Solar wax melter, part II

Earlier today I posted photos of the solar wax melter in the side yard, hard at work in the hot July sun. Several people asked for more detailed pictures and dimensions.  My first melter was a small, quick version – just a wooden fruit crate with a cookie sheet as a drip surface and an overhanging piece of window glass. It worked, but I immediately wanted something better. And bigger. When I started keeping bees I had no idea just how much wax they were going to contribute.

There are plans online here that look good. I admit, I went out and bought the one I have now as a kit. It’s just the right size – big enough to melt a pile of comb and trimmings and just at the limit of what I can comfortably carry around and store. $60.00 at Dadant and Sons Beekeeping. Whichever way you go, be sure to paint the inside of the box black.

I think that the the wax from this old, very dark comb is a lovely color – imagine how many bee footsteps it took to turn it brown. The sun bleaches it a little bit as it melts, but it’s nothing like the sterile white blocks sold in craft stores. The yellow candles give off a honey scent as they burn, subtle and not at all artificial. I use votive candle molds. They’re easy to fill and use. This is a handy list of molds and burn times from Busy Bee. These molds are silicon rubber – no release agent needed.

And welcome to the Maine mind-set, where every summer day affords another chance to be ready for winter.

Hot hot hot

When I lived in Philadelphia I never thought of Maine as a place that would be too warm – and compared to Philly on a July afternoon that might be true. Absent that perspective though, the island is baking this afternoon. The thermometer on the south side of the house reads 101.7. It’s exaggerating, of course, but I won’t argue because that’s how it feels to me too, out working in the garden.

The weather will cool down tonight and perhaps there will be fog as the ocean air moves in. Meanwhile, it’s perfect weather to put the solar wax melter out in the perennial bed and cook the old black beeswax down to liquid gold for winter candles.

July garden tour

A few days ago, I posted a photo of the garden in the morning when was still dewy and a little misty around the edges. It was a pretty shot, but quite a few people asked if they could “zoom in” and see the individual beds in more detail. Other people asked if they could get a list of what plants are growing in what area. I’ve just begun the work that will eventually build out “guilds” and “poly-cultures” of plant communities, but it’s not a bad idea to have a list of where I started for my records. This is by no means a complete inventory, but here we go:

This bed is in the “upper” garden, hard by the house. In “Gaia’s Garden“, Toby Hemenway talks about siting often-used vegetables close to the house. He suggests going out to snip a few herbs for an omelet and a side-dish of greens in the early morning in your bedroom slippers and robe. If you come in wet around the edges, the herbs are too far from the house. I can definitely snip greens from this bed without getting damp in the morning. Made of three layers of cinderblock, this bed is fairly deep. Even on the south side of the house it stores enough moisture for mustard, lettuces, radishes, and a few sorrel plants. Around the edges, in the cells of the blocks, grow anise hyssop, Thai basil, forget-me-nots (they’re everywhere), and alpine poppies. All the beds in the upper garden are ringed with strawberry plants, so that they benefit from the moisture and shade.

More in the upper garden: three beds of tomatoes surrounded by calendula and interplanted with bulls blood beets and white globe turnips. One of the tomato choices I made this season was Fedco’s Heirloom Tomato Mix.  I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of that over the course of the season and possibly picking out some new favorites for next year.

Down in the lower garden this bed contains Provider green beans, haricot verts, and started out with a lot of radishes that provided quick shade for the sensitive bean sprouts. I’ve since picked the radishes and the Carpet of Snow alyssum has grown up enough to provide a living mulch. I sow the alyssum at the same time as the radishes in the very early spring. Purple bread poppies grow wherever they like and provide full seedheads for bread and pastry and resowing in the fall.

This is one of the squash beds, set on the hillside for ease of walking around fragile trailing vines. The deer don’t bother the stouter vines, so these pumpkins and Hubbard squash can clamber up the hill and outside the electric fence. They are interplanted with nasturtiums (just for color – I don’t think these hybrids protect against bugs or nematodes) and green beans. These green beans are planted about two weeks after the beans in the bed mentioned above so that the harvest is staggered.

Corn! Two rows of Silver Queen white sweet corn, potentially growing to 9 feet and producing 3 or 4 ears per stalk in a good year. These are not interplanted with anything. I’d love to try the Three-Sisters method of corn stalks in mounds surrounded by pole beans and squash, but I have yet to convince my partner-gardener of that. This year he allowed mulch, so maybe there’s hope. That said, it’s wonderful corn.

