Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Into the Holiday Weekend

I've been bustling around, getting some more canning and chores out of the way before my parents' visit, and now I'll sign off for the next several days. We're going into Labor Day Weekend here in the U.S., the last holiday of the summer, with most businesses closed on Monday and a mass exodus from the cities as everyone goes camping and boating and whatever else they might want to do before school starts. To beat the rush, I'm leaving on the train tomorrow to go up into Washington state and meet my parents for a couple days of camping and hiking at Mt. St. Helens, our local volcano. We'll come back into Portland on Saturday morning as everyone else is heading out, and spend the rest of the weekend here. It looks like the weather is going to be fantastic- after being a little colder and gray for the last couple days, the forecast for Saturday and Sunday is clear and 86 degrees!

Now that we have our new bed (which is SO comfortable, we've been sleeping like babies and it makes getting up in the morning really really hard!), we've moved the futon upstairs, and I've done a bit of cleaning up there, sorted out more of a pantry/food storage area in the basement, done a bunch of laundry, run some errands, packed for the trip and gotten all the yard work done that I had been putting off. The garden is in full production mode, so I've been blanching and freezing Swiss chard (silverbeet) and broccoli, picking lots of tomatoes, and pickling some of our hot peppers. More details on those activities later, when I tune back in next week.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Rainy Morning

I woke up this morning to find a delightfully autumny atmosphere, complete with some clouds and a bit of drizzle! After weeks and weeks of sunshine, it actually feels good to me to have a bit of rain. It's not particularly cold, and it feels really nice to sit in the living room with all the windows open, and get the nice clean-feeling breeze through the house, clearing out the stagnant air from all of our days of heat with no breeze whatsoever. For the first time in ages, I am wearing a sweatshirt while I eat my breakfast and have my coffee, and I think I'm using the change in the weather to be a little lazy, although I have plenty to do inside the house today!

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I was planning to do laundry this morning, but as it's supposed to get sunny again soon, I'll put that off till we have a good day for drying clothes outside. I was also planning to do a little work on the front yard, which we have neglected a bit lately and which has therefore renewed some of its jungle status. We have such an awesome back yard that we spent next to no time out front- we don't have a front porch or any other incentive to spend time there, so do a lot more maintenance in the back.

**Side note- I just looked out the window and there is a hummingbird buzzing around and getting nectar from the blossoms on my scarlet runner beans!**

The front yard needs a bit of work, we have a couple trees and bushes that are growing out into the walkways and driveway again, and a rose bush that has come down from the neighbors' yard and tags us in the head every time we get out of the car. On the other side of the yard, the rose patch is embarrassingly full of weeds (and I don't easily get embarrassed by abundance of weeds...) and needs a bit of work. But that will have to wait at least until the rain stops.

Meanwhile, I've got plenty of indoor activities to keep me busy: grate and freeze a couple of the big courgettes (I still prefer that name to zuchinni :) I got yesterday from my friend Bonnie (trading the first bunch of lemon cucumbers for the zukes); get to work on some gifts for some babies arriving over the next few months; get the upstairs cleaned up and ready to serve as a guest room for my parents' visit over Labor Day weekend; pickle and can our abundance of jalapeno peppers; and get our bedroom ready for our brand new bed that will be delivered this afternoon!

This is our last big expensive house-related purchase, this bed. Since we moved into this house two months ago, we've been sleeping on our old futon mattress, on the hardwood floor (the futon frame was too hard to maneuver into our little bedroom, so it went straight upstairs). Said futon is the same one that was in Matt's old apartment for two years, and then became the bed we slept on for the year and a half before we went to New Zealand. It is old, incredibly compacted, and not at all comfortable, especially when it's right on the floor. Our housemate John got us the hookup with a friend who works at a locally owned mattress store and said he could swing us a good deal, so we went in on Saturday and bought a deliciously comfortable queen size box spring and pillow-top mattress, plus two brand new pillows, and got a $25 discount and free delivery for knowing an employee! Neither of us has ever owned a brand new mattress, and I think it will do us both a world of good, as our backs have been complaining and we've been reminiscing dreamily about the very comfortable mattress in Lucy the Van, back in New Zealand! Our bed set will be delivered today, and Matt's dad has given us a beautiful old fashioned brass bed frame, which we both love, so soon we'll be sleeping on a real bed, and the futon upstairs will be ready to go for guests (with a little extra padding underneath in the form of Thermarest pads) and for us to use as a couch!

