Autumn doings

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With temperatures around 40 at night and barely 60 during the day, you can definitely tell it’s autumn around here.

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View from the driveway

Which is fine with me because autumn is my favorite season.

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We’re even having our first fire of the year in the fireplace this evening.  The puppies, who are nearly six months old, were intrigued.
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Awhile back I was discussing the various edible wild plants I had found growing on our property, and I was wishing for a sassafras tree; they were so common when I was a child but I hardly ever see them now.  Well,  I never could find one around here until a few days ago when Philip and I were cutting back some scrub that was growing into the turn-around half way down our driveway.  After cutting back a huge, thorny shrub, I found this:

image I recognized the distinctive sassafras leaves immediately.  I was thrilled!  There will be hot sassafras tea this winter after all.  Philip marked it with some blue tape so that it wouldn’t get cut down by accident.  I want to give it plenty of room to spread under those big oaks behind it.

We’ve been very, very busy working around here after both of us putting in long hours at work.  First: I’ve been tree-planting.  I wait all year for the trees and fruit bushes to go on sale at Lowe’s and such places; they are always clearanced out at the end of September, usually at least 50% off, and I always spend several hundred dollars on new trees.

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I’m filling in any bare spots in our woods that I can find.  The reason I’m trying to have our property as natural and tree-covered as possible (except for the big garden and a small front lawn for the children to play on) is because it encourages wild animals to live here.  I like knowing there are deer, rabbits, squirrel, wild turkeys, and other birds living just outside my door.  Hunting season will simply involve walking down the driveway a bit to the hunting blind we now have set up.  For an interesting post about tree-planting to encourage wildlife, see It Only Took 20 Years by Mr. Pioneer Preppy.

This year I had green beans, yellow beans, and sugar snap peas growing up old pallets I’d set up haphazardly in the garden, but what I really wanted was a bean-and-pea teepee.  My husband salvaged some old skis from his mother’s garage, bolted them together at the top, and made this:

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Next year I’ll string twine around this, leaving one side open, and plant my beans and peas around it.  The kids can then have it as an edible hideout.

He also salvaged some tires because I wanted them for turning into potato towers:

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What you do is stack up two tires, fill it with dirt and compost, and plant your seed potatoes.  As the plants grow, you add tires one at a time, filling in with dirt and compost.  The finished product looks like this:

Harvesting potatoes out of the tires is much easier than digging them out of ice-cold dirt in late fall, which is what I spent many hours doing as a resentful teenager. 🙂

I’m also beginning to lay out my logs for the hugelkultur beds I’ve discussed:

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I have GOT to find time to harvest and set herbs to drying.  I cannot believe this is only one year’s growth on these herbs.  They really, really liked the location I used for my new herb bed. Here you can see cilantro, lemongrass, sage, some basil still hanging on, some rosemary, and a few raspberry plants:

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Remember all the weird zucchini recipes I canned this summer?  Well, I finally cut down the vines, except I missed one, and the zucchini are STILL growing on it!  Look at the size of this one next to my foot:

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I’m just going to chuck these into one of the composters.  Some nice red hot peppers are ready to pick and dry:

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And I’m still getting good watermelons, believe it or not.  We picked and ate one just a couple of days ago, but it just doesn’t taste quite right to eat watermelon in the fall.  I’ll probably compost the rest of these, too, or bring them in to work and put them in the staff lounge for anyone who wants them.

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I ran out of time for canning, but I’ve been picking, baking, mashing, and freezing butternut squash every chance I get.  We love butternut squash, so I want to preserve as much of it as possible.

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Do you ever have something that you swear you didn’t plant sprout up in your garden?  I don’t even know exactly what this is…some kind of pumpkin or gourd thing.  I have no memory of planting this:

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I’ll probably pick it and set it out on the front porch with some pumpkins and straw bales for a fall decoration.

The blueberry bushes should be thriving along the edge of the pond, but they’re only doing so-so – I’m not sure why:

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There is so much work to do and never enough time to do it around here.  This past Friday was homecoming, but instead of getting to go to the parade and football game, I was home sick in bed, no doubt the result of trying to burn the candle at both ends.  I’m still kind of low energy even today and had to drag myself out of bed to drive to church by promising myself a trip to the Dexter Cider Mill afterward:

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Crates full of apples waiting to be run through the cider press.

