October is the reason why I live in the New England countryside. I mean, I guess there are other reasons, but October ranks pretty high.
It’s the most idyllic, most stereotypically “autumn,” most mythologized, most steeped-in-Americana of all the months. And I love it.
Welcome to my recurring series in which I document life on our 66-acre Vermont homestead, which we moved to in May 2016 from urban Cambridge, MA.
Wondering about the financial aspects of rural life? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
October: A Time For Food Preservation
My hands are dry and calloused. My kids have dirt under their fingernails. There are 12 quarts of canned tomato sauce on my kitchen table and a repurposed changing table of unripened tomatoes in our breakfast nook. There are cherry tomatoes in my dehydrator at this moment, homemade bread in my pantry, and apples on my counter destined for a pie.
On the bar are two half gallons of fermenting peppers (hopefully on their way to becoming hot sauce) and two flats of unprocessed cayennes and jalapeños.
There are two carboys of hard cider fermenting in my office and three gallons of soft cider in the fridge. The basement is home to yet uncounted quarts of homemade applesauce, apple butter, pickles, maple syrup, and tomato sauce.
The freezers contain okra, blackberries, dried tomatoes, dried apples. All of it grown by us, all of it picked by us, all of it preserved by us.
Sometimes, I don’t know why we do all this work. Sometimes, I want to chuck the vegetables into the compost pile and run back inside. But other times, I see our kids devouring dried tomatoes and picking their own ground cherries and harvesting currants (presently becoming cordial in our pantry) and I know why we do it.
We do it for love and for a legacy for our children. I’m still about ready to launch the rest of our green tomatoes into the yard for the flock of turkeys that’s taken up residence in our lower field, but I know that come snow, I’ll be grateful–and probably wistful–about these days spent processing and preserving. Until then, I’ll tell you what we’re making.
Preserving Apples Three Ways
You guys. I made applesauce. From apples I picked from our apple trees. Move over Little House On The Prairie. I do not cook. I do not craft. This applesauce represents the pinnacle of both for me (rivaled only by the hand turkey I made out of construction paper last Thanksgiving).
Our apple trees set a ton of fruit this year and Kidwoods + Littlewoods eat a ton of applesauce (plus I bake with it), so I decided to make it happen in the kitchen. This whole cycle of growing and preserving our own food is so new to me, so recent in my life that I feel the need to take completed jars of applesauce out on the porch and photograph them for the internet.
Listen, I’m so happy this stuff didn’t explode or taste weird. Mr. Frugalwoods and I want to evolve in our homesteading so that we’re growing and preserving more and more of our food, but it’s a years-long process of figuring out what will grow in our climate, what we can preserve (plz appreciate pun), what we’ll eat, and in what quantity.
As it turns out, quantity is more crucial than we realized: see the 65 quarts of pickles still in our basement from last summer’s cucumber bonanza.
We’re trying to figure out our family’s annual consumption and then work backwards to plant the right number of plants and preserve those plants in the right way. We’ll get there. Or not. Either way, I have some boss lady applesauce up in here that’s sugar-free, free-range, organic, whole-food, gluten-free, hormone-free, ethanol-free, free range, free trade, tomato-free (I think), artisanal, grass-fed, cage-free, cruelty-free, MSG-free, and dang tasty.
2. Dried Apples
One of the easiest preservation methods: I peel and core apples, set the slices on the dehydrator trays, sprinkle with cinnamon, and let them dry. Apple chips make excellent, year-round, sugar-free snacks for children and parents alike. This year, we bought a second dehydrator at a garage sale (to accompany this dehydrator) to increase our dehydrating efficiency (affiliate link).
I don’t know what we did to deserve such luck, but, one of our trees produces gigantic apples. These things are softball-sized, which make the best dried apples because I get the most resulting apple for my efforts of peeling and coring!
The rest of our trees proffer diminutive, craggy fruit, deformed in the way you’d expect from an organic, novice-tended orchard. But our Red Duchess is off the charts. Grocery store apples, I call them. The other day I realized I’d packed apples three ways for Kidwoods’ lunchbox: applesauce, dried apples, and fresh slices. She ate it all.
The size of these apples is also the source of my turkey-chasing ways. The bird-bandits are stalking my Red Duchess (never mind the FIELD of wild blackberries and wild apple trees available for them to consume). Nope, they prefer my prize-winning tree.
The other day I mom-voiced them as I tore across the yard–fruit picker aloft–and those turkeys have yet to return. I will point out that Mr. FW did not have similar luck scattering the flock in my absence. The turkeys regard him as an annoyance, not a legitimate threat. Me, on the other hand, they know not to cross. Apparently my defense of these apples is strong
3. Apple Cider
The most labor intensive, time consuming, and satisfying way to preserve apples. At right is a glimpse of our cider pressing process: me trying to help Kidwoods turn the mashing crank (with notation from her that she’d prefer to “do it myself.”) In case you’re wondering, yes, she hit herself in the face with the crank (several times), but was undeterred from her DIY approach.