With that, I should go check on the chickens and then get to work! I just checked the weather forecast, and the gray weather is supposed to clear up and it should be back to sunny and 80 degrees just in time for my parents' visit this weekend! Thank you, weather gods!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Today's Harvest

It's tomato season, finally! What are you enjoying on this summer Sunday?

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Very Full Friday

Today was one of those wonderful days when I love being at home by myself, on my own terms, completing all the kinds of around-home tasks that make me feel most satisfied. I am too restless and too much of a social person for staying home alone every day to be appealing, but when I can have two or three days per week to just potter around the house and garden and get projects done, I am happy. Right now, I've got a bit more than that, as I'm unemployed again (as you may have noticed; I am done with the temporary job I was at). Too much time without a scheduled job or school makes me restless, but at the same time very prone to laziness. Right in between is where it's at for me.

I got up with Matt at 7:15 this morning, and after having breakfast and seeing him off to work, I took advantage of the unusually cool morning and watered the garden while there was enough chill that the water wouldn't evaporate straightaway. We've been in a 6-week long streak of dry, warm summer, which launched into 85-90 degree days about a week and a half ago, and for awhile the nights were pretty uncomfortable. Most days, I've been watering the garden just before dark, but we had forgotten to do it last night.
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This morning, for the first time, I felt a touch of autumn in the air, that slight crispness that says fall is just around the corner! I'm super excited to feel that, after all these hot summer days, my favorite season is almost here!

After watering the garden, I went through the morning routine with the chickens, letting them out of the henhouse and into the run. I always crack up at the way they all pour out of the hen house and down the ramp when I lift the sliding door. Next, I filled their feeder and washed out and refilled their water bowl and gave them a big handful of arugula to snack on.

I've been waiting for a day cool enough to be able to work upstairs, and this morning I finally managed it! Until about noon, the garret held off on its usual sauna effect, enough time for me to inaugurate my new sewing machine by making a cover for it, inspired by this pile of great fabrics I found at my favorite thrift store the other day, for a grand total of $6:

I am in love with this sewing machine. A million thanks to Laurel for gifting it to me, it makes me realize just how crappy my old one was, and makes me feel like I could sew anything! This sweet BabyLock sews quietly, it sews in a straight line with hardly any guidance from me, the tension adjustment answers correctly, and it is as smooth and easy to operate as you could wish--all things a sewing machine should do, but my old one didn't! :)

The completed cover. Not too shabby for making up the pattern on the spur of the moment, if I say so myself!

Back downstairs, I filled up the big kettle and put it on the stove before having lunch, and then set to work on preserving the boxful of peaches we picked up at a farmer's market on Wednesday. They were perfectly ripe today, so I dove in and found myself feeling like a 19th century farm wife, canning in an un-air conditioned (95 degree) kitchen in the heat of the day, with sweat running down my forehead. Except that I got to wear a light cotton skirt and tank top under my apron, rather than a full-length dress and a few layers of petticoats. Also, I had music (my Wailin' Jenny's station on Pandora, perfect for a summer day in the kitchen). I multi-tasked by mixing up a batch of banana bread once the first batch of jars were in the boiling water bath, to use some bananas that had ripened too quickly in the heat. So with the outside temperature at 83 degrees, two big kettles of hot water on top of the stove and the oven set at 375, it got pretty warm!

Canning peaches is an activity that certainly goes faster with a couple sets of hands, but I feel a sense of satisfaction at completing the entire process by myself. It's the first time I've canned anything besides jam on my own, and there are so many steps to putting up fruit! Sterilize the jars, blanch the peaches and then put them in an ice water bath, peel and halve them into a vinegar bath, make the sugar syrup, sanitize lids, all before the actual canning can happen. But I have 13 (a canner's dozen?) quarts of peaches to show for it (and they all sealed too), so we can have a home-preserved taste of summer this winter!

