Friday, November 5, 2010


Wow, how time gets away from us these days.  If there is a busier time of year than Spring for us, it's definitely Autumn.  One of the big projects I had been planning for ages was to brew a batch of hard cider from scratch.  As I watched the apples ripen this summer I finally took action.

The most important piece of the process was to procure a press.  With a limited budget and a DIY spirit I planned out a simple press made from common hardware store items.  One thing I realized pretty quickly is that there is more than one way to crush an apple.  In the States we usually see cider presses made from a barrel of wood slats inside a cast iron frame.  This design clearly didn't lend itself to our budget or abilities.  The more exciting cider press design is the sort used widely in the UK.  It is basically two boards with a bag of apple pulp in between.  For around $50 I was able to gather the needed pieces to throw together a plywood and 2x4 bottle jack powered cider press.

Note: The plywood I used is made from oak.  I've read using pine can hurt the flavor of the cider.

After collecting two large shopping bags full of apples from our aging, unhealthy, unidentified apple tree, we were in business.

With the help of a couple of friends we crushed the apples in a bucket using the advanced "log jamming" technique (similar to the process employed by Native Americans to crush corn). Once crushed the apple pulp was put in a nylon mesh bag (the sort used to filter wine grapes).  The squeezing process was started and continued until the 2x4s gave creaking and popping sounds that let us know the maximum pressure had been reached.

We pasteurized the raw cider just because we're sissies.  We then pitched some cheap Nottingham Ale Yeast that was laying around in the fridge.  The result was a slightly sour but intoxicating dry cider.  While not a great brew, I suspect the final result had more to do with the poor quality of the apples and yeast selection than with the process or equipment.  Though I'm completely satisfied with our efforts, it's a shame we will probably have to wait another year before we can experiment further.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Planning for Canning

I know the beginning of August is still smack in the middle of the summer season, but for some reason, to me, it always feels like the very edge of Autumn. I think it has something to do with the fact that, as the harvests start coming in, it becomes time to start freezing and canning in preparation for winter, and planting fall crops in the spaces that have been opening up in the garden. The days are already noticeably shorter, and the apples are starting to weigh down the branches of our old Duchess tree.

Thus, the Gardener has built an inexpensive little cider press and we've been experimenting with our windfall apples. We've collected a little more than a gallon of juice, and in the next few days we'll try making our first batch of hard cider.

This past week we've also received our first share of fruit from the North Star Orchard CSA. In our bag were Summer Blaze and Redfree apples, Red Haven and White Lady peaches, Vanette and Oullins plums, and Delight pears. Though we're really enjoying eating these fruits as they are (fresh, crisp, and juicy!), I've also been planning out how I'm going to can some of them for winter. For the most part, I think I'm going to keep my recipes pretty simple, to highlight the natural flavors of each variety of fruit, but I've also got plans for some more interesting spreads like honeyed yellow tomato butter, which I'm thinking will go well with our almost-done-aging farmhouse cheddar.

What else makes it feel like the start of Fall? 45 pounds of Desiree, Carola, and Yukon Gold potatoes harvested and stored away, that's what!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Backyard Beverages

Call it a hippie clichĂ©, old fashioned, backwater brew or what have you, but we decided to try a batch of dandelion wine.  Of the many stories I've heard about it, I've never known anyone who has actually confessed to making or drinking dandelion wine.

We did our best to follow a "Pennsylvania German" pre-prohibition recipe we found randomly on the web. Warning: this recipe calls for a lot of sugar.

We had a really hard time getting the yeast to start and were about to start over when it quickly fermented the dandelion syrup into something passable as an adult beverage/cleaning product.

Almost ready to bottle. We'll give it another week or so in the secondary fermenter.

This hasn't been the only experimental drink we've been working on. Inspired by a post over on Hunter Angler Gardener Cook we tried a bit of homemade root beer last night.

We took the easy track for the first attempt by making it in the common form as a non-alcoholic soda.

Luckily we have a sassafras tree in our back yard so collecting a bit of root was as simple as pulling up a few of the saplings surrounding the main tree and cutting off the roots.

