2014 pruning

March 30, 2014

Despite crummy weather and the press of work, I ran up to Five Islands on Saturday to prune the trees in the main orchard.  After a summer’s growth, the trees typically look like this:

 

pruning example before

 

There is a lot of advice available in books and online about pruning, and I took an afternoon class a few years back, put on by MOFGA and taught by a professional orchardist, located at one of his customers’ orchards in Waterboro ME.  Some basic principles include:

  • Start with the big picture, looking at the structure of the whole tree, so you don’t end up snipping a bunch of twigs only to remove that entire branch.
  • Eliminate watersprouts (vertical branches that leap off the branches and the trunk), crossovers (i.e. conflicts between two branches vying for the same space) and anything that points back toward the center of the tree.
  • Aim for an open structure that lets sunlight into all parts of the tree; the old timers say you want to be able to throw a cat through the tree.  In a healthy tree that’s growing fast, you might remove half of the new wood or more in the spring.
  • For standard apple trees I aim for central-leader form, with scaffolds of 3-5 branches evenly distributed around the points of the compass, at 1.5-2′ vertical intervals.
  • The scaffold branches should be approximately horizontal, since that induces the tree to produce fruit.
  • You want the angle between the trunk and the scaffold branches to be close to 90 degrees, since shallow angles cause inclusion of bark that leads to weakness and breakage as the tree grows.  I use string (usually) and weights (occasionally) to tie branches down.
  • Different varieties have different habits.  Some shoot straight up and need to be tied down extensively to form a good structure; others spray out aimlessly and need all the help you can give them just to throw up an identifiable leader.

That same tree above, after I attacked it with the felcos:

 

pruning example after

Polar vortex

March 1, 2014

Normally March first would have me thinking about pruning apple trees.  But it was minus four F this morning,  there’s over a foot of snow on the ground, and the forecast calls for highs in the 20s all week.  

 

Nana Polito’s gnocchi

February 28, 2014

Captured here so I don’t have to call my mom again if I lose this little scrap of paper.

  • 2lb potatoes
  • 1/2lb flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1oz butter
  • salt and pepper

boil potatoes, puree.

mix in the other stuff.

knead a bit then roll into finger-sized strands on  a floured counter.

cut into chunks maybe 2cm long.

use your thumb to press a radial divot into each one (seems to add surface area and make them hold sauce better)

dump a handful at a time in boiling water; fish them out when they float.

Blueberry coffeecake

January 30, 2014

Per request, here’s a simple but very serviceable blueberry coffeecake recipe I got from my mom.

Preheat oven to 375F. The batter (mix dry, then mix in wet):

  • 2c flour (I use half whole wheat pastry, and half white)
  • 3/4c sugar
  • 2.5t baking powder
  • 0.75t salt
  • 0.25c shortening/oil (esp coconut oil)
  • 0.75c milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2c wild blueberries (frozen or fresh; mix in last)

The result will be a thick paste that’s slightly annoying to spread, thinly, into a rectangular pan (I use a pyrex lasagna pan that’s probably 9×13).

Mix up the following and spread evenly on top:

  • 0.5c brown sugar
  • 0.33c whole wheat flour
  • 0.5t cinnamon
  • 1/4c soft butter

Bake till it’s done (maybe 45 mins? varies based on whether berries are fresh or frozen)

 

5IO process for pitching yeast on cider

December 23, 2013

Reuben asked in a comment about how I pitch yeast, and since the process has never failed us I thought I’d make a post of it.

Usually I add 1/2tsp of potassium metabisulfite to each 5-7 gal carboy the morning after we press (I think sometimes I do it in the evening).  This year we actually added it to the carboys ahead of time, so the rush of cider from the bulk tank did a good job of mixing it in.  That starts the clock, and I aim to pitch between 24 and 36 hours after sulfiting.  I am not at all an expert on sulfite, and would appreciate a link to detailed info on what the chemistry is, how long it is active, etc.  We lug the jugs down to the root cellar (which is probably in the fifties or low sixties that time of year) and that’s where they stay.

