Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Gone For A Couple of Days

My hubby and I, and all the dogs, are going to be gone for a couple of days. We are going down to our property. This is the property to which we will be moving. It is the property where we are slowly building a house, starting gardening beds and trying to create a different kind of life. This is basically a pleasure trip. We will stay in our small "cabin", basically a wonky 12 x 12 wooden shack, with enough gaps between the walls and the floor to allow small trees to start growing. However, it keeps us dry and pretty warm.

This trip will also be the beginning of a resources analysis of the property. To create a good permaculture design you need to make a needs and resource list of the place you are going to design. This will encompass everything you can think of, from the types of trees and grasses, the water sources, drain offs, neighbors, type of soil, direction of the sun. Everything that is there. It takes a lot of close observation to do a good resource analysis. Technically, you would never have a complete list because you could include all the animals and invertebrates, all the types of trees, etc. Our list, of course, will not be near this complete. We will do this list over several visits.

We will also map the property. Some people will have this done professionally be a surveyor but we will hand draw it ourselves, doing the best we can.

I hope you all will have a nice couple of days and take the time to do something nice for yourselves and a love one over the next couple of days. There is no better time than the present to do so.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Some Permaculture Thoughts

Last fall, I went to a basic permaculture training. It was two weeks in New York state. I loved it. It is time for me to revisit some of the ideas I learned and I thought I would do that through this blog so I could share the thoughts and information. This is the first installment.

First of all, there is a lot of misconception about what permaculture is. Most people conjure up images of fanciful gardens and maybe a composting toilet when they hear the word permaculture. And although these may be part of a permaculture design, they in no way encompass it. Permaculture is a design system. A way of looking at something, thinking about something and planning something. It is applicable to anything that you design. And we are arranging and planning things all the time. You could apply permaculture principles to arranging your desk, planning how your kitchen is set up or use it to design an intentional living community. Only your imagination limits the ways to use design principles of permaculture.

There are a couple of questions that should be asked when planning a system. The first of which is, is what we're doing something that cares for the earth? Permaculture is designed to help you create systems that are not only sustainable but that aim to be regenerative. If you are planning a garden, your goal will be to actually help to restore the soil and ecosystem. This will become more clear as we discuss the principles in more depth. A second question that needs to be asked is, will this design care for people? Again, in permaculture, ethics is an important consideration when designing a system. It is imperative if we are to create sustainable caring communities that we consider how we are impacting both the earth and other people. Currently the way most systems are designed, they are created without these two concepts in mind. Think of your local grocery store, it is not set up in a way to care for the earth or people. It is designed to illicit a shopping response and to manipulate the way you shop. It's goal is to get you to buy more groceries. Think about how local communities are planned. Again, it becomes pretty clear, pretty fast that these systems are not designed with people or the planet in mind. I think this will be a necessary shift in focus for us to create the kind of place where most of us would want to live if we were to have a choice. It will also be a necessary shift as we move towards sustainability and not the plunder of people and the earth.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tree Grafting and Factor E Farm

Wow, what a cool way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I mean, yes, it was cold, but oh so cool. Lisa and I drove up to Maysville, Missouri from Kansas City for a plant propagation workshop at The Factor E Farm. Here is the group of us, Marcin Jakubowski, the founder, took the picture. They are working on creating a self sustainable reproducible village, with all designs for equipment, techniques and knowledge gained being shared with the world in an open source way. That means no barriers or restrictions to access the information. First Marcin gave us a tour of the farm and showed us a cordwood building, an earthbag building, and a couple of other types of shelters they are experimenting with. Check out the videos . They have chickens and goats on their farm. The focus of the workshop was plant propagation using grafting. Splicing one kind of tree onto another type of tree rootstock. Marcin was a gracious host and a wonderful and knowledgeable instructor. Using a grafting tool, we learned how to join together two varieties of apple, peach, and plum trees. The purpose is to basically "clone" the tree that provides the fruit specimens that you desire. By taking cuttings of small one year old branches, you can duplicate the variety by grafting them onto inexpensive root stocks you can buy, or cut your own from the varieties already growing on your land. The workshop was documented and can be accessed here.

Participants came from Prairie Village (Kansas), Kansas City (Missouri), and Tom, who was on a business trip in St. Louis, made the detour to attend. He lives in West Virginia. People from all over the world are interested in the eco village model, and people from all over the world have expressed interest in coming to live and work on the farm. We were very excited about the Farm and plan on volunteering in the coming months.

Marcin designed and built a diesel tractor that runs on veggie oil. It's plans and design are readily availible. It's low cost and easy to build. They also have a truck they power with veggie oil as well. If you are interested in becoming sustainable, you have got to check out their website. Look for upcoming information on what's going on. We are going up the end of this month to help out for a couple of days. We'll tell you all about it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Food That I Can Grow

In my quest to become self sufficient and sustainable, I've been making a list of the foods that I can grow to eat. My goal, within the next two years is to be producing around 70-80% of my own food. Right now, I don't have much growing space, just a small backyard. However, we have bought some acreage, our share is a little over 30 acres. In the next couple of years, my husband and I will be moving there. It is there that we are building a cob house, it is there where we will be living off of the grid, and it is there that I will be trying to grow as much of the food that we eat that I can. To begin this process, I have made a list of all the different foods that I can think of that will grow in our climate that I think I can grow. I haven't estimated how much of each I will need yet, but that is the next step. The fruit and nut trees will be accumulated over the next couple of years, some will be bought others will be swapped for and grafted from starts. A lot of the vegetables, I am currently growing. Right now, I do not have the room to grow the grains, so they are a future project. Another goal is to learn how to forage for food that all ready grows on our land, there are a lot of greens and other food, I think we can get directly from the land. This is something I have not learned very much about yet. If you see a food that I have missed, will you please, let me know in the comment section, so I can add it to my list. Thanks


Plum, Apricots, Peaches, Pears, Apples, grapes, raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, persimmon, paw paw, cherries - sweet and sour, kiwi, fig (in greenhouse), dates (in gh), citrus (in gh), melons, watermelon, ground cherries


rice, barley, oats, wheat, quinea, amaranth, buckwheat, flax, sesame (?), corn\


peanuts, filberts, pecans, walnuts, hickory, chestnuts (i think i'm missing some obvious ones)


garlic, onion, broccoli, cauliflower, radish, greens, spinach, lettuce, carrot, asparagus, artichoke, radish pods, kohlrabi, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas - snap, shelling, snow, beans - green and dried (we eat lots of dried beans), lentils, tomatoes, peppers - hot and sweet, eggplant, squash - winter and summer, pumpkins, celery, soybeans, tomatillos, corn mache, cress, cabbage,


mushrooms - learn to grow and hunt for morels, eggs (chickens), milk and cheese

I haven't made a list of herbs yet. I still need to do this.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sad Plants and More

I had been bringing my plants in and out of the house so they could get some sunlight. Due to the fact that I don't have enough windows letting in enough light. However, about 4 days ago it cooled off drastically here. The last day I tried to put my plants out to get some sun, several of them died due to the cold. So, they are back in again, rotating through spots close to the window. This is starting to me a logistical nightmare since I have 10 flats going and have only just begun to get my seeds planted. It had better warm up here so i can put them out for a while during the day or I'm going to have to start cutting holes in the walls to let in some daylight.

