Verdant and warm, July on the homestead was awash in the lushness (lusciousness?) of summer. July is the month when the literal fruits of our labors begin to bear. Much of our springtime work is in preparation for July: we till, we weed, we plant, we prepare. And finally, stuff begins to ripen. July is the counterbalance to its half-birthday of January. The striking similarity is the monochromatic landscape: all white in January and all green in July.
In July, nothing un-flowered remains and no leaves have yet turned toward fall. July is the mid-point where we relax into summer and the woodstove gathers dust. Spring is a time of discovery as each new flower presents itself and snow melts to reveal long forgotten troughs in the landscape. But by July, most of these secrets are laid bare.
If you’re just tuning in, this is a recurring series in which I document each month of our lives out here on our 66-acre Vermont homestead. After leaving urban Cambridge, MA in May 2016 to chart this wholly different life, we’re experiencing a constant learning curve of exploration (and plenty of stupid novice moments). Check out last month’s installment here and enjoy the best and worst (ok, mostly the worst) moments of our first year on the homestead here. Wondering if it’s less expensive to live rurally? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
Harvesting began in earnest with cucumbers, chard, tomatoes, ground cherries, cayenne peppers, jalapeño, and snap peas all ripening. A friend described Vermont as a lot of winter followed by jungle-esque growth. Apt, I’d say. Vegetables suddenly burst forth and we find ourselves harvesting by the wheelbarrow-load. Since there’s no way we can consume everything we grow in real time, our major focus is on longterm food preservation. We dipped our toes into the world of preservation last year, but we’re throwing our entire bodies in this summer. This year, our garden is an order of magnitude larger–and it’s also a lot healthier, thanks to Mr. FW’s ministrations–so we are in veggie processing overdrive.
Chard! (and Kale!)
I did a “Day In the Life Of Chard” series on Instagram this month, which chronicled how we harvest and process our mountains of chard and I’ll regale you with the tale. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for the chard…
Harvesting the Chard (and kale!)
Last year, Mr. Frugalwoods and I would harvest chard and kale haphazardly and in small batches–usually just enough to cook up in a stir fry. This year, thanks to the fact that we planted about 80 chard plants, we’ve streamlined. Every two weeks, we do a MASSIVE chard harvest and cut the plants back to just a few strong center stalks. The plants seem to thrive with this regime and it allows us to create efficiencies around our food preservation process. We learned last year that it’s so labor intensive to wash, chop, and cook chard (and kale) that you might as well do gigantic barrel-loads of it at a time.
When harvesting, I like to use clippers to cut the chard stalks close to the base because I find that tearing them off often damages neighboring stalks. The best system we’ve found–when we’re lucky enough to have both adults (plus kids) in the garden at the same time–is to have one person cut stalks and hand them up to the other person, who runs them down the row and plops them into the wheelbarrow. Fortunately the wheel barrow fits in between our garden rows. We tried to con Babywoods into helping with this task, but she just took the chard stalk and starting eating it, so, uh, not useful.
Harvesting this way yields roughly two wheelbarrows full of chard, which is a monstrous amount. The only container that’ll hold it all? The baby pool. Babywoods was concerned that we’d requisitioned her pool as a chard holding pen and requested to climb in and–I kid you not–“live with the chard.”
Washing the Chard
Next up is washing! Thankfully we’re organic gardeners, so we don’t have to worry about pesticides on our plants, but we do have to remove dirt and bugs. Yum! Last year, like a moron, I washed EACH and EVERY individual chard leaf in our kitchen sink. It took me about a year to get through a batch. This year, we did some research and learned that non-moron gardeners do a three-part dunk washing system for their greens. Brilliant!
I line up the baby pool-o-chard next to three large plastic storage totes on our back porch. Two of the totes are 3/4 full of water (from the hose) and the third tote is empty. I first pressure wash the chard (in the baby pool) with our hose. Next, I take a bundle of chard and dunk it in the first water bath and rub the stems clean. Then I shake the leaves off and dunk the bundle into the next tote of water. Finally, I remove it and put it into the third, empty tote to await intervention by chef Mr. FW. Then I pressure wash the next layer of chard in the baby pool and continue on with my washing system. The only downside is that the water coming out of our hose is approximately 40 degrees and so I nearly freeze my arms off. By dint of me writing this, you know I survived.