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The place was packed with people waiting for the cider and doughnuts, both of which are made on site.

Behind the mill is an area where you can sit at picnic tables and look down at the Huron River while you drink your cider and eat your doughnuts:

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One of our daughters climbed down the steep bank to drink her apple cider slushy by the side of the river:

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Hope you’re enjoying this Autumn wherever you are!

Upcycling silverware for other uses and making a pallet bench. Also: cute goats!

Sorry it’s a bit quiet around here; summer is drawing to an end, various school activities have started back up for the children, I’m preparing for the new year at work, and various chores and projects around here require a lot of time.

I almost convinced my husband that we need to start keeping goats; these little cuties were only $50 at the Chelsea Fair yesterday:

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The animal barns are always my favorite part of the fair, but my husband has a much more practical and cool-headed approach to life and thus would not budge on impulse goat purchases, no matter how cute they were. We do have a small outbuilding where they could live, but nothing is fenced in and we have no equipment, so it was pretty sensible of him to hold the line at No!  despite all the begging females surrounding him.

Anyway, since I don’t have time to write much of a post at present, I thought I’d include a couple of frugal-living upcycling tips.

The first one was that I needed a hook to hang a basket on in the garden area.  My husband had grabbed a bag full of old silverware out of the Goodwill pile at his mom’s house, and rather than buying a new hook to install, he made one for me:

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Works great and was totally free!

We also wanted some benches to put around the firepit out back since we often seem to have more people than seats.  We have some old wooden pallets lying out back which we salvaged from next to a dumpster at a factory in Saline (the owner gave us permission to take them):

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He used the bottom support boards for the legs, and the frame pieces form the front and back of the bench.  Then he cut the thin boards to size and used them to form the seat and sides of the bench.  He sanded down the rough boards and sharp edges and sealed it with some linseed oil he had in his workshop and voila – a totally free bench!

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I’m hoping he’ll use some of those old spoons and pallet wood to make a rack for me to hang some of my garden tools on, like this one:

Our goal is to salvage, reuse, and upcycle as much as possible to meet our needs and wants.  It’s not only a good creative outlet, but it also saves us money that can be put to better use (like fencing off a goat enclosure, for instance 🙂 ), plus it keeps us out of the consumerist mind set.

Enjoy these last few days of summer, everyone!

 

Preserving the Harvest: Quick Sweet Pickles

 

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I’m an insomniac and a night owl, which is why I was still finishing up making the jars of pickles you see above at 2:00 a.m. before going to bed.

I found a recipe for Quick Sweet Pickles on the National Center for Home Food Preservation site, but I changed the original recipe, so I’m posting what I did here:

  • Enough pickle cucumbers to fill 7 quart jars when sliced
  • 2/3 cup canning or pickling salt
  • 9-1/2 cups sugar
  • 7-1/2 cups vinegar (5 percent)
  • 4 tsp celery seed
  • 2 tbsp whole allspice
  • 4 tbsp mustard seed
  • 1 tbsp black pepper corns
  1. Wash cucumbers. Cut 1/16-inch off ends and discard.  Slice into rounds. Place in bowl and sprinkle with 2/3 cup salt. Cover with 2 inches of crushed or cubed ice. Refrigerate 3 to 4 hours. Add more ice as needed. Drain well.
  2. Combine sugar, vinegar, celery seed, allspice, mustard seed, and peppercorns in a large kettle. Heat to boiling.
  3. Fill jars, with cucumber slices leaving 1/2-inch headspace.
  4. Ladle in hot pickling syrup, leaving 1/2-inch headspace.
  5. Adjust lids and process for 15 minutes in a boiling water-bath canner.
  6. After processing and cooling, jars should be stored 4 to 5 weeks to develop ideal flavor.

I didn’t take any pictures this time, but I do want to remind anyone who is interested in home canning that the Ball Jars website Fresh Preserving has a ton of useful information on it.  Of course, they want to push their own products, too, but their Canning FAQs section is useful no matter what brand of jars you use.  Just today, I learned something new from their site: I don’t have to heat the lids, and I don’t need to sterilize the jars for any recipe that will be processed for at least ten minutes!  I did not know that; my mother always sterilized her jars and heated her lids.  But here is what Ball now says:

Why don’t I have to preheat my lids?

