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An old-school cache to store food and supplies

By Setanta O’Ceillaigh

After two very productive gardens and two winters of dehydrating food, I found I had a substantial amount of dried goods in sealed jars. While I was filling my cabin with more jars than I could keep track of, I pondered the possibility of future crop failures — not just of my own garden but regional failures which were common historically. Before the advent of canning in the early 1800s it was not practical to store fruit and vegetables for long periods of time, as mold and insects would eventually spoil even the best laid provisions. Grain was about the only food that could be stored for years reliably. Today we have the luxury of a global market able to move food anywhere in a short time, commercial refrigeration, and, of course, canning jars.

While I have no doubt that a regional crop failure would be addressed by shipping goods in from other parts of the country, I would be assuming I would have the money to buy those goods in such a bad year. If my gardens failed and I could not afford to buy anything, I would be depending on what I canned the previous year. If what I canned was to be lost in any way I would be in a bad situation. Since I had such a large supply of dehydrated food in sealed mason jars, I decided to establish a supply in a barrel cache near a small shack on my property.

The unearthed cache is as fresh, clean, and dry as the day I buried it 17 months earlier.
 

I selected a 55-gallon plastic drum with a removable locking top. I chose an out of the way spot and dug down four feet with a hole big enough to set the barrel down into with the top just below the ground level. Into this barrel I placed a mixed food supply consisting of dehydrated fruit and vegetables, grain, beans, sugar, powdered milk, baking powder, salt, and spices, all in individually sealed containers. I also included a mess kit and stock pot for cooking and boiling water and a bucket with an old coat, wool blanket, and a set of old clothes. I stuffed a hand saw, axe head, knife, wire, multi tool, water filter, candles, rat traps, tarp, and a rope in between the jars as well.

After filling the barrel with supplies, I tossed in a five pound bag of clay cat litter to absorb moisture and humidity. I used latex caulk to coat the rim of the barrel (in addition to the gasket already on the lid) and latched it closed with a metal ring. The sides were filled in around the barrel and wide flat stones were placed over the top. Sand and dirt was shoveled over the stones to fill in between them, then leaves and compost tossed over them. After covering the barrel it would not be easily noticed.

This stash was meant to be sealed and forgotten except in case of dire need, and would provide emergency food and supplies, a means to cut fuel for cooking, a change of clothes, and the ability to boil water (with the assumption that water could be stored in empty food containers after boiling). If I was ever so desperate to dig this cache up, I would have enough to rely on for a month or two.

Burying and hiding the cache was as simple as placing a few flat rocks over the lid and shoveling some dirt and leaves into the remaining spaces. Nature took care of the rest.
 

The real test of the cache came when I dug it up a little over a year later. In the time since sealing the barrel, I had built a cabin, barn, and other outbuildings on the property, but had left the barrel untouched. With winter approaching, I decided to open it to see how reliable the cache was, and to repurpose the barrel as a mini root cellar. If the barrel was full of water and spoiled supplies, I would discontinue this idea; if everything was good, I would duplicate the cache in other locations.

I was prepared for water and spoilage when I removed the stones and unsealed the lid, but to my pleasant surprise everything was dry and immaculate. Not a drop of water had gotten into the barrel, nor mouse or insect. I was looking at a barrel of supplies as fresh as the day I sealed the lid nearly a year and a half earlier. The cache experiment was a complete success.

Gardening after sixty

By Jackie Clay-Atkinson

Nearly all of us garden in some form or another. After all, isn’t growing our own food one of the tenets of self-reliance? Besides that, it’s fun, fulfilling, and good exercise. Biting into that first sun-ripened tomato, crisp, sweet carrot, or oh-too-juicy melon makes all that planning and work worthwhile instantly. But as we age, some of the work becomes more difficult and we need to find new ways to do the things that make that garden not only possible but more enjoyable, too. Now that I’m over 70 years old, I think it’s safe to claim that I know a few things about this.

Jackie Clay-Atkinson has been gardening her entire life. Now over 70, she has adapted her methods and overcome many of the physical challenges of continuing to garden.
 

Some things about gardening pretty much stay the same, no matter what age. For instance, I will always be found on our shady front porch, cutting green beans, shelling peas, or shucking sweet corn to can. That doesn’t seem a bit like work, even to my body with all its previously broken bones. (Remember, I wasn’t always old!)

But some tasks are getting a bit more difficult, so instead of quitting, I just try to think of ways to make them easier. There is usually a way to accomplish a task without all the strain it used to take.

Hauling loads

I used to just take the wheelbarrow down to the garden full of manure, mulch, or whatever, and then back up the steep hill, full of rocks, weeds, or debris. It seems like that hill has gotten steeper and longer and my bad elbow doesn’t seem to like lifting those heavy wheelbarrow handles any more.

So instead of the wheelbarrow, I find myself using our riding lawn mower and two-wheeled garden trailer, instead. Not only can I haul, sitting down, but the trailer has a dump box so I don’t have to lift heavy debris out of it, either. And my handy trailer also hauls boxes and buckets of feed, wood shavings, and garden produce from our six big gardens, all with me sitting down. Not so shabby!

But the riding lawn mower and trailer won’t fit into some smaller areas, such as when I want to transplant a young fruit tree or a clump of peonies. I’ve found that by using a snow saucer or plastic toboggan in these tighter areas, I can easily slide the unmanageable, heavy item around on the ground with little effort.

Another handy way to move heavy things is by using a two-wheeled moving dolly. These little carts are inexpensive and you can use them to move everything imaginable, from railroad ties to refrigerators. I often use them to move 100 pound sacks of feed around the homestead. I used to be able to not only lift, but carry those sacks quite a distance with ease, but that was three compressed vertebrae and a damaged shoulder ago. Now I just drag them out of the back of our Subaru, slip the moving dolly’s “foot” under the sack, and off to the barn we go.

As I age, I find myself growing more crops on a trellis. This helps eliminate a lot of bending while tending and harvesting crops. Here are some beans growing on a stock panel trellis.
 

I’ve moved tons of landscaping rock, boulders, bales of straw, and railroad ties for raised beds with mine, and it doesn’t show any wear at all.

Gardening up

In the last few years, I’ve found I’m growing more crops on trellises now, instead of in rows or beds on the ground. Reasons for this are pretty much physical. After all, it’s easier to pick pole beans rather than bush beans, and easier to harvest cucumbers hanging from a trellis instead of bending to find them in a bed on the ground. Growing on a trellis also lets you grow more food in a smaller area than when you grow on the ground. It also keeps your vegetables cleaner.

A trellis can be just about anything, but the easiest, strongest, and nicest to handle and pick from are those made of welded livestock panels or “cattle panels.” They are sturdy, not too heavy to handle, easy to cut into shorter lengths with a pair of long-handled bolt cutters, and very easy to attach to steel T posts, driven into the ground every 8 feet or so. I use zip ties for a quick, easy fix, since they’re easy to remove in the fall.

Welded wire “cattle panels” are ideal trellises. They can be attached to T posts with zip ties, are sturdy, won’t sag, and can be reused year after year. They come in 16-foot lengths.
 

