Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ground Cherry Preserves

I grow regular stuff in my garden, mostly. But the one plant everyone asks about is the ground cherry. They are old fashioned, and many people just don't know about them.
Ground cherries are tomatillo's sweet northern cousin. They grow on a low, spreading bush.

The berries form inside a soft leafy husk that turns papery when the cherry is ripe.  
The ripe berries fall to the ground, and can be scooped up easily- no picking, just picking up. 

Inside the husk, the berries go from green when unripe to golden when ripe and sweet.

I planted the Aunt Molly's variety of ground cherry. They are prolific, and taste a little like a mild pineapple with a hint of banana when very ripe. 

 I've heard that settlers planted ground cherries as a sweet fruit that bore each summer until the fruit trees matured.  And there are different kinds of ground cherries that grow wild all over the US midwest. There are some wild ones that grow each year along my fence line, but they ripen late and are not as sweet as this variety. 

My ground cherry plants are loaded this year, so I've been saving them to get enough to make ground cherry preserves for the first time. While I've grown these several times before, we've always eaten them as quickly as they fall, so this was a first for me. Not unsurprisingly, modern ground cherry recipes are somewhat rare. The one I tried came from Food.com, a recipe from a 1947 cookbook.  
  • 3 pints husk tomatoes (ground cherry fruits)
  • 3 cups  water
  • 1 12 cups sugar
  • 13 cup lemon juice 


  1. Remove husks from ground cherries and wash.
  2. Boil water, sugar and lemon juice together for five minutes or until clear; skim.
  3. Add fruit and simmer until clear and tender.
  4. Seal at once in sterilized jars, filling to the top of the jars with the boiling syrup.
I picked up the fruits for several days to have enough for a half recipe. Luckily, ground cherries will stay fresh on the counter for weeks, as long as the husk is intact. Theoretically you could pick ground cherries in September, and they would still be good for fresh eating on Thanksgiving. But at my house they get eaten within minutes, so I can't say from my own experience that this is true.

A basket full of ground cherries became 3 cups of fruit after removing the paper husks.  Boiled in a sugar syrup for about 30 minutes, the fruit fell apart and became translucent. Seeds that I didn't notice in the raw fruit became apparent (but even in the finished preserves the seeds don't leave a noticeable taste or texture.) They thickened, and I poured them into small jars, and then processed them in a water bath for 10 minutes.  A half recipe made 2 half pints plus a smaller jar of pretty, golden, preserves with an old fashioned taste.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How to Do Things, Farm and Home Help book from 1919

Here is a link to a wonderful old book with instructions on how to do many things around a small farm or home.

There are instructions on how to do everything from making a hay rack to butchering a pig.
Great fun to look through!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Straw Bales in the Garden

I was hoping to try some different types of straw bale garden beds this year, since I've read a lot about it and found the possibilities to be very exciting. I'm still in the beginning stages of my first straw bale beds and am a little more ambivalent about it now. But I'll start at the beginning:

This spring I put an ad on Craigslist asking for moldy or weathered straw bales. Since they grow wheat here, and many people use the straw bales as insulation around their foundations in the winter, I was hopeful that I would get some response.

I did!

First someone called for us to pick up eleven bales. When we got there, they even hefted the bales into the truck for us!
This was wonderful, because while dry straw bales are pretty easy to move around for one person,  these bales were soaking wet, decomposing and very heavy- I'm guessing they weighed about 100 lbs each, since I could barely lift one side and only could move them by dragging them.

We got them home and dropped them off the back of the truck where we wanted them to stay.
This became the first two straw bale beds.

The first straw bale bed was just the bales, with the strings removed, and put into a 3' by 12' raised bed frame. That frame held 6 bales. Since the bales were already composting, I did not do the conditioning that many websites suggest before planting. I could tell the bales were composting because they were wet, heavy, growing mushrooms, smelled of decay, and were quite warm inside.