After extensive testing by our Quality Assurance Team, we determined that it is no longer necessary to pre-warm lids before use. If you desire, it is still safe to simmer your lids before use, however, you should never boil them. Our recommendation for over 40 years has always been to simmer (180°F), not boil (212°F), the lids.

When was this change made?

Believe it or not, in 1969! At that time we switched our sealing gasket from being latex-based to Plastisol. Latex required pre-heating to soften it prior to canning in order to create an effective seal. The Plastisol does not require preheating, but doing so will not damage it.

What about sterilizing the jars?

Pre-sterilizing jars and lids is not necessary in the home canning process. If you are following a recipe that processes in your canner for 10 minutes or more, the sterilization will occur during that time.

There is is always something new to learn!

Making horehound cough drops.

I didn’t plan to grow any horehound in my herb garden, but the nice lady at the Dexter Mill offered me a leggy horehound plant for a dollar, along with a bunch of free vegetable plants that were in bad need of a good home.  I remember eating horehound candy sticks as a child but you don’t see those around much anymore.  I don’t remember thinking they were too tasty, which is probably why you don’t see them now.

But it turns out that horehound makes very nice cough drops, and today I made my first batch of them.

According to the University of Michigan hospital website:

Horehound contains a number of constituents, including alkaloids, flavonoids, diterpenes (e.g., marrubiin), and trace amount of volatile oils. The major active constituent in horehound is marrubiin, which is thought to be responsible for the expectorant (promotion of coughing up of mucus) action of the herb. In addition, marrubiin contributes to the bitter taste of horehound, an action that increases the flow of saliva and gastric juice, thereby stimulating the appetite. These actions likely explain the long-standing use of horehound as a cough suppressant and expectorant as well as a bitter digestive tonic.

Put 1 ½ cups of fresh, rinsed horehound leaves in a small nonreactive saucepan and add water. Bring to a hard boil and then turn off heat, allowing the leaves to steep for 20 minutes. Pour through a strainer to remove leaves, then return liquid to pan.  I was amazed at how strong the vapors were; my lungs felt like I was breathing Vick’s Vapo-Rub.

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Add 2 cups sugar and 2 tablespoons honey and return to a boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.

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Boil to the hard-crack stage (300-310 degrees F), using a candy thermometer if you have one.  If you don’t have one, use the cold water method: once the sugar syrup is forming strands when you drip it off your spoon, add a drop to a cup of cold water and then crunch it with your teeth.  If it’s still sticky instead of crunchy, it’s not ready (for more on the temperatures associated with different stages for making candy, see The Science of Cooking website).

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Pour the syrup into a buttered pan.

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If you have candy molds like these, you can use them instead.

I also read about a trick I want to try next time in which you put a thick layer of powdered sugar into a pie plate, tamp it down with your hands, and then use the bottom of a food coloring bottle to make indentations, forming a powder sugar mold.

After I poured my sugar syrup into the buttered pan, I let it cool a little and then quickly formed it into cough drop shaped balls by hand.  Careful – the mixture is still pretty hot.  You have to work quickly because once it cools a bit more, the candy hardens and you can’t shape it.  You could also just leave it in the pan and cut or break it like you do with peanut brittle, but it won’t be in a pleasing lozenge shape then.

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Finally, dust cough drops with fine granulated sugar if you have it; I didn’t have any, so I used powdered sugar.  I stored my cough drops in a glass jar.

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Horehound Cough Drops Recipe:

  • 1 ½ cup fresh horehound leaves, rinsed and drained in a colander
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • powdered sugar, to coat
  1. Put horehound leaves in a small nonreactive saucepan and add water. Bring to a hard boil and then turn off heat, allowing the leaves to steep for 20 minutes. Pour through a strainer to remove leaves and return liquid to pan.
  2. Add sugar and honey and return to a boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
  3. Boil to the hard-crack stage (300-310 degrees F) using a candy thermometer if you have one.  If you don’t have one, use the cold water method: once the sugar syrup is forming strands when you drip it off your spoon, add a drop to a cup of cold water and then crunch it with your teeth.  If it’s still sticky instead of crunchy, it’s not ready.
  4. Pour the syrup into a buttered pan or candy molds.
  5. Dust cough drops with fine granulated or powdered sugar and store in a glass jar.

