Canning · Cooking · Farmers · Lazer Creek Apiary · Pests - General

Hunter-gatherers

Yesterday, I temporarily deferred my equal rights ideologies and stepped back (way back) into a hunter-gatherer role,  trailing along behind the man of the house, picking berries while he did the manly task!

There are so many beautiful ripe blackberries on our property, but they are so hard to get to.  At the best of times, wild blackberries demand a blood sacrifice,  so I am always weighing the pain-versus-gain factor.   Since my last blackberry harvest, BIL sent us a picture of a timber rattle snake up under one of his blueberry bushes, edging back into some wild blackberries, so that made me even more cautious.

Blackberries
Wild Blackberries

Then, hubby came along and cleared a strip along one of the really good blackberry patches with the bush hog, giving me much easier access — still not  pain free, but easier.  By following in his wake, I was able to harvest 1 1/2 quarts of beautiful, juicy blackberries which I then washed, boiled, and froze so that I can turn them into jam when we’re back in the city.    As a few family members need to avoid seeds and the rest of us don’t really enjoy picking seeds out of our teeth, I’ll strain them and then press the rest of the juice out of them before adding apples and making blackberry-apple jam.  I cheated last year and bought frozen blackberries for a trial batch, but that jam was good enough to make me want to harvest what nature has provided for us here.

Of course the other side of the hunter-gatherer equation is the hunter.   I guess hubby was hunting undergrowth when he cleared those paths for me, but his other hunting chores yesterday involved getting rid of the critters that have been bugging me!   We discovered that the yellow jackets at the gate had actually moved into the gate through a drain hole, so it’s no surprise that they became irritable when we rattled the chain against their home.  They are now in an afterlife of some kind.   We avoid using pesticides whenever possible, but we can’t have yellow jackets attacking guests or us at the gate.   His other accomplishment led to one more restless night followed by a good night’s sleep as two field mice have now been evicted from under the kitchen sink.   There’s a huge hole cut into the back of the cabinet, and we thoroughly spray-foamed that, but that didn’t stop them.  There’s another hole cut in the side of the cabinet to let the drain pipe go through.  We’re hesitant to put spray foam in there because we don’t want it on the back of the oven, but we’ll seal it up with aluminum foil after we’re sure there are no more mice romping around in the walls.    We’re generally believers in the if-you-kill-it-eat-it philosophy, but I draw the line at making mouse and yellow-jacket casserole.  (Actually, I draw the line well before that — there’s still too much suburb in me to eat possum or squirrel, although I did LOVE the dove hubby hunted last fall.)

Tractor delivery
Our new tractor

Even though I spent much of the day taking on more-than-usual traditional female tasks, I did start the day having fun on our new Kubota tractor!   I have been hesitant to bush hog on borrowed tractors, even though BIL and our neighbor have shown more confidence in my abilities than I’ve believed myself to have, but I quite quickly became comfortable on relatively flat land knowing that if I damaged something, it would be something I was paying for!    I even found it easier to back the tractor up than to back my car up because I can see where I’m going so much better.   However, that became tricky after a while because of my on-going neck discomfort (I can’t call it pain right now) and my bi-focals.   While bi-focals are great for many things, they don’t work well for looking back over one’s shoulder or for checking bee hives.   I have an eye appointment next week and will probably get a pair of long-distance glasses and a pair with which I can see bee frames.    I’m not sure how I’ll juggle three different pairs of glasses — maybe the eye doctor will have a better suggestion!

Our other exciting 15 minutes yesterday was when we had to combat a waterfall running down the inside of the RV door!   Hubby made adjustments to the strike plate for the door latch and that kept the rain out, but in the time that took, the torrent filled a casserole dish and soaked a bunch of towels. (I wish I had a picture to post, but we were both a little too occupied to grab a camera!) It’s times like these that make me glad I brought every old towel that we had at the house here.  Sure, they take up space, but sometimes they come in handy.   We started today with a trip to the laundromat and that led to reorganizing towel storage — what better time to do it than when every towel in the house has just been washed?

It’s a beautiful sunny day,  the trails we cut last year are now trails again, and we can see the stakes for the house-site again.     Life is good on the farm!

 

Advertisements
Canning · Gardening

Unexpected Figs

My husband and I were raised by a generation that admonished us to eat everything on our plate and never let food go to waste.  We somewhat reluctantly shelled peas, cut beans, picked gooseberries and pulled endless weeds from the time we could help until we left home.  It was therefore somewhat of a relief when the 17 degree frost killed the flowers on our fig tree this year.   I had visions of staying guilt-free at the farm and not having to think about the number of figs going to waste.

We had always wondered about the little figs that appeared shortly after the first leaves — and sometimes before.   I did a little research after the frost and found out that what look like figs are actually inverted flowers.   It seems odd to me that a flower and the fruit look pretty much the same, but it clearly works for the tree — aside from the fact that it is dependent on a specific species of wasp for pollination.  But no flowers equals no figs and that meant a summer without  chopping, boiling, stirring and canning figs every 3 days or so!

