Category Archives: Organic living

Eco-Saturday: Kitchen composter

As we work toward our long-term goal of building a tiny house someday, I’ve turned our small-but-not-tiny house into a sort of de facto laboratory for experimenting with products and tools that conserve space while increasing convenience. I’m blogging the ones that work here, in case anybody else is looking for ways to save space and time.

Over the years, I’ve tried several strategies for collecting compostable materials as we generate them in the kitchen.

I started with my mom’s tried-and-true approach: Keep an old ice-cream tub on the kitchen counter and throw peelings and cores  into it as you work. It’s not pretty, but it worked fine when I was a kid, and Mom and Dad were cooking for a family of five and sending a kid out to the compost pile with a full tub of scraps every day. It doesn’t work so well in a household with only two people in it, as the tub takes the better end of a week to fill up, during which time it will start to smell pretty raunchy.

To reduce the odor problem, I tried keeping kitchen scraps in a half-gallon Mason jar. The jar took up a smaller footprint on the counter, but it also had a smaller mouth (making it hard to scrape things into); depending on what was inside, it could look pretty gross; and while the lid sealed in odors well, it also encouraged anaerobic bacteria growth, which made opening it extremely unpleasant after a day or two.

I finally resigned myself to daily trips to the compost bin (which ultimately resulted in a lot of perfectly good scraps going down the garbage disposal during crummy weather), but one evening at work, when I was killing time after deadline, I stumbled across the Kitchen Compost Caddy on Amazon.

I really need to pay more attention to what's in the crisper. Throwing strawberries in the compost bin is just depressing.
I really need to pay more attention to what’s in the crisper. Throwing strawberries in the compost bin is just depressing.

It’s expensive (I gave nearly $60 for mine with shipping), but it’s really well designed, and I’ve used it a lot more than I expected. I like it because it doesn’t take up any space on my counter; the filter keeps it from smelling weird; and it has a little metal gizmo on it that holds the lid open while you scrape plates and stuff into it.

If it makes you feel better about the price, you can think of it as a steampunk garbage disposal.

I take ours out about once a week and empty it into the big compost bin at the same time I change the litter in the quail pen (thus striking a nice carbon-nitrogen balance in the pile) and hose it out while I’m refilling their big water dispenser.

Emily

P.S.: Nobody’s paying me or giving me free products to get me to endorse anything. I just posted this review because I bought this thing and liked it and thought somebody else might, too.

Quail update

As promised, here is the update on my quail project. As those of you who have been around here for a while know, I’ve kept quail off and on for two years now, with varied results.

Based on my experience, quail have three major drawbacks that make me hate the city’s anti-chicken ordinance with the fury of ten thousand Africanized honeybees:

1. Coturnix quail chicks are incredibly stupid, which makes them difficult and frustrating to raise.

2. In addition to being tiny, quail eggs have very thin shells and very thick membranes, which makes them difficult to crack without breaking yolks and getting flecks of shell in your breakfast.

3. Coturnix quail are messy and will waste more food than they eat. I spent an outrageous amount of money on feed and bedding last year after my poor little stupid birds threw their food all over their pen instead of eating it.

I solved the first problem by purchasing adult birds from an ol’ boy out near Little Grassy Lake who raises quail for hunters to use in training bird dogs. Babies are cute and fuzzy, but adults are the only way to go if you don’t want to drive yourself crazy.

I solved the second problem by ordering a pair of quail-egg scissors from Amazon.com. No more broken yolks, and no more eggshell in my sandwiches. Best eight bucks I ever spent.

That little blade just guillotines the end of the egg right off. Handiest gadget in my kitchen, to be honest.
That little blade just guillotines the end of the egg right off. Handiest gadget in my kitchen, to be honest.
The scissors make a nice, clean cut so you can dump the egg right out into the frying pan.
The scissors make a nice, clean cut so you can dump the egg right out into the frying pan.

The third problem took a bit of research, but I was delighted beyond belief to find the solution on YouTube:

If you’re considering quail, buy yourself a cheap soldering iron and a 99-cent plastic shoebox and make this little feeder. The whole project will pay for itself in less than two weeks. (I already had a soldering iron in the garage, so my feeder paid for itself in about a day.) My birds went from wasting a cup (or more) of feed a day to maybe a teaspoon.

I live too far from Wisconsin to buy this guy the beer I owe him for sharing this design, so I’ll do the next best thing and send some traffic to his website, Homesteading Ways. Seriously — go check it out. He and his wife have some good stuff on there.

Emily

Checking in

Good Lord. Did I really just go almost three months between posts? Ridiculous. I promise I’ll try to do better.

Since my last post, I have:

* Spent a week in October painting murals in Tucumcari — one on the side of Tee Pee Curios and one in a garage at the Blue Swallow. It was a great vacation and a wonderful way to relax without slacking. I also established some good habits while we were out there — namely, walking a lot more and getting up a little earlier — which seem to be paying some health benefits I’ll discuss at length in a future post. I’ll try to put some pictures up soon, too.

