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lessons learned

the first metric -- arugula planted Jan. 11

Besides being a gardener and a foodie, I’m a writer and editor. That’s how I’ve made my living most of my life.  It’s been a satisfying–and often humbling–experience as I’ve learned how much I really don’t know. This is especially embarrassing as you try to market yourself as an “expert.” That’s how I came to learn the word, “metric.” I was editing a stuffy report for an insurance company, and tried to convince the author (obviously he knew about life insurance, but he didn’t know about words) that there was no such word as “metric.”  A little more investigation on my part showed that, yes, “metric” was indeed a word, and a pretty common one at that. Ubiquitous wouldn’t quite describe its use, but not far from it. I was humbled and educated. That’s a good thing. And thanks to the education, I have just the word to use for today’s post!

scientific rigor

Gardening and home food preservation, while relaxing and enjoyable, require a certain amount of rigor, as they would say in scientific circles. Yes, rigor is a good description because both gardening and food preservation are scientific (biology, chemistry, and a bit of physics) endeavors.  Beyond the science, there’s economics, and possibly some art and business rolled into the growth of a little seed. Giving that seed the best chance of performing well requires some discipline, and that’s where the metrics come in.

repeatability and reproducibility

My garden is a scientific experiment, some years successful and others not so much.  To learn from my successes and my failures, I need to have some sense of what factors contributed to said success/failure. If the green zebra and Brandywine tomatoes produced their little hearts out (like they did in 2010), how can I reproduce that event? Or can I reproduce that event? If the winterbor kale never got “off the ground,” why? Is this something unique to this growing year, related to this location, associated with the climate, or none of the above? And how do I really know how productive any of my garden charges are if I don’t really know how much they produced? The short answer to these question is “metrics”; actually documentation including metrics.

the garden log

now is a good time to begin your garden log

It’s still close enough to talk about New Years resolutions; one of mine is to document my gardening activities with greater rigor. While snow blankets the garden, and even my cold frames are covered with several feet of snow, now is the time to reflect on last year’s planting and harvest and glean lessons from the data.

I’ve started a few seeds already, and with my fresh resolve, I’ve dutifully recorded them in my garden log. There’s hope for this year’s log, but as you scroll down, you’ll see that there’s not as much to be learned from last year because I didn’t follow through for the whole season.  But it’s not totally useless. For example, I’m starting my tomatoes earlier than last year (early Jan. vs. late Feb.) remembering that they were still pitifully small when I planted them in late May.

seed starting in early January


home economics

The raspberries were incredible this year! Felt like I was making batch after batch after batch of red raspberry jam and chocolate red raspberry sauce. They were great gifts, and gift them I did! It was a joy to share the bounty of my garden with grateful friends and family. Folks have asked how many jars did I make. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I knew the answer to that question. I kept a notebook in the kitchen and made a quick, scribbly entry for each canning episode. This serves multiple purposes. It tells me how many jars I made, yes, but it also gives me documentation to hone each of the recipes. (Go back to the reproducibility concept.) As I tweak the formula for chocolate raspberry sauce, I need to know what ingredients  and process I used, and then change only one thing at a time.


red raspberry jam -- the tip of the iceberg

I deciphered these hasty scratchings and converted them to a legible canning log, which documents the production. The full log (not included here due to space restraints) includes a comments column that describes pertinent variables. The log documents what I had felt about the proliferous raspberries: 125 1/2 pint and 14 pint jars of jam and sauce. Not too shabby in terms of quantity; as for quality (most important) I’ve tweaked the sauce recipe to exactly the right formula.  We’re ready for 2011!


sea of blueberries

You’ve heard more than your fill, I’m sure, about my raspberries. Today they’ll surrender the spotlight to the other berry in my life, blueberries. About a year and a half ago I cleared an area next to the berry patch, i.e., raspberry patch, to plant five blueberry plants that I ordered over the internet from a well-known seed company. What arrived “at the appropriate planting time” were five brown sticks with plant tags on them identifying their variety, one each of Bluejay, Blueray, Coville, and two Elliott. After planting them in the fall and covering with leaves to protect them over the winter, I checked in the spring. Much to my amazement, three of the five survived. Elliot did not. I called the seed company and they were happy to send a replacements. Now I have five blueberry sticks with mostly green leaves. Two of the sticks blossomed and one bore about a dozen berries, eleven of which the birds snatched before they were ripe. Here’s a picture of number twelve:

anemic bluejay with his/her sole remaining progeny

It’s really an admirable show for such a young plant. For clarification, the brown post in the center is a tomato stake marking the location of the blueberry plant so that we don’t accidentally walk on it. The other stick (with the green leaves and lone berry) is the blueberry bush.

self-esteem and competition

The blueberries have the bar set high for them here on Stockade Rd. Just a few feet away, the lush and luscious red raspberries are no doubt chuckling among themselves about these pitiful upstarts. Honestly, they have reason to boast. It’s been in the high nineties and low hundreds for nearly a week here in Connecticut. The raspberries really took a hit with the intense heat and expedited ripening. Even so, this is what a typical cane looks like when it’s nearly past.

not too shabby for the end of a hard week, huh?

