One Month On The Homestead

We’ve been here one month, now. It’s all sinking in– the reality, the permanence. It’s spectacular. And while the work is hard and plentiful, I remind myself of how much we’ve accomplished. With a toddler at foot (or on my back), here’s what the first month has yielded on the new homestead:

  • We’ve installed and repaired hundreds of feet of fencing. Some will be replaced with wood posts once the auger is here, but the animals are contained and the garden protected.
  • The Chibbit House is complete and working perfectly. The chickens are cooped full-time at the moment, but we plan to let them out during the day once the garden gate is mounted. The rabbits were bred a few weeks ago, though I’m not certain whether it was successful.
  • Sheep were sheared.
  • The geese are fattening up on pasture.
  • Everything on the property has been pruned, mowed, and tidied to a reasonable degree. Wildflowers, lilies, roses, rhododendron, and lamb’s ear are all blooming, now excavated from the brambles.
  • The vegetable garden is fully planted, mulched, and growing– and a complete update on that is to-come. Many plants were late for the season, but we’ll just see what happens. The first row of potatoes, which we planted on one of our trips up months ago, is about ready to be harvested.
  • I’ve thoroughly acquainted myself with the local flora, and we’ve enjoyed foraged food with almost every dinner so far. Yesterday we picked wild strawberries, cherries, and blackberries, but few made it back to the kitchen.

  • We’ve filled our new home with wonderful meals– fresh pasta from our hen’s eggs, half a dozen loaves of delicious bread, smoked ribs, sauteed morels.
  • I’ve fermented a gallon of pineapple weed wine, in the same style as my mint wine.
  • We’ve steeped ourselves in the beauty of this place and begun to know the area better. We’re only a few miles from gorgeous lakes with a comfortable little beach for relaxing and letting our toddler play. In the heat of the afternoon we plod down to our own creek to dip our feet in.

We’ve settled into somewhat of a routine, which is an immense relief to me. I thrive on regularity. I’ve made list after list of projects large and small, and checking each item off has pushed me on to the next and made it all feel possible.

There is plenty I have not done, and an endless amount yet to do. But so far, so good.

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Homegrown Potatoes: A Worthy Vegetable

A few years ago, as my husband and I prepared to plant our first large garden, we poured over the colorful photos in seed catalogues and discussed what we wanted to plant. The gist of it: everything!

But we narrowed it down to a reasonable selection, based on the pursuit of superior flavor and nutritional value than what we could buy. (We did, however, fail to plant a reasonable quantity of each: notably three 30-foot rows of spinach for the two of us and something like 100 tomato plants.) We placed our order. In addition, I heaped several paper sacks with various potatoes at the local feed store.

He didn’t protest the potatoes until he had fulfilled his job of mounding the rows a few times. While we now layer in straw mulch, at the time he was heaving shovelful after shovelful of dry valley clay soil– backbreaking work. And he began to wonder aloud, why waste the time and effort with potatoes when they’re so cheap from the grocery store? They’re just a bland starch.

Then we harvested our first Yukon Golds. They were like butter– totally unlike supermarket spuds. They hardly needed anything but a pot of boiling water. Divine in every preparation.

Now we grow lots of potatoes: fingerlings, purples and blues, waxy and white. We’ve grown them in buckets, in trenches, and in circles of wire. We layer mulch and soil for easy mounding and digging. And they’re my very favorite harvest– have been since childhood. It’s like digging for treasure.

We planted purple potatoes in bins before the move with the intention of simply moving them with us. I didn’t want to miss potato season and the purples were sprouting. We also threw in some golds and reds. The plants shot up in the early warm California weather. Then before one of our weeklong trips with a load to the new place, I forgot to tell the student caring for our animals to water the plants. Many survived. The potatoes did not.

Disappointed, I shrugged them off with the intention to plant more in the new garden, which I did in March. Then as we prepared for the final move and I dumped the demised spud bins, out poured dozens of colorful marbles: young potatoes from pea-sized to ping pong balls. Delighted, I tossed them in a bag and brought them along.

Now at the new place, I prepared them to our toddler’s delight, simply boiled and tossed in a bit of butter and fresh parsley, served over a bed of peas. It was a hit that highlighted the finest of spring vegetables, even the ones some might not deem worthy of growing at home.

This weekend we’ll be digging fingerlings, and we’re as eager as we will be when harvesting the first tomatoes or berries.

Shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.