On top I put composted horse manure, and into this I planted some ground cherry seeds.  This was at the end of April. Just as these were sprouting, the first week in May, we got a late hard frost, and even though I covered them, many died. So last week I put in some other seedlings I had- broccoli, cauliflower,  brusssels sprouts, and some okra seeds. The okra is just now coming up, and the small plants are doing well.  

To plant the seedlings, I used a small garden trowel to remove the straw to make holes about twice the size I needed for the seedlings, and put in compost and the plants. I put the straw I removed  back around the plants in mounds, but not touching the stems. 

The next bed I made with the remaining bales was a free standing bed.  I found a source for as much free composted horse manure as I wanted, so the second bed was a compost well bed. The straw is the frame of the bed, and the 'well' inside is composted manure, straw, leaves and whatever else I had, all mixed and piled inside. 

I piled the compost, about half a truck full, on top and inside the bed. When it was first made, back in April,  it was mounded as high as I could get it without falling off. Now at the end of May,  it has settled and is lower inside than out. 

This bed was planted with tomatoes I had started from seed. These I put around the edges, over the straw bales. Inside I planted carrots. The carrots have sprouted, but have not grown at all. The tomatoes are slowly getting bigger.  I just added a couple basil plants. I tried to put some herbs on the sides, but they died almost immediately. The stems of the herbs got thin and brown like they do with seedlings when they have dampening off. This happened overnight. However, the basil plants I put in on top are doing fine. 

The first week in May, another person was super nice and dropped off about 20 bales of straw that had been outside all winter.  These bales got made into regular straw bale beds, and were planted with more tomatoes in two more beds, 

and some melon seeds in one bed and some squash/pumpkin seeds in another bed. The one remaining bale I planted with some peppers. 

You can really tell the older straw bale beds from the newer ones, because the old ones are really starting to soften and slump. Also, the first beds I took the strings off and put stakes on the ends to hold them together, since I was told the strings had rodenticide on them.  I left the strings on the last batch, since they didn't have treated strings. 

The plants are doing OK. Not gangbusters, but surviving.  Besides the dampening off problems of the herb plants, the seedlings planted on top didn't look healthy after about a week in the straw bales. They started turning yellow from the bottom leaves up, and generally looked peaked.  This meant they weren't getting enough nitrogen.  I thought that the large amounts of manure on each bale would be enough to feed the plants, but this obviously wasn't the case. I started pouring on organic fertilizer., mostly  diluted fish emulsion every day. 

Each application helped a little. Finally I cleaned out both chicken houses and put all the litter and chicken poop in batches into a large rubbermaid container, added water and put the resulting wet slop and liquid on the plants. This fresh chicken poop tea would have burned most plants, I think, but the straw bale plants loved it, and started looking fully green and healthy for the first time in weeks within a day or two after the chicken poop tea treatment.  They may actually be willing to grow a little more for me now. 

I'm not sure what to do to keep them going with such high nitrogen requirements.  The chickens only poop so much. I have some blood meal I could use next, I suppose.  
I've read that many people use Milorganite, as an organic fertilizer, I don't think I will. While it is organic in the sense that it is not a chemical fertilizer, it is not Organic, as in Certified Organic. It is treated urban people poop. I'm not against humanure, but I don't trust what people might put down their toilets along with the poo, like cleaners, old meds, and so on, to be good for my garden. I have a well, and try to be careful of what goes into the soil, since I'm going to be drinking whatever perks through it.  

And I think Straw Bale Gardening in general would be hard to do organically. The straw, to begin with is probably not organic and the nitrogen requirements are very high, and since the gardener is providing all the plant's nutrition, not the soil, I'm not sure the plants will provide a broad spectrum of nutrition themselves when I eat them, unless I provide that nutrition along with heavy amounts of  nitrogen I dump on each bale.  I may break down and buy some good quality GardenTone or something.  It seems odd that I have lots of compost from rabbits, chickens and horse manure available, yet this isn't enough. 

While people say that straw bales are the easiest way to garden, I am starting to feel like Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors.  I feel like they are constantly calling, "Feed me, feeeed mee".  

