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...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Realistic Expectations

By Notes From The Frugal Trenches
I blogged today on my personal blog about friends making poor financial choices and basically purchasing big ticket items (cars, house) without adequate finances. This made me really think about what are realistic expectations for life? I've blogged before on this site that life for me is a journey, I began downshifting, getting rid of debt and living a frugal life with such idealism; I was going to be able to sew, knit, crochet, grow my own fruits & veggies, become a master chef & expert baker all with the stroke of a wand. Oh how I came crashing down! I did however learn through trial & error, hard work, determination and realistic expectations that baby steps do lead somewhere and while I may not be able to knit a sweater just yet, I'm pretty good at knitting dish & wash cloths!
Taking realistic expectations a step further, I've begun to wonder about what my expectations are about my life in general? What do I expect to own? How do I expect to live? What is a realistic expectation of where I want to be physically and financially five, ten, twenty, thirty years from now.
You often read that people want to be able to retire at 55, own their home and a cottage, be able to enjoy a couple of holidays/vacations a year, eat out a few times a week etc. Many financial books I've read suggest that people have $1 million + before they retire. I have to say my own expectations are nowhere near as grand! I don't mind (and hopefully I'm physically able!) working until I'm 65, I'd prefer to work part time for more years than full time for less, I would like to own a home with a little bit of land, adopt, volunteer, live simply & frugally and give to others. Am I realistic that I will need money in order to accomplish most of these things? Absolutely! But I also know that money does not necessarily buy quality of life, it does not make you enjoy the life you are living each and every day! A friend recently read a study on happiness and finances and she said that the research showed that once someone had an emergency fund (savings of approximately $25,000) and an income that they could pay mortgage, utilities, food and enjoy one "average type" holiday per year, then their happiness factor did not increase even if they had 4 or 5x that in savings or disposable income! Just hearing this confirmed what I expected - that realistic expectations, a purpose driven life, an understanding of who you are, challenging what success means to you, living a simple life and helping others really does give you all you need to enjoy life, to have fulfillment and to contribute in a positive way.
I'd love to hear from you, how do you keep your expectations about what you can accomplish in your daily life realistic? And for the big things in life, where is it you want to be in 20 or 30 years and is that realistic?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Saving Vegetable Seeds

written by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

Wouldn't it be really cool if you didn't have to buy vegetable seeds ever again?  Well, you can, with a little bit of knowledge and practice.  Seed saving for the crop next season is fun and very cheap, and the beauty of it is that you can begin to adapt plant varieties to become conditioned to your climate.

I have tried seed saving with mixed success, so in this post I will try and explain how I have achieved at least a few successes and what I have learned along the way.  So far I have managed to save quite a few types of vegetables using a few different methods. 

The first type of seed that I tried to save was purple podded peas.  It was simple enough to decide which plant was the largest and had the biggest pods. So after I harvested the other plants, I left this one to dry out so that I could collect the seeds.  If you are expecting lots of rain, it is probably best if you pull the plant when it is just going dry and hang it upside down out of the weather.  Once the pods were dry, I took out the seeds and stored them in an airtight glass jar.  I have been successfully growing purple podded peas using this method for 3 years now.  Looking back, it is hard to believe that I only bought a $2.50 packet of 25 seeds in the first place and besides the seeds I have saved, we have had many pea feasts as well!  This drying on the bush method is also good for all types of beans, and I have collected Daikon radish seeds in this manner as well.

For smaller, more delicate seeds, I have let the desired plant flower and set seed.  Just before it begins to dry out, I put a brown paper bag over the seed head and tied it off with a rubber band.  When the seed heads dry the seeds fall into the bag, and all you have to do is label and store them in a dry, cool place for next seasons planting.  I have used this method with lettuce, silverbeet, rainbow chard, onions, leeks, radishes, carrots, parsnips, parsley and basil.  All of these types of plants usually self pollinate so you will not have too many problems with cross pollination.   These vegetables will stay 'true to type', that is, this generation of the plant you harvested seed from will be mostly the same as you will get in the next generation.

Another method of saving seed are by tuber.  For example potatoes, sweet potato, Jerusalem artichoke and yacon to name a few.  You harvest the best looking tubers and store them in a hessian bag in a dark, dry place for sowing in the next season.

Garlic is another of my favourites and easy to save for planting in the next season.  Keep a few bulbs from your crop (the larger the better), and when it is time to plant garlic in your part of the world, simply pull apart the bulb and plant single large cloves, pointy end upwards about 20cm appart.  A new bulb will grow around the clove and you will never be without garlic ever again!  Use the smaller inner cloves for cooking as you will end up with very tiny bulbs of garlic at the end of the season.

