The Great Outdoors

We spent much of this past winter bundled up in the house, so now that spring seems to truly be here, we’re spending a lot of time outdoors.

A few weeks ago we had our first fire of the spring. Our dogs seemed disappointed that they could only watch from the deck while we roasted hot dogs.

dogs

 

We went fishing a couple of times this past week. Lili looks like a natural:

Lili Fishing 1

 

I asked her what she thought of fishing and this was her response:

Lili Fishing 2

 

Naomi’s style is a bit casual:

Naomi Fishing 1

 

In spite of her laid back fishing stance, Naomi caught her first fish this past weekend!  It was a “monster bluegill” that she named “Swimmy” before we released him back into the wild.

Naomi and Swimmy

Naomi even let Swimmy pose for a picture with Lili:

Lily and swimmy

For now, we’re just working on the garden and watching the first signs of tomatoes appear

Garden Fairies

Tomatoes

 

Enjoy the spring and summer… we are!

The New Clothes Line, Simple Excitement

clothes lineThis weekend my daughter and I installed a clothesline. It’s a pretty simple thing actually, not something that most people would be excited about, yet the project is now the source of two blog posts, this one and one by my wife on her blog. There were some interesting moments with my daughter and I during this project.

First we measured out where we wanted the poles, and I began digging. Lili had never really seen a post-hole dug with a clamshell post-hole digger before, and was fascinated as I slowly dug the hole, pulling dirt out and dumping it directly into the wheel barrel. She wanted to try, so I of course let her try, and she actually did it! Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t pulling much dirt out, and most of what she did pull out fell to the ground before she wrestled the taller-than-her tool all the way up to the wheel barrel, but she did it.

Once the holes were dug we put a few handfuls of gravel in the bottom of each hole for drainage. It was a great chance to discuss drainage, freezing water expanding, etc.

Next we put the poles in, and mixed up the concrete. Those of you who have mixed concrete in a wheel barrel know that there’s really not all that much to it. You add some water, mix it with a hoe, and continue drizzling in more water until you have just the right amount, just the right stiffness to the mix, then you work it into the hole around the post. For most of the project I was in charge of the mixing and Lili was in charge of the water, but twice she insisted we switch so that she could try her hand at mixing.

It was during this process that we had some interesting conversation.

Lili: Did your daddy teach you to mix concrete when you were 7?

Me: Well, yeah, I think he taught me to mix concrete, but I don’t remember how old I was.

Lili: You’re teaching me because you’re a good Daddy, and good Daddy’s teach their kids how to mix concrete.

We finished the concrete on Saturday, so Sunday we finished putting it all together, tied the line, and Debbie hung the first loads of clothes to dry. It’s funny though, the amount of learning opportunities and the level of excitement in our house from putting up a clothes line. I wonder how many people would have bought clothes dryers “back in the day” if the sales pitch had been this: “I know your clothes line works just fine and uses no energy other than sun and wind, but how would you like a device that dries the clothes in your own home, at the push of a button, and all you have to do is be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for it, maintain it, replace it, and realize that every time you use it to dry a load of laundry you’re going to be paying to use electricity that is generated from the burning of fossil fuel while creating pollution and raping the landscape?”

No, I’m not THAT self-righteous about this all, and there will be plenty of times we dry clothes in our dryer. I’m just pretty excited about not having to rely on it for ever load of laundry my busy house generates.

Vine-Ripened and Grass-Fed

I love tomatoes. Last year my wife said we put in “too many tomato plants,” although I can’t seem to even process that sentence. I love to eat them sliced onto burgers and sandwiches, sliced with cottage cheese, just sliced with salt, or even right off the vine like an apple. So I’m going to admit, that there were times in the past, before we got back in to gardening, that I walked by the simple tomato section at the store, and paid the premium for some vine-ripened tomatoes. Sure, they cost a bit more, but isn’t it worth it to get vine-ripened?

Probably not.

See, I always interpreted vine to mean the tomatoes ripened on the vine. I kind of had this image of a patient tomato picker carefully inspecting a nearly all-red tomato, waiting until that last little bit turned from green to red and the tomato was just begging to be eaten. Nope.

Vine-ripened does not mean they were picked when in full color, as one might assume. It simply means they were left on the vine a tad longer, only long enough to show a minute changing of green to color at the blossom end.

