Monday, October 26, 2009

The Winter Countdown

The Winter Countdown Oct 26, 2009


            Around here, we are all very interested in when winter is going to show up. I think it’s the New England character, which combines dourness and fatalism with a certain almost jaunty interest in how your discomforts will manifest.

            When Chummy, our neighbor, shows up with his annual load of aged cow manure for the garden, we discuss the cooking of rabbit and frogs’ legs. Actually, Chum’s wife discusses these preparations and I egg her on. We keep it up until it begins to get dark, then Chum flashes us his parting leer: “Have a nice wintah!” His benediction ringing ironically in our ears, we watch his tail lights disappear over the hill, and wonder what’s in store, and when.


This year I joined in the haying.  I felt very proud to be invited onto the hay wagon to help stack the bales as they came shooting out of the baler. This turns out (of course) to be a bit trickier than it looks. I thought it would take tremendous upper body strength to stack bales all afternoon. In reality, properly dried hay is quite light. The problem is that the chaff on the surface of the wagon makes for extremely slippery going. When the tractor is pulling the baler downhill, with the hay wagon attached at the rear, I found myself scrambling to not fall into the mouth of the baler itself. I offered, even threatened, to bring a broom onto the wagon. Not only that, but the bales come shooting out of the baler hard, and you have to bat them down-- or catch them, before finding the baling twine with which to hoist them into place in the stack behind you.

            There’s plenty of time to chat on hay wagon. Since farmers spend a great deal of time second guessing the weather in order to get hay cut, dried, baled and stored, we talked about weather. One farmer predicted that we’d get our first snow on October 13, because you note the first flight of geese south and then add 30 days.  When talk moved to winter prediction by deciphering the bands of color on a wooly caterpillar, I got a bit lost.  I didn’t tell them that the first flock of geese I saw had been flying—I was sure of it—north.

            What do you do? Yell at the geese? Chalk it up to Global Warming? Assume that they knew their route? I opted for the last, but not without some unease.

I sort of assumed that the 30 day prediction wouldn’t work either. I sure , didn’t want it to be accurate—so much to do! There’s wood to split and stack, gardens to weed, cut back and mulch, new bulbs, garlic and blueberries to plant, hay bales to bank around the north side of the house, storm windows to repair and put up, bee hives to insulate, fields to lime, hay to sell so we can make room for the truck in the barn.

Last year I neglected the gardens and was rewarded for my inattention by the sight of spent flowers poking reproachfully through the snow all winter—an ugly reminder to do better this year. There is something hugely satisfying about getting things properly hunkered down for the winter. No small part of it is being a bit in tune with the seasons, the weather.

I like being a servant to the seasons. Well, a slacker at that. The press of seasons brings me forcibly into the present, even as I nervously scan the weather forecasts for good bee days (55 degrees, at least, to open the hive) or garden days that won’t freeze my hands to nubbins. The knowledge that the warmer seasons pass too quickly makes their savoring all the sweeter.

I am lulled by good weather in September. I know the temperatures will plummet, but I can’t quite make myself cut back plants that haven’t finished flowering, so I never get a head start on garden chores. This year’s weird summer weather put all the blooms back, and my miraculously tough hardy hibiscus never did get out of bud by the first frost. It’s pushing my luck, in what is surely zone 4, to have it at all.

I am always astonished when things actually grow, let alone thrive. To partner with nature feels like a wonderful new experiment that often comes out well. The surprise pumpkin vine growing off the side of the compost heap yielded several stout fruit.  The tomatoes never got the blight. The beans were prolific and delicious. The shallots obligingly multiplied. I grew my first garlic scapes.

The Pilgrims believed that God put cures for every disease in the plant world, that is was all out there for human benefit. I’m surprised such a dour culture would have so optimistic a view of the environment. They did know enough about plants to notice that jewelweed provides a decent antidote to poison ivy, and often grows nearby.

