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!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Olive Oil Lamp for Emergencies

If you live in an area that frequently experiences power outages due to hurricanes, high winds and other storms, one of the things you want to have on hand during storm season is backup lighting. Candles are a sure bet, but they don’t put out much light and — if you want to choose options made from renewable, organic materials — beeswax and soy candles can get mighty expensive.

There are hand-crank and battery-powered lanterns, but what if you don’t already have one on hand when a power outage strikes? The same problem exists if you’re looking for a kerosene or other oil-style lamp. So, what do you do during an emergency for light? How about something that is easy to acquire, inexpensive and gentle on the environment?

The answer is you can make your own olive oil lamp. You don’t need much in the way of equipment and if you don’t have olive oil, you can replace it with other types of cooking oil — or any kind of liquid fat or grease in a pinch. However, I must warn you that while olive is a 99 percent pure renewable fuel that won’t produce smoke or odor, I can’t vouch for canola or corn oil as being smoke-free or that it won’t make the house smell like burnt popcorn.

Making your lamp is relatively easy, and most likely you will have many of the materials on hand already. Here’s what you’ll need:
  • A wide-mouthed glass jar (a quart-size wide-mouthed canning jar works really well)
  • A short length of flexible steel wire (1 1/2 or 2 times the height of the jar)
  • A wick
  • Olive oil

Putting Together the Lamp
1. Form one end of the steel wire into a long hook, about the same height as the jar. This hook holds the wire on the jar and doubles as a handle to pull the wick up for lighting.

2. Take the other end of the wire and wrap it into a coil, creating a wick stand about an inch or two tall that sits on the bottom of the jar.

3. Pinch the top of the metal coil onto about 2 inches in length of wick so that about a quarter inch or less of the wick is sticking up above the wire coil. Any longer and the wick will smoke. The other end of the wick will be soaking in the olive oil.

4. Add enough olive oil to your jar so that the level is just under where the wick is pinched by the wire. Any higher and you risk putting out the lamp with the oil.

How the Lamp Works
The olive oil is drawn up the wick where it vaporizes and gets burned by the flame. A few ounces of oil will burn for several hours, so if you are concerned about the cost, it is much cheaper than most candles. If you can find lampante oil (olive oil not suitable for eating, but for burning), you can save money by buying that instead of culinary olive oil.

Want to get fancy with your olive oil lamp? You can infuse your olive oil with herbs, spices or essential oils for a more scented experience.

Olive oil lamps have been used for thousands of years and people have relied on oil lamps in general up until the last few generations. They are reliable, plus they burn bright and long. The benefit of olive oil is that if the lamp gets knocked over, it stops burning because it has a high flash point, meaning that it’s not a very flammable material. As a result, an olive oil lamp is far safer than a candle or kerosene lantern. If you are having problems with it smoking when you blow it out, use wet fingers to put out the flame, or just douse it with the oil in the jar.

Notes on Materials
One of the benefits of using a canning jar is that, when the oil lamp is not in use, you can put a canning lid on top for storage. A wide-mouthed pint jar will also work well, you just need to adjust the size of the wick holder.

For your wick, you can use 100 percent cotton string or twine and salt it to ensure that it burns long. To salt your wick, take your cotton twine, put it in a bowl with a little water and then cover with table salt. Squeeze it dry and let it dry overnight, or until it is no longer damp.

If you need or want your lamp to emit more light, try using a braided, flat wick (a half inch or narrower), adjusting the way the wire supports this kind of wick by crimping it to accommodate the extra girth. You can buy flat wicks from stores that carry supplies for oil lamps (such as Lehman’s). Or, you can cut up an old 100 percent cotton tea towel into strips and use that instead.

Commercial Products
If this all seems a bit too complicated to manufacture on your own and you would rather buy an olive oil lamp, you’ll find old fashioned oil lamps online from Lehman’s. Be sure to check out the book I Didn’t Know That Olive Oil Would Burn! while you are at it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Top 11 Urban Homesteading Tools

Mother Earth News has an old article up in their newsletter about their Top 20 Homesteading Tools. I read through it, thinking that the vast majority of the suggestions just didn't apply to those of us who are urban homesteaders.

So, I thought I'd come up with a list of my own. Here are my Top 11 Urban Homesteading Tools:

1. Garden Cart: I worked for years without one, dragging, hoisting and generally straining my back hauling yard waste and bags of compost back and forth. This year I finally got a wheeled garden cart and I wish I had gotten it years earlier.

2. Heavy Duty Hoe: I reviewed the grub hoe I got last year and, even though it's tiring work, it slices through sod like butter, making quick work of basic backyard digging duties.

3. Shovel and Rake: This is just plain obvious stuff here. I have a flat ended shovel I use for, mostly, moving dirt around. The rake I use fairly infrequently, so I consider it optional.

