Sunday, January 4, 2015

Winter Hibernation..... Yeah, Right!

As I harvested the last of our green tomatoes the day before our first frost in early November, I was thinking of all the time I would have in the next few months to work on crafts and hobbies - like crocheting, jigsaw puzzles and some new sewing projects I would like to get started on. I told myself that once our annual week of 'Turkey Palooza' was over, Alan and I would settle down for a few months of semi-hibernation. Outdoor projects would come to an end, except for carrying in wood, and we would spend our days and evenings snuggled in front of Reggie, our wood burning stove. And, with the ceiling fan we installed this summer, we were anticipating much more comfortable temperatures during those coldest days of winter.

Well, upon returning from yet another exciting, hilarious and heartwarming Turkey Palooza week with our kids, grandkids and my parents we soon had a list of projects that dispelled our vision of the lazy days we thought were before us. I am a list person, so here we go...

While I work at clearing my various containers
out of the south garden....
1. Adjustments to Our Solar System
Yes, after our last upgrades I had written that our solar system was now complete, but we ran into a bit of a hiccup. You may recall we had added in more of the Grape solar panels and we now have four of them that we arranged in a 2 by 2 grid that are positioned on a frame that angles from our south deck railing down to the ground. Well, as the winter sun dipped lower in the sky, we discovered that the tool shed we have to the south of the house was casting shadows on the newly added lower panels.

... Alan reinforces the frame that now holds
four Grape solar panels
We decided we had two options to increase the efficiency of our panels - move the shed or move the panels. After a bit of discussion, I convinced Alan that I did not mind tearing apart my container garden (currently to the east of the panels) so that we could slide the solar panel frames over to ensure that the shadows are no longer cast on the lower two panels. Plus, we would be able to reinforce the frames at the same time as they had added a bit of sag since we doubled up the weight on each of the frames when we added the new panels.

I emptied all the large planters, moved my tires and manhandled my pallets that had been leaning against the deck to make room for the repositioning of the frames. In the mean time we ordered in the extra cable needed to reach from the new location to the electrical panel, and Alan worked on adding metal supports to strengthen the frames.

Our grid of the Grape solar panels is now devoid of shadows (until the sun dips behind the tree tops to the west each day) and I have a start on redesigning and expanding my container garden for next spring.

Our transplanted solar panels.
You can see we are also still using our original
18 Harbor Freight panels up on the deck.
2. Can't Waste a Bargain - So I Am Still In A Canning Frenzy
We have several 'staples' in our canning pantry that I try not to run out of. For example, when ground beef was on sale earlier this fall, I spent several days canning many pints of ground beef as well as a variety of meals and entrees in jars. One item I use a lot are 'Lil Sizzler' breakfast sausages. These sausages have no casing and work well for canning. I can fit six in a half-pint jar which is a perfect serving for Alan and I for breakfast and we enjoy them with both sourdough pancakes and french toast, so we have them on a regular basis.

Boxes from my first batch of  'Lil Sizzlers'
I first started canning these sausages over two years ago when a store in the nearest town had them on sale for 99 cents a package. They are normally $2.29 per 12 ounce package which contains 12 sausages. For about 18 months, the sale price would occur every so often and I was able to keep them in stock in our pantry. Then last spring, or early summer, I ran out.

Since that time, there have been no sales... It appeared that inflation had got to the 'Lil Sizzlers'. Then right after Thanksgiving we made a trek into town, and saw there was a sale! Not 99 cents like the old days, but 2 packages for $3.00. I quickly grabbed all they had in the freezer section. I didn't managed to get enough to have a 'canner-full' but I had some other meats to can so I was happy - when I only have a partial canner load I feel like I am wasting propane.

I used a very large stock pot to make large batches of
bone broth as I simmered each turkey. Then I canned
turkey meat, turkey soup and nutritious bone broth.
There is a Wal-Mart in the nearest big town about 45 minutes away, and I had to pay them a visit to stock up on canning jar lids. While there, I found turkeys on sale for 50 cents a pound. I couldn't pass that up, and Alan talked me into getting three large turkeys. They were frozen solid and could sit in the bottom of our fridge for several days thawing, so I could can them after I finished the sausage. Plus they would act like three large blocks of ice in the fridge and thus save on some of our solar power that runs the fridge.

