Sunday, 30 September 2018

DIY Bird Suets

 Well, I think after that -5 frost we had Friday night, it's officially time to stop chatting about the garden! In reality, I really haven't entered it in about a month... there's lots of work and clean up to get done now, but other than root veggies, the plants have all bit the dust!!  So with all this brisk weather and threats of snowfall, I want to change the tone to something winter related! Today I want to do a little DIY about bird suet! We started making these yearly, two years ago. Truly, it's been so fun to grow our bird population on our property over the winters, as a result! Mostly we get a lot of chickadees. Those cute little birds with the black heads. We also get woodpeckers (like the above, though not my photo), the odd blue-jay, and sometimes those annoying magpies make an appearance. We've also had something that looks like a wild turkey or quail of some variety pop up before dawn if your out watching early enough. So far, thanks to our dog, no squirrels! Haha!

Did you know, that of all the chickadee's that stay over the winter months, only about 30% actually survive the winter!? BUT!! But when they have access to a feeder, that percentage increases to a whopping 60%! The reason being that chickadees are so tiny that they lose about 10% of their body mass OVERNIGHT in the winter simply keeping warm! So you'll often see these hungry buzzards both dawn and dusk stocking up on much needed food.

Suet is a form of bird feeder specifically for winter birds. Its a combination of fruits and nuts, molded into a brick and held to form by a medium of solid fats such as lard or coconut oil or tallow.  You can buy these in stores too, for $3-5 a piece, but I love to make our own. Not only is it cost effective, but I can trust it more. Did you know that Scott's brand bird seed underwent a lawsuit a few years ago for putting out GMO birdseed that was actually killing the birds it was meant to feed!? So now I have a hard time trusting commercial products for birds :(

Suet is so easy to make, and its a great interactive activity to do with kids!

 This is my ingredients. As you can see, other than the bag of black oil sunflower seeds, its all food from my pantry. You can use any combination of seeds, nuts and fruit/dried fruits. Just make sure your nuts aren't roasted and salted, and your dried fruits are organic so they don't contain sulphites. Also fresh fruit will either need to be organic, or peeled... Remember, most pesticides on produce are designed to directly target are lovely birds!! (I'll post my recipe at the end for you all. But honestly you don't need one!)
 Start by putting your solid fats into a pot and melting them down. For this recipe I did 2 parts lard, to 1 part coconut oil. Using good quality fats is essential since fat makes up most of a birds diet in the winter. Don't wanna give them heart disease! :) You want fats that will bulk them up in a good hearty way. Lard and coconut oil are both good options. Lard being cheaper, and coconut oil being a really big attraction for them to your feeder!

Black Oil Sunflower Seeds were the most widely loved seed in most of the bird feeder studies I looked at while prepping for what ingredients to use. Millet was the least, and it makes up over 75% of most bird seed mixtures (those little white/tan seeds). It just ends up on the ground, sprouting in spring time. Yes black oil seeds leave shells on the snow, but you're really not gonna end up with stray un-wanted sunflowers poking up through your lawn! one mow and those sprouts will just die off. So... for my mix, I ONLY used black oil seed, as far as my selection of birdseed. This gigantic bag was $20 at Walmart. And I used less than 1/4 of the bag in a double recipe. (which made 54 suet bricks!)

To start with, you're gonna need a giant bowl. I am doing two recipes at one time here in two bowls. And my 5 year old was an excellent helper throughout the entire process of making these! The best part was, every time he was like "mum, can I eat this one?" I could say... YES! :)
So here we are with our dry mixture. In my case we have the sunflower seeds making up the bulk of it, with brown flax, chia, peanuts coconut (raw not sweetened) and raisins (always organic for birds, because pesticides can hurt them!)
I then added about 1.5 apples to each recipe I made. You can definitely add more! They didn't have any good sales on apples when I shopped so the birds dont get much this year. Maybe we'll make some apple, peanut butter seed ornaments over christmas for them later :) Again, if you don't buy organic, PEEL PEEL PEEL! Also, apple seeds contain small amounts of cyanide, so make sure to remove those as well... Lovely right!? haha!
Here we have our two giant bowls of seeds and apples, plus our pot of melted fats, which we divided equally into our bowls at this point.

mmmm.... look at that sheen... ;)

A little backwards than you should do it!! LINE YOUR PANS WITH PARCHMENT BEFORE ADDING FROZEN FRUITS! :)  hehe I learned this the hard way as you'll see in a moment. But in the above photo you can see Jojo adding the frozen blueberries to our fatty seed mixture.

