Country Moon


Different Strokes for Different Folks

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Image by pastel100 from Pixabay

Let the season of food begin. We all have our own comfort foods and this rings true especially during the holidays. Comfort food helps you get through a bad day or feel better when you are sick. Certain foods are even associated with treasured memories.

In a broader sense, different parts of the country have certain foods that are indicative of that region like grits in the South, pasties in Upper Michigan, lobster in Maine, etc. Then there are those off-the-wall regional favorites, many of which you can only love if you are raised with them. Some of these include:

Deep-fried Cheese Curds

Deep-fried cheese curds, popular in the upper Midwest. In Canada, folks relish fresh cheese curds and gravy smothering their fries and also the deep-fried variety. Original deep-fried cheese curds are always the most popular food at the Minnesota State Fair.

Chocolate Gravy

Chocolate gravy is made with flour, fat, cocoa powder and varying amounts of sugar. It is more popular in the South, served as a Sunday morning dish over biscuits and gravy. Head to the Ozarks and Appalachia and you are sure to cross paths with this favorite. The first time I encountered it was recently in a restaurant in New Castle, IN. Apparently, it is moving north!

Loco Moco

Loco Moco is one of Hawaii’s most popular comfort foods. Expecting it to be something made with pineapple, I was surprised to learn that it is white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and brown gravy.

Goetta

Goetta says Cincinnati all over it. Locals refer to the scrapple-like breakfast food as “Cincinnati caviar”. It was originally created as a way for German immigrants to save money and extend their ground pork or beef supply by adding steel-cut oats. The meat and oat mixture is shaped into a loaf and then sliced and fried in pork fat until it is brown and crispy at the edges. 

Reindeer Hotdogs

Reindeer hotdogs are a popular treat in Alaska. Mike Anderson of M. A.’s Gourmet Dogs in Anchorage has served this popular street food for 20 years. Made with caribou (reindeer) meat, grilled franks are topped with Coca Cola caramelized onions. The meat is readily available in Alaska and the Alaska Sausage and Seafood ships smoked reindeer sausage spiced with coriander and white pepper so the rest of us in the lower states can also enjoy.

Geoduck

Geoduck is a popular food in the Pacific Northwest. It gets its name from the leathery siphon protruding from the six-inch shell of the Geoduck clam that lives in the waters off Washington and British Columbia. The clams weigh about 3 pounds, can be 100 years old and the edible siphon can grow to lengths of three feet. The tender body meat is sautéed in butter with shiitake mushrooms and asparagus.

Fried Diamondback Rattlesnake

Fried diamondback rattlesnake is a delicacy in Texas. The world’s largest rattlesnake roundup is in Sweetwater, TX where the snakes are captured in the desert, skinned and then battered and fried. I have heard the word “delicious” used to describe them, however I think I will pass.

Turducken

Turducken hails from Louisiana. Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme invented this dish of chicken stuffed inside of a duck stuffed inside of a turkey with all bones removed so it slices like a multi-ringed pork loaf. NFL commentator Joe Madden ate one during a New Orleans-Saints game in 1997 and made it famous.

Chitlins

Chitlins, this food also originated in the South. Sometimes known as chitterlings, this traditional soul food dish is made from the small intestines of pigs. After a thorough cleaning, they are slowly simmered until fork-tender and then breaded and deep fried.

Provel

Provel is known in St. Louis, MO. It is a Velveeta-like processed cheese product made with mild cheddar, Swiss and provolone cheeses with liquid smoke added. It was first made popular by Imo’s Pizza in St. Louis as a pizza topping. Today, the famous St. Louis style pizza uses Provel cheese on crispy, thin-crusted square slices of pizza.

Pickled Pigs’ Feet

Pickled pigs’ feet, a southern delicacy, are pigs’ feet that are slow-cured in a brine of white vinegar, salt and spices and preserved in a jar. Fans navigate through fat and gristle to find bits of vinegary ham-like meat. They are usually eaten straight from the jar with some hot sauce.

Scrapple

Scrapple is straight from the Pennsylvania Dutch. They were resourceful in creating a farmhouse pate as a way to use up the unpopular parts of a pig such as the head, organ meats and sometimes the skin. These parts are boiled with cornmeal then pressed and baked in a loaf pan. Slices of it are then fried. Pon haus is a cousin of scrapple. Many folks think they are one and the same even though there are slight differences. Usually, folks are fans of one or the other.

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Bull Testicles

Bull testicles, not surprisingly, are popular in the West. Testicles are sliced, battered and deep-fried. Yep, you read that right! Usually bulls or bison supply the meats which are also known as Rocky Mountain oysters or prairie oysters. Whatever the name, it is the same animal part. An annual festival is held in Clinton, MT and is called none other than the Testy Festy!

