October 06, 2012

Homemade Solar Food Dehydrator

After picking grapes yesterday, I panicked, realizing I had way more than I knew what to do with. These are seedless green grapes, not good for wine, and not very good for juice either. Perfect for raisins, however. So, I searched around my place for whatever I could find that would work for a dehydrator. I managed to put this completely together in a couple of hours from bits and pieces I already had around the place. I started with the base of an old chest of drawers. I turned it upside down, which worked perfectly since it had no bottom panel or legs.
 The bottom most section, which would have been the top drawer opening, I covered with a piece of window screen for the bottom vent. I used a piece of greenhouse plastic to cover the two tray area openings. I just stapled it to two lengths of slatting, so that it could be lifted easily when putting food in and out. I put a little toggle on one corner to hold it secure in a breeze.
 I had an old coffee table top made out of safety glass that I used for the top. It is bigger than the box but heavy so sits securely just by it's own weight.

I cut two holes in the back at the top and covered them with small pieces of window screen. This completes the venting.
I put two old barbeque racks on the drawer supports and covered the top one with a tea towel since  I didn't have any cheese cloth. I am trying this out to make sure the raisins don't stick too bad to the tea towel. I will look into getting food safe metal screen for drying other types of food. 
It's homely, but seems to be functional. I will assess the situation after the first couple of days and see if anything needs to be adjusted.

September 27, 2012

Building a chicken tractor. 

With the influx of new baby chicks this summer, extra chicken "families" needed a separate area from the older chickens. I decided to stop gazing longingly at other peoples chicken tractors and build one myself. With the help of my son, we did just that.
First, I looked around the yard to find all scrap lumber and bits and pieces that could possibly be used. The size and shape of the tractor was determined by what I found. Firstly, we started by building a simple A-frame.
Next, we built a platform for the nest area and a little off-the-ground porch for them when it rains. Two hatches were added for access to the nest for cleaning, and the bottom for food and water.
Chicken wire was carefully and tightly stapled on over the whole structure.
We put on a partial roof with some left over metal roofing from the chicken house.
Hinged doors were added to the hatches (the hinges were the only thing I had to buy for this project).
I found an old garden cart that was rusting away in a grass pile. The tires were perfect for this. They should be mounted slightly above ground so that when you tip it up, they touch but otherwise don't hold the structure above ground surface when it is sitting down.
Little Black Hen and her chicks were delighted that they could peck, scratch and eat grass to their heart's content.
It is now parked close to the big chicken run in the back, so that they can all adapt to each other without worry of pecking and fighting.
This was such a fun and successful project, I want to build another one for next spring. The only difference would be a large person-sized hatch at one end so that if there is ever a reason to get in there, (to help a sick chicken, for instance)  it makes it possible when only one person is at home.

June 18, 2012

Building a wood burning adobe oven

I attended an adobe oven building workshop over the last two weekends at Under Belly Farm, owned by Peter McAllister just outside of Kaslo, BC. It was fun, informative and I feel very confident that I can build one in my own back yard. I wanted to share the photos I took and a very quick rundown of what we did. For indepth instructions, there are many books available to help you get the proportions correct for the adobe. Our instructor was Spring Shine, an amazing artist from Argenta, BC. Click on the photos to see them bigger.
First, Peter built a platform out of logs and lumber to hold the oven at a comfortable height for working:

The mixture of sand, mud, straw and water is worked with bare feet on a tarp:

The first layer of adobe is the base on the foundation:

Then add layer of broken tempered glass (from old automobiles) is spread out for insulation:

Next, a deep layer of sand that will hold the fire bricks on the bottom of the oven:

And the nicely placed fire bricks:

A willow cage is constructed to hold the adobe while it sets:

At this point it looks like a giant beaver dam:

Brick arch is formed for the doorway to the oven:

After two more layers of adobe for insulation, the final layer is made with sifted sand, and screened mud:

 The straw was chopped up fine so that the finish is smooth on the oven:

We decided to incorporate some art to the structure, so a beautiful dragon was sculpted with the adobe and some rocks:

The site had lovely green stones, so I searched until I found his eyes:

The work of art has to dry for at least three days before the first firing:

I can't wait to return and try out some pizza and bread in the oven! This project was built entirely out of local materials, with a little hard work and some great new friends. The result is an oven that will last for many decades or longer if protected from the rain. Imagine how much great food this can create!
For more info on Spring, check out his websites here:
For more workshops in the future, check out Under Belly Farm here:

June 01, 2012

Re-purposing~ Getting resourceful in the garden.