Anyway, our goal is usually to pitch on 5-6 carboys.  I mix a half-gallon of sugar solution with 5-7% potential alcohol in a stainless pot.  I used to use dextrose, but then I ran out, so I’ve been using plain cane sugar ever since.  I throw in a few crumbs of nutrient, probably around 1/4 tsp. (I’m also not an expert on yeast nutrient, but again, I stick with what’s worked.)  I let it boil briefly, then cover and let it cool.  Meanwhile I’ve sanitized a 1 gallon glass jug and a funnel, and when the sugar water is lukewarm I pour it in the jug and pitch 1 packet of Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast (the packet is yellow, not red).  I shake it gently to dissolve, then let it sit until it starts ticking (in a few hours).  Meanwhile, I bring a quart or more of cider to a simmering boil, cool it covered, and when cool I add it to the (already working) gallon jug of starter.  My theory is that this gets the yeast accustomed to the acid environment and characteristics of the cider before it is set loose at much lower concentration in the carboys, but again I don’t really know what I’m doing, other than that it works.

At that point I usually have to go back to work, and my mom pitches the yeast sometime on Monday or Tuesday.  She uses a sharpie to divide the liquid contents of the jug into roughly equal volumes, pours a measure into each carboy, and recaps with an airlock.  That’s all there is to it – we’ve never taken pains to keep the carboys at a certain temperature, to aerate, or any other tricks.  I think this will basically always work as long as the starter is actively working when you dump it in the carboy.

Racked the cider

December 7, 2013

Over Thanksgiving I made it up to Five Islands and racked the carboys in the root cellar.  I think this year’s stuff is pretty good.  The strong ‘fresh apple’ scent of the young cider always surprises me, given how completely the taste has changed in a few weeks.  We still have a couple of carboys at Stroudwater yet to rack – might get to that later today.  In place of our usual two-step starter process, the Stroudwater carboys just got a packet each of dry Red Star champagne yeast, and they seemed to kick off fine, so if these jugs taste good, maybe we ease the protocol a bit.

 

More pics of 2013 cidering (year 9) from Holly

November 15, 2013

Check out Holly’s delightful blog for more action shots from cider year 9:

http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2013/11/cider-9-making-800-liters-of-cider-in.html

BW, AC load the press

vegetarian sushi, etc

November 15, 2013

veg sushi november

In addition to winching the old mill runner out of the muck, last weekend we got together with the Wilkins gang and rolled a big heap of vegetarian maki – 2 batches of rice the way I make it (3 cups per).  Ingredients included carrots, avocado, sweet potato, daikon, asparagus, jicama, red peppers, cream cheese, cucumber, tofu, fried portabello, sprouts, and probably a couple other things I’m forgetting.  The boys were surprisingly helpful – Bodhi especially enjoyed hacking up the rolls with a big knife.

The previous weekend I made a big pot of curry with the last summer vegetables from the garden, a big armload of eggplants and green peppers I gathered just before the first hard frost:

curry

At this point, the garden is basically kaput for the year, with the exception of the kale, which is still going strong.  We had good corn and spuds this year, lousy tomatoes, and amazing squash: two large wheelbarrowloads of butternut squash out of an area of about 20×20 feet:

butternuts 2013

Butternuts are hands-down the best winter squash – tasty, high-yielding, and lots of food per fruit – compared to a thin-walled, tough acorn, a watery, stringy pumpkin, or the other random also-ran varieties, butternuts are where it’s at.  There’s something especially satisfying about squash, potatoes, and other garden produce that actually contains meaningful quantities of calories – unlike the excess of cucumbers or tomatoes that gardens produce in the height of summer, that heap of squash could actually feed several people for several days.

