A viewing suggestion from the media arm of Root Simple

I really enjoy learning about technologies that are basic enough that I feel like I can understand them–and maybe even replicate them. The technology of Tudor-era in England is by no means primitive, but it also is not as complex and machine-based as the tech which takes off in the 19th century and accelerates so quickly into the present era. I would be hard pressed to explain how anything around me works–from this machine I’m typing on to communicate with the outside world, to the electric light burning beside me.

Bless the BBC for making Tudor Monastery Farm (a title which I believe would not fly on American television). This is a quiet series showing three historians/archeologists at play in the Weald & Downland Open Air History Museum, trying out some of the skills they’d need to be tenant farmers to the local monastery. It has some of the structure of a reality show, but it seems that no one really wants to go that direction much, so with the exception of a bit of camera confession about the urgency of getting the peas planted before Easter, there is none of that annoying reality show faux drama. Instead, it’s just full of juicy nuggets for the appropriate tech geek.

The series is on YouTube. I pray the BBC doesn’t take it down before I get to finish it.

In the first episode alone, they cover goodies like:

  • Coppicing
  • How to make two type of fences: a hazel wattle fence and a dead hedge fence, both of which can be made with a machete and a club
  • Treadwheels: Giant human powered hamster wheels which, along with water wheels, were the engines of their time.
  • How to make rush lights out of sheep fat and rushes.
  • An almost forgotten food plant called Alexanders, which is a Mediterranean plant related to parsley, which I’ve never heard of but now want to plant in my garden.
  • Tips on calligraphy done with quills. Did you know the quill has to be almost horizontal in the hand?
  • And how to make a paintbrush out of a feather and a stick. Marvelously clever, and the secret to the fine lines in illuminated manuscripts.
  • How to make a magnifying glass out for working the detail in said illuminated manuscripts.
  • How a Tudor gentleman literally sewed himself into his clothes each day, & the mysteries and marvels of the codpiece. (I suppose that if I were transported to that era I’d eventually stop staring at the distracting cords dangling from gentlemen’s crotches. You’ll see what I mean.)
  • You get to meet one of the last working teams of oxen in England (sad!), and see what it takes to plow a field.
  • How to build and wattle and daub pig house
  • And finally, very exciting, there’s a cameo by Robin Wood, the last professional wooden dish carver in England. I’ve seen his videos (where he looks much less dorky than he does in Tudor gear) and actually have one of his bowls. He carves beautiful bowls and spoons, his only tools his hatchet, his carving knives, and a foot operated pole lathe. The foot operated lathe was in use for nearly 1000 years, but now is almost extinct. It’s a wonderful piece of technology. Robin makes it look simple, but I’m sure it takes mad skills to use.

And that’s just the first episode. Ale and cheese, blast furnaces and sheep shearing to follow!

One last take away: Because my undergraduate degree is in art history, one thing that really struck me was how much everyone in this show looked like characters out of a Bruegel painting. If you know Pieter Bruegel’s work, you might remember how all his people have this particular stocky, stuffed, oddly jointed, funny-footed sort of look. I thought this was an artistic affectation.  Turns out it’s just the way the clothes fit. Pieter, I did you wrong. You were just painting what you saw.

pieter bruegel's painting, The Peasant Wedding

How To Calculate Anything

Another way to remember those pesky formulas . . .

It needn’t come to this! (Though we think this is pretty cool.)

Need to calculate Ohm’s law? Convert women’s clothing sizes? Calculate the area of a circle? Figure out whether its better to buy or rent a home? It’s all at www.calculatoredge.com.

The site has lots of formulas for the urban homsteader even if you never have to perform a Sallen-Key Butterworth Low Pass Filter equation (except, perhaps, for recreational reasons).

Thanks to Bruce Nolte, N1BN for the tip.

Bread Ovens of Quebec Free e-book

outdoor-bread-oven-flat-roof

North American has two regions famous for oven building: New Mexico and Quebec. The design of the ovens of Quebec have their origin in much older French ovens. The Canadian Museum of History has posted an amazing, out of print book, Lise Boily and Jean-François Blanchette’s 1979 book The Bread Ovens of Quebec, in its entirety online. The book includes the history of the Quebec oven, how to build an oven, bread recipes and even “popular beliefs, spells, incantations, and omens” associated with ovens.

I’m really happy with the adobe oven we have in our backyard–it has produced many a tasty pizza and I look forward to having people over to give me an excuse to fire it up. Ovens, in Quebec households were associated with life itself and I understand why.

If you’re interested in more information on DIY ovens, I’d recommend The Bread Ovens of Quebec along with Kiko Denzer’s Earth Ovens and Alan Scott’s The Bread Builders (brick ovens).

If you’d like to see an oven built in the Quebec style, these folks have posted their experience of building one.

Steve Solomon’s Soil and Health e-Library

I’m really enjoying the incredible variety of obscure old books being scanned and put up on the interwebs. Of interest to readers of this blog will be the archive of free e-books maintained by gardening author Steve Solomon. His Soil and Health e-library contains books on “holistic agriculture, holistic health and self-sufficient homestead living” You can download the books for free, but Solomon requests a modest $13 donation. You can find this amazing resource at: www.soilandhealth.org.

The “Radical Agriculture” part of the archive contains many early organic ag classics by authors such as Sir Albert Howard, J.I. Rodale and Ehrenfried Pfeiffer. The “Homesteading” part of the library contains tomes dating from the 1700s (William Ellis’ The Country Housewife’s Family Companion), all the way to the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s (Gene Logsdon’s Getting Food From Water: A guide to Backyard Aquaculture). 

