Grapes…and New Printables

This is what was on my counter recently:grapesNow we have a ton of Ziploc bags full of frozen grapes in the freezer (for snacks) and bags of raisins I made with my dehydrator! The raisins taste so much better than the ones you can buy in the store. They also have little, tiny, crunchy seeds left in them. After a bit of research, I learned that grapes seeds are quite good for you!!

My husband was also a sweetheart and processed the last of the plums and two fridge drawers full of peaches for me. I think we literally grow enough fruit now that 1-2 people could eat it all year-long. I’d probably get tired of it all, though! ūüėČ

In other news, I’ve put up some printables in my website store in the new “printables category”:

http://guesthollow.com/store/product-category/printables/

I plan on adding things over time, between working on curricula. For now there are some excerpts that were adapted from the Science of Seasons Learn-and-Play Activities book and some items that are bundled in the Knowledge of Nature Curriculum. I’ll be creating lots of new goodies, for a variety of ages, as time goes on.

Now I’m off to work on the up-and-coming high school chemistry curriculum! Stay tuned (does anyone still use that phrase? lol) for updates!

The Heralds of Summer

I always know summer is getting ready to start when I see these in my backyard:tomatoes

I picked our first real, red tomatoes this weekend as well as a handful of Sungold cherries with their cheery, golden skins.

I also heard the first cricket of the season singing outside my window last night. I love crickets!! When I was a kid and lived in TX, they used to get in the house and chirp in the kitchen. I know that would creep some people out, but they always sounded so happy. I’d either leave them alone to sing all night, or would gently scoop them up and take them outside.

Maybe I was influenced to love crickets by the book The Cricket in Times Square , a childhood favorite.  My mother brought it home to me to read when she worked in a library. I attribute my love of books to her!!

Anyway, I love tomatoes and crickets – the first heralds of summer!

The First Fruit Harvest of the Year

When we moved into our house, we had a pretty, mature apricot tree in our back yard. Some of the branches broke off though.¬†Then it¬†got stressed during a super hot summer and eventually died. A couple of years ago we bought a new apricot tree and this year got our first “real” harvest. It was only a couple colandars full, but enough to fill up some¬†trays in the dehydrator:

dehydrating apricots

Dried apricots are super expensive, and we LOVE them. Now we can make our own homemade version of this healthy treat!

I cut the apricots in half, discarded the pits, soaked the halves in lemon juice & water (about 2 cups of lemon juice to 1 quart water) with a bit of vitamin C powder thrown in (about a tablespoon or so), and then flipped them “inside-out” onto dehydrator trays with the skin down. The lemon juice keeps the apricots from browning too much as they dry. Last year I didn’t use any lemon juice on some of the apricots a friend gave us to dry. They turned out¬†tasty but were an¬†ugly brown. They looked like something you’d scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Lesson learned. The lemon juice also helps preserve the apricots better. According to Colorado State University:

“Pretreating fruits prior to drying is highly recommended. Pretreating helps keep light-colored fruits from darkening during drying and storage and it speeds the drying of fruits with tough skins, such as grapes and cherries. Research studies have shown that pretreating with an acidic solution or sodium metabisulfite dip also enhances the destruction of potentially harmful bacteria during drying, including Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella species and Listeria monocytogenes.”

You can read more about pretreating fruits by clicking here.

If you look it up, you’ll see that people use different amounts of lemon juice to dip fruits in for dehydrating. I just happen to have a lot on hand as I use it to make what I call “Magic Cleaner”, so I went with the 2 cups measurement. We’ll see how everything turns¬†out! I’ve dried fruits before with no pre-treatment at all and they turned out fine (except color-wise), and lasted an entire year with no ill effects. We’ll see if the lemon juice makes much difference. I do like the idea that it helps destroy potential bacteria. (P.S. I’m not an expert on any of this, so if you want to dry fruits, I recommend you get advice from a trusted resource!)

