Monday, 5 October 2009

When heating with wood

by Francesca

chimney 1

In the old days, my elderly neighbor tells me, her husband used to hike each springtime up the valley to their part of the forest, fell trees, drag them to the stream at the foot of the valley and float them down it, and finally, haul them up to their house with a donkey. Then my neighbor and her father-in-law would saw them up with a two-handled saw, a job that took many days to complete, and that, like all her other farming chores, she'd do even when she was heavily pregnant.

Nowadays, getting firewood is a little less strenuous: my family, like our elderly neighbor and most of the other villagers, buy it from the local woodcutters, a husband-and-wife team with two grown sons who earn their living exclusively from this occupation. Most houses in our village are heated with firewood, and the thick forests on the hills around our village have for centuries been a source of fuel for the inhabitants. These forests are a jigsaw puzzle of separate, interlocking landholdings, indistinguishable to me but clearly mapped out in minds of the villagers: my neighbors will point to a specific tree immersed in the greenery far across the valley, and say, “That’s our tree.” The reason why these woods are still thick is that, with the wisdom of experience, the villagers have always managed them sustainably, cutting the trees selectively on a seven-year cycle to allow for regrowth. The woodcutter and his family still do this today.

chimney 2

Since moving here, I’ve learned the numerous advantages to heating with wood. I see how it supports a small local business, and employs a renewable energy source. Plus, by buying our wood from someone we known, we avoid using dubious scrap wood and certain kinds of pellets, which can be coated with paints or chemicals and thus emit toxic fumes when burnt. Wood, like any fuel, emits particles and gases as it burns, but the research I've done suggests that burning wood produces substantially fewer greenhouse gases and pollution than natural gas, the other heating option in our area.

Because it takes some work, we make the process of heating our house a family undertaking, and all of us pitch in: my 10 and 12-year-olds are in charge of restacking our indoor woodpile, collecting kindling, and sweeping up the ashes in the fireplace (some of which go in our compost bin, but only in small quantities, since wood ash is quite alkaline). And over time we've learned a few tricks that help us do our heating more cheaply and efficiently:

1) Get to know your local firewood
Hardwoods release more heat, make longer-lasting fires and produce better coals than softer woods. They cost more, but are often worth the extra money.
2) Dry out your firewood properly
Wet wood burns less efficiently than dry wood, and causes creosote deposits in the chimney that can lead to dangerous chimney fires. So it's always best to burn your wood when thoroughly dry. However, wet wood is often cheaper, so you can save money by planning ahead and buying your wood in late spring, when it's wet, stacking it outdoors in the summer sun to dry, and then moving it to a sheltered storage area for the winter.
3) Be ready to start your fire quickly
When you heat with wood, it takes more than just pushing a button to warm your house when you wake up in or come back to a cold house! Keep an ample supply of firewood handy, as well as firestarters to get the blaze going quickly. Store-bought firestarters are often expensive and sometimes even toxic, so I recommend making your own.

We use two different kinds of firestarters:

1) Pine cones

pine cones 1

Cones contain lots of pitch and therefore burn easily: they make excellent and free fire starters, and are fun to collect! As fall approaches, in fact, our family walks and the childrens' adventures in the woods often produce a supply of pine cones, which we'll use to start our winter fires.

2) Homemade wax & sawdust firestarters

fire starters 7

We make these with candle ends we've saved up during the year, and sawdust we've scooped up where the woodcutters saw their logs.

Here's how you can make them:

Homemade firestarter tutorial

- This tutorial is not for children, with or without adult supervision. It is intended for adults only.
- Be careful while making your fire starters: you're working with inflammable materials.
- Make several small batches rather than one large batch: don't risk having inflammable melted wax boil over onto a hot burner.


fire starters 1

Candle ends
Large can (a coffee can works perfectly)
Large saucepan, bigger than your can so that it will catch any wax spillage
Newspaper cut into rectangular pieces (size depends on how much sawdust and wax you use per firestarter)
Hot pad


1) Melt wax

fire starters 3

Put at least 1" of water in the saucepan. Place a few candle ends in your can, and put the can into the saucepan. Put the saucepan on the stove at very low heat, until the water reaches a gentle boil. Wait for the wax to melt ~ remember, you're handling inflammable materials, so don't leave unattended.