Hot Browns

Hot Browns is a Kentucky classic started in the 1920’s as a late-night indulgence for revelers at Louisville’s Brown Hotel. It is an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich topped with creamy Moray sauce.

Stuffies

Stuffies are served in southern New England, especially in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Stuffies are Qualog clams stuffed with chopped clam, sausage, bread crumbs and herbs.

Acutaq

Acutaq is the Alaskan Eskimo version of ice cream. Its origins date back thousands of years and was created as a portable snack for Alaskan Inuit hunters on extended trips. It is fat rendered from polar bears mixed with seal oil, berries and snow. Modern versions mix shortening, berries, sugar and water (or snow if available).

Frito Pie

Frito pie, now popular as fast foods and fair food, originated in Texas. It is a conglomerate of Fritos, chili and cheese, often called a “walking taco”. No matter what you call them, they are the original “messy Marvins”!

Alligator Sausage

Alligator sausage hails from New Orleans and is a mixture of alligator meat and pork. This sausage is usually used in gumbos and stews.

Garbage Plate

Garbage plate is a concoction from upstate New York. Macaroni salad is combined with potatoes and topped with meat (sausage, steak, meat patties or hot dogs), mustard and chopped onion. Some versions “grow” until they weigh upwards of three pounds…very appropriate name!

Watergate Salad

Watergate salad is one of the South’s versions of a salad although it is probably as far from healthy as you can get. This southern favorite combines pistachio pudding, crushed pineapple, Cool Whip, mini marshmallows and nuts.

Chaudin

Chaudin hails from the Cajun low country. It is roasted hog stomach stuffed with a sausage mixture and served sliced over rice with Holy Trinity Gravy, which is a local favorite in itself. The gravy is made with flour, browned onion, bell peppers, celery and garlic. The Pennsylvania Dutch have their own version of stuffed pig belly with sausage, cabbage, potatoes and seasonings. I make this quite often although I choose tin foil instead of pig belly.

This list could go on with many more local favorites. Part of the fun of traveling is experiencing local flavor. So, this year you could add some of these regional favorites to your menu…or not. My only suggestion would be to know what is in it before you eat it!

Kitchen Garden Provides Veggies All Year

Country MoonFor all of us die-hard gardeners, the world is just not right when something green is not growing. That’s why late fall and the winter months seem so terribly long.

Kitchen gardens provide the perfect solution to the winter doldrums. The concept is really very simple; it is growing vegetables from veggie stumps and vegetable scraps. These are usually tossed but, with just a little work, they can regenerate many times over.

Many varieties lend themselves well to this method. A few of the more popular ones are:

Celery

Celery stalks can be grown from a stump. Merely cut the bottom two inches off the bottom of a celery stalk and plant it root-side down in a saucer of water or into one or two inches of potting soil or moist sand. Leaves, then tender stalks will appear from the center. When it is well-rooted, put it in a bigger pot and enjoy fresh stems and leaves for months.

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Image by RitaE from Pixabay

Lettuce, Bok Choy, and Cabbage

Place leaves from these plants in a bowl with just a little water. Put the bowl where it gets plenty of sunlight and mist the leaves with water a couple times a week. After a few days, when roots and new leaves appear, plant the new plants in soil.

Lemongrass

This herb grows just like grass. Place the leftover root in a bowl or jar with enough water to cover it and leave it in the sunlight. After a week, put it in the herb garden or a pot.

Bean Sprouts

Soak a tablespoon of your favorite beans in a jar with shallow water. Leave overnight and then drain the water and put the beans in a container. Cover the container with a towel overnight and rinse in the morning. Keep doing this until sprouts appear and reach the size you want.

Avocados

Wash avocado seeds and use a toothpick to suspend them over water in a bowl. Water should cover the bottom inch of the seed. Keep it in a warm place but not in direct sunlight. Check the water each day and add more as needed. It can take six weeks for the stem and root to appear. Once the stem is 6 inches high, cut it back to 3 inches. When leaves appear, plant the seed in soil, leaving half an inch above ground.

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Photo Courtesy of Getty images

Potatoes

Potatoes can be started from peelings. Cut the peelings into two-inch pieces, making sure that each piece has at least 2 or 3 eyes in it. Allow them to dry overnight and then plant 4 inches deep in soil, with the eyes facing up. In a few weeks you will have new potato plants.

Sweet Potatoes

Cut each one in half and suspend it in the same manner as for avocados. Roots will appear in a few days and sprouts can be seen on top of the potato. Once the sprouts are 4 inches long, twist them off and put in a container of water. When the roots are an inch in length, place them in sand.

