Reasons to Mulch Your Garden

Are you like so many other people all over the United States and other countries who are planting gardens like never before? If so, you might want to consider mulching this summer. Ruth Stout, a pioneer in garden mulching and no-dig gardening, ranted and raved on this method of keeping weeds down and produce yields up – all without adding harmful chemicals and fertilizers.

The reasons to mulch are many. It adds important nutrients to the soil by decomposition of organic (plant or animal based) and inorganic (not plant or animal based) materials. I like to use compost, old hay or straw, or even pine needles when the plants need the extra acid needles provide. Grass clippings are another great choice, as well as cardboard placed under other materials to keep weeds from popping up by smothering them.

Pull the mulch up as tight to the plants as possible and don’t worry about burning them or crowding them out. This helps with weed control too as well as keeps the soil more moist in order to nourish your plants. Some plants that totally rely upon moist conditions are melons, squash, celery, and greens.

I have a large garden, really large – about 2800 square feet. I have often had to be very creative in finding suitable material for mulching. Right now, cardboard as well as wood chips (we have our own wood chipper) and rotting hay/straw from the animal pens provide a lot of the mulch in the garden. We don’t have a bagger for the mower and we don’t have much grass to mow anyway, so that’s out.

Make sure that your mulch layers are rather thick. I like to have several inches, as much as six in some places, down. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but that thick layer will rot down into the soil over the summer and by fall, it will be a lot less.

The mulch you place down provides nutrients to the organisms that feed on it and in turn, feeds your soil. Turn up a little mulch after a while and notice the earthworms! Who doesn’t love seeing that?

This is my first year doing a no-dig garden. I am totally shocked already at how many worms and other helpful organisms are inhabiting the soil beneath. By not digging or tilling the garden, I am not disturbing the natural balance of things. The worms keep the soil aerated underneath while keeping it compacted enough to walk on it and disturb nothing. My plants are doing great so far. An added bonus is extra space in which to plant because I no longer need wider rows to accomodate a tiller.

I hope you’ll give mulching, and perhaps the no-dig technique, a try in your own garden space. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The New Victory Garden

Tomato

We’ve all seen and heard enough of the COVID-19 stuff these days, and I’m not here to follow that thread. However, I do live in Michigan where we have had some of the toughest restrictions since late February and continuing to the present. Our governor has placed restriction upon restriction and she has ordered more to continue until at least May 15, 2020. Throughout this period of time, people have had to be creative in finding ways to fill their time, while at home, but more importantly, in feeding their families.

We live on a farm and we have always had an abundant vegetable garden. My parents were born during the Great Depression and my dad, in particular, was raised on a dairy farm which he and his brother later co-owned. So, needless to say, I have never been without a means to provide food for myself or for my family. That said, Jeff and I did not always raise animals for meat or for milk due to lack of acreage at times. We did always try to have our own eggs and one time we raised two Jersey steers for beef in the freezer. At other times, we had meat chickens. But that was all rather sporadic.

Throughout the 33 years that we have been married, one thread has remained consistent: Have some sort of a vegetable and herb garden. I want to mention that flowers and shrubbery are a part of the growing craze, but not so much of an importance is placed upon them.

Today, with the fears and restrictions placed upon our country and the great state of Michigan, people are turning to gardening like it’s something novel. For many, I suppose, it is a novel idea.

I am very happy that I placed my seed orders with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Seed Savers early on before any of this COVID-19 stuff happened. I’m thankful that I saved seeds from last year’s garden that I forgot to buy with my seed orders this year, seeds such as acorn squash and cilantro. When I tried to place orders for those two items, I was dismayed to find out that I could no longer get them because the seed companies were either sold out, had huge waiting times for shipping, or were no longer selling to individuals this year but were only filling orders for commercial businesses. So much for the shallots that I also forgot to buy but really wanted to try growing for the first time. I substituted leeks instead.

Small business greenhouses were not allowed to operate in Michigan and larger stores had to tape off garden centers, therefore not allowing consumers to purchase seeds or plants during one of the most crucial times of the year for gardeners. Now some of those restrictions have been loosed, but to what damage? Do the greenhouse proprietors really have the time to now begin everything for the growing year? Maybe but doubtful. They’re really going to take a hit.

