Category Archives: Townie homesteading

Sunday Self-Care: Making the beds

As I mentioned several weeks ago, I don’t stop gardening in the winter. Time spent working in the sunshine is a necessity if I’m to keep seasonal depression at bay, and winter is an ideal time to work on a garden’s infrastructure. My focus this year has been adding raised beds. I had six last year, and my goal is to have a dozen by planting time this year — a task that should be accomplished easily enough, as we generally buy one every paycheck, and we’re still five checks away from Planting Day.

I think the bird's-nest concept takes up too much room to work in the garden itself, but it'll be cute around a raised bed in the front yard later on.
I think that bird’s-nest concept takes up too much room to work in the garden proper, but it’ll be cute around a flowerbed in the front yard later on.

I’ve been filling the beds with compostable materials, peat moss, and finished compost. A third of a bale of peat on the bottom provides filler as well as drainage and aeration, and three bags of compost on top will just about fill up the bed, for a total cost of about $8 per bed.

I can’t say enough good things about these beds, which are just plain old 36-inch fire rings. They run between $30 and $45 apiece, depending on where you buy them and whether you catch a sale, and they’re lightweight, easy to position (just roll them where you want them), and make planting and weeding very easy. I installed them out of necessity — the juglones from the neighbors’ black walnut and pecan trees have rendered the soil in my backyard worthless for growing most vegetables — but they’ve proven so advantageous in so many directions, I’m not sure I’d go back to traditional rows even if I had the option.

As you can see in the picture, I’ve also started mulching with cedar shavings in between beds. They look neat, discourage pests, and smell nice when I walk over them.

Emily

 

P.S.: The tin cans you see in one of the rings in the top picture are leftovers from last year’s plantings. Besides being a good way to start seeds, the cans help protect young plants from marauding squirrels, which love to dig through my raised beds in search of nuts. My tomato plants wouldn’t have survived without them last year.

Looking ahead

I was standing in a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel with a paintbrush in my hand one bright afternoon in April when the managing editor of the local paper dropped by to talk about the mural I was working on. When he found out I was a professional journalist, he mentioned he was planning to retire soon.

One might, at this point, question why I am posting this from Cape Girardeau and not from Tucumcari.

The answer: I’d have had to take a 30 percent pay cut, and the income just wouldn’t have been enough to cover two car loans, two mortgages and the $5,000 transmission bill we’d gotten stuck with last winter. We live pretty frugally, but I know from experience that moving cross-country is an expensive proposition when you already have an existing mortgage.

A few weeks after we got home from Tucumcari, I picked up a book called Possum Living, which is about a young woman and her father who spent several years living without any sort of regular income. I loved it, partly because it validated my long-held belief that a sensible financial plan depends more on eliminating expenses than amassing wealth, and partly because it inspired me: If I paid off our debts, I could afford to move without undue stress.

I did some quick math and realized the best way to accomplish that goal would be to stop eating meals out.

In the span of five years, we’d eaten the equivalent of a new Volvo. If I took the money we were spending in restaurants and applied it to my credit-card bill, we could pay off the transmission by spring. With that paid off, we could use the newly freed-up money to pay off the car — then roll that money into the mortgage. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, we could be debt-free by Oct. 15, 2021, at which point we could start shopping for land in New Mexico to build the tiny house of our dreams.

Since early August, we’ve sent about $1,850 to the credit-card company. Every time I cook at home, I write down what that meal would have cost at a restaurant, and once a week, Ron sends the credit-card company the money we didn’t spend on dinner. It adds up fast: We’re averaging about $100 a week, and I expect that to go up in April, when our cellphone contracts will expire and we can switch to cheaper phones with cheaper plans.

I’m also losing weight (I’ve dropped 20 lbs. since July) and generating less trash via paper wrappers and cardboard boxes, which is better for the environment.

If we keep going at this rate, we should be debt-free in 2,119 days. Go, us!

Emily

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

Vegan Friday: Hard cider

Yes, I drink my cider out of a Champagne flute. The shape of the glass helps preserve the carbonation.
Yes, I drink my cider out of a Champagne flute. It’s that good. Plus the shape of the glass helps preserve the carbonation.

That’s right, kids: This week’s Vegan Friday project is booze.

This is not a quick recipe. It’s not terribly labor-intensive (you’re looking at maybe 30 minutes of actual work), but it’s done in three steps, and you have to wait two weeks between each step, so if you’re looking for instant gratification, this isn’t the project for you. Details below the fold.

Continue reading Vegan Friday: Hard cider

Belated Eco-Saturday: DIY rain barrel

Sorry I’m late with this. We had to wait for the weather to warm up so we could finish this project.

One quick way to reduce your water consumption is to collect rainwater for the garden. You can buy prefabbed rain barrels, but most of them are ridiculously expensive, and it’s easy to make your own for less than $50 worth of materials. Here’s how to do it:

Materials
Large plastic trash can with a lid
3/4-inch hose bibb (a.k.a. spigot)
3/4-inch metal washer
Two 3/4-inch female-threaded unions
Three-inch-long, 3/4-inch male-threaded nipple
Teflon tape
Small tube of silicone caulk
Bungee cord(s) long enough to stretch around the top of the trash can
Cheap mulch cloth*
Three 18-inch square pavers
Flexible downspout extender

Tools
Drill
3/4-inch hole saw bit
Tinsnips or utility knife
Scissors
Hacksaw

Start by using your hole saw bit to drill a hole about 4″ from the bottom of the trash can.

Wrap the threads on the barrel end of the spigot with Teflon tape. Slip the washer over the threads, put a bead of caulk on the washer, and push the threads through the hole as far as possible.

Reach into the trash can and screw one of the unions onto the threads from the inside.

When you’re done, caulk around the washer just to make sure you’ve got a good seal. I’d have used clear caulk instead of white, except I’d already screwed up and tried to seal it with pipe dope a week earlier after I discovered all my old caulk had dried up. I forgot that pipe dope never dries. Oops.

Caulking around the outside is probably overkill, but I wanted to make sure it wouldn't leak.
Yours will look better, because you won’t have pipe dope residue smeared everywhere.

Drill another 3/4″ hole about 2″-3″ from the top on either the left or right side of the barrel, depending on where you want your overflow pipe.

Teflon tape helps make a tighter seal.
Teflon tape helps make a tighter seal.

Wrap one end of the nipple with Teflon tape, insert it into the hole, and screw on the other union from the inside. Use caulk on both sides to make a watertight seal.

Once the caulk cures, cut a piece of cheap mulch cloth big enough to cover the top of the trash can, with about 4″-5″ draping over the sides, and secure it with bungee cords. (You may need to cut a small hole in the cloth to accommodate your overflow pipe.)

An extra pair of hands helps with this part.
An extra pair of hands helps with this part.

Drill a 3/4″ hole in the trash-can lid. Using the tinsnips or utility knife, enlarge the hole until it’s big enough to accommodate the downspout extender.

Put the lid on the barrel. Stack your pavers next to the downspout, set the barrel on top, and cut the downspout off about a foot above the top of the barrel. Install the downspout extender and direct it into the hole.

This lid was a pain in the arse, because it was convex. If you can catch a sale on one of those huge contractor trash cans with the flat lid, I'd recommend getting one. It will save you a lot of hassle.
Fact: Convex lids are a pain in the arse to work with.

Finish by attaching a hose to the overflow pipe and directing it away from the house or into another barrel.

Emily