Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Plums, fruit leather, and plum wine

One of the things that we have done well here in our new California location on the grounds of a private boarding school, is use the entire campus as our backyard homestead.  We regularly harvest walnuts from the trees in the Learning Strategies quad in upper campus.  We thank the middle schoolers for their labor every time we harvest cherry tomatoes from their plots near the tennis courts.  But our favorite Dunn School harvest is when the Middle School plum tree begins to produce in late July.  Oh what a bounty!  This tree is no more than 15 feet tall and about 20 around.  You can access all the plums with the use of a two step house ladder.  Yet this little guy produces.  We did two major harvests on that tree this year and we came home with approximately 60 pounds of fruit.  Not bad for a couple of hours of work with the boys.

With that quantity of fruit, we tried a bunch of stuff...

1. Juicing - wouldn't recommend it.  Juicing wastes a ton of fruit pulp and produces very little juice.  The juice was fantastic and the pulp we feed to the chickens, which eventually feeds our compost in the form of chicken poop, so I guess it isn't completely wasted.  But all the leftovers rubbed me the wrong way.
2.  Freezing - Easy and smart.  Quarter and freeze, couldn't be easier.  We use our frozen plums as ingredients in fruit smoothies.  We eat fruit smoothies twice daily in the summer and these plums were a great addition.
3.  Canning - We canned some plum sauce last year.  I love canning and do it often, but lately I have soured on it to some extent.  It uses a lot of energy, and heats up the house during the hottest time of the year.  I am also discovering better ways to preserve.  One of these new methods is fruit leather...

Fruit Leather

Let me start by saying, if you have not made fruit leather before you need to stop reading right now and go do it!  It was perhaps the most satisfying preserving experiment that we have ever tried.  First and foremost - it was pretty easy.  Second - it used a ton of product.  Finally - it was delicious!  Here is the process...

1.  wash, pit plums.  This is the most time consuming part and is typically the first step of preserving no matter what method you are trying.  My trick is to pick a large knife and roll the plum under the blade in one direction and then in the opposite direction.  That quickly quarters the plum and allows for pretty easy pit extraction.  Even my 8 year old son can use this technique with much success.
2. Toss them in the blender (skins and all).  We processed our plums in small 3 cup batches.  Add approximately 1 tblspoon of sugar to the blender and press start.
3.  The result is a reasonably thick fruit mash.  Pour this mash onto a sheet of parchment paper, which is supported by a large cookie sheet.  Spread it evenly over the sheet.  When I was done spreading, I would estimate that my mash was approximately 1/4 inch thick on the sheet.
3 cups plums and 1 tablespoon sugar
4.  We are blessed with some serious sun here in the central coast of California, so we have the luxury of sun drying our leather.  We laid our cookie sheets onto the black floor of our south west facing deck, and the result was a drying temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Most of the leather dried in one day - approx 6 hours on the deck.  A couple sheets we needed to finish a little in the oven or on the deck the next day.
5.  That was about it.  All you do to finish up is roll the parchment like a burrito and cut it with scissors into little kid-sized strips.  Everybody in the family loves it.  It disappears magically in about 3 days.  It is healthy and fun.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


If one were to judge by the activity of this blog, it would appear that gardening has been completely eliminated from our lives over the last couple years. That is not quite the case. But is has been slow and has taken on a whole new style - more fitting for our new climate, occupation and living situation.

We now live in the central coast of California in a rural wine and horse valley. Agriculture is all around us. To our west is a large commercial farm that is planted in commercial vegetable crops all year long. Not far down the road are lama, sheep and chickens and just a bit beyond that is a lavender farm. We feed horses on our nightly walks and are never out of sight of a grapes and fruit trees.

So how have we been fitting in to this new rural environment? Chickens! We bought four 10 week old chicks back in May 2011 to celebrate Sarah's 39th and Marian and Carter's 2nd and 9th respectively. We bought the coop on-line and the chicks in Lompoc, CA from a place call Dare to Dream farms. We have dreamed of owning chickens for a long, long time. Living in urban and suburban Pittsburgh for the last 10+ years, we have been held back from this dream by neighbor and municipal issues. We left those issues behind and have very much enjoyed our first year as chicken owners.

We now have 8 chickens. Four from the fist batch (May 2010) and 4 more purchased from Dare to Dream as 3 week old chicks about 6 weeks ago. Here are our varieties: Easter eggers (2), Wellsummer, Speckled Sussix, Bard Plymouth, White Plymouth, Wyndot, and Brown Plymouth. Our young chicks are not yet laying, but from the older four we get 3.5 eggs per day. They stop laying between Thanksgiving and Mid-February. We got them purely for the eggs and the companionship.

The egg production has exceeded my expectations. We get more than we need (even before the other 4 start laying), and we have increased our egg consumption quite a bit because the eggs are free and just so darn good. They are really fun to hand out to co-workers and friends. Who doesn't appreciate fresh, organic eggs? Sarah has gotten into mixing a special feed, which is just beautiful to look at. The recipe includes split peas, peanuts, corn, and flax seed. We also feed them kitchen scraps, arugula and lots of green weeds. Their diet is really good and the eggs they produce are worthy of that nice diet.

Chickens are also wonderful companions. While they don't cuddle nor offer emotional support, their mere presence in our back yard is much appreciated. They make cute, quiet little sounds. You can pass hours just watching them scratch the dirt for food. They are just very, very relaxing and pleasant to be around. I often find myself choosing my book reading, refreshment drinking location on the back patio, so I can watch them do their thing.

