Thursday, June 11, 2015

Carrot and Stick

Canning is in our blood. All of us. Really. Dude and I both grew up with it. I remember snapping beans with my grandmother, and burning my fingers on sweet, hot peaches as we put them in jars. As a diabetic, I remember wax-sealing sugar-free jams -- the only kind available at the time. Dude remembers canning tomatoes (his mom's favorite), pears, grape juice and peaches. My mother-in-law is terrified of a pressure canner.

Our daughter has her own memories: the incredible heat it generated, cutting her finger on the apple peeler, and picking and cleaning grapes from our arbor for days on end. I remember (on her behalf, and in pictures) the fun she had with my grandmother snapping beans as well. Since she wasn't born yet, she doesn't remember my first attempt at pressure canning -- on the phone with my grandmother every five minutes, worried I'd blow up the house and the neighbor would find me dead on what was the kitchen floor.

But for the last six years, we haven't been able to do much canning. The last time I remember bringing out the hotplate (because glass-top stoves are useless for constant heat), it was the week before we moved in. We canned apple cider, a staple in winter partying. That was more than two years ago now, and my domestic side is screaming for satisfaction.

outdoor operation
The other staple of life, at least from our high school years, is the county gleaning program. It helps the farmers clear their fields, helps the senior center provide for their lunch program, and helps us food preservationists get some cheap produce. Dude's mom and my mom picked up a trailer-load of asparagus one year. I think I saw one of those 25-year-old jars of green slime last year. I still hate canned asparagus.

This year, though, we joined the gleaning program, knowing full well what we were getting into. Following the proper rhythm, I wasn't expecting anything for the first few months. Suddenly, mid-spring, we get a text: seed carrots, and don't be late! Really? Being a biennial, doesn't that mean that they lose all nutrition in order to produce seeds the second year, and thus are nutritionally useless? I ignored it. Besides, Munchkin had youth group that night.

far too many carrots
A few days later, we had a second matching text. I ignored that one too; I'd be out of town.  Finally, there was a third text -- in one week! I finally gave in. If they were nasty, I'd just add them to the compost pile. About the same time, Blondie contacted Dude, saying their mother had given her a bag, and that they were delicious. Okay, maybe I'd try them.

I arrived on-scene with a handful of other procrastinating gleaners, and proceeded to load up the car. ChevyMama was stranded with broken-down vehicles, so I took seven gunny sacks for her. A young FFA friend of hers was raising a pig on their place, so I grabbed seven moldy ones for him. The Parson and River Song were busy with work and couldn't go gleaning, so I grabbed four for them. And I was going to pick up Munchkin late from youth group at Gypsy's house, so I took a bag for her. When all was said and done, I still had eight bags of my own.
It took two days to start the project, five hours to get them sorted and the tops chopped off. Three days later, we began the canning process, and thank goodness Dude was on vacation again. We broke out the water bath canners and pressure canner. We chose our recipes and thought about what order to make them in. We found all the canning utensils and brought in dozens of jars from the storage container. We even broke out the new Excalibur dehydrator! And scrubbed carrots.... and scrubbed more carrots.... and scrubbed even more carrots.... it was never-ending. For two days.
orange goodness

All told, though, it was quite a haul: ten pints gardiniere, thirty pints carrot pickles, fifty pints basic canned carrots, and a gallon bag of dried carrot chips. Considering my cupboards are bare, this Mother Hubbard is thrilled to have a stash of orange goodness, but I think I'll be happy to get past this first year of restocking said cupboards.

That's the stick: full cupboards. And it will soon be leveled again. Maybe asparagus this time?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Thank God Almighty -- We're Outside At Last!

Orchard, garden and big well before

Burning salt grass
Scripture says we're to get our fields going before we take the time to build our house (Prov. 24:27). I've often questioned if we went about this re-steading the wrong way.