As a perfectionist/germaphobe/neat freak, I was CERTAIN this dunking system wouldn’t work and that I’d be up for 48 hours washing chard in the sink. I am delighted to report that I was wrong. The dunking system totally works and we’ve found very little residual dirt after this three-part baptism. Woohoo! It still takes me about 1.5 hours to wash two wheelbarrow loads of greens, but that is phenomenally faster than last year’s laborious moron-at-the-sink system.
Processing the Chard
We’re doing chard three ways this year:
- For immediate consumption in an Asian-spice inspired stir fry of chard, kale, onions, garlic, Hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, and ginger. Yum. Mr. FW cooks up a certifiably GIANT batch of this once a week and it’s what we eat for dinner all week along, atop organic brown rice.
- Blanch and freeze (detailed below)
- Kimchi (what you’ve been waiting for)
And we had one failed idea:
- Pickled chard stems (gross)
Blanch and Freeze
This is a time-honored, straightforward method for preserving greens. After harvesting and washing, we rip the leaves from the stems (faster than chopping) and Mr. FW chops the leaves into ribbons and puts the stems into the food processor using the slicer attachment, which slices them thinly across the grain of the stem (he then adds the stems to the stir fry).
We then blanch the leaves (put them in boiling water for a minute and then dunk them into cold water). After blanching, we wring them out and pop them into plastic bags and into our deep freeze. The reason for blanching is that it locks in the nutrients of the chard. Our plan is to defrost these bags in the winter for Mr. FW to make chard stir-fry. We didn’t do this system last year, so we’ll have to see how well it defrosts and cooks up.
I have been waiting for MONTHS to tell you about this, because my adorable husband came up not only with the idea to make kimchi out of chard, but also to call it–wait for it–Kimchardashian. I love this man so much. Kimchi is a Korean dish of fermented cabbage (typically Napa cabbage) that’s used as a flavor additive. You can put it on top of just about anything and it provides a zesty, zingy flavor. I will note that kimchi is not universally loved and so I advise you try some before you go to the trouble of making your very own Kimchardashian. Is Kimchi ever made out of chard? Not that we know of, but we are pioneering it over here. And it tastes great, I have to say. It’s not traditional kimchi–and if you’re a stickler for the traditional, you’d probably would sneer at ours. But Kimchardashian tastes fantastic (in our opinion) and adds spice and zest to our lives (plus the fermentation is supposed to be super healthy for you!). The other great advantage to Kimchardashian is that it preserves the chard in a shelf-stable manner, since it’s fermented and then put in shelf-stable canning jars. This is good because we are running out of freezer space in a BIG way. I should note that it’s sort of shelf-stable. This is also sort of to be determined… we’re thinking that if kept in our cool, dark basement it will remain shelf-stable. We’ll test it out and see.
Thus far, we’ve eaten more than half of the Kimchardashian that Mr. FW made, so I think we’ll try and ramp up production to make enough to actually save for the winter.
Pickled Chard Stems
This was a bad idea. We thought that perhaps we could pickle chard stems using the same solution we pickle cucumbers with and so we did just that. And they taste awful. It’s rare that Mr. FW and I don’t like a food–we’re both adventurous eaters–and we almost never waste something we’ve cooked. But these things are pretty much inedible. We each ate one and frowned. Somehow, they do not taste right. At all. So, uh, don’t try that one at home. I think we’ll be dumping them into the compost, which is a sad end but one that’s unavoidable I fear.
Our other gargantuan crop this year are cucumbers, thanks to the 9,000 cucumber plants Mr. FW planted. Ok maybe it’s only 8,500. Why so many cucumbers? We have a pickle obsession. Mr. FW coined a spicy pickle canning recipe last year and we inhaled our entire pickle supply before the first frost.
This year, we’re ready for such wanton pickle consumption and, as of publication, we’ve made no fewer than 60 (yes, sixty) quarts of pickles. We may need to build an addition onto our home in order to store all of our preserved foods…
Here’s Mr. Frugalwoods’ pickling recipe:
- 4 cups water
- 4 cups white vinegar
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup salt
Place in each jar:
- Crushed garlic
- Mustard seeds
- 1/2 a hot pepper
- Tons of cucumber rounds
- Stuff jar with above ingridents
- Pour pickling brine into the jar
- Process jars in a water bath for 10 minutes
He usually quadruples this recipe, which yields about 15 quarts of pickles.
