Canning 101

Every summer growing up I would watch my mom put up several batches of fruit and jam from local produce. It was an exhausting process, but I don’t think we ever ate store-bought jam. Instead, we were able to enjoy delicious produce all year long because my mom knew how to can. As I entered my teenage years I started helping her more and developed a love (or obsession, depending who you ask) for canning myself.

Canning is a great skill to have, especially if you have access to produce (from neighbors or your own garden). It is not that hard to do and only requires a few pieces of equipment. I love it because we often get power-outages at our home due to wind, and while I worry about our frozen foods spoiling, I never have to worry about the jars of food I have preserved. I also love knowing exactly what is in my foods and being able to make healthy foods for my family with my home-grown produce.

All the colors of these canned goods will give us a rich and varied diet through the bleak winter months.

Canning comes in basically two flavors. There is regular water-bath canning, arguably the most common form, where jars are submerged in boiling water. There is pressure canning, where jars are placed in a pressurized vessel for a particular amount of pressure and time. (There is also freezer canning, but this does not produce jars that are shelf stable.)

Why choose one method over the other? It is not really a choice, it all depends on what you’re canning!

Fruits, fruit spreads, and pickled goods are suitable for water-bath canning. This method capitalizes on a few features for preserving the produce: acidity (generally in the form of vinegar or lemon juice) and heat. By heating the jars up to boiling temperature and adding an acid, enzymes and other microorganisms are killed. The heat creates a vacuum when the jars are removed from the bath and food is kept preserved for years.

Foods like vegetables in plain water (not pickled) and meats don’t have enough acid to be safely canned in a water-bath canner so they must be pressure canned to get to the appropriate temperature to make the foods safe. I am not as familiar with this method (despite my wonderful brother-in-law getting me a pressure canner as a wedding gift, but it’s something I’m going to look more into in the future. It’s important to have your pressure canner checked yearly to ensure the gauge is working correctly.

In water bath canning, the acidity of the food kills the microorganisms that can cause illness or spoilage, along with heat to remove oxygen and create a vacuum. For foods with low acidity, the temperature needed to kill these microorganisms CANNOT be achieved in a water bath canner, so a pressure canner must be used to make these foods safe. You can use a pressure canner to can both high and low acid foods, but water bath canning is exclusively for high acid foods.

It is critical when you’re canning for food preservation to follow the correct steps of a tested recipe. This is not the time or place to experiment. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a great free guide that goes into more detail here. I myself only follow recipes from cookbooks produced by companies such as Ball. These have been tested for safety and they have a lot of other good information in them including troubleshooting issues.

 

How We Canned Our Tomatoes

This is meant to be a general overview of canning, please follow an approved recipe when canning your own produce.

As you may have read in one of my other posts, we had a delightful bumper crop of tomatoes this year. I planted these with canning in mind (nothing beats homemade chili from homegrown tomatoes in the winter!), so I picked two varieties of Roma tomatoes. These are known for being good sauce tomatoes with their great flavor and lower water content compared to other regular tomatoes.

When enough tomatoes were ripe, I enlisted my husband to help start canning them. We canned halved tomatoes and some tomato sauce.

Before prepping the food, I like to get my water bath started. Check jars for chips, cracks, or scratches on the rim. These will, at best, not seal and your food will spoil, and at worst, break in your canner getting glass everywhere. Toss any jars with these flaws (or at least relegate them to a non-canning task. I had a beautiful bluish jar with a faint scratch on the rim that wouldn’t seal and now it’s storing oats for my rabbits.) With hot water and dish soap, clean enough jars for the amount of produce you’ll be preserving (recipes typically have an estimate for you, I always add one extra just in case). Rinse the soap off of the jars and put them in the canner with ~1 inch of water over their rims. Bring this to a gentle boil for at least 10 minutes before starting to can your produce.

Also set a sauce pot of water on low heat for your lids. You don’t need to include the rings, but I find putting the lids in the rings helps keep them separated. This water shouldn’t boil, but be hot enough to get the rubber seal around the edge of the lids soft. Buy new lids every time, don’t reuse lids. Rings are fine to reuse.

For any recipe, make sure your produce is clean and free of blemishes or rotten pieces. Always wash your produce thoroughly before canning!

I had two recipes for canned tomatoes to try, one with the tomatoes in their own juices and one with water. I found, at least with my Roma tomatoes, that canning them in their own juices doesn’t work that well. They don’t have much juice to begin with, so you have to push pretty hard on them to get any fluid accumulated. Ultimately they were packed too tightly and lost fluid during the canning process.

So for the rest of them we went for tomatoes in water.

Our recipe indicated that 2-3 pounds of tomatoes would fit in a quart jar, so we weighed out 5 lbs of tomatoes at a time hoping to get 2 quarts.  We washed our tomatoes then cored them. We set a small pot of water to simmer on the stove and when it was hot, dropped a number of tomatoes in. After no more than 40 seconds (or as soon as we saw the first skin starting to split) we removed all of the tomatoes from the boiling water and put them in a cool ice bath. This stopped their cooking and sped up how quickly we could handle them. With this process, the skins slip right off.

We did 25 pounds of tomatoes this way. Once skinned, halving the tomatoes, removing their seeds, and putting them in a big sauce pot.

My little helper is always there to catch anything I drop… (this photo is actually of our tomato sauce adventure where the skins are strained out after cooking.)

By the way, save all of these scraps if you have chickens or pigs, they’ll love you for it!

After all 25 pounds of tomatoes were done (limited by the number of quart jars that fit in the canner), I added just enough water to cover the tomatoes. I then heated them up, simmering for 20 minutes.

You can raw pack or hot pack a lot of fruits and vegetables. While hot packing (heating up the produce before putting it in the jars) is annoying and sticky, it does make the finished product look nicer. The fruit won’t float to the top as much as it does when it’s raw packed. Just a preference thing.

When the tomatoes are ready, pull the jars out, draining the water in each jar into the sink. If you leave all of the water in the canner, it will overflow when the full jars are put back in. Set the jars on a clean towel on the counter. Add two tablespoons lemon juice to each quart jar (you can add salt too, I usually forego it since I’ll be adding salt to whatever dish they’re going into). Then add your tomatoes. I try to separate as much fluid as I can initially, getting only tomatoes in the jars, then adding water from the tomato pot back to the jars to get them to the right level. We’re looking for 1/2 inch head space here.

When all the tomatoes are packed, take a moist paper towel and wipe the rims of each jar. Take your time here, because one little speck of tomato will prevent the whole jar from sealing and that sucks. When the rims are all spotless, use your magnet wand to grab a lid, placing this on the jar, then a ring. When tightening the ring, only make it finger tight, don’t try to put muscle into it to seal it. It needs a little room to breathe out air while in the canner.

