Seed starting, maple sugaring, and hope for the end of the season of slush

We tapped out maple tree a week ago.

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It cost us $4 for the tap; the jar and spare wire were found around the house.  Talk about Yankee frugality!  I have done a bit of reading and talked to people who do this more seriously and I know my one little tap is not going to give me much, no matter how much sap this tree pumps out.  In the first four days we collected about 2 gallons, boiled it down to 1/2 quart of complexly flavored, delicious sweet water — it needs to be cooked down further but I have to collect more sap first.  Since Thursday, I’ve collected another 2+ gallons and it’s time for another boil.  It took some 10 hours of hard boiling last time, oy.  If you’ve ever been to a real, outdoor maple syrup-making event, you know how very small scale my venture is.  Nonetheless, we are having fun!

We are considering a second or third tap.  An experienced maple sugarer assures me that more taps is fine and the sugaring season in Michigan will last for at least another month (nights below freezing, days above freezing).

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I’ll share more of what I’ve learned as we progress with the collection and boiling over the next month.  My best source of info — enough to get going and not so much that you’ll be stalled — comes from this University of Maine agricultural extension pamphlet.

While I am new to maple sugaring, I am old hand at seed starting.  This is my favorite part of gardening and a great relief from winter!

I began by disinfecting all my pots and trays in bleach water solution in the bath tub (I decided against sharing that grotesque picture!).  I didn’t measure anything – just filled the tub with enough hot water to submerge the trays and dumped in a large glug of bleach (1 cup or less), swirled the bleach into the water and made sure it didn’t have that slimy feeling you get with too much bleach and let the dunking begin.  I did not clean the containers, mind you, just disinfected them.  I have a large collection of pots and trays and — life’s too short.  Mind you, this is the first time in all my years of gardening that I have bothered with disinfecting and that’s because I got these supplies from another gardener.  I’ve never had fungal problems with my seed starting so I never feel the need to disinfect.

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Air dry is best when disinfecting, but I rinsed my first set so I could get going right away.  The kids and I filled the first tray of 18 pots with a commercial soil-less seed starting mixture that we had around the house from some other project.

We planted — about 4 seeds per 3″ pot:

  • Tomatillos (2012) — they are rather carefree in form and easy easy easy; we are going to roast them and make salsa
  • Black Plum tomatoes (2010) — black tomatoes have a nice smokey flavor
  • Oxheart Pink tomatoes (2010) — I am searching for an elusive orange oxheart I grew many years ago and this was the closest I could find last time I ordered online
  • Tiger-like tomatoes (2009) — the earliest maturing variety I’ve ever grown, and they’re cute
  • San Marzano Lampadina plum tomato (2010) — The year I had a newborn and every other gardener got late blight on their tomatoes, these plants pumped out tomatoes under some serious neglect
  • Nicholson’s Yellow Cherry (2007) — The only cherry tomato in my stash, but I also prefer yellow tomatoes for their lower acid content
  • Ground cherry (2009) — a garden curiosity!  The grow in a husk like a tomatillo and taste a bit like pineapple.  They also like to wander all over the garden so I am replanting them this year.  My mother-in-law, who comes from farming stock, told me that this old-fashioned fruit will flourish in a wild patch once it finds the right spot; and that it makes great pie.
  • mini sweet peppers (2012) — seed saving adventure from the grocery store.  I struggle to get sweet peppers to set fruit and to have those fruit mature so I hope a mini variety will help make those problems easier.  And the kids love sweet peppers (and hate tomatoes).
  • Early Jalapeno (2007) — I find hot peppers easier to grow than sweet peppers.  And jalepenos are a crucial ingredient in my homemade refried black beans.
  • Ancho hot pepper (2010) — It’s not always easy to find a good variety of hot peppers where I live so why not grow my own and preserve them!
  • Cayenne pepper (2010) — They’re beautiful and useful in sparing amounts
  • Garden sage (2008) — I need more of this good stuff to tuck around the vegetable garden.  It attracts pollinators and repels pests.
  • Hyssop (2007) — Attracts bees and butterflies
  • Cumin (2008) — I love this spice and cannot resist trying to grow it, again!

