Countdown

Our new book comes out just about a month–April 26th–and today two super-advance copies came to us by mail. Believe me, it’s awfully strange to see something that has existed only as computer files suddenly materialize on your porch!
We realize we haven’t given our new book a formal introduction yet, so here goes. 

Making It: Radical Home-Ec for a Post Consumer World is our follow up to The Urban Homestead.

The way we see it, The Urban Homestead was less a how-to book and more a “why should I?” Its purpose was to get people excited about this homesteadish stuff, and see that they could work toward self-reliance, no matter where they lived. Making It is a pure how-to book: Project #1 – #70.  There’s no chit-chat or opinionating. Its focus is on making the home an engine of production rather than consumption.
The book is a little eccentric (like us) because it covers a wide range of subjects, everything from lotion to compost bins to beekeeping. So it’s not the ultimate resource on any one subject, but it is an excellent place to get started on a wide range of self-reliant activities. Since it’s about so many different things, we arranged the projects by difficulty, as well as by how often they must be done, rather than subject matter. This means the fast and easy projects are in the front, and the more complicated, infrastructure-type projects in back.
This book was designed by the very talented Roman Jaster, and illustrated by the amazing Teira Johnson. As a result, it’s fresh and modern and easy to use. Our publisher is the esteemed House of Rodale. The whole team did a great job. It’s really pretty. And though it’s a paperback, it feels solid. Like you’re getting something for your money.
Here’s a couple of page spreads (excuse the layout marks) to give you an idea of what it looks like inside:
Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have it available for pre-order. I was shocked to see that though the cover price is $19.99, they’re both selling it for $12.14. I’m not sure if this is a pre-order special, or if that’s where they’ll keep it, but it’s a wicked good deal. Not that we don’t support indie bookstores!!! Including big ones, like Powells.

Obligatory Cute Chick Post

Look, it’s just that time of year. We have to live with it.

We have no chicks this year. Our ladies are not maternal, they have no male companionship, and we’ve made no chick missions to the feedstore. These pics are from our neighbors’ house. Anne and Bill have a menagerie of ridiculously cute small animals. You recall the pea eating Chihuahua?

Among their collection are a pair broody little Silkies, who are old-timers on their micro farm, and a new bantam hen–the tiniest chicken I’ve ever seen, hands down–who ended up in their yard somehow or another a couple of months ago. She’s not in these pictures because she’s not a very involved mother (not that I’m judging). After her arrival, this new hen received several brief but scandalous visits (not that I’m judging) from a very small rooster who breached the fence, coming and going like the gigolo he is as he pleased, leaving the World’s Tiniest Hen with a pile of tiny, potentially fertilized eggs.

She just sort of left the eggs under some leaves and went about her business, so Neighbor Anne decided to give the eggs to her Silkies, because she knows those gals are rabid incubators. They’ve incubated kittens. Seriously.

The shock-headed Silkies, who remind me of spinster sisters in Victorian novels, took to their new charges with gusto, bickered over the eggs, scratching them to and fro in the nest, both eager to incubate them to term.

In the end, 3 eggs hatched and I went over there the next day to check out the scene. If you want to see pics from the first night, check out Neighbor Bill’s blog.

See, what we’ve got here is an extreme cuteness overload. What’s missing in these pics is scale. Those hens are not full sized hens, and the chick is smaller than regular chicks. Also, Silkies don’t have feathers so much as they have downy fluff. Imagine, if you will, the world’s tiniest chicks surfing in a sea of marabou feathers, coming up to surface, and then diving deep again.

 

You can fit all three chicks in one hand. I think two will look like their mom, and one like the Mysterious Stranger.

I became a little obsessed with the idea that the stripey ones look like chipmunks. Then I found a cat toy on the floor which was a chipmunk. Imagine my delight: CHICKMUNK!


Hippie Heart Horizontal

Mrs. Homegrown here:
So I was wrong about the rains in that self-pitying post I wrote a week or two ago. They came again. (But this time, I really do think this is our last spate of rain.) It was a strong, blustery storm and it laid our flax flat. The poor hippie heart.

It had just started to bloom. Those little blue flowers turn to pods. Each pod holds a few seeds. That’s where flax seeds come from. As a city girl, I find this very impressive. Even more mind blowing is to look at these stalks and realize linen is made from them.

Flax is notorious for falling over from its own weight if not planted close together or supported. Rosalind Creasy, queen of the attractive edible garden, makes metal grids for her flax to grow through so it stays upright. I’d been trusting the universe. And the universe worked, until the storm. They might fluff up again when they dry. Or I might go out and see if I can encourage them into verticality.

