Friday, August 31

An Aroma of the Grape Variety

A neighbor recently gave me two grocery bags full of organic purple grapes.
Two plastic grocery bags. Full.
The grapes we got.
That's a lot of grapes. So we made jam.
This was the first time I have ever made jam of any kind. My parents make strawberry jam every year and going over to their house on processing day smells wonderful. I was hoping for the same type of aroma, only one of the grape variety.
Boiling to loosen the skins.
I did get a kitchen full of wonderful grape smell and I loved it. I also got a big mess and a stained counter top. A small price.
I followed this recipe and I think it turned out pretty well. I started by sorting through all the grapes and removing all stems and any grapes with spots or signs of a problem. I then washed all the grapes with cold water and put them in a large stock pot on the stove with some water.
Yes - it is very messy.
I used a potato masher to basically mash all the grapes into a big seedy, skin filled mess, brought it to a boil and let it simmer for 10 minutes.

Now it gets really messy.

I placed a pasta strainer over a large bowl and carefully used a soup ladle to put the grape mix in the strainer. I smashed it around a little with the ladle and strained the juice out of all the pulp (seeds and skins). This takes a while and it is messy. I ended up with a big bowl of mushy pulp to toss out in the side field and about 4 quarts of grape juice.

According to the recipe, this is a good stopping point if you only have a certain amount of time, which is pretty much the story of my life right now. I placed the juice in the fridge and cleaned up.
The kitchen smelled great and I put the whole project on hold until the next day.
Making jam with 3 1/2 year old and a 10 month old is not something I would advise. I am 35 and my kitchen was a mess with just me wielding the potato masher.
Luckily, the next day was my weekly 'have my Mom over to entertain the kids' day, so finishing up the jam was on the schedule. I cleaned and heated the pint mason jars and got everything ready to go.

I strained the grape juice a second time to make sure I had gotten all the seeds out the day before, which I was glad of since I did miss some seeds.

A big stock pot, 5 cups of grape juice, 7 cups of sugar (7 cups of sugar!!!!), pectin and lots of stirring resulted in 9 very nice jars of dark purple grape jam.
I have enough grape juice left to make another batch so I may head to the store today and pick up some more canning jars and pectin.
Notes on my first jam making:
- Find a recipe that does not call for so much sugar next time, or use a sweetener substitute that is not going to turn the little man into more of a crazy monster than he already is. I only used this one because I had the sugar on hand and I was short on time to complete the jam.
- It is good to have a few 2 quart pitchers on hand around the kitchen in general. They come in handy and don't cost much. You can also never go wrong with having an extra strainer or two. Or three.
 - Use the funnel when you ladle the jam into the jars, even if you think you can get by without it. Once you start using the ladle, it is hard to try to go dig out the funnel. It is even harder to harness the attention of a three and a half year old little boy and ask him to get you the funnel.

Cheese inspects the finished product

Wednesday, August 29

"Oh don't worry about me, I am just here for the food..."

I feel that in order to call yourself a 'homesteader' you have to 'stead' something, or care for something. The first things that come to my mind in 'homestead' terms are my gardens and my chickens. Nothing scream 'homestead!' like a bushel basket to fresh tomatoes and a flock of chickens running loose around the yard.
So, if my chickens don't like me and my garden is a big failure, can I still call myself a 'homesteader?'
Attack chicken out for a stroll...
Here is my problem: my chickens hate me. Not all of them, just a couple of the new girls. The one I call Crooked Toe is the worst. She will follow me into the coop every time I go in there and charges straight at me.

And not just when I have my back to her. She is very tricky about it in that she will run up to me trying to peck my legs and feet, but then suddenly turn her attention to the nearest feeder or font. She is running a decoy play. "Oh don't worry about me, I am just here for the food..." And when I bend down to check the nest boxes for eggs, I can hear the rustle of fast chicken feet approaching from behind. I stand up and turn around to see her right there, aiming for my leg with that sharp little beak.

