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Notes from Shipmeadow

Giving Thanks

Here in northeast Pennsylvania, the flakes are flying fast and furiously. We’ve gone from a bright beautiful fall day to howling winds and about four inches of snow on the ground in the space of 24 hours. It is, you can imagine, quite a shock to the system.

farmhouse

An old farmhouse finds new life as a family gathering place. (Family photo, circa 1908) 

There are two places of refuge when the thermometer dips. Without a doubt, a comfortable chair before a warm fire wins hands down. The second option is the kitchen. Today, I spent in the kitchen as the countdown to Thanksgiving has begun.

The local farmer’s market had a sell-out bargain on pie pumpkins and there is nothing I love better this time of year than pumpkin pie, except of course, pumpkin bread.  Processing pumpkins is really quite simple, if time consuming. I cut around the stem in the same manner as one would begin to carve a jack-o-lantern, then scoop out as much of the insides as I can reach. Two pie pumpkins fit nicely in a shallow roaster lined with parchment paper. Two of the smaller ones squeeze into a rectangular cake pan and both pans just fit into the oven. I wonder why I bought the fifth one. Oh, yes – they were $1.00 each!  Well, that will have to go in by itself.

I add a little water to the pans (not more than a cup) then roast 350 degrees for about an hour - until a sharp knife slips easily through the pumpkin shell. After they cool, I cut each pumpkin into slices, as one would a cantaloupe, scrape off the remaining seeds and pulp, peel back the skin, then puree the chunks in a food processor. Because the pumpkins are baked, rather than steamed, there is very little water in the flesh.

Five average sized pie pumpkins make about a gallon of thick puree, which seems like a lot of pumpkin until one starts parsing it out.  I use about a half of that in making two pumpkin pies and three big loaves of pumpkin bread.  The remainder goes into the freezer in measured bags for future baking. (I also freeze some in ice-cube trays, then pop them out into a freezer bag to be administered to any unfortunate dog presenting with an upset tummy.)  Suddenly, the house smells like Thanksgiving – even though it looks like Christmas outside!

This year we are celebrating Thanksgiving at the farm as a surprise for my mother, who at 93, has watched the changes wrought on her childhood home with a sometimes questioning eye, followed by the statement, “Kenny (who is my husband) is a miracle worker.” That he is, and it is to his credit that we are able to this year, hold our first full holiday meal there. 

I honestly can’t say how many years it has been since the aroma of roasting turkey wafted through the old farm house – if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say 1964 -ish. I have a childhood memory of my grandfather praying…and praying…and praying, while I watched squinty-eyed at the steam rising from the dish of sweet corn in front of me.   

The prayer may well be shorter this year, though equally heartfelt. I am grateful for so many things, not the least of which is the fellowship of family in a gathering place that we all love, surrounded by objects that remind us from past generations. The farm is, and always will be, home to me.

Shades of Blue

Blue

Shades of blue are obtained from an indigo-dye pot by successively dipping, exposing to air, and re-dipping wool. The lightest of these skeins was barely in the dye pot – less than 30 seconds. You can also plan to do your darker blues first, when the dye pot is the fresh. Photo by Elizabeth Janoski

Elizabeth Janoski

There is an element of magic present in the use of indigo dye. As author Catherine E. McKinley explains in her book Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World, this ancient, brilliantly blue dye-stuff connects weavers, artists, scientists and religious leaders across continents, cultures, and centuries. Produced by what McKinley describes as a “tiny leaves of small parasitic shrubs,” indigo continues to intrigue fiber artists and is readily available in an easy to use form from a number of mail-order suppliers.

While purists may be drawn to the lengthy and laborious process of raising their own indigo and processing their own dyestuff, the rest of us will be well be satisfied with purchasing a pre-reduced indigo powder which allows even the most inexperienced dyer to set up a dye pot immediately as a one-time dye bath needs nothing but water and indigo powder. There are also easy recipes for sustaining a dye-pot over several days, or longer.

For me, the indigo-dyeing is compulsive and the properties of indigo that allows it to bind with not only wool, but also all manner of natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, and silk only encourages my obsession to color my world in shades of blue. There is something so fascinating about dipping a pure white wool into a rather nauseous green vat that has the look of an oil slick floating on the surface and then pulling it out to watch it turn from yellowish green into a beautiful blue much like a Morpho butterfly spreading its wings.

