Nearly two years ago, I went on a wild tear one weekend while farm-sitting for my parents. (Which I was doing again this last weekend.) This wild tear involved a bored me getting too close to a gardening center, and things coming home with me. Most of it was an early attempt at container gardening, but I also picked up two rhubarb plants and stuck them in the ground. Yeah, just like that. Okay, the placement was actually pretty decent – there’s a good area for a bed around the base of an old-fashioned lamp-post at the eastern edge of the circle drive. A bushy perennial is really just what that needs, and as long as it’s shorter than the hibiscus at the back of the bed, size isn’t really an issue, since there’s not much else there that was deliberate. The rhubarb, perhaps, would have preferred more planning on my part. You know, more digging, maybe some compost or even just cheap fertilizer. Nope. Dug holes, stuck it in the ground, and waited.
It’s really amazing how well plants tolerate that sort of abuse, to be honest. They grew slowly throughout that first summer, and came back right on time last year, getting bigger and bushier. I didn’t harvest, wanting them to get really well established before I started raiding them. Perhaps I should have gone ahead and harvested.
See, this spring, I’ve been watching and waiting for them. It was a rough winter around here, extended very cold weather, lots of moisture, and then an early heat wave before spring settled in for a bit.
Nothing. For weeks. Then the weeds took over the bed. When I was out placing all the blueberries and cranberries and kiwi and hydrangeas along the south wall of the house last week, I took a few minutes to remove weeds from the bed. Rhubarb! Sort of. A couple of weak spindly leaves were smothering under the weeds. A fresh leaf was just pushing up. Of the second plant, there was no sign.
Was it the winter? Not pulling the weeds early enough? Insufficient nutrients? All of the above? Probably won’t ever know for sure. I’m sorry I didn’t take better care of it, but I’m hopeful that the one surviving plant will recover with a little extra attention.
Now I have to decide whether to replace the other rhubarb, or find something else for that space. Given the benign neglect plantings at the farm have to survive, I’m looking into some native perennial possibilities.
As I’ve mentioned, I live in a rental. While it’s a pretty laid-back neighborhood, and we have plenty of yard space, I wasn’t too sure how popular my throwing a slow compost pile in the back would be (though there is evidence that it’s been done before, just not lately – there are triple wire bins at the very back edge of the property). My mother, bless her, also wasn’t too keen on the idea of my attempting to turn compost piles, given my back injuries.
So, a few weeks of sporadic research and hair-pulling later, my new composter arrived yesterday. I finally went with the Earthmaker, after digging through piles of conflicting or outright negative reviews on every tumbling variety I could find (a tumbler was my first choice, but obviously I gave up on that for now), seeing some tolerable and positive reviews on this one, and finding that it was in use by a friend of mine across town, with fairly good results.
We’re in the middle of days of intermittent thunderstorms here, so the oversized box is still sitting in the living room. I’m hoping to assemble today, but it’s so wet outside that I’m not sure I can safely place it anywhere. I’ll be babbling more once it’s together and started up, and I get a feel for how difficult or not it is to operate.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks around here. A cat I bottle-raised from 1 week old died unexpectedly at only 7 1/2 years. Note to other rescuers, fosters, and adopters: while it is very unusual for a kitten exposed to FIV to remain positive into adulthood, it is possible. Retesting after 6 months of age is probably a good idea. I wouldn’t have done a whole lot differently, but knowing it was coming would have possibly saved some anguish.
So yeah, my fluffy part maine-coon boy, affectionate cat of very little brain, has left us. Not how I planned to spend my April.
In the weeks while he was ill, keeping up with my offline garden journal was about all I could manage, and I’m a little behind there, too. But here’s a current rough outline of what’s growing where. Compared to some of the lists I see in my travels around the world of blogs, it’s not much, but for me, it’s really rather a jump from previous years.
