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And here we go again. August 10, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I just read a blog post about a farmer and passionate locavore (someone who promotes local, regional, in-season foods). So far, so good, right? But then the guy started attacking vegans for being self-righteous. He pointed out that it takes a lot more fertilizer to grow vegetables than, say, cattle.

Well, of course it does, if you raise your cattle on grass. You put your fields into pasture and let your cattle out in them to wander and graze. The cattle enjoy being out under the blue sky and they enjoy grazing, as they evolved to do, and on the plus side, they give back to the fields as they go along with all-natural fertilizer. As long as you don’t put more cattle on the fields than the ecosystem can support, you have a balanced system, at least until the grass dies back in late autumn. Then it’s time to butcher the cattle or feed them on grain or silage until the following spring. 

By contrast, if you’re an organic gardener, as our friend Ben and I are, you don’t really focus on growing plants. You focus on growing soil. The fruits and vegetables you raise are a bonus that you get for creating rich, balanced, wonderful soil. You compost your table scraps, you have an earthworm composter, you’re constantly thinking of ways to enrich and improve the soil in your garden beds. You scour the neighborhood for bags of grass clippings in spring and summer and leaves in fall. You beg your neighbors for their clippings and scraps; you ask your local grocery what they do with their spoiled produce. You shred paper not to conceal your personal data but to feed your worm composter and compost bins. 

Yes, this is certainly more work than letting a field go to grass. But that’s not the point. Vegetarians and vegans aren’t trying to save work by not eating meat. They’re trying to save the world by not eating meat. They’re trying to point out that killing our fellow creatures also kills us, because it deadens us to the deaths of others. They’re trying to say that becoming sensitized to what we put in our mouths might make us more compassionate to all life, to each other. It might keep us from starting and perpetuating wars.

There are plenty of other ways to try to save the world, and people who choose to eat meat can do a world of good by taking those paths. I don’t think it’s appropriate or kind to condemn anyone based on their dietary choices. You may eat meat, but teach in a prison. You may eat meat, but visit the dying in hospitals and hospices. You may eat meat, but volunteer at an animal shelter or drive for Meals on Wheels or donate time and money to Habitat for Humanity or the Peace Corps. Who am I to judge you?!

But please, who are you to judge me? Please stop attacking me because I’m a vegan who can’t bear the thought of killing animals just to feed myself when I don’t have to. Let me live with my choice in peace, as I let you live with yours. Let me fertilize my garden, and grow my vegetables, and eat them without being attacked for doing what I see as right. Stop trying to justify your meat-eating by attacking me for not eating meat. If you want to eat meat, eat it. If I refuse to eat meat, so be it. There’s plenty of room in this world for us to coexist.

                 ‘Til next time,



Want to meet Mike McGrath? May 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Thank God for Mike McGrath. Some days, even our friend Ben, Silence Dogood and Richard Saunders run out of post ideas. This was starting to look like one of those days: Silence and OFB were jubilant about planting, potting up, and placing the very last of our transplants and container plants, but figured nobody really wanted to read about that.

Our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders had read an interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about how little we really know about the evolution of dogs, but beyond noting that dogs—our first domesticated animals—had been on the scene at least 15,000 years, but the oldest known dog breeds were barely 1500 years old, there didn’t seem a lot to say about it short of quoting the article in its entirety. (We have a serious feeling that this is illegal.)

Silence was thrilled and astonished to learn from a reader comment that someone had made one of her chili recipes and won a chili cookoff!!! (Type “Weird, wonderful chili” in our search bar at upper right for the recipe.) But even this didn’t strike us as post-worthy.

Abandoning the tabula rasa of our computer screen, Silence and I headed off to the nearby village of Kutztown, PA to run some errands. This included a stop at our bank to see how Shiloh and our other pets were doing raising funds for pet cancer research; we were thrilled to see that Shiloh’s cash box was almost full, and our cats Linus and Athena weren’t far behind. Then we stopped at The Companion Plant, a store specializing in organics and hydroponics, to fill our gallon jug with the free high-tech compost tea they’re giving away every day in May.

As we were happily departing with our compost tea, already engaged in a, shall we say, lively debate about which plants needed it most, The Companion Plant’s owner appeared waving a brochure. “Mike McGrath is coming to speak here! Do you think you could put this somewhere where gardeners could see it?”

Why, yes, as a matter of fact. Finally, something to write about that might interest others besides us! Thank you, Mike McGrath.

