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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fieldtrip: A Farmer's Market

Now that the northern hemisphere is starting to lean back towards the sun, farmer's markets are opening up around the country. That means we packed the kids up and drove a little north of our home and visited the local market. The existence of farmer's markets is a good idea for so many reasons but perhaps the best reason is to reconnect an almost lost but so important link between communities and their local farmers. Small, family owned farms are starting to have a comeback and it's precisely because of venues like these. Though most small farms produce superior products to their counterparts they cannot compete with these huge farms that exist hundreds or maybe thousands of miles away. I have heard stories from farming friends who say that when they lost out on the grocery store bid their produce was piled high in the fields and left to rot. It is the farmer's market which allows them to still be able to get their goods to the community and not be wasted. Always fresh and in season and often at premium prices. Beyond that, farmer's markets are fun, interesting, educational, and totally diverse.

Because farmer's markets are bringing in local goods, no two are exactly alike. You will find anything from locally grown produce and meats to handmade crafts and soaps - and more! It's also a very laid back atmosphere and it's a great time to chat with locals and get to know the community of farmers around you. Always friendly and ready to tell you about their experiences and often offer you some great tips and advice.

Another thing I love about the farmer's market is knowing exactly where my money is going. I know that when I buy something from a vendor that that family will then be able to use that money to buy more seed, land, tools, and return next year with a greater harvest. That connection just feels good. Especially significant and interesting is a "producer's only" market - where the people selling you the goods are the people who produced them. No middle man. How great is it to be able to ask the man who is selling eggs what kind of chickens he has or what their housing is like? Or talk to the woman about her bountiful harvest this winter because of it's milder temperatures. It creates a greater awareness and responsibility between producer and consumer.

So get out to your local farmer's market - buy up their tomatoes, eggs, and sweet tasting jams and jellies! Your kids will love it and you'll know your doing your community good! Just make sure and bring some cash. These markets, especially the smaller ones, don't usually have credit card machines!

Not sure where your closest market is? Click here and find out!


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Questions from a Reader: When to thin seedlings

I am trying to start my own seeds this year. I have
peas, radishes, and some herbs. The peas have already grown sprouts. When do I want to thin them. As soon as a few sprout or after they get their true leaves?
~Christy R. Salt Lake City, Utah

I thin slowly, in a few step process. Mother Nature will sometimes thin out the weak seedlings for you, if you thin too vigorously at the beginning you may not end up with as many plants as you had wished. I tend to wait until I have some healthy looking seedlings, then thin them out so they aren't right next to each other. Once they have grown a little bigger and you can see which seedlings are the strongest, thin them again so they are spaced according to what the packet says.

If seedlings are too close together, it is a good idea to thin them by just cutting the top off with scissors. This will prevent uprooting the seedling that is staying.

Though thinning is beneficial for many plants, it is especially important for root crops such as radishes, overcrowding will prevent them from growing round roots.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Snow Growin'

I once attended a gardening workshop sponsored by a church women's organization. A sweet, soft-spoken lady in her 80s offered the meeting's invocation asking, among things, that we be spared of snow "so our gardens can grow."

Chuck was the guest speaker. He was tall and burly and sunburned in spring, just the kind of thing you'd expect from a no-nonsense kind of guy who loves the land. As soon as the "amens" were offered he immediately stood and started speaking with a passion. "Now, I've get to set something straight. Nothing against that prayer, " he said almost as an afterthought, perhaps glancing at the quailing grandma, "but you CAN have a garden do well if it snows."

The secret, he taught us, is to plant the right crops at the right time. Cool-season crops can weather light to moderate frosts and include spinach, radishes, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, peas, lettuce and mustard greens. In fact, these crops can't tolerate high summer temperatures, so are best planted early anyway. Beets and carrots can also be planted early, but unlike their other cool-season friends, hold up better through the summer. Cool-season crops can be planted at the end of summer for a second harvest in the fall.