4. Cordless Drill: I actually hate cordless tools, mostly because they seem to poop out at the least opportune time. But, they are invaluable when building new raised beds and doing any kind of minor construction work around the urban farm. I'm not handy enough to build my own coop or anything so you won't be seeing too much in the way of circular saws or anything in this list, but this is about as fancy as I get.

5. Hand Shovel and Garden Shears: Since most of my "crops" are grown in raised beds, I don't need a ton of different tools. Mostly a hand shovel and my garden shears for trimming plants. If I need anything heavy duty, I'll grab my big shears for trimming fruit tree branches.

6. Water and Pressure Canner: I, honestly, have to admit that I never use my pressure canner. I'm too lazy. But the water canner gets a ton of use.

7. Chest Freezer: Because I'm too busy to spend weekends standing over a canner, we tend to freeze a lot of the produce we buy in season. Then, when I have time, I can do whatever canning or cooking I want. It also allows us to buy in bulk when we ordinarily wouldn't do so.

8. Good Knives: Processing a lot of food, especially fruits and vegetables, is a pain in the ass under normal circumstances. Doing so with crappy knives makes it even worse. Even if you can only afford one decent all-purpose knife, it's worth it. My husband got a Shun knife last year for his birthday and it's pretty much the only one I use.

9. Compost Bin: I got this great spinning composting bin thing this year and love it. It turns my chicken poop and chicken bedding into gold!

10. Reference Books: These are the best tools of all. Books like The Backyard Homestead, The Self-Sufficient Life, Fresh Food from Small Spaces and, of course, The Urban Homestead, are great resources as well as sources of inspiration.

11. Rain Barrel: Although we don't depend on this most of the year, given the amount of rain we get in Seattle, having a rain barrel to help water your food plants can be incredibly helpful in reducing your water expenses. Just make sure you aren't using runoff from composite roofs on your food plants.

What are your favorite homesteading tools?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Better Off Book Club: Section 1 (redux)

Welcome to the first post of the Better Off Book Club! I'll be doing three book club summary and discussion posts, covering the three sections of the book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende.

In Section 1: Planting, the author explains a little of his background, going from MIT graduate student studying the effects of technology on humanity to taking the plunge and deciding to live among an Amish-like group with his new wife for 18 months.

Not satisfied with the loose interpretation taken by many modern Amish, Eric finds a community that is more strict than most Amish groups and even Mennonites. The community they settle on contains a mish-mash of locals as well as "foreigners" looking to live a technology-free life. This was the land of horse-drawn wagons, corn husked by hand, hay loaded by hand and firewood cut with bucksaws. There was no electricity, phones, cars or motors of any sort.

Eric and his wife, Mary, end up leasing the home of a local family (the Millers) who provide them with far more than just housing. Straight out of the gates, the Millers are loaning them not just furnishings for their house, but a kerosene range, a hand crank washing machine and other equipment. To top it off, the many talented and skilled Miller children provide guidance and support to help get their first farming season off the ground by planting their garden before they arrive and helping them with other chores like spreading manure and providing planting tips.

Eric quickly learns that they are ill equipped for the life they have chosen, not having the background and having a whole lot of naivete in spite of how much research they have done. Help from the neighbors is more than welcome and the Miller family also helps them build up their cash crops by loaning them space to grow pumpkins as well as sorghum for making molasses. While on one hand their neighbors were overly helpful and seemed to anticipate their needs before they did, they also came off as distant and hard to read.

The phrase "many hands make light work" was woven quite a bit into this tale and the concept of many people working together made the author forget or, at least, made the back-breaking jobs more bearable and, in some cases, turned it into a tolerable, if not pleasant, job instead.
Gradually, as you applied yourself to your task, the threads of friendship and conversation would grow and connect you to laborers around you. Then everything suddenly became inverted. You'd forget you were working and get caught up in the camaraderie, the sense of lightened effort. This surely must rank among the greatest of labor-savings secrets. Work folded into fun and disappeared. Friendship, conversation, exercise, fresh air, all melded together into a single act of mutual self-forgetting.
As the season wears on, the Millers drop off a milk cow for their use and they are reminded that their beans are getting too far along to be picked, that the weeds are taking over and they need to start collecting firewood for the winter. Keeping track of all the duties they needed to get done was difficult. Having the neighbors offering tips on one hand was extremely helpful but, on the other hand, Eric and his wife were somewhat embarrassed by their needing to have these things pointed out.

When the neighbors offer to provide running water to the house using a device called a "ram" (basically a water mill for pumping water), Eric felt that this mechanization was a little to close to breaking their technology-free rules. In looking at the technologies that the "Minimites" used - air tight combustion wood fired cooking, canning equipment, buggies and cultivators - Eric wondered where the line was drawn and also pondered the immense skills these people had to make up for the lack of technology.