As I hope all of you who’re organic gardeners know, McGrath was the feisty, funny, and passionately committed editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine during the years when our friend Ben was working in garden books at Rodale, the publisher of OG. Mike and I worked together on several projects, including his book You Bet Your Tomatoes!, and I always found his wholehearted commitment to organics and to helping gardeners, a commitment I share, extremely refreshing. After his stint at the helm of OG, he founded and hosts a gardening radio talk show called “You Bet Your Garden,” which airs on WHYY.  

Mike’s presentation, held at The Companion Plant on June 9th starting at 6 p.m. (363 E. Main Street, Kutztown, PA 19530, 610-683-9676), will be about, in the words of the brochure, “summer plant care, weed control, attracting beneficial creatures, and other timely topics that can make or break your season!” The event is free and also features music by The Wallace Brothers Band. (The concept of music and McGrath in the same space at the same time is, admittedly, a bit mind-boggling to our friend Ben. But I digress.)

If you live in the scenic Lehigh Valley or in Berks County, PA, and are interested in organic gardening, put MapQuest or your GPS or smartphone to work and find out how to get to Kutztown and The Companion Plant. (On your way in off Route 222, you might stop at the tiny Fleetwood Bank and stuff a dollar or two into Shiloh’s or another pet’s donation box for pet cancer research. We would all thank you.) Kutztown’s a delightful little village with historic architecture, interesting shops, and some fun restaurants, so why not make an afternoon of it?

Even if you live farther afield, but are a McG fan, scope it out and come on in! It’s bound to be a beautiful drive. Just don’t forget to bring your gallon milk or water jug (one per person, so consider carpooling) so you can get some wonderful free compost tea while you’re there!

Organic Mechanics (plus). March 26, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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So far, today has been a banner day here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. First, our Buff Orpington hen, Stella, laid the first egg of the season. Our friend Ben heard the triumphant cackling from the greenhouse, and looking out, saw Stella doing the traditional victory lap around the henyard, announcing her triumph at top volume. Thanks, Stella! It’s a beautiful egg.

In case you’re wondering, after their first year—when they mature and start laying eggs in the late summer, then continue through the fall and winter—hens raised without artificial light and heat stop laying for the year when the days get short in fall, and don’t start again until the daylight lengthens in spring. During the cold months, they use every calorie to stay warm. And people say chickens are stupid! But I digress.

The second great thing was that we discovered a new-to-us potting soil, Organic Mechanics, that we’d purchased at James Weaver’s Meadowview Farm in nearby Bowers. We needed more potting soil (shock surprise), and couldn’t resist a bag that boasted great ingredients, no peat (a natural resource that’s rapidly being depleted), and “Mom Approved.” When we opened it, we were wowed by the rich, beautiful soil. We could almost hear the plants we were potting up breathing a huge collective sigh of relief as their roots sank into this gorgeous soil.

Returning indoors, our friend Ben checked out the Organic Mechanics website (www.organicmechanicsoil.com). Apparently Silence and I aren’t the only folks who were wowed by this potting soil: It’s used by three of the most prestigious gardens in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens, Chanticleer, and the Scott Arboretum, not to mention the U.S. National Arboretum, the U.S. National Park Service, and the British Embassy. I don’t know what pleases me and Silence more, that we’re supporting an excellent local PA product, the anticipation as we wait to see what it does for our container plants, or the thought that all these important gardens and arboretums (and even the Park Service!) are using organic potting soil. Kudos to them, and to Mark Highland, Organic Mechanics’ founder.

Fortunately, you don’t have to live in the Mid-Atlantic region to find this outstanding organic potting soil. The Organic Mechanics website is excellent and informative, and you can order direct. Thier product line is short and sweet: Seed Starting Blend Potting Soil, Planting Mix (for raised beds), Premium Blend Potting Soil (for veggies and other food plants), Container Blend Potting Soil (for perennials and woodies), and Worm Castings.

We have our own earthworm composter, so we can attest to the incredible richness of earthworm castings as a soil conditioner and fertilizer. And of course, you can also use them to make earthworm “tea.” Here’s how Mark makes “tea” from castings: “Mix 1 pound of castings in 1 gallon of water. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, let castings settle to bottom, then pour off a fraction of the liquid solution. Stop before pouring out castings particles, and repeat until tea turns light brown in color, then pour out any remaining castings and use as mulch.” Of course, when he says “pour out,” he doesn’t mean “throw out.” Use the liquid you’re draining off as a foliar spray or soil drench.

The third great thing about today happened when our friend Ben called up our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, to post this, and saw that we now have over 400,000 total views. We promised when we hit 300,000 views that we wouldn’t go on about this again until we reached 500,000, so ’nuff said. But you can bet we’ll be inviting our friend and resident blog historian, Richard Saunders, and his girlfriend Bridget over for a celebratory supper!

