It’s fall, folks.  Leaves are falling, there’s a chill in the air, and we’re caught each day in the balance between golden rays of sun and cloudy, drizzly skies.  We have had several stunning sunsets at the farm lately, featuring half stormy, half sunny skies.  Each day, that sunset comes a little bit later and I’m reminded that winter will be here before too long and all my precious fresh vegetables will be dead or hibernating under a blanket of snow.
A stormy sunset on the farm at the beginning of October.
A stormy sunset on the farm at the beginning of October.
With the time we have left, I have been gathering together food and squirreling it away for winter.  My most squirrel-like project, literally, has been gathering walnuts that have fallen from the black walnut trees on the farm.  Each walnut is covered in a very tenacious husk that you must peel away before you get to the equally impenetrable nutshell concealed within.  A little over a week ago, I picked up a bushel of fallen walnuts and brought them into the house where I sat atop a layer of towels and pulled the husks off with gloved hands.  Walnut husks will dye your hands black, and even with my gloves on, I managed to blacken my thumbs and forefingers, and they are STILL black over a week later.
A bushel of walnuts I scavenged from the edges of the garden.
A bushel of walnuts I scavenged from the edges of the garden.
It is impossible to remove every little bit of fleshy husk from the walnut shells, so after I had husked them, my dad brought his pressure washer down to the farm and we blasted them with high pressure water.  Now they are sitting on my porch (protected from squirrels) drying and curing for a couple of weeks before I crack the shells to extract the nut meat from inside.  Apparently, black walnuts have the hardest shells of any walnut species and will destroy a regular nutcracker, so you have to crack them with a hammer on a hard surface.  I look forward to the challenge!

Cleaned and dried walnut shells.  Let's get cracking!
Cleaned and dried walnut shells. Let’s get cracking!
Back in mid-July, I gathered a couple dozen green walnuts from the trees for another project.  At that time of the year, the walnuts were still green and hadn’t yet formed a hard shell inside.  You can cut right through them with a regular kitchen knife and a little bit of forearm oomph.  I cut the green walnuts in quarters, stuffed them in mason jars, and poured vodka over them.  My aim was to make Nocino, a bitter liqueur favored in Italy, which can be used for medicinal purposes.  And drinky treats too, of course.  The green walnuts must steep in high grain alcohol or vodka for at least a few months before it is consumed.  Back in July, I figured I’d give the nocino a good 6 months before I break it open.  That way, when it’s freezing cold in December or January, I’ll have my own homemade walnut tonic to keep me warm.  It’s just another bit of farm-y summer goodness put away in jars for the winter.
Chopping green walnuts back in July for some mid-winter Nocino.
Chopping green walnuts back in July for some mid-winter Nocino.


​This is what the walnuts looked like right after the vodka was added to the jars...
​This is what the walnuts looked like right after the vodka was added to the jars…


...and what my Nocino looks like in mid-October.
…and what my Nocino looks like in mid-October.

Melon Mistakes

Melon season arrived on the farm last week, and it seems like it will only last another week or so.  It’s a flash in the pan, but a sweet and juicy flash in the pan.  I have never grown melons before this year.  In the Pacific Northwest, where I learned most of my farming skills, it was difficult to grow melons because they like prolonged hot weather.  I’ve learned a lot of lessons about growing melons (both cantaloupe and watermelons) this year, mostly from screwing up, so I thought I would share my screw-ups with you all so you too can learn from my mistakes.

Dark Wood Farm melons

​Our first melon harvest for market was August 9. Jackpot!
Lesson 1: Not all “cantaloupes” are technically cantaloupes

I thought any melon with orange flesh and tan, rough skin was a cantaloupe.  That’s not true!  Cantaloupes are a specific type of muskmelon.  Other muskmelons include honeydew and Armenian cucumbers.  The name refers to the fragrant odor that these melons release when ripe.  Technically, the term cantaloupe refers to a specific type of muskmelon from Europe with orange flesh, but no ribs or netting.  However, we have more recently accepted the term cantaloupe for all of the sweet, orange fleshed muskmelons with netting and ribs that are so popular in North America.  Who knew?  Not me, until I read the descriptions of muskmelons and cantaloupes in seed catalogs this winter.

​A honey rock muskmelon. We’d call this one a cantaloupe because we’re ‘mericans.
Lesson 2: Bet on poor germination

I thought I’d get a leg up on getting my melon patch established, so I decided to start my melons as transplants in the greenhouse.  I had heard that they don’t transplant well, but with the late frosts and freezes we were experiencing this spring, I thought it would be better to start them out in the greenhouse where it would be warm enough, then transplant them out in late May when the soil would surely be warm enough for these heat loving plants.  I had flats with 32 cells, which are basically little plastic square shaped pots.  On April 25, I filled them up with soil and placed a single cantaloupe or watermelon seed in each, watered them in and waited for them to grow.  I always allow for 20% germination failure, knowing that some seeds are duds, so I planted 20% more seeds than I needed.  When melons sprout, they have enormous cotyledons, which are the first two baby leaves that poke out of the ground, unfold, and start photosynthesizing to make the plant grow it’s first true leaf.  Well, once my melons germinated, I noticed that I had barely a 50% germination rate.  That meant that I wouldn’t have enough melon plants to fill out the beds where I intended to plant them.  Ack!  Next year, I’ll know to plant at least twice as many melon seeds, if not more.
Lesson 3: Don’t assume your melon patch will be weed free

Melons, like their cousins, squash and cucumbers, have very long vines with large leaves.  These plants do a great job of spreading and making a canopy of huge leaves, under which weed seeds have a difficult time germinating.  Assuming that my baby melon plants would take off and out compete the weeds, I put “weeding the melons” very low on my priority list.  The result?  My melon patch is the weediest spot on the farm.  Name the weed, and I’ve got it in my melon patch.  Every time I harvest cantaloupes and watermelons, I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt.  As fun as that is, it probably takes me 5 times longer to harvest melons than it would if I could actually see them sitting on the ground.

Moon and Stars Watermelon
When I found this Moon & Stars watermelon amongst the weeds, I squealed with delight.
Lesson 4: Deer love melons

My favorite variety of watermelon is a small little yellow-fleshed watermelon called Petite Yellow.  They are so sweet, and just the right size for two people to eat in one sitting.  Another bonus – they are almost all flesh with very thin rinds.  However, their sweet aroma and thin rinds makes them prime candidates for a late night deer snack.  Just before all my Petite Yellow watermelons ripened, deer wiped them all out…ate the whole things and left only a tiny bit of rind on the ground.  I managed to salvage one Yellow Petite that was well hidden under my weed canopy, and a couple more have grown since the major deer attack in mid-July, thankfully.  I’m saving these little jewels to eat myself!

Petite Yellow Watermelon
A Petite Yellow watermelon that escaped the deer attack.
Lesson 5: Don’t get antsy and pick melons too soon

In mid-July after the deer attack on my Petite Yellow melons, I was gripped with fear that the deer would eat all of my melons, so I decided to start harvesting them.  After all, if the deer were sniffing them out, they must be ripe, right?!  Wrong.  I picked two Sugar Baby watermelons and cut them open.  One was completely white inside and the other was barely pink.  Interestingly, they were still sweet.  Not as sweet as a fully ripe melon, but still very edible.  I decided to wait a couple more weeks, keep my fingers crossed that the deer would leave them alone.  Luckily, the deer ignored them and I started finding ripe watermelons about two weeks ago.  Of course, I had to taste test them before I brought them to market, so I didn’t begin selling any until last week.  I have learned a few tips for identifying ripe melons.  Watermelons have a little curly tendril that grows across the vine from their stems.  When this tendril dries up and turns brown, your melon is likely ready, but you still want to look for a yellowish spot where the melon sat on the ground, and listen for a hollow sound when the melon is thumped.  When all three of these signs have coincided, I have found nicely ripe melons.  For cantaloupe, you can sniff the melons, and a strong sweet scent indicates they are ripe, plus they will slip right off the vine with barely any pressure.  I have noticed that size doesn’t indicate ripeness; I have found large under-ripe melons, and tiny fully-ripe melons.  It seems that size may have more to do with how much water the plant received than ripeness.  I didn’t irrigate my melons at all, and they are smaller than average, but REALLY sweet, and still juicy.  I think the lack of irrigation helped to concentrate the sugars rather than making a huge, watery melon.

Quetzali Watermelon
​Yay! I learned to pick fully ripe watermelons! This one is a Quetzali.
Lesson 6: Ripe cantaloupes don’t last long

Because I wait to pick my cantaloupes until they are super sweet, fragrant, and slip right off the vine, they have a very short shelf life.  They seem to develop soft spots overnight.  Although this makes them difficult to sell, I have found that they are still very good, and only need a little of the soft spots cut off.  Even so, I haven’t been selling any of my cantaloupes that have bad soft spots.  Instead, I have been eating them and giving them away to family and friends.  In fact, I just cut up two of them and am trying out a recipe for melon sorbet.  It calls for vodka.  I’m not sure if that helps the sorbet reach the correct consistently, or it’s just to add a little livelihood to my dessert, but I didn’t question it, and I now have vodka-y, lemony, melon puree in my refrigerator cooling before I put it in my ice cream maker.  You can try it out with watermelon too, or a mix of cantaloupe and watermelon.  Cheers!