Showing posts with label Homesteading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Homesteading. Show all posts

Jan 22, 2014

Homesteading Skills to Learn Now - BEFORE you head to the farm

Do you dream of living out in the country where you can "properly" homestead? Me, too. But until that time, there's a lot we can do NOW to improve our level of self sufficiency, eat healthier and more sustainably, and gather the skills we'll need once we do have more land. Here are what I consider the most practical skills to learn when you are still living in the suburbs (or maybe even the city).

Photo by L.Kenzel.
* Get chickens. They don't take much room, so anyone in a suburban area should get them. If your city doesn't allow them, appeal to your city.

* Garden. As much as you can. If you can't have a big garden, have a small one. If you can't have a traditional garden bed, think outside the box and plant in containers, or use edible gardening - planting edibles among your pretty ornamental plants. Gardening is a skill that takes years to develop.

* Learn how to start seeds.

* Plant bushes and trees that provide food. If you think you'll be moving in a few years, plant bushes and patio trees in large pots. Otherwise, choose bushes that are a couple of years old, as well as patio or dwarf trees, which produce at a younger age than full-sized trees. You'll likely get at least some food for your effort - and you'll be doing a good deed for future owners of the property.

* Learn to preserve food by canning, dehydrating, and freezing. The first two are the best, since they don't require energy once the initial preserving is complete.

* Get rabbits. They are easily the best source of meat for the suburban homesteader.

* Learn to forage for wild foods.

* Learn to cook from scratch. I don't recommend doing this all at once, or you'll burn out. But little by little, learn to replace processed foods with homemade ones.

* Learn to make your own dairy products, including butter and cheese. For now, you may have to do it with store bought milk, but you'll be learning dairy skills, nonetheless.

* Learn to butcher animals, whether backyard hens and rabbits, or wild animals.

* Learn how to light a fire. Practice makes perfect! If possible (and you have a source for wood), switch to wood heat.

* Start saving seeds.

* Learn how to hunt and fish - and how to prepare and cook wild game.

* Get out of debt - and stay there.

* Learn to make soap and candles.

* Learn to compost.


* Keep bees. This is a real skill that takes years to get good at.

* Incubate and hatch chicken eggs. You can purchase fertilized eggs from a local farm store.

* Raise other poultry, like turkeys.

* Learn to mend clothes.

* Read, read, and read some more. There are some homesteading skills you just won't be able to practice in the suburbs or city. But you can read about them. Read everything you can get your hands on about modern homesteading!

Jan 1, 2014

How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty - a Book Review

There are a lot of homesteading and self-sufficiency books available these days, but in my experience, only a few are really worth reading. How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty by Janet Chadwick is certainly one of them.

What makes Chadwick's book unique isn't so much it's scope (it covers the typical homesteading topics, from gardening to caring for animals), but the fact that she's been living a mostly self-sufficient homesteading lifestyle for some time now. The most valuable parts of her book, then, are the wisdom and (often amusing) anecdotes she passes down to the reader.

The book begins with a little information about how and why Chadwick and her family chose to homestead, then proceeds to give some great advice about what to do in your homestead's first year. The supposition is that you aren't in an urban area, but that you have at least some land. Chadwick even gives a basic idea of how much you can expect to spend doing basic homesteading activities, like gardening and caring for animals.

Other chapters teach you how to start seedlings (conventionally, indoors); plant, care for, and harvest vegetables; grow fruit; keep bees (offering one of the more realistic guides I've seen, by the way); raise goats, hogs, rabbits, poultry (chicken, ducks, geese, and a wee bit on turkeys, which the author has never raised), and a veal calf. (The author argues that a small, self-sufficient homestead can't support a milk or meat cow through grazing or the growing of grain.) Throughout, I discovered advice I'd never heard or read before, even though I read a lot of gardening and homesteading books.

Ever practical, Chadwick explains why dairy and beef cattle aren't practical for a small, self-sufficient homestead. (You can't grow enough food for them, so you'd have to bring in feed - which makes cattle raising not self sufficient.) She explains how to choose the best animals for your homestead, and all the information you need to house and care for their basic needs. The last two chapters are mostly recipes - recipes you probably won't find in a cookbook. For example, you'll learn how to cook an old hen, make headcheese, render lard, and cook a rabbit or a goat. You'll also find recipes for making basic soap, cheese, candles, and such. In addition, Chadwick gives readers the basics on how to make an indoor seed starting center (that looks something like a bookshelf, plus grow lights), a simple smokehouse, homemade dehydrator, cheese press, and many housing requirements for homestead animals.

My only real complaint about this book is the title, which I find a little misleading. Sure, the author shows readers how to raise or grow almost all of their food, but that is only part of living. The title implies Chadwick might also discuss things such as affording the land for a homestead, clothing the family inexpensively, and energy. But she does not.

Nonetheless, Chadwick packs an amazing amount of information into a 271 page book. More even than The Backyard Homestead (another guide I highly recommend, but which lacks personal anecdotes and advice). For anyone striving toward the homestead life, How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty is a must read.

Dec 11, 2013

How Much Money Can You Save Gardening and Homesteading?

Have you ever wondered if you're saving money by growing your own food? While saving money isn't the only reason for gardening and homesteading, I still like to keep track of expenses. A great many people are under the impression that gardening and homesteading cost more than buying food at the grocery store. And while I've proven before that both chicken keeping and vegetable gardening are frugal, I haven't checked costs in a few years. So this year, I kept a careful record of the food we produced.

But before you read on, you should know:

* My estimates are conservative. Quite conservative. Although the food we produce is organic and ultra-fresh, whenever possible, I compared the cost of our produce with prices at our local chain grocery store. Yes, it would be more accurate to compare what we produce with farm fresh, organic produce (or even grocery store organic produce), but frankly, we can't afford to buy organic. But if I did use farm fresh organic or grocery store organic with what we produce, this would greatly increase the value of our home grown food.

