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cheese storage update

Five weeks ago I decided to experiment with unrefrigerated cheese storage. I painted blocks of store bought cheddar and jack w/red cheese wax, tied them with butcher’s twine, and hung them to store in my shop/garage area. The shop stays reasonably cool even though we’ve had days in the 90s. Tonight I cut open one of the blocks of jack.


There was a tiny dry spot where the twine had cut into the wax enough to let a bit of moisture out. Other than that, the cheese experiment is a success at five weeks unrefrigerated storage.


The cheese smelled right — a smidge sharper than the very mild store bought jack I originally waxed, in a good way. It tasted better than the original, too. Slightly more complex and a little more yellow than the creamy white jack of five weeks ago. We’ll see what happens over the coming year. So far I’m hopeful the shop environment will work for aging my homemade cheeses down the road as well.

Update #2: While traveling and away for three weeks this winter, a deer mouse took up residence in the shop and had a nice feast on one of the blocks of cheese. Apparently deer mice are great jumpers. This one jumped up on the hanging blocks, severed one of the strings, and had a bit of a snack once it was down on the floor.

Even though only one of the blocks were gnawed, I ended up tossing the whole batch. Around 40% of deer mice in Montana carry the Hanta virus, which can cause a deadly respiratory infection. I didn’t want to chance that the cheese might be contaminated from being climbed on by the mouse. In the future, I’ll make sure any stored cheese is well out of reach of critters.

(BTW, I caught the mouse in an electric zap trap. While I hate to kill anything, mice breed quickly and can cause expensive damage. I found this one’s nest on the engine block of my car. After catching the mouse, clearing the nest, and disinfecting the shop I haven’t seen a sign of any more. Hopefully it was the only one).


meandering fall walk

Nothing better than walking out the back door for a meandering fall hike through the backyard…



what’s SPIN farming?

“SPIN” stands for Small Plot INtensive farming. The basic idea is to grow high-value crops — i.e., those in demand by local restaurants, farmers’ markets, CSAs, and groceries — that can be planted and harvested quickly. You plant and harvest a crop to make room for the next high-value crop on the same plot of land. The goal is to turn as many high-value crops as feasible given the length of the local growing season.


Listening to a podcast a month or so ago, I heard Curtis Stone, owner of Green City Acres, talking about how he makes a very decent living on less than an acre of land using the SPIN farming method. I was intrigued to learn more.

While I currently have little active intention of growing and selling crops to make my living, I thought it would be smart to read up on SPIN farming and leverage best practices for our own consumption. Should I should choose to grow cash crops down the road, best to be set up to do so. Even if I don’t, though, there’s the upside of learning from others’ experiences.

I learned Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen are the founders of the SPIN farming method, which they use for their sub-acre farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. They have published guides for other small plot farmers to learn from, and have an active community for SPIN farmers to support one another online. Participants congregate from all over the world, including the US, Middle East, and Europe.

The full set of “learn the basics” guides is a bit pricey at US$84, but chock full of information. You can elect to get a downloadable PDF or print version. I chose the PDF, which is a bit of a chore to navigate for those of us used to eBooks where you can make notes, highlight passages of interest, bookmark pages, and have it remember where you left off reading. (In addition to Planet B Gardens, I run a small publishing company. I know it costs relatively little to hire someone to convert text to an eBook — at this writing, about $200). Having the guides in an eBook format instead of as a PDF would have made them a much better reading and reference experience.

That said, the guides and online community are useful for those getting started in serious gardening for their own consumption — and moreso should you decide to turn it into a business. Curtis Stone says he earns more than enough per year to support himself from SPIN farming less than an acre of land combined over multiple locations. Satzewich and Vandersteen estimate you can earn upwards of CA$108k per year farming only 3/4 of an acre.

Satzewich and Vandersteen’s learn the basics guides provide step-by-step instructions, recommended equipment and tools, profitability estimates based on year and farm size, and tips for getting started. The guides are customized for four levels of farming: the small hobby farmer (5k sq ft), large hobby farmer (10k sq ft), moderate-scale farmer (20k sq ft), and large-scale farmer (40k sq ft).


Right now the extent of my gardening on Planet B has been potted lavender, petunias, and daisies. I plan to install starter raised beds and a small greenhouse to get ready for the spring 2015 planting season soon. Will post updates here as I learn what pieces of advice from the SPIN basics guides worked well, and what I’d do differently, if anything.


honeybee or not to be

I met with a dozen or so local beekeepers tonight, looking to get my feet wet in advance of plunging into beginner beekeeping planned for the coming spring. While I’d read of Colony Collapse Disorder in passing, it was enlightening to hear experienced beekeepers’ stories of recent collapses among their hives. honeybee

One beekeeper with 40+ years’ experience described visiting his hives recently to discover one had completely vanished. Another beekeeper working with established commercial hives described a similar scene. One day the bees are happily humming along with their bee business, and the next day they vanish from the hive without a trace. No dying or dead bees, no physical sign of disturbance, no positive tests for mites or other typical pests — nothing. They’re just here one moment and disappeared the next.

