Plan to Eat Local Food

I live in a small Midwestern town, and this part of the world can grow amazing food.  There are gardeners and farmers nearby selling food that is fresh, flavorful, and grown with consideration for the environment.  I also have a home garden.  I consider it my mission to feed my family well.  It takes some doing, but you can take your own local food journey too.  Maybe you're already on the road.  Let's walk awhile together.  
My little home vegetable garden and our fruit trees provides some of the food my family eats in a year, but we rely on our local farmers to keep our pantry stocked.  Learning how to put food by, eat what's in season, and cook with what's available locally is a way to support the health of my family, community, and the environment.  

The best place to start buying local food is the Farmers' Market.  There you will find both folks who care about eating local food and the people who grow and sell it.  There's a whole community in those stands and booths.  A fun exercise, is to bring your market bag or basket and look for all the makings of a meal.

It may seem like late winter is a hard time to eat local, and that's true there isn't as much available; your Farmers' Market may even be shut down for the year. Instead of trying to go all out, 100% locavore this week, now is the time to make a plan.

I should note, my family doesn't eat 100% local. We probably vary between eating 50-80% local depending on the time of the year. I have two children and the convenience of box crackers and tubs of yogurt are things I have yet to step away from. Local food doesn't have to be all or nothing. I say this to you, but I am also saying it to myself, it is okay to not have every meal be local. Being 100% local isn’t always feasible, but that doesn’t mean that doing what you can doesn’t make a difference. Every bit counts and what you or I are able to do year to year will vary. There is grace in accepting this, while still striving to find farmers nearby that work for your situation.  Be ready to take local food opportunities when they appear. Do what you can and make it work for you and your family and next year will be different. Learn as you go. It will get easier with experience.

Low hanging fruit - Simple changes that you can implement today

Before I figured out preserving food, I would make purchase like this every couple weeks from a local farm store: potatoes, onions, garlic, lettuce mix, Delicata and butternut squash, carrots, eggs, and meat. 

A weekly trip to the farmers' market or co-op is a great way to get committed.  Prioritize in-season items.  Focus your meals around what's fresh.  There are certain staple items that always seem to be available in some form: onions, salad greens, potatoes and eggs.  Make a commitment to yourself to buy as much of your grocery list at the market before moving on to a big box grocery store.  And going as long as you can between big box visits will help you plan better and reduce your dependency on imported foods.  

Some of the local food in my pantry: cornmeal, honey, black beans, black walnuts,
lentils, popcorn, maple syrup, wild rice, rolled oats and wheat flour.  

Stock up on dry goods: things like dry beans, flour, oats, honey, corn meal and popcorn can often be bought at the market or straight from the farmer.  Work towards filling your pantry with locally available options, especially the those most used items.  


Switching to local fats was a hard step to get my brain around, but in effect it was easy.  L
ocally available fats for us are sunflower oil and lard.  Lard is my favorite for high temperature cooking, sauteing veggies and frying eggs.  It is important to know your farmer, and buy lard from pasture raised pigs, who aren't being fed chemical laced grains or growth hormones because those things concentrate in fat.  There are other animal fats like tallow, smultz and duck fat that are also delicious and maybe available.  Many farmers don't advertise their fats, so you might have to ask.  Animal fat isn't great for all culinary uses; I still buy high quality, organic, olive oil for making salad dressings.   

Get yourself in the right head space  

Accept that some food will go bad before you eat it.  You will get better at managing that.  When you buy food weekly from a grocery store, you can be diligent about eating what you buy.  However, this ease is because the store is taking on the burden of dealing with the spoiled food.  And they are not doing a good job.  A report from April 2018, shows grocery store food waste in the chart below. "An estimated 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is wasted every year." 
Find the whole report here. 

Understand, you will do your best to eat the onions before they start growing, and drink fresh milk before it sours, and eat all that zucchini you froze.  Anytime I add a new food preservation method to my repertoire it takes a bit to get it right and working for our household.  I over-cooked my first round of maple syrup, had a bushel of potatoes grow roots two feet long, and made salsa so spicy it couldn't be eaten.  It's part of learning and that's why I have a compost pile.  (BTW start a compost pile.)  Know that whatever your food losses are, they are probably better than what the grocery store is doing. 

Plan to eat local

I approach dinner with the goal of one protein, one green vegetable, one grain/starch, with a fruit at the end. And that is very possible to do with local food when I plan.  It is a matter of combining what's available with what my family will eat.

Some of our staple dinners are: 

Local snacking/lunch:


How to get a started 

Graduating from eating fresh produce only in its peak during the summer to year-round, is a matter of planning and preparation.  It requires wading into home food preservation and storage.  I have a series on this blog showing how I made my first Plan to Preserve it has three parts: 1, 2, and 3.  If you are looking for a detailed "how to put food by", check it out.

