Category Archives: Food Preservation

Celebrating My Peaches

Peach Blossoms – a food source for pollinators in the spring, too!

Popping open home-canned peaches in January is… magic. A taste of summer in winter. This year I am taking extra pride in them because I finally met my long-time goal of growing them all organically here at home, as well as canning them myself.

Early-on in my canning adventures I realized what a great crop peaches were for me to focus on.

Picking Peaches

Peaches are delicious, one of my favorite fruits.  When sliced and simmered in their own juices for hours they only get better. I gave up processed sugar when I was twenty-one, so finding natural ways to experience sweet is a goal of mine. A bowl of canned peaches with no added sweetener counts as dessert to me.

Since I wanted to ramp up fruit preserving with the goal of eating local year-round, peaches were a solid way to do that. The smaller fruits and berries took a lot of time to pick in any large amount. But I could go to an orchard and pick 100 pounds of peaches in an afternoon. Some orchards even sold “seconds” and “drops” all boxed up at a good price. While still work to process at home, it was even easier than hulling strawberries and I ended up with so much more.

Also, there were farms growing peaches around me. If you go much farther North, they don’t thrive, but we are still in peach country here so I can get them locally.

Canning Peaches

So, I started seriously canning peaches, with a goal of 75 quarts per year. I didn’t always end up with that much, but I often at least got close.

 

There was really just one problem with this whole plan. I could not get organically grown peaches and I knew that peaches are one of the most heavily sprayed fruits in the US. I was choosing local over organic, but I really wanted both! I asked every orchard I ever went to if they were considering organic methods but was consistently told that it wasn’t possible to grow peaches without sprays.

Our Lars Anderson Peach Tree

I guess I heard that insistent refrain as a challenge.  Soon after we settled on a piece of land and began our own orchards, I planted peaches. I knew they might fail, that they might get diseases and pests and die quickly before ever giving fruit… but I wanted to try. I was actually so convinced that they probably wouldn’t do that well, that we didn’t prune them very much the first two years, thinking that they would grow slowly if at all.

Instead, our peaches took off, growing like weeds. In fact, one of our first trees grew so quickly before we could figure out how to best prune them that the main trunk snapped off one summer when it was heavy with fruit. Luckily we were able to cut it above the graft and it sprouted back fast, bearing again after just one year off.

Recovering Blushingstar Peach

The first three were planted here in 2015: a Blushingstar, a Lars Anderson and a Red Haven. It was the Blushingstar that grew so fast without enough pruning that the trunk broke in 2019 (the photo here shows the way the tree bounced back!). In 2016 I added a Starfire peach tree, a Contender in 2020 and another Contender in 2021.

We’ve been harvesting yearly since 2017, but my harvest record-keeping wasn’t great until 2018 so that’s when I can accurately start reporting. In 2018 I harvested 40# of peaches and in 2019 I harvested 219#. 2020 started with great blossoms and fruit set for the three bearing trees, but during the drought they dropped a lot of unripe fruit so we only brought in 53#.

Our Peaches, Waiting to be Canned

Then we come to this past summer, with 4 well-established trees and a break in the drought by July setting us up for a great harvest totalling 347.5#. Periodic canning days in August allowed me to put up 87 and ½ quarts, which I believe is my record of peaches canned in one year. (We also ate quite a few fresh!)

Our Red Haven Peach Tree

I do want to note that my organic peaches are often not aesthetically perfect. So, I really do understand the problem that commercial orchards face while customers care so much about how food looks rather than how it tastes or if it’s safe. The imperfections we see are not from disease at this point, but our life-affirming landscape means there are bugs and birds and squirrels and others passing through sampling the produce. I’m ok with that. This fruit is healthy, the taste is amazing and we got our fair share.

I’m sure not every year will be so successful, but I am daring to believe there will be other great seasons. I have even ordered three more trees for my 2022 planting, which I dream about while eating a bowl of goat’s milk yogurt topped with peaches and drizzled with maple syrup.

