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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

So How 'Bout It?

I mentioned in an earlier post that this past Sunday Steve and I learned how to kill and butcher chickens.  We took pictures, and the friends showing us how to do it took pictures, so we have it pretty well documented.

So how 'bout it- you guys want me to post on how to do it or do you think it would be too gross to endure?

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Ups and Downs

When I started this blog, I subtitled it The Ups and Downs of Turning a Home Into A Homestead.

The last three days have been such a roller coast ride I'm a little sick to my stomach.

Saturday was all about harvesting: tomatoes, boysenberries, squash and chamomile flowers.  A lot of the chamomile was from two extra plants I found in the yard as volunteers (definitely a high) and while I was sitting there cutting flowers off the volunteer by the hazel trees, I found this:

Our first hazelnuts!  There are roughly six on the smallest of the new hazels I planted, and it's the only European in the group.  This was also definitely a high.

Then Sunday after chores we went down to my friend Rae's to learn how to slaughter and butcher chickens, but more on that later.  While we were down there, the conversation turned to sauerkraut.  I mentioned that I have one cabbage, and when the weather turns cool this week, I planned to harvest it and turn it into sauerkraut.  I've been keeping an eye on it this summer to make sure that it wasn't starting to bolt.  I looked at it every day.  It was the only cabbage plant I planted this year that grew as a normal cabbage.  I saw it yesterday and it was a beautiful cabbage, and Tuesday was going to be its day.  Today I got home from work and found this:

There's a good quarter of it missing, and I suspect a bird, because I've never seen anything of the insect or mollusk persuasion that can go through a cabbage quite that fast.

But this was definitely a low.  Quite a low.

I'm all bummed and there are people in the world running from famine and war atrocities, and people on the east coast and in the midwest whose lives will never be the same again.

I guess I need some perspective here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Another Reason to Hate Raccoons

This from the Lake Oswego police blotter:

"8/17/11 3:29 p.m. A strange raccoon entered a woman’s house, stalked her cat, opened her refrigerator and drank some of the family’s milk."

Maybe he got in through the cat door, but how do you explain opening the fridge and helping himself to milk?

You can't tell me they don't have opposable thumbs.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Not So Much

This is my first potato harvest.  Not quite the volume for which I was looking, or size I was expecting.  I've read in several different places that potatoes provide the most calories per acre than any other crop, so anyone gardening with the view in mind to provide for themselves ought to include potatoes in the crop roster.

But clearly I have a lot to learn.

A Toast to Volunteers

Volunteer wheat and tomatoes

Down in Louisiana in cajun territory, they have a special word for a little extra given, but not asked for: lagniappe.  My compost pile has given me two lagniappes this summer: I have what my mother always called 'volunteer' tomatoes growing on one side of the pile, and around the perimeter, I have mystery grain that has sprouted from the straw I used in it.  It's patently obvious that I've not managed this pile particularly well, because if I had, neither the tomato seed nor the grain would have sprouted.  However, I'm nurturing both as assiduously as I would had I actually planted them on purpose, especially the grain.  I am pretty sure that it's wheat, because I know that it's not barley, which comes as two-row or six-row; this stuff has four rows.  Steve pointed out last summer when I pulled whole seed heads out of the first bale of straw we bought that we don't know the provenance of the seed, so we don't know whether it's been genetically modified or not.  He had a good point, so I decided against trying to grow it intentionally.  But since it's sown itself, I'm willing to leave it where it is as an experiment.

It's been my intention for a few years now to try to grow my own grain.  When we were still living in Beaverton and the idea of growing our food in the backyard was still a notion, I ran across a book at the local library called Small Scale Grain Raising, by Gene Logsdon.  It was out of print at the time, and I was sorely tempted to 'lose' the book, but happily it's back in print again.  I won't consider myself self-sufficient until I can grow our flour, maybe not all of it, but a good majority of what we use.  The grain mill we purchased this year was a step in that direction. Eventually, I want to be able to raise all the feed we'll need for chickens and rabbits too, but that's still in the very far future.  I just can't consider myself self-sufficient until I'm not relying on outside sources for essential inputs to my garden.

