Saturday, November 28, 2009

November In Pics

First egg after molting--a small one:



Pretty bird after molting:



Ornamental grass plumes:



Sleeping garden:



Old nest:


Lone leaf, mirrored branches:



Lavender:



Still colorful perennial geranium leaves:



'Autumn Joy' sedum:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Get Your Garlic in the Ground

I'm probably a week or two late this year in getting my garlic in the ground, but I think it will forgive me. Last year, I planted about 3 dozen organic cloves; the results were small but powerful. This year, I might plant a mix of those same cloves and some larger ones from the grocery, as La Familia goes through a lot of garlic in a year, so I would like some larger heads.

The happy sight of garlic shoots in the spring rivals those of crocus and asparagus. Harvest in July, when the leaves/stalks start to turn brown, dry for a few weeks, wipe off the dirt, and store in a dark, dry place.

Little work for a big return.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

2009 Grade -- Just Average

Vegetable Garden is on the other side of her hill now. Thing is, I don't think she ever really hit a peak this year...

Two thumbs up: Lettuce, chard, zucchini, basil, potatoes, peaches

Thumbs to come: butternut squash, peppers, cantaloupe

One thumb: cukes, green beans, asparsagus, corn

Thumbs down: beets, peas, soy beans, tomatoes, apples

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Overall grade: B-
So much time and sweat for a B-...

Notes for next year:

  • Try bush beans instead of pole beans.
  • Use Park Seed's 'Marai' corn seeds.
  • Get peppers form Arcana nursery again.
  • Don't bother with broccoli. It bolts too fast.
  • Bring seeds inside for the winter; don't leave them in the greenhouse.
  • Don't bother with melon. Use the space for cukes.
  • Easy on the chard. A little goes a long way.
  • Plant parsley.
  • Chop down old apple tree; plant four new ones.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Corn and Zucchini Salsa

Made this tasty little salsa with zucchini, corn, and peppers from the garden. Found it in The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest, which suggests serving it with chips or grilled chicken breasts. I enjoy it in warm corn tortillas with black beans and a dollop of sour cream. Also dee-lish on a taco salad.

Corn and Zucchini Salsa

3 medium zucchini
1 1/2 t salt
2 ears yellow corn, husked
4 T olive oil
2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 c fresh lime juice (8 med limes)
1/2 c cider vinegar
2 jalapenos, seeded and minced
1/4 c finely chopped scallions with tops
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 t freshly ground black pepper

Toss zucchini with salt and "sweat" for 3 mins in a nonreactive colander. Rinse and dry on paper towels.

Coat the corn with 2 teaspoons of the oil and roast on a cookie sheet in a 400-degree F oven for 30-40 mins. Cool. But off the kernels and scrape the cobs.

Combine the zucchini, corn, remaining oil, tomatoes, lime juice, vinegar,jalapenos, scallions, garlic, and pepper in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 2-3 mins.

Ladle into hot, clean jars. Cap and seal. Process in a boiling-water bath for 15 mins, adjust for altitude, if necessary.

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Notes:

I took the kernels off the corn first and sauteed them.

I will use more than 2 jalapenos the next time I make this.

I froze instead of canned, so I didn't heat up the mixture at all.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Damn the Late Blight

After all my nurturing -- 22 tomato plants from seed -- I've been defeated by the late blight:


This disease has been running rampant throughout Vermont this season, affecting both potatoes and tomatoes. I thought I had beat it. My potatoes were fine, and there were no signs of blight on the tomatoes until about two weeks ago...

Late blight is the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine of the 1850s. It's airborne, serious, and thrives in wet weather -- the first half of our summer. The newspapers are telling us all to destroy the plants to help stop it from spreading next year. It apparently doesn't overwinter in the soil, so that's an advantage, but it can overwinter in infected potatoes left in the soil.

I'm so reluctant to pull up and burn the plants. Tomatoes are always the glory of my garden; canning salsa is my gateway to fall. I've harvested a few unblighted fruit and am I've been waiting to see if I can get any to ripen before they turn. But I think the battle is over. I'm going to need to buy a bushel or two.

