Wednesday, December 17, 2014

When life hands you apples

I usually buy apples by the half-bushel from Cook's Orchard, for baked goods and applesauce. What varieties I use depends on what is available when I visit their little store. This year I wound up with a half-bushel of Macintosh and a half-bushel of Jonagold. I also purchased a half-bushel of Enterprise and Gold Rush from Bender's Orchard. I keep the apples in the garage until I get around to using them, not always the best idea. This year I lost quite a few Jonagolds to rot before I could get around to them.

My method is to wash the apples, quarter them, cook them until soft, then put them through the sauce maker (after they have cooled a bit). While reheating the applesauce, I heat the water bath with the jars in the water (saves a step). When the water starts to boil, I remove the jars from the water bath, VERY CAREFULLY dumping 3-4 quarts of water into a spare pot, in case I need to top up the water bath. Some of the boiling water is poured over the new jar lids (another saved step). Then I fill the jars to within 1/2 inch of the top, wipe the rims, add the lids and bands (finger-tight). Then CAREFULLY place the jars into the water bath rack and lower them into the water, topping with the saved water if necessary so that the jars are covered by at least an inch of water. Once the water returns to a boil, I start timing (20 minutes for quarts). When time is up, I turn off the heat and wait about 5 minutes before removing the jars and placing them on towels on the kitchen counter. They sit there for 24 hours before I remove the bands, label the jars, and put them away.

(Note to self: my "8-quart" Farberware pot holds what resulted in 6 quarts of applesauce, from about a half-bushel of Macintosh apples. A full half-bushel of Enterprise and Gold Rush yielded seven quarts.)

A couple of weeks ago I processed the Macs. I added 2 c. water when cooking down the apples to prevent scorching. The resulting applesauce was tasty but kind of watery; each jar had about an inch or so of liquid at the bottom with the applesauce floating on top. (With tomato sauce, the liquid rises to the top.) With subsequent batches, I added only one cup of water (you can also use cider), but I think some apples are just more watery than others. The following day I processed the Jonagolds. They have a really greasy feel to the peel, especially if they are overripe; this waxy layer helps provide protection from pests. I baked a couple of the Jonagolds for dessert and they were rather flavorless, but the applesauce is quite tasty. Maybe something in the processing releases more flavor?

Last week I finished by canning the Enterprise and Gold Rush (the latter is also rather waxy). Even though the two varieties were mixed in the bag, I separated them for processing, just for fun. Since there was little delay between purchase and processing, I lost none to rot, ending up with five quarts of Enterprise, one quart of Gold Rush, and one quart of half-and-half.

A little surprise I noticed this year is the different colors of the applesauces. The Macintosh and Gold Rush are brown, while the Jonagold and Enterprise are pink. I don't add any sweeteners or spices when canning, as I like applesauce just as it is. One of my favorite snacks during the winter is a half-cup of applesauce sprinkled with about a half-ounce of raw pecans.

Canning applesauce takes a certain amount of effort. I have not calculated whether it saves money, but as with knitting, that is beside the point. I have to ignore the little voice in my head that tells me this is a waste of time; it is simply something I enjoy doing. Besides, what else would I do? Watch "Dancing with the Stars"?

Friday, November 28, 2014

The dearth of birds

I shouldn't say there is a dearth of birds, but most of those at the feeders are sparrows, sparrows, and more sparrows. And they eat almost everything: sunflower seeds, peanut splits, niger, even the suet which is designated by the label as for woodpeckers. It's like a feeding frenzy out there.

The only thing they leave alone are the whole peanuts, which the blue jays ravage. After years of corvid shortage caused by the West Nile virus, I am happy to see the jays. Sparrows, not so much.

The only winter birds I have seen so far are a few juncos. No titmice, no chickadees, no nothing. Did they decide not to come this far south? Maybe that means the winter will be mild. Or did they pass by and just keep on going? Is that what happened to the finches? What do they know that we don't?

Before I retired, I worked from home as much as I could get away with. I'd sit in the West Wing and rest my eyes by gazing out the windows. Consequently, I was more aware of what species were visiting. I no longer spend as much time in that room, but when I do, I rarely see something like this guy.

Even when the feeders are birdless, I enjoy the big bluestem behind them. It is especially pretty this year.

What's outside your windows these days?

Saturday, November 15, 2014


This past week, I managed to get the garlic planted and mulched, one day before we received a dusting of snow. I thought I was late, but my not-very-exact notes reveal that last year I planted garlic on November 19. Previously, I planted nine cloves per square foot, but this year I gave them a little more room, in hopes of getting larger bulbs.

Today I spent about two hours outside doing this and that: putting away the lawn furniture, mulching the strawberries and asparagus with straw (note to self: one bale is not quite enough), transferring leaves donated by my neighbor from one side of the yard to the other, cartload by cartload, to build up the garden beds. My method is not very efficient, but all those trips added about 3000 steps to my Fitbit.

