November 30, 2020

Hooter the Owl - A Christmas Tale

The fictional Waltons have nothing on my family. 

Approaching Christmas brings to mind years of family tales. My family is good for a lot of laughs - please don't tell them I said that. One of my favorite stories is about Hooter the Owl. 

We live in a rural community. When I was young, it was a VERY rural community. I'm serious when I say I'm only a generation removed from a moonshiner. 

My grandfather was a unique individual. Yes, he made Apple Jack. He was a beekeeper, a truck farmer, a hunter, a skilled woodworker, and a lover of all the wild things that came into his yard. It was Pop who planted the first two holly trees that seeded my property and a portion of the mountain hillside. 

One autumn day Pop put on his boots and went out to do a walk-about. I swear he knew every tree and rock on his property. He came home with an injured owl. 

My grandmother was not pleased, but she had a soft heart for the wild ones, too. They both knew for Hooter to have a chance to survive, he needed a little help. Pop made a rough frame and wrapped it in chicken wire and Hooter had temporary digs. His wing would heal and they'd set him free, or..... let's not go there.

Pop had a way with critters. It wasn't long before Hooter knew the human was the source of chicken livers. Now what self-respecting owl would refuse that meal? Hooter made friends with Pop. The days passed and the Christmas season rolled around.

Back in those days, the late 1960's, everyone had a cut tree for Christmas. Pop got a tree and put it up. My grandmother called me to come help decorate it. All was well until Pop let Hooter out of his cage. 

Hooter couldn't yet fly again, but he sure could hop and run. He made a beeline for the tree and up he went! Not even chicken livers could coax him out of the tree. So my grandparents let him alone. They turned the lights on in the evenings and it was Christmas business as usual except for the owl in the tree. 

Hooter eventually came down and out - and in spectacular fashion. He hopped out of the tree into the middle of the Christmas day dinner table, right in front of my Dad's plate. It was fucking funny. Every Christmas dinner at my grandparent's house thereafter, my father made a big show of searching the Christmas tree for surprises. And Dad and Pop would laugh the way men do when they have an inside joke with each other. 

Those were the days. The Waltons have nothing on my family. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 29, 2020

The Great Potato Experiment

 We've become fans of YouTube and we follow the real-life adventures of several modern-day "homesteaders" who are trying to live a simpler life. We laugh, sometimes, as they talk about living "off the grid" in a video obviously produced using modern means. Mostly, though, the videos are about how to do various things and we either emulate or improve upon the ideas we like. Growing potatoes in five-gallon buckets is one idea I found fascinating. 

The year 2020 was not a good year to begin gathering gardening supplies. I searched for food-grade five-gallon buckets everywhere and ended up purchasing grow bags online. I figure I'll be able to once again find the buckets about the time the grow bags wear out but spending the money twice is annoying. I did discover the grow bags work fine.

Having obtained the potato grow bags late in the season, I none-the-less planted a potato that had sprouted just to see if it would grow. It did, and what a fine looking plant it became. As the nights cooled, I moved the grow bag into the greenhouse. Yesterday, we decided to dump the bag and see how things had progressed in there. 

We didn't know what to expect other than if the plant had produced potatoes, they wouldn't be of any size. Planting a potato in October guaranteed that. What was a surprise was the number of tiny potatoes with the potential to develop into something edible. We called the experiment a success. There were seventeen little spuds in the bag, and of course, I dropped several before I took a snapshot. 

Next spring I'll plant five of the grow bags with potatoes and see what happens. With any luck, I'll get enough to fill a pantry shelf with quart jars full of processed russets. That would be a good thing.

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 28, 2020

Thanksgiving food dollars and sense

Turkey & Wild Rice Soup
Thanksgiving seems to be divided into two camps - one that says it's all about giving thanks and another that says it's all about the food. I guess I'm in the third and quiet camp that knows it's both. 

I was chatting with a girlfriend earlier today and she was bemoaning "the expense" of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, filling, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, biscuits, cranberry sauce, several veggies, and several desserts. It got me to thinking - and figuring. Here's the breakdown of my traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Keep in mind I buy items on sale, in bulk, and had pressure canned my own potatoes. 