* When I couldn't find a particular food locally, I looked for a price online - always trying to choose the lowest price I could find. I did not include the cost of shipping I would have to pay if I chose to buy these items online.

* My garden is small: The main bed is 12 x 14 ft. with wide pathways; I also have a bed about 33 x 3 ft.) (To see how I laid out the garden this year, click here.)

* My garden is still producing! I still have carrots, parsnips, collards, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, in the ground. And, of course, the chickens are still laying eggs. I used totals from December 8, 2013 for my calculations.

* I didn't harvest as much of certain things (like herbs) as I could have, simply because I couldn't use as much as I grew.

* I had to exclude the value of certain items that I can't buy locally and couldn't find online.

2013 TOTALS:


Total Pounds of Food Produced: 538.12 lbs.

Total Estimated Cost of Purchasing that Food: $1,770.89

Total Cost of Producing our Food: $278.00

Money Saved: $1,492.89

BREAKDOWN OF COSTS:

Seeds: $75
Seed starting containers: free
Seed starting soil: $10
Fertilizer: $10
Compost: free
Water: $80

Chicks: $9
Chicken Bedding: $10
Chicken Feed: $84 

BREAKDOWN OF PRODUCE:


Eggs, 815 = $163
Chicken meat, 20 ½ lbs. = $40.79

Apples, 13 1/4  lbs. = $25.00
Basil, 3/4 lb. = $7.44
Beets, 1 lb. = $2.49
Blackberries, 3 lbs. = $15.84
Blueberries, 7 1/2 lb. = $79.20
Buttercup squash, 2 1/2 lbs. = $2.22 (I can't find this type of squash locally, so I used the average price for summer squash)
Butternut squash, 44 1/2 lbs. = $39.60
Cabbage, 6 lb. = $2.94
Calendula flowers, 8 lb. = $48.00 (online price)
Carrots, 4 1/2 lb. = $8.37
Chives, 6 1/2 lbs. = $64.48
Cilantro, 1 1/8 lb. = $4.74
Collards, 14 1/2 lbs. = $144.42
Dandelion flowers, ½ lb. (I could not find these locally or online)
Dandelion greens, 35 lb. = $52.15 (online price of fresh leaves)
Dandelion Root, 2 1/8 lb. = $17.50 (online price)
Garlic, ½ lb. scapes + 1 lb. heads = $3.00 scapes (online price listed by local farmers);$3.49 heads
Green onions, 1 lb. = $2.36
Ground nuts, 1 lb. = $50.00 (online price)
Kale, 17 lbs. = $169.32
Kohlrabi, 1 lb. (I couldn't find a local or online price)
Kiwi, 1 lb. = $3.99 (for common kiwi, not the Arctic kiwi I grow)
Leeks, 5 lbs. = $25.00
Lettuce, 11 lb. = $36.19
Mint, 3/4 lb. = $7.44
Oregano, 1 1/2 lb. = $14.88
Pattypan squash, 44  lbs. = $39.16 (I couldn't find these locally or online, so I used the average price for summer squash)
Parsnips, 2 lbs. = $1.99
Passion vine, 1 lb. = $6.00 (online price)
Peas, 5 1/2 lbs. = $13.69
Potatoes, 11 1/4 lbs. = $11.14
Radishes, 8 lb. = $9.44
Rosemary, 1/2 lb. = $4.96
Sage, 1 1/2 lb. = $14.88
Spinach, 1 1/4 lb. = $1.98
Squash blossoms, 3 1/2 lbs. (I couldn't find these locally or online)
Sunchokes, 40 lbs. = $360.00 (online price)
Strawberry, 3 1/2 lbs. = $12.32
Tomato, 38 3/4  lbs. + 28.25 lbs. green = $96.49 red, $70.34 green
Wild onion, 2 lb. (I couldn't find these locally or online)
Wonderberries, 1 lb. = $16.60 (I couldn't find these locally or online, so I compared them to the online price of huckleberries - a close relative)
Zucchini, 60 1/2 lbs. = $78.05


This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.

May 11, 2012

Free-Range Chicken Gardens: A Book Review

When I saw that landscaper Jessi Bloom had written a book about keeping a beautiful garden while letting chickens run around in it, I was excited. Did she have some secret insights into keeping my hens from gobbling up my collards and lettuce? Well...yes and no; but I still found Free-Range Chicken Gardens an inspiring and useful book.

So Bloom's ideas about hens and gardens, in a nutshell? Train the girls, block them when needed, give 'em plant diversity, and plant with chickens in mind.

The book begins by explaining why hens and gardens do go together. Chickens "weed" for us, eat pests, aerate the soil, "mow" our lawns, and provide organic fertilizer. If you don't have chickens yet, Bloom also offers sound advice on choosing some that are appropriate for your yard - and how to plan the yard to everyone's best advantage. I was surprised to see her define a typical suburban backyard as 7,000 to 13,000 sq. ft. - that's enormous in my neck of the woods - and much of her advice seems geared toward this size. But there is still plenty of info for those who have larger and smaller pieces of land.

Bloom also gives a good overview of taking care of chickens. She talks about their life cycle, their basic needs, clipping their wings, protecting them from predators, and so on, even offering tips for choosing chickens that do well with a free range lifestyle. She also delves into topics like composting chicken manure (although, surprisingly, she only explains how to do it with your kitchen or garden waste compost - with no info on keeping a compost bin just for manure). There is an entire section on coop design, with some amazing examples to inspire. And then Bloom discusses training chickens.

Most people think training a chicken is impossible, but I already know from personal experience this isn't so. For example, all we have to do is pick up a blue toy hoe, and all our chickens run into their house to be locked up for the night. My husband can also put a hand over them, and they will "sit" and allow him to pick them up. Bloom also says chickens can be trained to come when you call them by name. All of which is very useful when protecting your garden.