In the garden:
There are now three raised beds in the side lot beside the house, which have been there about a month. 2 of them are mine, and a third belongs to a friend who lives in a very dark apartment. All of them are 4′x6′, and 8″ high, a compromise to get the most square footage within my very limited budget. I was planning taller, but separating into two shorter beds will give me a lot more planting space, and hopefully my back won’t complain too much.
Bed one, to the west, is coming along fairly well. I used up most of the rest of some old paper strip beet seeds (detroit dark red), interplanted with a carefully space row of spinach (merlo nero), and there is an abundance of seedlings growing. Not all the beets germinated, but like I said, old. I have more than enough for a first planting. (Okay, so 3 6′ rows is more than enough, period, but I love beets, and if I get some good production out of them, pickles will be happening.) I have more fresh beet seeds, including goldens, to plant for succession a little later on.
Using a more square-foot gardening style, I have two blocks of baby bok choi growing in that bed as well. A block of carrots has been planted, but I’m not holding out much hope. I suspect the ground is crusting just a little too much for decent germination. I’ve been reading up on alternate methods, and will implement a couple soon. Peas finally went into the ground a week or so ago, and are germinating nicely.
Lastly, the first 5 cabbage seedlings and 4 chard seedlings were transplanted out a week ago, and all seem to be thriving. The chard is actually my first installation in the eastern bed, which will also hold quantities of tomatoes and herbs, on down the line.
Under the lights/on the porch/wherever there be room:
The tomato count has gotten truly out of hand, and I am once again trying to figure out where I will put them all. I currently have 9 surviving seedlings from my own planting, which are of course way behind what has been procured elsewhere, because I started a bit late, but that’s alright. 3 or 4 of those baby plants will be adopted to other homes, but I’m hoping to keep the rest growing, unless any appear terribly weak. Additionally, I have 7 varieties on order to arrive early May (one plant of each), and picked up two more varieties from a local nursery as a freebie for attending a class they offered last weekend.
Speaking of out of hand, the number of pepper residents also took a jump. I was planning around 4 plants, but we’ve already hit 7 varieties, and my boyfriend is still looking for another he wants to try again. I was only planning to grow Carmen in the sweet pepper family (I have a plant on order along with the tomatoes), but my mother loves sweet peppers and looked suitably disappointed, so I caved and bought her a pot of very active blushing beauty peppers. It’s actually three plants, and I’m expecting to have to sacrifice one or two to maintain plant health, but we’ll see how they do.
For hot peppers, I was planning Serrano (my last plant lasted two years) and Poblano, and the boyfriend wanted to locate a Chinese 5-colour again. Sadly, we still haven’t found the 5-colour plant. But in the process of trying to find a poblano (we now have two), we ended up with a hot lemon, a peach habanero, a serrano, and an anaheim. Again, where am I to put all these?
Also still under the lights or nearby, waiting for their day, are three pots of cucumber seedlings, growing quite well, four pots of eggplant, 5 more seedlings each of cabbage and rainbow chard, a bunch of onions (hardening off at the moment), and many many herbs. There are also two pumpkin babies, gathered on a whim from a local pumpkin that kept all winter, but we have no idea if it crossed in the field last year, so this could be interesting. I figure I’ll make them a little hill in the back of the garden area, let them sprawl, and see what comes of it.
This weekend’s goals:
Transplant onion seedlings into the east bed, and put in a first planting of bush beans (west bed) – we should be past frost. If the ground is just a bit too cold, and I loose one batch, it’s a risk I’m willing to take for the possibility of green beans soon. The other must-do is to get the row outside the beds hoed, and get onion sets in, as well as prepare the ground for the seed potatoes. If I can locate some good sweet potato slips soon, I’ll prepare some ground for them, as well, and make the hills for the incoming pumpkin.
I learned this last weekend about the local weather station site that keeps tabs on soil temperature. This has become my new toy, and I’m watching like a hawk to learn the patterns, and make calls on when to plant what.
and not in that ‘what have you been smoking’ kind of way, either.