Meanwhile, I am devouring the pages of the Seed Savers Membership book. If you become a member of seed savers (a great thing to do and now you get a discount on seed), you get access to the membership catalog. In this catalog, almost any variety of any fruit or vegetable that you could ever imagine is listed with a member that has been saving it's seed. The mission is to preserve as many varieties of seed as possible and to slow down the loss of varieties. If you thought that the only apples there are to eat are red delicious and jonathans, you are in for a huge surprise. The catalog lists about 400 varieties. If you thought the only varieties of tomatoes there are are the ones you can buy from Burpee, again, you have a huge surprise instore. In the membership catalog, there are several hundreds of varieties available. So, this year I'm going to request a couple of different varieties of plant seeds and save the seeds. Hopefully, next year I can be one of the members that is trying to preserve the seed pool and along the way, I'm going to be eating some delicious fruits and veggies.

My native perennials are still in cold storage. I hope to take them out and get them started early next week. They look good, a couple were starting to dry out. So, I added some water. I'll keep you posted on how they are doing. Meanwhile, about half of the ones that didn't need any pretreatment that I started are beginning to sprout. Hopefully, the others are just being slow and I haven't drowned them or something.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Some Eye Candy

Here's a few pages that I made for a chunky book swap on Illustrated ATCs. A chunky book pages measures 4x4 and for this swap everyone had a theme in which we made cards for. So, without further ado, here's a couple of my favorite pages that I made for the swap.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Grey Water

One of the principles of permaculture is to look at things that would commonly be thought of as a waste product and instead, view it as a resource. You are always looking for the next best use out of everything. In our present day system, we pipe clean, potable water into our house. We use it to drink, to wash clothes, to take showers, to flush toilets and to water plants. After this initial use, we pipe the water, now called gray water (with the exception of the water from the toilet which is called black water) out of our house and into the sewage system. Within a permaculture system, you would look for other ways to use this grey water instead of letting it be taken away.

There are a couple of different options that involve using what is called a gray water system. These systems are what I'm currently researching. In most metropolitan areas, grey water systems are illegal or at least restricted and you should contact your local municipality to see what restrictions there are in your area. Eventually, when we move to our acreage, our house will be off the grid and we will reuse all of our grey water. I would like to begin some of the process in the house I live in now. I would like to capture the water from our washing machine and contain it in a barrel reservoir, to later use to irrigate my gardens.

If you have any desire to install a gray water system, or are even just interested in learning more, you absolutely need to get the book Create An Oasis with Greywater by Art Ludwig. What I am researching now is how to capture the water from our washing machine and save it in a barrel. I can later use this water to help water my garden. It is necessary to be careful what kinds of cleaners I use to wash our clothes because I don't want to be putting chemicals onto my plants. This goes right along with what I'd like to do any way because I'd like to be making my own soaps.

I'll keep you posted on how our project goes and give you some pictures of our progress. The big challenge will be to cut a hole in our laundry room and reroute the water outside the house to be stored. Our laundry room is on the second story from the back of the house, so, there will be some challenges. I highly recommend you get this book, check out your local library. You can also get lots more information from the Oasis website.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Using Cold Frames

Cold frames are one of the greatest resources that a gardener has. They are easy to make, inexpensive and allow for you to extend your growing season. We've been using cold frames for years. Recently, we got ours ready for spring. This is where we will get an early start on lettuces, cabbages, radishes, carrots and green onions. In my opinion, the best reference on extending your growing season and using cold frames is Eliot Coleman's book Four-Season Harvest. Any book by Coleman is a gold-mine of information, but this is one of the best because it provides information that you are unlikely to find elsewhere. He even gets very scientific about what varieties will perform best for you throughout the winter.

I have already started some seeds to go in my cold frame. Most everything that I put in there will be a transplant. I will direct seed carrots, green onions and radish, though. The temperature inside the cold frame is much higher than outside, so even though it is still very cold in Kansas City, I will start plants under the cold frame this week. Don't forget they are there, if you have an unseasonably warm day, they can overheat and die very quickly. Also, don't forget to water these plants. There still isn't a lot of direct sunlight right now, so these plants will grow much slower than they would in the summer. Plants that I put in in two weeks will quickly catch up to the ones I will plant this week. It will continue to be that way until spring.

Cold frames are extremely easy to make. They are basically wooden frames covered with plastic. The weight of the plastic is fairly important, i'm not sure what weight ours is, but don't get the thinnest and don't get the heaviest - it won't let in enough light. We used reclaimed wood to make ours and we have been using it for a couple of years. My husband puts it together using screws, he says, these will hold better than nails. We staple the plastic to the frame, unfortunately the plastic doesn't seem to last us longer than the one season.

Friday, February 20, 2009

DIY Democracy - It's Not Just Voting Anymore

There is a lot more to democracy than just voting. For some, that feels like an important part but it cannot be the only. I believe that to create change and create a true democracy requires the active participation of all of its citizenry. We need to create the neighborhoods that we want to live in, the infrastructures to get good food, make sure that everyone's basic needs in our community are being met and we need to make this a democracy.

We cannot wait for the government to fix problems for us. No matter what your political leanings, it is clear to a growing number of us, that our government equals a power structure whose vested interest is to maintain this power structure. People tend to care about and watch out for those they know and those they spend time with. Our elected officials rarely live in our neighborhoods, instead they reside in gated communities; they don't play at our parks, they have country clubs; they don't eat at the local buffet, the sit at tables clad in tablecloths and eat with silverware, not plasticware; most often their children do not go to our schools, instead preferring private institutions. Who do they fraternize with at these locations? Certainly not me, and probably not you. Instead their days are spent surrounded by other people who also have a financial incentive for things to stay the same.

Therefore, if there are things we'd like to see change, we are going to have to make those things happen. This should be no surprise. History seems to bear this out with little exception. Women were not graciously given the right to vote, they created a situation where it was untenable for anything else to happen. The civil rights act did not come about by people sitting at home drinking beer and watching TV. It only happened after a hard struggle and lots of grass roots support. And on and on.

Luckily for us there are lots of resources to facilitate democracy.

Blogging/Internet - the internet in general provides lots of information gathering opportunities and community building. It is an easy and fast way to disperse information to membership or would be membership. Blogs allow anyone to express their opinions and to be watch dogs of government and corporations. You can use it as community building, also, finding people with similar concerns or needs. It is only a part of this process, it is a tool. I encourage people to find as many opportunities to meet in person as you can and do your community building, when possible, in person.

Run for Public Office - we need more and more of our neighbors in positions where they can help watch out for our communities. Start small - a local school board or city council member. This is where a lot of changes come about that affect us on a local level. Most cities make it fairly easy to get your name on the ballot. Some signatures and some paperwork is enough to often get the process started. There is no better way to feel like you are making a difference than to help someone you believe in to run for office.

Transition Towns - This is a comprehensive grounds up approach that is in response to peak oil and climate change. The goal is to create towns and cities that are sustainable and along the way real participatory democracy is happening. Transition towns are a huge social experiment that is based on the premise that if we wait for the government to respond to peak oil and global warming it will be too late. And that if we act on our own it will be too little, but if we act as a community, we may have the chance to do enough, in time. Trainings are taking off all over the world, and according to the website over 140 cities have already been designated official transition towns. This is an exciting movement and one that bears looking into. The website is here. There is also a great handbook called The Transition Handbook written by Rob Hopkins.

Community Groups - throughout the United States community groups have been formed in response to all kinds of needs, whether it's environmental degradation, police brutality, schools, or people needing good food and housing. Community groups have been a tremendous avenue of change. Join one in your area or start one if there isn't one already addressing things that concern you.

