Friday, November 10, 2023

Honeycrisp Mystery

 We’d just caught the bear in our yard, again. 

This time, he was gazing at the Asian pear tree—and presumably, the ripe, fragrant pears that were only 10 feet and one fence away from him.

After more than 5 months of bear “visits” this latest appearance was getting to be old hat! Still, John and I went into the orchard to investigate how the bear had gotten in this time. 

Well, it was the usual way: the bear had found a weak spot in our deer fence, and simply pushed right through the wire. I found an extra length of steer wire, and held it in place as John strung it all along that side of the orchard. 

Ready to go back to the main yard, I saw an odd sight. Our Honeycrisp apple tree was missing a whole bunch of leaves on this year’s growth. As in, entire branches were bare of intact, healthy leaves. 

Though the stems remained, the leaf remnants were ragged, like they’d been eaten.

My first thought was caterpillars—the demoralizing sight of our defoliated orchard trees during our 2013 and 2014 tent caterpillar plagues is burned into my memory. But caterpillars would devour the leaves in the spring, not fall. 

Other insects? Some kind of destructive beetle, maybe?

I carefully inspected the apple tree—up, down and sideways. But there wasn’t a bug on it. Not a caterpillar, beetle, or worm. 

Naturally, I circled back to the bear. With all my recent bear research, I knew they do eat leaves. But that’s in the springtime too, when leaves are freshly unfurled, bright green and full of nutrients. In the fall, bears are all about fruit and other high calorie food. They wouldn’t bother with tough autumn foliage like these apple leaves.

Besides, the bear would have had to climb the tree—leaving broken limbs in his wake. And this tree was intact—unlike the other apple trees the bear had molested this summer!

Anyway, I wasn’t unduly disturbed about the leaves…until one evening, close to dusk, I noticed the tree was getting more and more bare. Every time I looked, more branches were defoliated. Something was systematically hitting this tree!

Then I heard it. The beating of wings, and a shape flew out of the tree. A bird? 

A game bird, by the sound of it.

It seemed completely unlikely. What kind of bird would eat leaves? And keep eating them, night after night? Neither John nor I had the faintest clue—so we just let it go.

But many an evening, if I approached the orchard, I’d hear that same rush of wings. 

Now, John is a great believer in the philosophical notion, Occam’s Razor: to simplify, it means the simplest and most logical explanation is usually the correct one. “I think it’s the bird,” John said, after yet another view of our rapidly deteriorating tree. But I was skeptical.

Anyway, the bear was a far bigger problem. 

We recently had a state Fish & Wildlife officer, Tucker, out to our place to consult about this darn bear—the story, The Bear Strikes Again, is in my November newsletter, just out! When Tucker was ready to leave, John showed him our by now bare Honeycrisp tree—about 75% of the leaves were gone. “What do you think ate the leaves?”

Tucker, who knew everything there was to know about bears, had never heard of a critter that devoured apple leaves in the fall. So John and I were still stumped. 

And now our second Honeycrisp tree was getting defoliated too!

I didn’t know if losing leaves the hard way would hurt the trees—but it seemed it was just one of those Little Farm mysteries. 

Then last week, I was in the orchard, where I was storing chicken manure compost. I heard the rush of wings again—and this time, I caught it in the act! 

A large bird of variegated brown flew out of the second Honeycrisp tree. I clearly saw the ruff of short feathers around its neck.

Photo thanks to John!

A Ruffed Grouse. Mystery solved! 

We’ve had grouse around our place for years and years. Why one of them would start devouring so many of our apple leaves after all this time is still another mystery. 

But with all our years here in the boonies, John and I have learned to “expect the unexpected”! 

For our full bear saga, you’ll find it in my Little Farm Writer newsletter!

Monday, October 30, 2023

Free Halloween Book + More Books on Sale!

Happy Halloween!

Crisp fall days, frosty nights and the end of October means one thing around here—time to share my free middle-grade Halloween and Day of the Dead ebook, The Curse of the Corpse Bride! 

Spunky fifth-grader Morgan finds herself cursed at Halloween—but can the myths and legends of Dia de los Muertos save her?

You’ll find The Curse of the Corpse Bride at your favorite ebook store:  all the ebook retailers, Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books, and Barnes & Noble!

