Gardening Diary: Canning & Preserving the Harvest

canned jelly and apple sauce

Wow, this year, surprisingly I found that I really enjoy the craft of canning!

It’s a lot of work, but once you get 2 or 3 batches under your belt, there’s confidence and organization that makes the process a little bit easier. The rewards will outweigh the work!

There was a lot that I was worried about in the beginning (like most newbie canners), most importantly was I did NOT want to kill myself and my family with deadly bacteria!

But after reading a lot of library books, and scouring the web for good information, I learned that if done properly, following the instructions, you do not have to fear the canning process!

This post is L-O-N-G, and it might be boring to a lot of visitors, so if you want to learn more about my canning experience (and see a few photos), read onward!

Continue reading “Gardening Diary: Canning & Preserving the Harvest”

Gardening Diary: Carrots!

The other morning, I picked some of my carrots. They were delicious! I was so worried about them at the beginning of the season because the greens were eaten by critter(s) but they rebounded.

All it takes is a little time, and yum, fresh garden carrots! I’ll be planting these again next year for sure.

Oh and the carrot tops ARE edible, contrary to rumors that they are poisonous.

PS And the green tomatoes I harvested days ago are slowly turning red. We should have one or two more batches for sauce.

Update: 2012-10-9: Pulled up the last of my carrots. I’m so happy that they worked out this year! Now that I know how relatively easy they are to grow, next season I’ll definitely plant more.

I’m also updating the post with photos

Sept 16: The first full-sized carrot (all others prior were too early and way too tiny)
The first pulled full-sized carrot

Oct 2: First good harvest of a bunch of carrots
First carrot harvest

Oct 9: 2nd and last harvest of carrots (2.5lbs) – I think a nice hardy cream of carrot soup is in order!
2nd and last carrot harvest

Gardening Diary: Tomato Frog (Toad)

I’m so behind on my gardening updates. I’ve been shooting a lot of photos, but I just don’t have the time to update the blog!

But I wanted to mention another fascinating bit of nature. Back about a month ago, I was in my garden in the morning, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a teenie tiny frog (or is he a toad?) sitting atop of one of my cherry tomatoes. He was mid-plant, about 2-3 feet up.

I immediately rushed inside to get my camera, and snapped a bunch of photos of his cuteness.

Look, can you see him? He’s in the middle of the photo, on a tomato. He was so tiny!
tomato frog/toad on top of cherry tomato in my garden

Here is a close up. You can see his tiny fingers grasping onto the tomato stem. So freakin’ cute!
tomato frog/toad on top of cherry tomato in my garden

I love my garden! There’s always something new to discover. It’s sad that summer is fading, and so is my lovely garden.

Even though I’ve grown a few veggies in prior years, this was truly the first year that I was serious about gardening. The first year is always a bit special, but I hope I always feel the same appreciation and respect for what’s growing out there EVERY season. I know subsequent seasons probably won’t feel as “wondrous” as this year, and that makes me sad too.

Gardening Diary: True Vine Ripened Tomatoes

Having a garden really opens your eyes to how produce naturally grows, and it’s a lot different than what’s found at the store.

Grocery stores offer “vine-ripened” tomatoes, but as I recently learned, even those are not truly ripened while attached to the tomato plant. The branch is cut, but the tomatoes are still attached to the “vine” so they can market them as such. They are then ripened by ethylene gas, as it travels across country.

As my tomatoes are growing and ripening, I’ve noticed that the fruit that is closest to the main branch will ripen first, then ripen outward toward the end of the row.

tomatoes ripen naturally on the vine

This morning, as I was harvesting my tomatoes, I got to thinking about the perfectly-colored-red ripened tomatoes on the vine at the grocery stores (like the “grape” variety) and how unnatural it is to have the whole vine ripened at the same time.

At least that’s not how it happens in my natural backyard garden!

Gardening Diary: Preserving Tomatoes by Freezing, Oven Drying & Canning

cherry tomatoes ripening on the vine

My garden will never produce as many tomatoes as I’d like…even though I’m getting full bowlfuls every couple of days, it is never enough! Tomatoes are the perfect food. I adore them!

I’d love to someday grow enough tomatoes so I’d never have to purchase another can/carton of commercial tomatoes again, but that is not a reality this year, but I’m trying to make the best of what I have.

So, I have been learning about the many ways to preserve fresh garden produce for consumption in colder months.

I’ve made a lot of tomato sauce, sometimes with eggplant and peppers. I’m slow-cooking in the oven or in my crock pot. Then storing in freezer bags in my freezer.

I tried something new the other day and I think it’s going to be a favorite.