Democracy Training and Groups - Frances Moore Lappe, of Diet for a Small Planet fame, has turned her sites on democracy. She's written two books directly related to creating more democracy. I'm currently reading Getting a Grip. It is set up perfectly as a self or group study book on participatory democracy. It has questions for further thought for each chapter. I haven't read the other but have it requested from the library. It is called Democracy's Edge. Groups across the country have used this book as a guide for them to learn participatory democracy. The Small Planet Institute formed by Lappe, is a treasure trove of information to learn more about this. It also contains lots of success stories of community groups that have used this format to make changes within their communities.

I know there are lots of different ways we can create DIY Democracy and would love to hear your ideas. I hope to make this an ongoing discussion and a continuing column on this blog.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Isabelles' Stuffed Animals

I met this wonderful crafts person on Etsy, a site that sells handmade items. She not only hand knits stuffed animals but she spins the yarn she uses by hand. I asked her to do an interview with me so I could introduce her to my readers. Learning to spin and to knit are wonderful skills and well within the reach of most of us, if there is an interest. Although fairly new to spinning, Isabelle is able to create beautiful yarns that she turns into adorable stuffed animals. I don't want to ruin any of the surprises, so, I'll let Isabelle speak for herself...

Isabelle, can you tell us a little about how you got started making knitted items?

My grandmother taught me how to knit when I was still very young - slippers, scarves... the basic stuff ;) I had kind of given up on knitting due to lack of time (I just finished a bachelor's degree) but realised, while looking for a job, that I now had a lot of free time to spend while waiting for the phone to ring for interviews... So I took out my needles and decided I needed something a little bit more challenging than scarves and slippers... I opted for soft toys :)

I've noticed that more of your items are starting to include handspun yarn - how did you get started in spinning yarn?

I started spinning only a couple of months ago... I had wanted to knit natural fibers for a long time but natural yarn is sooo expensive that spinning it myself was the only affordable option... So I bought a single book on the topic ("Start spinning" by Maggie Casey - veryyy useful!!), and a beginner's kit on Etsy and got started!!

What kind of spinning wheel do you have?

...The greatest thing with handspun yarn is that you don't need a spinning wheel: these were quite expensive so I bought a very simple "drop spindle" (15$ US for the spindle and some fibers to begin with) and was able to start spinning right away while reading my book and looking at several free tutorial videos on Youtube!

How do you choose what fibers you use to spin and then knit with?

Price is an important factor for me since my toys use a big amount of fibers... I try not to spend more than 3 dollars an ounce (+ shipping, which is often nearly as expensive than the fibers themselves since nobody produces them in my area). The softer the better... I love to experiment and have found that alpaca is incredibly soft, and that bamboo fibers feel a lot like silk but are a bit harder to spin...

How long does it take you to complete a knitted stuffed animal that you've spun?

In terms of hours, I'd say 5-6 for the smallest ones and often a day or two for the biggest... The spinning process itself is not that long once you get the hang of it but you still have to set the twist in the yarn by putting it into water then letting it air dry for a day or so... Which makes things longer!

Where can people go to buy your stuffed animals?

I'm trying to list them all on my Etsy shop, called Ptitebaloue, and they might soon be for sale in some souvenir boutiques in old Quebec city :)

What kinds of new projects can we expect from you in the near future?

New models, of course, new types of fibers (I want more bamboo and soy silk! :), 100% natural toys as much as possible... I'm currently trying to get a subvention to improve my products - if it works out many things could happen! :)

Thanks Isabelle for this great interview. Stop by her Etsy store and check all her great stuffed animals. Be inspired. Fiber arts are rewarding and fun skills to have. Find one you like and check it out. Until then, consider buying one of Isabelle's original stuffed animals for a gift for a loved one. Handmade gifts will be cherished for years to come.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Starting Your Herb and Veggie Seeds

This is one of my favorite times of year, I love when the promise of spring lets me justify playing in dirt. I love the magic of a seed popping itself out of the ground. The miracle of this never stops astounding me. As you can imagine, I spend the next couple of months in a kind of perpetual bliss.

Tonight, I spent most of the evening starting my cold weather seeds. Lots of different kinds of veggie and herb seeds. I choose to start most of all my plants indoors. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, it gives me a head start on the season. Additionally, it lets me have more control over their growing conditions. Before I go to plant them out in my raised beds, I'll know exactly what I have. This is important to me because I have limited space in my garden. By starting my seeds indoors, I can space them in my garden exactly how I want, I don't have to thin out plants and I don't have to worry about poor germination because I'll know that I all ready have a plant to put there. There are some seeds that don't do well being transplanted and are best suited directly planted in the garden. Some are obvious, such as root vegetables like carrots or radish. Some are less obvious, such as cilantro and corn. For the most part though, I put most of my plants into my garden as transplants.

Starting seeds inside is easy and doesn't require much special equipment. You can start your plants out in a lot of different containers. Personally, I use the seed trays that you can buy at a seed store. But butter tubs, yogurt containers, egg cartons even Dixie cups will work equally as well. Just make sure you have drainage holes in the bottom (and make sure you have this set in something to catch the drainage water.) Fill the container with a seed starting medium. I always buy this, you want it to be sterile and you don't want it to contain any fertilizer, organic or not. Seeds have all the nutrients it needs to get started, it can actually be detrimental for the plant to get too much food right after it sprouts. After they get their first set of true leaves, we will transplant these starts into larger containers, then we will give them some food.

After you've filled up the container with starter medium, place the seed in the medium. The seed package should tell you how deep to put the seed in. A good rule of thumb is the smaller seed the closer to the surface it should be planted, conversely the larger the seed the deeper it will go. A few seeds need sunlight to germinate, the package should tell you this. Make sure you label your seeds, I use whatever I have handy. Popsicle sticks make a cheap marker.

Now, you need to water the seeds. I always water my seeds from the bottom. Because I sell my extra plants, I need to make sure they are the correct plants, if I were to water from above, the medium could float into another tray. Also, once the seeds start to sprout, watering from above could facilitate a condition called damping off. So, I pour the water right into the drainage tray. The medium will soak the water up to the surface. Watch your containers for a couple of hours, adding water periodically until the surface of the containers show it's become damp.

It will take several days for your seeds to start to poke out of the soil, depending on the plant. Plants like lettuce should germinate in about 5 days, some like lavender germinate sporadically and could take up to two weeks. Be patient, during this waiting time, make sure the starter medium does not dry out. Find a happy balance, though, you don't want the seeds to be swimming in water either.

***I forgot to mention light. It is not necessary to have your seedlings in light to get them started. However, as soon as they start to sprout, put them in the sunniest location you can find. By a window or under grow lights will work, I've even taken my plants out in the morning and in again at night so get them in the sunlight.

Some of these plants, we will put outside soon after they get their true leaves (these will actually seem to you to be their second set of leaves, called the true leaves), such as the lettuce. Others we will transplant into larger containers and give them special treatment for a few more weeks in the house, such as tomato or eggplant.

Stay tuned, we are going to talk about how to plant in a cold frame and in a couple of posts, how to build a cold frame. They are easy and really useful for getting a jump start on the season.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dr. Sketchy's Kansas City

I love to draw. Figure drawing is, perhaps, my favorite kind of drawing. I haven't been able to do this for a while and really miss having a live model. A few months ago, I heard about this fun group called Dr. Sketchy's. In 67 cities across the United States, there are Dr. Sketchy's Anti Art Schools. It's hard to describe it if you haven't been, which if you like to draw, I would strongly encourage. They are part art studio, part burlesque, part festival and 100% outrageous fun. They are self described as what happens when burlesque meets art school. And lucky for me there is a branch in Kansas City.

