What’s Growing?

A long long time ago I bought some seeds. When some of them got too unruly, I transplanted them outside and hoped for the best. Now we’re well into June and everybody’s out in the ground.

Or dead.

A week after planting out my tomatoes, I transplanted all the others – the eggplants, peppers, melons, tomatillos, and cabbages. And it did not go well. The next few days were incredibly windy, and the very next night dropped down to 39F. I’d babied the tomatoes, hardening them off gradually and wrapping them in plastic. This second round I did in much more of a rush, and I paid the price. Melons dissolved. Cabbages crumbled.

A couple of the stronger and better sheltered ones, like this tomatillo, have held on. I’ve seen healthier plants, but compared to what he was, he’s in top form.

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The tomatoes, by now old hands at outdoor life, are a mixed bag. Three of my five grow bag plants are the picture of health.

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The other two are… flagging. Those in the garden are in the same boat. I planted three varieties of tomatoes, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to this gross inequality. Two of the giants are Paul Robesons, and the third is a Blue Beauty. Here’s another Blue Beauty looking no bigger than when I planted it out.

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The seeds I started in the ground outside are all seem happy. The Red Orach started slow…

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But now it’s taking off. The leaves taste fine. The best word I can come up with is minerally. So far I’ve only eaten the odd raw leaf, wanting to give the two plants a chance to grow. With the bigger over a foot tall, now, I think I can safely cook some up.

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My Beleah Rose Lettuce is coming in nicely.

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But nowhere near as nicely as my green lettuce, self-sown from last year’s crop. Eating salad has become something of an obligation in my house.

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I have a third variety of lettuce, all on its lonesome with the kale, that’s the lone survivor from a crop I tried to grow in the hoop house in November. All the others froze, but this one must have tucked itself under the plastic just right and is absolutely thriving.

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The Magnolia Blossom Tendril Peas are gangbusters. They’re already taller than the trellis and me, and they’re showing no signs of stopping. The flowers are beautiful, the tendrils are cool, and the peas are… fine. More of a green taste than that nice pea sweetness. I’ve only tired the young whole pods, though – maybe when they mature the peas inside will be a different story.

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My other peas are these snazzy Dwarf Blauwschokkers. They’re a Dutch bush variety that produces deep blue blossoms and even deeper blue pea pods. Just like the tendril peas, though, these guys get high points for presentation and low points for taste. I’d describe the flavor of these as so green they seem unripe. And maybe they are. The name makes me think that they’re meant for shucking and will be better when they’re more mature, but my Dutch is rusty.

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On a strange note, some of my Blauwschokkers have come out as the plainest, greenest, pea-est peas I’ve ever seen. Where did these guys come from? I think there’s been some intermingling…

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The Crapaudine Beets are doing well, though germination has been pretty sparse.

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Likewise with the Pusa Asita Black Carrots, which seem to have been taken down from the site I ordered them from! I hope that’s not a bad sign… The plants that have come up seem to be nice and healthy.

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I planted two kinds of beans: Chinese Red Noodle and Dragon Tongue Bush Bean. I wish I knew which was which. I also wish I hadn’t taken up valuable trellis space with a bush bean, but this is how we learn.

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My Desi Summer Squash is coming in great.

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My Kajari melons were coming in great, until they disintegrated in the cold. I’ve planted some seeds directly in the soil and they’re well on their way. This is supposed to be a fast-producing melon, so with any luck I’ll get some fruit out of it before fall.

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One of my cabbages also fell apart, but I replaced it with another seedling I hadn’t put out yet. This is the state of a lot of my transplants – the scraggly guys who weren’t fit to put out at first are the new stars of the show.

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Some are coming into their own, like this pepper.

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And others, like this adorable little eggplant, have a long way to go.

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Whatever happens, I probably won’t go hungry this summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Candied Bacon

My community garden has lovely bi-monthly potlucks. Everyone else brings delicate vegan quinoa salads. And I bring candied bacon. At least I give fair warning.