I now have, growing in my basement, 5 baby sage plants, 10 baby sweet basils, and uncounted baby thyme. Sitting on the porch post-transplant is a nice young oregano from a local grower at the farmer’s market. As if that wasn’t enough, I went to a nursery yesterday afternoon with a coupon from our local equivalent of groupon. Sitting on the porch basking and waiting for their pot assignments are:
-spearmint (kentucky colonel)
-chives (mine never did come up, drat it all)
-curry plant (not, alas, curry _leaf_ plant – but at least it smells nice and is pretty)
It might possibly be time to admit I have a problem.
And my parsley still hasn’t sprouted…
As I hatched plans for taking this year’s attempt at gardening from truly pathetic to probably-more-than-I-can-actually-handle, I decided I really wanted a way to start my own seedlings, to save money, allow me to use more heirloom varieties, and just because I wanted the experience under my proverbial belt. I’ve started things from seed a few times in my life, sure. Herbs in windowsill pots, with varying degrees of minor success. Herbs in a flat, once, which a certain black cat decided would make a great scented window seat. I wanted to be able to start all those various plants that the books say “start 6-8 weeks before last frost/planting date”. I rapidly realized I would need a grow light this time. Windowsills only get you so far with most plants, due to insufficient light for early growth. Also, cats. My elderly tabby-co is a terrible plant muncher, and I only have one room she doesn’t frequent right now, which is only closed for heating efficiency in the winter.
So, plant light in the unfinished basement it is. Commence shopping. Or not. A few attempts to research the best models available rapidly told me that, for the most part, the really good ones with a decent amount of space coverage and enough light were going to run _way_ past my very limited budget. The ones I could afford? Small, flimsy, bad reviews, and probably not going to start enough plants to make it worth the effort. Okay, time to think about design.
In a glorious bit of serendipitous timing, while I was considering this, I happened to pick up the most recent issue of Urban Farm magazine. Oh look, build your own grow light! How Handy!
Why, then, am I rambling about what I did, instead of simply telling everyone to go find their version? Because we changed it, and here’s why: It may be a little cheaper, but I did not want that much PVC on my guilt list or in my house. That simple. Now, I freely admit that if the black iron, which is what I wound up using, had been twice as expensive, or more, we may have used the PVC anyway, just because the budget is that tight. But as it happens, we price-checked, cross-checked, multiple stores and all, and it wound up only being 15-20 dollars more, and I was okay with that. (Yes, I know, it’s not like iron pipe is environmentally clean, but at least it, in and of itself, is not a product of a toxic gas or petroleum. We do what we can, and live with what we can’t.)
So, with apologies to Urban Farm magazine, here’s my shopping list:
-2 x black iron pipe, 1/2″ x 10′
-4 x black iron elbow to fit 1/2″ pipe
-4 x black iron tee to fit
-4 x black iron cap to fit (technically optional, but I could see bugs harboring in the open ends, so I chose to cover them)
-2 x basic shop fluorescent light fixtures, 2 bulb, 48″
-4 x 48″ fluorescent bulbs, with a K number over 6000 – I found a 10-pack of daylight bulbs rated 6500K fairly cheap (some people advocate a mix of cooler and warmer light for seedling raising, other will insist on the grow-light bulbs that are specially marketed. This was cheaper, was what Urban Farm said would work, and it’s working just fine so far)
Chain and s-hook to suspend the fixtures from the frame should be included with the fixtures. You’ll need some way to hook the chains to the pipe, however – we used some decently strong steel wire that we already have around. Larger s-hooks can be purchased pretty cheaply, if that’s easier. Most stores charge a fee for each cut and thread of black iron pipe, so unless you have a cut/thread tool yourself, plan to budget that in, and I found the price ranged from 1 dollar per cut and thread to 1 quarter per cut or thread, and if you get someone working the machine who is in a good mood, they might charge you less.
