Ms. Daisy May ‘tater Cat

We’ve had this loving, daring, fierce, cuddly, and kinda maladroit lady for about a year. Daisy is dynamic and I love that about her. She is equal parts violent mouser and loving cuddler. She has been a joyful presence at the Hillstead and I look forward to another season with her.

Some of her favorite things are cozy snuggles on the porch with me, murdering snakes, and rolling around in/playing with the driveway gravel.

Enjoy some curated classic Daisy antics below. I’ll note that if you choose to watch the video, please know that one silly kitten was severely cuddled right after, and no one was hurt.


woopsie, DAISY!

Video ☝️

Daisy and Neil, who was thrilled about the new kitten
Boop!

Existential crisis mode
I love this sweet little weirdo

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just lookit !

A very thoughtful, creative, generous friend made these beautiful egg cartons for us! See how we’re all represented?! Feast your eyes!

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Promises of Spring

March can be a real jag. Temps swinging from 60s to the teens, sunny afternoons followed by snowfall. This is the time of year I get very restless and yearn for warmer days. Good thing there’s not much time to rest with all the projects we have afoot!

CHICKS!

We have 20 Rhode Island Red and 5 Bielefelder chicks coming our way via USPS next week. Our current flock residing in the coop consists of Ghostie the rooster and 4 hens: one each of an Ameraucana, olive egger, Rhode Island Red, and Mystic Maran. Once the chicks hit 6 weeks they will move from our garage to outside then shack up with the 5 older birds. I’ll post photos of the little fluff butts asap!

EGGS!

Our above mentioned ladies have been working hard at perfecting their new skill of egg laying. Look at these beauties! More about egg laying in an upcoming post 🙂

1 week of eggs

GROWING THINGS!

I, so far, have successfully resisted the urge to start seeds. In a couple weeks, I’ll get the eggplant and echinacea going and that will tide me over for a bit. Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye out for wildflowers making their annual debut. I was ecstatic to find skunk cabbage poking up throughout the woods behind our house!

Skunk cabbage flower emerging

The goats also say COME ON SPRING! My hat must have looked like some tasty browse, or maybe these guys are getting tired of all this snow!

Hungry goats miss the lush pasture

Hang in there, all. It looks like we’re in for a big (hopefully LAST) snowfall this weekend. I’m looking forward to snuggling by the fire with some graph paper to draw up my kitchen garden plans while Winter drags on.

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hay there, stranger

Hello dears, until the Yule post, it had been a hot minute since I’d written here. My brain is bursting with updates I want to share with you and so I’m starting the process of jotting down what I’ve been up to in batches, in no particular order. Most of these will be goat-oriented (not sorry), but I’ll give it a solid try to present on other topics 🙂 anyway:

KITTEN!

In May, we welcomed Miss Daisy Mae to the Hillstead. A family member’s cat had kittens on St. Patrick’s Day and we are so grateful to have gotten one. Daisy is an affectionate, daring, funny, very active kotka- and she is one heck of a huntress. She and Neil keep the vermin population pretty in check around the house. They’re about the same size now and sometimes we have a hard time distinguishing them when they’re bounding through the fields.

GOATS!

At present, we have a herd of six goats: three mini alpines, two Nigerian dwarves, and one Nubian. We added two young Nigerian dwarf wethers to our herd in November: Bernie and Blaze! They are so soft and sweet. Both fellas are still warming up to the Hillstead Humans, and it’s lovely experiencing that gradual trust building up.

Bernie (white left) and Blaze (brown right) experiencing their very first snowfall ❄️

And then we have Nanny! Yes, our neighbor’s Nanny :). She loves being part of a herd again and spends most of her time with our goats in the pastures. At the end of the day, her laments over having to turn in for the night alone in her own shelter became increasingly heartbreaking, so she’s shacking up with our guys in our barn. Nanny never had her own kids, it’s awfully sweet to see her mothering Bernie and Blaze.

Some of the kids fall 2021

In much less happy goat news, we had to say goodbye to Spotswa our Nigerian dwarf earlier this month. The little guy ate a nylon hair tie off the end of my braid one day, which we believe caused an obstruction/infection and made him very sick, and we had to put him down a week later. We will always cherish memories of Spotty frolicking through the pasture, nuzzling with Charlie and giving kisses, and how he was constantly at the sides of his favorite humans eager for scritches behind the ears or apple slices. We miss him dearly.

