Friday, March 29, 2013

Tears in the Garden

Easter Sunday is coming, friends. 

But first, we have Good Friday. 

The older I become, the more emotional I am on Good Friday.  The older I become, the more overwhelmed I am by ultimate sacrifice of Jesus.  The older I become, the more significance I find in simple things.  Like gardening.

Today, I went out to the garden to plant the first seeds of the season.  After a bitter, cold and snowy March, the ground finally thawed enough in the last few days for me to plant peas.  It seemed fitting to me that today would be a good day to plant, a good day to bury seeds that appeared to be dead and dormant, but would soon burst forth with new life. 

The garden beds were ready and waiting, prepared last fall.  After a bit of raking to smooth the soil, I dug shallow furrows and painstakingly began to place the seeds.

And that's when I found myself with tears streaming down my face, wetting the soil near my hands. 

Each seed I placed represented my sins.  Too many to count.  I gave those sins names as I placed them in the furrow.  Pride.  Hatred.  Complacency.  Lies.  Self-Centeredness.  Gossip.  Conceit.  Bitterness.  Unjustified anger.  Covetous Thoughts.  Vanity.  Contempt.  Selfishness.  Lack of concern for my neighbor. The list went on and on.  I felt broken, dirty, ruined.  Despicable.

After all the seeds were place, I began to bury them.  With each swipe of my hand, the seeds were covered by the soil, no longer visible... just as Jesus came to earth and sacrificed Himself on the cross so He could cover up all my sins.  My sins.  Not just the sins on the whole world.  He did it for me.  He would have suffered in the same way, even if I was the only human on earth.  And He would have done the same thing for you. 

This was all too much to take in.  This ugly, wrinkled insignificant looking seed will grow.  It will thrive.  It will produce food that will nourish and bring health to my family.  And it's just the same with my life.  Jesus takes my sin, my ugliness, my weakness when I confess those things and hand them over to Him.  He transforms me into someone who is whole and has purpose.  I am complete only in Him.  As I knelt in the garden, naming and confessing my sins, Jesus covered up all my sins and I left the garden with a clean heart, a clean mind, a clean soul.... ready to grow and thrive for Him, so that I can nourish and feed the souls and bodies of His children.  I discovered renewal in the garden is not just for plants, but people as well. 

Today I shared tears in the garden with my Savior.  Tear of grief, tears of regret, tears of shame.  Tears that He had to suffer for me.  Tears that He had to weep in a garden too...

Sunday is coming.  Today is a day to mourn, friends, but in two days my heart will be bursting forth with joy and praise.  I hope you'll join me.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How to Make Ricotta Cheese

If you really want your friends to think you're turning into a DIY over-achiever (or a crazy hippie), share with them that you have been making cheese in your very own kitchen.  Be prepared for looks of disbelief and awe.  Allow them to sample your delicious cheese and allow them to believe that you slaved away in the kitchen for hours, wearing a hair net to boot.  Whatever you do, don't let them know how easy it actually is to make cheese...

I found this super simple ricotta cheese recipe in the book "Homegrown and Handmade" by Deborah Niemann.  This delightful book reads as part life story and part instruction book on how to live a more self-reliant lifestyle.  Niemann's book is easy to read and inspiring, demystifying some of those homesteading skills that seem beyond the ability of us mere mortals.  Her section about cheesemaking encouraged me to try the ricotta cheese recipe and I was not disappointed. 

I actually made this recipe for the first time when I was planning on bringing a pan of lasagna to a friend who recently had a baby, but discovered I didn't have any ricotta cheese.  Instead of running to the store with two tired kids in tow, I decided to try making my own.  I was pleasantly surprised by how easy (and fun!) it was.  It's the perfect cheese for a beginner cheesemaker to try. 

Here is what you need to make 2-4 cups of cheese (about a enough for a pan of lasagna):
  • 1/2 gallon of milk (not ultra-pasteurized).  The higher the fat content of the milk, the more cheese you will get.  I recommend using whole milk.
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • Large pot
  • Food thermometer with a clip
  • Colander
  • Cheesecloth, flour sack towel or tea towel

    1.  Pour the milk into the pan and attach the thermometer to the side of the pan.

    2.  Heat the milk to 180 degrees, stirring occasionally.

     3.  When the milk reaches 180 degrees, add the vinegar and stir gently.  The milk will begin to get "chunky" looking.  What you are witnessing is the curds separating from the whey.  Remember "Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey"?  Curds are the cheese.  The whey is considered the by-product of cheesemaking.  Most people dump the whey, but you can use it for soaking grains  or you can drink it, if you like the taste.  I don't care for it, but I've heard of people adding lemon and sugar and calling it "wheymonade".  If you have pets or farm animals, they will gobble it up -it's especially good for chickens and hogs.  In fact, you may have heard of "whey fed pork" - some cheesemaking operations keep and sell hogs, simply as a way to use up the whey and convert it to delicious pork!

