What’s in my Window #6: Woodruff

Preservation of the harvest is an important part of homesteading. Innovation in finding new things to harvest is also key to building hipster credibility. That’s why I have been drying wild-growing woodruff in my kitchen window. To fully understand the preservation and use of woodruff, I feel I need to back up and dive a little deeper into the makings of a hipster.

I have said before that a hipster makes you believe that he or she is an authority in just about any area of conversation. For those aspiring to become hipsters, this can seem like a daunting obstacle that would keep many from achieving hipster status. In reality, there are ways to skirt the actual knowledge needed for this and still retain an apparent level of conversational command. One way in particular that is used by many hipsters is to become well educated on a very niche subject. When you talk a lot about a subject that other people don’t really care about, then they will naturally assume that you know a lot about everything.

This rule applies especially to the topic of beer. Hipsters like to drink beer, but even more so we like to know a lot about beer. There’s a lot that goes into beer and beer-making, so instead of actually learning about beer, hipsters have gravitated towards knowing about very particular beers. I attribute the craft beer revival of recent years to highfalutin hipsters attempting to prove their beer knowledge by spouting off random facts about the then-small segment of beer manufacturing:

“I only drink craft beer. You probably don’t realize this, but to be a craft beer, it has to be made with only all-grain. The beer you’re drinking is made with all adjuncts and extracts.”

As craft beer (and the knowledge thereof) has become more ubiquitous, hipsters have struggled to retain their firm grip on this faux knowledge of the beer industry. This has led to the most obscure styles of beer becoming favorites of hipsters. Most notably, hipsters have espoused an enjoyment of sour beers to trump all other beer drinkers. Sour beers, such as the Berliner Weisse style, taste bad, and have a nose that reminds you of a rotting compost heap.

Here I admit my shortcomings as a hipster, since I like to drink beers that taste good. But oh the respect that is garnished upon the hipster that can proclaim “I love sour beers.” To the less learned beer drinker, this is thought of as an accomplishment and indication of a finer palate. However, these sour beers originally brewed centuries ago, were never meant to be served alone. Sweet syrups of sugary extract are added to take the edge off; usually the drinker is given a choice between raspberry or…wait for it…woodruff.

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And now we have circled back to what it is that has been drying in my kitchen window. Woodruff, or sometimes called Sweet Woodruff, is a traditional brewing ingredient that pre-dates hops. It happens to grow as a fairly common ground cover, and we found some in our backyard. Over the past years, I’ve been doing my best to propagate its growth to the point that I could begin to harvest it for brewing.

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As the woodruff dries, it gives off an almost unnaturally sweet vanilla scent. Just the small amount of clippings that I took filled our kitchen with its scent. I recently finished brewing a fall beer in which I added my dried woodruff at the end of the boil. After it dried, it weighed in at half an ounce, and yet it packed a powerful sweetness to the five gallon batch of beer I made. But even more amazing than the beer is my niche knowledge of the topic.IMG_0035

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Seed-Starting Terrarium

It’s that time of the year again: when March hits, I immediately begin pining for the Spring planting season. We still have a few months before we can actually plant anything in the open, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a head start now. With all the seeds I’ve been saving from last year, I have plenty stocked up to allow me to get ahead of the frost.

A few years ago, I started my garden early with a store-bought seed starting kit. It was basically a black plastic basin with a clear plastic domed lid. I set it in front of a window and it worked really well. It gave the seeds everything they need to get started: a temperature controlled environment, light, and constant moisture. It also cost $40, and when I brought it out from storage the following year the clear plastic lid had broken in half and had to be sent to the recycle bin.

This year I decided to make my own. I was planning to build a complex frame system into which I could set panes from an old window to replicate that clear plastic dome. As I looked around our old attic for a junk window, I found this old transom. I decided to switch gears and save myself some time.

Transom Window

What is really awesome about this old transom is the way the paint peeled off the glass. At some point the whole window was painted, and over the decades the paint peeled itself off most of the way, leaving these “fingerprints” behind. I have never seen anything like it, and was tempted to just hang it on the wall as-is. But instead, I moved ahead with the project. Sorry Art; Utility wins today.

Terrarium base

I have a lot of tongue-and-groove porch boards left over from a project last year. It’s yellow pine, which has a good tolerance for moisture, so I decided to use that to build the frame for the glass top. The trusty table saw came out and zipped off the groove and half the tongue on each board, leaving a flat surface on one end and a nice frame on the other. I mitered these together so that the transom would fit snugly inside the frame without gaps. I screwed the frame onto one of the hutch shelves that was left over from the hutch project.

Ready for seeds

Everything fit together nicely. I may end up building some more frames for additional glass panes around the sides to give it a dome shape once the young plants get too tall, but that can wait for another day.

Finished Terrarium

I was limited on space inside my new terrarium, so I started with the plants that need the most time: tomatoes and peppers. I also planted a bunch of lettuce since that’s a plant we can continually harvest as it grows.

In total, this project cost me zero dollars and about two hours from start (looking for an old window in the attic) to finish (seeds planted and dirt cleaned up). Take that Winter: two cubic feet of Spring just started inside my dining room. May the germination begin!

Preserving Fresh Basil

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When it comes to being frugal, having a household garden is a great way to save money at the same time that you are improving your standards of freshness. After about five years of having fresh herbs and vegetables right outside, it has become difficult to settle for grocery store produce. But what about those months between October and May? Living in the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7A means that there are a number of months in which we cannot reap a harvest. That leads us into preserving the bounty from the summer months to enjoy through the winter months.

I love cooking with fresh herbs. We give a lot of space in our small rooftop garden to growing fresh herbs, teas, and sweeteners. Basil is one of my favorites. We picked a decent harvest throughout the growing season, and in October we still had a lot leftover. After snipping the seed heads, I tied the remaining basil leaves into three big bunches and hung them to dry. Drying the leaves is a little different from drying out the seed heads. In the latter case, I was trying to suck out all the moisture as quickly as possible so as to easily crush the chaff away from the seed. In the case of the basil leaf, I am trying to slowly allow the leaves to naturally dry, without molding or losing the flavorful oils. Drying in a stable temperature with good airflow is necessary, and my kitchen window is great because it is next to an air vent that keeps the air flowing.

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Fast forward to last week. The leaves have dried beautifully and are ready for their second harvest. For this job, I pulled out the trusty mortar and pestle to crush the leaves. I used a sieve to help me keep a consistent flake size so that it wouldn’t get caught in my spice shaker. I would crush, sift, and then repeat the crushing until all that was left in the sieve was a negligible amount.

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In the end, my window-full of fresh basil yielded me about 3 tablespoons of dried and crushed basil spice. I thus labeled, dated, and stored this treasure into an old spice container that I repurposed into a spice container. I compared this with the store-bought container of basil in our cabinet and the difference was staggering: the store-bought lacked flavor and aroma. I added the store-bought to our compost bin and our basil now sits proudly in its place.

It’s easy to stay industrious when it’s warm outside, but a well-planned and industrious summer gives you plenty to keep up with in the colder months.