This Month On The Homestead: Apples, The County Fair, and A Plum Thief
Early September carries the whiff of summer. It’s warm, the trees are lush and green, and the vegetable garden still pushes out reams of produce. We hop around bound up in our summer lives: mowing fields and grasses, harvesting and preserving vegetables, playing in the creek, and picking late blackberries.
But mid-September begins to portend a change. Temperatures dip and we find ourselves closing the windows and reaching for sweaters and socks, long folded in drawers. Mr. Frugalwoods ramps up his firewood chopping, splitting, and stacking regimen. I put away the children’s summer clothes.
By late September, the leaves are in transition. Green is still dominant, but the landscape is flecked with red, orange, and yellow. We know now what’s coming. And I don’t hesitate to decorate for fall and Halloween–it suddenly feels like there’s no time to waste. We have to relish our fleeting fall before snow sets in and ensconces us in winter.
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.
Remember the crates upon crates upon heaps of apples we harvested last year? Good. Keep that memory alive because it didn’t happen this year. We had a low production year, which–based on our informal data collection methodology over the last three years–is consistent with our hypothesis that our apple trees are biennial producers.
This is not uncommon for apple trees, particularly those that are undergoing a pruning and rehabilitation process, such as ours are. We first set eyes on our property in late October 2015 and the trees were riddled with apples. One of the first things we did was pick a few and sit on the porch, trying to imagine what our lives could be like out here. Next fall, after we’d moved in, Mr. Frugalwoods began educating himself on the art of fruit tree pruning. He took several classes (thankfully all offered locally!), the most helpful of which took place on someone’s land where they hiked around with the instructor and pruned trees under his tutelage. He also devoured books and, of course, YouTube videos (if you’re looking for a good time, google apple pruning videos. Some are certifiably hilarious). At any rate, what we quickly deduced is that our little apple orchard–which consists of ten cultivated trees in our yard and a bunch of wild apple trees in our woods–was overgrown. Apple trees need to be pruned regularly in order to encourage proper growth and fruiting. And our trees had been neglected for a few years. I have several posts devoted to our tree pruning regimen, so check here and here if you’re interested in more info. We also spray our trees with an organic clay compound to deter bugs, which I explain in detail here.
One of our apples trees–the Red Duchess–did produce at a normal rate this year. I don’t know if it’s the siting of the tree, the soil, the variety of apple, the phase of the moon, or what, but that tree puts out stellar apples every year (well, all three years that we’ve known it). Despite undergoing the same pruning regimen as the other trees, the Red Duchess seems undaunted. This is also the tree that my nemesis–Pork U. Pine–managed to scuttle up into and knock an entire branch out of (varmint!!!!!!). Downed branch aside, we netted a decent apple crop from the Red Duchess. There were about five apples on the other trees combined, so I didn’t even bother harvesting them in a serious way. We plucked a few apples off to munch, but beyond that, I left them up there.
Last year, we made our first batches of hard apple cider, which turned out surprisingly delicious. I say surprising because we’d never made cider before. But we made a ton and still have two carboys of cider in our basement! Hence, before knowing the totality of our apple crop, I’d planned to make apple cider vinegar this year. Alas, not enough apples came forth. Maybe next year!
So what do you do with too many apples to eat but not enough apples to press into cider or vinegar? Make apple butter!!!
I’d never eaten apple butter prior to Mr. FW whipping some up last year, so I have no idea how “authentic” ours is, but it is darn tasty. We make it in a crockpot, which simmers overnight and makes the house smell like FALL. If you are selling a house, I highly recommend you simmer some apple butter in your kitchen–people will want to move in ASAP.
Here’s our basic apple butter recipe:
- Use a peeler/corer to peel and core a bunch of apples
- Chop the apples into quarters and fill your crock pot/slow cooker/whatever it is the kids are using these days
- Add fresh ground clove, cinnamon, white sugar, brown sugar, and molasses (but not very much!)
- Simmer in crock pot for twelve hours
- Mix with a stick blender to remove any remaining chunks
- We can ours using a water bath canning system. Please refer to safe canning methods and recipes if you too would like to can your apple butter.
Our apple butter isn’t terribly sweet–it’s more of a deep, earthy, smoky flavor, but we love it! Last year, I dehydrator a bunch of apples using our dehydrator and, while they taste OK, we haven’t been consuming them as quickly as I’d imagined we would and we still have some left from last year (that’s an affiliate link). So, I skipped that system this year in favor of making more apple butter!