And for grownups…as the days get chillier, are you ready for some heartwarming Irish books? 

Right now, bundles of my Village of Ballydara novels have been selected for Kobo’s special promotion: a 25% off Box Set sale

The Box Sets are a terrific value—several novels are bundled together for a great price.

To take a look at my books, simply scroll down to “A New Story Awaits” to find my Village of Ballydara Box Set Book 1, Becoming Emma, Special Edition, and the Emma Carey Trilogy, Village of Ballydara Box Set Book 2

Three Irish novels and two connected novelettes in one!

The Emma Carey Trilogy is exclusive to Kobo Books too—and you can read any Kobo ebook on your iPhone or Android, tablet or ebook reader!

The Kobo promo code is OCT25–and this special promotion only lasts through Halloween…

And on the homestead front, you’ll find my latest bear updates in my October newsletter—I hope you’ll take a look!

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Orchard Pest Breakthrough…with Ziploc Bags!

Perfect Florina apple
It feels like a miracle. Just look at the photo!

You may be thinking, what’s so miraculous about a plain ol’ apple, cut in half? 

Well, easy answer: there’s no yucky brown tracks inside the fruit—what we have here is a firm, crisp, homegrown apple.

When we moved to the country, for several years, my husband John and I happily raised gorgeous and tasty organic apples—and without spraying them with pesticides or fungicides. 

We had loads of them to feast on into winter, and gave away lots more to friends and family.

Then seven years ago, we found strange brown trails inside our apples—what we discovered was the apple maggot pest.

Here’s more about this Destructive pest and how it works in your orchard.

Every harvest after that, our apples were afflicted. The brown tracks weren’t so bad the first couple of years, if you weren’t too persnickety. But each harvest showed more and more damage in the fruit—the apple would be soft, and dimpled with little dots. Cutting one open, you’d find big, nasty brown spots and holes. 

They were completely inedible. 

John and I tried an organic remedy: nematodes you buy from the garden supply store. They weren’t cheap: about $40 for both a fall and spring application.

More info here about Good orchard management and nematodes.

Sadly, even after applying them for several seasons in a row, they just didn’t work: we had nothing but fruit full of brown stuff. For a while, I gave a bunch of damaged apples to my sister for her horses, but the fruit became so horrible even horses would turn up their noses!

Enter my orchard epiphany: to try a whole new orchard strategy. It involved dedicated spring tree pruning and summer fruit thinning, and something new. 

Covering the young, developing fruit. With sandwich-size Ziploc bags!

Newly harvested Florina apples, still in their protective “covers”

I didn’t come up with this Ziploc idea—I discovered it from a food gardening expert. And I resisted it for a while. I mean, what this world does not need is more plastic use!

But I’m absolutely delighted to say, It works!

John and I did our best to limit our apple production with the pruning and thinning, so we didn’t have the hundreds and hundreds of apples to deal with. I think we produced maybe 60 or 70 apples this year—so we didn’t even use up one package of Ziplocs. 

On through the apple harvest, we picked William’s Pride, Tsugaru, Akane and Red Gravenstein—the ones the bear didn’t get. And then our largest harvest, Florina! And each apple was as clean as a whistle. 

Apples right out of the plastic bags

Well, inside the fruit. 

The one downside to Ziplocs is that earwigs (creepy-crawly insects) sneak inside the bag, leaving little black bits behind—which I can only assume is earwig-poo. You can see the black bits in the enlarged photo above. 

The thing is, if you go organic with your fruits and veggie growing, you’re sure to see various pests.

But washing your apples takes care of that! 

Washed fruit ready for the fridge

Rinsing out the Ziplocs, we’re planning to use them again next summer. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about growing apples. Fingers crossed this strategy will work every year!

For more about our bear visitor, and other homesteady stories, c’mon over to Little Farm Writer!

Monday, October 16, 2023

Storing Your Crops & Garden Class Insights

Our deep freeze bursting with berries
Raising food in your backyard or on your homestead is pretty straightforward, right? 

You put seeds or starts in good soil and weed regularly, keep the critters away, and voila! Homegrown fruits and veggies! But finding the best ways to store your garden bounty can feel pretty complicated. 