Unfortunately, by tomorrow we may not be having so much to celebrate. After several weeks of daytime temperatures in the 70s (including several days that reached 78 degrees) and nighttime lows in the high 40s and low 50s, tonight the temperature is plunging down to 26. Brrrr!!! With apples, peaches, and pear trees in bud and our pluot in full flower—not to mention our bed of greens, just peeping up through the soil, our spinach, Swiss chard, and herb transplants, and our windowbox planters of violas—we are seriously concerned. Guess we’ll have to hope for the best and see what makes it through the night.

Meanwhile, happy gardening to you all. Thanks for visiting, and we hope you have things to celebrate today, too!

Get up and grow! March 18, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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With gorgeous sunny blue skies and daytime temps edging into the 70s, you can bet our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been outside getting our gardens ready to grow. We’ve been weeding our raised veggie beds and amending them with our own rich compost and composted cow manure from one of our favorite nurseries, James Weaver’s Meadowview Farm in nearby Bowers, PA. We’ve been cleaning out the greenhouse in anticipation of moving the endless container plants that spend each winter there onto our deck for the season. And of course, we’ve been checking our stash of seeds and planning what we’ll plant in each bed.

Mind you, there’s plenty already going on in our two perennial vegetable and herb beds. In the allium/herb bed, the walking onions, garlic, garlic chives, chives and shallots (all perennial crops with us) are coming on strong, along with thyme, peppermint and cilantro. We’ll be adding more herbs once we feel we can trust the weather to stay mild. (Usually we wait until May, but given our mild winter, we’re very tempted to move that up to mid-April. We shall see.)

Horseradish, rhubarb and comfrey are breaking ground in our perennial vegetable bed; no sign of the asparagus yet, but we’re watching. And Silence is planning to add Jerusalem artichokes to the bed this year, maybe even today; she has some nice, fat organic tubers. (Jerusalem artichokes are in the sunflower family and produce cheerful sunflowers, but it’s their tubers that are harvested for eating raw in salads or cooked.) This is also our catnip bed; we hope the minty catnip repels (or at least confuses) pests, and even if it doesn’t, we have three cats and they thank us.

Rain has been surprisingly scarce the past two weeks, but is predicted for tomorrow, so Silence is eager to sow cold-hardy greens and the like in our biggest bed this afternoon. Because this bed is now shaded by two of our apple trees, which turned out not to be nearly as “super dwarf” as their labels claimed and somebody’s (not, of course, to mention Silence by name) optimism warranted, we’ve devoted it to the production of shade-tolerant greens, plus early-spring salad crops like radishes, bunching onions, and snow and snap peas. We love greens raw and cooked, and usually include them in at least two meals a day (in soup and/or a sandwich for lunch, and as a cooked side and a salad at supper). And many are cold-tolerant, a definite bonus when trying one’s luck by seeding them in early spring.

Before moving on to what we’ll be sowing in the shaded bed, our friend Ben would like to point up an aspect of climate change, global warming, and weather in general that is really disturbing. It also shows us that the interactions in our gardens are far from simple, and could go some way toward explaining why simplistic “solutions” to garden problems often don’t work, backfire, or work less well than expected.

So, for a minute, let’s get back to those apple trees—and our pear trees, peach tree, pluot, elderberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapes and other fruits whose buds are now swelling in preparation to bloom. Orchardists hate early bloom, since the flowers and developing fruit are subject to late frosts. If a frost hits while flowers are open, the result is frozen flowers and no fruit. If a frost hits the developing fruit, the result is usually dead fruit. And since fruit trees flower only once a year, if the flowers or fruit are killed, the whole year’s crop is lost.

This would be depressing enough for backyard gardeners like us. But what about orchardists who make their living growing fruit? Unlike vegetable gardeners, who can simply replant, the fruit grower’s harvest and income is lost for the year. (Yet another argument for diversification.) This may result in an even more horrific situation: orchards being sold off to make yet more McMansion-packed “house farms.”

And there’s another factor to consider: pollination. Unlike nuts, which are wind-pollinated, fruits are bee-pollinated. Honeybees, our chief pollinators, are already under attack from parasites and fungal disease, and their numbers have dropped dramatically. But what if unusually warm winters and springs wake up the plants before the bees?