When all the jars are lidded and ringed, place them back in the water canner. You should have enough water to cover the jars by at least one inch, but if you’re short you can add back the hot water from the sauce pot that was holding your lids. Process as described in your recipe, for us it was 45 minutes of a rolling boil (start counting from when the water boils again, not when the jars are added!). Be aware that processing times change with altitude, so make sure you take that into account!

When the time’s up, turn the heat to the canner off and let the canner sit without its lid for five minutes before removing the jars. Take the jars out, keeping them level, and place them on a towel on the counter with at least 2 inches of space between jars. You should start hearing the “pings” of jars sealing soon. Don’t mess with them! I know it’s so tempting… All jars should seal, the button on top should be sucked in and not move if you push on it with a finger, within two hours. If any hold out, put them in the fridge to eat soon or reprocess as described in your canning book.

After 12-24 hours, you can remove the rings. Grab the jars by the edge of the lid and lift the jar off the counter an inch or so. If the lid stays intact, the jar is sealed well and can be labeled and stored. If the lid comes off the jar was not sealed well and should be put in the fridge to be eaten. Growing up we always left the rings on the jars with no issues, but a good point was made to me recently that if you take the rings off you can spot spoilage quicker. It also prevents the really sticky fruits from seizing the rings to the jars, if you didn’t clean them up after canning… like you should’ve…

First batch of quarts, I have at least twice this on my shelves now with at least 10 more pounds of tomatoes waiting for me to get my act together.

I label my jars pretty simply, with the year they were processed and what is in the jar. I can tell tomatoes from applesauce without a label, but sometimes it’s nice to know which batch something came from or if there’s added salt in one.

I place all of my sealed jars a cool dark pantry where they will keep for over a year. But there’s always more to can next year, so I try to make sure we eat everything through the winter!

Ripening Green Tomatoes

Well, I finally had to admit it, summer is over. I was holding out hope that it would last forever this year, but the leaves are coming down almost as much as the rain, and here on the Oregon Coast we’ve got plenty of both.

I saw my first light frost and knew I had to start thinking about harvesting a number of my crops before they were lost to the weather. My chief concern was my tomatoes. I had planted 14 roma tomato plants with hopes of getting at least enough fruit to can to keep us fed with chili and spaghetti sauces through the winter. My crops last year failed and it was a miserable winter with no homegrown goods. Despite starting my seeds in February, the tomatoes were just starting to get ripe in October.

Not prepared to let frost ruin my whole harvest, I decided to harvest all of the tomatoes on October 10th and ripen them inside.

With the help of my husband, we got at least 100 lbs. of tomatoes picked!

There are so many tips online about how to ripen tomatoes, so I thought I’d try a few methods to see what worked the best. These are the results after two weeks

Hello my beauties!

All of the tips I found had a few things in common that seemed like good advice. Toss any tomatoes with damage to them, as this invites mold and speeds rotting. When putting the tomatoes away for storage and ripening make sure they are clean and dry (I may have kinda ignored this tip). The main ripening agent when tomatoes are off the vine is a gas called ethylene. Ripe fruit including tomatoes and bananas produce this gas, so putting a ripe fruit in with your green tomatoes will promote ripening.

One method I tried was to put the green tomatoes in a paper bag with a ripe tomato. I only did one layer of tomatoes in the bag and picked the ones that looked somewhat closer to being ripe. This method worked well. It seemed like the fruit ripened most uniformly of all the methods. After two weeks most of the fruit had at least some color.

Another traditional method for ripening tomatoes is to put them on the window sill. I only did a few tomatoes this way, all were very green. I’m not impressed with this method, the fruit ripened somewhat, but they seemed superficially ripe, if that makes any sense. They weren’t the lovely deep red that tomatoes should be and seemed to be a bit grainy. It could be because the fruit was so green to start with.

Finally I used shallow boxes covered in plastic (they were originally ramen boxes, don’t judge). I put a couple riper tomatoes in each box and kept the plastic over the fruit. The plastic was the original packaging so there was a hole in it from where we retrieved the ramen. After two weeks this method seemed to produce the most ripe fruit. I think this may have been because the fruit were in a greenhouse-like container that kept the ethylene gas more concentrated.

Then I got lazy and just kept the rest of the fruit in the boxes we picked them in. One box was plastic with a bunch of holes like a milk crate. One was a cardboard box. The third was cardboard but between each single layer of fruit I put a layer of newspaper. I didn’t dry them or clean them off. Of all of these boxes, after two weeks I pulled out only four green tomatoes that were starting to mold. Honestly, these boxes had about the same amount of ripening going on and there was no more effort on my part than putting them in the boxes straight off the plants.

The green tomatoes after bringing them in from harvest
After two weeks, we are seeing a bit more reds and pinks

 

 

 

 

 

Today I rearranged all the tomatoes, removing any with damage that I didn’t notice before and any that were starting to rot.

This guy had to go.

I put the various levels of ripeness together so I can easily access the ones that need to get used up first and hopefully slow down the really green ones from catching up as I have at least a day of canning ahead of me already!

Overall, my impressions are that as long as the tomatoes are undamaged and they’re kept dry and at about room temperature, they will ripen on their own accord. The ones that were left with a ripe tomato did seem to progress faster. I would recommend keeping the tomatoes in one layer as it makes it a lot easier to see if any are going bad or if they’re ready to be used. If you’re like me and over-planted though, it might not be feasible, so I wouldn’t worry too much if your tomatoes go in a box together. I wouldn’t go longer than 2 weeks before checking them for mold though.

There are other types of produce that will ripen off the vine too, although nothing compares to the flavor you get when the ripen in the garden, including peppers and pumpkins. Get those guys inside before the frost gets them!

Jackson’s First Birthday!

Guess who’s a good boy?

Jackson, the Goldador, on his first birthday!

Jackson just celebrated his first birthday on July 19th, and my what a year it’s been!

I thought I’d do a little update since the last post about him was quite a while ago (especially in dog years!). While he hasn’t completely lost some of those puppy antics, every once in a while now we glimpse the adult he is becoming. Especially when he catches the ball without it bouncing! Wow!

In the time since our last post about him, my husband has been able to start working from home, so Jackson is no longer alone all day. It’s a big relief, as he was quickly outgrowing the bathroom area. It is nice though that he has been well trained and can be crated for a few hours without going bezerk so we can go run errands and whatnot. See our post about raising him here.

