Category Archives: Putting Up

Strawberry Fields Forever

Good strawberry growing advice sometimes sounds a little bloody and violent: “Kill the mother.” “Pinch the babies.”

Last spring I put in 25 or so strawberry plants. I pinched the babies. That is, I picked off every single blossom before it turned into fruit. This, I have been told, strengthens the plants and ensures more vigorous production in future years. So I resisted the temptation to let those blooms turn to berries and instead rejoiced in the way the plants almost instantly began to spread. Forming off of runners—tendrils that shoot out from the mother plant and form new leaves—offspring plants sprung up in circles around each of the mother plants.

You see what’s coming, right?

Pinching the babies paid off in spades. In the past couple of weeks, I have harvested a pint to two pints of strawberries a day. What I didn’t eat immediately while standing there in the patch, I brought into the house, rinsed, hulled, and froze. I also made two batches of jam and two batches of strawberry ice cream.

Two weeks after the strawberry bacchanalia, production is slowing down. I’m getting a half-pint daily—but these later-season berries are also much sweeter and more flavorful than the earlier ones.

Next year the volume won’t be quite as outrageous. The year after that will be even less impressive, as the strawberry plants’ three-year cycle winds down. And this is where killing the mother comes in. Time to man up, strawberry growers.

After their second year of production, you dig out the original plants and leave the offspring that are only in their first year. They will continue to produce and send out runners. Then you take them out, too. That keeps the plants reproducing themselves and bearing fruit.

And that’s how you get strawberry fields forever.

About that jam. I washed and hulled about two quarts for my first run. These berries were so ripe they were almost rotting. Perfect. I mixed them with tons of sugar and boiled it until it had thickened (you can use fruit pectin — Sure Jell — to speed things along but I had time to do it the old-fashioned way).

I then ladled the  jam into hot, sterilized jars, put hot, sterilized lids on the jars, and processed them in boiling water for ten minutes.

Then I took them out and placed each jar on a towel on the counter and waited for my favorite part:

Do you know that sound? That is the sound of hot jars forming a vacuum and pushing the air out of the 1/4-inch of space between the jam and the lid. It is the sound of reassurance that the air-free jars of jam will keep indefinitely on a shelf in time for the holidays.

It’s  worth noting that the recipe for strawberry jam in my grandmother’s 1932 edition of the Ball Blue Book of home canning is not that different from the one in my 2003 edition.

Did someone say strawberry ice cream? In fact, my friend Cyndi asked for some for her birthday, which was last Sunday. Since it was a special occasion, I spared no riches and made an egg custard base for the ice cream. And instead of using vanilla extract, I started with the actual bean, which I split open and scraped into a saucepan of milk and cream and simmered.

I added in eggs and sugar and cooked it until it had thickened. Then I drained the strawberries, which I had sliced and let sit in lemon juice and sugar, and poured the sweet juice into the custard, and I let the whole thing chill in the fridge thoroughly.

I added in the strawberries and then put the custard into my wonderful Cuisinart ice cream maker to churn for about a half hour. Here is the result.

And here is what a bunch of deliriously happy strawberry-eaters looks like. Not that you didn’t already have an idea.

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Cilantro Mountain

What do you do with a mountain of cilantro?

First, you make pesto (with some fresh chives, mint, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, salt, pepper, and lime juice). Some of this you will freeze in an ice-cube tray.

Then you make an enormous batch of guacamole.

Then you get creative, and you swirl the cilantro pesto into some homemade bread. It works beautifully.

Yet you’re still left with half a mountain of pesto and more to come. Other ideas?

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A good yarn

Some weeks back, I reported on my feeble attempts at learning to knit. It wasn’t an easy start, but I am beginning to appreciate the zen of the craft. Once you figure out the pattern, it transcends thought. There is a grace and rhythm that visits your fingers, and all you do is relax and let them take over. And then you wake up, and you have a hat.

Entangled in texture and color

Or maybe three or four or more. Once I figured out the nifty hat trick, I lost all self-control. Partly it was the yarn. I love a good yarn. I found this super-bulky woolly stuff in great colors on sale, so I bought piles and piles of it. But I had a reasonable justification: this coming weekend is the Rabun Rendezvous, the big annual fundraiser for the Rabun Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a wonderful natural resource conservation organization that my family has been involved with for nearly twenty-five years. Every year I try to come up with some interesting and creative items for the silent auction — a gift basket, some homemade goodies, one year I contributed two dozen eggs. This year, it’ll be hats and fingerless gloves.