Here’s a story sad but true: some creature ate our plums boo hoo. Ok not ALL of the plums, but I want to say the VAST majority. We’re talking VAST. Join me in a trip down memory lane…
When we first moved to our homestead, we noticed three clusters of what looked like dead sticks coming out of the ground. Huh, we thought. I guess we should rip those out. Upon inspection, we noted small tags encircling the (not dead yet) branches that contained a lot of information, including the words “PLUM TREES.” Cool, thought we! And so, we embarked on–you guessed it–a plum tree rehabilitation project. And these babies look glorious now! Thanks to Mr. FW’s ministrations of applying clay surround, delicate pruning, and sheet mulching, these erstwhile kindling bunches are now legit trees.
Last year, our fledging rehab plum trees put in all their effort and squeezed out… exactly one plum. It was the return of the prodigal plum and we rejoiced. Also we ate the plum and it was delicious. End of that story.
This year, our teenage plum trees were looking good and they set a record amount of fruit. I didn’t have the chance to count all the plums that could have been, but there must’ve been at least 50. Yes, FIFTY. I began harvesting them as soon as they came ripe and we–particularly Babywoods–relished these literal fruits of our labors. One day I languidly photographed the plums (picture above!), not realizing that this would be the last time I would see them alive. I tested their plummy selves and, finding them still too firm to pluck, decided to leave them on the trees to ripen a tad more.
Little did I know, this decision spelled their doom. Some varmint of indeterminate species managed to make off with every last plum. Not a single pit was left behind. Not a rind, not a speck, not a drop of plum in its terrorizing wake. I posit this to be the work of squirrels, known to squirrel away food whole, but I can’t be sure. In other news, I’m now sourcing squirrel stew recipes…
Although easy to reckon that summer just left us, we know that winter will nip at our heels all too soon. Winter is largely our season of buttoning up and hunkering down, but there’s much to do to prepare ourselves and our land for its impending visit. Chiefly, we have to keep ourselves warm. This is largely accomplished by our woodstove, fueled by wood that Mr. FW chops from our land, and so in September, he initiated project winter porch.
In the summer months, our porch is a nexus of activity. There’s a picnic table, a baby pool, an obscene number of baby toys rattling around, a grill, etc… basically a giant, fun mess. But for wintertime? This all gets streamlined. Away go the tables and chairs, the cushions, the mini pool. Away go the gardening tools and little bikes and trikes. Out comes the porch wood rack. Built by Mr. FW two years ago, the porch wood rack (pictured below) is a utilitarian system that holds the wood we’ll burn in the woodstove this winter. Our porch is covered and the rack keeps the wood from touching the floor of the porch and the exterior of the house, which means it still receives some airflow as it awaits its turn in the stove. The rack holds about 1.5 cords of wood and we burn approximately 3 cords per year, so Mr. FW refills the rack mid-way through the winter. For now, we’re sorted and stacked.
I also performed my annual ritual of calling around to every propane and oil company that delivers to our area to find out their prices per gallon. I order our fuels in the fall to ensure we’re stocked for winter since fuel delivery trucks can’t make it down (or more aptly back up) our driveway in winter.
People, did you know that you can shop your propane and oil business around every year? You can! And you should!! Unless you’ve signed a longterm contract with a company, you can (and should) switch companies every year in order to get the lowest price per gallon on your fuels. The first year I did this, it took me HOURS of time. It was arduous and painful, because I had to compile a spreadsheet of all the info I needed and every company that will deliver to my address. But this year, I felt like a slick oil slicker (that might not be the best choice of words… ).
Since I already know all the companies that’ll deliver to me, and I know the size of all my tanks and the amount of fuel I need, it was a breeze! Truly, I felt some fresh air come through the window as if to reward my persistence. I discussed this process last year too (because I’m a nerd and also very proud of myself) and so check out that post if you have more questions. Since I have local readers, I’m including my spreadsheets below for your reference with the prices I was quoted, just in case this is helpful to anyone (and please let me know if it is–since I do this work anyway, I’ll be happy to let you know what prices I find next year!):
|CHEAPEST BY PROPANE 2018|
|Company||Propane Price Per Gallon||Oil Price Per Gallon|
|CHEAPEST BY OIL 2018|
|Company||Propane Price Per Gallon||Oil Price Per Gallon|
I’ll also point out here that there’s no need to get both your propane and oil from the same company. Many companies offer a bulk discount for buying both your fuels from them, HOWEVER, I calculated out that I’d save more by going with two different companies, due to the overall price per gallon. As you can see from my spreadsheets (I know they’re hotttt), there’s a $2.16 difference between the cheapest and most expensive propane suppliers and a $0.15 difference in oil prices. This doesn’t sound like much until you consider the quantities of propane and oil you’re likely to order. If you’re getting, say, 250 gallons of propane, that’s $540 you’d save by calling around to find the cheapest provider! Not insignificant.
