Monday, July 21, 2014

Easy Food Preservation

The Climate Crusader shares her tips for storing the summer bounty without breaking a sweat.

Local eating is pretty mainstream these days - so mainstream, in fact, that many big corporations are trying to cash in. In spite of the greenwashing out there (I saw a McDonald's truck boasting that their potatoes were "grown right here in Canada"), reducing your food miles is a great way to go green. When you eat locally you're reducing your carbon footprint and supporting local farmers. You're also enjoying fresher food, which is more nutritious and tastier to boot.

At this time of year it's easy to eat local, but if you want to keep eating local all year long you'll need to do a little planning. One great way to do that is to buy fruit and veggies in bulk while they're in season and preserve them. To help you get started, I recommend stopping by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. They have a comprehensive online guide to canning, freezing, drying, pickling and curing your food for storage, from what equipment you need, to recipes and more. If you're new to home preserving, here are three easy foods to start with.


Three Easy Foods to Preserve

1. Blueberries

Blueberries are my absolute favourite food to preserve for a whole lot of reasons. The first is that frozen blueberries - and especially frozen organic blueberries - from the grocery store are so expensive. The second is that frozen blueberries make a great snack as-is, no need to defrost. But the biggest of all is that preserving these delicious little berries is just so easy. Don't wash the berries before freezing, because that damages the skin - you can wash them after you defrost instead. All you have to do is place the blueberries straight in a container, leaving some headspace, and freeze. Voila! (Instructions online.)

2. Herbs

You're going to save a lot of money if you preserve your own herbs - especially if they come from your own garden. Once again, this is easy-peasy. Hang your herbs in a bundle and allow them to air-dry. Make sure your bunch isn't too big, so that they don't mold, and make sure they're in a warm and dry location. You can even speed up the process by drying certain herbs in an oven or microwave. (Instructions online.)

3. Pickles

Canning can be intimidating, but I promise it's not rocket science. I suggest starting with fresh-pack dill pickles. Because you're processing them for 10 minutes you don't have to sterilize the jars, and because you're using fresh, whole pickling cucumbers the preparation is minimal. There's something immensely satisfying about pulling your finished pickles out of the hot water bath and hearing the little 'pop' as the jars self-seal. It sounds like victory. (Instructions online.)

What about you - what are your favorite low-stress foods to preserve?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Benefits of Bolting

Queen Composter shares reasons to leave edible plants go to seed.

We are approaching the dog days of summer and in the heat many vegetables are starting to flower. I am always surprised when I see people pulling up all their plants that have bolted, to make way for new plants. Of course once some plants have bolted their greens are bitter to taste and we need to remove them so that we can have a continuous supply of plants to eat. But those plants that have flowered are great for the garden. I would like to make an argument for intentionally letting some vegetables flower and go to seed.

Seed Saving

Leaving plants to go to seed, and then collecting the seeds, may not be on the list for novice gardeners, but I believe that it is important. It provides free seeds for subsequent years' gardens, which is always a good thing. It also preserves a diverse living history of plants so that we can maintain and grow plants that we do not typically see in the grocery store. There are many other benefits to seed saving, but an important one is that it takes the control of seeds out of the hands of corporations such as Monsanto and their terminator seeds.

Kale seed pods drying.

Encouraging Pollinators

Having flowers dotted throughout my garden is a boon for pollinators, which is also great for my mid summer garden. I have lots of squash and cucumbers that still require pollination to be productive, so I am thrilled to see all the native bees, honey bees and bumble bees flitting from plant to plant. I can also feel good for providing a good habitat for pollinators.

Honey bee on my cilantro, which was a volunteer in
this location amongst my squash.

Encouraging Good Garden Predators

The more I have growing in my garden, including flowers, the more chance I have of attracting good garden predators to my garden, which is wonderful natural pest control. My carrot flowers are teeming with soldier beetles, a ferocious feeder of aphids, and every day I find ladybugs throughout my garden, usually near flowering plants.

Not only are there native bees all over my carrot flowers,
but the soldier beetles enjoy hanging out here too.

Edible Flowers

Unbeknownst to many people, there are numerous flowers that are edible. My personal favourites are marigolds and nasturtiums, but cilantro flowers and arugula flowers are also quite delicious with a flavour similar to the plant. I always get oohs and ahhs when I include edible flowers in my salads.

