Adventures of a townie homesteader

April 23, 2014

Our second colony of bees arrived today via the good ol’ U.S. Postal Service. I had to cover an arraignment this morning in Illinois and thus missed the fun when Ron installed the girls in their new hive, but he reports that they seem to be as saucy little wenches like every other Buckfast colony we’ve ever owned. I’m pleased. I like Buckfasts. They have attitude problems, but they tend to be healthy and incredibly productive. I’m willing to endure the occasional sting from an overzealous guard in exchange for good harvests and healthy bees.

Meanwhile, we’re down to eight quail. Three died a couple of weeks ago of mysterious leg issues that I suspect had something to do with sloppy breeding, and I had to cull a fourth today when I came home for lunch. Little snot beat up one of his broodmates last night, so I switched him to a different brooder and mixed up the flock a bit to shuffle the pecking order. This just gave the bully a new crop of victims, and by the time I got home this afternoon, the little turd had bloodied another bird, so I spent part of my lunch hour teaching myself to dress quail.

It wasn’t terribly difficult or messy, and as I told my mom: I’d rather dress out a clean, healthy bird I raised myself than handle factory-farmed poultry from the grocery store, with all the risk of food poisoning that entails.

In related news, I gave the quail tractor a shot of lacquer and plan to spend tomorrow morning clipping some little birds’ flight feathers so they can go live outside. (Just the thought of that makes me deliriously happy. These little guys are cute, but I’m tired of dealing with litter and the itty-bitty waterers that go in the brooders and have to be refilled umpteen times a day.)





March 30, 2014

Our quail finally showed up at the feed store today. We brought home a dozen. Squeeeee!




This is where they’ll live when they get big enough to go outside:


I’ll have an Eco-Saturday post about our quail-rearing adventures in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, here are a couple of quick facts about the cage you see above:

1. This is a “quail tractor” — a portable coop designed to protect the birds while giving them access to fresh forage. I’ll post details when I do the instructional post — complete with plans and a materials list — but for now, the upshot is that it’s a similar setup to the one we used for our chickens in Tulsa, except I designed it to suit the needs of quail, which are smaller and have different habits and preferences than chooks.
2. It’s not quite finished. It needs a roof, some corner braces to reinforce the lid, and maybe some removable insulation panels around one end to keep the quail warm in the fall. The hard part — cutting and attaching the hardware cloth — is done, though.

Now we just have to keep these little guys healthy and happy until they’re big enough to work in the garden. I hope they’re as enthusiastic about scratching up weeds and eating bugs as our chooks were.


Eco-Saturday: Bottle your own water

March 29, 2014

Bottled water is stupidly expensive and generates an unconscionable amount of completely unnecessary plastic.

If you’re me, it’s also just about the only way to ensure you stay adequately hydrated, because I haaaaaate tap water and seldom drink any water at all unless it’s convenient.

Fortunately, for less than the price of two months’ worth of cheap bottled water, you can buy a good filter and several reusable bottles and DIY. (Don’t reuse a standard water bottle. They’re hard to clean and bad about harboring bacteria. Toss them and buy whatever bottles you can find on sale in the camping aisle.)


I can’t find my step-by-step pictures of the filter installation process, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s ridiculously easy. I’ve owned at least three or four faucet-mounted water filters over the years, and none of them cost more than $30 or took more than 10 or 15 minutes to install.

If for some reason you don’t have the option of installing a filter on your kitchen faucet, you can get filtration pitchers in varying shapes and sizes. Most of them cost $15 to $30. One caveat: Some models are prone to mildew, so if you get one, take it apart and run it through the dishwasher once in a while to prevent this.

If you really want to encourage yourself to drink more water, get yourself a good infusion pitcher to flavor that water after you filter it. An infusion pitcher looks like this:


I got mine for $15 at Target. The clear tube in the middle holds chunks of fruit, cucumber, etc. I fill the tube with a handful of whatever frozen fruit happens to be on sale, and I replace it as needed — usually every couple of days. Even if you buy organic berries, you’re not likely to use more than a quarter’s worth per day, which makes this an inexpensive luxury. (Come summer, I’ll switch to cucumbers and peppermint, which the garden will provide for free.)


