Thanks Mom!

The late summer garden is in full swing–tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, zucchini are pouring in each day.  I am also pulling up earlier crops (beets, carrots) to make space and get ready for the fall clean-up.  All of which means, it’s time to figure out what to do with all of this produce!

Most of the year, “eating out of the garden” for me means just that: the garden is my grocery store, and I just harvest as I need supplies for a meal.  I actually find myself forgetting that I even have produce in the fridge, which is dangerous! But this time of year, the produce doesn’t work that way.  Lettuce can just sit in the ground for a couple of weeks, but tomatoes can’t sit on the vine.  It’s a new phase in the cycle, and I’m often sluggish with the transitions.

So I was unexpectedly grateful when my Mom came to visit this weekend, and ended up kick-starting me into preservation mode.  Mom’s a hugely experienced cook, gardener, and spent much of her early career in commercial food service, which turned her into a self-proclaimed “food factory.”

Together we harvested, blanched and froze green beans and tomatoes, and she turned the extras into sauce for eating that day.  She boiled up pickling brine for the beets that had turned into giants in the garden, and explained in detail how easy refrigerator bread and butter pickles are to make.  She also made mayonnaise with me, so that I could get the technique down and get used to using our fresh eggs for this task!  After she left, I was motivated enough to keep going; I canned the sauerkraut that had been fermenting for the last few weeks and started digging up pickle recipes.

I’m a confident and experienced cook, and none of these tasks is difficult.  I like to remember that our ancestors did all this with few recipes and technologies, so it can’t be that hard!  But getting started isn’t always easy, and feeling overwhelmed as the dining table starts to get swallowed by the vegetables covering it is often my first reaction.  So it was great to have Mom come and just get stuck in without hesitation.  And there’s nothing like having someone offer all kinds of smart tips to make the job seem easier and less time consuming.  One great one I noticed?  When blanching tomatoes to freeze, stick the freezer bag upright in a yogurt or other tall container!  Then you have an easy routine of “plop tomatoes into boiling water, scoop into cold water, squeeze off skins and drop into bag”.  No step of “open bag with wet, sticky fingers and try to carefully slide slightly mushy and slippery ball into narrow opening”!

Thanks to that support, I’m ready to get fully into the canning season.  Diced tomatoes, garlic dills, canned bread and butter pickles, and probably some more green tomato preserves of some sort, as well as ultimately (fingers crossed) some tomato sauce.  I’ve been out picking wild blackberries, and the raspberries are piling up in the freezer to be ready for the Skipper’s fall jam-making sessions. Bring it on!

Thanks Mom!

Stocking Up

There’s something about August.  As a perennial student and now teacher, September continues to mark the End of Summer to me, regardless of what the weather’s doing.  As soon as the August long weekend has passed, the shift into fall seems dramatic and poweful.  The shadows lengthen, the lawns bleach out, the mornings are darker longer, the nights cooler.

And the harvests shift too.  It’s a paradoxical time in the garden; the real crops of summer, the tomatoes, beans, zucchini, and cucumbers start to finally come into their prime at the same time as I start nervously taking stock of what might continue into winter and what I might be once again behind in planting.  Will it have time to size up during these cooling, shortening days?

But most of all, this time of year, the pantry and freezer slowly but surely start to fill.  The staples that will sustain us for another year are ready to be put away, and each year we gain confidence in our backyard homestead and manage to stock up on a little more, understanding how much we might need.

I planted garlic in two batches last fall, and the last one is now ready to put away.  It was a good harvest of almost 60 heads, which should give me enough to replant from my own stock in a few months.

This year I was also on a mission to learn how to grow onions; the beautiful Bedfordshire Champions are a heritage yellow storage onion that was very successful for me.  They bulbed up really nicely, and I only seperated these two out for quick use due to potential rot (the rest are curing outside out of today’s rain).

I also tried Thrifty Red onions that have bulbed up reasonably well but haven’t toppled over yet; I’ll take the water right off them once the rain has passed.  Between both types, I was hoping for enough onions to take us through the winter, but germination rates weren’t great for either, and I didn’t end up with as many transplants as I was hoping.  I’ll go big with the planting for next year, though, now that I’ve had this success!

Also now harvested and ready for storage: 120 lbs (?) of potatoes!

There are more in the box behind!

The final weigh in isn’t totally complete, but that’s an educated guess and if anything, it’s conservative.  These are the Kennebecs and Russian Blues that we hope will get us through the year, and so far, it’s looking good!

The tomatoes are starting to come in steadily, and the onslaught of beans (first bush, then pole, then dry/shelling) is underway.  It won’t be a good squash year, but with a nice September and October, we might get a few.  It’s a GREAT year for apples–I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with another 100 lbs of those to store.

And lastly, the freezer is stocked with Sockeye and Spring salmon after strong local returns this year, and Skipper and I are in the thick of crabbing once more.  Another week or two and we should have enough crab in the freezer to keep us going until next summer (though, truly, people crab year-round here, and there really is no pressure to store enough for the year.  But it’s an intensive routine that’s nice to do in one go).

