Strawberries Gone Wild!

I love strawberries and would eat them every day if I could.  Alas, strawberries are at the top of the list of the “Dirty Dozen”, and so I try not to buy any that aren’t labeled as organic, which means they are usually more expensive. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that I grow my own!

When I was a child living at home, my father always grew strawberries in our backyard… way, way back in the backyard.  I would help him pull weeds and trap slugs, but generally, strawberry growing was his hobby.  Now that I look back, I realize it was the solitude he enjoyed while gardening, and I must have been quite the pest!  My poor father was truly drowning in estrogen, having three daughters and no sons, and I am sure he enjoyed his quiet time away from his three incessantly chatty daughters!  😉

Mouse trap for organic pest control

Everyone likes strawberries… unfortunately!

The first year growing strawberries up here on our homestead, the harvest was just okay. Between the birds, the banana slugs, voles and the mice, we had a hard time getting any of the harvest for ourselves! And, since we didn’t actually live here yet, we had to rely on some automatic sprinklers to water the berry plants, and unfortunately no all the plants got the water they needed.  We planted Ozark Beauty and Quinault Strawberries, because those were the two varieties we found at our local nursery. That winter I covered the bed with a thick mulch of pine needles and oak leaves.  It worked and the strawberries came back thicker than they had been the previous year. But again, we had problems with critters.

Last spring I added some Seascape strawberries, along with the Ozark and Ouilette strawberries, to a new, raised bed.  I have been extremely happy with this “new-to-me” variety.  The Seascapes are fairly large with a very sweet flavor, and produce a fairly heavy crop in the late summer.

Nice!

This past winter, instead of applying the pine needle and oak leaf mulch, I used a frost blanket over the raised strawberry bed.

When I pulled it off this late winter, I was surprised to see some new growth already! Although the pine needle and oak leaf mulch had worked well, I was worried that so much organic matter might be harboring some pests, like the huge banana slugs that we encounter up here from time to time.  Well, the frost blanket actually did a better job, and I was able to check under it on warm winter days to see if there were any critters under there.  Since it kept the strawberry plants frost free and it was easy to lift the blanket to check for slugs, this is something I will certainly use from now on.

Even though I had been cutting off a lot of the “runners” so that I would have larger plants (and more strawberries) in the long-run, the plants continued to put out the runners, even in the fall.  And run they did, everywhere, apparently even during the winter under the blanket!

Strawberries gone wild!

After taking off the blanket off this spring, I saw that I needed to thin out a lot of the plants within the bed and also alongside the bed. In fact, some of the strawberries tried to set roots into our log retaining wall!

Silly plants!

So, here we were with quite a few “extra” strawberry plants.  Since I don’t have my permanent beds made yet, I had to find places to tuck the new plants. Once the permanent beds are done (another year away) I will be able to re-home these new plants into their forever beds.  And by that time, the original strawberry plants will be past their prime.  Strawberries produce best during their second year, and then usually decline in production after that.  But the runners are their way of renewing and giving us new plants.

Isn’t nature cool?

To keep out the birds, Ray built this great bird netting structure for me.  When I need to harvest the berries, all I have to do is throw the netting up over the structure to get into the bed.  It works really well.  Also, having the bed raised seems to deter at least some of the banana slugs.

We have been reading lots of books and have attended a few seminars on companion planting and land use, and realized that some of the new strawberry plants would be perfect in the pepper bed, because not only do the strawberry and pepper plants “like” each other, the large strawberry leaves would shade the soil around the pepper plants, keeping the soil a bit cooler and helping to reserve water.

I also have had a cute terracotta strawberry pot that we brought up from our previous home in the valley.  I had planted this with herbs years ago and it didn’t work very well.  So, since I had so many new plants, I decided to try the pot again.  So far, so good!

What have I done with all my strawberries?

Well, my dear husband and I just adore sliced strawberries with cottage cheese for an evening dessert.  It tastes like strawberry ice cream!

I also wanted to try out my Sun Oven as a dehydrator, and thought I would try out a batch of strawberry fruit leather.

First I washed and hulled the strawberries, then whirled them up in my little blender.

