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Previously in Patti's Garden

Patti on the farmFebruary 23, 2006

Greetings on this lovely, snowy February day!

It began snowing early this morning and by now, noon, everything is covered with about four inches of powdery light snow and the sky is still pure white with the promise of more to come.  We've filled kettles and carboys with water in case we lose the power tonight.  Last week we lost power for 32 hours due to high winds; we had agreed in the morning that it would be prudent to fill the kettles, then neglected to do so. Whoops! We're pretty lucky in a power outage.....we have three woodstoves and plenty of candles, oil lamps and flashlights....so the first 24 hours or so isn't too bad.  After a while, though, you really do miss water.

The best thing about power outages, though, is the enforced slow-down.  Lights went out at about 3 on Friday afternoon and didn't come back on until just before midnight on Saturday so we had two candlelit evenings.  After dinner, there just wasn't much to do but go to bed.  After two very early nights, I had to admit that I felt better than I had in months after finally catching up with lots of sleep that had been lost to the workings of my ever-spinning mind.  It's funny how your routine doesn't adapt to the loss of power.  I still went to the sink often to wash my hands or fill a glass, remembering with a whoosh that there was no water coming out of the faucet.  The wackiest "duh" moment came while I was exercising.  I play the same three CDs for exercising every morning.  Since I had no power I simply sang the tunes in my head from the first CD, then, without thinking, strolled over to the CD player to advance to the next disc which was, of course, available only in my head.

IN THE KITCHEN

Because we picked up the Amherst Farmers' Market Valentine's Show at Hampshire College two weeks ago (which was a wonderful event and loads of fun!) we needed to spend time in the kitchen making each kind of preserve.  I can never adequately explain how wonderful it feels for me to make preserves in the wintertime.  The aroma of the simmering fruit brings back the light of summer and the steam fills my face as I stir, stir, stir while it thickens.

Last autumn I bought a new kettle that I love so much I have named her "Suki."  She's even wider than my original three kettles (which don't have names) so her surface area is increased by about 2" in diameter. This means that I've had a bit of a learning curve with her.....the increased surface area means that my cooking times are reduced.  Since we don't rely on pectin or thickeners in our preserves, the gel point is reached solely by driving off the water in the fruit.  You can only make a few jars of preserves at a time by this method because it simply cannot work if the fruit level is too deep in the kettle. (Suki is a 4 gallon kettle, yet we only make 10-12 jars of preserves/ batch - taking advantage of her width to increase surface area and her height to guard against boil-overs.) Each type of fruit has its own cooking time - times even vary with variety of berry and dryness/wetness of the growing season and picking conditions. This is one reason why I've never endeavored to give cooking classes on preserve making.  You can teach techniques and times, but there is a feeling that you get in the spoon when the preserves are perfect that simply can't be taught.

We have good supplies of both regular and seedless Queen of Hearts Raspberry Preserves, King of Hearts Strawberry Preserves, White Rabbit's Blueberry Preserves and Tweedledum's Damson Plum Preserves.  We have just under two cases of Dancing Bear Peach Preserves.  We are completely out of Teddy Berry Blackberry Preserves and Mad Hatter's Pepper Preserves.  (We still have plenty of peppers in the freezer, though, and will experiment with using them to make more of this.)

We have been experimenting in the kitchen too.  Our friend Tim Smith of Apex Orchards in Shelburne makes a cider vinegar from unsprayed apples he grows (including Cortlands, my all-time favorite apple).  It's really wonderful - full of apple flavor, tart yet fruity - so good that I've taken to adding it to my drinking water.  I pour about a shot in a glass, fill with our good New Hampshire deep well water, and drink it down. It's remarkably thirst-quenching.  Ralph and I reasoned, if it's this good straight, how much better could it be with raspberries and blueberries infused into it?  We've experimented with various concentrations of berries and vinegar and techniques and formulas.  In another week or so we'll filter and decant the gallons into bottles and keep you posted.  We think that these go beyond fruit vinegars to the realm of fruit elixirs when mixed with water or sparkling water.  In old New England, "shrub" was an old-fashioned beverage consisting of cider vinegar blended with water and (sometimes) honey or molasses to fortify workers during haying and harvest. I think this is really a rediscovery - not a new invention. It seems that every week I read of a new health benefit attributed to berries - antioxident-rich, heart-healthy,  even good for aging eyes - and I'm really excited about this way to get that berry goodness into my body. We don't plan to add sweetener, preferring the pure berry flavor ourselves. People who enjoy a sweeter beverage can add honey, maple syrup, molasses or sugar to suit their own taste.

The third big project in the kitchen has been the great garlic-peeling adventure of ought six.  We realized that after so many bumper crops of garlic in a row we were growing more than we needed and reduced our planting this autumn by half.  That meant that we had more garlic remaining after planting than ever.  We've spent the better part of the last two weeks peeling and peeling and peeling garlic some more.....and putting it up in vinegar for our Farmhouse Garlic Mustard.  Whew! That's a big job out of the way!

