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Ask Jackie headline

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Jackie Clay answers questions for BHM Subscribers & Customers
on any aspect of low-tech, self-reliant living.

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Archive for July, 2013

Jackie Clay

Q and A: blueberry syrup recipe and Jalapeño jelly

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

Blueberry syrup recipe

Please share a blueberry syrup recipe. I don’t have a lot of blueberries this year because the Mockingbird enjoyed them before I got there but would like to make some syrup with what I have. I want to stop buying the syrup in the store.

Sharon King
Denham Springs, Louisiana

Sure thing, Sharon. This recipe is from my book, Growing and Canning Your Own Food. I use it myself and find it so much better than store-bought syrup.

4 quarts blueberries
12 cups water, divided
6 cups sugar
4 Tbsp. lemon juice

Rinse blueberries, drain, and crush. Combine blueberries and 4 cups water and simmer 5 minutes. Hang in damp jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth overnight or for several hours. Combine sugar and 8 cups water and boil to 230 degrees, adjusting for altitude, if necessary. Add blueberry juice to sugar syrup. Boil 10 minutes and add lemon juice. Ladle hot syrup into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe rim of jar clean; place hot, previously simmered lid on jar and screw down ring firmly tight. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner. If you want a thicker syrup when serving, simply add 1 Tbsp. cornstarch to 1 cup syrup in saucepan. Bring to a boil and the syrup will thicken. Do not add cornstarch before canning this product. It thickens too much for safe canning.

I make this syrup using whole, crushed blueberries instead of just the juice; it is whole-berry flavored and very tasty if you don’t mind chunks in your syrup! Use the same proportions. — Jackie

Jalapeño jelly

I have a question about jalapeño jelly. I made a batch recently and had this great idea to put an extra jalapeño in each jar for decoration. I washed them, cut off the stem and poked a few holes in each one. I dropped them in the jar and added the hot jelly. Sealed them up and did the hot water bath for 10 minutes. Now I see that most floated to the top of the jar. Do you think this is safe or should I open them up, take the peppers out and recan?

Debra Skovbo
Hot Springs, South Dakota

Since peppers are a very low acid food, I’d probably remove the whole peppers and re-can the jelly. I’d hate for someone to become sick from eating that jalapeño that floated to the top of the jelly and it could happen. — Jackie

Jackie Clay

Q and A: jars coming unsealed and canning time for Johnsonville brats

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Jars coming unsealed

My parents have been canning for over 35 years and I have been canning with them for some of that time. In that time we have had our share of mishaps. This past year of canning season has been the puzzling one, though. I make jam, and have sadly discovered that my seals are coming unstuck. Just today, I was sitting in my kitchen when a sealed, and water-bathed, jar of strawberry jam “plinked” and upon inspection I found one to be unsealed. I have done nothing new or different, but we have found this to be occurring this season and last. Have they changed the structure of canning seals? Am I doing something wrong? Or is this a good time to convince the family to switch to Tattler reusable seals!

Allison Podmore
Fairfield, Ohio

I really don’t think the seal compound has changed but who knows? I haven’t been having those problems with my canning this year or last, using new lids. But some folks have reported it. Basically, pour hot jam into hot jars, leaving recommended headroom, wipe off rims of jars squeaky clean, place hot, previously-simmered lid on jar, and screw down ring firmly tight. Process in a water bath canner for recommended time. Lift out jars and place on clean, dry, folded towel on your counter, several inches apart. You’re probably doing all of this but sometimes some little thing may have been done wrong. A common one is putting the jars too close together on the towel. This causes weak seals sometimes, which do come undone. Or some folks get in a hurry and leave the jars in the canner and just turn it off and take them out when the water cools. Again, poor seals. I sure hope you figure things out because having jars come unsealed is real frustrating! I love my Tattlers but don’t think switching will cure your problem. Hopefully it was just an infrequent happening and won’t bother you again. — Jackie

Canning time for brats

I’ve started home canning this past year. My wife bought me the All-American 930 canner (very nice). I have done stew meat, pork loin and Johnsonville brats. The directions I was given said to do the stew meat and pork loin for an hour and thirty minutes each. But, the brats said for 30 minutes. (The hour was mistakenly left off.) Well guess what… I did the 30 minutes. There are 5 brats per quart. I did this about 3 months ago. The jars are all sealed and look great. We have not opened any of the brats yet. I read an article about a guy from Washington State that all most died from botulism poison.

