Book Review: Mother Earth News Almanac

240x4009780760349854(Note: I received this book for free from Quarto Publishing Group. However, all opinions here are mine. This post also contains affiliate links.)

The original Mother Earth News Almanac was published in the 1970s and, in addition to being a bestseller, it was one of those books that gardeners and homesteaders referred to again and again. It has been out of print for many years, however. Luckily, the folks over at Mother Earth News decided to update the original almanac and release it, and the result is the Mother Earth News Almanac: A Guide Through the Seasons.

First off, I have to say that any gardening book that is organized according to the seasons gains an automatic thumbs-up from me. It just seems the most logical, when gardening and homesteading are, by their very nature, activities that are dependent on trying to do the right things in the right seasons. So we’re already off to a good start.

This is not one of those books that gives you a list of vegetables and then tells you how to grow them — there are many of those books out there already, and I’ve written a couple of them. They’re very useful, and everyone who wants to grow their own food should have a book like that around. But that’s not what you’ll find in the Mother Earth News Almanac. It’s more of a lifestyle book, encompassing the “how-tos” of growing preserving, and cooking food, raising animals, living sustainably, and living well.

It’s the kind of book that gives you tips for actually LIVING. Wondering what it means when a recipe says to “scald the milk?” The Almanac tells you what that means and how to do it. Want to identify the insect pests in your garden and find a natural way to deal with them? Or are you interested in saving money, or foraging for wild foods, or raising goats? That’s what’s in this book: tips to help you live the homesteading lifestyle, no matter what that looks like. It can be in an apartment or on 100 acres; in the city or in the country. What it’s about is taking control of your life and how you choose to live it, and that can be by growing a garden, brewing your own beer, raising hogs, or simply making your own kneepads for working in the garden.

This book is not flashy. The artwork is simple, with a homespun feeling that just perfectly fits the contents of the book. I can see myself relaxing and flipping through the Almanac for years to come, maybe finding new project ideas depending on my mood and the season.

I should also mention the informative tables in the back of the Almanac. I am a lover of tables. They’re just so efficient and useful, and there are several of them in this book. Here are just a few of them:

  • Measurement conversions
  • Gestation table for common livestock
  • Scientific names for household chemicals
  • Garden pests and how to control them
  • Birdhouse sizes for different bird species
  • Food storage help
  • Botanical names for common fruits and vegetables
  • Planting charts to help plan your garden

If you’re interested in living a more sustainable, natural lifestyle, and you are a DIYer at heart, you’ll love this book. If you like the idea of having a project to work on, or finding a better way to accomplish an everyday task, this is for you. If you just want to know how to grow plants or design a garden, there are books out there that will better suit your needs. But if, like me, you’re always ready for a new project, you’ll love flipping through the Mother Earth News Almanac and finding even more ways to live your life more sustainably, mindfully, and frugally.

Time to Sow Onion Seeds

February and early March are the perfect time to sow onion seeds indoors under lights here in Michigan. Growing onions from seeds rather than from sets gives you a lot more varieties to choose from as well as saving you quite a bit of money. Just make sure you choose a long day or and intermediate day variety if you are in zones 5-6.

Long Day Onions

Red Wing, Red Hawk, Bridger, Ailsa Craig, Cortland, Pontiac

Intermediate Day Onions

Walla Walla, Valencia, New York Early, Cabernet

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: January

amaryllisJanuary. The holidays are over, and a long, cold Michigan winter stretches before us. While some of us embrace winter, some of us are chomping at the bit to get back out into the garden.

The good news for those of us who are counting down the days until spring is that we can start growing several vegetables, herbs, and annuals indoors from seed this month. Below is a list of what you can start sowing now, depending on your approximate last spring frost date.

If your last spring frost is between April 15th and May 1st:
Herbs and Veggies:

  • Onions
  • Parsley
Annuals:

  • Delphinium
  • Dianthus
  • Lisianthus
  • Viola
If your last spring frost is between May 1st and May 15th:
Vegetables and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • Delphiniums
If your last spring frost is between May 15th and June 1st:
Vegetable and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • None yet.
If your last spring frost is after June 1st:
Vegetable and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • None yet.

So, there’s not a ton going on yet, but spring will be in full swing before we know it. This is a good time to gather any seeds and seed-starting supplies you need so you’ll be ready to go when the time is right.

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: December

Photo credit: Borgtex

Here’s your garden to-do list for December:

Seed Starting

  • This month is generally when we begin winter sowing, as long as the weather is consistently below freezing. Even if you’re not able to wintersow yet, you can prepare  your containers and make sure you have plenty of seeds and soil.
  • Sow pansies indoors this month so you’ll have nice-sized plants ready to plant out in containers in March.

