Saturday, December 22, 2012

Your Garden in Winter

Due to my Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move and the whole hassle of setting up a new house and starting a new job I took a long break from this blog. I'm ready to get back to it now.

We are well into December (and survived the supposed end of the world) but most of the US has not frozen over yet so I'm going to get back to the subject of gardening. I do a lot of work on my gardening program in the fall and winter.

As some of you know I was living in The Netherlands for the past three years. Before I moved there I put my garden space into caretaker mode. In the late summer of 2009 I cleaned up my garden and roto-tilled everything under. Once that was done I hauled in two F250 pickup truck loads of wood chips. I got these for free at the county conservation center. These wood chips were mostly pine, which tends to attract ants. But while that might be a problem for an active flower bed it was no problem for my use. The idea was to bury my garden under six inches of wood chip mulch to prevent, or at least decrease, the weeds taking over the garden.

This photo shows my garden in late September 2012.  After three years the wood chips rotted down to just a thin surface layer and weeds were starting to get a foot hold.  The planting boxes contain two year old saplings of willow and poplar. I started them from hard wood cuttings when I trimmed a willow and poplar tree on my property. I now have six of each tree and I will plant them in early spring 2013 as part of a wind break on the west side of my property.

This garden is twelve feet wide and forty feet long, which includes the two raised-bed planting boxes and the blueberry bed at the far end. There is also a very productive Raspberry bed on the north side of the garden and an empty strawberry bed on the far side. I hope to plant strawberries this spring, which will give me berries in 2014.  Over the past ten years or so I have incorporated several tons of compost, leaves, grass, and wood chips into the soil. It is very fertile although after three years of dealing with high carbon wood chips I know the nitrogen level is now very low.

In past years I have provided nearly all the fresh vegetables needed by three families during the growing season. This coming season will be the first time I have been able to work in the garden every week instead of only one or two weekends a month. It should be good.

So, getting back to the garden. Here is a close-up of the bed. As you can see there is not much left of the mulch cover and weeds are poking up here and there. After this picture was taken I ran the roto-tiller over the garden three times at 90 degree angles to fully incorporate the composted wood chips, the occasional weed, some wood ash, and the thin layer of undecomposed wood chips. The soil was absolutely full of worms, which is always a good sign.

I don't have a picture, but will get one soon, of how the garden looks now. After I tilled the soil under I used my DR Leaf and Lawn Vac to collect freshly cut grass and fallen leaves. If you have a large yard, the money to buy one, and the covered space to store one, I highly recommend these towed-behind vac systems. I happen to have a DR model (an older model which they have since discontinued) but there are several other optins out there. I have had some issues with my DR such as the tube clogging constantly and I needed to have the carb rebuilt this past year. But otherwise it has been a great tool to clean up the yard and provide literally tons of free mulch and feed-stock for my composting center. It looks like the new DR models have fixed some of the things I least like about the one I own. But they are expensive and I don't think I will replace it until it is completely unusable.

The reasons I buried my garden again are:
    1. I never like to have raw soil exposed to the elements. Wind and rain will remove soil and nutrients very quickly.
    2. I need to get nitrogen into the soil because the microbial action of breaking down the wood chips used up most of this vital nutrient. Grass is very high in nitrogen. The leaves bring lots of trace elements and minerals to the soil.
    3. The six-eight inch layer of grass and leaves will insulate the soil, keeping it above freezing, long into the winter. This will allow the worms and microbes to continue breaking down organic matter and continue to build my soil.
    4. Weeds grow even in the winter.

While it might be winter with cold, blustery days, my garden is still hard at work.

I do not endorse any commercial products. I do occasionally present my observations. Below is a small list of companies that provide lawn vac systems. Read and research before making a purchase.

DR Power tools

Cyclone Rake System

Billy Goat equipment

Agri-Fab equipment

Swisher system

Trac-Vac equipment (Probably the biggest selection of options at one company)

I have also used a motorized Leaf blower/vacuum in the past and it did a real good job sucking up and grinding DRY dead leaves. They were chopped up into tiny bits and were great mulch and soil amendments. I emphasized DRY here, they machine I have has a plastic fan/chopper blade and can only handle dry, dead leaves. Some of the newer, more powerful models might do more. Check out this advertisement for an example. Mine is a Sears model from at least 15 years ago and it still works great.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

It's Spring - Where to Start?

I just got back from a much needed vacation so it's time to get caught up here.

Because of the generally warmer than usual winter in the US, you are in late Spring in many places. Here in The Netherlands it was unusually cold but the Spring is pretty much right on schedule.What should we be doing now to continue saving food dollars and put good food on the table?

1. Foraging: Hopefully last year was your learning year and this year you did some foraging for early Spring greens. The more I learn about dandelion the more impressed I am with that edible "weed". Dandelion greens are one of the most nutritious greens you can eat. (Of course, you have to be careful to ensure wild greens of all sorts have not been contaminated with pollutants from roads or sprayed with pesticides or herbicides in parts and other public areas.) Ounce for ounce, they have more calcium than milk and as much iron as spinach. They are also a strong source of beta carotene, vitamins B, C, and E, fiber, magnesium, potassium, and iron. Dandelion greens have been used in folk medicine for all sorts of maladies but I don't want to get into medicinal properties of plants; that's a whole other subject. In the North East where I come from, common wild plants for foraging are: Pigweed, Cattail, Lamb’s Quarters, Plantain, Garlic Mustard, Wintercress, Black Mustard, Evening Primrose, Dandelion, Chicory, and Fiddlehead Ferns. Last Spring I talked about a couple of these; some I have experience with and some I do not.

