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Archive for February, 2009

seed-packs

(Shown above:  homemade seed packets in various stages of completion)

It’s that time again…to pull out the seeds (or order more!), and to do some cleaning out of some of the clutter that’s collected during the winter season in anticipation of Spring’s arrival!

If you’re like me, you may find yourself with some odds and ends you’d prefer not to throw out, and might be too nice to compost…but what to do with them?

materials2

A lot of the paper goods can be turned into your own homemade seed packets.  It’s really easy and is something nearly anyone can enjoy assembling during a little down time.

You make them as plain or fancy as you like, from whatever materials are on hand.  I’ve heard of some of the nicer ones being used as favors at baby showers, or as favors for guests at weddings.  With a little imagination, the possibilities are endless!

Mine are pretty homespun compared to some because I’m using what’s collected in my desk for some time…greeting cards I’m reluctant to part with (and the envelopes they came in),  junk mail reply envelopes, the odd thank you card or other card that is missing its envelope, or vice versa…the odd-sized envelope missing its card.  Then there are the favorite magazines, especially the older seed catalogs from last year, with those gorgeous color pictures that are a shame to throw away.

There are some innovative ways to cut and fold…and there are a lot of resources online for customized packets.  Just Google it under “Make Your Own” and you’ll see templates and origami folds.  For myself, a good glue stick, some inexpensive clear tape, and a pair of scissors will suffice for now.

I prefer to have one side that can be clearly labeled, with the option of the back of the packet being clear enough to write specific planting instructions  (optional…for some, I don’t need to get that specific).  I also have a rubber stamp and ink pad for envelopes or paper lacking much design.

For full pages that I want to cut up, I simply make a business letter fold, and then slice that into sections the size I want for packets.  I seal the individual sides with clear tape or stick glue and leave the little flap at the top open till sealing the seeds inside.

seed-catalogs

Something I found I like to use for labels is just that…labels.  Printer label sheets, after being printed, often have one or two blank labels left at the bottom.  Even if that is not so, those sheets of computer labels that have already been printed and removed still leave behind borders of blank peelable label stock that can be trimmed up with scissors just to the right size for adhering to the front of the seed packets.

Old used envelopes (canceled stamps and old addresses included!) can be turned inside-out and then sliced into the right size packets as well…no one is going to be paying attention to what’s printed inside the packet.  It’s just another way to get another use from a perfectly good envelope that would otherwise be thrown away.  Paper grocery bags or brown wrap paper would be great, as well.

old-envelopes

Shown in an above photo are various materials I used to assemble seed packets.  The pictures of the packets show them in different stages of completion, but you get the idea.

The nice thing about this is the range of possibilities, and the fun it can be to think ahead to gift-giving.  Giving seeds to those who will use and appreciate them is always wonderful, but with homemade seed packets, they can be personalized in so many ways and tailored to the recipient.  Children can get in on this, too…I can’t think of anything I’d love better than children’s art designed for or recycled to make these types of packets.   Drawings, watercolors, coloring book pages colored in, finger paints, ink stamps, fun stickers, magic markers, glitter, real leaves rolled in ink and used to make imprints…what fun!  Calligraphers could have free rein, too…different styles would be pretty…vintage, grunge, modern art, geometrics, stripes, polka dots.  Non-adhesive (no paste on back) wallpaper discards would be great, as well.  Post cards would make stunning ones, and packets can also be cut into various shapes and sizes.

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If I ever made these with a business logo on them, I’d probably opt to take a bit more time and cut the packet from a template with uniform folds.  But since I’m not there yet, the variety and uniqueness of these more homespun ones will serve me just fine in the meantime 🙂

Got some odds and ends on hand?  Feel like cutting up?  It’s nice having a stash of your own seed packets on hand to save…and to share!

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Originally published by Gina

chowchowFebruary, according to many American Indian cultures, is known as Full Hunger Moon. At this point in winter, at least in many locations, hunting and foraging would have been difficult due to adverse weather conditions. It was also the time that homesteaders’ winter food stores reached their half-way point or were nearly gone. Even though the starvation would have been a dismal outcome, it is the last full moon before the moons of more plenty begin to bring a fresh bounty.

This year has been a difficult one for my family. No, we aren’t limited to daily hunting and foraging (yet), but we have had to reduce our expenses to nearly nothing. We are fortunate to have food stashed away and we will not experience the hunger pains of the February moon. All of my careful planning and preparations from the prior year are being used now and are helping us through this recession, depression, or call it what you will.

I have yet to tackle actual formal meal planning (I’ve had that goal on the list for a couple of years now ;), but I am using every last bit of food in the meals I cook. Because I am not following a “go shop, then cook” methodology, I have found myself staring at the colorful jars of canned food, mentality checking off foods that are not “typical” and dreaming up concoctions I never would have dreamed of combining before this episode in history.

Case-in-point: The other night I cooked a couple of chickens. I decided to make two since the oven was already on and I knew I could use the chicken in many different ways. I am limited to what I have on hand since one of my New Year’s goals was to only shop for food and essentials quarterly at the season changes and only buy what I can’t produce myself. In fact, relatively speaking, since the spring shopping trip is another five weeks out and the garden only a dream under the snow, we are in our version of Full Hunger Moon.

Here is an example of three meals created from the two chickens (both small roosters we butchered last fall):

Dinner 1: Roasted chicken, baked potatoes and a jar of green beans.

Dinner 2: I used some of the chopped up chicken, stir-fried it briefly in olive oil, added spices, and then threw in a jar of chow chow* (recipe follows for chow chow). I served it over cooked jasmine rice (from the food stores). I also used the extra rice to make rice pudding.

Dinner 3: Slow Cooker Enchiladas. I have to give Lisa at The Zahn Zone credit for this one. Basically you layer corn tortillas, sauce, shredded chicken, cheese, sauce, tortillas…onward three times or so. She used ground beef (which would be yummy), I substituted chicken. The sauce was a Mexican tomato sauce I made this summer from our own tomatoes and the cheese came from the last shopping trip up in the Amish community. Next year I hope to grow the corn for the tortillas.

Even though many things have been challenging of late, I know we are eating as self-sufficiently as possible, relying on some of the careful planning we managed the past year and this feels good. We are being self-reliant on our own creativity to not waste the food that is keeping us healthy and full-bellied even in these lean times.

If you are stuck on an idea for a dinner and, like me, you find yourself staring at a wall of preserved or stored foods, try something a little different. The chow chow chicken and rice was delicious. Had I not been faced with using what I have on hand, I probably would have never combined these two foods.

