On Making the Most of Your Corn Crop

This year, we purchased some heirloom corn seeds in the hope of seed saving the corn this year. Last year, we planted a hybrid corn. It was delicious and grew well, but when we learned you can never repeat with a hybrid corn because you never know what will crop up, we decided to be done with hybrid seeds.

So with frugality in my heart and heirloom seeds in my pocket, we planted and grew a humble but still absolutely delicious heirloom corn.

We were worried about it for a bit. Well, my husband was worried. The corn ears were slow to grow, and it was getting late in the season. We had beautiful, giant corn stalks and not much in the ways of ears. My husband had watered extensively with “duck water,” so the corn had plenty of nitrogen, but he was really worried about the lack of ears.

I, however, was not so worried. Forever the optimist, I had a talk with the corn and asked the plants to please get busy and make some ears. I don’t know if it was that talk or just time, but those beautiful stalks began to produce many, many beautiful ears of corn!

After two weeks of eating corn almost every night for dinner, we realized we had better do some corn saving. We decided we would freeze our corn, so the following tips will be helpful if you go that direction. But I also have tips for seed saving and, well, just really making the most of your corn crop from top to bottom.

I mean, waste not want not, right?

saving-corn
Here, the beautiful corn is drying after my husband blanched it.

Freezing

  1. After you pick and husk the corn, you need to blanch it before you can freeze it.
  1. Boil water in a large pot and place the corn cobs in the pot for 5 to 6 minutes.
  1. Remove the corn and place into ice water for 2 to 3 minutes.
  1. Let the corn dry and get your freezer bags ready for storage.
  1. Using a knife or corn scraper (one of these gadgets is totally on my wish list), scrape the corn from the cobs. Place the corn in your freezer baggies and save.

Seed Saving

If you’re using heirloom seeds and want to save the seeds, you’ll need to leave several cobs on your stalks.

  1. Leave the corn cobs there for about a month, though they will need to be picked before the first freeze (so watch the weather).
  1. After picking the cobs, pull back the husks to expose the corn. You can braid the husks together to create a little group of corn.
  1. Hang the cobs to dry fully.
  1. Once the seeds are completely dry, you can remove them and then store them in a cool, dry place.

You are then set for planting next spring. I read that corn seeds can last 5 to 10 years if stored properly. That seems pretty amazing!

Sharing Leftovers

Before you throw away the corn cobs, which will surely have little bits of corn left on them, especially if you used a knife to scrape the corn cobs like we did, think if the chickens. If you have chickens or ducks, they will be in heaven with the leftover corn. If you don’t, ask your neighbors. You will be making some chickens’ days by sharing your leftovers. Trust me.

chickens-love-corn
The girls were given 70 leftover ears of corn, and I have never seen them so happy. No sharing! Everybody could have their own piece–and then some.

Decorating

But corn is so awesome that there’s more you can do with it. Cut down your empty stalks (the ones not saving any cobs for seed saving) and decorate your front door or yard for Halloween in style and for free.

If you have more tips on making the most of your corn crop, please share below. I don’t know how to can yet, so if you have some tips or links to share, they would be great. Also, I have seen people used dried cobs to make lots of cool fall decorations. Please share your ideas below. Corn is pretty darn awesome!

On Seed Saving

seeds

If you remember way back to the beginning of the summer, I was doing some major planting in our garden. Because my husband was building a giant fence for our chicky girls, a lot of the planting fell to me and my teenage son, who is not nearly so outdoorsy as the rest of the family. And, after reflecting on my abilities as a gardener, I was pretty worried about this year’s crop. Mainly, my husband had been responsible for all of our vegetable garden successes.

It was up to me, and I was worried. I promised a report later in the summer, and somehow, it’s nearly fall before I am writing about our garden again. I feel like things have mostly been a success, but there were trials—and, boy, were they some trials.

Carrots are very, very, very difficult to plant. The seeds are tiny, tedious nightmares. Add that to the tiny, tedious nightmares biting you to death (black flies) while you plant in May in Maine, and I feel like planting carrots is almost maddening, like a test of wills.

Me versus nature.