I understand now how the botulism toxin is produced and the processing time factor is critical to kill the botulism bacteria, not just to cook the product. I have looked over many sites and understand that the toxin is odorless and tasteless. My question to you as you’re the only person I would believe is, can I open the jars clean the rims, place a new lid on them and reprocess them for the hour and thirty minutes and they be safe to eat. Too many armchair canner wannabes out there give conflicting information on the toxin being destroyed after the jar is opened. Some say that you can just cook it and it kills the toxin others say it can’t. I do not want to play Russian Roulette with my family’s life. If you tell me to cut my losses and dump them, I will. (We are talking about 28 quarts.) The plan was to cut them up and use them in things like spaghetti sauce.

Name withheld

Unfortunately, I, personally, would dump the brats. While it’s true that correct canning will kill botulism and its toxins, I wouldn’t chance it because they were initially canned incorrectly. Sorry. As you read in the article, the man did not correctly can his meat and later became deadly ill from eating it. Wouldn’t want that to happen to you…or to me! — Jackie

Jackie Clay

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Monday, July 29th, 2013

The good was that Will had gotten the clutch back in the tractor and David brought our neighbor’s big tractor over to lift the motor and clutch back in our tractor. It was too heavy for delicate placement by our little tractor; it barely got it out of the tractor, having a hard time lifting over the Oliver’s loader arms. But despite misty rain, the weather broke at just the right time and the guys got the beast into place. Hooray! And yesterday, Will started hooking everything back together. Boy, there are a lot of rods, wires, hoses, etc.! And today, he’s just about got it finished.



The bad? Yesterday, they put frost warnings on the weather radio! Eeeek! Hey, this is JULY! But I remembered July 27, of the first year we were here, when it froze my tomatoes dead. And our garden is way too big to cover all of our sensitive plants. The peppers and melons are in hoop houses, so they’d be okay, but the corn, squash, potatoes, tomatoes? The only thing we could do is run the sprinklers if frost threatened. So three times last night I got up (who could sleep?), went outside, and checked the frost potential. There was a heavy dew and it was in the high thirties, but no frost. I’ll bet the wildlife got a laugh with me out in my underwear with a flashlight, feeling the grass and squash leaves! Thank God very much, NO FROST!

And the ugly? There was this growl in our Subaru that was pretty nasty and getting worse. We took it to our mechanic/friend, Curt Langevin, and received the sad news that the trans-axle (basically the transmission), was about to go. Repair would cost about $1,500 and I’m sure Curt was helping us a bit there. Sigh. Luckily after a day of depression (where would we get that kind of cash quickly?) Will hooked up the big trailer and went over to Curt’s shop to pick up the big load of scrap steel he had accumulated over winter. (Curt doesn’t have time to haul scrap himself.) There were several tons. And that check sure helped flesh out the amount of money we had to come up with. So the ugly is getting better and the ‘Ru will soon get fixed.

Ah, life on the homestead. We also had a litter of eight pigs from a new-mom gilt. We lost one last night to unknown causes, but the remaining seven are up playing in the sunshine this morning. It’s warmed up and looks like summer again. Boy, last night it sure felt like FALL. No! No! We aren’t ready! And it IS still summer, isn’t it? — Jackie

Jackie Clay

Q and A: Bill bean tomatoes and Will’s sprinkler

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

Bill Bean tomatoes

We are growing the tomato plants that you sent us seeds for last winter. I believe they are called Bill Bean tomatoes, and that the original seeds came to America in someone’s socks. They are growing beautifully, and the tomatoes are the size of small pumpkins already. Can you tell us any more about these tomatoes, such as the approximate time they came to America or anything else you might know about them? We’re curious! (My Hopi Pale Grey squash plants died unfortunately, thanks to the cucumber beetle. I still have four more seeds to try again with next year.)

Lisa Smith
Sunbury, Pennsylvania

Sorry to hear about your squash plants. These things happen — better luck next spring!

