Monday, March 30, 2015

Planting in the Snow

Well, here we are at the end of March, and it is snowing in Western Massachusetts. Again. Like most New Englanders this winter, I have gone past even the point of complaining about the snow. If you know anything about New Englanders, you’ll have some idea about how desperate the situation is. I’ve idly contemplated throwing various pieces of furniture out of the window when confronted with the sight of a few fresh inches when I come down the stairs in the morning.

It has been a long, long winter indeed. I got a furious call from my mother about a month ago, after she realized that she simply couldn’t shovel the six or so inches of snow that had fallen the previous evening, because the snow banks were so high that she couldn’t fling the snow over the top them. Neither could the snow blower. This coupled with more than three feet of snow and ice on even the steepest of her roofs (despite having been shoveled at least three times already) had pushed even her veteran New England spirit past the breaking point. I know just how she feels.

My cats haven’t set so much as a paw outdoors since November, and there are now six of them. I’ve had to resort to drugging the poor bored babies with catnip to keep the number of tussles down to something reasonable. They all really need to get out and kill something, to be sure, because more often than not, they have chosen my feet to practice on. It’s like living with a pack of restless toe-hunting tigers.

Worse than the snow, really, is the cold. Heaven only knows what the cold has done to my perennials, and it is only the reality of wind chills approaching negative fifty (that’s negative forty-five-ish for you Celsius folks) that could possibly make me in any way grateful for the snow. We bought a whole extra ton and a half of pellets for this winter, and we had half a ton left over in the basement from last winter. Given that we only go through about two and a half tons to heat the house for the whole winter, I was feeling pretty proud of my surplus. Virtuous, even. Storing a little extra in case of a bad or lean year is only good planning, after all. Folks, we’ve gone through the entire extra ton and a half. We’ll be lucky to have the same half ton surplus we started with last summer. That means we went through sixty percent more heat than in previous years. Most of that was before the first of March, when the worst of the cloudy days were done, and the temperatures weren’t quite so frigid, allowing us to turn off the pellet stove and take full advantage of the passive solar nature of the house. Before that, I would have been surprised if someone had tallied up the number of sunny days and come up with a number greater than ten. No joke.

We won’t discuss what we’ve spent in propane this year, due to not being able to fully utilize the solar hot water system.

This tally of complaints might then explain why seed-starting day came as a surprise this year. I was completely unprepared for it, which is really quite unusual. Usually, I have my planting all planned weeks in advance, and every flat surface in the house is covered in seed catalogs, bits of paper covered in hasty plot plans and unintelligible scrawls, and seed packets are scattered everywhere, usually due to my inability to keep them away from my eager children.

This year, the Friday before seed starting weekend, I realized my predicament with a start. Woah, wait, what was the date? Geez! So instead of starting the planting bright and early Saturday morning, we were all still scrambling around trying to find everything we needed. Where are the cow pots? Ah, in the basement. Where did I put that small order of replacement seeds I placed in mid-January? Oh my, did it even arrive? Did anyone check? Ok, it did make it into the downstairs fridge, but someone stacked a bowl of beef bones on top of it. We probably ought to make stock out of those rather soon, you know. It took us more than twenty-four hours to find the shallow, clear plastic bins and lids that we use for make-shift miniature greenhouses. They were stacked up in the shed, which no one has been able to get into for a while, due to the fact that the plow left a snow bank in front of the door. Thank goodness the thaw has started, or Shawn would have been shoveling it out for a month. He had to actually buy a bag of soil, and the only reason he didn't have to take a pickax to the compost pile was that I had some still in a bucket from last fall. It was frozen solid, and took all day and all night to thaw. Even so, I’ll have to use warm water when I mix it up, lest I kill my poor seeds in cold soil.

Gathering supplies took all weekend, what with everything else going on; fencing lessons, grocery shopping, social studies projects, and the necessity of shopping for a new car (Shawn’s died a spectacular death on the highway after 240,000 loyal miles). Sunday I spent in intensive planning. I don’t think I’ve ever done a garden plan in a single day before. Frankly, that makes me nervous. It usually takes roughly the same amount of time, but there is always more leisurely contemplation. And never, ever, have I come up with a plan that my husband rubber stamps without adjustment or discussion. I honestly don’t think he was paying attention and that is certainly concerning. I should not be left to plan this stuff on my own, as I always and without exception think we’re going to need far, far more than we ever do. I really cannot emphasize that one enough. We may be in for an interesting summer.