* Swapped my chickens for another flock of quail. I swore I wouldn’t mess with quail again, because last year’s flock was a pain in the arse, but some ratfink snitched to the city, the very week our chickens FINALLY started laying, so Hazel (whose parents live in the country, and whose mommy wanted to start raising chooks again anyway) now has her very own flock of buff Orpingtons. Rather than give up fresh eggs altogether, which would be letting the terrorists win, I dragged the quail pen out from under the deck and exploited that loophole in the city code, with the help of a couple of small tools that proved to be a giant help. I plan to have a post later this week on everything you need to know to make quail as easy and fun to deal with as chickens.

* Held my first book signing. I sold 31 copies and raised about $350 for my hometown library’s history room, which was cool. I also got to see my sixth-grade English teacher, who is one of my favorites, and whom I hadn’t seen in the better end of 30 years, which was even cooler.

* Created a detailed plan for paying off debt, reducing our environmental footprint, and prepping for an eventual move to a tiny house somewhere in or near Tucumcari (which, for the record, doesn’t have any ridiculous anti-chicken ordinances in its city code). I’ll be sharing some of that over the next few weeks.

* Lost 19 pounds, mostly by eating at home more as part of the aforementioned debt-reduction plan.

I know I’ve scoffed at New Year’s resolutions in the past, but the one I made two years ago (to blog recipes and eco-friendly projects every week) resulted in a lot of good, useful content, some of which has been shared pretty extensively on Pinterest, and the one I made at the start of 2015 (to develop a taste for hops) resulted in drinking a lot of high-quality craft beer and making friends with some really interesting local business owners, so I think I’m going to unveil a few goals/resolutions/projects for 2016 in the next couple of weeks. At least one of them will involve posting here more regularly, because I miss it. :)

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Cheap all-purpose cleaner

citrusweb

I use vinegar to clean almost everything. I don’t mind the smell, but then again, I’ve been known to order Pickle Pops by the case. Some people balk at using vinegar as a household cleaner, because the smell can get a little intense.

Enter this excellent idea I found somewhere online (Pinterest, probably) for recycling citrus peels into all-purpose cleaner.

You will need:
A good-sized jar with a lid
Distilled vinegar
Citrus peels

Cut up the peels into manageable chunks. Roll up each piece of peel as tightly as you can, shiny side out, and put it in the jar. (Rolling causes the pores of the outer skin to release citrus oil, which is the key ingredient in those pricey biodegradable cleaners you get at the health-food store.)

Cover the peels with distilled vinegar, close the lid tightly, and let it sit on the counter. Add peels as you get them. Every time you add some peels, add enough vinegar to cover them. Any kind of citrus peel will work — orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc. I bought a juicer recently and caught a sale on grapefruit, so I had a lot of grapefruit peels handy. I also had some Clementine oranges and a lime, all of which went in the jar.

Let the jar sit for at least a week after the last addition of vinegar. The longer it sits, the more it will smell like citrus instead of vinegar.

Strain the vinegar into a spray bottle and use it as you would Windex, Formula 409 or similar multipurpose cleaners. The peels can go in the compost pile. (Unless you’re vermicomposting, of course. Citrus and vinegar are both too acidic for worms.)

Emily

Gardening in January

I know, I know, I owe you an Eco-Saturday. I had one in the works, but I’m being treated for insomnia, which has created some obstacles to my usual blogging patterns. (The tradeoff: I might finally catch up that sleep deficit I’ve been running since 1988.)

Anyway. I’ll make it up to you next weekend, but in the meantime, I want to show off the work we did for the garden today.

I’ve spent most of the winter buying a galvanized metal fire ring every couple of weeks and rolling it into the garden to use as a raised bed. I now have six rings — five lined up in the garden, and one tucked into a shady corner next to the garage door, ready to be inoculated with the morel mushroom spores Ron ordered for us the other day.

I had some good intentions about using the rings as composters, but I haven’t had time to pick up horse manure this winter, so we just took advantage of a pretty afternoon to cruise up to Lotus NatureScapes, where we picked up seven big Rubbermaid tubs full of compost for $10. You read that right: $10 for all the compost we could haul home in my station wagon. A similar quantity of prepackaged topsoil from a big-box store would have cost at least $75, and I’d have had a mess of non-recyclable plastic bags to deal with when I finished. Such are the merits of bulk purchases from mom-and-pop businesses.

Anyway, we filled two beds and got a good start on a third. If the weather cooperates, I’ll try to pick up a few tubs of manure next weekend and start cooking up some thermophilic compost in the remaining rings. We’ve still got plenty of time to make a couple of batches before spring.

While I was moving the fire rings into position in the sunniest part of the garden, I repositioned the walkway slightly and put a thick layer of leaves — which Ron has been piling back there since November — between the beds to keep the weeds down. Here’s how it looks now:

ringoffire

ringoffire2

They should be more impressive come July, when big, healthy tomato plants are growing out of them.