 

 

19th century clean energy technology in Maine

November 10, 2013

As some readers know, we are fortunate to inhabit a beautiful spot on a small river in southern Maine, which was long ago the site of a water-powered mill.  One of the enigmatic relics of the ruined works was a 3″ diameter steel shaft sticking out of the muck in the riverbed, with a Lovejoy coupling on the upper end the size of a dinner plate.  Soon after we arrived, we made a preliminary effort to unbury it one spring afternoon, but if I remember it was hot and buggy, and we ran out of steam after digging down and finding the runner pinned under some chunks of broken metal.

runner in hole

18 months intervened, and I had basically given up the thought of finishing the job before winter, but Saturday dawned pleasant for working, so I took some buckets, a shovel, and a digging bar down to the site and was soon hip-deep in a mucky hole.  By a combination of bailing, digging, and pitching out rocks, I was soon able to get back to where we had previously stopped, and was able to rock the runner. With a bit more excavation I could see what I was up against – about half the circumference was trapped under a semi-circular cast iron ring, which had clearly been some sort of inflow nozzle that directed the flow downward onto the axial-flow runner.  The cast iron parts were not going to move, since they were bolted down to some structure buried even deeper in the mud, but I was pretty sure if I could pull the one main chunk off (to the right in the photo above), I could lift the runner clear.

At this point I was pretty confident of victory, so I texted Tony and invited him to join the fun.  Together we toted our light oxy-acetylene cutting rig down into the riverbed, and without too much effort we were able to burn off 3 nuts (or bolt heads; hard to tell with that much rust):

torching off nutsfire in the hole

The old metal was wet and covered with mud, so the cutting was pretty mangy, but I got them burned off and then knocked the slag away with the digging bar.  I lifted off the iron chunk, and then we had a pretty good view of the runner.  it appeared to be about 3′ in diameter, with 10 graceful sweeping vanes.

The runner was free, but it was way too heavy to lift.  However, we were fortunate to have two good-sized forked trees in line with it on either side; an ash on the manmade island between the main watercourse and the ruined spillway, and a pine on the high ground,directly beyond a steep  cliff that rose about 15′ above the riverbed.  We rigged a chain in the ash, a snatch block on the runner, and a second snatch block in the pine, and used our trusty orange worm-drive hand winch to take up the strain, with the red Ford as an anchor.  Once we levered it clear of the remaining bits of metal in the hole, it rose smartly thanks to Tony’s efforts on the winch:

starting to rise

coming out of the hole2013-11-09 14.51.14

We were about out of winch by the time the runner was clear of the hole, so I guided it over onto the riverbed and Tony set it down.  We lowered the attachment sling to just above the balance point, re-rigged to pull directly with the truck, and tied on a rope-a-long that was hitched to the south shore.  Then with the truck we quickly raised it until it was even with the cliff edge above:

runner suspended

We then winched it south with the rope-a-long while gently lowering it with the truck, to arrive at its new resting place on high ground:

closeup of runner up top

All in all a fun project, and a neat piece of Maine renewable energy history – I’m curious now to learn more about the mill that was at this site, and more generally about this type of small water mill.  My first impression is that this runner seems much bigger than appropriate for the flow of the river (which can be judged from the photo above, which shows the outlet of the millpond, roughly at the location of the ruined dam) – at least during typical summer and early fall flows.  Of course there are times in November and early spring when the entire valley fills with a raging torrent (see canoeing pictures from earlier this year) but I wouldn’t think you would build a larger-than-needed mill just to run on those few days or weeks of the year.  Maybe the process (sawing wood or what-have-you) had a relatively low duty cycle, and they’d let the millpond fill up between cuts, then open the floodgates to get more power when they needed it.

Cider year nine – roundup

October 26, 2013

After nine years, thanks to the accumulated contributions of ideas, time, and equipment-building effort, and especially to the wonderfully useful and flexible barn that my folks built, the cider operation is getting to where it runs in a well-worn groove.  And it’s a good thing, since the great majority of my attention has been devoted to Pika Energy, and building affordable, high-quality home wind turbines.  