If you are a beginner, start looking for the tools that will make preserving local food easier like a chest freezer, dehydrator, pantry shelving, and a pressure or water bath canner. (Space saving tip: many pressure canners can double as water bath canners.)

Having ways to preserve produce and a place to store food is key to eating local every day of the year.  It doesn't have to be fancy.  I've store sweet potatoes under my desk and jars of tomatoes on top of the refrigerator.  Most of the supplies I acquired over the years second-hand from my local thrift stores and Craig's List/Facebook Market Place.  And old fashion kitchen gadgets like food mills and counter top grinders can be found much less expensively on eBay than Amazon.

Many foods are easily stored frozen.  A chest freezer will also buy you time; freeze things until you can process them for canning.  There are some very efficient freezers out there; look for ones with energy star ratings and the chest style, over upright freezers.  If you freeze mostly for winter, consider only running your freezer in the seasons when you are storing the most food (usually late summer into fall) and consolidating your freezer items to unplug the extra freezers as you no longer need them.  Also, to consider, freezers use less energy when they are full, so filling up empty space with cooked food like beans, broth and precooked meals is being a smart locavore.

All of this, plus another bushel of sweet potato and the kombota squash and pumpkins, were put in my cellar (i.e. coal shoot) this fall.  

Root cellaring is one of the most eco-friendly ways to store food.  There's no energy used to boil or freeze.  Just using the natural coolness and humidity of the earth, food will hold for months.  I use the old coal shoot in our basement as our cellar.   I have also used an unheated room in the house.  The most common place I hear people using as a cellar are attached, unheated garages.  I've also heard of folks using an old well, or a five-gallon bucket dug into the earth, below the frost line and covered with a bale of straw.  The main requirements are cool (40-50 degrees F), dark, and high humidity.  If you are using an in ground earth cellar these requirements will naturally be met.  Winter squash and sweet potatoes prefer slightly warmer conditions (55-65 degrees F). I've have held pumpkins and winter squash on my dining room sideboard for ten months with no problems.  Root cellaring is surprisingly easy and useful!

A good place to get your feet wet, is to make something you know your family will enjoy eating.  Might I suggest going to a u-pick berry place and then making jam.  If you don't have a water bath canner, you could make freezer jelly. You only need a large pot and a stove.  The packets of pectin are sold with recipes for most fruit preserves and offer several ways to make jam and jelly.

As tax season comes up, one of the things you could do with your tax return is set yourself up to eat more local food.  You could invest in a CSA share, Milk or Meat Share. Or consider buying half a hog or quarter beeve to have high quality meat in your freezer, or maybe this year, just buy the freezer.  

Ways into the local food scene

A lot of eating local depends on making connections in your community.  Knowing your farmers, your growers, your co-op managers by name is valuable.  Not just because they will let you know when there is a good deal to be had, but they will be your friends and allies. 

Attend your area's Local Food Forum to meet fellow locavores.  Hopefully some of you made it over here to my blog because I met you at the Northeast Indiana Food Forum or FED Expo.  Hello!

Farmer's Market - Again I think this is one of the best places to see what's happening around you.  If the seller isn't too busy, ask them questions about what they are growing and why.  How the weather is effecting their crops.  Ask if they will sell you quantities for canning or preserving, or for specific items you might need for a recipe.  If you know you are going to make pickles next week, ask if they can bring you a handful of dill flower buds.  


Workshare at a farm - I cold called a farm when we first moved here and asked if I could work for food, they were happy to have me work one day a week in exchange for veggies.  The second farm I work for, I met at the Farmer's Market and another I met through Master Gardeners.  I have weeded, harvested, washed, packaged and mostly weeded in exchange for meat, eggs, grains, veggies and fruit.  It's been a great way to get gardening experience and a wonderful bonus is farmers often give me veggies that are over-ripe, a little damaged, or wouldn't hold to make it to market.  That's how I get all the peppers I freeze for winter.  Another place many farms need help with is selling at market.  It is much easier to set up and tear down a booth at market with at least two people.  Especially when there is lots of heavy produce to move in August - September, farmers are often grateful for extra hands.   

Go to on the farm events - many farms have regular farm tours, or you can schedule a tour for your group or school.  Farms also host fundraising meals, summer pizza nights, hoop moves, or mixers.  Farmers need their local community and they actively work to grow it. 

Visit farm stores and roadside stands - In Indiana, on-the-farm stores are a practical way for small farms to sell their products.  Especially if there is a stand on your way to another place you frequent, stop by and get a dozen ears of corn, some meat for the week or a dozen eggs.  Most of these farm stores only accept cash or check.  You can see who's around you on Local Harvest.