Oh, in case you were wondering, “chow chow” is a type of relish loved and mastered by the Pennsylvania Dutch (or Amish as we call them here). It consists of all the last bits and pieces from an Indian summer or fall garden: cauliflower, green beans, zucchini, carrots, cabbage, or whatever your garden has to offer!

Chow Chow

Variety of vegetables (I used green beans, green tomatoes, zucchini, cabbage, carrots, cucumber, green peppers)

Spices (celery seed, mustard seed, pickling spices)

2 QT water

¼ c. salt

2 c. sugar

2 c. vinegar

  1. Soak chopped vegetables in salt and water overnight.
  2. Rinse vegetables in morning.
  3. Combine veggies, spices, sugar, and vinegar.
  4. Heat to boil.
  5. Pack into sterilized jars and process.

You can use this as a side dish, relish or a cooking ingredient. There are many different chow chow (or End-of-the-Season Relish) recipes out there. I’m sure they are all good with chicken.

*Also known as End-of-the-Season Relish

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Lets talk about drills this time as we enter back into our power tool foray, with an added side of hammers and nails for those of you without a drill. I will not compare them directly to each other since most people have a pretty good idea of why they want one or the other but I will touch on a few pointers for choosing and using drills and hammers.

Before we talk about the actual tools…lets discuss a few things to consider when choosing screws versus nails which also helps with the drill versus hammer issue.
Will you take it apart? Much easier to take out a screw than a nail. Or how about these situations: Tight corners and narrow spots. A tight corner or narrow spot is much easier to drill in than to hammer in. Do you have something warped—over time a nail might be pulled out but a screw usually sticks for the duration. On the other hand I do like nails much better than screws, specifically shanked nails, for areas where livestock will be. A nice shanked nail is a booger to remove (a real booger!)—which means livestock also have trouble with it. In my garden too—I have had screws back out of things like trellising—but shanked nails stick. Though screws have their place in the garden and barn too. I think experience just kind of helps you with your choice. Sometimes it’s just a matter of what I have that is the correct length. Since I would prefer not to go into a long dissertation about nails here’s a link on choosing nails and screws—and yes, understanding the pros and cons of both nails and screws and the differing types/styles that are sold will help you do a better job (this link is not an intentional plug for Lowes)
http://www.lowes.com/lowes/lkn?action=howTo&p=BuyGuide/ChsFastnrNailScrew.html
Basically buy the correct style and length – it will make your job and life much simpler.

So, on to drills.
When choosing your drill the first thing you will want to consider is corded or cordless. Though there can be a large price difference between the two styles do give it a bit of thought beyond just price. A drill is a very handy tool and once you learn all the ways to use it—you will use it. A lot.
Obviously one thing to consider about this issue would be: How far will you be from electricity?
I know it seems like a simple question since my chicken coop without electricity and is about 400 yards from my house pops to mind — but think of this other example: When your hanging a curtain rod do you want to hassle with extension cords while standing on a 6 foot ladder 8 feet from the closest wall plug? Even 15 ft of cord will be stretched out pretty well in this situation. Most drills don’t have very long cords — so pay attention to length (it will say) –and consider whether it will annoy you. I personally hate extension cords. So that is one consideration for me and, though not the entire reason, why we have a cordless drill. Actually we own a cordless and a corded and constantly use both.

Another decision, whether you have decided on cordless or corded, is size. It is classified as voltage for cordless and amps for corded. We had a cordless drill many eons ago—when they were not very powerful and weighed a ton. Now however they have much higher voltage drills that can pretty much compete with corded drills in the power aspect and the batteries are not quite as heavy. They also are more efficient in their use of batteries so the charge last longer and is “more powerful” seeming while it is in use compared to cordless drills of say…. 10 years ago. They can still weigh a lot if you buy a larger model—but then so can the corded drills. We have an older 12 volt cordless right now and it does most everything we need it to and is not heavy comparatively. The batteries are getting older and a bit weak so occasionally we pull out our corded drill for those “big time” jobs of drilling very large holes through thick/dense wood or lots and lots and lots of holes through thick and dense wood. Our corded drill is a 6 amp model and has never failed to do a job we asked of it. In both styles there are more powerful models but that gives you an example of what you might need to pay for. As many of you who read my posts know we do many jobs—both home and farm oriented –so unless you are going into full time construction either of those should work for you.
Two things to consider if you are women. Pick them up. Hold them in your hand. Does it fit your hand well? Your grip is part of your control of the drill. If you need to drive something slowly you will want to be able to SLOWLY squeeze the drill trigger which means your hand needs to fit around it correctly. Which brings me to the choice of variable speed. You absolutely want it to have that capacity—most all do but double check. Variable speed means that if you squeeze the trigger just a little —it will go slow. With non variable even if you minutely squeeze the trigger—it is off to the races.
All cordless have variable as far as I understand—but I could be wrong. Not all corded do so again: double check.
So anyway, if your hand doesn’t fit well around the handle you can’t correctly use the variable speed feature. Lack of trigger control (going full blast the entire time you screw something in) is one of the biggest mistakes people make with drills and it is one reason why screws strip. The second is using screws to drill their own hole into a material or using incorrect tips which we will talk of later. Also when purchasing your drill consider balance/weight. Our corded drill is very front heavy. Definitely imbalanced. Even my husband agrees with that statement. I have a bit of trouble with it especially when I have to hold something and drill at the same time. Better balance would be appreciated by me (and my husband I think) in that drill.

One negative about cordless is that their batteries will eventually fail. They are still very expensive to replace which is why most people purchase a whole new drill. I know…throw away society—argh. Maybe with time. Anyway…there are a few places to send off batteries and have them “redone” that are cheaper than new batteries and you don’t have to throw away a good drill or it’s used batteries. There are also sites on line that can tell you how to do it yourself (yes you have to be careful but no we aren’t talking about serious health issues if you do it) or where to send them for repair. This is something many people don’t know about…so pass the word along. Maybe we can keep a few drills out of the landfill.

