Harvesting Garlic: That was Easy!

garlic plants

Garlic sits all winter growing slowly. Very trouble free

In September and October my nieces and nephews helped me plant the garlic cloves from the previous year’s harvest into the rows pictured, and in June/July, without having to buy one head of garlic all year, we are ready to harvest the crop. If I sound smug, I shouldn’t be.  Many’s the onion maggot we have dodged only by the grace of God. I can’t say enough how important it is to make sure you leave three years between allium plantings in the same spot. That’s about all you have to do. I hardly even weed them. So here we are.

You should check them when the tops start to go yellow. This is generally in late June, but watch it because it varies, and you don’t want to leave them too late. The bulbs will get loose and not store as well, and it will be harder to clean them up, which matters especially if you plan to sell or barter them.

garlic harvesting

from left to right, good harvest, late harvest, really late harvest, hardnecks.

Feel down to the bulb and see if it is large and well formed. Pull one up and use it uncured. It is delicious, and you will be able to judge if the bulb is still growing. Softnecks will have a flabby feeling in the neck.

Softneck garlic

Softneck garlic, nice and tight and easy to braid.

Here’s where you need your spading fork I mentioned in the article on tools. If you just yank on the garlic stem it’s liable to break, and you need the stem for hanging or braiding. Stick the tines about two inches back from the stem, step on the back of the fork and push down about three inches, rocking if you have to. Grab the stem with one hand and push back on the fork handle with the other. The bulb should come up easily if there is no rot. (If it comes apart when you dig it out of the ground you will probably smell the slightly sweet smell of rotting garlic. That’s another story.) Tap and shake the bulb gently to get rid of extra soil, lay it in the row and do the next one. A child can be very helpful in this wonderful and satisfying job. By the time you are done with the digging, the soil on the roots will likely shake off pretty well. I have heard people say to leave them in the garden to dry for a few days (and I’ve done it) but to me that is asking for trouble. You could get sunscald on them which will lead to rot. I spread mine to dry and cure for a few weeks in the shed. To be honest, until this year I always spread them on top of the car cover of my father’s 1955 Morgan, but he gave it to my sister, so now I have to set up a real rack. We made some tables out of two by fours and covered the tops with ratwire instead of wood. Ratwire is welded galvanized wire screen of the kind people put on the bottoms of their screen doors, squares about a half inch, to prevent animals from busting through mosquito screens. It is great for greenhouse benches.

Watch drying garlic carefully. In Maryland two weeks is the time it takes me to cure my garlic. If you leave it too long the tops can get too brittle to braid well (on the softnecks). When you are ready to make it into bunches or braids, clean off the extra leaves next to your compost pile. The outer ones will shatter and come off easily.  Then pile as much as you are working with in a basket and carry it somewhere comfortable to work. Leave what you aren’t going to do today on the rack. I once piled my whole crop in a pile and I am convinced it spread onion maggots. I could be wrong.

The Scourge; Onion Maggots:

If you do smell that sweetish funky rotting garlic smell, you have onion maggots. I had some mold on a few bulbs this spring but it didn’t smell the same at all. Identify as best you can which heads are infected by the softened cloves and the smell, and peel those cloves.  Actually this is pretty easy to do because the rot moistens the skins so they pop off very easily. Don’t get grossed out; you worked hard for this good garlic and you need to keep those little worms from taking it from you. Trim damaged cloves and use as soon as possible. Preserve undamaged peeled cloves in glass jars of olive oil in the refrigerator. Use them for cooking. The flavor changes over time in oil in a way that is fine cooked but is different from regular raw garlic. People do dehydrate and powder garlic, and that keeps forever and is useful for cooking, but I haven’t gotten into that.

Two Groups of Garlic

There are softneck and hardneck garlics. Softnecks have a soft neck like an onion, and hardnecks have a hard stem in the center of a radiating bunch of cloves.

The softnecks are fun to braid. As soon as your garlic leaves have dried but there is a little moisture left by the bulb so it won’t just break, it’s ready to braid. First rub off the dirtiest layers of outer skin on the garlic, and also the stem. You want it to look like Martha Stewart did it, -and it will! Get about 4 feet of jute twine and tie three big heads of garlic together with one end of it. Start braiding them, keeping the twine in the braid for strength, and add a head to each turn. I will put photos in when I do it. It’s like French braiding.  When you have done about two feet of heads, it will be getting heavy. To finish the braid, stop adding garlic, and braid the dried tops with the twine in it out to the end. Tie it off with the twine, bend it over into a loop handle, tie it off again, and make a twine loop as well. Now you have several options for hanging it. Go over the braid with scissors and neaten it up- trim the dried roots off. loose bits of skin, etc.

I have tried braiding hardnecks but it is awkward. Last year was the first year I grew them. They grew really well. I actually bought cheap garlic on sale at Wallyworld and planted a lot. Each tiny clove makes a nice big head of garlic. I cleaned off the outer, dirty skins, leaving plenty of tight, satiny white skin protecting the garlic, bound about 8 into a neat bunch with twine with a loop, and trimmed the stems to an identical length. I hung them and gave them to people. They looked nice, but not as nice as the braided softnecks.

garlic braidStorage: Mine are hanging all over the kitchen, but honestly, you should look for a cooler place to store them if you expect them to last until next summer. The dry heat of a house will dry them out over a year. Oddly enough the ones I hung on the back porch seemed unaffected by damp or freezing, and kept well. The ones on display sprouted and dried by spring. The elephant garlic kept better because of its size but was a tad spongy by the end. Possibly they would do well in a root cellar.

Garlic is a really good food which stores well and isn’t a lot of trouble to grow. Try it!

How to split wood by hand

a heavier splitter

a heavier splitter

Splitting firewood is not just a matter of upper body strength. It is a matter of observation, accuracy, and patience as well as the ability to swing a splitting ax. My elderly father is the best wood splitter I know. He can hit the exact same spot every time, and thus can split with a fairly light ax, and he understands the wood.