Next, I added some of our delicious honey, about 2 tablespoons, and set the pot on the stove to simmer.  The strawberry/honey pulp simmered for about 20 minutes and reduced in volume by about half.  Now the pulp was a bit thicker and didn’t spread so easily.

I placed some parchment paper on my cookie sheet and poured the pulp on.  Perfect.

Unfortunately, while carrying the pan to the Sun Oven, it tipped a bit and the pulp spread out a little more than I had planned, but I went ahead with the process anyway.

The Sun Oven worked great!  With the glass door propped open, it stayed at about 200 degrees, which was perfect!  Once I could lightly press my finger into the top of the thickest part of the pulp and nothing smooshed out, I knew the pulp was now fruit leather. You can also see that the fruit surface looks like leather!

I placed the pan inside on the table so the leather could cool down, and once it was cool, I used scissors to cut the leather into strips.  Don’t take off the parchment paper!   Now that the strips were cut, I was able to roll each one up, and then place into a glass mason jar for storage.  

That’s it!  Easy, peasy!  Nature’s candy!

Next week I am going to make some peach leather from my oldest son’s peaches.  Can you believe he already has ripe peaches?

Where I party:

Gardening in the Orchard

While we wait (and wait) to get our building permit, we have kept ourselves occupied and sane with our garden/orchard.  We made raised boxes in the orchard a few years ago, when the trees were little babies.  Now, as the trees are starting to reach a more mature height and width, many of the planting boxes in my garden don’t get enough sunlight!  So, obviously, this will be the last year I garden in the orchard.

The reason we put the garden in the orchard in the first place was because we needed to water everything automatically, as we were still living 1-1/2 hours away in the valley and coming up to water every other weekend or so.  We set up an automatic watering system with zero pressure timers (hard to find) and small tubes to distribute the water.  Now that we are living here, we can water every day by hand, if needed, and the watering system has been largely dismantled

So, here is my picture heavy post of all the happenings in the garden/orchard.

First up…  Strawberries!  Lots of them.

Next I want to show you the zucchini and yellow crook neck squash.  We put them in a raised bed that we moved to outside of the shade of the larger trees in the orchard between a couple of small peach trees.

The yellow squash has gone absolutely nuts!

Can you see the celery in there?  Ray and I attended a workshop at the Heirloom Festival in Santa Rosa last year that taught us a lot about gardening that we didn’t know.  One thing they stressed was the need to plant in every available space – which provides living mulch, companion advantages (one of my favorite books is “Carrots Love Tomatoes”), and actually uses less water.  We also learned a bit about rotation of crops and succession planting.  So, we took our lesson to heart and planted the celery with the squash, peppers with strawberries, and squash with corn.

Speaking of peppers with strawberries:

They seem to be doing well together.  We have already picked off a few red bell peppers, before they got red, because the poor plants were barely big enough to support them yet!

And then there are the beans.  I love black turtle beans and plant them every year.  The first ones I planted were from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and I have been selecting the biggest and best plants to collect seed for the next year’s crop.  This is the third year of saving my own seed.  The black turtle beans are bush beans, which works well for me because I put the kentucky wonder pole beans on the opposite side of the bed, where they can climb up the trellis without shading the black beans.

Of course, I couldn’t have a garden without some tomatoes, garlic and basil… right?  You can barely see them, but there is some spinach seedlings just reaching their first set of leaves up to the sky.  Sounds like a good salad to me!  Oh, and the nasturtium flowers are also edible, and add a colorful spicy note to a salad.  They will be blooming about the same time as I will be able to harvest a few spinach leaves. 

The potatoes are starting to bloom.  I have three of these potato towers in the garden.  If you have never seen this before, it’s a way of growing lots of potatoes in a small space in your garden.  This variety is the Yellow Finn potato.

I was very pleased that Steve made it through the winter.  Oh, you haven’t met Steve? Well, let me introduce you.

This is Steve, my stevia plant!  He is now four years old.

We had to uproot our two artichoke plants last year because the poor dears kept getting nipped on their toes by our &$@#%(& voles and/or gophers.  But, they are doing well nonetheless.  I can’t wait to be able to get them in the ground again, but since our perennial garden is going to be near the house, they will just have to wait.  Once house is built, we will be able to get our permanent perennial beds done.

