Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Farm Report

And in all due time, as widely speculated but never quite forecast, the crust of the Earth has drained and firmed and begun to bear the weight of those who had hoped to grow one heckuva lot more vegetables this rainy season than the pitiful take that has come in so far.

The other day I picked two ripe tomatoes -- one the size of a ping pong ball, the other not quite so large as a juvenile handball.  That's it for the tomato crop so far. We have picked three zucchinis and four crookneck squash.  We have harvested about 19 cucumbers -- perhaps a fifth of what we normally would have gotten by now. The broccoli bolted early on. Rabbits got most of the lettuce while we waited for the water to quite burbling up out of the fence post holes where big husky posts would have held up the new field fence with anti-bunny wiring at the bottom.  And the peppers have been audibly gagging in their raised beds, pouring all their energy into whining and griping rather than growing into nice greens and reds as the Lord intended.

Still, we have hopes of getting that fence up sometime this year, perhaps just in time to help remind us where the garden was when the snow begins to fly and the ice spreads its slick sheet of sly surprises across the hillside.

And then there are the blueberries.  My gosh, what a crop -- the like of which have remained unseen in lo these many summers.  We picked about six quarts Sunday and after some nice sun Monday and a little more Tuesday, expect to haul in as much the next time we visit.  They are glorious, and a great many are just now showing signs of turning from green to blush to blue to that much preferred blue-black.  Bring it on.

And eight of our 10 or so elderly apple trees (including, I must acknowledge, at least one crabapple tree) on the farm are showing the first of the ripening fruit. There's at least one Golden Delicious, or something mightily like it, but the rest appear to be reds of one kind or another and I need to consult an expert on what we have -- and what to do with them.  Sometimes we go for years without seeing apples on these trees, so in this year of gardening disasters, it's reassuring to see these old boys putting out a crop. 

And marvel of marvels, I finally got around to planting the first of the apples that I've been planning on every since retiring more than two years ago. I know, I know, not the right time. But it has been so wet and so cool up here this summer that, after consulting a few authoritative sources in the Jessie Peterman Branch Library's admirable stacks, I bought a few potted varieties at Slaughters and got them in the ground with what I hope will be adequate fencing to keep out the deer.

Given that most of what I know I learned from the error side of trial-and-error study, I expect there will be lessons from this little venture, too, but at least the schooling has begun.  Say, will this be on the final?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pickles in the Blue Ridge Rain Forest

The little plastic gizmo ($4.95 from Farmer's Hardware in Floyd) tells the story every morning.  Today it's another 2 inches of rain. Since returning from the beach on June 28 we've had 17 inches of rain on our deck here, about 1,000 feet or so from where the Blue Ridge Escarpment rises above the southwestern Virginia Piedmont not far from the N.C.-Va. border. 

We've had more than a year's worth of rain in the first 6 1/2 months of 2013, and the prospect is for more here in the Blue Ridge Rain Forest.  The garden once again is under water -- this time a sheet of water pouring out of every dry spring and seep and sieve of the southwestern-facing hillside below our house and across the creek that flows into the Smith River and eventually to the Atlantic via the Roanoke River.

But in the 4x8-foot raised-bed boxes, a few things are growing.  Some tomatoes are on the vine -- a long way from ripening.  We've had a few zukes and yellow squash.  And we've had a bunch of cucumbers.  So with time on our hands and little opportunity to get out and weed the garden or paint the new garden shed or stretch the wire on the new field fence, we made pickles the other morning.

This has been a bread-and-butter pickle-eating family since high school days half a century ago, when we'd drop by the Strickland home just a couple blocks from Page High at lunch and munch our way through Fran Strickland's crisp bread-and-butter pickles and her stock of Charles Chips. Made a fine lunch.

Fran made her pickles the old-fashioned way -- cooking the pickles in a process that seemed to require the same level of logistics as Operation Overlord and canning them in jars and carefully sealing the tops and putting them on the shelf to keep for years. They were just superb -- but a lot of hard work.

Then sometime in the 1970s or '80s while on a trip to Texas, Fran and Hal dropped in on a relative, and found the recipe we use today.  It's a lot easier and doesn't require the long time and complicated logistics the old recipe demanded. One reason is you just put the pickles in the refrigerator and as long as you keep 'em cold, they'll do just fine. We're told that they can last up to a year in the refrigerator.   We don't know if these pickles will last that long because we eat 'em up well before their expiration date. 

We do know that there are people in Idaho and France making pickles this way, because when they sampled the goods here last year, they got the recipe then and reported back on their own success making these pickles back home. 

Here's the basic recipe for the pickle juice:

4 cups sugar
4 cups white vinegar
Scant 1/2  cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed

Slice at least a dozen cukes into chips about 1/8 inch thick and slice four onions the same way.  It'll help to break or cut the onion slices up.  Have a dozen quart-sized Mason jars ready. (You can use smaller jars, but of course you'll need more of them.)  Pack the raw cuke slices and onion slices into the jars, alternating two or three handfuls of cukes with one handful of onion slices. Pack 'em tight. They'll float in the juice if you don't. 

Now mix the sugar, vinegar, salt, turmeric, mustard seed and celery seed and heat the ingredients in a large saucepan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. When the juice is hot and the sugar dissolved, pour an equal amount over the cukes and onions in each of the jars.  We ran short of the brine with the first batch, so quickly made up a second batch so we could completely cover all of the pickle/onion concoction in each jar. Then we put on the tops and put them in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before sampling the first bites.  They'll be good, and they'll get even better as they steep in the juice over time.  Enjoy.

