Oct
17

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Essential Apple Processing Tools

Ahhhhh, Autumn.  Leaves start turning and the peak of the harvest comes in.  It’s a time of abundance – but translating this brief period abundance before winter sets in takes a bit of work – especially if that abundance truly is abundant.

Old and New Apple Peelers

Old and New Apple Peelers

For our family apples play a big part of that fall harvest period – save for those years where a late frost kills the majority of the blossoms.   We get apples not only from our own trees but from those of our neighbors, and in good years we get loads of apples.  That was the case again this year, which is great since this is the second year in a row that there was a crop failure for blueberries around our cottage.

But, how do you get bushels of apples once picked from the bins into shape to last?  Well, as with so many things efficiency is the key – and that translates into both strategy and tools.

Steamed apples ready for processing into apple sauce

Steamed apples ready for processing into apple sauce

From a strategy standpoint gleaned or home harvested apples aren’t the perfect orbs you see in the grocery store where a huge amount of culling has taken place.  That means the apples you pick will include perfect ones as well as misshapen ones, bruised ones and tiny ones.

I save the best for fresh storage, the next grade of nicely sized ones get peeled and sliced to be frozen, dried, or canned as sliced apples.  Next along the line are those apples which have a bit of decay which I’ve cut out, misshapen ones and small ones these end up going for sauce or cider.  Cider and sauce is also the outlet for the better apples once I’ve filled the freezer and pantry shelves with sliced, dried and spiced apples.

Apple sauce from the Victorio food mill

Apple sauce from the Victorio food mill

You can do that by hand, but in any volume you’ll need some solid tools.  An apple slicer is key here – now I love my Bonanza apple peeler which is in my opinion the apex of hand cranked apple peeler development, even if that apex was achieved a couple of generation ago.  I started with a more modern hand cranked unit – and it’s a good stop gap – better I think than the Reading 76 I also have.  The modern unit is low cost and is an investment that will pay off very quickly in improved efficiency.

For apple sauce – my Victorio food mill is awesome – steam the apples until soft and the throughput is fantastic – and sauce makes great fruit leather!

cover 02 (481x640)Apple cider – both fresh (and canned) and fermented to hard cider, is truly ambrosia, and apple cider syrup makes for a great addition to a lot of recipes.  It’s also easy to make when you have a cider press – commercial ones can be pricey but homebuilt ones can be readily assembled and come at a low price point.

It’s a bit of work putting the harvest down – but the bounty will pay off through the year with readily available healthy food at the cost of the effort to put them down.  It’s a pretty good deal in my opinion.

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Tilting Hoop House Essential Upgrade

When I moved to my new home a few years ago I left my Harbour Freight 10×12 greenhouse and the nearly four extra months of growing season (two months on each side) that it provided – a not insignificant boost here in Ottawa given our frost free timeline is generally accepted as the end of May until towards the end of September.

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Heavy duty corner brackets installed on the hoop house

So after making due with row covers and some very low tunnels last year I put in some medium hoop houses, that were hinged to open from the base.  These worked pretty well – being able to grow taller crops and hold more than the single row hoops but were still a bargain cost and time wise compared to higher walk in hoops.

Heavy duty angle bracket

Heavy duty angle bracket

The base of these was made from 2×6 lumber – which provided strength and weight to keep things anchored down… but unfortunately in the process of opening and closing them the screwed together corners began to pull apart.

I tried reinforcing with 4×4 blocks but the forces were too much for that solution to last long.  So now I’ve gone and built some extra heavy duty corner brackets from some flat steel bent up in the hydraulic press and some U steel to provide further reinforcement.  With these bolted in place the frames are rock solid and should offer a great long lasting solution – even better, the cost to fabricate these at home was a fraction of what it would have cost to buy them would have been.  That’s the advantage of having some solid tools… now it’s time to get everything into the ground!