And then, there is this monster.  It’s a spaghetti squash.  I try to grow something new every year to see if it is something I should keep in my garden.  Last year I tried Fava (broad) beans and Amaranth.

Okay.

So, I thought I would plant two of the three sisters together – corn and squash.  Well, I should have planted the corn first, waited a few weeks, THEN planted the squash.  The poor corn can barely see the light of day because the squash is growing and GROWING! I put a tomato cage around it hoping to contain it, but obviously that’s not gonna happen. Seriously, I think I can hear it growing!  Since I like to name my plants, I think I will call this one Audrey!  Hopefully she won’t be a maneater 😉

To the left of the squash is my lemon balm.  I use that for my tea also, for a refreshing lemony taste without the lemon.  A crushed up stevia leaf and that’s all I need.  Ahhhhhhhhhh

Tucked in here and there are a few marigolds, some sweet pea and the nastirtums.  They are supposed to repel some bad bugs but bring in the good ones.  We’ll see.  Even if they don’t, they will be pretty in the garden anyway.

And the last picture?  Today’s harvest, of course!

 

This is where the party is:Thank Goodness It’s MondayClever Chicks Blog Hop; Grand Social; Mix It Up Monday; Create, Link, Inspire;  Amaze Me Monday,  Homemaking MondaysShow & Share Tuesday; The Gathering Spot; Brag About ItTuesdays with a Twist; The Scoop; Two Cup Tuesday;  Inspire Me Tuesdays; Tuesdays at Our Home;  Party In Your PJ’s;  Show Me YoursMake, Bake and Create;   Wined Down Wednesday;  Fluster’s Creative Muster;  Homestead Blog Hop; Wow Us Wednesday;  Wonderful Wednesday;  Waste Less Wednesday; AIM LinkyOur Simple Homestead; Share Your Cup Thursday;  Home and Garden Thursday;  The Handmade HangoutThink Tank Thursday;  Homemaking Party;  This Is How We RollNo Rules Weekend Party;  Friendship Friday;  Family Fun Friday; Friday’s Five Features; Awesome Life Friday;  Home Matters; Traffic Jam WeekendSaturday Sparks;  Dare to Share; Scraptastic Saturday; Share It One More Time; Happiness is Homemade; Anything Goes Pink Saturday; Simple SaturdaysThat DIY Party;  DIY Sunday Showcase; Snickerdoodle Sunday;   Best of the Blogosphere; Small Victories Sunday

The Last of the Lemons and Mandarins

Here is a picture of our Meyer Lemon tree inside the greenhouse, snug as a bug in a rug! You can see there are a few ripe lemons left on the tree.

Several years ago I bought a dwarf Meyer Lemon tree and have truly loved it ever since!

Our new homestead in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California has a few days each winter below freezing (rarely below 26 or 27 degrees) for a day or two at a time, and most citrus trees cannot withstand that low of a temperature for that long.  So, we are keeping our citrus trees in fairly large pots, which allows us to move them for the winter into a greenhouse or cover it with a frost blanket, or both!

We live in USDA zone 7b or 8a, and yet our citrus trees have done well, in fact they have positively thrived since moving up to our new homestead.

The move up here was particularly hard on the citrus trees because most of their leaves got shredded while travelling in the back of our pick-up.  It was so sad and we didn’t even know it was happening until we arrived, but the poor dears bloomed just a few short months later anyway.  Now that’s what I call resilience!

This shows part of our garden/orchard area this past winter during yet another snow (we had more than usual). You can see our little greenhouse with the mandarin and  lemon trees, along with my faithful stevia plant tucked inside.

In Italy, lemons are very popular, and so many homes are built with a “lemonaia”, a room with southern window exposure just for citrus fruit trees to overwinter!

A picture of our Meyer Lemon tree in full bloom last year.

For those who don’t know, a Meyer Lemon is actually a cross between a regular lemon (Lisbon or Eureka) and a mandarin orange, which is why the Meyer is sweeter than a regular lemon.  However, it may be less acidic than a regular lemon, which is why you should not use one for acidifying fruits or vegetables while canning.

