September – Tomato Soup

It’s been an okay year for my tomatoes – not great – but okay. We’ve had plenty of fresh Big Beef tomatoes for bacon/tomato sandwiches and enough Amish Paste tomatoes to can enough sauce to get us through the winter. But, with only a few tomatoes each day or so, it makes it hard to get enough at one time for a big batch of canning. The other day I stopped at the local farm for some fresh corn.  Sitting there, right in front of the corn, calling my name – was a 30 pound box of tomatoes – for $3.50. I mean – you just can’t pass that up! I was so excited, I forgot to get the corn.

I hurried home, ran the tomatoes through my strainer contraption and simmered the juice for hours and hours. We ended up with 12 pints of tomato soup and ate one jar that night with grilled cheese sandwiches — because I couldn’t wait to try it. The others got canned for a cold winter’s night. I’m dreading winter – but I’m looking forward to more of that tomato soup.

A stock pot full of tomato soup!
Just waiting for the first snow storm.

August – Paint and Rain Don’t Mix

We use our basement a lot. It’s not a typical basement. I can’t just go down the basement stairs into a nice, finished space. Instead I have to go outside, to the side of the house and unlock the exterior door that accesses the basement. It’s a bit dreary. It sometimes gets mice in the winter, and it definitely gets cobwebs and other creepy-crawly things.

But it stays fairly constant around 60-ish degrees which makes it a great choice for being my root cellar, wine cellar, cheese cave, and storage spot for all the canned goods from the garden and two freezers full of frozen meats and vegetables. It’s definitely an important part of our house – but it didn’t look like it.

I decided EVERYTHING needed to come out of the basement so we could really deep clean it, and then paint it. It looks so much brighter and I’ve reclaimed corners of the basement that I confess – I was a bit scared of what might be lurking in the shadows. Then we painted the floor with gray garage floor paint to keep the dust down.

And then we pulled out the shop vac. In the four weeks since we’ve painted the basement, we’ve sucked flood waters out of it three times. A gentle soaking rain is no problem – but an inch and a half in twenty minutes is more than the basement can manage. At least it sucks up easily off of the new painted floor, except for the few places where the rain has loosened the paint.

Hopefully we are now out of the rainy season (until next year) but I sure wish those people that built this house back in 1853 had thought to put in a French drain with a sump pump – or at least a hole for a sump pump so that when electricity and such mechanical devices were invented, we could have just plugged one in.

Old stone walls.
Dirty dusty corners.
It looks so much brighter with a fresh coat of paint.
And a gray painted floor to keep the dust down.
A perfect spot for a wine cellar and cheese cave.
And so much brighter for storing my canned goods, squash and potatoes!

December – The Garden by the Numbers

The 2017 garden was a success – the freezer is full to the brim with a rainbow of vegetables – beets, carrots, green beans, squash.  Our shelves are laden with jars of sauce, jams, jellies, pickles, salsas, chutneys and soups.  The wooden crates in the basement are full of potatoes and squash, and the pantry is full of dehydrated tomatoes, herbs, scallions, onions, garlic.

What did we really get out of the garden?  Here it is by the numbers (rounded to the closest pound):

  • Beans                                     25 pounds
  • Beets                                      28 pounds
  • Brussel Sprouts                    3 pounds
  • Carrots                                   11 pounds
  • Cucumbers                            19 pounds
  • Farm Berries (wild)             4 pounds
  • Garlic                                      1 pound
  • Onions                                    2 pounds
  • Peas (shelled)                        3 pounds
  • Peppers, Green                     8 pounds
  • Peppers, Red                         3 pounds
  • Potatoes                                 25 pounds
  • Pumpkins                              8 pounds
  • Squash, Acorn                       9 pounds
  • Squash, Buttercup                7 pounds
  • Squash, Butternut                35 pounds
  • Squash, Spaghetti                 2 pounds
  • Squash, Zucchini                  4 pounds
  • Tomatoes, Amish                  32 pounds
  • Tomatoes, Beefsteak            45 pounds
  • Tomatoes, Cherry                 35 pounds
  • Tomatoes, Zebra                   30 pounds
  • Tomatoes, San Marzano     44 pounds

That’s 380 pounds of produce!  And that’s not counting the salsify that we’ve just begun to harvest, and all the herbs, and the gourds that were just for decoration, and the smattering of raspberries and blueberries.

