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October handwork

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It has been a long time since I’ve joined The Yarn Along, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy knitting.  The children slept in this morning, and I made some progress on fingerless mitts (the WIP ones are for Bea’s upcoming 11th birthday.  I will needle-felt designs on them when I’m finished.

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The Yarn Along is about what we’re knitting and reading.  I’m not currently reading any novels (because lately I’m up typing book chapters late at night while the kids are in bed, instead of reading), but a whole bag full of books we ordered just came in at the library.  George is fascinated with camping and bison, so we have several books about both right now.

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When Hal finished his Explode The Code lesson, the boys worked on polishing play kitchen utensils with our homemade beeswax-orange oil wood polish while I read to them.

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Just like his mama, sometimes it is hard for Hal to sit still and focus on one activity unless his hands are occupied with a task.  He does not know how to knit yet, and simple handwork projects like this one appeal to him.

I hope you have a restful and regenerative weekend.

 

 

Parkrose Market

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I have had much time to blog the last several days, I’m working on stocking our Etsy store (Parkrose Market) with salves and balms and knitted things.  Trying to juggle all of my obligations at the moment is proving challenging, and I’m dropping a few balls here and there.  But, I’m still making progress and being anything less than busy doesn’t come naturally to me.

I grow all of the herbs here (with the exception of myrrh), dry them in our solar dehydrator, and then infuse them into organic unrefined coconut oil and organic olive oil.  We use only local beeswax from natural beekeepers (learn more about natural beekeeping here).  Right now, I’m making four kinds:

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Soothe Salve has calendula and plantain, which have been used for ages as first-aid for skin conditions, rashes, bug bites.

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Besides being great for medicinal purposes, calendula is a long-blooming, repeat-blooming bee-loving plant.  Even now, in late October, it is a steady source of food for our honeybees.  It also self-sows readily.

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We’re a roller derby family, and in the derby world, arnica is the favorite herb for the endless succession of bruises that come with the sport.  Vervain (also called Juno’s Tears) is purported to help with inflammation.  Together, the two herbs make for good care for bumps and bruises.

(Note, if you decide to grow Arnica montana in your garden – it is toxic and absolutely should not be ingested.  And while it is a great bee-plant with lovely yellow flowers, it has a habit of spreading, so don’t put it in unless you can keep it controlled.)

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Comfrey’s other name is Knit-Bone.  It is an age-old treatment for broken bones, sprains, etc – typically used as a poultice, but also in salves.  There is some dispute as to whether drinking quantities of comfrey tea can cause liver problems, so I only use it topically.  I do use comfrey salve twice a day, every day, since I broke my ankle last summer.

Comfrey is one of the best herbaceous perennial plants for the permaculture garden, orchard, or farm.  I’ve written a lot about it, and we stock sterile Russian Bocking comfrey plants for sale here.  Shoot us an email if you’re interested in growing comfrey in your garden.

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At the request of several folks, I’m also making a general all-purpose balm as we head into winter, specifically geared for supporting and protecting skin.  As a farmer who doesn’t wear gloves as much as she should, this has been a big help to my dry hands.

I’ll be back later in the week with more, and will let y’all know when our Parkrose Market Etsy store is ready to open up.

Autumn Gifts

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I’ve been busy the last few days making things for loved ones.  I have lots more to share, but am behind on uploading and editing photos.  So, for now, a few pictures of the gifts We’ve been making this week.

Above:  A little indoor fairy garden as an early birthday present for Bea, who maintains the fairy garden outside in the yard, and is always sad to see it go dormant over the winter.  Now she’ll have her own little garden to tend to right in the windowsill.

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I have an abundance of beets, and my dad really loves beet salad.  George helped me make him this one with candied nuts, bleu cheese, and a balsamic dressing.

 

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Lastly, I finished and blocked a shawl for a friend who is going through a difficult time right now.  It’s a prayer shawl, made in 100% Brown Sheep wool.

More soon.  Hope your weekend is filled with good things.

Herbal Salves

 

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The past few weeks, I’ve been working on batches of healing salves, both for custom orders and to stock our soon-to-open Etsy store.  We grow the herbs with all organic methods (of course!), and dry them in a solar dehydrator, utilizing only the energy of the sun. Other ingredients in the salves include local beeswax from natural beekeepers, and organic oils.

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The herbs (such as calendula, above) are infused into organic coconut oil and organic olive oil by sun-infusion or by simmering in a double boiler for 6-8 hours.  Don’t the blossoms turn the oil a lovely sunny shade?

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All of the salves are made in small batches with custom essential oil scents.  As of right now, I’m making four types of salves:

Calendula-Plantain Soothe Salve for rashes, ezcema, and dry irritated skin.

Arnica-Vervain Bruise Balm for bumps, bruises and sports injuries.

Comfrey Bone Balm for broken bones, bone bruises, sprains.

All-purpose Healing Salve with Calendula, Lavender, Plantain, Rosemary, Yarrow.

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While the salves are cooling and setting up on the counter (and filling the house with the soothing scent of sweet orange oil and cedarwood), I’m off to print labels for the tins.  The rest of the day is filled with prep for homeschool co-op tomorrow, Life of Fred mathematics, and some fall clean-up garden projects.

