What grows in clay soil?
I live in SW Wisconsin and we have 3 acres of land that we would like to plant to some sort of income producing vegetables. Our land is clay soil. What vegetables would you suggest?
If I had your land, here’s what I would do. Plant one acre of it to a good green manure crop, high in organic matter. Buckwheat or rye would be good, for instance. When it is quite high, cut it and till it under. Repeat as often as you can in that one season. This will vastly improve that land in one summer. In the fall, try to work in at least a few inches of rotted manure.
We farmed in northern Minnesota for years on heavy clay soil, growing 3 acres of market garden. The first years were a little tough. Root crops are about out until your soil is in better shape. If you can, alternate your growing for 3 years, working in green manure into an acre you can leave fallow each year.
The first year on our farm I had to plow the garden to “dig” carrots; a fork wouldn’t penetrate the dry clay soil. The last year there, you could stick your arm up to the elbow in black, loose soil. It was all that organic material worked in by the ton: Green manure, leaves, rotted compost and straw.
Crops that did the best on our not-so-improved soil at first were sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and salad greens of fancy varieties. The sweet corn and tomatoes are not too labor intensive, but the cucumbers and salad greens are. All of these crops are in high demand and bring good prices if you do your footwork and keep them in good shape from planting to market.
Avoid such crops as strawberries, peas, or bramble berries; they are just too labor intensive unless you have a great setup and lots of help.
There is a great market for fresh produce, especially organic produce, sold by the grower either at roadside stands or Farmers’ Markets.
Cherry tomatoes and pigweed
The place we picked for our garden has done well, except I learned from the previous owners that one of them dumped tons of cow manure in the garden spot. This has done two things: The good thing is the tomatoes love it. What do I do with all the cherry tomatoes? I have hundreds. I canned some, we eat a lot, I’ve given them away, they just keep coming. What else can I do with them? Second thing: That cow manure? It’s also loved by pigweed. I couldn’t keep up with it and it took over my garden. How can I get rid of it? Thanks for all your help and answers; I see your homestead is coming along nicely and David is so grown up!
There’s lots you can do with those tons of cherry tomatoes, Marty. If you can buy a Victorio Food Strainer for about $56 or can borrow one, you can simply pour them into the hopper and turn the crank. Tomato puree will come out the chute and the skins and seeds will be forced out the end of the screen. It’s that easy. No peeling, no coring. I really love mine. You can also spend more and get the stainless steel version (mine has a plastic hopper and chute; it’s also very sturdy and more than 15 years old with lots of use).
You can then make tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, catsup, chili, etc.
Or you can simply core them and cut them in half, lay them on a tray of your food dehydrator, and dry them. They’re awfully good for a snack or on a pizza. They dehydrate easily and quickly. You want them to be tough and leathery-dry; brittle is not necessary. But you want NO moisture in them. If you store them in a glass jar and you see any condensation forming on the glass in the first days, dry them some more or they will mold. No dehydrator? You can also line your cookie sheet with parchment paper or even a brown paper bag trimmed to fit and lay your tomato halves on that in your oven at the very lowest setting; if that’s too high, leave the door open a crack. You want about 140 degrees or so; you don’t want to cook the tomatoes. Turn them over once, and that’s that. I use only the pilot in my gas oven with the door closed or else the warming ovens and oven of my wood range with the door open and the oven damper open so it doesn’t heat.
Okay, on to the pigweed. The ranch we bought in New Mexico had the same problem. Only they didn’t haul cow manure to the garden. I chose the cow yard for my garden. I did that for the only good black dirt on the place. Crops did very well, and the pigweed grew so rank the first year that we actually cleared overgrown rows with a chainsaw!
The answer is keep at it and don’t let them go to seed! Chainsaw them down if you must, but don’t let them go to seed or you will just have more pigweed next year. In the spring, pull every small pigweed plant you can’t till or hoe. Right after watering or a rain is perfect; they pull very well then. Did you know that you can eat pigweed? In New Mexico, my spinach didn’t amount to much, so I picked those little, tender seedlings and snapped the tender leaves off those a little larger. Then I canned them; we couldn’t tell the pigweed from spinach very much. We actually liked the pigweed better. It was sweeter and had more flavor.
