Little House in the City

Little House in the City

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Storing sunshine

I've been stressed. 

After all, I am running a garden--in the spring.  Another reason for the lack of posts here.

(Why is it that stress for something you love is still just as...stressful?  I love Fall Creek Gardens.  I am so often grateful and amazed to be doing this work, turning a vacant urban space into a source of beauty and food and wildlife and art.  Loving it all as I do is even more wearing in some ways, though, and I am overwhelmed by the amount of work I need to do, most of the time.)

So spending a glorious spring day harvesting dandelions and a gift.  Just for me.  And I spent it with a bit of my friend Frederick the mouse in mind...soaking up the beauty of a warm, sunny May day and preserving it in jars.

Dandelion & Violet Jelly

I will not resume my diatribe against weed-free lawns.  I will, however, tell you that we brought dandelions with us from Europe.  On purpose.  They didn't exist here prior to the mid 1600s.  Dandelion greens are a good source of calcium, potassium, and vitamins A & C...and they are good for the liver and urinary tract.  The sap of the leaves and stems can be used to treat warts, and the roots can be dried, roasted, ground, and used as a coffee substitute.   And then there is wine and jelly from the blossoms.....  It is a similar story with violets--some varieties immigrated, brought along for their medicinal qualities, while others are native.

So anyhoo, boo on chemical lawns.  Here's how to make the jelly:

The general methods are the same for both flowers: pick the blossoms in the morning, after the dew has dried and once the flowers have opened up fully to the sun.  For the dandelions, snip the yellow petals off of the little green sepals--the base of the flowerhead which holds the petals together--discarding as much of the green as possible, but not getting too crazy about it.  Pick & snip until you have 2-3 cups of this exquisitely downy, golden fluff, if not more.  For the violets, make sure to remove stems, but don't worry about removing the sepals.  

Put the flowers in a mason jar or other heat-resistant container and cover with boiling water--for the following dandelion recipe, around 3 cups is good.  Cover the jar and let sit for at least 4 hours, up to overnight.

Gently but thoroughly strain the liquid from the petals, using a sieve, cheesecloth, or a coffee filter.  Use the back of a wooden spoon to gently push the liquid from the flowers into the bowl.   The better job you do straining, the less cloudy your jelly will be.

Next, you want to prepare to your canning supplies:  
  • Heat water in a water bath canner to a rolling boil--1/2 to 2/3 full is best; you need 2" above the height of your jars once you add them after filling.  
  • Wash your jars and rings and brand-new lids in hot soapy water, then sterilize jars in either boiling water, a hot oven, or dishwasher, and leave them there until you need them.  
  • Put the rings and lids in a saucepan and fill with just-boiled water.  
  • Clean all utensils and get clean towels and washrags.

Your jelly ingredients will be:

3 cups dandelion tea
4 1/2 c white sugar
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 packet (1.75 oz) powdered pectin

2 cups violet tea
1/4 c lemon juice
1 packet powdered pectin
2 cups sugar

When I was ready to start the dandelion recipe, I couldn't handle using that much sugar (I mean good god, people), so I looked up low-sugar adaptations.  For the dandelion jelly, I used around 2 cups of the sugar (still awful) and 2/3 cup stevia, and this meant that I needed low-sugar pectin. 

(Which I didn't have, which lead to jelly that didn't jell enough, which lead to a very delayed second blog post...which lived happily ever after.  But I digress.)

SO.  The moral of the story is:  if you use the sugar as indicated, you can use regular pectin.  If you want to cut it down, do not use regular pectin unless you want syrup rather than jelly.  The violet jelly recipe above calls for a reduced amount of sugar anyway, and it didn't jell well either until I low-sugared-pectined the bejeezus out of it the second time around.

Once you've figured your stance on the sugar/pectin question, pour the flower tea into a wide saucepan or pot--the wider the better.  Add the sugar, pectin, and lemon juice and whisk over med-high heat.  With the violet tea, be prepared:  when you add the lemon juice, the mixture immediately turns pink/magenta.  Chemistry is cool. 

Cook until bubbling, whisking frequently, then cook for 3-5 minutes allowing the syrup to reduce a bit and begin to thicken.  

Skim off any foam and ladle into your clean, hot jars.  Leave 1/8" head space.  Wipe the jar rims with a clean rag, put on lids and tighten rings until you just reach resistance.  Process in hot water bath with 2" of water above jars for 10 minutes.  

Remove and allow to cool for 24 hours without disturbing.  Then remove rings, wipe off lids, and check that everything sealed.  If any jar failed to seal, refrigerate and eat first.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Violets and rescue chickens. The Chapter after Next?