Daisy and I nursed Spotty as best as we could with our cuddles (and broad spectrum antibiotics, electrolytes, and Epsom salts)

CHICKENS!

Over the summer, we tried out a mobile coop design to see how our chickens would do free ranging in the pasture and then returning to the mobile home at night. They all seemed to enjoy their living situation enough, but unfortunately the local weasel population enjoyed it even more. Within a couple weeks, we went from 15 to 2 chickens. So, back to the old coop and drawing board on that one.

Now, we have 5 month old rhode island reds, olive eggers, mystic marans, ameraucanas and Ghostie. We bought the new ladies as day old chicks from a local hatchery in mid-August. We’re looking forward to fresh eggs again later this winter or early spring!

Day old floofs 8/17/21
4 months old 12/22/21

HAY!

With the changing of seasons comes the change in feed needs for all Hillsteaders, whether they be ruminants, mammals, or mini dinosaurs. The hoofed dudes don’t have the browsing banquet they mostly subside upon in the pastures in front of the house during the cold months. So that means having lots of hay on hand to satisfy our hungry goaties. Thanks to Facebook marketplace, we found a local farmer who sold us 20 bales of hay and kindly tracked down another 20 bales of straw (more on that in another post) from a neighbor which he delivered to us in his giant horse trailer. I marveled at his driving skills and he maneuvered a lot of machine all over pasture 1. After Zack and the hayguy unloaded all the hay by the barn, Zack and I got to the task of loading the hay bales into our barn’s hayloft for safe and dry keeping. This chorin’ made me feel like a legit farmer, and I get a thrill every time I ascend the ladder to access the loft to toss down a new bale for the goats (it also probably has something to do with my slight fear of heights).

Hay delivery
In the hay loft, ‘tis a dusty place

That’s all for now. It’s a vigorous cycle of new life, problem solving, caregiving, death, and all that blood sweat and tears stuff. I’m here for it all.

Coming soon: 2021 garden review and lessons learned, things we’ve been making, and good times in the snow. Take good care, please ♥️

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Happy Yule!

This is our second Winter Solstice at the Summer Hillstead. We have started a couple of traditions for celebrating this darkest day, reminding ourselves to lean in to one another as we face the harsh winter. We dine by candlelight then write about what we’d like to cast away from this past year and toss those scrawling into the fireplace.

Our family focused on the theme of holding what we have in gratitude and not dwell on what we don’t have. I like it.

Wishing everyone a warm, cozy, love-filled Yule ♥️

Writing what we wish to be rid of for casting into the fire
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Post-Autumn Food Processing Updates

Mild Fall-like weather continues to prevail into mid-December in these parts. At this time 4 years ago, not only was it cold, it was cold enough to freeze the Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park, allowing college students to go ice skating and create breathtaking works of great artistic merit in the snow.

By contrast, I kindled our usual morning fire before taking Charlie to the bus stop, only to damp it down at 11AM. This afternoon we’re forecast to hit somewhere around 50 degrees, with well above-average temperatures continuing throughout the month. This is good news for our wood cellar, as we still have several weeks worth of dry wood from the dead ash tree remaining. We’ve about 3/4ths a cord to go before delving into the stacked reserves cut and split from two summers ago. At this rate we should have enough dry wood to keep us warm during the cold months this year without having to scramble or buy wood from Frank down in Stahlstown.

Another positive aspect of the extra-long warm season is that it’s allowed fermentation to continue longer than anticipated. Our “fridge-brewed” Cider/Perry turned out so well that I plan to allot more of the fruit juice to self-ferment next year. The bucket-brew Cider/Perry, to which I’d added sugar and allowed to ferment to bone-dry near the fireplace, has been racked and is now sitting in a secondary to mellow out for a few weeks. At present it tastes….pretty bracing. My plan is to kill any remaining yeast and back-sweeten to taste. If it’s any good I’ll have to hunt around for some way to bottle it come January.

