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.

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.

First Days with the Chest Freezer as Fridge

IMG_2586

All the parts and pieces finally fell into place for us to setup our Chest Freezer as a Fridge. For those new to this thread, we had purchased a new Energy Star Chest Freezer from Lowes, an external Thermostat Control from Amazon, and put them together to have a super-efficient refrigerator.

We hooked the thermostat up in about 5 minutes. It consisted of unwinding the semi-stiff metal thermostat probe wire, running it up over the back of the freezer, down into the freezer, and across the back. We hid ours underneath a built-in rail used for hanging baskets, so it’s not visible or in danger of getting damaged.

The Thermostat

Once installed, we simply turned the built-in thermostat to it’s max setting, then plugged the freezer into the external thermostat, and then the external thermostat into the wall. The Johnson Controls Thermostat’s plug has a female receptical for the freezer to plug into.

It ran for about 3o minutes to reach our desired temperature of about 37℉, then shut off the power. From then on, it’s run less than 10 minutes per hour.

This AM, with the Kill-A-Watt attached for 12 hours, the unit has used .22 kWh of power. That’s quite impressive and at today’s prices equals a few nickels over $15 for the year if this stays consistent! That’s a whopping big difference from our old fridge which cost $115-$120/yr! We had thought that we’d save up to 95% from what we’ve seen others achieve and we’re currently realizing a savings of 87%. That’s acceptable 😉

How does it work for the family?

The new "Fridge"

So far, everyone really digs the setup. At 14.5 cubit feet, it’s quite a lot of space, it has way more room in it than our previous fridge, and everything is very easy to get to, except by our 4-yr old, which is a bonus since we are always telling her to get out of the fridge! We could literally store twice as much food as previous and still pay 80% less for the power. Not bad, eh? Looking and reaching top-down into the fridge is nice too. We have a bird’s eye view of everything and it’s all easy to reach. Hopefully the pictures give some idea of the setup.

Is it worth it?

A few people have commented that this is not much of a savings. If you just bought a brand-new Energy Star fridge, that might be the case. I wouldn’t go this route had we had a new, efficient fridge (at least not yet). However, if you’re in need of a new fridge, consider this for a minute.

Cost Comparison

New Energy Star Fridge New Chest Freezer as Fridge
Cost of Unit $900 $450**
Electric Cost 5yr. $275 $75
Total $1175 $525

The above prices for the fridge are based on what we’ve seen available in the size range that we would need. **Price includes extended warranty of 4 years and price of thermostat!

That should put things into perspective. Perhaps some people don’t care about saving $750, but we do! Further, our savings will continue year after year. So if you already need a new refrigerator, consider this option, otherwise, find another way to save $30-50/yr.

Eggs at Last!

Well, after nearly four months of waiting, our hens have begun to lay eggs! At the moment, 2 of 10 hens are laying eggs on a daily basis. We purchased them as 6-week old pullets and have been patiently waiting since then for the day when we could begin to collect eggs from the hen house.

Chickens at 5-6 weeks old

Our experience has been mostly good so far as “chickeneers”. We’ve not had any pets in our family history, so the number one pain-in-the-rear so far has been getting people to look after the chickens when we’re headed out-of-town. This hasn’t been overly painful, just hard to always remember to do sometimes!

Aside from that, my only other complaint with raising chickens in a typical-suburban neighborhood is this: Chickens don’t recognize boundaries. Much like shepherds have to herd their sheep, we often have to herd our chickens off our neighbors lawns, etc. We deal with this by only letting them free-range for a portion of the day and staying outside with them during that time. Unlike many others, our chickens don’t seem to have an interest in the neighbors gardens, flowers, etc (or ours PTL!) The only real danger to the neighbors is the occasional chicken turd here and there – which is actually good for the soil in moderation 😉 We still pick it up when we see it and return it to our property.

Our Chicken Coop

So, here’s some other questions we and others have had about raising chickens in a sub-urban environment:

1. Is it legal?
Uh… no comment.

2. Do they smell?
We’ve not noticed any strong smells from our chickens, nor do our neighbors. We clean the droppings out of the hen house about every 2-3 weeks and compost them. At no time has it ever been overwhelming. Growing up cleaning up after dogs was worse in my experience.

3. Are they noisy?
We have all hens – they make very little noise. They more or less murmur. If they squawk beyond that, it’s once a week or so, and usually because they feel in danger.