Next you will want to purchase drill bits for your drill. Why? Because really not all screws are meant to drill their own holes—even in plain ole pine. You are suppose to do that for them with a drill bit slightly smaller in size. First and foremost pre drilling helps prevent splitting of wood and is well worth it for that alone. It also makes your job way easier from a “how long you have to spend trying” to get the screw into whatever you are putting it into. Even with drywall we sometimes need to pre drill a bigger hole to use wall anchors.
Maybe in the past you have stripped out a screw with a hand held screw driver or electric drill? A couple of reasons for that is that maybe you couldn’t/didn’t push into the screw head hard enough and the drill tipped slipped causing the edges to “wear” or else you were trying to make the screw drill it’s own way in and it was difficult—so again you slipped. Bummer isn’t it? I, and many others I know, have done both these things. In my case sometimes it’s laziness, sometimes it’s hurry, sometimes it’s just a difficult place to drill, but at all times it’s extremely annoying stripping a screw. Of course some screws are just crappy and will strip irregardless but a good set of drill bits is a helpful friend. Invest in them. One last thing about slipping that I mentioned above: Push and push hard into the screw head so the drill tip won’t slip. You will learn over time how hard is hard enough—but don’t underestimate it. That’s were trigger control comes in handy too.
Sometimes even with all of the predrilling and hard pushing etc—I still slip. Usually it is either a really dense wood or it’s too far over my head for me to push hard enough and not allow it to slip. With difficult situations I actually wedge the drill into my ribs and use my body weight to push. It’s a trick I picked up over time that makes a huge difference. When nothing I do helps, I unfortunately then have to do the girlie thing and ask my husband. Make him feel useful you know? 😀
Oh yes—-and buy the correct drill tip. Disregarding the fact that some screws have criss cross shaped heads or some are square or star shape —you need the correct size. Especially for the commonly seen criss cross style. They are the most common you will find in every package of anything you ever buy. If your tip is too small —it will slip and strip your screw head. Too big and it won’t fit causing frustration. Tips are cheap cheap cheap. Buy a multi pack for a couple of bucks. This is also true even if you always use hand held screw drivers—buy and use the correct size for the head size you have. This is another spot where I can be lazy sometimes and try to grab the first screwdriver or tip for my drill that I come across because it’s just “one screw”. One “quick job”. Hah….I should try and do it right the first time and save myself the aggravation.

Now about hammers.
When choosing your hammer they come in various weights. Ounces to be specific. Too light—and you will swing a thousand times to get the nail driven especially if it’s a long nail or a dense wood you are nailing into. Too heavy—and until you build up—you will tire quickly and possibly hit wildly as you drive your nail. Wild hitting invariably causes bent nails. What a pain—because half the time the darn wood doesn’t want to let them come back out or the nail head folds and makes it difficult to remove.
Another thing about size is that a too heavy hammer will feel unbalanced and you will choke up on it losing some of the natural leverage that helps drive the nail. Experience will be your guide as to the best weight for you. The more control we have over the hammer the less we will be likely to bend the nail.

Now, about that choking up. When using a hammer don’t hammer by “choking up” on the handle which means holding it too close to the head. To get the best swing you want your hand to be down the handle at least half the way or more –not almost touching the head. It’s that leverage that gives the power to drive the nail with a few swings. Yes, you will have to still practice actually making contact with the nail head—but really with the correct hammer and it’s use hitting correctly comes quicker than you think. And..not to harp on this issue: check out the handle thickness. If your hand doesn’t fit well around the handle you will find yourself choking up on it to avoid swinging it off behind you (and clocking someone in the head) during the nailing procedure. We have one hammer like that—and if I accidentally get stuck with it I look like a kid trying to nail since I have to strike each nail more times because of the lack of leverage. The handle is just too darn thick. I end up tap tap tapping away at the nail instead of driving it with a few blows. For some odd reason this is our lightest weight hammer and so therefor when a group is working—I being the smallest person—ends up with this lightest of hammers that also for some reason has a thick handle. Go figure. You would think I would buy a replacement—but so rarely do we hammer as a group that it has just not been that big of a deal. Usually I can always use my favorite hammer whenever I want to.

Anyway as you can see the choice is yours as to whether you use hammer or drills (corded or cordless). Each has it’s place and both I feel are needed —especially on a “farmette”. Do also realize that most all drills can be charged or used even in a completely grid free home. Good luck in your choice and if you have more questions just leave them as a comment and as I said in my last power tool article I will try and answer as best I can. Also too…come back after a few days and read the comments if this is a subject new to you. The comments on tools are pretty helpful and can hit areas I forgot or chose not to write about.

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Brewing Compost

Many of us gardeners are getting ready to seeds for the upcoming planting season.  Those seeds need lots of nutrition to get started right.  Consider brewing some compost tea to keep those seeds healthy and happy.

Brew compost tea by filling a container loosely with your compost and then filling the container with water.  A 5 gallon bucket works great.  Its best to brew it in small batches as it loses nutrients the longer it sits.  Stir the container once a day for a week.  At the end of the week, strain the mixture, to keep the solids out of your tea.  If you want to put the tea into a spray bottle, be sure to strain it very well so your sprayer doesn’t get clogged.  Otherwise, it doesn’t have to be perfectly free of solids.  The left over solid compost can be added to your garden or the bottom of your seed starting pots. 

To use your compost tea, you need to dilute it otherwise it might be strong and burn your seedlings.  Dilution to 10 parts water to 1 part compost tea is considered safe and nutritious for your plants.  Consider using this compost tea on your seeds, seedlings, garden, and houseplants.  If its strained very well, it could be added to a lawn sprayer and sprayed over your lawn and garden. 

Happy Brewing!  A tip: If you practice vermicomposting, like I do.  Use that worm water in the same fashion as compost tea.

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Chaos

Originally published by emphelan

My life, my house, my children are in various states of chaos. These days when I am suppose to write about parenting or household subjects, I find myself lacking in items to share. My husband and I, our parenting skills are what some people call organic. We had children young, we weren’t prepared, my husband comes from a severely abusive household, and I have always lacked the correct maturity. We probably allow our children to get away with more than we should, Picture 149but no one is hurt, they are all rather sharp, and happy most of the time. They are polite, say ma’am and sir, hold doors open, allow the girls to board the bus first. . . they are old school gentlemen. But they do fight, and rough house, and behave like the typical boy. I so need a mud room.
planting child
My house is always in a constant state of a tornado victim. Either we are gutting a room, rearranging a room, or my boys have overran a room. Currently we are dealing with all the above and my going through things. My organization skills are lacking.

Right now our chaos is encircled with the fact that we are down grading homes. As my regular readers know, my family of 5 is moving from a 3 bedroom, 2 bath mobile home on 5 acres, into a single room ( not bedroom, read ROOM) camper on 120 acres. Eventually we will move into a 2 bedroom house, with a total of 7 people. And some day a new house of our own on the land. We have to condense 12 years of togetherness to fit our new accomodations. The stress that this is creating is close to engulfing our lives. But in the chaos we find moment of clarity, like my middle son’s enthusiasm to hunt bobcat with his long bow once we move.

I am probably the last person that should ever give advice to others on parenting and household skills. But I do know when I see the chaos get out of control in other peoples parenting. We have some how found a way to be in the midst of chaos yet have the structure we need to fill our boys lives with the important lessons helperand the love they need. I do not allow the chaos to cause me to neglect my boys, nor my husband.

