Thursday, August 10, 2017

Remote Living: Food, Don't Take Mother Nature For Granted

The biggest lesson I have learned from increasing our reliance on personal food production is:  “Don't expect last year's harvest to repeat.” Maybe Mother Nature has a sense of humor.  She certainly throws some curve balls.  Because each season's harvest varies, I am learning observation and humility, and rebounding with a range of preservation techniques and alternative crops and recipes for when X or Y disappoints.  Below is a summary of this year's results with birch sap, honey bees, chickens, berries, vegetables, and herbs.   High points:  raspberry mead, nasturtium pesto, and naturalized cilantro. Oh, and moose didn't linger to devastate the berry bushes and apple trees.  Low points: birch sap and a rainy July.
An 8 foot tall swarm of honey bees

BIRCH SAP:  We were TOTALLY SKUNKED on birch sap collection, which absolutely blindsided us since the prior three years had been so easy and successful. In fact, we nearly doubled the number of tapped trees in anticipation (from 30 to nearly 55) and finished off the remaining sap and syrup from the prior year. The desultory drips and measly harvest result, I learned, from meager diurnal temperature differentiation.  Ah, yes, that.    Heard and noted.  So no syrup this year (need to reduce 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup).  We made twenty gallons of beer with the sap, which was fine, but this year's carboy of birch sap wine tastes watery.  Darn.

BEES:  OVERWINTERED, SWARMED, TWO SPECIES:  Despite the deep cold (down to -36 F)  and low snow insulation last winter, two of our four beehives astonished us by overwintering. Yea! Number 3 lasted until February only, but Number 4 survived until spring, multiplied, and swarmed in July when its population exceeded the capacity of its four level hive.  “Absconding” is when an entire colony abandons the hive. “Swarming” means that a large percentage leaves with the queen, but others remain with a new queen they have created.  It was fascinating to watch tens of thousands of bees circle in a huge vortex, and then form a living stalactite to protect the queen on a dangling birch bough.  Several hours later, upon some cue from scout bees, the entire group flew slowly east, into the woods, presumably to a predetermined rotting tree with a nice hollow center.

Dismayed that we may have lost one quarter of our honey workers, my husband donned his bee suit the next morning and peeked inside.  He encountered a population so robust he would not have believed the peregrination we witnessed the day before.  One change this year: we repeated two hives of Italian bees and are trying out two hives of Buckfast, which are reported to be even more prodigious.  Both species are gentle, “9-5” workers in sunny, still weather.  With all the rain this summer, we fear a lower volume (than 17.5 gallons from four hives last year), which would be a double whammy on “sweets” production (with the sap).  We'll find out in mid-August, which is harvest season in Southcentral Alaska.

RABBITS: HIGH SURVIVAL RATE:  A friend mated two does for us (both first time
Our five rabbit hutches
mothers, Flemish Giants) who kindled two litters with no casualties. One bore four kits and the other nine.  For the first time, we saw a mother nurse her babies outside the nesting box, after the kits could romp around.   In the fall, we cull them for winter meat, but during the summer I value their poop for the gardens, and with 15 rabbits, I have A LOT!  "Free" fertilizer! We have never tanned hides, but last winter (through BOW: Becoming an Outdoors Woman, through most states' Fish and Game departments), I learned how to skin and sew fur.  Since rabbit fur is thin, it may be a good first try for me.

CHICKENS:  CYCLE of LIFE:  I have enjoyed raising chickens more than I ever
Son feeding the chickens
anticipated.  This year, we retained four older hens of various breeds, who don't lay much anymore, and bought four Dominique pullets, which matured to lay an impressive egg per day per girl!  We enjoy quiches, deviled eggs, fried rice, Cobb salads, baked goods and, of course, hearty breakfasts, thanks to them.  Two of the older hens died of natural causes (I can't eat my chickens) and one is a “grandma wannabe” who sits on others' eggs all day.

BERRIES:  BOUNTEOUS harvests of both wild and domesticated berries:  High-bush cranberries have loved this weather.  Although the birds are getting their share, branches bowed under clusters of 10 - 16 berries vs. 3-5 in most years.  I can't wait to harvest gallons of them when it starts to get cool!  The strawberries and raspberries plumped up in the rainy summer, but need to harvested fast before they mold.  My chickens ate all the haskap flowers from those low, new bushes, birds got the Saskatoon berries when they were still hard, as they will the elderberries soon.  Fortunately, the glossy currants remain untouched beneath their big leaves.

The gallon of raspberry mead we made in February with berries and honey from last year was delicious.  Not having any experience with mead, I expected an almost syrupy sweet concoction, like ice wine. Not so.  It was very dry, a gorgeous amethyst color, a fabulous raspberry aroma and an intriguing almond-like aftertaste.  If we don't eat all we collect this month, we will make more this summer.

