Maine Maple Sunday

This week at Everlongardener, we will be enjoying the sweetest harvest of all! Pure Maine maple syrup! Every 4th Sunday in March is Maine Maple Sunday. Sugar shacks across the state traditionally open their doors to the public for the event showcasing a unique part of Maine’s agriculture. Participants offer samples of the liquid gold poured over ice cream, tours, demonstrations and plenty of maple products for sale.

The process of making maple syrup starts with drilling a hole in a sugar maple tree and pounding a tap into the hole. Sometimes sap comes running out immediately. A sap bucket or other suitable container is attached to the tap to collect the clear sap. Other maple trees have sap but the sugar content is the highest from the sugar maple. Canada produces 71% of the worlds maple syrup.  States such as Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and beyond, all contribute with Vermont leading the way for the U.S. states according to the USDA. A total of 3.78 million gallons were produced in the 2016 season. For more information on sugar houses in your area, go maine.gov.

Maple products and tools of the trade.

On Sunday, we decided to make a quick trip to our nearby sap shack. We arrived early to get as close to the experience as possible.

Heading to the sap shack!

Temps were below freezing that morning so it took a while for the sap to start running through the line and into to evaporator. Hundreds of gallons of sap wait in a holding tank up above. Sap flows down to the shack from the tank through a large pipe.

Waiting for the sap to run freely.

Once the sap warmed above freezing, the nozzle was attached to the evaporator. An evaporator is what the professionals use to cook down the maple sap. This evaporator can process 160-180 gallons of sap per hour.

Hooking up the nozzle to the evaporator.

Next, the firebox needed to be lit. This particular evaporator runs on wood. The year that this shack produced nearly 600 gallons of syrup, they burned 40 cords of wood. The owner calls the pine that he uses “gopher wood”. You put some in the fire box then you “go for” more!

The fire box is ready.

After lighting the fire, the sap starts to slowly heat up.

Sap is already in the evaporator.

If you look close, you can see that the sap is actually slightly frozen on top. The fire beneath the sap begins to heat the liquid. Meanwhile, we asked all kinds of questions about the process.  All of the workers were so talkative and helped us get a better understanding of the large-scale production. A little different than our homemade stuff last year!

Steam is starting to rise from the vat.

Then the waiting game started. Slowly the sap started to steam in the evaporator. Plenty of time for conversation, stories and learning.

Now it really starts cooking!

When the sap hits just the right temperature, it’s time to pour off the finished maple syrup. It can be a delicate process, especially for home processors. Evaporators generally have temperature gauges on the side.

The sap is really starting to cook!

When locals drive by, they know that the sap is cooking. You can see the smoke and steam billowing out of the shack from the main road.

An array of maple products for sale.

Back up on the porch, we got to try the luscious syrup on ice cream. There are different grades of syrup. Some people like the lighter syrup while we prefer the darker stuff. Sunday they served the darker syrup and it was out of this world! We got to learn about maple cream and how it’s made. It’s a different product made by cooking finished syrup on the kitchen stove to a particular temp then plunging the pot in cold water. The cook must then stir like crazy and hope that the syrup turns to maple cream. It tastes like liquefied maple fudge in a spreadable form. Of course I had to buy some!

Vanilla ice cream topped with rich maple syrup.
Who can resist this?
Can’t beat this!
Maple cream!

We had just made some sugar cookies at home. They were the first thing that we paired with our new maple cream. I highly recommend this combination! Maple syrup can be used for so much more than pancakes and waffles. Syrup can be used for a healthy alternative to sugar by using 2/3 cup to 1 cup of sugar. Maple syrup is full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Try it in desserts, baking, glazes, rubs and barbecue sauces. There are tons of recipes at Pure Canada Maple or you can come up with your own. We always treasure our syrup and use it with care. Once you learn the process and find out the cost involved, you can understand why pure maple syrup demands such a high price. Don’t let a drop go to waste!

A stately row of tapped maple trees.

I really wanted to share our sap shack experience from the other day. I hope that next year you can go visit a shack on Maine Maple Sunday if syrup is made in your area. It’s a great family activity for early spring. It truly is a sweet harvest!

We have more winter weather to get through around here but the snow banks have started to shrink. We are anxiously awaiting our neighbors spring lambs to be born. More seedlings are popping up and finding their home under the grow light. The sun is feeling warmer every day. Soon, I’ll have pictures with more green, living things featured in them! Thanks for coming on our maple syrup adventure! Don’t forget to subscribe for all of my weekly gardening topics and think spring!

Hilary|Everlongardener

5 Easy Vegetables For The Beginner Gardener

So many of the beginner gardeners that I talk to have an idea of what they want but don’t know how to get there.  The first vegetable garden I had in my adult life was very simple.  A few tomatoes, green beans and some lettuce.  Over the years, little by little, more types of flowers and vegetables have been added to my garden.  This is my list of 5 easy vegetables for beginner gardeners.

Green Beans

Whether you choose bush or pole beans, this easy vegetable can be a sure-fire crop.  Grow it well and you may be harvesting tons of beans.  Tasty, fresh green beans can be pricey in the stores but with just one packet of seeds you could be feeding quite a few people.

Wax bush beans.

