We are finally getting temperatures that suggest spring might come…eventually. A couple of weeks ago, I started writing this post, as it was still -40, and we were having problems with cracked eggs. While it won’t be an issue for us now for several months, I thought it was still worth putting up a post about it, as we all know winter (and polar vortexes) will be rolling around again soon enough.
We keep our chickens in an unheated barn / coop that we made from a converted granary. While the walls cut the wind, there is not much insulation, and the body heat from the chickens still doesn’t bring the temperatures in the barn up above freezing if it is cold out. Of course, we are zone 2/3, and get pretty cold in the middle of winter. As in -40 kind of cold.
This year, February was exceptionally cold, and the temperatures hardly came up above -25 for most of the month. As you can imagine, that sort of weather is hard on chickens. Their feed consumption goes way up, and their egg laying goes way down. We are careful to keep the coop ventilated to reduce the chances of frostbite, and the hens tend to cuddle together to stay warm.
We still get a few eggs, even on the coldest days. However, if we aren’t there to collect them as soon as the hen lays them, they will freeze. Egg shells have two layers – the hard outer layer, and a thin, flexible inner membrane. As the egg freezes, the egg yolk and white expand, and can crack the egg. If they don’t sit for too long, or if the weather is not terribly cold, they don’t crack; however, if they get too cold, or stay frozen for long enough, they will develop cracks in the shell, and sometimes even the inner membrane is affected. Some days (especially the -40 days), we are collecting nothing but cracked eggs.
Frozen eggs are fine to just thaw and eat, and if they haven’t cracked, they can be stored as usual in the fridge or root cellar with no special treatment. While we haven’t done an actual comparison, we haven’t noticed any significant difference in how frozen eggs cook, nor how long they store.
Eggs with a cracked shell but intact membrane are fine to cook and eat, as long as they are not poopy or dirty, but the cracks will allow bacteria in, so they should be used up right away, and thoroughly cooked – we won’t even taste cookie dough made with cracked eggs, just to be on the safe side. We just let them thaw in a dish on the counter, then use them as soon as they are liquid again.
The odd egg is so badly frozen that even the inside membrane is broken. We don’t eat those ones, as there is just too much chance of contamination. You could, I suppose, if you were desperate, but I’d recommend making sure they were thoroughly cooked to a high temperature (something way beyond soft boiled or over-easy), as there is a lot of bacteria even in the cleanest nesting box. We just cook them up right away in a nice porridge to feed to the dogs, who appreciate a hot meal on those cold days.
I get a little frustrated with my
access to garden plants, sometimes. There are no fruit tree
nurseries in the nearest town, and only a couple of big-box stores
that carry garden stuff; the locally-owned place shut down last fall.
There are a couple of bedding plant places, but they don’t generally
have much (or anything) for perennial plants.
Big box stores are frustrating places
to try to buy perennials. Far too often, I see zone 4 or even 5
stuff being sold; a lot of tree and shrub buyers are going to be
disappointed the first time their purchases encounter a normal
I am also sick of winter. Seriously sick of winter. The local news pointed out that we had 67 consecutive days that did not come above freezing; more than half of them were -30 or colder. The days are getting longer, but the snow is still at least thigh deep across most of our acreage, and while it is around freezing, it’s not really warm. This is probably a taste of our new normal with climate change. The hype had us all set for growing mangoes on the prairies in my lifetime, but instead it’s looking more like drought and polar vortexes and forest fire smoke. Blech.
Clearly, I needed something to get into
a better headspace. What better than playing in some dirt?
I ordered a couple of asparagus seed
packets over the winter, since there are only three (!) varieties of
asparagus that I have come across to order as roots online in Canada.
What the heck, Canada? I’m all about the diversity, and have been
pretty disappointed about the Mary Washington / Jersey Giant / Sweet
Purple asparagus options.
Luckily, Baker Creek had a couple of new options I hadn’t seen before – Connovers Colossal and Precoce D’Argenteuil. Ordering those effectively doubles my asparagus options. I have never tried growing asparagus from seed, though, so it may or may not work out as planned. Some of our asparagus has self-seeded before, as we’ve found tiny little fronds in the garden, but we haven’t tried to do it on purpose, up until now. Stay tuned for updates in a few months.
