Monthly Archives: August 2013

A New Delight: Tomato Basil Jam

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Oh August, I have a love/hate relationship with you.  You still throw out incredibly hot temperatures causing me to do outdoor projects only in the early morning and late afternoon.  Yet on the other hand, you provide something that causes me to do my happy dance.  Why am I happy?  The simple answer is, the heirloom tomatoes are ready for harvesting!

tomatoes, basil, and lemon juice cooking down

tomatoes, basil, and lemon juice cooking down

So this month, my kitchen never really cools down.  It seems that there is always a preserving pan on the stove and another one full of boiling water ready to sterilize my canning equipment.  Though this year, there is a little more free room on the stove as I have moved onto an electric water bath canner.

With my ample supply of tomatoes, I usually start making marinara sauce.  Then there is salsa and pretty containers of sun dried tomatoes packed in olive oil.  Those are my tried and true jarred tomato favorites.

But this year, I was in the mood to try something different.  They say variety is the spice of life, so what better way to express that than to attempt a new recipe?   So with a little uncertainty, I tried my hand at Tomato Basil Jam!

Now you can make this recipe with any sort of fresh tomatoes, but I admit that I am partial to heirlooms.  I tend to use a variety to provide a more complex flavor and the batch included: Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, Amish Paste, and Arkansas Traveler.

I adapted a recipe from  the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Tomato Basil Jam

  • 3 pounds of tomatoes
  • 1/3 C. fresh lemon juice
  • 3 C. sugar
  • 3 Tbl.  Ball® Real Fruit Pectin, powder
  • 3 Tbl. fresh basil, chiffonade
  • 1/2 C. water

Wash and core tomatoes.  Place into boiling water for approximately 5 minutes.  Remove from water and plunge them into ice water.  The skin should now peel easily.  I also remove the gel and seeds as those can have a bitter taste.  The cored, skinned, and seeded tomatoes will be approximately 3 1/2 cups.

Place tomatoes in a heavy-bottomed preserving pan over medium heat.  Allow tomatoes to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in lemon juice and basil.

sterilizing jars, lids, and rims

sterilizing jars, lids, and rims

Mix pectin with 1/2 cup of sugar in a small bowl. Stir to combine.  Add this mixture to the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to incorporate.  Tomato mixture will now thicken quickly.  Add water and remaining sugar.  Bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly so the mixture will not burn or stick to the bottom of the pan.  Allow to boil for 2 minutes and then remove from heat.  Skim off any foam that formed on top of the jam.  (The foam will be a light pink color.)

Spoon into 1/2 pint jars, leaving approximately 1/4″ headspace.  Place lid and rim on each jar and process the jam in a water bath.

NOTE: sterilize jars, rims, lids, and any other tools such as funnel and spoon.

The processing time will vary based on your elevation.  Sea level to 1,000′ is 5 minutes. 1,001 – 6,000′ is 10 minutes and elevations over 6,000′, processing time is 15 minutes.

tomato basil jam in a jar

tomato basil jam in a jar

Carefully remove jars from water bath canner at the appointed time and place the hot jars on a towel.  As the jars cool, the lids will seal.  This act of sealing creates a ‘popping’ noise.  (I typically count the number of ‘pops’ which lets me know how many jars sealed.)

The resulting jam is beautiful.  It is a luscious red punctuated with fleck of green, the colors reminiscent of a summer garden.  Imagine serving this on a good crusty bread, or spread it across a slice of fresh mozzarella?  What a great way to liven up a winter meal.

Hen House: No Foxes Allowed!

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keep foxes out of the hen houseI enjoy my backyard chickens.  They entertain us with their antics, provide great material for the compost bin, eat bugs, plus they provide eggs.  I can’t imagine a day without them since they are part of our daily routine.  But as every chicken keeper knows, it can be over in a moment if a fox gets in the hen house.

young foxes playing in our yard

young foxes playing in our yard

As an urban homesteader, you may think that I would not have to worry about this issue; in reality, I do.  There are plenty of foxes in our urban setting.  They hunt birds, squirrels, mice, rabbits, and the occasional house pet.  In fact, there is a fox den just two houses down the street from us.  Each spring, we are greeted with kits playing tag.  Our yard is a fox hang out.  They nap under our trees, snack on the raspberries, and spend time either sitting on top of the chicken run looking down or sitting outside of the run attempting to dig a hole.