Next comes practical advice on temporarily fencing, netting, or blocking off new plantings, seedlings, and nearly-ready-to-harvest fruits and veggies. Fencing and hardscaping are covered rather extensively - which I suppose is to be expected from a professional landscaper. She covers garden design in depth - sometimes in a general way, but often with chickens in mind. For example, she offers diagrams and descriptions showing how hens can be cordoned off from certain areas (say, a vegetable garden, a children's play area, or a patio), while still giving them free range elsewhere. She then goes on to suggest how trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials should be layered in the garden - both for beauty and for chicken foraging and habitat. In fact, plant diversity is a big part of how she suggests keeping hens from destroying the garden; the more plants, the less likely the chickens are to destroy any of them.

My favorite part of the book, however, is when Bloom discusses plants that seem to deter hens. For example, she notes that while all above-ground parts of nasturtiums are edible, her hens seem to hate them. She says a mixture of low growing ground covers may also deter hens and offers a page-long list of chicken-resistant plants. This gives me excellent ideas for protecting my vegetable garden from our hens, all while making the garden more attractive. Bloom also discusses plants that either provide hens with habitat or food and may be mixed into an ornamental garden. Oh, and if you're worried certain ornamentals could poison your chickens, Bloom gives expert advice on that, too.

Besides all this good info, the book is gorgeously illustrated with color photographs (most by Kate Baldwin) featuring hens in gardens and inspiring landscaping designs.

So while Free-Range Chicken Gardens wasn't exactly what I expected, I'm glad to have read it and have it as a part of my library. Already, I'm itching to improve my garden - then let the hens have at it.


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Feb 14, 2012

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre

A great many people these days are talking about being more self-sufficient, and many are planning on buying land in order to make this more feasible. Brett L. Markham's book Mini Farming promises food freedom with just 1/4 acre - significantly less than what most homesteading books suggest. So naturally, I couldn't wait to see how Markham does it.

Overall, I think Markham does an excellent job with this book, covering many areas other homesteading books neglect. He clearly grows or raises most of his family's food. Most - so I find the sub-title a little misleading. But if you're looking to grow produce and raise chickens for eggs - and if you especially want to do it on a scale so you don't have to buy either of those items and still have enough left over to sell, Markham's book is a definite must read.

First, let me explain my quibbles with the book.

Readers should know Markham uses an intensive gardening method. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise, since he suggests gardening on so little land. My only complaint, then, is that he fails to mention that without plenty of water and fertilizer, you're not going to be at all self-sufficient using intensive methods. In other words, while intensive gardening works well when water is plentiful and not too expensive, it fails miserably if there is a drought or the gardener can't afford to pay the water bill. And if there's no money to purchase the supplements for the soil Markham suggests, the garden isn't going to do well, either. A heads up to readers on this matter would have satisfied me.

Markham also repeats the old idea that vegetable garden rows come from "agribusiness" and have no place in a successful homesteading garden. But wide row gardening actually dates far back into history and was most likely adopted because vegetables grown far apart require far less watering. (Their roots spread out better, and it's easier for them to find water already in the soil.)

Markham also suggests planting one seed per hole, in order to save money on seeds. But he fails to mention that even the best seeds don't have a 100% germination rate. Certainly a gardener can follow his advice and have a fine garden, but they should be warned that not every seed will sprout.

But Markham does such a superb job in other areas, I can't help but recommend his book. For example, he may offer the best guide to starting a new bed that I've ever seen. He also gives some good, solid ideas of how big intensive gardens should be (700 square feet per person, in his estimation). He also provides great information on maintaining the soil in the garden, and even attempts to answer how many vegetable plants should be grown, using the USDA pyramid as a guide. He explains why growing grain on a small scale isn't economical. He teaches pest control through prevention first. He offers good advice on starting seeds on a big scale and discusses the difficulties of seed saving due to inbreeding in a relatively small garden. He covers cleaning eggs for sale, butchering meat chickens, and how to build a plucker and a thresher.

He briefly mentions graywater for irrigation; but here he should have mention that graywater (the dirty water from the washer, for example) can contain feces. (If you wash your undies, that is!) And that in many areas it's illegal to use graywater. He offers the basics of canning and covers freezing with a sealer. And - more briefly than I'd like - covers selling produce and eggs. He also does an excellent job of explaining soil tests and how to amend the soil so a garden can thrive.

So whether you just want a backyard veggie garden (and maybe some hens) or you want a 1/4 acre intensive garden, you're sure to learn something from Markham's personal experience, years in farming, and skill at making the complex simple and understandable.

Jan 9, 2012

Backyard Homesteading: A Book Review

LinkThere are two kinds of homesteading books: Those offering some practical info, but also heaps of inspiration for further research, like The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It and Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century. The other type of homesteading book focuses more on how-to advice, like The Backyard Homestead.

Until now, when asked to recommend the most practical homesteading book, I suggested only Backyard Homestead. But now I'll recommend both Backyard Homestead by and Backyard Homesteading by David Toht.

Backyard Homesteading is designed primarily for those living in the suburbs, although city and country dwellers will find lots of good, practical information in it, too. In comparing it with Madigan's book, I have to say I find hers most thorough. However, Toht's book offers a different outlook and quite a bit of different information. For anyone seriously wanted to homestead in the suburbs, both books are worth referencing.

Toht begins at the beginning by covering municipal regulations and basic homestead planning. He briefly covers topics like rooftop gardening and water supply, then delves right into the heart of the book: Growing edibles. Here, he offers advice on choosing vegetables, preparing the soil, improving the soil, and timing plantings. He briefly covers seed saving, dealing with weeds, and basic requirements for common vegetables and herbs. Illustrations show what a typical suburban garden might look like during the various seasons, while others show what a generous urban homestead might look like compared to a suburban homestead and a mini-farm.

Fruit trees, nuts, and berries are covered in a separate chapter, with all the basics covered, including concerns about pollination, maintenance, pruning, and general care requirements. The entire section on gardening is not, in my opinion, as comprehensive as Backyard Farming's, but it does offer some different information.