The second to last chapter of this section revolved around the problems they ran into with their lack of refrigeration and the inconvenience of not being able to keep leftovers cool. This was problematic in that they had to make three meals a day from scratch rather than making larger meals for use on multiple days. They solved the problem by storing leftovers in large glass jars and submerging them in cool water from the cistern.

One thing that Eric and Mary discovered was that, without the distractions of modern life and technology, even with the extra work, they had a lot more time on their hands. They learned the difference between "fast time" and "slow time", with fast time referring to the modern convention of daylights savings time and slow time referring to the preservation of the natural markers of dawn, noon and dusk. In other words, "it was the Minimites acknowledgment of an entirely different structure in life, an entirely different pulse."

Discussion Questions
Feel free to answer some or all of the following questions (even if you haven't read the book). Or you can just comment on the first section as a whole.

1. Do you feel that you are knowledgeable enough about how to live technology-free if you had to? In other words, do you feel like you have the skills to do what they did or do you think you would fail at first and need a lot of help?

2. Do you think that using a ram to deliver water to their house is "cheating" or well within the "rules" they have placed on themselves?

3. Did you feel like their neighbors liked being helpful or were resentful for feeling like they had to help Eric and his wife through their ineptitude?

4. Would you be able to live without a refrigerator? Or electricity? Or running water? What would you miss the most?

5. What do you think Eric meant when referring to "slow time" as the concept that "leisure didn't end when work began, but pervaded every moment of the day"?

6. Do you feel rushed in "fast time" with all our distractions, TV, movies, Internet? Do you wish you could follow the rhythm of the sun and enjoy a more leisurely day without the fast paced distractions of set work and school schedules?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Saving even more money by chopping services

As another follow-up to my recent money savings from removing or decreasing some unnecessary services, I wanted to add a few more things that we've done in the last week.

As you may remember, last week we cancelled our home phone and long distance and reduced our cell phone and cable services. We also cancelled our NY Times subscription. All told, that was over $2,000 a year in savings.

Well, this week I got rid of our dedicated IP address (from our Internet service). And, because of your comments, I also reduced the size of our garbage can and got a smaller yard waste bin since the chickens eat much of our food and garden waste now. It turned out we didn't have the smallest garbage can possible. So, we switched from a mini-can to a micro-can.

Next up, I did something about that Netflix account. New members pay $7.99 a month. We've been paying $26.27 a month. Bastards. I just cancelled my account and will be looking into Amazon OnDemand through our Prime Account.

Finally, I downgraded our account with an online sitter service to their free service. I had signed up for premium services for over the summer and we don't really need it anymore. It was $60 a quarter.

With these changes we are now saving an additional $815 a year! All told that's $2,800+ a year savings just from the last few weeks of nitpicking through our bills.

By the way, our credit card number was stolen last week and some a*hole charged up several thousand dollars. The fraud department called and we got it all settled out, but the end result is that our card was cancelled and will be reissued with a new number. Since we had a number of things on auto-pay (Netflix being one of them), it will force us to rethink some additional services. Which is a good thing. I'll report back if I find other things to cut.

Any other suggestions? Things you've been able to live without?

Monday, September 26, 2011

On the bookshelf this week

I'm making my way through a bunch of books and thought I'd share with you what I'm currently reading.

1. The Wisdom of the Radish: and other lessons learned on a small farm, by Lynda Hopkins. Two ex-suburbanites move to the country to grow crops, raise chickens and sell the fruits of their labor at the local farmer's market. It first starts out sounding all pastoral and idyllic but ends in disaster with crop failures, worm infestations and a flood. I'm about midway through this one and, for some reason, I'm finding the writing kind of annoying. Hopefully that will change.

2. The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure. This one is kind of self-explanatory but suffice it to say, it describes the author's childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I got this book last week and finished it over the weekend. A few parts drag a little bit, but for the most part, I'm loving this book. The writing is crisp and humorous and the content is highly enjoyable. I learned a ton about the seedier side of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life.

3. Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende. Just re-reading through this one again for the book club, which starts this Wednesday.

4. See You in a Hundred Years: Discover One Young Family's Search for a Simpler Life... Four Seasons of Living in the Year 1900 by Logan Ward. I just got this one from the library, but it's got some great reviews. It sounds like Better Off, minus the Amish.

From Publisher's Weekly: Manhattan freelance writer Ward and his wife, Heather, faced a steep learning curve when they abandoned harried, technology-driven lives for a year not just in the country but in the country as it was a century ago.

