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:

My New Elderberry Plants

Elderberry syrup, Elderflower pancakes, Elderberry wine…

Do I sound like Forrest Gump – “fried shrimp, grilled shrimp, shrimp fricassee…”?

A couple of years ago Ray and I attended a class on making medicinal tinctures; one of them being an elderberry syrup/tonic.  Since then, I have been wanting to have my own Elderberry plants. Elderberries have become very popular lately as they are one of those “superfoods” that contain anti-oxidants, flavinoids, vitamins and minerals.  And they taste good, too! The berries can be purchased online, but they can be a bit pricey!

Elderberries

This is one of our local “native” elderberry plants. There are quite a few of these bushes along the road we travel to get to our favorite fishing lake. It is just loaded with elderberries!

After learning all about elderberries and where they grow, we discovered that native elderberries grow all around us!  In fact, last year snapped off a sprig of a native bush and tried to get it to root.  It didn’t.  I think I got the sprig at the wrong time of year.  🙁

Since we really wanted some of our own Elderberry bushes and my expertise at rooting woody stemmed plants is obviously lacking, I purchased some Elderberry plants online from Stark Bros. Nursery.  We bought two varieties – York and Nova – for better cross pollination. The plants themselves were cheaper to buy than a couple of pounds of dried elderberries purchased online, so this was one of those “no brainer” purchases!  I still want to try getting a sprig of the local native elderberries to root, but I need to do some more research on how to do this before I try again.

When the box arrived from Stark Bros., I was quite impressed with the size of my new plants.  The stalks were ¾ to an inch wide at the base!  Unfortunately, it was evident that the delivery service may have been just a bit rough with the package, as several new, tender shoots had broken off the main plant.

Hmmm…  I thought.  What if I stick these new shoots in soil?  Since I had some pots and potting mix on hand, I stuck the shoots into the moist soil and waited.

It didn’t take long!  Two of the three shoots rooted, so hallaleuja, I now have four plants!  I still want some of the wild ones, though.  After all, variety is the spice of life!

growing elderberries

These elderberry plants are just gorgeous when they bloom!

We planted the Elderberries where they get strong morning sun but dappled shade in the afternoon, and all four of them grew very well.  The two mother plants soon had beautiful white blossoms.  The blossoms had a faint sweet smell and attracted quite a few different pollinators.

growing elderberry plants

You can see that the beautiful white blossoms fall off as the berries start to develop.

The berries came soon after.  I had about six fairly large clumps of berries on each plant and by September the berries got heavy enough that the plant stems started drooping.  Because of that, and because of the amount of deer mice, rabbits, wood rats, moles, voles and bears (oh my) we have on our property, I figured I had better pick the berries as soon as they looked ripe, which meant that I picked only two or three berry clusters at a time.

When I saw that my berries were ripening, I figured I had better start doing some research to help decide what I will do with them. First I found this post about making Elderberry Tincture, which is what made me want the elderberry plants in the first place, and this post on how to make Elderberry Wine, and this recipe making Elderberry Syrup!

What did I do with the berries?

Since I didn’t have a whole lot of them, (they are very young plants) I decided to dehydrate most of them to use at a later date.  It took only half a day to dehydrate the first and second batches of elderberries.

elderberry dehydrating

Dehydrating my first batch of elderberries. It doesn’t take long!

It was funny how much the berries shrank!  Holy cow, I started out with about 2 cups of berries and ended up with less than one half cup!  But, I am sure when they are reconstituted, they will taste just as lovely.  Or perhaps I will just include them in a granola bar recipe I’ve been wanting to try.  The seeds inside the berries make them crunchy, which is great!

Maybe I will throw a handful of the dehydrated berries into yogurt! Hmmm… elderberry ice cream?

I am waiting for the day we will have enough elderberries to make a batch of elderberry wine, but of course, I will need a lot more elderberries to do that.  (Sigh)

My second harvest of elderberries. I know it doesn't look like much, but remember, we just got the plants this year!

My second harvest of elderberries. I know it doesn’t look like much, but remember, we just got the plants this year!

Today I harvested the last few bunches of elderberries and made a small coffee cake.  Of course, I cooked it in my Sun Oven!

elderberry coffeecake

Elderberry coffee cake, cooking in my Sun Oven! With some of our own bee’s honey slathered on top, it was absolutely delicious!