Blessings on your weekend!

Fall Fruit, Fall Projects

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Enjoying some of the last of the fall fruit coming from the garden this week:

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George helped me pick quince, which we turned into membrillo.

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Ground cherries (Physalis spp.) that didn’t get eaten straight off the plants went into a tart with plums.  The tartness of the ground cherries melded very well with sweetness of prune plums.

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George picking an apple for an afternoon snack.

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Our newest apple tree, a little Liberty, produced exactly one apple this year.  Next year there will be lots of Liberty apples, and even more for many, many years thereafter, but this year that one fruit felt very special, and perhaps that’s why it tasted extra delicious.

The next few weeks are intensely busy around here.  The girls’ home team season for roller derby starts this weekend, and I’m going back to weekly sports rehab for my ankle to try and overcome some mobility issues that make certain movements in skating difficult or impossible.  This weekend we also have a garlic cultivation workshop that’s been in the works for quite some time. I’m finishing up an order of custom herbal salves (made with herbs we grow and dry) and making all sorts of good things to stock up in preparation for opening an Etsy store.  I’m taking on more gardening clients, doing fall clean-up and garden consulting and whatever they need done. And last but not least, I’ve been working on a book for quite a while, and have been spending every spare minute editing chapters, test-knitting patterns, test-baking recipes, and writing a book proposal.  Just when it feels like life in the garden is winding down, the rest of it ramps up.  I’m excited about all of the projects, but attempting to not feel overwhelmed by them all at the same time.

More tomorrow from my kitchen!

Buttercups and Quince

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Harvesting by myself in the garden this morning.  Picked 65 lbs of produce – the bulk of which was winter squash and quince.  The quince are just starting to ripen, so I didn’t pick very many, but a few were definitely ready.  Quince (Cydonia oblonga) may not be the most lovely fruit in the world – looking like a misshapen pear covered in shedding fuzz – but the aroma from this crate of fruit was nothing short of heavenly.  The scent is likened to guava and honey with overtones of vanilla and rose.

These ancient pomes are a fruit worth keeping in cultivation and in the kitchen.  In fact when people ask me what fruit tree they should pick if they only have room for one, I always say, “quince!”  Naturally dwarf, with a lovely shape, handsome bark, stunning fragrant pink flowers, quince are an excellent landscaping tree.  Most varieties are self-fertile, so you only need one.  A quince will also bear twice as much fruit as an apple tree the same size, and the fruit are pestered by far fewer insects than apples.  I love them so much, I have five varieties in my garden, although three are too young to be producing yet.

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My favorite way to enjoy quince is to turn it into membrillo – a Spanish quince paste made from cooking the high-pectin fruit for hours and hours until it becomes a beautiful orangey-red.  It is then poured into a dish to cool, where it sets into a dense, slightly grainy jelly that is amazing on toast or with Manchego cheese.

Quince are very hard and most varieties cannot be eaten raw, but roasted they turn pink and sweet and fill the kitchen with a delicious fragrance.  Any apple pie or applesauce is augmented significantly by the addition of quince to the recipe.  Any roasted pork or poultry dish would also pair beautifully with roasted quince.

 

 

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As I was ripping up dead winter squash vines and spent tomatoes, I ended up with the first few witner squash of the season.  Most of the vines are still going strong, and there are dozens more squash that will be picked over the next few weeks.

Most of the squash I plant are Buttercup varieties.  Buttercups are a type of Cucurbita maxima, and have the benefit of being a meal-sized squash, not a hulking behemoth the modern family has trouble making use of.

The one above is “Burgess Buttercup” and has consistently been rated the best-tasting winter squash variety.  It is slightly dry with dense bright orange flesh.  It is fantastic for roasting, and holds its shape in soups and stews.  I have steamed and mashed it and made pumpkin rolls that were everyone’s favorite at the holidays.

 

 

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Honestly, I’m looking forward to the end of the garden year.  Volunteers have ended their shifts for 2015, and the next few weeks I will be harvesting by myself – more quince, oodles of winter squash, ground cherries, Inca Berries, lingonberries, and the like.  Then, we’ll be down to cleaning up the garden, planting garlic, and growing only what our family eats off of for the winter (kale, leeks, etc).  As much as I love running the garden project, winter is a nice sabbatical, and a chance to focus on indoor activities and hobbies.

Autumn Nature Table

Autumn Nature Table

Hal and George and I sifted through various nature items we’d collected this week and put up the autumn nature table (although, for us, it’s become a shelf, since the “table” has been occupied by Ruth’s budgie, Sunny.)

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We have a little box of autumnal items we save and put out every year.  Hal really enjoyed taking out things we’d made or found in previous years and remembering how we came to have them.

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George needs a stool (kid chair) to reach the shelf, but for the first time Hal is tall enough to reach it easily.  It’s hard to believe how quickly he’s growing and how tall he’s gotten over the summer.

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The boys are really into Minecraft (in the rainy months, unschoolers tend to get together a lot to play Minecraft.  It’s a fantastic learning tool and inspires so much creativity).  Hal found the Nature Table a perfect playground for his teeny Minecraft toys.