Their mantra was, If it didn't exist in 1900, we will do without, and they did—no electricity, no telephone, no computer. This breezy account of their stubbornly quixotic odyssey begins in June 2000, with Logan exhausted pumping water from a well, ineptly milking cantankerous goats and confronting his fear of a 2,000-pound Percheron, while Heather coped with the cooking stove's suffocating heat, her fear of snakes and hand-scrubbing two-year-old Luther's cloth diapers. Their garden, planted late, was soon parched by drought and plagued by pests, the most severe of several crises, since it was their winter food.

5. The Backyard Goat: An Introductory Guide to Keeping and Enjoying Pet Goats, from Feeding and Housing to Making Your Own Cheese by Sue Weaver. Okay, it's highly unlikely I'll be getting a backyard goat anytime soon, but I love reading about this stuff and hey, it was from the library. You just can't go wrong!

6. Best Slow and Easy Recipes: More than 250 Foolproof, Flavor-Packed Roasts, Stews, and Braises that let the Oven Do the Work from Cook's Illustrated. I'm still on the quest for easy weekday recipes using my slow cooker and this one has quite a few that I'll be trying out over the next few weeks so stay tuned for recipes and reports back.

As you can see, I'm mostly working through non-fiction these days. What are you currently reading?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Living like Little House on the Prairie

Modern pioneer houseEmulating life in the late 1800s a la Little House on the Prairie is a lesson in conservation and frugality. Life may have been a whole lot tougher back then, but the end result was living life with less impact on the environment.

For modern day pioneers, you get the environmental benefits as well as the money saving ones. And, if your financial portfolio is taking a nosedive, consider trying some 19th century ways of life to snap you back into the black.

1. Grow your own food - Planting your own food crops may take some time to learn how to do properly, but once you get the hang of it, you'll save a ton of money on your food bill. Talk about eating local. For those apartment dwellers out there, you have no excuse. There's a bunch of things you can grow on your windowsills, plus indoor mushroom cultivation and much more.

2. Raise your own critters - Whether it be chickens or other poultry for their eggs and meat, bees for honey, rabbits for meat and fur or goats for dairy, wool and meat, many people have plenty of options for animal husbandry.

3. Make your meals from scratch - Do you think Ma bought dinner at the local fast food joint? I reckon not. Spending the extra effort making your meals from scratch will not only save you money, but will also save your arteries from the salt, fat and cholesterol laden convenience foods we tend to rely on. Take it one step further and make your own yogurt, cereal, butter, tomato sauce, jams, peanut butter, bread, pasta... the list goes on.

4. Conserve water - Indoor plumbing is a thing of the future and thinking like a pioneer will save you water. If you had to rely on all your daily water by lugging it to the house from the creek, you'd use a heckuva lot less water. So, save your warm up water from the sink and showers for other needs (like flushing the toilet) and be mindful of that running tap water.

5. Skip the heat - I know not all of you can do this, but even just turning your thermostats down lower, bundling up in sweaters, slippers and blankets will save you tons of money on your winter heating costs. Since the cost of heating oil, electricity and gas are expected to increase at least 10% this winter, think about reducing your thermostats by 10% or more to offset the increase.

6. Turn off the lights - Concentrate your activities in one main room if possible to reduce the number of lights on in the house. Does your whole family really need one light on (or more) per person? Getting together may also inspire more family interaction. Try telling stories - you'll be surprised at how interested your kids, friends and family are about your childhood. And all that huddling together will reduce your heating costs.

7. Walk instead of drive - Since most of you don't own a team of horses, walking is your best bet for getting around. Even if you don't live near town, most pioneers didn't either, and walking several miles to town was considered routine. You'll save money on gas and get the extra exercise you probably need.

8. Rise and set with the sun - Getting up early and going to bed early will not only award you with the much needed sleep that most of us don't get, but it will also save you money on your electricity and heating bills.

9. Craft your own - Sewing, knitting, quilting, soap-making, wood-working and other crafts are not only great hobbies, but are rewarding and can save you money. Plus, you can give away your hard work as gifts that will be much better appreciated than many store bought items.

10. Don't buy on credit - As Pa would say, "cash on the barrel head only"! In other words, live within your means and you will not run into financial trouble. By the same token, if you are only spending what you have you'll be less likely to be caught up in wanton consumerism and all the environmental impact it entails. So, stick to buying quality products that you absolutely need and that fit within your budget.

I don't know about you but I'm feeling another Pioneer Week coming on!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Locked up in the menstrual hut

I haven't polled y'all on this topic in a long while and thought it would be a good time to check in with you. On what, you ask? On "feminine protection". It has such a dubious double meaning to it. I'll refrain from ranting about that one for now.

Anyway, I was thinking the other day that I hadn't hosted a DivaCup Challenge in a long while and I figured it was probably not a bad thing since, for some reason, I got it into my head that everyone already used one.

