Under cover

Before our last cold snap, we took advantage of three mild days.

One of those evenings felt as warm as summer. Earlier in the day, we seeded peas, and transplanted rhubarb, broccoli, and kale. With temperatures expected to dip into the 20s in the coming nights, we put the broccoli and kale under row cover.

Row cover is a breathable fabric that helps protect plants from frost, and some pests, while letting in sunlight and rain.

Unrolling a 100-foot long strip of fresh row cover is a pleasant task for a few reasons. It offers peace of mind that you’ve done the best you could do to care for your plants, and, when there’s a gentle spring breeze, the cloth billows in a soothing manner. On a sunny evening, it catches the light and looks like a big, shiny ribbon.

On the next day, we experienced another form of billowing material.

The weather turned out to be much nicer than forecasted, so we decided to get the plastic on our two high tunnels.

Although past experience taught us that the plastic goes up and over the tall hoops much easier with the help of a third person, we convinced ourselves this time might be different.

Naturally, the wind kicked up just as we unfolded the giant plastic.

Wind or no wind, it’s a workout to get that much plastic over the metal hoops. I moved along the ground, feeding the plastic up. It felt and smelled like the bottom of a dirty fish tank. Jason jumped up and pulled the plastic over. (Ladders, you say? Pshaw!)

As we were about to start strapping the plastic down with a cord, dark clouds rolled in and a strong wind weaseled its way under the tunnel.

’Twas hubris that led us here.

For what felt like an eternity, we clung to the plastic as it flapped above our heads. It wasn’t as fun as the parachute in elementary school.

After a week of cold nights, the plants did fine under the row cover. The forecast finally looks favorable for growing. And that’s good because flats of seeds are stacked four high in our basement, and our seedlings are desperate for sun.

While our plants will be thriving outside soon, we’ve got bacteria multiplying in the house, under lids and flour cloth. 

There’s much to love about fermented foods, from taste to health benefits, but the cost and garbage waste adds up when you buy them at the store. So, this year, we’ve got several weird looking and smelling things growing in our kitchen.

Fermentation is intimidating. There’s usually a lot of steps over a period of time, and lots of rules and suggestions. It multiplies living creatures on your countertop. Basically, you’ve invited The Blob into your kitchen.

Right now, I have three fermented balls in the air: yogurt, kombucha, and sourdough bread.

To start the yogurt, I used plain yogurt from the store. For the milk, Hartzler Family Dairy, which you can find in returnable glass bottles at the Meadville Market House.

Yogurt must be one of the simplest ways to start fermenting. Different instructions give you a range of temperatures, so it’s not an exact science. I heat the milk to 180 degrees, and then let it cool to 120. (A candy thermometer is a must.)

The only challenge is keeping the yogurt at a steady temperature until it firms up. Invest in a high-quality cooler, if you’re going that route. Our cooler was not well insulated, and it was a pain to keep the water warm enough. This meant my yogurt stayed in the cooler for hours longer than it should, and took on an overly tart taste.

We eat a lot of yogurt, so constant monitoring of the cooler’s temperature wasn’t practical. My mother-in-law dug out a yogurt maker she had somewhere, still in the box. It’s basically a warming plate for your yogurt. Works like a charm in less than half the time. If you’re a serious yogurt eater, I’d recommend a yogurt maker.

Thank you, trusty yogurt maker. 

Thank you, trusty yogurt maker. 

Now, on to my private humiliation. Kombucha.

I took a kombucha class, and was given starter tea and a scoby by the patient and kind Laura Frost.

She has a terrific, easy recipe.

So easy, that only a damn fool would end up accidentally throwing out an entire batch because she mistakenly thought it was moldy, then make another batch and actually have it get moldy. Then, make a third batch, and grow mold once more.

Laura kindly brought me a new scoby after the first mistake, and offered to provide more. She correctly diagnosed that I wasn’t adding enough starter tea. (It’s clearly written in her directions, but I have a real problem with following even the simplest, clearest instructions.)

However, the tiny patch of mold that floated in my last batch was so inexplicable that I decided to test fate. I scooped it off, and watched this new batch for a few days. No new mold. The scoby appeared to be growing bigger and squishier. And the brew smelled delicious.

So, I tried it.

It tasted like kombucha, and I didn’t die. Victory! (For the record, I DO NOT endorse ever consuming moldy kombucha. A life of danger isn’t for everyone.)

Kombucha taking over our cupboard.

Kombucha taking over our cupboard.

This small batch of successful tea will be my “scoby hotel,” as they call it, to keep my scoby healthy and reproducing for future batches of kombucha.

From this new starter tea, I started a brand new full batch. No mold yet, and the scoby is growing.

Emboldened by my kombucha triumph, I felt ready to tackle sourdough bread. Ashley Cowles, of The Small Town Foodie blog, kindly provided me with sourdough starter and guidance.

Reading about sourdough is overwhelming. Everyone seems to have a different technique and set of rules.

