Saturday, 28 February 2009

Small steps towards a new life

A couple of days a week, I work in a Neighbourhood Centre close to where I live. I’m the co-ordinator there so it gives me a lot of opportunities to help develop my community and to teach some of the things I’ve been fortunate enough to learn over my many years. The latest thing is a program that teaches how to reduce the cost of running a home. I wrote it about a month ago and delivered the first session this week. The first Frugal Home workshop was booked out, a second is booked out too and a third one planned for April.

It’s just a workshop that covers what many of us do here – live simple, green and frugal lives, but there were so many questions from the participants wanting to know more, more, more, I was surprised by it. They were very keen to learn, they saw possibilities and they wanted to know how they could fit those possibilities into their own lives. We discussed green cleaners, how to reduce the costs of services and utilities, reading electricity and water meters, budgeting, shopping and cooking from scratch. I also reminded them that even though they were trying to live on less money and pay off debt, they shouldn’t make themselves miserable doing it and to seek happiness and beauty in everyday life. When they left, they were eager to get started on their first small steps.

It occurred to me when I was driving home later in the day that we are dealing with a new currency here. There is a surprising amount of credibility now attached to those who are living a simple life. Much of what we do has been past down in our families, but somewhere along the way, we stopped listening. I find it strangely comforting to know that how I live now is very similar to how my grandmother lived her entire life. She was born in the 19th century, and when I was born halfway through the 20th, I grew to be a modern young woman, quick to move away from granny’s kind and generous example and more towards steel shapes, sliced bread in plastic bags and cold hearts.

I learnt my lesson. I’m back in the fold now.

Our times have taught us that a lot of what we had been doing was not kind to us or to the planet. People are interested in change now and many are actively seeking it. And while there is a lot of practical information out there, there is also a lot of hogwash. So be wary of who you listen to, change in small ways and grow into your new life slowly. Make sure what you change suits you, and is not a carbon copy of someone else’s life. Some elements are common to all of us. I believe we need to be independent within a community context; we need to learn skills that will help us thrive in our specific environment. We will all have failures and successes and we will all change our mindset to see many things in a different light.

This way of life is flexible enough to suit all comers and while we all start off at a particular point – usually learning new skills – what we do after that, and how we apply those skills to our lives, varies a lot. Don’t think you have to learn everything you read about, pick and choose what will fit in your life, don’t forget to look for the beauty in everyday life, collect all small fragments of joy as you find them and build your own unique version of this way of living.

......... ............ ............. .......... ...........

The photo above is a morning tea we had here last week - tea and pikelets. You will notice jam on three of the pikelets - two for Hanno, one for me and the one, without jam, for Alice, our Airedale Terrier. Pikelets are like little fat pancakes and are the easiest thing to make up if you have someone drop in for coffee and you have nothing on the cake stand.

3 cups self raising flour OR plain (all purpose) flour with 3 teaspoons of baking powder added.
1 tablespoon soft or melted butter
pinch salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg
about a cup of buttermilk or plain milk - you'll need enough milk to make a thick batter.

Mix all the ingredients together in a mixing jug or bowl until you have a thick smooth batter. If you can, let the batter rest for 15 minutes. Pour small circles of the batter into a relatively hot, greased frying pan and cook until golden brown on both sides. Serve warm with butter, jam, honey or maple sryup.

For an apple version of these pikelets, add a grated apple and some cinnamon to the batter.

This will be my last post here for a while. I need time for other things in my life, so I’m stepping back from, but not leaving, the Co-op. I hope to be back posting here and there later in the year. I’m not leaving, I’m just not posting. Thank you for the comments you leave. All the comments add to this wonderful mix and show us who is reading.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Not So Simple

By Kate
Living The Frugal Life

I've been turning the idea of "simplicity" over in my mind a lot lately. In the blog reading I do, it's a term that is bandied about quite a lot. And after all, here I am writing for the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op. While I understand what is meant these days by "simplicity," I don't think simplicity is what I'm aiming for in my life. Rather, I'm aiming for a particular kind of complexity, one which gives rise to an astonishing sort of beauty.

Nature is not simple. On the contrary, it is vastly complex. So complex that we humans are still coming to understand the permutations and interactions of the various environments we inhabit. On the other hand, we strive to create simplicity in many of the places where we cannot avoid coming into contact with a naturally complicated world. We like our lawns to be uniform green fields of a single type of grass. We will wage chemical warfare to eradicate "the enemy" species of dandelion, crabgrass, clover, and chicory. We'll also squander water which was purified at great expense in order to sustain that monoculture lawn in places it would never exist otherwise.

Conventional agriculture also embraces a toxic simplicity. A field of corn (maize) larger than some small countries contains not single weed, and supports not a single butterfly or songbird. This monoculture of human making is maintained by a similarly simplistic understanding of soil nutrients and the supposed needs of the plants. The NPK triumvirate - nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you were to listen to a fertilizer salesman, those are the only three nutrients you need to worry about in farm soils.

But we know, or we ought to know, that it is not so. Nature is not simple. We enforce such precarious simplicity at our own peril. There are complexities in the world we don't begin to understand, even though they are tantalizingly near to us every day our lives. Our brain chemistry, our immune systems, the microorganisms in the soil beneath our feet, the web of species that make up any given ecosystem, the climate that governs the weather patterns in our region - these things are all extraordinarily complex. The brightest human minds have yet to fully unravel their mysteries.

And this is why I don't strive to create simplicity in the little piece of the world that I claim as my own playground. Quite the opposite; I see it as my duty to gather into my two-thirds of an acre as many species and as many dynamic systems as I possibly can. My duty to this land is to increase the biodiversity here, and my challenge is to learn to thrive by means of the complexity that arises. Fortunately, I have found that complexity is easy to arrive at and live with. It's often a case of just allowing nature to do her work, and finding the value to myself in that work.

I suspect you're wanting a concrete example right about now. Well, then, I give you the laying hen. Last year we added four mature laying hens, kept in rotational grazing, to our extensive backyard garden plan. Very quickly, I found that I was actively looking for green things to feed the hens, other than the purchased feed and new patch of grass they were on each day. And because we hadn't sprayed our lawn with pesticides since we'd moved in, I soon found dandelions and prickly lettuce to feed them. When the purslane almost took over the new garden bed I had cleared last spring, it wasn't a disaster, it was an asset. Because the chickens like to eat purslane, which just so happens to be the richest land-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. I had a reason now to pull dandelion leaves from the lawn each and every day. It was no longer a pointless, irritating chore for appearances' sake, a fight against an unwanted invader. It was a good use of the biodiversity of our little piece of earth, and a way both to lower my feed costs and improve the nutrient content of the eggs we enjoyed so much. Had we sprayed our lawn, there would have been no dandelions, no clover, no prickly lettuce. Had I mulched heavily in the garden there would have been much less purslane. Because it was there, I offered the prickly lettuce to the girls. Because they liked it, I learned its name. And because I saw its value to me, I let it go to seed rather than try to kill it off. As it was, none of these "weeds" got out of control because I was happy to harvest some of them every single day.

Likewise, the chickens added to the complexity of my tiny slice of the biosphere when we had an infestation of squash bugs. Without the chickens, I would have looked over my assaulted pumpkin vines in helpless dismay. Unwilling to douse the bugs with pesticide, I probably would have thrown up my hands and fled the garden, leaving the plants to the insects. Instead, I gathered the bugs twice a day with a wide plastic container and a dust pan brush. I threw them into the hens who excitedly gobbled every single one of them and eagerly asked for more. Because of this additional species - one I had made a deliberate decision to bring onto our property - what would have been a disaster again became an asset. The same was true whenever rains swelled our cherry tomatoes enough to split them open. What would have been a crop loss to us became instead a chicken treat. Less waste, better nutrition for the hens and us, more happiness for the hens and us.

This is just a sampling of the complexity that arose, and that I was able to observe, because we added one more species. Of course their manure is contributing to the greater fertility of our soil. They keep down the tick population, helping to protect our pet cat. There are, no doubt, complexities that I miss entirely in my limited ability to perceive and to comprehend. But the complexity that the hens brought which I could perceive filled me with a sense of wonder at the natural world. It made me want more species, more complexity in my life. Of course I wanted more: I found deep pleasure in experiencing these things. My life was richer for it.

