Ranch Wife Musings: Evening

As I tidy up the kitchen as my last home task of the evening, I get a good view of my little flock of chickens down by their coop, chasing a few last bugs. Clearly they aren’t ready to be tucked in just yet. The horses are visible just on the other side of the barn, having been given their freedom for the night, and sometimes Charlie the Calf comes wandering into the barn yard for a drink of water or maybe thinking I’ll give her one more little scoop of calf creep.

The sky turns orange then pink then lavender as the shadow of our little ridge is cast further and further east, until the last little bit of sunlit prairie has been covered in the comfort of evening shadow.

What a peaceful sight.

I love my little jaunt down to the chicken coop to do the very last of my chores for the day. Pearl comes with me, since she takes her chicken chores very seriously, and usually one or more of the cats run down to the coop with me as well. With an actual pounding of little feet, Yellow Cat (who probably slept all day until five minutes ago) races by, then Grey Cat (who probably worked all day), tearing around, then stopping suddenly and staring at absolutely nothing in the uncanny way cats do.

The chickens chatter contentedly amongst themselves and maybe greet me quietly when I come in to make sure everyone is accounted for. Yep, there’s Amelia, and Alice, and Audrey, and Goldie, and Little Red, Little Red, Little Red, and Little Red. And seven black chickens, including Henrietta, the only one who gets a name because she looks like a vulture. I close the coop windows or open them a crack, depending on the evening temps, and scratch one or two of the friendly birds on their backs before collecting my egg basket and closing the girls in for the night.

Pearl reluctantly joins me on the little walk back up to the house. The cats run and pounce on each other, occasionally scrapping and working out a few feminine feline differences. Rocket the Horse says something sarcastic to Jargon the Horse, or maybe that was Chip putting Rocket in his place.

And everything is still. I love an evening on the rim of the prairie. A distant coyote yelps. A nighthawk calls out high up and out of sight. Maybe there’s the soft roar of the nighthawk’s wings as he swoops and dives. The warmth of the last days of summer melts away and cool night breezes shift around gently, resiny, fresh, and sweet.

This is home.

11 Tips for Successful Canning

I absolutely love to can. Love it. I enjoy the simplicity and heritage nature of the task, I love the fragrances that fill the house, and the satisfaction of rows upon rows of glistening, beautiful jars of jams, jellies, butters, salsas, and sauces. And I love tasting the fruit of that work months (and sometimes years) later.

But canning can be a daunting task. Here are some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years for helping my work day to go smoothly and enjoyably. Like with most things, I’m guessing everyone who has canned for any length of time has developed their own methods and tricks, so I am not claiming any expertise, only sharing what works for me!

1. First and foremost, have a plan! This may seem like an obvious one, or perhaps not, but unlike a lot of kitchen-related projects, until you’ve been canning for awhile there are a lot of things you might not readily have on hand, or things that don’t get replaced often and maybe expired since the last time they were used. Make sure you have what you need. The last thing you want is to get neck deep into a canning recipe and realize your lemon juice is a year out of date or not have your jam set up because the pectin was three years old! Canning is laborious enough without those added inconveniences.

2. Have the right equipment. Although you don’t technically need a specific water bath canner and jar rack, and although you can use a regular old stockpot and either a trivet or towel in the bottom for the jars to sit on (options I resort to if I have a multi-batch of something, especially since two water batch canners would hardly fit on my stove…), it really does help if you have some very basic equipment. Aside from the canner and canner rack and the jar picker-upper, my can’t-do-without tools of the trade are a headspace tool and a jar funnel. These are most definitely optional, but it is amazingly difficult to estimate 1/4 inch headspace correctly and having a funnel sure makes it easier to keep the jar rims and threads clean!

3. Be redundant. Although there are many situations where more is NOT better, I find that in canning, it is always best to have extra. Of just about everything. If you’re just getting started in canning and you don’t have a large stash of jars, splurge the extra $12 for an extra package of jars, just in case (they’ll get used!), and get an extra package of lids as well. You never know when your plan you so carefully laid above goes a little off kilter. A batch of whatever you thought would make six half pints turns into ten, but you only planned for six jars! Keep extra of important ingredients like pectin, sugar, and lemon juice. You bought that 1lb bag of sugar instead of the 5lb bag, but you made a huge batch of cookies for church potluck and now you are short, or you spilled your coffee all over your pectin and spoiled it. It creates unnecessary hassle to run out of ingredients midway through (goes along with having a plan). Have a few extra large bowls on hand, an extra stockpot ideally, spatulas, ladles, etc. I always surprise myself how many different spatulas or bowls or measuring cups I end up using (usually because I end up tasting something and throwing the utensil in the sink).