And as it turns out, food storage was a popular discussion in my recent Community Ed workshop, “Grow a Homestead-Style Food Garden.” 

Most people who take the workshop are getting started with a backyard food garden. But in this recent class, about half the students had larger plots of ground to manage—anywhere from a few acres to a couple of dozen. 

Some folks with those acreages had established orchards and berry patches. And being harvest-time, for most of the students, storing their crops was top of mind. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about food gardening in my 17 years on our homestead, there’s an easy rule of thumb:

Plan to grow only what you can comfortably eat or store. 

Now, having a good sized garden, I totally get biting off more than you can chew. In our early days, because we had so much room, my husband John and I planted 25 fruit trees: apple, pear, Asian pear, apricot, and plum varieties. 

25! For a two person family!

Then there were the two kiwis (the female never bore fruit, so sayonara) and three grapevines (took out one that got too huge as well). And let me tell you, we had a time trying to store or find homes for all that fruit. It was almost a relief when many of those trees developed blight or scab and we had to take them out too.

Then there’s all the berries we raise: blueberries, strawberries, marrion berries and other cane berries. 

However, the nice thing about homegrown produce is that if you get it in the fridge right after picking, it lasts far longer than the fruits and vegetables from the grocery store. So for a quick overview of crop storage, let’s talk…

Managing Fruit Storage

Luckily, storing berries is pretty basic: whatever you keep for fresh eating goes in your fridge. As for “putting up” your extra berries, you can freeze them or make jam. 

Whatever you do, berries should be eaten or processed within a few days of picking. 

Tree fruit in the fridge has a bit longer shelf life. The secret is to pick it just at the point of ripeness. (If you wait until the fruit is falling off the tree, it won’t keep nearly as long.)

Plums and Asian pears will stay nice for a couple of weeks, apples in the fridge will stay fairly crisp maybe three weeks or so. After that, depending on the variety, apples tend to get a little soft or mealy. We have a “Florina” apple that is a good storage apple—and will keep well for a couple of months.

If, like John and me you have a second fridge, hopefully you have enough fridge space for your harvest. Again, try to produce only what you can comfortably deal with!

Too much of a good thing!

The Asian pear tree above is a classic case of simply producing too much fruit…which is on us. We should have pruned it and thinned the fruit far more aggressively. We ended up with more fruit than we could pick, store or put up, and pears falling all over the place. 

If you can’t manage it all, and the fruit starts to ferment, you’ll find your garden overrun with wasps. (Did we ever!) Or if you’ve just got too much fruit in your yard generally, you might get a very large, especially unwanted visitor…

You’ll find more about wasps and that visitor in my October newsletter, “Year of the Wasp(s) & a Treat for Animal Lovers” !

Managing Veggie Storage

I keep potatoes in our fridge. It’s a little cold for potatoes, and the temperature will turn some of the starches into sugars, but it works fine for me. Keep in mind that apples and potatoes shouldn’t be stored in close proximity—it speeds up apple fermentation.

Onions: once the stalks are cured and I’ve cut them off, I keep in our unheated shop. When we get temps below the mid-20s, I bring them into the house until it warms up.

Our garlic harvest—again, after the stalks have cured up and been trimmed—goes in the pantry. It’s cooler than the rest of the house, and my homegrown garlic stays in pretty good shape until mid-winter or beyond.

Carrots and parsnips: the fridge. As you’ve probably guessed, our second fridge is a lifesaver! 

Tomatoes: we have maybe one good tomato year out of three. When we have more than we can eat, I roast my tomatoes in olive oil and seasonings, then freeze. Same with zucchini: sauté or roast the extra, then freeze.

Green tomatoes, you can ripen in the house wrapped in newspaper. Or you can eat ‘em! Lots of students were big fans of fried green tomatoes. One gal mentioned her grandmother used to pickle green cherry tomatoes, which she loved.

Fall planted spinach

If you sowed greens in late summer, hopefully they’ll get growing before the cold hits. Mulch well so they can overwinter, then you can pick as needed in spring! Like other homegrown produce, your greens will last much longer in the fridge than store-bought.

I’m not sure my spinach here will grow enough for successful overwintering, but I am ever hopeful! 