Going forward, this is my goal: not more simplicity in my life, but more vibrant living complexity. Last year I pondered the question of what would be our next (animal) species. This year we plan on more berries and fruit trees, and I've already added some composting worms. Although they live in tubs in my basement and are therefore not directly interacting with the other living organisms outside, I can already see an added level of beautiful complexity in having them. The few compostable items the chickens were indifferent to (banana peels, citrus rind, tea leaves, onion scraps) are all most welcome and useful in the worm bin. It's almost eerie to me that the very food wastes I had no better use for than to toss into the compost bin are so well suited for the worms. It's as if a piece of the puzzle is fitting perfectly into place in my life - because of another species. When the worms have done their job, a tea made of their castings will provide an incredible nutritional boost to seedlings and potted plants around our mini homestead. If the worm population grows larger than my bins can contain, I will give some away to anyone in my area who wants worms for vermicomposting. After that, further worm population growth will turn into a feed supplement for the hens. Another layer of complexity in our homestead ecosystem.

We would dearly love to add bees to our homestead, and we may yet do so this year. It's easy to imagine some beneficial consequences of adding bees to our property: better pollination, a supply of honey (and therefore mead) to consume or barter, and a fascinating species to observe. But what is even more compelling to me is that we would discover another layer of marvelous and as-yet-unknown relationships. I don't know exactly how the bees would make our little piece of the world more complex, but I'm absolutely sure they would. And that's something I greatly look forward to finding out.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Where do you get the time for that? (Part 2)

by Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Back in November last year, Julie wrote a fantastic post here on this topic (hence the part 2 part in the title of this one). Julie outlined in her post how one small change can have a cumulative affect on a person's time. From my own journey, I can say that I have had the same experience. However, I would like to add a little bit more of my own thoughts on the issue.

To add just a bit of a background. I am a single mum to a 4yr old and a 6yr old. I work four days a week and I volunteer 8 hours a week for a couple of organisations. When people in my life find out that I have embraced a simple non-consumerist lifestyle, they almost always invariably ask me "where do you get the time for that?".

The first few times I answered this question, I used to say that I have the time to do this because I am not buying brand-new/shopping/watching large amounts of TV etc etc. And while I think this is partly true, I am slowly realising that perhaps this is not really the reason why I have the time to sew, craft, cook etc etc. I think the reason why I do it is because the more I learn to do these simple things , the more empowered I am and therefore the more time I give to it.

Time is a funny concept. Before I started consciously making the effort to be more aware of my consumption habits, I never seemed to have the time to do anything. At first, it seemed it was all I could do to have the time to work and see my friends. Then much later, it seemed to me that it was all I could do to have the time to raise my kids. For as long as I can remember, it seemed to me that I was always pressed for time.

One thing I've learned is that there is *always* time. When I look back I can see that nature has proven this to me "time and time" again. (heh).

In the past, I used to say: "I don't have the time to take a day off work/looking after my family to rest/recover from sickness"..... and then I would get really really sick and suddenly that day off became a week off... And somehow work/the family survived without me and I had that time.

In many ways, I think I had fallen into the trap of thinking that I should spend more time entertaining myself (with a very narrow definition of what is entertainment) rather than being productive (with the implication that being productive is work and therefore not supposed to make me happy).

Looking back, I can see how disempowered my language was in respect to time. Time and the constant search to find more of it, drove me. It took me gaining confidence - to have faith in myself - to finally say, "I don't need more time because I *can* use *this* time to sew/craft/learn/cook/garden." Doing these things makes me happy and that is just as important as other things. Karenmc summed it perfectly in her comment to me on my personal blog when she said:
I complain too much about not having enough time, but I have as much time as anyone else, and enough to pack in a lifetime of experiences. I have so much I want to do that I need to prioritise into those things that have to happen now or I may never get the opportunity again (such as playing with the kids while they're still young enough to want to play with me!) and things that can wait a little longer. And I find if there's something I want badly enough, I will subconsciously prioritise and find the time no matter how busy I am.

I think another aspect is that we tell ourselves we have to do certain things, and there's a certain status in being busier than everyone else. I'm certainly guilty of that sort of thinking, and am consciously trying to stop it. Yes, I'm on 3 school/preschool committees, but you know what? I want to be there, I want to be involved in something that's a big part of my children's lives, and I'm not prepared to give it up, so I'll stop talking about it in terms of it being a burden.

So in short, by consciously acknowledging that what I want to do and what I am doing is important, I have given myself the freedom to have the time to do what I want to do.

I hope everyone is having a lovely day.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Mmm Mmm Butter!

homemade butter, originally uploaded by Jocelyn | McAuliflower.

"People of Earth…today, I (J.) have made butter for N. and me! I am uber-cheap when it comes to purchasing butter. Why? Well, I use a lot of it and don’t like to pay money for…anything…especially not things I use a lot of. After scowering the ‘net for a good five minutes, I settled on just about the most simple and straight-forward recipe I could find. And it had pictures:)" 

This was an excerpt from the first time J. attempted homemade butter using store bought heavy whipping cream. It was quite good and worked despite being pasteurized. Cost wise I'm not sure how much money we saved, it would depend on the cost of organic butter versus organic cream where you are.

Where we saved money was when we joined a cow share and got raw milk complete with cream. Each week when we picked up our milk we would skim the cream off and make our own butter. Every once in awhile, if we baked a lot, we would have to supplement with store bought but for the most part we were pretty self sustaining.  

Now that's we've moved to Philadelphia we can't participate in a cow share and while we could still purchase raw milk it's much more expensive. Instead we purchase our butter in huge one pound rolls from the local Amish sellers. They make unsalted, lightly salted, and regularly salted options and they are a steal! But if you can I would still encourage you to try and make your own.

How do you make butter? Well, you get up at 4:00a.m., grab your pail and stool, and milk your cow. OK, so you don’t have a cow. All you need is heavy cream, a Kitchenaid (or a bottle) and some salt. So, I (J.) am an admitted/ self-proclaimed skeptic. When N. and I started this life revision, I was of the opinion that all things homemade were, for lack of a better term, not as good, and perhaps not as good for you. I’m a fairly simple person, and try to formulate my decisions and opinions based off of what I know can prove.

Below is a list of ingredients in our last 1/4 pound of Land O’ Lakes Light Butter:Water*Food-starch-modified*Contains less than 2% of tapioca malto-dextrin*SaltVegetable mono and diglycerides*Lactic Acid*Potassium sorbate* (preservative)Sodium Benzoate* (preservative)Xanthan gum*Natural Flavor*Vitamin A palmitate*Beta Carotene* (Color)* Ingredients not found in regular butter. Now, I still don’t know what Xanthan gum is, and I’m not sure why our store-bought butter needs two forms of preservative, but that’s what they have.

Below are the ingredients in the butter that we’ve just made:Organic Grade A Cream (Milk) Carrageenan and Sodium citrate salt (these were the ingredients in the Horizon Organic Cream). I truly can’t tell you what carageenan and sodium citrate are, but I hope you can agree with me when I say that, in this case, less is more. In the case of raw milk you are literally using cream and salt, it doesn't get much purer. 

  • 4 cups of heavy cream 
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

  1. Fit your mixer with the whisk. Blend. The cream will go through the following stages: Sloshy, frothy, soft whipped cream, firm whipped cream, coarse whipped cream. Then, suddenly, the cream will seize, its smooth shape will collapse, and the whirring will change to sloshing. The butter is now fine grained bits of butter in buttermilk, and a few seconds later, a glob of yellowish butter will separate from milky buttermilk. It took us about 15-20 minutes. 
  2. Drain the buttermilk. Keep for other uses as it is perfectly good raw buttermilk. (We usually made pancakes or biscuits)
  3. Add 1/2 cup of ice-cold water, and blend further. Discard wash water and repeat until the wash water is clear
  4. Add 1/2 tsp of salt, to taste, if desired.
  5. Squeeze out excess water. Take the butter out of the mixer and squeeze out any excess water.
  6. And you're done!
You could do all this in a jar using your own muscle power, but you need to shake vigorously for 10 plus minutes. 

