Monday, May 31, 2010

Harvest Meal: Rabbit Stew

Our garden rabbit made a nice stew.  We used a few homemade ingredients to prepare it, though only one of them (other than the rabbit) came from the garden.

Riffing on a recipe from the The River Cottage Meat Book, I started by browning some of my homemade smoked lardo in olive oil, and put that in a slow cooker.  Then the jointed rabbit was browned on all sides in the leftover fat, and added to the slow cooker. Next, fat slices of onion were browned in the fat and put in the slow cooker.  To all that were added big chunks of peeled carrot, fennel, some bay leaves, kosher salt, white pepper, a bit of honey, thyme from our garden, and two bottles of my husband's hard cider (from our own apples) that had been aging in our cellar for two years.  I added just enough water to cover the ingredients.  The rabbit that frisked and nibbled in our garden around 8 am was in our cook pot before 9:30 am.  The cats got the liver and kidneys.

Since it was so hot on Sunday, I got an extension cord and put the slow cooker on the porch.  Because of my concerns about tularemia, I let the stew cook on low heat for a good portion of the day.  I don't know that this disease is even a concern in my area, and there were no spots on the liver, but it didn't seem problematic to cook the meat thoroughly.  (We also wore latex gloves - a recommended precaution - when butchering the rabbit.)

When the stew was cooked, I strained off the liquid, reduced it in a skillet, finished it with some cream, and added the meat and veg back in to warm again.  The reduced sauce brought everything together nicely.  If we'd had potatoes, I would have served it with mashed spuds.  Instead we had it over pasta (parboiled, of course - handy on such a hot day) with a salad of spinach, fennel, and marinated strawberries.  The meaty stew went surprisingly far as a topping for pasta.  I think the quantity of vegetables in the stew could easily have been doubled and it wouldn't have felt skimpy on the meat.  We found it quite good.

I was pleased to note that I had nary a moral pang about killing and eating this rabbit.  I know it ate well, since it was eating from my garden on a regular basis.  I also know I gave it plenty of chances to go away.  The rabbits around us are utterly brazen.  They laugh at the fencing I've used to protect the garden in past years.  They are nonchalant about being shooed or chased away.  They barely stay six feet ahead of me when I try to run them out of the yard.  I can see this working out as a viable alternative to the hassle and effort of raising rabbits for meat.  Instead, we can just shoot the wild ones, and protect our garden in the process.  There is, after all, neither a limit nor a season to rabbits, though I expect they'd be best in the fall.  My husband knows my rule - we don't kill it unless we're prepared to dress it, butcher it and eat it.  (I might make an exception for crows though; they're giving me a very hard time with my popcorn plants this year.)

I don't have to figure that there are more rabbits where this one came from.  I know it for a fact.  Which is good, because it means we'll probably be able to try out the awesome sounding grilled rabbit that Wendy mentioned in the comment section of the previous post.  Other cookbooks I own list a few other rabbit recipes I'd like to try out, including curried rabbit and a ragu of rabbit over pappardelle.  Maybe wild rabbit will become a fixture of our dinner table.  There's an indescribable satisfaction in eating a varmint that tried (to an extent successfully) to eat my garden. May this be the first of many.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hard Work

We had an overcast and coolish day on Friday.  It only got up to 77 F (25 C).  So I worked my butt off outside, moving mulch, planting the last few transplants that needed homes, watering, weeding, weeding, weeding, hilling potatoes, and generally doing much of the stuff that hadn't gotten done because the unseasonably hot temperatures had been driving me inside for too many hours each day.  We're now out of cardboard and newspaper.  It all got used up in lasagna mulching, and there are still pathways in the garden that haven't gotten the treatment.  I had to finally do a spit and shine on my filthy car, since I'd agreed to drive to the strawberry picking farm.  Then I spent a good chunk of time in the evening cleaning up some filthy canning jars I'd picked up for very little money through craigslist and trying to triage the kitchen mess.  It was a long day, was Friday.  After a shower I was more than ready for sleep but had to wait on the girls to retire for the evening before I could fall into bed.

