Oct 25, 2012

A Soapy Obsession

It's an addiction I just can't shake. I've made soap for two decades but hadn't made any since we moved to Savannah five years ago. Writing a book, raising two kids, and being a business and finance writer took up a lot of my time. So I thought it was safe to just try it one more time. I was wrong.

As I brought my first new batch to trace, the old urges took over. I was already thinking about scoring my next batch. And the one after that. Before I knew it, I was assessing every container in the house for its suitability as a soap mold. I had a steady parade of pigments, exotic butters and oils, and other soap supplies show up on my doorstep via UPS. I started buying enough lye from Ace Hardware to concern the staff. And my house began to fill with curing batches of soap.

Needless to say, hubs is not happy that I've chased the dragon again. He's quite content with his bars of Dove soap in the shower, and doesn't really want to hear about essential oils and the benefits of fair trade shea butter. After 25 years though, he has resigned himself to my kitchen addictions. Our son is off at university, sparing me his withering commentary about how soap is actually available in stores now.

I will be sharing soap recipes and methodologies in future posts. For now, I'm off to make one- just one- batch of soap. I can stop at one, really...

P.S. for those in the Savannah area, I will be running a soapmaking course this Sunday (October 28) from 11-2. You can register here.


Jun 25, 2012

Seaweed Fertilizer~ A Gift from the Sea

I don't put my toes in the ocean nearly as often as I should despite the fact that we live only a ten minute drive away. I always seem to be chained to my computer. With the kids home for the summer and also chained to the house, I decided to take my daughter to the beach early yesterday morning (there would be zero parking later in the day). I love walking on the beach first thing in the morning, watching the shell gatherers and fishers. The dolphins feed in the surf and low-flying squadrons of pelicans silently patrol the waters.

I was shocked when we got down to the water's edge. The beach was covered in seaweed. Usually, Tybee beach is free of the stuff, which I always lament because it can be a great food source and makes great fertilizer. This was a rare event. We took a few small bags home with us with the intention of coming back later and filling the car. I spoke with the Tybee Marine Science Center when we got back home and they told me it was Sargassum. It had been disturbed and re-routed in Atlantic storms and appeared on the beach the day before.

We came back in the early evening with buckets and garbage bags to gather more. My daughter threatened that, if anyone she knew saw us, she'd never speak to me again. We scooped as much seaweed as we could before it started raining and dragged it all back to the car. It was a good thing the ride home was only 10 minutes because seaweed is...ah...fragrant.

This batch will all be garden fertilizer because dear daughter threatened to disown me if I made her eat something we picked off a beach. Someday, she'll eat some and won't even know it. Yes, I'm that kind of mother. I got her to eat eggplants for years by calling them aubergines. That only worked until she started taking French in school...

If Tropical Storm Debby ever leaves, I will half fill a 55 gallon barrel with the seaweed and top it up with water. The barrel has a tap on the bottom which I'll use to strain off the "seaweed tea". It will ferment in the barrel for about two months before I start using it. Over time, I'll top it up with fresh seaweed and more water. It should be enough to last the garden for a whole year. The seaweed tea is diluted with water using 5 parts water to 1 part tea before being sprayed on plant leaves or used as a soil soak.

What's so great about seaweed fertilizer? If you only look at its NPK value (0-0-1), it doesn't look so hot. But seaweed carries more than 60 minerals and micronutrients that are important to healthy soil. It remineralizes the soil and provides potassium to help plants take up other nutrients. And it is expensive in stores. Why not use the bounty of the nearby sea?

Jun 18, 2012

Refrigerator Pickles (or the Attack of the Mutant Greenies)

I remember a chilly day back in January when my garden was nothing more than a sketch in my mind. Snuggling up with a pile of seed catalogs, I highlighted and made lists and dog-eared the pages, planning the bounty to come. I remember a chilly day back in January when it seemed like planting four plants each of four varieties of cucumbers in a 4X4 foot garden bed seemed like a good idea.

To be fair, it would have worked swimmingly if I had trellised them right away. Instead, I fell victim to planting and ignoring. The cucumbers held nightly meetings together under the warm Georgia sky. They drank beer and made posters. They organized. And they attacked. Advance troops were immediately sent out to explore the rest of the battlefield (i.e. the other garden beds). They seized unsuspecting peppers and eggplants and held them captive in their deathly grip. They claimed for themselves any as-yet-unused garden space. They began birthing green fruit at a Body Snatchers-like pace. They were a sinister force to be reckoned with.

