Ditch Berry Sauce

ditch berry sauce 1ditch berries in ditchditch berries in bowlAbout a month ago, we were thrilled to discover wild blackberry bushes growing in the ditch near the garden. At the time, we didn’t know if they were blackberries, raspberries or something else. As they ripened, we realized they were blackberries. YES! Even though I now know what they are, they will always be ditch berries to me.

We picked all of the ripe berries, which only amounted to a good handful. I should say “shirt full” as that is what we used as our collection basket. You know how you grab the bottom of your shirt and curl it up slightly to form a tiny pouch?

Most of the berries were mid-size to tiny… nothing like freakishly plump, robust commercial berries, though just as tasty. Oh, and the thorns! I was told by my berry picking partner that I pick them too fast and that if I took my time, the thorns wouldn’t shred my flesh. Oh.

We ate a few berries as we picked, of course. The rest of our haul barely covered the bottom of a small cereal bowl. What to do with all of the berries?! Ha! Oh sure, we could have eaten them as is, but I wanted to make something special. Since we didn’t have enough for a cobbler or a pie, I made a quick and easy sauce.

Here’s my secret Ditch Berry Sauce recipe:

Toss the berries in as pan. Add a tablespoon or so of sugar and a tablespoon or so of brandy. The brandy isn’t necessary, but I saw it in several blackberry sauce recipes and used it. Bring the mixture to a boil on the stove. Lower the heat and let it simmer until it reduces and thickens slightly. Stir it regularly and break up a few of the berries to release the juices and pulp… or don’t. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. The main thing is to heat the sugar and berry mixture until it becomes a light syrup. Let the sauce cool so as not to burn your lips, your tongue, the roof of your mouth, your esophagus, or anything else along your digestive path. Then, before the sauce cools completely, pour it over a giant scoop or two of ice cream. Devour!

Who would’ve thought that something harvested from a ditch could be so DELICIOUS?!
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Do the Florida Weave!

Florida Weave BBQWeave 2weave 1Florida Weave DiagramSounds like the latest hairdo or a dance performed by someone after one too many margaritas on the beach, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s a tomato staking method used by commercial growers.

← Commercial Tomato Field in Tryon, NC

I first saw this method in use last year while walking by a field of tomatoes on the way to the Blue Ridge BBQ Festival grounds in Tryon, NC. It’s a fantastic festival, by the way… great music, delicious food and gorgeous mountain views. I took a few photos and researched the method when I got home. That’s when I learned it was called the Florida weave. Catchy!

← My tomatoes

Over the years, I’ve tried several methods of supporting my tomato plants, including rickety tomato cages and individual staking. This year, I’m trying the Florida weave.

I have a couple dozen tomato plants and didn’t want to invest in expensive cages that are only partially effective. I also didn’t want to bother with individually staking each plant. The Florida weave seemed to be the easiest, most economical solution. It uses half the number of stakes and the stringing and tying isn’t as fussy as traditional staking.

 Here’s how it works:

  • Space tomatoes 18-24 inches apart in rows.
  • Place sturdy 5-6’ stakes at the end of each row and after every two plants.
  • Begin stringing the plants when they are about 1 foot tall and before they start falling over (tomato twine or any other string that won’t stretch after a rain).
  • Tie the string to an end stake about 8” off the ground.
  • Weave the string around the plants and stakes all the way down the row. Then, come back up the other side and do the same thing. (see diagram)
  • As the plants grow, add another row of string 8” or so above the first row. Continue to add rows of string as needed. Three or four should do it.

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No Tilling! No Weeding! No Kidding!

3 garden4 mulch closeup2 chickensYou wouldn’t know from the photo on the left that I didn’t till my garden this spring, would you? It’s true!

Here’s my secret…
We have approximately fifty trees in our yard and too many to count in woods immediately behind our house. That’s a lot of leaves, folks – or as I like to call them, free organic matter! Of course, we don’t clean up the leaves that fall in the woods. That would be crazy. There, we let nature take its course. The leaves fall, decompose and leave a rich organic matter behind. Nature is brilliant, isn’t it?

Well, if it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! For many years, we’ve used a lawnmower with a bag attachment to chop and collect the leaves. Then, we dump the leaves on exhausted flower beds and use them as mulch around trees and shrubs.

Until this year, I never used leaves as mulch in my vegetable garden. Though, last year, I did spread a few bales of old straw around the garden with excellent results. (Read about that here.) The decrease in 1 clay and compostweeds was dramatic. If it works with straw, why not leaves? We have to pick them up anyway. Why not put them to use in the vegetable garden? So, when the leaves started dropping last fall, we mowed, chopped, and dumped the bagged leaves on the garden. By the end of “raking” season, the garden was covered with a nice 8-10” blanket of chopped leaves.