If I can’t, I’ll harvest the stems, rot them, pound them, learn to spin, learn to weave, and make one square inch of linen.

Concord grape, newborn and amazing

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This lovely thing is a newborn, unfurling Concord grape leaf. I had no idea it would be so beautiful. Why the crazy pink? Why does it look like it was dipped in sugar?

Even more amazing is that this event, though spectacular, is tiny. The Concord grape in question is a presently a 10-inch high stick, newly planted bare root stock, almost invisible. Only the flash of color caught my attention today and drew me to it to inspect. That this stick is suddenly bearing sugary pink wonders seems like a miracle.

Wish us luck with this grape. It is meant to shade our back porch. However, we’re beset by the sharpshooters, and the disease they carry (ever wonder why SoCal doesn’t grow wine?) which killed the first vine we planted, and then proceeded to kill the second one we planted, even though that one was supposed to be resistant to that blight–leaving us without summer shade on the porch for…how many years now? Fingers crossed that this grape will thrive, and grow from 10 inches high to 10 feet high and spreading.

Harvesting and Drying Calendula

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Okay, so in a previous post I talked about growing Calendula. This post I’m going to talk about harvesting and drying it. The next post I’ll do on the topic will be about making a skin-healing salve from the dried petals, olive oil and beeswax.

When to harvest: 
Start harvesting your Calendula as soon as the first flush of flowers is in full bloom. Don’t try to “save” the flowers. The more you harvest, the more flowers each plant will put out.  After the first cutting, you can probably return to harvest more every 3 days or so.
The ideal time to harvest is in the morning, before it gets warm, but after the dew dries. You want them all fresh and perky and at their peak. This is traditional wisdom. However, I believe it’s better to harvest when you can than not at all, so I harvest at all times of day.
A side note regarding seeds:
If you don’t harvest the heads, they die back on their own, and then they’ll go to seed fast. If you don’t like the idea of Calendula volunteering all over your yard the following year, you’ll want to collect all the heads before they die back. However, you may also want to monitor them carefully and collect ripe seed for planting the next year (you want to collect the seed when it’s brown, not green).  And if you want to keep track of such things, if you make a point of saving seed only from the plants with the best blooms, your favorite colors, etc., over generations you can breed your own line of Calendula.
Alien beauty. A seed head in its early stages. The seeds are the green things that look like bugs.
What parts to harvest:
I harvest the flower heads only, though I understand that the foliage has much the same properties as the flowers. If I were short on plants, and knew I’d get few flowers, I’d harvest and dry the leaves to make up that lack. Given a choice, though, I prefer the flowers, just because they’re good for cooking and decoration as well as my salves. People used to eat Calendula leaves (they’re known as “pot marigolds” because they used to go into the cooking pot), but I’ve tasted them, and I don’t think I’ll be making them part of my diet unless I have to.
To harvest, I either pinch off the heads or cut off the heads with scissors. This often leaves a long, beheaded stem behind. That stem can be trimmed back to the first set of leaves, for the sake of aesthetics. Or not. (ETA: A commenter recommends that you always cut the stem back to the first set of leaves, so the stem does not become a conduit for rot. Makes sense.)
How to dry:
Bring the flower heads indoors, into an area out of direct sunlight. Don’t wash the heads.

