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March 15, 2019 -- Celebrate the Ides of March!

daffodils in windowSure, it's messy, damp, cold, mushy, cloudy outside but there's that hint of Spring to come, with more and more things emerging from the receding snow. And the first non-winter resident bird arrived - a female Purple Finch, busily hopping and pecking along the front of the greenhouse eating a buffet of little seeds scattered across the snow and keeping LilliB occupied for long periods keeping a close eye on her and all the other native activity that this time of year brings out. Lilli is adventuring out more and longer as the cold lessens but the footing is unsteady in the wet snow and the banks along the paths still above her head so she's content to mostly keep an eye on her domain from inside. But it's a big anticipatory time and to help celebrate the joy the greenhouse gave us a cheery gift of fresh daffodils, bright against the still significant snow outside. Their perfume lifts the spirit as much as their beauty. 


March 13, 2019 -- Warmth!

Having temperatures in the upper 30's may not be something most folks would think of as a great deal to celebrate, or a great warmth, but today we sure did cheer. Not only did we finally climb out of the snow off roof of buildingdeep freeze but the snow started to settle and melt. Sure it's mushy, and there's still a lot of snow, but it's a start and the first time it has been below 3 feet in awhile. A few things are starting to peak above all that white. As nice as that is it wasn't our big reason for celebration. It's March after all and snow melt is pretty normal. Today, with a great feeling of relief, the big depth of snow on our large outbuilding (originally hangar now storage of many and various things) took the big slide down to the ground (or most of it did anyway). Steve had been adding more and more supports inside, just in case. We knew it was well built but this was the most snow it had ever seen. And with almost daily reports of roofs and buildings collapsing across the U.P. we were getting a bit nervous. With rain and more snow in the forecast, well, as Steve said it felt like he had just been given a very large gift when I happily came in to report that almost all of the snow had slid off the roof today. Hurray!!! The back and half the front had already come off when I snowshoed out for a closer look but as I walked toward the building and temporarily behind some pines I heard a large crack and my heart fell. But when I emerged so I could see the building it turned out another large part of the snow had let loose. We think it was the roof rebounding that made the sound. It'll be awhile before we'll be able to get in through the front doors but we so appreciate this hardy, sturdy homestead building who proved our doubts unfounded.


March 3, 2019 - More Bread

bread in glass pansAwhile ago I mentioned baking my 100% whole grain bread in an unglazed pottery pan and a Pyrex bowl, which worked well. Then I spied some glass bread pans at the thrift store and decided to give them a try. They were a success! And are what I am now using. They work equally well as far as baking as the unglazed pan and the Pyrex bowl but with the added benefit of being able to bread cookingsee the bottom of the bread when trying to decide if it is indeed baked long enough. This is a big plus when dealing with the vagaries not only of bread dough but the uneven heating of the wood cookstove over an hour's time. I've found the bread easy to remove from the oiled pans if left to cool a bit until still warm but not hot or cold. A quick slice down the sides of the glass pan with metal spatula and it comes out easily onto the cooking rack. This also helps prevent the 'problem' of someone slicing off a piece of freshly baked bread before it has cooled enough to be at its best. By the time it's ready to come out of the glass baking dish it is still warm enough for the butter to melt and just right for eating. Just what is needed on a cold winter evening.


Happy March! (Thankfully we do enjoy snow.)

It's been quite a winter thus far, with ample opportunity for 'weather conversations'. Like a fiddler playing a tune, nature just doesn't like to do it the same way twice...

March 1, 2019                                                                          March 1, 2017

garden gate March 1, 2019

      garden orchard gate March 1, 2017

 


February 27, 2019 - Solar panel finally mounted - in the snow.
New sollar panel
Last fall a friend gave us a good deal on one of the last Solar World 300-watt panels but we didn't get it installed before the snows came. The other day I decided it was time to get it out in the sun where it can help us out during the coming cloudy days.

The new panel will add about 20% to our charging capacity; up from 1135 to 1435 watts. We'll notice the increase in power mostly on cloudy days. The temporary mount is made from poplar 2x4's and four aluminum angle brackets. I had to dig 2-1/2 feet down to find the ground. I was going to adjust it a little but the bases are frozen in the snow already so it is there until spring - which may be some time in April. We had a high temperature near 20 degrees today but the sun was out and the wind was light so it was a fun project. 


February 26, 2019 - New rowboat has its own web page!
Rowboat-Plan

My latest boat building project finally has its own web page! After working on the design of this boat and all its systems for a couple of months I felt it deserved it own page. You can follow the design and building process here:  Rowboat Build Page


February 17, 2019 - And Then, it Snowed Some More......Window drifts ...
The view out the front windows this morning.
The snow has settled a bit but is still a formidable challenge for the wildlife and for our Lillie the cat.


February 15, 2019 - And Then it Snowed Some More...

snowstorm cabin roofThree feet and rising. We weren't going to shovel off the roof of the cabin/shop this year; haven't had to even consider it for years. Then came this multi-day storm - another foot on top of a generous two feet already there (and it hasn't stopped yet). Steve got out the shovel. No use taking a chance on venerable, and well loved, 40 yr old building on very marginal (as in rotting) cedar post foundation, and too flat a roof for snow country. For various reasons this time he had to go at it by himself. So easy does it, take a break or two, and 2/3 of the roof snow is on the ground before you know it. Well, sort of. Ahh, the building says.

woodshed in snowIt truly has been decades since we've had three feet of snow, and plenty of blowing and drifting to go with it. A bit of a challenge in some ways but great insulation, on the house and the trees and plants. And it really is beautiful and amazing. What a change from last year with record lack of snow. Thankfully the house was designed and built to handle the snowload, as was our woodshed. Winter isn't over and neither is the snow. We are doubly thankful this year for those who do a great job of plowing and keeping the roads clear so we can travel. And we're also glad that we don't have to do it every day! Though we didn't think much about it all those years when we did. A part of enjoying where you are.


January 4, 2019 - 'Challenge Rowboat' Sliding Seat Update...

In my last boat-related post I had just completed the second iteration of a sliding seat. I gave it a few tries and there was no doubt that the seat needed to be redesigned; just not comfortable.New seat design  I recently sold my main recumbent bike, a Lightning P-38, after many years and many miles. One thing I learned from riding all those miles was that the seat on the bike was wonderful. My legs might get tired after a 70-80 mile all day ride but my butt never complained once.  The new design is a recumbent-like suspended mesh seat - like a miniature lawn chair, with zero pressure points. The seat also can rotate to make it easier to turn my head and body to look ahead to see where I'm going. It is like floating, in a controlled manner, as you slide forward and back. The rotation feature eliminated any tendency of the rolling carriage wheels to bind on theseat carriage tracks. I might work on making the whole unit a little lighter but so far it seems to be working well, especially in conjunction with a clip-less pedal foot stretcher - next installment.


new dance shoe bag

February 3, 2019 - A Second Dance Shoe Bag

Some of the regular dances in the U.P. take the winter off and others get cancelled due to weather so the next best thing to keep the dancing spirit up (other than dancing around the house) is to do something dance related. I'd had this project in mind for awhile and it was fun to finally get to it. Last year's dance bag turned out to be quite nice but not quite enough room for both of us. We needed a second bag and a different style for Steve's shoes, one that would allow them to sit flat on the bottom. I designed and sized this one specifically to fit not only his dance shoes but his regular street shoes/boots so they would have a place to park during the dance. With two pockets sized to hold his favorite travel coffee mug and a water bottle upright, and two larger pockets for extra shirt and miscellaneous, this should be a handy addition to our dance routine.