The Bill Bean tomatoes were “smuggled” into the US by an old Italian man, coming from Italy around 1900. They were passed to us by a friend who’s name is Bill Bean. As we don’t know the Italian’s name, we just gave him Bill’s! They are huge, very flavorful tomatoes that are relatively seedless for such a large tomato. We even use them to make tomato sauce as they are very meaty. I hope you love them too and keep seeds to pass to your friends. — Jackie

Will’s sprinkler

Will is amazing! The sprinkler being made out of things you already have is so smart. Can you please tell me how the pipe hooks on the wheel assembly? I can’t tell from the picture. I learn so much from you. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

Siberia, Indiana

I think he’s pretty amazing too. I’ve put a detailed photo in the blog. The wheel is attached to the angle iron via a bolt and washer. The bolt is welded to the angle iron. The bent pipe is welded to the angle iron too with an upright short flat brace piece. I hope this will help. The sprinkler works great! — Jackie

Jackie Clay

It’s mid-summer and we’re planting our fall cabbages

Friday, July 26th, 2013


Here it is late July. Summer has just roared by. I think it’s because spring was a month late and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since. The garden looks great so it’s hard to think about fall. Especially when I don’t want to! Here, winter comes real close on the heels of that beautiful season.

But to get ready for fall, I just planted a couple dozen cabbage plants for storage. Our summer cabbage is starting to head well and we’ll soon be using it for slaw and cabbage salad, not to mention cabbage rolls. But our fall cabbage is great for storage as it lasts longer and is bug free; I don’t have to spray with Bt. By pulling it up by the roots, I can tie a piece of twine on the roots and hang them from the floor joists in the basement. They stay good for months that way.



Will’s busy baling a small field of hay as we have a few days of rain forecast, starting this afternoon. Here’s hoping it holds off long enough to get the hay on the wagon and into the barn!

We finally got all of the parts for our Oliver tractor and yesterday Will put them all back together. Now the motor is ready to lift into the tractor. David is going to bring one of Jerry’s big New Holland tractors over to lift it as our Ford 660 wouldn’t lift high enough and we had a time getting it out in the first place. A bigger tractor will make things much easier. It’s a tough enough job, lining up everything anyway. And we don’t want anyone to get mashed fingers! We’ll sure be glad to get that tractor working so we can make lots of round bales. Ah, summer! — Jackie

Jackie Clay

Q and A: fermenting cucumbers, pressure canning on a glass-top stove, and sauerkraut

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Fermenting cucumbers

I want to ferment some cucumbers into pickles in my newly acquired crock. I don’t have enough cukes all at the same time. May I make the brine etc. and add the cukes as I get them off the plant? I know some people like them longer fermented and some shorter fermented. Wouldn’t this be the same process? Suggestions?

Dumas, Texas

It’s generally a better idea to ferment a smaller batch at one time rather than to add cukes as you get them. The liquid in the cukes themselves can change the brine so those later-added cukes may not ferment correctly. Any readers out there who have done as Brenda suggests? — Jackie

Pressure canning on a glass-top stove

I am canning with a pressure canner that utilizes a 3-piece pressure regulator (no gauge). I also have a flat top glass stove. You have mentioned being able to maintain correct pressure on a glass top stove. I remain in the kitchen while canning and watch the regulator to see that it continues to “rock.” As long as this is occurring am I safe pressure-wise? Is the pressure fairly steady as long as the rocking doesn’t stop?

Judith Almand
Brandon, Florida

Yes. Most manufacturers of weight-style canners recommend that the weight jiggles about 3-4 times a minute at minimum. Weighted canners are usually quite safe and require less “watching” than do dial gauge canners as they self-adjust by jiggling to maintain the correct pressure. — Jackie


I can sauerkraut every year but one year was too salty the next not salty enough. Can I combine and re-can? This year has been a great year for cabbage. Already have 10 gallons of kraut down.

Robin Putman
Coolville, Ohio

Yes you can but I’d try a smaller batch first to see if the combined kraut is too soft for your taste. Congratulations on this year’s kraut! Our garden’s growing like mad, although we got a late start. — Jackie

Jackie Clay

It’s been kind of dry so Will built some easy sprinklers

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

We’ve been using the tripod sprinklers for most of our watering around here for several years. Unfortunately, they’re not so well built and they only last about 3 years or less. Plastic photo-degrades, light aluminum cracks and breaks. We found ourselves needing three new sprinklers and at $29.99 on sale, that was a big ouch!

Luckily, Will has an inventor’s imagination and a pile of scrap metal and pipe. He had three lengths of pipe that were just the right length and a pipe bender given to him by a friend. So he designed a simple stand for a screw-on impact sprinkler. By adding a few fittings and cheap sprinklers from an ag-supply catalog, he soon had a portable, easily-moved sprinkler stand. You can even switch fittings and sprinkler heads around to raise or lower the height! Best of all, he added two little wheels from a junk lawnmower from the dump so we can just tip it up and pull it around into a new position without carrying it!


Pretty neat, Will!