2) Add sawdust

When your candle ends are completely melted, turn off the burner, but don't remove the can from the water: wax solidifies surprisingly quickly. Add the sawdust little by little to the wax, stirring, until all the liquid wax has been absorbed. (Hold the can with the hot pad - it gets pretty hot!)

3) Wrap up your firestarters

fire starters 6

Scoop out up to 1/4 cup of your mixture, and place on a piece of newspaper: roll up, candy-wrapper style. (PS I couldn't resist some local color: the newspaper reads "Lasagna, a warm castle made in the home," which sort of fits this tutorial!)

We've also used egg cartons instead of newspaper, pouring the wax and sawdust mixture into the individual egg cups and then cutting them apart when the mixture hardens. However, we found that this method took more time, and that the firestarters ignited faster when wrapped with a generous layer of newspaper.

As someone with an incredibly low tolerance for cold, and a constant desire to improve my wood fire techniques and technology, I'd love to hear how other people go about heating their homes with wood!

Also, The Wood Heat Organization, a Canadian NGO, has an excellent free downloadable Guide to Residential Wood Heating here.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Being grateful...

By Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Hello everyone,

I hope you have all had a wonderful weekend. Readers of my personal blog will know that I had dedicated the past week (28 Sep to 4 Oct 09), to optimism and laughter. And boy did I need to keep reminding myself of it throughout the whole week!

As I go over and reflect on the events of the last week and my chosen responses to it, I realised that it was a week when I really appreciated that I had chosen to acknowledge, in concrete ways, all of the positive things in my life.

I think, our consumerist culture doesn't give us the time or the opportunity to do this in concrete ways. Indeed, it seems to me that our economies depends on us wanting more rather than appreciating what we *do* have.

A few weeks ago, I started a gratitude journal. This journal is where I write every day or so, at least five things that I'm grateful for that day. This journal has become the rock I ground myself on when I start feeling like my life is lacking in some way.

My house doesn't have as much stuff as everyone else.
I don't own the latest gadgets, nor can I afford to get them.
I don't own a flashy car.
I can not afford extravagant holidays.
I no longer have a high-flying career.

All of that can be depressing...

BUT in my gratitude journal,

I am reminded of the miracle of rainy days (not a common occurence where I live).
I am reminded of the time I now have so I can truly be with my children - playing with them instead of being too tired because of that high-flying career.
I am reminded that my life is full of people (family, friends and neighbours) who regularly drop by to lend a helping hand or a patient ear.

All these things I have recorded in my gratitude journal. By writing and then re-reading the pages, I am often deeply struck by how rich I am!

And I realise that I already have much more than I can possibly want.

My gratitiude journal. I write in it and my daughter draws a picture based on what I wrote.

Now its your turn, what are five things you are grateful for today?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Laid off? Unpaid Furlough? Here's How to Cope

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

It seems that every time I check in on what the pundits are saying about the economy the picture has changed...a little. But overall, people still seem to be hurting. Unemployment is real for many, and scary for most everyone else. Right now some workers who still have jobs are being forced to take unpaid furlough days on a regular basis. This is better, one supposes, than losing a job outright or watching a coworker lose a job. But it still cuts into the budget at a time when every penny counts. The old saying goes that, "time is money." If that's true, then it should be possible to convert some of this unsought time into money, or its equivalent. Quite often suggestions made by frugal bloggers are met with the canned response: "But I don't have time for that." (We shall pass over without examination the fact that such commenters manifestly have time to surf the internet and leave said comments.) If you're newly unemployed, or looking at an unpaid furlough and less money in you paycheck, you now do have time. So here are several things you can do to balance the books.

