Monday, September 1, 2014

Himrod Harvest

Yesterday we harvested our first Himrod grapes!

That basket is the harvest in its entirety. It's maybe about as much as you'd get in one bag of grapes at the grocery store, but for us represents several small bunches from two vines. We planted our grapes back in the spring of 2012, and most vines have fruited this year. The Himrod vines are our second-best producer of grapes, and they are definitely our earliest to ripen. Since they are green grapes, the only way to tell was to taste them. A week ago I had some sour, pucker-producing taste tests, but now they are ready to go.

Since there aren't that many, harvesting them was a snap. They are easy to see on our newly re-trained vines, and all it took was a few quick snips of the stems with kitchen shears. 

These long, thin bunches bunches aren't packed full of grapes, and the grapes themselves are fairly small--about the size of raspberries. But they are sweet, with a just a little bit of tanniny tartness in the skins. I imagine they will be gone by the end of the day with four people snacking on them. 

We also had a few ready-made raisins, and they were quite good--very sweet, even without any extra sugar. The ones in the photo above aren't quite there, but will be soon. And then we'll eat those up, too.

Himrod grapes are meant for eating, not processing. That's just as well, since we only have about enough to snack on for a day or two. They are also one of the earliest grapes to ripen, and it's nice to finally have a point of reference about when to pick them. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if they were ready a week or two earlier in the future--everything was late this year due to our long winter and cold spring, so I can't yet be sure if the end of August is when they typically ripen or not. 

At any rate, it's always a good day when something new comes to fruition.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Late Summer Lessons

I took my last summertime tour of the garden today, pulling weeds, harvesting veggies, and surveying what we accomplished this year. It is the end of August, and while we of course have many fine days ahead of us, the nightime chill is already a reminder that our beautiful New England summers are also fleeting.

There's a lot to be proud of, but no matter how long we've been at this gardening thing, there's still a lot to be learned. This year, there are three planting lessons that are obvious to us only now, a good four months after the mistakes were made.

Gardening is a long game.

Lesson #1: Don't plant pumpkins near roses.

It never occurred to me that this could be a problem, but it has been. The last half of August has been quite dry, and powdery mildew has overtaken our pumpkin vines (ditto for the squash, zucchini, and cucumbers). Having the pumpkin vining around the rose bushes has also led to their infection with powdery mildew in recent days, as you can see in the photo above. I have read online that each plant gets its own special brand of powdery mildew, but my eyes are suggesting to me that this is not true. The mildewy pumpkins touch the roses, and the roses get mildewy (they never have before). While I never bother to treat powdery mildew on veggies (because nothing has ever been effective anyway), I'll  now have to try to treat it on the roses, which I want to keep strong and healthy. Pumpkins will be planted at a much greater distance in the future.

Lesson #2: You need two tomatillo plants for pollination.

I had read competing advice about whether or not tomatillos are self-fruitful, and since we always get way more than we can ever use off of these vigorous, gigantic plants, we decided to try just one this year. Lots of growth, lots of flowers, zero tomatillos. You can see a single paper husk in the photo above, and there are a few scattered across the plant. I found some volunteer tomatillo plants in other parts of the garden recently, so I suppose it's possible that we've had some late cross-pollination and will get a handful of fruits. I'm not holding my breath on that as those few husks feel totally empty so far, but I'm not pulling out the plant yet either. Still, by now we should be drowning in tomatillos, and we have none, so next year we're back to planting a pair. Maybe we'll keep them pruned to keep them in check.

Lesson #3: A family of four doesn't need more than a single hill of slicing cucumbers. 

We planted about six row-feet of trellised cucumbers for slicing, and it's TOO MANY CUCUMBERS. That's about the right amount for pickling, but we just cannot eat that many slicing cucumbers. There are only so many uses for them, and, while they last pretty long on the shelf, we will never be able to eat through that whole pile. We're actually glad to see the vines dying back, as cucumber picking has started to produce a little anxiety around here. The chickens enjoy them, though, and if you'd like some, let me know. 

I realize that last bit there might sound like a humble brag, but fine-tuning our planting is important. We don't want to waste room growing things we won't (or can't possibly) eat, because then we don't have room for other things that we either need more of or have never tried. If we spare ourselves those extra five feet, maybe we can try a couple artichokes or cauliflower plants next year instead.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Car Taxes

As I mentioned last week, we are in the process of becoming, once again, a one-car family. There are lots of savings to be wrung from this one simple (albeit somewhat demanding) act, including

Cutting out one car's worth of annual taxes and fees.

In Massachusetts, we are charged an excise tax on each car. It's based on the value of the car, and bottoms out a $30 a year once your car is old and not worth much any more (which has been the case with the Focus for as long as I can remember). Get rid of the car, and you don't have to pay the excise tax anymore.

The other fee we incur with each car is the resident parking sticker for the Newburyport lots. It's not much at all--at just $10 every two years, it's a actually a great deal. Still, one less car means one less parking sticker, so there you go.

The annual total of car taxes and fees that we now can skip is $35, which is just under $3 of savings per month. I'm going to round up, as usual. It's not a lot, but, as we've seen, little bits add up to big savings in the long run.

Savings per month: $3

Total Savings for August: $1165 (this month's savings plus the savings already in place from previous months!)

Total Savings in 2014: $4549

Monday, August 25, 2014

Achiote and Anona

While sorting through some photos from Costa Rica, I realized I never shared the last interesting tidbits from our trip to the Bribrí cacao farm on the Caribbean coast. Before we got into the nitty gritty of making chocolate, we toured the farm to check out some of the other useful plants that grow there. 

First, our guide Priscilla picked a ripe achiote and broke it open to show us the seeds inside:

In English this is known as annatto. When the achiote skin is leathery and brown, it means that the seeds inside are ready to use. The bright red seeds can be dried and crushed to make a reddish-orange spice that is used in many Mexican and Central America recipes. Priscilla explained that the Bribrí people also used it for painting their skin bright red, for keeping cuts clean, and for soothing a sunburn. Tiegan was happy to give that last use a try, as she had just the day before gotten the worst sunburn of her life:

I bought some ground achiote at the shop afterwards, and am planning to experiment with it some time in the fall. Stay tuned.

The other thing Priscilla showed us was a new (to us) fruit growing nearby. To get one for us to try, she  used a long wooden pole with a thick wire loop and burlap bag on the end to grab one from the high branches:

She handed it to Tiegan to hold while she went to get her machete to cut it open:

Priscilla told us the name of the fruit in Bribrí, but didn't know it in Spanish or English. The nearest thing I could find when I looked it up here at home was anona, which in English is known as a "custard apple." In Spanish, anona literally means an anonymous, no-name thing. Most photos of custard apples I've found look different--it's green and the "scales" are much more tightly clustered. Maybe this one is extra-ripe? 

The inside, though, matches the description of a custard apple:

The fruit is soft and white, and really does taste like custard--probably because the texture is very creamy and thick (like a custard). It was really kind of strangely delicious. You spit out the large, black seeds, just like you would with a watermelon.

Jonas wouldn't go near it, but Tiegan and I liked it. We never saw one anywhere else on the trip, so I'm not sure how common this particular tropical fruit is in Costa Rica. We did see a lot of achiote though, and once we started noticing it, we realized just how commonly used that flavoring is (especially on meat). 

And that wraps up our food and produce adventures in Costa Rica. That's a little sad, but we do have lots of new recipes and ideas to try now that we're back at home--one of the best parts about traveling!