Certainly, Silence and I haven’t seen any bees buzzing around here, yet our fruit trees are in bud and their flowers will open within a week or two. If they bloom before the bees emerge, we won’t get fruit; and if the bees emerge after bloom, they won’t get food. And what if the warmer weather favors the proliferation of the mites and fungi that attack bee colonies? This is a lose-lose situation for all concerned. Much as we love a mild winter and early spring, it’s not worth losing our bees, fruit, and many of our bee-pollinated vegetable crops. 

But let’s get back to seed-sowing. Silence and I believe in patronizing as many seed companies and local seed-selling businesses as possible, since our goal is to keep local businesses carrying seed and as many seed companies as possible in business. This particular batch, for example, includes seed packs from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, Rohrer Seeds, Renee’s Garden, The Cook’s Garden, Burpee, The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Botanical Interests, Seeds of Change, Agway, Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, and Happy Cat Farm.

Our technique is simply to scatter the seeds randomly over the bed, with the exception of the snow and sugar snap peas, which we plant in a row along a trellis we push into the soil along one end and part of the back of the bed. Then we drag the back of a raking fork over the bed to lightly cover the seeds with soil and to make sure they’re in good contact with the soil so they don’t try to root into thin air. When the seeds come up, since all the greens are edible—even the pea shoots—if some are too close, as they inevitably will be, we thin them and use the thinnings as microgreens and, later, mesclun mix in our salads. We’ll also transplant as needed to fill any bare spots.

Ready for our seed list? It’s pretty sizeable, but remember, we’re talking about a 4-by-16-foot bed. And we do eat a lot of greens! Here you go: ‘Ruby Streaks’ mustard greens, ‘Mizuna’ mustard greens, ‘Southern Giant Curled’ mustard greens, ‘Buttercrunch’ lettuce, ‘Grand Rapids’ lettuce, ‘Royal Oak Leaf’ lettuce, ‘Salad Bowl’ lettuce, ‘Red Salad Bowl’ lettuce, ‘Ruby’ lettuce, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce, ‘Lollo Rossa’ lettuce, ‘Troutback’ lettuce, ‘Blush Butter Cox’ lettuce, ‘Red Ruffled Oak’ lettuce, ‘Red Devil’s Tongue’ lettuce, ‘Sucrine’ lettuce,  ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’ snow peas, ‘Super Snappy’ sugar snap peas, curly endive, arugula, wild arugula (roquette), corn salad (mache), French sorrel, ‘Merlo Nero’ spinach,’Long Standing Bloomsdale’ spinach, ‘Rossi di Verona a Palla’ (‘Dragon’) radicchio, ‘Red Verona’ radicchio, ‘Komatsuma Tendergreen’ oriental greens, ‘Tatsoi’ oriental greens, ‘China Rose’ winter radish, ‘White Icicle’ radish, ‘Cherry Belle’ radish,  ‘Crimson Forest’ bunching onion, and ‘Tokyo Long White’ bunching onion.

Wow! Our friend Ben hopes that reading that list didn’t wear you out. It’s only the beginning of our vegetable-gardening adventures this season, and, we hope, of yours! Tomorrow, we’ll share a few fun garden-resource sites we’ve found this season.

Radical homemaking. January 25, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading.
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Silence Dogood here. I was intrigued and excited to receive an e-mail from PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, announcing the keynote speaker for their upcoming symposium: Shannon Hayes, the author of a book called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (Left to Write Press, 2010).

Heading to Amazon to read what people had to say about this, I found this bio of Shannon: “Shannon Hayes writes and farms with three generations of her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in West Fulton, NY, where she grew up. The family raises all-natural grassfed lamb, beef, pork, and poultry. She holds a BA in creative writing from Binghampton University, and a Masters and PhD in Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development from Cornell. Shannon is the author of three books: Grassfed Gourmet, Farmer and the Grill, and Radical Homemakers….  Shannon currently blogs for Yes! Magazine, and her books are available through most conventional channels, as well as directly from the author at RadicalHomemakers.com and GrassfedCooking.com. Shannon’s newest book, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously, is due out from Left to Write Press in 2012.”   

The cover of Radical Homemakers shows Ms. Hayes defiantly brandishing a rolling pin with one well-muscled arm, much like the iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter. You can see that she’s picked her battle and joined it exuberantly. And that battle is an old and honorable one, agrarianism versus industrialization, family and community values versus blind consumerism, honorable, rewarding work versus the mindless climb up the corporate ladder, whatever the price.

The roots of this argument go back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It shaped the lives and thoughts of the Founding Fathers; it spawned the Agrarian Movement in the early 20th-century South, led by such literary luminaries as Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.