    4.  Once the curds and whey have separated, put the whole pot into a sink full of cold water.  The water level should be at the level of the milk in the pot.  Stir the curds.  You want to cool the curds and whey quickly, down to 90 degrees.

    5.  Once the curds and whey have cooled to 90 degrees, carefully transfer the contents of the pot to a cheesecloth lined colander. You can set the colander in the sink and let the whey go down the drain.  If you are saving the whey, place a bowl under the colander to collect the whey (we feed it to the chickens, hogs and barn cats).  Allow to drain until the whey is gone and the curds are crumbly. 

    6.  Use the cheese immediately (fabulous for lasagna!) or store it in a covered container in the fridge for up to a week. 
    This really is a simple recipe.  About the only part you could mess up is the temperature.  If you add the vinegar before the milk reaches 180 degrees, the curds and whey might not separate.  Make sure you have a reliable thermometer and you shouldn't have any problems. 
    As for time commitment, this recipe takes about 30 minutes tops, with only about 5 of those minutes being hands-on time. It takes a while for milk to heat,  then cool, and the curds to drain - you can do something else in the kitchen during those times. 
    Traditionally, ricotta cheese is made from the whey leftover after making a batch of mozzarella cheese (which is really fun, by the way, and not nearly as scary as it sounds!), but that method yields only a small amount of ricotta, maybe a 1/2 cup or so.  This method makes a much larger batch of cheese, but the texture might be a little different than what you buy from the store. 
    Have you ever tried making cheese before?  What kind did you make?  Want to come over and make cheese with me?!?

Monday, March 18, 2013

March Therapy - Starting Seeds

March.  The most dreaded month of the year for me.  Piles of dirty, nasty snow.  A hint of warm air, followed by days of chill, just to break your spirit.   Brown, dead grass.  Cold rain and dirty, muddy boots. No snow for kids to play in.  Too cold and mucky for them to play outside. A winter's worth of mushy dog poo in the yard waiting to be stepped on. 

I despise March.  I dread March.  I wish we could go right from snowy February to cool, rainy April.  But nooooooooo..... we have to endure March in all it's depressing, disgusting glory. 

March.  There is only one redeeming factor and it is this - March means I can start planting vegetable and flower seeds in my basement.  March means I can seriously start plans for the garden.  And sometimes, March means I can actually go out in the garden and get some dirt under my fingernails.

I guess March isn't so bad after all...

After my post about selecting seeds and planning the garden, I had several people ask me how I start my vegetable seeds.  Now, I'm no expert at seed starting, but I have been doing it for a few years, so I can share some tips and pointers.  Again, I want to stress: Gardening can be as simple or as complicated as you make it.   You can be super fussy about how you start your plants and maybe you'll get healthier plants and better yields, but I still think you can get good results without driving yourself crazy. 

Who should consider starting plants?  It's certainly not for everyone.  If you plan on having small garden with a handful of tomato and pepper plants, then it might be in your best interest to buy the plants from a garden center, ready to go in the ground, instead of trying to start them from seed yourself.  However, if you plan on having lots of plants in your garden, buying them can add up fast, considering each plant can cost around $2-3.  You can buy a whole packet of seeds for less than that and grow 30-40 plants, instead of 1!  So, if you are looking to save money, need lots of vegetables and want more control over what you plant, starting seeds is for you. 

I'm not going to lie - starting plants can be complicated. There is a lot to think about and quite a bit of planning ahead (which is not my strong suit). I'm going to try to make this as simple
as I can. Bear with me - I know some of my readers will find this information to be terribly boring, while others will love it. If you don't plan on starting seeds, skip this post and tune in next time!

