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As we coast into our third year here at the Raspberry Cabin, I find myself amidst piles of seed catalogs, spreadsheets, and old seed packets. I’ve accumulated ten years worth of experimental varieties of every shape, color, size, and flavor. If it can grow this far north, I’ve probably tried it by now. As I sift through my seeds I am reminded of my past successes, my many failures, and my hopes for the future.

Artichoke seeds make me sigh – I tried them two years ago and as soon as I planted them out mid-July we dipped into the 40’s and every plant wilted away to nothing. Green Arrow shelling peas give me a warm feeling, just imagining the fresh, green flavor of summer and sunshine when I bite into a warm pod straight off the vine. Cauliflower seeds make me purse my lips in determination. One of these years I WILL grow a beautiful head of cauliflower. The Habanero packets get my mouth watering, thinking of pineapple-habanero sauce poured thickly over grilled chicken legs.

Do you go through your seed collection in January and get these feelings too?

The onion seeds are first on the spreadsheet. This will be my third year growing from seed, and I’m still learning how to get the biggest, most flavorful onions this way. Sets are easy – you just stick them in the ground and wait a while. Boom! Onions. But seeds? Seeds you have to plant, thin, replant, trim, replant, support, then finally plant out. This year I am only doing two seed varieties of onion, and I’ll continue to get two set varieties as well. I’m also introducing a new kid on the block – shallots. After watching some youtubers grow them out, I’m confident I can do it too. I’ve never bought shallots because they’re so expensive in the stores, but at $2 for a thick packet of seed I figured it’s worth a shot. If I don’t like them, I can either sell them or give them to the chickens. Chickens LOVE onions. Have you tried shallots?

After the onions come some herbs, peppers, and flowers. Then the tomatoes, melons, and squash. I’m sticking with a few oldies-but-goodies, and branching out even more. I love trying new things, don’t you? When I go to the supermarket, there are three tomatoes to choose from: cherry, roma, or slicing. They’re all red. They all have the same lackluster, watery taste. When I go into my garden, I have all different sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors to choose from. If I want a smoky, robust flavor I pick a Paul Robeson. If I want a super sweet snack, I pick a rainbow of cherry tomato varieties. If I’m making sauce, I have several paste types in white, yellow, orange, and red so my sauces aren’t always the typical red you find in the store. Fresh salsa? I toss in whatever is prettiest – purples, reds, golds… and I use colored peppers to match. It’s a fiesta for my eyes as well as my mouth.

I’m stoked about the garden this year. Last year I harvested so much I didn’t even have time to post about it on my blog. I was able to fill the freezer with around 35 pounds of diced peppers, 20 pounds of shredded zucchini, and 10 pounds of diced onions. I canned up dozens of jars of diced tomatoes, sauce, pickles of every type, and carrots. Last year was a bumper year for carrots. I had THOUSANDS. Every  year I struggle to get anything larger than my pinky finger from the carrots, so I decided it was time to empty my seed stock. I planted several varieties in several 20′ rows. Of course, since I wasn’t expecting anything from all that old seed, every damn one went gangbusters on me. I pulled so many I ended up feeding a majority of them to the chickens and deer this winter. I’ve a sneaking suspicion the carrots all over the yard and orchard are the reason we have so many new rabbit tracks this year. Thankfully they haven’t discovered the garden yet. We might be having some bunny stew if I notice any tracks in there.

I plan to have a lot more flowers this year. Last year I skipped sunflowers. This year I want sunflowers, nasturtiums, sweet peas, asters, and marigolds everywhere! I’ll also be finishing up the corner raised bed, getting it filled, and planting some perennials like hardy kiwi, morning glory, and daisies in it. I’ll finish digging out the small pond by hand, get it lined, build up the edges, and stock it with some experimental fish. If I can get them to survive through the winter, I might try my hand at some koi. I ordered some asparagus roots since my experiment with asparagus seed only yielded three stalks to speak of. They’ll get their own raised bed, too, which will probably receive a good chunk of chicken manure since they’re heavy feeders.

