Gardening and Food Production

Gettin’ Down on the Mountain

Those that know me personally know that the only thing I’m more passionate about than homesteading and prepping is music.  Music has always been a big part of who I am, whether it is listening or playing an instrument.  And I’m very picky about my music.  It has to be real and emotional.  No pop music really does that for me.  Music is emotional, not a product to be manufactured and marketed to the masses like the latest smart phone or kitchen appliance.  Needless to say I stumble on some unique artists, like Corb Lund.  He’s a fellow from way up north in Alberta.

Corb Lund

I’ve been a fan of his for years now, probably since his debut album.  Most of his music is catchy with sarcastic, witty lyrics.  Songs about getting trucks stuck in the mud or the problems with owning cows speak to the country boy in me.  I love a smart ass, and Corb Lund never disappoints.  His latest album came out a couple of years ago.  The opening track made my jaw drop.  It’s not often a musician talks about prepping or social collapse.  He nailed the mindset perfectly with his lyrics on “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain”.

The song makes use of the word “shit” so if you are easily offended or have little ears nearby, you’ve been warned.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uASQgLwaIs

When the oil stops, everything stops, nothin’ left in the fountain
Nobody wants paper money, son, so you just as well stop countin’
Can you break the horse, can you light the fire?
What’s that, I beg your pardon?
You’d best start thinkin’ where your food comes from and I hope you tend a good garden

Gettin’ down on the mountain, gettin’ down on the mountain
Don’t wanna be around when the shit goes down
I’ll be gettin’ down on the mountain, goin’ to ground on the mountain

When the trucks don’t run, the bread won’t come, have a hard time findin’ petrol
Water ain’t runnin’ in the city no more, do you hold any precious metal?
Can you gut the fish, can you read the sky?
What’s that about overcrowdin’?
You ever seen a man who’s kids ain’t ate for seventeen days and countin’?

There ain’t no heat and the power’s gone out, it’s kerosene lamps and candles
The roads are blocked, it’s all gridlocked, you got a shortwave handle?
Can you track the deer, can you dig the well?
I couldn’t quite hear your answer
I think I see a rip in the social fabric, Brother can you pass the ammo?
I think I see a rip in the social fabric, Brother can you spare some ammo?

 

http://corblund.com/

Fire Roasted Green Chiles

 

At the end of every summer, the state of New Mexico shares its bounty with the rest of the world.  The famous Hatch Green Chile is in season!  During this season, all the stores in Texas offer these peppers for a great price.  Usually they can be had for less than a dollar a pound.  Since it is a short window on Hatch season, a lot of us like to stock up for the year.  There are several ways to preserve them for year-round use.

The most popular methods are freezing, drying, and canning.  For our yearly stockpile, we bought a 25 pound case, so we have a lot of peppers to work with.  More than half will be frozen, which is a lot more work than it sounds like.  The rest will end up getting dried.  Drying these peppers will use the same process I covered a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into any detail.

Before peppers can be frozen, it helps to remove the skin.  Most peppers have a very tough skin that will not come off the flesh of the pepper without some help.  This is where the roasting comes in.  Once the peppers are roasted, the skins will slip off.  At this point, the peppers go into small freezer bags and into the freezer.  Be sure to use small, serving size bags because once thawed, the peppers will only last a week or two in the refrigerator.

I planned on roasting the whole batch over hardwood coals in the fire pit.  It works well but was very time consuming.  It also involves working directly over an open fire in August in Texas.  Needless to say, it was hot work. To roast these peppers, pierce each pepper with a fork several times.  Put them over the heat until the skin blisters.  Once it is blistered completely, remove from heat and place them in freezer bag or a bowl covered with a towel to allow them to “sweat”.  Once they are cool the skins should slip off.

About halfway through, some friends showed up to help.  They were born and raised in the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico.   We were quickly onto a different method.  We built the fire up to really increase the heat and procured a large pot.  In this pot, we poured enough vegetable oil to completely cover a few peppers.  Once this oil was hot, we started tossing peppers in and letting them blister.  As they finished, they were laid out on cardboard to drain.  This process took 2 or 3 minutes compared to the 15 to 20 minutes it took over the fire.