The simple pleasure of a spring weekend

March 23, 2014

Contented collie.

Today was just about as close to perfect as it gets.

We met up with my friend Sam in Chaffee this morning, got a tour of the gorgeous Queen Anne house she’s restoring, and followed her out to her dad’s farm to pick up compost starter. It’s been a long time since I scooped horse manure out of a barn. I should do that more often; it’s good for the soul.

After we got back from Chaffee, we went and had lunch (I had a very passable chicken-fried steak at the Sands Pancake House on 61 here in Cape) and then got to work. We layered the manure with dry leaves in the compost bin, cleaned out the pond, landscaped the area where we plan to put the beehives, measured the garden, bought fencing materials to keep the dogs out of the plants, and picked up equipment and feed for the quail chicks I’m getting later this week.

I cannot begin to explain how good all that felt. Last year was wonderful, but I really missed the amenities we had in Tulsa — bees, chooks, pond and garden. I’d still like five minutes with whatever idiot thought it was a good idea to ban backyard chickens, but if I can’t have chooks, quail should make a fairly acceptable substitute.

A few visual highlights:


Mulch cloth, edging and three bags of cypress mulch should keep the weeds down around the beehives, which we’re setting up next month.


As we start Year 2 in the Darwin Garden, we have at least two survivors: this strawberry plant …


… and these chives. I love the dependability of chives.


Riggy guards the compost bin, which is now full of horse manure and dry leaves — the perfect balance of browns and greens.


Best friends enjoying a pretty afternoon in the backyard.


Ron helped refill the pond after I bailed the murky water out of it. We have established that it holds approximately 50 gallons.

I also found time this weekend to make yogurt, get a massage and a haircut, put together a couple of Eco-Saturday posts, check out Cape Comic Con, and make a batch of laundry detergent.

I’m tired and dirty and sore and happy, which is as it should be.

Hope your Sunday was good, wherever you are.


Eco-Saturday: Coffee conscious

March 22, 2014

NOTE: This is the second of two Eco-Saturday entries I’m posting today to make up for the lack of a post last week.


Saving the planet with help from the Good Doctor.

I am a shameless coffee junkie. One way I’ve reduced my environmental footprint is by making my own coffee and bringing it to work in a reusable container.

Here are a few tips and instructions for making three popular drinks: plain, single-serving coffee; cappuccino; and mocha frappes.

Plain coffee

First, don’t buy a Keurig. They are obscenely expensive and generate a lot of unnecessary waste. You can get a good single-serving coffee maker that will brew directly into an insulated travel mug for $25 or less. I use this model. Make setting up the coffee maker part of your before-bed routine. That way, all you have to do in the morning is flip the switch on your way into the shower.

For a coffeehouse-worthy experience, buy unflavored, whole-bean coffee (preferably fair-trade and/or organic) in small quantities and grind it as you use it. You can get a decent burr grinder for $40, and it’s well worth the money. Avoid flavored coffees, as artificial flavoring is often used to mask inferior-quality beans. If you want your coffee to taste like hazelnut or vanilla or whatever, buy a bottle of Torani syrup and DIY.


Ignore the big bubbles in the froth. I tried using almond milk for this one. I don’t recommend it. Some things were never meant to be vegan.


Real cappuccino is one part espresso, one part steamed milk and one-third foam, and you can’t make it without an espresso machine. Anyone who claims otherwise is either a fool or a liar.

You can buy a perfectly good espresso machine for less than $50 at any big-box store. Just be aware that when you are using a small machine to make cappuccino, you may have trouble getting it to build up enough steam to froth and heat the milk. To prevent this problem:

1. Make sure the coffee is ground finely enough. Some of the pre-ground “espresso” is too coarse to work well in small machines, as the water flows through it too quickly to build up a good head of steam.
2. Set up the machine to make four shots instead of two. This helps ensure you have adequate steam.
3. Tamp down the espresso as firmly as possible. (The bottom of a shot glass works well for this purpose.)