We're going to turn one of the sets of shelves in the basement into a pantry/root cellar space, because now we don't have enough space in the kitchen cupboards for all of our preserves. So tonight or tomorrow we'll have to get down there and shift some things around. All of the bulk extras/stockpile are already down there, in mouse-proof bins, and I want to get some good containers to keep potatoes in down there too, because right now they are in a cupboard that we could really stand to free up for other storage.

Happy Friday to you all, enjoy the weekend and may you be happy with your accomplishments!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Our Daily Bread

We got in the habit of making our own bread when we lived in Nelson, New Zealand. At that point we were so glad to be settled in one place for a little while and to take advantage of being able to buy things like flour and have a fully functioning kitchen, and it was also far cheaper than buying good bread. We lost the habit between mid-May and a few weeks ago, with all the chaos of traveling and moving, but now we have gotten it back! We make bread once or twice a week, and we've gotten John (our housemate) into the habit as well, so between the three of us we usually have a loaf of good homemade bread in the breadbox.
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 Matt kneading a double batch of bread last night.

My favorite recipe remains this one from Rhonda at Down to Earth. I've never really had it fail, and it's basic but very tasty. We usually do about a 60/40 mix of white and whole wheat flour. When I double this recipe (which then makes for two good loaves of bread) it calls for 7 1/2 cups of flour, so I use 4 cups of white flour and 3 1/2 of whole wheat. We buy our flour from Bob's Red Mill, which has a whole grain store and mill near us. I did a lot of comparison shopping for flour, with the suspicion that Bob's Red Mill would be the best option, and I was right. I could have gotten cheaper prices elsewhere but that would have been for bleached, enriched flour. Bob's flours are far more natural and less processed than most brands. Most flour is bleached simply for looks, and "enriched" because all of the natural nutrients in the wheat are stripped out during the processing, and since we would rather pay a bit more for good products to avoid the processed ones, we buy from Bob's Red Mill. I have always been a huge fan of their products; they make naturally processed flours and baking mixes of all kinds, and for every kind of dietary restriction: gluten-free flour, rice flour, graham flour, etc. In addition, they produce all kinds of whole grain cereals and sell grains like spelt, kamut, and quinoa. Their whole grain store is like a wonderland!

 Bread rising next to the breadbox that Matt found and refurbished for us last year.

We buy 25 lb sacks of flour, for around $16 apiece. We go through a bag of white flour in about two months, between bread and other baking. By my calculations, all ingredients included, we pay about $30 for two months' worth of bread. If we were eating the same amount of store-bought bread of the same quality, we would be paying for 1-2 loaves of bread per week at a price of around $4 per loaf. For 1.5 loaves per week for eight weeks, this comes out to a total of $48. That's a clear savings of $18 (and a dozen plastic bread bags) for us, and we get the added benefits of knowing exactly what goes into our bread, and the satisfaction of making it with our own hands, in our own kitchen.

Someday soon we hope to get a bread machine, to save us a bit on time and kneading. I can't knead bread, as it exacerbates an old repetitive stress injury in my wrists, so usually I mix up the dough, and Matt or John does the kneading. I'd love to have the option of just throwing in a batch and not having to worry about one of the boys being around to do that part for me!

At the moment we only have one loaf pan, so with a double batch we make a free form loaf or rolls. I'm on the hunt for another nice (cheap, secondhand) pyrex or ceramic loaf pan. 

For a long time, bread making seemed really intimidating to me, like it would take a lot of time and effort, but the fact is it doesn't, and it's easy to fit into your routine. It takes 15-20 minutes of mixing and kneading up front, and then it's all proofing and baking, during which you can work on other activities. So if you haven't tried making your own bread yet, try it- it's so worth it! I grew up on my dad's wonderful homemade sandwich bread, cinnamon swirl bread and cinnamon rolls (he would make massive batches, then put several loaves in the freezer), then lost out on the goodness of fresh bread for most of a decade. I am so glad to have it back! 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Balancing the Compost