It is held in this old warehouse, where you have to take a somewhat disconcerting elevator to reach to top floor to someone's loft. The space here in Kansas City is priceless. There is art hanging on all the walls, everything from prints to paintings to bicycles to car parts. There couldn't be a more perfect atmosphere to create. After setting up your art supplies, there is lots of time to socialize and grab drinks from a makeshift bar as people arrive. I'm new, so, I spend lots of time people watching. People from all walks of life start to show up. From those dressed in t-shirts and jeans to goth to steampunk to artsy, it is an accepting atmosphere where it feels anyone can mingle. A different DJ keeps us entertained each week, with a wide assortment of music.

Soon, our rabble-rousing, charismatic uber stylish mistress of ceremonies takes the stage. She makes announcements and gets everyone excited like we're at a show. Then she introduces the performer for the week. This week the performer is Lu Foxx. The performers are burlesque dancers and bring all the style, all the theatrics, and all the show(wo)manship to modeling. Lu Foxx was an incredible model to draw. Striking fun, animated poses, she warmed us up with ten one minute poses. Dressed in a long flowing half skirt and a scanty bikini top, she used props to create wonderful poses that were a delight to draw. Next, come a couple of 5 minute poses as we start to get in the flow. About every half hour, the model takes a break. More time to get an alcoholic beverage from the bar and to socialize with the other artists. This pattern continues throughout the evening - half hour of drawing, twenty minute break, for about 4 hours of drawing. All for $6 entrance fee, really a bargain.

Often there are contests, best of drawings selected by the model. Many put our best piece on the stage for the other artists to look at and for the model to select her favorite. This night's prize was a free membership to the local clay guild. This is one of my favorite parts, I love seeing what others are creating. All skill levels sit together equal on the stage, from beginners to awe inspiring. Pencils, pastels, markers, paints, and even photos are used to capture the essence of Lu Foxx throughout the evening.

Another highlight of the evening is the show. Before the long poses, the performer will awe us and delight us with a sampling of her talents made all the more challenging by the makeshift small stage. And Lu Foxx did not disappoint. Regaled in feathers and tiger prints, she seduced us, grinding and twisting, dancing and stripping down to a thong and pasties. The audience joins in, hollering and cheering her on. Soon it's over, her 30 minute pose complete. I was pretty excited, this week my drawings weren't too bad and I had a wonderful time. Two Sundays from now is all ready marked on my calendar for the next Dr. Sketchy's Speakeasy. Maybe, I'll see you there.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Starting Perennial Seeds the Cold Moist Stratification Way

I love growing perennials. How can you not be grateful to a plant that returns year after year despite your neglect. Not only that but it gets larger and more beautiful along the way. I'm particularly enamored with perennials that are native. They are especially suited to the natural conditions of where i live and thrive despite my lack of care. So, you will tend to see a lot of posts on my blog about growing perennials.

This year, I've decided to start some perennials from seed. There are several ways to propagate plants, planting seeds is but one. Some of the seeds that I got don't require any pretreatment and I will just start them in seed starter when I'm ready. However, some of the seeds need to believe they have been in the ground over the winter in order to sprout. One way to do this is to actually plant them in the fall. This is a great way, it's easy and reliable. However, I want more control over where I plant the ones I'm keeping and also, plan to sell some of the extra plants. So, I'm going to start mine using cold, moist stratification. This will trick the seed into believing there has been a winter.

I'm experimenting with a couple of different ways to see which gives me better germination. The process is fairly simple but takes some advance planning. You need to start the seeds about 4-8 weeks in a cold place before you can plant them in your seed starter. All in all, this means it will take about 2-3 months before your seeds will actually germinate. To start the seeds you will need some baggies, paper towels and some sterilized medium - such as vermiculite or seed starter. I've chosen seed starter medium. Some seeds will need to be scarified before you start them, this means to scratch or weaken the seed casing. This should be noted on your seed packet if it is necessary.

For half of the seeds, I wet a piece of paper towel and just put the seeds directly on top of it. Make sure the paper towel is just damp and not soggy, once you put it in the plastic bag you do not want a lot of water sitting in the baggie. The water will not evaporate and you don't want your seeds sitting in water or they will rot, not sprout. For the other half of the seeds, I put a small amount of seed starter on the damp paper towel. I then placed the seeds on the medium, dampened a little more and then folded up the paper towel and put it in the baggie. Again, make sure the whole package is not too wet.

Then place in the refrigerator, I put mine in the fruit crisper drawer. They will be in here for several weeks, so you should check on them periodically. You want to make sure they don't dry out, or that they aren't staying too wet. Also, if they start to sprout while in the refrigerator go ahead and take them out of the refrigerator and plant them in whatever you are going to start them in.

In about 4-6 weeks, I'll be pulling these out and getting them planted in pots. So, stay tuned for more tutorials.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Check Out This Great Blog Post

Just read this awesome post on the website Passionate Green. It's about the great work the Humane Society is doing to promote animal welfare - and not just cats and dogs, livestock animals also.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Food Politics

I was lucky enough to get to hear the wonderful author and food advocate Marion Nestle speak a couple of nights ago. If you are not familiar with her, you should take the time to become so. She is the nutrition chair at New York University, author of numerous books and host to the website Food Politics. Of her books, Food Politics is my favorite. It traces the complicated issue of how the food industry influences what food choices we have at the grocery store to eat. These issues are dictated by thirst for profit, not good nutritional policy. She also provides information to help consumers make good food choices for themselves and their families. Her newest book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, is an investigative report on the March 2007 pet food recall.

In her talk, she spent some time talking about her new book Pet Food Politics. Even if you don't have an animal which you buy pet food for, this issue should be important to you. During her investigation, Nestle was able to trace how pet food contaminates ended up back in the human food system. Pet food has vital wheat gluten added to it to increase the protein. The vital wheat in the contaminated pet food was adulterated with melamine, which is an industry byproduct that is cheap and mimics protein. This adulterate was coming from China. Melamine was causing bladder and kidney problems in these animals. At least as important is how melamine was getting into the human food supply. It is common practice for scrap pet food to be sold as livestock feed. On this occasion, the melamine ended up being fed to chickens, cows and fish., which ended up being eaten by humans.

Marion Nestle advocated that this is just one more indicator that it is necessary for a comprehensive farm to table food policy in the United States. Currently, the FDA and USDA are independent entities that have become fairly toothless because of restrictive legislation from Congress. Until this changes, individuals have to make smart food choices for themselves. Buying organic is one choice people make to have more faith in their food. I think choosing to buy locally, from farmers you know is arguably, even more important. Small, local farms take pride in their products. They also have to personally back up any product that they sell to individuals because you are able to ask the farmer questions, pass on favorable and unfavorable critiques, and you know where to find them if there is a problem. A lot more people are choosing to supplement their local purchases by growing more of their own food. This is where my mindset is, so a lot of the blogs I will be posting will be focused on helping people be able to do this. If you must buy from a grocery store, try to minimize the processed foods. Whole foods have less chance of being adulterated. Besides foods taste better when you prepare them yourself and they are much healthier.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Backyard Hazards

Last night, I was getting ready for bed, PJs on, book ready, all comfy and snuggled up, when I heard the most horrible noise from my backyard. I didn't immediately react because we tend to have a lot of wildlife in our backyard along with neighborhood pets. But when I heard it the second time, I hustled for the backdoor. I slipped on my husband's shoes, at least 3 sizes too big and ran out back, where the miniature horse and chickens stay. Along the way, I lost both of my shoes.

