Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Death of an Herb Garden

This has been a difficult year in our gardens, and it’s only July.

The deer have eaten the beans and the squash. The rabbit has mowed down the parsley. The oregano
Last year's healthy, beautiful herb garden.
was looking burned out and there were suspicious white spots on the sage leaves. Either the rabbit or the groundhog has enjoyed our growing honeydew melons. The deer came back and ate all the apples off the tree. And then several tomato plants seem to be dying for no reason.

But that’s not the worst of it.

Your favorite uncle and I have a small lawn crew that helps with the bigger jobs that are difficult for us. This year, it has been poison ivy. Your uncle brushed against some vines and developed second-degree burns from it. It had to go.

We told our lawn crew that we needed to pull the vines. We’ve told them in the past to avoid toxic sprays, including all variations of Roundup.

They have been working diligently and I am generally pleased with their work. I would recommend them to other local families. But…

There is a sumac growing at the edge of the main herb bed that we needed help to pull. Our new crew leader saw the sumac and that we had been struggling with it and thought he could help us out. And so, he did exactly what we told them not to do.

A good guy, a terrible mistake

The Monday before the 4th of July, we were home for the long holiday weekend. Our lawn guys came over to pull the poison ivy and meet with your favorite uncle. I looked up from my reading on the couch to see one of the young men walk past the parlor window with a container in one hand and a hose and sprayer in the other.

I was leaning out the window and calling him over so fast the cat was dizzy.

“Were you spraying?” I asked. “Did you spray in my herb garden?”

“There’s a sumac tree,” he says, pointing towards the herb garden. “I’m trying to kill it before I pull it out of there.”

“That’s my herb garden,” I say again. “Don’t do anything, I’m coming out to talk with you.”

I come out and at this point, you favorite uncle has noticed something going on and comes to join us.  The young man with the sprayer and his boss, who is working on a wasp problem, and I stand in front of the dripping sumac and the wet garden. I asked again what was just sprayed. The young man holds up the container.

The herb garden an hour after having been sprayed.
Note the wet marks on the shed wall from the sprayer.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “it’s supposed to be safe for gardens.”

Dear readers: It’s not safe for gardens.

“There’s supposed to be nothing sprayed here,” your uncle tells them. “We’re trying to keep this as an organic garden.”

“The label says it’s safe for gardens,” the boss tells us again.

“This is food,” I stress to them both. “This is an herb garden I’ve been growing for the past four years.”

They look at each other rather blankly.

“This,” I say, touching the tall, broad leaf clump of flowering plants, “is mint. You make tea out of it. You put it in mojitos. This is lavender”—I point to the spindly plant with its second round of shoots preparing to bloom—“and this rosemary.”

“How about this plant?” the boss asks, pointing to a pale green leaf.

“That’s lemon balm,” I tell him. “It’s for making tea with the mint.”

“And over here?” he asks.

“Oregano and thyme,” I say.

He looks puzzled by the straggly little bush. “What do you use thyme for?”

I cast for a thought to explain thyme. “You use it in Italian seasoning, with the oregano.”

Your uncle is shaking his head. He’s looking at the spray pattern on side of the shed, he’s looking at the glistening leaves. “How much did you spray?”

They both swear it was just on the sumac. Which leans over the chives, the lavender, the strawberries, and the rosemary. Maybe it won’t be so bad, they say.

I looked at my herb garden. This has been a difficult season; I had to cut back my sage in an effort to save it and the leaves had just grown back in. I had several beautiful, healthy clumps of oregano that I was going to transplant in place of the older sections that had become choked out. The chives were looking really good, after having been sparse last year. The herb garden was on the edge of recovery from an early spring snowstorm.

Chives, strawberries and oregano
growing in the herb garden.
Our first spring on Edgewood in St. Denis, I had spent a month clearing the old ornamental flower bed and getting to know the space. The “landscapers” for the estate when it was for sale had just planted a few things to look pretty. They did nothing to improve the soil -- in fact, they did very little to make it look pretty. The renovating crew, we were later told, didn’t bring a dumpster to the house, but they did just chuck pieces of our 134-year-old house out the window. Including a few windows! I cleared useless mulch from the garden bed only to find a shattered window pane underneath it. Before I could plant, I had to clear glass fragments away, along with rusty nails, pieces of roofing and bits of the lathe from the walls of the house.

Once cleared, I dug out old, tired topsoil from the stone and cement basin of the garden bed and replaced it with garden soil. I mixed in peat and compost. I added organic fertilizers. I watched as three days of 12 inches of rain overwhelmed my work and washed it over the sides of the basin and in a small stream down the walkway to the woods. I started over.

Your favorite uncle and I went to the farming co-op and bought herbs. We went to the farmers market and bought herbs. We went to the local farm and bought herbs. We found the lavender and mint I couldn’t find anywhere else at the old neighborhood garden store that his family shopped at for the past 50 years. I planted. I pruned. I replanted.

