Blueberry Jam/Jelly Recipe

Ready to be labeled

I make about 20 half-pints of jams and jellies each year, some of which we eat and some of which we give away. One of the more appreciative recipients of my jamming efforts is my dad, who often enjoys a PB and J sandwich for lunch. When I told my mom I was making jam with blueberries Sunday night, he shouted from the background — “Make it jelly.”

At its best, jelly is a perfectly clear, jewel-colored confection, made with only the juice of fresh fruit and lots of sugar. To make jelly, you boil your fruit down, then drain the juice through layers of cheese cloth or a jelly bag. This takes a fair amount of time and makes a pretty big mess, but is worth it.

Since it was the end of the day, I made a modified blueberry jelly/jam by straining out most of the solids. The result is a tart, intensely berry-flavored spread with a thicker texture than jelly, but no fruit chunks like jam. I made this recipe up, based on a couple of online recipes, including this one and this fun video (keep an eye on grand-daddy).

Blueberry Jam/Jelly

  • 10 cups fresh blueberries
  • 5 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 package dry pectin (Sure-Jel)
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • spring of lemon balm (optional)

Prep: If you haven’t canned before, read up on the basics here. (However, jam in a hot-water bath canner is not hard, so don’t be intimidated.) Start by putting a large pot of water or canning pot on the heat. You’ll need it to be boiling by the time your fruit spread is ready. Wash six 1/2 pint canning jars with lids and rings in hot soapy water. Rinse. Put the lids and rings in a pan and pour boiling water over them. When the water in your canning pot boils, lower the clean, empty jars into the water for 5 or so minutes to sterilize them, too.

Fruit: Wash and take out stems from the berries and place them in a big cooking pot. Mash them to get the juices flowing. I also added 1/2 cup water. Bring this mixture to a boil and cook for 15 minutes to release all the juices.  When finished cooking, add lemon balm (if using) and let it sit 20 minutes or so. Next, get out a colander or sieve and pour the hot fruit through it into another clean, large pot. Mash the fruit against the holes to get as much of the good juices out as possible. Discard the leftover solids. You should have about 5 cups of goodness.

Jam/Jelly: Take the fruit juice and add to it the pectin and lemon juice. Put this on the heat and bring to a rolling boil. (This will take a good 15 to 20 minutes.) Stir it frequently. (This is a good time to sterilize the jars, if you have not done it already.) Measure out the sugar and set aside. When the fruit liquid reaches a rolling boil that cannot be stirred down, add the sugar all at once. Stir it to incorporate all the sugar. Bring the mixture back to a boil, stirring often to keep it from scorching. When it is at a full, rolling boil that you cannot stir down, set a timer for one minute and continue cooking and stirring the jelly. Turn off the heat.

Processing: Ladle the hot jam/jelly into the prepared jars. (This should fill six 1/2 pint jars, with about 1/2 cup or more extra spread leftover for the cook to put in the fridge and enjoy.) With a clean, damp cloth or paper towel, wipe the rims of the jars clean,  cover with lids, and tighten the rings around them. Carefully, place the jars in the boiling-water canner and lower them so there is at least 1 inch of boiling water above the tops. Cover the canner and process for 12 minutes. Remove the jars and listen for the pings that indicate the jars are sealed. Let them cool completely before labeling them and storing them. They should be good for a year.

Something is Growing in the Straw Bales

Inky cap mushroom in straw bale
This one is about to ink-out!

I haven’t planted anything in the straw bales yet, but something is growing! I have a big crop of mushrooms in one bale and a smaller crop of grass popping out of some of the other bales. Both of these are expected events, though still a bit surprising. The mushrooms are “inky cap mushrooms,” which are mushrooms that dissolve into a black goo after a day or so — I noticed the goo pretty heavily on one of the bales.

One bale is covered with mushrooms.

Cornell University’s mushroom blog has an interesting post on inky caps and their tendency to destroy themselves. In addition to sprouting mushrooms and grass, the bales are definitely heating up and I expect to be planting them out within a week or so.

