Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Eat Fresh - Gardening all year long

For many, spring brings the opportunity to start a new garden. We tend to our garden soil, carefully select the vegetable plants we would like to grow, nurture them until the first harvest and beyond until the plants are spent and no longer producing. Then we clean up the garden area and put away our tools until the next spring.
Others take advantage of the cooler weather in the fall to plant a second garden full of tasty tender greens and root vegetables that, in the best years, product almost up until time to prepare for spring time. 
However, no matter which garden you are tending to, chances are that once the harvest is gone you will have several months between plantings. What if you could garden all year long and produce fresh food every single day? With limited space? Many hobby gardeners are learning techniques that enable them to plant and harvest every day of the year.  

Greenhouses – For the hobbyist Greenhouses have been traditionally thought of as seed starting houses. However, greenhouses can help you produce tomatoes, peppers, squash and other vegetables all through the year. The key is in temperature control and container gardening, planting your vegetables in containers large enough to support a healthy root system. Greenhouses come in a variety of sizes and are relatively inexpensive. There are even plans for the DIY’er that are quite impressive. 

Cold-frames – generally much smaller than a Greenhouse, these little boxes can provide the perfect environment for low growing vegetables and seed starting. You can find these commercially made or construct them yourself. Late in the winter we build many cold frames using cinder blocks and place old wooden frame windows over the top for a greenhouse effect to get a jump on a spring garden. You can even stack cinderblocks 2-3 high in a square or rectangle shape and lay clear plastic or glass over the top to grow many things throughout the year.  

Container gardening – Micro-greens are extremely popular in salads, sandwiches and wraps and can be easily grown in containers.  They have a very fine, shallow root system and can grow quite compacted. Simply find a large pot, fill with fresh, quality potting soil and broadcast a variety of Micro-green seeds generously on top. Then water until the soil is damp. The seeds are rather tiny so you don’t need to plant them deep. Just a thin sprinkling of potting soil over the top should do. Place in a sunny location and wait for them to emerge.  They are very easy to grow even for the novice gardener but remember to water them periodically. The soil needs to stay damp, not wet and greens do not like to dry out. Once mature you can pick Micro-greens for your salads, sandwiches and wraps for a long time.

Hoop houses – Constructed directly in the garden these horseshoe shaped covers protect plants from frost and also create a greenhouse effect keeping plants warm after the sun goes down. Horseshoe shaped wire hoops are pushed into the ground evenly spaced apart over your planting area in a row shaped configuration. Special clear plastic that allows the plants to breathe or greenhouse netting can be used, depending on weather conditions. These coverings are draped over the hoops and secured to the ground using anything that will hold it in place. When you are ready to harvest, simply lift the sides. Hoops and hoop house coverings come in a variety of sizes, heights and materials and are available at many reputable online garden supply houses.  

There are a few of the easy, practical ways to garden all year long that are both easy and affordable and will let you enjoy fresh vegetables all year long. 

Sounds of Spring – What you can hear during the day

I often head outside after I get home from work and change into comfortable clothes to work in the garden or just relax on the patio. After a hectic, chaotic day sometimes it’s just nice to sit and listen to the activity on the farm. No music, no television, just an ear to Mother Nature.

Lately it has become quite noisy. The birds are singing their various mating songs or singing while they work to build a nest. There are a variety of them however the only two I can recognize are the many Cardinals and Mockingbirds in the trees. There are other bird sounds and while I look to try to identify them the trees have too many leaves now to see them. Sometimes though I can see a bird fly from tree to tree but they are too fast to identify. I really do not care to inventory our feathered visitors. I’d rather just hear them chirp and sing.
The roosters are the most comical. They crow no matter what time of the day it is and crow to each other across the farm answering the others call. I don’t know what they are crowing about. Perhaps it is more brag with them over who has the prettiest or loudest crow or who has discovered the best bugs or food.

Our guinea fowl hen makes her “buck-wheat” sound if something is out of place or she discovers a snake. She also alerts if someone pulls up in front of the house. She’ll come tearing across the pasture and fly to the roof where she paces back and forth across the roof saying “Buck-what” or “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” chatter as if she is telling us we have visitors. Some have teased that we have a watch guinea and that is quite accurate. Others who have guinea fowl say they all do this.

We have a windmill that is in great shape except that the pump on it no longer works. A few years ago a friend stopped by and asked if we wanted to sell it and offered an amazing price. I put my food down. Just watching the windmill turn in the wind is relaxing. It also helps me determine if there is a breeze outside so that I can estimate if it is strong enough to keep the mosquitoes from eating me alive. We have planned one day to fix it so that it can supply water once again. It’s one of those projects we keep putting off.

This windmill needs oil. When the oil gets low it squeaks and I kind of like the squeak. The stronger the wind blows the faster it squeaks. I almost don’t want to have someone climb up to add oil or I’ll miss the sound.

Between the birds, chickens, our guinea hen and our windmill if you just listen you’ll know its spring at the Rural Living farm.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Eat Fresh - Time to inventory canning supplies

It's an early spring in South Texas, time to plan for the first pick harvest. This always includes taking an inventory of canning supplies and making a list of what we need.

Canning is easy if you follow some simple steps. Always can in a clean environment. I bleach my sinks and counter tops before starting, wash and rinse all my canning supplies including jars and dip them in boiling water for a minute or so to insure all bacteria is killed. I also start in a well cleaned kitchen with all dishes put away and a floor that is newly swept and mopped. I even clean my stove with a disinfectant. This may be an overkill but I am confident that I am starting as clean as possible.

