Safely gathered in

They say this is the season for making merry.  In the Christian year, the four weeks of Advent are a time for waiting and preparing for the Christmas joys ahead.  But so far this year, I haven’t gotten around to celebrating or preparing.

img_20161207_073921054Instead, I am hurrying to finish up the harvest so that, as the Thanksgiving hymn says, “all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.” We may get our first big snow of the season in a few days, so this week I picked the last of the chard and dug two buckets full of horseradish roots. Now I am processing them.

Nick added some chard and some of our little leeks to an excellent frittata earlier in the week. Then I froze 12 “chard balls,” which will be delicious in lentil and bean soups this winter.  The remainder of the chard leaves got dehydrated to be used in smoothies and soups, and I am planning to slice up the fleshy stems into a batch of kimchi.

img_20161207_073938214But what about those two buckets of horseradish roots, which are direct descendants of ones my great-grandfather grew on a farm in Deerfield? Yes, in contrast to all that merry-happy-jolly stuff, I have been up to my ears in something so strong and pungent that it’s a “sure cure for frivolity.” The thickest roots got buried in a bucket of soil and stored in the root cellar, so we’ll have a supply accessible all winter, and early next spring for Passover. Now I am making two medicines and a condiment.

This condiment, which mixes finely grated horseradish with vinegar and salt, is a familiar companion to meats and other rich foods. It is said to stimulate the gastric secretions, thus helping with digestion.

I found recipes for horseradish syrup and tincture in Richo Cech’s book “Making Plant Medicine.”  Since people in our family get stuffed-up sinuses after colds and as a result of allergies, these remedies may help us to breathe easier. Cech says that horseradish “opens the sinus passages and serves as a potent vascular stimulant, warming the extremities and accelerating the healing process.”

img_20161209_061947226I had to grate the horseradish to make the syrup and the condiment (above). All the instructions I could find advise doing so in a “well-ventilated room” to avoid tear-gas-like conditions.  This late in the season, when outside temperatures are in the 30’s, it didn’t seem like a great idea to open up all the windows in the kitchen. So out I went to the patio, all bundled up, and grated heaps of horseradish on the tarp-covered picnic table.

Then I stuffed the grated root into a quart mason jar and covered it with about a pint and a half of raw local honey.  The directions say to steep for 30 days at room temperature and then strain, pressing through a cheesecloth. Cech says to store in a stoppered bottle out of the light, and take in tablespoon doses as needed for sinusitis, sinus headache, allergies, hoarseness or cough.

img_20161209_062036976The tincture requires ground-up dried root, so I sliced the rest of the roots and am dehydrating.  Later I will grind them to a powder in a coffee grinder and mix, in stages, with water and alcohol, which will extract the active medicinal components.  After straining, the tincture will be ready to use.

So all this harvesting and processing of plants we grow is lots of fun, but in the future it would be better to get all this done earlier, maybe in November, to make straight the way to the Advent experience. No matter what is going on in the world, I always resonate with the longing and hope of this season. Oh yes, and then there are the cookies…..

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Chipmunky business

I like the taste of garlic and hot peppers, but I’m betting that chipmunks don’t.

chipmunkA family of these cute, furry rodents has taken up residence in our yard. For most of the summer, I liked seeing them scamper around. But then I noticed that tomatoes that were just getting ripe were getting chomped on.

IMG_20160825_085645164_HDRIt took me a while to adjust my thinking away from woodchucks, our usual garden culprit. When I baited traps with slices of banana, I found the bait gone and the trap unsprung, so I concluded that chipmunks don’t weigh enough to depress the lever. And chipmunks can get through or over just about any fence.

IMG_20160825_090000288I tried creating multiple barriers, and even attached old carpet segments to fencing with safety pins. I imagine the chipmunks laughing at my efforts while climbing up the rugs to claim their treats.

I considered getting smaller traps designed for chipmunks, but there are so many of them that even if successful, I’d be constantly catching and disposing of them.

So I picked a hot pepper and mixed it in a blender with two cups of water and two garlic cloves. I let it steep for a few hours, then strained it and put in a few drops of oil and dish detergent. I put the noxious mixture in a spray bottle and sprayed it on the bottoms of the tomato plants, figuring that would deter chipmunks from climbing them.

IMG_20160825_090014763No such luck. I found more bites taken out of the ripening tomatoes, which had to be picked immediately and used for soup or fried green tomatoes.  That’s when I concluded that I had to spray the tomatoes themselves, and so far that’s protecting them from predation.