Does anyone else make their own butter?

Monday, 23 February 2009

Cold Frames: A Gardener's Best Investment!

by Marc @ GardenDesk

It was a cold and snowy weekend here. I was hoping to work on the finishing touches of our hoop house but it was just too cold. Instead, I was able to work in my garage and build a new cold frame.

It is similar to the one I built last year following plans from one of my favorite old books, The New Victory Garden.

If you would like to see step-by-step instructions on how I built it, vist my GardenDesk blog. For this post, I wanted to go over what a cold frame is and why every frugal gardener should have one.

A cold frame is essentially a bottomless box with a covering of glass or clear plastic sheeting. These coverings are called "lights" because they collect the warm sunshine to heat up the plants contained inside the frame. This "box" can be placed directly over a portion of your garden bed to protect plants that are growing in the ground. You also can simply use your cold frame to place potted plants inside. The "lights" are constructed on the top of the frame at an angle - usually somewhere between a slight angle to a 45 degree angle, facing south to maximize mid-winter sun.

I consider a cold frame the gardener's single best investment because it enables you to extend the growing season for several months. In many areas, a cold frame will aid you in growing cold-season greens all winter long. The more months I can provide my family with healthy organic vegetables, the more money I save!

The cold frame is not a new invention. It dates back to the beginning of cultivated farming. It is very versatile because you can build it to suit your space and your needs. It can be any length as long as you can get the tops to fit. Many times you can construct one out of recycled or reclaimed materials such as old storm windows. My first cold frame was made from an old shower door. I do have to pause here to issue a warning however. Keep in mind that if you use glass as the "lights" that it can become dangerous if someone steps or falls onto it. I switched to using greenhouse style plastic sheeting when I had small children "helping" in the garden. Always remember, safety first.

So how does the cold frame work?

It protects plants from wind and freezing. When the lid is closed, it creates a micro-climate with the temperature being higher than the outside temperature. Granted, the difference may only be 5 or 10 degrees different in the winter, but that is significant when you also cut down the wind and the moisture that leads to freezing.

So what are the primary uses for a cold frame?

  • In the spring, you can start cool-season vegetables earlier.
  • In the fall, you can keep cool season crops growing longer.
  • In winter, you can keep root vegetables and cold tolerant greens from freezing. This gives you an extended harvest!
  • In the spring you can use your cold frame to harden off flower and vegetable plants that you started from seed indoors. This is another way to save money. You don't have to buy your plants from a garden center.
  • In spring and early summer, your cold frame can be your nursery for growing new seedlings.
  • If cold frames are so good, why doesn't everyone use them?

    Mainly I would have to say it is because they haven't fully considered the benefit of having them in the garden. Another reason could be because of the extra work it takes. Yes, they do require some extra work. The drawback with using coldframes is that you have to constantly be aware of the weather outside. A coldframe needs to be vented if there is direct sunshine on it or if the temperature significantly rises. The power that we rely on to keep the veggies warm can quickly become powerful enough to cook those veggies.

    This is not as much a problem in the middle of winter, but you have to be careful in the spring and fall. If you can't be ready to open or close the frame based on the changing weather, you can purchase an automatic venting arm that will do it for you. We have never had to rely on one, but I do admit that in the Spring I am always thinking about how the plants in the cold frame are doing. When hardening off vegetables in late Spring, we keep a thermometer in the frame that broadcasts the temperature to a unit in our kitchen. When we notice the temperature getting too hot, we open the lid further. If we get an unusually hot and sunny day, we take the top off entirely. It can actually be fun trying to figure out what the weather will do. The venting requirements varry depending upon the season. On most days there are no problems at all. Even when it gets tricky, the benefits still outweigh the hassles.

    I strongly encourage you to use a cold frame to help you grow more food for an extended period. If you have used them in the past, but haven't lately - now is a good time to re-consider them. If you have never used them before - now is a good time to make yourself a small frame. You can see a very simple design on my post Step by Step How to build a Cold Frame.

    If you are like me and it is winter where you are, building a coldframe while it is snowing outside will make you almost forget the cold and long for warm gardening ahead!

    Keep Growing!

    - Marc

    Saturday, 21 February 2009

    Handmade gifts for little children (for those of us who aren't naturally crafty).

    Posted by Julie
    Towards Sustainability

    If you have small children like me, the pressure to buy the latest and greatest "whatever" can be irritating to say the least when you are trying to live more simply. Adding birthdays for their little friends into the mix can present an even trickier situation - or at least it is for me. Having my obviously home made gift opened in amongst a plethora of expensive plastic whatnots was quite confronting for me to begin with - not because I was worried what the child thought, but what the other parents thought of it! I needn't have worried though because the response has been overwhelmingly positive, in part I suppose because handmade gifts are so rare these days and in part because they have reminded the other parents of similar (cherished) presents they received as a child.

    I am not a gifted artist or crafter by any stretch of the imagination (I have already posted a number of homemade children's' gift ideas here which don't require sewing skills), but I have been surprised by how many projects are available for free on the internet that even a sewing dummy like me can make. The hardest part really, is finding out what the likes and dislikes of the birthday child are; anything tailored to his or her likes are pretty much always going to be a hit with the child, and I have found that the parents genuinely appreciate the time you've taken to make something specifically for their child.

    A cookie jar, apron, spoon and recipe for a 6 year old boy (and Dr Who fan).

    One of the biggest hits with littlies I've had is with sets made up of customised, simple aprons and a few accessories, depending on the child. I've made up several cooking kits: an apron appliqued with their favourite character or their name, a small wooden spoon, and a laminated print out of a simple cookie recipe, presented inside a cookie jar as the "wrapping". I've made gardening kits: an apron, a small set of gardening gloves, a small trowel and a packet of flower seeds presented inside a terracotta pot (with a note asking them to decorate the pot). I also made a tool set for one little boy: a utility apron with pockets for tools, a second-hand hammer and tape measure, a packet of nails and timber offcuts presented in an inexpensive tool tote. You can find a simple child's apron tutorial by clicking on the link.

    I customised the recipe by including a picture of Dr Who as the background and called it "Doctor Who's favourite chocolate cookies". It was laminated for added longevity.

    What about a simple embroidery or sewing kit? Soulemama suggests in her (fabulous!) book, The Creative Family, supplying children new to sewing or embroidery with an embroidery hoop, a square of hessian, a blunt embroidery needle and some floss in their favourite colours and letting them go for it! Hessian comes in a range of groovy colours too now, so these items make for a great gift set, and you can adapt the idea to cross-stitch and so forth for older children.

    My daughter's current project - she tells me it's a mermaid and who am I to argue?

    Another really simple sewing gift is a pencil roll or crayon roll, or a notebook and pencil holder (there's another one here). They are simple, straight line machine sewing and very quick and easy to make. I've been making them lately for older children, and filling them with a sketch pad and pencils. My 16 year old niece has also requested one, which I will fill with a watercolour pad and quality watercolour pencils for her upcoming birthday.

    I've also made several useful water bottle totes, such as these ones I made my my daughters (I used this pattern, but made one long handle instead of two little ones, so they can sling it over their shoulder).

    What about some simple felt play food? As I said, my sewing skills are limited and I am a beginner to embroidery, but I managed to make a set of felt donuts and cookies which my daughters adore playing "tea-parties" with. There are a plethora of patterns and tutorials on the 'net for felt play food. Here is a tutorial for the donut or make some assemble-your-own sandwiches or pizzas (ideas here). One Crafty Mumma has tutorials for eggs and orange slices, ravioli, lemon and tomato slices, and icecreams, or be inspired by the felt food Flickr group.

    These are just a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing amongst the non-crafters amongst us, there are hundreds of other ideas to be found on the 'net, and I can assure you that the sense of satisfaction in handmaking gifts is well and truly worth the effort.

    For those of you who have been making gifts for years, what are your favourite easy-peasy handmade children's gifts?

    Friday, 20 February 2009

    Fresh Ricotta for supper

    by Throwback at Trapper Creek

    Cooking from scratch with everyday fixings can be an empowering feeling. The less processed foodstuffs we purchase the better off we feel. Control over food ingredients and our pocketbook is a worthy goal.