Just a small portion of the over 400 sausages
I browned off for canning.
A few days later, I check the online sales ad for that grocery store with the 'Lil Sizzlers', and discovered that while the week prior they were on sale for $1.50 a package, now they are once again on sale and this time for 99 cents a package. It's too good of a deal to pass up, so the next time we are in town we stop to pick up some more. I am disappointed that the store's freezer shelf is bare, so I ask an employee and he says he has plenty in the back and how many would we like. We end up with two more cases (24 packages) which is another TWO canner loads. All told I canned 444 'Lil Sizzlers'!

So between sausages and turkeys the pressure canner has been very busy. Oh, and did I mention we also picked up a 50 pound bag of potatoes for $10. I like to keep canned potatoes on hand for quick meal preps.

3. All This Canning Led to Expanding.... Pantry Shelves
The cabinets in my kitchen island
were the first location for my canning pantry.
I originally stored all of our home canned goods in the cabinet area of our kitchen island. But, as the majority of our meals started coming from our canning pantry, we had to find more room for our growing supply of home canned goodness. Thus our third bedroom became our pantry.

When we moved in, our second bedroom was decorated as our guest room, but the third bedroom had become a catch all for projects and 'stuff' that we hadn't found a home for elsewhere in the house. We did leave room (most of the time) for two heavy duty cots we had purchased so this room could still be used as an additional bedroom, sort of.

These are the 'candle shelves' that
my canning pantry recently outgrew.
I moved a lot of the jars that were on these
to my new shelves as I organized.
As my canning bounty increased, we added more shelves to this room. We had started out with your typical plastic storage shelves for all the 'stuff' that was 'temporarily' (yeah, right!) housed in this room, but these were not sturdy enough to be loaded with full canning jars. They tend to bow some-what even when I store my empty jars on them.

A little over a year ago, I was fortunate enough to get two sets of shelves that had been designed to go into stores for selling candles - the jar candles that are so popular (and heavy). Alan graciously carried the yet to be assembled wooden (and heavy) shelves up the stairs and into our house and then spent several frustrating hours building them as no instructions were included. Think Ikea furniture with no instructions - yeah, really frustrating. We were able to get 4 extra shelves, 2 extra for each unit. I could then better adjust the height of each shelf to fit the most jars.

Well, I love these shelves and I can fully fill each shelf with canned goods with no fear of broken or sagging shelves. However, with my recent flurry of canning, my pantry storage was filling up fast. I needed to find another option that would hold more heavy jars as they came out of the canner.

My newest addition to the pantry.
Each shelf can hold 350 pounds.
Last spring, Alan had picked up a set of the heavy chrome shelves like you find in commercial kitchens. I have plans for a greenhouse/solar dehydrator that I want him to work on this winter, another project to disrupt hibernation. The shelving unit came with 5 shelves and stands about 6 feet tall. It is sturdy enough for canning jars, but 5 shelves spaced over 6 feet in height means a lot of wasted space when you put just one level of jars on each shelf. However, the way the shelves are designed, you can add more shelves to a unit and Alan told me that when he had made the purchase at Lowe's he also saw that they sold extra shelves individually.

Alan needed some items from Lowe's for a current plumbing project (another hibernation buster) and so I went along to get some more shelves. I discovered that the complete shelving units (with 5 shelves) were on sale for about $65, while the individually wrapped shelves were $20 each. I could pay $100 to get 5 extra shelves, or pay $65 for a complete 5 shelf unit and just use the shelves. Therefore, I bought two units with plans to use the shelves from both on just one of the frames, thus doubling the amount of jars I can store in the space of one set of shelves.

Once I had the new super-duper shelving unit constructed, it was time to start reorganizing the pantry - the fun part of the project!
The energy graph from our solar panels.

Wait, Where's All Our Power?
As I described above, we moved the panels so that they can all bask in the sun, but unfortunately there has been no basking since we relocated the panels in early December. Checking the graphing feature of our charge controller (above) shows that we have had only 6 somewhat decent days for generating power throughout December. From December 1st to the 27th there have been 25 days of cloud cover. A few of these days had a bit lighter cloud cover that allowed some solar power to be generated, but for the most part our batteries have not been fed by the solar panels. Our generator has had to come out of a long hibernation because the sun has decided it can hibernate even though we can not.
Well, it looks like someone is hibernating.

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