Thursday, June 30, 2011

Closing the Loop: Sheep

Caring for sheep was never on our radar when we thought about homesteading. We were excited to just have chickens. Mark was a paid solo singer for a Christian Scientist church. One Sunday, Evan and I were waiting for him in the nursery with another parent. I was knitting. The other parent said," So you like to knit, do you spin?" I said "Yes I spin but I am still a novice." "Would you like some sheep? We'll give you our sheep."

And so we had sheep. Three, sorta wild, shetlands. We built them a shed and then a barn. We bought a solar electric portable fence. Mark took a shearing class offered through the cooperative extension.We chased them around the yard plenty of times. They mowed our lawn for us and we had a source of manure for the garden.

Since those first three sheep came to live with us we have been given more sheep. Mostly elderly sheep who needed a retirement home. I have used their fiber. Mark has earned income from shearing. Our compost pile is rich in sheep poop. According to the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening by J.I. Rodale, each ewe can provide a ton of manure. They will clean up overgrown areas. But when I think about closing the loop the sheep have to be an integral part of our homestead. The sheep need outside inputs in the form of feed, hay, some mineral feed to supplement those minerals that are not available in our Maine soils and diatomaceous earth; for preventing parasites. In the last closing the loop post I discussed how we are growing mangle-wurzel beets as one source of winter fodder. For now, we will buy hay from some farming friends. But long term we would like be able to grow some of our winter hay. This year we will plant a pasture mix of grass in the orchard

In the summer the sheep graze on our yard. In past years we have simply moved the portable fence around the yard wherever there was tall grass;which is most of the time because we do not mow, much;) This year Mark puts the girls out on pasture and scythes up grass for the boys. The boys do not go graze too much because Leroy Brown goat is more of a garden/orchard pest (he jumps the fence).

The girls grazing is a little more intentional now that we have an orchard to maintain. One key to good orchard maintenance is keeping a clean orchard. A clean orchard is less likely to be a source of disease and pests. So our ladies' fence is put under the trees. They eat up any fallen leaves. After fruit has set small apples fall to the ground. These small apples become a source for the larva of an insect that lays its eggs in the fallen fruit and then as a mature insect infest the mature fruit. The sheep also fertilize the trees at this time. In this way we do not need to bring in outside inputs to control this pest or feed the trees.

Our girls are getting old. We are thinking that next spring we may get a lamb or two. One of the considerations for these lambs will be that they will be a breed that can provide both fiber and meat. In this way the sheep will be integrated into our food chain; another loop we hope to close.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Around the Homestead

Lovely Gwen enjoying a summer salad:)
A new Friend has come to live with us. His name is Wilbur. He is a geriatric old boy enjoying his retirement:)
Happy Wilbur sitting in a sunny window.
A big harvest of Garlic Scapes. I think these will make a nice pesto. Perhaps a few small jars or should I freeze it? Decisions. Decisions.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Independence Days Challenge: Solstice and Strawberries.

I finished planting the garden this past weekend. This is always a sort of a transient notion because as some crops are harvest others are planted. But for now, it is time to watch stuff grow.

The garlic scapes have escaped from their green garlic shoots. It has been a while since we have had anything that taste like garlic. I hope to make a big batch of garlic scape pesto this year. I will probably supplement some of the scapes I have grown with some from the farmer's market. I did not plant as much garlic as the year before simply because life was a little crazy then. This year I will plant a bit more.

Strawberry farms will be opening up this coming weekend. A friend and I plan to go picking and do some canning together. The strawberries are one of the first crops that go into the freezer so I guess I should finish cleaning the freezer out. Oh that to-do list....

Plant: Tomatoes, peppers, pole beans, pie pumpkins, butternut squash, sunflower, lettuce, cabbage.

Harvest: lettuce, swiss chard, kale, basil, jewel weed, red clover, strawberry leaf, plantain.

Preserve: Jewel weed salve, dried strawberry leaf, dried plantain leaf.

Local foods: Farmer goodness from Mark's gig. Our local brew supply store sells mozzarella kits. I am hoping to give it a try this coming weekend. Local meat, eggs and milk. One local farmer grew cucumbers in her green house. She selling some the other day. Yum! She also had broccoli. Such a treat!

Eat the food: Spring greens quiche, homemade tacos with local beef, saute of beet greens and green onions. Grilled cheese sandwiches from local bread, local cheese.

Waste not: A friend was cleaning out her closet ad gifted me with a big bag of free clothes. I took whatever did not fit and gave them to the local thrift.

Want not: I made a compost tea to give the garden plants a little boost.

Today is the longest day of the year. We plan to go out after dark and watch the fireflies! Enjoy the day!

