Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Carrot love

As my grandmother said when I came out to her, love is a gift wherever you find it. Even in the carrot patch.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tomato accounting

I canned my second batch of tomato sauce today, and I have to say there were a few moments during the three hours of chopping, mashing, boiling, sieving, filling and processing (not to mention the washing, drying and wiping every tomato-spattered surface in sight that followed) that I wondered if it was all worth it.

Don't get me wrong. I love home grown tomatoes right off the vine, still warm from the sun, sliced and piled on a toasted gluten-free bagel slathered with tzatziki - yum, yum and more yum. But canning tomato sauce is pretty labour intensive, as these things go. Roughly chop the tomatoes, mash them to release the juices, bring to a quick boil, add the onions, garlic and seasonings, reduce to a slower boil for about two hours, stirring regularly to make sure it doesn't scorch. Then when the sauce has reduced to half its volume(or, as happened today, you just get tired of stirring and stirring), run it all through a food mill to remove all the skins and seeds. Then back into the pot for a return to the boil. Meanwhile, wash the jars and bring to a boil in a canner. Remove jars from the canner. Fill jars. Wipe rims. Put on lids and rings. Back into the canner for 35 minutes of a rolling boil. Remove and listen for the magical music of lids pinging as they seal. Look down and remember that white t-shirts and tomato canning don't mix.

Organic tomato sauce costs $5-6 a jar at our local store. Today's efforts started with ten pounds of tomatoes and resulted in six 500 ml jars. If I factor in the time spent growing the tomatoes in the first place, and the cost of the seeds, the fish fertilizer, the canning supplies, and the electricity to keep those pots bubbling for three hours (but not the cost of a new t-shirt) is that minimum wage? Barely. But I think that's the wrong kind of accounting to do. I think you have to factor in the sense of security that comes from knowing how to do this, and the satisfaction of providing for your family, and the peace and contentment that rises from an apron (okay, today I forgot the apron), a wooden spoon and a bubbling pot on the stove, and the feeling of a cycle come to completion I get when I look at the finished jars on the shelf and think of the tiny tomato seeds I planted in April, and the soil I patted around the stems as I transplanted the seedlings into the greenhouse beds, and the hours and hours of sunny warmth they basked in. I'm okay with minimum wage, if it comes with all of that.

On another tomato related topic, I have finally organized myself to save tomato seeds for next year. Not for every kind I grew - some were busts, but four were standouts. Granadero, an indeterminate (climbing) plum tomato that produced an enormous quantity of gorgeous, flavourful fruit. Black Krim, an heirloom variety with a quirky shape and a beautiful dark colour. New Girl, which beat out my previous favourite Early Girl for a reliable early producer. And Orange Blossom, a mild, colourful orange mid-sized tomato.

Here's how you save tomato seeds: squeeze out the seeds into a small dish. Mix in a bit of water. Put them in a warm spot, like a verandah railing. Watch them ferment over the next few days and wonder if you've done something wrong. (You haven't. The fermenting is getting rid of the coating on the seeds that would make it impossible for them to germinate). Stir occasionally. When they have done their thing rinse them and leave them to dry out on a paper towel, then put away until spring.

Our first summer at Mucky Boots I tried saving seeds, but forgot them on the railing and by the time I remembered they were past saving. The second summer I forgot completely. This year I am determined that come next April, the tomato seeds I'll be starting will be my own.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rain and sorrow

According to our local weather station, the last time we had any appreciable rain was June 2, when 6.3 mm fell from the sky. That's about a quarter of an inch for those of you who still think that way. Bottom line: it has been dry, dry, dry. That sums up Southern Vancouver Island weather right there: first it is wet, wet, wet and then it is dry, dry, dry.

Finally, today it is raining. The forecast has been predicting it for a few days - at first it said rain Monday and Tuesday but now it's saying rain today only. Even a little is a welcome relief. When I was at the grocery store yesterday the chatter in the line-up was about the impending precipitation, spoken in a way that reminded me of children on Christmas Eve - all happy anticipation. I don't think anyone will be feeling that way come November when we're back to the wet, wet, wet, but for now a lot of people in my neighbourhood are looking happily out their rain-streaked windows.