 

Teach a man know-how and he’ll know how for the rest of his life.

You know that old cliche saying Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime?  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know that we really are headed for a massive collapse in the near future because I’ve been hearing that for so long that I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that, while it’s certainly within the realm of possibility, it seems more likely that what our world is looking at is a decline from which we aren’t going to recover to our previous baseline of material wealth.  But in either case, know-how and tools seem more important to me than actually storing a ton of finished product.  Now, I say this as someone who likes filling my pantry with home-canned food from my own garden, but I don’t find it useful to have more than a season or two (or at most a year) worth of food stored up (other than salt; I like having a good back-stock of salt, just in case).  What my husband Philip and I do value highly is increasing our know-how.

That popped into my head when I read this comment from JohnnyMac on Frank’s post Brace for Impact:

Our log splitter died and [my brother’s] response was, “We should go out and buy another one.” I diagnosed the problem to a blown gasket where the carburetor joined the engine block. Ordered the $9.30 rebuild kit while he wanted to go out and spend $1,200-.

 

I’ve known people like this, who replace anything that breaks.  That’s so expensive and you don’t learn anything from it!  You don’t increase your know-how.  My husband didn’t really know much about fixing stuff when we first got married, but he finds satisfaction in learning how to fix things and has greatly increased his know-how over the years.  Honestly, I believe he can fix nearly anything now.  I felt such admiration and gratitude when my dryer conked out a few months ago and he disassembled it, spent some time online looking at the manual (nearly all user manuals are available online if you don’t have your original), diagnosed the likely problem, and ordered the necessary part.  He had it working again within a couple days for under $40.  In the mean time, I used drying racks, which I ask for every year for Christmas (I’ve now received six of them).

Here is a little know-how tip for you: Repair Clinic is a valuable resource for diagnosing problems with your appliances and tools and ordering spare parts (disclosure: I have no relationship with this site and receive no compensation from them; this is my honest opinion based on our personal experiences).  You can even call them, as my husband often does, and speak to a person about the problem.  Now, we happen to live within driving distance of their warehouse, so we order the parts for pick-up, thereby saving on shipping, but I bet even if you have to have the parts shipped, it’s still cheaper than buying new, plus you’ve increased your know-how and kept another item out of our overflowing landfills.  It’s a win all around.

Modern Americans are terribly helpless but it doesn’t have to be that way.  It’s pretty much indisputable that our material wealth in this country is declining and will probably continue to do so permanently now.  So what?  Maybe eventually we’ll live like people lived 150 years ago.  Again I say, so what?  I’m not all that enamored of what post Industrial Revolution life has done to family life, and what could be more valuable than know-how regardless of what the future holds?

If you read prepper sites, you can get super overwhelmed and feel like you can’t possibly do it all – you can’t store up a year of food, ammunition, medical supplies, etc.  So what I always tell people is start by making a short list of things you want to learn how to do.  Then budget for and acquire the necessary tools to do that thing, learn all you can about it, and then do it.  Right now, go ahead and make yourself a list of the three most important things you’d like to learn how to do, and then start on number one right now.

I’ll even tell you mine:

  1. Continue to improve my food preservation skills, especially focusing on salt-brine lacto-fermentation.  Plan: order a fermentation crock and make sauerkraut with some of my home-grown organic cabbage.
  2. Learn how to cultivate my little orchard so that I actually get a harvest of organic fruit.  This is harder than it sounds.  Between the Cedar-Apple Rust and the Japanese beetles and all the other critters that eat fruit trees, I could easily never harvest a piece of fruit if I don’t increase my know-how.  So far we’ve cut down our cedar trees and put deer fencing around the apple trees:imageI’ve learned that I can hand pick Japanese beetles by dropping them into a bucket of water and then dumping it in the pond, where the fish immediately eat them.  Plan: acquire Tanglefoot and wrapping paper for tree trunks and learn how to apply it.  Learn more about pruning peach and apple trees. Prune our semi-dwarf peach tree which is now in its second year:

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    One of our two peach trees, surrounded by butternut squash vines.

  3. Learn how to fish (no kidding).  Plan: A friend of my husband’s has offered to come over and look at the fishing poles we found in my in-laws basement, show me how to get them operational and how to catch a few of the catfish in our pond.  Then I’ll gut and cook them.  Our daughters have caught fish at camp, but I have never caught or gutted a fish before, and because it involves killing a living creature, this is the one I’m most nervous about.  But I think it’s a good skill to know.