Extension services from your state - if you are looking to learn more home food preservation skills, your county extension agency is a useful resource.  They are up on all the current USDA recommendations and their advice will be tailored to your location.  Extension programs like Master Gardeners, Master Naturalist and 4-H Programs are full of people who care about local food.

The National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia's website is a place I frequent for recipes and instructions on canning, freezing and dehydrating.  

Use social media to find other like minded folks - I don't feel so alone in my local food journey when I look at my Instagram feed.  It is full of folks near and far who care about eating local.  The most interesting accounts are run by people who live in my region.  I particularly watch the farmers and gardeners just south of us because they are usually operating a couple weeks ahead seasonally, and I can see when they get their first tomato, or dig their potatoes, or take their first berries to market.  And Facebook is often where my local farmers will announce new arrivals in their stores,or let me know I need to get to market early if I want a bag of lettuce this week.  Plus they often share recipes and how they are enjoying the season's bounty.

To find these folks, search regional hashtags and look up your regional aggregators.  For instance if you have a regional Edible Magazine, they will often highlight local food and if your farmer's market or co-op runs an account those are good places to follow. 

You can follow me at FoyUpdate on Instagram and FoyUpdate on Facebook.  :)  And we can keep walking down the local food road together.  

At the risk of putting too many links in this post, here are some additional articles on my blog that might be of interest:


Garden Plan for 2019

This time of year I sit down and look over my notes from last season’s vegetable garden, and come up with a plan for this year’s garden.  I have 480 square feet of garden space.  My goal for this part of our yard is to grow food for my family.  In particular; I am looking to grow vegetable varieties I can’t get from my local farmers. I grow red and blue potatoes for this reason.  I also grow paste tomatoes for canning and cherry tomatoes for dehydrating, winter squash and onions for the root cellar and herbs that I want to make into pesto or chimichurri sauces.   I don't have to grow everything, nor do I have space to grow all the vegetables my family eats.  My garden is a foil to what the local farmers are growing.

One of our nearby farmers, RiverRige,  grows greens, carrots, and radishes year-round so I don’t bother planting those.  Through my work on the farms, I get plenty of sweet pepper seconds (too damaged to sell) to freeze.  And I work for a CSA share in the summer and fall that adds more variety to our diet.

In our yard and gardens, we do not use chemicals, instead relying on soil building through compost, cover crops, and mulch to add nutrients and organic matter.  Pest control is through physical barriers, hot pepper powder, and hand removal.  My choice of vegetables is also influenced by what grows well with these methods.

Evaluating Last Year's Garden (2018)

Planting Timing: We were on top of things during planting season last year.  The seed potatoes and onions sets went in the ground April 20.  Tomatoes were planted May 10. We got a nice soaking rain right after planting and no late freezes.  As a result we had some of the first tomatoes in town. We direct seeded the zucchini, cucumber, squash and annual herbs May 15.   It doesn’t get much better than that.  We will see if the stars align again this year.

Mulch Earlier: The onions suffered from lack of moister and didn’t get very big.  I need to be more on top of mulching them.  That will help hold the irrigation water in the ground.  We add compost to each garden bed every other year so, we continue to build the soil, but it is slow going.  I missed getting straw and had to scramble for a different mulch and got grass clippings on too late.  Tomatoes had a similar problem.  I used newspaper with grass clippings on top to mulch, which did create a weed barrier and held in some moisture. Ideally the mulch would go one when the seeds go in the ground.  I found I prefer leaf mold, straw or grass clippings over the newspaper.

I used cardboard along the edges of the sweet potatoes and that proved to be disastrous because a vole took up residence and nibbled about a third of our harvest.  This coming year, I will be on top of procuring mulch!

Pest Management: Our tomatoes didn’t have any strange malaise this year.  The newspaper mulch may have also acted as a barrier to keep soil born disease off the leaves.  We did outsmart the cutworms using collars made from old yogurt containers to create a physical barrier, so they couldn’t snip off the cucumber, zucchini or squash seedlings.  However, we did have issues with bunnies and  vine borer.  I taught myself how to find the borer eggs on the base of the stem just below ground level.  I scouted regularly for tell tale holes with mush coming out to find a new one starting up.  Because I didn’t start scouting before there were problems, I lost some zucchini and squash plants.  This year I should start checking earlier around mid-June.  Since I was hunting for squash bugs, I caught the potato bugs early and they did very little damage.