My backyard is not lit, the only light is a soft glow coming from the chicken coop. However, I could see a white blob moving along the back fence. The noise was terrible. I realized that something had one of my chickens. I have one Houdini chicken which loves to fly over our 6 foot fence to scavenge around our neighbor's yards for tasty treats to eat. It's easy to miss putting her up at night if she's still out gallivanting around town. Which is what must have happened last night when my husband had put up the chickens.

Now, I start screaming and yelling out for the culprit to release her. How it could not be scared, I don't know. There I was, running through the mud in socks, in my pjs and screaming at the top of my lungs. However, this carnivore was not to be cowed. I then saw my white blob of a chicken being pulled over the wall of the horse's shelter. As I approached, I saw the raccoon that had a fierce grip on his meal, my pet. I was within touching distance, however, the raccoon was not going to back down easily. It looked smaller than my chicken. I started banging on this wall and the fence screaming. Finally, the raccoon took off I assume to find an easier drive-thru meal. I tried to pick up my chicken but could not reach over the fence. She, however, high tailed it through my yard. I finally caught up with her. She crouched down, as chickens seem to do when they are resigned to their fate. I picked her up and examined her all over. She only had a small wound on her back and about 40% less feathers than before. It seemed she would be okay. I put her securely up with her sisters and retreated to my bedroom to try to sleep. With one ear alert for more intruder alarms I didn't get as much sleep as I would have liked. In the morning, I went to let the chickens out, skeptical in how she would be doing. Upon opening the door, she bolted out with her sisters for the days activities. Within about 10 minutes, she'd flown over our fence to continue pecking and hunting for food in more interesting surroundings, oblivious to potential dangers.

This is one of the reasons I love my chickens. They seem to totally live in the moment, a lesson I would be smart to learn. They don't brood over past problems or worry about upcoming ones. They just take each day as it arrives. Something to think about.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hey, Is That a Sprout?

We love sprouts. They are super nutritious, nutrient packed powerhouses. We eat them on salads, raw, stir fried and in breads. They are versatile and super easy to grow. All you have to do is provide optimal conditions and let the seeds do what they are designed to do. You can go super high tech or as low tech as sprouting out of a glass jar, which is what we often do.

First buy seeds. Please, buy organic seeds. You will be eating this seed and you want it to be organic. Most health food stores will carry seed and sprouters. One of our favorite online places to order seed is from Sprout People, they carry a large assortment of seeds and seed mixes.

Next, get a place to sprout your seeds. You can take a glass jar and cover it with a couple of layers of cheesecloth and secure it with a rubber band. Or you can buy a sprouter. There are a wide variety of sprouters but basically they are just some kind of container that has small drainage holes. We've tried an assortment of sprouters and they basically work about equally well. We've not tried the hemp bags for sprouting but they look interesting.

We soak our seeds overnight. I'm not sure this is necessary but it seems to work well for us. The next morning we drain the seeds well. Rinse. Drain. We repeat this as we remember, at least a couple of times a day. In the summer, you will probably want to do it an additional time or two during the day. It is important that you don't let your seeds dry out. It is also important that you don't let your seeds sit in water or they will mold and shouldn't be eaten. Seeds should get good air circulation but remain in a place where they are not directly in sunlight, we have ours on our kitchen counter. Once they have shed their hulls, or about the fourth day it is time to uncover the sprouts and let them get some sunlight, so they can produce chlorophyl. This will give them their nice green color and the nutrients that go along with it.

It depends on the type of seed, how long it takes it to sprout. The small seeds, such as alfalfa, broccoli and micro green seeds will be ready to eat in about 5 days. Bean seeds are most often eaten just a few days after they are started. The general rule is about the time the root is the length of the seed. Often for beans this is in 2-4 days. Grain sprouts are super easy, they only take about 24 hours, then they are wonderful cooked in your favorite bread or used as a breakfast cereal.

Sprouts should be eaten within a couple of days of being ready. Put in the refridgerator to keep them fresh longer.

Some seeds should not be sprouted and eaten because they contain a toxin and some sprouts need to be cooked before consunption. But as long as you get your seeds from a health food store or a reputable online seed store you should be okay. They will most likely come with instructions about the best sprouting method for those seeds and how long until they are ready to eat.

Some of our favorite seeds to sprout are alfalfa, broccoli, radish, mung bean and some of the absolutely wonderful mixes that the sprout people have put together.

Give sprouting seeds a try, it's easy, delicious and nutritious.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

In Search of Others

One of the goals of my quest is to try to create and foster community with others. I believe we each harbor a desire to connect with others, to feel heard and to feel important. Community, it seems, is a misunderstood subject in our society. We give the illusion of being connected constantly. Cell phones, facebooks, internet, reality tv shows; images and sounds from others bombard us constantly. Yet, there is no real interaction there. Families spend dinner time watching t.v. together, and that's the lucky ones who eat together at all. We won't get off our cell phones long enough to make eye contact when paying for gas. We believe twittering is the same as communicating. And through all of this I believe, we feel very alone.

So, one of my goals is to try to have real interactions with real people. Even though, sometimes, this is hard. It feels risky to smile at a stranger and say "hi" and it feels awkward to go to a meeting with people whom I've never met before and share myself. A few weeks ago, I joined Meetup. It's this online service that lets anyone form a group and it helps you organize that group with announcements and such. After joining the meetup, you pick out things you are interested in and it tells you if there are groups in your area that fit your interests. This week, I went to a women's study group. Meetup makes this part easy for anyone interested, they give you email reminders and suggest groups that might interest you. Then you get to do the brave part. You get to go to the group and meet other cool people who share your interests.

About a month ago, I received an email that let me know what book the group was reading for this month's women's studies meeting. It was called The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater, edited by Samantha Schoech and Lisa Taggart. I really enjoyed this book. It's a collection of essays written by women sharing their personal experiences about being a woman. There were several times during this book that I laughed out loud - in public. The humor, though, was just a vehicle to deliver very powerful and insightful messages about challenges growing up female. Everything from breast shape and bikini waxes to aging and body shape were fair game for this powerful group of women writer's. As Sunday approached, I couldn't wait to get together and discuss these issues with other women. And I was not disappointed. Although our group was fairly small, 9 in all, our demographics was diverse along with our opinions. A lively dialogue ensued and I had an excellent time. I've all ready requested the book for next months meetup and I've signed up to attend the next vegetarian/vegan meetup. Meeting new people and great food - count me in.

I'd love to hear from others about how they are trying to connect with other people and form community. Join me - literally if you can, figuratively if you will and find ways to foster community in your neighborhoods.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Slouching Towards Sustainability

I think it is imperative that we think seriously about what it will take for us, as a planet, to become sustainable. Most importantly, I think it is absolutely necessary for those of us in the United States to think about our impact on the rest of the people of this earth and the planet herself. There is no way we can continue as we are, it is irresponsible, selfish and impossible for us to sustain. The earth is a finite planet. There is no amount of technology that will make the lifestyles we have now sustainable. We are robbing from the future, and we are closing our eyes to that reality.

I think that a large part of the population of our country has an itchy feeling in the back of their head that says to them, things are not right. I also think a large part of the population believes there is nothing they can really do about it. So, they bury their heads in the sand and pretend it's not happening. Some of us buy organic, bring recycled bags to the store and buy "green." However, we can not buy ourselves sustainability. There are no amount of "green" products that can make our current consumption patterns okay.