I have 10 trays for my dehydrator (a Nesco Gardenmaster) so I decided to fill the rest of them up with some other things I had on hand like 4 apples that were losing their crisp in the fridge, a container of strawberries from a buy-one-get-two-free deal at our local store, and some green beans from the garden that I blanched and then rolled in olive oil, salt, and dried parmesan cheese.

Beans to dehydrate

I’m hoping I’ll like¬†the dried beans, as they are supposed to be a good, crunchy, healthy snack. If so, I’ll make a bunch more with the next batch of beans that ripens.

I sliced the apples directly into the lemon juice using my German-made¬†mandolin slicer. That thing is awesome! I was kind of nervous about it when I first used it, but this particular model is designed so that I don’t have to worry (too much) about slicing my fingers off along with the apple. ūüėČ

dehydrating applesI just cored the strawberries and then cut them in half. I’ve dried strawberries before by slicing them, but the resulting dried pieces were so small, I decided to try halves this time, just like the apricots.

dehydrate1

dehydrating strawberries

Here’s my dehydrator all loaded up:

Nesco Gardenmaster dehydrator

It has an automatic timer, so I can set it and forget it, even overnight. I’ll check the fruit later tonight to see how it’s doing and if it needs to dry¬†longer.

This is just the beginning of our garden season! The next fruit that will be ripening are the¬†plums. Last year we had a huge harvest and I’m still enjoying dried plums and low sugar plum jam from all of my work. I’m hoping this year will turn out just as productive (and yummy, lol)!

I’ll take an updated picture of my garden soon, including the trellis my husband just built for the kiwi vines I’m probably going to order next month. I love growing¬†and preserving food from our own yard. I like knowing where it comes from, what went on it (pesticides, etc.) and love pulling colorful spring and summer food out of our cupboards and freezer long into the winter.

Now I’m off to work some more on my high school anatomy course. I’m almost finished with it and will be posting it soon!

Dilly beans!

Today is the first time I’ve made dilly beans and here are the pictures to prove it! ūüėČ I¬†used this recipe from online:¬†http://allrecipes.com/recipe/crisp-pickled-green-beans/

After washing the beans, I cut the pointy ends off and cut them to fit my pint jars:

Dilly beansNext, I filled the jars with fresh sprigs of dill from our garden and some red pepper flakes. I put in a bit of celery seed in a couple of the jars, too.dilly beansWhile the brine was cooking on the stove, I packed the beans, ends up, into the jars:Dilly beansI ladled the brine into the jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace and then processed them for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. The recipe online says to only simmer the jars, but I boiled them according to the instructions for pickled beans in my trusty Ball Blue Book of Preserving, for safety.

Now I have to let them sit for 2-3 weeks before sampling. I hope they turn out good!

dillybeans4

The jar in the upper left has a few carrot slices in it!

Last year our bean harvest was pathetic. The bean plants were inundated with aphids and who knows what other kinds of bugs. The plants had spotted leaves and they just looked awful. They were so awful that I ripped most of them up and just left a few stragglers in one of my smaller raised garden beds.

This year the beans are terrific. The plants are tall and healthy and they are cranking out beans!! Lesson learned: plant them earlier in the season and give them a little shake-and-feed¬†at the beginning of the growing season. Beans don’t like our hot summers but they seem to love spring! Next year I will plant twice as much and we might have enough beans to last all year.

My Garden This Morning

I was out in my garden early this morning soaking in the crisp spring air and enjoying the peace and birdsong.¬†It was still rather shady as the sun wasn’t high in the sky yet. Later on in the day everything will be totally saturated with sunshine. Here are some pictures I took to share!

The first thing I see when walking outside is my rose garden and nectarine tree. The miniature roses in the picture below are some of my favorites. I like their creamy mix of apricot and pink. We have a LOT of rose bushes. Some of them are in my rose garden and many of the rest line most of the entire backyard fence. They are easy to grow here and we don’t need to do much other than water them occasionally and trim them once or twice a year. I shouldn’t say “we”, lol. My husband does most of the work when it comes to the roses. ūüėČroses

Yes, that is grass I need to weed, lol.