4. Are they expensive?
We had a few hundred dollars in building a coop – but we wanted a nice one that would compliment our property. Aside from that, feed, shells, grit, etc. might cost less than $10/month for ten hens. Unless you’re planning on selling your eggs,  raising chickens for your own eggs isn’t necessarily economically advantageous. We can get free-range eggs for $1.50/dozen from nearby farmers.

5. Why have them if it’s cheaper to buy local eggs?
We don’t want to assume that buying from others will always be as accessible or affordable – plus it’s a great experience for the whole family learning to look after animals that provide you with an ongoing food supply. Further, chickens provide pest control, a ready source of nitrogen-rich compost material, and quite honestly, many zen-like moments while watching them do their thing.

6. What do they eat?
At first, they ate medicated feed to get them off to a healthy start. We then moved to “grower” meal, then onto “layer” pellets. We give them this every day, although they eat from it quite moderately and prefer scratching for bugs, grubs, etc. They get much of their diet from foraging. They also love table scraps – again in moderation. Grass-clippings is another great food for chickens. Our tomatoes in this area of PA were effected by Late Blight, and so the chickens are given any of the produce we cannot eat because of rot, etc. as well. They’re not quite as versatile as pigs, but they can eat a wide-range of foods!

Keeping the deer out of the garden – and people too!

Several weeks ago, we noticed that despite our efforts up til that point (ie. a four foot fence), that deer were still gaining access to one of our gardens. They were unfortunately helping themselves to the green leaves of our beets which ended up making the yield lower. When they tired of beets, they moved on to the sweet potato greens next.

Frustrated, having spent hard earned resources on the now impotent fence, I looked for other options. Do a google search and you’ll find some pretty strange solutions from CD’s to human hair, etc. I had recently been given some deer and rabbit repellent in a small spray bottle but there was no way that would cover the entire garden area. Further, we didn’t know if we really wanted to spray that stuff on something we were going to eat. After some research, we discovered that the Deer and Rabbit repellent version of Liquid Fence was just natural ingredients like eggs, garlic, pepper, etc. More on that in a second.

Liquid Fence Deer and Rabbit Repellent

Earlier in the summer, we ventured into using Fish Emulsion as a natural, organic fertilizer. This was the recommended product of the producers of much of our seed stocl. It’s good stuff as fertilizer, but boy does it stink! See where we’re going with this? 😉

Alaska Fish Emulsion

So because we apply the fish emulsion every other week or so, we decided to add some of the liquid fence into the mix and put it all in a sprayer to make it easier to mist the leaves of the plants that the deer were becoming fond of, and also side dress the other crops. The combination of these two ingredients would likely raise the dead to life  it’s that potent! If you value your neighborly relationships – use wisely! We found that after letting it sit in the sprayer for two weeks, it’s even MORE potent. We hope we’ve not ruined hunting season for our area hunters by sending all the deer away.

The benefits of this are two fold 1) critter repellent and 2) fertilization. Adding the two together assures that we keep the smelly stuff coming as often as the fertilizer and provides compelling reasons to go out every two weeks to do both. Drop the ball on the fertilizing, and you not only make the plants suffer, but weaken their defenses against critters. It’s proven to be a valuable symbiotic relationships thus far.

As a side note – we also picked up some bath soap from a surplus-sort of store for $.40/bar or so. We cut these in half, drilled holes in them, then hung them on every fence post. The combination of these two things has given our garden a welcome break from deer, rabbits, even children ;-). If they continue to work so well, we may try going fenceless next year!

If you’ve got your own recipe for some world-class anti-critter stink, post it in the comments so we can try it!

Reduce Refrigeration Power Consumption up to 95%!

We’re Saving About $135/yr

As I’ve been researching ways to reduce power consumption, I’ve been measuring the annual power use of each appliance in my house (see my post on the Kill-A-Watt for details). When I measured my refrigerator, I found that it used 2.17 Kwh in just 13:22. That means that at our average Kwh cost of $.1007, my fridge costs me $$.3896/day, $11.85/month, and $143.20/year. That might not sound significant, but what if it could be less? A LOT less?!