The second part of their belief—that everything is here to benefit humans alone—is more problematic, and has brought us to the edge of environmental disaster. We humans continue to behave rapaciously, even as we try to start mending our ways. As a past enthusiast user of Miracle Gro, I can say it is far sweeter to get results using methods that do not tax the environment. Using it feels like cheating now.

I’d rather be better connected to nature than living in a manner that  is largely unrelated to what’s going on outdoors. Would the use of Miracle Gro have ripened my 100 pounds of green tomatoes? Probably not. I’ve come upon some good recipes to use up the bounty, though.

By the way, it really did snow on October 13. The other day, I saw a caterpillar, and bent down to scrutinize its bands closely, which were of equal length, all three.

It was very, very furry, though. Should I be worried?


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Green Tomatoes

Oct 20, 2009   Green Tomatoes


It’s one of the garden’s many rich ironies that in the year of the tomato blight, my plants have more healthy fruit on them than I have ever seen. A hundred pounds, I’ll bet, on about 22 plants. Every fruit but one is green.

I picked the red one, sliced it up and put it on a plate at supper. My dear, innocent family took it for granted. Everyone had a slice, politely complimented me when prompted, not knowing that several suitcases of green tomatoes were in their immediate future.

It must be Boomer Guilt at having missed the Depression that makes so many of us embrace localvore eating so zealously. I would no more throw away these green tomatoes than spray my garden with Round Up just to watch things wilt.

Days are not getting any warmer. I’m not seeing much ripening going on. Here and there, just a shade of pink blushes a few fruits, but really, nothing you could ever call red. It’s time to pick the rest and get inventive in the kitchen.

I’m not sure we can eat 100 pounds of green tomato relish. We can do in a few fried tomatoes, but they’re no one’s favorite. Could you use green tomatoes in place of tomatillos in a sauce? It might work. So might green tomato salsa. Rhubarb salsa is great, though it has to be fresh; it gets too mushy canned.

I tried Melissa Clark’s recipe for Cream of Green Tomato Soup, from the New York Times of September 16, 2009. It’s good, and I’ll make it again. To do that, I’m going to freeze re-sealable bags of diced. She also recommends making a green tomato salad with anchovies, which sounds good, but the tomatoes have to be fresh. No problem there.

Do you remember Patricia Polacco’s picture book, Thunder Cake? Why not substitute green tomatoes for the over-ripe ones in the recipe? What is it that tomatoes actually bring to chocolate cake anyway? I made a lot of basil gimlets this summer, to the general approval of the cocktail set. What about green tomato gimlets? I also developed some wonderful new ice creams. (Yes, I know, hardly low carb, but it was the diet that inspired this burst of creativity, I’m sure). Would green tomato ice cream be good? Green tea ice cream is, very. We’d better stop there.

Here, so far, are the recipes.


My Cream of Green Tomato Soup, after Melissa Clark’s     serves 4


2 T olive oil

1 T coriander seeds (I had some on cilantro plants gone to seed. Fronds      went in, too.)

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

5 green tomatoes, diced

1 t red pepper flakes

2 C chicken broth

½ C low fat sour cream

1 t chopped fresh oregano

salt, pepper to taste

croutons sautéed in olive oil with parsley, garlic


Saute coriander, onion and garlic in the olive oil until the onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes the pepper flakes and the broth. Simmer for ½ hour. Puree in a blender until very smooth. Return to the pot and add the sour cream, oregano, salt and pepper. Serve with the croutons.


Hot Green Tomato jam


This worked well, and has the added charm of using up a lot of green tomatoes, unlike green tomato tea cake, which only used 1 cup of green tomato puree, and flopped, literally.


4 C finely diced green tomatoes

1 1/2 C sugar

1/4 C white vinegar

5 cloves garlic, diced

1C diced onion

1 t salt

1 T red pepper flakes


Throw this all in a pot and simmer on medium heat until it’s reduced to the consistency of sweetened condensed milk. This should take at least ½ hour. Stir occasionally, then pour into clean jars. My batch yielded 2 pints, which firmed up in the fridge, where you will have to keep them, because they haven’t been sealed. Or give away to friends with dire warnings about refrigeration, which I also did.


