Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Here we go again

After a teaser of some springlike weather and most of our snow melting Mother Nature decides that she is not quite finished with winter after all.  We are predicted to get a potentially historic blizzard with expected snowfalls of 16-24 inches and 50mph winds.  We were predicted to start with rain today and turning to snow tonight and continuing tomorrow and tomorrow night, ending on Friday morning but we missed the rain and are already getting heavy snow with schools closed, plows out and the ground is again covered.  So those hardy Minnesotans who were riding motorcycles and wearing shorts and flipflops on Monday when it was 50 will be back in their winter gear for a couple more days. 

I thought I better water the plants in the greenhouse in case I can't get there for a couple of days so I took a couple of pictures of the tomatoes while I was there.  We are still 5-6 weeks away from our last frost date for our zone 4 area so they have some time to grow yet.  The top picture are brandywine tomatoes and the bottom picture are Siberian tomatoes.  You can see the snow collecting on the plexiglass.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The sap season is winding down

The weather is warming up.  The nights are not getting below freezing and the days are too warm also.  My sap buckets have been empty since I took the last of the sap and filled the two electric roasters that I have been using to evaporate the sap outside.  The sap cooked through the night and early this morning while it was still dark I combined the contents of the two roasters into one and it cooked some more.  Late in the afternoon the sap was cooked down enough for its final boiling which is done in the house.  I just put in jars the last of the finished syrup.

I have 17 pints of amber colored syrup.  The season started for me on March 21 and lasted about two weeks.  I will leave my taps and buckets for a little while yet in case the weather changes enough to move the sap.  Next week there are some nights predicted to be 30 or high 20s with daytime 40s.

I am still a relative newbie at syrup making.  My first year I hung two buckets on taps on one tree.  The second year friends with way more experience than me brought me a little different system.  The new system has tubing attached to the taps and the tubing from several taps can drain into the same bucket which sits on the ground.  I went from two taps on one tree to twelve taps on two trees.  I only have two maples but they are massive.  There is a formula that uses the diameter of the tree to determine the number of taps that can be used.  My trees are much bigger than the largest diameter in the formula and my experienced friends helped me determine the correct number.

In year two I struggled with inaccurate thermometers.  Sap turns to syrup at 7 degrees above the boiling point of water.  So 219-220 degrees is what I was shooting for.  Too low and the syrup is thin and watery.  If it is bottled at a temperature less than 180 then it could mold.  I had three thermometers and none of them read the same.  This year I upped my game and bought a new thermometer at the place where I buy maple syrup supplies.  I also bought a hydrometer which measures the sugar concentration of the syrup.  It is an interesting process.  There is a metal cup, kind of a tube that is filled with syrup and the hydrometer, a glass instrument is placed in the cup and allowed to displace syrup until it floats, measuring the density of the fluid.  

I am pleased with my 17 pints since the season was so short, only two weeks long.  Until next year.    

Thursday, March 21, 2019

maple syrup season is started

Wednesday I started collecting sap for making syrup.  I have two very large maple trees and I drilled the holes for the spikes and the sap was running.  Sap is moving in the trees when the right weather conditions are present, usually when it is still below freezing at night but above freezing during the day.  This morning I had a couple of inches of sap in my buckets and by early afternoon my buckets were nearly full so I am starting to boil my sap to evaporate the water out of it and concentrate the sugars.

People who make a lot of sap into syrup often use a large container and a wood fire to cook their sap.  I don't have a wood fired evaporator so I am using my electric roaster.  The initial cooking is done outside so that the humidity created is outside instead of in the house.  Usually it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.  The last little bit of cooking will be done in the house on the stove where it can be better monitored and bottled at exactly the right temperature.

Last year I had a lot of difficulty.  My thermometers were not accurate.  I had a couple of them and they did not read the same but I didn't know which one, if either, was accurate and some of my sap was under cooked and some was over cooked.  This year I am better prepared.  I will be testing my new thermometer bought at a place that sells maple sugaring supplies and made for making syrup as well as candy.  I will measure the temperature that reads in boiling water.  Maple syrup needs to be 7.5 degrees higher than the temperature at which water boils.

I also bought a hydrometer.  A hydrometer is a device that measures the sugar content of a liquid by floating the device in a sample and the height that it floats at gives a Brix score.

 Above is the maple  tree closest to the house.  There are two buckets each with three taps and tubing that carry the sap to the buckets.  I have a second tree with the same set up.  The first couple of years I used a bucket that hung on the tree on the tap and the sap dripped right into the bucket.  That causes some issues with the heavy buckets pulling the taps out of the tree and the empty buckets blowing off the tree on windy days.  This set up seems like it is going to work a lot better. 
 This little wood table holds my electric roaster and my new thermometer.  I have the lid ajar so that the contents will heat faster but the steam can escape.  The roaster holds one bucket of sap.  So far mine has been cooking for a couple of hours and the level of the sap is down about an inch.  Long way to go yet. 
 The two covered buckets are full of sap that is waiting to be cooked.  My four buckets collected a total of three buckets of sap so far and are filling up again.  I don't have a lot of room to refrigerate the sap so  I am hoping that I can keep up.  My plan is to try to cook it down until close and then refrigerate the almost syrup until I have enough to finish and bottle several bottles at a time. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Made it to the greenhouse.

