We’ve already had our first frost here in southern Wisconsin, and with the chilly air came a sobering reminder of impending winter. Thankfully the weather warmed again and we’re taking advantage by hurriedly accomplishing as many tasks as we can on our new farm. We’ve planted fruit trees, garlic and perennials, scraped lead paint from the garage, and repainted the siding on the house. We already staked out two large vegetable garden plots for next year, covering them with dark plastic to eliminate grass and weeds and make life easier when it’s time to plant in the spring.
As you can see in the background of the photo, the corn on our field still hasn’t been harvested by the farmer that leases it. It may be too late to seed the winter rye we were hoping to plant as a winter cover crop. When the corn does get harvested, we’ll check the forecast and decide if it’s worth the gamble of spending money on seed that may not have a chance to germinate. Every day we look out the window and frown at the tall corn rustling noisily in the breeze and obscuring our view of the rolling hills.
Time always moves too quickly when your to-do list is long, but time spent caring for a toddler seems to bend in unique way, dragging at a snail’s pace while the rest of the world flies by all around. I help Marlin blow dandelion seeds or color with sidewalk chalk, watching Frank busily pressure washing, scraping and painting. During nap time I hurry to help as much as I can while staying within earshot of the baby monitor. Sometimes we trade places and Frank drives Marlin around on the tractor while I jar applesauce or grape jelly (or grape pancake syrup, as it turned out, since my first attempt at grape jelly didn’t work out so well).
We’ve been visiting as many yard sales as possible, especially where there are tools for sale. We’ve gotten very lucky and found some used treasures at a steal. One of our finds was a small wood chipper, a tool we were excited to own because we have a continuing need for mulch around our trees and garden beds. Mulch serves multiple purposes by protecting plant roots from temperature extremes and fertilizing the soil as it breaks down. With a wood chipper we should have a ready supply of free mulch, created from the brush pile Frank made when he thinned the branches in our front yard.
I have to admit, I was picturing simply feeding entire branches into the machine and getting an instant pile of mulch. There’s just one problem – with a small chipper it takes a surprising amount of time and effort to create a tiny pile of mulch! Our wood chipper can only handle thin branches and twigs, and we’re having to spend time with a chainsaw cutting branches into manageable pieces and then carefully feeding them in. It’s kind of tedious, but we’re getting valuable mulch and our wood chipper will have paid for itself by the end of the year.
I’m really excited to be growing blueberries because they’re both delicious and antioxidant rich. I want to make sure our three blueberry bushes are successful, so we planted them along with peat moss to lower soil the pH. Blueberries thrive in acidic soil, preferring a soil pH range between 4 and 5, but the soil on our farm is neutral (right around 7). We need to amend our soil by adding acidic matter and continuing to add it every so often to keep the pH low. Luckily for us, pine wood chips and pine needles are acidic and will contribute to a low soil pH as they break down, so our homemade mulch will fit the bill.
As the weather turns cold, our thoughts turn to the neglected greenhouse. The greenhouse is huge and has a ton of potential for our farm business, including growing leafy greens year-round and getting a head start on summer vegetables by starting seedlings in late winter.
The building even has a nice office area at the front that could eventually be used as a farm store. Right now there’s a lot of random stuff laying about.
The greenhouse comes equipped with an irrigation system. There are two large plastic tanks which can be filled with water from a well pump. The tanks feed a complex array of hoses that fan out along the whole length of the greenhouse. Unfortunately, after a few seasons of sitting unused in extreme heat, some of the plastic components have dry-rotted and will need to be replaced.
The building has built-in thermostats which control heaters, fans, and vents that pull in cooler air from outside, allowing the greenhouse to remain at an optimum temperature year-round.
I won’t be surprised if this place becomes our new favorite hangout once the blustery winter winds start to blow, but first this neglected space is going to need a major overhaul. Right now there are lots of weeds growing inside, pieces of rebar protruding dangerously from the floor, and thousands of dry-rotted plastic pots piled high.
We haven’t wasted any time and are already growing greens for the winter! These lettuce seedlings are just about ready to transplant into larger pots.
Outside, the squash plants have died back from the frost and we can suddenly see all the squashes and gourds that have been hiding in the giant mound of vines. It’s shocking how many summer squash were lurking, undetected, in the tangle. Why are summer squashes such an all-or-nothing crop? In previous years our garden was sometimes plagued with squash borers or fungal problems and we hardly got anything at all. As most gardeners will tell you that in a good year it’s almost impossible to keep up with yields, and giant, baseball bat-sized zucchinis pop up seemingly overnight.
We’re doing our best to use up as many of the edible squashes as we can. Let me tell you, chocolate zucchini cake is a fantastic way to use up an over-abundance of zucchini. You can even use those overgrown baseball bats; just shred the outer flesh and discard the large, tough seeds at the center. Shredded zucchini can be stored in the freezer in airtight bags, allowing you to enjoy zucchini recipes all winter long!
To be totally honest, I made my cake with one of the frankensquash from the compost instead of an actual zucchini. As I mentioned in my last post, when we moved to our new farm we were blessed with an abundance of unidentifiable squash-gourd hybrids. (I also explain why not all squash hybrids are safe to eat. A good rule of thumb is never to eat any squash that tastes bitter!) These green, pear-shaped squashes may look a bit odd, but they have soft rinds and tender flesh. The flavor is pretty good and they’re indistinguishable from zucchini once baked into a cake.
The addition of zucchini adds moisture to the cake, but the real star of the show is chocolate. This won’t come as a surprise if you know me; I buy extra dark chocolate by the case! I like to use raw cacao powder in my recipes because of its rich flavor, but you can use regular cocoa powder instead.
This cake is seriously rich, moist, and decadent! The best part is that it’s only slightly sweet, so it won’t overpower you with sugar. I actually think it goes great with a cup of coffee in the morning (I normally can’t eat sweets for breakfast without feeling terrible for the rest of the day).
This chocolate zucchini cake is tasty served as-is, but if you’re making it for a special occasion you may want to sweeten it up with a little frosting.
I adapted my recipe for sunflower butter frosting from my pal Amy. Instead of buying store-bought powdered sugar, Amy always makes her own by putting 1 cup of coconut sugar in the blender with 1 teaspoon arrowroot powder and processing until its fine and powdery. Coconut sugar is slightly healthier than table sugar because it has a lower glycemic index. The amount of sugar in this frosting recipe is low, so it’s a relatively healthy option regardless of which type of sugar you choose.
Not-Too-Sweet Dark Chocolate Zucchini Cake
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup unsweetened raw cacao powder or cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 4 eggs
- 3/4 cup melted butter or coconut oil
- 3/4 cup applesauce
- 3 cups grated zucchini
- 2/3 cup chopped dark chocolate or chopped walnuts (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9×13 inch baking pan.
- In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.
- In a separate bowl, mix the melted butter (or oil) and applesauce. Allow to cool for several minutes, then add eggs and mix well.
- Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Fold in zucchini and chocolate or walnuts, if using. Pour into the greased pan.
- Bake for 50 minutes at 350 degrees F, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. 6. Serve as is, or wait until cake is completely cool and then frost.
Chocolate Sunflower Butter Frosting
- 2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
- 1/4 cup sunflower butter or nut butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- 3-4 Tablespoons water
Directions1. Gently melt the chocolate on the stove over medium heat, stirring constantly.
2. Beat together the sunflower butter, vanilla and water. Add sugar and mix well, then add melted chocolate. Add water until the desired consistency is reached.