Expanding the garden space

Z. ditched me at the last minute. Change of plans.  Shame, too. . I had everything out and ready to go.  Guess it’ll be another week or two before we make duck sausage.

Checked the weather and saw that we were looking at a very un-February-like weekend . . . blue skies, highs in the 70’s, light breeze.  Sitting in the garage on sawhorses were six 10′ cypress boards already treated with water sealant, waiting on the expansion I’ve been promising myself.  I’ve been in the house almost two years now.  Since we bought it in May – and it, of course, came with no garden space – then I lost my first growing season.  Last year, I only had the one bed and got the garden in too late.  Priority, though, was getting my blackberries transplanted and the compost bin up and producing.

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Back in November, I decided to write a few excel formulas to help my timing.  I plotted out the square foot garden on Excel and have been using it as my guideline.  Each square represents 1 sqft.  Yesterday and today, I pulled those cypress boards out of the garage and cut a couple of them into 4′ sections to make another 10x4x2 bed.  For my knees and my back, as well as for the visual aesthetic, I like the high raised beds.  The picture on the left is my general plan of companion plants.  Each code correlates to a table on another workbook page.

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So here’s a few tricks, if you’re any good with Excel.  I named the First and Last Frost dates a LF and FF so that the table below can reference it in a formula.  Over the winter, as I was planning out my garden, I ordered my seeds and plugged in information from the seed packet – such as when to plant and how many days until maturation.  Under Seed Plant the value is just a formula based on the seed packet information.  So, for instance, my Red Cherry Tomato says start the seeds indoors six weeks before the last frost.  In the cell I typed:  =LF-(6*7) then told it to format the answer as a date.    I then filter by date and it tells me when I need to start putting seeds into my little peat cylinders in the greenhouse.

This weekend, I expanded my growing space by adding not just the 40 sqft bed, but the smaller medicinal herb bed (6x2x1) and the tall sunstealer bed (10x2x1) for a total of 72 extra square feet.  Because I only want a growing medium about a foot deep, I filled the big beds with a combination of old mulch and rotting straw I recycled from someone’s Halloween porch decor.  I’ll keep adding worm castings and compost to the bed as the straw continues to rot.

Since I’m now working with 112 square foot of happy suburban homestead growing space, I really needed a way to not miss anything.   I made another table.

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So for this table, I just copied and pasted the Key column from the other table.  For Plant and PerSqFt I used Index(Match) formulas to pull the information from the first table so I really only have to enter it once.

=INDEX(Plants[Plant], MATCH([Code], Plants[Key],0))

=INDEX(Plants[PerSqFt], MATCH([Code], Plants[Key],0))

Now, the really fun part comes when I told it to count and let me know how many plants of that type are in my pretty little map (which I told Excel was a range named GardenMap).

 

=COUNTIF(GardenMap,[@Code])

And then, finally, a little bit of simple math to tell me how many healthy plants I need to end up with in order to fill each assigned spot.  =[@PerSqFt]*[@Plots]

Today, I added a final column to indicate how many seeds I’ve set.  Someone was throwing away a whole mess of those little dehydrated peat disk planter sets at the end of the year last year and I traded some blackberries for them.  You can see from the table what I planted this weekend.   I may have gone a little crazy with the peppers – but I’m hoping to maybe plant a few more than is currently in the GardenMap and either trade or give away the extra plants.

Other things I accomplished on this Spring-like, but still technically Winter weekend:

  • Dug out 2 wheelbarrow loads of compost from my biggest bin.  Dug out one of the two smaller ones that had gotten a little too compacted and anaerobic.  Relocated the two small ones so that now I have an easier 3-tier system.  Raw in the first.  1st turning in the second.  Final composting in the big hotbox.
  • Emptied out a tray of worm castings from my vermicomposter.  This is the first “batch” from my winter project.  I have about 1500 worms in it right now, give or take.  Some of them fell out into the raised bed and quickly dug in.  I’m cool with that.
  • Cleaned up the last of that massive Halloween decoration I recycled.  Other than picking up a fieldmouse from one of those bales of straw, that has been a pretty good find.  I ended up with eight rectangle bales of straw all for the cost of hauling it off.  What I didn’t use in the compost bin or for fill in the raised beds has been used as mulch around my new fruit saplings.
  • Put two sets of shelves into the greenhouse to hold the seedlings.  I am currently using it as storage for things that could probably move into the garage while I’m nursing seedlings.
  • Ordered a plastic ammo can, small resealable baggies, and labels.  Going to use that for seed storage.  No way am I going to need all the seeds I currently have.  (Well, I don’t anticipate needing them.)
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When life gives you burn bans, make sausages.