I really wanted to tone it down with my tomatoes since 100 plants were a lot to tend, but these damn seed catalogs got me all drooly and craving new flavors. I’m going to really try to reel it back to around 50 plants. Cross your fingers for me, okay? Peppers, though… oh, peppers! I had over 200 pepper plants last year and that wasn’t enough to satisfy my obsession. Have I told you how much I love fresh peppers? I love them frozen, too. And fried, stewed, baked, grilled, stuffed… I’m like Bubba on Forrest Gump, except with peppers instead of shrimp.

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My seed collection grows every year. I took this picture before I even broke into my new seed orders. Yep. I’m out of control when it comes to gardening! I found quite a few varieties that I didn’t want anymore. For anyone interested, I am giving them away in four groups over the next month. You can find the giveaway on my Secular Homesteaders group on facebook. Just leave a comment on that post and you’ll be entered to win the seeds shown. The first group are all nightshades – tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Here’s a preview of what I’ll be giving away, if you’re curious.

Four lucky winners will help me pare down my crazy seed stash. I’ll pay shipping anywhere in the US. I should mention that I have had no trouble germinating any of these seeds. Why don’t I want these varieties, you ask? Some of them require a longer growing season than I enjoy here in northern Wisconsin. Some I didn’t care for. Some I don’t have room for, despite my garden being roughly 8x the square footage of our house. And some were freebies or doubles that I wasn’t really interested in. All good seeds from great companies, and all of them kept in the dark, cool basement between seasons to keep them viable.

My next post will be more about the specific varieties I’ll be growing this year, as well as planting times and what you can expect from my stand at the farmer’s market this spring. As always, if you have any specific requests for plants, you’re welcome to leave a comment here or email me. I already have a request for fushimi, marconi, and jalapeno peppers, and I’m fulfilling some others from shoppers at the market last year. Bhut jolokia, anyone? 😉

Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season! Happy New Year!

Every three days I go out and pick whatever looks nearly ripe from the garden, then I let it sit on the counter for at least a day to ripen. Why do I pick before they’re ripe? Because if I wait for them to ripen on the vine, they split from over saturation. We have had rain every day, sometimes multiple times a day or even all day long, for the past two weeks. The ground doesn’t know what it is to be dry anymore.

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This morning I made salsa since I had an abundance of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and peppers. The only thing in my salsa that wasn’t raised in our garden was the garlic – and next year we’ll have our own garlic, too!

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Yesterday I canned up some grape jelly. It came out a really pretty color. I used about five pounds of green grapes and one pound of red.

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The garden is exploding from all of the rain. Our sunflowers are finally out, though it’ll be a couple weeks before all of the florets are pollinated and we see seeds forming. As you can see, the bees are hard at work making that a reality.

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I planted a few bulb and annual flowers along the periphery of the garden. They did okay for their first year. Next year I hope they come back even more full and vibrant. I love the colors!

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Veggies in the garden are doing well, too. The 3 sisters plantings are taking off, though it might be too little too late. As you can see, the squash and pumpkins are just now flowering. I am seeing a lot of male flowers, but very few female flowers. It’s up in the air whether or not we get anything from them this year. The sun was setting as I took the picture, hence the yellow leaves. They’re all really healthy, green plants in normal lighting.

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The cilantro, dill, and basils are taking off so much I’m having a hard time keeping them picked.

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The leeks and onions are kind of wimpy. Next year I’ll start them another 4 weeks earlier and fertilize them more earlier on.

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The few rice plants that survived transplanting into the paddy are bushing out well. No idea if I’ll get anything from them, but it was a fun experiment. Next year I plan on a bigger, better paddy with aeration. I’ll do the goldfish again, too. There are still two living of the initial 10 I put in there. One of them is actually pretty big. Maybe we’ll bring him in for the winter to live on the countertop. We just had a fantastic storm blow through before the picture, so the water is really murky.

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The cabbages are swollen like pregnant bellies sticking up from the mud. It’s nearly harvest time for all 50+ of them. Anyone need some in the local area? I’ll probably give a lot away.