2. Gardening: Depending on where you live you should already have some things planted in your garden and other plants started in trays indoors.

Have you planned your garden yet? It is not too late. I always draw a diagram and plan my garden on paper. Truthfully, I don't ever follow the plan exactly but it does give me a good starting point and a general plan. I prefer to grow food plants in linear raised-beds. Mine are generally 3-4 feet wide and 8-16 feet long. So drawing up a planting plan is fairly simple. In these beds I plant intensely using elements of "The Square Foot Gardener" methodology. These are wide-beds or block plantings.

Why do a plan? There are several purposes to a garden plan.

    1. Allocate space for what you want to grow. If you just start sowing seeds or transplanting plants into the garden bed you will quickly run out of room. It is very easy to over plant one type of plant and then have little room left for others. 

    2. Determine if you can grow successive crops or inter-plant crops. Some crops grow fast and can be harvested early, such as radishes. Radishes have a 30-40 day life cycle in my garden. So I often inter-plant them with other slower growing plants. The radishes grow and are harvested long before the other plants have grown enough to use that space. Since radishes grow fast and then are picked, they also open up space for second and third crops in the same location. Peas are much the same. peas are an early season crop that will be harvested before the end of June and the you can use that space for another vegetable. Peas also add nitrogen to the soil to help the second crop grow better.

    3. Ensure you are planting plants that tolerate or benefit each other next to each other. "Companion" planting was well known by our farmer ancestors but was a lost art for a long time due to the adoption of commercial "long row" growing techniques by most growers.

Row Gardening
Wide Row Gardening

With long rows, all the same plants are growing in long lines separated by bare or mulched soil. This is done to make it easier to use motor-driven rotary tillers or cultivators to keep down the weeds. In wide-row or block gardening, plants are bedded close to each other creating a "living mulch", which will also keep weeds to a minimum. But you have to ensure that neighboring plants are compatible. The chart at this website LINK is as good as any I have seen. Circles indicate plants that help each other and an "X" indicates two plants that inhibit or harm each other. On the right is a guide that shows which plants will help curb insect problems in your garden.

    4. Crop Rotation: Crop Rotation is important to reduce plants disease and insect problems. You should always try to avoid planting the same type of plant in the same space in succeeding years. Plant disease and insect eggs from one years crop will attack that same crop even more strongly in the second year. To avoid this problem, plant something different there that the disease or insects cannot harm. Also, some plants strip most or all of certain nutrients from the soil. So in the following planting, it is important to plant something that doesn't need much of that nutrient OR adds that nutrient back to the soil. All legumes (beans and peas) can add nitrogen back to the soil if the seeds are inoculated properly.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Iced Tea

Summer is coming and with that the amount of iced tea being drunk will increase. If you make your own iced tea it is a very cheap drink. Tea also has many reported health benefits.

Studies that support the health benefits of tea drinking keep filling the headlines. There’s simply no denying that a daily spot of tea does the body good. Even though researchers can’t quite agree on every aspect, the fact is that a few cups a day will do its best to protect you from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and more.

What Makes Tea Good for the Body?

Tea contains high levels of antioxidants, some of which are called polyphenols, flavonoids, and catechins, and all of which take on the “free radicals” in the body and prevent them from harming the healthy cells on board. In other words, sending in antioxidants is disease prevention in its finest form.

Heart Benefits:

• Study finds tea drinkers have lower blood pressure (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2004).

• Tea may lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease (Journal of Nutrition, 2003).

• Black tea may lower “bad” cholesterol (United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, 2003).

• Tea consumption may help heart disease patients (Circulation: The Journal of the American Heart Association, 2001).

Cancer Prevention:

• Green tea could help stem esophageal cancer. (Harvard Medical School, 2004).

• Green and black tea can slow down the spread of prostate cancer (Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, 2004).

• Tea may protect against cancer caused by smoking. (Journal of Nutrition, 2003).

• Green tea and white tea fight colon cancer (Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University study, Carcinogenesis, 2003).

• Hot tea may lower risk of some skin cancers (University of Arizona study, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention (Vol. 9, No. 7), 2001).

• Green tea consumption may lower stomach cancer risk (University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Public Health study, International Journal of Cancer (Vol. 92: 600-604), 2001).

Hypertension-Reducing Benefits:

• Green and oolong teas reduce risk of hypertension (National Cheng Kung University study, Archives of Internal Medicine, 2004).

Immunity-Boosting Benefits

• Tea believed to boost the body’s defenses (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2003)

Leukemia-Fighting Benefits:

• A green tea component helps kill leukemia cells (Mayo Clinic, 2004).

Alzheimer’s-Fighting Benefits:

• Drinking tea might delay Alzheimer's Disease (Newcastle University's Medicinal Plant Research Centre study, Phytotherapy Research, 2004).

AIDS-Fighting Benefits:

• Tea may play a role as an AIDS fighter (University of Tokyo, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 2003).

Are All Teas Equally Good for the Body?

This is a question researchers are still squabbling over. Does green tea have more antioxidants than black tea? Should I drink instant tea or loose leaf tea for better health benefits? Is hot tea better than iced tea? And here’s what it comes down to:

• Higher quality teas may have more catechin antioxidants than lower quality teas.

• White tea has more antioxidants than any other tea.

• Green tea has more catechin antioxidants than black tea since black tea goes through more processing.

• Unfermented rooibos tea has more polyphenol antioxidants than fermented rooibos.