So go load up those e-readers. Or maybe print them out in case we have a revolution.

Know Maintanance

I have a new favorite gardening blog, Grounded Design by landscape architect Thomas Rainer. I especially enjoyed his provocative post, Why I Don’t Believe in Low Maintenance Landscapes:

The low maintenance dogma reveals something about our culture: we don’t know how to BE in our landscapes. When someone asks me for “low maintenance,” what I hear is: “I don’t want to deal with this landscape.” Maintenance is nothing more than gardening, a personal investment into the landscape. I’ve long said that gardening is a relationship with a piece of ground. That relationship is the single most rewarding aspect of gardening. If the act of gardening is a relationship, then low maintenance gardening is code for “let’s just be friends.” Or “I’m just not that into you.” Low maintenance is permission to disengage, pull away, and let go. When we do that, our landscapes suffer. And so do we.

Rainer on Gardening in Small Spaces
I found out about Rainer via Garden Rant, who interviewed Rainer on the topic of small garden ideas. As we struggle with some design mistakes we made last fall, Rainer’s advice really rang true:

Don’t bring a plant into that garden unless it has a striking form (spiky, billowing, vertical spire), strong foliage color (blues/golds/purples, etc), or a long season of blooms (2 month minimum).

We had to redo our yard after last year’s lead soil reports (more on that in another post), and the design of our own space is a frequent source of marital disagreements. After reading Rainer’s advice together we vowed, “plant drama, not couple drama.” Looking forward to reading more from this gifted designer and writer.

Five Gallon Ideas: A Blog Devoted to the Five Gallon Bucket

I’ve got a new favorite blog: Five Gallon Ideas which is, as you might have guessed, devoted to what to do with five gallon buckets. Incidentally, my favorite place to find five gallon buckets is behind bad bakeries–the sort that go through buckets of crappy frosting. My favorite use for five gallon buckets? Self Irrigating Pots, of course!

Let us know where you scavenge five gallon buckets and what you like to do with them.

The Ecology Center of San Juan Capistrano

Kelly and I had the privilege of doing a short talk this weekend at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. If you’re interested in Southern California food forestry, greywater, chickens, you name it, this is the place to visit. They have an amazing garden, classes and a well curated gift store. When people ask us how to design garden and house systems in SoCal, we’re going to send them to the Ecology Center.

Home Food Preservation Resources

I’m honored to have been included in this year’s class of the Los Angeles Master Food Preservers, a program offered by our local extension service to train volunteers to teach food preservation in under-served communities. I thought I would share the textbook resources from the class as they are an excellent set of reference books for your homesteading library. And many are available for free online. Like all information from the extension service system, they are research based.

First off is So Easy to Preserve a large collection of recipes, everything from canning to dehydrating, all carefully tested and in line with current U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety recommendations. The book is put out by the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension.

We also will be using the Complete Guide to Home Canning, put out by the USDA and available for free online. Lastly, there’s the classic Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, a reliable introduction to the subject.

In addition to covering food safety issues, I like these carefully researched food preservation guides for their reliability. If I’m going to commit the time to doing a food preservation project I like a reasonable chance of success. While we learn from our mistakes, I’d prefer to have a few more jellies and a few less accidental “syrups”.

You can connect with the Los Angeles Master Food Preservers on Facebook and via their blog.

Reasons and Resources for Growing Your Own Grains at Home

The world’s smallest patch of Sonora wheat

Reasons to grow grain
Why grow some of your own grain? I can think of a bunch of reasons:

  • You can plant unusual varieties
  • The large amount of biomass for your compost pile
  • Forage for livestock
  • Easy to grow and maintain
  • Part of a rotational strategy for maintaining healthy, disease free soil
  • Know that your grain is not contaminated with pesticides

    How to grow grain 
    Growing grain is pretty much the same as growing a lawn (most grains are grasses, after all). The main problem, as with a lawn, is dealing with weeds. I can weed by hand the ridiculously small Sonora wheat patch I planted in January. When dealing with a bigger piece of land, the traditional, organic approach is to grow some sort of weed choking, nitrogen fixing plant such as cowpeas the season before planting grain. In Southern California, wheat is planted in January, as far as I can tell. In most other places it is planted in the fall.

    Resources
    I looked through a couple of books for growing grain at home and the best I could find is Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon, originally published in 1977 but recently updated and re-released. Logsdon covers the full spectrum of grains as well as legumes. Included are instructions for harvesting, threshing and winnowing by hand. Logsdon is an entertaining and engaging writer who calls small backyard grain fields “pancake patches”. My pancake patch will probably yield exactly one pancake, but I’m looking forward to the result. Logsdon was my guide.

    How to winnow and thresh by hand
    At a Grow Biointensive workshop in Willits last year they taught us how to thresh and winnow wheat with just hardware cloth and an electric fan:

    Using your feet you rub the seed heads against a piece of 1/2 inch hardware cloth attached to a board. You then lift off the hardware cloth and sweep the grain into a kitchen trash can.

    Then you dump the grain in front of a fan to separate the wheat from the chaff. Several passes are necessary.

    An optional last step is to pass the grain through special seed cleaning screens. It works great, but the screens are expensive.The alternative is more passes in front of the fan. I’ve done this process with flax and it worked just fine.

    If you’ve grown grain tell us how it went by leaving a comment!

    On Monday the final post of Root Simple’s grain week in which we will tackle why eating grains and other carbohydrates are so unpopular in the past decade.