Experienced beekeepers in the group said they had little trouble raising bees in the past, and never have seen bees vanishing without a trace until 8 or 10 years or so. While there are numerous theories about the potential impact of pesticides, bees being trucked around the country spreading parasites and other illnesses to local bees, disturbances in weather patterns, and increased cell phone use, that doesn’t answer the question of how bees simply vanish without leaving any clues behind about what caused them to abruptly abscond.

I’m looking forward to learning more as I get started with the spring apiary. Hopefully I can make a tiny contribution toward maintaining a healthy bee population, or at least discover clues about the causes and potential prevention of future colony collapses.

[Photo credit goes to]

autumn sunset



night’s transition into fall

The season is transitioning here at Planet B Gardens. The deer and wild turkeys have become scarce, seasonal birds have migrated, elk are bugling in the distance for mates, and wolves are howling at tonight’s lenticular full moon. The earth is quieting, readying for winter.



red sauerkraut

Sauerkraut in white plastic bins next to NYC dirty water hot dogs was my only experience with the cabbage condiment until I was well into my 20s. It was a grayish-white, limp, slightly sourish mush to put on top of the dog — dosed with a serious helping of bright yellow mustard to give it some umph. It wasn’t until I had a proper bratwurst dinner with friends from Germany that I finally tasted what fresh sauerkraut could bring to the palate. Crisp, bright, and with a perfect balance of salt and sour. I had to make some of my own.

Sauerkraut is simply made of shredded cabbage fermented in salt. That is it.

I have a slicer — similar to the kind you’d find at a deli, but much smaller — which makes shredding the cabbage easier.


You could also slice by hand or use a mandolin. Reserve one large, unshredded leaf to serve as a cover. Keep the shredded slices relatively uniform in width.


While traditional sauerkraut is made with green cabbage, I much prefer red. Mostly I like red cabbage better because it is prettier to look at. I’ve also read it contains twice the polyphenols of green cabbage and six times the antioxidants, which makes it healthier — all the better.

Once the head of red cabbage is shredded (about 3 pounds), I sprinkle the shreds with 1.5 tablespoons of kosher salt and mix it by hand to cover the cabbage well. The salt will immediately start pulling moisture from the cabbage.


I put the whole shebang into a sterilized 2-quart wide mouthed canning jar 3/4 full. Put the reserved cabbage leaf, trimmed to size, on top of the shredded, salted mix. I half-fill a ziplock bag with rocks — like the kind you’d put in a glass vase — to create a weight. Place the bag of rocks on top of the leaf inside the wide mouth jar and spread the weight evenly to tamp the mixture down.


Put a cloth cover over the top of the wide mouth jar, secure with a rubber band, and let nature take its course for 3 weeks at room temperature. Occasionally check that the fermenting mixture is bubble-free and submerged in its liquid. If there are bubbles, tap the side of the jar and tamp the mixture down to remove any air.


After 3 weeks, put a lid on the jar with the bag of rocks inside. Finish the red sauerkraut in the fridge for 1 week before eating. Take out the weighted bag and re-lid.

It should be good in the fridge for several months. You can make it last longer by water bath canning, but the heat makes the cabbage too mushy for my taste. My recommendation is to make to a batch you can consume within a few months, and if you like it, make a new batch a month before the first batch runs out.

Red cabbage sauerkraut is a perfect complement to foods with a higher fat content — sausages, hot dogs, and cheesy/starchy dishes. It purportedly provides a significant percentage of recommended daily requirements of C, K, and B vitamins in addition to its antioxidant effects. It’s also chock full of probiotics and low in calories (about 20 calories per cup). If you haven’t tried homemade sauerkraut, give it a go. It’s easy to make, healthy, and the taste benefits might make you a convert.


bison stew pressure canning

Keeping jars of stew in the pantry makes preparing a healthy quick meal easy and tastes much better than any canned stews you’d buy in at the supermarket. When I make a stew, I often set enough aside to can a few jars.


Dice onions, yellow potatoes, and cube bison chuck roast for this stew, and put them in a pot separate from the main batch. Toss in a little oil and lightly brown the bison and vegetables. Bison is a naturally lean meat, so the extra fat doesn’t hurt. Add enough beef broth to almost cover the meat and vegetables, followed by a 1/2 cup or so of red wine, a dozen black peppercorns, and a little salt. Bring the stew to a boil, then ladle into clean canning jars. Since the jars will be processed in the ultra high heat of a pressure canner, you don’t need to sterilize them like you would for water bath canning.


Fill the jars leaving 1/2 inch headroom at the top, wipe the rims, put on the lids, and add to the pressure canner. Note you must use a pressure canner with low-acid foods like meat to get the temperature high enough to kill any pathogens and make it safe for storing. Add two inches of water to the pressure canner, tighten the lid, and heat to 10 pounds pressure. Once the 10 pound weight starts to rattle, set the timer for 1 hour 15 minutes. Adjust the heat to maintain 10 pounds pressure.