I promised Squirrel that we’d hit the Butterfield this weekend.  All week long, he’s been salivating about getting out in the woods.  Friday, though, showed that we were under not only a burn ban but a red flag warning for wildfires due to high winds.  Alone, I have enough faith (misguided or otherwise) in myself to risk going and just living without a campfire.  Kids, though. . . have a way of making you a better man.  He cried the ugly cry Friday night when I told him we couldn’t go – but we’ll try again.

Decided maybe it was time to try my hand with this new meat grinder & sausage attachment I ordered for my Kitchenaide mixer.  I love that thing.  Received it as a wedding gift 15 years ago and if she ever leaves me . . . I’d almost let her have my truck if it let me keep the mixer.  Those things are that good.

As fun as it would be for me to blog the first attempt at sausage making – I think I’ll hold onto my pride enough to simply say this:  read the instructions.  I made an enormous mess and invented whole new vocabularies of frustration before I decided to read and do a little youtube research.

Here’s my first successful attempt at sausage-making.

Ingredients:  img_20170211_113446025

  • 3 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 3 tsp cumin
  • 3 tsp oregano
  • 1 can chipotle chilies in adobo sauce
  • 4 red apples
  • 1 large red onion
  • 4.5 tsp salt

 

After slicing everything into small chunks, I put it in the freezer for about 30 minutes to firm it up before running it through the grinder.  Tip I wish I knew before:  Wear an apron.  This is a juicy mix and it will splatter all over your chest, transforming your favorite ‘lounge around on a lazy Saturday’ shirt into a chickeny wasteland.

I ran everything through on the biggest grind plate and then threw it back into the freezer while I switched out hardware and put on the sausage horn.

The local butcher supplied me with about 15′ of fresh casing for $10.  He also gave me some tips that I probably should have remembered, but really wasn’t listening to because I was so excited to go home and play with my sausage maker.

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Normally, I’d shrink the picture some. . but look how pretty that is!  Flecks of the red onion & apple peel, the coloring of the cumin and oregano.  Time to twist.

It has been a long time since I’ve been as proud of a finished product as I was of these links.  What I should have done at this point was hang it overnight in the fridge to dry.  This is a very, very wet mix.   Maybe should have even put it in a colander and let it drain before stuffing it.  Next time, I most certainly will.  But I was impatient and the small, palm-sized patty I fried up tasted like pure heaven.  The perfect mix of sweet savory with a follow-up kick from the chilies.  I had the new Weber Smokey Mountain already heated up and ready to go. . . so onto the middle rack they went w/ applewood chips on the coals.  Because I didn’t dry them out first, they didn’t firm up as much as I’d like but the flavor is still to die for.

Z. is coming over next weekend with a bunch of goose and duck that he thinks he wants to make into jerky – so we’re going to have a grinding party.  I have about 20′ of hog casing that may convince him not to turn it into jerky.   I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

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Feeling Plucky

Couple of weeks ago, I got a text from a cousin of mine – Z.   He’s a big duck hunter, see, and recently had a real nice trip over on the Eastern side of our state known for great waterfowl hunting.  Z. knows how much I love to cook, and his share of the hunt was more than he needed, so he dropped off a pair of snow geese.

I wasn’t quite prepared for what needed doing – seeing as how I’ve never actually prepared anything that didn’t come pre-wrapped with a barcode.  Now, I love wild game and I’m blessed to be in a family full of hunters.   (They just failed to make much of a hunter out of me.)   Until that Saturday, all of the wild game I’d received was already processed.