It inspired the Back to the Land/homesteading movement of the 1970s, led by those pioneering intellectuals, Helen and Scott Nearing, in their Living the Good Life books; it has been the life work of the fine novelist and farmer Wendell Berry, and has been embraced by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver. It has inspired the rise of local and seasonal eating, of CSAs (consumer-supported organic farms) and farmers’ markets, and has created a renaissance of home cooking and a backlash against fast so-called food. It has inspired chefs and cookbook authors like Alice Waters, Mollie Katzen and Laurel Robertson, and seedsmen and seedswomen like Rose Marie Nichols, Rob Johnston, Jere Gettle, and Renee Shepherd. 

Our friend Ben and I are totally on board with this. We moved to Pennsylvania back in the day when an opportunity arose to work for Organic Gardening, a magazine we wholeheartedly believed in. Our escapist reading has been publications like Mother Earth News, Back Home, Backwoods Home, and Plain, and the works of the Nearings, Wendell Berry, Gary Paul Nabhan, Ruth Stout, Jackie Clay, and Gene Logsdon. Our families still scratch their heads over why we chose to make our home in a rural cottage and fill our property with a greenhouse, chicken yard, compost bins, raised beds, fruit trees, vine trellises, woodpiles, rain barrels, and the like. Our colleagues have always asked us why we didn’t seek jobs in New York and Philadelphia, just a few tedious hours’ commute away.

Well, we didn’t want to. We’ve enjoyed our organic connection with our work and with our land, and all the plants and animals we share it with. We’re so grateful to the internet for making broader connections effortlessly possible, enabling our lives to be home-based while still keeping us connected to friends, family, world events, and the latest discoveries in every field. Letting our minds and hearts reach out, even as we’re able to remain centered.

Our choices have had, as you might expect, considerable impact on our style of living. Our cottage home needs painting in the worst way. Our cars are ancient and battered, held together with a prayer and a few strips of duct tape. We need a new stove, new laptops, a digital camera, a washer-dryer. We dream of travel but stay at home. Going to a movie, eating out, buying even the most basic new clothes become major decisions. (Thank God for thrift shops, home cooking, and Netflix!) And yet, imagine this: A life without deadlines, without meetings, without commuting, without constantly having to check your smartphone and talk, text, tweet. “I know a place where dreams come true and time is never planned,” James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, wrote longingly. We know that place, too. We’re lucky enough to live there.

But let’s get back to Radical Homemakers. The title should have clued me in right away that this is an interview book, a profile book, not a how-to book. Homemakers, not Homemaking. The author is also apparently very eager to show that homemaking is not anti-feminist, and feminism apparently occupies a good deal of her approach. (To me, true feminism is doing whatever you feel is right, not wasting time trying to prove that you’re really as good as men—shock surprise!—or that what you’ve chosen to do isn’t demeaning. But I digress.) And she was fortunate enough to have a working family farm to move her family to (for free) when she decided to leave the rat race for a more meaningful life.

Shannon Hayes has, in my opinion, created the meaningful, home-based life she sought for herself and her family. And in Radical Homemakers, she interviews families across the country who have also achieved this goal. What the book doesn’t do is provide a roadmap to help others who have the same dream achieve their goal, especially if they don’t have a family farm to move to or a family who will pay their expenses.

This is in marked contrast to the Nearings’ books, in which they explained exactly what they thought, exactly what they learned to do, exactly how they planned, exactly what they gave up,  and exactly what they did to create “the good life.”

And yet. The Nearings inspired the entire Back to the Land movement with their books. But they made their move in the 1930s, when land was cheap and plenty was available. They were published and accomplished authors, who had led privileged and cosmopolitan lives and had influential connections across the globe. Their connections allowed them to spend half of every year visiting friends and lecturing abroad, and the earnest (young, strong) groupies who flocked to their Forest Farm allowed them to delegate unpaid work, often for years, while they wrote and made music and led a civilized life.

Not that they didn’t feed, shelter, and include their volunteers in their cultural life. Not that they didn’t work hard themselves and live very simply (mostly on unbuttered baked potatoes, raw apples, and undressed salad, if memory serves, on the theory that if you aren’t hungry enough to eat plain food, you aren’t hungry enough to eat, period).

Rather, the problem was that they were delineating the new/old Utopia, based on backbreaking agrarian labor, and their vision was espoused not by farm workers but by Hippies, who embraced peace, love and drugs rather than hard work, who had no experience of work, much less farm work, and who had no support network. The Nearings were as horrified by the people who created a cult around them as JRR Tolkien was by the fans of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. There simply was no meeting of the minds. The Flower Power generation tried the homestead life, alone and communally, and next thing we knew, they’d become Yuppies, pursuing their parents’ have-it-all consumerist lifestyle with a vengeance.

