Tag Archives: Summer 2017

Fresh figs

By Kristina Seleshanko

When we moved to our 15 acre homestead, I was thrilled to adopt a mature orchard. Most of the common fruit trees were there, including apples, plums, cherries, and pears. And then there were four fig trees. Suddenly I realized I’d never even tasted a fig … unless you count Fig Newton cookies. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about figs — and I must say I’m as delighted with those trees as I am with the other fruit trees in our orchard.

It turns out, fresh figs are something of a rare and delicious treat. The reason so few Americans have tasted fresh figs is that the fruit is delicate when ripe; truly ripe figs would never survive being shipped to grocery stores and handled by multiple customers. Happily, however, figs grow in many areas in the United States: zones 7 – 11. (Potted trees that are brought indoors during winter can survive down to zone 4b.) Figs, then, are an excellent addition to the homestead.

Fig growing requirements

Figs like well draining soil. Ours are planted in clay, but they are on top of a hill that drains well. Ideally, though, loamy soil rich in nutrients is best. Figs prefer a pH of 6.0 – 6.5, and like an area that gets full sun.

Plant fig trees where they are protected from winter wind. Avoid planting them where they will receive direct sun in the winter, or they may come out of dormancy too soon; then, when a cold snap hits, the trees will be damaged and you may not get a harvest that year.

Plant bare root trees 15 to 20 feet apart in the late fall or early spring. If you’d like to train the trees into bushes (mature trees are 15 – 30 feet tall), you may plant them 10 feet apart. Figs are self-fruitful, so if desired, you can plant only one. For the best harvest, I suggest planting several varieties, selecting early-, mid-, and late-fruiting types. In this way, you can have fresh figs from late spring through late fall. Some fig varieties produce an early crop (called a “breba”), as well as a more plentiful, later crop. It takes about two years to begin seeing mature fruit on most fig trees.

In areas with mild winters, figs need no added winter protection. In places that get regular snow, you’ll need to protect the trees by mulching thickly with hay or leaves, and wrapping branches in a blanket when temperatures drop below freezing. In the coldest climates, plant a dwarf tree in a pot that’s at least three feet across and two or more feet deep, and bring it indoors during the winter months.

Fig tree care

Use 8-8-8 fertilizer on fig trees: One pound of fertilizer for every year of the tree’s life (or for each foot in height), up to 12 pounds total per tree. The best time to fertilize is when the tree is budding. If fertilizer is too heavy in nitrogen, you’ll end up with trees that have lots of leaves, but no fruit.

Newly planted trees need consistent watering; don’t let them dry out. But mature figs don’t mind dry soil. (In fact, figs become tasteless when trees are over-watered). However, if the tree’s leaves begin to droop, it’s time to give them a soak. Don’t stress your fig trees by under-watering, since this makes them more vulnerable to their main nemesis: nematodes.

Pruning can be light; cut away any dead branches, and trim as needed to keep the tree the size you desire. Always prune in later winter, before new growth begins.

How to tell when figs are ripe

Knowing when to pick figs is a bit of an art. Since the fruit stops ripening once it’s picked, and since under-ripe figs are pretty tasteless, it’s important to pick the fruit at the right time.

The first clue that figs are ready to harvest might be color. Most figs start out green and gradually turn a dark brown or even blackish color as they ripen. However, there are varieties of figs that stay green even when ripe, so color isn’t a hard and fast harvesting rule.

This nearly ripe fig is still firm. Once it softens, it will be ripe. I like to wait even longer, until the figs begin to develop cracks in the skin, when they literally burst with flavor.

The best indication that a fig is ripe is how tender it is. Unripe figs are hard; when figs get soft, they are ripe. But for the very best flavor, wait to harvest until the figs develop cracks. In fact, though it may sound gross to some people, in my experience, the best indication that a fig is perfect for eating is when ants or fruit flies are on it. The fruit flies will fly away when you pick the fruit and the ants are easily wiped off.

If your figs don’t have much flavor, you’re picking them before they are fully ripe, or you’re over-watering the trees. Another indication that you’ve picked a fig too soon: There is sticky sap in the stem.