On these trellises I grow pole beans, cucumbers, melons, peas, and sugar pod peas. The wind will never blow them down, nor will the weight of the crop cause them to lean or sag. Come fall, you just have to cut them loose, remove the old vines, and lean the panels up against the garden fence. I even use them in the berry patch, making an arbor for the grape vines to climb up. I put two 16-foot panels horizontally, ten feet apart where the rows of grapes are, fastening the panels to steel T posts, then hump four more panels up over the row, placing the ends inside the horizontal panels and tying them together with fence wire (zip ties will eventually photo-degrade and break). This makes a very attractive arbor and keeps the grapes up and easy to pick.

Just like growing vegetables on a trellis, we have entirely switched to caging our tomatoes. For years I just let them sprawl on the mulch in the garden, but the more tomatoes I grew, the more my back complained about all that bending to pick them. So I started staking them up. That was fine, but required a lot of work, bending to tie the vines to the stakes as they grew taller. I tried about every cage known to man and the results were always the same; the tomatoes would get heavy and tall and a strong wind would eventually blow the cages over, even when a wooden stake was driven in to help hold the cage upright.

Tomato cages made from leftover rolls of concrete reinforcing wire are the best we’ve ever used. They keep sprawling tomato plants and their pendulous fruits off the ground and are easy to reach through. By attaching every cage to a T post, they never tip over.
 

Then my husband, Will, began making tomato cages from concrete reinforcing wire. We were given several partial rolls by a friend who just wanted to be rid of it following a construction job on their place. So Will cut lengths so the cages would be about 18 inches in diameter, just folding the wire back on itself to hold the cage together. They are awesome! These cages are easy to pick tomatoes from, as the squares are so large.

We solved the problem of the cages blowing over by pounding a steel T post in next to the tomato plant, then sliding the cage down over both the plant and T post. Now we never have a tomato plant tip over, and I can easily harvest tomatoes without creeping along on the ground.

Bending and kneeling

One of the best things I’ve found to help me harvest such low crops as bush beans is a simple, lightweight plastic seat which fits inside a plastic bucket. A friend gave me one, and now I wouldn’t garden without it. Sure, you can just turn a five gallon bucket upside down and sit on that, but that raised edge sure cuts into you after a few minutes of sitting. This plastic seat is comfortable and you can sit on it for a long time. The bucket and lid are lightweight, waterproof, and you can vary the height of the seat by choosing the right bucket — some are three and a half gallons, others are five gallons, and a few are six and a half gallons. I like the latter, as it’s taller, and therefore easier to sit down on and get up again. I’ve found these seats at local farm and ranch stores, especially during the winter when folks are ice fishing.

Picking fruit and nuts

A couple of years back I fell off our barn roof. Now my husband doesn’t want me to climb up high any more, but we have a nice orchard of fruit trees and in the fall, there are hundreds of apples, plums, cherries, and other fruit to pick. My grandma used to have this handy fruit picker which was like a wire basket with wire claws to pull the fruit off with. I found one, complete with a screw-together pole to make it longer at our local farm store for less than $40, and I’ve used it ever since. When the trees get too tall to use it, we prune the tops so they stay short. The trees are standard trees, meaning they could get 30 feet tall, but with judicious pruning, they grow out instead of up. I can pick safely from the ground with the picking pole.

Tree nuts are harvested off the ground in most cases. I remember many family events in the fall where Mom and Dad would drive way out into the country, down wild dirt roads, looking for walnuts and shag-barked hickory trees. When we’d find one on the side of the road, we’d all hop out and start filling bags. Well, that was fine when I was 16, but now all that stooping, bending, and crawling about is definitely out. However, I still like nuts.

Luckily, someone invented a rolling nut harvester. This is an oval shaped wire basket on a long handle. You just roll it over the ground and the nuts pop in through the wires and stay inside. You can harvest pecans, walnuts, hickory nuts, and more without bending, stooping or crawling on the ground. Many gardening catalogs carry them, and you can find them in many farm and ranch stores. This inexpensive contraption will let you harvest all the nuts you’d ever want in a very short time. It will even pick up fallen fruits such as plums or crab apples.

Tilling and cultivating

We used to till our garden with a big TroyBilt “Horse” rear-tine tiller, but as our gardens got more numerous and we got older, even that easy-to-run tiller took a lot out of us. We decided to buy a tractor-mounted tiller. Yes, it was costly (around $1,400), but now we can till an acre in less than an hour. For those who don’t have such a large garden, consider downsizing your tiller to fit your physical needs. If we kept a smaller garden, I would trade in my big “Horse” for the smaller “Bronco.” It may take longer to till the garden with a smaller tiller, but it weighs much less and turns easier. If you need something bigger than a hand held tiller, but not quite the size of a tractor tiller, you can get a rototiller attachment for most brands of riding lawn mower.

A garden bench at the edge of your garden will ensure that you have a place to take frequent breaks, while a moving dolly makes it easy to transport heavy items.
 

We love our little Mantis tiller. Because it weighs only 20 pounds, it is easy for us seniors to start and handle. But they’re not a sissy machine! I’ve always likened them to a crazed weasel, they dig so furiously. We use them for cultivating around plants, between rows, and even for loosening the soil to dig in fruit trees. I work the tiller around the inside of the hole, then shovel out all the loose dirt. Soon you have a nice big hole for your new tree.

When you have a small garden, you might consider a battery operated tiller. While these tillers are not powerful enough for breaking sod or tilling the spring garden after winter, they are fine for all that cultivating and weeding between plants. They also have the additional benefits of being very lightweight and silent. So they don’t break your back or annoy your neighbors.

Use more mulch!

The older I get, the more mulch I find myself using, not only in our vegetable gardens but in the berry patch and even my extensive flower beds. When I was much younger, I read Ruth Stout’s wonderful book, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, introducing generations to deep mulching with organic material such as straw and marsh hay.

We have an acre of main garden by our house and we only weed it by hand once. First we till it completely, then we plant. When the plants are up four or five inches, we till again and weed between the plants with a hoe or by hand. Next we add an 8-inch layer weed-free reed canary grass between the rows and around the plants where appropriate. We won’t have to weed again all summer, except for the occasional pulling of a weak, stray weed here and there.

One caution though — only use weed-free and chemical-free hay or straw. Weed seeds, even hay seeds such as timothy, can make future gardening a nightmare. Some hay crops are treated with herbicides such as Grazon to kill weeds but not the crop. These herbicides remain in the manure from animals who have eaten chemical-sprayed hay and also the hay/straw itself, not only killing weeds but also damaging all the plants in your garden. Be careful and ask the grower about any chemicals sprayed on their crops.

Not only does mulch keep the weeds down but it also helps retain moisture around the plant roots, reducing the need for frequent watering. And it breaks down over time. Our mulch is nearly gone by the time we till in the fall and tills in very easily at that time, increasing the tilth of the soil. Where we used to have sand, gravel, and rocks, we now have nice loose black dirt.

Containers and raised beds

As many folks get older, they begin growing more and more crops in raised beds or containers to reduce the bending and other physical care of the garden. It’s amazing how much food can be grown this way.

A friend of ours actually has no garden soil at all; they live on exposed ledge rock. She and her husband garden in five-gallon buckets with drain holes drilled in the bottom, sitting on platforms all around the outside of their deck. In these buckets, they grow tomatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions, cucumbers, beans, and squash. Another friend grows much of their produce in five gallon buckets lined up along the paved approach to their garage.

