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Home Beekeeping

Few gardening-related hobbies are as fascinating and satisfying as raising honey bees. Contribute to the health of your area's honey bee population. Buy this guide to learning bee culture and start your own bee hives.

Garden Chickens

Raise adoring pets that pay you back with delicious and nutritious fresh eggs. This offer provides all the information you need to get started with your own backyard chickens. Click here today to get started in this rewarding hobby.

Kitchen Garden Store

Learn to preserve the produce you grow in your home kitchen garden. This home canning starter kit includes everything you need to can your first batch using the boiling water bath method for high-acid foods. Find it and other canning supplies at the Home Kitchen Garden Store.

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small kitchen garden

raspberry brambles in a home kitchen garden

Here’s a great idea for any home kitchen garden: Plant a line of brambles along one side of your driveway. It’s so satisfying to pick handfuls of fresh raspberries for your breakfast cereal, yogurt, or cottage cheese… or to add to a fruit salad at dinner.

Continuing a discussion about designing your home kitchen garden, I finally get to share the story of a visit I made to photograph a garden that was full of surprises. Nearly every week I drive past a property on which a collection of raised garden beds sits back just a few feet from the road. Last season I saw weekly changes in those beds as trellises appeared in some, then seedlings, and eventually mature vegetable plants.

One Saturday in mid summer, I stopped at the house there and knocked on the door. A suspicious woman came to the door, and after an awkward moment I explained that I write about gardening and had been enjoying her raised bed project. I asked whether I could photograph her vegetable garden and tell about it in my blog.

The Home Kitchen Garden Tour

I must have been sincere enough because this woman graciously broke away from a tomato-processing project in her kitchen and took me for a rather mind-boggling tour.

First, we went around the house to a large area planted with fruit trees and shrubs. These were relatively new plantings, and she was still coaxing them along without significant harvest. It showed great promise for coming seasons.

raised beds in a home kitchen garden

I visited the farmhouse because I’d admired these raised planting beds along the road. The winter squash (top-left) was a volunteer that grew on a sand pile next to the boxed beds. While the raised beds themselves were a bit weedy, they held dozens of ripe tomatoes, eggplants, summer squash, and sweet potato plants.

We went back around the house, and where the entrance walk met the driveway we passed a thick stand of raspberry plants. From there, we walked down the driveway and I admired the variety of crops that grew in a series of raised beds. The woman was self-conscious about weeds (prominent in at least one photo here), but there were plenty of tomatoes, winter squash, zucchini, and other food crops—certainly enough for a couple whose kids had grown and moved away.

After I shot a few photos, I was thanking my new gardening friend and preparing to leave when she asked, “Do you want to see the rest of it?” Instant intrigue.

Of course I followed my host past the last raised bed and up the hill alongside a barn. About 50 yards from the last raised bed, we came upon a kitchen garden bed that covered at least an acre!

giant home kitchen garden bed

I thought I’d finished taking photos when my gracious host invited me to “see the rest of her kitchen garden.” Around behind the barn was a planting bed of at least an acre! There were squashes, tomatoes, corn, and other vegetables; I didn’t take inventory because I was too busy being awed.

A Humongous Home Kitchen Garden

chickens benefitting from a home kitchen garden

On the way back toward the house, we passed a pen of chickens who were lucky to receive two large summer squashes broken open so they could peck out the seeds and the soft centers. The chickens were obviously very happy with this treat. OK… I threw in this photo for my online gardening buddies who also raise chickens.

My new gardening friend explained that her husband loves to plant stuff. She gets to deal with the resultant produce. Most of the kitchen gardeners I visited last summer had lost patience with garden maintenance, and weeds were prominent. Goodness! When you’re dealing with an acre or more of crops, you’d be weeding for hours every day to keep them under control! No matter: as long as your crops grow taller than your weeds, you’ll have a decent harvest.

While this enormous planting bed held corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and vegetables I didn’t identify, that wasn’t the end of it! We walked past the chicken yard attached to the barn, and through an ornamental garden next to the house. There, up against a tree line, was another kitchen garden, this one decked out with various flowers for cutting.

My kitchen gardener friend explained that her goal is to stay out of grocery stores and farmers’ markets; if she preserves a quarter of the food she grows, I imagine she never buys produce from any other grower.

enough of a home kitchen garden for most of us

Amazingly, despite the raised beds and the acre-sized plot, there was also a small kitchen garden up near the house. This was, perhaps, as large as my vegetable garden, and it sported many tomato plants and ornamental flowers as well as squash, eggplant, and other goodies. I imagine this garden would have fed a family of five throughout a growing season.

 

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I rescued beehives from the mess in my dad’s barn and stacked them in the mess in my garage. Then my enthusiasm plummeted. My wife wants the hives gone; minimally, I’ll move them out of the garage, but I hope to have at least one ready for occupancy by mid-April.

Your Home Kitchen Garden blog has suffered from significant neglect for many months. This is partly because the blog is about growing food—something I pretty much don’t do during the winter. On the other hand, last summer and fall I wandered the neighborhoods of Lewisburg and surrounds, photographing kitchen gardens that I figured to share with readers during the cold months… and then I didn’t share them.

Spring is upon us in hardiness zone 5b, and I’ve started excavating rows in my home kitchen garden for cool-weather crops. This means there’s something else I didn’t accomplish during the non-gardening winter: I didn’t get my behives in order.

The Beehive Story

Last spring, I got very excited to revisit beekeeping. My dad had managed honey bees, and I had participated. He offered up his old gear, and I made a trip to the old family farm to bring home some beehives. I blogged about these experiences in several posts:

Home Kitchen Garden Beekeepers

Have You Bought a Beehive?

Install Bees in Your Home Kitchen Garden

Scrounging Beehive for my Home Kitchen Garden

As excited as I was to start bees, my enthusiasm took a nosedive when I saw the condition of my dad’s old gear: mouse nests, dried up wax, broken frames, missing components (a bee bonnet, gloves, and a smoker are crucial for me as I swell up like a bo-bo doll when I get stung)… I needed a focused weekend to bring dad’s old gear back to life.

