Category Archives: Gardening

Preserving Your Harvest

For your new homestead Mark and Tonya!!!!

With summer’s closing just around the corner, it’s time to consider what to do with all of those beautiful herbs and vegetables that you’ve grown in your garden. The tender sweet basil, ripe juicy tomatoes and the wonderful chives can be dried or preserved to enjoy through the winter months. How you preserve your food depends greatly on which type of vegetable it is and how you’d like to use it in the future.

Herbs are absolutely wonderful freshly cut from the plant. Fresh pesto made from basil or fresh rosemary sprinkled over chicken and if harvested and dried properly, you can enjoy that same taste through the winter. Dehydration can be done with low heat or simply air dried. I’ve used both and prefer the air dry method for peppers, which I thread through the stem and hang to dry in the least humid part of the house. Leafy herbs, fruit slices and even small peppers are also easily dried with air. A netted drying rack works great. This type of dehydration unit has trays with holes for air flow and the netting keeps pests out, even fruit flies. The best part, it doesn’t have to be plugged in! There are several types of electric free dehydration units, but if jerky is desired, a low heat electric unit is best.

The next type of preservation is canning. Canning can be accomplished by water bath or pressure cooking. Both methods use high temperatures to create a vacuum seal preventing air and bacteria from forming on the food. Water bath canning is for high acid foods such as tomatoes, fruits, cucumbers in salt brine, pickled beets, etc… Pressure cookers are for any foods which have a very low acid content. Meats, beans, corn and other low acid foods are pressure cooked. Canning is a very demanding chore and probably the most rewarding. There is something very warming to the spirit to see a cupboard full of jars of food. Reminds me of summers at my grandparent’s place, putting up cherries, tomatoes and green beans.
In addition to canning, many of the same vegetables can be blanched and frozen. I prefer to blanch and freeze green beans and spinach. I have also sliced up the over abundance of summer squash and once blanched, it’s ready for casserole dishes, stews or zucchini bread. Blanching is simply submerging the vegetables in boiling water for a specific time (depending on the vegetable but usually a minute or less). Once the time is up, submerge the vegetables into ice water until cool and then strain off the water. The vegetables can be placed into freezer Ziploc bags or freezer containers. Remember it’s always best to double bag when freezing any kind of food to prevent freezer burn.

Before the invention of modern day canning or ice cold freezers, vegetables were preserved by fermentation. Typically, you think of sauerkraut when you think of fermented vegetables, but most any vegetable can be fermented. When you ferment or culture foods, you make them a healthier food!

Lacto-Fermented foods are those that have been cultured by beneficial organisms. In the right conditions, beneficial organisms feast on the food, producing beneficial acids, and transforming the food into something better, containing all the original vitamins, enzymes, and now active cultures — conveying benefits to your gut, your immune system, and your digestion. This culturing develops complex flavors and pleasing textures, while the food becomes more nutritious than it was before. And the acids preserve and protect the food from spoiling. It is really a miraculous process!

Fermenting foods covers a lot more than sauerkraut! Did you know you can ferment fruits, vegetables, beans, meats, dairy, and grains? You can even ferment condiments like mayonnaise. And there are many ways to start the culture for your fermenting process… salt brine, whey, dairy cultures, water kefir and more. I made a batch of fresh organic beets in a salt brine and was so surprised that there was NO salty taste in the beets, just very sweet, crunchy, delicious, and healthy. At Homesteader’s Supply we were so intrigued with this process we started producing our Pickle-Pro! It comes with a free recipe for 5-Spice Apple Chutney. The principle is similar to the old fashioned fermenting crock process, except not only is there a water seal to keep air from getting in, but also allows for the escape of the gases produced. I’m guessing that this is why we don’t get the mold on the top which is common with using jars and crocks. It is also so much less expensive, which means you can have multiples always going at the same time. The process only takes about 3 days of fermentation on your kitchen counter. And the best part is that you don’t have to ferment everything from your garden right away. You can preserve in other ways, like freezing, canning, and then ferment just the amount you want when you want.

Back Yard Homesteading

City dwellers and country folks alike are realizing the benefits of back yard homesteading. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy a horse, cows, goats and fill acres with fences and animals. Back yard homesteading could be as simple as a few chickens and a nice garden for summer time vegetables. Homesteading is simply making the best use out of the land you have to use. If you have a small city plot, plant a garden in addition to flowers for an edible landscape design. If city ordinances allow, add a few chickens for a fresh supply of eggs. Despite a common misconception, you do not need a rooster to have fresh eggs. You only need a rooster if you want fertile eggs!

Chickens are an easy addition to the back yard homestead because they require very little maintenance. A clean source of water is a must and a constant supply of a healthy chicken crumble from your local feed store will have you enjoying fresh eggs in no time. A great benefit to chickens is the built in composting option. They LOVE table scraps, vegetable peels and cuttings and pretty much any food stuffs you’d normally throw away. In return they will give you fertilizer for your grass or garden. We coop our chickens at night and let them run free in the yard during the day. This does require fencing around any gardens, as I said, they do love fresh vegetables and you’ll find a patch full of half eaten cucumbers and the lettuce will be gone if you don’t lock them out. I clean out the chicken coop every month or so. I compost the straw bedding for the garden soil. We use five gallon buckets in a wooden rack that we built for nesting boxes. This keeps the skunks and racoons from stealing the eggs. The buckets are at a twenty degree tilt to keep the eggs from rolling out onto the ground.

