One of my favorite memories of going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house is eating Grandma’s currant jelly. I remember the beautiful color and the so-sweet but so-tart taste like it was yesterday. Much as I would like to have my own currant bushes, Jim and I haven’t put in any fruit trees. We rent our house and are reluctant to make an investment in fruit trees only to leave them behind someday. So far we just grow watermelon and rhubarb, and pick blueberries on a friend’s property. That’s why I was so excited when I recently stumbled upon two wild apple trees, both loaded with ripe, tasty fruit and both easily accessible.
Riding the bus to and from work allows me to see what’s going on around me – between the walk to the bus stop and looking out the bus window I see more than I would from behind the wheel. Last week as I walked home a noisy squirrel helped me to notice a small apple tree.
The tree sits on a wedge of property owned by a nearby apartment complex. Out of curiosity I picked a low-hanging apple. Wouldn’t you know, although it was small, it was delicious; worm-free and one of the tastiest apples I’ve ever eaten. Jim and I returned to the tree later and picked nearly 15 pounds of these tiny, flavor-filled gems.
A few days later, while sitting on the bus, I noticed a woman crouching below yet another apple tree, this one in the neighborhood where I work. It is on property owned by the state-run college, next to a dormitory. The woman attracted my attention because she was filling a grocery bag with apples she was picking up from the ground.
The next day I brought the car down with our apple-picker to reach the high branches. In about 20 minutes I’d gleaned another 11 pounds of apples.
With just a small investment of time, we had 25 pounds of free apples. We assume they were organic; they certainly haven’t been sprayed like they would in a conventional or even a low-spray orchard. Because they are stand-alone trees, not part of an orchard monoculture, they have very little pest damage. We discovered fewer worms than we’ve found in apples we’ve purchased from area non-organic orchards.
American cities (and countryside) are full of abandoned fruit trees and bushes. Instead of leaving all that good, nutritious food for wild animals, try to gather some for yourself and your family. A helpful tool to locate pickable produce is http://fallingfruit.org, a map of potential picking spots. I don’t think I’ll be putting “my” two trees on the map, however. I intend to keep these trees a secret for next year’s harvest!
We had a fantastic beet harvest this year from our home garden.
We wanted to try something new with them so I spent some time hunting through Grandma’s cookbook to find a way to use some up.
With a little searching I found my grandmother’s handwritten beet relish recipe that she had tucked into her 1931 Successful Farming Cookbook. Her recipe was very simple – beets, horseradish, cabbage, onion, vinegar, salt and sugar. My mom said she didn’t remember having them as a child, and she sent to me the beet relish recipe from the Ball canning book. I decided to use Grandma’s recipe with a few tweaks from the Ball book.
Most of the ingredients were homegrown. The beets and the red pepper came from our garden. The cabbage was given to us by a gardening neighbor. Finding horseradish turned out to be a bit of a project. I scoured a farmer’s market and two grocery stores without success. Finally at the local food co-op, the produce manager found some in the back, apparently they sell so little they don’t display it. Lesson learned, next year we’ll be growing our own horseradish!
Beet relish is easy to make and has a sweet, spicy, tart flavor. It tastes very little like beets, which means people (like me) who are just so-so on beets find it delicious! It looks beautiful on the shelf, too! I think you’ll find it a great addition to your holiday table and to canning cellar.
Ready to get started? Here’s how we made it:
1½ quarts chopped beets
1 quart chopped cabbage
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped sweet red pepper
½ cup (overflowing) chopped fresh horseradish
3 cups white vinegar
1½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon pickling salt
Prepare your water bath canner. Make sure your jars and lids are clean and put your lids in a small bowl of warm (not boiling) water. Your jars should be in simmering water to keep them hot.
Heat vinegar, salt, and sugar on stove. Meanwhile, chop beets, cabbage, onions, pepper, and horseradish. (You can use your Cuisinart to save time.) Add all to your mixture on the stove; simmer, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes.
Remove your hot canning jars from the waterbath and ladle the relish into the jars. Leave about ½ inch headspace. Place lids and rings on jars and place jars in your boiling water bath. Boil in the canner for 15 minutes. Turn off heat, remove cover and let canner sit for 5 minutes. Remove jars and place on a towel. Let sit for about 24 hours. Our yield was the equivalent of 7 pints.
After we’re done planting garlic and tilling in leaves, the last thing we do to put the garden to bed for winter is planting our cover crop: winter rye.
Cover crops help lessen erosion and suppress spring weed growth. The roots loosen soil and the tops add organic matter when it’s tilled back into the garden.
There are many types of cover crops. Those used in our area include annual ryegrass, winter rye, winter wheat, oats, white clover, sweet clover, hairy vetch, and buckwheat. We plant winter rye because it is one of the few that can be planted so late in the year. And although we plant it probably a bit on the late side, it seems to work.