    Here is a simple recipe I have used continuously since I took my first cheese making class - homemade ricotta cheese with ingredients most of us have in our refrigerator and pantry. You could call this cheater ricotta, since some cheese books only give recipes for ricotta made with whey, but they are assuming you are already making cheese. This way you don't have to have a cow in the back yard. I usually make it for lasagna, while I'm making the noodles. It literally can be made and ready for use in 10 minutes. The fresh ricotta will keep up to a week in the refrigerator or it freezes well, if you have a milk surplus. Most of the time though, I just make it and use immediately.

    All you need is milk and acid. You can use skim to full fat milk, raw or pasteurized and you add acid - vinegar, lemon juice or citric acid.

    Heat the milk in a non-reactive pan to 190F (88C) (Any temperature between 190F (88C) and 212F (100C) is fine.)

    The milk will foam at this point.

    Turn off heat, add acid and stir. I used lemon juice in this batch, and started with 2 Tablespoons. My milk was fresh, so I ended up adding 1 additional Tablespoon before the curd started to form. It happens fast.

    This is the curds and whey. Set aside and let cool to a safe handling temperature.

    When curds and whey have cooled, drain through a colander lined with wet cheesecloth*. Save the whey, it has many uses - bread, pancakes, nutritional drinks, and livestock feed are some of the ways to use your whey. You could also repeat this process with the whey and get more ricotta cheese. The yield will be smaller since only the water-soluble albumen protein remains in the whey. When milk is used both the casein and albumen proteins are separated from the liquid and the yield will be higher.

    Pour off the first whey, and tie the cheesecloth into a bag and suspend over a bowl for further draining. At this point, you could use the cheese, if you are going to keep it several days, the more whey you drain off the better.

    Yield: 3/4 pound of cheese and 1 quart + whey from 1/2 gallon of milk.

    Tools needed:
    Milk one gallon will yield approximately 1 1/2 pounds of milk.
    Lemon Juice, vinegar, or citric acid - approximately 1/4 cup per gallon.
    Non reactive pan
    Non reactive colander
    Non reactive mixing spoon
    Large bowl

    Thanks Della!

    *To be on the safe side it is recommended that you boil your cheesecloth to sterilize it before draining your cheese.

    An easy way to do this is in the microwave: Wet your cheesecloth and place in a microwave safe bowl, microwave for one minute. Be careful, the cloth will be extremely hot, after it cools you can use it to drain your cheese.

    Thursday, 19 February 2009

    Emergency Evacuation - Wildfire

    by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
    It started small - just a teens' party fire left to smoulder, flared up again and a blown ember ignited some nearby brush. The fire crept along until it got to a couple of small trees. As those flamed up, someone saw the smoke and called 9-1-1. While a crew mobilized to investigate, the fire spread. Monitoring the police scanner, a radio station breaks into the programming with a special news bulletin. No one is very alarmed - fire crews are responding, aren't they? But the afternoon winds are picking up, and the smoke plume keeps getting bigger. The beating of helicopters and drone of the fire planes shake the air over the house. All the television stations are broadcasting continuous updated reports now - structures are threatened. Suddenly, there's a knock on your door. A sheriff's deputy stands there. Prepare to evacuate - you've got 20 minutes. What do you do now?

    Survival psychology puts forth the Theory of 10-80-10 to explain behavior in an emergency situation. People basically divide into three categories. Ten percent will handle a crisis in a calm and rational state of mind. Another 10% will lose control completely - panic, unable to pull themselves together. The vast majority, though, will be stunned and bewildered - their reasoning impaired and thinking difficult. So don't count on thinking straight when time is of the essence. Make up an emergency evacuation envelope now, with copies of important documents; a list of things to do on the front. Oftentimes, in a wildfire, you might not be permitted to return to your home, so a duplicate set kept at work or in your car might not be a bad idea.

    No property is worth human lives. Get out immediately if told to do so by fire officials. It will most likely be dark, smoky, windy, and hot. There may be airborne burning embers, no power, no telephone, and poor to no water pressure. But if you have a bit of time to prepare, here are some things you can do:

    Attire and Equipment
    Wear only cotton or wool clothing - long pants and long sleeves - and sturdy shoes with enclosed toes (no polyester, no rubber flip-flops). Carry gloves and a cotton kerchief to cover your face, water to drink and wet down kerchief, and goggles if possible, plus the fire extinguisher from your kitchen or garage. Have a flashlight and portable radio with you, tuned to a local emergency station, and listen for instructions. Your usual route to and from your house might be blocked - familiarize yourself with different streets in your neighborhood, and keep a local map in your car.

    Family Members and Pets
    If possible, get everyone not essential to preparing your home out first. Call a friend or send one family member out with essentials, children, and pets. Designate a meeting place and contact person - talk with your children about this ahead of time. Relay your plans to your contact person; maybe change the message on your answering machine. Many times in an emergency situation, it can be easier to make a long distance call than to call locally; incoming calls may be jammed. You might need to call someone out of the area to relay information if you're separated (during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, my brother and sister in the Bay Area couldn't reach each other, but both called me in Nevada as their information relay contact). Confine pets until ready to evacuate - smaller animals in cages or carriers, dogs with collars and leashes, larger animals with halters and lead ropes. Call for help to evacuate livestock - do not ever just turn them loose.

    Turn your car(s) to face your direction of escape, windows rolled up, keys in the ignition. If in the garage, close the garage door but leave it unlocked. Disconnect your automatic garage door opener so that the door can be opened manually. Put essential items in the car.

    Essential Items
    Important documents: bank, IRS, trust, investment, insurance policy, medical records, birth certificates, plus your children's current school photo (in case you get separated) - you might want to put everything in that emergency envelope now, just in case. Cash, credit and ATM cards. Identification - driver's license and passport. Medications and prescription glasses. Inventory of home contents - consider videotaping if you have time, or take photos inside and out. Computer backup (drop one of those little keychain flashdrives in your emergency envelope, update regularly) and/or laptop. Know how to access your email and financial accounts if you're away from your regular computer. Cell phone, and charger. Address book or Rolodex. Family photo albums and videos, and heirlooms (make a list of what is important to you now - don't trust your reasoning or memory in an emergency. Women I've talked to about the 2007 South Lake Tahoe fire were amazed at some of the silly things they "saved"). Personal toiletries, washcloth and towel. A change of clothing (underwear!). Comfort items for your children - favorite toys, books, or games. Blankets or sleeping bags and pillows, if possible.

    Inside the House
    Leave a light on in each room. Close all interior doors. Remove lightweight curtains and other combustible materials from around windows. Turn off pilot lights. Close any heavy shutters, Venetian blinds, or fire-resistant draperies. Move over-stuffed furniture, such as couches and easy chairs, to the center of the room.

    Outside the House
    Turn on outside lights. Put combustible patio furniture and propane tanks from gas grills inside the house or garage. Turn off propane at the tank, or natural gas at the meter. Close all doors and windows, exterior vents if possible; leave exterior doors unlocked. Prop a metal ladder against the house to provide firefighters easy access to your roof. Attach hoses to outside faucets, and attach nozzles set to "spray". Fill trash cans and buckets with water and leave them where firefighters can find them. If you have a pool or pond with a portable pump, clearly mark its availability so it can be seen from the street.

    My heart goes out to all the victims of recent wildfires in Australia, and those that have lost friends and family. Please, there is nothing you own worth your life! Evacuate immediately if asked by fire fighters and law enforcement officials.

    Wednesday, 18 February 2009

    Winter Greens Alternative

    Posted by: Paul Gardener
    A posse ad esse (From possibility to reality)

    I thought I'd take a little different approach today. I'm posted a series of posts that I put up on my regular blog nearly a year ago, but putting them together for you here as one consistant piece. I hope you enjoy and give it a try!

    I've been playing around with a little indoor garden lately. It's a really small indoor garden and gives me a sweet green to eat with my burgers, sandwiches, salads or just for a little snack any time of the year. I've been growing alfalpha sprouts in my kitchen! All I needed was an inexpensive container of seeds, an old mason jar that was sitting in a box in the garage, and a scrap piece of nylon panyhose. I thought I'd document it for anyone that has thought about trying this for yourself.

