Monday, January 31, 2011

My Thrivalist Binder

This is a topic I've been meaning to post about for some time.  As is the way of things, events have conspired to reveal the good advice I've been meaning to share with all of you as something I should have heeded better myself.  I've been having serious computer trouble lately, and there's the possibility that I may permanently lose a great deal of information and photos saved on my hard drive.  Physician heal thyself.  I've never been too diligent about regular backups.  The last backup performed on my computer was months ago, if not a year ago.  It's a hard lesson to learn, but it brings home what I had intended to write about.  What follows is the post I've been working on incrementally for a few months...

Plenty of peak oil doomers, preppers, and thrivalist types have blogged about their shelf full of reference books for Camp Teotwawki, including me.  But there are an awful lot of loose, unbound, but important bits of information floating around my life that aren't in books.  A great deal of it is on my computer hard drive, here on my own blog, or resides at websites that are as familiar to me as old friends.  From a prepping perspective, this is a bit problematic.  If something suddenly takes out my electrical supply, or the network of datafarms that stores the content of the internet, that information is gone.  And that's probably when I'd most need this information.

This has been nagging me for a while and I finally started printing out important bits of information as they came to my attention.  I put these pages together in a three-ring binder similar to one I keep for recipes I use over and over again.  Each page is placed in a plastic sleeve and then in the binder.  This has always been really handy for the recipes, since the sleeve protects the page from batter, splattering oil, wet hands, etc.  It has saved me having to reprint a given recipe many times over.

So what sorts of things have made it into my thrivalist binder so far?  Here's a sampling:
  • Our yearly harvest records and notes from the garden
  • A planting schedule specific to my hardiness zone, our local first and last frost dates, and the dates when we lose and gain ten hours of daylight
  • Some guidelines on biodynamic beekeeping
  • General principles of curing meat
  • Worksheets for each of my curing batches and a supply of blank curing worksheets 
  • Instructions on making soap the old-fashioned way
  • Where There Is No Doctor - available as a free download
  • Instructions for caring for fig trees grown in containers in my zone
  • Guidelines for disinfecting water through exposure to sunlight
  • Homemade rooting hormone recipe, and a few guidelines on growing plants from cuttings
  • Sharon Astyk's recommendations for 25 plants we should all consider growing
  • Detailed information on growing a few specific medicinal herbs and their various uses
  • Planting instructions for garlic
  • Basic information on seed saving
  • A few working notes on meals cooked in the solar oven
  • A printout of Rocket Mass Heaters
  • All of our soil test results from year to year and bed to bed
  • Guidelines for processing raw wool
  • Guidelines for preparing natural dyes from plants, and a list of which plants produce various shades
Mostly this is information that's either self-generated and therefore not available in any book, or specific pieces of information taken from books that I don't feel the need to own as a whole.  Some of it I may not ever need, but much of it is information I'm already using regularly, if infrequently.  None of it is information I want to trust to memory alone.  There are plenty of things I haven't yet remembered to print out and add to the binder.  But at least having started it there's now a ready repository of information that fits the bill.  I'm more likely to bother to print out the pages since the binder is there and stocked with a supply of empty plastic sleeves. And even if disaster never occurs, having the hard copy means I don't need to use any energy to access the information.

Incidentally, Kathy Harrison not long ago posted about an emergency binder of a different sort.  She has assembled various pieces of critical information and legal documents for her family in case one of the adults is incapacitated, or in case of the need to evacuate her home on very short notice.   This is a binder of a very different sort, but well worth putting in place, in my opinion.  You don't have to be a doomer to benefit from the sorts of preparations Kathy writes about.  After all, we can pretty much count on being incapacitated or dying at some point.  The information she advises assembling would benefit any family trying to deal with the serious illness or death of an adult member of the family.  You don't even have to live in an area prone to natural disaster to use her advice; house fires can happen to anyone at any time. 