There are things in life that you dream of someday doing. We spend our lives building these things up into some larger than life glory moments. Often the reality misses rising to the level of the dream. Sarah and I have dreamed of owning chickens. I have to say - that the experience is pretty close to the dream. The pessimist could argue that we need to shoot a little larger for our dreams. I am an optimist. I own chickens.

I missed this

Life has a way of prioritizing things for you. Sometimes gardens and garden blogs just aren't top priority. That has been the case for me for the last couple of years. On July 1st 2010 we picked up our family of 6 and moved from Western Pennsylvania to the Central Coast of California. We traded in our lovely stone house, 16 garden beds, 7 rain barrels, and two ridiculously large compost piles for a rental property with a lot of grass on a high school campus. Who needs 450 pounds of home grown vegetables when you all of a sudden have a school dining hall feeding you every night? How the heck can I learn to garden in a rain resistant zone 9? Where will we find the time? How can I possibly garden without my trusty truck? Why garden at all?

Because I love it!

The Pittsburgh Garden Journal is now the Los Olivos Garden Journal. The Stacy's are back in the yard again. Talk to you soon.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


We recently moved to Los Olivos, California. I will still be gardening, but it may take me a while before I have the time and the zone 9 confidence to blog about it.



Tuesday, May 25, 2010

May 25th harvest

We are harvesting peas, broccoli, leeks and strawberries regularly. Yesterday we harvested enough strawberries for the whole family to share a nice desert of strawberries mixed with sour cream and sugar. It was delicious. I spent considerable time the last two days removing weeds and vines from the driveway area and converting that into a perennial flower garden. It looks really nice. We have also been having some fun cooking with leeks. This was our first time planting leeks. We have harvested 5 so far. They are really an attractive plant with a nice mild flavor and are easy to use in place of onions in a lot of dishes. We had leeks and roasted potatoes as a side dish with spinach scrambled eggs yesterday. I also made a nice potato, leek, taragon soup, which has been a family favorite.

I planted the lower wall and upper wall gardens last week. In the lower wall garden, I mixed zucchini, corn, and pole beens. Check out this link for an interesting discussion of this interplanting practice http://www.reneesgarden.com/articles/3sisters.html. With less than a month remaining here in Pittsburgh, this will be a harvest for someone else to enjoy. But I enjoyed planting it and will gladly watch it grow until the day we move. In the upper wall garden I planted 5 mounds of cantaloupe.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mid May already?

Harvesting lettuce, spinach, green onions, radishes, kale, swiss chard daily. The broccoli is heading up with the largest head at 2.5 inches. strawberries are big and white. Wysteria is exactly what we hoped it would be - visual neighbor screen with beautiful blue fragrant flowers - and a cardinals nest buried in the brush. The garden is lush.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Busy weekend

It was a beautiful weather weekend and a busy garden weekend. I...

  1. Planted a 25 foot row of potatoes. These were seed potatoes purchased from Lowes. I planted two varieties: yukon gold and red norland. This is double the quantity of potatoes I planted last year. Last year I did a 13 foot row of red norlands which yielded a 33 pound harvest. This planting is in the northern most raised bed of the sun garden. Our planned move date is 6/10, so if the potatoes follow last year's pattern, we will only enjoy a few stolen potatoes from this planting. The new owners will get the bounty. This row was heavily composted in the fall and was treated with Urea and Sulphur last week. This row grew peas last fall and potatoes last spring.
  2. Planted 1/2 of a 20 foot row of beets, carrots, green onions, radishes in Sun garden raised bed #2. This row was also treated with Urea and Sulphur last week. This row grew corn and broccoli last summer. 1/2 of it was sown with white clover cover crop in the fall.
  3. Planted more peas. The peas that were sown in November sprouted a couple weeks ago, but it is clear that there was serious seed loss to this planting. Maybe only one in five seeds sprouted. So I filled in empty spots in this sun garden row #3 with new pea seeds. There are two varieties planted in this row - green arrow (pod peas) and snow peas. This soil was not treated. I also planted more snow peas in the tepee garden.
  4. Planted yellow onions from 1 pound of sets. These are in the final sun garden row #4. They complete the row that was sown last fall with leeks. Soil treated with compost in the fall, urea and sulpher last week.
  5. Planted 6 romaine and 6 buttercrunch lettuce seedlings in the cold frame. It is clear that our impending move has made me abandon one of last season's garden goals: not purchase any nursery stock. Indoor seed starting isn't the most attractive thing for prospective home buyers to see, so that goal got tossed for the greater good. Hopefully these seedlings will allow us some late March and early April salads while we wait for the coldframe lettuce patch to mature.
  6. Planted two small rows of Kale and 12 red cabbage seedlings in the chimney garden. The cabbage I interplanted with a ton of spinach seedlings.
  7. I also turned and chopped the compost hoping to fire it up. Parts of the pile were plenty hot - other parts were cold and soggy. I am guessing it will be ready for spreading in a couple weeks.
The strange thing about all this work is that we will not likely enjoy more than 10 pounds of what I planted today. I am essentially gardening this year for three reasons - First - I refuse to turn this beautiful soil back to grass. Second - It looks pretty. Third - I have this hope that the new owner will enjoy both the harvest and the garden. But more than any of those reasons, I continue to garden this season because I absolutely love it. I have reached the point where gardening is one of my favorite things. The journey is the reward.

Great news - I just finished my morning garden walk and noticed three asparagus spears sticking up. We also noticed the garlic popping up yesterday when we removed the winter covering of straw.