It is going to take an extreme shift of priorities to reverse the current trend. There are those that say we were only sustainable at the hunter gatherer stage and that is our future. I am, however, not so bleak about our prospects. I do think it will take a major paradigm shift. We will have to become responsible for our impact. It will not happen overnight and it will take the participation of everyone. We can no longer condone overconsumption. Those in their giant SUV's should be looked down on, not admired. Taking the bus or walking should be emulated, not scoffed at. Trying to grow your own food should be a responsibility, not a hobby. Going out to eat should mean taking a dish over to potluck at a friend's house. Recycling should be almost obsolete because we are not buying gross amounts of items with tons of packaging. Instead we will be buying locally from craftspeople we know. We will be learning how to fix things instead of disposing of them.

The future does not have to be full of deprivation. It should be full of things that really matter. Good, fresh food grown from gardens. Face to face interactions with friends. A pride that comes from creating something good instead of buying things for our closets. These are the things we should aspire to. Not a vacation house in the south, three cars and a house full of stuff we don't even know how to use.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Time for Some Art Artist Trading Card Style - ATC

So far I've been focused on things to help make us more sustainable. What good is being sustainable if there isn't some artistic expression involved. One of the ways I like to express myself is with art and one of my favorite ways right now is by making Artist Trading Cards (ATC). ATCs are a great way to make little art. Sometimes, the thought of having to fill up a whole canvas is too much and you don't even know where to start. Measuring only 2 1/2" x 3 1/2, ATCs are the perfect size canvas.

If you are not familiar with ATCs, they started in the mid-90's in Europe and have been catching on like wildfire ever since. There are only two official rules to ATCs. The first is their size. They must be 2 1/2" x 3 1/2", the size of other standard trading cards, like baseball. The second rule is they are for trading only, not for sale. With the popularity of ATCs there has become quite a market for buying these little gems, they then go under the acronym ACEO (Art Cards, Editions and Originals).

With only two rules to stick to, you are only limited by your imagination. I have received cards that have been handdrawn, collaged, stamped, made out of polymer clay and fabric. I even have one with little computer pieces on it. Last year for Valentine's Day, my daughter and I made cards out of chocolate to trade. We even mailed one to England for a trade.

That brings up the best part of making ATCs, the trading. Many cities have live trades. These are a lot of fun. You get to meet the artist and trade with them in person. This is a great way to meet other people who share the same interest in art as you. It is also a great way to learn how to use different techniques with your cards. It can be a little challenging to find local trades. Check with your local arts and crafts store, not the big box ones like Hobby Lobby and JoAnn's, but the fun little locally run one. Ours has a live trade once a month. Once you have become totally addicted to Artist Trading Cards, you may set up one locally yourself, if there isn't one all ready available. Your local library is a great place to do this. You can also check on Meetup. Many cities have started either mixed media groups or atc trading groups and their may be one near you.

Another great way to trade is online. This is the way I trade most often. I have received cards from all over the world from some incredibly talented artists. One website that is easy to navigate is ATCsForAll. This website allows anyone interested over the age of 18 to join. Everyone I've met there is incredible nice and helpful. There are several ways to trade, you can either set up trades with people individually or you can join swaps. A swap is hosted by someone usually in some kind of theme, such as cats or collage. Then everyone sends the host their preagreed upon amount of cards. The host will sort the cards and in a few days you will receive a package back with the same amount of cards from different artists in the swap. Nothing is more exciting than going to the mailbox and on top of all the bills is a fat envelope filled with new atcs. Most of the time I can't even beat my daughter to the mail, we're both so excited to get these packages.

If you are a more advanced artist and are up to a challange. You can check out the site IllustratedATCs. There are some incredible artists there. They are a juried site, which means that you have to be accepted by their panel to join the trades. But it is a great place for anyone to go and look around for some inspiration.

If you enjoy making art, or think you might love making art. Artist Trading Cards are a great way to find out. If this sounds like something you'd like to try, I highly recommend checking out the ArtTrader Magazine for tutorials, interviews with artists and some incredible artwork.

So, grab your favorite media, whatever that is and grab some paper and give it a go. Stick around, in upcoming posts I'll have some tutorials and talk about some supplies that will be helpful to get started.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Deciphering Your Seed Catalog

Ok, you've gotten your seed catalogs. You're excited by all those gorgeous pictures but then you get down to the descriptions and you're not sure it's in your native language. Don't put the catalog down in frustration, just read the following definitions to those foreign words. You will be an expert before you know it.

Heirloom - means the plant is open-pollinated (non-hybrid) and the seed source goes back at least 50 years. These plants are very popular right now, and rightly so. Generally speaking, they are tastier, fun to collect and you can save their seed. So many of the hybrid varieties have been bred for a specific purpose, often smaller plants, durability when shipping, almost anything but flavor. The old heirloom varieties have been passed down from generation to generation because they performed well in gardens and because they had great flavor.

Open-pollinated - are varieties that grow true from seed. This means they are capable of producing seeds from this years plants, which will produce seedlings that are just like their parent plants. Hybrids are a cross between two varieties, which means if you were to save their seeds you could not be certain how those seeds would grow.

Determinate - this is a designation most often used when talking about tomato plants. It means their size is determined. They will only grow to a certain height and then they will stop growing. This is an advantage to some gardeners, especially those growing in small spaces or who container garden. They will also set most of their fruit at the same time, which will give you a large harvest all at once.

Indeterminate - these tomato plants will grow indefinitely, limited by the weather in your area. They can become very tall, although you can control this by pinching off the growing tip of your plant once it reaches the size you desire. The plant will then invest the rest of its energy bushing out and setting fruit. One of the advantages of indeterminate plants is they will continually produce blossoms, thus you can have fruit over a longer period. In general, indeterminate plants will start producing a little later than determinate plants but you will get tomatoes over more of the season.

organic - in the gardening world, organic means that no artificial chemicals have been used to produce the plant that gave the seed and that no chemicals have been used on the seed. This has become a contentious word for some. Since growing in popularity, the term has almost been co opted by the corporate world. There are many great farmers out there that grow in an organic manner and don't use chemicals but are not able to get their farm certified due to the extreme cost and red tape it takes to now a days be certified. Buy or trade seed from a source you trust. Thereby guaranteeing a seed that will germinate well and be free from pesticides and herbicides.

perennial - are plants that grow for 3 or more seasons. This will depend on your growing zone. If your winters are too cold, this plant could die over the winter and not return the next year. There are a lot more plants that are perennial in Florida than in South Dakota. I live in Kansas City, Missouri and often will find plants that are labeled perennials at my local nursery. When I look closer I realize they are only perennials up to zone 7. Since I'm a zone 5, they will not survive the winter where I live. Be careful of this term because it could be used misleadingly. There are only a few true perennials in the vegetable world, asparagus, artichoke, walking onions, and horseradish are a few. There are quite a few perennial fruits and herbs. Which brings up another thing to think about, some perennials will produce and live longer than others. Often you will hear the term short lived perennial, strawberries would qualify as a short lived perennial.

annuals- these are plants that grow from seed, set seed, spread their seed and die in the same season. Most of your vegetables fall under this category.

biennials - these are vegetables that will grow for two seasons before dying. They will produce and distribute their seeds in the second season. There a quite a few vegetables that are true biennials, although we treat them as annuals in our garden. They produce whatever it is we like to eat the first year. If you were to want to collect their seeds you would have to wait until the end of the next growing season to be able to do so. Onions, carrots, turnips and beets are biennials.

One word of caution, it is not really a definition, however, it is something to watch out for when buying seeds. If you want to get flower seeds and in the definition it says something like naturalizes easily, vigorous grower or self sows readily. Be prepared for a plant that will quickly take over your garden. This is the catalogs politically correct way of saying the plant can become weedlike. This could be a desirable trait in the right condition but it is definitely something you should be aware of.