This year, I didn’t let nature defeat me. I planted that darn garden despite the black-fly torture, and I think I was most proud when the carrot seeds were in the ground.

No, I was most proud when the carrot seeds sprouted. Every single seed seemed to have come up, and I was excited.

All was well. Or so it seemed.

Two days later, I went back out to the garden to check the progress of the carrots, and they were gone. Every single one of them. I was in shock. I stared at the ground for the longest time, not sure what to think, wondering if I was losing my mind. It was a tough day.

Our neighbor, who is a master gardener, didn’t know for sure what happened. She hypothesized and my research revealed that it could have been a rabbit, but it also could have been cut worms. All I know is that it was definitely a tragedy and a blow to my gardening ego.

But I would not be defeated, so I replanted. I suffered those tiny seeds and those tiny black flies one more time–and then just hoped and prayed.

Thankfully, the second round took, at least mostly, though we still had some seeds not come up. But we had enough, and, thankfully, we now have carrots to eat this fall.

carrot
This may look like an ugly carrot to some, but it is so beautiful to me. I only pulled one for a picture and a snack. We try to leave ours in the ground until after the first frost. It makes the carrots sweeter!

Overall, the garden has been a success—mainly thanks to my husband again. I may have planted and pulled some weeds, but that man is like my gardening hero with the watering, the hoeing, and the bug picking. Thanks to his work, we now have a garden ready to harvest, and I have begun a seed-saving routine that I hope will help us in years to come.

Each spring, we spend quite a bit of money buying seeds, and my newly-found frugality (as well as my inner doomsday prepper) has brought me fully into the seed-saving business this year.

If you’re interested in saving seeds, I think the key is to first focus on seeds that are easy to save and grow. For us, that means starting with the beans, tomatoes, and, yes–carrots.

Here are some helpful tips on seed saving on a few of the basics I think most people will find in their gardens (just be sure to start with non-hybrid seeds):

1. Green beans. In order to save green bean seeds for next year, just leave several bushes of beans to grow big at the end of the season. When the beans are big and lumpy and start to yellow, they are easiest to save. Just shell them and put them in a cool dry place to dry. I have saved green bean seeds for two years, and they work well.

green bean
If you let your green beans get old and yellow on the bush, you are set for seed saving. Here, you can see the pod is yellow, and the bean seed is ready!

2. Dry beans. Dry beans are the easiest because you are going to get them into shape for saving and storing anyway. We raise French horticulture beans, which are wonderful, and we tried pinto beans this year as well. The beans will get big and fat, and the pods will turn yellow and red. The key is that they need a chance to dry out. We have found that if we have a wet September, it will ruin the beans and cause them to mold. It’s best to pull the beans, bushes and all, and leave them in a place to dry. Just make sure you give them enough space. Mold is always the enemy here. Once the pods start to feel a little bit dry, you can shell the beans and then just spread them out to continue drying. Don’t put them away until the beans are completely dried. Then, in the winter, just make sure you save out enough for growing next spring. We have seed saved our French horticulture beans for three years, and they always come right up. Dried beans are the easiest, I think.

 
3. Carrots. Carrots are trickier. You can’t get seeds from your carrots the first year. You have to wait until the second year for them to go to seed. Leave a few carrots in the ground this year and then wait. You will want to cover the plants you keep with mulch to keep them warm enough. Next year, when the plants start to seed, let the seeds start to get brown and dry. It kind of looks like a little nest. Then, take the seeds and place them in a brown paper bag to continue to dry. Be careful with containers that trap moisture. Again, mold is the enemy. Once your seeds are totally dry, shake them in a bag to release the seed from the plant. Save them in cool dry place.

 
4. Tomatoes. We have been seed saving tomatoes before we even tried to. One year, I noticed that places where tomatoes had fallen to the ground and been left all year were growing tomato plants. It’s kind of amazing. But, of course, to do a better job and have great consistency, all you have to do is choose some tomatoes that are big and strong and squish them up. Add water and the squished tomatoes to a glass jar. The water helps the seeds separate. Then, place the jar in a warm spot for a few days. You should see a layer of moldy stuff start to form on the top of the mixture. Once you see the mold at the top and seeds at the bottom, you can remove the icky mold and run your mixture through a strainer to keep your seeds. Be sure to clean your seeds well and let them dry on a paper plate or something the seeds won’t stick to. You don’t want to use paper towels or paper, as the seeds may stick. Then, just store your seeds in a cool dry place like other seeds.