First, decide if you are growing bush or pole beans.  Bush beans grow in a low, bushy formation and are fairly early.  Pole beans grow up a support and produce beans later than bush types.  For the first time gardener, you may want to start off with a few rows of bush beans.  If you are a bit more adventurous, add in two poles and grow climbing beans.  They will extend your bean harvest and can be easier to pick.

A mixture of wax and green beans.

We plant our bush beans in short rows and hill dirt around them as they grow.  To grow pole beans, you will need to plan for adequate supports well before planting day.  Bean teepees are popular or a trellis can be used.  We have an abundance of young trees in our woods, so we tend to set 10′ saplings in the ground fairly deep.  This may sound like overkill, but believe me, the bean vines are heavy and summer winds can be strong.

‘Romano’ pole beans climbing.

Look for tender varieties such as ‘Provider’, ‘Jade’ or French beans like ‘Hardicots Verts’.  Wax beans are pleasing to the eye as well as the palate.  Pole beans come in many lengths and colors.  Some favorites are ‘Romano’, a flat Italian and good old ‘Kentucky Wonder’.  I have to tell you that they are better than gold!

Lettuce

There are few things as glorious as making a salad from ingredients that you have grown yourself.  That being said, the foundation of such a salad is of course the lettuce.  Start with seeds in early spring.  Save some of your seeds for successive plantings.  With a little careful planning, you can harvest lettuce into the fall.

Leaf lettuce in the garden.

Some of the easiest lettuce varieties to grow are loose leaf types.  By cutting outer leaves, the lettuce plant is pushed to grow more leaves.  Pick colors and textures that appeal to you.  ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ is an old standby that sports bright green ruffles.  ‘Red Salad Bowl’ is a staple of the spring garden.  ‘Mesclun’ mix is an easy choice for a colorful mix.  For some warm season types, try ‘Summer Lettuce Mix’ from Fedco.  Other companies will carry a similar mixture that will be slow to bolt in the summer heat.

Gorgeous bowl of salad greens.

Plant a few rows of lettuce seeds as soon as ground can be worked.  Pick up a few lettuce seedlings if you want to get a jump on production.  Then, plant a few seeds every two weeks or so.  You can count on a continual harvest.  Sow additional seed in August for months of fall salad greens.  To learn about extending the harvest, read about Succession Planting.

Peas

One of the earliest of vegetables is the garden pea.  Like beans, they come in bush and climbing varieties.  At our house, we like our garden peas for fresh eating.  They rarely, if ever, make it to the table.  We relish those first sweet, firm green peas.  Fresh peas are also excellent in green salads.

Peas climbing up the support.

Peas will need a support if they are climbers.  3′ chicken wire between two garden stakes works just fine.  Some gardeners use strings with much success.  Pick out early types like ‘Sugar Ann’ or ‘Sugar Snap’.  Peas can be planted out very early.  Make sure soil is not too wet.  Attempting to grow enough for the freezer may be a stretch for the beginner gardener.  Plant according to your space.

Radishes

Nothing makes you feel like a gardener more than pulling those first crisp radishes from the garden soil!  How many other vegetables can you really grow in less than 30 days?  Radishes are an obvious choice for adding into salads but their greens can be used in soups and stir-fry’s.

Radishes with salad greens.

One of the great things about growing radishes is that they are generally a cool season crop.  Plant your first seeds in early spring and plant another round in fall for a second harvest.  Radishes take up very little space so they can be planted on there own or inter-planted with other vegetables such as lettuce.

Radish harvest.

For spring radishes, choose a traditional red like ‘Cherry Belle’ or go for a mix of reds, purples, whites and pinks.  ‘White Icicle’ has a long cylindrical formation.  ‘French Breakfast’ is alwaysan elegant choice.  Make sure when choosing radish varieties, that you take the hotness factor into consideration.  You will want to be able to eat what you plant.

Tomatoes

What beginner garden would be complete without a few tomatoes?  Choose tomato types according to what you like to eat.  If you like to make sauce choose ‘San Marzano’ or ‘Amish Paste’.  For the salad eater, try currant, grape or cherry varieties like ‘Sun Gold’ or ‘Super Sweet 100’.  For the BLT lover, go for slicers like the reliable ‘Jetstar’.

A variety of beautiful tomatoes.

Tomatoes are generally prolific.  A gardener can stake, cage or string tomatoes for support.  Pruning suckers can ensure an earlier harvest as well as managing plant size.

Place tomatoes in zipper bag to freeze.

Preserving the harvest can be as easy as freezing whole tomatoes.  If you want to put up a few and don’t have time to can, simply cut out the blossom end and toss into a freezer bag.  When you need tomatoes for a recipe that calls for crushed tomatoes, place a few frozen tomatoes in a saucepan.  Add a bit of water and cook down.  Remove skin and pour thawed tomatoes into your chili or soup.  For more details, go to Quick Food Preservation Tips.

Small Garden Planning

Depending on the size of your garden space, you can stick with the 5 easy vegetables or add a few more favorites.  Understandably, a new garden will probably be one garden but I took the liberty of designing a two bed system.  Boards often come in 12′ lengths, so with 5-12′ boards, you can make 2 raised beds and only cut one of the boards.  One board can be cut in 3′ lengths for end pieces.  I have more tips for raised beds in the article Try Raised Beds For Easy Gardening.

A small garden plan.