Armed with this new knowledge, grab a highlighter and your catalog and pick some great varieties that are sure to be your new favorites.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vermiculture - Yes, Playing in Worm Poo

You eat right? Which means you make food waste, leftovers never to be eaten and peels and such. A recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills; by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted. While that food is rotting in the landfill, it is producing methane gas, a leading contributor to global warming. "But," you say,"you can't expect me to eat my potato peels." What can I as a conscientious eater do?

Well, one of the most obvious answers is for us to buy more locally and in smaller quantities but that blog post is for another day. Another answer is to get some chickens, a great way to turn your food scraps into eggs. could get some worms. That's right worms. These little buggers chow down on kitchen scraps. One pound of worms will eat up to 4 lbs of food a week. They are easy to take care of and produce gold for you with a little amount of care.

"Gold!" you question me. "I don't believe you." Well, in my opinion they produce a resource more valuable than gold. You can use worm castings (a pc way of saying worm poo) as a super booster for your garden. It's wonderful to apply as a fertilizing mulch around the base of your plants. It is especially good for those nutrient hungry ones, such as tomatoes. Just make sure you don't put it right up against the plant stem. It can also be used to amend your garden soil and as a fertilizer in potting mix or to fertilize your household plants. One of my favorite ways to use worm castings is as a compost tea. Compost tea is easy to make and use. Simply add 1-2" of compost to your water can or rain barrel. Allow compost and water to "steep" for a day, mixing occasionally. Then water plants as you normally would. The resulting "tea" helps make nutrients already in the soil available to plants. And is great as a quick pick-me-up for your plants. A word of warning though, don't use this "tea" on really hot days, it could burn plants if it gets directly on their leaves. Use it early in the morning or on overcast days.

Now that I've convinced you, let's get started. First you need to acquire some worms. The absolute best worms for vermiculture is Red Wigglers (Eisema foetida). They are perfect for our worm composters for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are incredible composters. As mentioned before, they are the workhorses of the composting world, eating up to half their body weight a day. They also are surface feeders, getting their daily meals from the surface of your bin. They reproduce at a rate that would shame rabbits. Additionally, warm and cold don't bother them as much as many other kinds of worms. That being said, do not leave your compost bin in the direct heat of summer, the worms will cook. Not good. Also, don't leave you compost bin out in the freezing weather of winter, they will also freeze. Your kitchen is a great place to keep the bin (if noone minds), it makes it a convenient place to have it to add scraps to. The basement or garage are also excellent places to keep your composter.

It's easy to take care of your worms. Just make sure you provide a temperate place for them to live, change their bedding and feed them appropriate food and you should not have any problems with your worms. Worms can be fed a wide variety of things, vegetable peels, most kitchen scraps, fruit, breads and grains, tea bags, coffee grounds and filter, egg shells and even newspaper. There are some foods you should avoid, however. Never feed your worms any meat product, anything oily or greasy, anything dairy and avoid putting slick colored newspaper in with them. Crushed eggshells are a great addition to your bin periodically. It provides grit for the worms and helps them digest their food.

You need a bin for your worms to live in. It can be as elaborate or simple as you want. I'm going to give you plans to build a bin like have. I've been using this bin for over 5 years and it is as simple as it gets. First you need a plastic container, a lidded tub will work great. You don't want it to be too deep, remember they're surface feeders, and you don't want it to be clear, worms don't enjoy the light. You want a few very small holes in the bottom of your container for drainage, worms can become waterlogged. If you desire, you can put a piece of screening at the bottom to make sure the worms don't get out but I have never had a problem with this. Also, make sure that you have something underneath to catch this drainage. It makes great fertilizer. Now, shred up some paper - remember, nonglossy is best. You can also use cardboard, leaves, straw, dried grass or peat moss. Whatever you have on hand. Fill your container 2/3 the way up with the bedding. Every week or so, you will want to add more bedding. Your worms will actually eat it and turn it into compost also. Now, add your worms. You will also want to add a small amount of dirt and sand if you have it to get them started. Cover it with a lid, those little guys will try to escape if they are not getting enough food. All you have to do now is a little weekly maintenance and harvest your castings when you need it and you'll be a successful worm farmer.

Harvesting your castings can happen in a couple of ways. If you are opposed to digging around in the poo and are the patient type. You can use one of two ways. The first way is to only add food to one side of the bin, in about a week most all the worms will be on that side of the bin and you can just take out the compost from the other side and add some more bedding and be done with it. Or if you are not quite that patient, you can dump your bin out on a trashbag, spread it out a little and leave a light on. In about 24 hours, most all the worms will have migrated to the bottom of the pile. Take off the top of the pile to use as compost, put the rest that has the worms in it back in the bin, add more bedding and your done. Or for the hands on type, and my favorite way, is to just dump your bin out, grab a handful of castings and look for worms. A little secret, if there is still food in there you will find huge amounts of worms around and in this food. I would often pick up an apple core and there would be a hundred worms half buried in it. There will be no way for you to get all the worms completely out no matter which way you chose. If you are adding the compost into the garden all the better, they will work hard for you there also.

A couple of things to watch out for. If your worms start to die, make sure you've been feeding them enough, make sure your bedding isn't too dry or too soggy, make sure they aren't freezing or baking or that they don't need new bedding. If your bin starts to smell, this isn't normal. Make sure you aren't giving your worms too much food, that you aren't adding meat or dairy products, and that they have enough bedding. It is normal for small nematodes to grow in your bin. They are just helping your worms compost the food scraps. Flies or fruit flies are not normal. Make sure you are putting your food under a little bedding, that the lid stays on and that you are not over feeding your worms.

If you want more information Mary Applehof's book, Worms Ate My Garbage, is very useful. You can also google vermiculture or worm bins and pull up tons of information on the web.

Once you've become a successful worm farmer, share some of your worms with friends. Fill them in on the wonder of worm poo and why your garden looks so great.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cast Iron Cookware, Still Great After All These Years

Hi folks, since we found some absolutely fabulous cast iron cookware that someone gave away, (someone had actually thrown them away just because they had a little rust on them), we thought we might talk about why we like cast iron so much and how to take care of it. The pieces we found were a dutch oven with a lid that also works as a round skillet, and a deep square skillet. They were in great shape, just a little rusty. So, these pieces just need a little attention, and then they're as good as new.

Cast iron is great to cook with, it's durable and heats evenly, which means a more even cooking surface. This means whatever you're cooking with it will cook more evenly, great for stir frying, frying or sauteing. It can also be put in the oven, perfect for corn bread. They are heavy and difficult to destroy. However, don't use metal utensils in your cast iron ware, wood is our preference.

So, now you've gotten your cast iron skillet or dutch oven and you are ready to use it. If you bought it new, you will have to clean it before using. With a new piece of cast iron cookware, this is the ONE AND ONLY TIME you use soapy water to clean the machine oil off, the manufacturer puts it on for shipping and storage. After the first cleaning with warm soapy water, you never use soap again on your cast iron ware. Rinse and dry the piece. It must then be "seasoned" before you cook with it. "Seasoning" just means coating it lightly with vegetable oil and heating it empty, in the oven. For pieces with rust, merely scrub off the rust with a non-scratch pad or brush, rinse and dry, and lightly coat it with vegetable oil with your fingers (my favorite method), or you can use a cooking oil spray. Any high temperature oil will do, like canola, safflower, peanut, etc. After coating the pieces, just put them in the oven, turn the oven on to preheat to 350 degrees F. By the time the oven is done preheating and reaches 350, you can just turn the oven back off and let the pieces cool in the oven. It does make the house smell a bit like frying oil.