I have verbally warned her many times and a few times since then I have nudged her back with my foot. But this girl has guts. She pulls these tricks every time and it is getting rather annoying. And, if there happens to be another one of the new six girls in the coop when this is going on, it turns into a 'gang up on Mom' moment. The other girls will start following me around also and I will have three sharp little beaks at my heels.
These new girls are aggressive, to say the least. But the eggs are coming. At first the size of a large marble, they have gotten progressively larger and can now be considered a marketable egg. The shells are still a little hard to crack and I refer to them as Cadbury Creme Eggs - tough shell and, given that the company makes them a little smaller each season, this coming Easter the Cadbury's will probably be about the size of a beginning layers egg.

Mr. Bun Bun, before he made his escape
My other 'steading' dilemma revolves around the fact that for the past 7 years, my garden has slowly gone from highly productive and almost fool proof to a big, weedy, massive plant failing mess.

Strange weather conditions, seed germination issues, woodchucks decimating the peas and beans, mysterious failures of all vine crops for three years in a row. Last week I noticed the next new problem. He will hence forth be referred to as 'Mr. Bun Bun'.

Named by the little man one evening when we saw him frantically squish his furry body through a fence rectangle, fleeing the scene of the crime. Mr. Bun Bun likes tomatoes. Romas seem to be his nightshade of choice. But I have noticed after observing that he will go for anything showing even the slightest shades of red. Just like the woodchucks, he is just here for the food.

The roma monster (and weeds. lots and lots of weeds)
Critter invasions aside, my garden this season is a pretty big failure. The tomatoes - the thing I stress about the most - are the only things, besides the potatoes, that are producing. In fact, tomato plants popped up in a few places where I did not even plant them. Remnant seeds from last seasons non-GMO crop.

One such plant turned into a the monster of all romas and completely took over the end section to the bean support fence. Given that no beans were growing on it, I let the tomato go and watched it grow into a massive entanglement of vine, stem, leaves and fruit.
Why not. Something should be growing, and if I am such a terrible gardener that the seed must plant itself and find its own trellis, then more power to it.
The beans did have a resurgence, at least near the tomato monster, and I have purple podded bean tendrils weaving through parts of the tomato plant. A little late in the germination there guys.....
Hey! Beans! Better late than never.
In general, I am lucky that this is a modern homestead and I can go to the grocery store, farmers market, or tap into my pantry storage when the garden produce goes south. I am in no way adopting an "Oh well....time to pack it in" attitude, it is just nice to know that I have options. And it am not giving up. I know I say this every season, but 'next year will be better.' Better plan, better seeds, better soil, better weed management. I am already researching soil amendments and trench composting, and I am going to reconfigure the fence and raised beds to make better use of space. Vertical trellis options for the beans and peas, as opposed to horizontal fencing and more herbs - both for cooking and medicinal uses.
It feels good to have a plan after so much disappointment.
Now, does anyone know anything about how to win a showdown with a nasty hen?

Saturday, August 25

A Good Night of Shooting

Disregard arrow sticking out of the side of the shed.....
I am going to be bragging in this post.

Shameless, blatant, brazen, unashamed bragging. No apologize here, for tonight I totally rock.

It is not often that I can say that I "rock" now that I am a stay-at-home-Mom/homesteader/small farmer. The closest I come to "rocking" is when the beans grow up the trellis, the tomatoes don't fall over and the little man goes a day without having an 'accident' in his undies. And maybe when I can get the dishes, laundry and vacuuming done before 10pm on the weeknight.

But this is just for me. I have been needing something just for me for quite some time now. An activity that I could do by myself, for myself and maybe ease a little of the stress. So when I found Roy's old bow that belonged to his Grandfather, I decided to give it a try.

I had been reading about archery on the Cold Antler Farm blog and I have always been interested in the craft. It fits right into my view of life - it is quiet, it is not something that every does, and it takes practice.