 

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DIY Seed Start Heat Mat

Bottom heat can give your seed starting a real helping hand – particularly for some crops such as peppers.  For a home scale operation that usually means using one of the flexible rubber mats with the heating loop imbedded into it that slips under your seed starting trays.  I’ve been using this method for over a decade and it really does make a major difference for some heat loving plants – BUT, I’ve found that these tend to wear out and I end up having to replace them every few years.

The Seed Start Heat Mat in position and active

The Seed Start Heat Mat in position and active

Given these are fairly expensive when my last one gave up the ghost last year I decided to come up with something better and longer lasting than simply to order another and continue the cycle.

Here’s what I came up with – a STC1000 digital temperature controller – 110volt model (under $10 on ebay from china ) and a 250W 110V cartridge heater ($5) form the basis of the system.

Both the cartridge heater and the thermocouple for the temperature controller fit into holes drilled in a 3/4″ thick block of scrap aluminum that is then lag bolted through a 3/16″ thick piece of aluminum plate to a 2X3 piece of lumber.  The aluminum plate is long enough to fit two grow trays while allowing a gap for the heater at the center.

Heat mat under construction

Heat mat under construction

The temperature controller is housed in a 3D printed box that is mounted on the top of the 2×3 with the cords all held nicely in place by a strap at the back of the wood piece.

The whole assembly is supported by some scrap 1″ thick pieces of pine left from building beehives over the usual trays on my growlight assembly.

I used a couple of additional sheets of aluminum to spread out the heat more evenly under the grow trays.

In operation I set the temperature of the aluminum block and by trial and error move it up until the temperature of water placed in my grow trays hits the desired temperature for the seedlings I am producing.  If you were using a much thicker block of aluminum you could set the temperature much more in line with the desired setting – but with this setup the temperature of the block ends up being considerably higher than you would normally want in order to see the necessary amount of heat generated to be distributed through the aluminum plates.

Peppers started with the DIY  Heat Mat

Peppers started with the DIY Heat Mat

 

It’s not a perfect system, but for about $20 and some scrap I have a solid bottom heat source for seed starting that should last decades and allow me to produce loads of heat loving seed starts at home – paying back the investment in less than a year compared to buying transplants at the garden center.

 

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Harbor Freight Dehydrator – all things considered a good value

Dehydrator tray of tomatoes

Dehydrator tray of tomatoes

Among the food preservation techniques dehydration has to be one of the easiest, and that alone should merit it’s incorporation into your household, and the dehydrators sold by Harbor Freight offer a reasonable entry point to do just that.

I’ll say right now – these five tray units run about $20 when coupons and the frequent specials get figured in.  That’s cheap.  Now the current models aren’t anything fancy – just basically a 125 Watt heating element in the bottom, five plastic trays and a top.  The previous model which featured a fan and a turntable type setup for the trays was about the same price, but in my experience does and equally OK job.

Current HF dehydrator, and previous model (L & R)

Current HF dehydrator, and previous model (L & R)

Now, it appears some folks have received units that overheated pretty much at startup.  I’ve never had that happen but you’d probably do well to start it up for the first time during a period where you could observe it and if problems happen bring it back and swap it for another one.  The other issue has to do with the durability of the trays.  To be sure these trays are fragile – you have to treat them carefully or they will break.  BUT, this is a $20 dehydrator.  Spend five times as much and you can get the bottom of the line Excalabur… or you can build one easily enough, but even that approach is likely to run you more than $20 not factoring in your time.

I have a really big homebuild dehydrator – but it only really gets called out when we’re in prime harvest season.  Otherwise one or both of my Harbor Freight dehydrators are going to be doing the work for me.  During the summer that is often drying tomatoes or zucchini for fall soups and dressings.  In the fall and winter more often than not they are drying apple slices we’ve peeled, sliced and frozen or making apple leather from some of the apple sauce we’ve put down.  It doesn’t take much time to pay off the $20 investment when you are making dried fruit.