4. Do as much prep as possible ahead of time. It’s annoying to be on a roll getting things going, only to come to a stand still because I forgot to round up my jar rings. Or for the project to take two hours extra because I didn’t realize how difficult the fruit would be to prep. Wash your jars the night before so you don’t have to do that while you’re trying to get going on your food prep. Prep the fruit and veggies the night before as well. Not having to spend 3 hours pitting plums or grating zucchini sure speeds everything up.

5. Get an early start! For one, you beat the heat. There’s nothing like standing over a steaming canner or stirring a jar of hot sauce when the temps in the house are creeping up. I love to work with the windows open when it is cool outside. For second, I am really, really good at estimating my time multiple hours short of what it actually ends up taking. I’d rather start early and think I’ll be done at noon but really be done at 2:00, rather than starting at noon…you get the picture.

6. Before you do anything else, start heating water in your canner! This is a huge time saver. While it can be tempting to try to be efficient in the stove usage and wait to start heating the water until you think it’ll boil right when you need it, don’t do this to yourself. Go ahead, let it boil or at least get close, and then just keep it at a simmer until you’re ready for it. It is annoying to be ready to process filled jars and the waterbath canner isn’t hot yet. And a watched canner NEVER boils. It might have been ten minutes away from ready but if you need it now, it will take an extra hour to heat up, just for you.

7. Let your jars heat with the water. This relates to hot prepared foods. And no, this isn’t to sterilize them. Sterilizing is no longer recommended for food products that will be processed for at least 20 minutes, but this more an immediate safety issue, and saves you from ruining a batch of something by having a jar break. Keeping the jars hot gets them ready to fill with the hot jam or sauce or whatever it is, and then they’re also less likely to break when you return them to the waterbath.

8. Put a splash of white vinegar in the water bath. This is one of my favorite little things to do because it really does pay off in the end! We are on a well and have delicious water, but with that comes a high level of minerals that leaves an unattractive white filmy sediment on all my beautiful jars. A splash of vinegar makes for clean jars. Save yourself the headache of having to wipe everything down later!

9. Clean those rims! Really! Don’t shortcut this task. It is very frustrating to be three minutes away from being done with a project that has taken half or all of the day, only to not have jars seal because I failed to clean the rims well! Save yourself the headache.

10. Keep a tidy workspace. I dislike working in chaos, so keeping things tidy helps me work more efficiently. I like to have all my clean jars in one spot, my jar lids and rings ready to go nearby, and towels covering all my counter space to make cleanup easier. I keep track of my dirty dishes and bowls and utensils and try to keep them from scattering, and get things soaking as soon as they’re emptied. Cooked sauces and jams or butters can really cook on to whatever they were in, so don’t wait until the very end to start thinking about cleanup on them. There can be quite a bit of downtime while canning, so putter away at those dishes so you can wrap up when that last jar pings!

11. Last but not least, taste and enjoy. There’s nothing like slathering a slice of toast with my own fresh jam or dipping a tortilla chip in fresh salsa. You won’t be regret having some good bread or a bag of tortilla chips on hand, for just such an occasion, and your family will thank you as well.

I hope this little list can help streamline your projects, and maybe make canning feel a little less daunting!

What other tips and tricks would you share with other canners? Leave a comment below!

This Crazy, Wonderful Life

As of yesterday, Brad and I have been married for three months. Wonderful months. In some ways, it hardly seems possible that we’ve been married for that long, and on the other hand it feels as if we’ve always been married. What a blessing and a gift, and how unexpectedly beautiful it has been!

For three months we have looked forward to “when things slow down.” Things will slow down in July, we said. Things will slow down in August, we said. With one thing and another, they surely didn’t slow down, and we’re now in the midst of the whirlwind of fall cow work. Between being a wife, keeping chickens, cultivating a garden, and working alongside my husband, I can safely say I have never been busier! It has been a joy to start getting involved in this community, helping with the county fair, cultivating church relationships, continuing to volunteer with the fire department.