Drying Fruits and Veggies

Lots of gardeners, including some of my students, dry all kinds of produce with good results! 

John and I tried drying fruit in our early years. What we found was that the drying process attracted clouds of fruit flies and other pests. And the aroma spread over our entire yard—not a good thing when you have bears around!

So regretfully, we gave up on drying. 

Root Cellars and Crawlspaces

One student asked about root cellars. We don’t have one—with the vast vole and other rodent populations around our place, we would need to install one of those concrete bunker-style models.

But I understand cellaring, with its below-ground temperature and humidity is a great option for root vegetables: potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips. I mentioned hearing about folks keeping food in their crawlspace.

Again, we can’t do that with all the mice, but I’ve heard it works for lots of people who don’t have to be concerned with rodents. One student thought her crawlspace would work fine for her. 

If you can’t use your crawlspace or basement: Parsnips keep beautifully in their beds well into winter! At our place, I often have to time my picking for between deep freezes, but they’re still nice and sweet. I’ve found carrots degrade somewhat, left in the soil too long—plus our frequent freeze-thaw cycles makes for a lot of soil heaving. Then the top part of the carrots get frozen and go downhill fast.

Cooking Your Garden Bounty

The really fun discussions were about preparing the fruits of your labor! Someone asked, “What can you do with rhubarb besides pie?”

I suggested stewing with some frozen berries, and I’d heard roasting is good. Another person asked about parsnips—going beyond roasting or in soup. I said, “I don’t have a big repertoire with parsnips, so that’s all I do.” 

Then another student chimed in and said they’re great mashed with other root veggies. Which is actually popular way to prepare parsnips in Ireland! 

Moving beyond food storage…

Irrigation in your Garden

I had a question about irrigation. I mentioned that we have a well, and since summers are dry here in the Foothills, I’m very careful with water use. As a result, I water each crop according to its needs, rather than watering everything the same amount.

For example, blueberries are shallow rooted and need frequent watering. But asparagus has roots below the surface and I water those beds only every couple of weeks or so. My food garden is pretty spread out, with lots of landscaping features, which would make an irrigation system more of a challenge for us.

If you have a food garden that’s sort of contained, i.e., all your crops are in the same area, I think irrigation would work great.

Cardboard in the Garden

Lots of these folks with acreages had neglected garden beds and wanted to get them productive again. 

I suggested a cardboard “killing mulch” over the winter. One student, a landscape gardener, said that she totally depended on cardboard! She recommended asking your favorite stores what day their cardboard recycling gets picked up. Then just show up the day before, and there’s all that cardboard free for the taking. You’ll make out like a bandit!

Food Storage in a Nutshell

If you’ve raised too much food, and you just can’t find places to put it or people to give it to, harvesting can feel like a burden. But when you’ve been judicious about how much you produce, putting up or storing your harvest bounty will be a pleasure!

You can find me at …and for lots of homesteady stories, visit Little Farm Writer…I’d love to hear from you!

Friday, September 29, 2023

Harvest-time and Happy Michaelmas!

Michaelmas-time harvest!
After feasting on your garden’s bounty, watching the growing season wind down is a bit bittersweet, isn’t it?

Yesterday evening, it was down in the 40s at our place and the fourth day of rain. Still, in between showers, I was able to get a nice little picking of three quarts of blueberries!

I also scored a few zucchinis and a handful of tomatoes that hadn’t split from the cold and wet weather.

I’ve never had my Chandler blueberry shrubs still bearing at the end of September, and I expected them to be really sour. What a treat, then, to find them as sweet as the ones I picked three weeks ago.

The tomatoes still had some nice flavor, which was also a nice surprise! 

Today, September 29, is Michaelmas, the traditional feast day celebrating the harvest. As a food gardener, I think about how, back in the day, the harvests were precious—the food had to last for a whole year. 

Here at our place, we’ve got garlic and onions stored to last through the winter; enough potatoes for the next couple of months, and a fridge full of apples. Our second crop of carrots, as well as our parsnips, will be ready for harvesting within a couple of weeks. 

So today, recognizing this olden-times tradition seems like a wonderful way to recognize the fruits of your food-raising labor. 

