Saturday, June 27, 2009

Using the Forage

Yesterday I went out for my usual early morning Friday walk and saw nothing to come home with.

That was all right. I wasn't "shopping" for much anyway and I was in the process of de-cluttering anyway. This week I had a number of projects on the go that used the stuff I've foraged in the past few weeks.

Emergency watering: rain did not come as expected mid-week so the drip waters I made from kitty litter jugs and water jugs came into use. The grape vines, blueberry bush and pole beans were very happy.

I decided it was time I had a good salad garden outside my kitchen rather than have to go to the main garden to get salad fixings. I used eight of the concrete blocks I'd foraged to build one, using the lasagna method of a 6-sheet thick layer of wet newspaper over sod, then layering in compost and garden soil to a depth of 8". I also filled the cement block holes with the same compost and soil for salad complements such as radishes and peppercress. So the stack of bagged soil and compost is cleared from our side entry walk, as are the concrete blocks!

Once set up this is a prime spot for cat deposits unless the little beasts are kept out. I bought a T-bar post to support one end of a 6' by 4' fence panel built of reused lattice and new fence boards. The other end of the fence panel is secured to my shop shed corner. I had improvised a barrier with some green fence netting and a foraged small cement pillar to keep cats from my tomato and herb beds. That was easily transferred to serve as an interim gate from the T-bar to the kayak shed. The permanent gate will be of reused trellis and new fence boards as well.

More of the trellis will be a shade for the new greens. I already have shade supports built and painted from last season. The rest of the trellis will probably be made into portable cat barriers to protect the melon and bean areas.

When it rains here, it pours -- and the one rain barrel we have fills very quickly, then we see a lot of water going out the overflow. I picked up a plastic barrel that had a clamp lid. I reused the main hole in the lid for a hose from the first barrel's overflow. I filled around the hose with some leftover window screen. I drilled/cut another hole in the second barrel and installed more hose for that barrel's overflow. I had plenty of hose from a Friday forage to do this. Some of the pipe insulation that I took off the solar oven when it failed there as a gasket works fine as hose gasket (to keep out the mosquitoes). I may eventually put in a tap (I have a couple on hand from some other previous use) on the second barrel, but for now it is easy to lift the unclamped lid and get a pail or watering can of water. I've also got a remainder of old garden hose I can use to siphon water out of the second barrel. I used two thinner concrete blocks I had foraged to support the second barrel.

I also finally sealed (with a can of acrylic sealer I got in a remainder sale) the two framed pieces of fretwork hardboard from a yard sale, put the piano hinge on them that I got another yard sale and set up a new screen in the gazebo. That nicely cleared some clutter from the shop shed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Living With Less Plastic

It's ubiquitous, it's obnoxious, it's strangling the planet -- that's plastic. Our economy is addicted to it and its convenience. I have no statistics on how much the average person uses (misuses, has to dispose of) but I know it's too much.

Here's what I've done in the last two years to shrink down my "plastic heap":
1. Filter my own tap water and drink it from stainless steel bottles. A lot of times I don't filter it, but in the summer our local supply picks up a noticeable taste from some plants growing in it. The big filter jug in the refrigerator cuts down our need to run tap water until it is cold in the summer as well.

2. Switch from plastic clothespins to bamboo. The plastic ones were disintegrating anyway -- literally falling apart in the storage bag after a few uses on the outdoor dryer.

3. Don't drink carbonated drinks. A great health measure in many respects anyway.

4. Buy a big bag of flour in a paper bag and bake my own bread, English muffins, hamburger buns, sausage holders and pizza. The flour is stored in food-safe plastic buckets. I think about four months of storage evened the amount of plastic used to store the flour and the amount of plastic I was recycling from bread product bags and bulk food store bags. My body doesn't miss the bread product preservatives at all!

5. Make my own kefir from goat milk (in a wax board carton). Kefir requires only a glass jar, growing culture, and room heat to develop. This is easier and requires less heating than yogurt. No more plastic yogurt containers!

