My Garden Thief!

Who stole my sunflowers?

You can see one of our Italian honeybees right in the middle of this beautiful sunflower. Sunflowers are so pretty, aren't they?

You can see one of our Italian honeybees right in the middle of this beautiful sunflower. Sunflowers are so pretty, aren’t they?

I had six beautiful large heads of sunflowers growing in my orchard.  The bees were enjoying them, I was enjoying them, and I had the perfect recipe lined up to use the seeds. Then, one night, the largest sunflower disappeared.

Harrumph…  🙁

Well, I never…

Do you see something missing here?

Hmmmm…   something seems to be missing.

Do you see how it looks like the top of the stalk has been chewed off?  That was the first piece of evidence I saw.

who stole my sunflowers 4Then, throughout the orchard in no less than six separate spots, I found piles of cracked seeds. Strange that the thief would move from spot to spot to eat the seeds, but then (of course) there may have been more than one culprit!

It’s a real shame because I have a really neat recipe I couldn’t wait to try out using the sunflower seeds.  I was going to use the honey from my beehive, with ground almond flour from my almond trees, along with chopped toasted almonds, dehydrated apricots and cherries from my orchard.

I was going to use egg whites from my neighbor’s chickens (we will be getting ours next year) and some pine nuts from, well, pine trees!  We are surrounded by Sugar Pines and if we can get to the cones before the squirrels do, the nuts are mighty fine!

I found this recipe many years ago when our homestead was just a dream.   I didn’t write down the name of the book, so I can’t give credit to anyone.  Sorry.  Then, in my shortsightedness I didn’t write down specific amounts either – just ingredients.  What was I thinking? So, this recipe will have to end up as another one of my experiments. Apparently, however, the base of the bar was to be made with frothy egg whites into which almond flour is folded, then poured into the base of a rimmed cookie sheet and baked  for some amount of time. I would assume about 8-10 minutes – just to get it to set.  A mixture of chopped dried fruits, seeds (my missing sunflower seeds), chopped nuts and honey is spread on the base, then baked for another amount of time until done.

Doesn’t that sound good?  The best part is that I will be able to produce every single ingredient called for in these delicious (I think) and nutritious bars!  I may even add pumpkin seeds to the mix.  For a different variety, wouldn’t dried apple and pear chunks be good with toasted walnuts?  Maybe even acorn flour!  Yum.  I can’t wait to try this, but alas, I have no sunflower seeds.

Speaking of squirrels…who stole my sunflowers 8

I think this may have been our thief.  We have lots of them in our trees.  In fact, our neighbor lady (who recently moved) fed them!  I know this isn’t a great picture, but the silly things won’t stay still for a photo!  😉

 

However, this may have been the culprit…

Steller's Jay

Did this Steller’s Jay eat my sunflowers?

The Blue Jays have been hanging around a lot lately.  We have had a terrible drought here in California and it seems our bee waterer may be one of the only sources of water around for all the forest critters to slake their thirst. Sometimes they go through more than a gallon of water every day!

Nonetheless, I would assume the bird would have just landed on the stalk, eaten the seeds and dropped the shells below the plant.  Besides, chewing the entire seed head off the stalk would have been difficult for a Steller’s Jay. Since there are no shells directly below the plant, and Jays don’t have teeth, I don’t think the culprit was the Jay.

Yeah - right outside my window! Sneaky little thief!

Yeah – right outside my window! Sneaky little thief!

The evidence speaks for itself –

Mr and Mrs Squirrel enjoy sunflower seeds!

I am glad that right now I don’t have to feed myself and my family completely on what my dear hubby and I grow and raise here on our fledgling homestead. I would like to be food self-sufficient soon, however, and if TEOTWAWKI happens (as many people think it will) we will need to protect our food sources more carefully.  So, the squirrels gave us a valuable lesson today. (Um – thank you?)  We need to protect our permanent garden much better than we have protected the temporary garden we have set up in our orchard.

If we plan to be self-sufficient when it comes to fruits and vegetables, nuts and herbs, we must build our permanent vegetable garden like a fortress and reinforce our orchard!  The garden will have metal fencing at least 7 feet high (so my tall hubby Ray can walk upright in the garden) with a metal roof (chicken wire?) over the top, and at least 1 foot deep into the ground to prevent tunneling critters.  This should keep out the squirrels and Jays.  It sounds like a lot of work, but I believe at this point it will be an absolute necessity!