Potato boxes with varieties Ratte, German Butterball, Green Mountain, and All Blue. The potatoes are planted in about a foot of dirt at the bottom of the box and boards and hay are added as the plants grow taller. I had a very poor yield in the 2010 boxes due, I think, to droughty weather and too much hay/too little soil to start. The vines are much healthier as we get into the really hot part of summer this year, so I have hopes for a good harvest. This is certainly a space-effective way to grow potatoes. In the late fall I dump the boxes over and use the soil, mulch and old plants to make a new bed.

Lilies and apple trees seem to go together well. The lilies provide a nice living mulch to cool the roots,  retain moisture, and shade out weeds. These are very old Tiger lilies from my grandmother’s garden in Connecticut growing under “Westfield Seek-no-Further”, which is covered in little green apples this year.

I have another whole group of close-ups for a post this weekend. We’ve had some rain so if I can stop picking green beans for a minute  I’ll make another post this weekend!


Spicy greens for dinner

This is a year for leafy greens. I planted Maruba Santoh, tatsoi, bok choi, Savoy cabbage, and assorted mustards and they’re all happy and huge in the cool rainy weather. This year I mulched the greens with seaweed to see if it had any impact on flea beetles, and I think it worked. Hard to tell whether the rain or the salty, sandy mulch had more of an effect, but flea beetle damage is minimal this year so far. So, what to do with all those greens?

Spicy Greens with Chicken or Tofu

Serves 4, or two with leftovers. This dish is very good left over.

1/4 C soy sauce, 1/4 C dry Sherry, 1 Tbs brown sugar, 2 Tbs chili sauce or Surachi (or to taste)

1 1/4 pounds skinless boneless chicken breast halves, cut crosswise into 1/3-inch-wide strips, or 1 package tofu
3 tablespoons peanut oil
4 green onions, white parts and green parts chopped separately, 1 Tbs garlic and 1 Tbs ginger
2 teaspoons hot pepper relish or chopped seeded serrano chiles (or more to taste)
a lot of greens:  spinach, mustard greens, kale, maruba santoh or broccoli rabe; about 1 pound, thick stems removed, spinach left whole, other greens cut into 1-inch strips (about 10 cups packed)

Whisk the soy sauce,  Sherry,  and sugar in medium bowl, divide in half. Use half of the mixture to marinate chicken or tofu; marinate 20 to 30 minutes and reserve the rest.

Heat 2 tablespoons peanut oil in large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add white parts of onions, garlic, ginger and relish or chiles; stir 30 seconds. Add chicken; stir-fry just until cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer chicken mixture to bowl. If you’re using tofu you can skip this step. Just quickly stirfry the first four ingredients, go right to adding the greens, and drop in the marinated tofu at the end just long enough to heat through.

Add 1 tablespoon peanut oil to same skillet; heat over high heat. Add greens by large handfuls; stir just until beginning to wilt before adding more. You can put a large pot lid over the heap of greens to steam them briefly if you like. Sauté just until tender, 1 to 6 minutes, depending on type of greens. Return chicken to skillet. Add reserved soy sauce mixture; stir until heated through, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl; sprinkle with green parts of onions. Serve with rice or soba.



Angelica, known in my grandmother’s garden as “Holy Ghost”, is a tall biennial plant with large lobed leaves, greenish white flowers, and fluted stems.

The stems are traditionally candied and used like citron in breads and holiday cakes. Angelica is a very generous plant, seeding itself all around my garden. I’ve always wanted to take advantage of this abundance and candy some myself. Last fall I took the time to research recipes and found that the stems are harvested in the spring, when they are still bright green and tender.

Last week I picked a plastic grocery bag of stems, or about 2 lbs. I trimmed off the leaves and cut the stems in random lengths as none of the recipes I read seemed to specify size. They didn’t specify much of anything, actually, and differed wildly on how long to cook the raw plant material, how to dry it, and what it should look like when finished. I’ve simplified the process because no way am I boiling anything in sugar syrup for four days, and my adaption seems to have worked just fine.

