Late Summer glory

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

This season, we find ourselves focused on crop storage and preservation. Being at home at the beginning of spring meant a re-invigoration in cooking at home and experimenting with recipes, and consequently the summer preserves and cabinets became dry and dusty by April. Our diced tomatoes and chicken stock were gone, sauerkraut running low, jams obliterated, storage potatoes long gone to eye, and pickled garlic a distant memory. And yet other freezer items remained untouched, a testament to food items that lost appeal after the growing season. (Frozen corn and I do not see eye to eye…)

So, at a time when the garden is bountiful and grocery bills minimizing, we face the real testament of dedication – setting about preserving the extra food before us.

In typical Kansas July’s, the bog-like humidity and soaring temperatures make it nearly impossible to want to spend time tending the garden beyond a quick dart outside to nab a tomato or two. To this end, we have found that morning routines are essential. Waking up around 7am, letting out the chickens, taking time to exercise and then turning our eyes to the garden has been the easiest way to avoid the stifling heat and still accomplish a lot before breakfast. It then lets us focus on the rest of our day with energy and relief that the chores are done – chickens fed and watered, garden weeded, fruit gathered, pest inspection/eradication completed. This could easily be flipped to evenings depending on your family need – this is just what works best for us when I am home on summer break from teaching and when E mostly works evenings.

This regular garden routines has helped us stay ahead of herbs bolting, vegetables rotting on the vines, and pests that would eradicate early crops, and honestly, this dedication is what we have lacked in recent years. Being proactive was not always our strong-suit, and previous reactivity led to diminished yields in the past. For example, I would do so well as monitoring my basil plants in May and June, only to be forgetful or tired or hot as we drew closer to August. I would finally check over the plants to find them flowering profusely, miserable, and yellowing from lack of attention, so the meager yields I could gather were bitter and sad. This year alone, I’ve done at least three thorough picking of basil heads just before flowers to encourage strong growth. Because of this, I’ve made multiple batches of pesto and enough dried basil to last us at least through the next winter, and here, in mid-August, we are still producing incredible flavor.

Our main “potager”, or vegetable patch – close to 700 square feet of garden beds.

This also means being willing to set aside time to process and can or freeze what we are able – it is so easy to let excess rot, get eaten by birds, or toss into compost, but we are really trying to process as much as we can for storage as we go into this fall. And yes, this means a commitment to heating up the kitchen in the middle of August with boiling stock pots and being willing to spill tomato guts all over the counter – but if it means that I have access to homegrown tomatoes in January, then I need to be willing to put in the time now.

These are some of my tips for processing foods through canning methods:

  1. Create a spill-proof area. When you are ready to can, move your warm jars out of the warm water-bath and line them on a kitchen towel and pull that up close and tight with the stockpot of whatever you are canning. That way, you can quickly ladle in your produce into all your jars and have zero clean up – just toss the kitchen towel into the wash.
  2. If you have a partner to help you, create an assembly line. For tomatoes especially, have on person in charge of a hot/ice water bath to pull off skin, and have the other in charge of dicing/chopping. It keeps the whole assembly line moving.
  3. Pick your favorite podcast, Netflix series, or movie to have on in the background. Time flies when you are having fun!
  4. Use Siri to set timers. Your hands will be sticky and wet and you’ll be preoccupied with all your batches and processes so you won’t watch the kitchen timer. Keep your phone on the counter and ask her (or Alexa) to set the timer without you having to touch a thing.
  5. Read instructions AHEAD OF TIME. Preferably, the day or night before. We like to maximize the time we have with a stockpot full of hot water – once it’s hot, keep it hot, and process as much as possible. To tackle multiple recipes, be aware of the processing requirements and which batches you can overlap. Peaches and tomatoes usually need 10-15 minutes of processing time – but meat can take 50 minutes. So I know that I can make peaches and tomatoes together, but my soup and stew recipes probably need to be processed separately.
Dilled carrots, blackberry jam, pickled beets and carrots, pickled peppers, and fermenting hot sauce.