Especially after we found jack rabbits in our compost pile!

How do you keep critters out of your vegetables?

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A Wood Stove and Other Things

Organic tree fertilizerWhile we are busy trying to sell our home in the valley so we can permanently move up to our mountain property, we have been able to sneak up to the future homestead a few times these past few weeks to get a few chores done.

One important task to accomplish was feeding our fruit and nut trees.  We stopped at an organic nursery on our way up to the future homestead and found a great organic fertilizer. It has kelp and worm compost and other wonderful things in it, providing not just the NPK that you find in chemical fertilizers, but lots of micronutrients such as boron and copper that are essential for tree health!  We also raked away the last of the leaves and pine needles to prevent any pests from over-wintering in them, and widened the watering berm a bit because the drip line has expanded with the ever-growing trees.  We did a drastic pruning this year, so the trees are actually shorter, but we need to make sure that the trees have a strong scaffolding shape for the future. Unfortunately we got a borer in the largest cherry tree last year, so we cut out as much of the damaged wood as possible and are keeping our fingers crossed that the tree will survive.cap and vent for an outhouse

Another necessary chore was to put a rain cap on the outhouse vent.  When using a venting an outhousecomposting toilet (which is essentially what an outhouse is), excessive moisture is the biggest enemy!  Instead of human waste composting with minimal smell, excessively wet waste will stink to high heavens and become a putrid sludge instead of compost.

If you are eating right now, I apologize.  😉

We found several caps at our local hardware box store and decided on the one in the picture above one.  It appears that it will do a great job allowing for air flow, yet keep rain out of the vent pipe. Just what we need! Though we haven’t had much rain here in California this winter (we are in our fourth year of drought), the weather report said that quite a bit of rain was expected in the next couple of days, and they were right!  We got the vent on just in time!

february blooming almond tree

Almond tree blossoms in February

Speaking of the weather and the orchard trees:  it has been just too warm up on our future homestead!  Our almond tree is blooming and the pomegranate is starting to leaf out!  This is way too early.  We shouldn’t see this until at least the end of February and more often well into March.  Unfortunately, this probably means we won’t get any almonds this year because a freeze or very heavy downpour of rain will either kill the blossoms or knock them off of the tree entirely.  Oh well.  The tree is only starting it’s third year in our orchard, so I didn’t expect much of a harvest anyway.  Last year it had two almonds that fell off the tree mid-summer.

pomegranate tree leafing out

The pomegranate trees are already getting leaves!

Last, but by no means least, is our new wood stove!  Isn’t she cute?  It’s a little tiny thing, but just perfect for cooking on!  We decided to fire her up right away to burn off that new cooking on a small wood stovepaint smell.  Boy did it stink!  Phew!  According to the instructions that came with the wood stove, we will have to do this a few more times before the burned paint smell is gone, but that’s not a problem.  So now, when our home in the valley is sold and we move up to our mountain property and start building our new homestead, we will have a great way to cook outside without having to use up a lot of expensive propane!

While bringing some wood over to the new wood stove to burn, I found this mushroom on one of the logs!  Isn’t it beautiful?wood stove 7 This wood has been piled up for a couple of years and there were several other types of fungi growing on the wood – slowly but surely decomposing the cellulose – adding nutrients to the organic layer of duff on the forest floor.  Mother Nature at her best!

Thanks for coming over for a visit!

 

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Trees and Plants in Pots

One of the advantages of living in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California is our balmy Mediterranean-like weather.  We can grow just about anything.  Seriously!

Just about every kind of nut or fruit tree, vegetable and herb does well here in the valley.  Especially citrus.  We have a huge naval orange tree that supplies us with hundreds of pounds of oranges every year.  In fact, one of our favorite desserts in the winter is an orange with half a bar of dark chocolate…  one bite of this, one bite of that 😀

In preparation for moving up to our future homestead in the mountains where citrus trees don’t survive unless they are kept above freezing temperatures, we decided to get some dwarf citrus and plant them in large pots so that they can be moved around.  They will stay inside a pit greenhouse (sometimes called walipini) during the winter and can be brought to the front porch of our soon to be built house during the spring, summer and autumn.