The greatest busy-work in reviving my ancient beehives will be in scraping dried-up was from these wooden frames, replacing broken parts, and mounting sheets of beeswax on the frames. A hive box, or “super,” hold nine or ten frames, depending on how you pack them in.

So, weekends passed and I made no progress on the beehives, and pretty soon it was too late in the season to start a hive… and that’s where things stand. I’ve a large stack of wife-annoying gear in the garage, and I must reserve a day to scrape wax, repair frames, mount beeswax foundation, and assemble a hive body and a super.

My Beekeeping Hope

Last year I approached beekeeping with great enthusiasm… but it was already kind of late in the season before I realized fully the challenges I’d face. This year my enthusiasm is back and my eyes are wide open. At the very least I’ll move the beehive components out of the garage.

Still, I have every intention of setting up a hive body in April so it’s ready for occupation in May or June. I’ll evaluate whether I can afford to buy a package of bees with a queen. If bees are too pricey, I’ll set some bait honey in my hive and hope to capture a swarm.

However my beekeeping efforts play out this season, I’ll report here.

Become a Beekeeper

My renewed intent brings me to re-raise the call: If you have a garden and a little extra space, please consider seriously starting your own bees. With Colony Collapse Disorder still puzzling specialists, every new hive provides a smidge of added hope that our honeybee population remains vital.

I’ll provide encouragement… and I’ll try not to let down the honeybees this year. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

 

 

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I first tried using bird seed on slippery ice last winter, and immediately gained favor with a squirrel.

There’s not much happening in my home kitchen garden. Thankfully, it’s covered with snow. There’s not a lot of snow, but even a little is helpful because it provides insulation that promotes decay in the six-inch layer of leaves underneath.

The snow came with biting cold, but sunny days have caused melting and refreezing… and for some reason that happened on our front walkway. In other words: there’s ice on the pavement where people are supposed to walk.

Green Ice Remediation

It’s tempting to toss hands full of rock salt on the icy walkway, but there’s a planting bed on one side and lawn on the other. It’d be fine with me to lose the lawn, but I still want to be able to grow plants there in place of the grass. So… I’d rather not use rock salt on the ice.

The front walk was icy yesterday, so I sprinkled it with bird seed. After the ice melted today, a cardinal and several junkos came to clean things up.

Last season, I came up with an environmentally-friendly alternative: bird seed. No, bird seed doesn’t chemically alter ice so that it melts at lower temperatures, but it still remediates icy walkways. Here’s how:

An even sprinkling of bird seed over ice provides instant traction. Your shoes push the hard grains into the ice and many stick, preventing your shoes from sliding. When there’s even a little sunshine, seeds absorb heat and ice beneath them melts faster than surrounding ice. A few hours of sunshine can riddle seed-covered ice with holes and make it easy to break up with a shovel.

New Friends

When I first tried bird seed as an ice countermeasure, I discovered a fun benefit I should have anticipated: the seed attracts birds and other animals. If you maintain bird feeders anyway, tossing a little seed on an icy walkway isn’t going to change you lifestyle a whole lot. If you don’t already feed birds, you might get a kick out of the wildlife you attract when you treat your icy walkways with bird seed.

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canned neck pumpkin from a Home Kitchen Garden

Having been processed in a pressure canner, this neck pumpkin could remain edible for two years, though experts recommend that you use canned vegetables in six to twelve months after processing.

Zone five denizens probably have rather barren home kitchen garden plots at this point; repeated frost and occasional deeper freezes have shut down all but the hardiest plants. This shouldn’t discourage a kitchen gardener. Fruits of winter squash still abound in local markets. If you can find them in good condition, they may last for months without special treatment; I’ve kept butternut squash on my dining room floor well into spring.

However, there are many easy ways to preserve winter squash so it lasts until next year’s harvest. Perhaps the most complicated of all preservation methods is canning… but canning really isn’t hard to do if you have the right equipment.

Pressure Canning not Optional

You can preserve high-acid and high-sugar foods such as fruits, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves in a boiling water bath canner. To can low-acid foods such as vegetables and meats, you must use a pressure canner. Some microorganisms simply won’t die at the temperature of boiling water. However, when you increase the pressure in the cooking environment, you also increase the temperature. Generally, the increased heat is enough to kill every microorganism so low-acid foods can survive for a year or more without refrigeration.

Before you blanch the squash, wash your canning jars, fill them with very hot water, and keep them hot. I fill my jars with hot water and set them in my canner. Then I add the prescribed 3 quarts of water to the canner, and set it on the stove on medium heat so it warms slowly. If the water starts to boil, I turn off the burner… the heat will hold. I also rinse the lids and bands and set them in a pot of water on very low heat.

To do the blanching, first pare and cube the winter squash or pumpkin (the steps I followed are on Your Small Kitchen Garden blog). Blanching is simple. First, fill a very large pot with water and get it boiling. If you’re freezing the squash, you need a correspondingly large pot of very cold water. Because you’re canning, the cold water isn’t necessary.

Put all the squash in the boiling water and wait for the water to start boiling again. Let the squash boil for three minutes, and then ladle it out with a strainer, setting it in a bowl or pot to hold it until you pack it into jars. Keep the hot water in which you blanched the squash; you’ll use it in the canning jars. (If you’re freezing the squash, plunge it into cold water when you remove it from the boiling water… you need to cool it down quickly so it doesn’t get mushy.)

Squash is a low-acid food. Unless you want to pickle it before canning, you must use a pressure canner to make it safe for long-term storage (alternatively, you can freeze squash or dry it… but we’ll talk about those preservation methods in later posts).