Well, hello there!

It has been a shamefully long time since I've done much more than momentarily remember, with a twinge of guilt, this poor neglected blog.

 I miss it, to be honest.  I miss the life I was living while I wrote here regularly even more. 

The trouble--if we stick with the "next chapter" theme-- is that my life-book is no longer where it was when this blog began.   We're on the chapter after next at this point.

No longer am I an unemployed student exploring all of the ways I could build, bake, grow, or otherwise create the items we use in our daily lives.  I've reached a plateau in homesteadery due mainly to limits of time and that I am working outside the home again, it has become vividly clear to me that one type of work necessarily cancels out the ability to fully maintain the other.   (But that is a blog post to tackle another day--the economics of home-work versus outside-work.)

Hence, the lack of homesteading-specific blog material.  I'm not doing many new projects at this point, but simply trying to keep up with all of the others.  We still operate this household differently from many others; I am still always looking for ways to live better on less.  I think it is time, however, to change the fundamental purpose of this blog from an exploration of urban homesteading to a more general purpose, this-is-my-life-and-I-happen-to-be-into-herbs-chickens-and-craftiness type offering.

So, with that, here we go:

What, you may ask, is going on at our place on this pretty day in May?  Well, quite a bit, actually.

Dandelion jelly.  Violet jelly.  The first crop of plantain for infusing in oil.  The first stage of integrating a rescue chicken into our flock (i.e., run, Elsa, run!).  Lilacs perfuming the homestead with their ethereal fragrance.  And lots of lazy time with coffee on a gorgeous Sunday morning. 

This is what it looks like to start the jelly-making process.  I'll get to the actual jelling part in a bit....

...but first, a quick word about pollinators and herbicides.

The latter is killing off the former (with a lot of help from pesticides, of course).  These critters pollinate some of your favorite foods.  Like berries, avocadoes, almonds...and chocolate.

Worse,  home use of herbicides is the top source of run-off pollution in our lakes and rivers.  Not agricultural spraying.  Not commercial or industrial use.'s the poison you pay to put on your lawn.  Ugh.   Please quit using that stuff and embrace your inner dandelion.

These little dudes will thank you.

But back to my jelly.  It is no great hardship to sit, surrounded by this loveliness, snipping stems off of flowerheads.

Dandelion petals, plantain leaves, and violet flowers.
The 2 cup measure runneth over.

This will turn pink later in the recipe...but what a gorgeous blue!

 Now I'll let these steep all day to make a strong tea.  The tea is the basis for the jelly recipe (add sugar, lemon juice, and pectin...boil...process in a water bath....yum).

 More soon!

Happy spring....

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Finally, fruit!

Blueberries!  Raspberries!  Apples!  (Oh my!)

So the story with fruit around here is a dual one.  On one hand, there were two diseased, unidentified, and rather puny apple trees in our backyard when we moved in four summers ago.  One, we chopped down; I don't think there was any pruning drastic enough to make a productive tree, and it was very unhealthy.  The second tree I pruned.  And pruned.  And then wondered if I'd gone too far and almost cut it down.

My first clue that waiting another year was the right idea appeared this spring, when the tree bloomed.  We'd had a handful of blooms each previous year, but this time the tree was covered in the pretty, fragrant pink & white blossoms.  The bees and other buzzing insects approved tremendously.

 I was still skeptical, however, because in earlier years the blossoms had eventually dropped and the tiny fruits disappeared not long after--I never knew where or why.   So I waited some more, without many expectations.

And now there are golf-ball sized green apples covering the tree, heavy enough already to drag the branches several feet below their usual height.  Many of them have a hole or spot or other imperfection, so we may not end up with a huge crop to eat from the tree--but there's always cider or cider vinegar to try.  Either way it will be fun to guess the variety when they ripen and to learn more about our tree as the season continues and we see how the fruit holds up to insects and disease without any intervention on our part.

The other side of the fruit coin around here are the berries:  blueberry bushes we planted and have been waiting to get established, a wild raspberry thicket I've been encouraging in the back corner of our yard, and--of course--the mulberries.  This is the first summer for fruit of any note from either the blueberries or raspberries, and it is incredibly gratifying to stroll the yard for a snack. 

We amended the soil pretty heavily for the blueberries, which need a much more acidic soil that we have in Indiana, and then they didn't get the attention they deserved last summer during the drought.  We did water them, but just not as often as we probably should have, and I wasn't sure what we would see from the plants this year.  Well, we have berries!  Big, sweet blue ones.  Just enough for eating, with no pressure to get out jam jars or freezer containers.  This was worth the wait and the extra effort, and now I am re-energized to continue giving them acidic treats and to do some careful pruning.  Can't wait to have bags in the freezer and blueberry pancakes and muffins in the winter!