Turkey $18
Filling $2.36
White potatoes ($4.97x2/24x2) $.83
Sweet potatoes $1.99
Biscuits (homemade) $1
Cranberry sauce $1.59
Pumpkin pie 2.77
Corn $.59
Green beans $.49

Total = $29.62

canned turkey broth

I would agree that $30 for one meal, and that's without figuring in time spent shopping and cooking, would be a lot. But is it really? Here are a few more numbers.

Turkey pot pies in the freezer - 4 (used dark meat turkey and leftover veggies plus 1 quart canned potatoes

Wild Rice & Turkey Soup - 4 meals in the freezer using white meat turkey

Leftover plate dinners - 2 meals

Pumpkin pie - dessert two additional evenings

Turkey sandwiches - 1 lunch

Turkey Tetrazzini - 2 dinners using white meat and pantry ingredients

In my situation, our $30 dinner has stretched for a total of 14 meals. That shakes down to less than $3 a meal, and that's a meal for two people. 

This doesn't even count the 6 quarts of turkey broth I canned to use in recipes throughout the coming year. 

I think fixing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is something to be thankful for. There are 10 times in the future I won't have to prepare a dinner unless you want to say getting the meal out of the freezer and heating it up is the same as cooking the meal. It's really not, at least to me. 

I don't need to be this frugal, but I'm thankful that it's not a hardship for me to practice frugality. Food is a necessity and a resource. I'm grateful for the women in my life who taught me how to manage my resources. It seems I don't have to look too far to discover that not all of us were fortunate enough to receive such lessons. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 27, 2020

Canning russet potatoes

quarts - potatoes

Until recently, I never gave canning potatoes a thought. My grandparents always stored potatoes in the cellar, tucked safely in insulating straw. Modern life being what it is, if I needed potatoes I stopped by the grocery and got a bag. 

Fast forward to 2020 and Covid 19, and suddenly canning potatoes becomes a really good idea. 

The process is simple, identical, in fact, to canning sweet potatoes. Peel the potatoes and cut into approximately one-inch squares, parboil, hot pack, process for ninety minutes. Even if it never reaches the point where I can’t purchase potatoes at the grocery, I will continue to jar potatoes.

How much easier is it going to be to open a quart of pre-cooked potatoes, heat them, mash them, and serve? For at least the next seven times, the peeling is already done. I’m sure the spousal unit will appreciate that. 

It’s also a way to avoid wasting food. I shudder to think how many hundreds of pounds of potatoes I’ve tossed into the woods for the critters because they sprouted, got soft, or actually rotted. 

pints - potatoes

Even in a land of plenty, waste is not a good thing. 

My world is changing, becoming more and more linked to the past. I thank God every day for the life and times of my grandparents and the things they taught me. I do believe those lessons will save my life. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 25, 2020

Standing Guard

I'm not sure when, or why, I decided to apply my writing skills to the occasional poem, but I'm glad I did. 

Thanksgiving 2017 was the first holiday I spent without my mother. I knew then that my days of big family celebrations had come to an end. It felt rather strange but I knew I'd been set free in an unexpected way. Some of the shackles I lived with fell away upon the realization that as you get older even the family you love isn't always good for you in every situation. 

It wasn’t until it was gone that I realized the amount of stress I suffered at these family gatherings where, without my grandfather to buffer other individuals, my every imperfection was on vivid display. With the passage of time, the sharp edges of memory are blunted and I can once again recall those times with childlike fondness.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Standing Guard
(Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2017)

Long ago I tread a path
A misty woodland way
I had no company along the trek
So the trees could have their say

They spoke to me in silence
With movement seen not heard
And I replied in quiet kind
Walking without a word

The day ahead held demands
Devoid of mist and air
I could not whine or complain
Or do what trees don't dare

Beneath the ground unseen by all
Their roots do intertwine
Reminding me the path ahead
Leads home to all that's mine

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 23, 2020

The hardest part of gardening is just ahead

We've not done extensive vegetable gardening here on the Manor. We have a huge problem with white-tailed deer and therefore, in the past, we had an even bigger problem with working hard just to provide them with a nice salad bowl. But the times, they are a-changing, or so they say. This past summer we were successful on a very small scale. For 2021, we're upping our game. 

