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Foraging for Chaga

Wed, 11/23/2022 - 16:30

If you live within the circumboreal region of the Northern Hemisphere, and especially if you live near birch forests, this article could be pertinent to you.

We will be talking about Chaga: What it is, associated health benefits, and how to forage for it.

Trish Orr // FlickrWhat Is Chaga?

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is a parasitic fungus that grows on trees. It has shown a preference for birch trees, and where you find stands of birch, you can find Chaga. Chaga is only found in the circumboreal region of the Northern Hemisphere. This basically means it’s found in the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere (if you aren’t familiar with the term “circumboreal”). It’s a circle that reaches around the globe in the north that contains boreal forests. Essentially, colder climates in deciduous forests. 

Chaga is easy to identify on trees. It has a distinct appearance. It almost looks like a big burnt marshmallow, or an oddly shaped piece of charcoal stuck to the side of the tree. Its growth form creates large cankers on the outside of trees and the color is black on the outside with brownish-orange coloration deeper in the canker. This woody growth is called a conk.

Chaga // Elias Schewel – FLickr

Chaga conks aren’t often confused with anything else, but if they are, it is with a tree burl. From a distance they can look similar. Up close you will be able to tell the difference. Chaga is a separate organism from the tree, whereas a tree burl is part of the tree itself and is formed due to a disease or injury earlier in the life of the tree.

As already discussed, Chaga tends to show favoritism toward birch trees, and 99% of the time, this is the tree where you will find it. It is currently unknown why Chaga likes birch and specifically, paper birch (Betula papyrifera), but it is theorized it’s the abundance of melanin in the birch that attracts Chaga. Both Chaga and birch trees have long lifespans, and because of this, Chaga is associated with old-growth birch forests. 

Though Chaga is parasitic, leaching nutrients and water from the tree in order to grow, it is not believed that Chaga kills the trees — although older birch trees in Chaga-prone areas die with Chaga on them.

As a fun fact, when the birch dies, the Chaga will slowly die as well due to a lack of nutrients to siphon.

It is this parasitic relationship that gives Chaga the nutrients it is known for. Even more, the nature of both organisms (the Chaga and the birch) being old growth is exactly what allows the Chaga to absorb so many nutrients. Chaga grown in a lab or found on young trees lacks many of the nutrients that it is known for. Like the saying: “Good things take time.”

Nutritional Benefits of Chaga

Because of Chaga’s nature, it absorbs nutrients from its host tree. These nutrients are strong in antioxidants, antimicrobials, and healthy compounds such as polyphenols, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin K, and more.

Cancer Prevention

Chaga has gathered attention in cancer prevention research and immune support. Research has shown that the triterpenoid extract Chaga contains is able to inhibit the growth of lung cancer cells. Many studies on cancer cells show that extracts from Chaga have anti-tumor effects for cervical, liver, and colon cancers. The polysaccharide compounds present in Chaga have been shown to specifically target and destroy cancer cells without harming healthy cells that are present. Lastly, the complexes of polysaccharide and triterpenoid in Chaga have been shown to inhibit cancer cell proliferation.

Immune System Support

With regard to immune support, there have been many studies on mice that show enhanced immune responses, antibody production, and anti-allergic activity when given Chaga extracts in various forms. In similar kinds of studies, it has been seen that diabetic mice given Chaga extracts, experience decreased blood glucose levels and insulin levels.

Energy Boost

Some say they notice a boost in their energy after they drink Chaga. Chaga does not contain caffeine, so it is a bit mysterious what causes the boosted energy. Because of this, you may want to be careful about what time of day you choose to drink Chaga. 

Chaga’s Rising Popularity in Health Stores

Chaga has been medicinally used for centuries by cultures ranging from Ainu, First Nations, Chinese, Russian, Korean, and other indigenous groups. As with many herbal medicines and functional mushrooms, it has now made it into western cultures and is being recognized for its health benefits. This is why there seems to have been a sudden explosion of Chaga-related goods in various health food stores. 

natureluvr01 // FlickrThe Cost of Chaga

The reason Chaga is so expensive in many of these stores is because of the growth patterns listed above. Geographically speaking, Chaga isn’t found in a large section of the world. Chaga needs older forests to thrive and produce the nutrient-rich conk that we, as humans, desire. And again, Chaga can’t be quickly grown in labs.

Therefore, the Chaga you find in stores comes directly from the forest, and more importantly, from someone who is out there ethically harvesting it themselves.

Chaga Usage and Application

Using Chaga is easy and straightforward.

Chaga Coffee and Tea

Most Chaga that can be purchased in stores comes pre-ground with directions for how much to apply to your beverage to brew. However, if you’re harvesting from the forest, you’re going to come away with chunks of Chaga. It’s important to make sure you allow these to dry out to prevent mold. You may choose to break down the larger masses in small pieces or grind it. If you decide to keep the Chaga in large chunks, you can easily boil the bigger pieces in a pot of water and reuse.

WILLPOWER STUDIOS // Flickr

You’ll know the hunk of Chaga is finished when the color of the hot water becomes light brown to colorless. Generally, Chaga tea is very dark in nature.

Chaga Supplements

Some choose to take Chaga supplements. You can easily pack ground Chaga into a veggie capsule yourself if you would rather take it this way. Many prefer to take Chaga tinctures which can also be created at home.

Chaga has a distinctly earthy taste, slightly bitter, like you would imagine the smell of the forest to taste. It isn’t bad at all, and I rather enjoy the flavor. If you would like to spice up your Chaga tea with something unique, try adding Labrador tea. If you live in the region where Chaga is present, you likely live around Labrador tea as well and can easily harvest this on your Chaga foraging trips.

Related Post: What Is Labrador Tea?

Chaga Dip as Chewing Tobacco

Because of the associated energy boost, I have been told that some indigenous groups actually dip Chaga. “Dip” as in chewing tobacco. They take a pinch of ground Chaga, place it within their lip, spit out the liquid as it forms, and “get high” from it. 

Ethical Chaga Harvest

To harvest Chaga ethically, it is essential that you follow some guidelines.

Though the birch that Chaga is growing on receives nothing from the fungus, you can kill the tree, if you remove it improperly. A tree can die due to removing too much of the fungus (thereby removing parts of the tree) and leaving gaping holes that can easily become infected.

Here is a list of steps to follow to ensure both safety for the tree and respect for the Chaga:

1. First, locate the Chaga.

2. Ensure the Chaga you are attempting to harvest is at least the size of your outstretched hand.

3. Chaga that is too young will not survive a harvest. By harvesting Chaga that is at least hand-size, you are helping ensure the Chaga will be able to regrow and come back year after year. This is important both for mitigating the possibility of injuring the host tree, and ensuring you and future harvesters will not have to go farther and farther into the woodlands to find Chaga. 

4. It is recommended to harvest Chaga during colder months. This timing is because trees usually don’t run sap in winter and infection is greatly reduced when it is cold outside.

5. Only harvest a portion of the Chaga you have located. As mentioned, harvesting too much is the main cause of tree injuries, and the main reason a Chaga patch does not regrow and come back annually. 

How to Harvest Chaga

To harvest, you need a hatchet and perhaps a long, sturdy, sharp knife. 

Aim the hatchet at an angle toward the base of the Chaga patch. Once you begin to hit the patch, you can wedge the hatchet into the conk and peel back the bulk of it. You will notice the inside of the Chaga is bright orange. 

Some prefer to take the sharp knife and mark the extent of the harvest on the Chaga conk. Once the knife is in place, you hit it with the back of the hatchet. This technique allows the harvest to be cleaner and more precise. Plus, it is less likely Chaga chunks will fly off and be lost. I recommend using the knife method if you are unsure of your aim with a hatchet. Using the knife can also ensure that you don’t take too much of the Chaga and injure that patch or the host tree.

When I was taught about Chaga harvest, I was told to hug the birch tree afterward and give thanks. Whether or not this is in your practice, it’s always important to give gratitude to the land for what it has given you. 

The Basics of Firewood

Fri, 11/18/2022 - 17:05

Of all the ways that we heat our homes, none goes as far back in time as wood.

Coal, electricity, and natural gas are all recent newcomers on the block in comparison to wood. Something about the light of a wood fire has always held the hearts of man – long can you stare into the wisps of flame in a contented silence of contemplation.

Let’s take a look into the world of firewood and learn about this wonderful material.

Insteading // Jaeger EverettThe Two Main Categories of Wood

When talking about wood, people usually split it in two main categories: softwood and hardwood. These categories are certainly less than perfect, but they are helpful to some extent, and as they are the main way the majority of people delineate wood, they are the terms that I will use in this article.

First of all, know that these two categories are not completely accurate in their naming. There are some hardwoods that are soft, and there are some softwoods that are hard. Woods like cottonwood and balsa are both technically hardwoods, but they are also notably soft in nature. On the flip side, some softwoods, like shortleaf pine and other species of the southern yellow pines, are quite hard. Now that you know these two categories are something of misnomers, let’s move into each group’s general traits.

SoftwoodMARKUS SPISKE / UNSPLASH

Softwoods are the conifers. Scientifically speaking, they are known as gymnosperms. This Greek-based word means “naked seed” and has to do with the fact their seeds are not contained within a fruit. Instead, they typically have cones to hold the seeds until they are ready to be released. These trees generally hold on to their leaves (usually referred to as needles) even during winter which gives them their other moniker – evergreen trees. Both the oldest trees, like the bristlecone pines, and the largest trees, like the redwoods and sequoias of the western United States, are gymnosperms. Softwoods are found in more extreme climates than their hardwood cousins. The trees that can grow the farthest north, and those that can grow the highest up on mountains, are conifers. Obviously, softwood does not mean weak wood.

As for the wood of these trees, it is usually less dense than an average hardwood. This means that if you have two pieces of split wood of the same size, one from a softwood and one from a hardwood, the hardwood would feel heavier. Due to its high strength to weight ratio, softwoods are the go-to choice for the construction industry. If you go to the store and grab a two-by-four, it will be a softwood. In fact, the majority of lumber sold in the world is some sort of spruce, pine, or fir – all of which are softwoods.

The final note on softwood trees is that they tend to grow faster than hardwood trees. Their (relatively) quick growth is what makes them less dense. It is also what makes them a good choice for the building industry as a forest can be replanted and grown to a usable size in a much shorter time than would be required for a hardwood forest.

Hardwood

Hardwoods are your deciduous trees – which means they lose their leaves at the end of every growing season in the temperate regions of the world. Some parts of the world, like Ohio and Pennsylvania in the United States, are known for the beautiful colors of the autumn leaves that change color before they fall from the tree. From the bright glowing yellow of black maples to the brilliant red of red maples, hardwood puts on its best display for a brief time every fall.

Hardwoods are known as fruit-bearing trees and are given a scientific name from the Greek to reflect it. This name is angiosperm which can be translated as “receptacle seed.” Unlike the conifers, these trees have seeds enclosed within a fruit of some sort. It can be a juicy fruit, like those of an orange or apple tree, or a dry fruit, like a hickory or oak.

As already mentioned in the section on softwoods, hardwoods are generally denser than softwoods. This density makes hardwood not quite as well suited for general construction but is preferred over softwood for things like furniture, tool handles, and finish carpentry.

Measurements for Amounts of Wood

When you purchase wood, you will come across a few terms that are pretty much specific to the world of firewood. These terms are cord, face cord, and rick.

Cord

A cord of wood is a stack of split wood measuring 8 feet long, 4 feet high, and 4 feet deep. Generally, a cord will be made up of split wood that has been cut to be 16 inches long. Therefore, the wood that makes up a cord is usually stacked in three rows (16 + 16 + 16 inches = 48 inches or 4 feet) right in front of the other.

Rick

A rick is one of the three stacks of wood in a cord. This makes a rick 8 feet long, 4 feet high, and 16 inches wide. Some people will cut wood to some size other than 16 inches (18 inches is common) and still call it a rick. You can always ask before you buy.

*Face cord is another term for a rick.

As mentioned, the most common length for individual pieces of wood is 16 inches. This is because that length will fit in most wood stoves purchased in the United States. If you are cutting your own firewood, you can cut it to whatever length is convenient for you to fit in your specific wood stove.

Choosing Firewood for Burning

And now we get to the age-old question: What is the best type of wood for burning? There are generally two main camps when answering this question. On the one side, you have the people who will argue about specific types of wood and their BTU outputs and come to the conclusion that some well-seasoned hardwood like oak, hickory, or ash is the best. On the other side of the spectrum, you have the pragmatist who states without equivocation that the best wood is whatever wood happens to be stacked outside the house ready to use.

I would say there is merit to both arguments. In any case, let’s talk about some of the basics so you can at least understand this argument if you ever take part.

Understanding BTUs

In order to understand why people argue about the best wood for firewood, you first need to understand the basics of heat output.

Heat output is measured in a unit called BTU, which stands for British thermal unit. It is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit (measured when the water is at a temperature of 39 degrees Fahrenheit). So, if a material has a heat output of 50 BTUs, it is able to raise the temperature of one pound of water by 50 degrees or 50 pounds of water by 1 degree. And for those of you who were wondering, this unit is only used in the United States. The rest of the world uses joules (J) or kilojoules (kJ).

So why the argument? Well, different types of wood contain different amount of stored energy and will therefore release different levels of heat. Thankfully, you do not need your own lab to figure out the thermal output for various types of wood. This information is printed in almost every book or website on the subject. Here is a sampling of various woods and their thermal output.

Type of WoodBTU Output (millions BTU per cord)Shagbark Hickory27.7Apple25.8White Oak24.0Red Elm21.6Cottonwood13.5Norway Pine17.1Eastern White Pine14.3Shortleaf Pine22.0Black Spruce15.9

It should be noted that the above values are averages and the actual output will vary considerably. The thermal output will be much lower in wet green wood, and much higher in well-seasoned wood of the same species. I have also found much difference between individual trees of the same species. In any case, these charts are still good for comparing the average trees of different species.

On any of these charts, you will find that the denser woods are king when it comes to BTU output. This generally means hardwoods as they are slower growing and therefore denser. However, there are exceptions to this. Cottonwood, a fast-growing hardwood, has a low BTU rating while shortleaf pine, a southern softwood, has a very high rating.

Ease of Splitting

If you are splitting your own wood by hand, then how easy it is to split could be a big factor in what you choose for firewood. You will quickly find there are some woods that are easy to split and some woods that are very, very difficult to split. Elm is notoriously difficult to split, and that explains why it was once the favored wood for the hubs of wagon wheels. In my experience, the only wood harder to split than elm was black tupelo. I was unable to split it even with wedges, and gave up. Others say that sweetgum and cottonwood are almost impossible to split by hand as well.

As far as easy-to-split wood, most straight-grained hardwoods won’t give you too much of a headache. Hickories, oaks, and ashes are fairly easy to split. I split quite a bit of shortleaf pine which is easy, as well.

Formation of Creosote

Creosote is a tarry deposit that forms in your chimney when burning wood. If not taken care of, it can ignite and cause a dangerous chimney fire that can burn down a home. I mention this because some types of wood (generally softwoods) are known to create creosote deposits faster than others. Make sure that whatever wood you use in your stove is well-seasoned, as this will reduce creosote formation. Also be sure to clean out your chimney every year before the burning season to keep it free of buildup.

Availability

The final consideration in choosing which wood to burn is probably the most fundamental and important: What can you actually acquire? What good is knowing that Osage orange has the highest heat output (of the woods in the United States) if you can’t get it? What if the only wood that grows in your area is a type of pine with a rather low BTU rating? Well, then none of the above arguments matter. In the end, you are going to burn what you can get your hands on.

If you have a choice, then good for you. Use the above information and other easily-obtainable charts to pick out the perfect wood for use in your home.

Seasoning Wood

Before using wood in your stove, it will generally need to be seasoned. Seasoned wood is wood that has been allowed to dry out over the course of many months or up to a year or two.

The length of time required varies greatly between types of wood. Some pines can be cut in the late winter or early spring and be ready for burning by the next fall and winter, while some of the denser hardwoods won’t burn optimally until the following winter after that. Seasoning wood raises the BTU output of the wood (since the wood doesn’t need to waste thermal energy on the water in the wood) and lowers the amount of creosote that will form in the chimney.

And I will tell you now that if you try to burn wood that is unseasoned, you are going to have a real hard time getting that fire started and going. It is frustrating to keep a fire going with green wood. In order to get it to burn, you will need to have a few pieces of dry wood in there with it or a really hot fire already going. Trust me, it is a hassle and not recommended.

Final Thoughts

There you have it. Hopefully, you now have a basic understanding of firewood and the terms used when discussing it. Wood is a wonderful resource and a completely renewable material. With proper management, you can grow all the wood you need on your acreage for as long as you, your children, and your grandchildren live there.

Winter Squash Harvest And Storage Tips

Mon, 11/07/2022 - 17:59

Why do homesteaders grow pumpkins or winter squash? While the process may be challenging, the reward could be enormous. There are dozens of varieties of pumpkins and winter squash, weighing from 2 lbs. to 500! What’s in your garden?

Read on to discover harvest, curing, and storage tips for the seasonal vegetable that is the best representative of the idyllic rural homestead farm lifestyle.

Popular Varieties Of Squash And PumpkinsAcorn Squash

Similar in shape to its namesake, the acorn presents a fruit that is bright orange-yellow, firm and flavorful, with a subtly sweet, nutty taste.

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Pink Peanut Pumpkins

Pink peanut pumpkins are a colorful addition to holiday décor and taste great in pies, puddings, soups, and stews. The rind is dense, thick and bumpy: the flavor sweet and earthy.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BMY3s1LAGo6/?tagged=pinkpeanutpumpkinsBaby Bear And Sugar Baby

These varieties are orange-fleshed pumpkins that typically weigh less than 10 pounds. These two flavorful and finely textured pumpkins are a homestead favorite for holiday pies.

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Spaghetti Squash

Spaghetti squash presents a cylindrical shape, firm texture, and a thick, white-to-yellow colored rind. When cooked, the squash flesh is moist and meaty, with strands that resemble spaghetti.

Although it does not taste like pasta, the meat of the squash has a chewy texture and mild flavor that makes it an gluten-free substitute for spaghetti noodles in a diverse array of dishes.

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Red Kuri

Red kuri squash exhibits a rind color and texture like that of the acorn squash. The flesh is firm, finely textured, sweet, and packed full of nutty goodness. This variety works well in all your favorite squash recipes.

Or, consider sprinkling red kuri with a bit of olive oil and grilling it as a delicious side dish to steaks or chops.

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Butternut Squash

Butternut squash, also known as butternut pumpkin, has a pronounced bell shape and bright yellow rind. The flesh of the fruit is sweet and firm.

Pink Lady Squash

Similar in texture and taste to red kuri or acorn squash, pink lady squash has a dark green, dense, rind and meaty, bold orange flesh. It’s great in soups, stews, and sauces.

Jarrahdale

Jarrahdale, known as the little blue pumpkin, exhibits bright orange, finely textured flesh and a sweet, honeyed flavor.

Excellent in pies, soups, curries, and stews, the small round pumpkin stores well through the winter.

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Green-Striped Cushaw

These pumpkins are an all-time favorite for pies, puddings, soups, curries, and stews. Presenting a bold, nutty flavor and creamy texture, this tasty pumpkin works well in any recipe in which pumpkin is a primary ingredient.

