Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Living on a farm in the city

Many of the people who read this blog are interested in self-sufficiency, growing their own food, making food from scratch and raising animals for meat or fiber, if space (and laws) allow. However, many of those same readers also, like myself, live in the city. We enjoy the benefits of both worlds, adding in the convenience of urban transportation, diversity, great restaurants and access to world class arts.

But, there are drawbacks. Legal restrictions. Neighbors that are too close that may not appreciate your activities. Lack of space to plant an orchard or raise a milk cow. The list goes on. Many of us dream of living further out to do the things we really want to do when, really, most of the things we want to do can be accomplished right in our own backyards.

Growing a substantial amount of food just means the willingness to convert a lot of your yard into food growing spaces. If you are fortunate to live in a city like Seattle that has forward thinking laws, you can raise rabbits, a half dozen chickens, a couple of dwarf dairy goats and some bees. What else do you really need? A teacup mini pig? Ok, you can have that too.

All the other activities we think of when it comes to being self-sufficient can be done no matter where you live - cooking and heating with a wood stove, cheese making, home brewing, soap making, bread baking, canning, sewing, knitting, etc. Again, the list goes on and few things prevent you from doing them besides, perhaps, funds and the gumption to do them.

If you call yourself an urban farmer or homesteader and dream of the country, what do you wish you had or could do differently? Is your wanderlust for more space really just holding you back from creating what you really want in the space you already have?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hand-sewn chicken placemats

I hate the placemats we bought a while back that were pre-made. No matter how we dry them, they always end up wrinkled like crazy and we have to iron them for them to stay flat. So, I took matters into my own hands and sewed my own.

This is how they look after drying and no ironing. There are chickens on one side and sunflowers on the other and they are quilted in the middle. For spring and mid-summer, we'll use the chicken side and for fall we'll use the sunflower side. Or, we'll just mix it up and use whatever side we feel like since they match.

Next up, I'll be sewing some napkins for spring/summer. They are red gingham on one side and strawberries on the other. Again, the pre-made napkins always need ironing, but the ones I've been making myself (we have Halloween and Christmas themed ones) never need ironing. I'll take some pics when I'm done with them. I probably will use the sewing machine on the napkins since it will go a lot faster.

Are you working on any sewing projects? I'm thinking of embarking on a skirt while I'm at it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Solar panel quote

I received a quickie quote from the solar panel company we are working with here in Seattle that is based on satellite images of our house just to give us an idea of how much it would cost. If we want to move forward, they'll come out and update the estimate after looking at our roof and various other variables.

In the quote, they included three PV options, ranging in size from 4.6 to 5.3 kW, using three different types of modules. They are assuming 99% annual solar access on a south-facing array (providing about 1144 kWh/yr per kW). Again, these are ballpark figures, but you'll get the idea.

Option 1 has high power density, but a small incentive rate
This option has the maximum power in the smallest possible footprint, and the system production will pay back about 71% of the initial investment (after the tax credit) by the end of 2020 through a combination of state production incentive and net metering (including the value of all the electricity we won't have to buy).

Annual production for this option is estimated at 6043 kWh, earning $906 per year while offsetting roughly 47% of our reported usage.

Option 2 has a low initial cost, but a small incentive rate
The second option has lower power density which means the panels take up more space on our roof, but the lower price per watt makes this the least expensive system in terms of up-front cost. The system production will pay back about 83% of the initial investment by the end of 2020.

Annual production for this option is estimated at 5264 kWh, earning $790 per year while offsetting roughly 41% of our reported usage.

Option 3 has a very high incentive rate, but a higher initial cost
The last option has components that are all made in Washington, which makes them eligible for the top incentive rate of 54 cents per kWh. As a result, these systems usually pay for themselves more quickly than other products, despite the higher up-front cost. We would break even in year nine, earning about $5169 by the end of year ten.

Annual production for this option is estimated at 5356 kWh, earning $2892 per year while offsetting roughly 41% of our reported usage.

Here's part of the breakdown (since it's easier to see the stats back to back):

Option 1
System size: 5280 watts
Estimated Production (kWh/yr): 6043
Installed Cost: $30,030.45
Dollars per Watt: $5.69
30% Federal Tax Credit: -$9,009.14
Net Cost After Tax & Credit(s): $21,021.32
Production Incentive, $/kWh: $0.15
Annual Incentive Payment: -$906.45
Total Incentive thru June 2020: -$8,611.28
Net residual cost (including net metering offset) as of 2020: $6,067.38
% of cost paid back by 2020: 71.1%
Payback Time (years): 18

Option 2
System size: 4600 watts
Estimated Production (kWh/yr): 5264
Installed Cost: $22,408.97
Dollars per Watt: $4.87
30% Federal Tax Credit: -$6,722.69
Net Cost After Tax & Credit(s): $15,686.28
Production Incentive, $/kWh: $0.15
Annual Incentive Payment: -$789.60
Total Incentive thru June 2020: -$7,501.20
Net residual cost (including net metering offset) as of 2020: $2,660.04
% of cost paid back by 2020: 83.0%
Payback Time (years): 15

Option 3
System size: 4680 watts
Estimated Production (kWh/yr): 5356
Installed Cost: $39,899.05
Dollars per Watt: $8.53
30% Federal Tax Credit: -$11,969.72
Net Cost After Tax & Credit(s): $27,929.34
Production Incentive, $/kWh: $0.54
Annual Incentive Payment: -$2,892.24
Total Incentive thru June 2020: -$27,476.28
Net residual cost (including net metering offset) as of 2020: -$5,168.54
% of cost paid back by 2020: 118.5%
Payback Time (years): 9

I'm more partial to Option 3 because of the quick payoff and the incentives. After 9 years, all energy generated will be "free". Option 1 has its perks in that it can squeeze more panels into a smaller space, but it takes forever to pay off. Another objective for us would be to reduce the amount of energy we use to meet the amount generated. I'm sure we can close the gap with some effort.

