Saturday, December 7, 2013

Foment a Ferment, the Lazy Cider-Punk's Guide

Bubble bubble, no toil, no trouble.

For years, I've wanted to make hard cider, but never have enough apples at once for it to be worthwhile. I always give the tree's owner a good share, and maybe some to friends and neighbors, but basically the girls and I drink it as fast as we make it. Despite a particularly generous neighbor this year, it was the same story.

Once you press the cider, you end up with a "cheese," the wheel of spent pomace, apples chewed by the mill and crushed dry by the press. In the past, this went onto the worm heap, but this time my inner cheapskate devised another step in the cycle.

I dumped some pomace into a bin, and filled it with water, on the theory that I could coax forth more sugar and get a ferment going that would yield some vinegar. Just a plain plastic bin, sprayed out with a hose, duct tape over two openings that the fruit flies would have entered. Snap on the lid and walk away.

Being shiftless and lazy, I did not keep notes, but fuzzy recollection tells me that fermentation set in quickly, and it was not long until it was frothy. Yeast was gobbling sugar and pumping out alcohol. I shut the lid and walked away for another undetermined amount of time, checking progress intermittently, satisfied that the fermentation gases were escaping, but fruit flies were not getting in.

At some point, the fermentation slowed, and I decided to jettison the fruit. I strained out the liquid and then put the pulp into a canning kettle, pushing it down with the circular wooden plunger from the cider press to squeeze out the last liquid. Then, finally, I let go of the pomace and the fruit flies and worms got their feast on.

This liquid was then covered for the final ferment, turning alcohol into vinegar. Because I'd just let the wild microbes do what they wanted, and maybe also because this was a second pressing, I doubt the liquid was ever really what you would call hard cider. The vinegar smell was present early on, as the Acetobacteria drank alcohol and pissed vinegar. By this time, I had not only apple, but also pear and plum batches a-brewing.

The pear juice was thick and viscous, a syrupy consistency that I hoped translated to sugar. There was more than half a bin of this as I snapped the lid shut and walked away. The times between lifting the lid and checking grew longer, and between stirring even longer. There were some more bubbles, but not as many, as fermentation mellowed and aging began. Meanwhile, the bin sat just under the eaves of the house, getting afternoon sun when it shone, getting cold at night, pretty much neglected. The whole process, I figured, was a very low-stakes gamble. Rather than invest time and effort, what would happen if I let nature take it's course?

Good things, it turns out. A little more than two months after putting the batches in dark places to do their thing, I pulled the bacterial mat off the surface to reveal liquid that was less cloudy than before and much less viscous. It smelled like vinegar, and tasted like it.

Now, I have a quart of plum vinegar, which seems really fine, but I am continuing to age in the fridge. There's a gallon or so of apple, which seems to be fairly weak and clear; I have not tasted it yet, but even if it's not flavorific, I can use it for the 1001 non-food functions of acetic acid. Finally, I have several gallons of pear vinegar, which is pretty good. I pasteurized some (150 degrees for 35 minutes) and bottled it in re-used beer bottles that I boiled for 10 minutes. I just used the regular crown caps like beer, but will seal it with wax if I get around to it. It will be interesting to see how these age. The live stuff is in a big jug out in the garage and a few half-gallon growlers (again, thank you, beer containers) in the fridge.

Already, some of the vinegar has been put to use. Some went to scrubbing down a moldy molding (acetic acid kills mold without killing me), and some went into salad dressing that adorned the last lettuce of the year. Next Summer, I should be able to make pickles using my own vinegar. The frugal, off-the-grid, lazy, and independent parts of me rejoice. Wringing vinegar from spent cider-fruit adds another spoke to the re-cycle.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Alliums, Yummy Allies

Gene, holding Shallots.

Real life has once again intervened with posting here, and all I have is old news.

Last fall, I planted some red onions and vari-colored garlicks, and in the spring I transplanted and new-planted more of their kin. Throughout the seasons, my right finger would poke dirt so the left hand could deposit a slippery stub, bulbish-headed root-end of a scallion stir-fried or otherwise-et the day before, it's promise of free food affording it a place in the garden as I made my way compost-ward with the dross-veg. I cannot swear when I planted the Shalits, except that it may have been later than the Orthodox Fall-Planting school and earlier than the Rebel Spring-Planting outpost. Or maybe not.