Yesterday I was up early, getting my large containers ready for strawberry picking.  Serious gardening friend and I carpooled over to the U-pick farm, where I zipped through a little over 16 pound's worth of picked strawberries.  My lower back informed me that the strawberry picking felt an awful (and I mean awful) lot like gardening.  After that we nipped over to a tiny farmer's market organized by farming friend, where we found we were too late for asparagus or rhubarb. We consoled ourselves by grabbing evil baked goods for lunch (pecan-brioche sticky bun for me), and I picked up some raw milk cheese, spinach and scallions that were half way to being proper onions.

Back home by 1:30, I spent the next four-and-a-half hours processing my strawberries into 15 pints of jam and three half-sheet pans of frozen berries.  Amazingly, all the jam set up beautifully.  The secret, I found, is to simply follow the directions exactly.  (Well, except for skimming off the foam; I can't be expected to follow directions that lead to either waste or sugar overdose.)  This whole do-it-the-way-they-tell-you thing is surely obvious to other, saner people.  I'm just not much of a direction-taker in the kitchen.  I'm slow that way.  Anyway, we ended up with five well-set pints each of three different types of jam: straight up strawberry, strawberry-balsamic, and strawberry-ginger.  One special jar of the strawberry-balsamic also got several twists of very finely ground black pepper.  The quality control testing indicated that they were all delicious, though there wasn't any extra of that last black pepper variation.  That'll have to wait until we open that jar.  Of those we sampled, I think the strawberry-ginger may narrowly edge out the other two for our top pick.  We'll see.  This supply of jam had better suffice for the next year, considering how much sugar disappeared into those pint jars.  We should have some to give away as gifts too.  Now I kinda wish I'd put some into half-pint jars so that I could be generous, but you know, not too generous.

Around 5:30, my husband decided he wanted to make ice cream after all, so he snagged some of my frozen berries.  When that was done we improvised a very late dinner of hot dogs grilled with the oversized scallions, and washed them down with homemade strawberry ice cream for dessert.  It wasn't a day marked by the healthiest of meals, but as I've said before, executive decision making authority about what constitutes dinner is one of the few perqs of being an adult. I fell into bed and slept like the dead.

I'm glad to have gotten the jam made yesterday, when the temperature only flirted with 80 F (27 C).  Today it's going to flirt with 90 F (32 C).

Just as I was writing this post and loading the images, my husband killed a rabbit which he caught in flagrante delicto in our garden, using nothing stronger than a BB pellet gun.  I skinned it, gutted it, trimmed it, washed it, and had it inside before breakfast.  (Sorry, no pictures.  Next time.)  Since it's a wild rabbit, it's very lean and weighed in at only 1 pound, 10 ounces once reduced to the main edible portions.  It's going to be dinner, one way or the other, tonight.  Suggestions are welcome.

But for a morning and evening putter in the garden, plus dinner preparation, I'm resting today.  I may fold the mountain of clean laundry in the hampers.  I may lie under the ceiling fan and read escapist fiction most of the day.  I feel like I've earned it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Crunch Time

It's that time again.  Days of running from one part of the garden to another, coming inside for more seeds, wondering how all those weeds got so big in just a few days, scavenging newspapers for lasagna mulching, dragging the hose around to water the newly sown beds and the seedlings still in pots, squeezing in just one more plant, cold drinks, the need for a short haircut, and trying to fob off my extra tomato seedlings on other gardeners.  Tomato seedlings in late May are like zucchinis in mid-July.  No one needs or wants any.  I may resort to setting them out on the curb with a "free" sign.  Evenings bring a second round of work in the cool of twilight after quick dinners.  The calluses are building up on my hands.  We've spotted the first fireflies of the year and gotten our first mosquito bites.  The piles of mulch and compost on the driveway have been growing and shrinking over the last two months as we replenish them on the weekend and use them up during the week.  We got to the bottom of the compost pile last night. 

Yesterday I was feeling so incredibly optimistic about the growing season, and happy with the garden plan for this year.  In the afternoon I planted out starts of winter squash, bush zucchini, melons, lavender, eggplant, parsley, sunflowers, basil, mint, onion starts, and sowed more carrot and turnip seeds.  Then I got the news about incidences of late blight already cropping up, and one of them in my state.  Talk about a downer.  I spoke with our serious gardening friends last night, and they said they're going with the copper fungicidal spray for their tomato plants (approved for use in organic farming).  I may follow suit.  I just don't think I could handle another year of total loss in the tomato department.