If you don’t split wood, you have to just use the pieces of wood that will fit in your stove without splitting, and a huge log by itself is very hard to keep going. Women are sometimes intimidated by the idea, and men who haven’t learned from their fathers in boyhood may not know where to start, so they drop several thousand dollars on a gas or electric splitter. Not only is that expensive, noisy, and liable to break down, but in the event of a power failure or some disaster, it may not function. And really, splitting wood is fun. It’s a meditative and satisfying chore, and you can quit when you’re tired.

You need an axe, a maul, and some wedges.

a good axe for women

a good axe for women

I like the splitting axe I bought at Lowes. It is not super heavy, but it has a good shape for forcing open a log, and it has a sharp edge, unlike some blunter splitting axes that really work best for men with powerful upper bodies. The only thing that can be annoying is that the shape sometimes makes it pop up out of a log that isn’t quite split.

A maul is a giant metal hammer, although the link shows mainly heavy splitting axes. I use it a lot, because most logs I can’t split in one glorious smash. I can split cedar in one vicious whack, but otherwise I’m pounding on a wedge or the back of my splitting axe to open the logs. Even if your arms are not enormous and powerful, if you keep driving a wedge into a sound piece of wood, eventually it will split, no matter how big.

Wedges when I was growing up were long triangular wedges of metal, pounded flat on one end like a giant nail. After you made a crack in the log with your axe, you could pound in a wedge and it would split. Sometimes you needed more than one wedge, an sometimes you could pound the wedge into the natural checking (the cracks that appear as the log dries out). But today the new wedges are amazing. I have something called a wood grenade, which as one sharp point and four v shaped edges. You can set the point in your log, longest axis in line with how you want the log to split, tap it in , and all you have to do is whack it with your maul until it splits. Seriously, this wedge makes life a lot easier. I actually found one at the Goodwill for 5 bucks after I mislaid my other one.

When you are cutting up the dead tree into rounds that you will be splitting, look at the length of your woodstove or the breadth of your fireplace, but also look at the structure of the wood. If the piece of wood you are cutting has a straight clean look and no branches sticking out of it, likely the interior structure will be easy to split. If not, cut the piece a little shorter. It is going to be harder to split and shortness makes it easier. For example, cedar is very easy to split. With a determined whack I can cleave a cedar log in twain. But where a cedar tree has had side branches, it’s a tangled nightmare, just flexible enough to trap your wege. I just split of as much as I can and hope I can fit the rest in the stove.  Otherwise I’ll just throw it on the brushpile. I’d rather have it be so short it fits in the stove sideways.

When you have decided which log you are going to split, set it upright/lengthways on a stump or another log. If it is on the ground and you hit it, the ground will absorb some of the blow and the log won’t split as fast. If the ground is soft it’s even worse. Look at the radial cracks in the log and decide how you are going to split it. What pieces do you want to come apart? You can put your wood grenade right in the center, unless there is a soft spot, in which case go off center. Turn the wood grenade so the long axis aligns where you want a crack to open. Tap it in while holding it until you feel it is set, and then stand back a little and start pounding it in.

I try to split logs with my axe, especially with cedar and dry cherry, but often the axe is embedded in the log, and I have to pound on the back of it with my maul to split the log. Also, if the wedge is trapped or I want to guide a crack, I will use my splitting axe blade as a wedge.

As you get used to swinging a heavy metal object that could hurt your legs or ankles if you miss and whack yourself, you will develop confidence and accuracy in your swing. Over time your arms will get stronger too. Soon you will see the crack snake across the top of the log, and hear the slow progressive cracking and popping as the log splits. You will start enjoying it, and learning how to split the halves into quarters as well.

The thing is to go for it. Making sure you aren’t going to hit anything you shouldn’t, like your foot, plant your feet, raise your axe, eye the spot you want to hit, and just bring that axe down hard.  Fling caution to the winds for that instant. Hit the log as hard as you can. If you miss the spot, try it again. But just hitting something as hard as you can, with no hesitation, with all your power, can be very liberating. Try it with a short piece of cedar. You will feel great when the two pieces fly to either side.

Now, if you get tired, here’s another manual option; a manual hydraulic splitter- my DH bought me one for Christmas- better than a vaccuum cleaner or an exercise bicycle! Here’s the link to the post.

Another great idea from guest blogger John McNerney:

As Susan already mentioned, setting the logs you are splitting on something solid is important for effective wood splitting. Otherwise, the soft ground will absorb some of the impact of your blow. I sometimes just line a few logs up on an old 2″x12″ board laid on the ground. If the board rests flat on the ground, it works fairly well. I also often set the log to be split up on top of another log or stump, as Susan also mentioned. Depending on how you like to swing, this higher stand may work well for you.

One problem is that as you split the log (and sometimes even if you don’t split it), the log or piece falls over, requiring constant bending over to pick up and reposition the log. If you lay an old tire on your splitting board or stump, you can stuff it full of logs standing on end, then swing away to your heart’s content. The tire holds the logs in place as you split – no more resetting the pieces after each swing! (I’ve seen some folks screw the tire to their splitting platform/stump, but I’ve never bothered with that). This is a real time and back-saver, especially if you are splitting up kindling.

You can do something similar by standing a bunch of logs on end and wrapping long bungie cord around the whole group. (a rope with short bungie tied on the end will also work). The bungie keeps tension on the loop, holding up the logs, but allowing for some expansion as the pieces are split.

using a tire to split logs

Thank you John

This is John’s son, age 11, using the tire technique. While the young man is clearly sturdy, he hasn’t grown into his full strength yet, but he can do this. This is of particular interest to those of us lacking upper body strength or having a tendency towards a bad back.

Logging School!

