Monday, October 20, 2014

Fermentation Station

I have a little area of our counter I call my fermentation station.  In addition to dehydrating, I appreciate lacto fermentation for how quick and easy it is to process and preserve the harvest.  Salt + water + vegetables.  That's it!  Right now at the station I have some sauerkraut, habanero hot sauce, and salad turnips.  They are all bubbling and smelling good.  Full disclosure...ferments can sometimes smell Quite Funky, but still taste delicious!

Turnips, habanero hot sauce, and kraut.
For the turnips I used a brine of 4 c filtered water: 3 T pickling salt (pure salt/no additives).  For the hot sauce, the habaneros got chopped in the food processor with some garlic then sprinkled with salt (2 lb peppers to 2 T salt) and then packed in the jar with a splash of kraut brine to give it a jump start.  The kraut was made with cabbage sliced thinly on a mandolin and then layered in a bowl with sprinklings of salt.  I then knead, squeeze the cabbage and then let it sit for about 15 minutes.  By then it has released juice from the salt and I pack it in the jar with some juniper berries and caraway, punching it down as I add each 4" layer or so.  Then, on top of the ferments, I put a plastic baggie, which I fill with brine.  That serves as a weight to keep all the vegetable matter under the brine and out of contact with the air, which is what causes funkies to grow.  They all then get covered with a towel to keep off the dust.  Sometimes scum will form on top of your brine.  It is not a problem, just remove with a wooden spoon.

Fermentation time is flexible and varies with temperature.  The kraut has been going for a month and I'll let it go a bit longer.  The radishes have only been going a few days and they are already pickling up pretty nicely.  When the hot sauce seems done, I'll strain and press out the seeds and pulp and bottle it.  All our fermented pickles and sauces go in a fridge in the basement, but a cold room would work for storage as well.

Fermenting crock and radishes
The other way I like to ferment is with this harsch fermenting crock.  It has ceramic weights included to take the place of the baggies of brine, and an airlock built in.  The "moat" that the lid sits in gets filled with water.  Small holes allow carbon dioxide to escape, so sometimes you hear your crock burp and gurgle.

Misato Rose radish
I harvested a few of the Misato Rose watermelon radish to put in the pickled radishes.  They are so beautiful and varied, and the flesh is very fine compared to other radishes.  I really enjoyed cutting them, since it was always a surprise what would be inside.

Misato Rose fall radish

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Renovating the Chicken Run

What happens when you let a flock of hens scritchety-scratch on a hillside for a few months?  Bare soil, dead grass, and the promise of erosion.  I knew this would happen without rotating the hens between two areas so the first patch of grass could recover and, it has!  So, the fun is now in how to renovate and reinvent.  The grass is gone so the possibilities are endless.  More permanent terracing would be ideal eventually, but for now...

1) "Compost Terrace" composed of dead sunflower stalks, log rounds, organic material, and 2' chicken wire and T posts to hold it all in.

2) A re-seed with winter rye.  Not the chickens favorite forage, but it will hold the soil in place.  It is coming up now under the straw.

3) A planting of comfrey spread out across the hill.  Beware where you plant comfrey....it will never be removed from that place again!  I think it can have this hillside, as the chickens like to eat it, it is a nutrient-rich food plant, and it's roots can hold the hill in place.

4) A wooden retaining wall made from extra rough cut lumber we had on hand to keep organic matter/soil from washing out.  Our plan is to fill these paths up with woodchips we can get for free.

So, that is the plan, from eyesore to chicken plant playground.  We shall see...my guess is they can move back into this area next year in late spring/early summer.

Looking rough!  Defaced hillside.
Seeded with winter rye and planted with comfrey.  A cherry tree and Alternate Leaf Dogwood will hopefully eventually shade the chickens here.  
Wooden retaining wall around perimeter...steps still to come.
Building the retaining wall

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Whats Happening in The Garden This Week?

It is a beautiful Sunday here with an expected high of 68 degrees.  A hard frost has not hit us here in the Pittsburgh area yet, giving me extra time to get the garden ready for the cold and cover my beds with hoops and row cover for season extension.  

The leaves are beginning to change on the trees behind our house, and the cold nights leave a chill in the air for morning activities.  Mulch is the word of the day.  Organic material coming out of the beds from summer crops either goes to the chickens or gets laid directly on the soil as mulch and then covered with straw for a tidier appearance.  In my commute to work or the store, I am on the lookout for leaves and brush that has been put out to the curb.   I am ready to pick them up - leaves for chicken bedding and brush to add to our pile for when we borrow our friend's chipper.  Wood chips will go to mulch perennial areas and to some paths.  

I have also sowed some winter rye on the empty beds that have been cleared as a winter cover crop, and finally made some rodent guards to keep the apple trees safe from those that would want to gnaw their bark.  

Sheet mulch beds from this spring with their fall crops
Misato Rose Fall Radish coming along nicely and Danvers carrots.  These will go under cover.

Red Russian kale, arugula, various asian greens, and lettuces destined to be covered for winter,


Butternut Squash Patch.  Yield is 40 squash from 4 plants.

Asparagus bed with kale, herbs, and volunteer amaranth.
Straw mulch and 1/4" hardware cloth rodent guard to protect the young apple trees' bark from gnawing teeth,

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Automatic Chicken Doors and Predatory Chickens

Yesterday Jason and I worked on installing an automatic chicken door that will close at night and open in the morning to let the chickens in and out.  It runs on a 6v lantern battery (about $4) and has a light sensor that tells it when to open or close.  There are many versions on the market, or you can make your own if you are handy with electronics. We chose a galvanized metal version from AdorStore.com, a small business that makes and ships the doors from Texas.