Some more roses:

red roses

I get to see that view as I sit at my computer. It’s a lovely thing to look at when I’m busy working all day! There is a birdbath that is frequently visited nearby. The¬†hummingbird & oriole feeders¬†are visited all day long,¬†too!

After the rose bed, is a right turn to the orchard gate. Most of our fruit trees are in this section of the yard. The pomegranate is already blooming:

pomegranate flower

…and the pear tree is making pears for the FIRST time! I’m so excited! We’ve been waiting 5 or 6 years for the silly thing to produce anything other than snowball flowers in spring. We don’t know what kind of pear tree it is, so I’m looking forward to finding out. I think it might be a Bartlett.

young pear fruit

Here’s an apricot that hasn’t turned orange yet:

green apricot

Past our backyard orchard, we have our garden area. The first year we got our dog, he thought it was his personal snack bar. Yes, my dog likes veggies.

raised bed garden

Someday we are going to put pea gravel or crushed granite over the garden paths. Right now they are still a bit messy looking with just plain packed down dirt (and winter weeds). My husband recycled some plastic fencing so I can have a framework to grow things like squash and melons or beans or whatever. ¬†My husband¬†also recently put in the drip irrigation, which doesn’t look pretty but will save us a lot of water. The crazy looking white pipes sticking up in the corners of the beds aren’t related to the irrigation. They are just pieces of junk pipe I stuck in dirt¬†to keep the hose from slipping into the area where the plants are when I drag it around. The bucket is to catch drips from where the hose plugs into the irrigation system. I lug¬†the bucket of water around to water other things after it fills up.

The plants in the tubs in the foreground are our new Southern Highbush blueberry plants. They are a Misty, O’Neal, and a Jubilee. We are growing them in containers so we can more easily make the soil acidic. They will grow to be about 4-5 ft. high.

There is another garden bed that you can’t see in the picture. We have 7 altogether, plus another container where I’m currently growing a pepper plant, cilantro and chives. There are also 5 grapevines in the garden area, an orange tree, a candy-cot tree and a Honeycrisp apple.

Cilantro:

cilantro

If you leave the cilantro alone, it will turn into coriander later. ūüôā I learned that last year when some of it grew tall and flowered and then made coriander seeds, lol. Here’s a picture I took last year of the cilantro turned coriander:

coriander

Here are some peas. They are bush peas so they don’t climb. The leaves look a little chewed up and spotty. I’m not sure why. The¬†peas¬†themselves are delicious and crispy. I didn’t plant enough of them this year as I totally overestimated their space requirement. I’ll try planting some¬†again¬†this fall, when the weather cools off.

bush peas

We also have bush beans:

bush beans

I learned last year to plant the¬†bush beans¬†much earlier in the year as they did NOT like the heat of midsummer. They were also attacked by tons of bugs last year and¬†were¬†in a totally sorry state. I ripped most of them out but left a few in one bed that stayed until late fall when they perked up and started making tons of beans. Oops. Next time I won’t be so quick to give up!

Our tomatoes are already making some flowers. They are still young and haven’t turned into the tomato monster plants they usually do when¬†I don’t pinch the suckers (which I often don’t, lol).

tomato plant

Our artichoke plant is about 9¬†years old now and ready to be ripped out. It’s past its prime and no longer producing much, even after dividing it, etc. I harvested an artichoke off it already and here is this one:

artichoke

It’s not as nice as¬†the artichokes were when the plant was younger. The leaves are all old and crummy looking now too. We’ve planted a replacement though which is already growing new leaves. Hopefully next spring we’ll get some good artichokes from it!

I still have room to plant more things this year. I’m not sure yet what I want to do though! I’ll have to take a look at my seed packets and see what I have or maybe we’ll pop into one of the local garden centers this weekend and see what baby plants are available. I want to fill it up as it feeds our family throughout the summer and into the fall!