The seed packets indicated to start the
seeds 8-12 weeks prior to last frost, and here we are, 11 (or so)
weeks from our anticipated planting date. Perfect timing.
So I got out all of my seed starting
supplies (hello, old friends!) and played in the dirt for a bit.
Besides the asparagus, I planted a bunch of seeds for perennial
flowers that will attract bees and butterflies. Black Eyed Susans,
Purple Coneflowers, and some Speedwell – pretty things for the
flowerbeds I plan to dig in the front lawn this spring.
A lot of people have the impression
that there isn’t much we can grow here in Zones 2 and 3. While we
won’t be growing citrus or peaches or sweet cherries, there is a
surprising selection of fruit trees that survive or even thrive in
Apples are the original prairie hardy fruit tree – at least when you are discussing introduced varieties. We have a crab apple tree here that is probably original to the house (from the 1950’s), and there are many older apple trees in the various towns and farmyards around here. Apples are particularly nice for the homestead, because many varieties store well in a root cellar for several months, allowing you to harvest them and put them into storage without having to can, dry, or freeze them.
Most Prairie apples are smaller and more tart than what you would buy at the grocery store…especially since the apples at the store seem to be getting sweeter and sweeter! Recent breeding programs have improved many varieties, but there are also older favorites that are worth a look. The University of Saskatchewan has posted a fantastic article from 1991 by breeder Roger Vick, which discusses the history and development of Prairie-hardy apples, with a list of ‘recommended’ varieties; it also includes a list and brief description of all of the hardy named varieties at that time.
The University of Saskatchewan also has extensive descriptions of the apples they grow at their test site, which are worth checking out.
I have made a big list of Canadian bare root fruit tree suppliers, but some of them are located in relatively warm zones in Ontario and Quebec, so you will need to pay a bit of attention to what rootstocks they are using. We prefer Antonovka (full size trees) and Bud 118 (Semi-dwarf trees) for our cold, windy, and drought-prone location; other rootstocks might be just as good or even better for you, depending on your minimum temperatures, soil type, and rainfall. It is also worth noting that most apple trees require a pollenator, so check your neighborhood to see if there is an apple or crab apple nearby, or plan to plant two trees.
Here are sixteen hardy apple varieties that are on our homestead or our wish list, with links to some reputable suppliers that carry those varieties (at least as of spring, 2019):
Battleford (zone 2) – a classic Prairie apple! The Battleford apple was selected here in Saskatchewan, and is very hardy. They are also quite early, ripening in mid-August. It is best used as a cooking apple. Silver Creek Nursery carries these.
Cortland (zone 3) – Another old selection, that was released in 1915. Cortland apples are fairly late for the Prairies, ripening in October. They are reputed to be quite disease resistant, and the apples themselves are slow to brown, making them especially good for drying; they are also sweet enough to eat out of hand. Silver Creek Nursery and Whiffletree carry these.
Fireside (zone 3) – An older (early 1900’s) selection that is reported to be quite sweet and juicy. They ripen in mid-October, and are said to be excellent keepers. I haven’t gotten one of these yet, as my focus has been on earlier apples – I am not convinced that a mid-October would have a chance to ripen here, most years; however, it’s on my wishlist as a sweet apple that is a long-keeper. Silver Creek Nursery carries these.
Honeycrisp (zone 3) – A newer apple that is quite popular. We have a Honeycrisp here at our place that has survived some very low temperatures (below -40), and we are quite pleased with how well the apples store. In our area, the apples are pretty tart at harvest, but they get sweeter in the root cellar. Most of the sites indicate that Honeycrisp is difficult to grow, but ours has done well with no special care. I think we got our Honeycrisp from T&T Seeds, but Whiffletree and Silver Creek also carry them.
Lautz (zone 3) – This one is on our wish list, as it is reported to be a very long-storing variety that will keep up to 6 months. Hardy Fruit Trees carries these.