My husband’s:

  1. Build a root cellar type pantry.  Plan: Get industrial metal shelving from someone who wanted to get rid of it but needed it disassembled first.  Clean, paint, and install shelving in our basement storage room where the temperature is always quite cool.
  2. Learn to hunt.  Plan: Take hunter’s ed (which he’s wanted to do for three years but never had the time to do) so that he and the guy who plows our driveway can hunt deer on our land this fall.
  3. Continue to improve his tree-felling skills.  He has cut down several small to medium trees on our property and is learning how to fell them where he wants them and then cut them into logs for use as firewood or in the hugelkultur garden beds I’m working on for next summer.  Plan: cut down old, blighted apple trees.  Cut down larger dead (probably ash) trees.  Acquire chainsaw chaps for safety.  Inventory and sharpen our axes and hatchets and practice cutting down small trees manually with an axe.

Are there any useful skills you want to learn?  What is your plan for learning those skills?

For my further musings on this topic, see my post Helpless.

 

 

Using and preserving the harvest: frozen lemon zucchini bars.

My mother made sheets and sheets of lemon zucchini bars every summer because they freeze well and actually taste even BETTER frozen.  She got this recipe from our next door neighbor, a lady named Bev who had seven children and also made enormous quantities of these to feed her brood.  Like with the mock apple pie filling, these taste like apple, not zucchini.

My eldest daughter recalls being around four years old and eating one of these at my mother’s house, unaware that the filling was zucchini.  My mother asked her how she liked it and when she said, “It’s yummy!”, my mom told her what was really in it.  Then my daughter refused to eat any more of it.  🙂  Kids are silly that way.  But she likes them now, so my advice is just don’t tell your kids what’s in them.  Let them assume whatever they want about the filling!

Ingredients:

  • 8 or 9 medium zucchinis, peeled, cut in half, seeded, and sliced
  • 1 1/3 c lemon juice
  • 2 c sugar
  • 1/2 t nutmeg
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1 cup crushed mix (see below)

Crushed Mix

  • 6 c flour
  • 3 c sugar
  • 3/4 t salt
  • 2 1/2 c butter
  • 1 1/2 t cinnamon

Directions

  • Mix all dry ingredients for crushed mix, then cut in butter with a pastry cutter or fork until mixture is crumbly:

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  • Pat 1/2 the mixture into an ungreased 11X16 pan or large cookie sheet with sides.  Bake at 350 degrees for about ten minutes, just until set looking.

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  • Mix all filling ingredients and bring to a boil and simmer for ten minutes, stirring frequently.  Pour zucchini mixture onto baked crust and spread to the edges, leaving a small edge of crust.  Sprinkle remaining crushed mix over filling.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until top just begins to brown a bit.

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  • After the pan cools completely, cut into bars with a sharp knife.

I layer the bars between sheets of wax paper in a large Tupperware container and store it in our basement freezer.  You can also store some in the refrigerator for immediate consumption.  They taste best chilled in my opinion.

 

Complete Guide to Home Canning: useful, thorough, and free!

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Occasionally the government does something rather useful.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation is one of those useful things resulting from a partnership between the county extension at the University of Georgia and the United States Department of Agriculture.  If you go on their website, you can find the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning, a free 196-page document broken into downloadable “guides”.  Here are the topics covered:

Guide 01: Principles of Home Canning
Guide 02: Selecting, Preparing, and Canning Fruit and Fruit Products
Guide 03: Selecting, Preparing, and Canning Tomatoes and Tomato Products
Guide 04: Selecting, Preparing, and Canning Vegetables and Vegetable Products
Guide 05: Preparing and Canning Poultry, Red Meats, and Seafood
Guide 06: Preparing and Canning Fermented Food and Pickled Vegetables
Guide 07: Preparing and Canning Jams and Jellies

If you are new to canning, read Guide 1.  It’s only about 35 easy-to-read pages long but it covers all the basics in a simple fashion.  I used a recipe for pickles from one of the guides and it was very easy to follow.   The recipes aren’t gourmet but they are straightforward, and they base their processing suggestions on research into the temperatures and times needed to safely kill all microorganisms for various foods.