There is a method that uses an oven to roast the peppers, but we decided against it.  It works well but makes the house smell of chile peppers and can turn the air in the kitchen into pepper spray.  Even with 3 peppers in the oven, the odor was strong.  We will continue to do all of our roasting outside.

A few things I discovered that will help out…  When handling peppers, don’t touch your eyes or face (or private parts!).  You can wear gloves to help out with this.  When working over a fire, the longer your tongs, the better.  I lost some hair on my hands turning peppers.  The friends from New Mexico said that a gas or charcoal grill works very well.

 

Photo courtesy of Sarah’s Musical Kitchen.

Preserving Peppers!

This year my pepper plants aren’t doing well.  I’m not sure if it was the weird spring weather that stayed cold longer than normal or something I’m doing wrong.  Whatever it is, the plants are stunted.  They look healthy, but small.  I’ve managed to harvest a couple of Jalapenos and a handful of small Cayenne peppers.

Luckily, my dad’s pepper plants are doing great this season, so he sent me home with a ton of peppers this weekend.  I ended up with a dining room table full of Jalapeno, Cayenne, and Banana peppers.  Now it’s time to move to get them preserved before they can go bad.

Dehydrating is the easiest way of preserving peppers, but it limits their uses later.  They can be used for cooking or as a seasoning, but not really enjoyed by themselves.  I always like to keep a good stock on hand for uses in chili and stew recipes, so several pounds of this batch are getting dried.   Dehydrating peppers is a pretty simple and straightforward process.

Peppers have a pretty tough skin that seals moisture in, so each pepper needs to be pierced or sliced so they can dry evenly.  For thin peppers like the Cayennes I make a slit along the length of each pepper.  For thicker peppers like the Jalapenos, I simply slice them in half along the length.   Once all the peppers are sliced, they get loaded on the trays of the dehydrator.  Unless you have a very well ventilated spot inside, I recommend running the dehydrator outside.  As peppers heat up and start to dry, they turn the area around them into a pepper spray gas chamber.  Usually in 10 to 12 hours, everything is dried out well and ready to store.  I use Mason jars to keep them moisture free.  That allows them to keep for years.

Some basic tips for dehydrating:

1. Thin items dry much faster than thick pieces.

2. Peppers, onions, and other foods can put off very strong odors while drying.

3. If you dehydrate outside, make sure the dehydrator is protected from animals and birds.

4. Some items can impart their flavor to others if dehydrated at the same time.  Don’t dry onions or peppers with your apple chips!

5. Check your food every couple of hours.  You can’t really over dry most items, but no sense in running a dehydrator longer than needed.

 

Bean Teepee for the Yard Long Beans

 

While perusing the seed display at a local store, Sarah found a variety of green bean neither of us had heard of.  Asparagus Bean, AKA the Yard Long bean.  This bean is supposed to put on pods up to 30 inches long.  I’ve always planted bush varieties, so climbers are a new deal for me.  Sarah hit Pinterest on ideas for a trellis and came upon the idea of a bean teepee.  Something else that’s a new idea.  Lets give it a try!

I selected two skinny little locust trees about 2 inches at the base and felled them.  This was a lot easier task than their full grown brothers.  As it turns out, the little ones don’t have thorns up and down the trunks.  A few minutes with the chainsaw to clean them up and they were cut to length at 8 feet.

I had a spot by the tomatoes that was already tilled and mulched, so I planted each of these poles in a hole a few inches deep and stood them together.  With a little help, I tied them up with baling wire.  As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t have made it as a member of a plains tribe.  My teepee doesn’t have that majestic look that we see in paintings of teepees in picturesque valleys.  Oh well, as long as the wind doesn’t blow it over and the beans are willing to grow on it, I’ll call it a success.  Once the beans come up and start climbing, I plan to run twine horizontally between the poles.