So if you don’t have a dehydrator or want another one consider the Harbor Freight units – they aren’t fancy, they aren’t really solid but the price factor means they possess significant value.

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Goodell Cherry Pitter – First Try Pitting Bush Cherries

Now I really like my Goodell Bonanza apple peeler and corer.  It is fast and it does a great job.  It is probably the best hand cranked apple peeler out there – which is probably why they run a pretty penny.  I was lucky enough to get mine at a very attractive price at the stat of the last economic downturn and consider myself fortunate to have been able to take advantage of buying opportunities such as that one.

Ready to start processing the first harvest of bush cherries (that made it into the house)

Ready to start processing the first harvest of bush cherries (that made it into the house)

So when it came time to start shopping for cherry pitters to handle the cherries I was anticipating harvesting from my four bush cherries (Carmine Jewel,  Romeo, Juliette, Cupid) – those are the variety names in case you were wondering, I’m not generally in the habit of giving nicknames to my fruit trees – the Goodell Cherry Pitter stood out as one I though I would like to try.  I also noticed that it’s mechanical function has been copied in some more modern small commercial units – which spoke highly of its productivity and the lasting value of the operating principal.  After all, just because it can work doesn’t mean it will work well.

So with this the first real harvest year from my bushes and the harvest just started I got my first opportunity to give it a whirl.  I wanted to see if it worked as well as I thought it should, and if the pit holes might need to be bushed to accommodate the smaller bush cherries.

Two cherries pitted, impaled and about to be stripped from the prongs

Two cherries pitted, impaled and about to be stripped from the prongs

You can check out the video to see how it functions for yourself, but overall I am pretty satisfied.  Some of the pits were carried over along with the pitted cherries – so a few seconds of sorting was needed but overall the performance was pretty good, and I am fairly confident that I don’t need to machine and fit bushings into the pit holes.  The pits seem seem to be relatively similar in size to those in more common tree cherries even though the cherry itself is smaller.

So two thumbs up for the Goodell Cherry pitter.  Now I may still get a plunger unit just to see how those compare but for this season at least I am confident that I’ve got a fast and effective solution to processing what cherries make it inside for pies.  I’m pretty eager to make up a cherry cheesecake with my own cherries, and nearly as exicted to have a bunch of pitts to stratify and growout… maybe the next great bush cherry variety will originate from my backyard rather than the UofS… ahhhh aggie dreams.

 

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Rooted grape cuttings leafing out

The grape cuttings I started rooting earlier are coming along nicely and have leafed out.  While I have not yanked on them to check they appear to have rooted nicely so I haven’t bothered to trim the leaves to reduce transpiration as I have done when I’ve been rooting cuttings outdoors.

Rooted Grape Cuttings leafing out

Rooted Grape Cuttings leafing out

I’m rather pleased since going the cuttings route has allowed me to get varieties I would be hard pressed to find otherwise and it’s saved me a load of money.  The cuttings were $1 each rather than $7 to $10 if I’d been buying stock from a local nursery.

Along one side of my yard the previous owners planted some cedars up against the fence.  They add a nice bit of green and an additional bit of privacy to the yard.  BUT, I can’t eat cedars so I am planning to remove them and put in grapes trained vertically.

What really got me primed was the fassadengruen website from Germany which shows step by step how to train the grapes in this fashion.  It looks much easier than the other methods – and frankly the grapes I’ve grown in the past haven’t been very well trained – and should allow me to grow and edible privacy screen!

The quality of cuttings I received from Burt Dunn was excellent.  Thanks Burt!

 

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Greenhouse vents from Harbor Freight

So last weekend a couple of nice medium high hoop houses went up.  The only item of any significance left to do to finish them off was to build and install vents so that the spaces wouldn’t overheat.

