Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Free Tomato Plants

Not only can you propagate herbs from cuttings, you can also do it with tomatoes! Tomatoes are well-known for rooting very easily, so they're actually one of the easiest plants to propagate this way. I currently have two tomato "mamas" growing in front of my kitchen patio door, and can't wait to plant cuttings from them in the spring.
I actually started them sort of by accident - I was tying up my tomato plants in the garden in July, and accidentally broke off two side branches. Instead of just throwing them in the compost pile, I decided to try growing them as cuttings to see if they would take hold. I didn't use any rooting hormone, I simply sunk the stems in well-moistened soil and kept them watered. I had them outdoors in pots until our first frost in September, and before I brought them in they each had tiny tomatoes starting to grow on them (we ate them in October - boy, was it good to have fresh, home-grown tomatoes while the snow was flying outside!)

They haven't flowered since (decreased light? lower temperature? the dog's tail constantly knocking off small branches?), but since I'm not counting on them for fruit over the winter, just vegetation for cuttings in the spring, I don't mind.

I'm very excited about this experiment because it means not only will I have a head start on spring planting (cuttings get going much faster than seeds) but, since each cutting is an exact copy of the parent plant, I don't have to worry about cross-polination. Since I grow more than one type of tomato (I usually have at least one cherry, one brandywine, and a bunch of roma-type for sauce) I usually end up with "mutts" when I save seed. This can be a fun little experiment, but it's a little less amusing when I meant to plant a bunch of meaty romas for the winter's supply of spaghetti sauce and end up with a bunch of cherry tomatoes instead!

But if I save a couple "mamas" from each type of plant in the fall, I should be able to start as many new cuttings as I'd like in the early spring, sure that they'll turn out to be the kind of plant I want (I'd save more than one plant of each kind, just in case - one of the plants I saved this summer got knocked over by an over-excited dog, and is barely hanging on).

I can't wait to see what other plants I can grow this way (although I may need my husband to build me a sunroom for all of these plants to overwinter in!)

Free Herb Plants for Next Spring

I am so excited about this little experiment of mine - I took cuttings from most of my herb plants in the fall (peppermint, basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme), rooted them in small pots (adorable little tea tins, actually), and they're growing into strong plants for putting out in the garden next spring (not to mention cuttings for adding to recipes all winter).

It's so simple, I wish I'd tried it years ago (instead of buying new potted herb plants from the local garden center every spring). Here's what I did:

1. Cut off a 2-3 inch piece from the growing tips of your plant.
2. Trim off all but the upper few leaves.
3. (optional) Dip the bare stem in water, then in rooting hormone:
4. Gently sink the stem into your pot of soil and water well.

And that's it! Keep the soil very moist until you see new growth (did you know you can toothpick test soil, like you do to see if a cake is done? If the soil sticks to the toothpick, it's moist; if it comes away clean, your soil is dry) then water as you would your other houseplants. Obviously, a sunny windowsill is the best place for them, but anywhere they will get good light should be fine. You can expect these baby plants to be more tall and spindly than their outdoor-grown parents because of the restricted light conditions (a lamp might help, but isn't strictly necessary if your window is sunny enough), but they should "beef up" just fine once you plant them out in the spring (but be careful to harden them off a little at a time before you set them out permanently).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Review: The Weekend Homesteader

The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency by Anna Hess

As a fan of Anna and Mark Hess's blog, The Walden Effect, I knew this book would be full of interesting projects and useful information. When she wrote that she was offering free copies to bloggers who would write a review, of course I signed up right away!

I was giddy when the book arrived in the mail in October (happy birthday to me!) The publisher asked that we try to time the review to coincide with the book's release in mid-November, and since the book didn't look too thick (about 400 pages) I figured I'd be done in plenty of time.

Obviously not!

Although October and November were very busy for our family, the real reason I couldn't get through this book as quickly as I'd thought was because I wanted to try all of the projects! The book is set up with a chapter for every weekend through a whole year (for example, the project for the first week of August is "Seed Saving"). Each project lists its goal ("Save seeds from the easiest vegetables in your garden"), cost ("$0 to $10), time ("1 hour to 4 hours"), difficulty ("Easy to medium"), and kid-friendly rating (generally yes, no, or maybe). After a short section on the reasons each project is worth trying, she dives right into the meaty how-to.

This book is great for the raw beginner, eager to get her hands dirty but not sure where to start, as well as for a homesteader who's been working at it for a few years (we all have something to learn!) I know I, for one, get excited reading about ideas in books or online, but balk at actually starting projects because I'm not sure exactly how to get going. This book lays everything out so clearly I feel like I could just jump up and get started as soon as I finish the chapter (although some of my bookmarked projects, like "Growing edible mushrooms" will require a little more waiting - I have to order the spawn plugs, after all . . .)

