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     Your Garden

Fall Mini Notes

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Ready for Winter
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ManyTracks Homesteading 
Sue Robishaw

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Mini Notes -

getting ready for a northwoods winter

kitchen 2000

How-to  ~  Ideas  ~  Inspiration
 From more than thirty years having a good time living a sustainable life
in the northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula

I love all seasons of the year up here and all the variations. But fall has a special snap to it that’s not just the frost in the air. It’s that wonderful combination of tension and satisfaction involved in "Getting Ready for Winter". Even when the snow comes early and the wood shed is filling at a cold snail’s pace, it’s a great time. The adrenaline flows. There’s a lot of work to be done, but you don’t have to make it be drudgery.

WOOD COOKSTOVE: The garden once again becomes the center of focus in the early fall, and the wood cookstove comes into its own during canning season. For some, this old appliance is a series of trials and tribulations. For me, it’s a timesaver. Instead of four puny burners, you have an entire expanse of cooktop to use for canning, with all the necessary ranges of heat (assuming you remember to keep putting wood in). It does take attention, but it’s worth getting used to, if you have a source for wood. We mainly use 2" - 4" branches and poles, gathered when cutting wood for the heating stove. Stack them to dry for a year, then saw to length on the sawbuck. If you’re shopping for a used cookstove, make sure the grates fit and are in good working order, and that the top of the oven hasn’t rusted through. Rust on the cooktop surface can be sanded off.

There isn’t much to maintaining the cookstove. Occasionally I’ll take some coarse sandpaper to the cooktop surface to clean it, then rub cooking oil into the top. If the fire isn’t drawing well, it is likely being blocked by accumulated soot and ash around the oven. You’ll need a small tool designed like a hoe, which is a piece of metal just smaller than the cleanout door below the oven, attached to a long, stiff handle. Lift out the pieces of cooktop that are over the oven, then rake off extra ash, leaving a layer for insulation. Also rake down the far side of the oven where soot accumulates. Then spread a good layer of newspapers all around in front of and under the stove, and open the small door under the oven. Carefully rake out the soot and ash onto the newspaper. While doing this, don’t sneeze or laugh or let breezes, kids, or pets blow through—this is very light stuff. It’s great for adding to concrete if you’d like a mottled black color instead of gray.

CANNING: I don’t can much anymore, using mostly eating-in-season, root cellaring, and solar food drying. And I don’t miss the time I used to spend on that chore. But I do use my pressure canner for a batch or two of dry beans (nice for instant dinners and on-the-road food), and as a steam canner. To use as a steam canner, just put a few inches of water in your pressure canner and put the lid on sans the pressure weight (or leave the pressure valve open). Just make sure there is a good strong, steady stream of steam coming out of the valve before you start counting your time. Beats the time and energy involved in bringing gallons of water to boil for the water bath canner.

Steam canning is great for tomatoes and pickles, jam and fruit sauce. Over the years I’ve come to simplify my tomato processing quite a bit, so it’s not that much of a chore. First of all, decide tomato skins are great, so are tomato seeds. That small decision instantly makes life a lot easier. I use one of two methods, depending on my schedule and druthers at the time. For the first, I pick, wash, and chop my tomatoes in the evening into an enamel or stainless steel pot. Sometimes I’ll add a few chopped onions and peppers, some basil, oregano, celery. Then I bring it all to a boil and simmer till soft, usually while we’re cooking dinner or baking bread or something, making the best use of the cookstove while it’s going. I then set the covered pot in the pantry or root cellar where it is cooler, and let it settle over night. OR, I’ll leave it on the stove to continue cooking down after I’m abed, if the stove it still going and I feel there is enough liquid.

In the morning, the heavier sauce has usually settled to the bottom and I can pour off the thinner juice to another pot. I bring both juice and sauce to boiling and steam can them in pint jars. The canned juice is used for soup stock and for juice when canning dry beans later.

My second method (the one I usually use) is to bring the chopped tomatoes to boiling as above and boil/simmer for awhile, often while I’m doing something else with the stove. Then I strain the cooked tomatoes though a collander, ending up with good sauce and strained juice that’s not as thin as when I let it settle. For really thick sauce, you can strain again through a clean, cloth bag. I can both sauce and juice as above. Beats boiling for hours and hours.

You can, of course, dry your tomatoes or sauce in the solar food dryer. But it takes a number of consecutive good sunny drying days which we usually don’t have in the fall.

JAM: A solar oven makes jam making easy. Just chop or mash up whatever fruit you have, and let it cook in the solar oven during the day, propping the door open a bit to let the moisture out (or just open in up now and then when you wander by). In the evening, finish it off on the stove and can it quickly in the steam canner.

FRUIT SAUCE: Don’t limit your sauce buds to applesauce. Use whatever fruit you have available. We’ve had Juneberry/raspberry/rhubarb, Strawberry/rhubarb, Blackberry/rhubarb/apple, Sweet cherry/rhubarb, Rhubarb/apple (rhubarb is the most reliable ‘fruit’ crop we have!), etc. Same goes for jam. We start most mornings with a breakfast of fruit sauce (made from fresh, reconstituted dried, or canned fruit) mixed with dry rolled oats. Add sunflower seeds, raisins, and maple syrup. Easy and good.

