A new/old beginning

I’m going to be moving this year, back to my old house. I like this little rental house where I am, but my personal life has had a change of course and my wife and I will once again be living as, well, husband and wife. So, what does this mean for this casual homesteader?

First, it makes absolutely no sense to plant a garden where I am now. However, I do need to till the area up and replant it to grass for the next tenant to enjoy. Maybe the new tenants would like to have a garden, but it will be halfway through the summer before they move in and I am more inclined to leave things as I found them, rather than leaving a bare plot of tilled up ground. Then again, as we all know, if you leave a plot of tilled ground bare, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Without having planted a garden last year I wound up having to mow it.

So is it the end of the garden? Nope. I had a garden before at the old house and my wife is chomping at the bit to have one this year. There will be a lot of work to get it ready, though, as there are many small, weedy trees that have grown up around the outside of the garden over the years. Too much shade for a garden, so they have to go. I guess the garden is in as bad a shape as I am. We’ll see which one of us prevails, but at least I have my wife as an ally in this war.

I have more space and less risk of people messing with the garden where I am now. For the new garden it would really be nice if we could put a tall fence at least across the back of the property. I’ll have to see if the budget will bear that burden. Moving alone is not going to be cheap. In reality, I really wish that we could buy a house out of the city with a good space for a garden, but financially that ain’t gonna happen. Oh well. At least there is space for a garden. I’ll have to take some pictures as we get along with that project.

So what’s the first order of business for this new/old garden? For Valentine’s Day I took my wife to the store to buy whatever seeds she wanted, so we are off to a start there. She even bought seeds to start tomato plants. I have not had great success with that lately and would be more likely to just buy plants, but what the heck, we’ll give it a go. We can always fall back to buying the plants. We should start those plants in a few weeks, so we need to set up an area for that. We’ll see if we can stick to that schedule.

So that’s the new/old beginning. I’m looking forward to living with my wife once again, but not so much to all the work the place is going to need to whip the garden into shape (not to mention other parts of the old house that really need work). Thankfully, it’s not the acre garden that we once had, so I think we will be able to handle it. I’ll be following up with pictures in later posts. Wish us luck.


This was a bad year, weather-wise, for starting a garden. It was a relatively cool spring, but worse than that, the rain just would not stop. All the way through May the ground was wet. I finally was able to till the garden in early June, but then it started raining again. By the time conditions were right for planting, it was relatively late in the season and my enthusiasm had dwindled considerably. The end result, no garden this year.

First Snow

Outside my window the snow is coming down pretty well right now. I don’t think there will be any accumulation, but there are definitely more than just a couple of flakes, such as the usual “first snow” is. We have had decent weather this fall. As recently as Saturday, the 12th, it was 70 degrees, but we have hit a cold patch. I sure hope we have some warmer days before December comes. I still have yard work to do. There isn’t anything unusual about these weather changes, but I wanted to make note of the first snow.

Scramble to a finish

Weather prediction is for a strong frost tonight with showers tomorrow, even a chance of a few snowflakes, so I decided I better get the garden taken care of. I was going to do it last weekend but I was dealing with other issues. It was a bit of a scramble after work today to get everything picked and put away before I lost my daylight. No time to take pictures.

I dug up my beets. What a laugh! I could fit my entire crop in one hand. Quite a disappointment, but it is a lesson learned. I’m going to have to abandon at least four feet on that side of the garden. I’m pretty convinced that, combined with the shade, the tree is just sucking too much moisture from that part of the garden and things won’t grow the way they should.

The biggest part of the job was pulling up all the green bean plants. I’m probably being silly, but I decided to see if I can get the beans to dry and then use them as dried beans.  If I was really serious about that, I should spread them out on a screen or at least a sheet, but instead I put them into my big wheelbarrow and spread them out as well as I could. I figure I will stir them around every other day or so to keep them from molding or rotting. It may be a fool’s errand, but I’ll see what happens. I have grown dried beans before but I believe I just pulled up the plants and hung them up, with the beans left to dry on the plants. It was many years ago when I did that and can’t recall clearly, except that it was a pretty dusty job shelling the dried beans and winnowing them.