So, you ask, what were the projects I was so excited about? The first one that really caught my interest (only because the previous three chapters (Find room to homestead, Survey your site, and Plan your summer garden) were projects I had already done) was the chapter entitled "Kill Mulch", which included a section on Hugelkultur - creating raised beds by burying rotting wood and compost (I actually just tried this in my garden this week!)

The book isn't just gardening ideas, either. She includes projects like making your own seasonings, soups, and breads, storing vegetables on the shelf, canning, drying, and other kitchen-related tasks, as well as more abstract assignments like figuring your real hourly wage, budgeting, thinking about voluntary simplicity, and realistic goal setting. There's a chapter on building a chicken coop or tractor and one on staying warm without electricity. Really, they're as varied as a homestead life can often be!

I love that this book is obviously made up of projects the author has personally done, featuring her own experiences and research. She knows these things work because she's done them herself, and she tells you about the problems and pitfalls along the way. It's like standing alongside your neighbor, listening to her tell you what she's tried and seen, and encouraging you to try it for yourself.

Note: I was not payed to review this book (other than the free review copy), I just really love it! But if you click on the link above and buy the book at, I will receive a small commission from the sale. Thank you for your support!

This post is part of Simple Living Wednesday at Our Simple Farm and the Homemaking Link-Up at Raising Homemakers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Checking the Accuracy of Your Candy Thermometer

I have been enjoying excellent results making yogurt in my cooler for a couple of years now, so you can imagine how dismayed I was to bomb the last two recipes in a row! They turned out runny - barely thicker than  milk - and quite sour. We made smoothies out of them, so all was not lost, but it was a bit disheartening (especially since I was just telling my sister-in-law how foolproof my method seemed to be!)

I combed my memory for what I had done differently, but my technique, my milk, my starter were all the same. Finally I remembered that I had broken my old candy thermometer and bought a new one, just before I made that first batch of runny yogurt.

My suspicions aroused, I researched how to tell if your thermometer is accurate, and found this obvious and simple way to check: boil a pot of water and see if your thermometer reads 212 F (100 C). I tried this, and found that my new thermometer ("Accurite" brand - hah! It was neither right nor accurate!) was reading 230 F when the water boiled.

Now I could either remember every time that my thermometer reads 20 degrees off (so I would have to get my milk to 130 degrees, according to this thermometer, instead of 110 before I add the starter) or buy a new thermometer (which I will probably do - my old, accurate one was a "good cook" brand, which I can find locally and inexpensively). Knowing me, I'd forget, so I'll just take the $7 hit and buy a new one.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Easy Homemade Tea Bags

I can't remember now where I saw this idea, but it's so simple I had to share (plus it's a great gift idea!) You can simply take your home-grown chamomile, peppermint, or other herbs and make them into tidy little tea bags! Simply cut a coffee filter into quarters, fold each little "fan" in half and sew the sides together (the sides you just cut, not the ruffly outer edge). Then stuff them full of your dried herbs (don't do this with fresh herbs! They'll get moldy!) and sew the top edge shut.
It's that easy!

All ready to make a cup of home-grown chamomile tea

Monday, October 15, 2012

Pumpkin Sourdough Bread

Now that the garden is done (phew! is anyone else completely exhausted for the entire month of September?) I've had more time to play around in the kitchen. We are blissfully overrun with pumpkins from our garden this year, so I was browsing the internet for a sourdough pumpkin sweet bread. I didn't have any luck (if you know of a good one, please let me know!) but it did get me thinking, and just for kicks I decided to try swapping out pumpkin for the potato in my potato sourdough bread recipe.

It worked beautifully - it's not anything like the pumpkin bread you see at bake sales; it's really more like a slightly orange sandwich loaf. You can barely taste the pumpkin. But it rises beautifully and tastes delicious (as you can see, more than half of it was gone before I got a chance to take a picture!)
I am going to continue trying to find a sourdough pumpkin sweet bread, but for now we're really enjoying this recipe (especially smothered with pumpkin spice honey butter. Mmmm . . .)

Pumpkin Spice Honey Butter

I came up with this recipe when I was attempting to make a sourdough pumpkin bread (I've been told that cinnamon doesn't react well with the sourdough starter, since it has slight antibacterial properties, and will mess up your wild yeasts. Not sure if that's true or not, but until I have time for more experimenting, I'll use this to top my toast). It is absolutely delicious (my kids were fighting over who got to lick the spoon I used to mix it up!) - perfect for any fall baked treat!
Pumpkin Spice Honey Butter
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup honey
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp each ginger, nutmeg, and vanilla
1/8 tsp each cloves and salt
Mix all together well (it helps to soften the butter first) and it's ready!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cheap and Simple Homemade Fruit Fly Trap

I'm not sure why, but we've had an infestation of fruit flies in the kitchen lately. One morning, I found four or five of them hovering around a banana peel, and remembered a trick someone had told me.

