Rosey the Riveter

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why CSAs Just Don't Work for Us


Every year around this time, I get asked about CSAs.  "How do you feel about them?"  "Which are the best to join?"  "How do they work?"  "Are they worth it?"  My answer to all of these questions is the same.

"It just depends."

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture"  The premise is that some time in the winter or spring, you can join a CSA by sending the farmer cash, which is exactly what he (or she) needs to buy seeds and fencing and all the other various expenses that come with farming.  In exchange, you get a weekly portion of the harvest, which you are responsible for picking up at a designated place and time.  CSAs are a great way to support local farms.

But.

There's always a 'but', isn't there?

Despite my attempts to find one that works for our family, I haven't been able to.  Here's why:

#1.  I cannot be tied to a weekly pick-up time, especially during the summer when vacations and day trips and canning demand that I not be committed to any form of schedule.  Furthermore, the cost of time and gas to even get to the pick-up site must be considered, and in many cases it is not  insignificant.

#2.  I would say my family is more open to trying new foods than the normal family is.  And I am certainly more familiar with cooking from scratch than the average home cook.  Yet in every box, there is always SOMETHING that we just won't eat... or, something new that we try and don't like.  This is just wasted food, and I hate wasting food.

#3.  In my experience, the amount of food you get in a CSA box pales in comparison to the amount of food you would get if you spent the same amount of money at the farmer's market.   (Perhaps because sorting the boxes is more labor intensive?  I don't know.)

I decided, therefore, that I would take the money that would normally be invested in a CSA, and still give it back to the local farmers.  However, by shopping at the Farmer's Market, *I* would be the one to choose which foods I went home with.   I get to choose not only what veggies I want, but also what varieties of those veggies I want.  No wasted food.  I get to chat with all of the farmers, not just one.  If I can't make the Farmer's Market on Wednesday, I go to the one on Saturday.  For bulk purchases, I attend the produce auction which also supports local farmers.

Sometimes I feel like a real heel when I tell people we don't participate in a CSA.  But... (there's always a 'but', isn't there?)  ... it's what works best for us.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dandelion Jelly


I've been wanting to make Dandelion Jelly for awhile, and I decided today was the day.  I braved the drizzle and gathered my dandelions, with a little help from the neighbors' yards (do not gather them from the side of the road, and make sure they haven't been sprayed with any 'cides').  I gathered about 4 cups of flower heads, and came home to remove the green parts (they can be bitter, so you don't want them in your jelly).

Once you have 2 cups worth of 'fluff', bring 2 1/2 cups of water to a boil and add in the dandelions.  Let boil for 10 minutes.  Then, using a jelly bag or coffee filter or what have you, strain out the liquid.  You should have 2 cups of dandelion juice.

Now, there are lots of recipes for Dandelion Jelly online, but I wanted one that was low in sugar.  So I decided to use the "Nana's Dandelion Jelly" recipe from the Pomona Pectin cookbook.

I brought the juice back to a boil, added 1/4 cup of lemon juice, and 2 1/2 tsp of calcium water.  After returning to a boil, I added in a mixture of 1/2 cup sugar and 2 1/2 tsp of Pomona Pectin. Again, bring to a boil, stirring all the while, and then remove from heat and jar them up for canning.  Process for 10 minutes.  I ended up with 5 4-ounce jars.

They are a pretty golden color (some people add yellow food coloring... but why?) and taste like spring!  Because this is a low-sugar recipe, it doesn't taste as much like honey as the full-sugar recipes do, but I am ok with that!  It felt good to play with jars again, and I am very excited that Strawberry Season is only about 3-4 weeks away here.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Walk Around the Homestead - March 2014

It's been almost two months since I've posted... been a busy bee!  My latest endeavor, becoming a Master Gardener, involved classes twice a week for 12 weeks.  We just 'graduated' as Interns, and now we need to complete 50 hours of volunteer time before we are considered full-fledged Master Gardeners.  I absolutely loved the classes, I learned a ton, and met some really great people. 

That's the happy news.  The sad news is that we lost not one, but both of our beehives.  There was plenty of honey left, but lots of dead bees.  Not sure if it was the cold, or what, but I know they didn't starve, and I know it wasn't Colony Collapse (CCD), because that's when the bees just up and disappear.  Thankfully, the Nuc that I'd overwintered on my deck was thriving, so that got moved into one of the hives.  They now have lots more frames of drawn comb for eggs, storing pollen, and collecting honey.  Once the weather warms, we will go ahead and do a split and  be back to our two hives.  Because they won't have to waste time and energy drawing out comb, I am optimistic that we will be able to harvest some honey this year.  We won't be able to raise any Nucs for new beekeepers, but I'm okay with that right now.

