Time to think about gardening!

It’s snowing furiously outside at the moment. It probably seems crazy to think about gardening this time of year, but this is when we start to plan for the upcoming season. Where we live, the growing season us typically from the end of May til the end of September. Gardening, like most things worth doing, takes preparation and advanced planning. There are seeds and stock to buy, beds to build, repair, and manage, plants to start, and much much more.

We’ve recently bought nearly 100 types of seeds not counting seed potatoes and sweet potato slips that we’ll start ourselves this weekend likely (see prior post on growing sweet potatoes). This year we aim to grow several thousand pounds of produce. Yes, you read that right several thousand pounds. Why so much? We aim to grow as much of our own foods as possible. This includes food for immediate consumption throughout the growing season as well as food to store for the winter. We also like to share with others and this gives us the means to do that.

Here’s some of what we’re growing (multiple varieties of each):  Amaranth, Beans, Beats, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Burdock Root, Butternut Squash, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumbers, Eggplants, Jerusalem Artichokes, Kale, Kohlrabi, Leeks, Lettuce, Melons, Onions, Peas, Peppers, Potatoes, Pumpkins, Rutabaga, Salad Greens, Salsify, Scorzonera, Shallots, Spinach, Squash, Tomatoes, Turnip, Watermelons, and Zucchini.

As you can see, that’s not your average salad garden! We’re not sure we’re finished procuring all we’ll plant either 😉 We enjoy variety, color, and diversity in our diet. Many of these items can be consumed this summer and fall and many will be canned, frozen, or sent the root cellar for keeping through next winter.

While we are big believers in organic and open-pollinated seeds, we do not exclusively use them. Why? Because we want to strike a balance between open-pollinated seeds and a good yield. If we grew only open pollinated varieties, we’d likely have less yield. That’s because hybrid plants have been selectively bred to resist pathogens and disease. If we could devote ourselves full-time to this effort, we could get good yields with open pollinated varieties, but it would take time that we cannot commit at this time. A combination of organic, heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrids is the best combination for our needs. We purchased nearly all our seeds from Johnny’s and Baker’s Creek. Both companies offer great selection of beautiful seeds with good germination rates.

We’re having a local nursery business start much of our seeds for us this year. This benefits the local economy and spares us the space and expense of starting seeds. It’s not as easy as many might think. Hopefully, we’ll move to a suitable property where we can expand and setup a small greenhouse to start plants. Until then, having a professional start them for us is a cheaper alternative.

We have several large garden plots on our property as well as several raised beds. To accommodate all we want to plant this year, we’re going to add about 10 4’x8′ raised beds and some additional plot space. There are many benefits to raised beds;  they make managing the soil easier, weeding easier and less frequent, erosion control, they can help control the delicate air/water mixture needed for good yield and a host of other benefits. Additionally, they don’t require digging and can be filled with a growing medium works for our environment. We’ll likely be building ours out of engineered decking planks. These offer rot resistance without chemicals leaching into the soil that could be harmful and should be easier to acquire than cedar.

How bout you? What steps do you take this time of year to prepare for gardening season?

Preserve Razors: Good for the environment and cheap too!

We’re constantly surprised just how much disposable razors cost. They must be made of gold and silver given the prices of the blade refill packs! In our opinion, the pricing structure really encourages consumers to keep buying the razors anew since it’s usually less expensive than buying the refill packs. So much for re-use!

On a recent trip to our favorite grocer – Wegmans – we discovered Preserve Razors and refill packs. These razors are made largely from recycled Stonyfield Farm yogurt cups! Aside from being made of recycled materials, these were far cheaper than any leading brand we could find. We were able to pick up a tripe razor with extra blade for $4.99. We even found 4-pack refill packs for $5! It would appear that these razors cost 50% less than the major disposable razors.

They work much better than the cheap disposable razors (although they’re not so cheap anymore) – the ones that come 6-8 in a pack – the one piece deals.

This might not sound like big news to living simply, but it’s one more way to make a positive difference for the planet and the pocketbook!

Tips for reducing your electric bill by up to 30%

Here in PA, we’re ever so fortunate (sarcasm) to be headed into a new era deregulated electricity. Our utility provider (PPL Electric) has announced that they expect most residential electric bills such as ours to rise about 30%-32%! Somehow, this is supposed to be a help to our electricity cost. We’ve not figured that out yet.

As the old saying goes, rather than curse the darkness, light a candle. If your bill is going to go up by 30%, try lowering your consumption by 30% or more. This will not only keep your cost down, but reducing demand lowers prices for everyone.