On a completely different and uncharacteristically political note, we are so sad to hear that Jack Layton died today. For those of you reading from other parts of the world, he was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party who led his party to their best showing ever in the election in the spring, forming the official opposition for the first time. In the best tradition of the New Democrats, he was a person of integrity, honour, vision and action, with deeply held views on social justice. I remember him from my days living in Toronto, when he was the city councillor who came out to Gay Pride Marches in the days before they became a tourist attraction, when such an appearance usually meant political suicide. He wasn't gay himself - he was just deeply, deeply committed to creating a fairer and more just world. I am sad for his family and for the loss of the difference he would have continued to make to our country.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Just call me Laura

When I was a girl I loved - I mean really loved - the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I don't have a lot of memories of my childhood, but one that stands out clearly is the day my parents brought home a Little House boxed set for me. I had been a fervent fan for at least a year before that, and had read every one of those books. But to own them all - I can't articulate how rich that made me feel.

I still have those books - me, the one who ruthlessly pares down my belongings every time I move, and who has moved twenty-two times since then, between four different provinces. The box is long gone, and the books are more than a little worse for wear, but I know exactly where they are on the shelf. Those books will be with me forever.

My nine-year old imagination was dominated by those books. I played Little House on the Prairie and made pioneer dresses for my dolls. I had a rag rug in my bedroom, and a washstand, and I dreamed of the day I would have a basin and pitcher to go with them.

I was captivated by the self-sufficiency of Laura's family. Her ma made soap and cheese and bread and sewed clothes. Her pa grew wheat and chopped firewood and built houses from logs and sod. That wasn't all of the attraction for me - I knew all about the magic of homemade music at night by the fire - after all, I learned all fifty-seven verses of "The Fox Went Out One Chilly Night" at my own father's knee as he strummed a guitar in front of a campfire. I knew about the sense of safety and security that came from being with all my family under one roof - in my case it was the canvas roof of a tent when we went camping. But the resourcefulness, the ability to make things instead of buying them - those were awe-inspiring to a nine-year-old and still are forty years later.

So maybe I've been channeling my inner Laura these last couple of weeks. When I look on the porch there are onions and garlic I grew and harvested drying in the summer heat. In the cold cellar are the first of the potatoes, still dusted with dirt and wrapped up in paper bags. On the shelves in the storage room are jars of pickled beets, Victorian barbeque sauce made with rhubarb, blueberry and rhubarb chutneys, gooseberry and lavender jellies, bumbleberry, blueberry and rhubarb jams. Curing on the table in the dining room are my first two batches of handmade soap, and the third, made this morning, is cooling in the milk cartons I used as molds. The first round of tomato sauce is processing in the canner as I write, and in the crock on the counter is my inaugural attempt at sauerkraut, tasting wonderful but still needing a bit more mellowing.

There are good, practical reasons to do all of this. But somehow food security issues and reducing footprints and food budgets don't explain all the deep pleasure I get from growing and canning and making.

I think, when it comes down to it, I have Laura to thank.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Treasures in the garden

On the radio this morning I was listening to a gardening expert trying to deal with the collective angst of southern Vancouver Island gardeners over the dry, lackluster states of their gardens.

Count me in. I'm missing the dewy, lush freshness of the late spring and early summer. The heat is nice, but we haven't had any rain in a month, and I refuse to water the perennial beds any more than is necessary to keep plants alive. Which means the garden is a place of tough, stringy, crisp-around-the-edges survivors these days.

But August is also the month a few flowers finally come into their own. The pots and pots of echinacea I started from seed last year are flowering with slightly goofy purple abundance, and the lilies that are scattered in ones and twos throughout the perennial beds are finally unfolding.

The double bee balm is earning its name, with two tiers of petals. . .

. . . and the sadly neglected roses that I do nothing to except hack back every year are looking beautiful enough to make me reconsider my gardening priorities.