Sometimes you don't even need seeds to grow another plant.  You can take a cutting and stick it into some moist seed raising mix or some loamy soil and most of the time it will strike roots and continue to grow a clone of the parent plant.  I have successfully propagated tomatoes, all types of mint, eggplants (aubergine), and capsicum (bell peppers) using this method.  You can buy root hormone powder to enhance your success rate, however I find that most cuttings usually strike roots and I have about a 80-90% success rate.

Sweet corn or maize is another easy vegetable to save seeds from.  Let the cob dry out on the plant and then remove the outer husk and then with a twisting motion with your hands around the cob, the seeds usually just fall off.  I make sure that I have a large bowl or tea towel underneath to catch the kernels when I husk corn cobs.  I then store them in a glass jar in a dark place until required.  I have only saved popping corn using this method, but I dare say it would work with any type of corn.  Remember that corn is pollinated by the wind and I read that to keep the strain pure you need at least 500 metres between varieties.  Let hope your neighbour isn't growing corn at the same time!

Collecting seeds from the cucurbit family may look as easy as scooping the seeds out of a cucumber, pumpkin, squash or zucchini, and letting them dry on paper towel, however there are a few things you must know so that you get true to type seeds for next season.  The cucurbit family readily cross pollinate when nearby, and each variety does not care where the pollen comes from as long it is from its own family.  Each plant also has a male flower and a female flower.  You can identify the female flower because it has a small swelling at the base which when pollinated becomes a fruit.  The flowers only live for one or two days and open at down so that the bees can spread the pollen from male to female.  One book I read recommends that you plant each variety of cucurbit at least 400 metres apart to stop cross pollination, but you can also hand pollinate to control the exchange of pollen.  This is done by protecting the flowers from insects or wind whilst the female flower is receptive. 

  • Firstly select male and female flowers the evening before they are due to open.  You can tell this because they will be rigid and have some yellow on the seams of the closed bud.  
  • Close each flower with a rubber band or some masking tape or wrap the entire flower in some pantyhose and tie it at the stem so no insects will be able to get at the flower at first light.
  • In the morning cut the male flower off at the base of its stalk and take off the petals to expose the male part.  Open the flower and rub the male part into the female part.  You could use a few different male flowers from the same species to imitate the way a bee pollinates, but I have found that this was not necessary when I did it..  
  • After the pollen is well coated on the female part, shut or cover the female with pantyhose again until the flower withers.  
  • Make sure you put a tag around the stem of the plant so that as it grows bigger you know that it is a keeper.  You could also write on the skin with a waterproof maker pen as I did.  Tell everyone in your family not to pick it either or you may end up loosing your carefully hand pollinated treasure.  
  • Before harvesting the fruit, make sure it is a big as it can possibly be so that it will ensure that you have very plump seeds.  
  • Store the ripe fruit for a few weeks before opening and collecting the seeds.  Dry and store in a brown paper bag in a dry, cool position.
Tomatoes don't cross pollinate readily and are self pollinating, however to almost guarantee (there are no full guarantees in gardening) a true to type seed keep each row of different varieties at least 3 metres apart.  Allow the fruit to ripen to just beyond eating and then cut them open and squeeze the seeds and pulp into a jar.  Add a little water and label the jar and leave in a warm place for a few days.  A foam will form on top so scoop it off, add more water and pour the mixture through a sieve.  Wash until the seeds are clean.  Spread them on sheets of kitchen towel and let dry.  I then peel them off the towel and put in envelopes for next season.  I have been using the original tigerella seeds I collected in 2007 for two years now and they still germinate quite well.

Of all the seed saving methods, the simplest is what I call the 'volunteer' method.  I usually find that as the weather warms up in spring, I get so many tomato seedlings growing in the beds that I had tomatoes planted in them in the year before.  I just scoop out the seedling with a bit of soil still around the roots and then re-pot so that they grow a bit stronger before transplanting them into a different bed for crop rotation.  It is a bit of a lucky dip, but if you use heirloom seeds each year or collect your own, then there is no reason you can't liberate these volunteers so that they provide you with a bumper harvest.  Last year ever single tomato plant that I grew was a volunteer as the seeds I tried to grow got waterlogged in a downpour and I lost the lot.  I had a massive crop of all different types of tomatoes.