There is also a chapter on raising chickens, including information about city codes, choosing breeds, caring for chicks, and general care. I notice the author makes the common assumption that backyard eggs are more expensive than store bought, but as I wrote about recently, this isn't always the case. There is helpful information on getting the most eggs from your hens, making your own feed, chicken health, and cleaning dirty eggs. Only two pages are devoted to raising meat birds, and a few basic recommendations for butchering are given. The author also very briefly covers ducks, geese, turkeys, and quail.

There's also a chapter on raising goats, which covers everything from housing to milking. Cows, sheep, and pigs are given only a few paragraphs, making these sections not very useful. Bees are given an entire chapter.

Next, canning is covered, as well as making sausage, dehydrating, smoking, and freezing. The basics of beer, wine, and cider making are covered, and there's a useful chapter on root cellaring (hint: even a garbage can will do the trick).

All in all, this is a useful book, especially for those just starting out in homesteading.

Nov 21, 2011

More Frugal, Comfortable Menstrual Pads - and a Special Offer

If someone had suggested I switch to cloth menstrual pads a few years ago, I would have laughed uncontrollably and said, "Are you kidding?!" But today, I wouldn't wear store bought, disposable menstrual pads for anything.

Women have many reasons for switching to cloth pads, including:

* They display better stewardship and are more "green." Cloth pads get used over and over again - many women report using them for 2 to 5 years; once they finally wear out, the pad decomposes rapidly in the landfill.

* They are far more comfortable.

* They are much less likely to cause uncomfortable rashes and sores.

* In the long run, they are more frugal. I purchased most of mine for about $9.50 a piece and I was spending about $12 a month on disposable pads. I will save at least $64 this year alone by using cloth pads. Assuming the pads last me longer than a year, I'll save much more.

* Cloth pads can be purchased or made at home.

* They can be had in organic materials.

* Some women even claim cloth pads have made their flow less heavy or have shortened the duration of their period. The theory behind this - not backed by science, as far as I know - is that store bought, plastic pads retain moisture and germs, perhaps causing some sort of infection we don't fully understand yet.

What They Look Like
These are not the menstrual clothes of days gone by! Oh no, not at all.
Most are shaped like "winged" disposable pads. The wings have snaps, fitting the wings around the crotch of underwear. A backing of flannel prevents the pad from slipping around.

But the key difference between these pads and the ones your grandmother wore? A layer of waterproof, polyurethane laminated (PUL) fabric (made of polyester and originally used for medical purposes), which makes cloth pads just as leak proof as disposable pads.
Link
Getting Started
I buy my cloth pads from Lola's Loft; the photos accompanying this post showcases a few of her products. I highly recommend her Etsy store - and for readers of Proverbs 31 Woman, she's extending a special offer:


Use coupon code reuse2011 for 10% off your entire Lola's Loft purchase (excluding shipping).



You can also find cloth pads elsewhere on Etsy or on eBay. GladRags also sells them, but at a higher price than you'll usually find elsewhere.

Look for a style that's as close in size and shape to the disposable pads you normally purchase. Most - but not all - of the pads you'll see are in the "wing" style; cloth pads also come in lengths from average to extra long and in "strength" from panty liner to postpartum.

I recommend purchasing just one pad to begin with - or perhaps two or three in slightly different styles. This way you can test the pad style without investing much money. You can then build up your collection of cloth pads by buying a few each month.

If you wish to make your own cloth pads, try the following links for free patterns and tutorials:

Homemade Sanitary Pads
by Hillbilly Housewife
Circular pads by She Who Runs in the Forest
Free Menstrual Pad Sewing Pattern by Ask Pauline
Cloth Menstrual Pads by Sew Your Own Diapers
Cloth Pads for Dummies by Backyard Academy
Beveled Pads by Cloth Pad Shop
Cloth Pads by Sew Green
Washable Pads by Many Moons
Cloth Menstrual Pads by Jan Andrea
Patterns for Cloth Pads by Ecomenses

Click here for many, many more patterns and tutorials.

The Nitty Gritty
Now for the question on everyone's mind: How do you deal with soiled cloth pads?

I just toss mine in the washing machine right away. I usually have a load of clothes I could do - but if for some reason I don't, I add cold water to the machine and lift the lid. This means the pads will soak without washing. As soon as I can run a full load, I do, in cold water. (And yes, the other clothes in the wash come out just as clean as they do if cloth pads aren't in the washer.)

Other people keep a lidded container (like a Cool Whip tub or a Rubbermaid box) in a drawer in the bathroom, put a little water in it, and place soiled pads in this until they can run a load of laundry. You can also use a more decorative container for this purpose.

If you're out and about, just pack some Ziplock bags in your purse. Roll soiled pads just like you would disposable pads and place them in the bags.

Many people wonder if cloth pads stain. I've not had this problem, but I do wash or soak them right away. If for some reason you can't wash or soak them immediately, pre-treat them before washing. A little bar soap and water, allowed to sit for a while, usually does the trick. So do commercial stain treaters.

What do you think? Would you ever try cloth pads?

Oct 28, 2011

How to Change Your Life

I meet a lot of moms who like the ideas presented at Proverbs 31 Woman - who truly want to cook from scratch, fill their freezer with dinners, or grow their own food, for example. But those wants never turns into "do's."

Truly, I know how overwhelming it can be to want to change your life, but find it too overwhelming to make those changes. The trick to changing any part of your life is actually simple, though: Take one small step.

For example, if you want to start cooking from scratch, don't make this your immediate goal. Don't decide to start making all your family's bread, pasta, canned goods, stock, and so on. You'll either never get started, or you'll burn out quickly. Instead, decide to make one thing from scratch. Once making this one thing from scratch is a normal part of your life, move on to adding one or two more "from scratch" foods.

And don't decide you want to be more self sufficient, so you're going to buy a large porperty and start growing all your own fruits and vegetables and keep livestock. If you have little to no experience in these areas, you'll either never get it all done or you'll quickly get discouraged by failure. Instead, take one small step toward self sufficiency, like preparing a garden bed this fall, then planting it next spring.