It was delicious.  The berries are reminiscent of blueberries, but the small seeds inside give just a little bit of crunch!  It’s wonderful!

elderberry drying

Haha – this is my little pint jar of dehydrated elderberries! Who knew they would shrink up so small!

So, that was the extent of our elderberry harvest this year.  Since I didn’t get much in terms of dehydrated berries, I will probably hoard them over the winter.  Now I understand why the dehydrated berries cost so much!

However, with my four plants and with hopes of being able to root some native elderberry plants, I am sure to have an adequate amount of elderberries in the future!

Do you grow elderberries? Do you cook with elderberries?  Do you have a favorite recipe for a medicinal tonic using elderberries?  I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below!

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Cooking With The Sun!

Look what I got!

Cooking with a Sun Oven

My new baby! I couldn’t wait to try out my new Sun Oven Solar Cooker!

I have been reading the Taylor Made Ranch blog for a couple of years now, and have been so jealous of Tammy’s beautiful Sun Oven.  I have several plans that I found (here’s a good one in Mother Earth News Magazine) to build my own, but somehow my husband and I have never found the time to build one.  When the Sun Oven went on sale this past fall, I jumped at the opportunity to own one!

The oven can do so many things.  Of course it can cook and bake, but it can also be used as a dehydrator and a water sterilizer!  Since Ray and I are trying to live a self-reliant off-grid lifestyle, we decided it would be a great idea to have several methods of cooking food, and the Sun Oven is one of the best off-grid cooking methods we have found!

Cooking in a Solar Oven

Wild blackberry pie filling – nothing better!

I couldn’t wait to try it out.  The oven was out of the box and cooking within an hour! 😉

For my first item, I decided to bake a blackberry cobbler.  Ray and I live in an area where wild blackberries are very abundant. Every year in July and August we gather the blackberries and either freeze them to use in muffins, infused water, cake filling, etc. or make blackberry pie filling. I can the pie filling in pint (for cobblers) or quart (for pies)sized jars. So, I got a pint jar of the blackberry pie filling and made the cobbler, then set it into the preheated Sun Oven.

Wow!

Just…          Wow!

Even though it was early November with the sun low in the sky, the cobbler cooked very well, browning nicely around the edges!  It was really good and I was so impressed! In a normal oven this recipe takes about 45 minutes to cook.  In the Sun Oven, it took almost an hour to cook.  No matter – it wasn’t using any electricity, natural gas or propane, so I was happy to let it bake away!  It was delicious!  (and gone within 24 hours 😉 )

Solar Oven Baking

The cobbler is almost done. You can see that it is starting to brown a bit around the edges. You can also see the temperature dial, showing approximately 340 degrees inside the oven.  Niiiiiiccceee!

Next I wanted to try cooking some kind of meat.  I had a pork loin in my freezer and I also had a bottle of Morse Farms Mandarin Jalapeno Barbeque Sauce, so I thought the two would make a wonderful pulled pork sandwich.

Cooking in a solar oven

Here is a pork loin roast sizziling happily away in my Sun Oven!

Without bothering to preheat the oven, I stuck the roast in and let ‘er go! No, I didn’t add any liquid.  The instructions that come with the Sun Oven says that it’s almost impossible to burn anything, so I decided liquid wasn’t necessary! Within an hour the roast was sizzling and browning and smelling oh so good.  I let it cook for about 3 hours, as the temperature never really got over 325 that day and actually hovered between the 275-300 degree fahrenheit range, due to the overcast skies.  What’s cool about this is that the oven was working much like a slow cooker or “crock pot” and I knew the meat would be good and tender after several hours.  After about three hours, I shredded the pork loin (easily done with 2 forks) and added about 1 cup of the marinade. But wait, there’s more!  I decided to try stacking an apple/raisin/walnut crisp on top of the now shredded and flavored pork loin.  The Sun Oven came with these stacking pans and they work wonderfully!

Here is the apple/raisin/walnut crisp baking, stacked on top of the pork roast! The smell coming from this box was amazing!

Here is the apple/raisin/walnut crisp baking, stacked on top of the pork roast! The smell coming from this box was amazing!

