Friday, 30 April 2010

Projecting the "me I want people to see"

By Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

(Note that this post is a re-vamped version of an earlier post in my personal blog on simple living, consumption and identity)

I wonder though what other people see when they see me and my home? I wonder if they see that I do this out of choice - to avoid human exploitation as much as possible? Or do they think I've fallen on hard times? Or do they think anything at all?

I have a feeling it falls into the latter category. I think that many people see so much stuff that they become kinda blind to how much they can see ("stuff overload"??).

My theory of "stuff overload" can be supported (I think) by the experiences of Alex who wore the same brown dress every day for a year...and she said that most people (especially those at her work) didn't even notice she wore the same dress every day. I also know that I don't really notice what other people wear or have either unless if they themselves point it out to me (and even then I usually have forgotten about it by the end of the week.)

"Too Much" Photo by Joe Madonna

So where am I going with this? I am starting to develop a theory (or should I say further develop my original consumption and identity theory).

I believe that consumerism has become a major way for us to project our identity - in this context:
  • the me I want people to see; or
  • the me I want to be.
The problem, however, is that in projecting our identity in this way we start surrounding ourselves with lots and lots of stuff....and we all develop "stuff overload blindness" (let's call it SOB).

And because we become blind to stuff, we then don't understand why the stuff we have do not seem to be projecting "the me I want people to see" or the "me I want to be".

Which leads us to think that our stuff must be "wrong" and so we get more new stuff. And we think "great! this is the stuff that will finally get people to see!!" or "great! this is the stuff that will finally project the me that I want to be!"

But the reality is that no matter what stuff we get, people (including ourselves) still have SOB and therefore won't be able to see for any meaningful length of time what we want to project...

So the whole thing is a pointless exercise which leaves us feeling dissatisfied.

...anyway, I hope I've made sense in this post. What do you think about my little theory?

I wish you all a good weekend.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

By Notes From The Frugal Trenches

Recently I posted about my morning routine, which led me to reflect on the changes in my sleep pattern since I swapped a very busy life for a simpler, greener and more frugal one.

When I had a busy London career, I often left my home by 6am, in hopes I could actually catch a bus and not be left with a two hour commute, for a journey which should take thirty minutes when not in traffic. My line of work was grueling and I was often only leaving the office around 9pm, if not later. When I got home there were chores to do (albeit a lot was pushed aside) and I would simply crash for another 2-3 hours before rolling into bed. Days off were spent either trying to madly do those things which must be done or ignoring it all and vegetating. I "managed" on six hours sleep a night, often not falling asleep until midnight. Needless to say I was constantly exhausted although I didn't really realize how bad it was until I stopped.

When I gave up that busy career, opting for part time work, it was as if years of exhaustion caught up with me. I was tired, constantly, which was not what I expected. Slowly my energy levels returned and I settled into a new norm. Only, I found a few things out about sleep that I didn't know.

- I needed a lot more sleep than I thought. I may have functioned on 6 hours a night, but when I began listening to my body and stopped setting an alarm, I found that my body told me it needed 7.5-8 hours a night.

- My body wanted more sleep before midnight and less after. I began noticing my body showing signs of winding down around 9pm and becoming alert and ready to act around 5:30am. I can't always go to bed by 9:30 or 10, but I notice if I listen to those signs I can usually make sure I'm starting to think about sleep earlier, which inevitably means I stop busying myself and begin feeling and listening to what my body needs.

- My body thanks me for getting enough sleep and following it's sleep cycle. I am less tired, more level headed, less emotional, able to get a lot more done; my skin is better, I choose healthier options for food and exercises. I now have the energy to tackle knitting challenges or try new recipes for freezing in the evening and don't need to rely on media technology to relax; and yes enough sleep even helps me stay on top of that laundry. Listening to my body when it comes to sleep trains me to listen to my body in other ways.

- My body can cope with the exceptional. Last night I couldn't get to bed until well after midnight and my body naturally woke up around 5:30. Yet I feel fine, I will make sure tonight I get an earlier night, but all in all my body can now cope with a short period of less sleep because it is more well rested.

I now honestly feel that sleep is a really important aspect of enjoying a simple life. Enough sleep means my body doesn't need the adrenaline of rushing around, caffeine, TV etc to keep going and it has the energy to rise to the challenge of new green endeavors like my allotment. My body now tells me what it needs and makes me feel able to enjoy my peaceful, simple, frugal and green existence.

How much sleep do you need? How did you determine this? Does it help you lead a simple, green and frugal life?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Homemade Mustard

by Abby of Love Made the Radish Grow

I admit this isn't a new post on my personal blog-it's been out there for a while, but it is one of the more popular, and is also one thing on my list of to-dos this week: Make Mustard.

I cannot live without mustard-an oddity in our house that loves ketchup (honestly, blech. I can't stand that stuff. Good only as a tomato base in my barbecue sauce, and I working on changing even that. I may like a homemade one, but that is a whole different post...) and ranch dressing.
I don't know why it took me so long to track down and try a mustard recipe, but for whatever reason it did. This mustard is a yellow mustard, and thus, uses yellow mustard seed. I will be working on a brown mustard for the future. I took Alton Brown's Best Ever Mustard recipe and changed it to work with the way I like to cook-without the microwave-and tried to substitute local ingredients where I could. Mustard is easy to grow in the garden, and many seed companies have started carrying different varieties, something I hope to look at this summer. The greens of most plants can be used as well, making it multipurpose, and the seed stores well. You just grind it up to use as you need it, and the fresh flavor cannot be rivaled by the pre-ground nastiness you get at the store. For those of us who don't have your own homegrown seed to use for mustard, it can be affordably gotten at places like Penzey's Spices, or Frontier Herbs here in the Midwest. The other spices needed can be gotten there as well, and honestly, if you are doing any serious cooking with *real* flavor around your place, you need to have them on hand, anyway :)

As a note, this goes so quickly, it is crazy *not* to just make your own at home. It is also a good use for the juice leftover from pickles, or maybe some pickled pepper juice for a little more kick. Up the honey content for a honey mustard, as well.


2/3 c yellow mustard seed
2 t honey
1 t sea salt
1/2 t turmeric
1/4 t paprika
1/4 t garlic powder
1/2 c pickle juice-Alton calls for sweet. We don't do sweet here, though the recipe we do use has some sweetener in it. I think the regular works just fine, and like I mentioned before you can easily play around here with other pickled items
1/4 c water
1/2 c vinegar-cider works, I used red wine as it is what I had on hand. I will most likely experiment more here, as well, as different vinegars will give a different undertone. Yum.

Grind the mustard seed in a grinder until it is completely ground-nice fine powder, about a minute.

Mix it and all the other dry ingredients in a medium sized saucepan.

In a separate bowl mix all the liquids and honey. Whisk them together well, then add to the dry ingredients in the saucepan.