When in the local St Vincent de Paul thrift store I spied the perfect scrap of material which was barely but large enough to work. It took a bit of figuring to lay it out just right but it was indeed just right! When done I had a scrap piece just big enough to sew an extra pocket for the old (now my) bag and not much else. I did spend needless time and effort figuring out how to fold and stitch the bottom to get the most layers of fabric with the fewest cuts, and sewn in the right order to not box myself in a corner I couldn't get out of. When finally getting to sewing the final bottom seam I realized I had been so involved in this process that I made the bottom way more difficult than necessary. Two more cuts, zigzag the edges, and it could well have been a very simple "cardboard box" overlap, and done hours earlier! Ah well, such is the way these one-off self designed projects go. But now we're ready to go, custom shoe bags in hand, and looking forward to the monthly dance at Rock next Sunday and another the week after in Ishpeming. We sure appreciate the folks who put these dance on, and the musicians who play for them.

 dance bag layout       

   dance bag front     dance bag open

 


January 31, 2019

house in snow Jan 31Ending (we hope!) two weeks of subzero temps (well, after tonight*) with beautiful clear sun-filled skies. The batteries are at full charge, the heat is pouring in the windows and from the solar heating panels, the woodstove is banked, and we're happy to be inside out of the bitter cold wind. Ready to see what February will bring*.

* A nice -33 degree ending to January hello to February is what it brought!

 


January 26, 2019

And then it dropped a few more degrees. A bit on the chilly side this morning. But the sun came out and it warmed up to a balmy 5 degrees! It's all relative - that felt, well, if not warm it wasn't too cold. Thankfully little wind. Makes one really appreciate a warm, cozy house, a full woodshed, a good snow blanket, and cold hardy trees growing in the orchard. Guess winter really is here. 

 


January 23, 2019 - Alternative Energy System Updatesolar control center
 Last summer we noticed that our solar system didn't seem to be fully charging the batteries as it should. We checked the batteries periodically throughout the fall and early winter and made some adjustments to the controller. Over a period of several months there seemed to be a significant loss of battery capacity so we decided to install one more 300 watt panel and replace the controller. The existing controller, a Solar Boost 50 was probably working fine but the new panel made the array too large for  the 50 amp controller. The new one is an Outback FlexMax-80. The increase in capacity will be welcome. Also, the Outback controller setup is more user friendly. The other changes you may notice between this photo and a previous post is the addition of a battery desulfator and a disconnect between the solar array as well as the new controller. We're looking forward to the combination of more solar capacity and the desulfator to bring the batteries back to life. The next upgrade to the system is likely to be installation of lithium LiFePO4 batteries but we really would like to get a couple more years out of our current batteries. Here are the current 'balance of system' components:

Here's how the system is configured now:
  4 - 250-watt Solar World panels
  1 - 300-watt Solar World panel
  2 - 135-wat 12 volt Kyocera panels in series
        Total charging capacity = 1435 watts
    Outback FlexMax-80 charge controller
    Magnum 4000 watt, 24 volt sine wave inverter with control module
    Samlex 20 Amp 24 volt DC to 12 volt DC converter
    Trimetric Volts/Amps/AmpHrs Meter
    Homemade Arduino microcontroller-based diversion controller
    Battery Lifesaver desulfator (questionable but giving it a try)
    12 - US2200 6 volt batteries (3 sets of 4 batteries for 660 Amp Hrs at 24 volts)
    Appropriate fuses, circuit breakers and disconnects

(Update 3/8/2019  ss)
It turns out that the real culprit causing our charging problems last summer and fall was probably the settings on a home-made diversion controller. It was set up to divert power to some heating panels in the house whenever the Solar Boost controller was in absorb or float modes. This was incorrect as it prevented the batteries from ever getting fully charged. I have reconfigured the diversion controller so it now interfaces properly with the new controller's aux. mode relay. The heaters come on only when both 1) the Outback controller is in float mode and 2) the battery voltage is above 27 volts. The batteries are now fully recharged any day there is a few hours of full sun; lately, nearly every day. Battery capacity seems to be slowly coming back to more acceptable levels.

  link to solar page< You can check out the amazing (to me) evolution of our alternative energy system over the last 35 years.


January 22, 2019 - Stevia, a Sweet Report

stevia ground jarsI grew some stevia this past season for the first time, a mild interest that caused me to add it to my Fedco seed order at the last minute. I’d read that it was hard to grow from seed and likely needed a warmer climate than here but I decided to give it a try anyway.

Planted in the quite cool greenhouse the end of February, along with peppers and a few other early crops, the stevia was a real slow grower. By early April I only had three tiny plants to transplant into small pots. They looked pretty iffy but they hung in there and made some growth by the time all the plants made the big move into the garden the end of May. I put the three small seedlings at the far end of a plot, with care but also a bit of doubt as to their surviving.

Well, they not only survived, they thrived. We had an unusually long, hot summer and did they love that. They got the usual care, mulch and a few words of encouragement but not anything special. To my surprise they grew healthy, hearty and strong - an attractive well leafed light green plant. Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo of them in all their glory. They don’t stand out a lot, just quite nice. Every once in awhile I’d pick a little piece of leaf for a nibble. It was such a strange sensation to see this green leaf and expect some sort of "leaf" flavor but instead get a very, very sweet taste. Even if I didn’t do anything else I figured that it was a success -- a bit of fun in the garden.

In early September they were about two feet tall and almost as wide. The trio filled up their 4 ft of space quite well without being too crowded. I picked the largest leaves to dry and got quite a harvest from just those three plants. I left quite a bit of growth to keep feeding the roots in the chance they might make it through the winter, though most reports say that isn’t likely with our cold winters.

Articles often compare growing stevia to growing basil, a plant that starts wilting if one even mentions the chance of frost, no matter how light. Well, early September was very warm but soon cooled off with a number of light frosts in the 30 degree range. I harvested a last large picking of basil (they also loved the unusually hot summer) before those frosts finished it off. But the stevia plants weren’t fazed in the least; they just kept growing.

stevia plant greenhouseTowards the end of September I cut the still green plants down to about 7", hanging the much leafed cuttings in the house to dry. More harvest. The plants regrew. A harder frost of 27 degrees didn’t cause any damage. But I decided to pot up one of the plants to overwinter in the greenhouse before it got any colder. I had to cut off a LOT of root to do so, snugging it into a 10" inch clay pot. It moved into the greenhouse in mid October in good form before the temps fell into the teens. A hard freeze did finally put the outside stevia plants into winter dormant mode but they are obviously of much hardier stock than basil.