Looking around an alumni site on the internet I recently ran across a classmate, John McNerney, who logs in Monkton,Vermont. He had written an article about a wood cutting and chainsaw use course and thought it might be useful to my readers. I agree, in that it lists skills we all need to have with our equipment and in the woods, and also in that it lets you know that there are great classes like this out there. Reading a website is a great start, but it is nowhere near as helpful as a hands on class. Read on:

My experience with the “Game Of Logging” courses:

John McNerney


Prior to buying a wooded parcel in 2001 here in Monkton, VT, I had never operated a chain saw. Since I wanted to cut my own firewood, do some wildlife habitat management (applying some of what I had learned in my Vermont Coverts Cooperator class), and open up some hiking trails, I figured it was time I learned. I bought a chainsaw, read the manual that came with it, got my more experienced neighbor to give me some pointers, and went at it. It was not long before I realized that I knew just enough to seriously injure or kill myself or someone else, not to mention the damage I could do to the forest in the process of trying to get a tree to drop where I wanted it.


Since I planned on being around to see my kids grow up, and have the use of all my limbs while doing so, I decided it was time to get some serious training in how to work more safely in the woods with a chainsaw. A “Game Of Logging, Level I” course was being offered in my area, sponsored by Vermont Family Forests, and taught by Northeast Woodland Training. I took a gamble and signed up. The class was quite an eye opener. Participants ranged from novices like myself to veterans who had been logging for 20+ years.


The Level I course taught basic chainsaw safety techniques, how to handle a saw and fell a tree with precision. The technique taught is quite a bit different than what you may have been doing for years, or what the manual that came with your chainsaw describes. It allows much greater control of when, where, and how a tree falls. A bonus that I had not expected was picking up some great tips on how to work efficiently — which has allowed me to get more done while avoiding fatigue (which can also lead to accidents). By the end of the day, participants could drop a tree within couple of feet of a target stake driven into the ground 30+ feet away. Some of the participants managed to shatter the target stake by hitting it dead on. We did this even when dropping the tree in a direction other than the one it “wanted” to go. A handy talent to have when you are trying to protect that nice old apple tree which would otherwise have taken a beating, or when you need to “thread the needle” by dropping one tree between two others that you want to keep.


I had intended to take only one of the courses, figuring that would be enough for my limited needs. I was so impressed with the content and with the instructor, that I went on to take all four levels, and was one of the first to take the “Storm Damage Clean-up” when Northeast Woodland Training added that to their course offerings.


Level two went in to basic chainsaw maintenance: Bar replacement & filing, proper chain tension, replacing sprockets, as well as some information and practice on chain sharpening. In the afternoon, we learned techniques for dealing with springpoles, and did more felling practice.


In Level 3 we spent the morning learning about dealing with leaning trees, including front, back and side lean. In the afternoon we learned techniques for limbing and bucking

with greater safety and efficiency, as well as practicing felling more difficult trees (including freeing some hung up trees).


Level 4 is often customized to meet the interests and abilities of those in the class. In my class we concentrated on ways to safely get hung up trees down on the ground using a variety of techniques. We included some good discussion on selecting the direction of felling: getting the tree down safely and with minimal damage, as well as considering how dropping this tree fit into the overall felling plan for the area in which we were working.


In all of the courses I’ve taken, all of the participants, from novice to expert, felt that the course was well worth it. Along the way, I’ve heard comments from participants such as “NO ONE should go into the woods with a chainsaw without taking this course” , and “After working with a chainsaw for 20 years, GOL has changed the way I work in the woods”. I’ve also been very impressed with the knowledge and attitude of the instructors. They run a safe, informative workshop, and make the most of the learning opportunities presented. The atmosphere is fun and supportive with participants often cheering each other on. It’s a great experience for both novice and experienced chainsaw operators. The course material is well laid out and helps you understand the “WHY” of a given technique, rather than just memorizing a set of steps. This understanding has helped me to adapt the techniques to the varying situations I encounter in the woods. It has also helped me to better understand my limitations: I am better able to size up a situation and decide whether I have the skill, experience, and equipment necessary to handle a tougher situation.


The “Game of Logging” courses are offered quite regularly in my area. You’d think the market would get saturated after a while and they’d have trouble finding participants. Instead, the opposite has happened. The GOL courses and the instructors from Northeast Woodland Training have gotten quite a reputation. “Word of mouth” advertising and people seeing their neighbors and friends using the techniques learned has generated waiting lists to get in to many of the courses.

Real Egg Nog

Real Egg Nog

Will fell an ox

As my first act of rebellion in the New Year I have decided to give out this very reactionary traditional Southern recipe. This is not the yellow sludge they sell in cartons at the grocery store around Christmas. This is the real deal; the Dabney infamous Nog. I love egg nog; I love making it, and I love to watch people drink it after I make it. It is most definitely only for grownups who are not getting behind the wheel of a car.

My good friend’s husband, a big and tall man of a certain gravitas, liked it and, fooled by the airy sweetness, innocently imbibed five small tumblers of it. He came to the door of the house, smiled pleasantly at me, and went over like a pine tree. Be warned.

Real Egg Nog

Divide 12 good eggs

Beat the whites to soft peaks

Add 1/2 c. sugar, gradually so as not to crush the bubbles.

Beat the yolks with 1/2 c. sugar until pale and thick.

Add 1 quart good milk

Dump egg whites on top

Beat 1 quart good cream as stiff as the egg whites

Add 3 c. Bourbon whiskey

1 c. sherry

1 c. rum

Fold everything carefully together and either pour into a nice silver punch bowl and serve with a grating of fresh nutmeg, or bottle in mason jars for holiday gifts to special friends. It will collapse by tomorrow, whereupon just shake it up, but it will keep for a year. I’m not even kidding.

My Husband Gave Me A Manual Hydraulic Woodsplitter; Better than a Vaccuum Cleaner….

Since we heat with wood and have his and hers chainsaws, you would think we would have his and hers axes, mauls, and wedges. (Here is a link to that exciting article, entitled Women and Chainsaws.) However, my husband pleads his back. After a lifetime of seeing men I care about hurt their backs and walk around like giant commas, I am completely traumatized by the thought of masculine back pain, to the extent that I worry about any man who lifts anything at all. I’m somewhat aware that many men have healthy backs and can lift great burdens with ease, but the emotional wounds are there, and I have in fact developed a regime of hot pepper back rubs, etc. which we go into the moment my husband winces and freezes.

