Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Backyard Carbonara Primavera

It's spring in New England, and our 4th in our home. We're enjoying the harvest of spring ephemera: ramps, fiddleheads, and the first asparagus were ready today, along with some spinach and parsley from the annual vegetable garden.

We whipped up a carbonara style dish to showcase the bounty,  adding some eggs from our chickens and pork from a local farm to the mix. We called it Backyard Carbonara Primavera.

Friday, March 4, 2016

How to Make Maple Syrup at Home

You may recall our first attempt at making syrup from our backyard maples: How Not to Make Make Syrup at Home. Well, if at first you don't succeed...

That first attempt was 3 years ago; the last two years, we've combined our sap with a friend's and boiled using his rig. This year, we finally got around to building our own evaporator. Behold:

We made a simple evaporator using a 55-gallon drum, some pipe, and a chafing dish. Building this did require one special tool; an oxyacetylene torch, which we borrowed from a friend. This year's mild winter has made for a pretty bad sugaring season, but great weather for finally building an evaporator. Usually there's way too much snow cover to get this kind of project done.

We only have a handful of taps, so one tray is plenty for us, but you could get more out of one barrel by fitting two trays side-by-side.

So, what are we tapping? We have two silver maples and one sugar maple on our property, and a total of 5 taps. 5 gallons of sap makes about a pint of syrup, so that's our minimum batch. In a good year, we can make about a gallon, which is plenty for our household. It remains to be seen how many more runs we'll get this season.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Winter Gardening Success: Eating seasonally is no sacrifice

Back in the Fall, I showed you our new winter gardening system, a series of four low tunnels. In these new winter beds we planted leaf lettuce, spinach, spicy greens, bok choi, kale, onions, carrots, turnips, cilantro, and parsley. On this last day of February, everything is still alive, having survived several nights near -10 Fahrenheit. Our harvest totals more than 20 pounds of food collected during the coldest months of the year.

There is nothing quite like eating a salad you picked from the garden in mid-February. Combined with our strategy of storing foods from the summer and fall, and eggs from our chickens, we've managed to put some homegrown produce on our plates nearly every single day. Here's a taste of what we've been eating, month by month:


One of my goals this year was to serve a Thanksgiving dinner featuring exclusively homegrown vegetables. Our menu consisted of:

Fresh salad with candied walnuts, stilton, apples, carrots and turnips
Fresh baked baguette with herbed compound butter
Potato-leek gratin
Cider-glazed duck
Cubed Butternut squash with maple and sage
Garlic mashed sweet potato
Brussels Sprouts with American filbert, shallot and bacon
Apple green chile cheddar pie

We washed all this goodness down with homebrewed apple cider.


Ah December, month of holiday craziness. We were able to bring a giant salad and deviled homegrown eggs to my grandmother's for Christmas dinner, and we enjoyed latkes made from our own potatoes at Chanukah. We also started drinking the hard cider we made back in the Fall; giving us a special treat to bring to holiday gatherings. 


Come January we were still regularly enjoying smoothies made from our own frozen strawberries and blackberries, chiles rellenos with homegrown green chiles, salads, and tomato sauce we canned in August.


Now in February, we've run out of tomato sauce (but we still have some salsa and tomato juice), and the squash and potatoes are gone, but we still have some fruit in the freezer and plenty of green chile. We've got carrots and turnips in the fridge, and until this week our low tunnels were cranking out the greens. They survived two nights below -10, but our lettuce supply is largely depleted, so we are down to arugula and spinach for at least the next few weeks. Now that the days are longer, our chickens have started laying like crazy, and we are welcoming the return of backyard eggs to our diet.



With Spring just three weeks away, this will be the first winter we've weathered with such a steady supply of homegrown food all the way through. Let me tell you, it feels amazing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mid-Week Tweets

Monday, October 26, 2015

Winter gardening: Low tunnels for the home garden

If you live in the northeast, then you've probably already put your garden to bed for the season. If, like me, you can't bear to say goodbye to the supply of fresh veggies you enjoyed all summer long, I'm here to tell you: it doesn't have to end!

There are lots of ways to extend your growing season if you live in a cold climate (we're in zone 5b or 6a, depending on who you ask). You can eke out a few extra weeks just by throwing a sheet over your crops when a light frost is predicted. You can keep some vegetables like carrots ready to harvest in the ground by covering them with a thick blanket of mulch. But if you really want to keep growing things like braising greens, salad greens, and herbs long into the winter, you're going to need either cold frames or low tunnels.