Canned Neck Pumpkin

Neck pumpkin is a magnificent squash that’s common in central Pennsylvania. I wrote about neck pumpkin in Your Home Kitchen Garden at the end of October, and I wrote more about it in my other blog under the topic of Exploring Neck Pumpkin at Your Small Kitchen Garden. There, I explained one method of preparing winter squash for cooking—and, perhaps, the most reliable way to prepare it for blanching and canning.

To fill the canning jars, lift one at a time from the canning pot, pour the water out (save the water for other things such as watering plants or flushing toilets), and set the jar on a clean work surface. Use a measuring cup with a handle to scoop cubes of blanched squash from the holding bowl and dump them into the jar.

When the jar is nearly full, lift it and shake it up and down so the squash cubes settle in and fill spaces. Then add squash, shake the jar, and add squash until there is an inch of space between the top of the squash and the rim of the jar. At this point, fill the jar with boiling water left from blanching.

Use a chopstick or other non-metalic probe to release air bubbles trapped by the squash and top up the boiling water to cover the squash… still leave an inch between the water and the rim of the jar. Finally, wipe the rim and threads of the jar to remove any squash particles you might have gotten on them.

The photos in this post show the steps I took to can my neck pumpkin. I ended up canning all but a pint it. Of that pint, I cooked a small amount to taste, and used the rest to make pumpkin bread.

My neck pumpkin had the same consistency as butternut squash. The flesh was lighter in color and tasted sweeter than butternut. Also, my neck pumpkin’s flavor wasn’t as “squashy” as butternut… it was a little bland. Still, there’s room for slightly bland squash in my larder; most pumpkin breads and cakes have enough seasoning to make up for blandness in the pumpkin itself… I imagine my family will eat a lot of pumpkin bread and cake in the next year.

Place a heated lid on the jar, then screw a band onto it. Don’t pull a muscle tightening the band, but don’t be gentle either. When the band is tight, place the jar back into the canning pot. Repeat this procedure until all the jars are full or until you run out of squash.

Read the instructions for your pressure canner and follow them. For mine, I lock the lid on and bring the water to boil. When steam is coming out of the vent pipe (to the left of the pressure gauge), I let it cook for ten minutes. Then I set the pressure regulator on the vent pipe (right). I monitor the pressure gauge until it registers 11 pounds of pressure, then I adjust the heat of the stove to keep the pressure at 11 pounds. Once the pressure is up, I turn the heat down surprisingly low to maintain it… with a stove knob that runs from 0 (off) to 9 (hottest), a setting of about 2.5 is enough to maintain 11 pounds of pressure in the canner.

For squash, the pressure must remain at or above 11 pounds for 90 minutes. If, at any point in that 90 minutes the pressure drops below 11 pounds, you need to get it back to 11 pounds and start timing from zero.

After 90 minutes, remove the canner from the heat and leave it alone until the pressure drops to zero; this could take ten or more minutes. My canning pot has a “vent lock” to tell whether it’s under pressure. When there is pressure, a metal disk rises above the lid (right). Once that disk drops back in place (left), it’s time to open the canner’s lid. With any canner, do this cautiously. I wear oven mitts, stand back from the canner, and keep the lid between me and the steam.

Set the lid aside, and lift the jars from the canning pot. Set them on a cooling rack or on a towel on the counter. Let them sit for a day so they cool and seal. As they cool, the lids will pop with a “ping.” After the jars cool, examine the lids to confirm that they form concave surfaces—they should bulge down into the jars. If you remove the band, you should be able to lift the jar by the lid. If a lid hasn’t sealed, refrigerate the jar and use its contents within three days.

 

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Your Home Kitchen Garden announces winners in our first ever promotional giveaway. Each of three winners will receive a carton having 24 individual packets of yummy freeze-dried fruit snacks.

The random number generator selected the following winners:

@igaia whose tweet about the giveaway qualified her winning entry.

@joan_w who received one entry in the drawing by tweeting about the giveaway.

@4bratz2luv whose link to the contest announcement from her blog earned two entries… and one of those entries won.

Thanks to all who participated in the giveaway!

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If you have four- to six-months’ lead time to start a new planting bed in your lawn, don’t cut sod! Rather, lay out cardboard in the shape of the bed, cover it with at least six inches of manure or compost, and let it cook.

Great news: You’re going to add a home kitchen garden to your yard next year! Wait: you’re adding to an existing home kitchen garden? That’s also great news! But I’m pretty sure I heard you mention that you plan to cut sod in the spring. Don’t do it!

I mean, don’t cut sod. Cutting sod to create a planting bed in the lawn is a time-honored ritual. So many people figure that to find soil they must remove the grass. But cutting and removing sod is back-breaking work, and the science of gardening is ever-changing. Coming into vogue is a method of creating new planting beds in lawns without ever cutting sod!

Lazy Garden your way to Next Year’s Planting Bed

Because you started planning now for next spring, you can take the lazy path and slow-cook a planting bed into your lawn. Then you won’t have to cut and remove sod in the spring. Slow-cooking is relatively easy. I learned about it from the Penn State University Cooperative Extension office, though I don’t think they called it slow-cooking. In fact, I don’t think they gave a name for it.

Slow-Cook a Planting Bed

Begin, of course, by selecting the location and dimensions for your new planting bed. I hope you’ve already thought this through carefully and have resolved concerns about sunlight, exposure to wind, drainage, and accessibility. My earlier post, Your First Small Kitchen Garden explores these concerns further. When choosing dimensions for a planting bed, consider whether you’ll need to walk in the bed; my blog post, Small Kitchen Garden Design Layout can help with this decision.

Lay corrugated cardboard on the lawn in the shape of the new planting bed. Cover the grass completely, overlapping pieces of cardboard to close all gaps between them. Cover the cardboard with six inches of compost or manure and wait until spring. A lot of good things should happen in the six months to come.

  • The weighted-down cardboard deprives the grass of oxygen, the grass dies (and the weeds in the grass), and the leaves and roots decompose into a mat of humus-rich soil.
  • Bugs and grubs in the lawn die or move out from under the cardboard.
  • Moisture from the grass, and from dew, rain, and snow break down the cardboard.
  • The compost or manure continues to decay, reducing in depth while it leaches nutrients into the cardboard and the soil under it.