 Bring to a boil over low heat, whisking together as it heats, then cook 30 seconds. Turn 'er off, put your mustard in a lidded jar, and stick in the fridge. It should continue to thicken as it cools. If it isn't as thick as you like, bring it back up to a boil for another minute or so, and let it cool again. Be sure to make notes, so you can just cook it that long next time, though mine looked fine after the initial cooking. Can be used as soon as it cools just like any yellow mustard, but the taste is just so much better, and better yet, we know EXACTLY what is in it. Should store well in the fridge for at least a few months, but with that much vinegar and the spices in it, will most likely keep until the jar is empty and mustard beckons again...

Growing Garlic

written by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

I believe that garlic is one of the simplest plants to grow in your garden.  I also believe that once you have had fresh garlic grown in your own garden you will never buy garlic from the supermarket or green grocer ever again.  Never again will I eat rubbery garlic without any flavour imported from a foreign country.

You can too.  Growing your own garlic is simple, easy and very low maintenance.

Planting is also easy.  In my climate zone, (heat zone 4, cold zone 10), I plant just after the first full moon in March or April.  I find that the soil is still just warm enough so that the garlic shoots quickly and gets a good start.  Take a decent sized garlic bulb, either from your seed provider or organic grocer and pull off the individual cloves.  Only use the fattest cloves, as these will give you the largest bulbs.  Use the smaller inside cloves in your next meal.

When preparing the bed for planting, don't add any fertiliser to the bed if you did so in the summer.  You will get more leaves and smaller bulbs.  Plant the garlic in a bed that you had a very hungry crop before hand, like brassicas or tomatoes.

Make a hole with your dibber (I use a bit of old sawn off broom handle) about 2" deep (5cm) and then place each clove in the hold pointy end facing upwards.  Plant them about 6" (15cm) apart, so that you get good sized bulbs.  The closer they are to each other the smaller the bulbs.

Back fill the holes and water well.  Within about 4-6 days they will send up the first green shoots through the soil.  All you need to do is keep the soil moist for the rest of the season, and keep the bed weed free.

Around mid winter, I apply a couple of handfuls of blood and bone fertiliser to the bed and water in.  This gives them a boost as they are beginning to form the bulbs just before the start of spring.  This is what they look like after about a month and a half.

In late spring (depending on your heat zone) the stalks start to go yellow and fall over.  This is the sign that your garlic is ready to harvest.  I leave them to dry for about a week in a basket before I use them.

I once heard that you have to plant garlic on the shortest day and harvest on the longest, but in my climate, it is not the case.  Last year I harvested in the last month of spring.  Here is my harvest of soft-neck garlic.  I plaited them and hung them in the kitchen, where they have kept very well without sprouting.

This is the crop from only two bulbs of garlic!  I was well impressed with my efforts.  This year I planted out an entire garden bed, and not just two rows like last year.  I kept the six largest bulbs that I grew last year to plant out this year.  I should harvest about 60 bulbs of garlic at the end of this season, all being well.

We use garlic in our main meal just about every second day.  Garlic is such a flavoursome plant and very versatile in the kitchen. I don't know if it is a myth, but I have not had a cold since I started growing and eating my own garlic.  I have heard that it is something to do with the large quantities of natural occurring sulphur in the plant.  Oh, and I haven't seen as many vampires around in the last two years either! ;-)

So, in summary, garlic would have to be one of the easiest and most satisfying vegetables to grow in your garden each year.  Easy to grow, and it keeps for a good eight months if dried well.  Have you had much success growing this wonderful vegetable?

Monday, 26 April 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: potatoes

by Francesca


Over the last few years, something strange has happened to the potatoes sold in the stores in my area. Formerly, I could buy several different varieties of yellow, white and red potatoes, but gradually these have disappeared, and nowadays there's just one kind, generic “potatoes” that come in huge bags. Unfortunately, these have a soggy, mealy texture, and a taste that's just plain bad - eating them is like biting into a lump of stale flour.

So, imagine my delight when I first stuck a hoe in my new garden plot, and discovered that the soil was dark brown, very soft and loose, and felt remarkably warm to the touch, despite the unseasonably cool temperatures we've been having: perfect for growing potatoes! What a difference from my previous garden, where the soil was tan colored, so clayey that it clung to the hoe in clumps, and took a long time to warm up. That soil was too dense for root vegetables and tubers; after a few harvests of short, twisted, scrawny carrots, radishes and potatoes, I stopped planting them.

seed potato

~ seed potatoes are potatoes that have produced shoots. Plant whole if the potato is small, or cut into pieces, each containing a few eyes, and allow to callus over by leaving exposed for several days before planting ~

Potatoes are an easy and rewarding crop, and they do reasonably well in a wide range of soils. Also, their main enemy, at least in my climate, is the potato beetle, a large, striped, golden-colored pest which feeds on the foliage and lays bright orange eggs on the undersides of the leaves: easy to spot and get red of. However, this beetle is quite voracious and prolific, so remain vigilant and act immediately when you notice that the beetle has set up shop in your potato plants. The potato beetle will also attack eggplants, so avoid planting potatoes and eggplants close together.

My farmer neighbors taught me how to plant potatoes. They use the “trench-to-mound” method, which has always struck me as both clever and efficent.

potato trench method

Dig a trench about 6” deep, plant your seed potatoes there with their shoots up, spaced about 14” apart, and cover with some soil. Potatoes need regular watering during their early growth stages, and the trench helps to funnel the water to the young plants.

As they grow, take some of the soil you dug up when you made the trenches, and progressively mound it up around the plant, keeping the buried tubers well covered. Because potato plants have a relatively long growing cycle, between 16 to 20 weeks, I've sowed fast-growing crops like arugula and radishes along the sides of the trenches. I'll be harvesting them long before I need to use the soil they're growing in to make mounds around my potato plants, and in the meanwhile, these crops are keeping that soil from being left uncovered, exposed to weeds and the weather. Also, I've intercropped my potatoes with garlic.


~ potato plant intercropped with garlic, 20 days after planting ~

Reduce the watering when the potato plants begin flowering, and stop it altogether when they stop flowering: by that time, you'll have completely filled in the trenches with soil and created mounds around your plants. (You'll find excellent step-by-step instructions on how to grow and harvest potatoes here and here) And in a couple more weeks, your potatoes should be ready for lifting, and you'll see for the first time what you've produced.

roast potatoes
~ roast potatoes with lots of garlic, rosemary and sage is my family's favorite potato dish ~

The potato harvest, when you finally pull your underground crop out into the light, is quite a satisfying, even momentous, occasion!

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Just Beeing

I started beekeeping apprenticeship a few weeks back with a neighbor farm.

I've been preparing for beekeeping for the past couple years. It was actually the first time I mindfully reflected on how I learn best- reading fiction. So I read every fiction book I cold find that centered around beekeeping. I started reading a non fiction guide as well, but found that all the other fiction books had addressed most of the content and it would best be used as a reference guide later. Then I had to choose, take a class or search out a mentor or just buy the stuff and the bees and learn as I go. There are lots of things that I do best with the last. I am a hands on learner but also a feet in learner. It is not enough to just have my hands on, I also have to be there and I have to be able to ask questions. Confidence is important as well.