The wild raspberry is a black raspberry, and  I have been hoping it would take hold for several reasons.  The fruit is one, of course, which isn't as big as domesticated versions, but is still tasty.  Plus, I like to have a few thorny plants on the property for wildlife habitat and general diversity.   Wild raspberry is also an important medicinal herb for women, with a tea or infusion of the leaves recommended throughout life and especially during pregnancy.  I will, however, have to monitor this wild friend carefully--the thorns on the established canes are BIG, and the fruit hides on the interior as well as in more easily reached areas.  Comprehensive harvesting would require protective gear...I'll probably just leave what I can't reach painlessly for the birds. 

Finally, there is the neighbor's mulberry tree which has several large branches over our yard.  As a laundry-line aficionado, I live in fear during mulberry season of the big purple bird droppings that inevitably find one of my clean, drying shirts, but I don't consider these trees a nuisance like some do.  I don't like the mess either, but I love the berries, and I love that just about every furred and feathered creature out there also seem rather partial to the humble mulberry.  Every time I glance at the tree, a branch is quivering somewhere while something non-human grabs a bite to eat.  And it is a good bite; why in the world turn up your nose at free food, and sweet food at that?

In fact, we used mulberries in one of the homemade ice creams for our wedding a few weeks back--but more on that next time.  :)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Spring (coop) cleaning...tada!


It's HERE!

(Actually, it's been here for a while now but after such a slow approach that it seemed to creep up almost in disguise.)

I'm talking, of course, about spring.

It has sprung in central Indiana, despite rainy, cool weather until the last few week or so.  All the rain has made for a particularly gorgeous spring, even though it has often been too chilly and wet to be outside enjoying it.

I didn't check, but I'm sure that I've written about our lilacs before.  So I'll just say, that there is particularly wonderful timing between the row of blooming lilacs and the first time each spring when it is warm enough for us to have windows open for days at a time.  The result is that we are given frequent fragrant breezes and live in a sweetly perfumed world, just as it is finally turning green outside.  It is heavenly to be standing in the living room and suddenly watch the curtains flutter and then inhale the sweet, airy, scent like some sort of gift for making it through winter.  Spring is a revelation, every time.
Last Sunday was the biannual Great Coop Clean-out, which is a big undertaking, but very satisfying to accomplish.  This one was particularly so, because I decided to use herbs in the fresh straw and nest box, and an orange-cinnamon infused vinegar for spraying down the roost. (Orange peels--I freeze them for later use--cinnamon, and white vinegar.  Ordinarily, I would combine them in a jar with a plastic lid and let it infuse for 4-6 weeks.  Today I was impatient, and so I simmered the mixture for 20 min on low heat instead.  Smells divine.)

I have my methods fine-tuned for our current coop, which always ends, at one point or another, with me silently swearing that our next coop will be fully human-height, so that I never have to crouch or attempt to sustain advanced yoga poses in order to scrub it all down.  Someday, I promise.

In any case, since we use the deep-litter method for our coop, I start by shoveling (as in snow shovel) out the bedding in the base of the coop, depositing it on a tarp until I have a decent pile in the center.  This, I drag around the side of the house to the garden and then roll the composted litter out onto my garden rows or any area where I want to blanket the ground and kill either turf or weeds.  Eventually, I'll either dig this right into the beds, or if it needs more time, transfer it to the compost pile.

Back in the coop, after wielding a shop vac and a screwdriver for any nooks or crannies, I typically have a few stubborn patches left on the linoleum, but that's easily handled by dribbling white vinegar liberally over them.  While that soaks in, I scrub down the walls and ceiling with hot water/vinegar/peppermint castile, and then finally address the floor.  While the coop dries, I mix up more disinfectant and wipe down the outside and clean the nest box. 

Then in goes fresh, clean straw and herbs.  This is the best part...somehow it reminds me a bit of putting crisp, line-dried sheets on the bed and then slipping between them while just from the bath yourself.  The sweet scent of the herbs this time really reinforced the shiny-clean, spring-is-here vibe, at least for the human involved with the experience.

I used lemon balm, mint, and lavender all of which are highly aromatic and should be a tool against mites, flies, and other bugs.  I also have tansy that volunteered in the veggie garden this spring, so I will be adding that for its bug-repelling properties.  The girls seem happy with the fresh straw and a new tree-branch roost, and I am happy to have this task off the list!