Jackson can entertain himself very easily. While some dogs are constantly seeking attention and interaction with people if not otherwise engaged, Jackson generally can entertain himself quite well. He likes playing with toys, working on his puzzle treat devices, and napping when we can’t pay attention to him. We do like the fact that if a ball goes under the couch, he doesn’t go completely bonkers and make us get it for him. He will try for a long time, but if he can’t reach it, he just finds a different toy.

I want to put in here that we DO pay a lot of attention to him! He’s learned “where’s your squeaky ball” and will go locate said ball in the yard so we can play fetch. He is so kind as to bring the ball directly to us and drop it without us having to pry it from him. When he gets too tired he’ll lay down with the ball and we all relax until he’s ready for round two. He is also a complete snuggle bug and we’ll sit curled up on the couch after dinner in the evenings. Sometimes he plays a game my husband calls “Who’s head is harder?” where he snuggles his head into yours and pushes until he flips.

Jackson taking a break from playing with the other dogs at the dog sitter

We also like to take him to our little river behind our house and go swimming. At first he wasn’t too keen on not knowing how deep the bottom was. He would awkwardly extend his legs with each step to make sure the bottom was still there. Getting him to go in the deeper water and actually swim took a little convincing, but once my husband put on his waders and showed Jackson that it was okay, our born water dog showed his true colors. He now happily splashes in the shallows and the pools, trying to retrieve every stick out of the river for our inspection and appreciation.

Jackson learning that swimming is fun!

One of the big milestones in the past year was Jackson was boarded while we went to Wisconsin for a wedding. He stayed for three nights at another family’s home. We got lots of pictures of him having a blast playing with the other dogs and we started getting a little nervous he wouldn’t want to leave! When we walked up to the door to pick him up though we could hear him start whining with excitement and he jumped into our arms like we were gone for a lifetime. He was so happy to see us, and us to see him. We were also relieved that the dog sitter was so pleased with him, she said he minded very well and was a joy to have (when we left him he was a black wrecking ball of excitement running around with their other dogs, so hearing this was great news!).

We’ve also been taking Jackson on more hikes and trips with us, now that he has all of his vaccinations done. We had been hesitant to venture into the soggy wilderness that is the Pacific Northwest until he had his leptospirosis vaccine. Jackson is proving to be a great hiking buddy and we’re even considering getting him his own pack so he can carry some goodies for himself along on the longer hikes.

Jackson loves the beach still, as a true coastal dog must. Despite his overall excellent manners, I never walk him off lead because we haven’t worked on “come” nearly enough for me to be confident to do so. The beach is quite fun, there’s so much to smell! Jackson will play with anyone if they come near, and if they’re displaying polite dog gestures I will let them say hello.

I’ve been in more than a few situations though where the dogs run up snarling or aggressively postured and it’s quite scary. I used to be able to just pick Jackson up and carry him to safety. Now I just tell him “leave it” and we walk away before the dog reaches us, usually with the other owners trying to call their dogs to no avail. Luckily we have not had any serious issues stemming from these encounters, and Jackson seems happy enough to keep sniffing his way down the beach and leave the other dogs behind. I have a couple secret beaches that we go to that the larger crowds do not utilize as much too. Jackson’s favorite things to investigate on the beach are crab shells, driftwood, and all garbage. Thank goodness, he is very good at dropping and leaving things when we ask him too!

Another thing I was sure to work on with Jackson was getting used to being touched all over, including having his nails done. I’ve heard far too many stories of dogs so afraid of having their nails done that it’s nearly impossible and I refused to have this occur with our dog. He’s a total dream for nail clipping and will offer his front paws willingly. Most of this is because when he was little we would touch his paws and give him treats and it was always a positive experience, making sure to touch every part of the paw including between his toes. We introduced the clippers gradually over several weeks working our way up to clipping one nail, then one foot, then all the feet, with lots of treats throughout. The only time he ever pulled away and refused to have his nails done, I found a thorn stuck in one of his toe pads, ouch! Such a brave boy.

I still play with his feet and give him treats without cutting nails too sometimes!

He is also great at having his mouth looked at and ears cleaned. He is enjoying getting his fur brushed more now too, which is a good thing because he sheds like crazy! The one thing I would like to work on more is getting his teeth brushed. He’s tolerant enough, but it is a bit of a struggle to prevent him from eating his doggy toothpaste and chewing on the brush.

Jackson got neutered at about 9 months old. We waited a bit longer than normal since he was a bigger dog and some vets think that having a little testosterone production helps get their bone growth to a good place. While it was more expensive to get it done since he was bigger, we are happy with the results. He recovered very quickly and actually seemed to like wearing his cone. He would drop his toys into it and prance around the house carrying them in his cone. He also would put the rim flat on the ground to smell things out in the yard, which looked hilarious. Keeping him from getting too excited and boisterous was another thing, it seemed like all he wanted to do was jump and run around. Frozen Kongs came in handy again here to keep him occupied and still, and he has surprising little trouble with them despite his cone.

First day after the neuter, poor boy got lots of pets and love.

So all in all, year one has been great. We’ve learned so much about training and it’s been amazing seeing how much he’s grown and progressed in just a year. His head now is the about size he was when we brought him home, which blows my mind. We’re so happy we got him, he’s definitely a part of our family.

So happy birthday Jackson! Here’s to many more years of getting to share our lives with you!

All tuckered out after a long day chasing seagulls on the beach!

Easy Pineapple Chicken Stir Fry

 

This quick weeknight meal is one of a million variations on the stir fry that I love, especially when my garden is cranking out delicious snow peas. It’s got a nice bright flavor, and is filling but won’t weigh you down, perfect for a beautiful summer evening on the patio.

 

Ingredients (Serves two, with leftovers):
One chicken breast, diced
One medium zucchini, cut in half moon slices
10 oz. (1/2 large can) pineapple chunks, juice saved
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 lb. snowpeas, strings removed and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 Tbs. Canola (or other favorite) oil, split
Dash of red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. granulated garlic
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
2 tsp. white flour
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Brown rice to serve

Directions:
Combine chicken, 1/4 cup of pineapple juice, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl and let sit to marinade for about 10-15 minutes.

Heat 1/2 Tbs. oil in tall sided pan or wok over medium-high. Add onion and zucchini, stirring frequently. When beginning to soften, add chicken with marinade, and cook until done. Sprinkle flour over chicken and stir until sauce thickens (I add additional soy sauce and pineapple juice here, go for it if you like it saucy). Add snowpeas and pineapple and cook until peas are bright green. Season further to taste and serve over brown rice.

Garden Pests: The Tomato Cutworm

I have grown gardens in four different locations in Oregon, each over 50 miles from the others. Our home in Seaside is my fifth location.

