The Daily: 17 April 2023

The weather finally caught up with the calendar — and then it ran right on into July. It was over 80°F for the last several days. This is extremely unusual for April. Burlington was setting daily record high temperatures. My town probably was also, but records aren’t as complete here. For comparison, in central Vermont, we don’t see many days in summer with temperatures above 80°F, never mind spring.

I know the rest of the country has had similar heat. The temperature maps have been red from the Gulf Coast to Canada. Most of the middle states were also stormy, but Vermont has missed that. We have had wind and very dry conditions, with humidity as low as 30%, which is approaching desert. So instead of floods, we’ve had fires. People will burn brush when they can get to the pile after mud season regardless of the spring breezes. Several of these burns escaped and caused havoc, mostly with farm out-buildings. We’ve also had one warehouse in the middle of town burn to the ground. This may or may not have intentional beginnings.

One good thing that came with the weather is that the garage finally drained out again. Parking my plug-in car in there is less concerning now. However, with this dry wind, I’ve had to drag watering cans across the street to keep the seed beds cool and moist enough for germination of spring veg — which, so far, has not happened. I doubt the seeds are rotting though, so they’ll probably still germinate when conditions shift to more congenial temperatures and humidity levels. It’s just annoying. All of it was planted sort of late relative to summer heat. If it takes too much longer to get the roots and greens going, the plants will just bolt right after sprouting.

This past weekend showed that the rest of the garden is definitely feeling inspired by the summer warmth. The forsythia went from tiny buds to full flower in about 24 hours. The early bulbs like daffodils and squill are also in full bloom, and the crocuses are already done. In one week, the garden went from being bug-deficient to buzzing with all sorts of pollinators. A confused bumblebee was stuck in my enclosed back porch yesterday. She all but yelled at me to open the doors and let her out to get at the real flowers. (I have dried lavender out there… she probably came in to investigate.)

The abrupt heat also inspired me. Up until last week, the weather hadn’t been comfortable enough to disrobe and clean the windows. But at 84°F and sunny, the house gets far too warm for sleep without some ventilation. So I got the attic opened up and then attacked the second level, which takes far more work. I can live with a bit of chaos in the attic window-wells, but not in my bedroom and bathroom. All the draft blockers were gathered up, the glass was mostly wiped clear again, and several pounds of dirt and desiccated bug bodies were removed from the storm window frames. (I might be exaggerating… though I did need to empty the vacuum bag afterwards…) I will finish this project on the first floor next weekend. That requires cleaning the glass outside since I can’t justify ignoring it because it’s out of reach. Last week the windows at work were cleaned, but with all the blowing dirt by Friday it was right back to yellow grime. I was not about to fall into that trap here.

This week it’s supposed to get cooler again. More importantly, it’s supposed to rain. It may be that the forecast is for precipitation that normally falls in April. It’s been unusually dry — no April showers — and the weather folks will tend to predict rain that should have fallen during the month. These forecasts have a similar look. Rain falls at the end of the ten-day prediction period and stays there at the far end, never making it to ‘today’. However, at least for the beginning of the week, some rain has stayed attached to the days. I hope this is real. I’m already tired of hauling the watering can.


Garden Planning From the Book Cellar

It’s spring, so obviously it’s time to get the garden in production. For those who don’t know where to start or who just want more tips I have some recommendations on books that I use every year in planning and implementing food production. I know I just talked about my book-free kitchen, however, this is one very important caveat — I definitely use books for the intersection of kitchen and garden. These books are less about cooking than growing, processing and storing the harvest, and all three affect food safety. So reference books are necessary.

I am reading a new one — The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How by Andrea Chesman (2015, Storey Publishing). Chesman lives on an acre in Vermont, so this book is highly relevant to me. However, with her decades of practical experience — in addition to her homestead life, she’s written many books and teaches classes on storing the harvest — there are tips for anyone anywhere who grows typical garden produce. I have already found useful suggestions and I have almost as much experience as she does, so I feel like this is a good book to recommend to anyone with a veg plot. One caution: her methods do tend to lean toward agricultural extension agency practices, lots of plastic and electricity. She acknowledges that not everybody is going to have the capacity to run two refrigerators and a chest freezer, but she also doesn’t talk as much about lower-energy preservation methods. However, she includes the most detailed instructions on drying food that I’ve ever encountered. Mostly without electricity. And since she does this in Vermont — in normal, New England summer humidity — I think I may have found my solution to that problem.