The Lisbon and Eureka lemons are usually larger than a Meyer Lemon, and the coloring of the fruit is also a little different, with the Meyer having a slightly orange tinge to both the rind and the flesh.

broad bean hummus

Here are a couple of our Meyer Lemons with some Fava bean hummus.  The Meyer Lemon zest is also very flavorful – much sweeter and brighter tasting (in my opinion) than a regular lemon.

I just adore the sweet/tart flavor of the Meyer, especially dripped onto salmon patties, or infused with basil or lavender in a glass of iced cold water… especially on a hot summer day!

Our tree produced about 15 lemons this year, which is a lot for this little tree, and there were a few left on the tree just this last week.  I figured I should get them off the tree, since I saw there were already small flower buds on the tree for this year’s crop!

My mother has had a regular lemon tree in her backyard for quite a few years now (I think it is a Eureka) and only picks the fruit when she needs them, and so she has had mature fruit, immature fruit and blossoms on the tree all at the same time.  Although it doesn’t seem that her tree minds this in the least, hers is in the ground and mine is in a pot, so I thought I would unburden the tree by picking the last of the lemons.

Our dwarf Tango Mandarin tree loaded with unripe fruit. This picture was taken last fall before we put it into the greenhouse.

Our mandarin tree is a Tango Mandarin and is about four years old now. Last year we got almost three dozen mandarins from this dwarf tree!  The Tango is supposed to be seed free, but every one of ours have had seeds.  After a bit of research, I found that this is probably because of it’s close proximity to our Meyer lemon tree, and the apparent cross pollination.

Who knew?

Obviously we didn’t… but we live and learn!

However, since we don’t mind a few seeds (a perfect excuse for a lady to spit!) we will continue to grow them together.

Believe it or not, this little tree produced almost three dozen fruit this year!  The Tango mandarin isn’t usually completely ripe until late January or February, and the quality of the fruit does not degrade for a month or so after ripeness when left on the tree, so we have been enjoying the “fruits of our labor” day by day as we walk by and pluck a snack.

The mandarins are starting to ripen! We took the citrus trees out of the greenhouse when the danger of a hard freeze had passed, so that the sunshine would help the fruit to further ripen. If you compare this picture with the one above, you can see that a couple of months in the greenhouse saved the tree, but the fruit was just barely more ripe!

What did I do with the last of my Meyer lemons?  I cut them, squeezed them, strained the and poured the juice into ice cube trays.

Frozen Meyer Lemon Juice

I ended up with three trays of frozen Meyer lemon juice cubes.

I thought of making lemon curd, but to save time I thought I would first freeze the juice and then decide later what to do with it. I found a great recipe for lemon curd that can be canned in half pint jars at National Center for Home Food Preservation.  If I don’t make the curd, I will probably use the ice cubes this summer in iced tea or infused water.  Mmmmm… doesn’t that sound good?

Someday, if we ever get our new house built, I am going to put these trees on our front porch, which will be on the south side of the house. When the trees are in bloom the aroma is heavenly, and I think they would make a beautiful welcome to all who visit.  I want to add a lime tree and probably another Tango mandarin, and will use them as a border along one side of the porch where I can set a couple of pretty patio chairs.  Won’t that look pretty?

Where the party is:

 

 

A Homestead Without A Home

What’s a homestead without a home?

We have been working for two years… TWO YEARS, trying to get our architect and engineer to produce working and legal house plans.

Here’s the backstory.

Ray and I purchased five acres of mountain property fifteen years ago and have slowly developed it over the years, while we lived and worked in our home in the Sacramento Valley.  First was the septic system, then came the well.  We blazed a driveway through our property and brought in four truckloads of gravel. We planted our orchard.  We prepared a nice place for our travel trailer (you can see that post HERE), since we would be living in it while we were building our new house, and beefed up the solar system (see that post HERE) to minimize the need to run a generator, lessening our dependence on fossil fuels.  The house site has been graded and leveled for more than a year now.

This is our nice, level building spot! The orange tape on the stakes indicate where the septic tank is. This picture was taken in April of 2016 and our building lot has remained empty since!

We also built our beloved outhouse.  We built the outhouse for many reasons, some of which you can read in a previous post about the outhouse HERE.

how to build an outhouse

Our outhouse.