Make a 2:1 sugar syrup by mixing 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, bring to a boil and stir until dissolved. Dump the stems into the syrup and simmer for 20 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool and set for 24 hours. I let it go from one night to the next.

Remove stems from syrup and allow to drain on a rack. I used a cookie rack with a pan underneath. I dried the stems in a very slow oven (250 degrees) for a few hours. It rained for almost the entire month of April here, and the drying part might work for you without an oven if the weather cooperates.

When the stems were solid and cooled, but still tacky, I put them in a ziplock bag of granulated sugar and left them overnight to soak up as much as possible. Then I stuffed them into canning jars, where they look pretty cool – all bright green and shiny. I have two jars in a canning cupboard and one in the freezer, to see which one preserves the color and texture best.  I’m going to try out a recipe next week, and I’ll let you know how it goes.


Seaweed harvest

Today I went to Beach Road Beach to gather seaweed for the garden. BRB is a utility drop in Seawall where the cables stretch across the channel to Little Cranberry and Islesboro. The beach faces into the prevailing wind and parallel to the current so occasionally huge rafts of seaweed pile up during storms, only to be washed away again at the next moon tide. And it’s a beautiful place to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Winter seaweed is friable – naturally freeze-dried by the weather – and therefore easier to pick up and cart off than ripe, wet summer kelp. There are fewer people and their dogs leaving messes on the beach, less trash in the water, and a lot fewer mosquitoes too, so I often go down to Seawall over the course of March and April and load up 6 large garbage bags per trip. You don’t need a pick-up truck – the 20 year old sedan will do fine as long as it’s a Volvo with plenty of ground clearance and studded tires.

It was 35 degrees and blowing a small craft warning this afternoon, but there was plenty of seaweed and I had the place all to myself. I might have to go back tomorrow. . .

Grape juice

Grapes grow very well in the poor soil and harsh climate of coastal Maine. Our season is too short to ripen some of the classics, like the real Concord grape that made huge hedgerows of  fragrant fruit at my parent’s home in Connecticut.  Fortunately, there’s Beta. From the Fedco catalog:

Originated by Louis Suelter (pronounced Sool-ter) in Minn, 1881. Beta was named after his wife and is pronounced Bett-uh not Bay-tuh. Old standby, excellent for juice, jelly and jam. Decent eating off the vine when completely ripe. Medium-sized black berries in moderately compact to loose clusters. Early to bloom, early to ripen. Vigorous healthy productive vines extremely hardy to zone 3.

Our Beta vine is almost 20 years old and the multiple trunks are as big around as my wrist at the base. Last year I bought two more Beta and a Somerset seedless with “medium-sized loose clusters with small sweet ruddy reddish-golden fruit” for variety. I’ve been making grape jelly all these years, but the vines produced so much fruit in 2010 that I made a dozen quart jars of juice for variety. (As a bonus, the juice is much easier to can.) We broke it out for the first time last night and that’s it for me – all future grape harvests are going to juice. It’s AMAZING.

From the Blue Book:

Wash, crush and measure grapes. Add 1 C water* to each gallon of grape mash. Heat mixture 10 minutes at 190 degrees – do not boil. Strain through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. For a greater yield (if you don’t mind a little cloudiness or sediment) twist the bag to squeeze all the juice out.

Now the BB instructs you to let the juice stand 24 hours in the refrigerator, ladle it out into another pan (being careful not to disturb the sediment) and strain it again. If you, like me, are short on refrigerator space, big pans, and patience during harvest season you can skip this step. The juice will still be incredible and probably have even more nutrients. On the other hand, if you’re looking to enter your flawless grape juice at the Blue Hill Fair, by all means strain away.

Measure juice. Add 1 – 2 C sugar to each gallon. Reheat to 190. Ladle hot juice into hot jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. Adjust two piece caps. Process pints and quarts 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.

This makes a concentrated juice and we cut it half and half with seltzer.

* The BB always assumes you have clean fresh well water available. If you’re using chlorinated water you may get a better result if you let the water stand in an open pitcher for a day before using.

Winter dinner – Hubbard squash

Put on a sweater and go down cellar. Choose a squash for dinner and, on your way back upstairs, grab a hacksaw.