I wrapped an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper in to a funnel shape, taped it securely to a canning jar with the offending banana peel in the bottom, and left it out on the counter. The next morning, this is what I found:
Apparently, the flies go down the funnel following the smell of the banana peel, but then try to get out by flying toward the light, getting trapped at the top of the jar (this is why you need to be careful to tape the funnel securely to the jar, leaving no gaps). Simple and effective!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ugly Tomatoes

Have you ever noticed that the tomatoes that look the worst often taste the best?

This beauty would never appear on any store shelf, but it was delicious! Sure, it's a bit tricky cutting out the stem, and those strange brown rings (they're just on the skin - anyone know what they are, and what causes them?) but it's definitely worth it, in my book, for the flavor. Unless I'm entertaining, I really don't care what it looks like (and if I invited people over, that means I'd have to share!)

Sorry, I don't even know what variety this one is (I'm guessing either a Brandywine or a Mortgage Lifter - my tomato patch this summer was a mishmash of old seeds I needed to use up (I think all of them were between 5 and 10 years old!) So there were some of those two types, some Jelly Bean, some Beefsteak, and I think some saved Romas, too - so I have quite a variety pouring in!)

Easy Probiotic Salsa

Here's another recipe that you can make in small batches as your produce rolls in. I'm loving the fact that I don't have to do a huge batch for canning (and be stuck in the hot kitchen all day!) Plus of course all the health benefits of lactofermenting, so it's easier to make and healthier for you. Win-win!

You can double or halve this recipe as you like (or quadruple as those tomatoes start rolling in . . .), and play with your spices - we like a medium salsa, so we use green jalapenos - if you like more of a kick, you can use red ones. Just make sure you wear gloves when you chop them up - I know this from painful experience!

Lactofermented Salsa
1 quart chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 Tbsp snipped fresh chives (dried spices work fine, too)
2 tsp minced garlic
2 chopped jalapeno peppers
1 Tbsp sea salt
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp cilantro (use more if using fresh)
Mix all together and fill desired jars. (If you have whey on hand, it helps to put about 1/4 cup on the top of each jar, to kick-start the lacto-fermentation.) Let sit, tightly covered, at room temperature for about three days (be sure to "burp" your jars at least once a day). Then store in a cool, dry place (I keep mine in the fridge).

Monday was "Salsa Day" - we came home from a weekend at Grandma's, and my sweet kids found all of these ripe tomatoes waiting in the garden. We ended up with over four quarts of salsa (and I didn't even use up all of the tomatoes!)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Surprisingly Simple (and Effective!) Deodorant

I've been trying for a long time to find natural, safe homemade versions of common household products. I make most of my own cleaners, my own dye- and fragrance-free soap, and even tried a couple of different homemade shampoos (with unimpressive results - so far!) So when I saw this blog post about using coconut oil as a deodorant, I was sceptical. When I thought about it more, though, it made sense - coconut oil is naturally anti-bacterial, so it should inhibit the microbes that cause body odor. But still, it seemed too simple . . .

But what would it hurt? I could try it around the house, and just shower before I went somewhere. So that's what I did - but I soon found that I didn't need the extra shower. It really worked! I've been using it for about a week now, so I can say with confidence that this is one DIY product that really does work (I'd even go so far as to say it works just as well as the Tom's of Maine deodorant I had been using). And it really is so simple! I didn't mess around with adding essential oils and such (I prefer not to wear 16 different scents, and since I'm still using conventional shampoo and conditioner, that's enough perfume for me).

All you need is 3 parts coconut oil (I used 3 Tablespoons, because I wanted to try it out with a small batch first) and 1 part baking soda (aluminum free is best). Just mix these two together and you're good! I apply it by just dipping a finger in the jar and then rubbing it in. The only slight issue I've had so far is that when the house is warm enough that the coconut oil is liquid, it seems that the baking soda settles to the bottom, so you have to stir it up again. Not really a big deal. The baking soda also seems to keep the coconut oil from getting completely hard, so it's easier to get a little bit off at a time (so far, anyway - we'll see what it's like when our house is 64 degrees in the winter!)

I just can't say how shocked and pleased I am with this deodorant! It really works!

(and no, it doesn't stain your clothes . . .)

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday.

Steak and Potato Scramble

We don't go out to eat much, but when we do, I always liked to get the Steakhouse Scrambler from Perkins. Unfortunately, they don't make them anymore, but I've found a surprisingly easy version I can make from scratch (with home-grown potatoes, eggs from our hens, and local grass-fed beef - and it costs less per serving, to boot!)
As you'll see, this isn't so much a recipe as it is a "throw these things together until it looks good" set of ideas:

Steak and Potato Scramble
Steak, cut into cubes and pan fried (I usually use round steak)
Cubed potatoes, fried until soft (most of the time I use leftover Cubed Oven Potatoes)
Scrambled eggs
Sauteed mushrooms, onions, and garlic, as desired
Layer all together and top with cheese sauce.