The summer before Ray’s retirement, we had a 20 foot long cargo container (read about that HERE) delivered to our property, to store the household items that we were keeping, and over the next ten months we decluttered our house, spruced it up and started filling up the container, getting ready to put our house up for sale upon Ray’s retirement.

Well…

We must have done a good job, because we put our house up for sale by owner before Ray actually retired, just to feel out the market, and sold it sooner than we expected.

Fortunately, we were prepared, the escrow went very well, Ray finally retired, and we moved up to live on our property permanently in late March of 2015.

The family room of the house we sold so that we could build a new home on our mountain property. Oh how I miss that house!

So, that’s the backstory.

We have planned to build the outside walls of our home with Faswall ICF (insulated concrete form), which is a mineralized wood product formed into what looks like a very large concrete building block. These are stacked much like Legos and then the voids are filled with rebar and concrete.  After studying several ICF systems and weighing the pros and cons, we felt the Shelter Works Faswall was a superior product and decided to contract with them.

This is a screenshot of an e-mail I sent to our architect, dated February 6, 2015. You can click on the picture to make it bigger and easier to read.

We were referred to an Engineer, Don Sherman (whom we will now call Engineer), who was familiar with the Faswall system and, although he lived in Oregon, had a California Engineer’s license.  In several e-mails we told Engineer that we were DIYers and were wanting to build on a limited budget, as we did not want to have a mortgage.  He assured us that this was definitely a DIY project and that in the long-run, the house would not cost more than a house that was stick-built.  He also said that his costs would be very reasonable.  But first, we would need an architect to actually draw the plans, and Engineer referred us to Jack Scovel (now called Architect), also out of Oregon, to draw the plans.  Architect does NOT have a California license, but Engineer assured us that it was okay, because his California license would cover everything.

So, we signed a contract and sent a deposit to Architect TWO YEARS AGO this month.

This is the main floor plan I sent to the Architect, so that he could convert it to easily build with Faswall Blocks and also to bring it up to California Code.

I sent the house plans I had been working on for several years using a software package I had purchased at Staples. All Architect had to do was make them fit with the Faswall system (each block is four feet long) and make sure the plans passed California Building Codes.

In fact, other than the final dimensions, his preliminary plans almost exactly mirror the plans I sent him. Again, we emphasized to Architect in e-mails and phone calls that we wanted to build as cheaply as possible, and that we were planning to do the bulk of the work ourselves, though we were NOT licensed contractors!  Thank goodness we saved every single E-mail, in case this ends up going to court.

This is the plan the architect came up with. Not much different than mine, is it? So, why in the world would it take so long to come up with the final plans?

FOURTEEN months later, they finally had everything necessary to submit our building package to the planning department for inspection and review.

Why would it take so long?  We wish we knew!  We begged, we nagged and we pleaded, to no avail.  Is it because we made a lot of changes to our plans?  NOPE!  We had Architect remove two windows on the second story that HE put in and we didn’t want, and I had him flip flop the shower with the toilet room in the master bath on the preliminary plans.   That’s it.  Seriously!

Why am I naming names? Because these are the cold, hard facts.  I am not worried about slander, much less libel, because I am telling the truth, as hard as it is to swallow.  I have saved all our e-mails, and our local county personnel will back me up on all of this, and so since I refuse to sugar coat anything, I am naming names.  Perhaps I can prevent someone else’s heartbreak.

When we finally submitted the plans, we got the results of our first review back from the “plan checker”  within two weeks.  There were pages and pages and pages of things that were missing, incomplete or just plain wrong in our house plans.

🙁

UGGGGHHHHHHH!  This was in late July of 2016.

http://www.clipartof.com

In the meantime, we had a bunch of contractors up to our property to give us bids on the foundation work.  That was one of the only things we were not planning to do ourselves (besides the roof), because we wanted to have a good foundation to build on!

Contractor after contractor told us that just the basement alone was going to cost between $50,000 to $60,000.  Holy @%$&

WHY?

Because our home was essentially three stories (basement, first floor, second floor) some of the footings were to be seven feet wide!  And one of the basement walls had to be a solid concrete wall (filled with rebar) 35 feet long, 10 feet high and eight inches thick, to hold up the house above.