Now, we were well aware of our neighborhood foxes shortly after we moved into our home.  At that time, they were scenic wildlife that we considered ourselves fortunate to have in our backyard.  However, all of that changed once we decided to get chickens.

In order to keep chickens, our city ordinance has a statement that calls out to have a “predator proof” coop.  We did not need convincing, we had already seen the foxes and knew that a fox-proof hen house and attached run were a necessity if we intended to keep our chickens safe.

2" x 4" wood frame hen house

2 x 4 wood frame hen house

Once we settled on a coop design, the structure began to take shape.  We went with a sturdy 2 x 4 frame, knowing that the foxes would not be able to push over the coop.  Unfortunately, we had seen some coops that made use of lapboard siding and lathing strips.  One good blow, and the structure would be breached.  This solidified our choice of 2 x 4 materials.

This frame was built on top of a wooden sub-floor made with 2 x 4s and 1/2″ lumber boards (leftover from a previous project).  We knew that foxes would try to dig under the coop if they could.   If they were lucky enough to burrow under the coop, we wanted them to face the challenge of encountering a wooden floor instead of dirt.  No amount of digging would get them through that floor!

Once we completed our all wood chicken house, it was time to move onto the chicken run.  For the chickens safety and convenience of letting them out of the coop each day, the run was attached to the coop.  We again went with 2 x 4s for the framing of the run.  Our next move was to cover the run frame with woven wire.  We deemed that chicken wire was too flimsy to withstand the rigors of a determined fox.  Instead, we went with 1/4″ grid woven wire.  It was sturdy and there was no way that a fox could slip a snout or paw between the wires, the grid was too small.

To increase the security of the run, we used the woven wire in creative ways.  Since foxes dig, we too, dug.  We dug down 12″ with the wire and then made a 90 degree bend and took the wire in 18″ from the wall of the run.  If any fox was going to get into the run, he would have to dig and dig, then dig some more.

Lastly, we covered the top of the run with the same 2 x 4s of the frame (to give strength) and topped it off with more of the woven wire.  We have seen the foxes climb fences in our neighborhood. They can scale just about anything.  If we left the run uncovered, it would be an open invitation to every fox that our ‘chicken buffet’ was open.

Fox in the backyard

Fox in the backyard

With the coop and run completed, we moved our chickens into the their new home.  The following morning, a fox was sitting on top of the run looking down, but he couldn’t get in.  Good thing we used 2 x 4s and a tight woven wire!

Over the months, foxes have tried their luck at digging.  We find their attempts at the edge of coop as well as the run.  Most of the holes are between 3″ – 5″ deep.  (We refill the holes to discourage continued digging.)   They are thwarted by the buried woven wire as well as the wood floor.

So far, our chickens are safe and sound inside their coop and run.  The enjoy fresh air, good food, the occasional dust bath, and a mayhem-free enclosure.  We get to enjoy our chickens and the foxes are once again wildlife we are privileged to see on our homestead.

Garden Shed: A Place to Putter

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Growing up on a farm, gardening was a way of life.  Potatoes were planted on Good Friday, seeds were planted a few weeks later, and tomatoes seedlings went in the ground in mid-May.  Mom took charge of the garden and all of us kids were her helpers, following behind carrying tools, dragging hoses, and holding the row markers.  From those very humble beginnings, I watched how Mom planned everything out and what tools she would need.  One thing that attributed to her organization was that all of her gardening tools were in one location.

While some kids dream of college and careers, I dreamed of what my garden shed would look like when I was a grown up.  Oh sure, college and career were important, but I couldn’t wait to have my very own garden shed.  It would be my place to putter and daydream as I thumbed through seed catalogs.

