Author: Jess

Home / Author: Jess

A photo of winter squash curing

We grow a lot of squash. Our first couple of years here, we discovered that squash seems to like our particular climate, and is happy to grow here without a lot of fuss, as long as we pick a type that will mature in our very short season. Even so, we often find ourselves picking our squash before it is fully ripe, or sometimes even completely green, in order to avoid a hard frost. A lot of types of squash will store at cool room temperatures for a very long time, which makes it doubly attractive, as it doesn’t need to take up space in the root cellar or freezer. However, in order for it to last well, you need to cure winter squash, especially if you are picking it a little early.

A freshly harvested squash with a cut stem, that needs to be cured before long storage.
A freshly harvested winter squash, with the stem still soft, wet, and seeping. This squash needs to be cured!

What is curing? Basically, it is letting the green or under-ripe squash dry out a bit, thicken its rind, and be ready to sit on a shelf without rotting. How do you cure winter squash? Well, the first step is to pick it at the right time. While many types of squash will take a light frost, it doesn’t appreciate freezing. We try to pick our winter squash just before the first frost, but in our zone, that often means picking it before the stem has fully dried out. When we are harvesting, we make sure to cut the stems quite a way back, leaving a good ‘handle’. Don’t pick the squash up by this handle, though! You might break the stem off, which actually makes the squash more susceptible to rotting.

A partially cured winter squash stem.
A partially cured winter squash. Note the shriveled stem end, and the base of the stem starting to look dry and woody. There’s still a lot of green, tender stem, though!

After the harvest, we usually leave the squash outside on the lawn for a while to dry off, if it isn’t raining; otherwise, we take it inside and wipe it with a towel. Once the squash is dry, we brush off as much dust/dirt/mud as we can. Next, we dip the stem in a mild (about 5%, though I often eyeball it) bleach solution, and wipe down the outside with a cloth dipped in the same solution. Normally, we do this in a 5-gallon bucket in the tub, as most of our squash are small enough to easily dip in the bucket, and doing it all in the tub contains the mess a bit. For really large squashes, I dipper a handful of bleach water over the cut part of the stem and the base where the stem is attached to the squash. Then, I wipe the rest with a cloth dipped in the bleach solution. Once it has been dipped (or wiped), we towel the squash off again, using old towels, as the bleach can cause them to get discolored.

If you don’t have much time (or a good space to do any dipping in), at least make sure to get the cut part and the base of the stem wet with a bleach solution. This will kill off any bacteria that might get into the stem before it is cured, and make the squash rot prematurely.

Although I knew about the bleach thing for a long time, I resisted actually using bleach on my squash, as it seemed unnecessary and harsh. However, dipping the stems in bleach makes a huge difference in how long our squash store, so we do it every year, now. Bleach breaks down pretty quickly, and won’t be present by the time you eat the squash, plus you don’t normally eat the rind anyhow, so it is safe to do this.

freshly harvest winter squash, some under-ripe, laid out for curing
Freshly bleached winter squash, laid our in a warm, dry place to cure.

Finally, we lay out the squash on towels in a warm, dry space – normally we put them on the floor in the corner of our living room. We check it over and turn each squash every few days, to make sure all sides are being exposed to the air to dry. Squash prefers a cool, dry space for long-term storage, but you need to cure them properly, first.

How long should you cure your winter squash? It really varies, depending on the type of squash, how long you were able to leave it on the vine, how warm and dry your curing area is, and how wet or dry your growing season was.

A properly cured pumpkin stem.
A properly-cured pumpkin, The stem is dry, hardened, and woody, and the rind is thick, and can’t be easily marked with a fingernail.

We’ve found that hard-stemmed varieties like spaghetti squash and most cucurbita pepo species of pumpkins cure fairly quickly, often in a couple of weeks for us, even if they are picked green. Once the stem feels hard and dry to the touch, and the skin of the squash itself has hardened to the point that you can’t easily pierce it with a fingernail, it is good to go. Fleshy-stemmed winter squash like Red Kuri, Buttercup, and Sweet Meat, and many other cucurbita maxima varieties, seem to take for-ev-er, often a month or more. For these, you need to cure them until the bulbous part where the stem meets the squash is hard and dry, as this is where the rot usually starts.

a mark made by a fingernail in a spaghetti squash, demonstrating that it is not yet cured.
The rind on this spaghetti squash is still thin, and easily marked with a fingernail. It needs to cure longer!

