Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lavender jelly in the window

When I was young, one of the reasons I loved visiting my grandmother in Canmore was that I got to see once again the beautiful bottles that lined the windows of her house. They'd originally been filled with things like wine, or vinegar, or oil, but once they were empty my grandmother had filled them with coloured water of almost every imaginable hue. They looked like jewels to me, with the sun shining through.

This morning I made lavender jelly. Not much to it: cover lavender blossoms with boiling water and let steep for 20 minutes, then strain and use the liquid to make jelly. Ingredients: lavender-infused water, lemon juice, pectin and an incredible amount of sugar. No nutritional value in this one, just jewel-like beauty and a memory of my grannie. That's enough for me.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer garden

This is my third summer at Mucky Boots, and even though each year has brought different weather, I am starting to recognize patterns in the ebbs and flows of each season. Early spring, with wave after wave of different spring bulbs, is full of excitement and relief that winter is over. Then come the poppies and the peonies, and the garden is lush and green. And right about now, when the warm weather hits, there's a shift change: the rain stops, the soil dries, and the dewy moistness of a few weeks ago settles into hot, baking summer.

It feels like a bit of a trying time. It's harder to work outside, in the heat of the day, and there are fewer emotional benefits: all my friends in the garden seem hunkered down, closed up, doing what they can to make it through the hot, dry weeks ahead. The perennial beds have gone from a riot of purple, pink and red to more uniform green, with a side of baked-earth brown.

But there are still plants to admire, even if I have to go hunting for them now. Many are ones I grew from seed last year, that are flowering for the first time now. Here's a bit of what's braving the heat these days at Mucky Boots.

This is double-decker bee balm (otherwise known as bergamot). The flowers are just starting to emerge - I think the small green pod coming out of the top of the flower will open as well, forming the second layer of petals.

This echinacea looks more than a bit strange to me - are these petals going to unfold, or is this just an anorexic blossom?

This mallow and the nasturtiums below, grown from seed this year, are flowering in the herb garden. I picked up a few different varieties of nasturtium, but neglected to label them properly, so now I don't know what's what.

There is lavender growing everywhere on the property, including about a dozen bushes in the vegetable garden. They're really earning their keep these days, attracting masses of bees that I'm hoping will then go on to fertilize some of my bean and squash blossoms.

The summer bulbs are starting to flower: lilies, crocosmia, gladiolas. The crocosmia are old friends - we had many of them at our old house and loved them, so we planted a bunch of bulbs last spring. This is the first year they're flowering, and the colour is so welcome in the parched garden.

What's flowering in your garden these days?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Herbal intensive

A nice, big dose of serendipity landed on my doorstep - or rather, in my vegetable garden - about two weeks ago. Some folks were visiting our neighbours, and as often happens, one stopped to talk to me over the fence as I watered the garden.

"Are you growing lambs' quarters?" she asked, pointing to the quinoa. It turns out that lambs' quarters and quinoa are both members of the buckwheat family, and look amazingly alike (which explains why I was, to my puzzlement, seeing quinoa sprouting all over my garden - it turns out it was lambs' quarters!). It also turns out that the woman asking the question (Lorene is her name) is a master herbalist who lives on the next road over.

I was thrilled. There are many herbs growing here at Mucky Boots, a couple of which I have identified and used, and many of which I have no clue about. When I confessed to wanting to learn more, Lorene told me she would be giving a four day intensive on herbs the following weekend.

Serendipity indeed!

So of course I went, and it was amazing. We spent the Friday afternoon learning about the medicine wheel, which categorizes medicinal plants according to their natures and functions, using Lorene's own specially planted garden to help us. We tasted everything, learning what mucilaginous and astringent herbs feel like in our mouths, and how bitter some herbs can be. We studied diagrams of different leaf shapes and margins, and different flowering and branching patterns, and then we each chose a particular herb to study that night for homework.

Saturday, Sunday and Monday were spent learning how to make different herbal preparations: infusions and decoctions, a salve (much like the one I made last year), a tincture, a glycerite and a tinc tract. We discussed the difference between using fresh herbs and dried ones. We made an herbal vinegar. Some of us snuffed an herbal snuff, others got poultices for sore muscles or wounds, and I got to try a steam treatment with essential oils for my sinuses.

It was a wonderful way to get started with learning about herbs - I have a framework now and some preliminary knowledge, plus a whole bunch of enthusiasm to learn more.

One of the best parts was finally identifying some of the mystery plants here at Mucky Boots. Some of them are residents of the perennial gardens, like malva (a demulcent, soothing to the digestive and respiratory systems and the skin) and motherwort (stimulates and tones stomach action, and is good for respiratory congestion and symptoms of menopause). . .