After just another hour, the pork was moist and delicious and the apple crisp was done.  I had dinner and dessert!  The stacking pans really come in handy.  If I was just a bit more industrious, I could have also put in a small loaf of bread on the rack right next to the pans!

Pulled pork in Mandarin Jalapeno barbeque sauce, with a slice of Swiss cheese on a hamburger bun. Sooooo Gooooood!

Pulled pork in Mandarin Jalapeno barbeque sauce, with a slice of Swiss cheese on a hamburger bun.

The pulled pork turned out very moist and delicious.  The apple/ raisin/walnut crisp was to die for!

The best part?  Nothing burns!  Really!  To be honest, folks, I am notorious for burning things.  In fact, when my kids were growing up they used to tease me and say that the smoke alarm was their dinner bell!  😉  Even after cooking the pulled pork for an hour in sticky barbeque sauce, they were very easy to clean up afterward.  I literally swished the pans with warm soapy water, rinsed them off and – et voila’ – clean!

Speaking of bread…

Cooking bread in a Sun Oven

Two full sized loaves of french bread happily baking away in the solar oven. They didn’t really brown much, but that’s okay because they tasted amazing!

I had to try baking bread.  French bread.  On a day with lots of white puffy clouds.

Hmmmm…  It was sunny first thing in the morning.  Not a cloud in sight!  So I made some french bread dough, let it rise, made it into loaves and let it rise again.  Just when I was ready to pop them into the preheated oven, a few clouds obscured the sun.  Then a few more.   Lovely.  Can you hear my sourchasm?

It didn’t matter!  It took almost 2-1/2 hours to get these loaves baked, but by golly, they baked.  And they were good!  The insides achieved a great crumb with really nice texture in spite of the weather.  I thought they would be concrete inside, or perhaps gooey, but no – perfect french bread minus the browning.  I read that I could get the bread to brown if I put either a sugar glaze or an egg white wash on the loaves, but that’s just to make them pretty.  We don’t care if our bread is pretty, we just want it to taste good!

My next experiment?  Brownies!  My youngest son was coming up for a day to help out with some of the heavy chores, and one of his favorite desserts is brownies!  Michael graduated from college recently with a Major in Social Science and a Minor in Sustainability, so he was excited to see how the Sun Oven performed.  Well…

Baking brownies in a solar oven

Mmmmm… these brownies turned out great!  And I didn’t have to worry about burning them!

These brownies turned out so good!  I could have left them in the oven just a tad bit longer, however, because the very center was a bit on the gooey side. Since foods cooked in the Sun Oven don’t burn, I shouldn’t have been so hasty to take them out. No matter, that’s how Michael likes them anyway!

So, what have I learned so far?

  1.  Cooking in a Sun Oven is a lot of fun, and it really does work!
  2. Food does not burn in the Sun Oven, so if in doubt whether the food is done, cook it a little bit longer instead of constantly opening the door to check it.  Every time the door is opened, you loose a lot of heat and it will take just that much longer to cook.
  3. The food cooking in the oven smells so good, it will attract various wildlife along with your local neighborhood dog.  Place the oven where you can see it at all times or, better yet, put it somewhere the dogs can’t get to it.
  4. Wear sunglasses.  The reflection from the oven can be blindingly bright!
  5. Use hot pads.  Yeah – for some reason I had it in my brain that these don’t get very hot.  They do.  If the temperature gauge reads 350 degrees, your food and pans will also be 350 degrees.
  6. Place the Sun Oven on a level surface.  Since I have been cooking during the winter, the sun is very low in the sky, so the Sun Oven is tilted at it’s max!  If you don’t have a level and sturdy surface, the oven just might tip over!

My next experiment is going to be making zucchini chips and hamburger jerky, because I am curious to see how the Sun Oven works as a dehydrator.

I am so glad we bit the bullet and bought this Sun Oven.  We still plan to build our own solar oven with the plans mentioned above (here is another DIY solar oven), because there will be days during the summer when we will want to cook down tomatoes for canning, bake bread, dehydrate vegetables and fruits, etc., all at the same time!

The solar oven is another important tool for our off-grid homestead.  On days when the sun is shining, even in the winter, we have a free energy source to cook food.  If the time ever comes that our well goes dry and we need to drink our collected rainwater, the solar oven will provide a way to sterilize the water and make it safe to drink.

Have you ever cooked in a solar oven?    0001

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