Snow Day Garden Planning

It is a winter wonderland right now. Seriously. We have over a foot of snow in our yard, a combination of the approximately 8 inches we got today plus what was already laying on the ground. My dad used our snow blower to created a doggy path in our back yard since our critters are a bit vertically challenged.

10437617_10206255174127735_8793836284818350200_nI am desperately looking forward to the days when our yard looks more like this-

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Last year was the first garden my parents did. This little plot is 8×10. This year, we are more than doubling that to a whopping 32×10. Yes, 32×10. That is 320 square feet of prime food growin ground. When you decide to grow a garden that big, you can not haphazardly throw plant in the ground. There is an art to this, a serious science. I have spent at least 3 hours researching, drawing, erasing and going back to the garden boards to plan out our vegetable garden this year. An excel spread sheet, and 2 tables later, I think I’ve got it!

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This is an excel spread sheet of all different fruits and vegetables we will be growing, whether in the main 32×10 garden, in a separate box, like our strawberries, or in our side garden, like the cucumbers. It features how deep to plant the seeds, how far apart to plant them, how many can be planted in a square foot, when to plant, companion planting info, soil info and sun preferences. Instead of having to search 18 different websites, I can simply pull this up and all of the info I need is right there in one spot!

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This is our 32×10 garden lay out. Below is the color key, black is walking space. It is a pain in the butt to harvest, weed and take care of a garden when you have no room to actually walk! What a travesty to have great plants and accidentally step and crush them! This helps aid this problem. Having it laid out also means no guessing when it comes to planting time. Each square will have 1-16 plants depending on what is being planted there. We LOVE canning homemade tomato sauce, and being able to harvest and freeze fresh green beans, carrots and peppers to use throughout the winter and spring. Nothing beats having fresh carrots and green beans in a good hearty pot of stew in the middle of December. We are also planting marigolds around the perimeter of the whole garden. There are numerous benefits of this, one of them being that they attract bees, which helps pollination, which in turn means lots of produce!

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 5.18.33 PMRight now, the wind is blowing and the snow is still kinda falling. By the end of the week it is supposed to bounce back up to the 40s and Spring will quickly be approaching. I still have our front flower gardens to plan and a few weeks before we’ll be able to till the ground and get our (organic/natural) soil additives in preparation for planting time mid-April. Though it seems so far away, like the snow may never stop and the ice will never melt, I know that in just a few short weeks I will have my toes in the dirt and seeds in the ground!

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Canned Homemade Apple Sauce

I finally went apple picking. It was everything I had hoped it would be and MORE. Not only was the weather perfect, but the fruits of our labor were exceptionally sweet! I am fortunate to live by an awesome little place called “Weaver’s Orchard.”
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Weaver’s boasts a beautiful orchard with over 30 varieties of apple. Not to mention the raspberries, pumpkins, blueberries and all of the other pick your own yummy treats. They also have a farmers market and lots of other fun, delicious things on site.
Ethan and I went on the perfect September day. I bought a 16lb bag and went to town. I got a few of as many kinds of apples as I could get. Honeycrisp, Red Delicious, Jonagold, Granny Smith, Sun Crisp and a few others. They looked quite pretty all piled up in my mom’s green fruit bowl.
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After washing the apples in a warm water and vinegar mix in the sink, it was time to SAUCE!
Ingredients:
8-12 apples peeled and chopped (I used a variety of apples)
2 cups of water
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 cup Maple Syrup (YES! That is the secret!)
1/4 cup good honey
3-5 canning jars/lids

I like my apple sauce nice and spiced so that it tastes like apple pie. It even lends itself to be a bit closer to apple butter. ANYWHO.
1. Peel and chop your apples. Add all ingredients to a crock pot set on high and stir.
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Your house will smell AWESOME! This is great to do in the fall because it smells AH-MAZING.
2. Cook on high until the apples are completely mushy and soft- this takes about 6-8 hours depending on the apples you use and how many.
3. Using a blender or hand held blender, blend the apples until smooth, or your desired consistency. Some people like chunkier apple sauce- what ever floats your boat.
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4. While blending, I started my boiling water for my jars/lids.
5. After blending I dumped the blended apples into a large pot on the stove and brought them up to a good boil. Be careful, it will pop and splatter and it is VERY HOT!!!! Homemade apple sauce is much darker than the stuff bought in the store. It is also darker because of the spices added.
6. This next step is a two-three person job that my mom and or dad usually help with so that it is done quickly before anything can cool! (Thanks guys!) Once jars and lids are brought to a boil in the water, pull them out and ladle in the hot sauce. As long as the jars, lids, and sauce are all nice and hot, you will not need to water bathe them again. It took about 3 ladles of sauce per jar. Set them aside on a towel with space in between so that the air can get in and cool them. Do NOT put them in the fridge they will crack and break. They must cool slowly. The tops should pop within an hour or two. If not, you may need to put the jar in boiling water for 5-10 minutes to heat everything back up to induce the sealing of the lid.
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This batch made 3 pint jars and enough at the bottom of the pot for everyone in the family to have a spoonful. I have been trying to share my apple sauce, but it’s so hard when I want to keep it all for myself! I got two batches out of my 16lb bag from the orchard. I definitely plan on getting at least a 24lb bag next year. The two batches made 7 pints and 3 of the smaller sample size jars to share with friends.