Ginger

Ginger is easy to re-grow and it will provide you with a steady supply for months. Simply place a spare piece in potting soil. New shoots and roots will appear in about a week. Pull it up and use it again. Be sure to always save a piece of rhizome from each new plant so you can keep the cycle going.

Pineapple

Cut off the top and insert a few toothpicks to hold it above a container of water. Keep it in direct sunlight and change the water every other day, making sure to keep the container full. Roots will appear in about a week. Plant them in soil outside and in cooler climates, keep them inside.

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Photo Courtesy of Getty images

Garlic 

Just pull a clove off and plant it with the roots facing down. Place in direct sunlight and once roots appear, cut them back so you get a bulb. Part of the new bulb can be planted again.

Onions

Cut the root of the onion off, leaving half inch of onion attached. Cover lightly with potting soil and keep in a sunny area. For green onions, put the entire white base with the roots in water and set it in direct sunlight. Change the water every few days. Snip off what you need and let the rest grow.

Pumpkins

Take your jack-o’-lantern and wash and dry the seeds. Spread the seeds in a sunny area and cover with soil. Even easier, you can plant the entire jack-o’-lantern, just fill with soil and plant the whole fruit.

Peppers

Save the seeds, plant in potting soil and keep in direct light. These grow fast so you can keep saving seeds over and over.

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Photo Courtesy of Getty images

Tomatoes

You can have those fresh tomatoes and BLT’s all winter. Plant seeds indoors in pots, make sure they get plenty of sunlight and water a couple times a week.

Turnips

Salvage the tops of turnips and put them in a container of water. New green tops appear in a few days. Allow roots to grow until they are ready to be transplanted. This works for many root crops like beets and parsnips.

Cherries

You can grow an entire new tree from a pit. Keep it in cold storage a few weeks so it will germinate. Clean it, put it in nutrient-rich soil and put it in the fridge in a lidded container. Leave it three months and then plant outside.

Apples

Remember Johnny Appleseed? Apple seeds can be planted, just allow them to dry first. However, several seeds from the same apple will yield different kinds of apple trees. You will need at least two trees for them to grow well. This technique can be used with peaches, nectarines and plums too.

Lemons

Save your seeds and grow dwarf trees inside. Meyer lemons produce smaller plants so they are a better choice for indoors. Just clean and dry the seeds and plant in rich soil. Be patient though, you will have to wait a couple years for your efforts to pay off.

Hazelnuts and Chestnuts

These trees can also be grown from seed. Just dry them out well before planting and remember to plant more than one for cross pollination.

This is just a partial list of fruits and vegetables that can be grown right in your own kitchen. Now, you can’t get much fresher than this!

Popcorn Isn't Just Popcorn

Country MoonWho doesn’t love popcorn? Well, I know a couple folks. There just has to be something wrong with anyone who doesn’t like this light, fluffy salty treat for the taste buds.

For us connoisseurs of America’s favorite snack food by volume, we know that popcorn is a lot more complicated than just one snack. After all, you can add most any flavoring to it ranging from cheese, chocolate, spices and caramel to name a few. There are also many different varieties of popcorn to choose from, something that will suit everyone’s palette.

 

Popcorn 101

To help distinguish which kind is most suitable to your taste, there is a little popcorn 101 information that needs to be clarified. What few people know is that all corn is a human invention. It cannot exist naturally in the world. Instead, it must be planted and protected by humans. It is believed that popcorn was developed in central Mexico at least 7000 years ago from a grass called teosinte.

Many folks who are unfamiliar with traditional corn farming methods believe that popcorn can come from the large fields of corn that they see. Not so. There are actually three types of corn. Dent corn, so named for the dent that forms on top of the kernel as it dries, is commonly known as field corn. Sweet corn is higher in sugar than dent corn. There are over 300 varieties of sweet corn plants which are harvested in their immature stage and eaten as a sweet summer treat.

Then there’s popcorn. This is a special type of corn that has a dense, moisture-resistant shell or hull. This strong hull allows pressure to build up inside the kernel when heated until the whole kernel explodes (hopefully!). Even though other whole grains like amaranth and sorghum can also pop, popcorn is what we all know and love.

There are basically just two kinds of popcorn; butterfly and mushroom. The main difference between these two is the shape of the kernel. Butterfly, also called snowflake, is best known for theatre popcorn and homestyle popped popcorn products that are usually eaten with just salt and butter.

The mushroom type is perfect for confection-coated applications like caramel corn. Its sturdy, baseball shape stands up to the processes of candy coating because it has more surface area. It also takes flavors very well, stays fresh and crisp longer than its butterfly cousin, and is less prone to crushing.