Over atop the refrigerator, the Perry/Cider Vinegar has also fermented out, and is starting to SCOBIFY a Mother-of-Vinegar. I removed the apples (which had been pressed below the surface of the liquid with a small canning glass to protect against mold growth) and filter-funneled the vinegar to its new home. It’ll hang out in the cupboard above the stove to age for a good while, and I’ll be sure to post an update when I’m ready to use it.

The tepid weather doesn’t much affect felling trees at this point, but does prevent me from skidding logs without tearing up the ground. With wood production on hold for now, I’ve been focusing on our current food stock and storage, keeping the pantry, larder, and basement freezer well organized. This makes dinner prep easy, as all I need to do is peruse our stores to inform my dinner and shopping lists.

I keep a notebook on the kitchen counter and fill it out with everything that I want to make. Then I figure out some kind of weekly meal order so that we’re not eating Golumpki 4 days in a row, and start with the prep work accordingly. Usually I try to make two dinners at a time. This keeps food fresh, and also increases the amount of time that I get to spend away from the kitchen. I freeze or chill the prep for the next few days as needed, and save the leftovers (because too much is always the appropriate amount of food to make). It usually works out pretty well, except when Sarah eats all the left-over rice before I have time to use it in a stir-fry. That girl sure loves rice. Friday is always Pizza Friday- sometimes we even eat our fresh slices in the living room next to the fire and have a family movie night.

It’s a well-known fact that cold-weather cooking is the most enjoyable both in the preparing and the eating. For me, there’s nothing like walking in from a winter’s dark and cold to be greeted with wood-fueled warmth and the smell of something delicious that you’ve made yourself (even moreso if you’ve harvested it yourself). The above list is my current example of fairly typical fare during these colder times of the year, with an emphasis on soups/stews and casseroles- often sprinkled with Eastern European cuisine that I call “Grandma Food” because it reminds me of what my Baba used to make. I’ve always been told that eating cabbage will put hair on your chest, handy for helping to keep one warm in the winter. Remember -facts are not disputable.

A recent entrant on the Hillstead’s menu, you may have noticed, is venison. While I’m glad to have given an update regarding the Cider/Perry, the elephant in the room is actually a deer, and the aforementioned room is actually our chest freezer. How did it become so? Just follow me on an adventure spanning forest to fork. Well, in this particular instance the implement in question is really a spoon, but that’s not particularly salient.

After the business of dressing, hanging, and breaking down the deer, butchering can begin. I’d even installed a fresh blade in the hacksaw for the occasion. Set up in the unheated garage, a scrap bucket, grind bucket, cutting board, and a variety of cutting implements sit prepared and sanitized. The process of getting the most meat possible, safely, took me about 6 hours total over two days. I broke down primal cuts just as I used to with beef in my old cooking days- the process felt distantly familiar. An experienced butcher probably could have done it in under an hour- but perhaps my speed will improve in the future.

From a single rear hind quarter- rump (not pictured, it made its way to the grind bucket), Shank, Sirloin tip, Bottom Round, and Top Round. I found it easiest to remove stray hairs by wiping with a damp cloth, rinse and repeat. I saved the sirloin tip for a roast along with a backstrap (for stuffing and wrapping with bacon). A filet was made into bacon-wrapped medallions. All other nice large cuts were sliced into jerky-sized strips.

I’ve tried deer jerky both ways- sliced with and against the grain, and have tasted both good and poor examples of each. Basically, either will work- it mostly just comes down to your texture preference. I lean slightly into the longer, thinner, with-the-grain slices camp. That being said, deer jerky is a rare and wonderful treat- probably my favorite way to eat venison. In my experience if the jerky doesn’t turn out very well it’s almost always due to over-drying, turning the meat into very hard, tough, crumbly slabs. 8-10 hours low and slow (145 degrees), rotating the trays once or twice (but at least once), seems to be just about perfectly suited to my tastes. I dehydrated the jerky in several batches over the course of several days- giving the later batches up to 3 days of marinating time.

4.5lbs was the total dry yield on jerky. I did three different marinades, a “sweet”, a “teriyaki”, and a “spicy.” While all taste fantastic (the sweet probably being the best), differences between the flavors were actually pretty subtle. I seems I need to work on my marinade game. We distributed half amongst some pals, finished off one container ourselves in about 2 days, and have just a little remaining at present.