A really organized person would make a list of all her goals, then prioritize them and attack them from the most important to the least. There is certainly no harm in doing this. But if making that list holds you back from taking action, then the best thing is to stop hemming, hawing, and over thinking and just do something. A small something: Hang your laundry to dry, learn to make jam, declutter one area of a room.

And while all these these changes are good in and of themselves, the single most important change you can make in your life is to give yourself over to God and accept Jesus Christ as your savior. Once that change is solidly in your heart, work on reading the Bible daily. And then be known by your fruits (Matt. 7:16) - be a sheep who lives eternally with God (Matt. 25:31-46).

Whether you're changing your life in eternal or earthly ways, these small steps add up to large ones over time.

Jul 26, 2011

Watch Where You Get Your Compost

I recently had someone tell me she bought horse manure for her garden - and that the stuff destroyed her crop. The manure was aged - it wasn't so "hot" it killed her garden; there was something else in the manure that made her plants wither up and die. She suspects the manure was contaminated with strong weed killers.

This was a new concept to me; then I read this, from Mother Earth News:

"The EPA allows Dow and others to sell these potent weed killers to farmers, who spray them on their pastures and hayfields. When animals graze on the treated pasture or hay, the chemicals pass through the animals and persist in the manure for several years — even if the manure is processed into compost. Gardeners then use the contaminated hay or compost on their crops, bringing a slow death to carrots, lettuces, potatoes, beets, spinach, tomatoes and legumes, including (but not limited to) beans and peas. This is not a minor or isolated problem...

Sensitive plants may show symptoms quickly in heavily contaminated soil, or damage may not be apparent for weeks. As the leaves of affected plants curl and shrivel, gardeners often wrongly assume their plants have been hit by a disease or aerial herbicide drift."

According to Mother Earth News, the chemicals can remain in the soil for years.

Read the rest here.


Jul 14, 2011

The $240 Egg

Yesterday my husband found a surprise in the hen house: Our hens' first egg! We were pleasantly shocked; we didn't expect the chickens to start laying any sooner than August. But we aren't complaining!

Because I'm weird like this, I sat down with some receipts to figure out how much our first egg cost us: About $240. Maybe I should serve that egg on a silver platter!

Of course, making a comparison like that is silly. Getting the hen house and run set up is the expensive part. Keeping the hens fed and cared for is quite cheap.

And speaking of store bought eggs, did you know a hen's first eggs are miniature? This photograph shows our first egg (left) alongside a standard store bought egg (right). As hens mature, their eggs gradually become full sized.



Jun 24, 2011

Raising Farm Animals in Your Backyard

The Backyard Homestead is probably the best book available for those who'd like to become more self-sufficient when it comes to food. As you can see from my review of the book (here), most of that volume is dedicated to growing vegetables; there is far less information on raising livestock. However, the same publisher recently released The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals; this is unquestionably the best book on the market for those in the suburbs or country who like the idea of raising animals for eggs, milk, and meat, but aren't sure where to start.

The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals has chapters covering chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, rabbits, bees, goats, sheep, pigs, and cows. Each chapter lays out the basics of how to raise the animal, including housing and feeding requirements, and how to keep the critters healthy. There are also tips on choosing an appropriate breed, keeping predators at bay, and general ideas on whether or not you're likely to save money raising your own.

The editor, Gail Damerow, also offers a visual on how much room is needed to raise certain animals through three drawings at the front of the book. Each offers an idea of how a homestead could proceed, showing how properties (each with a typical house and a veggie garden) could be laid out. For example, on the smallest property (1/10th of an acre), bees, rabbits, and chickens are shown. On the largest property (1/2 an acre), bees, rabbits, pigs, waterfowl, poultry, and 1 cow or 2 steers and either 2 goats or 2 lambs, are suggested.

At the center of the book is a folded color chart picturing the most common breeds raised for food; while this is pretty, I didn't find it very useful - although I did like how some small silhouettes at the bottom of the chart give an idea of the size of each breed mentioned. Aside from this, my only real complaint about the book is that it rarely address difficulties urban homesteaders face, like coming up with space, keeping kids safe, and addressing the concerns of neighbors.

But despite certain limitations, this is still is the best book I've found on the topic. It's clearly not meant to be the only book you'll want on how to raise your backyard livestock. You can and should read as many books as possible on how to raise the animals you select. But The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals is an great one stop source for making decisions about which animals you can - in all practicality - raise in the suburbs or country. I recommend it!

Jun 10, 2011

Eating Weeds: Sorrel

Ever since we successfully harvested, cooked, and ate dandelion greens, I admit I've become a little obsessed with eating weeds. In fact, you might think I'm going too far, trying to figure out which weeds in our garden I can add to our dinner table. I know my husband thinks I'm nuts. But really, if I can find nutritious, free food for our family, why wouldn't I leap at the chance?

My latest discovery is sorrel. For years, I've been yanking it out of a brick planter in our front yard. Then one day, browsing the internet, I saw the same weed identified as sorrel - an edible plant. I was cautious. I scoured the web for identification photos and descriptions. I learned there are many types of sorrel, including sheep sorrel and Jamacian sorrel - not at all what I have in my own yard. What grows here is wood sorrel and is often eaten as a snack or in salads. It's sometimes even used in place of rhubarb in pie.

Some sources say sorrel came to the New World via the colonists; indeed, the plant was popular in European vegetable gardens, especially from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. It was often mashed with sugar and vinegar and used as a sauce for cold meat. (In Europe, sorrel is still sometimes called "greensauce.") Native Americans also used sorrel, but mostly as a medicinal. For many years, eating sorrel was a common way to prevent scurvy because the plant has good levels of vitamin C.