Well, we’ve seen what happened to the ’80s. We’ve also seen the resurgence of the back-to-the-landers, with urban farms and urban chickens and CSAs and farmers’ markets and slow food and seasonal eating and locavores. We’ve seen how the internet has given all these trends vitality and longevity. And we love that.

So what if Radical Homemakers is an inspirational rather than a how-to book? As long as readers expect inspiration rather than how-to, I see no problem with that. Reading the Nearings and Organic Gardening opened our eyes to new possibilities, honorable livelihood, the concept that you could go back to the land without giving up culture and civilized pursuits. This realization changed our lives’ directions. Who knows what you might find that would trigger a total life change, or a minor tweak that would make your own life whole?

The world of blogging offers a great opportunity to explore the lives of real-time homesteaders, family farmers, and urban bioneers, to see how hard they work, what they’ve chosen to do, the rewards and trials, how their families like it. Some places we love are Jackie Clay’s blog (http://www.backwoodshome.com/blogs/JackieClay/), Gene Logsdon’s musings (http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/), Alan’s adventures over at Roberts Roost (http://www.robertsroostfarm.com/), Daphne’s Dandelions (http://daphnesdandelions.blogspot.com/), Aunt Debbi’s Garden (http://auntdebbisgarden.blogspot.com/), Future House Farm (http://futurehousefarm.blogspot.com/), and The Home Garden (http://www.growingthehomegarden.com/). We love many other blogs, of course, but these cover various aspects of self-sufficiency and food gardening, from urban and suburban spaces to a few acres to a few hundred. Check them out! 

And if you’ve read Radical Homemakers, please let us know what you think!

           ‘Til next time,



What to do with thinned peaches. July 9, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben was about to add this reader query—one of the “search engine terms” someone used to reach our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac—to our “wacky blog search” file when it dawned on me that this was actually a serious issue and deserved a serious response. That’s because all parts of a peach tree, including thinned peaches, can harbor diseases like brown rot, peach scab, and anthracnose.

These are all fungal diseases, and it’s the disease spores that can be carried by leaves, twigs, and fruit. Fungi tend to spread most quickly in warm, wet weather, especially when the plant doesn’t have a chance to dry out and the moisture sits on the fruit and leaves. That’s one of the reasons why you thin fruit to begin with: Fruit that rubs together creates an ideal environment for fungal diseases. (The other reasons are to give each peach you leave on the tree enough room to reach full size and perfect shape, and to keep branches from splitting off under the weight of the crop. Peaches should be thinned so they’re no closer than 8 inches apart.) It’s also an important reason to prune peach trees, to increase air circulation within the branches.

If you’re organic gardeners like us, it’s even more important to prune and thin your peaches religiously. Inspect your tree(s) weekly and remove any dead or diseased twigs and fruit. Bring a bag out with you and place all twigs, fruit, and leaves you take off directly in the bag, not on the ground (or in the compost pile). Search the ground around each tree and collect any fruit, leaves, and twigs that have dropped since your last inspection; put them in the bag as well. Put the bag in the trash, and sterilize your pruner’s blades immediately afterward with alcohol or bleach (or flame, but careful, please!) before using them on any other plants. Don’t forget to wash your hands!

So the short answer to this reader’s question is: Throw them away. But our friend Ben will confess, though we’re scrupulous about thinning and picking up drops—no fun when you’re pawing through the grass looking for even the tiniest ones—that we’ll occasionally give some of the riper ones to the chickens. Still, you’d be wise to do as I say, not as I do here: Better safe than sorry!

McGrath to speak on food gardening. April 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Just a brief alert to let food gardeners within driving distance of scenic Bethlehem, PA know that Mike McGrath, former editor of Organic Gardening magazine and host of the nationally syndicated radio show “You Bet Your Garden,” is giving a talk there on May 10.

McGrath’s presentation, “Grow Your Own Kitchen Garden Goodies,” focuses on small-space gardening. He’ll discuss organic gardening techniques and how to choose the right varieties, as well as providing tips on how to stretch your harvest season even if you only have a small plot.

But wait, it gets better! McGrath is partnering with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chefs Association for the presentation. About 80 local chefs and alumni (as well as current students) of Northampton Community College’s renowned culinary school will prepare herb-based goodies like summer rolls and bruschetta for the audience to sample. Yum!

You can read all about it at www.themorningcall.com, which features an interview article, “Little garden, big yield,” with tips from Mike McGrath. You’ll also find recipes for summer rolls and bruschetta so you can make your own.