So I’ve been well-occupied. And I can also honestly say I’ve never been happier. Yet in those busy times, it can be easy to do too much looking ahead, and not take the time to sit back and marvel at God’s blessings and how He sustains and provides. Day to day, minute to minute, this life is a blessing, and is amazingly unguaranteed in an earthly sense, but beautifully guaranteed in a Heavenly one. Don’t ever take a minute of this life for granted.

One week I’m bemoaning grasshopper damage in my garden, the next week I’m reaping bounty. One day I’m celebrating the simple joy of a half a dozen eggs, the next day I’m praying my way to the ER with my husband, after a terrifying shop accident. A rough day for any wife (but especially a new one) ended in the sweetness of relief that the ER outcome was stitches and no more, and listening to the music of rain on our roof. One day ended with tears of exhausted relief and the next day began with the sweetness of waking up next to my favorite person and finding 2 inches of rain in our rain guage. So many prayers answered and so much of God’s faithfulness from one sunrise to the next!

One week we’re praying desperately for rain while watching the dams go dry, the next we’re celebrating water in the dams. One day we’re working cows with neighbors, enjoying the camaraderie of the ranching community, the next we’re gathering up my father-un-law from an ATV wreck in a distant pasture and getting him to a waiting ambulance. That same community we enjoyed the day before dropped their whole evening when they heard about the ATV accident, helping at the wreck and then after, shuttling dogs back home, even rounding up my chickens and putting them away. What a wonderful community we live and work in, and how comforting to see the ways in which God provides the right people at the right time to accomplish His plans.

One week we’re feeling the summer slump with less to keep us busy (yet somehow still with plenty to keep us busy), the next week we’re methodically working our way through the ranch, strategizing accomplishing everything while being down a person, and getting ready for a weekend of cow work.

As I’ve mulled over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by the way in which God will bring a significant trial, or a series of them, but wrap them around with His goodness. The last two weeks have been exhausting, emotional, frustrating, uncertain. Yet they have been brim-full of the simplest of pleasures. The purest of joys. The love of a husband, a family and community. What a crazy, wonderful life this is. What a wonderful God we serve.

And it is a glorious thing, to find where you belong, and to be where God wants you to be.

However Small the Harvest

This hasn’t been an overwhelmingly productive summer, as far as the garden is concerned. Anyone who has gardened for any length of time knows that some years are wonderfully over abundant and other years are woefully under abundant. This has been somewhere in the middle of the two, on the lower end of the productivity spectrum.

The grasshoppers alone have been a menace and wiped out a whole garden I planted in squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes. My efforts in grasshopper management were fruitless there, as those vicious insects chewed through at times three layers of netting at once to get at the seedlings practically as soon as they emerged from the soil. Several attempts at replanting and pest eradication finally resulted in me throwing in the proverbial towel. Sometimes you just have to recognize a loss.

Add to that the excessive heat and the desperate drought and it just hasn’t been a great year for a great garden. And yet there have been some victories and the satisfaction of sitting down to a 100% homegrown meal, eating beef from our ranch and produce from the garden.

I took a loss on the one garden but doubled down on the other. My other garden, planted in and around two large stock tanks close to the house, has produced a wide variety of vegetables, though it had its share of grasshopper damage (they wiped out my green beans and jalapeños, and have intermittently wreaked havoc on various greens and herbs and my zucchini), but it was decently well established by the time the grasshoppers got too bad. I turned the chickens loose in it a couple of times, which definitely helped, although those silly birds are pretty indelicate and enjoy dirt bathing in very inconvenient locations. In spite of everything, that garden has been rewarding!

Last week, I harvested all the onions, replanting their area in carrots and turnips, and cut most of the rest of the rhubarb, putting up enough for a few pies for this fall. My Swiss chard has produced abundantly all summer and we enjoyed a supper of southern style greens last week. We have enjoyed fresh cucumber salads with the occasional tomato (that is another story for another time…) and plenty of dill and arugula, and the beets are finally getting big enough to harvest. I was a little behind the eight ball on getting those in, so the heat probably stunted their growth. Basil and mint were abundant and dehydrated nicely, and I have dill hanging in the yard shed for the seeds.

I have learned that Hubbard squash is delicious harvested young, and cooks up even more deliciously than zucchini. Which is a good thing, considering that my zucchini this year was a bust! The Hubbards are gaining a lot of size and the pumpkins are starting to pick up a tint of orange. It makes me excited for the fall! The sweet corn is tasseled and silked, so hopefully we’ll enjoy some of that in the next month as well.