When I got to removing the skirt steak cuts, I admit I wasn’t sure what to do with them. There’s lots of connective tissue to deal with that can’t really be removed without ruining the cut- so low and slow and wet cooking was really the only option.

I cross-hatched the steaks on both sides and tossed them in the Insta-pot with garlic, onion, a bay leaf, a can of crushed tomatoes, and our own Hillstead-made chicken stock. After 6 hours on slow-cook it was pull-apart tender, and I set it aside while sautéing more onion, garlic, mushrooms, and celery. I chopped potatoes and carrots and added everything back to the pot, along with the shredded venison, a sprig of rosemary, pepper, and parsley (herbs also grown on the Hillstead in Sarah’s Herb Spiral!) and continued cooking until the potatoes were soft. I was concerned about the fat turning the stew gamey, but I was relieved to find this wasn’t the case.

In fact it turned out somewhere beyond delicious. Enjoyed heartily by all, this simple stew has become an instant Hillstead classic and will absolutely be on the menu again in the coming years.

That which I did not cut into steaks, roasts, or jerky was chopped, fat removed, and brought to a local processor for grinding. Many processors are inundated this time of year (Especially in PA and NY, I’m told), and some have even had to turn away folks looking to have their venison processed. Because all I wanted was straight grind from boneless, they were able to fit me in. I’ll give them another week before I give them a call and check up. We’ll be getting single-pound portions that we can re-grind (thanks for the KitchenAid attachment Harrison and Nora!) with pork or beef and make our own hamburger blend and breakfast sausage- so the forest-to-spoon tale is not quite over just yet!

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Oh Deer.

Greeting the first of the sun’s rays, our Hillstead comes alive with birdsong. Squirrels and chipmunks are abundant and have been taking advantage of the warmer-than usual weather by noisily grabbing the remainder of hickory nuts, acorns, and black walnuts during the day. Flocks of birds hundreds strong gather and rest in the treetops, then all at once take wing due West. Days are short and nights are long. The wind changes direction frequently, but prevails uphill in the mornings and downhill in the evenings, taking with it the fog and the scent of the neighbor’s pine trees. I was learning the ebb and flow of the natural world around me, and in some small way, becoming a part of it. I’d thought deeply regarding my ancestors- those whom for thousands of years relied on deer and other game to feed their families though the long winters. For them, the cold, the wind, the trees and the Earth were a singular part of everyday existence. The wild open places were as much of a home to them as the shelters they built. How far removed I am from them, when a cup of coffee, a warm fire, and Chinese leftovers await my return from the outdoors.

It was Saturday, December 4th. I’d been out in the woods for a week daily, usually for around 6 hours a day. I’d experienced quite mornings, cold, wind, rain, sleet, snow, and beautiful sunsets. I’ve set up in tree stands, rocky outcrops, brush blinds, and the lower pastures where deer like to bed down for the day. I’ve followed tracks, examined trails, looked for fresh sign from one edge of the property to the other. I’ve spent long hours practicing with my tools to ensure a fast, painless harvest- it was my first attempt in 23 years and calling me “rusty” would have been a kindness a year ago.

This particular Saturday was windy, with intermittent unseasonal rain. I made the not-so-very difficult choice of staying in after my chores were completed and worked on my meal list for the week. Around 4PM I was in the kitchen, stirring some rice into the duck soup I had been preparing. Through the window-box I observed two deer near the garshed. Thinking it was Bill and Ted (the twin yearlings I’d seen several times previously) come to mock me, I called Sarah over to take a look at them. She headed out the front door for a better look and to take some photos. After she had left I noticed that one of the deer wasn’t a yearling at all, but rather a large doe. Noting that the deer somehow hadn’t been roused, I ran for my .308, left through the garage, and slowly made my way over to the side of the house.

During this time, Charlie had also exited the house to watch the deer from the front porch. I passed my family as I walked, motioning for quiet, and I remember Sarah telling Charlie to be ready to cover his ears. The yearling was up the hill about 50 feet, the doe somewhere below, out of sight. In a few moments she made her appearance and starting grazing not more than 30 yards in front of me, broadside, with little regard for the humans watching her.