A sad season indeed.

A

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Harvesting...

Pole beans. First pick last night, and I got a couple pounds. Funny how they sneak up on you like that.

Zucchini. Funny how these grow like four inches overnight. Going to slice, blanch, and freeze.

Cherry tomatoes. Only about a half a dozen so far. Love 'em.

Lettuce. Enjoyed many a salad this summer. Starting to bolt because of the heat.

Cukes. Picked about six pickling cukes and two Straight 8s. Will surely be pickling this year.

Peaches. All picked. About 20 in the first year. Small but very flavorful.

Potatoes. Need to dig up Round 2.

Beets: Late, small, few.

Chard. Highly productive. Can't keep up with it.

Peppers. First jalapenos last night. Also a small Spanish hot pepper that we sauteed and salted and ate with tortilla chips and tacos. Nice and chipotle-y.

Tomatoes, corn. Not yet.

Monday, August 3, 2009

July = A Wash

From the July 25th Burlington Free Press:

-3.9: The departure in degrees from the average temperature on July. Twenty of the first 23 days this month were cooler than normal.

82: The high temperature recorded this month.

13.8: Inches of rainfall that has fallen since May 1. There has been at least a trace of rain in 22 of the past 28 days.

6: Days in the start of June that have been classified as "clear" by the National Weather Service.

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There's not much more to say about this. July has been cool and wet. One of the reasons I haven't written much this summer. (The other reason is that I traveling two weeks of the month.) And if you don't spend much time in the garden, you don't have much to write about.

In the past week, however, I've meandered out there whenever I had a chance. The weeds have tried to take over, but most of the plot looks great. The plants seem a little behind schedule, but as long as the frost holds off, they'll eventually produce something, right?

A couple days ago (July 27th) I dug up the garlic, and it was disappointingly small. Too wet? Bad seed cloves? Soil issues? Who knows?

I've also been cutting lettuce for a few weeks. Lettuce has had a very happy season. The chard also looks beautiful, and we braised some for dinner the other night (with some red pepper and a splash of red wine vinegar.)

The corn is about waist high. The tomatoes are tall but seem light on fruit. Same for peppers. They all need some warm, dry weather, I presume.

Peas, beet, and soybeans had a lame season. I replanted the soy beans three times, but only a few plants survived. I think something may have been eating them down as soon as they sprouted.

Potatoes: We dug up about 30 a few days ago. Most are bigger than I would've preferred.

Blueberries: Picked a couple quarts yesterday. Some sour, some sweet. Can I do anything to make them all sweet?

Peaches: Reddening beautifully, but I don't know when to pick them. Am waiting for them to soften a bit, then I'll try one.

Weeds: I've railroaded about 3/4 of them in the past few days. I love weeding. Mostly for the pride of the finished product. But also because it gives me a reason to crawl between the corn and peek under the plants. When you weed, you know what's goin' on out there. You can talk (to yourself), and nobody argues or disagrees with you. And you can practically feel the plants grin with gratitude when you remove their competition.

Anticipating a dryer and warmer August...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Les Jardins

Everyday I inspect the vegetable garden. And most days, not much changes, so I just pull out little weeds here and there. The big action of this week was that the corn and pole beans sprouted. The rows of soy beans and hills of cukes, winter squash, and zucchini, however, were vacant of sprouts, so I replanted those seeds yesterday. Too wet? Old seeds? Hens?

The 22 tomatoes and 12 peppers are healthy, but I think they could use some warm, sunny days. The potatoes are going great guns and should be mulched today. A visual tour:







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In perennial land...

...peonies, my favorite summer flower, are finally opening:



The Japanese iris are in full bloom:



And my always confident and reliable hostas aren't disappointing, as usual:



Lots if purples blooming right now. Is this a nature thing? That purples attract certain insects, or that the weather is conducive to purples right now? I wonder...

