Finishing the Root Cellar

When we moved into our house years ago, we had no idea that we had a root cellar. From our point of view, we had a wet, nasty closet area off our foundation that needed to be cleaned up and made to stop leaking. Needless to say, as we came to understand the value of root cellars and what they were, we were glad that we had not been able to make a significant change to our root cellar since moving in.

We were able to put an insulated door on the root cellar, paint it, run electricity to it, and build shelves turning it into a great place to store our potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade wine, canned goods, etc.

Vented Root Cellar

A good root cellar has a few components – good insulation, high humidity, and good ventilation. We had plenty of humidity, plenty of insulation (the ground) but no ventilation. We fixed that by adding vents. This was easily done by drilling holes in the foundation (through the cement block) and running 1 1/2″ PVC pipe through the side, then up through the flower beds outside. We used a bend at the top to keep out rain and a screen on each one to keep the critters out.

Root Cellar

The way this works, the supply vent should bring cold air (when it sinks) down the pipe and into the root cellar. The source pipe goes nearly to the floor and the vent pipe on the adjacent wall has a vent at the top, to let the rising hot air escape. We decided to give it a little assistance by adding a powered fan to the vent. This was done using a few PVC fittings from Lowes and carving out a spot for an old computer exhaust fan wired to a 12v DC cordless phone power cord. We then plugged it into a timer like this to have it come on at the cooler parts of the day to cool off the root cellar and keep the fresh air moving through.

Root Cellar with Shelves

Lastly, we added shelves made from furring strips. This was a cheap alternative to purchasing shelves and allowed us to make custom-fit shelves for the root cellar. It took just under four bundles of furring strips (10 to a bundle) to finish – so for about $40, we were able to build simple shelves that would allow the air to circulate through the shelved items.

We plan on covering the nasty floor that is currently there with some small gravel. This will allow us to spray water on the floor that will then evaporate to maintain the humidity at or around the 95% humidity that root cellars need.

If you don’t have a root cellar, they’re easy to make in many homes. Just find a non-heated section of your basement (preferably with no window), wall it off with well-insulated walls and a door and vent it. Most people tend to aim for an ideal temperature in the mid 50’s. This keeps things like apples, potatoes, onions and garlic, sweet potatoes, etc. good for just about the entire winter.

In our case, this allows us an energy-free (mostly – when the fan isn’t running) means of preserving the freshness of our summer harvest. If you don’t yet have a root cellar but enjoy growing your own produce – consider a root cellar as your next DIY project!

Falling off the roost

A few days ago, we experienced our first dose of the reality of caring for small animals. It all started when one of our hens started exhibiting some strange behavior. The kids came in the house exclaiming “I think Risa’s dying!”. She had fallen off the roost in the coop and hadn’t landed well. She had been very still most of the day, was off to herself, had her eyes closed, etc.

There were no other apparent symptoms, so diagnosing the ailment wasn’t going to be easy. The symptoms this bird exhibited were common for just about every chicken illness. After some consideration and research, we thought that maybe she was “eggbound” – a condition when an egg gets stuck inside a hen and can cause death soon afterward is not passed. While some people do take some drastic measures in these cases – from probing around inside of their chickens to seeking veterinary care, we chose to do neither. Instead, we gave Risa (the hen) a nice warm bath – something we’d seen recommended for this condition. She was completely listless. At one point, we laid her on her side while we retrieved a towel and she just stayed there – totally unnatural for a chicken. We dried her off and set her in her own cozy straw-lined box for the night.

When we awoke in the morning, what we had expected had taken place – Risa passed away sometime in the night. In 24 hours we had gone from apparently healthy chicken to a sick and then deceased chicken! While we wonder why, and continue to examine our flock for signs of illness or distress, the reality is tat these things happen. Birds, like all living creatures will come to an end of their lives.

Rather than dissect this bird who had become a pet to our kids, we chose to just chalk it up to a sickness – likely Marek’s disease or something else that is common to chickens. We then cremated the carcass in order to quickly and humanely deal with it in a way that would not pose any health threats to ourselves or our flock.

