Make a Brigid’s Cross

A little cross hanging on our chicken coop

Spring is here. In LA, it’s definitely in full swing, but I suspect even in more northerly places folks may notice a slight change in the air, or find early flowers like snowdrops or crocuses pushing their way through the snow. Spring is stirring.

To celebrate spring this year, I made a few Brigid’s crosses to hang in the house and out on the chicken coop. They’re protective symbols, intended to ward off both evil and fire. Who doesn’t need that, I ask you? And it’s fun to put some fresh decorations up to counterbalance the post-holiday doldrums.

These symbols can be interpreted as Christian crosses, but they also have a definite pagan sun-wheel feel to them (energy circling around and around). Brigid herself did double-duty as a pagan goddess of smiths, poets and healers and later as a patron saint of…smiths, poets and healers.

Wikipedia says the symbol was unrecorded before the 17th century, so who really knows where it came from. (Shades of Spinal Tap!: No one knew who they were or what they were doing…)

But what the hay. St. Brigid’s day is February 1st, and the cross-quarter holiday of Imbolc, which marks the coming of spring, is celebrated around the 2nd. I think this weekend would be excellent time to make a few Brigid’s crosses for fun and luck.

A proper reed cross

They’re super-easy to make. Just go the Fish Eaters site for very clear weaving directions. Traditionally they are made out of reeds or long pieces of straw. I had neither, so I used some broom corn*, which didn’t result in a symmetrical effect that reeds give, but is sort of cute in its own way.  (FYI for you southerners: I tried palm fronds first, but they were too slippery. And seeing me trying to weave with them gave Erik flashbacks to Sunday school!)

*No, I haven’t made my broom yet! I’m hung-up on getting some nylon cordage in a decent color. For some reason our hardware store only stocks it in florescent shades.

How to Plan a Vegetable Garden

Today I did the unthinkable and made good on one of my many New Years resolutions: I planned our 128 square foot vegetable garden a year in advance. Here’s how I did it:

Identifying Seasons
Using an Ecology Action pamphlet as my guide, Learning to Grow All Your Own Food: A One-Bed Model For Compost, Diet and Income Crops, I divided the year into three seasons. Most of you reading this blog probably have two: a cool season and a warm season. Here in Los Angeles we have:

  • warm: April-July
  • hot and dry: July-October
  • cool: October-March

Picking Planting Dates
Using the handy Digital Gardener’s Southern California Vegetable Planting Schedule I chose planting dates (in April, mid-summer and Septmber/October) for each season and marked them down on my Stella Natura calendar. I identified the vegetables I’d like to grow choosing only those veggies that have done well in the past and that we like to eat.

A planning form from Ecology Action

Deciding How Much to Plant
To decide how much to plant I rely on the charts in John Jeavons’ book  How to Grow More Vegetables. I took his three day Biointensive gardening class early last year and recommend it highly, especially for learning how to use the, at first, intimidating charts in the book. Jeavons handed out a handy planning form during the class that works with the tables in the book to help organize your garden. With experience, I also now have an idea about how many square feet of, say, lettuce it takes to keep me and Kelly in salad for a season. While not everyone likes Jeavons, I can say that my best years in our vegetable garden have been when I follow his methods (minus frequent double digging).

Planting Compost Crops
Jeavons stresses the importance of learning how to grow your own compost and fertilizer. I adapted the food/compost ratios suggested in the Ecology Action pamphlet to match our climate. Instead of growing a big winter compost crop (Ecology Action is in cooler Northern California) I decided to treat the late summer/early fall as our “winter”. Growing vegetables in the hot, dry late summer here in Southern California is, frankly, a pain in the ass and water intensive. It’s a time when I’d rather just take a break from vegetable gardening and just grow a bunch of drought tolerant sunflowers, amaranth, cowpeas etc. On the other hand, winter here is the best time to grow all those cool season crops like lettuce and arugula. Using Ecology Action’s suggestions I came up with a compost/food growing ratio:

  • spring/summer – 33.3% food, 66.7% compost
  • summer/fall 100% compost
  • fall/winter 66.7% food, 33.3% compost

The compost crops will reduce my gardening workload, build fertility and assure that there’s always something growing and no sun-baked bare soil.