Still another friend uses stacks of large tires and cattle watering troughs to garden in. Even if you don’t want tires or stock tanks in your yard, you can still build traditional square or rectangular raised beds of cedar or other rot-resistant wood.

One of my favorite garden helpers is this simple plastic seat which fits into the top of a five-gallon bucket.
 

My husband is making a gardening table for one of our sons who is wheelchair bound, by bolting half of a 55-gallon plastic barrel to a sturdy framework of 2x4s. It will be just high enough for him to access easily from the wheelchair.

Other hand-held tools

One of my big annoyances was the grass which grew up along our raised beds in our house garden and the raised beds in the front yard. We do have a gas-powered string trimmer, but that darned thing is hard for me to start with a bum shoulder, and I hated to ask Will to do that puny job every time the grass grew up too high.

Finally, I bought a cheap, battery-powered string trimmer. I wasn’t expecting it to work that well, but it whacks grass and weeds nicely and I can work for quite a long time before having to recharge it. This trimmer is lightweight, quiet, and easy to use.

One of my nicest garden tools is my Cobrahead hoe. This sharp, oval-shaped hoe is like a flat tooth on a swan-neck, attached to a long handle. I can easily reach and hoe weeds from way under my perennial plants, dig up a dandelion or thistle or make shallow rows to plant carrots.

Planting new seeds can really be a back breaker, but I made myself a handy tool to allow me to precisely place seeds all while standing. I took a three-foot-long piece of 1-inch PVC pipe and attached a small funnel to one end. The small end of the funnel feeds into the pipe. I glued a seed cup to the pipe near the funnel (the cup is just a pop bottle with the top cut off). Now, after making my row with a hoe, I place seed in the cup then just walk slowly down the row, placing the end of the pipe into the furrow and dropping one seed at a time into the funnel. It travels down the tube smoothly, making perfect placement of the seeds possible without bending over at all.

Attitude

I think one thing which keeps older folks from gardening more is simply attitude. You know, the “I’m too old to do that” mentality. Yes, some things get harder as you age; that’s a fact of life. Arthritis, muscle pain, and old (or recent) injuries all take their toll, but when you don’t just give up and quit, the rewards are terrific. Even my Mom was actively gardening from a walker in her early 90s, despite terrible rheumatoid arthritis.

I’m convinced gardening is one of the best forms of exercise going. Just don’t over do things while keeping your body moving and your mind active and happy. No matter what type of gardening you do, there is always some form of stretching, bending, and moving involved. All of these are good for us, but tiring. Put a bench down by the edge of the garden like I do. Work awhile, then go sit down. Repeat several times and it’s amazing how much gets done. Instead of quitting gardening because it has become too hard, try to figure out ways to make it easier.

If parts of gardening are simply too hard no matter what you try, hire the job out to a neighbor. It won’t cost much and will let you continue gardening even longer. Better yet, interest your grandchildren or neighbor children in gardening early on and hire them to help with the heavier jobs. That’s a win-win situation as you’ll be passing down a priceless life skill to a younger generation — a worthy goal for a gardener of any age.

Jackie Clay-Atkinson lives with her husband, Will, on their homestead in northern Minnesota. She has spent a lifetime gardening, raising livestock, preserving food, and developing productive homesteads in Montana and New Mexico in addition to her current location. She has written countless articles and numerous books, some of which can be found on our website, www.self-reliance.com.

 

Little ones on the homestead

By Melissa Souza
 

Everywhere I go around the homestead I have four little ones following close behind me, two of which always have their boots on the wrong feet. Folks are always asking how we get it all done with four homeschooled children. It is true that I never have a stretch of time when children are gone at school, but that only means that I have helpers all of the time. Homesteading with children is a state of mind. If you try to distract them so you can get your work done it will be a constant battle of rushing and leaving tasks unfinished.

We started this homesteading journey for our children. We wanted them to see the great value in living a simple life. It is important that our children know things, and by things I don’t mean electronics. I mean real things like how to process meat, plant a garden, save seeds, and care for the land that takes care of them. As a busy parent that needs to get many things done every day, it is tempting to tell the kids to go play, but we are learning the value in taking the extra time to include each of our children in the daily chores.

 

Each child has a set of jobs that are only their responsibility. We speak to them about how vital that role is, and why it is so important to take that responsibility seriously. My seven year old son is in charge of feeding the chickens, dog, cats, and rabbits. We explained that they eat before he does, because they depend on him. He never forgets to feed any of them, because he sees that they wait anxiously for him every morning. My four year old daughter gathers eggs after breakfast, and she has a special egg collecting apron that is just for her. This makes her feel important, because she is literally bringing breakfast in for our entire family.

My husband and I teach our children to harvest and clean ripe produce from the garden to provide food for our family and our small CSA.
Our daughter and her special egg-gathering apron, which she uses to gather eggs every day.
 

When it’s time to gather firewood, my husband always makes sure to bring our oldest boy along so he can learn how to safely chop wood, and how to stack it so that it dries properly. They have built a firewood shed, rabbit hutches, nesting boxes, a storage shed, and a child-friendly chicken coop together. It would be much quicker for my husband to do these projects on his own, but each new project is an opportunity to teach our children measurements, angles, types of wood, different tools, and hard work.

Planting seeds may take longer with little kids, but the joy they gain from growing food for their family can’t be duplicated any other way.
 

The chicken coop was designed specifically so that our children could manage the hens without our assistance. The food and water delivery systems are designed so that they never have to enter the coop. Eggs are collected from outside, and the back is easy to open so that they can clean out the coop themselves. Our rabbit hutches are similarly designed, and the animals that feed our family have become the responsibility of the kids. This gives them ownership and respect for those animals when it comes to processing day.

They have not gotten into processing the animals for meat yet, but that will come with time. They do watch and ask questions, and we explain the anatomy and steps involved in butchering. We save hides, and they help me tan and stretch the leather. They have learned that we use every part of the animal, and that is how to respect their sacrifice.

Learning to preserve the harvest is another wonderful skill my kids learn on the homestead. We often turn extra cabbage into kimchi.
 

Our favorite time of the year is when we start planning our garden. They get to select special vegetables that they would like to grow that year, and experience success of planting the seeds they helped save from the season before. When we are preparing our garden compost, we talk with them about how our food breaks down and why compost is important to feed our gardens. The kids all get out there every spring with rakes and shovels to help prepare the gardens that will feed them year around.

All four kids help plant seeds, weed, and water through the spring. You could walk around the entire property with our four year old, and she could tell you what each seedling is. I love watching her explain to visitors that the frilly ones are carrots, and the big round leaves are cucumbers, and the tall vines are sweet peas. It takes us longer to get our garden in the ground with so many tiny fingers poking around, but it makes every extra hour worth it when we see how proud they are of the carrots that they grow.

We built our coop to make sure our kids could manage the care and feeding of the hens all by themselves. The feed and water is added from the outside, and the entire back of the coop opens to make it easy to rake out the spoiled bedding into a wheelbarrow.
 