The wind stilled as I knelt. I swallowed, and propped my left elbow over my knee for stability. I exhaled, aimed, and took my shot. She jumped, kicking her legs out so high she almost did a tumble-sault. She ran up the hill after the yearling, but my shot was well-placed and she quickly fell after only 25 feet. I turned and walked back to my family; they had stood and watched me take the life of this deer. I saw in their eyes a kind of bewilderment- what had just happened? Did that really just happen? We all stood with the moment as it turned toward excitement and relief. After a week invested in hunting and seeing very little to bolster my belief that there would be a deer worth harvesting on our property this season, this doe had presented herself to all of us. We thanked her for feeding us and honored her wild, beautiful spirit as the sun set over the Western ridges.

Posted in Hillstead Foods and Feeds, Hunting, Outsidey Stuff | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

*Warning: This is not a hunting blog.*

Photos presented herein are by design sparse and do not contain any images of dead animals. Read safely and without peril.

Though born in the city, I did most of my growing up in what they called “God’s Country”, about an hour West of Pittsburgh in the now increasingly populous township of Raccoon in the County of Beaver. It was a very mammalian place to grow up. At that time, school attendance was broken up by holiday breaks- Spring Break and Christmas/New Years were the longest, but by far the best days off were the more illicit- the days my brother and I were surprised by our dad with a fishing trip to Lake Pomatuming, Shenango, Arthur, Wilhelm, or sometimes just the State Park reservoir.

These trips o’ hooky were most often a reward for an excellent report card, and could spring up at any time between semesters. They were fun and unique in that they couldn’t be anticipated- dad would take a day off work when he could, and he’d wake us up ridiculously early in the morning with rods and tackle already packed. Off we’d cruise under the moonlight, languid and often unsure of our particular port of call, but ready for a day on the water or shore. Usually we’d stop somewhere near our destination for a big breakfast and a pot of coffee- this would ensure that regardless of our spoils (or lack thereof) for the day that, “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at school.”

The holidays broke up the year and the fishing trips kept us on our toes, but it wasn’t until I was 14 and took a hunters safety course that I could reap the benefits of an additional respite from Winter’s scholastic doldrums. This latest holiday, steeped in religious ritual and tradition, celebrated the changing of the seasons, the power of the elements, respect for the natural world, and all the skills of the hunter. Our holy book was the Hunting and Trapping Digest, our Clergy the PA Game Commission. Small game featured the most comfortable hunting weather and plenty of good times, but you only got to take a day or two off from school for the holiest of holidays – Deer Season.

The last year that I went a-hunting was when I still lived with my parents- I was probably 16 or 17 when I’d hung it up for the long term. I’d had some successes and some dry years hunting along with my dad and brother on our 12 acres. About the time I left home I had become a vegetarian, if more in practice than in spirit, and would maintain a steady diet of cheese, potatoes, pasta, and tofu for nearly a decade. Maybe I ate something green as well, it’s hard to remember any noteworthy vegetables. Of course, all hunting had ceased during that period- I had become a dazzling urbanite and didn’t own any of my own gear anyway.

Fast forward to more than 20 years later. Suddenly I’m back in Pennsylvania’s woods at our own little Hillstead, sitting in a tree stand, my very own rifle (.308 Weatherby – last year’s Christmas gift from my father-in-law Mr. Lew) across my lap. I had initially set up near the Stallion Shed, some 200 yards away from the house, overlooking the fen and a section of overgrown pasture that I knew had been a deer bed favored by a buck or two.

Hunting days are long excercises in patience, with bad cellular reception and not a lot to do but to sit and wait quietly while appreciating the opportunity to simply be alone and reflect. This, besides “shoot the thing, eat the food”, is the bulk of my present-day draw to this most ancient of human traditions. Of course- I also took daily notes for posterity. Writing about earlier days is as fine a way as any to pass the hours in the woods- indeed much of this post was written in a tree stand.

Day 1: Saturday, Nov 27th – Opening Day. I got up at 4:30AM, dressed in extended deep-sea diving gear, and made my way to the tree stand before dawn. There I waited all day, returning to home only for a bathroom break and lunch. Squirrels and chipmunks were very active, but no sight or sound of deer. It was a pretty cold one but with all my layers, not uncomfortable.