It was what this immigrant thinks of as maybe a typical 20th Century Spring and Summer here in the South Sound, and all alliums seemed to thrive. True, the scallions do nothing but grow into gianter, tougher scallions, and the red onions succumbed to neglect (including the outright abuse of a summertime transplant), and of course there was the sheer scapelessness of the 2013 Summer. But the scallions did get ginormous and  the shallits [yes, I'm doing the Lewis-and-Clark thing of spelling a word diffrintly all-the-damn Time] grew fast and strong.

Cogniscenti gardeners will see from the photo that I scooped up the shallottes a bit early--shoulda let the tops die back more--but the haul was good. Same with garlic. See?

Garlic, Me.

Anyway, it was a good year for alliums. I have enough garlic to keep me happy for another year, and a pretty good haul of shallots.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, More

2013 was the first year I really made an effort to grow potatoes, and it paid off...or I was lucky. Now that I've harvested 2 of 3 varieties (I grew Ozettes by choice, as well as some Redskins and Yukon Golds because I didn't eat them in time), the experience is ripe enough to jot down some lessons. I've already posted about taters over at Mocavore, but here's where the gardening info will show.

Instead of buying seed potatoes this year, I just grew surplus food. The Ozettes came from Rising River Farm at the Olympia Farmers Market; I bought them in late fall and stored them in a shoebox in the garage. The others were probably from the supermarket, and I planted them because they were getting soft and sprouty at the right time. Lesson: As long as you keep an eye out for blight, you don't need to buy something labeled "seed potato."

In Olympia as in much of the country, St. Patrick's Day is a good time to plant potatoes, and I did put in the bulk of the crop around them. I tried some in February, tucked up against the sunrise side of the house, but it did not result in a head start on harvest. They're still in the ground, which I think is pretty poor to begin with and was negelected in terms of both fertilizer (none) and water (under the eaves, so not much rain, and I didn't really water). Lesson: Starting early may not hurt, but it doesn't seem to help, either.

The soil here is a sandy loam, which makes it easy to work, it drains well enough that the tubers won't rot, and there are not a bunch of rocks to get in the way and deform the potatoes. On the other hand, it's not very rich in nutrients, so I augmented it a bit. When I dug the bed and prepped it in January, I added bone and blood meal (didn't record the amounts, but less than 2 pounds on a 25-foot by 3-foot bed, as well as wood ash. How much this had to do with the rampant growth that followed I cannot say, this being my first crop on this ground (which was lawn for decades before). Lesson: Sandy soil may be great as a growing medium, but it probably needs some food; adding fertilizer a month or two before planting seems to have helped.

So yeah, growth took off  like crazy, but the plants didn't get too leggy, except for the Yukons, which were planted in a much shadier spot, and which at this point have vines nearly 6 feet long, sprawling all over the place. I hilled everything a couple of times, but contrary to mythology I've heard time and again, but at harvest time it appeared that a second hilling did not create a second round of tuber formation. Even when the plants were growing, and I still harbored the belief that another round of hilling would produce another round of potatoes, I held off on a third attempt, deciding to let the plants focus on fattening up the existing tubers. Lesson: You do need to give your tubers some protection and room to grow, but continuing to hill them up does not seem to give you a bigger crop, and only makes the potatoes harder to get at.

By July, the main potato row was yellowing a bit, and the rapid growth had stopped. Based on pretty much nothing more than a hunch, I figured that potatoes are a little like taro in this respect, with the rate of vegetative growth following something like a bell curve--a slow start, a vigorous middle age, and then decline. Working from little more than superstition, I like to let the decline take its course, as if the strength of the stems and leaves is draining back down and collecting in the tubers. At the end of July, with the tops partially drained, but not yet dessicated skeletons, I started harvest. Having controlled by urge to graffle, I got the whole crop at once. From a 25-foot row, roughly 2/3 in Ozettes and the rest in Redskins, I got a half bushel of the former and maybe 2 pecks of the latter. Looked at another way, each potato I planted turned into several pounds of potatoes that I can eat. Lesson: One row is only a long-term supply if you are on a low-carb diet, but it's a pretty good return on the minimal investment. Also, one of the things that makes gardening fun is that it give me an excuse to use what are otherwise archaic units of measurements--I can hear my grandparents saying those words.

Somewhere along the line, I've heard that you should let potatoes dry out for a little while without washing off the dirt (it being so sandy, not much stuck on anyway), and since this approach appeals both to my love of loam and loathing of extra work, that's what I did. In fact, a couple of weeks later, the Ozettes are sitting in my archaeology screens, which consist of a 4-inch deep frame with 1/4 or 1/8-inch mesh. They're plenty dried off now, and I suppose it's about time to put them in the dark, or maybe hang them up in one of those coffee shipping bags I've been saving. Lesson: Being an archaeologist has its advantages when it comes to harvest time.