It’s been a week since I packed all those green tomatoes in hay, wrapped them in newspaper and the like. They have been lurking under the Hoosier cabinet, in the much cooler living room, turning, I hoped, red. Well. As for ripening, these semi scientific methods were all dismal failures. I got one reddish tomato out of about 200. The rest had started to go brown at the top. The only even moderately successful ripening method was ye olde windowsill. North or easterly light both seemed to work. Besides, you don’t forget about them quite so easily.

On the other hand, all that rotting has pretty much solved my Abundant Green Tomato Problem. I am left with ten mostly-usable tomatoes and that’s it.





Monday, October 12, 2009

October 12, 2009

            Our first livestock experiment was with bees. Four years ago, I took bee classes, bought and set up a hive and got a “nuk” full of bees. We loved having them over that summer of ’05. As my husband said, No matter how lazy we were being, the bees were always hard at work. My gardens flourished. I watched the bees work the creeping thyme, goldenrod, sedum and milkweed for nectar and pollen, sat watching them dancing or hurrying out of the hive to a new nectar source. When they came back laden with pollen, their little saddlebags on their legs loaded with gold, they fairly waddled.

            Then on Columbus Day weekend a bear tore apart our hive. We came home from a party to ravaged frames strewn about, their queenless survivors flying around dazed. It wasn’t long before they all died off. We hadn’t finished putting up the electric fence, and had been lulled into complacency by the fact we hadn’t seen bear anywhere near our house.

            It had been a bad summer for nuts and fruit, and the bear was hungry. Its superb sense had led it straight to our little hive. I’ve since read that bear can smell a sunflower seed a mile away. How was that test set up, I wonder? I also read that it’s the grubs, they’re after, not the honey, although that Columbus Day the bear made a pretty thorough job of both.

            We repopulated the hives the next spring, only this time, I got two hives and they went into an unused tennis court. There they have thrived for three years. There’s even goldenrod growing right in the courts for their delectation.


            Last week I started the process of buttoning up the beehives for the winter. I’ve named the hives. The Amazons are very strong and warlike, having, I think, raised their own queen, who was not exactly bred for docility. These girls are tough, and they like to sting me just to show who’s boss. The other, newer hive I call Uffizi. These bees are sweet, love having me visit-- probably because they don’t associate me with taking honey-- since I haven’t, yet. In fact they mostly associate me with bringing them sugar water. What’s not to like? Their hive is not yet a year old. They are industrious, and have a tendency to build burr comb all over the place, in little Gaudi like towers.

            It was a warmish day, with a good wind. I started with Uffizi, watching the girls fly to the lip of the hive, many with their little saddlebags stuffed with pollen, even at this late date. The sight never fails to melt me; they are so cute, trundling in. I gave them their third quart of sugar water laced with Honey Bee Healthy, a mix of essential oils that smells wonderful and purportedly build up their immunities for the trials ahead. They love it. I’d give it to them even if it weren’t so good for them, just to see their excited buzz-dancing outside the hive entrance.

            Next came the Amazons. For them I relit the smoker, which had gone out, as usual. I opened the top of the hive to find the super, which usually would be filled with honey in September, empty, the comb not even drawn out and a few bees exploring it it. I took it off, replaced the inner cover so I could give them their first dose of HBH medicated syrup.

No honey raid on the Amazons this year. Their hive was three stacked deep hive bodies. I should have taken the hive apart, reduced the stack to two, and then placed the super on for honey --in July, maybe.

But to tell you the truth, I am still a bit afraid of them. They’ve always been quick on the draw. It was this hive that prompted me to spend $100 on a head-to-toe white beekeeping suit. For a while I felt safe tending them wearing it. I’d take the frames out and examine them, slowly and carefully looking for the queen and newly laid eggs, almost oblivious to their furious buzzing around my head encased in its mesh helmet.

