Monday, April 29, 2013

Seedling Update

Every single Jerusalem artichoke and Russian Comfrey that I planted earlier this year has either come up, or is coming up now. 100% success rate, not bad. I hope there is an interest in useful perennial plants in my area. If not I will have a lot of planting to do. If anyone who reads this blog wants some, let me know. I will give you a reader discount. 

Hello! You found my secret message! Words of wisdom: 'Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly' Thomas Jefferson

The indoor plants are doing great. I picked up some clearance plants at the local box store for next to nothing. You should check the back of the outdoor plant section at your local box store. Everyday they put plants they want to get rid of on racks and deeply discount them. I paid a dollar for each of these flats of marigolds. 

With our busy schedules, it is hard to find time to harden off our plants. I wanted to have my brassicas in the ground by now. Depending on the extended forecast, we may try to get a headstart on the season by planting next weekend. Around here, Mother's day is the safe time to plant every year. I want to try to push it up a week. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Oh No You Don't!

I have recently discovered a pest that only eats asparagus, and it is in my garden! It has a rather benign name, the Common Asparagus Beetle (Crioceris asparagi). These little buggers can breed two to three times in a season and the adults will overwinter in the asparagus patch. The adults and the larvae will both eat the plant. I didn't go Chuck Norris on them when I first discovered them, because I had not identified them. They could have been a beneficial insect for all I knew. Boy was I wrong.

Now that I have positively identified them, the gloves are coming off, this is war.  I didn't plant my asparagus patch and wait three years to eat it, to have these mono-diet Coleoptera monsters eat it all. They look cool though, sorta like a badass ladybug.  

These beetles will eat every part of the asparagus plant above ground. You can see bite marks all over this stalk. If you look closely at the bottom of  this picture, you will see an asparagus leaf with a hole in it. These are some of the smartest beetles I have come across. They seem to sense my presence and play, ring around the asparagus stalk, whenever I get close.  

You can see the eggs of the beetle all over this stalk. The eggs hatch in three to eight days.The grubs will then feed on the tips of the stalks. As soon as the grubs are mature they drop to the ground and pupate in an earthen cell. The adult will emerge from this cell and start the whole process over again. This cycle can happen two to three times a season. Thankfully, there is a natural predator for the common asparagus beetle. It is a small parasitic wasp called Tetrastichus asparagi. This tiny wasp will lay about six of its own eggs in each asparagus beetle egg it finds. I hope to see some this year.

The eggs are often laid in rows of two to eight. They are easy to kill at this point. They almost pop when you touch them. In a small home asparagus patch like mine, you can manually manage the infestation by visiting your patch and removing beetles and eggs everyday until they are gone. You will have to keep an eye on your patch later in the season to make sure no other beetles fly in and re-infest. You want to cut the leftover stalks to the ground so the beetles have less to lay their eggs on. I have read some people burn their dried out asparagus patches in the winter or early spring to kill the overwintering adults. Seems like that might hurt your crowns, but it appears to work from the multiple sources I have read.

One way to manage them is knocking the beetles into a glass of soapy water. I found they almost sense what you are about to do and drop to the ground when you get close to them. After losing about five this way, I decided to just grab them in my fingers and dispatch them. Squishing them is much more satisfying than soapy water, but both methods work. Large scale operations use pesticides to manage the problem, but if you have a home patch or two, manually removing them should work. 

This is what it is all about. Fresh, healthy and free vegetables growing with minimal input, year after year. We had asparagus wrapped in bacon last night for dinner. It was worth every minute I spent planting, weeding and protecting my asparagus patch.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Serviceberry and The Rambunctious Raspberry

Our Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is leafing out and will be flowering soon. The flowers will turn into blueberry like berries in the summer. This is a great shrub and will grow into a tree if given the right conditions. It has been known to reach over 60 ft in height. I plan on putting more Serviceberry in the front yard, which I am slowly turning into a food forest. 

I bought 6 flats of strawberries at the local box store on clearance last year. They are apparently very cold hardy because I did not mulch them at all. They came through the winter looking this good. 

Here are some bunching onions that had no problem overwintering in one of our raised beds. I got some egyptian walking onion seed this year and plan on letting it go in the yard. 

We love leeks. These two did just fine through the winter. A quick tip: when you go to harvest leeks, green onions or celery just cut the plant off at ground level, leaving the roots and the bottom of the plant in the ground. In the case of leeks, you will see the rings turn green and start to push up. This will eventually grow into another leek for you. You can do this many times. I am not sure how many, but I have not had one not grow back yet.

Thyme is a very hardy perennial. I am going to move it out of this raised bed and give it a permanent home nearby. We made the mistake of planting some perennials in our raised beds that would be better suited for annual food crops. 