Our children (4,9,12) all handled things pretty well. The younger two did not like the cremation idea but were more accepting of the outcome once they understood the humane reasons behind it – to protect the flock, and to avoid seeing Risa’s carcass dug up by some other animal. Yes, the cried – and at times even screamed. We don’t think this was so much because of a fondness for this hen, but because of the reality of death which no human enjoys being reminded of – particularly children. Ultimately, we found it a good opportunity to discuss issues of life and death and our kids came out of the ordeal with strength and new understanding.

We know this isn’t instructional per se – but in our journey to a simple life, sometimes the unexpected happens. Hopefully our sharing our experience will help someone else go through this process.

The specifics of moving from Verizon (with DSL) to Ooma

When we signed up for Ooma and decided to port our phone number, we could not get a consistent answer from either Ooma or Verizon regarding what would happen to our DSL service once the number was ported. Ooma was pretty sure that our DSL service would be dropped and we’d be without internet until we re-established the service. Four separate calls to Verizon regarding this resulted in four separate and inconsistent responses. Three times we were told from Verizon that our service would automatically shut off when the phone number port was completed. During one other call, the Verizon rep insisted that the default action when a phone service with DSL was ported was to convert to “dry-loop” or “naked” DSL. He was right.

You’d think that Verizon and Ooma would both have enough experience with people canceling Verizon phone service to go with VoIP services including Ooma to know what the standard process was! Since we could not locate straight answers from anyone, we decided to write this post to re-assure those who are going through the same process.

Yesterday, after about two weeks with Ooma, our phone number port was successfully completed. We didn’t lose internet service at all. Today, we received two communications from Verizon. One email, the other voice mail (on our newly ported number). Pretty much, all that’s required to keep the DSL is that we contact them within 7 days and provide a new means of paying for the DSL service since we won’t be receiving a bill.

Here’s the Voicemail left from Verizon:
Voicemail from Verizon

Here’s the text of the Verizon Email:

Dear Valued Verizon Online Member,

We know how important your Verizon High Speed Internet service is to you, which is why we are sending you this letter to help make sure that our records are updated following your recent request to change your voice telephone service to another provider.

As a result of that request, your Verizon Online account has been automatically modified so that we can continue to provide your High Speed Internet (HSI) service without Verizon voice service. Your HSI service remains active, and your email address, portal selection (if any), and value added services (if any) will all remain unaffected. If you were previously on a high speed internet annual plan, your commitment has transitioned to your new package and has not changed.

If you wish to continue enjoying Verizon’s High Speed Internet service, please contact our Billing Department at 1-800-567-6789 within the next 7 days. If you do not contact us within 7 days, your HSI service will be suspended for a period of thirty (30) days, then disconnected. If you attempt to access the Verizon HSI service during the suspension period, you will be presented with an opportunity to verify or change your billing information and restore your service.

If you do not wish to retain your Verizon High Speed Internet access service you do not need to take any action. Your service will be suspended after 7 days. Any charges incurred for HSI service following completion of your order to cancel Verizon voice service will be automatically credited within one to two bill cycles.

Your HSI service without Verizon voice is provided on a new dedicated data telephone line: [private]
Please retain this number to help us identify your account if you call us for assistance.

Your new monthly rate for Verizon High Speed Internet without voice is $ [private] per month, effective [private]. Any Verizon bundle discounts you may have previously had are no longer applicable and, if applicable, a bundle early termination fee will be assessed for cancelling the voice component of your Verizon bundle. Your use of the HSI service continues to be governed by the Verizon Online Terms of Service. You can review the Terms of Service by visiting: Internet Access Terms of Service

Thank you for choosing Verizon Online High Speed Internet!

Sincerely,
Verizon Online
Broadband Customer Care Team

So there you have it! If you’re porting a home phone to Ooma from a Verizon local phone service with DSL this is how it works – for now at least!

Adding kitchen waste to your garden without composting – should you do it?

We’ve seen many people skip the compost process and place their kitchen waste directly into their garden. While this won’t kill your plants, there’s some things to consider when taking this approach.