In better news I'm also going with serious gardening friend later this week to a U-pick organic strawberry farm.  If I pick more than 10 pounds of strawberries, the price is a mere $2.50 per pound!  I think we could do with some strawberry jam this year, plus some frozen for winter time fruit crisp indulgence.  I have to check on my supply of small canning jars.  I probably don't have enough. We plan to go to a community-wide yard sale in my area the weekend after next.  Specifically I wanted to look for canning jars, plus a few other items.  I may break down and buy a few new ones sooner than that if my supply is very low.  The alternative would be to freeze the strawberries until after the big yard sale, in hopes that I can pick up the jars for a song.  But we're in for some cool-ish weather in the latter part of this week, so it would be nice to get the canning done right away.  Which means that if I want her expert help at making jam, I also need to find time to clean my kitchen some time very soon.  Sigh.

Still to plant are leeks, more chard, more onions, more lettuce, pepper starts, celery and celeriac, a rhubarb transplant, and more seeds of spinach, beets, carrots, arugula, and beans.  It's a good time of year, but man, am I tired.

Monday, May 17, 2010

State of the Homestead

Time for another jumbled update on various snippets of homestead life.

I've made a not very well informed start on a permaculture guild around our old apple tree.  Actually I started it way back in January by throwing down a bunch of cardboard during a thaw.  Putting the guild in place has taken a lot more material than I had imagined it would, so it's smaller than originally envisioned.  I used all the litter material that the chickens had been on over the winter months, plus a fair amount of compost and mulch.  I put it on the most badly degraded soil under the apple tree, where roof runoff from the back of the garage had stripped the soil bare.  So now the southern quadrant within the drip line of the apple tree is a guild in the making.  So far I've got one black currant bush, two New Jersey tea plants, a lead plant, one self heal, and a few nasturtiums as living mulch.  Our apple tree is still in need of work to thin its canopy.  (It was ignored for a good many years before we bought the property.)  But it got a good pruning this year, so that a little dappled light reaches the guild plants during most of the day.  They get a brief window of full sun in early morning, when the sun is low in the sky.  I don't really feel that I have a handle on how the guild is supposed to work, or whether it will.  But I've made a start, and that's something.  We'll see how it does.  Next year I'll again use the winter deep litter from the hens to expand the guild further away from the tree.  And I'll need another black currant bush to cross pollinate with the one I put in this year.  It's all part of the lawn eradication program.

Our passive solar heating system is crawling oh-so slowly towards functionality.  We should be able to heat with it, I would think, this coming winter.  Also, we should be able to get domestic hot water out of the deal too, eventually.  But here's the really exciting news.  The system requires a heat dump to get rid of unwanted and excessive heat in the warm months of the year.  That heat gets dissipated into the ground.  Yeah: I know you're thinking what I was thinking.  Heat in the ground is what you want in spring and fall.  Under a greenhouse.  The "shoulder months" of the year (April-May and September-October), when we don't really need to heat the house too much, but the sun is still strong, also happen to be months when warm earth and a protective cover could make a huge difference for season extension.  So yes, we're mulling this.  We think we've figured out a good spot to situate the shallowly buried heat dump, where the piping in a double U-loop configuration would be well suited to a modestly sized greenhouse or hoop house (maybe 12'x8').  A greenhouse is probably way beyond our budget at the moment.  But a hoop house we could knock together in a weekend, or two at most.  And it wouldn't cost very much.  Anyway, it's pretty exciting, even if we have to wait for next year to build anything.  Longer tomato season! Perennial rosemary!  Perennial lemon grass!  Parsley that overwinters!  Spinach all winter!  Early peas!  Will keep you posted.

I don't know what to report on the bees.  Both hives are still occupied, and the numbers seem strong.  Foligno looks to be doing great, and the marked queen has been easy to spot every time we've opened the hive.  But they're ignoring the feeder we put in there for them.  Izhevsk is a mystery.  They've built comb inside their frame feeder, which makes feeding them a challenge.  Plus, it gives the bees an easy place to hide.  We haven't seen the queen in a while.  They're building comb just fine, and there's lots of activity, but I haven't a clue what's really going on in there.  Is she in the feeder?  Or is the colony carrying on without a functional queen?  We gave them a frame with a little brood and a lot of honey in it from Foligno, to help them keep their numbers up.  Let's hope it works.  I've been very pleased to see that the honey bees have found the Tuscan kale plants that overwintered in the garden, and they've been all over the blooms as the plants go to seed in this, their second year.  Good to know about the springtime bee bonus with these plants, since I plan to keep saving seed and breed them to suit our location. 