If you find yourself in the middle of chaos, don’t forget that things are not as important as you family. And if those things seem to be pushing your family out of the picture, becoming too important, get rid of them. Things are not worth loosing your closeness with your family over.

In any chaos is a glimmer of structure, no matter how small it might be, grasp it and hold on tight. The insanity might swirl in madness around you, but your children and love ones will be an anchor if you so allow.

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Natasha’s Question: What do you use to break or cut winter vegetables? I have a hard time handling many squash or larger turnip, celery root, etc. with my kitchen knives. I don’t own a hatchet, but I’m starting to think it might be called for!

Tansy’s Answer: i have a carefully selected group of henckels knives (can be pricey but the only knives you’ll ever need to buy in your life). i use my big chef knife and just make sure that it is always sharp. my partner has knife sharpening duty and he does it quite well!  to cut large squash, i start under a stem, slide it down and when i reach the bottom, i turn the squash on its backside, cut across the bottom then stand it upright to cut down the other side, starting at the stem again. i just work it slowly and wiggle the knife as i go.

Nita’s Answer: I use my largest chef knife (8.5″ blade) to cut our large squash, which are usually in the 15# range, in the same manner that Tansy described above.  I have used a hatchet before or even an axe, but it is not really necessary, and makes more of a mess.  Other smaller vegetables like rutabagas, kohlrabi, and celeriac are easier to manage if you cut off the tougher root and stem portions first, and then cut in half with a knife before peeling with a paring knife.  I might use 3 different size knives to prepare some vegetables.  I store them on a magnetized knife holder that is mounted on a kitchen cabinet.  They are always in plain sight and the blades stay in good condition a little longer.  A properly sharpened knife will make your work easier, and doesn’t require as much brawn. I have been gifted several Martha Stewart knives, and I have to say for the money, they are well made and I use them everyday.

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last month, i mentioned a few curriculums i like and a few book series that i have in my possession and use from time to time. this month, i thought i’d mention a few things we use that are not necessarily considered ‘proper’ for education plus i’ll go more into using our everyday experiences on the homestead as life skilling.

games are a lot of fun. it’s a great way of sneaking education in without the kid knowing it. my daughter at 4 loves to spell things out. she’ll ask me to spell words and she’ll write them on a piece of paper or on a mini chalkboard (laura ingall’s style) that i picked up at michael’s awhile back for about $6. we don’t always play games in their tradition sense though. for instance, dominos is great for counting. we draw one out and count the dots. scrabble tiles and bananagram tiles are great for that beginner speller…she calls out a word, i spell it out loud and she pulls out the tiles and spells the word. the games we play with and use most are:

wildcraft (cooperative board game)
uno
dominos/mexican train
gardenopoly
clue
uncle wiggly
scrabble
bananagrams
pictionary
twister
sky travelers (cooperative board game)
walk in the woods (cooperative board game)
match up games (we have two – ‘i never forget a face’ and ‘life on earth’ the pictures are lovely)

all these games offer different learning lessons and even a bit of physican education (have you ever tried to play twister with 3 or 4 kids???) math, spelling, art, cooperation, deduction/logic and botany are just a few of the things we learn from these games.

we also are fortunate enough to have a really great mexican restaurant in our town that is run by a mexican family. while we don’t get to go out to eat often, when we do, the waiters always speak in spanish a bit which gets my daughter’s attention. we usually spend the entire dinner discussing how to say various things in spanish. i sincerely believe that learning by a variety of means is the best way to learn. at home, we have muzzy spanish, rosetta stone spanish, as well as reading rods alphabet book (i found these at a library book sale, i need to find the actual ‘rods’ that go with them). we also watch dora or diego a few times a week and we have a dora cd-rom and another cd-rom for spanish learning. my daughter gets frustrated very quickly hearing one version so switching it up works well for her. i don’t feel like she learns much, if anything with dora but it gets her interested in the subject so i let her watch it.

the kitchen is a great place to learn math. since she can’t read yet, i will read her the recipes and have her count out the measurements of ingredients. we talk about doubling recipes or halving them as well. when grocery shopping, we compare prices of items to get the best deal. if i were more budget minded like i should be, i would start with a budget and we would work it out from there with our list of needs/wants. in the future, i’ll probably do this as well.

all my kids get equal treatment. they all learn to do laundry, dishes, help clean the house, take care of the animals and help out around the farm as needed. they all have cooked at some time or other (all except the 2 year old but i’m sure that will change soon). i do not refuse to teach any one of my kids a task simply because they are a specific gender. all the older ones can shoot a gun and all the older ones have their own assortment of pocket knives.

i include everyone in gardening. we discuss how much food it takes to feed our family and how much we would need to put away to keep us fed for a cycle of seasons. each one of these tasks teach the children to be more self sufficient and to know what’s important in life. if they only learn one thing before they leave the nest, it will be how to take care of themselves and others if need be.

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I’m not talking about perpetuating consumerism, but am rather talking about the sort shopping those of us who are “stuck” in the middle of Digging Out have to continue doing until we’re free…which in my case seems to be taking much longer than I’d like.   

The Big Dig-Out:  A little background…

My husband and I came to this journey back to simplicity and self-sufficiency rather recently.  We married only 4 1/2 years ago, and two of those years were spent in survival mode directly after his home had been hit in one of the hurricanes.  Talk about some crazy days!  The tiny, cramped living space we rented, the items of mine put in storage, the entire region of damage, and on top of it all  trying to learn a new geographic area and find a job in a different job demographic area…challenges all.  We were frugal in many ways out of necessity, but so wasteful in other areas.

It was not until two years ago when we moved into our present home that we realized we wanted the whole enchilada.  Our whole enchilada meant Less Quantity of Stuff, More Quality of life.  We both had dreamed, in the past, of living on some acreage and being completely off-grid…wanting the most pared-down and independent lifestyle.  Were we half our ages today, we’d be the very ones to go to Alaska and tough it out in a cabin in the punishing wilds, and love every minute of it.  I can say we just aren’t in that mode today, but there is enough of the longing for that sort of independence left to help fuel us through the rest of this digging-out time.

I had no idea how long it would take us to dig out of our present situation, especially the financial obligations.  For both of us separately in the past, we came to points where we could have declared bankruptcy, but fortunately we were able to avoid that.  But it did require long periods of downright grit.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I’m thankful we’d hit bottom before, many years ago in our separate lives before we ever met, and experienced those things so that we now have a resolve not to return to that sort of helplessness.

