Flannel Jammies Farm

...praising God on our 1/5 acre of suburbia

Thursday, August 29, 2013

on the breeze today...

Amid the daily chores and hurried errands and never-ending sound of the air conditioning unit, it happened.

The 'clever North wind' lifted the leaves from the trees and swirled them, sending them dancing and sparkling above the bee hives and growing things.  The leaves floated and then slipped silently to the green grass, coming to rest artfully in the afternoon sun.

Autumn, dear ones, is in the air.  Pencils and notebooks are filling shopping bags.  Knitting needles become clothed in wool and begin preparations for the chill to come.  Acorn and butternut replace zucchini and yellow crookneck at the market stands. 

My garden, tired from the labors of summer, is refreshed with plantings of beets and broccoli and Brussels sprouts.  Lettuce seeds are tucked into the soft, brown earth to grow through the cool of Fall and Winter.  Next Spring's harvests of onion and garlic are put into motion now, too.  Asters and sedums bloom; bees and butterflies come to the feast. 

Autumn (and the joy it brings me) is indeed in the air, a gift from the God of creation whispered on the breeze today.  And though I know Summer will not give up without a fight, my heart returns a prayer of gratitude and love. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

the potato tower experiment...

Have you seen them?  All those pins on Pinterest and photos on Flickr of potato towers?  It's a new-er way to grow potatoes in a small space, vertically and in a neatly contained tower.  We were intrigued and so this Spring, armed with wire fencing and specially-ordered seed potatoes, we tried them.

First step:  internet research.  I found lots of instructions and oh-so-many reviews of what grew, what didn't, and why or why not.  Eventually we felt totally saturated with potato tower knowledge and jumped in.  The hubs built a cylinder of wire fencing, 30 inches tall and 5 feet in circumference.  The fencing can be purchased in a 10 foot roll; we used the roll to form 2 towers.  Using straw, we lined the inside of the cylinder to create a layer between the compost-to-come and the wire fencing.  Before adding several inches of compost in the bottom, we tweaked the design by adding a length of drainage pipe to the center of the cylinder.  Our hope was that this would allow us to water through the pipe and get needed moisture to the entire height of the cylinder. 

Then the fun part:  one by one the seed potatoes were laid on top of the layer of compost, with the eyes facing outward so that leafy green growth of the potato plant would peek through the wire and eventually cover the cylinder like a steroidal Chia pet.  Then another few inches of compost, then more seed potatoes, then more compost, and so on all the way to the top of the cylinder.  The top layer was compost with a couple of nasturtium plants for happiness.

As time passed, we excitedly watched the first green sprouts stretch through the wire and unfurl in the sunlight.  Sprouts became vines that eventually covered the cylinders with green leaves.  August arrived and we watched the vines dying off, signalling the coming harvest day.  Mid-August and I could wait no more... I slipped my hand beneath the rich brown compost at the top of the first potato tower.   Immediately my fingers found something firm and round.  I pulled my hand out and opened it to reveal a perfect, creamy Carola potato.  Woo-hoo!  We had become potato farmers! 

Ok, not really, but it was definitely time to harvest the potatoes and assess the tower concept.  The hubs spread a tarp on the ground by the base of the towers and gently tipped the first tower over onto the tarp.  He began by pulling a bit of the compost from what was the bottom of the tower, and then pulling out the drainage pipe from the center of the cylinder.

I couldn't believe it!  Little nuggets of diabetic naughtiness were in there, just waiting for us to pull them out.  Finding a few right away, we kept digging until all the potatoes in the first tower were unearthed.  Hhmmm... didn't seem like a stellar crop... maybe the second tower would have a higher yield...

So, the second tower came down, and the process was repeated.  It was wonderfully exciting and I wish I could say that we found more potatoes than even our small household could eat this winter.  It was **sigh** a humble harvest.