VEGETABLES: HIGHS and LOWS:   Rainy July really set back the tomatoes and peppers, and the occasional bursts of 80+ F degree days then burned the leaves of outdoor plants and caused many to bolt.  Who knew that celery flowers were like pretty yellow daisies?  However, the snow peas and lettuces liked the weather, and brassicas (cabbage, broccoli family) always do well here. I won't harvest root and tuber crops until later, but I snuck an early potato which was delicious, a beet that was HUGE, and a red carrot that was sweet.  Of the six artichoke plants I tried for the first time this year, (an annual in Alaska), only two feature even a single globe.  I have decided to nix eggplants forever.  They are the first to attract aphids and I don't get enough to eat to put up with the aggravation.  The two older rhubarb plants are great but the three Chinese rhubarb purchased last year all failed to return.  Two sad looking asparagus spears on one plant that overwintered but the purple asparagus other didn't make it. Radish and mustard plants are everywhere for the (white and yellow, respectively) flowers, mostly, but I just pickled several pints of radish pods.  I love the crisp, hollow texture.  Also, the bees love them.

I also love nasturtiums, a flower in a variety of colors with distinctive round leaves.
Fresh nasturtium pesto

 This year I planted them  in the greenhouse to shade the roots of plants and will do so everywhere else next year. All parts: (leaves, flowers, pods) are edible, with a spicy, horseradishy element that was rather tame this year.  I make some gorgeous vinegars from the different colored flowers and enjoyed a tasty recipe for bright green nasturtium leaf pesto.  Great with beef, fish, and goat cheese.

HERBS/FLOWERS:  HIGHS and LOWS:  Sadly, oregano failed to overwinter.  Having become cavalier about it, I lacked seeds to replace it.  Lesson learned. Cilantro, on the other hand not only overwintered but naturalized. Who knew?  In Alaska!  Yea!  Lots of chimichurri sauce. Thyme and anise hyssop were two other big winners. Regular chives thrive everywhere so I keep dividing and moving them.  The round purple flowers are lovely, the greens are tasty, they are absolutely effortless, and they protect adjacent plants from some insects and voles/chickens/hares that don't like their scent. Garlic chives have been pickier for me, so I planted garlic cloves throughout the gardens and harvested the scapes (grassy leaves) which have a fabulous buttery-garlic flavor.  Borage naturalized, but since I don't like that plant, I am not too pleased about that.  I plan to rip them up and move them to the bee yard, since they like them. Lavender failed me for a second year.  Four types of basil were tasty but not robust in this weather.  Yarrow - that hardy plant - died where it had long grown as a hedge along my cabin.  Maybe it was the lack of snow cover under the eaves because it rebounded elsewhere in the yard.  Fireweed was much less showy so far (early August) but the four types of clover I have sown as ground cover and weed deterrent have been prolific and perfumed the air and flower arrangements.  The bees love it.    
Nasturtium with flowers

WILD FORAGING:  Because it was so rainy, my passive net drying racks for wild leaves didn't work as well as usual, so I dried some leaves in the oven.  But twice I forgot that several pans were in there,  roasting them.   Drat.  The herbs I did harvest for teas, spices, and home remedies include: red clover, chamomile, rose petals, dandelion flowers (a pain, because they turn to fluff even after you pluck them so I need to use them immediately next year), birch and alder leaves, spruce tips, yarrow, cleavers, strawberry and raspberry leaves, mint, and elder flower.  The gallon of elder flower wine I made has a distinctive perfumy flower flavor and a silky mouthfeel. This was my only successful “wild” wine so far this year.    

CONCLUSION:  Weather contributes to bounteous harvests one year and limited ones the next.  The variations of the past few years reinforce "make hay while the sun shines" sorts of messages.  One is to preserve plants/fish/meat in various ways (canning, drying, fermenting, flavored vinegars, salves, tinctures).  Another is to be attentive to timing:  one week for spruce tips; one month for raspberries.   If I wait too long, wild and domesticated plant leaves bolt or turn bitter.  In protracted rain, fruit and vegetables get moldy.   I have also learned that the taste varies from one year to another. For example, our 2015 honey had a citrusy undertone whereas the 2016 harvest suggested caramel. This year's nasturtium leaves are much less peppery than last year's.    Also, I find that my enthusiasms shift a bit each year, as I learn a new recipe or discover that year's prolific "winner" plant.  This summer, I enjoyed my inaugural efforts at nasturtium pesto, bright pink chive flower vinegar, and the flavor of last year's raspberry mead.  I was delighted that the cilantro naturalized (and much less enthusiastic about borage doing the same).

Such variations keep me on my toes.  I'm never bored.

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