And, then, I realized that I must have been smoking crack or something because it seemed unlikely that everyone already used one since most women have never even heard of the damn thing. Call it temporary environmental insanity.

In any case, that got me a wonderin'. What the heck are women using these days for "feminine protection"? And by that, I mean you (or your lady friend).

What the heck are you using?

1. Conventional tampons (plastic, cardboard or no applicator)
2. "Green" tampons (made from unbleached and/or 100% organic cotton)
3. Conventional pads
4. "Green" pads (made from unbleached and/or 100% organic cotton)
5. Reusable menstrual cup (DivaCup, Mooncup or the Keeper)
6. Disposable menstrual cup (Instead)
7. Sea sponge
8. Reusable cloth pad (LunaPads, GladRags, etc.)
9. Other
10. Nothing - I'm stuck here by my lonesome in the menstrual hut

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Frugal Foodies - Slow Cooker Beef Stew

I've been falling in love with our slow cooker and plan on using it more often. Since my husband has a new work schedule for fall, I'm going to be managing picking up the kids from school, doing homework and making dinner all before he gets home. Since I'll have been at work all day up until I get the kids, I won't have much time to do any prep work.

Which is where using the slow cooker will come in handy. Unfortunately, I've found that a lot of the recipes I've seen using a Crock Pot look, well, less than flavorful. I guess that may come par for the course when you dump a bunch of food in a pot and leave it be. So, I've been on the lookout for recipes that still fall in line with my "foodie" approach to cooking and baking and, as I find them, I'll be sharing. (Note: I really dislike the term, foodie, it sounds really pretentious, but I have a soft spot for alliteration.)

Here's the first one I made this week, with some heavy doctoring for flavor. The goal is to have enough food to last two dinners and require minimal work during the actual dinner time. Since we'll also be making large dinners on Sunday for leftovers, this will only require that I scurry last minute one night a week to get something on the table. And, most likely it will be something easy, like eggs.

Slow Cooker Beef Stew

1 1/2 lbs beef stew meat
2 Tablespoons olive oil (optional)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 lb small Crimini mushrooms (cut in half if large)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1/8 cup dry red wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 Tablespoons butter (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste

You have two choices. You can either put all the above ingredients in your slow cooker and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or you can sauté some of the ingredients first to give it a more complex flavor and crust.

If you do the latter, sauté the onions and mushrooms in olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat until they start getting soft (about 5 minutes), add in the garlic, red pepper flakes and tomato paste and cook until brown (about 3 minutes). Add in the red wine vinegar and soy sauce to heat. Place cooked ingredients in the slow cooker. Add the beef to the pan, searing the outside to give it a crust (a few minutes per side). Put sauteed beef into your slow cooker. Add the red wine to the pan to deglaze it and then put the wine, chicken stock, and thyme into the cooker. Commence with the slow cooking. This additional prep took me about 20 minutes.

This recipe was inspired by the Slow Cooker Beef & Mushrooms recipe over at Sweet Anna's.

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September Strawberries

Our day neutral strawberries weren't producing anything in June. Or July. Or really even August. But now that summer has finally started in Seattle (as of the first week of September) our strawberry plants are going crazy. I've been picking almost a cup of berries a day and there are still a ton of green ones on the plants. If this warm weather holds out, we'll be looking at more strawberries (and blackberries, for that matter) for weeks to come!

Resurrecting the Better Off Book Club

As you may recall, in the spring I started a book club about the book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende. I got one book club post published and another one written (unpublished) with one more remaining. I figure I should finally get off the pot and wipe.

In any case, I'm resurrecting the book club. Yeah! For those of you new to this book, I'm including my original description below. I'll also be reposting the first book club post next Wednesday, with the second one the following week. When I initially polled people, about 170+ were interested. And, even though many of you don't exactly participate in the posts, I figure there are enough silent readers out there who will follow along.

In the meantime, do you ever wish you lived completely off the grid - no electricity, technology, etc.? Do you dream of "going Amish?" So, without further ado (and to give me time to actually go find the book)...

This is a book that I truly enjoyed 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.

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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Top 5 Biggest Food Gardening Mistakes

As the main gardening season starts wrapping up, I thought I'd look back on some of the things that didn't work out for me. Or, rather, due to my own negligence, I ended up with subpar, dead, or unfruitful crops.

1. Not watering enough - Sometimes I get a bug in my britches and plant a ton of vegetable starts, water them well and then accidentally forget about them. They generally still survive when I remember to water them again (no, I don't have no fancy irrigatin' system) but they have a rough start and don't do as well as they should.

2. Not thinning - I really can't bring myself to thin out the plants as they mature, which just ends up stunting all of the plants.