So I don’t mind splitting wood. After a day of it, however, my arms hurt. We have looked at various splitters. Power splitters look great, but for me, since I was doing all right without one, they are expensive, dangerous, require either fossil fuel or electricity, which makes us dependent, and they can break down. I thought about renting one for the weekend and going through a mountain of rounds (what an unsplit piece of wood is called) all at once. We never got around to it though. We bought a Smart Splitter that acts by dropping a wedge that slides down a pole (a slide hammer), but I don’t know what kind of wood that splits. Not our locust, for certain. The guy in the picture looks like he could split wood by spitting at it so maybe it’s me.

best hydraulic manual wood splitter

Work the levers like ski poles

What we like is the Wel-bilt Horizontal Manual Hydraulic Log Splitter – 10-ton (Sportsman’s Guide) that works by building hydraulic pressure with levers that you work like ski poles. One is attached to a larger cylinder, so it’s the smaller gear, so to speak. Once you can no longer move that, you use the one on the right, until the wood splits. There are some limitations; the log can’t be very short or  very long, but for most fireplaces and stoves it’s fine. Really gnarly complicated pieces of wood are sometimes easier to do with the ax. It splits wood 20 inches across, even wet, but some really huge logs I’d rather start with a wood grenade. And I can’t split ash logs with it. The splitter starts making popping noises and I worry I am hurting its back….

hydraulic manual wood splitter

The wedge

Lay the splitter on its back where you plan to use it (it is pretty  heavy) and insert the poles into their sleeves. Ready to use. Turn the knob by your feet to the right until it stops. Put a piece of wood on the splitter and slide it up against the wedge. Start working the poles. The ram will slowly rise and press against the close end of the wood. It will get hard to move the left lever. Switch to just the right lever, which adds pressure in smaller increments. Eventually you will hear a pop and the wood will crack. Keep going until it either falls into two pieces or is open enough for you to pull it apart with your hands. Sometimes I have to smack it with an axe. Release the pressure by turning the knob counterclockwise. The ram will slide back in. If it jams, as it occasionally does, jar the splitter by kicking the log or tossing it over on its side. It will release. If the log just isn’t splitting, split it in half by hand and continue. Smaller pieces are easier. Probably a power splitter would have fewer problems with ash, for example- some of them almost look like they could stack your wood for you, but using the manual hydraulic splitter is way easier than having to split a whole rack of firewood with a maul and wedges, and if you get bored you can pretend you are skiiing!

hydraulic manual wood splitter

There may be a few splinters holding it together at the end

How to Use a Woodstove

If you have a free or inexpensive source of firewood, a woodstove may be an efficient and practical source of heat for you. However, there are a few tricks to using one. Here are some guidelines to get you started:

Starting a Fire

Starting a fire in a fireplace or woodstove is a little trickier than pushing a button, and since you are doing this inside your house, you will not want to use butane. You will need:

  1. Logs: dry wood cut to fit into your stove easily
  2. Kindling: various thicknesses of very dry twigs and small branches or split wood.
  3. Fire starting materials: something that will catch immediately, like newspaper, junk mail, dry grass, leaves, or weeds.


Laying a fire

Laying a fire

Arrange two logs in a V shape with the point away from you. Crumple the paper or whatever fire starter you have between the two logs. Select the thinnest twigs you have, break them in short pieces, and place them over the paper like a teepee. As you add twigs, gradually go up in size. Once you have a few handfuls of kindling perched over the paper, carefully light it with a match or a lighter, being sure not to burn your fingers.

At this point you may need to encourage the fame with gentle blowing or fanning. Alternatively, if you have a good flame going, you may want to open the vents on the stove and close the door. As the fire sucks in oxygen and the heat goes up the chimney a draft will be created, encouraging the flame. Be sure not to let your kindling burn up, though, before you add thicker pieces of wood.

making a fireSince flame rises, and will be sucked backwards by the draft, you want to place wood on top and behind the flame, so it will catch. Once you have a few bits of kindling laid crossways across your V, and a good fire going, you can put a log on top of them and close the door.


Leave the vents fairly wide open until your fire has reached its desired heat, and then close them down to about a quarter inch. A very helpful and inexpensive device is a magnetic heat sensor which is placed on the stovepipe and will indicate when your stove is dangerously overheated or too cool and forming creosote.wood stove safety temperature gauge




Burning the Right Wood

Split wood dries faster

Split wood dries faster

The most important thing to remember is that wood should be dry. Wood that was alive recently, called green wood, will contain a lot of water, and will not only use up your heat evaporating the water if you can get it started, but will also cause your chimney to acquire a coat of creosote from the cooler burn. Not only does this mean you will need to have your chimney cleaned sooner, but it can actually cause a chimney fire, which is very dangerous unless you have a stainless steel insert in your chimney. Wood that feels very heavy and does not have radiating cracks may be green. Wood should dry for a year before burning.

The next thing to look for is BTUs (British Thermal Units) which means that there is more heat in some woods than others. Hardwoods are the best choice. Oak burns slow and hot, and Cherry and Maple burn hot. Locust and Osage Orange burn very slow and very hot. Softwoods like Poplar, Willow, Mulberry, and Hackberry don’t have too much heat, which is why they are a better choice for spring and fall. Pine burns fast and hot, but is gone quickly, makes soot, and is best in a mix.

One last precaution is that you should measure your stove and its opening so that you don’t buy or cut wood which will not fit into your stove.

Spreading the Warmth

Once you have a good fire going, everyone will want to sit around it and enjoy the warmth, but what about more remote rooms? Newer stoves often have built in fans. Otherwise, one clever trick is to place a fan behind the stove to blow the hot air out into the room. Various small fans can be purchased and attached in the top corners of doorways to move warm air around the house. There are also small stovetop fans which work without electricity. Make sure that you sweep ashes from in front of the stove before turning on the fan.