Get a real handle on your household budget.Have you been meaning to find the time to sit down and really sort through your finances? This is the time to do it. You have time to call your credit cards and ask for a better rate. If you have a budget, review it in light of your lower income. If you don't have one, make one. Balance your checkbook. Review any automated bill pay to be sure your smaller paycheck doesn't cause any overdraft fees from your bank. Start a price comparison book to help make smarter grocery purchasing decisions.

Make your home more energy efficient. With one spare day you can shop for compact fluorescent lightbulbs and swap out the standard bulbs around your house. You can by some silicone caulking and seal the air gaps around your windows and doors. You can add some insulation to your hot water pipes. None of these things require a lot of money, time, or expertise. And your investment in those three things will continue to pay dividends for a long, long time.

Take stuff to a consignment shop or hold a yard sale. Yes, it takes time to organize selling things. You've now been given the time to do that. This will put some cash in your pocket. If you're serious enough about getting rid of stuff, you may free up enough extra space to make room for a roommate, or to rent out part of your garage for storage space - another way to help balance the books.

Get cooking. Now is the time to send the kids to school with bag lunches, and prepare the family dinner from scratch. It needn't be elaborate. A simple pasta dish with salad, or a roast chicken with two veg will do it. Better still, get a jump on future meals by trying out once a month cooking. The basic idea is to make up several oven-ready or crockpot-ready meals and stash them in the freezer. (No room in the freezer? Now's a perfect time to clean it out!) You don't need to go so far as to actually prepare a month's worth of food at one time. But here's your chance to help yourself out on those crazy working days when fast food seems like the only solution for getting everything else done. Make a huge batch of soup and freeze a few quarts for later use. Look online or at your library for "once a month cooking" or "freezer meals." If you are not an experienced cook, there are plenty of online tutorials to help you with the basics.

DIY There are probably a few things that you know how to do, but which you have not done in the past because you've been too busy. Well, this is a good time to fix that leaky faucet that's been driving you nuts, but which you haven't wanted to pay someone else to deal with. Wash your delicates by hand with a safe detergent in lieu of taking them to the dry cleaners. Manicure your own nails if you must. Reconsider every service you pay for and see what you can do for yourself now that you have extra time.

Reduce your childcare costs. You probably put your child in daycare in order to work, so now that you're not at work, ask yourself if it still makes sense to pay for this service. You may want to hold off on this option until you've done several other things on this list to make the best possible use of your time. On the other hand, if money is really tight, find a way to get some of these done in the company of your child, or if need be, during naptime.

Start (or plan) a small garden. I'm not going to kid you and tell you that you can maintain a big garden using just one or two days of furlough per month. You can't. But you can certainly maintain a small plot of lettuces, onions, or carrots with that much time. Or you can opt for container gardening, which is even easier. One tomato plant can yield 40 pounds of tomatoes in a season. If you keep it simple and take decent care of a few plants, you can garden on a small scale with little money or time. Recruit more helping hands by making it into a family project. Kids learn a lot when they work alongside their parents.

Learn a frugal skill. Bread baking and sewing well enough to make a few repairs can be learned with a little practice. Both will save you money. If you want something more manly, do you already know how to change the oil in your car? Can you sharpen your own lawn mower blade? How's the air pressure in those tires? If nothing else, detail your own car to make yourself feel like a million bucks on your way to your next job interview or business meeting.

Switch to no-cost exercise. More time on your hands combined with less money means you can and should find free and cheap ways of exercising. If you haven't been exercising previously, starting now can improve your appearance, help relieve stress over your financial situation, and pay dividends for your health overall. If you have been paying for gym membership, cancel the membership and save that cost. Start walking. If you've taken yoga classes for more than six months or so, you know what you need to know to do it yourself at home for free. Use whatever home exercise equipment you've paid for over the years and then neglected. If you're really enterprising, turn your daily exercise into a dog walking service that puts money in your pocket while you reap the health benefits.