Prices will vary based on where you are, of course, but roughly speaking, the pipe was under 20 for both lengths, the assorted fittings came in at around $15 total, the 10-pack of bulbs was 25, and the shop fixtures were around $10 each. Note that these shop fixtures do not have large reflectors to gather light and aim it down. Fixtures like that are available, but the price difference was enough that I chose not to go that route. I will simply make my own reflectors out of heavy-duty foil if I need to. Also, many times shop light fixtures can be found at re-sale stores for habitat for humanity, or other construction re-use shops, and maybe even estate sales and similar. If you’re got the time, by all means scavenge for the supplies! Re-use is valuable.
The major assembly difference in choosing to make this out of iron pipe instead of PVC was that the joints were no longer slip joints, but threaded. This definitely makes assembly a two-person gig, as getting that last piece in place involves that fun challenge of not unscrewing the other end while you fasten it in. But while it’s a rather loose frame when carried, it’s nice and solid on the counter-top it currently resides on, it holds the lights easily, and I find it more attractive than PVC (ymmv).
So here’s the basic idea. Take the two 10′ pipes, and cut each of them identically. From each one, you want one 52″ length, one 14″ length, two lengths of 24″, and the rest evenly split – I’d say do the math, but the fact is, it depends on how much pipe is lost in each cut. Those last little bits are just little stabilizer feet. As long as they’re sufficient to be threaded into place and provide a base, you’re all good. These numbers can all be adjusted slightly – the idea is use the entire length of pipe, no waste, and make sure it’s long enough to freely support the shop light fixtures. How tall you go (the 20+ measurement) and how far apart the light support bars are (the 14″ measurement) is actually adjustable. Remember, the lights can be raised and lowered by really cheap chain, too, so don’t panic about exact height.
For assembly, picture a set of gymnastics parallel bars made for a toddler. No, seriously. Each 14″ piece has a tee joint at each end. Extending out is the small stabilizer piece, and upwards from each tee is the 20-something inch piece. At the other end of each 24″ inch piece will be an elbow, into which fastens a 52″ piece. Elbows again on the other side of those, and on back down in a vaguely symetrical fashion. Best way to put it together? Beats me. I’m not an engineer. But I can say that the last piece we put in was the 14″ bar on the other side, and the trick to it (alright, the main trick to it) was screwing that piece in as far as we could on one side, so that when we screwed it into the tee joint on the other side, it wouldn’t unfasten itself in the process.
It’s simpler than it sounds, really. Who thing, from going to the store, picking up the parts, waiting for cutting, and assembling it in the driveway to be carried around to the back door? Maybe an hour, hour and a half. Most of that was waiting for the cutting and threading. Adding the lights is a simple matter of hanging the chains from the pipes, putting the s-hook on the other end, and suspending the shop lights from the hooks.
All told, a couple hours of time, not counting the research and pre-shopping and designing, and it cost us around $85, with enough spare bulbs to last for years. As I said earlier, I suspect it will pay for itself within a year of use by producing healthy plants I don’t have to buy individually, and I’ll be doing math along the way to see if I’m right.
One additional expense to consider: a timer. If you already have one, you’re set to go. If you don’t, you have to decide whether to be diligent about turning the light on bright and early every morning, and turning it off every night, or buying a timer to do it for you. Most books I’ve looked at suggest 16 hours of artificial light per day for seedling growth. Just leaving it on all the time, though, will also kill them, since they need the dark time as well. We had an old timer, but since there were two lights to be plugged in, and a very limited number of outlets in the basement, we located a decently priced multi-outlet power strip with programmable timers. I have it set to come on at 6am, and turn off at 10pm, and I don’t have to think about it, or worry if I’m out late (or more likely, not up yet when it needs to be turned on). That cost us another $20 or so, but saves me endless worry, and should last for a nice long time, as well as being usable for other purposes if I ever again have a season when I’m not using the grow light.
Next blogging goal: pictures of seedlings! I know I can get pictures into this thing, really I can. Maybe.
So, on the 8th I started a tray of 50 little cells of starting mix, with various cool weather early-starters. Two days ago, I started another tray of 50, plus a bit, of herbs, warm weather plants, and a bit more for cool weather, and it’s time to log the successes and failures of the first round while I wait eagerly for number two.