So what about you?  Have you printed out information you think is valuable and put it in an easily accessible place?  Care to share what bits of knowledge have made the cut?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Virtues of Winter

This is one of the hardest periods of the year for me.  I've had my winter break from gardening duties, and it was very welcome.  Now I'm a bit antsy and definitely missing all the summer vegetables.  There is still a week or two to go before the earliest seed starting can begin, though I'm pushing that boundary with some experimental cold frame plantings.  I've done a few germination tests to make sure that the seeds I put into our personal seed vault came through the year in viable condition.  All looks well there, so my seed orders this year will be fairly limited.  We have snow on the ground still from two separate storms, and six-ten inches of mixed sleet and snow predicted for the next 24 hours.  As I write, fat flakes are coming down at a decent clip.  I'm trying to see the upside in winter.  Here's what I've come up with.

I used our recent -1 F (-18 C) temperature to go around the windows of our home feeling for air leaks.  At that temperature you don't need any fancy instruments to find them.  Bare fingers will do the trick, trust me.  I'd brought in a tube of silicone caulking from the garage to warm up in the house.  Then I went over all the leaks I could find, sealing them up.  It made a noticeable (but not huge) improvement in our downstairs bathroom, which has two exterior walls, both of which are only passably insulated.  Upgrading the insulation in these walls is on the list, but the expense will not be insignificant, so the project is not near the top of that list.  But hey, a reduction of those thin drafts of icy cold is all to the good.

I've also got a tiny tip today.  I call it iceboxing - turning our refrigerator into an icebox.  It's easy to do at this time of year, provided there's a little extra room on the top shelf.  I use empty plastic juice and soda containers, given to me by relatives.  The large squarish ones with the rectangular handles are really nice for this purpose. Just fill them with tap water, put them outside and let them freeze solid overnight.  In the morning, I put them in the fridge and put two more filled bottles outside so as to have swaps available when the first two thaw out.  Two large chunks of ice keep the refrigerator's compressor from running much at all.  I don't unplug the machine because I still want the light in there, but it certainly cuts down on our electrical usage.  Easy, free, saves money.  Seems like an obvious win to me.

Winter is also the time of year I most like to knit, and cold hands certainly provide motivation.  I've made myself two more pairs of fingerless gloves.  I finally have some that fit snugly around my wrists, like the ones I made for my husband a few years back.  A pair of these gloves is a quick project that suits my short knitting attention span.  They can be made fast enough to give me a quick sense of accomplishment, and that helps keep me going on other fronts. 

The cold season is a tough sell, but I wouldn't give it up for anything.  I've lived in places without a real winter and always felt slightly cheated.  I grew up with four seasons, so snow and sub-freezing temperatures feel right to me.  Winter has its austere beauty too.  As a gardener, I know the value of the frost heave that loosens up our heavy soils, making them spongy and easier to work.  The glory of spring in this area is part and parcel with the severity of our winter.  Where I live spring explodes out of frozen winter: dramatic, lavish, electrifying.  Other places have springs that sort of saunter onto the scene, a nearly seamless transition from tepid winter, or maybe even just a rainy season.  Not our springs.  So as I look out the window at a world drained of color, it's well to remember this.  I know that in a few short months we'll feast on asparagus and enjoy the succession of breathtaking tree blossoms. Meanwhile I muse on hoop house designs and hope that this time next year will see us harvesting abundant greens as the snows come down.

Have you been making good on winter weather lately?  Do tell.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: The Resilient Gardener

I've just finished reading something excellent and thought I'd share.  It's Carol Deppe's recent book, The Resilient Gardener.  If you think you might one day want to feed yourself without recourse to purchased food, then I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It's one thing to grow a garden for a few years, and even come to rely on it for a significant portion of your calories and nutrition.  It's another thing entirely to really give up purchased foods, especially the cereal crops that make up such a huge portion of our western diet.  And when I say give up, of course I have in mind a time when it may not be a matter of giving up, but of being unable to obtain them, for one reason or another.

Deppe is allergic to wheat, gluten, and dairy.  Yet she feeds herself by concentrating most of her efforts on five crops: corn (maize), potatoes, squash, beans, and eggs.  She chooses these crops for their caloric and nutritional values, storing ability, proven reliability, and resilience in the face of unpredictable weather or even the lack of attention from the gardener.  It seems to me that anyone trying to feed themselves in a very large part of the world (certainly most of the US) would do well to devote much attention to those crops too.  I love my wheaten foods, but there's little chance that I'll ever be able to produce even a fair portion of the wheat I would like to continue to eat.  Corn is not my current starchy staple, but it's the most reliable grain in my region.  We already produce our own eggs with a tiny flock of four laying hens.  The other three crops consistently do well in my region too.  Greens, other vegetables, and fruit are all nice for supplementing, but Deppe has clearly identified one year-round "crop" and four long-storing staples that would do the heavy lifting if we should ever need to provide all our own food.