I'm already in possession a collection of seeds from Burpee. My grandfather and my mother both bought seeds from Burpee so I'm continuing the tradition, at least for this year. I can't say as it got off to a good start since I received someone else's order, but apparently, the lady who got some of my seeds got to the company before I even knew it happened. I had an email telling me my replacement order was on the way before I got the wrong seeds. That I get to keep. I'll be growing sugar snap peas, spinach, and different varieties of radish and lettuce along with what I ordered. It's all good. There are enough seeds in each envelope to plant for two or three seasons. Just because they're packaged for 2021 doesn't mean they will magically go "poof" on December 31st. 

Now I need to figure out when to start the different seeds. That means research into each variety and careful notes on a gardening calendar. After the seeds spouts, the fun begins as the plants grow, then flower, then produce. I'm kind of excited about it! 

I already know some of the seeds can be started early in seed trays inside my little greenhouse. Others will need to go directly into the growbag for the season. Some, like the lettuce and spinach, I'm undecided about how I want to grow them. I have an old wagon and I'm tempted to plant them in that and move them around to thwart the critters. 

Yes, the time to do serious planning for 2021 is here. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor  (The Hideaway)

November 21, 2020

Getting ready for snow at Holly Tree Manor

According to the Farmer's Almanac, a publication my grandfather set a lot of store in, we're going to get walloped by a big snow in February. This isn't as dire a prediction as one may think. It was the second week of February 1983 when I had my first taste of being snowed in at the Manor. Thirty-six inches of snow fell in two days. Luckily, I obeyed my grandfather when he told me to park my car in his driveway, closer to the road. It was two weeks until enough snow melted that I was able to get it back my lane, but I was able to walk in and out to the car and back home. 

Cars quickly passed and SUVs became my vehicle of choice. With four-wheel drive, I'm able to break open tracks in the lane and get in and out without much problem. 

Then one fateful day, the spousal unit and I decided to purchase a sub-contract tractor with several attachments, including a bucket, a backhoe, and a snowblower. Here on the Manor we're not afraid to sing "Let it Snow!" Heck, I even traded my trusty Blazer in on a Charger, which, if you know cars, does not go well in the snow. (I drive the partner's pickup when it snows.)

The caveat to having this handy piece of snow moving equipment is that every year the loader and bucket need to come off the John Deere 1023 and the snowblower needs to go on. I'm sure it was a MAN who designed how the snowblower mounts up. 

Today was the day we decided to make the switch. It's always easier to do this before it gets bitterly cold but after we no longer need the loader and bucket for outside work. November is the time, generally over Thanksgiving weekend. But today was a balmy 60F and the ten-day forecast across next weekend is for cold and rain. So today it was. 

My partner can no longer get on the ground. More precisely, if he gets on the ground getting off the ground may not happen without someone calling for a lot of help. I'm the one who crawls under the John Deere 1023 and shoves the shaft over the sprocket and seeds the coupler. I don't like that job but it's not too difficult.

It normally takes about an hour to do this task. Today took longer. I'd not yet blown the leaves out from under the carport where we park the tractor, so I had to do that once the 1023 had been moved out. The old Craftsman mower had been parked where we rest the loader and bucket over the winter and when I tried to start it, it refused to fire and needed to be pushed out of the way. The 1023 needed to be fueled. The Colorado needed to be moved as I'd parked it too close to the shed to swing the tractor through the doors. Yes, we were an unorganized mess. 

In the end, tempers held, experience worked, and the job was accomplished. The 1023 and the John Deere 370 mower are both fueled. The pin is in the backhoe, and the loader and bucket sitting on level ground. We even called for carry-out for dinner so no one had to cook. And you know what?

Let. It. Snow. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 18, 2020


It seems that here at Holly Tree Manor, we're all about food these days. When we're not watching our carbs, we're talking about all the good holiday food in our future. Covid 19 be damned, we're having turkey! And stuffing! And pumpkin pie! And bourbon sweet potato pie! And fruitcake!