Now you can’t gorge yourself on pigweed because it does have a tendency to accumulate nitrates in heavily fertilized areas and some Western areas. But, it would require eating a lot of pigweed to have any trouble. Spinach also does this and we certainly aren’t leery of eating spinach. Including it with a meal once in a while is a good thing. It’s high in Vitamin A and C and also contains considerable iron and calcium.
Once you look on pigweed as a food, it seems like your battle is half won. It will take you several years to completely win the pigweed war, but you certainly can do it. Mulching once your rows are clean will also help. Wait until your plants are several inches high, then mulch with eight inches of clean straw, leaves, or other organic material. Any pigweed seedlings that do squeeze through the mulch will be very easy to pull out.
I just peeled and cooked six tomatoes from my garden with onion and garlic with the intention of making a fresh sauce. When I tasted the broth for salt, I discovered that it was fuzzy/fizzy like something was spoiled. But everything is fresh!
It’s not boiling away either. What would cause that? Is it safe to eat?
Keene, New Hampshire
No, Jeanne, your sauce is not spoiled. This is a perfectly normal reaction when tomato sauce is about halfway cooked down. The “water” is at the bottom of the pot while the fluffy bubbly sauce is floating on the top. Even when I cook down my big roaster pans full of tomato puree in the oven overnight this happens. But when I stir it, it once again looks more normal. I find this happens more with tomatoes that are almost ripe, but not dead ripe. It’s really not a problem and when you continue to cook down the sauce, it will look more like tomato sauce instead of a strawberry soda.
Awful-tasting green tomatoes
I just opened a jar of canned green tomatoes I canned last November and they tasted awful although the color was good, the brine was clear, and they are crisp. Tomatoes are hard to grow here in Phoenix, Arizona, because of our very hot summers. These tomatoes were growing and putting on fruit from the middle of September to December. I picked them around Thanksgiving and canned them immediately. As I said, they looked good but not very juicy. My question is can tomatoes look good and still be bad?
Without seeing your jar of tomatoes or knowing your canning process, I’d guess that your tomatoes had what is called “flat sour.” Sometimes when a food has flat sour it seems to be sealed, looks okay, but either smells funny or tastes horrible. Some of the reasons for flat sour are: Allowing foods to set in the jars too long before processing (work quickly and process very soon after filling the jars), slow cooling of the jars after processing, like letting them sit in the water bath canner after you process them until the water cools, or canning over-mature foods; you didn’t do that with green tomatoes, obviously.
Usually you can smell a food that has gone bad with flat sour. To prevent this from happening again, use good canning procedures, then check the seal when you open a jar, look at the product, smell the food, then cook it and smell it again. You should have no more surprises.
When elderberry concentrate approached $35 for two cups, I started making it from my own elderberry bushes. My neighbor and I would like to know if you have a method for making elderberry concentrate.
Here is how I do it, but I have no clue if it is correct. The strength and taste seem to vary:
1. Berries are washed, removed from the stem, and washed again.
2. With only the clean water clinging to them after draining, they are put in a pressure cooker.
3. The pressure is built up until the indicator rises. It stays risen for 30 seconds to one minute, and then I switch off the heat.
4. After the berries cool, they are put in a “jelly bag” (a fine mesh nylon curtain from the thrift shop), and drain overnight into a large, shallow, ceramic cookware pan.
5. The next day, I evaporate the juice in the pan by one third, sometimes more. I do not know if this is necessary. The juice is no thicker at the finish than at the start. It would be like “evaporating” water and expecting it to “thicken.” This step could be a time waster.
6. I have learned NOT to squeeze the bag to get out the last bit of juice. Otherwise, there is a green, sticky residue that destroys the bag for future use and coats pan, sink, and utensils. Worse than Gorilla Glue to try to budge, even with hot water and soap and scrubber. Do you know what this green sticky stuff is?
7. While the “evaporated” juice is still hot, I stir in honey to taste, let it all cool, bottle in 1-quart plastic milk bottles, and put in the freezer.
8. Is it safe to use the plastic milk bottles more than once (or at all) or will the bad stuff in the plastic start to leach out?
