Simple, Sustainable Sense

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Spring Weather!

Groundbreaking for our kitchen garden.

The first tentative days of spring are upon us, and we're moving as fast as we can to get our garden established. The last frost date is still some ways away, but before then we have a 25x35 ft patch of sod to pull up, and soil to mix. Our soil is heavy clay, so we will likely need to add a bit of sand and some manure and compost to make a more veggie friendly garden. A rototiller would make this work significantly easier, but we haven't got one of those, so we'll have to work with what we do have.

We staked out the perimeter of our garden, strung guide strings around it and began cutting the sod. There's still a lot left to cut, but we've begun.

Run Free!

The chickens are not yet laying, as they reached maturity a bit late in the season last year. Today we let them free-range for the first time since winter fell, for some sunlight and a meal of early bugs. Mr. Tailfeathers there was getting mighty frisky, so with any luck, spring will soon catch up to the hens as well. It's time to order spring chicks, and we'll be doing that next week.

Greenhouse Frame

We had hoped to build our greenhouse today, but the wind was a bit too blustery and the baby a bit too needy to stretch the plastic over the frame. The frame is a salvaged swing set, and the shelf is a rolling garage door panel (also salvaged) The top portion will be covered with heavy greenhouse plastic, and the space under the shelf will house our composters (built from reclaimed tires - not pictured). The frame faces south, and occupies the northwest corner of our garden. 

All in all, a productive and encouraging day and a welcome respite from the winter.

All work and no play...

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Time to Gear up for Spring!

It's been a long time since we've posted. Our winter has been unbelievably unlucky, and the bad luck has kept us hopping from one crisis to the next without much time for blogging.

Fortunately, things seem to be starting to look up and we're excitedly planning our garden for this year. We're new to all of this, so we're frantically tapping all the resources we can. This plan was drawn using the free trial version of Mother Earth News' garden planner with information from many, many resources. The quick reference guides we used extensively were The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It, by John Seymour, and this chart on Wikipedia.
Plants in this garden plan were arranged, to the best of our knowledge, to benefit one another, and help keep pests under control. It is very much a work in progress, however, and constructive criticism and advice is more than welcome!

Without further adieu: please check out garden plan v. 1.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Our Chickens

We "rescued" our chickens from a private parochial school in June.  We were told they were about four weeks old at the time. The teacher didn't know what breed they were, and thought that possibly four were female and three were male, but she couldn't be sure. Some of them looked like the picture above, and some like the picture below:

Despite our best attempts, we were unable to figure out what kind of chickens we had. Based on the second picture, we theorized that some of them were perhaps leghorn, but as the rest of the down fell out and the feathers came in full, that seemed less and less likely.

They are now about 13 weeks old and all their feathers are in. We lost one of the cockerels a few weeks ago to an excited dog (we ate him, though there wasn't much meat on him). With all their feathers in, they are much easier to identify. This is what they looked like a week or so ago:

It now seems clear that these chickens are indeed sex-linked chickens of some sort. Likely Red Star. Here's what we've learned about Red Star chickens:

While Red Star Chickens do not breed true (future generations will not be able to be sexed by colour) and are not a recognized breed according to whoever it is that recognizes these things, they are productive layers, laying large brown eggs. Further, they do not tend to slow down as much as other chickens as the weather gets cold and the days get shorter (great news for us, as they won't be old enough to lay until late fall). They do not often get broody, which might make any breeding difficult, but will keep us in eggs.  They are also apparently great foragers, with a high return in eggs for the amount of feed they consume.

Sex Linked Chickens are bred by mating a red breed (Rhode Island Red is common) male and a light breed (ex. Delaware) female. Why that makes white males and red females isn't clear to us, but it does. 

Check back soon for news on coop completion and egg production updates!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Pear Tree Pectin

Hello all! We've been gone a while. Nick lost his day job, our computer had some finicky moments, and the phone we were using for a camera also broke. In light of this string of bad luck, we've been alternately vacationing and scrambling. Rest assured the blog is coming back in full swing very soon. In the meantime, here's the recipe for the pear pectin we made a few weeks ago:

Most of the recipes we've found for pectin are done with apples, but pears have a higher pectin content than apples, and we happen to have pear trees behind the house that are just about ripe.

Under ripe fruit is higher in pectin than perfectly ripe (or over ripe fruit) so it's the perfect use for the early fruit that falls due to windstorms, etc. Since this fruit is usually not as nice as the fruit that stays firmly attached to the tree, some paring is necessary, but it's worth it. For this recipe we used the good parts of about 20 small, under ripe pears.

* Trim any bruises, rotten spots and wormholes and discard them. Wash the fruit thoroughly.

* Coarsely chop the remaining fruit. Include the stems, skin, and cores/seeds as these are high in pectin. Put in a good sized pot

* Cut a lemon into eighths and squeeze the juice over the pears. Toss in the peels and seeds as well, these, too, are high in pectin.

* Add water until the fruit is almost covered, put on the heat and heat to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about an hour.