 

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Some years, we are still experiencing mild weather, even in December. If we are, chances are good that you still have a few things, such as kale, chard, mache, and carrots growing happily. Continue to water and harvest as needed.
  • If we’ve had a good freeze already, it’s time to sit back and dream of next year’s garden!

Perennials

  • Once the ground has frozen, use fall leaves or other organic matter to mulch perennials that are prone to frost-heaving.

Bulbs

  • As long as you can still find bulbs in the garden center, you can buy and plant them in containers for a beautiful display next spring. Simply plant the bulbs, then place the pot in a protected location such as an unheated garage, covered porch, or garden shed. This is an excellent way to add color to your garden next spring and take advantage of end-of-season bargains!

Trees and Shrubs

  • If the ground hasn’t frozen yet, make sure that you water if we’ve had a long period of drought.

Houseplants

  • Winter is our houseplants’ time to shine. Make sure yours are watered regularly and are getting the proper amount of light.
  • Watch out for pest problems.
  • Consider misting your plants once or twice a day, since dry, heated air in our homes can stress houseplants.
  • Force some bulbs for the holidays: amaryllis, paperwhites, and  hyacinths are all classic bulbs to force at this time of  year.
  • If you’ve purchased a poinsettia for the holidays, make sure to water when the surface of the soil feels dry and give it a nice, bright location in your home.

Planting and Growing Garlic

garlic4

 

Garlic is a must for many cooks, and the great news is that here in Michigan, it’s actually very easy to grow garlic. It can be tucked just about anywhere in the garden, and, when you grow it yourself, you really get two crops in one. You get the bulbs, which is what most people think of when growing garlic, but you also get the scapes (which are the flower stems) which you can harvest in late spring to early summer. The scapes provide a delicate garlic flavor, and are great in many dishes that would benefit from a bit of garlicky goodness.  Let’s take a look at how to grow perfect garlic here in Michigan.

 

Garlic Types: Hardneck or Softneck?

There are two general types of garlic to choose from: hardneck and softneck. Michigan gardeners will have better success with hardneck varieties.

Hardneck Garlic Varieties (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon)

Hardneck garlic varieties are generally hardier than softneck varieties, making them the best option for Michigan gardeners. They are also the best option if you want to enjoy garlic scapes, because hardnecks are the only type that send up a storng central stem, or scape,  in spring. Hardneck varieties tend to form fewer cloves per bulb than softneck varieties, but the individual cloves tend to be bigger.

Within the hardneck family, there are nine sub-types of garlics: Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Asiatic, Glazed Purple Stripe, Creole, Middle Eastern, Turban, Rocambole, and Porcelain. The Purple Stripe and Rocambole types are the hardiest, best for gardeners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and other parts of the state with very long, cold winters. Gardeners who live in warmer zones, such as those in southern lower Michgan, can easily grow all of the hardneck types.

 

How and When to Plant Garlic in Michigan

garlic3

Here in Michigan, you’ll want to plant your garden in October and November — before the ground freezes hard, but after we start getting cooler temperatures. This will allow the bulbs to start forming roots before we get a deep freeze.

Garlic needs a site in full sun to grow well. To plant garlic, dig holes or furrows six inches apart and three inches deep in loose, well-drained soil. Place individual cloves (separate them – don’t plant entire bulbs of garlic)  in the holes, pointy end up, and cover with soil. Water them in. If you have squirrels or other animals that try digging them up, consider covering the area with chicken wire or wire mesh — the foliage and scapes can still grow  through it, but it will deter wildlife from digging them up.

Spread a six-inch deep layer of organic mulch, such as fall leaves or straw, over the planting area. Within six to eight weeks, shoots might emerge if the weather is warm enough.  This is fine — the plant will stop growing once the soil gets cold, and growth will start up again in the spring.

 

Companion Planting: What to Plant Near Garlic

Garlic is one of those crops that you can plant throughout your garden to help naturally deter pests. It actually accumulates sulfur, which is a naturally-occurring fungicide that will help protect your plants from diseases. Garlic also helps repel insects such as aphids.

Best Companion Plants for Garlic

Garlic helps the plants listed below grow better. Because garlic isn’t overly picky about where it is planted (as long as it is in full sun), it’s easy to tuck it into the garden wherever you have a spare spot. Plant garlic near: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, carrots, and kohlrabi.

Avoid planting garlic near beans and peas, since it may stunt the growth of both plants.

 

Garlic Pests and Problems

garlic2

Garlic really isn’t bothered by many pests or disease issues. Rot can sometimes be a problem; guard against this by providing your garlic with good, well-draining soil. The most common pest is squirrels and other animals, which may dig up the bulbs. Deter them with chicken wire, as mentioned above in the “planting” section.