Summer months bring daily garden collections, and they are so excited to bring in large baskets of greens, and even more eager to eat them. We run a small CSA, and when people come to collect their baskets, all four kids take such pride in everything that goes into them. Summertime also brings abundance that we preserve for the fall and winter months. Including the children in the canning process has been one of our best homeschool learning experiences. They learn to read recipes, measure exactly, and tell temperature. We have learned about bacteria, acids, and kitchen safety together, and that is a real world skill that will stay with them.

 

Homesteading with small children is very possible, and in many regards what keeps us going. We live this life for them, so why would we not teach them every aspect of how to live this life in the future? My grandma tells me that this season in life is long days, and short years. I remind myself of that when I am watching my two year old stirring most of the flour out of the bread bowl. At the end of the day our children have dirty feet, and smell like sunshine, and we can almost bet that they have learned something new.

Melissa lives with her husband and children on a suburban homestead in the Pacific northwest. In addition to a garden and eggs, they produce meat chickens and rabbits.

 

Fresh figs

By Kristina Seleshanko

When we moved to our 15 acre homestead, I was thrilled to adopt a mature orchard. Most of the common fruit trees were there, including apples, plums, cherries, and pears. And then there were four fig trees. Suddenly I realized I’d never even tasted a fig … unless you count Fig Newton cookies. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about figs — and I must say I’m as delighted with those trees as I am with the other fruit trees in our orchard.

It turns out, fresh figs are something of a rare and delicious treat. The reason so few Americans have tasted fresh figs is that the fruit is delicate when ripe; truly ripe figs would never survive being shipped to grocery stores and handled by multiple customers. Happily, however, figs grow in many areas in the United States: zones 7 – 11. (Potted trees that are brought indoors during winter can survive down to zone 4b.) Figs, then, are an excellent addition to the homestead.

Fig growing requirements

Figs like well draining soil. Ours are planted in clay, but they are on top of a hill that drains well. Ideally, though, loamy soil rich in nutrients is best. Figs prefer a pH of 6.0 – 6.5, and like an area that gets full sun.

Plant fig trees where they are protected from winter wind. Avoid planting them where they will receive direct sun in the winter, or they may come out of dormancy too soon; then, when a cold snap hits, the trees will be damaged and you may not get a harvest that year.

Plant bare root trees 15 to 20 feet apart in the late fall or early spring. If you’d like to train the trees into bushes (mature trees are 15 – 30 feet tall), you may plant them 10 feet apart. Figs are self-fruitful, so if desired, you can plant only one. For the best harvest, I suggest planting several varieties, selecting early-, mid-, and late-fruiting types. In this way, you can have fresh figs from late spring through late fall. Some fig varieties produce an early crop (called a “breba”), as well as a more plentiful, later crop. It takes about two years to begin seeing mature fruit on most fig trees.

In areas with mild winters, figs need no added winter protection. In places that get regular snow, you’ll need to protect the trees by mulching thickly with hay or leaves, and wrapping branches in a blanket when temperatures drop below freezing. In the coldest climates, plant a dwarf tree in a pot that’s at least three feet across and two or more feet deep, and bring it indoors during the winter months.

Fig tree care

Use 8-8-8 fertilizer on fig trees: One pound of fertilizer for every year of the tree’s life (or for each foot in height), up to 12 pounds total per tree. The best time to fertilize is when the tree is budding. If fertilizer is too heavy in nitrogen, you’ll end up with trees that have lots of leaves, but no fruit.

Newly planted trees need consistent watering; don’t let them dry out. But mature figs don’t mind dry soil. (In fact, figs become tasteless when trees are over-watered). However, if the tree’s leaves begin to droop, it’s time to give them a soak. Don’t stress your fig trees by under-watering, since this makes them more vulnerable to their main nemesis: nematodes.

Pruning can be light; cut away any dead branches, and trim as needed to keep the tree the size you desire. Always prune in later winter, before new growth begins.

How to tell when figs are ripe

Knowing when to pick figs is a bit of an art. Since the fruit stops ripening once it’s picked, and since under-ripe figs are pretty tasteless, it’s important to pick the fruit at the right time.

The first clue that figs are ready to harvest might be color. Most figs start out green and gradually turn a dark brown or even blackish color as they ripen. However, there are varieties of figs that stay green even when ripe, so color isn’t a hard and fast harvesting rule.

This nearly ripe fig is still firm. Once it softens, it will be ripe. I like to wait even longer, until the figs begin to develop cracks in the skin, when they literally burst with flavor.
 

The best indication that a fig is ripe is how tender it is. Unripe figs are hard; when figs get soft, they are ripe. But for the very best flavor, wait to harvest until the figs develop cracks. In fact, though it may sound gross to some people, in my experience, the best indication that a fig is perfect for eating is when ants or fruit flies are on it. The fruit flies will fly away when you pick the fruit and the ants are easily wiped off.

If your figs don’t have much flavor, you’re picking them before they are fully ripe, or you’re over-watering the trees. Another indication that you’ve picked a fig too soon: There is sticky sap in the stem.

How to use figs

Of course figs make an excellent snack, eaten right off the tree, but once your fig trees are mature, you’ll have more figs than you can easily eat this way. Figs taste best when stored at room temperature, but they last longer if kept in the fruit bin of a refrigerator. Typically, I store them in the fridge, remove what I want to eat, and allow the fruit to come to room temperature before eating it.

Figs are also excellent in both savory and sweet dishes. Some typical uses for fresh figs include fig galette, cake, or pie; as a pizza topping; roasted with goat cheese, ricotta, or yogurt; or baked along with chicken, lamb, or duck. Figs can be stuffed with blue cheese (and perhaps cooked in a frying pan until the cheese is melted), and halved or chopped figs are wonderful in a fresh green salad.

Fig Newton-style cookies

These take a little time to prepare, but are absolutely scrumptious — especially when they are still warm from the oven. If you want to save a little time, you may substitute the filling with fig jam (see recipes, below).

For the dough:

    ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
    ½ cup granulated sugar
    ½ tsp. grated lemon zest
    1 large egg white
    ½ tsp. real vanilla extract
    1½ cups all purpose flour

 

For the filling:

    2 lbs. fresh figs
    ¼ cup granulated sugar
    Juice from half a lemon

 

In the bowl of a mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and zest. Beat in the egg white and vanilla. Add the flour and beat until dough forms.

These fig cookies are a bit involved, but so delicious that I find they’re worth the effort.
 

Place the dough on a piece of plastic wrap and flatten into a disc. Cover completely with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Remove the fig stems and chop the fruit. Place the prepared figs in a medium saucepan, along with the sugar and lemon juice. Use a potato masher to mash the ingredients together. Cook over medium high heat until sugar has dissolved and the mixture bubbles. Stir often. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the mixture is reduced by about a third and is starting to gel, remove from the stove and allow to cool completely.

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper until it measures about 12 x 16 inches. Cut into 4 equal strips (about 12 x 4 inches each). Using a spoon, place filling down the center of each strip. Fold the dough over the filling and pinch the edges of the dough together. Cut each piece into 10 cookies and place on prepared baking sheet, seam side down. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden.