What do I want to do differently next year?  I think less tomatoes, beets and beans and more garlic (I’ve planted it already!) and onions.  The acorn squash doesn’t seem to hold up well in the “root cellar” but the butternut, buttercup and spaghetti squash are doing great – so I probably won’t do acorn squash.  I would have expected more zucchini, but the plants got some sort of blossom rot and didn’t do much this year – maybe I’ll try that again next year.

There is a coating of snow on the ground now.  All my gardens are blanketed in white, but I gotta go… it’s time to start looking through the seed catalogues for next year!

Just a few beets for dinner.
Lots of tomatoes!
So many cucumbers, but where are they now?

November – Sour Grapes

Our experience with grapes on this property has been a bit sour.  First, we planted some grapes and they died.  Then we planted some grapes, and they are still alive, but there are no grapes.  Then… I found wild grapes!  I figured that was the solution — free, wild and growing profusely.

I picked bunches of these tiny gems, washed them, stemmed them, ran them through the food mill to remove their seeds, and made grape jelly!  I’ve been making jams and jellies for years — I know how to do it.  This batch was a flop.  It wouldn’t set up, so I ended up with tiny jars of grape juice.

Not one to give in to failure, I popped open all those little jars of grape juice and tackled making jelly — again — with even more Sure-Jell.  It still didn’t set.  It’s a little thicker, but still not like jelly; it’s more like grape pudding – which sounds disgusting.  Sour grapes.

Tiny little grapes.
Only half a quart of juice, and a batch of jelly that wouldn’t set.  That’s sour grapes.


September – Eye of the Storm

Remember back when I said the garden was DONE!  I was wrong.  That was just the eye of the storm.  It was calm and quiet for a few weeks.  It was so quiet, in fact, that we even sneaked away for a long weekend of vacation — since there wasn’t much happening here.  Maybe it was the extreme heat followed by the unseasonably cool weather that stunted the production of tomatoes, peppers and squash; but now they are back with a vengeance.

I came back from vacation to find a garden full of ripe red tomatoes, red and green peppers and more squash!  In fact, I picked 14.5 POUNDS of tomatoes.  Time to get busy canning again!

Eye of Hurricane
Thankfully — we weren’t affected by the hurricanes…
But we’re in the middle of a tomato tornado



September – The Root Cellar

I thought harvest time would be in October – but here we are, barely into September, and my “root cellar” is nearly full already.  I don’t really have a root cellar – I have a basement. And the basement door has a sign over it that says “wine cellar.” It’s not really a wine cellar either. I’m not sure what the basement is other than dark and damp and cool.  I guess that makes it the perfect place for a root cellar and a wine cellar.
We’ve dug up the potatoes, harvested most of the winter squash, canned the tomato sauce and put up a year’s worth of pickles and jams – and it’s all stored in the root cellar/wine cellar/basement. It can be a bit inconvenient to traipse outside to go to the basement/root cellar when all I need is a couple of potatoes for dinner – but as long as I’m there, it’s a good thing that it’s a wine cellar too.
The “fruits” of our labors – jams and pie fillings.
Pickles and tomato sauce.
Butternut squash, butter cup squash, spaghetti squash and acorn squash.
And lots of potatoes!

August – Ground Cherries

My tomatoes are growing like trees, and my cherries are growing on the ground. It’s like we live on an upside down farm.
A couple of years ago we were enjoying a wonderful evening on a lake in Switzerland with Chris’ family where my dinner was served with a garnish of a tiny fruit peeking out of a papery husk. It looked a little like a miniature orange tomatillo. I eyed it skeptically and asked what it was.  Finding an English translation for this phenomenon escaped us –
but I tasted it and it was…indescribable. I think I ate the garnish off of everyone’s plate that night while I tried to place what the exotic flavor was – something tropical, or maybe apricot? Kind of sweet, but a little tart? Sort of like a grape or a cherry or a  tomato.  It was a mystery.
This spring I went to the Philadelphia Farm and Food Festival and I spent a lot of time at the “unusual garden seed booth” sorting through all the tiny packets of seeds for  something that I could still wedge into garden. And there it was! Seeds for that mystery fruit.  They called it a ground cherry.
I brought home a packet, started them in my greenhouse and transplanted them to the garden. I’ve been watching as these little bushes developed little green “lanterns” that hang from under the leaves. And then I forgot about them – because I’ve been busy canning tomatoes and fighting back the squash vines and freezing green beans. The other day I was in the garden and there were all these little papery shells laying on the ground. Oh NO! They’re dead, I thought. I gathered them up into a bowl and
brought them in the house where I simultaneously peeled back the paper husk and googled what to do with them now.
Apparently this is how they grow. When they drop to the ground – they are ready to eat –
hence the name ground cherry. When I peeled back the husk, there was the bright orange tiny little cherry bursting with a flavor that is still a mystery.
I guess I’ll just keep eating them until I can explain what they taste like.
Little green pods that hang like lanterns.
Until the fall on the ground and look dead.
Peel the husks back and look at those sweet little gems!