These are just a few of the basics I know, but it feels like a good place to start. As I learn more about seed saving, I’ll definitely share and let you know how it goes. And, if you know how to save some seeds, please share your tips here. It would be great to get a conversation going!

seeds
My little boy loves to play in the seeds. Here, he’s holding two variety of green bean seeds. I kind of like to play in the seeds, too.

It may seem like a pain to save seeds, but it feels really good to me. I like that self-sufficient feeling, and it really does save money in the spring. Plus, if there’s a zombie apocalypse, all you have to do is figure out how to keep the zombies from crashing your garden, and you’re all set!

On a Dilemma of Ducks: Not All They’re “Quacked” Up to Be

duck

This week, I have my first guest blogger post. My husband, Ron Sands, agreed to write about our duck ducks for me. I’ve been wanting to devote a post to the ducks for months, but I’ve found myself unable to do the duck ducks justice. The duck ducks are really my husband’s babies. I think you’ll find his talent for duck-duck description quite enjoyable.

 

Ducks. As a matter of fact—ducks unlimited. No, not the wildlife, conservation organization, our fenced backyard. At least, at times, it seems so. We have six Indian Runners. They are the duck coterie, the crew, the collective—the Borg. We named one Seven; she is Seven of Six. She is Seven of Six because she is absolutely loud enough to be two ducks. She is also the smallest, which perhaps explains her emphatic and raucous need for attention.

This might be the point in the narration were the reader stops and asks, “Why in the world do you have six Indian Runner Ducks?” Believe me, I’m asking myself that at this point, too. According to the internet of all things, Indian Runner Ducks are excellent egg layers, compliment a garden well, and their antics are great fun to watch.

Well then, I thought maybe I’d get some eggs. That would be a great perk; I understand duck eggs are large and delicious. Rather than go online, we ordered the cheap ducks from a local Farmer’s Union—straight run only, minimum of six. I am always unrealistic about these things in that I always expect to lose a few birds. But, so far, out of 48 birds, counting chickens, we have lost just two—one was DOA, and the other died at around a year from being egg bound. That’s a 4% death ratio.

The ducks are showing no signs of ill health; four percent of six is roughly a quarter of a percent, which means their mortality, at best, likely will be limited to the loss of a few feathers. And the lottery gave us a 4-2 split that the house did not win. Four of those ducks are never going to lay anything but down. The only perk—males are far quieter than females.

Okay, so they will help control insects in the garden. Yes, well, Indian runners apparently do not have it in their DNA to “go around.” They are tramplers—single-minded, seemingly-oblivious tramplers. They recognize nothing as an obstacle that cannot be waddled, tripped, and flopped over. They do eat insects, however, and Japanese Beetles, for which our garden seems to be a destination resort, are a favorite. But vegetables in their path take a cumbrous and prolonged beating. I am amazed at how long it takes a duck to scramble, waddle, and quack through a bean plant.

Accordingly, I am now adept at catching Japanese Beetles. I’ve caught probably 200 this summer. Those ducks are eating right out of my hand. I guess it beats the beetle-drowning bucket.

baby duck
So, at first, there was nothing cuter in the world than one of our little Indian Runner ducks. But we should have known we were in trouble from the beginning. This little one is complaining on camera.

Well, they’ll be cute and the wife and the kid will enjoy them. That statement was rock-solid for the first month, mainly because the ducks were mostly too small to effectively express their ethnocentric-flavored xenophobia. (Their first swimming pool was a 9 x 6 baking dish.) While it is true, they will reliably show up for food—and eat beetles out of my hand—at any other time, they look at me as if I’m coming to collect the rent. Considering the 4-2 split, they might be on to something.