Looking at the 10 day forecast, there appears to be no more dangers of frost until April 5th.  At that point, there is only a 10% chance of it getting below freezing, so I am also optimistic that gardening season has arrived.  Let's take a walk around the homestead and see what's happening!
The daffodils have been blooming for awhile now... about 4 weeks later than normal, since we've had such a cold winter.
I have trimmed back all of the liriope.  We just need to add more mulch, and divide some of the larger clumps.
The peach tree has been pruned, and with no time to spare.  Only a few days later, the blossoms started to open, and it is absolutely gorgeous to behold.  This is the first year I expected to get fruit, so we'll see what happens.
The Mallow is showing signs of new growth, as is the echinacea.  Unfortunately, the bee balm isn't, as I don't think it got enough water last year.   Luckily, I had given some to Mom so I am hoping to be able to take some of that back with me when I visit over Spring Break.
We saved all of our leaves last fall, and after running then through the lawnmower, I used them as mulch in the garden.  There are hardly any weeds, and the soil is so nice!  I will definitely be doing that again.  I've brushed the leaves aside in some places, where I've planted peas, carrots, radishes, cabbages, and pak choi.  I also added some Urea (Nitrogen) and Potash (Potassium), as my soil test indicated I was low on the Potassium (but sky high on everything else.  Go figure!)  Once the plants pop through, I will add a layer of compost and then put the leaves back as mulch to keep out the warm-weather weeds.
I mulched the herb beds with wood chips, and as you can see the yarrow, garlic chives, and chamomile are loving the cool weather.  The jury is still out on whether or not the rosemary and lavender survived this cold winter, and I am not sure if the Stevia and Lemon Verbena will come back, either.
The roses have been pruned, and the bed weeded.  It just needs to be mulched.  I have been having a problem with black spot (yes, on the KnockOuts no less), so hopefully cleaning out the bed will help.  The left container holds a lilac, and the right container holds a blueberry.  Both will be moved at some point!
The chickens have been laying faithfully every since the days have gotten longer,  We are now getting 4 eggs a day.  Rosie, our Lavender Orp, is not laying at all for some reason.  She shows no signs of being an internal layer, having worms, or any other issue, so I don't know what to think about that.
This rhubarb shoot was a complete surprise and made my day!  I was convinced that none of my plants had survived... this is NOT the ideal climate to be growing rhubarb... but I have to try!  This will be the year I can finally harvest some of the stalks, so keep your fingers crossed.
Here is my 'garden ghetto' of winter-sown seeds.  I didn't like the milk jugs I've used in the past, so this year I used clear clam shell containers and it's working out well.
These little sprouts are sunflowers!  I've also got a ton of zinnias, calendula, horehound, feverfew, toothache plant, holy Basil, Mammoth Basil, and plenty of others I can't remember off the top of my head.
 For the first time this year, I decided to try starting some seeds indoors, because the warmer-weather plants don't do so well with the winter-sowing.  Here you see my Juliet Tomatoes and some Heinz Tomatoes, along with some of Abby's Forget-Me-Nots.  I was going to give up on the idea of growing tomatoes (they have not done well for me at all the past few years, as I have early blight in the soil), but I decided to try growing in containers and choosing some resistant varieties.  My friend Donna Rae swears by the Juliets, and I thought the Heinz would be fun for homemade ketchup, so we'll see how that goes.

I will try to be better about posting, now that Spring is here and I have something to post about!!!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Music to my Ears!


video

A few days ago, in the midst of our cold weather (in the teens for 3 nights in a row... a rarity in these parts), I went out to check on the bees and nearly had a heart attack.  There were tons of dead bees at the entrance.  When I brushed them off, more tumbled in their place.  All I could think was that we'd lost the Nuc... first of all, I've never over-wintered a Nuc before, and these guys didn't have nearly the stores of honey they should have had going into the fall.  I fed them sugar syrup (and, with the cold weather, straight sugar) in hopes of getting them through.  Not to mention, this is the first colony I've had on our property (our other hives are at a neighbors' place)... they are right on our deck, where I can watch them out the window while I do dishes. I am emotionally attached to these bees.  I did knock the side of the hive and was able to hear some buzzing, so I took that as a hopeful sign even though my heart had sunk at the grim prospect of losing the whole hive.

Today, I went out to check on the bees, since it's almost 50 degrees, the sun is shining, and there's no wind... in other words, perfect conditions for them to be out flying around.  And buzzing, they were!  All is right in my bee world... for now! 

Originally, the plan was to sell this hive in the spring, but if they prove to be such hardy beasts that they can make it through THIS winter without succumbing to the cold, or mites, or any other number of calamities facing our bee colonies, I will probably end up deciding NOT to sell them.  Because our original bees came from a wild swarm, and we were able to split them in their first year, these bees have good genetics.  There's a relatively new queen in there, and I've been very happy with what she's doing.  I like the idea of keeping a spare Nuc just in case something happens to one of our other hives.  I don't have any desire to spend the money on the boxes a third hive would require, so a Nuc is a great way to always have a spare queen.  When the colony threatens to outgrow the Nuc box, we can either add another box on top, or split it and make another Nuc to sell.  I have a feeling there is going to be a huge market for local bees this spring, as many of my fellow beekeepers are reporting significant losses already, and we haven't even gotten to February yet (which is, historically, a bad month for hive losses).

