Onions, leeks, and garlic are staple ingredients in just about everything we cook at the MitchaRachia Homestead. Known as alliums, these veggies are full of nutrients and antioxidants essential for our bodies and are especially beneficial to the cardiovascular system. Veggies that can be transplanted like tomatoes, peppers, celery, and all squash we purchase as hardy plant starts from a local nursery in the spring. Because we eat alliums all year long and want a larger supply than other veggies, we grow them ourselves. We grow garlic each year by planting in the fall grown from the most robust bulbs of the previous season. Onions and leeks, we grow from seed starting in February because we like to have the most diverse selection - varieties to eat during the growing season and varieties that are best for winter storage. We also like a variety of sweet, yellow, and red onions for our culinary masterpieces.
Growing onions and leeks from seed is a labor of love for sure, but we find it well worth the effort. We start with organic seed starter mix and fill flats. We water the soil and pat down. Onion and leek seeds are really small, so much effort must be taken to carefully place then in the soil, rather than sprinkle. Then we lightly cover the seeds and spray with water to keep damp.
When the tiny stalks begin to droop, it's time to start trimming. The trimmed alliums can be used in salads and trimmings should be taken until the roots are strong and stalks no longer droop - and when it gets close to planting them in early spring.
At this time of year, we also plant thyme, catnip, and parsley. Greens to eat are another favorite in the winter at the homestead. Micro greens, sprouts, pea shoots and sunflower shoots bloom in the southern windows all winter long and provide greens without having to buy them in the store. Also pictured here are our rosemary and lavender plants we bring inside from the deck each year.
Music is alive at the homestead! The homesteading kitchen doubles as a music room and Mitch has been giving the music component a run for its money this year. Last year Mitch founded and played with the band The Odd Wednesdays, now a band no longer, but a door opener for meeting Central Vermont musicians. One of those musicians, is bass player John Ryan. John and Mitch began playing together and getting a feel for each other's rhythms and style, which led to a couple of gigs covering John Prine with singer/songwriter, Wes Hamilton. Guitar virtuoso, Doug Perkins, was invited to play and the groovy Americana sound the foursome was starting to kick out of our basement got the musicians thinking about forming a band, and The Woodshed Rats was born. The Woodshed Rats are currently gigging in Central and Northern Vermont with plans for a demo and expanding their reach in 2017. They play originals and covers like this personal favorite by the Grateful Dead. Check out their Facebook page for upcoming gigs!
I love the spirit of Christmas. To me, it has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with a combination of seasonality and a variety of feelings and beliefs. The "holiday season" marks the end of being outside and working on the homestead and the beginning of serious cooking and baking. It marks lower levels of light outside and the lighting of candles, plants, and trees inside. Solstice to me marks the beginning of a magical time of warmth, family, giving, and gratitude of the abundance we have in our lives - especially the fruits of our homestead labor which manifests itself into our larder.
Creating a magical space inside the home leading up to Christmas is one of my favorite times to explore my artistic expression in the home. Mitch and I get to slow down and find rest and respite in the home and keep with us the traditions we love from Christmas and discard the ones that don't serve us well. We enjoy music, food, resting, elves on shelves, Christmas trees, homemade wreaths, decorating plants and other natural spaces inside the home, candles, sparkly flare in the plants, and scents of balsam and pine. We try not to engage in outside pressures that create stress or pointless purchases for the sake of consumerism. We see family if it works, but do not put pressure on ourselves surrounding holiday norms. We give gifts from our larder or homemade creativity and reflect on the year with peace and focus our energies on the hearth. We listen for sleigh bells and believe in Santa and watch bad Christmas movies and talk about what we are grateful for. Our home is definitely a portal to the North Pole and visitors are always welcome.
The Danish term hygge has gained popularity in the media this year and when we first learned of this word and the feeling is is supposed to invoke (rather than be a stand alone definition), we realized this one word encompasses all of what we create at the homestead during the Christmas season and well into February when we begin planting seeds and starting the cycle all over again.
Our Christmas card this year was a video which captures how Danish hygge lives deeply within our Vermont home.
The garden bounty provides half of our food for the winter months which last December through April. The storage of this food is called the homestead larder. Below is a quick slideshow of the big big garden and kitchen garden before the fall harvest to give perspective of where so much of our food comes from.
For me, growing food is the fun and easy part. "Putting up" the food is what takes all the time. We grow food specifically for the purpose of putting it up for the winter months. While we enjoy crops like greens, cucumbers, and asparagus when ripe, most of what we grow needs to be processed and stored as our larder.
Once harvested, crops like winter squash, onions, and garlic must be cured before they can be stored. Zucchini gets processed into loaves of zucchini bread, cucumbers into pickles, apples into applesauce, tomatoes and friends into salsa and sauce, and a variety of fruits and veggies like peas, summer squash, garlic scapes, kale, spinach, and berries all get frozen - see recent post about freezing peas and berries. Herbs get dried for spices, teas, infusions, and tinctures while root veggies get stored in sand in cold storage.
Having all of the ingredients at the same time and actually having the time to process food is a delicate balancing act indeed. Cucumbers can be one of the trickiest - they are one of the easiest crops to grow, but if you don't pick them and pickle in the same day, they are not nearly as crunchy when canned. Tomatoes can either delay or expedite processing. We use a variety of fresh veggies in salsa along with tomatoes, so we can salsa in early fall. We cut the seeds and juice out of the rest of the ripened tomatoes and then freeze them and make sauce later in the fall.