If the tomatoes were ripe, this would not have been an issue. The whole family can eat Greek salad three times a day every day. But, so far, the garden is only yielding cucumbers (plus one early okra pod that survived the cucumber invasion). It was time to execute a pickle strategy.

Only one of the four varieties was a pickle-style cucumber (Boston Pickling). However, it was the one producing the most offspring so I had a gathering collection of these miniature cukes. The volume wasn't enough yet to spend a day in the kitchen canning dill pickles, so I decided to try the much easier refrigerator pickles. They should last up to six months in the fridge but likely won't last that long in this house! Here's the recipe:

(per quart)

1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup white vinegar
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher or pickling salt (don't use iodized salt!)
1 large head dill (or 2 teaspoons dried dill weed)
2 cloves fresh garlic (smashed)

Boil water, vinegars, and salt in a pot over medium-high heat until salt is dissolved. Allow to cool. Add garlic and dill to jar, then fill with cucumbers up to 1 inch from the top rim. You can use tiny whole cucumbers, slices, or spears. Whole cucumbers will take longer to absorb the brine. Pour cooled brine over cucumbers to within one half inch of top rim. Seal tightly and keep in refrigerator for at least seven days before using. Shake every few days to distribute dill and garlic.

Later in the season (if the cucumbers don't take me out), I will make my grandmother's tried and true canned dill pickle recipe to last us for the whole winter. I will make a last-minute attempt to get the cucumbers vertical but I'm preparing for their resistance to being governed. ~

Apr 1, 2012


I'm going to try to grow lots of new edibles in my garden this year and the one that excites me the most is amaranth. Amaranth has been around just about as long as civilized society. There are around 60 varieties in existence today- some are ornamental, some medicinal, and some are used for their edible leaves and seeds.

We're going to grow two kinds of amaranth on our homestead this year- vegetable amaranth and grain amaranth. The first will provide us with lots of vitamin-rich leaves that we can use in salads or steam as a side vegetable. The second will give us amaranth grain, which was used by the ancient Mayans and in Asia to produce bread and gruel. Amaranth grain has a unique property- it contains lysine, which most other grains and legumes do not. This means that, in combination with other grains, it can produce a whole set of essential amino acids- something uncommon in the vegetable world. The other benefit is that the grain is gluten-free, and therefore can be used by those who are sensitive to gluten.

I'm  still working on selecting my varieties (shout out to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds) and I can't wait to get introduced to this important food crop!

Here's a great video primer on amaranth.

Mar 31, 2012

The 1,000 Pound Challenge- North versus South

Well, the gauntlet has been thrown down! As I prepare for my 1,000 pound challenge (500 square feet, 1,000 pounds of produce, 1 year), a writer friend of mine, Brad Sylvester, has chosen to take on the challenge too! Brad lives on a 5 acre parcel in New Hampshire and is no stranger to vegetable gardening. He will be trying to coax the same 2 pounds per square foot from his garden as I will be doing with mine. You can see Brad's challenge progress over at his Living With the Land blog.

We both have advantages and challenges:

Team Brad
~ Challenge: short growing season (around 120 frost free days) limits what he grow on either end of the summer season
~ Advantage: Brad's garden is mature which means the soil has been conditioned for years

Team Angie
~ Challenge: July and August are so hot in coastal Georgia that few veggies will grow
~ Challenge: brand new tilled bed that will have to be amended from scratch
~Advantage: with only a few light frosts in January and February, I can grow year round

Join us on our blogs throughout the year to keep up with our experiences and to see the growing tally of harvested produce. While both Brad and I love the concept of a good old fashioned north versus south challenge, the main goal is to see how much food we can put on our families' tables with a small garden plot. We'll share with our our successes and failures and, hopefully, inspire you to take shovel to soil and start growing your own food. Game on!

Mar 29, 2012

The 1,000 Pound Challenge

We have been living here in Georgia for five years now. In that time, I have had to transform from a hard-core northern gardener into a southern one- not as easy as you might think. Instead of not being able to grow from January to March, there's little that will grow here in July and August (except peppers, watermelon, and an alarming amount of okra). What I haven't had here yet is a full-on garden. I've dabbled in container gardening and food forest concepts but it's time to put in a "real" garden.

My opportunity arrived suddenly last week when my neighbor generously offered me the use of his rented tiller for a couple of hours. How can one say no? So, I spent the next 90 minutes trying to control a mack daddy tiller (yes, you need Southern terms for a southern garden) and sod-busted a 20 foot by 25 foot garden bed. Right now, it's nothing more than broken grass clods, sand, and a bit of topsoil. It looks rather sad. As I build the soil in future years, it will look better but we all start somewhere.

So, as is typical with me, I'm not going into this project lightly. I have decided to try to get the absolute most amount of food out of this tiny plot. I want to encourage other prospective gardeners to just get out and turn the soil. Just plant something. I want to see exactly how much I can feed my family out of this small spot of land. I come from a long line of gardeners and I'm hoping to channel some of my genetic material. To keep me on track and accountable and to share my experience with everyone, I have committed to the goal of producing 1,000 pounds of food from this plot from April 1 to Mar 31. Hubs thinks I'm insane, and I very well may be. But I think it's possible and I'm going to try.

As a southern gardener, I have, of course, the benefit of being able to grow at least something for the entire year. We have a few light frosts during January and February but that shouldn't deter many greens or brussel sprouts or carrots. I will be growing all the usual suspects, including tomatoes (enough for canning), peppers, eggplant, zucchini, winter squash (my personal obsession), lettuces, cabbages, fennel, onions, garlic, peas, beans, cucumbers, celery, okra, beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, watermelon, spinach, swiss chard, and anything else that tickles my fancy throughout the year. I will use many of the biointensive practices of John Jeavons and as much passive watering as possible, including rain barrels and Spanish ollas.

I will blog about the progress of the garden and will weigh and document everything that comes out of it. I may even do a few videos. 1,000 pounds. 500 square feet. Let's see what's possible.

Mar 27, 2012

Solar Oven Bread

We've had bright sunny days around here lately- perfect for hauling out the solar cooker and baking some bread.

I've tried a lot of solar cookers and this Sport is my favorite. It came with the graniteware pots (they have lids too) that fit perfectly inside. It's not heavy at all and can easily be taken to a picnic or the beach.

On this day, I made a rye bread and an Italian garlic and herb bread. Because I make bread often, I cheat a little with most loaves. I let my breadmakers (yes, I have two of them!) mix the dough and perform the first rise. Then I give it a knead and set it into the pans, which have been warmed in the solar oven. Bread dough hates the cold! Then I put the lid on the oven and let the loaves do a final rise as the oven heats up and then bake. The dough is pictured above right after it was placed in the pans.

The day was cloudier than I expected so there were more fluctuations in temperature than I would have liked. Nonetheless, after 2 hours, the bread was light and fluffy and fully baked. Had I known it was going to be a bit cloudy, I would have put the reflectors on the oven to concentrate the sun's rays and raise the oven temperature. Today is going to be another beautiful day outside so I may make a Moroccan stew and some cous cous.

If you don't have a solar cooker, consider getting one. It's another alternative if the electricity goes off and it's perfect for beaches and parks that don't allow cooking fires.

Mar 26, 2012

The Self-Watering Planter Project

A friend of mine commented last week that I should be taking pictures of some of the interesting gardening and homesteading projects I'm working on around here and post some how-to blog entries- so here it goes!

Yesterday, I built my first self-watering planters from materials we had around the house. In the hot Georgia summer sun, containers can get dried out very quickly and I often have to water twice a day. A self-watering planter has a reservoir at the bottom to allow the plants to take up only as much water as they need to keep the soil moist and the roots happy. They are expensive to buy in the garden store but really easy to make at home. Here's what I did:

1. We buy cat litter for our five cats in large buckets and have a number of the buckets hanging around the house. Stacking two of them together gives a space (the reservoir) between the bottom of the top bucket and the bottom of the second. The buckets we're using are around 3 gallons and I wouldn't use smaller ones if you're growing a large plant. Two five-gallon round buckets will also work great for this project.

2. In the bottom of the top bucket, I first made the largest of the holes for the reservoir pipe. We had 1 1/4 inch PVC pipe laying around, so that's what I used, but it could be a little smaller or larger diameter. You will be pouring water through it, so don't make it too small. I used drill bits that are used to drill locks and handle in doors (I'm sure there's a more technical name for them but I have no idea). Ours are called "Blu-Mole". Remember that the PVC size relates to the inside diameter so you will need a drill bit a little bit larger. I found that a 1 3/4 inch bit made the perfect size hole. I then drilled several smaller holes (mine are 11/32 inch only because that was the drill bit I had handy). The smaller holes will hold the wicks and a few should be left over to drain the soil into the reservoir if you get torrential rains.