At least they all came so thoroughly soaked, rotted and wet through that they don't need watering more than once or twice a week. 

My only other consolation is that I'll probably get wonderful compost from them for next year's more traditional raised beds. 

Progress in the Garden

As I've mentioned, this is the first summer at my new place. We moved in at the end of summer last year, and were so busy getting things set up, that the garden was put off. All I did was buy a few leftover scraggly tomato plants on sale at the tractor store, and tucked them into slits in the yard. I think I got maybe a dozen green tomatoes to fry early in October. My plan was to work through the winter preparing the soil for a real garden this year.

An almost constant three feet of snow stopped me. Winter started early, dumped tons of snow, and stayed late, with snow at the end of April and frosts well into May.  Even now, at the end of May, I relish each warm day because of the recent memory of cold nights and frosty days.  I actually only put away my long johns last week, at last sure we wouldn't get any more freezing nights for a while.

So I started this garden year with almost nothing done. I wanted to start what I hope will be, in a few years, a very large garden in part of what is now an unused pasture.  I want to have mostly raised beds, since the soil here is a clay and silt mix that I find difficult to work in. When it is wet it clumps into reddish grey masses, and when dry it is yellowish, cracked, and powdery, and the clumps are like rocks.  There are dogwood sprouts, thistles and ragweed all over the pasture, as well as huge dense patches of wild onions.  The thought of plowing or tilling that all up and weeding it all is overwhelming, so starting a handful of raised beds and adding some each year makes the task seem less daunting and more reasonable to me.

My daughters built me nine 3 feet by 12 feet beds. Two are only six inches tall, and the rest are 12 inches tall. While the wood was all purchased so the beds would be uniform, I didn't want the garden to be super expensive, so I am determined to get the stuff to fill them all as cheaply as possible, or free if I can.

First, the neighbors, for years, have spread their raked fall leaves in the pasture I now own. They bring them over in wagons pulled by their lawn tractors. I told them to continue to put the leaves on the pasture but to leave them in large piles, near the front of the pasture. One farmer drove over and over the piles with a large mower to chop them up for me and we raked them back up and let them compost over the winter. What started in the fall as three piles three feet tall and maybe five feet wide, by spring were just wet masses by the end of April.

Two garden beds that have raspberries planted in them were filled with these. I ordered raspberry slips  from Stark Bros, and they were just put into slits we managed to dig into the soil. The rotting leaves we mixed with free composted horse poop from a neighbor, along with some wood ash from a bonfire to keep the leaves from making the mix too acidic. This filled up the six inch high beds.

The raspberry plants went mostly into the ground, but a couple inches out into the compost mix- mostly because I couldn't get the holes any deeper. Most of them are doing really well. Three died, possibly because of the late frosts we got, and nine are getting new growth like crazy.

To keep the aforementioned weeds and bushes from growing back around the raspberries, I used a moldy straw bale (they come apart in layers) as a sheet mulch.  This is one of the raspberry beds. The other bed has not been sheet mulched yet, and is too weedy to be presentable.

 I'll soon put four fence posts in the beds, one at each corner. I'll string clothesline wire down the length from pole to pole as the bushes grow, three or four times at different heights and keep putting the branches inside to keep them up.   Since I have two beds, I'll cut down one bed each year, alternating beds, so each year one bed will have berries getting ready on the one year old growth.  I chose primocane berries so I would get two small crops each summer, rather that just one.

I'll be pulling out the dead bushes and putting new ones in ASAP, so I may get a few berries later this summer!

I am so looking forward to the first raspberries!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

This is the Dawning of the Age of Asparagus!

The first year garden in any new place is tough, a gamble, and a series of small miracles.
I planted 25 asparagus roots, and they are starting to come up. While they won't be harvested for at least three years, this is truly the dawning of the age of asparagus for my garden.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Jaloola and Heather RP Taylor!

And BlameVyvyan won her pick of mugs in my shop!

THANK YOU for all the comments, pins, posts and everything you guys did! YOU are wonderful!