    Day 1 (Getting Started)
    First of all, you'll need to get your supplies together. I've got my seeds, jar, nylon, and a 1 tablespoon measure so I'm ready.

    The first step is to take 1 tbsp of seed and add it too our jar.
    Now pay attention, this is the difficult part, cover it with a good bit of water and let it sit overnight. The Nylon is used to cover the jar and keep dust out. It also has a more important use, but we'll get to that tomorrow.

    Here is what it looks like when it starts. Not too exciting, but give it a day or so.

    Day 2
    Alright, it's been about 24 hours. You really only need to leave them to soak for 12 but it won't hurt them to go a little longer. Now the reason for the nylon scrap is more evident. After letting them soak, you turn the jar over and drain all of the water out. Some water will of course linger at the bottom, but let it sit upside down for a minute to get out as much as you can.
    After I do this, I have seed spread all over the side of the jar, not a good place for the sprouts to grow, so I scrap them down to the bottom of the jar with a long kitchen utensil. (Truth be told, I use an extra paint stir stick that's a little concaved, it works great.) and spread them evenly on the bottom.
    Here is the end result.

    This is a closer look at the seeds them selves. they are really saturated and swollen, you can see there are a couple that are already showing green and getting ready to sprout.

    After draining, I place the jar on top of the refrigerator where it is a little warmer and perfect for sprouting.

    Day 3
    Well here we are at day three, 48 hours have passed. I guess it's really day two if you consider that day one was just putting the seeds in the jar.

    I took the jar down tonight after dinner, and added about an inch of water. Enough to cover it well, it's really not a scientific process. Anyway, same as yesterday I drain and then push all the seeds to the bottom. Rinse, Drain, Repeat, Rinse, Drain, Repeat. I took a new picture and TAADAA sprouts are popping out all over. In retrospect I think that leaving them to soak for a full twenty four hours is a good thing. These sprouted a lot more vigorously than the last batch I grew.

    Day 4
    Day four and the sprouts are really kicking into gear.

    See those long roots! actually they're about 3/4 inch long. Tonight instead of covering the sprouts with water and then pouring it out through the nylon filter, I decided to try a different method of watering the sprouts. I took a regular all pupose spray bottle, filled with clear water and spritzed the top of the sprouts. Not too much, just enough to dampen the sprouts. The reason for this is that one of the issues I have had in the past is that as the sprouts germinate and grow and I tip the jar over to drain the water, they inevitably fall onto the lid. Not really a big deal, but when I push them back down onto the bottom of the jar I break some of them, and they tend to grow all curly and knotted up with each other. Again, not really a big deal, but if you were as obsessive compulsive as me, it'd drive you nuts. trust me.
    Here is the top view.
    Getting excited about a sprout? trust me these babies are way sweeter and tastier on your turkey sandwich than any you could get from the store.

    Day 6
    Well here we are at Day 6. The sprouts are now about 1 3/4 inch tall. I can eat them anytime now, but I like to wait until they are a bit bigger. I will post my last update in another day or two with the final product. I hope you get inspired to try these on your own. They are a great addition to the wonderful fresh salads and veggies we'll have here shortly in the summer, but can be enjoyed all year. Have fun, and get sprouting!!

    Day 7 (Final)
    Well, here it is. The final yield from my tablespoonful of seeds. It took 7 days, if you count the day that I put the seeds in water to soak overnight. This is probably about two of the packages that you would buy in the store. I know it doesn't seem like a really huge amount, but when you consider the container of seed that I bought was $3 and some change, it is really quite a major savings, besides the fact that you just can't get better tasting or healthier sprouts.

    As I said, these sprouts are just the very best ones you'll ever get. They're healthy, sweet and when you make them your self they're really really cheap!! It
    Doesn't get much simpler or more frugal for greens than that.
    Till next time...

    Tuesday, 17 February 2009

    My Top Ten Books About Self-Reliance

    by Melinda Briana Epler
    One Green Generation

    This list is an “if I were stranded on a desert island what would I bring?” top ten list. Of course I don’t plan on being stranded on a desert island....

    Why I Think It’s Important to Have These Books.

    I am not a fatalist. However, I do believe harder times are before us. It looks like the world economy is still going to get worse before it gets better.

    Our oil supply isn’t going to last forever. I believe we’re going to feel increasing economic pressure, as it becomes increasingly expensive to extract oil. I don’t think the world will end in a big kaboom. However, slowly but surely... our world will change. When I think about everything in our infrastructure that relies on oil, it seems clear to me that we’re not going to continue living as we do forever.

    And I believe we probably won’t have a big world-ending crash due to climate change either. But we are already beginning to see increasing amounts of extreme weather patterns. Extreme weather leads to crop failures, fires, floods, and much more.

    What climate change means for me locally is that I need to prepare for the fact that our road might flood and we’ll be stuck here home for several days. Or we have a terrible drought and I need to keep my garden going despite it. Or our local climate begins to get warmer, and I need to know enough about gardening to adapt to that change. Our local economy will suffer if the weather changes abruptly and local crops fail, in which case we may have to get by with a lot less.

    I know there are some readers here who think I’m crazy at this point. Please don’t click away. Because even if you believe none of this, there are reasons to become more sustainable, more self-sufficient. Your personal income ebbs and flows, jobs come and go, medical issues occur from time to time... When you are down economically, it’s important to know how to feed, clothe, and house your family.

    Plus, I can tell you quite honestly that living more sustainably is very fulfilling. I am happier, healthier, and I enjoy food more. I enjoy life more.

    My Top Ten Books About Self-Reliance:

    1. Joy of Cooking.

    Surprise! I’m not kidding. It’s my #1 choice. In it you will find just about everything you need to cook and preserve food. There are several editions, and they’re not the same. I’ve had each of the last three. I prefer the 2006 edition, as it has more about preserving and less about microwaving. There are even recipes for preserving here, though if this list were longer I would include the Blue Ball Book of Preserving as well.

    2. Seed To Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth.

    Not just about seeds, this is a page-turner of a gardening book. I love it - read it all in one night! Extremely valuable.

    3. Back to Basics, by Reader’s Digest.

    I did not expect Reader’s Digest to have such a book, but it’s great! From making candles and bread, to beekeeping and metal working, to making cheese and building a stone house. And everything in between! Fascinating stuff.

    4. Storey’s Basic Country Skills.

    The subtitle is: “A Practical Guide to Self-Reliance.” Whatever isn’t in Back to Basics is probably here. It includes farm and ranch animals, water supplies, basic plumbing and electrical skills, and more.

    5. Four-Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman.

    So little winter gardening is done in the U.S., and it’s too bad. There is so much you can grow and eat when it’s cold. Eliot Coleman lives in Maine, and walks you through how to create and maintain a productive garden year-round without a heated greenhouse. I’ve benefitted greatly by reading this book, and we’ve had loads of veggies this winter.

    6. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway.

    Another book that has helped me a great deal in learning how to create a sustainable garden. Toby Hemenway writes about seeing the garden as a whole, and taking into account how each plant will relate with one another. He spends time talking about perennial fruits and vegetables, capitalizing on the water supplied by nature, and making the garden work for you so you don’t have to work as hard. After you learn how to garden, I think it’s important to move to the next level of learning how to garden sustainably. It’s cheaper, better for the environment, and you don’t have to rely on outside sources for soil amendments, seeds, and water.

    7. Home Cheese Making, by Ricki Carroll.

    Learn how to keep a goat or cow in Basic Country Skills, and then make cheese to preserve it. This is Matt’s favorite - he has made several recipes from it, and they’ve all been delicious, and far less intimidating than we feared. I plan to tackle some more recipes soon.

    8. Artisan Baking, by Maggie Glezer.

    Well, this was a tough one. Matt is the bread maker in the family - basically, I follow his recipe whenever I make it. And our daily bread is actually made from a starter we grew using Breads from the La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton. But, Artisan Baking is a great introduction to bread making, and it has amazing recipes. If we could only pick one, this would be it. (Though did you see how I sort of picked two? Yes, I cheated.)