. . .and others are weeds I have spent the last two years trying to eradicate, like broad leaf plantain (great to chew up and use as a poultice on bee stings or poison ivy), sheep sorrel (an excellent source of Vitamin C and delicious in salads) and purslane (an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids, also good in salads).

And there were others, like wood sorrel (which looks like clover but isn't), and prunella vulgaris, (also called heal all) whose flower looks a little like French lavender.

That's in addition to the plants here that I already knew about, like borage, chickweed, cleavers, comfrey, dandelion, horsetail, lady's mantle, lavender, lemon balm, nettle, oregon grape, peppermint, raspberry, red clover, sage, spearmint, thyme, woodruff, yarrow and yellow dock.

Mucky Boots is a veritable medicine chest, just waiting for me to clue in!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Potatoes and cabbage

I must have been feeling an affinity with my Irish roots, because today's harvest consisted solely of potatoes and cabbage: 2.5 kg of beautiful, tender new Yukon Gold potatoes, and 4 hefty cabbages.

There was a bit of urgency to this harvest. The cabbages, after going unscathed for most of their development, have been besieged by cabbage worms, and need to be eaten before they're not fit for human consumption (although I bet the chickens would think worms in cabbage a bonus). So I picked the four biggest and spent some time tonight shredding, salting and packing them into my new (old) stoneware pickling crock. In a few weeks we should be eating Mucky Boots Farm's first fermented food: sauerkraut.

The potato plants are also in trouble, but in their case I have no idea what the problem is. The leaves are turning mottled yellow and in a few cases the plants have died. Potato plants are supposed to die, but this seems much too early. So today I went digging beneath the worst-off plants to see what was happening beneath the surface, and was pleasantly surprised to find plump, soft-skinned, blemish-free potatoes - 2.5 kg of them, from just three plants. The potatoes we have growing in two other locations - in buckets along the driveway and in the dregs of the former pile o' dirt near the house - are doing much better, so we'll leave those for winter storage, which means we can indulge in regular feasts of boiled new potatoes slathered in butter without thinking twice.

And just in case you're looking at that second photo and thinking "Miriam should be holding a couple of those cabbages a few inches higher," Kim got there before you. Who says farmers have no fun?

Thursday, July 14, 2011


All of a sudden there is food to eat in the garden. As Toni at Backyard Feast wrote recently, we wait and we wait and then all of a sudden there's a glut and we're wondering what to do with it all. In our case, yesterday, it was the shelling peas.

After last year's pea debacle (mice eating the newly sown peas, mice moving around the re-sown peas, peas collapsing in a chaotic tangle, Miriam unable to tell snow/snap/shelling peas apart because the mice mixed them all up) I was determined to get it right this year. I was never a drill-sergeant kind of teacher, but man, did I keep those peas in order this year.

The snap peas (Sugar Ann) have been delicious, as usual. The snow peas (Dwarf Sugar Grey) were a mysterious no-show: they just didn't germinate, even after resowing. And the two or three that did manage to sprout were spindly, feeble, non-producers. But what I was really waiting for were the shelling peas (Strike). Last year, in all the pea confusion, I picked them too soon, got them mixed up with the other types, and then gave up. This year I have been watching them like a hawk, gently squeezing the fat pods, trying to gauge the size of the peas inside. I was determined to get it right. And then, all of a sudden, when I checked them yesterday they were ready. All of them.

So I picked and picked. Three and a half pounds worth. And then I did something I've always wanted to do: I sat in the swing on the verandah with a bowl of peas in my lap and shucked. I looked out at the garden and shucked. I listened to the birds and shucked. I thought about my life and shucked. It was marvellous. Tonight they're going to have a starring role in some risotto. Yum.

That's not the only food-first this year. We also managed to beat the birds to our cherries. We have three cherry trees in the orchard, two of which are old enough to produce more than a token smattering of fruit. The first spring we were here the cherries all fell off because we weren't careful enough about watering. Last spring we tended the trees faithfully but lost all the fruit to birds, waiting for the darn things to get ripe. This year we finally clued into the fact they are not the same cherries we both grew up eating - deep, ruby red in colour. They're Rainier cherries, which are a rosy blush colour when ripe. So now I look back on last year and imagine the cherries being ripe, but us too stupid to know it, and the birds all sitting around waiting politely for us to harvest our crop, then finally giving up and saying "Well, if they're not going to eat them . . ."

Not this year. This year we have a ladder permanently stationed by the cherry trees so we can nab those babies as soon as they're ripe. The other day Kim picked a whole lovely bowl full, and I would show them to you, but this is all that's left.