Hopefully this little contraption will be covered in delicious green beans in a couple of months.  I’ll keep everyone updated on the progress and whether or not the teepee concept works out.

image

 

 

Spring has Sprung in Texas

Maybe I was paying better attention this year, but it seems like when Spring hit, it hit all at once.  My memory isn’t the best, but in previous years it seemed a little more gradual.  Within the first two weeks of April, we went from a drab winter scene of brown and more brown to trees in full leaf and the grass and weeds in the pasture being knee tall.  We did have a sneak attack freeze on Tax Day this year, the latest freeze I can recall.  Luckily, I was able to cover all the tender squash and bush beans with a thick layer of straw, so they fared pretty well.  The onions, radishes, and sweet peas could care less about a 29 degree night.

Now that we’ve had our last freeze, it’s time for everything else to start going in the ground.  I procrastinated this winter on starting my seedlings for tomato and peppers, so a trip to the Dennis Farm Store was in order.  Dennis’ is a locally owned store that covers just about any need for farm or ranch.  To make it even better, the owner is a wealth of information.  The best part is seedlings from his store are twice as healthy and half the price of the box store places.  I ended up picking out 14 tomato and 16 pepper seedlings.  He threw in the big packet of okra seeds I needed for me.

This morning found me out getting the tomatoes in and mulched.  As soon as the last of the straw mulch was spread, big raindrops started to fall.  I wish I could say I planned it that way, but it was dumb luck more than my ability to forecast weather.  Now the sun is peeking through the clouds and we’re looking at a warm, sunny afternoon.  I think the baby tomato plants will enjoy their first day in their new home.

Aside from gardening, other upcoming projects on the homestead include building a quail tractor and getting 20 or 30 quail.  Sarah and I have no experience with these little birds, so we’ll document the process the whole way and hopefully not kill too many birds while we learn.  I have a friend that is getting started with quail several weeks ahead of me, so I’m hoping to learn from any mistakes he might make.

Once the garden starts producing, Sarah and I will fire up the pressure canner to preserve some of the harvest.  We’ll do a full write up on the process for anyone interested in learning the skill.  We have other projects in the works, but like always we have more plans than we have time.  We’ll cover anything we get into and share them as we learn new skills in self sufficiency and self reliance.

Fall Garden Adventures in the Summer

As we’ve gotten settled in at the new homestead, one of my first goals was to get a garden established.  Texans are blessed with a long growing season, and the Fall garden usually does as well as a Spring garden.  Days are warm, sun is abundant, and the first frost is really late in the year.  Even more exciting was the dirt I have here at the homestead.  I have over an acre of dark brown sandy loam.  Beautiful dirt in the eyes of anyone wanting to grow things.  I couldn’t wait to start getting my vegetables in the ground.  After checking for proper planting dates, I put seeds in the ground before we had a functioning kitchen or the dining room table set up.  I’m not sure Sarah agreed with my priorities, but she’s very tolerant of my craziness.

I opted to start small and work with an area on the south side of the house.  There was dirt that had recently been worked into a water control feature to keep run-off from running up to the house.  It was already loose, so I didn’t have to really break any ground.  I dug through my seed packets to see what was date appropriate.  Early August is perfect for a variety of squash.  Yellow Crookneck, Butternut, and Black Beauty Zucchini all got the stamp of approval and went in the ground.  The girls really wanted some pumpkins for the Fall, so I obliged and planted five little mounds of two varieties of them.  Tomato and Pepper transplants were also due, so a trip to the local nursery netted a few of each.  Some heirloom and a couple of hybrid tomatoes, a couple of Bells and a couple of Serrano plants went in the ground next.  I raked up a lot of dried grass clippings from the field to act as a temporary mulch and set out on a routine of watering to offset the hot, dry weather.

At first, everything was going perfectly.  The transplants took off without many signs of transplant shock.  Within a few days, I had little baby squash and pumpkins emerging for their first taste of air and sunlight.  In another few days, they all started putting on their big kid leaves.  I was one excited gardener!  I was already planning on how much we would eat fresh, how much we could can, and how much would be a goodwill gesture to the new neighbors.  Never count your chickens before they hatch!!