Once it is completely cured, winter squash prefers to be stored in a cool, dry place. Many basements would be too damp, though if you have a dry basement or run a dehumidifier, it could work well. We often store ours in a spare room with the door closed and the furnace vent covered; our squash does very well in there. How long any given squash will store can vary quite a bit; this depends on the type of squash, your growing conditions, and your storage conditions. Generally, though, for us, c. pepo pumpkins are usually done by Christmas or shortly after, followed by small-sized c. maxima squash like Red Kuri, which usually last until February or March. Larger c. maxima squash like Sweet Meat and Mandan last quite a bit longer, until April or May at least. Spaghetti squash is the champion out of the varieties we can easily grow, lasting a year or more in good shape. We haven’t found any variety of c. moschata that will set fruit in our short season, but I understand that that species tends to store very well, also.

By Jess
An image of the author holding an antique glass 78mm canning lid in an antique zinc screw band.

This weekend, I started experimenting with canning with glass lids on my Gem jars.

In Canada, especially Western Canada, we have a unique size of canning jar, with a 78mm mouth. They were produced up until the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, and were sold under a variety of brand names, including Gem, Jewel, and Crown. Originally, these jars used a glass lid, with a rubber gasket underneath to allow a seal to form; however, when the metal lids became available, most home canners switched over to those. This blog has an interesting article on the history of 78mm mouth jars and lids in Canada.

A picture of an antique Gem 78mm quart canning jar and an antique Gem 78mm pint canning jar

I have a sizeable collection of Gem and Jewel jars. Some were inherited from family members, and others I acquired from yard sales. Even though the jars were discontinued before I ever started canning, I preferred them, because the 78mm mouth is a nice size for peach and pear halves, and the jars themselves have a bit of a shoulder that helps to keep canned fruit under the liquid. Plus, I could get them for a couple dollars a dozen at the yard sales, and I’m cheap. Up until this spring, you could still get new lids and bands for the 78mm mouth size in a variety of local stores, so I was happy to keep using them.

Unfortunately, Bernardin, the last lid manufacturer in Canada, discontinued the lids in the spring of 2022. They tried to discontinue these lids once before, in the early 2000’s, but there was such an outcry that they relented, and continued making them for another 20 years! However, it doesn’t look like they are going to change their minds this time. I got more than a little panicky about this, and asked my friends across the country to scour stores for the last remaining lids. I have a few years’ worth of lids, now, and plenty of bands, so I’m good for a little while, but with the price of canning jars right now, I was dreading the cost of trying to replace my dozens (hundreds?) of Gem jars with modern wide-mouth jars between now and when my lid stash runs out.

A picture of various lids for use with antique 78mm Gem, Jewel, and Crown canning jars.

I was cleaning in my basement late this summer, and came across a box that had been shoved in a dark corner since we moved here. In the box…surprise! A huge collection of the old glass Gem lids, with a big stack of the old deep zinc bands that were made to accommodate them! My mother-in-law had saved her glass lids when she switched over to metal ones, and must have given me her collection just before we moved.

This prompted me to do a little googling, to see if I could still get the rubber gaskets for these lids, and wouldn’t you know it, but Canadian Tire still carries them! I have also seen them at our local Co-op Grocery store and at Peavey Mart. They are sold under the brand name Viceroy, and are not at all expensive, so I’m planning on buying a bunch. From my internet research and from speaking with my mother-in-law, the gaskets can be re-used for years, until they get stretched or until they start cracking, which is also handy. Financially, using a $2 box of gaskets for several years is way better than replacing a $6 box of metal lids annually, so that’s another bonus to the glass lids.

Glass lids and Viceroy rubber rings for use with 78mm antique Gem, Jewel, and Crown canning jars.

Having gotten my hands on all the necessary parts, I decided to try canning with glass lids this weekend. Anecdotally, a number of my friends have reported that they have more seal failures with their Tattler reusable lids, so I thought I might run into that with the glass ones, too. I was doing a second batch of pickled plums yesterday, mostly because I needed to use up the plums, so a few seal failures wouldn’t be a disaster. Worst-case scenario, we could throw the jars in the fridge and turn the kids loose on them. Plus, with pickles, if I have a seal failure later, I’m less likely to end up with a fizzy, fuzzy mess in the pantry.

I found a couple of resources for using the glass lids – this youtube video shows you the process, and this blogger also goes through it, step-by-step, an a three-part series. Interestingly, the blog post noted that the modern bands can be used with the glass lids, which I did not know. I was a little dubious, since there is a substantial difference in the depths of the two styles of ring, but what the heck – I decided to experiment with that, too.