Harbor Freight greenhouse vent mounted to frame

Harbor Freight greenhouse vent mounted to frame

Often it is hard to remember that even when the outside is cool the solar gain in a cold frame or greenhouse can be significant.  Now before you’ve got plants growing I think it makes sense to limit air exchange so that you build up the thermal reserve in the soil – especially if that soil was frozen just a few weeks ago.  But once the soil is thawed and plants go in it becomes imperative to ensure that they aren’t baked.

There are thermostatically controlled vents of course – but those rely on and use electricity.  When I had my solar greenhouse I came to really like the vents that rely on the expansion within in a cylinder pushing on a lever to open vents.  These have the advantage of being completely non electric and in my experience completely dependable.  They aren’t nearly as controllable as electro-mechanical systems would be but they are pretty fool proof, low cost and get the job done.

Now, they are limited in what they can lift – think plastics not glass.  If the bulk of your cold frame or greenhouse is glass just make your vents out of plastic material and you’ll be fine.

Vent frame in place with hoop house plastic attached

Vent frame in place with hoop house plastic attached

For my setup I made a frame to fit a couple of pieces of plexiglass that I was given when I purchases a pantograph from a sign shop in Montreal that had served Zellers stores but when that retailer shut down the sign company closed the associated shop. The owner offered me all the plastic offcuts – some of significant size – and professional paints and hardeners that I wanted.  With the pantograph on my trailer I piled the bed of my truck high with the free material.  As luck would have it I drove back through a massive police presence – escorts for a Hell’s Angels and Associates motorcycle ride that traveled along with me.

Heat activated hoop house vent open

Heat activated hoop house vent open

Anyway the frames were built from the remaining used pieces of 2×4 and some plywood offcuts.  The plexiglass pieces were hinged at the top, with the screws extending through the sheet into hardwood sections salvaged from hockey sticks.  The opener itself is fixed to the lower portion of the window frame and the action arm was bolted with the included bolts through holes drilled in the lower part of the plexiglass window.

By the afternoon the greenhouse was hot enough that the widow had opened, so now I have no more excuses to delay planting… maybe I’ll take that on tomorrow if it’s nice.

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Assisted natural selection

The seeds that were started a few weeks ago have now for the most part germinated.  In many cases the five or six seeds planted into each pot have germinated and are now in need of trimming.

This is especially true for the tomato seedling.  It won’t be long before the pots which were only filled a third of the way with potting mix need to have more mix added – giving an extra long rooting surface… but we aren’t there yet.  Today is the cull day.

A crowded pot before the cull

A crowded pot before the cull

 

The start of process of selecting the traits I value in the plants.  At this point it’s all about vigor and health.  Fail to make the grade – and about two-thirds don’t and your traits are removed from the gene pool.  The scissors are swift.

As the season goes on, the cull rate will decline but the selection process continues. In the case of the tomatoes I look for strong healthy plants that not only start producing early but yield heavily and do so thought the season and as far into the fall as possible, at the same time I want them to have the taste profile I expect.  The wild tomatoes that the kids love need to be sweet, but for the rest I want really well balanced tomato flavor.

The winners whose fruit is selected to provide seed for next year aren’t necessarily the ones that excel in only one of these traits but rather the ones that provide the best combination of these traits.  That said, if a plant is exceptional in one regard and only one I’m going to keep seed – but I’ll keep it apart from the rest for further evaluation.

Of course what I am looking for is subjective.  I like pushing the season at either end, I garden intensively and don’t bother to try to control for plant diseases, I like indeterminate plants with their long season.  my flavor tastes are of course even more subjective.  Even my soil and growing conditions play a role in determining what does well, attracts my attention and gets selected to remain in the gene pool.

Now these traits might not always have what it takes to survive.  The ash tree that graced my front yard – a massive, strong and beautiful tree – whose limbs supported more that a few large machine tools being raised with a chain hoist either out of or into my truck bed – is gone, a victim of emerald ash borer that has now killed most of the ash trees of any size in the region.

