Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Playing the Links

I have found some terrific websites recently, ones I’d like to share:

The Well Run Dry: a diary of life on the down side of Hubbert’s peak offers discussions of the problems we face, with peak oil as the core issue. Both heavily religious and political, it nevertheless offers solid information and practical means of dealing with the coming crises. It was on this site that I learned of the next two links.

The Open Source Machine Site [quoting the description on Well Run Dry]: “The Open Source Machine site is dedicated to providing potential manufacturers with small, easily-built manufacturing machines that can be made from recycled and reused parts. Plans for these machines are developed for free and published on the Web without copyright or royalty or intellectual property restrictions, so that anyone can use them. One of their projects is called the “MultiMachine,” described as “...a humanitarian, open-source machine tool project for developing countries.” The neat thing about the MultiMachine is that it provides many metalworking functions in one device that can easily be made from used vehicle engine parts. The Open Source Machine project site also has links to plans to build other machines, including plans to build an air compressor from scrap.”

Casaubon’s Book: Sharon Astyk’s Ruminations on an Ambiguous Future is a treasure chest of practical information on homesteading and related topics. Sharon’s growing conditions couldn’t be more different from mine. She lives in the northeast with a short, coolish, rainy growing season, heavy, clay, acidic soil. I live in the southeast with a long, hot, dry growing season, salt winds, and pure, alkaline sand. However, I am hoping that I can adapt her growing suggestions to my own circumstances. She recently posted a list of the 25 best crops to try – and her readers’ comments are almost as helpful as the original post. I’ve plans to plant several on her list and will experiment with more next year. Of course, Sharon deals with more than just crops – food storage, animal husbandry, container gardening, etc – and she has multiple links to more information. I’m on information overload at the present, but loving it!

Also on homesteading is Path to Freedom, the story of the Dervaes family plot in Pasadena, CA. On merely a fifth of an acre, they have managed to grow tons of food annually, selling their excess to local restaurants. Their website offers not only practical advice, but videos and a store. One of the features I particularly like is their weekly menu posting. When one eats primarily from the garden, what does one eat? Well, they tell you and even have the photos to prove it.

Mother Earth News has been a source of information for decades now, and it wears its tradition well. It was on their site that I first learned of the Dervaes family, as well as discovering a new way to bake bread and suggestions for creating biochar (posts on both of these at a later date). Another rich source of information!!

The Rhizome Collective self describes as “We are working to build the world we want to live in. In our worldview, the dominant values of competition, greed and exploitation would be replaced with cooperation, autonomy and egalitarianism. We believe that all struggles against oppression and for self-determination are connected, and that it is important to construct viable alternatives while simultaneously fighting for social justice.” Practical suggestions for sustainable living in an urban setting – everything from vermiculture to building your own windmill out of recycled bicycle parts. Great source!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Eating Weeds

Forty-some years ago, I was in college, and my Anthropology 101 professor said something so shocking that it has stayed with me ever since. He said that over the millennia, humans have always lived as hunters and gatherers and that it was only in ‘recent’ times that we invented agriculture. He also pointed out that agriculture is a human experiment that might someday fail and that we could conceivably revert to the tried and true, hunting and gathering. He said that civilization as we know it could be the aberration and that the pockets of ‘primitive’ people still remaining could represent mankind’s true success story. Pretty heavy stuff to lay on eighteen-year-olds!

As I consider his words now, there is no way that Gaia can sustain 7 billion human hunter/ gatherers, especially with natural ecosystems so degraded. But hunting and gathering can be supplementary means of feeding ourselves as long as we respect the limits of nature and do not overharvest. That said, I have not yet reconciled myself to hunting, though I do not fault those who cull over-populations of wild animals and then make good use of their takings; I would rather an animal be wild and free until the moment of its death than raised in overcrowded pens on huge agri-farms. But the gathering aspect suits me just fine.

Of course, being a city girl, food is supposed to come in plastic packages in the produce aisle, or from carefully tended home gardens. Harvesting from the wild is a bit scarier, so I got some help. A local nature center offers classes in collecting wild foods, and I signed up. It turns out that dollar weed, a local pest, is actually in the carrot family and completely edible. So are our poor man’s pepper, dock, henbit, wild onions, and many other ‘weeds’ I’ve been throwing into the compost bin. And the yaupon holly bushes that grow wild on our island can be used for making caffeinated tea!

I came home from the course with the book Edible Plants of the Gulf South, which is specific to our region. Since then, I’ve purchased The Complete Guide of Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts: How to Identify, and Cook Them, and Florida’s Best Fruiting Plants: Native and Exotic Trees, Shrubs, and Vines. I’m still not sure how to prepare some of these plants – instructions are sometimes a bit vague. I’m completely new to this! I need details! I’m hoping that as I gain experience, the confusion will dissipate.

I still find it odd to walk out into the yard, pull a weed from a flower bed, and throw it into our evening salad. I’m going to take it slowly, adding the wild harvest a bit at a time until I become more confident. I also intend to buy a good field guide for identifying poisonous plants. I don’t want to make any fatal mistakes!

A recent hurricane took out about half the houses on our island and some may never be rebuilt. That means a lot of land is ‘natural,’ which translates as ‘free salad bar.’ And after spending the last four years unsuccessfully trying to rid my yard of what I have now discovered are edible weeds, I can be assured that overharvesting would be difficult. Thank you, Mother Gaia, you do take care of your own!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stevia Rebaudiana

I mentioned stevia in my last post and want to expand a bit. I had never heard of stevia until last spring when I saw the plants in a Gurney’s catalog. Stevia is also known as ‘sweet leaf’ and is touted as a healthy, natural, no-cal sugar substitute. What’s not to like? So, I ordered one and eagerly awaited its arrival. I was curious to see this wonder plant! The plant arrived, but it was mashed in the packaging and looking quite iffy. The poor thing didn’t take long to succumb. I re-ordered and was told to expect the replacement in October. Well, the replacement plant was DOA as well. “Stevia must not travel well,” I said to myself, and ordered seeds instead. Now the seeds have arrived, and it turns out they’re a bit tricky to start. Well, I’m going to try. In the meantime, maybe I’ll find a plant in the local nursery. The stevia word seems to be getting out – I saw packages of sugar substitute made from stevia in the local Winn-Dixie, so it’s no longer a big secret.

Being new to both growing and using stevia, I bought a couple of books to help me out. The first is Stevia Sweet Recipes: Sugar-free – Naturally by Jeffrey Goettemoeller. Tons of recipes, but most of them use stevia extract and I have no clue how to get from plant to extract. So I bought a second book, Growing and Using Stevia: The Sweet Leaf from Garden to Table by the same J Goettemoeller and Karen Lucke. This book has growing hints as well as directions for processing the leaves to make extracts and powder, plus some additional recipes. Between the two books, I should have enough information to get me started. To find out how the experiment goes, stay tuned!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Seeds and Plants

Now that I’m on my way to having compost, it's time to plan what to plant and where. We have a protected area in back of the house that should do well as a small garden. It’s out of the wind, gets shade part of the day (full sun all day is too much here in the Florida panhandle!), and is easy to access. I’ve ordered some heirloom tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, mint and horseradish from Tasteful Gardens, a relatively local nursery that carries varieties supposedly well-suited to our climate. From Hirt’s (Amazon.com), I ordered seeds for amaranth, cucumber, Mexican tarragon, stevia, watermelon, okra, squash, and swiss chard. From Gurney’s, I ordered a dwarf banana, ginger, and peanuts. I ordered a soil tester from Burpee’s – one that tests both PH and fertility. I still have radish and lettuce seeds from last year and some herbs that overwintered on my back porch – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – plus oregano, marjoram and cilantro. That’s enough to get me started!

A word about amaranth – I’ve never grown it before but it's a wonder plant and I’m hoping it will do well. The tender, young leaves can be used in salads, the older leaves can be steamed, and the seeds can be eaten as is or ground into flour. It has an attractive 'flower' and can even be used as a natural red dye. Worth a try!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Worms Crawl In, the Worms Crawl Out . . .

I’ve discovered another composting tactic: worms! With a worm bin, I can enlist hundreds of worms to do my composting for me! I found several ideas for make-it-yourself worm bins on the internet, but I decided to go with the more attractive, expensive model with the spigot for worm tea (hey, I had a coupon for money off!) Rather glad I did. I had read that worm bins can be set up inside or out, but come to find out that outside means out of direct sun, out of wind, out of rain, and ideally between 40 and 80 degrees. If I had a garage, that might have worked, but we have a carport, so the worm bin is in my kitchen and now part of my decor.

Word of advice: don’t order your worms and worm bin on the same day from different catalogs just so you can use two different coupons. Wait until your worm bin arrives or you may have worms and nowhere to put them. Voice of experience. Also, be prepared with newspaper. If, like me, you get your news on the internet to save trees and money, you may have to rely on your, uh, less environmentally conscious neighbors. Or do what I did and help yourself to a big stack of the freebies at the grocery store. The instructions also called for adding some finished compost to the bedding. Thanks to my tumbler, I had the compost. Other people might not have such easy access.

It all worked out, though. I now have worms living happily in a corner of my kitchen. If there is any smell, I haven’t noticed. They are hard at work eating my garbage, but not all of it. I still have garbage left over that is going into the tumbling composter (dang! I was planning on letting that compost finish its thing and now I have it working again!) The one problem I have with my worms is that they’re too picky. They like their food cut into small pieces (have you ever tried convincing your significant other that he should cut his banana peel into little pieces for the sake of worms?) Second option is to cook the garbage in the microwave to soften it up. But I’m trying to avoid using any extra energy, so that doesn’t seem to be such a good option, either. Third option is to freeze the garbage and then let it thaw. I may try that. So far, the worms have been getting their banana peels fresh and whole, but they haven’t been making great headway, either. Guess I do need to give them a helping hand.

[More information on vermicomposting. With a hat tip to Sharon Astyx for the link]

So far, so good. . . I rather like lifting the lid to the worm bin and seeing all those little red bodies hard at work. Rather like having an army of slaves!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

World’s Best Compost

We don’t have soil where we live, we have sand – pure, white, make-a-sandcastle sand. We have salt winds that shriek through the garden, UV rays that will burn holes in your shirt, and rain that comes in infrequent tsunamis -- when it rains, it pours! Oh, and the occasional hurricane or two. That’s the downside. The upside is a long growing season, plentiful sunshine that just needs to be moderated, and rainfall that can be collected and stored.

I figure the first task is to create a growing medium amenable to more than sea scrub. I have a compost maker, one of those that tumbles. I spent a lot for that compost maker and there are a couple of problems with it – first of all, when it is full, it doesn’t much like tumbling. I took it off the base and now just roll it around the yard. Still not easy, but easier. Second problem is that I am continually adding new kitchen garbage, weeds, etc to the tumbler, so I never have finished compost! I need another way of making compost – something fast.

I found a website that promised the world’s best compost in one day. Sounded too good to be true, but I plunked down $34 to learn the ‘secret’ all the same. First of all, the compost isn’t finished in one day (I knew that!) -- it takes one day to make the compost pile and three to six months for the compost to happen. All you need is a truckload of fresh cow manure, preferably from grass-fed cows, quite a lot of straw, some herbal concoctions (not necessary but recommended) and the space for a heap five feet high by five feet wide by six and a half feet long. At some point in the process, worms are supposed to appear in your pile, coming up from the ground, I guess. So what happens if you can’t get a truckload of manure, don’t have the space for huge compost pile, and your sand is a worm-free zone? This technique may well produce the world’s best compost, but it isn’t going to happen in my garden. Time to rethink.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A City Girl Goes Country

With the peak everything knocking at our doors, I decided it would be prudent to become as self-reliant as possible. That means growing more of my own food, securing a reliable water supply, learning survival skills, and becoming self-sufficient when it comes to power. Not easy for a city girl, especially for one who lives on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. This city girl is going to have to go country, and quick!

I am marking my trail with this blog – so that others may profit from my mistakes as well as my successes.