Three Sisters

Last year was our first chance to experiment with gardening in the Southern Appalachians, but the unprecedented drought smashed those plans to pieces.  Fast forward one year and things are once again lush and green. We were able to grow a variety of vegetables to see what does best in this area. Some produced like gangbusters while others never seemed to take off. The ones that excelled will be planted next year in mass, destined to be preserved for winter meals by canning and drying.  The best seeds will be saved for the future, eliminating the need to buy new seeds for each growing season.

My favorite gardening experience this year has been growing the Three Sisters. It’s an ancient native method of companion planting involving corn, beans, and squash. A few seeds of corn are planted in shallow mounds…

 

Beans are then planted beside the corn, and the corn stalks provide structure on which the beans will climb. Beans are also known for pumping nitrogen back into the soil, helping to feed everything growing nearby.

 

Low-growing squash plants are seeded among the corn, which will spread along the ground. Their large leaves provide shade for the roots of the corn and beans, and act as a natural barrier for weeds. Nearby watermelon vines took over before the squash had a chance to thrive, but worked fine just the same.

Most archaeological accounts date the Three Sisters technique back thousands of years in North America.

 

The variety of corn I used is called Cherokee White Eagle. As far as dynamics between sisters is concerned, she is the strongest of the three. Her Cherokee roots date back to this very area well before European contact in the 1400’s. She’s obviously at home here, among the mountains, valleys, clear streams, and massive old trees.

When sudden storms slam into her and lay her flat, it often looks like all is lost. Then a few days later she’s standing straight up again, tougher than before and ready for whatever the world will throw at her.  It’s no wonder her other two sisters look up to her. If a plant is capable of having an old soul, this one definitely fits the bill. Until a few years ago Cherokee White Eagle was only available to citizens of the Cherokee Nation.  Now, anyone is fortunate enough to be able to grow it.

For climbing beans we used two heirloom varieties, Snow Cap and Monachelle Di Trevio. They had no problem twining up the corn, encircling the stalks and tying them together to form a stronger unit. The beans were allowed to dry in place, in their own pods. They were harvested at the same time as the corn, which was also allowed to dry in place. The beans will go into hearty soups and stews and the corn will be ground as needed, to be used for cornbread and grits. All in all, the Three Sisters method was a success. The only changes I’ll make next year will be to add, if I can find them, a much older variety of beans and squash…something the Cherokee would have grown.

Irish Lamb Stew (or, Lamb’s Neck Stew)

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that it’s hard to raise and slaughter your own meat. Nothing could be easier, or more fulfilling.  Suddenly, buying meat from the grocery store feels like paying someone to come into your house to brush your teeth.   It’s absolutely ridiculous.   Raising as much of your own sustenance as possible isn’t a lost skill, as much as it is a lost part of what makes being a human enjoyable.

Above is a photo of Irish Lamb Stew, or as some call it, Lamb’s Neck Stew. It was also last night’s dinner. The stew is a traditional peasant recipe from Great Britain dating back many hundreds of years. Inexpensive and readily available ingredients were key, mainly lamb neck and root vegetables. I used neck of lamb (along with the neck bones for added flavor) and vegetables from the garden including whole young potatoes, carrots, onions, leeks, peas, and parsley.

Honey Extraction

A few days after checking the hives for honey, I came back and pulled off the top super from my best colony. Inside were ten frames filled with this summer’s honey, the individual cells capped with a thin layer of wax.  A completed frame is a thing of beauty. It glows with a rich golden hue, smells sweet, and is a lot heavier than it looks. You’d think it’d be sticky to the touch but it’s perfectly dry and clean. A piece of art.

 

Before the honey can be extracted the caps have to be removed. We used an inexpensive uncapper, which pretty much looks like a giant fork. It takes some time to expose the honey but otherwise works just fine.

 

After a few frames are ready they’re lowered into the spinning cage inside the centrifuge. Giving the handle a few good cranks spins the cage at a high rate of speed.  The honey flings out of the frames where it sticks to the inside walls of the centrifuge.