Keeping It Going All Night

 open vents

You can see the fire through the open vents

By now you will have come to understand how to control the fire by controlling airflow with the vents. If you have a stainless steel chimney insert and are not worried about creosote buildup or chimney fires, you can fill up the stove with logs and cut the vents down to within a half-turn of totally shut, and the fire will burn slowly all night.  If you get up early you should be able to start a fire from the coals. Simply rake the coals to a heap in the middle and lay logs alongside them. They should ignite the logs in ten or fifteen minutes. If you don’t have a chimney fire proof setup, you can still save your coals for an easier morning fire. By allowing some ashes to accumulate, covering the half-burned logs and coals with them, and cutting down the vents, you can “bank” the fire and keep the coals alive all night. Because there is no fire, there is no creosote.

Cleaning out the Ashes

Depending on various factors you will probably need to clean out your ashes about once a week to make room for the wood. If you have an ash grate this will be easier, otherwise you will need a garden trowel or small metal dustpan to transfer ashes into a metal bucket. There are special ash buckets and ash shovels available as well, some quite decorative. What is important is that you remember that the ashes may contain live coals, so you need to be extremely careful in disposing of them. Wood ashes have many uses. Since ashes are excellent fertilizer, you can scatter them on the lawn or into the garden, being sure to watch out for any smoke which would indicate a live coal getting ready to set your lawn on fire.  To be safe, hose the ashes down after scattering. Wood ashes can also be mixed with water and used to make lye for soap making, or to remove hair from animal skins during processing, but it is hard to gauge the strength of the lye made in this way. However, this is not to say that it won’t be strong, so if you choose to try this, wear heavy gloves and eye protection.

Cleaning and Maintaining

High temperature flat black paint is available to refinish woodstoves. Use the same paint used to paint grills.  You will get a smoother finish with the spray can than a brush.  On a warm day when you can leave doors and windows open, prepare the surface with sandpaper or steel wool, removing any loose paint or rust. Place drop cloths or paper around the stove to protect surfaces and spray evenly. You will probably need to go over it at least twice, but the flat paint is quite forgiving. Let the paint dry a few days if you can before starting a fire. The first time you have a fire in a newly painted stove, it will smell awful and you will want ventilation.

Most stoves are lined with firebricks, which are yellow, and protect the stove while holding heat. These will eventually crack and need to be replaced.

stovepipe elbow

An elbow like this can get clogged with burnt creosote.

You should get to know your local chimney sweep. For a very moderate cost, chimney maintenance companies will clean out your chimney (without getting soot in your house), which will make your wood burning safer and more efficient. Until you see how you and your stove work, plan on calling your chimney sweep once a year, preferably before they get very busy in October. Creosote can actually block your chimney, so if you are noticing a drastic decrease in your draft, that may be the problem.  There are also sprays and “fireplace cleaning logs”  known as Creosote Sweep Logs which can help to decrease creosote buildup. People used to throw an aluminum can in the stove, but I have no opinion on that. If you are a real DIYer you can buy chimney sweep tools and creosote removing chemicals on the internet. I haven’t tried those but will let you know if I do.

Do I Have to Buy a Catalytic Stove?

Catalytic stoves are a response to 1988 EPA regulations, and include a ceramic honeycomb which burns uncombusted particles in smoke. They are supposedly longer burning and more efficient, but they are more expensive and many customers complain about maintenance costs and the need to babysit the stove until it gets hot enough to reburn the smoke. Consult with your local dealer, as there are now many non-catalytic low emission stoves available. That being said, many people are perfectly happy with their catalytic stoves. Is it the law? Yes, if you are buying a new stove from a dealer, your stove will need to conform to EPA emissions standards.

Can You Cook on a Woodstove?

Cast iron works well on a woodstove

Cast iron works well on a woodstove

Before there were gas and electric stoves, there were wood stoves, and everyone cooked on them. You can cook on a woodstove, even if it is not designed for this purpose, and not just during a power outage.  The even heat of the top of your woodstove spreads very well to kettles, pots and pans, but be careful not to spill food onto the surface, as it will ruin the appearance of the stove, smell, and be difficult to clean while the stove is hot. Be careful not to fill the pot too full. Cast iron cookware is ideal, and there are some items for sale which enable one to bake inside the stove, on a bed of coals. However, a pot of soup simmering gently on the stove, perfuming the house while you relax in the warmth, occasionally adding a stick or firewood or adding hot water to your tea, is pretty hard to beat. Here is an easy recipe:

Universal Bean Soup

Soak a pound of beans overnight- two days if you can, since this decreases the flatulance factor. Different beans need different spicing and cook up differently. This is for basic red beans. Lentils are faster and work well without meat. White beans turn to cream almost like split peas, but then scorch easily. Black beans need a little cumin, garlic, and red wine!

2 onions, chopped

1 -2 bay leaves

5-10 whole black peppercorns

1 ham bone, smoked ham hock, or turkey wing

(if you are vegetarian substitute a parmesan cheese rind or a vegetable boullion product of some kind.)

1-2 celery stalks, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon oil or saved fat. A. handful of diced ham fat is easy.

1 teaspoon dried oregano and/or thyme.

Sea salt to taste

Add the fat/oil and vegetables to a heavy pot with a lid. Add a pinch of salt so the vegetables will caramelize faster. If your woodstove is blasting, go ahead and do this on the stovetop, but as mine is generally humming softly, I start the soup on my regular cookstove and let it finish on the woodstove. Also I avoid getting drips on the woodstove. Once the vegetables are starting to soften and brown, add the oregano and/or thyme and stir briefly so their fragrance comes into the oil. Drain the beans, dump into the pot, and fill to within an inch of the top with new water. Add the ham hock or whatever you are using, and the bay leaf and peppercorns. Let simmer closed until beans are nice and soft, about 2 hours. If your stove is going hard you might have to crack the lid. Also check occasionally to see if you need to add water.   Be careful not to scorch the beans!

While using a woodstove requires a little skill and getting used to, it is a dependable and deeply satisfying way to heat.

Groundcherries, Native and Peruvian, and skimming the jam….

