Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas cactus

I don't "do" houseplants. I have something of a black thumb, so I don't dare keep the dear things around or I'd kill them for sure.

But a happy exception is this Christmas cactus. Thankfully cacti are tolerant of people like me with black thumbs.

The reason this houseplant graces our home is because it belonged -- in a way -- to my grandmother, who passed away in 1979. It's quite a tangible link to the past.

How did this happen? Well, my aunt (who is now in her 80s) took my grandmother's Christmas cactus after my grandmother passed away. (My grandfather died in 1982.) The plant was huge when my aunt took possession of it, but apparently her "thumb" is comparable to mine when it comes to houseplants, and the cactus was suffering.

At any rate, a few years ago my parents went back east to visit my aunt and other relatives. When my mother (whose thumb is staggeringly green) saw my grandmother's Christmas cactus in such distress, she gave my aunt some pointers on how to revive it. She -- my mother -- also nipped a few of the lobes off the cactus and brought them home, where she potted them and sprouted several new plants.

She gave me this one about three years ago. To my pride, I haven't killed it yet.

So there you have it. This humble plant is a link to my beloved grandparents, who left us so many years ago.

Ain't that something?

Canning and planting garlic

On this, the last day of 2012, I thought I'd offer up one more canning post. This time, garlic.

Way back in early October, Younger Daughter and I harvested the garlic.

It was late in the season to do so -- as you can see by the one remaining pear leaf -- but we'd been busy and hadn't had time before this.

We gathered our tools and got busy.

We were late harvesting the garlic by about two weeks -- as you can see, some of the garlic was forming new roots as well as new greenery. Garlic is planted in the fall, so the un-harvested garlic was starting its new year's growth.

New growth notwithstanding, it was absolutely beautiful.

We found lots and lots of worms, big and small, twined among the bulbs and roots. No problem by me, this meant the soil was healthy.

We dug and dug and dug, trying not to miss anything...

...and ended up with a full five-gallon bucket, and a three-gallon bucket half-full.

And then, for the next several weeks, there it sat. In buckets. In the house. Mostly unpeeled.

Thankfully garlic is a very forgiving thing, because I just didn't have time to process it all. I peeled a few cloves here and there -- that was kinda fun, and I looked forward to a few minutes of sitting and peeling whenever I could snatch the time -- but what was boring as anything was washing the garlic. So I put it off. And put it off.

Meanwhile, before re-planting the garlic for the year, I wanted to add a nice fresh layer of composted manure to the garlic bed. This was in mid-November.

However the wheelbarrow tire went flat under the weight... Don pumped it up with the compressor.

Then I started trundling the manure over to the garlic bed, which is unfortunately quite a distance away. (One of my future goals is to re-locate the compost pile right next to the garden.)

The chickens thought it was very obliging of me to dig up worms for them.

And of course Smoky, taking advantage of her priveleged position as my favorite hen, hopped right into the wheelbarrow to look for goodies.

Spoiled, that's what she is.

Soon the garlic bed was covered with a nice rich layer of composted manure, ready for planting.

And still I put off cleaning the garlic. This was getting embarrassing.

Finally after Thanksgiving, a full six weeks or so after we harvested, I decided it had to get done. So I roped in the girls and we got to work.

As with last year, I had HUGE cloves. This garlic is a German porcelain-neck garlic. Rather than garlic with cloves that get smaller and smaller toward the center, this type of garlic has five or six large cloves around a stiff (or "porcelain") center stem. It has a bite to it. Younger Daughter, who snacks on hot peppers like they're popcorn, took a bite of raw garlic and nearly spit it out, it was so strong. Yeah! My kind of garlic!

After the garlic had been peeled, it needed to be washed. This was the part I hated. Boring, boring, boring!

That's because each clove had to be individually scrubbed. Each clove. Hundreds -- over a thousand? -- cloves. Boring! (But necessary.)

There's got to be an easier way to clean garlic. Thoughts, anyone?

While most of the cloves were still sound after their time in limbo, some rot had set in. My fault entirely for putting it off for so long.

So the girls and I sat down to trim the garlic -- not just cutting off the tips (with roots) but also any bad or rotten parts. Older Daughter told me I had all the instincts of a Depression-era survivor (which I took as the highest compliment). Younger Daughter observed how we'll never be attacked by vampires.

By the end of a solid hour, everything was done. All the garlic was washed and trimmed. The bad parts were ready for the compost pile.

I set aside 135 smallish cloves (cloves don't have to be big to grow into a nice big plant) for planting, concentrating on those which already had some new roots and green stems forming.

This left me with about four gallons of clean garlic. Four gallons! Sheesh, what am I going to do with four gallons of garlic cloves?

Can it, of course. It's the most obvious solution for those of us who don't have cellars for storage of root crops.

The garlic weighed in at about ten pounds.

First thing I did was mince it.

I had so much garlic that I minced only half at a time.

Next step, parboil it. I added boiling water to the minced garlic.

I didn't "cook" the garlic (there's no heat under the pot), but instead just let it stew for a few minutes in the boiling water.

Then I started filling clean jars.

In order to more efficiently scoop up the garlic, I drained it, making sure to keep the cook water.

I added cook water to the jars to top them off.

Once the first half of the minced garlic was jarred, I minced the second half...

...poured in the remaining hot cook water...

...and added some fresh boiling water as well. Then I let it parboil for a few minutes.

Drain, then filled more jars. I ended up with eighteen -- eighteen! -- pints of garlic.

Last year when I canned garlic, I added citric acid (which is all I had on hand) in order to (cough) preserve the color. Unfortunately it reacted to the garlic and turned it green. Didn't affect the taste in the slightest, but it looked kinda funny. This year I purchased some ascorbic acid and gave that a try.

I added 1/4 teaspoon per pint jar.

Scalding the Tattler lids and gaskets.

Capping the jars.

Garlic is low-acid, so of course it should be pressure canned. My canner holds nine pints per layer, so I was able to fit all 18 jars in one batch.

Before putting the lid on the canner, I checked the seal. It was dry. All American canners have a metal-to-metal seal (no rubber gasket), and about every six or seven uses, I need to add a thin layer of Vaseline so the lid doesn't stick to the body of the canner. I keep this container of Vaseline in the canner when not in use, so I always have it handy.

I canned the pints for 25 minutes at about 12 to 13 lbs. of pressure (for our elevation).

Out of the canner. The ascorbic acid turned the garlic a bit brown, which is certainly more appetizing than green!

Last year's garlic harvest only gave me five pints, which lasted just about the entire year. This year with eighteen pints, I have a lot more garlic than I can possibly use. I've been handing out jars of garlic left and right to friends and neighbors.

But I still needed to plant the garlic. It was late in the season -- I planted it November 26 -- but the earlier snow had melted off and I knew it was now or never. The dirt in the garlic boat was a bit frozen, but nothing I couldn't work around.

The cloves I had put aside for planting were already growing. They wouldn't have been good for canning but they were ideal for planting.

I laid the cloves out first, to make sure they were evenly spaced.

Then I levered the dirt aside and slipped the cloves into the frosty soil. Fortunately garlic is very forgiving about adverse planting conditions. I anticipate these will grow fine.

Next step: bed the garlic boat down with straw. So I raided the barn and got some old stuff I'd been using as bedding for Matilda. The light was fading and I wanted to get the garlic buttoned up before it got dark.

I got the bed covered up just as the sun went down.

This virtually ensures a garlic crop for next year.