Given that I have not been at it that long, tonight was pretty good for me. Usually I consider it a good night of shooting when I hit the straw bale a least 70% of the time and don't put too many holes in the shed. Hitting the target is another story - I'm happy with the bale. When I hit the target it is usually on the edge or in the 7's or 8's.

And that's how it's done...
Tonight, I got the 10. Twice. Bulls eye.

And the 9. Twice.

The first three thoughts that went through my mind when I first hit the 10 were:

Dumb luck.
Divine intervention.
Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once and a while.

I feel bad for the squirrel, but I know the joy he must feel.

Garden Updates

I am getting a ton of sungold tomatoes this season.
Little man and I dug both rows of yellow potatoes last week. He loves digging potatoes - like finding buried treasure.
We got a whole laundry basket full.

The cherry tomatoes are also doing very well, even though the supports are failing.

The haul from potato digging day....

Friday, August 24

Some people regard these as pesky weeds.
I really, really like them.

Thursday, August 23

Holding Their Own

The six new chickens have successfully been introduced the the main flock and I am happy to report that everyone is still alive and kicking.

I was worried about the introductions since the new girls were still a bit smaller than the other ladies. But the new girls were starting the lay small brown eggs in the tractor so it was time to move to the coop.

Roy and I set all six of them into the main coop after dark one night, crossed our fingers and went to bed. I left a window open knowing that if there was any sort of incident, the noise would make its way to me. I hoped that I would not hear a peep. Separating fighting chickens at 3am was not on my to-do list.

The next morning I went out to see what damage may have been done. I know my ladies and they can get pretty rough. Looking at my flock, you can definitely see who is near the bottom of the pecking order. But everyone seemed fine and I let them out into the early morning sunshine.

Over the next few days I observed the new girls. They were mingling with the flock but still kept to themselves, much as new chickens have done here before during the introduction period. They are a little smaller, but they seem to be holding their own.

In hind sight, I should not have been so worried. When they were still in the tractor and penned yard area they would charge my ankles after I turned my back to them. These little girls have an aggressive streak which I think is helping them find their place in the flock.

They are still having to wait their turn for kitchen scraps however. If I throw a stale piece of bread into the run the older girls seem to get right of first refusal, even if the new girls get to it first. If the new girls come running to a newly thrown treat, they may get a small beak-full of bread, but they are quickly chased off by the big girls. The young ones don't fight back over the treat and if this is all the confrontation I am going to have out of the situation,  I will take it happily.

Tuesday, August 21

Practice Makes Perfect... (and keeps the shed in one piece)

I was quite happy with my slight progress in firing arrows into a straw bale this evening. With the little man, the baby and Roy in lawn chairs watching from a safe distance, I managed to hit the bale more times than I missed it, which is an improvement from previous attempts.

I have moved my target so that wayward arrows no longer go sailing into the side field for myself and the little man to hunt for. Now the bale is positioned up against the side of the garden shed and arrows missing the target make a loud bang as they hit and bounce off the side of the shed.

This serves two purposes - first, the no more looking for arrows in the field and second, I am most likely making the woodchucks living under the shed reconsider their choice of accommodations.

People driving my must look twice if they see me out there with a long wooden bow, firing arrows at my shed while wearing a jersey skirt. I have taken to wearing these knee-length skirts to the garden and to do basic yard activities. They are comfortable, non-confining and airy. (The also double as a great way to carry any produce that I pick while out in the yard.) Shooting practice in a tank top, skirt and beat up converse sneakers might not be everyones cup of tea, but it makes me happy.

I have 20 arrows in total or various lengths and compositions and I try to shoot at least three rounds, which is to fire all 20 arrows and retrieve them three times. This evening I managed four rounds for my audience and the little man clapped when I hit the target. I managed to put a few into the shed that stuck, leaving small holes. Being quite pleased with myself and my apparent "strength behind the bow", even though I did not hit the target, I looked at my audience and smiled.