I love that the Nature Table is such a multi-purpose educational tool – it’s a way to talk about and examine nature close-up, with the hands and the eyes.  It is a starting point for research on natural history, ecology, botany, geology.  The Nature Table is constantly shifting in contents as the seasons change, so it helps us mark the rhythm of the year and engages the kids in studies of the seasons – their library book selections are often inspired by items on the nature table and the season represented therein.   Perhaps most importantly, the Nature Table sparks creative play, storytelling, games, and make believe driven by the children’s imaginations.

Autumn Fires

 

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We’re slowly working on getting out the autumn decorations and switching the Nature Table over from summer to fall.  The children have been collecting items from the yard and around the neighborhood.  It seems like every time I step outside, I find someone’s little collection of goodies on the front step or back table.

I think some of the nature-mindedness is due to the time of year, but some of it is due to a wilderness study we’ve started:

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I’m teaching a class at our homeschool co-op based on the book My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.  It is one of my favorites from childhood.  The main character, Sam, runs away from his home in New York to live in the wilderness.  Every week at co-op, we’re discussing a few chapters of the book, making crafts that correspond with the chapters, and learning a wilderness survival skill that Sam utilizes in that section of the book.

Bea is the only one of my kids taking the class, but the other children didn’t want to miss out, so each week I’m reading the assigned chapters aloud, and the whole family is learning the skills we’ll test out in class.  The hardest part so far has been reading only the assigned chapters and not reading ahead – everyone wants to know what happens next!

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After reading our chapters, it was George’s turn to be my kitchen helper and we baked a Sun Cake in honor of the shrinking days now that the autumnal equinox has passed us.  (You didn’t know a four yr-old could get so much powdered sugar on the floor and counter instead of the cake but he had fun doing it.)

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The cake is a basic yellow butter cake (2 8-inch rounds), with orange glaze and candied orange peel.  I would normally put orange marmalade in the middle, but my sister had just brought us back a little jar of wild huckleberry jam from her trip to Glacier National Park, so I used it instead (a very tasty substitution, if I do say so).

While George and I finished up the cake, the older kids watched a few videos on primitive methods of starting fires, including how to make tinder bundles and start a fire with flint and steel.  (They already know how to use a bow drill to start a fire thanks to a fews summers’ worth of Trackers camps.)

In our chapters we read aloud today, Sam initially fails at fire-making, only to succeed a few days later.  The kids’ assignment is to learn about making a fire without matches and then collect items with which to make a tinder bundle.  (At co-op on Friday, the students in my class will try various types of tinder bundles and methods and see if we have the same troubles Sam does, or if we can succeed in catching an ember and starting a fire.)

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When the cake was done, we all went outside to collect items we thought would make good tinder.  The neighbor boys lent a hand, and the kids gathered everything from pine needles to dry leaves and an old birds’ nest.  Bea used her pocket knife to shave off bark curls, and lamented the lack of cattails in the neighborhood, from which we could gather the fluff for excellent tinder.

In honor of our fire-making adventures and the beginning of fall, this Robert Lewis Stevenson poem seemed fitting to leave you with:

Autumn Fires

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall! 

–   Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Eve of Autumn

Eve of Autumn

Today we said goodbye to summer and anticipate the impending arrival of autumn.  It has been warm and sunny during the day, but the crispness of fall has definitely made itself felt in the air.

We’ve been pulling out pants (only to discover George has outgrown every pair that fit this spring) and mittens and vests and rain jackets.  The kitchen has been really chilly in the mornings, and it gives me an excuse to bake:  I’ve made bread two days in a row, and have plans to get up before the children to bake banana bread for breakfast tomorrow.

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Speaking of mornings, The Hudson’s Golden Gem apples are ready right in time to welcome in fall.  I’ve been eating one off the tree every morning with my coffee, and Ruth and George have been enjoying them with dinner.

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The young tree sits right outside our front door, planted in a polyculture with rhubarb, comfrey, clove currant, Egyptian walking onions, blood sorrel, rosemary, English lavender, bearded iris, calendula, and Oregon iris.  Around the perimeter – in an area amended with pine needles – are highbush blueberry and lowbush blueberry and red currant.  This weekend I also added a Haku Botan pomegranate – prized for being very dwarf, cold hardy, and producing double-ruffled white flowers which set into white fruit.

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If you need another apple to add to the family garden, the Hudson’s Golden Gem is an excellent choice.  The fruit is yellow and heavily russeted – nothing much to look at.  But the flesh is creamy white, and very crisp, but with an exceptionally buttery quality – not grainy or gritty or mealy at all.  The flavor is a good balance of sweet and acid with undertones of butter and hazelnuts.  It’s an apple that children and adults can both enjoy very much.

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To mark the shift of seasons, we had mint tea this afternoon and burnt a little myrrh in the hour or so before dinner.  In studying ancient Egypt, the children had become interested in what myrrh actually smelled like (we’d burned frankincense at Christmas before).  I had to order a few things from Mountain Rose Herbs, and included myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) and sweet myrrh (Commiphora opoponax), which have markedly different scents.  They arrived in plenty of time to test them out today.