There were still some edible green beans growing so I harvested them – just enough for a single serving. I also found a few tomatoes turning red on the vines, so I harvested those as well as a few green tomatoes. I thought I would try making fried green tomatoes. I have never done that but have always wanted to try.

I pulled up the tomato plants and pulled their cages. Then I cut the fencing loose from the posts and wound up the two rolls. That was a bit of a pain. They did not want to be rolled up as tightly as they were originally (no surprise) and after doing all the other work in the garden I was too pooped to wrestle with them much. Indeed, I was too tired to pull the fence posts. I decided to hope for a nice day to be able to go out and do that.

I wanted to till the garden up but with the rain showers we have been getting it was just too wet. I’m not sure if I will get a chance to do that before the snow falls, but if not, that’s life. I left the pulled up plants in a pile in the garden, too. The stems of the green bean plants are too tough and stringy to till directly into the garden, as are the tomato vines, so I can’t do that. I would like to compost them but I don’t have a bin set up, so I’m not sure how I will deal with them.

It was chilly and there was a pretty good breeze blowing. The shadows were very long by the time I was done. Standing in the garden, pulling green beans off the plants, I felt very alone. I wanted so badly for someone to be out there in the garden helping me or, barring that, someone inside the house getting a good dinner together for us for when I was done. The only thing that saved me was the occasional scent of wood burning somewhere. It reminded me of better times. I finished my chores and hobbled back into the house. I popped a couple of aspirin and then microwaved a few frozen burritos for dinner. It is good to have the garden done.

Frost Warning

It was the first frost warning of the season, so last night I was out in the garden, holding a flashlight in my mouth, throwing a couple of old sheets over the tomato plants. When I went out to go to work this morning I didn’t see any frost, so I guess I didn’t need to make that effort.

I left the sheets on the tomato plants during the day, which I would not normally do, but the truth is that with the extensions on the tomato cages, the sheets I put out barely covered the tops of the tomato plants. If there was a frost it would have probably hit the plants anyways. When I got home I took the sheets off, which had already taken themselves half-way off, and I untied the cage extensions and put them away for the year. The tomato plants didn’t really grow tall enough to need the extensions.

The tomato plants are looking a bit raggedy anyways. It is just about time to shut down the whole garden for the year. There is one more small batch of ripe tomatoes to pick and a bunch of green ones if I feel like making fried green tomatoes. I have never tried that, so I’m thinking it might be interesting to do so. We’ll see.

The bunching onions I planted in the bare spot that the green beans would not grow in didn’t grow much either. There is a small row of onions only about two to three inches high. Something is definitely odd in that location. It makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t eat anything that might grow there.

The green beans have kept producing, but I haven’t been harvesting much. Most of the beans are big and drying now. The beets didn’t grow very large either. If I dig them up and cook them all at one time I don’t think I would have a meal’s worth. The cucumber plants kicked the bucket long ago without producing hardly anything at all.

I think this coming weekend is the deadline for putting the garden to sleep. I’ll harvest what is available, pull all the plants out, pull up the fence and till the whole garden again. I’m going to expand the garden one tiller width to the west and north, creating a bit more garden space further away from the maple tree in the yard, and I may just plant some grass on the equivalent size area on the east side (tree side) of the garden, since nothing much else is going to grow there. I’ll take pics for the record before I wrap the garden up.

Put it away

If you do much canning, you have to find a place to store it. If it is only a few jars you can just stick them in a kitchen cabinet, but that won’t be enough space if you really get into canning. Years ago when I was canning everything I grew, I had to build some sturdy 2 X 4 and plywood shelves to hold it all.

2 X 4’s and plywood have gotten expensive over the years and I wanted to find an easier way to store my canned goods. I went to my local big box home center and found some plastic shelving on sale that was perfect for the purpose. After I got home I brought the shelving into the basement and assembled it in one of the spare basement rooms. When I went to use it, though, I found that the design of the shelves was fine for storing large object but no so good for small items, like jars. There are ribs and hollows that help provide shelf strength, but that provide an unsteady base for storing jars. In order to use those shelves, I would need to get some cardboard or hardboard to put on top of the shelves to make a good storage surface. Additionally, I needed to attach the shelving to a wall because it couldn’t be allowed to stand free and possibly fall over or rock. Storing the jars in their original cardboard boxes would work, too, but I didn’t have boxes for all my canned goods.