We used about half a Costco bag in each recipe. The birds love these little gems. So I decided to be generous this year. Cranberries and frozen peas have mostly gone un-touched or picked out and dropped to the ground in search of other things in the suets. So I left them out despite their pretty colors they add. Perhaps dried cranberries would go over better?? I also wonder about picking teeny crab apples one year to put into these maybe!  other good additions would be anything freezer burned in your fruit section. Strawberries, peaches, cherries etc... birds like fruit! That's why farmers don't like birds! ;)

So... in case you can't tell by the above photo, the fats solidified almost immediately around the blueberries, and as a result, everywhere else. This made pouring and squishing the mixture into the pan a difficult task...
But 350 degrees for about 2 1/2 minutes was enough to make the mixture melty on the edges. I left the pan on the stove top to cool for another 2 minutes and then the heat had evenly penetrated the sheets of seed fats and I could squish everything into an even layer!

When you are pressing your mix into the pans, use a square of parchment to save your hands some grief.  And when you are lining your cookie sheets, let your parchment hang over on all sides to act as a bowl to catch the liquid fats until they solidify. you don't want them sneaking between your parchment and your cookie sheets. Then your suet is fused to your cookie sheet for good! ;)

To finish off for day 1, I melted down some more fats (about the equivalent to 1/4 or 1/2 the fat initially melted depending on how white you want your final product to look), and drizzled it over top for a nice even infusion of fats. The fat is your glue remember. So if you don't have enough fats bonding your ingredients together, your bricks wont stay bricks at all.
At this point I let them cool for a while on the counter. You can also just pop them outside on a crisp day for an hour or so. You don't want them totally solid. Just cool enough that the fats are beginning to turn white again. Then you are going to SCORE your bricks into the sheet before freezing solid.
I didn't take a photo of "scoring" but you can see the surface of the above sheet has a grid well cut into it. These cuts were done when the mixture was still extremely soft and malleable, but cool enough to hold the cut lines in place.  After scoring, you can either place the sheets in your freezer or outside overnight since we're getting close to freezing temps pretty regularly already. 
You can also tell in this photo how much excess parchment I had on each side. The sheet of suit comes right off the pan once it's frozen.
The last step is pretty simple. Once they are good and solid, you can just snap them apart like a chocolate bar!
Look how pretty they are! Perfect and ready for the birdies this winter! :)
Lastly, wrap them in saran wrap for ease of separation, and then store in a freezer ziplock bag. I recommend storing these in a freezer and not just outside in the winter, to avoid critters like mice or other winter wanderers from discovering them.

To use them simply unwrap, and pop into your suet cages. You can buy these cages almost anywhere, including dollar stores, Walmart, Canadian tire etc... You can hang them from your house in front of windows, or off trees etc... somewhere higher up, where they aren't going to be enjoyed by other wildlife save the occasional squirrel who cant fully get their grubby paws in there. (yes, that photo was last years suets. Not as much to enjoy as this years! And you can see all the little millet seeds in there too.)

As I promised earlier, here's the recipe of what I did this year. I made a double recipe of this to get 54 suet bricks. 

