Friday, March 23, 2012

The Stores Are Out of Toilet Paper!

Bar mops, really cheap wash clothes,
 100% cotton fabric handkerchiefs.
       Would you panic if you were unable to purchase paper essentials like toilet paper? I have always maintained that TP is the one item I would really, REALLY miss if our world were suddenly plunged into the dark ages. Now with the government printing paper money with thoughtless abandon, I wonder if the American dollar will soon have all the purchasing power of Monopoly money. Suppose TP were to cost $1000 a roll? It could go higher than that if super inflation hits the nation. With weird weather striking all over the country, you can be sure that consumer goods prices will jump even without inflation. Or, if you are a prepper, you may already be wondering what to do if TP is no longer available.
       So think about how you would handle the situation. I recall a cartoon from many, many years ago showing an old timer sitting in the outhouse poring over a Sears catalog, then tearing a page from the book for sanitary purposes before leaving the facilities. I have heard that corn cobs were also popular for this purpose. Or a handful of leaves.
       With a little preparation, you wouldn't have to resort to any of these solutions, but toilet "paper" would not longer be a disposable item. Reusable toilet paper? Don't freak! Think cloth diapers; these serve a similar purpose, are washed repeatedly and reused until they wind up in the rag bin. Replacing TP is as easy as cutting an old flannel sheet into pieces about, oh, 4x10 inches, or purchasing some really, really cheap wash clothes. I found some of these priced at 25 cents each, cut them in half and sewed around the edges with a zig zag stitch. My pinking shearers are in the shop for sharpening. I'll use them to cut the flannel so it will not need hemming.
       Paper towels, napkins and facial tissues can all be replaced with fabric options. Finding that I used more paper towels than I thought reasonable, I was delighted to find 24-count packages of bar mops for about $20. The last time I bought a kitchen towel, I think I paid $7.00. The mops are smaller, but not by much. Since I bought two bar mop packages, I have no problem now with grabbing a clean towel to dry dishes or hands, cover rising dough, or wipe up a mess. There is a roll of paper towel in the dispenser, but it will be longer before it needs a replacement.
       For napkins and facial tissues (let's call them handkerchiefs), buy 100% cotton fabric, cut it into 18 inch squares (or smaller, if you prefer) and hem the edges. Don't sew? This would be an excellent first project. I suggest turning the fabric once all the way around, then going back and turning it again for a finished edge. Press with a hot iron as you go, then sew by hand or machine. Select linen for the napkins, or use the same soft fabric for both napkins and handkerchiefs, or even visit a thrift store for used sheets.
       All of these paper product substitutes have other uses regardless of whether or not the products we know and love are available, and they are cheap. In fact, if you are on a tight budget, you may want to consider using them to save money now. In any case, give some thought as how you would store the used items and how you would wash them. I am thinking primarily of the reusable TP. As with diapers, you may want a pail to keep them in until wash day. Putting them in your washing machine is fine unless the SHTF and you have no power. Consider getting one of those hand washers that look like a plunger. This sounds so much more appealing than using a wash board and I hear they work very well. Lehman's catalog lists them for about $19.00.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Versatile Blogger Award Nominations

       I started this blog thinking I would share with a few other folks my ideas about transforming some of my extensive lawn into specialty gardens. My outlook has morphed since then in the direction of sustainable gardening and independent living. Along the way I found that I had inadvertently become a part of what I consider a national treasure: a blogging community that shares information on gardening, cooking, survivalism...and so many other subject that I hold dear. This community is incredibly knowledgeable and supportive, and I am honored to have been nominated for The Versatile Blogger Award by one of my favorites bloggers, Hillbilly Mom.
       Apparently, as a nominee, I have three responsibilities. I must share seven random bits of information about myself. I must nominate 15 other bloggers. I must inform my nominees by leaving a message on their blogs.

Seven random bits of information about me.