As are home gardeners unless they were able to locate seeds or plants elsewhere.

So, where am I going with all of this? I guess what I want to accentuate is the need for all of us to be a little (or a lot) more self-sufficient in many, many ways. Does that mean making our own clothes as my mother did for me and my five siblings? Maybe. Does that mean raising animals for meat and eggs? You might want to consider it if you are not a vegan and you have the land to do so.

Does that mean creating a Victory Garden for you and your family? You bet. If you don’t have a lot of space, you can always grow some things in pots on your back deck, in your yard, or on a patio. You can try hydroponics inside the house. And then there’s foraging for wild food. In the spring you can always find dandelions (greens and flowers, roots if you want to dig them) and sometimes mushrooms (make certain they are not poisonous; most aren’t but those that are can be deadly). In the summer, look for berries and wild herbs. In the fall, you can sometimes find great wild apples and other fruits.

I think people around northern Michigan and maybe around the country are thinking about preserving the garden produce this year more than they have in the recent past. When I went online and to the hardware store in town, I had difficulty finding canning lids. It appears that they keep selling out. Maybe they will have to put a limit on purchases for canning supplies as they have with toilet paper. Just kidding about the limits but serious about the canning lid craze.

To wrap up this long, rambling post, I do want to say that I am in no way complaining that people are buying up the gardening and home preserving stuff. On the contrary! I am excited to see that folks are beginning to really see the need for independence from the grocery stores. It’s time that we all work together to help each other grow good, organic foods for themselves whether that be in the form of vegetables and fruits or animal products – or both. I have been saying for some time that it is my desire to teach some younger women how to provide food for their families not only in the summer months but for the entire year. I hope that now I can interest some gals in learning more. Well, I can’t do a whole lot of mentoring until all of these restrictions are lifted in my state, but I can encourage them from afar.

So … Go, Go, Go! Let’s get those Victory Gardens going!

Where There's a Will, There's a Way (when your greenhouse is not completely built and you need to start your plants)

We have cats in the house, two to be exact. The cats are the whole reason we finally bit the bullet and purchased a greenhouse kit this year. Every year that I have started plants in the house, I have watched the cats completely devour them just about the time they were ready to transplant into the garden.

Their favorite was always the stevia …

Last year, I tried to baffle them with forks placed upside down in the pods so that the tines stood up on end and, supposedly, pricked them in the face whenever they tried to take a bite. However, they soon decided that prickly forks were worth the overall risk.

Take a look at Ginger’s guilty face:

So, back to my original thought. The greenhouse is sitting on a pile of snow right now with no panes or doors on it yet. I need to start some plants now or forfeit a crop from certain plants. We live in zone 4b and it’s just too short of a season for some things. Things that we love like melons and tomatoes.

Since I am trying to make the most of my time off from the library, and believe me when I say that it’s a blessing for me, I decided I would give starting a few plants indoors another try – at least until the greenhouse is finished and I can transition stuff to there. As an aside, I do plan to plant a whole lot more than the 72 cells I just planted today.

The newly planted tray of 72 plants in the making contains grape tomatoes, paste tomatoes, golden melon (cantaloupe), sugar baby watermelons, bee balm (lemon), an heirloom slicing tomato, tomatillos, purple celery, and some pampas and fountain grasses (beautiful cover plants for Jeff’s bird pens). I placed the tray on a heat mat that is sitting on my filing cabinet in our bedroom. It’s one of the few slightly sunny spots in the house. I’m praying it works.

Because we can’t just sit around doing nothing, even during times of being homebound in a health crisis. One of the best ways to keep your immune system strong and healthy is to keep physically active. Get fresh air. Work around the house. Take walks where you can be alone with nature (and avoid being in violation of the “lockdown”). Eat as healthy as you can by making your own meals rather than using pre-made junk foods. Soups are great and so easy to make. Throw in what you have and simmer to deliciousness. Bay leaves, if you have some, give wonderful flavor, as does oregano, thyme, rosemary, etc. Try to keep salt to a minimum. Last year, I canned up some vegetable broth that I made using up the odds and ends in the fall garden. What a great resource to have in the pantry – you might want to consider canning or freezing vegetable broth this year.