Fruta

A couple months ago, I ordered and planted a 'Reliance' peach tree and a 'Mount Royal' plum (both Zone 4 and self-pollinating). The plum came with no blossoms, but the peach was loaded, and it looks like we may eat pick some fruit in another couple months.



I rubbed off quite a few buds so as not to overload the tree after transplanting. I love this tree for both its fuzzy little fruit and because it already smells peachy.

As I've mentioned before, my blueberries are loaded this year -- their third in my yard:



Over in the apple orchard, my one tree is growing plenty of little apples...



but causing me plenty more consternation. First, I don't like spraying it with pesticide, but I'm determined to harvest something edible from this tree, and I can't find an alternative to spraying. I sprayed pre-bloom and again about 10 days after the blossoms dropped. I was hoping to stop there, but careful observation [obsession] uncovered borings into my tine apples. I don't know much about apple pests -- other than there are a lot them. But this looks like it could be apple maggot. So I sprayed again yesterday. I'm also going to order a couple sticky apple traps (fake apples covered in something sticky that attracts pests).

Beyond my own yard, local strawberries are starting to show up. The u-pick places should be open in a week or two, provided we dry out. (Last year, the strawberry seasons was all but non-existent due to too much rain.) I can taste them already...

Thursday, June 4, 2009

First Week in June Status Check

What's blooming: Bridal Veil spirea (a Vermont early-summer classic), allium, something that looks like a wild phlox, perennial geranium, dwarf Korean lilacs, rhodies, iris

What's almost done blooming: creeping phlox, bleeding heart, PJM rhodies

What's definitely done blooming: Lilacs, tree peony

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I sprayed my apple tree with pesticide yesterday. Everything in my head was against this, but I know no other solution to having a productive tree. I could justify this only by knowing that most other apples I've eaten in my life were likely sprayed diligently.

************************************

Today, I drove our riding lawn mower down the street about 1/2 mile, towing a trailer, to ask a neighbor if I could have his grass clippings from a field he had just mowed. Grass clippings are my favorite vegetable garden mulch, as they stop the weeds then can be tilled into the soil or added to the compost pile when all is said and done.

A few years ago, I tried to mulch with straw, but it sprouted, so my efforts at mulching about doubled my efforts at weeding. That was the year I gave up on straw.

At any rate, my neighbor gladly shared his grass clippings. He went on to tell me a story about how he had been hit by a pickup truck while out riding a bicycle a few years ago, followed by a coma for a month. It was a chilling story and one of those out-of-the-blue reminders of the potential fragility of it all. Here today; gone tomorrow. Unless some sort of random luck blows your way after you've been hit by a truck. I told him I was glad to meet him, glad he was still alive, and glad to take his grass.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hens and Seeds Don't Mix

Last week of May = lots of rain.

In a break in that weather yesterday, Mia, Max, and I planted seeds in the damp dirt: soy beans, beets, green onions, lettuce, spinach, cukes, zukes, watermelon, peas, winter squash, sunflowers. Later in the day, I went out back to close up the hens and discovered that one had promptly scratched up the melon, zucchini, and squash seeds. Anyone craving chicken stew? So they're staying in their pen until the garden is completely closed off. We have a fence but not a gate yet.

I need to harden off my tomatoes, so they won't go in for a few days. Still to plant: hot peppers, basil, corn, and pole beans. I'm going to wait a week on the corn so the soil can heat up just a little more. Today, I'm heading up to Arcana Gardens and Greenhouse, an organic farm in Jericho, VT, in search of some interesting hot pepper plants.

Above the soil, the asparagus is done for the season. I left a few stalks to grow tall and bring energy to the roots for next year. The three-dozen garlics are at least a foot tall; we should see scapes in a few weeks. And the potatoes have finally broken through. It also looks like we're going to have a good blueberry year, as my bushes are loaded with blossoms.

