him to sample. Homemade prosciutto is more than possible; it's definitely doable.  Using the River Cottage Food Tube recipe, which is one and one half days on salt per kilo of meat, and after rinsing and patting it dry, I rested the pork sirloin I used for the requisite time (three weeks) uncovered on a rack in the bottom of the refrigerator. Today I cut into it, and it sonofagun worked.  The folks at River Cottage used a British cut (natch) for which we have no equivalent in the states, but when I described to Dennis, who was the gentlemen who cut up my half hog for me, where on the animal this said cut was, he suggested I use the sirloin, which is not something you see in the butcher case, generally speaking.  This worked so well that I'll really have to figure out what I can use for the next one; I may have to special order something.

While at the Mother Earth News Fair the weekend of June 6 and 7, I attended a lecture on heritage hogs by Jeanette Beranger of the Livestock Conservancy (which was very good).  From her I learned that there are two kinds of hogs that I want to raise.  One is the American Guinea hog, which is described as a homestead hog because it's a smaller hog.  According to Ms. Beranger, the American Guinea hog is descended from the Essex.  It's a very fatty, lard hog, and she also indicated that there is currently more market for it than there is supply, at least on the coasts.  Obviously, there is no demand for it in pork country.  Easy for beginners (that would be me), it's also great for keeping snakes at bay.

The other hog I would like to raise is also a smaller hog, but it's much more lean than the American Guinea.  The Mulefoot hog is called that because it doesn't have a cloven hoof.  It has very dark meat and makes great hams.  (Prosciutto, anyone?)  It is also supposed to be very easy going and easy for beginners to raise.

Don't laugh - it worked!
Raising pigs for home use is still a pipe dream, along with the acreage I want, so in the meantime I'll just keep practicing my charcuterie skills. The bacon from my half hog that I cured and smoked turned out really well, too, but I know where I can get more pork belly when I run out of it, and bacon is pretty simple to make once you get your smoker figured out.  I smoked mine in a cardboard box, for instance.  I would like to try it on apple or hickory; the first batch I made I smoked on oak bark, which worked great! It is really smoky and delicious and way better than commercial bacon.

By the time I get my country property and my hogs in situ, I should be pretty good at this.