You see, with American’s increasing interest in health, and specifically our willingness to spend our hard earned money on things we perceive as more healthy, and more natural, the marketers have gotten better at leveraging words like healthy, natural, and organic to increase their sales.

Maybe you’ve seen some of the PETA videos of chickens crammed into pens so tightly that their feet don’t touch the bottom of the cages. These poor animals live a horribly unnatural life, never seeing the sun, unable to move, and fed growth hormones because we like out chicken breasts and wings large. So maybe you’ve decided to do your part by only buying free-range chickens. Sure, they cost a bit more, but once again, isn’t it worth it to know the animals lived a life uncaged, roaming freely around acres of open land and eating what they natural choose to eat?

It might be worth it, if that’s what it really meant, but it doesn’t. “Free-range” doesn’t really speak to the diet of the chicken at all, nor does it address the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. But surely it means the chickens lived unrestrained, right?

“In the United States, USDA free range regulations currently apply only to poultry and indicate that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. The USDA regulations do not specify the quality of or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must access to the outside.

The term “free range” is mainly used as a marketing term… As of now what constitutes raising an animal free range is entirely decided by the producer of that product.”

Marketers are really good, at taking our money. I know that we are tempted to think we’re too smart, and too informed to fall for their tricks… just like the mark in a pool hustle things he’s good enough to win, but just keeps losing. They are really, really good, at convincing us we need what they’re selling and that what they’re selling is healthy and natural, even if they have to redefine exactly what “healthy” and “natural” mean.

Yet another reason I want to continue growing my own food as much as possible.

 

The Circle of Life

BinA few days ago I was out in the driveway drilling holes into to two storage bins like the one pictured here. Twenty 1/4″ holes in the bottom of the bins, a bunch of small holes around the top edge of the sides of the bins, and more small holes in the tops of the bins. My 32-year-old son happened to walk up as I was drilling the holes and asked me what I was doing. “Making worm bins,” I replied. He asked what they were for, and I said, “For the worms, of course.”

Let me explain.

We’ve ventured into the world of vermicomposting (aka vermicasting), which is the process of allowing worms to eat certain waste products, then poop organic material called vermicast. This material is wonderful for gardening. In fact, as the worms work their magic, a liquid will slowly drain out of the holes in the bottom of the bin to be collected and used as fertilizer. This stuff is so good for gardens that some people vermicompost in horse troughs instead of storage bins, then sell the worm castings (the poop) and the worm tea (the liquid drippings) to other gardeners.

So we have our vermicasting setup with 500 worms enjoying their life creating worm tea and poop for our garden.

Let’s get this straight. Yesterday the girls and I ate mangos, then we put the mango peels in the bins with the worms. As the mango peels break down, the worms will eat them, then create worm poop and worm tea. We’ll put the worm poop and tea on the garden to help our vegetables grow better. Then we’ll harvest the vegetables, eat the edible parts, and throw the peels and other non-edible parts to the worms to start the process again.

It not be as glamorous as holding up a cute, newborn lion cub, but THIS, my friends, THIS is the circle of life!

A Sprinkling of Spring

Our efforts to “Homestead Where We Are” (aka “bloom where you’re planted until you can transplant yourself”) are doing quite well.

  • We have recently made an agreement with a friend who runs an ethical small farm. We have purchased chicks and will be purchasing a piglet that our friend will ethically and organically raise for/with us. She lives close enough that we’ll be able to visit the animals and participate in some of the care, but too far away to be involved on a daily basis. Still, it’s our first foray into raising our own meat, and we’re thrilled.

 

  • The gardening has started. We have some of our cold weather crops in and growing (cabbage, kale, onions, etc.). They are all doing well, but the onions are doing exceptionally well. One of our regrets last year was that we didn’t grow nearly enough onions. We’ve made the adjustment this year.

 

  • It’s asparagus season, and I couldn’t be happier! I’m not an expert at growing asparagus, but whatever we’ve done over the past number of years must have been right, because we can barely keep up cutting the asparagus. We’ve already had quite a bit in our meals, and I’ve given some away to a friend at work. This year we tried our hand at making pickled asparagus. Yesterday my wife canned 6 quart-jars of pickled asparagus. Unfortunately two of the jars broke in the water bath (and we’re not quite sure why). But we’ve got 4 quarts of pickled asparagus, and we’ll have several pounds of asparagus to cut by tomorrow.