Notice that I’ve made room for our 5 easy vegetables.  This space allows for a few extras.  Two zucchini plants and two cucumbers are planted at the base of each bed.  There is room for 6 tomato plants along with bush and pole beans.  Flowers such as marigolds can be planted for attracting pollinators and beneficial insects.  Try planting a few favorite herbs if you have the room.  Whatever you choose, start small.  You can always expand upon your garden next year.

Common marigold.

Some of you may be making a vegetable garden for the first time this year while others are looking to simplify their garden.  Of course, not everyone likes all of these vegetables.  Just swap out one for another.  Grow what you like.  If your plot is smaller, grow only two tomatoes and just grow the bush beans.  Play around with the dimensions on paper.

Spring officially begins next week.  I’m not sure if the weather will feel like spring though!  Keep on planning your garden, we will be there before you know it.  Here at Everlongardener, we are starting a few seeds and shoveling snow this week.  Thanks for reading this week and don’t forget to subscribe in sidebar for weekly blog posts.

Hilary|Everlongardener


Simple Refrigerator Pickled Peppers

Recently, I was having a lunch with some great friends.  There was an interesting array of jars of pickles, pickled peppers and spicy mustard spread over the dining room table to go with our lunch.  As I was sampling everything in site, I spooned some pickled hot peppers onto my plate.  After trying them I felt the urgent need to try making some simple refrigerator pickled peppers!

As my friends watched me pile on the peppers, it was soon brought to my attention that some of the peppers in that jar where Ghost peppers (Bhut jolokia).  Once, this pepper was considered the hottest pepper in the world!  Turns out, I did not eat all of them, but I did try one.  They were tasty, although there was a fair amount of forehead sweat and burning ears!

The gears in my brain started turning!  What if I adapted my refrigerator sweet pickle recipe to a hot pepper version (minus the Ghost peppers!)?  During my next grocery store stop, I bought some jalapeño and chili peppers.  The red and green colors are gorgeous together.

Jalapeño and red chili peppers.

Normally,  peppers don’t do too well in my garden.  If I start them from seed they seem to grow too slow.  Last year, I was determined to do better.  I purchased an assortment of sweet and a few hot pepper plants from a local greenhouse.  I had the best harvest ever!  There was a tip that I read somewhere about planting them close together in a block and this worked well for me.  I’m excited to try some more varieties this season!  I’m also curious about vertical growing for peppers.  I’d love to grow some habanero peppers for our homemade barbecue sauce.  We used to make frozen habanero cubes for making our own sauce.  Here’s how I made the pickled peppers!

Simple Refrigerator Pickled Peppers 

7-8 fresh peppers of your choice

1/3 cup sliced onion

1 tbsp. kosher canning salt

1/3-1/2 cup sugar

1/8 tsp. each of mustard seed, turmeric and celery seed

White vinegar, at least 5% acidity, good quality

Carefully slice peppers and layer them in a pint canning jar with the sliced onions.   Gloves and a dishwasher safe cutting board are helpful.  Do not touch your eyes!

Jar of peppers and onions.

Sprinkle in the dry ingredients.

Had to get out my tiny measuring spoons!

Add enough vinegar to fill the jar.

Add the spices!

Screw on cover and turn upside down a few times.  Place in fridge for 3-4 weeks.  I turned to jar every time I thought of it.  The green peppers will turn an olive green color when they have fully taken on the flavors in the jar.  This recipe can easily be doubled or adapted to any size jar.  Use store purchased peppers or homegrown.  Mix it up a bit and experiment with the flavors!  This recipe delivers a sweet/hot pepper.  Serve with sandwiches, salads, appetizers or on pizza!  They are excellent stuffed into a grilled cheese.

Finished pickled peppers!

This is a great way to preserve peppers without canning.  Try some of my other simple ideas in the post Quick Food Preservation Tips.  There you will find some great tips for the busy gardener!

Have you finished planning your garden yet?  I’m still working on mine.  I’ve been thinking about starting some onions soon.  Do any of you start onions or do you direct seed or use sets?  Leave me a comment, question or advice below.  I would love to hear from you!  I hope you try this recipe and like it as much as we did!  Thanks for following along and subscribe for free in the sidebar.

Hilary|Everlongardener

 

 

Easily Grow Windowsill Microgreens

With the snow starting to fly outside, many of us are suddenly spending less time in the garden and way more time indoors.  For those of you who can’t get enough of gardening, why not try growing some nutritious windowsill micro greens this winter season?  No grow lights, no greenhouse, just your windowsill!

Many vegetables are hard to grow inside, but not micro greens!  By using minimal equipment, you can grow a wide array of micro greens on your windowsill.  Very little space or skill is required.  With a harvest time of around ten days for some plants, you can easily be eating your greens again in no time!

Microgreens used on top of a salad.

Micro greens are actually the shoots of certain salad vegetables.  Unlike sprouts, they are grown in soil.  Seeds of kale, lettuce, chard, beets, arugula, spinach and radishes can be used.  This winter, I’m trying sunflower shoots for the first time.  Basil, orach and sorrel are on my list too.  Micro green seed mixtures can be purchased from garden centers, seed companies or from Amazon.  I got some from the Sprout House.  They range from mild to spicy and can compliment Asian, French or Mediterranean cuisines.  If you have left over garden seed, try making up your own mixture.  There are slow and fast growing types.  The Johnny’s seed catalog has a great chart about growth rates.  Just make sure your mixtures accommodate the growth rate.  I did a slow tray and a fast tray.