So get planting! Cool-season crops can be planted as soon as you can work the soil (meaning it's not frozen solid or too muddy to dig). If you haven't yet prepared a garden plot, try a container. That's where I have the spinach you see in my photo, taken March 27. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage work best as transplants you start indoors, the others you can sow directly into the ground or outside pot.

If you haven't already, now's the time to get your tomato, pepper, melon, herb and squash seeds started indoors for transplanting after the last frost date for your area. Your local extension service can tell you when this date is.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Line Drying your Laundry

If you've never had the chance to hang your laundry on a line outdoors you are really missing out. Line drying your clothes is just as romantic an activity as it seems to be in pictures. It is one of my favorite things in the world to do. Surrounding myself in the smell of clean laundry invigorates me while the sound of sheets billowing in the wind seems to cleanse my over stimulated ears. And my hanging laundry creates an artistic installment in my boring backyard. There are many other reasons to line dry your clothes. Here are a few*:

  • Electric dryers use five to ten percent of residential electricity in the United States!(Some say it cuts their electricity bill in half!)
  • Save money (more than $100/year on electric bill for most households).
  • Conserve energy and the environment.
  • Clothes and sheets smell better.
  • Clothes last longer. Where do you think lint comes from?
  • It is physical activity which almost anyone can do.
  • Sunlight bleaches and disinfects

There are a few options for line drying your clothes outside. Many older homes already have a line installed and ready to go. These lines are pretty but do take up a good amount of space. This year I purchased a space saving model from Amazon because it fit my needs in more ways than one. What I like about it is that it easy to put up and to take down. We are renting right now and so I didn't know if the Landlord would like me to put up anything permanent - and I wanted something I could take along to our next place. I also love that it is so compact. I have memories of walking up and down the clothesline and dragging my basket behind. With this compact and rotating clothesline, I can pretty much stay right in the same place for the whole thing. Here is an image of the clothesline in it's three stages. I took it down because the lawn was getting mowed. It's really light and easy to take up or put down. The pole in the first image is also removable leaving only a small green sleeve that has a cap to close it so it doesn't fill with water.
As with any of these images - click to see larger

Now that Spring has finally arrived down south, I can put my new clothesline to work. This morning I started with a huge load of laundry as you can see. You really could easily fit two to three extra large loads of laundry on this clothesline. I am using wood clothespins because I like the feel and look of them but plastic ones will work as well - they may even make less marks on your things. I have about 200 of them in this handy hanging holder I got. That's probably way more than I'll ever need but I hate running out and like having an abundance of these so I can use them without thought. They also get stolen and used in the kitchen to hold bags closed!

My first encounter with hanging laundry in the real world was at a neighbor's home down the street. I was only about 7 or 8 and I thought that they must be so poor if they needed to hang their laundry! This stigma is changing and line drying laundry is quickly become the chic thing to do for those who care about the planet. That day, I also went and felt some of the clothes expecting to feel something akin to that commercial with the fabric softener bear. I was surprised when it felt stiff and hard. I have now learned tricks for overcoming that stiffness. Right before hanging the clothes snap them a few times by shaking them hard. Do it again when removing them. And hanging them so that the wind can continue to wave and snap will increase the softness. If it still isn't quite soft enough - especially on those towels you can throw them in the dryer for a couple minutes. I've never felt the need to do this but maybe if guests were coming in town I might make an exception!

Something I hate about laundry is the mountain of clothes it makes after I dump them all out on my bed or sofa. In fact, sometimes this mountain is so overwhelming we start just dressing ourselves out of the laundry basket for a few days until we finally break down and fold the laundry. With line drying that step is completely eliminated because I fold each item as I take it down so that it's ready to go straight to it's proper place once I go inside.

Once you've started putting up your laundry you'll start to develop some tricks for quicker drying or more discreet placement. I, for one, like to put my underwear towards the inside behind my other laundry so that neighbors get to enjoy billowing sheets not bras!