Before you start make sure you have all of the proper supplies. In addition to the things you might think you need including a hot water canner with a rack and a pressure canner designed to hold several jars and the jars, lids and caps themselves you also need a canning accessory set. That is very useful when canning and you will use the pieces that are included over and over. Good sharp knives, a steel colander or two that can be disinfected are also useful. I also have racks to place my hot jars on and use those that are intended for cooling cakes. It's also helpful to have a couple of rolls of paper towels on-hand as well as it can get quite messy.

For those who have never canned there are several good books out there and your local extension agent usually has a lot of information on-hand.

Canning takes time, is a lot of work but well worth the effort.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Farm Sunday - 1st pick soon

Just a peek at what is going on at the Rural Living farm.

Organic, heirloom tomatoes are in full bloom! We have 30+ plants in so far, 2nd planting soon.

Baby zuch's are putting on. We should have 1st pick next weekend.

The hen's are happy and giving us plenty of eggs. These were taken this afternoon after eggs were gathered this morning.

Dinner on the Farm - Cowboy Fritata (Brunch)

This is a perfect recipe for left over brisket or anything smoked from the grill. Notice we do not add any seasoning to the recipe and let the seasoning on the brisket season the entire fritata. This lowers the sodium content.

1 c. chopped brisket
1/2 c chopped onion
1/2 c chopped green pepper
8 eggs
2% cheese

Preheat oven to 375.

In a small bowl mix together the 8 eggs like you would if you were making scrambled eggs, and set aside.

Spray an oven safe skillet with non-stick spray. Saute onion, green pepper in a saucepan with 2 tbl. olive oil until the vegetables are just getting tender.. Add in chopped brisket and stir until heated.

Pour the scrambled eggs over the meat mixture but do not stir. Sprinkle your favorite 2% cheese over the top.

Place in the preheated oven for appx 20 minutes or until the eggs are set. Cut into wedges immediately when you take out of the oven but let the fritata sit for a few minutes to set. To serve, gently lift out the wedges onto a plate with a spatula.

You can garnish this with fresh avocado and tomato, fresh salsa or just eat it as it is.

On being a Weekend Farmer

I remember in the 70’s there was a term used for those who hung out at country western bars on Friday and Saturday nights, decked out in gaudy, overly bejeweled western shirts and commercially pressed Levi boot-cut 501 jeans with extra starch, wearing newly shined Tony Lama boots and cowboy hats that were shaped to each person’s personal preference. During the work week they dressed in their normal, appropriate work attire counting down the hours until they could transform into a character that mimicked John Travolta in Urban Cowboy. Back then, their transformation was referred to as “Weekend Cowboys.”

The same can be said of those of us who have relocated to rural, semi-undeveloped areas to live a life with a little less chaos than the urban environments we were accustom to, even if it is just for a few hours each weekend. Some have kept their real jobs and commute to the city during the work week, or for a fortunate few, obtained decent paying jobs in our rural communities. We make the commute to our homes “in the country” after work or on the weekends to our hobby farms, growing oversized gardens and tending to a variety of farm animals like chickens, goats and perhaps a head of cattle or two. We are known as “Weekend Farmers.”
Yes, we trade our normal, office casual look for boots and jeans although much less ornate than the weekend cowboys of the 70’s., rarely pressed and often stained with various substances – all of which we wear as badges of honor from successfully repairing broken hydraulic hoses or helping with birthing events. We trade laptops and cell phones for tractors, front end loaders and all the attachments John Deere makes.

Our weekends are filled with the aroma of wet manure and hay, a fragrance as sweet to us as a bouquet of flowers is to others or freshly harvested specialty grasses awaiting a hay bailer. We mend fences, build and repair pens, doctor animals and nurse them back to health. We clean stalls and chicken coops hauling manure to compost piles, and prepare our harvest for future use in the pressure canner, making jams and jellies and preserving vegetables we harvested at the peak of ripeness. We study seed catalogs and watch futures on the stock market. We exchange our job specific trade journals for Hobby Farm magazine or Mother Earth News.

We drink coffee with the locals at the feed store as their hands load scratch grains or ranch cubes in our pick-up’s and shoot the breeze with retired farmers who tell stories on each other, mostly unbelievable and who give advice to the weekend farmers, often unsolicited but always welcomed.

We are among a growing group of fellow weekend farmers who have an increasing desire to do what we do in the evenings or on the weekends – full time. The dream of working for yourself and providing for your family in a manner that has been practiced for hundreds of years, to provide a self-sustaining, wholesome and healthy environment for yourself and your family with some leftover to pay the bills, to wake up and smell the freshly mowed hay pastures and harvest fresh eggs from the coop each morning is inviting.

We would like nothing less than to trade our jobs in Corporate America for the opportunity to operate a small farm in Rural America. And while we understand the work is exhausting and never-ending and that at times the workload is more than one man or woman can handle, or the stress of an unyielding crop can be overwhelming we still embrace the idea with enthusiasm as we would be working for ourselves and in as much control as the good Lord will give us instead of working for the stockholders whose demands are more stressful than a cow giving birth to a breached calf.

Yet in reality we know that in this economic environment, where hundreds of farmers throughout this great nations who have been in existence for over a hundred years passing down farm knowledge and assets from generation to generation are failing and that it would be an impossible dream to make the transition from urban career to full time farm life. Only a handful of people do this successfully and the odds are against us.

As the weekend comes to a close and we set our alarm clocks to slowly make the mental transition back to our Monday through Friday existence that proves a steady paycheck for our families and in this real world, allows us to maintain our weekend farmer persona. Each of us know it will be a long week ahead and there will be many times we will have to fight the urge to call in sick with the flu for one more day to work on our hobby farm.