Today we’ve got a sunny, warmish day, and garden chores are waiting for me! Instead of writing something new, I’m sharing (reposting) our Michaelmas celebration from two years ago…

Michaelmas, or the Feast Day of St. Michael and All the Angels, is an old-timey holiday that was celebrated September 29. 

In the British Isles, Michaelmas traditionally marked the day the grain harvest was pretty much done. People would celebrate with a feast of roast goose and all the trimmings--and the landlords would be pretty happy too because harvest time meant farmers could pay the rent.

Michaelmas also gets a mention in many of the historical BBC series John and I enjoy, created from classic English novels like Jane Austen's or Elizabeth Gaskin's. Those English-country worlds are very idealized, sure, but we all need a wee farm fantasy once in a while!

John and I like to recognize Michaelmas as an early start to the autumn holidays. We set out our set of fall figurines that remind me of an old-fashioned, New England apple farm, and they help brighten the house after the fall rains arrive and darkness comes earlier and earlier. 

We also like to celebrate our own little harvest time. The blueberries are done--we each had our last bowlful of fresh ones this morning--but we're still picking cukes, tomatoes, and zucchini. The fridge is brimming with apples, potatoes and carrots; garlic and onions crowd the pantry.

We definitely won't have roast goose though--a few years back, we bought a crazy-expensive, locally-raised, pastured goose, and I roasted it like turkey. And had to wonder, did I do it wrong? It was tough and gamey- tasting, and given the $40 we spent, we decided never again. 

So I'm preparing beef stew, full of our own vegetables, inspired by a super simple recipe I found in the October issue of Country Living magazine: Braised Beef with Tomatoes and Onions. I'll also make a cucumber salad with the gigantic cuke I found a couple of days ago. And with all the apples around, I think an apple dessert needs to happen. 

After all, with Halloween just around the corner and Thanksgiving not far away, fall is a glorious time!

Back to 2023… Tonight, the harvest moon—that is, the first full moon after the autumn equinox—is a “super moon” so it appears much larger than usual. I hope you’ll take time to gaze at the night sky and enjoy the sight!

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Homestead-Style Gardening Class & Irish Novel on Sale!

Part of my summer homestead garden
Looking for a little guidance for your food gardening this fall?

My community college workshop, “Grow a Homestead-Style Food Garden”  is happening next week, Tuesday, September 26! 

We’ll cover lots of sustainable gardening techniques, as well as composting and natural fertilizers…plus a handy timeline for your gardening tasks and activities throughout the year. 

Even if you don’t take the class, accessing all this information is easy! All the course content and more can be found in my free ebook, Little Farm in the Garden. Available at all ebook retailers, you’ll find the Store links on my website. 

 If you’d rather, you can get the PDF on my website too. 

The August photo above features parsnips on the left, and a newly seeded carrot bed on the right, two of our fall mainstays. Center is a bed of cucumbers, and past the carrot bed, our largest marrionberry, two of our favorite summer crops. 

Little Farm series, Book 3

Since growing food is sort of a “calling” for me, writing Little Farm in the Garden was hugely fun—and a way to share lots more information than I can convey in a workshop. I hope you’ll take a look!

Quick update September 21–my Irish novel, The Galway Girls has been selected for a 30% off ebook sale!

4th book of my Village of Ballydara series

The novel, which has a fun gardening thread inspired by some of my homestead experiences, is now 30% off at Kobo books. To check out The Galway Girls, simply click the link, and scroll down to the “Find your new favourite story” carousel! 

Kobo Books has a helpful reading app so you can read ebooks on any device, and a great new “read for free” subscription service too…The promo code for this sale is SEPT30…and it ends October 1!

Saturday, September 9, 2023

DIY Dryer Fix

Our clothes dryer, at 17 years old, had plenty of quirks. But the latest was one we just couldn’t live with.

It had, like, quit drying.

“Maybe it’s time to buy a new dryer,” said my husband John. 

He had a point. For years, the control panel of this appliance had a life of its own: lights blinking, annoying beeps going off for hours at a time without rhyme or reason. 

Then, not long ago, the settings I regularly use, “Normal” and “Permanent Press” would start the dryer…but go for only about 10 seconds. Then the dryer would just turn off. 