Roy smiled back and said to the little man - "See? Mama CAN hit the broad side of a barn!"

More practice tomorrow....

Monday, August 20

Stress and Alien Abduction

It has been quite a busy, hectic, stressful and fulfilling past few weeks here. There are so many things going on and so many obligations on the calendar that I have fallen into bed every night right after the last dish is air drying in the rack.

I wake up feeling more tired than I was when my head hit the pillow the night before and I chalk it up to stress and spreading ourselves too thin. Or I am quite possibly being abducted by aliens while I sleep, remembering nothing when I wake, but missing that rest I so desperately need.

August is always like this for us. Trying to get all those "we should do that" or "we should go there" things in before the summer ends and fall is upon us. Add other peoples notions along the same lines that include us, work, kid activities, homestead chores, animal care and the occasional shower and it is non-stop mayhem here.

As of this moment the house smells of garlic and dirty diapers. This afternoon I caught the baby snacking on a goldfish cracker she found while crawling on the living room rug. And the piles are growing - laundry piles, unread magazine piles, mail piles, dirty dish piles......

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Or I should say, on the calendar. These next few days are big glowing white empty spaces, save the  21, 22 and 23. It is so rare that it looks very much out of place where almost every other square is filled with names and times. Very stark in comparison. You can see them from across the kitchen and they are starting to scare me. Did I forget something? What didn't I write down? Am I going to get a call from a doctors office or a friend wondering where I am?

So these next few days will be spent playing catch-up, and I am enlisting the little man. He has started doing "chores". Little things around the house to teach him a little responsibility and maybe even earn a few quarters for his piggy.

First things first however. I am hitting the showers and hoping that Burt's Bees Rosemary and Peppermint body wash will be strong enough to rid my hands of the garlic odor.

I have a lot to share with you if you will pardon my recent absence....

Thursday, August 16

Email Dispatch

Last month Roy took the little man camping and to a music festival. Family oriented, at least during the daylight hours, Roy and I have been going to this festival since we started dating. The past 7 years have been a no-go due to kids, schedules and injuries, but this year Roy wanted to take the little man.

Here is an email I received via his phone from their day at the festival:

"So far I have been chasing little man around. He doesn't like to sit still.

He played in the Sand Box, saw compost theater, rode the shuttle around and spent over an hour on the beach in the hot sun. I couldn't drag him away from the beach and all he wants to do is to go back.

He doesn't like his juice and he wanted lemon aide(5 bucks) and didn't like it. A strawberry smoothie (5 bucks) didn't like it. I am well hydrated.

He is having a great time. I finally have been able to sit down in the lawn chair because he is getting tired.

Oh, and the batteries in the camera went dead.

Lots of people here this year.
Hey - he finally just passed out from exhaustion. He is laying on someone else's blanket."
One of my bluebirds taking a rest. This little one spent all afternoon bringing back
delicious bug treats to the birdhouse.

Thursday, August 9

the 'heavy'

I am sitting on the couch watching Olympic divers shooting for gold as the rain pours down outside my windows. A storm warning has been beeping and flashing its way across the bottom of the tv screen for the better part of an hour now, and I can hear the thunder and relentless rain hammering the metal air conditioner cover sticking out of the side of the house. An ancient dinosaur of a machine, that. A window air conditioning unit that we found in a back closet of the house when we moved in. It is huge, heavy and completely energy in-efficient. But what it lacks in appearance and green standards, it more than makes up for in its ability to cool the entire downstairs on the most humid of summer days.

There are few things that I will tolerate as far as the idea of waste is concerned. But that air conditioner, and using the lawn mower to give the little man nature rides, are two things that I have no shame about.

The humidity this past week has been absolutely stifling - so heavy and thick that it takes on a form of its own. I feel that it is stalking me, just waiting for me to venture outside so it can encompass me like a straight jacket. The heat and humidity has been punctuated periodically with vicious thunder storms and short downpours which do little to chase the heavy weather. They suppress it for a short time but it hangs there, taking refuge in the pine trees and in the bottom barn until the rain clouds pass and it can churn back up to claustrophobic intensity.