Container Grown Meyer Lemons

These lemons are sizing up nicely. They should be good and juicy by November or December

I bought the lemon tree first, when I saw it on sale at our local nursery, because I loved the Meyer lemon tree that my mother has.  The Meyer lemon comes from China and is a cross between a traditional lemon and a mandarin orange, which makes it just a bit sweeter.  It is delicious when used in lemon bars or lemon iced tea, but is out of this world when squeezed on fresh grilled salmon.  In researching the Meyer Lemon, I found that the dwarf variety does quite nicely in containers, as long as they are given an occasional boost of a good citrus fertilizer.

Growing Citrus Trees in Pots

The mandarin tree has about 19 walnut sized mandarins on it right now, and another dozen or so pea sized ones!

Soon after, my oldest son bought a Tango Mandarin for my grand children. The kids were going through boxes of those “cuties” that are sold at the grocery store, so my son thought it would be a good idea to get their own tree. These little citrus fruits are the kind that peel very easily and have little to no seeds – perfect for small hands and mouths.  When I saw the cute little tree he had, I decided to get one for myself.  This variety of mandarin can be a bit more pricey than a regular mandarin or tangerine, because the tree was developed to have sterile flowers which don’t cross-pollinate, preventing the seeds from forming. We bought two large cement pots, one for the lemon tree and the other for the mandarin, at a Mexican pottery store in Escalon called Lopez Imports, and they were quite reasonably priced!  Both citrus trees have done well in those pots.  In fact, the mandarin just finished blooming again (second bloom of the year), and now has little pea sized fruits on it as well as the walnut sized ones from the first bloom in the spring!

Tango Mandarin in a Pot

The tree is three years old now and is producing very well. It stands about 6 feet tall. We will be pruning the tallest branches after harvest, to keep the tree a reasonable size.

The mandarins will be ripe sometime in January, although the mature fruit can be left on the tree for several months, harvesting as desired.  However, it is important to harvest all of the mandarins before the first bloom in spring opens, or the next year’s harvest will be reduced.

Next is the ginger.  I planted a piece of ginger root two months ago when I had a small piece left after making some Ginger Ale.  If you have never made your own Ginger Ale before, click HERE for directions. It’s really fun and really good!

Growing ginger in a container

The ginger has been growing slowly yet steadily and now has it’s fifth shoot starting up.

It took about two weeks, but sure enough, a small sprig came up out of the ground.  I think I probably planted it too deep, but here we are about two months later and another sprig (the fifth) is just now coming up out of the ground!  The leaves got a bit burned a few weeks ago when we had an intense heat  and wind spell, but overall I think the plant looks pretty happy. It’s nice being able to have a plant on the patio, because ginger doesn’t like direct sunlight, and prefers moist, not wet soil.

Tomatoes grown in Containers

Here is my beautiful, lush volunteer heirloom tomato. Nice plant – but where are the tomatoes?

Here is my tomato plant.  I couldn’t plant a garden this year because our real estate agent said nice lawns sell houses. We are selling our valley house so we can start building our mountain homestead. 😀  So, I decided to put a couple of our volunteer tomatoes (from last year’s crop) into a large pot on our patio.

Well, here it is.

Do you see any tomatoes?  Neither do I.  Harrumph!

I don’t want to blame the tomato, however.  I think I am going to blame myself.  You see, the plant is always thirsty!  I used to think it was because the unglazed terracotta pot was letting the soil evaporate too easily.  Nope.  I figured out that it’s because there isn’t anything holding in the water – as in mulch!  If I am not able to water the tomato every single day, the poor thing withers, and it’s been withered down a lot lately.  I am going to try layering some paper on top of the soil and see if that will make a difference.  Better late than never!

Growing Pomegranate in a Pot

One of our two pomegranate trees.

We also have a couple of pomegranate trees in pots.  These are trees I got at a clearance sale because I couldn’t pass them up.  Unfortunately, the variety of pomegranate was not marked on the pots, but since the variety Wonderful is the most popular here in California, I am going to assume that is what they are.  They had several blooms this year but didn’t produce any fruit, so hopefully we will get one or two next year.  We are planning to get several more pomegranate trees that we will plant along the road frontage of our future mountain homestead, but these two make a great start in that direction. If you would like to know which variety of pomegranate my husband and I have decided to plant (along with the two Wonderful variety we already have), and how we made our decision, you can go HERE.  Hopefully we will be able to get them into the ground this next spring, but we have some clearing to do before that will happen.