Delicata

Delicata is a small squash featuring a bright yellow skin with bold green markings that is similar in taste and texture to butternut squash. The rind of this delicate squash is thinner than butternut, however, the two are interchangeable in your favorite recipe.

Because they have a delicate, thin rind, delicata squash do not keep as long in storage as squash with a tougher rind. They will, however, store well in the refrigerator crisper for several weeks.

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Lakota

Lakota is a tiny, bright orange, pear-shaped pumpkin with a deliciously sweet flavor and smooth texture. Try lakota in tarts, pastries, or curries for a taste treat to remember.

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Turban Squash

The turban squash is aptly named, resembling a brightly colored cloth turban. The rind is bumpy, rough, and dull-looking with a broad range of color combinations from mottled orange and yellow to bright green and white.

Often used as a seasonal decoration, turban squash is similar in taste and texture to acorn squash. Try using a hollowed out turban squash as an attractive serving tureen for stews, soups, gravy, or holiday sauces.

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Carnival Squash

Carnival squash, similar in shape, size, and flavor to a dumpling or acorn squash, presents a firm, meaty texture and bright yellow, succulent, and sweet flesh.

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Cow Pumpkins

Cow pumpkins, known for their creamy texture and subtle nut-like flavor are excellent additions to pies, puddings, soups, and stews. Cow pumpkins have a smooth, tough pale orange rind, store well, and taste great.

Kabocha Squash

Kabocha squash, commonly known as Japanese pumpkin or Kent pumpkin, presents a delicate sweetness and firm texture similar to butternut squash.

The kabocha squash is round with a base that points out. Both the red and green varieties of kabocha squash are round with white stripes. In recipes, the two are interchangeable, however, the red variety is noticeably sweeter.

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Tips For Harvesting

Warm-season crops cultivated throughout the United States, winter squash and pumpkins are slow to grow, requiring 75-120 days to reach maturity.

They are ready for harvest when they have developed a hard, protective skin and the vines begin to toughen, shrivel, and dry.

To test for maturity, run a thumbnail across the fruit skin. When squash and pumpkins are fully mature, your nail should not leave a visible mark. When ripe and ready for harvest, pumpkins and winter squash should feel firm and heavy for their size.

Related Post: Companion Planting For Summer Squash

Pumpkin, the most popular member of the squash family, and all varieties of winter squash should be harvested in late September or early October, before the first frost. Fruits exposed to freezing temperatures will start to rot quickly.

With so many different options, how do you choose?! Leigha Staffenhagen / Insteading

If frost is in the forecast before the fruit ripens, cover each fruit with a protective blanket or cardboard box to prevent frost damage.

At harvest time, cut, do not pull, ripened fruit from the vine. When harvesting pumpkins and winter squash, cut the stem 3-to-4 inches from the fruit. Squash and pumpkins without stems tend to rot when stored.

Hubbard squash is the exception. Hubbard squash stores best with stems removed. Remember to handle pumpkins and winter squash carefully to prevent bruising. A broken or damaged stem can cause the fruit to rot, so never use the stem to lift or move squash or pumpkins.

At harvest time, be sure to don protective leather gloves as both pumpkins and winter squash have painful prickles on the stem.

Curing Winter Squash For Storage

To cure pumpkins and winter squash for storage, wipe off each fruit with a damp cloth rinsed in a solution of 1 part household bleach to 10 parts water. Pat dry and place in a sunny spot outdoors for 7-10 days.

Tips For Storing Winter Squash

Properly cultivated, handled and cured, most varieties of pumpkin and winter squash will last through January.

When selecting pumpkins and winter squash for storage, choose unblemished fruit free of cracks or bruising. Any spot that is bruised or damaged will only get worse and spoilage can affect the quality and flavor of other squash in storage.

Brown Paper Bags Are Your Friend!

Wrap squash in brown paper bags or squares of cloth. Squash stores best when not placed directly on hard surfaces or directly touching each other. Although it makes it a bit more difficult to check them for spoilage, a protective wrapping will extend the storage life of winter squash, keeping them firm and flavorful.

Winter squash and pumpkins tend to deteriorate rapidly when storage temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. To determine the best storage location in your homestead for produce, place inexpensive thermometers in dark and dry spots and monitor fluctuations in the temperature.

Select a dark and dry storage area such as a root cellar, pantry, closet, or cupboard where temperatures between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of 75 percent can be consistently maintained. Fluctuating temps lead to rotting.

Location, Location, Location!

Pumpkins and winter squash should be stored on shelves that allow for air circulation, rather than stored on cold concrete floors. The more durable types of winter squash, such as Hubbard, may be stacked on shelving if adequate air circulation is provided.

Moisture encourages the growth of bacteria and fungi. Circulating air helps prevent moisture from accumulating on the exterior of the squash. Avoid storing squash or pumpkins near pears, apples, or other ripening stone fruit. Ethylene gas, produced by ripening fruit, causes squash to discolor and reduces storage life.

America Loves Pumpkin

Harvested in autumn, boldly colored, firm and flavorful, pumpkins and winter squash are staple ingredients in cold-weather meals. High in fiber, low in calories, and packed full of nutrition, pumpkin and squash are rich sources of beta-carotene, carbohydrates, and potassium. Did you know that pumpkin pie was first served at the Pilgrim’s second Thanksgiving in 1623?

The United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, notes that in 2014 more than 90,000 acres of farmland in Michigan, Illinois, New York, Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania produced more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkin. Now that’s a lot of pumpkins!

Related Post: 20 Pumpkins You Should Have Planted This Year

Pumpkins keep well for several months in cool, dry storage. In 2016, farmers and commercial growers in the United States produced more pumpkins than any other popular vegetable including cucumbers, kale, spinach, or squash.

Denser, with a sweeter flavor and firmer texture than summer squash, winter squash also keeps well throughout the long winter months for which it is named.

References

Outdoor Brick Ovens: Types, Uses, And Photos

Fri, 11/04/2022 - 17:18

When it comes to building an outdoor oven, you may start feeling like one of the proverbial three little pigs when you try to decide what type is best.

Will you build it out of mud? Concrete? Stone? Brick? Unlike the porcine story, however, there’s no downside to choosing any of these building materials, and no wolf will come howling at your backyard to blow the structure down. (Instead, these beautiful and long-lasting ovens will likely only attract friends, family, and neighbors!)

A beautifl view of a brick oven from arden hills, Minnesota.

Now, if you decide to emulate little pig number 3, you may find that a brick oven suits your backyard aesthetic best. These ancient baking chambers can range from small constructions built near the back deck to massive, backyard-dominating creations that will catch eyes and whet appetites as they demonstrate your masonry prowess.

We’ve collected information and photos from all around the world to show you the ins and outs of building your very own outdoor brick oven.

What is an Outdoor Brick Oven?A hand-built oven from stoddard, wisconsin.

What an outdoor brick oven is should be fairly self-explanatory – an oven that is constructed of bricks and is built outside of your house. As you will see in the pictures accompanying this article, these ovens vary greatly in size – some are fairly small contraptions that will hold a single pizza, while others are much larger and can handle multiple loaves of bread. And it should be mentioned that while not beyond the capability of a competent DIYer, brick ovens are certainly more difficult to build than something like an outdoor earth oven. However, if you have any experience building with masonry or if you are willing to learn, don’t let the difficulty of the task frighten you.

What are the Different Types of Outdoor Brick Ovens?A Nicely roofed oven in Lake Mills, Iowa

An outdoor brick oven works in a similar manner to any other masonry oven whether indoor or out. Some of these brick ovens are fairly lightweight (as far as masonry-style ovens are concerned) and specifically used to make pizza (or flatbread). Others are very massive structures that can be used to bake a larger assortment of baked goods (most typically bread).

While it is possible to make a small brick pizza oven off-site and then have it moved to the final location, most all of these brick ovens are built on site and are then immovable.

You can see a gallery of this project in its entirety here.

The pizza ovens do not need to be hugely massive as it is the fire that bakes the pizzas. The oven itself is just a structure that holds the fire and its heat in a certain area. As they do not need to be so massive, they are simpler to make than their larger cousins. Many of these are just a single layer of brick thick.

The bread ovens must incorporate a large amount of mass in its design. It is the thermal mass of the oven that will do the cooking, so you will need to build your oven using an adequate amount of brick. Use too little, and you will end up with nothing but mostly raw dough.

Whatever type of brick oven you choose to build, it will become a centerpiece to wherever they are placed. Little else on your land will get as many comments and questions as a well-built outdoor brick oven. In order to highlight them and give people a place to congregate and relax while the food is being made, most people will build a nicely-bricked patio area around these ovens. There is just something about a piping hot fire blazing away inside these ovens that just draws people to them.

Some Design Considerations for Outdoor Brick Ovens

An outdoor brick oven is certainly more complicated than a simple pile of bricks with a space in the middle. These are well-designed devices that have a fair bit of engineering included.

1. Use the Correct Type of BrickMaster Mason Walt Kelly knows what he’s doing at this 2006 backyard oven workshop.

First of all, you must make sure that you use the proper type of brick in the construction of the oven. You need to remember that these ovens must endure very high amounts of heat and not every brick is up to the task. You can’t just go to the local hardware store and pickup a load of cheap paver bricks and expect to make an oven out of them. These are usually made of concrete and are liable to explode under the intense heat created in these ovens. For the parts of the oven that are in direct contact with the fire, you will need to use a special type of brick called a fire brick. They are a bit more expensive than other bricks, but they are a necessary cost. For all other parts of the oven, you can use normal clay bricks; you can even use the concrete bricks on the very external parts if you prefer.

2. Make the Opening of an Adequate Size

This may seem pretty straight-forward, and it is, but I figured it was worth mentioning as my first outdoor oven had an opening that was a bit too small. Sure it was sized correctly for proper draft and ease of making a fire, but one thing I didn’t think about was the size of the peel. Most peels that you can buy are of a certain size. If you want to be able to get your baked goods in and out of the oven easily, make sure the opening is larger than the size of the peel. Otherwise you will have to improvise like I did and make one yourself.

3. Decide if You Want a Chimney or Not

I must first say that a chimney on an oven is optional. My first outdoor oven did not have a chimney and it still made some of the best pizzas and flatbread I had ever had. However, there are some benefits to having a chimney that might make it worth the extra hassle. First of all, a well-designed chimney can improve draft. Without a chimney, the air and exhaust must pass through the same hole (the incoming air comes in the bottom and the exhaust passes out the top of the hole), but with a chimney the exhaust goes out a separate hole (the chimney) which lets you set up a unidirectional air flow. Usually, this chimney is higher up than the rest of the stove which also allows for better draft production. Finally, a chimney makes it so the hot gases and smoke are directed in whatever direction you want. If you do not have a chimney, the exhaust comes out the front hole, which is also where you happen to be standing. So when you are adding or removing food, all that hot exhaust and smoke comes out at your face.

4. Make Sure there is Enough Thermal MassThis bare bones “one-hour oven” doesn’t have much in the way of mass, but it does work!

As already mentioned, not all outdoor brick ovens need to be massive structures made from many hundreds of pounds of masonry. How much mass your oven needs depends on what you are planning on baking in it. If you are making an oven to specifically cook pizza or flatbread, you do not need to much mass. The oven needs to be little more than a container to hold the fire with the pizza since the fire, and not he mass of the oven, is doing the cooking. Bricks for a cooking surface, bricks for the dome of the oven, and a coating of some sort is all that is really required.

this oven in ontario, with a lovely stucco layer to finish the appearance, is much more massive. See more of this and other projects here.

However, if you plan to ever use this oven to make real bread (as opposed to flatbread), you really need to make sure that it has adequate thermal mass. When you make bread in any sort of masonry oven, the fire is not present in the oven during the cooking of the bread. You use a hot fire to heat up the mass of the oven, and then the mass of the oven slowly releases all of that heat over the course of the baking process to cook the bread. The more thermal mass there is, the more heat it can hold. To accomplish this, you can either use a few layers of bricks, or you can have a layer of mud in between layers of bricks. Anything you can do to increase the mass in encouraged.

5) Decide What Sort of Covering is NeededBrick oven with a simple roof of tile. More photos of this project here.

Remember that these ovens are built outside. This means that they are going to be exposed to heat and cold, rain and snow, and everything else that nature will throw at it. While a brick oven doesn’t necessarily need any sort of extra covering, it is probably a good idea to have one. The simplest covering would be some sort of tarp that can be put on when the oven is not in use. However, this is not the most aesthetically-pleasing covering. Most people prefer the look of an actual roof over their ovens. This doesn’t need to be a complicated affair to look good. But it will help keep the rain and snow off your oven and keep the burning sun off of you.

Here’s a Brick oven in Hungary, completely covered with a picturesque roof for “indoor” cooking comfort. Gallery of Images and Helpful Links for the Intrepid DIY Brick Oven Builder

DIY Pompeii Brick Oven Kit from Forno Bravo (there’s tons of variations on this theme: check out their gallery of finished builds here)

Here’s an indoor view of that roofed hungarian pizza oven from above.

Here’s a round, beehive-style oven in North Carolina. The builder says that the bricks at the base were salvaged from an old chimney. See the whole build and narrative here.


Alan Scott and Daniel Wing are co-authors of the excellent book The Bread Builders, (free to read at the link provided) part of which is dedicated to making the perfect oven for baking the best bread. Pictured above is a so-called “Alan Scott” brick oven, and here is a link to some free plans to build your own.

Here’s a company that you can order pre-assembled and masonry kits from. Bear in mind, these will cost you quite a pretty penny, but they take out a lot of the guesswork for the convenience.

You can buy a concrete interior for your oven here, then build a brick structure around it as you desire. Again, anticipate that these kits are going to be pricier than figuring it out on your own!

Here’s another company that offers pre-fabricated concrete interiors.

This website has some detailed plans and instructions to help answer some of those questions that only come up once you’re mid-project.

This website is a bit painful to navigate, but it has some of the most detailed step-by-step photos of an oven build we’ve found.

Outdoor Brick Oven Kits and PlansTypes Of Outdoor Oven Kits

There are numerous different types of kits to construct the central oven itself:

  • Multiple prefabricated ceramic parts.
  • Multiple prefabricated concrete parts.
  • A single cast piece of concrete.
  • A single prefabricated oven unit.
Materials For DIY Oven Projects

DIY center oven can be made from:

  • Hearth slab and mortared fire brick.
  • Hearth slab and cob. (See cob oven page)
  • Stacked bricks or dry-laid stone.
Outdoor Brick Oven Chamber Plans

Check out this article for lots more info and pictures of stone ovens!

Available Ceramic Kits
  • Forno Bravo: This site also provides plans for a DIY Pompeii Oven.
  • Le Panyol: For both professionals and the individual.
  • Mugnaini: You can also find cooking classes available on Mugnaini’s site.
  • Superior Clay: They also have mobile kits and Pre-Fab Masonry ovens.
  • Vesuvio: Provides a list of questions to consider before buying your oven.
  • Jamie Oliver: Curbside delivery from this site is only for UK residents.
Available Concrete Kits

We hope that this article has given you plenty of food for thought as you consider your own backyard brick designs. If you have a brick oven in your own backyard, drop off a photo in the comments below! We’d love to see it in action.

Homestead Stories: Dynamite Tree

Wed, 11/02/2022 - 18:13

“I need at least one of these trees,” I decided. “A dynamite tree. A tree that can kill in multiple ways — and I don’t mean by falling on a person. Though that could definitely kill as well.”

“Why would you want that?” my friend inquired. “It might blow up in your face.”

Tatters ✾ // flickr

She had a point, but I couldn’t resist: “Or it might blow up in the face of unwanted guests and door-to-door salespeople.”

“They still exist?” A chortle of laughter bubbled at the back of her throat. “I wouldn’t have thought they’d be a big issue after Covid and certainly not out here in the country.”

“True,” I agreed. “But then, there’s always people who decide to wander uninvited onto the property to snoop or admire the garden. I’ve even caught a couple snipping roses from my prize rosebush.”

“You didn’t! Really?”

“They thought it was their right since the land was in the country. They didn’t think anyone would mind.”

“Because you live in the country.” My friend wasn’t buying it.

“Because I live in the country,” I repeated. “This tree would definitely be a deterrent.”

“More likely a liability for lawsuits.”

I took a breath. “Oh well. It probably wouldn’t survive our northern climate anyway.”

The tree I’m referring to is indeed called the dynamite tree, along with other names like the sandbox tree, the monkey no-climb tree, and Hura crepitans. Also known as possumwood and jabillo, it’s an evergreen tree native to the Americas, particularly in the Amazon rainforest. It’s also found in Tanzania where it’s considered an invasive species.

Dynamite Tree AppearanceDavid Barnas // Flickr

The most descriptive name is the dynamite tree. Its trunk is covered in spikes full of poison and its fruit quite literally explodes when it ripens, sending its seeds helter-skelter at a speed of up to 150 miles per hour. This is not a friendly tree one wants in the yard, unless one wants to detract trespassers.

Considering its name and deadly intentions, the bark is surprisingly smooth and brown. It’s the pointed spikes, or conical prickles, that cause the damage and the danger, and these protrude from the smooth bark along its entire length. One of the largest trees in the tropical Americas, it grows up to 100 feet in height with a circumference of over 3 feet. High above the ground, the tree is crowned with long, dark-green leaves. The fruit (or seed capsule) is oddly pumpkin-shaped.

Dynamite Tree Natural Habitat

Although sometimes used as boulevard trees for their height and large, shady canopy, the dynamite tree is not for this environment due to their poisonous bark, leaves, and seeds; not to mention their loud and dangerously explosive capsules.

The dynamite tree prefers the wet soil of tropical rainforests and does well in either partial shade or partial to full sun.

How Deadly Is the Dynamite Tree?

One could say that every part of this tree is poisonous. The fruit, if ingested (the same fruit that explodes) causes vomiting, and diarrhea and cramping. The globose seed capsules were used as sandboxes (pounce pots) for blotting ink in colonial times in the West Indies. The use of the seed capsules as sandboxes is the source of one of the tree’s names: sandbox tree. The sap of the dynamite tree can cause an angry red rash and it can blind a person if it gets in the eyes. In fact, the tree sap has been used to make poison darts or arrow poison for hunting or in warfare. Aboriginals would sometimes mix the poisonous latex with sand to stupefy fish.

Medicinal Uses

Although most of the tree is considered toxic and poisonous, some parts have unexpected medicinal benefits. One can extract the oil from the seeds and use it as a strong laxative (sparingly). Considering the otherwise toxic elements of this tree, it stands to reason that at least one part can be used to purge the intestinal tract. Some claim that the large, canopied leaves from this tree can be successfully used to treat eczema — a claim that one might find difficult to accept as parts of the tree also cause dermatitis just from touching it. Another treatment is preparing an extract to treat rheumatism and intestinal worms (I guess the purgative treatment flushes out the undesirably worms). The bark, which holds the poison darts, apparently has been used successfully to treat leprosy, and the latex from the bark which is used as arrow poison, has also been used to promote ailing teeth to fall out. On the less savory side of its medicinal uses, it has been used to prepare tear gas for military operations.

Dynamite Tree Nonmedicinal and Nonviolent Uses

The wood of this tree does have some practical applications. It’s used for making furniture. It’s a heavy, dense wood with a high resistance to crushing and bending, making it ideal for sturdy furniture. And it’s easy to work using either hand or machine tools. However, workers who fell the trees or work with its wood have to cover their eyes to protect them from the sap that causes temporary blindness. Also (as mentioned), touching the woody fruits can cause dermatitis, so clearing the trunks in preparation to use the wood can be a challenge. That said, some segments of the woody fruits are used in bracelets and necklaces, and yes, this does cause dermatitis in those who create the jewelry and those who wear them.