Now we’re at a time where the economy as a whole has brought severe duress and changes to so many more of us across the board.  It has impacted us, too.  While Jack and I had a bit of a headstart on the journey to unfetter ourselves from a lifestyle we found wasn’t our best “fit,” now for many of us that is going to be a matter of survival rather than just preference.  At a time when we’re hearing conflicting advice, some of which even continues to be “shop! shop! shop!,”  we’re thankful for every small area in which we can Save Save Save.

Jack and I have two priorities just now, which combine as one larger priority…Making the best use of our resources would be the larger category, getting rid of debt and better utilizing what we have incoming would be the sub-categories.  I think one day, our lives will be divided into the Before Debt era, and the Post-Debt era.  Right now, we’re in the Stuck in Survival and Reduction middle. 

We’re fortunate we’ve never made enough money to worry about portfolios or stocks being assets we depend on.  We suffered financial losses prior to this economic situation, and decided from that point on to not place our money in anything in which we have no control.  Some day we hope to actually be at a point where money is not what we’re primarily dependent on.  We’re neither of us financial advisors, so don’t take this as financial advice…it’s just our own perspective.  We are aggressively socking away what we can toward killing our debt.  And yes, it does feel like it’s taking forever, especially as I’ve just had my work hours cut back and there are some weeks Jack has been assigned absolutely NO work.  Other weeks, he’s given full weeks and then some.  But the not knowing…argggh…SO hard to execute a budget with variable or unknown income.

Here’s something we are finding helpful, though, and in this area we’re being equally agressive: 

Shop Till You Drop!!

Not for holiday gifts, vacations, or more more more…but for better ways to trim those debts back further and further.  Ours is still an economy of competition…we should shop the competitors for the very, very best deals.  Here are some items for the list that DO  require shopping around…continually…but can save us a lot of money.  I’m an amateur with money matters, and I have no interest in becoming an expert.  But I do want to KEEP our money for its best uses.  Here are some ways we’ve found shopping can save.

1.  Better interest rates.  We don’t use our credit cards, but we still have a few left to pay off.  It’s so easy (if we have the money) to just write that check and stick it in the mail without really studying the statement, but if we’ll study it carefully, often we can save money.  See what you’re really paying in interest on that credit card.  Do they show a higher interest rate than what you originally had?  I never assume they’re always correct if they tell me we had a late pay, etc, because we pay our bills like clockwork.  REALLY watch those details in your bills that can be a clue to clearing up something before it becomes more money out of your pocket.  On the subject of better interest rates, it’s also good to call every few months and ask if they will give you a lower interest rate.  We do this often, and most times they will bring it down.

2.  Billing errors.  Go all Nancy Drew on your monthly statements and bills.  Look for the companies that are fraudulently or sloppily costing you, and switch to different ones if you find it recurring.  Look at all those “extra” charges on phone bills…do you NEED the XYZ Blahblah service?  (Do you even know what it is??)  Find out, and if it’s not life and death, axe it or shop for better service elsewhere. 

You can also fit SCAMS under this heading.  We have had a lot of this cropping up on our credit cards.  Whether it makes you furious or not, your information can be compromised in various ways and can end up where it doesnt belong.  In our case, we know this has to be true, but have yet to find where it was ever compromised.  We’ve been billed by companies we’ve never heard of, usually in an amount of $9.99 or less than twenty dollars, and our only recourse seems to be calling the number the credit card company gives us linked to that company.  The company tells us we authorized a service (something related to the internet, a buyer’s club, some sort of service “protection” or upgrade, etc.) and has then been sneaking its charge onto our credit card under a vague name that we don’t detect till they’ve garnered at least a couple of months charges for via our credit card.  We have the biggest and supposedly most secure types of credit card, so that’s no protection.  By the time the company agrees to “stop the service” (meaning the service you never authorized or had), they usually will not agree to refund you any money they formally collected since it was “your error in not noticing the charges and challenging them.” 

And if you think contacting their fraud department might be an option, just know you’ll be speaking to someone in another company whom you might not understand and will be told their fraud department “will investigate” and that YOU can call THEM back in three days.  Not to a direct line, just to the 800 number and start all over again. 

The most recent fraudulent charges appearing on our credit cards have been very large well-known internet service providers.  I won’t tell you the amounts of money they tried to charge us, yet never could produce any proof of our having signed any agreement, claiming we authorized it on the internet and that they don’t “save our records.”  We’ve used the same free email and same internet provider for years, so our figuring this out was easy.  Solving it involved some high blood pressure and persistence on the phone.  We never recovered the money they’d gotten by taking from our credit card UNTIL we found the errors, but now we scrutinize those statements with a magnifying glass.  Every 9.99 adds up…and so do the 89.99s.

How will we “shop” for less idiocy in our credit card charges?  Since this has occurred more with some of our credit cards than others, we’ll find a way to switch the balance over elsewhere for lower or the same interest, and close those accounts immediately.  This is an ongoing process.  We also transfer balances from one card to another on any card that claims to have a yearly service charge.

Other errors are just that…errors.  It’s on us to do due diligance with our own bills…no one else out there is the protector of our pocketbooks.

3.  Consolidation, refinancing.  Lower interest rates, yay!  Boy are there a lot of traps out there, but there are some good finds, too.  Just make sure you know the final outcome…how much with ALL the magic numbers added in that will ACTUALLY be coming out of your pocket each pay period.  And deconstruct all the blahblahblah. Take someone knowlegeable about legalspeak to make sure you’re getting a solid deal, not something risky, variable, or with missing components.  Ask the questions that seem dumb, until you really understand what’s in  writing. 

Consolidating bills has helped me in the past greatly.  At this point right now, it won’t pay because we have lower interest rates with our separate bills than we’d qualify for with a bill consolidation.  But that’s not always the case.  With mortgage refinancing, same thing.  We choose the conservative track and won’t mess with things unless the outcome is not risky and will make a difference in reducing the monthlies.  We WON’T commit to anything that lumps bill together but increases our monthly burden, requires money up front, or lengthens our payment obligation, no matter now appealling anyone wants to make it sound.

4.  Bulk buying.  We DON’T have much money beyond our week-to-week budget.  But we scrounged together some a while back and did what made sense to our situation at the time to build a backup supply…this time, for our food.  Our groceries continued to be a big part of our budget, and we acquired an inexpensive freezer, and periodically ferreted away sales items, spending no more than we’d have spent on regularly-priced items usually.  If ground beef is on sale for a really low price and I don’t have a lot of money, I’d buy more for the same amount I’d have spent if it were not on sale, and put the rest in the freezer.  This really comes in handy during those leaner weeks, or any times our income takes a hit.  Having meat in the freezer makes stretching meals so much easier.  During the 2008 holidays, we set aside an amount to buy a lot of frozen turkey when they were in the double-digits per pound. 