Garlic Seed: The garlic harvest was a decent; I put 65 heads in the cellar this year. I save my own seed, meaning I plant cloves from the previous year’s harvest. The last couple years I have planted 100 cloves of garlic and yielded a little less than that many heads. I held back roughly 20 of the biggest heads, broke them up and counted out 100 cloves to plant in the fall.  I read that I should also be using the biggest cloves from the biggest heads.  I tried that with the garlic I planted this fall.  (I had been using all the cloves from the biggest heads.)  We will see if it makes a difference.  I wound up with a lot of small cloves left over, which I pealed and kept in the fridge and cooked with them over the next couple weeks.

Winter Squash: I grew ‘Sunshine’ kombota squash this year which are an All American Selection Winner variety.  I loved them.  They grew beautifully, were mildew and bug resistant, compact (for a vine), produced 3-4 squash per plant, are tasty, pretty, and a good size for a family of four to eat in one meal.  Despite the warning that as a mini kombota squash they won’t hold as well, mine lasted four months after harvest. Only drawback is they are F1 hybrids and I can’t save the seeds.  Still, ten out of ten, would grow again.

I also grew several varieties of pumpkins from seed exchanges.  I lost a number of the vines early to squash borer.  I grew them on the side of the compost pile rather than in the garden and I didn’t pay as much attention to them.  Despite my neglect, we did get 14 huge ‘Connecticut Field Squash’ which it turns out are carving pumpkins (technically edible).  We had a big pumpkins carving party and all but one I saved back, became decor for the season.  In addition to the jack-o- lanterns, I also got one ‘Musque de Provence’ pumpkin, which is still looking pretty on the side board and we haven’t eaten it yet.

Potatoes: I was happy with the potatoes.  I left them in the ground for a month after their tops died and I think I had extra scabby potatoes as a result.  Scab is a bacterial disease that makes rough patches on potato skin.  They tasted fine, and I saved the clean potatoes for seed.

Additions or changes for this year:

I’m adding another big bed, or at least that’s what I hope to do; time and weather allowing.  I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer last spring and she talks about the Three Sisters farming method and I’d like to create a bed 11x11 feet, north of the existing garden to give that a go.

I tried to find what seeds would have been traditionally grown in this manner and I couldn’t find any that were suitable to our Midwestern climate.  Most of the information I was finding was for the Southwest (https://www.nativeseeds.org/learn/nss-blog/415-3sisters). I went the Seed Savers Exchange website and chose varieties that met the requirements: tall corn that stays standing like popcorn or flint/cornmeal (not sweet) so the stalks stay standing for the beans to climb; vining beans and any small variety of winter squash seems to do, small fruit size is important so the vines don't pull own the corn or beans.  I decided to go with all open-pollinated varieties with some history.

  • Mandan Bride Corn - Attributed to the Mandan tribe of North Dakota; this Native American flour corn was planted by Mandan women along with beans, sunflowers, and squash. This corn with its colorful autumnal kernels, some of which are striped, can be used in fall displays or ground into corn meal. Plants will produce several 6-8” ears on 6’ plants
  • Hidatsa Shield Bean - From the Hidatsa tribe who raised corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers in the Missouri River Valley of North Dakota. Shield Figure beans are described in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden (1917). This very productive variety was boarded onto Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste in 2005. Pole habit, dry, 90 days.
  • Sibley Squash - Introduced by Hiram Sibley and Co. of Rochester, New York in 1888. Superb banana squash with thick sweet flesh. James J. H. Gregory found it simply “magnificent.” Winner of the SSE staff taste test in 2014. Hard-rinded, inversely pear shaped, excellent keeper.

List of Seeds, Starts and Sets

Here’s what I will plant in this year’s garden:

Basil (32 seeds)
‘Sunshine’ Kombota squash (9seeds)
Sweet Potatoes (12 slips)
Cucumber ‘Harmony’ (6 seeds)
Paste Tomatoes (12)
Slicer Tomatoes (2)
Red Cherry Tomatoes (2)
‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes (4)
Cilantro (12)
Dill (6)
Parsley (12)
Zucchini (8)
Keeper yellow onions like ‘Patterson’ or ‘Copra’ (2 x 50 onion sets)
Keeper red onions like ‘Redwing’ (1 x 50 onion set)
Garlic (100 cloves)
Fingerling potato ‘Magic Molly’ (12 seed potatoes)
Potato ‘Adirondack Red’ (14 seed potatoes)
Potato ‘Adirondack Blue’ (12 seed potatoes)
Potato ‘Bora Valley’ (14 seed potatoes)
Flint Corn ‘Mandan Bride’ flint corn (Three Sisters)
‘Hidatsa Shield Bean’ vining dry bean (Three Sisters)
‘Sibley’ Hubbard squash (Three Sisters)

Crop Rotation

I have four garden beds of equal size so rotation is pretty straight forward.  I have a note card where I keep track of the previous years, so I can see where the different plant families were over the years.  I also consider which beds were composted in the fall.  We compost half the garden each year.  Tomatoes and squash do well in compost that isn’t all the way decomposed yet where as onions and potatoes do well in beds that were composted the year before.  We don’t till, per say, but digging potatoes and sweet potatoes definitely turns the soil and plants like onions do well in loose soil.  If you are interested in crop rotation Jean-Martin Fortier does a comprehensive look crop rotation and soil fertility in his book The Market Gardener. He has a ten year plan.  My plan is imperfect, I do the best I can and learn as I go.