I was pretty confident in my gardening prowess until one morning I came out to gaze upon my newly transplanted tomato starts and five of them had no leaves.

A brief Internet search concluded that my garden had been ravaged by early tomato cutworms. These malicious little beasties that come out at night to literally cut your tomato starts to the ground. If you go out at night you can catch them in the act, they look like pudgy caterpillars usually in pale green or shades of brown. There are also cutworms that target the plants after they have started bearing fruit, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Hopefully we won’t get to it.

The sadistic little worms left just one leaf on this plant.

Now, I’m not one to use pesticides haphazardly, but these creatures posed a threat I could not overlook. The year prior had yielded a sub-par tomato harvest and spending the winter buying store tomatoes instead of using homegrown, home canned goods, nearly killed me. However, it seemed there was a few alternatives I could try before I went to chemical warfare.

The first line of defense: tomato collars. This is basically just putting up some barrier around the tomato starts that the cutworms won’t crawl over. Different sources advise using cardboard, foil, tin cans, aluminum cans, or even plastic. I immediately set to work cutting out cardboard collars for my remaining plants, thanking the heavens I started more plants than I really wanted.

The most simple one I saw was cutting a section of cardboard in a square or circle. I cut squares approximately 5-6 inches long on each side. Then cutting a straight line halfway into the shape, you cut a small circle, just bigger than the plant’s stem. This can be opened and slid around each start.

A great use for junk mail to boot.

Another method was using cardboard tubes from paper towels or toilet paper. Cut sections of the tube just short enough to be below the lowest set of leaves. Then cut straight down the tube. This can be opened and placed around the stem of each plant, pushing the tube into the dirt to secure it closed.

I also cut the ends off a pop can and put this around one plant that had already been chewed on a bit. It was just a test really, I thought this plant wouldn’t come back from the damage it had undergone (spoiler: it came back with two tops but is filling out nicely and has blossoms!).

The plant was mutilated prior to placing the collar, however no more damage has occurred since then.

It’s been about a month since I placed the collars, and so far they have been working. I try to check them every day to make sure they stay intact. One collar came off a plant recently that’s about 8-10 inches tall and it has not been attacked, perhaps it’s past the most fragile stage?

My favorite of the few types I tried are the flat cardboard pieces, they are the most secure and easiest to make. They do make it harder to water the plants, but they keep the weeds down and keep the ground moist longer than if the plants had nothing. If I were to use the cardboard tubes again I would want to figure out a way to keep them closed better as when they get wet they tend to want to unfurl, leaving the precious plants unguarded. The pop can is definitely the most sturdy, but the edges are rather sharp and could hurt the plant if it rubs up against them; it was also took the longest to make (and made me cringe while I used scissors to cut the can).

Because the collars worked so well, I did not have to proceed to other methods. Some alternatives that I didn’t try but have heard work well include sprinkling corn meal around the plants, as apparently this is toxic to the worms and they will eat it before getting to your plants. Placing Popsicle sticks on either side of the stems, which is the same idea as the collars but they also can support the plants a bit more. I have also seen beneficial predatory nematodes (microscopic worms) for sale that will do the dirty work for you, attacking soft bodied garden pests and protecting your plants.

I have found a worm or two, and it is immensely satisfying to toss them into the chickens’ run and see the girls run around with their tasty little treasures.

Raising a Puppy while Working: Socialization and Training

Despite what the entire Internet claims, you can actually raise a well-mannered dog while keeping your 9-5 job. Here is how we did it…

As soon as we considered getting a puppy, I started looking for good Puppy Kindergarten classes. A lot of people don’t realize the benefit these classes can have; it’s not about getting perfect obedience from your puppy (well kinda, but that’s not the main point), it’s about training you how to teach your puppy. It’s also a wonderful and safe place for your puppy to meet new people and puppies. I signed up for our puppy class before we brought Jackson home. Our first class was when he was 3 months old.

Because we worked far away from our home, Jackson had to come with us on days we had puppy class. I found a wonderful dog sitter who had a few dogs in her home that took excellent care of him while we were at work. There he learned how to play with gentle bigger dogs, which is great because they told him “no” when he’d start getting too feisty.

Jackson and his posse at daycare (he’s the shadow in the back). He was so confused when he started meeting dogs smaller than him!

We also tried to give him lots of play dates with friends who had dogs so he would learn to play nicely. It turns out that our friends’ dogs were actually very high energy and we learned the signs that he was going to need a break. When he started to get tired, we would give him some food in his crate for a 10 minute time out and then he would be good to go again.

Prior to our first class we had already taught “sit” and “down”, but we got great practice in a new setting when those commands were taught in class. We also learned to walk “with me”, “stay”, “leave it”, “drop it”, and “go to your rug”. Our trainer focused on teaching us how to properly correct issues before they were real problems and was very proactive with getting our dogs used to being handled, including being handled by other people. She taught us how we can train our dogs to accept pills and correct other behaviors that were undesirable. My favorite part was that she set goals for us to work on for each class.

According to Dr. Ian Dunbar of Before and After Getting Your Puppy, the goal for socialization is for your puppy to meet 100 people by the age of 12 weeks. This was rather difficult with our work schedules, but I kept track of everyone Jackson met and we got to 100 by about 14-15 weeks (kinda crazy looking back at it now).

I think the best thing we did for his socialization was taking a trip to go visit my sister in college. We did a 500 mile road trip where he learned to ride in the car like a champ and met a ton of people at rest stops and on the college campus. We met all sorts of people: leather-clad bikers, college students, screaming toddlers, tall men, and old ladies. We also went out to restaurants where dogs were allowed and he fell asleep under our table and got comfortable with more bustle than he was used to at our little house.

While most of the road-trip was spent in his crate, Jackson did get out on a few jaunts where he sat up with us. The world’s so big!

Apart from that, we also took him on other trips to both parents’ houses and invited people over to meet him there. It was good getting him used to being in strange places with strange smells, and also learning that we had to show him which door he should scratch at when he had to go out. (It’s not easy being a puppy! Why are there so many doors anyways!?)

Getting some power-petting from Grandpa!

Because we have a small farm, I also wanted to make it super clear that the chickens and ducks were not toys to attack. Our yard is not fenced, so we always had him on a leash whenever we went outside. After initial interest in the ducks, Jackson grew bored of watching them and would start ignoring them whenever we went outside. At one point he did run up to one of the ducks, which he licked once, then ran back to me, tail wagging as if to say “Look, we’re friends!”.

From the inside though, the ducks are fascinating to watch.