Energized by my purchase, I started giving my creations names: a red hat was “Ruby,” a green child’s hat is “Li’l Peahead.” Then I began mixing and matching colors and bestowing flyfishing inspired names: “Riparian,” “The River,” “Hemlock Grove.”

"Keepin' Warm Kit"

I decided I needed to put together a couple of gift baskets. One is called a “Keepin’ Warm Kit,” and it includes a bundle of fatlighter (courtesy of my dad, who found it in his yard and split it up so it’s just like the stuff they sell at L.L. Bean), hot chocolate, some spicy cheese straws and a jar of homemade green tomato relish to go with them, and a knit wool cap. The other is “Sweet, Spicy, Savory”: the muscadine jam I made this summer with plain cheese straws (the “sweet”), homemade roasted tomatillo and tomato salsa with chips (the “spicy”), and more of the green tomato relish with some rosemary crackers (the “savory”). Bounty from the Southern Urban Homestead.

"Sweet • Spicy • Savory"

I still want to make a few more hats — I can probably turn out two or three before the weekend: “Foam is Home,” “Out Past Hiawassee.” And I’m making fingerless gloves to go with some of them (I actually sold a pair of those recently to a very gifted artist friend whose studio is not heated). I am trying hard not to turn into Madame Defarge or one of those sweet but dotty ladies with cats and a house full of precious knitted objects.

That’s why I keep giving things away. I am blessed with understanding friends who have accepted my slightly eccentric creations.

The Rabun Rendezvous is this Saturday, January 23, at the Dillard House in Rabun County. The Dillard House smokes a whole pig, and we’ll pick at it starting around 5 p.m. Come on up and join us — there’s a ton of good stuff on the auction and raffle tables, incredible food, fabulous entertainment, and a superb program.

Friend with slightly eccentric creation

Plus, you’re supporting a grassroots organization that does great work cultivating the next generation of  stewards of our region’s trout fisheries and conserving, protecting, and restoring its treasures.

And you’ll definitely hear a good yarn or two.

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Giving summer for Christmas

Our old family friend, the pressure canner

Most of my canning supplies — my standard canner, my jar lifters, my pressure canner, my 1932 edition of the Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Food – belonged to my mother. Before the pressure canner was my mother’s, it was my paternal grandmother’s. Before it was hers, it belonged to her next-door neighbor. And since I now live in the house that belonged to my father’s parents for more than fifity years, that pressure canner has come full circle, from Decatur to Rabun Gap then back to Decatur.

This to say that despite its rustic reputation, canning and preserving food has never been just a rural thing. The US Department of Agriculture encouraged urban homemakers to put their Victory Garden bounty up especially during wartime. (An aside: my friend Elizabeth Engelhardt, now a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, is finishing up a fascinating book on the subject of southern food and gender titled A Mess of Greens, in which she touches on the girls’ “Tomato Clubs” of a century ago–can’t wait to read it!)

Muscadine jam (purple), green tomato relish (yellow), and roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa (red)

The locavore movement has recently brought about a resurgence of interest in home canning amongst my generation. I was delighted to learn that my next-door neighbor, who is my age, asked for some home canning equipment for Christmas this year. For years, though, I have been giving her my canned goodies for Christmas — pear butter, apple butter and apple sauce (none this year — the apples and pears come from my dad’s trees, and the deer got most of them); fig jam and preserves; pickles.

This year, I’m giving muscadine jam (the CSA vines were bounteous), green tomato relish (made from my green tomatoes and cucumbers, along with Vidalia onions and CSA cabbage), and some of that roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa. It’s the summer harvest at its ripest peak, sealed and delivered for the holidays. The gift of summer flavor and color on these chill, bleak, brief days.

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“Even girls can be farmers?”

One morning this past week, at the request of a friend who teaches at the elementary school near my home, I hosted a visit of the school’s kindergarten class. According to our state’s department of education, as a southern urban homesteader, I apparently count as a “community helper.”

Kinder in the garten

The first thing the kids saw when they arrived was the garden. I explained that some plants like lots of hot weather to grow, and some plants like cool weather. And since this was November, what was growing right now was broccoli and salad greens and beets and Swiss chard, because they like it cool. (I also explained about the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent, and that squirrels eat more than just acorns. I tried not to use bad words, but it was not easy.)

Tasting vinegar and salt in homemade dill pickles

We then moved on to the canning and preserving demonstration. We talked about what happens if you pick some green beans in the summer and then leave them in a bowl in your kitchen, thinking you’ll eat them in November–you get rotten green beans. Then we talked about how salt and vinegar helps keep food from going bad so quickly. Finally, everybody got to taste some homemade dill pickles made with homegrown cucumbers: salt and vinegar.