One thing worried me: A few sources warned sorrel contains oxalic acid and is therefore poisonous. After a little more research, though, I learned you'd have to eat large amounts of sorrel to suffer ill effects. To put things in perspective, rhubarb leaves also contain oxalic acid, and the average-sized person would have to eat about 11 lbs. of them to be poisoned. Sorrel reportedly has less oxalic acid in its leaves than rhubarb. Suffice it to say people have been eating reasonable amounts of sorrel for at least hundreds of years without becoming ill.

I wasn't sure what to expect, flavor-wise, but when I finally tried sorrel, I discovered it delicious - very lemony. (The name "sorrel" is derived from the French "sur" which means "sour.") Next, I gave my kids some. They absolutely loved it. My hubby was last. He was highly skeptical. "Just because I can eat it doesn't mean I want to eat it," he said. Followed by, "This isn't going to make me sick, is it?"

When at last he dared to try it, he was pleasantly surprised. "That's really good!" he said.

From now on, instead of pulling up most of our wood sorrel, we'll be eating it.

If you decide to try sorrel yourself, you should carefully identify the plant before eating it. Check out sites like Foraging Pictures and consult local foraging experts in your vicinity. Also make sure whatever plants you want to eat haven't been sprayed with chemicals of any kind.

So what do you think? Am I nuts for eating weeds?

Apr 20, 2011

Fruit Trees for Any Landscape

Sometimes I wish our suburban lot had no trees at all. That way I could plant my own. If this were the case, I'd plant only trees that produce food of some kind.

Alas, our yard has a number of trees and none of them produce food of any kind. We've considered removing the trees and replanting, but this simply isn't within our budget. However, as many apples as we eat (whole, as applesauce, as dried apple rings, and in our desserts and entrees), I decided we really ought to have at least one apple tree. After a lot of thought, we bought two columnar apple trees. I'm excited!

Since it's nearing Arbor Day, it's a great time consider whether you have room for a fruit tree in your yard. Just imagine having absolutely fresh, way-better-than-store-bought, organic fruit you and the kids can pick yourselves. Here's how to pick a fruit tree that's right for you.

A Size for Every Yard
Fruit trees come in three sizes: Standard, Semi-Dwarf, Dwarf, and Ultra-Dwarf or Patio size.

Standard trees were once the only choice. They slowly grow to about 25 to 30 feet tall and usually begin producing in 3 to 5 years. Most standard fruit trees produce fruit for 30 or 40 years; some produce past that. As an example of the sort of yield you can expect from a single tree, a standard apple tree should produce 336 to 420 lbs. of apples.

Semi-Dwarf trees grow to about 10 to 16 feet fall. Their fruit is the same size as a standard tree, but they produce a little less because the tree is smaller. They live about 20 years. A single semi-dwarf apple tree produces about 252 to 420 lbs. of fruit.

Dwarf trees are an excellent choice if your yard is small. They can even be grown in pots. Because they grow just 8 to 10 feet tall, they are easier to prune and harvest than other sizes of fruit trees. The fruit is of normal size, but you won’t get as much fruit as you would on a larger tree. Dwarf trees start begin producing fruit in 3 to 5 years and usually live for 20 years or so. One dwarf apple tree produces about 126 to 252 lbs. of fruit per year.

Ultra-dwarf or patio trees are available for most types of fruits, including lemons, oranges, pears, plums, peaches, and apples. They are usually 5 to 8 feet tall and are ideal when you don’t have room even for dwarf trees. “Columnar” varieties (currently only available as apples or pears) are also narrow, measuring a couple of feet across. All ultra-dwarfs can be grown either in the ground or in pots. Ultra-dwarfs are also handy when you want to grow a fruit that isn’t winter hardy in your location. As long as you have a sunny window, you can bring the tree indoors in the winter. The fruit of ultra-dwarf trees is normal sized.

In addition, there are espalier trees. These are usually dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, trained to grow flat against a wall. These add a lot of charm to a garden, and are a great idea if you have an area that gets lots of sun but wouldn't allow for the bushiness of an ordinary tree. The downside is you'll have to prune the tree frequently to train it.

How Many?
Although many fruit trees are now “self pollinating,” they will prodLinkuce more abundantly if another tree of their basic type blooms at the same time. For example, let’s say you want to plant an apple tree. It will give you more apples if you plant another apple (or crab apple) tree of the same or different variety that blooms at the same time of year. If a neighbor has an apple tree that blooms at the same time of year, that will work, too. But consider that the neighbor might someday remove her tree, making yours far less productive. (And if your apple tree isn’t self-pollinating, it may stop giving fruit altogether.) Two dwarf apple trees should produce plenty of fruit for the average-sized family.

Choosing Trees
Aside from choosing what type of fruit you’d like to grow, consider what variety of each fruit you want. It’s almost always best to grow something known to grow well in your area; ask around at the local farmer’s market, then purchase stock from a local nursery.

Also consider how you’ll use the fruit. Continuing to use apples as our example, some varieties are better for certain uses and storage methods. For example, you may prefer one type of apple over another for applesauce, or you may wish to choose an apple known for lasting a long time when it’s stored in a root cellar or cool basement.

Finally, consider your soil and how much sun the trees will receive. Apples, for example, don’t like damp soil, but plums usually don’t mind wet feet. Peaches don’t do well in really rainy areas, but pears or apples probably won’t mind as long as the soil drains well. All fruit trees prefer at least 6 hours of sun per day, but a few fruit trees, like choke cherry and plums, tolerate slightly less sunlight.

Feb 4, 2011

Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century

I see it everywhere. People in all walks of life are developing an interest in being more self sufficient. Maybe it's the economy. Maybe it's a desire for a more simple, traditional life. Maybe it's a longing to be more in tune with nature. But whether you live in the city and want to grow food on your rooftop, live in the suburbs and want to raise chickens, or live in the country and want to make your property a small farm, Self Sufficiency for the 21st Century by father/son writing duo Dick and James Strawbridge, offers lots of inspiration, both in the writing and in the abundant full color photos.