The forecast isn't working in a gardener's favor: possible showers today and for the next four days, at least. Such is Vermont in the spring.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Weekend 2009

Memorial Day 2009: A perfect gardening weekend. Breezy, 60s, and where are the bugs?

Thanks to Husband, the fence around the vegetable garden is nearly complete. The tiller didn't want to work today, however, and we wanted to till up a swatch of dead grass (four weeks under a dark tarp) that will add about 33% more space to the garden. It wouldn't start, and I even saw him kick it. The machine belongs to Husband's uncle, but we keep it in our barn and are the only users anymore. It must be 50 years old, is as heavy as a small tractor and as temperamental as a old cow.

I should've planted the garden this weekend, but I've been waiting for the digging of the fence post and the tilling of the dead grass. Another week won't hurt. The seeds will still grow, and the plants will still produce. Patience, once again.

I spent most of the weekend cleaning up a perennial garden along our front walk. Moved some peonies that weren't getting enough sun, and so far, they don't seem to have skipped a beat. Will be interesting to know if they bloom.

My tree peony is blooming. It grows three giant white flowers with pink inside edges every year.

Finished off a 1.5-yard pile of hemlock mulch. I'm a big fan of this shredded wood mulch. (The hens are too, as they've already dug up the mulch I put on a coral bells garden.) Keeps the weeds down, the soil cooler and more moist, and makes the gardens look nice-n-tidy. I don't like the price of the mulch, however. We paid a whopping $48 a yard this year, and I need another three yards or so.

I have about 10+ perennial beds around my yard, and I started another today. Our front porch has been hidden behind evergreens and a huge, round cedar shrub, and today, Husband cut out and dug up the cedar. It left a huge hole, of course, which I now need to fill. I'm thinking something colorful like hydrangeas or rhodies. Or sweet smelling like a daphne. Any suggestions? Morning sun, and I'd like to keep it under 4 feet.

My body aches. A good ache. A productive ache. Tonight I go to sleep happy with what I got done instead of fretting about what I didn't.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Let the Blooming Begin

A great week to live in Zone 4...mostly because the lilacs are blooming! I spent the better part of today clearing weeds from the vegetable garden, listening to "This American Life" podcasts on my iPod, with wafts of lilac breezing over me. The second highlight of this coolish, windyish day: no black fly bites!



All over the yard, lots of spots of color, including bleeding heart, apple blossoms, creeping phlox, forget-me-nots (which grow profusely in my woods), new rugosa roses, and blueberry blossoms...













Goals for the week: Plant peas, spinach, lettuce, kale (probably a week or two late); start mulching the perennial beds; support Husband in his effort to build a fence around the vegetable garden.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jealous of Jenson


Husband and I visited our friend Lucas Jenson's new pigs today. He has three that he's raising to butcher. Cost him $65 each, and he built the pig house and pen himself, so the price is right.

Still, I'm not sure I could raise something then look it in the eye, send it to the butcher, and cook it for dinner. (Babe is one of my all-time favorite movies.) I guess I'm just a gentleman farmer after all.

Husband looked at them, smelled them, then looked at me and said, "I don't want any pigs."

Lucas is also getting bees. His boxes are ready; he's just waiting for the combs and bees. Now this fascinates me, given that bees need a little extra boost in the species survival department these days.

Husband is allergic to bee stings (not deadly allergic), so his comment on bees was, "That's one project you won't get any help with." I don't think I'd really become a beekeeper, but it is an interesting idea. Maybe if it turns out to be effortless for Lucas...

Cherries. Now here's a way I might be able keep up with the guy. He loves his cherry trees and has inspired me to consider a couple. You can grow only sour cherries here -- not sweet. I can't match him on apples yet. He has about a dozen; I have one. I did pick up my peach ("Reliance") and plum ("Mount Royal") trees yesterday and will plant them this week. Maybe I should take a drive out to Elmore Roots this weekend and check out their cherries.