Our garden stays productive through November. Even now we are still harvesting beets, bok choi, swiss chard, lettuce, collard greens, and broccoli. Because our remaining crops tend to be scattered throughout the garden it’s not easy to get in there and till. Jim waits until we’ve pulled out most of the plants and then tills all the leaves from our property and from our neighbors as well. Any cover crop that has to be planted even as late as the end of September would not work for us. Rye can be planted at the end of October or early November in our area.
Planting winter rye is easy – we just scatter seeds and rake them in. It’s also very cheap, we paid $.59/lb this year and used less than four pounds.
Because we have clay soil, after a summer rain/dry cycle the ground in our garden can be as hard as cement. Growing a cover crop helps loosen up that hard pack. Jim works the rye back into the soil in the spring, adding this “green manure” to our soil.
Last year was our first time growing winter rye. We were a little nervous because we had read stories online about people who had winter rye that grew to 3’ high and then it came back again and again after they tilled it in. We were also aware that if we had a really rainy spring we wouldn’t even be able to get the tiller in there to turn it over. But in the end it worked out really well. It did come back after the first time Jim tilled it in but after the second tilling it was only a handful here and there.
You can generally find cover crop seeds at your local farm and garden store. We’re fortunate in that the local Agway carries them in bulk. We love any excuse for an outing to that store, anyway … we’re like kids in a candy shop there. Odds are that it’s too late where you are to put in a cover crop for your garden, but there’s always next year!
Growing large amounts of pumpkin and winter squash is one strategy we use to keep our garden harvest going long into winter. We can and freeze most of our garden vegetables. But at some point the chest freezer and the freezer in the house are stuffed. The beauty of winter squash is that it stores unfrozen, uncanned, without processing, for many months. It doesn’t hurt that we both love the taste and it is full of vitamins – the perfect winter food, we think.
We harvested over 150 pounds of neck pumpkins in the past month.
We can’t squeeze another thing in our freezer space, so we’re pretty much eating pumpkin or squash every night of the week to use up the ones that either have small spots or aren’t super-ripe. We know that those won’t last as long as the others and don’t want to risk losing them to rot.
Saturday is pizza night at our house. I’ve been experimenting with pumpkin pizza the past few weeks. I have tried two different white pizzas. They used combinations of sage, caramelized onions, and parmesan or mozzarella cheese with roasted cubes of squash. Jim wasn’t a huge fan of either. But last weekend I made up a recipe that was a huge hit. It was very simple, too!
Pumpkin (or winter squash) pizza*
2 tbsp. olive oil
1-1.5 cups pizza sauce (tomato-based, home-canned if you have it!)
½ cup mozzarella cheese
¼ cup parmesan cheese
1 large Spanish onion
2 red peppers (we use anchos, bell would also work)
¾-1 tsp salt
1-1½ tsp powdered sage
2 cloves garlic
½ cup black olives (optional)
your favorite pizza crust
Cover the squash cubes with olive oil and roast in a 400F oven for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. While the squash is cooking, stretch out your pizza dough on a greased cookie sheet. Chop the onion and peppers and fry them in olive oil over medium heat until the onions are nearly caramelized, adding the salt about ½ way through to get the excess moisture out. Add garlic to the frying pan toward the end of the caramelizing process.
Pre-bake your pizza crust for about 5-7 minutes. Top with pizza sauce and cheeses, onion/pepper/garlic mixture, roasted pumpkin and sprinkle with sage. Add olives if desired. Bake pizza as recommended for your crust recipe. Enjoy!
*Makes one cookie-sheet sized pizza.
Fall means it’s garlic planting time. If you aren’t already growing garlic, time to start! Garlic is a low-maintenance crop and it is ready to pick by July, usually a low-time in our harvest schedule, so the timing is good for processing delicious home-grown garlic!
Start by finding some nice garlic to put in the ground. Our first year growing garlic we bought it from a variety of places so we would have several types. If this is your first year planting garlic or if you didn’t hold back any cloves from this year’s harvest, try local farmers markets, coops, or natural food stores for the best seed garlic. You may be able to get away with planting garlic from a regular grocery store, but it might be imported from China or grown in a different climate than yours, so I don’t recommend this. You don’t want to waste valuable garden space (and your time) on a failed garlic crop.
When you decide how much to plant keep in mind that garlic has a wide range of sizes, but also that the size of the heads you harvest may vary from year to year given growing conditions.
Our garlic harvest numbered 110 heads this year so we held back 17 heads to plant. It was enough – we put in 127 cloves last weekend. Plant garlic 3-4” deep and 6” apart in rows that are 10-12” apart. The flat (root) end goes down and the pointy end goes up. After it’s planted, mulch it with 4-5” of chopped up leaves.