There are several obvious line-of-sight issues with this location, and there are really only a few good angles to shoot from.

Day 2: Sunday, November 28th – Bonus Sunday – It feels odd to be hunting on a Sunday, but I won’t complain. I split my time to the South side of the property where the tree stand lives and the North side of the property after having lunch. I don’t have a tree stand there, but there is a nice little alcove behind a 4-trunked oak that provides cover and a decent view downhill and to the South for about 75 yards. I found many fresh trails, but the deer did not make an appearance.

Day 3: Monday, November 29th – Another early rise. While walking out to the tree stand I scared up a doe. It was too dark yet and I wouldn’t have had a clean shot regardless, as it was uphill from the tree stand by about 200 feet. I watched it through the scope until it disappeared due South, and heard a shot from that direction about 5 minutes later. I decided that I needed to abandon the pasture – deer weren’t bedding there anymore – and so I decided to move the stand up to the top South Eastern edge of the property. Sarah and I made plans to do this the next day together. I sat out the evening at the North site, but neither saw nor heard another animal save the neighbor’s constantly screaming roosters.

Day 4: Tuesday, November 30th – I started the day out at the North site. Occasional snow and sleet, but otherwise it was pretty comfortable out there. No deer to speak of, only chipmunks and squirrels. In the evening, Sarah and I relocated the tree stand, finishing up just as the sun was going down. Before heading back in, two yearlings descended from the top of the hill. We watched them for a bit and then packed it in for the night.

Day 5: Wednesday, December 1st – A sleety morning. I discovered fresh scat at the North site and sat there all morning for bupkis. After picking up Charlie from the bus stop, we saw what appeared to be those same two yearlings in another pasture. I was unable to get out for my evening sit, which was just as well, as the weather was turning a bit foul.

Day 6: Thursday, December 2nd – A windy day that I probably should have taken off. I thought it might even the odds a bit with the wind gusting at 30mph- I doubt anything could detect my tramping around at 20 feet from any of the other noise going on. The range on my .308 is a bit limited compared to higher powered rifles, so I figured this would also play to my strengths- it was going to be a close-range shot or nothing kind of day. I went out after lunch, before it rained. I waited until dark, but the only ruminants I heard were our own goats down in the pasture.

Day 7: Friday, December 3rd – A rainy morning kept me indoors. After lunch and completing chores I headed up to the tree stand and scared up those same two yearlings. I stayed in the tree stand until evening and was treated to probably the most spectacular of sunsets since beginning this endeavor. The wind was mostly still, but would occasionally pick up and rattle the remaining leaves on the trees like clinking bones. On my way back I found the yearlings on my trail, staring back at me. I think I’ll call them Bill and Ted, and hope they have excellent adventures together.

Day 8: Saturday, Dec 4th – I slept in and it was great. Weekend hunting hasn’t been my favorite- both times I had headed out previously there were plenty of other hunters around the edges of our property- maximizing the field of view of their smaller, much less woodsy properties. I don’t blame them and I don’t mind- so long as I’m not competing with them. I decided I needed a break and stayed in for the day. As fate would have it, this was to be the day I would harvest my first deer in over 20 years.

The story will be soon to come, but at the moment…. I’m rather busy!

Posted in Hillstead Foods and Feeds, Hunting, Outsidey Stuff | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Squish the fruit, make the Drink

Perry, I think we’re ready. You know why? Because I can feel it… in here.
Walter, where are you pointing to?

That’s right- we’re trying our hand at making Perry-Cider.

Harvest began with the pear trees on our Hillstead in late September and continued through October. Grandma and Pap came over and we had a real blast! We’re not really sure what varieties we have, but the larger and more abundant seem like they may be a variety of Forelle or Green Anjou, and the smaller ones may be some kind of Anjou (but they seem to be a lot smaller than normal). In any case, this year we learned that pears won’t really ripen on the tree, but rather require being picked when mature (or gathered once dropped) and allowed to hang out for a bit. Once they start to become just a little soft around the stem, they seem to be nicely sweet without too much “grittyness.”