Almond trees grown from seed

These are three of the volunteer almond trees we saved before we tore out our vegetable garden and rolled out lawn in it’s place.

Finally, I have three volunteer almond trees.  They all look fine – one is really tall, one is quite short and the other is the middle child.  Looking at the pots they are in, the growth rate of each tree really makes no rhyme or reason – the tallest tree being in the smallest pot!  Nonetheless, they are all surviving just fine.  They are babies of the almond tree we have in our backyard, that produces some of the most juicy, sweet almonds you will ever eat.  Hopefully these babies will produce almonds just as good – in about five years!

Here is where I need some advice

The dilemma:  I know the almond trees and pomegranate trees will be fine up on our mountain homestead, but what to do with the Meyer Lemon, the Tango Tangerine and the Ginger?  We will be living in our trailer while we build our home, and as anyone who has ever been in a travel trailer knows, there just isn’t any extra space.  None.  So, where do we put our three tropical weather loving potted plants?  We do have a small 5′ x 6′ plastic greenhouse.  I think I will put the two trees inside the greenhouse in the middle of our fruit orchard, so they will be able to get sunlight during the day.

But what happens when it freezes?

I did see one method to keep an unheated greenhouse reasonably warm.  It involves horse manure.  You see, apparently horse manure gets really hot and stays hot for a couple of weeks as it decomposes.  From what I have read, a nice sized pile of horse manure, insulated by some grass or straw, inside a box, will keep a small greenhouse frost free for two weeks.  Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad, but will it make the lemons and mandarins smell or taste a little… well… poopy?

Another method I read about was using water as an insulator.  Apparently you would line the north and east sides (at least) with jugs of water (milk jugs work), two or three rows high with boards between stabilizing them so they don’t tumble over.  The milk jugs absorb the warmth from the sun during the day and then radiate the warmth back into the greenhouse during the night.  That method sounds like it is do-able also.  But what happens when you have a few days in a row without any sunlight?

I suppose if the temperature drops below 28 degrees, which is the lowest temperature most citrus can tolerate, we could always put our little propane heater in the greenhouse – on the lowest setting of course.  But again, do we need to worry about fumes hurting the trees or even the fruit?

What do you think?  We only need a temporary solution because we plan to start building the pit greenhouse next year – hopefully before the next winter settles in.

Any suggestions?

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Chicken/Broccoli Ravioli

Making chicken/broccoli ravioli in cheese sauce

Two weeks ago I got a new kitchen toy – a pasta machine!  I bought it from my new favorite web store – Tanga – for less than $30.00.  I have seen pasta machines like this one elsewhere for much, much more, so when I saw this one, I snatched it up!  I am not an affiliate of Tanga – I just love the deals they offer!

One reason I wanted a pasta machine was because dear hubby and I plan to have a small wheat field when we move up to our future homestead, and pasta is one of our all-time favorite foods made from wheat, second only to sourdough garlic bread! 🙂  Growing our own wheat (an ancient variety, not sure which one yet) ensures that we won’t have the gluten problems that one can encounter with modern day wheat due to it’s gluten protein structure.  Apparently you can grow enough wheat in a 10 x 20 foot plot of land to make one loaf of bread every week for a year.

Sounds great!  However, if we have one loaf of bread every week, then what will we make our pasta out of?

chicken broccoli ravioli

Look! A baby almond on a baby almond tree!

As many of my readers know, I have been experimenting with acorn and almond flour.  Acorns are abundant on our future homestead.  In fact, if you aren’t careful, you can turn an ankle on the mass of acorns on the ground every fall.  We have very happy oak trees!

We also planted an All-In-One almond tree last year from Peaceful Valley Nursery (my favorite) and that baby tree has two almonds on it!  So cute!  Along with our purchased almond, our volunteer almond that we have in our current backyard has spawned several other volunteer almond trees.  I potted up those seedlings and we will plant them next fall on the future homestead.

broccoli and chicken ravioli

1-2-3 Flour
1 part acorn flour
2 parts almond flour
3 parts wheat flour

Anyhow…   I have developed a mixture of flour that I find absolutely wonderful, and I call it my 1-2-3 flour.  I call it this, because it uses 1 part acorn flour, 2 parts almond flour and 3 parts wheat flour.  The almond flour offsets the bitter tannin taste of the acorn flour, and with the wheat flour being 1/2 of the mix, I usually get enough gluten to be able to make just about any recipe successfully, including bread!

