Hanging in there

May 31, 2015

The orchard is hanging in there as another summer leaps into action, despite not having a lot of time to devote to it.  The winter was as hard as could be – no way to get the gate open, but fortunately there was a place where the snow came up close to the top of the fence, so we could climb over and inspect – here’s Emily snowshoeing past trees in snow at least 3 feet deep:

deep snow in orchard

For all that there was surprisingly little damage – a couple of trees lost some bark to mice above the spiral wrap, but nothing fatal:

mouse damage above spiral

Unfortunately both hives of bees failed over the long, cold winter.  Emily has been the main beekeeper, and she was too busy/discouraged to take on another set of hives, so instead Alexis and I made nesting blocks for orchard mason bees using scrap wood and a 5/16″ drill bit.  On some of them Alexis made cool patterns:

bee house

We’ll see how the bee houses work in terms of occupancy and pollination.  Not much in the way of planting (though I did transplant one small pear tree that I grafted a few years ago).  But I did manage to haul a load of composted goat manure to the orchard and spread it.  Here the dogs caught a ride on the loaded dump trailer:

dogs and compost

The orchard is greening up nicely now; soon I’ll have to mow and mulch:

green spring orchard

Back at Stroudwater we have also made small increments of progress.  The winter wreaked havoc with grafting that I’d previously done on wild apple trees in the north side woods, with heavy wet snow dropping pine limbs that smashed a couple of bark grafts that had taken nicely, so I did some rework there.  I also tried something interesting to convert a large wild apple that was savaged by ice.  Over 50% of the top had broken off under the weight of early winter snow:

broken tree

The trunk was damaged by the ripped-off section to the point where it would never heal effectively; also the branches were way too tall and the wild apples of no particular quality.  So I cut a wide notch with a chainsaw below the broken part (face height seems to be the best compromise between ‘above the deer’ and ‘low enough to reach’) and grafted in several scions on the exposed half of the trunk. (I don’t remember what variety, but it’s written on the tag).

notch grafted

With any luck the remaining top will provide enough photosynthesis to keep the roots alive, and the radical pruning of the top courtesy of ma nature will push a lot of energy into the new scions.  Then in a couple of years once the new wood has taken off and is 5-6 feet tall, I’ll delicately dice off the top, trim the trunk flush with the notch, and graft in some sacrificial scionwood to help the wide cut-off stump heal.  Here is the tree as I left it:

finished graft

We also planted some berries in one of the few sunny spots in the yard; a row of 7 Boyne summerbearing raspberries, and some new highbush blueberries – from west to east: Jersey, Northland, Earliblue, Northland.

After the long melt-out the spring started dry but now we have a solid chunk of rain coming; we’ll see how the fruit sets and the season progresses.

Nutty pumpkin/squash pie

January 29, 2015

Tony asked me to share the recipe for the pie I baked for the winter get-together at Stroudwater last weekend.  First some thoughts on pumpkin pie in general:

  • Nowadays I always make 12″ pies, in a deep ceramic dish my mom gave me.  Go big or go home.  Cut the filling recipe in half if you want a 9″ pie, and make a 1-stick-of-butter crust.
  • Butternut squash is my standard for ‘pumpkin’ pie.  As best I can tell, squash is in every way superior to traditional round pumpkins, which give coarse, loose, watery pulp.  Reading online, it seems that the canned stuff they sell at the grocery is probably actually squash.
  • To avoid a watery pie, the squash should be roasted or steamed, with roasting giving better flavor but taking longer.  If steamed, it should be left to drain in a colander for a while after it is stripped out of the skin.  I usually use fresh or frozen Stroudwater butternuts, since we always grow lots, but this is one case where canned is fine (though I’d steer clear of the pre-mixed pumpkin pie filling; I’ve never used it but pre-made pie filling usually sucks).
  • Once all the filling ingredients are together, they should be blended vigorously with a hand blender to shred the fibers of the squash and get a good mix.  I would say this is the main secret to making a really luscious pie from homemade squash.
  • Another secret is to use coconut milk in place of some of the evaporated milk.  Coconut is basically magic in baked goods, I picked this up from Kelsey and don’t know why we don’t use coconut for everything.
  • After all kinds of attempts including pre-baking the crust, I have basically given up on getting the crusts of pumpkin custard pies to come out crispy/flaky.  The time it takes to cook the filling will saturate the crust anyway.  So I am gravitating toward nut crusts that are tasty and have some crunch even when saturated. This was a definite improvement, but I was not entirely satisfied, and will probably go further in the nut direction in the future.