And remember that purple broccoli that had me confused? Well, I checked my records and it turns out I actually did order purple broccoli seeds (Santee is the variety). And it's sprouting broccoli, so it doesn't form big heads - it's more like broccoli rabe. And it is purple - definitely purple. And tasty, did I mention that? And best of all, it stays purple when it's cooked, unlike purple beans which turn the most unappetizing grey-green.

Maybe I just haven't been at this gardening business long enough, but it still amazes me that I can plant some little seeds and then a few months later have a garden that is full of food. Tasty, fresh, nutritious food. It fills me with glee.

Anyone have any good recipes to use what's ripe in the garden, that don't also call for a lot of other ingredients that aren't seasonal at all? Share, please!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Horsetail patrol

This is horsetail. We have a lot of it here at Mucky Boots, in all the damp areas around the pond and the aquifer at the back of the property. It's a prehistoric, primitive plant, and there's a reason it has survived so well: it's indestructible. It is impossible to get rid of horsetail - it even grows through cement.

But we have a secret weapon: our chickens. They have decided that the tender horsetail fronds are a delicacy, and have been decimating the horsetail forest around the pond like there's no tomorrow.

We think the chickens started hanging out in the horsetail forest as a way of sheltering from the heat and the eagles overhead, but in no time the forest began to look like this.

I'm sure this will just put a momentary dent in the forest, and the horsetail will regrow quickly. But in the meantime the chickens are happy!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Garlic harvest

Our hard-necked garlic harvest has happened just in time - we're down to a few small heads from last year's crop. To me this counts as a modest but proud success: we are self-sufficient when it comes to garlic. It was the first crop we planted at Mucky Boots, and it's one of our favourites. Even to someone with almost no sense of smell, there's a huge difference between fresh home-grown garlic and the shriveled, mummified stuff from China we used to buy at the grocery store.

Who needs a bouquet of flowers? This'll do for me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Septic adventure

[Now aren't those words to strike fear into the heart of every homeowner? Don't worry - this story has a happy ending.]

Today was an exciting day at Mucky Boots. Today was the day we had our septic tank pumped. Are you excited? We were.

The excitement lasted about half an hour, once Robb from A-1 Septic Service (motto: "we leave you smelling like a rose") arrived, at which point he called me over with the words nobody wants to hear when their septic covers are off: "We have a problem."

Problem? What problem? We hadn't been experiencing any problems, at least in the septic department. But according to Robb our pump wasn't working, and as far as he could tell, it hadn't been working for quite some time.

If any of you out there are Septic Novices, this is how a septic system works. Water (and other stuff) from toilets, showers, washing machines and faucets leaves the house and is deposited into a tank. Liquid eventually makes its way into a pump chamber where the pump moves it out to the septic field to be absorbed by the earth. The solids stay behind in the tank, breaking down slowly and eventually moving along, but sooner or later the tank will fill up and need to be pumped.

So what happens when your pump doesn't work? The tank fills up. The pump chamber fills up. And then things start backing up into the house. But that never happened for us, so what the heck happened to all that liquid? According to Robb, it was probably leaching out into the surrounding ground. (Fortunately there aren't any neighbours or vegetables in the immediate vicinity...)

What to do? Clearly we needed a new pump. But who could do that for us on the spot? Super Plumber, of course (their motto: "to the rescue!"). Brody happened to be finishing up a job nearby, came right over and did a lot to calm down two slightly freaked out women. New pump: no problem. But maybe, he suggested, we should think about replacing the covers to the two tank chambers and the pump chamber. The existing wooden ones had absorbed an awful lot of - ahem - septic liquid, and in any case, like any wood underfoot they were a slippery hazard in the rainy winter.

So while Kim and I played lumberjack in the woods (we're in the middle of clearing out small trees and brush), Brody dug out the old covers and replaced them with brand-spanking new ones.

They're not as picturesque as the old ones, and the pump chamber needs a lid, but they're very practical. And best of all, under one of them is a shiny new (well, maybe not shiny anymore...) beautifully pumping pump.

And that was our septic adventure.

Garden update

Miracles happen all the time here at Mucky Boots. A pullet lays her first egg. A crocus pushes through a crust of snow. I catch up on my weeding. Frankie goes for an entire afternoon without barking.

Here's another one: after a cool, wet, cloudy spring that went on and on and on, somehow it's summer, the sun has reappeared, and the vegetable garden has hit its stride.

What's making me happy? The winter squash, which took forever to germinate, but is now doing better than in past years. Good thing, because after reading Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, I devoted a whole lot of garden space to winter squash this year.

In previous years I have started squash early in the greenhouse, thinking that winter squash needs a long enough growing season for the fruit to properly ripen. But squash don't like being transplanted - the seedlings go into shock and take forever to recover. Last year I didn't have enough seedlings and direct seeded some additional squash at transplanting time, and those plants quickly caught up and did better than their transplanted kin. So this year I swallowed hard and waited. And waited. Then seeded, and waited some more. But the seeds finally germinated and now they're going gangbusters.