The earliest Ozettes and most of the Yukon Golds are still in the ground, and I'm inclined to leave them there for as long as I can. Sandy soil is good storage, and until winter rains saturate the ground, they'll be fine. A holdout Russet from the previous tenant's garden did this, and put out it's own surprise crop this year, maybe a half peck from one plant. Lesson: No need to harvest everything at once; it's more work, and just creates storage issues. In fact, maybe with the remaining ones, I'll just graffle all but a few, and see if they produce and even lower-labor crop next year.

That exeriment will take a while to play out, but looking back at this year, I'm pretty happy. At $2/pound for good varieties of organic potatoes at the Farmers Market, it's not like I've saved a huge amount of money, but I did get enough for a bunch of meals. Being able to put them in in March and pull them a month or so after the Solstice also means that I can grow a Fall crop in their place, and in fact there are already radishes, beets, carrots and kale coming up where the potatoes came out. Because they start fairly early, and hilling happens later on, potatoes work well with the approach of having beds that expand as the season progresses (as in the Tidal Beds post). Lesson: The tater has a place in my garden.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Heap o Worms - Update

Stick a fork in it; it's done. (Guardian caiman at left.)

Earlier this year, I wrote about how I abandoned the bin, and experimented with freestyle vermiposting. Having had a wooden bin that succumbed to rat raids or some unknown catastrophe, I just started tossing kitchen scraps and the neighbor's juice-machine pulp in a heap, aiming for an old-school compost, but thwarted by the cool wet NW winter. Then I noticed that worms migrated in, and the compost was just not heating up, so I took to tossing on dirt from molehills to aid the vermiferous digestive process, and turning it all with a fork from time to time.

Even in January, it seemed to be working just fine. I never added worms, but there they were. No idea whether they were heeding the dinner bell and crawling in from elsewhere, or if I had a breeding population, but each time I turned over the heap, scads of red wriggling worms appeared. The color and activity makes me think they are "red wigglers," the favored variety for composting, but again, I have no idea if that's true; my curiosity tends to take a nap when things are working fine (unlike those missing scapes, what the hell?).

On the initial worm heap, I would put fresh material on one side, followed with some brown matter (dead leaves and twigs, mostly, the idea being to get some partially decomposed material with it's microbiota to balance the fresh "green" stuff), finally dusted with some soil (I mostly used backdirt from molehills, which around here is the glacially deposited, mostly inorganic, sandy clay substrate). Then I'd flip the other side on top. Back and forth.

That worked fine. Yielding this:

Heap #1, cross section.

So yeah. Update: It worked. A few months turned all my kitchen waste and the neigbor's juice pulp into fine black loam. Because of the addition of sandy soil, it actually has more structure than typical worm castings, although it may not be quite so potent. Better yet, the soil for a couple of feet around the heap is spongy-soft; even after I harvest the good stuff, the network of worm-tunnels full o castings will make this a good spot to garden.

Hell yeah, I'll take that.
In May, I stopped adding material to Worm Heap #1, figuring I'd let the worms work their way through the last of the fresh scraps and make for a harvest that had only the good stuff (and presumably, fewer worms, wh would have moved on in search of food.

The new heap took shape about 10 yards away, beginning with a layer of dead leaves, poplar and spruce buds (thank you, windfall), and whatever. By now, my juice-fiend neighbor was keeping his pulp to himself, but it being Spring now, there was a supply of garden thinnings.

Heap # 2, cross section.

To augment the thinnings, I also tossed on weeds, unless they were the kind that would take root too easily, or were full of seed.

As if haphazard weed-tossing is not lazy enough, I decided this time to forego the periodic turning with a pitchfork. Not having giant clumps of carrot-pulp that need aerating to prevent slimy non-decomposition, it didn't seem so crucial, and an experiment in the name of finding an easier way is one gamble I'll usually take.

So far, so good. With drier weather, I pay a bit more attention to watering the heap, but no turning. After adding a decent amount of green material, I'll rake the garden paths toward the heap to give it an influx of brown matter, or shovel on some molehill dirt. Not quite so systematic, but still there is a good mix of green, brown, and grit. Maybe not as pretty as Heap #1, and to the untrained eye it may appear haphazard, but if it works, it's a refinement of technique from the standpoint of energy input (according to my back). More to the point, the worms are there in droves, and the green and brown stuff is turning into dirt.