Above all, keep your mind and spirit healthy with prayer and Bible reading. Stress is a killer. Rely on the One who is in total control. Don’t worry. It’ll all be fine.

How to Make Your Own Corn Tortillas

I love just about all Mexican (or Tex-Mex) food, even the stuff that is so spicy that it makes my mouth water. So does the rest of my family. Because we are trying hard to eat as simply and cost efficiently as we can, I have begun making my own corn tortillas (two of us are gluten-free). You can use a flour tortilla recipe just as easily, but you would have to roll out your dough with a rolling pin, rather than press with a tortilla press – read on for more about that press.

I bought my cast iron tortilla press from some seller on E-Bay a couple of years ago. Since then, I have used it quite a bit. If you make corn tortillas, this is the way to go, as it is easy as pie to “press” a tortilla and get it to a desirable thickness. Now, if you make wheat tortillas, you cannot do this, as the gluten in the wheat flour makes the dough too springy to effectively press. In this instance, use a rolling pin to roll out a circle to the size and thickness you desire. I do not make wheat tortillas (using all-purpose flour) any more, but when I did, I found that rolling them nice and thin was a pain in the neck.

I hope you will give this recipe a try because it is SO easy and healthy. Make sure you only keep them in the fridge for a day at the longest. If you don’t use them quickly, they will mold, so freeze any leftovers. Amen for mold and spoilage because it is a sign that your food has little or no preservatives in it.

Corn Tortilla Shells

2 cups masa harina or corn flour

1/2 tsp. salt, optional

Warm water to create a soft ball, about 3/4 – 1 cup (more or less)

Place flour and salt, if you’re using it, in the bowl of your food processor. Turn on and slowly pour in warm water until the mixture comes together and forms a soft ball (using the S blade). Wrap the ball of corn flour in plastic wrap while you get a skillet or griddle hot. Do not oil the skillet!

Drop some water droplets on the skillet and if it dances around, it’s ready. Pinch off a small piece of dough at a time and press (or roll) into a thin, flat round. *If using a press, it’s easier to remove the tortillas if you put a sheet of plastic wrap over the pressing surfaces of the tortilla press.*

Place tortillas one at a time on the griddle or skillet and cook just until the tortillas begin to puff – less than a minute so watch carefully! Flip and heat the other side for a moment or two, just until both sides are browned and bubble a little. Continue pinching dough, pressing, and cooking the tortillas until you have used up all of the dough. I use a cast iron griddle, so I had to reduce my heat on the stove to about medium. If your pan smokes too much, you might need to reduce the heat on your stove as well.

Enjoy!

Keeping Everyone Warm

Silver Pheasant in a Lighter Snow Period – December, 2019

Here in northern Michigan, January can be brutal. This year hasn’t been as bad as “normal”, but right now we are in the midst of a ton of lake effect snow – up to 10 inches. The weekend forecast is for that much system snow. Ugh. Keeping everyone warm can be a difficult thing to do, especially when it comes to the farm animals.

One thing to remember about farm animals, however, is that, for the most part, they are warmer than we think they are. That’s because they have fur and, oftentimes, undercoats (light fur or hair that keeps the animal warm underneath the topcoat of coarse fur). An example of an animal with an undercoat is a Labrador Retriever. Labs shed something awful in the spring and summer – a result of shedding that undercoat for warmer weather.

For the animals that we can’t realistically bring inside – think 20+ chickens or three lively goats – we need to provide plenty of fresh water, dry bedding (straw or wood shavings), and warming foods. The food that is most warming to pheasants, quail, ducks, and chickens is corn. We buy bags of cracked corn in the winter to feed the birds when it is extremely cold outside. I also like to save bacon grease and use it to mix with corn or other grains and seeds to form treats for the birds. To do this, just mix enough grain and seeds, along with herbs if you like to use them, with the melted bacon grease. If you have extra lard to use up, this is a good choice too. As for the herbs, I often put in oregano that I have dehydrated over the summer. Plastic tarps attached to the bird pens make great windbreaks and we utilize them a lot.