The chickens in their pen were a little different because when he ran up to them they would startle and flap around, being highly interesting. But after they’d settle down he would sniff around a little then be ready to move on. Whenever I fed them, I had him sit by their coop so when I was done he was more than ready to move on to anywhere else.

He also met our pig which he was terrified of when she made noise, but after a couple visits he tried to play with her through the fence. The rabbits were his favorite though, whenever we’d go by their cages he’d play bow and when I’d open a cage and one would stick their head out, he would lick it and try to play.

One annoying habit Jackson had was chewing on the carpet and grabbing shoes and socks to chew on and run around with.

To solve the carpet issue, we tried everything from lemon juice to tabasco sauce, unfortunately he loved them all. Eventually we just started putting large items over the areas he liked to chew to prevent him from doing it, and if he did manage to start taking some samples we’d distract him with another toy. We tried to keep lots of interesting toys around and rotate them through his accessibility so he wouldn’t get bored of them.

He may look innocent, but he’s actively trying to sneak some nibbles of that tasty carpet. He did give up eventually. We ripped it out a few months later in favor of some new wood floors anyway, thank goodness.
Just a few of Jackson’s toys that we would rotate through, we always tried to keep him in our visual field while he was playing with new toys just in case anything broke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the socks and shoes, we would tell him “no” take the item away and immediately give him one of his toys to play with. This was also a good opportunity to work on “drop it”, but whenever we did that we made sure the reward was extra special (a treat and a toy) so we didn’t burn him out on the command by getting his prizes taken away all of the time. While he completely gave up on the shoes pretty quickly, the socks were a harder temptation for him. He’ll also grab any paper/tissue that happens to be on the ground and watch you, just so you can tell him to drop it, which is annoying. So we’re still working on that one. Mostly we just need to pick those things up better ourselves. (Maybe he’s trying to train us…?)

So although Jackson spent his days alone for the most part, I would say he did have a rich and varied social life in general. On weeknights after we’d get home from work we would often have friends over to meet and play with him or go out to visit Home Depot, Petco, or other stores that allow dogs. Later, once his vaccinations were complete, we went to the beach a lot or other little trails near our home. Our social lives were definitely enriched by having people over more often and going to others’ houses for his socialization!

However, many evenings we just spent time cuddling and playing games with him ourselves, because when all is said and done, that’s the whole point!

Beginning a Rabbitry

Beginning a rabbit breeding program is a fascinating and fun hobby. I’ve had two rabbitries, one from 2007-2010 and my current one that I started in 2016. Between the two, I’ve learned a few things that might help you out when starting your own rabbitry. At this time, I gear more toward producing show quality animals, but these tips can be applied toward meat or pet production as well.

I started my first rabbitry when I was a sophomore in high school. In search for a more manageable 4-H showmanship rabbit for my younger sister, compared to our Giant Angoras, we found the Jersey Wooly and fell in love instantly.

I did a few things wrong when I started my breeding program then and have notes that I took and applied when starting my second rabbitry in 2016.

Start small, pick one breed and only a couple varieties. Understand how the varieties interact when bred together- yes, learn some genetics and Punnett squares! Know what colors will and will not be showable for your breed. Some varieties are easy, like blacks and blues, while others can be more of a challenge such as reds or fawns.

A litter from a Palomino doe and white New Zealand buck

My first rabbitry was much smaller, I was breeding mostly just to produce pets and occasionally show. I had a few sweet gentle does that consistently produced sweet gentle babies. One doe would produce show babies, the others, not so much. This was because I had one correct type dwarf doe, and the rest of my animals, (including the buck!) were non-dwarfs. Yet another example of learning your breed before buying your stock. Most rabbit people are thrilled to discuss their breeds and happy to help in the quest for knowledge.

Get quality stock, don’t get discount rabbits! This is the single biggest tip I can offer. With my first rabbitry I got a trio at a silent auction for about $40. There were several reasons these animals were so cheap. One doe was terrified of people, and as gentle as I could be she would struggle so violently when held that she eventually broke her own back. One doe threw babies with incorrect eye colors. The buck had horrible type. Issues from those rabbits never left my barn even after the original rabbits had gone. Things like bad temperaments, ears being too long, and other faults can be inherited and stick with you for a long time. Buying quality animals to begin with helps immensely when you’re trying to produce quality animals. It also helps because people who have good stock generally know a fair bit about raising rabbits in general and can help you with some good advice as well. My best doe was about $40 and when I first saw her she was being held, without struggle, upside-down by a three-year-old. She was the most docile, calm, and sweet rabbit I’ve ever known.

Know your local market. Are people looking for meat rabbits and breeding stock, or is there a big 4-H culture that might be looking for more pet-sized animals with gentle temperaments? Choose a breed (or crosses) that you will be able to sell.

Along those lines, have plans for your culls. If you’re producing show animals a lot won’t make the cut. It’s easier to cull meat breed animals in my opinion since you always have the option to butcher them. I had an awful New Zealand doe that would try to attack me every time I fed her. No matter my patience, she drew blood once and that was enough for me. As soon as I had a replacement daughter (with better type and temperament!), she went to “freezer camp” and ended up in a delicious stew.

Only keep the best out of each litter!

It’s harder with smaller breeds that aren’t worth butchering. But remember, cull does not necessarily mean kill! So if your dwarf rabbits are producing larger babies that won’t do well on the show tables, make sure there’s a good pet market where you can get rid of the ones who won’t cut it for breeding stock. I had a word document where I kept a template post for my Jersey Woolies explaining the breed and why they were so great, I’d post this to Craigslist when I had babies to sell, along with some adorable pictures of the fuzzy little guys and I rarely had an issue selling them. Just be sure you handle these babies often so they do make good 4-H projects or pets.

Nobody can resist the fluff!

Have a goal, whether it is gold-star temperaments or prize winners on the show tables, don’t just breed willy nilly. If you want to produce great pet rabbits, make sure you have the time to handle them daily and tame them. If you want to produce the best show animals, cull heavily and only keep the best animal out of each litter, if any. For the record, I also highly recommend handling the show animals frequently too!

This little doe does not have to correct markings on her nose to be shown, so I gave her extra snuggles to get her used to being handled to ensure she would find a good home as a pet bunny.

Another tip is never take a pedigree on a promise. While most breeders are kind and well-meaning, some get very busy and will forget to provide you with the pedigree later on. I haven’t personally experienced someone never giving out a pedigree, but I would imagine it could happen. It’s just better practice to ensure you have the pedigree in hand when you leave with the rabbit. Less chance for mistakes with ear number or missing information that way as well!