Preserving figs

Dehydrating

The easiest way to preserve figs is to dehydrate them. Even though figs are soft and juicy, they dry quickly. I typically cut them into quarters and dehydrate at 135° F. overnight. Store in a glass jar with an air tight lid and place in a cool, dark location. You can snack on the dehydrated fig pieces, or use them for baking and cooking. Because figs are so fragile when fresh, most fig recipes call for dried figs, so having a supply of dehydrated fig pieces is great.

Most recipes call for dehydrated figs, since it is almost impossible to come by the fresh ones at the market, so a good supply of dried fig pieces will always come in handy.
 

Dehydrating figs is simple. Simply quarter and dehydrate overnight.
 

Freezing

Just like most other types of fruit, there are two ways to freeze figs: with or without syrup. In both cases, for the nicest looking and best tasting figs, it’s a good idea to treat the fruit with lemon juice. Use 3 tablespoons of juice for every quart of water, and dip halved or chopped figs in this mixture.

To freeze using a syrup, The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends a heavy syrup: 2¾ cups granulated sugar and 4 cups of water. Heat the water on the stove, add the sugar, and stir until it’s completely dissolved. Allow the syrup to cool completely. Gently fold in prepared figs and place in freezer proof containers, leaving one inch of headspace.

To freeze figs without syrup, pack prepared figs into freezer proof containers, being sure to leave one inch of headspace. If you want to be able to remove just a few figs from the freezer at any given time (say for smoothies), lay the prepared figs in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the freezer. Once the figs are frozen, pop them into freezer bags.

Frozen figs tend to be mushy, so plan to use them for smoothies or baking such things as cakes and cookies.

Fig freezer jam
    4 cups chopped figs (stems removed)
    2 cups granulated sugar
    ½ cup of water
    1 Tbsp. of lemon juice

 

Place prepared figs in a large saucepan and add sugar and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 40 to 60 minutes.

Fig jam is a delicious and uncommon treat that will keep some of that delightful fruit handy all season long.
 

Stir in the lemon juice and cook for 1 minute, then remove from the stove and allow to cool completely. Pour into jars, leaving 1 inch headspace, allow to cool, then freeze.

Makes about 2 pints.

Canning figs

Whole figs

For best results, choose only just-ripe figs.

Wash the fruit, but do not remove the stems. Place figs in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Boil for 2 minutes. Drain.

Create a light syrup for the figs by bringing 5¾ cup of water to a boil and adding 1½ cups granulated sugar. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved.

Add the prepared figs and boil gently for 5 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons lemon juice per quart jar (or 1 tablespoon per pint jar) and fill jars with figs and syrup. Leave ½ inch headspace. Process pint jars in a hot water bath canner for 45 minutes, and quart jars for 50 minutes. If you live above 1,000 feet elevation, you’ll have to adjust your processing time according to the instructions in a modern canning manual or the National Center for Home Food Preservation website (http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_02/fig.html).

No added pectin fig jam
    about 5 lbs. fresh figs
    ¾ cup water
    6 cups granulated sugar
    ¼ cup lemon juice

 

Fill a pot with water and bring to a boil. Pour over the whole figs. Allow to stand for 10 minutes, then drain.

Cut off stems and chop fruit. Pour into a large pot. Add ¾ cup of water and the sugar, stirring until sugar is fully dissolved. Bring to a boil and continue gently boiling until the mixture thickens, stirring often.

Add lemon juice and cook for 1 minute.

Pour into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Process half pint or pint jars for 5 minutes if you live below 1,000 feet elevation, 10 minutes if you live between 1,000 and 6,000 feet, and 15 minutes if you live above 6,000 feet.

Makes about five 8 oz. jars.

Kristina Seleshanko homesteads on 15 mostly wooded acres; she is the author of 25 books, including The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook, A Vegetable for Every Season Cookbook, and Starting Seeds. She blogs at www.ProverbsThirtyOneWoman.blogspot.com.

Jersey Giants: The triple-purpose chicken

By Patrice Lewis

We’ve raised chickens for years, both for eggs and meat. Getting eggs from chickens is easy. Getting meat … well, not so much. No matter how many times you hear about various breeds being touted as “dual purpose” — good for eggs and meat — the meat part is likely to be disappointing. The bird that goes in your freezer is likely to be about the size of a skinny “rubber chicken” rather than the fat roasters you see on the rotisserie at Costco.

So, like most rural Americans, we turned to Cornish Crosses for our meat birds. We’ve tried them on and off over the years, but we stopped raising them for two reasons.

Our mature Jersey Giant roosters weigh a whopping 12 pounds each.
 

Reason one: Cornish Crosses, as meat birds, fulfill their function superbly. They gain weight with a speed and seriousness that is awesome to behold. Within nine or ten weeks max, they’re ready for the freezer.

Except here’s the thing: If you don’t put them in the freezer by nine or ten weeks, their bodies start to break down. Their organs fail. Their joints give out. They can’t walk. They expire at the drop of a hat. It’s horrifically sad. I call them weird freaky mutant chickens.

Reason two: We can’t breed Cornish Crosses ourselves. We’re trying to make our homestead more self-sustaining, not less. If we have to purchase chicks from the feed store every time we want to raise meat birds, we’re taking a step backward, not forward. We looked into what it takes to breed Cornish Crosses, but it turns out they have a rather complicated tangle of genetics that precludes the home breeder from duplicating the exact lineage without a lot of dedicated work.

Never have I raised a breed of chicken so willing to sit on eggs. Reproduction cannot be overlooked as an important component of sustainability on a homestead.
 

A couple of years ago, after butchering our last batch of Cornish Crosses, we decided “no more.” Never again did we want weird freaky mutant chickens on our farm.

So the search was on for replacement birds. What breed would dress out large enough for a meal, yet stay healthy enough to grow to adulthood? What breed could equal the fat and delicious Cornish Crosses as a meat bird, but which we could raise ourselves? That’s when we found Jersey Giants.

Purpose one: The original meat bird

As the name implies, this breed was originally developed in New Jersey in the late 1800s by two brothers, John and Thomas Black. They were the original “commercial” meat chicken bred to replace the turkey, which was the primary table bird at the time (doubtless because other chicken breeds were too scrawny to provide a substantial meal, which we’ve found is true even now). They are considered the largest purebred chicken breed.

Jersey Giants come in three colors: Black, white, and “blue” (a bluish slate-gray). Black is the dominant gene, so white birds come from breeding two recessive whites. Blue giants come from an incomplete dominant gene. There is also a “splash” variety, in which the bird has two copies of the blue gene. Splash birds are a paler slate color, or have whitish streaks. They are not recognized as an “official” variety and therefore can’t be used as show birds. On average, the blacks tend to outweigh the whites by about a pound.

Today, the slower-growing Jersey Giant has been entirely supplanted by the fast-growing Cornish Cross in the meat industry, a fully understandable decision in terms of profitability. However for the self-sustaining homestead, where “fast” isn’t as strong a consideration as “humane” and “reproducible,” the Jersey Giant has proven to be a superb choice for us.

Jersey Giant hens are fantastic layers of brown eggs, and will go broody all year. They are not much larger than other large breed hens at maturity.
 

In June 2015, we received 10 pullets and five straight-run (unsexed) chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery, all of which arrived in excellent health. Of the straight-run chicks, three were roosters (one of which got picked off by a coyote).