Surprisingly, the butchered roots and rather rude transplant into a pot didn’t seem to affect the greenhouse plant at all. No lost leaves, no yellowing, no wilting in spite of losing probably half its roots. It did have a few flower buds that I nipped off and it continued with some more growth. At the end of December it was still alive and I’ve harvested a leaf now and then to put in tea or dinner. But now in mid January it is starting to look like it’s ready for a rest with some browning/yellowing of some leaves. It’s time to ease off on watering and let it hibernate. We’ve had some significant below zero cold spells this month and the greenhouse is often near freezing. It will be quite interesting to see how this one does and if the overwintered plants in the garden survive. That’s asking quite a bit of a plant native to Brazil and Paraguay! I plan to start new plants from seed in the spring anyway.

HARVEST - Now back to all those drying leaves. It was a much larger harvest than I expected. The leaves stayed nicely green (many herbs, including basil, darken when dried, even air-dried as mine are). I ground them to a powder with a steel-bur mill and got a full pint of finely powdered herb. There is no doubt that stevia has a taste of its own but we both like it. I don’t consider it a substitute for sugar, just another option. Since we don’t use white sugar (except in wine) we’re used to stronger tasting sweeteners anyway -- Sucanet, honey, maple syrup.

I used many fresh leaves in tomatoes when canning them and also for sweetening grape juice (steamed juice). It worked well for both and I’ll probably make more use of it fresh next year. The biggest challenge I’ve had using stevia is guesstimating how much is enough. You definitely don’t want to overdo it. So I add a small amount, then taste, then add more if needed. I particularly like the flavor in tomato dishes and other meals that need just a bit of sweetening without a sugar taste. I’m beginning to get a feel for how much is enough. We use it for other sweetening, too.

There is a bit of a down side to home-grown ground stevia. There’s no getting around that it is ‘green’. It just plain looks a little, well, weird, adding ‘green’ to oatmeal, or applesauce. But one gets used to it. Add some cinnamon as well and it just comes out a slightly different shade of brown. We’re used to using Sucanet so it’s not really all that much different, and I tend to think very light colored applesauce is a bit suspect anyway. Sort of like white bread when you’re used to whole grain.

So stevia was a surprisingly easy and successful trial here on the homestead. It won’t replace sugar (or Sucanet in our case) but it doesn’t have to. It can just be itself, and I appreciate it as it is.


January 2, 2019 - A Sliding Seat for the 'Challenge Rowboat'

With the help of a friend with a pickup we hauled all of the wood for the boat project down to the shop. The last half mile from the end of the county road was in a trailer pulled by our venerable old 4WD (hand-brake only, starts when it wants to) Tracker. Sliding seat with Duck

The sliding seat unit is done to the point where I can begin testing it by rigging up a homesteader’s version of a rowing machine. The sliding seat unit is made up of 1) Hand-carved wooden seat modeled after a carbon fiber racing boat seat, 2) Tracks made from some on-hand 1-1/4” aluminum angle and 3) under-carriage, again made from that aluminum angle plus some repurposed (Goodwill) roller blade bearings – and a bunch of bolts & locking nuts. I designed it all in Photoshop based upon a similar, simpler design from Small Boats Monthly on-line magazine. The tracks are 22” long and the effective slide is 14-1/2”. I ran an elevated aluminum bar down the middle that give my little ‘keeper’ device something to follow and hold the seat on the tracks in the event of a capsize or other unplanned event. (Second Photo)

Sliding seat 'keeper'The tracks are lined with 1” x 1/8” high density polyethylene strips to keep the sliding action smooth and quieter. The seat shape will eventually be fine-tuned for comfort and a thin pad added for distance rowing. So far it seems smooth, quiet (not silent though) and the ‘keeper’ system works well ... and as you can see, it is officially "Duck Approved". I’ll rig up some kind of bungee-based rowing thing and get to the real testing soon.

Next, I’ll be working on an adjustable foot stretcher system that uses some Shimano SPD clipless pedals. Stay tuned, as they used to say.


Happy Longer Days!! Fond Farewell to 2018 - Anticipating 2019

lilac bush in snowWe hope you all have wonderful things to discover and enjoy in the coming year. As we're pretty well settled into winter, in spite of very little snow right now, it's a good time to look ahead and imagine all the good things coming in the days ahead. We look forward to making it a very good year and wish the same for you.

I was in the garden/orchard last week taking a photo (above left) when I was surprised by a quick movement. Our resident forward-guard chickadee flew over, probably to see if I had anything edible in hand. Another quick move and hechickadee in snow in garden was about 6" away, apparently needing a closer look. Maybe he felt that was a little too close because he quickly shot behind me to land in a small seedling nearby. His message was pretty clear. He didn't know what I was doing but he knew I hadn't put anything new or interesting in the compost bin, and no pieces of bread crusts on the top, and would appreciate it if I did so. We don't feed the birds but they do pretty well gleaning what they want from the compost. Whenever I walk into the garden there is usually a chickadee call announcing my arrival, and often one or two of these long-time friends come to check things out. They have to share the scraps with the squirrel but probably don't mind that she spreads special tidbits out and around for easier access. I call it my garden and orchard, but they know quite well sho really owns the territory. I like to think we share it.


December 18, 2018 - A New Boat Design

Last August I predicted that this winter the boat shop would be busy with building a small cabin on our Skin-on-frame 18' dory but the plans have changed. For many years I have celebrated my birthday by riding my age (in miles) - last year, 74 miles, on one of my recumbent bikes. Although I have enjoyed the rides and all the 'training' rides getting into shape for the 'big ride', I have lately begun to feel that perhaps I should find a way to celebrate that doesn't involve riding so many miles in traffic.

My solution was to take my annual adventure onto the water. I am designing a "Challenge Rowboat" as I call it, to use for an annual  rowed trip of as many miles I am old - in either 30 or possibly 24 hours. The trip will probably be along the northern coast of Lake Michigan beginning at a launch site less than 10 miles from home. For this kind of rowing adventure I want an easy rowing boat. A couple of other features include, in order of importance; seaworthy, safe, stable, light weight, room to sleep on board, maybe room to haul a folding bike & trailer. Oh, and easy to build and not too expensive would be nice too.

Boat BottomAfter much research I have found a boat that I plan on using for inspiration for my own design; Colin Angus' Expedition Rowboat. I considered ordering the plans for the boat from him but since I'm not going to build it out of plywood and there are several major modifications I have in mind that didn't seem like the way to go. I'll be using Skin-on-Frame technique like on our three other boats but If I was going to use the stitch & glue construction technique I'd definitely purchase his plans ($139 for PDF plans & manual) since they include full size printable patterns for the hull panels.

bulkheadI'm currently working on creating my own scale drawings for the three main bulkheads, the stems and the bottom. My main tool for this is Photoshop. It is easy to create the drawings on screen and then scale them up to be printed full size at our local print shop. Depending on the weather, I'm hoping to get the material for the bulkheads and bottom home to the shop before there is so much snow that we can't drive down to our place. In the past I have  sledded boat building materials the half mile from our garage at the end of the plowed road but would like to avoid that this time.