As the wool comes out of the dye-pot, the blue color begins to emerge and continues to strengthen in the light. Unlike most other dyes, indigo requires exposure to oxygen to set so leaving it in the dye pot for longer than it takes to soak the fiber is not necessary. Shades of indigo are achieved by allowing the color from the first dip to mature, then re-dipping the fiber until the desired depth of shade is achieved. At home, it is quite impossible to exactly repeat your results as there are too many variables to control. For example, as the dye vat is used, the color gradually exhausts so to achieve a particular shade, the wool must be left in the vat for an increasingly longer time. My advice is to embrace this opportunity for diversity and plan your wool for a project that makes the most of the variety in depth of color. After all, has there ever been an unattractive shade of blue?

The Colors of Autumn

Elizabeth JanoskiSeptember 1 marks the first day of meteorological autumn. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains that meteorological seasons are based on changes in temperature and are therefore more accurate predictors of weather changes than the solstice and equinox dates of the astronomical calendar. The air is indeed a bit cooler here in the upper Mid-Atlantic. The available gardening hours between too hot and too buggy are extending while at the same time daylight hours are decreasing, which is rather unfair, when you think about it. Here in Zone 5A, we can expect light frost from mid-September onward and some years it feels like autumn is just a short, steep slide into winter.

Taken on its own merits, however, autumn is a wonderful season as it is all about color. As we nudge toward the astronomical autumn equinox, the huge blooms of the Pee Gee Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) begin to blush in Grandmother’s rock garden and the apples are also taking on cheeky colors. Sunflowers nod their heavy seed heads for the goldfinches and blue jays. A stand of goldenrod surrounds a large patch of native milkweed from which one glorious year Ken saw a host of Monarch butterflies rise in flight against a sky that has never seemed so blue.

In September I take a break from the heavy task of avoiding gardening chores and think about dyeing wool. I generally stick to commercial dyes because I am looking for dependable, repeatable results. Dyeing wool with naturally made dyes is more of an art as results can vary widely depending on when the plant material was collected and what mordents are used. It also requires a great deal more time because it can take a day or more to extract the dye from the plant material.

Goldenrod

Found in abundance in autumn, goldenrod is a perfect plant material for a first natural dye project.

I began my journey toward natural dyes with goldenrod, available in abundance in autumn and the dye bath is relatively easy to prepare with just a few steps and a simple, safe mordant.

The first thing I discovered that, in quantity, goldenrod can provoke quite a strong allergic reaction even from someone like me who heretofore has not suffered from plant allergies. My sneezing fit began while I was picking my second grocery bag of blossoms and the histamine reaction really hit its stride when I started to boil the blossoms to extract the dye.

I have since moved all of my dyeing activities outside to a wonderful work area built by my amazing husband, which brings me to the point that one should always separate utensils and prep areas for dyeing from food preparation areas. Never use any pot, bowl, basin, spoon or any other equipment for food that you have even once used to extract dye, or to dye wool. All commercial dye instructions carry this warning and if any instructions for extracting dyes from plant material do not, they should. “Natural” does not mean “safe” but with a little care dyeing wool is really quite fun. Let’s get started!

Materials:
Goldenrod blossoms equal in weight to the fiber you would like to dye.
stock pot or crockpot with lid
Strainer or cheese cloth.
Clear measuring cup
Measuring spoons
Stirring utensil
water
dish soap (original Dawn)

Step 1: Collect a large quantity of goldenrod heads – the general rule is an equal weight of dye stuff to wool, so if you are dyeing a pound of wool, you would need a pound of goldenrod. I contented myself with about four ounces, or a grocery bag full.

Step 2. Put the blossoms in a large stockpot, cover with water. Bring to a boil then simmer for about an hour then let the dye bath cool. If you are using a crockpot, it will take at least a few hours and perhaps most of the day to extract the color.

You can let the dye material overnight for stronger color, but if you are in a hurry to dye something, go ahead and strain the dye bath to remove the goldenrod. Your resulting dyebath should be yellow. If the color doesn’t suit you, repeat the extraction process with more goldenrod.

Step 3: While recovering from your sneezing fit and waiting for the dye bath to cool, you can prepare the wool for dyeing. If you are dyeing yarn, tie the skein loosely in 4 or 5 places, then submerge in tepid water with a bit of dish soap (plain Dawn is usually recommended). If you are dyeing fiber or roving, you might want to lay a piece of cheesecloth or use a strainer in the basin to easily pick up the fiber without stretching it. Soak the piece for about a half hour, then gently rinse in tepid water and let drain or wrap in a towel to remove excess water. Damp wool takes color more evenly.

Measure out your mordant. The recipe for four ounces of wool is ¼ teaspoon of potassium aluminum sulfate and 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar. The mordant both increases the wool’s uptake of color and also helps to preserve the color from fading.

Potassium aluminum sulfate is a relatively safe and effective mordant for most dyeing processes and is available through shops that sell fiber dyestuff. This is not the alum that is sold in grocery stores for food recipes. You can however use the cream of tartar you find in grocery stores.

When the dye bath has cooled and strained dissolve the mordant into the dye bath and mix well.

Step 4: Now for the really fun part: Add the damp wool to the dyebath. If the dyebath does not completely cover the wool, add tepid water. Bring the dyebath to a simmer in either a crockpot or stock pot. Hold the simmer for about an hour in either the crock pot or the stockpot. Gently stir the wool occasionally so the color takes up more evenly. After one hour turn off the heat source, remove the lid and let the dye bath cool completely before removing the wool. You can leave the pot to cool overnight, or if you are eager to see your result, wait until the water has completely cooled.

Step 5. Remove the wool from the dye bath and rinse in tepid water until the water runs clear. You may find some color runs out of the wool. This means that the wool has taken up all the color it can hold. Gently squeeze out excess water and lay out the wool to dry in an airy place. I use a window screen for fiber and simply hang yarn skeins over the clothes line. I turn it occasionally, squeezing out excess water. When the wool has thoroughly dried, you can begin your project!

Hat

The brim of this hat was knitted with a succession of naturally dyed yarns, including indigo, cochineal, and goldenrod.

The Last Fruit of Summer

Elizabeth JanoskiEvery year we say we’re going to do it. We’re going to fix the netting covering our blueberry patch. Every year we never get a “round-to-it”. Once again I am in a race to beat the robins and the doves to the last bushes now ripening.

Blueberries are easy to pick. The ripest berries roll easily off the stem with a gentle twist of finger and thumb. They are a good size so the basket fills pretty quickly. I listen to the birds twittering about my invasion of their patch and remember one of the first activities I did with my mother-on-law.

About two weeks before our late August wedding, my soon-to-be mother-in-law decided we should go pick blueberries. She’d given us a freezer as a wedding gift and was rather determined to fill it so off we went over hill and dale to a wonderful commercial blueberry patch where the picking was easy. Martha had brought a selection of buckets and her goal was to fill them all. We had made a pretty good start of it when the skies opened up. I will never forget her standing in the pouring rain, a clear plastic rain bonnet her only protection, as we waited to have the buckets weighed and make payment. When thunder rumbled in the distance, she urged me to go to the car because her son would never forgive her if I got struck by lightning. I, on the other hand, was pretty sure I didn’t want to explain to my fiancée and his family that the mother of the groom had drowned in the deluge that was coming down on our heads. So we waited, laughing in the pouring rain as our blueberries began to float in the buckets filling up with water. “We may not have to wash these,” she remarked.

About the last thing I did with my mother-in-law before she became too ill to move around outside was pick blueberries in our own patch. It was a bright, sunny day. I was still weak from surgery and the course of chemotherapy I’d just finished, so neither of us were in good shape. We supported each other as we toddled out to the patch, her with her bucket, me with my basket, and my Border Collie pup, Robin. We took turns telling the other, “You should go sit down. I’ll finish this.”

Martha, had put her pail on the ground so she could steady herself with one hand while picking with the other, just glancing out of the corner of her eye at her bucket as she dropped handfuls of blueberries. It took her a while to realize why her bucket wasn’t filling as it should. “Oh, Robin,” she exclaimed, which was a phrase that had become something of a mantra around our house since this busy pup had arrived. Robin had acquired a taste for blueberries and he was slurping them out of her bucket as fast as she could pick them.