That leaves us today with me starting the seeds all by myself. And it’s not that I mind doing the work, at all, but… it’s usually something we do as a family. So this year is unusual in that regard as well. However, life moves on, and the seeds have to be started. It is just so odd to be doing it on a day where it was snowing when I got out of bed. I’m honestly beginning to wonder if we’ll still have snow on the ground until sometime in August at this rate. But the calendar says plant, because the calendar says my frost-free date is about six weeks out. Hard to believe, but I guess I am taking it on faith that the wheel of the seasons will turn, the earth will warm, and spring will finally arrive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Unsung Hero of the Kitchen

Summer is well and truly here. I haven’t seen our big farm table in weeks. First it was housing the dehydrator, and covered in fruit, and for a couple of weeks now it has been home to the first seedlings of my herb garden. This is what it looks like right now. I didn't even tidy. We hit the jackpot at a local farm, and came away with all of our vegetable seedlings and a really nice start on the seedlings for the culinary herb garden. Why didn’t I start my own this year? Well, I had a little problem with Mothra, and spent planting season cleaning out my studio instead.

Regardless, and as is usual, I wound up with what I needed, no matter my original plans. We planted two kinds of tomatoes, both new to us, sweet red peppers, yellow crookneck squash, zucchini, about half a ton of pickling cucumbers, and even managed to put in carrot and onion seeds. It is certainly less variety than last year, but fresh veggies are fresh veggies, and with the amount of food I need to put up, every little bit helps. And the herbs, hooboy. It’s possible I maybe might have kinda gotten carried away. I never do that, you know.

We have, sitting on my table, three kinds of thyme (English, French, and lemon), two kinds of sage (regular garden variety, and a very pretty variegated), two kinds of oregano (Greek, and something called “hot and spicy”), rosemary, basil, spearmint, and the find of the decade – chocolate mint. I’m telling you right now, that one is destined for some seriously awesome mojitos. Really. Chocolate mojitos. Epic, right? We also have six unidentified hot peppers (they came as a mix) that I’m not entirely sure what to do with. The veggie beds are full, and last year the ducks ate the hot pepper seedlings right out of their pots! I may end up putting them out on the back porch.

I still have the elderberry bush that didn’t get planted last year, as well. So, for my birthday, all four of use spent some serious time and effort pulling out the grass and weeds from the garden beds along the back of the house. It was truly lovely to work together as a family, especially at a project that will feed and take care of us for years to come. However, it must be said that a week later we are still at it. The larger of the two beds is now free of weeds, and is waiting for compost, a layer of newspaper, and a covering of mulch. The newspaper acts as a weed barrier, but unlike the plastic stuff, it rots right into the soil over time. Plus, you know, no plastic leeching into my medicinal herb gardens. That one seems pretty sensible to me. The newspaper is also free, abundant, and a form of composting. This whole process, though time consuming, allows me to look my family in the eye and say, “I know, I know, but I promise, we’ll only have to do this ONCE.” Well… this year, anyway. In the meantime, the seedlings are taking up nearly the entirety of the farm table.

So am I looking forward to the imminent unearthing of our table? Not really, no. I hope to get the herbs off it before this weekend, it is true, but mostly because I am expecting another ten or twelve pounds of fruit. I may get lucky and wind up with more. After that, I need to start the seedlings for the medicinal herbs. There really is no other place to put them that will keep them safe from cats, kids, and ducks. Then there is the fact that I have a whole boat-load of stock to make and pressure can. We do this in two huge eighteen quart crock pots. Guess where they are most of the time? And my big nine-tray Excalibur dehydrator? Yup. You guessed it. Oh, and did I mention that the pressure canner has to live somewhere in-between uses? I would love for it to get put back into its box, and go back to the basement where it is supposed to live, but when you are using it every weekend, that becomes a bit impractical. So, well, you can imagine where it ends up. In addition, it is the closest flat spot when you come in the back door out of the herb garden. Right at the moment, that makes it the recipient of a stack of sun hats, sunglasses, and dirt-covered work gloves. In my defense, those are at least getting put right back on bodies in a little while when we go out there to finish in the garden.