Next up is designing & prototyping a sliding seat mechanism for this boat.


Thinking Green - December 3, 2018

It's been a particularly cloudy November heading into December. Though colder than usual the lack of sun isn't unusual for this time ofSteve installing pavers year. We get rather excited and instantly cheerful when the rare sun does show, as it did for a good ten minutes today! Not only for spirits but also for that fully appreciated solar boost to our batteries. We take the days, and weather, as it comes without complaint; happy to have some sun, happy to have some snow (even if it's only about 4" thus far), happy to be living here. I like winter. But when I came across this photo from a beautiful August day this summer I found myself gazing at it overlong, melting into the feeling of that green warmth. Steve was, of course, warmer than I was that day as he was doing the work while I stood back and appreciated what he was doing. Mostly the garden and orchard are my domain but he gets involved for special projects, like this one.

Several years ago I decided there had to be an easier way to keep the surrounding vegetation out of thegarden beds. We'd tried many things over the years - mulch, carpeting, tilling, hoeing - all OK but too temporary and not particularly satisfying. I wondered about concrete pavers. We checked what was available in the simple and inexpensive line and decided to try it. Steve agreed to the job (much neater than if I'd have done it) and did the west, east and half the south borders of the 50' x 70' garden last year. It worked well and I liked it. For sure some grass roots do find their way under but not many. I was a bit afraid it might look too formal for my very 'down to earth' garden/orchard but it would take more than a neat line of pavers to make this area formal. They fit in surprisingly well. Most important, I no longer feel like I'm fighting vegetation. My garden is a wonderfully peaceful area full of joy. I like it that way and the pavers are helping.

This year Steve did the north border. Almost complete! He couldn't finish the south border because the squash was growing  there and vigorously spreading out onto the surrounding vegetation, both in and out of the garden. It was a great year for the squash! It loved the long hot summer and made the most of it. Next year Steve will have to get the remaining pavers in before it starts growing.


Industrious Squirrels Help in the Orchard - November 25, 2018

Our large "chokepear" is beautiful in bloom and prolific in fruit. Unfortunately for us the fruit is small (pingpong ball size) and very astringent. We call it a chokepear but it is simply a common pear seedling that was used for rootstock for a Bartlett pear we planted almost 40 yrs ago. The tree died the first or second winter and the rootstock grew up from the roots to be a beautiful large tree. Up until a few years ago I didn't pay much attention to it except to admire it. It was outside the fence and the deer and squirrels and other creatures made good use of the fruit, always clearing up whatever there was, so I had never paid attention to the fruit either.

When we re-fenced the expanded orchard last year the old pear ended up inside the fence - outside of the reach of the deer. And I became quite aware of how much fruit it put out, and dropped. I was sorry to have taken it away from the deer but picking up hundreds (thousands?) of little chokepears just wasn't in my schedule, or desire. I thought of raking up a few buckets for them this year but I don't mow under this tree so there was no way to rake them up from the tall vegetation. I would have liked to remove the the fruit not only for the deer but it helps for disease control to keep drops picked up. But they were left, scattered thickly under the tree and underfoot.

Now the deer couldn't get at the fruit but a little thing like a fence certainly wasn't going to stop a squirrel. Especially with a wonderfully large brush pile just outside for shelter. It, or they (I've only seen one at a time), had a well packed runway from brush-pile to tree, and a well used favorite limb to eat on. It always had little round pears stashed against a spur or branch, and a large mound of munched pieces and partly eaten fruit below. It was obviously doing its best to eat as many as it could, and being quite vocal about any intrusion into its personal feed lot.

chokepear pilesIt was an early cold this year and up until a few days ago we had about 8" of snow - not a lot but enough to make it feel very much like winter already. Then came two days of balmy above freezing 40 degree rain. That melted almost all of our snow and I took advantage of the warm (these things are relative) weather to do a few more chores out in the orchard. I walked by the chokepear, snow gone and grass matted down, to find, to my great surprise, five neat piles of chokepears. There were still some scattered around but not many. The squirrel(s) had done quite a job! I was very impressed. I would not be so impressed, of course, if these had been good edible pears! But I did my duty, got out my shovel and scooped up three bucket-loads, dumping them outside the fence for the deer, and the squirrel. I wasn't nearly as neat in doing my part but I got the job done. I don't know if the deer are going to get any but the squirrel went right to work on the pile right outside its brushy door. 


Spiced Crabapples - Nice Snack or Dinner Companion

spiced crabapples and grape juiceWe are blessed with a wonderful and diverse collection of crabapples, some bird planted, some we planted (almost 40 yrs ago), and progeny of both. The trees vary in size and shape, the fruits vary in size and color. I’ve never done anything with them but admire, thin out a few, taste the fruits now and then (mostly tart), and appreciate how they feed the small and large and inbetweens - birds, deer, squirrels, chipmunks. And now - people!

This year I noticed one of the trees had particularly pretty, clean looking little 3/4 inch apples. It just seemed I should do something with them. Spiced Crabapples came to mind, though I’d never made nor tasted any. But it sounded good. I looked into my vast collection of three well worn preserving books and checked out their individual recipes - each one different from the others, no consensus here. So, checking out the ingredients I had on hand and my own venerable Sweet Sour Spiced Pickles recipe, I came up with my own recipe. Or at least a rough idea of what I might do. I started looking forward to having jars of Spiced Crabapples for gifts, if all turned out well.

Time to pick the crabapples. Thankfully one doesn’t need many because they are a bit finicky, being so small. But it was a pleasant time looking at the trees and searching for suitable fruit. I passed up the really small 1/4 inch ones but chose four with nice 3/4 to 1 inch apples. All but one was outside our regular fenced area and the domain of wildlife. I only took a very small portion so there could be no complaints. The inside tree was a nice surprise. It is a wild seedling that we’ve grafted five different regular apples onto. But it still has a number of original branches and this was its first year to set fruit, confirming that it is indeed a crabapple, having very nice, clean, pretty yellow and red one inch fruit. I’ll be keeping some of those original branches now even as the regular apple scions grow. As I picked I kept the four groups separate (though in the end mixed them all together). I wondered if the 3/4" crabs might be a little small but they were a pretty dark red so I went for those, too.

