Sunday, March 31, 2013

Jamapalooza Five

Our canning circle reached a milestone in March -- we've gathered once a year for five years to make jam and chutneys, to try recipes from the humble to the exotic, and to catch up on each other's lives. We've always gathered in mid to late winter, when we really need a pick-me-up. This year may have been our best year yet. We made bruschetta in a jar, brandied cranberry-orange marmalade, maple-onion conserve, mango chutney, lemon curd and lime curd.

 Ingredients, recipes and an assortment of jars.

 The range gets a workout.

 Bruschetta in a jar gets ladled into jars. Find the recipe from Ball here.

Janna and Holly are the experts in the group.

 Brandied cranberry-orange marmalade is ready for lids and the water bath.

Connie zests limes for the curd. 

 Curd takes a lot of eggs. We used eggs fresh from Janna's Fat Chicken Farm.

Lime zest mixed with sugar. The kitchen was smelling pretty good at this point.

 The lemon curd is delicious. We dipped thin, crispy lemon cookies in it.

Part of the fruits of our labors.

For someone who is not a natural cook, I love these canning sessions. It's so satisfying to combine ingredients in a jar that you can hold in your hand, and know you can enjoy later. And it's great fun to do it with friends. I'm already looking forward to Jamapalooza Six.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Go for launch!

Last week, on an unassuming and snowy afternoon, a small miracle occurred.  The 2013 garden was born.  The annual rite of spring happened as it always does...... quietly.  Every year in early March, the first seeds are sown and the renewal begins.  It starts slowly with only a few varieties being planted at first.  Things like leeks, celeriac, and heliotrope are always the first to start the trip but virtually every week from now until early May something will require sowing.  By the end of it, it will be all-consuming, gobbling up all of my free time and dominating my thoughts.  Slowly, the amount of sowing will give way to transplanting, growing and maintaining the seedlings.

With the amount of plants that we start here (~5000 cells) it is important to stay organized and on schedule.  Good record keeping helps.  If you start your own seeds you know that crop timing is important.  Not all plants grow at the same rate.  You do not want to sow too early so it's important to know your crop and follow the advice given on the seed packet.  Obviously, you want your plants ready to plant when the time is right.  Around here the first or second week of June is the target and most things can be planted out safely then.  That may sound late to some of you but this is gardening in the North and frost in early June is not at all uncommon.  With some crop times stretching to 12 to 13 weeks, starting in early March is just about right. 

Onion 'Jaune Paille Des Vertus'

One thing about gardeners: They're always looking to the future.  It has been said before but it bears repeating here that being a gardener means you are an eternal optimist.  Every year presents new challenges and thankfully, triumphs! It seems that everything we do is an investment in the future with hopes of an eventual payoff that will make it all worth while.  The payoff usually does not disappoint.  The food and a year's worth of therapy is started by the simple act of planting some seeds in a pot and watering them.  It is somewhat magical this personal harbinger of spring.  When the lights go on and the room is filled with the aroma of damp planting medium, it fills my soul with anticipation of what is to come.  My lazy days of winter leisure are numbered, but that's okay.

It's odd to think about vegetable gardening when there are still 18+ inches of snow on the ground with more forecast for later in the week, but it is also exciting.  Sowing seed is the signal that change is coming.  The snow will eventually melt and the sun will warm the soil. The grays and whites of winter will soon become the greens of spring.  The countdown has begun.  It is only a matter of time and when the time is right, we will be ready. 
"Houston to Sillydoggarden:   ......You are go for launch!"

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Much to my surprise

Upon returning home from my "day job" yesterday I was treated to a somewhat rare sight.  A Barred Owl was hanging around the garden hunting for a meal.  Unlike most other owls, Barred Owls often hunt during the daylight hours and this one was doing just that.  The quarry?  Anything small that moves.  There is usually some activity around the compost piles, especially this time of year.  We have plenty of vermin to make meals out of here so I'm surprised that it took until March to observe one here.  It has been well documented in the local print media that Great Gray Owls and Barred Owls have been common sightings this winter.  This happens every few years as the owls move down from Canada when prey gets scarce in their traditional range, mimicking the population fluctuations of these species.  Barred Owls do live here but the Great Gray's are uncommon as they typically live further North. Owls can get pretty concentrated in this area and there sometimes isn't enough prey to go around.  Some don't make it.  Several dead owls have been found this season and that is unfortunate.

I admit, I am a bit of a predator snob.  They certainly are a crucial part of the balance of life, keeping certain pests (at least as far as a gardener is concerned) in check.  I prefer controlling these things in a natural fashion as opposed to traps or other methods of control.  It is really a game of chance, though.  All you can do is make the environment appealing to them but you can't make them come.  The "If you build it, they will come" approach doesn't always work.  All you can do is hope.  We always seem to have some critters living off the fruits of our labor here and we hope that when there gets to be too many of them, some predators will move in.  Sometimes they do.  We've been treated to some real cool sights in the 19+ years we've been gardening here.

The Barred Owl is a medium sized owl, up to 24" in length.  It's distinguishing characteristics include but are not limited to the dark eyes.  The Great Gray Owl is similar in size, (perhaps a bit larger) but it has yellow eyes.  Also, the horizontal "barring" around the neck is unique to this species, hence the name.

Spotting the owl yesterday was the high point of my day.  Things like that are what makes living and gardening here worth the extra time and effort (and frustration) that it requires.  Special treats happen every now and again in the wild and in the garden and one must always appreciate them for what they are when they happen.  I have not noticed it around today but my hope is that it had a good meal last night and solved some of my problems for me.  Perhaps it will return.  I can only hope.  Come to think of it, I haven't seen any rabbit tracks around here in a while.