Note: please follow a real canning recipe to ensure you know and understand canning risks and particulars. This recipe is a guide off of which you could base an actual canning recipe. Please do not give yourself botulism. Thank you.
After a disappointing run with “big” tomatoes last summer, we went with all cherry tomatoes this year and, so far, this seems like a good decision. The big tomatoes never fully ripened, were disease-ridden, and the flavor wasn’t that great. The cherries, on the other hand, thrived, so we quadrupled down on those. Mostly we eat these things like candy and I put them in our daily lunch salads. Mr. FW also makes batches of garden salsa using the tomatoes, hot peppers and cilantro from the garden, along with red onion and lemon (from the grocery store). Yum! I’m going to experiment with freezing some salsa to see how it turns out (we can’t can it as we don’t have a pressure canner). I fear it might lose its crunch in the freezer, but still might taste fine. To be determined.
We have cultivated black raspberries (a different berry species from either red raspberries or blackberries) growing in one of our garden beds. Last year, Mr. FW built a trellis system using rope twine and a number of readers pointed out that this was a dumb idea. Turns out, you guys were 100% correct. Rope twine was a totally dumb idea for the very obvious reason that it wasn’t strong enough and it, uh, for lack of a better term, collapsed under the weight of the berry vines. This year, emboldened by our past mistakes, Mr. FW built trellises out of STEEL twine. Hooray!
These trellises survived the season and are still going strong. Bonus is that the local birds adore perching on top of them. Downside is that they then poop on our berries (rude). Bird poop aside, we harvested a lovely crop of black raspberries this year, which I freeze in gallon-sized plastic bags and then mete out for our consumption throughout the year. I know that a lot of people recommend first freezing the berries individually on a cookie sheet, but I’ll be honest here, I do not have the time for that, so I just shove them all in a bag and they do just fine. This is my third year of the shove-n-freeze method, as it’s known in technical circles, and I see no downside to my
lazy brilliant methodology.
Snap Peas and Ground Cherries
Rounding out our garden bounty are the snap peas and ground cherries. The snap peas aren’t doing all that well–they appear to be afflicted by some sort of fungus among us–so we’re just munching those as they ripen. The ground cherries are thriving, but we only have nine plants, so the haul isn’t spectacular. Plus, Babywoods had decided that these are her plants and so has assumed sole consumption responsibility for any and all ground cherries. I’ve managed to eat three and they tasted divine.
Logging Winch Comes to Town
A new-to-us piece of equipment joined the homestead in July: a logging winch! This is one of those things that Mr. FW had a saved Craigslist search set up for as it’s tough to find a used winch that’s in decent condition. Lo and behold, just such a good condition used winch popped up and Mr. FW leapt into the truck to go buy it. It’s taking us some time to build out our farm supplies via the used market, but it is so much cheaper when we’re able to find things used that its worth it to us. As I’ve written previously, the challenge is that most folks keep and use their equipment for decades, which puts a real damper on the used market, but speaks volumes for the ethos of reduce, reuse, and recycle.
What’s a winch? You are perhaps wondering (as I did). It is not, I learned, a medieval bar maiden. Rather, it is a sort of pulley system that hooks up to the back of the tractor to pull logs out of the woods for firewood.
We heat our home with our woodstove and Mr. FW harvests all of our wood from our forest of many hundreds of thousands of trees. Properly harvesting wood is an important aspect of managing a healthy forest as it encourages new growth and eliminates diseased/problem trees. It’s also an efficient way to heat our home! I have a number of posts detailing Mr. FW’s directional felling (that means cutting a tree down and having it fall where you want it to fall) techniques as well as how we split, stack, and store wood. The winch is used in the second step of the process. After Mr. FW cuts down a tree, he then needs to transport that tree back to our yard where he can split and stack the firewood. The winch greatly simplifies the process of tree maneuvering.
I made Mr. Frugalwoods dictate the below so that I could explain it right proper to ya.
The purpose of the winch is three-part:
1) Using a winch saves labor because you can pull tree-length logs out of the woods (after felling them) as opposed to bucking them in place (that means cutting a log up into little sections) and loading the rounds (those are the sections of log) into the tractor bucket. It removes an entire step in handling the wood. Mr. FW’s work flow is incredibly faster with the addition of the winch!
