Working on the Yard

I spent the majority of the last two days working on my back yard. First I put in the garden along the fence I’d been wanting for the last few years:

I’d had one there before, and I’m pretty sure the previous owners of the house had one too, since the soil was black and rich instead of being just clay, at least for the first few inches. I hadn’t done anything with that garden since the old fence started to fall down, but this year we have the new one up, so I don’t have to worry about either a pile of wood or contractors squashing my plants. I planted Jerusalem artichokes, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, butternut squash, cucumbers, zucchini, and asparagus, alongside the rather tiny rhubarb plant I planted years ago. I tried putting down landscaping fabric to prohibit the weed growth, but we’ll see how that goes.

I cut back the apple tree, although it’s still pretty huge, all in all. There were a bunch of dead limbs and I ended up losing almost a whole one of the major subsections closest to the house. I really hope that whatever killed those branches doesn’t spread to the rest of the tree, though. One of the reasons I got a deck (instead of a patio like originally planned) is to accommodate the apple tree’s roots. It would really suck if the tree then ended up dying. Also, I just plain old love that tree, especially every second year when it blooms.

In my main veggie garden, I’m happy to report that the potatoes are starting to sprout — alongside a bunch of tiny weeds. I only just weeded that bed, I’m a little annoyed that the weeds are already returning. Hopefully the plants I actually want will grow tall soon and start choking out the plants I don’t.

A friend of mine gave me a black tomato plant to add to my cherry tomatoes, and I’m curious to see how the fruit turns out.

My pear tree is flourishing, despite still being shorter than me. I might get twice last year’s harvest, so… Ten fruits, maybe? I always like how pears grow up while they’re tiny, but then the weight of them drags them down to hang how you’d normally expect over time.

I also had to mow the grass, at which point I discovered that apparently I have wild strawberries growing in my front lawn, which surprised the heck out of me. I don’t care much about my lawn so long as it is green — grass, clover, strawberries, it’s all okay by me, so long as it’s not thistles, which are painful to step on. After a quick Google, I discovered that wild strawberries are perfectly safe to eat, especially if you know that the ground they grow on is pesticide- and herbicide-free, which mine definitely is. They’re not really big enough to make much of a crop, but they are definitely more flavorful than the commercially-grown variety.

I finished the day with a barbecue dinner for my family, my parents, my brother, and his friend. I made salmon on the smoker barbecue — not burned, just a little ashy — with a glaze of maple syrup and a sprinkle of salt. My mom brought over her famous potato salad with bacon, and I grilled up some zucchini and steamed asparagus. I also made some rice to serve on the side, at my kids’ request. All in all, it was a lovely meal, and I’d eat it again in a heartbeat.

Pear & Honey Jam Recipe

As I wrote about before, I had a lot of cooking pears that needed to be used up recently. All of this excess meant that I had a chance to experiment with making a jam of my own devising. Pears are a naturally acidic fruit, which makes them perfect for hot-water-bath canning with a bit of sugar. It took me a couple of tries to get this recipe right, since since I didn’t want to use like ten cups of sugar (with would generally produce and easily firm set), since I wanted to taste the fruit and the spices more than the sweetness. In the end, I had something that I am quite proud of. Next year, when pears come into season, I think that I will make this the main pear jam (although I did really like the Spiced Pear Jam with Pineapple found on page 935 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker), or on the app). Maybe next year I’ll have a yield of more than four pears off of my baby pear tree, and I’ll be able to make more things from fruit I’ve grown myself!

Pear & Honey Jam
Yields six 250mL (1 cup) jars

Prepare and sterilize six 250mL (1 cup) jars (or twelve 125mL (1/2 cup) jars) and matching lids as per manufacturer instructions. Keep jars and lids warm until it is time to fill them.
In a Maslin pan or other non-reactive, heavy-bottomed pot, combine:
1.5 Kg (3.3 lbs) ripe/slightly overripe pears, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
350 mL (1.5 cups) honey*
700 mL (3 cups) sugar
60 mL (1/4 cup) lemon juice
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground allspice
5 mL (1 tsp) ground cinnamon
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground cloves
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground nutmeg
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground ginger
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Run the mixture through a blender or food processor until it reaches a smooth consistency, being extremely careful as the ingredients will be very, very hot. Return the mixture to the pot and bring it back to a boil.
Add:
one 85 mL (2.9 oz) package of liquid pectin
Bring mixture back to a boil. Stir constantly as mixture boil hard for an additional minute.
Ladle the jam into the prepared jars, leaving a 5mm head space. Wipe jar rims with a clean, damp cloth or paper towel. Top jars with lids and screw metal rings into place until fingertip tight. Place jars on top of a canning rack inside a boiling water canner, being sure that none of them touch the sides of the pot or each other. Jars should be covered by at least 2.5cm (1″) of water, so add hot water if necessary. Bring to a rolling boil and process for 15 minutes, starting your timer once the water is boiling.
Remove jars from canner and place them on a cooling rack, not touching each other. Let them rest for 24 hours before touching. Label if desired. Jams may take up to 48 hours to set, so do not open them until this time has passed.
This jam may be kept in a cool, dark area for up to one year.