But that wasn’t all! I’d had my eye on another crabapple, though this one wasn’t mine. It was part of an old orchard down the road. All but the crab had been the domain of cattle for too many years and the apple trees were dead. The crab had ended up outside the fence near to the road and was still alive and putting out an anual crop of nice 1 1/2" fruit. I knew from past years that the pretty red and yellow now would turn entire beautiful red later. But they were tasty tart at this point and I decided to get some for my spiced crabapples. Unfortunately there were only a handful within my reach (being within my reach meant also being within deer reach, and they do love apples!). It was a small crop this year but there were more higher up. The tree had a high narrow crotch and I needed a boost to get up there to get a foothold. Steve patiently obliged and I managed to fill my pockets with enough good fruit, using my still willing booster to help me back down without bruising or smashing the pocketed apples. I guess I could have brought a bag. Next time. On down the road and home we went with bulging pockets.

crabapples washedBack in the kitchen I enjoyed sorting, measuring, washing my harvest. 1 1/2 c of the 1" red & yellow clean orchard crabs; 2 1/2 c of the 3/4" dark red with slight yellow fruit from the smallest north tree along the driveway; 4 1/2 c of dull red & yellow 1" slightly sooty fruit from the larger south tree; 2 c from the tree south of that one across the e-w track, 1", similarly colored. Plus 3 1/2 c (17) of the large (as crabs go) 1 1/2" clean red & yellow fruit from the old orchard (I need to find out who originally planted this orchard so I can put an appropriate ‘local’ name to this tree). Such a pretty picture they made. It was almost a shame to cook them. But what must be done must be done.

I made up my juice: 4c cider vinegar; 4c water, 4c sucanet (brown sugar) - that seemed good for a first try. In a little cloth bag (then into the juice) went 4 sticks broken up cinnamon stick, 1 tsp cloves, 1 tsp allspice. Onto the stove, bring to a boil, then simmer while getting everything else ready. Mostly that meant piercing each little crab with a large needle to keep them from bursting when cooked or canned. Or so they said. Much easier said than done. These are hard little apples! The instructions said to run a darning needle through several times. Maybe they had sharper darning needles and stronger hands. Maybe their apples were riper. I ended up using a cork on the hand end of the needle and simply stabbed the crabs several times (more times at the beginning, fewer as time and the number of little apples went on). When I got to the smallest 3/4" crabs I decided they could split if they wanted; I wasn’t going to stab any more. [I still don’t know how important this is; some split, some didn’t. Something to ‘research’ next year, next batch.].

At this point it was easy to decide to mix and cook the crabs all together, abandoning my idea of keeping the different sizes separate. So into the pot they all went to cook for a short time, maybe 3 minutes, that seemed like enough.

My clean jars were ready; lids in hot water. I spooned out a few of the pretty, largest crabs into the first jar. They fell apart. Well, shoot. That wasn’t in my plan. They’d be good enough for us but not very pretty for gifts. And they were supposed to be the crown jewels of the lot. Oh well. I pulled all the large fruits out of the juice and into a bowl. Then proceeded to ladle the rest of the crabs into jars, working to get the little stems upright (so one could more easily pick them out of the jar to eat). This went OK. Brought the juice back to a boil, poured it over the little crabs in their respective jars, securely lidded then set aside on the counter to cool. Four pints and four half pints, plus one cup of leftover juice. As I cleaned up and the night went on we could hear the satisfying ting-pop as the jars cooled and the metal lids did their sealing bit. They all sealed and I was satisfied.

The 1 1/2" crabs that fell apart maybe weren’t of company stock but they ate pretty good anyway! I’ll definitely go for more of them next time but will need to experiment to get the cooking time just right, firm enough to stay together but soft enough for easy eating. That’s the size most folks in years past (and present no doubt) would use; it’s faster. But the jars of smaller crabs came out just fine, too. Well, I think they are a bit strong flavored but my sister-in-law thinks they’re great just the way they are. I wouldn’t bother with the 3/4" sized ones next time; they’re pretty high percent core (though I just munch the whole thing) for the amount of work. I would again use the 1" size; they are easy little one bite snacks. Either eaten whole or "popped" off the core in your mouth.

For all my interest and focus on apples this is the first time I’ve paid any attention to the culinary crabs. No longer! I now have plans to cut a few scions from that nice crab down the road and graft onto one of my trees next spring. And I’m looking for scions for a variety called Kerr. That one sounds good, though there are no doubt other good local crabs in the old orchards around if I just looked. One doesn’t need many crabs in the homestead orchard but there’s a reason the old home orchards all seem to have their one or two good crab trees.

Meantime, Happy Thanksgiving to all! We are so thankful and appreciative of so many things it will take us all day to run even part of them through our minds - a very happy project. 

 


October 23, 2018 - Another month!

That seems to be the way it is here on the homestead. Life is full and we're on to the next day/week/month before we've fully realized the previous. Enjoying it all though. Summer was long and unusually hot (our version of hot anyway) spilling over well into fall which seemed to last just a few weeks before heading right into late fall. Many frosty/freezing nights this month with several down into the teens. With gale force winds at the same time most of our trees went into overdrive dropping leaves. It was quite impressive to go from beautiful golden autumn to stark November in just a few days. That's just up in the trees. Ground level is a gorgeous carpet of yellow/golds/browns with many bushes and small trees defying the cold and hanging on to their leaves. With plenty of rain (and a bit of snow) to keep them glistening. Every year/moment is beautiful in its own way and so interesting. Today a Mourning Cloak Butterfly surprised me, flying around as cheery as ever in the cool drizzly day and I wondered if there were enough surviving blooms to help it into winter mode. Then a small, late group of Sandhill Cranes flew over but they'll likely still be able to glean grain from harvested fields on their way. Meantime, our larders are full from our own harvests.

Now we're into our readying for winter mode -- firewood, garden/orchard, snow tires, final outdoor chores. Though we certainly don't expect, or want, big snow yet, we enjoy it more if we're ready when it arrives. And with the shorter daylight and many cold rainy/snowy days the indoor projects and chores finally get their due attention. That includes this blog! I've photos and sharings stored away on computer and in mind of happenings in our lives over the past months (when we're on the go early to late!) so I'll backtrack on the blog to fill in the spaces, a fun meander through equally fun days. Meantime, Full Moon Cheers!

 


October 2, 2018 - Lots of Orange!

orange squash harvestThe winter squash (and most heat loving crops) made the most of this long hot summer by going all out to mature a record number of fruit - 90# / 20 squash from 4 plants. I'm usually happy to get a half dozen ripe fruit before frost but these were all ripe long before then. What fun to have plenty to eat and plenty to give away.

This variety started from a gift squash from one of the Farmers Market vendors, a delicious small round orange squash he thought might be Moongold. It was likely grown with other varieties and crossed but I decided to save the seed anyway and see what grew. I did and it did and we got several nice small orange squashes of equally good flavor. But I also grew my usual green buttercup squash that year and knew there was a good chance of crossing between the two. This year I planted seed from the second generation orange squash and it grew and produced with great vigor. It had indeed crossed with the buttercup based on size, shape, & stems of many. But almost all had this cute corky tipped green bottom sort of like an old fashioned toy top. No buttercup type cups on any. Shapes varied from squat buttercup shape to very round or almost teardrop on a few. Mmm. I looked at photos online and it appears likely there is a strong Golden Nugget gene in the mix! I'm hoping they will taste as good as they look. (see below)

Later Oct. note: So far they have! The first one had a drier nutty flavor/texture of a good buttercup; the second was more moist and sweeter, more like the original. Both were delicious and got high marks from us both. I'm saving the seed (equal number from each good squash) as we eat them and will continue planting this line. 