Last fall, he filled half a 55-gallon barrel with compost and planted seeds from some of our Hansen bush cherries. And this spring, they popped up. Now they’re about 6 inches tall and looking great. We’ll be transplanting them to their new location in a few weeks. The larger plants he put in on the edge of our newly-cleared pasture are doing great and these will make that planting even larger. We will have “wild” Hansen bush cherries! — Jackie

Jackie Clay

Q and A: tomato plants, moving canned food, pruning melon plants, and fungus on pepper plants

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Tomato plants and moving canned food

How do you mark your tomato plants so that you know which varieties produce what? I can’t seem to find anything that lasts through the growing season. Also, I have one tomato plant that looks wilted but not eaten on. What can be causing that? It does have a few small green tomatoes on it.

When a person moves filled canning jars to a much higher altitude, will the seals hold? Should you put the rings back on the jars to move them?

J from Missouri

Instead of marking your individual tomatoes, you might do as we do and make a map of your garden in a notebook that you leave in the house. When you want to identify tomatoes, just take it to the garden with you. Simple and you don’t lose track of who’s who! If you really want to have instant identification, you can cut aluminum cans into strips and write the names with a pencil on tags you’ve cut out. Then poke a hole in the end and wire the tag to the tomato cage where it’s handy to read.

There are several causes for tomatoes to wilt besides the obvious (not enough water), which doesn’t seem to be the case as your other tomatoes probably aren’t wilting. Unfortunately, none are treatable and the plant must be pulled and burned. These reasons range from a stem borer, bacterial wilt, and fungal infection. I’d get the wilting tomato pulled and examine the roots. Sometimes root nematodes will cause wilting. These cause knobs on the roots. Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for that one either.

There is generally no problem in moving filled canning jars from a lower altitude to a higher one. We moved my pantry from Minnesota at 1,400 feet to Montana at 7,400 feet and didn’t lose a seal. No, you don’t need to put rings back on. If the jars are sealed, the rings won’t help keep them that way. Just pack them well. However, when you send home canning via air, sometimes the seals do fail, which is why I stopped sending anything but jams and jellies in the mail. — Jackie

Pruning melon plants

I had about 500 “volunteer” melon plants start up in some bags of composted manure I purchased. I left one alone to see what it was. Can I trim it way back? It is running EVERYWHERE and I don’t have the room. Will trimming it back force it to ripen?

Sandra Agostini
Nixa, Missouri

Yes, you can prune it back but if you want fruit, don’t prune it back past the flowering areas or any melons that have set. I’d be interested to see if these really are melons. I remember I once found “volunteer watermelons” down by the river where folks fished. Thinking they’d spit out seeds which sprouted the following year, I was thrilled with my find. I carefully transplanted them into my garden only to find later on that they were only wild cucumbers, a spiny, vining weed! Boy, was I bummed out! Let us know how yours turn out, okay? — Jackie

Fungus on pepper plants

I have a problem with my bell peppers. I put the store bought seedlings (four) out in raised beds this spring and they took right off. About two weeks ago, one of them suddenly looked very wilted from top to bottom. Everything else near it (including the other peppers) looked fine. I watered it and continued to watch it, thinking maybe one of the kids had run into it or hit it with a ball and dislodged the root system. It continues to hang on with some new leaves, but has not recovered. This morning I notice another pepper has done the same thing. There is a little bit of whitish fungus at the base of the stalk where the plant meets the soil. I had been mulching them with compost earlier in the spring (I don’t use any store bought fertilizers at this point); did I put too much on, too high up the plant? We have had a relatively wet spring and early summer and I have watered some as well. I have never seen anything like this. If it is the fungus, what would you suggest to kill it? The other peppers have a little bit of this fungus, but are not wilting as of yet.

Fredericksburg, Virginia

It sounds like you have white fungus in your pepper plants. This is fairly common, especially when the plants have been grown in contaminated soil or potting medium. (This is one reason we always grow our own plants here at home.) Unfortunately there isn’t any treatment and the fungus is quite contagious. And once it’s in your soil, it often remains for years. Few affected plants will live. If it were me, I’d dig up all the plants, including the soil around the roots and any mulch in contact with the stems. Burn it all. There is still time for you to plant some more peppers if you can find plants for sale. But don’t plant them in the same raised bed. As your season is wet, I’d hold the mulch back from the plants and avoid too much watering. Peppers like it a bit dry between waterings, whether from rain or the garden hose. — Jackie


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