Husk tomatoes

Sexier than our native groundcherries

Groundcherries are a native plant in the Physalis family which is often overlooked as a forage food. They make those cute little Chinese lanterns which are sometimes sprayed orange and sold by florists at Halloween. They actually look like tomatillos as well. The plant is about 2 feet tall and the leaves are dull green, oval and pointed. Find ripe fruit by squeezing the lanterns. The best ones to squeeze may look a bit faded. When you find a small marble pick it and pop off the jacket. It will be sort of olive green. Taste it. It should be sweet tart. They can be dried, eaten fresh, or made into jam.

To be honest, I have been growing a more abundant and delicious version from seeds I was given by our Peruvian friend Leon in Yarinacocha. He told me that the husks could be made into a tea which is a treatment for the cough which accompanies congestive heart failure. It is also known to Guatemalan friends as Tomate de Sope, and is a favorite of children in South America. The Peruvian ones are sold dried as Inkaberries for an exorbitant sum in our local health food store. They make a lovely snack for hiking as they are so mall and concentrated. I find them hard to dry without a dehydrator because they have a slightly resinous surface, but to me they taste like extra-sweet yellow raisins.  The silver lining to that is that the Peruvian ones fall on the ground, rather than persisting as the North American ones do, but you can still collect them because they are in a little wrapping and they take a long time to rot. They create a carpet of fruit, and I gather buckets, then sit and husk them when I have to sit somewhere for a while.husk tomatoes

I throw them in the blender, then make jam using any ground cherry jam recipe on the internet. It needs pectin, and I have sometimes added a grate of lemon peel, but it has a sort of mild, luscious tropical flavor and a nice golden color.  Very seedy, but the seeds are tiny. They have become a weed in my garden, but a delicious one. I ended up cutting them all down to start the fall garden, but I will hang a bunch upside down in the shed for winter snacks.

The  Jam Recipe, (and how to do all that stuff)

The jam is so yummy- a bit like yellow plum jam but a hint of something tropical. I grated a bit of lemon peel into it. Here’s how I did it.

4 cups husked fruit

3 c. sugar

3 tbsp pectin

1/2 tsp grated lemon or lime peel, organic if available, or just scrub really well and offer a quick blessing…

1/4 cup lemon juice

Throw the fruit in the food processor and chop. Dump in pot, stir in pectin and lemon, bring to a rolling boil for one minute, add sugar, bring back to boil 1 minute, check for sheeting, pour into sterilized jars and cap when sheets.

“Sheeting?” OK, for those to whom all this jam making stuff is new, go to Jams and Jellies. Don’t be scared. You need to know this.


Fresh Naan Bread: A Snap- Who Knew?

Making homemade naan

Chana masala (curried chickpeas) with a salad and fresh naan

I love Indian food! If you do too, check out my recipe for venison vindaloo, bahut garam! If you really want to do it up right, though, for the ultimate yummy Indian food experience, you have to make raita, fresh chutney, and naan bread. Seriously, bhai.

I have found that there are wonderful Indian chefs doing all kinds of jolly YouTubes- some of them seem like they are beautiful young women with multiple PhDs who got married and now do this because they are bored in the house- and some are wonderful aunties like Manjula, my favorite, whose capable brown hands and bejeweled wrists turn out lovely parathas, puris, curries, pickles….but that is not how I got to make my own Naan bread. What happened is that I learned how t make pitas- here is how, if you are interested, -but then I thought, hey, I really want naan, so what if I just try making them in a frying pan, like rotis and tortillas, and see if it flies.

This makes 10-12 naan about 8-10 inches long. Ample for 4 people. First, make a regular yeast dough. Spelt is really better for you- it is less inflammatory, and it is not so boring and white like plain flour, but also not so strong flavored and brown as some whole wheat.

1 1/4 c. water

1/2 tsp rapid rise yeast

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 tbsp olive oil

3 c. spelt flour- or any flour really

If you are using a bread machine, and here is my big thumbs up on that– set it at the dough setting, make sure your dough ball is forming well, and go do something else until about 30 minutes before dinner is ready. I use less yeast and let it take longer so you get a nicer flavor. You can also do this in advance and keep it in the fridge until an hour or so before you want it, so it will be soft and room temperature.

If you are making it by hand, if using rapid rise yeast, just mix it with the flour, and if not, dissolve beforehand in the water, add a tsp of sugar or honey to feed it, let sit a few minutes. Make a well in the flour, pour in liquids, stir, knead into a ball, knead until elastic and stops sticking. Take out your agressions. Let it sit until about double in size.

making naan

Prepare balls of yeast dough on a plate.

Either way, start a high flame under a good sized frying pan- ideally a heavy cast iron one. Melt a few tablespoons of butter and grab a basting brush, if you will be buttering your naan.   Flour a board, shape it into a snake about 1 1/2 to 2 inches across, and with a sharp knife cut chunks to make little golf ball sized lumps. Roll them round with floured hands and lay them on a plate.

Making homemade naan

flour your board and roll it out with a rolling pin

Flour your board just like you were going to roll out a pie crust, and roll them into thin oblongs. About an eight of an inch is good. They can be picked up without tearing. The shape is not critical.

Making homemade naan

first side

Your pan will be really hot. No oil. Just throw the dough pancake down flat and smooth it a bit with your fingers if you have to. Wait and watch, but start rolling out another one. First it will make little bubbles, then big ones. After about 2 minutes it should be ready to flip. There should be nice little brown spots underneath, and the edge will be easy to grab so you can flip it. They can burn quickly once they have ballooned up since the dough is then dry and half as thick. Isn’t this cool? When done on both sides, put it in a bowl and cover it with two layers of cloth to keep it warm and steamy. Butter them as you go- it’s tasty, traditional, and keeps them soft the next day. Keep it going. You can see why a huge pan would be best, so you can get 2 going.

Making homemade naan

second side

Serve in the covered bowl, or fold two on everyone’s plate and pass more as people run out. Of course what I did was just for us, but it lasted three meals. So yummy.