When the pieces come out of the oven, they will have sort of a bronze color to them. The oil coating will be slightly sticky and any runny excess oil can just be wiped out with a rag. They are now ready to use. Anytime you cook with cast iron you should use a bit of oil or a cooking spray first. Over time with repeated uses, they will take on the flat black color most often associated with cast iron ware. That black coating is mostly carbon, which is sort of a natural non-stick surface. When you clean the pieces after use, just use hot water and a non-scratch pad or brush. (NO SOAP) Dry it well and give it a light oil and it's ready to go for next time. As long as you don't thermal shock cast iron (e.g. hot pan in cold water) it will last a lifetime. It's a healthy cooking surface that heats very evenly. So when you find a couple of pieces that someone threw away because they thought they were ruined, it's really treasure that you found.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Urban Chickens

A couple of years ago we decided that we'd practice having chickens to get ready for the "big move" to self sustainability. And with very little exceptions I've never regretted it. I love having chickens. They're interesting to watch, they turn my food scraps into eggs, they are not hard to take care of and did I mention they are a riot to watch and interact with. Most local cities will allow you to have chickens within city limits. Check with city code to see if they're allowed. This webpage may help you see if you can in your city. We didn't know much about raising chickens or choosing chickens when we got started. Luckily for us they are a very forgiving animal. We bought our first chickens from the local farm store. I'd been going in there for years and every spring they'd have chickens. Every year, I'd say "next year I'm getting chickens." Boy, I had no idea what i was starting. I brought home those ten chickens the first year and I was hooked. I have long since given up buying chickens at the local feed store, for several reasons. One of which is the chickens come as a straight run. This means there are as many roosters in the mix as hens. And in case you've forgotten, roosters do not lay eggs and in a lot of cases are not allowed within city limits. We ended up with over half our chickens being roosters that first year. This does not make for a happy yard. Now we get our chickens from a couple of different hatcheries. We are lucky to have one down by our property in rural Missouri, so we've bought chickens from them a couple of times. They are called Cackle Hatchery and also sell online. They have a wide assortment and you can order a lot of their chickens sexed. We've had good luck with their sexing. We've also bought from McMurray Hatchery and Ideal. All of these hatcheries, we've had good luck with. There are so many great choices in picking out chickens, you just have to decide what is important to you. Or you can be like us and choose lots of different kinds. We've loved all the different kinds of chickens we've gotten. Some we've gotten because they were good layers, some because they looked cool, and some because they were supposed to be hardy in our wintery climate. A couple of our favorite varieties have been the araucanas, they lay colored eggs - green and blue. They are also very friendly birds. We've also loved our silver wyandotte, we've had her for years. Another favorite of ours is our silky, she is our smallest chicken but is the mother hen of them all. Most of our chickens will lay their eggs and run back out of their coop, with no interest in the egg. The silky is the opposite, she is an extreme brooder. She will gather all the chickens eggs together and sit on them. Once, we let her do this for a couple of days and that little chicken was sitting on a huge pile of over 2 dozen eggs. It was quite a sight. The basic needs a chicken have are clean water, clean place with a roost to sleep, some dirt to take "baths" in, and fresh greens. Chickens will eat a yard clean, I can't get any grass to grow back where they are, so we supplement their scratch grains with kitchen scraps and greens from out of the garden in season. This is important to the flavor of their eggs and their health. We can tell the difference in the colors of the yolk and how their eggs taste when they are not getting enough greens. Chickens are scavengers and will eat most anything. We are vegetarians, so, we don't have meat to feed them, i think some people do though. It is also very important to make sure they always have access to clean water, especially in the summer. They can dehydrate very quickly. As far as living arrangements, we bought a cheap shed from the hardware store and added some roosts in it, so they can sleep off of the ground. Where I live it is important to have a secure place to put the chickens up at night. We have lost more than our share of chickens to fox, dogs and raccoons. Chickens are very smart animals, if you get them used to going in a coop at night it is very easy to make it a habit for them. We had one summer, where they weren't going up and we were having a hard time getting out to them before dark. By the time we would get out there they would be all ready roosting in the trees. Sometimes, very high up, 25 or 30 feet. We'd spend the next hour digging them out of the trees (not the ones 30 feet up). This was not a fun chore for us or the chickens. We started making sure we got out there earlier and had them in the coop before dark and now they just automatically go up once it gets dark. You can expect to get about 2 eggs from a chicken every three days, in season. In the winter, they do not lay near as many eggs. They are conserving their energy to survive the winter. There are ways to coax more eggs out of them in the winter, such as having a light on in their coop, but we figure it is a natural cycle for them and just try to save enough eggs to make it through the winter when they are not laying. We currently have a 11 chickens so we were getting over a dozen eggs every other day. I hope this was helpful information if you are interested in having urban chickens. I would love to hear your urban chicken adventures. Stay tuned, later in the week we'll have a guest appearance.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Using Your Public Library

Using Your Public Library

Okay, you have 1000 interests. You want to be as self sufficient as possible. You have a limited budget. Sound familiar? It does to me. That is why I'm about to give you the most sage advice that I ever will on this blog. Use your local public library. Be very nice to your friendly librarians and find out all the incredible resources that library has to offer. You may be very surprised to find out what you can find out there. It is probably the most effective budgeting device known to us Americans.

First, find your local library. In case you are a little rusty about who is near you, this link will help you out. Now you know what library to go to, let's talk about some things you can find there.

Libraries are working very hard to be relevant in this digital and some say post-written culture. So, you will find most libraries will have internet based computers for you to use. If you are on a tight budget this means you could read this blog from your local library, without needing that computer at home. On this computer, they will also have access to a wealth of information via databases. My local library has a couple hundred databases that it pays for and I get to have access to them all for free (well, let's just say i've prepaid.) On these databases, you can learn foreign languages, search encyclopedias, hunt for articles in all the large newspapers, search genealogy data, get homework help and I could go on and on. If your library is like mine, you can access most all of these databases in your pjs with a hot chocolate in front of you from home. Take a few minutes and find out what databases your library has access to and use this to add to your own knowledge database.

Your library will also have music cds, dvds (often for free or a very low price), audio books, magazine subscriptions and BOOKS. Please, don't forget the books. This is where you will find a lot of information about becoming self sufficient. Check these books out, peruse them. If you fall in love with them and just need to keep checking them out - then buy them. Have your local library staff show you how to search for books. Most libraries are pooling resources and often have reciprical lending agreements with other libraries. What this means for you is that almost any book you want your library can get for you, even if it is not on their shelves. At my library, they do this through WorldCat. There is a worldcat search feature on their homepage. I look for the book I want and request it through an interlibrary loan. This book may come all the way across the country and be waiting for me - little ole' me at my library's front desk. Then I check it out and bring it home. This is a super cool feature of lots of libraries that you should not underestimate. Your local library may not have the new cutting edge books on permaculture, vegan cooking, hydroponic gardening or running your car on veggie oil, but other libraries do. And you can still have access to them.

It is so important that we learn to share resources, information and tools. Libraries are a terrific way to do that. Check your local library out and with a little sweet talking with those that work there, you'll be using that library like the well-oiled machine that it is.

Stay tuned, as this blog progresses I'll be sharing with you some of my favorite books. Be sure to leave comments that tell me your favorite ways to use your local library and what your favorite books are.