Our goat milk yogurt, topped with our canned peaches and maple syrup from our neighbor – a delicious local meal in the middle of winter!

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2021 On the Homestead

Our Best Peach Year So Far

As 2021 ends, I’m taking a moment to reflect and share about our year – to “observe and interact” as we permaculturists say.

Globally, it was another tumultuous and historic year. While the scary moments are what tend to be reported on, there were positive developments as well. I believe in facing problems in order to deal with them, but more and more I see the value in noting progress made, too, as it inspires me to continue working hard in the world and on the homestead (which is in the world, of course!).

Locally, in our homesteading adventures it was a solid year of growing for plants and animals here, details coming up. For consistency and building knowledge, I will comment on the same subjects as in previous year-end reviews, plus add new developments.

Starting Seedlings

I continue to have great results using the peat-free seed starting mix from Organic Mechanics. I mixed in some of our worm castings as well, so I have to buy less of the bagged product and to help with feeding the baby plants. I have also improved my ability to let go of old seed packets so, indoor or outdoors, my seeds are coming up more reliably.

One of our new “rain barrels”

Water / Weather

The 2020 drought continued through spring 2021, finally breaking in July. The rain was a welcome relief and great help, decreasing our work load and helping our plants thrive. Not all crops bounced back from the spring drought, though. We did get a much bigger water catchment system installed, with four 275 gallon totes. The rain water is also better for the animals to drink (especially goats), whether we are having a water shortage or not.

Rodents, Pests and Diseases

Sunflower Before Chipmunks

Rodents were back in force this year. Specifically, we had voles who took more than their fair share of our root crops – carrots, beets, parsnips and potatoes. There were also extra chipmunks eating in the garden (they loved the sunflowers, climbing up the big stalks to hang off the flower heads), and mice or rats going after the poultry feed. Two mild winters in a row and two oak mast years may have created a population boom. Likely there will be a rise in rodent-eaters to help balance this out. 2021 was not a mast year, so fewer acorns should curb populations, too. That’s the normal, healthy cycle at work!

We didn’t have many other pest or disease issues. There were squash bugs, potato beetles, cabbage worms… but not enough to take down yields significantly. I expect as the drought eased the plants were able to keep up their defenses to coexist with these other organisms.

Labor

Every year my belief in community land management grows as I experience how the individual, private property systems are so hard to manage and so much less fun. I miss the days of working on a farm crew that talked, laughed, and helped each other as we accomplished so much. But, as we figure out how to move back towards more commons-based living with land trusts, cooperatives and more, and while a pandemic limits group activities, we keep at it here, sometimes tiring myself out in the growing season. I have gotten smarter about what to focus on and what to let go, but in a good year, there is a lot of harvest to process.

On this issue, the pandemic has been a teacher. I now see that I was doing too much off-farm work in harvest season. Being able to attend meetings and offer classes on Zoom, thus eliminating all the driving around, is a great help.

Animals: Bees

As I had feared, I did lose many hives over the winter. I’m sure there are various reasons, but I continue to see a pattern of heavy losses in drought years. I did keep a couple hives going that look strong and healthy and I hope will live through this winter and get back to making us some honey.

Animals: Goats & Pasture

Diana with her Mom, Luna

We had a great year with the goats. After Honey’s difficult birth in spring 2020, I worried as our three bred does approached their due dates. Happily, all three kidded with twins when expected with no problems. Phew! We are keeping one of the doelings for our herd: Diana, daughter of Luna who is proving to be an exceptional animal with a calm personality, excellent health, easy breeding and birthing, and strong milk production.

This year we got more serious about rotational grazing. As we have removed trees to open up our land to more sun, we have grasses springing up creating actual pasture that needs management for the health of the plants and animals. Our electric fencing was in full use finally, and we saw serious improvement in keeping the pasture plants alive and covering the soil. This was especially important with the torrential rain storms we had, which caused erosion problems in any ground not protected, highlighting the benefits of perennial plantings, and appropriate animal management. This is a huge topic I plan to say more about in a future post.