Not only do decomposing leaves provide nutrients and organic matter, but they also encourage worms and beneficial microorganisms to make a home, which adds to the soil quality. Before I started using leaves as mulch, the red Carolina clay was my enemy. It’s taken several years and many layers of leaves to tame it, but it was worth the trouble.

Advantages of using chopped leaves as mulch:

  • Significant decrease in weeds
  • Weeds that do dare to pop up are super easy to pull
  • Improves soil structure
  • Leaves create rich organic matter as they decompose
  • Increase in worms and beneficial critters that add nutrients to the soil
  • Moisture retention – less watering
  • Walking in the garden after a rain/watering is a mud-free experience

Please note: Use chopped or shredded leaves. They will break down faster. Whole leaves can form a mat and prevent water from getting to the roots of your plants. Also, don’t bury your plants in leaves. Give them a little breathing room, especially when they are young.

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Covered & Smothered

newspapercoveredHere’s a super easy and highly effective way to turn grass and weeds into garden space! I first tried this technique last year with excellent results. It can be used between rows or on your entire garden. Simply lay down several layers of newspaper or one layer of cardboard over the grass/weeds. Then, cover with wood chips, mulch or chopped leaves.That’s it!

Last year I used a combination of cardboard and newspaper and topped it with a pickup truck load of inexpensive mulch. Worked like a dream! In the example shown here, I used several layers of newspapers and a mix of mulch and chopped leaves.

When it is time to plant, make a hole in the newspaper or cardboard, plant your seeds or transplants, and water. The newspaper and cardboard will allow water to soak through while also retaining moisture in your garden. Over time, the newspaper and cardboard will break down. An added benefit is that the decaying newspaper and cardboard attracts beneficial worms. Perfect!

 

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Seed Starting Using Recyled Containers

seed starting 1seed starting 2It’s time to start thinking about starting seeds for your spring garden! Here’s a method that uses plastic containers that would otherwise be tossed in the landfill – a rotisserie chicken container and used k-cup coffee pods. This is especially convenient if you only want to start a few plants. One rotisserie container comfortably holds 12seed starting 3seed starting 4 pods.

Here’s how you do it…

Step 1: Purchase a rotisserie chicken and eat it. Wash it down with 12 cups of coffee!

Step 2: While you are at the height of your caffeine-induced mania, clean out the chicken container and gut the k-cup pods. Heck! Clean out your closets, your garage and your basement while you’re at it.

K-cup pods have fiber liners. Dump the grounds and tear them out. And hey, coffee grounds can be recycled too! Acid loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias love them.

Step 3: Punch holes in the k-cups. These holes will allow water to wick into the pods.

Step 4: Fill the k-cup pods with seed starting soil. Add about ¼” of water to the bottom of the container. Water the soil in the pods as well. Potting mix is light and doesn’t readily absorb water at first. In fact, it almost seems water resistant! Let the soil filled pods rest in the pool of water in the container. Slowly, the soil in the pods will relax and absorb the water. If the bottom of the container dries up, add enough water to just cover the bottom. If you prefer, you can mix the potting mix in a bowl or bucket of water ahead of time and fill the pods with moist potting mix.

Step 5: Now, you are ready to sow the seeds! Follow the sowing directions for each type of seed. Most seeds will only require a light covering of soil. Don’t cover too deeply.

Step 6: Place the lid on the container and put it in a warm spot. The top of the fridge works. You can also place the container on a warming mat made especially for seed starting. At this point, sunlight is not necessary. Humidity is key. Keep the soil warm and moist and everything will be okay. When the bottom of the tray is dry, add water to the tray… but not too much. Keep the soil moist but not soaked. The water will wick through the holes in the pods.

Step 7: After your seeds sprout, remove the lid as a humid environment is no longer necessary.  You can now move the seedlings to a cooler, but sunny location. Setting them under grow lights is ideal. Now, the seedlings need more light than they do heat. If you notice your seedlings leaning toward the light, turn the tray. If your plants start to look lanky, they aren’t getting enough light. Also, at this stage, you won’t need to water as often. Overwatering can lead to damping off (a virus that rots the seedlings at ground level). Add water to the container only when the soil feels dry.

Step 8: You’re ready to transplant your seeds to larger containers after they have developed a set or two of true leaves and are about 2-3” tall. Typically, this takes 2-3 weeks. Carefully transplant them in larger containers (filled with garden soil rather than seed starting soil) to allow for root growth. I like to use a small spoon to transfer them from one container to another. Disturb the delicate roots as little as possible. It’s okay to add a slow-release liquid fertilizer at this point. I use it at half strength.