Z. pulls out an ice chest, tells me to grab a bag or something to hold the geese.   Drains off the bloody ice-melt and asks me if I have some heavy scissors.  I grab a pair of tin snips from the pegboard and he instructs me to cut off the head, the feet, the wings.  Drops them on the garage floor.   He demonstrates how to pluck a pinch of feathers, tells me he already gutted these, and out the door he went.  I didn’t see him again that day until much, much later when he came by to borrow my vacuum sealer.

By the time I thought to grab my camera, I had already plucked, skinned, and breasted the geese.  My hands were a sticky, downy mess and there were feathers all over the garage.

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But, really, that isn’t what this blog entry is about.  I mean, it is what it was going to be about . . . but then my doorbell rang today and Z. was just standing there.   (Not much for calling ahead is Z.)

“Walk around with me to the garage.”

Sure.  I mean, didn’t have anything else going on this Saturday. I figured he was just going to return the vacuum sealer.

He did.

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But he also had a pair of ducks.  One mallard, one pintail.  He handed them over, cut off the heads, and gave me a quick tutorial on how to gut a duck.   Cut here, pluck here. . . etc.

This. . . this blog entry won’t be a how-to on cleaning a duck.   I’m sure you can probably get some tips or something from this, but if you’ve ever actually done it before then you’re already better than I am.  I thanked Z. and promised him some good baskets of produce once the garden comes in.   (He’s going to get a bag of okra for this, for sure.)  Hugged his son and waved goodbye.   I got a few handfuls of feathers off the pintail before I thought to grab the camera.  Like I said, this isn’t instructional.  Not intentionally, anyway.  But it is something I’m looking to learn more about as I strive to move closer and closer to the source of my family’s sustenance.

So, here we go. . . Mattdaddy’s Duck Pluck

Step 1:  Start pulling feathers off all wrong. 

There’s a way you can pinch and pull that leaves clean skin behind.  All the little downy tufts just come right off.   I figured that out about halfway into plucking the mallard.  I spent a lot of time going back over the pintail and getting those little bits of stubborn fluff.

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Step 2:  Gut it, save the tasty bits.

I cut off the tail, just above the anus, and cut off the neck.  Skinned the neck and snipped the cavity enough for me to start scooping out the innards.  Saved the liver and heart – tossed ’em on ice.  Snipped right at the base of the throat and pulled out the vocal chords.  Went back in to find the lungs.  The pintail still looked like it had a 5 o’clock shadow, but I was discouraged with pinching fluffers off and decided to set it aside and work on the mallard.

 

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Step 3:  Figure out how to pluck about half-way into the second bird.

I skinned the neck and put it on ice then cut off the feet.  Those last little bits of fluff came off easily enough.  The skin wanted to rip around the wounds, but just a little pressure kept it in place.   The geese were MUCH harder to pluck and I ended up losing almost all of the skin and top layer of fat off of them.  I was right proud of myself by the time I got to this point.

Step 4:  Clean up and move the operation indoors.

The birds were starting to collect little bits of feather and fluff from the table and it was getting hard to tell what I’ve plucked and what was just sticking around.   I swept up everything I could into a trash bag, tossed everything I wanted to keep on ice and headed to the kitchen.

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Step 5:  Mess up again.  

Brilliant idea!  I’ll wash off the feathers and fuzz.

Bad idea.   It washed off the dusting of fuzz, but it soaked the down onto the pintail.  See how much nicer that mallard looks?   I cleaned off the necks, livers, and hearts and went ahead and vacuum sealed those.  They could be chilling in the freezer while I finished off the ducks.

Step 6:  Knucklepluck and burn

I did one final once-over to pluck off as much of the remaining down that I could, pinching with my knuckles and cursing the first three-quarters of my ignorance.  I then turned the gas burner on high and put the duck on like a glove – using the flames to singe off the last bits of inedible fuzz and what-not.

Finished Product – ready for the freezer.

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I already have a recipe in mind.   Something with wild rice, celery, onion, some greens, okra.  Make a brine out of orange juice. . . and then I’ll quarter them (man, I probably should have quartered them before freezing. . ) and steam them a little in a double-boiler before searing them in a cast-iron skillet and cooking them in high heat.  You wait.  I’ll link that one back to here.

Next time, I’ll be better at it.