I asked Lucas to be a guest blogger here. He hemmed and hawed, but I'll nudge him along so we can follow his progress with those bees, pigs, and fruit trees, a sizable vegetable garden, and hens and chicks. Not to mention his zip line, tree house, and pond. The guy's got everything but a teepee. Maybe I should get one...either that or a goat. Or a wind turbine. That'd get him.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Early May Status Check



A good week for nature. The brown of winter is gone, and everything is green -- fields, leaves, weeds. We've already cut our grass twice.

We're stuck in a rainy spell. Heard what may have been the first thunder of the season today, and the dog has remembered that he's afraid of thunder.

My apple tree hasn't blossomed yet. Others in town have, but I'm just a bit higher than town.

I planted potatoes today. Felt good to finally put something in the ground. I bought seed potatoes a month or so ago and experimented with cutting them into pieces to see if they'd "greensprout". They didn't. Instead, they shriveled. So I spritzed them. Then they molded. So I put those in the compost pile and bought more seed potatoes.

In the greenhouse, about 25 tomato plants that have sprouted. They're much smaller than what the nurseries are offering, but I'm pretty confident they'll eventually give fruit. Nothing else has thrived. The peas seem to have rotted in the soil, so I'll just plant new ones in the ground as soon as it stops raining. The lettuce in the hydroponic system is half-heartedly trying to gain some momentum. One broccoli came up, and no flowers or surviving peppers. Old seeds, maybe?

Needing extra days in the week to get ahead of the happy weeds...

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Priming the Compost

I applied compost starter to my compost pile and bin today. Both need it, as the pile is trying to process all the sticks and garden waste raked up from last fall, and the bin is full of a winter's worth of kitchen waste. I probably won't get much dirt from the bin this year; if not, next year I'll stike dirt gold.

I did spread two wheelbarrows of garden-ready compost on the garden today. A nice little boost for the tomato patch.

Read here for more thoughts about composting. I wrote this on my other blog a couple months ago.

Railroading the Weeds

I wanted to spread mulch yesterday -- to smell the hemlock (which makes a yard seem so organized and well tended) and keep the weeds at bay in the beds I've cleared. But there is a bigger priority back behind the barn: the vegetable garden, where weeds love the lack of competition in the spring. If I don't tackle it now, they'll be a foot high when I'm ready to plant in a few weeks. I know because this has happened the past two years in a row.

I have four can't-do-without weeding tools:

1) A hori hori knife. This thing readily removes weeds and rocks. While I've never timed myself (because that would be weird), I'm sure this thing cuts hours off weeding time:


2) A tubtrug. In this, I carry the weeds to the compost pile. I have about five of them and use them for any number of things. Max uses them to pick up pine cones from the yard. (I pay him $1 a bucket.) My friend Michelle uses hers for laundry. I purchase mine at the Gardener's Supply Company.



3) and 4) Gloves and a kneeling mat. These go without saying.

So I weeded Phase 1 of the vegetable beds yesterday. Satisfyingly so. We made this bed about three years ago. I've mulched it with wood chips and straw over the years, which we've just integrated into the bed, and the soil is rich and loose. I'll probably plant potatoes (soon) and corn in this section, with cukes and possibly squash and melons under the corn.



Once the weeks are pulled, I have a small, handheld electric tiller that I run through the top five or so inches of soil to discourage any other weeds from setting up shop there, like in this bed, Phase 2 of my spring weeding challenge:



Phase 3 is an overwhelming work in progress. It's a five-foot wide swath of thick, healthy grass between Phase 1 and Phase 2. I'd love to spray it with Roundup, but I'm sure that will somehow contribute to the honeybees' Colony Collapse Disorder. So we're going to do this the natural way:



I'm not sure we'll use this section this year. It may just be a work in progress.

At this point in the season, very early May, it's hard to have patience in terms of planting when your dirt is ready. I will likely put a few hearty spring seeds in soon -- peas, lettuce, beets. But everything else needs to wait until Memorial Day -- the when threat of frost is usually/finally over and the real gardening begins.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Walk Around the Yard

88 degrees yesterday...close to that again today...