I had originally intended to put the new shelving unit into a closet type space I have in the basement. I couldn’t do that, though, because there were shelves there already. I decided to knock out the existing shelves to create room for the new shelving unit, but after several whacks with the hammer failed to dislodge the old shelving, I said the heck with it and decided to use the existing shelves to store my jars of food.

Storage1The shelves do sag a bit in the middle, which is why the jars are placed at the left and right ends. I figure if I couldn’t take them out with a hammer they will probably be just fine with those relatively few jars on them. If I were to do a lot more canning, I would redo the shelves, making the spacing between them smaller and reinforcing them.

When I can stuff, I make sure that I label each jar with what it is and what date it was put up. I like to use a permanent marker on the lid. Use a fancy paper label on the jar if you want, but they can fall off and then where are you? Besides, I can see them all at a glance when the info is written on top. You can see this on these jars –

Storage2Also, when I can the same thing several times during a season, such as the green beans, I always put the more recently canned jars in the back so that I grab the oldest stuff from the front as I use it.

So while that may not be the most ideal storage solution, it works for right now. It’s in a cool basement, not exposed to a lot of light, and on a sturdy shelf. The plastic shelves I bought? Extra storage space never goes to waste. They will be used.

Tis’ a Fair day

I went to the Sandwich Fair today. It’s located in, oddly enough, Sandwich, Illinois. While it is technically the DeKalb County Fair, it is widely known as the Sandwich Fair. In fact, it wasn’t until I looked it up just now that I discovered it was the DeKalb County Fair, and I’ve not only been going there for years but have also entered a competition in the past.

SandwichFair_090813The picture above is of the Home Arts building, where they display the items for the needlework, clothing and foods competitions. The tent set-up is for the culinary competition. On the other side of the tent on the right you can just barely see a model of the Home Arts building – here it is closer up –

SandwichFair2_090813Yep, the fair has been around since 1888 – the oldest continuing fair in Illinois. It always takes place the week after the Labor Day weekend. That, in my humble opinion, is a great time for a county fair. When you have a fair in the middle of July you may not have been able to harvest some of the crops for which they hold competitions. You don’t have that problem at the beginning of September.

This is a real county fair. It has competitions for home arts as already noted, and for crafts, photography, art, collections and all sorts of similar things. The main point of a county fair, though, is the produce and animals, and there is no shortage of those. Produce of every kind is entered into competitions, as well as things like flowers. Animals are the biggest draw, with goats, sheep, dairy, beef, pigs, rabbits and poultry. Almost every category has both a junior and open competition. It’s a great place to bring the city kids to see real farm animals.

Of course there are rides and so many things you can stuff your face with. All sorts of vendors are there, as well as farm equipment dealers and RV dealers. There are midway games to play, too, for young and old. I actually ran into my niece and her husband as their three young kids played a game simple enough for them to win. While I occasionally go to the fair, my brother and his family have made it a yearly tradition and his kids carry it on. My father-in-law even gets in on the act. He won a red ribbon (second place) for a wood carving he entered this year.

The fair is a slice of country life. Just walking around and looking at things cost me $9.00 to get. If you enter a competition your general entry fee of $15.00 gets you an exhibitor’s pass which admits you for all five days of the fair. If you want to spend more money, then hit the food vendors and let the kids go wild on the rides. Then take in the shows in the grandstand for extra $$$. If you want, you can take advantage of special discounts on different days and at different times.

My favorite things to see there? Well, I always have to check out the vegetable and home arts competitions. I like looking at the photography entries, too, and trying to figure out why in the world someone voted that entry a blue ribbon. I always like to see all the animals. As a frustrated, used-to-wanna-be small farmer, I enjoy them. And there’s nothing like going by a rooster’s cage when he lets off a cockadoodle-do right in your ear. It all makes me feel a bit more “country” than I really am.

Last time I was there was in 2005, so it’s been a long time for me. Next year, if my brother and his wife go, I think I’ll tag along with them. It’s always nice to be able to go with someone else. So rustle up someone and come along. Next year it runs September 3 through 7 – here’s the link – Sandwich Fair. And no, I’m not paid to promote the fair. It’s just great family entertainment, unless, of course, you’re one of those jaded city folk.

