Friday, August 21, 2009

Whatsover Your Hand Finds to Do

Anyone got tomatoes? Yeah? Lucky dogs. This stretch of the Shire didn't fare well for tomatoes this year. Between the cool--did I say "cool"...nay, I meant to say "cold"--temperatures all spring and summer, the rain and early late blight, not much is pinking up. Sigh. You know that you haven't had much in the way of sunshine when even your squash and cucumbers aren't plotting world domination. But, hey, mark it on your calendars...I harvested my first cuke today! There's so much rain that there's mold growing on the metal items out in the yard. See why I call this the Pacific North East? All summer I planned to do the "wardrobe flip" thing where I clamber up to the attic and schlepp all of the warm weather clothes down and toss the winter stuff up there until we need it again. Didn't happen until August and almost didn't happen at all. I guess this has been a "summer optional" year?

Tool Guy is equally frustrated. He bought a Harley Davidson Sportster "to go back and forth to work." If your Tool Guy comes home with this persuasive argument, run. Run like the wind. He does have the advantage in the argument that the extra "running around" he is doing is cheaper on gas. That has the virtue of being the truth. Fortunate for him. The frustration point is that in the eight years that we've lived here, this is the absolute wettest summer we've had. So he doesn't get to ride as often as he would wish. Pauvre petit cha'... So on the near-mythical sunny day, he's generally to be found at the leading edge of a blur, leaving behind nothing but the rumble.

I'm learning some valuable gardening lessons this year. I had planned for a "snap-back" year. Last year, I inadvertently sabotaged my garden. Then my greenhouse collapsed. I expected that I'd be able to sail into this spring and replenish my empty tomato sauce jars. Tool Guy even trekked up to the greenhouse manufacturer to pick up the replacement for me. I rubbed my hands together with glee and planned for great things.

Alas, cheri, it was not meant to be. The cauliflower never sprouted. The broccoli took two tries before the starts came up. Ditto on most of the tomatoes. Only one of my pepper plants came up. The beans and cucumbers took three tries before they came up. I bent my head lower and persisted.

We did get the greenhouse up and my starts did survive. But that's about all. I think I'm going to manage to harvest enough from each kind of vegetable that I planted to have seeds to plant next year. I unbent and visited the local farmer's market where I acquired twenty pounds of tomatoes. The newly minted jars of ketchup are cooling in my basement now. An expected blessing arrived in the form of a phone call from a friend inviting me to share in the bounty of her garden. Cucumbers and beans galore! For the three days following our thankful swoop through her garden, Bug hovered over the ripening pickle jars on the table, persistently asking if they were ready to eat. When I decanted those pickles, gratitude added an extra bit of flavor to the relish.

She also called me to share--recklessly generous friend that she is--the location of an untapped berry range. And buried in the midst of the blackberry brambles peeked several persistent elderberry bushes. We tag teamed during the weeks of the ripening berries. This was the Hobbits first excursion in berrying and it was quite the lesson in persistence, endurance, fortitude, and delayed gratification. But they were troupers and endured the belated sunshine that finally decided to make August feel like August. Not having a garden to demand our time and energy, we were freed to forage and immerse ourselves in this unexpected boon. "Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might."*

Neither my friend nor I having dealt with storing berries before, we discussed possible plans of attack. Syrup preparations appear to have a storage life of about six months and there was much more bounty than six months of the worst colds and flues would require. The next idea was to dry them. In the absence of detailed directions on line, I launched into a new episode of Dehydrating Dangerously. While I juggled racks in the oven, the impatient clusters that my overstuffed oven could not accommodate hung heavy like grapes from my pot rack, waiting their turns. I set the oven to 115* and made sure that there were trays under the dehydrating racks. Normally, I'm not that scrupulous, but elderberries will shrivel down to the dimensions of a flea. And with all this work, I begrudge any flea that escapes this circus!

And, of course, berries aren't about to be so obliging as to all dry at equal rates and equal degrees. Of course. And I harbor a horrifying vision of investing all of this work into drying all of this abundance, only later to find it riddled with pockets of mold because of an undetected imperfectly-dried berry. (I'm also hedging my bets by storing them in very small batches, paired up with silica packets.)

Sorting through the dried berries fingerful by careful fingerful for the semi-dried is much like panning for gold and equally tedious. I'd recommend an audio book for this process, but the quality of the sound plunking on the bottom of the china bowl became a part of the diagnostic process. A plink is dry, but a plunk goes back into the oven.

So this process does give the mind wide scope for finding subjects of meditation. When doing this, come prepared to think. One of the things I mediated on is that $16 a pound average rate for dried elderberries isn't really as dear as it first seems. Heh. It does, however, provide fodder for discussion with Hobbits about the concept of "sweat equity." I remember Sally Jesse Raphael, when she only had a radio program, sharing her evaluation process: what do you have more of? Time or money? Mostly the answer has been "time," though I have come to the conclusion that, these days, it may be running neck and neck. Still, the idea that I'm putting up food and medicine that I can reach back to even as far out as a few years from now gives me the motivation to press on and bury my hands deeply and enthusiastically in whatsoever they find to do. Even the unexpected. On second thought, particularly the unexpected.

*Ecclesiastes 9:10


Michaela Dunn Leeper said...

What a gloriously find! I miss getting gratuitous berries. When we lived in GA, we used to forage for blackberries. Buckets & buckets of blackberries!

Blackberry jam, blackberry pie, blackberry syrup, blackberries & cream..... Yes, you can call me Bubba now..... "We can go blackberry'n."

Loztnausten said...


Yup, when I was growing up we had similar WooT! locations. There was an abandoned air force base with miles of runway surrounded by waste areas that the blackberries overtook. We would gather up gallons and gallons. Mom would can it all up. We would scratch for a week (chiggers!) and eat for a year.

Rosie_Kate said...

Very enjoyable post! Thanks for the witty writing!

My garden has been similarly pitiful this year... though I am finally getting something out of it. No bumper crops this year, alas.

I'm looking forward to elderberry foraging. I don't think they're quite ripe yet around here. And anyway, first I have to get over this flu I've had all week... Isn't that ironic? I NEED those elderberries!(and how does one come by a flu in August, anyway?)

Loztnausten said...

Thanks for the kind words!

Yes, it is shaping up to be that kind of a year, isn't it? Not surprising with the cold, wet weather we've been having though. It makes me wonder if the amazing amount of berries is portentious of how this winter will turn out. We may need all of those berries!

Meanwhile, Bug is chasing every patch of sunshine that flickers across the yard...LOL!

Anonymous said...

Elderberries can be simply dried by hanging the clusters inside a paper bag with ventilation holes. In about 2 weeks you should be able to transfer them to jars for storage. No fuss. No muss.

Loztnausten said...

You're absolutely right! I've found, in the embarrassment of bounty that I have, that they don't suffer from my inattention. LOL!