How to use figs

Of course figs make an excellent snack, eaten right off the tree, but once your fig trees are mature, you’ll have more figs than you can easily eat this way. Figs taste best when stored at room temperature, but they last longer if kept in the fruit bin of a refrigerator. Typically, I store them in the fridge, remove what I want to eat, and allow the fruit to come to room temperature before eating it.

Figs are also excellent in both savory and sweet dishes. Some typical uses for fresh figs include fig galette, cake, or pie; as a pizza topping; roasted with goat cheese, ricotta, or yogurt; or baked along with chicken, lamb, or duck. Figs can be stuffed with blue cheese (and perhaps cooked in a frying pan until the cheese is melted), and halved or chopped figs are wonderful in a fresh green salad.

Fig Newton-style cookies

These take a little time to prepare, but are absolutely scrumptious — especially when they are still warm from the oven. If you want to save a little time, you may substitute the filling with fig jam (see recipes, below).

For the dough:

    ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
    ½ cup granulated sugar
    ½ tsp. grated lemon zest
    1 large egg white
    ½ tsp. real vanilla extract
    1½ cups all purpose flour


For the filling:

    2 lbs. fresh figs
    ¼ cup granulated sugar
    Juice from half a lemon


In the bowl of a mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and zest. Beat in the egg white and vanilla. Add the flour and beat until dough forms.

These fig cookies are a bit involved, but so delicious that I find they’re worth the effort.

Place the dough on a piece of plastic wrap and flatten into a disc. Cover completely with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Remove the fig stems and chop the fruit. Place the prepared figs in a medium saucepan, along with the sugar and lemon juice. Use a potato masher to mash the ingredients together. Cook over medium high heat until sugar has dissolved and the mixture bubbles. Stir often. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the mixture is reduced by about a third and is starting to gel, remove from the stove and allow to cool completely.

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper until it measures about 12 x 16 inches. Cut into 4 equal strips (about 12 x 4 inches each). Using a spoon, place filling down the center of each strip. Fold the dough over the filling and pinch the edges of the dough together. Cut each piece into 10 cookies and place on prepared baking sheet, seam side down. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden.

Preserving figs


The easiest way to preserve figs is to dehydrate them. Even though figs are soft and juicy, they dry quickly. I typically cut them into quarters and dehydrate at 135° F. overnight. Store in a glass jar with an air tight lid and place in a cool, dark location. You can snack on the dehydrated fig pieces, or use them for baking and cooking. Because figs are so fragile when fresh, most fig recipes call for dried figs, so having a supply of dehydrated fig pieces is great.

Most recipes call for dehydrated figs, since it is almost impossible to come by the fresh ones at the market, so a good supply of dried fig pieces will always come in handy.

Dehydrating figs is simple. Simply quarter and dehydrate overnight.


Just like most other types of fruit, there are two ways to freeze figs: with or without syrup. In both cases, for the nicest looking and best tasting figs, it’s a good idea to treat the fruit with lemon juice. Use 3 tablespoons of juice for every quart of water, and dip halved or chopped figs in this mixture.

To freeze using a syrup, The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends a heavy syrup: 2¾ cups granulated sugar and 4 cups of water. Heat the water on the stove, add the sugar, and stir until it’s completely dissolved. Allow the syrup to cool completely. Gently fold in prepared figs and place in freezer proof containers, leaving one inch of headspace.

To freeze figs without syrup, pack prepared figs into freezer proof containers, being sure to leave one inch of headspace. If you want to be able to remove just a few figs from the freezer at any given time (say for smoothies), lay the prepared figs in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the freezer. Once the figs are frozen, pop them into freezer bags.

Frozen figs tend to be mushy, so plan to use them for smoothies or baking such things as cakes and cookies.

Fig freezer jam
    4 cups chopped figs (stems removed)
    2 cups granulated sugar
    ½ cup of water
    1 Tbsp. of lemon juice


Place prepared figs in a large saucepan and add sugar and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 40 to 60 minutes.

Fig jam is a delicious and uncommon treat that will keep some of that delightful fruit handy all season long.

Stir in the lemon juice and cook for 1 minute, then remove from the stove and allow to cool completely. Pour into jars, leaving 1 inch headspace, allow to cool, then freeze.