After four summers without a garden, we put together a tiny one that wasn't quite successful. One more summer off, and we're desperate to get some green goodies growing. But the obstacles to getting that done have been immense, and we've needed quite a bit of time to think through how to overcome them. We have, and now the execution of those plans is taking longer than we hoped, but we're so happy to be out there working on them.
Elm to go, in nursery
Hillbilly bonfire lunch

It started in late February. With warm temps and sunny skies, we began pruning trees in our shirt sleeves. The orchard had maybe thirty-five trees, most in a state of rot or neglect and with only new growth above ten feet. Not what we want for production! So we cut down 2/3 of them, and topped the rest. Some of the ancient apricots -- more than 50 feet tall -- only had blossoms and leaves at the very top on one branch. (Sorry, but most of these pics were lost in the car accident.) With the backhoe, two chain saws, two loppers and a sawzall, we slowly topped one tree after another, piling the branches in the valley below the cave. The Parson, the Chef, Uncle Si, River Song, Cookie, the Miner and Crafty were all part of our Friday Work Crew.

Garden ready to till, nursery ready to trim
Garden ready to till, orchard reduced
With only a few trees left to clean up in the orchard (and those needing help from our stronger crew), we were distracted by the easier pruning in the nursery. This was Unc's grafting playground, which quickly grew out of hand as he got sick; it now stood twenty-five feet tall, and included a fifty-foot elm that was sucking up all the water. We spent time tearing out or down about half of that stand, including the elm. Again, there's still more to do, but then we were distracted.

Old Man apple pre-trim
Backhoe is a useful pruning tool
This time, it was Old Man Apple. At maybe 120 years old, he may not have ever had a haircut. Whole spires were dead. Dude being the master of the chainsaw around here, he had to overcome his fear of unsteady heights and vertigo to climb to a solid platform in the middle of the tree. But the Old Man is happy and growing.

Old Man Apple post-trim
And then again, we were distracted. The Teamster and His Bride brought over their tractor and plowed our garden! This being his favorite activity, The Teamster plowed in multiple directions, plowing increasingly deeper, and then smoothed it all out for that lovely groomed look, leaving us a good six inches of loose, happy soil (not the alkaline sand we thought we'd find). While we wait for the straw to break down a little more before a final plow, the deer and coyotes pace the garden rows looking for any hint of greens.
Munchkin kindle-ing in the orchard

The Teamster on his toy
So, this left us with several projects: finish trimming the orchard, finish trimming the nursery, finish trimming Old Man Apple, put up a double deer fence, and set up an irrigation system using the two wells and the grey-water system. And all about the time I lose Dude to his job for the summer. I guess I'm just racking up backhoe hours!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

There's a Rattler in the Bug Barn

Early summer is a strange time on the Ranch. The wind barrels down into the valley just as you light the woodpile on fire. Major storms sneak up on you while you’re working, then announce themselves overhead with rolling thunder and bright flashes of electricity. Avenger, the big furry dog, spends more time indoors than out. Kittens place themselves under your feet everywhere you walk. The roosters fight as much as the tomcats. The mares are unusually cuddly. Our days shift from daylight-focused to coolness-focused. And rattlers are found under every rock and board and pile of tin.

Today we expected rain and maybe a thunderstorm. We watched over our shoulders as the dark clouds rolled in, almost swirling. Dude was out at the big well, clearing the fenceline of the downed trees and branches. Munchkin was gathering horse tack to begin readying the mares for their formal training. I was pulling weeds along the driveway, thinking how a not-so-bright day was a pleasant break from the high temps and unusually high humidity the past week.

Munchkin yelled something at me; all I caught was “snake” and “bug ba.” I reached for another weed and had to talk myself out of it. Killing the snake is more important. Amazing how I can forget that!