In any case, we have some figgerin' to do. I'll let you know if we move forward and you'll get the play-by-play if we do!

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Future of Food - Part I

If you need a reason to despise Monsanto, then watch this movie. It will grind your crackers. It will make you sick to your stomach. It will bring a tear to your eye.

The Future of Food, brings into high relief how our accessibility to seed stock is becoming constricted as agricultural companies genetically modify seeds (GMO) and then claim ownership to that species. As these GMOs mingle with other non-GMO seeds, a new seed is born, and now companies (primarily Monsanto) can claim ownership over that new seed. Even if the GMO seed contaminates a farmer's fields inadvertently, by patent law, it is owned by Monsanto.

One of the big problems is that Monsanto has bought up many seed companies over the years, making it the largest conventional seed company in the world. And, effectively, they now own much of the seed stock out there. So, instead of seed saving from year to year, as farmers have done for centuries, many farmers must now pay Monsanto for these combined seeds or face being sued.

You see, Monsanto likes to go after small and mid-size farmers for patent infringement. They test the farmer's crops and accuse them of patent infringement when they find that their genetically modified seed has contaminated these farmer's fields. Over the last few years, 9,000 letters have been sent out to farmers from Monsanto. Most of the farmers choose to pay in order to avoid lawsuits.

At the filming of this movie there were 100 active lawsuits in US alone. For those that settle, the farmers have to agree to never discuss their settlement. Many farmers believe that they are profiled by the size of their farm so they can be made an example of. And this scares other farmers into not saving their own seed. Those farmers that do fight often spend their entire retirement money - up to $200,000 for one family.

To better explain, if Monsanto's GMO seed gets cross-pollinated into your crops, no matter how it got there (via wind, bird droppings, blowing off a truck, whatever) Monsanto now owns that seed. It now belongs to Monsanto based on current patent law. Even if you don't want it in your field.

So, for a more personal example, let's say I own 15 acres of land on which I grow organic heirloom soybeans. Soybeans that have been grown on my land for the last 5 generations by my ancestors, with seed stock they brought with them from the old country and are now perfectly adapted to my land.

Now, let's say my next door neighbor (we'll call him Soylent Greenpa) grows Round-up Ready soybeans, a GMO crop developed by Monsanto that is resistant to the herbicide, Roundup.

Because the wind tends to blow from west to east and his crops are west of mine, my soybean crops get contaminated with his GMO soybeans. I take my now contaminated crops (unbeknownst to me) and save the seeds. Thousands of them. And I grow a whole new crop of soybeans with them. Monsanto can legally sue me for damages since I am now not only illegally growing "their" soybeans, but since they also own all the seed I have saved.

As an extreme example, most of the canola fields in Western Canada are now contaminated by Monsanto's GMO seed and the farmers are facing this very problem of patent infringement.

Next up, Part 2 of The Future of Food.

Disclaimer: This review is my account of the movie and may be highly fraught with inaccuracies. If you have any comment to add or to help clarify, please feel free.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Better Off Book Club

I know I keep yammering on about the book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende but I really can't help myself. I truly enjoyed this book and it's one of those that makes you want to start reading it all over again right after you've finished it. And, let me tell you, that rarely happens with me. I have a shitton of books piled up waiting to be read so I generally don't have the time or desire to re-read something.

But, this one is different. It makes me want to share it with people who are of like mind. I'm not talking about people I know in my 'real life' because they'll think I'm a kook. No, I'm talking about you, the readers of this blog. My kooky friends. Because I know the content is up your alley and it hits all the right nerves regarding self-sufficiency, local resilience and community - basically all the things many of us are striving for. In other words, trying to find meaning in a crazy technological and product driven world.

So, I want to propose to you guys a new book club and gauge your interest. Since I've already read the book, doing the posts for me will be a breeze, so I'm prepared to get this going and wrap it up during the month of April. It's a quick read, been out long enough for your local library to have copies of it and, if you don't want to buy a physical copy of it, you can read it on your Mac or PC in the Kindle format.

What the heck is the book about, you ask?
It's about a couple who decides to move to an Amish-like community and live technology-free for 18 months. The community is kind of a cross between the Amish and Mennonites. The author calls them Minimites because they really are much more strict than modern day Amish, using as little technology as possible. The author lives in a house with no running water, electricity (so no fridge) and relies on a wood stove, oil lamps and grows all their own food. They also grow sorghum for making molasses they can sell as well as pumpkins for sale to earn a little money for buying necessities.

Along the way, the wife gets pregnant and delivers their baby using a local midwife (who doesn't own a phone), they sell their car in exchange for a horse and buggy and, generally, they end up living the lifestyle while gaining a greater appreciation for living modestly. I won't completely spill all the beans, but that's the gist of it. What's interesting is how they chose to live after the 18 months are over.

If you are interested in joining the Better Off Book Club, let me know!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

BPA-free canned tomatoes

The following is an excerpt from my book, The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You, due out Fall 2011 from New Society Publishers.

Getting faked out

A while back my husband and I stopped purchasing our favorite organic canned tomato products because of the issue with the BPA lining in cans. Finding an alternative lining for highly acidic foods, like tomatoes, is an issue for manufacturers and for the most part your choices are glass jars or the aseptic packages (those cardboard boxes that look like juice boxes). I could only find tomato paste in glass jars, so if I needed diced or whole canned tomatoes, I had to opt for the one product available in aseptic cardboard, which was Pomi.

Pomi, unfortunately, wasn’t certified organic, but it was an import from Italy where they use a lot less pesticides to begin with and their parent company was a certified producer of organic foods in Italy. It was a trade-off for us as the Pomi products didn’t taste as good as the organic brand we used to use and really liked, Muir Glen.