3. Forgetting to fertilize - I started out the season all gung ho, making sure I was adding in my stinky fish fertilizer and then, well, I completely forgot to continue somewhere around the end of June. Oops.

4. Letting things bolt - Instead of staying on top of plants and actually eating them, I waited too long, thinking they would last. Instead, the next time I looked at them (broccoli, I'm talking to you, fuckers) they flowered, went to seed or otherwise stretched into the stratosphere in an inedible hard stalk that even the chickens ignored.

5. Not getting things in the ground at the right time - I diligently had my vegetable starts growing in the basement, doing extremely well. But, then I dropped the ball when it came time to get them in the ground. I had grandiose plans for new space, but then didn't have time (or back strength) to prepare the ground for planting. As a result, my tomato plants and all 29 of my precious pumpkin plants were the losers.

Each year, I do similar if not slightly different stupid things but eventually I'll learn. I hope.

What are your biggest gardening mistakes? Do they sound awfully similar to mine?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Saving money by cutting services

As a follow up to the post from a week or so ago about saving money, we did a couple things around the homestead that will be saving us a lot of money.

First thing up, I cancelled our home phone and long distance service. I figured that, since we have two cell phones, having the home phone land line was overkill. Even though we were a little nervous about severing an emergency line, I figured we could always add it back if we felt like we needed it. In the meantime we are saving $40 a month for phone service and $15 a month (on average) for long distance.

Next up, I tried to cancel our cable TV. Since we have a bundled discount with our Internet, cancelling our cable wouldn't save anything, but I did get a 6-month discount on both, reducing the cost by $25 a month. We have a dedicated IP address that I will be dropping soon that will be saving us another $5 a month.

Onto our cell phone. I dropped texting (or rather blocked it since it's a service I never use) which will save $5 a month (on average) and cancelled my mom's cell phone service which will save us $15 a month. I got her phone switched to a pre-paid cell phone and they loaded $10 on it for free, which will probably last her a year, at least.

Last, but not least, we are cancelling our NY Times subscription. We can just read it online, although my husband does enjoy reading it when he eats. I rarely have time to look at it, so it's no skin off my back. This is $60 a month. I also let a couple other magazine subscriptions lapse, which totals another $40 a year or so.

So, as of this week, all tallied, we are now saving over $2,000 a year on services we really won't be missing.

Are there any services you feel compelled to keep even though you don't really "need" them?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Shooting crap in the air to cool the planet

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. Field trials begin next month in the UK for experiments to engineer the climate. Using a balloon, researchers will hoist a 1 kilometer hose and attempt to pump water up and spray it into the atmosphere.

This first trial is essentially to prove that it can be done. Ultimately, the plan is to pump large quantities of sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to create a "stratospheric sunshade". Sounds so cool and shady, doesn't it?

Well, the problem is that we don't exactly know long-term effects of this act of geoengineering. Aerosols could deplete the ozone layer, contribute to air pollution and may alter visibility similar to a volcanic eruption. Other options are spraying sulfuric acid from aircraft.

Predictions of deploying such measures assume that, as the planet heats up, people will demand that the planet be cooled off. Unfortunately, according to Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, most simulations of geoengineering are "naive" and cannot model all the possible side effects. He claims that "people are not doing the right kinds of experiments to assess these effects."

I can't wait for a miscalculated cloud of sulfuric acid to rain down on me. Who needs skin anyway? How about you? Do you think we'll get to a point where these kinds of measures are necessary?

For more information, please see the article in the New Scientist, Climate-cooling trials under way. Image courtesy of the New Scientist.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How do you heat your home?

With September in full swing and the weather cooling down rapidly, I start thinking of how long we can stretch it before we have to start turning on the heat. In anticipation of this year's Freeze Yer Buns Challenge, I'm always trying to calculate ways to reduce our heating costs.

Since we heat with oil, I'm conscious of not only the carbon emissions impact, but the cost. We try to limit its usage by supplementing with electric heat (which is inexpensive in our area of the country and generated by wind and hydro). But, one of my fantasies is to get a fireplace insert to heat our home with wood.

Fireplace inserts these days are much more effective at generating heat and emit far less smoke and contaminants as compared to older models. Plus, I like the idea of having a back up heating source during times of power outages or just to have a nice toasty fire. It's much more homey and romantic than forced air heat.

Unfortunately, they are also expensive, which is one of the reasons we haven't gotten one. That and the fact that we would have to acquire wood in order to use it effectively. I'm always curious about what other people use, whether it be oil, gas, electricity or something else.

So, what kind of system do you use for heating your home? Are you happy with it? What would you prefer to use if you could choose anything?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Blackberry, Hatch Chile and Tequila Jam

On Saturday, I dragged the kids down to their school for our annual pillaging of the blackberry bushes. Well, basically, I pillage while they play on the equipment. The slope is too steep for them and is composed mainly of sand and, this year, I had the added bonus of the grass being cut and left to dry. So, it was slippery slope covered in slippery hay on slippery sand.

Needless to say, I fell a few times. In order to keep the blackberries from spilling all over, I landed rather inconveniently on my knees. Which is not a good thing, falling into blackberry bushes. When will I learn to not wear shorts while doing this? Anyway, I picked a minimal amount to make jam, mostly because I figured if I kept at it I'd really injure myself.

Sunday morning, I fired up the canner and went to work making this year's blackberry creation. If you recall, last year I was all proud of myself with my Blackberry, Black Pepper and Aged Rum recipe. I thought I had peaked out with that one, it was so good.

But, this year. We have grilled Hatch chiles. And, I thought why not throw some in the jam? I don't need to tell you how amazing this jam is. It's like a blackberry margarita with a hint of smokiness. If you want it spicy, double or triple the number of Hatch chiles and/or leave in the seeds.

Blackberry, Hatch Chile and Tequila Jam


5 cups packed (not crushed) blackberries, preferably organic
1 Tablespoon grated lemon peel
1 grilled Hatch chile, pureed (skin and seeds removed)
1 package Ball (or SureJell) natural fruit pectin
7 cups sugar
1/4 cup top-shelf tequila (I used a blanco, but a reposado or anejo would work well)

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, pureed chile and blend. As the berries 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 tequila. Stir until the tequila is well incorporated and the alcohol is cooked off from the residual heat (it will reboil when you add in the tequila).

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 unmolested for 24 hours and store.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is blogging dead?

I've been reading a bit lately about how long-form blog posts are going the way of the dodo bird. People are not visiting blogs anymore to get their information but are relying, alternatively, on social media. In particular Facebook and Twitter.

I, myself, am guilty of spending way more time on Facebook than I should (Twitter is another story - I can't stand it). In fact, I post many times a day on Facebook and have the same, if not more, involved conversations about various topics on my Facebook page. Even the links to my blog posts get far more comments on Facebook than on my actual blog.

As you've probably noticed, my blogging has been rather spotty over the summer. I'm planning on keeping up with my blog posts now that the kids are back in school, but the main reason is because I've been spending a lot of time elsewhere. Facebook.

However, I'd say that blogs are superior for a number of reasons. The most striking one would be searchability and the fact that they last over time. Facebook and Twitter are miserable in that, if you miss it when the posts/tweets go out, you really have to go out of your way to find them. Google doesn't index them either so if you are looking for information on a particular topic, you won't find it there. Also, if your Facebook profile is private, well, then it's as good as not there. And, that's not even getting to the point that you can't really carry out much of an idea in a few sentences or less, let alone in a tweet.

All that said, how do you like to get information? Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, links to blog posts from Facebook/Twitter?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Elderberry bonanza

Saturday was our community yard sale and, as I was walking Paco early Saturday morning, I noticed that the house that has the huge elderberry bush out front was going to participate. So, I decided that I should stop by to easily talk to the owners about seeing if they use their berries and, if not, if I could harvest them. We have an elderberry bush that I planted this year, but it's not yet producing berries.

Saturday afternoon rolled around and I dragged the family out on the pretense that we were perusing the yard sale items, but all along I was plotting my elderberry takeover. My daughter was the first to figure it out, but they were fine with going down that street and, luckily, one of the owners was out front as we passed.

To make a long story short, the owners do not, in fact, ever use the berries on their bush which must be at least 10 feet tall. They stated that their gardener would be stopping by shortly to trim it but that it was fine if I wanted to take the berries. I told them that I would drop off some elderberry syrup.

So, Sunday, I set out with my kitchen shears and container in hand and harvested a bunch (which ended up being 2 cups of berries with stems et al removed). There are still a veritable crapton of unripe berries left on the tree. If all goes well, I'll be heading back there.

My plan is to make elderberry syrup (I'll post about that later) as I spend a lot of money buying it for medicinal purposes (aka Sambucus nigra). It is a known antiviral and I started using it last year. I didn't get sick the entire time I was using it, even though my kids were constantly sick last year.

Anyway, do you use elderberries? What do you like to do with them? And, do you bother picking off the dried flowers?

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Billinger.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Saving gas - one tank trip

We took a short trip up to the Crystal Mountain area in the Cascades for Labor Day weekend. It was a last hurrah before the kids went back to school. Since we were going to be in a fairly remote area (well, not too close to any grocery stores), we packed up the car with clothes, food, kids and dog and headed out.