In the first tray (planted 3-08-11):
-5 cells of ‘rainbow’ chard – I planted this with 2-3 seeds per, knowing they were old seeds that had not been properly stored. I still only managed 3 sturdy seedlings (okay, I think there are 6 germinated, but they are in three cells, and in two of those, it’s pretty clear which is the stronger baby). First germination spotted 3-14.
-5 cells of cabbage, early jersey wakefield variety – planted as 2 seeds per, which may have been an error. 90% germination, so I’m going to have to play godlette with scissors pretty soon. They’re beautiful little plants, just now starting to show first true leaves. First germination spotted 3-12.
-10 cells onion, sturon (yellow bulbing onion) – 1 seed per, 90% germination, though I may loose a couple to them just pulling themselves right on out of the soil when the leaves unfold. First germination spotted 3-15
-15 cells onion, red of florence (red oblong small bulbing onion) – 1 seed per, better than 90% germination, with 14 growing seedlings, though similar problems with the other onions with regards to the seedlings staying seated after sprouting. As per package instructions, this variety was surface sown instead of lightly covered. First germination spotted 3-13.
-15 cells onion, evergreen bunching white (scallion) – 1 seed per, same germination rate and problems as the red onion. First germination spotted 3-13.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased. Good germination rate, the majority of the seedlings are looking pretty good so far, and the grow light seems to be doing it’s job, since the cabbage seedlings are a vibrant green and working hard at putting out true leaves.
The second flat was planted on Monday, 3-21. Germination rates/dates will have to wait, but here’s what I’ve got going, if all goes well:
-5 cells chives (common) – 1 seed per. These will likely become container chives, though if I get enough healthy seedlings, one may get a spot in the garden bed proper.
-5 cells sage – 2 seeds per, as these and the next two herb varieties are being planted from old cheap seed packets, which is also my excuse for the major overplanting of the other varieties. Well, that and I can always just eat any that I can’t find a place to plant out.
-10 cells sweet basil – 2 seeds per. Because I found that yes, frozen pesto is very handy, and I’ve got a lot of tomatoes planned, and I have some herb pots to fill.
-10 cells thyme (common) – ummm…2-5 seeds per? I know I’ve started thyme from seed before, but it was a few years ago, and I’d completely forgotten how blasted tiny the things are. Those were basically surface sown, as well.
-5 cells cabbage, early jersey wakefield variety – 1 seed per, this time, given the germination rate from the last batch. This is the only cabbage I’m planning this year, but I love cabbage, and this is a pretty small head when mature.
-5 cells chard, rainbow – 2 seeds per. Trying for another 2-3 plants, so I can have a decent chard patch in the garden this summer.
-5 cells tomato, yellow pear – 1 seed per, largely because I don’t need (or really have space for) 5 plants of this, so if they all come up and thrive, I’ll have to find takers for them or sacrifice them, unless I can scrape up money for another bed or more pots.
-5 cells tomato, black krim – 1 seed per. This is entirely an experiment, here. I’ve never tried this variety of tomato in person, but I find it fascinating for some unknown reason, and I wanted to try growing one type of full-sized tomato from seed, so this got nominated. Again, may have to give away extras if they all thrive.
Not in the tray, but in individual pots in another greenhouse tray, are 4 pots of black beauty eggplant, 2 seeds per pot. Hoping for a couple for my container garden, and a couple for the garden beds.
Yeesh. That’s a lot of plants. But so much cheaper than trying to buy even a fraction that many ready-grown. If most of these, plus a few others I have planned for the next week or two, make it to adult-plant status, the grow light may have basically paid for itself with one season. I’ll do the math on that soon. (Oh, right. Need to post grow light plans. I’d say to remind me, but I don’t think anyone else is reading right now. )
In the container garden department, the parsley (planted, um, quite a while ago?) still hasn’t sprouted, but I expected that. I planted it so early so that it would come up when it was ready – I’m not protecting it from our weather at all. Yesterday I added two more containers to the ‘no, really, there’s something in that pot of dirt’ list, by putting mesclun mix seeds into our rectangular planter, and calendula (‘orange porcupine’) into one of the mid-sized plastic pots leftover from my attempt at tomatoes 2 years back.