 

After spinning all ten frames the honey (along with bits of wax) settles to the bottom of the drum.

 

A valve on the bottom of the centrifuge makes it easy to drain the honey into a five gallon bucket, but not before it passes through a simple filter to remove wax and the occasional bee part.

 

Lifting the filter from the bucket allows you to see the pure, clear honey slowly dripping through. It’s mesmerizing to watch.

 

This is what’s left in the bottom of the filter, loose wax coated with sticky sweet honey.  You can’t resist not dipping into this mess with your fingers, slowly chewing it until all the flavor is gone. It’s Mother Nature’s chewing gum.  I remember once seeing a National Geographic documentary where Amazon tribesmen hacked into a hollow tree to rob a massive wild bee colony. After running to safety with giant slabs of comb the first thing they did was sit down and pull off piece after piece to enjoy their prize.  Chew, spit out the wax, then repeat until they felt sick from too much sugar. It’s a universal reaction when in the presence of such deliciousness.

 

All the clean honey is then poured into Mason jars, we got just over two gallons total.  I’d love to give some wine snob description of the taste but I wouldn’t do it justice.  It’s complex, rich, kind of floral with a hint of wood perhaps? Who knows. The best part is that it came from my own yard.

Checking for Honey

Our first attempt at beekeeping seemed to be going well.  But last year when we moved from the Georgia Coast to the mountains in the North, the colony foundered and never recovered.  This spring we ordered 3 new colonies and they’ve looked healthy and vibrant all summer long. It’s time to check for a surplus of honey which I intend to rob.

The bottom two boxes are the “brood chambers”. This is where the queen lives and lays her eggs, and where workers store extra honey to feed the rest of the hive. We take nothing from these areas, it all belongs to them. Directly above the second brood chamber is a “queen excluder”.  It’s a thin wire grate through which the queen is unable to pass due to her large body size. Worker bees, however, can easily walk through and deposit honey in the boxes, or “honey supers” above. If the queen were able to access the honey supers, she’d lay eggs and there would be developing larvae mixed in with my honey. Not a good combination.  So will there be excess honey this time?  The only way to know is to open the hive and look.

First, the top cover of the honey super is removed to expose the frames which hold the comb. The dirt-looking substance on top is “propolis”, a glue bees make to seal holes and gaps inside the hive. All the frames in the above photo are glued at the ends with propolis and have to be pried apart with a metal tool. Then they can be individually lifted out for inspection.

In this particular super all but one frame is completely filled with honey and capped with wax, a nice return from such a young hive.  It should yield just over two gallons of local honey once we extract it.

Observed Animal Behavior During 2017 Solar Eclipse

You always hear stories of how animals are tricked by a full solar eclipse.  They think night is coming and alter their behavior, heading back to the barn or bedding down in place to go to sleep. It sounds neat but not entirely believable. Are they really that easily fooled?  With a looming 99% eclipse and a farm loaded with various types of livestock, it was time to find out.

Heading home early

An hour before peak eclipse, the sky was dimming and the animals began to work their way toward the upper pastures.  At this time of the day, 1:30 PM,  the sheep, goats, horse, chickens and livestock dogs should be in the lower pastures, around the bend and out of sight. The above photo is a scene typical of 7:30 in the evening, not early afternoon.

 

Is it day or night? So confusing.

45 minutes later the height of the eclipse was almost upon us and every single animal was in the barn pasture where they’re typically locked in for the night. Very unusual.  At this point everything took on an otherworldly shade of dark.  The best way to describe the scene is as if you were wearing a too-dark pair of sunglasses, but were unable to remove them from your face. Like an underexposed photo in real time.