Please comment with any questions and as always… Happy Homesteading!!!

Gardening With Straw Bales

Something to keep in mind when considering gardening with straw bales, make sure you purchase straw and not hay bales… hay will get too hot in the composting process and will kill your plants.

You can plant either seeds or plants in straw bales. I sowed seeds and transplanted from four inch pots last year, but before you begin, you must begin the composting process. I arranged the dry bales (much easier to move when dry!) in the configuration that worked for our back yard. You can either lay them down on the side (strings on the top and bottom) or strings on the sides with the cut straw facing top and bottom. If strings are on the sides, like in the photos, they tend to be a bit wobbly so secure them to each other or stake them into the ground with rebar. I neglected to do this and had a few bales fall over. Once the bales are arranged properly for your space, soak them thoroughly and sprinkle each bale with one cup of either ammonium sulfate or ammonium nitrate (though the latter is difficult to find since it’s been used for terrorism). Soak the bales again and let rest for one day. On day two, sprinkle one quarter cup of the fertilizer on each bale and soak thoroughly again. Repeat for eight more days. On day eleven, stop using the fertilizer and just soak the bales well for another ten days. On day twenty one from setup, you’re ready to test and see if the bales have cooked enough.

Now that the cooking process is complete, push your hand down into the bales and see if
Is it HOT inside the bale? Warm is ok, hot means it’s still cooking and you should wait a few days before planting. Just continue to water each day and test again.

Does it give enough (meaning is the straw still tight or has it composted enough) for you to get your hand inside the bale?

If the bale is no longer hot and if there is give for your hand… then you’re ready to plant!

What I do for seeds is work a couple of coffee cans of soil into the top of the bales and then poke the seeds into the soil based on planting depth. Once the seeds are in place you can lightly sprinkle soil on top of them and water carefully until they sprout. You can cover it with mulch if the spring temps are super high, but typically, as long as I keep it watered a few times a day to keep the seeds moist, they will sprout within a week. If you water too hard (high water pressure) your seeds will sprout from the ground around the bale, so be careful to soak the bales slowly as not to wash away your seeds.

Now for the transplants, I use a pointed shovel and stick it into the bale and then pry it back creating a gap in the bale, I pour in soil from the coffee can and water so the soil is moist or even muddy. I remove the shovel once there is enough soil to keep the gap open. I then make a hold for the plant and add a bit of soil on top to make sure the roots are well covered. Again, mulch is optional depending on the weather. Water the bales twice daily if there isn’t rain and add compost tea if they look faded at all. I have used miracle grow with great results but some look for an organic option and composting teas are wonderful and nutrient rich.

Happy Gardening!

Phase 1 of Straw Bale Gardening….

After much research, I am about to embark on gardening IN straw bales. One important step I’ve come to learn is that it’s best NOT to take shortcuts. Several people shared failure tales… simply soaking their bales with water for a few days before planting offered little nutrients to their plants and thus… little if nothing to harvest… they didn’t take the time to create a growing environment within the bale by adding the Ammonium Nitrate or compost teas to the bales for 10 days before planting.

To be perfectly honest, I won’t be adding Ammonium Nitrate either… I can’t find the stuff! So, instead of using the 30-0-0 power of Ammonium Nitrate… I’ll be using the 21-0-0 power of Ammonium Sulfate. I’m hoping it will produce the same result, which is to begin to ‘cook’ or ‘compost’ the bale. This allows the bale to ‘cook’ – or increase the temperature of the bale as it begins the process of decomposing. We definitely don’t want this process to begin once our plants are rooting in the bale. Temperatures during this process can hit 165 degrees and will damage, if not kill, your young little starters. I’ll be taking pictures this weekend as I lay out the garden of bales, sprinkle on the 1st cup of fertilizer and then soak with water. From what I’ve read, the first day we will sprinkle 1 cup of Ammonium Sulfate onto each bale… the next 9 days call for 1/4 cup each day before soaking. I also plan on taking beginning temperatures and keeping a log for the entire 10 days to see what kind of temperatures we obtain using the Sulfate as opposed to the Nitrate.

Stay tuned for more updates on the new garden!

Planting in Straw Bales

A few years ago I had about 40 straw bales hanging around from a straw bale wall project that never did happen. I decided to build a series of raised beds with them for my garden. I set up beds that were 4 bales long and 1 bale wide – then filled the rectangle with compost that my cows and chickens had shared through out the previous year. I had the best crops out of any garden that year!!! I was going to do a similar set up this year until I did some research on straw bale raised beds and found many homesteaders actually growing their veggies in the bales themselves rather than using the bales to hold the dirt in place!

A blog called the Gardner’s Rake has a great article on how to prep the bales to become a growing medium for wonderful crops! The picture to the right I found on Google to see how plants looked growing from straw bales. Apparently, by soaking the bales, adding a compost tea (which I’ll share the steps for when I do it) and then cutting a small planting hole in the bale to add small amounts of soil for a growing medium… add the plant and get ready to harvest!!!

I’ll take pictures and post as I progress, sharing with you the success and failures in the project!

Thanks for reading,

Nance with Homesteader’s Supply!