Among other things, one of composts’ benefits is providing nitrogen (N) to the plants in your garden. The process of composting is actually one of micro-organisms breaking down the decaying material. Here’s the thing – these micro-organisms require nitrogen for this process. Until the process is finished, the composting process will TAKE nitrogen. If this is happening in your garden rather than a properly constructed compost pile, your plants will suffer from a lack of nitrogen to the decaying waste in the soil rather than receive from it. This must be overcome with additional nitrogen. What value then is there in doing this? Personally, we think it’s best not to put non-composted material onto your garden unless it’s mulch which will not have this same effect. Unless you generate a LOT of kitchen waste, it’s not likely that it’s really acting as mulch.

That doesn’t mean you cannot add this waste to the garden before it’s composted, but one would wonder what is the benefit since you’ll need additional nitrogen to compensate for what’s used in the break down process? Until it’s composted, the waste will not provide many benefits. Rather, it will take longer to decompose into valuable nutrients than if it were in a compost pile and could also attract all manner of undesirable pests and critters to your garden – not to mention it will likely smell. Not to mention, who knows if things like Salmonella would easily transfer from kitchen waste onto your otherwise fresh veggies 😉

Save yourself the trouble and build a compost heap or pile. You’ll be able to receive benefits faster this way and with far less hassle.

Using dandelion roots as a coffee substitute

We’ve had a growing interest this summer in foraging and the use of wild edible plants. While cleaning up the garden today for the upcoming fall/winter, we decided to use some of those pesky weeds that have infiltrated our vegetable garden.

Roasted coffee substitute, here we come!
We thought about pan-frying or sautéing the dandelion roots, but roasting them and making a drink out of them sounded a bit more fun. We gathered about 3/4-1 lb of dandelion roots for this process. It’s important to note that we have not treated our lawn with harsh chemicals or fertilizers that could cause health concerns when using these weeds as a food source.

Dandelion roots prior to roasting for coffee alternative

Dandelion roots prior to roasting for coffee alternative

Preparing the roots for roasting
The first step was to prepare and clean the dandelion roots. This was done by removing the leaves where they meet the roots and inspecting the roots for rot, damage, insects, etc. It should be kind of obvious where the “joint” between leaf and root is – that’s where you cut. We then took the cut roots and sloshed and soaked hem in a large bowl continually replacing the water with fresh water until the water was clear.

Chopping the Dandelion Roots

Chopping the Dandelion Roots

Next, we took the root pieces and using a hand-chopper (a food processor would be another way to do it), we chopped up the roots into smaller pieces. We left the stringy roots as is – they’re no problem.

Once this is done, we rinsed the chopped pieces again using a strainer until the rinse water was clear. This is not something you need to be super careful about since roasting will likely kill anything harmful.

Preparing dandelion roots for roasting on cookie sheet

Preparing dandelion roots for roasting on cookie sheet

Once rinsed and as clean as we could get them, we spread the pieces out on a cookie sheet and placed in our oven at 250℉ for about two hours, gently agitating the pieces every 20-3o minutes or so during the roasting process. The roots smell pretty nice while roasting – something akin to roasted sweet potatoes. The final result will be much smaller than what you started with.

The finished roasted dandelion - about enough for 8 cups of brewed drink

The finished roasted dandelion - about enough for 8 cups of brewed drink


Ready to brew!

After the pieces cooled off, we placed them in our coffee grinder and ground them to a fine powder, just like we would for coffee. These roots are not as potent as coffee, so for every tablespoon you would normally use in coffee, plan on using two tablespoons of the dandelion roots. The ground roots are quite pale in color compared to coffee when ground. It was almost a khaki color.

Here's the ground roasted dandelion roots, just before brewing. Notice the color!

Here's the ground roasted dandelion roots, just before brewing. Notice the color!

While brewing, the dandelion drink gives off a rather pleasant, earthy aroma. It looks very much like coffee in the coffee pot and in the cup, unless you are accustomed to dark-roasted coffees.

Down the hatch boys and girls!
When finished brewing, we added cream and sugar to taste as we would coffee and enjoyed our new drink. Our whole family tried it (ages 4-37) with everyone thinking it tasted fine, just a tad bitter (like coffee). If you’ve every drank Cafix, this drink is not far off in flavor, although we enjoyed it more than we have enjoyed Cafix in the past.