Why isn’t this stuff in the kitchen, where it obviously belongs? Dude. It is already scary in there. There is so much equipment that I am lucky to get six inches of counter space along the front. And we use it ALL. I have a coffee maker, a Kitchenaid stand mixer, my monster food processor, the knife block, one of those eighteen quart crock pots, a compost bin, a duck food bin, the toaster oven, the bread box (which has the empty egg cartons stacked on top of it), and the oils and vinegar we use in cooking every meal. The water bath canner is actually on top of the upper cabinets. No, really.

All of the food prep has to be done at the island, because the counters are FULL. Even so, right now the fermentation crock is living there with a new batch of sauerkraut bubbling away, and there is an eighty pound jug of honey on the end near the stove, waiting to be split into smaller jars because it crystalized SOLID in the big one over the winter. Just one more little curveball that spring threw at me this year.

The bottom line? My house is NOT tidy in the summer. The dishes get cleaned, the surfaces get washed, and before I can anything, the whole kitchen gets sterilized. Short of that, my kitchen is definitely enter-at-your-own-risk this time of year. There are bound to be at least three recipes running at any given time. Right now, I have the aforementioned sauerkraut, a batch of banana butter in the crock pot, and the honey waiting to be re-melted and put into quart jars. I should also start another batch of beef stock, because the number of bones in the freezer is getting out of hand. Oh, and I probably have a few actual meals to make in there today, too.

Where do we eat? Mostly outside on one porch or the other. It’s summer, and beautiful out. Another advantage of this tactic is that I have a lot less cleaning to do. The kids spill the food outside, and the ducks clean it up for me. Bonus.

Really, all of this is why I have started calling that particular bit of furniture a farm table. It is not a dining table, mostly because we simply don’t use it for dining during the summer months. It’s constantly full of projects, preserving equipment, fruit waiting its turn, big batches of food in progress, plants, and piles of open cookbooks. Let me tell you, I leave both leaves in it. We need all ninety-six inches. I am very glad of its sturdy construction, three and a half foot width, fifth leg, two inch thick top, and the heavy geared beams that support it. I never have to worry about how much weight I put on it, or where I set things down. It’ll take two or three hundred pounds right in the center over a seam and never give a hint of protest. I bought a table that would last me a lifetime long before I had any inkling what I would be doing with my life. At the time, I thought for sure that it was over-kill, but knew that it was a solid piece that was extremely likely to outlive me. Ten years, hundreds of miles, and thousands of pounds later I believe it more than ever. Of all of the expensive and large pieces of equipment in my kitchen these days, it is the one I use the most, and the one I think about the least. And it sure looks like it, too. Battered, dented, gouged (still no idea how that happened), dotted with permanent marker, and in desperate need of refinishing, it is like a sturdy battle-scarred veteran. Someday I will likely strip the varnish off it, sand it down, and refinish it. I keep meaning to, but honestly there never seems to be a time we can be without it for a few days, let alone the two weeks it would take me to fit it in around my schedule.

A few weeks ago, as canning season started to swing into view, and the huge pieces of equipment we use started to come out of the basement and other places where they had been tucked in for the winter, Shawn and I rapidly came to an agreement. We need a summer kitchen. We talked about one last year, but in a decidedly “someday, wouldn’t it be nice” sort of way. This year, we have come to the inescapable conclusion that this is going to be an outbuilding that is necessary for our sanity. My number one concern for this new building? You would think it would be the stove, or the ventilation. Nope. Where on earth am I going to find another table like this??? I can’t function without it. I will not lie, I am giving serious thought to buying another one and putting it in storage until we build, just on the off-chance that they stop making it. I actually went back and checked to make sure that it was still in production.