What the volunteer grain I'm nurturing offers me is the chance to learn on a very small scale and with no real skin in the game what it's like to grow, harvest, thresh and winnow grain for personal consumption. It's still at a very green stage, and, I expect, still in its 'milk' stage, but I'll be watching for the kernels to get hard.  Gene says that the wheat is ready to harvest when it turns flat yellow to a dead brownish red (depending on the variety), and that the seed heads will point down.  At this point you can pull off a few grains, thresh them in your hand, blow off the chaff, and take a bite. If it's crunchy hard, it's ready to harvest; if it's chewy, it's not.

But what kind is it?
The other mystery about this wheat, if indeed that's what it is, is that I don't know if it's a red or white variety, or if it's a variety that should be sown in the spring or winter, or if it's hard or soft.  I think I have the red or white question guessed pretty well- if I had to put money on it, I would wager that it's white, because white is the type of wheat most grown up here in the Pacific Northwest.  That's a good thing, too, because Steve and I have discovered a marked preference for white wheat; red wheat tends to taste 'good for you'.

If this experiment turns out well, we've lots of organic soft white and hard white wheat grain to try growing. I've really learned to prefer the taste of whole grain pancakes and tortillas, but to be sure, it's because we're grinding it right before we use it.  Most whole grain flours you find on the shelf were ground months ago by machinery which makes them pretty unpalatable- the machine grinding destroys the nutrition and flavor because of the heat it produces, and then the oils left in it by the germ go rancid while the flour sits on the shelf. Yuck.  If you want to try whole grain wheat flour but can't stand the way it tastes, you owe it to yourself to seek out freshly milled flour, preferable ground by hand or by water.  I guess in this regard we're pretty lucky that we live just around the corner from Bob's Red Mill, where we can buy twenty-five pound bags of organic wheat.  Our second fifty pounds (twenty-five each of soft and hard) are cooling their jets in the freezer.  By the time we go to pick up the pork, they'll have been in there for thirty days which is long enough to kill any insects and their progeny that might have been in them.  The other good thing that having to grind your flour first before you bake with it does for you is that it makes you find other things to eat.  We're not supposed to be eating so many flour-based products anyway, but at least most of what we do eat is whole grain.

So what do you think?  I'm interested to see if I can actually get the grain far enough along to harvest it. If I can do that much, I can do the rest, and I'll have a really good idea of what it takes to put bread on the table.

I guess we'll find out together that even if I can't do eggs, maybe I can at least do toast.

More Getting Ready For Winter

Today was the interesting end of an interesting week.

The folks to whom we owe half the balance on a hog called earlier this week- it was already hanging at the butchers and we needed to finish paying for it and then call the butcher with our cut order.

After paying for it, I called and talked to Kathy at Four Star Meats in Eugene, Oregon.  They didn't still have the caul fat, which had already been thrown out (darn!), but I could still get a two pound piece of leaf fat for rendering.  She knew what I meant when I said I wanted a German hock, or haxe (pronounced 'hocksuh').  I wanted the cheek; she said jowl and told me how to make up a loaf of little cuts, molded into a loaf with aspic boiled up from the bones- Steve would love that.  She asked if I wanted the heart and kidneys and told me how to slice and flour them like calf's liver and fry them up.  The liver goes into pate, of course. So for my first half hog, I'm getting a fresh leg (ham and hock), the loin whole (which I'll cut into cutlets myself later), the tenderloin whole, a picnic roast, a butt roast, two pounds of slab bacon (no nitrites cure), all the aforementioned organ meats and jowl, and the rest is getting ground into ground pork.  We'll drive down to Eugene next Saturday the 27th to pick it up.

All this talk about the ham got us thinking about the beef tongue that we still have in the big freezer.  The half steer from a year ago June is nearly gone; I can't finish the remaining cuts until the weather cools down again because they are all braise cuts, and among those braises is that tongue.  As I wasn't crazy about how the first tongue turned out, we decided to try to pickle the second one, using the recipe for pickled tongue from my pickling book.  The one ingredient that we didn't have was the potassium nitrate, which we were going to need for the pickle.  Steve looked online and wasn't really thrilled about what he was finding there, but he located a fairly local outfit that sells salts called The Meadow up on Mississippi in north Portland.  But that was going to have to wait for Saturday.