Join ARBA and go to shows! The best way to find good stock and gain knowledge in improving your strives toward better breeding is to learn from people who do well at shows. Perhaps not as important with the meat or pet breeding, but if you are trying to sell show stock, having good comments from judges or even wins at shows will help make the rabbits you produce more valuable to other breeders. Even if your rabbit doesn’t win on the tables, if you listen to the judge they will explain why they didn’t make the cut and you can focus on those pointers as you continue your breeding. My first New Zealands were all a bit weak in the shoulders, great hindquarters though. So when I started to look for new animals, I only considered animals with strong shoulders to help balance my herd.

All in all, breeding rabbits is quite entertaining, whether for show, pet, or meat purposes. I hope some of my tips will help you on your journey of building your own rabbitry, and as always, please comment or send a message if you have any questions!

Our First Pig

When we moved into our new house, we were blessed with prosperous blueberry bushes. Ripening around the beginning of July and still quite pickable into September, they nearly satisfied my need for a garden. Nearly. With no time to create a garden space for the 2016 growing season, I was content with the bountiful harvest of blueberries, but I vowed to have a roaring vegetable garden in 2017.

I decided for ease of distance to the house and ease of protecting the garden from deer (and more often in our neck of the woods, elk) I would create a blocky U-shaped garden around the preexisting blueberry patch that needed a new fence anyway. However, the area around the blueberries was densely planted with lawn grass, we didn’t have a tiller, and I wasn’t about to hand dig hundreds of square feet. Who could shoulder this heavy burden?

Pigs.

Pigs are natural rototillers, they root up soil in search of tasty morsels hiding just beneath the surface. This includes roots of plants, like dandelions. I could harness the energy of a couple of pigs to tear up my garden for me, fertilizing it as they went. Then not only would I have a clean slate to work with, but I’d also have pork!

And this is how we decided to get pigs.

My next step was to determine how to get the pigs to the area I wanted and how to house them. At first I was completely set on developing a moveable electric fence set up, but as I moved forward I saw that I could have a much bigger number of issues with electrical fencing than with just using hog panels or the like. I don’t have any experience with electric fencing, our ground is quite rocky in some areas (an issue for grounding rods necessary to complete the circuit of an electric fence), and the thought of how to connect our fence to electricity was haunting my dreams.

Hubby and I decided the best bet would be a large moveable pig tractor that we could hook up to a riding mover and tow to a new section of lawn each day or so. The pig tractor would have to be heavy enough to keep them from rooting up panels and escaping, but also within the towing limits of one of our many riding mowers. Because I wanted to encourage the pigs to destroy the lawn, I wanted to make the pen a bit smaller than I would have normally liked. We decided on 10 x 10 feet for the pen, giving each pig about 50 square feet to live in (still totally adequate by most standards).

To build our tractor we had planned to buy hog panels and use them, but my parents offered free used fencing and boards if we wanted them, so we decided to patch together a pen from reclaimed materials from their farm. It was not beautiful, and it had flaws, but it worked.

I did some research on breeds and found a few local listings for piglets that would be weaned when we were ready. I settled on two Large Black x Berkshire piglets. I really enjoy the idea of heritage breeds and wanted to try something that I hadn’t seen before. One thing I was a little nervous about was that Large Black pigs are known for being “grazers” and being more gentle on the land than other breeds. I was hoping their Berkshire ancestry and the smaller pen size would help them want to get their snouts dirty.

They were born in May and weaned a bit later than the normal 8 weeks, which was totally fine by us because we procrastinated getting the pen together until literally the day we brought them home. This meant less feed we’d have to buy and they would be off to a great start gaining weight. I brought them home in August and we forecasted an early December harvest.

I brought the pigs home in a large dog crate, and it took us a long time to get them out. When they finally did leave the crate, they galloped around with little happy squeals, eating grass and attempting to root, then passed out from our long drive.

It took them a little while to properly annihilate the grass where we placed them. About a week for their first patch. Then it became quicker as they got bigger with just a few days needed between patches.

Then one day, one of our pigs mysteriously dropped dead. She had been a totally healthy pig, no signs of illness the day prior. The best we could figure was that with the wild swings of temperatures, she had gotten pneumonia. It looked like she went peacefully, when I found her I thought she was just sleeping. Her sister went totally ballistic when we took her body out of the pen. It was traumatic for all of us.

The next day, the sister pig had still not totally calmed down yet. Right around morning feeding, she spooked and pushed right through the closed pen gate. She took off running across our property with me in close pursuit. She eerily stopped to sniff at the place we had buried the dead pig, then bolted again. To add more stress, this was all about 10 minutes before we had to leave to go to work. She ran onto the highway, then got honked at by a log truck before she did a 180 and ran right back towards me before diverting and running into the blackberry thicket. Our neighbor helped keep an eye on her location while we tried to lure her out with food. My husband, in his work suit, was ready to tackle her when she came out, but she was a speedy little porker and blazed right by all of us and out of sight.

I finally gave up, knowing we had an hour commute to work that we were already late for. The best we could do was leave her food and water in the pen and hope she went back. We worried all day that she would cause a car wreck. When we finally got home, hubby ran inside to change into pig wrangling clothes. I heard a rustle in the blueberry bushes and to my utter disbelief, the pig was in the blueberry patch happily grunting in the shade. I slowly approached and she got excited and squealed for food. We slowly moved the dog crate to the gate for the blueberry patch, threw some food in, and closed the door behind her. And that’s how we caught the pig.

It’s a funny story, now that it’s over. We ratchet strapped the pen shut and never opened that gate again, opting to crawl over the fence instead. Just to be safe…

By losing one of our pigs, we did lose 1/2 of our tilling power and it again took about a week to till one patch. But then the rains came. It’s amazing what a few inches of rain can do. In just a couple of days, our sole pig was up to her chest in mud begging to get moved to higher ground. It was a miserable business, very dirty and slippery, but she was quite delighted to start working on a new patch of grass when it was all over.

We had considered having the pig till up a pasture to sow with good sheep forage for later on, but after a few months of our pig working on the garden site, we decided not to create a pasture after all. Hubs couldn’t stand to look at pig wallows and mud all over our front yard until pasture grass came in. We’ll figure out something different for that project in the spring.

The garden space turned out excellent. The pig was easily able to till down 6+ inches when we had dry weather and over 12 inches when it was wet. She ate all of the plants and other organic things she found on her way down. She also unearthed a few treasures like shards of glass, a baseball, and an antique spoon. It was really nice to see our leftovers actually get eaten too.

I tried to find out how we could get her to a butcher place. The plan was to borrow my parents’ horse trailer, but a lack of time and bad weather made the hour drive to the butcher a no-go. I also looked into a mobile slaughter company, but alas, they did not service our location. So, out of options and with some trepidation, we decided to slaughter and butcher our own pig.