That was the moment I realized what a truly essential piece of equipment my table is. I mean, on how many tables can you lay out flat and sort forty pounds of freshly washed blueberries? It allows six people to work all at once without a bit of crowding. Eight can eat without any trouble, and I can get ten people around it if we are all feeling friendly. A batch of stock alone weighs something in the neighborhood of three hundred pounds – and I never gave it a thought. In fact, I have had a batch of stock running, and hoisted a bleeding kid up on the other end in order to closer inspect a scraped knee. Could I do my job without this table? Yeah, sure I could. But to be honest, I’d rather have the table than my food processor any day, and that really says something.

I think sometimes in the exhilarating rush of the new, larger, and technologically advanced gadgets that we fill our lives and especially (for some of us) our kitchens with, we overlook the most important things that allow us to be effective and productive. My table is not fancy. It is not a brand-name product. It did not come from a high-end store. Nowhere is it stamped with Restoration Hardware, or even Pottery Barn. It is not walnut, cherry, or even oak. It didn’t even come pre-finished (although you can order it that way, if you like). But you know what I realized? This is where we gather. This is where we pursue our passions, be they food, art, or even Legos. Shawn even builds his miniature replica medieval siege engines on it. This is where we do everything from the paperwork that runs the house to homework. This one large, sturdy piece of furniture is not just the heart of my kitchen, it is the heart of my whole house.

Oh, and if you want a table like mine (and I wouldn’t blame you), you can find it here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How to Get Rid of and Prevent Clothes Moths

The last of the moth-infected stuff from the studio is sitting in my kitchen, waiting to be cycled through the oven. Yeah, you heard me. I’m still at this. A week later. I have two bolts of silk, an alpaca fleece, and a couple of bags of llama fiber left. I should be done with that part today. Then I have to go through every closet and storage box in the house and deal with the clothes.

The part that is really killing me, though, is the sheer amount of plastic this requires. I was planning on moving my stash out of plastic over the coming years, and into fabric-lined lidded baskets. Well, no more my friends. I am not bloody doing this twice, I can tell you that right now. So everything is being processed to kill the moths, then bagged in 4mm clear plastic bags and put into plastic totes. The totes have already been washed with hot soapy water, and then sprayed with moth repelling essential oils while still hot. Plastic, being porous, sucks up the oils and stays smelly pretty much forever. Then I lob two moth repelling sachets into the tote, spritz it with diatomaceous earth, and then tape the whole thing shut with packing tape. I like to wear a belt and suspenders on my overalls in such situations.

The theory behind all of this? You may want to sit down for this part, because I have (of necessity) become something of an expert at killing these horrid white squirmy monsters.

Exterminate the Beasties

First, you have to get the dirty rotten so-and-sos to stop chewing holes in your things.  You do that by killing them. You can freeze them, which kills the adults and the larvae, but it does not kill the eggs. You have to freeze your stuff for a minimum of three days, thaw it, let the eggs hatch, and freeze it again. As the hatching takes four to ten days in warm weather, you should repeat the freezing in about two weeks to make sure you got everything. Given the absolute WALL of plastic totes behind me, and the tiny amount of available freezer space not taken up by food, that method would have taken me months. So I opted for heat instead. Thirty minutes at temperatures over 120 degrees F (49 degrees C) will kill all stages of clothing moth; egg, larvae, and adult alike. Sign me up.

So I set my oven to 200 degrees F (93 degrees C) and ran everything through for thirty minutes. I want to make sure nothing survives. Will the temperature hurt the fiber? Nope. Know how I know? When you iron wool and silk, you do so at about 300 degrees F. In fact, any temperature under 392 degrees F is perfectly safe. Yeah, I looked it up. There is one caveat, and on this one I got lucky. You cannot do this to a raw sheep fleece. The lanolin melts at those temperatures (anything above 100 degrees F), and when allowed to cool, it chemically changes and becomes almost impossible to remove. Once the wool has been scoured it has already had most of the lanolin removed, and all chemical changes have already been wrought, so clean wool and yarn are perfectly safe to bake.  My luck? I had only one raw sheep fleece, and it was so infested it went straight into the trash. The alpaca and llama fiber have no lanolin, and are thus completely safe to bake, even raw (which really just means sandy).

A word on other methods of extermination. There are several, and I’d like to take a moment to discuss why you should not do them, if at all possible. First, there is dry ice fumigation. You do this by enclosing the material in air tight plastic, putting a small piece of dry ice in the bottom, and sealing it shut. You leave it for at least three days. This kills all stages of moth, but dry ice is difficult to get in many places, and you run the risk of frostbite. This would be an excellent method, however, for saving a piece of wool or horsehair stuffed furniture, if you could not take it outside and freeze it.

You can dry-clean your things, which kills everything, and removes any attractive staining. Dry-cleaning chemicals, however, are notoriously toxic, and if you have a large number of things to save, it could be quite costly. The same goes for chemicals used by professional exterminators, though permethrin (made from orange peels) is safe enough for people, as long as you have no cats or fish in the house. For them, it is extraordinarily toxic. We have five cats, so this one is absolutely off the list for us.


So, once the moths are dead, how do you keep them from re-infesting your things? The problem with these guys is that they don’t just infest your clothes or yarn. They infest your house, too. Which means that unless you take steps, you’ll be right back where you started. Understanding how to prevent a moth infestation (which would have been so much smarter of me in the FIRST PLACE) starts with understanding the life-cycle of the clothing moth. This is going to get a little nuts.

The whole thing starts with a pregnant female moth. She’s looking for a place to lay her eggs, and she finds it by following her nose. She is afraid of the light, and not a very good flyer. This means that she’ll hide quite well, and you will likely not ever see her. If you do, she will be more likely to run away from you than fly. She will lay anywhere between 30 and 200 eggs in any animal hair (wool, alpaca, cashmere, angora, fur, discarded human hair, etc.), protein fiber (silk), or in fact, in grain. Damp, stained, or smelly things are vastly preferred, because the caterpillars do not drink, and must get their moisture from their food. With that said, live caterpillars have been found in bags of salt. No kidding. I told you this was ridiculous.

The eggs take four to ten days to hatch. Once they do, they start eating whatever they were laid in. Often, it is your favorite cashmere sweater. For me, it was my fiber stash. As they feed, they spin a webbing mat, which they hide under. This mat typically contains dye and fiber from whatever they are eating, so detecting them can be almost impossible. Usually the first symptom of an infestation is moth holes in your best wool suit. They will continue to feed at a rate determined by temperature and humidity. The colder and dryer it is, the longer it takes. Larvae will hatch and grow at temperatures ranging from 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) to 91 degrees F (33 degrees C), with ideal conditions being about 75 degrees F (24 degrees C) and 70-75% relative humidity. This stage can take as little as a month… or as long as two years. Yeah, I kinda wanted to cry at that one.

Once they have gorged themselves on your hand knit socks, they spin themselves cocoons, and become pupae. Now here’s the tricky part. They often actually crawl away from their food source in order to do this. This means that they can crawl off your woolens and onto something that is cotton, viscose, or synthetic. Thus it is EXTREMELY important to wash everything in the infected area. Do not skimp out here, or you may be sorry. Once they are cocooned, they will spend 10 to 50 days transforming into adults.

After the adults emerge from their cocoons, it is important to understand that they do not, and in fact cannot eat. It is only the larvae who do the damage. The adults do not even have working mouth parts. An adult female clothing moth will mate, and lay her eggs, and she has only about 15 days in which to do this. Males will live a bit longer (figures, right?); about 30 days. Males find the females by using their nose as well. The females give off a very specific pheromone. We’ll get back to that later.

So how does all of this help us prevent infestation, or re-infestation? Let’s start with our adult female moth, shall we? After all, no eggs mean no hungry hungry caterpillars. The first, most excellent prevention method is as simple as a barrier. If the moths cannot get to the woolens, they cannot lay their eggs in them. Makes sense, right? Well, clothing moths are TINY. So the only way to be completely sure is to encase everything in air-tight plastic. I know, I know, it makes me crazy too. Just bite the bullet and do it. If you really can’t stomach it, or if (heaven forbid) you actually want to use some of the things you own, there are some different measures you can take.

In addition to the barrier method, you can employ a substance called diatomaceous earth. It is the fossilized remains of microscopic sea creatures, and comes as a powder. For any animal without an exoskeleton it is completely harmless (caveat – don’t breathe in a ton of it, it is still a powder, after all). But to creatures who carry their bones on the outside, it is quite deadly. We have used it for years to keep the house free of fleas. It gets in between the plates of the exoskeleton and rubs, causing tiny scratches. The insects actually die of dehydration, so the one thing to remember is that it absolutely does not work once it gets wet. As soon as it is dry again, however, you’re back in business. It is a physiological death mechanism, and thus there is no adapting to it. In addition, there is a food grade variety (which is the only one you should be buying) that has no additives. It is designed to be added to grain products, such as flour, to keep the weevils out. If you eat grain, you are already eating diatomaceous earth.

One of the things about re-learning an older way of life is that occasionally something that you always saw as quaint suddenly becomes quite obviously not. One of those things is the extraordinary measures that people used to go to in order to prevent clothing moths from entering the house. All those little bowls of potpourri and sachets of sweet smelling herbs tucked away in drawers? Yeah, they were not because women had so much time on their hands that they had nothing better to do than sit around and sew dainty smelly things. Let me tell you. It was to avoid exactly what I am going through right now, which is engaging in furious and pitched battle with something about a million times smaller than I am. And yes, it is just about as ridiculous as it sounds.

You see, those various sweet smelling herbs, well, to a clothes moth, they smell like week old human waste, dipped in stink solution, which has then been vomited up and left in the sun for a while. In addition to that, depending on the herbs, they can actually kill the smaller caterpillars. This is not a quaint custom, it actually works. Potpourri was originally intended to protect the furniture in the room, which was often stuffed with horse hair or down and covered in wool. This same effect can be achieved by using sachets, and also by spritzing with essential oil blends. Some of the herbs and oils in question include: wormwood, lavender, cedar, rosemary, cloves, mint, camphor, orange or lemon peel (again, only if you don’t have cats or fish), lemongrass, eucalyptus, peppermint, thyme, and cinnamon.

For the larvae and eggs, the best prevention method is vacuuming. A lot. If they have nothing to eat, the moths will go elsewhere, and even small amounts of pet hair can keep a small infestation active. Vacuuming destroys eggs, as does taking your things out into the sunshine and brushing them. Light exposure will cause the larvae to drop off your garments, so this is best done outside. Remember, the adult moths don’t like light either, so exposing your stuff will keep them at bay as well. Doing this once a week often solves the infestation problem without need to resort to chemicals. But seriously, you might want to do everything listed here.

So, about those pheromones that attract the males? Well, some very clever folks applied them to some sticky traps. They attract only the males, which keeps the females and the eggs from setting up shop, as there is no one to fertilize them. This is an excellent extermination method, as well as prevention and monitoring. Simply set out the traps, and if you find any moths in it, you have yourself a problem. If you don’t find any, just leave the trap out for up to three months, and keep changing them out. These little cardboard tents also act as a kind of early warning system. If you do have an infestation, the number of males caught in the traps will tell you how fares the battle, and it will tell you (with reasonable certainty) when the battle is over. Keep putting out traps, however, for at least six more months. Better safe than sorry.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Moth Repelling Sachets

This has a lovely smell, the cedar and lavender make up the bulk of the scent, but the clove bud leaves a nice hint of spice. Be warned, the smell is very strong and slightly astringent when the batch is freshly made. The scent continues to work for a whole year, but it mellows quickly; usually within a few days.
1 oz dried wormwood
2 oz dried rosemary
4 oz dried lavender
4 oz cedar shavings
½ tsp lavender essential oil
½ tsp cedar essential oil
10 drops clove bud essential oil
5 drops rosemary essential oil

Mix herbs and oils together in a large glass or metal bowl.
Use 1/3 cup of mixture in each sachet. You can use small organza bags, or sew your own.
Put 1-3 sachets in every place in the house where animal fiber or silk is stored.
In closets, hang one sachet from a hanger for every 2-3 feet of closet rod.
Mixture should be replaced completely every spring.
Makes 33 sachets.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Accounting, and the Start of Canning Season