We haven’t butchered our two roosters since they are our flock sires. We have several young second-generation roosters who have not yet reached butchering weight (as of this writing), however our current mature boys weigh in at about 12 pounds each. Using the average ratio of live weight to dressed weight (dressed chickens are about 75 percent of live weight), we can anticipate about a nine-pound bird in the freezer at butchering time. Since most chickens are processed at about 4.5 pounds live weight, we expect a satisfactorily hefty roaster.

Jersey Giants have a reputation for growing “slower” than other breeds of chickens. In fact, they grow at the same pace; it’s just that they have farther to go to reach their full size. They tend to achieve their large frame first, then put on weight later. Since roosters take about nine months to achieve maximum weight, they are considered to have a poor feed/weight conversion. Again, that’s a factor for commercial enterprises, but not as important on a homestead.

We’ve found the hens to be not much larger in size than Black Australorps or Rhode Island Reds, so our meat efforts have been concentrated on the roosters. We keep the two mature roosters with the hens for both fertilization and protection, and they are all free-range. Our young roosters destined for the freezer are kept in a separate pen with a large enclosed run.

Allowing chickens to free range outside and in the barn compost helps to supplement their diet to a degree that our feed costs are lowered tremendously. We are also working on raising more corn and wheat to feed them, in addition to feeding our family.
 

Allowing birds to be free-range greatly reduces dependency on commercial feed, particularly during warmer months. Our birds make good use of our extensive barn-waste compost pile. (We’re also working on raising enough wheat and corn for chicken feed in addition to human consumption, but that’s another article.)

Purpose two: Eggs galore

With the Jersey Giant emphasis on meat, we had no particular expectations the hens would be anything more than adequate egg layers. As it turns out, the hens are superb layers. Of course they don’t equal breeds which are dedicated for eggs, such as Leghorns, but we have been more than satisfied by the amount of henfruit we’ve received.

The eggs are on the medium-to-large side, but not especially huge. The eggs are brown, varying from dark brown to light cream, and sometimes show faint speckles. Hens start laying small “pullet” eggs at about the same time as other breeds, at five months of age or so.

Purpose three: Sustainability

I’ve claimed Jersey Giants as excellent triple-purpose birds. They’re excellent for both eggs and meat, so what’s the third benefit? Broodiness. I have never, and I mean never, seen a breed so inclined to go broody.

As anyone who has ever raised chickens knows, broodiness has been bred out of many breeds. Several types of chickens are known to be more inclined toward broodiness (notably bantams), and sometimes a particular hen of any breed goes broody, but in our experience, only the Jersey Giants have been remarkably consistent in their instinct.

During our first year with Jersey Giants, I had hens going broody at all times and in all places. I keep about a dozen wooden “nest eggs” to encourage hens to lay in convenient places, but I’ve also found these false eggs to be useful when hens go broody in the wrong season. One dedicated hen stayed on a batch of wooden eggs through bitterly cold December weather (I picked her up and put her in the coop each night, and each morning she would faithfully re-settle herself back on the fake eggs, located seven feet up on top some hay bales).

Some people say Jersey Giants are so big the broody hens tend to break their own eggs. I haven’t had that issue, namely because our girls are not that large.

Last summer we allowed two hens to hatch their broods. After the first lady hatched a “baker’s dozen” of chicks, a neighbor happened to stop by. When we showed him the babies peeping around their mother, he was delighted. “Aha!” he exclaimed. “Sustainability!” Broodiness has been bred out of so many chicken breeds that finding a hen who will hatch her own eggs is increasingly rare.

Pluses and minuses

Of course, nothing is perfect. There will always be something dissatisfying with any breed of chicken.

The biggest flaws of Jersey Giants are:

• Slower maturity. We aren’t overly concerned about this.

• Dark feathers, which can leave dark pinfeathers on a plucked bird during butchering. Raising white Jersey Giants will reduce this detriment.

• Roosters, due to their large size, can be a bit tough on the hens. We had a few bald ladies with bare backs until the boys got into their stride. We have not found the roosters to be aggressive toward people.

• They require proportionately more feed, which can be offset by allowing the chickens to be free range.

The biggest benefits of Jersey Giants are:

• A table bird of suitable size for a family

• Cold-hardy (we live in the north Idaho panhandle)

• Sustainability, since the hens go broody easily

• Not prone to health issues

• Hens are excellent layers

• They are a heritage breed

Heritage breed chickens have several benefits: they reproduce and genetically maintain their qualities through natural mating; they have a long productive outdoor lifespan, and their slow growth rate means their skeletal structure, organs, and muscle mass develop healthily.

At this point, we consider the benefits of Jersey Giants as outweighing the detriments. The ability to sustain a flock was high on our list. Add to it the large size and the egg-laying proclivities, and the result is an overall excellent choice for a homestead chicken.

Bike foraging

 By Setanta O’Ceillaigh

When times are hard it pays to ride a bike. Bikes can travel at a reasonable speed, carry a reasonable cargo, and there is very little that can break. They are light enough to carry over rough terrain, and they are very good on gas — they don’t use any. But a bike is more than a means of hauling cargo or getting from place to place; it is also a very valuable foraging tool if you know how to use it.

To forage with a bike, it should be outfitted with a basic kit for the task. A good mountain bike should have a basket in front, and two side baskets in the rear or a cargo bin on the back. A bike trailer is also very useful, but not a necessity. Any basket can be attached to the front of a bike, however my personal preference is a plastic battery box. To attach it, I bore out a few holes in the lip and use zip ties to fasten it between the handle bars. To keep rain water from collecting, I also drill out a few small holes in the bottom. For rear side baskets, I have used a heavy saddle bag basket I picked up in a yard sale and have also used square buckets that I attached to the sides. A milk crate can be added as a rear cargo bin directly over the rear wheel.

A good mountain bike can become an ideal foraging bike with a couple of inexpensive baskets, like these. The bike trailer is nice, but not a necessity.
 

A few tools are very handy for foraging, these include cloth and plastic bags, a knife, some kind of reaching tool (such as a can grabber or an old wooden cane), some light rope and bungee cords, and either a crack barrel pellet pistol or slingshot with a small amount of ammo. The tools should be stored within easy reach; the front basket is ideal. There should also be room for a water bottle, rain jacket, and any other miscellaneous tools that need to be kept at hand.

When foraging, stick to back roads. Bigger roads can be foraged along, but I recommend not picking anything close to the roadside. This is due to gas and oil runoff and other contaminants that might come from vehicles. Scarcely-used roads should only have a few feet for a no-pick zone, while busy main roads should have up to 100 feet for a no-pick zone. Use discretion.

 

Wild grapes
 

Recent logging sites might be filled with wild raspberries and blackberries. Old abandoned farms may yield wild carrots, parsnips, and other crops growing outside cultivation. Abandoned houses that are falling in might have asparagus, knotweed, Jerusalem artichokes, and rhubarb growing all over the yard. Forest edges might yield wild ginseng and ginger, hickory, walnuts, and butternuts. Many apple trees have grown near roadsides because someone threw an apple core out a car window. I have found old fences covered in wild grapes. Wetlands can be sources for cattails, duck potato, and wild rice. A gold mine of free fresh fruits and vegetables can be found as long as a bike forager knows what’s what and what is in season.