This is horseradish. I ate some last year and it is very spicy. If you really want to process a lot of horseradish you should use a food processor to shred it and then change the blade out to puree the shredded root. Add salt and vinegar and you will have some wonderful horseradish. This can be stored in a sterile jar in the fridge for up to three months. 

We inherited a thornless red raspberry plant from our good friends Mike and Heather. This thing went crazy in their backyard and they were tired of cutting it back. They had a huge pile of canes they cut down in the corner of their yard. I have planted it in an area that I want it to go crazy. I can't wait to get some raspberries. This picture was taken four days after I planted it. I don't think they were exaggerating about its vigour. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Asparagus and Spider Condos

I am so excited to harvest our three year old asparagus patch. For those that do not know; asparagus is planted in late fall / early winter with the first shoots appearing the next spring. Conventional wisdom says you should not harvest asparagus the first two springs to allow the crowns to get well established. I have been very patient with our asparagus patch the last two springs (okay, I ate one or two shoots) but this year, asparagus is on the menu. Our asparagus patch should produce every spring for the next 20 years or so. I plan on putting in two more beds this fall.

History lesson:

Asparagus is pictured in an ancient Egyptian stone carving from 3000 BC as an offering to the gods. The Romans would harvest it in the spring and carry it high into the alps to freeze it. They would keep it there until the feast of Epicurus. Asparagus is known to some as "sparrow-grass". It is a good companion plant for tomatoes. I am going to plant a tomato in the middle of my asparagus bed this year and see if they do well together. 

The peas I planted in early march are finally coming up. I am not having a good germination rate. I believe this is due to a very bad cold snap we had after I planted. I love peas, so I hope I get a good harvest this spring.

This plant is so hardy. I put a spade shovel in the middle of it early this spring and harvested about half of the roots. It doesn't care at all. Russian Comfrey belongs in everyone's garden. It is a dynamic accumulator, bringing hard to reach nutrients to the surface and into your compost. It can also be used as a shredded mulch or side dressing. 

I planted a few thousand white clover seeds a couple weeks ago. They are coming up all over an area where I killed the grass off. I hope they spread everywhere.

Seeking roommate, preferably a fly or other soft bodied insect to share a one bedroom condo with sunroof and large attached deck. Situated in a small community of early spring flowers. Praying mantis need not apply. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Soap Making

Making soap is one of those things most people think is hard to do and not worth the time. Soap is so fast and easy to make, it is definitely worth making your own. If you make your own soap you have control of every aspect from hardness, lather and scent among other things. I hope I can convince you to give it a try.

DISCLAIMER: Making soap involves handling lye (sodium hydroxide) which is a very strong alkali that is water soluble. When water is mixed with lye it creates a very caustic basic solution. This means it will seriously burn your skin, eyes or lungs if handled improperly. Please do your own research before you make soap. This post is for informational purposes only, not a 'how to' make your own soap.

Okay, with that out of the way let me tell you a little bit about the history of soap making.

The earliest known soap making formula dates back to 2200 BC from ancient Babylon. The Babylonians would boil animal fats and wood ash to produce soap for cleaning wools and cotton. As time went on the art of soap making was perfected and most cultures produced some form of soap. Ancient Egyptians around 1550 BC had writings referring to the use of animal and vegetable oils mixed with alkaline salts to produce soap like substances. Around the 8th century soap making was well known in places like Italy and Spain. France started making soap with olive oil instead of animal fat around this time as well. Fragrances were added to soap eventually, and modern handmade soap took shape. 

Soap is really a salt of a fatty acid. Here is a chemical drawing if you are interested.

Soap is simple to understand when you break it down to what you need to make it. Water, lye and fat. Thats it. The ratios and measurements have to be very precise, but if you can bake a cake you can make soap. You need other items to complete the process like a soap mold pictured here, cat approved. I made this mold in about 10 minutes using scrap wood in the garage. You can use almost anything that will hold liquid. However, lye will react with aluminum, magnesium, galvanized zinc, tin, chromium, brass, and bronze to produce hydrogen gas. You should avoid anything made of those materials. I recommend lining whatever you use with plastic wrap, it is much easier to get the soap out when it is solid. 

This is our soap making kit. It all fits neatly into a tote. In order to get accurate measurements of lye, fat and water you will need a scale. I recommend a digital scale like the one pictured here. You will also need an immersion mixer if you don't want to stir for an hour. You can get a cheap one under $20 anywhere, don't use it for anything else once you start making soap with it. You will also need a dedicated pot large enough to mix your batch in safely. You will need a good thermometer as well. I find a decent meat thermometer that can be calibrated works just fine. I always calibrate mine before making soap with a glass of ice water.