Happy campers enjoying the caffiene-free roasted dandelion drink

Happy campers enjoying the caffiene-free roasted dandelion drink

Why are we doing this again?
We did this primarily for the experience of doing so, and to share with others. However, if circumstances of life were to place us in a context where coffee was unavailable, knowing this little process would provide us to come pretty close to our normal routine of starting the day with coffee. Additionally, there are plenty of nutritional and medicinal reasons to know how to use dandelions to our advantage (read on). Lastly, why work hard to eradicate dandelions when they offer useful benefits? It’s always good to know how to use our resources to their full advantage.

A bit about nutrition…
According to our trusted standby “Prescription for Nutritional Healing“, dandelion has the following useful chemicals and nutrients: Biotin, Calcium, Choline, fats, gluten, inositol, inulin, iron, lactupicrine, linolenic acid, magnesium, niacin, PABA, phosphorus, potash proteins, resin, sulfur, vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, B9, B12, C, E and P, and zinc. Apparently, it also has many useful medicinal uses. Since providing medical advice is beyond the scope of our blog, we’ll leave you to look up the specifics and determine if it’s an appropriate means for your needs.

Growing and Harvesting Sweet Potatoes

Today we had the fun experience of harvesting sweet potatoes. Here in PA, we aim to harvest them before the first fall frost which is still nearly a month away. We could have waited a few weeks to let the potatoes get a bit bigger, but sometimes we just harvest when you get the itch!

Getting started growing sweet potatoes
Growing sweet potatoes is very easy, but it requires some patience and forethought. We started back in Feb/March during the winter by visiting our local grocery store and selecting a few small sweet potatoes. Next, we place them in mason jars that with water covering about 1/3 of the tuber. To keep the tuber still, we placed large skewers (broken into smaller lengths) like one would use for grilling into the top of the tuber so that the tuber’s weight rested on these skewers keeping the bottom of the tuber off the bottom of the jar. This is because some of the slips that begin to grow do so from the bottom. It’s just a preference of ours.

How long will they take to sprout!?
After several months (like 2-3), we had healthy slips growing from the submersed tubers. It will seem like forever before they start to grow. They might not grow, but give it a chance! About 1-2 weeks before you intend to plant the slips, remove them from the submersed tuber and place them in their own jar of water. They will re-sprout “water roots”. These will be important for getting the plant established.

When to plant outdoors
When the soil is good and warm (sometime in May for us) , mound up some well cultivated soil into a pretty large furrow. You want the mound to be deep enough to allow for some good tuber growth. Make sure the soil is well cultivated. We added a little bit of composted horse manure and also some peet moss as well. Next, cover the mound with black plastic or landscape fabric, then punch 1″ or so holes about every 18″. We only ended up with 6 usable “slips” from the above process, so we spaced ours out a bit more. Use a stick or something similar to drive through the holes in the black plastic/fabric down into the soil a good 12″ or so. Place a slip in each one, then lightly pack the soil back around the slip and water each slip well. Over the growing season, be sure to occasionally side-dress the tubers with some fertilizer (we use fish emulsion). In several weeks, the slips will start to expand and voraciously cover the surrounding area. It will be somewhat invasive at times, so bear this in mind when choosing a location to plant!

How long do they take to grow and how do you harvest?
Most varieties take from 95-110 days to mature. When that much time has elapsed, or just before the first fall frost, pull back some of the black ground cover and paw around the base of one of the plants. You should find some nice-sized tubers!

This is what a cluster of tubers will look like when you start to paw around

This is what a cluster of tubers will look like when you start to paw around

To harvest, remove the top ground cover of the plant, pull back the black ground cover and gently start to paw around where the base of each slip had been planted. You should find collections of 6-10 tubers where each slip had been with occasional tubers in between or at the edges. We use our hands to harvest and it’s something nearly the whole family enjoys. Harvesting tubers is a very kid-friendly thing to do. You’ll want to encourage your children not to pull on the tubers too hard, and not to use tools that will pierce the potatoes. Aside from that, it’s kind of like digging for treasure.

Once harvested, allow to sit for 6-8 hours in the sun, then move indoors to a warm (70-80℉) room for another week or so before placing in storage. Sweet potatoes should hold up well in a cool dry place for the winter (root cellar, garage, basement, etc).

