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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.


ripe fruit canning

Ideally you capture fruit at the height of its ripeness when canning. Too ripe and it becomes mushy. Not ripe enough and its tastiness is compromised. The pears and peaches gifted to me from my friends’ orchard were at that perfect point for canning:

Pears in a light brown sugar syrup














Peaches, pitted and halved


















Peaches canned with vanilla. [Update & note to self: Next time skip the vanilla. It’s not the best in combo with peaches.]


















And pear butter for the riper among the pears…followed the same recipe as for peach butter in the Ball cookbook.




orchard inspiration

My friends’ orchard, vineyard, and gardens are blow-you-away beautiful and an inspiration. Here’s what was ripening today:









































































and Pears.


















Plus the bounty of their garden gifts:














I have every intention of spreading the garden love with our future crops…


turkey tail feather art

Mama turkey left a tail feather on the deck.


Like a piece of art when you look at the details.



cheese experiment

waxed_cheddar_closeupCan you store cheese without refrigeration? I knew cheese makers have been making and storing cheese long before refrigerators were available, so I got curious. Reading up a bit, I learned that you can paint cheese with cheese wax, which allows it to breathe while protecting the cheese as it ages. So I decided to give it a try. For this experiment I used store-bought cheese and cut it into roughly 1/2 pound blocks. I let the cheese sit at room temperature for an hour or so to sweat out excess moisture.

While the cheese was sitting at room temperature, I melted the cheese wax (must be cheese wax, unless you have an inexpensive source of beeswax which will also work) in a double boiler. I recommend using a double boiler you can dedicate for melting cheese wax since it’s pretty impossible to clean afterwards and use for anything else. You can buy cheese wax online.

I put on sterile latex gloves to keep the cheese clean and my hands free of wax. After drying four small blocks of medium cheddar and two small blocks of jack with a paper towel, I painted on three thin layers, added a label with the kind of cheese and the date, and then painted a final thin layer over the label and the rest of the block. Use a boar bristle or other natural bristle brush since synthetic brushes could melt.


The wax hardens quickly. After the last layer, I tied butcher’s cotton twine around each block and left a long string for hanging. I’d read you have to turn the cheese to keep all parts breathing properly, and to keep moisture from pooling at the bottom. I chose to hang the blocks of cheese and not take up surface area unnecessarily. The twine is loose enough to flip the cheese and minimize moisture pooling.

My food prep corner of the shop, where I keep cookbooks and miscellaneous food prep gadgets that don’t fit easily in my kitchen, seems like a good spot to hang the cheese. It stays between 60-68F most of the time.


I like the idea of having a backup supply of cheese, and also like the taste of aged cheeses. There is always some risk of contamination whenever preserving or fermenting foods, so I’m not recommending this to anyone who isn’t experienced and confident they can identify when something looks, smells, or tastes “off.”

I’ve tried my hand at making fresh cheese (mozzarella, ricotta) in the past with great success. In the future I’d like to make cheese that needs to be aged. In addition to potentially creating a backup supply using purchased cheeses, this experiment dips my toe in the water of a small part of the process of making my own aged cheese. If the shop environment works without having to invest in a controlled “cheese cave” environment, that would be great. I’ll keep you posted on what I learn.


the difference sun makes

We moved in too late to start a garden this year, so on a whim I decided to grow two varieties of lettuce in pots on an inside windowsill. In each pot I used the same potting soil and fertilizer, and same amount of seeds in each. They are lined up on the same windowsill.

What a difference the amount of sun that each pot gets throughout the day makes on growth. Starting with the upper left, the most to least sun-exposed lettuce, going clockwise. The two on the left are the same variety, and the two on the right are the other variety.

lettuce_4 lettuce_3

two-part composting

Plum pits from yesterday’s jam making are destined for the compost bin.



I started with a worm compost bin only — which is where the plum pits are going. Here’s what the worm compost looks like before adding the pits:


Originally I thought I could do all my composting in the worm bin. I learned, though, that worms take a long time to break down grain, vegetable and fruit scraps into the “black gold” you’re starting to see in the picture above. They can process about 1/2 a gallon of scraps a month.

Unless I wanted to take up more valuable space for a much larger worm compost bin — which has to be indoors to keep the worms from freezing to death in winter — not all the scraps we generate would fit into the worm bin. So I added an outdoor compost bin to hold household scraps as well as yard waste.


I looked into purchasing a large bin for outdoors. They were all fairly pricey, and looked relatively easy to make. Since we live in bear country, I also had to consider whether having a bin outside would attract bears who’d tear it apart. If that turns out to be the case, I’ll have to rethink my outdoor compost setup altogether. So far, no bears or other critters have disturbed the bin and it’s been out there a couple months. We’ll see how things go through the fall when the bears are actively foraging to get ready for hibernation.

Turns out, making the bin was super easy. I purchased a 32-gallon wheeled black trash bin on sale for less than $10. I also purchased a 2″ circular saw bit for my drill. I drilled four 2″ holes in the bottom of the bin, four in the lid, and eight evenly scattered around the sides.

To keep critters and flies out — while keeping airflow in the bin to keep the compost aerated — I used duct tape to tape window screen on the inside of the bin to cover the 2″ holes I’d drilled. I’d tried using silicone roofing caulk to glue the screen inside the bin, but it didn’t adhere that well. Another waterproof adhesive might have worked better. So far, though, the duct tape has held just fine. Total cost was less than $20 and total time was about 45 minutes to drill and screen the holes.

The recommended ratio of “greens” (mostly fruit, grain, and vegetable waste) and “browns” (mostly yard waste) is 65% to 35%. You can find lots of expert instructions for setting up a successful compost bin by searching online.

I put the household waste that won’t fit in the worm bin into the big bin, along with any citrus, onion, hot pepper, and other waste that worms reportedly don’t like. These make up the “greens” portion of the mix. Yard waste makes up the “browns” portion — about another third of the mix. I also sprinkle a layer of potting soil over my greens to encourage decomposition. Potting soil also cuts the smell of the more fragrant among the freshly composting greens, like onions. Once the worms are done making their black gold, I’ll mix that in as well.

We’ll see how well the compost works in the spring when we start our first season of gardening.


plum jam

Plum trees turned out enough plums in this first season to make three pints and one quart of jam. Here is a bowl of the pitted bounty:


The trees yielded 6 cups of fruit once I pitted the plums. I added 1.25 cups of water,  4 cups of sugar, and 2 tablespoons of powdered pectin to the mix, plus a teaspoon of citric acid to up the tartness.


Then set it on the stove to boil.


While boiling the fruit, I boiled the jars and lids. When the fruit was boiled down to the right thickness, I jarred those babies and put them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.


Let them cool for a few, and voila – jars of plum jam.jam_jar

I have the Ball canning recipe book, which I follow loosely. It’s a decent reference to have as a starting point for your own experimentation.



guessing the plum type

So far we don’t know what kind of plums these are. They start ripening looking kind of pink, then reddish purple, and end ripening with a reddish gold skin.


The flesh of the ripe fruit is yellowish green. It’s a freestone. About the size of a ping pong ball. Slightly oval. Tastes mid-sweet with a bit of tart. Any ideas about the type of plum we have here?





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