Cucumbers and a squash or three will be started within the next couple of weeks under the grow light. Everything else is on hold until the garden beds are fully installed, for direct seeding. We’re almost there! The cedar planks were purchased Monday, the brackets were installed, and the beds assembled. I need to rearrange the piles that were last fall’s attempt at raised beds, then get some help making large quantities of planting medium appear on my property. Hopefully I’ll be able to call that done within a week, and get the early spring sowing done, in a mix of on-schedule and not-too-terribly-late.
It’s probably both my greatest strength and my biggest weakness – I’m a complete and utter bibliophile. I love books, and I love to read, particularly about whatever topic has my interest at the moment. This past fall/winter (and to a lesser extent, the last couple of years) have been a crash course in gardening, taking food preservation past making jams/jellies/conserves (something I was quite capable of doing before my teens, thanks) and basic dehydrating, and homesteading ideals as they can be realized to some extent regardless of where you are.
This is great. I’ve learned a lot, and found some books that will probably be in my library for ever and ever, whether due to usefulness, charm, or both.
The weakness part comes in where I forget to, you know, do anything with the knowledge. The planning? Dreaming? That’s easy. I’m _good_ at that. But the other takes me a while. It’s more comfortable in here with my books, thanks.
Last year, when I found myself for the first time as an adult living in a house with a yard, and not traveling hundreds of miles a week and/or being gone 3-4 days per week, I realized I had a shot at putting some of this stuff in action. Yay! Oh wait. That means, you know, work. And money. I’m not even sure which was the biggest obstacle, sometimes.
As will come up occasionally, I have some physical challenges that make heavy-duty gardening and other food production chores difficult and occasionally impossible. My back is better than it’s been in a year or two, and I know full well that one rough week of overdoing it could put me on bedrest for a week and back to using a cane for ages, to say nothing of killing my ability to make a living. I’d like to avoid that, while still stretching what I can do, and doing what I can. Same with my damaged wrist – I need it to make my living, and it’s unpredictable as hell as far as when it will decide to hurt, or simply stop working. I can’t afford to risk it, but I also cannot spend the rest of my life in a brace and pretend that I’m happy babying the dratted thing.
I digress. So last summer, we moved to a place with this thing called space. and tolerant neighbors. and landlord. In a town that is having a rapidly growing urban ag movement, to boot. Be still my heart. I dove in. Sort of. Despite the abundance of containers on the deck, there was almost no actual food production – started too late in the season. Wanted to put in a fall garden, but waited too long there, too. The help I needed to coordinate materialized in September. The garden plot that the former owner had used was played out and badly compacted, clearly having not been given the organic material it needed for a long time. I kept trying, to the point of purchasing a truckload of compost from the city, turning and raking beds, and planting, but it wasn’t to be. Every plant was dead in under two weeks barring one, and that one never actually grew. Our assumption was that the compost was somehow toxic: it’s very hard to control what goes into city compost, and it wouldn’t be at all strange for something dangerous to plants to make it’s way in.
(For the record, I have spoken to someone from the local center for urban ag – they’ve never had a problem with the local city compost. What happened, if it wasn’t the compost? We don’t know. I may have gotten a bad batch. There may be something else in the soil in that place. I may, just possibly, be _that_ bad with plants, but I rather doubt it. Regardless, the plants are dead. I haven’t decided whether to try the city compost again, with that knowledge. Stay tuned.)
Okay, so that failed. New plan. Raised beds, accessible to both of us, which means a good height for a sitting or kneeling person, using the best materials I can afford at the moment, and while I’m at it, I might as well learn to start my own seeds, beyond just scattering a few into a container for some lettuce or herb plantings. That means I’ll need a grow light. Arg. This is getting pricey.