We peel tomatoes before canning or saucing them, but I don’t know what we’ll do with the tomatoes we slice and eat fresh.  Will rinsing remove the spray residue or we will too be deterred from the seasonal delight of eating fresh tomatoes?  As for the cherry tomatoes, they’re probably goners.

I remember liking chipmunks when I was a boy. In fact, when I was 8, I wrote a poem about them, and dug it up in an old family album. It begins, “At sunrise, like a praying priest/Sits the happy chipmunk beast.” I remember reading comic books about two chipmunks named Chip and Dale.

Alvin and The ChipmunksThat same year, 1958, one of the most popular songs was by a group called The Chipmunks, and featured speeded-up voices that I guess people thought sounded like chipmunks. The record sold 4 million copies in just a few weeks (click here to hear it, if you dare). They later became cartoon characters. Even today, I sometimes get one of their  tunes stuck in my head and can’t get rid of it.

But I hope to get rid of chipmunks in the tomatoes, if not with garlic-pepper spray, then by some other means. Any ideas?

New readers of this blog can get a quick overview here of more than 150 past posts, separated into categories such as simple living, frugality, gardening, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.





You don’t miss your water…

With Amherst in “extreme drought,” and facing a possible water emergency next month, we are irrigating our gardens with rainfall that fell on the roof of our house.

IMG_20160807_084457612We got 1.6 inches of rain on July 31 and Aug. 2, and though that’s not enough to fill the town’s reservoirs, it did fill up our three 50-gallon rain barrels. Rainwater drains directly into the barrels from our gutters, and there’s a spigot at the bottom of each that we use to fill up watering cans and buckets.

When I use the phrase “water emergency,” that’s not hyperbole. In September 1980, after a similarly hot and dry summer, the University of Massachusetts had to send students home because Amherst didn’t have enough water. Click here to read the details.

Amherst has more options for providing water now, but officials were concerned enough to impose voluntary water restrictions on July 25. Water use this summer has been 500,000 gallons/day higher than the historical summer average, and town officials have activated a water source that’s typically drawn on in September, when demand increases dramatically. If we don’t get substantial rain in the next four weeks, we could be in trouble.

Several times this summer, I’ve watched the radar as rainstorms have broken up  while approaching Amherst, dumping rain to the north and south. It happened again Saturday, as we got a minor shower while 15 miles away there was over 1.5 inches of rain.

IMG_20160807_084543802We’ve tried to water our garden as much as possible from our three rain barrels, but they ran dry at the end of July and we had to use a hose. We have a fourth rain barrel that isn’t yet connected to a gutter, and we fill that up from buckets placed  under an unguttered section of roof.

Betsy’s been telling me that it’s best to water vegetables occasionally but thoroughly, yet I sometimes lose patience with the slow pace of watering cans and irrigate too shallowly. I have gotten better at using one watering can while another is filling up. Some crops, such as eggplants and blueberries, have suffered because of the drought, but at least we haven’t had to worry about late blight on the tomatoes. Cucumbers, which demand a lot of water, have withered.

I’ve started taking fewer and shorter (low-flow) showers, and we don’t have a lawn (see “Lawn order: Who needs it?”). We don’t flush the toilet every time we pee . We rarely wash our car. Betsy empties the water from a basement dehumidifier into a bucket that she uses for toilet flushing, and saves the running water as it heats up before washing dishes.

I first encountered the soul classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in the version done by Taj Mahal (a native of this region) in the late ’60s. Let’s pray for rain and hope our wells don’t run dry.

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Eggplants love beans

IMG_20160529_143332653I’ve taken over responsibility for our backyard vegetable garden while Betsy works on other projects. In past years of sharing the work, there’s been too much “I thought you were going to weed that bed” and “No, you were going to do it.”

IMG_20160530_072957925_HDRWe have 11 beds of about 30 square feet each within a fence that’s buried a foot deep to keep out critters. We also have nine beds outside the fence, most with less secure fencing. In deciding what plants go where, I am using the theory that some vegetables like being near each other.

IMG_20160529_143410260It’s called “companion planting.” Some plants give off a smell that deters insects that harm their companions. For example, in a bed with six eggplants, I’ve poked tiny holes in the red plastic mulch and planted beans, which are said to ward off beetles. I’ve put some zucchini and cucumber plants near a radish that’s gone to seed, which is supposed to scare off the dreaded vine borer and cucumber beetles.

IMG_20160529_143534704Some vegetables just seem to like being near each other. I’ve planted potatoes near some horseradish, a supposed companion, along with broccoli (photo at top). A bed with garlic along the sides (planted last fall) has six pepper plants in the middle (photo at left). I’m sprinkling some carrot seeds around the tomato seedlings.