I had seen news reports saying that Muir Glen (a General Mills brand) was in the process of reformulating their cans and that, starting with the 2010 tomato crop, their tomato products would be canned without the use of BPA. This was great news, particularly in light of the fact that our annual pledge to u-pick tomatoes and can them ourselves in glass never seems to come to fruition here in Seattle where the tomato crop can be heinously paltry. Growing our own tomatoes for this purpose every year turns out to be an enormous lesson in frustration. The microclimate in our yard, just off of Puget Sound, tends to remain cool for most of the day even in the summer and we are generally left with green tomatoes with just a few ripening each year.

However, in early December, my husband popped into the grocery store on the way home from our annual family visit to see the Gingerbread Village at the Sheraton in downtown Seattle. Hank went in to pick up some items for making manicotti and, while he was reaching for the Pomi boxes, he noticed that the Muir Glen cans advertised the fact that they were made with “enamel lined cans”. He was excited when he got out to the car as he was thinking that these were the new BPA-free cans. He was so convinced about this labeling that he almost bought Muir Glen instead. But, he knew better. I immediately went home to do some research and find out if, indeed, this was the case.

It wasn’t. Those cans still had BPA in them and, as far as I was concerned, this was extremely misleading advertising on their part. Why mention the lining of your cans unless it was something significant? Most people don’t care whether or not their cans are lined with white enamel. Many people, on the other hand, are concerned whether or not their cans are lined with BPA. In looking around for current information on the cans, I saw that the Safe Mama website had followed up with Muir Glen about a month before this incident and had managed to nail down the gory details.

In summary, the fact was that they did not have BPA-free tomato products in cans yet on the shelves and that they wouldn’t until sometime in 2011. Once they knew the date of production, the cans packaged after that production date could be considered to be BPA-free. Oddly enough, the customer service rep asked the writer from the Safe Mama whether or not she would like the cans labeled as BPA-free. Hopefully, with enough customer feedback, Muir Glen will know to label their cans with actual useful information. Until they start labeling the cans as BPA-free, it will still be a crap shoot which ones have BPA and which don’t. Even looking at the expiration date (a later date is more likely to not have BPA in them) doesn’t guarantee anything.

Do you worry about BPA in the lining of your cans or do you never buy canned tomatoes? If you can find them, Eden Organics just started selling their tomato products in amber glass jars from Ball. I have yet to see them in stores.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Earth Hour aka Carnal Hour

Every year I complain a little (okay, a lot) about Earth Hour and what it means and all that. Two years ago I caved in at the last minute and felt compelled to participate for a variety of reasons. It didn't go very well, mostly because the kids kept getting up and couldn't figure out why it was dark, but anyway, the point being that I have issues with Earth Hour.

Last year I decided to spice things up and promoted Earth Hour by suggesting that people spend that hour in bed. Either with themselves or others.

This Saturday is Earth Hour 2011 from 8:30pm to 9:30pm your local time. In spite of all the corporate greenwashing sponsorship, how can we turn Earth Hour around? Well again, this year I propose that, in order to make it more personally meaningful, we spend the hour not just with the lights off, but that the hour is spent doing some hanky panky with your favorite partner. Or, if you don't have a partner, just yourself will do (just make sure those toys are solar powered).

Now, I know for many of you, it is difficult to get your significant (or not so significant) other to play along with your environmentally or eco-friendly green shenanigans. But, if you propose Earth Hour as a Carnal Hour and sweeten the pot with some of your honey, I bet they'll be plenty of takers out there.

They shouldn't be too hard to convince. Sometimes all it takes is a little motivation! And, unless contraception is an issue, what could be more environmentally friendly than a little lovin'? With the lights off?

Anyway, not to be a total killjoy, but if you are planning on lighting candles to improve the mood, make sure you avoid paraffin and choose soy or beeswax instead. Don't make me repeat my admonishments. So, let the sparks fly, just try not to burn the house down. That's not very environmentally friendly.

Are you planning on participating in Earth Hour, in any fashion? Did you participate in Carnal Hour last year?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Urban farming weekend activity

We had the first stretch of good weather this year over the weekend and I managed to get quite a bit done around the urban homestead.

Starting in the garden, I managed to finally remove the last of our two rose bushes (we still have a tea rose in the corner that won't die and is in a position that makes it almost impossible to remove). One went down without a fight, but the other one had some seriously large roots that I had to hack away at over two days.

In its place went two thornless blackberry plants (black satin), bringing it up to four blackberries in the row by the fence. The kids wanted their raised bed to be filled with strawberries so in went 20 plants and an additional 5 sprinkled in other places.

I had fully planned on putting together another raised bed but our drill died so I managed to entertain myself by lugging bag after bag of planting compost into position in preparation for when I get it completed.

Since the copper tape on our raised beds (to keep out slugs and snails) was getting a little tattered from being several years old, I replaced it, managing to gouge my finger in the process.

The chickens have been laying like crazy with the longer days and were rewarded with more free-range time. I wanted to do a lot more planting yesterday but it ended up being colder and windier than I would have liked. Plus I was pooped out from squeezing in all the other activities. I topped off the evenings with reading and sewing some chicken themed placemats, which are slow going because I'm hand sewing them.

Overall, it was a very productive weekend. Oh, and I sent in the paperwork for getting an assessment and estimate for getting solar panels installed on our house, so I'll let you know how that goes as we proceed.

Also, don't forget... if you haven't signed the petition to take back the terms "urban homesteading" and "urban homestead" from being trademarked, do it here.

How was your weekend? Did your first weekend of spring start with a bang? Or was it a bust?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hot pink banana blossoms

For those of you who saw my Backyard Tropical Fruit video, I thought I'd show you some updated photos of the same plants bearing bananas as well as in bloom. Of course it makes sense that bananas have blossoms, but I didn't realize they were so perty.

Happy spring!