Roasting strawberries may just be my new favorite smell. We got six pounds of juicy ruby red fruit from the farmer’s market, and just like that, Canning and Preserving Season had begun. The moment the fruit came through the door and went onto the big farm table, I started sorting it. Only the reddest ripest ones would do, because they were destined to be sliced up for the dehydrator. The rest I put, still unwashed, in a wire colander and set on the counter to ripen up a bit in the summer heat. They’ll get processed into jam in a few days. The trick to strawberries is very simple. DO NOT wash them until you are ready to use them. They are like little sponges, and the moment you wash them, they start to go mushy. Keep them dry, and they’ll last for days.

Susan and I set to work. She has recently been cleared to work with sharp knives, and was more than happy to help hull and slice strawberries. With two of us working, we had about four pounds of painfully ripe strawberries washed, hulled, sliced, and into the dehydrator within an hour of them coming through the door. I’m telling you, she’s hired. It’s really the way to go with strawberries anyway. They don’t last long. Some of those berries may not have had a few hours more in them. But oh, what a lovely aroma they have, warmed up to 135 degrees, and wafted around my kitchen by the fan. It’s like warm strawberry caramel. Yum.

I’m equal parts excited and trepidatious here at the start of the busiest time of my year. On the one hand, STRAWBERRIES – strawberry butter, syrup, sliced and dried, fruit leather, pie filling, jam, and maybe even some strawberry mead if I wind up with enough fruit. On the other hand, STRAWBERRIES – it will take me something in the neighborhood of thirty pounds of fruit to put up everything. That’s an awful lot of red juicy berries. And that wouldn’t be so bad, except that I actually sat down and calculated my canning for the season. Last year, I started with making all of my jam and fruit leather for the whole year. It was a total success. I could maybe make one more batch of fruit leather, but we are still eating the jam, and we didn’t buy a single jar last year. We didn’t buy any fruit snacks for the kids, nor did we buy any pickles or relish. Wait for it - because I put up enough for a whole year. Can I tell you how proud I am of that? I might just bust a button.

It is but the first step on the road to food sufficiency. This year, the goal is to do the same, and also to can up all the tomatoes we will use for the whole year (minus the ones we gobble right off the vine, of course). It may not seem like much of a step forward, until you stop to realize how many tomatoes we go through in a year. I mean, you’re talking almost one hundred and sixty pounds of fresh tomatoes just in sauce alone. When you throw in diced tomatoes, ketchup, salsa, and soup, you are talking well in excess of two hundred and sixty pounds of fresh tomatoes. Holy edible nightshade, Batman.

I mean, that’s kind of intimidating, right? I find myself saying it out loud at odd moments… two hundred and sixty pounds of tomatoes. Two hundred and sixty pounds of tomatoes. About one hundred pounds of that has to be skinned and chopped, as well. Think about that for a minute, blanching and skinning one hundred pounds of tomatoes. At least I don’t have to do it all at a whack. Tomato season lasts for something like ten weeks, so at least I only have to do something in the neighborhood of twenty-five pounds a week… which is still a lot of tomatoes. This doesn’t count, by the way, the green tomato relish I make at the end of the season. That’s another five pounds or so.

Twenty-five pounds a week doesn’t sound like a lot, until you realize that over those ten weeks, I also have to do twenty pounds of blueberries, fifteen pounds of cucumbers, forty-five pounds of peaches, and fifteen pounds of pears. Oh, and then there’s the apples. Let’s not forget the apples.