Still, in the absence of radical selection pressures such as this one, my tomato gene pool evolved at a more leisurely pace, but it still moves in lock step with my actions driven by what I value in practice.

This of course is no different than any other aspect of our lives.  Who and what we are is driven by our true actions.  As with the evolution of my tomato populations the theory doesn’t matter – it’s all about the reality of actions (or inaction) that determines which way the gene pool moves.

The strongest survive for further evaluation

The strongest survive for further evaluation

So today’s cull reflected not only the start of the selection for what I value in the tomatoes I grow this year, but in many ways a continuing selection within my own life for what I value – which includes the value I place on growing at least a portion of my family’s food and doing so in the most sustainable fashion possible.

So what are you selecting for?

 

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Grape Propagation

The rush of spring continues.  A few weeks ago I started rooting a bunch of grape cuttings I’d ordered.  The grape propagation process is simple enough.  Make sure you get good sized sections of last years vine while they are dormant.  The sections should have at least three buds.  You can store them wrapped in a damp cloth in your fridge for a couple of months if necessary.

When you are ready to start rooting them, make a fresh cut on the base of the vine segment (buds face up), dip the base in water to get the rooting hormone to stick then dip in in your container of rooting hormone.

Push a hole in your damp potting medium with a pencil so that you can insert the base of the vine into the medium.

That’s it.  If you have bottom heat great use it.  If not, that’s ok too.  The most important thing here is that even if the base is being warmed the air should be cool so that you delay having the buds break for as long as possible.  As soon as that happens you’ll need to bring them into the light but before then then don’t need it.

While I started the process for the new varieties of vines I purchased a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to clone the Beta grapes that were growing at my folks place and took the opportunity to do a video showing just how easy the process for rooting grapes is.

Give it a try, if not this year then make sure you take the few minutes to get it done next year.

Grape propagation

A closeup of grapes being rooted, note the buds

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Spring Fever – Seedlings being started

I know it might be popular in some corners to suggest that as humans we have removed ourselves from the influence of the pull of eons of evolution and somehow our brains have been able to eliminate the tug of natural forces. I think we are a bit closer to animals than folks would often like to admit, and that shows in part in the forces and rhythms which drive us.

For me at this time of year, as the rays of the sun grow in strength there is an unmistakable tug to plant, to get seeds started and prepare for spring and the last frost date.  Now, granted it’s not like I’m going to end up curled in the fetal position sweating in the corner if I don’t get my seeds planted – but it would feel decidedly odd.

Without a question I have a bit of an addiction to collecting, trialing, saving and improving plant material, and this time of year offers the start of a season of promise and discovery.

I am reasonably certain that my standby veggies whose seed I saved from last year will perform once again – the reisentraube and matina tomatoes – as well as the wild cherry tomatoes that drive the kids wild with their combination of marble sized fruit and high sugar content – fortunately they are as productive as they are loved.  On the pepper front there are the Peace Sweet peppers, along with the Hungarian hot wax, jalapeno and greek pepperocini peppers that I can count on.

But then there are the pots filled with the new varieties or ones which while grown a few years back didn’t stand out enough then to merit replanting.  Among those will I find a new favorite to add to the annual must have list?  Will the seductive descriptions in the seed catalogs  – Fedco is my favorite – live up to my expectations?

At some point I know I am going to have to turn from acquiring and saving seed to taking a more active role in breeding to obtain the characteristics I am looking for, but right now my fix is still met with saved and purchased seeds.

So, again this year I’ve wagered a bit of money on seed packets to compliment those I’ve saved and the natural roulette wheel has started its spin.  Will some of these win a place on the annual must plant list or be relegated to an also ran. In either case even the losers in this race get eaten, so regardless of the outcome I ‘m relatively sure I’m bound to win this gamble.

Starting Herb Seeds

Herb seeds sprouting

Matina tomato

Matina tomato sprouts – promising a season of great harvests