In my excitement, I overlooked a major part of the Texas ecology.  Late summer is hot and dry.  Anything that isn’t irrigated starts to die, including all the grass.  That wipes out the primary food source of a plague.  So much a plague, that it is literally of biblical proportions.  Grasshoppers by the thousands start looking for new sources of food.  My garden turned into a buffet.  I’ve learned that grasshoppers had preferences.  They prefer summer squash over everything else.  Once that was gone, they decided on winter squash.  Then they set their sights on pumpkins.  Sorry girls, no pumpkins to carve for Halloween!

(One of the culprits actively engaged on the carcass of a squash plant)

 

 

I thought the grasshoppers were content there.  Turns out I’m not that lucky.  Did you know that grasshoppers will eat pepper plants??  I do now!  The only thing they don’t seem to ravenously destroy are tomato plants.  For now at least.

Even after having my heart ripped out and consumed by evil, ugly, jumping insects, I’m not one to accept defeat.  So if the grasshoppers don’t care for tomatoes, I certainly do!  All that real estate left vacant by my my poor, defenseless squash plants will soon be occupied again.  We just picked up several varieties of tomato plants.  As the sun starts to set tonight the planting will begin.  I’ll be going from 6 tomato plants to 16.  By God, if tomatoes are the only thing I can grow, then I’ll grow a lot of them!!

Once it cools down a little, I’m hoping the grasshopper invasion will lighten up a little bit.  I should still have time to get cool weather plants established before it gets too cold.

So far, the Fall garden has been a harsh lesson but I’m determined to get something to produce.  At least I can walk away with more knowledge.  Learning from mistakes might hurt a little, but it makes that hurt sting a little less when we can garner information to make the next attempt a little easier.  Now that I know the evil that lurks in the Texas summer, I’m planning defensive measures.  If I have to build a grasshopper screen for next year, I have a year to plan it.  Grasshoppers are jumpy little things (pun intended!), so I’m going to mess with their heads.  I’m going to try putting several mylar pinwheels out to spin in the breeze and throw crazy reflections all over the place.  Bird feeders will be going up all over the place to draw in some natural predators.  The grasshoppers have won this battle, but the war has only begun!

Stay tuned for other (Mis)Adventures on the new homestead.  Sarah and I are talking about soapmaking, so if we pull it off without chemical burns we’ll work out a how-to tutorial.  If we end up with caustic burns, we’ll post up some home remedies for chemical burns!

 

*No grasshoppers were harmed in the making of the article. Yet.

Garden Time In Texas!

Gardening is a tradition that goes way back in my family.  I’m not sure how many generations, but I do know that my grandfather put in a garden so large that it required use of his Farmall Cub tractor.  That’s no surprise considering he had 8 kids to feed on a working man’s salary.  I remember being impressed as a kid by the rows of green beans that literally stretched for a couple hundred feet.  I wasn’t so impressed when it came time to pick those beans.  Wheel barrow load after load would be picked and carried over to the porch where we would string the beans or run them through a roller he had to remove beans from the hull depending on what kind of beans we were harvesting.  Then my grandmother would take over and fire up the pressure canner.  This process would be repeated as different produce came into harvest time.  Sadly, my grandfather passed away many years ago so the garden spot now sits fallow.  My grandmother still loves canning though, and it’s a treat to go visit and get a jar of her famous salt brine pickles.  Just make sure you take the empty Mason jar back or you’ll never get another pickle, and her memory is amazing on who has her jars!

Since I was a kid, my dad and I have put in a garden.  It’s nothing near the size of my granddad’s, but we are notorious for planting too much in our small space.  When the tomatoes start producing, we usually can’t give them away fast enough.  The canner runs all summer and we still make our co-workers happy with bags and bags of tomatoes going to work with us.  I do have to say we get stuck in a rut though.  A lot of the same crops get planted year after year and the only variation is decided by how many jars we have put away.  For instance, we still have a ton of canned green beans, so this year we won’t be planting any.