Garden update – 9/3/13

I haven’t been doing much in my garden. Last Friday night and Saturday morning we had a lot of rain, so it was wet in there. Tonight I decided to go out and pick the ripe tomatoes. Unfortunately, I waited until late evening and my entrance into the garden was greeted by a squadron of obviously hungry mosquitoes.  By the time I had picked the third tomato, I had been buzzed in one ear, bit on my cheek, and swarmed to the point where I said, “Screw this!” I’ll go out tomorrow after work when the day is still hot and pick the rest.

I did look around, though, and I see that my cucumber plants are pretty pathetic, with the middle hill totally defeated. I won’t be getting enough cukes to make any pickles from my garden. However, there are new blossoms on a lot of my green bean plants. It looks like I might get a second, though smaller, harvest from them. I need to pick them over and get the older beans off. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow, too.

The bunching onions I planted in the bare spot of one row of green beans are not growing well. I really wonder why things are not growing there, and even begin to wonder whether I should eat anything that grows there anyways. Maybe someone, sometime, dumped something not too plant friendly there, and I sure wouldn’t want to eat something that might have absorbed whatever that might have been. Still, grass was growing there just fine, so maybe that’s not it. It’s a mystery.

The beets are coming along, but they won’t be worth more than a couple of meals. It’s just too shady in that corner and, I think, too near the big maple tree. In the fall I am planning on tilling up more of my yard to enlarge the garden on the north and west sides. That space receives more sunlight than the corner that the beets are in. I’ll probably not bother growing anything in that corner again next year, or if I do, will do so knowing I won’t get much from it. That assumes, of course, that I’ll be around next year to garden and that I’ll be up to it. I think I will.

Last of the pressure canning – 2013

Yesterday I picked the last significant batch of green beans. I cleaned and snapped them last night and tonight I canned them Only enough for five pints, and one of those pints was skimpy. Unless something unusual comes along, I should be done with the pressure canner for the year. There are a few beans still growing, but only enough to pick and eat.

I picked what cucumbers there were, too. They are not doing well either. Most of them were misshapen and stunted. I think that if I want to make some pickles this year I am going to have to hit the farmstand for cukes. I suppose I might get more off my plants, but nowhere near what I was hoping.

I was talking to my friend, the master gardener, on Saturday about the lackluster performance of my garden this year. We were talking about soil testing and he told me he doesn’t usually bother with that in his own garden. He puts down several bags of compost every year and that does it.

That got me to thinking that I really am expecting more out of this garden than I deserve. After all, all I did was turn the soil over several times and plant. I didn’t rake out the old grass nor did I supplement the soil in any way. I fertilized the tomato plants and the cucumbers with some generic fertilizer, but I doubt that helped much. If I’m still able to garden next year I will have to invest in the soil.

Goodbye summer . . . squash

‘Tis farewell to the summer squash, with leaves as white as arctic frost –

SummerSquash_082413It was time to put that plant out of its misery, and to cleanse the garden of its disease – powdery mildew. When it first appeared I could have tried saving the plant by cutting off any infected leaves and spraying the good leaves with a fungicide, but it wasn’t worth the hassle. So the plant is gone. Not put into the compost bin (which I don’t actually have right now anyways) but into a plastic bag and into the garbage can. You want to get rid of the fungal spores entirely.

It must have been a good year for it. I have a peony in the front of the house that usually blooms profusely and without any problems, but this year it, too, was covered in powdery mildew and barely bloomed at all. I guess temperature, humidity and spores in the air all came together at the right time, or the wrong time, depending on your perspective. Perhaps one of the biggest factors is the shade the garden gets for so much of the day.

Next year I am going to have to start a preventative program before it becomes a problem. In my research I find that a diluted milk spray helps to control the fungus, in some research even as well as commercial fungicides. I have seen everything mentioned from a 10% milk dilution to a 60% dilution. I think I would be inclined to try the lower dilution first. You have to spray every 7 to 10 days, and after rain, but if powdery mildew continues to be a problem it will be worth it.