A comparison photo of an antique 78mm screw band to use with glass lids and a modern 78mm ring for use with metal lids on antique Gem, Jewel, and Crown canning jars.

What I did was scrub the glass lids very thoroughly with a toothbrush to get off any dust or goo, then put a rubber ring on each lid. I found that the rubber rings seem to have a ‘right way’; if one was fighting and not staying on well, flipping it over seemed to solve the problem. Then I put the lids, with the gaskets, into a pot, which I simmered on the stove while I made the brine for the pickles. It seems that the recommendation is to boil them for at least ten minutes; mine probably simmered for closer to half an hour, and that did not seem to cause any issues. I used kitchen tongs to grab the lid/gasket sets out of the boiling water and put them on the jars, which worked great.

A photo of 78mm antique glass lids with Viceroy rubber gasket rings on them, in a pot, ready to boil.

I filled my jars a bit less than I otherwise might; with raw pack fruit, I usually do that anyhow. When I put on the rings, I didn’t crank them down tight; I put them on snugly, then backed them off just a tiny bit. I got that from the recommendations for how to use Tattler reusable lids, and it seemed like a good idea. For my canner load of 7 pints, I used the old deep bands for 4 of my jars, and the modern shallow bands for the other 3. When the processing time was done, I turned off the burner and let the jars rest for 5 minutes in the canner. I haven’t seen this recommended anywhere, but I find it reduces siphoning, and it doesn’t seem to affect how the jars seal. Then, I took the jars out and tightened the bands down as much as I could. The shallow rings actually felt easier to tighten than the deep rings, which is interesting.

I was so excited to check my jars that it was hard to leave them on the counter and go to bed without fiddling with them. This morning, though, I went and took off those bands first thing, before I even had coffee! I took off each band, poked each lid a bit to see if it would move, then picked up each jar by the lid. I didn’t lift them far off the counter, less than an inch, but enough that the lid was taking the full weight of the jar. If it didn’t seal, or formed a weak seal, the lid would pop off, so don’t lift too far, or you could have a mess on your hands! My mother-in-law mentioned that her mom would also flip the jars over and watch for bubbles sucking into the jar, which would also suggest a seal failure, so I tried that, too, but I kept a couple of fingers over the lid so that the contents wouldn’t pour out if the seal was bad.

Two antique Gem pint jars of pickled plums, successfully canned using antique glass lids and Viceroy rubber gaskets.

Success! All seven jars sealed!

Seven jars is too small a sample size to tell if I will have the same failure rate with glass lids that I do with metal ones, which is usually about 1 jar failing to seal out of every 2-3 canner loads. I’d even be okay with a seal failure in every 1-2 canner loads, as I usually want to sample things anyhow, and we have plenty of fridge space. I also don’t know if the seals will hold as well or as long as they do with the metal lids, so I guess I will have to report back in a year or so, but for now, I’m happy to have a way to keep using my Gem jars.

By Jess

Full of Beans

September 1, 2022 | Gardening | No Comments

a big metal bowl of wax beans

It’s that time of year again, where we are drowning under the weight of the vegetables we planted in a ridiculous burst of optimism in the spring. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, and zucchini all need dealing with, and dealing with *right now*. Produce is not patient.

The big winner this year has been the wax beans. This is mostly because our cold, wet, spring led to germination issues, and over and over, we just shrugged and planted beans in those rows, thinking that at least beans can produce in the 60-75 day window we had left before frost. We did not keep track of how many rows this happened to, since we gave up on the parsnips far earlier than we gave up on the beets, and somehow we ended up with seven (!) rows of various types of beans by the time it was all said and done.

We really did not do much to deserve all this bounty. We dropped some seeds into some rows, and the rains came more or less when we needed them, so it’s mostly been a matter of keeping things weeded and picked. The beans seem to handle heat and drier weather better than a lot of our other vegetables, so I guess we picked the right summer to plant lots of them!

We find it easier to see colorful beans among the green leaves, so we planted red, purple, and yellow beans. The red and purple beans turn green when they are cooked, but they sure look fun in the picking bucket!