Step 9: Your seedlings will grow like crazy after being transplanted! Before they are garden-ready, they need to be hardened off (toughened up). Even though they look quite strong and healthy, they are still tender and need to slowly be exposed to outdoor temperatures, sun and wind. Initially, set them in a sheltered outdoor spot for a couple of hours each day. Gradually increase their outdoor time. Eventually, if the temperatures aren’t too low, you will be able to leave them out all day.

Step 10: Plant your veggies and flowers in your garden and enjoy!

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Mind-Opening Door

Door 1

Door 3

Door 2Door 4I had a stack
of old doors
BEGGING
for a purpose.

 

So, off to Pinterest I trotted! I considered making a bench, a coffee table or a coat rack, but kept coming back to the bookshelf idea. It looked like a simple project (and it was) that could be completed in a day. Perfect!

The first thing I did was scrub off the grime using soap and water. After the wood dried, I drilled holes in two corners of each panel (kitty-corner) to accommodate the jigsaw blade. Using a jigsaw, I cut out the panels. Then, I sanded the rough edges and removed loose paint. Finally, I attached two L-brackets to the underside of each panel/shelf and attached them behind the openings.

I struggled
with the thought
that I could be
“ruining”
a perfectly good
old door.

 

After I removed the first panel, there was no turning back! Turns out it was the right choice. Had I not repurposed this door, it would still be sitting in a shed collecting dust.

What’s the point
of having a great door

with no purpose?!

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Winter is the perfect time to start planning your new spring flock!
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Fairytale Pumpkin Puree

pumpkin one slice outpumpkin chunkschunkspureeThis spring, I planted several Fairytale Pumpkin seeds (true name: Musque De Provence). It is an heirloom pumpkin that originated in France. I fell in love with it the moment I set eyes on the bronze, deeply ribbed lobes pictured on the seed packet. I knew I had to purchase these seeds and hope for the best! Not only does this pumpkin have a stunning exterior, but its flesh is perfect for pies, baked goods, sauces, and soups.

Only two of approximately fifty tiny pumpkin babies made it to maturity. My chickens free range during the day and gobbled up most of the tiny pumpkins, which is probably just as well. The flesh on these pumpkins is extremely thick, so one large pumpkin makes a lot of pumpkin puree. Last week, I cut up the larger of the two pumpkins. It weighed 34pumpkin bread.5 pounds and produced thirty-eight (38!) cups of puree. That’s a lot of pumpkin bread, folks!

With a pumpkin this large, where does one begin? First, I scrubbed the exterior of the pumpkin. Then, I cut it into wedges and scooped out the seeds and pulp. The wedges were too large to microwave, so I cut them into smaller, more manageable pieces and put them in a microwaveable bowl. I added about 1” of water and covered the bowl. Next, I microwaved the pumpkin until the flesh easily scooped out of the shell, which was about 15-20 minutes. I dropped the scooped out pumpkin flesh into a blender and pureed until the mixture was smooth and formed a nice swirling vortex of pumpkin-y goodness. Since many recipes call for two cups of pumpkin puree, I poured two cups of puree into a freezer bag, squeezed out the extra air, sealed it, and put it in the freezer. Then, I repeated this eighteen more times! The flattened freezer bags stacked nicely and will be easy to use the next time I have a recipe that calls for pumpkin.

Immediately after processing the pumpkin, I made two loaves of pumpkin bread. Delicious! Baking with fresh pumpkin is well worth the effort. Had it not been, I wouldn’t have saved the seeds for planting next year.

Fairytale Pumpkin/Musque De Provence… eye AND mouth candy!

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Dirty Clothes Done Dirt Cheap!

soap ingredients soap chunks cooking adding borax whipped soap in jarsI tried something new – homemade laundry soap. Why? I’ve always wanted to try it. Plus, it’s crazy inexpensive (costs a few cents per load), only uses three ingredients (plus water if you make the liquid version) and is very easy to make.

Most laundry soap recipes are for the powdered version. I added an extra step or two and made a liquid soap. I use one heaping tablespoon of soap per load. Don’t be alarmed when it doesn’t get all sudsy like commercial laundry detergent. It’s the soap, not the suds, that cleans your clothes.

To my surprise, I had to hunt for the ingredients. I hoped to find them all in one place but ended up going to two. No big deal. The ingredients will last a long, long time and will make many batches of soap.

 

HOMEMADE LAUNDRY SOAP
(makes approximately 2 quarts)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 bar Fels Naptha soap
    (substitute Ivory, Zote or any soap you like)
  • 1 cup 20 Mule Team Borax
  • 1 cup Arm & Hammer Washing Soda
    (NOT baking soda… two different things. Washing soda is in the laundry aisle.)
  • 4 cups hot water

Grate soap using a hand grater, blender or food processor.