The results:

$20 for one roll of wire fencing (reusable)
$0 for the straw
$who-knows-how-much for the compost (reusable)
$13.95 for 1 lb. of Carola see potatoes
$13.50 for 1 lb. of Rose Finn Apple Fingerling potatoes
$6 for 10 feet of perforated drainage pipe (reusable)

Total investment:  Somewhere in the neighborhood of $75.  

Total yield:  Less than 10 pounds (of honestly the most adorable potatoes ever grown)

We did harvest more than depicted here... I promise...

Next year we just might purchase perfectly acceptable, organic, locally-grown potatoes from one of our favored farmers.

Monday, August 19, 2013

'just right' fig jam...

Fresh-picked figs... so lovely and so lucious!  They are fragile and must be handled with care, but when you cut into one, it's a riot of color and texture...

A sweet friend has a fig tree in her yard that is reminiscent of some of the furnishings in The Three Bears' house: 'just right'!  After seeing hers, we are considering one for our little piece of suburbia.  My friend had figs.  I had Juliet tomatoes.  A deal was struck!  We'd make a trade.

After a nice visit between friends exchanging fruits and conversation, we drove home with visions of figgy pudding in our heads of fig jam in our pantry.  A gently rinse of the figs and we were ready to can.  But which recipe?

I'd done some research in my treasured canning books and on the canning websites I valued most for their commitment to safe and flavorful canning.  There were lots of fig jam recipes out there, but none was 'just right'.  At last a low-sugar, high-flavor, 'just right' recipe was born from bits and pieces of favorites found elsewhere.  I checked my new recipe's ratios against safety guidelines to be sure... and then dove in.

Any tough stem pieces were removed from the perfectly ripe figs, and each was cut into quarters before being added to a large French pan.  (French pans make everything taste better, I think!)  Flavor friends like grated orange zest, organic sugar, raw local honey, and a muslin sachet of spices were added to the figs and lemon juice provided the needed acidity.  I used no/low sugar pectin for this recipe; I'd reduced the sugars called for in many recipes I'd found knowing that the sweetness of the figs would be 'just right'.

Figs simmered nicely and then were brought to a boil before removing the spice bag and adding the pectin.  Once ready, the figs were funneled into small jars and processed in a waterbath canner.  The jars emerged shimmering with jewel-toned goodness.  A 'just right' amount was left for us to gobble up on toast!

Find some figs.  
Make some jam.  
Share some goodness and grace with those around you.  
Make each day 'just right'!

(Here's a couple of good places to start with if you want to make fig jam or begin being creative with your canning endeavors)
   Pick Your Own's How to Make Fig Preserves
   Food in Jars: Canning 101: How to Can Creatively and Still Be Safe

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bees - Day 73

One of the most joyful happenings in the last several years of our lives has been becoming beekeepers.  Every time I visit the apiary, I am filled with happiness.  What amazing creatures!
Me with my beekeeping buddies

Yesterday was Day 73 of beekeeping here at Flannel Jammies Farm.  We now have three hives:  the original English Garden Hive, a Split that we made a few weeks ago from that original hive, and a Nuc (nucleus colony) that we received from a local beekeeper.
English Garden Hive
Nuc with 2nd story (left) and Split (right)

We are blessed that our beekeeping guild has a thriving Nuc Program, allowing beekeepers to purchase these small, starter colonies from local beekeepers who have raised the bees and had their hives inspected.  It's a great way to get started in beekeeping... each nuc comes with a queen, bees, and frames of comb and brood (bee eggs and larvae).

First up on our progress check:  the original English Garden Hive.  It had been 3 weeks since we split the existing queen, some bees, and some brood from this hive into another hive.  The hope was that the bees in the original hive would take the hive's remaining brood and create a new queen, who would then emerge, go on her mating flight, and come back to the hive and begin laying.  When we went into this original hive, the bees were healthy and plentiful, but not very hospitable!  And there was the distinctive loud roar of a hive without a queen.  We looked through a couple of the hive boxes.  Finding the bottom box of brood nearly empty, we moved on to the second box, and found what could be the beginning of two emergency cells in the middle of one frame.  But no eggs.  We decided to take a cursory look at the rest of that box, and then reassemble the hive, switching the empty brood box from the bottom to the next level up and bringing the full second box to the bottom.  By this time the bees were really not happy with us!  We cleaned out the empty feeder, refilled it with sugar syrup, and closed the original hive.  We are hopeful that the bees will do what bees do and work out their queenless state of affairs.  We will be keeping a close eye on this!