Problems With Dynamite Tree

This tree is considered an invasive species. Its large, canopied leaves provide deep shade, which is good for the dynamite tree, but not so good for other species. This tree dominates the environment in which it grows, crowding out other native species of vegetation. It is, quite simply, a weed tree and must be treated like other weed infestations. Of course, the best management of any invasive species is to prevent it from growing anywhere and everywhere. The next best management is to weed out the invasive species while it’s still small and hasn’t had the time to establish.

Making sure the tree doesn’t go to seed, an explosive experience spreading its seeds far and wide, is a good plan of action.

Availability of Dynamite Tree

“Did you know you can purchase seeds online?” My friend returned the next day with updated info on the dynamite tree. “Five seeds at a time.”

“Do I really want five dynamite trees? And do you think they would survive the cold winters?”

“Point taken,” my friend agreed. “But, like all tropical plants, you can grow it as a houseplant.”

“With a height up to 100 feet? And fruit that explodes with seeds? I’d need a padded room and a whole lot of bravado.” I shook my head. “It’s a nice thought, but not a practical one. And it wouldn’t serve my original intent to keep unwanted persons from invading.”

I think I’ll leave the dynamite trees to their natural environments, which is definitely not in the northern climes where I live.

Shutting Down the Garden for Winter Checklist

Fri, 10/28/2022 - 16:38

There’s a huge amount of anticipation when the first frost is close. It sometimes feels like you’re preparing for some sort of icy nighttime raid.

Should you panic-pick all the remaining green tomatoes and beans tonight, or try to ride it out for another week in hopes that they’ll ripen? Should you cover the beds, or leave them exposed and accept your frosty fate? What if it doesn’t frost, and you accidentally truncate weeks of ripening time?

Wren Everett // Insteading

Eventually, the frost does hit, the tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers succumb, and there’s a sigh of tension relief, tinged with loss and farewell. With the end of the heat-loving plants, fall has truly arrived, and it’s time to transition the garden from summer productivity to winter stasis.

I know some folks just walk away from their food plot (and leave it in whatever state it lands) through the winter, but that will give you a lot of work come spring, and in the meantime, leave your garden exposed to winter’s degrading fury. Uncovered soil gets compacted, eroded, and a head start on early spring weed infestation. Though you may feel a bit gardened-out once the leaves start to fall, a bit of thoughtful maintenance will save you work in the spring. Furthermore, it will reward you with garden beds that are already prepared to wake up, rather than lazing in a state of abandoned neglect.

So all that said, here are some of the ways you can tuck your garden in, snug, clean, and safe before the blizzards start to blow and the drifts pile up.

1. Clean Out Dead PlantsFarewell, bell pepper – Wren Everett // Insteading

The wilted and dried-out remains of the summer squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers may look depressing to you, but most insects see them as a glitzy, 4-star winter hotel. Any amount of leafy shelter may harbor overwintering pests, so your best bet for the freshest spring start is to clear out everything to bare ground and remove all dead plant material. All plants that were healthy can go into the compost pile and give you one last harvest of fertility in a few months.

2. Burn Diseased PlantsSo long, questionably healthy tomato – Wren Everett // Insteading

If you find that some of your plants were sick through the summer — suffering from bacterial wilt, mold, crown wilt, black spot, or any other disease, don’t compost those poor things. Consign their contagiousness to a nice autumn fire and spare your garden from getting reinfected from the compost. Be sure to note which beds had disease, and plant an entirely different crops there in the spring.

3. One Last WeedingWren Everett // Insteading

Once all the dead plants have been removed, it is a great time to tidy up those beds thoroughly. I usually take a scuffle hoe to each bed and clean it like I’m using a dusty eraser. When the last clumps of stubborn grass and sheep sorrel have been removed, each space of the garden feels like a nice, blank canvas again, just waiting to be prepared for a new masterpiece.

4. FertilizingWren Everett // Insteading

After you have a totally cleared bed, the fall cleanup is a fantastic time to lay down a layer of manure fertilizer to replenish the soil. I turn to my barn and chicken coop to assist me in this endeavor. In this case, it doesn’t matter if manure is fully matured — even fresh poultry droppings aren’t a problem. They’ll break down slowly through the quiet winter, nourishing your soil in preparation for another gardening adventure.

5. Mulching or Cover CropsWren Everett // Insteading

When manure or compost has been applied, it’s time to cover those hard-working beds with a nice quilt of mulch. Pretty much any dry plant material can work. I often use soiled barn bedding, straw, or dried leaves. A note on the leaves, though: They work best if they’ve been wetted and matted together with fungus for a few weeks. Otherwise, they just blow away in the fall winds. This layer of mulch will not only break down into additional soil fertility, it will protect your soil’s tilth by mitigating the pounding, compacting effect of fall rains, winter blizzards, and early spring downpours.

A second option, instead of mulch, is to plant a fall cover-crop to protect your garden through the winter. Hairy vetch, barley, and ryegrass have all been used to stand watch over slumbering garden beds with good results (and free mulch, come spring). You can peruse a much more detailed article on that process here.

6. OverwinteringNewly planted, not yet mulched, fall garlic – Wren Everett // Insteading

Of course, not every garden bed needs to rest abandoned and silent. In many growing regions, fall is actually an undercover spring planting time. In my zone 6b garden, I use October to plant my garlic, potatoes, kale, and onions. Knowing that they’re hidden in the ground, waiting through the winter just like I am, makes me feel less forlorn when the garden plot is covered by snow and the wind is whipping ice crystals into my face during morning chores. It’s like burying a bit of hope. Come spring, those first shoots of brave, emerging garlic warm my heart nearly as effectively as the woodstove.

Fall is also an important time to prepare biennials to overwinter in the ground, if they can survive your winters (otherwise, they’ll fare far better in the root cellar). Clip the leafy tops off roots like winter radishes, beets, and turnips. They are good eating, and they’ll dissolve into wilted black waste if you leave them out in the cold too long. Pile a nice layer of mulch over top and keep them protected through the winter, anticipating that mice may steal a few. In spring, if they survived, they’ll use their stored energy to shoot out a flower stalk and reward your care and patience with a harvest of seeds for future plantings. The nuances of this critically important, yet often dangerously under practiced, discipline of seed saving are beautifully detailed in Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed, available to read and learn from for free at this link.

You can also learn more about biennial seed-saving on the Seed Savers Exchange website.

7. Note-Taking

I highly recommend keeping a garden journal all through the year. It is one of my most important tools and greatest aids for crop rotation, remembering when to plant what in my own specific microclimate, and keeping track of both successes and failures. With a garden journal full of your own specific information, each year has the potential to be better than the last.

If, however, you forgot to keep track during the summer, do your best now to jot down what was growing where before you forget. A single page map that details plant type and location will be a big help when spring comes and you can’t quite recall which bed or row the tomatoes were growing in last year.

8. Tool MaintenanceWren Everett // Insteading

Once the garden has been put to sleep, there’s one last place where some TLC will be appreciated. Head over to the tool box, potting shed, or garage where you store all your garden tools. The inactive winter is an excellent time to stack up empty flower pots (upside down, so they don’t collect melted snow and break), brush the dust off your spades and hang them up, sharpen and oil the blades on your pruners, and give a bit of long-overdue attention to any other tools. There’s a sincere sense of satisfaction when you can close the door on a season of work with well-kept tools and implements hung in storage, waiting for the next season and the go-ahead to work with you again.

As fall winds down, the nights will get longer, the wind’s chill sharper, and the sight of a cozy fire inside all the more inviting. After all this shut-down work, I hope you can put up your feet, grab something warm and pleasant to drink, and dream through some seed catalogs as you plan for next year. Well before the thaw finally comes, I bet your green thumbs will get to itching, and that is exciting when you know the garden is protected, ready, and waiting for the sun to bring it back to life.

Preparing Your Homestead For Winter

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 17:30

Freezing rain, sleet, high winds, heavy snow, ice, and extreme cold can present serious hazards, so it’s imperative that your homestead is ready. Whether or not you think it’s too early, it’s always a good idea to begin prepping your homestead for the winter.

Preparation For Power Outages

Cold temperatures and winter storms can be hazardous. Keep your homestead and family healthy and safe by planning and preparing for power outages. Even if power disruptions are infrequent in your area, it’s important to be prepared.

Related Post: Masonry Heater

Ensure you have an adequate supply of heating fuels. You will likely have difficulty obtaining firewood, heating oil, or propane in the immediate aftermath of a winter weather event. Stock up in the fall when fuel supplies are plentiful, and prices tend to be lower. Additionally, make sure your homestead has a safe alternate heating source and an adequate supply of alternative fuels available. Never heat your home with a gas oven or stove.

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Consider installing an alternate source of electric power such a gas powered generator or a solar battery backup system.

Preparation For Fire And Carbon Monoxide Leaks

First things first, check the batteries in your smoke detectors. You should also inspect all home fire extinguishers, making sure they are serviced and in good working order. Additionally, inspect, service, and test supplemental electric space heaters.

In general, make sure to keep generators, camp stoves, and grills out of the home, shop, garage, or basement. Generators should be located a minimum of 30 feet from the home. Now is a good time to make sure that the generator is serviced, in good repair, and that you have the spare parts and fuel you may require during extended emergency usage.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a deadly, colorless, odorless gas. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include weakness, dizziness, vomiting, confusion, and chest pain. Prevent a CO emergency by installing a CO detector to alert you to the presence of this deadly gas. Don’t forget to test the system. Remember to change the batteries in the CO detector twice a year; when you change clocks in fall and again in the spring.

General Emergency Preparedness

Update your family’s emergency readiness kit. Make sure you have flashlights, a battery-powered lantern, extra batteries, and a battery operated NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radio. Check the first aid kit and make sure you have an adequate supply of any prescription medications or medical supplies you or your family may require during a prolonged weather event.

A standard first aid kit is a staple in any emergency preparedness kit. DLG Images / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Family members may be apart when an extreme winter weather event occurs. Make sure you have a family disaster readiness plan, so that family members know how to contact each other to get back together during the emergency. Be sure to invest in a solar charger for cell phones. Plan to check on disabled or older family members and neighbors to assist as needed.

Ensure you have emergency food and water on hand that can last for at least a week. Stockpile food that does not require refrigeration and be sure to include at least one gallon of water daily per person. Don’t forget animal food and additional water for pets and livestock.

Avoiding Common Winter Weather Related Injuries

Plan to keep your home safe and accessible when snow and ice accumulate on stairs, walkways, and driveways. Alleviate this potential hazard by making sure you have a snow shovel, a de-icing compound, sand, or kitty litter on hand to improve traction. Make sure to service or repair any snow removal equipment.

You can avoid a nasty fall by inspecting all handrails and guardrails installed on home decks, ramps, and stairways to ensure they are sturdy, stable, and in good repair. Installing energy efficient floodlights and motion sensors can also reduce any slips and falls when darkness begins to come earlier.

Save On Utility Bills

If hefty utility bills put a serious dent in your household budget, stop the money drain. A few simple maintenance steps before cold weather arrives will help ensure your home stays warm and cozy all winter long while you reduce your overall energy consumption. As the saying goes: “use less, spend less.”

Furnace And Chimney Maintenance

Make sure to inspect your furnace. Seal and insulate central heating ducts, as these can be a significant source of heat loss in the home. Vacuum all HVAC vents and ductwork from dust accumulation and sediment that can cause your heating system to work less efficiently, or present a potential fire hazard. A proper cleaning and professional maintenance can reduce that risk by making sure your heating system is working properly and is correctly vented to the outside.

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If you use hot water radiators to heat your home, bleed valves to increase heating efficiency. Replace older and less efficient thermostats with programmable units that save on energy consumption. During the chilly days of winter, your heating system will likely be running continuously. It’s important to remember to change your HVAC filters monthly to keep your heating system running at peak performance. A dirty filter decreases airflow and reduces heating system efficiency.

Related Post: Keeping Chickens In Winter

If you heat your homestead with a wood burning stove or fireplace, it is important that you have your chimney inspected and cleaned by a professional before you use it this fall. Inspection of the firebox and flue system will ensure that they are free from creosote and soot.

Avoiding Cold Drafts

Warm interior air will escape through cracks around doors and windows, making your heating system work that much harder to maintain a comfortable temperature.

  • Check all wooden window frames for signs of rot or damage and repair as needed.
  • Caulk cracks and openings around stationary home components such as door frames.
  • Install weather stripping to prevent cold winter air from entering around operable elements that move such as windows.
  • Replace all window screen and door screens with storm windows and storm doors.

If you utilize window air conditioning units to cool your home, remove them from the windows or wrap them with insulation to prevent drafts. Covering all vents with insulated covers will not only stop cold drafts but also prevents birds, insects, and rodents from coming inside to build winter nests in a warm spot in your house.

When it comes to insulation, make sure to seal areas around plumbing vents, recessed lighting fixtures, and the attic entry to keep warm air from seeping into the attic. Warm air rises and exits the home through the roof, so its important to make sure your attic is properly insulated.

If your home was cold and drafty last winter, installing adequate attic insulation to provide a draft free barrier between the interior of the home and the attic will help stop the cold flow of winter drafts. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much you will save on energy expenditures.

Evading Property Damage

Many costly and time consuming home and property repairs generated by the worst of Winter’s wrath can be avoided by a bit of preventive maintenance.

Water Damage And Wood Rot

Keeping gutters free from leaves and debris will help prevent ice dams that cause leakage and damage. Be sure to check the gutters for damage, rust, or wear spots that can generate leaks that can cause moisture to enter your home.

Avoid ice dams like these with a few simple tricks. State Farm / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Inspect wooden walkways, stairways, steps, and decks for splintering or rotting wood. Repair, sand, and apply a weatherproof sealant as required to prevent further winter damage.

Avoid Foundation Leaks

Ensure rain and snow melt drain away from your home or barn. The grade of the soil surrounding your home should slope away from the foundation. Add topsoil and contour as needed to remedy the problem. In areas where water tends to pool and accumulate, consider installing a drainage system to divert the flow downslope.

Prep The Pipes

It is important to insulate any plumbing pipes that run along an exterior wall. In problem areas where pipes could be prone to freezing, consider wrapping the pipes with thermostatically controlled heat tape. Before the first frost, remember to drain and disconnect all garden hoses and irrigation systems. Insulate exterior faucets to prevent freezing and broken pipes.

Trim The Trees

High winds commonly accompany severe winter storms or a passing cold front. High winds can topple trees and result in roof damage and power outages. Remove rotting trees and branches around your home before they fall and cause injury or damage. Trimming trees that overhang the home will help to prevent broken tree limbs from falling on the roof and inflicting damage that allows water seepage into the home.

References:

Alternative Libraries: Check Out Things, Not Books

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 17:20

I find it wonderful that libraries still exist in the modern age.

Though the world sometimes seems unstable, angry, and poised to tear down whatever we currently don’t like, there still exists a public institution based entirely on free sharing and trust. Without spending a cent, you have access to hundreds of books, and what’s more, libraries let you walk out of the door with them for two weeks at a time.

The concept of the library and the spirit of sharing things for free, however, is not restricted merely to the shelves of books, magazines, and DVDs available at your local branch. There are a surprising number of alternative so-called libraries where you don’t check out books … but things, animals, seeds, or even people.

Have I piqued your interest? Then enjoy this list of some unusual alternative libraries, and the ways that you can access them.

Tool Library

Now, older homesteaders may have a tool chest and shed full of personal tools, but many of those tools were slowly acquired over time or inherited. What do you do when you’re just starting a DIY project but have little more than a Phillips screwdriver to your name? What if you’re working on a job that requires an incredibly specific tool to get it done, and you don’t want to buy and own that otherwise unessential tool in the long run? What if you want to fix up your house, but don’t have the cash to spare for expensive equipment?

Go to a Tool Library, of course! The concept is simple, and familiar: For a set amount of time, you borrow a tool that would otherwise set you back a few hundred (or more) at the home improvement store, use it to finish your project, then return it clean and in good functioning order.

Library of Things

In addition to tools, some libraries offer a more diverse “Library of Things” that gives you access to instruments, looms, board games, fishing poles, and more. In my research online, I was easily able to find several libraries that offer unusual and unique items to borrow, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Seed Library

This is my favorite library in the list, as it has the potential to not only get good seeds in gardens for free, but also to foster the creation of a locally-based seed saving network. The basic premise is the same as for all libraries, but with a bit of a garden twist. Essentially, you “check out” seeds from the library’s store, grow them in your garden, and then return seeds saved from whatever you grew. If active and healthy, a seed library can offer an ever-fresh cache of locally-adapted seeds, and give a community a priceless degree of food sovereignty that they didn’t have before.

Of course, for a seed library to function, interested and knowledgeable gardeners are integral to the operations. A fair degree of gardening, pure seed saving, and seed processing knowledge is required to keep strains separate, so the process of participating in one or getting one started will require a decent amount of learning. There are ample resources online, but one of the best books I know on heirloom seed saving is Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed” available for free in its entirety at archive.org.

If this idea excites you, I’m happy to share that you may have a seed library available in your area. Browse this extensive list of 500 (and growing) seed libraries and see if you have a garden of opportunity waiting for you. And if you find that your area has no current library, this website gives you all the tools and information you need to get one started for your community.

Sourdough LibraryImage from Puratos

This isn’t a library that most of us can visit, but it’s still a member of our list worth mentioning. Karl De Smedt is the head librarian of the Puratos Sourdough Library in Belgium. Within the refrigerated shelves of this unusual institution, 105 (and growing) starters from all around the world quietly bubble away.

There’s an excellent introduction to the library here, but if you really want to get involved, you’ll have to visit the website.

De Smedt is involved in several experiments and outreach programs involving his precious cache of sourdough — collecting cultures around the world and studying the biological makeup of every unique battery blend.

Now, most of us can’t travel to Belgium to experience this weird and wonderful locale, but if you’re interested in adding your own local flair to the sourdough scene, read our article and video on how to capture wild yeast and make your own sourdough starter.

Sewing Machine Library

Included in the tool library roster of checkout-ables, a sewing machine library offers the ability to craft your own clothing for free. Many of these sharable sewing machines are attached to educational programs offered by the libraries that host them. What better way to fight the unrelenting and consumptive march of so-called fashion than to simply make your clothes and buck the system entirely?

From my research, here’s a sampling of sewing machines available for free at some libraries that may be near you.

Human LibraryImage from Human Library

Started in 2000 as a 4-day event in Copenhagen, the Menneskebiblioteket or Human Library has since become a fascinating way to meet people and understand them in ways typically not available to us for various social reasons. More of an event than a true brick-and-mortar library, these gatherings nonetheless offer a fascinating way to broaden your understanding of folks that are different from you. Various humans with specialized skills or incredibly specific life experiences allow themselves to be “checked out” by anyone who wants free rein to ask questions, have a conversation, and better understand their illness, lifestyle, religion, trauma, or specialty. Some of the humans available at events have been Naturalists, Homeless, PTSD Survivors, and more.

You can learn about the Human Library at their website. They have several “depots” around the world, so you don’t have to travel to Denmark to experience them.