Halfway down the north road to the horses, there’s an old garage, still standing and not in too bad of shape because of the metal roof someone thought to add (unlike almost any other building in sight). Unc and maybe even his dad stored car parts and old motors and random other things in here. The shingles on the outside are wearing thin and small critters have burrowed holes in them at ground level. Mr. Rattler must have crawled in through one of these – or even through the front door – and was surprised when Munchkin walked by… as she had done a few moments earlier, and last night in the pitch black without a flashlight or a gun. I really need to train the girl better. Constant vigilance…

The building is named the Bug Barn, mostly out of quite a bit of confusion. There was once a mash-up car, a concoction of Model T, Buick, maybe the old Essex, maybe the old Studebaker – whatever they could find to fill out a needed part. Someone had referred to it as the Bug, the reason being lost to history. Thus, its storage location was called the Bug Barn. The confusion was over which building was its storage location. When we arrived on the scene, it was housed in the side addition to the military building; it had long since been retired (Dude’s mom remembers riding in it out here in the 70s). Some in the family called that space the Bug Barn. We had been told the little garage down the north road was the Bug Barn; it was full and overflowing with junk by our time, so it didn’t make any sense to us, especially when we heard the origin of the name.

So Munchkin and I began trying to identify the location of said Mr. Rattler. This is a very precise scientific method involving tossing rocks and sticks at various locations to see if the rattle gets louder. I’m not kidding. Usually it works. This time it didn’t. Mr. Rattler was hiding behind years of junk piled high into the open doorway, much like the bedrooms were when we first began the cleanup. Or the garbage pile holding up the blacksmith shop. Or the big barn. Or the coal/wood shed. Hmmm… seems to be a pattern.

No matter what we did, Mr. Rattler never showed his face. I could stand on an old motor just outside the barn, and the rattle would intensify. “He’s watching me,” I’d mumble, shining the million-candlewatt spotlight into a corner unseen until at that elevation. Still nothing. I’d try to move things with an old heavy pitchfork. Nothing. We’d throw rocks and bang on outside parts of the wall. Nothing. Mostly it was a steady, medium-level rattle, with a few wind-downs like the poor guy was tired. But that’s when I got scared – a quiet rattler is a deadly rattler. I wasn’t about to let this bugger sneak up on me.

Then I thought I saw him. Not all of him, but a 2-inch section just in front of a broken piece of plastic bucket. Munchkin looked but didn’t see him (I should have trusted the one with better eyesight, right?). I stood up on the motor again and fired a shot. The 2-inch piece disappeared and the rattling moved to my left… behind old metal barrels and bikes and some wafer board I couldn’t see through. So we continued poking and throwing things and shining lights. At some point, I handed the spotlight back to the Munchkin, hiding behind me with a stronger, healthy fear of bite-y things. I forgot I had done this, and pointed the “spotlight” toward the bike tires, pulling the “trigger.” Yep, you guessed it. There was a light alright, along with a very loud boom. At least I practice directional safety with every trigger…

But still the rattle continued. And then, it just stopped. We peeked around the sides of the building, looking for swishing dirt. Nothing. We threw several more things into the barn. Nothing. And really nothing this time, not just a lazy buzz with a bored sigh. Convinced he was either buried in there somewhere and we weren’t interested in climbing in to find out, or he had scurried out of the barn through a mouse hole, we finally turned to other things, sure we weren’t about to be ambushed.


We pulled weeds in the road between there and the hay stack. We called the mares numerous times. We even broke down and called the Shetland. No one was interested in leaving grassy hillsides to come talk to us today (the mares must not be in heat anymore…). Hot, dehydrated, and woozy from the mugginess that had crept up on us, we headed for the house for fluids, a break for our feet, and air conditioning. Just as we were about to head out with a drink for Dude and a few more helping hands at that end of the homestead, he walked in the door with the same idea.

As we were all debriefing about the morning’s activities, rolling thunder descended on us, shaking the house. The Avenger was immediately at the door, begging to come in. We unplugged all the appliances, and Munchkin began tracking the storm on my smarter-phone (theirs are still dumb phones). And then the rain began.

So here we sit, re-evaluating our plans and to-do lists yet again. Nothing’s normal this time of year… except change.