I can use the elderberry juice just as it is used for the commercial products; 1 to 2 Tbsp. in a cup of hot water as a nightcap. It doesn’t taste as rich as the commercial, and it isn’t as syrupy, but it is still pretty darn good.
Prince Edward Island, Canada
Obviously, your method works. Sure I know what that green glue is: It’s green sticky stuff. Seriously, I really don’t know, but I do know what you mean from my jelly-making experiences.
The way I make elderberry concentrate is quicker than your method. Not necessarily better. I just simmer the elderberries in a large kettle with very little water and the top on, stirring to mash them as they cook. Then I jelly bag them overnight and freeze the juice in wide-mouthed jars or even plastic jugs, filling them only two thirds full. In the morning, I set the jars on the counter to thaw, watching carefully. The first to thaw is the concentrated juice. The last to thaw is mostly water. Just pour off the first-to-melt juice and leave the ice “cone” in the jug. Mix this with honey or corn syrup (a lot of commercial products use corn syrup for that “rich, syrupy” taste) and you are in business. You can home can this product or freeze it as you wish.
Yes, you can use the plastic milk bottles more than once, but I really hate plastic and prefer glass jars myself.
I am trying to find info on how to process the elderberry. I have a press that I can use to get the extract, but do you heat the berries before you press? If so, what temperature and how long? How long do you pressure can them to save the extract?
Check out the previous question as it will answer some of your questions. To home can the juice, heat it to boiling, pour it into hot, sterilized jars, and process it in a boiling water bath canner for 15 minutes. That’s all there is to it. Good luck!
Raw cow’s milk
I have been thinking about purchasing a cow for milk but would like to know if it is safe to drink milk right from the cow or should it be processed somehow?
If drinking raw milk would harm me, I’d be dead. I’ve consumed raw cow and goat milk for more than 40 years and much prefer it to “processed” store milk. Yes, you can pasteurize it, but that kills some of the beneficial enzymes in it.
Make sure your cow is well cared for and has been tested for brucellosis and T.B.
I feel that there are certainly a lot more things to worry about in our daily diets today, with all the chemicals, herbicides, fertilizers, insecticides, preservatives, genetically engineered foods, etc., than drinking raw, fresh milk from a healthy, well cared for family cow.
Hopi Grey Squash, thick peppers, root cellaring
This year I finally located some Hopi Grey Squash seed and planted about eight hills. Seven of them came up and looked good until about the end of June, early July when the leaves on six of the vines started turning yellowish. The vines began turning brownish and were dying. Some research suggested that this might be due to squash vine borers. I’ve never successfully grown winter squash in the garden, so maybe that’s the problem. How do I deal with squash vine borers? Some of the vines had started producing squash, but they’re not mature. Can I still use them?
I thought I might still have success with the remaining healthy vine. But the unusually dry conditions attracted the deer to our garden (which is located about 20 feet from the house), and they ate my last Hopi Grey Squash vine! I’d heard that deer didn’t like squash. Any suggestions for a better outcome next year?
For both sweet and chile peppers, is there a way to encourage nice thick-walled, meaty peppers? Even with varieties such as California Wonder pepper, the walls of the peppers aren’t all that thick. There’s nothing better than fresh-roasted chile peppers on a nice fall day, but the thinwalled ones are a real challenge to peel.
I recently have been reading a book on root cellaring and it seems like an easy way to preserve a lot of crops. While canning is great, it is a fair amount of work and mess, and it would seem that root cellaring would be a lot easier. With your huge gardens, have you ever tried it?
How did you move your homestead from Montana to Minnesota cost effectively? So much equipment and tools are required, and animals, too, that it almost seems like a fleet of big trucks would be required.
Thanks for the great column.
Whew! Let me breathe and think. Yep, deer DO like squash vines, squash, and then melons, tomatoes, cukes and beans, not to mention corn and carrots, potatoes and flowers. Don’t believe people who tell you, “Oh, rabbits don’t like onions” either.
You just may be right with the squash borers, although you usually will see part of the vine suddenly wilt and start to die. Then, on examination of the vine, you can see a small hole with dark sawdust coming from it just where the vine is starting to wilt. If you carefully cut into the hollow vine with a pocket knife, you can see the grub and flip him out and squash him. Then, if you will bury about a foot of the vine where the hole was, the vine will sometimes revive and send out roots, going on to produce.