No single book on self sufficiency can be entirely adequate for the curious mind, but what I really enjoyed about the Strawbridge's book is their writing comes from practical experience. For many years, they've owned and operated Newhouse Farm in Cornwall, England, and I loved getting a peak at what works for them - from their electricity-producing water wheel, to their rainwater harvesting system, to their gorgeous and practical garden, to their critters. And while their book is clearly modeled after John Seymour's classic The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (read my review of Seymour's book here), Strawbridge's book is more practical for modern life.

The book begins by considering the basics of self sufficiency: Food, shelter, and energy. Throughout, we get glimpses of life at Newhouse Farm, but the authors also offer ideas and illustrations for being more self sufficient in an urban and suburban setting. Next, we settle in to ideas about how to make our homes more energy efficient, including using passive solar gain (basically, large windows facing south), and heat recovery. There's even brief information on building earth homes or houses lined with straw bales. Energy options are next, and an introduction to many possibilities is included. Their view of solar energy is realistic, but they offer ideas about where it can be useful. They even offer basic instructions for building a solar shower. They also cover wind and water energy in fair detail; at Newhouse, they use a combination of all these energy sources. In addition, there are ideas for safe rainwater usage, compost toilets, and making and using biofuel.

The next section of the book covers gardening, and while the techniques used at Newhouse seem pretty traditional, the authors offer some ideas on forest gardens, no dig gardening, and growing plants only in water (hydroponics). They offer all the info needed to start traditional composting - and they include a method of composting cooked meat, fish, and dairy products. There's even a page detailing how to make an all natural, balanced fertilizer from comfrey, a type of herb. The authors also offer an intelligent chart for rotating crops, as well as information on using a greenhouse, hoop house, and cold frame, gardening in urban areas, building a raised bed, doing worm composting, sowing seeds, and basic but useful information on growing various types of vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

The next section is most useful for those with land. It offers insights into working large areas, including making natural boundaries, growing fodder for animals, storing large amounts of crops, and managing wooded areas. Lessons in animal husbandry are offered next, and while the information is brief (8 pages tops per type of animal), it's pretty informative. If you want to begin raising hens, for example, you'll find all the necessary information on how to begin: How to buy, offering housing, watering, feeding, making a hen tractor, increasing your flock, and butchering the birds. There are also sections on turkeys, geese and ducks, pigs, sheep, goats, bees, and cows. A very brief section also mentions wild game and fish, offering illustrated instructions on skinning, drawing, and butchering a rabbit.

For those new to preserving food, the next section of the book offers an overview. The authors cover making butter, yogurt, cream, cheese, and bread; pickling; preserves; drying herbs, vegetables, and fruit (mostly by solar means); curing meat and fish; smoking (including making smokers); and making hard cider, beer, and wine. Unfortunately, there are a few odd-ball statements, like: "Preserving vegetables at home by canning is not advisable...Our advice is to only can fruit, and preserve your vegetables by freezing them," but since this book isn't a canning manual, one hopes readers will look elsewhere for thorough canning information.

The least helpful part of the book, in my opinion, is the section on "natural remedies." The information seems much too vague to me. For example, there are instructions on making "revitalizing infusions" - just for general health, I suppose. Specific information on using herbs and plants to treat ailments is absent entirely. Finally, there is a brief section on "green cleaners," like baking soda and vinegar, and a section offering very basic information on working with wood, basketry, and similar skills.

It is important to remember that Self Sufficiency for the 21st Century isn't the place to learn how to do everything mentioned in the book. Rather, it's a place from which to draw workable ideas, learn the basics of important skills, and learn from two men who live an essentially self sufficient life. After reading this book, I think you'll be inspired to do further research into how you can live a more self sufficient life.

For those who dream of owning a small farm or those wanting to find ways to make life in the suburbs or country side more simple and self sufficient, this book is an great addition to the bookshelf.

May 3, 2010

Chickens in Your Backyard

The other day I was at the post office and the sounds of cheeping chicks was almost comical. I could hardly hear the postal employee waiting on me. In my area, and all across the United States, raising chickens is the latest trend. Have you been tempted by those cute, fuzzy chicks or perky, pecky hens? I have. I had a pet chicken as a kid, and every time another neighbor brings home some chicks, I want to run and out and buy some, too.
But before you plunge into the world of chicken-keeping, you'll need to consider some important points.


Why?

Begin by considering exactly why you want to raise chickens.

If you want chickens to save money on ordinary grocery store eggs, you should probably take a pass on this trend. It's unlikely your home-raised eggs will cost less than what you can buy in the store.

If you want to raise chickens to save money on organic, store-bought eggs, you can expect to either break even or save a wee bit of money.

If you want to raise chickens because you like the idea of being that much more self-sufficient, well...it's hard to put a price on that.

Too, truly fresh eggs taste a whole lot better than store-bought eggs.

Does Your City Allow It?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, many people living in the suburbs raised chickens. But as the 20th century progressed, cities began passing laws forbidding this practice. Other cities allow chickens in the suburbs, but make you buy a permit, and still others have very specific laws regulating just how much shabby chic can go into your hen house.

So your next step is to find out what your city laws say about chicken-keeping.
To do this, first call the zoning board. If the zoning board gives the okay to your plans, call the health board, since they may have regulations regarding chickens, too.

Other Practical Considerations

Chickens don't like heat because they don't sweat, but they do need some sun. So if your yard is entirely shade, chickens probably won't thrive. Ideally, chickens need a location that has some sun and some shade, but it's possibly to only give them sun in a moving pen. All you need for this is some chicken wire attached to some posts; I have neighbors who use flimsy bamboo posts, making the contraptions cheap and easy to put together. Then you can move this "pen" around the yard on sunny days.

Which leads me to another consideration: How do you feel about chicken droppings? I know many folks who love it; they let their chickens scratch around in established gardens, knowing the manure they leave behind is great fertilizer. But it might be hard to keep your chickens only in your vegetable patch. What if they poop on the lawn? Are you worried about small children touching chicken droppings and then putting their hands in their mouths?