In the vegetable garden some stray onions I swear I didn't plant are flowering, along with the hollyhocks I started last year.

The globe thistles are turning from silvery green to purple, and then erupting in tiny petals which the bees just love. Me, too. There's something about these prickly, quirky plants I find really endearing. Maybe it's because they make me think of a plant Dr. Seuss would think up. Maybe it's because as someone who has spent my life perfecting niceness, I am fascinated by something that is so defiantly prickly. Or maybe it's sheer gratitude: the thriving communities of globe thistles growing in even the driest, scrubbiest looking perennial beds go a long way to help me preserve a few shreds of self-respect as a gardener this time of year.

But the best treasure in the garden? That's easy. My mom and dad, come from Calgary for lunch.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Chicken management

Remember the saying about the cat being away and the mice getting into trouble? Well, Kim's away and the chickens are running wild.

The chickens were always going to be Kim's thing - I had my hands full with the vegetable and perennial gardens. And a good thing, too, because those birds could not want for a better mama than Kim.

But even the best chicken mamas need a break from time to time, so Kim is spending the week at a blues guitar camp in Port Townsend, Washington. Which is lovely, and I am so happy for her. But it's about those chickens. . .

The current count is 51. Many of those are young cockerels destined for someone's freezer in a few weeks. But for now, I am responsible for all 51 of those birds. In Coop #1 there are eight Old Girls (aka the year-old Buff Orpington hens), Hector and Alice, plus five Red Rock Cross pullets and eight BO and Australorp teenage pullets. In Coop #2 there are 15 BO and A teenage cockerels, plus 13 BO and A babies, the last batch hatched in May.

Needless to say, this takes some management. So first thing every morning I refresh all five feeders and waterers, usher the teenage boys out of the coop and into the wild (they roam free every day, which we think is why we haven't had any rooster-type squabbles so far), usher the babies into the medium-sized chicken yard, usher the teenage girls into the small chicken yard, and usher all the big girls and Hector into the biggest chicken yard. Then I usher myself back into the kitchen for a very large cup of coffee.

Early in the afternoon I collect all the eggs and let the grown-ups and the Red Rocks out to free range. At that point I feel sorry for the teenage pullets and the babies, who are chirping and squawking at their gates wanting to roam, so I go into the garden to pick them some nice greens which they gobble up in no time flat. Today I cut up a mango for them, which the babies devoured but the teenagers turned their beaks up at.

When Kim is home she lets everyone run wild, including the babies. This is easy: you just open all the doors and stand back. What's not so easy is getting everyone back in the right enclosure at the end of the day. Kim is a Master Chicken Wrangler. I am not. So while she's away everyone has to play by my rules, which means no freedom for the pullets (who are impossible to separate from the cockerels when it's time to go to bed) and the babies (who are impossible to get anywhere near bed).

The chickens who do get to free range are running wild - they are roaming all over the property, scratching in my perennial beds, making a mess of my careful mulching. Today I found a bunch underneath the hydrangea, pecking at my hostas. I don't remember them being so rambunctious when Kim was here. I think this is the chicken version of the Substitute Teacher Syndrome.

Then about 5:00 or so I do my best to get everyone in the right enclosure of the chicken yard. If you're having a bad day and need a good laugh, just show up and watch. Kim thoughtfully provided me with two tools: a big bin of scratch (the babies are clueless about scratch, but everyone else will come running on the double when I shake the container and yell "Here chickie chickie chickie), and a long, skinny twig known as the Boop Boop Stick. Please don't ask me how it got its name, because I don't know. All I know is I'm supposed to use the thing to poke little chickies in the butt to usher them along in the right direction. Oh, and I'm supposed to say "Boop, boop" as I do that. Apparently that's part of Kim's Master Chicken Wrangler magic.

Then about 7:30 it's bedtime, so I go out again, use the Boop Boop Stick to get everyone in the right rooms of the two chicken coops, refresh all five feeders and waterers again, close the doors and turn out the lights.

Kim comes home on Sunday. I can't wait.
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