Popcorn gets even more complicated. In each of these kinds, there is a wide range of quality, flavor, color and size variations. In each of these variations, there is also white and yellow varieties. White popcorn is a bit smaller than yellow and has a neutral, pure popcorn flavor. It is excellent for flavorings and seasonings. Some types of white are Lady Finger, Baby White, Sweet Baby Blue, Tender White and more.

Yellow popcorn is a little bolder. It pops up with a yellow tint and looks more buttery which is why it is favored more at movie theatres. It also has a more distinctive flavor. Yellow types include Baby Yellow, Big and Yellow, Extra Large Caramel as well as others.

Many people prefer the hulless variety even though, technically, this is not a variety but rather a characteristic. All popcorn has a hull which is the outer layer of the popcorn kernel. Usually, the norm is that the smaller the kernel of corn, the fewer hulls it will have and the thinner they will be. Baby White, Lady Finger, Midnight Blue, Vintage Red and Tender White are all “hulless” varieties. Bigger popcorn varieties that have the fewest hulls are Big and Yellow, Extra Large Caramel, Sweet Baby Blue and White Meadows, which are grown in Canada.

Why the Pop?

Regardless of the kind of popcorn you choose, the science behind why it “pops” is the same for all varieties. Early Native Americans believed that a spirit lived inside each kernel and when heated, the spirit became angry, burst out and fled into the air as a disgruntled puff of steam.

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Image by annca from Pixabay

Now, for the scientific explanation. Popcorn pops because its hull has just the right thickness to allow it to burst open. Each kernel has a small drop of water stored inside its circle of soft starch. Popcorn needs between 13.5 and 14 percent moisture to pop the soft starch that is surrounded by the kernel’s hard outer surface.

As the kernel heats up, water begins to expand and at 212*F. the water turns to steam and changes the starch inside each kernel into a superheated gelatinous substance. The kernel keeps heating to 347*F. when the pressure inside the grain will reach 135 pounds per square inch before bursting the hull open.

As it explodes, steam in the kernel is released and the soft starch becomes inflated and spills out, cooling immediately and forming into the shape we love. A single kernel can swell to up to 50 times its original size.

As the first bit of starch emerges, it forms a “leg” of sorts which catapults the kernel like a gymnast as the rest of the starch spills out. This is why it “jumps” as it cools. Kernels can pop as high as three feet into the air. Wow, all of this happens inside my beloved Whirley Pop popper!

With only 35 calories per cup of oil popped corn, no wonder we are in love with this snack. America eats 14 billion quarts of popcorn each year. That is 43 quarts for each man, woman and child. The world’s largest popcorn ball was created in 2013 at the Indiana State Fair. With the help of Pop Weaver, Snax in Pax and the Indiana Family of Farmers it weighed in at 6510 pounds and was 8 foot in diameter.

So, popcorn fanatics like myself, don’t give up until you find the variety that is right for you. We all have different tastes and, when it comes to popcorn, there is something out there for everyone.

Tony and Jeanine Plushnik, dear friends of ours, have been on a mission with us as of late. We are in search of the perfect popcorn. So far, Tiny Tender is ranking right up there, but this mission may be never ending as new varieties pop up all the time. Who knows, we may even have to do a little experimenting and grow our own perfect kernels. That’s just about right.

Your Weatherlore Forecast

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Image courtesy of Getty Images

Proverbs. Old wives’ tales. Folk predictions. Superstitions. These are all names for weather folklore, something that most folks dismiss as quackery. Some do fall into that category, but others are actually backed by scientific evidence.

Our ancestors didn’t have the local TV meteorologist to tell them what the forecast was going to be. Yet, they needed to know since they lived close to the land and weather affected their livelihood every day. So, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, hunters and all others who relied heavily on the weather learned to predict it by observing the natural world and the signs of nature.

Cloud formations, wind direction and speed, sunsets, animal behavior and the feeling of the air were all harbingers of what was to come. Today the study of weather proverbs is called paromieology. Some of it is fanciful fun but other observations have a lot of truth to back them up.

It pays to stay in tune with nature and, by watching the signs around you, you can tell what the weather forecast is for your exact location instead of the whole general area that forecasters cover. These clues from animals, insects, plants, birds, clouds and other signs can be substantiated with fact:

Animals

Pay attention to how thick the animals’ winter coats are, the amount of body fat they have, where they hide their food supply and how they build their winter dens. Native Americans looked to the beaver and how they built their lodges. The bigger and stronger they were, the harsher the winter would be. If skunks have a lot of fat, it means that they are preparing to hibernate for a long winter.

If you saw chipmunks in December, the winter would be mild whereas if squirrels stash their nuts high in trees, the snow will be deep. Before a storm, game animals eat heavily, birds fly closer to the ground and spiders abandon their webs.