IN THE GARDENS

Valentine's Day is my personal deadline for placing my seed orders, and this year I not only made my deadline, but I had received my salad blend mix in time to start four windowsill garden boxes on that day. I love this cut-and-come-again blend of lettuces and mesclun greens and reds and it's such a joy to see the little sprouts growing in my bay window.  We'll start spinach and delphiniums and some perennial herbs and flowers in the cold frame Ralph is setting up in the beds directly out the front door.  Cherry and plum trees shade this spot in the summer but it's the perfect spot for an early start in late winter.

I am excited about all my new tomato, pepper and flower and herb seeds, but nothing excites me as much as the new elderberries we are growing this season.  Our friend Elisabeth recommended that  we look into growing them, and everything I've read just makes me more and more enthusiastic.  Even my parents got that wistful, far-away look in their eyes remembering the good things their mothers had done with elderberries - jelly, jam, syrup, wine - back when they were children. My favorite herbal book touts the benefits of the elderflowers as well as the berries.

Back during the years we filed for organic certification, we had to have our farm plan map for the new growing season submitted  by March 1.  Even though we no longer bother with certification, I like the idea of planning out the crop locations now.  I know we are putting in a brand new strawberry bed and think it will go where the flower cutting bed has been for several years.  We don't need to buy new strawberry plants; we'll simply move excess plants from the beds that we're picking from their second (and final) harvest.  We grow the wonderful Sparkle berries - prized as the best for preserves. Since we've planted half the garlic this year (rather than our usual double bed of 4 rows) we have extra room there for the tall heirloom tomatoes that need staking. (I think that the tomatoes and garlic will enjoy sharing a double bed.)  Cayenne peppers will return to the bed that wraps around the herb slopes and sweet peppers and the other chilies will go in the long beds that lie between the two ponds.  We'll use the upper gardens for flowers and herbs and the bush tomatoes.  I grow many kinds of both tomatoes and peppers because I've learned that many things can go wrong and that having plants and fruit at varying degrees of ripeness helps protect against disaster.

Last month I wrote about how hard it will be to remove our 17 year-old raspberries, and that since the cane quality looks so good, that I planned to put it off for another year.  I'm so glad I made that decision!  I've spent a lot of time this winter reading about herbal medicine and realized what I have here.  The major weed in the old raspberries is St. John's wort - a highly beneficial herb.  The major weed in the blackberries is stinging nettles, another highly beneficial herb.  Once I started thinking about it, I realized that this farm is bursting with beneficials - many that are growing here on their own like the nettles, yarrow and St. John's wort and others that are escapees from my plantings in the perennial beds including echinacea, feverfew, valerian and anise hyssop.  The raspberry and blackberry leaves are also highly prized for herbal teas.  Newton Farmers' Market friends have long asked me to offer a dried version of the fresh herbal tea we make for market from mint, anise hyssop and lemon balm.  I'm going to spend more time in the months to come learning about teas and tinctures other ways to put up healing herbs.

AROUND THE FARM

Some readers might remember that Ralph's huge project for last year was taking down the old house that we had lived in while he built this one and recycling what he could.  This season, he'll use the recycled material to build an equipment shed where the old house stood and a chicken house and wood shed here.  Our good friend Rick provides us with wonderful eggs all year long, but I had chickens of my own once and really love the birds.  The last incarnation of the Powers family farm was as a chicken farm and I think a love of eggs is in my blood.  I simply adore good eggs, the same way I swoon for good raspberries.  They're such good food, and so good with fruits and vegetables.  Rick is going to part with 7 or 8 of his own birds so we'll be getting "experienced" chickens rather than chicks and I'm confident that they will do well. (Their experience will also help in case nosy Rosie gets too cozy around them.) We always have so much left over food from the gardens and from making our preserves and sauces that we compost it; it will be nice to add those scraps to the chickens' food and get the manure from the chickens to return to the soil.

Ralph is also going to move our greenhouse (which was adjacent to our old house) over here so it's closer.  We think we'll tuck it in to the south-western slope just below the herbs and above the lower pond.

IN THE HOUSE

Teddy and Ralph are holding fast on the porch, their psychic link stronger than ever.  Ralph can't even think about getting up without rousing Ted.  Teddy sleeps very deeply for about five hours, then is alert and hungry, then back to sleep.  This is fine during the day, but means that Ralph is up in the middle of the night keeping his buddy company during the alert phases.  Sometimes Ralph really does have to sneak out and go somewhere.  Ted wakes almost instantly and comes looking for his best friend, saying "Woof?!?!" "Woof?!?!?" "Woof?!?" (well, it's as close as the poor guy can come to saying "Ralph?!?!" "Ralph?!??!" "Ralph!?!") It's funny, he was always a very vocal dog and brayed as a pup, but as a dotty old dog he talks more than ever.  (In the middle of the night he talks up a storm trying to wake us.  Nothing is wrong....he just wants company because, after all, he's awake.) People who aren't dog-people may find this nuts, but anyone who has ever had an elderly dog will nod and understand.  In our pasts, both Ralph and I had to leave old dogs at home when we went to work and worried the whole day about what was happening at home.  I am so proud of Ralph and his infinite patience with elderly Teddy.

Somehow I've spent four hours on this message and my best friend Rosie is almost out of patience with me.  The snow is still falling and we've only about another hour of light so we'd better take off flying through the woods while we still can.

Patti (and Ralph!)

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