All that being said, first the crust, which is approx 3/4 of a two-crust 9″ pie (for a single 12″ crust):

  • Mix together:
    • 1.5c white flour
    • 1T sugar
    • 1/2t salt
    • 1/2c almond flour (TJs has)
    • 1/2c unsweetened shredded coconut
  • Cut in 1.5 sticks of cold unsalted butter with pastry blender until largest chunks are pea-sized (I used a food processor for the first time last weekend and it worked fine, but it’s easy to overdo it and smear the butter hopelessly.)
  • While mixing continuously with a fork, sprinkle with ice water until it’s not powdery and seems like it would form a mass when pressed.  I don’t measure how much water it is, and you shouldn’t either – it’s too dependent on the flour.  If it won’t roll, use more water next time.
  •  Form into a disk and refrigerate for a while, if not in a hurry.  If refrigerating for a long time, wrap in waxed paper or the like
  • Roll out and transfer to pie plate.

For the filling:

  • Blend with a hand blender for a better part of a minute:
    • 4c well-drained squash
    • 5 eggs
    • 1 can thick coconut milk or cream
    • 1 can evaporated milk
    • 1c white sugar
    • 2/3c brown sugar
    • 2t cinnnamon
    • 2t ginger
    • 1t nutmeg
    • 1/4t allspice
    • 1/4t cloves
    • 1t salt
  • Pour into crust.  Usually it doesn’t quite all fit, so I take the scrap crust and press it into a small ceramic cereal bowl and bake it, it cooks quicker than the big one and you can eat it while preserving the virtue of the the big pie for whatever social affair you have in mind.
  • Bake at 375 till the center is no longer liquid-y when you nudge the pie plate in the oven.  This will take a good long time -seems like over an hour though I never time it.  It’s OK/good for the center to still be jello-like, but by the time it gets there the periphery will have risen and have temporary holes in it.  There is probably some way to prevent it from cooking from the edges in, but the end result is fine anyway.
  • The edges of the crust should be protected once they approach the desired state of brown-ness.  Alexis got me some reusable silicone rubber thingies to do this, but aluminum foil is traditional.

Let it cool. That’s it.

Stroudwater Thanksgiving: year five

November 28, 2014

We joined forces with the Kaufman and Wilkins crews for “another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat,” with a fair measure of local content including potatoes, beets, squash,  kale, and brussels sprouts.

stroudwater thanksgiving dinner 2014

I was hoping my folks could join us, but the big snowstorm put the kibosh on that, with power out in all of Georgetown and lots of work for the plow, chainsaw, and volunteer fire crew.  Maybe next year.  We got off pretty lightly by comparison, a few branches down in the woods and the light deer netting around the garden pulled down by the heavy snow – nothing in there but the last few frozen stalks of kale anyway.

I’m becoming more a fan of galvanized wire cattle panels – might consider permanentizing the garden fence with these come next year. Kelsey has been using them to stake tomatoes for a few years, and this fall she suggested rolling them into rings to protect young apple trees from the deer.  If overlapped by one pitch of the verticals and wired tightly together, they make a nice enclosure that protects a small tree so long as the branches don’t spread too widely; since we are on standard or B118 rootstock I am tending to train the yard trees with the first rung of laterals higher in any case, to keep above the mower and the deer.  The next step would be to create some kind of three-roll type arrangement to form the panels so they naturally hold the circular shape – that way the end could be easily pried open by hand to access the trees, for instance to seek and destroy the evil Round-Headed Apple Borer.