We ended up with about 15 gallons of cider, some destined to be hard, others left for soft. I never thought I’d make my own cider. I never thought I’d have my own apple trees. I also never imagined I’d wear overalls non-ironically. Yet here I am. And I could not imagine my life any other way. Somehow, I’ve landed right where I’m supposed to be.
Kind friends came over to help on cider-pressing day and together, we picked bucket after bucket of fruit from our trees. We hauled and rinsed and mashed and pressed and poured until cider flowed. Kids ran wild, apple cake was baked and eaten, and the tractor bucket filled with apple mash.
There’s more to say about my gratitude for our friends. There’s more to explain about how we ended up here and with these apple trees in our care. There’s more to share about how it feels to look at a piercing blue sky with a baby on your back and apples in your hands and leaves in vermillion, mustard, and orange. Thankfully, I said a lot about cider pressing here and also here.
Then There’s Tomatoes Two Ways
- Tomato Sauce
We made sauce! From our tomatoes! And it tastes excellent! I feel so legit, busting out my homemade jars of sauce, but let’s remember: I had to carry them out to the garden in a cardboard box and set them up in the dirt in order to take this picture. So let’s not be too impressed.
Let’s have no delusions about how I spend my days. What these pictures don’t show are the tomatoes that rotted on our countertop and dripped tomato residue(?) onto the floor.
What these pictures don’t show are the hours spent picking pestilent worms off our tomato plants. What these pictures don’t show are the hours it takes to crush tomatoes and cook them down into sauce and hot water bath can them.
It’s not glamorous, it’s not organized, and things occasionally rot and stink up our kitchen. Just keeping it real over here. Also, our kids could consume this much sauce in about a week, so we’re not breaking any money-saving ground here, people.
But my goodness is it delicious. Turns out, this sauce maker we bought was indeed the right tool for the job (affiliate link).
2. Dried Tomatoes
I slice cherry tomatoes in half, plop them on the dehydrator trays, and dry them on out (affiliate link). The kids eat dried tomatoes like candy and I love sprinkling a few on my salads. Of all the things we preserve, dried tomatoes are by far the most popular and the most likely to get gobbled up.
Having two dehydrators this year was awesome because it allowed me to designate one for apples and one for tomatoes. Otherwise, the tomato guts mingle with the cinnamon from the apples and things get weird.
Burned First Fire in Woodstove
We tried to hold out, but the cold winds snaked through the cracks and forced our mortal hands to build a fire in our woodstove in early October. It’s glorious, that first fire of the season. The memories of last fall, of last Christmas, of last Thanksgiving, flood me as the scent of woodsmoke permeates and the flames lick the glass, beckoning me closer.
It marks the end of a season I’m all too happy to see go: the season of planting, harvesting, and preserving. I’m ready for good books, a warm drink, and solitude by the stove. Oh who am I kidding–I have two toddlers–I’m ready to read THEM books, and make them snacks, and snuggle them next to the stove.
Sugar Wood Harvesting
If we accomplish nothing else, we will teach our kids how to stack wood. As I shared in last month’s installment, our house wood woodshed (that’s the wood we burn in our wood stove to heat our home) is full. Nine cords of wood await burning for the next three winters (three cords per year is our average). That done, it’s time for sugar wood. Listen, I don’t make up this lingo, people, I just try to impress you with it. Ok, so ‘sugar wood’ is the wood we burn to make maple syrup. We tap our sugar maple trees, we extract the sap, and we boil it down, down, down on our evaporator until it becomes syrup.
This past spring, we ran out of wood before we ran out of maple sap, a sad situation to be sure. We use different wood for making syrup than for heating the house because you need quick-burning soft wood to make syrup (versus slow-burning, house-warming wood). So this log right here, held by Kidwoods, is soft wood, which is also known as a pine tree. We aim to fill up this–our sugar wood shed–with around 3-4 cords, which should hopefully hold us through the sugaring season (that’s what making maple syrup is called).
As of this writing, the sugar shed contains around 1.5 cords of wood, which is double what we had last year. We’ll aim to put up more before the snow flies.
TLDR: here’s my kid helping my husband load the wood shed with wood we’ll use to make maple syrup. And I must say, she actually did help. I unloaded logs from the tractor bucket (with the baby on my back), handed them to Kidwoods, and she ran them over to Mr. FW, who stacked and stacked.
The family that logs together, hogs together? The family that stacks together, hacks together? Let’s go with: the family that works together stays warm together all winter. And has enough wood to make ample maple syrup.
It’s not all wood stacking and food preserving over here. We have our bits of leisure! Such as hiking with our kids–what could be more leisurely? Uh, pretty much anything else on this list…
I now term it “hot mess hiking” because it looks idyllic, but is actually something else entirely. Sticking with how it looks, our fall leaves are a cliche of autumnal perfection. Back to how it feels, it’s a parenting trope of trying to instill stuff in your kids–like a love of nature and an appreciation of exercise–and realizing it’s a long haul.