The Resilient Gardener is not a broad book, but a deep one.  And it's not a basic gardening book, but an advanced one. Deppe assumes her readers have read countless paeans to compost and mulch, and refrains from rehashing these topics.  Instead she caters to those with at least a few years of gardening under their belts.  Her dogged focus on these five crops allows her to recount a wealth of detail that will save many a backyard enthusiast from both errors and unnecessary effort.  And I mean the sorts of errors that even an experienced gardener might make.  Her long-term experimentation with many varieties within her five chosen crops is meticulous and scientifically rigorous.  If you've ever asked yourself a question about one of these foods, chances are that Deppe has provided the answer in her book.  She answered a few handfuls of mine.

I appreciate that Deppe discussed not just how to grow the foods, but how to store them and eat them too.  While I already eat all of the foods she writes about, I don't rely on them to the extent she does.  Since starchy staples tend not to be fungible ingredients when it comes to cooking, it helps to have some guidance with basic recipes.  Changing one's diet is rarely simple.  Even more do I appreciate her frank admission that not everything is worth doing well, or even doing at all.  What she terms selective sloppiness appeals to my sensibilities.  This is a book that will help you find the sweet spot between maximum productivity and minimum labor.  If you want advice on how to make your gardens a beautiful, weed-free show place, this isn't it.

Although she lives and grows these crops in the Pacific northwest, the information she presents is largely relevant to most other areas of the US.  The exception is her chapter on eggs, or the laying flock.  Here Deppe concentrates on ducks rather than chickens.  She explains her choice on logical grounds: ducks make more sense than chickens in her climate, so she has more experience with this species than with chickens.  Moreover, there are numerous books on small-scale chicken keeping; Deppe prefers to cover new ground, and does so with her usual level of gritty detail.  I don't think that backyard ducks are likely to rival backyard chickens in popularity anytime soon, but her contributions on the former nonetheless fill a niche.

Another very minor criticism I have is that Deppe addresses the issue of feeding the poultry flock in hard times largely by sacrificing to them portions of the other crops she grows.  I think there are many other alternative feed options for those with very small flocks, even when pasture is marginal or free-ranging not feasible.  Deppe's suggested feeds will certainly work for those with enough acreage to produce the extra crops.  But they still put livestock in competition with humans for the same foods, as well as turning eggs into re-packaged versions of the other staples in Deppe's dietary paradigm.  This would raise concerns for me about nutritional diversity and completeness. If feeding poultry from resources internal to your homestead is an important issue for you, I strongly recommend you look for Harvey Ussery's forthcoming book The Modern Homestead Poultry Flock.  It'll be published later this year.

Such minor issues aside, The Resilient Gardener is truly an invaluable addition to the bookshelf for those interested in food self-reliance and preparation for a low-energy future.  Due to the necessities of her own dietary restrictions Deppe has done work and research that can benefit anyone looking to produce their own food from a fairly small area and in uncertain times.  I'm thankful that she has chosen to share what she has learned. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Black Soldier Fly Larvae

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I hope the title of this post doesn't put anyone off.  If you're not fundamentally squeamish about insects, I promise there's nothing terribly icky about what I've got to say today.

Included in my formal list of goals for this year is the project of trying to feed our laying hens more and more with food we produce ourselves.  We've already got well established routines that provide some of the chickens' food, such as kitchen scraps, trimmings from the garden, feeding them Japanese beetles and squash bugs in the proper seasons, and gleaning acorns for them in the fall.  Still, we end up buying a few 80-pound bags of feed for them each year.  This is grown organically, fairly local to me, and milled by the farmer that grows it, so on that score I feel pretty good about it.  But it's a 45-minute drive to buy the feed, and the price (though much cheaper than the nasty pelletized chicken feed from Tractor Supply) has been nudging up steadily ever since I started buying it.  This feed easily accounts for more than half of the hens' caloric intake over the course of the year.