Emergency cells in the making?

Top feeder

Next up:  the split hive.  This hive currently has one hive box and a feeder on top.  We found the bees busily at work, building some (ahem!) interesting comb.  But we found the (ahem!) marked queen.

Mountainous comb on one corner...
The queen!  (bad marking job)
A new friend I met at the Eastern Apicultural Society Conference, Kenny from Veggie Gardening Tips,  wondered aloud what we might have been drinking when we marked this queen...  Well, let me just say it was our first time, and the hubs and I were in our bee suits in a tiny bathroom on a 90+ degree day.  We'll do better next time, I promise!

We also found nicely progressing brood.  The box was filling up, signaling that it was time for the next hive box to be added.  After that we filled the feeder and closed up the split hive.
Adding 2nd box to split

Finally, the nuc box.  Now, I was looking forward to going into this hive.  The last time we went in, the bees had filled their box to overflowing and we added a second story to the nuc.  But I never saw the queen.  I saw eggs and brood, but not the queen.  She was shown to the hubs when he picked up the nuc, and she was marked with this year's color by the beekeeper before they came home to us.  We started looking.  These bees had built comb and made propolis to the point that it was a chore to get the frames apart to look!  But we persevered and began inspecting.  Hhmmm... yes, nice eggs and brood....  and even an emerging bee!!
Tiny white eggs and larvae in cells

Emerging bee!
Emerging bee with the cell cap off

Then it happened.  I was holding a plastic frame and commenting that it was more wobbly and flexible than the wood frames.  And I DROPPED IT.  On the ground.  A frame full of bees.  And maybe the queen!!!  I scrambled to check the bees on the ground.  Most seemed to be stunned but fine.  I couldn't see the queen among them, but I was sure I'd dropped her, or worse, killed her.  I was shaking and apologizing to these treasured bugs when my sweet husband swooped in and gently, carefully took the frame, cleaned it off, and began moving on through the hive.  I took a breath, still checking the bees on the ground and the placement of my boot-clad feet, and moved on with him.

And there she was, the queen, with a tiny, elegant dot right where it should be!  This queen had obviously been marked by someone with more experience than we had.  I was so thankful to find her, unharmed by my carelessness.
Nuc queen (proper marking)

We carried out the rest of our mental checklist and then quietly reassembled the nuc, refilling the top jar feeder before replacing it.

We gathered our tools, thanked the bees for not stinging us repeatedly, and thanked God for the opportunity to interact with His creation.  And gracefully slipped out of the apiary.

Oh, one more thing.  If you accidentally touch the side of the smoker while it's lit with gloves on, you may not feel it burning at first.  And you may end up with a burnt fingertip on your glove and a red, burning fingertip beneath.  Not that such a thing would ever happen...
Don't try this at home!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

waking up...

I've recently been waking up... my own version of a Rip Van Winkle experience...

It's been a long road of physical pain and exhaustion, a road with gut-wrenching twists and sharp turns and uneven pavement and Hummer-swallowing potholes.

But the road led me here.  This place of awakening and wonder after years of ever-increasing darkness.

Let me just say this:

Pray hard and often.  Hear God when He speaks.  Seek His face and heed His Word.

Listen to your body.  It tells so much each day, but speaks so softly.  It has a story you need to hear.

Discover the least invasive, most natural ways to do everything.  Cooking, gardening, cleaning, beekeeping, healing... whatever.  Tread gently on the road as you travel.

Give thanks always.  Extend grace always.  Live abundantly always.

Be well, dear ones.