Animals: Poultry

The New Rooster

We had a slow start to our chicken flock expansion in the spring as our rooster was getting older and less fertile. Between other local chicken keepers and an order to a hatchery (something we try to avoid) we were able to raise new stock, including a new rooster.

A friend of ours had amazing results incubating some of our Indian Runner duck eggs (15 out of 16 hatched!) and we welcomed back two girls to take the place of a couple older females. I am more seriously managing the duck breeding with two males here, so I will be able to keep this flock going with less in-breeding or need for outside animal genetics for quite awhile.

Harvest totals

Here’s what we recorded (note that this is what came into the house to be weighed, so misses what we directly fed to the animals or what Steve ate in the field), with some comments:

One bed of Leeks

Alliums – garlic – 35.25 pounds(#) (173 heads); garlic tops – 150; leeks – 41.75# (and more leeks still in the ground for winter harvesting), perennial onions – 10#

Beans & Peas – 45# snap beans; 12.5# dry beans; sugar snap peas – 7#

Brassicas – broccoli – 8#; brussels sprouts – 17#; kale/collard – 18# (there are at least 10# of brussels sprouts still outside for us to pick)

Popcorn, drying in the living room

Corn, popcorn – 7#

Cucumber – 30.73# (many, maybe more, went straight to the animals – the chickens LOVE overgrown cukes!)

Eggplant – 17.5#

Greens – lettuce – 7.75#; nettles – 3#

Herbs – basil – 6#; dill – 1# (it was an excellent basil

Wine Cap mushroom (Stropharia rugosoannulata)

year)

Mushrooms, winecap5.75#

Potatoes – 129# (which broke down to 6# per 1# planted – it would have been much better if the voles hadn’t taken so many)

Roots – beets – 21.5#; carrots – 20#; parsnips – 14#; radishes – 87 (the carrots were especially decimated by voles, and parsnip seed germination was poor)

Squash – summer – 36.25#; winter – 712# (butternut, delicata, long pie and Seminole)

Tomato – 42#

Fruit: crabapples – 10#; currants – 6.5#; elderberry – 1.75#; grapes – 18#; honeyberry – 1#; mulberry – 1#; peaches – 347.5# (from 4 trees); rhubarb – 27#; strawberry – 2#; 100s of # of gleaned apples which we didn’t weigh

We brought in 104 gallons of goat milk and 117# goat meat.

Our poultry harvest came to: 1,549 (129 dozen) chicken eggs from 12 hens; 840 (70 dozen) duck eggs from 7 ducks; chicken meat – 74#; duck meat – 15#

Food Preserving

Dehydrated Foods

Some of the food we ate when it was ready, but preserving for the off-season is important to me. Here’s a summary of what I put up:

Canned: 87.5 quarts peaches, 7 pints pickled beets, 21 pints of strawberries & 12 pints strawberry jelly from berries picked at East Wind Farm

Dried: 7 gallon bags kale/collards, 2 pounds nettles, 1 pound wine cap mushrooms, 1 pound raisins, 1 pound tomatoes

Refrigerated: 10 quarts lactofermented cucumber pickles

Frozen: 5 pints peach juice, 5 pints tomatoes, 10 pounds of snap beans, 10 pounds of eggplant, 12 pints basil/garlic pesto, 8 gallon bags of other fruits I will pull out of the freezer to can soon, 10 pints chevre cheese, a few pounds of mozzarella cheese and most of the meat.

Butternuts spend a couple weeks in a warm place before coming in to our house

Also, there are many crops we are storing that didn’t need to be preserved exactly, just handled and stored properly: garlic, potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, winter squash and apples.

Looking Ahead

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but I do make plans. Given the high demand the past couple years, I have already put in my seed and tree orders, a commitment to next year’s gardens.