So I chose the middle option which hopeful would allow all the criteria to be met. It has. Very much so. I thought I would be afraid, that it would take more of my effort to not be fearful. Bees are so fascinating and beautiful that I have gotten completely distracted in their details. Last week I helped install 14 hives, completing the process almost solo on 6 of them. I never would have pictured myself setting a queen and then shaking her box of stressed out bees so they would angrily fall into their new hive home. I was in full bees suit but I did get a small sting on my leg because I sat on one. At one point in a previous session I also had one fly up my shirt, but I didn't freak out or get stung. It is a real exercise in being present and mindful. Daydreaming is a task hazard in which I would get stung or accidentally kill bees by squishing or not setting things correctly in place.

In my reading about natural beekeeping, one thing is abundantly clear- beekeeping takes time and attention. Applying chemicals may be easy but in so many instances the time save equals hive loss. There are so many threats to the hive health as well: mites, skunks, wax moths, disease, mildew, freeze....but yet so many things can be done to maximize health and survival manually and carefully without chemical or toxic intervention. That is a mirror of how we aim to live our lives at our farm and that model fits our philosophy of life. When I found out a couple weeks ago that I am pregnant with our third child, one of my concerns was how the pregnancy would affect my apprenticeship. As it turns out, the beekeeper I am mentoring with uses no chemical interventions on his bees or at the farm he and his wife run at all. The only concern would be how much I would be able to lift and carry durring honey harvest in the late summer, but with help I can still do my share. And so, weather permitting, I continue my Sunday afternoon training into apiculture.

Four of the hives will be moving to my farm next week as soon as this set of storms roll through and away. I think I figured out the very best spot for them: afternoon shade, near water, near enough to the house that checking on them won't require a vehicle, high dry mostly level ground, and somewhat sheltered from the wind. The location also happens to be on the edge of our row of elderberry and boysenberry trees and near the black raspberry patches. I hope that makes the lady bees very happy. It certainly makes me smile. It is one step closer to our dream of running a successful orchard and producing honey for my family. In the next few years I hope to add to the hive cluster some of my own as well, but for now this suits me well.

In the next few months I'll post updates and pictures. In the meantime, all of my bee time is dedicated to the bees and the camera gets left behind.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Dealing with Seedlings

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
My seeds started last month are all up and growing. Seeds have different germination times, so I've never been a fan of the big nursery-sized seed starting trays or flats. My vegetable garden feeds the two of us, plus extras to give away to friends and neighbors. I scrounge, save and re-use the six-packs flowering annuals are usually sold in. Six of anything is usually enough for the early-start vegetables, and since the warm season stuff (tomatoes, peppers, chiles, eggplant, basil, and okra) will be inside through May (photo below taken yesterday morning - at least half the time, our April showers are snow), I need to make sure I have enough room under the lights for them to do well.

Many of my seeds are more than the optimum one-year old, too. Some hot peppers may only get planted every four to five years - the seeds harvested from the last few peppers in a ristra strung up to dry that long ago. Others are from packets now three, four, even more years old. Since we only need a few plants each year, I'd rather put a few more of the old seeds into each cell to ensure that I get enough germination, than buy new each year.

I don't know, but I think there must be some kind of sprouting hormone produced by germinating seeds that encourages other seeds to sprout. Even though everything gets the same treatment, quite often it seems that every seed in one cell sprouts, while the one right next to it has none. After labeling each six-pack, wetting everything down with chamomile tea, and putting a few seeds into each cell, the lot of them are then covered with a big piece of plastic to keep everything moist. When most of a six-pack have sprouted, it's moved from under the plastic to beneath the lights - a couple of old four-foot fluorescent shop lights.

When growing seedlings under lights, some sort of adjustable hanging system, or a decreasing series of blocks underneath the plants, is necessary. The lights need to be right down on top of the just-emerging seedlings - an inch away is best. As the plants grow, the lights need to be raised up, or plants lowered, just enough to give them room. Since the fluorescent tubes are cool to the touch, it's ok to let the plants grow right up against them before moving the light farther away. In the past, I've used a couple of ladderback chairs, with a plank across the seats for the plants, and moved my lights up the ladder as necessary. This year, with a nice work table across my guest room bed, I just moved the plants around on that, and hung the lights atop a couple of cinder blocks. I can add more blocks as needed. Plants grown under lights need more light time than those grown in sunlight, but it's also necessary that they have some complete dark time too. I have the lights on a timer - on at 7 a.m. and off at 10 p.m. The hardier seedlings (chard, cabbages, kales, other brassicas, and calendula) spend nicer days on a table outside, coming in each night to the kitchen counter.

Now that everything is up and growing, it's time to thin them out. The best time to to this is after the embryonic cotyledon leaves are fully extended, with the first true leaves just starting to show. In six-packs where every cell has growing plants, I snip the weakest and littlest plants off near the base, leaving only one strong plant per cell. Snipping is better than pulling the weaker ones out, as it doesn't disturb the roots of the one that's left. Where I have an empty cell, I use a regular table fork to dig between two strong seedlings in one cell, transplanting one of them to the empty cell. When transplanting such young and tender seedlings, don't handle them by the stem at all. Support the dug-out plant by the roots, and hold onto the cotyledon leaf to steady it into place as you gently tamp the dirt down over the roots.

Seeds contain everything needed to get plants up and growing, so no fertilizing is needed to start seeds. But since mine will be spending at least another month inside, after the first true leaves emerge I start adding a tiny bit of liquid fish emulsion to their water. I don't water from the top, not wanting to give any molds or fungus an excuse to attack my little seedlings. Maybe once a week, water is poured into the holding pans, only as much as they'll take up in a day, and a natural wicking action pulls it up into the cells. This makes the plants' roots grow deeper instead of staying near the surface. Next post (unless one of my co-writers beats me to it): potting up and hardening off.

Friday, 23 April 2010

A Homestead in Progress: Year Four

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

I'm well into the heavy spring workload in pursuit of making our 2/3 acre residential lot a functioning homestead.  This is also the beginning of the fourth year of this pursuit overall.  It's been a lot of work over the last three years, and I have to remind myself that as much as there is left on my list of things to do, we've also made progress.  On the other hand, I'm quite conscious these days that this property will never be something Martha Stewart would be proud of.  This is working land, not a showpiece.  I'm often painfully aware of the mistakes we've made, the refinements that have been necessary, and the incremental quality of our progress.  We didn't have a master plan when we started changing things.  And if we had, it wouldn't have been a very good one.  Often we could only see one step that made good sense at a given time.  We've had to try things with imperfect knowledge, watch, get results, go back to the drawing board, and put in more work the next year to revise what we'd done.  Frankly, we just didn't really know what we were doing sometimes.

I want to share some of our progress, some of the things we've done wrong, and some of the refinements we've made over the last three years.  I'm sure some of you are just starting out on this path, or even still thinking of beginning to homestead.  You might be tempted to take on too much all at once, or hold impossibly high standards for what you will achieve in the next 12 months.  Or, you might be the type that tells yourself it will be too much work to even try, that it will take too much money or too many years to return any benefit.  I hope that I can provide an example that will help those of you in either camp.  We haven't made perfect choices, but they've still paid off.