Figs
Figs

Then, lo and behold, a couple of weeks ago the fig tree erupted with twice as many figs as in years past!   I don’t know whether having more leaves before producing flowers inspired the tree to pop out so many or whether it’s just saying thank-you for the Miracle Grow.  Either way, I’ll be making fig jam again this year.   On a positive note, I get to experiment with even more recipes.

Our biggest yield last year was 15 pounds in one picking.   Now, I was picking about 3 pounds every day when we were in the city and the 15 pounds were a week’s growth after a farm trip.  That much maxed out my big jam saucepan.   At the farm today,  I was so happy to see our three new fig trees recovering from the frost and the drought, but I’m also wondering about our level of insanity in planting 3 trees!   I may need to get that 6-burner stove I’d been considering for the new house.

For now, I’m going to stop worrying about the figs in my future and go harvest wild blackberries!   I don’t think I’ve tried fig and blackberry jam yet, but I know that fig and apple jam is one of my favorites!

Blackberries
Blackberries

I’ll have to boil them and then freeze them here and then take them back to the city to turn into jam, but that much I can handle on my little RV stove!   Let me check to see if it’s stopped raining so that I can start picking…..

Canning · Gardening

Lavender and figs

Fig jam

We had planned to take it easy last night, but the fig tree had other ideas!   We arrived home shortly after 4:00 p.m. after driving through a thunderstorm only to find our sub-division bone dry and a fig tree weighed down with beautiful, ripe figs.  We picked 15 pounds of figs in about 20 minutes, and our restful evening turned into making jam until 9:30 p.m..  I quickly loaded the dishwasher with jars to sterilize, and got to chopping and stirring.   Hubby measured the sugar and we loaded everything into the new 18 quart pot.  It is only logical that it takes a whole lot longer to bring that much jam to a boil than my normal 2 – 3 pounds of figs, but it turned out well in the end.  Well, it turned it okay — I underestimated the number of jars I needed, so we have plastic containers of jam in the fridge for our consumption.   We ran out of jam by Christmas last year; I don’t think that will be a problem this year.    I am going to attempt fig jelly with the next batch, which will probably be tomorrow. My mom wouldn’t have been able to eat the jam with all the seeds, so I want to experiment with some seed-free varieties.

Nuc with lid feeders and robbing screen

While I was finishing up the jam, hubby installed a robbing screen on the front of the new Nuc with the found queen and topped off the Mason-jar lid feeders.  As we are in a dearth, we don’t have fresh brood in other hives to strengthen this hive, and they don’t currently have enough bees to defend against being robbed by bees from other hives.  We like lid feeders and top feeders because we can be certain we are feeding our bees and not every bee in a three mile radius.  Bringing in “guest” bees invites robbing when feeder buckets become empty and the guests start looking around for free snacks around them.

Planted cuttings

We had a busy weekend at the farm.  Hubby improved and adjusted the leveling of the RV, and I planted cuttings and seedlings.   I had no idea that I had 16 lavender cuttings and only two rosemary plants until I started digging holes.   I know I had more rosemary when I gave a tray to one of my fellow teachers, so I must have lost some the week the sprinklers didn’t work well at the house.   I stopped counting mint plants as I placed them around the RV.   Their roots will help with our erosion problem and their strong scent is supposed to deter snakes!   I also had some Columbine seedlings that were doing amazingly well in the heat of summer and some Echinacea seedlings that don’t seem to have grown at all in the past two months.

In addition, we planted four gardenia cuttings, five butterfly bush cuttings, and seven Goldenraintrees.  Our Goldenraintree at home is close to blooming, and it is a rich nectar source for bees, which is why we want plenty at the farm even though they can be invasive in the South.  (Seed germination rates are lower in cooler regions.)

This afternoon we need to go pick up some woodware (hive bodies etc.) we purchased from a retired beekeeper and then go to both outyards to refill feeders, add a super to one hive, and check on a queen in another hive.  We’d marked one hive as a deadout when we were trying to finish inspections right before dark one evening, but found a handful of bees and a queen still alive in the robbed-out and wax-moth infested mess the next day.   We pulled some brood and nectar from our strongest hive in that yard to help get that hive going again, but the queen flew off in the transfer.   (I actually caught her in my hands, but then she flew off again when I opened my hands to see what I’d caught.)   We hope she made her way back home and is enjoying the top feeder.   With hives in four locations, we really needed a better way of tracking inspections and our apiary to-do list.   We tried a few apps, and Hivetool Mobile is working well for us as data syncs across devices, so hubby and I both have access to records.   Inspections go a lot quicker when one of us checks frames and the other updates Hivetool.   Hivetool also allows us to move a hive from one location to another while retaining history.  Apiary Book is another good app, but data is limited to one device — it would work very well for an apiary in which only one person is entering data.   In between everything else, I need to number hive bottom boards to make tracking new hives easier as we assemble them.  Our quick growth has led to us being less organized about things like that than we would like, so we’re eating that elephant on bite at a time!   Of course I’ve added a second elephant and am trying to write an apiary centered inventory program using Visual Basic in my spare time!