Libraries have ever been places of wonder, imagination, or discovery from the ancient Library of Alexandria to the thousands upon thousands of libraries that dot our cities and small towns. I hope this list has sparked your interest to hunt down some local “Libraries of Things” or in some cases, start your own.

Though they’ve been punched around and pummeled in the era of flame wars, trolls, and the mean-spiritedness that comes from internet anonymity, the spirit of cooperation, community, and sharing isn’t dead in our modern world. Sometimes it just needs an alternative sort of place to grow and flourish.

Rocket Mass Heaters: What Are they, How They Work, And Photos

Wed, 10/19/2022 - 17:40

Let’s say you want to build a cozy reading nook in your house, or maybe a room-warming heater for your tiny house. What if you want it to be heated with off-grid heat?

What if you want it to be super-efficient so that you don’t have to use endless armloads of wood? What if you want it to be made of renewable or locally-sourced materials? What if you were hoping it would be possible for a reasonably skilled DIYer to do on their own? What if you were also hoping that it would be aesthetically unique and beautiful to suit your individual design styles?

You may think that all those desires couldn’t possibly all align in a single project, but they do! The Rocket Mass Heater can fulfill all these design elements, and more.

What is a Rocket Mass Heater?


This diagram was from a french-speaking forum, to view the whole conversation visit systemed.fr.

A rocket mass heater is a wood-fired device that uses short and intense fires to primarily heat a massive bench usually made out of cob. This massive bench in turn will give off radiant heat to the rest of the room over a long length of time. All rocket mass heaters include a heat riser which is surrounded by a “bell” which is often a 55-gallon metal barrel (but can also be made out of other materials like copper if a more decorative look is desired). Generally, they are used to heat a single room in a normal-sized house or an entire cabin or tiny home.

What is the Basic Design of a Rocket Mass Heater?

The key to the workings of a rocket mass heater are in its design. All rocket mass heaters have two main parts: the combustion unit and the heat exchanger. The combustion unit is where the wood is burned at a very high temperature. The heat exchanger, often in the form of a cob bench, is the part of the unit that extracts as much heat as possible before the hot gases leave the unit through the chimney.

The combustion unit is composed of several parts. The first part is a vertically-oriented hole where the fuel wood is placed and the fire is lit. This leads to a short horizontal tunnel where the fire actively burns. From there a sharp 90º turn upwards leads into the heat riser. The heat riser is enclosed within the metal barrel which is often referred to as the bell. The extremely hot gases rising in the heat riser hit the underside of the barrel, turn down, and then travel along the sides of the barrel to the manifold where the hot gases will enter the heat exchange unit.

The heat exchange unit is also made up of a few parts. The first is a lengthy channel with multiple turns in it. Most people use uninsulated stove pipe for this as it is cheap and easy to find at most big box hardware stores. The other main component of the heat exchange unit is the material that will absorb all of this heat. This is referred to as the thermal mass. Dirt, cob, and masonry are the favored materials for this as they are dense and can hold a lot of heat energy. The fore-mentioned channel runs through this thermal mass and heats it up.

How does a Rocket Mass Heater Work? Rocket Mass Heaters by Ianto Evans, Leslie Jackson.

As mentioned, the design described above is key to the correct functioning of a rocket mass heater. In the next section I will go over how to design those parts correctly, but first I want to talk about the principles that actually allow these heaters to work so well.

The first principle is to use VERY HOT and QUICK fires. In a rocket mass heater, the fire will get MUCH hotter than that found in your average metal wood stove. You must keep the fire between 1000 and 2200ºF as opposed to a wood stove’s fire of several hundred degrees. This serves two functions. First, it ensures that the wood is completely burned. With lower temperatures, wood is not burned completely, and much of this is given off as volatile gases which also means wasted energy. Secondly, these hot fires help heat up the body of the rocket mass heater as quickly as possible.

The second principle is utilizing a large amount of THERMAL MASS in the design. Thermal mass is basically a battery for heat energy. Materials with a low amount of thermal mass – things like fiberglass insulation, cotton balls, and pumice stone – are unable to hold very much heat. Materials with a large amount of thermal mass – stone, tile, adobe, and water, for example – are able to hold large amounts of heat energy. This is why these rocket mass heaters are built out of these sorts of materials. These massive materials are packed around the channel made of black chimney pipe that carries the hot gases from the combustion unit. The heat from the hot gas is transferred from the channel into the body of the heat exchanger which causes the temperature of the mass to rise.

These two principles – short, intense fires and thermal mass – are the key to a rocket mass heater. Now let’s take a look more specifically at the design to help utilize these two principles to their fullest.

More Detailed Specifics about the Design of a Rocket Mass Heater


 Rocket Mass Heaters by Ianto Evans, Leslie Jackson.Materials

In order to withstand the extremely hot fires that occur within the firebox, the firebox must be made of specific materials. If you try to use normal bricks found at your average big box hardware store, they are liable to explode. You will need bricks specifically made to hold up to these temperatures. These special bricks are called firebricks. They cost significantly more than your average brick, but are a necessary expense for this project. The entire firebox and heat riser should be constructed of this sort of brick.

Shape

The next important design detail is the shape and proportionality of the firebox which includes the heat riser. When viewed from the side, the firebox should have a J shape to it. The first vertical channel is where you feed the fire. The length of this part needs to be significantly shorter than the heat riser, otherwise you will have draft issues. A proper ratio for feed channel and heat riser is something along the lines of 1:3. The burn tunnel that connects them will be of a length intermediate to those two, but will also be influenced by where exactly the barrel will be placed.

Length

The length of the channel within the heat exchanger is also an important design consideration. Too short and you won’t be able to extract all of the usable heat from the gases, too long and you won’t get enough draft to keep a fire going. Generally, the channel is shaped like a long U under a straight bench. However, if you want an L-shaped bench to take advantage of your particular space, that is also possible. Somewhere around 30 feet is a good total length for the channel. However, this will also be dictated by how big your room is.

You will also want to pay attention to the material that makes up the body of the heat exchanger. Not just any material will do. You want something that has a lot of thermal mass, and you want something that is not combustible. Thankfully, these two characteristics often go hand-in-hand. Most of the commonly used materials are also cheap (or free). Generally, a cob mixture is placed directly around the black stove pipe that forms the channel that runs through the heat exchanger. Cob compacts well and forms to pretty much any shape, so it will completely fill in around the pipes. This cob layer can eventually be covered with a clay plaster or other materials like tile, brick, or stone. The decision of the outer covering depends on how much money you want to spend and what you find aesthetically pleasing.

There are some materials that might seem like a good idea at first, but actually make a poor choice for the heat exchanger. You would not want to use something like rounded river stone. Even though it is dense and has much thermal mass, the rounded shape prevents the stones from compacting completely. This hinders heat transfer as the air spaces make a great insulator (which you don’t want). Pumice stone is also a poor material as it is so airy.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it – a brief primer on rocket mass heaters. Indeed, this is merely scratching the surface of these efficient heating devices. If you are interested in actually constructing one for yourself, which should be within the ability of a slightly above-average DIYer, I would suggest getting a detailed book (several are listed in the resources below) on the construction of these heaters.

While they’re not for everyone or every home, they certainly should be considered if your dwelling is the sort that could be serviced by one.

20 Eye-Catching Rocket Mass Heaters: Examples and Plans1) Exposed Drum

Rocket mass heater. Leaving the drum exposed allows immediate heat to enter the room. Covering the barrel with a natural surface of cob slows down the instant heat and holds heat for slower release. Found at permaculturedesign.fr.

2) Straw Bale Home

Rocket Mass Heater in a straw bale home in France by Bec Touvière. Courses given once a year in France. Great video of the process at bottom of page here: permaculturedesign.fr

3) Bioconstruyendo Rocket Mass Heater

Rocket mass heater, built during a Bioconstruyendo held in February, 2010 in Patagonia, Argentina, in a straw bale and adobe cabin. Visit www.firespeaking.com for this picture.

4) Textured Heater

https://www.instagram.com/p/3VXnMbl_R0/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=12&wp=500&rd=https%3A%2F%2Finsteading.com&rp=%2Fblog%2Frocket-mass-heaters%2F#%7B%22ci%22%3A2%2C%22os%22%3A1785.7999999523163%2C%22ls%22%3A535.7000000476837%2C%22le%22%3A1571.2999999523163%7D

5) White Rocket Mass Heater

Rocket Mass Heater by Juured in Estonia. Their site has more information. Originally found at “juured.ee/”

6) Heater With Rock

Rocket Mass Heater by Ernie and Erica Wisner. Plans for sale here: ernieanderica.info/shop

7) Modern-Styled Heater

Rocket mass heater and cooktop in Brussels. This photograph is from flickriver.com.

Wood goes into feed to right of the sink. Cooktop is to right of the feed. See the inner workings here: flickriver.com

8) Cabin Heater

Rocket mass heater by Ernie and Erica Wisner. This heater was built for a cabin. More information can be found at ernieanderica.blogspot.com.

9) Stove In The Shamen Center

Rocket mass heater in a Shamen center in France. From “Rocket stoves, wood fires and mass heaters”. Visit ecologie-pratique.org for additional information.

10) Heater From Estonia

Rocket Mass Heater by Juured in Estonia. For more stories and pictures of cob, go to Juured’s website. Originally found at “juured.ee/”

11) Cob House Heater

https://www.instagram.com/p/BR_Gmu4heRk/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=12&wp=500&rd=https%3A%2F%2Finsteading.com&rp=%2Fblog%2Frocket-mass-heaters%2F#%7B%22ci%22%3A3%2C%22os%22%3A2459.2999999523163%2C%22ls%22%3A535.7000000476837%2C%22le%22%3A1571.2999999523163%7D

You can see how they used cob to seal the barrel.

12) Heater At A Cottage Home

Rocket mass heater in Cob Cottage, Coquille, Oregon, the home of the creator of the Rocket Mass Heater, Ianto Evans.

13) Cooking Rocket Mass Heater

Rocket mass heater mostly used for cooking as it is in the highlands of Guatemala. Find more on this story at joachim2010.blogspot.com. (Note: site is in French)

14) Large Heater

Mass Heater by terre-et-flammes.fr. This is only one example they have on their website.

15) Antique Stove

An antique stove was surrounded in cob. The wood loads on the right side, there is a heated bench behind. By Ernie and Erica Wisner

16) Heater Without A Barrel

Rocket mass heater with a cooktop. The heat riser does not have to be a barrel, but, as you can see here, can be built from masonry. This photo was originally found at “marquedeposee.over-blog.com/article-p1220438-jpg-103910105.html”.

17) Reading Corner

https://www.instagram.com/p/zRrz7zBD_a/embed/captioned/?cr=1&v=12&wp=500&rd=https%3A%2F%2Finsteading.com&rp=%2Fblog%2Frocket-mass-heaters%2F#%7B%22ci%22%3A4%2C%22os%22%3A2491.5999999046326%2C%22ls%22%3A535.7000000476837%2C%22le%22%3A1571.2999999523163%7D

Rocket stove heaters are great for lounging on during cold winter months. If placed in a corner, you can create your own heated reading nook!

18) Lounging Rocket Mass Heater

Rocket mass heater by expert Kirk “Donkey” Mobert, sundogbuilders.netdonkey32.proboards.com. Information and photographs can be found on donkey32.proboards.com.

Rocket Mass Heater How-To Videos

https://youtube.com/watch?v=7ANMXGrxgnE%3Ffeature%3Doembed%26enablejsapi%3D1%26origin%3Dhttps%3A

https://youtube.com/watch?v=dx0z5OBq3Hg%3Ffeature%3Doembed%26enablejsapi%3D1%26origin%3Dhttps%3A

https://youtube.com/watch?v=BoW-ICO83hM%3Ffeature%3Doembed%26enablejsapi%3D1%26origin%3Dhttps%3A

https://youtube.com/watch?v=_jfag47dRCs%3Ffeature%3Doembed%26enablejsapi%3D1%26origin%3Dhttps%3A

How To Build A Rocket Mass HeaterProject Journals of RMH BuildsResources For Further Information

Homestead Stories: Autumn Crocus

Fri, 10/14/2022 - 18:38

“I haven’t seen those for a few years. Tulips in autumn? Strange, isn’t it?”

“Actually,” my friend replied. “They’re not really tulips.”

“But the flower is shaped like a tulip, and it’s so tall.”

“It is tall, but the flower hasn’t fully opened. This is an autumn crocus. It is strange, however, that you don’t see it in your garden.”

It was rather buried among the foliage — and it grows more like ground cover. Perhaps I just don’t think to look for it.

Autumn Crocus Appearance

In spite of its appearance and the fact that it grows from a bulb, the autumn crocus is not a true crocus. It’s a perennial herb, even though the idea of it being an herb contradicts the fact it can be deadly poisonous. It certainly isn’t the typical, small flower that pokes its nose through the snow-encrusted land of early spring. It’s a hybrid of Colchicum from the fall-flowering bulb lily family. It’s also called meadow saffron and naked lady.

The 8- to 14-inch leaves stand upright and resemble those of a short, dark green tulip, which explains part of the reason why it could be mis-identified. It also looks like a romaine lettuce head. The leaves appear in the spring, but no flowers. The plant then goes dormant until autumn. This stage gives the plant an unattractive appearance and may result in gardeners digging up the bulbs in the summer, thus preventing them from blooming later.

Patience rewards the avid gardener. In early fall, a bouquet of flowers (up to 10 stalks per bulb) will appear. Each of the long, 4- to 6-inch stalks, produce a single, 2-inch wide, goblet-shaped flower that will be in bloom for up to two weeks. Since the leaves are long gone, the stalks are top heavy and lack the support other bulb plants receive to remain upright. Thus, the stems often lie on the ground, barely supporting the heavy blooms. Without the leaves, the autumn crocus appears naked, which may be the reason for one of its more common names: the naked lady. The most prolific flower color is a light pink or purple, though some cultivars do produce white flowers. The flowers may at first appear to be tulip-shaped, but as the petals open, they look more like crocuses. The autumn crocus has six stamens instead of the usual three stamens of the spring crocus.

Although it’s a late-season bloomer, the autumn crocus is attractive to bees and butterflies.

Where Can Autumn Crocus Be Found?

Originally native to Europe and North Africa, the autumn crocus is a wild bulb flower that can be found in woods and damp meadows. This explains why it does so well in my somewhat damp, wooded area. It has been introduced to some parts of North America, preferring regions where winters aren’t too cold and summers not too hot. It can be found in the Midwestern and Eastern regions of the United States, as well as in parts of Canada including the Southern regions of British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces. It typically blooms in September.

How to Grow Autumn Crocus

Since they are an autumn-growing bulb, the autumn crocus bulbs need to be planted mid to late summer in order to insure fall blooming. However, if you’re like me, you’ll plant them once and leave the bulbs in the ground throughout the season to enjoy their autumnal blooms.

Interestingly enough, this large bulb can also produce flowers without being planted — though, given the proximity of a large population of squirrels and chipmunks, leaving the bulb outside, unplanted and unprotected by Mother Earth, would be inadvisable. Although poisonous to humans, it will definitely be chewed up quickly by the rodents.

The bulbs will thrive in well-drained soil, about 6 inches apart. Since the bulbs are large, they should be planted from 3 to 6 inches in depth. The autumn crocus does well under deciduous trees or shrubs, or mixed with other perennials. Mine grow under a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees in a full garden of various summer flowers including lilies, hosta, peonies, and a mixture of various wildflowers. When my summer blooms dry out, the autumn crocus surprise me with their delicate blooms. I’ve heard these bulbs also thrive under grass (be careful not to cut the grass in September once the flowers start to appear) or in rock and gravel-based gardens. This delicate gem looks good growing in clusters or as scattered individual plants. Nothing appears to hold back this plant once it decides to bloom.

To divide, dig up the bulbs carefully in the summer after the leaves have died back and before the flowers appear. Bulbs also do well in containers. To overwinter potted bulbs, sink the containers into the ground just before it freezes.

Different Autumn Crocus Species

I hadn’t realized there were so many types of autumn crocus, but apparently there are over 64 species around the world. However, the most common ones are very similar in both appearance and cultivation.

  • Alboplenum – a robust autumn crocus with double creamy white flowers
  • Album – a weak-growing autumn crocus with white flowers
  • Autumn white – also has white flowers
  • Giant – free-flowering with large flowers (hence the name, ‘giant’) with violet flowers and a large white throat
  • Lilac wonder – another large autumn crocus sporting narrow, rosy-purple flowers with white midlines
  • Pleniflorum – a double lilac-pink flower
  • Violet queen – violet-colored flowers with white lines in the throat and distinctive orange anthers
  • Waterlily – commonly available with lilac-pink flowers and multiple (sometimes as many as 20) petals that resemble the waterlily (hence its common name); this variety is somewhat top-heavy and needs support to keep the stems upright
Autumn Crocus Uses

Although one of its names is meadow saffron, this plant should never be associated with the edible saffron used in spices, coloring, and some medicines. Meadow saffron is poisonous and should not be used in any foods or medicines. In fact, the ingestion of any part of the plant can be fatal. In milder cases, the result of ingesting this plant (whole or in part) can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and bleeding, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, drooling, liver and kidney damage, respiratory failure, and seizures.

In other words, it’s not safe to consume. Some medicinal uses have been recommended by professionals — but ingestion is not recommended without professional advice.

The Issue With Autumn Crocus

Like any other plants, the autumn crocus has its issues. I shared my story with a gardening group and asked why my bulbs randomly appeared one year then not again for several seasons. The answer I received was the same from several sources. Apparently, slugs affect the well-being of this plant. They love to wreak havoc on the bulbs. Also, rodents like squirrels and chipmunks frequently dig up the bulbs to either consume (they don’t appear to be affected by the toxicity) or replant them.

I love autumn crocuses and now look for them every fall. They’re like the last ‘hoorah’ of the gardening season before winter sets its icy claws on the land. And a dim promise that spring is coming — if not soon enough.

Masonry Cook Stoves: How They Work And Photos

Mon, 10/10/2022 - 17:43

When most Americans think of a stove, they think of a collection of heating elements that sits atop an oven.

In modern times, this stove and oven combination is usually a box made out of thin sheet metal and is powered by either electrical energy or gas (natural gas or propane). However, this is not how it always was. In fact, this is a fairly modern invention that is confined to very recent history. For most of humankind’s past, cookstoves in a residence looked quite different from those of today. They were often very large and served more purposes than just cooking – usually they were also the main source of heating. Although of many shapes and sizes, they all now share a common name – masonry cookstoves.

A heating element with it all: Mass, cozy fireplace, oven, cook top, and bread oven. Check out https://mainewoodheat.com/masonry-heaters/ for more inspiration!

You may have read our earlier article on Masonry Heaters (you can find it here), and if you did, you’re already aware that these ancient, massive, efficient wood burners are far more than a picturesque element of interior design. However, if you want to truly maximize the utility and potential of your Masonry Stove, take a page out of history and make it do your cooking and baking as well as your heating!

What Is A Masonry Cookstove?

A masonry cookstove is a stove that is made out of some sort of masonry product as opposed to the sheet metal of modern stoves. Brick, stone, clay, and tile are some of the materials that are most commonly used in the construction of these stoves. As far as the source of heat goes, these masonry cookstoves are almost universally powered by wood. Some are made to be fired with cordwood (split more thinly than in your average cast iron woodstove used for heating), while others are designed to use sticks and small branches.