Bird Suet Recipe 2018
·    2 cups coconut oil
·    2-3 bricks of lard (tenderflake or no name brand. Not shortening)
·    10 cups black oil sunflower seeds (found in pet section with other bird seeds)
·    1 ½ cup raw or unsalted peanuts  (walmart “joes tasty travels” is very cheap)
·    2 cups brown flaxseeds (walmart “joes tasty travels” is very cheap)
·    1 ½ cups chia seeds
·    2 cups unsweetned coconut shreds/flakes etc..
·    2 ½ cups organic raisins (half of one of the costco bags in the 2-pack boxes)
·    8 cups frozen blueberries (Half a costco bag)
·    1.5-2 apples PEELED and chopped finely (peel has pesticides that can harm birds)

        Combine 2 cups coconut oil, and 2 bricks of lard in a pot and heat over low-medium heat, stirring until melted.
        In an extra-extra large bowl, combine all dry ingredients  except apples and blueberries. Stir well. You must use organic raisins because conventional ones may contain pesticides designed specifically to eliminate pesky birds in farmer vineyards. This is the same logic in peeling your apples.
        Toss in apples and stir in.
        Next pour in your melted oils and stir well to combine.
        Line 3 cookie sheets with parchment, being generous to have over-hang over the edges of your pan, to act as a sort of bowl-like feature to contain liquid oils till they solidify. You don’t want these creeping under your parchment, fusing your suet block to your cookie sheet!!
        AFTER your cookie sheets are lined, add your frozen blueberries to your suet mixture and stir quickly.
        Quickly pour mixture into the 3 cookie sheets. Filling two generously, and dumping remainder into the third sheet (it will only be filled about ¼-1/3 of the way). Use another square of parchment to press the mixture down tightly into all the corners of the  cookie sheet so it is very full.
        If you work too slowly, the cold from your blueberries will harden your fats too soon, and you’ll be squishing seeds and solid fats into the sheet. The odds of your mix fusing into one solid brick is much lower when this happens.
        If you mix does cool too soon, simply preheat your oven to 350 degrees and bake each sheet for about 2.5 minutes. Remove from oven, and let sit on stove top another minute for warmth to penetrate to the center. Then use your extra square of parchment, to press and flatten the tops again now that the oils have melted.
        If desired, melt down a third brick of lard, and drizzle evenly over the tops of the finished cookie sheets, filling in any cracks between seeds with more suet fats for those little birdies.
        Cover sheets in saran wrap, and let cool on your counter until the fats are all solidified. About 4-6 hours. If your mix is not setting, place these in the fridge for another 20-30 minutes. You don’t want to freeze these yet.
        Once  fats are mostly set, use a butter knife, edge of a cutting board or something else you prefer to make deep score lines separating your sheet into individual bricks.
        Freeze solid
        Break sheet apart on it’s score-lines, and wrap each square individually in saran wrap. Store all suets in freezer bags in the freezer until use. These are good beginning in cool fall weather, and continuing through cool spring weather. Once things begin to warm up, the fats will melt and start to drip. So these are strictly for use in cool weather for winter birds like chickadees, cardinals, bluejays etc…

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

A long awaited Garden update!

Boy oh boy! For a gardening blog, you'd think I would be spamming you with posts in the summertime eh? Apparently that's not the case! The reality is, your green thumb, and my green thumb, are pretty well satisfied this time of year. No one has a desire to read about new gardening techniques, or has the gusto to try something exquisitely new in their gardens... people are relaxed about it all now. Just maintaining, slowly harvesting, and generally waiting for the first frost, to get things cleaned up.

The reality of my garden update is, not a lot has changed in the last 1-2 weeks! In fact, the photos I'm using were taken August 15'th, and it looks generally the same right now. With the cooler nights, growth slows down pretty rapidly, if not comes to a stand-still.

In the last while I've done some canning! I made 33 jars of salsa. Still at least another 22 to make if I want to match the volume of salsa we consumed last year! I already have three boxes of tomatoes in the fridge ready to go. I also have some delicious grapes from my mother in law in the fridge. Beautiful Manitoba grown concord-style grapes! Those will make a lovely jelly!  We will be fully stocked in the "Jams and Jellies" department if I do say so myself. (Gru would be proud! If you don't get that reference, then you need to watch more Dispicable Me).
Chokecherry Jelly canned.
 Starting with my squash plants. The above one is SUPPOSED to be spaghetti squash! But this right here is a prime example of lazy seed saving. It's pretty clearly 1/2 squash, 1/2 Manitoba Sugar Pumpkin! I did not do any exclusive pollination for seed saving. I simply saved seeds from the best of my fruits last year. Oh well. I'm sure it'll be delicious! :) (hashtag: home made GMO's)
 My zucchini has somewhat underwhelmed my expectations in that I haven't been over run with it's production. That being said, my fridge is still full of zucchini, and I haven't checked the vines for several days!
 Manitoba sugar pumpkins appear to be true to type this year. The vine is small and there's maybe 4-5 pumpkins total. Enough for our use but not great. All my vines have underwhelmed me this year compared to last year. I can't really determine if it was the irrigation, lack of actual rain, or if our soil was generally depleted last year, despite having fertilized. The reality is, our neighbor down the road has uncontrollable vineage from all her squash plants, and a bumper crop of produce. So I know it's not simply the weather this year, it's a controllable factor of some kind. Still, we have plenty for our own use, we just wont be sharing much this year. My speculations are currently in the realm of the things we do differently from our neighbor. We err on the side of over-watering, their on the side of under-watering. They fertilized this year, we did not. So it's one-or-both of those variable differences in my mind.
 There's plenty of brown starting in our garden too. A welcome color for those of us who are seed savers! Above are my pea plants. As they die, the pods dry out and i can harvest seeds for another year's crop!
 My tobacco plants (grown for truth and reconciliation purposes) are beginning to let out seed. I'll collect the seed, as I really haven't done much with the leaves. Maybe another year!
And my dill, gloriousely giant and happy, is beginning to make seeds too! Those I may save a few, but mostly I'll just let them fall, and see what volunteers come up next year!

 There are many plants still doing very well. Cucumbers, though they are quite slow now, are still producing the odd fruit here and there. I only check them once a week now, and I only end up with 5-10 cucumbers maybe.  The nights are dipping a little too low for their happiness.
 Peppermint in two varieties (plus plenty of weeds!!) is still going strong! I've chopped it off and hung it to dry out. It makes excellent tea once dried out!  Peppermint is a parenneal that comes back larger each year. Definitely worth investing in!
 Our corn may yet produce! I haven't totally discredited it yet. It seems happy enough and there is the odd ear growing. Still, I think corn will go on the list of crops I don't need to grow again. It takes so much from the soil, and i've had two not-great years in a row with it. Not worth the soil depletion when its honestly so nice, sweet, and cheap at a market stand!
 My Borage is still as happy as can be! And so are the bees with it's presence.
 Hilariousely, my sweetpea flowers I planted in spring have finally determined that it's spring time! haha! They are flowering like its early may!
 Peppers have done very well this year so far! I was pleasantly suprised. The heat and irrigation combination appear to make them quite happy. So they will stay on the list of things that can grow here!  If you may recal from previous posts, their reputation was also on the chopping block along with corn and watermelon.
Beets are doing wonderfully this year! And I do love me a nice sweet beet! I could live on these things, I'm sure!  Even the really large ones are quite sweet this year. Not woody or bitter.  These were just "detroit dark red" beets, seeds I got from the dollar tree.
 Other plants have not fared so well. As I said, anything in the cruciferous family (think "gassy veggies") decided not to grow at all. Kale, Kohlrabi, Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower...These usually do well in our climate, but they all require a nice cool spring time... we definitely didn't have that!!  Above is my Kohlrabi plants at present... I seeded them, and then again in June when nothing came up in may. Still, this is all that became of them. This was simply not the summer for cruciforms.
 The cabbages I DO have, are the ones I started in the milk jugs. And as you can see, planting them with the borage did nothing to help fight off cabbage worm. I think cabbage may go on the next chopping block list. It also gets very cheap when in season... and the only way to really grow it in your own garden is to also use some form of a pesticide... so really we're no better off than buying it. I may try using some netting next year, but that wont keep out the teeny bugs that are also attacking this crop.
 Potatoes grew okay this year, especially considering all I planted was last years mushy potato leftovers! Still, each plant produced maybe 4 potatoes. and the potato bugs have had a HAYDAY! I think I'll not grow them next year... see if I can starve out the buggers, and start fresh with them the following year. 