Add soil to container.

To start growing your own windowsill micro greens, you will need 5 basic things: soil, containers, seeds, water and sun.  Choose a growing mix that you would want to grow food in.  Seeds can be planted in trays or any containers that you may already have.  Lettuce or mushroom containers work very well.  You may want to add drainage holes and a tray under the containers.

Soil is all ready!

After adding soil, sprinkle the seeds over the surface.

Closeup of the seeds!

Cover lightly with more soil.  We used the hand seed sower to mix and distribute the seeds.  This way there were no spills or waste.  Gently water the containers.  Position in a south-facing window.

Tiny seedling pushing through the dirt!

In a few days, you will notice the tiny seedlings emerging from the soil.  Keep moderately moist and turn containers as the plants tend to reach for the sun.

Microgreens ready for cutting!

Micro greens are ready for use when they are between 1/2 to 2″ tall and leaves are formed.  Cut with scissors and wash before use.  They can be used for 5 to 10 days depending on conditions.  Micro greens will usually grow again, so keep them watered for a subsequent harvest!

Striking red chard Microgreens!

Many growers are selling micro greens at local markets and to restaurants.  Use micro greens in addition or in place of salad greens.  Add to green drinks and smoothies or use as a garnish.  They are totally versatile so it’s only limited to your imagination!  Micro greens are packed with high levels of healthy nutrients and contain Vitamin C, E, Beta carotene and more.  Some of them even have protein.  For more growing info, go to my post How to Grow Microgreens in 4 Easy Steps or the book Microgreens by Eric Franks.

Salad with microgreens!

It may be one of the latest trends in home gardening but I think you will find growing windowsill micro greens brings a little of the summer indoors during these colder months.  Let me know if you have any experience growing micro greens.  Leave a comment below if you have any questions or ideas!  I would love to hear from you!  Don’t forget to subscribe for free in the sidebar for weekly gardening inspiration!  Thank you for coming along this week and get growing!

Hilary|Everlongardener

 

Quick Food Preservation Tips

Ever feel like you simply don’t have time to deal with your harvest?  Sure, you may have time to pick the tomatoes and snip that basil but, what if you have no time for canning?  Below you will find a few quick food preservation tips for the busy gardener.image

Tomatoes

Once these babies start coming they never seem to stop.  I don’t know about you but my kitchen windowsill becomes a tomato storage unit this time of year!  The smaller cherry or grape types come first.  Then the medium sized tomatoes start to ripen.  Bring on the BLT’s and Caprese salads! Still too many tomatoes?  No time for canning?

All shapes and sizes!
All shapes and sizes!

Have you ever heard of freezing whole tomatoes? I’ve been doing it for years after seeing it on a local cooking show.  All you have to do is wash the tomatoes and cut out the stem.

Cut out blossom end.
Cut out blossom end.

The next step is to toss them in a zipper bag and push the air out!  It’s as easy as that.

Place tomatoes in zipper bag.
Place tomatoes in zipper bag.

When you have a recipe that calls for a can of diced tomatoes, simply take out a few from the freezer bag and place them in a saucepan.  Add a little water and cover.  Simmer over medium heat until thawed.  Use a potato masher to crush them and remove the skins with a fork.  This can easily be done while you cook.  When cooking chili for instance, brown meat and prepare the rest of the ingredients.  When you are ready for the tomatoes, they should be done.  This way you can avoid canned tomatoes all together.  Of course, if you don’t have freezer space, traditional canning methods may be for you.

image

Basil

When I get around to harvesting my basil, I usually have a ton of it all at once.  Making pesto is simple and it freezes well.  Most of you probably know of the old ice cube tray trick.  Just make a batch of pesto, scoop it into the ice cube trays and freeze.  After they have completely frozen, remove from trays and place in a freezer bag.  Now you have individual servings of pesto.  This works great for me since I’m the only one who eats it around here!

Basil in the salad spinner!
Basil in the salad spinner!

Throughout the year, it’s wonderful to have fresh basil on hand.  When I have an abundance, I prepare it for the freezer.

Wash and spin the basil leaves.
Wash and spin the basil leaves.

Remove leaves from the basil stems, wash and dry, then put in a freezer bag.  Squeeze out all of the air and freeze immediately.

Basil in a zipper bag, ready for the freezer.
Basil in a zipper bag, ready for the freezer.

To use, just quickly take the bag out of the freezer. Use your hand to crush some of the leaves and sprinkle into your dish.  The aroma of fresh basil permeates the kitchen and you have the closest thing to fresh basil going into your meal!  Make sure to put basil right back in the freezer.  Use this frozen basil in soups, stews, sauces and on pizza!

Herbs

At our house, we have quite a few perennial herbs growing in the gardens.  Oregano, thyme, mint. Rosemary is usually planted in with the basil for convenience.  As the summer slips by, I try to run out and harvest some for winter use. I don’t have a designated herb drying area yet.  I just grab an unused window screen from the basement and put my herb cuttings on it to dry. Placing the screen on top of my upright freezer ensures that they go undisturbed.

Make shift herb drying rack!
Make shift herb drying rack!