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Despite being out of place, it’s always a hit. It’s not actually my recipe – my mom found it in a newspaper years ago and mailed it to me as a joke. It turned out to be amazing and very easy, making it ideal for a party. Here’s what you need:

1 lb bacon

4 tbsp packed brown sugar

2 tsp curry powder

1 tsp cinnamon

Dash of black pepper

Dash of cayenne pepper

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That’s it! And the last two are optional. Preheat your oven to 400F and mix up all your dry ingredients in a bowl. I tend to do very generous spoonfuls.

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Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil. This is a messy dish, and you’ll be glad for the foil when it’s time to clean. Cut your bacon strips into thirds and lay ’em out flat. It’s fine if they overlap.

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Mix your dry ingredients together into a tasty powder.

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Shake it out over your bacon so it’s evenly coated, and pop it in the oven.

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Take it out 15 minutes later. By this time your house will have filled with a smell. The smell will make you wonder why you ever eat anything else. This is normal.

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Transfer the bacon to a few layered paper towels. Take it to your engagement or function, or eat it all yourself if your heart’s had it too easy lately.

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Strawberry and Rhubarb Wines

No, not strawberry rhubarb wine. Though there’s an idea…

I’m making strawberry wine and I’m also making rhubarb wine. Both of these wines hold the hallowed title of Good Enough to Do Again. These were two of my earliest and roughest attempts at wine making, but somehow they turned out the best.

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Last year’s rhubarb wine did not inspire confidence at first. It looked like dishwater and tasted pretty strange. But recently a bottle of it worked its way into the fridge, and I was as surprised as anyone to find that it tasted really good. Everyone says that ageing wine improves it, but I’ve always been dubious. What could possibly be going on in that bottle? But I’ve been at this long enough that some of my bottles are starting to reach the 1 year mark, now, and I have to admit to seeing a difference. (At least with the rhubarb. The bottle of last year’s blueberry I opened seems to have spoiled).

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So I’m back at it! The rhubarb is mostly from my parents’ garden, with a little supplemented from our community garden. I followed this recipe scaled down to one gallon.

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The strawberry wine I did not scale down. Last summer I made two separate gallon batches that were rousing successes, so I decided to shoot for 5 gallons this time. Sticking to my cheap guns, I bought these bargain berries at the bulk supply store. Maybe I’ll do a smaller batch with real local berries and conduct a dispiriting taste test.

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I sanitized my biggest bucket and lined it with a nylon cloth. My first strawberry wine had a lot of debris in it and actually started to sprout. Not this time!

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Berry by berry I removed the hulls and quartered the fruit. All 18 pounds of it. The recipe I’m following recommends 12.5 pounds for a dry wine and 25 pounds for a dessert wine. My past recipes have been light on fruit and then backsweetened with honey. This time I’ve upped the fruit and sugar and am hoping for a natural residual sweetness.

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The berries cut, I barely covered them with water and added a dash of wine tannin, a healthy dose of pectic enzyme, and 1/4 teaspoon of sodium metabisulfite. I draped a towel over the bucket and left it in the closet overnight. During that period the pectic enzyme and water started to break down the fruit and the sodium metabisulfite sanitized it. At least that’s what I’m told.

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By the next night the pectic enzyme had certainly gotten to work. The berries were already limp and pale and the water had become a thick juice.

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I added water up to the 6 gallon line, and then I went sugar crazy. I checked the gravity after mixing in what felt like an unholy amount of the stuff – it was right around 1.060. My recipe recommended 1.078 for dry and 1.100 for dessert, so either way I had to keep going.

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In the end I used one entire 10 lb. bag of sugar on the nose. This brought my gravity to just under 1.100, or a tiny bit less sweet than dessert wine.

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Finally I added 5 teaspoons of yeast nutrient and a 5 gram packet of champagne yeast. I covered it loosely with the bucket lid and pushed it to the back of the closet. By the next day it was bubbling vigorously and giving the bedroom a very distinctive smell.

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I gave the fermentation exactly a week, stirring and prodding the fruit bag a couple times a day. Once the bubbling started to slow (and I found someone big to lift the bucket up onto the counter for me) I racked it into a five gallon carboy.

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The nylon bag was a lifesaver. I’ve fought some vicious battles with fruit pulp in my time, but the bag just lifted straight out. That being said, a week’s fermentation didn’t leave much inside it. What had been a huge volume of fruit got condensed down to little chunks of seeds and fibers. Strawberries, it turns out, are mostly water.

