Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Good Yule

Merry Christmas

Here is one of my favorite Christmas memories.  Me, my dad, my little sister and my grandfather (mother's father) when I was 10 years old.  Choosing two Christmas trees out of the spruce stand in the upper pasture.

About a week before Christmas, we would drive out with the Allis Chalmers B and the trailer.  Then we would traipse through the over grown trees until we found two suitable trees.

It looks like from this photo, that Mom skied out with us to take pictures.  Her skies are stuck in the snow.  We would load them in the trailer to take them back to the farm.  Then they would stand in the warmth of the dairy barn for a day to let them melt off.  I remember one year there was the faint odor of cow instead of strictly spruce.

My sister and I had the joy of decorating two trees.  One at home, and one at Grandma and Papa's.  There was never a shortage of ornaments at home because we kept making new ones.  And we reused the garland and tinsel until it was thread bare and crinkled beyond belief.

But at the farm house the old standbys were saved and treasured.  I don't ever remember breaking any, but over the years we certainly did lose some.

May your holidays be joyous and your memories warm.

P.S.  Did anyone else get like a dozen seed catalogs in the mail today?  Time to start planning!

Saturday, December 21, 2013


One interesting aspect of the Christmas season is that all of America is basically forced to switch over to Winter Music.  I embrace the notion and find it amusing that you can listen to a pop station and over the course of twenty minutes hear everything from hymns by the Vienna Boys Choir, through Bing Crosby, the big band era, the Trans Siberian Orchestra and finish up with Justin Beiber.

And it's often some very bad winter music.  Thank God I've only heard the dogs barking Jingle Bells and the Chipmunks once so far.  Another one that always drives me up a wall is My Favorite Things.  Ok, so it's a bit winter themed (... warm woolen mittens...sleigh bells... snowflakes and silver white winters....), but that's only 4 out of 14 things that are wintery which works out to be only 28% winter.  Heaven forbid we have to listen to daily it the other 72% of the year instead.

The radio stations also cram all the other winter songs into the Holiday Season.  This kicks off with Over The River and Through the Wood which started life as a Thanksgiving poem, celebrates the first snowfall with Frosty the Snowman and gallops on to the Skater's Waltz.   Many of these so called "Christmas" songs such as Winter Wonderland have no Christmas imagery at all and would do just as well in March in many parts of the country.  Although I admit that by March most of the wonder has worn off of winter.  Jingle Bells really ought to hold off until January or February when we have enough of a snow base to actually use a sleigh... but I digress.

Like I said, I embrace this plan.  After all, under the guise of Christmas, we're getting to enjoy many styles and artists who have faded from popularity.  In fact, we get to hear some really ancient songs and never give it a thought.  They are part and parcel of our traditions even though the traditions they speak of have fallen out of custom.   How many Americans do you think actually know when good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen? (the second day of Christmas) or when the Twelfth Day of Christmas is or why there's a partridge in the pear tree (there isn't really) or why there is more than one day of Christmas at all?

Sometimes you will even hear a really ancient song which has nothing to do with Christmas or winter.  Greensleeves sometimes get's some air time simply because the tune was reused for What Child is This? and that song has been around since 1580.  You may have realized somewhere in the last four paragraphs that I have been sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours a day for over a decade with the luxury of the internet and all of the knowledge of the world at my finger tips.  I can Google all day long and soak up pages of knowledge while I'm waiting impatiently for some report to run.

Well once in a while I find out something really interesting.  For instance:  the other day an old version of Wassail Wassail came on the radio.  Now I enjoy this song as well as Here We Come A Wassailing and I know the basics of Wassailing and it's tradition.  But this time as I read the history of wassail, one fact stood out for me.  Wassail is a cider based drink and...
In parts of Medieval Britain, a different sort of wassailing emerged: farmers wassailed their crops and animals to encourage fertility. An observer recorded, "They go into the Ox-house to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to their health." The practice continued into the eighteenth century, when farmers in the west of Britain toasted the good health of apple trees to promote an abundant crop the next year. Some placed cider-soaked bread in the branches to ward off evil spirits. In other locales, villagers splashed the trees with cider while firing guns or beating pots and pans. Sometimes they sang special songs:
Let every man take off his hat 
And shout out to th'old apple tree 
Old apple tree we wassail thee 
And hoping thou will bear.
Interesting.  When I mentioned it to my husband he suggested we try it.  We've done plenty of silly things.  Everyone knows our penchant for home made liquor.  And no one would find it too odd if we were to begin firing guns and beating pots and pans.  I do think it's at least time to take a gallon of cider out of the freezer and make some Wassail.