At the beginning of their second month, we turned them out; we also bought them a kiddie pool. I have since learned, it’s likely no accident the words foul and fowl are homonyms. Duck “tea” is not a pleasant liquid, and six ducks can brew it black, potent, and surprisingly quick. On the upside, it gets the compost pile “cooking,” and our corn is taller this year than it has ever been.

And, now, after three months and a recent pool-side exhibition worthy of a honeymoon hotel at Cabo, one that brought color to my somewhat worldly cheeks, I’m having to explain the farm facts of life to my seven-year-old. Indeed, the ducks are no longer cute.

Which brings me back to that rent. Just how delicious are recycled Japanese Beetles?

On Learning Truths

early garden

This year’s going to be the fourth summer my husband and I do a big vegetable garden together. Right now, we have only the peas, carrots, potatoes, and onions in the ground, but in Maine, this is to be expected. It was pretty chilly until last week. Sometimes, I forget that growing up in Texas we were wearing shorts by May.

I’ve seen friends from other parts of the country post pictures on social media of food they’ve already grown in their gardens, and I feel confused at first because we just started planting. It’s almost surreal for me to see a fully-grown vegetable in May.

But I digress…

This post is supposed to be about my green thumb I thought I had.

The story goes like this.

Every year, even our first year of vegetable gardening, though we had some failures for sure, my husband I have had some pretty good successes growing food. We always have a good harvest, at least to me, and last year, we grew so much food that we were really able to see a cost savings on our grocery bills from late summer until early winter. That’s pretty good, right?

I post pictures to Facebook of our beautiful garden starting in early summer. The peas are ready to eat; the bean bushes look big and lush; the carrot and potato plants look big and healthy. I’m always so proud of this garden.

I do help my husband a lot. He definitely does the lion’s share of the work–tills by hand, gets the soil ready, fertilizes, waters, hoes weeds. Wait, why do I think I help a lot?

Well, I do plant, pull weeds, pick bugs off one at a time for hours on end, and help harvest. But as I write this down, I am realizing a deeper lesson I learned this week. I think my husband really is making all this good food happen. I thought I was helping more.

He has always had a green thumb and this love of plants that I didn’t understand until we had a garden. He’s got some real skill at making plants grow healthy and strong, and I envy it. I’ve always been horrible at plants. I’ve killed everything from roses to sunflowers to a wide variety of houseplants. I don’t think I’ve ever grown more than a weed successfully, and if I had tried to grow said weed, I probably would have killed said weed.

But, then, there was this beautiful garden. I thought I was helping to grow it. I thought my husband had somehow lifted the “curse” I had with plants. I thought I was becoming a good gardener, too.

early garden

This is a picture of one of our first gardens when it was first getting going. It’s so lovely. And, in case you’re wondering, that’s a gnome guarding the peas. It totally works!
However, I recently learned some truths about my newly-found “green thumb.” I started some seedlings this year in the house—without my husband’s help in any way—and I found out that maybe I still have a long way to go in terms of gardening.

So, I’m guessing you can imagine that things didn’t go so well.

We always do well in our garden starting most of our plants from seed, but I wanted to try to get a few starters going this season of things we sometimes buy as plants from the local nursery–peppers, tomatoes, and such. Unfortunately, pretty much everything I started died!

I planted like 25 broccoli starters and about 20 tomato starters. Not a single one of them made it. I also planted several kinds of peppers, about 30 plants total. I have 6 plants that made it.

I’m not sure what happened. Mostly, between part-time work, homeschooling, and feeding both people and creatures three times a day, I would somehow forget to water the little plants every day. It would seem like I just watered them, and then, sadly, some would die. Apparently, I had not just watered them. <sigh>

But my greatest mistake came when I put the plants out in the sunlight to grow stronger during the day; on the fourth day, I forgot to bring the plants in at night. I lost every tomato plant that night! I woke up at like 4:00 in the morning that chilly, fateful night, realized what I had done, and went back to sleep with sadness and disappointment in my heart.

pepper plant
This is one of my 6 survivors. I have no idea what kind of pepper plant it is, and I don’t even care. I’m just so glad it’s still alive!