Monday, June 20, 2011

A simple remedy

So Mark and Evan went fishing the other day. There is a nice little fishing hole around the corner. This is Evan's first year fishing and it is something they enjoy. The anticipation and disappointment that Evan feels about fishing is tempered by Mark's wise statement, " They call it fishing, not catching."

Well the last time they went out Mark caught something...poison ivy.

Jewel weed is a wild herb that usually grows where ever there is poison ivy. I have often used it if I get the rash common from too much time in the raspberry patch. You can pick the herb and crush it and rub it on the rash. Mark can attest to the immediate relief it provides to the rash:)

The rash was still bothering him this morning and it looks as though it may have spread. So I thought that something with a little more staying power might be called for; I made a jewel weed salve.

This makes about 4-6 ounces of Salve. All measurements are approximate.

Jewel weed salve

2 cups of fresh jewel weed.
1 cup olive oil
1 ounce of bees wax
a double boiler
a rubber spatula
small strainer
clean 1/2 pint jar.

Fill the bottom portion of the double boiler with water. In the top portion of the double boiler put fresh jewel weed and olive oil. Bring water to boil. Heat the oil and weed together. Stirring occasionally for about 15-20 minutes. I stopped once the weed looked like I had cooked all the life essence out of it. Strain weed from oil. I tried to press as much of the oil out of the weed. Return the oil back to the top part of the double boiler. I use the rubber spatula to make sure that I return as much as I can back to the pot. Bring water back to a boil and add the bees wax. When wax has melted pour into a clean 1/2 pint jar. Don't forget to label the jar!

Soon after it was made I saw Mark outside scratching the affected area. I brought it out to him and he had long lasting relief from it. It can be a little goopy but very affective! Tonight he will take an oatmeal bath to dry out the affected areas.

Who needs an ocean of calamine lotion?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Right Work

The last day of Mark's school year was yesterday. This was a tough school year for us. Our family was in transition as we adjusted to our recent move and new community. The demands of his job are more than any other school district that he has worked for and it has been difficult to manage the balance between home and work. Now we move into summer mode.

The last two years our summers have been very busy; getting ready to sell our old house, moving to our new house. It has propelled us into a habit of always having too many irons in the fire. We have resolved that this summer will be different. We originally had grand plans for this summer. We were going to mill up some wood on our property to build a barn. Those plans have been scaled back so that we will be milling less wood and building a 3 and 1/2 walled shed for the sheep and a wicked decent chicken coop:) We have a few other small home improvement projects on our to-do list. For the most part our summer plans include getting together with old friends, canoeing, fishing and plenty of weeding therapy for the "mama". It is nice to have the luxury to give the garden the full attention that the garden of the last few years have not had.

Mark will still be teaching music lessons this summer. I will be developing a curriculum to teach knitting at Adult Ed and to the 4th, 5th and 6th graders at Mark's school. I have a couple of other small knitting ventures I am working on that will generate a small amount of income. Some of these I hope to share soon. Mark will also be gigging.

Some of these performances have already occurred. Last night he performed at a local restaurant, today he performed at the local farmer's market. Both performances were fun for him. It is a way for him to share his talent, connect with the community and it brings in a little extra money. The farmer's market gig was a gig of a different sort.

Mark was able to put out his tip jar and it was generously filled. But in lieu of payment for playing at the farmer's market, he was given a sampling of all the participating farmer's had to offer. He was given 3 large bags filled with local cheese, duck eggs, local eggs, locally produced bread from local wheat, beet greens, mustard greens, salad greens and cookies. We both commented that there was a richer sense of connectedness and satisfaction from his job well done than from receiving simply a paycheck. A good barter, indeed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Independence Days Challenge: Dust Bunnies and Weeds.

We have had a few days of rain here after a bit of a hot spell. It has been a good time to catch up on the work that should be done on the inside of the house; stuff like housework. In the meanwhile the weeds have had the opportunity to take over. Dust bunnies and weeds. This time of year it is hard to keep a balance between the two.

Life is pretty good right now. Mark finishes the school year this week. Evan has his first fishing pole. He caught his first fish this week. A little perch. Tristan is finishing up his GED and looking for work. This is not an easy proposition. Many of the jobs that used to go to teens are now being taken by those who were unemployed and needed any kind of job. He has managed to find some work with an organic farmer.He will be helping with haying. But the planting season got started a little late this year; so, the farmer is not ready for him.