Here is a recipe that sounds pretty good: Recipe Link

 Happy Winter Solstice.  The days will be longer now!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Christmas Season

The Christmas Season is well underway here.  The third batch of Glögg is cooling on the stove, and the first batch of cookie dough is chilling on the porch.  Thursday is the neighborhood cookie swap and we will be ready!

The house is decorated and although I have not purchased a single new vegetable Christmas ornament this year, I did go with a new decorating theme.  Burlap.  It seems a country gardener sort of trend worth embracing.  

I have natural colored burlap in the living room, and cream colored in the dining room where I display my cream and green graniteware. I purchased every burlap poinsettia in town, and the living room is accented with dark red burlap poinsettias

There were no cream colored poinsettias to be had locally (although I've found some mail order ones for next year) so bows were the obvious solution.

The tree was the most fun to reinvent.  Last year after our little Hemlock had lost every singe needle I purchased a nice table top sized artificial tree on sale.  

I wanted to keep with the simple country theme so I went with handmade Swedish straw ornaments, gold balls, and handmade egg ornaments.

I've been saving these blown out poulet eggs for years.  They are in shades of cream, soft brown, and green.  I put wires through them, secured by plastic beads.  In person they are really beautiful.

Of course I have tubs and tubs full of  ornaments and floral picks left over...

... so I just go around the house scattering them...

Nothing is ignored...

Even a vintage kitchen sieve full of ornaments looks festive.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

King David Apples

This was a good year for our apple orchard which was a rewarding outcome seeing as how we put so much work into it.  We spent two full days attacking the rose bushes.  My stepfather mowed it a couple of times afterwards.  My uncle lit the bonfires, and those piles had to be tended and worked with several times after. 

The reward was that the grass and brush was kept to a minimum making it possible to gather apples.  Since the trees are so tall and the productive branches are mostly younger growth at the top, there is very little picking and a lot of picking-up.  I picked at least three bushels myself.  The Amish picked five bushels and my mother and step father picked several bushes.  There were eating apples, pies, applesauce and cider enough for everyone.  Five bushels were taken to the mill yielding an astonishing 21 gallons.  The mill told us that generally you get three gallons a bushel but ours averaged over four gallons a bushel.

We also removed several old trunks making way for new trees.  I’ve made my list for replacement trees.  The first on the list was the Yellow Transparent.  We have a nice tree in our backyard but it is within jumping distance of the woods and the squirrels take every apple before they fully ripen.  And what the squirrels don’t get, the crows and the deer eat.  By locating it in the orchard with its lower wildlife population we have a much better chance of defending a tree.  Second on the list is the Chenango Strawberry.  There is a grafted limb on one orchard tree.  My mother and her father did this decades ago with a scion from my great grandmother’s tree.  We get half a dozen apples each year and long for more.

Another obvious choice is a Red Astrachan.  Since I spent four years assuming the grafted tree in the garden was an Astrachan, and hearing such glowing reports from friends who know the variety,  I am curious to sample one.  I also would like an Esopus Spitzenburg which was the favorite apple of Thomas Jefferson.  It does well in a cold climate and keeps well.
And finally, my two favorite apples, the Golden Delicious and the Honey Crisp.  My uncle says there are or were Golden Delicious trees in the center of the orchard, but if they are still standing they are one of the trees that haven’t been producing.  The Honey Crisp is a new variety, but is popular enough that even Big Horse Creek Farms, who dedicates themselves to preserving the old varieties, carries it.

King David

The star of the orchard this year was again the “King” tree.  This is a nicely shaped, healthy tree which is consistently the biggest producer in the orchard.  And everyone enjoys the apples.  They are dark red, yellow fleshed and keep well.  I asked my mother if she remembered which King variety it was and she said they always “just called it the King tree”.  So I set out to narrow the options and identify it.  The most common apple with a name containing King was the Tompkins King, but it did not fit our description at all. 