Garden design - I think this year we may finally have a good layout for the large garden bed that holds most of our annual crop plants.  It's always been my call how the garden was laid out, and I chose bad designs the last three years.  Basically, we now have an off-center main path with long rows to one side, short rows to the other, and perennial herbs or self-seeding flowers at the border-end of each path and bed.  We lasagna mulched the perimeter to get a handle on the weeds that cropped up right at the fence line year after year, and will lasagna mulch each pathway for the same purpose.  We resolved that this would be the last year we tilled the soil, so the paths and beds we arranged this year will be permanent.  And we're finally getting serious about amending our clay soil with plenty of compost.  My tip to beginning gardeners is: don't put comfrey in the corners of your garden until you know for sure that your garden won't eventually expand beyond those corners.  The challenge for me this year is to use the garden space we've cleared more effectively and work on better season extension to increase the amount of food we produce for ourselves.

Bees - We just started with bees this year, and it's been a fiasco so far.  I did a lot of work, a lot of learning, and spent a good deal of money for this project.  It's not at all clear we'll see much success with it.  I just want to throw this out there, because we can do all the right things sometimes, and nature shows her hand last. We're dealing with this right now.  Or you can make one mistake and watch all your efforts fizzle.  It doesn't happen often, but that's homesteading.  We may succeed with the bees or we may not.  Don't ever think you're the only one that tries something and fails at it.  Try, try again, or move on to another area that holds more promise.

Perennial edibles - This is one area where I wish we'd gotten our act together sooner, because it would mean that we'd be harvesting that much sooner.  A few years of intensive annual gardening more than suffices to show the merits of perennials, which you need plant only once and then harvest for many years.  The drawback is that most trees and berries need some time to mature before giving a good crop.   If you're new to the idea of homesteading, think long term as early as you possibly can.  Start planting your perennials sooner rather than later.  Just think the locations through carefully, keeping in mind that bushes and trees will get bigger over time.  Don't situate them such that they shade important areas needed for annual crops as they grow.  If your space is limited, focus on dwarf fruit trees and container gardening in areas where the soil has been paved or built over.  Some perennial fruits trees, such as figs, do fine in large containers.

Chickens - Chickens have been called the "gateway livestock" because they lead to harder stuff.  I'd say that's accurate.  Chickens are easy-peasy animals to maintain, and they give you a return on your efforts very quickly, especially laying hens.  We've used the deep litter method to keep hens in our shed over the winter months, which creates an excellent material for amending the soil.  Most of the year our tiny laying flock of just four hens is kept in a rotational grazing system.  I move them daily to give them fresh forage, and no part of our property is damaged by an excessive build-up of manure.  On the contrary, their manure is spread around the outside of the garden, lightly fertilizing the soil about once per month.  The hens also make me see value (as feed) in weeds and insect pests, and help me control both.  I would highly recommend chickens to any aspiring homesteader.  They're easier than you think and have many benefits.  We didn't get everything perfectly right when we built our mobile coop and pen.  But it worked well enough to keep the hens happy, healthy, and safe from predators, and we've made small tweaks with the design over the last two years.

Worm bins - This is the livestock for those who can't really have livestock.  While they are admittedly less charming than chickens, less fascinating than bees, and don't yield anything as impressive as meat, dairy, eggs or honey, compost worms nonetheless provide a valuable product and help close some resource-waste loops.  Worm castings and worm bin "tea" are about the best plant foods on the planet.  Having that sort of resource at your disposal is invaluable when you plan to raise your own food, especially if you live in an area where the soil was never prime farmland.  Compost worms can also thrive on neglect for weeks at a time, a very handy attribute for homesteaders busy with a thousand other projects.

Edible landscaping - With less than an acre to work with, we need to use every square inch of space to the best effect.  We're in the process of eradicating more and more of our lawn this year.  And it's been a challenge to figure out what to do in the deep shade of the trees that shade our house in summer.  Even after three years of work and a mere 2/3 acre to work with, we still haven't made use of all the space available to us.  We've ripped out forsythia and replaced it with elderberry bushes.  We've cut down ornamental trees and replaced them with pears and blueberries.  We're looking at training our pole beans up the fence that encloses our yard this year.  We're attempting a permaculture guild under the mature apple tree this year to include blackcurrants and medicinal herbs.  Edible landscaping is definitely a state of mind and a work in progress.  My advice, again, is to make haste slowly.  Do the things that are obvious first, and mull the more difficult areas until you see what can be done.

Infrastructure - I count some of our big projects in this category; the sort that take extra effort above and beyond the annual routine of dealing with the garden and food preservation.  And yes, that extra effort is always a struggle; though the results so far have been worth it.  We've built a rocket stove for low-energy, off-grid cooking.  Just a few months ago we finished a root cellar, which we think will allow us to cure meats all through the summer, and definitely will allow for low-energy preservation of whole foods through the fall and winter months.  But I also consider the fruit trees, the laying hens, and all the perennial edibles to fall into the "infrastructure" category too.  These are the physical "tools" that will help us to live well in a low-energy and/or low-income future.  Of course, some infrastructure is as easy to acquire as plunking down your hard-earned money.  Our garden tools, many reference books, and pressure canner fall into the infrastructure category too.

Skills - I don't think it would present a fair picture of homesteading if I didn't mention the acquisition of skills.  I doubt that any two homesteaders end up with exactly the same skill set, but learning to do things, make things, repair things and taking the initiative to come up with solutions to problems is part and parcel with a homesteading way of life.  With a background in professional cooking, I was already a good home cook, and quite accustomed to cooking most of our meals from scratch before I ever dreamt of homesteading.  It was therefore a natural extension of my enjoyment of cooking to figure out bread baking, and various methods of food preservation.  Sewing, on the other hand, is a monumental ordeal for me.  Organization and record keeping aren't my strong suits, but they are necessary when storing a lot of food in canning jars or the chest freezer. They also come in very handy in gardening.  Some skills have been a pleasure for me, and others I've had to force myself to learn and practice.  It helps enormously to have a partner with a very different set of preferences and intellectual strengths.  My husband is an engineer, and that makes him a natural at figuring out and repairing mechanical things, or building things that are going to last more than one season.

We were able to harvest 600 pounds (272 kg) of food for ourselves, and a lot of feed for our laying hens last year, in our third year of homesteading.  2009 was a really bad gardening year in my area, and we got no harvest at all from most of our immature perennials.  We didn't use the garden space we had last year nearly as well as we could have, nor did we do much about season extension.  In other words, 600 pounds is not a remarkable yield from a sub-acre residential lot and it doesn't reflect the benefit of having put in perennials several years back.  So I expect to see a better annual harvest tally this year. 

I hope these examples will serve to encourage those of you who are struggling through the first challenging years of making a major life transition to homesteading or smallholding.  The early years are full of work, there's no denying it.  But the rewards are there too, and they don't take all that many years to increase dramatically.  If the idea of homesteading seems out of reach because you don't have acres of land, or because the payoff seems so far away, take heart.  We have limitations to deal with too.  Neither my husband nor I are what you'd consider young, and we'll probably never be able to raise pigs in our backyard. But we're doing what we can and seeing more possibilities year by year.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

An Internal Celebration of Earth Day

by Melinda Briana Epler, One Green Generation

April 22 marks the 40th year Earth Day has been celebrated around the world. Over the last several years, I have watched it become increasingly a holiday about green products. And that is not to say that green products are bad - I'm ecstatic that there are so many wonderful alternatives to the things I need on a daily basis. I remember when I first became an environmentalist in college in the 90s. It was a tough world to be in - many people thought we were nuts. There were few alternatives to eating sustainably - farm raised anything couldn't be found, organic was not a word I ever remember using, and very very few clothes or other daily items were sustainably made. So there are good things about a push toward green products and green consumerism, for sure.