* Pour through cheesecloth (or a rag made from a clean cotton t-shirt) to strain out the fruit. We poured this into a juice jug, to make it easier to jar. Squeeze all the water through the cloth. Discard the fruit bits (we fed ours to the chickens)

* To test the pectin, add a few drops to a little rubbing alcohol. If it "gels" it's good.

* Use for jams and jellies in equal parts with fruit and sugar.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Milkweed Pizza With Wild Garlic

Yesterday's stroll along the ridge yielded a bounty of wild garlic and fresh, tender milkweed pods. What to do with this harvest? Pizza! It was fantastic, well worth doing again. Here's how we did it.

* After washing everything, we separated the milkweed pods from their white filling and roughly chopped the pods. We also roughly chopped all parts of the wild garlic (root bulbs, greens and buds).

* We sauteed the chopped garlic greens in a generous amount of good olive oil, then discarded the greens (they were far too tough to eat)

* In the remaining oil, we sauteed the chopped garlic buds and milkweed pods, then set aside

* We repeated this with some chopped, thinly sliced salami (this is, of course, optional - omit the salami for a vegetarian or vegan pizza)

* We halved four calabrese buns lengthwise and grilled them, cut sides down in this oil

* Adding a splash more oil, we sauteed the chopped garlic root, adding a large, roughly chopped tomato after a few minutes. To finish the pizza sauce we added a tin of condensed tomato soup, some italian seasoning and a splash of red wine. We spread the sauce on the grilled bread.

* We topped our pizzas with the white milkweed fluff (this makes an excellent cheese substitute), our sauteed pods and garlic, the salami, and a small amount of boconcini (again, omit this step for vegan pizza. You can top with more milkweed fluff, if you like)

* After broiling in our oven for about 8 minutes, we devoured the pizzas.


Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Design Competition

We're trying to find a balance between the homeschooling paradigm we will have come september (which doesn't really take summers off. The children simply learn all year 'round at their own speed) and the "children have been in school all year and need a break" paradigm. In that spirit, they're being given plenty of free time, about 30-45 minutes a day of extra chores (in addition to putting their clean clothes away, bringing the dirty ones to the laundry room, rinsing their dishes and putting them in the dishwasher, and keeping their rooms tidy) and, when we feel inspired, something like this: A Design Competition.

The child who applies what they learned when we made the chicken waterer to create the best chicken feeder will win a cash prize. The kids are all aflutter, they're learning, and we've harnessed the same competitive energy they displayed yesterday (when they were fighting over a blanket in 30 degree celsius weather) in a productive, educational way.

In typical Marie-Celeste fashion, she immediately went seeking materials. Basil, who is more a conceptualist, drew up preliminary sketches. His design is very complicated, with many more parts that could go wrong, but if it does work, it'll result in cleaner, more pest-free feed. We're excited to view the results.

They go back to camp in Toronto in about a week and a half. We'll update then as to which child succeeded, and we'll show both designs.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Milkweed and Heat Wave

It's been hot here, and we've been super busy in Toronto, and trying to keep cool. Thanks go out to Deezwin Greens supporters who got in on the wine. We are now set up with a large number of empty carboys and are just about ready to start fermenting. One good thing about this hot, dry summer is that the grapes ought to be great this year.

We found ourselves without fresh vegetables in the house last week, and far too busy to run to the store. Milkweed to the rescue! After harvesting and washing the flowers, leaves and top 2 inches of the stems of about 2 dozen plants, we set to work on a stir fry.

Milkweed is a highly versatile vegetable. The flowers, especially, are a lovely addition to a stir fry and do not need to be pre-boiled like the rest of the plant. According to Brandeis University, pre-boiling the stems and leaves isn't particularly necessary unless you are one of the unlucky few who are sensitive to the mild toxin in the plant. We boiled it just to be sure.

Here's how we did it:

* Wash the plant bits (carefully ensuring there are no bugs living in the flowers) and separate the leaves, stems and flowers.

* Blanch the leaves and stems in boiling water for about a minute and drain, discarding the water. Repeat, boiling until tender.

* We had some leftover beet salad with caramelized onion which Deni had accidentally over seasoned with salt, pepper, celery salt, mustard seed, and turmeric. Using this as the base for the stir fry meant we didn't have to add any additional seasoning.

* We threw the stems (cut into 1 inch pieces) in first, frying until slightly tender, then threw in the leaves.

* Once the leaves and stems were good and tender, we added the flowers for a couple minutes and plated the whole thing.

The stems were a bit tough for our liking, but it's late in the season for them, so we weren't surprised. The leaves tasted like any bitter leafy vegetable (think collard greens or kale) but the flowers were the true star of the show.

We were hoping to make a milkweed pizza once the pods arrived, but the Crown arrived today and mowed the land we were harvesting from (pest control measures - many of the grasses growing there are considered invasive crops).

Today we will harvest the hay they left behind for our chickens and for making lye - which is on the agenda this week. Now we know what our harvest deadline is for next year.