I’m doing several other experiments. Betsy has read that leaving the stumps of last year’s kale plants in the ground, rather than pulling them up, allows their roots to decay naturally and the soil structure to remain intact, thus enriching the soil. We’ll see whether these disintegrating roots help the tomatoes planted there this year or get in their way.

IMG_20160529_143431275Last year, I filled some buckets with compost, poked holes in the bottom, filled them with water, and placed them in the middle of some tomato beds. (Explained here.) The goal was constant fertilization and drip irrigation. This year, I’m doing the same thing with upside-down plastic milk jugs that have been cut in half and attached to tomato cages (photo at right). I’m still figuring out how to create holes that allow for slow seeping of the water.

In my never-ending battle with the squash vine borer, I covered the plants as soon as they went in the ground. I’ll have to expose the plants when they flower, and give them enough space to grow under the row cover, which lets in light and water but keeps out bugs.

Many people are predicting a challenging year for organic gardeners, because the mild winter failed to kill off as many insects as usual. Yesterday I pinched off some cucumber beetles from our potato plants  and noted their early arrival date.

IMG_20160529_143843040Late blight has been a serious problem for tomato growers, though last year the damage was minor. Instead of buying blight-resistant varieties, which had a disappointing yield last year, I’ve gone for the trusty Big Boy and Jet Star and plan to spray them with a copper fungicide starting in July.

I’ve already trapped one woodchuck and sent him off to Woodchuck Heaven, and will be on the lookout for more. Two years ago woodchucks found a way to climb our garden fence, prompting me to go out and buy a trap. Now we think we have a problem with moles for the first time, and are inviting all the neighborhood cats to come and visit.

I’m constantly amazed at how complicated vegetable gardening is. Every plant has its own distinctive pests, diseases, soil requirements, spacing and support needs, and planting and harvesting schedule. I’m glad I’m doing this for a hobby and not for survival!

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 150 past posts, arranged in categories such as gardening, simple living, frugality, living without and climate change. Or hover over “Index” at top to read all the posts in a particular category.



I fed the beds, I put up the wood

Our vegetable garden feeds us during the summer and fall, and to a lesser extent in the winter and spring. Wednesday, we peeled, cut up and sauteed our last butternut squash,  Thursday I used three quarts of canned tomatoes from last year’s garden to make soup, and  Friday we roasted the final sweet potatoes from the 2015 garden.

IMG_20160421_151046545But who feeds the garden? This backyard bounty doesn’t just spring forth from the earth. Sure, we plant the seeds and water the transplants, pull the weeds and put down mulch, but where do the garden’s nutrients come from? Don’t we have to give something to get something?

Yesterday, I spent a few hours putting compost in a wheelbarrow and spreading it over the beds where our vegetable plants will go next month. I mixed it with the existing soil so the soil life can digest these nutrients. Last month, I did the same thing with beds where I planted the early crops: peas, carrots, lettuce, bok choy, spinach, chard and rutabagas.

IMG_20160421_151053352We have five compost enclosures of different types, for different stages of decomposition. We have two Earth Machines, which are off-season receptacles for our kitchen waste (and that of some neighbors) mixed with leaves. In the spring, I start to get grass clippings from a neighbor and animal manure from a friend, and layer that with the contents of the Earth Machines in separate piles enclosed by stacked-up cinder blocks.

One of my favorite garden tools is a compost thermometer. It’s great fun to watch the temperature of a pile rise, and it gives me feedback on how successfully I’ve combined the essential ingredients: carbon, nitrogen, water and air. The compost usually sits and cooks for nine to 12 months before I put in on the garden.

IMG_20160415_134153959Another spring chore Betsy and I did recently was to cut up and transport some downed trees that have been sitting off the ground deep into our backyard, perhaps for several years. We attached about 60 feet of extension cord to our small, electric chainsaw and cut the wood to stove length.

IMG_20160415_133844999We don’t know what kind of wood it is, because the bark was long gone, and it probably isn’t of high heat value. But we liked clearing it out, the wood will be very dry when we burn it next fall, and it’s fun to get firewood from your backyard.

IMG_20160415_134405415I enjoyed splitting it and stacking it off the ground. We have a much bigger supply of maple and birch  wood that municipal employees cut down on a neighbor’s property. They were happy to plop the logs in our front yard. This will require more serious chainsaw work, but will provide hours of enjoyment when I split and stack it this summer.

With the compost and the firewood, I’m getting valuable resources without leaving our property. You can’t get more local than that!

For new readers of this blog, click here for a quick overview of more than 150 past posts on frugality, simple living, gardening, living without, climate change and eight other categories. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.