I didn’t make my apple goal last year. I drastically underestimated the amount of homemade apple sauce that my children and husband would eat. After all, we’ve never been big apple sauce eaters in the past. I thought a couple of gallons would see us through the whole year. Boy was I wrong. Maybe by an order of magnitude. Truth is, they ate it almost faster than I could get it in jars. So this year, I’m going to try and ration it to one quart a week. Yeah, it turns out that that is rationing it. I’m not kidding, they went through about a gallon and a half a week. So this will be an exercise in learning how to stretch your favorite foods to last the whole year for my family. Still, that’s fifty-two quarts of applesauce. That’s thirteen gallons, or something like one hundred and forty pounds of apples. When you throw in apple butter, pie filling, fruit leather, and dried apple slices, the total amount of apples that are going to be coming through my kitchen this year is something like one hundred and seventy pounds. I’m pretty sure I’ve underestimated that, by the way, as that comes to just over four bushels of apples, and I went through three last year. Surely my family didn’t eat nearly a year’s worth of apple sauce just during apple season last year… right? Right?

Now, the vast majority of this food will be canned or dehydrated, but in order to get some of it in the freezer, I have to make room. I buy my meat half a cow and pig at a time from a farmer I know, and we are getting ten Red Ranger chickens of our own this year, so there will be quite a lot of meat in my freezer come fall. Some of it has to move out to make room. So, in addition to all of the fruits and veggies, I will be canning up a significant amount of soup and stock. It, of course, has to be pressure canned, and my pressure canner (being aluminum) does not work on my induction cooktop. We have to use a big propane burner outside. This is just not something I want to be doing when it is thirty degrees out there with the wind just-a-whippin’. Just… um… no. So, it must be done before the end of October... which is still pretty darned chilly, let me tell you. The goal for this year? Slightly over thirty gallons.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is eight hundred and fifteen pounds of food to put up in just over twenty-one weeks. That means that I have to put up just under thirty-nine pounds of food a week, without fail. This week, if I am lucky, it will be thirty pounds. That’s all that is available. Now, eight hundred and fifteen pounds of food may sound like a lot, and it is. However, even if you figure that equates to the same amount of finished food (and it’s not even close), and you add in about five hundred additional pounds of pork and beef(no, I am not counting the meat twice), and about fifty pounds of chicken we will raise ourselves, that means we’ll put up about thirteen hundred and sixty-five pounds of rich, nutrient dense food before snow flies. Sounds impressive, right? Well, we go through an average (as a family of four) of three pounds of food per person per day. That’s forty-three hundred and eighty pounds. At this point in the calculations, I start to feel a bit like Charlie Brown. Good grief.

It’s not quite as bad as it looks, we eat a staggering amount of local produce in season, plus local dairy, honey, and maple syrup. Still. Forty-three hundred pounds! I should give myself a break, really. I did the math, and we managed to purchase about sixty percent of our food locally last year. This year, with an increase in local dairy consumption, my canning goals, and the addition of five new laying chickens to our flock (not to mention the meat birds) I am hoping to hit seventy percent. But, no matter how I look at this, if I want to be growing and buying as much local food as I feel is right, then I am easily going to have to double the amount of food I put up during canning season. Right now that feels quite overwhelming, to say the least.

Look, I’m not looking to be a heroine, here. I have no desire to give up vanilla, cinnamon, or cardamom. You can have my tea when you pry it out of my cold dead fingers, let me tell you. But, if I can figure out a way to put a root cellar in, and not buy carrots or onions at the grocery store, I’m going to do that. After all, those two things are staples, and together they account for about four hundred and twenty pounds per year.

The thing to do here, I think, is to let this year be this year, and let next year be next year. I have four hundred and eighty-eight canning jars, ten gallons of mead, twenty-six sheets of fruit leather, and the butchering of ten chickens to get through in twenty-one weeks. I also have a studio to clean out, an herb garden to plan and plant, a vegetable garden to tend and harvest, six weeks of friends and family booked for visits, children to supervise and educate, and regular domestic chores to do. Not to mention Father’s Day, two birthdays, a major family holiday, and several small ones to plan. With all that said, this winter, the only fresh fruit in my kitchen will be bananas, apples (grown and stored locally) and citrus fruits. This year, I will not buy tomatoes anywhere but at the farmer’s markets. I will be able to crack open jars of last year’s green tomato relish all summer long, and share them with my loved ones. These are the fruits of my labor, and I really need to keep my eye on the prize. Canning Season has begun. So I’m just going to buckle down, put on my big-girl-pants, and do it. Here we go.