Big Changes for Minnesota in New Hardiness Zone Map

From USDA

A sliver of Minnesota is officially in USDA Zone 5, according to the new hardiness zone map released today by the USDA, the first update to the map since 1990. Beyond that corner of Jackson and Martin Counties going officially zone 5 (a place where the lowest winter temperatures don’t sink below -20 degrees F — like say, Chicago), a huge chunk of Minnesota is now rated zone 4b (lowest temp: -25) and the area around St. Cloud has shifted from borderline zone 3 to a firm zone 4a — break out the Japanese maples!

According to the USDA, the changes in zones are the result of several factors. Mapping techniques are much better than in 1990, allowing for finer distinctions. For the first time, cities with urban heat islands may show up a zone or half-zone warmer than in the past — though not the Twin Cities.  USDA also had access to more accurate data and more data because it has more weather stations checking in with information. This map also is based on 30 years of weather information (1976-2005) rather than the 12 years (1974-1986) used for the 1990 map. This smooths out the weather fluctuations plants experience and gives a more accurate picture of growing conditions, according to USDA. For instance, mountainous regions may now be rated colder because the new data takes altitude into account more accurately.

The fact that about half the U.S. is a half zone warmer than in the previous map certainly brings up the issue of climate change. The USDA takes a cautious approach, noting that this map may merely be more accurate than previous maps and that climate change shows itself over even longer stretches of time (50 to 100 years).

The USDA has a very informative website about the new map, which allows folks to input their zip code to get very detailed information.

Can You Eat a Sweet Potato Vine Tuber?

Sweet potato vine tubers with Chinese lantern flowers

While taking apart my front porch container plantings this weekend, the question came to mind: Can you eat these cute little tubers that the ornamental sweet potato vine made?

Short answer: Yes, you can.

Longer answer: Yes, you can, but you probably don’t want to. Ornamental sweet potato vines are selected for their foliage — the lush leaves that tumble out of pots and window boxes so decoratively. The tubers are not even a consideration, and so don’t usually taste very good. If you want delicious sweet potatoes, it’s best to grow plants designated for eating.

 

Vegetable Garden on the Deck? You Bet!

Squaring the boards up.
Squaring the boards up.

My sister and her husband have a large, sunny backyard, but they prefer to leave that space open for pickup football games and other neighborhood fun. (They have four children of their own and lots of little visitors.) So, when they decided they wanted to grow some vegetables, the solution was to build a deck-side garden. My brother-in-law, John, is an engineer, so he had no problem coming up with a good-looking, efficient design. It’s also easy enough to construct that you don’t have to be an engineer to build one. So, here’s John’s Deck Garden — and thanks to my sister, Elly, for sharing the photos. (By the way, these are larger photo files, so feel free to click on the thumbnails to get a closer look at what’s happening.)

Attaching boards to the supports.
Attaching boards to the supports.

John and Elly wanted a garden large enough to grow a couple of tomatoes, some basil and a few other herbs, so they decided to build a box 6 feet long by 2 feet wide. After buying 1-by-8 cedar boards for the sides, some 2-by-2 lumber for the support pieces and a piece of plywood for the bottom, John (with assistance from my dad) went to work. He cut the lumber to size, then used wood glue to attach the boards on top of the plywood bottom (top photo).  He started building the box, attaching the side pieces to the supports using deck screws. (This is where having two people working makes the job much easier.) He built it one layer at a time, so that the final box is about 22 inches deep.

2-by-2s raise the box off the deck.
2-by-2s raise the box off the deck.
Plenty of room for roots.
Plenty of room for roots.

Once the box was complete, John flipped it over and attached four strips of 2-by-2 to the bottom to raise the deck garden off of the deck. It’s not shown in the photo, but he also drilled some drainage holes in the bottom and lined the box with landscape fabric. The fabric helps the bed retain some moisture and the holes make sure it doesn’t retain too much.

Nothing beats fresh herbs right outside the kitchen door.
Nothing beats fresh herbs right outside the kitchen door.

With the box ready, John and Elly filled it with a mixture of top soil and compost and planted their tomato and herb starts. The photo at right was taken right after planting, and I’ve since heard that the plants are all doing well and the tomatoes have gotten big and already have blossoms. What a great way to raise vegetables in a small space!