This year, things were slightly different for me since we recently converted our hot water heater from propane to high-efficient electric, in order to take advantage of the fact that we now have solar panels. Hence, I needed to reduce the size of our propane tanks and ultimately order a lot less propane this year since we now use it solely for our cook stove. Given how little propane we estimate we’ll use now, I also looked into buying our own propane tank and having it filled at Tractor Supply or West Lebanon Feed and Supply. However, their prices per gallon weren’t low enough to merit me investing in a tank, since the propane companies provide their tanks free of charge.
In terms of oil, we don’t use all that much heating oil every year, but it’s our back-up form of heat (for when we’re out of town or otherwise not able to feed the woodstove) and we like to ensure we have a topped-up tank at the start of each winter.
Pay In Full
Another crucial note here is that the above prices are all the pay-in-full at the time of delivery prices. If you need to finance your propane or spread the payments out, the price per gallon will be higher. But, if you can swing paying the full amount at the time of the delivery, you will save save save.
Another logistics note: switching oil providers is a breeze since most folks own their oil tanks. Switching propane companies is a tad more involved since most of us don’t own our propane tanks. But, as long as your propane tanks are above ground (and not buried), it’s actually not all that difficult. Your new propane company will remove the former company’s tanks and set their tanks.
Then, you call your former propane company and let them know they need to pick up their tanks. They will do so and they then must refund you for any propane remaining in the tanks. This all takes a few phone calls and coordination, but you stand to save hundreds–if not thousands–of dollars every year. Worth a few phone calls to me!
The County Fair!
The reason I had children was to take them to the county fair. Ok, that’s not the only reason I had kids, but it’s in the top 10 for sure. I LOVE festivals and gatherings and potlucks and fairs and holidays and costumes and food and all things nostalgic. Enter the Tunbridge World’s Fair to fulfill all my dreams.
Located in Tunbridge, VT, the aptly named Tunbridge Fair happens every year in September and has happened every year since 1867. I love New England. Much as I adore all things festival-related, this was actually our first year attending because it was the first year that Babywoods–who is almost three–could really appreciate the festivities.
I’m not a fan of dragging tiny kids to stuff that they can’t enjoy (although that’s exactly what we did with poor Littlewoods… ) and so we waited two long years before we felt Babywoods was ready to experience the fair to the fullest. Plus, it costs $10 per person (mercifully kids are free) and I didn’t want to waste $20 to have a baby scream her way outta there in thirty minutes. Turns out, almost-three-years-old is the PERFECT fair age.
We went on a Friday morning, ideal because it was decidedly uncrowded and the weather was crisp and cool and the noisy carnival rides weren’t operating yet. Babywoods clasped Mr. FW’s hand and walked, with wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder, through what she called “the pumpkin fair,” amazed that such miracles exist outside of books.
Sidenote: we love the Little House On the Prairie County Fair book because it emphasizes the animals, community, and crop aspects of fairs and not the games and rides aspect.
We gazed at the enormous pumpkins and gourds, we marveled at the prize-winning carrots (arrayed on plates in the Flower Hall), and had to pull Babywoods back from trying to grab-and-munch the blue ribbon snap peas and cherry tomatoes. We saw friends and neighbors. We toured the historic village, which was Mr. FW’s favorite fair element as it featured a bunch of guys standing around a vast array of antique hit-and-miss engines, all belching voluminous smoke clouds and rattling cantankerously. I almost had to leave him there.
There were sheep, goats, chickens, cows, pigs, oxen, horses, and rabbits. We watched a few horse shows and petted a cow or two and Babywoods was “baaaaaed” at by a rowdy goat, which caused her to leap into the air and dissolve into laughter. Then, wonder of all wonders, we indulged in fair food.
We bought a small basket of cheese fries and shared it between the three of us (drinking the water we’d brought in our water bottles, of course) and Babywoods was agog. Never before had this child had french fries–let alone cheesy french fries–and she silently and methodically munched each one.
We’d planned to take Babywoods on her first carousel ride and buy her first ice cream cone, but alas, this wasn’t to be. By the time the carousel started running–long about noon–our little crew was done. Babywoods, who’d been a remarkably good sport and had walked by herself all morning long, was rubbing her eyes and asking to be carried. Littlewoods, who’d fallen asleep in the stroller after staring glassy-eyed at all the inscrutable movement and color, was beginning to fuss. The sun was heating up the grounds and there crowds were starting to throng. It was time for us to return to our quiet den in the woods and look forward to the promise of a carousel and ice cream next year.
Want More Fotos?!
While I only document homestead life once a month here on the blog, I post photos to Instagram (almost every day!) and updates to Facebook with much greater regularity! Join me there if you want more of our frugal woods.
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Onward to October, frugal comrades!
How was September on your own personal homestead?
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