So, I started with 3 cups of my 1-2-3 flour (you can use all wheat flour), added 3 eggs and 2 teaspoons of olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and mixed until a dough ball formed.  I turned out the dough onto my lightly floured counter and kneaded it for a few minutes, until it started to get just a bit elastic.  Wrap the dough in plastic or, better yet, place in an air tight container and let the dough rest.

Homemade ravioli chicken and broccoli

Ingredients for the filling of the ravioli: cooked chicken, broccoli and cheese – one cup of each

While the dough was resting, I made the filling.  I used a jar of the chicken I had canned a few weeks ago.  I chopped up 1 cup of the chicken, to which I added 1 cup of chopped broccoli and 1/2 cup cheddar/jack cheese.  A little salt and pepper, and your filling is ready to go!  This is the mixture I have always used when I make Chicken/Broccoli Manicotti, and it usually fills about 8 manicotti.  However, in hindsight, I found that ravioli does not take nearly as much filling as the manicotti does, and I only needed about 1/3 of the filling that I made.  I also realized that the next time I make ravioli, I need to chop the pieces a LOT smaller!

homemade ravioli

My new pasta machine – I love it!

So, now it’s time to try out my new kitchen toy!  I cleaned the machine just as the manufacturer suggested (with a piece of dough that you will eventually throw away) and boy, did I make a mess!  Apparently my dough was just a bit too sticky!  I had pasta dough in every nook and cranny that the machine had, and let me tell you, it wasn’t very easy to clean out globs of pasta from inside the machine!  Once that was done, I had to try again. This time I figured out that all you have to do is lightly dust each side of the pasta before you insert it into the rollers, and sure enough, it doesn’t stick.  So I started out at the #1 setting and gradually rolled the pasta to a #5 setting, when I thought the dough was thin enough.

After I had several sheets of the pasta lined up, I used my ravioli edge cutter stamp thingy (no idea what it’s called) and measured out the size I would need for each ravioli, and using a ruler, I cut the pasta into 2″ squares.  More or less.

Homemade ravioli

This is the ravioli edger/cutter crimping thingy. Whatever it is, it works well!

I bought that ravioli thingy quite a few years ago thinking it looked really cool, thinking that I would someday make ravioli.  Well…  here we are!

how to make ravioli at home

The filling piled into the middle of the pasta squares. Next time I will chop the filling into smaller pieces.

The filling was placed in the middle of each square, I lightly moistened the edges of each filled square and then placed another pasta square on top.  The ravioli edge thingy was then pressed on each ravioli, sealing the edges and making them look pretty!

Wow, this wasn’t so hard to do, it just takes a bit of time!  I can imagine buying a bottle of muscat (our family’s favorite wine), inviting my sisters Deana and Machell over, and we could have a wonderful party drinking wine and making ravioli!  How about it, dear sisters?  We could make enough for dinner and also for each of us to take home for our freezers!

How to make ravioli

Here they are, taking a bath in the boiling water! Not one of the ravioli broke open! Wahoo!  I call that success!

So now it was time to cook the ravioli and eat it!  Apparently all that is necessary is to place them carefully in barely boiling salted water, and cook them for 6-8 minutes.  So, that’s just what I did.  While waiting for the water to boil, I made a simple cheese sauce for the ravioli by first making a rue with 3 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour and letting that cook just a bit (gets out the floury taste), then slowly, while whisking, add 3/4 cup of chicken broth.  The sauce will get pretty thick, so now add 1/2 cup of milk, whisking all the while.  When the milk is incorporated, add 1 cup cheddar cheese.  Lower the heat to just simmer and stir frequently until the cheese is melted and the sauce is nice and smooth.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Once the ravioli are cooked, carefully toss them in the cheese sauce.

How to make ravioli recipe

Here are three ravioli, one split open, in the cheese sauce. Yummy!

Holy cannoli, it was really good.  It was fun, too! Hubby gave the ravioli a two thumbs up.

What will I do differently next time?  First of all, as mentioned, the filling needs to be in smaller pieces so it is easier to dollop in the middle of the pasta.  Also, I will go one step further on the pasta machine so the dough is just a bit thinner.  Everything else was perfect!

Do you have any good ravioli filling recipes?  Please – do tell!

 

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