Draft the Garden Plan

With crop rotation figured out, I print out a map of my garden and, using a pencil, draft in where each plant will go.  It’s important to use a pencil because garden plans should be flexible and inevitably something won’t grow, or be in stock or you’ll see some intriguing plant at the farmers market and plants will change.

I have my own short hand I use for garden mapping.  A dot indicates a singular seed and an x indicates a hill with three seeds.  A circle around the dot or x means I should use a collar around my seeds to keep cutworm out.

Place Seed and Plant Order

The last step is to order what I will need for this year’s garden.

I will buy the tomatoes plants from our local hardware store. They get a decent variety and I don’t have the space/equipment to start my own seeds.  I don’t order those now.

I have lots of seeds from last year; including seed potatoes, and for the first time, I am going to try starting my own sweet potato slips.

That means just the Three Sisters seeds need to be bought from Seed Savers. And the onion sets will be bought from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I prefer to buy from as few places as possible to cut down on shipping, but Seed Savers doesn’t sell onion sets and Johnny’s doesn’t have the Native American Heirloom seed I’m looking for.

Order completed and has already arrived.

And now I'm ready for April when the onions and potatoes will be ready to put in the ground.


Annual Report on the Vegetable Garden and Harvest - 2018 Growing Season

This last week I've been sitting down with all the notes, images, and maps from last year's annual vegetable garden, and seeing how we did.  According to my list of what we produced and stored, this year has been the most productive year yet for our 480 square feet.  It is hard to make a meal these days that doesn't contain something from our garden.

There will be a spread sheet at the end of this post showing what we have put by every year since 2012.

Potatoes - 1.5 bushels

Of our four main beds, one was dedicated to potatoes.  We saved our seed potatoes from last year.  The same varieties as last year:
  • Bora Valley (mostly blue flesh), 
  • Magic Molly (dark blue flesh fingerling), 
  • Adirondack Red (pink flesh), 
  • Adirondack Blue (blue flesh),
Plus one bonus variety.  In late spring, when our eating potatoes had run out, I bought some delicious red fingerling potatoes from RiverRidge Farm and liked them so well I saved two for planting.  
  • AmaRosa (red flesh fingerling) 
We didn't have huge potato yields.  And there was scab on almost all of the tubers. Probably do to a mid-season drought, combined with me leaving them in the ground well after they had died back and it was quite wet during that period.    I may buy new potatoes to get clean stock.  I do crop rotation, so hopefully I can keep scab from infecting all the beds.

Tomatoes - 9 qts, 43 pts sauces, salsas and soup, plus 4 gals dehydrated

This was a tough year for tomatoes because when there was heat there was no water, and then vise-versa.  Thanks in part to a lucky planting time combined with irrigation our tomatoes were ripening earlier than in my friends' gardens.  We had a decent yield, I didn't keep track of the number of bushels.  The first cherry toms were harvested around the Fourth of July.

As we started harvesting more tomatoes than we could eat fresh, I threw the surplus in the freezer.  I had enough frozen tomatoes to make a batch of pressure-canned tomato soup the first week of August.  Then at the end of the month paste tomatoes came on and I started canning salsas.  I have not loved my homemade salsas in the past, so I spent some time hunting down a cooked salsa recipe to pressure can that wasn't overly acidic or watery, or lacking flavor.  I found a good recipe that involves making the tomatoes into sauce and cooking the sauce down before adding the onions, peppers, garlic and vinegar.  While I dislike the tone of the blogger, his recipe is good: Thick and Chunky Home Canned Salsa.  I also took a stab at hot-sauce and made three different recipes.  Although, I didn't grow the peppers, so I'll save that for another post.

From July until our first freeze on October 16, I cut cherry tomatoes in half and dehydrated them.  Most of them came from our garden, and some came home from the farms when they had split ones or had more than they could sell.  Four gallons of dehydrated tomatoes were put into freezer bags and squirreled away for winter. These are still one of my favorite things we produce for ourselves.