Red wax beans

I wish I had written down variety names when we were planting, but we were scrounging half-packets from the bottom of my seed box to fill in the rows, and we have no idea how many varieties we even stuffed in there, or what they actually were. The purple beans were probably ‘Royalty’, but that’s really only my best guess. The purple and yellow varieties were heavy producers in the early part of the season, but have tapered off; the red ones were slow starters, but are going great guns now, when everything else is taking a break, so I guess the combination worked out well.

purple wax beans, possibly "Royalty' type

So far, we’ve picked upwards of fifteen gallons of wax beans, which sounds like a lot, but once they are topped and tailed, chopped, and packaged up in neat little four-cup vacuum-sealed bricks, the pile in the freezer is shockingly small compared to the buckets of freshly-picked beans. To be fair, we’ve eaten beans with every second meal for weeks, now, and I’ve pickled a bunch, too, so it’s not a disappointment in any way.

Wax beans in a big metal bowl

We were blanching our beans for the first five or six gallons’ worth, but a friend cheerfully informed me she doesn’t bother, and her beans are not tough, even after ten or twelve months. Given that it’s been 30-plus degrees here for much of the last month, and given that we don’t have air conditioning, we’re happy to test out this theory, and save on heating up the house. I’ll try to remember to do a blog post about how that worked out!

Meanwhile, I’ll be washing and chopping zucchini and beans…

By Jess

On Asparagus

June 19, 2022 | Gardening | No Comments

asparagus frond

Asparagus is a big favorite in my family. In the beginning, it was just me who really loved it, but the more I tried to keep it all for myself, the more the kids wanted a share. Go figure.

Asparagus is very hardy, and easy to grow here in zone 2/3. We have a substantial amount of the stuff, spread over three different patches. We’re currently harvesting from maybe 35 – 40 plants, and this spring, we were getting around 1.5 to 2 pounds, every second or third day. It still isn’t enough!

Row of asparagus
An asparagus row in my garden.



We did plant 10 more roots last year, and another 10 this year, so hopefully we will have enough for everyone to eat their fill in another few years.

Here are my thoughts on growing asparagus:

Asparagus will survive in not-weeded conditions, but they won’t get to the big, juicy spears you can harvest lots of (or it will take a lot longer for them to get there). We dug one patch out of sod around 8 or 9 years ago, and planted asparagus there, but the arrival of child #2 meant we ran out of time to stay on top of it, and that bed got abandoned. I still see several asparagus plants growing in that spot, but the spears are too small to harvest, even after all that time. They are hanging in there, but barely.

Asparagus spear in wood chip mulch
Wood chip mulch around the base of an asparagus plant – with grass mulch piled nearby.

What we’ve done with our two surviving beds is weed them well, dump on a bunch of compost, then cover the whole thing heavily with wood chips. It hasn’t completely eliminated the weeds, but it vastly reduces the amount of weeding needed. The established asparagus doesn’t seem to mind pushing through the extra several inches of ‘stuff’, and the mulch really helps with water retention during hot, dry spells.

Asparagus also likes significant amounts of water, so we do water them if it’s really dry. We try to water deeply when we do water, as the roots are way down there, and won’t benefit from light surface watering. They will survive drought, but again, you won’t get great production without sufficient water.

Asparagus don’t really spread through roots, but they can self-seed if you have female plants (some of the cultivars that commercial places sell are male-only crowns – great for production, but they won’t set seed). They don’t really self-seed on wood chips, though. One of our patches is at the edge of our garden, and we sometimes find little baby asparagus there; we try to relocate those back into the patch, but the survival rate is not great. I’ve also tried growing asparagus from seed, but haven’t had much luck with that. They sprouted, and grew, but did not survive their first winters on any of the occasions I’ve tried, so now I just order the 2 year old roots from nurseries.

Once a root is healthy and established, they will push out lots of spears, though not necessarily all at once. I have one bed that is healthy, well-tended, watered, and ten years old; from that bed, I am getting initial spears that are bigger around than my two thumbs together. I harvest all of the big spears from those plants, over and over. So I might pick 4 or 5 spears one day, then another 4 or 5 in a few days, and so on, until each spear coming up is smaller than my pinkie finger. I have big hands; my pinkie is bigger in diameter than a pencil, but I like to leave lots for the plant to re-establish with, in case there is drought or other weather issues. At that point, I stop picking and let the asparagus grow up and form ferns.

asparagus frond
An asparagus leafing out – it looks very fern-y!

Most of the articles I’ve seen recommend waiting until year 3 to harvest, and only harvesting spears that are bigger in diameter than a pencil. However, when you are establishing new beds, I actually recommend giving the plants more time to establish, and fewer pickings, than the literature suggests.

The way asparagus works is that it stores up energy and nutrients in its roots, and uses that energy to push up the spears. I find that if you can be patient and go easy on it for the first few years of harvest, then you end up with a stronger, more resilient plant, and to me, long term resilience is more important than large and early harvests.