Makes about 2 pints.

Canning figs

Whole figs

For best results, choose only just-ripe figs.

Wash the fruit, but do not remove the stems. Place figs in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Boil for 2 minutes. Drain.

Create a light syrup for the figs by bringing 5¾ cup of water to a boil and adding 1½ cups granulated sugar. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved.

Add the prepared figs and boil gently for 5 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons lemon juice per quart jar (or 1 tablespoon per pint jar) and fill jars with figs and syrup. Leave ½ inch headspace. Process pint jars in a hot water bath canner for 45 minutes, and quart jars for 50 minutes. If you live above 1,000 feet elevation, you’ll have to adjust your processing time according to the instructions in a modern canning manual or the National Center for Home Food Preservation website (http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_02/fig.html).

No added pectin fig jam
    about 5 lbs. fresh figs
    ¾ cup water
    6 cups granulated sugar
    ¼ cup lemon juice


Fill a pot with water and bring to a boil. Pour over the whole figs. Allow to stand for 10 minutes, then drain.

Cut off stems and chop fruit. Pour into a large pot. Add ¾ cup of water and the sugar, stirring until sugar is fully dissolved. Bring to a boil and continue gently boiling until the mixture thickens, stirring often.

Add lemon juice and cook for 1 minute.

Pour into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Process half pint or pint jars for 5 minutes if you live below 1,000 feet elevation, 10 minutes if you live between 1,000 and 6,000 feet, and 15 minutes if you live above 6,000 feet.

Makes about five 8 oz. jars.

Kristina Seleshanko homesteads on 15 mostly wooded acres; she is the author of 25 books, including The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook, A Vegetable for Every Season Cookbook, and Starting Seeds. She blogs at www.ProverbsThirtyOneWoman.blogspot.com.

Jersey Giants: The triple-purpose chicken

By Patrice Lewis

We’ve raised chickens for years, both for eggs and meat. Getting eggs from chickens is easy. Getting meat … well, not so much. No matter how many times you hear about various breeds being touted as “dual purpose” — good for eggs and meat — the meat part is likely to be disappointing. The bird that goes in your freezer is likely to be about the size of a skinny “rubber chicken” rather than the fat roasters you see on the rotisserie at Costco.

So, like most rural Americans, we turned to Cornish Crosses for our meat birds. We’ve tried them on and off over the years, but we stopped raising them for two reasons.

Our mature Jersey Giant roosters weigh a whopping 12 pounds each.

Reason one: Cornish Crosses, as meat birds, fulfill their function superbly. They gain weight with a speed and seriousness that is awesome to behold. Within nine or ten weeks max, they’re ready for the freezer.

Except here’s the thing: If you don’t put them in the freezer by nine or ten weeks, their bodies start to break down. Their organs fail. Their joints give out. They can’t walk. They expire at the drop of a hat. It’s horrifically sad. I call them weird freaky mutant chickens.

Reason two: We can’t breed Cornish Crosses ourselves. We’re trying to make our homestead more self-sustaining, not less. If we have to purchase chicks from the feed store every time we want to raise meat birds, we’re taking a step backward, not forward. We looked into what it takes to breed Cornish Crosses, but it turns out they have a rather complicated tangle of genetics that precludes the home breeder from duplicating the exact lineage without a lot of dedicated work.

Never have I raised a breed of chicken so willing to sit on eggs. Reproduction cannot be overlooked as an important component of sustainability on a homestead.

A couple of years ago, after butchering our last batch of Cornish Crosses, we decided “no more.” Never again did we want weird freaky mutant chickens on our farm.

So the search was on for replacement birds. What breed would dress out large enough for a meal, yet stay healthy enough to grow to adulthood? What breed could equal the fat and delicious Cornish Crosses as a meat bird, but which we could raise ourselves? That’s when we found Jersey Giants.

Purpose one: The original meat bird

As the name implies, this breed was originally developed in New Jersey in the late 1800s by two brothers, John and Thomas Black. They were the original “commercial” meat chicken bred to replace the turkey, which was the primary table bird at the time (doubtless because other chicken breeds were too scrawny to provide a substantial meal, which we’ve found is true even now). They are considered the largest purebred chicken breed.