• Freshly brewed teas have more polyphenol antioxidants than instant or bottled teas.

• More researchers seem to agree that brewed (cold or hot) or caffeinated tea has more antioxidants than instant teas.

There are basically three ways to make tea; Hot brewed, Sun-brewed, and Cold brewed. The tea package should have directions for each method. I much prefer cold-brewed tea. To me, cold-brewed tea has none of the bitterness of hot brewed tea and it is so simple to make. I prefer Lipton Cold-Brewed tea. It just takes two tea bags for a half gallon. I drink a half gallon of tea every three days so my tea stays fresh.

Some rules for brewing tea:

1. Use enough tea bags
When foods are served cold, the flavors become dull. A stronger tea - such as Darjeeling, Jasmine or green teas - is necessary to have a well-flavored tea served cold. Use two tea bags for every 3 cups of water for best results (this is a hot brew recipe; hot brew tea bags are smaller than cold brew bags)
2. Don't oversteep

If you prefer your tea stronger, use more tea bags rather than lengthening the steeping time. Allowing tea to overstep brings out the tannins in the tea and can make it bitter. For weaker tea, reduce the steeping time rather than taking away tea bags for better flavor.

3. Add sugar to hot water
If you sweeten your tea, add the sugar to the hot tea in order to dissolve the grains. If you prefer to sweeten your tea afterwards as per each persons taste, use a simple syrup rather than granulated sugar which will leave sugar grains in your glass.

4. Cool before refrigerating
Putting hot tea into a cold fridge will make your tea cloudy. Allow your tea to cool before you refrigerate.  If you do end up with cloudy tea, try adding a bit of boiling water to it – it will sometimes do the trick!

5. Keep it real
Don't use artificial lemon juice. Only use real fresh squeezed lemon juice from fresh lemons for the very best flavor.   

6. Fresh is best
Iced tea tastes best when it is freshly made. Make only what you will drink in two or three days. It's easy to make, so don't worry about having to mix up another batch!

Iced Tea is a cheap and easy drink with many health benefits.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

2012 Garden - The Start

This past winter was extremely harsh here in The Netherlands. Just two weeks ago it was going down well below freezing every night and the days were cool and cloudy. 

When the cold weather came in the late fall I covered the garden with a heavy sheet of plastic. At this time there were radishes, a few onions, lettuce, and carrots growing. The wind here is terrible so it took several tries to get it weighted down to where it wouldn't blow off. But finally I got it right. It doesn't look "wintery" in this photo but it was a very cold day and below freezing at night. Besides the plastic cover I had a dozen plastic bottles filled with water half buried to absorb and hold heat during the sunny part of the day to keep it warmer at night.

I thought I had a picture of the garden under a couple inches of snow and ice but I can't find it.

Today I pulled off the plastic and turned the soil under. The radishes did not survive and most of the lettuce didn't make it either. There are five lettuce plants left so they will give me an early start with some greens. The carrots were partially burned back from the cold but I cleaned out all the dead foliage. There are also only two onions still growing. If the days stay decent the carrots should start growing again. The very short winter days, less than six hours of sunlight, only allowed the plants to survive the winter but not to grow.

The carrots look like they are doing pretty good. Hopefully now they will start growing. This is the sunniest part of the garden. Now that the garden is uncovered I have to worry about the neighborhood cats and the birds digging up the garden. I'm hoping the fence and wire will at least keep them out of the carrot patch.

Why garden in the first place?

     WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Food-borne disease outbreaks in the United States caused by imports seemed to rise in 2009 and 2010, with fish and spices the most common sources, the Centers for Disease Control said. Almost half of the outbreaks, or localized epidemics, pointed to foods imported from areas that had not been linked to outbreaks before, the CDC said in a statement. "As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too," said CDC epidemiologist Hannah Gould, lead author of a report on the upturn.
     From 2005 to 2010, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries. Of those outbreaks, 17 occurred in 2009 and 2010. Overall, fish was the most common source of imported food-borne disease outbreaks at 17, followed by spices with six outbreaks, including five from fresh or dried peppers. Nearly 45 percent of the imported foods causing outbreaks came from Asia, the CDC said. Gould's report was presented on Wednesday at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta. According to the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, food imports grew to $86 billion in 2010 from $41 billion in 1999. Much of that growth has occurred in fruit and vegetables, seafood and processed food products.
by Ian Simpson

Grow your own food so that you now what goes in the soil, on the plants, and that they are fresh and healthy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