To help maximize our produce this year, E’s daily monitoring for pests (and subsequent eradication) has been so crucial, and our lovely chicken ladies have been more than obliging to take care of the extra bugs for us. You may recall that our suburban chicken coop setup means that they are in a chicken tractor 24/7 – they are in a controlled free-range setup, but don’t have total access to the garden. Subsequently, they have been delighted by the dessert offerings we will bring them – cabbage loopers scraped off kale leaves, bagworms from the patio, grasshoppers nabbed from sunflowers and hops, Japanese beetles and squash bugs from the vines, you name it. Now that our darling girls celebrate six months in the Epperson household today (happy birthday, chicklets!), they have begun laying the most gorgeous egg yolks thanks to all the yummy protein sources (including what they scavenge) and nutritive content they glean from the yard. We are still working on converting the grass to clover and other nutrient-rich sources that double as carbon-capturing plants, but even so, the quality of their eggs is a huge testament to what lawns have lurking beneath the green carpet.

To my fellow suburbanites out there – your grass is not just grass! There are so many beneficial organisms and life cycles occurring in your yard – it deserves your love and attention, too! (And, you should know, that we haven’t done a single thing to prep the grass areas they roam – it is untreated and unfertilized, and yet they are finding so much good from this green habitat!)

I hope your late summer is proving to be bountiful and beautiful!

Winter Reflections

Our first thick snow is on the ground, so naturally, the seed catalogs have been ordered and we’re spending hours with our noses pressed against the windows dreaming of next year. We’re only a few days away from the winter solstice and during this time of the year, when it’s dark and cold, we find ourselves reflecting on warmer days and successes of this summer’s garden.

I did poorly at updating everyone – again – as things went this summer. It was a busy one – finishing a master’s degree over the summer meant that by the time I could sit down and enjoy the garden, it was time to start planning for back to school.

This was our first year with the raised beds around the patio in place and ready to thrive – and boy, did they THRIVE! We had so much luck with herbs and then some late summer flowers that I’m going to have to spend a lot of time thinning out the perennials that started to root. In past years, I’ve been worried about getting any echinacea or rudbeckia to take, since they are some of my favorite perennial flowers, so I overcompensated by sowing extra alongside established plants. I may have some potted flowers to give as gifts this spring after all!

Our goal with the raised beds is to cultivate flowers and herbs for kitchen usage, as well as to create a natural privacy area around our patio. We put in the raised beds 16 months ago after digging out a large fencing structure that provided privacy but no opportunity for growth or for interacting with the yard. This year we added the privacy fence (step 1 for Operation: Backyard Chickens!) so it’s provided a beautiful backdrop for our bursting garden.

If you’ve done much research into companion planting, you’re probably familiar with the three sisters combination planting of beans, corn, and squash. The squash provide ground cover and can grow on the stalks of the corn, while the beans love to shoot up the sides of the corn and trellis themselves. Well, that’s what it does for everyone else – on our suburban homestead, we ended up with a mess of corn, a couple of limp bean plants, and some teensy squash plants that didn’t want to take off. We must have miscalculated the timing on planting, so we pulled all the corn towards the end of August and let the squash finally take over. Did this mean that we were harvesting zucchini at the October frost? Perhaps.

All in all, we had a great crop of corn, a medium stock of potatoes and radishes, a handful of carrots (most of which went into the freezer and have snuck into some delicious pot pies), and a fabulous stash of tomatoes. We’ve been able to cook this fall more than we ever have before and having the supply of food in our house from this summer is so exciting (our work schedules are finally syncing up decently and I am discovering the power of saying ‘no’ to school committees and commitments!). Nothing beats knowing exactly where the food came from, and knowing how much love and care went into developing the plants and crops. #growfoodnotlawns

Speaking of harvest, a new development that is going to revolutionize our canning & storing processes is the pressure canner! Our deep freezer croaking was the final catalyst towards learning how to pressure can low-acid foods so we could avoid the freezer burn and save on energy. Hopefully this means a large selection of canned stock and carrots and such in the future.

We’re never done learning, in the Epperson household: In addition to my master’s degree this summer, Evan spent some significant time working on his own education. Evan finished a permaculture course through the Kansas Permaculture Institute and brought home so many new ideas and concepts for us to try next year in the garden, including swales and more experimentation with companion planting. I’m about to start an online herbalism course to build up some practical skills for healing and health capabilities from the garden, which will mean for quite the expansion in our herb collections, for sure! Along with all of this, we’ve been doing a lot of reading and research on small-scale chicken operations – come spring, I’m going to need some help naming 4-6 new members of the Epperson household! (I feel like a theme is going to be in order: female versions of Star Wars characters, Greek goddesses, female musicians – the list is endless!)

My hope is to keep everyone updated every couple of weeks about our little suburban homestead and be more regular about journaling. There is always so much happening that it’s hard to sit down and put down thoughts, but it’s so important to stop and reflect on how far we’ve come.

Stay warm!