 Tomatoes are doing decently! The amount of fruit on each vine is underwhelming this year, but this appears to be the case across the board. That, and a tomato blight fungus that causes the bottom half of the fruit to rot before it's fully ripened.  We don't have that thankfully! And I definitely had a little of it last year. I assumed that was "blossom end rot". So I will take this as one victory of having tossed coffee grounds and aspirin into the holes of my tomato plants! I'll keep that up for sure!
This photo does not do justice to my indigo rose tomatoes. In the photo they look like some kind of alien life form! But in reality they are quite pretty. Green vines adorned with dark navy jewels. Very pleasing to the gardeners eye. Now If only I could tell when they are ripe!! haha!

 Well, not all is going as planned in this department either! Above is a photo of my glorious nasturtiums. Beautiful as they were, a tiny fruit-fly-sized insect also agreed with me... and ATE THEM ALL! remember this was 2 weeks ago already these photos. The plants... are literally just gone!
I took some time to google these pesky things. At first I just assumed it was a fruit fly invasion, but my neighbor pointed out their black glossy hard backs, making them appear more like teeny little beetles than a fly... In my research I learned they are called "Flea beetles" and that they are particularly attracted to nasturtiums! So I guess I wont be planting those for a while... I'm hoping they will just go away if I don't have flea bait growing in my yard. Still, they've definitely attacked other supple flowers. My gladiolus, and snap dragons to name a couple... Also my cabbages in the veggie garden, and the tiny kohlrabi leaves and my one single sprout of kale... It's been a strange year for insects really. No mosquitoes, tonnes of crickets, very few spiders,  and now these flea beetles. So who knows what'll happen next year! I can't imagine all of these bugs will be back once our wet weather returns. It sounds like Texas outside in the evenings with all those crickets!

 What was once a glorious floral display is really quite an embarassing sight now... Not much to show for them with the nasturtiums gone, and the snap dragon blooms disappearing almost as soon as they open up.

 To top off this lovely insect issue, I think over-watering has left my Dahlias in a less-than-favorable state. The blooms are rotting before they open. For me this really just means that I wont be growing them again. I'm more of a small-flower person than a large bloom one. They were a bit of a leap for me, and they just took too long to bloom, and are somewhat unimpressive to me.
Their colorings are very pretty, but if they can't even open without looking dead... and not till end of August, that's not worth my flower-pot space!
 There have been a few gorgeous Gladiolus though! The trouble has been that just like my snap dragons this year, as soon as they open, they are dieing... I've yet to have a fully bloomed stem of flowers. It's really quite sad! So much effort and no show. Last august my gardens were all breathtaking. This year I'm mostly just disappointed.
 Still, being that I enjoy nature, I'm out there often enough to catch a glimpse of these blooms before they die. You can see in the above photo, how the blooms on the bottom of the photo are all withered and falling off already.  We have however, seen hummingbirds also enjoying these Glads! So if they are the culprit for the dieing blooms, I'm totally fine with it! They are worth seeing! :)
 The overall appearance of my front flower bed is mostly green by now. Last year it was an insane show of blooms from every angle... but those crazy daisies are still just going strong! :)
 My evening primrose is roughly 5 feet tall now. I'm beginning to understand the pattern of how they grow. They send out a bloom, which withers in the evening. The next day, a new bloom forms above the old one. And so it grows, up and up and up! With immature seed pods all along the stem. It's very pretty and will be an addition again in future! These were my biggest milk-jug success story I'd say.

The reality of my floral failures... is that it's fall, and there are fall mums prettymuch everywhere! So next week i'll let you know the end results, but my intentions are to replace a bunch of my disasters with some fall mums and let them catch my eye for the remainder of the season! :)

Anyways, that's all for this week! A pretty decent update. Until next time, keep your thumbs green! (And if you didn't catch our big news in the last post, maybe scroll back and have a read!)