Making homemade naan



Todo es Medicina: Herbs, Tinctures and Liqueurs

december 2013 blog 012 When I was maybe seven, my wonderful grandmother gave me a book called The Herbalist, by Joseph Meyer. Her friend Margaret Freedman may have done the dustcover, which is a wonderful medieval woodcut of an apothecary’s garden, but I think it was a very shrewd gift on her part. Many is the afternoon nap I spent studying the discolored entries, the Latin names, the medicinal parts, the medicinal virtues, the dosages.  Many is the afternoon I spent wandering in the woods, looking for a cathartic or emetic plant to slip into the sandwich of a classroom bully. It is not difficult to imagine me as a nerdy little girl with glasses; a budding herb granny.

Yesterday I saw a sign at Walmart which reminded me why I don’t go there much. Over a bottle of pills was a sign that said “Take Medicine Not Myth.” Ok, excuse me, but that is nothing but pharmaceutical propaganda. Who thought up thalidomide? When I burned my face with an explosion of boiling hot glue, the ER nurses fed me percocet and recommended that I not apply my traditional Chinese herbal burn cream. I looked like Freddy Kruger. I threw up the percocet and used the burn cream, and the burn clinic specialist at John Hopkins the next morning was amazed at how much the inflammation had gone down. I was married a month later and the burns were completely faded and smooth.


Passionflower vine, center, and ground ivy, small artichoke plant  upper right.


Many of my women friends who are experiencing sleep difficulties because of approaching menopause come to me for my Valerian root tincture. I make it from the plants in my flower bed. It helps them to sleep. Ashwaghanda tincture gives me energy and positive attitude to blast through my chores; they call it Indian ginseng. It is tricky to grow in our climate but I usually have enough for the year. Pokeweed eases any little twinges I get in my right foot where I had a postoperative bone infection years ago. Chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm, catnip, bergamot, and passionflower leaf tea are soothing to my husband when he gets in from a long drive all full of caffeine.



Oregano or thyme tea eases a tricky stomach and is delicious. Mugwort saves the day when you have overindulged in fried chicken. I will say that Immodium/Loperamide is hard to beat when you have Montezuma’s Revenge or Dehli Belly, but that’s just because I’m not taking the time to search out the right herb, boil it up, and wait for it to work.

herbalism books

three books from my shelf

OK, so yes, you must know how to identify these plants. Learning to identify medicinal plants is is a passion not unlike bird watching. I have been interested in this all my life and I am still learning. I like A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides)-James Duke rocks, but there are many wonderful field guides. It takes time to acquire the descriptive vocabulary and be able to know what you have found at what time of the year. Until you do, buy them. It is possible to make a very bad mistake. Carrot, Angelica, Osha, Parsley, and the deadly Water Hemlock are all in the same Apiaceae family. You could easily mistake Hemlock for Angelica and die horribly. Some boy scouts mistook Hemlock for some kind of wild carrot. They were saved, but it was touch and go. Penn Herbs has a large selection and is cheap. Generally you want “tea cut” herbs; not powder.

Tea is the simplest way to take an herb. Most herbs just want boiling water poured over them, like black tea. Some plants should be infused in cold water, and some need to be decocted, which means “cooked down.” Roots and barks need this. Some plants need to be concentrated, like the very bitter Boneset, after straining off the plant material.

Tinctures are a very convenient way to take herbs. Most tinctures are done with alcohol, and while there are complex formulas for tincturing dry or fresh herbs, etc., it is also easy to make a simple folk tincture which is good for home use. I came across tincturing by way of liqueurs: one day when I was making mint juleps I noticed that an hour later the remaining drips of bourbon had turned green in the glass with the sugar and crushed mint. I tasted it. Yum! A light bulb went on in my head. I immediately threw various herbs into white rum, the most successful of which were lemon verbena and peppermint. The peppermint mixed with honey or simple syrup makes a delicious creme de menthe except that it eventually goes from green to brown. I then realized that orange peels in alcohol soon became orangey, fennel seeds became anise flavored, barks and roots gave off their flavors- anything resinous works very well. The oils and resins are soluble in alcohol, and then the alcohol preserves anything watery.

december 2013 blog 015

eau de vie means “water of life.”

The French eau de vies that are so delicious are just this sort of tincture. Eau de vie, by the way, means water of life, as does uisce beatha, in gaelic, pronounced whiskey be-ata (almost seems like it could mean happy water, since beata means happy).  Aquavit comes from the Latin aqua vitae, same meaning. You take my point.

So, to make a fennel aperitif, I stuffed a pickle jar full of almost mature seed heads (fully mature ones would be losing their oils to the rain) and topped it off with vodka, waited two weeks, poured it off into another jar full of fennel seed heads, and waited another 2 weeks. This is actually called double tincturing and is also used in medicinal herbalism. The result was smooth and dark amber, with a strong licorice flavor and faint celery undertones. A shot of this with coffee is excellent after dinner, as fennel has been used for thousands of years to ease the stomach. My mother and sister, who are German, always gave the babies Fencheltee for gas and other tummy troubles. After WWII it saved many a dehydrated sick baby. But to return to happier times, most of my friends prefer it sweetened with honey and kept in the freezer next to the peppermint liqueur and the homemade triple sec.

Now, medicine. Tinctures are convenient because you can carry around 1 ounce bottles of medicine, and the dose is generally between 15 and 30 drops- half to a full dropper full. You can drink it straight, in a glass of water, or in tea. The alcohol will keep it for about 3 years. There are glycerin tinctures, but I have not gotten into that because I am not concerned about alcohol and most herbs tincture best in alcohol. Such a small amount mixed in water or tea would certainly not be a problem for a child, and if allowed to sit for a bit, perhaps the alcohol would evaporate so that an alcoholic wouldn’t taste it? But again, there is glycerin if that is an issue.