Cold frames are familiar territory for most people. We've been using them for years, but I've been increasingly frustrated with them. They are labor intensive to build compared to the amount of veggies they hold. Worse, they are finicky--if you don't judiciously open them on warmer sunny days, your veggies will overheat and fry. If you open the cold frame but don't remember to close it by day's end? Buh-bye winter garden.

This year, we decided to try out a different season extender; the low tunnel. Low tunnels look like miniature green houses. They are built out of some sort of flexible pipe (we used electrical conduit, or EMT) and covered with frost protecting row cover and/or greenhouse plastic. We built four 16' long low tunnels this year, at a cost of approximately $10/tunnel.

Building the tunnels

We closely followed instructions from Johnny's Selected Seeds, with one major difference; we didn't use the hoop bender they sell. Instead, we made a jig using a quarter sheet of plywood and a lot of screws arranged in the arc of the hoop, as shown in this Instructable.

How to grow in your low tunnels

Know when to plant

If you want to enjoy fresh salads in the dead of winter, you have to plan ahead. Plants stop growing once the hours of daylight drop below 10. These dark months are called Persephone Days, and you can find out when yours begin here: . For me, it's November 11th. You want to make sure your plants have reached harvesting size by this date; to do that, check your seed packets for "days til maturity" and count back from the beginning of your Persephone Days to determine the latest you can plant each crop.

Alternatively, you can take advantage of the warm soil underneath your low tunnels to plant very late for an earlier crop in the Spring. So, you could plant spinach at Thanksgiving and expect to be harvesting it a few weeks earlier than normal in the Spring.

Plant a lot

Since your plants won't be growing during the winter, you need to have more plants in the ground than you would during the summer, so you can keep harvesting even though the leaves won't replenish.

What to plant

What you plant will depend on your area, but here's what I've got in my winter garden this year: 
  • Cilantro
  • Onions (for greens)
  • Curly kale
  • Red Russian kale
  • Arugula
  • Spicy salad mix
  • Hakurei turnips
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli raab
  • Lettuce mix
  • Bok choi

Have a green winter!

Seeing those vibrant greens chugging merrily along in the middle of a long cold winter can really keep the winter blues at bay, and so can all the nutrients in that fresh food! Do you have a winter garden? What works well for you? What hasn't worked so well?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Garlic harvest 2015

From just 5 heads of seed garlic planted 3 years ago to this year's harvest: 22 lbs of delicious New Mexican garlic.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tiny house update: New, upcycled roof

Tiny houses get a lot of wear and tear. They are exposed to the elements year round, taken on and off the highway, and get a lot of foot traffic on a very small surface area. Our Whittled Down Caravan is five years old now, and it is due for some maintenance. The first thing that failed, in our case, was the canvas roof. This is probably a surprise to no one.

The Whittled Down Caravan originally had a canvas roof, made of high quality and expensive Sun Forger waterproof and mildew resistant canvas. Well, it turns out that "resistant" does not equal "mildew proof". After our first season on the more humid east coast, the canvas started to get mildew spots. After another year or two, our once beautiful roof looked pretty gross, and the waterproofing was failing.

We tried a few methods to refresh the waterproofing, and tried our best to ignore the ugly mildew. First, we bought tent waterproofing stuff in an aerosol can from the hardware store. That worked for about three weeks. Next, we tried a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil. That waterproofed it all right, but it also magically weakened the canvas, shrinking it until it literally ripped itself to shreds.

The new canvas is beautiful, and we thought about replacing it. But $300 and a lot of labor every couple of years to replace the roof didn't seem practical, and we no longer even had access to an industrial sewing machine, which is necessary to sew through this hefty material. We began to explore other options. A regular old tarp would work, but it would be ugly and the UV would probably destroy it in a season. Then we remembered hearing that you can purchase old billboards online. These large pieces of heavy duty, UV-treated vinyl would likely last longer. And as it turned out, we could get one in exactly the size we needed for the roof.

So, for 10% of the cost of the canvas, we ordered a billboard on the Internet. When you do this, you have no control over what they send you. I'll admit, while we waited for it to arrive I fretted. What if we get some hideous beer ad with scantily clad women all over it?

 Well, we lucked out. When the material arrived, it turned out to be a misprint. The billboard was almost entirely white, with just a single stripe of smudged printing running across one end. Not bad, and it's hard to argue with a significantly cheaper, upcycled roof.

My biggest fear was that the light wouldn't shine through like it did with the canvas. It's definitely a little different inside, but there is still a nice glow.

So, we have our new roof, and it's been temporarily installed. We have some more work to do before it is road worthy again.