If you look around your place, you will find many things that can have a second life in the garden. Here are a few things I use:
Old untreated fence posts were used to create raised beds. Here I have pumpkins and cucumbers planted.
More of those fence posts are used here for a compost bed. This is for chicken manure/straw, grass clippings and fall leaves. When it gets composted enough, I will plant some potatoes to speed it up.
I found 4 of these metal corners used in construction to make a pyramid for the garden. Usually, I put pole beans on this, but this year I have tall pole snow peas. I used garden twine to make supports for the peas as they grow.
I kept all the fruit tree prunings and use some for row markers, some for tomatoe supports. A couple of big ones make great walking sticks. I keep a pile of them handy, they are great for so many things around the place.
To stretch the room in the garden, I put pots of herbs and greens at the end of the rows. I have cilantro, basil, lettuce, and kale all in flower pots. They can be moved around as needed, look good and add a bit of versatility to the garden space.
I used an old under-the-bed drawer (the inside part) to plant garlic in last fall. It was easy to cover it with a bit of chicken wire over the winter to keep out animals from digging in it. It warmed and thawed earlier than the other parts of the garden. Since I have no soil, only rocks and weed grass over this whole part of my yard, all plantings have to be in raised beds or boxes like this.
All these tomatoes are planted in cracked clay pots. One even has a big hole on the side. I put landscaping cloth inside them to hold the pressure of the soil and water, hopefully getting a couple more years out of these pots. The tomatoes seem to love them.
Happy gardening, everyone!

March 30, 2012

Community Supported Agriculture and Bread

A few years ago, I joined the local community supported agriculture program. I was able to buy grains that were grown without chemicals in a 50 mile zone from my place. I received 20 pound bags of hard spring wheat, soft winter wheat, spelt, khorasan, and oats. I bought my shares before the crops were even planted to ensure that the farmers would be paid even if there were crop failures due to weather or other natural disasters. The grains were brought up the lake from the farms by sailboats owned by local folks that all donated their time. After that first year, the CSA program grew so big that not all the crops could be brought by sailboat, but the intent of leaving as small a carbon footprint as possible is still adhered to. This year, in addition to the wheat varieties, I received lentils, dried peas, and rye.

I researched grain mills and eventually decided on the Country Living one pictured here, as it uses metal plates to grind the grains. Stone mills leave tiny bits of stone in the flour and certain other kinds over-heat the flour thus reducing the nutrition. I urge anyone looking to buy a grain mill to do your own research. They are an expensive investment and you want to be sure of getting one that is fully suited to your needs.

The grains need to be picked over and sorted as occasionally there are tiny pebbles or clods of soil. I know that some people might not want to spend the time doing this, but I can't think of a better use of time than providing my family with amazing food that is more healthy than can ever be bought in a store. Once you have a system down pat, it really doesn't take more than a few minutes to sort enough grain for a batch of bread. You are ensuring the highest quality flour and protecting the grinding surfaces of the mill.

The flour is excellent quality and should be used within 12 hours of grinding for the optimum nutritional value. I use mine immediately after milling it. It took a while but I now know exactly how much to use in my recipes so that there is none left over.

The new rye grain is soft, sweet and makes the best rye bread I've ever had. This is the recipe I use:

Caraway Rye Bread

  • 1 tbsp of yeast (mixed in with a cup of the flour)

  • 2 cups (quite) warm water

  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar

  • 2 tablespoons caraway seed (1 tbsp ground in a spice or coffee grinder)

  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil

  • 2 teaspoons sea salt

  • 3 1/2 cups whole rye flour

  • 2 cups organic all-purpose flour (I buy mine in large quantities from our local co-op)

Mix down the usual way for instant yeast. I make my loaves round and slash the top for an old-world esthetic. Warm out of the oven and served with cheese, nothing is better.

If there is a community supported agriculture program near where you live, I urge you to participate. It supports the farmers, local food initiatives and empowers us to be a part of the decisions regarding one of the most important parts of our lives- food. Baking your own bread from scratch is the ultimate slow food- and worth every minute.