 

  • As I’ve written about in a previous blog, our seedlings have been wildly successful. We’re still 2 – 3 weeks away from getting the tomatoes and peppers into the ground, but many of the plants are so tall I’m probably going to have to put some stakes in to help them stand upright while they’re still in the house in pots!

I love this time of year.

I Finally Did It!

Like most wives, my dear wife has a “honey-do” list for me. Like most husbands, I do some things on my list very quickly, and procrastinate the living daylights out of other things. There has been an item on the list for a very long time that I’ve been consciously putting off – installing a battery-backup sump pump.

For those of you that don’t live in areas where they use sump pumps and sump pits, let me explain. When our house was built, the builder surrounded it with drainage tile to collect the water (that would otherwise work its way in through the walls of the basement), and divert it into a sump pit. The sump pit is simply a hole, slightly smaller in diameter than a garbage can and maybe 3 feet deep. When it rains heavily, the water soaks into the ground, diverts through the tile, and pours into the sump pit.

If that was the end of the story, the pit would simply fill with water… then the basement would simply fill with water. We’d get all of the “benefits” of water in the basement without the hassle of making the water work its way in through the walls. But sitting in the sump pit is a submersible pump, otherwise known as a sump pump. This pump sits in the pit, and when the water level in the pit gets high enough, the pump kicks on and pumps the water up a pipe, outside, and 20′ from the house.

That is, the pump does all of that IF it has electricity. But in my little, Midwest town, we lose power several times a year, and if we lose power during a rain storm, my dear wife gets very nervous that the basement is going to flood. She asked me to put in a batter backup sump pump a few years ago, which I did, but it never quite worked right. The battery would not charge, and the pump wouldn’t work in the testing even with power.

So a few days ago I finally broke down and bought a new kit. Now I’m not going to lie – I put this job off for two key reasons. First, I don’t like doing plumbing projects of any type to begin with. More importantly, I didn’t feel super confident in my abilities to get this one right. So my theory was, “Why do today what you might not do right, particularly when you can put it off for tomorrow. Or next year.”

But yesterday I did it. I planned out the plumbing connections into the existing line, bought the materials, measured it all and cut the PVC, glued in the new pipe and check-valves, filled the battery with acid, wired it all up, tested it, and it works! I probably stared at the control panel with pride for a solid two minutes just smiling at the “battery is charging” indicator.

I’m proud of my work, and I can’t wait for the next power outage.

Noise

Noise. One of the things I look forward to in someday living on our homestead is the “noise factor.” Right now we live in a town of 1,200 people. Spring brings out the flowers and the leaves and the birds, but it also brings out the noise. The neighbor working on his truck until well past my daughters’ bedtime. Another neighbor practicing his drumming equally late. Cars and motorcycles speeding up and down the streets at all hours.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t “blame” these people, or dislike them. They’re living their lives, doing what makes them happy. I just don’t want to hear it, and certainly not late into the night.

I also think about my own noise. I have three dogs that love to bark. I get tired of trying to contain their barking out of respect for the neighborhood. I look forward to just letting them run and bark at squirrels, or birds, or each other.

As I type this, my daughter is screaming. She was born in Ethiopia and has beautiful hair. She loves to have it braided with colorful clips on the ends, she just hates the process of braiding it. My wife is very carefully parting the hair and braiding it, making sure to not pull very hard at all, but you couldn’t tell that by listening to my daughter. “Tender headed” doesn’t even come close to describing my daughter. She’s screaming as if she is being tortured, yelling things like, “Stop it mommy, YOU’RE HURTING ME!!!”

Every time it’s hair-braiding day I find myself wondering if this will be the day the police show up and say, “Sir, we’ve received a call…” Honestly, Officer, we were just braiding her hair, and we were doing it as gently as possible!

So on the one hand, I really look forward to living out in the country, with plenty of acreage between me and my nearest neighbor, so I won’t have to listen to him work on his truck in my back yard, and I won’t have to worry about my dogs annoying him. I guess I’m also saying that I look forward to it so I don’t have to worry about the neighbors calling the police because they hear my daughter screaming. Of course it sounds bad when you write it down like that…