Asparagus Spear
An asparagus spear – I stop picking them at a much larger diameter than recommended.

I try not to harvest until the plants are 4+ years old (I buy 2 year old roots, than wait at least 2 years to harvest), or at least putting out multiple spears bigger around than my thumb. Like I said earlier, I also stop harvesting well before the recommended minimum size, as I want my plants to have lots ‘in the bank’ to size up the roots with, even if summer growing conditions are less than ideal.

Personally, I think asparagus is a great perennial food plant for northern gardens, and if you have the space and the time, I would encourage you to plant a bunch!

By Jess
Caterpillars Are Baby Butterflies - Rural Dreams

This spring, I have been working hard to put in a large-ish bee and butterfly garden, to give the pollenators a little oasis in our big sea of surrounding commercial crop fields, which are heavily sprayed. I’m sure I’m not the only one doing this – there has been a lot of media attention on pollenators, recently. However, at the same time, I am seeing a ton of posts on social media of people looking for ways to get rid of caterpillars on their plants and trees. I think people are forgetting something important: caterpillars are baby butterflies!

My pollenator garden is going to have caterpillars – that is part of the point! If you are planting milkweed, its job is to feed the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies. Let me repeat that sentence:

Milkweed’s job is to feed caterpillars.

Caterpillars.

Without caterpillars, there are no butterflies.

I get that tent caterpillars, especially, are a pain in the butt. They eat all the leaves off the trees, and infestations can be ugly. However, the leaves will grow back, and the trees aren’t even really damaged, and those caterpillars (and the moths they turn into) feed birds such as blue jays and chickadees, and all sorts of other wildlife, including frogs, squirrels, and, apparently, even bears!

tent caterpillars on a tree
Image by NoMercy from Pixabay

Caterpillars can also do quite a number on your garden. Around here, the little green caterpillars of the Small White Butterfly decimate brassica crops, including commercial canola, and any cabbage I have ever tried growing. It’s not exactly fun picking them out of your home-grown broccoli, either. Once again, though, the adult moths feed birds such as sparrows and goldfinches, which we really enjoy seeing around our acreage.

At the same time, anything you spray or dust to kill the tent caterpillars or cabbage worms, from commercial pesticides to Bacillus thuringiensis will also kill other caterpillars, including the caterpillars that turn into monarch butterflies, as well as some of my other favorites, like the Mourning Cloak and the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail. Some of the commercial pesticides are also really hard on bird and amphibian populations. In the same way that roses come with thorns, butterflies come from caterpillars, and if you want to have one, you are stuck dealing with the other.

A monarch butterfly on a flower
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Honestly, for us, the ‘dealing with’ isn’t a horrible hardship anyhow. We sometimes pick caterpillars off vegetable plants and fruit trees, but we generally leave them alone when they are feeding on the native chokecherries or decorative plants. Although we’ve had no luck with covering our brassicas (thanks to kids and puppies), I know that lots of people have been very successful with that tactic, and it is not detrimental to any of the other caterpillars and butterflies that may be in and around your garden. With the pollenator gardens, we are purposely planting favored plants, and there is a good chance they will gravitate to those, instead of ending up on our vegetables. Or maybe not, but we’re still okay with that, because we love butterflies.

Now, repeat after me, one more time: Caterpillars Are Baby Butterflies!

Pin It for Later:

Caterpillars Are Baby Butterflies - Rural Dreams Blog

By Jess
Tired of expensive celery? Try growing lovage!

I’ve read a few news stories lately that lament the price of celery, which has more than doubled in some places, recently. My town has definitely been hit by the expensive celery bug, which can be a nuisance when we go to make soup stock!

On the bright side, our lovage plant is up, now, so we don’t actually have to buy celery, at least for the rest of the summer. Probably the fall and winter, too, if I get organized enough to dry some later, when the plant is bigger.

What is lovage, you ask?

Lovage is a large perennial herb that is hardy to at least zone 3. Wikipedia says it can grow as large as 8 feet tall, though I doubt it would reach that here, in our short season. All parts of the plant have uses, either in cooking or medicinally; the leaves, in particular, have a strong, sharp celery flavor that is spectacular in broths and soups.

a lovage leaf to illustrate groing lovage

So, if you’re not willing to pay for expensive celery, consider growing lovage!