I'm cheating with this photo: the petals are marigolds,
but I do enjoy using other edible flowers such as cilantro.

Providing Shade

Vegetables that have gone to seed benefit the plants around them because they become more full and thereby give shade to less sun tolerant plants such as leafy greens, which will prevent them from bolting if we want them to continue to provide food for us.

This bolted bok choy is providing cooling
shade for my leafy lettuce growing underneath.

They Look Pretty

If none of the above are strong enough reasons to let some plants bolt, then the simple reason that they are pretty should be enough. It makes me happy to see plants come full circle and end as they should.

The bok choy flowers in bloom.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

5 Steps to Natural Pest Control

From the bean, and dirty hands, of Green Bean.

1) Healthy Soil

Two years ago, a friend and I attended an edible garden tour.  Each garden we visited so lush, so healthy and each had the same underlying theme - long time gardeners, amending the soil year after year.  We have only been in our current yard for four years but got a jump start the first year with sheet mulch.  (Learn about sheet mulching here.)

In addition, I have always composted but last year, I got serious.  We built a three bin compost system and celebrated one year later with this black gold!

Finally, mulch is nature's method of building healthy soil.  In the fall, we let leaves lie - or haul them from neighbor's trees.  If the summer, we add leaves, straw or grass clippings to reduce the amount of water needed.  All those organic materials break down over time, enriching and enlivening the soil.

I have no doubt that 30 - nay 5 years - from now, my soil will be just as healthful, my garden just as fertile as those yards on the edible garden tour.

2) Mix Up Your Plants

I do not to have companion planting down but I do always intermix flowers and edibles.  Flowers bring in the pollinators and deter pests.  Plus, many flowers - calendula, nasturtium, borage - are edible.

In my old garden, we successfully protected young seedlings from roaming deer just by adding flowers.  At our current home, flowers interplanted with edibles have helped deter insect pests.  Above is a typical raised bed in our garden - it contains peppers, tomatoes, sunflowers, nasturtium and marigolds.  I also have planted perennial pollinator-plants amongst my raised beds.

3) Rotate Crops

Crop rotation involves growing different crops in different locations from year to year.  While I have tried to follow a three year rotation, the best I have been able to do is one year on, one year off.  For instance, I plant tomatoes in these two beds this year and those two beds next year.  I feel like it is better than nothing but I'm still working on this.  Maybe I need more raised beds!? ;-)

4) Know When to Throw in the Towel

Sometimes, I just decide that enough is enough.  For instance, by the time the aphids take over the kale, collards or chard, those greens are usually on their last legs.  They are getting ready to bolt.  Their leaves are getting tougher.  At that point in time, I usually just yank the plant and let the chickens feast on it - bugs and all.

5) Hired Help

Sure, this Phoebe looks sweet but, have no doubt.  It is a stone cold killer.  This fellow has been a resident since we moved in four years ago but this year, he attracted a mate.  Between the two of them, they have rid the chicken coop of flies.  This is the first summer since we have had chickens - 5 years - where I've not had to put out some sort of fly trap.

We invited birds into our yard by making our garden more wildlife friendly.  (Here is how we did that or check out these 10 helpful tips).  The birds and beneficial insects we have attracted have repaid us ten-fold.  For instance, I found harlequin bugs on some squash earlier this year.  I hand picked two and then hit the internet in a full-fledged panic attack.  When I resurfaced that evening, I spotted a pair of wrens busily flitting amongst the squash plants.  I've not seen a harlequin bug since.

While our garden is not pest-free (ahem, I'm looking at you squirrels!), we have yet to suffer any real losses from pests and done it all without using a single pesticide.

This post is part of the Homestead Barn HopBackyard Farming ConnectionMaple Hill Hop, Green Thumb Thursday and Tuesday Garden Party.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dealing with Mosquitos: I Need Some Help!

Our first summer in our gorgeous new (to us) yard, with a babbling brook, trees, flowers and birds.... and mosquitos. Lots and lots of mosquitos.

Two weeks ago I discovered that I am allergic to mosquito bites. Not just, oh they swell a bit or look a bit more red and itch, but like each bite swells the diameter of two to three twonies (or a baseball for non-Canadians ;) ), hurts like I don't know what, leaves bruising for weeks afterwards and looks disgusting.
(The bite the day after being bitten. It's like an extra head is trying to grow out of my arm...)