Yes, I said fruitcake. We like fruitcake, and the more bourbon it has in it, the better we like. 

We grew up in a different time. Our maternal grandmothers had a profound influence on us. Their grandmothers made fruitcakes when finding the candied fruits meant making your own. Those influences are still part of us. We like to carry on the old traditions even if we don't have anyone to pass them down to now. It's just the way it is. 

Until this year, I'd never made a fruitcake from scratch. It was simpler to purchase one and take it home and soak it in real bourbon. But last year we were disappointed with the offering we found, even after giving it a good, long whiskey bath. So this year I located the candied fruits, which provided a recipe, and I got to work. The end result is good but still doesn't take like my grandmother's fruitcake. 

I blame the store-bought candied fruit. For my next attempt, I'm going to get dried fruits, chop them, and let them soak in the booze for several days. Then I'm going to make the fruitcake in the Instant Pot. That should make it really moist. We'll see. 

And maybe we'll actually do something exciting that is not food-related before the end of the week. But I doubt it. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 13, 2020

Sweet potato processing - Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie

Growing up, sweet potatoes were reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. I'm so glad we're now able to enjoy them throughout the entire year! I like them baked, mashed, and yes, "candied." I generally purchase enough cans from the grocery to last for a year. Around here, you won't have much luck finding them on the shelves other than at the holidays. 

This year I noticed a local grocery was selling sweet potatoes for $.67 a pound. I purchased twenty pounds, or enough for seven quarts and ten pints. I processed the quarts this morning and plan to do the pints tomorrow. 

A few days ago, the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, laid out a grim picture of where the State is headed in the fight against Covid-19. I'll be working from home again for at least the next three weeks, an eventuality I saw coming and prepared for. 

That's what the return to home canning is all about - preparing for the unknown. The term "prepper" has some social condescension attached to it, but there is a difference between a "prepper" and a "doomsday prepper." Being prepared to weather a pandemic is prepping in the purest form. We prepare. We plan. And we don't have as many things to worry about, like, will I be able to have Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie as part of our Thanksgiving feast?  Yes, I will. 

Home canning sweet potatoes is a bit of work. Peeling a sweet potato is annoying. They like to hold on to their skins. A good trick is to parboil them first, and then peel. As for canning instructions, get the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving AND read the guide to your particular canner so you do it correctly. However, I will share my Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie recipe, which is based on an old recipe by The Frugal Gourmet. 
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie

Preheat oven to 425F.

Prepare a single pie crust. 

2 cups mashed sweet potato
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup half and half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup bourbon
optional: a pinch of ground ginger

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and the half & half, and mix. Add everything else and mix really well, then pour into prepared pie crust. 

Bake for 15 minutes, then turn oven down to 350F and bake until set, about 40 minutes (you know your oven so adjust time accordingly). It's done when a knife comes out clean. 

Serve hot or cold but don't forget the whipped cream!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So that's it. Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie. It's not just for those of us below the Mason-Dixon Line to enjoy, and it's not just for Thanksgiving. Not any longer! 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 8, 2020

The old tractor path - phase one

This past year we've been plagued with high winds. I don't remember another time in my life when the winds have been so strong and persistent. It's our own fault. We keep clearing the land for more and more houses. Mankind is its own worst enemy. 

During one recent wind storm, we had a maple tree beside the lower stone fence fall and take down a couple of scrubby trees with it. That tangled mess has plucked my nerves all summer. I can say it bugged the hell out of me and mean it was the BUGS that kept us from cleaning it up until now. Mosquitoes, flies, ticks, ants, bees. You name the bug and we gave them the space for the summer. But no more. Now is the time of reckoning. 

Yesterday was a gorgeous autumn day, so much so that I started to work on the old tractor path while my partner mowed leaves. I started on the ends of the limbs and worked back, building a brush pile and then cutting lengths for firewood. I took my time and got all the smaller stuff sorted. Now it's time for a bigger gun - the Stihl 192.  

