Monday, September 24, 2012

Kitchen Tools

If you were to outfit the perfect homestead kitchen, what would you include? This was my question to Sunshine a few days ago. This post will outline some of what we have to suggest.

She asked for what setting: On grid or off grid slants the answers quite a bit. I replied that I wanted to know everything, and she rolled her eyes. Well, here is a start to the list.

Basic categories:

1) Food cleaning / prep
2) Water supply
3) Food cooking
4) Food preservation

If you are on grid, you need to consider ways you would achieve the desired goals without power. There will be extensive and prolonged outages in the future. One way would be a self powered system such as solar power or wind / hydro power.

Some of the tools Sunshine likes best use a lot of power. She likes the VitaMix blender, and a grain grinding mill.

For cooking, we have an electric cook top and oven, a portable propane double burner, and a restored antique wood fueled cook stove.

For canning, you need glass jars and reusable canning lids.

Various pots, pans and pressure cookers are useful for everyday cooking, simmering and pressure canning.

Sunshine likes two small pressure cookers to cook rice, beans, potatoes or other long cooking items. Bringing them up to pressure cooks the food much faster.

We enjoy a food dehydrator, and these foods do perfectly in winter soups.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Green Beans

No garden is complete without an ample selection of legumes. That feels like a bold statement, but there you have it-- the truth! Back in May, I wrote about planting beans, and this post is a followup toward the end of the season.

Legumes are like God sent packets of goodness and nutrition. These plants not only produce healthful food, but they add nitrogen to the soil. Growing beans is like a cover crop and you get a crop out of the process! We need to focus on plants that can do this kind of wonder service in our gardens.

Protein has been the nutritional poster child for the meat industry, and scientific studies are bringing into question our need for the copious amounts of protein on our diets. That said, some protein surely is needed, and legumes are the answer for vegetarians. Legume seeds contain lots of protein. Think about the diet of a farm family like ours who desire to eat primarily from what you grow in your garden. Potatoes are a great source of starch (carbohydrates). Green leafy vegetables are power packed with nutrients, but not much carbs or protein. You need the legumes to fill in the protein part of your vegetarian diet. So you need them, and your garden needs them as well.

Many legume crops can build associations with nitrogen fixing bacteria. This combination of plant and bacteria produces more available nitrogen than is used, and results in a net plus of nitrogen to the soil. I have seen bacteria innoculants that spread the bacteria needed for this association. If you till up a new garden plot, it may be that the needed bacteria for this association may not be present, and then you would miss out on this beneficial activity for the bean plant as well as the improvement of the soil. I don't know a lot about this topic, but there are apparently a variety of strains of bacteria, and a strain of bacteria may do best with a specific legume plant. IE, if you want to add innoculant to a new field prepared for legumes, you should add the one suited for the plant you intend to grow.

2012 Garden Experience

We planted 4 rows of 80 feet each of bush beans, and 2 rows of 80 feet each of pole beans. This has been the year of pole beans, and I am a convert! Yes, I know all about the work required to get the beans up on a structure, but it is well worth the effort. The pole beans have really produced this summer, and the length of production is much longer than the bush bean. My developing opinion is that the bush bean like the Blue Lake is cultured for mass production where there is a single heavy set of beans, and then the field is mechanically harvested and the plants tilled under. Seems a waste but this is how the bush beans seem to grow. One large heavy setting, and not a long stable supply.

Our experience this year has reminded us that the bush beans will start producing earlier than the pole beans. I think the ideal for our family for the future would be 2 rows of bush and 2 rows of pole. Perhaps 4 rows of pole if we want to try to sell some beans, but beans are labor intensive. It takes some time to pick them, and compared to the machine harvested, completely automated process, there is no way to compete in price. Just an aside, but food price is way under market labor values. The only way to compete with the super market is to grow organic and have a way to mark up the price, and then only if you sell directly to the public. I will save this thread for a future muse.