This summer has been a really odd one, climatically. Most days have been in the seventies and low eighties, and it's been gently spring-like all summer. But Saturday was forecast for hitting the mid-nineties, so that meant getting up early and opening up the house to cool it off, and then closing it up fairly early to keep it cool.  This and other similar strategies are called thermal sailing, and it's something we do to keep from having to turn on the air conditioner.  We don't have a whole house AC unit, but we do have a small room AC back in Steve's office because he works from home and also that's where he stores the home brew.  So both are in the same room and both can be kept at a reasonable temperature.  But today's heat also meant no cooking in the house, so breakfast was cold cereal and berries from the backyard.
We also had the chimney swept today. Most people don't think about it, but a dirty chimney can easily lead to a flue fire, which will wreck your day when it's the least convenient.  We didn't have the chimney swept last year, and decided that we really needed to do it this year and to make sure we do it every year if we're going to continue to heat with wood. Evidently we were right to get it done, because this is what fell down the chimney after the sweep brushed it, and that was what collected even though he had the shop-vac on the whole time.

The trick to getting  good price on the service is to remember to get it done during the summer when your sweeps aren't so busy and they can give you a discount when they're not so in demand.

Mark Guy has owned his own  chimney sweep service since 1994, and he loves his job. He was really nice, was careful to cover everything and not make a mess. A very obliging bloke- he even let me shake his hand (I wasn't about to miss that opportunity).  I already have my appointment set for next year, and it's on a cute refrigerator magnet that says 'Brush Regularly!'.

Once we got the chimney appointment out of the way, it was time to go get the potassium nitrate, or Prague Powder No.1.  I've been in The Meadow before, but I've never purchased anything there.  It was a nice enough little store, but when you're salt-sensitive like I am and the purveyor is dealing in various finishing salts, there's very little chance for a transaction to occur.  However, today we came with a purpose in mind.  Steve decided to go ahead and buy the twelve ounce size of the Prague Powder No. 1, which turns out to be a pretty shade of pink.  They filled the order upstairs, and we were somewhat delighted to find that instead of pouring it into a plastic bag, as we'd expected, it was packaged in a really nice glass jar with a glass lid.  I imagine that if you had a collection of fancy finishing salts this would be a nice way to store them.  The Meadow also had the largest collection of fancy chocolate bars I've ever seen, of which the only one I'd heard of before was Valrhona, but at ninety-three degrees or so outside, today was not the day for chocolate.  I also passed on the amazing collection of bitters, even after finding a favorite, simply because I'd just purchased a bottle of Angostura bitters last weekend. I haven't even opened it, and you know how long a bottle of bitters lasts. It's probably just as well, because I priced the one I wanted on their website when I got home and the price made me cough, which is not exactly what you want your bitters to do.

Tomorrow is supposed to be almost as hot as today, but I still have gardening chores to take care of, not the least of which is to see whether or not I have potatoes.  I have my doubts.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Heating Water With Sunshine

I was going to write that I'm not at all sure how we did it, but our last PGE bill (Portland General Electric, that is) was only two thirds of what it was the prior month.  I thought it was because I wasn't home on my computer for many hours of the day, but Steve says that the laptop doesn't take enough power to account for the difference.  We haven't had the Solatubes long enough for it to be that, so the only other thing I thought I could attribute to it was good old fashioned diligence.  You know- turning lights off when you're not using them, and all that.  But then I remembered we're not using the dryer- we're line drying again because it's summer.  Now that I know what not using the dryer can do to the Garner bottom line, I've determined that we need a drying rack to go with the English clothes airer in the kitchen for winter drying, because it's too small to handle a full load by itself. But a rack should make all the difference.  It will be really interesting to see what the solar PV system will do for us, and we should find out in ten short days if PGE is going to qualify us for that.  I didn't realize it, but there's a whole application process we have to go through before we can even put one in, and they have the final say so.  I will be severely disappointed if that doesn't go through, but I think it will.

But I can tell you that our solar water heating system is in, and it's pretty cool.  It took the guys two days to get it in, and here they are.  What a bunch of nice guys.  If you look closely you can see the dog in the window.  I got to scratch his hiney for him, which was good for both of us.