The garlic plants are looking great. It'll be time to harvest them in just a couple months. 

The great perennial herb planting of 2010 is mostly done.  I've put in valerian, self heal, anise hyssop, lavender, spearmint, yarrow, Roman chamomile, echinacea, skullcap, and bee balm.  Now I get to see how they do, and how much they grow and spread.  Also, which ones the bees take to, if any of them get around to blooming this year.  After that, I just need to figure out how to use them medicinally.

My husband cleared and tilled a wide patch of soil that had been hideously landscaped when we bought our home.  It was so awful we just ignored it for the last few years.  We partly cleared it last fall and sowed a cover crop there, then he tilled under the cover crop and added compost this spring.  This is going to be our three sisters area this year, which will help get those pushy, obnoxious squash plants out of the rest of the garden.  The popcorn is already in the ground and starting to poke up.  The Cherokee Trail of Tears beans are soaking, and will go in the ground very soon.  (Other pole bean varieties are going to be planted elsewhere.  It's going to be a big bean year on the homestead, I hope.)  The third sister will be a few sugar pumpkins along with Lady Godiva, an oilseed pumpkin that yields a "naked" (i.e. nearly hull-less) seed.  If successful, the seed crop will be used to feed the chickens in winter, and possibly produce some oil for our own consumption.  The flesh is considered inedible, but I'd bet our vermicompost worms would disagree.

Our hens have been back on grass for a month or so now.  We put them in the three sisters bed for a little while after tilling, but before we were ready to plant.  They became escape artists, digging away the loosened soil so that they could slip under the bottom of their pen.  They enjoyed it so much that we let them get away with it for a few days.  It was nice to see them out and about.  But given the large hawk population, and our zoning codes, we can't make a habit of free-ranging them.

I've gotten interested in the craft of felting with natural dyes, though I don't know very much about it yet.  Sourcing free raw fleece took two emails to two local farmers.  Felting can be done with wool of fairly poor quality, which means you can get material from farmers raising lamb.  Fleeces from meat breeds aren't worth much for spinning, so there's little demand.  But I've already hit a snag.  While I can handle the effort and time to wash, clean of debris, and dye the wool, after that I bang up against the need for proper tools.  The wool has to be carded before felting.  Either it's done by hand with carding combs, which my right wrist could not handle, or I'd need a hand-cranked drum carder, which could get the job done much faster.  Problem is, drum carders run in the neighborhood of $400.  I may still take the free fleeces, see how far I get with cleaning and dying them, and then see what might be possible for carding.  Maybe I'll find someone willing to loan or rent out a drum carder.

Looks like we're going to get our first crops of grapes, elderflowers, and pears this year.  Maybe even a small handful of cherries and blueberries too.  Exciting stuff.  The grapes are wine varieties that my husband chose.  Maybe he'll get motivated by a good crop to do a little fermenting this year.  I'll definitely take all the elder blooms this year, rather than let the plants put too much energy into producing berries.  Besides, I'm dying to try making a syrup or cordial from the flowers.  Our Collette pear tree set a lot of fruit early this spring.  I thinned most of it off.  Then most of what I'd left got knocked off in a strong wind storm.  But now it's putting on a minor second flowering, apparently a habit of the Collette pear.  In any case, the little pears are already looking very tempting, with a lovely red color.  I know I can't count my fruit before it's picked, but I do have my hopes up.

The container plants are mostly looking very good.  Potatoes are up and will soon be ready for hilling.  The hazelberts are growing very well, which is a little surprising.  I'd been told to expect very little topgrowth in the first few years.  They look vigorous enough that it wouldn't surprise me if they tried for a small production of nuts this year.  There's something nasty looking on one of my figs though.  It looks bad, like a blight of some kind.  I've isolated that plant and am trying to figure out what's wrong, and what I might do to help it.