When ripe, both varieties that we have on the property taste great, even if the yield is fairly low and the fruits themselves are pretty small. We ended up with about 30lbs- I suppose that’s not too bad for 2 never-maintained trees. If anyone can positively identify the variety, I think that would be terrific.

A fresh-washed batch of some of the nicer-looking pears.

Once winter is in full swing, I plant to prune the pear trees fairly heavily (moreso than last year) to hopefully increase yield and make more of the pears reachable. The larger of the two trees is over 30 feet tall!

We don’t have any apple trees on the property, and despite visiting several local nurseries, we weren’t even able find any saplings to plant. Hopefully we can find some next year (I’d like to find a peach and a few cherrys as well!), now that Pasture #4 is just about clear and we have the space to plant and access them.

Who knows things about germinating apple seeds? There is a lone roadside tree along a local country route that grows plenty of fruit that no one picks…..we snagged one during one of our walks and it was about one of the most delicious apples we’ve ever had. It sure would be great to grow some of them!

Blessed we are, and our lovely neighbors have several apple trees with great yields- far more than what they want for themselves. On top of what they gifted us, they also invited us to come up to their hilltop property and pick as much as we liked. Fun family activities, hooray!

In total, we ended up with around 100lbs of fruit total to squish. I let them sit in the garage for a bit to ripen a little further, then bagged them all up and stuck them in the chest freezer in the basement. There they sat for…..longer than intended. I wanted them to freeze up to make crushing them easier, since we don’t have an appropriate grinder.

Well, I let them sit for several weeks- and now it’s too cold for open-air fermentation. They have softened up quite a bit, and I suppose an added bonus has been that there weren’t any yellowjackets left to disturb us for the juicing process.

100lbs of fruit really isn’t very much at all for squeezins, so to invest in a ready-made crusher/grinder and press would be a bit extravagant for us right now. We have plenty of buckets though, so with a minimum investment in reinforcement zip ties, this very simple press came together in about 15 minutes.

The final step was simply to drill some holes for the juice to run out. Press completed, it was time to smash up some apples for juice extraction.

Our first iteration occurred outside, just after Charlie got home from school. It involved a cement block and much bucket-sitting for a first squeeze. Too soon however, it started to get dark, and we moved production into the garage where additional squishing apparatus might be employed.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and if we were to have the full batch completely pressed before daybreak, we needed some mechanical advantage….in the form of hydraulic pressure.

Thankfully, a 6-ton bottle jack, a few chunks of 2×4, and a nice chestnut shelf board worked in tandem with the garage ceiling joist to provide all the pressure needed.

Without a crusher/grinder, I thought maybe we’d get a few gallons if we were lucky….but I was surprised so find that after the second press, we had a little over 6 gallons of apple/pear juice!

And just look at those apple/pear husks! They look like raisins! Let it be known- for small batches, freezing and pressing fruit works amazingly well, no crushing/grinding necessary!

Post-squeeze, we filtered the juice through some fine nylon mesh and started putting it into containers. We reserved about a gallon and a half to drink fresh and give out to pals. Not really knowing what to do with the fruit-husks, I grabbed a small pile of them and submerged them in about a half gallon of the juice and placed them atop the fridge to make apple cider vinegar.

The remaining 5ish gallons went right back into a bucket. I haven’t brewed any beverages in at least a decade, so this will be my first shot in a while. Since the fruit was completely frozen for several weeks, I can’t count on any natural yeast living through the ordeal. It’s also too cold to brew outside or in the garage anymore. So I dumped some yeast in, gave it a stir, and capped it with an air-tight lid and a check valve (compression fit with a PVC fitting on the underside). I imagine fermentation will be slow, if it happens at all, but giving it a seat next to the fireplace is the most warmth I can offer.

Updates will be forthcoming after a few weeks. In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions about what to do with a large pile of fruit husks, please leave me a comment about it. If all else fails, I suppose I could toss them in the Pasture #3 garden plot to rot in the Spring- if the deer don’t get to them first!

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Utilizing the Wood-Waste

As Pasture #4 is in its final stages of being cleared and readied for winter, a great deal of saplings need to be cut, cleared, and eliminated. Fortunately, many are the options for disposing of waste-wood on a Hillstead such as ours.