We made sure to hang on to the leaves in hopes of making filé powder for gumbo. We'll let you know how that goes.

Cutting up the roots before boiling them was a good bit of fun.  It was the first time we've had a need to use our loppers in the kitchen. The pint jar there is full of root beer syrup.

We've also been in the habit lately of using our mixer (with attachment) to make ice cream.  I couldn't resist having a root beer float using a bit of our last batch of vanilla ice cream.

Words can't describe how good it was. I'm tempted to head to the kitchen for another one right now.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Room for Improvement, Soil Improvement

This being our first growing season in the new house, we're starting to find out what does well in our soil and what really doesn't.  We've yet to do a soil test, and we haven't added any amendments, but we're working on that.

Last weekend we had the wonderful opportunity to attend a potluck dinner with the Community Gardens of Chester County.  Dinner was amazing and made even better by a talk on the manufacture and use of biochar by our gracious host.  The wheels are already turning as to how we'll be adding this medium to our soil.  Our big hope is that we can lighten the heavy clay in our soil with material sourced from our own yard.

Our garlic, it appears, doesn't like our heavy soil much at all.  The Gardeness dug up the German Extra Hardy today, and even though the leaves looked fine, almost all of the bulbs are rotten.  The Romanian Reds seem to have fared better, but they're small, with only a couple of cloves each.  I hope this doesn't mean bad news for our potatoes as well.  As you might recall from last year, the Romanian Red was the variety that survived when the other rotted out then too.  It's really important to me that we keep this stock going, even if that means replanting all of it this fall and having nothing to cook with.

On a brighter note, our heirloom family corn seems to feel right at home, and all three varieties of beans have sprouted and are growing nicely.  Our goal is to find plants that do well here naturally, and save those seeds year after year.

When Life Gives You Thistles, Make Some Cheese!

What's missing when you have a fresh peasant loaf and a bottle of homemade ale? Some good cheese, of course! We decided it was high time to fill that void, so we set out to make some farmhouse cheddar. We ordered starter, rennet, and a mold from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and bought two gallons of good quality raw grassfed Jersey milk from a local Amish family. We visited their farm and got to see their happy cows and clean facilities, and we were really impressed! They also sell sheep's milk, which we may have to try another time!

So to make a farmhouse cheddar, you heat the milk gently to 90 degrees, add some mesophilic starter, and let it ripen for 45 minutes. Then you add the rennet and let it set at that temperature for another 45 minutes until it breaks, at which point you cut it into curds.

You slowly bring up the temperature of the curds to 100 degrees, and then drain them by pouring them into a cheesecloth and hanging it for an hour.

Once drained, you break the curds up into small pieces, and mix in some salt.

Then you pack them into a cheesecloth lined mold and press, applying 10 pounds of pressure for 10 minutes, then 20 pounds for 10 minutes, and lastly 50 pounds for 12 hours. Afterwards, the cheese is removed from the mold, the cloth is carefully peeled away, and it's left to air dry for 2 - 4 days, allowing a rind to develop.

At that point you can wax or bandage it, and let it age for a couple of months. Just as with all food preservation methods, so long as you pay attention to cleanliness, there's not much else to stress about.

We plan on making a mother culture from our store bought starter, and we've read that we can make rennet from our thistles! Now if only we had a cow...

Friday, May 21, 2010

So Many Things to Learn

Today I've been repeatedly faced with my gardening shortcomings. First, I found out that my Canada Thistle eradication efforts were only making things worse. Our front flower bed, which runs the entire length of the house, is completely infested with these evil weeds. I thought that by pulling them out before they flowered I would be making good headway. Turns out that each time you break the root, it produces several more plants. So... I guess I'm going to try cutting them off at gound level as often as possible in hopes that I'll eventually weaken the root systems enough that they'll stop growing back.

Then, I moved my seedlings outside this morning to continue hardening them off in preparation for planting them this weekend, and I took a good look at them. Even though we had fluorescent lights on them for 16 hours a day, and also had them in a south facing window, they don't look a heck of a lot better than the ones we started last year. At least my tomato plants aren't pale or leggy this year, but instead are dark purple and still very small, with only a couple of true leaves at this point. When I looked at a gardening forum this morning, where purple tomato seedlings were the topic of discussion, I was really disheartened to see what other people's tomato plants looked like by the time they're getting them in the garden. They've got to be 20 times bigger! My seedlings always look like this, though, and usually survive just fine (except when a late frost comes in, like last year). But I can't help but think how much earlier I'd get fruit and how much better the crop would be if they had a better start.