Mutual curiosity

After the taste test came the highlight of the visit—the chickens. There was lots of chicken talk and good questions (“What do the chickens eat?” “Are there baby chicks in those eggs?” “Why do they peck?” “Do you have any roosters? Why not?”). The chickens were just as curious about their visitors as the visitors were about the chickens. We looked at how different colored chickens lay different colored eggs. We also talked about how the eggs weren’t the only benefit from the chickens, but that their poop is great for fertilizer for the garden, so the chickens help the vegetables grow, and then they get to eat some of the vegetables. We cracked an egg open so they could see that it looks just like the ones they eat, only better!

We got the guitar out (apparently this fulfills another state requirement) and all sang a chicken song together. This is a little tune I wrote for my adorable niece. It has many verses, but here’s the one we sang:

Bok bok baaack!

What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
They peck outside, they peck indoors
Take a little break then they peck some more
They’re happy and they never get bored
Peck and peck and peck and peck!

Then we sang a verse with the chickens, in their own language:

Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok baaaahk, bok bok baaaahk!
bokiebokiebok, bokie bok bok bok!
Bok bokie bok bok bok bok bok,
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!

It was quite the rousing chorus. Some even threw in a few funky chicken moves.

As they were leaving, one little girl asked, “So this is a farm?” I said, “Well, it has gardens and animals that are living and growing and giving us food, so I think it counts as a farm, even in the city.” Then she asked, “Even girls can be farmers?”

Here’s hoping that’s a seed sown.

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The sun and the rain and the salad greens

Welcome to my Southern Urban Homestead, a long, narrow lot in a beautiful neighborhood of Decatur, Georgia, a small town situated fifteen easy minutes east of downtown Atlanta. Over the past fifteen-plus years this little slice of urban earth and I have had quite the partnership. We have rejoiced together. We have exchanged magnificent gifts. We have argued, even fought (I usually lose). But I have come to understand myself and my homestead better. I have, I like to think, become more awake, more patient, and more respectful of the nuances and cycles of my immediate natural surroundings.

I grew up in Rabun County, Georgia, in the southern tip of the Appalachians, and for most of my adult life, I have searched for ways to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. So it made sense that I would have a garden. My mother and grandmothers kept gardens.

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

They also “put up”–that is, they canned and froze the produce from the garden. My dad planted an orchard–another lesson in patience–and decades later, we are still harvesting apples and pears and blueberries from the trees and bushes he planted when I was a teenager. And the offspring of his blueberry bushes now thrive in my yard here in the city.

Blueberry bushes, a fig tree, and a small garden–that is how it started, when I moved here in April 1994. Soon I had expanded the garden, added a second one, and was cramming vegetable beds into every sunny nook I could find. I improved soil and began starting all my seedlings indoors each winter, as soon as the catalogs started arriving. I started canning like my mother and grandmothers had done. I composted obsessively.

Then in 2004, my neighbors and I acquired our first batch of baby chicks–fulfilling a dream I’d had for several years. We all wanted the eggs, of course, but my garden wanted the chicken poop. Thus launched an exploration of what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into an exciting local movement of folks who wanted to model a certain kind of ethical living and to connect with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.

Our latest spring chicks

Our latest spring chicks

This blog will tell stories of how we connect and interconnect around food–where it comes from, how it circulates, brings us together, shapes our identities both as individuals and as communities. There will also be stories of how we struggle with food–how it challenges us, disappoints us, forces us to work hard and get creative, even alter our understanding of what food is. There will be tales of my war (well, not war exactly; more a kind of gunboat diplomacy) with the squirrels. Chronicles of my close encounters with other beasties great and small. Legends of my ongoing quest for free water. Shocking revelations of unimagined thrift. Inspiring accounts of efforts to establish a local barter economy. And culinary adventures that will, I hope, drive you to the garden yourself.

My intention here is not to live “impact free”–no extremes, no gimmicks. Rather, I aim to share my daily search for ways to live effectively, efficiently, and responsibly in an urban landscape. Growing numbers of city dwellers are becoming more thoughtful and creative about their own environmental impact as it relates to quality of life. I can think of no better reason in this world to be optimistic.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

For me, it all begins with the act of providing–of feeding ourselves and those we care for. This goes to the core of how we live on the earth and with one another. It’s a daily invitation to be mindful of labor, consumption, and reward. Even here, in the heart of the urban South, we can be aware and grateful.

Grateful for the things I need–the sun and the rain and the salad greens.

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