This month of August is all about the 'heavy.' This is always the busiest month of the calendar year - Thanksgiving and Christmas are a cake walk compared to late July and the entire month of August. It is Roy's busy time at work with many trips all over the country. Almost every day, and certainly every weekend, is jam packed with commitments, chores, obligations, reservations, ideas, schedule conflicts, late nights and early mornings.

Tonight the baby would just not go down in her crib and I have found myself, yet again, finishing the dishes and checking the blog with dry, tired eyes. I enjoy so much the way I can share with you all the things we are doing here. This blog is as much for me as it is for cyberspace - my creative outlet, my way of working out ideas and working through homesteading problems and disappointments, accomplishments and joys. It is something I look forward to working on and where I can just be me. My husband has no idea that I have been blogging for 3 years. I think everybody needs a little secret. Especially when things get 'heavy.'

It is time for bed. Prince, who is currently using my ankle as a pillow, will follow me upstairs and take his usual spot on the bed, just to the right side of my head. He will insist that I place my arm in such a way that he can rest his chin on it and I will fall asleep listening to his purr and the vibrations on my wrist.

Morning will come too fast and I will wake feeling more tired than I am now. But I am determined to get out to the garden with the camera tomorrow to take pictures of my wonderful ripe tomatoes for you.

Thank you, readers, for hanging in there with me and reading along.

Monday, August 6

So much to do, so much to do.......
I'm still here - stick with me.......

Thursday, August 2

Robin Hood, I Am Not.

Notice the many arrows scattered around in the grass.
Not my finest performance.
I know now that if I were alive in times of bow and arrow hunting, I would either be a strict vegetarian, or I would starve to death in short order.

Roy gave me a very old wooden bow that was his Grandfather's and I have slowly been getting up the courage to use it. Lets face it - the monster takes a 64" string and it is made out of wood. And it is old. I could picture drawing back, hearing a loud crack! and being impaled with sharp wooden splinters.
Also, there was a matter of time. Private time during the day is pretty much non-existent for me with the little man and the baby. Evening hours are spent doing house chores and family things. And weekends are pretty full. Plus I did not really want the kids out there with me when I was probably going to injure myself.

So the bow sat in the laundry room, arrows in the quiver, and I looked at it every time I did the laundry or fed the cats. I had visions, once the threat of splintering was past, of myself taking out frustrations on a paper target - shooting arrow after arrow into the bale of straw. I have not had an opportunity to shoot since high school but how hard could it be, right?

I've seen Kevin Costner in Robin Hood about 100 times. It's easy! Right?

Not even close. And I say that both in answer to my question and what amounted to a general description of my hitting the target.

Every shot I made went to the right and I am now on very sore terms with the cherry tree. And anything else located to the right of the straw bale.

Given that the whole lack of time thing that I mentioned before had not changed (still got the house, farm, husband and kids...) they were all out there with me. Roy was trying to show me what I was doing wrong, and his way of doing this was to shoot arrows in the target (show off). The little man became my designated arrow retriever and he treated it like an Easter egg hunt. He is actually pretty good at finding lost arrows. Must be because he is lower to the ground. The baby just sat on her blanket and wondered what the heck was going on and the chickens were assured in their status of non-meat birds, given that I could not even hit a stationary target let alone a moving one.

After about an hour of shooting, arrow retrieval and much frustration, I came to the conclusion that I am going to need a lot of practice. But this is something that I really want to do. I want to be able to shoot an arrow and hit the target. I can not explain why but I just feel like it is a skill that I want to possess.

I hit the target!! Once. With the old wooden arrow.
Notice how all other arrows that managed to hit the straw are to the right.

I did hit the actual target once. I had taken two big steps to my left and aimed for the stump, second to the left of the target. Now that takes some skill.....