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You can’t simply light myrrh unless you want it to smell, well, burnt.  (It’s like the difference between a great cup of coffee and a scorched cup that’s sat in the pot with the burner on – they’re both coffee, but one is the right way to appreciate it, and the other is a waste of coffee.)  Instead (a video tutorial is here), light a disc of charcoal, place it in salt or sand, sprinkle it with more salt (to form a buffer layer between the charcoal and the myrrh), and then place a very small piece of resin on top.  It will slowly melt and darken, trailing up a wisp of intensely fragrant smoke as it does so.  Two tiny half-pea sized pieces were enough to fill the whole house with the soothing aroma.

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While the kids drank their tea and made dragons before dinner, I finished a few pairs of children’s’ mitts.  I’m working on stocking up handmade goods to open a little Etsy store before Thanksgiving.  Something about the chill in the air, the winding down of the garden, the early-setting-sun that makes fiber-folk want to knit and spin in earnest.  So the turn of the season seems like a good time to get things finished up and get that Etsy store open.

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Hope to be back later in the week with some of our unschooly activities and setting the fall Nature Table.

Blessings on your family as you settle into the rhythms of the new season.

 

Plant Sale

 

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Every year, I give away dozen and dozens of plants to the volunteers who harvest here and to the folks who take our free garden workshops through Birch Community Services.  As our permaculture food forest becomes more mature and more productive, I have recently been able to expand our nursery stock and offer some plants for sale to the general public.

(A Note:  Everything we grow here is produced using all organic methods – no fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers of any kind.    One of the ethics of permaculture is “share the surplus”, and in keeping with that ethic- and my desire to encourage other folks to grow their own food by keeping their startup costs low – the plants we have for sale are at a small fraction of the cost of local nurseries’ prices for non-organic stock.  I charge just enough to help recoup a little bit of the cost of the water and soil ammendments and such, and prices don’t reflect my labor and such.)

The Fall Gold raspberries had spread beyond their rows, and were shading out a young Sea Buckthorn, so they had to go.  I ended up with about 25 good looking crowns, trimmed them up, and found homes for them all in about 15 minutes.  Fall Gold is by far my favorite variety of raspberry, and because 1/2 pints of them in the store can run $6!!! (and are often picked underripe), they are a high-value crop and worth growing in the home garden.  They also produce a crop in early summer and another from August all the way through into October.

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This time of year, if you order herbaceous plants from Parkrose Permaculture, they will be heading toward dormancy (the perfect time to plant them).  I trim the leaves off to reduce transplant stress, but herbaceous plants, by definition, will die all the way to the ground.  When planting in your garden, be sure to mark the spot with a stake so you don’t lose track of where it was planted.

We still have horseradish crowns available for $2 each, by the way.  Horseradish is extremely easy to grow and thrives on neglect.  And homemade horseradish is soooo much better than store-bought. It takes only about ten minutes to make, including digging up the roots.

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plant sale

Another example of what plants look like right now.  The top photo is costmary in my garden (a lush, low-growing herb that is extremely fragrant, smelling like balsam and mint blended together, with subtle undertones of bergamot and sage).  Very shortly, it will be dying back to the ground, as nights continue to drop in temperature.  If you order costmary right now, it will be trimmed for transplanting, and while it won’t produce new vegetative growth over the winter, it will be developing a strong root system underground, and come up strong in the spring.

Plant sale

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Comfrey is an invaluable herb in the garden.  It is traditionally called “Knitbone” and is used in poultices and salves to treat broken bones and the like.  But comfrey is also a versatile, extremely useful plant in the context of permaculture.  Its lovely purple flowers are superb bee food, and the leaves make excellent duck and hoofstock fodder.  I plant comfrey at the base of all my fruit trees, where its deep taproot will help break up the dense clay soil and its leaves will make nutrient-rich mulch.  I also use it to make a very stinky, but very potent tea fertilizer for everything in the garden.

Right now, I have comfrey crown cuttings available, and in the spring will have full plants.  If there is one non-fruit or veggie plant to have in your garden, this is the plant.  And all of our comfrey is sterile Russian Bocking Comfrey, so it will not set seed or get out of control.

Plant sale

If you place an order with us right now, your plants might look much like this – bareroot shrubs and vines, and potted plants losing leaves in preparation for winter.  But autumn is a really good time to transplant perennials.  As I mentioned above, while not much is going on above ground, during the mild PNW winter, fall-planted specimens are establishing healthy, vigorous root systems, which will result in strong new growth first thing in the spring.

Negronne Figs

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A quick final note –  all of our orders come with freebies – be it extra herbs starts, or a few packets of flower seeds, or a little box of fruit from our orchard.  Some of our orders this week were delivered with fresh Negronne figs (see above box of plants).  I wanted to include a picture of them, because I’ve been eating them every day with lunch, and they are fantastic – like strawberry and honey with a hint of caramel.  If you have room for one fig tree, let it be this variety (which is naturally quite dwarf, topping out at 8 ft).

Our next plant sale will be in the spring, when we will have red currants, rhubarb, herbs of all kinds, elderberries, figs, and more.  If you’re searching for perennial plants of any type in the meantime, especially those used in permaculture, I probably have them. Send me an email at ParkrosePermaculture@gmail.com with any inquiries, and I can try to fill your order.

Our weekend is full of roller derby and more roller derby, so I’ll be back early next week with a new post.  Blessings on your weekend!