Months later: February begins and we have only two small orange squash left (and four medium small buttercups), having been enjoying eating squash almost daily with lunch. Though slight differences in flavor, every one of the orange squash have been delicious, no extra butter or spices needed, and very much appreciated. They haven't the best storage temperatures (low 40's) but have held up well. I'm glad because we don't seem to have the 'ideal' 50 degree spot in our house so they do the best they can in the cool winter pantry.

 


September 22, 2018 - Happy Equinox!

LilliB on quiltTime to appreciate the joys of recent summer and look forward to the coming cooler seasons - and check out old haunts that have pretty much been ignored all summer. LilliB confirms that this one works just fine.


August 27, 2018 - Magic!

Our world is full of magic and magical moments which we don't always notice, but sometimes they are so right in front of you that you can't miss them. This was one such. A few weeks ago we saw that monarch chrysalisa Monarch chrysalis had appeared on the overhead metal evestrough right over our front door. So beautiful and delicate looking. The main door swings in which was fine, but the screen door brushed the chrysalis as it opened setting the pretty green decoration gently swinging. So off came the screen door.

We didn't know how long it would take for the butterfly to emerge but chose not to 'look it up', just enjoy it. The last days we'd noticed the chrysalis darkening so knew something would be happening soon. I was concerned that there wasn't anything near by for the emerged butterfly to grab, if it indeed needed anything. Maybe not, but I put up a small branch just in case.

When I stepped outside before breakfast today I saw an oval spot of monarch wing color and pattern on the side of the chrysalis. Today was the magical day! After breakfast I carefully opened the door to find the fully emerged beautiful butterfly holding onto its thin (but strong!) empty case. Wow!! It was a cloudy and windy day. I'd often watched butterflies in the garden sitting on a plant in the sun slowly working their new wings but there was no sun today. Maybe later. But it wasn't time to work those wings yet. Thankfully it was warm.

monarch emergedI checked on her often during the morning as I cut up tomatoes to can. It appeared she was trying to get a better hold as the wind rocked her back and forth but the metal trough didn't give any purchase. So I carefully clamped a soft plant stem beside her. She wrapped a leg around it and settled back down. I went back inside. It was taking a long time to get the tomatoes cut up.

Finally, tomatoes done and on the stove, I headed out to the garden to pick lunch. Came back to find her on the wooden door frame, gently rocked by the wind and carefully opening and closing those new wings. Being overly concerned I saw some monarch door framespider web strands nearby and carefully removed them, getting too close for comfort I'd guess. So off she flew, several small low circles then one large sweep above the house and yard, and into the nearby trees. Away from the gusty wind and away from the meddlesome woman. Wow!! doesn't quite describe it but I was so thankful to be there to watch her first flight. Maybe in celebration I'll pick up another late blooming on-sale plant somewhere. A possible little treat for our beautiful flying resident(s).


August 25, 2018 - Dory sailing rig project is done!

Sailing on Indian Lake - July, 2018Our rowing dory now has the option of going sailing. I took my time on this project, working through the design and then building of the various elements of the sailing rig. I have detailed the process here but to sum it up, I feel that the project was a reasonable success. The first few times sailing were as much learning to sail as testing the rig. My sailing experience was limited to a dozen or so adventures on a wooden Sailfish back in the late 50's and owning but infrequently sailing a Hobie 16 in the 60's. 45 years ago!

The boat sails pretty well and I have had fun getting to know it. Some of the features such as the swing-up leeboard and rudder took a bit of experimentation to get set properly - stay down while sailing in deep water but swing up when going into the shallows on the way back to the dock. I have re-rigged the block at the top of the mast so the sail now raises easier and higher. High enough that the boom passes slightly over my head when tacking.
My original plan was to add a small cabin in the stern for occasional overnight onboard camping adventures. As it has turned out I'm most comfortable sitting just about where the forward bulkhead of the cabin would need to be so either I'll need to move forward or come up with a different cabin design.  concept image   Maybe a folding structure of some kind will work out. In the mean time the plan is to sail the boat as much as weather permits and get more sailing experience. By scheduling the cabin project for next winter I won't be as likely to take on any other builds. The empty boat shop looks kind of lonely.


August 18, 2018 - Wildlife Co-workers

Conversations with other gardeners tend often to veer at some point towards the 'wildlife bandits and outlaws' -- those creatures whose desire and search for a good meal (or maybe just a good time!) are often in conflict with the gardener's own desires for a good harvest. Over the years I've come to terms with all the varied wildlife we share this part of the world with, and generally enjoy them (a good fence helps!). They get some of ours, we get some of theirs, and overall it's a peaceful co-existence. But this year was a bit more of a challenge, thanks to the over-abundance (in our opinion) of voles. When the snow melted this spring we had the most amazing network of runs in the grass that I've ever seen (or ever hope to see again!). And I understood why we had a Barred Owl move in and stay around all winter. It saw it often in the garden and orchard. I thought it was because of the logging around us. But I'm pretty sure now that it was because of the great food supply.

Thankfully, most of my trees and bushes had hardware cloth barriers so my losses due to vole damage wasn't as bad as it could have been, and many things have recovered/regrown over the summer. The wild shrubs, trees, brambles - anything that could be chewed and eaten - had a great deal of 'thinning out', too. I bought more hardware cloth and set in to make sure ALL of my plantings are protected for this winter. I wasn't concerned about summer months because the voles pretty much are eating grass and such, not bark.

But then about every time I went out to the compost pile I had a vole or two run in or out of it, almost across my feet. That was just going too far. It was obvious they had set up a vole housing complex in my compost pile. So I got out some wooden mouse live traps Steve had made many years ago, and started catching voles - one almost every morning, and I'd take what became a routine walk to a far section of our property and release them. I certainly didn't mind the walk, but after several months the three traps (made for indoor use) were looking pretty rough, and I was getting tired of transporting voles (and cleaning the traps). Plus they were eating my red ripe peppers and cherry tomatoes. It was time to get serious about clearing this community out. I knew I wouldn't get all voles out of the garden/orchard area (there are plenty of fields around for new ones to move in from) but I needed to get this population down. So soon I had 6 new purchased plastic vole/mouse live traps in place, baited with the the best (well, cheapest) peanut butter. I was ready.

First morning - no voles. Second morning - no voles. Third, fourth. Well this was irritating. I supposed I could have gotten them all, though somehow I didn't think so. Maybe the didn't like the peanut butter. Maybe they didn't like the traps. Then the fifth day I was making my rounds checking the traps and there in the middle of the path, near one of the traps was a small scat. Mmmm. Could it be? I came in, looked up in our "Animal Tracks" book (which includes scat drawings), and yep, there it was -- a weasel. A weasel had moved in and cleared out the voles. This wasn't too much of a surprise - there had been weasel tracks this past winter by the compost pile (along with owl wing prints). It had simply come back for some more good eating. I hope it sticks around this winter.