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Since the strawberries added more than I was expecting to the liquid, I actually collected 6 gallons of wine instead of 5. I filled the big carboy completely with free runnings and a 1 gallon jug with juice squeezed directly from the nylon bag… into an unsanitized bowl. Because I am a fool. I hadn’t been planning on squeezing juice from the bag, so I’d just plopped it in any old bowl. Thank the lord the 5 gallon filled up before I had the chance to fill it with rogue bowl microbes. As it stands I may have contaminated that extra gallon, but it was a bonus gallon anyway. And I may get lucky. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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All told I have some beautiful colors. The two on the left are strawberry, already producing some impressive sediment, nylon bag or no. The one on the right is rhubarb, basically sediment-free and a fantastic shade of pink.

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Maybe I’ll serve the two together and let people make their own strawberry/rhubarb.

A Trip to Bee Town

Another day, another glowing bee report!

We went into the hive again this weekend, and the bees couldn’t be doing better. This frame, taken from somewhere in the middle of the box, is almost completely covered in capped brood, with a band of capped honey in the top left corner.

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This one has more of a smattering of capped brood – maybe that means it’s older and a lot of the larvae on this frame have already emerged. Last time we inspected we spotted the queen but no brood, which meant she may not have mated yet. She clearly has now, which means her sole objective is egg laying. She has enough sperm stored up in her body (bees do it a little differently than we do) that she’ll never need to mate again. Barring a swarm, she’ll never even need to leave home.  IMG_4992

Just one frame over we found uncapped brood. Look carefully inside the cells. See those white C-shapes? Those nasty little maggotty things? Those are baby bees! If you look closely, you can see that they get progressively bigger from left to right. That means the queen worked her way from right to left and the larvae on the right are just that much older and, therefore, bigger. It takes just 21 days to go from a tiny egg to a fully formed bee, so every minute of development counts!

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This is the same frame, shifted slightly to the right. A lot of the larvae are big, and four of them have already been capped – those are the four cells around the middle that are opaque. The worker bees seal off the larvae with a layer of wax once they reach a certain size. In the sealed cell the larva will grow into a pupa, something that looks a lot more like a bee than these little grubs. Eventually she’ll become an adult and chew her way through the wax cap, ready to get to work. By mid-June all these gross little worms will be full-grown bees and all the bees in this picture will dead or on their last legs. Bee time moves fast.

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This progression from empty and capped brood to mostly open brood meant we were following in the queen’s tracks. She works methodically, laying from one frame to the next. And sure enough, there she was in the next frame. There’s a little bit of everything going on here. The whole left corner is a swath of capped honey. Coming in from the right is a patch of capped and soon-to-be capped brood. The white dotted queen is bustling around in the middle, above a really nice patchwork of pollen. The pollen will be mixed with honey into a tasty sludge called bee bread and fed to the brood.

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Bee colonies have personalities, just like any animal, and this one is nice and easy going… until we get too close to their queen. We can always tell we’ve pulled out her frame before we see her because the bees get more agitated and aggressive. No stings yet, but there’s a lot of movement and angry buzzing.

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It’s not all babies in beetown. This frame was extra heavy with uncapped honey. The honey starts out high in moisture and is left open to the air to evaporate. As it distills down, the bees combine it into fewer and fewer cells. Once they have a cell full of honey down around 18% moisture, they cap it with wax to stop it evaporating more. At this low moisture content, the honey won’t ferment and can be stored all through the winter. How do the bees know all this? Magic.

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Since the bees are doing so darn well, we made some big adjustments to their hive. We took away their jar of syrup. This is a bit of a controversial move, and a lot of beekeepers in the area are still feeding. There are flowers galore now, though, and our jar looked to have been emptied a while ago. We think they’ll be fine. In the place of the jar we added a second hive body with ten more frames. The bees haven’t quite filled out their current box (two or three frames are still empty) but they’re moving fast and it’d be such a shame to overcrowd them and cause a swarm.

We put a shim between two boxes. It’s just a square of wood two inches high with a hole drilled in it. This should give the bees a little more ventilation and room to come and go.

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We also removed our entrance reducer – this big piece of mesh that keeps out opportunistic mice in cold weather and makes the hive more easily defensible for a new, weak colony.