If birds flock and migrate early, it indicates a harsh winter. And who doesn’t look to the wooly bear caterpillars for weather wisdom? Experts are still out on a limb as to how reliable they are but, the saying goes that the wider the brown band in their middle then the milder the winter will be.

Plants

Various plants like clover close up when rain is approaching. When the winter is destined to be hard, some fruits and vegetables like apples and onions have thicker skins. When crops like acorns, rose hips and other nuts and berries are heavy, it will be a hard winter. It is how nature stays in balance; if she gives us a harsh winter, then she gives us more provisions than usual.

Without taking into account heavy fall rains and winds, if leaves fall early the winter will be mild whereas if they fall late it will be wild. On the same note, “if there are mushrooms galore, much snow is in store; no mushrooms at all, no snow will fall.”

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Image courtesy of Getty Images

Barometric Pressure

Many folks have barometers that accurately predict if moisture is coming or not. This is where we get our low pressure systems (storms) or high pressure systems (fair weather). How your body feels can also be a good barometer. When the air feels heavy and you are lethargic, the pressure is dropping and precipitation is on the way. Many folks swear that their joints ache when the pressure is dropping. On the other hand, if you are energetic and the air is crisp and light, it indicates that high pressure, or good weather, is on the way.

Many have mentioned that they can “smell the rain.” Who hasn’t noticed that clean, fresh scent after a rain? The reason for this is that the lower air pressure and higher humidity that comes with rain cause the ground to emit a sweet, rich smell.

Wind

Wind speed, velocity and direction are probably the best indicators of changing weather. When the velocity picks up and there are swirling and gusting breezes, it means that a low pressure front is approaching with foul weather.

Wind direction is one of the easiest signs to watch. East and northeast winds are counterclockwise currents of low pressure. Southerly winds are indicative of warm and humid conditions, most likely associated with rain. Winds from the north and northwest usually indicate cool, crisp good weather.

There is a simple bit of wind forecasting that each of us can do anywhere. Stand with your back to the wind. If the clouds are moving toward or away from you, the weather will likely stay the same. If the clouds are moving from left to right, the weather will get worse. When they move from right to left, the weather will get better.

Miscellaneous Warning Signs

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” The pink and red sunsets are caused by dust in the dry, clear air. Most of our weather systems come from the west so, when it is clear, it means fair weather is heading our way while storms are heading away from us. It is just vice versa when we see a red eastern sky in the morning, the moisture is heading our way.

This pretty much holds true for rainbows too. “A rainbow in the morning is nature’s warning.” Seen in the western sky, it is increased moisture that is heading our way. An evening rainbow in the evening means rain is moving away.

“Circle around the moon, rain or snow soon.” A halo around the moon is caused by refraction, reflection and dispersion of light through ice particles suspended in high altitude clouds and warns of impending moisture.

“When chimney smoke descends, our nice weather ends.” This is because when the air is very dense with moisture, it forces the smoke downward whereas when the air is lighter it allows the smoke to rise.

“When dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass. When grass is dry at morning light, look for rain before the night.” If there is no dew on the grass, it means that skies are cloudy or the breeze is strong, both of which may mean rain.

When there is heavy cloud cover at night, it means warmer weather the next day because the clouds blanket the earth, acting like an insulator and keeping the heat in. However, if clouds persist the next day, temperatures will drop since the clouds prevent the sun’s warming rays to enter. For this reason, it only frosts when there is no cloud cover.

Ben Franklin once said, “Some are weather-wise and some are otherwise.” Since time began man has been fascinated with the weather and trying to predict it. Rightfully so because weather affects all of us. Even if we are not fascinated by it, it would benefit all of us to pay a little closer attention to the weather signs that are around us every day and to not discount weatherlore too quickly.

Putting the Garden to Bed

Country MoonThe tomatoes are canned, the corn is frozen, the pantry is full and the garden is a mess, the barren vines and stalks of another productive year in the books. It is tempting at this time to sigh, walk away, shut the gate and forget about the garden until the first seed catalog arrives in January. If you resist this temptation and do a little work now to put your garden to bed properly for the winter, you will be so glad you did come spring.

It doesn’t matter where you live, how big of garden you have or if it is vegetables or flowers, when it is time to plant in spring it seems like it is always a rush to get seed in the ground. The least amount of preparation you have to do then, the better your life will be.

Fall is a great time to be outside on those last warm sunny days and it only takes a little time to prep the garden for spring. Just a few points to consider follow.