To collect things, I get off the bike and push it into the grass off the road (easier to do without a trailer attached — with a trailer it is best to use the kickstand).

If I find a dense area of wild grapes that are ripe, I twist the bunches off from the vine and pack them into a doubled up plastic bag (a grocery bag lined with another grocery bag). I don’t bother trying to separate each grape, plus the wild grape is mostly seed. I fill the bags and fill the saddle bag baskets with them. To use them, I dump them all into a large stock pot and pack them down, add about three inches of water, cover the pot, and set it on the stove. I heat the water to a boil and the steam wilts the stems and makes the grapes droop and weep. After a few minutes of boiling, the fruits are turned to a loose mush. I use a cheesecloth to filter out the mush, seeds, and stems, and set the juice aside to make wild grape jelly. Wild grape juice can be jellied following any grape recipe, but the result is a tart jelly not a sweet one. It’s really good.

Wild apples
 

For apples, I use the reaching tool to hook branches and pull them down to where I can reach them. I pick the best ones and make a big pile that I load into bags and cart home. Roadside apples tend to be small, but make for good cider. To make it without a press, I chop up the apples and crab apples and toss them all in a big stock pot and boil the same as I do for the grapes. After quickly filtering, the result is a tart juice that can be canned as cider or used to make a strong, cider-flavored jelly.

Hickory nuts and butternuts can be picked up off the ground, bagged up, taken home, and cracked with a hammer or nut cracker (depending on species). They can be added to breads and trail mixes, and a good breakfast can be had from boiled cornmeal mush, maple syrup, and hickory nuts. Locally, hickory nuts sell for $5 a gallon, and I know several people who make good money in the fall fighting the squirrels for them.

Cattails
 

When digging up roots, I use the knife from the tool kit to make a pointed digging stick on the spot. Roots can be piled into a bag, taken home, washed, and cooked.

Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, black raspberries, currents, and other berries can be used fresh, canned as jams, jellies, and pie fillings, or sold for $5 a pint.

I keep note when I see things like asparagus growing wild, that way I can return to the spot in the spring and transplant them to my homestead.

Bike foraging can be enhanced with guerrilla gardening. This can be done by planting onion sets or garlic or by deploying seedbombs. Seedbombs are made from a mix of seeds, fertilizer, and clay, rolled up and air dried and thrown into abandoned areas. When rain water hits the seedbomb the clay dissolves so the seed can start growing with a little fertilizer. Many roadside apple trees grew from accidental guerrilla gardening, and the same method can be used for over ripe garden produce, throwing squash or tomatoes into random places. Sometimes the seeds will germinate and grow wild, sometimes they won’t. Nature has been spreading seeds this way on its own forever. A bird eats a berry, flies away, and the seed is dropped out somewhere else with a little fertilizer. Seedbombs are just mimicking a natural process.

Wild asparagus
 

Bike foraging can also be used for opportunistic hunting. By keeping a loaded pellet pistol or slingshot in the front basket, it is possible to take rabbits, grouse, squirrel, and woodchuck when so see them as you ride by. (Just know that shooting from the road is illegal just about everywhere, so don’t do that.)

The few dangers I have experienced while foraging on my bike are the same as using a bike in any other way. The biggest danger is aggressive dogs. If a dog gets close, I get off the bike and push it, keeping on the other side of the bike so it acts as a shield. Most dogs back off when I hold up the cane; they know a human with a stick means trouble. Having the pellet gun helps even the odds in an attack. I have been bitten by a few dogs while foraging and don’t take any chances now. The only other dangers I have faced are from reckless drivers.

When foraging, I stick to the back roads, stay out of peoples yards, and only forage from land known to be public (such as state or federal land), from abandoned properties (like run-down, falling-in houses with weeds and shrubs all over the yard), or from other tracts that are obviously not being used for anything. By regularly scouting, it is possible to forage large amounts of free produce. With the right mindset and some simple tools it is easy not only to stay fed, but also make a small income doing so — both things always worth considering when times are hard.

Laundry line tips from an old hat

By Amanda Woodlee

Nothing warms my pioneer blood like clothes hanging on a line to dry. For me it’s a chance to unwind while I take care of household business. It’s a wonderful basic country skill, but, after so many years of doing it, I have found ways to make it easier and avoid its pitfalls, such as dust and scratchy towels.

There are also monetary benefits to line-drying your clothes. The most obvious is how considerably it lowers your electric bill — twofold! First, by not using power for the dryer, and, second, by not heating up your house and forcing the AC to work harder.

A second benefit is whiter whites. Ever leave something in a window too long and find the color faded? Sun-bleaching is an ancient tradition that is still practical. Bonus: the sun has germ-killing powers!

Hanging laundry is pretty simple stuff, and I’m not here to complicate it. Whether you’re new to it or an old hat like me, if you’d like to get the most out of it, here are a few tips I’d like to share from doing this a few years.

Towel the line — It’s warm out, and that means pollen is everywhere. Unless you’re into yellow stripes, take a minute to run a damp cloth down every inch of hanging surface.

Double up — Hang a piece with two pins, then overlap it with the next piece and use the second pin to hold up one side of the next piece, so that they share it. This works best on thinner pieces, and keep in mind it will slow the drying process a smidgen. This, along with grouping like items, is also helpful when you have a lot of pieces to hang so you don’t run out of pins.

Flip out — Remember what I said about the sun? That’s good on whites — leave them be. But, if you want your colors to last, protect their exteriors by turning them inside-out. This is also great for pants because it helps pockets dry faster. Pro-tip: turn underwear inside out. Don’t make me explain why.

Whip it good — Give everything a good shake when you hang it. Helps get the dog fur and wrinkles out. If there’s not any wind, clothes dry in the shape they’re left in, so make it a good one.

Fluff ‘n stuff — When finished, I like to toss the load into the dryer on the air-dry setting for 5-10 minutes; helps get the dust off and softens. Save this task for late at night or early in the morning before the temperature climbs.

Bring it in — Don’t leave clothes on the line overnight, and don’t leave the basket outside all day; the sun dries and weakens the plastic. And if your clothespin bag doesn’t zip, best take it inside so critters don’t move in and surprise you next time you reach inside!

Don’t be such a snag — If you have delicate fabrics (satins, laces, hosiery), consider investing in soft-grip plastic clothespins with rubber feet to avoid snags. For everything else my 50 or so wooden pins do just fine.

Scoot yer boot — I hang my pin bag over one of the middle lines and move it down as I go so it’s always nearby.

Special techniques

I have techniques for hanging every article of clothing. Socks and underthings get one pin each. Shorts and briefs get two — I fold the waistband over the line. Pants are hung upside-down by the leg with a pin on each cuff. Tees, blouses, and polos get a pin at each shoulder.

Button-up shirts, however, have their own special way to hang, a technique handed down for generations in my family. Take the two seams on either side of the shirttail, and pin those. This way the shirt hangs upside-down, and the breeze can flow through the armholes.

As soon as the daily temperature is in the 50s, I start hanging laundry; this year that was February. And I don’t quit until October-November. If I get up early and the sun is warm, I can get three loads done. For my husband and me, I do one a day during the week to maintain.