This was a huge hit with the kids, and of course I love it, too. It's so simple to throw together last minute on these busy summer days. We'll definitely be having this dish more often in the coming weeks!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Whole Wheat Sourdough Potato Bread

As you've probably noticed, I like playing around with sourdough bread recipes. While I love my Super Simple Sourdough Bread, it tends to be a little too sour for my kids' taste, and a little dense for my husband's. So I've reverted back to an old favorite, sourdough potato bread. It's not quite as simple, and a little less healthy, but it doesn't taste so sour and rises beautifully (sometimes too much! I just had a loaf overflow onto the bottom of the oven because I left the dough a little too wet). It's a great sandwich loaf for the whole family.

Whole Wheat Sourdough Potato Bread
1/2 cup sourdough starter
3/4 cup water
1 cup freshly ground whole wheat flour (NOT sprouted!)
1/2 cup plain mashed potatoes (no butter or salt)

Mix these ingredients together in a large bowl, cover loosely, and let rise overnight. This will rise a LOT so make sure your bowl is at least twice as big as your sponge.

In the morning, stir down the sponge and add:
1/3 cup warm water
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup oil, lard, melted butter, or liquid coconut oil
2 Tbsp honey
3 cups whole wheat flour (NOT sprouted!)

Mix all well (I do this in my Kitchen Aid mixer). Add more flour if needed to prevent stickiness. Dough should be soft and firm yet pliable. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Punch down and place into loaf pan; cover loosely and let rise again.

Bake in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack. If you prefer a softer crust, cover until completely cooled.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookies

These aren't exactly healthy (except for the fact that they have a vegetable in them), but they're so soft and delicious I make them anyway (you know, for a special occasion . . . like when I finally get around to weeding my garden and find a bunch of volunteer squash . . .)

Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookies
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter or coconut oil
1 cup sugar (I use sucanat)
1 egg
2 cups flour (whole wheat works fine - I like to use sprouted)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup grated zucchini (or carrots work, too)
1 cup chocolate chips (I use the Ghiradelli 60% cocoa chips - yum!)
Mix all together, drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Do not overbake.

Probiotic Dill Pickles

Note to self:
No matter how much you love pumpkins, do not let a volunteer pumpkin grow next to your cucumber bed.

I planted my cucumbers way out back behind the chicken coop (the chickens are out in their pasture pens, so they're not close enough to destroy any vegetables, but it's very well-fertilized from their *ahem* deposits all last winter). Since I can't see the plants easily, I kind of forgot about them. When I went out to check on them this afternoon, this is what I found. See any cucumbers in there???

Well, after wading through the pumpkin vines, I did find some cucumber plants, and even a few veggies ready to pick. But I also realized that something needed to be done. I carefully pruned away most of the pumpkin vines (realizing halfway through that the bulk of them were not actually pumpkin vines, but a volunteer patty pan squash or two. This was a relief, since I don't particularly care for pattypan squash, and felt much better about ripping those out than my precious pumpkins! There were a few ripe squash of harvestable size, so I saved those and shredded them later for making into zucchini chocolate chip cookies.)

A half hour later, I had removed most of the intruding vines (except one pumpkin plant I just couldn't bring myself to pull - it had four big Cinderella-style pumpkins already growing on it, and since I didn't have any other plants with that shape of pumpkin on them, I gave in and let them stay - did I mention I'm a sap when it comes to pumpkins?) The cucumber plants were long and straggly, so instead of trying to train them up the tomato cages, as I'd originally intended, I laid them down on top of some old cardboard boxes - hopefully this will make it easier to find the ripe cukes, and keep them from rotting in the wet grass.

(Can you see that adorable pumpkin on the right edge of the picture? How could I pull that cute thing out???)


With the eight or so pickling-sized cukes I found under that jungle of vines, I decided to make our family's favorite dill pickles (recipe adapted from Nourishing Traditions - I changed up the spices a bit, so they taste more like what my family's used to; similar to the Vlasic dill pickles we used to buy).

Lacto-Fermented Dill Pickles
for each pint, place:
one head of dill
one clove of garlic
enough cucumbers to fill jar
1 Tablespoon of salt (sea salt works fine)
Cover with water (you can add some whey for a little kick-start), leaving an inch of headspace (this will bubble up as it ferments). Place a lid on the jar and leave at room temperature for 3 days, "burping" the jar regularly to release pressure. After three days, move the jars to a refrigerator or cool cellar for long-term storage.

I love this recipe because not only are they good for you, but you don't have to can them! I appreciate any excuse not to have to heat up the house in July and August. It's also nice that you can just make a jar now and again as you have cukes - you don't have worry about making a full canner load.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The New Girls

For my daughter's tenth birthday, we gave her 5 bantam hens (purchased from a local chicken keeper). I've been thinking of getting some banty hens for a while now, since they have a reputation for being frequently broody and great mothers (I've tried to hatch eggs in an incubator three times now, with no success). We really want to be more self-sufficient as far as the chickens are concerned (it really burns me that we feed a rooster all year so we have fertile eggs, but haven't been able to hatch any chicks!) The woman we bought them from said they've all set chicks for her, so we have high hopes for some cheeping babies from our own chickens sometime soon!