A lot of sketching, price-checking, re-checking, planning, re-planning, and budget-scrambling later, we’re on the way. A grow light frame was assembled on Sunday. (I’ll put up a full plan and budget for that soon, as a separate post.) Today, I started my first tray of seeds, hopefully soon to be seedlings. We’ve got the prices for making the beds themselves lined out, and will be assembling the frames within a week, then scrambling to fill them appropriately in time to put in some early spring crops before it’s no longer early spring. The cool-weather seeds I eagerly bought last year are lined up and ready to go, along with a bunch more I couldn’t resist this year, and some summer seeds as well.
Not that I’m done with planning, of course. Or reading – I’m halfway through another gardening book now, with a couple more waiting. But I finally am getting to start moving off paper into the world. If nothing else, the practice will be good for me, right?
No, really, I promise I haven’t given up. I could rattle of any number of excuses, but what it really comes down to is not working to find the time reliably, and getting caught in that “but that’s not important enough to write about when it’s been so long!” trap. Silly, but at least I know from other people that it’s pretty common. Then again, maybe that makes it even more silly, that we all get caught by that.
So, what have we been up to? Work, mostly. My partner is still unemployed, so I’m working my tail off to keep us afloat until such time as that changes. A couple of major clients of mine have been unable to keep hiring me, so that’s just made it more exciting. There have been health problems with both of my parents, and I’ve taken on more care there, which eats time as well. But this isn’t anything other people don’t deal with, and with sizeably more grace than I manage.
That aside, what about our plans for sustainability, local food, self-sufficiency, and other idealistic things? Coming along, actually. August, as I mentioned at some point, was terribly productive in the canning realm, and the majority of that produce was from local farmer’s markets. A local grass-fed beeve was purchased by a group of friends, with our house being the delivery and distribution point. Since we discovered the freezer at the rental house was kerblooey, we scrambled, found another one, and Martha is serving us well – she’s 35, at least, and insists on running around -20F. Overachiever. But it means our frozen supplies last very well.
On a side note? Those cheap ‘painters gloves’ you can find in the checkout aisles at hardware stores make great freezer gloves. They’ve saved me from frozen fingers and dropped dishes on the stairs many a time. Very worth the 3 bucks.
Current plans in the works include finally adding garden beds here – I tried last fall, but ran into trouble with the compost supply. More on that later. My partner is building me a grow light, and I’ve got a nice selection of seeds ready and waiting for a bed or a starting tray. Am hopeful.
Full garden plans I’ll try to elaborate on soon, once I get them worked out on paper. And I think I’ll go do that right now.
It’s not that I forgot this blog existed, it’s that life happened. Or that’s my current excuse.
The boyfriend graduated in May, so April and May were spent keeping him sane(ish), and packing a house to move. June was a mix of preparing for the next stage of the move and a 9-day trip to New Mexico and Colorado, and we moved into our new house on July 1. (yes, okay, I could have posted in July. I didn’t. My bad.)
August, you say? What happened to August? Well, canning season happened. Later this week I intend to get back into the swing of things with a full count of all the goodies that I stuffed into jars over the past 4+ weeks. If the universe cooperates, there may even be pictures.
For now, we’re still unpacking (perpetually), and I’ve been requested to do something more useful than type.
By request, I’m finally getting around to putting this on here.
I was inspired to attempt this, back in January, by a post on Cheap Like Me, celebrating the 12 homemade days of Christmas. I tried following the procedure as outlined there, but hit a couple of snags. When the second batch of peel was put through later, I changed a few things towards the end of the process, and was much happier with the results (as have been the assorted taste-testers).
I happened to have a number of organic oranges, and a few organic lemons on hand, as part of the tail end of my marmalade and other citrus-related products craziness. Any kind of citrus should work, though I would strongly suggest sticking with organic, since this is entirely about the peels. (We juiced the orange themselves and had a lovely time combining them with a little champagne, but that’s another story.)