Toss it, and they will come.

Maybe I'll do another update, but if not, just assume this is working. At this point, I cannot see the sense in trying real composting again. Or even making another worm bin. I have yet to sort Heap #1 (I'll sift it through 1/2-inch mesh to remove the sticks and avocado pits, which are apparently indestructable), but there must be at least 20 gallons of black gold there, and I should be able to do this twice a year. The sandy glacial soil in this yard should improve.

Ex Scape

Weird, but this 5th year of growing garlic in the Northwest, and for the first time it did not put out scapes. Planted in October, and we probably had the most normal year of the past few, but May and June rolled by with almost no scapes.

I thought at first it might have been a nutrition issue--these were in an abandoned garden plot from the previous renters, and I didn't amend the soil heavily (although I do think the garlic got the same dusting of blood and bone meal as the taters)--but an afterthought planting near the house in poorer soil did send out a few scapes.

The garlic itself seems fine, if not particularly large. I saw some other patches that produced scapes, and farmers at the market were selling them, so it's not some Olympia-wide scape famine.

It's a mystery to me. A little sad, because I like chopped scapes (the Garlic Calendar makes a big deal of watching for and making use of them), but more of a teasing enigma than a disaster.

Anybody else have this problem?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Garden at the end of May

Let's see,...we had the fake Spring of mid-May, and then the week o cool rain, ruining many a Memorial Day plan.

I'll admit that the warm week tricked me into buying a dozen tomato plants (among them every single Paul Robeson I could find and several Marmondes), but at least I had the sense to tuck them into the hoop house, where carrots are also sprouting just fine. On the other hand, the beans planted without cover went into hibernation until yesterday.

Meanwhile, in the next row, Ozette potatoes are growing better than any taters I've ever planted. I've been good to them, prepping the ground with plenty of cultivation and doses of bone meal and wood ash, but not overly solicitous. I've hilled them up, digging into the grass next to them and shaking the dirt free where it could do some good. Mostly, sun and rain have done their job, and the plants look healthy and sturdy. Now, a week into June and back in sunny weather, they are flowering. I could start graffling soon, but will hold off.

"Graffling" is old southern term for reaching into the dirt and feeling around, pulling a few tubers without hurting the plant and stopping the rest of the crop from continuing to grow. There are variants, but this is how I remember Grandma saying it. She was a mischievious and skilled gardener. She might appreciate the random offshoots of my garden more than the neat rows. I wish she were around to enjoy a meal of new potatoes.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

We Are Devonian: The Scouring Rush

Back in the Paleozoic, when the animals were just getting started and plants had the run of the land, just begining to evolve fancy things like roots and seeds, flora like the horsetail were common. In the primeval swamplands of every state in the union, they still are.

Equisetum hyemale, the scouring rush horsetail, is one of those survivors. In pristine wetlands and roadside bar ditches alike, this ancient (way pre-dinosaur, my friends) green shoots up from the mud and then shoots out spores. The stalk segments can be a source of pure water, if you find yourself thirsty in a swamp, but today my interest is in the properties implied by the common name, the Scouring Rush.

Those same hollow segments that hold water are formed of a tough, silica-rich material that turns out to be a fine (in multiple senses of the word) abrasive. Having been around for hundreds of millions of years before humans, it's abrasive power apparent to any creature with a sense of touch, this horsetail had to have been among the first plants used by hominids, smoothing down anything from a hangnail to a bone tool.

This modern hominid, having tried out the scouring rush on carvings where an absolute burlessness and skin-smooth contact is the goal, has learned that this horsetail is one of the finest finishers available. I am pretty sure it beats a 000 steel wool, maybe even 0000.

Rush, clogged with grease.

But it also turns out to be (surprise!) a fine scouring tool. Gotta clean a skillet or wok? You want this. One or two segments and some warm water is all you need. Skudge skraped free, burnt oil and fat stick to the plant. Rub till it feels smoothe, and you are done.

Other than a few decorative plantings in pots and ponds where the landscape architect didn't have to worry about their invasiveness of simply did not know she was dealing with something so ridiculously common as to be free, the scouring rush is there for the taking. This is a species whose gathering will not upset anyone, kinda like nettles. If you have pots to clean, or carvings to polish, grab a few fistfuls. Dry them out (I just put them in a dry vase), and they'll be ready when you need 'em.

Then, compost them. They are literally and figuratively green. They are free. They are so abundant that nobody will complain if you rip them out by the fist-full.