Images courtesy of Clesson Duke

Friday, March 18, 2011

On the bookshelf

I mentioned yesterday a couple of books that I was working my way through and April had a post yesterday mentioning what she was reading and I thought I'd share the complete list of things I'm currently reading:

1. Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende (almost done)
Non-fiction. The story of a husband and wife who move to a Mennonite-type community for 18 months where they use no technology. It sometimes is a little overly navel-gazing, but I'm really enjoying this book and its cast of characters.

2. The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living, by David Wann
Non-fiction. How to create a sustainable culture under the challenges of 21st century living with the increase in population and reduction in energy and resources.

3. Doodle Stitching: Fresh & Fun Embroidery for Beginners, by Aimee Ray
Craft. Because you can never start too many craft projects.

4. Solar Electricity Basics: A Green Energy Guide, by Dan Chiras
Non-fiction. Because we are thinking of "Going Greenpa" and I spent about 10 minutes yesterday talking with our neighbor about the solar panels they just had installed.

That's about it right now. What's on your bookshelf?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Setting up a neighborhood network

So, I did it. I emailed all the families on our block to try to set up more of a social and security network for our neighborhood. With all that's been going on in Japan, coupled with reading David Wann's new book, The New Normal, and Eric Brende's, Better Off, I wanted to try to help create more community bonds.

Usually I keep my crack-pot enviro nuttiness to myself. However, at some point I need to break out of my shell and see if there are other like minded individuals in the hood who just may share the same interests. Hell, you don't know if you don't ask.

Anyway, I suggested setting up an initial get-together for social purposes, but also to find out other's interests and skill sets varying from vegetable gardening, composting, canning and home brewing to things like first aid and survival skills. I'd love if there were like minded folks interested in garden work parties, canning sessions and knitting circles or whatever gets people together to chat and realize that they can rely on others in a pinch or just to make it a close community of families.

I'm sure some of them are going to look at my email and think I'm the neighborhood nutjob, which may very likely be true, but I'm hoping there are a couple individuals who are up for learning new things like cheese making or canning or home brewing and the like. I'm a little nervous about putting myself out there and not getting any responses back so I'll keep you posted on how my stab at being Mr. Rogers is working out.

Have you attempted doing something similar or would you like to? If so, what kind of response did you get? Would you like to be my neighbor?

Photo courtesy of PhinneyWood.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Medical marijuana as natural medicine

Medical marijuana is legal in Washington state and there is a bill on the table for some reform to make obtaining cannabis for medical reasons a little less onerous. And, frankly, less hazy.

Now, before you go off dismissing this post, assuming I'm some hippie pot-head, I have to admit that I've never tried marijuana. Not even the "I didn't inhale" thing, but I've honestly never in any way, shape or form been near it.

Anyway, right now, if you are authorized by a physician (who is licensed to authorize medical marijuana) to use marijuana you have to either grow it yourself or get it from another patient who grows it. As a patient, you are allowed to grow 15 plants. If that's more than you can use or need you can donate your extra supply to another patient or, in the case of a few dispensaries in Seattle, you can donate it to the dispensary to sell to patients. The sales are used to cover the costs of running the dispensary.

This is, obviously, problematic for a number of reasons. First, as a patient, you need to know how to cultivate and grow marijuana which, if you are in a lot of pain (ostensibly why you are legally using it in the first place), you probably aren't interested in going through the process of setting up your own grow op.

Second, if you are in pain it takes time to grow and process your pain meds. Imagine if you were in pain and the doctor just gave you a prescription for a narcotic pain medicine, gave you some basic instructions and suggested you make it at home. Of course, this is an exaggeration since most of us aren't chemists, but it's not that much further from reality when it comes to medical marijuana.

In any case, the reform is attempting to help resolve some of the gray areas when it comes to distribution of medical marijuana. The dispensaries here sell marijuana as tinctures, as food additives and in a few other forms. Doctors who are authorizing "prescriptions" for marijuana recommend against smoking it. And, oddly enough, currently there are no guidelines for dosages and one has to basically experiment with quantities to determine what works for them.

So, if you are a patient who needs pain control, but doesn't want to take narcotics and experience the whole host of side-effects incumbent with them, it's certainly possible in this state to use marijuana instead, although it is not a system that is easy to navigate. I, admittedly, don't know much about how marijuana compares to narcotics from a long-term side-effect standpoint, but from what I've heard, there are considerably fewer. Plant-based drugs are generally less problematic than pharma-based chemical drugs and, if I had to choose, I would prefer the plant based ones. In either case, I would like to see more research going into marijuana for medical purposes to see how it stacks up.

Since I've seen the numerous terrible side-effects, complications and drug interactions of various narcotics that my husband endured trying to get his pain under control during his cancer treatment (and, believe me, he tried them all), I can honestly claim that marijuana should be the first line of treatment. Unfortunately, social mores prevent us as a society from truly exploring the benefits of this plant. I hope that, in due time, this will not be the case.

As a side note - Mary Lou Dickerson (a rep from WA state) is working on a bill to legalize marijuana in this state, where it would be sold in state liquor stores, but that's a whole different issue than providing it for pain relief.

What's your opinion on medical marijuana or your experiences with it versus something like Percoset or codeine? Feel free to leave an anonymous comment or make up some groovy name if you don't want to be tracked by the feds.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No child left inside

Searching for sea crittersOne thing that's difficult to do as parents is to make sure that your kids not only get enough exercise, but to make sure they get enough time and opportunity to play outside. If you live in a more rural area with access to green spaces or you have a lot of parks or natural areas the problem is oftentimes more a battle against sedentary activities, such as watching television, movies and playing video games, that are so pervasive in our culture.

One way of raising the next generation of environmentalists (I like to call them "stewards of nature"), is to expose your kids early and often to not just the outside, but to the wonder of all the life that teems around us outside the safe bubble of our modern homes.

Moon snail eggsWe try to get our kids outside, but aren't always successful, especially with the wet and rainy weather around here. One thing we like to do is take them down to the beach for low tide. We generally find sea stars, crabs, moon snails, sea anemones by the hundreds, tube worms and lots of other animals.