I picked up my new traps and put them away. The weasel is much better at vole control than I am.

 


August 2, 2018 - Abundance!

Campfire RoseLife is so wonderfully full, especially in the summer! There is so much going on to share with you and so little time to do the sharing. I know we'll catch up come winter and I expect your lives are equally full so just a few photos and words to let you know we're still here and enjoying the abundance of summer. Food certainly, and the garden is feeding us very well! But there is so much more.

Populations rise and fall naturally with the years and usually adjust themselves without any attention from us but we do tend to mostly notice the extremes of the peaks and valleys. Here on the homestead this past year has been a record high for voles (and I'm sincerely hoping they are on the downswing now -- at least in the garden and orchard. But I'm sure there are those who are happy with the abundance, such as the resident Barred owl, weasel, coyotes, fox, and our own LilliB.) Equally noticeable has been the unusually low population of flying insects, which means a low population of birds who depend on those insects for food. We miss having so many birds -- but we haven't missed AT ALL the usual abundance of black flys and mosquitoes. We do have birds, just not as many. Some, like the trees swallows, simply came, checked things out, and went elsewhere where the food was more plentiful (I'm guessing), though they stayed around long enough to harass the bluebirds for awhile. Some just didn't show up, like the sparrows and juncoes. Others it seems we have just one family instead of several families - robins, bluebirds, hummingbirds, gold finches, wrens, chickadees, indigo buntings, catbirds, cedar waxwings, and the hard working friendly co-gardeners Chipping Sparrows. And others. Life wouldn't be much without the birds. I don't even mind sharing some fruit with them (well, within reason!) (my reason, of course, not theirs).

bees in dill flowersBut the other big absence has been pollinators -- the many kinds of bees, wasps, hornets, others. And butterflies, too. Since their numbers are so down it's a special joy to see them busily supping at the variety of flowers this time of year. I'm happy that what I'm growing in the garden and orchard is popular, from dill flowers to catnip, each with their own admirers. And with much sharing between species, like the fritillary and bee on the echinacea. Now, personally, I think the Campfire Rose (above) is much more attractive and catches my eye every time I walk in the garden, but I don't often see insects on those flowers. Whilbees in catnipe the very understated small hardly noticably flowered (but prolific and quickly overgrown!) catnip is always humming with many busy bumbles the moment the first flowers appear and is never without attendance. So I allow too many to grow in the garden, brush by carefully as it grows with abandon into the paths, and weed out the many progeny.

fritillary and bee on coneflowerBut there are also many flowers that both the pollinators and us enjoy and I'm having a good time adding to the mix. Most are wildflowers such as the Purple Coneflower, and some are imports that wouldn't survive without the gardener's help. We all enjoy them each in our own way and every time I see a "bee" working diligently on flowers tiny or large I marvel at their ways. It makes the flowering time of year so very special. 

 


June 28, 2018 - Then suddenly another month has gone by...

Those beautiful blossoms below have turned into steadily growing little fruitlets -- those in the large tree becoming 1" cute (but inedible) mini-pears, to be thrown over the fence for the deer. The smaller tree on the right, a Stacey Pear, has set a full crop - its first - a great cause for celebration! The fruit is very good (we've had a few small harvests previously) and I'm sure looking forward to harvest time. There is so much anticipation this time of year; so much to imagine, look forward to, and appreciate. It's great just to step outside, which we're doing a great deal of now. Steve is just about done cutting hay and I'm well on the way to transferring said hay to the garden and orchard trees, helping to keep what moisture we have in the ground for the growing plants. It's been rather on the dry side here, especially compared to the extra wet season last year. But no matter what weather we get we all settle into it and do well one way or another. It's always interesting, and things always grow.

pear graftOne, of many, joys of early summer for me is watching our current season grafts for signs of life - that wonderful little bit of green in the scion buds that says "there's hope!". Slowly, growing and unfolding, there's a small leaflet - "there's a good chance now!". A few more leaves, more buds popping - "Yes! It's likely a take!". This is where we are now - 46 grafts at all stages - apples, pears, plums, cherries - including some that haven't shown signs of life yet (but there's still hope). There are a lot of variables involved in grafting. As with all young things, the first months, and years, are very undecided. Some stay for the long haul, some don't make it past the first year, but the beginnings are all so very sweet and exciting.

Earlier in the month I looked out the front window to see a beautiful doe step carefully out of the brush and brambles into our mowed front path, looking back and I thought about ready to maybe scratch or lick a back leg or something. Then the brush wiggled and out emerged the smallest fawn I've ever seen, stumbling a bit over the growth. It had to be very young but it was mobile! Mom and baby soon disappeared back into the safety of the brush. A special moment. A few days ago I was walking through the area north of the garden, stopping to pick up a branch in my way and casually tossing it aside. Up jumped a larger fawn, leaping away from this woman throwing branches at it! I apologized. I also know it didn't go far. A reminder to watch our steps this time of year. Was it the same fawn? I don't know, it was well able to jump through the underbrush so my guess it's an older one. We often have several does with their fawns sharing our homestead, though we don't see them much. There's room for all of us. And a wonderful welcome to summer they are.

 


May 25, 2018 - Summer Already?? What Happened to Spring?

pears in bloomWinter was reluctant to let go but the first half of May had some nice warmer weather along with some low 20's freezes to keep us in our place. It appeared it was just going to be one of those years when planting would be later rather than earlier. That was OK, we enjoyed the leisurely slide into spring. Then Mother Nature must have heard some of the grumblings about how slow things were to warm up, so decided to fast forward to summer, might as well skip spring. Suddenly we had day temperatures in the upper 70's (this is hot for us even in the summer let alone in May!) and nights in the 50's, dry with no spring rains. Things started leafing and blooming one after the other with hardly room to admire one before the next was on stage, birds and insects returning on each others heels, every moment an explosion of something new and fresh. And these winter-white Yoopers have been soaking up every moment possible, reluctant to come inside, reveling in the expanded hours.

You could say we've been working hard, but we know we've just been thoroughly enjoying life on the homestead. Steve's just finished a long and large clearing project, trying to reclaim a bit of open land from the enthusiastic white pines and wild black cherries. At the same time (well, in between times) working long hours on the boat project -- designing and building to turn our row boat into a sail boat. It's coming along so I need to find a rainy day to make that sail very soon. And the orchard and garden has claimed me for their own, with no complaints from me. The greenhouse is now cleared out, we're eating fresh greens and rhubarb from the garden, the weeds are receding as seeds and plants take their place. The orchard is greening and blooming and we'll be grafting next week. And we got some well appreciated rain today -- hurray!

Other life continues as well. We've had two fun weeks playing music at the summer Manistique Farmers Market already (where temperatures are at least 10 deg cooler there on the Lake than here inland), the local Lake Effect Art Gallery starts summer hours tomorrow with their annual Spring Open House, and the first of three Fur & Feather Swaps in Trenary is tomorrow where we'll be playing music with our friends Sharon and Tom and enjoying the people, the event and the many animals. Summer has begun! 