The “Grow Your Own Kitchen Garden Goodies” presentation is at 6 p.m. on May 10th at the Lipkin Theatre, Kopacek Hall, Northampton Community College, 3835 Green Pond Road, Bethlehem Township, PA. Admission is just $5. Attendance is limited to 300, so the paper suggests that you arrive early to be sure you get in. Maybe we’ll drop by to say hi to Mike and see you there!

Why go organic? July 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was horrified to see a news item on MSN.com this morning announcing that a massive review of studies in London had found that there was no benefit to organic over chemically-grown produce. Well, that is simply not true.

Sure enough, clicking on the article, our friend Ben found that what the researchers had found was that there was no proven nutritional superiority of organic over chemically-grown produce. Despite rumors and claims circulating in organic circles since the beginning of organic gardening, the researchers’ findings have been proved again and again: the nutritional advantages of organic versus chemically-grown produce are minimal to nil. Nutritional value is the result of any number of complex factors, including whether the varitety being raised is inherently nutritionally superior (such as carrots bred for higher beta-carotene content or tomatoes bred for high lycopene content, or varieties in which higher nutritional levels occur naturally); whether the plants are grown in rich soil, receive adequate water and nutrients throughout their lives, and are not weakened by disease and damage; and whether they’re harvested at the peak of ripeness or picked and consumed before they reach their nutritional peak.

This truth has long been known and acknowledged by the organic gardening community. Nutritional superiority is not what sets organic gardening apart from chemical gardening. That being the case, why would ordinary folks like our friend Ben and Silence Dogood choose to be lifelong organic gardeners, or spend their hard-earned money on organically raised food when chemically raised is almost always cheaper?

Two simple reasons. First, if you had the choice of drinking water that had been used to cool down a nuclear power plant or water from a pure mountain spring, which would you choose? It’s not so much about what’s good about organic food as what’s bad about chemically-grown food. This food is inundated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. We all know the story of DDT and the devastating damage it did to our planet. But did you know that both chemical fertilizers and herbicides originated as agents of war?

The first herbicide was Agent Orange, and we all know the lingering horror it wreaked on the soldiers and civilians who were exposed to it. It reminds our friend Ben of the early pioneers of radiation, who to a person died of horrific radiation-induced sickness because they didn’t realize that their exciting new discovery could be harmful. Chemical fertilizers were used to make dynamite and bombs during World War I, and it was only by accident that the leftovers were found to increase fertility. Unfortunately, chemical fertilizers artificially goose fertility while killing off the life in the soil that is the true source of sustainable fertility. Back to that in a mo. But first, let me just say that I don’t want to be served up a chemical cocktail—with detriments to my future health that haunt me in my nightmares—every time I eat. I can’t imagine that you do, either.

Okay, back to point #2, the health of the soil. No scientist can argue that chemicals kill soil life and organic practices like applying mulch and compost and using green manures  boost it. As J.I. Rodale, the founder of organic gardening in America, liked to say, the soil is health. Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people. Healthy soil means a living community of beneficial insects, including earthworms, and microorganisms that support fertility and crop abundance without harming us.

Our friend Ben thinks that’s worth a little nurturing. Why dump more and more chemicals onto our soil every year when we can encourage that very soil to do our growing for us? Plus, chemical fertilizers contain nitrates and nitrites, those very substances that health professionals are constantly warning us about (as in “Don’t eat hot dogs that contain nitrates and nitrites!”) Our water supply is being contaminated by these carcinogens thanks to agricultural runoff. I don’t know about you, but our friend Ben would prefer to avoid cancer, thank you very much. And I’m willing to do my part not to contribute to its rise by adding more chemicals to our water. 

Seeing a headline like this morning’s makes our friend Ben see red. It’s outdated and misleading. There are very, very powerful reasons to garden and eat organically, including the health of our planet and every creature on it, including us. It’s time people laid the issue of nutritional superiority to rest once and for all and focused on organics’ true benefits.

A kitchen garden at the White House!!! March 20, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. God bless Michelle Obama! Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, or Independent, if you’re a passionate gardener, today’s headlines just have to make you shout “Hooray!!!” Michelle Obama, with help from local elementary school students, is breaking ground on the South Lawn of the White House to plant a big, Victory Garden-style kitchen garden of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. The White House kitchen will use the produce when preparing food for the First Family and guests. Best of all, it’s going to be an organic garden!