The peas took forever to get going, too, but we're now stuffing our faces with sugar snap peas fresh off the vine every time we go to water the vegetable beds. And the peas are still flowering, so there are many more pea snacks in our future. Hot on the heels of the sugar snap peas will be the shelling peas, but the snow peas have been a no-show. After seeding, then seeding again, I have only 3 or 4 plants straggling their way up the trellis. Go figure.

I worried about the beans. I knew I was pushing the temperature envelope when I planted them, given the cool spring, but all the varieties I planted germinated beautifully. These are French filet pole beans planted at the north end of the bed that also has yellow bush beans and two varieties of dried beans.

Quinoa is one of the new crops I'm trying this year. It's just an experiment, and I figure it will end up being a lot of work for a little amount of quinoa, but between this and the dried beans, I'm trying to see how much protein I can get out of the garden.

Sharing a bed with the quinoa are garbanzos, in the same quest for protein from the garden. I was so surprised when these started to grow - I expected something like a bean plant, but these look more like vetch. They have just started to flower, and they're lovely.

Ground cherries, or cape gooseberries, are another of the experimental crops this year. You've probably had some as a garnish on a dessert plate: they're orange, and come in a papery husk. I have four plants growing in the greenhouse along with the tomatoes and basil. Nothing serious here - they're being grown just for fun.

I have grown fennel every year we've been here, and it has been a successful crop for me. It has even bulbed nicely, which doesn't always happen. My biggest problem is actually eating it, which I've written about before - it's expensive to buy at the grocery store, so I think of it as a special occasion treat, which means I tend to save it in the garden until it's past its prime. This year I have been determined to eat it at its peak. My favourite: apple and fennel salad, with slivered green onions and grated carrot, dressed with a light vinaigrette. Yum.

Unlike everyone else around here, the brassicas have loved the cool, wet spring. The cabbages have somehow avoided whatever bug was eating them last year, and are forming beautiful heads. I'm also growing broccoli for the first time, and it has me a little confused. It's purple. Does broccoli even come in purple? I don't remember ordering it that way.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Jelly mystery

I have had a love/hate relationship with our gooseberries. At first it was hate, because of this.

Try weeding around those thorns. Ouch.

Then it was love, because of this.

Golden jelly, a soft and silky lavender infused gooseberry jelly that I made last year with a recipe from here. It was spectacular, on buttered toast or with cheddar cheese. The only problem was, by the time I grudgingly thought of doing something with the gooseberries, the birds had eaten most of them, and all I could harvest was 3/4 of a pound.

This year I have been watching those gooseberries with an eagle eye, just waiting for the day I could pick them and make a much bigger batch of Golden Jelly. That day came last week, and after an afternoon of picking I had 11 pounds of berries. Visions of jelly danced in my head. But before those visions could become reality, every single one of those gooseberries needed to be topped and tailed. Sigh.

But the job got done, and the jelly got made, and Kim and I looked proudly at the 9 jars of pink gold jelly.


Syrup. It didn't set.

This is a mystery to me. I did the proper tests while it was cooking: I dropped a small spoonful on an ice-cold plate from the freezer, waited for a minute, then ran my finger through it. The jelly wrinkled, just like it was supposed to. But after processing - syrup. Tasty syrup, but syrup all the same.

So I opened all the jars, poured the syrup back into the pot, added some liquid pectin, following the directions for failed jelling, and tried all over again.


Syrup. Sigh.

I left the jars, hoping they might transform into syrup as they cooled. No such luck. Then I had a brainwave. Syrup can be good. Syrup can be a cordial. So we poured a bit of the syrup into a couple of glasses, topped with bubbly water and voila - a refreshing, fragrant summer drink.

We were so excited that the next day we brought along a jar of syrup and a couple of bottles of San Pellegrino when we went to see friends for dinner. We lined up the glasses, cracked open the bubbly water, then opened up the jar of syrup.


Jelly. What?! Soft jelly, to be sure, but definitely jelly.

So when we got home we checked all the jars that the day before were syrup. They were jelly.

It's a mystery.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


We've had a great weekend. The weather has been wonderful, we've spent time with good friends, and best of all, I have had two consecutive joint-pain-free days. Woo hoo!

To commemorate this important event, Kim and I spent the afternoon turning the 25 foot long compost pile behind the workshop. Boy, do we know how to celebrate.

About halfway through we found another reason to be happy. Look what we found.

Yes, this is one of the dozen or so pairs of pruners I have managed to mislay during our two years here at Mucky Boots. A bit worse for wear, but I'm pleased all the same. Somehow it makes me feel just a bit less hopeless in the tool department.
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