The goats are comfy in their barn stall that is filled with warm, dry bedding. They have each other to cuddle up against and most of the time, their body heat is enough. If they run out of water, they will get cold, as will any other animal. We all need hydration. When the temps dip below zero degrees Fahrenheit, we use a heat lamp placed where the goats cannot nibble at the cord or knock it down. You have to be creative when working with goats! Goats love dehydrated cucumber chips (I make my own for my winter salads, but I don’t mind sharing). They also LOVE pine needles, particularly white pine. The needles are a natural dewormer.

The bunny, a lop eared brown fur ball, doesn’t have too much trouble staying warm. He too has a pen with soft bedding and plenty of food and fresh water. He likes treats, and corn can figure in to that mix. We do try to give him variety by adding fresh carrots and celery to the mix. Again, it is water that makes the difference in warmth. Animals need drinking water to stay warm!

The ducks can stay warm if they have shelter boxes strewn around the aviary. Mostly, they stay warm by keeping themselves on the ponds – provided the water is open and not frozen! It doesn’t make sense in a human’s eyes, but ducks stay warm on the water because their feathers are full of oils that repel that water. They do not get soaked. Also, the water is what keeps them safe from most predators. Other animals and birds don’t take kindly to open water. Treats are often in the form of dried mealworms or cracked corn.

As for the two cats and two dogs – they have better living quarters than anyone else in the barnyard. The cats don’t get outside at all unless they are sneaky and run out the door when it is opened. When that happens, they usually just want back inside and cry at the door.

We burn wood in a wood burning stove for the main source of heat in the house. We also have a wood burning cook stove in the kitchen and we use that if we need to. It’s my goal to get more comfortable with the cook stove in the future, but it’s something that takes a lot of time. I work a part-time day job and just don’t have the time to keep feeding small logs into the stove every now and then to keep the stove hot. We do have hot water radiant heat, which is great but expensive since it is fueled by propane.

All in all, it’s not that hard to keep everyone warm in the winter, but it does require attention.

Where do You Go for Recipes?

I go round and round looking for the best recipes. I have printed off two large binders full of recipes. I regularly check recipe books out of my local library and make good use of inter-library loan. I’ve been known to buy old, used recipe books from garage sales. But the best recipes by far have just been tried and true ones that I inherited from my mother, my mother-in-law, and others. Through the years, they have served me well.

One book I have found useful is the Indiana Conservation Officer’s Cooking T.I.P. I have made lots of dishes using this. There is a whole section just on wild game, which is great for a homesteading family.

Another cookbook that I am currently enjoying, and I wish I owned, is Ruffage by Abra Berens. Talk about a vegetable lover’s cookbook! This cookbook would be great for anyone who is following whatever diet you can think of, and there are a lot of diets out there!

Over the years, I have fallen prey to a lot of the diets out there that are supposed to make one a healthier person. There’s the Whole 30 – been there, done that. There’s the Atkin’s Diet (just a different version of Whole 30 and still the original low carb diet) – I have not done that one but my husband has. There’s a vegan diet – been there, done that. There’s a vegetarian diet (can eat eggs and dairy products) – been there and done that too. There’s the SCD Diet – been there, done that, and benefited a bit from it.

And then there’s the simple, eat whole foods from your own farm and garden. I AM there and DOING that. Well, we don’t have all of our own meat, just our own farm raised poultry. We buy our beef from a butcher shop (grass fed, 1/2 a beef at a time). My husband and sons do some fishing now and then, but that’s not all that often. We generally don’t eat a lot of fish. I know, I know. It’s got those Omega 3’s. This spring/summer, we plan to have a couple of lambs and some pigs to begin the process of raising more of our own meat. Cattle won’t happen unless we become rich and can move to property with more acreage (we have about 4 acres right now).

As for veggies, we do a LOT of vegetable gardening. This spring, I will, for the first time in my life, have a greenhouse. In northern Michigan (the snowbelt to boot), we have a super short growing season – zone 4b. Couple that with fairly cool summers and mostly sandy soil, it’s difficult to garden. But it’s still doable.

This year I have decided that I no longer want to till the garden. In the past, we have kept space between rows to allow for the tiller to pass. That has resulted in a ton of wasted space. I read a great gardening book by Ruth Stout called Gardening without Work. She claimed that tilling and weeding was simply too much. She used the mulching method and used lots and lots of hay in her garden. Using the mulch method, one pulls hay and compost up close to the plants and suffocates out weeds that might want to grow. I think my garden is too large to come up with that much hay and mulch, but then again, we do have three goats! Warning: If you use hay in your garden mulch, make sure the hay has composted down enough to not carry viable seeds. Mistake learned.