But you'll have to find your own Charles Chips.  Haven't seen them since Lyndon Johnson was president, but Google can tell you where you can get them online.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Flags on the Fourth

Legend has it that ship's Captain William Driver, a Massachusetts native born in 1803, nicknamed the American flag "Old Glory" back when the flag had 24 stars on it.  When he retired from his seagoing days he moved to Tennessee and frequently hauled out the huge flag on patriotic holidays. It measured something like 10 by 17 feet -- large enough to fly from the mast of his whaling ship.  It later had 10 more stars added to it, for a total of 34, I have read.

Our version of Old Glory dates to the second decade of the 20th century. Arizona became the 48th state in 1912, and some time after that my maternal grandfather, Charles S. Minor of Anderson, S.C., acquired a 4 by 7-foot U.S. flag with 48 stars on it and, according to one family story, draped it over the casket containing the remains of his youngest son when they were returned from France after the First World War. His son, St. Clair, had been a machine gunner with the S.C. National Guard, and had died going over the top on the Hindenburg Line in the closing weeks of that war.  I found the flag, with C.S. Minor's initials marked on the border next to the blue field (the canton) that contains the white stars, not too long ago in a box that had been in my parents attic for many years.

It's been too messy lately to fly this nearly century-old flag in front of our house, so today I've got it hanging from the rail of a second-floor gallery, remembering people I never met.  C.S. Minor died years before my parents were married in 1937; I have a few things of St. Clair's as well as my grandmother's Gold Star Flag that she hung on the front door of her home in Anderson. It contains two stars for her sons serving in the war -- one blue, for cavalryman Charlie Minor, who survived, and one gold for St. Clair, the machine gunner who didn't.

I've also thought of my great-grandfather A.D. Betts this week. A hundred and fifty years ago he was serving with the 30th North Carolina Regiment at Gettysburg, and he wrote of his experiences in his wartime diary. Old A.D. was a Methodist minister, crippled in his youth after being thrown from a steer he tried to ride, but able enough to serve as chaplain of the 30th.  In times of battle, chaplains performed a number of duties, including helping the wounded.  He wrote on July 1, 1863, of his regiment moving 12 miles to Gettysburg, where his unit helped "drive the enemy two miles.  He tended to the wounded, including holding the regimental commander, Col. Francis Marion Parker, in his arms.   "Col. Parker's wound was in the face. The ball entered  just below one eye and came out below the other, cutting the nasal tubes. When I knelt by him and prayed for  him and his wife and children, he seemed about to strangle with the blood. "  Somehow Parker survived that injury and the war, and came home.

A.D. wrote that July 2 was "a fearful fight"and that July 3 was an exhausting day, moving the field hospital early. He took a bad fall from his horse. "Loss of sleep and excitement may have led to the vertigo,” he wrote. “God could take a man out of this world without his knowing anything of it.”  On the Fourth of July the corps hospital moved to a barn at a place called Fairfield,  and by the 6th of July the defeated army was moving slowly away south, dealing with wind and rain.

I never knew old A.D. but my father knew him well.  He lived with my father's family in Greensboro, and died at age 86 in 1918, when my father was 6 years old.  My father -- born this day in 1906 -- once told me the angriest he had ever seen his own father was not long before A.D. Betts died.  He had saddled up Dobbin, gentlest of my grandfather's hunting horses, and ridden off north on Elm Street in Greensboro.  My grandfather was afraid he would hurt himself, and rushed after A.D., furious at his taking such a risk.  But A.D. was doing what he had done for decades as a circuit rider and a chaplain -- saddling up when it was time to preach at some little country church or tend to some wounded or dying soul. It has been said that it was as if he could still hear a bugle blowing somewhere, and was headed out to answer the call.

So today our flag flies inside in remembrance of men who went off to war and the families who stayed behind to carry on as they could -- and those who still go when duty calls.   

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Severe drought in the Blue Ridge

We're having quite a drought here in the Upper Smith River Drainage District.  Not, not a rainwater drought.  We're having a sunshine drought.   There's plenty of rain -- our leaky pond is as full as we've seen it in 11 years.  We haven't had to water the rhodos or the impatiens or the knockout roses or the hostas or the yews or the tomatoes or the cukes --- ok, the cukes don't look good, but that's not because of a lack of water.  Maybe they're getting drowned.  But a little more sun might help them.  We didn't make enough bread-and-butter pickles last summer and I hope not to make the same mistake two years in a row.  C'mon, cukes!

The good side is we're seeing more varieties of fascinating little wildflowers pop up everywhere. We've seen the biggest patch ever of fire pinks, a john-in-the-pulpit, a turk's head (I think), and some amazing purplish spirea.  The flame azaleas have been unbelievably bright. And some thin rows of wild daisies have popped up around the new garden shed.

But we haven't seen much sun this summer -- more overcast skies than direct sunlight, it seems, though the days are nice and cool.  I shouldn't complain. We just spent a week down at Figure 8 Island and when the sun was out there it was hot as fire and as humid as Washington in August.  As someone who has had a bunch of precancerous lesions removed from aging fair skin, I'm not complaining. It's 64 degrees this morning on our ridge and the breeze is blowing and if I can remember correctly, that's why we moved here and not to, say, Eastern N.C. or South Georgia below the gnat line.

Weather's fine. Come on in.  You won't need your sunglasses. But bring a jacket.