Without further ado, here are some pictures of our new girls:

(Sorry about the "blue screen" effect on the pictures; it was a hot day today, and they wanted to stay under the tarp and out of the sun!)

Millie the mille fleur

Minnie the game hen (Minnie is for "miniature" - they're all small, but she's tiny!)

Nellie is a cochin/silkie cross (she looks pretty chubby, but she's all feathers!)

Marsha (short for "Marshmallow") - another cochin

And, last but not least (my favorite!) - Mrs. Blewett (another cochin)

Welcome to the farm, ladies!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Hanging Chicken Feeders

I like my chicken feeders - they're cheap to make, work well, and are easy to use. The one drawback was that, since I set them on the ground, the chickens would often knock them over and spill their feed. Worse yet, they would also more often than not knock them over onto their waterer, which would tip it enough to make all of the water slowly drain out.

So I headed to the hardware store to get some more U-bolts and S-hooks, thinking I would hang them the same way I had hung the waterers. Scanning the aisles for the S-hooks, however, I saw these bicycle hooks, and the lightbulb went on:

They work perfectly - the feeder hangs off the ground, so the birds can't tip them over, and the hooks screw directly into the frame; no extra hardware needed. I've been using them for almost a month now, with no problems. What a simple solution!

Well, What Do You Know?

Just for comparison, I made two batches of bread dough yesterday - one with my normal whole wheat sourdough recipe, the other substituting unbleached white flour (but still using the whole wheat sourdough starter). I wanted to see just how much higher the white flour loaf would rise, in the interest of finding out if it would be worthwhile switching to white flour for my sourdough loaves (they can be pretty dense).

But lo and behold, four hours after I mixed both batches of dough and set them out to rise, here's what I found:
As you can see, the darker loaf, on the right, rose better than the loaf with white flour on the left! What a pleasant surprise! I guess I'll stick with the whole wheat after all!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Making Butter In a Blender

I make butter from fresh, organic cream about once a week, and recently a friend asked me how I do it. Just in case more of you are curious, I thought I'd share!

The first step is to skim the cream. If you're just bringing the milk home, you'll need to let it sit in your refrigerator overnight until the cream rises and separates from the rest of the milk.
Hopefully you can see the cream line - it's really obvious when you're right there
When the cream has separated out of the milk, you then need to skim it off the top of the jar. If you have a wide-mouth jar, this is easy - just skim it off with a wide spoon. Obviously, that's a little more difficult with a jar like mine, so I use a turkey baster (not all turkey basters are created equal - I've had some great ones and some stinkers! The one I'm using right now was actually my grandmother's, and it works the best of any I've tried!)

Once I have the cream skimmed, I put it in the blender (not more than two cups at a time - remember, it's going to become whipped cream before it becomes butter, so you don't want to overflow your jar). I just have a basic Oster blender with a glass jar, nothing fancy.
At the whipped cream stage

My blender has a "cream" setting, which seems to work well. The entire process usually takes around 5 minutes, give or take, so be prepared to wait. The cream will go through four basic stages - 1) still looks like milk, 2) whipped cream, where the cream will double in size (you can see it looks like 4 cups in the picture above, when I only put 2 cups of cream in the jar) 3) loose like milk again, and 4) chunks of butter floating in loose milk. Here's what the last stage looks like from the outside of the blender:

You can see that the butter looks yellow and frothy (my milk is from grass-fed cows, so it might be more yellow than if you bought regular whipping cream at the store). Here's the view from the top of the jar:

At this point, I pour the contents of the jar (both butter and buttermilk) through a strainer funnel lined with butter muslin (basically a very fine cheesecloth. I got mine in a mozzarella cheesemaking kit).

While this is draining, I usually start another batch of cream mixing in the blender. When that batch is at the whipped cream stage, I roll the drained butter out of the cloth and into a big bowl, so that the funnel is empty and ready to strain the new batch.
Once all of the butter has been added to the bowl, I use a wooden spoon to press out as much of the remaining buttermilk as I can (I usually do this over the cloth-lined funnel, to save as much buttermilk as possible).

When I've gotten as much buttermilk out as I can, I stir in the buttermilk culture and cover it, leaving it on the counter to sour (or sometimes I just put it straight in the fridge and use it that way - either way works).

Once there's too little buttermilk left in the butter to save, I rinse the butter with COLD water (you don't want to melt your butter; then it will drain away down the sink when you dump out the water), continuing to smoosh it with the wooden spoon, draining off the water and refilling until the water stays clear. This is very important, since any remaining buttermilk will make your butter go sour much more quickly.

Then all that's left is to put the butter in its storage container, wash off your blender, cloth, and utensils (warm water works slick for this), and you're done!