There are places in the world that use bundles of straw or even dried manure of livestock (typically cattle of some sort). There was a time in the past when coal was also widely utilized, but that is now a relic of the past in most locales.

Brick Stove from https://www.feudebois.com (Note: Site is in French)

There are as many different designs for masonry cookstoves as there are groups of people that came up with them. That makes it extremely difficult to say exactly how a masonry stove is designed. However, there are a few general aspects that most of them share.

First, all of them are made in place from massive materials such as stone, mud, and brick. Secondly, all of them have some sort of firebox, but they are varied in design: some have a door and others don’t; some are lined with firebrick, and others are simply hardened mud; some are fed vertically, but most are fed horizontally from the front or side.

All of those that operate as a stove, and not just an oven, have some sort of opening above the firebox to let the fire heat a pot, pan, or wok. Aside from that, there is little shared in common among all masonry cookstoves.

A soapstone masonry oven with a totally different feel (from https://solidrockmasonry.com/services/masonry-heaters/#Bake)

People from every country around the globe have come up with their own version of masonry cookstoves. Some are fairly simple contraptions made freely from the mud on site (and you can read about how to construct a simple mud stove at our earlier article here ). Others are extremely complex and expensive structures made of brick or stone laid by a professional stonemason that occupy a substantial footprint within the home.

Most fall between these two extremes. They can be found in the smallest hovel, and they also make their appearance in some of the fanciest restaurants in the world. Few other devices have such a cosmopolitan nature!

From Peasant Hovels…. (From https://www.kochamwies.pl)…To fancy Restaurants (http://web.archive.org/web/20130329190706/www.foyersfeuvert.com/esthetique.html)How Do Masonry Cookstoves Work?

The way in which these cookstoves work varies according to their specific design. However, there are generally two main ways that food is cooked.

Direct Heating
Note the Cast-iron cook top (from https://www.kochamwies.pl)

The stove portion is always heated directly by the wood. The stove surface itself is usually some thick heavy metal – cast iron is the most popular choice. This large sheet of metal will generally have two or three sets of concentric circles that can be removed with a special tool. This allows you to control how much of the fire will directly touch the pot or pan on the stove. One or two of the series of circles is usually directly above where the firebox is, and the others are usually off to the side. This furthers your ability to control how hot the pot will get as the pots directly over the fire will obviously get much hotter than the ones over the indirect heat.

As far as the oven portion goes, there are a few different designs. They mainly vary in their relation to where the fire is. Some are made so that the fire is made directly in the oven and heats the food directly. This is how the best pizza ovens are made. For a pizza oven, a fire is made in the center of the oven. Once it has burned long enough to heat the cooking surface within the oven, the fire is pushed to the rear and/or sides of the oven. The pizza, or flatbread if you like, is put right where the fire was initially built. It is heated from under by the hot stone, and the fire that is still blazing around it cooks the top to perfection in mere minutes. However, while this sort of design is optimal for cooking pizza and flatbreads of various sorts, it is not the best setup for any other sort of cooking.

Another design has a wall between the firebox and the oven portion of the cookstove. The wall prevents direct radiant heat from the fire from reaching the things cooking in the oven. Instead of being cooked with the fire’s radiant heat, the hot gases from the fire are channeled to the oven chamber and heat it up. This provides a more even heat as all the air in the oven compartment is at approximately the same temperature. This is great for most of the thing you would normally cook in an oven such as roasts, casseroles, and such.

Thermal MassStucco Style (From kochamwies.pl)

Being made of such massive materials as stone, brick, and clay, these cookstoves have a lot of thermal mass. Thermal mass is a measure of the heat storage capability of a material. Items with a lot of thermal mass are able to hold vast amounts of heat energy and release it slowly over time. Things with a low thermal mass are not able to hold much heat energy, this makes them both heat up and cool off quickly. Masonry cookstoves use this thermal mass to great advantage in two ways.

The first way that these stoves use thermal mass is for cooking. This is especially true of those cookstoves that are designed to bake bread. In a bread-making cookstove, the oven portion is made out of as much massive material as possible and has a door that is able to seal well. The fire is built directly in the oven where the bread will be baked. This fire is kept burning as hot as possible to heat up the entire mass of the oven. Once it is up to temperature, the remains of the fire are scraped out of the oven and the baking surface is cleaned. Then the bread is placed directly on the floor of the oven and it is sealed.

The heated mass of the oven itself will release its heat slowly over time and cook the bread. Often, people will have a series of items to be cooked to utilize all of the heat energy that was put in the mass. Bread is cooked first as it requires the hottest temperature, then cookies can be baked once the bread is finished, and then when it has cooled off but still warm, it serves as a perfect dehydrator. How efficient is that?

The second way these stoves utilize their large thermal mass is for heating. In modern times, the heating function is often of secondary importance as they are sometimes built in homes with central heating. However, in the past, the heating function was as important, if not more important, than the cooking function. They were often built in the heart of the home and the heat that was given off by these massive stoves provided warmth to the entire house. It was an even heat as the whole mass of the stove radiated off a pleasant warmth. Many argue that the warmth provided by such stoves is vastly superior to the forced air heaters of the modern age.

Some Examples in Pictures

Now that you have read through a brief primer on masonry cookstoves, let’s take a look at some notable examples from around the world.

Just a quick scroll through the pictures should be enough to show you just how much variety exists in the world of masonry cookstoves. Enjoy!

Pets Love Masonry Cookstoves As well (From feudebois.com)Beauty, function, and tastiness, all in one image (from https://www.oxalis-asso.org/?attachment_id=551)A different style, but the same concepts (From http://www.oxalis-asso.org/?page_id=3573)The central placement of this masonry cookstove in the room means that it can warm the whole space (From feudebois.com)This photo really reinforces how massive and room-dominating a masonry cookstove can be (Image originally from http://web.archive.org/web/20081230234950/http://www.pyromasse.ca/heaters1_e.html, but the website is no longer accessible)From feudebois.com. Before flue gasses escape out the chimney, they warm the bench and stairs.Here’s a beautiful rocket-Stove type design with two Feeders (developed by http://www.ecofogao.com/english/)Another one from Defunct website www.pyromasse.ca. Note the cast iron cooktop.Tasting bread cooked in a masonry bread oven is known to induce excessive smiling (Stove built by Albie Barten over at https://mainewoodheat.com)This tile-faced beauty is from https://hafnermeister-sulzer.at/kachelofen/landhausliche-kachelofen/You can find dozens more designs, often featuring these beatiful, earth-toned natural finishes at https://www.firespeaking.com/portfolio/

You may believe that cooking with wood is something relegated to the past, or merely to campfire marshmallows, but I hope that this article has proven that wood-fired cooking is alive and well in our modern world. Not only that, it is a viable and useful option for those looking to take their heating and cooking directly into their own hands with their own fuel.

How To Build A Masonry StoveMasonry Stove Kits

4 Reasons Why Snakes on Your Homestead Aren’t a Bad Thing

Wed, 10/05/2022 - 18:07

“Found a big ol’ snake last week.”

Now, I typically mind my own business at the laundromat, but I can’t help but overhear the conversations happening right next to me. The man to my right was folding towels, chewin’ the fat with someone he obviously knew well.

“Lopped that head cleeeeean off, garden hoe.” He pantomimed the beheading, flourishing a washcloth for effect. “Thing was near 6 foot if it was an inch.”

I winced, knowing that the doomed reptile had likely been a black rat snake or bull snake, the only snakes in my area that reach that size. Both species are harmless constrictors, more likely to slither away than interact with anything bigger than the rats that they hunt. But in my part of the woods, as with many rural areas, there’s a zero-tolerance policy for anything that slithers on its belly. The general attitude seems to be it’s better to be proactive and execute anything snaky, just in case it happens to be one of the poisonous species (and based an anecdote about that one uncle who actually did get bit, and lost his pinky toe from infection).

Though it certainly won’t make me popular in these parts, I would like to advocate for the snake’s existence on our homesteads, especially the harmless constrictors who bear the fatal brunt for their poison cousins. If you take the time to learn what these creatures are doing, you may find that you delight in sighting one, rather than shrieking and reaching for something blunt. I don’t anticipate my devil’s advocate role will win many hearts, but I hope you’ll stick it out for this article and give me a chance to explain why you shouldn’t kill that snake.

1. Snakes Eat Rats

Aside from feral dogs, no other animal has frustrated my livestock efforts more than the rat. Rats have massacred my pigeons. Rats have destroyed my hatchling chickens (and to this day, I cannot figure out how those rotten, no-good rodents got into our otherwise well-built chick coop. Yes, I’m still mad). Rats have even stolen acorns from me before I learned that I need to store them in a protected area. I can’t talk about those rodents without a curl of my lip. So, when I find a rat snake on my land, especially when I find one that’s pushing 6 feet of silky black scales across the ground like liquid asphalt, I know they didn’t get that big eating nothing. That’s 6 feet grown from an untold number of rat dinners, and to that, I tip my hat in gratitude.

I don’t know any sizable snake that doesn’t have rat (or mouse) on the dinner menu. For that reason alone, I’m thankful for their all-day hunting surveillance, keeping pests down in the background while I’m weeding my beets and feeding my chickens.

2. Some Snakes Eat Poisonous Snakes

Yep! Most snakes eat whatever they fit in their mouths, and they don’t mind if their prey is from the same family or genus as they are. Black king snakes are territorial, and will kill and eat copperhead snakes (as well as any other poisonous or nonpoisonous snake they can catch) which is yet another reason I am perfectly content to coexist with them on my homestead. To indiscriminately execute every slithery reptile is to potentially eliminate some of our most powerful allies against venomous snakes.

3. Snakes Want Nothing to Do With You

If you come across a snake in the field, it will most likely do everything in its considerable power to get as far away from you as possible. Despite what you have seen in cheap B horror films, snakes don’t have human on the menu (at least, North American snakes don’t. I know those apocalyptic-sized pythons in Indonesia might, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). You are too big and too scary to be anything other than a potential threat to them which, in the case of many hoe-wielding country folk, is absolutely true.

Most snake bites occur when people go on the attack against a snake. Any animal, when faced with a giant threat, is going to try and run away, but they will defend themselves if given no other choice.

The best advice I know on what to do with a snake, poisonous or not, comes from Missouri herpetologist Jeff Briggler. “Walk away,” he says. “You are more likely to be bitten attempting to kill a snake. I mean, the snake is threatened and upset, and it will readily defend itself, so live and let live.”

4. Snakes Are Fascinating

If you can get over the fear response or disgust that so many of us have inherited, I think you may be able to see snakes the way I do — as beautiful, graceful, and fascinating creatures. To see the way a blue racer melts through the grass as fast as you can run, somehow finding the most economical route in lightning-quick reasoning, or to see a speckled kingsnake drowsily draped across sandstone in the sun, a tongue flick the only indication of life, or to find an impossibly-thin rough green snake suspended from branches or brush like living calligraphy, you may start seeing them as much a part of the beauty of your land as the flowers and hummingbirds.

I am particularly amused by a favorite over-dramatic actor that I’ve found on my land: the eastern hognose snake. If pursued and bothered, it resorts to ridiculous theatrics to try make you lose interest. Though it may work for any other predator, for a curious human, it has the precisely opposite effect. First, it flattens its body and spreads its neck vertebrae and assumes the posture of a venomous snake, hissing and doing its best to look scary. This is a moment when many folks might believe it’s venomous, and kill the harmless creature.

If it finds that strategy ineffective, it then begins convulsing and flailing about on the ground as if it were in the most horrific of death throes, usually releasing a stinky, poo-like musk secretion to add to the illusion it is very much dying. If, for some reason, you’re still staring, it will then bite itself, flip onto its back, and do its best to look dead. At that point, the best you can offer the poor creature is a polite round of applause and a graceful, quiet exit. Once it thinks you’re finally gone, the reptilian thespian will manage to recover and do its best to become gone as well. I find these snakes hilarious, and always value their appearance in the path for the simple fact that they make me smile.

Identifying a Poisonous Snake From a Nonpoisonous Snake

Though your first reaction upon sighting something long and creeping in the grass may be fright, I challenge you to control your fear and turn it into observation instead. There’s a high likelihood that it’s a nonpoisonous snake, and killing it would do more harm than good in the long run.

Head Shape

First, look at the head shape. Poisonous snakes typically have distinctively wedge-shaped heads, while nonpoisonous constrictors have noggins that are more elongated and oval. Some constrictors, when threatened, will flatten out their heads and appear much like a viper, so this isn’t always a sure-fire identification method.

Pupils

Next, if you can see the head, check out the pupils. Constrictors have a round pupil, much like our own. Venomous snakes have a cat-like slit for a pupil.

Body Shape

Finally, look at the body shape. Constrictors are gracefully long and thin (the more to squeeze prey with) gently tapering along their length. By contrast, most viper-types are short and powerfully fat-bodied with muscle.

A misleading trait to use for identification is scale markings. Though mature poisonous snakes like the copperhead have a distinctive “Hershey’s kiss” brown markings, immature snakes of all species often look different from their adult forms. Unless you’ve taken the time to study snakes in both their mature and immature forms, pattern appearances can often be confusing.

An excellent resource on this distinction is a recent article from the Missouri Conservationist Magazine “Doppelfangers.” It’s available to read free online, and goes into great detail about how nonpoisonous snakes are often misidentified and, as you heard in my intro story, promptly beheaded.

I hope that, at the very least, this article gives you some food for thought the next time a snake crosses your path. Maybe, just maybe, you might be able to see it as a beautiful creature that has a place in nature, and let it slither off to keep eating pests and live its quiet life. A creature-lover like me can dream, right?

Foraging for Violets

Wed, 09/28/2022 - 18:20

The rhyme says that April showers bring May flowers, but the experienced forager knows that March rains bring violets.

The revision doesn’t have the same lyrical flow (or cheesy, following historical joke), but for those hankering for fresh greens after a long, cold, winter, poetry is found in leaves, not words. Furthermore, violets aren’t only a spring treat. Once the summer has run its blistering course and acorns start dropping from the oaks, these generous perennials make an encore appearance and give the forager one last harvest of deliciously edible greenery.

Wren Everett // Insteading

You may have seen violets as a weed in an unsprayed lawn or as a pleasant sign of spring, but I hope to introduce you to this widespread plant as a valuable source of food as well.

Finding and Identifying Violets

No matter where you live, there’s a local species of violet to be found. They grow coast-to-coast, north-to-south, and in a huge variety of environments from marshy forests to dry pine glades. Every species of violet is edible, though some are certainly more desirable than others. You’ll have to taste and see for yourself.

Violet leaves are so varied — even within species — that botanists are sometimes at odds with each other over which species is which, or if one species actually counts as two separate species, or whether two or more different species should really be counted as one. The best identification feature is the blossom which, thankfully, is similar across all species. They are five-petaled, but the petals are irregular with two distinctly paired on the top, two to each side, outstretched, and one at the bottom that often has purple streaks. If you squint at it upside-down, you can almost see a little person, with a big, stripey, yellow-spotted head, two arms (often complete with hairy armpits) and two legs.

Common Blue Violet – Wren Everett // Insteading

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing on the common blue violet (Viola sororia). It’s the easiest to identify, and it very well may be the most widespread. Common blue violet grows heart-shaped, scalloped leaves that extend up from a center root mass and form a dense layer beneath their purple flowers.

BirdFoot Violet – Wren Everett // Insteading

You’ll also see, however, some images of birdfoot violet (Viola pedata). This violet species is abundantly common on my Ozark hill in the spring as it’s a fan of growing in dry soil near pine trees. The leaves of this species are palmate and so deeply cut that they are nearly fernlike in character. I honestly don’t bother with collecting these leaves, because the abundant profusion of blossoms above them is far more worth my time. Probably no other violet offers so many blooms at once, sometimes carpeting the ground in an unbroken blanket of lavender, white, and purple. They are easy to gather by the handful if you’re on the hunt for blossoms but I admit some springs, I can’t bear to ruin their showy display. I guess I’m a sucker for butterflies and honeybees.

Violet Look-Alikes

Since there are more than 70 species of violet found in the United States alone, all of them with incredibly variegated forms within species, this is a strange section to try to clarify. Thankfully, violets are friendly to the forager. As I said earlier, every species is edible, and their flowers are consistently shaped from species to species. The only problem you may run into is when you’re harvesting from unflowering plants.

Samuel Thayer points out that there are some species of violet with palmate leaves which may be confused with the early leaves of larkspur or pre-flowering buttercup species, both of which are toxic. If you find that palmate-leaved species of violet are common in your area, the best safeguard I can recommend is waiting until they flower to harvest their leaves.

Harvesting VioletsThe first violet greens of the year, emerging before much else does – Wren Everett // Insteading

Violet leaves are a spring delight, offering up some needed greens after a winter of root vegetables and starchy staples. Picking leaves in quantity is surprisingly easy, and as you may find, almost a cut-and-come-again wild vegetable. As soon as you get all the tasty greens from one stand, you’ll find the one that you harvested last week is lush and ready to pick again.

I commonly use my hands like a violet-leaf-harvesting comb, working my fingers beneath the leaves, clenching them together, and twisting to wrest the lovely leaves from the stems. In the height of spring, and again as the fall rains return, you can easily collect leaves by the basketful.

Comb-Finger Harvesting – Wren Everett // Insteading

There’s no worry if you do get some stems, by the way — all the aerial parts are edible even though I find the stems a bit tough later in the season. The root mass underground is suspected to be toxic, but it would be foolish to pick it anyway. You’d be killing off future harvests.

Regrowth of Leaves in the Fall can be lush – Wren Everett // Insteading

Violet leaves are usually pretty clean pickings though they have a tendency to collect bits of dirt on their undersides after a spring rain. I usually wash mine in several changes of water to ensure the grit is kept to a minimum.

A second product violets offer is their flowers. Despite a lovely appearance, they taste much the same as the leaves (at least, as far as common blue violet is concerned. Some species have a wintergreen flavor). That said, they’re a fun nibble in the field, especially for children, who can never seem to get enough of the bright blossoms. They’re so plentiful, there’s no harm in letting the little ones graze like sheep.

You can collect blossoms for use in tea and medicine, but they require some careful drying. One spring, I painstakingly collected enough flowers to fill a mason jar; no small undertaking, considering they shrivel up to a fraction of their original size. I was fairly confident that I had thoroughly dried them before putting them in storage. But when winter came and I wanted to brew some purple tea to remind me of spring, they had transformed into a furry lump of gray mold. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I now store my dried blossoms in the freezer where they’re just as easy to access, but there’s no chance of my efforts turning to dust.

Cooking Violets

Violet leaves are edible raw, and since they sprout at the same time as chickweed, can be easily gathered for a fresh, green spring salad. For raw eating, the slightly unfurled leaves that are a lighter green are the best pickings. Violet leaves are also a good addition to any of your green smoothie recipes. They are sweet and mild, imparting a vegetal flavor without a trace of bitterness.

Wren Everett // Insteading

When cooked, violet leaves have a mucilaginous quality, and so much so, they’re sometimes referred to as “wild okra” when put in soups. I find that they absolutely shine when blended into a green paste and used for a wild version of saag paneer. They retain a brilliant green color, which makes for an eye-catching and delectable presentation. You can find our recipe for wild green saag paneer (and more) here.