Our method of supporting pole beans is worth sharing. We have tried two methods, and both have done well for us. In both methods, we drove T-posts into the ground every 8 feet down the row. Get the longest T-posts you can buy. We needed a ladder to get high enough to pound them in the ground. The first method is that we tied a metal wire to the top of the row of T-posts, and planted the beans below in the row. As the plants developed, we tied descender string hanging down to the plant for it to climb upon. This makes columns of bean plants. The second method we tried started with the same T-post foundation, but on which we supported a netting material of plastic with 6 inch squares. In this example, we have found the plants are actually spreading out more, and making a leaf wall rather than a series of columns. I actually like the netting idea fairly well.

A friend uses the netting method year after year. When I asked about clean up, they said that they do not try to remove the old vines. In the fall, the take the netting down, and roll it into a roll. Then they leave it outside to decompose the tendrils and vines that have attached to the netting. By spring they report there is some, but not a lot of residue, and that what is left is not a problem for the next years plants to grow on. Year upon year, the rotting off of old vines leads to a stable and acceptable quantity of residue. This sounds a lot better than trying to clean all the vines off the netting! We will give this method a trial this winter.

This year we have been canning beans. For canning of low acid vegetables, you will need a pressure cooker. For our locale, 25 mins at 10 lbs pressure for quart jars is suggested. If you are above 1000 feet elevation, there is an altitude correction, so be sure to take this into account. For canning, it is suggested that you let the beans develop more of the seeds for improving the protein content of the canned bean. Wait will the beans are lumpy with the developing seed in the pod, but pick the bean before the pod becomes leathery. De-string the bean and snap to a size you want for canning. I am looking forward to some beans through the winter!

Monday, September 17, 2012


Okra is a wonder plant. It is hardy, loves hot weather, will grow and put on a wonderful crop in the north, and does not require special handling or rich soils. We find it has very low pest pressure. These characteristics put this plant into our must grow category.

When I was in high school, I had the job of harvesting okra on a farm. Those plants were so spiny, that you would end up like a pin cushion after a session of picking the slender pods. The modern okra we have been planting is much improved from what I remember of those days long ago. Clemson Spineless is true to its name, and very productive.

Okra has reportedly been cultivated for thousands of years, and its origin is not sure. Some references claim northeast Africa. It is a hot loving plant, and this is evident when you try to start seeds in the soil. Where I live in the north, I have much better success starting okra in a warm, seed house environment. These seeds just don't want to germinate in cool soil. It takes several months of growth before the plants really get large and start to produce heavily. Starting them early indoors is an effective way to extend your harvest of this wonderful vegetable.

The okra plant has a beautiful flower, followed by a seed pod which grows and enlarges as it matures. As you pick the pods, you will get a feel for how large you like them. There comes a point in the pods maturity, where the cell wall of the pod becomes hard and fibrous. We like to harvest the pods before they get hard, and we find that the rage for picking is 4 to 6 inches in pod length.

Out of an 80 foot row of okra, we will harvest around 1/8 bu two times a week. That comes to around 6 meals a week with okra as a major dish of the meal. Okra has gotten a bad name because there are ways to fix okra which extenuate the perception of slime. I have not had boiled okra, and from what I hear, I may not try it. We do enjoy it as an addition to soups, but it would not be a major ingredient. Most often we cut the pods into small rounds, and saute them. In this form, they are very tasty, and can be included in a variety of entrees for a pleasant filler. We like to add some Lawry's Season Salt as we saute them.

At times I have wished for even more okra than we presently have. Perhaps I will consider two rows of 80 feet each next year! An experience from a local friend may be instructive. My friend planted four rows of okra, and on two of the rows, they added alfalfa fertilizer pellets. The rows that were fertilized did poorer than the two rows that had no amendments. This would have to be tested more to take it out of the fluke or hearsay labels, but my experience does seem to confirm that okra does not need high nutrient soil to thrive.

I hope you try some okra this next year. Do you want any of our fall seeds pods? Saving just one okra pod will yield around 50 seeds! We would love to share with you.