The easiest method is to return branches back to where they came from- to leisurely decompose somewhere on our 17 acres. This is beneficial to the overall health of the forest. Rotting wood (not treated wood) returns nutrients back to the soil, giving insects and microbes something to munch on as it breaks down. This in turn replenishes the soil’s nitrogen, increases aeration, and makes soil less prone to erosion. New roots get a healthy start, and the growth cycle begins anew. One area in which we’ve already begun utilizing this method is at the fresh-cut trail that connects the Garshed with the barn.

As the years go by, this brush/limb hedge will continue to trap fallen leaves, further building up an embankment along with the waste wood that will reduce erosion and eventually provide a natural contour to the trail. In the meantime, woodpeckers may enjoy a different opportunity for chowing down rather than chipping into the painted and bug-less pillars that hold up our porch. I hope.

The second option, also pretty easy, is to pile up the brush and burn it bonfire-style. This option may make the most sense for most people in a homesteady or farmy situation, and we see (and smell) it being employed frequently in these parts. The major concern I have with this method that in order to burn fresh-cut or “green” waste wood; one must either wait while it dries out in a pile for at a year or two, or add it slowly, piece by piece to an already-hot fire, or use an accelerant to start the fire- and probably keep it going (not a safe practice).

If you do have the time and space and patience to allow a pile of wood waste to dry out, a yearly Autumn or Halloweeny bonfire can be part of a cheerful celebration depending upon how much waste wood you have to deal with and how large you’re comfortable with making your fire (local fire codes may also be a factor).

A third option is to build a Hugelkultur. This method by far has the best name, and other benefits as well. The process is simple: build up a mound or two or whatever of excess organic waste, and allow it to rot over time. It can include sticks, branches, leaves, straw, spent hay, and sawdust (NOT treated wood)- as well as any food waste that isn’t better suited for traditional composting. We mostly toss stuff in there that is beginning to rot, along with coffee grounds, citrus, onion scraps, and eggshells- things that we won’t feed to the chickens or worms.

Though we will probably have more at some point, we currently have two Hugelkulturs. They’re below the front-lawn fire pit and above pasture #2. They’re about 6 feet wide and around 20 feet long – a tractor’s-width apart from each other so that I can get the brush hog between them. They’re angled to slow water runoff during heavy rains- keeping vital nutrients where they belong in the pasture so that we can grow a nice field of forage to support the increasing goat population.

Because we were able to snag a chipper implement along with the tractor, we also have a 4th option for dealing with wood waste -turning it into sweet sweet mulch.

That mostly-dead Colorado Spruce still stands at the time of this typing, but it’s not long for this world.

As saplings, tree branches, and untreated fenceposts are removed, we have the opportunity to pile them up and mulch them pretty much anywhere on the property using the chipper and the tractor’s power take off. Not only does this save mulch-money over time, but with an abundance of tree diversity, mulch blends can be custom-made to best suit their intended purposes.

Little bit of white pine in there for good measure.

For instance, a blend of walnut and locust mulch can be used around walkways and paths, spread heavily for the purpose of preventing weed growth AND sticking around for several years before an additional layer needs to be spread. Black Walnut contains juglone, a chemical that can kill sensitive plants (including grasses and weeds), and Locust is rot-resistant, making for a long-lasting mulch.

Charlie is an incredible helper!

On the other hand, hardwood mulch including a majority of Cherry, Ash, and Hickory will decompose more quickly, regulate the ground temperature under which it is laid, and return nutrients to the soil – perfect for garden beds and around freshly-planted saplings.

What will this garden bed one-day contain?
No further! The line must be drawn here!

Finally, spruce (not Norway Spruce) and pine can be chipped up to use as animal bedding and as a mulch for acidity-loving blueberry bushes. We don’t have enough spruce or pine growing on the property to make it a good source for bedding and will likely have to rely on buying cubes of the stuff from the local Tractor Supply for a good while- but the blueberries will hopefully be well-mulched soon. That project and more soon to come, as we try to use the last few weeks before Winter most efficiently. Thus far, we’ve mulched 60 cubic feet of the green stuff, and I’m hoping to get at least another cartful before the snow comes in earnest next weekend.

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