But this year I'm searching for a more internal, reflective celebration of Earth Day.

Last night I saw Bill McKibben speak. His book Deep Economy was one of those books that really came at the right time for me. Just before I read the book I was just coming to the conclusion that living sustainably was more than living self-sufficiently, was more than eating locally and going back to the basics. I was just coming to the conclusion that living sustainably had a lot to do with living, growing, and nurturing a community around you, and helping those around you to live sustainably too.

So Bill McKibben has a place in my heart as being there at the right time, and writing the right things that really helped gel a lot of ideas beginning to form in my mind. It was really lovely to see him speak last night.

He was hopeful. Not hopeful that we would stop global warming - it has already started - but hopeful that we can collectively stand up and act, and make change happen together. We can work together to make it a priority worldwide to focus on other people besides our selves, other consequences outside of ourselves. On the 10th of October of this year (10-10-10), he and those at are encouraging an international Get to Work day, where all of us spend the day working in our communities, working to create change, working to start the ball rolling and things moving in the right direction.

When I see photographs of polar bears stranded on islands of ice, children in India suffering from flooding, and our own forests in the northwestern US becoming barren lands, I feel a bit of myself being wounded. But when I see that all of you care, that people from every country on the planet care … it lifts me up and makes me feel hopeful.

Today I'm going to spend the day working harder and working deliberately. I am a part of the Earth, and the Earth is a part of me. Where there are some people and some companies that are negative forces pushing us toward further devastation in the coming years, I am the other side: I am the balance. You and I together can balance the negative forces on this planet with positive good that we bring.

When someone cuts down a tree, we plant one. When a company puts carbon in the air, we plant another garden plot to absorb and counteract it. While people stand in line at MacDonald's, we stand in line at farmer's markets. As banks fail nationally and globally, we lift up local businesses sprouting in their place. As someone discards a near-new object, we pick it up in a thrift store and wear it out. We are the balance. We are the hope.

Today I'm going to work harder and more deliberately to be the balance I can be, to be the change internally, to see the change locally, and to catalyze the change globally.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

How Are You Celebrating Earth Day This Year?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Thirst for Knowlege

by Chiot's Run

I've always been inquisitive, as a result the library has been one of my best friends throughout my life. When I was a young girl I'd stop at the library almost every day and pick up a new book, which I'd finish that night and exchange for a new one the next day (thank goodness for all those speed/comprehension reading drill in grade school). I'm still an avid reader, with stack of books around the house and the library is still a frequent stop on my errand days (much easier now with on-line searching & requesting).

This time of year I’m pretty busy, so I don’t get as many books read as I would like. I find myself reading during any spare bit of time I can find; over breakfast, lunch and dinner, at night before going to sleep, for an afternoon break, in the evening. I still won’t get all the books read that I want to read, but that’s OK.

I'm usually reading multiple books at one time, often a gardening book that I can leaf through, a book I'm actually reading in depth to gain knowledge, a story or fiction, a health/herb book that I can read in small bits to soak it up and I have a few on deck waiting.

I always keep a notebook handy while reading so I can jot down quotes, ideas, plant recommendations, interesting info, etc. Right now the book I'm thoroughly enjoying is The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses. What a fascinating idea for those of us that live in the colder northern climates. If you'd like to read my review check it out here.

Do you like to read? Do you use your local library?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Adapting when changes come your way

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Many times dreams or goals have to change due to unforeseen circumstances. For a long time my husband and I have been working towards being off-grid when it comes to our food supply. What comes to mind when the term off-grid comes up is electricity, but food security was a larger concern for us. To us electricity is a luxury I guess, which allows us to use our computer, use freezers for some of our food, and generally make our lives a little easier. If it were to go away we might be uncomfortable and crabby without being able to entertain ourselves after dark, but we really don't need it. We pump our water with water power, we heat our home, water and cook with wood from our forest. So really all our basic needs can be met without electricity. We decided to put our efforts into our food supply.

And we actually were doing a pretty good job, until my husband was diagnosed with Crohn's. He had lived with all sorts of digestive upsets since he was a child, but never really had a definitive answer. Besides that diagnosis, through his very competent ND, he has identified many food allergens that really have always thrown him for a loop. Unfortunately, some were staples that we were counting on with our off-grid food plans. Potatoes, tomatoes, & eggs to name a few. Back to the drawing board. This was major.

We had just spent the last 16 years rounding out our year-round harvesting fresh food plan, now it was needing to change fast. Besides the garden having to change, I had to wrap my mind around making sure every meal he ate was the most nutritious it could be, since he is not able to absorb all the available nutrients in his food. I never thought I would be the wife or mother who fixed separate foods at mealtime for different family members. But, plans change, I had to adapt and make the best out of a bad situation. I had a sick husband and a growing teenager, both needing different foods at the same time. These days, one meal component may be the same for all of us, but I have to mix and match ingredients and cooking methods. Sometimes it is as simple as corralling the potatoes with foil in a roasted vegetable dish, or using different fillings in his enchilada. I use bone broth instead of water for braising liquids or to cook rice with. Yeah rice...rice is the seed of choice for many of his meals. So much for being off the food grid, we have no desire to bend our land around growing rice, so we have to make peace with the fact that we are buying this staple. We needed to buck up, and get over it, move forward and change our thinking.

Changing our thinking means I have to see the positive. Growing less potatoes lightens my workload. Not fretting over tender salad greens for the entire family all winter, means I can devote more space to more hardy braising greens. And for food to truly be nourishing it should be prepared with love and kind thoughts and be comforting. My poor DH truly misses his potatoes, and he sees us eating them daily, but I have found that by substituting celeriac for the potatoes in dishes, just seeing the white vegetable eases that longing for him. So simple, yet so hard to come up with solutions. Always trial and error.

All in all we still provide much of our food: dairy, meats, vegetables and most fruits come from the work of our own hands. We must accept with grace the cards we are dealt and make the best of it. We need to feel the change in our hearts and then the mind will follow.

Have you had any challenges in your situation that have changed your goals?

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Spending according to my values

by Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Hello everyone!

A few weeks ago, I was out to dinner with some friends when I was asked:

"Why do you do what you do? Why are you so picky with what you buy?"

I have to say, that since embarking on this journey to simplify my life, these are the most common questions I get asked by people who know me in real life.

For me, simplifying my life has not been about saving money (what most people assume its about), or finding more time (the other thing people assume its about). While those things have certainly happened, the biggest thing about simplifying my life is that it allows me to truly live according to my values.

The trouble with consumerism and most commercial media is that it tends to "cheapen" people's values.