Jersey Giants come in three colors: Black, white, and “blue” (a bluish slate-gray). Black is the dominant gene, so white birds come from breeding two recessive whites. Blue giants come from an incomplete dominant gene. There is also a “splash” variety, in which the bird has two copies of the blue gene. Splash birds are a paler slate color, or have whitish streaks. They are not recognized as an “official” variety and therefore can’t be used as show birds. On average, the blacks tend to outweigh the whites by about a pound.

Today, the slower-growing Jersey Giant has been entirely supplanted by the fast-growing Cornish Cross in the meat industry, a fully understandable decision in terms of profitability. However for the self-sustaining homestead, where “fast” isn’t as strong a consideration as “humane” and “reproducible,” the Jersey Giant has proven to be a superb choice for us.

Jersey Giant hens are fantastic layers of brown eggs, and will go broody all year. They are not much larger than other large breed hens at maturity.

In June 2015, we received 10 pullets and five straight-run (unsexed) chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery, all of which arrived in excellent health. Of the straight-run chicks, three were roosters (one of which got picked off by a coyote).

We haven’t butchered our two roosters since they are our flock sires. We have several young second-generation roosters who have not yet reached butchering weight (as of this writing), however our current mature boys weigh in at about 12 pounds each. Using the average ratio of live weight to dressed weight (dressed chickens are about 75 percent of live weight), we can anticipate about a nine-pound bird in the freezer at butchering time. Since most chickens are processed at about 4.5 pounds live weight, we expect a satisfactorily hefty roaster.

Jersey Giants have a reputation for growing “slower” than other breeds of chickens. In fact, they grow at the same pace; it’s just that they have farther to go to reach their full size. They tend to achieve their large frame first, then put on weight later. Since roosters take about nine months to achieve maximum weight, they are considered to have a poor feed/weight conversion. Again, that’s a factor for commercial enterprises, but not as important on a homestead.

We’ve found the hens to be not much larger in size than Black Australorps or Rhode Island Reds, so our meat efforts have been concentrated on the roosters. We keep the two mature roosters with the hens for both fertilization and protection, and they are all free-range. Our young roosters destined for the freezer are kept in a separate pen with a large enclosed run.

Allowing chickens to free range outside and in the barn compost helps to supplement their diet to a degree that our feed costs are lowered tremendously. We are also working on raising more corn and wheat to feed them, in addition to feeding our family.

Allowing birds to be free-range greatly reduces dependency on commercial feed, particularly during warmer months. Our birds make good use of our extensive barn-waste compost pile. (We’re also working on raising enough wheat and corn for chicken feed in addition to human consumption, but that’s another article.)

Purpose two: Eggs galore

With the Jersey Giant emphasis on meat, we had no particular expectations the hens would be anything more than adequate egg layers. As it turns out, the hens are superb layers. Of course they don’t equal breeds which are dedicated for eggs, such as Leghorns, but we have been more than satisfied by the amount of henfruit we’ve received.

The eggs are on the medium-to-large side, but not especially huge. The eggs are brown, varying from dark brown to light cream, and sometimes show faint speckles. Hens start laying small “pullet” eggs at about the same time as other breeds, at five months of age or so.

Purpose three: Sustainability

I’ve claimed Jersey Giants as excellent triple-purpose birds. They’re excellent for both eggs and meat, so what’s the third benefit? Broodiness. I have never, and I mean never, seen a breed so inclined to go broody.

As anyone who has ever raised chickens knows, broodiness has been bred out of many breeds. Several types of chickens are known to be more inclined toward broodiness (notably bantams), and sometimes a particular hen of any breed goes broody, but in our experience, only the Jersey Giants have been remarkably consistent in their instinct.

During our first year with Jersey Giants, I had hens going broody at all times and in all places. I keep about a dozen wooden “nest eggs” to encourage hens to lay in convenient places, but I’ve also found these false eggs to be useful when hens go broody in the wrong season. One dedicated hen stayed on a batch of wooden eggs through bitterly cold December weather (I picked her up and put her in the coop each night, and each morning she would faithfully re-settle herself back on the fake eggs, located seven feet up on top some hay bales).