You can use raw manure when you set up a slow-cooked planting bed. If you apply the manure in August or September, it has plenty of time to leach out salt and nutrients into the soil; it will be ready for planting in the spring.

By the time things thaw in the spring, you can dig right through the compost or manure and the cardboard into what used to be lawn. Typically, there will be virtually no evidence of cardboard by this time and what used to be lawn will be relatively soft and easy to work.

Turn Down the Bed

When you plant in a cooked-in bed, your life is easiest if you’re dealing with seedlings or potted plants. You can simply dig a hole for each seedling, set the seedling in the hole, and back-fill with the rich mix of soil and compost that developed over the winter.

If you’re sowing seeds, it’s a good idea to turn the soil within the row in which you plan to sow. Then rake out the soil, create a furrow, and set the seeds. Of course, you can till the entire planting bed: use a power tiller or a shovel to cut deep and turn over six-to-eight inches of soil. Then rake it smooth and lay out your planting zones.

 

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I love having a few bags of blueberries in the freezer. While my mom used to add them to grapefruit-based fruit salads, I prefer to sprinkle frozen blueberries into puddles of pancake batter I’ve just poured on the griddle. Then, as the pancakes cook on side one, I drizzle a bit of extra batter over the blueberries so they’ll cook inside the pancakes when I flip them to side two. Using frozen blueberries to make pancakes, I set the cooking temperature lower than I would for plain pancakes. This gives the blueberries more time to thaw before the pancakes finish cooking.

Is your home kitchen garden producing well? This time of year, a kitchen garden can overwhelm its caretaker with produce. Beans are typical offenders along with tomatoes, eggplant, and various types of squash. Fruits can also present excesses.

If you’re facing a glut of vegetables or fruit… or if you simply want to store some goodies now so you can enjoy them until next year’s harvest, a deep-freeze makes a great food-preserver.

Why Freeze Produce?

Of all methods of preserving goods, freezing maintains flavors and textures the most faithfully. But freezing isn’t a perfect solution. Fruits especially suffer from freezing. As a rule fruits become mushy when they thaw, though their flavors remain true. If you plan to cook the fruits before you eat them, they’ll be great after freezing. If you’re going to eat them raw, find applications where the altered consistencies suit your sensibilities.

When it comes to frozen vegetables, I’ve never wanted to eat one raw after thawing it. These, I think, you should plan to cook… but trust that the outcome will be very similar to that of cooking the vegetables when they’re fresh. Root vegetables—carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and so on—do not thaw well, but they do keep a long time unfrozen in a cool, dry storage area.

I line jelly roll pans with waxed paper and then add single layers of blueberries or other produce. These I set uncovered in the deep-freeze overnight. The frozen berries easily come loose from the waxed paper and from each other.

Freezing Fruit

How you prepare fruit for freezing depends on what type of fruit it is. I suggest making it bite-sized. So, if you’re freezing peaches, pears, apples, or pineapples, peel them and cut them into pieces. If you’re freezing berries, they’re already in bite-sized pieces.

Pack fruit in freezer containers or in food storage freezer bags. Vacuum-seal them for the longest freezer life, but a zipper-style bag with the air squeezed out around the fruit should keep the fruit in decent shape for close to a year. Place only as much fruit in each bag as you’re going to use in one meal or service. Alternatively, follow the instructions below for Individually-Frozen Vegetables and Berries.

Freezing Vegetables

You can freeze vegetables raw and they’ll be fine when you cook them up later… as long as it’s not too much later. Conventional wisdom is that certain enzymes in vegetables promote aging and they continue to work even when the vegetables are frozen. This means the quality of frozen vegetables decreases rapidly over time unless you stop the enzymes. To “turn off” enzymes and increase the freezer live of vegetables, blanch them before you freeze them.

Individually-frozen, blueberries are hard, cold marbles. You have ten or fifteen minutes to package them and return them to the freezer before they soften noticeably.

How to Blanch Vegetables

Blanching is a breeze. It involves cooking the vegetables only long enough that they heat through, and then rapidly cooling them to stop the cooking before their texture changes significantly.

To prepare vegetables for freezing, first wash off the dirt, discard the bad spots, and cut the vegetables into sizes you’ll want to cook later. Peas, I remove from the pods and leave whole. Beans, I snap into ¾ inch lengths… some people prefer to cut them rather than snap them.

Set a very large pot of water to boil. I use my canning pot filled about ¾ of its depth. Fill a second very large pot with cold water, and have some ice on hand to add to that water.

Fill a strainer or a steamer’s colander with prepared vegetable chunks, then plunge the strainer into the boiling water so that all the vegetables are in the water. This may stop the boiling, so cover the pot to help bring up its temperature.

I use my canning pot or a very large stock pot for cooking, and another for cooling when I blanch vegetables for freezing. The colander is an insert from a pasta-cooker, though I might just as well use a strainer. I used to let the vegetables float free in the cook-pot, but it took so long to fish them out that some were nearly totally cooked by the time I’d finish.

When the water starts boiling again, leave the vegetables cooking for three minutes. During this time, add ice to the pot of cold water. Then, at the end of three minutes, lift the strainer from the boiling water and submerge it in the cold water. Stir the vegetables around in the strainer to promote rapid cooling. In about three minutes, the vegetables should be at or below room temperature; remove them from the water and let them drain.

Put one-meal-sized portions of the blanched vegetables into freezer containers or bags, and toss them into your deep-freeze. If you can vacuum-seal the containers, your vegetables may keep well for 18 months, but even in a heavy-weight hermetically-sealed bag they should be acceptable for eating up to a year after you process them.

As with fruit, blanched vegetables tend to stick together when they freeze, resulting in a brick that may be hard to separate until it thaws. You can simplify your freezer space by freezing the vegetable parts individually, and storing them in much larger bags or containers.