 

Collector’s Item

Unschooling Nature Table

Unschooling Nature Table

Hal sorting items for his “store”. Front to back: ground cherries, hollyhock seed head, grape leaves with filberts and calendula seed heads, yarrow, painted rocks…

Years ago, my kids crafted their own version of a universal child’s game:  collecting items from nature/the garden, assigning those items special qualities (fairy berries!  war paint!), and selling them in a “store”.  One child (usually the youngest) is “The Collector” and he gathers items to sell to the shop owner, who in turn, markets them to her remaining siblings and friends.  It’s kind-of the ultimate unschool nature table make-believe game.

Unschooling Nature Table

Bea sorting goodies George has brought her: amaranth leaves, lavender, nasturtium blossoms, tomatoes, hollyhock blossoms, calendula seed heads, filberts.

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All of the kids getting along and playing together despite the diversity in their ages and developmental stages. It’s a rare moment, I’m cherishing it.

I managed to get a tremendous amount of yardwork done while the kids played, and enjoyed helping George, The Collector, find goodies to bring his siblings.

Unschooling Nature Table

Thimbleberry, grape, and filbert leaves all make excellent “wrapping paper” for purchased goodies.  Bea loves to wrap them up and secure them by pinning with a small twig.

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We’re ramping up for our homeschool co-op to start tomorrow (I’m teaching a class based on one of my favorite childhood books, My Side of the Mountain), and have lots to prep today.  I’ve also been really busy filling plant orders for folks, and will have a post with more about that tomorrow.

Mid-September

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A few quick pictures from around our permaculture garden today:

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The lovage has gone to seed, so it was time to cut it back and sow the seeds around the garden.  They will germinate in the spring and add to our stock of perennial vegetables.  Their blossoms will be a strong attractant to parasatoid wasps, lacewings, and other beneficial insects.

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The Aromatnaya quince are nearly ripe.  A few more weeks, and they will be fragrant and ready to pick and put into sauces and pies.

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In May, we put in 2 female and 1 male sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). Sea buckthorn is a very important permaculture plant, as it fixes nitrogen, is extremely hardy, and produces a nutritious fruit crop.  We chose Siberian varieties known for their smaller growing habit and less suckering than the German and other Russian varieties.   In 4 months they have grown from tiny twigs to nearly the height of my 10 yr-old.  Very excited for them to start producing their Vitamin C-rich fruit in the next year or two.  

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It’s late in the year, and the bees (all kinds, not just our honeybees) are frantically collecting up nectar and pollen in preparation for winter.  We’ve been making a conscious choice to let certain plants bolt (radish, argula, mint, etc) and making second plantings and cutting back hard to encourage repeat blooms of various plants (calendula, lavender, salvia, rosemary, borage) to provide sufficient food for the bees.

While this has resulted in some parts of our permaculture garden looking a bit scraggly and even more wild than normal, it has also meant ample forage for our girls and all the native bees besides.  The children have really enjoyed identifying all the species of sweat bees, bumblebees, and syrphid flies that visit the flowers.  We’re also hoping it will make for some seriously delicious honey when we harvest in the spring.

More soon!

 

Putting Up Plums

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September is the month when the various kinds of prune plums ripen in succession.  I have so many, I scarcely know what to do with all of them.  When the Shropshire Damson starts producing next year, I will be absolutely flooded with plums at the end of summer.

 

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We had a brief run of rain, followed by hot weather, and now more rain, and the late plums are all splitting faster than I can pick them.

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When jams, sauces, plum brandy are all made and still there are buckets of very ripe plums left, the solution is to dehydrate them.  Afterall, prune plums – with their intense sweetness and freestone habit – are perfect for drying.

The kids built a blanket fort in the living room this afternoon, and I got around to washing and halving bowls and bowls of plums to fill the dehydrator trays. (It’s cloudy and rainy, today, so I couldn’t use the solar dehydrator, but that’s okay, because it’s chilly in the house tonight, and the heat from the electric dehydrator is filling the kitchen with the delicious honey aroma of the drying fruit.)

We go through a lot of dried fruit outside the summer months.  Aside from eating them whole, prunes go into much of my winter cooking.  One of my favorite dishes is a tagine with beef or lamb and prunes, pumpkin and chickpeas with a side of couscous.  If you don’t think you like prunes, try them in a tagine and you’ll discover how great they can be.

If you have a favorite plum recipe, I’d love to hear it, because I have more plums waiting to be picked!

 

 

Ripening Tomatoes

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After a serious drought most of the year, the rain has finally returned.  (It actually feels like Oregon again here.  So glad for the grey and the rain!)

Despite the fact that we had what felt like an eternal summer, the reality is that it is now September, and the cooling temperatures and rapidly-shrinking day-lengths mean the bumper tomato harvest can only last a few more weeks.

I frequently hear from folks who are frustrated to find most of their tomato fruit still hanging green and rock hard on the vines by the time temps dip into the 40’s at night and the vines begin to die.  So much effort is put into a crop that never matures before the season ends.  And there are only so many batches of green tomato pickles and chutney one can put up in the fall!