I ended up bouncing between a recipe online, and Mark Bittman’s more straight forward directions in my favorite kitchen tome, “How to Cook Everything.” Due to a certain degree of ineptitude when it comes to baking, and, as I mentioned earlier, a lifelong inability to thoroughly read directions, I ended up kind of winging it.

To my surprise, each phase of the process kept magically working out.

Ready to rise again before going in the oven!

Ready to rise again before going in the oven!

On the morning I put the dough in the oven, Silas woke up just as the crust turned golden and crispy.

A few minutes later, he sat at the island, chewing his sourdough and honey breakfast. He smiled at me, and said, “I think you did it, mommy. I real proud of you.”

The finished loaves. Chewy and delicious inside, with a crispy crust. 

The finished loaves. Chewy and delicious inside, with a crispy crust. 

Spring Along the Creek

During early spring, we call up the weather forecast many times a day, always hoping for better results.   

As you may have noticed, April’s been grim.

On Sunday, Silas went to Grandma Darlene and Grandpa Gary’s, and we went up to the farm. Jason pushed the BCS walking tractor out of the shed, and, much to his delight, it fired up for the first time this season after just a few tries.

He tilled up the soil in the lower greenhouse, and we hand-shoveled four raised beds. The BCS can make raised rows, but we don’t want to tear up the greenhouse walls. This machine is heaven-sent when it comes to building up beds in our exterior gardens. We do not miss shoveling 100-foot rows by hand.

Jason tilling up snow with the BCS. 

Jason tilling up snow with the BCS. 

Last season, we planted cucumbers in the lower greenhouse, along with tomatoes and peppers. The cucumber seeds we order are the most expensive that we plant. It’s about $75 for three relatively small packets.

After taking good care of them for weeks last year, we only enjoyed one round of cucumbers in our CSA boxes, and had virtually none to take to market. Cucumber beetles went right on down the row, sentencing the once lush plants to death.

This year, we’re growing two varieties of cucumbers, and they'll fill the entire lower greenhouse. We’ll attach window screens to the sides of the house, so we can still roll up the plastic and let cooler air in. We’ll also set cucumber beetle traps in the roof peaks.

Those are some pretty cute cukes, don't you think?

Those are some pretty cute cukes, don't you think?

Drip tape instead of sprinklers will water the cucumber plants, to help avoid diseases.

Another sign of spring around here: boxes. Silas loves helping Jason open them, and this week’s deliveries brought 175 pounds (thank you, delivery guy) of potatoes, including Strawberry Paw and Yukon Gold. Oh, the joy of potatoes, fresh out of the ground, roasted with butter and herbs. 

We also received 50 crowns of rhubarb, and 24 canes of blackberries. Red and golden raspberries are on their way.

Blackberry canes arrived this week. In just two years, we can expect lots of berries, we're told. 

Blackberry canes arrived this week. In just two years, we can expect lots of berries, we're told. 

This season (hopefully in June), another greenhouse will go up. We were approved for a grant through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

We learned that our proximity to the West Branch of Sugar Creek benefited our farm during the grant scoring process. This creek is a natural reproduction trout stream, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. This means that the waters naturally support reproducing populations of trout.

The West Branch of Sugar Creek originates from a pond in State Gamelands Number 69. It flows past our house and our farm, traveling along Dingman Road and then dipping under state Route 27, eventually joining its namesake, Sugar Creek. This creek winds through forests and fields until it reaches Franklin and meets French Creek.

For such a small waterway, the West Branch certainly flows loud and fast at times. Our house is a quarter of a mile from the creek, and we can hear it rushing after a snowmelt or heavy rain.

A portion of the West Branch of Sugar Creek flows through the Shire. Er, rather, Troy Township. 

A portion of the West Branch of Sugar Creek flows through the Shire. Er, rather, Troy Township. 

At this time of year, creek banks and roadsides are inhabited by baby skunk cabbages.

When skunk cabbages first poke out of the earth in early April, they look like something planted by aliens. They’re short, fat, conic-shaped plants, striped burgundy and chartreuse. The exterior is the “spathe.” Sheltered inside the spathe, is a spiky, little ball. This is the flowering part of the plant.

The spathe makes its own heat by oxidizing starches stored in its roots. The temperature inside the spathe is typically around 30 degrees warmer than the outside air.

A family friend told me her mother used to cook up skunk cabbages.

This little weirdo is a baby skunk cabbage. 

This little weirdo is a baby skunk cabbage. 

This time of year, the bright green moss that grows on the rock walls along Dingman, and up the tree trunks, which are soaked black from the almost constant snow and rain, is eye-catching.

Another noticeable forest floor decoration this time of year, without the grasses and wildflowers to conceal it, is garbage. Mostly beer (typically light beer, why is this?) and energy drink cans. It doesn’t matter how great a person’s accomplishments in life, how kind they are, or how generous, tossing one can out the window negates all prior meritorious conduct.    

While being pushed in his stroller, Silas noticed the litter, and asked, “Why do people throw out garbage?”

Recognizing an opportunity to indoctrinate him with my deep prejudice for litterbugs, I explained how someone who does such a thing is lazy and disrespectful, and defiling such beautiful countryside can only be a sign of deep, deep, self-loathing.