I have experience butchering chickens and rabbits, but no animal as large as a pig. Reading online and reviewing my copy of The Ultimate Guide to Home Butchering helped calm some of our fears. We enlisted the help of my eager-to-learn brother-in-law and embarked on our journey.
  Everything went better than expect and we added a lot of beautiful pork to our freezer. I highly advise getting a good set of really sharp butcher knives, gambrel, and vacuum packer, as these made the job easier. We didn’t realize it at the time, but getting pigs that would be ready for butchering in the winter was a huge plus when we decided to butcher at home. Most sources recommend hanging the carcass for at least overnight in a fridge to let it chill properly. We do not have a fridge that big, but the outside temperatures were exactly fridge-like, so it worked out perfectly.

We really enjoyed having a pig, learning how to take care of it, and feeling the pride of filling our freezer with all of our own efforts. After it all, we decided that we do not want to do another pig project for a while, at least not while we’re both working full-time. We also voted that for our next pigs, we will build a permanent pen that won’t break on us. While the reclaimed materials were nice cost-wise, the pen really took a beating from getting dragged around and from the pig herself.

All in all, I think we succeeded quite well on the mission to till a garden space and the pork was a huge bonus!

 

Raising a Puppy while Working: Our Schedule and Housebreaking

I had a puppy once. When I was 10. I will get into all of the things I did wrong with that one in another post, but suffice it to say I knew when I got my next puppy, things would be different.

13 years and a B.S. in Animal Sciences later, that day finally came.

I am a research junkie and before I make any decisions I typically browse the web to see what other people have done, how it worked out, and what I could do for best success. Having my puppy was no different, especially since I was also working a full-time job which involved me being away from home for about 12 hours a day.

My research uncovered that basically, if you get a puppy with a full-time job, you are Satan and should be shot. People were all super passionate that if you had a full-time job, you should not get a dog, let alone a puppy.

I read all the arguments: potty training nightmares, hiring help, separation anxiety, general destruction and mayhem, the puppy’s well-being, etc. I found almost no success stories without people shelling out huge sums for daycare and drop in walkers or taking weeks off from work. Anyone who asked about getting a puppy with a job on forums was quickly roasted to a little charcoal crisp. I realized that I probably shouldn’t get one at this point in my life.

Nevertheless, when I happened to stumble across a sweet little Golden Retriever/Labrador pup, the logic part of my brain went out the window.

Forget “probably shouldn’t”, we NEED him.

I was determined to prove everyone wrong and even more determined to prove to myself that I could raise a well-mannered wonderful dog. I re-read (for at least the fifth time) Dr. Ian Dunbar’s book Before and After Getting Your Puppy. I got a good sturdy crate (or three, is that excessive?) and a plethora of Kong and stuffable toys. I scheduled four days off from work. Then we brought little Jackson home.

After work on a Thursday, I drove down to pick up Jackson as an 8-week-old pup. I had put a deposit down when he was about 3 weeks old, and we had already met him when he was 5 weeks. He was the cutest damn thing.

But cute or not, we couldn’t cuddle him all day. We knew that in a couple short days he would be left home alone for over 8 hours, and we had to start preparing him for that, stat.

Determined to crate-train, and on a tight timeline, we did not have the luxury of clicker training him to the crate or easing him into it. He had to know this was how it was and that the crate was the best place in the world!

As soon as I got home with him on the first day, he got a potty break, 30 minutes of play, then he went into the crate with a food-stuffed Kong. He did not go in quite willingly, but didn’t put up much of a fight once he saw the food in there. He didn’t cry much, but any noises he did make fell on deaf ears.

After about an hour we went out for potty and lo-and-behold he went! He got lots of praise and treats immediately for eliminating. That was our routine for the rest of the night, 30 minutes supervised (like a hawk supervises) play then in the crate for an hour. By bed time we had one last potty then we brought the crate to our bedroom next to the bed and he went in for the night. He cried for about 15 minutes, then went into a dead sleep.

At about 12:00 I heard some whining and got my slippers on for a potty trip. Without a word, I took him out of his crate, carried him to the door, grabbed some treats and went straight outside. “Jackson, go potty” was met with elimination. He received treats and quiet praise, then was carried back to the crate. He cried again for about 10 minutes, then heavenly silence. Again at about 4:00, at his soft whimpering, we repeated.

The next day, we repeated the schedule of 30 minutes of play, 1 hour of crate time with and without food in the crate. When there wasn’t food, he cried for a while before falling asleep. If he was asleep after an hour went by, I woke him up to take him to potty. He went nearly every time. If there was no potty, it was back to the crate for 10 minutes before another try.

At night, we repeated the same thing as before with roughly the same wake up times. He didn’t cry when we put him in his crate anymore. I think the reason for his quick transition was the fact that he was the last puppy to go home, so when we finally got him he had already been sleeping alone but now he got to sleep in a crate next to us so it was actually better.

The next day, Saturday, we started getting him used to his playpen, or what Dr. Dunbar calls his “long-term confinement area”. He quickly shredded the puppy pad and hated seeing us leave the room, a reaction he never had while in the crate, but he eventually settled down. We made an effort to consciously look away from him when he started making a fuss and would only take him out when he was quiet and sitting. In retrospect we probably should have played with him and fed him more in the pen to make it less scary, but he got it eventually.

A stuffed Kong: the ultimate distraction

He would stay in the play pen when we went out to do yard work or farm chores, but no matter what, we took him outside on the hour to potty. Then he got his treat and well-deserved play session.

So hard to refuse that little face!

We also interspersed a few crated time-outs for food and our own sanity.

That night we gave no more food or water after 8:00. We only got up once to potty.

The next day was more of the same, but the intervals were closer to 1.5 hours in his play pen. He received lots of stuffed toys before we left the room, which he did not mind in the least. When we sat down to eat dinner, he was making a fuss, trying to climb over the wire playpen. Then we heard shrieking that made my husband and I both jump up, he had gotten his paw stuck in the gate of the pen and could not free it.

Our plan had been to keep him in the playpen the whole day we were at work, however if he could injure himself in it or get stuck, it was a plan that had to be rethought.

We decided to keep the playpen for day-use when we were home, and use our bathroom for a puppy room when we were gone at work. We knew in either case, he was not going to be able to hold his bladder until we got home, we knew there would be a mess. We also hated our bathroom and knew a remodel was not so far down the road.

The first day back at work was terrifying for me. I stuffed all of the Kongs we had and picked up everything in the bathroom that he could get into, including the shower curtain! Then we shut him in and left.

