Little Zane is seven years-old! This kid has an imagination that knows no bounds, and he had a tall order for his cake this year—a 3D panda. My mother-in-law and I worked together to create this panda cake, which came out pretty well considering neither of us had ever made something so elaborate before. I think Zane’s expression in response to the cake says it all, really. Happy Birthday, Zane! You are a wonderful little light in the lives of so many people. Being your mom and watching you grow up is one of the deepest, greatest joys of my life. Love you, always.
(Above: A special birthday message for Zane from his big sister, Lillia.)
This summer came and went in the blink of an eye. Between working, driving my kids all over creation, and it just being insufferably hot for much of the season, I didn’t get to spend as much time as I wish I had working in the garden. Here’s a rundown on what we did accomplish:
Our wheat-growing experiment was a success, but required me to sacrifice one whole 4′ x 8′ raised bed, limiting my options for planting. After the wheat was harvested, I decided to give the soil a rest and just left that bed empty for the rest of the growing season.
Despite being sorely neglected, everything we planted seemed to be successful. This year I inherited started kale and tomatoes from my mom, and late in the season I planted the seeds I saved from last year’s bean harvest—they actually grew and produced more beans, which I harvested to save for next year! I got absolutely nowhere with the partial-shade raised beds behind the house. I envision them being great spaces for shade tolerant herbs and fresh greens—maybe next year!
In his child’s garden, Zane chose to put in eggplant (as usual), and also some Jarrahdale pumpkins which, when ripe, are a beautiful seafoam green color. They really are stunning. In the winter we will feed them to the squirrels. On St. John’s Day we also dug up some St. John’s wort we found growing close to our house and planted a bit of it in Zane’s little garden—St. John the Baptist is his patron saint, after all!
Fruit trees and berries
Elsewhere in the yard we had fantastic good luck with the blackberries I planted last year. They didn’t do much last summer, so I wasn’t sure what their growth would look like this year. Boy, was I shocked when they shot up huge trailing vines. I read online that you should tip the canes at around 3 – 4 feet about midsummer, which will encourage the growth of the lateral shoots (where the berries will grow the following summer). I did that, and now the lateral shoots are basically huge trailing vines, too. In the winter I will prune them back to about 18 inches and remove the spent canes from this summer. We did get a few berries on last year’s canes, but not a whole lot. I expect we’ll be inundated next summer.
Zane bought two blueberry bushes at the very start of the growing season, which did well when we planted them. They even produced quite a few berries but, unfortunately, the birds got all of them. I am going to work on creating some sort of enclosure for them this winter so that poor little Zane can enjoy the fruit of his labors. The raspberries are really taking off and growing maybe a little too well—shoots are starting to pop up everywhere, even in the child’s garden where they most certainly do not belong!
Sadly, our two pear trees did not produce any mature pears this year. There were some blossoms and a few baby pears at the start of the season, but they all fell off at some point. I’m not sure why, though I think it would be unusual to have pears on trees as small as ours. Maybe next year! We also planted a green gage plum tree that I drove over an hour to buy. Unfortunately, it died back to the roots. Since I don’t know what root stock the graft is on, I will probably dig it up next spring and try something else in that space. I’m looking at Nanking cherry bushes, maybe?
The wild crabapple tree in the town forest just over our fence produced almost no fruit this year. It’s really a mystery!
Our hops did really well this year, though they are still not growing the “25 feet per year” that I have read about. However, when we were on vacation in Lubec I had a conversation with a local brewer there, and he said that we shouldn’t expect too much from first or second year hops. I feel reassured that next year we will be pleasantly surprised.
We did it! We actually succeeded in our goal to make a loaf of bread (or, as it turns out, a dozen bread rolls) starting from seed. We planted the wheat, tended it, harvested it, threshed it, winnowed it, ground it into flour, and baked it into bread.
The whole process took almost a full calendar year from start to finish, with the wheat berries planted mid-September and the bread baked and eaten on Lammas (or loaf-mass), the old pagan and Christian harvest feast celebrated on August 1st. It was a laborious process, but also incredibly interesting and rewarding. I have grown vegetables for several years now, but this experiment has given me a whole new understanding of, and appreciation for, the abundance of food to which I have effortless access. For more details about the process, see the end of this post.
Special thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law, Sharon, who is a world-class bread baker and guided us through the last step of the journey.