In spite of the lack of abundance (enough for meals but not enough to put up), it really has been a productive year. I learned that wild predators are the best control for grasshoppers, and have found that hanging a few bird feeders and having water available around the garden are hugely beneficial. I see a noticeable uptick in grasshoppers when I get complacent and let the bird feed run out! I have also gained some knowledge on what grows best here, and what I can grow a lot of in a relatively small amount of space, and those mental notes will turn into a formal garden plan for next year.

So you learn what you can and enjoy the harvest, however small!

Chicken Math

My husband is a very patient man.

Somehow two chicken fatalities several weeks ago strongly suggested an immediate need for a whole new flock of chicks, so two weeks ago that exciting noisy box came to the post office and eighteen chicks took up residence in our spare bedroom. Much to my delight, and to Pearl’s, who was overwhelmedly thrilled to have baby chicks to stare at for hours at a time. We actually caught her perched on top of the brooders, absolutely fascinated by her chicks, and without any intent to injure them. My husband says she and I watch the chicks with the same expression on our faces.

I steered away from Buff Orpingtons due to their apparent lack of healthy fear (they were the two fatalities) and instead leaned heavily on Ameraucanas and Light Brahmas, and also added a few Delawares. McMurray Hatchery threw in three freebies for the total of eighteen chicks. What fun. I split the Brahmas and three Delawares off from the Ameraucanas after the first day or so, since the latter were all on the smaller size and I wanted to avoid picking. I used the same brooder setup as before, made from large Rubbermaid tubs with screen inserts in the lids, but was able to get by very easily with one heat lamp for the two brooders, rather than one lamp each.

The chicks have done really well over the last two weeks, without any losses. One chick, who has been named “Little Betsy,” or “Little Bee,” for short, one of the seven Ameraucanas, got some hand feeding for about five days due to her small size. She took readily to the egg yolk on a Q-tip and loved feeding time. She’s still petite and does have a slight cross beak, which doesn’t seem to be affecting her ability to eat, and gives her the funniest quizzical expression. She’s a gentle little bird.

Today was moving day and the chicks, just starting to reach their awkward adolescent stage with pin feathers and scruff, were graduated from the nursery brooders to their grade school brooder, made of an old Lumix feed tub, about 4×8 feet in size, with plenty of room for them to spread their little wing stubs. The two mini flocks had shown a little schoolyard hostility over the last few days, when one chick would manage to get into the other brooder, but they combined rather well this afternoon, without any issues. The warm summer weather will be to their advantage, only needing supplemental heat at night, and they will enjoy all the extra room. It really is amazing how fast chicks double and triple in size!

At least now Pearl can do her chicken chores without running back and forth from the house to the barn and back again. Maybe she’ll even take up her old hobby of bunny hunting. Meanwhile, I can try to figure out how it is that 18 chickens – 2 chickens = 34 chickens. Math never was my strength anyway.

Nesting

In spite of a beautiful set of heirloom nesting boxes, compliments of my husband’s grandma’s chicken coop, my chickens are determined to lay their eggs in a certain corner of their coop on the ledge of the floor sill, tucked behind the bin I store their feed in. A few days ago, I didn’t find any eggs and assumed they all just took a day, but the next morning I found a stash of four eggs in this choice corner, three of which were broken, with a chicken getting ready to deposit another in the same place.

I took away the feed sacks they were clumsily using as a sort of nest, tried to block the corner off, with the only end result that two chickens still managed to squeeze into that space and lay their eggs, one of which rolled off the floor sill and cracked. Foiled, by a critter with a brain the size of a lima bean.

Since they were insistent, I played along, if for no other reason than to keep the eggs from getting broken. I was also suspicious they were then eating the broken ones and was eager to nip that unsavory proclivity in the bud. So I made a makeshift nesting box with a 5-gallon bucket tipped on its side, and also did the golf balls in nesting box trick to try to con them into laying where I wanted them to lay. A few hens have seemingly caught on to the nesting boxes, with a little encouragement (i.e. actually placing them in the boxes and then babysitting them) and have used the nesting boxes without supervision since then, but there are apparently four hens that literally wait in line for that special corner, since all the eggs today were placed oh-so-nicely in the bucket, not in the nesting boxes.

I’ll keep working on getting them in the nesting boxes, but as long as they aren’t cannibalizing their own eggs, I honestly don’t really care where they feel compelled to put them. And if they’re patient enough to wait in line until their friend is done in that special corner, well, bless their little hearts.