Then one day, I had an awful run-in with them in which they stung me through the bee net on my ears, because the  often-laundered helmet didn’t hold the mesh far enough away from me anymore. Not only that, my hair came undone, so I couldn’t see. If I opened the helmet there to corral the hair, I’d let in another 200 raging Kamikaze bees. Finally I managed to put the hive back together and stagger out of the bee yard. Bees followed me a quarter mile to the house.

People often ask me if I’m worried about Africanized, so called “killer bees”. I figure the Amazons will have me so tough I won’t mind the African strains, should they continue to move north. Maybe the Amazons will beat them up. Who knows? It could be that the bears are afraid of the Amazons too; that’s why they’ve kept their distance --so far. In any case, I have plenty to worry about now, thanks.

As few days after the swelling went down in my face, I detached the built-in helmet in favor of a separate pith helmet style with netting that ties around the chest. I’m about as safe as I can get.

But this summer, it was raining almost non stop-and I just didn’t have the gumption to mess with the Amazons. Besides, I’m on a low-carb diet, I reasoned, and we’re still working on last year’s honey.

I had an extra hive body set up nearby. They’re very handy for holding frames you’ve inspected, causing the least amount of disruption to the bees. I had this body sealed up pretty well, I thought, on a bottom, with an entrance reducer to keep out mice, and a top.

I pulled off the top. There was a small pile of chewed up leaves, and five frightened, bright-eyed stares. The entrance reducer had been carefully pushed aside enough to let these small Beatrix Potter characters come and go.

“Appley Dapply, a little brown mouse, Goes to the cupboard in somebody’s house” begins the Potter Nursery rhyme. “In somebody’s cupboard There’s everything nice,/ Cake, cheese, jam, biscuits,--All charming for mice!”

These mice were also very cute, even without Potter’s little blue apron and shopping basket. Unlike Appley-Dapply, my story contained an evil giant who had no intention of letting uninvited guests stick around. I pulled the empty frames out to see some had been chewed, the wax flakes mingled with the leaves to make fluffy, dry bedding. When I removed the walls, the mice scattered. I set the hive body on top of the Amazons to shelter the sugar syrup, replaced the top, and shook the leaves off the extra base.

I’ve had mice make nests in weak hives, maybe after the bees have left or died, or maybe causing the bees to swarm or just leave--I don’t know. But I couldn’t encourage the mice to stay. Peaceable Kingdom fantasies don’t work very well out here. The best I can hope for is stand-offs. For the time being, bears don’t climb ten foot chain link to get to the bees, but I’ve heard they’ll learn.

Next year, I’ll run two electric wires around the outside, one at the top and one about two feet off the ground. My bee mentor, Denny, one of the gentlest people I know, whom I’ve never seen in a bee suit, who wears a t-shirt and shorts to work with the Amazons, and is not stung, drapes pieces of bacon on his electric fence to tempt and train bears that the bee yard is off limits.

It seems pretty mean. I may try it.


Monday, October 5, 2009

October 5, 2009

            I was so stunned at how easy it is to get a blog up and running that when it came time to actually say something, I was more or less struck dumb. You may later wish this had remained the case—maybe we all will. At the time, though, it seemed like doing an end run around agents, editors, permission-givers, the very guards at the door of Publishing. Shazam: I am Out There. In more ways than one, I’m told.

            So. This is to be a journal of our attempt to reclaim the family farm, save the land from development into condos and strip malls, make a bit of money toward Vermont property taxes (sixth highest in the nation), raise some fiber bearing sheep and goats who can eat some of the robust weeds that are beginning to fill the pastures. We have been living here a few years already, absorbed with the usual tasks of raising a family, working, etc. Extra time has been absorbed in fixing the roof, cleaning out sheds and barns, insulating the living room  (which used to be a shed) ceiling, getting the truck fixed, going from oil heat to wood, all the while eyeing the pastures as they have begun to grow up. I’ve wondered what animals would be the best for the landscape, and how to protect them from the many predators hungrily milling around the woods looking for the odd lambkin to nibble.