Wren Everett // Insteading

You’ll often find recipes for violet flowers online: violet jelly, violet salads, candied violets, and violet blossom smoothies. The lovely, purple-y pigment of violets is water-soluble, so inventive cooks have taken advantage of that feature for eye-dazzling culinary effects. Despite the lovely appearance, you’ll need to prepare yourself for the fact that violet blossoms don’t add much flavor.

But they do have one fun feature. When brewed into a purple infusion, they change to a bright pink blush if an acid is added. This means, you can make a sweet, violet-blossom tea, then add a dash of lemon for color-changing pink lemonade. Kids (and adults) will likely be thrilled, and what a way to celebrate spring.

As a final note, violet leaves and blossoms brewed into a tea, are a traditional throat soothing remedy for those colds that seem to emerge alongside spring flowers.

I hope this article reaches you before the fall violets have faded away for the second time this year, and you’re able to gather one last harvest before the leaves cover the ground. If (for whatever reason), you’re unable to make it this fall, rest assured that the violets will be back in the spring, ever lush, ever available, and a rich reward for those who see them as food, not weeds.

15 Different Types of Alaskan Berries

Fri, 09/23/2022 - 17:07

The Last Frontier, the 49th state, land of the midnight sun, or in other words, Alaska. The state many dream to visit and few actually do.

Alaska is home to some of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders: the arctic and associated tundra, North America’s tallest mountain (Denali), megafauna ranging from muskox to polar bears, glaciers giving rise to cold, fast rivers, and gold. The land of extremes, some might say, and with those extremes, there are hidden treasures and surprises abounding.

One of these surprises is the sheer abundance and variety of berries in the summer and fall.

Cody Hinchliff // Flickr

Alaska is home to around 50 different species of berries, most of which are edible — although not as many are delectable. For centuries, indigenous people of Alaska, along with many wildlife species, have lived off these berries, creating jams, jellies, syrups, chutneys, and sauces, or simply eating them raw. Many of these berries can be found in the Pacific Northwest at large, and some of them, across the continent.

This article will be covering 15 species of berries that grow abundantly in Alaska.

Cloudberries

Commonly described as similar to apple, this berry may be more of an acquired taste. From my experience (and those around me), some of these berries give off an apple flavor, but when they do, it’s more like a fermented apple pie. 

Every plant stalk grows one berry, and it grows straight up above the leaves, presenting for any who may pass by. It’s easily identifiable, even without the berries, because the leaves have a distinct, ribbed-vein appearance and are rather scabrous (like sandpaper) in texture. The only berry this could be confused with is salmonberries. Salmonberries are also found in Alaska and I’ve been told that they taste delicious, though I haven’t had the pleasure of trying them yet.

BunchberriesRuth Hartnup // Flickr

It would be a challenge to say which berries are the most common in Alaska. In terms of sheer presence, I would hazard a guess that bunchberries are close to number one on that list. These berries have a distinctive appearance based on their foliage alone. The leaves grow opposite each other, and often in pairs of 2 to 3 that grow with parallel venation. When the berries begin growing, they look like cloudberries and grow straight above the leaves. Unlike cloudberries, bunchberries grow in a bunch (hence the name). They are red with a white inside. 

Bunchberries have a mildly sweet flavor, but are more mealy than anything else. In the fall, the leaves turn from green to red to deep purple and dot the landscape with gorgeous colors. The red berries complement the purple leaves.

Soapberries and BuffaloberriesJames St. John // Flickr

As the name soapberry implies, this plant is not particularly delicious, and in fact, most Alaskans consider it inedible. However, some eat the berries after carefully preparing them as a jam or relish. Indeed, this plant is quite bitter, and to me, reminiscent of nail polish remover. It was used as a tool, creating soaps with the berries and roots. Some used the red berries to make dyes, too. I’ve often used this plant to fool friends into eating it — though I always made sure another delicious berry was readily available for them to cleanse their palate afterward.

SilverberriesWendell Smith // Flickr

This berry also has a mealy consistency and is rather flavorless, so you may not have much of a desire to eat the berries. Some considered them inedible and would only eat them in times of famine. Others regularly ate them as part of their diet. As the name implies, they are silver in appearance and aesthetically pleasing. Some indigenous groups used this plant to create heavy smoke.

Lingonberries and Lowbush CranberryDawn Endico // Flickr

I find these berries to be delicious! Unlike the highbush cranberry you’ll read about shortly, this one tastes like a classic cranberry. Even the berries left over from last season are yummy. The skin holds on and it gives a sweet and tart flavor. 

Overall, this plant grows in mats on the ground and is nearly everywhere around Alaska. New season berries don’t ripen until after the first hard frost hits. They are more of a cold weather berry.

Highbush Cranberry, Mooseberry, SquashberryJennifer Pack // Flickr

This berry has several names, as you can see, and is extremely common. Close to the end of fall, you’ll see these bright red berries (usually accompanied with bright red leaves) growing abundantly. The taste, as with cloudberries, seems to be hit or miss. Some are quite tasty, though perhaps a bit sour, while others are bitter and leave your mouth feeling acidic. The tasty ones usually have a bit of “zing” to them, but are sweet overall.

These berries are often made into jams and jellies, as they have naturally occurring pectin in them. For those who are not familiar, pectin is a thickening agent that is added to jams and jellies. With these berries, you don’t need to add any.

CrowberriesThomas Quine // flickr

An excellent source of vitamin C, crowberries are often added to blueberry bags as filler. Crowberries have a thick, leathery skin, but are packed full of juice. Every bite is like eating a gusher candy, as the juice “gushes” in your mouth. The best part? They have a mildly sweet flavor that makes them great to eat. The juice part is short-lived, however, and the thick leathery skin takes up most of your time when you’re chewing them. It’s why they are typically added to blueberry bags.

Crowberries grow abundantly in Alaska and are easy to harvest. Running your hand up the stalk of berries causes them to break off. There’s not a lot of picking involved as there is with most berries you harvest. This technique makes it easy to harvest large quantities quickly.

Blueberries

Perhaps Alaska’s most notable berry, blueberries grow in quantity across the whole state — including the Arctic Circle and high alpine environments. 

Given that we are all pretty familiar with blueberries, there’s not too much to tell here.

Kinnikinnick BerriesWillamette Biology // flickr

These berries are pinkish-red in appearance and very round. The plant’s overall growth characteristic is low growing and mat-forming. It is close to the lingonberry growth pattern, and the two plants are easily confused. Kinnikinnick leaves are larger and oval-shaped, while lingonberry leaves are smaller, leathery, generally curled around the edges, and have small black dots on the pale underside. If you know the difference, you won’t mistake the two. 

The berries are generally tasteless and mealy. They were (and still are) used as a traditional food source for many Alaskans. The berries are generally used to make preserves instead of eaten raw due to their consistency and taste.

Rosehipsliz west // flickr

Perhaps many of you are already familiar with rosehips. If you’re not, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know that a rose plant formed edible parts until this year — what an awesome surprise. I’ve since learned that some varieties of rose aren’t really tasty, and some varieties are sweet like candy. The prickly rose that grows in Alaska is a sweet variety. Rosehips are ready when they’re shriveled and mushy, and practically falling off the rose plant.

This isn’t so much a “chew” type of berry as it is one that you suck on. It’s seedy, so chewing on it will lodge the seeds in your teeth. Many make jams and syrups from rosehips.

Twisted Stalk

This is arguably my favorite Alaskan berry. Twisted stalk resembles mini red peppers but tastes like cucumbers, and the berries are delicious and refreshing. I have noticed this plant seems to be restricted to growing in higher elevation areas. This means on a long hike, you tend to find it toward the top. It is a perfect snack along your way. 

There’s a reason for the name “twisted stalk.” This plant tends to grow on a stalk that twists and turns. This feature, along with the parallel venation and clasp-stalked leaves, make it easy to identify. 

Bearberries

As you see, there are a lot of berries named after animals in Alaska. Bearberries are larger in size than most berries. They have a mildly sweet flavor, but other than that, are mostly just juicy. They are dark red to black in appearance and over the course of the season, the leaves turn from green to dark, scarlet red. The berries are usually found on the underside of the leaves. From my observations, this plant seems to like slopes, and in the fall, the sides of mountains and hills will turn deep red due to the sheer abundance of these small growing forbs. It is beautiful.

Northern Bastard Toadflax

Trust me, I know the name of this berry isn’t great, but the flavor and overall aesthetic appeal are unique. This plant grows in a variety of colors, from green leaves to purple. A striking quality of this plant is that it grows yellow veins on green leaves. When the berries start to come in, they are bright orange (and Halloween-y) in appearance and stand in stark contrast to the leaves.

The flavor of this plant is perhaps, not as nice as its appearance. It tends to be either distasteful or tasting like a vegetable. It isn’t sweet like many berries, in fact, it’s closer to savory in flavor when you find a good one.

BaneberryJerry Kirkhart // flickr

This berry (slightly) resembles mooseberry, but there are key differences in appearance. For one, the leaves of baneberries have multiple leaflets per stalk, instead of two leaves growing opposite each other as mooseberries do. The berries also grow differently. While mooseberries tend to grow in clusters that hang, baneberries grow on an upright stalk. Baneberries are also larger and more solid than mooseberries. 

Why am I going into the differences between the two? It’s because baneberries are highly poisonous, and 5 to 7 ingested berries are enough to kill a child.

Learning to identify berries is absolutely necessary to ensure your personal safety. If you’re unsure if you’re identifying a berry correctly, don’t eat it. Always feel confident in your identification before trying it yourself or offering it to others. 

It is extremely important to know what berries are poisonous and inedible. Knowing what berries and plants are toxic will give you the means to properly identify those that are safe to eat. As always, do your research.

A few final words of caution: As with all berries, consumption in excess quantities can cause upset stomach and diarrhea. This is true with almost all foods, but it should be noted. Of course, if you’re trying a new berry, eat one (or half of one) and wait 15 to 30 minutes before eating another to ensure you aren’t allergic. Safety first!

10 Unexpectedly Edible Leaves in Your Garden

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 17:38

The resourceful and knowledgeable homesteader knows that there’s plenty of food to be grown overhead and underfoot. But there’s an unexpected cache of food that often goes unnoticed — the leaves of more plants than you may guess!

We’re accustomed to eating lettuce leaves and kale leaves, of course, but you can also harvest greens from your okra, sweet potato vines, and even the trees that line the path to the garden. Though you may feel a bit like a goat as you munch on arboreal greenery, once you realize the extent of your potential harvest, you won’t mind.

So let’s get into some unexpectedly edible leaves that you might already be growing in your garden and orchard. Your harvest may be bigger than you realized.

1. Grape LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

Grapes are wonderful for fresh eating, preserving, and fermenting into robust or sweet wines. But the leaves of these generous vines are also prime eating. Grape leaves have a long history in much of the Mediterranean where grapes have been used as a staple for thousands of years — while folks in the Americas may not have realized their edible potential.

Grape leaves of all species can be eaten fresh, cooked, or fermented, all with different applications and flavors. Fresh grape leaves, usually the younger the better, can be slivered and added to salads for a bright, grapey-green, nearly citrus flavor. Cooked or fermented grape leaves are classic wraps for the famous stuffed leaves used as appetizers. Depending on the region, they may be called dolmades, dolma, sarma, warak eab, dolmadakia, and yaprak (to name a few). I take that multitude of names as a good sign grape leaves have had immense food value to millions of people throughout time.

If you’re harvesting grape leaves from vines you’ve planted, you’ll obviously be able to identify them correctly. If you’re foraging for them, make sure to familiarize yourself with the small handful of (kinda-sorta) look-alikes that also grow in the same areas. Though I find the smooth-margined leaves of toxic moonseed (Menispermum canadense) and the 5-parted leaves of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) to be immensely different from the various wild grapes, they are known to be misidentified by new foragers.

2. Mulberry LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

I’ve written extensively about these tasty-fruited trees in an earlier article, but I’ll recap for those who haven’t read it yet. In addition to their sweet, abundant fruits, all species of mulberry trees (Morus spp.) offer a bounty of leaves for both edible greens and tea. The new, lighter green leaves are the best pickings for munching because they’re far more tender than their fully matured counterparts. Though they’re edible raw, I prefer them cooked. And if you can’t find freshly grown leaves, you can always pick a heaping handful of them to dry as tea.

3. Blackberry LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

We like blackberries a lot here at Insteading. We have articles on growing domestic blackberries, foraging for wild brambleberries, and even fermenting the tasty fruits into sparkly, not-quite wine. The sweet fruits seem to hog the spotlight, however, which is a bit of a shame because the leaves are quite tasty, useful, and medicinal as well.

There’s a long tradition of eating fresh blackberry leaves. Appalachian mountain lore said that eating a mess of blackberry greens could tighten loose teeth in the gums. And if your teeth are firmly in place, the greens are still a great potherb to add to your wild foraged feast in the spring. You’ll want to pick the tender, new, light-green growth, as the thorns will have yet to harden and prickle. They’re so soft, you can easily harvest them by hand. Later in the year, you can still pick leaves of any maturity for tea, but you’ll find they bite back!

4. Okra LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

Had you any idea that okra leaves were a delicious edible green? I hadn’t, until I chanced upon this listing on the Baker Creek Seeds website for nikruma tenten okra, a traditional cultivar of the African plant. In addition to making those tender pods, this sky-high variety is also grown for its foliage as food. Okra leaves of all cultivars are a green that will need to be cooked rather than eaten raw, but it shines when added to curries, stews, and soups.

5. Sweet Potato LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

The name “potato” may scare you off, as many of us have been taught that all nightshade leaves are toxic (an untrue factoid I’ll be dealing with in the next point). But sweet potatoes are actually misnamed. They’re in the morning glory family and aren’t really nightshades to begin with. Their heart-shaped, vining leaves are surprisingly mild and hearty, making a wonderful addition to any stir-fry in the late summer, when any thoughts of spinach and kale have either bolted or been chewed into oblivion by cabbage worms. Though few in the United States have a habit of harvesting sweet potato leaves, bundles of the verdant edibles are often sighted in the open-air markets of Asia and Africa.

6. Tomato LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

I know that the very thought of eating any leaves in the so-called “toxic, deadly, nightshade” family might have some of you running for the hills. Gardeners or not, we have been taught since childhood that the foliage of nightshade plants are toxic, and we believed it. After all, they don’t offer tomato leaves in grocery stores, and there’s no listing for them in popular recipes, right? Well, we’ve been duped, and all of us are avoiding and wasting a huge, fresh bounty of tomato leaves because of bygone misinformation and fear.

Don’t believe me? Check out the links here, here, here, here, and here to get yourself more comfortable with the thought. I’m not the only one who says so, though I guarantee many readers will still be nervous about plucking a basket of tomato greens. Old habits die hard.

I can personally vouch that tomato leaves are tasty, edible, and mild — given their strong aroma. They are herbal and earthy, with a tomato-ness that leaves a pleasant aftertaste in the mouth. And given the abundantly lush vegetation that most tomato vines push out, it seems like an absolute crime to let the hornworms have it all.

7. All Brassica Family PlantsWren Everett // Insteading

The cultivars derived from Brassica oleracea have given us a huge array of delicious edibles: cabbages, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kohlrabi to name a few. And their close cousins in B. rapa and B. napus gave us root cellar staples like turnips and rutabaga. Since many of these plants are grown for their delicious, swollen stems or bulbs, the leaves are often ignored. But that’s a shame because all of their leaves are edible, and similarly delicious. This is helpful to know because sometimes a planting goes awry, and kohlrabi never develops a good bulb or cabbages fail to head. In these cases, you can still harvest the leaves and have some return for your efforts.

8. Some Legume LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

Since most of my legumes tanked in the drought this year, I write this from my reading, not from direct experience (next year). Some bean-family plants also offer edible greens. Notably, the feathery fronds of garbanzo beans (Cicer arietinum) can be eaten, as can the young shoots of peas (Pisum sativum) and the young shoots of cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata). I offer those tidbits of information for you to continue researching and experimenting on your own. I’ll be out with you next spring, trying these discoveries for the first time.

9. Amaranth LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

To some, wild amaranth (often called pigweed) is a noxious weed. To others, a gluten-free grain. Still others know it as a decorative plant sold under names like “love-lies-bleeding.” However you view it, this useful plant is more than a garden showpiece or a grain source. It’s a source of greens, too. Amaranth greens are at their best in the summer, as long as the potato beetles haven’t Swiss-cheesed them into oblivion. In Trinidad and Tobago, a popular dish of pureed and spiced okra and amaranth greens is called callaloo.

10. Sassafras LeavesWren Everett // Insteading

Sassafras leaves are a fun find in the forest. They’re the only tree in the United States with three distinctive leaf forms: simple, one lobe (like a mitten), and two lobes (like a mutant mitten). This intensely aromatic understory tree is often used as a trailside nibble, with surprisingly tasty fresh leaves that bear a striking flavor resemblance to a certain fruity, loopy cereal. The leaves are good for more than just hikes, though. They have been dried and ground into stew-thickening and enhancing powder for centuries. You may have heard of it as file powder — an essential gumbo ingredient. That olive green powder is pulverized and sifted sassafras leaves.

Now, some of you may have heard about health warnings that demonize sassafras because of purported carcinogenic compounds found in the roots. I’ve vented about the misleading nature of the FDA studies that prompted the warnings in my earlier article on forage-able teas here. For the sake of this article, I’ll save you the rant and assure you that safrole, the substance in question, is absent from the leaves.

So harvest leaves without fear and use them to add a certain “je ne sais quoi” to your soups and stews or to add a lemony, fruity lift to any tea.

I hope this list has given you some additional food for thought (and your dinner table). Did any of the plants in this list surprise you? Do you have any favorite recipes for these not-as-typical table fares? What surprising plants have I missed?

Homestead Stories: The Mighty Apple

Fri, 09/16/2022 - 17:09

Let’s talk about apples. Why apples?

Over the past year, I’ve gained insight and appreciation for apples: their history, as a life strategy, in new ways to eat them, and their associated health benefits. The goal of this article is to share this new found interest and recognition, and hopefully, pique similar feelings in others.

Most people I know have grown up with apples. They were a regular part of life. You see them in fruit bowls all across North America and other Western cultures. They are obviously very common, and for that reason, perhaps underappreciated. However, the fact that they are so common shows there is a lot of inherent appreciation for them. They are delicious, it’s undeniable. Not only are they tasty, they’re convenient and easy to grab and eat on the go. There’s no need for packaging and apples are hardy enough to avoid bruising when jostled in a backpack or lunchbox for a couple hours (and as I’ve found, a couple days). They stay good for a long time.

Related Post: 9 Tasty Apple Varieties You Should Try

They’re also easily prepared into a wide variety of yummy foods. From pies to oatmeal, apples go a long way. Over the centuries, many different apple varieties have emerged, and with that, every person’s individual tastes and preferences can be accounted for. More of a sweet person? Try honeycrisps or pink ladies. Not so much for the sweetness? Fuji or gala apples. How about sour? Granny smiths! There’s a flavor, color, and size for everyone.

I’ve liked apples my entire life, but my true appreciation didn’t start until after I began working on an organic farm, doing hard manual labor for 50 plus hours a week. I was exhausted, and quite frankly, constantly hungry. I had, and with no exaggeration, 2 to 3 apples every day with one constantly tucked in my backpack ready for my ravenous appetite. I began realizing just how delicious they were and actively craved them. I loved the crunchiness of each bite, how juicy a fresh apple can be, and the boost of energy I would obtain from them.

*Fun Fact: An apple gives you approximately the same amount of energy as a cup of coffee.

Now, after a summer love affair with apples, I was a little burnt out on them for a while. Then I read “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan and it was love all over again. If you haven’t read his book, I highly recommend it. Don’t let the title deter you as some “weird nature book.” It is a plant’s perspective of human history, and how we’ve worked for them as much as they’ve worked for us. Truly fascinating, and one of the plants covered was the apple. Much of the information I will be divulging here comes from that book.

The Modern-Day Apple’s Story

Did you know in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan there is an ancient forest of apple trees? The ancestor of our modern-day apples comes from the Tian Shan Mountains. A walk through this forest may not bring our familiar apple acquaintances to mind though, as these apples come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and textures from football shapes to round softballs, from crisp to mushy, pudding textures, and from purples and blues to black. 

You see, our familiar apple varieties are generally grown in large orchards. In these orchards are hundreds — if not thousands — of apple trees. What’s intriguing is that all these apple trees (if they are the same variety of apple) are genetically identical, and could be considered the same tree. Like one giant apple tree split into pieces. How could this be possible? And why do we grow apples this way?

Unlike many fruits and vegetables that I’m familiar with, the seeds an apple contains will likely not grow a tree that is similar to its parent. The seeds an apple produces are each genetically differentiated and grow to create a unique tree. It’s an apple tree’s evolutionary strategy to be the successful. 

Why would this help an apple tree’s offspring be more successful? Let’s say an apple tree produces 100 apples, and every apple contains six seeds. That’s 600 chances at extending the longevity of the species. Let’s say some of the apples fall off the tree, land directly below the tree or disperse a little distance. Let’s say some are picked off and eaten by various animals (birds, humans, raccoons, etc.) so the seeds are spread. The environment that the seeds end up in will likely not be the same as the parent trees and will not have the same success rate as the parent tree. Even the apple seeds that germinate below the parent tree will have a different microclimate because of shade level. 

With apple seeds being genetically different, it gives the apple tree the highest chance of reproductive success and survival. There are more chances at least one of the seeds will be resilient in the environment it ends up in. Therefore, to grow an apple tree that produces Fuji apples, it isn’t as simple as planting a Fuji apple seed. A Fuji apple seed could yield a tree that is similar to the parent tree. However, it’s more likely the apple tree would be very different, and contain a new variety of apples that the world hasn’t yet seen. From what I’ve read, it’s more common to produce bad tasting apples than good ones with this method.

Apple Orchard // The.loud.shadow, Flickr

So why do apple orchards all contain the same tree, genetically speaking? Because they have to in order to produce the varieties of apples that we humans have deemed delicious. Apple orchards all contain cloned apple trees that date back to the original parent tree. It’s fascinating to think about the apple you’re eating coming from a tree that’s hundreds of years old — but it’s true (mostly). Cloned apple trees come from grafting the parent tree onto the base of another apple tree. The fruit that it yields will always be the same from the scion grafting.

Now that we know a bit of the genetic background of the apple, let’s dive more into the history. Apples became widely distributed and grown across Europe. When European settlers began colonizing North America, a man called Johnny Appleseed came along with them. Johnny carried a large sack of apple seeds, and it’s said that he was seen floating down rivers in hollowed out logs, with his apple seeds sitting beside him on another log.

Johnny moved ahead of the settler’s colonization, finding prime land, creating clearings, and sowing his apple seeds. He did this nearly all across North America. He almost seems like more of a myth than a real person, as he was said to live inside hollowed out trees, go barefoot among the forests, and be well accepted and liked among Native Americans.

Johnny’s idea to plant apple seeds wasn’t for the purposes of having tasty apples to eat. Quite the contrary. He was planting for a future of distilling the apples and creating alcohol. Sadly, during the prohibition of alcohol in the States, many (if not all) Johnny’s original orchards were chopped down in protest of this intention. In truth though, it is how modern-day apples were brought to the states and became widely cultivated.

Moving past the apple’s rich history, we can dive into a few fun facts about health benefits and eating method.

Different Methods for Eating Apples

As most people know, apples are generally eaten around the core, either directly bitten or cut into nice even slices. Did you know that you can eat the entire apple, core and all? Me neither — until recently.

I mean, it does make perfect sense that you could eat the entire fruit, it’s just that no one does. A few years ago, I met several people who insisted on eating the entire apple. I wasn’t inspired and never tried it, not understanding the logic behind it apart from their adamant avoidance of food waste. To me though, the core of the apple was considered inedible, and couldn’t be food waste. To me, it wasn’t food. 

Earlier this year, I was working out in the field with a partner who would eat the entire apple. I never questioned her on it, and quietly sat by as she would politely ask me for my apple cores and devour them in front of me. My “leftovers” became her snack. I never questioned it, that is, until the day I finally did — ha!

My field partner told me the entire apple is edible, core and all. She informed me that the core of the apple actually holds the most nutritious parts of the fruit and is rich in probiotics that are good for your gut microflora. This does make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Of course the most nutritious part would be stored next to the seeds. It’s a preparation to help the longevity and success of the seedling tree. She said the common misconception that seeds contain cyanide is why people believe the core to be inedible. 

If you’re unfamiliar, cyanide is a poison that is toxic. The toxicity level depends on the form (i.e., gas, solid) and the amount present, but regardless, it is toxic. Apple seeds contain minute traces of cyanide as a defense mechanism and reproductive strategy. Only there is such a miniscule amount of cyanide present in the seeds of an apple that you would have to eat hundreds of seeds by the handful to poison yourself enough to be sick. 

But alas, because of the seeds containing cyanide, the entire core of the apple has been labeled as inedible to avoid any accidental poisoning. It’s really a bummer. People are throwing out a third of the edible fruit and missing out on the most valuable part, nutritionally speaking. 

I believe another reason people don’t tend to eat the core is because it’s chewy and can get lodged in your teeth. It definitely was a hindrance to my trying this method of eating apples. On top of that, the base of the apple (opposite to where the stem is located) always threw me off because I didn’t understand what that part was. It turns out, this is where the flower bud was that gave rise to the fruit forming. The little leaflets left over on the underside of the apple are the leftover pieces of the flower. That’s sort of sweet.

A month or so after my field job ended and I was no longer around my core-eating friend, I finally decided to try it myself. I was pleasantly surprised and can recall thinking over and over that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been eating apples like this my entire life. It really isn’t that big of a deal.

** If you choose to eat an apple this way, be sure to pick out the seeds.

The Many Uses of Sweetgrass

Fri, 09/09/2022 - 17:23

Sweetgrass, regarded as a sacred purification plant by indigenous people around the world, is a hardy, perennial grass that deserves a special spot in your homestead landscape if you are serious about cultivating medicinal plants. 

liz west // FLICKR

Many consider tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, and sage to be the four most powerful healing plants. Native to Eurasia and much of North America, the sweetgrass plant symbolizes growth and the cycle of life. The name, Hierochloe odorata, literally means “fragrant holy grass” and the vigorous, energetic plant has been regarded as holy, protected, and sacred worldwide everywhere it has been cultivated and reverently harvested.

Sweetgrass is used to carry prayers, for smudging, as incense, and for inclusion in protective amulets and sacred medicine bags. 

Native American cultures refer to sweetgrass as “the grass that never dies.” The aromatic plant retains its scent and spirit long after it is cut and dried. When moistened or burned, the intriguing perfume of the plant returns with full intensity. I love the pungent, vanilla-like smell of sweetgrass and have a thick braid hanging on my bedroom wall to attract good vibes and positive energy.

Sweetgrass Basketry and Crafts

Sweetgrass, also known as vanilla grass, Mary’s grass, buffalo grass, bison grass, bluejoint, Seneca grass, or holy grass, is used in the construction of coiled as well as woven baskets and braids. Hang a braid in the closet or stash it in a drawer with winter woolens to ward off moths and to keep clothes smelling fresh. 

Sweetgrass is fast becoming an integral ingredient in a variety of New Age healing modalities and in the herbal healing sciences. I am presently gathering materials for making smudge sticks. Sweetgrass, when combined with other healing herbs, creates a relaxing, cleansing, warm fragrance when burned in a smudging ritual or as a mind-calming incense. 

Claudia Daggett // FLICKR

If you are as intrigued with basketry and weaving as I am, sweetgrass is a wonderful natural material to incorporate into your projects. Sweetgrass is typically mixed with other materials such as birch bark or alder branches when formed into baskets. 

NativeTech.org notes “Trudie Lamb Richmond (Schaghticoke) spoke to a Mohawk basket-maker not long ago and asked her how she felt about weaving sweetgrass into her baskets. Sweetgrass is used by her people in their ceremonies and, like tobacco, is believed to have great power. It was used long ago in ceremonial baskets and continued to be important even in those times when basketmaking became more material and less spiritual. She told me she had thought about this meaning, and that was why she always talked to her baskets as she made them. She said that she asked forgiveness for having to sell the baskets but that she needed the money to survive. Using the sweetgrass would keep the baskets strong and alive, and she hoped that the people who bought them would appreciate their significance. The basket weaver explained that she never picked the grass without making a tobacco offering. Her people believe that you have to give something for everything you take; even a tobacco offering is an acknowledgment. That is the old way, our way (McMullen & Handsman 1987).”

Healing Properties of Sweetgrass

Tender, young stems of sweetgrass are braided with bearberry and red willow, then dried for use in ceremonial pipe-smoking. Sweetgrass smoke is an essential element of healing or talking circles. Sweetgrass purifies thoughts, cleanses the environment, and eliminates negative or harmful energies. Inhaling sweetgrass smoke helps relieve congestion and coughing and soothes the pain of a sore throat.

Sweetgrass, when dried and used as a tea, is also useful for healing sores in the mouth, relieving the pain of a toothache, and reducing fever. 

A word of caution: Sweetgrass has potentially toxic properties. Sweetgrass contains coumarin, an anticoagulant that gives the woody, herbaceous plant its characteristic sweet vanilla scent. 

Growing Sweetgrass Can Be Highly Profitable

Many homesteaders, whether for commercial or personal use, wish to cultivate their own sweetgrass plot. Just one solidly cultivated, fertilized, and tended acre can produce up to 4,000 pounds or two tons of dried leaves or approximately 40,000 braids. 

The current wholesale price of a wildcrafted sweetgrass braid is $2. Do the math. A single acre can produce $80,000 worth of braids per year, making sweetgrass one of the world’s highest-value legal field crops. Sweetgrass presents the potential for producing a substantial additional part-time homestead income. 

How to Grow a Sweetgrass GardenBryant Olsen // FLICKR

Choose an area in the homestead landscape where it can spread naturally. If you have the space, keep in mind that once planted, Sweetgrass, due to its extensive root system, is difficult to remove, and the area allocated will be permanently dedicated to sweetgrass production. 

EcoSeeds.com advises “Since the sweetgrass plant is clonal, spreading via its root system, means that sweetgrass plants may be among the oldest living organisms on the planet, perhaps each plant 100,000 plus years old, to tens of millions of years old, making the individual plant nearly immortal. When you replant sweetgrass in wildland areas on your property, you are planting for the ages.”

If you are limited in space or only wish to grow a small amount of sweetgrass for personal use, sweetgrass adapts well to container planting. Some varieties of sweetgrass, when planted in hanging containers, develop graceful stems over 40 inches long. 

The deep, creeping rhizomes of the sweetgrass plant spread vigorously, producing fruiting stems with small, short leaves, followed by long leaves that develop from basal offshoots. The slender, aromatic stems grow up to 30 inches tall from tough, creeping rhizomes. The leaves are rough-edged with a hairless, shiny underside. Stems are a deep purplish color at the base.

Sweetgrass presents tiny, inconspicuous cream-colored flowers from June through August. The stems wilt and shrivel soon after flowering. Although sweetgrass is also produced by seeds, seeds are typically infertile. A plot started from seed will take years to produce, while a plot started with plugs will produce within a few months. 

Preparing the Soil

Sweetgrass occurs naturally in low prairies, along shaded streambanks, in bogs, sloughs, near lakeshores, and in cool mountain meadows and marshes. Sweetgrass requires medium-wet soil. The fragrant grass grows best in rich, loose soil with at least six hours of sunlight daily. 

Sweetgrass is winter hardy, even in the Arctic. A cool-season circumboreal grass, sweetgrass flourishes throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Sweetgrass is found growing wild throughout the United States plant hardiness zones 1 through 7. 

Choose an open, sunny location away from other crops. Because sweetgrass puts down solid, deep roots, the plant is an excellent choice for stabilizing a bank or controlling erosion along a ditch line. Sweetgrass rhizomes form a thick, dense mat beneath the soil surface and can be a useful landscape tool when correctly used in the overall homestead landscape management plan. 

Plugs for Planting

Harvest wild sweetgrass plugs for planting or purchase plugs or plants online or from your local landscape nursery. When harvesting in the wild, always cut sweetgrass leaves. Do not pull the grass up by its roots. Respect the sacred plant, leaving the roots so the plant can grow the following season again. 

Planting Sweet-Smelling Sweetgrass

Cultivate the soil to break up dirt clods, removing rocks, roots, and debris. Add a generous application of organic fertilizer such as well-matured manure from herbivores: cows, pigs, goats, horses, chickens, lamas, sheep. Work into the soil and water well.

Separate plugs for planting from the individual rhizomes of a spreading parent plant. Place newly separated rhizomes in fertile topsoil in 8- inch pots. Place pots in the shade for a few weeks while new roots are established before planting in your sweetgrass plot. Keep rhizomes moist but not overly wet during the root development period. 

Plant sprouting plugs a foot apart. Keep sweetgrass plugs evenly moist as new roots develop. Sweetgrass is an extremely tough plant. The only thing that kills sweetgrass is drought, so keep the soil moist until plants are well-established and spreading. 

Weed and Feed

Weed your homestead sweetgrass plot twice a year. Do a spring weeding early in the season when it is easy to tell sweetgrass from other weeds and grasses. Weed again in midsummer. 

Fertilize sweetgrass plants monthly during the growing season, especially if you are frequently cutting during midsummer. Apply approximately 5 pounds of organic fertilizer per every 100 square feet harvested. Remember to make a tobacco offering when you harvest sweetgrass. 

How to Harvest Sweetgrass

Allow your sweetgrass plot to grow through the second season before cutting. Expect to harvest enough material for 1 to 3 braids per square foot. Although sweetgrass can be cut at any time, midsummer is the best time to harvest. Sweetgrass loses it fragrance after a frost, so harvest early. A solid, well-developed sweetgrass plot will yield approximately a pound of dried leaves (or about 40 braids) from a 12-foot square patch.

When harvesting, grasp a clump of sweetgrass leaves firmly near the soil and simply cut the stems away from the root. The easiest way to dry sweetgrass is to lay it on newspapers in the sun. Stack sweetgrass no thicker than an inch and turn once an hour until dry. On a warm, low-humidity day, leaves will dry for storage within 4 to 6 hours. Braid sweetgrass when nearly dry when it is still pliable and soft. 

Store dried sweetgrass in extra-large plastic storage bags to retain freshness and fragrance. 

References:

Feel-Better Remedies and Recipes for Sick Days

Wed, 09/07/2022 - 17:55

You first feel it with that tickle in the back of your throat. Maybe you ignore it. Maybe you pretend to ignore it because you have things to do — then by evening, the tickle feels like someone took sandpaper to your trachea. Your head is pounding, and you feel chilled.

It’s obvious you’re coming down with a cold, you feel a flash of resentment toward that friend who said they had a touch of allergies. It looks like you caught their “allergies” and you’re not feeling good.

Wren Everett // Insteading

When you’re feeling awful, especially when there are gardens, animals, or other family members to care for, taking care of yourself can be tough. Sure, you can swallow some unnatural cocktail of OTC pills or disorienting, bright-colored syrups, and force yourself back to work, but that’s not always the best course of action.

Some of us aren’t content to rely on chemicals that merely mask our symptoms when natural and effective home remedies are waiting on the pantry shelf.

Now, it should go without saying that these are fixes for every day, feel-bad bugs, and recipes and advice from some random stranger online — not your doctor or a trained herbalist. All these methods should either help you or, at the very least, do no harm, but they come with no concrete guarantees. Please use good sense and judgment when it comes to natural health care and be willing to ask for medical help for serious situations.

9 Recipes and Remedies to Consider

So here are some recipes and natural remedies that I’ve come to rely on when coughs, runny noses, and fevers raise their ugly heads.

Not-From-a-Packet Ramen-ish SoupWren Everett // Insteading

Real ramen soup is so much more than a hyper-salted, cuboid, hunk-o-noodles consumed at odd hours in a college student’s night. There are hundreds of recipes and ingredients out there for the true ramen seeker. That said, this is absolutely not a traditional recipe, but it’s one I’ve created based on materials I can reasonably acquire in the Ozarks. It has served me well on many a sick day. Maybe you can take inspiration and come up with your own ramen-ish recipe.

If you yourself are under the weather, this dish will likely be too involved to prepare. But if you live with someone who loves you, they may be compelled to whip up this nutritious and comforting soup to help you recover.

Noodles
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
Broth

One-half gallon broth, thinned with 3 cups water if desired. It’s always nice to have canned or frozen broth on hand for sick weeks. Bone broth, chicken broth, goose broth, goat broth, beef broth, or vegetable broth are all good options.

Mix-ins
  • 1 carrot, julienned
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 1-2 cayenne peppers, thinly sliced
  • Finely slivered ginger
  • Finely minced garlic
  • Meat (as an option, stewed and shredded beef or chicken works well)
  • Soy sauce
  • Chili oil (optional)
  1. Mix noodle ingredients. The dough should feel a bit stiff, but if it’s crumbly, add small amounts of water until it holds. Form to a ball and set aside for at least 10 minutes (30 minutes would be better).
  2. In a large pot, add ginger, garlic, cayenne peppers, meat (if raw), carrots, and onions. Saute in a bit of oil until meat is cooked and the mix is fragrant, then add broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add soy sauce to taste.
  3. Using a pasta maker, turn dough into wide, thick noodles. I usually only work mine to setting 4, then cut it into linguine shapes. If you have no pasta machine, roll the dough as thin as you can and cut informal strips. Who cares how imperfect they are? We’ve got sick people to feed.
  4. Add fresh noodles to the simmering pot. They should cook completely and float within five minutes or so.
  5. Serve in steaming bowls, topped with a decorative drizzle of chili oil.
  6. Pass out on the couch, under your comfiest blanket.
Super Simple Miso SoupWren Everett // Insteading

If there is no soup maker to be found but yourself, miso soup is simple to make and truly comforting to sip. If you can get yourself upright and can boil water, you can make this soothing sippable in five minutes from pantry staples (if you have the right staples, that is).

Wren Everett // Insteading
  • White or red miso (make sure non-GMO soybeans were used)
  • Seaweed of your choosing (wakame is delicious, but a little pricey. Laver seaweed, often sold in large, dehydrated rounds, is a dependable standby).
  • Firm tofu (optional)
  • Slivered ginger
  • Minced garlic
  • Black pepper to taste
  1. Bring water to a boil.
  2. In a bowl, dissolve one tablespoon miso paste (it will look and feel like peanut butter) with a bit of hot water, stirring until it liquefies. Add more water until the broth is the consistency and flavor you want (more water makes for less salty soup).
  3. Add a few pinches of dried seaweed, slivered ginger, cubed tofu, and black pepper.
  4. Allow to sit five minutes, then enjoy, as best as your congested sinuses will let you.
Congee/Juk/Rice PorridgeWren Everett // Insteading

This thin rice gruel is basically overcooked rice, but when it’s hard to swallow most other food, it can be a lifesaver. Often used in cultures across the Asian world as an easy-to-digest food for invalids, it can help keep your boat afloat until the sun starts to shine again. It’s not traditional to use brown rice for this recipe, and it does extend the cooking time, but it’s worth it for the added nutrition.