Minnesota 447 / Frostbite apple (zone 3) – These are an older variety, which was identified and used for breeding other apple varieties in the early to mid-1900’s, but not released as a named variety until 2008. The flavor of these apples is described as being intense and sweet, and they are reported to be excellent storage apples, lasting up to a year in commercial storage. These are not a vigorous tree this far north, but I really wanted to try one, just for the storage time. They ripen in mid-October. We got ours from a local nursery, but they are also carried by Whiffletree
Norkent apple (zone 2) – Bred in Morden, Manitoba, Norkent is a very hardy tree, with good quality eating apples. Norkents are supposed to be decent storing apples, as well, storing up to 14 weeks, though they are reported to lose flavor towards the end of the storage time. They ripen in mid to late August. We got ours from Whiffletree, but they are also carried by Hardy Fruit Trees and T&T Seeds.
Norland apple (zone 2) – A very hardy medium-sized apple that is good for fresh eating or making applesauce. Norlands ripen fairly early – in mid-August, which is handy in our short season. They are also reported to bear fruit quite young, though we haven’t gotten fruit from ours, yet. We got our Norland apple tree from a local nursery, but they are also carried by Silver Creek
Nova Easygro (zone 3) – These newer apples have been described as ideal for organic growers, as they are very disease resistant, and will store for a couple of months. They are also reported to be a tasty apple, with crisp white flesh and a sweet flavor. It is on our wish list because of the disease resistance, but has not been a priority due to their late ripening (mid-October), which is late enough in the season that we probably would not get ripe apples most years in our location. Silver Creek and Whiffletree carry these.
Parkland apple (zone 2) – Parkland apples are extremely cold hardy (though susceptible to fireblight), and are grown as far north as Alaska. They are described as being tart in flavor, but they are very early (early August) and will keep for a couple of months. We got ours from Silver Creek Nursery; they are also carried by Hardy Fruit Trees.
Prairie Sensation (zone 2) – A University of Saskatchewan release from 2006, Prairie Sensation is described as an aromatic apple with a pleasant, mild flavor. It is also supposed to be a good storage apple. They ripen in mid-September, which is perfect for our season. We ordered one of these from Whiffletree for 2019.
Red Astrachan apple (zone 3) – These were developed in Russia in the 1700’s, and are reported to be very flavorful. They are a fairly early apple, ripening in mid-August. We got ours from Silver Creek Nursery, and I haven’t seen them anywhere else.
September Ruby apple (zone 2) – A super-hardy apple with medium-sized fruit that is good for eating or cooking. As the name suggests, they ripen in early September, and are said to be a good keeper (up to 4 months). We got ours from Whiffletree.
Sweet Sixteen apple (zone 3) – These apples are described as having a complex flavor that is almost spicy, and that taste better when grown in cold climates. They are fairly disease-resistant, and are said to store well, though I haven’t seen anyone commit to exactly how long they will store for. Sweet Sixteen apples ripen in early October. We got ours from Whiffletree Nursery, but they are also carried by Hardy Fruit Trees and Silver Creek.
Wealthy apple (zone 3) – Wealthy apples are an heirloom variety that dates back to the mid-1800’s. They are reported to be juicy and sweet, as well as disease resistant, making them good for organic growing. They ripen in early September, so they will ripen before things freeze here at our location. Wealthy apples are on our wish list. Hardy Fruit Trees, Whiffletree, and Silver Creek Nurseries carry them.
Wolf River apple (zone 3) – These are a heritage cooking apple that are renowned for their large size. They are fairly late (early October), and susceptible to fireblight, but are resistant to most other apple diseases. I was quite taken with the idea of producing huge apples, though it will be hit-and-miss with our early freezes. Our tree hasn’t produced fruit yet, but I am excited to see how big they are when it finally does! We got ours from Silver Creek Nursery; they are also carried by Hardy Fruit Trees.
If you missed it earlier, you can find links to a ton of Canadian fruit tree suppliers here.
After doing the food storage report, I
decided that we really needed to get using up the carrots. A lot of
the apples are mostly past where we are willing to use them, and so a
couple of apple crisps will use up the rest; however, we still have
quite a lot of carrots that will need using pretty soon.