This can't be good for the plants -- it's not summer yet. Seasonal temps are more like in the 60s, and we're supposed to return to that tomorrow. I even heard something about overnight temps in the 20s in a few days. So plants pushing their blooms due to the warm weather may be in for a bit of a shock.

Nevertheless, a walk around the yard finds some asparagus, blueberry buds, woodland daffodils, Autumn Joy sedum sprouts, the hens taking a dust bath, and a lazy dog:











Saturday, April 25, 2009

Springing of Spring


April 25. Temps are supposed to hit near 80 today -- the first time this year we've seen such weather. I have a whole day of nothing ahead of me, which translates into a whole day of poking around the yard -- if that's what I feel like doing. And somehow, I think what I feel like doing may involve pansies.

So what's happening out back? I sprayed my apple tree yesterday with horticultural oil with the intent of killing off any scale on the tree (see above). I didn't really find scale on the apple tree, but I did find some (I think) on it's pollinator, a crab apple tree. I've lived on our homestead for nearly six years and have never sprayed the gnarly old Cortland tree. But neither have I eaten a nice apple from it. So this year, I got off my "organic apple" horse with the intent of enjoying the tree's fruits. It's just one of those things that needs a little help, I guess. From what I've heard at the greenhouse, no apple grower worth his/her salt can grow an edible apple in Vermont without some level of spraying.

So yesterday, on went the dormant oil -- to be applied before the buds pop. I thought I would be overcome by the fumes and toxicity of it, of course, so I armed myself with long clothes, sunglasses, and a bandanna around my mouth. But the spray didn't smell or kill me. It's just an oil, after all. Think of spray-on sunscreen.

The next application -- of a more organic pesticide (pyrethrum) that I think is derived from chrysanthemums -- gets sprayed on the day the tree drops its blossoms. I've heard that you can apply this spray every month or so, but I'm not sure I'm going to take it that far yet. Baby steps for me and this spraying business.

In other news: The garlic is about six inches high. The asparagus hasn't poked up yet. New shoots on my three roses. I wasn't able to save but two pepper plants from the Attack of the Family. And a few tomatoes have re-sprouted. I'm definitely going to be visiting a greenhouse for plants this year.

Question of the Day: To mulch or not to mulch yet? Is the ground warm enough? I read an advice column this morning that suggested you need to give the ground enough time to really thaw out before you mulch, or the mulch will insulate the cold. So I'm going to wait a few weeks. I still have plenty of beds to clean out anyway.

Question of the Day #2: When should I plant potatoes? I've acquired the seed potatoes and split them up. They're staying warm in the greenhouse, but I'm not sure when they should go in the ground. I've heard when the soil hits 50 degrees. How do you test that? A meat thermometer in the ground?

Funny how I've been experimenting in a garden for more than half my life, and I still have a ton of questions about it all. Maybe that's part of the appeal of it all. It's never boring and always challenging.
With that, out with this blog today and in with some warm and windy sunshine...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Good Thing I Don't Do This for a Living


I've been in California for work all week. Before I left, I had 8 pepper seedlings and a handful of tomatoes germinating. I came home last night, and I have only a couple half-dead little peppers left. The family let us down. They told me while I was gone that not many of my seeds had sprouted. Because when you don't WATER sprouts in warmish weather, they die back to nothing.
Funny thing is that Mia said Dad told her not to water earlier in the week. "Oh, you don't need to water. Mom just did that," she said that he said. He tried to deny it, but Will threw him under the bus: "Yeah, Dad. You did say that," he ratted.

Additionally, I was hoping to come home to daffodils in bloom, and it looks like I have at least another week to wait. The grass is turning green, but that's the only outward sign of spring life out there.

So Max and I got busy this morning and replanted the tomatoes and peppers. It's late to plant seeds, but what the heck. We added melons, broccoli, peas, and marigolds to the mix.

