Saturday, February 28, 2015

Homestead Happiness and Progress February Week 4

Winter returned with a vengeance this week, dumping two 8+" storms on us, and never really stopping in between.  It's sunny today, but we're supposed to get another couple inches overnight and tomorrow.

As a result, the homestead looks like this, and most of our time was spent getting to and from work.  However...

On Friday, a large round of robins descended upon our boxelder tree, probably to discuss why they were in such a hurry to head north.  There's at least two dozen of them there, and probably more hiding behind the snowy branches.

Look at 'em all in there!

It sure doesn't look like spring, but they're here!  A tell-tale sign that the actual spring is not far behind, which is good enough for this week.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: The Weekend Homesteader

We ordered a copy of Anna Hess' The Weekend Homesteader back in January, and the day it arrived in the mail, we knew it was destined to be a night short on sleep.  Even though we did read into the wee hours of the morning, in the end there proved to be too much content to digest in one sitting.  That was a little bit surprising to us, because we could essentially go through the table of contents and check off most of the weekend projects as things we were already doing or had done in the past.  But although the projects are directed toward absolute beginning homesteaders, either rural or urban, there are gems in almost every chapter for even seasoned homesteaders.  Such is the case when a writer as skilled as Anna is writing from personal experience and the experiences of her acquaintances.  For example, tidbits we found especially intriguing:

Survey your site (April): Plan your homestead around foot traffic 'nodes' and straight lines between them.
Kill mulch (April): good candidates for first-year kill mulch plantings include broccoli, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, and greens.
Freezing food (July): Keep a chart or spreadsheet of how many servings of each food you put in the freezer during the summer and how many you take out during the winter. Use that info to tweak your garden plan the following year. (Could also be used for food preserved by canning or drying.)
Seed saving (August): Cucumber and tomato seeds have a gelatinous coating that has to be fermented off before storing.
Food drying (August): You can make fruit leather and tomato paste on cookie sheets in a sunny car.
Building a chicken tractor (August): An idea for 'fold-down wheels' on levers to make moving the chicken tractor easier, but still flush with the ground when it's in place.
Quick hoops (October): Where to find a metal tubing bender and how to keep the cover fabric/plastic from catching too much wind (or collapsing in the snow).
Plant a fruit tree (December): No-dig planting and hugelkultur prep for the tree to 'grow into.'
Soil test (January): Where to get inexpensive but good soil tests.

Also, the tables for storage and curing conditions of common storage vegetables, seed germination soil temperatures, seed starting times and techniques, and flower blooming times are especially useful references.  We would add that for the storage vegetables that like it 'warm and dry,' such as pumpkins and winter squash, undamaged specimens can make homey decorations until they get used up.

Storage vegetables as decorations.  Doesn't that look nice?  This particular arrangement doesn't make space for a whole season's worth, but the concept is scalable to some extent.

The projects can be sorted into roughly three categories: food growing (including garden and infrastructure preps), food processing, and getting in the mindset of a homesteader.  These categories are spread somewhat evenly throughout the months of the year, but the winter months are heavier on the 'mindset' projects, while the spring and summer months are heavier on the 'food growing' projects.  While most of the information is available elsewhere, much of it for free online, it is extremely valuable to have it synthesized into a single, compact reference like this book.  It's also great that where discussion outside the scope of this book is warranted, Anna gives the relevant references that readers can use to follow up if they want to get more in-depth.

We have two minor concerns:
First, some of the information in terms of food growing is somewhat specific to Anna's microclimate (zone 6 floodplain, i.e., very high groundwater level), so readers might want to check out what authors closer to their climatic conditions recommend before getting started. For example, in drier climates, planting fruit trees in raised mounds might make the roots dry out instead of keeping them from drowning.  Also, we'd wager that most readers won't have the right conditions for storing potatoes under their beds. (Brrr!)

Second, although most of Anna's criticisms of canning are justified, canning doesn't have to be done in large batches as she suggests.  See The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving for sub-quart recipes (or search for similar terms online for a number of blogs that also cover the topic).

So what about year two, once you've completed the 'weekend homesteader' curriculum from this book?  Anna gives a list of projects and tasks on her blog that has evolved into sort of an annual homesteading to-do list.

In sum, this is a great book that pulls a ton of information into an easy-to-follow volume that will be in our collection for years to come.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Homestead Happiness and Progress for February Week 3

'Twas an eventful time this week on the homestead, bolstered by some nice weather and a couple snowy days. Check out what happened this week at THL!