General Rules if you want to Eat Cheaply

  1. Never allow leftovers to go bad. I would cook one or two major meals per week. Sometimes this was a full-sized lasagna, sometimes fish that was on sale, sometimes a big pot of homemade spaghetti sauce or soup with lots of fresh vegetables added. It always included a big salad. This big meal would feed me dinners (and some lunches) for five or six days, and I could not afford to throw any of it away. I would eat leftovers almost every day. Every ounce of it was eaten over the course of the week. (J.D.’s note: Here’s an article on how to store your food so that it lasts longer.)
  2. Supplement with inexpensive foods. Many will say this is unhealthy. It would have been if it had been all that I ate, but I definitely ate a lot of Ramen and macaroni and cheese. These were bought when on sale: Ramen 7-for-$1 (a deal I’ve seen as recently as last week) and Mac & Cheese 3-for-$1. I also could get canned tuna 3-for-$1 easily, and once or twice a year as a loss leader for 5-for-$1. Poor man’s tuna casserole was a staple and would feed me for two or three meals: one package of mac & cheese with one can tuna mixed in.
  3. Shop in the produce aisle. This sounds counter-intuitive, because everyone “knows” that produce is expensive. But I would shop for the inexpensive produce (which tended to be seasonal). Potatoes, carrots, celery, lettuce, tomatoes (sometimes), oranges (sometimes), cabbage, etc. These all make great food and provide snacks that generally don’t spike your blood sugar like factory-made snacks do. Also, this may be obvious, but I would eat fruit in season. For example, apples were plentiful in the fall: I could get a bag for about $1 and would get one or two bags for the week. I would have apples with everything (and for snacks). Again, I could not afford to throw out a single apple, so I ate them all. And at that time of year, making an apple pie was in the budget too! (J.D.’s note: there’s an actual fitness regiment based around apples: The 3-Apple-a-Day Plan.)
  4. Never eat out. I couldn’t have bought more than four or five meals for my $15 weekly food budget, and that’s assuming the cheap breakfast place that had meals for $2.95 a plate. I needed to get at least 16 meals out of that $15, so there was no room for the luxury of eating out.
  5. Have substantial cereals for breakfast. Oatmeal and Grapenuts were keys to my success. They both filled me up and kept me filled up for much of the day. A single container of oatmeal — not the flavored packages, which are expensive and insubstantial, but the big boxes of loose Old Fashioned Oatmeal — would last slightly longer than a week, even if I ate it every day. At the time this cost about $1.99 per container. You can get it today easily for $2.99 per container.
  6. Avoid junk food. Not one candy bar, bag of chips, pre-made peanut butter cracker, store-bought cookie, “breakfast bar”, or pack of gum could be afforded. This didn’t mean I didn’t have snacks: a bag of popcorn cost about $1, and if I had the money available I would get one. Also, I had flour, sugar, water, eggs (usually), oil, and oatmeal, so sometimes I would make oatmeal cookies (with raisins if I was splurging). Sometimes saltines were on sale and I would usually have peanut butter on the shelf, so I could make peanut butter crackers if I wanted.
  7. Avoid pre-cooked foods. Frozen dinners, deli-made quiche, store-roasted chicken — all of these cost too much per serving. If I wanted quiche, I had to make it from scratch. The ingredients were in my budget and on my shelves. If I wanted chicken, I waited until it was on sale for $0.39/lb and roasted it myself. I then ate it for 6-8 meals before chucking the bones into a pot to make chicken soup and having that for another 6-8 meals.
  8. Buy a basic paperback cookbook. Because I had to make most things from scratch, I bought a paperback copy of what is often called “The Plaid Cookbook”: the Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook. I think it cost $6 at that time, and was not part of my food budget, but it paid itself back many times over. (J.D.’s note: it only costs $8 now.) If I wanted to make lasagna, it told me how. Did I manage to buy a roast beef on sale? The cookbook told me how to avoid ruining it in the oven. Pumpkin pie? apple pie? quiche? roast chicken? all was explained, and often within my budget because I could make it from standard, inexpensive ingredients.
  9. Don’t buy beverages. There’s a reason Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co. have been good investments and consistent earners across the years: they are selling you water. During this tough time I did not buy soda, or water, or coffee, or tea, or any beverage other than milk (which was reserved for my breakfasts, and only on weeks when I was having boxed cereal). I think I bought hot cocoa mix during the winter, and that lasted several weeks. If I needed a sugar drink I used a tablespoon or two of lemon juice — which I had on hand as a cooking supply — and a tablespoon or two of sugar in a tall glass of iced water: instant soft drink for possibly $0.10.
  10. Special Bonus Tip. I didn’t do this at the time, but I now know that using dried milk saves at least $1 per gallon. There are two tricks to using dried milk. First, invest in a glass container. I don’t know why, but dried milk tastes terrible when stored in plastic. Second, chill it. If you follow these two suggestions, you’ll be able to serve the milk to guests and they will never know. In fact, they will likely think you buy it from a dairy. (And yes, this is something that my family does now. We have been drinking almost exclusively dried milk for the last 7 years.) Dried milk also saves time and gas money: out of milk? No need to run to the convenience store, just mix it up. In this case we save almost $2.00 a gallon because milk is so much more expensive at the convenience store, and since the family drinks about a gallon a day, we save as much as $7-10 per week just by drinking dried milk.
Credit for this information goes to J. D. Roth, who once wrote for "Get Rich Slowly"

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Preparing for the Spring Foraging Season

I live in The Netherlands, as long time readers know, and our weather has been rather harsh this winter. But from what I have been reading most of the US has had a record breaking mild winter. What does this mean to those of you interested in foraging? Well, I think spring greens will appear earlier than usual this year. I would love to have the chance to walk through my thirty acres in Pennsylvania and see what nature has in store for us.

But even if gardening and foraging are still a few months away this is the time to start preparing for Spring. What should you be doing?

Now is the time to start reading about foraging. The cheapest way is to sign up for a library card and sign out some books from the library. If you want to buy the books to have as a long term reference library at home go to and do a search on this term: "wild foods field guide and cookbook" and you'll get a long list of books on the subject. When I was a kid I used to read the Boy Scout Field Guide every spring to brush up on field craft and useful wild plants before the warmer weather. I spent a lot of time in the woods in the winter but that was hunting and trapping season for me. Occasionally I would also do some fishing. When I went out on overnight trips in the woods I carried some canned food in case I wasn't able to get any game meat to eat.