GARDEN TOUR: Now is the time to take your notebook and pencil into the garden to plan next year’s adventures. A particularly weedy bed or patch would be a good spot for potatoes or tomatoes or broccoli, or anything you mulch heavily or is easy to weed. Make a note of that. Pick your most weed-free spots for peas and grains and carrots, which are harder to weed when growing. Note what worked, what didn’t, what you need more of, what sounded good last winter but turned out to be not so good in the reality of summer.

Find a spot to plant your garlic where it won’t be disturbed into next year. Fall planted garlic grows larger than spring planted, and will overwinter is most climates. Resist saving your very best bulbs to eat or for gifts—plant them. You’ll be happy you did when next year’s harvest comes around. Push cloves down into the soil 3"-5" apart, then cover with a blanket of mulch.

In addition to leaving some carrots in the ground for next spring, try potatoes as well. The original root cellaring. Cover all with a good layer of mulch.

MULCH: Anytime is a good time to mulch your garden, and in hay country, fall is often a good time to pick up cheap hay, particularly if it’s been a rainy season. Spread it hither and yon over your garden. Just make sure to check with the farmer first about the makeup of the hay. You don’t want hay full of mature seeded weeds, which can plant weed seeds in your garden. A well mulched garden is a happy garden--and gardener.

PERMANENT BEDS: Fall is a good time to switch over to permanent, raised beds in your garden. All of the soil inhabitants, of all sizes, will appreciate not having to overcome your regular beating up of them and their environment with the tiller. And your future garden plants will glow with that appreciation. Start by doing one last tilling. String twine every three and a half feet. If your soil is compacted by tilling, go down every other row, where the beds will be, with a garden fork loosening up that hardpan. Then shovel the loose top inches of soil from the alternate aisles into the adjoining beds. Remove the twine and rake the beds flat on top. This will give you roughly a four foot wide bed with a two foot wide path. Mulch the entire area if you have the materials, or just the beds if you are short, and let it all settle over the winter. Next spring, pull the mulch back and plant.

GREEN MANURE: Any part of your garden not growing a garden crop should be growing green manure, which is any plant material grown to be dug into the soil, or cut and left on top, to enrich the soil. Oats can be planted quite late and still make some growth before winter. Buckwheat is killed by frost, so is best planted in the summer. All plant material in your garden can be considered green manure, so when through harvesting a crop, don’t pull the plants and haul them off to the compost bin. Leave them right where they are to feed the soil for next year’s crop. Corn and sunflower stalks, or any sturdy tough plants, can be chopped down with long handles pruners (or leave them for tomato or bean stakes next year).

STOCKING UP: Even if you don’t have a half mile walk in the winter, or grow most of your own food, stock up in the fall as if you did. Storage can be found in even the smallest of dwellings—under the bed, shelves in a closet, under the stairs, behind this, over that. A box in a cool room or closet can be your root cellar. Shelves installed on an unused wall can be your pantry. Find a regional food buying club or co-op, buy from the farmer’s market, or buy bulk from your regular grocery store. If it’s a regional type store, you can often order case quantities at a discounted price. Enjoy the benefits of a well stocked larder all winter.

HEALING SALVE: I’ve found a very good healing salve for aches and pains in the following: Chop into a can or old pot: comfrey root, horeseradish root, and white pine bark. Cover with vegetable oil. Put in the solar oven to heat, or on the stove in a double boiler (i.e., put your can or pot of herbs and oil in a pan of water). Simmer for a time, then let set overnight. Strain through a a sieve or loose woven cloth, then shave some beeswax into the oil. Proportions are about 4:1, oil to wax. You can also add some lanolin for a creamier product. Heat as above (in solar oven or double boiler) until wax is melted. Stir well then pour into shallow jars. After it is cooled, if it is too hard, reheat and add more oil or lanolin; if too soft, add more beeswax. Store in a cool spot.

RENDERING BEESWAX: If you know someone who raises bees, you might be able to get a bucket of odds and ends of uncleaned wax. Don’t worry if it looks pretty gunky, it’ll clean up just fine. Dump the wax into a large pot and cover with a generous amount of water. Heat and simmer until the wax is melted. Remove from heat. The clean wax will congeal on the surface. Some of the debris will sink to the bottom and can be poured out with the water. Quite a bit will be on the bottom surface of the wax. When the wax has cooled enough to be firm, but not yet hard, cut across it with a sturdy knife and remove from the pan. Scrape off the debris. The wax can be broken or cut into pieces and stored as is, or reheated in a double boiler and poured into molds or other containers. The original melting pot can be wiped clean with old rags while still warm, or reheat to clean.

* * * * * *

Copyright 2002-2003 by Susan Robishaw

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updated 04/03/2014
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