Gotchas!
We found that deer really like to eat the sweet potato greens. See our previous post about deer repellent to read how we prevented this. Also, it’s important to regularly inspect the area surrounding your black ground cover. It’s quite common for burrowing rodents to sneak under their and harvest your tubers for you! Perhaps a cat could help with this task 😉

How about yield?
Only 5 out of our 6 slips survived because one snapped while planting. For each slip planted, we grew approximately 6-10 tubers averaging about 3-4 lbs. of tubers per slip. Next year we’re planning on planting quite a few more slips and planting them closer together which would have given us a higher yield. For our family of five, we grew just about the number of potatoes we’d eat over the winter months. We might use 3-4 tubers in one meal and eat them every other week or so at most, so this is sufficient yield for us. We would prefer to grow about 20-30% more than we require to share with others, account for spoilage, and also to set aside some for next year’s seed.

Our harvest of Sweet Potatoes from 5 slips

Our harvest of Sweet Potatoes from 5 slips

What about the greens?
We’ve read that some people harvest and eat the sweet potato greens as well. Apparently in Japan, their quite common. We’ve never done so. Today, we fed our greens to the chickens to give them some nutritious snacks.

It’s more than just flashlights and duct tape!

For the non-militia member too!
We have some hesitation about writing the topic of emergency preparedness because of some long-held stereotypes people have. As followers of Yeshua, homeschoolers, Pennsylvanians, etc. some people would just naturally expect us to also be of a survivalist or militia mindset. We can assure you, we don’t belong to the NRA (not that we have objections to them), we don’t have a backyard bunker, heck – we don’t even own gas masks! Nevertheless, we do see some value in being prepared for uncommon or exceptional events.

Are you really prepared?
Plenty of people would call themselves “prepared” for an emergency ranging from a few hours to a few days. Several months ago, we began to be challenged to consider whether or not we were prepared for “the long emergency” – that is, longer-term disruptions to food, medicine, public services and utilities, etc. Perhaps to some, this sounds apocalyptic? Maybe, but there are plenty of non-apocalyptic reasons to be considering these sorts of scenarios.

Prepared for what?
We live in an age of increasing natural, political, and ecological turmoil. Is it really beyond reason that an event such as a large hurricane, solar flares, political unrest, or God forbid, a larger terrorist attack could substantially disrupt life as we know it for weeks or months? Ask those victims of Hurricane Katrina their experiences and you’ll see how desperately ill-prepared most people were.

What’s needed?
To weather these sorts of long emergencies requires more than flashlights and duct tape – it requires advanced planning and preparation of both your mind and your resources. It requires having the resources in advance that will permit your family to survive and thrive during these times, should they come. Your family will never find harm in having 1-3 months of food stocks on hand, or from owning a generator, knowing how to garden, hunt or forage, etc. Emergency preparedness offers only benefits since the skills and resources required will benefit any family.

Preparedness builds community
We’re not personally interested in a “survival of the fittest” way of surviving an emergency. Rather, we’d prefer to be in a place of blessing others with the knowledge and resources we’ve gathered to prepare for such a time. When prepared, families are in a position to help others rather than fearing for their own survival. Should the situation never arise, there’s still benefits to your family and community. Working together with your friends and neighbors to acquire resources and plan for these possibilities deepens relationships and strengthens your community.

Where to find information?
There are thousands of resources online that outline good strategies for preparing for such an emergency. We’ll leave that info to those who excel at such. One such resource that we have found to be extremely helpful to our family is a book called “When Technology Fails“. Every family should own this book! This book covers a wide range of topics covering all the basics of food, water, shelter, medicine and then some. It’s also a primer on alternative energy sources, gardening, foraging, food storage, etc. It’s not a survival manual like you’d expect to find in an Army-Navy store, but more like a manual for the average joe to hold up for a while in an extended emergency. We cannot recommend this book enough. If you can only afford one book on the topic of preparedness, this would be it.

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency

Hopefully, you and your family and community will give this topic some serious consideration. It could mean the difference between life and death for you, your family, or anyone else whom you’re able to help. Remember – prepared families make for good and strong families and communities! Please give this topic your careful and prayerful consideration.