One hike, one afternoon won’t do it. It’s a relentless repetition of values and practices. It’s me prompting “thank you” for two years and then, finally, overhearing it uttered to a stranger, unbidden. It’s hike after hike of whining and foot dragging, followed by Kidwoods barreling up the trail in front of us. It feels futile until it bears fruit. It still feels futile, but I hang onto these glimmers of emergent people.
We’ve also learned that having a hiking goal helps. A lot. When we hike in the woods? Complaining and whining prevail. When we hike up the driveway to check our mailbox? An enthused toddler leads the way.
I couldn’t figure out this difference until Mr. FW identified that it’s the goal that matters for her. Hiking up the driveway, she knows where we’re going, she knows how long it’ll take, and she knows the result: getting to check the mailbox with daddy. Hiking in the woods, on the other hand? She has no idea where we are (admittedly, the trees do all look the same) and she’s not sure how long it’ll take. This despite the fact that the hike to the mailbox is more difficult and longer. Perhaps we all need a defined goal. A set point to reach and know we’re done. When are we done? When have we reached enough? Kidwoods is content with getting to the mailbox. Why can’t I find a (measurable, achievable) goal and be done?
Jumping In The Leaves: A Great Way to Aggravate Sciatica
The girls and I raked a giant pile of leaves and then ran up and down the hill to leap in them. Kidwoods decided we needed a running start, which involved us running approximately 5 miles up the yard in order to then gently plop ourselves into the middle of the pile, as all that running meant there wasn’t enough energy left for a true jump.
Littlewoods, being so new to bipedal life, would start down the hill towards us just in time to turn around and try–in vain–to scrabble back to join us in the leaf pile, where she’d started. Leaf pile jumping is vexing when you can barely walk.
Our mini-rake got a workout alongside the mama-rake and we heaped leaf after leaf (and quite a few pinecones and twigs) into this mountain (affiliate link). Mr. FW paused his work to join us and he too was coaxed into running up the hill and into the pile.
I am so thankful for these leaves, these kids, this season, and the time to be outside with them. Every now and then, there’s perfection in our lives. This was just such a moment. Also, I was reminded of why I no longer run: rhinoceros with sciatica anyone?
From Seed to Jack O’Lantern
This is the first pumpkin we’ve successfully taken from seed to jack o’lantern. Of all the pumpkins we planted, this one somehow thrived.
A rotund, orange, brilliant fellow that did not succumb to pest (toddler or otherwise) or negligence of gardeners. Perhaps more miraculous, it survived several weeks inside the house with eager ministrations by Kidwoods and Littlewoods, both intent on carrying it around and dressing it up–neither of which a pumpkin is wont to do.
Then, for the final indignity, it suffered through a stroller ride to a pumpkin competition to receive a second place pity ribbon.
Finally, right before Halloween, we carved it up and roasted the seeds. This pumpkin–sitting on my table between two ghost candles handed down by my parents–is the epitome of what I want in my life. I want to grow stuff. I want to light candles. I want to do simple, happy traditions with our kids. I want orange things in my house.
October 24th marks the anniversary of seeing our homestead for the first time. Not a date I’d remember without an annually recurring google calendar reminder, but a pivotal date for our family. Four years ago, I was 8 months pregnant with Kidwoods and we were touring this house on a whim after years of homestead house-hunting.
We were overwhelmed with how called we were to this home, to this place. We sat on the back porch and ate apples from the orchard. Two bites in and I was all tears–partially thanks to hormones, partially thanks to the realization that this was it.
We came back the next day without our real estate agent and hiked up the trail leading into the woods. Armed with a paper map and no compass, we inaccurately deduced that this stump was the property boundary. I climbed up on it, hefting my pregnant belly, and said, “yep, this is it.” I jumped down, we hiked down the hill, and we put in an offer. This stump remains on our property, near the top of our hill, but not quite the boundary.
Hiking the other day with Littlewoods on my back, I was struck by the beauty and significance of this stump, in a forest of trees and stumps and stump-like objects. This stump will always mean home to me. Four years and two kids later, I’m still in awe of our woods. I’m still close to tears when I eat apples from our trees (probably partially due to exhaustion… ).
Our dreams for this place are still unfolding and I’m still grateful for my husband of eleven years and the blueberry bushes he planted, the plum trees we rehabilitated, the vegetables we grow and preserve, the kids we’re raising and, most of all, the quality of life we’ve created. Laid-back, slower, with a lot of laughter and dirt. You guys, I’m really thankful to be here. I’m really thankful for this stump. Thank you for going on this journey with me.
After moving here, we decided to get solar panels mounted on our barn roof. My full write-up on the panels is here and I include a solar update in this series. This is the only way for me to remember that: a) I have solar; b) you all would like to be updated on it.
In October, we generated 432 kWh, which is decent. For reference, last January our panels generated a paltry 70.4 kWh.
Since our electric company offers net metering, we’re able to bank our summer and fall sunshine for use in the winter, which keeps our electric bill low year-round, even when the sun isn’t shining.
This has been your solar production update. You’re welcome.
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