Here’s to hoping that winter is short, that spring is a warmer, drier one (but not too dry), and that all of your gardening dreams come true!

Christmas 2019 and a Menu

abstract blur branch christmas
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Christmas is almost here. How are you planning to spend yours? We, like so many families around the world, will be celebrating the birth of Christ with our family. Our children are grown, with the youngest at 18 years old. They all come to us rather than we going to our parents’ houses. It’s nice. I like it that way.

Years ago before our family expanded from one to five in the blink of an eye, we would spend Christmas Eve with one side of the family and then Christmas Day with the other. When our first three boys were young, we moved to Michigan. It was no longer convenient (we can get some killer snow storms up here) to drive hours to get together. The first year we just stayed home with the kids was one of the best.

As the years went by, this is what we made tradition. Now our oldest son is turning 31 and he is married (no kids yet). They come here on Christmas Eve and go to the other side for Christmas Day. We enjoy the family time with them and we can fully understand the need to split the time between two families.

Merry Christmas. May your time with family and friends be blessed. If you are alone, I’m sorry. Remember that Jesus Christ was born to one day face a cross that would nail your sins and mine to Him. He rose from the dead and lives forever. You don’t ever have to be alone. There’s no greater gift than that.

Monday

Meatballs, cheeseball with veggies, tossed salad, raspberry cheesecake

Tuesday *Christmas Eve*

Chicken, peas, baked potatoes, any cheesecake leftover?

Wednesday *Christmas Day*

Baked ham with pineapple, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, cranberry fruit salad, deviled eggs, dinner rolls, cookies, pumpkin custard

Thursday

Leftovers

Friday

Pizza

Saturday

Taco Salads

Menu Plan – December 16, 2019

man surrounded by sheep
Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

Traditionally, shepherd’s pie was made the Greek way, with ground lamb. Over time, people began substituting other meats for the lamb, mostly ground beef or pork. I suppose that lamb, in some parts of the world, might be harder to come by. Where we live in Michigan, we don’t always find it in the grocery stores and when we do, it’s very expensive. On the homestead, we are planning to acquire a couple of lambs sometime in the spring. We hope to raise and breed them, mostly to sell some lambs and, more importantly, to raise meat for the family.

Another way that shepherd’s pie has morphed over time is that the traditional mashed potatoes have been found to be “carb heavy” and people are now substituting mashed cauliflower for the potatoes. I have seen where some people sub in mashed sweet potatoes or even butternut squash for the white potatoes.

My thoughts are that whatever suits your palate (or your gut) is what you should use. There is no right or wrong way to make your shepherd’s pie. My family is a blend of French and German ancestry. We were brought up to love pork and rich foods. My husband’s family is mostly British with some Native American thrown in.

Honestly, my husband loves anything but has a huge fondness for sweets. These days, he has found that he needs to lay off of carbohydrates quite a bit. One way we will do that with the shepherd’s pie is to replace the mashed potatoes with cauliflower. We won’t be using ground lamb, but will be using grass fed ground beef instead. Any peas that go into the dish will be my own homegrown frozen peas. They will be used sparingly and green beans, along with some carrots, will be thrown into the mix.

On another note, our third son turns 26 tomorrow. We let our children decide what to eat for their birthday suppers. Evan loves Sicilian Supper. We will have another pan of it ready for the hubby (and me) that replaces the egg noodles with zucchini noodles. Last summer I froze a LOT of them. So, here’s the week’s plan. Feel free to link your own menu plan in the comment section.

Monday

Roast Beef (in slow cooker)

Baked Potatoes (for those not on a low carb diet)

Roasted Carrots (with the beef in the slow cooker)

Green Beans

Tuesday

Sicilian Supper

Salads

Cake and ice-cream for those who can have it

Wednesday

Vegetable Beef Soup

Thursday

Left-overs

Friday

Pizza – pizza bowl without crust for hubby

Saturday

Low-carb Shepherd’s Pie

Sunday

Everyone on their own

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