Category Archives: Gardening

Blackberry Jam

I can finally cross ‘making jam’ off my summer bucket list. Every summer I swear that it will be the year I make jam. We go berry picking, I look up recipes, I’m all ready, and then I get cold feet. I don’t know what it is about making jam that intimidates me, but whatever it is, I overcame it this year and made blackberry jam.

We went strawberry picking early in the summer but the picking was slim and we didn’t get enough to make jam so instead we had a huge strawberry shortcake for dinner. Yes, once a summer we allow ourselves to have strawberry shortcake and nothing else for dinner.

Then later we went raspberry picking and came home with plenty of berries for jam, but they all ended up in little bellies by the handful and in cereal and yogurt.

So, onto blackberries.

There is a huge blackberry patch over at Andy’s parents house. Rather it is a huge patch of stinging nettle, but if you trample down and make paths through the nettle you can discover a bounty of blackberries.

We went early in the morning on four different mornings and harvest blackberries before it got too hot and until we’d had it with the stinging nettle. (If only Ishaan had been around to tell me which plant soothes nettle- I think it might be Jewel Weed but I’m not sure. ) We finally had enough berries for jam.

On advice from my experienced jam making friend Sarah, I used Pomona’s Pectin.

It is a low-sugar pectin, which I found out allows you to make jam using less sugar than a no-pectin jam. There was a simple and straight forward recipe in the pectin packet and I just used that for the first batch. I borrowed a food mill to mash up the berries because wild blackberries have that hard center bit that I didn’t want in the jam. However I didn’t want the jam to be a uniform texture, so I added a few spoonfuls of the seed/pulp mixture that was left in the mill.

mashed berry goodness

left over seeds and middle bits

It’s a messy process

For the second batch I made a Blackberry Mint with Bourbon jam. I didn’t follow the recipe exactly because this recipe didn’t call for pectin. I had to just guess at the amount of sugar to use. Wow, I think this just might be my favorite jam ever!

Well it was jam fever at our house for a few days. The kids and I went blueberry picking at the nearby orchard and farm and came home with many pounds of blueberries. We played around with two kinds of jam. First we made a blueberry lemon with lots of fresh lemon juice and zest. Super yummy! Then I had an idea to make blueberry with ginger and vanilla. I used a good amount of ginger and when I tasted it I thought it was right so added vanilla. I guess I added too much vanilla and it sort of overpowers the nice ginger quality. It is not bad but not as delicious as I was hoping.

So now I have many lovely jars of jam sitting prettily on a shelf. We have opened two jars already but it is hard not to ration it and think of it as being totally precious and to be used sparingly. After all it is just jam and I made it so we could enjoy it!

Healing Herb Garden

Ishaan is, at the moment, very interested in learning about medicinal and edible herbs and plants. The other day he went out into the small woods behind our house and came back with a bag of what looked to me like grass, weeds, and dirt. He told me he had collected edible plants and asked if he could cook them up for his breakfast. Now, I must admit that I was a little bit distracted and just said sure. I realize that I probably should have investigated a little bit more, but really what do I know about edible plants. He has learned a lot in his wilderness class so I trusted him. He sautéed them in butter and sat down to a plate of who knows what for breakfast.

One of the things I love about homeschooling is that we can take these interests and ideas that the kids have and totally run with them.  It also works out very nicely because we are currently in the middle of his Farming and Gardening Block. I love it when things work out like that!

In our back yard we had a row of huge peonies. I love peonies, but we have them in the front of the house too and I’ve been wanting to do something else with that space in the back so we decided to turn it into a healing herb garden. I checked out a few books from the library and we did a little bit of research. The book I ended up liking most and getting the bulk of our information is called The Medicinal Herb Garden: How to Grow and Use your Own Medicinal Herbs by Anne McIntyre.  We looked through it for ideas and then decided to narrow it down to about 6 types of plants. We thought about what ailments we wanted to make remedies for and chose plants based on that. We are going to grow Echinacea, Feverfew, Marshmallow, Lemon Balm, Stinging Nettle, Calendula and a whole bunch of cooking herbs. We’ve got plenty of Plantain growing in the grass in the summer.

I had Ishaan look up each plant and write down what it is used for and draw a picture of it in his garden journal. We dug out the peonies and gave them away to several different friends. We certainly didn’t want to throw them out, so it is nice to know that they will be making other people’s gardens beautiful.

We weeded that area and sectioned it off using bricks from our chimney that were removed when it was rebuilt after the trees landed on the house. Now we have to spread some compost and natural fertilizer on it and it will be ready for planting.We ordered seeds from Bountiful Gardens and High Mowing.