So what are some relatively low-investment ways you can reduce your electric bill by 30% or more? Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Setup a clothes line. This is the cheapest way to go solar there is! According to Dept. of Energy statistics, clothes dryers account for nearly 6%  of household electric bills (average).
  2. Go Green One Day – unplugging most of your non-essential electricity for one day a week. This could save most households up to 15% of their electricity cost.
  3. Track down and eliminate “ghost loads” of electricity – appliances that use power when not even on (DVD, TVs, Phones, etc). A Kil-A-Watt is a great way to find these. Conservatively, we think this could save most households 1-2%
  4. Install a high-efficiency, water-saving shower head. Doing so appears to reduce our family’s utility cost. This is not direclty reducing the electric bull by a whopping amount, but reduces our utility costs in an amount that equals approximately 5-8% of our electricity cost. This is roughly the cost of one month’s electric bill! See our recent post for details.

So, the above simple steps could reduce your expenses by up to 31% of your yearly electric costs (by our estimates). None of the above are expensive or difficult to implement or require advanced DIY skills.

Have additional tips? Post em’ in the comments.

Why water-saving shower heads are a good investment

Many people might not think to look at their showers as being a source of potential energy and cost savings. That’s unfortunate, because there’s money to be saved in the shower along with natural resources too.

Consider the following scenario: Here’s the simple math for a family of four each taking a 7 minute with an average water-saving shower head (2.6 gallons per minute, or “gpm”):

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 2.6 gallons = 72.8 gallons per day
  • 72.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.11 per day
  • 72.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $1.46 per day
  • Cost per 7 minute shower = $.37
  • $1.46 + $.11 = $1.57 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $1.57 X 365 = $573.05 per year!

Here’s the math for the savings this family would see by just installing a high-efficiency shower head:

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 1.6 gallons = 44.8 gallons per day
  • 44.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.07 per day
  • 44.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $.87 per day
  • $.87 + $.07 = $.94 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $.94 X 365 = $343.10 per year!

So just by installing new shower heads, there’s several hundred dollars a year to be saved in water and energy cost. We’ve installed Peerless 76154 1.6 GPM Water-Amplifying Showerhead, Chrome units that cost us less than $15 – money well spent!

As you can see, hot water heating can be a major expense. As we aim for a simpler life, we’re aiming to use less water, and less commercially-provided energy heating the water. Stay tuned for our future posts about our attempts to heat hot water in some non-traditional ways!

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

We get quite a few questions about our chicken coop from time-to-time, so we thought we’d put together a post with some pictures of our chickens in their home environment.

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Choosing the location
We thought long and hard about where we wanted our chickens on our property, and in what kind of place we wanted them to live. We live in a normal neighborhood where chickens are quite unusual, and so we didn’t want to be the bane of our neighbors existence by turning the backyard into a petting zoo or litter it up with junked up buildings and contraptions. We have just under an acre of property with a wooded section at the very back. We placed the coop as far from the house as possible. Honestly, we did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was an expectation that it would stink. There’s no smells to speak of unless you stick your noggin directly in the hen house or just don’t take care of the birds. Also, we garden extensively and didn’t want our wandering chickens to eat the fruits of our labor. That too has not proven to be a problem. We let our chickens free range a little each day (usually), and they’ve never wandered more than 100′ from their coop. This is in part because we wrangle them like sheep if they go where we don’t want them.

Choosing the coop design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

After much searching around, we found plans online for a The Garden Chicken Coop. We really liked some of the features, but quite honestly, found it lacking in a few ways. That’s not to speak poorly of the design or designer. It’s a plan that allows for customization. We also didn’t care for all the materials used or some of the design. We heavily modified the plans, keeping primarily the main rough framing concepts and the roof design. Everything else we switched around. It was a good starting point.

To the original Garden Coop Design, we first added an external clean out door so we could clean the contents of the hen house out and place them right into a waiting wheel barrow. The existing design had the clean out door much smaller and inside the coop which made little sense to us. Yes, we could get a wheel barrow inside the coop, but that’s far more cumbersome than doing it from outside.

Garden Coop with Modified Cleanout Door

Garden Coop Modification: Front Clean out Door

Secondly, the existing design had the chickens walking up a ramp/ladder into the floor of the hen house. We chose to place this on the side so that we had more floor space. This also allowed us to build a floor that completely slides out for cleaning.

Chicken Ladded going into side of chicken coop

Garden Coop Modification: Chicken Ladder going into side of chicken coop

Since we got into this poultry stuff for eggs, we also wanted an easy way to get access to the eggs. The Garden Coop design had one small door and seemed like it would require at times, blindly reaching into this little door to fish out eggs. It also required using some of the hen house floor space for the egg boxes which might make them get crapped in more often, thus making the eggs even more dirty than they already get. We solved this by building external nest/egg boxes with a hinged roof. This makes fetching eggs simpler and also allows us to easily replace the nest box bedding. The original design was described as being fit for up to 8 birds. We had 10 (lost one due to illness) and currently have nine in ours now. The nest box changes gave us room for an extra bird or two.

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

While we really like cedar, it seemed a bit overkill and also more labor intensive as an outside wall material. Instead, we used OSB for the inside walls and T111 siding for the outside wall sheeting. We trimmed the outside with pine 1x. We chose Australian Timber Oil By Cabot  for the outside finish since we had used this on our children’s fort and swing set with much success. We also added two vents (one on the front, one on the back) to make sure that there was plenty of ventilation which is very important with chickens. This was easy to do, however we could not center the vents on the walls because of our roost location inside. No big deal.