    9. Complete Guide to Sewing, by Reader’s Digest.

    I found this at an antique store in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona last Thanksgiving. As Back to Basics is to simple skills, this book is to sewing. I’m not much of a sewer (big understatement), but if I had to sew, this book would walk me through whatever I needed to make.

    10. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, by Andrew Chevallier.

    If you couldn’t go to the doctor... This book synthesizes current research and traditional healing, and walks you through different herbs, how to prepare them, and what they are used for. I keep it around just in case. Plus there are a lot of common foods and herbs here (including lemons!), and it’s interesting to see what they’re used for in traditional medicine.

    Where to Find these Books.


    You can probably find most of these books in your local library. However, in this particular case you might want these reference books in your home for easy access. I find myself going to them often.

    Antique Stores, Thrift Stores & Used Bookstores.

    I have found a couple of these used. I love that they have a history, that someone else used them and they’re passing them on to me. Try this particularly for the Reader’s Digest books and Joy of Cooking.

    Your Local Bookstore.

    Get to know your local book seller - they are generally lovely people who will order these books for you if they don’t have them. Support that local infrastructure, and keep it open for business.

    What Is on Your Bookshelf?

    There are many other books on our bookshelf (as you can see in the photo above!), but these are my top 10. However, I know it's incomplete. For instance, I would like to include a knitting/crocheting book, but I'm not versed in these areas yet.... any ideas?

    What would you add to this list?

    Monday, 16 February 2009

    Little Luxuries

    Beauty That Moves
    What things do you love? Living simply, consuming less, slowing down, these choices are not based on deprivation, they are based on consciousness.

    I often feel like I practice some sort of backwards mentality (according to the typical world view, not my own, probably not yours either) when it comes to consuming. I avoid the mall, I don't understand designer handbags or shoes, I will never buy a new car, I prefer smaller homes, apples for apples I will always choose second hand over new... but when it comes to what goes on or inside my body or that of my family... well, that's a different story. Quality matters.


    I cook from scratch, make most of our own cleaning supplies, shop from our local farms and food co-op, etc., but let's face it, life is too short for inferior olive oil, and it is just not produced in New England! All of the goodies in the picture above were collected from around the house, and I trust them. I guess that is one of the questions I ask myself when purchasing goods. Do I trust it? Do I trust the company? Do I want to support the company? Does it provide something that I can't provide for myself? Those sort of things... conscious consumption. These little luxuries that I choose to bring into my life, they are not all local and they are not all inexpensive, but they are purchased with awareness and appreciation.

    I love this shirt from It could also read Live Like You Give A Damn... or Consume Like You Give A Damn... I guess for me, that's 9/10ths of what this life is all about. Being awake and making deliberate choices. That will play out differently for each of us, and that's okay. The key is that we each find a healthy balance for our own well being, and the well being of our planet. I'm happy to keep a drawer in the kitchen of various sized rags for general clean-up and household use, avoiding the purchase of paper towels.... but you won't find me sitting around on a Saturday night separating 2 ply toilet paper to make it last longer. But that's just me.

    There are a few things missing from my photo... Green and Black's dark chocolate, Equal Exchange's Mind, Body and Soul coffee, and my once a month stop to my favorite sushi place. If you were to take a photo of your own little luxuries, what would it include? Maybe it's a high end set of cookware purchased because you know it will last three lifetimes, or the once a year tropical vacation you take to restore peace of mind, for some it might be an indulgence of going to concerts or plays, because spending money on the arts always feels good.

    What things do you love and fit into a simple life? We are not judging here, only sharing! :)

    Sunday, 15 February 2009

    Home Made Curry & Accompaniments

    written by Gavin, The Greening of Gavin

    My family loves a good curry, and I like making them. Most weeks we have at least three vegetarian meals for dinner and this recipe is one of them. It is for Chickpea & Potato Curry. The recipe is my own creation and I apologise in advance for any vagueness in the instructions.

    Gavin's Chickpea and Potato Curry

    Makes 6 generous serves.

    800gm re-hydrated and cooked Chickpeas, or two 400gm tins of chickpeas.
    500gm Potatoes, peeled and diced into 2cm cubes
    300gm Sweet Potato, peeled and diced into 2cm cubes
    1 Brown Onion, finely chopped
    3 cloves Garlic, crushed
    400ml Light Coconut Milk
    750ml Vegetable Stock, (I use 3 veggie stock cubes)
    1 tablespoon Curry powder
    3-4 tablespoons Curry paste (your choice of flavour and according to taste)
    2 tablespoons Ghee or vegetable oil
    Salt and Pepper to taste.

    1. Heat the Ghee/oil in a large wok and add onion and garlic. Cook until translucent.

    2. Add curry paste and curry powder and combine well and cook for a further minute.

    3. Add both types of potatoes, mix and cook for a further 3 minutes until all the potatoes are coated with the curry mixture.

    4. Add the chickpeas, coconut milk and vegetable stock, stir well and bring to the boil. Taste to see if anymore seasoning is required and add a little salt and pepper to taste.

    5.. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for 25 minutes, stirring twice. You will know when it is done, when the sauce has thickened and the potatoes are soft and break apart.

    I use a wok to cook my curry in, but a large pot will do just as well. It is one of the tastiest vegetarian meals I have ever made.

    Now, what would a curry be without accompaniments. I usually serve my curry with Brinjal Pickles, Hot Chilli Chutney, and plain natural yoghurt. The yoghurt takes the bite out of all the hot and spicy food.

    The recipe for the Hot Chilli Chutney is posted on my personal blog, which was actually the inspiration for this post! It is very easy to make, and I love whipping up a few jars for lovers of hot food. It is very fiery, so use only a teaspoon on the side of your plate! You were warned!!!!!

    As for the Brinjal Pickle, here is the recipe. It is a fantastic way to use a glut of eggplants (aubergines). Pictured are Brinjal Pickle (back row), and Hot Chilli Chutney (small jars in front).

    Brinjal pickles

    Brinjal Pickle

    Makes about 3 litres - This hot pickle is naturally excellent with curries or cold meats.

    1 kg eggplant (aubergine)
    2 tablespoons salt
    5 large onions, sliced
    2 cups oil
    1 teaspoon ground coriander
    1 teaspoon cumin
    3 tablespoons turmeric
    100 g root ginger, grated
    100 g green chillies, finely chopped
    75 g garlic, crushed
    100 g sultanas
    750ml malt vinegar

    1. Cut the eggplant into small cubes, leaving the skin on. Sprinkle with the salt and let stand for at least 6 hours, then drain well.

    2. Gently fry the onions in the oil, without browning, until limp. Add the spices, ginger, chillies and garlic and gently fry, stirring, for a few minutes. Add the sultanas, vinegar and eggplant and continue cooking until the eggplant is tender.

    3. Spoon into hot, sterilised jars and seal. Hot bath for 30 minutes.

    I use homegrown eggplant, chillies, onions and garlic when making this recipe. It is not too hot, and I usually put a few teaspoons on the side of my plate next to the steamed rice and curry. I also cook up some papadams as they are also a family favourite.

    Indian food is spicy, but oh so tasty, however it may not be for everyone. Slow food is easy, enjoyable to cook and if you can get local ingredients, then the taste is always much better than buying take away food. Enjoy the banquet!

    Saturday, 14 February 2009


    Posted by Compostwoman at The Compost Bin

    Well, I promised a post on compost making, so here it is :-)

    Composting your biodegradable, organic waste is great for many reasons. It reduces the size of your waste bin, so means less transport is needed to remove household waste. It gives you fine, homemade compost so you don't need to buy in artificial fertiliser. And it also removes some of the most damaging, greenhouse-gas-causing, waste from landfill sites.

    According to CAT

    About a third of the waste sent to landfill in the UK is biodegradable organic matter, such as food , paper, cardboard, textiles, and garden waste. In a landfill site, these materials will be broken down by microbes to produce a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane. Methane is a very damaging greenhouse gas - it has over 20 times as much 'global warming potential' as carbon dioxide (by weight). At the moment, about 70% (over two-thirds) of landfill gas is flared off or captured, so a damaging impact will still come from the remaining 30%.