Another common concern gardeners have is that sometimes the garlic will send up green growth in the fall after planting, when we don’t expect to see any foliage until spring. This is nothing to worry about; growth will halt once the weather cools, and the bulb will send up new green growth in the spring.

 

Growing and Harvesting Garlic

Once you have your garlic planted, there really isn’t much to do. In spring, give the bed a topdressing of compost and/or bloodmeal, then do this again once you see the scapes. Harvest the scapes when they just  begin to curl. When the foliage has turned yellow and dead looking, it’s time to harvest your garlic. Dig it up, and let it cure in a dry place for several days.

How to Make Pickled Green Tomatoes

I reached a point last week where I just got tired of looking at tomato plants, tired of pruning, harvesting, and battling septoria — just kind of over tomatoes this year. I left my favorite variieties growing, but I ripped out plenty of plants so i could make room for our fall crops.

Since I hate wasting food (and doubly hate wasting food that we put all of this effort into growing!) I harvested as many of the green tomatoes as I could. Several have ripened over the last week, and we’ve been eating them. The rest….I needed to figure out how to deal with.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I love pickles. I just do. And I knew I’d heard of green tomato pickles before, so I looked it up and made a few batches. The good news: they’re delicious, and it is SO EASY.

Here’s how.

What You Need:
(for 3 quarts of green tomato pickles)

8 pounds of green tomatoes
4 cups of white vinegar
4 cups of water
4 tbsp. of kosher salt
dill seeds
whole black peppercorns
garlic
red pepper flakes

Jars — either 3 quart-sized jars or 6 pint-sized jars, as well we lids and rings (or any old jar you can find, if you’re going to make refrigerator pickles)
Hot water canner (if you’re planning on storing your pickles long term)
Jar lifter

Prepping Your Tomatoes

(Note: If you’re planning to process your pickles in a hot water canner, you should fill the canner with water, add your jars, and turn the water on to sterilize and warm your jars. Just leave the jars in the water until you’re ready to use them. Place the lids and rings in another pan with simmering – not boiling- water until you’re ready to use them.)

**One of the sites I found when I searched for green tomato pickles online was Garden Betty — who wrote a great post on the topic. I adapted the spices and quantities to work for me, but she has some great ideas for other spice blends.

Gather and wash 8 pounds of green tomatoes. After tasting the ones I made, I prefer cherry tomatoes because they seemed to stay firmer after processing, but any tomato will work.

Then, cut your tomatoes in half. If they’re larger, cut them into quarters.

Now, it’s time to make your brine. Add the vinegar, water, and salt to a pan, and bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, it’s time to start filling your jars.

Remove the jars from the boiling water canner with your jar tongs. Set them on a towel on your counter (so they don’t crack when they come into contact with the cool surface) and add the following to each jar:

  • 1 tsp. dill seeds
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 tsp (or more if you want them spicier) of red pepper flakes

Once your spices are in, start packing your tomatoes into the jars. Really, pack them in. Once they’re packed, add brine to fill the spaces between tomatoes. Use a chopstick or knife to go around the inside of the jar and remove any air bubbles, then fill with more brine if you need to. Leave 1/4 inch of headspace, then wipe the rims of your jars to clean up any brine, add your lids and tighten your rings.Pickled Green Tomatoes

Put your jars in your hot water canner, and cover with a lid. Once the water comes up to a boil, start your timer — you’ll be processing your pickles for fifteen minutes.

Once time is up, remove your jars — carefully — and place them on a towel on your counter. They’ll have to sit there for several hours to cool.

Making Refrigerator Pickled Green Tomatoes

You can also forget about the boiling water processing if you just want to make a few jars of pickles to be eaten within the next month or so. Prep your tomatoes, add your spices, tomatoes, and boiling brine to the jars, and place in the refrigerator. They’ll be ready to eat in about a week.

What to Do with Pickled Green Tomatoes

You can snack on them, of course. Or slice/dice them up to top a hamburger or hot dog. I also diced some of mine up and added them to chicken salad that I was making for sandwiches — really good.

Which is Better? Processed or Refrigerator?

I made mine both ways so I could see which version tasted better. At this point, I prefer the refrigerator method because they are crisper than the ones I processed in the boiling water bath. However, if you added something like “Pickle Crisp” to the jars, processed green tomato pickles would probably be much more crisp.

I hope you try these! They’re easy to make, and it’s always great when we can avoid wasting food from our gardens.

More About Preserving the Harvest:

How To Make Quick and Easy Refrigerator Dilly Beans

How to Make Dill Pickles

How to Make Easy Watermelon Rind Refrigerator Pickles

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

How to Make Dill Pickles

We plant several cucumber varieties each year, at least half of which are pickling cucumbers. (An aside: a common source of confusion is what makes a pickling cucumber a pickling cucumber. The simple answer is that they have thinner, bumpier skin — the better to absorb all of that lovely brine!)