So many people state that they value children's rights, but will go and buy chocolate containing cocoa harvested by child-slaves.

Or they express shock at 12 year olds having sex but will go buy provocative clothing for their 6 year old because its the "in thing".

Whether we knowingly do it or not, what happens is that the act of consuming such products is making a mockery of our values.

I was stuck in this cycle where my habits contradicted what I said I believed in. Little steps along the way have helped me "right" my habits. Its been a hard journey and in some ways I still do have a little way to go. But I'm now at a stage where I can look at the things around me and I realise that I have come a long way.
“Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what they are.” - James W. Frick

Friday, 16 April 2010

What’s in the Box?

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

It is vitally important that our children have access to fresh, wholesome, affordable and tasty food. The freshest food is local food. Food from the earth, not wrapped in plastic from a store. The most local is our own backyard, balcony, or a school or community garden.

Potted gardens are quick to establish. They are ideal for those renting, living in small spaces, with changeable weather or anyone just starting out. This is possibly the perfect ‘garden’ for small children because they are so defined and more easily controlled than a traditional vegetable plot. You may have some space on your rooftop, balcony or steps to begin or add to your garden right away with pots.

On our family’s farm with hectares of arable land we grow a lot of our food plants in containers because they are easy to manage. I can move them around to suit the weather, the drainage is excellent, they are more easily protected from free-ranging chickens and wildlife, there are virtually no weeds to deal with, and they are an ideal size for little ones to access. We also have gardens in the ground and some raised beds, but plenty of our food is raised in pots and boxes right now.

You can use regular plant pots and hanging baskets – often available through Freecycle or otherwise recycled. Polystyrene or waxed boxes in which produce is transported, or other re-useable containers from around your home are also suitable. Plants be raised to different heights, depending on each one’s needs. Containers can also be decorated with paint and other water-resistant finishes if required.

If you have the space and want to progress to bigger containers, old bathtubs and cut-down rainwater tanks make excellent vessels for almost every type of vegetable plant. I have admired container gardens created with old boots, tea pots, sinks, troughs, watering cans, bowls, baskets, parts from large appliances, wheelbarrows, wading pools, pipes, cars, barrels, toilets and buckets. It’s amazing how attractive ‘garbage’ can be with trailing nasturtiums, sweet fat strawberries begging to be picked, or a jungle of green leafy vegetables and herbs to snack upon. Choose containers to compliment each plant in function and aesthetics. Set them up securely and safely so that no one will trip on them, and so there’s no danger of small children or pets toppling the pots over.

Regular garden soil alone doesn’t do well in pots. We use a combination of planting material, placed in layers. At the base of a vessel some sand or gravel will ensure proper drainage. Another benefit of gravel is that it is usually rich in minerals. On top of that we add some well-rotted manure, leaf mulch, hay from the hen house, dried grass clippings or compost. Next, I mix in some local soil because of the microbes it contains. Finally, I spread some quality organic potting mix on the top because it’s the ideal medium for sprouting seeds. If I had enough compost, I wouldn’t need to buy the potting mix, but creating enough compost is the struggle of many a gardener!

I feed the plants in our pots and boxes every two weeks throughout the growing season. A seaweed concentrate is the most efficient and readily-available fertiliser for this type of garden. I also use store-bought organic manure and mineral pellets with success. Here we’ve been experimenting with using manure from our own animals, comfrey and ‘weed’ teas as well.

Ideal first foods to grow include peas and beans, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, radish, herbs, salad mixes and fruits such as gooseberries and strawberries. Simple varieties, properly cared for, will ensure a quick harvest. This enhances the gardener’s understanding, self-confidence and enjoyment.

When watering container plants the best method is to give plants a good drink when the top centimetre of the soil feels dry. With a spray attachment on the hose or watering can, water gently until the soil seems soaked through. It’s best not to allow much water to collect in saucers underneath. Water requirements will be obviously more in hot weather, and it’s important never to let the containers dry out. Smaller pots and hanging baskets require more regular watering, so planting several types of plants in a larger container will be more time-efficient with regard to daily care.

Combining various species within the one box will also ensure you take advantage of space, enable companion planting, and can look more attractive. A medium bush variety of tomato, staked in the centre of a large pot would do well with some parsley, shallots, petunias and other low-growing plants placed around it. In our symbiotic container garden, mint rambles around the base of pineapples, miniature lettuce crowd around purple climbing beans, perennial spinach creeps under broccoli plants and cress crowds some cabbages. The nitrogen-fixing plants feed other species, and the herbs and onion species keep pests away from the leafy greens and soft fruits. Another benefit of containing some plants is that you can prevent them from spreading through garden beds

Even if you’ve never grown anything before, learn beside your little ones. Sharing this knowledge now could foster a lifelong interest in gardening, a forgotten skill that could soon become essential.

The Edible Container Garden is written by Michael Guerra, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, ISBN 0-684-85461-9

Thursday, 15 April 2010

How Much Laundry Do You Do?

By Notes From The Frugal Trenches

I mentioned recently on my blog that a friend of mine admitted that she and her husband do 16 loads of laundry for two people, per week! I was quite amazed, or horrified, depending on how you look at it, as two people in my household equates to three loads a week and a family including children come in at around 5 loads per week. I asked readers how much laundry they did and found a variety of interesting responses.

I used to do a lot more laundry but gradually cut down, saving myself time and money. Here are my tips for reducing the laundry pile and saving money:

1. Don't wash everything just because it has been worn once - apart from underwear and socks, everything for grownups gets used more than once. For children I've found often t-shirts need washing after one wear, but on the whole jeans, trousers, tops, sweaters etc can all be used several times before they need washing.

2. Take care of your clothing - if I take the time to change and put the clothing away straight away, it is more likely to keep it's shape/form and not look like it needs washing or ironing!

3. I wash sheets every other week maximum! I'd love to do it less, but once you've seen bed bugs under a microscope your opinion changes on such things ;)

4. I use no more than 2 towels per person, per week!

5. PJ's and nighties are used for 3-4 nights in a row before they are placed in the laundry!

6. I wash at 30 degrees!

7. I use eco-friendly washing detergent and use only 1/2 the recommended amount! In the future I hope to make my own!

8. I hang dry most clothing on a small clothes horse and wait to do sheets and towels until the weather is semi-nice (aka not raining) so they can go outside.

Several of my readers mentioned they make use of comfy clothing once home from work and I've found this works for me too, as I can wear them many days in a row without needing a wash - leggings + sweat top is my favourite choice of comfy clothing!