If you are having such a time with squash on your place, why don’t you try raised beds? Use either two tires stacked on top of each other, filled with good soil, or wooden raised beds. Then, as the vine gets larger, cover it with a piece of floating row cover. This will help keep mama squash bug from laying her eggs on the squash vine.
Yes, you can use immature winter squash as you would summer squash. Don’t try to store them because they will rot.
Fence your garden. As you’ll see in my Starting over, Part 12 this issue, I fought the deer battle and won. You can, too.
To get nice thick walls on your peppers, first choose varieties that have thicker walls to start with. Make sure that the description in the seed catalog says “thick walls,” for some just don’t have them to start with. Then when you plant your peppers, sprinkle a handful of bone meal around the plant and use a mild organic fertilizer, such as a kelp/fish emulsion, when the little peppers are growing. Then water the plants well when there isn’t any rain. Water makes juicy peppers.
Root cellaring is great. I finally have a cellar built in my basement, but it isn’t a silver bullet. I still can a lot of my food, for I’ve carried out buckets of soft and rotten produce, come spring, too. Once it’s in a jar, it won’t spoil. So when I root cellar food, I keep right on canning and drying it, right through the winter. That way, we have the best of both worlds. There’s nice fresh potatoes, apples, squash, onions, carrots, etc. But, I slowly can what we won’t use instead of carrying it all shriveled and rotten out to the pigs and chickens, come spring.
We felt that our move to Minnesota from Montana was cost effective as we planned very carefully. As land was so much more costly out there, and we had a nice home that we sold, we could afford to rent a U-Haul truck and flatbed trailer. We packed all our household, tools, and equipment on those. My late husband drove that rig, while I followed with our ‘85 Chevy pickup with our dogs in the camper and our horses, goats, sheep, one chicken, and a duck in the stock trailer. Water buckets, hoses, and hay were tied on the sides and over the fenders of the trailer. (We did look a little like the Beverly Hillbillies!)
I had already made a trip out alone with our Suburban towing our camping trailer, earlier in the year, and left it here. It wasn’t a cheap move, but we felt it was more than worth it. We got a great 80-acre piece of raw Minnesota woods with water on it, and now there’s the house, and the homestead is definitely looking up. Would I do it again? U betcha!
Root cellar in Texas
It looks like we will finally be able to move onto a decent amount of property ranging from 3-10 acres, though we are leaning towards the 10 acres. The property is located in Elgin, Texas, just a few miles east and slightly north of Austin. I really want to get a garden going as soon as possible and to start canning as well. Given the high temperatures, humidity, and high rainfall, do you think a root cellar is even possible or practical for that area? If you do, how would you recommend doing it? All I am imagining is a shed with an A/C window unit attached to it (giggle). Storing food in this way isn’t something we’ve ever done in my family though we have done small amounts of canning from the small garden my grandmother had when I was a child.
Well, Lauren, a root cellar is definitely possible, but maybe not practical. In a hot, high-rain area, you’ll have to take extensive steps to make sure your root cellar does not get any ground water drainage into it. It will depend on how much work and money you want to sink into a root cellar. If you are moving onto bare land, you probably would be better off to wait awhile and keep thinking about your cellar. See where any flooding occurs in the yard after drenching rains. Where are the high spots? If you want to build a root cellar away from the house, the high spot would be the place to build, adding extra soil over the cellar to make absolutely sure water doesn’t flow into it. You’ll also have to consider adding extra insulation either in the form of mounded-up soil over the cellar or fiberglass insulation between the rafters to keep the heat down. Of course, you only have to go down into the earth a short way before you reach much cooler soil, no matter how hot the surface soil is.
If it were me, I’d go ahead and garden, can, and build or remodel your house to suit your family first. You can always store your food in a cool (in the winter) closet and other out-of-the-way places. In New Mexico, we stored our winter produce under the bed in slide-out boxes because our bedroom was the coolest section of the house (on purpose). Your home-canned foods can be boxed and stacked in a corner, if necessary. They will keep just fine. Of course, “in a dark, cool place” is best, but we don’t always have “best” available and have to make do with what we have until better becomes available.