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Yes I am using “old” seed and yes, I plant sparingly.  It works for me.  If germination rates are too low to be useful, I will know in the next 10 days and can replant with new seed, skip it for this year, or buy a plant at the nursery.  I know the paper towel germination check trick, but I cannot be bothered to do it because I have SO MANY packages of seeds.  How many, you’re wondering?  My spreadsheet shows around 230.  Some are being tossed today as things I refuse to ever grow again (shasta daisy, wormwood), or failed experiments (gerber daisy), or used up (Nicholson’s Yellow Cherry).  I hope to whittle this number down significantly this year and have many new plants growing in the garden instead.

Today is the new moon and we are trying out some biodynamic gardening methods this year.  The new moon is a good time to plant seeds because it promotes root growth (think tidal pulls, not magic).  Although Jeavons’s tome, How to Grow More Vegetables… is a great source of biodynamic gardening information, for an easy beginning I recommend the seed starting tool at Almanac.com, which gives best planting dates for several popular vegetables, including moon-favorable dates.  That link is set to Detroit, MI; put in your city or zip code to get the dates for your part of the US (sorry Canada!  And everybody else in the world!) .

Once my seeds are planted, they go on a wire shelf in front of the south-east facing window in my dining room.  It is the perfect plant nursery.  Plenty of sunlight and warmth and air movement (I do use domes until seedlings emerge to make them a littler warmer and moister) without the expense of grow lights or heat mats.  Yes, it makes my husband a little crazy to have this in my dining room but not so much that he wants to invest in a mini greenhouse.  Yet.

How are you breaking out of winter’s doldrums?  Having any dreams of green things?

Vegetal Dreams

To the uninitiated, this would seem an odd time to talk about the garden, but for those with the itch, this is our hidden season.  The one full of seed catalogs and vegetal dreams and grandiose plans.

First of all: this balmy “winter” made it possible for me to finish bagging my 58th through 65th bags of leaves in mid-December, long after the yard waste truck stopped trundling through on trash day.  (I dumped them on the sleeping vegetable garden.  The worms will thank me later.)  The unseasonably warm weather makes me think I should get a jump on the spring cleaning.  For example, herding the pots of probably-dead plants tucked throughout the garden, terminally waiting to be planted.  Or picking toys out of the sandbox.  The ones that haven’t filled with water, frozen, and burst, that is.  Those can stay and provide some color to our brown winter.

Second of all: I received my first SERIOUS garden tool as a gift from my husband this year: Felco hand pruners.  This is the kind of tool you wipe clean after every use and even oil and sharpen occasionally.  I got a cool leather sheath for it and even a tiny tool that is supposed to help take it apart (it’s rather wee; I am in doubt).  Monster thistle, you watch out!  Now I’m cooking with gas!

Speaking of gas, my husband got a flame-thrower thingy from a friend who understands his manly need to torch offending vegetation.  Why bend over and pull a weed when one can simply push a button…?  No I am not sneering.  My inner villan is rubbing her hands together with glee!

Thirdly: I renewed my Mother Earth News subscription today.  I freakin’ love that magazine.  When I discovered it several years ago, I was floored.  Here it was, the magazine of my people!  I didn’t realize so many other people thought like me — all DIY and loving the planet and homesteading and more liberal than the liberals — and I live in a college town.

Just goes to show… we aren’t alone.  Ever.  We aren’t even all that unique (having kids made this really clear).  If you have a thought, someone somewhere is thinking the same thing.  And we haven’t even touched on the multiverse.

It is amazing to realize how many friends are out there that you haven’t met yet.

First thoughts

I didn’t plan a six month hiatus and I’ve just realized that my absence here coincides with a big project I was working on that involved me reading about a novel a week.  Intense but can’t complain.

My garden was a joke this year. The worst it has been since I took it up in a serious way about six years ago.  It has grown every year, even with moving three times. Helps that we moved to places with more land I could work.  But this year, the combination of big work project starting in late June, high energy toddler, and no fence around my yard meant that I could not be outside working in the garden for more than ten minutes before she ran off and I had to follow.  Very frustrating.  There was talk about the house of making it more of a family effort but that came to naught.  And really, I just spent all my free time and some of theirs reading and writing.