 After much googling and reading I noticed a variety called King David.  This is thought to be a cross between the Jonathan and the Arkansas Black and descriptions and photos I found matched our King apple exactly.  There was even an old trade card from Stark Brothers Nursery available on eBay.  Hmmm…  I wonder if that is where these trees came from.  Certainly during that time period Stark Brothers was shipping a whole lot of trees.  There was a district office in New York.  One way to find out.  I know the orchard was planted in 1938.  I began looking for a 1938 Stark Brothers catalog and it didn’t take too long to find one.  The test would be, were all the other known varieties we had also available from Stark Brothers in 1938?  If so, it would be likely that one of their most touted trademarked varieties, the Stark King David, would be in our orchard.

Arkansas Black

 The known list of apple varieties that are still here or are remembered to be here are:
The King apple
Northern Spy (Double Red)
Double Red Delicious
Golden Delicious
Yellow Transparent

When I received my 1938 salesman's plate book I anxiously opened it and went down the list.  The Stark King David had a large spread as did the Golden Delicious.  Northern Spy: check.  Double Red Delicious: check.  Cortland: check .  Yellow Transparent: check.  I searched the fine print.  Greening … Rhode Island Greening and Northwestern Greening both available...hmm.  Well, check.  Snow: sold under the name Fameuse check.  Yes, they were all there.  Bingo!

So, my conclusion is:  Great Uncle Doug ordered most or all of our trees from Stark Brothers Nursery.  One of them was our now venerate King David tree.  As I looked through the glossy color plates and enticing descriptions I wondered “Uncle Doug, why didn’t you order one of these?”  Well maybe he did.  Maybe this is the key to some of the mystery trees in the back.  Maybe they were not as hardy and resistant as the remaining varieties and are among the many blank spaces on the north side which are now going to be filled with new trees.  The orchard goes on…

Stark Bros Plate

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

Last year the weather was so beautiful. I spent some time in the late morning sitting outside on the garden bench enjoying wine.  Then I clipped some fresh herbs to season my turkey.  We ate vegetables from our garden.  This year we have a foot of snow.  Both of us are recovering from flu.  And in a minute we have to pull ourselves together and go to our favorite restaurant for Thanksgiving Dinner.  What a difference a year makes.

But we are still thankful.  We're thankful the power came back on last night.  We're thankful for a great apple harvest.  We are still enjoying applesauce made from our apples, and we have cider in the freezer.  More about the apple orchard later.  I hope you all have something to be thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Fall Garden

Fall is in full swing, but the garden is still producing.

 The black beans are beginning to fade, and I am anxiously awaiting their harvest so we can get them stored and the bed put up for the winter.
This bed did double duty this year.  The beans were planted when the peas came out.

The pods are just now beginning to turn papery.  If you pick them too soon, they aren't black yet.  I've shelled about 2 quarts so far, which is more than my harvest last year already.  I've probably picked less than 20% of the pods.

Bush beans and leaf lettuce will keep going until a killing freeze does them in.  We began having frosty mornings in September, but have not had a killing frost yet.

How long does one wait for a cherry tomato?  My cherry tomato plant died this year.  I only got about half a dozen ripe tomatoes.  But when I pulled out the onions in July, there were two tiny volunteers from last year's plant.  I transplanted them and here they are on August 8th, about the size of May nursery transplants.

I had to wait until September for my cherry tomatoes.  The anticipation makes them taste even better!

I had quite a few nice bell peppers.  I made fresh Salsa once, but what I really want them for is my Black Bean Stoup.  I chopped them up, froze them on a tray, and then transferred them to bags.  I'll have colorful peppers to add to recipes all winter.

And here is what you call "too many apples"  My mother took this photo one day while out driving around.  Now that's an apple harvest not to be ignored.  You have to find a use for those babies or mow around them!  Whew!  I'm glad that's not in my yard.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Spy Revealed

Yesterday Mom and I went to the Apple Orchard to pick some apples.  There are bushels of wind fall apples.  Because the trees are standard size, the remaining apples at the tops of the trees are virtually unreachable, even with a very long apple picker.  (frustrating!) You would need the added advantage of a tractor bucket to reach most of them and we didn't have one.  So, we went to the back of the orchard and worked our way forward, sorting through the ground apples and picking up the unblemished ones.  You can still get too many apples this way.  In the end, I had to just walk away toting my 5 gallon pail, and leaving bushels behind for another day.

