Friday, June 29, 2012

Solar cooker building

My solar cooker was easy enough to build, that is, if I did it right.  All there is to my new cooker is two cardboard boxes plus scrap cardboard, tin foil, duct tape, glass or plastic, and newspaper.
You take the first (smaller) box and cover it inside and out with aluminum foil.  Do this first because you have to wait for the glue to dry.
Cooking chamber with tin foil
This smaller box is going to be your cooking chamber, so be sure that your pot or pan will fit in nicely.  There should not be too much space between the top of the box and the top of the pan as this will waste heat.  The pan should be black to help absorb sunlight.  A short fat pan is better than a tall skinny pan, greater surface area directed at the sun helps absorb more sunlight also.
Cardboard stacks and some newspaper
While you are waiting for the glue to dry, make some small stacks of cardboard about 3"x3"x2" to put between the two boxes so you can fill the space with crumpled newspaper for insulation. The first box now goes inside the larger box, sitting on the cardboard stacks, with the crumpled newspaper filling in all the gaps between the two.  This insulation should be closed in by more cardboard.  I duct taped it all around to get a pretty good seal.
The first side taped and the newspaper all around
The glass or plastic is going to be the lid to your cooker. It sits on top of the whole box you just finished and it covers the pan and cooking area.   It has to be cleat to keep the heat in while letting the sun shine through.  I used an old storm window I found.  The last step is to cover one more piece of cardboard with aluminum foil to function as a reflective backboard.  It gets propped up at an angle to reflect the sun into your cooking area.  Done!
Finished product minus the glass
Pretty ugly, isn't it?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hugelkultur mounds

The perfect way to fertilize a tree or bush is a hugelkultur mound.  This will provide food for years with only a little effort  in the beginning.  It retains water so you don't need to provide supplemental, just rain water should do.  It gets nice and warm so that if you are planting trees or bushes that should be in a warmer climate, they have a much better chance of surviving.
 So what is a hugelkultur mound, now that I know I want one?  Basically it is a pile of rooting wood around your tree or bush that is covered with dirt.  It rots and breaks down just like a compost pile which provides nutrients, the spongy water retaining texture and the heating up.
It is very easy to set one up.  When I planted the bush here in the picture, I just set it up around the planting.   I started out by digging an extra wide hole with the deep spot in the deep spot in the middle for the bush to
go.  I put a handful of leaves into the hole and put the bush on top of that.  Then I placed four large logs each on one side of the bush in the hole.  Then I filled in the spaces with large and then small sticks trying to fill in most of the gaps.  Over the top of that, I put a couple handfuls of leaves over all the wood around the base of the plant.  Cover the leaves with the dirt you dug out of the hole.  I did a lot of stomping on the dirt all around the plant because I'm sure that it is going to pack down at some
point.  I did water it some, but it is supposed to rain tomorrow, so I didn't go too crazy.  I assume that when it rains, it will all fall in and I will have to top it off.  Either way, this bush should do fantastic as soon as it settles in. The logs I used were already started rotting, so I don't think it will be long before that bush can begin to benefit from it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cooking in Season: Spring "Garbage" Pizza and Pizza Dough

Garbage pizza is one of my favorite meals to make.  The way we make pizza at my house is with a cast iron pizza pan.  You heat the oven to 350 degrees with the pan in the oven so that it heats up.  When it is good and hot, take it out of the oven and spread the dough onto the pan.  The easiest way to do that is to have had the dough sitting out warming up for a few hours.  I put it on a plate with some olive oil and spread it out a little. Then I toss it around a little like you would see on TV.  Then, once it is all spread out, put it on the hot pan.  There is not much room for play, so you will mess it up once or twice before you get the hang of it.  Bake it about ten minutes, take it out of the oven, flip it over and then add the toppings.  Flipping it is also a skill that takes a couple tries to master.  DO NOT BURN YOURSELF!  It's ok if it's not perfectly beautiful your first try.  It will still be yummy!  Once you add the toppings, bake it another ten maybe 15 minutes depending on how crispy you like your pizza to be.