6. Grow my own sprouts. No more plastic bags or containers for these!

7. Buy apples in bulk from the farmer's market.

8. Use good quality bar soap for washing and shampoo (lasts a lot longer than liquids -- and no more plastic bottles!)

9. Re-use plastic containers or glass containers with lids for storing leftovers. (No more plastic film!) Also do the same for lunches away from home.

Things I want to do over the next year:
1. Switch from plastic for freezer storage to glass or soy-waxed paper.

2. Keep refining the list of what I can to best replace what I buy in the way of condiments (often in plastic containers!).

3. Make my own salad dressing.

4. Get all my soil amendments and mulches in bulk in my own containers. This ended up being my biggest use of plastic this spring. I'm still expanding my garden so I need more compost than I produce at this point.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The big June planting

It's the second week in June and finally temperatures are above 5 deg C. at night. The tomatoes are demanding release from their pots, as are the squash and cukes.

On Friday I got the boxes prepared for the melons and pole beans. I built a four-sided 6 foot high teepee trellis for the beans. I put potted spearmint and peppermint in the melon and bean boxes (hoping the strong scents will confuse the flea beetles and squash bugs). Then I went away for the weekend.

On Monday, I hustled plants out of pots in the early morning: tomatoes by the kitchen, tomatoes in the main garden, basil and marigolds to keep them company, the two Christmas lima bean plants and the Blue Lake pole beans at the trellis, the cukes by the shed, the squash plants and corn seed in the 3-sisters box.

I watered everything to settle them in place then gathered up my tools and a morning glory and sunflower plant that I had promised a friend. It was a quick job to plant those in her garden. We had a nice visit, then I went off on errands: a splitting axe to address the pieces a major trunk of box elder was now in, big -- but carryable-- bins for green waste that I can't readily compost, a year's supply of garbage bags, an entry stone for my shop shed, more plastic fencing for trellis or to keep cats at bay and some soil tests at greatly reduced prices.

Then on Wednesday I put out the red mulch plates and spiral supports for the tomato plants. They look like some art installation now.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Solar Oven Saga

I set up the solar oven at 10 am in the morning

It worked!

Maybe too well: the pipe insulation I used as a gasket material melted, the double pane window cracked when it hit the nail sticking out of the melted foam insulation, the meat thermometer blew its bottom off and I nearly burned my fingers lifting the pot cover to check how the orzo was doing. This was all by eleven-thirty in the morning. At least the candy thermometer was surviving; it read close to 250 degrees F.

I stripped off the gasket stuff, pulled out the nails and used a couple at the bottom of the window to keep it from sliding. At twelve-twenty I had overcooked orzo, but a good cold rinse made it edible for a pasta salad.

I decided to try cooking some rice, but a lot of intermittent cloud started to move in and I gave up on it at two-thirty.

I lost less than $2 in materials (the thermometer was a 25 cent yard sale purchase and I used two lengths of pipe insulation) and gained a powerful solar appliance. The double-paned window cost $3 at the local ReStore and everything else was reused material: 2" foam insulation scrap, 1 1/2" insulation scrap, the green plastic corrugated box my greenhouse came in last year, and tarp material used for lumber bundles. I bought the dark granite ware pot at the hardware store for $10.

I don't know how long the tarp material will last. I may have to upgrade to something more substantial -- such as aluminum flashing painted with high-temperature paint. It certainly works fine as a heat absorber in my solar dehydrator.

The foam insulation sure keeps the heat in and carries the cooker through an occasional cloud. I'd like to get a true oven thermometer for it, especially if I decide to set up a reflector for it to try baking. I'll keep an eye out for one at yard sales.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Canned Goods Inventory

Thinking about jam made me think about all the stuff I still have on my canning shelves. I have three sets of shelves I use: one upstairs for frequently used stuff to cut down on trips down the cellar, a unit I specially built to hold pints, and one shelf off a larger storage unit that is good for quarts, but that I also use for pints and half-pints stacked double.

I set up another spreadsheet in my canning log workbook to the 2009 inventory. I used last year's inventory plus new items from last summer's canning log to start this year's inventory. I record the date, name, number of jars made, and jar size in the canning log. I drop the date for the inventory.

I found items I never entered in the canning log. I found some items whose quantity had not changed from the last inventory -- those are things I won't put up this year and that will have to be consumed.

I was surprised to find that I've started canning nearly six weeks before I began last year. The rhubarb is doing really well this year! It did really well last year -- I still have 18 pints of rhubarb sauce (I was putting up a batch nearly every week until September).

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still have 6 pints of tomato stock left. That should just do me for the occasional soup until the new crop comes in. Much as I love roasted red pepper spread, I doubt that I'll buy red peppers especially for it this year -- I still have 8 jars and the makings for another six on my canning shelf.

I should make borscht, I should make spring rolls, I should make more pasta, I should eat more pickles. I don't need to buy condiments of any sort this summer. I could have veggie burgers for lunch every day all summer long and probably not run out of relishes, mustard, and ketchup. I've got plenty of fruit to last me until the local crops (including some berries of my own) come in.

I've got 90 quarts of food stashed in 231 jars in my cupboard! Almost fifty different things. (I really practice my belief that variety is the spice of life.)

I made the 12 columns after the inventory small so I could border them and have a list with boxes to check off as I use or begin to use (then stashing in the fridge) them. Some items I had to end extra boxes to by hand, but not many. It's posted on the fridge beside the freezer inventory.

Hey, it's lunchtime!

Jammed up with Jam

or how much sugar does this house need anyway?

I have jam from three years ago. It's lovely jam. It's delicious jam. It was my first year back into serious preserving and I went overboard and made two batches of it. The first batch I used too many raspberries and it came out very stiff -- it rescues wonderfully as a syrup for pancakes, waffles, cake, fruit-and-yogurt when diluted with water, to go from a half-pint to nearly a full pint. So I have even more of the stuff on hand. I also made some Black Forest preserves that I still have a few jars of.

I didn't make any of that jam the second year. Instead I made an orange marmalade that turned out runny (and is turning out to be a wonderful base for other stuff), a blueberry-lime jam, and a single jar that stayed in the fridge all season of honeydew-lime-mint marmalade. The blueberry-lime jam has aged beautifully. I'm enjoying it now on English muffins and kefir.

Last year I made four cups of the honeydew-lime-mint marmalade, a spiced pumpkin butter, and a batch of strawberry-rhubarb jam entirely from my own produce.

Of course I can use it for gifts and my son expects at least a couple jars of sweet stuff at Christmas. My husband rarely uses it -- he takes his sugar straight in his 2 - 5 cups of coffee a day. Do I use more than 2 tablespoons a week? I doubt it. I prefer a low-sugar diet. An 8 oz jar contains 8 tablespoons. A jar will last me a month or more. Most recipes make 6-7 jars of stuff (sometimes more).

So how much sugar does this house need? I just bought a 20 kilogram (44 pounds) bag of sugar. A pound of sugar is two cups. A kilo of sugar is sufficient for a batch of wine but not for most jams and definitely not for jellies. At up to 2 tablespoons a day, my husband averages 5 cups a month. I might use 2 cups a month for baking (cookies, crisp toppings) -- except in November/December when I do mega-baking for the holidays that lasts us through January. I usually go through 3-4 pounds of sugar for the baking. A 2 kg bag of sugar usually last us over a month except during preserving and holiday baking months -- then it doubles.

I have at least 20 jars of various jams on my shelves. If I made nothing this year, I'll probably still have 10 jars left next spring.

But of course I'll make something. It looks like I may have a bumper crop of raspberries this year if emerging bloom is any indication. But maybe I'll make WINE instead. If I invest twice the fruit and the same amount of sugar, I get a gallon or 5 bottles of wine. Now that I'll use!

I've already got two gallons of dandelion wine on the go. I've got three gallon jugs left for wine starts this summer. With one I want to do a cherry melomel (honey wine). That leaves two for other fruit wines.

I'm betting that bag of sugar will last past Christmas.