Makes the psychologist in me wonder if behind the raspberries bravado is a bit of rivalry that has led to this year’s bounty. It’s easy to imagine berry patch chatter going something like this, “Let’s make sure that she remembers who rules the patch. Those blue beanstalks can’t begin to win her allegiance.” I’ve even seen them sending out runner spies into the blueberry territory.

They needn’t worry, their place is secure — just look at the name of this blog. They do rule in my garden, but in the larger landscape, especially the Glastonbury landscape, it is the blueberries who reign.

welcome to blueberry country

In South Glastonbury alone, without even trying, I can spiel off the names of multi-acre blueberry orchards that are part of the agricultural history of our town. Roses, Belltown, Carini, Dondero, Cavanna, Scalia. The acidity of New England soil makes it a great home for blueberries and their cousins: azaleas, mountain laurel, and rhododendron. There are a number of orchards here in town that grow raspberries, but the blueberry bushes far outnumber raspberry.

For years I’ve picked my own at local orchards and will continue to do so until my five mature sufficiently. They are an easy fruit to pick, store, cook with, and — most wonderfully for those who want to eat local summer bounty year round — freeze. Yesterday Brendan and I went to Belltown Orchards. They have been my favorite since Scalia’s stopped public picking. If you haven’t had a chance to pick berries, do it! You arrive at the orchard, they give you a picking bucket (a plastic bucket with a long string loop to wear around your neck so that both hands are free to pick) and a berry flat (a large, shallow cardboard tray that will hold about ten pounds of berries if your expectations are large). You are escorted to the fields on an open wagon drawn by a tractor. When you arrive at “your” row, the folks who have already picked are waiting with their brimming trays filled with what look like they could be grapes.

this is half of our sixteen plus pounds of blueberries

In about an hour, Brendan and I picked 16.24 pounds of berries at $2.25/lb. I did a little cost comparison when we got home. Two cups of blueberries (one pint) weighs just about twelve ounces. That means we got about 21.65 pints of blueberries for $36.54. Our cost: $1.69 a pint. Cost at local grocery: $3.99 a pint. That’s less than half price; their really fresh and perfect; I’m happy!

What do you do with that many blueberries? Eat them. Eat lots of them. They are sweet, only eighty-one calories in a cup, and very good for you. High in vitamins C and E, manganese, and dietary fiber. They are also high in phytonutrients and antioxidants. Eat naked, on cereal, yogurt, ice cream or turn them into such iconic treats as blueberry muffins and pie.  And they are a snap to freeze.

freezing blueberries in flash — literally

I’ve seen many places suggest that you should freeze blueberries without washing, but I never do. I want them ready to go as soon as I take them from the freezer. If you wash them after thawing, you risk losing some of their wonderful juice. Here’s a quick way to prepare and freeze blueberries:

  1. Fill large bowl with cold water and berries. Pick them over; remove stems, leaves, underripe or overripe berries. Don’t worry if some float and some do and some don’t; that’s natural.
  2. squeaky clean berries snuggled in kitchen towels

    Layer the flat berry box with a few kitchen towels.

  3. Place one sheet of waxed paper onto a jelly roll pan (or a cookie sheet with short sides).
  4. Using the basket of a salad spinner, scoop out a basket full of berries and place in salad spinner. Spin dry!
  5. Pour into the towel-lined berry box; shake gently to roll the berries around, drying them even more.
  6. Pour dried berries onto waxed paper-lined cookie sheet, spreading to only one layer of berries, preferable not touching.*
  7. one layer only on cookie sheet so that they don't stick together

    Repeat until all berries are cleaned, washed, and dried.

  8. Place in freezer overnight, or until frozen solid.
  9. Label and date a gallon sized zip-style, freezer bag.
  10. Remove berries from freezer and quickly pour into labeled bag, breaking apart if necessary; squeeze and zip to remove all air; store in freezer.
  11. When ready to use, simply pour out only what you need; rezip and pop back into the freezer.

* If you prefer, you can store in conventional plastic freezer containers. Just be sure to measure and label accurately to make it easier to choose the container that meets your needs at a later date.

measure, label, date

how long to store

The USDA suggests that you use frozen fruits within a year. In my house, they never last that long anyway. I suggest you follow the year rule. While technically frozen food will keep indefinitely since microorganisms that might cause other preserved food to spoil can’t grow in freezer temperatures, after a while food will lose its flavor, nutrients, and appeal.

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