Robin still loves to go to the blueberry patch. I keep my basket safely on my arm as is my habit, listening to the birds chatter about the invaders. Like his namesake, Robin flits from bush to bush looking for ripe berries on a low hanging branch. “Oh, Robin,” I whisper, partway between laughter and tears. “Martha’s watching you.”

He winks a golden eye at me. “I know,” he seems to say.

Blueberries

Winning the race to the blueberry patch can be challenging when the competition has built a nest in the patch!

Robin

Robin, the blueberry-loving Border Collie, as a pup.

Grown up

Robin, all grown up and still loving blueberries!

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Elizabeth JanoskiThank you for your responses to the question of why you garden! Vera Sue wrote “Gardening gives me peace when I go out to tend to the garden, it is just my two dogs and me.” I definitely agree that that gardening can be meditative, particularly in the early morning when all the songbirds are tuning up, or just as the sun is setting and the swallows are darting about hunting insects.

You may have noticed that my bio pic includes a rather large sheep, a Clun Forest cross named Snowdrop. We have sheep. Over the past six years, that statement has been given in response to a number of different questions, including the doctor’s visit for treatment for various orthopedic injuries. Not that sheep are inherently dangerous creatures; they are, in fact, quite gentle and much prefer to flee than fight. It is the taking care of them that increases the odds of injury – incidents that come to mind are stepping into a woodchuck hole while setting fence; wrenching my back while carrying a hay bale, and my personal favorite, tripping over my shoe laces while walking backwards in front of the sheep while training a border collie.

Zinnia

Snowdrop and her feline pal Zinnia prefer to hang at the barn on a hot day.

I received my first four sheep as a Christmas present and they have proved to be the gift that keeps on giving. They’ve given new life to the old horse barn, beautiful fleeces each year, and quite a lot of manure. Theoretically, the sheep were to wander the pasture and the hill above the orchard, spreading their own droppings while they grazed. In practice, they go out to graze for a bit, then return to the barn for a nap – and to poop so periodic barn cleanings are necessary. While sheep manure ranks fairly low in nutrient content, we have seen quite an improvement in the quality of the garden soil since we have begun to till in the mixture of manure and straw from the sheep pen though we’ve never applied it in a thoughtful, systematic manner.

Liz

Practicing sheepdogging skills with Brodie.

One of my favorite garden books is The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots. I own the 14th edition, published in 1908. The 16th edition is freely available on Project Gutenberg and on Google Books. Published by Sutton and Sons (now known as Suttons Seeds), an English seed company established in 1806, this gardening guide is meant for the professional gardener. The book offers specific guidelines for raising popular vegetables and flowers from early forcing in glass houses to planting out and harvesting the produce. Each variety is introduced with the utmost enthusiasm. Potatoes, for example, are described as the “King of the Kitchen Garden” and are given no less than eleven pages of detailed instructions on cultivating “this useful root”. The entry on strawberry culture, which explains that early forced varieties benefit from pollination with “a camel’s hair pencil” at mid-day, is one of many that indicates the book was written at a time when the grand English estates such as Chatsworth employed an army of gardeners working in expansive glass houses and walled kitchen gardens. The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots makes for wonderful reading when it is too hot, too buggy, too cold, or too wet for a reluctant gardener to venture outside. Where else would I find instructions for establishing and maintaining a grass tennis court?

Elizabeth

The author, greenhouse garden, 1961.

More practically, nearly every entry in The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots offers guidance on the correct application of different kinds of manure in various stages of decomposition or as a tea. Lime, bone meal, worm castings, and ashes are also occasionally advised. The book depends on only a few artificial additives such as superphosphate, nitrate of potash and sulphate of ammonia. There is also very little in the way of artificial pest and disease treatments. Most of these problems are addressed preventatively through the control of temperature and humidity in the glass houses and hand removal of pests. Chimney soot is employed as a deterrent for snails.

As we move away from a big, traditional garden to a combination of raised beds and hydroponic systems in a high tunnel, I am finding The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots a valuable resource for growing intensively and for pushing the season in a high tunnel. We’ll be able to continue to use our “gift” from the sheep more efficiently both in the raised beds and in plantings of fruit trees and flowering shrubs. And I will say, a pinch of chimney soot scattered around cabbage does wonders as a deterrent for snails! Finally, the book takes me back a bit, to that wonderful big glass greenhouse and the realization that Grandmother Warner’s recipe for potting up tomatoes for sale was very equal to Sutton and Sons – well composted cow manure mixed with loam and a pinch of bone meal in each pot. Suttons Seeds continues to offer gardening advice through its website and a collection of gardening manuals. The company does not ship seeds and plants to countries outside of the European Union.