It has made an incredible difference in my weekly budget!  There are some weeks we can eat very, very well on half of what my budget was last year…which was half of what it was the year before!  That means some weeks we’re eating on 1/4 of our budget two years ago, even with food prices going up!  Meat is the main item we’ve stockpiled in a small way this way, since it’s the most costly item to us.  We buy other things at a buying club, but ultimately, we want to phase that out as our Big Plan substitutes storebought with homegrown.  One step at a time…

5.  Insurance.  Insurance in general really goes against my grain, and I absolutely hate paying for it, especially if it’s mandatory.  Nevertheless, we can periodically “shop” for better insurance rates.  With our homeowner’s insurance, we try to keep the same amount of coverage and do as much research as we know to do about the company’s ability to pay out (track record) and how long-lived the company is.  I hate feeling like something that is supposed to be “secure” is still a gamble, and that’s the feeling I get as so many companies fold.  Having made it through the hurricanes a few years back and hearing horror stories about those insurance companies is sobering and a good motivator to do our homework. 

Recently, we found out the company we’ve had our homeowner’s coverage with may be pulling out of the state (for highly publicized reasons, etc etc).  We’re insurance shopping, and have been pleasantly surprised to find how much we could have been saving with a couple other companies we found.  With one, for the same amount of coverage, we could save  over $600/year.  That certainly can add up!  We’ll continue to do our homework on these two companies, however, before changing.

I’ve not had health insurance for several years.  Why? We went through a broker for private insurance after losing our jobs two years ago, and were told we are uninsurable, unless through an employer.  I refused to pay the high costs that are right up there with a house note, since I had none offered through my workplace.  I can’t describe how at risk this has put me, but here I still am.  Sometimes I had to go through eligibility (ugh) and get some help through my county clinic, and other times we had to choke it down and go through a private practice doc and pay cash…talk about bub-bye paycheck.

I am happy to announce that I now, for the first time in years, have health insurance again, yay!!  (MANY prayers of thanks!!)  But I resent feeling as if I have to have it…that it’s so expensive to go one time a year to a doctor for a basic checkup that I can’t afford without insurance…that to get a basic mammogram or set of blood tests is so cost prohibitive without insurance, I simply couldn’t consider it no matter how scary the statistics looked, without insurance.  That’s the part of having insurance I deplore. Feeling like the system’s set up to HAVE to have it.  Were it not for a serious health condition I have that requires maintenance meds, I’d go it alone.  We still will be pursuing finding a naturopath…slowly…and want to substitute herbals for pharmaceuticals as much as possible.

Getting health insurance is one of the reasons I joined the company I’m with now.  My present job is not where I saw myself being, doesn’t always guarantee me regular work, is not a high-paying job, and my hours have just been cut to fewer.  But it does offer employees insurance.   I have a window of opportunity to get some important check-ups, exams, and testing done within a health insurance company’s regular coverage, and I’m going to take advantage of it while I can.  I can’t tell anyone how to shop for health insurance, but I CAN say that a lot of “lesser” jobs out there …the not-so-ideal jobs with weird hours and not a lot of perqs…can still offer health insurance.  And for me, it’s worth it right now.

If you have insurance, it’s important to do what’s right for you, but do shop and do your homework…sometimes you can have good coverage but find ways really save.

One last thing about insurance…if you can get it for free, do.  Our bank sends out notices about free $1,000 life insurance, etc., and other offers come in the mail now and then.  If you can get any coverage free, without strings attached, do.  Comparison shopping with insurances of any sort is not a bad idea.

6.  Free, Come-and-Get-it, and Bartering     Kathie already wrote on this subject here recently (go here to read it if you haven’t, it’s great!!)  Don’t forget Craigslist, Freecyle, the classifieds Want ads and fearless bartering for items or services.  This used to be a part of normal life a long time ago, since barter and exchange for services were more practical than always paying in cash.  Thankfully, its time has come again! 

We get trailerloads of free woodchips and manure for our vacant lot next door simply because Jack stopped by a neighboring horse owner’s house and asked if he could occasionally have a 5 gallon bucket (what else? ha) of manure.  It turns out they have so much, and not that many people seem interested in having it (or have that much room ).  They were putting it anywhere on their property they had room, and were sometimes even dumping it into their pond (eww).  They are so happy to have somewhere to take it, the man drives it TO US in a trailer about once a month and dumps it right where we need it…wow!  Now we have an amazing soil amendment, free…and all because we asked.   That will hopefully equate to a budget-saver for us by giving us a basis for a beginner’s garden, which we plan to help us reduce our dependency on storebought food.

7.  Scrub that Budget one more time.  Scrutinize the budget for anything falling into the category of Non-Needs.  And then drop them, or comparison shop them one more time.  These add up.  It’s difficult to give some things up.  Many of my wants I thought were needs, but just weren’t.   (Cable TV has been gone for years now…and we get no regular TV reception, ergo, no TV.  It’s been great!) 

This list will differ from household to household…no one’s getting judgemental here.  But things I considered NEEDS, upon closer examination, I found just aren’t. 

For instance, we WANT phones to stay in touch, and for safety in travel on the road.  We didn’t NEED everyone to have a phone, though, when I was at home all the time.  We have a land line phone…I didn’t NEED my cell then.  We had one of those all-in-one plans that got me my cell phone at a reduced rate, etc etc.  But something happened that made me look hard at what we were TRULY paying monthly for my phone, and at that point we got it cut off.  We went to Walgreens and got a cheap $15 TracPhone, and about once every 3 months pay about 20 dollars to put minutes on it.  It’s for emergency only, not for chatting, and it has come in handy in some different situations since I got it.  Doing the math, it may not seem like we’ve saved that much money, but with really examining what was ACTUALLY being charged us each month the other way, we have saved a lot.  Jack will be changing over to the TracPhone type when he does not use his cell phone on a daily basis any longer.  Right now, he’s in isolated areas for long stretches of time, and we consider that worth the cost.  It’s just one example of where we found one size does not always fit all, and made a small adjustment in our budget based that does pay off, even if a little at a time.

These are just a few ideas of how we can remain diligent, and shop for savings on what we already are spending, especially the bills that are locked in to monthly payments. 

I’d love to hear any tips you have on ways you’ve found to shop around, and found it had a great payoff monetarily. 

An aside about persitence and patience:

I am not the most patient person at times.  All of the above advice about comparison shopping can quickly equate to a major headache, and I have kind of a panic disorder response to things that are too convoluted as far as bills and legalspeak.  It’s manageable, though, in small quantities, one thing at a time.

