Sunday, February 14, 2016

How to Make Homemade Cultured Butter

While most Americans consume sweet cream butter, cultured butter has been around for centuries and is still the spread of choice in much of Europe. Not only does it have a lot more flavor than store bought butter, it has a longer shelf life at room temperature as well. Lucky for us, it is also very easy to make. 

The traditional method involves leaving fresh cream out to sour a bit before churning it. Unfortunately almost all commercial heavy cream in the United States is sold ultra-pasteurized, a process that kills all of the natural cultures found in the cream. As a result, we have to find a way to add it back in. 

To make homemade cultured butter, place one quart of heavy cream (preferably organic) in a large bowl along with 3 tablespoons of plain yogurt and mix them together with a hand whisk. Loosely cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and set the mixture aside at room temperature for anywhere between 10 to 14 hours. Then refrigerate it for another 3 hours to thoroughly chill.

Using an electric mixer, whip the cream on high spreed past the point of becoming whipped cream. (Covering the mixer with a towel while doing this helps to keep things tidy.) Eventually, the whipped cream will begin to develop a yellow hue and break. As it takes on an increasingly crumbly texture, gradually lower the speed. Eventually the butter fat  will gather into a large mass. 

Use a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth and suspended over a bowl to separate the butter from the buttermilk. Then gather the ends of the cloth and gently squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. 

Transfer the butter to a large shallow bowl and give it a good smear to expand the surface area.  Sprinkle with your favorite salt and fold the butter into itself to distribute it. Pack the butter into little glass jars or use freezer paper to form it into a block. (Be sure to save the buttermilk for use in your baking recipes!)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Late Fall Harvest

It's been a few years since I've grown a winter garden, and this year was no exception. With the gardens still a major work in progress, I never got around to it. However, I'm determined next year to stretch our vegetable harvest across all four seasons, which means building a few cold frames and dusting of the fabric row covers. I've been so focused on flowers and landscaping lately that it will be nice to refocus on the vegetable garden. 

Even though winter is fast approaching, the garden is still offering up some tasty veg - like these fall carrots and baby beets. We'll get a few more carrots picked before the ground freezes solid, and then it will be time to order new seeds and plan for the next year's garden. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Harvesting Shiitake Mushrooms

We had a decent crop of shiitake mushrooms this fall. I'd innoculated several oak logs a couple years ago with mushroom spawn.  Half were subsequently colonized by shelf mushrooms but the rest are producing tasty shiitakes.  The trick is to check on your logs often during the spring and fall months. I've lost a few big harvests simply because of neglect. All in all, growing mushrooms on logs is a fun gardening project. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Garlic Planting Time

I look forward this every year. Planting bulbs (in this case, garlic cloves) is such a rewarding thing. It gives you something to look forward to when winter is at its bleakest. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Summer Watermelons

It's been a while since I've grown a decent watermelon. Years ago, We grew amazingly sweet and crunchy Korean watermelons, but alas, the seeds I'd saved from that planting are no longer viable. This year, I'm growing an heirloom variety - 'orange tendersweet' and so far so good. I added a good helping of manure to the plant holes and covered the entire raised bed with black landscape fabric to keep the soil most and toasty.  The melons themselves are a good size at this point and the leaves still look perfectly healthy despite the few cucumber beetles that make their way through our garden. Hopefully they will be ready to harvest by month's end. I feel hopeful. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

First Apples of the Year (Ever)

 This past week, we harvested about 25 apples from our 1 year old 'Pristine' Apple tree.  I started planting my home orchard last year and was really happy to get a decent first harvest this year.

These apples are very crisp, sweet and surprisingly tart for an early season apple.  It's pretty disease resistant as well.  I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Spring Gardening Update

I can't believe it's been two and a half months since I've blogged about the garden. Time sure flies when life is pulling you in a million different directions (more on that later).  This past winter didn't help either.  For the longest time, it felt as if spring would never arrive.  Looking outside and seeing nothing but snow for two solid months was enough to make me question seriously why we live here.  Cleaning two months worth of dog crap didn't help either.  But then small patches of earth begin to reappear, the tree buds start to swell, and somehow your mindset changes.  It's like that every year here.  But this past winter was particularly brutal.  I'm just glad now that the garden is slowly coming back to life again. 

In any case, I'm happy to report that things are moving along on the spring gardening front, even if I am a bit behind schedule.  But strangely, I think I'm OK with that.  One of my goals this year is to take a more relaxed approach to gardening.  There are a millions things on my to-do list.  And eventually they will all get done.  But I'm looking forward to other activities this summer as well.  Anyway, here is a brief run down of things I've been working on in no particular order.

 My raised beds are still pretty empty, but I do have some spring greens planted.  This year, I'm putting greater effort into grow more lettuce.  This is the first of three sowings. 

 I've dressed all of my beds with compost, including these two, which contain my june-bearing and ever-bearing strawberries.  Soon, I will mulch these with straw as well.  I'm hoping for a nice harvest this year.

 This year, I've added seven more fruit trees to our growing home orchard.  All of my tall-spindle apple trees survived the winter even though a fair number of limbs were lost.  (I did lose one tree last summer.  Interestingly, it was the only tree I did not purchase online, but instead at a local Home Depot.  Go figure.)  I planted 4 more apple trees to this row this past weekend.  Who knows, maybe we'll even get a couple apples this fall.  I ordered this year's trees from Cummins nursery.  They were beautiful trees and arrived in great condition. 

 The circle bed is slowly coming back to life.  I'll wait a couple more weeks to assess this space and fill in any empty spots with new perennials I started earlier this year. 

 The west garden is slowly taking shape.  I never got around to blogging about it last fall, but I did manage to install a long growing bed to the left of these four tall-raised beds and lined the paths with weed barrier.  Eventually, the paths will be filled with pea gravel.