Apologies for a Southern Californiacentric post, but you can use the same process to identify dates and how much seed you need for any climate. In fact, if you know of a good vegetable planting schedule for your climate please leave a link in the comments.

Update: Scott left a link for readers in Texas. The Texas A&M Extension Service has a vegetable planting guide here.

And meansoybean left a link for vegetable gardeners in Montreal which you can see here.  

Thanks to Hak, here’s Southern Nevada

Kristen sent one for all of the US based on your USDA zone here.

How to Keep that Christmas Tree Fresh

Photo from WSU

 
Washington State horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott, has a podcast “Last minute advice about Christmas trees and other fun stuff” that details more than you’ll ever want to know about how to keep a Christmas tree fresh in the house. And, yes, it’s been studied. Apparently WSU has a Christmas Tree expert: Dr. Gary Chastagner, seen above counting dry needles.

How to Memorize Numbers

Giordano Bruno’s insanely elaborate memory system.

Yesterday we introduced an ancient memory system that can be handy for learning all those new urban homesteading skills. Today I’ll briefly discuss a way to use a related mnemonic called the Major System for committing strings of numbers to memory.

To use the Major System you first memorize a set of consonants that represent 0 through 9. From Wikipedia, here’s a table of the Major System consonants and a set of mnemonics with which to remember them:

Numeral Associated Consonants Mnemonic
0 s, z, soft c “z” is the first letter of zero. The other letters have a similar sound.
1 d, t d & t have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include “th”)
2 n n has two downstrokes
3 m M has three downstrokes and looks like a “3” on its side
4 r last letter of four, also 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
5 l L is the Roman Numeral for 50
6 j, sh, soft “ch”, dg, zh, soft “g” a script j has a lower loop / g is almost a 6 flipped over
7 k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu capital K “contains” two sevens
8 f, v script f resembles a figure-8. V sounds similar. (some variant systems include th)
9 b, p p is a mirror-image 9. b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Unassigned Vowel sounds, w,h,y These can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value

So, for example, to memorize the number “1795” you start with the first two numbers “17”. Let’s say 1 = “d” and 7=”g”. Next add a vowel of your choice, say “o” to make “dog“. “17” now is a dog.  For the 95 let’s say 9 = “b” and 5 = “l” to make “ball”. You now have a dog playing with a ball that you can put into a room in your memory palace. For a longer strings of numbers it’s best to “chunk” them into groups of four to make them more manageable.

This is beyond the amount of time I’m willing to put into this, but you can also commit to memory 100 images to represent double digit numbers between 00 and 99 to be able to memorize longer numbers faster.

Iron Sulfate as a Concrete Stain

My concrete Platonic solids stained with iron sulfate.

I’m not a big fan of concrete in the garden. It raises soil alkalinity (a problem for us, here in the Southwestern US) and it prevents rain from infiltrating into the ground. That being said, concrete is occasionally useful and/or unavoidable.

But I also don’t like the color of bare concrete, nor can I afford the high price of concrete stains. Thankfully there’s a cheap way to stain concrete with iron sulfate, a mineral supplement you can get at nurseries in the Western US (it can be harder to find elsewhere, but Amazon caries it).

Iron Sulfate gives concrete a pleasing, rust colored stain. I recently ended up with a bunch of patio pavers that I stained with iron sulfate in a concrete mixing tray using about a quarter cup per gallon of water. You can also mop it on. Varying the strength of the iron sulfate/water solution you use will increase or decrease the intensity of the stain. Remember that there’s no going back, though. Once stained you can’t get it out.

For more info about iron sulfate as a concrete stain see How I Stained my Concrete Floor.