Once the time is up, turn off the heat and let the pressure canner completely cool on its own. It could take several hours. When the canner is completely cool, you can remove the lid and jars to let them cool the rest of the way.

Side note: I love my 15 1/2 quart All American pressure canner. It is made of all cast aluminum construction without a gasket like most other pressure cookers have. The metal-to-metal seal only needs to be lightly oiled on occasion. It is more expensive than other pressure canners I’ve owned, but the quality of the construction makes it well worth the extra bucks.


kombucha brew

Last year during my fermentation kick, I tried brewing my own kombucha tea with mixed results. Kombucha is a brewed and fermented tea that is slightly sour, slightly sweet, and full of healthy probiotics.


I learned I like freshly-brewed, homemade kombucha much more over bottled (like you get in the healthy food section of your local grocery). I also tried flavoring and bottling my own kombucha, which looks pretty in the bottle, but still prefer the taste straight out of the brewer.


I set up a continuous brewing system with two 2.5 gallon porcelain brewers. I ordered my original culture (called a “SCOBY” for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) online. The rest was easy:

First, sanitize your first brewing urn by swirling with white, distilled vinegar. Don’t use any soap. Drain through the spout and wipe out any residual vinegar. Here is what I used to get started:

Brewing urns & stands

Cloth cover (you can also make your own)

PH meter to test readiness – you’ll know by what tastes good to you; I like mine around 3.2 PH.

Swing top bottles — if you decide you want to bottle some

Tea — you can use whatever black or green tea you like, but Hannah’s blend is delicious

Sugar — I use organic cane sugar; everyone says that works much better than any other type of sugar

SCOBY — I’ve had good luck with Hannah’s; started each urn with two full-size cultures. You could start with one, but it will take longer.

To start the brew:

  • Boil 4 cups of filtered water (tap water might have chemicals that kill the SCOBY; I filtered mine using a Brita filter)
  • Take water off the burner. Put 3-4 tsp. black tea in a tea ball or muslin bag and steep in the boiled water for 9-10 minutes.
  • Take out the tea and add 1 cup of sugar. Stir to dissolve.
  • Pour the hot tea/sugar mixture into 12 cups of cold filtered water. Put the watered down tea/sugar mixture in the urn. That should get it about 1/2 way full.
  • Repeat to fill it almost to the top. You could double the recipe from the get-go, but the smaller amount is easier to deal with in my experience.
  • Sanitize a knife or scissors with distilled white vinegar, and cut open the SCOBY pouch if you bought one online. Pour the SCOBY and liquid into the urn with the tea/sugar water.
  • Cover and let sit undisturbed for 10 days. Test PH until you get to 3.2 — then it’s ready to drink.

Once my first urn is ready to drink, I wait a week to start the second. You don’t want to have the brew sitting in the urn for too long or it might get either too sour or too yeasty. If you decide not to bottle and drink only fresh, you’ll have to see how much you consume to get the timing of starting the second brewer right. And you might decide you don’t even want a second brewer. We go through a couple gallons a week, which makes the two-brewer system perfect.

Since I live in Montana where the winters get cold, I also invested in a winter heating system (the striped plastic band you see wrapped around the brewer), as well as a temperature monitor.

A few other tips:

  • The tea likes to stay around 75F throughout the brewing process, plus or minus a few degrees. If it gets too warm, you’ll get an overproduction of yeast, which will make the brew sour quickly (still safe to drink, but not as tasty). If it gets too cold, fermentation will stop altogether or at least go really slow. Even if the brewer feels slightly warm to the touch on the outside (80-90F –ish), I’ve found the liquid to be 5-10 degrees cooler on the inside, which is about right.
  • Never put the SCOBY in the refrigerator or freezer — it is totally safe to leave it at room temperature.
  • If you see what looks like green/black bread mold on the SCOBY, toss everything and start fresh. According to what I’ve read, this rarely happens. However, if it does, the mold can make you very sick. You will likely see brown spots, brown threads, and black flecks on the SCOBY — these are all totally normal. Look for SCOBY mold images online if you have a  question about what the bad stuff looks like. Here is a healthy SCOBY:


I really like having freshly brewed kombucha around as an alternative to plain tea, water, or coffee. It’s easy to make, has a nice sweet/sour refreshing flavor, relatively low calorie, and great for gut health.


roasted hot salsa

I love salsas — the hotter the better.


















To make my own for canning, I cubed and seeded a couple pounds of heirloom tomatoes.


















I charred sweet peppers and tomatillos from my friend Nancy’s garden over an open flame, and sliced hot peppers — keeping the seeds of the fresh cayenne pepper in the mix. Chopped a cup of sweet onions.


















Tossed it all in a pot with 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 tsp red pepper flakes to simmer for 15 minutes.


















Put the salsa in 8 oz Ball jars, and finished in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.


















The salsa came out medium spicy, and should get hotter as the hot pepper seeds soften in the jar. It was also a little sweet, likely from the sweetness of the heirloom tomatoes. I’m hoping the sweetness will mellow with a little time in the jar.



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