I store my butter in a covered glass container, at room temperature on my kitchen counter. It easily lasts a week this way.

This post is part of The Ole Saturday Homesteading Trading Post.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Simple Homemade Ranch Dressing or Veggie Dip

It's sad that it took me so long, but I've finally conquered making another household staple from scratch! I scoured the internet looking for decent ranch dressing recipes, and after a couple of memorable failures, I stumbled upon this one. I like it, the kids like it, and it's easy to make. Definitely a winner I'll be making again and again (especially as the fresh veggies start coming in!)

Ranch Dressing or Veggie Dip
¼ cup milk or buttermilk
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
¼ tsp chopped fresh dill (or 1 tsp dry dill)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley (or 1 tsp dry)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh chives (or 1 tsp onion powder)
1 clove garlic, minced (or 1 teaspoon garlic powder)
Mix together well.  If it’s too thick for salad dressing, add a little milk.  If it’s too thin for a ranch veggie dip, add a little sour cream (and more herbs/spices as needed.)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

New Book: The Good Food Revolution

The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities by Will Allen with Charles Wilson

I was so excited when a friend let me borrow this book, I read it from cover to cover in three days! I've been a fan of Will Allen ever since I first heard about his Growing Power project in Milwaukee (which just happens to be where my Mom was born and raised, and where I went to college - so I can picture just where he's writing about).

This book is meant to be a biography of Allen and his project, primarily explaining why they're doing what they're doing, and to inspire others to follow his example. His main goal is to find new ways to bring good food to people who may not be able to get it (specifically African Americans and other minorities in poor inner city neighborhoods).

So, much of the book wasn't exactly aimed at a white woman living in very rural northern Wisconsin, but I am excited about some of his practical ideas for raising food in a small amount of space. I'm very intrigued, for example, by his aquaculture set-up (he raises talapia in a long, thin tank down the center of one of his greenhouses, then filters the water the fish have (*ahem*) fertilized through a bed of tomato plants, after which the cleaned water is cycled back to the fish in a completely closed system (I'm sure I didn't get that exactly right, but you can look at the Growing Power website for more information).

Another idea I found interesting was his use of hoophouses, specifically his success raising chickens and winter spinach in the same hoophouse (the chickens keep the air warm enough so that the greens don't freeze; if you make sure there is enough carbon material (Joel Salatin's "Carbonacious Diaper") to balance the "clucker muck" (that's my term for chicken poop), the ammonia won't build up enough to damage the plants.) I would really love to try this idea this winter! I'm thinking of a setup where half of the hoophouse would be chicken coop, and the other side cold frames filled with vegetables (as detailed in Eliot Coleman's Winter Harvest Handbook). The second year, I would simply reverse what goes where, so that the vegetables would benefit from the well-rotted chicken fertilizer, and the chickens can clean up the old garden beds. When the chickens move out onto their summer pasture, I can raise tomato transplants in the sheltered hoophouse.

Allen is also a big proponent of vermicomposting - using worms to break down food waste and turn it into valuable fertilizer. I would like to combine his ideas with those in Harvey Ussery's book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock and have a combination fertilizer/chicken feed bin incorporated into the floor of my winter hoophouse.

There are so many interesting ideas in this book (although I should caution that it's not a how-to book; there are no specific plans for his hoophouses or aquaculture systems). I found it so inspirational - I can't wait to start growing more food for our family (and hopefully someday for others as well).
Note: I was not payed to review this book, I just really love it! But if you click on the link above and buy the book at, I will receive a small commission from the sale. Thank you for your support!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Wild Winter Chicken Feed

I almost forgot - there's one more unlikely wild food we've been harvesting lately: Dandelion seeds!

I have about a dozen family-size spaghetti sauce jars full of them. The kids think this is great fun!

So why, you ask, am I harvesting dandelion seeds?

I have this crazy plan to save all of this free seed, store it until snow falls, and then sprout it and feed it to my chickens as winter greens. For the last two winters, I've been sprouting purchased wheat berries for my hens; I realized finally that I could save that seed money and simply save what grows free as a nuisance in my yard!

Of course, before I saved jars and jars of the stuff I tested a little bit to see if it would sprout indoors  - it worked wonderfully!
Of course this wouldn't work on a large chicken operation; there's no mechanical way I know of to harvest dandelion fluff. And that's probably why it isn't recommended in all of the chicken farming books. But for our small-scale, pancake-powered child labor force, it's perfect!

This post is part of the Homestead Barn Hop

Well, it sounded good anyway. When I went to sprout the seeds in the winter, I couldn't get them to germinate. Add to that the fact that half of the jars had gotten slightly moldy, and this experiment was a bust! Back to the drawing board . . .

Feeling a Little Wild

I haven't been harvesting much other than spinach and rhubarb from my garden yet, but I've been gathering quite a bit of wild plants already.

Our lettuce (which sowed itself last fall) isn't quite big enough for picking yet, so for our early spring tacos, we've been harvesting plantain out of the yard (which hasn't been sprayed with anything in the 6 years we've been here, so I'm fairly sure it's safe).

We also discovered two small patches of nettles, so I harvested those and dehydrated them (wearing gloves and long sleeves, of course!) I was a little worried that dehydrating without blanching wouldn't deactivate the stingers, but I tried it anyway, and unloaded the dehydrator bare handed without any trouble. Apparently, you can use them just like spinach, and I plan to add them to our spaghetti and pizza sauce this winter, for a nice vitamin boost.

Earlier this week, my oldest daughter seemed to have an eye infection (the lids were swollen, and the eyeball itself was a little red). After a quick check in The Handbook of Vintage Remedies, I found that raspberry or blackberry leaf tea was an effective remedy, so we ran out and picked some leaves from the blackberries that grow wild on the edge of our property. By the next day, her eye was back to normal, so I decided to pick more leaves and dehydrate those for wintertime teas.

Needless to say, I am so grateful for my Excalibur dehydrator! I'm certainly getting a lot of use out of it this spring!

Next up: wild strawberries! Our yard is full of these tiny little beauties every summer. Right now they're in bloom, promising a great harvest in a month or so!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Making Bentwood Garden Structures

About a year ago, I discovered the book Making Bentwood Trellises, Arbors, Gates & Fences by Jim Long. I loved the idea, but didn't have enough wood (or time!) to implement any of his plans.
But the idea stuck with me, and when I saw the brush pile my husband made after pruning the apple and maple trees (and clearing out a ton of brush out back), I knew I could finally bring some of those ideas to fruition. 
Raw Materials!

I was a little nervous that I was biting off more than I could chew, but once I actually got going, the projects turned out to be really easy! Here's what I made first:

Not bad for a first try, I think! My front garden is very "blah", but I think this accents it nicely. I plan to grow scarlet runner beans up it this summer (a variety I'd never even heard of until I read Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy - another book I highly recommend!) This fence is held together with galvanized deck screws, and supported from behind with steel fence posts (the three main uprights are held to the fence posts with deck screws). I also set the three main uprights on top of concrete pavers, which hopefully will make the fence last a little longer than if I had simply sunk them into the ground). This project took less than three hours to put together.

Excited by this first success, I decided to try another bentwood project (here's what it should look like this summer - this is the picture that gave me the idea, from Green Renaissance)

Here's what my version looks like (and remember, it's only April, so there's nothing growing on it yet. I'm planning to grow more scarlet runner beans on this, so imagine lots of green foliage and pretty little red flowers):
For this project, I don't plan on it lasting more than a year, so I just sunk the poles around 8 inches into the ground and tied them together on top with twine. My husband put a ridgepole along the top (it was a little too high for me to do comfortably), and I'm planning to put two more support poles along the sides, to give it a little more stability and to give the beans something to twine around.

Meanwhile, there's still a lot of wood in that brush pile out back, and I could use some tepees for the peas, and tomato supports, and an arbor would look really good, I think . . .
This post is part of the Farmgirl Friday bloghop.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Making Liquid Soap from Bar Soap

I love my homemade bar soap, but I've discovered that my 4 year old boy thinks of it more as a toy than as a cleaning agent - he loves to get it wet and play with it when I'm not looking. This means we go through soap a lot faster than absolutely necessary, which kind of defeats the purpose of saving money by making my own soap!

So yesterday I finally went online and looked for ways to make liquid soap, thinking that if anything it will at least take him longer to go through it! I found a few different ideas, and took what I liked out of each and put them together into my own simple method. Here's what I did:

First, shred a bar of soap (I used my tallow soap, which I honestly wasn't impressed with; even after it was fully saponified, it still smelled like beef! My dog really liked me, but my husband wasn't as impressed . . .)

(Thankfully my boy liked being part of the solution as much as he enjoyed being the problem!)
Then take one cup of this shredded soap (packed down a little bit so you get a full cup) and add it to 10 cups of hot water (I boil the water, then turn off the heat just before I add the soap, so it's very hot but not actually boiling anymore). Stir it well, so that the soap is fully dissolved. It will be really runny at this point, but don't worry! Cover loosely and let it sit overnight, or until it's completely cooled. When you come back in the morning, stir it up well one more time. At this point, it should be thick, like purchased liquid hand soap, and you can now put it into your empty hand soap pump and use it.

If it's not thick, you can try mixing 3 tablespoons of salt into 8 oz of water, and then stirring this into your runny soap - a little bit at a time! - until it thickens to the consistency you like. I haven't tried this myself, since my batch worked just fine without it, but apparently it works really quickly so you can see if it's working right away.

An added bonus to making liquid soap is that you can add scents or oils very easily - just stir them in just before you pour your soap into your pump. I added tea tree oil to mine, thinking it would cover the beefy smell, and it seemed to work just fine.