We figure this door will be worth the investment when the electric poultry netting gets retired for the winter, the girls will be safely shut up in the coop every night whether we are here to put them in or not.  Installation was fairly easy and instructions were included.  We chose to cut a piece of scrap plywood we had on hand to mount the door on.

Automatic chicken door
Enticing wary chickens to try out the "new door"
Jason finishes the door from inside the coop
The chicken door mounted to painted plywood

Our Silver Laced Wyandotte caught a vole while we were working on the door.  I told her I much preferred this to the snake the chickens caught and ate recently.  We also moved a "chicken work crew" under the pitch pine tree we have.  Jason discovered that an insect called Red Headed Sawfly is wreaking havoc on the pine.  The catepiller stage of this insect is going to town on the pine needles.  We put the chickens under the tree and shook some branches, and they cleaned up the caterpillars as they fell.  Maybe some repeat visits from the work crew will put a dent in the caterpillars population.  Otherwise, I fear this tree may be in trouble.  

Huntress.  This Silver Laced Wyandotte has caught herself a vole to snack on.

Our Pitch Pine tree has a pest!
Delaware hen snacking on Red Headed Sawfly catepillers
Putting the hens to work beneath the pine tree
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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Fall Pictures

There was a chill in the air today and is a chance of our first frost tonight.  I spent the evening bringing in a few tender potted plants, making a windbreak around my beehives and putting plastic over the open front of the chicken coop.  Now to hunker down into fall.  I love the changing of the seasons.

Fall Honey
Winterized Coop

Goldenrod at Frick Park


I transplanted this aster last fall.  It likes this spot as it has never grown this big.
Delicata Harvest
Jason (left), pumpkins (center), Ida (right)
Sauerkraut that my niece Emma helped make in August is now ready. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

One Flock Explores New Territory, Another Loses Its Feathers

Our home flock of chickens has killed the grass in their run.  I knew this would happen unless I alternated them between runs so the grass could recover.  And, it has not recovered.  Too late, I have given them a new area to roam.  But luckily... I do have a plan.  The new chicken paddock will eventually be more garden beds, so they can kill the grass there to their hearts' content...it would actually be helpful.  I plan to fence out areas of their old run so I can help them recover with reseeding of ryegrass and some comfrey plantings, and other undecided things.  In the meantime, they have their new paddock to scratch in and they love it.

Also pictured is the hens eating their weekly worm preventative.  I mix it with yogurt and they just adore it.  The mix of herbs supposedly keeps their insides inhospitable to worms, and so far, I have not had a problem with them.  

The news with the flock of Garden Dreams' hens is they are molting, so egg production has fallen off.   The shorter days of fall can signal to the hens..."Hey, it's time to loose all your feathers and renew them with new ones so you better stop laying eggs so you will have the nutrient reserves to do it!"  So, they look a little scruffy right now.  I am glad they are molting now, as a few of them molted in the dead of winter last year and I was worried about their little naked necks in the cold.  

That's all I can report from the world of cluckers. 


New Chicken Paddock
Chickens in their new paddock

Weekly Herbal Worm Preventative
Enjoying their herbs
The Garden Dreams flock is molting
Garden Dream Black Australorp hen molting

Saturday, September 27, 2014

In Praise of The Excalibur Dehydrator and The Preservation of Tomatoes

September is the time of year for processing, processing, processing tomatoes.  Pick your weapon: the canning jar, the freezer bag, or the good ol' dehydrator.  I have to admit, after sweating over the stove canning sauce, I have to sing the praises of the ease of dehydration.

I love the idea of solar dehydrators and I think our south facing kitchen window is prime real estate for some "solar drying add on" that could be extended out the window in sunny weather.  But, I digress.  As far as electric dehydrators go, we have a great one.  The Excalibur, a gift from my mom, has been a workhorse when it comes to drying tomatoes.  It costs maybe about 40 - 50 cents per 12 hour drying cycle or so, using about 400 watts.  I can tomatoes and tomato sauce as well, but in terms of little work for big return, drying tomatoes is very rewarding.

Jaune Flamme.  A bit juicy for drying but I'll take it any day, any way.  So delicious!

Dried Tomatoes
A few things I've learned when drying tomatoes...

1) Variety matters.  Meatier, drier tomato varieties are better than super juicy varieties.  Common sense, I know.  Any variety works though, and will, eventually, dehydrate to a nice, leathery state.    A few varieties that I have tried and really like for drying include my favorite, Juliet, and a new trial this year, Heather.  Juliet is like a large grape, slice in half and dry, and Heather is a blocky, tennis ball sized tomato with not so thin skin, easy to slice and not much juice.

Juliet.  My go-to drying tomato.

2) Rotate!  Rotate the trays 1/2 way through.  I find at about 130 degrees a full load of tomatoes dries in 12 - 16 hours, depending on how thick I slice them.  I check every 6 or 8 hours and remove the dried ones and put the "not-done-yet" ones back in.  About 1/2 way through, I rotate the drying trays 180 degrees since the heating fan is in the back of the unit, the back 1/2 of the tray dries first.  Overall drying in the Excalibur dehydrator is much more even than the round models with a heating element in the bottom.

Excalibur dehydrator.  Comes in 4, tray, 5 tray and 9 tray models.

3) Dream Tomato Sauce is easy.  This involves rehydrating some dried tomatoes in hot water and then pulsing in a food processor with olive oil and herbs.  Pasta. Parmesan.  Sigh.

So, when your boiling water canner makes you tired just looking at it, consider dehydration!  I think this type of appliance would be a perfect thing to share between households, since it does cost a nice chunk of change.  I know this sounds like an ad, but trust me, I am getting no kickbacks for endorsing the Excalibur.  It's just simply the queen of the dehydrator lineup.

Dried and Fresh, together.