We've learned how to use the backhoe on the John Deere 1023 like a hook. My partner can lift and securely hold the larger pieces of the trees so I can cut them to length for firewood without having to bend over and tire my back. Using the pallet forks, he can lift the brush and haul it to where we burn. The 1023 makes life on the manor a lot easier. I wish we'd have gotten a tractor twenty years ago instead of six. 

I wanted to walk the old tractor path and take photos, but yesterday made me realize it's in worse shape than I thought. I'll need to clear the way in, every step of the way.  It's a bigger job than anticipated, but I feel it will be worth it. I haven't had access to that part of the property in a while, and I think it's important that I be able to walk the perimeter on a regular basis. It's all part of better managing the Manor and its resources. Who knows what I may decide to do with the sunny west bank once I can get to it. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor (The Hideaway)

November 6, 2020

A long time coming - berries on the largest holly tree

For years I've wondered if any of the holly trees would ever get berries. I knew that berries only form on old growth, so pruning is not recommended if you want to get berries. I also knew that hollies have both male and female plants, and the berries form on the female trees. This is the first year any of the hollies have produced berries, and it's only on the largest tree.

I didn't plant any of the fourteen holly trees on the manor. A lifetime ago, my grandfather purchased a male and a female holly and planted it in the lower corner of his yard. A walk through the nearby woods will show a person just how prolific those parent trees were. I'm sure my hollies are their progeny. 

When he purchased the home place, my cousin felled the holly trees. Holly trees can live well over 100 years and these two were probably about seventy and beginning to show their age. Even a light snow caused branches to break. We didn't want to wake up one morning and find our shared lane blocked by a fallen tree, and so I reluctantly agreed they had to come down at a time of our choosing. By then, I already had young, established trees. 

Will we have a little holly "baby boom" on the manor? It wouldn't be a bad thing. It would give me the chance to transplant a few young trees along the western stone fence to grow as a barrier to a neighbor who thinks target shooting into my hillside is okay. It's not. 

All we can do now is wait and see. Mother Nature can't be rushed.

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

November 2, 2020

Of concern: The 2020 Election

Tomorrow is election day 2020. The candidates are incumbent President Donald Trump and Democrat hopeful Joe Biden. Trump is not a politician and Biden is nothing except a politician. 

The United States has been in turmoil for the last twelve years. My way of life, that of a peaceful rural existence where folks get along with each other, work hard, and still believe in God, has been under steady attack from people who believe we don't deserve what we worked hard to achieve. There are unrest and riots in the cities across this land. 

We rural dwellers are perhaps too complacent about this. We sit on our porches, the ones the rioters would take from us for whatever reasons they can create, and discuss the stupidity of burning your own community. It's not something we do. We value community far too much, and we value the individualism that makes our communities peaceful, safe places to live. 

Our individualism is under attack. It is suggested to us we have somehow wronged the millions of people we have supported through our tax dollars. You see, we rural dwellers don't have much of a problem paying our fair share, which under current tax laws is more than our fair share. We don't scream about it too much, but we do have a certain level of resentment about paying tax dollars that are used to help the less fortunate and then having those people throw it back in our faces that we're not doing enough. 

How is going to work every day not enough? How is giving to various charities not enough? How is being small business owners and offering jobs not enough? How is our churches offering programs for all children not enough? 

Never in my life have I witnessed such unrest. So many minds have been poisoned and for what? 

The late President John F. Kennedy's famous quote no longer resonates. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country."  

We seem to no longer understand the meaning of those words. Of a vision of a country united. When we simply go about our daily lives, working to support each other, we are all elevated. I work and pay my taxes, giving a portion to support programs to help others. Should I not also be allowed to keep a portion for myself? Is it wrong that my parents and grandparents set aside a portion for me? Is it wrong that I in turn have set aside a portion for the younger members of my family? And that portion comes AFTER the tax portion paid for the good of all. According to some, my way of thinking is very wrong. 

The 2020 election is tomorrow. 

The 2020 election is tomorrow, and choices are severely limited. Due to the Covid 19 situation, I dropped my ballot at a collection location. The State of Maryland sent an email telling me my vote has been counted. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor