Saturday, February 13, 2016

Favorite Books of 2015 #3 - The Seed Garden

The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving edited by Lee Butalla and Shanyn Siegel
(click on the link above to buy the book on Amazon)

One thing I'd like to do more in my garden is saving my own seed, but to be honest, I know just enough to know I don't know enough to do it well! I know, for example, that I need to have a large enough planting to avoid inbreeding in certain crops (although self-pollinating crops, like beans, don't have this problem) - but which ones were self-pollinating again? And for those that do cross-pollinate, which crops do they cross with, and how much spacing do I need between them? When it's harvesting time, how do I know when my seeds are fully mature, and how do I dry and store them? I remember that tomato seeds need to be soaked and fermented before they're ready, but what other seeds need this? And which ones need a cold period?

I could hunt down information online about each crop when I was planning my garden, and again when I was harvesting seeds, but in the hustle of summer harvesting, who's got time for that? And in January when I'm planning my garden, my kitchen table is already overflowing with books on companion planting, how-much-to-grow-for-how-many-people charts, lists of how much our family ate last year, and of course seed catalogs! There's no room for seed-saving research for a dozen different plants.

That's why this book is a Godsend. In one handy, indexed volume are 230 pages of crop-by-crop descriptions of everything you need to know about each crop (usually two or three pages per crop), including history of the plant and its common uses, how to grow it for seed (not necessarily the same as growing it for food), pollination requirements, variety maintenance concerns (isolation distances, inbreeding depression, specific traits to select for, etc.), how to tell when your seed is fully mature, and how to dry and store your seed.

And if you don't know why all of that matters, the first 119 pages of the book are like a Seed Saving 101 course, giving you the whys and hows of seed saving and basic plant genetics (but in a very friendly and understandable way). This book is packed with information, and would be useful for both the first-time seed saver and the expert, who would welcome having all of this information at his fingertips. Much more comprehensive than other books on the subject (but not overwhelmingly so), this handy reference would be a useful addition to every gardener's bookshelf.

*** I should note that although this book is pretty comprehensive in respect to vegetable varieties, it does not cover flowers or herbs (I'm assuming they chose not to because of the sheer size that volume would have to be!) For those, I will be keeping my old copy of Seed Sowing and Saving by Carole Turner, which lists basic information for saving both vegetable and common herb and flower seed (although it's by no means as extensive in terms of vegetable crops as The Seed Garden, or as comprehensive in the information about each plant - Seed Sowing and Saving mostly just covers how to preserve the seed, and basic planting requirements).

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!

Favorite Books of 2015 #2 - The Art of Natural Cheesemaking

The Art of Natural Cheesemaking: Using Traditional, Non-Industrial Methods and Raw Ingredients to Make the World's Best Cheese by David Asher
(click the link above to buy it on Amazon)

I am so excited about this book! I knew, deep down, that people made cheese before the advent of stainless steel and mail-order bacterial culture packets, but I couldn't find any information on how. I'd catch glimpses in cheesemaking books (usually glossed over under a quick "history of cheesemaking" section), or on over-my-head technical websites on bacteriology, but never anything I could really use. Until now . . .

From the first two paragraphs of the introduction, all the way to Appendix E (Comparison of Microorganisms in Commonly Used Starters, Raw Milk, and Kefir), this book answers all of my questions (and quite a few I didn't know enough to ask). And best of all, it's full of recipes! I discovered that my "Homemade Press-Less Raw Cheddar Cheese" isn't really a true cheddar at all - "cheddaring" is actually a term referring to the way the cheese is cut, stacked, and pressed. But it does match pretty closely with his recipe for Basic Rennet Cheese, which is a sort of "blank" cheese that can then be made into cheddar, mozzarella, blue cheese, Camembert, feta, or Gouda, depending on the steps that follow. So technically, my recipe is for cheddar cheese that hasn't been cheddared! Asher does note, however, that "this fresh cheese is eaten in vast quantities in Europe, the Middle East, and Central and South America." Apparently, then, my family is in good company - they eat this fresh cheese in vast quantities, too!

As I mentioned, one reason I was excited about this book was the idea of making cheese without packaged bacterial starter cultures. I knew it could be done (I'd made cottage cheese out of raw milk without adding any starter culture at all, just rennet), but I wasn't about to risk four gallons of precious milk on an experiment I wasn't sure would work. Knowing that someone who knows what he's doing uses this technique on a regular basis gave me the confidence to try it.