1. I was 21 years old before I had my first slice of pizza.
2. I remember going to a McDonald's when the company was brand new, walking from the car to the order window, and getting my meal handed out to me. It cost less than a buck. There was no place to eat it either inside or out. I must not have been too impressed; I remember doing this only once.
3. I married my college sweetheart. We hadn't seen each other for six months prior to the wedding. That was almost 39 years ago.
4. I know where the starter is on a shovel.
5. I'm a Master Gardener.
6. I've been baking bread for my family for more than thirty-five years.
7. My favorite quote is "The damned fool didn't know it couldn't be done and went ahead a did it." I saw a demonstration on one of my fb friend's blogs about making noodles by "dropping" and twisting the dough. The commentator said not to try this at home. I will as soon as I can find or devise a suitable dough recipe of "flour, water and a little salt"!

My nominations for The Versatile Blogger Award:

1.  Hillbilly Mom
2 . Rural Spin
3.  Real Country Life
4.  The Root Cellar's Garden
5.  Save Our Skills
6.  Throwback Road
7.  Homemakers and Homesteaders
8.  Frugal Sally
9.  Attainable Sustainable
10. The Lazy Homesteader
11  Survival Mom Blog
12. Lori's Latest - And other tales from the homestead
13. Willamette Valley Homesteader
14. Urban Dirt
15. Survival Mom Blog

       I love all these sites and believe each one is deserving of special recognition. Unfortunately, I was unable to link the last three. I hope this won't keep anyone from checking them out!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bread Without Power

Sliced loaf from the woodstove, next to one baked in
the standard oven.
       You consider yourself prepared for emergencies. You have a great stock of basic foods like wheat, sugar, baking powder, yeast, cooking oils, salt, dried and canned goods. You even have a hand-cranked machine to grind that wheat into flour, but are you prepared to use that flour to bake if the power is out? Not just overnight, but for weeks? Won't happen? If you watch the news, you'll see that it can: major snow storms, ice storms, tornadoes, earthquakes, political or social unrest. Any of these could leave you without electrical power for an extended period.
       So what would you do? Use one of those fancy green egg grills to bake regular loaves? I'm told this is doable, but most households don't have one of these. Eat pancakes cooked on a camp stove or on an outside grill? This is certainly an option. You may have a recipe somewhere for a steamed bread, or may choose this time to try a fry bread. Ever tried dough gods? This is bread dough balls about the size of a golf ball rolled flat and deep fried for a few minutes on each side until golden, then rolled in confectioner's sugar. Served hot, they are food for the gods. Then there's bannock, a pan bread. Or make flour tortillas. Or literally think outside of the box (i.e., the oven) and come up with a way to bake those wonderful homemade loaves.
       For instance, you might try baking in a dutch oven. Visit Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes & Cooking facebook page for inspiration, but do it sooner rather than later. If you wait until the power's out, this source won't be much help to you.
       When I first asked myself how I'd deal with a prolonged power outage, I had visions of digging a pit, cooking down some nice coals and figuring out how to protect a loaf buried in those coals while it cooked to perfection. I haven't tried this yet, because I came up with a much simpler idea: use my woodburning stove. We have two but one has an easy-open front door. I strongly suggest that if you try this, don't do so the first time with something that took you forever to make (fresh-ground grain) or is full of expensive ingredients. I put together a single loaf recipe for white bread. When it was ready, I set it in the hot oven on an salvaged piece of cast iron and cooked it for about 25 minutes. That loaf came out absolutely beautiful. I've never seen such a gorgeous black loaf. (Yes, I'm laughing.) Truly, it was beautiful. It was almost a shame to cut away the crust, but the inside was white and very tasty.
Front: cast iron. The bread burned on the bottom.
Back: fire bricks. I'll try this next time.
        For my next trial I made two loaves, one for the woodburner and one for the standard oven, so I could compare color, taste and texture. This time the woodstove wasn't quite hot enough and the front of the loaf looked very pale after twenty-five minutes. When I took it out to check for doneness, I saw that the backside was turning a nice golden color, so I turned the loaf around and returned it to the "oven" for a few more minutes. Next time I checked it, it looked finished so I removed it from the pan. The bottom was slightly burned, but the rest of the loaf looked great. Tasted great. Truthfully, I didn't notice much difference between it and the loaf from the standard oven, except the latter had better overall color.
    Lessons learned from this process were: let the coals burn down so there is no fire, only hot coals; use the vent to regulate the heat; heat reflects off the back of the stove, so the loaf needs to be turned part way through the process; the bottom of the loaf may burn if the pan sits directly on something really hot. Next time I do this, I'll set the loaf on two firebricks with space between them so that air can circulate freely all around the pan.
       Even if you can't accept the possibility of needing to cook bread in any of the ways suggested above, you could try some of these options as an adventure in cooking. If there are kids in your house, they'll think this is cool stuff. And it will give you an edge if you ever do need this know-how.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vegetable Storage