So I've been looking a bit harder at what we might do to close the gaps in our homestead economy and nutrient cycles.  Worms from our vermicompost are an excellent possibility, but I'm going to leave that project for another post.  Right now I'm going to talk about the Black Soldier Fly, which is probably the coolest idea easily adapted for use by very small scale homesteaders I've come across in a long time.  I have this tendency to think that if I've heard of some cool idea, then everyone else already has too.  But I've gotten comments from time to time that ask for more detail on stuff I mention in an off-hand way.  So I'm going to review what I know about this species and how those with small backyard poultry flocks can partner with it to their advantage.

The Black Soldier Fly is well established in many parts of the world, including most of North America in hardiness zone 7 or warmer.  Though it is a fly, it's a world apart from the common housefly in terms of the nuisance factor.  The adult phase of this insect's life, the only time it can fly, is very brief and devoted solely to reproduction.  The adult BSF doesn't even have a working mouth, so it cannot bite or eat and is not attracted by food, except as a resource for the next generation of BSF.  Even so, the mated female BSF does not land on food.  She seeks to lay her eggs nearby - not on - a food source, where the newly hatched larvae will be able to land on the food and begin feeding.  BSF larvae can consume small amounts of meat, but this is not a species that specializes in carrion.  Mostly what she's looking for is decomposing plant matter.  In fact, they may already be resident in your compost heap.  Once her eggs are laid, the adult fly has accomplished her mission in life, and dies shortly after.  The males also die shortly after mating.  The larvae remain on the food source as they pass through several sub-stages of growth, until they are ready to pupate, at which point they seek to burrow into the earth to complete their development into adults.  So you can see that there is little purpose or opportunity for the BSF to interact with humans in any way, unless we deliberately facilitate such an interaction.  Indeed, even if you live in a region with a BSF population, it's entirely feasible that you have never noticed these insects before, since they have little interest in us, and such short life spans in adult form.

The point at which we would want to intervene in the life cycle of this insect is when the larvae are fully grown and ready to pupate. Clever people have designed a clever contraption for harvesting the mature larvae at just this stage.  Or rather, using the BSF's instincts in order to have it harvest itself.  The BioPod is a custom built bucket system that provides an exit route for the larvae leading to a closed container, which makes feeding them to poultry or other livestock trivially easy.

I'm going to post another piece soon about the knockoff BSF composting buckets I'm working on.  What I want to dwell on a little more at this stage is the idea of partnering with this species.  Although in my formal goals for this year I wrote that I'm not committing to adding another species to our homestead, that was an oversight.  In reality, the Black Soldier Fly is another species I very much plan to work with.  It may not look like livestock, just as our red wriggler worms for the vermicompost bin didn't look like livestock.  Perhaps they're not.  But they will be a new species for us, and partnering with them will involve a learning curve.  I see the cultivation of these insects as one more item in the self-sufficiency toolbox; one more thing that reduces our dependence on fossil fuels.  For without fossil fuels it would be very difficult for the farmer to harvest the grains that make up our purchased feed, and very difficult for us to go and buy them multiple times per year.

It may seem grotesque to call my intended relationship with BSF a "partnership."  After all, it looks pretty exploitative from one perspective.  But in reality, I don't see this as ethically any different than keeping other species for food.  I will be establishing an insect where it doesn't currently exist, and responsible not only for feeding each generation, but also maintaining a "wild" population that survives to adulthood in order to reproduce and create the next generation.   After obtaining a starter colony, I'll need to heavily "seed" our garden soils with ready-to-pupate larvae.  This will reduce my usable harvest in the first year.  But with luck, a good population will take root right in the backyard, and continue to take advantage of the shelter and food the composting buckets will provide for them. From what I've read, I will very much need to actively tend the compost buckets.  I expect to derive both animal feed and a small amount of compost tea from this partnership.  In other words, the BSF will become part of the system of this homestead.  I'm always looking for ways to increase the diversity of species, and the connections between them, on our tiny piece of land.

Sooner or later I'll post more on the buckets themselves.  In the meantime, having read this post, would you humor me please, by participating in my poll on Black Soldier Fly composting?  It's on the sidebar of my blog.  I'm curious how many of you have heard of BSF cultivation before, and what your attitudes towards it might be.