what winter brings

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

“Let those December winds bellow and blow, I’m as warm as a July tomato.” -Greg Brown, folk singer, from his song “Canned Goods”

Today we welcome winter solstice, and at 12:11pm winter is officially ushered in.  As much as I love the growing season in all its verdant glory, I also enjoy the change in rhythm that winter brings.  On the cusp of 3 months of colder weather, I’m granted a reprieve from all the duties that go along with tending our gardens.  The trellises have long since been taken down, and the compost heap is working on fall leaves and spent tomato and zucchini vines.  For us, winter brings daily fire making, admiring and enjoying last summer’s harvest, poring over seed catalogs, and reflecting on last year’s garden so that we can improve on next year’s.  It does bring a different set of chores, but most of the energy of winter is slowed down and turned inward.  It is a welcome balance to summer’s fervor.

One of the most enjoyable daily rituals for me is starting the morning fire.  After my husband leaves for work and I get the boys off to school, I descend the basement steps, coffee in hand, to assess the status of the wood cart.  I usually have to fetch a few armloads of wood to fill it.  Then, I set to building the fire; tinder, kindling, then wood.  Those archaic wastes of paper called “phonebooks” actually come in pretty handy this time of year.  (Thank you, yellow pages!)  Dryer lint makes great tinder too, so I have a stash of that as well.  While I’m waiting for the fire to catch, I use that time to put my day in order in my head while the coffee kicks in.  I also take stock of how much kindling we have, and whether or not it’s time to throw another truck load of firewood down into the basement.  (When I was 8, I was helping my mother throw firewood down into the cellar on New Year’s Eve, and I got my pinky caught between two pieces of wood- bad enough to require a trip to the ER.  Now it kind of resembles the shape of Gumby’s head.  Sometimes I color it green and put a face on it.  True story.)

When we were shopping around for a wood furnace, we settled on one that is rated to heat 3000 square feet (twice the size of our house), so that we wouldn’t have to run it at full tilt all the time.  It’s a real workhorse.  The first couple times we burned it, it got up to 82 degrees in the house and we were opening windows in November!  Since then, we’ve learned a few things about the value of the damper.

inside the belly of the beast
inside the belly of the beast
the wood furnace.  isn't she a beaut?  the white pipe sticking down from above is air intake from outside.  ugly, but necessary.
the wood furnace. isn’t she a beaut? the white pipe sticking down from above is air intake from outside. ugly, but necessary.

Okay, on to this winter’s larder…..Last summer marked our best tomato yield yet (over 40 quarts!!).  A lot of it had to do with rotating beds, amending soil, new trellising methods, and being diligent about tying up the vines.  So far this fall/winter, I’ve had some of THE best tomato sauces, thanks to my husband’s cooking skills (and love of garlic).  Our sweet basil always does really well here, so we have plenty of that all winter long, too.  I think at last count, I had 10 gallon bags of fresh leaves in the freezer.  Frozen leaves are easily crushed in your hand and thrown right into the pot, or blended into pesto.  Then there’s the jams and jellies.  (In case you didn’t know the difference between the two, jam has seeds, jelly doesn’t.)  I like to experiment with flavors a little every year, so this summer left me with flavors like strawberry vanilla rhubarb, strawberry with rosewater, and strawberry with orange flower water.  There’s never any shortage of elderberry jelly (a MUST have in winter), and violet jam (Finneas’s favorite).  In smaller batches, I have strawberry jalapeño, peach jalapeño, and blackberry sage.  And because I can never escape a holiday gathering without my famous berry crisp (scroll down for the recipe), I squirrel away enough berries and rhubarb to choke a horse.  Ten gallons of blackberries (from a patch I inherited from my mother), 3 gallons of blueberries (gifted to me when they were in season), 3 gallons wineberries (wild-harvested), and 2 gallons rhubarb (I transplanted crowns from Nana’s patch to establish my own).  As far as herbs go, I managed to dry a good stock of holy basil, goldenrod, mugwort, calendula, self heal, oregano, thyme, catnip, violet flower, and comfrey leaf.  Few things are more satisfying that standing back and admiring a full pantry shelf of canned tomatoes, or knowing you have a huge jar of tulsi on the shelf, should you need it.

a few different varieties of tomatoes swimming in their own delicious juices
a few different varieties of tomatoes swimming in their own delicious juices
dried calendula flowers.  not a bad haul for such a small patch!
dried calendula flowers. not a bad haul for such a small patch!