Onions - a light bushel of 'Copra' yellow keeper onions and a peck of red 'Redwing' keeper onions

The same weather that held the tomatoes back, was bad for the onions.  I did have irrigation to supplement our paltry rain fall, but I didn't get straw as I had planned (I waited too long and then no one around me had any).  By the time I got some grass clippings to use, it was too late and the tops had started falling over.  Out at Joyfield Farm, I was helping bring in their harvest of softball size onions, while mine were more like a tennis or racket ball size.  I yielded about a light bushel of yellow 'Copra' storage onions and peck of red 'Redbull' storage onions.  That's not enough to feed our family through the winter, so I got an additional bushel of 'Patterson' from Joyfield.

Garlic - 65 heads

The garlic finished before the onions, I pulled our 100 heads on July 8th.  They were a decent size.  I saved the biggest cloves and planted them for next year's harvest at the end of September.  The remaining 65 heads should see us through to spring.

Cucumbers/Dill - 4 quarts pickles

I planted two hills of 'Harmony' cucumbers.  This is a variety I enjoy because it is both good for eating and pickling.  The spines are small and rub off easily when the cucumber is washed.  I didn't put up a lot of pickles, because we still had some left over from last year.  I did try fermenting a quart and those turned out well. We had more cucumbers than we could eat and when they were really coming in we shared the abundance with friends.

I planted a four foot row of dill and let a few volunteers plants grow in the garden.  I like using the dill flower heads when they are still budded for pickling.  That way the pollen doesn't discolor the brine.  We also eat fresh dill in potato salad and other dishes while we have it. 

Then towards the end of the season we start seeing black swallowtail butterflies visit. I look forward to finding the little striped caterpillars and don't mind that they eat the plants.  I bring in a vase of dill (or other carrot family) leaves in and we watch the caterpillars munch on the dining room table.  Just be aware that when they are ready to form a chrysalis they want to wander to find a safe spot. To keep them from going adventuring, I move them to a jar with a lid that has air holes poked in it.  Add a stick and dill leaves and we wait to watch it transform into a chrysalis.  A couple weeks later and you'll have a butterfly to release.  At the end of the season, those last caterpillars will overwinter in their chrysalis.  We still have two on our sideboard waiting for spring.

Basil - 10 batches of pesto

The other herb I grow in abundance is basil.  I allot a four by four square foot space that has about 16 plants in it.  In a good year, we can grow more than we can use.  My preferred variety is a classic 'Genovese' basil with its big leaves.

I have a kiddo who has sensitive skin and acid food like tomato sauce will burn his skin (and his whole digestive track).  Instead of the kid classic spaghetti and meatballs, we eat basil pesto on noodles at least two or three times a month.  This same kid is also allergic to tree nuts and peanuts, so he also gets sunflowers seeds or nothing and everyone else eats black walnut ground walnuts with their pesto. 

I went a little overboard last year and made 50 batches of pesto.  Follow this link to see how I batch freeze pesto.  We ate about 30 batches last year before we had fresh garden pesto.  This year I only needed to put by about ten batches of pesto for the winter.

The Japanese beetles found the basil in August, and we spent time hand removing them.  Picking them off the plants and then dropping them in a bucket of soapy water.  Once we had a few, they seemed to attract more and soon the plants were covered with them.  We sprayed the plant with a diluted vinegar solution in the evenings to rinse off whatever the bugs release to attract more beetles.  Basil is sensitive and I don't recommend spraying the leaves when direct sun is hitting the plants or when it is above 85 degrees.

Squash - 15 'Sunshine', 11 'Connecticut Field Squash', 1 'Musquee de Provence'

Hawkins Family Farm grew 'Sunshine' squash for their CSA in 2017 and I loved them.  They are three to four pounds each, one is a perfect size for our family to eat.  I grew three hills with 2-3 plants in each.  The plants had a little trouble with vine borer, but I used tweezers to pick out the ones I saw and all the plants made it.  We harvested 15 kabocha squash.  It is the end of January, and there are two left and they are starting to get soft spots.  They stored about four months.

From the Super Duper Seed Swap I got several different kinds of pumpkins.  Some didn't make it because of borer damage.  The Connecticut Field Squash took over and we got 11 large carving pumpkins.  The Musquee de Provence pumpkin got a late start and only one large pumpkin made it to maturity.  It is still sitting on the side board.

I didn't grow any butternut squash which are long keepers, so I got a dozen from Joyfield Farm that are still holding in the basement.  They will be eaten when the 'Sunshine' runs out.

As for zucchini, we lost several to vine borer and replanted.  We got enough fresh zukes to satiate.  I have frozen them in the past, but struggled to use them and chose not to put any by this year.

Sweet potatoes - half bushel

We had some problems with a vole nibbling the sweet potatoes.  I expected to yield about a bushel, but we had about half that.  They have been holding well in the basement root cellar.  I got an additional bushel from Joyfield to keep us going through the winter.  For the first time I have held back some sweet potatoes and I'll try to grow my own slips this year.

