Thursday, August 20, 2009

Homestead Happenings

The lovely gash I put on my finger while dealing with blighty tomatoes put a crimp on my posting for a while there, but now is healing up nicely. I thought I'd catch up on a few projects I've been meaning to post about for a while, but have never found the time to do. We've got some new toys: one purchased, one homemade for nearly nothing, and one made with some relatively cheap materials and an instructional class.

The first is a Tulsi-Hybrid Solar Oven. I broke down and bought this several months back and have been trying to learn to cook with it ever since. I have to say that this has been a challenge. We're far more likely to have a few clouds scud across the sky than wholly sunny days. While a few clouds are just fine when it's blazing outside, it's just not feasible to cook in a solar oven on a cool spring day with partly cloudy skies. This reflects a lack of really thinking this purchase through on my part.

When I have cooked things in the solar oven, it's taken quite a bit of experimentation to get things to turn out right. Also, the Tulsi Solar Oven has no mechanism for leveling itself, which is an issue when cooking with liquids. The best place for solar exposure on our property is non-level patch of lawn, so I've had to take measures to level the oven when setting it up for cooking. This wouldn't be so bad if it were once and done each time I cook. But since I need to turn the oven occasionally to track the sun, that means re-leveling it with each turn. Hassle. Now I think we need to add a solar oven table to our list of projects for next year. It would be nice to have a level staging area with a bit of "counter space" for the solar cooking I do.

Using the solar oven definitely requires me to be on my game early in the day when it comes to meal planning. I've had best results when I get my food into the oven by 9am. Quiches and strata have turned out fairly well for me. On a sunny day, I've been able to get the oven up to 270 degrees F (132 C) in a couple of hours when the outside temperature was 84 (29 C). Obviously, ongoing experimentation is needed on my part.

Next up is our first proper cold frame. We built this from a wooden packing crate for an industrial sized air conditioner. Our neighbor is an HVAC contractor, and so periodically discards such items with the use of a "FREE" sign on his front lawn. Most convenient for us. It was open on one large end, evidently where a lid had been ripped away. This wasn't best quality wood, but it had a great shape for a cold frame, and that open side seemed perfect for the bottom of the frame. I first chose a spot where it would be located, on the southern side of our garage, which is currently the last best sunny spot on our property. I parked the hens in one spot for a week to allow them to destroy the turf there. Then I added a bucket of half-finished compost from our pile each day for another week. The hens happily scratched through the compost to find bugs, breaking it down for us, while adding their manure to the spot I had chosen for the cold frame.

Building the cold frame took about a day, and mostly involved figuring out how to make a safety glass window salvaged from an old storm door fit the box. I'm hoping the safety glass will stand up better to the occasional hail storm than my first attempt with the hayframe, which used regular glass. The dimensions of the box and window were close, but not perfectly matched. After a lot of calculating and reckoning, we cut the closed end of the box at an angle to maximize sun exposure, and rigged up a few supports for the glass, including a lip to hold it in place at the front edge of the frame, and a cross piece to support its weight across the span. After that I added deck sealer all around to protect it from rot. We situated it carefully to face solar south, which is different from magnetic south, again with the aim of maximizing solar exposure. (To do this you need to find your local magnetic declination and use a compass. If you're in the US, you can use this government website to find the precise adjustment for your locality.)

I added some aluminum foil inside the frame to bounce sunlight around inside of it, and then filled it with a rich mixture of compost and our local clay soil. Leaving the box tightly sealed up on a few sunny days will, I hope, bake any incipient weedy seeds or seedlings. I've ordered a few more seeds specifically for cold hardy and compact vegetable varieties. The cold frame gives us about 9.5 square feet to plant in. I'll be starting seeds in the frame towards the end of the month, after the hottest days are over. I've found very useful guidelines for planting dates in Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest, and The Winter Harvest Handbook. I highly recommend them both to anyone thinking about season extension.

Last but not least, my husband took a class on rain barrel construction and was shown exactly how to do it. He even came home from the one-hour class with a finished barrel. I was surprised that our county was promoting rain water harvesting, since we live in an area with abundant precipitation. Apparently the concern around here isn't drought, but contamination of streams and rivers from runoff carrying nasty chemicals from roads and driveways. So capturing the water and releasing it more slowly protects our fresh waterways. Our plan is (eventually) to chain many barrels together to collect the precipitation from our rather large garage roof. I have been using the rain water harvest from this single barrel to water a few garden plants here and there. It saves us the small amount of electricity I would otherwise need to run our pump. And it's nice to know we have that water available, even if we should lose electricity. (If you have questions about the rain barrel, I'll see if I can persuade my husband to answer them or write a post about it. But it won't happen immediately.)

Well, that about wraps up our recent outdoor projects. I'll post soon on some of the yummy things I've been doing with our garden produce and some gleaned fruits.


Chile said...