And finally, when I checked the garden for progress, the potatoes are coming up (yay!) but the peas haven't grown much in the last couple of weeks, and the spinach is pretty much non-existant. It came up about a week after I planted it, but since then it's barely grown at all. I know the last week in April is a bit late for spinach, but we planted it the same time last year, and had no problem. Perhaps it was the freak weekend of almost 90 degree weather we had shortly after I put the seeds in the ground. Maybe the soil isn't to their liking. I just don't know...

But it's a beautiful day outside, so I'll try not to dwell on it. Learning from mistakes is all part of the process.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Week 1: Buy Better Milk

After watching Food, Inc. and No Impact Man recently, we realized that we've been getting kind of lax with some of our lifestyle choices. Having a baby definitely makes it tempting to do things based on convenience rather than conscience. So to get ourselves back on track we've decided to make one new resolution each week that we'll try to make a part of our everyday lives.

This week, we're going to stop buying supermarket milk. We like Stoneyfield, but we're lucky enough to have a great local company that sells grass-fed, certified organic, gently pasteurized milk that comes in returnable glass bottles.

I'll have to go a little bit out of my way to get it, and remember to wash and take back the bottles, but it'll be worth it. Not only does their milk taste like real milk, but we'll also be getting extra CLA and Omega-3 fatty acids. All of their farms are located in Lancaster County, so it should all come from about 50 miles away or less. And we won't have to worry about what the packaging is made of or where it goes after we're done using it. And even though it costs a little bit more, the money we spend stays local and supports our farming neighbors. If you're interested in finding local grass-fed milk, check out Eat Wild.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Baby Fruits

Our yard is ripe with new growth and the start of this year's backyard fruit crop. Take a look at some of the little ones...



Wild Raspberries


Kousa Dogwood fruits

I'm optimistic that we'll have a good harvest for cider, pies and wines later this summer.  We'll let you know how we do!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Overwintered Kale and Spring Peas

The kale we planted last fall never grew very big, so we didn't end up harvesting any of it. We just left the scrawny little plants in the garden over winter, and we were surprised when they were still alive come spring. Now they've got beautiful yellow flowers and plenty of seed pods on them!

Since kale will cross with other Brassicas, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage, saving seed can be tricky. But considering that we don't have any of those growing nearby at the moment, we should be able to get a pretty nice seed harvest for planting next year!

Peas are also great to save for seed, and we plan to do just that with some of our fall crop. But our spring crop will be all for eating, and I was pleased to find these pea shoots coming up in the garden this morning.

Peas are one of my favorite garden vegetables. They're easy to grow. You just pop them in the soil, no indoor starting to fuss with, and they pretty much take care of themselves, making up for the extra effort involved in shelling! They're worth growing in the home garden for fresh eating because they're so much sweeter than anything you'll get from the market, but they also freeze beautifully for something green to eat all winter long. Also, we can't forget to mention how useful the pods can be. We planted about 100 pea seeds, and plan to plant the same number again in July as a fall crop. I'm hoping for a freezer full!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cannibalism in the Coop

We've got a problem: our chickens have turned cannibal. First, the Barred Rocks started hen pecking the Reds, pulling out the feathers on their heads. Obviously, cannibalism in this case is a bit of an overstatement, but that's what the text books call it. There was never any blood, just pecking to establish the social order. And now, they're eating the eggs. Just this past weekend we started to notice a decrease in the eggs we were getting, and when Gardener was outside he heard one of the hens making a loud banging noise in the coop. He looked inside to see one of the Reds eating a broken egg in the nest box. We're not sure what started it, but yesterday we got no eggs, and this morning there was evidence of more broken yolks.