I haven’t had a basement root cellar for 18 years, and we always gardened and stored winter crops in the house. You don’t have to have a root cellar to store your home-canned foods, but a row of basement shelves is real nice. (We would have a completed roof over our heads right now if I hadn’t been talked into having a full basement dug under our new house. But, boy-o-boy, am I glad I was! Now, I have a wonderful basement with a huge pantry/root cellar, and the roof is just about done, to boot.)
Buying land in B.C.
I have been following all of your articles from the beginning (I have anthologies 1-9 and just updated to get 10-12 and back issues as well as ordered a new subscription).
I remember reading that you and your family had planned at one time to buy land in British Columbia, but thanks to our wonderful (not) Canadian federal bureaucracy you had nothing but problems and ended up having to forgo the purchase.
Would it be at all possible if you could pass on to me what area of BC you were looking? My husband and I are currently living in Alberta, but land here is prohibitively expensive (housing alone has gone up 30% since last year) and rural quarter sections in wooded areas are increasing a minimum of $10,000 a year. We are hoping to buy 10-20 acres of bush and were wondering where you had looked.
We absolutely fell in love with B.C., Monica. It was one of the biggest heartbreaks in our life when we were refused entry into Canada. We actually had bought our land, but fortunately, the lawyer had gone on vacation and had not cashed our check and graciously helped us get our money back or we would have been in serious trouble.
The place we had bought was east of Prince George about 45 miles; that whole area is gorgeous and full of homesteading families settled in the wilderness; just our cup of tea….not to mention the knock-you-dead scenery. Go take a look for yourself; it’s worth it. It’s a tough go for Americans unless you have plenty of time and money, and we learned that you can’t believe what immigration tells you, either. We had incomes, and neither of us had ever had so much as a parking ticket; Bob had worked for the Department of State in embassy security! The best of luck to you.
Differing jam recipes
My husband and I have recently begun canning for ourselves, and we are really loving it. We are noticing that instructions are different for jams; everywhere we look when it comes to how much sugar to add and what temperature it’s ready to be canned at. For example, the Ball canning book is different than the instructions in the Ball pectin. Can you explain this? Also I have begun baking our own bread. My first attempt was with banana bread. My question is about flour. We’re trying to eat healthier and heartier. I do not like white all-purpose flour, so we’ve switched to whole wheat. Our first attempt with it made the bread overflow the pans. Are measurements different when using whole wheat instead of white?
There is no one recipe for even one kind of jam. Or anything else you may want to cook. There are dozens and dozens of different ones, all of which work fine. Any time I make a food, I choose a recipe (usually one that has worked well for me before, but I do experiment) and follow it.
Some jam recipes use juice for part of the pectin needed to jell the jam. Others use only the pectin in the fruit. Still others use powdered or liquid pectin. Some, you only add sugar and boil and boil to get the jam to jell. Don’t let it worry you; they’ll all work fine. If you have limited fruit for your jam, you might use a powdered pectin product because you get more end product with your recipe. If you have lots of sugar and time, as well as plenty of fruit, you can choose a recipe without powdered pectin to save money. Again, there is no “right” recipe. Good canning!
Raising oats and wheat, finding food-grade lye
I would like to do a little practicing of raising oats and wheat in small patches. As a child we raised corn, hay, and cattle. Oats and wheat are unfamiliar territory for me. I would use the crops for animal and human consumption. I find there’s different kinds of wheat and would prefer to raise only one type. I would choose the one that makes better breads and gravies if it has good growing qualities for my area.
I also need help in finding or making food-grade lye. My home extension office tells me that it is not marketed anymore. They gave me a recipe to make hominy using baking soda. Fair warning; don’t even try it. It is not worth one’s time, and I love hominy! We ended up cutting the tips and peeling each kernel with a knife.
Tell your youngest son my family truly admires him for sticking by his mother’s side through thick & thin. We keep you in our prayers.