It sounds like the easiest solution to your solar oven problem would be a table that is level and then you can move the oven as needed. (You can see my recent post on scavengers to see a neat way to adjust it.) Once we find our own place, I want some kind of set-up where the ovens are at about waist-height for easier use plus extra surface for convenience. It'd be nice to have a place to stick hot pads and a spoon as well.

The Jaracz Family said...

Wow, great job, the cold frame is perfect! I saw your post on Kathy's blog about freezing bread for the summer. How do you package it?

Alison said...

I'd love to read a post on rain barrel construction :)

Unknown said...

Hi Kate, the solar oven sound like a worthwhile investment. Mind you in summer here in Melbourne, Australia you can cook an egg on the sidewalk on a normal day.

Quite a few rural homes have rainwater tanks, some up to 100,000 litre capacity. I have a smaller one 2300 litre, so that I can water the veggie patch during water restrictions in summer.


Ramona K said...

Wow! I hope it´s possible to make a rain barrel without access to sophisticated equipment. I live not so far from Stockholm, Sweden and our rainfalls are very erratic. Storage is always a bit of a headache. Hope your husband can think of sharing his new knowledge. I for one would be very grateful.
Love your blog by the way. It has been on my daily reading list for quite a while now.
Ramona K

Kate said...

Chile, that's precisely what I had in mind. The challenge will be to build a level table that sits on a non-level surface. I have a few ideas about how it might be done, but it'll probably be tricky.

Heather, thanks. For the bread I freeze, I have to confess that I package in plastic. I cut the round loaves in half, wrap with plastic wrap and then store the two halves in a ziploc bag. (The two layers are necessary because the bread shrinks when it freezes, which often leads to air gaps in the wrap.) Both the wrap and the bags get re-used of course, but I'd love a better option if I could find one.

Alison & Ramona, I can't promise anything when it comes to posts from my husband, but I'll pitch it to him. If he's not interested, I'll be involved in the project of adding more barrels. So I'll eventually know what he knows and will be able to write the post myself. Just not sure right now what the time frame for that is. It would be better if he wrote the post himself I think, because he's added a feature of his own to the design he was taught that deals with any leaves or debris coming through the downspout.

Gavin, yes, I think much of Australia would be ideal for solar ovens. I would advise anyone considering one to check their local historical weather records. We get far fewer than 100 completely sunny days per year, and many of those are in the winter. So this probably wasn't such a smart purchase for me. Still, it will get some use from me for many years to come.

Tree Huggin Momma said...

Just an FYI - I you have an asphalt roof it is not safe to use rainwater on foods (that includes watering your vegetable garden) and for drinking.
If you like me have the asphalt roof you can use your rainwater for the lawn and flower gardens (we shall see since I don't water the lawn if its worth the hassel once I find a metal barrel).

el said...

Hey Kate.

I borrowed a friend's solar cooker and put it on the coop's roof (nice angle). What's the issue with making things level, is it just that things spill out with the pots you have in there? I used canning jars and plastic lids. The inside of the cooker was painted black. I cooked some squash and some cornbread in it, it was pretty fun. And no, my cornbread did not turn out "level," oh well! Just curious about the need for it to be level.

Great work on the coldframe and the rainbarrels, though.

Kate said...

El, what I've found is that when liquid pools on one side of the container, somethings don't cook evenly. For instance, a pot of rice will be gummy where the water was deep, and a little undercooked where there was hardly any water. And if I'm cooking an egg dish, again, the pooling slows down the cooking. So not only is the quiche lopsided, but it's undercooked where a pool of eggs held down the temperature. I'm not able to achieve really high temperatures most of the time, and never above 300 F. So these little variances make a difference.

Lopsidedness wouldn't be a big deal if I'm just cooking potatoes or beets or winter squash with a little liquid, I think.

Julie said...

Love the outdoor cooking space idea. My family just moved to White Hawk Ecovillage, and one of our project ideas is to have a common outdoor kitchen.

Hannah said...

I have loads of hot sun and a flat, paved porch. 270 degrees is kind of low but I guess it will work--will have to look into it.

Anonymous said...

Great project Kate!

Love, love, LOVE the cold frame!

Kate said...

Julie, a common outdoor cooking space sounds idyllic. I would definitely vote for a large bake oven for breads. And I know there are community-sized solar ovens as well. Good luck with that project!

Hannah, you might be surprised what you can cook at 270 F. Anything you cook at sea level in liquid never gets above 212 F, after all. And those with higher temperatures and/or more purely sunny days than I get would probably see higher temperatures than I do too.

Onestraw, thanks!

Unknown said...

We're diggin' the rain barrel.

Kate said...

Kelly, thanks! Sorry to have dropped the thread of conversation about coming to see your set up. It may yet happen, but you know how late summer goes where gardens are involved.

Doyu Shonin/Risa Bear said...

We like that rain barrel design; it has given us something to think about!

Setiawan said...

its great idea to create rain barrel and the design is look cool

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