Processing the harvest, even in February

Yep, you read that right. Harvest from the windowsills, harvest from a culture kindly shared by an online friend, and harvest from the supermarket – sorry about that last one, I’ve got no magic formula for conjuring food from the garden at this time of year, though perennials such as lemon balm, rhubarb, sorrel, garlic and salad burnet are all starting to grow.

This is a bit of a different from my usual post, but it underlies a great deal of preparedness in general. It’s about using what you’ve got, whether that’s cheap fresh food from the supermarket or first aid supplies from plants you’re growing yourself, or swapping cultures online. Thinking a bit outside the box to improvise, to keep alive the old skills, to become more self reliant. That means relying less on big business, saving money and giving yourself a bit of concrete insurance to ensure that you can cope with whatever comes your way in these uncertain times.

First aid supplies and food stocks are the two areas I’m most interested in. So last week, I was repotting my aloe vera plants, and three became five. I hadn’t repotted them for about 3 years, and I meant to just get some fresh soil in there and repot them in the same plantpots, but it wasn’t possible – the “pups”, the new plants, were too big, and some had to be separated out, so that’s what I did. I was really badly organised about it, I hadn’t got enough plantpots ready and my equipment was stretched out over almost the whole of the kitchen and the patio outside, as well as needing to find new sites for the newly potted pups. Not good.

But I ended up with five well-nourished plants, so that’s good, for sure. Aloe vera are incredibly easy to grow as a houseplant in the UK – ordinary potting compost, a windowsill, water once a week, and Bob’s your proverbial uncle. In fact, they’re quite hard to kill. Mine have suffered from not being repotted earlier, it’s true, but they’re still alive, and now they’re flourishing again.

How little soil they had
How little soil the plants had before repotting

They have quite a few uses – not just snipping a bit of leaf for a burn, which seems the only widely known use. Instead, I had a look at WebMD, a pretty orthodox site as these things go, and I was pleasantly surprised at what I found there. It can be used (every so often) for constipation, for many skin conditions (from psoriasis to male genital herpes) and I was shocked to find there are also studies supporting its use for diabetics, in lowering their blood sugar, and possibly in lowering cholesterol too. It is already used in conjunction with radiotherapy and is considered helpful for “radiation induced skin injuries”. That’s quite something.

Three of the new plants
Three of the happy new plants

It has to be processed carefully, however, and it can’t be used constantly, so I’ll be doing another post on the actual useage – I need to let my new plants settle in and expand their root system, in any case.

 

The supermarket harvesting was onions at 60p per kilo, not particularly cheap, but cheap enough, and I wanted to do another experiment with dehydrating. A lot of people who identify as ‘preppers’ already dehydrate, of course, and it became almost mainstream a few years ago, when Alys Fowler of Gardener’s World devoted most of one of her own TV programmes to it. But it’s new to me. I need dehydration as a form of preserving food – I don’t like using sugar for that, and vinegar is bad in any quantity for people with arthritis. I don’t quite trust my freezer any more, it doesn’t seem to store frozen veg too well, so dehydrating it is. Because there’s no magical ingredient to it, its quite hard to take it on board, so I’m doing gradual experiments – grapes and sweet peppers a few weeks ago, and onions today, a kilo of them.

Omigod! Never process that amount of onions without wearing swimming goggles, it qualifies as a chemical attack. Or a sinus treatment, I haven’t quite decided.

Saving seed
Saving the sweet pepper seed for later sprouting
Dehydrating onions
Dehydrated onions
Dried onions and sweet peppers
Dried onions and sweet peppers

One lesson I did take on board from the work on the aloes was to be much better prepared from the outset. So the base of the dehydrator was sitting right by the out-of-the-way electric socket, where it could hum away to itself for the next ten hours. The trays were stacked just behind me, on the way to the pre-positioned base. And I was stationed at my work area – a kilo of onions in front of me, a small chopping area to take the onion skins, a used pot to take the skins ready for the compost bin, and a knife and full-sized chopping board to slice the onions ready for the dehydrator shelves.

The jars I used to store the dried onions are Kilner jars, meant for home canning in the American sense; the bodies were run through the dishwasher and left to cool and dry, and the lids were just washed and dried – in future years, maybe I could make my own antimicrobial fluid by harvesting my aloe vera plants! But there are many experiments to come before I’m ready to do that. Interesting, though.

The final part of all this harvesting was an experiment with the kefir culture another prepper sent me: I’m sure mumsnet users share their kefir and scoby cultures around too, and once I’m comfortable with the process, I’m willing to pay it forward as well – if anyboy would like kefir culture, just get in touch with me via the comments.

I used a very pretty jar I had lying around, and seconded an old peanut butter lid to lay across the top, then put the whole construction in my airing cupboard. The hot water wasn’ t on, so it didn’t overheat.

Kefir jar sitting in the airing cupboard
Kefir jar in the airing cupboard

It’s very, very simple to harvest – after 48 hours, I strained the now-lumpy milk into a jug. The strainings went into a new jar with more milk. The kefir-ed milk was put into the fridge – I’ll use it over the next few days. I don’t want to drink this much milk regularly, even though apparently the fermentation uses up the lactose, so I’m going to be experimenting with water kefir, which comes up prominently on a web search.

Looking after the culture is a little bit more complicated than this – making sure you have clean jars and lids, timing the fermentation to fit in with your own life, and how much product you want – that just takes time to find the right way forward for each person.

Each experiment worked well, and the dehydrating in particular means I’m not reliant on continued electricity to power the freezer, to keep my food stocks good to eat. Dehydrated food stores compactly, too – as anyone who’s soaked beans overnight knows, dried food has much less volume and weight than the original food. The dehydrator can’t work without electricity, of course, but that’s my next personal project, and a solar briefcase is already sitting in my stores, ready for the battery of my choice. A haybox is half made, to cook dehydrated food – an electric slow cooker can be used in the meantime. The aloes and the kefit mean that I’m looking after the health of me and my family.

One project leads on to another, and the net result is more stocks, more skills, and more preparedness all round. I like it.

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