The Bountiful Garden seeds came a couple of days ago and today we will plant them in small pots inside and them transplant them once they are a couple of inches tall.  Some of them we can sow directly in the ground, but I don’t like doing that because when they first come up they all look the same to me and look just like the weeds, so I’m afraid I will pull them out while on one of my weeding rampages.

While they are starting to grow we will research how to use them properly. Some, like plantain and nettle, you just mash up and apply directly to the skin. Some, like lemon balm are used to make tea, and others require more of a process to extract the good stuff so I’ve got a lot of learning to do.

Mondays revisited

You might remember my post a few weeks ago with a desperate plea for suggestions on how to make our Monday school days less painful, and even a little bit fun! Thank you to all of you who responded with great ideas. My hope is that this blog isn’t simply a way for me to post pictures of my kids and “our perfect life”, but to be part of a supportive community that shares ideas, so thank you!

Last Monday I was sort of off the hook because it was Ila’s birthday and we had a day off school.  Yesterday was my first Monday with my new approach. I have decided to not even attempt to sit down at the table for school first thing.  I asked that the kids be completely ready: dressed, breakfasted, beds made and rooms tidied, and chores done by the time I got home at 8:30.  To my surprise they were actually ready so I took them out to Five Rivers Nature Center. We go there often so it is a place they are all very familiar with.

It was chilly and I wanted all the kids, including Kairav to walk the whole time, so we chose the short 1/2 mile Beaver Trail, which is loop around a pond, and then headed into the education center to watch the birds and look at the owl and the turtles.

We headed home around 10:00 to start the “school” day. I had laid out all of their materials before we left so the transition would be smooth. They had a quick snack  and got down to work with no complaining.

I think the fresh air and running around was a great way for everyone, myself included, to start the week.  We had a great Monday which I think will set us up for a good school week. The kids are excited to have a good week and keep reminding each other about staying focused so that I don’t yell. Even the little ones amused themselves and stayed (mostly) out of trouble.

In addition to starting the morning differently, I also spent about 1.5 hours at the library on Sunday afternoon laying out the whole week. If I start the week off with a solid, yet flexible, plan everything goes much better. I know exactly what I want to cover and have realistic expectations of the kids.  I decided to have a week of some inside reading and writing work, but a lot of outside hands on stuff.  The kids haven’t had a break week since Christmas, and I think we are all feeling a little bit burned out and ready for a break- which comes next week!

So this week we started the farming and gardening block with both Ishaan and Ulka. Ishaan will do a more detailed study of seed development, plant and flower structures, and pollination and both kids will keep a gardening journal and help with the planning and preparing of the garden. We started some seeds inside yesterday. Today we will turn the compost and start getting the garden ready for planting the greens and peas.

I am hopeful that this new way of entering into the school week will continue to work well for us. I feel bad that it took me so long to recognize that Monday mornings were a problem, but at least now I know and we can try to fix it.

Happy Spring to all of you.  Go plant a garden- in your yard, on your fire escape, on your window sill- where ever you can!

Anticipating Spring

I know I’ve said before that I don’t like winter, but I know that I have also talked about how I like the change of seasons- that I need each season to prepare for the next. This year we kept waiting for winter to arrive.

Normally the snowdrops start poking their little heads out of the ground while still covered with a blanket of snow. When the snow melts, exposing the snowdrops, the end of winter is in sight and spring is just around the corner. Since there was no snow this year, the snowdrops seemed to emerge in the middle of winter. I didn’t know if it was me or the flowers that were confused about the seasons!

I wasn’t ready for spring, we hadn’t had winter yet! The thought of preparing the garden and spring cleaning overwhelmed me. I wasn’t ready for all that. I hadn’t had  my time of winter dormancy. I feel like I need that  sleepy time of cold, snow, long nights, and cuddling down by the fire to fully appreciate the excitement of the coming of spring. Winter is a time of planning, and wondering, and pondering before the flurry of activity that the change of seasons brings.

I had just about given up on winter and was starting to wrap my head around the idea of spring when old mother nature finally delivered us the winter weather I needed. Leap day brought us 15 inches of snow. We immediately commenced all winter activities- snow day, sledding, snowball fights, shoveling, and hot chocolate with whipped cream.

We managed to squeeze in a whole season’s worth of winter into 24 hours. Then it rained and warmed up.

A week later we were out in the mud in 60 degree weather. But I got my winter, and now I am ready and eagerly anticipating the arrival of spring.

I’ll end here for I’m  off to order my garden seeds!

Overwintering Dahlias and Release the Lasagna!