This article is about options besides
canning or freezing, but these are
Tendersweets and went into my freezer.
       Why think about storage for vegetables now? Because one method of storing vegetables is to leave them in the ground until you need them! Now, before you plant your garden, is when you want to consider if you want to use this storage method. Planting your choices together will make harvesting much easier.
       First thing to consider is what vegetables this method works for.
       Cabbage and brussel sprouts will continue to produce until well after the first frosts. Twisting the entire plant to loosen the root is one method of keeping cabbage from maturing further while you leave it in the ground.
       Jerusalem artichokes keep best when left in the ground until you need them. Mulch with leaves or straw to make access easier.
       Harvest kale as you need it for Christmas and beyond, even in colder climates. No special care needed.
       For root crops, cover them with a thick layer of straw or leaves to protect them against alternate freezing and thawing and make digging easier. Place stakes at both ends of rows so you can locate the vegetables if there is snow. Cold is said to improve the flavor of vegetables stored this way.
      I've seen questions concerning storage of other crops and will answer those here too.
      Store apples separately at close to 32 degrees as possible. Apples pick up flavors from some vegetables and may make carrots taste bitter. Chose varieties that mature in late fall and are free of damage. Do not store windfalls. Store in crates that can be stacked rather than deep bins, where fruit at the bottom of the pile will be damaged.
      Carrots can be left in the ground until harvest, under a thick layer of straw, or in pits outside, or they can be stored in a box of wet sand or sawdust. Thicker varieties store best this way. Dig them, let them dry a bit in the sun, cut the tops, leaving two inches of green, then layer in boxes with sand or sawdust between layers. They can touch, but don't crowd. Store at 32-34 degrees. Should be good for four or five months.  This works for beets too, but the storage period is only one to three months.
      Onions like a cool, dry place, like an attic. Late maturing varieties with a strong taste are the best keepers. Store only onions with thin necks that are dry. Harvest after most of the necks have fallen over.  Cure them for several weeks in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area, either in sun or shade. Place in open-weave bags or open-slated crates. Bags saved from store-bought turkeys are perfect for this.
       Potatoes can stay in the ground for about six weeks after most of the tops have died down. Dig, rinse off most of the dirt, being careful not to bruise the potatoes, and dry for a few hours. Do not leave in the sun. Remove any that are immature, damaged, or showing signs of rot. Store in boxes that allow ventilation, at 40 to 50 degrees. If the storage area is cooler than this, move them to a warmer space for a week or two before you eat them. Potatoes can be stored outside in a mound. Describing this without a visual is beyond my descriptive talents.
       While it seems a bit early to think of storage, making plans now may allow you the time you need to consider what options will work best for you, and to get set up to store the coming bounty.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Garden Expansion - Hugelkultur I