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This is our entrance now, with plenty of room for foragers to come and go. I really hope our colony’s tough enough to defend all this new open space. We’re probably going to put in a moderate entrance reducer until they build up their numbers some more. For the time being, they seem to be enjoying the new easy landing. Check out the two foragers with loaded pollen pockets! There are obviously at least two pollen sources coming in right now – one golden yellow and one bright orange.

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Here’s another from the yellow source touching down after a flight. She’ll go inside, hand her pollen off to the house bees, and probably turn right around to make another trip. Unless another bee gives her a hot tip about an even better or closer pollen source.

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Like that cool bright orange stuff.




 

Lemon and Raw Lye Soap

I’ve gotten too big for my soap britches.

I was so proud of my shea butter success that I set out to invent another soap the very next day. I thought I’d make a nice fresh lemon zest soap.

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Since I was already winging it with the lemon zest, I decided to stick to an oil ratio from my book: 21 oz olive oil, 10.5 oz coconut oil, and 1 oz castor oil combined with 4.8 oz of lye and 10 oz of water.

I mixed it all together and blended it to trace. Then I added a handful of lemon zest.

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I’m choosing to believe that the lemon zest was my downfall. I don’t have any actual proof, but this is my first batch to go wonky and the zest is the only new variable. My heart tells me that adding the very acidic zest threw off the careful balance of base and oil and messed up its saponification.

But I can’t help but remember my coffee soap, in which I replaced all the water with decidedly acidic black coffee. While it didn’t smell amazing, that batch turned out fine. And I’d even used the same olive/coconut/castor oil recipe…

I suppose it’s possible I just measured something wrong.

Whatever the cause, the stuff never neutralized. After the two hours that always does it for a two pound recipe, I dropped a little Phenolphthalein in and got the bright pink that meant it was still basic.

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I gave it another half hour. And another. And another. At that point I decided it just wasn’t going to happen. On top of not testing neutral, the batter was runny, much more like cold than hot process. I mixed in the rest of my zest, poured the stuff out into a loaf mould and left it overnight.

The next day I turned out something that could easily pass for an olive loaf. On the left edge you can see a hot pink streak of Phenolphthalein.

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I’m totally prepared to find that it can’t be salvaged, but I don’t want to give up just yet. I sliced the loaf into bars that are actually pretty pleasant looking. I’ll leave them open to the air in the basement – with any luck they’ll cure just like a cold process batch. I’ll just have to wait and see.

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To make matters worse, my beloved shea butter concoction is not really holding up under the pressure of being soap. It does lather, but only with some serious scrubbing. And when it dries it fills with fissures that don’t exactly evoke visions of moisturized skin.

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But hey, at least it’s not caustic.

 

Shea Butter Soap

I’m running low on soap!

I never thought it would happen, but I’ve been giving it away and using it up at such a rate that my old batches are almost gone. It’s time to re-up.

I while ago I bought 3 pounds of shea butter online. It arrived on my doorstep in a nondescript plastic bag, squished together into a big loaf. I may have done an underhanded butter deal.

I cut slices off of it, just like with bread, until I reached the weight I wanted.

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Until now I’ve been following recipes in my soap book, but I’ve more or less run out of recipes in it that I can make easily. A lot of them call for palm oil, which I have a vague sense of being even worse for the environment than the things I normally buy, so I’m making an effort to avoid it.

How’s that for activism?

I’d read that you could substitute other oils for palm as long as you reworked the amount of lye needed. Each oil has a different saponification level, which means it needs a different amount of lye to be made into soap. Change your oils but not your lye, and you may get a soap that’s too basic or too greasy.

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I’d been told to run my new oil amounts through a lye calculator to get a palm-free version of the recipe I wanted to use. But it occurred to me that if I had all the tools to rework a recipe, I could just as easily make my own. Since I had all this shea butter, I thought I’d make a 100% shea recipe. Some words of caution online said that all-shea doesn’t make much of a lather, and that a little bit of castor oil couldn’t go amiss. I’d always wondered what that castor oil was for in my past recipes – apparently it’s bubbles!