Sometimes I imagine my neighbors looking out their windows and wondering why in the world I spend so much time doing yardwork. Except for mowing, THEY certainly don't and don't want to. I could try to come up with some deep philosophical explanation, but the truth is much simpler: I just like it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A new toy

Several months ago, I got a bug up my butt about being able to chip and shred yard detritus. I did not want to deal with another combustion engine, so purchased a LawnMaster FD1501 Electric Chipper Shredder from Amazon. Then the thing sat in its box for months. (In all fairness to me, I was distracted by major home remodeling.)

Several weeks ago, I finally pulled the thing out and actually *used* it. Fortunately, there was very little assembly involved, so it was up and running in minutes. I put it to work on the remainders of the lilac bush I whacked not that long ago.

It did okay. Some chipping occurred and some shredding. The branches were still rather green, so with the small stuff there was more shredding than chipping. And the shreds were rather long and stringy, and periodically had to be cleared from the chute. I haven't tried it on anything thoroughly dead and dry, but I expect it will do fine. Tim "The Toolman" Taylor would be unimpressed, but this machine suits my needs and skill level.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Not too clean

Last week I wandered around the yard, clipping and yanking the thoroughly dead, no possible winter interest leftovers from summer. Things like dry stalks from daylilies and hostas, entire blackened coleus (good thing I dug one up to serve as next year's mother plant) and frosted marigolds, done in zinnias, etc. You know the drill. The so-called experts exhort us to clean, clean, clean up the garden and flower beds each fall. I do some, especially in the front of the house, but not too much. There are living things that depend on leaf litter and dead plants, plus after a long winter, I am usually antsy to be outside before it is safe to do any digging or planting, so leave some clean up for early spring.

Even the yucca stalks can wait.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Plans, I has 'em

All year round, I find myself thinking about what I want to do next in the yard and garden, but never more than at the end of the season. With successes and failures fresh in my mind, I contemplate what to repeat, what to do better, what to abandon, what new thing to try. These daydreams always chase away any gardener blues I may succumb to now and then.

Before fall cleanup

Something I would really like to improve is weed control in the vegetable garden, especially between beds. I've tried mulching with this, that, and the other, with minimal success. For my next method, I will try mowing. Toward that end, my SO helped me shift the raised beds to make the paths wide enough to accommodate the Toro.

After fall cleanup (more or less)

Next year's big "something new" will be the mini orchard, starting with apples and cherries. I think. I get a little overwhelmed with the choices of fruit trees available, but am narrowing my first choices to varieties that are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, the better to ensure some success.

It's not just the backyard that receives my scrutiny. The bed by the front walk is filling in nicely, but I am discovering the arrangement of the plants is not the best. Specifically, some taller things need to switch places with shorter ones, and some varieties would benefit from clustering together rather than standing in isolation.

This summer I filled in a few blanks with marigolds, simply because I started more seedlings than the vegetable garden could accommodate. Next year I would like to use its cousin calendula instead, which should self seed. I hope that does not turn out to be a mistake.

I'm done with the old fashioned (i.e. mildewed) lilac by the driveway, so whacked it down; an almond tree may grow in its place. The burning bush will get a severe pruning, to give the gold mop a chance to fill in all around.

I'm also done with most of the ornamental grasses in front of the house - just too floppy - and plan to move them to the backyard. I think a maple leaf viburnum would be a nice replacement by the front porch.

This 'Hameln', however, gets prettier every day in the autumn. I think I'll keep it.

I visited a tree nursery several years ago in search of a tulip poplar. The owner shamelessly flirted while extolling the virtues of the sugar maple over a tulip tree. Yes, sugar maples are striking this time of year, but I like the tulip poplar I eventually planted. So much so, I want to plant another, to someday shade the deck.

The observant will notice some big blue stem in the photo above. It and its neighbors, a little blue stem and two varieties of asters, are destined to move to the back corner where they can spread out to their natural size. The plants I moved to the south side of the house this past summer will probably join them. Then I get to decide what to do with the newly vacated location. I get excited just considering the possibilities!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Garden cat on duty

Now that the bulk of the garden is done for the season, I'm leaving the gate open so Finn can hunt the wild rodentia, specifically voles. These little critters have ruined more than one crop in recent history. While I don't approve of the way Finn sometimes tortures his prey, I'm not too sad about their demise.

Salomon Farm is a city park near my house which, among other things, boasts a large organic garden. A good portion of this garden is completely unfenced. WTH? I fend off rabbits that girdle shrubs and trees, woodchucks that destroy sweet potato plants, tomato-sampling gophers, voles that wipe out seed potato plantings, pea-eating sparrows, strawberry-stealing robins, etc. Salomon Farm is a working 1930's farm, so maybe I need to replace my lawn with field corn and soybeans to lure the critters away from the garden.