So, I thought I’d give you some of my tips for encouraging your tomatoes to ripen before the end of the season:

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First of all, obviously not all tomatoes are red when ripe, so color is not a good indicator that your crop is ready to pick.  This variety, Indigo Rose, rapidly turns a dark purple, but isn’t ripe until the green color under the purple turns brownish-orange.  Despite being a cherry tomato, it is one of the longest-ripening tomatoes in my garden, fooling many volunteers into picking it underripe because of the early purple blush.

Knowing the characteristics of the varieties you are growing will help you determine ripeness.  Knowing the firmness/feel of a ripe tomato when you gently squeeze it is `important thing to know.  As well as knowing that most (but not all) varieties of tomato slip easily from the vine when ripe.  If you have to tug and tug to pick the fruit, it probably isn’t ripe (although I have a few heirloom beefsteaks that will hang on for dear life until they are very overripe).

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Here’s another very soft, very ripe tomato, although it doesn’t look particularly ripe.  Some of my favorites have green stripes when ripe, or are completely green (Evergreen and Green Zebra come to mind).  Again, here softness and ability to slip easily off the plant are the best indictators of ripeness.

Volunteers here frequently skip over pink beefsteak varieties, thinking they are not yet ripe because they aren’t deep red.  But they will never turn deep red, and if left hanging on the vine, they will attract creatures who know  they are ripe and tasty in their pinkish hue: birds, mice, slugs, will damage them and crops will be lost.  The same goes for lemon-yellow varieties, which folks tend to overlook, waiting for an orangey indictator of ripeness which will never come.

So, now that we know how to tell if a tomato is ripe, how do we get those green tomatoes to hurry up and get in that state?

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Tip 1:  As soon as early September hits, I snip off all of the the flower blossoms and buds from the vines.  These flowers don’t have time to turn into harvestable crops before the end of the month, and they are robbing energy from the vine that it could be putting into maturing fruit.

Removing the flower buds also signals to the plant that flowering time is over, and fall is approaching, and it should focus on ripening already-set fruit.

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Tip 2: Remove all very small, immature fruit.  These little guys are never going to ripen into 1 lb Brandywines in two to three weeks.  Again, removing them keeps the plant from wasting energy attempting to mature them, and allows more resources to go to larger fruit that have a chance of ripening before the end of the month.

Tip 3:  Stop watering.  A shortage of water stresses the plant and encourages it to hurry up and ripen its set fruit before dying.  Now, in Oregon, that may not be an option because sometimes the rain returns in September.  But many years, September is very dry until late in the month, and the combination of lack of water and dipping night temperatures will help those beefsteaks mature.

Ceasing to water also helps prevent fungal diseases on ripening fruit (and believe me, while late blight is rare here, it will devastate your entire crop in 48 hours.  Ripening tomatoes and their vines will turn into black mush before you know what has hit you, and there is no cure.)   I lost 300 lbs of tomatoes one year to late blight (which is spread on the wind, and brought into our state by big-box store’s tomato starts cultivated in the South, where the disease is common), and I hope to never experience that again.

Tip 4: Grow more cherry tomatoes!  Some years, Oregon has cool summers, and beefsteaks are never going to be able to set and ripen many fruits in the season.  I always grow a few beefsteaks and large slicers, even knowing that many won’t produce a large crop for me if the summer is mild.  Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter are particularly prone to setting fruit late and having buckets of green tomatoes for me at the end of the season (they do make very tasty lactofermented dill pickles, though).  Small slicers such as Green Zebra and cherry tomatoes like Sungold and Chocolate Cherry are sure winners no matter the weather.

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Hope that helps you, and I hope you get lots of tomatoes in the next few weeks and enjoy the tail end of summer.

I know I am beginning to anticipate fall crops like the late September glut of tomatillo and ground cherry fruit, winter squash, quince, lingonberries…

More soon, and happy gardening!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rewards

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A long day of jury duty called for a little after-dinner plum-picking therapy…

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And a handful of Fall Gold raspberries for dessert.

Back in a few days when I’m out of the courtroom and once again in overalls playing in the dirt.

Elderberry Harvest

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This morning I had three brand-new hardworking volunteers helping us pick product for Birch Community Services.  We spent a good chunk of time picking hard-to-reach elderberries, which are in full production.

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Fresh organically-grown elderberries go for $3-6 dollars/lb, and we picked about 25 lbs today.

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We also picked tomatoes, green beans, and a big flat of plums.  Sungold cherry tomatoes are my long-standing favorite.  They produce reliable, very sweet and split-resistant fruit over a long period and in great quantities.

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This is the first year we’ve gotten plums off a tree I grafted as a tiny little twig four and a half years ago.  I estimate around 25 lbs of plums and another 30 lbs left on the tree.

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Here you can see what the four of us picked in a short period of time.  Glad to get the beefsteak tomatoes off the vines before the much-needed rain rolls in tomorrow.  Not sure how much more “summer” we will have for the garden, but we are most certainly enjoying it today.

Tuesday Evening

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The garden always starts to look a little more wild and unkempt than normal this time of year.  Some plants are past their prime and looking scraggly.  Some have spilled over their boundaries to scramble over paths and up tomato cages.  Some (like the mile-high lettuce in the center-background) are allowed to bolt so I can save the seeds or are permitted to self-sow about the garden.