Spring project. Last year's potato patch is in left foreground.
      When I took this photo last summer, I labelled it "Spring Project" and tucked it away in the deep dark recesses of the computer. Now I hear it calling to me "Is it spring yet?" Crocuses are blooming, daffodils are coming up, seedlings are hardening off on the porch. Yes, it's spring! Time to get to work!
       My garden plan has corn, beans and squash growing in the foreground, potatoes in the background. Black locust stumps, roots and saplings, brambles, stinging nettles, poke weed, crabgrass and a whole slew of other weeds have to go. Then there is this abrupt three-foot drop somewhere back there, running parallel to the old corn crib you can see on the right.
       I received notice a few days ago that the seed company has shipped the potatoes we ordered! I need to get this ground ready. (Think music from Mission Impossible!) The area needing clearing measures about 90 by 25 feet, and my operating tools are a shovel, wheel barrel, and loppers. It looks like a huge project, but any project becomes doable if you divide it into manageable tasks .
       My first task will be dealing with that three-foot drop. For decades this entire garden area served as a pen for my in-laws' black Angus bulls. What the bulls left behind mixed with stirred up dirt and flowed with rain water downhill to the fence, where it backed up and eventually formed the slope. The soil there is probably deeper and richer than anywhere else on the property. We have talked in the past about putting some sort of retaining wall there, but every idea for building one has been too costly and/or labor intensive. I have a plan to use that rich soil, eliminate erosion, conserve water, and make use of some unsightly old wood that's been rotting nearby for years.
       I will build a hugelkultur.
       This is a German word that translates to "hill culture." This is a permaculture technique which is  really simply a different kind of raised bed. I will be digging out a ditch at the base of the slope, cutting into the slope itself. I will fill the ditch with rotting logs, fresh-cut logs, branches, and twigs. On top of all this goes straw, garden and yard debris, last year's corn stalks, and sod (placed green side down), with a final topping of the soil I dug out earlier. I will make the hill higher than the upper level of the slope. I should level the ground on the upper side parallel to the hugelkultur so that runoff will stop and seep evenly into the ground, where the rotting wood will absorb much of the moisture, decreasing or eliminating the need for watering. That wood will warm the soil as it decomposes and will extend the growing season for whatever I plant there.  Vining plants are said to do very well on these beds, so I will probably plant some of these.
       With all the reading about hugelkulturs I've done recently, I've never seen one used quite this way, but I'm doing trials here, and putting it together this way seems so logical. If anyone sees a reason why this should not work, I'd like to hear it.
       This is, of course, not exactly a permanent feature. As the wood rots, the hill settles and becomes a much lower pile of soil. With a hugelkultur, you can create good soil where there was none before!
       I will use a shovel to dig out and remove the crabgrass and as many stumps and roots as possible. Why not till? It takes repeated tilling to kill crabgrass. I would still have to dig out the roots and stumps. Rocks, pieces of an abandoned 1959 Galaxy Fairlane 50, farm equipment fragments, and buried fencing would all make tilling a nightmare. Besides, tillers are noisy. There's a certain peace working with a shovel, something almost elemental.
       If you are thinking that building a hugelkultur is labor intensive, well, yes, sort of, unless you compare it to setting dozens of posts to hold the planks to hold the dirt, which will still have to be moved. I'm kind of excited about the whole idea of hugelkulturs. They can be anywhere from two to seven feet tall and are usually narrow with steep sides. Are you considering trying one? Consider all the advantages: water conservation, soil improvement, increased growing space, increased growing season, an ecologically friendly way to use otherwise unusable wood. Stay tuned to see how this and my other hugelkultur projects fare!
       For more about hugelkulturs, visit

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Preparing Your Plant Babies for Leaving the Nest