Garbage pizza means whatever you have left over goes on your pizza
The pizza shown has pesto, mozzarella, broccoli, and zucchini

Dough Ingredients:
3/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon yeast
2 cups bread flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
3 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup water
3 tablespoons olive oil
Combine first three ingredients, whisk and set aside.  Mix flour, salt, and sugar.  Add water and olive oil.  Add yeast mixture.  Mix and then knead for about ten minutes.  Place in oiled bowl and cover to rise in warm place.  Once the dough has doubled, about an hour, punch down and knead for 5 minutes.  Split into two dough balls.  Will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, also good to freeze.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What is happening in a compost pile?

Now that you know that you want to have a compost pile, what is going on in that pile that leaves you with such great plant food?  When you set up a compost pile in your yard what you are really doing is building a giant buffet for bacteria, microbes, fungus, mold, worms, and other tiny creatures. These creatures are naturally present everywhere, but when given the proper conditions, like in a compost pile, they run wild. They each have their own favorite meals, and so everything gets eaten.
Bacteria are the main workhorses int he compost pile.  They take in oxygen and use it to breakdown the organic materials in the pile.  As a byproduct, they create carbon dioxide and heat.  The heat created can get to be up to 140 degrees.  This will attract heat loving microbes to do their part of the decomposing process.  Once the microbes are done, the  worms come through and eat whats left of the organic matter leaving you with nutrient rich worm poop.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cooking with sunshine

Have you ever wanted to bake when it was 100 degrees outside?  Maybe you needed a cake for a summer birthday or some other crazy reason.  Either way it is way too hot to be baking, unless you have central air.  I don't.  I am also always looking for ways to save money on electricity or just some strange new project to try.  So I bought this book.   This book teaches you how to build some simple solar cookers and how to use them.  It is full of recipes at varying levels of difficulty.  The recipes all seem fairly easy, I guess that difficulty level means how many hours of good sunlight they need to work well.  Either way, this is going to be my project for the next few days.  We'll see how it goes.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Raw wool

At some point, when I have my own land with enough space, I want to be able to raise sheep or alpacas for wool.  Before taking on any project, especially something like animals, you should do your best to know what you are getting yourself into before you do it.  I figure that the way to learn about wool would be to go and get some raw wool and learn how to card, spin, and felt by hand to see if those are things that I am really going to want to do.  So I went to a local farm and bought the wool from two sheep (Shetland Sheep if you like this wool).
The first step to take with this wool is to wash it.  Fresh wool is full of lanolin which makes the wool greasy and hard to work with.  It is also what you are probably smelling.  I found many ways to wash wool, but the one that seemed the most practical to me was to put it in the washing machine.  However, you can't just throw it in and turn on the machine.  You put the wool in the washer and set it to soak cycle on hot.  You can buy special wool wash, but I used my own homemade laundry detergent.  Once it fills make sure it DOES NOT AGITATE.  This causes felting.  I turned my machine on the soak cycle thinking that it would not agitate and it did.  I'm not sure to what extent the wool may have started felting, but hopefully not too much.  Let it soak for about 2 hours then drain.  Spinning is ok.  Repeat this cycle without the detergent until the wool is clean.  I did one wash with soap and 2 to rinse.  The wool is not super clean, but the water was no where near as black as it was to start with.  Then I laid it out on a tarp in the sun to dry.  Once it was really dry, I stored it in a large paper bag, not in a moist area.  I probably won't get to the next step for a while, but I had to get the wool in spring when it was available.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cooking in Season: Kohlrabi "pizzas" and Spring Stir Fry

Kohlrabi "pizzas"
1 Kohlrabi
What ever toppings you like
I used garlic, olive oil, basil, spinach, and parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350.  Slice the kohlrabi into about 1/4 in slices.  Put some olive oil on a baking sheet and then add the kohlrabi slices.  Bake about 15 minutes depending on how soft you want the slices, then flip and cook another 15 minutes.  Throw the toppings on the cooked slices and bake about 10 minutes or until the cheese is good and melty.