I went to the Brambleberry Soap Making Supplies Lye Calculator and entered in 33 ounces of shea butter (to equal about the amount of oil that’s fit in my slow cooker in the past) and 1 ounce of castor oil. I said I wanted a 5% superfatting level (this is extra oil that isn’t converted by the lye, making for a smoother, oilier soap).

The results I got in ounces were kind of rough, so I converted them to grams to get a finer measurement. This gave me 117.4 g of lye and 318 g of water. I weighed everything out, melted my oils, mixed my water and lye, and slapped it all together with my immersion blender.

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After a few minutes with the immersion blender, the soap started to trace and I conducted an experiment. I always check to see if my soap is neutral by adding a couple drops of a chemical called Phenolphthalein. Supposedly it stays clear if it comes into contact with a neutral substance, but will turn bright purple if it touches something basic. With every batch I’ve waited until I think the soap is done, dropped a few drops of this stuff, seen that it’s clear, and rubbed it all over my body without a second thought.

I had never, however, seen how it reacted to something that I knew to be basic. For all I knew I had a broken bottle.

It turns out that my bottle works just fine. I’d say pink is an understatement.

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I let the soap cook for two hours, beating it back when it bubbled up like this. It still had some pink to it at this point.

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I liked how the pink looked and wanted to do something more with color. I shook some purple pigment out into a dish – my plan was to mix it with a little bit of cured soap, then work it back into the bigger batch for a swirled effect.

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This plant worked great until I tried to implement it. The amount of soap I tried to mix was way too small and hardened against the dish almost immediately. I scraped as much as I could back into the full batch, then dumped some more pigment straight into that. I stirred it around a little and hoped for the best.

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I glopped it all into a silicone loaf pan and let it sit to cool. After a few hours I turned it out of the pan and sliced it into bars. All things considered I think the pigment came out well – just enough purple to make it interesting.

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I left the slow cooker to soak overnight to make cleaning easier, and the next morning I made a discovery. All that extra soap caked onto the sides can’t go down the drain (apparently it’s a clogging nightmare) so I scooped it out with my hand. I was planning on throwing it away, but before long I found myself with a big handful of the stuff – at least another bar’s worth. I squeezed it into a ball and saved it. It’s awfully wet, but I’m leaving it to dry to see what happens… though I’ll be very surprised if anything “happens” apart from it going from a wet ball of soap to a dry ball of soap.

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But sometimes you have to inject a little suspense into your soap blog.

 

Lilac Wine

The lilacs are in full bloom in Providence.

I never realized how many lilac bushes were around until I started looking for them, but it seems like they’re everywhere. I stumbled across this recipe last summer, long after I’d missed my chance. I’m timing it right this time.

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I considered trawling the city and snipping blossoms here and there from people’s yards. They’re usually drooping over the sidewalk, and who would miss a few flowers? That’s more sneaking than I’m used to, and with a recipe that calls for nearly a gallon of blossoms, that’s a lot of trooping around.

Luckily the community garden has a huge lilac bush that I felt much easier about taking from. My fellow beekeeper Kim actually started it in a pot in her kitchen 12 years ago. It’s come a long way since then. And since our garden is organic (and I did find the odd worm picking through the flowers) I feel reasonably confident that I won’t be making pesticide wine.

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I didn’t want to clean out the bush of its flowers, so I spread my harvesting over two and a half trips, trying to take only the most open sprays. This is one harvest’s worth, bunched together into a super spray.

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The thing about lilacs is that its sprays are actually made up of scores of tiny individual flowers. I became intimately aware of this fact as I pulled each and every one off of its stem.

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I have gazed into the abyss, and it smells amazing.

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After destemming my first day’s flowers, I sealed the bag and put it in the freezer to keep them from wilting.

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This worked better than I could have hoped. They kept their shape and (mostly) their color. They look like they belong on top of a cake.

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A few days later I repeated the process and may have made a huge mistake. Instead of starting a new bag, I just threw my fresh flowers on top of my old frozen ones. An hour out of the freezer and in my lap did the frozen flowers no favors – they thawed into a nasty brown mass.

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All the flowers here are frozen – can you tell which are from the first day and which are from the second?