Hardening off is not just for vegetables!
It will benefit herbs, flowers, any young
plants not used to the real world.
This is sweet woodruff.
       Crocuses are blooming, the temperature has soared into the sixties, and you can't wait to get those plants you started from seed and babied for a month out into the real world. You grab a trowel and a flat of  seedlings from your warm, protected, well-watered nursery and head straight for the garden to set them immediately into their new home.
       Don't do it! This is very much like telling your teenager that she's on her own right this minute without having given her any training in money management, doing laundry, cooking, or finding and keeping a job. The abrupt change will stress your plants, slow their development, or even kill them. Help your plants make the transition; harden off your seedlings, whether started at home or purchased from a nursery.
       Perhaps the most critical reason for hardening off plants is the change they will experience in quality of light. Plant leaves adjust to deal with the light they are used to. If they go suddenly from artificial light to full sun, the leaves will scorch. They need several days of gradually increased exposure to adjust to the change. Temperature and watering changes and an introduction to wind are other factors that hardening off addresses.
       Ideally, the hardening off process will take seven to ten days. Start by moving your plants to a sheltered area for only two or three hours. Perhaps the space between the garage and house? I put mine on my front porch to catch morning light rather than the harsher afternoon sun. Gradually increase exposure time. Protect the plants from strong winds, heavy rains and cold. You may want to bring them inside after their exposure period, or cover them with a floating row cover or blanket for the night, or set them in a cold frame. Decrease their watering, but not to the point where they wilt. Although they may appear to recover quickly from wilting, in fact recover takes days.
       Cold hardiness varies with plants, and has to do with a plant's ability to withstand frost. Hardy plants can tolerate temperatures in the 40's and should survive a light freeze after being well hardened off. Hardy plants include asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, chives, garlic, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, mustard, onion, parsley, peas, radishes, rhubarb, spinach and turnips.
       Half-hardy plants like celery, lettuce, endive, cauliflower, chard, and potatoes can tolerate temps down to 45 degrees; squash, pumpkin and sweet corn down to 50 degrees; cucumbers and melons to 60; basil, tomatoes, and peppers to 65.
       The above guidelines are from a Washington State University Extension Office web page. Keep in mind that saying that plants can survive these lower temperatures is not the same as saying they will thrive in them. For instance, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers are all on the "very tender" hardiness list.
       After you've hardened off your babies, plant them during a cloudy day if possible, when rain is forecast. If you are blessed with clear skies, set them out during the late afternoon. Water them ahead of time so they will have time for a last drink before you disturb the roots. Set the plants at the same depth as they are in the pots, except for tomatoes. For tomatoes pinch off all but the topmost leaves and set it in the ground so that the stem is sideways, buried almost up to the leaves. If you are using peat pots, tear off the bottoms and any part of the pot that extends above the ground. If you leave it, it acts like a wick and draws water to the surface where it evaporates away. Water the seedlings in. Water the roots, not the leaves, and if you fertilize, use a weak solution. Mulching is always a good idea for weed and moisture control.
       If you absolutely cannot wait to plant, harden off for a minimum of three days. This is less than ideal, but will still benefit your seedlings.
        I'm still hardening off my Cold Set tomatoes, having barely resisted the urge to plant them as soon as the weather here went suddenly from winter to summer. But weather in Michigan is dicey. We can expect freezing and even a blizzard at this time of year, but this variety claims it will set fruit even at near freezing temperatures. I really, really want to find out if this is true. Imagine, fresh tomatoes in May! Well, I can dream. Good luck with starting your garden!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thanksgiving - Baked Beans