Individually-Frozen Vegetables and Berries

Typical instructions for freezing fruits and vegetables result in large clumps of frozen-together stuff. Blanch beans, toss them in a bag, put them in your freezer, and soon you’ll have a brick of frozen beans. If you want to use a portion of the beans, you may need a hammer or an ice pick to break them free of the bean brick.

When last I froze wax beans, I ran out of waxed paper so I tried plastic wrap as pan-liners. I much prefer the waxed paper because it’s far more biodegradable than plastic. I had so many beans to freeze that I layered them in the pans: first wax paper, then beans, then paper, and then beans. This worked well, and let me double the amount of produce I could freeze in one night.

The same goes for fruits: Wash a quart of blueberries, put the berries in a bag, freeze them, and you’ll need to chip them apart when you want to use them.

You’re best off freezing packages of beans or berries in modest amounts—no more per bag than you’ll use for a single meal… unless you freeze the beans or berries individually. Here’s how I do it:

After washing berries or blanching beans (or peas or broccoli spears or cauliflower florets), drain them and then dump them onto a towel. Gently roll the fruits or vegetables around on the towel to remove as much moisture as you have patience for.

Then, line a jellyroll pan or a pizza pan with waxed paper (plastic wrap works as well) and cover the paper with produce only one layer deep. If you like, cover the produce with more waxed paper and put a second layer of beans or berries on that.

Place the uncovered pan of beans or berries in your freezer over night. Then, retrieve the pan (I actually do as many as four pans in a single freezing event), break the individual fruits or vegetables off of the waxed paper, and load a container with the frozen produce. Put the filled container back in your freezer.

When you freeze fruits and vegetables this way, you can grab a handful, a pint, or a quart as-needed without having to bust a clump loose from a frozen produce brick.

Why So Much Boiling Water?

You can blanch stuff in rather modest amounts of boiling water. However, when you plunge vegetables into the water, you rapidly lower the water’s temperature; it is likely to stop boiling. At low volumes, the water may take many minutes to heat back to boiling. If the size of your blanching pot is dramatically bigger than that of the strainer-full of vegetables you put into it, it may not stop boiling at all… but even if it does stop it remains much closer to the boiling point than a small volume of water would.

You’ll blanch more produce more quickly if you work with a large vat of boiling water.

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Strawberries from a Home Kitchen Garden

Jam that you make from fresh-picked strawberries is noticeably better-tasting than store-bought jam.

Strawberry season is running out in my home kitchen garden; I may have berries for another week. As we do every year, we’ve consumed a lot of strawberries this spring… but it wasn’t enough. I want to extend my relationship with strawberries throughout the year. One way I do this is by making jam.

Jam is a combination of fruit, sugar, and pectin. Pectin thickens when you cook it, but it doesn’t impart color to whatever you add it to. Consider: if you thicken juice with cornstarch or flour, you create an opaque pie filling. If you thicken the same juice with pectin, you create jelly.

Pectin exists naturally in fruit… but rarely in great enough amounts to make the fruit’s juice jell. Traditionally, you add an enormous amount of sugar and extra pectin to fruit juice, cook it, and the juice gels. That’s what we’re doing in this blog post.

Read the instructions that come in the box. Follow them! Minor deviations won’t cause problems (an ounce here-or-there), but if you miscount cups of sugar or fruit, you may not like the results. The strawberry jam recipe that came with the powdered pectin I used called for the following: 2 quarts of washed and capped berries. ¼ cup of lemon juice. Seven cups of sugar. One package of fruit pectin. An optional tablespoon of butter. Also, note that you’ll need a large pot in which to boil jars, a small pot in which to heat lids, a medium pot (about a gallon capacity) in which to cook jam, a large spoon, measuring cups, a canning funnel (though you can survive without the funnel), tongs (to lift things out of boiling water), and a canning jar lifter (again, I managed without one for years). Oh, it’s wise to have a pot holder or a dry towel on-hand as well as a damp (but clean) dish cloth.

Before I start making jam, I rinse the jelly jars and put them in a large pot of water on high heat so the water will boil. I put a matching number of canning lids and bands in a smaller pot of water, and I heat that on low so the water gets very hot without boiling. It can take 30 minutes for the pot of jars to start boiling, so I often take a break while the water heats. The pectin I’m using claims to produce eight cups of jam… so I heat enough jars to hold ten cups, in case the estimate is low. Eventually, however, you need to mash the strawberries. I use a rusty potato masher, and I smoosh the berries into small pieces; large chunks are hard to spread on sandwiches.

Jelly or Jam?

Measure the sugar into a bowl before you start cooking the fruit! Ideally, use a bowl you can dump with only one hand; you’ll add the sugar to the cooking jam a bit later and it’s nice to have one hand free so you can keep stirring as the sugar goes in. The pectin I use calls for seven cups of sugar for a single batch of strawberry jam.

Often, people I talk with about jam and jelly ask, “What’s the difference?” Quite simply: you make jam using juice and chunks of fruit, you make jelly from juice with all the fruit pulp strained out of it. From the perspective of the jam-maker, jam and jelly are nearly identical: once you’ve prepared the fruit or the juice, you follow the same steps to cook it into jam or jelly.

The single greatest aide to success at jam-making is to buy a box of powdered fruit pectin, open it, read the instructions it contains, and **follow those instruction**. Until jam- and jelly-making comes automatically to you, don’t mess with the recipes. Using more or less sugar, changing the cooking time, or using too little or too much fruit all can affect the finished product quite noticeably. Too much sugar and over-cooking can result in jam that comes out of the jar in one piece. Too little sugar and under-cooking can result in jam that runs rather than spreading.