I was watching the Dehydration class over at breadbeckers.com and it inspired me to learn more about dehydration in the oven. I was thrilled to find out that my oven offers very low temperatures, as low as 100° so I experimented with a batch of cherry tomatoes.

sliced cherry tomatoes before oven drying

It took over 24 hours, experimenting with different temperatures (135-150°) depending on the time of day – it’s helpful if you use an oven thermometer to make sure oven temps aren’t off. The tomatoes dried to little jewels of sugary-flavorful-goodness!

oven dried cherry tomatoes

oven dried cherry tomatoes - close up

Then I spread them on a large plate, and flash-froze them, then bagged them in a quart freezer bag for freezer storage. I know it could be possible to maybe store in a jar, or in olive oil, but I figure that the freezer would be the safest method for now.

I finished drying a second batch yesterday morning, and they went into the freezer as well.

Next, I’m going to try some good ole fashioned canning! I haven’t decided if I’ll do a raw-pack or maybe stewed. I suppose I could try both!

I know I will not have enough of my own tomatoes, so I might be buying some “seconds” tomatoes at the local farm. One farm is selling 7 lbs for $5.99 while supplies last.

I’ve been pouring over canning cookbooks for the last week or so, trying to learn all I can (haha, no pun intended) and I hope that I love canning enough to keep doing it all year long. I have dreams of applesauce in the fall, and orange jam in the winter.

Exciting!

Watermelon – Too Early

Well, I thought the “signs” were all there to harvest our first watermelon.

It sounded hollow when thumped, the bottom was bright yellow, the “vine/tendril” looked like it was drying.

So we harvested Tuesday, and sliced it in half on Wednesday night. OOps, it was still pretty white inside, but surprisingly it was still fairly tasty; I ate it for my TV snack. LOL

Lesson learned, we’ll wait until the end of the month before harvesting any more watermelons!

Project Food Budget / My Healthy Food Budget: Aug Month 10 / Week 1

Project Food Budget Weekly total: $149.50

My healthy budget goal is to eat seasonal (local if possible,) home-cooked meals while sticking to a $400 monthly budget for all food including groceries, dining out, entertaining, vitamins/supplements, and gardening.

There’s two of us eating (mostly) 3 meals per day. My husband occasionally eats take-out lunch at work, & that $ comes out of his personal cash stash.

Aug – Month Ten, Week One

This week, I spent $149.50. That leaves $250.50 for the rest of August.

The first week is always a bit higher. I needed some basic pantry items from iHerb.com. Love that store!!! We also hosted a big pot luck party for DH’s previous co-workers. Fun!

I have high hopes that it’ll be a good budgeting month.

My veggie garden is starting to REALLY payoff, I feel so sustainable! hehee Between the tomatoes, pickling cukes, beets, and eggplant, I yielded my first red cabbage! Exciting! I hope I can keep growing well into the cooler months!

Entertaining: $35.87 – bbq potluck party at our house
Groceries: $104.17

Spending Details

iHerb.com $39.71: Bob’s Red Mill 7 grain hot cereal, Frontier organic dried rosemary, (2) Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat flours, Lundberg short grain brown rice, California Olive Ranch Arbosana oil, and Simply Organic Madagascar vanilla extract

Whole Foods Market $26.11: Bragg’s organic apple cider vinegar, organic plain yogurt, organic half & half, canned organic tomatoes, organic fruit spread, Jarslberg cheese, organic champagne grapes, cantaloupe, organic bananas, and organic celery

Meat CSA $11.96: Center cut pork chops (Luckily, products from the Meat CSA are paid in full, so technically no real money is actually spent, but I apply the cost to my budget as we consume it.)

Local Farmstand $10.07: blueberries, yellow squash, & peaches

Market Basket $11.29: (3) jars salsa, King Arthur white flour

Whole Foods Market (2nd trip) $9.46: Organic champagne grapes, local peaches, organic bananas, and cantaloupe

Week of Meals

  • Wednesday: BBQ pork chops with leftover brown rice topped with sautéed garden tomatoes, spring onion, celery & garden eggplant
  • Thursday: Late lunch at parents. DH had toast broiled with swiss & tomatoes
  • Friday: Stir fry with garden eggplant, garden cabbage, garden tomatoes, scallions, garden beet greens, celery, summer squash over barley topped with fried egg
  • Saturday: BBQ pot luck at our house
  • Sunday: Sautéed garden tomatoes, garden eggplant, celery, scallions, & garden cabbage over brown rice
  • Monday: Garden potatoes, onions, garden beets topped with fried eggs & salsa
  • Tuesday: Homemade flatbread pizza with swiss, salsa, garden tomatoes & homemade pickled onions
  • Wednesday: Leftover frozen hotdog sandwiches with homemade pickled cukes & onions, with a side of sautéed garden eggplant, bell pepper, scallions, celery

Want to Join the Project Food Budget?

project food budget

It’s never too late to join the Project Food Budget!