When I finished with my outdoor gardening, I came inside and set up my planting shelves so they’ll be ready to start seeds next month:

plantshelf

I borrowed an idea from Ron’s mom and outfitted each shelf with growlights. I’m keeping the shelf in the basement this year so I won’t have to spend all my time chasing the cat out of it. (I should probably tell the guy next door that I’m starting tomatoes down there so he won’t mistake my Tigerellas for weed and call the cops. I love our local K9s, but this house is altogether too small for an enthusiastic German shepherd to go dashing through it in a futile search for nonexistent contraband.)

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Darwin gardening

darwin8

In the Southwest, xeriscaping is popular, as it involves planting only native and/or drought-tolerant species in your garden so you don’t end up draining every aquifer west of Amarillo in a misguided effort to keep some delicate green thing alive.

Here in the Midwest, I practice a variant I developed by accident, which I call “Darwin gardening.”

Sage is a reliable perennial for a Darwin Garden.
Sage is a reliable perennial for a Darwin Garden.

The original Darwin Garden was located in our backyard in Belleville, Illinois, and it happened by accident: I started with a neat garden divided into four-foot squares delineated with old bricks I’d found in the garage, with neat mulched paths between them, and by the time we left, my laziness and absolute refusal to coddle weak plants left me with an unruly but outrageously productive tangle of perennials and vigorous self-seeding annuals that included echinacea, parsley, Roman chamomile, chives, dill, sage, spinach, cilantro, mint, marjoram, oregano, carrots, blackberries, and waist-high collards that thought they were perennials.

The Darwin Garden wasn’t neatly manicured, but it was healthy, low-maintenance, and completely organic. When you let natural selection dictate your landscaping design, you don’t need pesticides, heavy watering or other environmentally questionable practices to keep your garden thriving. You also don’t need huge blocks of time to take care of your garden, because your plants will be sturdy enough to survive without constant coddling.

Arugula -- a vigorous self-seeder if allowed to bolt -- has replanted itself all over the center bed and beyond.
Arugula — a vigorous self-seeder if allowed to bolt — has replanted itself all over the center bed and beyond.

We have a similar garden here. When we moved in last year, I planted a small garden, watered it occasionally, and otherwise ignored it, knowing the fastest way to find out which plants were suited to the local growing conditions was to neglect them and see whether they survived.

That's not a yellow Easter egg. It's an overripe cucumber I'm leaving to rot over the winter. Come spring, it will put out a whole clump of seedlings.
That’s not a yellow Easter egg. It’s an overripe cucumber I’m leaving to rot over the winter. Come spring, it will put out a whole clump of seedlings.

A year into that experiment, I’ve got sage, strawberries, mint, basil and Shasta daisies that came up with no help from me, and next year’s arugula and cucumbers have already planted themselves.

Late lavender blossoms. Lavender is known as a reliable perennial, though this is the first year I've had any luck growing it.
Late lavender blossoms. Lavender is known as a reliable perennial, though this is the first year I’ve had any luck growing it.

If you’re a little bit concerned about the environment and a lot lazy, consider planting your own Darwin Garden. If you can tolerate the frustrations of that first year, you’ll find it pays big dividends in subsequent seasons.

Emily

Why sustainability?

I’m seeing a few new readers drop by here lately, so I think this is as good a time as any to welcome the new folks and remind longtime readers of what I’m trying to do here.

While I added the weekly Eco-Saturday and Vegan Friday features in January, the principle behind them goes back to 1975, when a young member of the back-to-the-land movement was busy burning up her Osterizer one-upping Gerber on my behalf.

For 39 years, I’ve enjoyed the perks of an environmentally responsible lifestyle without spending a fortune or sacrificing any of the creature comforts most middle-class Americans have come to expect, and I suspect if others were aware of those perks, they’d be much quicker to embrace the idea of sustainability.

In exchange for minimal to moderate effort, my family and I enjoy a host of everyday luxuries we’d never be able to afford if we had to buy them off the shelf, and we keep our ecological footprint down in the process. For instance:

Backyard beehives supply us with sweetener for our toast, pollinators for our garden, and beeswax for skin-care products.

I can’t remember the last time I bought parsley, sage, rosemary or basil, and the mint I planted last spring has given me a virtually inexhaustible supply of peppermint tea. Meanwhile, between the cayenne plants and the cucumbers, I may never have to buy hot sauce or pickles again; I’m still harvesting arugula from under the frost blanket; and Ron just took three bushels of black walnuts to Martin Walnut Tree Farm to have them shelled last week.

In the past year or so, I’ve discovered the advantages of making my own yogurt, soap and beer. At this moment, I’ve got two gallons of nutbrown ale carbonating in the basement next to a finished batch of hard cider pressed from locally grown apples. While everybody else is drinking pasteurized, mass-produced swill, we’re enjoying freshly brewed craft beer for the same money.

Not everything we do for the environment is luxurious, of course, but most of it saves money, and very little of it requires any significant investment of time, money or effort.

To learn more about how you can save money and enjoy the satisfaction of a more sustainable lifestyle, search the Eco-Saturday and Vegan Friday category here on the blog, or hop over to my Pinterest board and start exploring the possibilities.

Emily