After the trials, here’s what I wound up deciding was the way it works for me:
Candied Citrus Peel
Oranges and lemons (I used probably around 10 oranges, plus 5-6 good-sized lemons, but this whole thing is very flexible)
Water, lots of
Corn syrup (optional)
Some sugar or superfine sugar for coating
Wash the fruit. Score the citrus skin into quarters, and carefully remove from fruit. You may find making a small slice off of the top and bottom makes it easier to get the peel quarters off intact.
Now for the fun part (and for those who have done candied ginger, this should sound vaguely familiar): put peels into a non-reactive saucepan. Cover with water, bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute. Drain, rinse in cold water, repeat. And again. (3 times total) Put the peel back into the saucepan, cover with water again, and bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, and pat dry (carefully – it might be a little squishy at this point). Slice the peel into long strips, about 1/4 inch wide.
This is the point where, if you suddenly realize just how much time this is eating, and that you need to put the rest off for later, you can spread out the peel on toweling for a bit until it’s only just barely damp, then wrap and put in the fridge for up to a few days before continuing.
The original recipe I was following had a set amount of sugar, water, and corn syrup for each ~4 oranges worth of peel, and followed the time-honored “cook until syrup is nearly absorbed, and don’t let it burn!” method. I did that for the first batch (as nearly as I could, given that 4 oranges worth of peel is a pretty inspecific measurement), but it was frustrating, required well over an hour of hovering over the stove (at 2 in the morning, but again, different story), and doing the ginger in extra syrup in between batches had given me ideas.
Instead, I mixed up an abundance of simple syrup, and simply allowed the pieces to simmer in that syrup as it slowly thickened, until I felt the were done – 1 hour, or a bit more, seemed pretty good to me, but I suspect it depends somewhat on the type of citrus in play.
To try and give a better idea, the original recipe was 1 1/2 cups water, 1 1/2 cups sugar, and 6 tbsp corn syrup for that previously mentioned 4 oranges. If i was working with that many oranges worth of peel, I’d up that by at least 50%. Heck, double it if you want the no-burning safety margin. You’ll end up with extra syrup that has an interesting orange flavour to it, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I have plans for using mine as a sweetener, and for cooking, baking, or preserving fruits in later. I also would (and did, in the second batch) cut way back on the corn syrup, or eliminate it altogether. It’s intended to prevent crystalization problems, but if you’re not letting the syrup boil down to nothing, things shouldn’t get out of control on you. Use a tablespoon or two for insurance, if you like.
Anyway, back to actual procedure. Once the peel has cooked in the syrup for roughly an hour – fish out a piece now and then to taste: it’s a great way to learn how the texture changes as the syrup cooks through the peel – lift the peel pieces out of the syrup with forks or a slotted spoon, and spread them onto drying racks or sheets of waxed paper. I once again employed my dehydrator trays, which did a wonderful job. Allow to air dry (or boost with the dehydrator) until the pieces are cooled and only lightly sticky to the touch. Put some wax paper or parchment on a sheet pan, and add some of the sugar/superfine for coating. Add the peel pieces slowly, tossing in the sugar to get a light coat, then spread back out on a drying rack or in the dehydrator.
Allow to air dry for another 6-12 hours. You can go longer, but you might loose the pliability of the candy. Too little drying time could lead to problems in long-term storage.
These immediately remind people of those “fruit slices” candies you can find at well-stocked candy store, but better, though with fewer flavour options. Personally, I find the candied lemon peel amazing, and plan to make much more of that next year if I can get my mitts on sufficient quantities of organic lemons.
With the amount of fruit I started with, I ended up with somewhere around 4+ pints of candy (there was enough nibbling and such that I really couldn’t be precise, but since I wasn’t precise about measuring or weighing peel to start with, I’ll let my imprecision slide), and nearly a quart of syrup (pulled mostly from the last batch, but I put any leftover syrup/sugar from the first batch into the syrup for the second batch, so they ended up combined).