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After dinner, George helped me pick some tomatoes and plums and summer squash for a delivery in the morning.  He got a thrill out of being hoisted up to help reach the first wave of ripe Stanley plums.

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He thought this Pink Brandywine tomato was really cool and deserved a close-up.

 

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As the sun was getting close to setting, Ruth brought out her favorite chicken, Cookie, to peck around in the Rain Garden before she and Casey locked up the poultry for the night.

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It’s a good thing Cookie is the world’s snuggliest chicken, because Ruth absolutely adores her.  She’s a total puppy dog and wants to be picked up and held at every opportunity.

 

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All in all, not-too-shabby for less than an hour’s picking with small children “helping”, especially considering I also picked another dehydrator-load of calendula and comfrey, and some golden raspberries for the kids’ dessert, and weeded as I went along.  Definitely, not-too-shabby.

Solar Dehydrator

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A friend recently gave me her well-loved solar dehydrator.  I have been chomping at the bit to try it out, and yesterday picked a bunch of herbs (that will eventually go into salves) and set to drying them.

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I spent some time in the evening gathering calendula blossoms and comfrey (shown here), broad-leaf plantain, raspberry leaves, rosemary, lavender, and costmary.  The calendula blossoms come in an array of peaches, yellows, oranges since I let them freely self-sow around the garden and express their natural genetic diversity.

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I have two electric dehydrators and make a lot of dried fruit and herbs in them.  However, electric dehydrators use a LOT of power and must run for eight or more hours.  This adds cost and produces heat indoors as well as any environmental impact that comes with plugging in an appliance.

The permaculture way to preserve via dehydrating is to utilize the natural energy of the sun (Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy) to dry food and herbs without costly use of electricity and all the waste products and impacts that come from using the grid (Principle 6: Produce No Waste).

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The dehydrator is made with a series of screens stacked into a wooden box. There is air space between the screens and around their edges.  The top of the box is glass, and as the sun’s rays are harnessed, hot air builds up in the box and circulates around, drying the herbs without any work from me, save rotating the screens a couple of times over the course of the day.  It is extremely efficient if the day is sunny.

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Looking forward to making a batch of salves soon, and hoping for more sunny days in the next week so I can dry prune plums next!

Produce Picked

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So, I haven’t been blogging much lately.  We’ve been in summer overdrive – husband job-hunting (he starts his new job Monday!), ferrying kids to summer camps, derby derby and more derby, sewing and knitting like crazy in preparation for opening my Etsy store this fall, and most of all: harvesting produce twice a week with volunteers in our garden.

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Before I start back to regular posting, I wanted to share some pictures of the harvests over the past couple of weeks.  We’ve had all sorts of new volunteers helping, most of whom have almost no previous garden experience.  It’s been so much fun to work with them, and seeing men and women get excited about all the possibilites that exist in a permacultuer garden.  Have also loved seeing their kids to snack on ground cherries and golden raspberries, play with the ducks, and watch the observation window in the beehive while we pick fruits and veggies.

A glimpse of a portion of what we’ve been picking lately for Birch Community Services:

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Back tomorrow with a post on my new favorite permaculture tool:  a hand-me-down solar dehydrator!

 

Summer’s finally here

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Today was the real start of our summer – my husband has the week off work before he starts teaching summer school, the kids started swim lessons this morning, and the garden is filling in with every shade of green and splashes of color.

I am looking forward to this summer so, so much.  I want to soak up every moment and appreciate every single thing that comes my way.  A year ago tomorrow, I broke my ankle very badly, and missed an entire summer because I was having surgeries and laying on the sofa, blurred by pain meds and breakthrough pain.  This summer is going to be different.  Not sure what summer will have in store yet, but whatever it is, I am going to be thankful and take in every taste, texture, color, connection, experience that comes my way.

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I picked some produce this morning,  appreciating the change of seasons as the final rhubarb and garlic scape bundles were picked, alongside the first of the summer squash and bush beans.

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The abundance of sweet little currant tomatoes are beginning to turn, as are a few types of cherry tomatoes.  If we have the hot week they’ve forecast, there will be tomatoes to pick next week.

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The Early Laxton plums are ripening.  Ruth and I shared the very first plum of the year.  Early Laxton lives up to its name – producing lovely little yellow plums with a red blush weeks or months before other plum varieties.  The plums have a nice honey-like flavor and a good tart plum skin to contrast with the super-sweet flesh.  They are a bit mealy, but not unpleasantly so – and something must be sacrificed to get such an early producer.

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Ruth picking Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita, also known as Magdalene or Sweet Tongue) leaves in the front yard.  The plant has all sorts of traditional medicinal uses, but Ruth enjoys it for the fresh, clean scent of camphor and mint it produces, and wants to dry some leaves for future projects.

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The Reliance grapes have set heavily in the front yard arbor.  Can’t wait for them to ripen.  Last year, the girls would bring me bunches of them while I was on the mend, but I couldn’t enjoy them because the medications I was on affected my sense of taste significantly.  This year, I will eat all the grape varieties we grow and enjoy them all immensely.