Holly’s report on cider 2014

November 28, 2014

Holly and Becky Gates have been our steady partners in cider madness these ten seasons – here’s Holly, his mom, and eldest daughter Ultraviolet preparing cornbread from freshly hand-ground grain to feed the multitudes:

holly and fam making cornbread

To see Holly’s report and more photos on this year’s cider adventure,  check out http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2014/11/cider-10-ten-years-of-pedaling-malus.html – and I highly recommend perusing his blog for reports on his various other adventures.

Cider year 10: 232 gallons in a day

November 2, 2014

Last weekend marked the 10th successive year when Alexis and I have made cider with Holly, Becky, and a steadily growing crew of enthusiastic friends.  I am amazed by how this tradition has taken root, and how ever-increasing quantities of cider are produced and just as rapidly disappear.  Below you will find the annual report; thanks to everyone who sent photos; please send more if you have them, and I’ll link to other peoples’ blog posts if they make them.

Late in the week the weather was cranky, so I borrowed a friend’s box trailer, which was very handy for hauling the large number of cardboard boxes of glass bottles and open tubs of miscellany which always accumulate before cider. Between that and two bins of apples I was heavily laden for the trip to Five Islands.

truck and apples

Read the rest of this entry »

2014 apple wrangling

October 22, 2014

This weekend Alexis, Dave, and I made the annual pilgrimage to Poverty Lane Orchard.  It was a wet day, but we dodged rain showers, and had the place to ourselves.  Proprietor Steve Wood kindly sold us a mixed bin of bittersweets that he had, rather than the usual single-variety bin – thanks to Steve, Brenda, and all the folks at Poverty Lane, well worth the trip.  We also picked a few hundred pounds in their 2 Below apple menagerie, which was a bit sparse this late in the season but we got some bittersharps and yellow newton pippins, plus some yarlingtons for old time’s sake.

poverty lane 2014

Then we hung out with Andy, Emily, and Elsie, and checked out the CSA where he works, Sunrise Farm in White River.  In addition to vegetables they do sheep, pigs, meat hens and layers, and maple syrup – a beautiful and well-tended operation:

sunrise farm

I was tempted to have Andy and Alexis pose with chickens in the classic hipster manner that I so despise, but nobody was wearing skinny jeans, so I had to settle for this:

sunrise chickens

Finally I made a run to Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA, where the owner, Ann Harris, set us up with two bins of a very nice mix.  Holly met me there, and together we topped up with some Greenings and Golden Delicious.  He was sporting his classic wooden shoes plus newly-handmade woolen trousers, and looked fabulous:

hg eating an apple

Being a country boy I was not aware of the indignities that city folks routinely endure in order to pick apples (a brief tour of eastern MA orchards in Yelp portends hayrides, candy, petting zoo, popcorn machines) but Ann and Autumn hills are the real deal – just a couple of barns and acres and acres of apples.    I returned heavily loaded and ready to rock this weekend:

truck and apples truckload of apples

Pedal-Powered Cider in Cascadia

October 22, 2014

A fellow named Steve Haeseker in Vancouver WA sent me a note mentioning his very cool experiments with pedal cider equipment, and sending a link to his video:

The craftsmanship looks really nice. They use a small wood chipper coupled to a bike to grind the apples, and a pedal-hydraulic press made from a log splitter to do the pressing.  Then they feed the pomace to some cows.  The chipper is a neat idea, though the grind looks a little coarse (similar to our first-year results with the antique cast iron press).  I bet it could be modified to make a finer grind by grinding down the cutters and then tightening up the gap. But, given that a lot of apple grinding equipment (including ours) isn’t self-feeding, he may be on to something with the wood chipper concept, and I can see how fabricating a flat disk and mounting cutters to it could be a lot simpler than the multi-step machining process we used to make our cutter drum.