However, another opportunity has presented itself. We have met a family through our homeschooling network. They have been going through a bit of a hard time lately and are planning to move. They have asked Tristan if he can do some work around their place. The work would include mowing the lawn, some heavy lifting with the move and filtering cooking grease for their 5 grease cars. They have limited funds and would be willing to barter a grease car for his labor. Tristan just got his permit and hopes to have his license by this fall. He will have a full education of grease cars this summer. And his mother will have significantly more gray hair as she takes him out on the road.

Plant: More tomatoes, more squash. A friend gifted me a mint plant. Feverfew.

Harvest: beet greens,spinach,lettuce, burdock leaves, lambs quarters, basil, parsley, sheep sorrel, french sorrel, swiss chard, rhubarb, chive blossoms, chives, scallions.

Local Foods: Local milk, local meat from the feed store. Local apple cider vinegar.

Preserve the Food: Chive blossom vinegar. I used the local vinegar for this. Dehydrated Strawberry leaf, dehydrated raspberry leaf. Chicken stock.

Eat the food: Mixed greens salad. I peeled and chopped the stems of burdock leaves to use like celery in come crab cakes I made this past weekend.

Waste not: The sheep are still eating the lawn. This means we have not had to really mow the lawn much. I do take the push mower out and mow in front of the house. I used the grass clippings on a sheet mulched keyhole bed that I have as my herb garden. We are replacing the screen in some of our windows. The house needs some new windows but we are not ready to do this yet. So we bought a roll of screen to fix the screens we have. I plan to take the old screen and use them for several other projects we are working on. One is a sifter for the compost bin. Our wheat will be ready for harvest soon. I will also make a screen box for winnowing. I also plan to reuse the screen to dry the sheep's wool after it is washed.

Want not: Mark picked up a 50lb pound bag of spray malt for making beer this summer. Mark has found out that he is lactose intolerant. This runs in his family. We are learning to adapt to this change. One thing he can eat is yogurt. I usually make yogurt using dehydrated cultures. But I have been experimenting with taking a little bit of yogurt from a prior batch to make the next. I have read varying recommendations about this. One source, Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, tells of a yogurt culture that has been kept alive for 100 years. But I have heard of other folks who found that the quality of the yogurt degrades over many uses. Yogurt was made before the age of commercial cultures. I think this will take some further research. I started a new sourdough starter. The last one was killed when life got really busy. I hope to put keep one going in the kitchen but put some away in the fridge if the kitchen starter should be neglected.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Closing the Loop

This is the first post, of an occasional series of posts, on closing the loop on systems within our homestead. By closing the loop I mean to explore ways to develop systems on our homestead that reduces our reliance on outside inputs. The loop is the cycle of the use of resources that exist on our homestead.

Sometimes this will mean making an investment in infrastructure that is the final piece in closing the loop. This could mean buying a new tool that will close the loop and allow us to make use of existing resources. Other times it is learning a new skill that will help us to utilize what resources we already have. Many times it will be learning to re-use or repurpose things to reduce our need to spend money. Sometimes it will mean recognizing when the cycle of a system is working well. If the cycle of the system is not working well, then it is valuable to understand why it is not working well and whether it could be improved; or should not be part of our overall plan.

This all sounds very technical. Homesteading as science. But really what I hope to achieve by exploring this topic is not only a more efficient homestead but one that is as self-sustaining as it can be. This will save us money. It can also help to localize our homesteading efforts to the best of our ability. It can increase our understanding of how our land provides for us. It can be a valuable exercise to understand how, exactly, energy is connected to the things we do on our land. Once we have this understanding we can either reduce the amount of the energy we need or find an alternative to a more energy intensive practice.

So what does this mean in a practical sense? Well, one small project we are working on this year is growing Mangel-Wurzel Beets. It is my hope that this will be a way for us to provide winter fodder for our livestock. I planted them early this spring. When they get a little bigger I will be able to give the greens to our sheep. The roots can be kept in our cold room for the winter. According to the book, Traditional Feeding of Farm Animals, "Danish feeding experiments have shown that the dry matter of Mangels has a feeding value similar to grain feed..." The mangels need a few weeks to season before feeding them to our sheep; which fits well into the timing of when we will be taking them off pasture and moving to our winter feeding regimen. During the winter we give our sheep hay and grain. If we could reduce the amount of grain that they eat, we will be less dependent on a food resource that, most often, is imported by truck. The grain that we use right now is trucked in from large industrial farms in Quebec. There is a local farmer that grows organic grains but the price is a little outside of what we can afford right now. But if we could supplement the grain with mangels we could source or grain locally.