Our compost heap has been suffering a bit, oddly from the opposite problem from what has plagued us in the past. It used to be that our compost was always too wet, as we couldn't come by enough brown, carbonaceous material to balance out the amount of green waste and kitchen scraps we produced. These days, with the amount of chicken litter (pine shavings + chicken poop) produced while the chicks were in their brooder box, our compost is heavy on the browns, with too little in the way of greens. This morning I got to work early, before the heat set in, and killed two birds with one stone by cutting back a bunch of herbs that were going wild along the back fence and using them to green up the compost pile.
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The compost heap first thing this morning: mostly brown

The chicken poo does a great job of firing up the compost, but in order for compost to really work, and for the contents to cook themselves and break down quickly, the ratio of nitrogen-rich (green) materials to carbon-rich (brown) materials has to be correct. Different sources claim different ratios as the best ones, but the one that seems to work best for us is one part green to about three parts brown. I think it may have to do with the fact that things are fairly humid and wet around here in general, so a little extra dry material in the pile doesn't hurt. For carbonaceous matter, we use the litter from the chickens, dry leaves, shredded newspaper, and dried roses when I dead-head the rose bushes. The brown materials take longer to decompose, so they need to be in small pieces, not big chunks. I've been pulling all kinds of big sticks out of the bottom of our heap- those would take ages to compost. 

The green material should be in smallish pieces too, but as the fresh green things decay faster, it's not as crucial that they be small. The green, nitrogenous materials we use are all scraps from our kitchen (besides meat and bones, although we do put fish in the compost if it's in very small pieces), weeds from the garden and grass clippings. Lately we've been short on the greens, because we're no longer mowing the lawn (we don't water our lawn, and in this hot weather all the grass has gone brown and isn't growing) and because we are giving more of our kitchen scraps to the chickens, because we want them to have a good varied diet and lots of fun bread and radish tops and veggies to eat in addition to their feed.

So, I set out to cut down this bank of oregano and lemon balm:

And this clump of mint, which was beginning to choke out my winter squash anyway:

We adore lemon balm, but it has a tendency to quickly outrun us, and we have about five patches of it around the house, so we always have a good supply. We also have other patches of oregano, so I cut it all to the ground. I have no concerns whatsoever about the mint growing back (it will be back in a week or so, I have no doubt!) so I cut it down completely as well.

The oregano is a bit too woody to put in the compost, but I added all the lush green lemon balm and mint, cutting it up with pruning shears. Every time I had a nice big green pile on top of the compost heap, I mixed it into the heap with the pitchfork, giving the entire heap a good turning while I was at it. We turn our compost every few weeks, to stir it up, aerate it, and give everything a good chance at getting mixed up together. 

While mixing up the pile, I found that the very bottom was composting well, and I did find a good number of worms and other wormy-type creatures that work at breaking down all the goods into nice dark compost for us. If everything is decomposing properly in a compost pile, that also means that there are lots of invisible microbes hard at work in there too.

 I think the pile already looks so much healthier, and it smells all minty-fresh too :)

Compost also needs occasional watering if it is drying out too much, so with any luck these added greens will decrease the need for us to use water to spur on the decomposition. 

When our current compost heap has been built up for a few more weeks, we'll stop adding to it and start a new one in the middle bin. Then we should be able to get a good rotation going, to have one active heap that we are adding to, and one that is available for us to take from, to enrich the soil in the garden. We have enough time left before fall that maybe our current heap will be ready for us to use when we amend the soil before planting fall crops. 

The nearest bin is where we put woody branches and stems. Some we keep to use as stakes for vegetables in the garden, but most end up in the big yard debris wheelie-bin that is included with our curbside garbage service. I was very excited to find out this week that starting in November, the city is switching the garbage pickup from weekly to every other week, and switching the yard debris pickup from every other week to weekly! This will be a great incentive for people to cut down on garbage, and to compost more! The City of Portland has been running pilot projects that include household food waste in the yard debris collection, and that program is going citywide in November as well! This means that all households will be able to put all their food scraps- meat included- in the yard debris bins, and that means a huge decrease in the amount of waste going into landfills from Portland. I know it will take awhile for people to get used to it, but I'm very proud of my town for taking the initiative to force people to re-think the amount of waste they produce, and to give everyone the option to compost, whether or not they have space to do it at home like we do.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hurrah for Small Blogs!