Did someone forget all the e-mails about this being a DIY project with a reasonable cost?  Why did they ignore our requests and communications?  Were we speaking Chinese?

You hire professionals to work for YOU, to listen to YOUR problems, to understand what YOU need and to provide that service!  Wouldn’t the Architect and Engineer know that the basement with the huge footings and that concrete wall were going to be extremely expensive and certainly NOT a DIY project?  If one of them had warned us of that in the preliminary stages, we would have nixed the basement right away! But after the preliminary plans were done, there was very little communication, other than the bills they sent us.

Which we always paid with a week of their receipt.

So, after realizing that a basement was not worth a huge chunk of our budget, we asked the architect and engineer to remove it from our plans, along with correcting the pages of errors the plan checker had sent.  Oh, and we added a small retaining wall across our back patio and removed the fireplace.  It took more than six months for them to do this.  SIX MONTHS!  Because of that, we missed out on another building season.  And then they had the audacity to charge us thousands of dollars more!  Oh, and I forgot, since Oregon does not require electrical or plumbing plans (apparently those inspections are done in the field), Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer refused to do ours. But wait…  we were assured by Mr. Engineer that since he had a California license, he would make our plans California compliant.  I have that in an e-mail and told him so, but they still refused. So, we had to hire a house planner who is licensed here in California to do this! 

Do you see a theme here?

We finally were able to turn in everything for our second review in February 2017.  Were we good to go?  NOPE.  Again, errors and omissions. To top it off, now WE have to pay more than $160/hour for the next building review (the third), for mistakes and omissions our Architect/Engineer are responsible for!

What a scam.

This past winter was brutal.  If you have been following this blog for very long, you know that we moved from our travel trailer into our “cottage” over a year ago.  See the post of our cottage HERE.  Travel trailers are not meant to be lived in 24/7, and we were burning way too much propane just to keep warm.  We were having to drive 45 minutes to get to town just to buy more propane!  It was insane!  Hey…  that rhymes.  😉

Living in a tiny cottage

Our saving grace this past winter has been our tiny wood stove.  Thankfully, it heats our little cottage really well…  sometimes too well!

Anyway, this past winter here in Northern California was the fourth wettest since recording began.  While living in the cottage to stay warm, every time I had to use the bathroom, I had to go out into the cold rain and sometimes snow. We were still showering and cooking in the trailer, so I was having to constantly go back and forth between the cottage and the trailer, oh, and the outhouse.

In the rain.

And snow.

The truth is, this is not what we signed on for.  I thank God that Ray and I are best friends, because this has really been a strain on our marriage and I wouldn’t wish this situation on our worst enemy.

So far, we have wasted two precious years, our retirement years, waiting for Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer to do their jobs. When Ray sent ANOTHER e-mail to them to see what the status of our plans are, essentially they responded that they were working on them.

Yeah.  Right.  If you believe that, I have a bridge in Taiwan I will sell you cheap for $10,000!

We need a house.

One that we can call home.

If it takes any longer just to get plans to build a Faswall home, it’s not going to happen and we are truly heartbroken!  The Faswall folks have had our money for the blocks for a year and a half now (we made our final payment December 2015), and we will be asking for a full refund.  Luckily, Faswall won’t lose one cent, because they don’t manufacture the blocks until arrangements have been made to pick them up.  The truth is, they probably MADE money through interest over the past year and a half!  Luckily, our contract with Faswall states that if we don’t get a permit to build, and we haven’t (through no fault of our own), we will get a full refund. We are talking almost $24,000 here, folks!

We are also considering whether we will sue Jack Scovel and Don Sherman.  We have contacted quite a few architects in the area, and have been told that two years for a residential house (nothing fancy here, just a normal, everyday house) is not even fathomable…  It’s insane!  It’s unheard of!  In fact, ONE year (according to EVERY contractor we asked) is crazy!  So, I don’t think we will have a problem winning that one.

If you have made it this far in the story, I would really like to have your opinion.  You, my faithful followers, have given me great advice in the past.  What do you think?  Should we give Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer another month to get the plans right and hope to get our Faswall dream house, knowing that it will be ANOTHER year before we can get started?  Or, should we cut our losses (time), go to court to get all of our money back, and start again from scratch?

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