Dill pickles are actually really easy to make. Here’s how to do it!

I used this recipe because, as written, it’s good for making a small batch of pickles (three to four pints) but, even better — you can halve everything, and make just a jar or two if you don’t have that many cucumbers on hand.

First, you need to assemble your equipment:

 

pick1You need a boiling water canner (if you don’t have one, a stainless steel stockpot will do. A cotton dishtowel folded and laid inside the pot will help stabilize the jars), pint jars, rings, and new lids. **If you want to forego the boiling water processing all together, you can also make refrigerator pickles with this recipe. If you do that, you can use any clean jar you want, and you don’t have to worry about having a pot to process your jars in. I’ll explain more later.

Not necessary, but it’s also helpful to have jar tongs, a magnetic lid lifter, and a jar funnel.

Fill the big pot so that the surface of the water is two inches higher than the tops of your jars. Place jars and lids in the pot (you can do lids in a separate pot, or the same one as your jars — doesn’t matter) and bring the water to a boil to sterilize everything.

While your jars are sterilizing, it’s time to assemble your ingredients.

 

You’ll need:pick2

  • 2 cups of white vinegar
  • 2 cups of water (tap water is fine)
  • 2 tablespoons of salt (pickling or kosher — not iodized table salt)
  • 4 heads of fresh dill, or 4 tsp of dill seeds
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 8 to 10 cucumbers

In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and salt, and heat over high. You want to bring this mixture to a boil. Meanwhile, start preparing your cukes. Cut a bit off of each end, if necessary, to ensure that the pickles will be about an inch shorter than your jar.

 

You can also cut them into halves or quarters if you want.

 

pick4Once your cucumbers are ready and your brine is boiling, it’s time to get ready to add everything to the jars. Remove the jars (carefully!) from the boiling water canner. Add a head of dill and a clove of garlic to each jar.

 

Then, start packing your cukes in. You want to jam them in pretty tightly. This keeps them from floating in the brine.pick6

 

As you can see, my nine cucumbers was only enough for three pints of pickles. That’s fine, it just means I’ll have some brine left over. Once you have them packed in, it’s time to pour the hot brine into the jars. Do this slowly, and use a jar funnel if that makes it easier for you. You want to fill the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top.

 

pick7Canning:

  1. Use a flat spatula, butter knife, or bamboo skewer, and press the cukes together to try to release any air bubbles trapped in your jar. If you find that the level of the brine has fallen after doing this, top it up to keep your 1/2 inch of headspace.
  2. Wipe the rims of your jars with a clean, damp cloth, set the lids on, and tighten the rings. You don’t have to go crazy tightening it — just finger-tight is good enough. The seal doesn’t come from the rings at all, but from the lid itself being vacuum sealed on as the contents of the jars cool after processing.
  3. Place your jars into your boiling water canner, and process for ten minutes. Lift them out, carefully, and set them on a counter to cool. They’ll be quite warm for a few hours yet.

You’ll start to hear the lids make popping sounds. This means they’re sealing properly. After about an hour, all of your lids should have sealed. If you press on them and they’re solid, they’ve sealed right. If the lid still pops up and down, you don’t have a good seal. You can either re-process the jar in boiling water, or just put them in the fridge and eat them within a month. Properly sealed jars will keep for a year.

 

If you want to do away with the boiling water processing all together, simply add the cukes, dill, and garlic to any jar, pour boiling brine over it, cover, and let it cool down to room temperature. Then put your pickles in the fridge and eat within a month.

pick8As you can see, it’s not difficult. And believe me, the flavor is definitely worth the effort!

 

Pickling Resources:

While this is a basic recipe I found online a few years ago (and it’s great!) my favorite book about pickling and canning right now is Homemade Living: Canning & Preserving with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Make Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Chutneys & More. It’s a beautiful book full of well-written recipes that definitely inspired me to try different things in my kitchen. Definitely worth a look.

As you can see from the post, I’m still using traditional canning lids. You may have heard that these types of lids are lined with BPA — this is a concern for many of us, myself included. I do have some reusable, BPA free lids on order, but they haven’t arrived yet. If you’re interested, here is a source that Julia from Snarky Vegan shared with me.

For more pickle-y goodness, please check out this post I wrote for Planet Green: 20 Pickle Recipes to Help You Preserve Summer’s Bounty.

More About Preserving the Harvest:

How To Make Quick and Easy Refrigerator Dilly Beans

How to Make Pickled Green Tomatoes

How to Make Easy Watermelon Rind Refrigerator Pickles

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar