Rattlesnake Weed

Florida BetonyFlorida Betony (Stachys floridana) aka Rattlesnake weed.

Florida Betony, is one of the most common plants found in Florida lawns and landscape.  Sun and a moist lawn are magnets for Florida Betony and most information found on this plant is focused on how to kill it and stop it from spreading.  Of course my favorite way to deal with this weed is eat it.

Florida Betony Roots

Florida Betony is square-stemmed, with simple opposite leaves that grows about 18 inches tall.  Flowers occur in clusters of 3-6 and are small and purple.

The best roots are ready to eat in the spring when it starts to flower.

I start pulling carefully on the plant and use a small shovel to pull out the tubers attached to the roots.

Bean Soup with BetonyWash the roots thoroughly to get off all the soil.  The skin is very thin and does not need to be removed.

You can eat the roots raw and are great in a salad, I think they have a crispy taste similar to a mild radish.  I used these in a bean soup, cooked they are more like a potato and will work in any dish you would add potato.

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Small Pond

A small backyard pond is a great way to enhance your landscape.  I built this one with some supplies I gathered from a friend and rocks I picked up on the side of the road.

There is something soothing about the sound of water that nearly everyone enjoys, and I was looking forward to building one.

Ponds have a positive effect on the landscape,  they put moisture in the air through evaporation and mist.  Ponds are also a breeding ground for frogs and small fish to control biting and damaging insects.

Pond HoleI spent a lot of time observing before picking the best location for a pond at the 40 acre woods.  Always consider soil depth, trees that might overhang the area and drop leaves, or whose roots eventually may push through a pond liner, or other potential obstacles, like septic tanks, large rocks or underground utilities.

Determine the general size of the pond you want by laying out a garden hose and trying various free-form shapes on the ground in your chosen area.

Dig the hole to the desired depth – perhaps incorporating a deeper area for fish, or leaving shallower areas for placing pots of aquatic or marginal plants.  My pond is about four feet in the middle with three ledges for plants.

Check the hole for level by placing a straight board across the excavation and putting a carpenter’s level on top of that. Move the board and level around to different points across the hole and remove or build up soil as needed until everything is level.

Pond LinerMeasure the hole at the longest and widest points, measuring down the sides, across and back up to take pool depth into account. Add a couple of feet for good measure and purchase an appropriately-sized sheet of EPDM rubber or plastic.

Pick out sharp rocks and tree roots, and pad the excavation with a purchased pool underlayment or several thickness of cardboard or old newspapers. This helps prevent punctures to the pool liner.

Place the rubber or heavy plastic pool liner into the hole and adjust it as needed to sit flush and level in every direction.

Pond EdgesStart filling the pond and pull on the liner to get in place as it fills.  As it reaches the top you can make last minute adjustments to set a level edge.

Trim the liner with scissors or a utility knife so that the edge lies under where you will be placing rocks  to edge the pond.

Place rocks and boulders, or other materials around the perimeter of the pond, arranging them to cover as much of the liner as possible to hide it and prevent premature breakdown of the material in harsh sunlight.

Finished PondAdd river pebbles or sand to the pool as desired or leave the liner as is. Place potted aquatic plants on ledges or flat stones, or add a recirculating pump and fountain as additional decorations.

After the water has a few weeks to settle and start growing algae, add some small fish to keep the misquotes from breeding.  I added some water from a local river to kick things off.

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Papaya Tree

Some time last year I had a red papaya a friend had grown in his back yard in central Florida. It was a great tropical treat and I saved some of the seeds.

papaya tree 2013I did not remember that I actually planted the seeds, basically I just tossed them in the flower beds and hoped for the best. Then early this spring I noticed a seeding emerge in my raspberry bed.

In a few months this seedling has grown into a magnificent tree filled with papaya. I am looking forward to eating some of this fruit. I will save more seed and maybe do a better job of planting them for next year.

Papaya plants are not tolerant of freezing temperatures and are damaged or killed below 31°F. In central Florida we usually get 1 or 2 frosty nights in the winter. I have this tree on the South side of a large hedge hoping to reduce the damage of a cold night. Fortunately I can plant new seeds in the spring and get fruit before the frost gets them the next winter. I plan to test this in North Florida this spring to see if papaya can be grown as a annual crop at the 40 acre woods.

Papayas originated in the lowlands of Central America and southern Mexico. They are grown all over the tropical world. Papaya plants may be self-pollinating (bisexual plants) or cross pollinated by insects or wind. Pollinators include honey bees, wasps and butterflies. I believe this variety is Red Lady.

 

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Gopher Tortoise

Gopher tortoiseGopher tortoises, or “Gophers” as they are commonly called, live in extensive subterranean burrows in dry upland habitats of the southeastern United States.  Gopher tortoises are found in longleaf pine sandhills, oak hammocks, scrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairies, and coastal dunes. Tortoises can also live in man-made environments, such as pastures, fields, and grassy roadsides.  Habitat must have well-drained sandy soils for digging burrows, herbaceous food plants, and open sunny areas for nesting and basking.

Gopher tortoise life revolves around a tunnel-like burrow that is excavated using its shovel-like front feet. Burrows can be up to 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. Each burrow has a single opening and the width of the burrow is approximately equal to the length of the tortoise. Therefore, the Gopher is able to turn around at any point within the burrow.  Gopher burrows are usually easy to spot because of the characteristic mound of loose sand at the burrow entrance.

Gopher tortoise burrows remain at a fairly constant temperature and humidity level year-round, thus providing shelter for the tortoise during periods of extreme temperatures, drought, and fire. Tortoise burrows are also a refuge to other animals like the indigo snake, pine snake, gopher frog, Florida mouse, opossum, armadillo, burrowing owl, gopher cricket, scarab beetles, and many others. Some, such as the Florida mouse, cannot exist without the tortoise burrow.

Natural fires played an important role in maintaining tortoise habitat by opening up the canopy and promoting growth of herbaceous food plants.  As human population has increased the Gophers have lost habitat to homes, agriculture and roads. Most of the fires are now managed leaving Gophers with no home and nothing to eat.  The State of Florida has the Gopher Tortoise listed as a Threatened Species.

At the 40 acre woods we make sure the Gopher tortoises have a wide variety of grasses and herbaceous plants including gopher apple, pawpaw, blackberries, saw palmetto berries, blueberries and other fruits.  We have thinned out the Pines to allow more light to reach the forest floor and provide a better habitat for the Gophers and other animals that share the area.

We love our Gophers at the 40 acre woods.  They are an important part of a healthy ecosystem.

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Eastern Fence Lizard

fence lizard maleOne of my favorite residents of the 40 acre woods is the Fence Lizard.  They are always working to keep the bugs under control and they are very entertaining to watch as they chase each other about fighting for the best logs to sun themselves on.

Fence Lizard sexes are colored differently.  Females are darker than males and their gray-brown backs are marked with about eight dark-colored, irregular, transverse bars.  The transverse bars on males are red brown, and males also have two large, bright blue belly patches.

The picture on the right is a male and the picture below is a female, both were on my wood pile at the 40 acre woods.

fence lizard female

Often seen basking in a sunny spot, adult males are highly territorial, and defend their areas with head bobs and push-up threat displays.  Adults grow to 4 to 7 inches long and breeding season is April to August.

Fence Lizards feed on a diet of Beetles, ants, grasshoppers, stink bugs and spiders.  I wish I had more of these great lizards living in my garden and on my fruit trees.

Everybody has a job at the 40 acre woods.

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Muscadine Grape Jam

buckets of muscadine grapesMuscadine grapes are a sustainable fruit crop in the southeastern United States.  They are tolerant of insect and disease pests and they successfully grow at he 40 acre woods without spraying any pesticides.

Typically, muscadine grapes bear dark fruit with around 4 to 10 grapes per cluster.  Bronze-fruited muscadine grapes are often referred to as scuppernongs.

I love to eat them fresh from the vine, but they are great for jam, jelly, juice or wine.

Muscadine grapes are low in fat and sodium and have cooking juice from muscadinesa healthy amount of potassium, fiber and Vitamin C.  Many of the phytonutrients present in the muscadine grape have been recognized as powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents – the most powerful of these concentrated in the skins and seeds.

Recently a friend in area invited me to pick some of his ripe muscadines for Jam.  It does not take many of these vines to produce more than you can use and plenty to share.  Here is the recipe we used .