            Today was compost day. I have a few vegetable beds that I’ve laid out according to the Lasagna Gardening method of Patricia Lanza. Otherwise known as layered gardening, you don’t till the dirt. Nor do you have to weed. I love Patricia Lanza. Instead you lay down newspapers or cardboard, apply layers of organic matter, alternating with peat moss, spoiled hay, compost, manure, grass clippings. I’m not sure what can be sustainably substituted for peat—aren’t the bogs being depleted to grow our zinnias?

Anyway, I had good luck this summer, even though I didn’t get my autumn ‘08 layering chores done until July ‘09. I grew so-called Aztec corn with multicolored kernels, which isn’t very sweet and may be better for grinding than eating off the cob. I grew purple beans, which we ate raw with dip more often than cooked, peas in pods—always consumed raw here, strawberries, lemon cucumbers grown over the skeleton of an upended lawn chair, shallots, garlic, onions, broccoli, zucchini,  a bed of very productive red potatoes, spaghetti squash, delicata squash, problematic tomatoes, and one huge, lopsided French pumpkin.

In the kitchen garden near the house, I grew basil, lettuces, very challenged Lacinato kale, chard, cilantro, parsley, tomatillos that towered but didn’t really fruit,

However discouraging it was to watch weeds get a head start over my vegetables in June and July (afraid of running out of mulch hay, I didn’t mulch as often as Patricia recommends), by late August, with the beans cantering up their trellises, the corn looking strong and very non-weedy, even the tomatoes taking a few minutes a day to stop shivering and grow, things looked pretty good. Pea pods were still coming. I was beginning to find squashes running in among the rosa rugosa.  The zucchinis were producing at a decent, if not overwhelming clip. Does this sound like a fairly casual garden?

 It is.

I will never get a weeding award.  Are there such things? Just as I will never get a typing award, or one for the most query letters sent out to harried editors. Maybe layered gardening is like blogging. You cut to the chase. A good deal of the character-building drudgery goes out the window, to be replaced by other character building obstacles to your immediate gratification.

Such as compost.


            I was out there this morning, as the clouds gathered over the mountains to the west, digging away at the pile, trying to find the lovely compost that was supposed to happen even in the laziest unturned pile. I jabbed in the pitchfork and pulled out stringy, half decomposed weeds, a few mussel shells (I have a great recipe for smoked mussels, by the way*), more than a few Chiquita banana stickers, even some plastic plant markers. I found my potted verbena from this summer, doing better upside down in the compost heap in October than it did on my patio in August.

Where was the wonderful compost? I dug further down, where I found some very nice stuff, but not light. In fact, it bore a distinct resemblance to my clay soil. Perhaps I was going too deep. I really needed compost to finish off the pea patch I was layering again for next spring.  I dug around the edges of the pile, finding some decent shovelfuls of compost that wasn’t too stringy, nor too obviously the soil beneath my compost heap. Finally I filled the wheelbarrow with compost-stuff, all the while wondering if those compost turners, the giant cylinders with the near effortless cranks that are promised to produce compost in a month, really work.

Distributing the compost across the most recent layer of peat moss, I noticed some dog business beside the bed.  I took one load onto the shovel and neatly catapulted it over the fence into the pasture. Of the second load, two pieces went into the pasture and the third hit my bluebird house with a loud thwap! And stuck.

Is this some kind of omen?

Too bad if it is. I cleaned it off, finished distributing the compost, put away the tools as the rain started coming down in earnest.



*You dump them, cleaned, into a really hot skillet, cover them up and cook until all their liquid has evaporated. Three minutes, maybe? Peeking is fine. Then serve with melted butter. That’s it. They are smoky, salty, sweet, utterly delicious.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Time moves slowly on the farm, especially when your equipment is planted.