Now is also the time to put together your foraging equipment and tools. Many Spring wild foods are roots, tubers, and early shoots of plants. So you'll need digging tools (I find a small trowel or dandelion weeder to work well), a sturdy knife and/or nippers to cut young shoots, and containers to carry the foraged items.

I don't eat mushrooms, I never liked the taste or texture, but mushroom hunting season also begins in the spring. If you want to learn to hunt for mushrooms I strongly suggest that you find a club or organization that teaches wild mushroom identification. As an example, in Pennsylvania there is the "Central Pennsylvania Wild Mushroom Club" or go to this site, "North American Mycological Association" to find an affiliated club near you. Making a mistake with wild mushrooms is not just a matter of eating something that tastes bad. Many wild mushrooms will kill you in a very unpleasant manner. So do yourself a favor and find an expert to teach you. Some Community Colleges also offer field training as non-credit courses.

Now is also  good time to start walking in the areas you will use for foraging and note what might be in the area. There should still be dead plants from last year that you can use to identify where plants of interest will grow this year. If you have access to private property, yours or a relative's/friend's, you can clean those areas with a lawnmower or sickle so the new growth isn't buried and struggling through heavy debris. Of course one of the best ways to regenerate an area is to burn off the dead overgrowth from last year but that takes some skill and precautions so you don't create a brush fire. 

Get yourself a small notebook and start a journal and resource map, as I suggested last year. Start 2012 off right and do the things you intended to do last year but didn't get around to doing until it was too late.What should go in your notebook?

1. Wild Plants you are interested in gathering. Make a list in the front of your notebook of the plants you want. You'll figure this out from your reading and research (what you might be interested in eating basically). Then cross-reference them to the pages in your notebook that pertain to them.

2. Date/season these plants appear in your area. This comes from research and your observations over time. From books and Online resources you should figure out the season these plants become available (in general) and then fine tune that data to your specific area's climate. There will be micro-climates in your area where wild food plants will be available earlier and later than in other places. This helps extend your foraging season so make note of those places.

3. Location of plants of interest. Through reading and research you'll determine the types of terrain/areas that this plant typically grows. That gives you a starting point of where to look. Then fine tune your notes with your observations; where in your locale does this plant grow. Generally, wild plants will continue to grow in the same locations unless the environment is changed (forest fire, construction, grazing, water diversion, etc.). Rough maps or place names to plants you want make the search much quicker each succeeding year.

4. Part of plant desired. In many cases multiple parts of a plant are edible but in different seasons. For example, the spring shoots might be edible in late winter/early spring but then you can eat another part of the plant (flowers, berries/fruit, leaves) in another season. So you need to track when those different seasons occur.

5. People you can trade with. Many older people grew up eating wild plants, in my area of Pennsylvania that included spring dandelion greens. You might know someone with land that will trade some of your foraged items for permission to forage on their land. They might be too busy of physically unable to collect the plants themselves. I used to trade removing nuisance groundhogs and barn pigeons for permission to hunt on a couple of local farms when I was a youngster. Or perhaps you have access to plants/mushrooms that you don't eat but can trade them with someone for something you want; the barter system. See if there is a wine making club in your area; you can probably trade ingredients for finished wine.

6. Lastly, field notes on wild game animals. While you are meandering through woodlots and fields you will be able to observe wild game animals at a time when they are not under so much stress. This is how I learned the habits (trails, feeding areas, bed-down spots, watering holes, etc.) for the game animals I would hunt later in the year. 

Don't let the foraging season get ahead of you this year. Start to do your research and preparations now and you will have a much more successful foraging season to put cheap food on the table.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Serious Food Caching

A Well-Stocked Basement Pantry
While this blog is not directed toward the "survivalist" audience, many of the techniques that group has developed would be good for us to know and use. Today I want to explore long-term food and supply caching. By long-term I am talking about years instead of weeks.  Why would we want to store food and supplies for years? Because sometimes we can buy or acquire food and supplies at really good prices and these fairly simple techniques will allow us to store those supplies for an uncertain future.

The colder months of winter are the optimal time to prepare and store foodstuff for long term. This is because the air is generally less humid, especially if you are heating your house with forced air. You also generally have fewer tasks around the house to take care of since the yard is pretty much dormant for the winter. Hopefully you saved all the little packs of silica that came in many of your Christmas present packages. If not, just go by a hobby/craft store and buy some bulk silica desiccant crystals. Crafters use it for drying leaves and flowers for displays and arrangements.

The first thing you have to consider is what can I store?  What foods and supplies do well in storage and have some worth? Well, in general, any foods that you normally buy in a dehydrated state work well. This would include such things as rice, dry beans and peas, noodles, flour, cooking spices, salt and pepper, and powdered milk. To this list of possible food items I would add a selection of seeds so you can grow your own food if things are really bad. While it might be possible to store flour, it is the most sensitive food item to moisture so it would really be better to store the grain and then grind your own flour. Grain will store better and for longer.

Once you know what you want to store you need storage containers that will protect the items from the five factors I mention above. This basically means a container made from glass or plastic. There are some home-canning systems available that use metal storage cans but they are fairly rare. For large amounts of a product you can use five gallon buckets with screw on or snap on lids. I once picked up a big supply of buckets from a local McDonalds. Other fast food restaurants probably also use these buckets for bulk ketchup, sauces, and mixes. Just ask the manager.  No matter what you use make sure it is safe for food storage.If you need to buy them do a search in using the term "Food Storage Bucket" and you'll see some offers.