[Another great harvest song, “John Barleycorn” performed by Mat Williams.]
For those interested in the gory details.
Growing & Harvesting
Our 4×8 foot raised bed yielded just over a quarter cup of wheat berries (a little over 1/2 cup of flour)—admittedly, a very poor showing. There were several factors that I believe contributed to this pathetic return:
1) Wheat was planted very haphazardly, which resulted in clumping that impeded growth.
2) Raised bed was too shallow for this crop—the roots of mature winter wheat are 4-6 feet long, so in this cramped space the roots just tangled around each other, unable to penetrate down through the landscape fabric that lines the bed.
3) Vermin! Squirrels, birds, and perhaps later mice (while drying in the garage) gobbled up the largest, healthiest, and most mature wheat berries, leaving stunted stragglers behind.
I plan to take all of these factors into consideration as I plan for next year’s crop which is to be planted next month. I will not be planting in a raised bed again, due to the root issues, so I am currently scoping out a good location in the yard that has adequate sun for growing grain.
It would have been really neat to harvest with a sickle, but as it happened we were pressed for time and just ended up snipping the stalks down with kitchen shears, bundling them with yarn, and storing in the garage (Note to self: Do not store grain where rodents live!)
It is VERY difficult to thresh grain—that is, free the wheat berries from the stalks—on a small scale. Most of the methods used to thresh grain without equipment do not work. In the end, the most efficacious method I tried was to hand-process each stalk, one wheat berry at a time (I pushed them out from the bottom up). That took me several hours over the course of two days. Other methods I tried (unsuccessfully) were bashing the stalks against the side of a bucket, and stomping on stalks inside a pillowcase. Both methods freed some of the wheat berries, but left so many still clinging that I had to go through each one by hand, anyway.
On the other hand, it is VERY easy to winnow grain—that is, separate the wheat berries from the chaff—on a small scale. It’s impossible to avoid getting any chaff in with the wheat when threshing it, even when threshing by hand, so it is necessary to separate the two later. I had great success using two buckets and a fan. I poured the grain from one bucket to the other in front of a fan—the wheat berries, being heavier, fell into the bucket, while the chaff simply blew away. It took about ten times of pouring from one bucket to the other to clear away all the chaff, which left me with just the wheat berries.
I ground the wheat using my Lehman’s Grain Mill—truth be told, my much stronger husband ground most of it, including the boughten wheat berries we used to supplement the ones we grew.
‘The nearer the bone the sweeter the meat,’ they used to say, and they were getting very near the bone from which their country ancestors had fed. Their children and children’s children would have to depend wholly upon whatever was carved for them from the communal joint, and for their pleasure upon the mass enjoyments of a new era.
—from Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
Sometime last summer, probably when I was reading Lark Rise to Candleford or watching the television series of the same name, I got a bee in my bonnet. This bee took the form of a desire to experience, firsthand, the world of mowers, and gleaners, and bobbin lace-makers —to travel back to a time when workers sang their way across the field. Make no mistake: I don’t romanticize the past. Our ancestors worked hard, no doubt harder than I ever will in my whole life. But, was there joy in it, too?
To try and answer that question, I decided to grow some wheat—not a whole field, but just enough to make one loaf of bread. In the fall, we planted one of our 4×8 foot raised beds with hard, red winter wheat, and waited to see what would happen. The wheat sprouted, the snows came, the snows melted, and the wheat began to green in the warm spring sun. Over the next couple of months the wheat grew tall, pushed out spikes, and began to brown in the hot summer sun. As soon as the grains began to swell, the birds and squirrels descended; thankfully, I was able to preserve most the wheat from these interlopers by building an elaborate net cage around it.
Today, at the height of summer, we harvested our wheat. It was labor intensive, but I believe the hardest work is still to come—the threshing and winnowing. For my birthday, my husband’s parents bought me a grain mill, and I’ve been practicing grinding wheat berries in anticipation of the day when I might have an opportunity to grind my own. With such a small harvest, one doesn’t want to leave a single thing to chance! If all goes well, we’ll soon have a fresh loaf of bread made from the wheat we planted, tended, harvested, threshed, winnowed, ground, and baked . . . all by ourselves.
Yes, there is JOY in it!
[“Among the Leaves So Green O” is a traditional harvest song, arranged by John Byrt and performed by St. Charles Singers.]