    Methane is produced in 'anaerobic' conditions - which means that there is not much oxygen present. The emission to the atmosphere of large amounts of methane can be avoided by not sending lots of biodegradable waste to landfill. Instead, it can be composted at home or at a community level, or sent to a special anaerobic digestion facility, where the bio gas (methane and CO2) can be collected.

    Amazingly, by composting all their food, garden and cardboard waste, an average individual would prevent about 5kg of methane per year from landfill, which is equivalent to just over 100kg of carbon dioxide per year.

    An average household that composts this waste would prevent emissions of 13kg of methane per year, equivalent to 280kg of carbon dioxide per year (just over one quarter of a tonne of carbon dioxide). By comparison, a small petrol car doing 40mpg will need to travel about 1000 miles to release one quarter of a tonne (250kg) of carbon dioxide, and a small diesel car doing 60mpg will need to travel about 1200 miles to release the same amount. can see it all makes good environmental and economic sense to make compost!

    I have been a keen organic gardener and composter for many years and am a Master Composter - a volunteer community compost advisor with my local council and Garden Organic (the working name for HDRA). I go to various events such as county shows, give talks and demonstrations, take school assemblies, lecture, give talks to garden groups and enthuse about compost to all and sundry! I can talk about compost endlessly, I find the whole process fascinating and view compost making as the very heart and soul of gardening.

    We garden completely organically here and making compost is at the very heart of all our growing and disposal methods. We take fertility from the earth by growing vegetables and fruit, then we return it to the earth by composting the left over waste and feeding it back to the soil.

    Compostman and I make more than 4000 L of compost a year plus what ever is currently cooking in the various compost bins. We use it to grow a huge amount of veg in a quite small space. Our outside veg plot is relatively small at 10 x 14 m, plus another 4 x 4m raised bed but provides us with veg for most of the year, and has in the past supported us virtually all year round. The plants in the 4 x 9 m polytunnel are grown in builders buckets of home made growing medium also, made up of compost, sand and soil. I only buy in growing medium to sow seeds.

    I am sure it is all so productive because of all the home made compost we put back into the soil!

    In this post I am going to talk mainly about the "Hot" composting method, as that is how I usually make compost. The "Hot" method involves taking lots of material and filling up a compost bin or building up a compost heap in one go. Within a few days, the heap is likely to get hot to the touch. When it begins to cool down, or a week or two later, you can "turn" the heap. Remove everything from the container or lift the container off and mix it all up, trying to get the outside to the inside. Add water if it is dry, or dry material if it is soggy. Replace in the bin.

    The heap may well heat up again; the new supply of air you have mixed in allows the fast acting aerobic microbes, ie those that need oxygen, to continue with their work. You can do this several more times if you have the energy, but the heating will be less and less. When it no longer heats up again, leave it undisturbed to finish composting.

    The "Cool" method is where you add bits and bobs of compostable material over a longer period of time; it works just as well but takes longer and tends to work best in the summer. It doesn't reliably kill seeds in the same way as the Hot method because it doesn't heat up to a high enough temperature over the total volume of the material. When the container is full - which it may never be as the contents will sink as it composts down - or when you decide to, stop adding any more. Then either just leave it to finish composting (which could take up to a year) or turn it to get more air in and make the fast acting aerobic microbes start to work again.

    Whichever method you use, make sure that the contents of your bin or heap is not too dry and add water if in doubt. A good sign that it is too dry is the presence of ants in the mixture.

    As you can see from my photos, I use a variety of different bins and have made compost heaps in the past. Bins are good as they allow the material to be contained in one place, and I can also vary the contents to produce different sorts of compost. I have bins which are just grass and card, bins which are slower working and bins which are making very fast, fairly coarse compost for mulching. BUT I have lots of space and a professional interest in compost! (and am a touch obsessed about compost, I grant you.....)

    BUT it doesn't really matter what you make compost in! As long as there is air, water and the right mix of compostable material it will produce compost eventually

    So...this is how I make compost....

    Site your bin or heap in a not too sunny or shady place if possible. If you can, put the bin on the ground. It will still work if you have to put it on concrete, though.
    Choose a place where you can easily add ingredients to the bin and get the compost out.

    Composting requires a roughly 50 :50 mix of of green sappy stuff ( which is high in nitrogen) and brown, papery stuff ( which is high in carbon). Before you start to fill your bin, try to build up a good collection of "green" and "brown" material if you can, the more you put in a bin at once, the hotter and faster it will work.

    In this set of photos, we have just finished cutting down all the spent daffodils and pulling up nettles in the garden so I had LOADS of material waiting to be composted. I also had a collection of old cardboard waiting to be mixed in with the green stuff....It really REALLY helps to build up a collection of "green" stuff and "brown" stuff when filling your bins, as a full bin works more efficiently and composts quicker and hotter, thus killing off any seeds as well.

    I started off with a layer of well composted bark shreddings from one of the storage bins then added a mix of paper bits and grass clippings. If you are starting a bin in a new area a shovel full of soil is a good idea as it introduces helpful bacteria and other organisms, but its not essential as I find Mother Nature has an amazing power to sort this out for herself.

    I then added a layer of grass clippings and a layer of very damp cardboard bits on the top. Other green material could be used instead of grass.

    Then a layer of nettles (without the roots- they go in a "weedy " bin to make compost which is only used in the bottom of very deep holes...)and another layer of card on the top....

    I repeated the layers of green stuff (nettles/comfrey/weeds/grass) and brown stuff (card/paper) until the bins were full to the brim.

    The green items contain bacteria which will generate the initial heat that is required by the process. A healthy compost bin is a living ecosystem. By keeping a good mix of green and brown material you will provide the perfect conditions for a variety of fungi, insects and bacteria and can let them get on with all the hard work for you.

    This mix will heat up FAST over the next few days, getting up to about 60 degrees centigrade in the middle, and then the material will cool down a little, and slump down. At this point I top the bins up again with alternating levels of green/brown stuff....

    If this process is done correctly you don't actually NEED to do any digging out and mixing up (referred to as "turning" in compost speak) to get good compost. The turning process is there to get more air in to your compost material to aid the aerobic (air loving) bacteria in doing their job; if you have built the bin correctly, there will be air pockets in it still! you can turn it if you like and it WILL speed things up, but it shouldn't be actually required.

    Making compost is really easy...especially if you can get a good pile of stuff together first!

    Using this method, in spring and summer I can make acceptable compost in 8 weeks or so. It still needs to be stacked and left for a few more weeks as it is still biologically active and would be a bit rich for plants, but certainly it has finished composting and can be got out of the bins to make way for more fresh material.

    I use the comfrey and nettles I grow (well which grow all over the place by themselves!) and add them to my compost heaps AND make fertiliser teas from them to feed my plants..(BTW Nettles are good BUT always make sure they are of known provenance!...else you might be importing herbicides )

    If there is anyone out there who likes peat, well it is perfectly possible to make a good peat free substitute using grass cuttings and cardboard. This is called "Grassboarding" and if its only grass and cardboard, it makes a wonderful peat like compost....if you have a source of grass and plenty of cardboard this is a very good thing to make. The result can be excellent compost, which is weed-free and does not contain large particles or lumps of material.

    Compostwoman's top tips to maximise compost making!

    To get the ideal compost mix you will roughly need a 50:50 mix
    of both "green" and "brown" material in your bin.

    I keep a few "browns" bins in the house which I use for all the little bitty bits of card, paper, tissue etc which is too scrappy to recycle, as well as a caddy for peelings, tea bags, coffee filters etc ec in the kitchen.

    I am always on the lookout for cardboard sheets, from shops or from Freecycle.

    I stockpile various weeds and prunings and grass cuttings from the lawns, until I have a good quantity of raw materials to fill up the compost bins.

    By composting everything and anything available it is possible to dramatically increase the amount of compost you produce.

    ● Fruit scraps (including citrus peel)
    ● Vegetable peelings
    ● Tea bags
    ● Old flowers
    ● Spent bedding plants
    ● Rhubarb leaves
    ● Comfrey leaves
    ● Nettles
    ● Young annual weeds (e.g. chickweed and speedwell)
    ● Pond algae and seaweed (in moderation)
    ● Coffee grounds and filter paper
    ● Grass cuttings
    ● Manure (horse, cow, pig, sheep, goat, chicken, rabbit – not too much as could become too wet)

    Human urine is a very good activator!

