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.
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.
I love to grow. And while it is very satisfying to grow food to eat, my heart belongs to the flowers first. Here is a intimate look at some of the glorious flowers blooming in the garden throughout the summer - both in the gardens and in the pots on the deck. Most of the flowers in the gardens are perennials, but the potted beauties change from year to year. Enjoy!
Peas and berries are two of the first summer crops to grace the homestead with their bounty. We waste no time harvesting these juicy gems, and while we eat our fair share when picked, the majority of the peas, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries make their way to the freezer to stock the larder.
Uley especially loves helping by eating fresh raspberries and blueberries straight off the bushes as we harvest these perfect mountain fruits.
This year we grew mostly snap and snow peas, both of which you eat in the pods, so it's important to harvest them every day for the few weeks in early July when they're ripe. This helps both extend the harvest and ensures peas will taste the best.
Peas are legumes and are a fantastic nitrogen booster for the soil. Check out this recent post on rotational vegetable gardening.
Freezing peas is pretty simple. First you need to blanch the peas to kill any bacteria that might settle on the peas and to prepare the peas to handle the deep freeze. To blanch, first cut the tips off the end of the peas (kitchen scissors work best) and be sure to add the little stems to the compost. Next plunge the peas in a metal colander into boiling water for two minutes, remove from the boiling water, and rinse with cold water. Wrap the peas in towels to dry and they're ready to freeze. We use a vacuum sealer to get the air out of the plastic storage bag, but freezer bags can be used as well - just try to get as much air out as possible as air encourages freezer burn.
Freezing berries is simple too, but the trick is to freeze the berries on a baking sheet first, and then transfer frozen berries to freezer bags. It is also best to only freeze full, unblemished berries and eat the tarnished ones fresh. We enjoy berries and peas all winter long - such a treat come March!
Crisp, tangy, spicy, or buttery greens add zing to stir fry and zip to salads. When I first started gardening on my own in my early 20's, a fresh garden salad was one of my earliest inspirations to take to the trowel. Ironically, it would be 16 years later when I finally mastered the art of both growing greens and succession planting so the lettuce was still growing when the rest of the garden veggies were ready to be harvested.
Greens like cooler weather, making them a perfect crop in Vermont. I start as soon as the soil can be turned in beds prepped the previous fall and plant spinach and arugula. I also plant winter hardy varieties in the fall so they can over-winter and are already growing when I plant the first spring seeds. Cold frames help drastically with this effort - we're still working on a permanent cold frame. Spinach and arugula can handle frosts and being patted down with rain. They doesn't like to grow so much as it gets warmer, so I switch to different lettuce varieties.
Lettuce is what I have routinely had trouble growing. It only takes a few weeks to harvest and in years past, that left me with either only lettuce in my salad or other veggies in mid-summer and no lettuce. It took a while to realize I have to plant small amounts over the entire growing season.
While I figured out succession planting, I was still having trouble with lettuce in particular. It took a solid lesson from one of my dearest friends, a Vermont woman farmer who owns and operates Foggy Brook Farm, to teach me to barely cover the seeds and DO NOT PAT DOWN. Once I followed her instructions, greens have been abundant all season.
After learning how to grow lettuce accurately from Foggy Brook Farm, I also learned how to harvest. I wanted to go to my fridge and grab a bag of greens to prepare for dinner, not go to the garden to pick a few leaves here and there. Fresh greens in spring are my number one defense against allergies - eating seasonally for our health is one of the main reasons we garden!
Harvesting and putting up lettuce and greens is intense and I now completely understand why a bag of greens costs $5 a bag. "Triple washed" takes time!
I bulk harvest the entire lettuce/greens crop either first thing in the morning or late in the day. I yank the whole plant and cut the roots off for the compost, then dump the greens in a strainer. I rinse the greens and soak them in cold water, then repeat twice more. Then I return the greens to the strainer and let them drip dry with the strainer resting over the bowl. When the lettuce has dried to only be damp, I wrap it in compostable paper towels and then store (in the towels) in reused plastic bags. This helps keep greens fresh for almost a week in the fridge.
And now I can pull greens anytime for salads, stir fry, or anything that strikes our fancy!
Vermont spring (May-June), summer (July-August), and fall (September-October) are magnificent times to visit and we invite friends and family to come stay with us. We schedule these visits in late winter/early spring since we plan months in advance so we can work with our budget, ensure all of our homesteading projects get done, and work around our summer vacation.
Visiting someone who lives on a homestead is not like visiting someone in a neighborhood with a garden. Read more about our lifestyle in Mountain Folk Part 1. Homesteading chores on the land, in the gardens, or in the kitchen must go on whether we have company or not. So, we thought we'd offer a checklist to help you prepare:
What To Expect
What Not To Expect
What To Bring
A MitchaRachia winter is for outside adventures bundled up in colorful hats and scarves and resting from our few months off working our land and gardens. Cabin fever rarely sets in because to satisfy my energetic bones, there is a never ending supply of winter projects to entertain and learn from. Mitch enjoys a reprieve from excess projects in the winter and gets cozy with the fire, couch, and Apple TV.
For those who need a balance between couch and projects, I share a few of my favorites that provide useful products and fresh food in the winter.
Homemade cleaning tips and products involve purchasing for supplies (productive reason to get out and shop); changing clean-up habits to incorporate salt, vinegar, and baking soda into routines; and making your own all-purpose and glass cleaners. Check out our recent blog post about DIY natural, homemade cleaning tips and products - short, simple projects with long-lasting benefits!
Make your own candles using recycled glass containers or old candle holders with some basic ingredients from the craft store - another reason to get our and shop for useful purposes in your home. We're getting ready to hit up candlemaking again this year (Mitch does enjoy a break from the couch for candles) using the instructions from last year's blog post on how to make you own candles.
Grow herbs and greens indoors! We have permanent rosemary and lavender plants that get transplanted every year or so and live inside all winter. This year we also brought our geraniums in and they are still flowering! The rosemary, lavender, and geraniums make a beautiful display in the south facing window for the rest of the herbs we are growing inside. Currently thyme and parsley grow happily in the extended light of mid-winter. Basil is growing in the kitchen sink window and I planted cilantro from seeds saved from the garden in the bathroom window. They are almost ready to transplant and join the main display.
We did try sprouts and failed miserably. Do not use micro green seeds for sprouts. I will try again with sunflower seeds and will save the rest of the micro green seeds for planting in a bowl in the coming weeks. Amaryllis bulbs are also soaking and we'll see what other inspirations spark my project energy at the Vermont Farm Show next week!
Mitch and Rachel are a groovy, retro-fit couple stewarding
7-acres of woodlands halfway up Spruce Mountain in Plainfield, Vermont.
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Farm to Plate
Vermont State Parks