So, yeah, now I have 6 plants left, and I’m hanging onto them for dear life!

Ironically, this year, my husband is putting up a fence around our property, and, when I say he’s putting up a fence, I mean he’s digging hundreds of holes through rocky earth with a shovel and putting up a fence the old-fashioned way. It’s pretty epic!

So I’m working to get the garden planted while he puts up the fence. After my little experience with the starters, this is making me really nervous. But, so far, so good. I have battled the black flies and mosquitoes, tilled that garden with a shovel (one slow row at a time), and we have a few things in the ground. The peas look great. Nothing else has had time to grow, but it’s still early.

I’m optimistic, but it’s a cautious optimism. I’ve learned a hard lesson of late.

baby duck in pool
This baby duck loved the new pool, and I loved watching those babies play! I need to do a whole blog on those duckies. They are way more interesting that I imagined they would be.

We still have the kale, red beans, green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and corn to plant, but, this afternoon, we took a break from the tilling and the sowing and the fence making and had a late lunch at Jimmie’s, bought a kiddie pool for the baby ducks, and watched them have a blast in the pool. I think my husband and I are both a bit worn out this week, as living the simple life can be a lot of hard word, so taking the afternoon off seemed to be the best medicine.

This weekend, however, is Memorial Day weekend, which is always the weekend we finish planting our garden. After discovering some truths about my gardening skills, I hope you’ll wish me luck. I’m going to need it!

I’ll keep you posted…

On Growing Food

Three years ago, my husband and I started our first vegetable garden together, and it was a big deal for us. We had decided we wanted to eat more local and organic food, and with two growing boys, we soon realized that this endeavor was not exactly cheap.

The local and organic food was worth it, of course, but if we could grow on our food, then we would have the best of all worlds: We would be growing healthy food for our family, learning how to become more self sufficient, and saving money. As I have made the decision to work a lot less, the latter becomes increasingly more important. But I digress.

If you have never grown your own food, then I think you must try it, even on a small scale. I had never tasted food moments after it had been picked. There are no words for how good the food tastes. No words! If you’re already a gardener, then you know, but I didn’t.

garden picture
This was our garden from last year. We had a good year and saved a lot of money last fall during harvest season.

I grew up in a small town but had never gardened with my family. My idea of food as a child and young adult involved Hamburger Helper and cake mixes, but as an adult, I was changing all that. I wanted our family to eat really fresh food. Still, I felt nervous starting our garden. My husband had grown up with a vegetable garden and chickens, but I had no experience.

I remember my great grandfather had an amazing vegetable garden, but, apparently, when I went out to “help,” I did more talking than helping, and he would usually send me in the house pretty quickly to “help” my Grannie. That was the extent of my gardening experience.

So I was a novice. I mean really.

I watched the videos, read the books, and really couldn’t imagine what I was in for. I just remember planting the carrot seeds in the row my husband had tilled with the shovel (yes, he does it old school) and thinking, “This is never going to work.” Carrot seeds are tiny. I could not even begin to imagine that those tiny things would grow into food. Even when the tiny greens sprouted, I was still skeptical about the whole “This is going to turn into food” thing.

bowl of strawberries
This bowl of strawberries was an important symbol of success in gardening for me. I grew up loving strawberries but without a lot of access to fresh fruits. With the strawberry beds my husband built, we had so many strawberries that we had enough to share!

But, by the end of the first season, we had food, and it felt like a miracle, not just a miracle that we had done it but a miracle of nature. I was changed as a person, and I felt humbled. Of course, while you are gardening for the first time, I highly recommend reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. It will add to the spiritual experience of the whole thing, I think. I will write more about this experience in another blog, but I can tell you that our first garden really did help change me as a person.

By the time we made it to our third season of gardening, we actually noticed a big difference in our grocery bill, and with the whole deliciousness and healthiness perks as well, I was hooked. Despite the weeds and the bugs (and I am here to tell you Maine has A LOT of bugs), I was hooked.

This year, we’ll be planting our fourth garden, and we plan to expand it in a big way. I look forward to sharing our process in the coming months. I’m pretty sure it’s going to feel like a miracle to me all over again.