I’d recently seen some info about using a chest freezer in place of a fridge. I thought the idea sounded whacky at first. It’s being done by many power-miserly people – particularly those who use solar power. You see, refrigerators are inherently inefficient in their design. When you open your fridge door, in goes all sorts of room-temperature air that must now be cooled and the cool air you’ve been paying to cool comes out. This is where a chest freezer has quite an advantage. Aside from being better-insulated than refrigerators, chest freezers don’t lose much cold air when you open them because cold air sinks and hot air rises. You ever notice the open coolers in the grocery store with no lids, yet the contain frozen items? This is because the cold air stays down in the freezer.

So how does this work as a fridge, I mean freezers freeze stuff, and I just want my stuff cool, right? It’s simple:

You take a chest freezer, turn the thermostat to as cold as possible (so that when it’s on, it’s running at full-steam), then purchase a separate thermostat such as this Refrigerator or Freezer Thermostat (Temperature Controller). These have long been used by people who brew their own beer to keep their beverages at given temperature range for long periods of time.

Control your freezer temperature externally

Control your freezer temperature externally

This device (or others like it) plug into the wall, and your freezer plugs into it. It consists of a temperature probe which is placed inside the freezer (no tools required) hooked to a relay that turns the power (at the plug) on and off. This is totally safe and already how your freezer works, so no wear and tear. This just way easier than modifying the freezer’s internal thermostat and voiding warranties, etc.

Once plugged in, your set the external thermostat to your desired temp (mid to high 30’s) When the temperature inside the freezer moves above your set temp, it powers on the outlet, turning on the freezer until it reaches the desired temperature. Once reached, it cuts power to the freezer. Many people who use this arrangement report their freezer compressor running 2-5 minutes per hour!

So just how much does this save? Most people report an electricity use doing this between .10 Kwh to .4 Kwh per day. Our current average Kwh price is $.1007 (just a hair over ten cents). That means that doing the above will cost you between $.01 and $.04 cents per day. That’s between $3.67 and $14.70 per year! You will not find a fridge that approaches even half this energy use. Because I bought a new energy star freezer, I am projecting somewhere in the middle – $.20 Kwh/day. This is twice the cost that many people are experiencing, but I don’t like to get my hopes up. If I am anywhere close, my cost will be just $7.35 to run my freezer fridge for one year. That’s a 95% cost reduction. It could be even better, it could be even worse. Even if it were $.40 Kwh/day, the cost will still be less than $15 for the year, an 89% improvement!

Have a hard time believing that? A brand-new Energy Star freezer will use about $38 per year as a freezer – it’s right on the tag. When it’s used in the energy-sipping capacity like this, it uses a fraction of that energy.

Of course, you have to 1) have or obtain a decent chest freezer 2) have a place to effectively use a chest freezer as a fridge 3) and purchase or make an external thermostat capable of powering the unit on/off frequently. In our case, we had the willingness, the room, but not the freezer or thermostat. We decided on purchasing a new Energy Star 14.8 cu.ft. freezer for $398. We purchased the above thermostat as well. This unit should be going strong for 5-10 years, long after we’ve recovered our purchase price.

If this is something you want to consider, I recommend the following:

  1. Use a Kill-A-Watt to measure your power use and determine your real kwh cost per day
  2. Multiply this cost by 365. If you live in PA, remember that once we experience deregulation this winter, power cost will likely rise at least 30%.
  3. Consider if you can purchase or locate a decent freezer
  4. Consider if you can purchase or construct a thermostat relay (I could not build one for the cost of the one above)
  5. Consider if you could live with a chest freezer rather than a traditional fridge.
  6. If so, Consider the cost savings over 3-5 years after your cost to purchase the freezer (if need be) and a thermostat.
  7. If the cost is justifiable, go for it!

Regarding the last item, my wife was suprisingly willing to do this after going and looking at freezers. There’s some nice benefits of this approach:

  1. It can be hard to see items in the freezer, harder to reach them, etc. The top-down effect of using a chest freezer offers a bird’s eye view of the contents.
  2. The chest freezer doubles as quite a bit of effective work area
  3. The former refrigerator area can be re-factored into a pantry, more counter space, etc.
  4. The right chest freezer can be nicely organized. Ours came with four nice sliding baskets that make it easy to organize.
  5. Should you decide to implement an alternative source of power (solar or wind), the less power you need, the better.

This might not be for everyone, but we’re excited to give it a shot!

I’ll post an update in a few months with my power usage.