Making Mustard From Wild Seed

When the mustard flowers were flush and the fields bright yellow, we spared several patches when mowing for the benefit of the bees and butterflies. Then as the petals dropped and the plants grew brown and brittle, I decided to collect their seed and make the beloved condiment. My husband suggested making mustard a while back, and my retort was that mustard seed is more expensive than Grey Poupon! Not so with the gregarious wild stuff, though, so for the significant input of time, we yielded a worthy product. This mustard has the sweet, smooth flavor of dijon with the mouthy crunch of wholegrain brown. DSC02263 DSC02268 I gathered the dried stalks and crushed them over a flour sack towel to extract the dark brown and black seeds. Then I threshed and winnowed– the traditional practice of popping the seeds from their hulls and tossing into the air to allow the breeze to carry off the lighter casings. DSC02274 I continued to sift out brown matter over time, and for several weeks the jarful of seed sat and eventually made the trip with us to our new home. Finally, last week, I pickled the seed in vinegar and wine, then ground them into the final product. Overall, this project was time-consuming but pleasant, and the results were better than expected. To highlight its flavor with a celebratory meal, we rubbed a pork shoulder with mustard, brown sugar, and seasonings, then smoked it all afternoon. It sealed the success on another wild food project. Homemade Mustard 1-1/2 cups mustard seed 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar 1 t salt 1 t sugar Combine all ingredients in a jar and soak for a week in a cool, dark place. Then grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle or in a food processor, including as much liquid as desired for consistency. Then refrigerate.

Pickled Cat’s Ear Buds

The population of edible plants growing from our driveway down to the creek and up the hillside is astounding and exciting– beyond the salad greens we eat almost daily to include vegetables for roasting and stir-frying, fermenting and pickling.

I have been topping our daily wild salads with dandelion buds for months, split in half to reveal their bright petal heart. Munched just atop the green leafy halo, they are sweet and palatable straight from the plant.

But as dandelion season wanes and now with an overabundance of cat’s ear shooting skyward, I knew I wanted to utilize them in a way that would aptly tame their bitterness. So I pickled a jarful. Among them I added the last of the dandelion buds as well as clusters of sow thistle and spiny sow thistle buds, all significantly less bitter than cat’s ear.

When gathering, keep in mind that all secrete a staining white sap, but cat’s ear is worst of all and will leave skin and clothing marked brown indefinitely.

Cat’s ear is widely mistaken for dandelion because their leaf rosettes are rather similarly shaped and their bright-yellow blossoms are indistinguishable from a distance (to the unfamiliar). Dandelion flowers tend not to stand as tall, nor are its leaves markedly furry as are cat’s ear. Both, however, vary greatly in their leaf-shape and size. Cat’s ear buds lack dandelion’s ring of small leaves just above the top of the stem.

Cat’s ear leaves on the left; dandelion leaves on the right for comparison.

   

The good news is that both are edible and highly nutritious. Cat’s ear buds along with the top several inches of stem are fantastically delicious cooked as asparagus– we roast them briefly with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Sow thistle and spiny sow thistle plants, for their due mention, are edible but unappetizing by appearance: one is armored with long spikes; the other is limp and milky. Their tiny drum-shaped buds, though, show the signs of palatability. They may be picked individually or in clusters.

Another important note for gathering edible wild buds: All of the above flowers open and then close into a bud form.  Only the pre-flowering stage is worth eating as the latter is turning to seed. Pick only tightly closed, blunt buds with no tip of yellow or browned petal clusters emerging at the end.

Pickled Wild Buds

This pickle yields a rainbow of flavors, from tangy to sweet to bitter at the end. The bitterness wanes over time, so if they are too bitter for your taste, let them brine for longer in the fridge. They are a nutritious snack and zippy addition to salads and sandwiches.

1-1/2 cups wild buds

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup water

2 T sugar or honey

1 T salt

10 whole black peppercorns

10 coriander seeds

1 dried hot chili, such as Thai chili — or — 1 t red chili flakes

3 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled

1 bay leaf

Rinse the buds in a colander to remove brown sap stain and any bugs. Drain. Then place in a clean canning jar.

Combine all other ingredients in a small saucepan and heat to a low simmer. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Turn off immediately and cool to just-warm. Pour the contents over the buds and cool to room temperature. Seal with a lid (canning is not necessary). Place in the refrigerator for at least one week.

More wild food recipes for the weeds in your yard:

Superpowers of Stinging Nettles

Wild Greens with Polenta and Chutney Vinaigrette (And a Note on Foraging)

Sauteed Wild Mustard Greens with Dock, Garlic and Onions

Roasted Wild Mustard Buds

Eating Mustard Flowers

Meadow and Brown Field Mushrooms

Firsts Among Fungi

Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

The May Garden

As May concludes, here finally is an update on the garden. We’ve been here two weeks, and it’s finally starting to feel real. The garden project is one of my most gratifying, although much of it seems to be two steps forward; one step back.