We are due for more snow and more cold temps tomorrow, so we're not out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination.  But there's still hope for this one!

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Walk Around the Homestead

It's been awhile since I posted about goings-on around here.  Today was such a beautiful day that I knew I had to take a walk around and post some pictures.
The bees in the Nuc are buzzing and bringing back pollen to beat the band.  As you can see, there were bees constantly coming and going.  The yellow blobs on the incoming bees are the pollen.  It's been unseasonably cold here, so I'm grateful that they have even survived the cold snap.  But the fact that they are bringing back pollen is another good sign.  Pollen is used to feed the brood.  If the queen hasn't started laying yet, she will soon.  I haven't actually been IN the hive to see what they are up to, as I don't want to disturb them.
The garden is all mulched!  I tried wood chips the year before last, and sadly neglected the mulching chore last year.  I didn't like the wood mulch, because it got in the way when I wanted to direct seed.  But it did help the weed situation.  So this year, I had Stephen shred all of our leaves with the mower and bagger.  Once I hoed and weeded the beds, I put the leaves on the garden.  This will help feed the soil and also block out the weeds.  Once this cold snap passes, I plan to have the soil tested so I can really know what I'm dealing with.  I should have done that when we first moved in!
There are some crocuses and a hyacinth that are blooming, so spring is on it's way!  The daffodils have started popping through, but they are a later variety so I don't expect to see them bloom for another month or so. 


Poor Extra Crispy is molting.  She looks absolutely horrible, and her tail feathers have fallen almost completely out.  You can see where her new feathers are popping through.  It looks painful, and it can be... she's one of our better layers, so I'll be happy when she's done molting.

Tomorrow, the cold weather moves in and we might even get some snow.  I'm going to take this opportunity to work on the garden plan, and drill some drainage holes in the containers I'll be using to start my seeds.  In another week and a half, I'll be headed to the Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference with my dear friend Donna Rae.  I am so looking forward to the "Biodynamic Gardening and Beekeeping" Pre-Conference Workshop with Gunther Hauk, not to mention a whole slew of other workshops!



Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Homesteading Goals

Last year, I set some Homesteading Goals for myself.  I have to say, now that 2013 is drawing to a close, that overall I am happy with what I was able to achieve (with the exception of meal planning.  That will remain on the list!)  So, here we go with my top 5 Homesteading Goals for 2014.

1.  MEAL PLANNING.  My life is about to get hectic.  REAL hectic.  I've been accepted into the Master Gardener Program and will be attending 6 hours of classes a week, and then I owe 50 hours of volunteering.  Add to that my volunteering at the schools, teaching an after-school class once a week, and the onset of garden-season, and I am not going to have time to think straight.  So, I need to have a plan for dinners or we won't be eating.  More crockpot meals, more freezer meals, more planned left-overs.  I need to do it all.  And, as evidenced above, I need to keep my plan away from the kids.

2.  FOOD PRESERVATION.  This remains on the list, too, because I need to tweak some things.  More dehydrating (especially blueberries, cherries, and apple chunks), more low-sugar jams and jellies, and more using what I have already preserved (I have too many jars of stuff that I don't know what to do with.)  I can't believe I'm going to say this, but more tomato sauce.

3.  DECLUTTERING.  I have amassed a lot of stuff.  Much of it needs to stay (thousands of canning jars!) but a lot of it also needs to go.  I feel like my house is a perpetual mess because I'm always making/doing something in the kitchen (which won't change) but also because there's too much stuff in all the other rooms.  It is stressing me out, and I need to change that.  Also, as hard as it is for me to believe, in another year from now we'll be beginning the process of finding out where we move to next... and I'm pretty sure we'll be down-sizing no matter where we go.
4.  GARDENING.  Obviously, the Master Gardener training will help me be a better gardener.  But I still am not getting as much food out of ours as I'd like.  This was a bad year for carrots and peppers... and I want more snap peas.  And tomatoes, which I hope to do in containers (my friend Donna Rae swears by Juliets, so I'll be attempting those... from seed...)  I think I need to bite the bullet and rip out the overgrown rosemary and lavender plants that are taking up way too much space.  Lots to figure out.  I did manage to dry a lot of Stevia this year.  When ground up, however, I only got a few tablespoons!  And I need to get a better grip on companion planting.

5.  NEW SKILL.  I expect this will be a permanent fixture on my goals list.  It's important to keep learning.  I would absolutely love to learn how to either hook a rug or make a braided rug (I have an overabundance of thrift-store wool) but I've not been able to find a teacher near here.  I could be brave and attempt you-tube, but I'm not sure I'm that capable. 

Happy New Year from our Homestead to yours!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Guest Post

For a long while, I have been enjoying From Scratch, the on-line homesteading magazine.  I was thrilled when I was asked to be a guest blogger for their 12 days of Christmas series.

Head on over and check out my post!