The press is made out of thick hard maple recovered from a bowling alley – major style points for that.  Unlike our press, they count on the wooden uprights to take the full tension of the press; it looks like they use a smaller cylinder (maybe 2.5″?) so the load will be less, but they still get good pressure by using a smaller cheese.  In watching the video it’s not clear why they need their cheese frame, since they aren’t really packing the cheeses full.  We have some instability in our cheeses that sometimes requires re-stacking the press; I wonder if we could do better by cutting the cheese frame down to 3″ from 3.5″ thick.  Alternatively we could make some shims that enforce a certain minimum cheese thickness until the stack is down to ~1/2 thickness; by that point the viscosity of the pulp will be much higher, and I’d think the stack would be less squirrelly.

Anyway, hats off to Steve for joining the ranks of pedal-cider enthusiasts!

Fruit pics 2014

October 11, 2014

Just 2 weeks until the big event!  Meanwhile, Emily sent me some great pictures she took in the orchard:

Peaches (not sure which kind) – we got a great crop this year.  Lars Anderson, then Reliance, and finally Madison.  It was a cool summer, but even so I think I favor the early ones; seems like peaches should ripen in summer, not fall.


Dabinet (I think):


Virginia Crab (I think):virginia crab

Pail of apples from orchard – poor pollination this year (despite two active hives of bees) – not sure what’s up with that.  But we get more apples every year, and hopefully soon we will be awash in fruit.

bucket o apples 2014

Going to the country, going to eat a lot of peaches

August 24, 2014

Eight years on, the orchard plan is finally edging towards ‘fruition’.  The apple trees are starting to fruit, fitfully, but since I planted on standard rootstocks it will probably take a couple of years before they produce in quantity.  But knowing it was going to take a long time, we interspersed peach trees with the apples, since they grow quickly but are generally short-lived (at least in Maine).  The largest tree is a Lars Anderson, and it set a good crop this year; maybe 30 pounds on a 12′ tall tree.

peach harvest

Alexis, Weezy, and I picked them this morning, since a good number were ripe, and the birds and bugs were starting to get at them.  The ones in the trencher in the photo above were the ripe ones, and we blanched, sliced, and froze about 4 quarts.  We gave some to the neighbors, left some in Georgetown, and brought a tray home to process as they ripen.

So far I like the Lars Anderson variety (purchased from Fedco).  This particular tree got badly mauled by a porcupine a couple years back, and I cut it back as best I could, but I was afraid it would die of fungal infection given all the broken wood.  But it has grown over nicely and came through for us this year.  There are a handful of peaches on several other trees, but the Lars seems to be the earliest, and plenty tasty.  A couple weeks back I budded a handful of different peach varieties onto about 10 plum rootstocks that I have nurseried in the orchard rows; in another year I’ll plant them out to fill in more gaps, and hopefully we get larger and larger peach crops.  If anybody has advice on how to prevent peach trees from dying unexpectedly (often with oozing rubbery clear sap), I would love to hear it.


Stroudwater Roots Festival

August 24, 2014

The garden is in full swing, and with the usual busy lives we can’t keep up.  I roasted up a giant tray of potatoes, carrots, and beets – everything’s from here except the salt and oil.

stroudwater roots festival veggies

Fresh potatoes are amazing.  Good garlic harvest, so I put in a couple of heads.  Learned the trick to rapidly de-skinning the cloves from Max Davis – put them in a deep covered pot, and shake the pot vigorously up and down so the cloves bang against top and bottom. 15-20 seconds like that and the skins are knocked clean off.

The beets this year are lighter in color, really beautiful. Flavor might be a bit lighter than the usual dark red kind.  Kelsey ordered a mix pack of carrots this year, and the yellow ones seem to outcompete the traditional orange ones for real estate (though not for flavor).


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