You don’t need to water garlic in the winter. Come spring, if it’s a dry year, water once or twice a week until early June. Garlic prefers dry conditions just before harvest, so that the heads harden up. That said, this year we had rain nearly every day in June, some of it torrential, but our garlic harvest was superb just the same. So you never know what’s under the surface until harvest time I guess!
In June you’ll notice scapes coming up – they are distinguished from the rest of the garlic plant because they are curly instead of straight, and they have a bulge at the top. You can cut and eat scapes in salads, if you like. But even if you just compost them, it’s better to remove them so the garlic puts its energy into growing the bulb, not the scape.
Garlic harvest comes in early July, and that’s a post for next summer! Happy growing!
When my grandparents built their house, they chose the building site to take advantage of a strong, clear-running spring that they had piped into the house. Nowadays the bank providing the mortgage would probably prevent such a thing, but back then I suppose it wasn’t so unusual. I remember in the winter at Grandpa’s house, there was always water running hard in the laundry room sink. Otherwise, the pipe leading from the spring into the house would freeze up and they wouldn’t have water until it warmed up enough to thaw out.
Because we live in an urban area we are on metered city water. But even for us, water is an issue. Last year’s drought was so severe we were watering the garden nightly. We knew that if we wanted to avoid a sky-high water bill we’d have to come up with an alternative to using the city water. As it happens we have an old well on our property. The original use of the well is a mystery to us. It is a cement tube about 3’ in diameter and 28’ deep sunk down into the ground. If anyone has an idea of what a well like this might have been used for, please write a comment!
Our Backyard Well
One of the advantages of our urban neighborhood is how helpful and fantastic our neighbors are. A neighbor lent us a large pump and helped Jim hook it up. Within a few hours we had free water coming out to the garden!
Our groundwater is generally quite high and the area where the well sits is sometimes even squishy to walk on. Nonetheless, we managed to drain over 23’ of that well dry using our soaker hose night after night. It was at that point that the drought went from being a bit of a novelty to being almost scary. We know that some areas had it even worse than we did, but it felt like Dust Bowl days to us.
Once the well ran dry, we resorted to conservation methods around the house. We brought cooking water out to the porch for the container plants and dumped the dehumidifier water on the porch plants as well. We were fortunate that we had both the old well and city water. We had family members (on wells only) with crop failures due to the lack of rain.
Dealing with such severe drought and remembering the cold, pure water coming out of that long-ago spring has reminded us of the importance of finding property with a reliable water source. Of course, our area has suffered from more than one “100-year flood” in recent years as well, so springs and ponds trump creeks as we peruse real estate for our future homestead. We’re grateful to be renting as we learn lessons like this one!
Our garden grows peppers like nobody’s business. Jim and I would have to eat about a pepper a day each all year long to keep up with our production. Last year we harvested bushels of bell peppers and froze 26 quart packages. Come July this year we still had 8 packages in the freezer as we started harvesting a new crop!
Although we have given away dozens, we still have too many to store in the chest freezer this year. Although I’m sure Grandma canned peppers, I haven’t ventured into that territory yet. There is a great alternative – roasting. Roasted peppers are tender and delicious. They cannot be beat on homemade pizza or in any Mexican or Italian dish. Roasted peppers are easily frozen and they take up far less room in your freezer than non-roasted peppers due to their loss of liquid and rigidity.
You can roast any kind of pepper. We plant anchos and bell peppers and roast both. I only roast those that have turned red, but I imagine you could roast green ones if you like.
The process of roasting them is not difficult, although after you have done it you may appreciate more why they are so expensive in the jars you find in the supermarket! Ready to get started?
1. Carefully clean your peppers. It is best to leave the stem on so they are easier to turn.
2. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil. (you will regret it if you skip this step)
3. Place the whole peppers on your pan and bake at 450 F for about 25 minutes.
4. Remove from oven and turn each pepper over – this is easily done if you have left the stem on, otherwise you may have to use tongs.
5. Return the pan to the oven for about 20 more minutes. It’s OK if they turn black here and there.
6. Remove from oven and immediately put them in several piles on the counter. Cover each pile with a bowl. The steam from the peppers loosens the skin.
7. After about 20 minutes check to see if the peppers are cool enough to handle. If so, slip off the skins (they will stick in places, don’t worry about that) and pull out the seeds and membranes. I use running water to get all the seeds, but I know some people don’t recommend that. The only reason I do is sheer quantity – I roast about 30 peppers at once and find that running water provides a bit of a short-cut.
You can freeze them as is or use immediately. Enjoy!