Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Keeping Track of Utility Expenses

by Chiot's Run

Here at Chiot's Run we strive to keep our utility bills in check through various methods. We collect rain water to help reduce water usage. We keep our house cool in the winter and warm in the summer to reduce gas/electric usage for heating and cooling. We keep electronics plugged in to power strips that get turned off. We have some appliances in the house that aren't efficient and we're slowly switching them to more efficient models as they wear out. Our water heater is one of these appliances, it's electric, it's 14 yrs old, but still going strong. We'll be switching to an on demand gas water heater when it dies. Until then we do what we can to maintain the current model to keep it running as efficiently as possible. We drain it yearly to get rid of sediment, and closely monitor our electric usage so we know when one of the elements has burned out. When our electric bill is $5-$10 higher than usual for a couple months we know it's time to install a new lower element (this usually happens every 3-5 years for us). For a few dollars we get a new one from our electric co-op and we install it. We're hoping the water heater will last a few more years while we save for a nice tankless water heater, which are much more expensive initially. We've already researched and chosen the one we want in case our current water heater doesn't last as long as we hope.

We keep a close eye on our utilities with a graph. I made a spreadsheet and each month I enter the total amounts used for gas/water/electric. This helps me chart our usage and it lets me know if our efforts to reduce our usage or at least maintain are working.

What tips do you have to keeping track of your utility usage?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Celebrating Homemade Holidays

by Chiot's Run

With my family we celebrate a "homemade" Christmas. All gifts must be homemade with ingredients/supplies costing less than $20 per family. Used items can be used or purchased as gifts as well. It's so much fun to figure out what to make for each person. Last year I made cloth shopping bags for all of the women in my family. I used scrap fabric and free old curtains for the main family. I bought a spool of ribbon for $5 (100 yds), so each bag cost me only a few pennies.

I make cinnamon rolls for all the families on both sides. I love giving food gifts because it's not something to store or something people grow tired of after the holidays. I got these great tree-shaped pans for less than a dollar a piece.

I also make birdseed pine cone ornaments with my nieces and they love giving their own homemade gifts. It's great to teach them early to love making & giving homemade gifts.

What kinds of homemade gifts are you making this year?

Monday, 7 December 2009

Growing a Winter Garden

Posted by Thomas, from A Growing Tradition Blog.

carrot harvest 3
A Harvest of winter carrots.

Eat local, organic, in-season foods
- that's a mantra that may be difficult to follow year round, especially if you live in an area located within climate zones 1 through 7. Where I live, in zone 6 northern Massachusetts, our winters often prove long and frigid. Those wishing to buy organic locally grown produce in November will find that most of our farmers markets have closed for the season at the end of October. And the few farmers here who do choose to grow vegetables during the winter months may not always practice sustainable methods, since adding supplemental lighting and heat (which consumes significant amounts of fossil fuels) to a commercial greenhouse operation may be perceived as the only viable means to ensure a timely harvest. The alternative would be to buy organic produce at a supermarket. But in the dead of winter, this would not be considered local, in-season or sustainable.

winter garden 2
My winter garden this year.

This reality begs the question - as someone who wishes to follow this "eat local, organic, in-season" mantra year round, am I limited for 6 months out of the year to what's stored in a root cellar, processed in a jar or bagged in a freezer? Or is it possible to add some fresh variety to my local diet during the lean months by starting a low-tech, low-energy consuming, organic winter garden, while at the same time lessening my family's dependence on produce that is shipped in from California and foreign countries? (Packaged organic salad mix, for instance, is one of the most energy-inefficient and costly veggies that one can buy at the supermarket.)

I will admit that I have a fascination with growing and harvesting food during the winter months beyond just the need to eat local, organic and in-season food all year round. For starters, I appreciate the fact that this practice has had a long and rich history, particularly in Europe, and the stubborn Luddite inside of me wishes to preserve this tradition. Ultimately though, for the die hard locavore (which I am not), it does not get any more "local" or "in-season" than growing your own winter crops. Nor do you have to rely on a governmental agency to tell you whether the carrot that you are consuming is organic. And finally, using low-tech winter gardening techniques ensures that your practices are sustainable.

winter bed inner layer
Depending on where you live, your winter veggies may require an extra layer of protection during the coldest months. An inner layer of fabric row cover can help to increase the nighttime temperatures inside of your hoop houses by a few critical degrees.

I am a huge fan of farmer and guru Eliot Coleman, best known for his writings on winter gardening. His Four Season Farm in zone 5 Harborside, Maine specializes in growing food year round using only low-tech, non-heating (and in some cases, minimal-heating) elements. Coleman's technique relies upon, among other things, choosing the right varieties of winter crops, succession planting on specific fall dates, and a couple added layers of protection during the harsh winter months. The goal here is not to create an high-tech artificial environment in which to grow anything and everything, but to use low-tech and sustainable methods to give traditional winter crops the added protection they need to survive all winter long in zones 5, 6 and 7 and to extend the growing season by at least a couple more months in zone 4.

Hoop houses must be strong enough to withstand the heavy snow storms and winds of winter.

So grow a winter garden if you'd like to add some fresh variety to your local, organic and in-season diet during the cold months. Here are some tips on how to get started:

1. Read about Eliot Coleman's Winter gardening techniques. Coleman offers a great deal of information on which winter crops to grow, when to sow them and how to protect them from the elements. His book, "Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables for Your Home Garden All Year Long" is a great place to start.