I measure five cups of mashed berries into the cooking pot. Then I add a quarter cup of lemon juice (yes, I use the bottled stuff) and the packet of pectin. The pot goes on the stove on high heat and I don’t stop stirring until the jam is done. Cooking works like this: 1. Stir until the mixture boils. 2. Pour in all the sugar at once and mix it in. 2b. Add a tablespoon of butter if you believe it will help keep foam from forming. 3. Stir until the mixture starts boiling despite the stirring activity. From that moment, boil the stuff for exactly 60 seconds. Watch it carefully because it may want to boil over. On my electric stove, I turn off the burner after 15 seconds of boiling, and leave the pot in place. There is always enough heat in the burner to keep the jam bubbling for 45 more seconds. When that minute of boiling ends, remove the pot from the heat. In this photo, you can see the large (covered) kettle in which jars are boiling, and the smaller pot that contains lids and bands heated just below boiling.

The pectin box contains specific instructions for making jam or jelly from most common types of fruit. Harvest or buy fruit accordingly, and make sure you have the necessary equipment on-hand before you start.

Preserved from a Home Kitchen Garden

Jam made at home from fresh fruit, will keep for a year or longer when you can it properly. Heck, without canning, my mom stored jam on a shelf in a dark closet for a year, and it always tasted fresh. That was in the days when the FDA said it was OK to seal jars with melted paraffin.

Canning jam and jelly is stupid-easy: once you’ve screwed the band onto a jar, set the jar upright in a deep pot of boiling water for ten minutes. Then remove the jar to a towel on the counter and let it cool. With the high-temperature cooking and the ten-minute boil, your jam will be germ-free… and it already contained so much acid and sugar that almost nothing could have lived in it anyway.

I can 12 one-cup gift jars of each type of jam or jelly I make. We give the one-cup jars as gifts to teachers, hosts at dinner parties, golf professionals (at the course where I play), and other acquaintances. It usually takes at least two batches to make 12 cups, and whatever is left over, I put into pint jars for us to eat through the year.

Foam Snack from a Home Kitchen Garden

Even when I add butter to my cooking jam, the jam produces a lot of foam. I pull the foam across the surface of the jam and skim it off with the spoon. I didn’t get a great shot of that through the steam coming off the jam, but here’s what it looks like on its way to my mouth after it cooled down for a bit. It surprises me that no one sells jam and jelly foams in jars. It tastes great, and you could dramatically increase the amount of product you get from your raw materials.

When you’ve removed most of the foam, fill the hot jelly jars, put on the hot lids, screw on the hot bands, and set the jars in boiling water for ten minutes. The canning funnel helps keep jam off the rim of the jelly jars; if you get any jam there, wipe it off before you apply a lid. With the lid on and the jar upright, screw on a band.

To get a band “finger tight,” I pick up the jar by the lid (usually I can handle the lids and bands while they’re hot, but a jar of hot jelly would take my skin off) and quickly grasp the jar with a pot holder. Then I screw the lid down tightly – not bodybuilding flex tightly, but I take up all the slack I can while twisting with just my hands.

Upside Down Jars

As mentioned earlier: immediately after filling the jars, put them, upright, into a pot of boiling water so the jars are completely covered. Ideally, use a canning rack or a canning pot with a rack to keep the jars off the bottom. If you don’t have a canning rack, you can sink a cloth napkin or dish cloth in the water and pin it to the bottom with the jars. Leave the jars to boil for ten minutes, then remove them to cool, upright, on your counter. After the tops seal (you’ll hear them pop) and the jars are hot but not too hot to hold, flip them onto the bands and let them cool further until they are warm but the jam is still liquid. Flip them back upright to finish cooling. If you don’t flip the jars this way during cooling, the fruit will likely float making the top layer of jam very chunky while the bottom layer will be more like jelly.

Homemade is Best

We’ve been told that the strawberry jam we make is noticeably better eating than store-bought jam. What’s more, we usually have peach, pear, and black raspberry jelly; and strawberry, sour cherry, and fruit punch jams in the larder. Most of these are never available in our local grocery stores. When you have a lot of homemade jam and jelly on-hand, you find ways to use it that people don’t necessarily think of when you say “jam.” For example, I’ve mixed black raspberry jelly into homemade chutneys and marinades with great results. The delicate flavor of pear or peach jelly comes through when you grill it on chicken or fish.

From time-to-time, I’ll jot down ingredients lists when I cook with jam or jelly, and share the results on this blog. In the meantime, if you can still harvest fresh strawberries from your home kitchen garden… or you can buy them in your neighborhood, make some jam and extend strawberry season through the year.

I created a step-by-step video that shows how to make strawberry jam. Please follow this link to Your Small Kitchen Garden if you prefer video instruction over the written word.

 

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The milk house sits at the end of the old barn. When my parents bought the property, the barn was already very old. My dad made windows for it, repaired missing and broken boards, built storage rooms, and created space for the horses to come and go. Horses still come and go at the far end of the barn, and I imagine the loft holds hay. Other than that, I don’t think the barn sees much action; my brother’s family focuses attention around their house.

Way back in February, Your Home Kitchen Garden started cheerleading for kitchen gardeners to take up beekeeping. While I promised this blog would not become exclusively about beekeeping, I also vowed to install a beehive in my own home kitchen garden some time in May.

I’ve been a bit quiet about beekeeping lately, but I have been pursuing the dream. In May, I made a day trip to Ithaca to pick up my dad’s beekeeping equipment. I began my trip with high enthusiasm. And, while the trip got me much closer to the goal of starting a bee hive, it was also a significant setback.

The Old Farmstead

I grew up in the city of Ithaca in upstate New York. When I say “city,” I mean I lived in a house in the city. Ithaca is a small city, and things turn rural quickly when you drive away from city center. When I was in my early teens, my parents bought a farm about 15 miles from our house, and we commuted to the farm on weekends and occasional weeknights.

The home kitchen garden of my youth was a masterpiece painted by tractor, plow, and disc. We hauled horse manure, my mom planted and hauled water, and we mulched the whole thing with black plastic. The garden now hosts impressive stag horn sumac trees and some underbrush.

