Sunday, November 22, 2009
I'm feeling quite pleased with myself today because this weekend I made soap from scratch for the first time!
Soap making from scratch has always felt very daunting to me. Simply because it just sounds complicated.
Firstly, one doesn't measure but weighs. So rather than the usual 1 cup of (say) olive oil, one has to weigh the ingredients.
Secondly, almost every instruction out there seems to be full of caution about the use of caustic soda. I had half convinced myself that if handled incorrectly, it would explode.
And finally, there seems to be a huge emphasis on being precise. (And once again, I somehow got the impression that by being imprecise, then the whole thing could explode.)
All of the above combined can be very daunting for a newbie like me and prevented me from trying it out. Instead, during my no buying brand-new year, I made my existing soap supplies last longer by adding oats. (Instructions for this can be found here.) Much later on, I bartered for homemade soap in exchange for some sewing repairs.
All this is very well and good - indeed, by adding oats or by bartering, I managed to last 3 years of not buying soap and only using homemade soaps. However, after a little bit of encouragement, a friend of mine finally convinced me that I *can* make soap from scratch.
So here's a little thing about demystifying soap making.
Firstly - the weighing thing. My friend brought over her kitchen scales and we weighed our ingredients that way. It is a little different from baking or cooking but not that hard.
You need two medium to large saucepans - one to make lye water and another one to mix oils.
To make lye water
Lye water is just water and caustic soda. I poured 330 grams of cold water into the saucepan and took the saucepan outside. I then slowly poured 130 grams of caustic soda.
Now to demistify, the caustic soda.... I had forgotten that I actually have handled this in the past - to clean drains! We bought caustic soda from the local grocery shop (Woolworths) in the cleaning section. Caustic soda can be dangerous - but no more dangerous than handling any very harsh cleaning product. The soda is not a fine powder - it actually has the consistency of rock salt.
When you first pour the caustic soda in the water, nothing seems to happen. As I stirred the mixture (using a plastic spatula), I noticed that as the caustic soda slowly dissolved, the saucepan and spatula got hotter. Not burningly hot (mind you, I didn't put my hand in it) but the saucepan was noticeably hot to touch (think of toast when it first pops out of the oven - that hot).
As it dissolved, it also gave off a chemical burning smell. It was a good thing I was outside! The smell only lasted a minute though. Once the caustic soda has dissolved, then the smell pretty much disappeared.
And once its dissolved, then that's it! You have lye water. Set the saucepan aside.
To blend the oils
In the other saucepan, we mixed together 300g of macadamia oil, 400g olive oil and 200g of avocado oil. (Reminder - like the lye water, weigh the oils - do not use the measurements). We heated this mixture up on low heat for about 5 mins.
Turn the heat off and make yourselves a cup of coffee (or beverage of your choice).
The purpose of this step is to make sure that the lye water and the oils are the same temperature. Our instructions said both mixtures should be between 30-40 degrees celsius (86-104 degrees Farenheit).
Now we started off using the thermometer but in the end, we just used our hands (not directly into the lye mixture of course! just touched the outside of the saucepan).
Once we felt that the mixtures were about the same temperature, we poured the oil into the lye water. Note that the recipe said to pour the lye water into the oil mixure BUT we thought using the larger saucepan (the one that the lye water was in) was the better way to go.
Mix lye water and oil mixture
Next we used a bamix (stick blender) to blend the lye water and oil mixture.
As we mixed, the lye water and oil mixture started to bond. When the consistency turned into that of whipping cream, we added our essential oils.
Here we didn't measure as precisely. We added about 15 mls of sandlewood oil and 10 drops of tea tree oil.
When the mixture's consistency was that of a light custard, we stopped mixing and poured the soap into molds.
We covered the mold in a plastic wrap and stored it in a cool dry place. We now need to let the mixture sit for 24 to 36 hours.
This is a photo of mine after 7 hours (it was already hard to touch on the outside):
The full recipe with additional notes are here: http://www.aussiesoapsupplies.com.au/Cold-Process-Soapmaking-p-11.html
So there you go - no explosions and best of all, I realised how easy it actually was. Really, soap making is just 4 steps....and one of those steps involved sitting down and having a chat over coffee!
Anyway, I'm sure my first batch of soap won't be perfect (after all, we started off being precise but kinda went downhill after that) but I'm hoping that it will do the job!
I hope you have all had a lovely weekend.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Having produced cheese as a hobby now almost weekly for more than 8 months, I thought it would be a great time to share some tips that I have learnt with you.
Tip #2. Have everything all prepared and layed out before you start. As I am waiting for the 15-20 minutes for the pot, stainless steel utensils and cheese cloths to sterilise, I get a clean tea towel and lay it on the kitchen bench next to the stove top, ready to place all the tools on. I select the recipe well in advance, and get out all the necessary ingredients and put them on the side ready to go. Cheese making requires un-chlorinated water for diluting some ingredients, so I have to pre-boil some rain water from my tank and let it cool to room temperature. You could use bottled water, but I do not due to environmental reasons. I pre mix the diluted calcium chloride with this water, and do the same with the rennet. Something I learnt in the Boy Scouts that I shall never forget and that is the Scouts motto, "Be Prepared".
Tip #3. Although the process of cheese making is not particularly difficult, it can be time consuming. Ensure you take into account all factors involved in culturing the milk, renneting, stirring, milling, and pressing. If making a simple hard cheese, allow at least 4-5 hours to entirely finish the process. I make one cheese, Wensleydale, that take over 9 hours from start to the final pressing! Mind you the final product is well worth the effort.
Tip #4. Start off with a simple cheese to build your confidence.
- Try a soft cheese like yoghurt cheese which is basically putting 1 kg (2 pounds) of natural yoghurt into a cheesecloth and draining for a few hours, then gather into a ball and suspend over a large pot overnight in the fridge. Simple, yet tasty and you can mix in different flavours, either savoury or sweet to liven it up as a dip.
- Ricotta is another easy cheese to make. Take 4 litres of milk, bring to about 93C (200F) and add a quarter of a cup (67ml) of white vinegar or lemon juice and stir. You will see the milk separate into curds and whey. Ladle into cheesecloth lined colander to drain. When cool to touch, tie the corners of the cloth into a ball and wrap the ends around a large wooden spoon and drain over a large pot. After a few hours of draining you can add salt to taste and it will keep for about 5 days in the fridge in an airtight container. Great for lasagne and any other dish that requires a large amount of ricotta. As I said, simple successes give you the confidence to try something a little harder next time.
Tip #5. If you find that you enjoy making simple and basic cheeses, see if you can find a local cheese making course that is held nearby. The knowledge that you will learn will take you to the next level, and as I found, the interaction with other amateur cheese makers is priceless. Some of the courses can be expensive, but I found a relatively cheap one that was definitely worth the money. I have attended two of these courses (basic and mould) at our local community centre. Have a look around your local area. You might just get a suprise.
Tip #6. When taking the next step and you have the urge to make an intermediate skill level cheese, like cheddar, feta, parmesan, edam or the like, try and make one like feta or caerphilly that only take a short time to ripen so that you can taste your handy work quickly. By making these quick to ripen cheeses once a month, you will always have some type of cheese at hand at home and never be tempeted to by that processed store bought rubbish that some supermarkets try and pass off as cheese!
Tip #7. Once you get the basics right fairly consistently, don't be afraid to experiment a little by adding other flavours to your cheeses during pressing or milling. I add a layer of home grown sage leaves into the middle of my Wensleydale and it imparts a fantastic flavour. I add home grown dried birdseye chilli to my Monterey Jack to produce a variety called Pepper Jack. I have even added green peppercorns to my Pyrenees style cheese as mentioned in tip #1. It is all about the cheese and the final flavour.
Tip #8. Have patience. A good cheese, like a good wine, needs to ripen for a specific period of time and get better with age. Try and resist temptation by eating your cheese earlier than recommended. All hard cheeses take time to mature to the right taste. You would be amazed by the difference a week or month between tastings. Depending on the cheese, if tasted early it will be very mild, but if left for longer then the flavour gets stronger over time. I will give you an example. I made some Camembert, tried it at 3 weeks and it was fantastic. Left one for 4 weeks, and it was so strong it was overpowering but out of this world. Another example, my first Caerphilly cheese I sampled at 15 days, when it was supposed to ripen to 28 days. It was nice, but when we tried it at 28 days, it was fantastic. I don't dare try my parmesan until at least 12 months!
Tip #10. Don't forget to have fun and share the final product. I usually make my cheese on a Friday night, with a few glasses of wine to relax after a tough week at the office. I find it very therapeutic. I also enjoy breaking out a small cheese platter when friends drop by whereby sharing all the different tastes. Most say I should sell it at a local farmers market, but I think it would spoil the fun of the hobby. Some of my friends have never heard of most of the cheese types that I make, because the main cheese consumed in Australia is cheddar or processed cheese slices. I love the variety that home make cheese making gives you.
Who would believe that you can make so many different types of cheese with plain old milk! It is great fun, so give it a go, and remember the most important rule. Don't cry over spilt milk :-). If you have had some cheese making experience, either positive or negative, please share via a comment. If anyone has any questions that are specific, I will try and answer, but remember I am just a humble cheese artisan and a may not have come across that problem before, but I will do my best to get back to you quickly. If you would like further information, my personal blog has many cheese recipies and fully documented step by step method of most of the cheeses I have made so far. Just have a look at the right hand side bar and click on a photo of the desired cheese for the tutorial, of you can click here for all the posts I have written about cheese making.
Have fun with cheese making and catch you next time at the Co-op!
Friday, May 29, 2009
One of the most satisfying projects that I have embarked on during the Greening of Gavin is cheesmaking. It must be the mouse in me coming out, but it is just so much fun to turn simple cows milk into something so divine!
In February, I attended a cheesemaking workshop and learnt how to make Feta. It was a great day and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wrote about over on my personal blog and if you want to find out how the day went have a look at "Homemade Feta, or Gromit I Found the Cheese!". It details the entire process. I won't list a how to in this post, because each cheese is different, and it would take a book to write them all down.
Since that time, I have bought a basic cheese making kit which contained everything I required except a few kitchen utensils and a press, a very simple recipe book, and I have made the following cheese.
- Whole milk (the fresher the better)
- Mesophilic starter (a culture to give flavour)
- Calcium Chloride (if the milk is homogenised)
- Rennet (vegetable)
- Non-ionised Salt
Other tools that I use are from around the home. I use a 8 litre (2 gallon) stainless steel cooking pot. A smaller pot with water in it, that I sit the large one on to act as a double boiler to control the temperature, and a cafe thermometer that is used to measure the temp of the curds and whey.
Waxing the Cheese". It is a simple process and seals the moisture into the cheese wheel whilst it is maturing. Most semi-hard cheeses, like wensleydale, cheddar, gouda, edam, and monteray jack need to be waxed and matured for a minimum of between 1 month and 12 months, depending on the cheese and the flavour you are after.
The cheese can be stored in a cool cupboard or basement/cellar. The ideal temperature for cheese storage is between 9 - 15 degrees Celsius. In the Australian summer that is quite difficult to achieve, so I simply stored mine in the butter compartment of my fridge. During winter, I just put it into a cool cupboard and it matures nicely.
I hope I have given you all a small insight into the wonderful world of home cheese making, and am happy to field any questions via comments. I have found that once you start cheesmaking, it is very hard to stop. Since February, I make cheese on every second Friday night as a pleasurable way to spend my evening after a long week at work. A glass of red wine also helps with the process!
"Wine, Cheese, and Friends. These are three things that are much better when old."
Monday, May 11, 2009
I've started showing my friends my recent efforts in house decorating recently. Many of my friends have commented on how creative I've become.
Whenever I hear them say that I always feel like laughing. See in highschool, I never saw myself as "creative". In fact, when it came to the arts and home arts my grades were:
Art = 'C-' final comment by my art teacher in my highschool certificate was "Eilleen draws/paints to the best of her ability".
Cooking = "D"
Sewing = "F"
My experiences in highschool pretty much ended up with me believing that I was not creative at all. In many ways, this view stopped me from trying to live a simpler life for a long time. To me living a simpler life would mean that I would need to learn how to cook (but I can't cook!), I would need to learn how to sew (but I can't sew!) and I would need to learn how to make do with what I have (but this would mean my house would look like crap because....I'm not creative!!)
For years, I fell into the "commercial" view of what makes a beautiful home (ie buy furniture/home decor to look exactly the display room), what makes a good meal (ie a good restaurant) and buy all my clothes. Every now and then I would have "brilliant" ideas of how something could look better or taste better but I would quickly dismiss those ideas because....I'm not creative.
Believing I was not creative left me no option but to be an over-consumer.
Then one day, I stopped consuming. I made my impulsive decision not to buy anything brand new for a year. And suddenly I learned home skills...bit by bit. I still didn't believe I was creative, but now I am being forced to sew buttons back on shirts and coats. I slowly learned how to cook.
And then something strange happened, the more I did these things, the more ideas I had about how something could be altered in a different way to achieve different looks. Now that I can sew on a button, I can now sew on lots of buttons (to hide stains on my daughter's shirt):
Now that I learnt that I can add flour to a basic stew recipe to thicken it and that thickened stew can be the filling for a meat pie:
And the more I did these things, the more confident I became of what I am capable of doing. My children started to ask me to fix or make things for them. And I was now more willing to give it a go. And one day, as I finished a drawing my son had asked me to draw, I realised that little voice inside me that used to tell me that I was not creative had been silent for a long time.
And its amazing how freeing that can be. So now I try my hand at anything. Some things don't turn out well, but I learn from it. Being creative doesn't mean not making mistakes. To me, being creative is having ideas and turning those ideas into reality... and this includes working out what won't make that idea work.
For me, being creative meant having to learn some basic skills then surrounding myself with people in real life and on the internet who can show me the many ways of using those basic skills to maximum effect.
And more importantly, being creative means NOT listening to that voice telling you that your idea will never work because you're not creative.
my latest creative effort - mirror painted to achieve a stain glass look and old hallway table restored and painted for shabby chic look.
So now whenever I hear other people say "but I'm not creative!" I tell them, "Me too! but its amazing what non-creative people like us can do!"
Monday, May 4, 2009
Last night my family ate dinner in a Mexican restaurant, where the television was tuned to news about swine flu. We watched images of eerily empty public streets in downtown Mexico City, a city normally bustling with activity. My husband and I went there on our honeymoon. What a an amazing city it is, with a rich culture full of wonderful people.
I'm sure most of us have been reading about swine flu on the news, watching the television reports, listening to radio reports. There seem to be three main responses to the possible threat of a global pandemic: fear, humor, or indifference. I admit my mind travels back and forth between all three. And that's ok.
But if you listen closely, you'll hear the same phrase we heard during the avian flu outbreaks in Asia a couple of years ago: "it's not a question of if, but when." There may not be a flu pandemic this spring, there may not be a flu pandemic next winter, but given the way our society works today, there will be a flu pandemic in the not too distant future. I say this not to strike fear, but to remind us all that this is the reality of our world, so that we can take actions to keep our families and friends safe and healthy.
How Do You Prepare?
1. Emotional Preparedness
The first thing that happens to most people in a disaster is that your mind doesn't work the way it normally does - you enter into a state of confusion, or sometimes shock. Children and adults both do this. So, what you need to do ahead of time is to prepare your family, and to talk about what you would do if something like this were to happen. Let your children play an active role in this discussion so that they remember it, and so that they aren't fearful.
Before having this discussion, you should do some research about the possible scenarios of a pandemic. Pandemics can be fairly mild, like the 1968-69 Hong Kong Flu, or they can be quite severe, like the 1918 Spanish Flu (which was, incidentally, the H1N1 strain we are seeing in the current cases of swine flu). Don't scare yourself to much when you read about them, but you should know what could happen: life could go on fairly normally, or your city could shut down entirely, or it could be anywhere in between.
Once you know the possibilities, think through the possible scenarios in your head: what would you do? What would you need? How would you get ahold of your family if phone lines were jammed? Who could pick up your children? Where is the nearest hospital? Is there a family member's house that is better suited in an emergency, and could you go there for a while if you needed to?
These are not pleasant thoughts, I know. No one likes to think about the negative things that could happen. But this can save your family's life, and make things a lot easier for everyone if something like a pandemic were to happen.
2. Physical Preparedness
Since you have now researched what has happened in the past pandemics, you know the possible scenarios. You could end up in a quarantined area for weeks on end. You could have water or electrical lines that don't work - and nobody can come fix them. Banks, schools, hospitals, groceries, gas stations, and public transportation systems all may be closed. Again, not to scare yourself, but simply to know what might happen so you can prepare for it.
Things to do now:
- Make sure good hygenic practices are ingrained into your family's routines.
- Keep your children home if they are sick, and stay home if you are sick.
- Save up enough money to get by on a loss of income for at least a month or two, in case your workplace closes or you are not able to work.
- Prepare an emergency contact list of family, close friends, physicians, pharmacies, and veterinarians. Here is a good template to use. Also plan who will take care of your children if you are severely sick - make sure you make solid plans with that person now, just in case.
- Keep your gas tank consistently full.
- Plant a four-season garden to keep fresh, nutritious foods at home.
- Think about each essential service you need as a family (including pets), and store two weeks worth of it in your basement, garage, closet, or cupboard:
- Non-perishable foods and baby formulas
- Prescription drugs
- Vitamins and any non-prescription drugs you take regularly
- Water - 1 gallon per person per day in clean plastic containers
- First Aid kit, including pain relievers, fever reducers, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes, thermometer, and anti-diarrheal medication.
- A small amount of cash in case ATMs and banks are closed
- Pet food and litter
- Portable radio (hand-cranked is best)
- Alcohol-based hand cleaner
- Manual can opener
- Garbage bags
- Toilet paper, disposable diapers
- Respirators and/or N-95 masks (the only type of mask that filters airborne pathogens)
- Vinyl or latex gloves
- Books, games, crafts, and school supplies
- Printed out instructions about how to care for someone with influenza at home.
3. Community Preparedness
- Work: Plan to work from home as much as possible. Find out from your employer if you can create a telecommuting plan in the event of an emergency. If you work in an essential services field, make sure there is a plan to keep basic services operational, despite the possibility that many workers may not come into work. Help spread information to your co-workers about good hygiene and how to prepare for a pandemic at home.
- Neighborhood: The closer-knit your community is, the better off it will be during any kind of emergency. Start getting involved in community-building activities in your neighborhood. Get to know your neighbors, and become involved in your community as it works to prepare for an influenza pandemic. If there aren't any groups creating a community plan, start one!
- School: Find out what your school's plans are for a pandemic event. If they don't have a plan, help them create one. Encourage other parents to keep children at home if they are sick. Get together with other parents to find ways to continue children's learning if schools are closed - can you create a Plan B Online learning system, for example, with a few teachers teaching online?
- US: Health and Human Services
- US: Centers for Disease Control
- International: World Health Organization
- Australia: Department of Health and Ageing (thanks, Joanne!)
- If you live in another country, please leave a comment telling us where you get your reliable information and I will add it here!
- US: 1-800-CDC-INFO
- Australia: 1802007
- If you live in another country, please leave a comment telling us where you get your reliable information and I will add it here!
Now, I'm sure I've missed something here, so please add what you know into the comments below. It could help us all in ways we cannot imagine!
Stay safe, happy, and prepared.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Several of you have asked me about the environmental education activities (Forest School, Eco Club, Gardening Club, Master Composting) I get up to, so this is the first in a series of posts about them. This post is about the Eco Club I run after school at Compostgirl's Primary school. I hope, as always, that you find it interesting :-)
Eco Club aims to:- foster an understanding and appreciation of the natural world; let the children gain a hands on appreciation of what is around them in real life rather than just watching it on a TV screen; discuss a more simple, reduced consumption, reused and recycled way of living; and shows the children how to use natural and recycled materials to make new things so challenging the concept that "things" can only be made by "other" people and purchased from a shop.
Eco Club also teaches practical skills such as plant and animal identification, tracking, gardening and various crafts, and it gets the children out in the fresh air taking "free range" exercise. All these things help to promote positive self esteem in the children, caters to their various different multiple intelligences and encompasses children with different learning styles.
Oh, and did I mention it is FUN? :- ))
So, what is a "typical" Eco Club session like? Our sessions at Eco Club run after school from 3 15 to 5 pm. Membership is voluntary and we charge a small termly fee to cover the cost of various memberships. We have so many children wanting to be in Eco Club (which is nice!) that we have had to hold two duplicate sessions each month. We usually have around 10- 15 children in each session, Sue (Yr 2 teacher) and I lead them with a couple of parent helpers, usually Compostman is one of them, bless him. Sue and I are both qualified First Aiders, any non teaching staff have CRBs and we take a register at the start and end of the club to ensure the safety of the children.
We have found mixing children aged from 5 to 11 in a meeting is a really good thing as the older ones help the younger ones. We duplicate sessions each month so each group (Ants or Bees) does roughly the same thing as the other group. We get lots of external support as an RSPB Wildlife Explorers Club, a Woodland Trust Nature Detectives Club and we have been a Wildlife Trust Watch group. Each child is an individual member of the RSPB and gets a magazine every two months as well as various goodies from the Woodland Trust or RSPB on occasion.
We start with the children getting changed into old clothes in the classroom (we want everybody to be able to have fun without worrying about getting cold, hot, wet or mucky so old clothes, warm coats and wellies/sun hats and sun cream are essential wear. We than have a drink, a snack and a general chat about what we plan to do in the session; this is also the time for the children to share any exciting news with the rest of the club, or show a book or magazine they have found. Sometimes we look at a web site or a DVD which relates to what is planned for the session. We also talk about what we would like to do in future sessions and ask the children what they would like to do.
Unless the weather is really vile, we tend to be outside, starting with a few environmentally based games (more on those in another post) or just a general "free run around" time. This is a very important part of the session! Children who have been in a classroom all afternoon NEED to run around and let off steam! Then it is on with the activities planned for that session. Eco Club activities cover a wider range of “green” interests. For example; we talk about recycling and make recycled paper (more on that in a later post),
We have planted native hedgerow trees, have made and put up bird feeders all over the school grounds, have instigated a paper recycling bank at school, have made bat and bird boxes and erected them around the school,
We have made a hedgehog hibernaculum, we take part in various RSPB and Woodland Trust events and we make insect shelters in the Autumn. Eco Club has several raised beds in the school grounds where we grow herbs and insect attracting plants. We go on regular rambles to see the changing seasons unfurl around us.
We make a lot of compost as well, bug hunts in the compost heap whilst “turning” it is always a VERY popular activity! We have held HUGELY successful fund raising events, for the RSPB Albatross appeal alone we raised over £300.
We do a variety of recycled-based crafts.
and a LOT of bird and plant identifying throughout the year and above all we have FUN.
What we are doing is part of a bigger message, that of living in a more sustainable way. This encourages the children (and hopefully their families) to compost, grow veg, recycle etc at home as well as at school. It has benefited the children in oh so many ways, they all seem to love what we all do and come up to me in town to tell me so :-)
The school has also benefited in many ways and is now working for the highest level an Eco School can achieve, the Green Flag award. We have also won recently won a prestigious Woodland Trust award at Gold Level.
All this is a lot of work! The planning and organising the sessions and memberships, having meetings and exchanging emails and phone conversations with Sue to arrange it all, all takes time. I do it as a volunteer so I don't get paid BUT I enjoy doing it and I love helping the children to see the wonders of our natural world, as does Compostman. We both feel very privileged to be able to share our knowledge of the environment with the next generation and that is worth a lot! I am also lucky enough to have converted my interest and passion for educating about sustainability/the environment into a whole new career as a Forest School Leader/Environmental Educator, all springing from becoming a volunteer Master Composter and volunteering to garden at school.
So, if you have similar skills, why not think about helping at YOUR local school or other youth group? It is really worth it :-)
Thursday, April 2, 2009
A posse ad esse (From possibility to reality)
Earlier this week, I asked if there were any questions that any of my readers had that I might be able to help them answer. Someone posed the following question and it started a good dialogue.
I'm curious about your tomato growing method. I think you planted your tomatoes close together (1 ft) and used your trellis system for support. What have been your experiences with growing indeterminate tomatoes in this fashion? Can you talk a little about pruning specifically for your growing method? ~Eric
I think if there’s one thing people first associate with the successful home garden it’s the sweet goodness of a sun ripened tomato.
Well Eric was absolutely right, I do grow my tomatoes in very close proximity (1 sq ft), and yes I am very big on trellising. But to leave it at that would be making the process much too simple, so let me explain.In the pictures above and below, there are two sections of tomato trellising. The tomato above is in the box that is in the back, the one below is in the box in the middle in case you weren't sure. This is last year’s trellis that I tried out. I didn't like it, and am modifying my framework trellis system to have a center beam that I can hold tomatoes on for this year, but this illustrates the method just fine. I do grow the tomatoes in 1 sq foot of garden space, but I have thus far only grown indeterminate plants and they take to this very well. Let me digress for a moment in case you don’t know the difference between the Indeterminate and Determinate Tomatoes. To simplify it, determinate ones will grow to a mature full size plant, usually bushy and not very tall and will then ripen large numbers of fruits that all come ripe at a determined time. Indeterminate tomatoes are exactly the opposite. They will tend to vine, some getting as long as 8-12 feet long and will produce smaller quantities of fruits throughout the growing season. Generally speaking a tomato plant can grow just fine in 6-8 inches of soil, in one square foot of garden bed. The reason they don't is because if they're not trellised they require greater rooting space for structural support for themselves. With the tomato plant trained to a trellis, the support needs are met and the plant just needs to grow. This reduces the space needs of the roots and is one of the reasons I choose to grow mine UP.When I am training the indeterminate tomatoes to grow up, I use a rebar stake that has been notched with a hack saw and tie a string to it. I stick it in the ground right next to the root ball and then run the string up to the top of the overhead beam of my trellis, whatever that is. As the plant grows, it naturally gets "leggy" at the topmost part. As this get's long enough, I just gently wind it around the string which stays in place. You don't want to weave it too tightly or it will strangle the plant, just let the plant know where the string is and guide it around. Here's a close up of one of my San Marzano plants and you can see the string with the plant wound around it.
Now, here's the caveat. This works well for indeterminate tomatoes because they have that natural vineing tendency that I mentioned, determinant tomatoes do not. As I said, they are more naturally inclined to bush and produce a lot of fruit for one harvest than to continue to crank them out over time. This year we are going to grow a good selection of these types as well, and I will not be trellising them. At least not like the other ones. I may work out a loose cage type thing or something to keep them in check, but I am not going to worry about them getting tall. It's not in their nature.
Whatever the means of support you choose to use for your indeterminate tomatoes, they should be pruned. I do make sure to try and prune them pretty consistently. This isn't directly related to trellising, at least not in that I need to do it to get them to grow up or anything. The reason I prune is to maximize the yield as well to limit exposure to diseases. The basics are to pinch off all suckers. (These are usually the branch looking stems that crow out from the crotch formed by the leaves and the stem. They rarely set fruit and if they do it is usually inferior. Secondly, I trim off any old or dying leaves or leaves that touch the ground. Many of the blights and pathogens that tomatoes can get come from soil contact.
There are a lot of good resources online if you'd like more information. I thought I’d include a few of them here for easy access.
• The first one is a great page all about pruning tomato plants. I don't tie mine up like they do, but there's really no hard and fast way to do this so give it a read.
• This page is a .pdf provided by the Colorado state extension Master Gardener program that goes into all kinds of information on Tomatoes. It is VERY good information!
Depending on the variety of indeterminate tomato that you choose to grow, it may well end up growing up over your trellis anyway. There’s nothing wrong with this at all. However, one thing that you will want to keep in mind is when your first frost date is so that you can make a heading cut by removing the endmost section of the stem; doing this will help to force the plant to ripen all fruit that are already set on the plant.
I’d like to ask some of our more experienced readers to take an opportunity to add to this topic in the comments section, or to correct me if you feel I’ve misspoken.
Very best of luck to you all this season!
Saturday, March 14, 2009
From Spiral Garden
Few things in nature hold as much magic as seeds. With seeds, we can discover the full life cycle of plants. We can observe how plants reproduce through watching them flower, go to seed and self-seed.
To save seeds from your garden or wildflowers, collect them at maturity during the late morning on a dry day. Clean them to store in a cool, dark, dry place for re-sowing. If you have enough seeds sprinkle them around the garden to see when they come up again. Collecting your own seeds will save on seed costs, create a connection with nature through the seasons, and improve your gardening success rate as the seeds adapt to your locale. For more detailed instructions on cleaning seeds to store and save, look to resources such as the International Seed Saving Institute’s Guide. Another good resource is The Seed Saver’s Handbook by Michel and Jude Fanton, available through the Seed Savers Network.
Various types of plants have different methods for sowing and saving seed:
Annuals usually grow from seed through part of a year, then seeds are saved and stored or lay dormant in the ground until the following year. Examples of annuals are lettuce, peas, spinach, corn, beans and marigolds. Most seeds you will save will be from Annual plants.
Biennial plants produce vegetative growth through the first warm period, then slow down through a period of cold weather and flower in the second warm period, typically spring. Common examples are the cabbage, kale, carrot, parsnip and turnips. To collect seeds from these, you will need to wait about eighteen months.
Perennial plants survive for more than two years. They are a very important part of a long-term garden. Some annuals and biennials such as capsicums, chillies, eggplants and kale can behave as perennials in warm climates.
Another way to save seeds is from the kitchen. Ripe pumpkins, tomatoes, capsicums, melons, papaya, and most other fruit provide fresh, free seeds. Usually one dries and stores the seeds to plant in the appropriate season, but our children have had many successful pumpkin vines and papaya trees grow with seed fresh from the cutting board. If the fruit or vegetable comes from a hybrid plant, which many commercial crops are, the fruit that grows from it will not grow true to type. But it will probably be edible and if space in the garden isn’t an issue, you’ve nothing to lose!
More ‘free’ seeds can often be found in the pantry – many dried beans will germinate, for example. We’ve tried borlotti, lima and cannellini beans, and black-eyed peas. Beans can be eaten as a young pod, shelled when mature, or left on the vine to dry. Bird feed is another cheap source of seeds to experiment with. A large bag of sunflower seeds is only a couple of dollars and contains enough to fill even the largest garden with giant sunflowers. Or you can share them amongst friends so that others might delight in the magic of seeds.
When buying seeds, heirloom or heritage varieties are preferable for many reasons. Old varieties are more interesting and better suited to the organic vegetable garden. Did you know that carrots come in colours other than orange? You can grow your own red, white, yellow or purple carrots at home! There are also purple peas and beans, multi-coloured corn, capsicums of various colours and shapes, and pumpkins and tomatoes that will amaze! These non-hybrid seeds are most often available by mail order rather than in your local store.
Sprouting is another way to witness the wonder of seed germination. It’s something you can do in any season and any location. All you need is a jar, some cheesecloth, a rubber band and some seeds to sprout - like alfalfa, mung beans or radish. You can buy these in health shops or with the vegetable seeds in stores. Rinse the seeds, and then soak overnight in water. Strain and rinse again in the morning, placing the jar upside-down or inverted on a saucer so it can drain well. Continue to rinse twice a day, always keeping the jar inverted so that there is no excess water on your sprouts. After around four days, your sprouts should be ready for eating and can be stored in the fridge.
A bean vine can also be started in a glass jar. Take a wide glass jar, some cotton wool and a few bean seeds. Soak the beans for a few hours. Place the cotton inside the jar and poke the beans at regular intervals between the glass and cotton around the jar. Add enough water so that the cotton is moist. Put the lid on the jar and you will not have to water your beans for them to grow. Place in a sunny position and your beans will grow roots and sprout leaves. If you turn the jar upside-down, within a day the seedlings will change the direction they grow in so that the roots are facing down. After a couple of days, you can turn it up the right way again and your bean vines will adapt so that the roots are growing down once more. Children will see that gravity, water and light affect plants. Once you’ve finished your observations, this seedling can go out into the garden to fulfil its purpose.
Because seeds hold so much magic and wonder, many tales have been told about them. Jack and the Beanstalk first springs to mind. There are stories from all around the world with seeds as a symbol for life, regeneration and new beginnings. I encourage you to explore the wonder of seeds with children – begin their journeys as gardeners with the simplest of wonders.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
On our Century farmstead we consider the livestock we share our lives with, an important part of our team. Keeping livestock small and large can be expensive. So began the journey and research to find crops that would allow us to be frugal, and at the same time deliver the same care in growing feed for our animals that we put forth in our own food growing endeavors. When we first started trying to grow more of our own food, we started out trying to duplicate what was in the store, and realized quickly that growing vegetables too far from their natural season, used too many resources. A move to seasonal growing and eating has become second nature to us. Root crops that require medium fertility and with minimum storage requirements fit the bill. Roots used to be looked down on as peasant fare, with a fresh green salad every day being the goal, for eaters and year-round gardeners as well. For us they have been an inexpensive way to lessen our dependency on outside sources.
I'm sure my grandfather had no inkling that I would be consulting his treasured book, The Home and Farm Cyclopedia, ca. 1890.
Nor that I would be sitting at the very same kitchen table he built for his family as soon as he arrived from Germany in 1880. These links to my past are very important to me, since his passing preceded my birth by 54 years. We are different he and I, he an immigrant having to live in a new country and learn the language, me trying to navigate and learn what has been lost.
What I found in modern books on feeding livestock were brief references to roots, but most stated that on a large scale, the growing of root crops for livestock was not economical because of labor or specialized machinery requirements. The modern concensus was that it took more pounds of roots than corn or other popular grains to put on a pound of gain. So don't bother... .
So a I set my time machine to post WW II, and found roots getting a little more mention, but petroleum farming was just gaining ground, and roots were being pushed aside somewhat in favor of grain crops that were able to uptake the heavy nitrogen fertilizers that were a by-product of the petroleum industry. It sounds so simple, no more recalcitrant horses, no manure mucking and hauling, just buy the tractor, and implements. You can go to the co-op and buy fertilizer in a bag, and apply and the crops will grow like mad. That tractor doesn't kick and bite, the fertilizer doesn't have much of an odor and the results are so consistent. It would take years before anyone noticed that maybe this wasn't the bandwagon to get on.
Going even farther back to my grandfather's favorite tome, I found what I was looking for - suggestions for root crops in conjunction with grains and legumes. It seems so simple, roots can be grown in rotation after heavy feeding crops, because of their lower fertility requirements. While not the highest for fattening (that is corn), we aren't interested in slow food, too fast. We raise grass finished beef, so no need for grains there. What we were looking for was a winter supplement for our house cow and our laying hens. Roots have filled in the gaps in that regard.
While I realize I am writing from a farm perspective, I believe that even an urban garden with a few hens or rabbits would greatly benefit from a bed or two of roots. One of the unseen or written about benefits is to our children. By growing this feed, our child has seen first hand that all food need not come from the store - you can grow many things yourself. What I have had to re-learn will be second nature to my daughter - she has planted carrots for her horse and seen that project through from seed to steed and back to the garden in the way of composted horse manure to feed her garden. She sees the cycle and it's advantages. And for me, I can feel satisfied in the knowledge that she too, is linked in a tangible way to ancestors she has only seen in photos.
It may seem early to be thinking of roots in February, but the roots we are harvesting weekly now, were planted in late May, and we will harvest the last of them just before we began the cycle again. Most of my winter garden is started at the same time as my summer garden, with the exceptions being warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers that I will be starting soon. So now is the time to begin planning space for your winter crops that require some time to mature.
Early summer garden, shelling peas on the way out, and parsnips just starting to gain some ground. It will be many months before these "snips" see the light of day and become roasted roots for us, house cow fodder, and the surprise use - dog treats. Sure beats a Nylabone any day.
We were looking for roots that would suit multiple species, namely us, the family cow, and the laying hens. All of the root crops we chose would work well for sheep, goats and rabbits too. The roots that we settled on were carrots, beets, parsnips, and rutabagas. We had grown mangels (fodder beets) before, but found that they were large and because a large portion of the root grows above ground, they did not meet our criteria for easy storage. In our zone 7 garden, we are able to hill soil over our root crops and leave them in situ. It is the perfect storage system, the roots remain alive until the time of harvest. Fresh food all winter is an enjoyable thing. We harvest weekly as needed from fall to spring. Even farther north, I know of gardeners using entire bales of straw to protect the roots from freezing. They remove the bales and harvest as needed too.
While the roots won't replace all the grain for your stock, they can play a bigger part of their winter diet, giving variety and giving you more control in what you are feeding your animals. The only references I have seen concerning problems is for feeding beets and mangels to rams and wethers. Some believe mangels and sugar beets can cause calculi in the kidneys and bladder.
For our milk cow, I chop the roots to avoid choking, and mix with her grain. She seems to enjoy her breakfast treats. The chickens just get to peck away and they relish their winter roots.
Here are the varieties we have settled on:
Carrots - Red Cored Chantenay, grows well in heavy soil, stores well, and gets sweeter with cold weather.
Parsnip - Harris Model or Andover - both grow and store well, I don't see much difference in taste or growing habits.
Beets - Lutz/Winterkeeper - can grow large if thinned to 4", exceptionally sweet and stores well.
A note for self-suffiency: if you choose open-pollinated varieties (OP), you can save your own seed, allowing you to get one step closer to independence from industrial food production.
Growing and harvesting roots has made us feel closer to our goal of self-reliance. And we find as we eat more of these types of in-season vegetables ourselves, we rely less on labor and energy intensive food preservation methods. While I'm not giving up my canning and freezing, I find that I'm storing less food that way, and actually providing more variety in our meals.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Throwback at Trapper Creek
Want to increase your fruit tree varieties? Try grafting, an age old skill that is fun and economical. This post is a re-hash of a grafting post I wrote last spring. Only this one is a little more timely so you can try your hand at grafting this spring.
Now is the time to be gathering your scion wood while it is still dormant. These photos show apple tree grafting, but I will stay with basic instructions that will work for most types of fruit.
What you are looking for in scion wood is, one year old wood, or last years growth. Probably the most important thing for me to share here is, sharpen your pruners. Most information I see in print, or on the internet about sharpening recommends once or twice a year, that is for pruning not propagating. Death vs. Life. For propagation to be successful, the cambium layers on your scion wood should not be damaged. I used to propagate dwarf conifers for wholesale nurseries and I sharpened my pruners each day that I pruned for cuttings. My pay depended on a successful outcome. I use Felco pruners and they are easy to take apart and service.
Old heirloom trees will have their newer growth at the top (usually out of reach) so you may need a pole pruner too. If you have young trees, the last years growth that you seek will be close at hand.
I cut off more than I need and leave the twigs whole. Label and mark your scion wood with: who, what, where, and when. If you are trying to save an old variety this information will be important, also if your graft doesn't work out, some of this info. may lead you to the cause of the failure. But, also, grafting needn't be only for named varieties, you may have a favorite apple that you covet, but the tree is unmarked. Go for it, if it is a good apple, it is worth propagating.
After labeling, wrap with paper towels, and seal in plastic bags, and refrigerate or heel in, in a pile of deep sawdust, or dirt. The goal is to keep the scion wood dormant and not let it sweat and mold, OR dry out.
The wood on the left of the growth ring is one year wood, suitable for grafting. The wood on the right is too old and tough to make a succesful graft with.
Now besides gathering your scion wood, you need to be purchasing rootstock for your new trees. Size matters..., there are many different rootstocks to choose from. This is a personal preference. I have used both standard and semi-dwarf, and now years later I wish I had used all standard. There are trade-offs to both, standards grow very large, take a long time to bear and are harder to harvest, but they are long lived, and work well with livestock. Semi-dwarf and dwarf, bear early, are easy to harvest but may not last your lifetime due to poor root systems. All my semi-dwarf trees are uprooting and needing more mainentance, my young standards are coltish but not uprooting. Our home orchard here on the farmstead was planted in 1881 as part of the proving up. The trees that have survived that time span, still bear (weather permitting) more than we need. I want my grafted trees to be here for my grandkids!
If you do purchase rootstock, when it arrives, plant it in large nursery pots or in a nursery bed in your garden where the young trees can stay for a year. The grafts need to be protected from intense summer sun, so plan accordingly. If you have a lath house for shade plants this would be ideal. I use pots and place them under a tree, near a hose, so I can easily monitor them and water if needed.
Another option is reworking some existing trees you may already have. If space is your concern, this may be the best option. We have all seen the 3-in-1 trees advertised. Now you can make your own. The only criteria is you have to match scion wood diameter to the limb you're grafting on. No apples and oranges either - only the same types of fruit can be on the same tree.
An old timer taught me this skill, and his best tip was to graft when the rootstock had broke dormancy, and the leaves were the size of mouse ears. Easy to remember, and what he really meant was make sure the sap is flowing enough to make your graft successful.
He also instructed me to save prunings from my apple trees for practicing my cuts. Like a good pie crust, you want to make short work of it. Optimum is two cuts for your apical wedge, one on each side of the scion wood. This requires a sharp knife and practice. Professional grafters get good at this because they are grafting many trees, it is harder when you do a handful a year. I'm lucky to do it in 3 or 4, but my grafts still turn out OK.
When the big day (mouse ears) arrives you will need the following:
- Dormant scion wood
- Pushing rootstock
- Sharp pruners
- Sharp knife
- Tree labels and a Sharpie
- Polyethylene tape (tree tape)
- Nerves of steel (just kidding)
Close-up of cutting the apical wedge. Start about 1/2" up the stem and make a downward cut, like sharpening a pencil with your pocket knife. Yeah, that is how I usually sharpen my pencils, that are outside.
Turn the scion wood over and do the same on the other side. Lay your scion wood on a clean surface and prepare the rootstock.
Cut the rootstock horizontally, matching the size of the rootstock to the scion wood. Next make a vertical cut/split about 1" down the rootstock.
Gently push the scion wood down into the rootstock cut. Match the cambium as close as possible. Cut the scion wood down to 2 - 3 buds. Note: in this photo the layers are NOT lined up yet.
Keeping the cambium layers aligned is important and the most difficult part of the graft. If they don't touch, the sap can't bridge the gap and heal the tree.
Wrap the joined area tightly with polyethylene grafting tape, (sometimes called tree tape) to keep the graft from drying out. You can also use grafting wax or grafting rubber bands. If you use the tape, you can actually watch for the callous as the the two surfaces join.
Grafted April 2008.
Keep your new tree out of hot sun, keep it well watered, and rub off any growth that appears below the graft union. Soon you should be able to see new growth emerging on your scion wood.
January 2009. A new , old tree!