Now, these are not the spectacular Seaworld style mammals that bring in the crowds, but the everyday critters that inhabit the beaches around here. These are the LBJs of the sea.

Moon snail and sea anemoneIf all we do is wow our kids with sea otter tricks, jumping killer whales and stories of deadly sharks and eels, how do they garner respect for the little guys whose lives make those farther up the food chain possible?

I am hoping that with exposure, coupled with education, my kids will learn to enjoy and respect nature and all that it contains and will strive to protect it as well when they are adults.

Dead fish headFor those of you parents, or parents-to-be who are interested in reading more, check out Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Or just take your kids outside and let them explore. Something as mundane (or disgusting, depending on your take) as a half-eaten fish head, opens up a world of wonder to a child.

What do you do to encourage your child explore the natural world? Camping, trips to the beach?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Nuclear energy - is it worth it?

I'm sure all of you are aware of the growing risks of the situation in Japan following the horrific earthquake and tsunami. All eyes are now on Japan's nuclear reactors and the potential not just for localized radiation leakage, but on something much more alarming if their containment is breached.

Living on the west coast and, in particular, the Pacific NW, where we are right in the path of any large amount of radiation leakage certainly makes me think about the risks of nuclear power.

Having grown up living near Hanford, it's certainly something that occasionally crosses my mind but it's not something I think about much. The vast majority of our local energy comes from clean energy sources - hydroelectric and wind - and we are extraordinarily lucky in that regard.

I've never been a fan of nuclear energy and this event just reinforces for me that the dangers far outweigh any good they produce. The highly hazardous waste alone is sufficient to rethink nuclear energy as a long-term viable energy policy and the obvious risk of damage from natural events just isn't worth the cost to human health and the environment.

With the recent push toward reintroducing more nuclear energy as an option to get off of petroleum based fuel, the happenings in Japan should certainly make us all pause.

What do you think of what's going on? Are you scared? Do you feel threatened? And, how has it changed your opinion of nuclear energy, if at all?

Photo: Getty Images

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Home Energy Audit Winner

I'm going to cut to the chase in today's post and announce the winner of the home energy audit, sponsored by Pro Energy Consultants.

And the winner is:
The Haphazard Countryman from the blog, Concrete to Chickens.

A professional energy audit (which usually costs $350 and up) can pinpoint where your home is "leaking" energy and tell you what steps you can take to live greener and save money. By identifying where a home is leaking energy and what improvements will make the home more comfortable and energy efficient, an audit can help you can lower energy bills and reduce your carbon footprint.

Congratulations to the Haphazard Gentleman! Please email your contact information to and I'll forward it to Pro Energy Consultants to set up your free home energy audit!

Note: I was in no way compensated for this giveaway nor do I have any business relationship with Pro Energy Consultants.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blackberry, Rum and Black Pepper Jam

We just ran out of homemade jam. It is quite a terrible thing and I'm wondering if I should bust out the frozen berries to make more jam.

Last summer we didn't do as much canning as we normally do because we were out of town for almost a month during prime canning season. This year, I'm sure I'll more than make up for it, but I wanted to let you all know about my favorite jam that I've come up with so far. It's a fantastic mix of blackberries, spices and complex flavors.

When I made this last year, I was trying to figure out what additional flavors would go well with blackberry and decided to give fresh ground black pepper and barrel aged rum a try. I was not at all disappointed.

Blackberry, Aged Rum and Black Pepper Jam


5 cups packed (not crushed) blackberries, preferably organic
2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon grated lemon peel
1 package Ball (or SureJell) natural fruit pectin
7 cups sugar
1/3 cup aged rum*

Makes 9 half-pints.


Rinse and measure blackberries and add them to a large, non-reactive pot. In the meantime, sterilize 9 half-pint canning jars and lids in a water bath canner.

Heat the berries over high, adding in the grated lemon peel and blending. As the berries start to reduce, freshly grind in about 2 teaspoons black pepper on a medium or coarse grind. As the berries further reduce, gradually stir in the fruit pectin.

Bring mixture to a full boil until it cannot be stirred down. Add the entire amount of sugar and stir. Return to full boil and boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly. Immediately take mixture off the heat and add in the rum. Stir until the rum is well incorporated and the alcohol is cooked off from the residual heat (it will reboil when you add in the rum).

Fill your canning jars with jam, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Apply lids and process the jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes (adjusting for altitude as per the instructions that come with your pectin).

Remove jars and allow to cool for 12 - 24 hours and store. Assuming you don't eat it all as soon as it's cool.

*For the rum, I used Barbancourt Rhum Reserve Speciale, aged 8 years in oak.

Photo courtesy of Outdoor Blogging

Friday, March 11, 2011

Trapped by your possessions

Do you feel like you buy too much stuff or that you are trapped by all of your belongings? I know I sometimes do.

Even if you aren't feeding into the standard commercialism of electronics and cars and clothing, it's easy to buy too many things to feed other, more sustainable hobbies.

Like gardening, sewing, knitting, home brewing, you name it. If it's a hobby and there's stuff to buy for it, the temptation is there.

It's easy to justify purchases to support self-sufficiency or homesteading or whatever you want to call it and feel like it's different than buying the latest mascara or hippest handbag. But it's not. It's still buying stuff you probably don't really need. In other words, you could probably make do with other things you already have or can share with others.

In the past I've run Buy Nothing Challenges where those that participated in the challenge pledged to not buy anything new beyond the essentials. It's a great lesson in being mindful of what's in your shopping cart. Before you head to the checkout, you run through a mental scan of "do I need this" for each item you're about to purchase. It's helpful to keep unneeded things out of your cart, but it's also easy to fall out of the habit.

I know I did. Or, at the very least, I managed to justify new purchases because it had some ulterior usage - a new compost bin here, a fancy gardening pot there. Stockpiling like a little squirrel.