Spring Stir Fry
Olive oil
Teriyaki or any other kind of stir fry sauce
Any vegetables you have laying around
I used chinese cabbage, turnip, golden beets and mushrooms
Directions: Put the olive oil in a sautee pan on medium heat.  First add whichever vegetables will take the longest to cook and the sauce and then work your way to the shortest cooking times.  I started with beets and turnips, then added the white parts of the cabbage and the mushrooms, and finally the green part of the cabbage.  Stir continuously until the vegetables are at the desired texture.  I like crunchy vegetables, so I didn't cook them for very long.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why compost for my garden?

If you were to walk out into the woods, brush the leaves away from the ground and take a good look at the soil, what would you see? You would see natural, rich, healthy soil that is perfect for growth. The leaves and twigs fall from the trees, lay around for a while on the ground, and eventually breakdown for the new plants to grow in. This is a perfect medium for healthy plants. Compost is the same thing, except we can customize it and speed up the process depending on our soil needs. We rake up our leaves and throw them into a pile along with food scraps and whatever else we may have. We water the pile and mix it up so that it breaks down quicker. We can add things like seaweed, wood ash, oyster shells, or anything else we may need to make the soil we have into the soil we want to have. 
This broken down organic matter does many things for our plants. It provides essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sulfur and micronutrients that plants need to grow. It adds texture to the soil so that there can be adequate air exchange and water retaining and draining abilities. It is much less compact and dense than standard dirt allowing for roots to move around more effectively. The composting process causes the soil to heat up and therefore kill pathogens and some weed seeds. Compost laid out in your garden can also prevent weeds from coming up and prevent erosion similar to how mulch works. Is that enough reason for you yet?
New sprouts in compost

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Oyster shell fertilizer

The shells of oysters and many other sea creatures, like lobsters, have shells made up of calcium carbonate.  Therefore, if you eat a lot of seafood and are throwing out the shells, you are wasting valuable garden fertilizers.  I brought home a bag of oyster shells last night to add to my compost pile.  What I am going to do is to first wash them out so that the local critters don't take an interest.  Then I'll sandwich them between a couple old rags and smash the shells into little bits.  I smash them because a whole shell is a lot to break down in a compost and it would take forever.  Next I can just throw them right into the compost pile.  You can do this with many kinds of sea shells and things like eggs as well.  They will all add calcium carbonate to your soil.  Calcium carbonate is basically what lime is just in case you didn't know that already.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Vegetable and herb shelves

My kitchen is always crowded with fresh vegetables and herbs this time of year.  Many vegetables don't need to be stored in the fridge so they sit on my counters in vases of water.  I have fresh herbs from the garden that need a good place to dry, so they end up randomly spread around the kitchen.  The counter tops quickly get crowded and the herbs can get dumped on the floor and squashed. Let's make shelves!
I rounded up some scrap wood and a broken bamboo shade that had been laying around taking up space.  I was going to build three shelves for the vegetables and two bamboo racks for the herbs but had pieces of wood that were too skinny.  So I made half shelves and finished them
off with half bamboo drying racks instead.  The top shelf is just a bamboo rack for the larger herbs.  Now I have clean counter tops and less scraps laying around the house.  We'll see how these shelves hold up, but them seem like they will do just fine.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

No dig potato progress


 So it looks like quite a few of my potatoes are growing quite well.  There are definitely some that did not sprout and grow at all, but that would have happened no matter how I had planted them.  A few weeks ago I did spread some composted manure around the top of the hay to give some nutrients to my potatoes.  It seems that the ones closest to the manure have grown the best so next time I'll be sure that I spread it more evenly among the potatoes.  
What you would do with potatoes planted normally would be to add more dirt on top as the potato plants grow.  My plants have grown to the point where they are pretty tall, so what I did next was to layer some more hay around the plants just like if you were burying them the traditional way.  So far so good.  Now we just have to wait a few more months to see if the actual potatoes do as well as the plants are doing.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cooking in Season: Stuffed Mushrooms and Garlic Scape Pesto