*It’s really not worth it to use unpasteurized honey here, since all the additional benefits are lost when the honey is cooked.

Beginning to Harvest the Garden

I spent some time in the garden yesterday, weeding and harvesting a little bit, but mostly tying up my tomato plants, which have escaped the raised bed and are trying to take over the lawn. Mosquitoes love the shade under these plants, so every time I go out there, I end up with a new handful of bites at the very least. Even so, it was totally worth it because I was happy to discover lots of fruits and veggies that were either growing large and healthy, or that were already ripe and ready for harvesting.

The pears are doing well, although they’re still hard as rocks and not nearly ready to harvest. My research indicates that they should be ready to be picked from August to October in this climate — and mine seem likely to be ripe later in the season.

The tomatoes on the possibly-beefsteak tomato plant (the one that was supposed to be a cherry tomato plant) aren’t ripe yet, but the fruits have almost doubled in size. I have a feeling that spaghetti sauce may be in their future.

My sweet bell peppers are growing well and look like they’ll end up being pretty sizable. This variety is supposed to yield a black (really very dark purple) pepper, so these obviously aren’t ready yet. Well, that’s if they were labeled correctly; I don’t really trust the labels 100% any more.

My pea vines are still yielding nicely, although with being at the cottage off and on, I ended up letting a bunch of pods dry out on the vine. Oops. That’s good for seed saving, I guess, but not what I was trying to do.

Unlike their sweet cousins, my hot peppers are starting to ripen beautifully. The red banana peppers and the green jalapeno peppers are destined for hot sauce once I’ve picked them all, so I wash and freeze the early-ripening ones until I can use them. Freezing peppers makes them mushy upon thawing, but that’s not really an issue when they’re just going to be blended smooth in a sauce anyway.

Last but not least, my cherry tomato plants have started ripening! I believe that what’s coming up at the moment are Pink Ladies, Sweet Millions, and generic yellow cherry tomatoes. I have a personal fondness for the yellow ones, but the Pink Ladies have come up really sweet this year, and I just can’t stop snacking on them. My husband, too, is a huge fan of cherry tomatoes of all varieties, and will go through a large bowl of them when vegging in the evening after the kids have finally been put to bed.

Blossoms

Now that I live in a house with a proper yard, I’ve decided to try to grow some of my own food. I don’t think it saves me any money (especially the first few years, with all the set-up and trial and error), but I am proud of the food that I grow, and I know it’s as fresh as can be. I’ve never been one for taking care of purely ornamental plants, but I wish I’d started at least with basic herb pots years earlier — those things are very difficult to kill, and the fresh flavour is unparalleled.

One of the things I’m cultivating, since I do have the room and I do like shade, is fruit trees. Until a few days ago they were all in bloom, hopefully meaning that I’ll have a decent fruit yield this year. I know that flowers don’t mean that I’ll necessarily get any edible fruit, but without blossoms I definitely won’t get anything.


Pear tree.

The first tree to bloom was my pear tree, which I planted only three years ago — and this was the first time there were any flowers! It’s what I like to call my “mutant tree”, because it’s actually four kinds of pear grafted onto a single tree (it used to be five, but one branch died). Only two of the four main branches bloomed this year, but who knows if the maturity rate of all of the kinds of pears is the same? The rest of the branches are still alive, at any rate. I didn’t do the right kind of research before I planted this tree, because the blossoms do not smell very nice — which is apparently pretty common. Ah well, they don’t flower for very long, and it will be a number of years before there are enough blossoms to perfume the air; the tree is still shorter than me. The odor also isn’t very intense, since right now I have to stick my nose almost touching to smell anything at all.


Plum tree.

I was thrilled that my plum tree flowered as well; I only planted it early last year, and it didn’t flower then — and then Japanese beetles ate all of the leaves. I honestly didn’t think the poor tree would survive the winter. We shall see if the beetles return this year! They’re not quite in season yet. I would be happy if I never saw another one, to be honest. They are persistent pests that can decimate a garden, although the only plant they were interested in that I planted last year was my plum tree.


Apple tree.

The tree that I was least surprised to see flower this year was my apple tree. It came with the house, and it was probably planted about thirty years ago, when the neighborhood was new. I’m not entirely sure what kind of apple tree it is; the fruit is yellow-green when ripe, and ripens late into September, much later than a lot of the farmed apples around here. This indicates to me that it’s some kind of wild apple crossbreed (there are lots of those), or possibly a (or partly a) Russian Antonovka tree. It also seems to flower only every second year, and this is a boom year.


Apple tree.

This tree was very unhealthy when we first moved in. There were lots of dead branches, the apples all had apple scab… But I’ve trimmed back the dead wood, and (hopefully) taken care of the root of the apple scab. Last time this tree bloomed, it produced hundreds of pounds of fruit. It’s even healthier now, so I expect the yield will be even greater — especially if the sheer number of flowers is any indication.