Oxygen and moisture need to be removed first. If you buy pasta, beans, rice, and peas at a grocery store, you should leave them in the original plastic bags they came in. They are probably already purged of moisture and oxygen. If you buy these items from an open barrel at a bulk store, then you will need to re-dry them in the oven, at very low temperature, and then add an oxygen absorbing pack when you seal the container. You can buy these through 
Where to store the containers. Store your sealed containers of food in a cool, dark, and dry location. The cooler the better. Food degrades slower when it is maintained at a cool temperature. Every 10.08f degrees below the standard 70f degrees almost doubles the storage life. A dark corner of an unfinished basement will stay between 55-65 degrees. If you are going to store your food outside of your house, you want to dig down five to six feet in a shaded area, preferably on the northern side of a hill. If the lid or roof of your storage cache is insulated it will maintain a temperature of 55f degrees. At 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit, most of your food items will store for eight to sixteen years. Brown rice does not store as well as white rice. Brown rice is more nutritious but the oils in the hull will turn rancid in 6-8 months of even ideal storage. Sugar and honey will last forever if stored properly.  Seeds you intend to use to grow food should be stored in regular air without being purged with nitrogen or CO2. I would also avoid the O2 absorber packs. Just rotate your seeds every 3-5 years and you will maintain viable seeds.

Canned foods will last a long time and if you rotate your stock (first in, first out) you can maintain several weeks worth of food in a fairly small space. When I was a kid we had a pantry room in the basement that was maybe 8x8 feet with four or five shelves that went all the way around. Our basement was semi-finished with concrete walls and floor. So it stayed a pleasantly cool 60f degrees even in the summer and was cooler in the winter. We did a lot of canning, mostly fruit, jams & jellies, and tomato sauce. In addition we stored some canned and dry items in this room as room opened up on the shelves. In late fall the shelves were full of canned stuff from our garden and fruit foraging. I never saw the pantry empty and there were seven people in my family. This amount of space can hold a tremendous amount of food.

Anyone older than forty knows that the weather patterns in the US have changed drastically since they were a kid. I'm 51 and I hardly recognize the changes in the seasons. It is getting more and more likely that there will be a natural disaster and some people will say a national crisis is coming. Being able to feed your family for several weeks or months from your own stores might be critical. Being able to supplement purchased or provided food in a crisis will make life more endurable. In either case, you need to have a secure, durable food store of your own to ensure your well-being. This pantry can also be used to store cheap foods that you have been able to forage or purchase. Buy them cheap, store them in ideal conditions, and use them as you need to.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Winter Garden

We have had many days below freezing but my winter garden is still doing very well.

Winter winds are terrible in my area of The Netherlands. I live in an elevated area, the Schimmert Plateau, as it is called. I re-emplaced this plastic several times until I finally got it weighted down enough to stand up to the winds. I also had to come up with a way to keep the plastic up off the plants. You'll see in the next photo that some of the carrots were burned by the cold from where the plastic, which in some cases had ice on it, touched the greens.

So I used some galvanized wire I found to make hoops to raise the plastic and create a better environment for the plants. In between the carrot plants are plastic bottles filled with water. These warm up during the day and slowly release heart during the night to keep the plants above freezing. The soil also absorbs heat during the day. I pulled one carrot out last week when I was checking the plants. It was about as big as my finger and very sweet and crunchy.

I should have planted more lettuce than I did. It is growing very slowly so I only get enough for one serving a week. But it is still a nice treat to have fresh, home-grown greens in the middle of the winter. In the early spring when there is more sun it will grow faster. We just don't get many hours of sunlight in the winter. Shorter Days. Because we are so far north we enjoy very long days in the summer and correspondingly short days in winter. The Winter Solstice, 22 December this year, is the shortest day of the year. In December daylight lasts for less than eight hours.  It is dark when everyone is driving to work and it is dark when everyone is driving home from work. On the chart below you can clearly see this. Also notice how long the days are in summer.  We get 19 hours of sunlight in June, which really helps things to grow nicely.

I still have some transplanted onions struggling to survive and I am hoping they will start to grow in the spring. I haven't had great success with growing onions from seed here, the soil stays too cold too long. But onion sets grow really good. Last year I couldn't find any but I'll look sooner this spring. I had a green pepper plant growing indoors, over-wintering, put it died while I was in the States on vacation. That's too bad because it would have had a great head start in spring. 

If I had more space I could probably raise all the carrots, lettuce, other greens, and onions that I would need through the winter. When I retire and finally move to my home in Pennsylvania I will probably do this on a larger scale.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Snacking Patterns of US Adults

Over the last 30 years, the average number of snacks consumed per day doubled, and the percentage of adults snacking on any given day rose from 59 to 90 percent. The high prevalence of overweight and obesity among the U.S. population has led researchers to evaluate possible associations between specific dietary patterns and weight status. Snacking is one dietary pattern which has been analyzed in this context. Previous research has indicated that snacking may contribute to higher intakes of calories, which in turn could lead to obesity. Besides the obvious risks of over-eating associated with snacking, there is also the issue of cost. Commercial snack foods (chips, pretzels, cookies, candy, etc.) are typically expensive and nutritionally empty.

Snacks provide on average about one-fourth of the daily calories, greater proportions of alcohol, carbohydrates and total sugars, and lesser proportions of most other nutrients. Overall, the foods and beverages contributing the most calories at snacks are not the most nutritious options. Between 1977-1978 and 2007-2008, significant increases have occurred in both the mean frequency of snacking (up from 1.0 to 2.2 snacks in a day) and the percentage of adults snacking on any given day (up from 59 percent to 90 percent), as shown in figure 1. On any given day in 1977-1978, most adults (73 percent) snacked only once or not at all. In 2007- 2008, about two-thirds of adults (65 percent) snacked two or more times in a day.