 

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I’m dreaming of a Red (wiggler) Christmas

At the last home, I never had problems with mice in the compost bins – but the new home is very close to lots of undeveloped land.  Fields, an active creek, even some wooded areas.   Close enough that it isn’t uncommon for me to see bunnies making their way through the POA-mandated shadowbox fences.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when I went out with the weekly container of kitchen scraps and found a little furry brown buddy scampering away.   Normally, I’m live and let live when it comes to outside critters who have the good sense to remain outside but those little fellas carry disease and so are not welcome in my bin.  (There’s also a solid possibility that I brought them home with the truck-load of free straw bales I recycled from a Halloween display.) For most of the year, the heat and moisture of the pile keeps mice and other scavenging critters away but the winter temps seem not to allow the waste to break down fast enough.

I wrote a letter to Santa and he delivered, via UPS & Amazon, the Worm Factory 360Momma gave her blessing to keep it in the kitchen for a few months until the weather is a bit more forgiving for me to move it into the greenhouse.  (I’m still seeking a heating solution for the greenhouse that works with my accidental fire anxiety.)

I unpacked it today and set it up in the corner of my kitchen, hoping that vermicomposting will help me with a few things:

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  • I need to up the humidity around my Meyer lemon trees while they’re indoors.  I’m in my first year of trying to grow lemons and still learning.   One of my trees is doing well, to the point where it has about a half-dozen nicely forming lemons.  The other is distressed and shedding leaves.   Hopefully the moisture of the working beds will contribute to raising the humidity at least a little in that area.
  • I also am worried about keeping the soil in those Meyer pots fertile.  The 360 has a spigot at the bottom where I can drain off some nice rich tea I can use to water the lemon trees.
  • And, well, it’ll keep the kitchen scraps indoors and out of the reach of my furry field friends.  I won’t set traps or poison for them outside or near the bed, so I need to make it a little less attractive.  You’re welcome, little buddies, now scamper along elsewhere.
  • I absolutely love fishing, so I have a longer term plan to have a bait source.  We have great trout waters within driving distance, there’s a catfish hatchery-release lake very close to our home, and plenty of public fishing areas a short car (or a medium bike) ride away.
  • I want to grow the worm presence in my raised beds.  They’re worm-free at this point and the impact is noticeable, compared at least to my former raised bed.

I prepared the bedding this morning and anticipate delivery of my first 500 red wigglers any day now.   I’m a little concerned about how well they’ll survive shipment in such cold weather, but we’ll see.

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Dehydrating eggplant and zuke to the left while waiting on the worms to arrive.

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Egg with Sage & Polenta

All of us are off this week for Thanksgiving Break, Momma & I both being educators.  This past Saturday, once it warmed back up, I turned the last of the summer garden into the compost bins and put the boys on hauling the rotting remnants of Halloween decorations from the front porch.  Momma started hanging lights on the front evergreens while I spread straw over the beds and new trees.  I noticed that the sage was looking particularly nice.  I started growing sage for one recipe and one recipe only – Eggs with Sage & Polenta – and I never grow enough to sate my love for fried sage.

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Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a live-in Italian grandmother to make your polenta for you (I’m not), then you can find the perfectly serviceable tubes of it in your local supermarket.   It keeps well on the shelf, so I always have a few tubes of it in the pantry. I’ve never been able to find acceptable fresh sage in a supermarket, though.  It is easy to grow and I stagger the seeds out every few weeks the entire summer so that I always have fresh, young, flavorful sage to pluck.

The ingredients for this are easy:  Eggs, olive oil, fresh sage, polenta, salt & pepper.

Cut the polenta into rounds about 1/2 inch thick.  Warm your cast-iron skillet up and add just enough olive oil to start browning the polenta.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  I have some smoked black peppercorns that I ground up just for this morning’s dish.  You want it nicely browned on both sides.   Once that starts to happen, put in a little more olive oil (the polenta soaks it up pretty quickly) and toss in the whole sage leaves.   Watch them – you don’t want them to cook too quickly or to turn brown.  What you’re looking for is a nice crispy green as they flavor the oil.   Get them out of the oil as soon as they look ready and set them on a paper towel.   Drop your eggs in and fry them just enough to get the edges brown and crispy but not so much that you harden the yolk.  Pour a fresh up of coffee.   Plate and live well.