In any case, even if you are mindful of your purchases and only buy things that are "useful" for your home or your projects or whatever, do you still feel like you are overwhelmed by stuff? Do you wish you could downsize and reduce the amount of material objects in your life?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What's your green cleaning routine?

Clean n' GreenI always like to check in with my readers and find out what kind of green cleaning products they use. So, your task for today is to enlighten the rest of us as to what you use:

What is your favorite homemade or green product to clean:

1. bathrooms (replacing something like Comet)
2. countertops (replacing 409)
3. mildew (replacing X-14)
4. soap scum (replacing Comet)
5. windows (replacing Windex)
6. laundry (replacing Tide)
7. dishes (hand - replacing something like Joy)
8. dishes (machine - replacing Electrasol)
9. linoleum
10. wood floors
11. skin
12. hair
13. teeth (replacing Colgate)

Looking at the list of replacements above, it's amazing how toxic mainstream cleaners are. How do your green replacements stack up?

Now get crackin'. I want answers, people!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

New Crunchy Chicken blog on Mother Earth News

I wanted to let you all know that I've got my own blog up now on Mother Earth News. I'll be posting on it weekly (if not more frequently) with content that's different than what I'm posting here.

So, while you'll still see the same stuff here that you've come to expect, there will be even more of it - just across town. I'll cross-post links when I've got a new post up over there so you don't miss any of the action.

Harvesting dandelion crops

Evil, evil dandelionsI used to hate dandelions with a passion. They were the bane of my existence and I would go after them with abandon, wielding my Weed Hound like there was no tomorrow.

Of course, since these fits of dandelion mass murder occurred rather infrequently in spite of my hatred, they managed to take over. It didn't help that my kids think spreading dandelion seed heads all over is the greatest activity ever.

No problem, I thought. I'll make good use out of them. Since dandelions are edible from stem to stern, I considered using them as greens (too bitter) and even went so far as harvesting a ton of flowers for making chocolate orange dandelion bread (too savory).

But now that I have chickens? I harvest the crap out of my dandelion filled lawn. The chickens think dandelions, pulled up with their long tentacles and all, are the best food on earth. If I don't come out bearing a few dandelions, they cluck at me in admonishment. Fortunately, I have a good supply of organically grown dandelions at my disposal. I was almost getting afraid of over-harvesting them and cutting off the supply.

I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen since I've got several production sites in my yard (front, side and back). In any case, since the chickens love dandelions and turn them into brightly yolked high nutrient eggs and since I don't love dandelions, I'm more than happy to let them convert my weeds into even better homegrown eggs for me.

It's a win-win situation. And it's free, I don't have to put any labor into growing this food source for the chickens (except for pulling them up) and I feel like somehow I'm cheating. And the girls love them:

What do you do with your dandelions? Do you eat them?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Buying the farmed (salmon, that is)

Super Tasty Wild SalmonI was at the grocery store last week buying wild Alaskan salmon (previously frozen) at an affordable $9.99 a pound, as another customer was asking the "fishmonger" for a cut of the wild salmon. When this customer spied the farmed Atlantic salmon for a mere $4.99 a pound, he immediately changed his order to the farmed, I suspect based on the cost.

I had to stop myself from saying anything, lest I came off sounding like a crazy lecturing enviro-nutball. Which, of course, I sometimes am.

1. The wild salmon fishery in Alaska is actually one of the few sustainable fisheries left in the world
2. Wild salmon has more heart-healthy Omega 3s
3. Wild salmon has considerably less PCBs as compared to farmed
4. Farmed salmon is oftentime dyed to give it the pink color
5. Farmed salmon spread parasites and disease to wild salmon and compete for habitat when they escape their pens

Song for the Blue OceanThe list goes on and on. (If you want to get really depressed about the state of our fisheries, read Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas.)

Anyway, what would you do? Or what do you do? Would you have launched into the many reasons why choosing wild, in spite of the cost, is better than farmed? Or would you hold your tongue? Or do you buy the farmed?

Mulch madness

I just love that word - mulch.

I don't care much about basketball, but mulch is always on my mind - especially as the garden gets going starting in March.

I like using Whitney Farms Weed Whompin' Mulch (aka Bark Mulch) for the non-food growing areas of our urban farmstead and around the berry bushes and fruit trees. But, I still haven't really found something I like for around the vegetable plants once they get going.

So, I'm looking for recommendations. What's your favorite mulch for your food gardens? Do you use straw, bark, grass clippings, leaves? Or something else?

Whitney Farms Tomato and Vegetable Food
Mulch It!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Urban Homesteading - Backyard Tropical Fruit

Monday is Urban Homesteaders Day of Action and many of us are posting videos on YouTube that are in support of urban homesteading.

In this video, I talk about growing Cavendish banana plants, Hass avocado and citrus in your backyard in those areas of the country where you can (in this case, San Diego). Oh, and, Charlie the hummingbird makes a visit. Plus, some outtakes at the end.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Home Energy Audit Giveaway

Let me first point out that I would absolutely love to win this giveaway. Unfortunately, I'm not eligible to enter.

But, for you, my glorious readers, I have arranged with Pro Energy Consultants, the only national energy auditing company, to perform a FREE energy audit on the home of one lucky winner.

A professional energy audit (which usually costs $350 and up) can pinpoint where your home is "leaking" energy and tell you what steps you can take to live greener and save money. If you've been suffering along at low indoor temperatures in the Freeze Yer Buns Challenge, fixing those leaks can help you stay much more comfortable at a lower thermostat setting.

An energy audit can help pinpoint the reasons why you maybe be experiencing any one or more of the top three building performance problems: comfort issues (such as rooms difficult to heat or cool), excessive energy usage issues (high utility bills) and poor indoor air quality issues (excessive humidity or constantly dusty rooms).

By identifying where a home is leaking energy and what improvements will make the home more comfortable and energy efficient, an audit can help you can lower energy bills and reduce your carbon footprint.