SOURCES: Nationwide Food Consumption Survey 1977-1978 and What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007-2008,

How many calories do adults obtain from snacks in a day?
Based on the WWEIA 2007-2008 survey, foods and beverages consumed at snacking occasions now contribute a daily average of 586 calories for men and 421 calories for women. Adults age 60 years and over consume fewer calories overall, and calories consumed at snacking occasions are lower for people in this age group than for younger groups (see figure 2). In addition, the proportion of daily calories provided by snacks is significantly smaller for older women (but not men) than for their younger counterparts.

On average, 24 percent of adults' total daily calories are consumed at snacking occasions. However, for some individuals, snacks provide a substantially larger proportion of daily calorie intake. Nearly 1 in 6 adults (16 percent) obtain over 40 percent of their total daily calories from foods and beverage they report as being consumed as snacks. Relative to their caloric contribution (marked by line X in figure 3 below), snacks provide higher proportions of adults' daily intakes of alcohol, carbohydrate, and total sugars (a subgroup of carbohydrate); similar proportions of vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, and magnesium; and lower proportions of most other nutrients.

Higher snacking frequency is associated with higher total calorie intake. Adults who have 4 or more snacks in a day consume almost one and one-half times as many calories as do adults who report no snacks. However, the study also showed that the mean number of snacks consumed in a day does not differ significantly by weight status (see definition below) for either men or women.

Weight status: Adults were assigned to weight status categories based upon their calculated body mass index (BMI). As defined by the National Institutes of Health. Weight status categories and their associated BMI ranges are the following: Underweight, <18.5; normal weight, 18.5-24.9; overweight, 25.0-29.9; and obese, 30.0 and over.

So that must mean there is a difference in what healthy weight and overweight people eat for snacks. The categories of food/beverages used in this study include the following:

From this list the "Good" snacks would be: Fruits and Fruit Juices, Nuts and Seeds, Milk and Milk Drinks. Everything else on the list would be considered empty calories of little to no nutritional benefit.

Eating a nutritionally complete snack is not by itself a bad thing. In fact, one of the best things you can do if you are trying to lose body-fat and/or gain muscle mass is to eat a high-protein snack in between planned meals. There quite a bit of evidence that by spreading out your nutritional intake by eating every two-three hours you stabilize your blood sugar, prevent insulin spikes, and increase your metabolic rate by feeding your muscles. These are all good things.

So what can we conclude from this study? First, the rate of snacking and the percentage of our daily caloric intake attributed to snacking has increased significantly in the past thirty years (Coincidentally the same period that the national obesity rate started climbing.). Second, since there is little difference in the rate of snacking between "normal" weight and overweight adults, there must be a difference in what they snack on. My conclusion: Eating healthy snacks, up to several times a day, can be integrated into your diet with no corresponding gain in weight. It is not how often you eat but rather what you eat. 

Healthy, nutritious snacks help you to avoid over eating during normal meal times. Since this balances out the cost of eating there is no net gain in your food budget if you integrate snacking into your daily nutritional intake. Swap out a half of a peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread for a handful of cookies, for example. Have a sliced apple instead of a cupcake. I use an apple slicer/corer, as seen below, to prepare my daily apple. It takes just a moment and then I have sliced apples in a plastic container to snack on during the day. If I am craving something a little more "unhealthy" I spread a little Hazelnut spread (Nutella in the states) on a slice.

Much of this information came from a report published by:

Agricultural Research Service
Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center
Food Surveys Research Group

Friday, January 6, 2012

Fast or Slow Composting Part 3

Want compost without the fuss of turning? Then slow composting is for you. Slow composting is nature's way of breaking down organics over time.The below extract is from Washington State University:

Slow Composting
    Employing slow composting is an easy and convenient way to turn yard wastes into a useful soil amendment. It is often the best method for people who do not have the time to tend a hot compost pile. Simply mix non-woody yard wastes into a pile and let them sit for a year or so. Microorganisms, insects, earthworms, and other decomposers will slowly break down the wastes. A mixture of energy materials and bulking agents provides the best food source and environment for decomposition.
    Add fresh wastes to the pile by opening the pile, placing fresh wastes into the center, and covering them. This helps aerate the pile, and also buries the fresh wastes so they do not attract pests. Fruit and vegetable wastes are particularly appealing to pests,. such as flies, rats and raccoons. To avoid pests, bury these wastes within the pile. If you bury the vegetable wastes in the pile, and pests are still a problem, you may need to screen the pile or keep vegetable wastes out.
    You also can bury vegetable wastes directly in your garden. Dig a hole or a trench about a foot deep, add a few inches of vegetable wastes, mix them with the soil, and refill the trench with soil. Another way to avoid pests is to compost vegetable wastes in a worm bin.
    Slow composting does not produce the heat needed to kill many weed seeds. It is best to pull and compost weeds before they go to seed. If you put seeds in the compost pile, be prepared for more weeding.

As you can see there are some distinct advantages to slow composting, namely less work, but there are also some serious disadvantages (pests, weed seeds, and unmentioned but existing - the possibility of smells).