I don’t especially enjoy (read “I hate”) the phone calling (taking forever to get a live person on the other end), and comparing, and especially the questioning of charges I feel are fraudulent or incorrect.  There is nothing that will make me more ready to pull my hair out than being routed across the world to someone whose speech I cannot understand who is now the remote handler of my financial destiny.  Especially when they seem to be reading off a cue card and have a very legally-correct way of telling me Not So Much. 

Realizing it’s just a patience thing,  and that calling and being on hold for long periods is just par for the course, can be helpful.  And maybe I can offer this advice (though I won’t guarantee you won’t still occasionally experience meltdowns and need to go scream into your pillow…)   Don’t be cowed by their summary dismissals of your concerns, if that happens, or their vagueness, or blanket statements that seem read from a prompter.  Insist nicely, and keep your cool.  The most persistent person wins, in these cases.  And that person needs to be you.  It really does pay off to take these steps, even when they are tedious…you can really save a lot by routinely taking the time to be inconvenienced, but diligent about errors and requests.

It’s YOUR money and you have the right to ask questions and receive reasonable answers. 

It’s not always easy to stay polite, since the days of “the customer’s always right” seem to have come and gone.  We want personal service in an impersonal business world;  don’t take it personally, though.  I can’t tell you how many times I ‘ve wanted to lose my cool, (and have, sometimes) but persistence, persistence, persistence, pays off!  Making a tall cool glass of something to drink, setting yourself up with your favorite CD or snack (or both) and settling back with paper and pen can make all that waiting, calling, and being on hold more bearable if we see it simply as…shopping! 

This is one type of shopping we CAN do for our own, personal,  better economy 🙂

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In the Zone

Originally published by Gina

usda-zone

When I talk about fruits & vegetables, trees or flowers I’m planting on my land, I say I’m “zone 5”. What I’m referring to is the USDA plant hardiness zone for my location. For example, you may hear me say I’m planting cherry trees, but I doubt you’ll ever here me say I’m planting orange trees in the orchard based completely on plant hardiness. More specifically, I live in USDA zone 5b, but I am almost in 5a which is at least 5 F colder.

 

A partly related topic, this winter, as you study your stack of seed catalogs, you may notice that Waltham Butternut takes 105 days, Delicata 100 days, and Bloomsdale Long Standing 45 days. Does this have something to do with the mysterious zones we (North Americans) are divided into and when exactly do we start counting the days?

 

Sometime around 1960, USDA researchers decided the United States, parts of Mexico and Canada needed some sort of map to help sort out all the growing details of landscape and garden plants. They came up with a colorful, swirly pattern of cold hardiness zones based on the average coldest day in a given area. If a plant could survive an area’s winter with relative ease (whether annual or perennial) the plant was said to be hardy to zone X. The two end zones, 1 (coldest) and 11 (least cold), represent the extremes of the represented zones. As far as the U.S. is concerned, the majority of U.S. citizens fit neatly into 5, 6, 7, 8 and a smaller area falls within zones 4 and 9. The addition of a or b with the number tells which area is 5º F colder within a given area. In order to be designated with a new number means the next zone is 10º F warmer or colder (depending on the direction) of the bordering zone. I’ll give you an example in a minute to hopefully make this a bit easier to understand.

 

In 2003, USDA updated their hardiness map to reflect more of Canada and Mexico. They also updated the specific areas of the U.S. to reflect more information on temperatures (e.g. urban vs. rural climates). They old map was based on outdated records (the original map was based on data collected between 1940 and 1960; the last couple of decades have shown a higher range on temperature differences and rainfall amount than the original 10 zones). They based their new information from current records kept at 8000 locations scattered throughout North America. The United States (being USDA’s primary concern) still has the most accurate information, but more information on the international boundaries was included in the new map as well. The picture above is this most current map*.

 

Here is an example: Chicago is, according to the USDA Plant Hardiness map, located in zone 5b. This means the annual average minimum temperature of Chicago is -15 F to -10 F. Outside the city, the zone changes to 5a (annual min. temperature -20 F to -15 F). The city of Chicagoand the nearby more rural areas have an average difference of 5 F. It is not enough to put either one in a different numerical zone, but that seemingly miniscule 5 degree difference can mean the world to a plant’s hardiness. If we travel from Chicago to Southern Illinois or Indiana, we find the mean minimum temperatures do begin to differ by 10 F which puts these areas in the zone 6 range.

 

Many factors can affect the general range on the USDA map which is another way of saying the map is only generally useful. Nature, as far as we know, does not read our maps, so climate change, microclimates (e.g. urban features and large bodies of water can keep temperatures higher in a particular area), hybridization of plants, how we garden, where we garden and other factors can and do affect the temperature ranges. Often you will note a range of hardiness for a particular plant (such and such plant is hardy in zone 4 to zone 7). This means the plant can survive through a winter in any of these zones (although surviving and thriving is not always the same thing).

 

Even with this detail (the map even depicts how a city environment with its concrete and sheltering buildings can be enough degrees warmer to warrant a different designation of zones), most people just say, “I’m zone 5”. Generally speaking, if you can grow it in 5b, you can find a way to grow it in 5a.

 

When you refer to your particular zone and planting, you are probably most interested in frost free days, not necessarily what the coldest average temperature is in your area, but we still tend to refer to these plant hardiness zones (which actually helps more with the “what” instead of “when”). Gardeners want to know the range between frost free days (and we want that range to be as great as possible, don’t we?) so we can plan when to start our seeds. Figuring out a growing season can be deduced from the plant hardiness map, but there are much easier ways.

 

The trouble with creating a map strictly for frost free days is that it varies tremendously from year to year. Further, microclimates (such as higher altitudes vs. a tiny low-lying area) can mean a several day difference between last frost and first frost in an area less than a mile. As with the plant hardiness map, frost date maps or charts should be used only as a guideline (plus, as we all know, there are ways to “cheat” the frost dates by starting your seeds inside, greenhouses or using cold boxes). The National Climate Data Center (NCDC) provides several freeze free maps based on probability that can be useful (but note that the data was collected between 1950 and 1980; raise your hand if you think today’s data is probably different!); however, I find the dates on these maps to be generally two weeks or so out of sync for my specific growing area.

 

So, if the catalog says Delicata variety of squash requires an average length of 100 days to maturity, what does that mean to, say, me in zone 5b? Well, using the old, outdated NCDC map, my area of the U.S. has 150 freeze free days (average number of days above 35ºF). This means I have roughly five months to plant Delicata directly from seed into my garden and be able to harvest it before the first fall freeze.