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If you’re unable to find polenta, I’ve used left-over cornbread with this recipe and it was still good eats.  The cornbread will be considerably less dense than the polenta, though, and won’t require nearly as much time to brown up.

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Scones w/ Blackberry Preserves

I decided after a fun week of learning how to pickle things, I would ease back into something I’m a little more familiar with.   I had one last gallon of frozen blackberries from this summer and figured it was time to make preserves.   So I did.

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Last night was our first freeze.   I woke up around 6 to the outside temperature reading 29 degrees.  Momma loves her sleep, so I figured I had a few hours to plan the day.  Got the fireplace going, did a little light cleaning in my kitchen.   Bogey flits in first, clutching a warm blanket and a toy he slept with last night.  Bear Bait staggers his pre-teen self out of bed about thirty minutes later, heads straight to his phone and disappears into the back playroom to do whatever it is 12-yr-old boys do on Saturday mornings.

Around 8:30, I figure I have a half-hour before she comes out for coffee.   Throw some medium roast beans into the grinder and prep the coffee pot.  So, here’s a good time to admit that I’m a cookbook junkie and have been longer than I’ve actually been able to cook.  I have a new one that I’ve only (unsuccessfully) made one recipe from and decided it was time to try again.

100 Great Breads by Paul Hollywood.  Pulled down the Kitchen Aide, filled up my favorite mug of coffee, and got to work.   Baking is probably my weakest area in the kitchen. . . mostly because it requires such exact measures and I really don’t like to follow rules.  Still, it is one of my favorite new additions to the cookbook library.

I decided that the recipe for scones fit my on-hand ingredients and time constraints quite nicely.  (Momma gets cranky when she’s hungry. . I really needed a blackberry preserves delivery device that didn’t take too long to rise.)

She woke up just as I was putting on the first egg wash, turned on the coffee maker, and asked me what I was up to.  Didn’t take much explaining before I knew I was racking up some high-value Good Husband points.

Thirty minutes idsc03571n the fridge, one more egg wash, and about fifteen in the oven.  Just enough time to arrange it all pretty.  At the last minute, I braved the cold morning air to snip the last brave blossom of the season.  Did a once-over on the raised bed and, yeah, the cold night ended the long run of my early girl tomatoes and that magnificent patch of okra.  I’ll be cleaning that out later this afternoon once the sun warms it up.

 

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Yeah. . . I think they’ll eat. 

 

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November

Calling it.   The last of my summer crops has finally given in to the cold nights.  This weekend is going to bring a few 30-degree nights, I think, and even the new pods are starting to mottle brown.  The blooms have dropped off.

I haven’t pulled them up yet.  That’ll be a Saturday job.   Turn them into the compost bins.  Fold the leaves that my boys have been piling and exploding and piling again into the raised bed.  I’ll head up to the school over Break and clean up the straw bales that a PTO mom stacked up for October decoration.   Those will turn into mulch for the strawberries, the blackberries, the beds.   If I have enough, I’ll stack it aside for compost layers.

The basil has gone fully to seed and dried.   I’ll clip a few heads off and put them in the box with the dried okra pods that rattle with promise.  .  .  any two of the dozen or so I kept would be sufficient.   Today, to get ahead of the freeze, I took the last of the still-tender pods no matter what their size.   Canned my last two jars of pickled okra just now and waiting on the lids to pop.   I ate the last couple of blackberries that turned black just in time.   I hope to get up early enough to get a picture of frost on the red ones, if it gets that cold.   May not.

Watering the plants in the greenhouse today I saw a small grey and black camouflaged tree frog perched on the edge of a blueberry pot (The first lid just popped!) and moved a shallow pot down and filled it with a little extra water.   Maybe he’ll winter over in the greenhouse.  Maybe he was just hopping in for a look-around.

I’m excited about Winter coming, even though my heart is always Spring and Autumn.   We didn’t get snow last year and it would be nice to get a little this year.  Just enough to really make me yearn for those first green glimpses of daffodils at the end of it all.

(The second one just popped . . . let me go get my camera, I’m proud of these two.) 

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