Do you have any laundry tips to share? How many loads of laundry do you do per week in your household?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Blessings in Disguise on the Farm

By Abby of Love Made The Radish Grow

It is funny how things can mount against you when you most want/need to be out working on your homestead. I mean, the last couple years it seems the harder we work, the more goes wrong. Our first year on the farm we had an awesome garden-bumper crops of so many things. I kick myself thinking back-I didn't preserve nearly as much then,and would it ever have been nice to have a lot of that in the freezer.
The next year was not as great-we were trying our hand at running a CSA and all things were working against us-the weather, I found out I was pregnant which meant backing off the amount of work I could do and things just weren't growing like they had the year before.
Later it was more weather, I managed to burn down a chicken coop, there were turkey catastrophes involving a water pan I forgot about, broken tillers, surprise llama babies and other family health issues. No matter what plans we made-Mother Nature and God had other ideas. I found this especially true when involving endeavors that were money making in nature.
Through all of it, though we keep on doing what we do. It can be very easy to be discouraged. This year I have dealt with a very serious sinus infection that involved a lot of time on the couch and now have mysteriously sprained an ankle. This is prime planting/planning/spring grounds care season, plus we have bottle babies that need fed, trees that needed pruned and deep bedding that needs cleaned out and replaced and yet I sit here in a chair on the computer because I am not supposed to be on my feet.
I think life lived on the farm, or homesteading, or just trying to be simple works this way all too often. We do so much, and thus so much more can go wrong. It would be easy to just stop-mow a gigantic lawn and never do anything with the land we have because every time we do something goes wrong. I don't think I could do it, though. I am too much of a do-er. Living off the land just feeds my drive to need to be doing something, something for my family, my friends or community all the time. To have to reset the way I do something because it just isn't working anymore, to rebuild after a tragedy, to sit still in order to heal is all difficult, but I do it, we do it, because we love what we do. I can't imagine life any other way. It is almost painful (and not just because of this stinkin' ankle that spontaneously sprained itself) to sit here and not be *doing* something while spring marches on, warm and beautiful and fairly dry at the moment-perfect working weather. I also know that there will always be something to do around here, and sometimes God forces me to sit still and rest, as it can easily get the best of me and I scurry around trying to do everything and anything to keep the place running. Life on the farm is most certainly an adventure, and one that never fails to keep me on my toes as I can never see what blessing, whether obvious or hidden in a sprained ankle, may be around the corner next.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Pumpkin Patch Success

by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

A couple of weeks ago our pumpkin season finished here in South Eastern Australia.  The three wheelbarrow loads of vines are now composting away nicely, and the garden looks much tidier.

Did I have much success I hear you ask?  I am proud to announce that this has been my best pumpkin growing year ever!  I have been trying to grow this vegetable for at least three seasons now, with very limited success.  Here is a bit of history.

Year one, I planted butternuts (squash) in a large pot and a fair bit of vine and lots of flowers, but it kept on drying out, so therefore no pumpkins.

Year two, butternuts again, and in a small garden bed.  For my hard work I received two smallish butternuts that were very tasty, but there were just not enough of them.

Year three. Success!

And this harvest was just the begining!  In the photo are Australian Butter, Golden Nugget and Queensland Blue pumpkins.

These two butternuts decided to grow from the compost that I spread in the spring.  Who am I to turn down a gift from nature?

Also, just before I pulled all of the vines, I found these four pumpkins lurking in the patch.  All up I harvested 13 pumpkins for winter.

I believe my success was due to a few factors.  I selected an area where the plants could stretch their legs, and prepared the bed with lots of organic manure and compost.  I also ensured that each plant had more than enough water and that the bed was well drained.  I set up drip irrigation to water them twice a week as allowed by water restrictions, and I ran a hose from our washing machine and watered with grey water from just about every wash (I use low sodium and low phosphate laundry powder).  When each plant got about 5 metres long, I pinched off the growing tips so that side shoots would develop female flowers.  I then let the bees do their thing, and when I notice that they were not around, I tried my hand at pollination with some success.

With good soil preparation and lots of water, they grew like crazy.  Here is a photo of the vines when they were about 2 metres long.  Note the hose from the washing machine.

Then again at 4 metres.  It was starting to take over the entire garden, which was okay because there was plenty of room for it to grow.

So what will I do with all these pumpkins?  So far we have roasted two of them for Sunday dinners, and also roasted the seeds as snacks.

We have also made pumpkin soup.  Here is my favourite recipe that I use all the time.  It requires no cream, however the onions give it a creamy consistency.

Golden Butternut Pumpkin Soup
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 medium onions, chopped
1 small stalk celery, chopped
750g Butternut pumpkin, peeled and cubed
4 cups low sodium vegetable stock
half teaspoon dried oregano or 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh
2 bay leaves
quarter teaspoon black pepper
In a large saucepan, melt the butter in the oil so the butter does not burn over a moderate heat. Add the onion, garlic and celery; cook, uncovered, until the onion browns a little and is soft - about 5 minutes.
Add the pumpkin, stock, oregano, bay leaves and pepper, stir and gently bring to the boil. Adjust the heat so that the mixture bubbles gently; cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Check to see if the pumpkin is tender when pierced with a fork. Remove and discard the bay leaves and let the soup cool for 5 minutes.
Blend the soup with a hand-blender in the pot, or transfer to a blender in a few batches. Careful as it is still very hot. When smooth, return to the pot and reheat gently for about 5 minutes. Do not boil and it will burn on the bottom of the pan. Ladle into bowls and serve with crusty bread. Yum.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: herbs

by Francesca


~ Borage is an annual plant, with small cobalt blue flowers which bees love. Borage is a good companion plant for tomatoes and strawberries. Flowers and leaves are used in cooking. ~

When planning a garden, remember to set aside plenty of space for herbs. In fact, herbs are a great addition to vegetable gardens of any size: they're easy to grow and have many uses, but also attract bees when they flower, repel many pests, and look nice too!

~ Mint grows as a wild weed in my countryside. Leaves are great for cool summer drinks. ~

Herbs have culinary, medicinal, ornamental and aromatic uses. Personally, though, apart from lavender, which I grow for its fragrance, I use them mainly in cooking, as a flavor-enhancer (like oregano on pizza), a key ingredient (like basil in pesto), and even as a stand-alone dish (like fried, large-leaved sage leaves - see below). Herbs are an important ingredient in my cooking every day, and a bottle of herb-infused extra virgin olive oil is always on our dinner table.

~ Fresh rosemary, sage, chopped garlic and olive oil is a great condiment for grilled vegetables and meat - apply using a sprig of rosemary as a brush. ~

When planting herbs, remember that many culinary herbs are perennials, which, depending on your climate, may eventually grow into large bushes, so plant them where they can grow undisturbed and without disturbing. This is particularly so in the case of lavender. I planted my very first lavender bush in a spot I'd carefully selected so that I could see it from my window. This happened to be right by the entrance to my garden; in a couple years' time the lavender bush had grown to 10 times its original size, making it hard to get in, and also become a bit of a hazard when in full bloom and buzzing with bees.

thyme and lavender
~ Lavender and lemon thyme which I planted at the edge of our drywall terrace, in rocky soil: I'm not sure they'll grow well together, but they should look very attractive when flowering. ~

Perennials (such as rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, lavender, marjoram, chives, and mint) usually do well even in poor soil and with limited water: in fact, in the Mediterranean countryside where I live, they grow wild in the most improbable places - cascading down from stone walls, flourishing inside abandoned farmhouses. So perennial herbs grow well in pots if you have a small garden, or if your winter climate is harsh (you can bring your herb pots indoors in the fall).

sage leaves

sage leaves 2
~ Large sage leaves, fresh-pruned, coated in a light beer butter and fried: they make a tasty and unusual hors d'oeuvre. ~

To keep your perennial herbs healthy, prune them in springtime just before they flower. Keep these cuttings, which are ideal for drying: most herbs are at their most perfumed and flavorful just before flowering (Sadge wrote a post for the co-op on drying herbs, here).