2) It allows him to reach trees that are inaccessible by tractor, which vastly expands the perimeter of trees he can fell. This is important since he focuses on diseased/dying trees or dangerous trees that need to be removed. This expanded perimeter will let him target more problem trees.
3) It enables him to dislodge hung-up trees in a safe way (a hang up occurs when you fell a tree and it snags on another tree). Even with safe directional felling techniques, sometimes trees get stuck in other trees and this allows him to pull the tree down safely and with no risk that the tree will fall onto him. Bonus!
The winch itself attaches to the tractor using the PTO and is a pretty basic machine: it’s a spool of 160 feet of 3/8 inch steel cable with a clutch. The brand is a Norse 350, which delivers plenty of pulling power for what we need and we bought it in excellent used condition for $1,900 (retails new for $2,600 ). Another possible use for the winch is pulling a car out of the snow or mud. We haven’t had to do that since moving here, but seems like something that could happen to us…
Thanks to the advent of the winch, Mr. FW was able to fell, split, and stack close to an entire cord of firewood in mere days. The dream team of the winch and our log splitter has made firewood harvesting faster and more efficient by several orders of magnitude. Machines well deployed make our work much more tenable. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the other key element of getting all this wood stacked so quickly was the valuable assistance of my dad, who was visiting us (along with my mom)! Beware: if you visit us in the spring/summer/fall, we will put you to work…
Side note: chainsaw safety is paramount. Mr. FW took several courses on chainsaw safety as well as safe directional felling techniques prior to working with a chainsaw (for locals interested, it was the Game Of Logging course, which he highly recommends). He also wears full protective gear including chainsaw boots, chaps, gloves, helmet, ear protection, and a face mask. Please do not operate a chainsaw without all of these safety precautions in place and please learn how to use one from an expert! As in, not me!
Parents On The Homestead
My parents came to visit us in July as part of an epic three-month road-trip through the United States and Canada. They drove their Prius in one incredible loop from San Diego cross country to Vermont and then up through Canada and back down the west coast to their home in San Diego. While they were here we put them to work harvesting blackberries, helping stack firewood, and above all else, caring for our children!
Mr. FW and I actually went hiking ALONE together without children. Several times!! It was glorious. Hiking with kids is nice and all, but going without them meant we actually covered some distance and didn’t have to constantly address questions about trees, birds, and random sounds in the woods. “What’s that sound, mama?” After awhile, I have no idea what sounds even are anymore. Hiking alone gave us the chance to rediscover one of the reasons we moved here in the first place: the ability to hike right outside our front door! Many thanks to my parents for all of their help and many thanks to Mr. Frugalwoods’ parents for all of their help during their June visit.
As we returned from one of those soul-refreshing sans-kids hikes, a rotund, furry football bolted in front of us and leapt into the woodpile next to the barn (like he thought we wouldn’t see him in there?). This, we quickly deduced, was a groundhog, enemy of yummy gardens and nice lawns everywhere. We’ve since spotted said hog–also known as a whistle pig, woodchuck, and general world-class nuisance–skulking around our septic mound and mincing ‘neath the apple trees. We haven’t enacted eviction proceedings quite yet, but if that thing gets into our vegetable garden, someone will be in a stew.
The whistle pig is not the lone menace of the season. As we prepared dinner one evening, we spied a beast in our Red Duchess apple tree, which is our most favorite, most successful, most beautiful apple tree. Not to be trifled with by a beast. I sent Mr. FW out there armed with nothing more than his wits and cheered him on from the porch (someone had to stay inside with the kids, right?). Upon closer inspection, he deduced it was none other than Pork U. Pine, the surly, stinky porcupine who haunts our yard. Pork U. Pine managed to lumber his quill-ridden self into the apple tree and was arrayed on an upper branch, feasting on our prize apples with rude abandon. Mr. FW threw some rocks in his general direction until he got the message and slung himself out of the tree and ambled towards the woods. In disgrace, I might add. Fortunately for Pork U. Pine, Mr. FW is no baseball player and I have to say, I think he hit more apples out of the tree than anything else… but the Pork seemed to internalize the spirit of the rocks (if not their actual force) and hasn’t returned (that we know of… ).
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Onward to August, frugal comrades!