Safety is very important. Always wear gloves, long sleeves and eye protection. The mix can splatter if you are not careful with the immersion mixer. If you do get some raw soap mix (not saponified yet) on you,  you should rinse with copious amounts of water. After you get the splatter off of your skin you can then rinse with distilled 5% white vinegar. I know this creates an exothermic reaction, but it will also lower the pH at the burn site. I wash with a ton of water, then treat with white distilled vinegar, then rinse again with water. Of course this is just what I do and not advice, do your own research. When you do, you will find this is a highly debated topic in the soap making world. Some say water, some say vinegar, I say both.  This size pot works for the batch size we usually make. You want the walls to be high enough to catch any splatter. 

We had some friends over for a soap making dinner party and made four batches of soap. The bottom one is a coconut oil soap with black coconut fragrance oil. Above that is an olive oil based soap with sandalwood essential oil and turmeric for color. The green ones are one batch of olive oil soap with tea tree oil and spirulina for color. And the one on the top is a hypoallergenic bar made for a friends wife. That bar is 100% olive oil with no fragrance. 

You can see the great color turmeric gives a soap. There are many things you can add to soap to give texture or color. I have made soap with coffee instead of water, worked great. Spirulina, beet juice, red cabbage water, black walnut hull and many other things can used to give your soap natural coloring. Oatmeal, ground dry herbs and coffee grounds can also be added to soap to give it exfoliating properties. 

This bar is more expensive than the others due to using coconut oil as the main oil. You can use many different fats to make soap. I like using rendered lard. It makes a nice hard bar with good lather. We use many different oils like olive, canola, coconut, and shea butter. I want to get my hands on some rendered deer tallow to make a hunting soap. 

The process we use to make soap is called cold process. You start by figuring out your amounts of water, fats, and lye for the size batch you want to make. We try to base our recipies off how much lye we use. Typically each of our batches uses 5 to 5.5 ounces of lye. We use a website called Here is a link to their lye calculator. 

A quick note. I am purposely not putting a recipe on this post. If you find a recipe please run it through soapcalc first before you try to make it. Soapcalc puts in a idiot proof variable so you do not make a soap that will burn you or your loved ones. This variable is called superfatting. Using a superfat calculation in your recipes will make your soap safe and always on the side of caution.

So, once we have figured out our amounts, we mix the lye and water together in a container. We do this first because mixing water and sodium hydroxide causes a chemical reaction that releases more heat than you need. You will have to let the lye / water mix cool down before you can mix it with your fats. You want to use a heat-resistance plastic or glass container to mix your lye and water. Do not use aluminum! The same rules I described earlier about soap molds apply to your lye / water mixing vessel.

A note of caution: Mix your lye and water outside! The fumes are very bad if inhaled! Make sure you pour your lye into the water not the other way around!

Okay, so once you have mixed your lye into the water, you will have to mix it up with a heat-resistant plastic spoon, the mixture will heat up close to 200 degrees fahrenheit. You need to let this cool down to 110 degrees fahrenheit to mix with your fat of choice.

While your lye / water solution is cooling, heat your fats up in the pot you will be mixing in. You want to bring your fats to 110 degrees fahrenheit. It is kinda tricky to get them both to 110 degrees fahrenheit at the same time, just remember you can heat and cool oil all you want. You really shouldn't heat your lye / water, we never have, so make sure your fats are ready to go when your lye / water solution is at 110 degrees fahrenheit. 

So now that you have both your fats and lye / water mix at 110 degrees fahrenheit you are ready to mix. This is a two person job ideally. One person is ready in safety gear with the immersion mixer. The other person, in safety gear, pours the lye / water mix slowly into the pot (off the heat) while the other person mixes them together. Depending on the recipe, your soap can take 5 to 20 minutes to get to trace. Trace is when you move the mixer through the soap and you see a visible trail left for more than a few seconds. You can also pull the mixer out and if the peak of soap you made takes a while to settle back into the mix you have reached trace.

You have just done something with a fancy name, saponification. Saponification is the process of fats being hydrolyzed into free fatty acids, which combine with alkali to form soap.

Once you hit trace you can add your essential oils and any other adjuncts to the soap. If you are adding oatmeal this is the time. Mix everything together and pour your soap into your mold. Clean your gear and you are done.

Wait about 3 to 7 days depending on the recipe, and remove your soap from the mold. You can cut your soap at this point. Let it sit out uncovered to cure for a couple weeks. Some people will use it before this point but we always err on the side of caution. 

If you have any questions leave a comment. If you know us personally, just ask to come over some night and we will make soap.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Great Organization. Had To Share.

We normally don't use the blog to promote anything other than ourselves. =) But, Dara and I really believe this organization is doing good in the world and wanted to pass on the info.