(By the way, you don't have to have any special separate equipment like you did for making the original soap - after all, you're working with finished soap. Your pots and spoons won't be touching any dangerous chemicals, just good, clean soap!)


In case you were wondering, here's the cost breakdown for this soap:

1 bar of my tallow soap cost 64 cents, and I used half of it - so 32 cents for the whole batch;

the whole batch filled up four 7.5oz soap pumps, plus a 48oz spaghetti sauce jar, for a total of 78 ounces, or enough for more than 10 soap pumps.

Dividing the batch cost - 32 cents - by the number of pumps you can fill - 10 - you get a total of a whopping 3.2 cents per container, or .4 cents per oz (that's four tenths of a cent).

A quick check on amazon found that the big soap refill bottles cost anywhere from 5 to 40 cents per ounce, so you can see that this idea could save quite a bit of money!

This post is part of the Homestead Barn Hop.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Simple, Light Chicken Tractor DIY Plans

I have to admit, I've been reluctant to post directions for my chicken tractors (sorry, Lori!) because, honestly, I'm kind of embarrassed by how simple - and, frankly, redneck! - they are. Blue plastic tarps and zip ties aren't generally featured in Better Homes and Gardens! But, on the other hand, they do make it possible for a wimpy, carpentry-challenged girl like me to achieve my pastured poultry dreams.

So, excuse their homely appearance and simple construction - they really are useful (and cheap!)

This tarp is two years old, and obviously needs replacing.
. I haven't gotten around to refurbishing this pen for the current year yet.
10 2x2 furring strips
1 1x2 furring strip for door frame
8 corner braces
25 feet of hardware cloth
cable ties ("zip ties") and galvanized deck screws
6 foot by 8 foot tarp
2 carbiner clips or double-ended snap hooks
All of these should be available from your local home improvement store (Lowe's, Home Depot, Menards, etc.) I included the links in case you weren't sure what each item was.

You will also need some kind of saw to cut your lumber to size (I used my brother-in-law's compound miter saw, which was a lot more tool than necessary - but it worked pretty slick!), and a drill for driving the screws.

First, you need to cut your furring strips to size. You'll need 4 in their original 8' length, cut four others in half for seven 4' pieces, and cut the extra 4' piece and the two remaining 8' strips into 2' pieces (nine total) for the 4 corner posts, 4 roost supports, and one for the door frame. Also cut the thinner strip into four 2' pieces.

Once you have them cut to size, you just need to screw them together. Use the metal corner braces and 1" deck screws to make two big rectangles, then join these to the 2' uprights with 3" deck screws. It can be pretty tricky balancing everything, so if you can get someone to hold them for you that will be a big help.

Once you have the basic frame put together, add the roost supports, and then the roosts (you don't have to be too picky about the height of the roosts; I usually go for about 1/3 of the way up the supports).
Now it's time to add the wire - simply wrap the wire around the perimiter of the pen (leaving an opening for the door, of course), connect it to the wood with zip ties (or whatever other fastener you prefer), and trim it to size. There should be enough left over to cover the door. You can also add wire over the top of the pen (which I would recommend, but I didn't add that wire to the cost/materials list), leaving room of course to open the pen from above to add water and food (and a nest box, if you have laying hens). Add the tarp (also connected to the wood with zip ties) to the back of the pen, being sure to cover the back and sides.

Next put your door together - simply screw the 2' strips of 1x2 into a square, with the hardware cloth sandwiched between. Connect the door to the frame (I usually have to use two zip ties per "hinge" to make them long enough to go around both strips of wood, with a little play so the door can swing).

Once the door is finished, swing it to the "open" position and add your water support bar just behind where the door rests, so that you can swing the door freely without hitting the water bar (I have learned to add this step from frustrated experience). (See picture at top of post to see the water bar if that description doesn't make sense to you.)

To keep the door closed, I like to use either carbiner clips (pictured) or double-ended snap hooks. I can usually get a tighter close with snap hooks, although I haven't had any problems with either predators or escaping chickens with either one.
Obviously, this design is not going to win me any awards for beauty, but they are functional. Of all of the different styles of pen I've tried, these are the only ones light enough for me to move without straining my back.

And believe it or not, in the three summers I've been using these pens, I haven't lost any of my chickens to predators (while the chickens are in the pen, anyway - if they are out of the pen at dark, they rarely see the light of day again. There are plenty of coyotes, owls, hawks, skunks, raccoons, and other varmints around who love a free chicken dinner.)

So, even though they're pretty redneck, they're also pretty useful. I'd love to hear any ideas for improvement you might have (that preferably don't add any weight - I am still just one wimpy woman!)

This post is part of the Homestead Barn Hop and Morristribe's Homesteader Blog Carnival.

My Every Day Easter Basket

I am a firm believer that Christ's resurrection is something that shouldn't be celebrated just once a year, but every day - and my chickens help me remember to celebrate by filling my "Easter basket" every day!