This afternoon, I'm going to prune my apple tree. Once again, I'm probably a little late with this too, but better late then never.
Boy, this gardening business sure is a live and learn proposition, isn't it?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Losing Hope



My seeds are in there trying hard to grow. Vermont in April sure can be a challenging time for a gardener.

And for garlic:



They're cold, and there's not a lot of weather hope in store for this week.

Makes me think I should just resign myself to buying plants.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Early April Status Check

Six peppers have hatched -- indoors -- and a few spinach leaves are showing in the hydroponic system in the greenhouse. The garlic is also two inches above the soil in the garden itself, and the blueberries, with lots of buds, look like they're going to have a good season.

I planted tomatoes, some coleus, and flowers in a flat today, and to help them along, I broke down and invested in heating mats. Without direct sunlight (which you can't count on around here), both my house and my greenhouse are too cold for seeds to happily sprout. So I've resorted to gadgetry and have set it up in the greenhouse. Also turned on the grow lights. Will be interested to see if it all pays off.

Tomorrow, I'm going to see about ordering a pear and a peach tree. I also need to look into spraying the old apple tree. Since we've lived here, I haven't had the nerve to spray the tree because the process just seems so toxic, but we've never had an apple we could eat due to scale either. So I may break down here too. After all, I'm sure the apples we pick in the orchard have been sprayed.

It's early April and still damp and chilly. Still, I pulled a tick off the cat yesterday.

Friday, March 27, 2009

At the First Caw of the Crow


We've seen our first robins and red-winged blackbirds, but in Vermont, there's no more faithful sign of spring than the smoke rising from the chimneys of the sugarhouses where our celebrated maple syrup is made.

This weekend is Open House weekend for all our sugarhouses. I visited the Isham Family Farm with Max's Kindergarten class this afternoon, where we toured the sugarbush (aka the maple tree grove), ran through meadows, learned about the sugaring process, and tasted the sap, syrup, and donuts covered with maple glaze.

A trip to a sugarhouse is a rite of passage for our kids every spring -- especially if donuts or "sugar on snow" (warm syrup drizzled cold snow and finished with a sour pickle) are involved. They've heard over and over the legend of Woksis, the Iroquois chief who put a gash in a tree with his tomahawk, and from the gash, sap dripped into a vessel beneath the tree. Woksis' wife used what she thought was water in the vessel to cook their evening meal, but the water evaporated and turned into a thick, sweet syrup that the Indians enjoyed as a sweetener. Thus, the story of how maple syrup was discovered.

Today, the process uses more equipment, but the basic process is the same. Collect the maple sap, boil it down, and bottle it. At the first caw of the crow -- usually in early February -- the Ishams install 800 taps in their sugarbush, all connected to a series of tubes that are eventually pumped into the sugarhouse. When the weather warms to above freezing during the day (but still colder at night),the sap starts to run. Once the Ishams collect a few hundred gallons in the sugarhouse, they load it into an evaporator fueled by a wood fire and boil it for the better part of a day until the syrup reaches a 66-67 percent sugar content at a temperature of 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit above boiling. After it cools, the syrup is filtered, graded (Light Amber, Medium Amber, Dark Amber, and Grade B), and canned. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Sugaring operations smaller than the Ishams' still hang steel buckets from trees and collect the sap manually using horse teams. I thought I might tap a few trees this spring but didn't get around to it, and given that the flow of sap is dependent on certain weather conditions, I've probably missed the window. Besides, we really have only one or two maple trees that are large enough to tap, so the sap I'd collect would probably make about a cup of syrup. Maybe next year...

I didn't taste my first real maple syrup until I met Husband, who has roots in Vermont (I was a Mrs. Butterworth's child), and I can't imagine ever using anything but the real thing ever again (despite it's high price this year). Even our new IHOP has made arrangements with "corporate" to serve real syrup at the restaurant here. (Honestly, they'd probably be run out of town if they served a substitute.) Our trees, sap, and syrup are a treasured part of our state culture -- and economy -- and if you try some on vanilla ice cream, you'll know why.