 

Dramatic skyscape at 99% totality

By 2:30 PM the eclipse was peaking.  At 99% it looked like a solar Cheshire Cat smile, without the glowing eyes. It was beautiful and fun to walk around in an altered-looking landscape.  Without a doubt the animals were acting strangely. Some of the goats and sheep were laying on the ground chewing their cud. A few grazed and the rest walked around looking lost. And sure enough every single chicken was back at the coop and several began to roost!  The rooster didn’t crow however, not even once.

 

Everything fell silent and the songbirds ceased their singing. Cicadas and other late summer insects were also mute.  Then the first crickets began to chirp, followed by a chorus of bullfrogs from the pond…sounds only heard at night. The temperature dropped 5 degrees.

 

Peaceful, for now

Foraging bees stopped returning to the hives.  Normally you keep a good 20 feet between yourself and the hives just to avoid any complications. Normally considered an act of insanity, I was able to place my bare face inches away from the meanest hive without worry. Half of the bees in the above photo were swaying back and forth in almost perfect synchronization. An eclipse dance perhaps? I’ll never know for sure.

 

Safety first!

One of the dogs expressed a wish to view the eclipse but lacking thumbs, was unable to properly place the eye protector on his head. Here you go my friend, we’re more than happy to help with that.

Fun’s over, now get back to work

20 minutes later things started to noticeably brighten and everyone began the slow walk back down to the lower pasture like it was morning.  So yes, animals are indeed fooled by the eclipse. Not exactly a scientific observation but it was still fun to watch.

First Time Lamb Butcher, part 2

Here’s the rest of the photos from last month’s lamb slaughter. After letting the halved carcass rest in the fridge for a few days, we brought it inside to make our final cuts. We started with the upper portion of the animal.

The larger cuts begin to take shape.

Breast fillets, shank steaks, shoulder roasts, neck fillets, boneless leg of lamb…the meat is piling up.

 

Cuts are packed for storage in the deep freezer.

People rave about the flavor of Katahdin lamb. But still you expect that some sort of lamby, gamey taste will be present.  After a few hours of slicing, chopping, and sawing, a few pieces were cooked for the first taste. Wow!  It’s every bit as delicious as they say…maybe even better than they say?  This is some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted and fortunately we’ve a deep freezer full of it.  Lamb number 2 will be slaughtered tomorrow which should satisfy our red meat needs well into the winter.

A juicy cut of shoulder steak with fresh Beurre De Rocquencourt beans from the garden.

First Time Lamb Butcher

The time has come to slaughter our first lamb. We were going to bring it live to a butcher where it would have stood around for hours in a strange environment, before eventually being killed and processed.  A few days later you pay the butcher and bring home your meat.  But bringing it to a butcher didn’t seem quite right.  As soon as an animal is separated from the herd it becomes stressed, so at a meat processor it would be stressed for many hours at least.  Plus, why pay someone else for what I should be doing in the first place?  We’ve decided that for us, home butchery is the best option.

So last week was butcher day, and it was mostly straightforward and simple. The first step is to choose the lamb. Our first candidate was a black male lamb, 4 months old and already 90 pounds.  He was pulled from the herd and quickly brought behind an out-building where it was killed with a bullet to the head.  If you have your equipment ready to go, this process takes only 5 minutes.  Had we decided to use a butcher, It would’ve taken 5 minutes just to load the lamb into the truck.  Again, you want the beast to be under stress for as little time as possible.  Using a razor-sharp knife, the throat was then slit, and the deceased lamb was hung upside-down from the tractor scoop to bleed out.

As soon as the blood was drained we started the skinning process. This is not a difficult job but was slow for us first-timers. We took off too much fat in a few places (rookie mistake) but overall did a decent job. Then the animal was gutted, with the liver, heart and kidneys being saved to feed the dogs.  After a quick wash, we cut the carcass in half with a bone saw and hung it up in a converted refrigerator for a few days to rest. This allows the meat to age and develop more flavor before the final cuts are made.  Staring at 37 pounds of fresh, high-end meat from our own farm feels fantastic, but we’ll have to wait a few more days to see how it actually tastes.