But the loop can only be closed if I save the seed from this years beets. This can be a little tricky. According to the book Seed to Seed, by Susan Ashworth, all beets are wind pollinated and will easily cross pollinate with other beets up to five miles away. So this year I planted half the seeds that I ordered from Fedco Seed Co. This fall I will leave about a dozen beets in the ground and heavily mulch them. Next spring when they start to flower I will cover them, six each, so that they will only pollinate each other. In order to hedge my bets, I will plant the remaining seed from this year. I will collect the saved seed and try a test plot with some of the seed. If my efforts were unsuccessful then I will have my chance to try again the following year.

Many other systems exist on our homestead that I will be exploring as I try to close the loop. Water collection and its use, making the best use of food stuffs that are available on our homestead, providing soil fertility without outside inputs are just a few examples. I think this is going to be an exciting project.

So do you have closed looped systems at your home? How are they working?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Book Review: Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

There is a book that has been sitting on our night stands, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, by Wendy Brown. Wendy blogs at Surviving the Suburbs. She lives in southern Maine. Most book reviewers are able to approach their book reviews with an unbiased opinion. I, actually, have met Wendy. I have also been to her home. This being stated, however, also means that I have a perspective that other reviewers do not. I have seen her suburban homestead and I can attest to the amount of food she can produce on her 1/4 acre. Wendy has a yard with mixed fruits, raised beds and livestock; including, bees, chickens, ducks and rabbits. The day I visited her home there was a large can in her home of acorns being prepared for making acorn flour.

So it was with this knowledge that I began reading her book.

I have read plenty of books about preparing for The End of the World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI). Among some of my favorite is Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk, When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein and Peak Oil Prep by Mick Winter. So I have read enough to wonder how Wendy would approach this subject. Wendy sets up a scenario where a world altering event will take place in 21 days. We have 21 days to prepare for this change. She suggests that most folks will not be able to "bug out" to a secluded bunker in the middle of no where with an endless supply of MRE's. Instead we will have to learn to grow where we are planted.

Each of the 21 days she chooses one topic for consideration: shelter, water, fire, growing food etc. She takes a careful consideration of the existing systems in her home; for instance, with sanitation or water supply, and thinks how to recreate these systems,using existing infrastructure, in a low energy future on a 1/4 acre suburban lot. She tackles some challenges unique to suburban home owners such as Home Owner Association restrictions, limited space. She also takes careful consideration of what is available to her beyond her small suburban homestead.

All in all, the book is rich in practical advice and information. Wendy has really thought about the practice of substitution. If our lives become more local many of commodities that we take for granted will not be available to us; either because it is no longer brought to us on semi trucks or because our limited financial resources will prohibit us from using them.

The book also challenges the reader to think beyond their own lot. She shares this in terms of foods available in the wild. But also asks us to think about the connections we make within our community. The final goal after the 21 days is to try to think of self-sufficiency in ways the really source our needs on a very local level. It is this approach that I find to be the best aspect of the book.

I think there could be so much more information that could fill this book if we were to think beyond the first 21 days. But for the sake of this book it is a great start. Some of the topics are still works in progress on Wendy's homestead. I look forward to perhaps a second book that shares more of her personal experience as she follows down this path. There were moments of humor and tenderness that a reader would not expect from a book that is geared towards someone trying to prepare for TEOTWAWKI. In the end Wendy imagines a world after the 21 days. It is a world of lower energy but a connectedness with the earth and her community that adds a depth to life that one does not associate with life in the suburbs.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Plant-A-Row Challenge: May and June

The brown spaces in the garden are quickly being filled in. In my old garden there was always this spot that was troublesome. We had used the garden that was started before we moved in to the house. By the time we moved in; however, the garden had overgrown with witch grass. witch grass that had gone to seed. This part of the garden was hard to keep the weeds down. Lotsa seed in the soil. I had tried mulching, green crops, growing a big crop of vining squash to keep the weeds down. But each year this part of the garden always grew a really good crop of witch grass. Eventually I remedied the situation by growing plants that really like to spread around;like comfrey, horseradish, mints and jerusalem artichokes. This worked well. Most of the plants I planted crowded out the witch grass. I also ended up with a lot of these plants to share as I tried to keep them from invading the rest of the garden.

Last month's challenge for the Plant-A-Row challenge was to share some seeds or seedlings. You could share with a neighbor or friend. You could contribute to a community garden. the idea was to share our abundance and sow community in the process.

I had several opportunities to share this past month. My sister-in-law had passed on some seed to me. I took some of the seed to plant and freecycled the remainder of the seed. The woman who claimed the seed was surprised that no one else had jumped at the chance. I had some extra seed potato and shared them with a neighbor. Finally, a woman who blacksmiths with Tristan wanted to know if I had 4 zucchini seeds. I drop those off at her house tomorrow. In return she is giving me some more horseradish root.