According to my own personal signs and indicators, it's getting very close to time to put in the heat slut tomatoes and basil.  This year it's Speckled Roman (gorgeous paste that resisted blight well last year), Sungold (finally caved and decided to try this hybrid cherry that everyone raves about), Brandywines and Cherokee Purples for beefsteaks.  And my favorite basil: purple ruffles.  This is the first time I've grown tomatoes without the super productive Peacevine cherry tomato in my lineup.  I've decided to just buy starts of eggplant and chili peppers this year.  It was better than making myself crazy with everything else that had to happen this spring.  Maybe I'll try okra again if I can find some starts.  Not a popular garden veg here in zone 6.

In blog news, I've added a Bookshelf page with a bunch of my favorite titles that help me homestead.  Links and mini-reviews there for your perusal.  Check it out, and let me know whether it's useful.

And that's all the news that's fit to print.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Drying Comfrey

This seemed utterly unremarkable to me.  I wasn't going to post about it.  But my husband thought it was nifty-clever.  So.  Here's how I dry comfrey leaves: between two old window screens.  We have a pile of these that we hauled out of a dumpster, or maybe somebody gave them to us when they redid their windows.  Can't remember.  The storm windows had more the more obvious application of covers for cold frames (mostly yet to be built).  But the window screens hung out in the garage for a while before it occurred to me to use them this way.

The screens allow good air circulation for quick drying, prevent the leaves from blowing away in a slight wind, and make the leaves dry down very flat, which is handy for storing them after drying.  Plus it's a low-tech, grid-free, cheapskate way of drying. Yes, it works even when laid on grass, though it's faster on the driveway.  If rain threatens, I can pick up the screens and stick them in the shed, regardless of the degree of drying so far achieved.  Having the screens hang out somewhere prominently outside is also a good reminder to me to keep cutting more leaves for drying.  I use the dried comfrey leaves steadily over the winter as a feed supplement for the hens.  And it's best to have the comfrey thoroughly dried if I want to use it as fertilizer with garden seedlings.  The plant is so damn vital that cut leaves will simply grow new plants if put into the ground without first being well dried.  I suppose it might not be a bad way of drying leaves if you wanted them for medicinal purposes as well.

Besides, a steady harvest of leaves from comfrey plants helps keep them from total world domination.  We've got six comfrey plants on our 2/3 acre, and two of those in the main garden, so this is a real concern.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Taking a Crack at Lacto-Fermented Ketchup

Back in February I sampled an astounding fermented ketchup at the PASA conference.  Although I was told by the woman who made it that she was willing to share the recipe, she never came through.  So I've been left to my own devices to experiment as I see fit.  The only thing I know for sure about that mind-blowing ketchup was that it contained smoked chili peppers.  That's probably half the reason I loved it so much.  Smoked foods are some of my favorites.

So, I'm going to play around with lacto-fermented ketchup. After all, I'm pretty DIY oriented, and professional culinary training ought to qualify me to perfect my own ketchup recipe.  Actually, recipe development is exciting enough that I'm sort of glad I wasn't given a recipe. Below are a double handful of variables I came up with after reading a few different recipes online and asking what sounded good to me.  Perhaps some of you would like to run your own experiments concurrently, and share the results either on your own blogs or in the comments section here.  Of course, in developing this recipe, we'll be relying on our own infallible but entirely subjective taste buds to produce something we like.  You might prefer something else.  So experimenting for yourself would be the best option for everyone.

Lacto-fermented ketchup - recipe development variables

tomato - roasted? simmered/reduced? concassé?
minced onion vs. scallion vs. shallot
ratio of tomato to onion?
tomato paste - yes/no?
smoked chili pepper - ancho vs. chipotle vs. others
cumin vs. allspice vs. both
white pepper vs. black pepper
molasses vs. maple syrup vs. no sweetener added
fish sauce - yes/no?
garlic - yes/no, roasted vs. raw, how much?
vinegar - balsamic, cider, none?
salt - how much?

Given these multiple variables, I estimate that I'll make upwards of 28 different batches of ketchup to find what we like best, just within these parameters.  Obviously, they'll be small batches.  The one constant in this recipe testing process will be the use of yogurt "juice" from live culture yogurt for the inoculant.  That's the liquid that shows up when you take a scoop of yogurt out of the container, leaving a little well.  The best I can do there is organic store bought yogurt.  I may eventually be able to track down a supply of local raw whey from a goat dairy.  If so, I may try working with that instead.

