Sunday, June 8, 2014

Dehydrating Herbs

I am having great fun with my Excalibur brand food dehydrator.

Have you ever grown something that looks and tastes so good, you want to preserve that goodness for the long term? My mint grows beautifully in the spring, for example, but I know it will look cruddy when the summer heat hits, or after it flowers. But right now it's gorgeous.

I took a great class on dehydrating taught by my friend Lanette Lepper through the Virginia Urban Homesteaders' League. Until then I had always thought of dehydrating most foods as a last resort. But her class, especially tasting the samples she brought, opened up a whole new world for me. I discovered that dehydrating is one of the oldest, safest, most economical, and most nutritious methods of food preservation known to humankind, and that many foods actually taste better after dehydration.

I had tried dehydrating a few years ago using a cheap dehydrator and discovered I didn't have the patience for it. What I learned in Lanette's class is that an Excalibur will save the time and trouble of swapping out trays to keep the drying even, it has a thermostat that you can set, and that certain models are big enough that you can use them to make yogurt or proof homemade bread in. I was hooked.

So far I have successfully dehydrated bananas, lots of stawberries, some strawberry and mulberry fruit rolls, vegetables like kale and arugula from my CSA from Farm Chicks Produce, and lots of fresh herbs. The herbs taste amazing and are 20 times better than anything you can buy in the store. Here are some pictures from my efforts at drying herbs, including sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme, mint, dill, and lemon balm, today.

Preserve your mint when it looks most inviting!
Lemon balm ready to dry on a tray of the dehydrator
The 9-tray Excalibur has so much room, you can even make yogurt in it!

The Excalibur comes with a great manual and a starter recipe book. But not everything is best dehydrated. Basil, for example, loses a lot of its flavor when dried. Some foods rehydrate better than others. But I am finding this process useful enough that I plan to keep it up. I can't wait to enjoy my own mint in the smoothies I make this summer and in the mint herb teas (tisanes) I will enjoy all winter long.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Berry-Picking: Backyard Fun, Life Lessons, or Both?

Picking Berries is Best in the Morning Shade

The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.  --Epicurus

Today I went berry-picking, right in my own back yard! In the summer I like to make smoothies from Stonyfield Farm non-fat organic yogurt, frozen berries, a little juice or almond milk, and various flavorings, especially mint from my garden.

Due to the antioxidant or flavonoid properties of the berries, and perhaps due to rising fuel prices, the price of the frozen berries I like has gotten high. I have therefore started planting blackberries, fig trees, huckleberries, paw paws, and other "easy" fruits and berries for my region. I am a teacher, so I will use some of my time in the summer to pick and preserve these backyard treasures. In the meantime I may find time to go to pick-your-own places at local farms, which is a terrific way to save money and support local farmers at the same time. I also get some local berries and fruits as part of my family's weekly farm share from Farm Chicks Produce.

But my most rewarding source of fresh berries comes from trees that have been growing on our property for years. We ignored them, almost as though they were a nuisance, until I finally realized the berries they produced were not only edible but truly delicious. The trees are, in fact, black mulberries, Morus nigra, as far as I can tell. Now that I realize how easy it is to pick and freeze these, I pick all I can during the few weeks of the year when the berries are available. Best of all, the purple-black berries are nutritious and a source of those sought-after antioxidants that make the price of blueberries, for example, so ridiculous these days. Besides smoothies, I also like them in muffins, plain, or mixed in yogurt. Their flavor is a little tart, but pleasantly so.

Berry picking is not just a way of saving money. It's a time for reflection and for communing with nature. I love the sound of the birds singing and of my backyard hens softly clucking to each other, or the sight of a native bee among the leaves, seeking pollen from the mulberry flowers. Today I was reflecting about the myriad life lessons I have gathered along with the mulberry fruit:

  • Be gentle. Bruise the fruit or break a tree limb, and you wll regret your haste.
  • Be persistent. Berries that aren't ripe yet need a revisit in a couple of days, or sometimes even a few hours. Frequent sessions will fill your freezers, but neglect the job, and you will find your potential harvest lying all over the ground.
  • Plan ahead.  It is easy to make cuttings or grow more trees from cuttings, and then you can share them with your neighbors.
  • The grass isn't always greener elsewhere. Why pay the supermarket for something like berries, when fresher ones are growing on your own property?
  • Be thankful for what you have.
  • Use the right tools for the job. The right ladder can make a trip to the backyard even more productive, and the right pail (see picture below) can keep you from spilling your berries all over the ground. I learned this the hard way.
  • Things go better when your foundation is firm. Plant your ladder securely before you start climbing.
  • Don't overextend yourself. One needs to keep a certain balance in life.
  • Look at things from different angles and perspectives. It's amazing how shifting your position a few inches in any direction--up, down, or sideways--can cause you to see opportunities you couldn't see before.
  • Waste not, want not. Backyard chickens are great for this. If too many berries have fallen to the ground, we can fence our laying hens with them for an afternoon. They will gobble them up, fertilize the trees a little with their manure, and gobble up any ticks or other bugs they can find in the understory. Then they turn all they found into nutritious eggs, all while having a grand time! It's a win-win.
  • There are pluses and minuses to everything. Besides getting a little dirty and sweaty, there are greenbriers, poison ivy, and occasional ticks to watch out for. Overall, though, the experience is more than worth it. 
  • Setting a little time aside to pick berries is really setting aside time for yourself.
  • The best things in life really ARE free!
I wish more people would unplug from their computers, video-games, and television for a while and go berry-picking, even in their own back yards. They would discover the beauty of the natural world around them and be healthier physically, mentally, and spiritually for it. I know I am.



A good ladders is helpful, but it's a long way down!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Waterbath Canning Class with the VUHL

The Virginia Urban Homesteaders' League hosted a great class on waterbath canning, hosted by a woman named Cat, her friend Courtney Reitzel, and Misty Townsley. I have enjoyed all the VaUHL events I have attended and highly recommend the group to anyone who aspires to grow and preserve food.

I have a confession to make. I have attended two VaUHL canning classes, namely waterbath canning and pressure canning, and loved them both. I was so impressed with the idea of preserving my own food that I bought the biggest canner available online.

The only problem was, when I got it, I found out it was too big for my stove. It is almost too big to store anywhere in my kitchen.

But now we have a new stove because the old one needed replacing, anyway. I enjoyed the referesher course and look forward to preserving foods this summer, especially tomatoes. I also got an Excalibur dehydrator after attending another class. I want to preserve all kinds of foods, but especially strawberries, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes. I've already started to preserve home-grown herbs and even brew my own herb teas.

But I digress.

I will post pictures and captions to describe today's event. I took about 30 minutes of videos, too, for my own use. If anyone wants them available to watch, leave a comment here, and I will post them online.


Misty, left, and Cat, right, prepare carrots and daikon radishes to pickle. VaUHL promotes seasonal eating.

Our teachers show off the different foods they have canned. They provide plenty of written materials.
The guide to the beginner that was most higly recommended was the Ball Blue Book, seen to the left in the picture above. We all got plenty of handouts and even the recipe for the pickled carrots and radishes that we made in class today.


Courtney Reitzel, left, and Misty prepare for their class at Pembroke Manor United Methodist Church

Sampling our instructors' home preserved foods was a major incentive to learn to can. Delicious!
Did I mention their food was delicious? There's NOTHING like it in stores!

Misty, Cat, and Courtney emphasized that people should use USDA-approved methods and tested recipes, like those found in the Ball books. Another recommendation was Preserving by the Pint for small batches. They reminded people that carelessness or the use of outdated methods can result in illness or even death. Botulism is a deadly bacteria that will grow in improperly stored and preserved goods.

But they said that anyone who can read and follow a recipe in a cookbook is able to can food safely. After today's class. I believe them. But I plant to be careful, just in case.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Before You Get Backyard Chickens

Read this great blog post. If you cannot answer all or most of the questions, you are not yet ready for chickens! Do more research, first.

I know this post is short, but the "29 Thoughts to Ponder" post says it all!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Minerva the Hen at Midway Veterinary Hospital


Minerva the Buff Orpington checks out her veterinarian's office

Minerva, one of two Buff Orpington hens in our mixed flock of five backyard layers, has developed redness on her feet and legs for a few weeks now. My husband Don and I tried to treat her ourselves, first using petroleum jelly, and when that seemed to make things worse, we tried Bag Balm. The latter seemed to help a little for a while, but it made her feathers around her legs very greasy and dirty looking, and I was afraid she would have trouble keeping her feet warm with the extremely cold weather we've been having. And she certainly wasn't healing up to my liking.

Minerva's red legs caused us concerned. The dirty feathers were caused by our attempts to treat her.


Nights have dropped into the teens for several nights in a row and remained freezing even during the day, a rarity for this corner of Virginia. Most recently we had about 8" of snow, also a rare event.

Don and I had reached the end of our limited ability to treat Minverva, so we took her to Dr. Tony Poutous at Midway Veterinary Hospital in Chesapeake, VA. We have had positive experiences bringing our hens to visit Dr. Poutous before as evidenced in my earlier post about our visit with Athena, our Delaware hen. Here are highlights from Minerva's visit:

Minerva was weighed in, of course!

Dr. Poutous gave Minerva a through physical--maybe more thorough than she liked at times! Say Aaah!