This is what I did today…

Yesterday I pulled a ripe peach off of our tree and realized it was time to pick and process peaches! This is the first year the peaches actually look nice instead of all deformed or small, so instead of turning them into jam, I’m canning most of them. ūüôā

This is what they looked like this morning when I went to pick them. Some were so big they looked like apples.peaches on the tree

I couldn’t reach them all with the stepladder, so I left some on the tree – but here is the haul from this morning. It doesn’t look like a ton, but that’s almost 3 full 5 gallon buckets¬†worth. I looked it up and a 5 gallon bucket is a¬†little over¬†half a bushel…so we netted approx. 1¬†and¬†1/2¬†bushels, so far. That’s something like 72 pounds! One bushel is supposed to net 18-24 quarts of canned peaches. It will be interesting to see how accurate that is when I’m done.

peaches

 

Here is the finished product – my first 3 jars!

canned peaches

 

I tried a raw¬†pack recipe this time (that’s why the peaches are floating a bit in the syrup). Later this week, when I process¬†some more, I’m going to try a hot pack recipe. The hot pack method is¬†supposed to make the peaches shrink up a little before packing them in the jar so they will fill up more of a jar and float less.

I made these with a medium syrup but I’m curious to try a honey syrup too!

Here’s a link from the National Center for Home Food Preservation that explains both methods.

Canning is so easy and so rewarding! I’m really excited to see the new pressure canner I ordered. It should be arriving later this week and will make it so I can finally can things like spaghetti sauce!

Inundated with Plums

This is what we’ve been dealing with:

Santa Rosa plums

Santa Rosa plums from our tree

The pile above¬†doesn’t even take into account the ones we already processed before taking the picture. Then, a few days after we finished (after about 7 hours or so of pitting, chopping, storing in freezer bags and prepping some batches for the dehydrator), we had¬†a pile of nectarines to prepare!

Now we’ve got lots of bags of fruit in the freezer ready to be made into jam whenever I’m in a jam-making mood. We will also use the fruit in cobblers and homemade fruit roll-ups. I made some¬†quart bags of dried fruit too, which makes a delicious and healthy snack. Our dried Santa Rosa plums taste like sour-flavored candy. Yum!

This morning I also processed a gallon bag of apricots for the dehydrator. I cut them all in half and soaked them in a 10 minute water bath with¬†ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The vitamin C keeps the fruit from darkening too much and also helps to kill bacteria during the drying process. It¬†also supposedly helps preserve the vitamin content in the fruit better. ¬†I can’t wait until they are finished. I love dried apricots, but they are so expensive to buy in the store. These were free and we’ll use about a dollar in electricity to dry them!

I LOVE my dehydrator!! We have a¬†Nesco ¬†Gardenmaster¬†and it is SO handy. I’m glad I got this particular model. It has a programmable¬†timer so you can set it and forget it. You don’t have to rotate the trays due to the airflow design and you can stack up to 20 trays for a total of 20 square feet of drying space. The power unit is on the top so I don’t have to worry about drips from fruit wrecking it. I only have 6 trays¬†(it comes with 4) but will be ordering more so I can dry a lot more fruit at one time.

Nesco dehydrator

I’ve used it so much in the last year. Not only have we dehydrated fruit from our trees, I’ve also made¬†fruit roll-ups with¬†fruit roll-up trays, dried onions from our garden (which is great in recipes and hamburger patties), made apple rings, dried strawberries, dried tomatoes ( yummy and surprisingly very sweet), banana chips¬†and more.

I’ve found that it’s really useful to process fruit or veggies that have gotten old in the fridge. You know the stuff like apples that aren’t perfect¬†anymore and just past that fresh crunchiness¬†(but not rotten or “bad”)? That kind of produce makes excellent dried food. No more wasted fruit that you forgot about in the back of the fruit drawer in the fridge! I store our dried produce in Ziplocs (you can also use jars or plastic storage boxes) and we eat it all as a healthy snack and use some of it for cooking (dried herbs from the garden, etc.). In the next couple weeks we are going to use it to make some sweet potato chips and zucchini chips.

I wanted a dehydrator for years and kept putting it off because it’s an expensive investment. Now that I have one, I’m so glad. It’s worth every penny and gets used a LOT for a variety of things. Even if you don’t have your own fruit trees, you can still process fruit you buy from the store or a fruit stand that’s on sale – or just save some of the produce from your fridge that is getting a bit old. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to make healthy snacks of all sorts and good for making emergency or camping/hiking foods.