In the end, hanging laundry is a spring and summer activity that I look forward to and enjoy. It gets me outside and enjoying the weather and it makes me feel happy knowing that this enjoyable activity is helping save resources that are really in need of saving. So whether you rig up your own clothesline, use an existing one, or buy a new one - I'm sure you'll find that it fast becomes a treasured quiet time to reflect and enjoy mother nature's best resources!

*List of items comes from Project Laundry Website.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fresh Eggs Available

Here is an idea for those wanting to sell their eggs.

~Dale Maurice Johnson

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spring Chicks

There are very few things that are cuter than brand new baby chicks. I have been so excited for spring, knowing that the feed store would start getting the baby chicks, turkeys and ducks. This year I got 3 new layers (meaning egg layers). Here is what I got.

Amy, she is an Ameraucana she will lay about 3 blue or green eggs per week.

Power Ranger and Ariel, are Rhode Island Reds, we choose them because they are excellent egg layers, each laying about 5 brown eggs per week.

I told you, there aren't many things cuter!

This is my set up until they are mature enough to join my other chickens outside. We have our chicks a rabbit cage that we found for free on craigslist.org, but a box with tall sides would work just as well. I like the rabbit cage, last year our chicks started to fly before they were ready to be outside we had to find a grate to cover the top of the box to prevent them from getting out.

A source of heat is a must! We invested in a heat lamp this winter to keep our layers laying while it was cold, and now are using it for the chicks. A 100 watt light bulb with a homemade tinfoil cone will work as well.

The chicks will let you know if they are too hot or cold, if they are huddled together right under the lamp. they are too cold. If they are spread out as far from the light as possible, they are are too warm. They should be scratching and running around the entire area, and napping and resting just outside the rim of the light.

I use pine shavings for their bedding, it is inexpensive at the feed store and it is very effective. Dirty bedding will be thrown into the compost bin when it is changed.
Chickens are very messy, as you can see in the picture, they have no qualms about standing (and pooping) in their feed. It is important to make sure they have clean food and water at all times. It is also a good idea to keep their bedding away from the water, last year my chicks would kick all their bedding into their water within minuets of getting fresh water.
Chicks will need commercial starter crumbles. Layers will graduate to layer pellets (high energy feed) Layers will also eat your table scraps - almost all of them - meat, vegetable, pasta, etc. as well as mow your back lawn.

Layers are a long term investment - 2-3 years, but you get eggs everyday after 4 months. For best egg production, I suggest Rhode Island Reds or RI crossbreeds for brown eggs or Whit Leghorns for white eggs. There are also more interesting layers that give various colors of eggs, but the eggs production is not as good.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Pioneer Easter Eggs

Try this all-natural way to color Easter eggs, using
onion skins. I learned it from my mother, who
learned it from her mother, who undoubtedly learned it
from her mother, too.

The best part of this method, and what I remember most
from growing up, is that it was almost like two Easter
egg hunts in one. Before we even started coloring the
eggs, mom sent us a-hunting outside for blossoms,
fresh grass blades, buds and the like to create
patterns on the eggs. Even if we didn’t find
something new and green, we always enjoyed the search.
Ah, spring.

Here’s how to color your own eggs:

• Gather the outer onion skins, as many as you can!
The more you have, the greater color saturation.
You’ll need to wrap them around each egg several times

Remove skins in as big a piece as possible. Save them
in the fridge for the weeks leading up to Easter. Or,
if you’re like me and the holiday sneaked up on you
this year, dig in the grocery bins to buy lots of
loose skins when you purchase onions. Yellow ones
produce a golden brown color, with red and purple
onion skins imparting a bit more of their respective
hues. It’s best to keep one variety per boiling pot
so colors don’t get muddy.

• If you’ve collected vegetative material, place the
pieces right next to your raw egg in desired pattern,
then wrap onion skins around egg. Try moistening
leaves, etc., to get them to stick to the egg first.

If you didn’t make it outside, raid your crisper for
celery leaves, carrot tops, herbs or more – use your
imagination. (Don’t use anything that may be toxic --
check the Internet if in doubt.) Leaves and such make
a silhouette effect. Pansies (which are edible and
therefore safe) sometimes transfer some of their color
to the egg -- cool! Onion skins alone, however, still
make beautiful eggs with wonderfully layered color.

• After wrapping raw eggs with skins and more skins,
secure tightly with rubber bands (easiest) or string.
Or tuck egg inside a piece of clean nylon stocking.
You really will get more color depth and interest the
more skins you use, so break loose!

• Hard-boil using cold-water method: Place wrapped
eggs in pot, covering with an inch or more of cold
water. Bring quickly to a boil, then set aside
covered pot for 22-24 minutes (add about 5 minutes for
high altitude). Cool immediately under running cold
water. (My mom says the dyed hot water can stain a
porcelain sink, so carefully pour it down the drain to
avoid having to scrub later.)

• Remove onion skins from eggs and admire your
handiwork. Don’t forget that it’s nature handiwork,

• If desired, polish dry eggs with a little vegetable
oil. Refrigerate eggs until needed. I've yet to have
one that tasted like an onion!


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Fieldtrip: Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo

Since it's my son's spring break from school we decided to make a trip down to the largest Livestock Show & Rodeo in the world. The Houston LS & R has concerts from top Country artists, all sorts of Rodeo Events like bull riding and cow roping, along with an extensive showing of animals and livestock. Top that off with a huge fair and barbecue cook-off and you've got one heck of a venue. We arrived just before lunch to beat the crowds and as much of the heat as possible(yes, even in March it's hot down in Houston). We ate our traditional rodeo lunch of smoked turkey legs and boy were they tastey!

We didn't want to spend the money on the big ticket events like concerts or rodeo shows so after a lunch of smoked turkey legs we headed over to the livestock show. The show consists of rows of vedors selling everything country from hats to ropes to furniture to tractors and trucks. It's a lot of fun and if you're like me you may decide to become a total cowgirl - until you check the price tag of that belt buckle! The other side of the arena is filled with all of the animals there to be judged and displayed. People don't seem to mind if you stroll down the aisles of animals waiting to be judged. And like us you can ask to pet the cows and hear more about them - teenagers love to talk about themselves so most will oblige!

There is also an entire section dedicated to farm life and raising livestock and you can spend a lot of time looking around. Every hour there was a small show about milk and where it comes from. A cow is brought up milked right before your very eyes. Though a couple hundred years ago this would have been slightly less than interesting - for us city folks it was fascinating! There are rabbits and guinea pigs for sale that were raised by local school kids - and actually a friend bought one a couple years back and because they were hand raised from birth by one adoring child or teen - they are totally family ready. There is another area dedicated to animals giving birth and you can actually see piglets nursing and cows giving birth. I felt a special affinity to this display! Here I am with a cow that was going to deliver sometime in the next few hours - that look is supposed to say, "I know EXACTLY how she feels."

But by far our favorite section each year is the chickens. We love to go and see the eggs hatching, chicks taking their first steps and then pullets running around like teenagers. You can even see it come full circle with the hens laying eggs right in front of you!After wandering around for almost two hours it was time for our last stop - the fair. The boys were super excited but so we wouldn't empty our wallets we prepared them in advance that they would get to ride one maybe two rides. We spent some time looking around and made our final decisions. The boys had loads of fun and watching them was better than actually riding ourselves! ;)

All in all, I love shows like this one - large or small. In fact, I might even enjoy the smaller ones better where you get to see local farmers display their beautiful pumpkins and intricate quilts. I love seeing folks who live their lives on the land, dedicated to farming and a simpler way of life. I also love seeing all of the sparkley hats and belt buckles! Check your local listings and I'm sure you'll find a county fair and livestock show that the whole family can enjoy!


Thursday, March 13, 2008

It's Seed Starting Time!

No matter where you live, it is time to start those seeds. If you are in a warmer climate, it might be time to start those more delicate plants like tomatoes and melons, if you are in colder climates it is time to start the hardier plants like radishes, broccoli, and spinach. You can do an online search for your area for information on when to start seeds and when to transplant.

For those who might be new to starting seeds, or are limited on space, there is the option to start with a kit. This is a miniature herb garden that my husband bought me for my birthday, I just love anything miniature, so I love this kit! Everything is included for one low price of $4.95 at the local hardware store.

Aren't the pots adorable?
I forgot to take a picture of the dehydrated soil pellets that it came with. The instructions are so easy, you put one pellet in each pot, add 2 TBS. of water, and wait 5 mins. After they are hydrated, each pot is filled with the perfect amount of soil.

Place a few seeds in each pot and cover with a small amount of dirt, next, place the greenhouse cover over the pots, and you should start seeing signs of life in about 5 days.
Wahoo, signs of life, I must have done it right.

Of course kits are not necessary, I'm sure the pioneers didn't bring cute seed starting kits across the plains with them. But, for those of us who just have a yellow thumb instead of green might feel a little more confident starting with a kit. I bought a kit a few years ago and it really worked well. You can find many kits out there either online or at a nursery.

Once you have bought the kit, there is no need to buy the same kit the next year. I found the soil pellets to refill these types of kits for just 10 cents each at the nursery.

This picture is to show you the size difference between dehydrated and hydrated pelets. Most seedlings are not ready to be transplanted for anywhere from 4-10 weeks depending on the type of plant. These little bits of soil are not sufficient to sustain the plants for that long. You will need to transfer the plants to a larger pot until they are ready to be transplanted outdoors.

I suggest making newspaper pots, it is economical as well as ecofriendly.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How about turkeys!?

If you want to bring real excitement into your backyard farm this summer, consider turkeys. They are easy, entertaining, and delicious. Before getting too excited, there are some important issues to consider. If you order from a hatchery, most require a minimum order of 10 -15 birds. So you may need to find some other backyard farmers with which to split the order. You must also begin with the end in mind realizing that you will have to dress them out or find someone to do it for you. Call your agriculture Extension Agent and see if he or she knows someone who will dress them.

While you have your Agent on the line, see if the Extension service is sponsoring 4H turkey projects that you can get your children involved in. If so, Extension may order poults for you. If you order from a hatchery, I suggest you get the largest white breed they offer. Half the fun is putting a turkey on the table at Thanksgiving that is twice as big as anything you can find in the store. Your guest’s jaws will drop when they see it. This past year, our Thanksgiving turkey dressed out at 42 pounds (our record is 48). We use the lowest rack in the oven and the biggest pan we can find.

You will want to raise at least 3-5 turkeys. Turkeys are social creatures who want the companionship of other turkeys. Let’s suppose you start with five. One dies. You name the other four “Thanksgiving”, “Christmas”, “Easter”, and “Homeless” (you will donate Homeless to the homeless shelter or a needy family in your neighborhood.)

Turkeys are great for scavenging insects in the yard. It is hilarious watching older poults chase after a moth. They will eat grass and weeds. However, you will need to supplement with commercial feed. Fence them out of the vegetable garden if they start doing too much damage. Occasionally turn them in the garden. They will clean out the bugs before they start on the plants. Keep in mind that raising turkeys is more expensive than buying them when they are a loss leader at the store for $0.69 a pound.

Turkeys are not shy. They will run to you when you walk out the door and follow you around the yard. Don’t be surprised when they brush up against you as you are gardening. Don’t be afraid either. They rarely peck.

There is nothing quite like seeing two Toms trying to out strut each other. Their appearance doubles in size as they puff out their feathers. Their heads, snoods (flap of skin that hangs over the beak), wattles (flap of skin under the chin), and caruncles (growths on the throat) turn brilliant shades of red and blue (how patriotic they look!)

They gobble occasionally but it is not annoying like rosters crowing or laying hens cackling.

The biggest problem you may have is getting too attached to them. It can be a little distressing loading them in the pickup for slaughtering. But if you keep things in perspective and give them the names I suggested earlier, these emotions will be short lived. Turkeys are one of the best ways to teach your children and to remind yourself where your meat comes from.

Click here for more information refer to the following Extension fact sheet.

Dale Maurice Johnson

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

If there is a required reading list for backyard farmers, or garderners, or just eaters - this book is sitting right at the top. Barbara Kingsolver, award winning author of books such as "The Poisonwood Bible", decided with her family to spend one year living off of food they could raise or grow themselves, or food that was raised or grown by someone within 100 miles. And preferably by someone they knew by name. As she puts it:
"As the U.S. population made an unprecedented mad dash for the Sun Belt, one carload of us paddled against the tide, heading for the Promised Land where water falls from the sky and green stuff grows all around. We were about to begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain...

"This is the story of a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew . . . and of how our family was changed by our first year of deliberately eating food produced from the same place where we worked, went to school, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air."

The book starts by explaining why they wanted to do it and the things they did in preparation for it - including all of the anxiety and fear they had about starving or eating old potatoes for a year. They officially start with their new lifestyle in Spring and end it exactly one year later. The question running through their family's minds - as well as mine - was, "Sure you can eat well in the Spring, Summer, and Fall but what about Winter?" I won't ruin the suspense but I can say that through visiting farmers markets every Saturday, working in their 3600 sq. foot garden, raising chickens and turkeys, and canning galore they are able to reap a bountiful harvest of not only food but wisdom and understanding.

In the first few pages of the book appears this image titled the Vegetannual and honestly, it totally puzzled me. I had no idea what is was or what it meant but now I see it as a really cool guide to eating locally and in season. She explains throughout the book the idea that vegetable and fruits are plants and that as plants they all follow a basic progression. Knowing when a fruit/veggie is in season simply requires knowing what part of the plant it is. Is it a root, a seed, a flower, a fruit or a leaf? Because all plants follow basic timelines throughout the year knowing what part of the plant it is makes it easier to figure out when that food is available. I won't go into it too much but that is what inspired this chart - imagining that all plant foods came from one mother plant - and when they would be available - notice the dates to the left. I love it!

Most of my enjoyment in this book came from descriptions of gathering eggs, digging in the dirt, cooking, canning and enjoying the seasons. I love this topic and I think they whole idea of getting back to the land and to the old ways is having a comeback - thus we have this blog - and I love her thoughts on this:
"Many of us who aren't farmers or gardeners still have some element of farm nostalgia in our family past, real or imagined: a secret longing for some connection to a life where a rooster crows in the yard." 179

Her husband as well as her oldest daughter also write short essays that are scattered throughout the book on their experiences. Overall, after reading this book a couple months ago I am a changed woman. Some parts really resonated with me and are now drifting through my mind and affecting my everyday decisions, especially the quote from Wendell Berry in the first chapter:
I didn't know it but as she further explains in that chapter:
"each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1500 miles...if every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week(any meal) composed of locally & organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil EVERY WEEK. That's not gallons, but barrels. Small changes in buying habits can make big differences. Becoming a less energy dependent nation may just need to start with a good breakfast." 5

Though this issue is a little political the book is not bogged down by or led by this trend - the beauty of this book is that it is a very intimate look into how this change affected her thoughts, her family, and ultimately her life. And in the end - how it affects my life. What an inspiring, informative, and and often humorous look at how living more simply or traditionally can rid our lives of so many of the problems we face. I highly recommend it for all of us who eat!


*All of the images in this post come from www.animalvegetablemiracle.org