  • 3/4 cup brown rice
  • 7-9 cups water (the more water, the creamier the end result)

Combine ingredients in a large stock pot, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer as long as you can — the longer the better, stirring occasionally. The whole goal is for the rice to completely break down into a gentle, easy-to-sip porridge. Some recipes call for nine hours of simmering, but you can start dipping out bowlfuls after two or so. It’ll be bland, but when everything makes you feel ill, that may be precisely what you want. Season with a bit of salt or a drizzle of maple syrup, if desired, but don’t push yourself.

Thyme, Fennel, and Cayenne TeaWren Everett // Insteading

Thyme helps with infection and is good for coughs and sore throats. Fennel soothes stomach upset and lends a natural sweetness, and cayenne is a pain reducer full of immunity-supporting vitamins A and C. This is one of my favorite teas for the colds that come with those annoying, never-leave coughs.

Combine 1 part thyme to 1 part fennel (try a teaspoon of each) with a pinch of cayenne, and steep in boiling water for 15 minutes. Drink freely, sweetened with honey if desired, especially if you’re experiencing coughing fits.

Lemon Balm and Yarrow TeaWren Everett // Insteading

Lemon balm is a calming herb with strong antiviral properties, and tastes delicious, while yarrow is traditional, yet bitter-tasting fever-reducer. When combined, lemon balm can help override yarrow’s flavor, giving you something to sip while waiting for a fever to run its course. It won’t be a pleasant tea, but it can be effective.

Combine 1 part lemon balm to 1 part yarrow leaf and flower (try 1 or 2 tablespoons of each for starters). Steep with a quart of boiling water for 30 minutes. Sweeten with honey if desired, and sip by the cupful every half hour until the fever breaks.

Lemon and Honey Tea

This combination is a classic, but for good reason: It works. The honey coats and soothes the throat, and the bright acidity of the lemon gives you both a boost of vitamin C and balances the syrupy sweetness of the honey.

  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 cup of hot water

Mix all the ingredients in a mug. Sip, curled up in sniffly misery, watching your favorite cartoons. Don’t worry, none of us will judge you.

Mustard Poultice/Plaster

This is an old-fashioned remedy from before the Victorian era, when herbal medicine was still practiced by many households in the British countryside. It’s a good treatment to turn to when a chest-congested cough is keeping you from sleeping at night.

Mix 1 part ground mustard seed (you can either grind it yourself from whole seeds or buy the powder from the grocery store in the spice section) to 3 to 4 parts flour (the more flour added, the weaker the poultice will be — adjust for sensitive skin). I typically do a tablespoon mustard powder to 3 tablespoons flour.

Add enough warm water to make a thick paste. This will be spread on the chest and back.

Prepare the upper chest and upper back in line with the lungs, with a light coating of olive oil. Spread the mustard paste directly on the skin, then lay a handkerchief across the paste. Wrap around the entire chest and under the arms with an ace bandage or length of safety-pinned cheesecloth to hold the whole thing in place. It may feel a bit squishy and odd, but when you find that the chest congestion starts to break up and give you relief, you may stop questioning it and fall asleep.

Onions on Feet

Onions? On feet? I know this one sounds weird, but it’s a traditional method for reducing fever that both old-time Appalachian hill folk and herbalists like Richo Cech depend on, and one that I’ve personally seen work. Slice up fresh onions, apply them liberally and directly to the feet of a feverish person, then put on two pairs of socks to hold them in place. This is best employed at night, when the poor sickie wants to sleep and isn’t planning on walking around.

Rest and Water

You’ll hopefully notice a trend with the recommendations in this article: When you’re sick, you need to stay hydrated and not overexert yourself. All these treatments are a variation on that theme. So whether you use herbal treatments regularly or think they’re a load of hooey, there’s no denying the restorative effects of getting off your feet and drinking a lot of water until the sickness abates.

Resources

Most of the herbal combinations in this article are my own formulations, but they are informed by my experience and from the following resources:

Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech

Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs, A Beginner’s Guide by Rosemary Gladstar

Herbal Medicine by Dian Dincin Buchman

Homestead Applications for Bamboo

Fri, 09/02/2022 - 17:24

For centuries, bamboo has been considered one of the most useful plants on the planet.

Without bamboo, life would be radically different for people who rely on it as a food source, medicine, fuel, and building material; over half of Earth’s human population!

The Versatility of Bamboo

Throughout Asia, bamboo has long been prized for its versatility and abundance. As a building material, bamboo is stronger than steel, with a tensile strength of 28,000 per square inch (compared to a tensile strength of 23,000 for steel). More than a billion people worldwide reside in bamboo houses. Bamboo buildings have proven to be remarkably earthquake-proof.

Bamboo is as soft as it is strong. Fabric woven from bamboo fibers is incredibly comfortable. Bed linens and yoga attire made from bamboo are luxurious, durable, and fashionable. Once you try bamboo socks, you will never want socks made from any other fiber.

Throughout history, bamboo has also played a prominent role in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Bamboo contains germanium, which is useful in reversing the aging process in cells.

Delicate and tender bamboo shoots add crunch, fiber, and flavor to Asian cuisine. Bambusa oldhamii is a low-growing variety that can serve as a dense privacy hedge. Harvest the tender, fresh shoots. They are sweet and delicious in salads and stir-fry dishes. The leaves and branches of all varieties of bamboo are utilized as animal fodder. There is no part of the bamboo plant that does not have a use or purpose.

Benefits of Bamboo on Your Homestead

Around the homestead, bamboo can play an integral role in wildlife and domestic livestock management, nutrient management, erosion control, and waste management. Fact: In the southeastern United States, bamboo is recognized as the highest yield native pasture plant. This insect-resistant plant is an exceptional source of crude protein, calcium, and phosphorus.

Nutritional

Bamboo provides highly nutritious, low-maintenance grazing for cattle as well as food and shelter for wildlife. Bamboo withstands drought, flooding, and fire, adding to its stellar reputation as a stable source of forage for herbivores like wild pigs, rabbits, bears, and deer.

Sustainable

One of the most potent natural weapons in the war against global warming, bamboo produces more oxygen than any other plant, consumes as much as 30 percent more carbon dioxide than other plants, and aids in cleansing the ecosystem by removing toxins and heavy metals from water and soil.

Bamboo is prolific, reaching mature size in one season. It differs from other grasses in that it produces stout, hollow-jointed stems with a diameter of 3 to 5 inches. Ranging from 2 to 25 feet in height at maturity, bamboo is by far the largest and tallest grass native to North America.

A “green” plant, bamboo is sustainably harvested and renewable annually. A mature stand of bamboo produces new shoots and canes every year. The new growth can then be harvested individually without damaging the parent plant, making it one of the most sustainable crops worldwide. Bamboo can be harvested with no need to replant. New growth will manifest from the root mass; the root system is left intact when bamboo is harvested.

Winter Hardy

A great many varieties of bamboo are cold hardy to well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Prolonged cold spells and harsh winter winds may do some damage to foliage. However, the root mass will survive the severe cold, even if the more tender culms die back to the soil line. The many types of groundcover bamboo flourish in United States plant hardiness zones 2 through 9.

Umbrella bamboo (Fargesia murielae) is a beautiful clumping variety, hardy down to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. New shoots have a lovely light blue color, which turns a deep green and golden yellow with age. Presenting thin canes that grow to be about 12 feet tall, this variety does best in the deep shade, which helps preserve its rich blue hue.

Bamboo especially loves damp, boggy areas and can be useful in preventing soil erosion in regions prone to heavy rains and overcast, gray days.

Landscaping With Ornamental Bamboo

When it comes to fencing and privacy, no plant does a better job than bamboo. Did you know that some varieties of bamboo grow as much as 3 to 4 feet a day? These varieties also send out vigorous, spreading roots with new shoots popping up daily. If you are attempting to control erosion on a steep hillside or build an impenetrable privacy barrier around your property, aggressive spreading is a positive characteristic of the plant.

Quick-growing, running bamboo, when properly sited and controlled, is an effective deer-resistant fence or border screen, or an eye-catching formal accent in the garden. Unfortunately, many people plant bamboo without understanding its nature. Bamboo doesn’t respect property boundaries or fences. If your bamboo planting spreads to your neighbor’s property, you may have to pay for removal.

Bamboo Varieties

Did you know that ornamental bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the world? It’s also one of the most diverse plants with over 1500 species. Bamboo, a member of the grass family, has a hollow stem and evidences rapid growth. The fast-growing shoots of some tropical species grow up to 4 feet every day in their shooting season. Bamboo proliferates, reaching mature size in just one season.

Blue Fountain Bamboo

Presenting dark purple and blue-gray culms, blue fountain bamboo, an easy-to-grow variety in the Phyllostachys genus, is extremely cold, hardy, clumping, disease, and drought resistant and offers a beautiful appearance, which makes it one of the most utilized landscape varieties of bamboo.

Red Margin Bamboo

Producing beautiful deep green canes with enlarged nodes, red margin bamboo (Phyllostachys rubromarginata) is another popular ornamental bamboo with landscape contractors, flourishing in United States plant hardiness zones 4 through 9. This bamboo is cold hardy, fast-growing, produces a dense grove, grows to about 18 to 20 feet at maturity, and generates striking red margins along the edge of the narrow leaves.

Tsutsamiana

Tsutsumiana, part of the Pseudosasa japonica genus, is a shorter bamboo, excellent for pot or container planting. It requires plenty of moisture and good drainage. Known as green onion bamboo because the culms become swollen on mature plants, it is a leafy Japanese type of bamboo that thrives in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 10.

Sasa Veitchii

Valued for its striking contrast of color, Sasa veitchii is a low-growing groundcover bamboo that presents deep green leaves that develop white and silver margins as the plant matures and weather temps cool. Shear it to the ground in early spring to reveal a carpet of fresh new growth. This attractive variety does best in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 10.

Taiwan giant (Dendrocalamus latiflorus), java black (Gigantochloa atroviolacea), and balcooa (Bambusa balcooa) — a vigorous variety from India — are all excellent choices when it comes to choosing timber bamboo. Young timber bamboo makes strong and flexible fishing poles, while more mature canes are used to build strong and durable fences and corrals. At full maturity, giant canes are harvested for construction.

Some Things to Keep in Mind

Fast-growing varieties in the Phyllostachys, Shibataea, Pseudosasa, Sasa, or Pleioblastus groups are types of running bamboo that can become a nuisance unless you can give them plenty of room to grow. Golden bamboo, is one of the most beautiful and fastest-growing types of bamboo, but it is not appropriate for many applications. If space is limited, consider clumping plants, which are much easier to manage.

Talk to your landscape contractor for recommendations if you are considering planting a bamboo grove in your home landscape. There are two basic types of bamboo: aggressive running and slower-growing clumping. Running bamboo can become very invasive. This is a positive feature in some gardening applications such as controlling erosion on a steep bank, but can present a problem in others.

You may wish to incorporate several different species of bamboo in your yard. There are so many different species with variations in shading, leaf width, cane width, and height at maturity. Go online. Do the research, and you will find the varieties of bamboo that are ideal for your gardening requirements.

While there are endless reasons to plant bamboo, there are also some pretty good reasons not to. Without doing the research to determine the variety of bamboo most suitable for their property, or considering bamboo’s hardy nature or rapid growth, some property owners have created a landscaping nightmare rather than a creative, sustainable, attractive solution to a homestead management issue. It can be a problematic plant in some landscape applications. Advice: Consult a professional.

References

11 Plants To Consider For Fall Planting

Wed, 08/31/2022 - 17:52

As mentioned in an earlier article, this summer, rife with a serious drought and unrelenting heat waves, kicked my garden’s collective butt.

Even though I did my best to distribute the precious cache of off-grid water, it largely did no good. I learned this year (the hard way) that plants simply shut down when temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and watering will have little effect. So there were no beans, no pumpkins, just a handful of okra pods too tough to eat, and I’ve only now (mid-August) started getting my first tomatoes. As a friend who also gardens in the Ozarks somewhat helplessly put it “I’ve been growing seeds for next year. There’s been no harvest.”

Wren Everett // Insteading

I haven’t thrown in the towel on this year, however. Not by a long shot. With rain drumming the roof and the drought officially over on my land (hooray), there’s still time for fall planting and a late fall harvest.

If you’re used to having a planting bonanza on Memorial Day and calling the garden done, you’re in for a surprise. Several harvests can be reaped from a food plot. The garden can be as full of life in October as it was (or should have been) in July. If you’ve never tried planting for fall, I’ll open your eyes to this not-so-secret way of keeping the garden growing nearly all year long.

Fall Planting Premise

The basic premise of fall planting: Plant cold-tolerant seeds mid-summer (usually in late July or early August), protect the seedlings through the last of the season heat waves, then reap the benefits as they proliferate in the cooling fall temperatures. Depending on the plants selected, you may be able to start harvesting new crops as early as September, and often in to the first snows.

Fall planting has several benefits beyond the obvious food bonus. Most insect pests are at their worst during late spring and early summer. By the time fall rolls around, their offensive attacks have petered out, leaving your garden in relative peace. Additionally, the peak growing season of weeds and grass is during the summer, meaning you’ll be weeding your fall garden a whole lot less than the spring or summer plantings. Finally, depending on your climate, you may be able to overwinter fall plants. If they’re biennials, they’ll reward protective mulching efforts with a small, super-early spring harvest, as well as providing the chance to grow and collect seeds from any heirloom plants.

That’s an overview however. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what plants do well when summer’s winding down.

Some Plants to Consider

The variety of plants you can slip in the ground mid-summer is surprisingly wide, and more diverse than the sample listed here. I’ve listed plants that I’ve personally fall-sown in my zone 6b garden (ensuring experience-based advice on them). Check out this customizable planting calendar from almanac.com for more options that may be suited to your garden and growing zone.

Kale

I have had such success with fall planting kale that I never plant it in the spring anymore. My spring plants always get destroyed by bleep-de-bleep cabbage worms, but my fall plants are left unmolested. Furthermore, they’re excellent candidates for overwintering. They put on a burst of growth once the ground thaws, giving you a bonus crop of leaves well before the cabbage butterflies emerge from the bowels of hell (where I assume they spend the winter with the hornworms and squash bugs). I usually plant kale in September or October.

Peas

Peas are a bit of a gamble in my warmer weather garden, but they do grow if they’re given a steady supply of water to get them through the last handful of hot days. It’s always hard, however, to watch their beautiful vines get snowed on and destroyed in the end.

Winter Radishes

Daikon and other winter radishes aren’t your typical salad types. They grow as big as a turnip, and have a decent storage life in the root cellar. I plant them in August so they have enough time to really develop to mature size. They can be overwintered, but be sure to clip all their green leaves before the first threat of frost — enjoy them as stir-fried greens instead of letting them wilt away into black mush. Some roots will overwinter (I’ve had the best results with daikon radishes), but not all. It’s probably best to plan on harvesting all your radishes before the ground freezes to be safe.

Seedling daikon, hedged in by corn and melons – Wren Everett // InsteadingBok Choy

This lightning-quick growing cabbage is a great candidate for the fall garden. Baby types can be ready in as little as 25 days, giving you mouth-watering greens almost as fast as a salad radish in the spring. Just be sure to plant your tasty cache in a place safe from rabbits. Though the insect-type pests have abated, the furry types never go away.

Wren Everett // InsteadingCabbage

Cabbages are usually started indoors in more favorable conditions than the blazing outdoor temperatures of late summer. Started plants can be slipped into the garden around mid-July or August, but they’ll need a bit of care. Some folks plant them in a garden area that gets shade during part of the day, or install shade cloths above their delicate, first few leaves. Give your cabbages a bit of extra TLC during the last of the sweaty days, and they’ll reward your efforts. As a bonus, after harvesting cabbage heads, leave the stump in the ground, surrounded by a crown of leaves. The root will remain, even after the head is severed, regrowing delicious, tasty leaves through the rest of the late fall and again in the spring.

Amaranth

This is an unusual entry in this list, as amaranth is not a cold-tolerant plant in the slightest. It is a lightning-quick grower, however, and can reach seed maturity in as little as 90 days. Plant the small amaranth seeds in mid-July, and you’ll be able to harvest one last batch of grain before the frost kills it. The leaves are edible, too, so if the plant gets killed by early cold, you could have some hearty stir-fries beforehand.

Wren Everett // InsteadingLettuce

Lettuce wilts and withers in the heat of the summer. But come cooler times, it can happily take up residence again. Instead of heading types, I recommend planting quick-growing oakleaf once the weather cools for certain. Plant lettuce too early and it’ll bolt.

Leigha Staffenhagen / InsteadingTurnips

After my turnips survived this summer’s drought, I have a renewed respect and admiration for these spicy, good-for-storage roots. I would say to plant them at the end of August, but after seeing them grow in 100 plus temperatures, maybe we should experiment more with planting them successively through the year. As with the winter radishes, be sure to harvest their deliciously edible greens before the first hard frost. The roots will keep in the ground all winter long.

Turnips Juuuust Getting started – Wren Everett // InsteadingRutabaga

With edible, cabbage-like leaves and those creamy, sweetish, long-lasting roots, rutabaga should really be more popular at the dinner table. I can never get enough of them. I usually plant rutabaga around the same time as my turnips, but make sure they’re in a more protected place. Rabbits nibble their leaves with annoying persistence.

Beets

With chard-like leaves and those wonderfully earthy, sweet roots, beets are my favorite two-for-one vegetable. Plant them as summer begins to wane, and depending on the variety, you can begin harvesting in as little as 55 days. With weeds slowing down, keeping your beet beds clean will be far easier than it was in the spring.

Wren Everett // InsteadingGarlic

Technically, you won’t get a fall harvest from fall planted garlic, but fall is the time to get cloves in the ground, so I figured it was worth mentioning. I usually plant mine around late September, mulching them with fury. The tiny, green shoots of new growth will emerge before the frost kills off the nightshades, and they’ll hang out pretty much all winter until they weather warms again. Seeing those leafy green spears, however diminutive, always cheers my spirits after the killing frost wipes out the summer plants. Having garlic sleeping in the garden all winter keeps it from feeling dead and abandoned.

Wren Everett // Insteading

So there’s a starter list, and hopefully, it’s enough to pique your interest for slipping seeds in the soil long after Memorial Day. To those of you endured drought-killed gardens, I hope that fall brings you a new chance for harvest and a bit of green growing encouragement to boot. And for those with a growing interest in extending their growing season, I heartily recommend Eliot Coleman’s book “Four-Season Harvest.” This excellent book is full of season-stretching ideas and tips from a gardener in chilly Maine who is able to harvest fresh green food from his land all year long.

Is anyone else revamping their gardens for the fall? Do you have a different list of go-to plants once the summer has wound down? Anyone else love rutabaga like I do? Or is the idea of planting for the fall and winter a totally new concept for you? Sound off in the comments below!

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