Maximize this "bonus time." Write a list of things you're going to do to improve the way your household uses money and do your best to blast through it.

Keep your spirits up. Money woes can be seriously depressing. Remember to do something nice for yourself and your family, something that shakes up your usual routine and stops you thinking about money for a few hours at a stretch. Visit a local park, nature reserve, or hiking trail. Find some free local cultural events to attend, or a low-cost museum nearby that you've never visited. Most of all, don't play the blame game with yourself or with others. You'll get through this time, and any frugal habits you put into place now will stand you in good stead for the future.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Curing Winter Squash

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I have a confession to make: I really can be quite lazy about my garden and putting up the produce. If I can find an easier way, I'm there. So, keeping that in mind, one of my favorite crops is winter squash. Just stick some seeds in the ground in early summer, and then cut the fruit from the vines just before freezing weather sets in. No canning, no freezing, no cutting up to dehydrate - winter squash, once cured, provide us a variety of wonderful meals all winter long.

With the newer bush varieties, winter squash will fit in just about every garden, with fruit-sizes to match any family's needs. If you ask me, you can never have too many winter squash tucked away in your winter storage. They'll take to just about any seasoning, savory or sweet or even none at all, and will fit into just about every part of your menu - from soup to baked goods to side dishes, main course to dessert. Plus, winter squash are so beautiful - I often use them as part of my autumn decor before storing them away.

Winter squash are ready to harvest when a fingernail can't penetrate the skin (be gentle when testing them this way - if you do puncture one, use it first as it won't keep as long). I cut each off the vine, leaving at least an inch of stem (if the stem breaks off, those will be the first used; and don't carry winter squash by their stems - they're not strong enough to bear the weight). Rolled over and left out in the sun for the rest of the afternoon, the underside dries out and the cut stem starts to callus over. I also remove any bits of blossom still clinging to the end.

Winter storage squash need to cure in a warm, airy place - to harden their shells completely before storing for the winter. In early fall, I'll often load up the mesh wagon, and put the whole bunch into the garage (along with the onions - both need the same warmth and air circulation to cure). The dark garage warms up during the day, and then holds the heat quite well overnight. If the weather turns really cold too soon, I'll bring the squash into the living room near the wood stove for a week or two just to make sure they'll keep well. After curing, winter squash store best in a cool, but not cold, and dry environment. Into the winter, my cellar will get too cold and damp for squash. A couple of crates on the floor, in the far corner of our bedroom in our wood-stove heated house, works best (a plank over the top crate turns my storage spot into a nice little side table).

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Storing for Winter

by Chiot's Run

This of the year it's a whirlwind of activity here at Chiot's Run. We're busy harvesting, planting fall crops and canning, freezing, and drying food for winter. I can a few things like: tomatoes, jams, jellies, applesauce, tomato soup, pickled beets, and a variety of other pickled veggies.

For the past couple years we've been trying to eat more locally and more seasonally. By eating seasonally you limit the amount of time spent canning & preserving because you eat what is in season at the time. You're also saving energy by not canning as much. That being said, eating seasonally is a little more difficult here in Ohio where there's really nothing growing during many of the cold winter months. We do buy and store a good amount of squash & pumpkins to eat on all winter. We also store some cabbages, potatoes, and a few apples. Last year we experimented with growing spinach and kale under a floating row cover and we were able to harvest spinach in February. All of these efforts enabled us to save some valuable time and energy by not canning as much.

Learning to eat seasonally is definitely a shift in eating habits. It's amazing how diverse your diet becomes when you start focusing on this area. You learn about all kinds of new vegetables and you learn new storage techniques. I'm really enjoying the challenge of eating seasonally. I feel like I'm not only making a difference environmentally but in my health as well!

Do you can/freeze/dry for winter eating? Does your diet change seasonally?