We have a new area where we have worked on soil improvement for a few years which I will plant this spring when my Fedco order comes in: fruit trees & bushes, perennial veggies like asparagus, and grapes.

In an effort to bring down the vole numbers I am going to try planting fewer root crops and moving them completely out of my annual garden up to the orchard area by the house. I hope they will have trouble finding them and that our huntress cat will have a better chance of catching them closer to her regular patrol area.

The bell on her collar protects birds from becoming her prey so she focuses on rodents

I plan to keep writing, too, a challenging task for me to find time for, but staying connected to folks beyond our borders is important. Many thanks to you for being one of those people!

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Harvest In Charge

Gold Rush Beans

There is food to pick here as early as April, but true harvest season kicks in as August approaches. Our goal is to not only grow for eating in the summer, but to provide for ourselves year-round. That’s a lot of food for us to bring in and preserve in a short window of time. Thus, in August and September our harvest is my biggest focus – in fact, it really takes over my life! I have learned to plan for it, to free up much of my schedule otherwise and to let people in my life know that emails, calls and letters are not likely to be answered this time of year. I can chart out approximately when I’ll need to do what, but every season has variations so I have to be flexible and willing to change directions. It’s a good but uncomfortable exercise for a person who really likes to follow her list.

Peaches Waiting to be Canned

Peaches are particularly demanding – when they are ready, I preserve them or lose them. With the great success of that crop for us this year, days

I canned 89 quarts of peaches this August, all from our own trees!

that I had planned to work on other projects turned into peach canning days. The peaches were simply in charge!

 

Some of our other big production crops aren’t quite so picky, they will give me days or even weeks of leeway. But being responsive has rewards. Pulling the garlic when the third leaf of the plant dies back, gives the bulbs the best storage life. I’ll still get great garlic after the fourth or fifth leaf withers, but it likely will not last as long. The root crops can sit in the ground until I’m ready to eat them or put them in the root cellar, but the voles will get a bigger and bigger

The garlic is pulled and put out to dry at the end of July.

share as time moves on. The winter squash in the field next to their dying vines are exposed for other critters to gnaw on, too. Our corn is a storage not fresh eating variety so is fine with a long season out there, but we have competition for them as well.

 

It’s true for our animals, too. Our heritage breed chickens take four months to reach their full size. By then, not only are they taking up space and food without gaining weight, but the roosters have been crowing loudly for about a month and it isn’t long until they will start fighting each other. They have many ways of telling us this is no longer a sustainable, safe situation.

Dehydrated kale, mushrooms, tomatoes and raisins can last for years.

All of our charges – plants, animals, bees – have their own schedule and their own plans. For best results, we learn their rhythms and work to fit ourselves into their calendar, although of course our management decisions are important, too. This is all good practice for remembering our interconnected, cooperative place in the world and re-learning how humans are not in charge but are part of a complex, ongoing dance. Which brings me to a last, philosophical thought for this blog entry…

Just recently I learned, to my great surprise, that when Charles Darwin talked about “survival of the fittest” he meant that those best adjusted to and able to fit in to their environment were the ones that succeeded. His ideas and work were misinterpreted and co-opted to justify competitive, dominant and bullying behavior. In fact, the evidence that cooperation, compassion and flexibility are much more prevalent and useful tactics has become overwhelming.

Diversity Supports Health

By the way, he did not say that “fitting in” meant becoming like everything else – in fact, it is through diversification and specialization that competition is often avoided and much energy is saved.

All of this really blew my mind as it is so far from what I was taught earlier in my life. Exploring these ideas over the past few years has reshaped my view of the world, freeing and inspiring me. Permaculture has been a part of this journey with our principles of valuing diversity (#10), embracing relationship and cooperation (#7 & 8) and being willing to learn and change (#1, 4 & 12). I value these opportunities to see and practice such skills – even if they’re currently tiring me out!

Don’t forget to preserve for medicine as well as food! Calendula can be dried for later salves and balms.

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