I'm super honored to have been given this award by Brenna at Conscious Earth today! Wow! What a great extra encouragement to continue blogging. What an amazing world we live in where we can have friendships just through writing and sharing our thoughts on blogs, and inspire and be inspired by people we have never met! 

This award is given to bloggers with under 200 followers. Here are the rules:

1. Thank the giver and link back to them.
Thank you so much Brenna! You're on my list of top small blogs, but so as not to confuse the pay it forward theme, I won't tag you this time :) I am so glad to have discovered your blog, I think we're kindred spirits!

2. Reveal your 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.

3. Copy and paste award to your blog.

4. Have faith that your followers will pass the love to other bloggers.

Yes, indeed!

5. And most of all have Bloggity-blog fun.

Mid-August Garden Report

I should have gotten to a garden update LONG before now, but what can I say? It's been a crazy busy summer. On this very hot (by Portland standards) afternoon I finally got out into the bright 90 degree sun to take some photos- you can see from the pictures how bright it is outside these days! It's the hottest summer weather we've had so far this year; the weather has been unreal for the last five weeks, no rain at all and days between 75 and 85 degrees, so pleasant and so great for our garden, planted just as the warm weather started! In no particular order, here is what our garden looks like today:

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 Two peppers on the left, with Tarragon at the back of the bed. Then a stripe of arugula, marigolds, and strawberries (I'm hoping they're the double-bearing kind and will give us another round of fruit in September. We'll see.

 Broccoli! I bought six organic broccoli starts, and they are all doing great, but have grown taller than I've ever seen a broccoli plant!

 Mint, three red cabbages, marigolds, cosmos, chives, and a winter White Hubbard squash at the right.

 Golden California Wonder peppers.

 Four-foot tall cosmos, broccoli, and our two cucumber plants. Silverbeet is hiding behind the broc, and we've already eaten the small patch of bok choy that was hidden in the midst of it all.

 All six cabbages have done well, but this one took a major hit from the Cabbage White caterpillars. For about two weeks in July, I did a daily search-and-destroy mission on the caterpillars, and they seem to have left off by now.

 (Not so) Early Girl tomatoes, about to ripen!

 We've been eating Hungarian Hot Banana peppers for the last couple of weeks.

 The Jalapenos are doing extremely well for themselves! It's salsa season!

 Our single garden failure so far this year was another winter squash that was planted here, that got powdery mildew. I couldn't revive it, so pulled it out, and a few days ago I planted two rows of leeks here, for a fall crop. We're planning to grow garlic in this bed, come October.

 Our cukes are going absolutely bananas- I can't believe how many blossoms are on each plant! These lemon cucumbers are our favorites, and we'll have plenty this year.

 A lovely lettuce mix from Johnny's.

 One of the umpteen pickling cucumbers we have harvested so far.

 Another two tomatoes at the back of the house.

 Strangely, our first ripe tomato is on one of the slightly stunted, leggy plants we got from a coworker of Matt's.

 More super-tall broccolis and my scarlet runner beans, which make me constantly happy, on the fence right outside the living room windows with their bright scarlet blossoms and their vines that grow a good four or five inches every day!

 A small patch of Bright Lights chard, although I still prefer to call it by it's Commonwealth name, Silverbeet (so much prettier!). I'll probably blanch and freeze most of it for eating this winter.

 My favorite lettuce, Spotted Trout Back.

 A great August combination: tomatoes and roses.

The bare patch at the left is where we grew our radishes, which we finished off about two weeks ago. I just planted that area in spinach to continue with our rotational growing of salad greens. 

With this stellar summer weather and consistent sunshine, we've kept endlessly busy with outdoors work, to the point that I am almost longing for a couple rainy days, so that we have to stay inside and do all the indoor projects that have gone to the back burner over the last month or so. Also, it would be nice to have a day cool enough to spend a comfortable day upstairs in the garret (which has recently been more of a sauna) working on the long list of sewing projects I have in store. Also it would be nice to be able to bake bread without having to time it in the evenings so that the yard is a good shady place for us to retreat to when the kitchen heats up! Still, I shouldn't complain; we are truly getting our endless summer!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Chicks Have Moved Out!