Stuffed Mushrooms
One batch of pesto, any kind you like
6 portobello mushroom tops
2 cups of rice, cooked
Parmesan cheese, shredded
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Put a small handful of rice in each mushroom top.  Add a scoop of pesto to each mushroom.  
Sprinkle with parmesan.  Bake for about 20 minutes.

garlic scapes
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
5 basil leaves
1/4 cup parmesan
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
juice from half a lemon
3/4 - 1 cup olive oil

Place all ingredients into the food processor and pulse until smooth.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Wood ash fertilizer

After cutting down a few trees the other day, we had a large pile of wood.  So we spent the evening sitting around our fire pit enjoying the days work.  This is what was left of our trees the next day:
Lovely organic fertilizer.  Wood ash is an excellent fertilizer for your garden.  It adds potassium and raises the pH of the soil.  If your pH is low, then you can sprinkle the ash over the soil before you plant for the season. If you do not need to raise the pH, then just add the ash to your compost pile to reap the benefits.  When using ash to fertilize your garden be sure that what you are burning is safe for your plants.  Pressure treated wood is full of chemicals that can kill your plants, and is also unsafe for you to be breathing as it burns.  Black walnut trees are full of juglones which can prevent grow of many plants.  And whatever you do don't burn things like poison ivy.  It could really ruin your day.

click for more information

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Garlic scapes

If you grow hardneck garlic, then I'm sure you already know all about the scapes.  They grow out through the center of the garlic plant and will eventually flower.  The small bulbous part is the part that will become the flower.  If you let the scapes grow and flower, it will hinder the growth of the garlic bulbs because all the energy is being used to produce the flower.  Therefore you should just cut it off.  However, don't throw them away!  They are good for eating in recipes like pesto or sauteed in a stirfry.  I always learned that you can tell the scapes because they form a big curl coming out of the center.  I wouldn't let them get this big.  All the energy used to grow them could be better directed at producing the bulbs that we really grow the garlic for.  I'll post a good recipe soon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Poles vs trellises

Poles and trellises are not the same thing.  Trellises are the mesh or fence type you use for things like peas.  Poles are just posts that you use for beans and things like that.  I know this should seem very obvious to most, but I, for whatever reason, put poles up for my peas rather than trellises.  This is the wrong thing to do and this is what happens when you do it.
The peas did not grow up the poles at all.  They just laid on the ground and didn't grow very well.  They weren't as tall as they should have been and the peas sat on the ground and got pretty gross.  I had to go around and wrap each vine around a pole and twist tie it so that it would stay in place.  They vines don't seem to be growing any bigger, but the new peas are doing well.  They are very tasty.  However, I only got enough for maybe three meals.  Usually the peas go crazy and I have to give a bunch away.  I will at least be able to save seeds from the inedible peas for growing next year.  They will have a trellis for sure and I won't have to worry about them laying around not growing and providing.
A trellis (from
Bean Poles (from 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fresh Foods: Strawberries

This is one of the strawberries, fresh from my garden this morning.  I love this time of year because we always eat strawberries, but right now I can get them fresh.  The store bought berries go bad so fast that we end up throwing half of them away.
That being said, strawberries are very easy to grow and I suggest you all try it.  A couple years ago I bought about 10 strawberry plants and planted them in a sunny spot in my yard.  I mulched all around them and then pretty much ignored them.  We got a decent amount of strawberries the next year.  This year they have gone completely wild.  We have more strawberries than you can imagine.  The June bearing berries we had planted spread like wild and have pretty much left no space between the plants for us to even get to all of the berries.  We are going to have to go through and thin the plants out after they finish fruiting.  Hopefully next year we will have nice, neat rows so we can get to the plants.  The only other thing you might have to do is protect them from the birds.  We mostly just cut off the part that the birds may have nibbled and eat the rest.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why Homestead?