Other parts of the exam were less objectionable. Dr. Poutous listened to her heart and respiratory system.
Overall, Dr. Poutous found Minerva to be in good health, which was a relief. He took scrapings of her legs to check for bacteria or fungal infections or even signs of mites. But he found nothing significant. We decided it was best not to treat her further and to keep an eye on her legs. I will definitely give our vet a call if Minerva's signs change or worsen at all. He said if areas turn black, that could mean frostbite, and to bring her back in right away. He said he was willing to treat for mites, even though he hadn't found any, just in case, but I said it was probably best to wait.

I was so relieved she wasn't developing an infection, which had been my fear!

Don asked about continuing with the Bag Balm treatment. Dr. Poutous said that he was concerned the Bag Balm might continue to mess up Minerva's feathers. Considering the cold weather, she might have trouble regulating her body temperature with dirty feathers. She needs clean feathers to keep her legs and feet warm. Without them, she has the potential of coming down with frostbite on her feet. It's not worth the risk.

Minerva the Buff Orpington looks ready to go back to the hen house!

Minerva had taken a much-needed break from laying this fall and early winter, but she already is back to laying an egg almost every day. She is a very reliable layer in spring and early summer, but she has a tendency to go broody after that. She very much would like to be a mother, I think! But that's not manageable under Chesapeake's backyard hen ordinance.

If there are any questions about the ordinance, my own understanding of it is listed here. You are also welcome to like our Facebook page, 4 Chesapeake Hens.

For cute ideas about chickens, beekeeping, and home living, check out Tilly's Nest

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sign Up for Hampton Roads' Coop Tour 2014

Please use this form to sign your chicken coop up for the Hampton Roads (Virginia) Coop Tour on Saturday, May 24, with a rain date of May 31, 2014. This coop tour is an open house for chicken coops and their flocks and will be open to ticket-holding members of the public. We will charge a minimal fee, $5.00 per carload or group, for the public to tour the coops, with proceeds to benefit 'Buy Fresh, Buy Local, Hampton Roads' (BFBLHR). All ticket sales will be by BFBLHR, and all money will go directly to this non-profit.
 By submitting this form, you agree to use basic biosecurity, i.e. shoe covers and hand sanitizer or hand washing, for guests on the day of the tour. You also confirm that your birds are healthy to the best of your knowledge. Deadline for coop submissions is April 1, 2014.
 **Submitting this form represents a commitment.** 
 Please reserve both dates in your planners. If you have any questions regarding the legality of your urban coop, including setbacks, please resolve these before committing to the tour. Times will be from 11 AM to 4 PM.
 If you have questions, please email Mary Lou at latinteachcarr@yahoo.com or Wendy at Hamptonroadshens@yahoo.com
 This should be a fun event, and we look forward to you joining our tour.
 Phone and email information collected via this form will only be used to communicate about the tour; we will not sell or otherwise share this information.

Visit us on Facebook: 4 Chesapeake Hens
If you are on the Peninsula, try Peck.

Update on 3/20/14: Update on Shoe Covers

We have been getting questions about where to get shoe covers for the tour. They are available at Lowe's or Home Depot in the paint aisle or through Amazon. Here are links to help coop owners find them. The idea is to have about 10 or so pairs on the property. As visitors come to each property, they put the shoe covers on, and then leave them when they leave. The purpose is to protect the various flocks from the germs that could be tracked from one property to the other on visitors' shoes:

http://www.homedepot.com/p/SuperTuff-Shoe-Cover-12-Pack-04614/204402119

 http://www.amazon.com/Medical-Booties-Shoe-Covers-Package/dp/B000CDG7EI/ref=sr_1_1?s=hpc&ie=UTF8&qid=1395356384&sr=1-1&keywords=shoe+covers

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hallway Remodel: The Beginnings

Don and I are in the midst of remodeling our 50-year-old house. Right now Don is painting our kitchen. While he is working on that, I have been working on a way to cover an old hole in our hall ceiling. A fan used to be there to draw air up into the attic, but it's long gone. We now have a central air conditioning system, so this particular hole is no longer needed. Don has done his best to close off the space and insulate it to keep the house warmer, but I want something pretty.

Here is our ugly hole in the ceiling

Here is a view of the hallway


Don is good at wiring, so he will put some lights up in this space when he is done with the kitchen. In the meantime, I have contracted with Decorative Glass Solutions in Ashland, Virginia, to make a stained-glass piece of art to cover the hole. Instead of an ugly spot, we will have something light and pretty there. The design we have in mind will be a "Cotswold Design," which will look something like this, but with perhaps a bit more color:

Design by Decorative Glass Solutions in Ashland, Virginia