March 19, 2012

The Hardworking Potatoe Compost

I made a foot of beautiful dark soil the year before last, and this is how: I piled four feet of leaves up into a wooden frame style compost bin. The leaves were maple, poplar, and a few cherry leaves with some other bits such as lilac, plum, grass rakings and so on, mixed in. It was at least 4 feet high when I first piled all the leaves in there. I had to hose them with water and squish them down to get them all to fit.
Next, I piled on about 4 to 6 inches of rotted cow manure. I figured the manure would help compost the leaves quicker. Then, my cousin came over with a bag of seed potatoes he had left over from his planting. I thought "what the heck" and buried the seed potatoes about an inch or two down in the rotted manure. I had heard that potatoes will condition bad soil so I thought maybe there is a little magic in potatoe roots. I watered the whole pile occasionally when it didn't rain, but pretty much left it alone. The potatoe plants grew 2 to 3 feet high! I thought "wow, I wonder if we will get any potatoes".
Well, at the end of the summer, the pile had shrunk down a couple of feet but there were very few potatoes to speak of. However, by the next spring, it had shrunk again to about 12 inches of rich black compost that smelled nice and earthy. All the leaves were decomposed, and I hadn't chopped or mowed them at all. (lazy)
So, I can't be 100% certain, but I think the potatoe roots did a magical thing and sped up the composting process. The spuds and leaves were free, the cow manure was cheap, and the result was priceless. I'm going to repeat that again this year for comparison purposes. I'll let you know how it turns out.

March 15, 2012

Edible Landscaping- go graze in your yard.

Edible landscaping is slowly taking a hold in urban areas. It makes sense to use all available space to create food especially when there are so many people in inner city areas that don't have access to good nutrition. I want to talk about edible landscaping in your own back yard where you can grow more food than you ever thought possible outside of your veggie garden. When you think about it, it is really easy to make alternative choices when putting in trees and plants around your home and yard.

Flowers that are beautiful and edible are nasturtiums , violets, marigolds, and all herbs can do double duty as many have delicious flowers such as chives, lavender, and marjoram. The list of edible flowers is long, so do your research.

Accent plantings around buildings can be berry bushes such as gooseberries, seabuckthorn, blueberries and currents. They might need a little pruning to keep the shape you want. Tall bushes and shrub trees can be elderberries seen here, and figs.

Treescaping should include fruit and nut trees, such as apple, plum, cherry, walnut, and hazelnut.

If you have a patio area that is too hot to be fully enjoyable, cover it with a trellis and grape or kiwi vines. It will be transformed into a cool, green grotto.

Paths around the garden and leading to the house can be lined with kale, ornamental cabbage, lettuce and herbs. Often paths around houses are shady so using lettuce is ideal. There is such a huge variety of lettuce with different colours, shapes and flavours, it is a wasted opportunity to not use it for accent.

Backdrop plants that can be a bit taller could be wispy dill or garlic. Both are excellent for pest control. Dill attracts aphids which in turn attract lady bugs, one of the best garden bugs to have. The dill could be a sacrifice plant, as even if it's covered in aphids, it looks fine and is attracting aphids away from other plants. Garlic is wonderful to plant with roses as it repels all kinds of pests. The garlic makes beautiful big flower heads in late summer and is an attractive background plant.

If you have a plain wire fence between your neighbour's place and yours, a great way to provide privacy is to plant scarlet runner beans all along it. The bright orange/red flowers last a long time, and the result is mountains of vegetables you can share with your neighbour.

Think about removing some (or all) of your lawn and replacing with a low maintenance ground cover such as orange scented thyme. It can't take heavy traffic but it is lovely to brush against to get a burst of gorgeous scent.

If you like to have pots flanking your front door or leading up your stairs, planting them with a bush type of cherry tomatoe, purple basil, variegated lettuce, and maybe a flower or two, you have a fully edible accent you can nibble on as you leave or return home. I did pots with only kale one year for a green accent, they were beautiful. The small leaves are tender to eat fresh, and the larger plants are perfect for cooked dishes.

A couple of years ago we planted an amazing Moon Garden with all white flowers. It was lovely but I wanted something more edible so last year I planted it with white variety pumpkins. Of course the leaves were green and it didn't glow in the dark until the leaves had died down showing off the glowing white pumpkins but it seemed a fitting tribute to the Moon.