April 22, 2018 - Spring! Once Again

receding snow shop April 22Beautiful warm (almost 50!) sunny weather has melted the newest snow and is fast working on the old. More ground is emerging every time we look, and crocus gems popping out here and there with little bursts of color. Lilli now comes inside Lilli cat on bare groundonly for a quick bite and a nap, then out she goes to do her duty keeping rodents under control. She's one happy cat! We changed boots for tennies for a walk down the bare road (ahhhh) (though it was still boots and snowshoes to get up to the road out of our snowy valley). It'll be awhile before we're driving down to the house but meantime we're enjoying the emerging world and will be working outdoors soon. 


April 20, 2018 - Happy Nasturtiums

greenhouse nasturtiums more flowers

The greenhouse nasturtiums don't care what is happening outside - they are celebrating spring and going all out to make their, and our, indoor world bright and colorful. What great companions they are in the greenhouse (and the outdoor garden, too!


April 17, 2018 - A Week Later...

April 17 snowMaybe it's not time to start planting in the garden after all, now, but it's beautiful! We had a gentle time with this storm, nestled in our valley in the woods, protected from the winds. Saturday was looking like spring with even more bare ground than a few days before. LilliB made good use of almost every minute, exploring and hunting and walking on every inch of bare ground. She didn't take her usual, many, nap breaks. Maybe she knew what the next few days would bring. It wasn't a blizzard for us, it just snowed. And snowed. And snowed. Final count - 10" of new wet white. LilliB spent almost all day Sunday sleeping (ignoring the snow?), and now spends many hours staring out the window, keeping entertained by a lone hardy Junco who arrived yesterday, both waiting patiently for this newest (and the oldest) snow to melt.


Above Freezing! - April 11, 2018

It was a beautiful sunny day today and we finally made it into the upper 30's! I'm sure it was low 40's in the sun (and out of the wind). It had that smell of spring coming. Even though there are predictions nasturtiums climbing in greenhousefor more snow this week it will land on the ever expanding, warming, bare ground so won't likely last long. All of us were in and out often just to savor the day. Lilli in particular has been thoroughly checking out every new patch of snow-free habitat, and nasturtium flowers greenhouseenjoying it just as thoroughly.

In the greenhouse the nasturtiums helped the celebration by opening more bright cheery blooms. This was a little remnant I'd transplanted from the garden last fall. It held on through the short, cloudy days to go all out this spring. I also stuck some seed in the bed and those have been growing enthusiastically, too. So much so I had to put some bamboo poles in to keep them from pulling down and covering up everything else! They appear to love the indoor climate.


Bread Time! - small round bread bakedApril 6, 2018

It’s April, we’re still getting snow, temperature lows often diving down to zero and highs are having a hard time getting above freezing. Might as well bake some bread! Well, I bake bread almost every week but having the wood cookstove going and the smells of baking bread seem most welcome when winter is reluctant to give way to spring.

My first home baked bread was more than forty years ago when we were living in the city, dreaming of our future homestead. We bought a grain mill to grind our own flour (which we still have and use) and that first loaf turned out! We were hooked.

Many hundreds of loaves, many variations tried, and many decades later I still enjoy baking bread. It’s so easy, and so satisfying. For years it was all wheat, then rye and barley joined in. At some point I changed from wheat to spelt. A small amount of buckwheat usually. This has been my basic flour mix for some time, making a nicely dense, tasty bread. Sometimes it was made in a regular bread pan, sometimes rolls, most often a long “roll” on a cookie sheet. I found this to bake the best and became my standard. But nothing ever stays still. How boring it would be if it did!

This year my mix became more multi-grained with additions to the above of oats, millet, quinoa, corn, and always a few tablespoons of fennel. The smell of fennel fills the air when the mix is grinding! Maybe I got a little carried away when I ordered the grains, but we like the resulting flavor and texture.

I found early on that bread is really quite forgiving. I did make a couple of compostable 'bricks' in the early days learning to deal with the vagaries of a wood cookstove. But soon baking bread of whatever shape or design became a simple chore, easy to fit into our busy schedules. It was like any number of things that you do again and again. You soon become a “master” of your own recipe and it is no longer difficult. But with changes comes the chance to learn some new tricks. And with my new flour mix I had need for some new learning.

I wanted
a lighter crumb; something with a moderate amount of holes, small ones, something that would trap the jam when you wanted to make a PB&J sandwich and eat it on the road and not have jam squeezing out on your lap or hands. My regular bread just wasn’t very good at that.

So I did some searching online. Wow, what a big bug baking your own bread has become! That’s great, though I find some of the rules and have-to’s to be quite tiresome. Bread baking really isn’t that difficult! Nor that exacting. However, I did get some hints. Mainly, make the dough wetter. Mmm. OK, I can do that. I’ve never been a big fan of kneading so always did the minimum anyway but now I skipped that part. It took me a few tries to get what I wanted but this is my current regime:

* Put 2 cups of warm water in bowl. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp bread yeast across surface.
* Add/mix in flour until sort of like thick cream soup.
* Cover and let set for awhile (likely a few hours) until it’s working (bubbles in surface).
* Stir in some oil, maybe 1/4 cup. Add flour until the dough is sticky but holds its shape (if the bread doesn’t come out the way you like it next time try wetter or drier dough - this is what took me a few tries to get right.)
* Scrape into well oiled pan(s)/baking dish(es)**.
* Pat/push/flatten/shape however you want the top to be. I like a flat top so I flatten/smooth it with a wet spoon.
* Cover and let rise. Mine doesn’t double, maybe rises a quarter. Maybe takes a few hours.
* Bake in a fairly hot oven for 40-60 minutes. Cover with aluminum foil when the top is lightly browned and getting hard. Bake until it is nicely browned around the edges.
* Let it set a bit, run a butter knife or metal spatula around the edges, then turn it out onto cooling rack.
* Let it cool before cutting and eating.

whole grain baked bread** Baking pans - My former cookie-sheet method didn’t work so well with the moister dough. It just slowly spread out instead of rising up making a nicely baked but very wide short “loaf”. This was OK for single slice eating but it didn’t get high marks for sandwiches. So I dug out the old bread pans I had. They worked OK for baking the bread but didn’t do so well for getting the loaf out in one piece. My usual method of oiling the pan with vegetable oil apparently wasn’t enough. But I didn’t find any other suggestions that I cared for. so I figured it was time for a new bread pan. Mine were pretty well dented and scratched.

At about that time I spied a small clay bread pan at the thrift store. I’d read about them and thought I’d give it a try. Oiled it well, filled it about 3/4. Had dough left. Mmm. Grabbed a small Pyrex mixing bowl, oiled it, put the rest of the dough in that. It would do I figured. Well, they both ‘did’ and very well at that! Just right for this bread. Baked well all the way through with a very nice crust, and came out easily in one piece! I might get another clay/stoneware bread pan, but then again, maybe not. I rather like the round loaf from the Pyrex mixing bowl.

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