~ I planted chives at the edge of my lettuce, carrot and radish bed, where they can easily be reached by my little helpers. ~

Where should you plant your herbs? Intercrop them with companion plants whenever possible. Annual herbs, such as basil, coriander and parsley, should be rotated, whereas perennials should be planted in a sunny spot where you - and your family - can easily get to them. In fact, in our family it's my kids' task to trot out to the garden to pick a few fresh sage leaves, a twig of rosemary, a cutting of chives, or whatever other herb I need to bring what I'm cooking to life.

What are your favorite herbs to grow, and how do you use them?

Family Farm School

When people ask my almost 6 year old daughter where she goes to school, she replies, "I'm farm schooled." We have always homeschooled her and she has always been pleased with this, but moving to the farm was really influenced by her development.

When she was three a neighbor gave her a wire pig lawn ornament. From that point on, rain or shine, she checked on, fed, and played with her Wilbur every single day. She was the first one of us to really start verbalizing the longer our practical, "if we ever get a farm" but, "WHEN we get our farm!"

Now that we are here and a mere eighteen months into this dream, she works and learns right along with us. She wants a horse so we have explained to her the steps she needs to take to acquire and care for a horse. Now, along with taking care of the wire Wilbur, she collects scrap bits of metal and nails from around the farm, washes and loads empty buckets for whey collection from the neighboring goat milk microdairy (for our pigs), mixes pig porridge (grain and water), feeds chickens, collects and washes eggs, and cares for the cats. She does this all to prepare for the eventuality of horse ownership. In the next year she'll join Clover Sprouts, take horse care lessons, and possibly help with a bottle calf or lamb.

She also works in the garden using real tools, pulling weeds, planting seeds, harvesting, and canning. She's only five, but she's a good helper and we work well together. I treat her with respect, her ideas are as valid and informed as mine in some cases. We are learning this life together. Not to say that she doesn't (or I don't) have bad days where all she wants to do is scream at her sister, but in general the chores calm her and give her something to do with her hands. I totally relate.

Then of course our almost two year old daughter (the aforementioned sister) wants to help too. She also helps wash eggs and buckets.

We have been criticized for having the girls, at such a young age, be so hands on and present at the work we do. There are dangerous moments, for those I make the girls wait in the truck or in the tractor cart. Those are the moments that I wonder about my own capability to handle the situation (like a great pig escape....the one time that the pigs escaped out the gate with me in charge, it was Lily's idea to just fill their food buckets and pour the whey out into the basin. They did quickly come back!) My point is, I'm not irresponsible, but I do want to let them help when they offer it to the best of their ability. Sometimes even beyond what they thought their own ability was. Sometimes I do things I never thought I was capable of; for a child those moments are HUGE and with the right guidance and support....often. This is our family farm we are starting up from scratch and each family member has a place in it.

One of the things my husband and I discussed when we began our family was who we wanted to be like. Not just as parents, but as people. It always seemed to come back to people who were raised on a farm. Those people knew things we wanted to learn, had a way with people, and in general knew a lot about a lot of different things. Skills. Building, fixing, gardening, livestock, engines, religion, hunting, harvesting, cooking, beekeeping, glasswork, carpentry, animal husbandry....the list goes on. We wanted that for ourselves and then for our children. My happiest moments, the only moments in my childhood that were peaceful, were at my aunt's farm in rural Eastern Colorado. Until now, that kind of peaceful mindfulness had eluded me. Now I feel it every night as I tuck my daughters in to bed. It's hard work, but farm school is really the place for us to be right now.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Fertilizer for the Home Garden

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
We make a big compost pile every Fall - cleaning out beneath our slat-floored chicken coop and mixing in all the fallen leaves and spent plants from the garden. Turned a time or two through the winter, by Spring I have an abundance of organic fertilizer to scratch into each garden bed as I prepare it for planting, and to spread around the perennial plants as they start waking up. Besides replacing needed plant nutrients used up each season, the compost also helps retain water in my sandy high-desert soil.

When first starting a garden, the main thing you'll want to know is if your soil is more acid or alkaline - the soil pH. Testing kits are available from gardening supply catalogs, or by professional services. Your local Co-operative Extension Office might also offer that service, or can tell you who does so locally. pH is measured on a scale from 1 to 14 - 7 is neutral, above 7 is alkaline, and below 7 is acidic. Most vegetables like pH from 6 - 7, just slightly acidic.

If your soil is too acidic (below 6), a sprinkling of lime, ground limestone, will raise the pH. For alkaline soils (above 7), adding extra organic matter such as acidic peat moss will help bring the pH down. Compost, by its very nature continues to break down incrementally years after it's first applied. By adding compost each year, the ongoing process has transformed my initially highly-alkaline desert soil to a constant neutral pH.

When you look at every fertilizer label, there will be three numbers listed, ie. 30-10-10. They refer to the percentage of three basic plant nutrients, and are always in the same order: N-P-K, Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium (potash). In the example above, the remaining 50% would be inert or inactive ingredients.

Compost alone can be enough for a garden, but I like adding a bit extra to make up for anything missing, plus ensure a quick, healthy harvest in my short-season climate. General-purpose chemical fertilizers, besides being composed of possibly harmful synthetic chemicals, are also, for the most part, designed to be water-soluble. Mix them up, spray them on, (buy more) and reapply regularly. They also need lots of water - something in rather short supply here - to make them break down into a form readily available to plants. I prefer making my own general-purpose fertilizer mix from items that normally occur in nature, and then break down slowly and naturally over time.

Each Spring, I stir up a bucket of my dry fertilizer mix, adding a light sprinkling over each garden bed along with an inch of compost. That's mixed into the top 6 inches, then leveled for planting. My fertilizer mix is equal parts bloodmeal (high in nitrogen), bonemeal (phosphorus - you can also use ground phosphate rock if that is readily available to you), and greensand (potassium, plus trace minerals). Trace minerals in the soil are also necessary for optimum garden growth. Zinc, copper, molybdenum, boron, and manganese, though required in very small amounts, are vital for plant well-being, and greensand, coming from sea-bottom deposits, is a good source. Some folks use wood ash as a source of potassium. The potassium in wood ashes is in a very soluble form. Potash used to be made by leaching water through ashes, then drying to concentrate the potassium. If you want to use wood ash for a potassium source, composting the ashes first can help to keep the potassium available for your plants.

Some individual plants also get specialized attention. The blueberries need very acidic soil, so they get a light application of granular sulfur each Spring, and a mulch of pine needles and coffee grounds. What I call my "fruiting" plants - the tomatoes, peppers, okra, and eggplants - benefit from crushed eggshells (calcium) and a bit of Epsom Salts (magnesium) added to each planting hole. My bulb beds - the daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips; onions, garlic, and shallots - like an extra sprinkle of bonemeal. Feed your soil now and it will, in turn, feed you well the rest of the year.