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Showing posts from 2016

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Furnace vs. Space Heaters

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Now that our long autumn nightmare is over and we have heat again, we were curious about the financial upshot of sticking with oil.
Not that we had a choice
The new furnace works much better and is much more efficient than the old one, thanks in no small part to fully insulated ductwork that is now installed properly – that is, the heat registers are under the windows instead of in the center of the house, where they did little good to anyone. 

The only thing that’s not entirely up to snuff is the ductwork to the second floor. These are quite small, and there are only two ducts to the whole upstairs: One in our room, and one that’s split between the kids’ rooms. It’s a good 5 degrees colder upstairs at any given time of day – and that’s actually an improvement.
But could we do better if we hung on to some of those electric space heaters we were using all through the fall? My thinking was that if programmed the thermostat to dial the nighttime temps way back to 57 degrees (our daily …

Fall Flashback

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We had our first real snowfall today, and it was nice to have a weekend snow day for baking and tree decorating:

Now that the landscape suddenly has been wiped clean of its color, these photos from a month ago look all the more brilliant by contrast: 

Back when we were raking leaves, the kids reported finding a wasp nest in the trees. We had one in each maple tree, and each was a perfectly formed little habitat: 

They’re both about the size of a grapefruit, and they’re still hanging from their branches, accumulating snow. They’re empty now, of course, but the craftsmanship is solid – they’ve held up in our perennially windy weather and don’t seem to mind bearing the weight of several inches of snow. 
They’re rather beautiful in their own way, and with the leaves long gone they look like paper lanterns hanging from the tree. Paper wasps are good predators for bugs that like rosebushes, and they’ve never been even remotely aggressive, unlike the great scourge of yellow jackets this sum…

Warm and Toasty Again

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For the past two months, we’ve been shivering and bundling up in blankets because our furnace broke. This isn’t the sort of thing you tend to discover in July, and we realized something was wrong in mid-October when we first went to turn on the heat this season (the burning oil smell was a clue). 
It turns out that a previous owner of our house – in a fit of misguided Yankee frugality – decided to make the ductwork a DIY special. 
That dummy made such a mess of it that it forced the furnace to an untimely demise, mainly due to a near-total lack or returned air to the system. This was not helped by the fact that another genius tiled over all the floor registers in the hallway and kitchen.  
The saga was made more difficult by the fact that we were trying to switch from oil to gas, since there’s a line right at the street. Too bad that NATIONAL GRID IS THE WORST COMPANY ON THE PLANET.
Even though we had an emergency situation without heat – in November! – they said we needed special pe…

The Celery Harvest

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Though there were times during this summer’s drought when our celery was yellow and sprawled flat on the ground — rather like a cartoon version of a thirsty plant — it recovered really well this fall:

That’s the celery growing in our greenhouse tunnel, and it’s really robust — pretty much the best we’ve ever done with it. I attribute this to our long autumn growing season. We had a late frost, and the nightly lows just haven’t fallen much below 30 until this week. Celery does well in cool weather and can handle some frost, so it’s been loving life in the tunnel this season.
Alas, the high temperature by the weekend will only be 27, so this week we’re working our way through the most tender items in the tunnel to eat it all up before the deep freeze. The tunnels offer some protection from the cold, but won’t be able to keep things alive once temperatures start hitting the teens. 

This celery is nice enough to eat raw, and the ribs are actually wide enough for a smear of peanut butter

The Language of Chickens

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Our chickens certainly have a language of their own — consisting largely of squabbling and squawking, based on what I can hear from my office during the day. It got me thinking, though, of just how much we all talk about chickens, every day, whether we realize it or not.


There are an awful lot of idioms in the English language that come from living near chickens. That’s not too surprising, given that they are some of the most common livestock in the world and that their lives have been intertwined with human lives for the past 10,000 years. We’ve been sharing our land and observing their antics for quite a while, so it stands to reason that so many of our sayings are chicken-related.
I’m positive there are more, but here’s what I came up with when I put pen to paper to list our chicken idioms:
Chicken (or chicken shit): Our chickens don’t strike me as particularly cowardly, but they do run away from a garden rake as fast as they possibly can. The awkward flurry of action is always goo…

Brussels Sprouts Success!

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For years, we’ve planted Brussels sprouts, but we’ve never managed to harvest more than just a handful of tiny sprouts, whether due to late planting, trouble with the weather, or greedy chickens and groundhogs. 
Well, this year is finally different!

The original Brussels sprouts we started from seed in the garden struggled in the drought, so we replaced them with transplants from a local nursery — I was lucky to find them, as these aren’t the world’s most popular vegetable. I only brought home a single six-pack, and we had decided that this would be the last year we devoted any space at all to a plant that was giving us such a poor return on the effort. 
Along the way, groundhogs nibbled on the small plants, and we thought they were goners. They bounced back, and then the drought stunted everything in the garden. We thought they were done. 
But by August we had small sprouts forming between the larger leaves, and I cut the tops of the stalks off to encourage the sprouts to fill out. …

Childhood Treat: Peanut Butter and Molasses

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A week or two ago I had a conversation with someone about food, and she mentioned (for contextual reasons I no longer remember) Amish cooking in Indiana. Among the foods she described was peanut butter sweetened with molasses and served on brown bread. 
This was described as something of a poor man’s lunch in our conversation, but I was taken immediately back to certain childhood lunches made for me by my grandmother: peanut butter and molasses sandwiches.

I’ve written about some of the food traditions from my Pennsylvania Dutch childhood, but I had completely forgotten about this until it came up in that conversation. 
Today I finally recreated one for lunch, and it was every bit as delicious as I remembered it being. Lest you scoff, I would point out that my grandmother served me this sandwich for the first time while explaining that she could never figure out what kids liked about peanut butter and jelly, a combination she described as “disgusting."
Anyway, the texture is a l…

Preserving for Fall

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After nearly losing our whole beet crop earlier this summer, we were so happy to harvest pounds and pounds of beets this weekend. We left some in the ground, where they should be fine as long as the ground doesn’t freeze. The first thing we did was roast a couple of pans of beets with shallots, rosemary, and olive oil to get them ready for pickling:


We also roasted a couple more pans without the seasoning, so we could peel and freeze them. The frozen beets can be used throughout the winter for tarts, brownies, and other goodies. 

We also still have a whole crisper drawer full of beets that we haven’t done anything with — yet.

After clipping some rosemary for the roast beets, I dug up our plant and potted it for the winter. In the past I have always held out hope that enough mulch would help it through, but it’s just too cold here in the winter for rosemary. It will sit in a sunny window until spring.
By the way, if you attended my wedding you might recognize the pot!
Other herbs were…

Powering Down and Catching Up

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If you’ve noticed I haven’t written at all this month, I apologize. And if you didn’t notice, well, I can only assume that you were as consumed with current events as we have been. It has been an incredibly long — and, to our minds, disorienting and sad — week.
None of that has been made any easier by the fact that we are still without heat. I mentioned it in passing in my previous post, and our furnace is still broken.
This is no fun at all. 
So far we have managed to muddle through with space heaters borrowed from generous friends, and the house hasn’t dipped below 50 degrees inside — yet. We are still anxiously waiting for National Grid to send a crew to put in a gas line so we can switch from oil to natural gas. This will all be incredibly expensive, though we do live in a state with an excellent rebate program for energy-saving upgrades. But if we have to replace a furnace, we figured we should at least get a better fuel choice in the bargain.
In the meantime, it’s been a long, …

Harvesting Bottle Gourds

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This year, we used a little extra square footage of ground gained by eliminating the cranberries to plant some bottle gourds. These are purely decorative, and I didn’t have much of a plan in mind — other than to see if it could be done.

This photo was taken near the end of September or the beginning of October — quickly, as the bottle gourd bed was right next to the yellow jacket nest. Though we had a bunch of baby gourds back in July, several shriveled and died back during the droughty summer. 
We ended up harvesting two. 
Though we have been threatened with a frost or freeze several times this fall, it hasn’t yet come to pass. Still, I brought in the last pumpkins, squash, and gourds about a week ago, and they are sitting in the dining room to cure by the heat register:

This plan ordinarily works quite well, but our furnace is broken! We’ve been muddling through with long underwear, blankets, and a space heater until the repairman can make it here on Tuesday — and we’re lucky that …

Making Limoncello

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Back in the summer I fell in love with a new drink that made quick work of a bottle of homemade limoncello I had received as a gift. Eager to continue enjoying my Sunshine Spritzers, I hit the liquor store for a bottle of limoncello — only to discover that the commercial stuff is pretty terrible.

So, like most things in life, if you want it done right, you need to do it yourself (doubly true when your limoncello-making friend moves away). Luckily, it’s pretty easy to do:

First, I had to zest 10 lemons, which is by far the hardest part of the job if you are elbow grease-averse. (I am not.) All the zest went into a big half-gallon Mason jar, along with a liter of vodka:


I put on a lid and let it sit for a couple weeks in a fairly dark corner of the kitchen. In that time, all the essential oils from the lemon zest were infused into the alcohol.
When I got around to the next step, I made a simple syrup of 3 cups sugar and 4 cups water (boiled for 15 minutes without stirring).
When that c…

Our New Gardening Tool

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Throughout most of the summer, the lack of rain meant that there were hardly any weeds to pull — a much-appreciated silver lining to the drought. 
Even so, crabgrass managed to take hold on the patio quickly with just a little rain in September to get it started. Since summer was mostly over and we weren’t spending much time eating outdoors anymore, we mostly ignored it. 
Not surprisingly, it got out of hand.
The state of the patio was far too embarrassing for photos, but here’s a sense:

Imagine this time about 50, and you’ve got an idea of how awful it looked.
It’s all gone to seed now, which means that when we finally got out butts in gear to pull it out, this happened:

Thousands of seeds falling between the cracks in the bricks is bad news for next year. So Kirk decided on an unconventional weed-killing method:

That’s our Shop-Vac, commissioned to suck up all the seeds before they could work their way into the cracks or around the rest of the yard or garden on the wind. Hopefully …

The Catawba Grape Harvest

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This year’s drought wreaked havoc on our usually very reliable Concord grapes:

As you can see, they shriveled and died on the vine. At least the birds are enjoying a feast of raisins.
On the bright side, our Catawba vines had never given us more than just a few bunches in the past, but they seem to love the dry weather:

There are still some green ones in the mix, but with temperatures cooling and daylight waning, we picked them at the bend in the road between September and October.

After we cut the ripe bunches and left them available for eat out of hand for a week, I decided we needed to process them. The fruit fly situation gets out of hand quickly if you let it, and these are seeded grapes, so they’re not that fun to eat anyway. 
So I pulled every last one off of their stems and made Catawba grape jelly. There was just shy of three pounds when that project was complete, so I raided the fridge for some Himrod grapes from earlier in the season to add to the mix. 
The jam making proces…

Hope Springs Eternal

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The weather has turned, bringing us a quick shot of some much-needed rain along with fall-like temperatures for the foreseeable future. We’re also heading back into the darkness, and that means that we’re starting to make some final harvests around the garden for the season. The tomatoes will be fussy with the blast of cold nighttime air, and I pulled many of our big storage crops (pumpkins, cabbages, black beans) during my last picking session.
Still, while some things are coming to an end, it’s already time to think about the spring. Our bulbs came in the mail yesterday:

We have three more varieties of garlic: German Red, Spanish Benitee, and Early Italian, and hopefully these will do far better than they did this year — we didn’t have much of a harvest at all, which is why I had to order more to plant instead of using our own extra for seed.  
I also ordered some bulbs for the cutting garden, since many are now too old to produce any blooms. According to the good folks at Burpee, …

A New View

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It’s hard to get excited about a drought, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that this was as good a summer as any to work on a pretty intense side project. Since I am now working from home as a full-time writer, Kirk built me a tiny office in the back yard. He started this project back before school ended, and today the interior is finally complete! Here’s my new view of the garden from inside:

That window used to be on the back of the garage, but Kirk salvaged it, closed the hole, and added an 8’ x 8’ room to the back of the garage with its own entrance to the garden. Here’s what that garage wall looks like now: 

That’s a flip-down table that we installed to be a standing desk, plus a few other office-y fixtures to hold my (very minimal) stuff. Mostly I just use a laptop. Here’s the view from the garden:

This office is basically a tiny house with no plumbing. That chair still needs a side table, which we decided to make out of a big slice of the trunk of a red maple we had remove…

A Tale of Two Chickens

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This is Lizzy. She belongs behind bars:

You may recall that Lizzy has some issues. She’s a mean old thing who has attacked me in the past and who always throws herself at the chicken wire walls of the run every time I walk by — even when I come bearing gifts, like delightful (if you’re a chicken) beetle-ridden cantaloupe halves
Lizzy has also been pecked at a lot by someone, though we gave up on trying to police the pecking order months ago. She’s actually got some new feathers coming as part of her natural fall molt and is looking pretty good, though she still freaks out about nothing several times a day.
Today was much worse. I brought the chickens the aforementioned cantaloupe for an afternoon treat, and when I opened the door to the run to give it to them, Lizzy straight up attacked me. She jumped on my leg and chased me out of the run. 
Chickens don’t have teeth, but she has some little spurs on her feet and pecks with her beak. Having a chicken jump you will freak you out eve…

Spaghetti Squash

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This is the first year we’ve grown spaghetti squash, and last week we picked two small ones that looked ripe:

As you can see, we also picked a couple zucchini (one plant is still going strong!) and a tiny side shoot of broccoli. Last week we also harvested several large cantaloupes (and have since given up on eating it all — but we do share the overripe ones with the chickens).
All of those ripe fruits made for a pretty great dinner last weekend, too:

We had a mixed plate of prosciutto-wrapped melon, spaghetti squash with fresh tomato sauce, and zucchini hash (which tastes much better than it looks/sounds). 
So about that spaghetti squash. This is also the first time I’ve eaten it, and it reminds me much more of sauerkraut than spaghetti — the texture, that is. The flavor is pretty much like zucchini in that it takes on whatever herbs and spices you want to add to it. Texture is a big deal for me when it comes to food, though, so I’m not sure I’m on board with all those people who sa…