When herbs have dried, store them in an airtight container.  Rosemary and thyme are aromatic additions to many meals.  Mint can be used for tea. When you purchase and grow perennial herb plants, you can save money on buying dried herbs at the store.

Cucumbers 

They all seem to come at once if they come at all! The crunchy, refreshing cucumber.  I love to make pickles, especially Bread and Butter pickles.  But, the work involved can take hours. Fermented pickles or refrigerator pickles can be a lifesaver in these situations.  Fermented pickles are made in a crock or jar and are left for several months until they are ready. Refrigerator pickles are stored in the fridge and used much sooner.

Refrigerator pickles on the left, fermented pickles on the right!
Refrigerator pickles on the left, fermented pickles on the right!

For the refrigerator pickles I used a recipe from theprettybee.com but added some crushed red pepper flakes.  There are so many recipes out there.  Just look up a few and see what appeals to you.

Cut fresh cucumbers into spears.
Cut fresh cucumbers into spears.

The recipe I use for fermented pickles came from my mother-in-law.  I know many people use this and I’m sure the original recipe goes way back.  I broke it down for a one quart jar.  This way I can make one jar at a time if I like.  The recipe is actually for a gallon size jar.

Place sliced cucumbers in jar.
Place sliced cucumbers in jar.

Sour Mustard Pickles

1/4 cup Kosher canning salt

1/4 cup dry mustard

1 cup sugar

White vinegar for filling jar

Add ingredients to the jar.
Add ingredients to the jar.
Add the vinegar to the jar.
Add the vinegar to the jar.

Fill jar with 5% acidity white vinegar.  Leave about a half inch of head space.  Rotate jar a bit to mix ingredients.  Place in a dark, cool cupboard and wait a few months.  Some feel that these type of pickles come out mushy.  Make sure to use firm, fresh cucumbers for the best results and don’t keep them forever.  Eat them up!

Remember that farm stands usually sell tomatoes and cucumbers in bulk this time of year.  Even if your garden has been less that productive, you still have the chance to preserve some of the harvest!

Thanks for stopping by Everlongardener today.  I hope these quick tips are helpful in preserving your harvest in these busy times! I’m getting ready to plant more greens for winter so some garden space is getting cleared.  Have a great week! Hey! And don’t forget to subscribe to the blog and follow Everlongardener on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook!

Hilary|Everlongardener

Fabulous Fiddleheads

Every year, spring is filled with much anticipation for the fabulous fiddlehead!  Never heard of a fiddlehead?  They are the curled new fronds that emerge from the Ostrich fern, or Matteuccia struthiopteris.  The young growth can be eaten and is quite a local delicacy!  They are a glossy green with a papery brown, scaly covering. The flavor is fresh, earthy and maybe a bit like asparagus but really these little spirals have a flavor all of their own.

Spring soul food, fiddleheads!
Spring soul food, fiddleheads!

Fiddleheads are not only delicious, they are very good for you.  They provide a good source of fiber, Vitamins C and A, and Omega fatty acids.  Not too shabby!

Where To Find Fiddleheads?

Where do they grow?  Fiddleheads thrive on river and stream banks.  You may be able to identify the Ostrich fern in summer and return the following spring to harvest the tender new growth.  Fiddleheads range from Alaska to the Northeast, British Colombia, northern and southern parts of Canada.  They can also be found near the Great Lakes and Southern Appalachians.

A full grown Ostrich fern.
A full grown Ostrich fern.

Finding fiddleheads can be a bit tricky.  First, make sure they are indeed fiddlehead ferns.  I actually don’t have a place to go harvest them.  In many parts of Maine they are plentiful, but here on the coast fiddlehead patches are a closely guarded secret.  I can show you my fiddlehead patch but… you get the picture!  I buy mine at a local health food store or farm stand.  The best deals are found roadside.  Locals make a quick spring income on their harvest.  When I was growing up, a family friend used to bring them over by the five gallon bucket.  Paying for them seems silly but they are only here for a very short time.

Fiddlehead ferns or Ostrich ferns.
Fiddlehead ferns or Ostrich ferns.

As usual, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension has some substantial information on identifying fiddlehead ferns properly.  Fiddlehead biology and proper harvest are discussed in Bulletin # 2540, Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads.  You can find more than you ever wanted to know in Bulletin #4198, Facts on Fiddleheads including tons of fiddlehead recipes.

It is usually necessary to clean freshly harvested fiddleheads.  A good soaking with several water changes will do the trick.  Pick off the papery covering as you go.

Getting ready to steam some fiddleheads.
Getting ready to steam some fiddleheads.

Cooking Methods

When I worked as a waitress, the diner where I worked served fiddleheads in many ways.  Quiche, cream of fiddlehead soup, as a side dish and the ever popular, deep fried and served with Ranch dressing!  Yes, this was the much sought after appetizer!  I can still taste them.

At our house, we usually steam them.  Some people saute  or boil them and serve with butter or vinegar.  I was surprised to find that the previously mentioned articles said that no one should ever eat raw fiddlehead ferns.  Apparently they have been the source of some food born illnesses.

Getting ready to make fiddlehead pesto.
Getting ready to make fiddlehead pesto.

Last week, I picked some garlic chives from the garden and put together a pesto.  I added the fiddleheads, chives, parmesan cheese and olive oil to my mini food processor.  I guess after finding out about the raw fiddlehead issue, I would briefly steam them next time.  The result was a creamy, comforting pasta topping!  A definite keeper!