If you’d like to participate, get the details and let Emily know you’re on board!

Here’s who else is budgeting this week:

Tomato Hornworms and the Awesome Braconid Wasp Super Hero

We were in the garden Sunday morning, and while I was glancing at my in-ground tomato plants, I noticed what looked like white spikey roots growing out of a tomato leaf. Mind you, my eyesight is not great, but I immediately thought about how weeks before, I noticed low branches were beginning to develop roots where they were touching the ground.

I took a closer look, and yuck! I was mortified to see a big fat icky green worm with rice-like eggs on it’s back. I wasn’t wearing my garden gloves, so I called DH to come and grab it off. Luckily, he broke off the whole leaf (more on that later) and kept the bugger intact.

I was fascinated by this little pest, so I took it into our workroom, grabbed the camera and took some photos.

Then I googled, and learned that we had a Tobacco Hornworm (with a menacing-looking horn on its back-end, that actually isn’t menacing or harmful at all!) and those weren’t eggs on its back. They are Braconid Wasp larvae cocoons.

(click for larger view)
hornworm with wasp parasite cocoons attached

The more I learned, the more grossed out but fascinated I became. It’s literally the movie “Alien” come to life!

What happens is the female braconid wasp lays eggs under the skin of the hornworm, and the baby larvae feed on the worm, as he sits, paralyzed on a leaf. They eat their way out of the layer of skin and spin themselves into a cocoon, where they continue to eat their “host” until they eventually emerge from their cocoons as adult braconid wasps.

hornworm with wasp parasite cocoons attached

I have had the worst case of heebie jeebies all day thinking about it, especially after seeing all the youtube videos and photos. Yuck. Just thinking about the wasps eggs hatching inside a living host and popping out is enough to give me nightmares!

But I was a good doobie, and I put the hornworm, complete with leaf, back over near our tomatoes. I’m hoping that all the wasps will hatch and feast on any hornworm pest population left in my garden.

Nature is wonderful, isn’t it? And I have discovered so much about nature in just a few short months, it’s amazing and thrilling!

It also makes me sad because so many home gardeners don’t think twice about using toxic pesticides instead of allowing Mother Nature a chance to handle it herself!

UPDATE 2012-08-19 ~ This morning, I noticed TWO more icky hornworms covered with the Braconid wasp cocoons, and I let them be on the plant. Exciting. I hope the wasps hatch and attack any future hornworms on my tomato plants.

YouTube:
Horned worm vs. Braconid Wasp – CTnaturalist Online
Tomato Hornworm covered with white cocoons of Braconid Wasp
Tobacco Hornworm Parasitoids Emerge from their cocoons

Homemade Refrigerator Pickles & Ideas for Used Pickle Juice

I’m excited to have a bounty of pickling cucumbers in my garden this season. I had such a huge batch the other day, that I decided to make homemade refrigerator pickles.

homemade fridge pickles

After googling a few recipes, I found some basic instructions over at http://hipgirlshome.com/.

Notes: Originally I used the quantities from the original recipe: 1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, & 1 Tbsp salt, but when I poured into my larger jar, it wasn’t enough to fill, so I quickly made a second batch using half the ingredients, then poured into the jar separately. It seemed to work fine, but next time, I’ll use larger quantities right away.

Keep in mind, if you are using a smaller jar, you might start off with the lower quantities.

PS I am not a pickling or canning expert. I’m still learning, so follow at your own risk! :)

My Recipe for Homemade Refrigerator Pickles

  • Lots and lots of fresh pickling cucumbers
  • 2 tsp white sugar
  • heaping 1/4 tsp fennel seeds
  • heaping 1/4 tsp coriander seeds
  • heaping 1/4 tsp mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp dried dill (I didn’t have fresh)
  • 1.5 cups mix of apple cider & white vinegar or mix of any tasty vinegar you’d like
  • 1.5 cups filtered water
  • 1.5 Tbsp kosher salt
  1. Slice the pickling cucumbers – I cut both ends off, but it’s very important to cut off the “blossom” end, because there is an enzyme that might cause your pickles to become extra-soft. The blossom-end is the opposite of the little stem-end.
  2. Fill a large glass jar with the sliced cukes, leaving a little head room.
  3. Using a mortar & pestle, crush the seeds with the dried dill, then sprinkle on top of the cucumbers in the jar.
  4. Add the sugar, salt, water and vinegars to a saucepan and bring just to a boil – the dill aroma took me back to my grandmother’s house, where she used to make homemade pickles too.
  5. Pour hot brine over the cukes and spices in the jar.
  6. Allow to cool, then cover & refrigerate. I didn’t tighten the jar lid completely, I read that there are gases that build up, and so it’s good to leave a little escape room for air.