3. The next step is to drill overflow holes. If the reservoir overfills, it's important that the water can drain out and not flood the roots of the plant. Put the "holey" bucket into an intact one and note where the bottom of the top bucket is. Drill four holes (again, I used the 11/32), one on each side, of the bottom bucket just below the bottom of the top bucket. This ensures that the reservoir can never be fuller than that level.

4. The PVC reservoir pipe has to be a little bit longer than the two buckets stacked together. I had a 4 foot piece laying around and found that cutting it in half made the perfect size for my buckets. You can cut the pipe by hand but using a mitre saw makes it so much easier. Cut two notches into one end of the pipe about an inch long so that water can flow out and into the reservoir.

5. I rummaged around in my rag bag to find material for the wicks. Be sure to use cotton or some other type of absorbent material. I used an old pair of track pants but old t-shirts or dish towels would work just as well. Cut five wicks for each planter. They don't have to be pretty! They have to be long enough to dangle into the reservoir from the bottom of the top bucket. Mine were about 10 inches long and about 3/4 inch wide. Thread each wick through two adjacent holes in the top bucket so that the ends dangle evenly through the bottom of the top pail. Make sure that you have drilled enough holes so that there are two or three left over without wicks to allow drainage into the reservoir.

6. Fit the top bucket into the bottom and insert the watering pipe, notch end down. Fill the top bucket with a light soil mix and plant. Fill the watering pipe with water until you see a trickle coming out of the overflow. That's all there is to it! I made two at the same time yesterday and it took a while because I was figuring it out as I went, but it would probably take less than an hour to put one together now.

 A couple of notes: How often you have to fill the reservoir depends on the type and size of plant, the weather, and a number of other functions. Start by refilling every other day until you can assess how much you have to put in to top it up. I expect I will have to fill the reservoir twice a week for the large tomato plants I put in mine. Also, the soil will often look a little dry on top because the water is wicking up from underneath. Keeping the top of the soil mulched will help keep the top moist as well. These are great planters for the deck. In hot climates like ours, shading the bucket itself from the harsh sun will keep the soil cooler. In northern climates, keeping the planter in full sun will warm the soil nicely. If you are the Martha Stewart type, I suppose you could paint the buckets and make them look pretty, but I'm all about function over form, and it doesn't matter to me that the buckets still say "Tidy Cats". :)

Feb 1, 2012

The Basic Breadmaking course on Sunday was a smashing success. We made whole wheat sandwich bread, pitas, calzones, and olive mint wreath bread (see picture). At the end of the course, it was all about the eating! We had calzones and bread slathered with the yogurt cheese we had made in the cheesemaking class. Yum!

If you're interested in taking homesteading classes, including making bread, cheese, butter, preserves, pasta, and soap, check out the "Urban Homesteading Courses" link on this blog to find out when classes are and which ones still have spaces available. It's a blast. I promise!

The thing I love most about teaching these classes is that these are skills that are being lost. While my grandmother cooked from scratch almost every day, my mother did not. I believe that these will be critically important skills in the future, as people find more ways to live sustainably and understand what they are putting in their bodies. And there's simply something incredibly satisfying about pulling a hot fragrant loaf of bread out of the oven or turning milk into delicious cheese. They may be little things, but I know these little things will be remembered by my children for the rest of their lives and will be part of what they think about when pining for home. These little things make all the difference!

Jan 29, 2012

Blessed Are the Cheesemakers...

Yesterday, we held our first cheesemaking course and we had a full house! Six people signed up to try their hands at making soft cheeses. We made yogurt cheese, Indian panir, and a simple mozzarella. The afternoon was not without its drama, though. Instead of buying milk to make cheese from Kroger as I normally do, I picked it up at Publix because I was running late. Huge mistake! Publix's milk is processed differently than Kroger's and is more homogenized. The milk is pressurized to break up the fat globules which makes it almost impossible to get a good break of curds and whey. We ended up with cheese that looked more like ricotta than anything else. Luckily, I had made all the cheeses earlier in the day from Kroger milk, so we were able to enjoy all of them, along with a little wine. The mozzarella wrapped around grape tomatoes was a big hit and the lemon dill yogurt cheese was quickly devoured.

Even the chickens had a good time as they were the beneficiaries of the leftover whey! All in all, a great day spent with great people. I can't wait for February's cheesemaking class. In the meantime, I have to get set up for today's breadmaking course!