 

Oh, but if it were only that simple! No matter how long or short your frost free growing season is naturally, you have to consider the minimum soil temperature seed germination can occur (for Delicata it is 68ºF to 80ºF). You have to consider heat, rainfall, wind and a hundred other factors as well. I can barely (all cheating methods aside) fit a growing season in for this particular vegetable when I factor in soil temperatures; I generally start my winter squash seeds indoors for this reason. Spinach, on the other hand, has a short growing season (45 days) and with a little TLC can be grown more than once a season in my zone. The other thing about the time-spans for seeds is that it usually means when the seedlings, not necessarily the seeds, are placed in the garden. So, when figuring out the length of your growing season for a particular vegetable or fruit, don’t forget to factor in the time needed to get the seed to hardy seedling.

 

This year I plan to just keep better records of temperatures and frost free dates. Any area can be generalized by a map, but a specific landscape has unique features paired with the experience of the gardener who tends it. This can determine your specific growing season and what plants to try. The maps are useful as a reference (in other words, don’t even try planting navel orange trees (zone 9a/9b) in your Midwest backyard). It can also help you as you plan your garden and order seeds and plants, but consider it to be a general tool. Instead, find a calendar (it can even be last year’s old one) and make a note of the temperature and conditions on each day of the year. Eventually, just like your ancestors did before the USDA hardiness map, you’ll know if a particular variety is going to work in your area or even a (very general) frost pattern for your individual land without the map. However, knowing how to read the USDA map will help you be selective and maximize your garden potential when everything looks so wonderful in the catalog!

 

*Copyright free map from the National Arboretum.

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This weekend had some fine day time temps. Mid 50’s. Sunny. No wind. Very nice. Absolutely perfect, and almost spring like, for which to do work in the garden.
Your probably wondering what I planted since as most know I live in a quite southerly position of the U.S., but alas even in my climate zone it is to early to plant anything new out.
However beautiful temperatures like this allow me to get out and do the important but sometimes overlooked part of gardening: working my soil. No I am not tilling but I am building it up and adding more organic matter while I am doing other maintenance issues like cleaning up.

I know, I know your thinking this subject again (!) but I just have to bring it up because in my very recent past I have stumbled on two people….both “newer” gardeners….but both with some experience….that still don’t understand this very most important part of gardening. The part that is all work and not quite as much fun. They talked about low yields, bugs/diseases and the sore muscle factor of digging and working the soil….all by products of bad soil structure. Something that requires work, and lots of it in the beginning, but the payoff is supreme.
No matter how many plants you put in your garden, or how many different types you try, or even how many years in a row you do it….you will not be successful, or as successful, if you don’t improve your soil. Every year. It is a must. And no matter how you do it….you must do it.
As one person asked me “ I just need to get some fertilizer don’t you think?”
Though fertility is a need for plants…poor soil structure, especially in the organic garden, will influence your plants more. In my garden I do fertilize but I also build soil. Every year, all year and anytime I get a hold of something to do it with. Newspapers, hay, compost,manure, cardboard, leaves and on and on. I am always on the lookout for free or low cost supplies for this purpose. Building soil in and of itself will create fertility in the garden whether or not we add kelp or green sand, blood or bone meal—all much more expensive items. All those guys are good helpers, and yes sometimes needed, but an icky soil is an icky soil. Remember nature knows how to care for herself and she builds soil above and beyond anything else.

I have added a few pictures of some of my soil for you to see. I apologize since it is raining this morning as I took them. One of the photos has hay in it. I have been gardening in this spot with the hay for 3 years now. Lift the hay and even now in the winter there are bunches of worms and bugs working away while the hay protects the soil from erosion and weathering during extreme rains. You can see that the heavy layer of hay in this area is still quite thick and not broken down yet. The flakes, pulled off of the wet partially rotting bales in November, probably won’t finish composting until later this summer which is fine as it helps keep the bermuda grass that tries to creep into that area under control (I am slowly eradicating it but it has been an ongoing battle). I still have some bales lined up out of the picture that are slowly being moved around permanent plantings like my artichokes and berry plants. I work on it every time I get a chance.
My neighbor asked me what I could possibly grow this spring with it still like that and this is what I said: potatoes or tomato plants or squash or soybeans or sunflowers or a new row of asparagus. The list goes on and on. Really all I have to do is part the soil (I mean hay chunks) exactly where I will put the seed or plant and I am in business. And though while the plants grow they may need a boost of nitrogen ( blood meal, cottonseed meal, urine, manure, etc) to help while this stuff breaks down ,weed competition should be almost nil or at the most very easy to uproot. Oh by the way, any hay will work for this but less seedy is best. This is some alfalfa mix hay we had left over and so I should get not only soil building but some good organic nitrogen when it finishes decomposing.

The next picture is of the area that, since the end of the growing season last year, has not yet had any soil amending. Part of it did have peanuts grown and tilled in but not all of it. This is where the last of my leaves from the city composted down and you can see the soil is fabulous. Digging in it is no work at all…really. The work is easy and goes quickly here. Even though it is raining you can see the soil isn’t clumpy like wet clay but when it hasn’t rained it still does not need the same amount of watering as some areas not as improved. Quite a bonus really. My plants that grew here last year where fabulous and required just a bit of nitrogen since the leaves where not fully finished decomposing but where pretty maintenance free other than that. This area is nothing like it was when we dug (or should I say chipped) our first hole into it when we moved here almost 5 years ago. This area has been under serious cultivation for about 3 years also. Rotating into this area in the early spring will be my potatoes. I am going to try a technique I read about in an old Organic Gardening Magazine from the 70’s that should give me more pounds harvested and build my soil at the same time. The idea is to dig a trench(s), which I dug this weekend, put about a tablespoon or two of cottonseed meal in the bottom alternating with seed potatoes, then cover with sawdust. The potato is not placed directly on the cottonseed meal but alternated evenly potato,meal,potato,meal. The cottonseed meal will add the nitrogen the decomposing sawdust will steal from the surrounding area while it breaks down. I am hoping I will get nice clean potatoes that grow well. Supposedly the author’s yield was quite a bit better than he had experienced before he began with this technique and lowered his incidence of potato scab in addition. I have an abundance of sawdust from a local mill which will be a good opportunity to use a waste product that’s cheap to acquire. And of course as I mentioned I get a two for one deal: potatoes AND soil building with the same work. Leaves and hay will also work (add a bit of nitrogen with these also since they will steal it too) but as I mentioned the sawdust supposedly helps with scab which is a ph problem.

So, to sum up my post I just want to point out that soil building is a year round thing: springs, summer, fall or winter, but within just a few years you will see obvious differences in bugs, yields and your back.

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