Wash the squash and saw into manageable chunks – a lot will depend on the size of your oven and your cookie sheets. Scoop out the fibrous innards and save the seeds for roasting or next year’s crop. The flesh of the Hubbard squash is typically very dry, so rinse the cut pieces briefly in cold water. Oil a foil-covered cookie sheet and pile the pieces of squash artistically, so that they still fit in the oven. Bake at 375 for about an hour.

Scoop out the cooked squash from the rind into a saucepan over low heat. Add a few tablespoons of butter, sea salt, and perhaps 1/4 C of unsulphered molasses. When the squash is heated through and the butter has melted, mash with a potato masher until well mixed. Serve as a side dish to corn tortillas (for our vegetarian household), or braised beef, or add eggs and evaporated milk and use as pie filling.

Rinse the seeds in a colander until clear of the orange squash fibers. Spread on a dishtowel to dry. You can bake these in the oven on a cookie sheet, but I prefer an ungreased skillet over medium heat. Stir often, and when they start to puff up and sweat, sprinkle liberally with sea salt and just a tiny bit of raw sugar.

See? Winter isn’t quite so bad after all.


The winter garden has been very generous this year, so tonight we made soup.

Bean and Kale Minestra

1/4 lb kale, about 2 C chopped. I like to tear the soft, leafy part away from the tough stem and then chop finely. If you have the time, soak the chopped kale in cold water for half an hour or so. The cut leaves will soak up a lot of water and soften.

2 large cloves of garlic, minced, 2 Tbs olive oil, 1 can white beans or cannellini (or use any variety of cooked dried beans), 4 C of bean water, vegetable stock or chicken stock if you don’t mind it, 1 Tbs tomato paste or 1/2 tomato sauce, 1/2 tsp dried sage, salt and pepper

Lemon wedges and Parmesan cheese for serving.

In a saucepan, make a batch of tiny pasta – ditalini or orzo – and drain. Or, you can use leftover pasta.

In a soup pot, saute the garlic in the olive oil for a few seconds. Add about half the beans and part of the water or stock and the tomato paste. Now you have a choice. Either use a stick blender to puree the beans, stock and paste in the cooking pot, or process the remaining beans and stock in a food processor and then add it to the pot. Either way, you’re creating a nice thick base for the soup.

Drain the kale and add it to the simmering pot for 15 minutes – 1/2 hour, depending on how fresh, hydrated and finely cut the leaves. Right before serving stir in the pasta, or you can add leftover roasted vegetables, a scrambled egg or pieces of leftover chicken.  Bring to the table with lemon wedges for a squeeze of flavor and grated cheese.

Mmmmm, soup.


The menu for Thanksgiving Dinner 2010 stands as follows:

Martha Stewart’s Gruyere Thyme refrigerator crackers, made with Seal Cove mixed milk aged cheese “Olga” instead of Gruyere. Thank you for the delicious sample, Betsy! The crackers are incredibly simple to make but do need to chill overnight, so I’m making them in between blog posts. They will be our appetizer, with. . .

Fruit: Forelle pears (here on Peanut Butter Etoufee – welcome, pull up a fork!), Red Globe grapes and Courtland apple slices.

We will have turkey. R received a beautiful-but-deadly Wusthof 4″ boning knife for his birthday, so we’ll have a rolled, boneless turkey a la Julia Child – pan roasted in butter, and then finished in the oven in a remarkably short period of time. It will share oven space with sweet potatoes in maple syrup and turnips, par-boiled and then roasted with sea salt. Oh, and stuffing! This year the Morning Glory Bakery in the village provided 15 cup bags of their assorted breads cubed and baked – both savory and efficient. I added butter (duh), chopped onions, shallots and celery, vegetable stock, Black Mission figs and Northern Spy apples. R. will roll some up with the turkey and we’ll serve the rest on the side for the vegetarians in the audience.

We’ll have Savoy cabbage, carrot and apple slaw in the big wooden bowl with Susan’s favorite dressing for which I promise I will find and record the recipe (sorry, Susan!). There may be rolls.There will be cranberry sauce with local berries, sweetened with pomegranate molasses, which makes the sauce explosively tart and gives it a wonderful dark color.

Then there will be pie! Just two this year: Fannie Farmer pumpkin made with the New England pie pumpkins we grew over the incredibly balmy summer of 2010, and Martha Stewart’s (again) Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie, because it is just so good.

Recipes for what makes the grade to follow over the weekend. Keep warm, everybody.