We started our lovage plant from seed last spring, and it was easy enough to do. I started it in a peat pot a few weeks before last frost, and planted it our later in the spring, once all danger of frost had passed. Once established, the plant can take some cold weather, but the seedlings seem to need a little pampering to really get going. It’s a little late to start seeds, though I’d imagine if you started them in the house and planted them out before midsummer, the plant would probably still have enough time to get established before winter. I have seen lovage available at greenhouses from time to time, as well.

lovage leaves in the spring

Our lovage is planted in full sun, though I’ve read that they can handle part shade. We put ours in a corner of the vegetable garden, in good soil, which it seems to appreciate. We watered it regularly through last summer, but we haven’t watered it at all so far this spring, and it has been really dry; the plant shot up about a week ago, despite the dry conditions, and looks unperturbed with the heat and dry weather. Based on our experience so far, growing lovage is very easy, and it doesn’t seem to need a huge amount of care, nor does it appear to have significant problems with pests.

We have mostly just used lovage as a replacement for celery, but a little goes a long way; a couple of sprigs will flavor a large pot of soup. For the more adventurous, you can find some interesting lovage recipes here.

Tired of expensive celery?  Try growing lovage! - Rural Dreams

By Jess
a stack of spaghetti squash - Rural Dreamsfrom our food storage

Yay! It’s May!

We’re creeping up on one of my favorite parts of the year – planting! We have a couple zillion fruit trees, grape vines, and perennial flowers either on their way or waiting in my seed starting trays, and I can’t wait to get them into the ground.

Meanwhile, on the food storage front, our root cellar veggies are mostly done. We still have potatoes that are firm and not sprouting, but they are bitter, and not tasty. There are a couple of little onions, which will likely still be good for another month, but we have essentially run out, and resorted to buying onions from the store. We also have a couple of maxima squash left (!), which I’m torn between roasting up before they rot and leaving alone to see how long they’ll hold out…either way, we’ll definitely be saving seeds from those ones!

Then there’s the spaghetti squash. That stuff is food storage magic. Still firm and tasty, after sitting on our kitchen counter since we harvested it in September. Now that the other squash is basically done, we’re instituting a roster of spaghetti squash meals – enchalada stuffed squash, spaghetti squash with feta and cream cheese, and squash with meat sauce are going to be in heavy rotation until it’s too hot to use the oven. Yum.

Spaghetti Squash - Food storage magic! - Rural Dreams

I’m expanding the food storage report to also talk about fresh foods that are in season month by month. For us right now, that’s a very limited selection…basically, just eggs, chives, and the early asparagus, for now.

The dandelions aren’t even up yet (we’re zone 2, maybe 3, and it’s still well below freezing at night), but we have a patch of chives and asparagus plants that are planted right up against the foundation of the house. Because the heat from the basement bleeds out into the soil, things planted there come up weeks earlier than anywhere else…meaning we’ve got lovely chive patches just in time for the beginning of the spring egg glut.

A basket of eggs - a seasonal spring food

Did you know that eggs are naturally a seasonal food? In the dark of winter, most hens will hardly lay anything at all, unless you have heat and artificial light in your coop. In December and January, we’re lucky to get a few eggs a day from our 25 (or so) hens – or none at all, if the hens are molting. Once the daylight hours go over 12 or 13 hours a day, though, the chickens kick it into high gear. Even though most of the hens in our flock are at least 2-3 years old, we’re still getting more eggs than we can really eat – we’re getting around a dozen eggs a day right now, and this will increase as it warms up and the days get really long.

The asparagus in the patch by the house was actually up about 5 or 6 inches, and I was eagerly eyeing them up, but it didn’t occur to me to harvest them before we had a couple of nights with -10 Celsius temperatures, so what was up is now a limp, rotting mess. There’s more coming up already, though, so it’ll only be a few days before I have my first taste of asparagus, likely served as a side to scrambled eggs with chives. I can hardly wait!

Asparagus growing out of the ground - seasonal spring food

By Jess

Black Knot Disease

April 30, 2019 | Orchard | 4 Comments

black knot disease in an infected chokecherry branch.

We have a lot of chokecherries here on our acreage, which means we have a lot of Black Knot Disease. It looks an awful lot like a big chunk of dried up dog poop wrapped around the tree branches – pretty gross! Black knot is a fungal infection (Apiosporina morbosa ) that is endemic in prairie Canada, and it is particularly common in my region.

a branch with black knot disease, which looks like dog poop wrapped around the branch

The Government of Alberta has published an article with a handy list of affected trees – black knot targets trees and bushes in the Prunus species. Besides chokecherries, the list includes Nanking cherries, apricots, sour cherries, and plums. While some cultivars of fruit trees are bred for black knot resistance, it is best to remove it any time you see it anywhere on your property.