I recently heard that Dahlia bulbs can be overwintered and planted again in the spring.  This came as good news to me as I’ve always treated dahlias as annuals.  I love them, so every summer I buy new plants and put them in the ground.  Saving the bulbs or tubers seems fairly easy and will save money that I can spend on some other new flowers for the garden!

The red and pale yellowish flowers are the Dahlias I am going to try to save.

There are a couple of different ways that I’ve read about to save the tubers, some more complicated than others. My life is a little hectic at the moment, so I’m going to choose the least complicated method I can find.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Dig bulbs or tubers up after frost has blackened foliage. Carefully remove as much soil as you can.
  2. Cut the leaves off, leaving a stem about an inch or two long. Leaves and stems are not needed, as the plants are going to be dormant and not making any growth through the winter.
  3. You can either carefully wash the soil off the tubers or bulbs, or just let it dry and work it off by hand later.
  4. Leave bulbs or tubers exposed to air in a frost-free place for a couple of weeks. Any remaining stem should be dry before going into storage, otherwise rot could develop.
  5. Store in vermiculite or dry peat (available at garden centers) in paper bags or cardboard boxes in a cool, frost-free place at 40 to 50°F (5-10°C).
  6. Dahlia tubers are prone to drying up somewhat, and these should be stored in slightly moistened peat moss. Check them through the winter, and if they’ve shriveled, moisten the peat moss. Some authorities suggest plumping shriveled dahlia bulbs up in a bucket of water overnight. If you do this, let them dry thoroughly before you put them back into storage.
So right now I am up to step 4- the bulbs are sitting in the mud room and will probably stay there for a couple of weeks until I get the vermiculite- or until my parents arrive for Thanksgiving and in a fit of cleaning I toss them in the basement.
When I read about lasagna gardening it sounded like a neat, earth-friendly and easy way to maintain a healthy garden and keep the weeds down. From my basic understanding of it, you pull out all the old dead plants and the weeds and  cover the ground with cardboard.  Then you put lots of dry leaves on top of the cardboard, and finally a thick layer of mulch. Then in the spring the under layers will have decomposed and you can just plant directly without tilling the soil.  Sounds easy enough.  I have been saving cardboard and being surrounded by tall trees we have no shortage of leaves. What I am short of right now though, is time.  With this big dormer addition project going on, bedding down the flower garden, raking, and Ulka’s birthday present to make, not to mention staying on top of homeschool and everything else, I had to let something go.  A very good friend of mine, Patti, taught me a valuable lesson that I think of in times like this.  When she feels overwhelmed and has too much on her t0-do list, she “releases” projects- and just like that, they’re gone! I love this idea and need to do it more often. So, lasagna gardening, I release you. Maybe next year we will revisit the idea, but for now I am off the hook. Thank you Patti!
I did cut down all the dead mums today. When the mums are done I know that winter is almost here. They are beautiful fall blooming mums and they help get be through that summer-fall transition.
 I started out with a pair of pruning shears and the task was a little overwhelming, so I went to the garage/ tool and bike shed to see what I could find that might make my work easier.  This is what I found:
I don’t know what it is, but it is heavy and sharp and made quick work of all those mums!

Garden Woes

Last summer we shared a large garden with my husband’s parents over at their place about 2 miles away.  They live next door to a farm and the farmer has generously given them a large area for their garden.  We grew just about everything you can think of and the spinach, chard, broccoli and beans that we froze lasted until this spring. But with four young children it was difficult for me to get over there as often as I wanted to help with the tending and weeding. This year we decided to have a smaller garden at our house. We have a lovely and shady backyard so we put our garden in the front-side yard. We dug out all the vinca ground cover, rototilled, added compost and built a 7 foot mesh fence to keep out the deer.

The garden is ready for planting

We planted lettuce, spinach, chard, broccoli, peas, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. We weeded and watched and things started to grow! The spinach failed but everything else was doing well. We were eating fresh lettuce everyday and were waiting for the peas to get just a little bigger before picking them.  The fence was doing a good job of keeping out the deer -not the rabbits! I went out one morning to check the garden and all of the peas were gone. peas, plants, all.  We secured the fence and hoped for the best.  Two days later, all the lettuce was gone.  We put wooden boards all around the garden and secured the fence.  We went camping for the weekend and when we came back the rabbits had feasted on the broccoli. They had chewed a hole through the fence. On top of it the tomatoes have blight and are rotting as they ripen. I am pretty heartbroken about the garden failure, but my Andy keeps reminding me that we still have chard and we’ve learned a lot for next year. We still do have zucchini, butternut squash and potatoes in another part of the yard and an herb garden that is surviving – I am still hopeful for those.  And my in-laws still have their beautiful pest free garden so we still get garden fresh produce, but if anyone has a good rabbit repellent idea let me know!