Each time I would find a large, perfect looking apple, which when lifted proved to have too much damage, I would take a couple of bites just to console myself.  As I bit into one under one of the largest, healthiest trees, my mind suddenly went down a familiar path... hard crunch> sweet then tart> grainy texture> and then the unique, subtle, sub-acidic finish...  

I looked around orienting myself in the orchard.  "Mom, taste this apple".  I handed it to her as I picked up another noting it's physical characteristics.  "This is a Northern Spy right?"  Mom agreed, yes.  
"I think that's my apple.  In fact, I'm almost certain"

The Northern Spy is a late apple discovered in the finger lakes region of NY in the early 1800s.  
Skin color is a green ground, flushed with red stripes where not shaded, and it produces fairly late in the season.  It is a hard apple with a more tart taste. Excellent for storage and often used for cooking, and is one of the most sought after pie apples.  It is also noted for it's high Vitamin C content and for being the apple with one of the highest anti-oxidant levels.  Awesome!

Ripens Late Sept-Early Oct R
Green background  R
Red Stripes R

My mother asked for comparison photos so she could see just how big these apples were.  Remember there were only three on my little sapling this year out of the six that pollinated, and all three were huge.  Here it is next to a nice sized Cortland from my orchard.

It also weighs in at a hefty 12.2 ounces.  I did a quick study of my other old heirloom windfall apples and they range from about 5.5 oz to 7 or 8 for an extra large specimen.

So, in conclusion, I am much more inclined to believe that this is a Northern Spy than a Red Astrachan.  All the characteristics point in that direction, as well as the comparison taste test.  Am I happy?  You bet.  This is a great apple to have growing in the backyard.  I look forward to many harvests and many pies!

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Long Awaited Apple

 The apples grown from the tree, which I sent away to be grafted in 2009, which I hand pollinated, and waited for Four and a Half Year to sample, are finally ripe for the picking.  Today when I went out to check, one of the apples was lying on the ground undamaged and unmolested.  I picked the other remaining apple.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a bird had bit into the third one.  I picked that and found it to be not quite ripe.  I ate it anyway.  I was determined to let the last two ripen all the way.

So the question is:  Is it or Is it Not?  An Astrachan that is.

Had I believed my elderly neighbor, and trusted that we were speaking of the same tree, and that she had good information to begin with, I would have simply ordered an Astrachan sapling and planted it.  But my faith wavered and instead, I took a graft from the tree and sent it to Big Horse Creek for grafting.  That was in March 2009 and  November 2009 they sent back two grafted saplings.

 So let's examine the facts.  The Red Astrachan is a Russian variety described as such "Fruit medium sized and distinctly lobed in appearance. The thin, pale yellow skin in nearly covered with bright red and crimson splashes and stripes. White flesh is often tinged with red streaks and is coarse, crisp, moderately juicy and briskly subacid in flavor. Ripens late June to early July, depending on location." Well, maybe and maybe not.  It looks close enough to some of the pictures I'm finding on the web.


But, here is how I would describe this apple. "Fruit medium sized Very Large and distinctly lobed in appearance. The thin, pale yellow skin in nearly covered with bright red and crimson splashes and stripes (agreed). White flesh is often tinged with red streaks and is coarse, crisp, moderately juicy and briskly subacid in flavor (agreed). Ripens late June to early July, depending on location . Late September" I've also seen estimates for August, but this is NOT an early variety.  Even the original tree.  Tim would climb it to get the few apples from it in late Sept/early October when we were picking our Cortlands.  But I have no clear memory and no photos of those apple's appearance.

Now, the Very Large could be explained by the fact that only three apples grew on this tree.  Selective pruning of fruit does promote larger fruit.  However, no one is ever going to tell me that this is an early apple.

Does it matter if I know what variety it is?  Sort of.  But most importantly, it is an apple that appeals to Tim and I.  We both like hard apples, and we both agree that these have a good taste.  Secondly, it is a child of the last of those old trees which made up the orchard that his grandparents and father picked from all those decades ago.  Maybe in my apple eating this fall I will find a variety to compare it to, and thereby narrow it down.  If not, we'll think of a name for it.  Until then, it is simply "our apple".