For me, Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine was the best introduction to tincturing. I have corresponded occasionally with Richo for years. He is a really fun and interesting person with immense energy and a gift for story-telling. His plant knowledge is vast, particularly in cultivation, which makes the catalog for Horizon Herbs, the medicinal plant seed company he and his wife and children have in Oregon, a very fine read. All of his books and catalogs are wonderfully illustrated by his daughters. Making Plant Medicine is very easy to read and full of stories, but also contains precise and clear information on how to tincture medicinal herbs. If you get heavily into it, you may want to buy a press from him.

Press what? Plant material. OK, here is a basic tincturing example. Go out to the garden and dig up some echinacea plants. I am presuming you have Echinacea purpurea, your basic purple Coneflower. If you have E. angustifolia too, the thin, droopy Coneflowers that grow better in the West, I’m impressed. Use them 60/40 as they have a synergistic effect.  The whole plant has medicine, but the roots are the strongest. I am just making it for me so I just use the roots. Those roots are tough so I’m glad I have a Vitamix. Wash and scrub them really well, and snip off what you will use with clippers. Throw them in the blender with enough vodka to make them move- generally to cover. (This is a folk tincture; Richo will tell you how to weigh them. He even has software for that.) Whizz it to a slurry and carefully get it all into a mason jar. Brown glass is best but if you keep it in the dark that is ok. Label with the ingredients and the date and let sit for 10  days, shaking when you remember. I have some small muslin bags with seams I have reinforced which fit neatly over the mouth of a mason jar. Pour the contents of the jar into the bag over a big measuring cup or something. Squeeze the bag as hard and long as you can to get out all the medicine. I have a small press but you could also weight it down with a clean rock in a colander. Richo’s press will turn your herbs into a dry cake without a drop of medicine wasted. Clean out your jar and return the medicine to it, since it is already labeled. Let it sit a day or two and then pour it off the sediment which will accumulate. The sediment can spoil the medicine. You can buy 1 ounce brown glass bottles with droppers for a little over a dollar apiece, and also ask your friends to save such bottles for you to clean and reuse. Always label and date. It will keep about three years in the dark, although eventually the rubber bulbs on the droppers begin to add a bitter taste. Herbal tinctures generally run about $10 an ounce. If you make good medicine, that is quite a savings.

Scripture says that God has given us the herbs of the field. He had His reasons. It seems to me in my travels that indigenous people knew the remedy for each disease with which they were familiar. We in the US has been pretty efficient in killing off the native people who knew the plant lore of this continent by introducing diseases with which they were not familiar. However we also brought new plants with us which have helped to reestablish some balance between man and disease, although many of those plants threw off the balance of the plant world. In South America I have studied with people who knew medicine for anything that could happen to you-diabetes, AIDS, cancer, schizophrenia,- and if they didn’t, they would ask the plants, who knew.



Cider time again- and apple cake

Homemade cider

Homemade cider

Well, looks like I’ve been at this a year. The first pictures I took were apples and chestnuts. There is so much more to cover than I thought, and if I’m doing, I’m not writing and vice versa . But here I sit with a fine glass of cider, aged one year, with a perfect head and dry crisp flavor.  Here is the link to last year when we pressed it.

Apples this year are less plentiful. The excessive rain fostered the fungus, and many apples fell before they got any size to them. The watermelons didn’t like it either- they are a peri-Kalahari fruit and after the rainy season they expect a dry season. Nonetheless we persevere. My father and I went out and got a few buckets of apples. I selected the nicest for cakes and we ran the rest through the press. We got about two gallons. This is the first year I had to remind him about Keats’s Ode to Autumn, but he did rally with a few words. My heart breaks. Do not go gentle into that good night.

The best apple cake is this one. Yes, apple pie is a showcase, and if it rains I can elaborate on pie crust technique, but right now I need simple, and this recipe pushes all the apple pie buttons in a tenth the time. You can find it in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, a fine old classic we referred to in our house as the Fatty Farmer. She has lots of grand old American farm classics, like Blackberry Flapdoodle, which is essentially a big roll of rich biscuit dough surrounding and surrounded by blackberries mashed with sugar. Baked in a casserole and basted with butter it has all the calories you need to milk cows at four in the morning. I can cut the sugar by a third and it’s still sweet. Mighty fine with ice cream though. Anyway, back to Apple Cottage Pudding. This is a basic 1-2-3-4 dough. Peel and cut into fat slices, like 8ths of an apple, about 16 apples. I never count. I just process what I have and use them somehow. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a giant lasagna pan. Find another pan about coffee cake size and do that one too.

Apple Cottage Pudding

The best apple cake

Apple Cottage Pudding Recipe

Mix dry

3 c.flour (definitely throw in part whole wheat or spelt as you like- makes a nuttier flavor)

1 tsp. salt.

1 c. sugar

4 tsp baking powder

Mix wet

2 eggs, beaten

1 c. milk

2 sticks butter (1c.), melted

1 tsp. vanilla

mix all up together until smooth, dump into pans.

This is a bit tricky. The reason I say that is that you will be pressing the apple slices into the dough in rows, as tightly as possible, since this cake is better the higher the ratio of apple to cake. Over time I have developed a sense of how little cake dough I can get away with, see below. You can do a pie pan with a dough spoonful. I realize that is subjective. Anyway, I start in the middle with a line and march them out in both directions, pushing the dough as I go. Occasionally I have to take a knife and cheat a little, flicking a little dough from here to there. When you are finished:

Mix 1 c. sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, 8 tbsp raisins, nuts if you like.   Hazelnuts absolutely rock. Walnuts are also a natural. I have even scattered on wineberries, which I had frozen in season, for color. Mix and sprinkle evenly, getting sugar over all the dough. I know sugar is White Death, but you have a lot of surface area, and the covering of granules creates a very nice crisp surface. Bake until brown and the raisins are puffing. That will take at least 40 minutes. Touch the apples to see if they are soft. As long as the cake doesn’t burn, especially underneath, the puffed raisins give it that bitter burnt raisin flavor which balances the sweetness of sugary apple cake.

I tend to gain weight around this time of year and I finally made the connection. This cake is so delicious and it works all day, starting with breakfast. I also make it if I am going to a potluck, or helping with a bake sale, or a church supper. You can’t beat it with a stick.