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Photo by Alexey Fedorenko/Adobe Stock

Clean Up Old Plants

Old plants…vines left sprawling over the garden, flower stems and plants that have died from frost look untidy. On top of that, they harbor disease, pests and fungus that can become active next season. Even though the insects are gone, the eggs that they have laid on leaves can still be fertile. Removing plant debris prevents them from getting a head start. I had a bad infestation of squash bugs last year. By removing the plants last fall and using pyrethrum this year, I no longer have that problem.

On this same note, now is the time to remove invasive weeds. There are always a few that survive the season. It only takes a couple to produce a whole garden full next year. Be sure and don’t put the renegades in a pile at the edge of the garden or in the compost pile or you will just be moving your problem to a new location.

Prepare the Soil for Spring

I love to till the garden in the fall. In the spring, you only need to go over it one more time to be ready for planting if you do the deep tilling in the fall. Tilling improves drainage and you won’t have to wait until the garden dries out if you have a wet spring.

It is also a great time to work in manure, compost, bone meal, kelp, rock phosphates and other nutrients. Doing this in fall gives them time to start breaking down, enriching the soil and to start to become biologically active.

Plant Cover Crops

Planting cover crops like rye, vetch and clover helps prevent erosion, break up compacted areas, increase levels of organic matter and add nutrients. Planting legumes like clover or field peas will increase the level of nitrogen for vegetables. Generally, cover crops are planted one month before the first killing frost.

Prune Perennials

Perennials can be persnickety; some like to be pruned in spring and some in fall. Be sure and check which each variety prefers. Spent raspberry canes continue to nourish the crown through the winter and blueberries prefer to be cut back in spring too. Blackberries, asparagus, rhubarb and herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage can be pruned in the fall.

Divide and Plant Bulbs

Dig up any plants that appear crowded or straggly. Many of the ornamental grasses just get too large. Now is the time to divide them and get two or more plants from one. Be sure and get them back in the ground as soon as you can so as not to interrupt the roots.

Irises tend to crowd each other out and need separated often. The trick with spring bulbs like irises and tulips is to remember where they are so they can be dug up. Now is the time to plant tulips, daffodils and crocuses. Don’t forget to dig gladiolus, dahlias and other bulbs that cannot withstand the winter cold.

Harvest and Regenerate Compost

Now is not the time to ignore your compost pile. Material that has been composting all summer is finished and ready to go. Spread this batch to make room to start the next one and to jumpstart the soil for spring. The compost will help insulate against the winter chill to keep the microbes working a little longer. Rebuild the compost pile with autumn leaves, straw or sawdust layered with kitchen scraps and other green matter.

Replenish Mulch

Mulch provides some of the same benefits in winter as it does in summer like reducing water loss, protecting the soil from erosion and inhibiting weeds. Winter mulching offers other benefits as well. Freezing and thawing can adversely affect garden plants and roots suffer from churning and heaving. Mulch helps to regulate soil temperature and helps to ease the plants’ transition into winter. A fresh layer around root vegetables can prolong the crop. As mulch breaks down, it puts fresh organic matter back into the soil.

Assess Plants

Now is the time to step back and take a hard look at how the garden performed. If some plants didn’t perform well, check out other varieties that may be more suited to your area. For those that did well, plan to get the same variety, only some with shorter and longer growing seasons to extend the season. Some of your successes and failures are weather related but other factors can be controlled. Soil fertility, moisture levels and plant placement are all things that can be adjusted next year.

As you assess, don’t count on your memory for all these little facts. Make notes so that when that first seed catalog appears in January you will be ready with a plan.

Take Care of Tools

Change the oil in rototillers and mowers. Put additives like Stabil in the gas lines to keep the gas from breaking down in the motors. Wash tools and wax them, sharpen hoes, shovels and pruning shears. Add a light coating of oil to these hand tools to help protect them.

We all know how hectic it gets when winter breaks. Taking just a little care when putting the garden to bed in the fall makes a huge difference in the spring…and who doesn’t like something made easier!

 

 

Farmers at the Crossroads

Country MoonFarmers’ worlds have changed. Gone are the days when you looked out over farmers’ fields and saw only corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and hay. Changing weather patterns, economic issues and different lifestyles have all changed the role of a farmer. The crops are more varied now, specialty crops like tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, kale, potatoes and others have encroached on the traditional farm crops.

Part of the reason for this is that machinery has gotten bigger and more sophisticated. What once took a week to do can now be accomplished in a day or two. I remember my Dad’s two-row corn picker and now sometimes the norm is 16-row corn heads. Sometimes you wonder how they can even turn the big machinery around in a small field.

Another reason that farmers are diversifying is that they want to keep the farm in the family and that means adding new income sources. Gone are the days that Mom and Dad just turned the family farm over to the kids. They now need more acres and more sources of revenue to support more than one household.

It also used to be just a fact that kids would follow in their folks’ farming footsteps. Many are leaving farms today to seek careers in other fields. New technology and challenges and more opportunities are needed to entice them to stay on the home place.

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So, many farmers are at a crossroads these days. They need to diversify or die. The truth is sad but true. The good news is that there are some exciting and creative ventures out there to give new life to old acres and to bring added income to the family farm. Sometimes these new ideas can coincide with mainstream farming with only a few tweaks.

Here in southern Michigan on a drive through the country, you can see almost as many specialty crops as you can corn and soybeans. This year there are cabbages in the field west of me. In this particular area, water is hard to find so irrigating crops is challenging. Cabbage does not require as much water as other crops so it is a good fit. It takes a number of years for farmers to recoup the benefits of installing an expensive irrigation system so planting crops that will turn a profit off the land without installing irrigation is enticing.

A prime example of farmers being creative in using their acres to add to their “regular” farm income was spotlighted in a recent article in SUCCESSFUL FARMING magazine and reported by Raylene Nickel. Andrew Dixon graduated from high school in 2006 and wanted to find a way to make room for him financially on the family farm near Tullahoma, TN. At the time, the main income was from growing soybeans, corn and wheat and raising cattle.

Their search led them to the University of Tennessee’s Center for Profitable Agriculture (CPA). The brainstorming led to the family selling decorative cornstalk bundles. When Andrew was a senior in high school, they were selling 5000 bundles a year, making profit from a by-product of the corn that was already planted on their farm. Who would have thought!

Today, their farm’s agritourism business, named Granddaddy’s Farm, incorporates a 4 1/2 acre corn maze, 18 acres of pumpkins, 1,600 mums, winter squash and gourds and square straw bales along with the original cornstalk bundles. Although their season is short, from mid-September thru November 1, it supplements the farm’s revenue stream enough to employ Dixon, his brother Philip, his dad, grandfather and a full time employee. A little ingenuity can go a long way!

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There are many other opportunities for farmers to supplement their farm income without re-vamping the entire farm. Here are a few:

Woody Ornamentals

Woodies are trees and shrubs whose branches are harvested and sold to florists for arrangements. They need not be planted each year and can be harvested over and over again for decades so there is no additional capital spent on them. Different varieties are ready for harvest at different seasons so, if forethought is put into the varieties planted, this venture can provide additional farm income all during the year.

Trees and Shrubs

A large number of container plants can be grown in a small area. One thousand square feet can support 1500 2-gallon potted trees or shrubs. Seedlings are usually available for around a dollar each and you only need fifty cents more for pots and soil. After two years’ worth of growth, they sell for about $15 each. That is a 750% markup. This year, and most years, that would definitely beat the price of corn and beans and it only takes a small space.

Willow Trees

Shoots from willow trees are in great demand for use in arrangements, wreaths, baskets and willow furniture. The trees are trouble-free and easy to maintain. The University of Kentucky reported that growers could harvest four to five tons of willow shoots per acre. At $7 per pound, that’s $56,000 per acre and that’s not too shabby!

Mushrooms

Gourmet mushrooms can be referred to as “little brown nuggets of gold” because they provide a very handsome return for little investment. It only takes six weeks from planting to harvest so multiple crops can be grown throughout the year. Many restaurants will buy directly from the producer and oyster mushrooms are some of the more popular and profitable. A 100 square foot growing area can produce 2400 pounds per year and, at $12 per pound, that adds up to $28,800 for an area that is no larger than a small bedroom.

Garlic

It is hard to lose a crop of garlic because it tolerates a wide range of soil and weather conditions. Some growers even call it “the mortgage lifter” because one acre can yield 15,000 pounds. At the low end of $6 per pound, that is still quite an added gross income of $90,000 per acre.

Herbs

Herbs have come into the spotlight lately. Not only are they stars in the kitchen, but they are also making waves in the medicine world (something our forefathers knew before modern medicine) and in the essential oils market. They are relatively disease resistant and don’t require a lot of attention.

Specialty crops and other alternate farming out of the norm are ways to supplement income using little acreage. You don’t have to give up all of your acres to try something new. It is worth looking into although it is not for everyone. If you have to invest in expensive diversified machinery, then it probably isn’t worth it unless you are in the venture for the long haul. For others, it may be a way to ease the financial deficit in bad years.

It all boils down to your personal comfort zone. As one farmer put it, “Farmers have their up and down years. Do what you know and stay in the realm.” It is hard to step into a new venture after years of doing the same thing but it is also good to know that there are other options out there.

Images courtesy of Lois Hoffman

 

 

               

Tips for Saving Seeds

Country Moon

Gardeners have been saving their vegetable and flower seeds ever since they have been planting gardens. After all, this is the only way to ensure that plant varieties will endure for generations. However, many gardeners as of late (myself included) have succumbed to picking up seed packets off supermarket shelves or ordering from seed catalogs.

It has only been since WWII that growers have had the option to buy affordable, high quality commercial seeds. Before that, the only alternative was to save their own or trade with friends and neighbors.

Saving seed from your own garden is a way to duplicate a delectable harvest and also to save money. By carefully selecting plants that flourish in your locale and saving their seed, you can create strains that are well adapted to local growing conditions…and it only takes a little effort. Here are a few guidelines:

Which Plants Are Best for Seed Harvesting

Without saying, it makes sense to choose plants that are the most vigorous, the ones that over-produce and have the best fruits and to choose the prettiest flowers. Besides this fact, take into account that not all plants produce productive seeds. Most of the plants sold in garden stores are hybrids that are created by artificially cross-pollinating cultivars and will not produce plants true to the originals. Do NOT save seeds from hybrids because they will produce seedlings that are different from the parent plant and are of sub-standard quality. If seed packets are printed with “Hybrid” or “F1” stay away from them if you want to save seeds from their plants.

Open-pollinated plants are the best choice for saved seeds. These are non-hybrid cultivars that produce by self-pollination or cross-pollination. Seeds from open-pollinated plants will breed true, providing they do not cross-pollinate with another plant of the same species. All heirloom plants are open-pollinated.

Self-pollinating plants like beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes have flowers that contain both male and female parts for fertilization. Each flower can be fertilized from itself or a nearby flower of the same plant. Saved seeds from self-pollinated plants almost always produce identical plants.

The majority of vegetables are cross-pollinated. These include broccoli, peppers and squash. They can be fertilized by pollen from other plants of the same family. When saving seed, take care to prevent cross-pollination between similar varieties growing nearby. For example, if you plant two types of radishes, they will cross.

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Saving Seeds Depends on Plant Life Cycle

It gets tricky when saving vegetable, flower and herb seeds from different plant cycles. Annuals, biennials and perennials produce seeds at different intervals.

Annuals such as basil, beans, marigolds, tomatoes, oregano and others are ideal to harvest seed from as they are only grown for one season.

Biennials won’t produce seeds the first season so protect them over the winter and grab the seeds the second year. Beets, caraway, evening primrose, mint and Swiss chard are examples that require a little more patience.

Perennials are generally reproduced from cuttings or division. These are your bulbs and rhizomes.

When to Save Seeds

Be sure and wait until seeds are mature to save them. Plants give clues when their seeds are ready such as faded flowers, pods turn brown and are dried and ripe seeds turn color from white to tan to dark brown. Some seeds such as those from melons are ready when the fruit is ripe for picking while others aren’t prime until after the first frost.

The biggest thing is to make sure they are dry. If you fail to let seeds dry completely, they will mold and you will lose germination. The best way is to let nature do the work for you and leave them in the plant as long as possible. Just don’t wait until every seed is ripe or you risk losing many seeds to birds and wildlife. Make sure you choose at least four or five different plants to save seed from on the off chance that one plant is not viable

How to Save Seeds

The best time to harvest is after the dew has evaporated on a sunny day. That is when there is less moisture. Pluck the seeds and lay them out on newspapers or paper towels to dry. In the case of tomato seeds or squash or pumpkin, scoop out the goop and all and wash thoroughly before laying out to dry.

Tomato seeds take a little more work. Put them in a glass or container, add two teaspoons of water and then cover with plastic wrap. Poke a hole in the plastic and put in the windowsill to keep warm. Each night, remove the plastic and stir. After two to three days the fermentation will kill any diseases and the good seeds will sink to the bottom. Rinse with cold water and dry like you would other seeds.

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Where to Store Seeds

Again, the most important thing is to keep them dry. Put them in jars or other containers, label them and store in a dark, cool place. Varying temperatures, heat and moisture are not kind to seeds and threaten their ability to germinate. Every 10 degree F decrease in storage temperature at temperatures above freezing doubles seeds storage life. Likewise, every 1% decrease in seed moisture content doubles its storage life.

Saving seeds isn’t really that hard and there is satisfaction in knowing that you are preserving a piece of your generation for ones yet to come. Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization founded in 1975 that consists of a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and collecting heirloom seeds and plants.

It is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. Its collection of 25,000 heirloom seeds is housed on an 890-acre farm near Decorah, Iowa, and serves more than 11,000 members and the public at large through its mission to preserve the world’s endangered garden heritage for future generations. If you are looking for a particular seed, you can contact them at 563-382-5990

Thanks to this organization and private seed savers, we have heirloom seeds and plant varieties that will live on for years to come.

Images courtesy of Getty Images







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