Finished product. Fiddlehead and garlic chive pesto!
Finished product. Fiddlehead and garlic chive pesto!

To preserve all of that fiddlehead goodness, some people love pickling them.  Blanching and freezing are also good options.

If you are interested in more information on foraging for wild food, check out Enjoying and Preserving Dandelion Greens.  I hope you get to try fiddleheads before the season is over.  Thanks for giving this article a read!  Feel free to subscribe in sidebar!

Hilary|Everlongardener

Getting Started With Worm Composting

I have been fascinated by the idea of using worms to speed up my composting efforts for years.  I must be crazy to do this, I couldn’t even keep that last batch of Sea Monkey’s alive!  Of course, the thought of keeping worms may not be everyone’s cup of manure tea, but you might change your mind when you learn about the advantages of Vermiculture (a.k.a. composting with worms).  How long does your compost pile take to break down?  Two to three years?  With a worm bin you can potentially start seeing results in a few months!

Red wiggles worms!
Red wiggles worms!

How A Worm Bin Works 

We all know that worms take care of so much of our waste outside.  I’ve always said that worms were at the top of the food chain although that may not be exactly scientifically accurate!  But let’s just contemplate harnessing that power in a smaller, controlled environment.  With the right balance of ingredients and moisture, you can make a contained compost making machine.

What Kind Of Worms

With worm castings being some of the best stuff for your garden, generating your own for garden amendments can be invaluable.  The preferred worm for the job here is the red wiggler or Eisenia fetida.  The earthworms generally found in your garden are not suitable for use in a bin.  They require much deeper soil to survive.  Sometimes home gardeners may find a cluster of red wigglers in their gardens but I had never seen any on my property.  I got some worms from a local high school.  I discussed this briefly in my post A Unique Seed Saving Project .  There are many online sources for live red wigglers.  A reputable seller will guarantee live delivery.  Bait shops may even have some for sale.

What Can I Add To My Bin?

Red Wigglers are ravenous eaters!  Save your kitchen veggie scraps, egg shells, stale bread items and pasta.  Animal manure, leaves, newspaper and toilet paper rolls can be added.  Avoid putting in any meat or fatty food items.

Stale bread items and pasta.
Stale bread items and pasta.
Veggie scraps, fruit peels and eggs shells for the worm bin.
Veggie scraps, fruit peels and eggs shells for the worm bin.

Building The Worm Bin

Once you start looking for information on Vermiculture,  you will soon find that there are tons of ideas out there.  I just got my wigglers a few weeks ago so my bin is very basic.  Just a container with holes in the top.  But I will be changing it soon.  I’m letting the worms settle in a bit.

Gather items for worm bin assembly.
Gather items for worm bin assembly.

First, obtain two 8-10 gallon tubs.  Assemble your bedding ingredients.  You will need moist shredded newspaper, cardboard, fresh vegetable scraps, stale bread, dry leaves and some garden soil to start.  Using a drill, put holes in the bottom of the tote and along the top edge.

Shredded newspapers.
Shredded newspapers.

Start to layer in the items and add your worms.

Layers of kitchen scraps.
Layers of kitchen scraps.

Then cover the worms with more leaves and newspaper.  The bedding should be damp but not wringing wet.

Adding the red wiggles to your bin.
Adding the red wiggles to your bin.

Cover the bedding in a layer of newspaper, put a layer of cardboard over it and place cover on bin.  In the second bin, place two bricks or other similar objects in the bottom.  Place the worm bin inside second bin.  You now have built a simple worm composting bin.

Cardboard on top of bedding.
Cardboard on top of bedding.

Harvesting Black Gold

Getting the worm castings out of the bin is the next step.  The worms will do their work for a few months.  The worm poop can usually be found on the bottom of the bin.  Put down a sheet of plastic and take out the composted material.  Worms go away from light so a flashlight may help.  Gently sift through to separate worms from the castings.  Carefully place worms back in the bin and replenish the bedding.

A few healthy red wiggles composting worms.
A few healthy red wiggles composting worms.

With the right conditions, you could potentially expect to double your worm population every 3-4 months.  I found a great site called http://www.wormcompostinghq.com where I found all I ever wanted to know about Vermicomposting.  This guy even has a free e-book called 30 Worm Composting Questions Answered.  This book delves into the fascinating world of worm reproduction and even worm bin troubleshooting!  I’m starting to sound like a real garden nerd here!  Well, I’ll just have to see how it goes.

The worm castings can be applied directly to the garden.  Any drips from the bin can be used as form of worm bin tea, a fabulous fertilizer for plants.

There are so many other things to share about composting with worms.  I thought that for this post I would just discuss the basics.  Feel free to subscribe in sidebar to keep up with all of my gardening adventures!  Thanks for coming along!

Hilary~Everlongardener

 

A Unique Seed Saving Project

When Monticello, a plantation formerly owned by Thomas Jefferson, runs out of a particular seed, who do they call?  Medomak Valley High School heirloom seed project.  When Baker Creek Seeds needs a rare corn grown out for them, who do they call? Medomak Valley High School heirloom seed project.  Who is this group?  This is a local high school horticultural program.  I put in a bit of time with them when I was working on getting my Master Gardener status.  What I saw there really impressed me.