The organization is called Kiva.

Basically you search through Kiva's database of farmers, artists, entrepreneurs, teachers and many others, for people you want to give a loan to. Once you find someone you want to loan to, you set up an account and loan them money. The repayment rate is 99.01%. You don't even have to use your own money for the first loan. If you use either of the links below, a wealthy Kiva sponsor will give you $25 to make your first loan. This isn't charity, these are loans that are paid back from the people you choose to help.

I loaned money to a guy in the Ukraine to build another greenhouse on his property. My second loan went to a guy who wants to buy a new tractor in Kosovo. Dara lent money to a woman in the Philippines who needs manure fertilizer for her coconut farm.

Give it a try, its free and makes you feel good! Plus, if you make a free loan you can send a link to others to make free loans and you will get another $25 to donate. This is win win, you feel good and someone who needs help making a living gets a helping hand.

This is from Kiva's "about us" page:

We are a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world. Learn more about how it works.
Since Kiva was founded in 2005:
  • 917,796 Kiva lenders

  • $420,234,775in loans

  • 99.01% Repayment rate
We work with:
  • 192 Field Partners

  • 450 volunteers around the world

  • 67 different countries

Monday, April 8, 2013

Projects And Stuff

I heard the tree frogs last night; I don't think they will be quiet anytime soon. With the days longer and the temps mild, I plan on getting a lot of early plants in the ground and finishing / starting some projects around the homestead. 

So I still need to finish the dog house. I have the insulation in and I have sealed it in with silicone. Next step is to put the interior walls on and build the detachable roof. Once I get this built we will be going pound shopping for a few good pups.

Sometimes you have to take a step back and enjoy the little things. Friends, tree swings and alcohol. =)

Our ferocious house guardian Err. He is enjoying a brief moment of freedom playing on the leaf pile. 

Here is the garden, mostly prepped for the spring planting. I can't wait for some fresh garden veggies. We are trying some new varieties this year. We only started 40 or so tomato plants this year!

Dara planted this bed a couple weeks ago. She planted Peas and radishes. We will harvest them and plant other things in succession as the gardening season progresses. 

I have a couple projects going on here. I got this 3 tub concrete sink for free on Craigslist. I plan on building a concrete counter with the sink incorporated next to the garage. This will be a game cleaning station for rabbits, fish, squirrel etc... I want to put some rain barrels on the back of the garage and plumb them into the sink. 

The glass structure in the back is a greenhouse that used to be attached to a house. I plan on building a small greenhouse in the garden this year. I should be able to keep growing greens and other veggies longer into the fall once I set this up. 

Grab your boots, some water, walk out our front door and you can be here in 20 minutes. This area of Caesar Creek is beautiful. We went on a night hike here this weekend, and then came back the next day. We made a good decision buying a house in this area. We are very lucky to have such a wonderful stretch of forest in our front yard. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Homestead Is Waking Up

I have been spending more and more time outside recently. The garden is quiet but, some things are waking up. Walking around the yard with a glass of wine yesterday, I felt the stress of the day to day easing and I realized how good gardening and nature make me feel. 

If you do not garden I suggest giving it a try. Even the most ambitious gardening plans are cheaper than a shrink.

This is a mini greenhouse I made to give the Russian Comfrey and Jerusalem Artichokes a head start. I really want to build a proper greenhouse so I can start gardening even earlier.  

I pulled a few Comfrey starts out to check the growth. They are doing very well. The Jerusalem Artichokes are not coming up yet, but I have no worries they will.

Here is a close up of the a Comfrey start. I wasn't very gentle with mother plant. I just put a spade shovel in the middle of it and stepped down. It is amazing how well this plant splits and grows.

This big brown spot in my yard was put there intentionally. I raked all my fall leaves into a big pile and left them there to kill the grass all winter. I recently raked them off the dead spot so I could plant some white clover. I am trying to get large clover patches established in the yard to harvest for future livestock. 

Here is the garlic bed. They did very well overwintering despite me not mulching them. I can't wait to harvest some scapes soon.

Here is a close up of the garlic. I have 6 heirloom varieties growing, 3 hardneck and 3 softneck. 

The Rosa Rugosa is budding out. I have this rose in multiple locations on the property. I enjoyed the rose hip tea I made last year. I plan on propagating some runners and planting it in more spots this year. 


Finally, after trying for two years, I got some rhubarb established. It looks so healthy and vibrant, I can't wait to make some strawberry rhubarb gluten free pie!

Here is our golden raspberry. We only got a few off of the plant last year. This will be the second year and I hope it goes crazy. Golden raspberries are so sweet and plump. I will definitely be propagating this to plant around the property.