I’ve joked about needing to go back to work so that I don’t have to work so hard, but I’m loving every minute of it.   On the other hand, my students did very well on the IB exam and I am excited about teaching a new crew in a few weeks.  Concentrating on non-education activities this summer has revived my love of teaching, and we’ll start heading into a quieter garden and hive time soon.   Our home-on-wheels is set up for relaxing get-aways throughout the school year.   Life is good!

Canning

Just jamming…

Figs – July 2016

Just like last year, I am back to trying to beat the mocking bird to the ripe figs by picking figs early morning and late afternoon.   He gets one or two, especially the ones at the top of the tree, but I don’t mind so long as I have enough to make jam.

The first batch of jam I made used 3 pounds of figs and one pound of blueberries, and I like that I can still taste the figs.   In one of the batches I made last year, the blueberries overpowered the figs.  It was still good jam, but I prefer this batch.

The second batch used one pound of figs and one pound of strawberries.  I also used one cup of honey and one cup of sugar instead of two cups of sugar.  The fig/strawberry mix is good and there is just a hint of honey flavor.   We both really like this recipe, but strawberry jam doesn’t set as easily, and I’d like the next batch to be a little firmer.   I used some pectin, but clearly not enough!

Today I used the same Drunken Fig Jam recipe that everyone liked so much last year, but I substituted honey for half the sugar.   We couldn’t taste the honey at all, so I will just use sugar next time.  It makes more sense to keep honey in the pantry than to hide it in jam.   I’ll make some more batches of the original recipe, but then I plan to experiment using Stevia for a lower calorie version.

Between checking hives, feeding bees, and making jam, I have no time to get bored at all.  Summer is flying by, and we have to stop to consciously look at what we have accomplished rather than focusing on what we have not yet even started.

Canning

Experimenting with canning.

Figs:
We have had a fig tree in our yard for 10 years, but have left most of the figs for the birds until this summer.  As our thoughts moved toward retirement and how and where we want to spend it, I decided to retry canning — something I have done sporadically since learning how in high school.  The figs seemed like a good place to start.

The first recipe (see link) I found is the one I used all summer, with some modifications.   With just one tree, I was making small batches of 1 – 2 pounds of figs at a time and found that I needed to add more water.  After a few batches, I also grew tired of all the chopping and started tossing the figs in the food processor and using dried lemon peel.  The food processor actually made the jam better because the pieces of fig were smaller.  (They were probably what they should have been in the first place, but that’s a lot of slicing and dicing.)   I eventually developed a routine of picking figs first thing in the morning and again early evening.  If I had just made a batch of jam, I picked figs that were still firm.  As I gathered more figs toward my ideal quantity of at least 2 pounds, I allowed them to ripen more.  Figs that were almost ripe in the morning were pecked by birds by mid-afternoon, so how long to leave the figs on the tree became a balancing act.

One day, we were going out of town and didn’t have enough figs to make a batch, but I did have apples.  Fig and apple jam is good, but I later found that fig and blueberry jam is even better!   With 10 jars of fig jam in the pantry, the addition of other flavors was a fortunate experiment.

Orange Marmelade
I was so excited over the fig jam success, that I tried my hand at orange marmelade.  It was a lot of work and peeling the pith from the inside of the skin was a far more tedious job than suits my personality.  After all that slicing, and chopping, and cooking, and cleaning, the marmelade didn’t set.  I eventually dumped it all back into a pot and added orange jello.  It still hasn’t set 4 months later, and it never really tasted the way it should.  I have thought about pouring it into a cake pan and using it in a as a substitute for pineapple in an upside down pineapple cake, but I’ve also thought about just pouring it down the drain and freeing up my mason jars!

Baked Beans
For years, I cooked beans in a crock pot, but a year ago I bought an enameled cast iron Dutch oven and have been much happier with the results.  My two favorite recipes are Carribean Black Beans and Boston Baked Beans from The Joy of Cooking cook book.  I have only canned Boston Baked Beans, and found that I need to add more water than the recipe calls for if I want to pour the beans into cans without leaving air pockets.    I also tried to substitute peppered bacon for the salt pork, but when my husband came home with salt pork, I found out that sticking to the recipe as far as that goes produces better beans!   (After 30 years in the South, I’m finally using salt pork!)

Freezing beans is easier, but regardless of the type of plastic container I have used, I always end up with some beans becoming freezer burned.  Canned beans can’t be stored for very long, but a batch of 2 pounds of dried beans doesn’t last us more than a couple of months anyway.  We don’t have to deal with freezer burn, and we don’t have to defrost the beans so it’s easier to just grab a jar from the pantry.

I have tried adding curry powder (after eating some Heinz curry beans) and red pepper flakes to the recipe, but always go back to the original, unadulterated recipe, other than the extra water.   After filling the jars, I can the beans in my pressure cooker for 75 minutes.  I can fit 5 jars in the pressure cooker, so I usually end up with a couple of jars in the refrigerator (unpressurized) for immediate use and 5 jars for longer-term storage in the pantry.

There probably won’t be any new adventures in canning until next summer when our garden and my brother-in-law’s farm start producing again.  I know for sure that I’m not going to try marmelade again!