So how does he get around using mail-order cultures? He uses either kefir or active whey (leftover from a previous batch of cheese, and thus host to the bacteria needed to make another batch). I chose to use kefir, mainly because of the catch-22 that I wouldn't have any active whey until I'd made a batch of cheese with the proper bacteria - which I wouldn't have until I had some active whey . . .

At first I thought perhaps I could just use whey from a batch of cheese I'd made with my freeze-dried cultures, but Asher says this isn't a good idea: "Cheesemakers can not reculture their DVIs [Direct Vat Innoculants - purchased freeze-dried cultures]. They are unstable collections of bacteria that do not exist in nature, whose profiles change over time, and whose performance and quality will decline if reused. Much like the unpropagatable hybrid seeds that many farmers use, DVIs must be purchased anew for every batch of cheese. Cheesemakers, therefore, become dependent upon purchased packaged cultures. Even if it were possible, reculturing the proprietary blends of often trademarked cultures may not even be permitted!"

So that left kefir as my best option for a sustainable starter culture. Kefir grains (which are not really grains like wheat or oats, but rather a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts - similar to a kombucha SCOBY, although they look completely different and host different microbes). Thankfully, a friend of mine had some extra kefir grains she was willing to share (kefir colonies grow quickly, and need to be divided regularly), and by the end of the week my kefir production was cruising right along. To keep my grains healthy, I need to feed them much more than I'd need just for once-a-week cheesemaking, so we mix the extra with bananas and blueberries each morning for a tasty probiotic breakfast smoothie.

Now that I have my kefir ready to go, I can make almost any kind of cheese in the book (other than blue cheese - to get the tasty blue bloom, I'd need to grow some Penecillium roqueforti - which Asher claims is easy to do on homemade sourdough bread. He even shares his sourdough recipe in Appendix A!) The recipes are all very simple and straightforward, and if you do run into a problem, he includes a troubleshooting guide in Appendix D, covering all of the cheese recipes in the book. Whether you're a beginning cheesemaker or just looking for a more sustainable way to make your homemade cheese, this book is full of useful information for anyone who wants to make good cheese.

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!

Favorite Books of 2015 #1 - The Nourishing Homestead

The Nourishing Homestead: One Back-to-the-Land Family's Plan for Cultivating Soil, Skills, and Spirit by Ben Hewitt
(click the link above to buy it on Amazon)

I love this book. It has everything I love to read in a homesteading book, all rolled into one: stories, recipes, how-to, and inspiration, all in an easy-to-read conversational style from someone who's living the life he's describing. It's not all sunshine and rainbows - he freely discusses the trials inherent in farm life, the struggles they've faced, and mistakes they've made. It's a practical and philosophical discussion of their life building a homestead.

One of the main themes throughout the book is his idea of economics - not necessarily how much fiduciary capital you can accumulate (although he's not against money), but how much joy, fulfillment, and purpose you gain or give up in exchange for the time and effort you expend. Working 40 hour weeks in an office might earn you a bigger paycheck, but is that worth the loss to your physical health and relationships? Not to mention the satisfaction of seeing your efforts result directly in producing the things your family needs (like food, shelter, clothing, etc.)

I really appreciate that, like me, one of their family's main reasons for pursuing the homestead life is a recognition that home-grown food, with a focus on soil and animal health, is crucial to promoting your family's health. There are many reasons for homesteading (some more reasonable than others), but this is one that really resonates with me.

In pursuit of their goal of healthier food for their family, they focus on both gardening and animal husbandry (devoting a chapter to each, plus a chapter on animal slaughter and processing). The fourth chapter in particular details their research and reasons for farming and cooking as they do. But the book (and the lifestyle) are about much more than food, as chapter 9, Money and "Stuff", describes. The final chapter, Children on the Homestead, particularly struck a chord with me, since we also homeschool and try to involve our kids into our daily homesteading tasks. Although I don't completely agree with all of their choices (we don't "unschool", and we make sure our Christian worldview is integrated into all of our studies), I do agree with much of their philosophy.

This is one book that I knew I'd have to buy as soon as I started reading - the sheet of paper I was using as a bookmark was completely covered in book recommendations, garden tips, project ideas, and recipes before I was even halfway through reading! It was definitely worth purchasing a copy rather than trying to write down (and then not lose . . .) all of those great ideas. I have a feeling this will be a book I come back to often as our family works on cultivating soil, skills, and spirit on our homestead.

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!