    ● Tissues, paper towels and napkins (unless they have been in contact with
    meat or disease)
    ● Tumble dryer lint (from natural fibre clothes)
    ● Old natural fibre clothes (e.g. woolly jumpers or cotton t-shirts
    – make sure you cut them into small pieces)
    ● Vacuum bag contents(as long as you have natural fibre carpets)
    ● Garden prunings
    ● Toilet and kitchen roll tubes,
    ● Woody clippings
    ● Dry leaves, twigs and hedge clippings
    ● Human and pet hair (slow to break down)
    ● Cotton threads/String(made from natural fibres)
    ● Feathers
    ● Wool
    ● Newspaper(scrunched up)
    ● Shredded confidential documents
    ● Straw and hay
    ● Vegetarian pet bedding
    ● Ashes from wood,paper, or lumpwood charcoal
    ● Sawdust and wood chippings
    ● Corn cobs and stalks
    ● Cereal boxes
    ● Corrugated cardboard packaging (scrunched up in small amounts)
    ● Pine needles and cones (although slow to compost don’t put too much in)
    ● Egg shells (but crush them first to speed up composting)
    ● Egg boxes (good as they trap air)

    EDITED by Compostwoman as a result of comments.

    I know I have a lot of space and a lot of compost bins BUT all this will work if you only have one or two compost bins! In the picture below can you see the black "Dalek" type bins? They are 220 l or 330 l capacity, and they make wonderful compost! And the "cold/cool" compost method works really well, it just takes longer and you may get the odd weed seed growing in it, so make sure you keep out any nasty weed seed heads you con't want carrying on ...

    I am not soing anything differenly here, to what I would do if I only had one or two bins, honest :-)

    Apart from that, anyhthing I have described is scaleable up or down....and you WILL get some compost :-))

    And the little flies you sometimes see in the top of the compost bin? They ARE fruit flies and the easiest way to avaid them is to put a layer of newspaper on top of your fruit peelings, or a handful of soil, or scoop a hole in the top of the stuff in your compost bin, put the new stuff in the hols and then cover it over with partially composted material. It doesn't need to have much stuff on top to minimise the fruit flies!

    Paper and card is usually printed with fairly harmless inks now (in the UK at least) and I certainly don't worry too much about that, as anything in there is well diluted and a lot of inks are ( I understand) vegetable based now, with the glossinesss being from clay particles. But if you are worried, perhaps steer clear of very glossy magazines? They can go in the recycling bin!

    Hope this has answered a few questions!

    When the various ingredients you have put in your container or heap have turned into a dark brown, earthy smelling material, the composting process is complete. It is best left for a month or two to 'mature' before it is used as it is a bit biologically active to apply to plants straight away. Don't worry if your compost is not fine and crumbly. Even if it is lumpy or sticky with bits of twig and eggshell in it, it is still quite usable. It can always be sieved before using if you want. Any large bits can be put back into your new compost heap.

    I hope this has been helpful, I shall talk in a future post about removing and using your compost and also how to make leaf mould.

    Happy Composting!

    Friday, 13 February 2009

    The Pantry Dwindles: Winter Diet Report

    By Kate
    Living The Frugal Life

    It was never a formal goal of mine to become a local or seasonal eater in 2008. But it seems to have almost happened that way, largely on its own. We're not strict about this; we do still cook with olive oil, drink tea, use bread flour, and eat some chocolate, none of which are produced in our region. But a very significant percentage of what we eat is local or homegrown. This is likely a function of my insistence - on frugal, more so than ethical, principles - that we eat what we've grown first, before purchasing food from the grocery store. We're in the depths of winter here, and I thought a little confessional on our diet would be in order right about now.

    We're still making soups, pasta dishes, and casseroles with our homegrown ingredients. But these days there are a lot of purchased ingredients going into our meals too. Much of what we have left of our own produce is coming out of the freezer or a canning jar. We've noticed that even store bought green salads that we eat when invited to someone else's home taste amazingly good to us right now. Despite our frozen supplies of homegrown kale and chard, there's no replacing fresh green things. This has prodded us to think very hard about ways of providing ourselves with homegrown salad greens for a longer part of the year.

    We ate our last homegrown pumpkin very recently, and only the smallest, most-time-consuming-to-wash potatoes remain in the garage. Some few leeks still stand in the frozen garden. I harvest a couple whenever it gets above freezing, which is rarely these days. I will try to have leave more of them this year for winter use. Our homegrown and canned salsa and tomato sauce still form ranks in the basement. We need to use them both up at a faster rate than we have been.

    There are a few items that we must now buy regularly from the store. We're completely out of fresh homegrown garlic, and there's no local garlic to be had. We will not willingly go without garlic. I mean, really: is it reasonable - or even sane - to go without garlic? It was galling to have to pay for garlic though, and to realize we won't have any of our own again until late June or July. We've always bought our starchy staples, such as rice, pasta, pearl barley, oats, and flour at the store. But this year we also have a small supply of our homegrown soup beans, which we've been enjoying. We'll grow two kinds of soup beans this year.

    I've been baking a lot of bread this winter. I'm also putting more effort toward finding bartering opportunities with my homemade organic loaves. Fortunately, I've found that farmers are very willing to barter dairy products, eggs, and some other items for my bread. That has kept us in yogurt, cheese, honey and eggs through the winter months. I don't do much baking during the hot summer months, so it's especially nice to be able to supplement our diet by way of a homemade product when the garden is bare. We don't grow our own wheat for the flour, but my skill and labor are still securing food for us for very little cost.

    I anticipate that as we eat through our remaining preserved homegrown foods, we will increasingly shop for produce at the grocery store in the next few months. I expect that March and April will be the months when we will be most obliged to buy non-local food. After that the earliest crops in our garden will start coming in, and the local farmer's markets will re-open. I've already been buying onions, carrots, celery, and fresh herbs at the store. This year I'm going to do my utmost to grow a large crop of onions, so that we needn't purchase the other indispensable cooking ingredient. I don't know how to cook without onions.

    We still have a fair supply left of our own cider that we pressed from our untreated apples late last fall. This raw cider is a treasured drink for us, so sweet that I sometimes must dilute it with a little water. The concentrated taste of fresh apples is an incredible treat for us during the winter months. Augmented by my stores of frozen berries and dried fruits, it mostly carries us through weeks without fresh fruit. My husband has an unbreakable banana habit though.

    On the other hand, I'm not running to the store for salad greens yet. Instead I found myself flailing about for strategies to extend our growing season for this year. I've decided to grow stinging nettles for their early spring emergence and their incredible nutritional qualities. This will be a plant to enjoy during a short season each year, since the plant becomes increasingly potent and unpalatable as it develops through the year. I also took the plunge and ordered a very durable row cover from Johnny's Seeds. I plan to use this very early this year to start lettuces, arugula, scallions, and spinach. Then in late spring I will use it to get the tomatoes and peppers into the ground a week or two before I otherwise would. At the far end of the year, I'll again use the row cover to raise and protect a crop of greens that will feed us through at least a few months of cold weather.

    From a nutritional perspective, we're not doing very well right now in terms of getting our quota of fresh green vegetables. From a frugality perspective, we're doing incredibly well at feeding ourselves for very little money, and with very little waste. And from a homesteading perspective, we're doing a so-so job of providing our own subsistence. The upshot is that I see at least a few strategies that can help us improve both the quantity and the quality of the food we are able to grow for ourselves this year.

    To sum up, our gardening habits and our diet are co-evolving. Our dietary preferences inform our gardening decisions. And the climatic and soil properties of our garden inform our eating habits to a large degree. As we go through the seasons, notice how our diet affects us, and listen to our bodies' messages about what we are eating, we adjust our plans. We'll experiment with growing and eating a few new crops this year to see how they might fit into a sustainable, frugal, healthy, and local diet. This deepening connection to our own backyard and foodshed feels right, natural, and inexpressibly satisfying to me. I don't feel any particular craving for fruits or vegetables we cannot grow in our abundantly productive region, only a keen interest in making the best use of the possibilities we have.