It’s quite a remarkable feeling to stock up and realize that we will be able to meet so many of our food needs through the year.  Protein? Salmon, crab, eggs, and a few chickens in the freezer (well, the extra roosters.  That’s for another post. 🙂 ).  With any luck, some home-dried beans.  Supplemented with purchased cheese, nuts, tofu.  Starch? Potatoes! Supplemented with rice, pasta, oats and bread/flour.  Veggies?  Stored onions, tomatoes, squash; carrots, turnips, beets, and winter greens and brassicas in the garden for as long as we can stretch them.  Possibly some beans and other veg in the freezer; there will be a little sauerkraut and possibly some other pickles in the pantry.  Dried herbs and garlic for seasoning.  Fruit? Apples, frozen rhubarb and berries, jam.  Skipper has a batch of his own beer on the go, and the hops are ripening on the vine.  Next year they will be in full production, and our cherry and plum trees will slowly come on line as well.

I wish I could find the words to express the awe I feel as I take stock of these staples.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be a measure of security, but it does feel that way.  As well as just immensely satisfying.  It’s a primal, visceral sense of connection to land, people here, ancestors, but it’s also a joyful pleasure in the abundance, the return on months of happy labour, and the signal of winter feasts to come as we share this delicious wealth with friends and family in the months to come.

Here’s to fall!

Life Lessons from the Summer Garden

It’s perhaps not suprising that regular postings seem to fade across the gardening blogosphere this time of year; its the time of year that I wait for all winter, and then once it’s here, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  There’s so much happening in life and in the garden that it just doesn’t seem possible to keep up with the world, let alone with the virtual world!

But I finally have time to take a breath, and it’s time for a post.  I’ve spent much of the summer in contemplation of my life generally, and I’ve realized that my garden has much to teach me.  So here are the life lessons that I seem to be learning from the garden this year.

1.  Good support is essential!  You know how if we don’t learn a life lesson the easy way, then the universe gives us a chance to learn it again and again, each time a little more dramatically, until finally we get it already?!  Well the importance of good, strong, trellises are at the top of that list for me.  Last year I grew dwarf peas and bush tomatoes and believed the package that said they didn’t need trellising.  Hah!  This year I knew I needed trellises and strong supports of various kinds.  Unfortunately, just how strong is hard to remember in the early season when the plants look so tiny and decorative.  It’s not until June that the peas start to take down the twine and stakes entirely, or whole branches of tomatoes start to break off from the weight of the fruit, or pole beans sway gently lost at the top of the fence looking for higher ground that I remember just how powerful plants really are.

2.  Life is all about perception.  I have been continually amazed by this observation this summer.  One day I will go out and look at the garden and all I will see is life, diversity, and beauty.  The next day, a cloud passes by, and all I see are weeds and failures.  It’s the same garden!  Yep, it’s true.  Life is all in the mind. 🙂

3.  Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing to do.  I have had no issues with pests this year at all.  I ignored a few thistles in a raised bed of tomatoes, and to my surprise, the thistle acted as a trap plant and ended up covered in black aphids.  As the Skipper said, “Don’t weed that thistle!  Leave it right where it is!”  I saw some slug damage in the cool, wet, early summer, and did hand pick as many voracious baby slugs as I could.  But the plants were vulnerable as long as the weather was cool, and I knew it was just a matter of getting them through until the heat arrived.  Sure enough, as soon as the days were hot, the plants took off and the slugs disappeared.  I know I had some cabbage moth damage, especially because I planted too much cabbage and the heads sat in the garden.  But doing nothing about the moths meant the wasps could get to work enjoying the feast of moth larvae, and we already had more than enough cabbage to eat, so no worries.  In our large garden this year, we had clear sections that we were paying attention to, and other sections we are actively ignoring.  Although the neglect has meant for weeds and some plant losses, I’m also paying close attention to what plants are doing just fine without any attention at all.  More of those, please!

4.  Proper hydration–and a little protection from the elements–fosters healthy growth.  This year our irrigation system improved dramatically, and so did our results.  Predictable, regular watering from drip irrigation at the roots of plants made for huge crop success.  Where we were still relying on sprays, the results varied according to which blind spots weren’t getting hit by the sprinklers.  A little row cover as a simple protection worked wonders too–especially just to keep out all the beloved wild birds that love to dustbath and dig in a freshly planted bed.

5.  Always check your filters!  Good advice for the body, car, life, and now, irrigation systems!  We had been scratching our heads for two years about why our water pressure through the sprinkler and drip lines seemed so uneven.  Turns out the filter was beyond clogged.  Aha!

6.  Slow and Steady Wins the Race.  I have to admit, this is one of my favorite proverbs.  It was a saviour in high school gym class! 🙂  But, turns out it’s true for the garden, too.   As much guilt as I pile on myself some days about the LONG list of things that need doing outside, the reality is that the garden actually does better if I do small things on a regular basis.  I have found myself breaking up complex tasks more often this year.  Not just “transplant all the fall brassicas that need to get out of their seed trays STAT!” But instead: today I will pull out the plants that are coming out before the next crop goes in.  Tomorrow I will rake and compost and prepare the bed.  The next day I will plant the first section.  Then I will finish and set up the water.  Small-1/2 hour, unintimidating-steps means the jobs actually get done, and I spend less time paralyzed by despair. 🙂

If these lessons sound familiar, it’s because gardeners have been relearning them for years.  Or at least I know I’ve read them before in gardening books!  It’s like when I finally clued in that all garden books started by talking about improving your soil–because EVERYONE’s soil needs improving! But I’m one of those people who always seems to need to learn from scratch; prove things to myself.  Thank goodness I’ve got such a good teacher!