This is a great demonstration of the frothing process, which is the hard part:

Frothing takes practice, so don’t get frustrated if your initial efforts are less than satisfactory.


Purple haze courtesy of the growlights I’m using on my tomato seedlings, which are in the dining room at the moment.


Frappes always make me think of Travolta’s “five-dollar milkshake” riff from Pulp Fiction. They are not worth $5. Make one yourself for less than $1.

Start by making a couple of shots of espresso. Add an equal amount of any kind of milk (skim, whole, soy, almond, whatever) and a handful of ice cubes.


Ice cubes, ice Daleks — potato, potahto.

Add chocolate syrup to taste and blend until thick and frosty, adding more ice if necessary. (Protip: Most blender blades will fit on a narrow-mouthed Mason jar, so you can make the drink and serve it in the same container to save time and dishes. This also works well for smoothies.)

Top with whipped cream and chocolate sauce if desired, add a straw and enjoy.


February 16, 2014

I did several things this weekend, but this was the most important:


That would be the new mini-greenhouse shelf unit I found on sale for $17 while I was picking up seed-starting trays this afternoon. I bought four growlights to go with it and put them on a timer so the seeds I started this evening — parsley, chives, Genovese basil, cilantro,  sage, echinacea, wisteria, pumpkin-on-a-stick eggplant, and eight varieties of tomato — will have enough light.

While we were at Menard’s, we found a compost bin for $30. I generally prefer a compost pile to a compost bin, mainly because I like turning the pile and watching it steam, but I don’t have a good way to keep the dogs from raiding it at the moment, and this bin was cheap enough that I’m OK with using it for a year or two until I figure out my optimal planting areas and install a garden fence.

Walter is terrified of the shelf. I think the assembly process freaked him out. We had the refrigerator delivered last week, and this week, I brought in several boxes, assembled a shelf in the middle of the dining room, and rearranged the furniture to accommodate it. Last time we started bringing in boxes and dragging furniture around, we were preparing to move, which Walter did not like one little bit, so he is understandably concerned this evening.

Poor kitty. His life is so stressful.

Meanwhile, I’m over here beaming, because Planting Day is two months away. Whee!


A visual account of my weekend

February 9, 2014

So here are the things I did this weekend:


Brand-new, and I’ve already cluttered up the top.

1. Bought a new refrigerator. Our house didn’t come with a refrigerator, and we were pretty much broke when we moved, so rather than shell out $400 or more for a full-sized appliance, we just picked up a 3.1-cubic-foot dorm fridge at Target and called it a day.

I delayed upgrading it because I assumed a tiny dorm fridge would use less power than a full-sized model, making it better for the environment. The old one did use less power, but only about 40 kWh per year less. The tradeoff: I had to buy a lot of products in single-serving packages, and I had to buy bottled water because my refillable bottles leaked when I laid them on their sides to get them to fit on the shelves. I also had to pass up a lot of organic products because they weren’t available in small packages. All of that adds up to a lot more than 40 kWh per year in environmental damage.

Another unexpected benefit: The old refrigerator had a brushed-stainless-steel surface. As you can see above, the smooth white surface of this new one doubles as a dry-erase board I can use for menu planning, thereby saving paper while increasing the odds that I’ll remember what I have on hand and use it up before it spoils. (In my world, every smooth surface is a dry-erase board. Just ask my former students, who thought I was terribly subversive the first time I pulled out a marker and worked a math problem right on somebody’s desk.)


You know I’ll seize any excuse to buy a power tool.

2. Insulated part of the basement ceiling. I ran out of insulation before I ran out of ceiling, but the bathroom and kitchen floors are now insulated to R-13. I’m getting ready to make some rice-filled draft blockers for the doors, too.


Do not judge my lifestyle choices.