I jollied this latest quirk along by using the timed settings, 30 or 45 minutes. But then this week, after I had a load of two flannel sheets going for around three hours, and still as damp as damp could be, I had to admit defeat. 

This dryer was pretty much toast.

But after John suggested a new dryer, I sort of cringed. We’d had to replace our dishwasher a few months back, and we just couldn’t really afford the expense of another new appliance. 

You might ask, how come you headsteaders aren’t using a clothesline?

Well, a few reasons. We have a lot of birds around the yard, and they love to roost on poles, like you might afix a clothesline to. And when they roost, they…drop stuff. If you get my drift. Nothing you want on your clean laundry!

The second reason, is well, fall is on the way, and our rainy climate isn’t very conducive to hanging laundry outside. And the third…well, I don’t know how I would find the time! 

Anyhoo…back to the dryer:

“Let’s see if it’s worth repairing,” I said, and got out the business card of a local repair guy who had fixed our freezer a couple of years ago. Then I had a brainwave. “But first, how about we check the vent.”

A while back, my daughter’s relatively new dryer wasn’t drying well—and the culprit turned out to be a vent full of lint. Maybe that was our dryer’s problem.

So two days ago, John found the necessary screwdriver, and got the outside vent cover off. We looked inside, and it looked okay. I stuck my arm a ways into the vent and felt around. Sure, there was some lint here and there, but again, nothing blocking the air flow. 

“Looks like that was a wash,” said John. I prepared myself for the best option: a sure-to-be-costly service call. Then I had another epiphany. 

“Let’s try looking at the lint trap,” I proposed. 

Our lint trap structure is again, one of the dryer’s quirks. The trap works great, but there’s this odd cavity area beneath the lint trap, where every bit of lint that doesn’t get caught in the trap falls down.

John got another screwdriver, a Phillips this time, and undid the lint trap structure so we could get a look down there. “Hold on,” I said. Not wanting to tempt the electricity gods, I figured it was a good idea to switch off the dryer breakers. So now we were set.

The angle of this cavity meant you couldn’t really get a direct view of it, so John fetched a stick from the shop (he has any number of handy little gewgaws for repairing stuff) and handed the narrow, two-foot long stick to me.

Sitting on the rug, I eased the stick into the cavity and felt something…soft. Pillowy, even. 

Pushing a little harder, I could feel more pillowy material. Like, a lot of it. Using the stick, I began to pull up whatever it was, and brought up a handful. Then poked the stick around some more. “You won’t believe this,” I said to John. I was discovering… Holy Moly…

Yours truly, hauling out lint

This whole part of the dryer had a huge pile of lint stuck in it!

I was able to squeeze my hand down into the cavity, and began yarding out lint. Clumps of it, one after another! For about 20 minutes, I pulled out lint, while John stood by for moral support. And to take pics…plus occasionally cheering me on.

That’s some pile of lint!

How many times had I heard lint buildup can cause a fire? Pulling out this massive pile of lint, I cringed again, as in seriously, thinking of what a fire hazard we’d had right in our laundry room. 

I’m sure all that lint had wreaked havoc with the control panel—no wonder it kept beeping. Trying to tell us something!

I’m just glad we didn’t find out about all the lint the hard way.

After I got every last shred of it down there I could reach, I said, “This should do it.” 

“Now to test it out,” said John. 

The dryer interior had gotten pretty dusty from the dirt around the lint trap structure, so I gave it a little cleaning. 

Here’s the cavity below the lint trap structure

Then, after turning the breaker back on, I loaded in some towels that had been sitting in the washer since the day before, waiting to be dried.

And turned on the dryer…

Not wanting to jinx the process, I just let the dryer run for its 45 minutes without checking on progress. It behaved very well, no untoward beeps or blinking the whole time. Finally, I opened the dryer door to find…

Dry towels! They were completely dry! 

Since then, I’ve put two more loads in the dryer, and yippee, they both came out perfectly. 

Tip: if your dryer isn’t behaving, you can’t go wrong checking out the lint backup. But first, be sure to turn your dryer breaker to OFF!

PS…Interested in bees, blueberries and bears? I hope you’ll check out my September newsletter, Late Summer Pollinators & Homestead Varmints …Read it for free and no need to subscribe!