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Archive for June, 2010

Mani-veg destiny

It’s not enough that Roxie and I have a backyard  garden that can feed our family a couple of times over. (Praise be for freezers and canning jars.)

But as I mentioned in an earlier post, we now have a satellite plot about a block away from our house, at the Bonjour School community garden in Lenexa.

Long story short, the school and Lenexa United Methodist Church set up a garden plot in late April/early May as a way to build community and teach kids about where food comes from.

Problem was, they started a little late in the school and garden years. Thirteen gardeners took plots, but three or five remained open. Roxie and I were aware of this because we had been invited to the planning meeting, and then later I noticed that several plot were choked with weeds in mid May.

So, I volunteered to plant some corn in one 20 x 20 foot square plot and chronicled it in this May 17 post.

Now, 26 days later, we have a nice stand of corn:

Seven rows and about 20 plants per row, after I’ve thinned it. We probably had twice as many plants in the beginning, but corn needs some room, at least 9 to 12 inches between plant.

It it pains me to yank perfectly good plants out of the dirt, but that’s life — and death – in the garden. “Sacrificing the innocents for the greater good” is what I call it.

If we have a good year, the remaining stalks ought to yield one or two ears each — minus varmint damage, etc.  If so, we ought to have more than enough sweet corn this year for fresh eating and freezing.

If not, well… The deer and raccoons could wipe us out, but that’s gardening. This is a serendipitous experiment for us. We’ll only out a few bucks for seed and my labor.

As for the corn, I planted late and in the mud. Most gardeners wait for good weather to get out into it, but not Roxie and me. The growing season waits for no one, so we don our worst clothes and slog through the slop, if we have to, to get a crop planted, weeded or harvested.

Which brings me to our latest development.

While watching the corn grow, I noticed that a few other Bonjour community garden plots were growing only weeds. One of the folks I knew, so I offered to till her plot, but she was sure she wouldn’t get around to planting anything.

Take it, she said.

That really wasn’t in my plans, but I did have some watermelon seeds left over from last year. So I tilled the 10 foot by 10 foot plot and planted seven hills of watermelon. It’s a little late, but what the heck. I’ll thin it to two plants per hill and we’ll see.

Meanwhile, I contacted the garden administrator, and it turns out that the  20X20 foot plot next to the watermelon plot was also unattended. She checked with the person who’d reserved that, and she, too, was never going to get around to planting anything.

So I tilled up the weeds, and planted that square in pumpkins. Rox and I don’t need them, but we though the kids at the school (all three of our kids graduated from Bonjour) would like them.  The kids can also have some of the melons, though the corn may be done when school starts.

Only problem was, it rained more than 2 inches on the day that I intended to plant. The community garden was a soupy mess.

Some gardeners would wait for ideal weather and soil conditions. But with the calendar stuck on June 12 and not heading backward, I jumped into the muck and planted four hills (4 to 6 seeds each) of  jack ‘o lantern pumpkins today and one hill (4 seeds) in which we hope to grow a giant, “Big Moon” pumpkin.

Roxie and I have high hopes because those Big Moons  can grow to 200 pounds. We have no use for one of those big suckers, but the kids at Bonjour would surely be wowed by a Great Pumpkin– and, just maybe, some of them would be inspired to grow their own garden someday.]

That’s the whole idea of community gardens. Besides growing your own food, you can educate and/or learn from your fellow gardeners,  while inspiring casual observers to give gardening a try.

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Ok. I made two batches (10 jars) of cherry jelly and 6 jars of cherry jam. I put 3 or 4 cups into a big apothecary jar with vodka and Everclear to soak for a month or so. And I have a dehydrator filled with pitted cherries that are almost raisined up. We gave some away.
Then I weighed the remaining cherries. Thirty-three pounds to go. Plus whatever is still left on the tree.
Time for some wine.
This will be an adventure, because we know zero about making wine.
That’s just what I said yesterday when I buzzed in to the Bacchus & Barleycorn home brewing store in Shawnee.
“I know zero about wine making, but I have all these cherries…”
The guy behind the counter didn’t need to hear any more. “Yes, you and about everyone else in here this week.”
Apparently this was a very, very good year for cherries.
So I asked some questions and generally displayed my ignorance, then bought a book and some mysterious powders–total about $14. (It helps if your husband makes beer and already has the big fermenting tubs and airlock.”
A five-gallon batch of wine will take about 23 pounds of cherries, apparently.
Now for the bad news: All those cherries have to be pitted.
I whined and made a nuisance of myself about this. I’d had visions of just putting the cherries in the apple cider press for their juice.
But alas, no. You need the cherry flesh as well as the juice, he said. Also, if you leave the pits in–especially if they get cracked–they’ll leach out tannins and bad stuff you don’t want messing up your wine.
So today was cherry-pitting day.
I do have a pitter. It’s a heavy metal one that has a crank you turn. But the problem is,  it mangles the cherries to pieces and all the juice runs out onto the table. That is if you can find the right kind of table to clamp it to.
No, this would be cherry pitting by hand.
I know from experience pitting that many cherries will be a huge mess. Last year, I ruined a pair of shorts and an apron because the juice, which looks like water at first, stains brown and never comes out.
So I now pit cherries outdoors and covered by a bright blue rain poncho. It makes me look, I imagine, like a demented, possibly dangerous village character.
I pitted last night and I pitted this afternoon, around my piano lesson schedule. I watched weather systems roll in. I watched Boy Scouts arriving at the church next door. Once in a while, they’d glance over and see me, covered in blue plastic in the heat, rocking back between the three bowls.
Mike, coming off his writing duties for the day, took pity on me and donned his own blue poncho. At last, at about 6:30 p.m., the job was finished.