I.  Thinking Ahead
  1. Determine what you want to plant this year.  If you have not ordered seeds by now (click here to find my favorite seed companies), you should head to the nearest garden center and check out their selection.  Try Fruitbasket Flowerland - I feel they have the best selection of conventional and organic seeds in West Michigan.
  2. Carefully read and examine the instructions on the back of the seed packet.  You should see one of two phrases:  "Direct sow" or "Start indoors".  "Direct sow" means you can literally just stick the seed right in your garden - no fuss, no muss.  Often, these are quickly maturing plants and some are even frost hardy.  You can start some of these indoors, but it's not absolutely necessary.  "Start indoors" indicates that this plant needs more time to grow, so you need to give it a headstart indoors for a few weeks before you can put the plant in the garden.  If you try to plant these from seed in your garden, many will not mature before the fall killing frost. Some of these plants are not frost hardy. 
    1. Examples of "Direct Sow" plants:  Lettuce, spinach, beans, peas, cucumber, corn, carrots, kale, radishes, etc.
    2. Examples of "Start Indoors" plants:  Tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), eggplant, etc. 
  3. Figure out what Plant Hardiness Zone you live in and the Estimated Frost Dates for your area.  Hardiness Zones are especially helpful when planting perennial plants (regrow every year in the same spot), such as trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs (some are perennial and some annual). Knowing your Zone helps you determine if the plant will survive harsh winter weather.  Here in West Michigan, we are in Zone 5 or 6, depending on the geography and proximity to Lake Michigan. Plant Hardiness Zone MapSome seed packs will tell you what month the plant should be direct sowed or started indoors based on your Zone.  If not, the seed pack will say something like "Start indoors 6 weeks before last frost date/planting date/transplanting date".  How do I know when is the last spring frost date, you ask?   Check out this site to find the approximate dates of the spring/fall frosts.  Enter in your state and it will pull up information about the cities in your state, letting you know when it's safe to plant warm season crops that are killed by frost. This chart is used by fruit and vegetable growers to determine the last frost of the spring and the first frost of the fall - the time between these two events is considered the "growing season".    Here in the Grand Rapids, MI area, we can expect our last spring frost between April 29 - June 2 and our first fall frost between September 15 - October 10.  That gives us roughly 120 days to grow warm season crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, melons and corn.
  4. Sort through your seeds and put them in two piles - seeds that can be direct sowed and seeds that need to be started indoors.  Be aware that some seeds may fit into both piles.  For example, broccoli should be started indoors in the spring and transplanted after the frost date for a summer crop, but can also be direct sowed into the garden midsummer (July) so that it produces a fall crop in September or October.  Read seed packs carefully.  You will find all this information there.
  5. Find a calendar and choose a date for when you plan to transplant your "start indoors" plants into the garden.  I chose May 12 as my projected date.  From this date, I counted back 6 weeks (the length of time most plants need to grow indoors) and determined when I should be starting most of my plants.  By late March/early April, I should be starting my indoor plants.  You don't want to start them much earlier than that, or the plants may get leggy or start to set flowers.  Older plants do not transplant well. 
  6. Now you're done with the hard part and ready to start getting you hands dirty!

II.  Gather Supplies
  1. Gather your supplies.  Again, you can make this as complicated or as simple as you like.  Regardless of how you do it, at the very least, you will need these things:
    1. Seeds - New seeds are best.  You can certainly try using leftover seeds from last year, but be aware that most seeds lose viability with time.  I've had decent luck with old tomato seeds, but old lettuce seeds are usually a dismal failure.  If you don't need to buy a whole pack of seeds, consider buying seeds with a friend and splitting the cost. 
    2. Growing Medium/Soil - Get thee to a garden center and ask for seed starting/growing medium.  This is not the same as potting soil.  Some seed starting mediums contain fertilizer.  This is ok, but not necessary.  If you're trying to stick to organic growing methods, it would be best to skip the Miracle Grow type stuff.
    3. Containers - You can get fancy here or go super simple.  I tend to reuse the little black plastic cells that flats of flower come in (you should wash these thoroughly to prevent spreading diseases from different plants).  I also save all the yogurt, sour cream and cottage cheese containers we use during the year.  Poke a few drainage holes in the bottom and you have a fabulous growing container.  You could also start small plants with shallow roots, like lettuce and onions, in egg cartons.  Whatever you use, you should also have a tray to put your containers in, to protect your table or work surface from water damage.  If all this DIY stuff sounds like too much work, you can buy seed starting kits from a garden center, home improvement store or on-line supplier, like this one from Territorial Seed Co.  When you are first starting the seeds, you will need to keep the soil constantly moist.  You can achieve this by using a seed starting kit with a clear lid/dome or cover your egg crates/yogurt containers/cells with plastic wrap.
    4. Water - Regular watering is essential for success.  If the soil dries up at any time while you're waiting for the seed to germinate (sprout), it could prevent germination.  The soil MUST stay damp.  Not soaking, but moist.  If you have softened well water, do NOT use this water on your plants.  Softened water should NEVER be used on plants - the high salt content weakens and eventually kills plants.  If need be, go outside and fill a bucket with water from an unsoftened source or buy water from the grocery store. 
    5. Light - You have two options: natural light (sunny window, greenhouse, etc.) OR artificial lighting.  Plants need about 12-14 hours of direct light to grow quickly, so artificial lighting might be best, depending on where you live (we don't get much strong natural light in Michigan this time of year).  We use a timer to turn the lights on/off.  If you have access to special lighting systems made for starting seeds, more power to you!  If not, you can certainly use a fluorescent shop light hung above your containers.  It's recommended that you use a combination of warm and cool bulbs for optimal growth.
    6. Fertilizer - Once your babies start to grow, they will need to be fed.  As a general rule, light fertilizing every 2 weeks should be sufficient.  Make sure you are using an organic type fertilizer - you'll be eating these plants, so you don't want to be using any toxins.  I've been happy with the fish emulsion type fertilizers.  When it comes to fertilizing, I have learned two things: 1.  Under-fertilizing is better than over-fertilizing.  You could easily kill or damage a plant with over-enthusiastic fertilizing.  Follow directions on the bottle carefully. 2.  Take care to apply the fertilizer at the roots, not the leaves.  Some fertilizers can burn or damage leaves. 
III.  Plant the seeds
  1. Fill your container with seed starting medium.  I find it easiest to pour all the medium in a clean lidded garbage can, mix it with unsoftened water until it's the right consistency (not to wet, not too dry) and then fill my containers right over the can.  This helps keep the mess to a minimum.
 2.  Read the instructions on the seed packet to see how deep the seeds should be placed.  Some need to be planted 1/2 inch deep, while others, like the tiny celery seed, you could simply sprinkle on the soil and then lightly crumble some more soil on top. 