You will want to plant a hard winter or spring wheat. Soft wheat is what you make pastry flour out of, and Durham wheat is the kind used for pasta. There are many kinds available; I use a high-gluten variety because it makes lighter bread. This is Montana Gold, but there are many, many others out there just as good. I’d suggest going to your local feed mill and asking there what is available. Even if they don’t carry it in stock (which they probably do), they can order you some good hard wheat. You can also plant “wheat berries” from your local food co-op, but the price will probably be more. Of course, this is only for your small plots. I wouldn’t want to buy bushels there.
Wheat and oats are as easy to grow as grass seed in your lawn. Anyone can do it with a bit of work and luck. And once you do it, you’ll soon be making bigger and bigger patches. It’s fun. It’s productive. And grow-it-yourself is always better.
To my knowledge, there is no “food-grade lye” and there never was. Folks just used Red Devil lye or homemade lye, made from pouring water slowly through a barrel of hardwood ashes. The old recipe for lye hominy goes like this:
Dissolve 4 Tbsp. lye in 2 gallons cold water. Of course, use gloves, safety glasses, and plenty of outdoor ventilation. Keep pets and kids away! Add 2 quarts corn and boil half an hour. Remove from heat and let corn soak for another half hour. Skim out the corn and rinse many times. Rub the kernels to completely release any hulls. Cover the hominy with fresh water and bring to a boil. Then, change water and bring to a boil again at least four times to wash away any traces of the lye. Cook in fresh water until hominy is nice and tender.
You can also freeze or can your hominy.
The method I use is less dangerous. I use the lime method, which adds extra nutrition to your hominy. Mix 2 rounded Tbsp. powdered lime (as in pickling lime or agricultural lime; not quick lime) to a gallon of water. Add 2 quarts of corn. Stir well and heat slowly. Cook until hulls loosen. Drain and rinse several times with cold water and rub the hulls loose. Rinse until the water is clear.
Chocolate substitute and “grease-in” wool blankets
I had read that the flower and seed of the basswood tree were almost commercialized as a chocolate substitute although the preservation was too hard. Do you know of the prep involved in using this? Also, I am very interested in wool blankets with the lanolin still inside. Is there any suggestions on adding lanolin to a tightly woven wool blanket?
I can’t help you on the basswood chocolate substitute. Any readers out there who can help John? I do use the buds, young leaves, and “fruits” for salad ingredients, but never tried to preserve them.
As for the wool with the lanolin in, you need to spin and weave yarn with the lanolin left in them. You can’t add it later. This wool is “grease-in” yarn and is available from many spinners and weavers throughout the country. You can also buy grease-in wool products from blankets to sweaters and socks from them; it is a specialized cottage industry with little making its way to mainstream markets.
Storing canning jar flats
I know you get lots of letters so let me just say I’m a big fan of your articles…it is because of you I found Backwoods Home Magazine.
That said, so many recipes call for cream of mushroom soup. Do you have a recipe for cream of mushroom soup (using store-bought mushrooms)? And if you do, how would you can it?
I also found a really good sale on canning jar flats with the rubber around the edge. What would be the best way to store them? How long can you keep them before the rubber begins to ruin?
I have never been happy with the results of home-canned recipes for cream of anything soup; the flour and milk kind of curdle together and won’t whip smooth. Instead, I can my mushrooms and chopped mushrooms, then make my soup when I’m ready. The whole thing takes about 5 minutes. You can take 2 Tbsp. margarine or butter and slowly melt it with 2 Tbsp. flour, stirring in a medium saucepan. When it is well mixed, begin stirring in whole milk until it thickens nicely. I often add 1 Tbsp. of powdered chicken soup base. Then, I drain and add my home-canned mushrooms and barely simmer for 10 minutes; don’t boil. It’s that easy. If you use dehydrated milk, you can use the mushroom “water” to add to the milk for even more flavor. If you like smaller pieces, whip the mushrooms lightly in your blender or grind them through a meat grinder. The smaller pieces seem to give more mushroom flavor to the soup. You can also add a little chopped chicken or other meat to your soup to give it a heartier taste.
I always buy my jar lids in case lots when they’re on a great sale; it’s the way to go. As long as you keep the lids where it is reasonably moderate temperatures and dry, they’ll stay good indefinitely. I’ve used some that were years old. With the old lids, just be sure to keep them in hot but not boiling water for awhile before you use them to soften the seal. Good for you!
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