We have had a lot of snow where I live.  It has been a crazy winter.  Lots of weather stuff and lots of other stuff.  One of the results of all of the 'stuff' is that I haven't been able to get to the greenhouse for several weeks.  There has been a thick blanket of snow covering most of the farm, thicker in places where it drifted, a little less deep where the wind blew it away.  Near the greenhouse it was quite a bit deeper than the snowblower could manage.  I was able to get about halfway there and then no further.  Now that the weather is a little warmer I have been shoveling my way over there and today I got the last of the path done.  I had been dreading what I would find.  The heater had been on when the greenhouse got snowed in but nothing had been watered.  And on sunny days it has been hot in there.  Yesterday, the remote thermometer that reads in the house said 130 degrees.  This year I didn't get many greens started but I was trying to overwinter some pots of herbs and strawberries.  I pretty much assumed that they would be dead.  I also had some onions and pie pumpkins that I had put there after harvest.  Soon I will be needing the space for my summer garden seedlings which I start in the house but when they get a little bigger and the weather moderates a bit they will go out to the greenhouse.
This is the start of the path, from the driveway to the second maple tree.
 The path will come in handy as it will soon be maple syrup season and I will be making trips back and forth to that tree and the other nearer the house. 
This is the second leg, where the path turns at the maple and heads toward the greenhouse.

This is the worst part where the snow was the deepest.

The greenhouse is in the upper right corner of this picture. 

This is the snow in front of the greenhouse.

Last little stretch left to shovel.

Looking back down the path from the greenhouse door.
 We have had some warmer weather and a little sun so some of our snow has melted.  This picture was taken today of the waist high birdbath under the grape arbor.
 Same birdbath a couple of days ago.  The snow is probably six inches deeper and you can see the snow on the grape vines on top of the pergola. 
In this picture the black horizontal line in front of the garage door is the top of the flatbed trailer that is parked there.  A couple of days ago it was completely covered.
This is a picture of the front of my house with all of the snow and icicles.
All of that snow has now melted off of the roof and the icicles are gone.  We would hear them crash to the ground.  Amazing what a little sun can do.  As I shoveled the path there was a couple inches of slush under the snow.  All of our buildings have steeply pitched roofs so we didn't have any roofs that caved in due to the weight of the snow but it was a worry for some.

Sharing with Metamorphosis Monday at BNOTP here.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Next up?

Now that the peppers and tomatoes have been sown, next up is the pollinator friendly flowers.  After reading a couple of articles and hearing what other people are using to attract pollinators to their garden I started a list and ordered seeds for some of the plants that were recommended.

To be honest, I had never given a lot of thought to flowers.  I have a few herbs in pots and an ignored flower bed of perennials that is not anywhere close to my vegetable gardens.  My time is limited and my focus has been on the vegetables and the mowing.  But two summers ago I had a large patch of my garden that didn't get planted and it grew up in thistles and milkweed and some other weed with yellow flowers.  It was amazing.  It was like a little patch of meadow.  I have never seen so many bees and butterflies.  They were loving it.  Actually thistles have a pretty purple flower and milkweed has a beautiful scent.

Over the last several years I have been adding more fruit to my yard. I have a small orchard started that now has three apple trees, two pears, two plums and two peaches.  I have a little blueberry patch and a strawberry patch and some black raspberries.  I have two elderberry bushes, a gooseberry bush some type of a bush cherry.  I have an established grape arbor that is hard to harvest so I planted more grapes that will grow along wires, like a traditional vineyard.  Not all are producing fruit yet but all of those fruits will benefit from a bigger pollinator presence.

So here is my plan.

Near the orchard is a cute gate that my daughter built as a 4H woodworking project.  It ended up being too heavy for the potager so it is installed at an angle on one edge of the lawn near the orchard. I have often hung something on it, a wreath in the summer made from a garden hose or a snowflake made with lights in the winter.   I have tried to get some flowers started around there.  I will plan to expand that area using some in ground perennials and some potted annuals and/or herbs.  This area is our pet burial ground.  Last year I found a cute post that will serve as a reminder/memorial of our beloved pets and livestock that is buried there.  I think I will incorporate a source for drinking water and maybe a native bee 'hotel' for the pollinators and some yard art for curb appeal.

The new vineyard is planted on each side of the second driveway.  So far it is just the first few plants with plans to expand.  Right now I have three short rows of four plants each.  None of the posts or wires have been installed yet.  Two rows flank the driveway on the east and one row is between the driveway and the pasture on the west.  The fence along the pasture needs to be replaced and the corner posts are deteriorating.  I am considering changing the fence line at that corner, perhaps cutting off the corner and putting in some plants there.  I think it would be cute and bring some pollinator activity to the vineyard.