So here is the system.  The fluid running through the solar collector seen here is propylene glycol, which is food grade, as opposed to ethylene glycol which is the stuff you put in your car radiator.  Propylene glycol doesn't freeze of course, so it circulates through the panel, picking up heat, and then goes down into the tank and circulates round and round on the inside before being pumped back up to the plate collector.  By the way, one of the things that sold us on this particular system is the fact that it's an entirely independent system; it has its own thirty-watt solar panel and generates its own electricity for the pump, so it will still pump glycol during a power failure.  Pretty cool, huh?

Cold water from the house gets pumped to the tank, which holds eighty gallons, gets heated up by the hot glycol, which by the way can get up to a hundred and seventy degrees (actually, it could get hotter but there's a thermometer in the pump that shuts it down if it gets too hot to prevent it from blowing).  Then the water that's been heated by the sun-heated glycol flows over to the regular water heater and gets warmed or cooled over there, depending on what it needs, and then goes into the house. The preheated water keeps the gas-fired heater from firing all the time, which saves on the gas.

Steve crunched the numbers, and since there are only two of us, we'll probably never get a pay back on this system, but that's not why we did it.  We did it as a hedge against the rising price of natural gas, and the very real possibility of hyperinflation in the future.  Or just not being able to get the gas, at any price.  If that happens, then the system will need to be re-plumbed to bypass the gas heater.

We'll use the wood stove for cooking winter suppers a lot, so we'll use a lot less gas this winter.  An outdoor pizza and bread oven is planned for the future, and I also want to build us a solar cooker for summer cooking.  But that's for next year; I already have a few projects started that need finishing.

But back to the solar water heater.  Wouldn't you know that the day after it was installed, the morning dawned overcast and the sun never came out.  In fact, it never got higher than sixty-nine today. (This August will probably go down as one of the coolest we've ever had- we're finally getting our spring, temperature-wise.)  At seven and eight this morning, the thermometer in the glycol read seventy, and the thermometer in the outgoing water line also read seventy.  But at the end of a long, cloudy day, they read ninety.  So even on an overcast day, the new system is going to help.

We're still working on the old-fashioned diligence- the first step to energy conservation is remembering not to use so much, and that means staying on top of turning lights off, and making sure that the laptop and phones get charges and then immediately unplugged.  The new Solatubes are great…it used to be I'd have to remember to go all the way into the master bath during the day, so I could use the natural light from the window.  Now I can use whichever is closest. I can't tell you how many times I've used the hall bath and reached for the light switch on the way out, only to remember that the light is coming without electricity.

It makes me laugh.

Monday, August 8, 2011


I came home from work today and this greeted me as I came in the front door!

Fourteen inch Solatube

The light over the island was practically dazzling! What an enormous change; this is usually the gloomiest place in the kitchen.

So of course I had to go check out the hall bathroom:

Ten inch Solatube

This was taken after the clouds had obscured the sun somewhat, so we are still going to get plenty of light in the house on rainy days.  A lot more than we had before, at any rate.  Jef was careful to aim the reflector inside the tube toward the south, so we get maximum light, even though both tubes are on the north side of the roof.

Heidianne- are you convinced now? There's even a federal tax credit for these things.

I'm so glad we did this.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Homesteading Update, 07 August 2011

Things are cranking along in the homesteading department.  I wish I could report that we're having a bumper crop of everything this year, but since I put the garden behind the coop in priorities this summer, and then lost all the chicks to lameness or being roosters, we haven't had a bumper crop of anything this year.  We're not even having the usual bumper crop of spiders that we usually get, which is pretty weird, actually.  Maybe it hasn't been hot enough for them.

In the good news department, though, we are getting strawberries. Lots and lots of strawberries.  I went with Tristar, which seems to be a pretty popular variety up here and I haven't been disappointed.

I was originally going to go with a June-bearing variety, but changed my mind at the last minute, and I'm glad I did.

Yesterday for breakfast we had fresh ground whole wheat blueberry pancakes with strawberries.  The blueberries came from the back yard as well.  It was pretty decadent and I'd do it again.