The seed catalogs are starting to arrive and I am baffled.  Do I even bother?  I am trying to project forward to next summer.  I wonder if the small one will even be napping anymore.  I can’t not do a garden.  So it becomes a matter of how. And how much. Soil fertility is down so I think I may focus on feeding the soil over growing veg.  I’ll grow food but I need to learn how to feed my soil without pouring buckets of expensive fish emulsion into the ground.  Starting with all those friends who got chickens recently. 🙂

Finally sitting down to read my past six months of Organic Gardening helps my motivation.  And still in time to do some yard cleanup, given our warmer autumn.

The knitting never stopped, of course.  In fact this morning I woke with a fire in my head about dying a huge hank of yellow worsted weight handspun alpaca/wool which was–I am not kidding–my first piece of stash yarn.  I saw it, loved it, it was only $8 and I knew I did not know what I was going to do with it. (In fact, at the time of purchase, I think my only plan was to pet it.)  The hank has moved with me three times.  A few days ago I realized my problem is that I need to dye it.  Being soft, it begs to be worn next to the skin, but this pale lemony yellow is just about the worst color I could wear. This morning, my very first thought upon waking was to overdye it with blue or green.

I love my first thoughts of the day.  It is always something interesting.

Hard upon that I remembered that I have 2 skeins of Cascade Pastaza in a dark teal that would make a fantastic cowl.  Because walking my son to school is starting to get really cold and I am much more interested in knitting myself five complete sets of hat-scarf-mittens than holiday gift knitting.

Holiday gift knitting is minimal.  I am making armwarmers for my niece, mitts for my husband, and… that’s it!  I was going to make my children bears and then I tried to start them the other night and remembered how much I HATE knitting toys. So I freed myself of that obligation.

Anyway, after I woke up and had my first thoughts, I had to actually touch the yellow handspun and the Pastaza. In the same basket–the Alpaca Basket–were two skeins of Knit Picks Panache.  YUMMO!  Why is this not on my body?

Simultaneously my brain was trying to figure out how to make another cowl out of the handspun Jenny has gifted me (some of which is alpaca!).  I have three skeins, ranging worsted to bulky, in light green, dark emerald green, and purples.  Although the colors look nice together, I am not sure the yarns belong together.  So I am thinking thoughts of how to get the most out of small skeins of handspun.  Which are, of course, so beautiful I could just leave them as art to look at but I’ve been doing that for a while already.  Currently I am thinking of a Cat Bordhi Moebius Cowl because one can just keep knitting until the yarn runs out.  But I think I want to change it up from her simple lace pattern to garter stitch.

Well, all this typing is cutting into my knitting time.  Hah!  Time to go make something warm.

Bits and Pieces

I’ve reached that point of the holiday season when there is so much to do, holiday or otherwise, that I can’t keep track of it all and I know some things are time-sensitive and I end up so turned around that I don’t know what to do first and thus do nothing.  Thankfully, I’ve learned not to stress about it (too much).  Instead, I am bewildered, I suppose.  I called Matt this afternoon after dropping Z off at preschool just in case he knew something I forgot.  He suggested I do some shopping downtown.  I am burned out on shopping, whether it is for gifts or groceries, so I just went home and played with the baby until it was pick up time.

Now for the randomness:

*It’s so windy!  And wet!  I should make myself a cup of tea.  But I forget to before I make it to the kitchen.  Or I don’t hear the electric kettle.  I’ve heated it twice.

*Finished a small Thorpe for Zander last week.  It took me only three days–what a thrill to finish something so quickly.  I knit the small size using Cascade 220 doubled, and this is a good size for a child.  It’s a little loose on my preschooler but not so it will fall off his head.  I skipped the braided ties because I thought that would be safer on the playground–and they’re easy enough to add later if I change my mind.

*Elinor makes kissy noises with her lips.  And gives open-mouth, wet, baby kisses.  You know it’s love when you don’t care!

*Hanukkah starts on Friday.  We are ready with the gifts but not the food.  Someone needs to go to a grocery store with a real produce section so we can get a heaping mound of onions and potatoes for latkes.  And it’s windy, rainy, cold, and gross outside.  So far…I can live without latkes on the first night.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings (I hear it’s going to be very cold).

*I have had a crisis of coat buying for the children.  It has nothing to do with the holidays but has worn me out on shopping.  It involved going to the mall, in December, which I never do.  The best part, though, is that I found a coat for Elinor in her closet this morning, a coat her cousin passed down.  Hallelujah.  Crisis over.

*I/Zander inherited a UFO from Charlotte–a pair of half-finished socks–which her children outgrew before they ever got to wear.  I finished the first this afternoon.  Here it is yesterday.  The yarn is Plymouth Jelli Beenz, a fun and colorful acyrlic/wool blend.  Zander, my biggest fan when it comes to knitting, is very excited.  We’ve already had one serious discussion about his socks and the dog.  Ahem.

*My freelance work is ramping up again.  I have two projects right now, although one is in three pieces so it’s really more like four projects.  I must pace myself to avoid stressing out because I can only do one piece at a time and if I get behind it will be a vicious domino effect complete with loss of sleep.

*I am knitting Elinor a stocking to go with our other three.  The pattern is Christmas in Tallinn by Nancy Bush from Knitting on the Road.  I’ve made several patterns from this book.  I had to substitute the yarn because no one locally now carries the Dalegarn Heilo I used for the first three, but I am happy with the substitute, Rauma Strikkegarn.  It comes in lots of colors and is sticky, which is great for colorwork.  I may actually like this yarn better than the Heilo.

*The seed catalogs are starting to arrive.  I am thinking of planting more quantity of fewer types of plants next year in the vegetable garden.  Partly to get better at growing the things we love the most and partly because we really need to focus on the flower beds, get them organized.  They were empty when we moved in.  Now they’re kinda weedy.

Good night!

Life is what happens

I cannot believe it has been nearly a month.  That word, “nearly,” is an important distinction, like I am making it in before some unwritten deadline.  A month.

Anyway.

I am typing one handed while the baby coos and ogles some red and yellow fish on one of her blankets.  Zander is playing with a keychain that makes fart noises.  Rinse and repeat over the past month.

Good news:  Zander successfully survived to age four.  Elinor is learning how to roll over.  And while we’re thinking positively, the Zauberball socks are three-quarters done and the Urban Aran Cardi only has the top half of the fronts to go.  (Cup half-full, remember–not, omigod whole weeks of no knitting have gone by and I’m ready to do something else with my needles because it’s almost summer!)

My garden, my other passionate (obsessive) hobby, is doing well.  Most things are in — although it’s June and the tomatoes and basil have yet to be planted.  Oy.  I will NOT have the earliest tomato in the county this year, no siree.

See, I added a new vegetable bed this year for asparagus and the tomatoes are supposed to be planted in front of the asparagus because they are good companions and do not need to be rotated like the other veggies.  Well.  Getting the trench dug for asparagus took a writ of Congress, ie, “oh shit it’s Mother’s Day and I haven’t bought you a gift.”  Now the asparagus is coming up despite near drowning by torrential rains, which did kill my raspberry canes and most of my black-eyed susans, but the rest of the bed hasn’t been prepared for tomatoes.

I have one bed still unplanted in my vegetable garden.  I am thinking of either skipping cucumbers this year or putting them, for one year only, in the asparagus bed.  The tomatoes are more important.  And I didn’t plant cucumbers until very late last year, early July I think, and they did awesome!  I missed whatever evil thing killed my other curcubits and the vines did not wear out until October, just before first frost.  I may not have had the earliest cucumber but I probably had the last.

That decides it then.

I haven’t even thought about summer knitting, sadly.  Once upon a time in winter, when I was pregnant, I might have dreamed about knitting a Norah Gaughan short sleeved top to wear over my un-pregnant body but I dare not knit a stitch for myself until Matt’s birthday sweater is done.  Only six months late and out of season… so far.

Most important, I promised myself I would skate through this first year of the baby’s life without guilt or unreasonable deadlines and projects.  I love to make grandiose plans but I have no time or energy for the occassional downswing of happiness that goes with said plans.  I might be panicking a bit about the tomatoes but for the most part I am doing quite well at enjoying things that are working out and letting go of what doesn’t.  There might be something to the whole “living in the moment” idea.