It's official, the chicks are all grown up and have moved into their own house (does this make me and Matt empty nesters?)! After several days of working full-out, the coop was finished at last light yesterday evening, and we moved it into place after dark and transplanted Cluck, Penny, Goldie, Esther and Lady M into the hen house for their first night in their own quarters, at the age of eight weeks! And yes, they all survived the night just fine and came out into the run this morning with very little coaxing.

Matt designed the coop and did the majority of the construction work, with help from John and Eliot, and then Matt and I spent most of yesterday doing all the finishing touches. Matt finished building the doors, we slapped on a few coats of stain to moisture-proof all the wood, attached the doors and latches, put on the roof, and finally tacked on the last piece of wire. I cut and split pieces of a lilac branch and nailed the pieces onto the ramp for a cool rustic-looking chicken stairway, and Matt took some extra time to jigsaw a beautiful cut-though in the hen house door. Once again, Matt has astounded me with not only his construction and carpentry skills, but his ability for practical design and also beautiful artistic touches- I think we have a lovely, practical, classic yet unique coop for our ladies.
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 I spent part of the morning raking back the gravel where the coop was to be placed on the west side of the house. This also involved picking over the ground and removing as many bits of glass and plastic as I could find (at some point the entire backyard was used as a garbage dump, we think) and leveling the ground where the "foundation' of the coop would go. I feel a great sense of achievement at the fact that when we set the coop down here, it was perfect level, just from me eyeballing it!

The almost-finished coop in the backyard. 

Matt putting together the side door for the coop.

 This morning: happy in their new space!

 This end is entirely door, hinged at the top and with barrel bolts on the inside. We'll add a latch that will hold it wide open, and have plans for a chicken tractor that can attach to this end. The coop is big enough that one of us can crawl in through this door if we need to.

 The beautiful sliding door that Matt built for the hen house, with a jigsawed koru (Maori/New Zealand symbol for new beginnings, derived from a fern fiddlehead). Right now it slides up and is held in place with a wooden pin, but we have to reach through the wire to get to it, which is kind of a pain. John suggested we make a little rope-pull for it with a cleat on the accessible side of the hen house, for easier opening and tying off, and we think it's a great idea!

 The nestbox still needs a couple dividers in it and a latch to hold it closed, but since the chickens won't be laying for a few more months we're in no rush, and for now a big old rock holds it closed!

 Penny has been celebrating the luxury of so much space by doing half-running/half-flying laps of the coop.

This side door on the hen house has barrel bolts at both sides and hinges at the bottom, so it opens outward. It still needs a handle for easy opening. This door allows us to scrape out bedding and droppings and clean the inside of the hen house. Inside are two nice roosts/perches made from camellia branches.

The only materials we paid for in the making of the coop were the screws, latches, hinges, fencing staples and one sheet of plywood. The rest of the lumber was scrounged (the side door above is made from a wooden futon frame we got for free off the curb a few blocks away) or gifted to us. My cousin Carol and her husband Greg passed on extra 2x4s and an extra roll of the welded wire from the making of their chicken run, and Matt's dad had the extra 1x1s and other scrap wood. We already had the stain, nails and of course all the tools. The only other chicken-related investments we've had to make were for a bale of straw, and a new bag of feed; our flock are now graduating from chick feed to developer feed, and have also been eating veggies, bread and other exotic treats for a few weeks now. We need to find a better water container (something they won't tip over and walk through constantly) and build a bigger feeder, but the biggest job was getting the coop finished so they could get out of their cramped box. Now we can reclaim that corner of the living room, and our flock have plenty of space to roam around, safe from the elements (the entire coop is under the wide overhang on the end of the garage) and from predators (the only ones we really have to worry about here are raccoons, and the welded wire is about as raccoon-proof as you can get).

Time for me to go empty and discard the brooder box and remove all the chicken detritus from the living room! Happy roaming, mini-hens!