I went poking around on the internet, and came up with a bunch of tasty-looking carrot recipes. Most of them use pretty simple ingredients, and are straightforward to make (we generally don’t do fussy cooking). Here’s a list of the recipes that looked tasty to me:
PS – I love Pinterest. Really, really love it. Pinterest is fantastic for finding new recipes, which is a huge help when you are staring down a glut of something. I can’t even begin to describe how often I come in from the garden (or up from the root cellar) with so much of something that I know I’m going to be eating it every day for a couple of weeks, and need some novel ways to prepare it! I am building Pinterest boards of recipes for the various veggies I tend to get big harvests of – come on over and check out my Pinterest profile!
I want to keep track of what we’ve
stored, how long it’s lasted, and how our storage conditions have
fluctuated over time, so this is the start of a (hopefully)
monthly(ish) report. It’s pretty late in the (storage) year to start
this little project, but I think it is worth doing anyhow.
We specifically plant a lot of our garden with an eye to long-term storage vegetables. Our house has a lovely, dirt-floored root cellar built right in to the north-west corner of the basement, and that is the backbone of our vegetable storage. However, a few of our veggies prefer dry conditions; we store those in a spare bedroom with the furnace vent closed off, so it is quite cool (maybe 10-15 degrees Celsius), but not at all damp. While we also store a lot of produce by canning and freezing, it’s nice to be able to simply put a part of our harvest away, without having to process it in any way.
As of March 1, 2019, here is what’s
still going strong:
Sugar Pie Pumpkins – these are a surprise to me, as the pumpkins usually get soft by late December for us. We stored them in the spare room, same as always; the only thing we did differently this year was dipping the stem ends in a bleach solution before bringing them in the house to harden off. We had one for supper a few days ago, and it was still perfect.
Red Kuri Squash – the Red Kuris
usually last until sometime in March or April, so it’s not surprising
that they are still doing fine.
Sweet Meat Squash – this is another
variety that has a good shelf life for us.
Various cross-breed c. maxima squash – we’ve been doing a little breeding project in our garden, trying to come up with an improved c. maxima that will tolerate our short, often droughty seasons, taste good, and store well. We have a handful of squashes left that seem to be going strong; we will save seeds from these ones, for replanting in the spring.
Spaghetti Squash – spaghetti squash
is always a particularly good keeper for us, and they don’t even seem
to care whether they are stored in warm or cool conditions. If we
run out of space in the spare room (we usually do), the spaghetti
squash goes into the pantry, or even on shelves in the kitchen! This
year, we’ve got spaghetti squashes all over the house, and they are
all still perfect.
Onions – our onions typically last until the chives come up in the spring. This year, we didn’t plant enough of them, and have had to supplement with store-bought; however, the few teeny onions we’ve got left are keeping just fine. We usually keep our onions in baskets in the spare room, though this year, they got moved to the basement around Christmas, because they were in the way.
Potatoes – potatoes are another long-storage champ for us. We have tried numerous varieties, and they all seem to keep very well. Our current potato stash is still going strong, and they normally hold out until sometime in late April or early May, when they tend to sprout and get bitter. They don’t rot, though, and are generally in fine condition for replanting by the time we’re ready to do so. We store the potatoes in burlap sacks in the root cellar.
Carrots – this year, we tried storing
our carrots in perforated plastic vegetable bags in the root cellar,
and they stored for considerably longer than they have in the past,
when we put them in covered plastic bins. We also tried storing
carrots in bins of sand, but that didn’t work out well at all – I
suspect the sand was too dry, as the carrots shriveled up in just a
couple of months. The carrots are starting to go a bit limp, now,
and sprouting green tops, but they still taste fine.
Honeycrisp Apples – most of the Honeycrisps were stored in regular zip-top plastic bags and perforated vegetable bags in the root cellar. We didn’t do a good job of sorting through them over the winter to use up the ones that were going bad, so it’s hard to tell which type of bag was better for storage. However, the bags have held the apples much longer than last year, when we stored the apples in uncovered five-gallon buckets in the root cellar. We also tried storing some in a bag in the fridge, though the bag was not zipped tight. Most of the apples from all three storage methods are shriveled to some extent, though a handful are still quite firm.