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The brown flowers notwithstanding, they really were beautiful. I was worried the brown ones would spoil the whole batch, but I didn’t have enough volume without them and I was so sick of destemming sprays by this point. I reasoned with myself that all the flowers would lose their color once they thawed, and these had just had a head start. Against my own better judgment I used both brown and purple flowers.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a real project unless I’m needlessly jeopardizing the whole thing.

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I boiled 7 pints of water and dumped it over the flowers to make a lilac “tea.” I’ve found a few recipes for lilac wine, and they all recommend letting this tea sit for 48 hours. I’ve also found quite a few comments on these recipes complaining that 48 hours of sitting turned their lilac tea to rotten mush. I can believe it – two days is a long time to leave wet flowers in the dark. I gave my tea 24 hours and called that more than enough time. How strong does this tea need to be, anyway?

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I was happy to see that most of the flowers had turned brown, but a little unnerved that all of them hadn’t…

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I ran my tea through a sieve to separate liquid from solid. Is the tea purple? Lord no. It’s an amber color that looks, for lack of a better word, like tea.

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I put my tea in a fermentation bucket and added everything but the yeast. This included a crushed Campden tablet that would sterilize the must over the course of another 24 hours. I also added a teaspoon of yeast nutrient and enough sugar for my hydrometer to read 1.160. I was just a little short on sugar and made up for it in honey. This is the first wine I’ve made by adjusting the sugar to the correct amount instead of blindly adding the number of cups the recipe calls for.

It only took me a year of winemaking to get my act together.

What I don’t have, however, is a way to measure acidity. Some recipes call for 2 lemons’ worth of juice, while others call for 2 tablespoons of juice, the equivalent of about half a lemon. Remembering the horrible astringency of my cucumber wine, I erred on the tablespoon side of things.

I hope I made the right call.

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I mixed all these ingredients together and let them sit under a towel. After 24 hours I sprinkled a 5 gram package of Champagne yeast over the surface and replaced the towel.

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The next morning I gave the must a good stir and was met with bubbles. Fermentation is definitely under way. The color is still brown but not un-purple. I’d call it a mauve.

More importantly, it smells wonderful. I gave it just a splash of honey, but it’s really coming through. Besides that, it has a floral scent that’s surprisingly delicate and is blending really well with that classic fermentation smell. I have very high hopes.

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Since I’ll have to wait a whole year to make this again if it’s any good, I might have to strike while the iron’s hot and snatch up enough flowers for another batch.

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Maybe pay the neighbors’ gardens a visit…

Progress

The bees are kicking it into top gear. Late last week we took advantage of the sudden good weather to do an impromptu inspection. It was very nice not to have to hold an umbrella over the hive the whole time.

The first thing we noticed was that a good third of the syrup was missing – you can see a few droplets here on the inner cover, but most of it has gone into the bees and been converted into much needed energy. This means the bees have been munching away and working hard to draw their wax frames out into livable comb.

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When we lifted the inner cover, we found the bees more or less clustered around the middle few frames. Eventually they’ll work their way out into all ten and will have to be given a second box to make way for expansion. For the time being, though, population is low and momentum is going to take a while to build.

We gave them a half and half mix of new frames (like the one being lifted here) and old frames. The old frames were drawn out into cells by bees of the past, while the new frames hold virtually flat sheets of wax that these bees will have to draw out themselves.

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Here’s a nice bundle of bees on a new frame. What they’re doing is building up on the hexagonal imprint on the wax foundation we gave them to create a wall of cells in the classic honeycomb shape. Where do they get the wax? From nowhere pretty. The workers eat honey (or for many of them right now, sugar water) to give themselves energy. They then exude tiny bits of wax through glands in their sides. They (or maybe some close friends) scoop up these little bits in their mouths and chew them to warm them up to malleability. Then they spit it out and work it into the existing wax, expanding the honeycomb by a little more.

This process is repeated countless times by countless bees to make a perfect, highly uniform pattern.

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Up close you can see how the honeycomb is starting to take on a 3-D shape. The cells have gotten deep enough that some bee has decided to store a single serving of pollen. Are these bees with their heads in the cells working to build them out more or bringing in more pollen? I’m not sure.

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The old frames have a completely different look to them. For one thing, the wax has turned a dark yellow to brown from the countless bee feet that have passed over it. For another thing, the cells are already at full size, so the bees on these frames can focus on storage instead of wax making.