truckload of apples

Two weeks ago I visited Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA, and picked up two 600lb  bins of mixed cider apples – Kendall, Spencer, and Cox Orange among them.  The owner, Ann Harris, also kindly let me do some sanitation and gather a few hundred pounds of RI Greening drops, so the truck was quite heavily loaded down with apples for the ride home.  The going rate for cider apples this year is apparently $50/bin – illustrating the importance of top-quality fruit and value-added products to the economics of small orchard operations.  That same weekend I also needed to build and test a new wind turbine tower, as well as moving some cidering equipment up to Five Islands, so by the time I was fully loaded with dogs and bikes etc., the rig looked like some kind of Tom Joad/Johnny Appleseed chimera:

2013 big load of turbines and tower parts

 

The tower test was successful, and my folks and I unloaded the bins using a four-fall block-and-tackle that my dad inherited from a local gentleman, Don Spurr.  Don lives on in our memories every time one of his carefully-maintained tools proves to be just the ticket for solving some mechanical challenge:

emily lowers apples

The following Wednesday afternoon, Dave, Alexis, and I made the annual pilgrimage to Poverty Lane Orchard/Farnum Hill for cider apples.  I called ahead a couple of weeks, but for the first time in several years, we were disappointed that they couldn’t sell us a bin of bittersweets – they were too booked up with demand for cider fruit from as far away as Michigan and Oregon.  Brenda made it up to us by giving us a nice discount on the ~700lb or so of mixed cider fruit we collected.  We hauled the load with Alexis’ little Suzuki wagon, and it really drank the gas on the way home, but still burned far less than it would have taken to drive the big red monster all the way to the other side of NH.  When we got home, Fern got right into the action:

fern munches an apple

I managed to get up to Five Islands by mid-day on Friday, and on the way up I picked up the only big innovation in on the equipment front this year.  I bought a 100 gallon HDPE bulk tank from US Plastics, together with a hand-operated diaphragm pump rated for 15gpm.  Together, these made a huge difference in the management of finished cider during the big event.  Dave whipped up a wooden stand for the metal stand that I bought to go with the tank, so we could gravity feed into bottles and carboys.  Working the pump was a big hit with the kids:

Kate pumps the cider

 

Compared to commercial operations, we keep a very high standard for fruit quality going into the grinder; since we have plenty of labor and it’s a sociable activity, each apple is washed and inspected by hand, and any brown spots or other flaws are cut out.  But washing has always been an afterthought from a process standpoint, and in past years (especially when it’s cold) the washing itself hasn’t always been super-pleasant.  This year I grabbed some plastic bristle brushes at the Despot, and Holly and Ben whipped up a much more ergonomic washing station using an old washtub my dad found at the Georgetown Mall:

washing station

 

We started the festivities Friday evening with pot-luck Mexican at the shore cabin, followed by a black-powder demonstration (no bullets) by Jake, and revival of an old tradition, Viking Funeral Ships – in which small barges made of wood planks piled high with birch bark, pinecones, and kindling are set afloat after dark, and rocks are thrown from on shore at a sporting distance to smash them – if anybody has a photo of this, I’d love to post it.  

Breakfast Saturday was amazing as usual, with with Kelsey and Beth’s breakfast burritos and assorted pastry.  Cidering got fired up between 9 and 10AM, and continued on with a brief intermission for lunch, which was headlined by my folks with ‘Nebraska Cream Can Dinner’, a tradition they picked up out west.  As usual, we also fired up the bottling operation, kegging, carbonating, and bottling about 5 kegs worth of cider (minus ‘operational losses’ in the bottling step).  Here Tony and Rita prepare Cornelius kegs for transfer:

sanitizing kegs

 

Holly, Becky, and Heli took the lead on dinner, producing soups and amazing fresh baguettes. Here’s Holly working the dough:

holly makes bread

 

Dinner for 30-40 people was served in the barn this year, followed by Holly’s usual transcendent apple pies.  MomJones couldn’t make it to cider this year, but she sent us four large folding tables that made for a very convivial setup.  All told we produced approximately 207 gallons of cider, per the tally sheet, with an estimated yield of 69-70%:

2013 cider tally

Thanks again to everyone who participated this year. Next year is the 10th anniversary – I don’t know what we’re going to do, but it’s going to be big!

 

 


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