July — Pickles and Jam

I have a favorite pickle recipe.  I’ve been making it for years.  This year I started with 24 cucumbers, 12 cups of vinegar and 12 cups of sugar, some peppers and onions along with some pickle spices (mustard seed, celery seed and a little cayenne pepper to give it a tiny bit of a kick) and a huge galvanized canning pot.  Everything was going well until I realized that this is a lot of pickles and I didn’t have enough canning jars ready.  In the middle of the preparations, I had to put things on hold and run out for more jars!

Now we have four cases of bread and butter pickles!

But that’s not all.

We also have wild blackberries growing all over the place — and now we have three cases of blackberry jam.  And I accidentally bought 30 pounds of blueberries — so now we have two cases of blueberry jam, 6 quarts of blueberry pie filling and two gallons of blueberries in the freezer. (I didn’t realize how many blueberries are in a 30 pound box when I said I’d take a box of them!)

And then there are still beans and beets to freeze and tomato sauce to can and squash to pick.  I think we won’t go hungry.

24 cucumbers doesn’t seem like a lot until you have to slice them all.
And cook them in a big pot.
And run out for more jars!


July – The squash are escaping!

When I planted the squash in the side garden that we created this year, they looked so small and vulnerable inside that big space fenced only by some chicken wire.  I wasn’t sure they would make it.  The chicken wire was just about low enough for any hungry bunny to hop over, and certainly wouldn’t deter the deer if they wanted to just step over it and invite their friends for dinner.   We did put some stakes around it with some webbing tape sprayed with deer repellent and we’ve been lucky so far.

In fact, the squash have grown, and grown, and grown some more.  At this point — they are escaping the fence and running away, and there is nothing I can do about it – but wait for harvest, put on a my safari expedition attire, grab a machete and fight my way in to the squash patch and hope for a bounty of acorn, butternut and spaghetti squash — and some pumpkins and gourds.

I guess what is growing outside the fence is fair game for the rabbits or the deer.

The squash are so tiny you can barely find them in the dirt.
But they grew…
And they’ve crawled over the fence and are escaping — I’m afraid I’ll wake up tomorrow morning to find that they’ve covered the chicken coop!

June – Uh-oh, What Have We Done?

The gardens are overflowing, and it’s not even the end of June yet!  Already I’m up to my elbows in canning and freezing.  When the plants were so tiny, it seemed like a good idea to plant a lot of them.  There was so much space between them in the garden that I couldn’t imagine them filling it in.  Even Chris commented that I hadn’t over-planted this year and there was actually space to walk between the rows.  I was proud of myself for my restraint, but with two gardens to fill, I didn’t feel the need to shoe-horn stuff in like I’ve done in the past.  This year would be different.  A spacious garden, everything in it’s place, perfectly placed rows — I could picture it in my mind.

Then came lots of rain and hot sunny days, and the garden took on a life of its own.  I think I must have bought my bean seeds from Jack, and the cucumbers too.  The vines are reaching for the sky.  I keep piling them onto up-side down tomato cages to give them something to climb on and still they grow.  I’m thinking in investing in a bunch of extension ladders to line the garden rows so everything can just keep growing and growing and growing.

I thought a variety of squash would be fun this year — butternut, acorn, spaghetti, etc.    Again I exercised such restraint.  I only planted about four plants of each.  They were barely a few leaves tall, with lots of space between each plant.  Now, the garden is so overgrown with vines that it will take a machete to fight my way through to harvest them.  What was I thinking?

Already there are cherry tomatoes, peas, beans, beets, zucchini, cucumbers, broccolini, scallions and spinach.  Even if we were vegetarians, we wouldn’t be able to keep us with what is coming in — and so every other night or so, you’ll find me in the kitchen freezing and canning… canning and freezing.  There’s nothing better than seeing the freezer fill up, or hearing the mason jar lids ping when they seal.  And maybe this winter I’ll be glad I apparently over-planted the garden, but for right now… I’m not so sure.

The tomatoes are outgrowing their cages.
Even the tomatoes are ripening already.
How am I even going to get into this squash patch to pick my squash?
Almost enough cucs to make pickles already.
Just a few beets for dinner.
And peas to freeze.