Sunday, April 19, 2015

A New Potato Hilling System

Our seed potatoes arrived from Johnny's on Friday--just in time to plant them this weekend. We are planting Kennebecs and Adirondak Reds that we bought, plus our own purple seed potatoes that we saved from last year's harvest:

This year we decided to try something new for hilling up the potatoes. In the past we used 2-foot square potato boxes that we gradually built the sides up on as we hilled up the plants. This was never all that successful. The idea is that the plants should keep producing tubers up their stems and they are covered, but we never really got many potatoes above the original soil line.

So this year, we'll being hilling the plants in a more traditional way by just heaping some extra compost around each one. To keep the extra dirt from spilling into the paths, we used parts from the old potato boxes to build a wooden wall:

We also have way more seed potatoes than we could fit in that space, so we decide to add an extra potato bed where we had originally planned to put our new strawberries:

We are moving some things around this year as we make decisions about some plants that haven't been pulling their weight. On the chopping block? Cranberries:

You can see that one plant has died, and the rest are still pretty scrawny considering they're going into their fourth summer. We've never managed to harvest more than a handful of cranberries, and that's just not a good use of 60 square feet of planting space. 

So we will be eliminating one cranberry bed and amending it for our new strawberries. Next year, as we renovate our strawberries and replace a section of older plants, we'll move more into the other cranberry bed. This will leave us extra room around the patio bed for more useful crops like potatoes and lots of other non-cranberry items. 

We're not sure why the cranberries weren't happy. We probably didn't do enough to irrigate them during dry spells, and it's possible that the soil was never acidic enough for them (actually, I'm really hoping that's the case now that we want to put strawberries there--we'll be testing the soil tomorrow to see). They also may have needed a little more protection in the winter. It's hard to say, but I don't love this fruit enough to baby it, so we're moving on.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The New and Improved Chick Brooder

Did I mention that we are expecting three new chicks next week? I think I did. They'll be shipped on Monday, and we expect them bright and early Tuesday morning. Vacation week is a good time to get babies, since we'll be home when our friendly neighborhood postal worker brings them to the door.

Kirk had off from work today, so he built a new brooder in preparation for the new babies. Our old one was a plastic bin with some hardware cloth for a floor, but the new one is the Taj Mahal of brooders:

The great big crate was made from a couple of our old potato boxes. (We are going to hill our potatoes a different way this year and won't need all those boxes--more on that later.) There's still the guillotine stand to hold the heat lamp, though it's now permanently attached to the sides of the box.  

Inside the box there's a permanent cross bar to support the feeders. There's also a layer of hardware cloth secured in place by battens along the side to make the floor. This is a big improvement over the previous design, in which we had to lift out the mesh floor to clean the brooder out. Here's a better look:

The hardware cloth is suspended several inches above the subfloor, which is a wooden tray that will eventually be filled with wood chips. The best part about that tray?

It slides out from beneath the brooder like a drawer for easy cleaning. This is a major design upgrade. Except for a new roll of hardware cloth, Kirk built the whole thing for free out of scrap. Well done!

Now all we need is to fill it with some cute baby chicks next week!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Herbal Apothecary: Cold Cream

Yesterday I was planning to make a few more bars of soap, but was stopped in my tracks. Check out the state of my glycerin soap base:

What you are looking at is a plastic bag with a big hole in it. Inside that bag is a half-eaten block of glycerin. I know we have some mice in the basement of our old, less-than-perfectly-sealed house. I did not know that mice like to snack on soap when there are perfectly good butternut squashes and seed potatoes nearby. 


So after a moment of admiring the pattern of those industrious little teeth marks, I pitched this block and ordered more online.

In the meantime, I decided to make some cold cream. Now that 50% of Port Potager residents wear makeup, we could use a makeup remover. This one is all natural and very gentle, with just four ingredients: water, grapeseed oil, coconut oil and beeswax. Here's how you do it:

1. Measure 1/4 cup of grapeseed oil and 1/4 cup of coconut oil. Start with the liquid grapeseed oil, then add the solid-at-room-temperature coconut until the liquid rises to the 1/2 cup mark. Displacement is your friend:

2. Pour the oils into a saucepan, add 1 tsp. of beeswax, and melt over very low heat:

3. When the oils and beeswax are thoroughly melted, pour into the cup that goes with an immersion blender and allow to cool almost back to room temperature. You can tell it's ready when the cup is no longer hot and the oil looks cloudy, but is not yet solid:

4. Drizzle a scant 1/2 cup of distilled water into the oils while running the immersion blender. This part is just like making mayonnaise. Or other lotions.

5. This makes enough to fill two 4-ounce jelly jars, which is a perfect size for little cosmetic pots. We have reusable plastic lids for mason jars, which is much better than anything metal:

6. Pro tip for cleaning up: sprinkle baking soda over lotion residue. It will help it clump up, which makes it easier to tap right into the trash. This will cut way down on the time you spend trying to wash away thick lotion and oil, and will help keep your sink pipes nice and clear:

This recipe makes for a more of a lotion makeup remover rather than a cream, a texture we like for cutting through mascara. For more of a cream, increase the beeswax by 1/2 tsp. or so. This is a great eye makeup remover, since the grapeseed oil keeps it from being too heavy and greasy. There's no added fragrance, so it just smells like coconut. This product is Tiegan-approved for sensitive skin.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Maple Sticky Buns

Today marks a major transition. It was our last day of maple sugaring, and tomorrow we will dismantle the fire pit that we've used for the past month for evaporating sap and use the cinder block as the base for our rain barrels. Now that nighttime temperatures aren't dipping below freezing (much) any more, the sap isn't running. It's also safe to get the rain barrels set up, since any rain we collect won't have a chance to freeze solid and burst the barrels. This is perfect timing, as we were able to set out a lot of seeds and transplants now that the weather is has finally taken a turn for the better.

In honor of the close of our second maple sugaring season, I'm sharing a great recipe that Kirk made last weekend for Easter breakfast. It's a riff off of his dad's Philadelphia cinnamon bun recipe, but made with our homemade maple syrup.

Maple Walnut Sticky Buns

1/4 warm water
1 package yeast
1 tsp. sugar
3 to 3/12 cups flour
2 eggs
1 cup warm buttermilk
6 Tbs. butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1. Combine water, yeast and sugar in a mixing bowl and set aside for five minutes. Add flour, eggs and buttermilk to the yeast and mix until dough is smooth and can be gathered into a soft ball. Knead for 10 minutes (using the dough hook in the mixer is fine).

2. Remove dough from mixing bowl to butter the bowl. Return dough to mixing bowl and cover with a towel. Set aside to rise for an hour.

3. Mix 1/3 cup of the brown sugar, maple syrup and 2 Tbs. melted butter in a small bowl. Divide evenly between two 9-inch cake pans. 

4. In a separate bowl, mix the remaining 1/3 cup brown sugar, raisins, walnuts, and cinnamon together.

5. Punch down the dough and roll out into an 18" x 10" rectangle. Brush the dough with 2 Tbs. melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and nut mixture. 

6. Roll dough into a cylinder and cut into 14 pieces. Place 7 buns in each pan atop of the sugar mixture. Cover with a towel and set aside for 45 minutes to prove.

7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Before baking, brush tops of buns with remaining melted butter and bake for 25 minutes. 

8. When finished baking, invert buns onto a wire rack atop a layer of parchment paper to cool.