The full garden shed

The full garden shed

Years later, college had been completed and I had careers in horticulture and high tech.  All that was left to check off my list was a garden shed.

Mr. Overalls and I found the house that would become our home.  When we walked through the front door, we looked through the living room into a wonderful backyard.  We knew then that this is where we would put down roots.  As we toured the backyard, I was somewhat disappointed that this 1/3 acre property did not have a garden shed.  Where did they keep their tools for a place this large?  Did they store everything in the garage or basement?

Weeks passed after we moved in.  As I came across my watering cans, hoses, and trowels, I lamented that we would have to make space in the garage for them.   Mr. Overalls looked at me with surprise and said, “Why don’t you put them in the garden shed?”  Wait… did I miss something?  Did he build a shed while I was organizing the kitchen?  Seeing my puzzled face, he took my hand and led me outside to a large planting of euonymous.  As we stood in front of the aged plant, I then noticed a tunnel that led to a door.  Could it be?  Yes!  There was a shed hidden by this overgrown plant.

While I had visions of a neatly organized shed, everything at my fingertips, Mr. Overalls just wanted to get the shed loaded so we could park in the garage which had become the temporary storage  area for all of our possessions.  So I watched as my shed was filled with scrap metal, plastic toboggans, assorted scrap lumber, saw horses, and a table saw.  Oh sure, a few garden tools ended up in the shed, but just a few because there wasn’t room for all of it.

For the next five years, whenever I did gardening, I had to find tools in the garage, basement, and shed.  Though in order to reach the tools in the shed, I had to unpack part of the shed to get to them.  This was not my dream shed.  It was a storage unit that just to happened to sit in our backyard.  This set up took all the fun out of gardening.

But one day, I had enough of searching for tools and the unloading and reloading of the shed.  It was time to claim my space.  So with the help of a dear friend, we removed everything from the interior of the shed.  Piles grew in the backyard: scrap metal, scrap wood, recycle pile, trash pile, and the Mr. Overalls pile.  It was pretty impressive just how much stuff had been packed into that space.

Green wall with buffet turned potting bench

Green wall with buffet turned potting bench

To make the shed mine, the first thing I did in the empty shed was sweep.  There was years worth of dirt and spider webs.  I needed to start with a clean space.  Next, I primed the interior walls.  The fresh white was the perfect canvas.  But an all white shed was pretty stark, it needed something else to give it personality.  And there it was, a can of summertime green paint named ‘Grapevine’.  This color was way too bright for the sunny living room of our house, but for a dark shed?   Perfect.  The paint went up on an accent wall as well as the wall space around the doors leading into the shed.

By the time Mr. Overalls arrived later that day, he knew that I had claimed the space.  He helped me move a prized piece into the shed… a vintage white buffet.

The organized shed

The organized shed

That buffet would be the focal point in the shed.  It would become my potting bench.  It was the perfect height, had shallow drawers for storing hose nozzles, zinc plant tags, and pruners.  The storage under the drawers would hold all of my potting soil and organic fertilizer.  The piece had history and beautiful lines.  This was the sort of thing that belonged in a dream garden shed.

As I sorted and loaded the shed, my vision was taking shape.  Like items were placed together, small items were placed at eye level on the front of a shelf so I could find them, and large bulky garden tools were hung from the ceiling.  This freed up floor space, yet I could easily reach them.  And the best part?  I could open the doors to the shed and walk in without unloading stuff.  I could walk all the way to the back wall and pick up a hand tool or small trellis.  Everything was in place and everything had it’s space.

As a bonus, the previous owner had hung a light and placed an outlet in the shed.  While the electric needs to be repaired (Mr. Overalls is pretty handy), I will not have to work in the dark.

My dream was coming together.  Herbs will be drying from hooks overhead, perfuming the air, seed catalogs will be hung on the magazine rack, seed packets will be sorted by vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, and greens, and the vintage radio will be playing music in the background.  Yes, the garden shed will indeed be my place to putter.  Garden shed.  Check.