Green Beans - none

We had bunnies nibble on our 'Blue Lake' green beans and snip the shoots.  All this rodent damage is new to us.  Our cat, who was once a great mouser, is aging and the critters are finding their way into the garden.  Once other things got growing the bunnies let alone the beans enough for them to get vining.  We ate what few pounds of them we got fresh and didn't have enough to freeze.  (I didn't miss having them frozen.)

Closing Thoughts

It was a good garden year.  We are honing in on what the family wants to eat through the winter.  If we don't get enough of something, I place an order with a local farmer in July or August to get enough for the winter.  And if there is extra we share with friends and neighbors.  Now it is normal to go to the basement for onions and garlic to start dinner and open a can of our sauce when we make pizza.  It feels good to know where our food comes from.  I am happy to grow food without chemicals, that travels zero miles, and I know is grown in a way that builds soil.  Good food from our land for our table.


Tapping Our One Sugar Maple

How to tap one maple tree for funsies:

This is an enjoyable project for kids or someone interested in the experience of tapping a maple to collect sap and make a little bit (less than a gallon) of maple syrup.  It will be easiest if you have a maple tree in your yard or a place you can easily check a couple times a day.  Ideally, the tree would be a sugar maple.  You can also tap red or silver maples, walnuts, hickory and birch. Although these trees have less sugar concentration and it will take more work and fuel to reduce the sap to syrup.  

We have a large sugar maple in our front yard.  It's probably close to the age of the housel: 120-ish years old.  We purchased a metal spile (aka tap or spout) from the internet. You might luck out and get supplies from your local hardware or farm store. The rest of the equipment we had on hand or we could improvise.

When to Tap

When the nights are below freezing, but the days are above freezing the sap flows. This year those days started in mid-January here in Northern Indiana.  We didn't' get our tap inserted until late February because the spile was my Valentine's Day present. (It was an excellent present!) The season usually ends in mid-March.

The March full moon is known as the Maple Sugar Moon or Sugaring Moon.

Where to Tap

The best placement of your tap is on the north side of the tree where the winter sun will warm the trunk and help the sap flow.  Choose a place above a large root or under a large branch.  Then, 2-5 feet from the ground place your spile.  If you are using a tube attached to the spile consider the distance the spile is from where the collection bucket will sit.  We wanted to be able to see the spile from our window kitchen window so we situated the tap on the southeast side of the tree.

How to Tap

Use a drill with a 7/16 or 5/16 inch bit and make a hole that angles slightly up into the tree about two inches deep.  Use a rubber mallet or hammer to tap the spile securely into the tree. Don't get carried away hammering or you could break your spile and damage the tree.  Then attach the collecting container and you're ready to go.  You may or may not see sap immediately depending on the day.

Collecting Sap

The first run we had lasted about a week and we got about 20 gallons of sap from our one tap.  At first, we tried using a plastic gallon jug (the bottle white vinegar came in), but it fell off overnight with the weight of all the sap.  We considered putting a nail in the tree above the tap and tying a string between the nail and the handle of the jug.  Instead, Jeff made a catch with a cleaned-out hummus container and some of his beer siphoning hose and a bucket.  This allowed us to catch up to five gallons of sap at a time, and there were some days we needed that much of a reservoir.

In hind sight, I wish we had bought the plastic spile that comes with a couple feet of tubing, but our metal spile with hummus container rigged worked too.  And it was fun to watch the sap drip.  We know the neighbors driving by also enjoyed it as we have wheel tracks in the mud next to the tree.  Since it tends to rain/snow/wintery mix during the tapping season, covering the collection bucket is a must.  A hole in the lid of the bucket to insert the tube, is an easy way to keep your sap covered.  If you want to buy a complete kit something like this will have all you need.


Evaporating Sap

When the sap was running, I poured it into the evaporating pot twice a day.  I used our biggest pot, which we use for making stock and beer.  I kept it on the stove, and when we were home (and awake) it was on at a medium heat (just under a simmer) and evaporated the water.

Sugar maple sap is two percent sugar.  That means for every forty cups (two and a half gallons) of sap you will cook down one cup of syrup.  For the eight cups of finished syrup we made, I evaporated 20 gallons of water into our house.  There were days the windows were streaming with moisture. We kept the hood fan running, the fan on our furnace running and the ceiling fan in the kitchen whirling to help keep the moisture from condensing on the ceiling creating indoor rain.  And this is why folks who make a lot of syrup have outdoor evaporator set-ups or a sugar shack.

As we collected sap, I continued to top off the evaporating pot.  I've been told to expect a sticky residue around the stove, but I haven't noticed that yet.  I would guess that keeping the temperature below boiling so the action of bubbling doesn't throw sugar water into the air helped.  