 My Fava beans are coming along nicely.  Because of the prolonged winter, I decided to start these indoors this year.

 This past weekend, I also built a permanent trellis for my blackberry vines.  Prior to this, the vines were attached to string stretched across simple 4 ft stakes.  Needless to say, the stakes didn't stand a chance this past winter and all of the vines laid flat on the ground.  Thankfully, there was not much damage to the vines themselves and they are now regrowing nicely. 

 These are some of my seedlings...

 And here are the rest.  It's always a challenge tending to all of these young plants this time of year. Hopefully I'll be able to plant out most of these during the next month. 

Finally, I've waited a year to see this drumstick primula bloom.  I'd started it from seed last spring. Well worth it in my opinion. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Winter Gardening Project - Building a Vertical Succulent Planter

For the longest time now, I've wanted to try my hand at building a vertical succulent planter.  In fact, it was this time last year that I'd purchased some plants for this very purpose.  Fast forward a year later, with all of the snow we've been getting, I've been trying to find some creative gardening activities to do indoors.  This seemed like as good of a time as ever.

A few months ago, we converted the bottom floor of our barn into a little workshop.  Building this planter in this warm and cozy space (and away from two kids with major cabin fever) was just what I needed to keep myself sane while a blizzard raged outside.

The build was pretty straight forward, and considering that it was my first time, only took about an hour.  I won't go into detail about how I put this together, but I essentially followed the design instructions provided in the video below with some slight modifications.  I used a finer hardware cloth and added some foam weather stripping to the top of the box to create a tighter seal when the box is attached to the frame. And unlike the instructions below, I also added the bulk of the potting mix to the planter box before I attached it to the frame. For this particular planter, I chose cedar as my wood of choice. 

Then came the fun part - arranging the succulents.

Using a pair of tin snips, I cut into the hardware cloth to create holes just big enough to insert the root balls.  The flaps I made were then bent back into place to secure the plants. (FYI -  A teaspoon makes for a great tool in planting out this miniature garden.)

A layer of Spanish moss helps to keep the soil in place and covers any exposed hardware cloth.  I tried not to overcrowd the planter as these succulents will grow and fill out this frame.

I was really happy with how this project turned out.  This vertical succulent planter now hangs next to the entry way to our kitchen.  I was a bit concerned that some of soil mix would fall out once the planter was hanged, but in reality, the hardware cloth and Spanish moss did a great job of keeping things tidy.  Not a speck of  dirt in sight.

I love the way the succulent rosettes and untreated cedar frame add a nice contrast to the red brick.  It definitely adds an organic element to this space. Upkeep seems to be pretty easy as well.  You just take it off the wall for some light watering every couple of weeks and then let the soil absorb the water for a few minutes before re-hanging. 

If you'd like to learn more, here's a great video on how to build one of these vertical succulent planters.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sowing the First Seeds of the Year - Imperial Star Artichokes

It always feels satisfying to start the first seeds of the year.  Like every other year since I've started gardening, my Imperial Star artichokes are the first to be sown.  It's important to start them early as they need a minimum of six weeks of growing indoors (in a warm environment) and then another six weeks of cold treatment outside to inducing budding the first year.  Artichokes generally start flowering in their second year so this cold treatment tricks them into believing that they've experienced winter.  They're tender here in New England so for those six weeks, I cart them in and out of the house if ever temperatures dip below 35 degrees. 

 It's well worth it though.  We had a good crop of artichokes last year.  They don't grow as big as the ones from California, but are just as tasty.

I allowed many of them to flower completely last year, adding a lot of interest to the flower borders.  This year, however, I think I'll reserve them for the dinner plate.

One final tip - I like to soak the seeds for 24 hours and then pre-sprout them within a damp paper towel sealed within a plastic bag.  Sow the seeds in individual pots when the seed coats start to open. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Last Chance to Winter Sow Those Perennials

I have so much planned for the gardens this year.  One thing I must do is to grow more perennials for the ever-growing flower borders. I went a little crazy again this year when ordering flower seeds.  It just couldn't be helped.  (This was my second time ordering from Swallow Tail Seeds, and so far, I've been really happy with their selection and the quality of their seeds.)  Then again, the way I see it, spending 50 dollars on flower seeds is a lot less expensive than buying hundreds of plants at a nursery.  Starting your flowers from seed also provides you with a much more intimate look into growing habit of the plants themselves, allowing you to learn early on the precise conditions necessary for them to thrive in your garden. 

In any case, since my indoor seed-starting shelves will surely be packed to the gills again this spring, I decided to try my hand at winter sowing.  I'm not surprised that it's taken me this long to give winter sowing a try.  I have a horrible tendency to want to start my plants in a controlled indoor environment and as early as possible.  Truth be told, many of my flower seedlings last year were somewhat root-bound by the time I had the chance to set them out in the garden.  This year, I'm determined to take a more laid back approach (short of direct seeding them in the garden). 

 I don't have plastic milk jugs lying around to create the mini greenhouses associated with winter sowing, so instead, I'm putting my pots into a large clear plastic bin.  I plan to drill plenty of hole into the lid  and sides to prevent the inside from overheating.  For now, I've placed the bin on our covered porch.  If and when the 3 feet of snow we currently have melts, I'll move the bin to a sunnier part of the yard.  Hopefully, I won't be disappointed with the results.  

On a side note, this is what a case of 500 4-inch plastic pots looks like.  It cost me about 80 bucks - a bargain compared to the pain of making the hundreds of newspaper pots I made last year.  The plastic pots themselves are somewhat thinner than what the commercial nurseries use, but they still feel sturdy and durable.  I'm sure I could have gotten away with half this amount, but then again, this might finally give me the motivation to start that little front-yard plant stand I've always wanted.