There are not a lot of ways to deal with black knot, except for pruning. You will need to prune well back from the infected lump – at least 6 inches, though more is better. Dispose of the infected branches by burning them or removing them from the property immediately – the fungus can continue to grow and spread spores for months, even on dead branches. Once you are done, disinfect your pruning shears with a solution of 10% bleach in water, to prevent spreading the disease to other trees the next time you do any pruning.

Now is a great time to tackle pruning out black knot in your affected trees, since the affected trees and branches are much easier to see before the trees leaf out; the recommendation is to do it as early in the spring as possible, which, for us, is whenever the snow melts enough for us to be able to get to the affected trees. We have acres of scrubby chokecherry and caragana brush, so obviously we’re never going to get rid of all of it here, but I like to cut back affected trees that are close to our current orchard areas, since black knot can affect so many of the types of fruit we have planted here.

a close up photo of a black knot infection

While it may be possible to save a tree that has become infected with black knot, it hits me as a losing battle. If you have infected trees, there is obviously a source sonewhere nearby, and it is likely that your susceptible tree will get re-infected at some point. Better to save on heartache, cut down the infected tree, and plant something that isn’t susceptible.

Of course, with our place being surrounded by scrubby brush full of infested chokecherries, I expect we’ll be battling black knot disease, but we try to keep our prunus fruit trees away from the most infected areas, and we remove black knot wherever we see it in the wild chokecherries. So far, it hasn’t been a huge issue, but it certainly has the potential to become a problem for us. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep it out of our plums and cherries!

a chokecherry tree branch with a black knot fungal infection

By Jess

Growing Western Red Lilies From Seed

April 17, 2019 | Gardening | 2 Comments

Growing Western Red Lilies From Seed

As a child, I remember Mom pointing out ‘tiger lilies’ in the ditches when we were driving to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm. I later discovered that they were more properly called Western Red Lilies – the floral emblem of Saskatchewan. I don’t recall seeing them from then until we moved to the acreage in 2008 – that summer, I noticed them in some of the ditches around here, and I was really delighted by that! Mom really hammered it into my head that the lilies were endangered, and should never be picked or dug up, so I’ve just been enjoying them as I drive by for the last several years.

However, when I was doing research on native plant sources for a pollenator garden, I came across an actual seed source for these lilies – Blazing Star Wildflower Seed Company out of Aberdeen, Saskatchewan. I had no idea you could grow Western Red Lilies from seed – I thought they propegated via bulbs…which they do, but you can grow them from seed as well. Of course, as soon as I saw them, I had to have them.

I read the packet instructions when they arrived. The directions called for starting the seeds in a baggie of damp vermiculite, and noted that the seeds could take up to four weeks to germinate. Once they had sprouted, the directions called for transplanting them into pots to grow until they could go out into the garden.

Growing Western Red Lilies from seed - lily sprout

The whole packet of seeds were dumped into a plastic baggie of damp verimculite on March 13th, when I started the asparagus. I set them in a warm-ish spot on a bookshelf, out of direct sun. The lily seeds actually did take over three weeks to germinate, and on April 7th, I picked the teeny little sprouts out of the (overly sticky) vermiculite, and transplanted them into peat pots to grow for a while before they go outside. Given that it was still snowing last week, they should have some time to grow. I got 14 little lily sprouts, which is not bad, but if these work out okay, I’ll order several more seed packets for next year.

I am really excited about these little plants – if I can grow them out to a decent size in my flowerbed without too much trouble, I’ll start transplanting them in the ditches along my lane, so the pollenators (and I) can have even more of them to enjoy!

By Jess
a flock of chickens

Our chickens have mites. Specifically, Northern Fowl Mites. These little critters are pretty common all across Canada, and they can be a great big problem.

The most obvious symptom of poultry mites are poopy bums on your chickens. If you pick up a chicken and examine their vent (bum) area, you will see dirty feathers (mite eggs and other yuck), and you will also probably see some tiny dark brown or black round specks moving around – these are the mites themselves. Northern Fowl Mites hang out on the skin around the vent and under the wings, and they bite the chickens and feed on their blood.

northern fowl mites on a chicken

The Chicken Chick has a great article about how to identify parasites in chickens, which is helpful in figuring out whether you are dealing with mites or lice, as the treatments may differ.

Northern Fowl Mites are difficult to treat. They have a short life cycle (5-7 days), and they quickly develop resistance to various treatments. Besides living on the chickens, they also infest nesting boxes and coop bedding, adding to the difficulty in dealing with them.