And if you go away on vacations, who will care for the chickens while you're gone? If the trip is short, having someone feed them and gather eggs will probably be sufficient, but if you're gone for a week or more, the care taker must also be willing to clean the coop of droppings.


What Will it Cost?

Prices for materials may vary from location to location, so the figures mentioned here should be viewed only as estimates.

Chicks: About $2 each.

The cost of chicks is cheap. They are about $2 a piece on average, although different breeds may cost more or less. Chickens are social animals, so you should purchase at least two. (Although, if you spend a lot of time outside and the chicken is free range, a single chicken will adopt you as her flock, following you everywhere.) No one can give you a 100% guarantee what sex chicks you are buying, so many people buy more than they need, in case one or more turn out to be roosters.

Warming lamp: $18-$25.

Most people who raise chickens will tell you chicks require a warming lamp for their first 6 weeks of life. My childhood chicken never had a heat lamp; we kept her in a large cardboard box indoors. However, a 2 week old chick needs about one square foot of space, so plan ahead.

Bedding: $10 - $20 a month.

Chicks and chickens need bedding material like pine shavings or straw. It should be replaced when it's soiled. If you have to buy bedding, it will cost about $10 - $20. How long it lasts depends on how many chickens you have, but expect to spend about that much per month.

Feeders and Waterers: $0 - 30.
These are a must, but many people make their own for nothing or next to it. If you have to buy feeders and waterers, expect to pay up to $30.

Feed: $20 - $30 a month.
How much feed your chickens need depend upon how much they are allowed to roam freely and how large your yard is. The average urban dweller doesn't have enough space to come anywhere near to providing enough bugs to feed a chicken exclusively. and even when you add table scraps, your chickens are going to need store-bought feed. On average, expect each hen to consume
about 6 ounces of feed each day.

Hen House: $0 - $400.
When your chicks are about 6 to 8 weeks old, they need a chicken coop or hen house. Each hen needs a nesting box of about 18 inches and there should be enough room in the coop for each chicken to have about 3 square feet all her own. If you purchase a hen house, even if it doesn't have lots of bells and whistles, it will cost about $300 - $400 new. In some areas, you might be able to get a good deal on a used chicken coop via Craigslist. However, if you are creative and a bit handy, the coop can cost much less. The internet is full of hen house ideas, but do remember that in most parts of the U.S. the hen house must be insulated and should have great ventilation.

Run: $50 - $100.
Unless your chickens will be entirely free range, you need a chicken run. (Chicken runs are generally recommended, anyway, since they protect chickens from predators like raccoons, cats, dogs, and other animals.) Each chicken needs 5 square feet of run space. Chicken wire costs about $50 for 150 feet; if you don't have scrap wood laying around, that will add to the expense.

What to Expect from the Chickens
Chickens begin laying eggs at about 20 - 24 weeks of age. She'll lay about 18 - 20 eggs a year. If you have 3 hens, you can expect to gather about 2 eggs each day, except in the winter. Once the days get darker, hens stop laying altogether, unless you go to the added expense of putting lighting in their coop.

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Feb 16, 2010

Square Foot Gardening

Mel Bartholomew really knows how to write a book that garners enthusiasm from readers. His Square Foot Gardening has sold over 2 million copies, and recently he released a fully updated version of the classic called All New Square Foot Gardening. Although Bartholomew's target audience is novice vegetable and flower gardeners or people who've given up on gardening because it's "too much work," even experienced gardeners can learn something from this volume.

Bartholomew's method is pretty simple: Build cheap 4 x 4 foot squares of wood (or other material), fill with a specific mixture of compost, peat moss, and vermiculite, and place one plant in every square foot. In essence, the author combines raised bed gardening with intensive gardening. There's really nothing new about that. But here's the kicker: Bartholowmew claims raised beds need only be six inches deep. Now that's something I've never heard before!

The author claims many benefits to Square Foot Gardening:

* Little to no weeding. (True of all raised beds created with purchased soil.)

* Easier weeding. (True of all raised beds that aren't stepped on.)

* Fewer seeds needed. (The author encourages planting only as many seeds as you actually need, rather than thinning seedlings later, as is traditional.)

* A head start on gardening because beds are warmer. (True of all raised beds.)

* No rototiller or heavy digging needed. (True of all raised beds.)

* Less watering. (Because he encourages hand watering and because the beds are simply smaller.)

* No soil replacement needed after the first year. (True of all raised beds where you add compost regularly.)

* More production per square foot than other methods. (More on this in a moment.)

The author repeatedly claims his methods are radical and leave gardening experts skeptical, but really, the only eyebrow-raising claim he makes is that raised beds should only be six inches deep.

Traditional raised beds are usually at least 12 inches deep; the rational behind this is that plants need room to develop deep roots if they are to produce well. And while Bartholomew does say some plants - mostly root crops like carrots - should have a bit more space to grow, I was skeptical plants could really thrive so close together with so shallow a bed. Wouldn't they compete too much for nutrients and water?

So I spent some time at online bulletin boards where Square Foot Gardeners go to share their insights and ask questions. What I discovered was that while Square Foot Gardening does seem to give more produce per square foot than traditional row vegetable gardening, each plant generally produces a lot less. As Square Foot Gardeners shared photos of their gardens, I could readily see why: Many of the plants appeared stunted.

But the author, I imagine, doesn't mind this, since he stresses throughout that one of the problems with traditional row vegetable gardens is they produce "too much" food.

So here's what I think: If you have limited space or no yard soil and don't want to share or preserve part of your harvest, Square Foot Gardening is a good thing to try.

For the rest of us, All New Square Foot Gardening does a great job of synthesizing gardening facts in an easy to digest manner. There are useful charts for succession planting (planting crops in stages so you'll have just enough produce every few weeks), great information on building your own trellises and plant supports, easy to understand information on composting at home, easy ideas on making row covers to protect your crops from hot or cold weather, and so on. I even suggest you try utilizing Bartholomew's information on raised beds and intensive gardening - just make your beds at least 12 inches high, instead of six.

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