The basic method for the recipe is to combine all ingredients and let them sit in a covered jar at room temperature for a few days, then refrigerate.  I can't really be sure, but I suspect that the ketchup I had in February had been happily fermenting away since late summer.  Lacto-fermentation is an active and evolving process.  So it's possible that the depth of flavor I found in that sample was a product of aging, like you'd see in fine cheese.  It may be that my recipe testing will fail to produce anything remotely like what I tasted, unless I allow my ketchup to hang out for several months.  All I can do is run my trials and see what combinations appeal most to us, and then see what the aging process contributes.

I've started with this process well ahead of our own tomato harvest, so that when the absolute best tomatoes are available, I'll have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with them.  Of course, this means buying local hothouse tomatoes.  These are not great tomatoes, by any stretch of the imagination.  I don't usually bother buying any sort of fresh tomatoes, at any time of year.  But in the interest of developing this recipe, and maximizing the value of my own crop this summer, I'll make that sacrifice. As proper tomato season approaches, the quality of tomatoes available should only improve.  So I'll have to remind myself that some of the quality that develops in the ketchup batches is due to better tomatoes rather than my own skill.

The first batch is to test the method of preparing the tomatoes themselves, while holding all other ingredients constant.  I expect the ways of dealing with the tomatoes will have slight effects on taste and texture.  Concaséed tomatoes are certainly the simplest, lowest-energy, and closest to raw of the three methods I'm trialing.  So I'd prefer it if that one produced the best flavor.  Sampling the batches in the pre-fermented state showed that even very mediocre tomatoes can taste pretty good after all the other ingredients are added.  Now the lacto-bacillus get to work their magic.

Will keep you posted.  In the meantime, if you have a favored ketchup recipe, especially if it's lacto-fermented, please share!

Update:  Got the original recipe from the source.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Potatoes in Buckets 2.0 (Finally!)

Last year I grew potatoes in buckets.  They did better than their siblings in the ground so far as resisting the late blight we got after a horrendous month of rain in June.  They also offered the advantage of being really, really easy to harvest, and of being impervious to rodents who would gnaw the tubers underground.  The yields were good, but I didn't see the prodigious and strangely elusive yields that are rumored to be possible with exceptional hilling.  You can read about last year's harvest here.

The bucket system last year was very simple.  I used mostly 5-gallon buckets, along with one smaller kitty litter bucket.  All I did was drill several holes in the bottom of each bucket and start the seed potatoes in a few inches of a mixture made from our clay garden soil and compost from our township's yard waste facility.  I hilled the plants as they grew and they reached the tops of the buckets in very short order.  Then it was just a matter of keeping them sufficiently well watered.  This was probably the most challenging thing about growing them in buckets.

Since last spring I've done some research on the growth of potato plants.  Here's what I've learned.  There are two critical phases of plant growth that affect tuber production.  The potato plant sets a certain kind of root that produces tubers early in its growth.  Tiny seed tubers are produced at that time.  Then the plant concentrates on top growth - the leafy green parts we see above ground.  When there is sufficient leaf surface for a good deal of photosynthesis to take place, the plant flowers and then works on storing excess energy in the tubers, which grow rapidly during this phase.  At these two phases of growth - the production of the tiny tuber "seeds," and the bulking up of those tubers - a steady water supply is absolutely critical.  The kicker is that there's no way for a layman to tell by looking at the top growth when those phases are happening.

So my solution is to try self-watering containers.  Basically, I'm using the exact same technique I put in place for my fig trees, writ small.  To make these smaller self-watering containers, I tried to collect smaller cans for the reservoir, such as for wet cat food or canned fish, but I came up rather short in that area.  My husband came up with a pretty good workaround for that.  (See below.)

As usual, I've been running late with getting everything planted this spring.  Getting the majority of our potatoes into the ground was a higher priority than the refinement of my container potato experiment.  But the potatoes are finally in their buckets.  So here are the steps.  Click on any of the pictures to enlarge.

Collect your materials: You'll need buckets, a piece of cardboard, a permanent marker, scissors, the sort of cans that catfood or fish are sold in, some hardware cloth, burlap or some other absorbent and cheap material (ratty old towels?), and dirt.  You'll need about three cans for each bucket you want to plant.  If you're short of cans, have extra hardware cloth on hand to make support rings for the cans you do have.  You'll also need something to cut the hardware cloth with, a drill to make holes in the cans, needlenose pliers, and (ideally) a mandrel bit large enough to make a hole to accommodate the end of your garden hose, and a kitchen scale if you wish to keep records.  You may or may not want to take the trouble to find food-grade plastic buckets.