This weekend we also ended up building an isolation coop for one of the henpecked Reds. We noticed she was spending a lot of time hiding from the others, and then we noticed that she also has a swollen toe which she's limping on. We built this temporary "chicken hospital" to get her away from the others so that she can get plenty to eat and some rest.

I've been spending some time researching tips to stop the egg eating, but I'm really not sure what to do. A lot of what I'm hearing is that once they get the taste for eggs, it's nearly impossible to stop them. We'd be more than happy to hear from anyone who might have any suggestions. (Please!)

Saturday, March 27, 2010


We're pleased to introduce you to our biggest project yet to come to fruition:


We've gone almost 2 months without a blog post, and there's a lot going on around the homestead:

The garlic has really taken off, and is looking strong and healthy. Even though we had lots of rain on top of melting snow at the end of winter, we didn't have any problems with rotting this year, so it looks like we'll be sticking with hardneck varieties. It's nice to have something green in the garden this early!

Out back in the wild perennial patch, the raspberries and wineberries are getting leafy. Downstairs in the seed starting station, everything is doing its thing (although I do have to say that I still feel we have room for improvement in this realm).

Our hops plants came back and are looking really good. We're in the process of "renovating" their plot to include other perennials like strawberries and rhubarb. We're also working hard to get the other garden plots ready for planting. This week our peas, potatoes, spinach, carrots, beets, and lettuce will be going in.

Caring for baby Sprout is proving to make getting other things done much more difficult than I had anticipated, but that really just means learning a new pace.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hickory Nut Shortbread

Continuing our trials with baking, we finally found a use for all those hickory nuts we collected from the woods in the fall.  Last night we adapted a walnut shortbread recipe, just substituting hickory nuts for walnuts and made the most delicious shortbread cookies!

The industrial strength nut cracker that the Gardeness gave me for Yule was put to good use and made the job much easier (and safer) than using a hammer.

Also, after moving two of our taps over the weekend our maple sap collection has taken off and I'm feeling really optimistic about how much syrup we might get. We've started the alpine strawberries (from seed again) with gooseberries next on the agenda. It was kind of a busy weekend, in a relaxing sort of way.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snowed In

Last Saturday we got blasted with about 2 feet of snow, and yesterday we got at least another foot with the bonus of "blizzard" conditions. Everything basically shut down, and even our municipal snow plows were getting stuck.

It was the kind of day for staying inside and planning for spring. We made a bunch of paper pots for starting our seedlings, got all our planting dates down on the calendar, and tried our darndest not to feel like we'd entered The Shining!

These little Woodins peeking from their woolen log also helped keep things cheery. They were a gift from Pragmatiste for the little one on the way, and I have to say they're about the cutest thing I've ever seen!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Beautiful Bread!

It's been about 8 months since the last time I baked any bread. My past trials had certainly been edible, but I was struggling with it not rising enough, and not developing the right crust or crumb. Well, the stars must have aligned last night, because I finally baked my first truly good loaf!

The recipe and the yeast were the same, but I used actual bread flour and had the benefit of a new mixer and a newer, more accurate oven. Right from the beginning, it rose more in the bowl than it ever had before, and just kept rising in the oven. When I took it out I could tell the crust was just right, and it even "sang" as it cooled.

This morning I couldn't help myself but break into it. It was a delicious start to the day! I think I may need to see about finding a bulk supply of flour, because I'm gonna want to have fresh bread everyday now!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Halfway Through Winter, Halfway to Spring!

Despite the very frosty weather, we're starting to feel a thaw on the homestead! We had been looking for good old-fashioned steel maple syrup buckets, and found them at Tap My Trees.
Going by bark, opposite growth patterns, seed pods, and dried up old leaves, we picked out three trees which we believe to be maples of one sort or another. We drilled, tapped, and watched sap start to drip!

Seeds are starting to arrive, and it's time again to start making our paper pots.

We signed up for a fruit CSA with North Star Orchard, and we're looking forward to apples, peaches, plums, nectarines, and pears from August to November.

And, our hens gave us a whopping 166 eggs for the month of January! Don't worry, we didn't eat them all ourselves - sharing is part of the joy.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Meat in the Freezer

With the ground thoroughly frozen, aside from the freak rain lately, there isn't much going on in the garden. We harvested a handful of carrots last month which marked the absolute last of our 2009 produce. The one thing we were able to harvest was a bit of meat.