Some people say Jersey Giants are so big the broody hens tend to break their own eggs. I haven’t had that issue, namely because our girls are not that large.

Last summer we allowed two hens to hatch their broods. After the first lady hatched a “baker’s dozen” of chicks, a neighbor happened to stop by. When we showed him the babies peeping around their mother, he was delighted. “Aha!” he exclaimed. “Sustainability!” Broodiness has been bred out of so many chicken breeds that finding a hen who will hatch her own eggs is increasingly rare.

Pluses and minuses

Of course, nothing is perfect. There will always be something dissatisfying with any breed of chicken.

The biggest flaws of Jersey Giants are:

• Slower maturity. We aren’t overly concerned about this.

• Dark feathers, which can leave dark pinfeathers on a plucked bird during butchering. Raising white Jersey Giants will reduce this detriment.

• Roosters, due to their large size, can be a bit tough on the hens. We had a few bald ladies with bare backs until the boys got into their stride. We have not found the roosters to be aggressive toward people.

• They require proportionately more feed, which can be offset by allowing the chickens to be free range.

The biggest benefits of Jersey Giants are:

• A table bird of suitable size for a family

• Cold-hardy (we live in the north Idaho panhandle)

• Sustainability, since the hens go broody easily

• Not prone to health issues

• Hens are excellent layers

• They are a heritage breed

Heritage breed chickens have several benefits: they reproduce and genetically maintain their qualities through natural mating; they have a long productive outdoor lifespan, and their slow growth rate means their skeletal structure, organs, and muscle mass develop healthily.

At this point, we consider the benefits of Jersey Giants as outweighing the detriments. The ability to sustain a flock was high on our list. Add to it the large size and the egg-laying proclivities, and the result is an overall excellent choice for a homestead chicken.

Bike foraging

 By Setanta O’Ceillaigh

When times are hard it pays to ride a bike. Bikes can travel at a reasonable speed, carry a reasonable cargo, and there is very little that can break. They are light enough to carry over rough terrain, and they are very good on gas — they don’t use any. But a bike is more than a means of hauling cargo or getting from place to place; it is also a very valuable foraging tool if you know how to use it.

To forage with a bike, it should be outfitted with a basic kit for the task. A good mountain bike should have a basket in front, and two side baskets in the rear or a cargo bin on the back. A bike trailer is also very useful, but not a necessity. Any basket can be attached to the front of a bike, however my personal preference is a plastic battery box. To attach it, I bore out a few holes in the lip and use zip ties to fasten it between the handle bars. To keep rain water from collecting, I also drill out a few small holes in the bottom. For rear side baskets, I have used a heavy saddle bag basket I picked up in a yard sale and have also used square buckets that I attached to the sides. A milk crate can be added as a rear cargo bin directly over the rear wheel.

A good mountain bike can become an ideal foraging bike with a couple of inexpensive baskets, like these. The bike trailer is nice, but not a necessity.

A few tools are very handy for foraging, these include cloth and plastic bags, a knife, some kind of reaching tool (such as a can grabber or an old wooden cane), some light rope and bungee cords, and either a crack barrel pellet pistol or slingshot with a small amount of ammo. The tools should be stored within easy reach; the front basket is ideal. There should also be room for a water bottle, rain jacket, and any other miscellaneous tools that need to be kept at hand.

When foraging, stick to back roads. Bigger roads can be foraged along, but I recommend not picking anything close to the roadside. This is due to gas and oil runoff and other contaminants that might come from vehicles. Scarcely-used roads should only have a few feet for a no-pick zone, while busy main roads should have up to 100 feet for a no-pick zone. Use discretion.


Wild grapes

Recent logging sites might be filled with wild raspberries and blackberries. Old abandoned farms may yield wild carrots, parsnips, and other crops growing outside cultivation. Abandoned houses that are falling in might have asparagus, knotweed, Jerusalem artichokes, and rhubarb growing all over the yard. Forest edges might yield wild ginseng and ginger, hickory, walnuts, and butternuts. Many apple trees have grown near roadsides because someone threw an apple core out a car window. I have found old fences covered in wild grapes. Wetlands can be sources for cattails, duck potato, and wild rice. A gold mine of free fresh fruits and vegetables can be found as long as a bike forager knows what’s what and what is in season.