NOTE: Organic garden operations often depend on composted manure to enrich the soil and the USDA strictly regulates the application of manure in commercial organic operations as well as the applications of artificial fertilizers, including those mentioned in The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots.

Why I Garden

Elizabeth JanoskiClearing out our family’s early 19th century farmhouse for a renovation into a shared family gathering place was daunting work – my family had occupied this house for five generations, then the house had sat unoccupied for about thirty years. The first major hurdle was the cellar, accessed outside by a set of steep, uneven steps and inside by a very undependable wooden staircase which our unfortunate son somewhat painfully discovered was lacking a bottom step.     

I knew what lurked in the dark, below-grade basement. Big stone crocks that once held sauerkraut and pickles lurked in corners, bins that had once held apples and potatoes over the winter lined the walls and on shelves built around the warm chimney were rows and rows of canning jars, filled with preserved food; more than three hundred jars to be carried outside, emptied, washed, and packed away. Some of the jars were old enough to have been put up by my great-grandmother in the 1920s. Judging from the newspapers used as shelf paper, most were from the 1940s through the 1960 and then trickled to a stop, as my aged grandmother finally stopped putting up food in the 1970s.   

The task of emptying all of those jars was daunting to say the least. I imagined every food borne disease known to man bursting from the jars as I opened them and prepared myself with a dust mask that offered absolutely no protection and plastic food gloves that might have helped a bit if they stayed on my hands.  My husband prepared a special compost pile to receive the contents of the jars so we started what seemed like an endless task.

Over the next few weeks, as a friend and I opened jar after jar, this potentially dirty, drudgy job morphed into a fascinating exploration of the kinds of foods that grew on the farm from the 1940s through the 1970s. 

One important piece of luck was that the cellar, entirely underground, was a cave that perfectly preserved the contents of the jars of fruit and vegetables, though we quickly learned to not open the mincemeat. The jugs of apple cider had turned into very strong vinegar, but the tightly sealed jars of fruits and vegetables stored in the cave-like temperatures of the below-grade basement were amazingly unspoiled and retained their original color and shape.  The list of preserved fruits included applesauce, blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, and plums; vegetables included carrots, corn, string beans, navy beans, tomatoes, and beets. 

I felt my grandmother shudder at the waste of it all as we emptied the contents of each jar into a compost bed and that she would find a great deal of irony in the fact that once emptied, washed, dried, and sorted, the canning jars were packed in boxes and stacked on pallets in the basement, waiting for the next generation to deal with them.  Grandmother might well have suggested that a great deal of energy had been wasted in accomplishing very little and she was very likely correct.  Those jars might well have lasted another 50 or 100 years in the cave-like atmosphere of the farmhouse basement.  

Still, I learned so much about her, and the farm during its most active and productive phase from the 1920s through the 1960s. All of those jars contained food that had been was raised on the farm, picked by hand, and carried to the house to be washed, cut up, and stuffed into jars that were sterilized in boiling water on the back of the combination wood and LP gas stove in the old kitchen before being processed in a hot water bath or pressure cooker. The time and effort it took to raise this food was monumental and each filled glass jar with its rubber sealing ring, glass lid, cramped together with a tight wire bale was a testament to hard work and perseverance. The food in these jars was the connection between the crumpled seed catalogs, the recipes cut out from newspapers and ladies magazines and pasted in old books.  It was the explanation for the presence of the many different kinds of kitchen gadgets and food preparation tools whose use was often a puzzle to me. It’s also the reason why I am, albeit reluctantly, compelled to garden, because the end result of the planting, weeding, watering, and gathering is the pleasure of reaching onto my pantry shelf for a jar of fresh peaches while the snow piles up outside.    

Why do you garden?  Email me at ElizabethShipmeadow@gmail.com and we’ll compile a list of the top ten reasons why we garden!

canning
Old jars of produce lined basement shelves of one family’s early 19th century farmhouse. Photo by Elizabeth Janoski