I've always been sensitive to mosquito and black fly bites. Growing up with a cottage, it's not like I'm not used to living with flies. I have pictures of me as a pre-teen playing badminton on a wrigged up net decked out in full fly netting gear. I did my fair share growing up of spraying DEET liberally all over my body. It makes me shudder to think I spent summers inhaling that stuff.

I am not really a city girl at heart.

But those bites.

I refuse to buy fly repellent filled with toxic chemicals. But I really don't want to spend my entire summer stuck inside, nor do I want to get bitten on my face and have a huge swollen monstrosity on MY FACE. So what are my options?

A few months ago we were gifted a citronella plant. Yay! I managed *not* to kill it (bonus!) and will be propagating the plant to have many all around our deck. Woo! So that was step one. So far though, sitting next to the plant doesn't seem to really do anything. I'm still swarmed with flies.

We also bought a bat house months ago and put it up. Sadly, I haven't seen anything around it... so I'm unsure if there is a family there this year. Maybe it takes a few years for the bats to find the houses? Anything else I can do to attract bats?

I'd also like to build swallow bird houses. I happen to have a friend who is doing her PhD on the environmental impacts of swallow nesting... so I should ask her. I have to make the birdhouse squirrel and crow/raven proof though- so it may need reinforcement around the entry hole.

Ok, so those are nature's remedies to mosquitos. Following are some extra product ideas for mosquitos:

Wearing covering clothing doesn't really work. My first few bites were THROUGH JEANS. Mosquitos are crazy suckers who will bite through anything.

A few months back I made citronella, peppermint and lavender soap. It smells AWFUL. Oh it stinks so bad. Just mixing it was making me gag. Something about the citronella essential oil. Barf. Sadly, the terrible smell has only decreased slightly with curing. AND I realized there was NO WAY I was going to wash myself in the morning with that soap and smell like that all day. Ew.

I did try soaping up my arms, next, ears and hands right before going outside to see if that would be enough to deter mosquitos.... and no. Got TWO bites that night.

My latest strategy was melting down a bar of soap (cuz the essential oils were expensive and I really didn't want to buy more), adding almond oil and then slathering that all over myself before going outside. Tentative results: positive. There were still some mosquitos buzzing around, but instead of biting me they seemed to prefer Andrew (which is typically NEVER the case). I smell disgusting and have to wash my body before bed, but I am cautiously optimistic.

Last strategy: Avoid going outside during peak mosquito/black fly hours: dawn and dusk.

Do you have any other strategies that I haven't mentioned here? I would love to hear them!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

To 'Poo or Not to 'Poo

Mindful Echo is in a hairy situation.

There have been a few other Boothers who have tried to go no 'poo over the years. You can read their stories here and here. It's been something I've wanted to try for a while now....and I've come close but never quite gone all the way.

If you're not familiar, it's basically a matter of switching out your conventional shampoo for baking soda and, eventually, just water for washing. It sounds quite simple in theory.

My struggle with the concept is that my hair gets oily fast. Like, by day two. I can put it up in a ponytail or bun and it's no big deal, but by day three, it starts being more difficult to hide. My other issue is that my scalp gets itchy if I don't wash it for a couple of days (and even when I do). These issues are most likely related to the harsh shampoo I'm using and on which I've become dependent. See? I'm trapped in a cycle! Help!

I was hoping to ease into the process by switching to some diluted Dr. Bronners castile soap. Well, that was a huge mistake. I tried using a little and I tried using a lot. I even tried rinsing with cider vinegar. No matter how I changed it up, my hair was left feeling heavy and muddy and not clean at all.


If anyone can let me know what I was doing wrong with that, I'm all ears.

Since the warm summer has finally reached my neck of the woods, I've been taking advantage of some good beach time. On those days, I don't bother to shower or wash my hair at all. Even still, my record is 5 days before shampooing, then I'm back in the loop again.

I know it's an excuse, but I'd like to think that if I didn't have to work and look presentable professionally, I would just bite the bullet and wait out the weeks of greasy hair to get the end product that I desire.

What do you think though? Those of you who are off the 'poo, is it worth it?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Acclimating to the Weather

The Climate Crusader is wearing her sweater in the summer - here's why.

I had one of my worst summers ever back in 1998. I was working at a cooperative education placement while I went to engineering school. The job was great - so great, in fact, that I went on to work for the company for a decade. The downside was the temperature.