The easiest crops to store take the longest to grow. Garlic bulbs need to get cured away from direct sunlight. We use the best bulbs to plant the garden in the fall for the next year's harvest and the rest get stored as food for the fall and winter. Onions and winter squash should be cured to start right in the garden once harvested in the fall and then moved inside to a warm, light place for a few weeks. Then they stock the shelves in the cold storage room in the basement. The onions last into March, but the squash must get processed by mid-January or it gets too stringy. We spend a good amount of time during the holidays roasting squash and making pumpkin seeds. We store the lightly processed squash in cubes or pureed in the freezer.
We were blessed with freezer space when we moved into the homestead. We have a full size freezer where we store all of the berries and blanched veggies like peas, summer squash, kale, garlic scapes, and spinach. The big freezer also holds meat pies and dessert pies we make in bulk over the holidays and bulk meat we purchase from local farms. The homesteading kitchen has a regular fridge with top freezer that stores breads, frozen squash, and plethora of sauces. We make cilantro peanut sauce, rhubarb sweet and sour sauce, cooking broths, and creamy soups with leftover garden surplus from veggies like celery and turnips. We either make these freezed goods when we have surplus ingredients or when we're making a sauce for a meal and will triple the recipe so we have lots of extra sauces over the cold months and surprisingly into the spring. Grocery shopping in our basement is one of the best rewards on the homestead!
In the first few years living at the homestead, we focused on spreading existing perennials throughout the different gardens and planting fall flowering and foliage plants to extend the garden color and splendor well into autumn. This year we also featured sunflowers in the garden bed. Enjoy the slideshow!
Still have summer squash lying around? Winter squash you're ready to eat? Leeks galore? Tomatoes close to rotting on the counter? Try your own variation of garden harvest lasagna:
Start with what you have. Pictured here are zucchini, crookneck yellow summer squash, leeks, garlic, tomato, chives, and parsley. If you use winter squash, make sure to bake first to soften and then cut into pieces. Kale, cabbage, carrots, turnips, etc. can all be used in garden harvest lasagna.
Next for the cheese! We prefer Vermont because it's what's local here, but I would suggest choosing cheese that is local in your area and if that's Vermont - celebrate your roots and be Rooted in Vermont! Pictured here are Maple Brook Farm ricotta cheese, and shredded cheddar and monterey jack from Cabot Cooperative Creamery. Mix it all together. Mozzarella is most popular for lasagna, but we like to try different variations.
After stir-frying the leeks, garlic, and squash/zucchini with some spiced sausage from our meat-CSA at Tangletown Farm, we added in the tomatoes with a little leftover marinara sauce that was in the fridge, and some salt, pepper, and dried basil. Cooked lasagna noodles are ready for layering pictured on the right.
Time to layer - a double layer will do - meat/veggie sauce, noodles, cheese mixture, repeat and top with fresh herbs and any extra shredded cheese - parmesan also works well here, but we didn't use it in this variation.
Bake uncovered, 45 minutes in 375 oven until bubbly and let stand 10 minutes before serving. We had some for dinner, leftovers for lunch and froze the rest for lunch for the following week.
A garden starts with the soil. Tasty, robust vegetables are full of nutrients that feed the body and soul and those nutrients come from the sun, rain, and earth. Growing food depletes the nutrients in the earth and that organic matter must constantly be replaced to continue the growth cycle from season to season and through the years.
Compost, compost tea, organic fertilizers, more compost, blood and bone meal, fish emulsion, mulch, cover crops, and more compost are all important parts of the equation, depending on pH levels that can be determined in a soil test (best to have done by your state's Extension office). Compost gets expensive, which is why we built large scale compost bins in efforts to make and supply our own compost needs. This year we produced two yards, which is a solid step in our self-sufficiency direction.
note: hover over photos for captions
In fall, after pulling the plants, we prep the garden beds with compost and mulch. One of our winter projects includes planning the garden rotation for the next year. Crop rotation is essential in organic gardening as it reduces pests so you don't have to rely on chemicals to control pests and plant residues left by some vegetable families actually add nutrients for other veggies. The key is to not plant the same vegetable family in the same location for two years in a row (three is better, but not always practical).
Here's a look at we've learned so far and how we rotate our veggie garden.
Hover over photos below for captions.
ALLIUMS - Garlic, Onions, Leeks
BRASSICAS - Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, Radish, Turnip
Enter Google to help me learn that stratifying seeds is to provide cold winter conditions to seeds for Northern zones (we are in Zone 4A) when they are not planted directly in the ground in fall. So I planted the seeds in flats, watered and covered them, and set them in the homesteading fridge for a few weeks in February, 2015. In March, I moved the flats to the grow lights and slowly, over the next few months, the delphiniums grew. Balancing the light levels, air flow, and moisture definitely took more attention than the herbs and greens I start in the spring.
This spring, the delphiniums sprung strong and bloomed blue and bright, adding color, height, and gentle drama to the gardens. Mitch is pleased with the beautiful blue flowers and I am thrilled with their blue blooms which helped the garden transition from the bold peonies of late spring to the daylily showcase that is about to explode an array of sunbursts over our Plainfield, Vermont homestead.
Mitch and Rachel are a groovy, retro-fit couple stewarding
7-acres of woodlands halfway up Spruce Mountain in Plainfield, Vermont.
Love, music and growth in the mountains...
working with nature.
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Farm to Plate
Vermont State Parks