As he bobbed along, eating a snack out of a Ziploc bag, he nodded, presumably absorbing the message. When the stroller was parked, he finished his snack, stood up, looked at me, raised his hand in the air, and released the bag to the ground.

The strangled cry that escaped my throat made him smirk.

He’s three. I’ll forgive him.

May he never drink light beer and energy drinks.

Roots & Ropes

There are many good points to a produce farm, and having access to a greenhouse on a cold day is one.

Currently, we have two houses covered in plastic year-round. They’re summer in a bubble.  

On Sunday, Grandma Linda and Silas spent much of the afternoon in the propagation greenhouse. To get to this greenhouse, you open the sliding door that leads out of our basement, step across about 3 feet of gravel, with or without shoes, and you’re in. As long as the sun’s out, you experience an instant 50-degree temperature change. As of Sunday, the propagation greenhouse is even hotter because we covered the ground with black mesh plastic. Eventually, we’ll add a layer of gravel.

While Grandma Linda and Silas did a craft in the backyard, Jason and I walked up the hill to the big greenhouse at the farm. I went from four layers and a winter coat, to a sleeveless shirt as soon as we stepped in. With the affect sun and temperature have on mood, and the butt-kicking Pa. winters can dole out, I suggest ignoring neighbors' looks and constructing a sun chamber out of plastic or glass in your yard or on your porch. Close yourself in there, stand in a bucket of potting soil, and have someone sprinkle water on your head daily. Yo ho, yo ho, a plant’s life for me.

We did some “housekeeping” in the big greenhouse last fall, and when the weather improves, we’ll drive the walking tractor inside, so we only had to untangle the dead tomato vines from the twine, and tear up the peppers.

Jason tangles with last season's tomato vines. 

Jason tangles with last season's tomato vines. 

*** GRAPHIC CONTENT: the following description of weeding may be too upsetting for some readers, and the cheesy analysis that follows may be too annoying. ***

While Jay started pulling out the long-dead, papery tomato vines, I made my way up the pepper rows. The dry, brown pepper stems felt like nothing in my hand, and the roots pulled from the soil easily. They had developed an impressive root ball, which seemed more alive than dead. It even had a pleasant, complex scent. Part earthen, part sweet, with notes that brought to mind sassafras.

Farewell, peppers. Thanks for the memories, and all the sauce. 

Farewell, peppers. Thanks for the memories, and all the sauce. 

As I tore the peppers up, each one making a satisfying rumble as it erupted from the soil, I recalled how, just a few short months ago, each plant dutifully yielded pepper after pepper. First, it was bushels of green peppers, and then deep red ones in autumn. At such an exciting time of year – the start of a new season – it was surprising to feel a surge of reverence for dead pepper plants.


Last week, we had two good meetings. The first, was with the chefs of The Blue Canoe Brewery, a brew pub with tall windows that face Spring and Franklin streets, in the small city of Titusville.

It’s one of our favorite restaurants, and it holds special meaning for us.

One long ago September evening, I asked Jason to meet me there, during my dinner break. After we sat down, I slid a small rectangle of paper across the table to him. It was my favorite comic strip, Baby Blues. After six happy years of marriage, with talk of children merely a pleasant hypothetical, a few cartoon panels earlier in the week had flipped a switch in my brain. I wanted to start a family.

So it’s clearly a special restaurant to us, and, this chapter of Jason and Stella history aside, it’s a cool place. The beer, the food, the atmosphere, it’s all quite perfect. We’re excited to work with the Canoe, and the talented people in their kitchen. Chefs Nate and Taylor are clearly excited about connecting local food to the community, and we can’t wait to watch them unveil their culinary masterpieces every week.

Our second meeting was in the central part of Crawford County, at the Venango General Store.

If you find yourself at the intersection in Venango, do yourself a solid, and turn onto Cussewago Street. The family that owns the Venango General Store has brought an era of history back to life. It's like a portal into another time, when the general store was a town staple. 

We met with owner, Mark, who shared some of his delicious and unique pickled specialties with us (pickled green tomatoes!), and discussed plans for this season.

Mark is passionate about making the most delicious food with local ingredients, and labels that you can read in about three seconds.

We enjoyed crunchy, chilled coleslaw with our lunch, and some of Mark’s pickled onions. The slaw was the perfect combo of tangy and creamy. This intro into what they're capable of with cabbage prompted us to buy a jar of sauerkraut. We can’t wait to pair it with buttery mashed potatoes. They know what they’re doing in that kitchen.

Hammock safety tip: Save your tortilla chip snack for when your feet are firmly on the ground.

Hammock safety tip: Save your tortilla chip snack for when your feet are firmly on the ground.

To celebrate our productive farm week, and what looks like one of our last sunny days for a while, we had one final task to accomplish in the greenhouse Sunday: hanging a hammock. Jason called up his Boy Scout knot-tying knowledge, and I demonstrated my deep trust in him as I tested the ropes. 

We feel 100 percent confident in this farm investment. 

- Stella