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The tomatoes are kicking ass. Lots of them coming ripe every day.

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Yes, the weeds have overtaken much of the garden, but I’m not worried. I blame the rain, and the fact that I’ve been too lazy to weed. We’re at the end of the season, so it’s all going to get ravaged by the hungry chickens soon anyway. They’re raring to get going in the garden. Every time I open their run door, they beeline for it and I have to slam it quickly. So, because I can’t talk about these funny birds without showing pictures… I’ll let them close up this blog entry. Hope you all had a lovely Labor Day weekend!

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I am still learning when it comes to cutting back our grocery bills. Over the past few years I have taught myself how to make my own bread, laundry detergent, canned goods, and many other things from scratch. Where most people pay $5 for a decent loaf of whole grain bread at the store… I pay less than $0.50 a loaf by grinding my own wheat and buying ingredients like yeast in bulk. Instead of spending $10 on a gallon of laundry detergent that does 72 loads, I can my my own gallon of dry laundry detergent that does hundreds of loads for about $7.

But it’s not enough. With the way grocery prices are skyrocketing (~30% increase in the last 10 years), it only makes sense to keep seeking ways to save. After all, how many of us have had our wages increase 30% in proportion in that time? Not us, that’s for sure!

So lately I have started really pursuing ad matches. I take a look at all the printed store ads for every grocer within 60 miles of where we shop (mostly in Marinette, Wisconsin) and I make detailed lists to follow on every shopping trip. Here are some examples from ads I used this week:

Aldi’s – https://www.aldi.us/en/weekly-specials/special-buys-for-aug-20/

  • Avocados $0.49 each

Copp’s – http://www.copps.com/Shop/WeeklyAd.aspx

  • 16 oz Kraft singles 2/$4.00
  • Gala apples $0.99/lb
  • 2 lb C&H brown sugar or powdered sugar $1.89 each
  • Barilla pastas 12-16oz 4/$5.00
  • Nature Valley 6-12 ct granola bars $2.50
  • Nutrigrain bars $2.50 each

Festival Foods (Green Bay East) – http://www2.festfoods.com/WeeklyAd/Store/2766/_SS_48AT9R0EB7C1418P7261B716WIuN6L53FC7BA0%7C235124%7C1408221124%7C%7C%7C

  • Bananas $0.28/lb
  • Bartlett pears $0.98/lb
  • 16oz JIF peanut butter $1.49
  • Hunts ketchup 24oz $0.78
  • Hunts snack pack pudding 4 packs $0.78
  • 8oz Kraft shredded cheeses $1.98

It may not seem like much alone, but if I use ad matching to stock up on essentials one at a time, it’s adding up to be quite the savings. I just bought 12 pounds of peanut butter for $17.88 when I normally get 5 pounds for $11.62. At the normal price, 12 pounds would have cost $27.89 – ten dollars more. Ouch! I’m thankful I make my own jelly because I couldn’t see spending the $5 a jar they ask for at the store. Holy cow! I pay maybe $0.50 a jar, and make at least two years at a time so I won’t run dry. We eat a lot of pb&j’s here!

By using ad matching, I am able to cut some prices over half. It’s like getting a buy one get one free. So instead of stocking up slowly as some prepper sites recommend (for example, when you do normal shopping, buy two instead of the one you need, and sock away the extra one) I am able to buy twice as much and stock up twice as fast. We now have enough peanut butter and ketchup to last the next six months. Since we only have room for about 6 months worth of food on our shelving system in the basement, I try not to stock up further than that. (Aside from my wheat berries and whole grains that I buy by the bucket. Those don’t go on the shelves, so I stock a year at a time for those.) Someday we’ll build more shelving. Maybe even as soon as this winter.

It gives me a good feeling to know that I am not only saving money, but stocking up for the future as well. Combined with our efforts on the homestead, we should be able to feed our family even if something bad were to happen. I’m not talking end of the world stuff, but normal things like job loss and injury. We’ve been through it already. We’ve had to rely on family and friends for help. We don’t want to be put in that situation ever again. I can’t wait until we have our own meat in the freezer – that will be a huge saver.

Ad matching varies seasonally as well. I know that around Thanksgiving I’ll find the best ad matches for bulk sugar, flour, and other baking essentials. Fall is the best time for buying bulk apples. Mid-summer is the best time for peaches. After Christmas is usually a good time for meats. At least in our area – these fluctuations may not apply everywhere.

Savings and food security go hand in hand. What are you doing to lower your grocery bill and stock up? Tell me about it in the comments. If you write a blog, leave a link to your similar article(s).

Unless you are lucky enough to live in Hawaii or South America, you probably don’t get to eat too much fresh pineapple. Around here, they usually run $3-4 a piece, so it’s not something I buy on a regular basis. When I saw that I could ad-match pineapples thanks to a sale in Green Bay, I jumped on it and quickly bought four.

I’ll be honest, we usually stock up on tinned pineapple. Sometimes I’ll even splurge for store-bought dried pineapple chunks. While still delicious, they have nothing on the sweet, acidic zing of a fresh pineapple. Is it possible to keep that unique flavor intact by home preservation? Yes!

Start out by gathering a cutting utensil, cutting board, pineapples, and dehydrator.

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Cut the tops and bottoms off of each pineapple. If you have chickens, they’ll love picking all of the flesh off of the pineapple scraps. If not, you could compost the extra bits or use the top to grow a whole new pineapple plant.

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Carefully cut off the hard skin of the fruit with a large knife. It’s easier if you stand the pineapple up and cut from the top down in thin strips. Once all of the skin is off, use your fingernail or a small paring knife to remove any deep pocks left over.

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Once your fruit is cleared of skin bits, cut it into quarters from the top down, then cut the woody center out of each quarter. I think you can technically eat that center, but man… is it tough! No, thanks. I’d rather let the chickens make quick work of those.

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At this point, you’ll have notched wedges that need to be sliced thinly. I used a knife, but if you have a mandolin or food processor with slicing blade you can use those as well. Try to keep the slices under 1/4″ thick for faster drying times.

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Line them all up on the trays so they aren’t touching. They have so much sugar in them that they’ll stick together if they’re touching. Yeah, still edible, but not as pretty if you have to tear them apart. I’m such a terrible perfectionist.

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I put it on 125° in my Excalibur. They took about 16 hours to dry leather-hard, then I removed them and put them in quart sized Ziploc bags. You can also store them in clean Mason jars or airtight Gladware. For long term (1+ years), consider using Mylar with oxygen absorbers appropriate to the size of your Mylar bag.

To get the dried pineapple unstuck from the mesh screens, put the screen flat on the counter and use a pastry cutter.

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Grapes were also on sale this week, and seeing as we won’t be harvesting our own grapes for at least another year, I stocked up to make raisins. Making raisins is easy. All I did was wash the grapes really well under running water, cut them in half, then arrange them on the trays cut-side-up. Four pinapples yielded 3 full quart bags. I got one quart of raisins from about 2.5 pounds of red, seedless grapes.

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Store-bought, chemical laden* dried pineapple has NOTHING on homemade. Yum!

 

*Store-bought may contain: sugar, dextrose, glucose syrup, fruit juice, coloring derived from fruit, glycerin (422), sorbic acid (200), sulphur dioxide (220), paraffin, BHA (320), edible fats, and oils.

Today was a beautiful day to harvest potatoes. It rained last night, so the top few inches of soil were easily workable. I was able to dig all of the potatoes out by hand, with some help at the end thanks to my husband and eldest son. I’ve definitely learned a few things.

1. I won’t buy “seed potatoes” from anywhere ever again. They gave me runty little potatoes just like the runty little potatoes I bought. Next year I’ll just sprout out some regular grocery potatoes and plant them.

2. I need to fertilize better. There were a lot of tiny potatoes in the roots that looked like they never developed. I’m guessing the plants ran out of nutrients. Since the potatoes were the first things in, I didn’t fertilize them much before they were done. Next year I’m going to try to set up a barrel for compost tea. That should help me get bigger, better yields.

3. Grubs are assholes. They ate about 10% of my crop. I fed every one I found to the chickens – sweet revenge.

As far as yields go, I think we did pretty well. I planted 2.5 pounds of white and 2.5 pounds of red. We ended up with 12.5 pounds of white and 15 pounds of red. That’s around a 1:7 ratio, which is what I had hoped for. I know it would have been more if I had fertilized better. Live and learn.

I spent the better part of the morning putting up these potatoes by canning them. Here’s how I did it.

First I rinsed and scrubbed all of the potatoes clean under running water. I used a regular kitchen scrub brush that I keep by the sink. The potatoes went straight to a towel spread on the counter.

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Then I cut off all the bad spots and diced the potatoes into equalish chunks. As I diced, I put them into a large bowl with cold water and a bit of lemon juice to keep them from browning.

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While I diced, I had my pressure canner heating up on the stove top with about 4″ of water. I also had a stock pot with water coming to a boil. My jars, lids, and rings were freshly washed and sitting ready for me on a towel on the counter. When I finished dicing the potatoes, I gave them one good rinse under cold water and started packing them raw into the waiting jars.

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I can fit seven quart jars in my canner at a time, so I didn’t bother filling any more jars than that for the first load. The potatoes that I didn’t use were put into a fresh bowl of water with a dash of lemon juice until the first batch was done. To the potatoes in the jar, I added a pinch of salt each, purely for taste.

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I wiggled and gently banged each jar down to pack as many potatoes as I could into each jar. They settled a lot. Once I was satisfied that they were full and seasoned appropriately, I brought over my stock pot of boiling water and ladled water in to the bottom ring of the jar. Again, I wiggled each jar to bring up air bubbles and make sure the water was throughout.

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With the jars packed completely, I tossed the lids that I would need into the boiling hot water in the stock pot. They only need a few moments to soften up, so while I waited I swabbed a clean, damp cloth around the top of each jar to clean away any water or debris. Once I was sure of a good seal, I carefully put a lid on each jar and twisted the ring around to seal it finger-tight. As I twisted them closed, I loaded them into the pressure canner.

When all of the jars were in the canner, I put the lid on tight. I let the canner steam freely for several minutes.

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Once it had vented enough and there was a constant issue of steam coming out, I put on the weight, with the 10 pound side down. The canner slowly moved from zero to ten pounds pressure. Once there, I set my timer for 40 minutes and turned down the heat so the weight wasn’t jiggling too much. If you’ve never canned before, stay with your canner the first few times. It’s a scary sound at first, but you’ll be fine. Even though I had the pressure weight in place, a hot stove could potentially make the canner increase pressure, altering the result of my finished canned product. I’ve learned over the years what sounds are good and which are bad by experience – there’s no better teacher.

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When my 40 minute timer went off, I turned off the burner and very carefully moved the canner to a trivet. If you don’t have a steady hand, just leave the canner in place. I waited a bit for the pressure gauge to read zero again, then I removed the weight while wearing an oven mitt. That sucker’s hot – never remove it with your bare hands! A few moments later, and it sounded like all of the pressure had finally released. I opened the canner and carefully lifted out my bounty.

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I used about 11.5 pounds to make exactly 10 quarts of potatoes. You’ll notice that I didn’t bother peeling the potatoes before processing them. My reasons for this are two-fold. For one, I’m lazy. Peeling takes work. Two, the peels are where half of the nutrients are located! Why would I chuck them when they’re so good for us? Did you know that half of the fiber in a potato is in its skin? They also contain potassium, B vitamins, and calcium.

Tomorrow I’ll finish processing the red potatoes. For now, they’re sitting in my big, metal bowl on the counter. We brushed the dirt off with our fingers as we picked them, but I won’t wash or scrub them until I’m ready to process them. Dirt is full of nasty bacteria – I don’t need to introduce that to the flesh of the potato by accident.

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Thanks for stopping  by to see how I process my potatoes!