I did not have to wait a week like the original recipe suggested; my pickles were scrumptious after just a few hours: crunchy and spicy.

In fact, they were gone within a week’s time! A really great bold flavor. I loved the kick from the mustard seeds! I was snacking on small cupfuls!

homemade fridge pickles
homemade fridge pickles

Re-using Pickle Juice

Now, I’m pondering what to do with the leftover “used” pickle juice.

I have a couple of ideas myself like finishing a recipe with a few splashes (I finish most of my soups & sauces with balsamic, so the pickle juice might also work well) or roasting with potatoes, onions, squash, etc.

I also found some great ideas online

  • Make more pickles, although they won’t be as bold and crunchy
  • Add to fresh baked/cooked beans recipe
  • Because the used pickle juice is diluted, it’s been suggested to add rounded tsp salt w/ Tbps or two of white vinegar & then reuse for new pickles
  • Steam your vegetables with it
  • Make pickled hard boiled eggs (never had them, interesting?)
  • Add to homemade salad dressing
  • Add to tuna, potato, egg salad recipes
  • Add to cole slaw
  • Add to mashed potatoes
  • Use as a brine/marinade for meat
  • Make pickled beets or green beans or other vegetables.
  • Make pickled onions (yum)
  • Use to clean your dirty BBQ grill
  • Drink it (hmm, not sure I like that idea!)
  • Freeze in cubes to suck on in hot weather (replenishing electrolytes)
  • Mix 3 oz with 1 chopped pickle spear & 1 pkg of cream cheese for cracker topping/dip
  • Mix butter and pickle juice for bread spread (that sounds strangely delish)
  • Make Pickle Rye Bread, this sounds yummy too!

Gardening Diary: Busy Bees Buzzing

I was weeding the vegetable garden this morning, and it made me so happy to hear the sound of working bumble bees buzzing in my blossoms. A few whizzed by my ear, and it’s funny but it didn’t scare me or make me flinch. Oh how times have changed.

I’m in the thick of it, working side by side with bugs!

What’s New?

The weeding has been kept to a minimum because of the thick layer of grass clippings I added around the tomatoes and peppers.

The cabbage is bouncing back. The critter(s) hasn’t been back, so I have only one that has been eaten to the stump. The rest seem to be doing well. My container cabbage is really thriving!

No cabbage worms to speak of for awhile now. I hope that is normal, and they are not just hiding deep inside the cabbage heart ready to pop out when I cut into it after harvest! eeek!

I only have one remaining brussels sprout plant in a container. It seems to be okay, but I’m not really an expert on what it’s supposed to look like at this stage. Let’s just say that the leaves are continuing to grow.

My carrots, well, I don’t think they are going to make it, the greens are stubby and not full and lush like you might think. But I am leaving them in the ground just in case the critter comes back. I’d rather him eat the rest of the carrot leaves and leave the other veggies alone.

I removed all the pea vines a week or so ago, and today, I pulled up what was left, along with the lettuce stubs. I hope to plant some more beets and some Chinese greens in mid-August for cooler harvesting. Yum.

What else?

OMG, the tomatoes are out of control. I’ve harvested a lot of cherry and sun golds. Still waiting for my big ones to turn red.

The ones in containers are doing okay, but they are mostly tall and skinny. Probably bolted?? The in-ground tomatoes are all over the place, branching out in all directions, definitely crowding my poor peppers.

The carmen peppers are goners I think, but I do have hope for my jalapenos.

Pickling cucumbers are awesome. I already made a batch of homemade refrigerator pickles. Oh they were YUMMY!

Eggplant is also excellent. We had some last night, sauteed with some green beans, scallions and cherry tomatoes. I don’t know that I’d plant eggplant again. Yes, it seems easy to grow, but after awhile, what do you do with all of it? haha. Even though the fruit is thin, long without much seeds, I’m realizing there isn’t a lot to do. I’m going to have to google some more recipes. I know I’ll probably be making some roasted veg pancakes using it.

Oh and speaking of beets (earlier), the ones I’ve planted are good. Cute and small. Love the beets!

I still have my two containers of butternut squash. There’s blossoms, but I don’t know if I see any female fruit blossoms. I think by now, there should have been some fruit, no? Oh well, next time I will plant in the ground or in a larger container.

On the other hand, the watermelon seems to be doing super well! DH is very pleased. Both the watermelon in the ground and in the large recycling bin have lots of fruits, getting larger and larger. It’s exciting. We can’t wait for harvest!

I think that is it for now. I still haven’t posted many photos. But I’m taking them regularly so I can see the progress, especially for next year. I’ve been so busy with my new job, that it’s been difficult to juggle everything I used to do now that I have less time. But I’ll eventually manage. DH has been a big help!