MUSCADINE GRAPE JAM
Makes 8 (8-ounce) jars.

straining muscadine juiceEquipment:

  • 6-quart heavy bottom pot with lid
  • 4-quart heavy bottom pot
  • large bowl
  • sieve or food mill
  • potato masher
  • 8 (8-ounce) jelly jars with lids and bands
  • canning pot with lid
  • wide mouth funnel
  • jar lifter

Ingredients:

  • muscadine jam cooking1 gallon muscadine grapes
  • 4-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 package dry pectin

Preparation:

  1. Rinse the grapes and remove the stems.  Pierce each grape with a sharp knife and put them in 6-quart pot.  Add water just until the grapes start to float.  Cover with the lid and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Reduce heat to medium and cook until the grapes are soft, about 30 to 40 minutes.  Mash the grapes using the potato masher.
  2. muscadine jam in hot bathPress the mixture through a sieve or use a food mill to separate the pulp from the skins and seeds.  Use a spatula to scrape excess pulp from underneath the sieve into the bowl.  You should end up with about 6 cups of juice.  Transfer the pulp and juice into the 4-quart pot.
  3. Mix together the pectin and 1/4 cup of the sugar, then add to the grape pulp and bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.  Add the remaining sugar and bring back to a full boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.  The mixture should have small bubbles constantly breaking the surface.  Continue cooking for 10 minutes, then test the mixture by spooning a little out onto a plate.  Wait a few finished muscadine jamminutes and check the jam, it should start to set as it cools.  If it’s too runny, continue cooking and checking every 5 minutes.
  4. While the mixture cooks, place the jars in the canning pot and add water until it’s 1 inch over the top of the jars.  Bring to a boil and then turn off the heat, leaving the jars in for at least 10 minutes.  In the small pot, heat water to 180° F.  Add the lids and leave them in for at least 10 minutes to soften the sealing compound and sterilize them.  Do not boil the lids to avoid seal failure.
  5. When the mixture is ready, drain and remove the jars from the pot.  Turn on the heat for the canning pot and bring the water temperature up to 180° F.  Ladle the jam mixture into the jars using the wide mouth funnel, leaving about 1/4-inch headspace.  Run a thin spatula around the inside edge of the jar to remove bubbles.  Wipe the top of the jars clean with a clean damp cloth and place the hot lids on top.  Add the bands and tighten just until finger tight.
  6. Use the jar lifter to gently lower the jars into the hot water.  Cover with the lid and bring back to a rolling boil.  Process for 10 minutes, then use the jar lifter to remove the jars from the pot.  Place hot jars on a wooden board and leave them for 12 to 24 hours, until they cool completely.  Check for a seal after they have cooled.  Store sealed jars in a cool dark place for up to 12 months.  Store any unsealed jars in the refrigerator.

When somebody shares some of there muscadines with you, make sure you share some of the jam with them.  That’s the way we do it at the 40 acre woods.

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Creeping Cucumber

creeping cucumber vineCreeping Cucumber (Melothria pendula) is a common vine found in Florida.  The fruit of the Creeping Cucumber is a tiny, delicious, cucumber-flavored fruit that looks like little green watermelon when young but turns a dark purple/black when ripe.  The green fruits will have spots of color on them that disappears when the turn dark.  Only eat the green fruit, the ripe dark fruit is a powerful laxative.

I found this vine growing on a palm tree, but they will grow anywhere they can get enough water.  Creeping Cucumber usually shows up in spring and dies back in cold weather, provided we get any cold weather in Florida.

The unripe, light-green fruit is eaten raw without peeling and really does taste just like a cucumber.  Use Creeping Cucumber just like your would any other cucumber, it is great in a salad or just a snack.

creeping cucumber fruitAgain, this is an important warning, the ripe (purple/black) fruit is a powerful laxative. Its bowel-purging effects hits rapidly and will be uncontrollable.  You will not make it home with your dignity.

The Creeping Cucumber is a vine. Its leaves are usually dark green with 3 to 5 lobes.  The vine will have curly-cue tendrils to help grasp onto other plants for support as it climbs.  The flowers of the Creeping Cucumber are yellow and very small with 5 petals.

The fruit pictured here is too ripe, I did not eat any. Look for the lighter green fruit to eat.

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