      Baked beans are a simple, nutritious food, one that you might expect to prepare often for your family if you are on a tight budget or as an emergency situation food, or just because you love it. Because beans are one of the most important foods introduced to the Pilgrims after their arrival in the New World, it seems like the perfect addition to a Thanksgiving dinner, and a candidate for consideration in the Thanksgiving Challenge to grow as much as you can to serve as a part of this celebration.
      If you are a gardener you are probably aware that the American Indians grew corn, pumpkin, and beans (the Three Sisters) together and taught the Pilgrims their methods. All three foods most certainly appeared at the first Thanksgiving feast, but none would have been served as we would today. Consider the baked beans recipe below. This is a basic recipe, but very few of these ingredients would have been available to the Pilgrims. Would they have soaked their beans in water, added onions, honey or some herbs for flavoring? Sounds pretty bland.
       We, on the other hand, can pick all these up any time we visit our local grocery store. But suppose the roads are washed out or flooded following a major storm, or panic buying has emptied the shelves after a major disaster, or there's rioting in town and and it's not safe to go there, or you refuse to buy anything genetically modified, or (fill in the blank) and you can't buy what you need? Would you be able to prepare this simple dish? Suddenly, "simple" no longer applies. Consider what you would need to grow yourself to prepare a basic recipe like this.
       Navy beans, like green beans, are easy to grow. Shelling them is sort of fun. Put them in a cloth bag and beat the bag against a post. Open the bag and collect the beans.
       While I would like to grow my own pigs to guarantee my bacon comes from well-treated, healthy animals, my spouse tells me this isn't going to happen. Anyway, this blog is more about growing plants than animals. If I can't grow it myself, maybe I can find a neighbor who will trade bacon for something else I grow.
       Onions! There are so many varieties. My husband is the one who pores through seed catalogs, so I tell him to choose onions that keep well. I admit to not being an onion connoisseur. Mostly what I use is plain yellow varieties.
       Molasses and brown sugar, as I stated in an earlier blog, you can make yourself, and the taste is  superior to anything store-bought! If you go this route, look for heirloom seeds to avoid beets that have been genetically modified. It takes a lot of beets to make even a few cups of finished product. See my post Sugar Beets to Molasses - Homestead Style.
       Salt is one item I have no idea how to procure in an emergency, unless you live by the sea. Even then, as polluted as the sea might be, would you want to eat salt from there? Salt is one ingredient that I like to keep a good supply of on hand. Some folks use substitutes, but I haven't found anything that satisfies my taste buds as well.
       If you run out of pepper, ground, fully matured and dried nasturtium seeds might work for you as a substitute.
       I will try to grow mustard for the first time this year. I don't know of a substitute for it.
       I made catsup for the first time last year. No high fructose corn syrup! And the taste! It does take a lot of tomatoes and careful cooking down, but is very doable in a standard kitchen.
       If you cannot shop, you will not be able to make Worcestershire sauce. What makes Worcestershire sauce Worcestershire's sauce is the tamarind paste, not something you're likely to find in your backyard unless you live in the tropics. The recipe I used (see Worcestershire - to make a batch lists seventeen ingredients, among them curry powder, which I did not have so I mixed together as many of its dozen or so ingredients as I have on hand. I bought anchovies, fresh ginger, and cardamom pods along with the tamarind concentrate. You'll have to judge for yourself whether or not the effort here is work the results. I prefer the from-scratch option, but making this from homegrown produce is a stretch!
       So, I am presenting this "simple" Baked Bean recipe for your eating enjoyment whether you choose to use as much homemade as possible or buy everything. Whichever you do, think about how easy preparation is for us today compared with what the Pilgrims did. Be thankful for the difference!
                                                   Baked Beans
 Ingredients: 2 cups navy beans         1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
                    1/2 pound bacon            1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
                    1 onion, diced                1/2 cup catsup
                    3 Tbs molassses             1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
                    2 teaspoons salt              1/4 cup brown sugar

       Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Use this water to simmer the beans in until tender. This can mean an hour or two, over all day, depending on how old your beans are. Drain and reserve the liquid.
       If you are actually baking the beans, put them in a two quart baking dish. In a frying pan, cook the bacon until lightly browned, add onion and stir until tender. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Pour over the beans. Add enough reserved water to just cover the beans. Cover and bake at 325 degrees until tender, about three to four hours. Remove the lid after a couple of hours.
       I prefer using a crock pot. Put the beans, cooked bacon and onion in the pot. Add the rest of the ingredients. Set on high until the mixture simmers, then reduce the heat and cook until the beans are tender. Again, if the beans are old, cooking time will be much longer.
      In the oven or in the crock pot, check the beans occasionally and add more liquid if necessary.
      Leftover beans freeze well.
      Baked beans have never been a Thanksgiving food at my house, but perhaps they should be. What do you think?