For Christmas, your favorite uncle gave me beautiful garden signs that read “herb garden,” “thyme,” “parsley,” “chives.” I couldn’t wait for the snow to melt to put them beside the plants in my garden.

This spring I took a group of friends to see the herb garden and to discuss the new herb garden bed. I told them, with a mixture of affection and pride, that this was the herb garden of my dreams.

And all I could do that after was stare at my lovely herbs as they glistened from a poison.

“I’m really sorry, ma’am,” the young man tells me.

The boss tells your uncle that they will pay to replace any of the herbs is they’re damaged. He explains that they’ll pull out the sumac tree. They continue talking and I shake my head.

“It’s supposed to be safe for gardens,” the young man says once more.

I just look at him and quietly say, “How can it be safe for gardens if it kills trees? Why would you think spraying it there would be a good idea?’

He shakes his head. He doesn’t know. All he knows is what he was told. If he had read up on what he sprayed, if he and his boss knew what types of plants were listed and how they were related to the one growing in the garden, if they had followed the directions to prevent the spray from landing on plants that were wanted, he would never have done this.

Honestly, if they read up on what they were spraying in the first place they would be wearing masks and gloves to handle it. They would stop using it altogether.

Burned up lemon balm.
I let the men go to discuss the wasp problem. Unable to do anything but hope for the best, I went back to work in the parlor. But over the course of the next several days, the damage unfolded. Steadily, the poison did its work. Leaves wilted, then browned and crumbled. Rusty spots appeared and ate away the healthy oregano plants. The thyme lost all its tiny leaves. The lemon balm took on the appearance of charred sticks. The sage first looked like it was spared and then one afternoon wilted and didn’t stand back up. The lavender curled upon itself. The strawberries under the sumac died. And each day, it became worse.
The chives, center, are the only plant still alive.
The oregano, left, and rosemary, bottom center, are dead.
The sage, far right, wilted the day this was taken
and has not recovered.

One week later, the herb garden is dead.
Oregano, killed by glyphosate.

Is it all gone? Today it looks like the mint was spared and the chives will survive. Some of the lavender, close to the mint, might make it. But yes, the main section, and all the plants there, is gone.

Dear readers, I’ll tell you later how I will replant, what work I will do. But today, after a difficult week, all I can do is leave my grief here.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A Second Round for Beef Broth

At the end of May, we have had a devastating event. Our upright freezer kicked out. We ended up losing great deal of the squash I froze for this year. We lost our remaining stash of frozen vegetables (you cannot imagine my sorrow over losing lima beans!). We came close to losing our supply of meats from the local farms we regularly visit. Instead, I had to cook up everything that was still below 40 degrees but starting to thaw. We had to toss a few packs of chicken that had risen above that temperature because we were uncertain it could be safely cooked up.

This is a big loss for us and one that has affected how we were cooking this spring, along with our family’s budget. We freeze most of our vegetables for the winter and the following spring, with the goal that we’ll put up at least half of what we eat for the next six or more months. Thankfully, we were near the end of those six months, but we lost several of our favorites.

We freeze a lot of green beans and lima beans, along with mixed vegetables and corn. We also have chicken and beef broths stored away. I’ll occasionally make soups from leftover and freeze those for quick meals.

I told you all about roasting and freezing pumpkin puree, along with butternut squash and acorn squash for dinner. Those go into our bread, soups and a side dishes.

Bringing the beef broth back to a
boil before canning.
The good news was I hadn’t made a new batch of chicken broth that I could have lost. It has been on my list for the last couple weeks. The beef broth would be a big enough loss. I don't make beef broth as often as I make chicken broth, maybe three or four time a years. It takes me three days, rather than two, and I put up a couple of gallons at a time.

I still had six pints and two cups of beef broth frozen in individual containers when the freezer did its bucket kicking. The broth was still icy cold with frozen centers but a little slushy on the sides. Since I couldn't fit those in our kitchen freezer, I needed another way of storing the broth. Time to pull out the pressure canner!

Once canned, the broth can be stored with the jams and jellies, next to the tomato sauces. This puts it on the shelf and out of the very limited freezer space in the kitchen. I spent the evening bringing the thawing broth back to a boil and pressure canning it. Now it’s ready for use in quick soups and gravies.

How to pressure can beef broth

I’ll walk you through the steps of the process. As always, if you have questions or are new to canning, check out National Center for Home Food Preservation’s information on canning meat broths.

The tools:

  • A pressure canner
  • Enough canning jars for your broth
  • Canning funnel
  • Jar lifter
  • Lids and bands for your candy jars

The broth:

At some point we'll talk about making chicken broth and beef broth. There is nothing better than good, homemade broth! We use it a lot of our cooking, especially during the winter months. It makes gravies and sauces, flavors rice and is the base for our soups and stews.  For now you might enjoy this recipe, Homemade Beef Stock Recipe, by one of my favorite bloggers.