Mike mashes the cherries and ingredients

Then it was time to add the powders and sugar. The envelopes I’d purchased sounded like ingredients for a potion. Campden, pectin enzyme, nutrient.
We put the top on and it will sit for the night. Tomorrow the yeast will go in.
It’s exciting, but at the same time, I have a bad feeling about this. This is because it’s all so new that I’ll be learning. There are bound to be mistakes–especially since the recipes I have from the store and the Internet vary so wildly.
I remember what it was like to be learning to make bread. My first loaf had thick ooze in the center more appropriate to a chocolate “lava” cake than a loaf of bread.
I now make all kinds of bread. But it took a lot of practice to get to that point.
A lot of practice.
Man, my thumbs are sore.

The pits

Posted by: Roxie

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Did I mention this looks like a good cherry year?

In fact,  it’s a great cherry year–the best we’ve ever seen!

We planted one semi-dwarf Montmorency cherry tree (that’s a sour, pie type of cherry) a year or two after moving to this house in 1998. It survived having a sickly maple fall on it during a windstorm (just the topknot was damaged) and a little spell of canker when it was young. It lived through the year of a week-long killing freeze in April two or three years back.

And now we have cherries. Here are some, photographed on the floor next to the basement fridge. Mike is outside right now picking others.

Cherries have been an obsession since I was in my 20s and bought my first flat of pie cherries at a farmers’ market in Iowa. Up to that point, the only kind of cherry pie or cobbler I’d ever tasted was made with that sweet, gloppy stuff you buy in cans.

So I took them home and made a pie, with a little Kirsch splashed in, as my foodie buddies advised me.

It was a revelation. From then on, we had to find fresh cherries every year, for my once-a-year pie or cobbler. When I started making candy to give out at Christmas, I found out how much better fresh, brandy-soaked cherries are covered in chocolate and fondant than the ones I grew up eating out of a box.

The problem is, sour pie cherries are hard to find.  Apparently, the canned pie filling companies buy up most of them. To make things worse, people quit making pies from scratch, leaving little or no chance that you’ll ever find fresh pie cherries in a supermarket.

Those obstacles, though, just made me all the more determined. We noted when cherry season was, and poor Mike arose at the crack of dawn to find the guy at the farmers’ market before he sold out. (Hey, someone’s gotta stay behind to watch the kids.)

Then, while walking  in the neighborhood, I noticed a cherry tree that never seemed to get picked. Each day we went by, there were more bird-eaten fruits and seeds on the ground.

So I knocked on the door. Sure, the lady said. We could pick them.

It went along like that for several years. Then we moved. The lady moved. (Her tree has since died.)

And now we have our own tree.

And cherries. Lots and lots of cherries.

I checked the basement pantry. No cherry jam or jelly left from previous years. That’s good.

Then the freezer. Bad news. There are still two or three quart bags of pitted and frozen cherries left. [You do this by pitting the cherries, then laying them out in a single layer on a jelly roll pan covered with plastic wrap.]

I made the first headway today, soaking some in brandy and sugar for the Christmas candy. That took care of this many:

Then I washed a couple of smaller bags of them and filled a 6-quart pot to the brim and turned on the low flame. Those will drain in a cheesecloth-lined colander for a few hours for the juice for cherry jelly.

And of course I’ll do a batch of cherry jam, and probably freeze a few more and give some away. But here’s what the tree still looks like:

What else is there? Think, think, think.

I could put some cherries in a big jar with vodka for a month or so, then mix with sugar syrup for a cherry vodka. It would have to be better than some of the stuff we drank as teen–er, college kids.

But as long as we’re on the subject of alcohol, what about wine? Mike has equipment for making beer. And we have an apple cider press, so I wouldn’t have to stomp it with my bare feet (we want wort, not warts. Ew, just grossed myself out.) It would mean a trip to the store for tanning and pectin enzyme and maybe something called campden tablets. But think of the possibility.

So it’s on. I’ll pay a visit to the brewers’ store tomorrow–a total newbie with wild ideas.

In the meantime, Tommy, sing us out:

Posted by: Roxie

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