We had a great weekend hiking, playing in the heated pool, hot tub, playing horseshoes, badminton and disc golf. It turns out that being in a cellphone free and (mostly) Internet free zone is quite relaxing and we also got a lot of reading done. Well, mostly sleeping.

Here are some pictures from our trip. Which used less than 3/4 of a tank of gas.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The broodiness is finally at an end

In honor of the end of our chicken, Sarah's, long and protracted bout of broodiness, we had eggs for dinner last night. Yes, that's right, Sarah started hanging out back down in the run last week and yesterday finally laid her first egg in almost 2.5 months.

In spite of wanting to throw her in the pot, we just let her do her thing. I finally got a system down where I'd flip the nesting box sideways to evacuate her and steal the eggs, thereby reducing my chances of being pecked to death. While we have two nesting boxes, all three chickens have only used the one on the left so, even though Sarah was constantly occupying the nest, the other chickens would squeeze in with her to lay.

Emma declared last night, as we were watching them free range in the backyard, that we were so lucky that we have chickens even though we don't live on a farm.

Anyway, a big woohoo! to Sarah for finally getting out of the nest. She has redeemed herself.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How do you save money?

Here's a quickie post, but hopefully it will get a lot of comments for people to learn from. Aside from just not buying stuff you don't need, what's your favorite money-saving tips?

My favorites are:

• Reducing energy and water usage
• Refinancing our mortgage
• Planning our meals in advance so we rarely eat out
• Spending little on entertainment (which means lots of free outdoor activities)

If you need some advice of your own, check out this list from The Simple Dollar.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Home energy audit results

For those of you curious about the results of the winner of the home energy audit I hosted as a giveaway earlier this year for this year's Freeze Yer Buns challenge, you can read about it on the blog, Concrete to Chickens, Home Energy Audit Results.

The blog author gives an honest assessment of the audit and what he got out of it as well as a bunch of pictures of the audit itself. It is pretty informative about what to expect from an energy audit.

Have you ever had an energy audit done and, if so, what's the most important thing you learned?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Toxins in your tattoos

With new research showing troubling findings about toxic chemicals in tattoo inks (including some phthalates, metals, and hydrocarbons that are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors) I thought it would be a good time to repost an excerpt from my book on tattoo toxicity.

The following is a draft excerpt from my book, The Non-Toxic Avenger, that will be coming out in November 2011 from New Society Publishers:

My sea turtle tattooIn 2004, the American Environmental Safety Institute filed a lawsuit against a half dozen or so tattoo ink pigment manufacturers, claiming they failed to warn California residents about exposure to hazardous materials in their inks. The lead content found in the ink needed for a medium sized tattoo could contain between 1 to 23 micrograms of lead, which is considerably more than the 0.5 microgram per-day recommended limit. Some inks also contain metals such as aluminum, arsenic, mercury and chromium, in addition to lead. The heavy metals are used to give these pigments their permanent color, not unlike other artist paints, and the type of metal depends mostly on the color pigment as well as the manufacturer.

Considering that one in four adults in the U.S. has at least one tattoo, many of them sporting quite a few, this is an issue that really needs more widespread education on the potential risks. I have two tattoos of small to medium size. Both are in areas that aren’t visible and I have no interest in getting them removed, although it would make sense since I am exposed to the metals from the pigments.

However, there are a few issues with laser tattoo removal. The first issue is that additional chemicals are used on the skin to reduce surface temperature so your skin doesn’t scar. The more commonly used chemical is tetrafluoroethane, which is a very toxic greenhouse gas. The alternative, which is considered to be more “green”, is a carbon dioxide spray, or rather, a dry ice spray, which is better for your skin and the ozone layer .

The big issue with laser tattoo removal is that, when you break down the pigments into small particles, the body has to do something with them. Research done at the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) has been studying how tattoo ink breaks down in your body, either from exposure to sunlight or natural degradation, and the main question to be answered is, where does the pigment go? Are they broken down by enzymes or metabolized? At least in one study, researchers found that some pigment migrates from the tattoo site to the body’s lymph nodes . Considering that chemists at the NCTR identified low levels of carcinogens in tattoo ink, what kind of health impact is there in having a tattoo? And, if this is occurring under the normal lifetime of a tattoo, what happens when you try to remove it?

German scientists have shown that, after laser irradiation, the concentrations of toxic molecules from red and yellow tattoo inks increased up to 70-fold . Heat on the pigment triggers a chemical reaction that generates mutation-inducing and carcinogenic breakdown products that get reabsorbed by the body. At this point, it sounds more toxic to get them removed than to just leave them be.

One last point, too. The FDA warns that patients about to undergo an MRI let the technician know they have a tattoo, because it can swell or burn, most likely from the metals in the pigments. Something to keep in mind when I go visit the neurologist for that MRI for the numbness and tingling that I still have in my arms and legs.