For more information about the home energy audit services provided for this giveaway you can check them out here. It's the full meal deal including installing a blower door and using infrared to determine where you need help. A detailed energy audit report including an explanation of their findings and suggestions for improvements, based on your budget, your goals and your interest in some DIY fun, wraps up the giveaway.

The Giveaway

The winner of this giveaway will get a free home energy audit. A few days after the energy audit, the winner will receive a list of prioritized, recommended improvements to make their home more comfortable and energy efficient.

To Enter

1. You must be a U.S. resident

2. Your house must not exceed 5,000 square feet (snicker).

3. You must live in one of the following cities/markets:

Austin, TX
Boston, MA
Waynesboro, VA (near Richmond)
Chicago, IL
Cincinnati, OH
Cleveland-Akron, OH
Columbus, OH
Denver, CO
Detroit, MI
Greenville-Spartanburg, SC
Kansas City, MO
Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
Nashville, TN
Phoenix, AZ
South Bend, IN
Tampa, FL
Topeka, KS
Washington, D.C.

Updated! New cities added 3/7/10
Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX
Dayton, OH
Des Moines, IA
Evansville, IN
Philadelphia, PA
Piscataway, NJ
Portage, IN (northwest area of IN)
Reno, NV
Richmond, VA
St. Louis, MO
Tulsa, OK

[If you are not sure whether or not you are in a participating market, you can use this zip code finder tool to see if you qualify for the cities listed above.]

4. To enter, leave a comment on this post letting me know your zipcode and your biggest home energy concern (like leaky doors and drafty windows) by midnight PST, Friday, March 11th.

Good luck!!

Note: If your city isn't listed above, check back later this week as I may be adding additional participating cities to the list. I'll announce them on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Gluten-free brownies that taste awesome

I was going to title this post, "gluten-free brownies that taste good" for the alliterative effect, but I had to change it because this product I'm about to review doesn't just taste good, it tastes awesome. Which is difficult for me to say because I'm pretty damn picky.

A few weeks after I wrote the review of Coconut Bliss, talked about a paleo and a gluten free diet and mentioned some other gluten-free foods I was eating, I got an email from someone representing French Meadow Bakery which is the oldest, continuously operating certified-organic bakery in the United States. Aside from that, they also make some gluten-free products.

Now, I've tried plenty of gluten-free baked goods and the vast majority of pre-packaged (hell, I'll even include fresh baked gluten-free goods here) taste like wood, are as heavy as lead and have the texture of sand. So, needless to say, I figured the French Meadow Bakery Gluten-Free Fudge Brownies were going to not be a taste sensation. But, I'm game for pretty much anything, so I agreed to do a review.

Packaged in a box of nine that you can buy from your grocer's freezer (I've always wanted to say that), the brownies can be hucked into a school lunch box or taken to work and will be thawed by lunch. Or, if you are lazy or just forget, like me, you can throw it in the microwave for a few seconds until it is thawed.

People. These are the real deal. They taste as good as fresh homemade brownies and I would go so far as to say they are better than most commercial brownies with gluten. Glutinatious? Anyway, they are made with no artificial ingredients, preservatives or colors and they take care not to cross-contaminate for those of you with severe gluten allergies.

You can buy these nationally at Whole Foods, Safeway and other natural food markets, like PCC if you're in the Seattle area. And, even though their website sucks, you can get a coupon for $1 off, if you are so inclined. Even though I'm not on a strict gluten-free diet, I'm trying to be. So, needless to say, I'll be buying some more of these.

Note: I was in no way compensated for this review besides the brownies. Of course, I'm not against them sending me a box of them there cupcakes they are advertising.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Protecting your food gardens from zombies

There's been a bit of discussion in an online group I belong to over the op-ed in the Washington Post, A climate-change activist prepares for the worst, by Mike Tidwell. The gist of the op-ed is that the author has done much over the years to reduce his carbon footprint but has recently gone further to try to live a more self-sufficient and off-the-grid lifestyle.

He argues that, with the weather and power interruptions they've experienced in the D.C. area, it's prudent to be prepared. But, he goes further than that and has been dead-bolting the doors, buying supplies for indoor raised bed gardening and visiting a shooting range to learn how to use a shotgun. Just in case the impending zombies decide to steal his lettuce. Or something like that.

Now, I didn't blink an eye at this because it's not too uncommon for people who are foreward thinking on the issues of food security, climate change, peak oil or, really, just emergency preparedness to go to these extremes. And, I know many of the readers of this blog and others related to climate change and peak oil have taken these steps and, in some cases, have gone much further complete with months worth of stockpiled supplies, food, MREs and a personal artillery to protect it all.

However, the reaction among my online group was mostly one of disbelief ranging from "this is sick beyond words" to "the guy's a whack" to the admission that neighbors were afraid to let their kids over the author's house after this. I think I may have been the only one non-plussed by the article.

My experience has been that people respond differently to perceived disasters and some may hunker down and prepare as a method of controlling fear as well as give themselves a sense of stability and safety. While I won't argue that the dual issues of climate change and peak oil won't hit us hard, I don't think we're going to wake up overnight and it's going to be Armageddon. I believe it's going to be a slower decline than that, one that we can adjust to over time.

The end result won't be something out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Jim Kunstler's male-oriented fantasy vision of the über-prepared man shooting big guns and licking miles of pussy.

In either case, it is ridiculous to think that something like Mr. Tidwell's locks and novice gun skills will provide much in the way of protection against the truly hungry. However, I can't agree with the reaction of the others in my group. I think Tidwell's actions are common and understandable. He isn't some nutjob holing up in some bunker in the woods, but a man concerned for the long-term safety and welfare of his family.

What about you? Are you preparing for the zombie hoards, just stocking up for emergencies and/or doing nothing to protect your homestead? Do you think Mr. Tidwell's preparations are wise or unwarranted?