Now, the next question:  will the other tree produce the same apple?  It did not bear fruit this year.  I sent 3 or 4 scions taken from different parts of the tree.  I don't know if these two trees came from the same scion.  And I don't know if the original tree had a graft or not.  So they could, conceivably, be entirely different apples.  The mystery continues....

Friday, September 27, 2013

Raised Bed Maintenance

This is the end of the fourth season with the raised beds, and they have required virtually no maintenance.  But the gravel has settled and migrated leaving areas where the stabilization mat is showing through.  So today was gravel renewal day.  It sounded like a big job, but with three people it was done in a jiffy.

The gate was designed to be juuuust wide enough to drive the small tractor through.

Mike and I used shovels to direct the gravel into each wheelbarrow as Tim dumped the loader.

Then we wheeled it down each path dumping as we backed out, concentrating on low areas.

And raked it smooth. All Done.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fried Green Tomato Recipe

This summer, our Aunt came up to visit from South Carolina and she always brings peaches.  This year she also brought a jar of Peach Pepper Jelly she had picked up at a fruit stand.  Oh My but that is yummy over cream cheese!  I've had the leftovers in the fridge and now and then I dip a spoon in for just a little taste.  Peach is my favorite flavor and this stuff has a wonderful bite.

I like it so much I was looking on Pinterest for a recipe for when I run out and I stumbled on this idea.  Use the peach pepper jelly as a dressing for fried green tomatoes.  I know what I'll be trying this weekend.  I can already feel the heartburn!

Fried Green Tomatoes with Peach Pepper Jelly

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lantana: Tough but Beautiful

Now and then I get tired of one of my old stand bys and go looking for new untried varieties. This is true of vegetables, perennials and annuals. A year ago we took a long weekend trip to Cooperstown NY to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Farmer’s Museum. At the Farmer’s Museum, along the walk to the parking lot they had whiskey barrels full of gorgeous plants with deep green foliage and flowers that were budding out yellow and deepening through orange to red.

 I’m a sucker for this hot color range and use it to dress up the vegetable garden and surrounding area usually choosing Marigolds, Zinnias or Nasturtium. But I didn’t recognize this plant. It sort of reminded me of Verbena or a Viburnum shrub. I didn’t remember ever having seen it in a local nursery. I didn’t even know if it was annual or perennial.

 Not to worry, I thought, when the spring catalogs arrive I’ll probably be able to pick it out. Sure enough I did. It was the annual Lantana. And not surprisingly, it is related to both Verbena and Viburnum. The annual Lantana is actually a tender perennial. In an annual application it is very tough and hardy. It is said that it thrives on heat and neglect. 

 Perfect! That’s just what I needed for my own whiskey barrels and pots which are in full sun and which I seldom bother to water or fertilize. I have a long list of annuals that have failed in these tough spots including Portulaca, Calibrocha, Wave Petunias and Nasturtium, and I’m getting tired of replacing them halfway through the season. Since I’d never noticed it locally, I asked my friend Sandy if she carried Lantana in her nursery, and she said she would have some. I also found a second local source on my greenhouse prowls.

There are many color pallets to choose from. The ones I had to choose from were Red, Cherry, Pink, Yellow and White. It also comes in Rose, Peach, Orange and probably a few more. If you can’t find it locally, several mail order nurseries will ship it. Red was my choice although the Cherry was very close. I bought a white one for a hard to fill spot in our front landscape.

 Then I found them in hanging baskets at a local grocery which fit beautifully in one of my old chair pot stands.

A month or so after first planting my furthest afield whiskey barrel, I pulled out some tired and unhappy Nasturtium in the wash basin planter and put some small Lantana in there.

 They quickly filled out and as a bonus, when the seed heads mature, they are a lovely blue. Who knew?

Ripening Seed Pods


The season is almost over and I have a new standby for container plantings. Butterflies and Hummingbirds are attracted to it. It is true that the plant loves hot spots and is not insulted if you forget to water it although the overcrowded commercially potted hanging basket did require regular attention. I’ll plant just one plant in a pot there next year which should make it as low maintenance as the rest.

I like Lantana just as much as I thought I would.  It's here to stay.