 3.  Be sure to label your containers immediately!!!  I can't tell you how many times I've lost track of what I planted or got things confused.  Keep a rag handy, so you can wipe your hands off and write your labels.  Or write your labels ahead of time and place them in the containers. Write the date on the backside of the label, so you will know exactly how long it took for the plant for germinate.  I write my labels on wooden craft sticks I got from the craft store. 

 4.  Ta-da!!!!  You have started your own seeds!  Now make sure to cover your trays/containers.  Remember, the SOIL MUST STAY WET.  This will make or break your success.  Check on the containers at least once a day and mist them with a squirt bottle if needed.  The squirt bottle is best while you're waiting for germination because it doesn't disturb the seeds.  After the plants germinate and are sturdy, you can use a watering can. 

 5.  Write down what you did in your journal.  I make notes of what seeds I use and how old they are.  I had a bunch of old seeds from 2009 that are probably not viable, but I decided to try them anyway.  When the seeds begin to germinate, I also record that in the journal.  A garden journal is a very helpful tool.  Long ago, I learned I cannot trust my brain to remember all the details about each plant and when I started them.  That job belongs to the garden journal.

6.  Wait with breathless anticipation!!!!  I planted basil on Feb. 27 and it germinated 3 days later.  I literally gasped in wonder and ran upstairs to tell my husband the good news.... and he was napping.  As excited as I was, I decided waking him to tell him basil was sprouting was probably not a great idea...


7.  When you babies start to outgrow their little cells/containers, you can carefully transplant them into a larger container, if need be.  When the risk of frost is over, you can begin "hardening off" your plants.  This involves bringing the plants outside for a few hours each day, so they can get used to being outdoors.  Start with a few hours the first day and gradually increase the time over a week or so.  Keep the fragile babies in shade/partial shade so they don't burn to a crisp.  If you try to plant them in the garden without hardening them, you could easily lose all your plants and all your hard work would be wasted.  Don't rush this process!  After about a week or so, you can then plant them directly into your garden.  Shed a little tear as you watch your babies thrive, all grown up and ready to face the world on their own. 

 There you have it, friends!  As you can see, actually starting the seeds is not that difficult.  It's the planning ahead that requires the most work.  Have fun starting your seeds and remember, Gardening can be as simple or as complicated as you make it.  What works for one person might not work for you.  And keep in mind that we learn best by making mistakes.  Lots and lots of mistakes! 

What are you planning to grow this year?  Have you tried starting your own plants before?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Adios, Winter

Can you believe that winter is almost over?  It may be hard to imagine, but in a few short weeks it will be time to start planting seeds in the garden, prune fruit trees,  raise baby chicks and get ready for piglets.  We're eagerly looking forward to spring and the flurry of activity it will bring.  While there will be plenty to do around the farm, it's nice to know that we won't have as much to do.  Last spring (when we bit off more than we could chew) was spent laboring over fencing and transforming sod into a 4,000 + sq. foot garden.  Thank goodness we don't have to do that again!