There are lots of dehydrators out there, but I really like the Nesco and from what I’ve researched (and experienced so far) it’s a brand that is reliable. I recommend the fruit roll-up trays and at least a couple “Clean-a-Screen” trays for smaller items you want to dehydrate like diced onions, herbs or really mushy fruits. Extra trays are a nice addition as well, so you can dry more food at once.

This time of year can get busy processing fruit, but having the right tools helps! One of these days I’ll have to post about my other much-loved tool that is going to get used a lot: a Ball¬†automatic jam maker! I am so in love with it!

In the meantime though, all this talk about fruit though is making me hungry…so now I’m gonna go grab a plum and get some lunch. ūüėČ

My Garden This Morning

When I was a little girl, my mom had a beautiful garden and a big peach tree. I remember eating fresh vegetables and being so excited to try our home-grown corn (see it in the corner of the picture below?!).

Our garden in the early 80’s:

A picture of our backyard garden in the early 80's

A picture of our backyard garden in the early 80’s

It’s kind of funny, because in posting the picture of my childhood¬†garden, I noticed my mom planted marigolds with the plants. That’s a tradition I’ve kept alive. Every year I get several flats of marigolds along with the various veggies and plant them together. Marigolds¬†supposedly¬†keep away all sorts of nasty bugs like aphids, nematodes, tomato horn worms, white flies, squash bugs and thrips. Still, even before I knew that, it was just one of the things I copied from my mom without ever realizing I was copying it. I just knew that you had to plant marigolds when you planted a garden. Now I clearly see where I got it from. ūüôā

My great-grandparents also had a garden. Every year they would can tomatoes, homemade spaghetti, peaches and more. I remember looking at the jars on the shelves in their garage and thinking of the delicious and beautiful bounty each one held. I miss them so much! I wish I had a jar of my Papa’s spaghetti sauce or even just his recipe. He was quite the Italian cook.

My grandparents also had a garden at different¬†times and so did my Oma and Opa (German grandparents). I grew up around gardens so it comes as no surprise that my dream was to have a garden of my own someday! My husband made that dream come true for me when we moved into our current home. He built raised garden beds and later put in a garden fence with a¬†trellis over the gate when our new puppy decided to turn our garden into his personal buffet and poop area . No thanks Max, I don’t want your natural fertilizer, lol. Now Max is forbidden to enter the garden and has to watch me through the pickets in the fence.

Every year my husband adds in something that makes my garden more practical or beautiful. His next project is to build a big trellis near our compost pile (which is behind a fenced off area of the yard). The trellis will be in front of the compost gate and we are going to grow kiwi vines over it. I am so blessed and so thankful.

This year the garden is doing really well. We are growing lots of different types of tomatoes, different varieties of peppers, mustard greens, collard greens, green onions, yellow zucchini, green beans, cucumbers, cilantro (which turns into coriander), basil, eggplant and artichokes (they are done for the season and need to be replaced as they are 7-8 year old plants).

There is nothing in the world so satisfying as¬†picking a tomato off the vine and eating it in your dinner salad. Store-bought tomatoes don’t even come close in flavor and texture!! I love watching garden¬†plants grow from little seedlings until¬†they are big enough to produce the food that goes onto our table and into our cupboards in canning jars. Otter and I have been enjoying collard & mustard greens for lunch and we had home-grown peppers in our fajitas the other night.

We also have the following fruit trees: Meyer lemon (which is a cross between a lemon and mandarin orange), orange, mandarin orange, 2 different varieties of pomegranates, 2 types of apple, peach, nectarine, pear (not producing yet), apricot, aprium, Santa Rosa plums, Burgundy plums, an unknown variety of plum and 7 grapevines with the following types of grapes: Thompson seedless, Thomcord, Flame seedless and Black Monukka.

grapes

Thomcord grapes

 

My husband recently bought me 4 big containers so we can add southern blueberries to the long list of goodies growing in our yard and we are going to add huckleberries to a shady spot in the back.