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Add soap and stir frequently until soap dissolves (10-15 minutes). Do NOT let the mixture boil. Apparently, it makes a big mess.

After the soap has melted, turn off the heat and add the borax and washing soda. Stir for several minutes.

Pour the liquid into 2 quart size jars.

Screw lids on and let the jars sit for an hour or so. Shake to break up clumps and separation. I did this a few times throughout the day. You can also let it sit overnight, dump the mixture into a bowl, then whip with a mixer until it has the consistency of hand lotion.

Pour it back into the jars and enjoy your homemade laundry soap.

*If you want powdered soap, skip the water. Just mix the soap (be sure to finely grate it), borax and washing soda. You’re done!

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Fig Jam

fig forestfigs in treebox of figscooking figswater bathfigs in jars 2Every summer, I promise myself I will make fig jam using the figs from our huge, sprawling old fig trees. Finally, after several broken promises, I made my first batch. Those little jars of jam are so beautiful and their contents so delicious. I could kick myself for not doing it years ago!

I found several recipes in books and online. Some seemed too fancy. Others required too many ingredients or tedious preparation methods. I wanted a plain, simple, tried and true, old-fashioned recipe. I finally ended up using the Sure-Jell pectin recipe. They even include nutritional information. Considering the fact that this recipe calls for 7 cups of sugar, you might want to skip over that part!

SURE-JELL Fig Jam
Prep Time: 45 min
Total Time: 45 min
Makes: About 10 (1-cup) jars or 160 servings, 1 Tbsp. each

What You Need
5 cups prepared fruit (about 3-1/4 lb. fully ripe figs)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup water
1 box SURE-JELL Fruit Pectin
1/2 tsp. butter or margarine
7 cups sugar, measured into separate bowl

Make It!
Bring boiling-water canner, half full with water, to simmer. Wash jars and screw bands in hot soapy water; rinse with warm water. Pour boiling water over flat lids in saucepan off the heat. Let stand in hot water until ready to use. Drain jars well before filling.

Trim stem ends from figs. Finely chop or grind fruit. Measure exactly 5 cups prepared fruit into 6- or 8-qt. saucepot. Stir in lemon juice and water.

Stir in pectin. Add butter to reduce foaming. Bring mixture to full rolling boil (a boil that doesn’t stop bubbling when stirred) on high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in sugar. Return to full rolling boil and boil exactly 1 min., stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with metal spoon.

Ladle immediately into prepared jars, filling to within 1/8 inch of tops. Wipe jar rims and threads. Cover with two-piece lids. Screw bands tightly. Place jars on elevated rack in canner. Lower rack into canner. (Water must cover jars by 1 to 2 inches; add boiling water if needed.) Cover; bring water to gentle boil. Process 10 min. Remove jars and place upright on a towel to cool completely. After jars cool, check seals by pressing middles of lids with finger. (If lids springs back, lids are not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.)

Nutritional Information PER SERVING
Calories 40
Total fat 0g
Saturated fat 0g
Cholesterol 0mg
Sodium 0mg
Carbohydrate 11g
Dietary fiber 0g
Sugars 9g
Protein 0g
Vitamin A 0%DV
Vitamin C 0%DV
Calcium 0%DV
Iron 0%DV

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Pickle Madness!

pickles in jarspickles sliceddilly beansThe green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash are rolling in with no sign of letting up any time soon. In fact, this is just the beginning! As much as I love garden fresh produce, I tire of the more prolific veggies before the end of the season. I hate to waste them, yet have trouble managing them. This year, I vowed to use as much of my produce as possible.

Since it’s impossible to eat every fresh green bean, cucumber, or zucchini I harvest, I’ve decided to preserve some of my precious produce by freezing and canning. I started with the green beans and froze a few quart bags. I also made a jar of pickled refrigerator dill beans. I made a simple brine using white vinegar, sugar, garlic, peppercorns, and fresh dill from the garden.

Next, I tackled the cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash. I didn’t have enough to warrant dragging out the canning paraphernalia, so I made three quarts of pickled refrigerator pickles and squash (zucchini and yellow). I used Ball pickling mix, though you can create your own, of course. It was easier to use the mix given the small quantity.

You know what’s great about refrigerator pickles? Since they won’t be stored long term, they don’t require official canning jars and lids. I did use one canning jar because I happened to have it. I used empty spaghetti jars for the other two. Reuse whenever possible! The other advantage of pickled refrigerator produce is that you can enjoy it a lot sooner than its canned counterparts. Refrigerator pickles are ready in about 4 days, though three weeks is ideal. If you can wait that long, good for you! I confess to trying mine after day one.

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