She also spends a bit at the beginning of the book talking about what you should grow. For example, if you don’t like stuffing squash in summer heat, don’t plant round varieties. And if your family is less than Victorian in number, then don’t plant more than a few bushes of all the summer squashes put together. But she doesn’t talk as much about gardening as she does about produce, so there isn’t good information on yields and varieties. I have other books for that.

Keeping the Harvest by Nancy Chioffi and Gretchen Mead (1991, Storey Publishing) is a slim but indispensable reference for basic recipes and techniques. It also contains a chart I have been using for decades: the yields of frozen veg per unit of harvest (bushels, heads, pounds, etc). This table is gold! Nothing is more annoying than running out of pint containers in the middle of processing veg, especially the chiles. With this chart, I know that I need at least 18 pint containers washed and ready when I tackle the 25 pound box of Big Jim peppers in August. They also give yields per unit of planting area (row feet, square feet, bushes, trees, etc). So if you are unsure about how many potatoes you should plant for a given yield or how much space will be necessary for that yield or even how much ‘yield’ you will be able to eat, then buy this book.

Another extremely useful reference book is Rosalind Creasy’s The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping (1982, Sierra Club Books). This is a permaculture book from before permaculture. I learned how to grow abundant food in small spaces from this one book. More a gardening manual than food processing book, Edible Landscaping contains general guides to growing and using just about every kind of fruit, veg and herb that might be grown in temperate climates. (And a few from more tropical conditions.) Creasy gives hardiness, growing season length, light and moisture needs, soil types and whatever else you need to grow a plant. She describes the different growing needs of different varieties of a given species also. For example, you may not live in a climate with the 1000 chill hours needed by Wolf River apples (my favorites), but there are plenty of apple varieties that can be grown in regions with warmer winters.

These two books are my main garden production planning references. I have many other books, but these are the ones that come out every year. I definitely recommend getting them if you are new to producing and storing your own food, or even if you just want to learn more about these skills that everyone will be needing in the not so distant future. However, I would also advise you to get at least one recently published reference on canning and preserving. This is one type of cookbook that I do use. Nobody should improvise on this stuff!

My two go-to garden planning books have plenty of recipes, however there have been many changes in the intervening decades on food safety recommendations. For just one example, it’s been determined that tomatoes are not high enough in acid to kill harmful microbes, so pressure-canning is safer than the water-bath canning I used to use on canned tomato sauce. Most of the recipes are fine and obviously I’m still alive after using them for many years, but that might just be because I’ve been lucky. (That, and botulism doesn’t stand a chance in my sterile kitchen…) But still, preserving low-acid veg is flirting with food poisoning even in the best conditions. So use up-to-date information on how to avoid that nightmare. I use Saving the Seasons by Mary Clemens Meyer and Susanna Meyer (2010, Herald Press), and I have the most recent copy of the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving (2008). I have a few other books on jams, chutneys and other high-acid things, but I always cross-reference cooking times and temperatures with the books I trust implicitly. And sometimes I even go look things up on extension agency websites, which presumably have the most recent information available.

So those books go very far toward planning a garden, including what use you’ll make of the produce. But to round out garden planning, especially for those who are looking to create a landscape that needs little maintenance and very few inputs, I have two other book recommendations. These are not quick reads, and maybe I should have suggested starting them last November, but they are invaluable in garden planning. The first is the classic ecology book by Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy (1977, Sierra Club Books). From how ecological balance is physically achieved to the history and ethics of the conservation movement, Worster’s book is a complete education. I only include one other book because it is written specifically for the garden: Ecology for Gardeners by Steven B. Carroll and Severn D. Salt (2004, Timber Press). If there is a fault in Worster’s book, it’s that he doesn’t talk as much as I’d like about the kinds of plants we grow intentionally. Carroll and Salt make up for that — and include lots of images! I don’t know about you, but I will never be able to sort out the good caterpillars from the evil spawn of hell without a good visual guide.

Hope these references help! They’ve inspired me to try new things and see the garden in new ways each year. And speaking of… it’s time to cut up the potatoes so they’ll be cured before planting time. So… I’m off to the cellar now.

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

1 thought on “The Daily: 17 April 2023”

  1. We are enjoying a flurry of summer warmth (32 degrees C) at the moment. The sun is great for drying the laundry, but what we are in dire need of is some last rain before winter really settles in.

    Liked by 1 person

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