One of our major goals with livestock is to raise multi-purpose animals. We've chosen animals which, with hopefully minimal upkeep, will live long productive and happy lives. Since we are not raising them for meat, hunting has become a valuable alternative to buying meat. What was once common practice in Chester County has quickly become a taboo. Within the past 20 to 30 years much of the wooded land for hunting has been developed. In my early teens I hunted small game but like the new norm in these parts I opted for video games and indoor hobbies during high school and college.

I never gave up my love of being in the woods and the recognition of the natural world that hunting provides.

In the fall of 2008 I had the chance to go on a Pronghorn Antelope hunt in Wyoming which was an amazing experience and I brought home some wonderful (though slightly gamey) range fed meat. It was a shame that I had to travel halfway across the country for my first big game. This year I was determined to hunt local and was able to harvest a modest 32 lbs of Pennsylvania Whitetail Deer.
We cooked up a bit of the venison in shepherd's pie made with some of those carrots I mentioned earlier. It turned out to be my absolute favorite meal in recent memory.

I'm hopeful that social trends can shift in favor of responsible hunting to help regulate the ecosystems we live in. Hunting can help lower the number of deer hit by cars, prevent the cost and waste while at the same time reducing our consumption of less healthy imported meat. We've removed the original predators and it seems there should be an obligation to take their place in a sustainable way.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Busy Birds

In the past 10 days we've collected over 40 eggs from our 8 hens.

They're coming in all sizes. The large one here is so big we can't close the egg carton properly.

Now we just need to find a souffle pan!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy 2010!

Another new year is upon us, and with it comes the usual thoughts of resolutions. Unlike diet or exercise resolutions, gardening and homesteading plans come naturally this time of year, when everything is gray and cold and we're looking so forward to longer, warmer days and the green of new sprouts.

Looking back on 2009 for a moment, we accomplished so much and so little all at the same time. Most importantly we got through the six month ordeal that was buying our new house, which not only made us homeowners for the first time, but also land owners at last! Unfortunately, the timing of it all made it very difficult for us to do much gardening at all. In the spring our garden was miles from home, which meant we didn't get to give it the attention it deserved, and in the fall we were faced with the prospect of starting all new veggie beds. But we did have some other projects to keep us busy, the greatest of which were our chickens, which are proving to be a very rewarding addition! We managed to get 41 eggs in the second half of December alone! We also got to go foraging in our little woods on the back of our lot, where we collected raspberries, wineberries, mulberries, hickory nuts, walnuts, and firewood.

This coming year will be bringing us many new joys, as well as challenges! Just as spring is arriving, so will be our first baby! We're hoping to be able to power through the sleepless nights and find the time and energy to put up fencing, get some baby lambs, plant fruit trees and other perennials, and grow the majority of our own produce, just to name a few!

For me personally, my goals this year will be to learn to simplify, establish routines, and be better prepared. The key, I think, is going to be practicing things like canning, baking bread, brewing and knitting until they become like second nature, so that I can better fit them into a busy schedule without feeling like I have too many chores to do. I also need to be willing to do fewer things if it means they can be done better, particularly in the garden. As much as I love looking through the seed catalogs and reading about all the rare and interesting varieties of everything, I'm going to be choosing fewer plants and basing my decisions on hardiness, reliability, and how well they store or take to processing. And, I'm not going to plant all of my seedlings at once!! Having gone through a late frost which devastated most of our carefully grown veggies this past spring, I've learned my lesson!

As for the Gardener, his main goals are to do more with what we have by nurturing our best trees, wild berry bushes and our neglected hops. Composting more and working harder at amending the soil in our garden are also on his list. Our sleep schedules are going to be a struggle when the little one arrives but he's hopeful that it will help him learn to manage his time better. Collecting sap for syrup, building native bee houses and bird houses, setting up our rain barrels, lumber-jacking and learning more about native useful plants and fungi, round out his resolutions.

2010 stands to be a very exciting year, and we look forward to sharing it all with you!