After the chaos of Christmas wears off and we realize that most of winter is still in front of us, the seed catalogs start to arrive almost daily.  We do a little garden note taking in the fall, but most of our planning for next year’s layout is reserved for January-March.  I did a lot more seed-saving this year (suck it, Monsanto!!), but I will have to buy some new varieties.  Which varieties produced well and which ones didn’t?  How can I rotate the beds so that everything has a new spot, but doesn’t block sunlight for something else?  Companion plants?  Soil amendments?  Ideally, all of these things get hashed out in the cold months so come springtime, you have a clear plan of action.  Some of my favorite seed catalogs are Shumway, Comstock, Baker Creek, Seed Saver’s Exchange, and Sow True Seeds.  I love these catalogs for their huge selection of heirloom varieties.  Okay, AND because of all the vintage seed posters and centerfold-worthy photography.  (I seriously ogle the melons.)  I’m always reluctant to clean out the magazine rack because these catalogs are so incredibly beautiful.  Also, if you ever want to learn more about seeds and gardening in general, sit yourself down with a seed catalog and read the descriptions.

i always feel like i'm reading an old newspaper when i page through Shumways.
i always feel like i’m reading an old newspaper when i page through Shumways.
some of Baker Creek's HUGE curcurbit selection
some of Baker Creek’s HUGE curcurbit selection

So here’s my berry crisp recipe.  I never said it was healthy.  Consider yourself warned.

Ruthie’s Famous Berry Crisp (adapted from Camille Kingsolver’s recipe from “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”)

6 cups fruit (any combination of fruits and/or rhubarb)- fresh or frozen

1/2 cup honey

2 cups flour (I use 1 cup white, 1 cup whole wheat)

2 cups oats

2 cups brown sugar

1 Tbsp cinnamon

2 tsp allspice

1 cup butter (room temp or melted)

Mix flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and butter together.   Take half the mixture and press it down to cover the bottom of a 9×9 baking pan.  Bake this at 375 for 20 mins.  On top of the bottom crust, put your fruit and/or rhubarb mixture (it can be frozen for this step).  Drizzle honey over the fruit.  Cover the fruit with the other half of the crisp mixture.  Bake at 375 for 30ish minutes, or until fruit is bubbling up through the top crust… or until you see that beautiful golden brown color on the crust and you can’t wait to shove it down your gullet.  You might want to put a pan underneath of it in the oven in case it bubbles over.  You can halve the crisp mixture if you don’t want it to be so heavy, but why?  So good.  You’re welcome.

I don't know who these kids are, but that is the same barn hill we went sledding down as kids.  Pretty sure we used those old runner sleds, too.  We used paraffin to wax the runners.
I don’t know who these kids are, but that is the same barn hill we went sledding down as kids. Pretty sure we used those old runner sleds, too. We used paraffin to wax the runners.
Christmas 1938.  Nana is bottom left.
Christmas 1938. Nana is bottom left.
Sylvania Penn Keim, or "Aunt Vanie".  Up until a few years ago, her wicker wheel chair was kept in Nana's cellar.  She lived to 102.
Sylvania Penn Keim, or “Aunt Vanie”. Up until a few years ago, her wicker wheel chair was kept in Nana’s cellar. She lived to 102.
Christmas Card I found in an old photo album.
Christmas Card I found in an old photo album.
The inside of the Christmas card.  It reads: "Very cordial Christmas and New Years greeting from the Davises to the Keims.  My warm regards to your mother.  We hope she will enjoy the holiday reunions.  Josiah."
The inside of the Christmas card. It reads: “Very cordial Christmas and New Years greeting from the Davises to the Keims. My warm regards to your mother. We hope she will enjoy the holiday reunions. Josiah.”

On this day in 1884, J.H. Keim writes…”Cloudy with snow and rain.  Snowed last night.  Arm not quite so painful this morning, but no use of it yet.  Suzie S (name illegible)’s daughter buried today.”

On this day in 1938, J.H. Keim writes…”Clear, cold.  We cleaned the upstairs.  Will cleaned the windows, too.  After dinner, we loaded up and started out.  Bill, Houcks, Mrs. Noble, Mrs. Martin, Templins came to Pottstown and had some supper and then went to First M.C. party.  Home by 9.20.  Tired.”

On this day in 1940, Miriam Keim Kolle (Nana) writes…”Cloudy.  Will took John and Jean to town this morning.  I was very busy doing many things.  Went to the farm & etc.  Doris and Fisher children helped trim the church for tomorrow.  Mervine and Will tacked all the cushions to the seats which came yesterday.  We spent evening at home.”

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