Homemade Tomato Sauce

There is something wonderful that happens when you harvest fruits and veggies from your garden that you have spent months loving and tending, bring them inside and turn them into yumminess. There’s something reassuring when you know exactly what was used to help make them grow. Last summer I had the joyful job of learning how to make my own mater sauce and can. For what ever reason I had this thought in my head that canning and turning tomatoes into sauce was this daunting task. It certainly wasn’t the herculean quest I thought it would be, but definitely a process.

I learned a few things.

1. You don’t necessarily have to do the whole water bath thing. Run the mason jars and lids through the dishwasher on the sanitizing cycle with heat dry and try to time it so that the dishwasher ends when the sauce is ready. As long as the jars/lids and the sauce are nice and hot, they should pop on their own without having to do the water bath mess. If the tops don’t pop then you might have to do some water bathing. I only had to do this for 1 of about 30 jars we did last year. You can also just put the jars and lids in boiling water, pull them and fill. Same concept, works just as well.

2. Avoid putting herbs/garlic/onions in with your sauce. As they sit in the sauce they can make it bitter and taste funny.

3. You don’t need anything but tomatoes if that be your desire.

4. The longer you cook the tomato puree, the thicker it gets and the more like tomato paste or marinara it becomes. There’s a sweet spot.

SO, now that that is all out of the way, time for the actual sauce making process.

Pluck your maters! I found that for about every 30 medium tomatoes I would get 2 quart jars of sauce. We used a combination of heirlooms and romas.

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Romas!

Phase I. Line up your work station. As much as I hate having an electric stove, the flat top can double as extra counter space now and again. Left to right I have a pot of boiling water on the far burner. Next to that on a cool part of the stove I have a bowl full of ice water. On the counter I have a bowl for scraps, my cutting board, and another bowl to put the processed tomatoes.

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1. To remove the skins, place a few in the boiling water for 10 seconds to a minute. Some skins break and start to release almost automatically. Some need a wee bit more time. Once you do it for a while you kind know what they feel like when the skin has separated, and obviously you can visibly see when it splits.

2. Place the maters in an ice bath so that they are cool enough to handle.

3. Peal the skins off of the maters and put the skins in bowl #1. With your hands or a knife split the tomato into smaller pieces/chunks. Remove as much of the seeds as you can now and throw them in your scraps bowl.

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4. The tomato chunks go into bowl two to await their next step.

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Repeat until all of the tomatoes you harvested have gone through this process. When you’re done, clean it all up but leave out your bowl of maters and your scrap bowl. Get out a large pitcher or another bowl and your blender. You are now ready for Phase II.

Fill your blender about 1/2 full of the tomato chunks and blend until smooth. Feel free to leave a few chunks if you’re into that kind of sauce. Pour your puree into your bowl/pitcher. Repeat until all of your chunks have been blended.

Place a big pot on a front burner of your stove on medium-low heat. Place a relatively fine sifter/screen over the top of your pot. Pour the tomato puree through and stir to help the sauce through the screens. This removes the seeds that are still there and any chunks. You can choose to reblend them for smooth sauce or pull them out, make sure they don’t have seeds stuck to them and throw them in the pot. This is the longest part of the whole process and would be much easier with a food mill. Which we haven’t invested in yet.

To the very runny, kinda pink, not very tomato-saucey stuff in your pot I add about 1 cup- 1 1/2 cup of white granulated sugar. Again, this depends on how much sauce you are making. I also added about 3 tablespoons or so of salt. I leave the pot on medium heat for about 3 hours. Check and stir every 20-30 minutes to avoid the bottom burning. This also helps you gauge about when to start your dishwasher if you are using that method.

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Again, the longer you cook it down, the thicker and more paste like it becomes. When I use a jar, I like to simmer it on the stove with a crushed garlic clove, fresh minced onion and herbs so I keep my sauce a bit on the thin side to accommodate for my cooking style.

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The beginning of the cooking process

When the sauce is ready, my mom, dad and I tag teamed to make the process quick. I laid down a dishtowel on the counter. Mom pre-washed the brand new jars and lids. Dad boiled the jars, rings and lids because I think it is easier than the dishwasher for small batches. Dad pulled them, I fill with sauce, screw the tops on and repeat until the sauce is gone or I don’t have enough for a jar and have to put them in freezer containers. If the jar tops haven’t popped in about an hour, you should submerge it in boiling water to make sure that happens.

This particular batch took about 3 hours to cook down to the consistency that we wanted. We got 5 24oz jars! 😀

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Mom is obviously SUPER excited that she FINALLY has sauce from her garden tomatoes!