Reheating frozen beef broth

I pulled out my beef broth slushies and dumped them straight into the stock pot. Still being partially frozen is good, since it meant the broth is safe to use. If you have any doubt about something you’ve frozen and it’s thawed before you planned on it, check the internal temperature. If the center is still frozen–meaning there are actual ice crystals you can see—it is safe to use immediately.  If it is not partially frozen and you have no idea how long it’s been thawing, throw it away. It’s sad, I know. So is food poisoning.

  • Bring the broth to a boil. It’s necessary to fill your canning jars with boiling broth, but it has a second purpose: heading off any contamination along the way. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for three to five minutes.
  • Wash and heat up your glass canning jars. You don't want to put hot broth into cold jars because you will risk cracking them. Broken glass equals bad. You can run your canning jars through the dishwasher and take them out hot when you need them or let them sit with hot water in them until you’re ready to fill them with hot broth. Be sure to remove the hot water first, then add the broth.
  • Fill your jars, leaving one inch headspace. Canning jars generally have a ring on the outside to indicate your one inch mark. If you are in doubt, use your ruler to measure the distance from the surface of the broth to the top of the jar. It is important to have at least one inch headspace because this will help it seal properly. I know your broth is yummy, but crowding it in less than an inch can cause the jar to break, the seal to fail and other bad things.
  • Place your washed lids on the jars and tighten the canning ring to fingertip-tight. That’s it. Don’t tighten very hard. If you do, the air in the jar cannot expand and escape from under the lid under pressure, which is what causes the vacuum seal of the jar. Instead, the escaping air will have no choice but to shatter your jar. When the jars come out of the canner and have cooled, they will be sealed nice and tight from the vacuum. 
  • Place your canning jars into your waiting pressure canner. I am assuming you’ve already followed your canner’s directions when you get to this point. My canner requires adding two and a half quarts of hot water and the canning basket before I add the jars. Most pressure canners will allow you to stack jars with a second platform inside the canner. Do that if you've got more than eight jars in the canner. It might take a little longer to come up to pressure but won’t affect the canning time.

To pressure can:
Make sure the broth is hot when
you put it in the jars. Follow your
canner's directions when adding water.

If you have any doubts or questions about what you’re doing at this point, go visit NCHFP’s information on Using Pressure Canners.

Check your pressure canner lid. You should be able you should be able to see light through steam vent. If you cannot, that means that your steam vent is blocked. Make sure to clear it away, following the manufacturer's directions.

Add hot water to your pressure canner. I have a 22 quart pressure canner. This means I am adding at least two and a half quarts to the pressure canner. Your canner may require more or less water; again to check with your manufacturer's directions.

Add your hot jars of broth. You are totally ready for this step.

Secure the canner lid properly. I cannot stress this enough. An improperly secured pressure canner lid can be a hazard to you. Follow your manufacturer's directions when in doubt. If you have not used your canner in more than a year, check the gasket and valves to make sure they are functioning and in good condition. If you’re in doubt, take then to your local Cooperative Extension Office.

Turn on the heat. You will want to bring your pressure canner to boil on high heat. You'll hear the water begin to boil and when you see steam venting through the top spout, begin your timer. You want this steam to vent for about 10 minutes.

Once your canner has vented for 10 minutes, releasing the cool air and bringing the temperature inside the canner up, place your 10-pound weight on the canner on the vent spout. You were going to pressure can your broth for 20 minutes at 10 pounds.

Wait until the weight begins to whistle or rise and spin (the dance it does will depend on the canner model you have). Back your heat down just a touch, until the 10-pound weight is gently rocking or jiggling. When it comes to that gentle rock or jiggle, that is when you begin your 20 minute timer.

Are you jiggling? Start the time. If at any time it stops rocking or jiggling, or the pressure drops, you will need to restart your time. That’s because the pressure might have dropped below the level needed to safely can your broth.

Okay, we are in a 20 minute countdown. If there's anything in your kitchen that needs cleaning up, now is a good time to do that. Other options include watching videos of cats.

Once 20 minutes has gone by turn off the heat on your canner. Do not open do not open the canner. You are going to let it cool down naturally. Do not remove it from the stove, do not move it in any direction. You run the risk of breaking the jars.

Depending on the size of your canner, after 45 minutes to 1 hour (I know it's a long time) the canner should be cool and ready to be opened. Open and remove jars with your jar lifter. Place them on a table or counter with a fluffy kitchen towel underneath to help prevent the jars from temperature shock. They are still that hot!

Canned broth will safely keep in your pantry for at least one year.

We’re done here

That’s it! Let the jars rest 12-24 hours to make sure they are first cooled and then sealed. If all looks good, put labels on the jar that say “Beef broth” and the month and year you canned them. (If you’ve ever held a jar up to the light, turned it over several times and thought, “Huh. I wonder what this is and when I canned it,” you will know the wisdom and joy of properly labeling everything.)

Freezer update:

Still don’t have a new freezer but we’re looking at floor models. Auntie needs a freezer! We’ll start freezing the harvest soon and I really miss being able to check the freezer for extra packets of bacon.