Right now, though, the biggest issue with treating them is that there is no approved treatment in Canada.

It used to be that you could buy an over-the-counter dusting powder that you sprinkled on your chickens, the nesting boxes, and the bedding, with a repeat in a few days, and generally the mites were dealt with. However, that product was pulled off the shelves last year, with no tested and approved replacements.

There is all sorts of advice floating around the internet for how to treat mites without dusting powder, but I had trouble finding sources that were Canadian (and therefore recommending products that are actually available here) and also reliable.

So I asked my vet.

My vet said that any treatments would be off-label, which is a problem, because there is no information about withdrawal times. Withdrawal time is the amount of time that any medication keeps showing up in the eggs or meat, and could therefore affect anybody eating those eggs or that meat. You definitely don’t want to poison your kids when you’re trying to kill the mites!

Ugh. I needed more information.

Through a long and winding series of phone calls and emails, I eventually found myself speaking with Poultry Veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Smith. Dr. Smith has a passion for chicken issues, and was extremely helpful.

Dr. Smith recommended treating every bird in the flock, whether they had obvious mites or not, as there is a very high chance that they are all carrying at least a few mites, and we definitely don’t want them passing those mites between the treated and untreated chickens. That would increase the chances of the mites developing resistance to whatever treatment we use.

The first treatment we discussed was Diatomaceous Earth (DE). This is a powder made from a particular type of rock full of fossilized diatoms. The particles in the powder are tiny, but have very sharp edges that cut insects’ bodies when the insects crawl across it. Diatomaceous Earth is organic, so some people like to use it for bug control, but its effectiveness is questionable, and the sharp particles can cause respiratory problems if the chickens breathe it. If you were using DE, you would need to thoroughly dust each bird with the powder in a well-ventilated area (preferably outside). Some people also spread DE around their coop, but this runs the risk of causing respiratory problems as the chickens dust bathe and breathe the DE.

Sulfur can also be used to control Northern Fowl Mites, but it can cause allergic reactions in people, and is generally not a good choice for a backyard flock.

There is a product called Ectiban that is an insecticide approved for use in cattle in Canada; Dr. Smith suggested it as a good way to control the mites in the nesting boxes and coop litter, though it is not approved for use on the chickens themselves in Canada. I did find a website that gives dosage information for actual use on chickens, with accompanying withdrawal times before butchering. Unfortunately, there is no information about withdrawal times in laying hens, and it is not clear if this is an approved use in Canada.

Another option for spraying directly on chickens is called Debantic. Dr. Smith noted that the nice thing about this insecticide is that there is no withdrawal period for eggs. Debantic is a powder that gets mixed with water to make a spray that you spray on the chickens. The downside of this product is that it has to actually contact the mites in order to kill them, and it might need several applications to be effective. Here is some further information about Debantic.

Lastly, we discussed Ivermectin. Ivermectin is a product used in horses, cattle and swine; it has not been tested or approved for use in chickens. It is available in a paste that is used for worming horses, as well as an injectable liquid for cattle and swine. The paste is not a good idea for use on chickens, as it is very hard to control the dosage; using the liquid (injectable or pour on) 1% Ivermectin product gives you a lot more control.

Dr. Smith noted that you can put a drop or two of the injectable Ivermectin on the chicken’s skin (not injected) at the bottom of its neck, and it will be absorbed into the chicken and kill the mites when they suck the chicken’s blood. She suggested that people consult their vets for dosing, as chicken weights vary from scrawny little layers to the big dual-purpose and meat breeds, so it’s a good idea to run it by a professional before medicating your flock.

Some people put Ivermectin in their chickens’ water, but this is not recommended for backyard flocks, as it is very difficult to calculate and control the dosage. Dr. Smith also mentioned that if you use Ivermectin too frequently (less than 7 days between doses), there can be problems with toxicity – it can make your chickens sick. There is no established withdrawal period for meat or eggs, but most vets recommend not slaughtering the chickens or eating the eggs for 3-4 weeks.

It is frustrating that there is not a simple solution to poultry mites in Canada. There is a fine line between killing all the mites and preventing resistance on one hand, and having lengthy (or just plain unknown) withdrawal times to make sure you don’t poison your family. I also would be very careful about disposing of the treated coop bedding, as you don’t want to be adding insecticides to your garden, especially since it is hard to find information about how long they persist in the soil.

Pin it for later:

Treating Northern Fowl Mites in Chickens in Canada

By Jess