A seven-egg day!  That means all of our hens are definitely laying.  (We were pretty sure that's been the case since mid-January, but this was the first time we got a horizontal bingo on our egg-tracking chalkboard table.  Vertical bingo has been achieved by our Red Star and New Hampshire Red, who have laid eggs on 21 and 15 consecutive days, respectively (also 25 out of 26 days for Red Star and 23 out of 26 days for New Hampshire).

Monday was a snow day, which we used to make a picnic table.  Happy belated valentine's day Katie!

But by Friday, things had thawed out enough that we could see the feral poppies pushing through the leaves with new growth.  Everything is now covered in snow again, but that's ok!  We know what's underneath.

First try at isolating potato starch.  It works!  It turned out ok, but we want to tweak a few things before we turn it into a full blog post.

A liver-and-onion strata (with kale)!  Delicious, packed full of vitamins, and appearing in our upcoming strata cookbook.

Seed catalogs!  Wherefore lyeth such a slippery slope of inspiration upon our kitchen table?

What fun stuff happened on your homestead this week?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Homestead Happiness and Progress (HAP) This Week

We've noticed in past years that we start to develop some symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), of a sort.  The weird thing is, it seems to be out of phase with the time of year that it's supposed to crop up, that being the winter doldrums when sunshine is in short supply.  For us, and we wonder if also for many other part-time homesteaders, the winter isn't so bad because there's not a ton of stuff to do homesteading-wise (except dream and plan), so our off-farm responsibilities don't really get in the way of anything.

But then,  the air starts to get warmer, the ground starts to dry out, and the days start to get longer, but are still short enough that daylight hours are in precious short supply.  That's when it hits us--when we want to get out in the yard and do stuff, but it's already dark (or nearly so) when we get home from work.  So, to combat the worst effects of our out-of-phase SAD, we're starting a new (hopefully weekly) series featuring simple things that 'made our day' around the homestead. It'll remind us that even if we can't spend as much time on homesteady stuff as we'd like, there's still plenty to be happy about and progress is still being made.  That is, we're going to combat SAD with HAP.

This is a schematic representation of our out-of-phase SAD.  For full-time homesteaders, we imagine a flat line right at the top.  Another way to interpret the graph is to imagine the red line as homestead responsibilities and the blue line as how caught up with them we are.

Happy thing #1: The bees are still alive!  Even after adding a big ol' candy board, we hadn't seen the cluster for a few weeks and couldn't hear much buzzing in the hive.  But on warm days, there's plenty of activity and usually a few dead bees pushed out the bottom entrance (which is good because it means there are still housekeeping activities going on inside).

The Meyer lemon tree finally has flowers again!  It had struggled through several years, and not even put out flowers the last couple, so hopefully we'll actually get some lemons this year!  Maybe we should put it out by the bees and hope they pollinate it!

Rapidly growing avocado tree.  It's now taller than an avocado!  If we can keep it alive, we might even start to see fruit in a mere 5-13+ years.

The Swiss chard is still alive and starting to pick up again.  We didn't have much insulation on it, just a closed in row cover, and hit -10 °F multiple times.  But the chard is a real trooper!

A new bag-drying configuration.  We finally figured out what to do with that kitchen window opening, those two eyelet hooks, and that piece of string we didn't want to throw out!  [Katie rolls her eyes.]  They dry way faster here than standing inverted on the counter or in the dishwasher Murphy-style drying rack.

Right now they drip dry into a couple plant pots...water conservation at it's finest!  In the future we'll put in a planter there that looks like it actually fits there.  With the bags hung symmetrically, and the light coming through the window just right, this setup looks almost...decorative. [Katie rolls her eyes again.]

What made you happy on your homestead this week?

Saturday, February 7, 2015

January Links We Love

The internet is a tremendous place for connecting rabid information consumers with useful information products like German a capella, groundhog videos, and even homesteading information.  We try to do a little of both rabidly consuming and usefully producing, but our brains are becoming full and we need a place to keep track of homesteading info we want to refer back to later on.  Hence, a new monthly collection of links we love.  Here's links we love that we found in January.  Hope you like them as much as we did!

Eating dried scarlet runner beans
Pear root stock compatibility
High-density sugar maples for sap
Super sweet sugar maples
Best tree species for Shiitake logs
Is it safe to use cinder blocks or red bricks in ovens?
Don't forget to use the phrase 'riding bodkin'
Planning forest garden hedgerows

Furoshiki (clever ways to wrap stuff in a piece of cloth)
Solar-powered grain mill
How to age wood (for when you want to pay for new wood *and* the materials to make it look old...or if you're just interested in the chemistry that's going on)
Keeping rosemary alive indoors
How the Hencam works
Blizzard time-lapse video
How 'jaywalking' became a crime
Dried greens for winter nutrition