The yearly printed catalog of the Medomak Valley High School Heirloom Seed Project.
The yearly printed catalog of the Medomak Valley High School Heirloom Seed Project.

Who Are They?

This group of garden loving teens is headed up by teacher Mr. Neil Lash.  Talking about seed-saving and all the little stories behind them sends chills up his spine.  He is a real seed enthusiast.  The students have a very hands on experience. They learn gardening skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.

Mr. Lash teaching class.
Mr. Lash teaching class.

When I visited the class recently, Mr. Lash took some Einkorn Provence wheat out of the cold storage room.  The students listened attentively as he gave a riveting commentary on how this wheat was what would have been eaten in King Harods day and how it is so ancient that a person with Celiac disease could potentially eat it.  This wheat is only a few thousand years old.  It is also called rice wheat because of its small size.  The wheat is planted out every few years to keep it going. This is just an example of the diversity in the collection.

Some of the raised beds the class uses for growing.
Some of the raised beds the class uses for growing.

They strive to obtain local, open-pollinated seeds.  The history of seeds is important just like other kinds of history. Many seeds and plants in the collection are from local people and farms.   Memories, names and locations are recorded so as not to be lost.

Students tend these plants for the annual plant sale.
Students tend these plants for the annual plant sale.

What Do They Accomplish?

Aside from maintaining an extensive seed collection, the class has many other endeavors.  In one greenhouse, multiple worm compost bins are added to regularly.  I even obtained a few red wiggles to start my own bin.

Endangered chicken breeds raised by the students.
Endangered chicken breeds raised by the students.

One of the new projects this year is raising some rare chicken breeds.  The class chose ‘Buckeye’, ‘Golden Campine’ and ‘Chanteclers’.  The first breed is on the THREATENED list and the other two breeds are on the CRITICAL ENDANGERED list. Some of the extra males will be for sale and a variety ‘Freedom Ranger’ is being raised for meat. These will be available in June.

The classroom is soon getting a walk-in freezer for their seeds.  This will be a huge improvement, eliminating the need to grow out all of their inventory so much.

Greenhouse number 2.
Greenhouse number 2.

In the fall, students grow some of the finest salad greens for cafeteria use.  I asked how they were allowed to grow for student consumption and I was informed that because of the high standards in place for growing, the school does use their top quality salad greens.  No iceberg lettuce here!

Historic geraniums for sale.
Historic geraniums for sale.

The students maintain walking trails right near the school that are open to the public.  Great care has also been taken in restoring the American Chestnut tree with many planted on school grounds.  To find more information about the American Chestnut, you can go to http://www.acf.org.

Catalog and Plant Sale

The seed project puts out a yearly printed catalog with detailed descriptions of all seeds.  Many varieties were brought to Maine by early settlers.  Anyone interested in heirloom varieties should check it out!  The class also has a website, http://www.mvhsheirloomseedproject.com  where you can find more information.  The group was even recently featured in the Bangor Daily News.

One of the greenhouses full of lush plants for sale.
One of the greenhouses full of lush plants for sale.

The seeds savers annual plant sale is going on right now.  It is open to the public everyday after school from 2-3:30.  As you can see by the photo, the greenhouses are packed with healthy plants at reasonable prices!  Anyone can get involved in the project.   The seed savers are always looking for gardeners to grow varieties for them.  Contact them and give it a try.

I hope you find the concept of saving heirloom seeds as exciting as I do.  I wish there had been a class like this when I was in school.   I also hope that your garden plans are coming along.  Thanks for joining me this week.

Hilary|Everlongardener

Enjoying and Preserving Dandelion Greens

Some people are into dandelion greens, some are not.  I’m thinking that probably if you don’t care for them you haven’t had them fixed properly.  If you can imagine foraging for food in the old days, dandelions would be among the first things to harvest.  After a long winter of eating what you were able to put up, you would need those vitamins in your system.  I know my rabbit goes nuts over them.  Every time I go near her hutch she gets so excited, waiting for her pile of greens!

The other day I visited my friend Cindy for a little education on the common dandelion.  We took to the backyard with a sturdy knife and a bucket.  Foraging is easy because dandelions are usually so prevalent.  But, there is some work involved.

A lawn full of dandelions!

A Bit About Dandelions 

The common dandelion or Taraxacum officinale, is not the friend of someone who wants a lawn that looks like a golf course.  Many millions of dollars are spent yearly to kill the humble dandelion, the bane of some people’s existence.  It’s a shame because they are among the first foods for bees.  They are a perennial green best eaten in spring.  With their high vitamin content, K, A, C, it’s a huge list,  we probably all should be eating them!

Harvest, Care and Preperation

Only dig from areas free of pesticides and other harmful substances.  Choose plants before flowers emerge if you can.  With a firm handled knife, get around the back of the green, drive the knife into the ground firmly and cut in a sweeping, circular motion.  This maneuver cuts the root and you can then pull the green.  The rest of the root is left behind to grow again.  Use your knife to clean as you go.  Scrape any dirt away that you can.

Plunge knife into the ground behind dandelion.
Plunge knife into the ground behind dandelion.
Clean as you go.
Clean as you go.

When you have harvested the desired amount, the cleaning process begins.  Soak in water, changing the water 4-5 times until clean.

Soaking the greens.
Soaking the greens.