For Junes challenge I think we should keep it pretty low key. We've worked hard to get our gardens in. Weeding and watching things grow is a nice pass time. So for the month of June I think that we should maybe share stories from our communities of good works. How are your community gardens growing? How are organizations in your community adapting to the challenges of higher fuel prices? Farmer's markets are busy. Is there a new one in your community?

So how did you do this past month?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Eating my lawn: Wild Herbs for Health

I had the most amazing experience last night! Our local herb shop offered a class called Wild Herbs for Health. It was part wild foods class and part herbal medicine class. I was the only student who showed up so I had my own private tutorial! It was taught by the owner of the shop; a simply amazing woman with so much knowledge and very interesting perspective on the state of our current affairs.

Because of her deep connection to the earth she is noticing some changes in the timing of when certain plants are blooming. For instance she has noticed yarrow is starting to bloom a full month before it should. She attributes this to the swing in temperatures that we have had this spring. The plant is under stress and so it blooms early. She also commented on the more political/economic turmoil we are going through now. At the same time she is finding more wild foods and herbs around her home; as if the earth were assuring her that there will be food.

As for that food it is abundant! She showed me 45 plants that grow in our area that can be eaten. There are many more but since her concentration was on the herbal uses of the plants she chose plants that can suit a dual purpose. Some of the plants I knew; dandelion, burdock, yarrow, clover, strawberry, raspberry, plantain, staghorn sumac, jewel weed, milkweed, mullien. But there were many others that I did not know. There were quite a few that I recognized but did not know their name or uses. Many I recognized were right on my own property; Horsetail, bunch berry, trillium, purslane.

Many of these plants can be eaten as a salad or tea. Some of these plants seeds can be ground into a flour. We discussed making tinctures and salves from some of the plants. Some of the plants can be applied directly as a poultice.

It is easy to think that as times grow harder for folks that we will have to do without. After the age of peak oil it is easy to wonder what happens if there are no more antibiotics. But Staghorn sumac has antibiotic properties. Burdock roots are high in insulin...up to 50%. For myself I wonder what would happen if I could not get steroids for MS. There are many herbs with anti-inflammatory properties. There is still much more to learn to feel confident in the uses of some of the herbs.

But in the end there is great wealth in the learning.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Independence Days Challenge, Hard at Work.

We have been blessed with some really nice weather! Life is full of busy-ness in a good way. Many seeds are sprouting and growing. The sheep are mowing and fertilizing the orchard. Small little projects are taking shape while others remain on the to- do list. I have been taking a lot of pictures of the doings around here and hope to have a post rich in photographic content when I have some time to get to the library. Also, tomorrow I will have a plant-a-row update for Many/June. It is never too late to join the challenge!

Plant: sunflower, pumpkin, pole beans in a small garden for Evan. More spinach, lettuce, thyme, rue, sage, petunia. The big push is on for this weekend to get those warm weather crops in.

Harvest: lettuce, chard, sorrel, strawberry leaf, dandelion, rhubarb, spinach.

Preserve: dandelion and pepper jelly, strawberry leaf for tea.

Local foods: local meet from our feed store, eggs

Eat the food: plenty of salads and egg dishes with greens. We are also using up the last of last years berries with rhubarb for crisp. Bonus! We sound 2 quarts of blueberries hiding a the bottom of the freezer. I made a nice quick bread using wild blackberries from last years harvest.

Waste not: The rain barrel is very full. We have our big 280 gallon container. We are planing to hook that up to the back of the shed. It is just uphill enough that it should be gravity fed to the garden. Our old subaru is back off the road. It's state inspection is up and it is not worth putting any more money into the old girl. Mark is working on a barter for it that would glean a 4 wheeler for us. We are folks who saw much merit in the noisy smelly things. But after this last mud season we found we really needed something to get us to the pavement, 2 and 1/2 miles done the road, when the road is closed. We also needed something to pull larger logs out of the woods that we will be using to mill up for small building projects around here. We finally got the lawn mower out this weekend. The sheep can take care of a vast portion of the yard. We don't let them free range because we want them to not eat the garden. There are some parts they just can't reach with their electric fence. So I got the mower out. I save the grass clippings to use as mulch in a sheet mulched keyhole bed. I also added some to the compost bin.

Want not: A neighbor has gifted us with a large box of dahlia bulbs. I have begun to exercise. I finally came to realization that as much as my lifestyle keeps me fairly active , I do not get enough aerobic exercise. So I have begun to go for a jog a few times a week. I used to be an avid runner but that was years ago. It feels pretty good. When the heat comes this summer I may have to make adjustments for my MS but for now I am going with it.