Me and the man spent the whole day outside working in the yard today.  We got a ton accomplished and the yard and garden are looking great.  Afterwards, we sat down to dinner with the family and had grilled sandwiches surrounded by our new backyard.  Once everyone left and the baby had gone to bed we sat around our fire pit and talked about our day.  We both had a sense of accomplishment but not really.  It feels great to make so much progress, but it isn't really ours.  We are still renting a house outside of the city in a small neighborhood.  None of the work we did today will be around in a few years when we leave the place and start over.  But starting over in a place that all ours will mean everything to us.  That "not really" will be erased from our accomplishment and the work we do will be for us to enjoy for years.  Now I understand that this has nothing to do with homesteading, just owning our own home.  The work we will be doing will be different though.  We will be building up a garden and planting an orchard that will feed our family for years to come.  The home we build will keep us warm every single winter.  The treehouse we build will entertain our children  for as long as they still can fit into it.  The barn we build will house the animals that provide us with food and wool.  The chairs we built will sit around a fire pit that is so far away from the city that we will be able to see all the stars in the sky.  And it will all be ours.  :)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Perennial Vegetables

A huge part of permaculture is perennial vegetables.  Wikipedia defines permaculture as: a branch of ecological design and ecological engineering which develops sustainable human settlements and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems. You cannot have a self maintained annual garden.  Annuals take time and care and weeding and watering etc.  You have to plant new ones every year.  I'm not saying that you should give up your favorite tomatoes, but to plant some perennials in addition to your annual garden.  The perennial garden needs very little care.  You plant things once and once they are established they need minimal care.  You don't even have to water them.  The rain water should suffice.  If you put down a good mulch, then you won't have to weed.  These plants can be very different then you are used to but they can be just as delicious.  Asparagus and artichoke are two of the more common perennial vegetables just to give you an idea.  
I am just staring to learn about these vegetables and so I bought this book.  So far, it is full of great information.  I didn't realize that there were so many perennial vegetables to choose from.  I plan on spending my free time this winter learning as much as I can so that I can start a trial perennial garden this spring.  Just think how much work that will save me the following spring... One full bed already planted...     

Friday, June 8, 2012

Cooking in Season: Caribbean Pak Choy and Pesto

Caribbean Pak Choy
2 lbs Pak Choy
2 Tsp oil
1/2 cup diced onions
Minced hot pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste

(mushrooms if you have them laying around)Directions:
Cut off the root at the bottom of each bunch of Pak Choy. Chop up the Pak Choy - white and green parts.  Heat oil in a wok or very large pan until very hot.  Toss in onions, pepper and garlic let cook for 1 - 2 minutes.  Add Pak Choy (and mushrooms) and toss continuously until the green leaves wilt.  Remove from heat immediately, season with salt and serve right away.

Spinach Chive Pesto
2 heaping cups chopped fresh spinach leaves
1/3 cup chopped fresh chives
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup chopped walnuts, lightly toasted
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil, preferably extra-virgin
Directions:Place the spinach, chives, Parmesan, walnuts, salt, pepper, garlic, and lemon juice in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the mixture is coarsely pureed, scraping down the sides occasionally to incorporate all the ingredients.
With the machine running, slowly pour in the olive oil (through the top opening of the processor) and process until smooth. Stop and scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Swiss Chard and Pecan Pesto
1/2 cup olive oil, divided 10 leaves Swiss chard, chopped 4 cloves
garlic, chopped 1 cup basil leaves 1 cup pecans 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 (3 ounce) package grated Parmesan cheese
salt and ground black pepper to taste
Heat 2 teaspoons of the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat; cook
and stir the Swiss chard and garlic in the hot oil until the chard
leaves have wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to
Process the basil, pecans, sea salt, Parmesan cheese, and remaining
olive oil in a food processor until all the ingredients are well
integrated. Add the Swiss chard mixture and the lemon juice to the
food processor; continue chopping until the mixture is pureed. Season
with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Drinking Rainwater