Well that is about all I have achieved in my seed saving, but I am quite proud of the types of plants I have continued to save seeds from especially the cucurbits.  It certainly has saved me a lot of money, and I feel that these plants are beginning to adapt to our dryer climate.  Humans have been saving seeds for thousands of years, so why not give it a go.  I am sure you will reap a bumper harvest from the seeds you collect!

Monday, 30 November 2009

One pumpkin fits all

by Francesca

heirloom pumpkin
Early in October I harvested our one pumpkin. I chronicled the strange case of the heirloom pumpkin in my blog, explaining how we unexpectedly happened to grow it. Since then, I’ve learned from a reader that our large pumpkin is a Heirloom Neck Pumpkin.

This was one of the most effortless crops I’ve ever grown. I transplanted it in early July, watered it, and then just let it grow. It crawled slowly across and out of our garden, and eventually produced its single fruit. My €0.25 transplant produced a heirloom pumpkin which weighed 10.5 kilos, and provided the main ingredient of 4 dishes, which served a total of about 30 people.
halved heirloom pumpkin

Here’s how we used it:

~ Pumpkin soup ~
heirloom pumpkin soup ingredients
With barley, red lentils, cabbage, onion, garlic, dry(ing) peppers, dried sage and rosemary. I made a very large pot of it, enough for two meals for our family: a nice thick vegetable soup is most welcome on cold fall evenings.

~ Skillet-roasted pumpkin ~
roasted pumpkin
With fresh rosemary and garlic.

~ Stuffed pumpkin with sage-infused rice ~
heirloom pumpkin halved
stuffed pumpkin
I first boiled black and brown rice, adding six large sage leaves to the water. Then I mixed in cubed pecorino cheese, and used this mixture to fill the part of the pumpkin where the seeds are, which I’d split in half and scooped out. I set these filled bowls in the oven and baked them.

(I made this dish and the pie below for a dinner with friends: they served 10 people!)

~ Pumpkin pie ~
pumpkin pie
With Marsala sweet wine, pine nuts and raisins.
pumpkin seeds

So a single vegetable that grew from a €0.25 transplant yielded a surprising range of dishes. I even got a tasty snack out of it, because of course I saved the pumpkin seeds, sprinkled them with salt, and popped them into the oven to roast while the rice was baking.

What other wonder vegetables have you come across? Vegetables that are easy to grow, are abundant and can be used in a variety of dishes, savory and sweet?

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Organizing a Garden

by Lynn of Viggies Veggies

Seed catalogs are rolling in for next season and I face the daunting task of planning a full sized garden with 54 varieties for the first time. Since I had no idea how much I needed to plant with the goal of supplying all of my produce in mind, I started out by reading The Backyard Homestead. They have a nice chart of suggested vegetables and how much to plant to feed one. I modified this a bit to suit my tastes and add a few fun items to try and will track when I run out of preserved food next year so I can adjust again to what I actually eat.

future garden plans

Next I turned to measuring my yard and planning the new beds. I used spacing guides from the book to divide my space into planting areas. The extra space was used to fit in herbs and edible flowers to use the space as productively as possible. I started this part just early enough that I was able to dig up the sod from all the new beds already this fall.

first batch of seeds

Then came the fun part. Pouring over websites and seed catalogs to pick the best sounding varieties. I'm feeding one so I went with some smaller fruited items like icebox watermelon to avoid waste. I also picked varieties like Siberian Tomatoes that are more cold hardy than necessary so I can work on extending the harvest even further next year.

planting chart

Finally, not wanting to be caught unprepared when it came time to plant I made a list and added each seed to it as it arrived. This contains all the vital information for planting and seed starting, including little calculations to help me know exactly when to start plants indoors and when each item can be moved outdoors. Now I'm busy saving containers I come across so I won't need to buy any fancy seed starting trays come spring.

How do you think I did? Is there anything special you do to prepare for spring?

Make Your Own Almond Milk

by Amy of

My mother-in-law, who eats nearly a 100% raw diet, showed me how to make almond milk when they were visiting us in Maine. It turns out to be quite a simple process. I make it once or twice a week now. It's so much richer and creamier than the stuff you buy at the store, and of course, still has all its good enzymes because it's raw. And somehow, things you make yourself just taste that much more delicious!

Here's how it goes:

Soak 1 cup almonds for 8hrs or overnight.

Rinse well.

Add 4 cups water, 1/4tsp salt, 1/2tsp vanilla and a spoonful of honey.

Blend really well.

Strain through nut milk bag (you can make one out of organza).

Squeeze out the last drops (you can use the leftover almond pulp in bread).