This winter has been good to us.  We really did not get any decent snowfall in West Michigan until after the new year, so it has seemed like a short winter.  The goats and chickens were able to roam and forage all the way up until January.  Since the snow came, they have been living in the shelter of the barn.  We open the door most days, so they have the option of going outside, but everyone seems happier indoors, though I can tell they are starting to get some cabin fever.  I find myself thinking of "Enrichment Activities" (that's what they call it at the zoo) for the chickens, trying to come up with things to keep them occupied.  I like to bring them special treats, like animal bones with meat on them (remember, chickens are omnivores and love meat) or veggies, maybe some leftover popcorn.  I scatter the food around the barn, so they have to spend the day searching for it.  This makes them happy.

Toro, our Alpine goat, is especially restless.  This past February, Lacy, the goat we borrowed to be Toro's winter time companion, came down with pneumonia.  Poor Lacy looked horrible.  The vet came out and gave her a shot.  We were not terribly optimistic about her outcome, as she was a 12 year old goat, but we hoped for the best.  And she improved!  Within days, she perked up and a week later, she seemed like her old self. 

Then, the day before we left for a vacation in Florida, I went out to do the morning chores and found Lacy laying dead in the stall.  I was shocked.  When we'd put her to bed the night before, she had seemed fine.  It was such a sad day.  My son had followed me out to the barn without my knowledge and saw her laying there, so I had to explain to him what had happened.  He seemed to take it in stride, better than me.  The loss of life is so painful, no matter how many times I have to deal with it.  I hope and pray that I never become immune to the pain, that I continue to cry over every creature that passes on our farm.

So, now Toro is terribly lonely and we honestly don't know what to do next.  Our original plan was to keep Toro as a companion animal for the beef steer that we intend to raise.  We had figured on buying a calf this spring, but the more we consider it, we're not sure our newly planted pasture can support a calf just yet.  It would be wiser to wait another year.  In the meantime, we're considering raising a few goats for meat.  The goats will spread their manure on the pasture and help control weeds.  Come fall, when their fertilizing and mowing work is done, we'll send them to the butcher.  We shall see... perhaps we'll have a bunch of adorable goat kids running around soon.  In the meantime, I try to go out once a day to play with Toro.  My husband built him a "jungle gym" from old pallets and boards.  He enjoys climbing on it (and prances around like he's hot stuff), but only when I'm out there with him watching, of course. 

Toro on his "jungle gym"

It's also time to start getting serious about the garden. I'm starting to get a wee bit giddy! Ok, more than a wee bit... My brain has been in high gear, trying to synchronize all my planting schedules for the vegetable garden.  Oy.  It can be an organizational nightmare trying to to keep track of what plant needs to be started when, when plants need to be fertilized, which plants are cold hardy enough to be planted outside, etc.  I try to write everything down in my garden journal and planting calendar, but I'm sure things slip through the cracks.  Thanks to my garden journal, which records my numerous slip-ups, I make fewer mistakes each year.  That's how we learn right?  Lots and lots of mistakes.

On top of all the garden planning, I'm scrambling to map out and plan our small fruit orchard.  Last year, I purchased 4 apple trees and intend to purchase an additional fruit tree (peach, cherry, pear, apricot, etc.) each year.  This year, my main focus will be putting in strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.  As soon as the soil warms up, I better get out there and start preparing and amending the soil so I can plant as soon as possible!  Our property is located on a corner with good traffic, so we're thinking we could make a tidy little profit selling fresh organically grown berries at a small roadside stand.  And if not, we'll have plenty of berries to share and everyone I know will be receiving a jar of jam for Christmas!

To add to all this excitement, my husband was involved in an accident at work 2 weeks ago.  An extension ladder collapsed on him while he was setting it up, and his left thumb got caught in the ladder rails.  God was watching over him - I cringe to think what would have happened if his whole hand had been caught.  After several hours in the ER, he walked out with a severely cut, mangled and broken thumb... and the doctor's orders of no work for 8 weeks.  It's been incredibly frustrating for him as he sees all this work to be done on the farm (firewood to be cut, chick brooders and hog houses to be built, fence wire to be run, fruit orchards to be turned over) , but is unable to do most of  it.  A broken thumb sounds like such a small injury, but it basically renders the entire hand useless for many tasks.  Shoelaces, buttons, jars, doorknobs... we certainly take our opposable thumbs for granted!  Somehow, we'll get all the work done.  And if not, there is always next year. 

Today I saw my first robin, the sure sign of spring, and my heart about overflowed with hope and joy.  See you next year, winter.  Here comes spring!