I’m continuing to plant, in the interest of a passing season, yet the fence has yet to be completed. (I won’t mention the oversight of the deer or roaming cows, lest I jinx myself, but…) The chickens have been persistently destructive, just as they were at our last place, so I will be attempting to wrangle and coop them. Meanwhile, for as long as the hose and grass occupy my toddler, I’ve been hanging wire one post at a time.

What have been spared so far by the villainous poultry are a row of peas; a pell-mell patch of radishes and leaf lettuce; a dozen heirloom tomatoes; and small plots of beets, kale, basil, cilantro, squash, cucumbers, and melons. Until the fence is up and the chicken issue is resolved, I’m trying not to get too attached as I continue planting.

Two rows of fingerling, gold, and purple potatoes are thriving. The first row we planted in a trench months ago has been mounded with layers of mulch and soil to about a foot over ground-level; the other has spud leaves just emerging from the trench.

Beside the potatoes surrounded by nasturtium is the compost heap, onto which I layer kitchen waste, manure, and grass clippings with immense satisfaction.

Our wonderful next-door neighbors shared runners from their bountiful raspberry patch, most of which have taken to their new plot perfectly. The raspberries neighbor the two blueberry plants, which are too straggly to be called bushes. Evidently I should have pinched off this year’s berries to encourage plant growth, but now they are so close to ripeness, I can’t bear to do so, nor am I sure it would help at this point.

Two of the four apple trees we planted last month have apples; the other two do not. I’m not terribly surprised given the time of their planting, and I have plenty of hope for future years. Also, the old apple tree I cut from a tomb of blackberry brambles and ivy earlier in the year is thriving. Someone said it was a crabapple, but I was pretty sure its fruit were previously hindered by the tree’s neglect. That appears to be true, and I look forward to finding out what type of apples it yields.

The concord grape arbor I pruned for its first time in what must have been decades has likewise come to glorious life. Soon we’ll have the Adirondack chairs or a new bench beneath to enjoy on these warm, breezy spring afternoons. The beauty here is boundless and, thankfully, energizing.

The Nature of Perspective

We are blessed with the most kind, generous neighbors here. They’ve welcomed us in with offerings of all sorts– moral support, most invaluably– including history and context of the area and its people. Those we’ve met have driven by the place for decades, and all have deeply lamented the recent clear-cut of the long-preserved forest. Part of that forestland is ours.

It’s not contrived optimism to say that I see it differently. Of course I wish the forest were intact. I can imagine, partly by exploring neighboring woodlands, the old-growth trees and native fauna. I can envision the cool dampness, the moss and myriad mushrooms. I know that it was majestic.

But: I consider our perspective a unique boon in that what we see now is not only an incredible improvement on the gnarled hillside we met last summer; it’s an awakening. The emerging vegetation would not have been part of the forest floor. We get to enjoy a different, ever-expanding beauty.

The enmeshed branches of too-small cut timber are increasingly consumed by vine maples, wild cherry, and hazelnut trees. The deer trails through berry brambles– which will soon yield abundant delicious fruit– are lined with heady flowering clover and pineapple weed. The meadows are strewn with daisies, red clover, sky-blue forget-me-nots, and innumerable other wildflowers.

There are unfurling ferns, columbine, and more wild food than I could list, but much of which we’ve been collecting, eating, and cooking with daily. Most of the plants, in fact, are edible, from the wild strawberries to the thistles.

The ugly sporadic burn piles host the most coveted of fungi.

This story would be a different one if the forest were still here. It would be someone else’s story that we would continue; this one is all our own. Ours is a story of regrowth.

Moving 50 Animals 600 Miles

We made it! We are officially here permanently. I can’t say that it feels so final in my mind– rather, the days are rushing by as if again approaching the long return trip to California. Without a set routine and with such a seemingly insurmountable to-do list, the past week has been a blur.

The process of packing and loading, of corralling the animals and worrying about how in the world we’d be able to move them all at once, is still haunting my dreams.

The two sheep, two goats, three rabbits, four geese, and dozens of chickens all rode in one trailer, neatly packed into cages and a makeshift livestock area. As stressful and challenging as the experience was, the actual trip was successful and undoubtedly quite the amusing scene for passers-by. We did try to track down a professional livestock mover or at least rent a proper trailer, for the record, but in the end, this was it. And it worked!

The animals seemed to travel quite comfortably, and their release onto acres of lush mixed grass was a happy one. The goats have managed to clear most of the blackberry brambles from under the hay barn. As soon as it’s cleaned out we can fence the area off to contain the sheep for shearing next week.

Between the numerous projects and good hard work, I’ve been voraciously foraging and experimenting with preserving the wild harvests. Posts and recipes will follow this week, along with an update on the beautifully expanding garden.

Home sweet home!