(I have to say, I am grateful to be able to do many ordinary things I lost the ability to experience while hurt – and one is regaining my sense of taste.  There will be many, many good things to try this summer.  And the compexity and intensity of flavor of heirloom foods in the home garden is one that cannot be surpassed anywhere.  Like the Early Laxton plum above, I am wowed every time.)

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Hope your summer is kicking off to a bright and lively start.  Blessings on your week.

 

 

 

 

Front Garden Fruit

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We have a Fruit for the Home Garden workshop this Saturday, and in light of that, I’d like to share a small selection of the fruit in our front yard garden.

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Okay, artichokes are flower buds, not fruit, but they grow in a polyculture with one of the plum trees and a selection of grapes, which are…And I love the contrast of the grey sharp-angled foliage with the green roundness of the grape leaves.

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Next to the artichokes, the young Early Laxton plum as set fruit for the first time.  I’m looking forward to trying these plum, which mature earlier than most varieties, and are supposed to have a good sweet flavor and eye-catching pink blush.

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Next to the Early Laxton and artichokes, a small arbor supports Reliance and Interlaken table grapes.  The kids very much prefer them to my favorite variety – Concord grapes in the backyard.  IMG_1468

Hudson’s Golden Gem is a reliable, disease-resistant, conical-shaped apple, and we planted two after Bea picked them out as her favorites at a fruit tasting.

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The bulk of our blueberries are in the side yard garden, but we do have four highbush and four improved lowbush blueberries in a polyculture with clove currants, walking onions and such in a front bed.  Altogether, we have 18 blueberry bushes scattered around the gardens.

Fruit crops in the front yard not pictured here:  Quince, red currant, Clove Currant, pink champagne currant, Chilean guavas, Triple Crown improved thornless blackberry, Aronia berries, Goji berries, Metheley and Stanley plums, strawberries.

Looking forward to our free workshop on Saturday.  I hope folks come away from the class discovering that there are many, many fruits you can pack into a small yard, with varieties far better than one can find in the grocery store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Project – First Aid Kit

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A little sewing from the weekend:   There tends to be a seasonality to my craft habits, and summer time is sewing time.  When life gets a little stressful (and I can’t go skate), I can retreat to the sewing machine upstairs, rummage through the scrap pile, and crank out a few quick projects.  And feel a little better.

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I found this tutorial on Pinterest, and whipped up some little First Aid Kits for gifts.  Bea asked if I’d make her one from scraps of strawberry fabric, so this one is for her.

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These kits were a great use of scrap fabric (which I have in abundance thanks to our local thrift store) and took about 20 minutes start to finish.  I think I’ll be making quite a few more for gifts.

Back to tomorrow with an update from the orchard.

Harvests

 

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Sharing a few shots of some of the crates of produce we’ve picked in the last two weeks.  Our gardens grow organic produce for Birch Community Services, and volunteers come twice a week to learn about gardening, harvest and do a little weeding with me.  It’s still early in the year, but there is a fair amount to pick.

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The herbs are loving the warm weather!  Lavender is a high-value crop, and we grow a lot of it – 6 edible varieties as well as 3 types of Spanish lavender for the bees.  This time of year, all of our 8 varieties of mint are producing heavily, too.

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We have three varieties of rhubarb – 9 plants total – so we pick quite a bit of rhubarb every Monday and Friday this time of year.  In the winter, I frequently give volunteers crown divisions so they can start their own rhubarb patches.

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Hope you’re enjoying the weekend.  This afternoon is dedicated to mulch-spreading, which is just as necessary a job as picking produce, if less glamorous. I know I’m looking forward to volunteers coming to help harvest first thing tomorrow morning.

Top Bar Hive

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After years of dreaming about it, we finally have bees, thanks to the wonderful folks at Bee Thinking!  We have a top bar hive, which is supposed to be a more natural way to keep bees, and easier for the urban beekeeper.

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We put a swarm in a number of weeks ago, and they are happily building out comb and visiting all the flowers in the garden (although we’ve noticed that the bumblebees/native bees have been extra busy this year, too.)

All of the kids want to check on the hive, but they have to take turns, since we only have two suits.  They are curious and unafraid – fascinated by the bees and eager for the honey they will make.

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So far, the thing that has surprised me most is how docile the bees are.  You can tell by their collective buzzing what kind of mood they are in.  Working slowly and quietly, on sunny days, the hardly seem to know I’m there.

Look at those beautiful workers busily going about their business.  Oh, I am totally hooked.  Absolutely smitten.

Unexpected

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Out doing my usual evening walk of the garden yesterday after dinner, weeding and pruning as I go, and something caught my eye…

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A friend gave us loads of new tomato varieties to try out in the garden this year.  I’ve never tasted or grown Rambling Stripe Gold before, but it was amongst the collection.

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And lo and behold!  In the first half of June, in Oregon – there’s a ripe one!  I was totally taken aback.  Tomatoes don’t hit their stride until late August and early September, so to find a ripe on in early June is just unheard of.  Most are flowering and only just beginning to set tiny green fruit.  This plant is absolutely packed with green fruit, as well, and still covered in blooms (which the bumblebees are enjoying very much.)

I’m going to give it another couple of days on the vine just to make sure it’s fully ripe (although, it feels ripe), and I can’t wait to see if the flavor of Rambling Stripe Gold is on par with its productivity and early maturation.

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