The cooking method is quite simple.  Place greens in a pot of water and bring to a boil.  Pour off water and put fresh water in the pot.  I added some partially cooked, chopped bacon, minced garlic, salt, pepper and chopped onions.  After simmering for roughly a half hour, drain water and serve. Some like them with vinegar.  I have to say they were fantastic!  The fat in the pot takes the bitterness out.  You can use salt pork, bacon or my mother told me to use olive oil.

A lovely dish of dandelion greens with bacon, onions and garlic.
A lovely dish of dandelion greens with bacon, onions and garlic.

Preserving

Wondering how to get your dandelion fix in the dead of winter?  Well, my visit with my friend was also a lesson in preservation.  A method passed down from her mother.  A crock would be ideal.  In this case, the ceramic liner from a slow cooker was used.   Using cleaned greens, layer them in the crock with kosher salt.  Place a plate over them for a weight.  They will shrink down a lot.  Repeat the process to fill container.  Keep in the refrigerator.

Salting the greens.
Salting the greens.

When you are ready to eat your greens, give them a good soaking to remove the salt and cook as desired.  It’s a pretty amazing process.

Cooking Ideas

There are so many uses for dandelions once you start looking.  They can be added to green smoothies, make spring tonics, mixed in when making kale chips or put into salads.  Roots can be roasted and made into a substitute for coffee.  The blossoms can be made into wine if you are ambitious!

My grandmothers cookbook, The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery from 1949 had many suggestions.  “If the leaves are to be used in salad, they should be well drained and crisped in the refrigerator.  A tart French dressing is all that is required.”  I’m not sure how bitter they would be but I’ll have to try it.

Thank you for coming along with me this week.  I hope you try your hand at harvesting dandelion greens!  You might be surprised how much you like them. Feel free to subscribe to the Everlongardener blog in the sidebar  for weekly gardening inspiration!

Hilary|Everlongardener

Cultivating Colossal Carrots

One of the greatest gardening moments last year was when I showed my son how to harvest carrots.  What a thrill it was for him as he pushed on each little carrot in the row and then pulled them out.  We got a whole tote of carrots from the garden.  They were on the small size though and I’m determined to do better this year.  I want real carrots!  Carrots that have some size to them.  I guess I had better figure out how to do it!

Homegrown carrots are the best!
Homegrown carrots are the best!

Types of Carrots

Now, you may be thinking that a carrot is just a carrot.  It’s not that easy.  There are miniature types, round golf ball sized ones, long, slender Imperaror types, just to name a few.  I’ve been having some success with the Chantenay varieties.  They have broad shoulders, stocky bodies and they get sweeter with cooler fall temps.  Read the seed packets, you’ll find a wealth of information to help you decide.  We also grow different colored carrots for fun.

My brother-in-law grew some gorgeous carrots last year!
My brother-in-law grew some gorgeous carrots last year!

Location, Location, Location!

This year I decided to plant the carrots in a spot where they did well a few years ago.  You will want to choose a space that has very few stones and has deep enough soil. Make sure you’ve got the tilth before attempting to grow really long carrots.

This is my freshly tilled carrot bed.
This is my freshly tilled carrot bed.

When Should You Plant?

After picking a well-worked, fertile area, planting can start pretty early in spring.  Just wait until soil is sufficiently dried out and around two to three weeks before last frost.  This may vary in your area.  Succession planting is also a great idea for extending your harvest. Fall and winter carrots are the sweetest!

I think this soil will do!
I think this soil will do!

How Do I Plant?

Prepare your carrot bed at least a foot deep if you can.  Add a layer of compost and work it in.  Make lines about 1/4″ deep and a foot apart.  I tend to be really careful when sowing so I don’t waste a lot of seed and this also limits the amount of thinning I have to do later.  I have this vision of maybe my great uncle planting till the seeds were gone, then attaching the packet to a stick at the end of the row.  It is not necessary to plant all the seeds that you have!  It’s hard to hold back, I know, but this pays off later.  It’s a good idea to keep soil moist during the germination period.

Feeds and Needs

Carrots are not crazy about nitrogen, so skip all of that high nitrogen fertilizer.  They prefer compost or aged manure. These should be worked into the garden long before planting.  I was learning about using fish emulsion on carrots the other day, but need to do some more research on the nitrogen content first.  To prevent the tops from turning green, cover the shoulders of the carrots with soil.

Harvesting and Storing

It takes a ton of patience to let those wonderful, sweet carrots fully mature.  Use some carrots mid to late summer.  Let the rest keep growing. Cooler temps actually sweeten them up. Push in the carrots shoulders, then grasp and pull out.  You can also carefully use a garden fork for harvesting.  Remove tops, wash well, dry them off and store in the fridge.  Of course, canning, pickling, drying and freezing are all options. But, I’m not that ambitious!  I usually leave them in the garage until it gets too cold out then put them in my spare fridge.  I roast veggies several nights a week and carrots are fabulous this way!

Roasted root vegetables, including carrots, are a favorite in our family.
Roasted root vegetables, including carrots, are a favorite in our family.

Now I just need to get out there and get my seeds in the ground.  This year I’m trying for colossal carrots.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.  What kind of carrots are you planting this year?  If you are having trouble getting out there this year, click on over to my post Getting Started In The Garden for a little pep rally.  As always, thanks for checking in with Everlongardener.