If the wind is over 10-15 mph, I wait. Better to put it off than risk damaging the clothes. Save sturdy loads (blankets, towels, heavy sheets) for blustery days.

Drawbacks? Not many. The occasional rogue bird needs target practice. Spiders and other critters (mostly boxelder bugs) have met untimely ends in the dryer during post-hang fluffing. I sometimes find their shriveled carcasses on my socks and shake them off. The boxelder bugs have been eating my baby raspberry bush leaves — the meanies deserve what they get.

Feta cheese

 By Melissa Souza

 
As a child I remember my Yiya having balls of curds draining around her kitchen. She was from “Greece’s Old Country” as she called it. Her homemade feta cheese was maybe the best thing I have ever tasted. We used to sneak big chunks of it as it was aging in her fridge. We lost Yiya a few years ago, but keeping her recipes alive for my own children has always been very important to me. In the Old Country they didn’t use things like calcium chloride, but since they are readily available, and make the process a bit easier, I have tweaked Yiya’s recipe a bit.

    1 gallon raw goat milk
    ½ tablet rennent
    1 Tbsp. plain greek yogurt
    1 tsp. calcium chloride
    6 Tbsp. pure fine seasalt (for a later step)

 

 
Heat milk on medium low heat (stirring) until it reaches 88°F. Remove from heat, and stir in one tablespoon greek yogurt (mix it with a tablespoon water so it’s easy to blend), and one teaspoon calcium chloride (this will make your cheese curds more firm). Cover and let sit for an hour. (1)

1
Dissolve half a tablet of rennet in about four tablespoons of cold, unchlorinated water. Wisk gently into milk. Cover and let sit overnight or about 12 hours. (2)

 2
 
The next morning there will be a layer of whey on top of the pot, and the curds will have separated. Take a long, sharp knife and cut ½ inch slices into the curds. Turn the pot 90 degrees and cut ½ inch lines the other way. (3) Take your clean hand or large spoon and lift the curd strips from the bottom, then cut any large pieces. (4)

3
 
4
Strain the whey into a large pitcher or jar and save for a later step. (5) Wrap the curds tightly in cheese cloth, and allow to drain until no more whey comes out (about four hours). (6) Unwrap your curds, sprinkle with one tablespoon of pure fine sea salt, and break up curds to mix in all of the salt. (7)

5
 
6

 
7
 
Transfer curds into your cheese press or mold. There are online ideas for making one if you don’t own one. In my case, I just have the mold, but no cheese weights, so I press the cheese inside by placing my husband’s exercise weights on top. The cheese will sit like this overnight. (8)

Once the cheese is in the mold, transfer 2½ cups of the whey into a jar and add five tablespoons of salt. This will be your brine for your cheese. Let the brine sit out 12-24 hours. Allowing it to sit out will make it acidic, and it must be or your cheese will melt. I set it next to the cheese press, and let both do their thing for 12-18 hours in the summer, or longer in the colder months.

8
In the morning dump your cheese onto a flat surface and cut into chunks. Place all the chunks in a container, and cover with the brine. (9) Store covered in fridge, and allow cheese to age in the brine for 3-5 days before eating.

9

Why gardening is such good exercise, especially for women

By Tom Kovach

There is an old maxim about exercise: “The best exercise is the one you are willing to do.”

For us rural folk, one of the exercises we are usually willing to do is gardening, because it is part of the lifestyle of living in the country. How lucky for us, because a growing body of scientific evidence says that gardening, even when compared to such strenuous exercises as swimming and jogging, is one of the best exercises a human being can do. The reason is gravity and our evolved need to interact with it.

Ilene Duffy, whose mom, Kathy, suffered from osteoporosis, gardens as a way to help stave off the symptoms of the condition.


Gardening has us bending, digging, twisting, stooping, lifting, carrying, and huffing and puffing to overcome gravity as we plant, nurture, and harvest our vegetables. Swimming lacks the pull of the earth against our bones and muscles, and jogging lacks the constant flexing of our bodies that gardening requires.

Although gardening is good for both sexes, it is especially good for women who are more prone to osteoporosis as they age. Some years ago, in a study undertaken at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville called Physical Activity and Bone Density Among Older Women, it was found that women 50 and older, who gardened at least once a week, showed higher bone density readings than those who engaged in other types of exercise including jogging, swimming, walking, and aerobics.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Lori Turner, then an associate professor of Health and Science at the University, said that research has long shown that weight-bearing exercise can help women maintain healthy bones. “By knowing which exercise provides the greatest benefit, women can design a workout regime that ensures strong bones as they age,” Dr. Turner said.  She added that such preventive measures may reduce the number of people who develop osteoporosis, a debilitating disease that threatens almost 50 million Americans.

“Within our study, more than half the women, 57 percent, showed low bone density,” said Turner. “There is no question that osteoporosis is a problem in our society. But if we persist in only treating the disease, the number of victims will never drop.  We have to find ways to prevent it.”

To gain a comprehensive look at the effects of exercise on older women, Turner looked at the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a data set collected by the National Center for Health Sciences, which contains information on more than 40,000 people. From a pool of women ages 50 and older, she examined how often they performed different activities including gardening, calisthenics, bicycling, dancing, aerobics, swimming, jogging, walking, and weight training. Turner’s research showed only two activities to be significant in maintaining healthy bone mass: gardening and weight training.

Turner said: “We hadn’t expected garden work to be significant. Gardening is sometimes taken for a dainty activity. It’s not. There is a lot of weight bearing motion going on in the garden, like digging holes, pulling weeds, hoeing, and pushing a mower or a tiller.”

The outdoor exposure to sunlight also boosts vitamin D production, which aids the body in calcium absorption.

But gardening and other weight bearing exercises are beneficial for everyone. Doctors noticed years ago that patients recover more quickly after major surgery if they are made to get up and walk (interact with gravity) the morning after surgery. Previously, patients were thought to need bed rest at the start of their recovery, but patients who were encouraged to walk the morning after surgery, even if only across their room and down the hospital hallway, seemed to jump start their recovery.

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is conducting numerous studies today to ascertain the effects of zero-gravity over prolonged periods on astronauts. They have discovered that human cells do not properly grow healthy muscles and bones unless they vigorously interact with gravity. The debilitating effects of the lack of interaction with gravity became apparent when astronauts returned to earth after lengthy stays at the International Space Station. The astronauts can neither walk nor even stand, but must be carried from their re-entry capsules. It turns out the astronauts had lost both muscle and bone quality.

Since it can be expensive to study weightlessness on earth, some NASA earth-based studies have involved subjecting test subjects to six months of bed rest as a way to simulate near-gravity situations. They have the test subjects lie in bed for 60 days, eating, defecating, doing everything while laying down. They are hoping the tests will lead to ways to deal with the effects of zero gravity over prolonged periods. The same muscle atrophy and bone loss happens to these test subjects that happens to hospital patients who are bedridden for weeks at a time. Like the patients, the test subjects must undergo physical therapy to recover their former ability to interact with gravity.

Evolution has simply conditioned the human body to depend on gravity to help it produce the biological material that lets its cells successfully produce new bone and muscle. In a nutshell, humans must interact with gravity to remain healthy. The more vigorously we interact with gravity, such as when we garden, the healthier we remain.