3. Lived dangerously. Has anybody in the history of time ever paid any attention to this directive? This has to be the work of the same lawyer who was responsible for California’s idiotic ban on respectable cupcake sprinkles.


Reservoir Dogs?

4. Took this picture of Riggy and Song looking like a couple of badasses out of a Tarantino movie.

Hope your weekend was good, wherever you are.


Vegan Friday: Super Bowl snacks

January 31, 2014

So let’s say your sidekick waltzes in on Friday afternoon and informs you that the two of you are attending (or worse, hosting) a Super Bowl party in 48 hours. Annoying, yes, but don’t panic. Here are three vegan dip recipes you can throw together in about 30 minutes. That’s total, not each.

NOTE: These are the fastest possible versions of each recipe. If you have a little time and feel like dressing them up, any of these can be improved by substituting fresh ingredients for their processed counterparts, but the versions below are perfectly fine to eat while drinking beer and watching football.


This is an easy make-ahead recipe that works equally well as burrito filling.

Refried Beans

1 can pinto beans, drained
1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes with green chiles, drained
Olive oil
Onion powder
Garlic powder
Chili powder
Ground cumin


Refried beans also make a killer topping for chili dogs.

Put a little oil in the bottom of a big frying pan or wok, dump in the beans and Ro-Tel, and cook until heated through. Add onion powder, garlic powder, chili powder and cumin to taste. Mash with a potato masher and serve with tortilla chips.

Two more recipes below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Eco-Saturday: Thermophilic compost

January 25, 2014

Compost is a gardener’s best friend.

If you’re planting a garden this spring, now is a great time to start a thermophilic compost pile.

First, some vocabulary: The type of composting we’re talking about today is thermophilic composting. The term thermophilic means “heat-loving” and refers to the type of bacteria you’re trying to encourage to grow in the pile. As these bacteria break down organic materials, they give off heat. You’ll know you’ve got a healthy thermophilic compost pile when you plunge a pitchfork into your compost pile and see steam coming from the middle.

To get a compost pile to heat up, you need four ingredients:

1. “Green” (nitrogen-heavy) organic material, such as grass clippings, vegetable scraps or animal manure.
2. “Brown” (carbon-heavy) organic material, such as dry leaves, sawdust or peat moss.
3. Water.
4. Oxygen.


Grass clippings are great compost starter.

Start with roughly equal parts greens and browns. Lay down about a six-inch-thick layer of browns, cover it with a six-inch-thick layer of greens, and water it until it’s about as damp as a wrung-out washcloth. Repeat until you have a pile about four feet wide, four feet long and four feet high.


Still kicking myself for giving that outfit to Goodwill. 

Once a day, use a pitchfork to turn the pile. The best way to do this is to leave a space next to your pile that’s the same length and width as the pile itself. To turn the pile, simply move it into this space, one forkful at a time, watering it several times as you go to make sure it stays damp. (Just water as needed; if the pile is sopping wet, you obviously don’t need to add any more moisture.) The next day, move the pile back to its original spot, one forkful at a time. The whole process takes about 10 minutes.

Use a container with a lid, such as a one-gallon ice-cream tub, to collect kitchen scraps to add to your pile. Add the scraps to the center of the pile, where they’ll break down faster. Avoid putting meat, dairy or grains into your compost, as they can attract rodents.

Happy composting!


Carnies and Buckfasts and Italians — oh, my!

January 7, 2014

It’s 22 degrees outside, and snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but I’m not paying any attention to winter’s tantrums at all, because my mind is already assembling frames and dumping boxes of bees into hives.

One summer without bees was about as much as I can handle, so I’m really amped about the fact that Ron has placed an order for some more of those ornery Buckfasts from Texas and made an appointment to pick up a nuc of Carniolan-Italian hybrids from an ol’ boy over in Stoddard County in April.

I can be content without many things, but an apiary is not one of them. It’s been way too long since I suited up and popped open a hive. I expect this will be the sweetest spring ever.



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