I love puttering around the garden in the early morning before it gets hot (it’s been 100+ temps here lately). It’s so peaceful and beautiful. I’m so thankful for all the work my husband put into it so that I could have something I’ve wanted since I was little.

This morning I took some pictures to share here. Just imagine walking through the plants in the quiet, cool morning with the sound of water from the hose and an occasional buzzing from an industrious bee.

Part of my garden in the early morning light.

Part of my garden in the early morning light.

See those white things on the end of each garden bed? Those have the pipes for the drip irrigation (which is brand new and hasn’t been used yet) going down one side. They are also there for plants to grow up (via netting or strings). My husband made them from some plastic fencing that someone was throwing away. We also have part of the frame from our kids’s old bunk bed leaning across one of the beds. That’s for the cucumber vines, when they get bigger, to grow up and over.

Here are the marigolds in one of the beds. I put them in almost all of the garden beds. Not only are they good for keeping bugs away, they also are pretty and add a bit of merriness. Some of them have already seeded themselves so I’ll have a few extras growing up soon and putting on a cheerful show.

marigolds

Otter’s eggplant:

eggplant

Every year, Otter gets to choose some plants for the garden. This year he chose peppers and this eggplant. I’ve never grown eggplant before, so it should be interesting.

Mustard:

mustard

 

We pick the spicy leaves of the mustard plants and eat them both raw and cooked like greens. Even after they’ve flowered, everything is still edible and pretty tasty. I’m going to harvest the seeds and try to make some homemade mustard!

Yellow zucchini squash:

squash

 

This is the first year we’ve grown yellow zucchini and it won’t be the last. The zucchinis are such a beautiful lemony yellow. The 2 plants we have are so prolific. I’ve been picking zucchinis just about every other day and they keep cranking out more and more. At this rate, our freezer is really going to be stocked up for awhile!

Basil:

basil

 

Our basil is so fragrant. We are looking forward to ripe tomatoes so we can make bruschetta!

A pepper hiding behind leaves:

pepper

 

I don’t remember what type of peppers these are but they have a good pepper flavor but no heat.

A couple green cherry tomatoes:

tomatoes

A baby Honeycrisp apple:

apple

 

We’ve been battling fire blight with both apple trees. I didn’t even know what that was just a few years ago but it ruined our apple harvest last year by infecting all the newly budded apples and turning them into little apply mummies. This year we sprayed for it, but very late in the season ¬†and only once. As soon as fall rolls around I’ll be spraying them religiously and watching for any signs of infection to cut out before it spreads. Hopefully we’ll have it all contained and lots more apples next year.

This is our Santa Rosa plum tree. Every year I turn these plums into jam! We were going to pick them this last weekend, but they are still a bit tart. Maybe this weekend…we’ll see!

plums

 

Jeremiah 29:5-6

“Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;”

Even if you only¬†have room for a little container on your porch with a single herb plant, growing something yourself can be so rewarding. It’s something you can enjoy the fruits of after a bit of patience and bit of love and is a great skill to pass on to your children.

Thanks mom for passing on a healthy dose of garden love to me (and for teaching me about marigolds)!

It’s that time of year again…

Making homemade jam

Yup, I’ve been slaving over a hot stove for HOURS making homemade jam! ūüėČ It’s so worth it though.

If you’ve never made jam (or done any canning), you really should consider giving it a try. There is NOTHING you can buy at the store that can even come close to how delicious it is. There is also something so satisfying about seeing all of your hard work lined up on the counter, ready to be put away in the pantry to remind you of summer’s fragrant bounty in the winter months.

I love the smell of jam cooking. I love how it swirls in the pot like melted sherbet. I love the hot samples of freshly cooked fruit on an ice-cold spoon.

Canning is great for your pocket-book, great for your health (you control the ingredients!) and something your kids will always remember.¬†In a future post, I’ll share my recipes for plum and nectarine jam and what you need to get started with this old-fashioned skill that’s making a comeback!