Prepare your materials: Drill one hole each in the side and bottom of each metal can.  Trace the bottom of the bucket on the piece of cardboard and cut it to make a template.  Arrange three cans in the bottom of a bucket and set the template on top of them.  Does it rest on top of the cans with a little gap all around?  If not, trim it until it does.  Use this template to cut out a piece of hardware cloth for every bucket you wish to grow potatoes in.  Using the pliers, crimp back the sharp edges of the hardware cloth in a 2"-3" length edge of each piece.  Then take the template and trace out circles on your burlap, but leave a wide margin around the template.  You want the burlap to be larger than the cardboard by about 2" all around.  So just put the template on the cloth to give you an idea.  Mark out one circle of cloth for each bucket. Cut the burlap circles out.

Assemble the buckets:  Set a few of the cans into the bottom of a bucket.  Place the hardware cloth on top of it and mark a spot on the outside of the bucket so show the level of the hardware cloth inside the bucket.  This point will become the top of the water reservoir.  Take the hardware cloth and cans out of the bucket.  Using the mandrel bit and an electric drill, make a large hole with its lower edge just where you made the mark on the outside of the bucket.  Replace the cans in the bucket.  Take the hardware cloth and note the area where you crimped back the wires.  Wrap the hardware cloth in the burlap and set it into the bucket, on top of the cans, with the crimped edges directly facing the hole you just made.  Tuck the burlap down all around the hardware cloth, except where the hole is.  Lift the burlap to cover the hole at that point.  This will prevent the soil from spilling out of the bucket when you fill it.

Plant the potatoes: Put two inches of good soil on top of the burlap.  Take your chitted seed potato and remove all but 3 to 4 of the largest sprouts from it. Make sure all the sprouts you leave are pointing more or less in the same direction.  If you wish to chart your yield ratios, weigh the seed piece.  Record the weight and variety of the potato on the outside of the bucket, using the permanent marker.  Place the seed potato on the soil, with the sprouts pointing up, and add more to cover the potato by 2 to 3 inches.  Place the bucket where you wish to grow potatoes and fill the reservoir with water.  Check the reservoir again after 3-6 hours and top it off if it is low.

 Bucket planted with a German Butterball seed potato weighing 3.7 ounces

After planting, keep an eye on both the water reservoir and the plant growth.  Check the water reservoir by putting your finger in the hole and top it off with water whenever the level seems low.  As the plant grows, add more soil, leaving only 2"-3" of top growth above the soil line until the plant is above the edge of the bucket.  When the plant has died back in the fall, harvest is easily accomplished by dumping the bucket into a wheelbarrow and picking out the tubers.  You won't have to worry about any gnawing from rodents.

I'm pretty confident these potato buckets can be used any time after the danger of real freeze is past.  A short frost won't bother the seed potatoes in these buckets.  And if freakishly winter weather is forecast after you've put your potatoes in these buckets, you can always put them in the garage for a few days.

Aside from the new container system, I'm introducing two other variables in this year's potato bucket experiments.  I'm trying the Carola variety alongside the German Butterball that I grew last year.  A few people have reported success with getting the Carola to set additional clutches of tubers higher along the plant stem than where the seed potato was planted.  I didn't see this happen with the German Butterball last year.  Also, I will try to be extremely punctual in hilling the plants this year.  Some have speculated that potato plants do not set additional tuber-producing roots once the stem hardens off as it grows above the soil line.  Since I can only hill to the height of a 5-gallon bucket, minus the height of the water reservoir at the bottom, I should only need to watch carefully for plant growth for a few short weeks.  I plan to hill assiduously, leaving only a few inches of top growth visible, until the plants clear the top of the bucket.  After that, they'll be left to grow, flower, and bulk up their tubers.  I suspect that the potato tower technique, which forces the plant to grow, and grow, and grow, continuously striving to stay ahead of the hilling, is stressful on the plant and gives it less time to set its top growth and settle down to the business of productive photosynthesis.

We'll see how it goes.  I'll also be growing some potatoes in the normal way, in the ground.  Any of you planning on a special potato growing technique this year?  Do tell.