We don't drink water from the tap at my house.  There are chemical additives like chlorine and fluoride in the public drinking water.  That could be a week's worth of posts all alone, but skip that part for now.  We have been drinking bottled water, but have voted that out now too.  I can't imagine that water soaking in plastic can be good for you, not to mention the cost and huge amount of waste in plastic bottles.
So now we are drinking rainwater.  I know that there is plenty of bad stuff in rainwater,  but we got this fancy new filter in the mail yesterday from Berkey.  The filter removes viruses, bacteria, parasites, heavy metals, chlorine, fertilizers, and VOC's.  It cost us less than $300 and the filters are good for around 16 years average for our family use.  When you do need to replace them they are only about $40.  Bottled water was costing us about $1.10 a day x 365 days per year = $400.  Paid for in less than one year.  Not to mention the 365 water jugs kept from the landfill.
I know that we can't collect rain water in the dead of winter.  We could melt snow if we wanted to but that could turn into a huge pain.  So during the winter we will be using tap water.  We bought a couple of fluoride filters ($30) so that we could still have good fluoride free water all winter.
The water is delicious by the way.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Soil Building

The most important part of organic gardening has got to be having good, healthy soil.  If your soil is healthy, then your plants are healthy.  Good soil provides food, protects against disease and maintains good water supply.  You don't need fertilizers, bug poison or tons of water to maintain your garden if you start off by building up your soil to be as healthy as it can be.
I am just beginning to really understand the importance of the soil, so I am a little behind this year.  Ideally the soil would be in great shape before I plant, but I'm working the soil up as I go instead.  My garden is currently clay, which is really no good for a garden.  What I am doing this year to begin to fix this is to add as much organic matter to the soil as possible.  I mentioned mulch and cover crops previously, but I'll explain better now.
At the end of the summer last year, I planted hairy vetch and winter rye.  I think I must have waited too long to plant them because they didn't really do much growing until this spring.  The hope with these crops was that they would grow during the fall and then in spring I could cut them down and use them for organic matter in the garden.  They also prevent erosion during the non-growing season.  With my garden on the side of a hill, I need this help too.  The hairy vetch is also a legume which fixes nitrogen in the soil for the plants to use during the growing season.  Well since my soil is so bad, they only grew in places where the soil was so-so and there a lot of bald spots.  When I went to cut them all down I discovered that hairy vetch has tendrils like a vine and was attached to everything.  I missed a bunch when I was cutting so the vines grabbed on to my pea plants and it was a mess to separate.  I'll likely just do winter rye this year.

Once I cut down all the cover crops, I spread newspaper, leaves, manure and compost throughout the garden beds as mulch.  In the town I live in, our dump composts all the fall leaves and brush and puts them in a big pile for dump pass holders to take for free.  We have used 3 truckloads so far this year.  This may not be the best option because I don't really know everything that is going into the compost.  I don't know what chemical fertilizers or pesticides people have used on their lawn waste before they drop it off at the dump.  I do compost my own yard waste and the waste from my neighbors, but like I said before, I'm a little behind right now so I take what I can get.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Shiitake logs part one

My next project is to try my hand at growing mushrooms.  I'm going with shiitake because they are one of the more healthy and easy to grow varieties.  I ordered shiitake plugs about a week ago from Pinetree Garden Seeds.  The plugs need to rest after shipping so right now they are sitting in the dark cool closet doing just that.  While the plugs are resting, I am getting the oak logs I have ready to be inoculated.  Basically all I did was to drill holes in the logs about the size of the plugs.  The holes are sort of evenly spaced over the logs in a staggered pattern.  Next I put the logs in a large plastic bin filled with water to soak over night.  The brick is to keep them submerged.

If you look at the logs, you can see that a couple of the logs are covered with green stuff.  Anything growing on the logs may prevent the logs from being excellent shiitake logs due to the competition.  I'm only using them because I have a limited supply of free oak logs for this project.