Related posts:
Ladies totin' guns
Survival Series

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Urban farming with the Nonagenarians

non·a·ge·nar·i·an /nänəjəˈne(ə)rēən/
Noun: A person who is from 90 to 99 years old.

A few weekends ago I went to a book release party and ended up hanging out with the parents-in-law of the author. The dad had a birthday coming up that week and was turning 91. His wife was also turning 91 this year, in August.

I don't know how we got on the topic, but our conversation turned to gardening, raising chickens and canning. They had been doing it all for decades and still grew a huge amount of food in their yard and canned like fiends every year.

They were excited to find someone my age so involved in doing something that, in the intervening decades had lost its "popularity", so to speak. Having lived through the Depression and WWII, victory gardens weren't something they did just during time of need. They were a wealth of information, sharing tips on pressure canning, canning peaches and nectarines and secrets of canning green beans.

My own grandparents didn't make it to their ages. Both grandparents on my dad's side passed away in their 50s, long before I was born. My grandparents on my mom's side lived longer, but there was no tradition of raising food since they lived their entire lives in Brooklyn. My great-grandparents owned a farm in upstate NY and my mom remembered visiting them, with stories about chickens and the like, but otherwise there was no shared knowledge to pass down.

On my husband's side of the family, being of Italian roots, there's a lot more by way of food traditions. My mother-in-law is quite a green thumb, growing tomatoes and herbs in her tiny backyard in Philadelphia, but not much else. Her grandparents used to make wine out of their Philly brownstone, which made it a popular place in the neighborhood. But, all that knowledge has been lost to us.

So, needless to say, I was excited to spend some time gleaning as much information from these two knowledgeable, elderly folks. Especially since they were still so energetic and proud about continuing these activities. They had so many years of trial and error to learn from that I rarely run across. Most people I know who are interested in urban self-sufficiency are my age or younger. And we are still in the trial and error stages. And, more importantly, most people my age are more concerned with getting the latest iPad than with growing their own food.

How about you? Do you have older folks in your life that are a resource for your urban homesteading? People who you can share experiences and learn from?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Now that's one happy composter!

Brad, from the blog Highly Uncivilized, and winner of the Soilsaver Composter got his winnings today and has blogged about it here and here, if you'd like to check it out!

If you haven't checked out Brad's blog yet, go take a peek! I can't say I've figured out exactly how his blog is organized to find some content, but the stuff I've seen has been really interesting.

Thanks, Brad!

Photo courtesy of His Bradness.

Are you still Freezing Yer Buns?

I know we are. Last week the kids had mid-winter break and we were planning on taking a short trip but between the threat of snow in both our destination and in Seattle and a slew of head colds, we decided to stay home.

Which was a good thing, otherwise I'm afraid the chickens would have gone without water. You see, I never did end up getting a heated dog water bowl for them because the last time it was this cold the store sold out. And then it wasn't much of a priority again. And then I forgot.

In any case, we've got one month left in this year's Freeze Yer Buns Challenge and it looks like it's going to be a chilly one all the way to the end. At least for us. Between being sick and it being so cold out, we've bumped the heat up a bit for the last week or so (those low grade fevers are a bitch).

In order to wrap up the challenge, next week I'll be hosting a super awesome giveaway sponsored by Pro Energy Consultants so keep your eyes peeled for that. It will be worth it!

How are things looking for you guys? Have you been able to keep to your temperature pledges? Over 200 households pledged to lower their thermostats this year so I'm curious to hear how y'all are doing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Starting seeds indoors

I started some seeds indoors about a week ago and this year I decided to do it right. Usually I rely on natural daylight for growing my plant starts, but with limited daylight and strength, the plants either get leggy or do poorly. I didn't want to invest in grow lights, but then I realized that we have the exact same kind of lights in the "shop" area in our basement. The area near the oil furnace that actually stays quit warm and that I don't ever think about because it's, well, near the oil furnace. And I don't do shop.

I replaced the fluorescent lights with new ones and rigged up some racks to elevate the plants near the lights. But, I wanted something that was moveable to adjust the height as the plants grow. And then I realized the perfect use for all those old technical books that are super thick and don't get used anymore. Et voilà! My new grow operation went live this morning. I'm just getting started so they'll be a lot more plants set up down there soon. I can't tell you how excited I am!

Are you starting seeds indoors this year? Or do you buy plant starts or just direct seed?

Homesteading skills to learn in 2011

Every year I like to ask what kind of new skills people are wanting to learn either to be more self-sufficient or to finally pick up that hobby they've been wanting to try.

Last year we didn't do as much canning and food gardening as we usually do, but we did get chickens! This year I'm looking into getting rabbits for fiber production and spinning, starting up a chicken poop composter (more on that later) and maybe I'll dust off that solar cooker.

Which of the following skills do you wish you knew more about or would like to learn?
  • Food gardening and food storage (canning, dehydrating, pickling, fermentation, etc.)
  • Seed saving and/or fruit tree grafting
  • Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, etc.
  • Composting

  • Animal husbandry (rabbits, chickens, goats or larger)
  • Beekeeping
  • Animal skinning, processing
  • Sheep or other animal shearing
  • Spinning wool
  • Knitting
  • Sewing

  • Cooking, baking
  • Making own cheese and/or yogurt
  • Making beer and/or wine
  • Solar cooking

  • Alternative medicine and/or first aid
  • Making soap (cold process from oils and lye)
  • Making candles

  • Carpentry
  • Plumbing or electrical
  • Bike maintenance and repair
  • Appliance repair

What is the biggest thing preventing you from learning to do these things? Time, money? What would make it easier?

Related books:
The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden
The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre!
Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills
City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers
How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time
Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses
The Soapmaker's Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques & Know-How
My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method
Homegrown Whole Grains: Grow, Harvest, and Cook Wheat, Barley, Oats, Rice, Corn and More

Note: There are affiliate links in this post.