All of the apples I cut open had some extent of browning on the inside, but the majority are still edible. All were sweeter in flavor than they were in the fall, but the ones in the fridge had a stronger flavor and a somewhat better texture. While mealy and not exactly ideal for eating raw, the apples are still mostly edible, and could be used in a pie or crisp or porridge.
All in all, I’m pretty happy with the
veggie storage this year, as we managed to extend our storage season
on several things. The pumpkins, carrots, and apples, in
particular, are big wins.
Just a couple of days ago, it was -35 at our place…and it’s almost March! While the newest zone map insists we are zone 3a, polar vortexes beg to differ, and drop us down into the -40 (and colder) range, which is pretty solidly zone 2. Locals say that these temperatures are actually closer to ‘normal’ than the 6 or so winters before; however, the extended (month-long) cold snaps are an anomaly. Climate change is clearly messing with weather patterns, and extended cold snaps may well be part of our new normal.
I suspect that long stretches of cold are not as hard on fruit trees as the melt-and-freeze cycle of chinooks that we used to get in Alberta, but we lost several of our young trees last winter, when we experienced similar long stretches of deep freeze. We plant several fruit trees and bushes every year, in the hopes of having a lush orchard at some point. This year, there were a couple of things I really wanted, so I ordered them very early, as they had sold out the year before. However, with all this cold, I am looking at ordering a few more trees to fill in the gaps I expect we’ll see in the orchard, come spring.
There are actually a pretty good selection of fruit trees that are rated zone 2 and 3 – the main trees that grow here are apples, pears, and plums, and there is a reasonable assortment of varieties from each type. However, there are not many tree nurseries that are actually within reasonable driving distance, which means we’re often ordering bare root fruit trees from far away.
We normally order bare-root trees. Bare-root trees are trees that have been grown in fields (rather than in pots), then dug up, washed off, and shipped by mail. We’ve had excellent success with bare-root trees; we’ve only had a few that did not start leafing out within a few weeks of planting, which is a pretty good success rate, when you consider how many trees we’ve planted. Our trees don’t always make it through the winters, though, which is mostly our own fault – we tend to ‘push’ zones a bit, and try out varieties that may not be fully hardy in our area.
Because we’re often ordering from far
away, we’ve found there are a couple of things we really have to pay
A lot of the Canadian fruit tree nurseries that will ship trees (the majority, really) are in southern Ontario and Quebec. Most of them are at least zone 5, and a couple are as warm as zone 7. Nurseries generally strive to be accurate in their zone assessments, but a zone 5 or 6 nursery is not going to be able to conclusively say that any given tree will ‘make it’ in zone 2 or 3. Sometimes things are not quite as hardy as advertised, so there is an element of risk when you are ordering from a nursery several zones warmer than you.
The odd nursery really stretches credibility with their zone ratings, so if something seems too good to be true, like a peach or a sweet cherry that is rated hardy to zone 3…well, I recommend you put your wallet down and save your money, or maybe go buy a lottery ticket, instead.
The other issue that we occasionally come across is a perfectly hardy cultivar that is grafted on a rootstock that won’t take real prairie winter. We’ve found we really have to watch this with pears, as some of them are grafted on OhxF rootstocks, which are only supposed to be zone 4 hardy, or Quince A, which simply won’t take our winters at all.
We prefer full-sized Antonovka
rootstock for our apple trees, as it seems to do well with both cold
and drought, which are our big challenges. We’ve also got several
apples on B118 rootstock that have survived at least a couple of
winters, and seem to be thriving.
Our plums and apricots are generally
grafted on Mustang rootstock, which handles prairie winter just fine.
Last year, we ordered a couple of plums on Myrobalan, which is
supposed to be fairly hardy, though I’ve never seen a zone rating;
this winter will be a good test for them, as it has been very cold.
I do recommend ordering bare-root
trees, overall. If you pay close attention to the rootstocks, and
cross-reference zone ratings (especially for things that seem too
good to be true), you can get access to a much wider variety of
cultivars, and it is often considerably cheaper to order bare-root
trees than to buy potted trees at the local big-box store.
I’ve created a big list of reputable Canadian bare-root fruit tree nurseries – check it out!