Here is what I am starting early although I will probably add more later.  A lot of these have flowers in shades of purple. 

Jacob's Ladder (Blue Pearl)
Anise Hyssop (licorice  Mint)
Eryngium (Blue Glitter)
Phocelia (Bee's Friend)
Salvia (Transylvanian Sage)
Cilantro (Pokey Joe)
Marigold (Queen Sophia)
Sweet Alyssium

Last year I tried a cutting garden but my plantings did really poorly along with the vegetables.  Maybe this year will be better and I can try again.  

The ignored perennial bed is only a few feet away from a massive maple tree and has been taken over by saplings that grew out of the helicopter seeds released every year.  This year I will be trying to rescue the perennials and relocate them in order to work to remove the saplings.

In all likelihood I will be putting up some fencing in my front yard.  I would like to put wood chips and plantings on the outside and wood chips for sure along it on the inside.  Some of the perennials will be relocated there.  My sister has an amazing flower border in her yard and I will have to try and get some suggestions from her.


Friday, March 8, 2019

Peppers are up, time for tomatoes

Last weekend I started my pepper plants.  They are starting to germinate so as they do so I am moving them under the lights which frees up space on the germination mat.  This year we are growing some old favorites and some new varieties.  Last year we grew a tomato called Siberian.  It was a tomato found by my friend Bobbie.  It is bred for growing in the north and it sets fruit at colder temperatures than many of the other tomato varieties, making it extra early.  It worked out pretty well so I am trying it again along with a couple of other early tomatoes.

We usually grow a combination of slicers, pastes, and cherry types.  Most of our choices are heirlooms or open pollinated. We do grow one or two hybrids. These are the varieties I am starting from seed this year:

Big Beef
Speckled Roman
San Marzano II
Sunrise Bumble Bee
Costoluto Genovese
White Cherry
BHN 968
Black Vernissage
Matt's Wild Cherry

Next will be to start the flower plants to attract pollinators.

Spring seems so far away.  Snow is predicted again this weekend.  Supposed to start during the early morning.  We are in the 7-12 inch range.  At least the temperatures are mild.  I think we might hit 40 one day next week.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

March came in like a...

So hoping that this is a lion so that we can have the lamb at the end of the month.  So tired of winter.  Had a bunch of snow yesterday.  Light, fluffy, pretty snow.  Lots of inches of pretty snow.

 But spring must be right around the corner.  So I am starting plants for the garden.

Last week I started some celosa and amaranth.  The week before I started eucalyptus.  Those, if they do well, will be for the wedding at summer's end.  I also started some onions, kohlrabi and asparagus and filled out the trays with some marigolds, greens and basil.  As they sprout I move them from the germination heat mats to under the lights.  That frees up space on the mats for the next round. 

So today I am starting peppers.  For the last several years I have started bell peppers and jalapenos from seed.  Last year I added another hot pepper called Lemon drop, a favorite of my kids.  This year we are trying several new hot varieties, a couple of new bells and some for paprika.  Most were ones that I purchased but we did get one as a free sample that looks fun too.  Some were requests, my sister wanted to try a hot banana,  My future son in law wanted to try habaneros and a Carolina Reaper.  My son wanted to try a mini bell for snacking.  There were a couple that were recommended by bloggers I follow and a couple that just looked interesting on the websites.  We ordered from four companies.  Should make for an interesting harvest.  I do not eat really hot peppers but some of my bunch are 'the hotter the better' types.  I am hoping that there will be interest in both the plants and the fruits at the farmers market.  The fruits will different shapes and very colorful.  Should make for a nice display.  I will have to be on the lookout for fun baskets when thrifting. And jars for pepper jelly.

So here are my 21 peppers:

Tennessee Cheese
Hungarian spice
Mini Bell Mix
Red Belgian Bell
Olympus Bell
Gourmet Bell
Sweet Yellow Stuffing
Ace Bell
Horizon Bell
Shishito Japanese Peppers
El Jefe Jalapeno
Peach Habanero
Chocolate Habanero
Chinese Five Color
Lemon Spice Jalapeno
Mustard Habanero
Carolina Reaper
Lemon Drop
Hot Banana

Tomatoes are next and then some flowers for pollinators.  Can't wait.  So fun to be getting my hands in the dirt. 
Each of these pots has a dozen or more pepper seeds planted.  When they are germinated and have a little size on them they will be repotted into their own pots.  It is a type of seed starting that saves space on the heat mat but also allows for a greater separation of similar seeds.  When seeding different types of seeds into the same tray the potential is there for seeds to fall into the wrong row and then confusion as to the variety is possible.  It is a method that I have not used before but I may continue to use when I start less than a whole flat of the same variety.  These will be covered with a plastic dome until they germinate and then they will be moved under lights.  When they have a couple of sets of true leaves they will each get their own pot. 

Shared with BNOTP here.