While we were gone, I constantly wondered what he was doing and if he was okay. When we finally got home, the house was dead silent. I was certain he was dead.

He wasn’t. Opening the bathroom door I found a happy wiggly puppy thrilled that we were back. There was somewhat of a mess in the bathroom, but he kept it all to one corner. We went out immediately to go potty and then played the night away.

And that was our routine for months. On weekends when we were home, we didn’t play with him non-stop. He had a lot of time in his crate and in his playpen. We had to have him know that we weren’t everything in the world, that he’d be perfectly okay while we were gone, and that we’d always come back.

As far as chewing went, Kongs and nylabones were our go-tos as they were the least destructible. I would measure out his kibble each day and stuff about 3/4 of it into his Kongs for while we were gone. He would get the last bit as training treats or in Kongs when we got home.

As he was able to start mastering a tightly stuffed kibble Kong, we added in wet food, trickier treats, and started freezing them. I don’t know exactly how long it took him to get through all of the Kongs we gave him each day, but he seemed content. He started with a medium puppy Kong, a large puppy Kong, and a Kong activity ball. I would also give him a piece of carrot or apple to chew on and a frozen cube of yogurt, oatmeal, or wet food. After about a month I added in a Kong tire and a dense hollow rubber bone, and then around five months he got two more large adult Kongs. He did chew a little on the trim in the bathroom, but considering how much time he had every day to be destructive, I’m okay with it!

Jackson was officially potty-trained at about 3 months old. He had a total of maybe four accidents in the house (all our fault for not following the crating schedule). The magic happened suddenly when we had friends over one day and one of them said, “hey, your dog’s scratching at the door, does he need to go out?” Jackson must have thought he was king of the world with all of the praise he got for telling us he had to go outside. And to us, he was. It was like a switch was flipped. He never had another accident.

Raising a puppy while working full time is possible!

Now at nearly 6 months old, Jackson seems quite comfortable with his schedule and has excellent house manners. In the morning he knows that the bathroom is a wonderful place full of yummy stuffed toys and he runs straight there after his morning potty break.

I know we still have a long way to go, but I think we’re on the right track and things are going great!

The Dirt on Potato Towers

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This is the chronicle of my trial with potato towers this year. I am by no means an expert, and there were many things I know I could improve on, so this will hopefully get you started in the right direction for success!

I saw this idea come across Pinterest and was very interested in it. When I was a child, my parents once planted purple potatoes in our small family garden. Without fail, year after year, we would find several “volunteer” plants that came up from potatoes we missed harvesting. It wasn’t necessarily a bad problem to have, but somewhat irritating nonetheless.

I decided to attempt the potato tower to help ease this issue in my garden. Growing potatoes in a specially set aside column of soil would prevent errant potatoes from colonizing. I also like that you can specially designate the soil for the potatoes so it doesn’t strip your other garden soil of nutrients in a particular area. Then you can sprinkle the used soil throughout the garden or keep it saved and just amend it again next year.

Materials
Poultry netting (smaller holes are better!)
Gloves
Wire cutters
Straw
Soil
Seed potatoes
First, I built the towers out of poultry netting. Cut a strip of netting as big as you want your tower to be. I found mine were a little too big, the potatoes didn’t seem set tubers too far from the edge of the tower, so there was a bit of wasted space. Take the ends of the wire and twist them together to make a secure attachment and turn the netting into a tube.

I included a bottom on my towers as the vole situation in my area is a little outrageous and I knew they would go for the helpless tasty tubers. I wasn’t sure if they would squeeze through the holes, but tried it anyway and didn’t see any evidence of critters.

I recommend a sharp pair of wire cutters and some poke-resistant gloves to help prevent scratches as the netting has a strong tendency to roll up on you.

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The soil in the garden I was using is a very heavy clay, which is great for nutrients but horrible for giving potatoes room to grow and breathe. I combined a few different types of soil and amendments, including potting soil and steer manure, to make a nutrient rich soil with good drainage. Most of the bags I used were left over from other projects. I mixed them all in a large wheelbarrow with about 1/3 of the mix being the native clay soil.

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And yes, the folks at the feed store get a good chuckle loading my farm rig. It’s always covered in hay and straw.

Take your time when deciding where to put your potato tower, try to give it as much sun as possible from the most angles possible because the potatoes will be spread around the tower.

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When you’ve decided where to put your tower, it’s time to start assembling! Take your straw and put about a loosely packed 2 inch border around the inside edge. Try to use the least amount of straw possible, but enough to keep the soil from falling out of the wire. We want the sun the be able to reach the potatoes!

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Cut the seed potatoes to include at least two eyes per piece. I did this a day or two before planting, as many sources recommend. Place the pieces around the potato tower, then cover with about 6 inches of soil and place another layer. I alternated placement so no potato had another one right above it on the next layer. On the top layer of potatoes, put a nice piece in the middle of the tower. Cover the top with about 3-4 inches of soil.

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Water the tower well, be sure to get all of the sides where the potatoes have been placed. As the potatoes grow, heap more soil on top to encourage more tubers to grow on the top plants. Keep the tower damp, but not overly wet.

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Now the waiting begins! I checked the towers a little compulsively for the first few weeks looking for any sign of growth. They did finally poke through some places along the tower edge!

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And everything in my garden turned into a jungle this year. With moving to our new house my garden suffered severe neglect, but the potatoes didn’t seem to mind that much.

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Harvest when the plants die back. I harvested by tipping the towers on their sides and rummaging through the soil to expose the potatoes. When it got harder to move the soil, I pushed on the tower with my foot to loosen it. You can also get the bottom potatoes from the bottom of the tower by removing the piece of netting there, mine just fell off so it was easy.

Overall, I was pretty happy with my towers. I hardly looked at mine once they started growing. They got watered maybe three times by me, then only by the mercy of Mother Nature. Unless they get more attention, I wouldn’t recommend Russets for towers. Mine didn’t get as big as I would’ve liked, but hey they could work for you! The red potatoes were plenty usable, so with a little more TLC from me next year it could work even better!

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So all in all, were the potato towers more efficient that growing straight in the ground? Maybe. The voles didn’t get to them so I didn’t have any loss. For how many cubic feet of soil I used, the potato yield was probably pretty average or maybe on the low end, but my input as far as care went was bare bones.

Would I try them again? Yes! They had decent yields, so I am happy on that front. I really liked being able to just tip the towers over to harvest versus digging and accidentally slicing through the tubers. I also liked being able to water one tower opposed to a long row. Next year, with more care, I should be able to get the towers perfected!