Our first five-gallons of sap, we reduced and then forgot about it on the stove until it started to smell like caramel and had become a dark maple taffy.  We poured the bubbling stuff out onto silicone mats and let it cool in long pools of thick sugar which turned grainy a couple days later.  

After that we go smarter and 
A. Did a larger batch, reducing 15-gallons of sap to yield  six-cups of syrup, which is easier to keep track of temperature-wise and
B. Paid closer attention once the boiled down sap was near done
To make maple syrup on your stove, take out your biggest, widest, heavy-bottomed pot.  If you aren't a beer maker or canner this might be your Dutch oven, roaster or a soup pot.  You want it large to hold the volume, wide for the greatest surface area for evaporation, and heavy-bottomed to evenly distribute the heat, so hot spots don't form and scorch your syrup before it is syrup.  Then turn on all your fans, and patiently evaporate.

We were having a good run of syrup, getting more than five gallons a day from our tree and with the stove on most of the day, we could keep up evaporating.

Storing Sap

If you have more sap than you can keep up with, store it covered, somewhere cool, like the back of your unheated garage or in the shade with snow packed around it.

If any ice forms in your container, use a clean hand to break it our and remove it, because the ice has almost no sugar in it.  Alternatively, you could pour the sap through a sieve to remove the ice.  Native Americans hollowed out birch trees and poured the sap into the long troughs to increase the surface area and freeze the water out of sap, reducing the amount of heating required to make syrup.

We also enjoyed drinking the sap.  It is delightfully cold when just collected.  I tried using it to make coffee and tea as well.  Ginger sap tea was my favorite.  

Finishing the Syrup

Once we could see the color of the sap change to amber in the evaporating pot, we knew we were close to syrup.  I sterilized my funnel, a rubber scraper, glass jars and canning lids by running them through the high-heat setting on my dishwasher, (you could also dip them in boiling water).  Once I had my jarring stuff prepped, I moved the almost finished sap to a smaller deep pot (a Calphalon 8-Quart Multi Pot).

It helps to have a tall pot when the sugar starts frothing, and the higher walls can support the thermometer.  The serious sugarers use a hydrometer to measure when all the water is out of the syrup.  For the amateur, just-for-fun sugarer, an instant read thermometer or candy thermometer works fine.  You want to heat your syrup 6-7 degrees above boiling. For most of us below 1000 ft sea level, that is 218-219 degrees Fahrenheit.

Filtering the Syrup

As the season went on, our finished syrup would be cloudy at the bottom.  It tastes fine, but isn't a beautiful transparent amber that we think of maple syrup being.  To make the syrup clearer we filtered it.  I first tried a coffee filter, but it was so slow.  Using hot syrup does help it move through quicker, but eventually the filter gets gummed up and even hot syrup moves slowly and then cools in the funnel further elongating the process.

For our second attempt, I used some unbleached muslin fabric to line a larger sieve.  Any tight weave cotton or natural fiber would probably be effective.  My sister told me the old-timers in her part of Minnesota remember using wool filters.  The fabric with a larger, surface area sieve, was more efficient.  I dipped hot syrup off the stove and poured it into the filter where it drained into a large measuring cup.  Once it was all filtered.  I scraped out the empty pot (lots of froth was left around the walls) and then returned the now beautiful clear syrup to the pot to heat it for hot packing.

How to Hot-pack Your Syrup

When the syrup has reached 218 degrees, take it off the boil and pour it quickly into your jars through a funnel and cap them. You don't want the temperature of the syrup to fall below 180 degrees so that the jar will self-seal and be sterile.  This finished syrup will keep at room temperature. After you open the jar store it in the refrigerator.

Alternatively, you could pour your syrup into a clean container and freeze it or keep it in if the refrigerator to use immediately.  Also, note if you freeze syrup, leave a little head space (half to one inch) for it to expand.

Here are the six pints pint jars of syrup ready to go down to the basement pantry.  The bottle will go in our refrigerator for immediate use on pancakes.

Hooray we have made our own maple syrup from our own tree!

How do you stop tapping a tree?  When do you stop tapping maples?  

After much googling and questioning of more accomplished maple syrup makers, I have learned to look for these signs:
  • The sap slows down or stops
  • The nights are no longer below freezing or the days are above 60 degrees F
  • The buds break on the tree (flowers or leaves)
  • The sap becomes milky
If you don't stop tapping when you should the resulting syrup could taste "buddy" or "green".  Maple syrup also turns a darker color the longer the season goes.  

To untap the tree, pull the spile out without wiggling it around, and creating a larger wound.  Then leave it be.  Do not plug or fill the hole.  The tree's ability to heal itself is better than anything we humans can do.  

Next year, place the tap at least six inches away from last year's hole.