Spread the heads out face down on a dishtowel or a sheet or newspaper or for fancy, an old window screen stretched between two chairs. I find laying out the heads an oddly satisfying activity.
Of course, if you have a dehydrator you could use one of those. Calendula should never be subjected to high heat, so oven drying is out of the question. Set your dehydrator to 90-95 degrees F.  
If you’re air drying, turn the flowers over every so often. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
They’ll shrink quite a bit as they dry, so you’ll have room to keep adding fresh specimens as they come in.
When are they dry enough?:
They must be completely and absolutely dry before they go into storage. Believe me when I say this is important. A couple of years ago I was impatient and put a few chamomile buds which must have been not-quite-dry in to a jar with the rest of my (painstaking) chamomile harvest. The next time I opened that quart jar I got a big nasty whiff of mold. I almost cried.
So–the flowers must be dry. They should be fragile, crispy and very dry, like crepe paper. Make a habit of feeling them at different stages of drying to develop sensitivity in your finger tips. You’ll notice that when they’re not quite dry they’ll *look* dry but when you touch them they are a bit cool compared to a truly dry flower. In other words, you can feel the water in them. Leave those for another day or so.
The green part, the flower head to which the petals are attached, dries more slowly than the petals themselves, because it has a greater mass. Be cautious of this. If you’re going to store the heads whole, then you need to allow extra time for the green parts to dry.  Which brings me to the next item:
To pluck or not to pluck:
There isn’t a right or wrong here. Everybody does it different. 
If you plucked all the petals off the heads when you first brought them indoors, those petals would dry very fast. But that, in my frank opinion, would be a pain. It would be like playing a game of “He loves me, He loves me not” that lasted for hours.
If you want to leave the petals on the heads that’s fine. The heads (green parts) have medicinal properties too, so you can use them whole. The only thing is that you must make sure those heads are completely dry before you store them, as I said above.
What I do is is wait until the petals are dry, then I pluck them from the heads, to avoid the whole “is the head still damp?” issue. When the petals are dry, they come off the head very easy. In fact, the ease with which they come off the head is an indicator of their dryness. If they’re resistant at all, they’re not dry. To work in bulk, you can take a whole bunch of dry heads and put them in a bowl and rub them between your hands. The petals will fall off. The heads will collect at the bottom of the bowl, because they are much heavier than the petals. Or you can strip them by hand. When they’re dry, this only takes a single gesture.
Only the driest petals go in the jar. All that debris around the jar is stuff that’s not dry enough yet.
Can you use the flowers fresh?:
Yes. And no. Depends. The next step in this series of posts is the making of an oil infusion.  I never put anything “wet” in oil, because of the slight chance that botulinum toxin might develop in the oil.  Herbalists who I respect put fresh matter in oil nonetheless, and I envy them, because I suspect they’re getting more out of the plant by doing so. But I’m not going to take that risk–or write about it if I do. This is just safer. 
You can use the flowers fresh other ways. You can make them (and the foliage) into a tea, which you could use as a skin wash for sunburn or irritation–or drink. Fresh flowers could go into your bathwater to make a soothing bath. Fresh flowers can also be soaked in alcohol to make a tincture.  
Storage:
I keep my very dry herbs in sealed mason jars in a dark cupboard. You don’t want to expose any dried herb to sunlight for any length of time. I use jars because I don’t take any chances with pantry moths (it’s amazing what they’ll get into). The risk with jars, as I’ve said, is that if the herbs aren’t perfectly dry, you’ll get mold. This is why other people opt to keep their dried herbs in paper bags–bags breathe a bit, so lessen the chance of mold. This is a good option, too.
I try to switch out my dried herbs every year–at least the ones I grow. Some of the things in my cupboard are older than that. I think some herbs keep their properties longer than others, but in general you should try to use them in a year or so. Like spices, the are best fresh, but usable, if not as potent, as they age. 

Label and date all your herbs. Even if you think you’ll never forget, somehow or another you will, and at some future find yourself standing at your cupboard, holding a jar full of strange plant matter and saying to yourself, “What is this?”

Hugo, humanure and nettles

One of the original illustrations to Les Misérables (1862)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Anne, our neighbor with the pea-ravaging Chihuahua, brings to our attention the fact that Victor Hugo was a humanure enthusiast, and in fact dedicates long passages of Les Misérables to it.

This is taken from Volume V, Book 2 (The Intestine of the Leviathan), Chapter One, provided by Project Gutenberg:

Paris casts twenty-five millions yearly into the water. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? Day and night. With what object? With no object. With what intention? With no intention. Why? For no reason. By means of what organ? By means of its intestine. What is its intestine? The sewer.

Twenty-five millions is the most moderate approximative figure which the valuations of special science have set upon it.

Science, after having long groped about, now knows that the most fecundating and the most efficacious of fertilizers is human manure. The Chinese, let us confess it to our shame, knew it before us. Not a Chinese peasant—it is Eckberg who says this,—goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young as in the days of Abraham. Chinese wheat yields a hundred fold of the seed. There is no guano comparable in fertility with the detritus of a capital. A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.

What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss. 


Fleets of vessels are dispatched, at great expense, to collect the dung of petrels and penguins at the South Pole, and the incalculable element of opulence which we have on hand, we send to the sea. All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, restored to the land instead of being cast into the water, would suffice to nourish the world.

Those heaps of filth at the gate-posts, those tumbrels of mud which jolt through the street by night, those terrible casks of the street department, those fetid drippings of subterranean mire, which the pavements hide from you,—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, the green grass, wild thyme, thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle, they are the satisfied bellows of great oxen in the evening, they are perfumed hay, they are golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are joy, they are life. This is the will of that mysterious creation which is transformation on earth and transfiguration in heaven. 