To collect things, I get off the bike and push it into the grass off the road (easier to do without a trailer attached — with a trailer it is best to use the kickstand).

If I find a dense area of wild grapes that are ripe, I twist the bunches off from the vine and pack them into a doubled up plastic bag (a grocery bag lined with another grocery bag). I don’t bother trying to separate each grape, plus the wild grape is mostly seed. I fill the bags and fill the saddle bag baskets with them. To use them, I dump them all into a large stock pot and pack them down, add about three inches of water, cover the pot, and set it on the stove. I heat the water to a boil and the steam wilts the stems and makes the grapes droop and weep. After a few minutes of boiling, the fruits are turned to a loose mush. I use a cheesecloth to filter out the mush, seeds, and stems, and set the juice aside to make wild grape jelly. Wild grape juice can be jellied following any grape recipe, but the result is a tart jelly not a sweet one. It’s really good.

Wild apples

For apples, I use the reaching tool to hook branches and pull them down to where I can reach them. I pick the best ones and make a big pile that I load into bags and cart home. Roadside apples tend to be small, but make for good cider. To make it without a press, I chop up the apples and crab apples and toss them all in a big stock pot and boil the same as I do for the grapes. After quickly filtering, the result is a tart juice that can be canned as cider or used to make a strong, cider-flavored jelly.

Hickory nuts and butternuts can be picked up off the ground, bagged up, taken home, and cracked with a hammer or nut cracker (depending on species). They can be added to breads and trail mixes, and a good breakfast can be had from boiled cornmeal mush, maple syrup, and hickory nuts. Locally, hickory nuts sell for $5 a gallon, and I know several people who make good money in the fall fighting the squirrels for them.


When digging up roots, I use the knife from the tool kit to make a pointed digging stick on the spot. Roots can be piled into a bag, taken home, washed, and cooked.

Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, black raspberries, currents, and other berries can be used fresh, canned as jams, jellies, and pie fillings, or sold for $5 a pint.

I keep note when I see things like asparagus growing wild, that way I can return to the spot in the spring and transplant them to my homestead.

Bike foraging can be enhanced with guerrilla gardening. This can be done by planting onion sets or garlic or by deploying seedbombs. Seedbombs are made from a mix of seeds, fertilizer, and clay, rolled up and air dried and thrown into abandoned areas. When rain water hits the seedbomb the clay dissolves so the seed can start growing with a little fertilizer. Many roadside apple trees grew from accidental guerrilla gardening, and the same method can be used for over ripe garden produce, throwing squash or tomatoes into random places. Sometimes the seeds will germinate and grow wild, sometimes they won’t. Nature has been spreading seeds this way on its own forever. A bird eats a berry, flies away, and the seed is dropped out somewhere else with a little fertilizer. Seedbombs are just mimicking a natural process.

Wild asparagus

Bike foraging can also be used for opportunistic hunting. By keeping a loaded pellet pistol or slingshot in the front basket, it is possible to take rabbits, grouse, squirrel, and woodchuck when so see them as you ride by. (Just know that shooting from the road is illegal just about everywhere, so don’t do that.)

The few dangers I have experienced while foraging on my bike are the same as using a bike in any other way. The biggest danger is aggressive dogs. If a dog gets close, I get off the bike and push it, keeping on the other side of the bike so it acts as a shield. Most dogs back off when I hold up the cane; they know a human with a stick means trouble. Having the pellet gun helps even the odds in an attack. I have been bitten by a few dogs while foraging and don’t take any chances now. The only other dangers I have faced are from reckless drivers.

When foraging, I stick to the back roads, stay out of peoples yards, and only forage from land known to be public (such as state or federal land), from abandoned properties (like run-down, falling-in houses with weeds and shrubs all over the yard), or from other tracts that are obviously not being used for anything. By regularly scouting, it is possible to forage large amounts of free produce. With the right mindset and some simple tools it is easy not only to stay fed, but also make a small income doing so — both things always worth considering when times are hard.