The French filet green beans have been pretty good to us as well. There are only ten plants in the bed but they seem to be yielding pretty well, and we've been eating a lot of beans.

I especially like them with spaetzle and bacon and butter and a healthy sprinkling of Penzey's Bavarian seasoning. It reminds me of the Birdseye Bavarian Style green beans to which I had an addiction before I couldn't find them anymore.  What a bizarre substance on which to be strung out.

Last weekend (I think it was last weekend- they're starting to run together these days) I harvested all the garlic and the shallots.  This was the allium harvest for 2011 (not counting the onions, which are a long way off from being ready).

The garlic were one crop in the yard that seems to have thrived on neglect.  I'd water them only occasionally, but that's also because we had a lot of rain this spring and early summer. But I also left them in the ground a month longer and I only planted the large cloves around the outsides of the heads.  This year I planted the same soft neck variety I did last year, Oregon Blue, largely because they were grown at home last year, and a hard neck variety called Music that was recommended to me by Danni over at On The Way to Critter Farm. I must say, the cloves are HUGE.  Everybody in the garlic family is now dealt with and drying out for the season.  I think I'll be trying the Italian garlic soup recipe this autumn.

The shallots are much stronger grown at home than any I've ever purchased at the store or at a farmers market.  A lot of them put out flower stalks, but there were more that didn't, and so they're much more storable.  I've since learned that you do to shallots what you do to hard neck garlic that send out scapes; you cut them off, so that the plant throws its energy into making more bulb.  But I've left the remainder with flowers in the beds for the bees, which seem to really like them.  Actually, I'm thinking about letting the bees keep all the honey this year because I had a lot of allium and brassica flowers and I hate to think what that honey must taste like!

And take a look at my onions.  Last year I grew onions from seed and the alternately warm and cool periods during our whacky spring tricked them into thinking they'd been through a winter and most of them threw up a flower stalk and attempted to set seed, which basically renders them un-storable.  This year, I planted seed again, but they didn't do so well next to the kale.  But I still wanted onions to grow and store, so I took a hint from my friend Rae and bought a bunch of onion sets from Wilco.  The sets were planted in July.  Now look at them!  They are the onions on the left.  They're bigger than the onions that I started from seed, which are on the right.  The only thing I don't like about starting onions from sets is that you're not starting from seed, which you could have presumably saved yourself.  I think the thing to do here is figure out how to grow your own onion sets, because in my part of the world, they seem to be the thing to do, especially as our springs get longer and cooler and the summers get shorter and cooler.  At this stage of their growth, I can't predict how big the onions will be, but it's part of the whole experiment that my garden is.

The cooler summer hasn't been doing my pepper and eggplants any favors, either, and the tomatoes are still a long way off, but at least they appear to be covered in fruit.  I don't think I'll be getting a bumper harvest of them, either, but I should be able to put up some sauce at the end of the summer.

Then yesterday, we had the winter's firewood delivered.  The last couple of years we've burned one cord of wood (mixed soft and hardwoods) and one pallet of Bear bricks.  Last year's Bear bricks were made by a contracted outfit and they were larger and banded in plastic, and they made a huge mess in addition to being harder for me to pick up and manage.  So I am done with Bear bricks.  This year I ordered two full cords of mixed hardwoods, and it was a great deal. For twenty dollars more than the place I usually deal with (Grimm's), I got two cords of fully seasoned mixed hardwoods; the other place would sell me hard and softwood.  So I'll probably be dealing with Dean's Innovations until such time as we have our own pickup truck.


turned into this

and this

and this.

Will it last the whole winter?  That's a good question.  One cord of mixed soft and hardwoods and a pallet of Bear bricks didn't last the whole winter; in fact, we ran out of fuel at the end of January.  But it will be interesting to see how long the fuel lasts this way.  I'll report on that next spring.

And this morning I finished shelling the dried peas. The peas were something that got neglected but that didn't go to waste.  I should get two batches of pea soup out of this.

So the summer hasn't been a complete waste, and although it could have been better, I seem to be salvaging some of it.  I'm a long way off from self-sufficiency, however, it's better than doing nothing at all.

With that said, I need to go finish putting away the last of the firewood, and finish cleaning up the garage.  The solar water heater folks are coming this week!