This weekend was garden time again.  It’s usually a time of concern for us since Texas is bad about throwing a late frost at us after we plant the garden.  This year there was no doubt that it was a good time.  Winter was almost nonexistent this year for us.  We could have safely planted weeks ago, but our main indicator hadn’t triggered yet.  We watch the Mesquite trees in the area.  Being a non-native, awful, invasive species from much further south, they will not bud out until they are sure winter is over.  They have only lied once in the collective memory.   I’ve been watching with guarded caution as the fruit trees flowered and the grass turned green, but this week the Mesquites budded so winter in Texas is gone and Spring is upon us.  Learning to garden is a generational thing.  My dad taught me as his dad taught him.  We normally use a conventional approach.  Till it up, plant in rows, and water like crazy.  Listening to guys like Jack Spirko and Paul Wheaton started me questioning this methodology.  Their talk of No Till and Permaculture sounded a lot like voodoo at first, but their results can’t be argued with.  My dad isn’t one to be convinced by talk.  He wants to see results before he is willing to change his entire way of thinking.

Enter the experimental garden!  The regular garden spot is tilled up and now planted in rows just like always.  We have an old chicken run that has been fenced off and unused for years.  When the chickens were there, they left manure all over the place.  Then leaves fell in a 6 inch layer.  It stayed this way for years.  It was the perfect compost pile.  Nature has been working its magic.  When I pull those leaves back, the soil is some of the blackest, loosest dirt I’ve ever seen.  It’s full of life.  I’m sure it would be the envy of organic gardeners everywhere.  This should be the perfect case study for chemical free, no till gardening.  I’ve started small with this area and over the next couple of weeks there will be more going on.  We’ve got a few tomato plants randomly placed with some peppers along the fence.  A little bit of spinach will be going in this week, and maybe some green beans along another section of fence so they can trellis and go vertical.  Planting was easy enough in the loose dirt.  All I needed to do was pull back the leaves, dig a hole by hand and transplant the seedlings.  As they take root I’ll pull leaves back around each plant to mulch.  Nature has provided everything but the seedlings.  The only place I used any sort of tool was for a small Hugelkultur bed.  This is more of that Spirko/Wheaton voodoo.  For those that have never heard of Hugelkultur, it is simply placing a bunch of topsoil on top of a bunch of woody material.  I have an abundance of oak branches available, so that was my material.  The concept is that as the wood breaks down, it acts as a sponge to soak up water.  This water is slowly released out so the plant can access it.  This should reduce irrigation requirements.  I used a mix of fresh hardwood and partially rotten wood to give this little bed a head start.  I set it up like a typical science experiment so I can see if there is any difference between a plant grown with this method and a plant grown in the normal soil.  The variable and control are habenero pepper plants of similar size.  If the Hugelkultur pepper does better, then the concept will be going into much larger use next year.  I have high hopes for this little experimental garden spot and think it will be a driving force in getting more natural approaches applied to the rest of the garden spots we plant.

Since I didn’t want my fiancee’s little girls left out of the gardening experience, we decided to get them involved at their house in the city.  Each girl got to pick out a couple of vegetable plants at the nursery and learned how to transplant them in the back yard.  Once again, I went with a no till method.  We picked an out of the way spot in the yard that should get good solar exposure and started planting the seedlings in a semi-random pattern.  The only thought I gave was to place them so that larger plants wouldn’t shade the smaller ones.  Both girls really enjoyed getting to play in the dirt, and seemed to like the idea that we would be able to eat the produce of our labor later.  The concept that we might need to work on is patience.  I was asked if we could pick tomatoes in the morning.  Don’t we all wish it worked that fast!!  My biggest hope is for this little urban garden because we’re not just planting seedling, but planting the seed of self sufficiency in two young minds.  This should pay dividends when Sarah and I can finally realize that dream of establishing our homestead and raising children to know where their food comes from and how to be independent from the systems we all seem to depend on.

Now that the dirt time is done for the weekend, I’ll be spending time figuring out how to get pictures posted so everyone can see the results of a day of dirt time.  Rumor has it that Wordpress is pretty user friendly about posting pictures, so hopefully I won’t have any trouble.  Stay tuned for pictures and updates of the three very different gardens!

Bugging out to the woods? Hope you don’t starve!

Anyone that has given much thought to what would happen during a societal collapse has surely had the fantasy of bugging out to the wilderness and carving a living out.  Its a noble thought, and exciting to contemplate.  I know I’ve spent more than enough time thinking about it and playing out scenarios.  It really isn’t our fault that we dream about it. Countless books have been written about it, and a lot of them geared toward children.  One of my favorite books as a kid was My Side of the Mountain.  In this book, a boy runs off to the Catskill Mountains and manages to live off the land.  He even survives the harsh winters of upstate New York.  If it was so easy for this kid, why can’t we?   The realm of fiction rarely has to deal with the harsh realities of life.

Over the past two years, I’ve had plans to preserve some of nature’s bounty here in north Texas.  We are blessed with an abundance of wild fruits, berries, and nuts.  It should have been easy to do with all of the means I have at my disposal.  I have access to abundant energy to run a pressure canner and a dehydrator.  I have a truck to get me to the growing location, and plenty of room to haul these food home.  I’ve had visions of huge sacks of dried plums and pears, dozens of jars of preserves and jams, and big bottles of Mustang grape wine.  In reality, I don’t have any of this.  It wasn’t from lack of trying.  I was primed and ready to go gather everything up and get to work preserving.  Mother Nature decided otherwise both years.  Last year, we had a very late freeze, late enough that most of the fruit trees and vines had already bloomed.  The results were heart wrenching.  Blooms dropped from everything. To say that fruit was scarce is a massive understatement!   This year the entire state of Texas has been in the grips of a drought.  It’s been hotter and drier than anyone can remember.  There was a little bit of fruit that made it, but a very little bit.  Grapevines that would normally be heavy with beautiful purple grapes only put on a fraction of what they did in years past.  Those few grapes quickly cooked into raisins in the 105 plus heat.  The plums didn’t do much better.  I can’t even remember what a wild blackberry tastes like.  Overall it was a dismal year for wild fruit production.  Had I needed to rely on fruit production to make up any real percentage of my diet, I would be on the brink of starvation.

I know what a lot of people are thinking at this point. Fishing and hunting!!  On its surface, its a really good idea to supplement the diet.  Supplement would the key word in that last sentence.  We’ve all been out for a fun day of fishing only to come back with an empty stringer.  Its been even more depressing this year.  All of the lakes are low and stagnant.  There have been some algae blooms, but we’ve been lucky that we haven’t had massive fish kills.  Even Lake Texoma, a very large lake fed by a very large river has been deemed unsafe for swimming because of water quality issues.

So no fruits and pretty poor fishing.  Hopefully we haven’t starved to death already!  Hunting season is getting ready to kick off, and I certainly hope it does better than our other means of living off the land.  I’ve had some friends already partake in dove season, and they are reporting a mediocre season so far.  They are bagging some birds, but they are smaller than normal and there aren’t as many.  As cooler temps move in, there should be birds coming in from Kansas and Nebraska.  We can hope they have been well fed and watered up there.  Deer season will be opening up in a couple of weeks, and hunters all over Texas are hoping for a great season.  I fear the drought will have taken its toll on the deer populations as well.  I’ve even noticed a decrease in cottontail rabbits and squirrels.  But I suppose if we were living off the land, hunting season won’t matter.  We probably starved back in July when the land turned brown and dried up.

 

Luckily, we weren’t required to live off the land these past couple of years.  Resources and been meager, and that was with no competition.  In a massive collapse (and I don’t see one coming soon), competition for any resource will be intense.  When someone is starving, they’ll do anything to feed themselves and their family.  Distances will be traveled, on foot if necessary.  Fights will be fought for anything available.  All in all, it would be an ugly time even in bountiful years.  As fun as it is to dream about, hacking a living out of the wilderness isn’t very likely.  Hopefully you are prepared so that it wouldn’t be necessary.  In upcoming articles here at Surviving Modern Life, I’ll be covering food storage and preservation, as well as producing our own food.  If things go bad, our goal should be to still maintain a decent lifestyle, no matter how the rest of the world is doing.