The farm has about 100 acres of mostly wooded land, with only about four acres of fields. A stream cuts through the property and passes within about thirty feet of a big old timber-frame dairy barn. There’s a tiny shack we referred to as The Milk House at the street end of the barn. This used to house a refrigeration tank to hold freshly-harvested milk where a truck could pump it out and transported it to a processing plant.

We had converted the Milk House into an intimate bunk house with a tiny coal stove (in which we burned wood), had fenced the fields and some of the woods to serve as horse pasture, and had established a large in-ground garden bed along one side of the barn. There was no electricity, no running water, and only a portable chemical toilet.

Despite the inconveniences, we spent nearly every weekend visiting the farm to ride horses and do chores. My mom took control of the home kitchen garden—or can I call it that since technically it wasn’t at our home? My dad oversaw maintenance, and he managed beehives.

The Farmstead Today

Many, many years ago, one of my brothers installed a mobile home at the farm and lived there until his significant other’s job took them both to Boston and later to Maryland. Then another brother built a modular home where the mobile home had been. There, he’s raising two daughters and a menagerie of domestic critters.

To illustrate the passage of time, the spruce trees in this photo were between three and four feet tall when my parents bought the property. We fenced in the hillside on which the trees grow and referred to it as the lower pasture. When the horses were bored, they’d eat the spruce branches. The trees have put on close to 40 years’ growth since I first saw them.

My mom died 12 years ago, and my dad’s interests shifted from the barnyard area to the woods. He’s trying to grow various hardwood trees, I guess so he can harvest and sell them to lumber mills when he reaches 145 years of age. My brother’s priorities have never quite matched those that drew us all to the farm when we were kids, and the kitchen garden and the beehives have received no attention in many years; my mom’s garden bed is now home to a stand of sturdy sumac trees.

The Cost of Free Beekeeping Gear

I get back to Ithaca, perhaps, three times a year, but I rarely poke around the barn: I park in my brother’s driveway, and visit inside the house… or I stay with my dad in the city. It was a bit surprising to see that my brother’s horses have kicked a hole in the side of the barn. Other than that, things looked a lot as they had when I was involved with the farm twenty years ago.

Actually, it was uncanny that so many things in the barn seemed to be exactly where I’d seen them 20 years ago: the workbench, some trash cans, saddles, tools… all still in place, but now covered with a thick layer of dust. These are things that, understandably, offer no utility to my brother.

My dad stacked most of the hive bodies, supers, frames, covers, and bases in the barn many years ago where they’ve remained untouched by human hands. Unfortunately, mice had colonized the hive boxes, destroying old honeycomb and building nests in its place. It made me sad, but not in a judgmental way: Priorities change. I’d paid no attention at all until Colony Collapse Disorder emerged and bees were all over the news.

Main components of the beehives stood in several stacks to one side of the barn. Some components hung on hooks over the workbench, and others were in the drawers of the workbench. I began sorting through the stacks to find enough parts to assemble two hives. Essential components of a hive include:

  • A base
  • A hive body or brood chamber
  • A second brood chamber
  • Supers—as many as four or five by the end of a good season
  • An inner hive cover
  • An outer—or floating—hive cover
  • Frames to fill the brood chambers and supers

I also wanted to find the following items:

  • Queen excluders
  • Adjustable hive entrances
  • Bee escapes
  • Hive feeders
  • A hive tool
  • A frame lifter
  • A smoker
  • A pith helmet
  • A bee veil

For this post, I’ll leave you with the “shopping list.” I’ll explain what these things are in a later post.

A single brood chamber had broken away from the stack and tried to escape the barn. Apparently, it tripped on its way toward the exit and spilled its insides on the floor. The brood chamber’s attempted escape saved it from contamination by the mouse colonies, but it still needs a serious cleaning before I set it up as a bait hive.

The point of my story is that I found nearly all of these items. However, the essential components were in especially bad shape. As I removed brood chambers and supers from the stacks, I found two mouse nests inside the chambers. The mice had climbed to the tops of the stacks, chewed old honey comb from within the frames, and built large nests in the mined spaces.

At least one mouse nest had been there long enough that a whole bunch of mouse litter had sifted down through the lower hive boxes, contaminating everything with poop and pee. When I lifted the super containing the newer-looking mouse nest, a mouse fell out onto my foot, scurried up a cement wall, and disappeared under a heap of frames, hive bases, and hive covers.

Not a Great Start

I spent several hours sorting through hive bodies, pulling frames, busting the old (contaminated) beeswax from them, and stacking them in my car. Amazingly, my dad still had boxes of foundation—prepared sheets of beeswax or plastic that you mount on the frames and place inside brood chambers and supers. (There are hexagonal impressions pressed into the foundation sheets that provide a blueprint the bees follow when they build honeycomb.) Not so amazingly, a mouse had spent some time messing with the foundation; many sheets were stained with urine. Still, I found enough usable foundation to fill one brood chamber and one super; perfect to get started before having to buy any.

A brood chamber stands empty with a few pieces of useful gear on top. The bent metal object is a hive tool. You can use either end to pry frames from the hive, and to adjust frames once they’re in the hive. You can also use the tool to scrape off honey and propolis that the bees lay down in inconvenient places. The round metallic items are lids that fit on canning jars. Fill jars with sugar water, invert them in the wooden blocks you see holding the covers, and slide the blocks into the entrance of a beehive: you’ve just provided food for a young hive that hasn’t yet built honeycomb. The wooden sticks on the left are adjustable hive entrances. I’ll explain how they work in an upcoming post.

I scored two of everything on my list but a smoker, a pith helmet, and a bee veil. Except for foundation, I have enough essential components to start two hives, and can return to Ithaca to pick up more supers and frames should my bees require expansion space.

Here’s the rub: dealing with fifteen or more years of neglect was discouraging. I remember my dad assembling new, clean hive components when he started beekeeping, and that memory is way more romantic than the reality of working with dozens of mouse-damaged pieces caked in old, dried-out beeswax.