2. You will need to offer your winter crops some form of protection from the elements. There are many hoop house designs available via the internet that practically anyone can build. Personally, I utilize mini hoop houses. You can read about how I built my mini hoop houses at here or go to

3. Familiarize yourself with the hardiest of winter crops. Here are a few (some varieties are hardier than others): leeks, carrots, green onions, lettuces, bull's blood beet, a wide variety of Asian greens, spinach, radishes, chard, kale and wild greens like wild arugula, mache, claytonia and minutina. You will be surprised by the amount of fresh greens you can produce during the winter months.

4. Finally, just because none of your neighbors grow a winter garden doesn't mean it can't be done! Believe that it can be done and seek advice from local gardeners and bloggers who do! Practice makes perfect and soon, your lean winter months will seem shorter and shorter.

A picture is worth a thousand words so here are photos of some of my zone 6 winter veggies:

tango and red romaine lettuce
Rows of winter lettuce.

winter carrots - napoli
A bed of winter carrots

winter spinach
There are several varieties of spinach that are very cold hardy.

wild arugula
Wild arugula is one wild green that thrives during the winter months.

winter greens
A bed of kale, chard and lettuce.

Minutina adds an interesting look and texture to a winter salad.

mache 2
A late fall sowing of mache.

radish harvest
A harvest of winter radishes.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Pickled pumpkin

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

I don't normally grow pumpkins, saving my space for more productive winter squash is more up my gardening alley - but if I do happen to plant pumpkins, I don't pass up a chance to make pumpkin pickles. An oddity for sure, but a fond childhood memory from my gardening mentors. After Halloween, the few pumpkins they did grow became pickles for their holiday meals. I never realized until I was an adult, that these pickles gleaned from a vegetable that is grown by the acre just for decoration for the masses, was another exercise in frugality by these folks who taught me so much. Sometimes the lessons were very subtle.

A sweet, hot pickle with a solid texture, pickled pumpkin is probably an acquired taste. The consistency and the deep orange color are not what we think of when we think pickles.

I grew Styrian Naked Seed Pumpkins this year, for the seeds. And pumpkins do not keep as well as winter squash, so I have been working my way through them to harvest the seeds. I am the only one here who eats these pickles so one batch of preserved pumpkin lasts awhile. No need to use all the pumpkins for pickles.

A hatchet job for sure. The skins are very tough.

Remove the edible seeds for drying, and scrape out all the pulp.

The hardest part of the process is peeling. Cut the pumpkin in small slices about the size that you would a melon for serving.

Cut the pumpkin into uniform chunks. Combine pumpkin, sugar, salt, vinegar, water and spice sachet. Cook for about an hour on medium heat or until pumpkin is tender.

To make spice sachet, cut a square of cheesecloth or muslin large enough to hold 2 to 3 Tablespoons of pickling spice. Add or remove hot peppers depending on taste preference.

Tie sachet securely with string for the cooking process.

While the pickles are cooking take the spoils to the hens and barter for eggs :)

Thanks girls!

When pumpkin is tender, fill hot, sterilized jars.

Process in water bath canner for 10 minutes to ensure a good seal, or fill jars and refrigerate. These will keep indefinitely in the fridge.

A few jars to last me until ... . Actually I like these pickles on sandwiches, potato salad or in chicken salad. The unusual color also makes them good addition to a gift basket. The possibilities are endless.


5 quarts peeled and cubed pumpkin (about 1 medium pumpkin or 2 small)
5 cups sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups cider vinegar
2 cups water
2 - 3 Tablespoons pickling spice in a bag (remove before filling jars)

Cut pumpkin in small slices and peel. Cut into cubes and combine pumpkin with all ingredients. Cook for 1 hour or until pumpkin is tender, about an hour. Pack in hot jars, process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Or store in refrigerator.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Preparing for the Wet

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

We always seem to have a lull in the garden in Spring, which is our dry season (and often hotter than our Summer). But now it has begun to rain, so we're finishing off preparations for planting our warm season crops.

Firstly I prune, weed and cull the last of the winter plants. Some go directly into the beds to be mulched over, a lot go to the chickens and ducks, and a bit goes into my attempt at compost-making.

Next I add manure I've collected, and animal bedding material, as well as some fresh sugar cane mulch on top.

Now everything is ready to sit for awhile and be soaked by the rain. Whenever I have time I poke in plants I've propagated or bought, cuttings, seeds, tubers, sprouting things from the kitchen. I have a basket in the shed where I gather all of these things, so they're handy when I'm pottering in the garden. In Spring and Autumn I order seeds I don't have through saving my own, or the local Seed Savers Network.

And then the real rain comes. And when it's raining every day and night for weeks on end, we reap the rewards of our work - the perennial plants flourish. Asian greens, tropical tubers, and pumpkins abound. Regular European vegetables often can't withstand our wet season, so varieties need to be carefully chosen.

Whilst it's raining we also plant our trees for the year. They get a few weeks of good solid rain and thrive without much care or attention. We try to plant a variety of trees - native food and timber trees, native trees and shrubs for birds and other animals, unusual fruit trees selected for our climate and tradition fruit trees such as oranges, lemons and the like. We also try to plant vines each year - various passionfruit and choko seem to like it here. I've also planted grapes, berries, dragonfruit and other non-tree plants in the wet season.

And next we mow. And mow! But now with more gardens (less lawn) and two cows, we're hoping to mow less and dance in the rain some more...