 A slow compost pile tends to have a higher ratio of fungi to bacteria and more of the larger organisms such as pill bugs and worms. These creatures mix up the compost pile by themselves (less turning required) and it some believe there is a wider range of nutrients being created because of this increased diversity. Compost with a high fungal content plays a very different role in the garden than high bacteria compost. Compost with a high bacteria content (from fast or hot composting) is good at releasing nutrients into the soil in a form that plants can best use. This is particularly good for annual flowers and vegetables that don’t have the time to establish complex root systems.
However, perennials, shrubs and trees have the luxury of a little more time, and compost with a higher fungal content inoculates the soil with beneficial fungi that can work symbiotically with these plants’ root systems. Either by encasing the root or, with some species, actually growing into the root tissue, the fungal hyphae dramatically extend the reach of the plant’s root system. In exchange for sugars from the plant, the fungi increase the plant’s ability to find moisture in times of drought, draw from a much deeper and wider range of soils to access micro nutrients and also metabolize some compounds to make them more accessible to the plants. The microscopic fungal threads can even form a giant mesh throughout the garden soil that moves nutrients and moisture from plants with excess to those in need.

A lot of these fungi are the ones that break down woody and leafy matter. Letting larger chunks of high carbon material (wood chips, saw dust, and piles of brown leaves) spend many months breaking down in the compost. It encourages the ratio of beneficial fungi in the final product. Have you ever heard of "leaf mold"? Leaf mold is a form of compost produced by the fungal breakdown of shrub and tree leaves, which are generally too dry, acidic, or low in nitrogen for bacterial decomposition. 

You may be wondering why you shouldn't just make compost. Why bother making a separate pile just for leaves? The answer is that while compost is wonderful for improving soil texture and fertility, leaf mold is far superior as a soil amendment. It doesn't provide much in the way of nutrition, so you will still need to add compost or other organic fertilizers to increase fertility. Leaf mold is essentially a soil conditioner. It increases the water retention of soils. According to some university studies, the addition of leaf mold increased water retention in soils by over 50%. Leaf mold also improves soil structure and provides a fantastic habitat for soil life, including earthworms and beneficial bacteria.

How to Make Leaf Mold

There are two popular ways to make leaf mold, and both are ridiculously simple. The one thing you'll need to keep in mind is that leaf mold doesn't happen overnight. Leaves are basically all carbon, which takes a lot longer to break down than nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings. The decomposition process for leaves takes at least six to twelve months. The good news is that it's basically six to twelve months with very little work on the gardener's part.

The first method of making leaf mold consists of either piling your leaves in a corner of the yard or into a wood or wire bin. The pile or bin should be at least three feet wide and tall. Pile up your leaves, and thoroughly dampen the entire pile. Let it sit, checking the moisture level occasionally during dry periods and adding water if necessary.

The second method of making leaf mold requires a large plastic garbage bag. Fill the bag with leaves and moisten them. Seal the bag and then cut some holes or slits in the bag for air flow. Let it sit. Check the bag every month or two for moisture, and add water if the leaves are dry. After six months to a year, you will have finished leaf mold. Impatient? There are a couple of things you can do to speed up the process:
  • Before adding leaves to your pile or bag, run over them a couple of times with your lawn mower. Smaller pieces will decompose more quickly.
  • Use a shovel or garden fork to turn your leaf pile every few weeks. If you are using the plastic bag method, just turn it over or give it a firm shake. This will introduce air into the process, which speeds decomposition.
  • If you are using the pile or bin method, cover your pile with a plastic tarp. This will keep the leaves more consistently moist and warm

How to Use Leaf Mold

Leaf mold has several uses in the garden. You can dig or till it into garden beds to improve soil structure and water retention. You can use it as mulch in perennial beds or vegetable gardens. It's also fabulous in containers, due to its water retaining abilities. Leaf mold is simple, free, and effective. If you're lucky enough to have a tree or two (or ten) on your property, you've got everything you need to make great garden soil.

A slow compost pile will take at least a year to produce compost and that will be formed on the bottom of the pile first. This then requires a way to dig out from the bottom of the pile and screening the compost before you can use it. Some of the commercial bins like this one have a small access door at the bottom. Fresh material goes on top and semi-finished compost comes out the bottom.

If you have a source of coffee grounds, you can make better slow compost. Why? Because worms love coffee! Coffee grounds have a 20:1 carbon/nitrogen ratio, which is almost ideal. They also have residual caffeine and I swear the worms get hooked on the caffeine. When I was a kid growing up in Allentown, my mom made a big pot of coffee every day  and tossed the used grounds into a flower bed just outside the kitchen door. Whenever I wanted to go fishing I'd dig in that bed and always found lots and lots of fat worms. If there is a coffee shop near you or if your office makes coffee, ask to get the grounds and add them to your compost. The worms will dig their way up through the other material to get the coffee grounds.

Because I am not currently living at my house, I am forced to slow compost. When I go home each summer I fork out an entire 4'x4'x4' bin, screen it through a 1/4 inch screen, put the screened compost in my finished compost bin and the larger material goes back into the composting bin mixed in with fresh material. This will quickly heat up and be a hot pile while I am home to maintain it. Through this method, over the past three years I have produced four cubic yards of compost with very little effort. Screening a 64 cubic foot bin of material is no small effort but it is once a year and then done.

I had a separate bin for slow composting of wood chips and leaves a few years ago and once I move home for good I will re-establish a "mold" composting set-up. I think leaf mold and composted wood chips (which takes 2-3 years) are excellent additions for my blueberry and raspberry patches. My main garden, which isn't being used right now, has been buried under six inches of wood chips for three years. The bottom layer is rich, black, mold composted wood chips and once I till it under will be great soil. I will need to add lime though since this tends to be acidic.