I estimate it will take a dedicated afternoon to clean a brood chamber and frames, mount foundation, and situate the hive near my garden. I’d have started this project in January had I anticipated the condition of the gear; there were no pressing gardening tasks to deal with in January.

So, I’m getting around to my bee operation about a month later than I’d wanted to. I still have inertia from my visit to Ithaca. There’s one more extenuating circumstance: my gardening budget can’t support the cost of packaged bees this year. So, my new goal is to set up the hive and bait it to attract a wild swarm. Conveniently, my dad offered up a partial frame of comb honey I can use as bait. Here’s hoping it attracts honey bees without also attracting bears.

 

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I plant lettuce seeds about three-to-five to a square inch. To thin and harvest throughout the season, I pull several plants at at time out by the roots. Then I break off the roots, and inspect the leaves for blemishes, rot, and pests. Click on the images if you wish to see the photos in greater detail.

Here’s hoping your home kitchen garden is producing stuff you can eat. By now, many northern hemisphere kitchen gardeners are eating young lettuce, spinach, and other greens from their yards. I recently explained that I plant lettuce close so the plants are very crowded, and that I harvest whole plants through the season as a means of thinning down to the few plants that grow to maturity.

With plants crowded, the lettuce can prevent water from evaporting and cause leaves to rot.

Because of comments from my friend at Inch By Inch, Row By Row, It occurred to me that if you’re new to kitchen gardening, you might never have dealt with fresh-picked produce. While most produce from your home kitchen garden will taste better than any you buy in a store, it will also pose challenges that store-bought produce doesn’t.

Pick, Clean, and Eat

Store bought greens are usually free of soil, insects, and dried plant matter. Growers, packagers, and produce associates rinse produce and selectively remove damaged leaves. When you get it home, it’s nearly table-ready, though there may be a few leaves you want to remove… and you probably rinse to reduce your chances of eating pesticides.

A slug baby hides under a rotting leaf near the bottom of a lettuce plant I just pulled from my home kitchen garden. The krinklier the variety of lettuce, the more places there are for these chewy pests to hide.

It’s hard to avoid dirt when you’re dealing with home-grown produce. Especially growing lettuce the way I do, you’re going to get soil on your plants when you thin/harvest. As well: there are likely to be insects, and possibly slugs and snails, on your lettuce plants. They aren’t necessarily there to eat your plants; insects hang out just about everywhere in your garden.

So, for most gardeners there’s a greater time commitment to serve home-grown lettuce than there is for serving store-bought greens. Here’s how I prepare lettuce from my garden:

Picking—Through most of the season, I thin my lettuce beds by pulling clusters of plants. I immediately snap off the roots of the plants and toss them aside, but not all the soil goes with the roots. I try to brush off any large deposits of soil. And, before I put the leaves in a bowl to take inside, I inspect for slugs and remove any I find.

Another slug on my lettuce, this one unfurled and roaming. I’ve heard that backyard chickens will eat slugs in a kitchen garden. Raises the question: what would I be cleaning off my lettuce leaves if I had chickens?

In the spring, if there are slugs, they’re usually slug babies. These are smaller than pencil erasers, and they especially like my densely-packed lettuce beds; plants pressed together hold in moisture, and I’m pretty sure lettuce tastes good to slug babies.

Cleaning—No, what I do in the garden to freshly-picked lettuce isn’t cleaning. Cleaning happens in my kitchen. There, I fill a large bowl with cold water and I float all the lettuce leaves in it. Leaves float, but soil on them quickly loosens and sinks. As well, pieces of mulch, weed seeds, and other random organic matter I may not want to eat may float free from the lettuce leaves. This isn’t a big deal, because I’m a bit obsessive about eating only clean lettuce.

So, I gently stir the lettuce with my hand and then, one-by-one I remove and inspect the leaves. I look for dirt that didn’t wash off in the bowl, and I look for slugs and eggs. Slugs are easy, but eggs? Depending on who lives in your garden, you may find spots on your lettuce that don’t rinse off easily. Usually, these will wipe off with a swipe of a finger or thumb across the wet leaf. I’m not a biologist, but I guess these spots are eggs (alternatively, I guess they could be bug or slug poop)… and while I’m sure they won’t harm me, I’m a tad squeamish about eating them (I’d lose the “eat something disgusting” challenge on Survivor without even looking at the disgusting thing I was supposed to eat.)

A massive thunderstorm splashed soil onto the underside of my lettuce leaves (left), while some critter deposited eggs or poop on the underside of some lettuce leaves. All of this rinses off, though the organic stuff may stick until I rub it underwater with my finger.

Finally, if something about a leaf strikes me as odd, I’ll tear it off and preserve the part that looks tasty. The thoroughly-inspected lettuce goes into a salad spinner, and once spun, to the table (it stays in the spinner’s basket unless we have guests; then it goes in a wooden salad serving bowl).

Too Much Effort?

As laborious as all this sounds, it’s not that big a job. Once floating in water, the lettuce leaves are easy to pick through. I can walk away repeatedly to work on other aspects of a meal, and the lettuce doesn’t complain. In fact, very tender, floppy lettuce often crisps up while floating in my cleaning bowl.

The awesome flavor and money-savings easily pay for this little extra work. Besides, I’ve already worked the soil, cut a furrow, added compost, planted seeds, watered, and harvested. Obsessively inspecting and cleaning my lettuce is a minor additional bump.

While washing this batch of lettuce and spinach, I found a few gross-looking leaves (left), some spinach with organic dirt marks that wiped off easily (center), and sediment in the bowl of rinse water after I finished cleaning the leaves. I’ve already served four salads and lettuce to go on burgers this spring. The greens would have cost more than $10 at the farmers’ market. If I serve salad every day until mid-July, I won’t use all the lettuce and spinach from the garden. We will, however, consume about $50 to $60 of produce. That covers all my expenses for the garden this year, and the harvest has just begun!

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