The weather was hot that summer, and I was living in a small apartment with poor air circulation. I was also taking transit, which meant a long, hot, stuffy bus ride home every evening. During the day I was in an office where the air conditioning was turned on full blast. On top of that, part of my job involved working in an environmental chamber, where the temperature ranged from 45 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The constant temperature fluctuations were not comfortable, and I quickly learned to dress in layers so that I didn't get too cold or too hot.

From that experience, I developed a system to help me stay cool in the summer. Of course I do all the things you're supposed to do, like drink plenty of water and wear a hat and all that jazz. But one thing I also do is dress as warmly as is comfortable for the weather. When I get up in the morning and my house is cool, or when I visit an air-conditioned office, I put on a sweater. I've found that allowing myself to acclimate to the hot weather makes summer more comfortable. It also helps me cut down on my energy consumption, since I need to employ fewer cooling measures.

I live in the Pacific Northwest where it doesn't get that hot, so I don't have an air-conditioned home. I realize that in many parts of North America - and the world, for that matter - the heat reaches levels that aren't just uncomfortable but possibly even dangerous. I'm not saying that everyone should scrap their climate control under all circumstances. But just as you can keep your home a little cooler in the winter and adapt to that, you can keep your home a little warmer in the summer and adapt. If you allow yourself to get used to warmer temperatures, you really will adjust.

Think about it this way. If there's a cold snap during the winter and the temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit that feels warm. Balmy, even. On the other hand, if the temperature drops to 50 degrees at the height of summer it feels chilly and unpleasant. Temperature is relative, and something feels hot or cold, at least in part, in comparison to what we're accustomed to.

There are other things you can do to cut down on the cooling, too. Open your windows early in the morning to let the cool morning air in (providing the morning air actually is cool, of course). Close your blinds and curtains to block out the sun at the heat of the day. Plant shade plants outside your home to block the sun. Make energy improvements to your home so that the cool air doesn't escape. Even with those measures, though, little steps to help your body adjust to warmer summer temperatures can reduce your energy consumption, and maybe even save you a little money, too.

How do you cut down on your cooling bills in the summer?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Cheapskate Summer Bucket List

Queen Composter is looking for free ways to enjoy the season. 

My Pinterest feed is full of cute ways to document a summer bucket list, along with all the fabulous things to do during the summer. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, however, my summer bucket list will mostly consist of free things to do with my kids. If life gives you lemons, as the saying goes, make lemonade, so I'm excited to try to do as many things with my daughters that will cost little to no money. To continue with the May 30 by 30 Nature Challenge, I hope to have as many bucket list items take place in nature or relate to nature as possible.

  • Go on bike rides as much as possible. 
  • Go to local beaches, if possible on our bikes.
  • Have picnics, and bonus points if at local beaches when we ride our bikes. Do you sense a theme?
  • Pick blackberries in local areas. 
  • Do more geocaching. I've downloaded a couple of free apps for my smart phone that we're enjoying using.
  • Visit our local farmer's market and challenge ourselves to try one new food each time. 
  • Fly a kite at a local park.
  • Learn more about beneficial insects in our garden and try to observe them at work. Bonus points for capturing them with a camera.
  • Clean up trash when we visit places. 
  • Stay up late enough to go stargazing. Bonus points for identifying constellations. 
  • Create our own nature scavenger hunts, then invite friends over to complete them with us. 
  • Make bunting flags for our garden using repurposed clothing and sheets. 
  • Learn how to make yarn from plastic bags or repurposed clothing, then knit baskets. 
  • Make as many crafts as we can from sticks, including fairy furniture, dreamcatchers and nature weaving.
  • Make pressed flower and leaf art.
  • Carve or paint inspirational phrases onto stones. 
  • Lie on the grass and gaze at clouds, describing what we see.
  • Play with mud.
  • Paint images on wood and pavement with water and paint brushes. Wait for them to dry then paint new ones. 
  • Make backyard tents out of blankets. Read books in the tent.
  • Go bird watching, and keep a record of the birds we identify. Bonus points for learning a new fact about each bird.
  • Get up and watch the sunrise.
  • Watch the sunset at a beach.
  • Tell stories around a campfire.
  • Participate in the summer reading club at the library.
  • Make homemade ice cream using local berries.
  • Try making (out of recycled materials) and using a solar oven.
  • Make freezer jam.

I'm excited to get started on this low consumer, low carbon footprint, low cost bucket list. 

How will you be celebrating summer?


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