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

The original plans also called for a clear roof. Since this was wooded, we knew that there would likely be leaves and other debris on the roof and didn’t really feel like looking at it all the time. Also, we wanted to make sure the chickens got plenty of shade when needed. We decided on Ondura roof sheeting. It was reasonably priced, opaque, and very easy to work with.  It comes in a variety of colors. We chose brown since we had used the same material and color on our children’s fort.

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Lastly, the plans called for the door to swing to the inside. We changed this so that it open to the outside. This just made the construction easier in some ways and also makes it easier to get into the coop without letting chickens out, and also without swinging the door into them.

Building the coop
We’re a pretty handy set of people, so it took about one day to get the framing finished. It took another afternoon to place the inside/outside walls on, another day to stain the entire coop, and about a day and a half to place all the hardware cloth in place. The roof took about 3 hours. This was done with the help of a friend, so two adults for most of the project.

Is it safe for the chickens?
The Garden Coop design calls for burying the hardware cloth about a foot under ground on all sides of the coop. We thought this was good advice and followed it. We’ve not lost a chicken yet to a predator (pretty amazing since we live in the mountains of PA!). We’ve seen no signs of attempted break-ins either. This is a very secure design if followed carefully.

Future additions & what we’d do different next time
One of the downsides of our coop’s distance from the house is that it’s far from a power source. We plan on running some wire down to the coop so we can install some lights on a timer to keep egg production up. We also want to have the option of having a heat lamp if it gets too cold, and also a heated watering dish. We’ve already purchased the timer and lights, but haven’t mustered up the gumption to trench  190′ of power line down to the coop.

Had we to do over again, we would have made the back wall of the nest/egg boxes also hinged to make it even easier to clean. It’s not cumbersome now, but could be slightly better. We’d also have extended the area under the nest boxes to create a shelved “locker” on the outside to store our galvanized feed cans in. They currently sit under the egg boxes. We’ve not had any problems with animals, but would like them to stay a bit cleaner. We might still do this later on as an upgrade.

Lastly, clean out doors on the front AND back would be great. That would make every area of the hen house cleanable from the outside without crawling into it. We can make do as is, but it would have been nicer that way.

Harvesting Broccoli

Today we pulled our first head of broccoli out of the garden for our dinner. We thought it would be a good topic to cover.

Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Knowing when the broccoli is ready
There are a few ways to determine when broccoli is ready to harvest. First, it must have a head of broccoli of course! Second, the florets (the smallest part of the broccoli that you eat) should be about the size of a match head. Lastly, the color of the florets should be a dark green. If the florets are mostly yellow, your broccoli is either not ready to eat, or it has a nutrient deficiency or disease. If the rest of the plant looks healthy, assume that it’s just not mature yet. The picture below shows what a “ready to eat” head of broccoli looks like. We had hoped for larger heads of broccoli, but we’ve had a weird growing season and our soil was not in prime shape.

Cutting the head of the broccoli

Cutting the head of the broccoli

How to harvest
Harvesting broccoli is very easy. With a sharp knife, make a quick clean cut 5-6 inches below the florets where the stems gather into the main stem of the plant. We like to have an inch or so of the main stem  on the cut piece. This makes it easier to handle and store until used. Once the head of the broccoli has been removed, you’ll likely notice that the remaining stem is hollow. This is normal.

The remaining broccoli plant

The remaining broccoli plant

What do to with the remaining plant
Some might assume that the remaining plant has no further use. Others might assume that the remaining plant will re-sprout a new head of broccoli. Neither is exactly accurate. Assuming favorable conditions (sun, water, temperature), the remaining plant will sprout additional smaller heads of broccoli from the side of where the main head was removed. These are perfectly edible and make a fine addition to salads, or cooked as a side item. These generally will not be very large.

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Things to watch for
In our neck of the woods, we have to deal with Cabbage Worms, which are actually not a worm at all, but a caterpillar. These are the larvae from cabbage moths which are actually not a moth but a butterfly. Confused yet? Anyway, we could spray for those I suppose, but they’re just as easy to pick off the plants (this is referred to as “mechanical” pest control). We take the worms and feed them to the chickens who despite not liking broccoli, enjoy these pests! We like this because we use the worms to our advantage to keep the chickens happy and healthy.

After you harvest your broccoli, check for cabbage worms. They’re easy to spot. They’re dark green and contrast well with the stalk of the broccoli. Just pluck them off. You could also try filling a bowl or pot with water (a little at a time) and inserting the head of broccoli upside down into the water. This should make the worms climb up the stalk where they’ll be easier to remove. If you do this too fast, you’ll just drown the worms and then they’re harder to get off. Of course, you can also look for them after cooking, depending on how you cook. That’s admittedly not such a nice experience ;-).

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!