I’ll stop there, but it goes on…and Anne says he brings it up again later.

As I recall, Hugo also had a thing for nettles….hey, wait a minute! Turns out that his rant about nettles is in Les Mis too:

One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: “They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!” He added, after a pause: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”



I’ve never read Les Misérables, but I’m beginning to think it should be required reading–just for his asides. It’s time to face my PTSD from the musical and embrace the book–all three billion pages of it.

Advances in Gardening Series: We’re maturing

November–seedlings new planted

January–all the foliage is in
End of February–the flowers really start to pop

Stuff grows. You just gotta remember to plant it!

A quick photo update on progress for the Phan of Pharmacy and the Hippie Heart, mostly for our own record keeping. Maybe it will inspire those of you surrounded by rain or snow with dreams of your own spring planting.

Back in November, I cleared ground and planted the Phan/Fan with medicinal seedlings. See some of that history here. Now we’re at the end of February, and the Calendula and chamomile plants are mature. The Calendula (the yellow flowers in the pic) is giving off lots of blossoms, the chamomile–not so much. That’s garlic growing on the far right. It’s beginning to brown at the tips, but I don’t think it’s going to be ready until May. The poppies, hidden in the back, are slow, and not near blossoming yet. Note the rogue borage in the foreground.

Meanwhile, the Hippie Heart, planted with flax in the center and lentils around the edges is coming along very well. It waves hi to the police helicopters overhead. The point of the Heart was to have a place where I could experiment with planting seeds, beans and spices right out of the pantry. Soon I’ll need to decide if I’m going to let the flax and lentils go to seed, and collect that seed for fun, or if I’ll pull it out early in favor of more experimentation with new pantry crops over the summer.

January 22nd

February 25th: I can hardly wait ’til it blooms.

Question for you: Do you like giveaways?

The more we blog, the more offers we get from people willing to provide goods for giveaways that we host–we’re talking new books, gardening tools, seeds, that sort of stuff. (Although we have been endlessly spammed by an antique replica sword company who is desperate that we share their information with you. Their marketing focus is obviously rapier sharp.)

We’re of two minds on this. We like free stuff, and are happy to be a conduit of free stuff for you. Why not? But then again, we hesitate because we don’t necessarily want to be anyone else’s marketing tool, nor do we want to subject you to marketing if you’ll all find that annoying. Yet….there’s all that free stuff. And we’d do our due diligence on the companies, of course, to make sure they pass muster.

What do you think?

Return of Bean Friday: Spicy Mayocoba Beans

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Our neighbor Teresa of Tularosa Farms gave us this recipe. She not only gave us this recipe, but a bag of beans to go with it, and a loaner dutch oven.  How’s that for neighborly? I made it a while back and really liked the results. Erik proclaimed it to be the best of all the Bean Friday dishes, though I remain partial to the Bastardized Puerto Rican beans. I’m happy to finally get a moment to share this with you.

Mayocoba beans are pretty yellow beans, the color of old ivory. We’d never had them before, but are glad to have met them, because they are mild in flavor and have a smooth, buttery texture. They’re used extensively in Latin American cooking, so you might have to visit a Latin American-flavored grocery store to find them.

The recipe after the break:

Spicy Mayocoba Beans

1 lb. beans, soaked overnight
1 medium onion chopped
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 1/2 teaspoon chili powder*
2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
7 oz. can chopped jalapenos

*I had no chili powder so used lots of paprika plus a little bit of cayenne pepper as a substitute

Put the beans in a big pot, cover them with a couple of inches of water and simmer until tender.

When the beans are getting close to done, heat some oil in a deep skillet or a heavy bottomed pot and saute the onion until translucent. Then add the garlic and the rest of the spices, reserving only the jalapenos. I like to cook everything well at this stage to bring out flavor, but am careful not to burn anything. If a crust starts to form on the bottom of the pan I deglaze it by throwing in a little water, beer or wine (depending on what I’m drinking while I cook), then loosening all that tasty goodness with a spatula.

Next, add your beans and their water to the onion mix, stir well and let them continue to simmer as long as you can, so the flavors have a chance to blend. Add more water as necessary so they don’t burn, keeping the consistency as thick or thin as you like.

Stir in the jalapenos at the end for an extra kick.

Serve with yogurt or sour cream, maybe.

These spicy beans make for amazing gourmet burritos. If cooked with more liquid, they can be served as a bean soup/chili sort of thing. They’d also make a great side dish for meats.