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Even so, they’ve been making some wax. The chunk in the top middle is a hunk of burr comb, which the bees make to fill in spaces they deem too open. What are these bees up to? The ones with their heads in the cells are most likely depositing pollen or honey for storage. The others could be doing any number of jobs. Maybe they’re talking about the hottest new nectar source.

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As usual, one of the main goals of this inspection was to find the queen and make sure she was alive and happy. When we picked up our third or fourth frame the bees got much more agitated, and sure enough it was because we’d exposed the queen. I took this picture that looks like it would have been fantastic if I’d managed to focus the camera. Just look at that sunlight seeping through! The queen, though fuzzy, is the large, light yellow bee in the center with the white dot on her back.

Try squinting – it looks almost passable.

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Since everyone was so upset about about us bothering their queen, we decided to leave them alone after this. We didn’t see eggs, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. And even if they’re not, that may just mean the queen has yet to go on her mating flight. She’s had some bad weather keeping her indoors.

But now the sun’s out and spring and love are in the air, so she should be able to go out and find a dozen nice gents to kill as she sucks their semen into her body where it will be stored for several years.

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Isn’t nature beautiful?

Tomatoes on Their Own

A while back I bought too many seeds. And then I planted them. So before I knew it I had too many seedlings.

Here are my little baby tomatoes back in March. Aren’t they cute?

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Here they are last weekend. Not so cute anymore.

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This poor seed tray was overrun with tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, peppers, melons, and cabbages. The tomatoes were the real problem children – they got so big they flopped over and started to grow up again at a 90 degree angle, shading everybody in the process.

After an unseasonably warm winter, early May was unusually cold. I waited as long as I could, but finally had to give up and move them outside. The nights could be warmer, but the danger of frost seems to have passed. And these things can’t keep growing in the living room.

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I got three varieties of tomatoes and grew three plants of each. I have a second plot in the community garden this year, but there’s still nowhere near enough space, so I’m going container crazy. I got a few 7 gallon fabric grow bags, and boy do they hold a lot of dirt. If the tomatoes aren’t happy with this amount of space, I don’t know what to tell them.

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You can bury tomatoes deep when you transplant them, which is nice when your seedlings are over two feet tall. Even so, they have some very funny bends to them. I tried to angle them toward the bars of the cage and tied them gently in place. With any luck they’ll grow up straightish from here.

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Since the nights are still chilly, I wrapped the cages in plastic painters’ drop cloths. The idea was to retain a little bit of heat, but as evening fell and the wind picked up, I decided they’d be even better for wind protection. I did harden the seedlings off over the course of several days, but spending your first night outside in the wind and tied to a stake would be rough on anybody.

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The end result was a pretty sturdy set of tents. It wasn’t supposed to get below freezing, and I wasn’t looking for a repeat of the hoop house – all I wanted was a little extra protection.

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I did put a few tomatoes in my garden plot as well, and I gave them the same wrap treatment. The wind in the garden is considerably stronger than at my house, and I was slightly worried I’d just tied my seedlings to big sails… They survived the first few nights, and then I took the plastic off due to rising temperatures and sheer anxiety.

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Five days later all the plants are doing well. No one has wilted and no one has gotten wrenched in half by a gust. Last year’s tomato season was something of a bust, so I’m really hoping for a good showing this summer.

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With nine plants, I have the numbers on my side.

Uncle Beth’s Home Grown Mead

Last November Kim and I started a gallon of mead with our bees’ honey. Since then I’ve been racking it occasionally but mostly forgetting about it. I discovered it again recently and declared it ready to bottle.

It was, like everything I make, extremely dry and boozy, so I back sweetened it with 1/4 cup of honey. Booziness aside, I’m very happy with it. It’s so different from the store honey mead and, dare I say it, better. I’d say it tastes richer and has a stronger honey base. There’s also a lot less of it. I’ve been free with the 5 gallon batch of mead, taking it to parties and pawning it off on friends, because 5 gallons is a lot to have of anything. One gallon, on the other hand, filled just 11 beer bottles. Beer bottles are perfect for gallon batches, because they can be portioned out more slowly.

They’re also perfect for my small homemade labels. Technically this was the prototype for the official label, but I think I like it more.

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