Loving cooking and kitchen gardening as I do, and being a lifelong organic gardener as I am, this is the best, most uplifting news I’ve heard in a long time. (I was so excited I dragged a groggy, protesting OFB out of bed and shoved his face in the computer screen. When he saw what all the fuss was about, he agreed.) In the face of a tanking economy, arrogance and greed on the part of AIG and other “big money” companies, ongoing disputes abroad, and the usual bad and sad news (just today, our local paper had a headline about cruelty charges being leveled against the owners of an animal rescue shelter), how exciting to see a demonstration of safe, self-sufficient living at the White House itself.

I hope Michelle Obama inspires people across the country to follow her example and grow some of their own food (organically, of course). I hope schools across the country will be inspired to start organic kitchen gardens of their own and teach a new generation about the delights of gardening and of eating homegrown fruits and vegetables.

The Obama campaign was all about hope. Today, I feel a little more hopeful. Thanks, Michelle!

           ‘Til next time,


Going green for St. Patrick’s Day. March 17, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Today, people around the world honor the Patron Saint of Ireland who, legend has it, immortalized the shamrock in his teaching (he used the three-leaved clover to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity) and drove the snakes out of Ireland (actually, they were wiped out in the last Ice Age). Now, our friend Ben is actually fond of snakes, or at least of the benign, non-poisonous types like garter snakes, milk snakes, and the like. And I’ll confess to a fondness for purple oxalis as a groundcover in containers. (If you buy a “shamrock” plant in America, it’s usually a green-leaved oxalis.)

But our friend Ben thinks that St. Patrick’s Day presents us gardening enthusiasts with an opportunity to take the green theme literally, and I’m not talking about green beer. Why not celebrate the day by doing something garden-related and environmentally friendly? Plant a tree, start a flat or pot of seeds, sow your peas, plant potatoes. Buy a birdbath or a container for a deck or patio water garden. Get some real plants for your aquarium, sprout some seeds for your parakeet or cockatiel, grow some wheatgrass or catnip for your feline friends. If you have kids (or are a kid or hippie at heart), plant an avocado seed or carrot or beet top in a pot or stick a sweet potato in a jar of water. At the very least, do a family tour of your yard and see what’s blooming or sprouting or leafing out.

Other ideas: Go to a local garden center and buy a new houseplant, or to a hardware or grocery store and buy some seeds. Get a pot of blooming daffodils and plant them outside later (I’ve had great success with ‘Tete-a-Tete’ and other small-flowered daffs). Treat your current houseplants to a spring repotting. Buy some organic houseplant fertilizer. Go to a flower show. Check out a book on organic gardening from your local library, or head over to a website like Organic Gardening or Mother Earth News or Backwoods Home and read up on organic techniques. (See our blogroll at right for links.) Make a raised bed. Think about buying or building a coldframe or a seed-starting setup. Consider creating a rain garden or growing more of your own food or adding more native plants to your landscape this year. Make a compost pile or an earthworm bin. When you start to think about it, the possibilities are endless!

Silence Dogood reminds me that there are some fun food-related options for St. Pat’s Day as well: You could make Irish soda bread (yum!!!) or look into a modestly-priced kit like the ones offered by Mr. Beer (www.mrbeer.com) and try your hand at home brewing. (We actually found an unopened Mr. Beer kit at our local Goodwill for less than $20.)

Silence especially likes one recipe for Irish soda bread adapted from Cooks.com, though she notes that “real” Irish soda bread has no sweeteners or currants. So purists, be warned! Silence likes the extra oomph that the currants, caraway seeds, and cardamom give this loaf, and we both like the slight sweetness. But she warns not to overmix the batter or overcook the bread or you’ll end up with a hard brown lump. The goal is a loaf that’s dense and rich, not hard. She also thinks Irish soda bread should always be served warm, either hot from the oven or sliced and heated for toast, and slathered with butter. Marmalade or apple butter are excellent but optional. We love hot Irish soda bread for breakfast with a big chunk of Cheddar and a huge pot of tea. Aaaaahhhh…

        Irish Soda Bread

4 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, unsifted

1 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 cup butter

1 egg

1 3/4 cups buttermilk

2 cups currants or golden raisins

1 1/2 teaspoons caraway seeds

In a large bowl, stir together 4 cups of flour, the baking powder and soda, salt, sugar, and cardamom until thoroughly blended. Cut in butter with a pastry blender or two knives until crumbly. Add currants or raisins and caraway seeds, stirring to blend. In a separate bowl, beat egg slightly and combine with buttermilk; stir into dry ingredients until blended. Turn out on a floured board and knead until smooth (2-3 minutes). Divide dough into halves and shape each half into a smooth, round loaf. Place each loaf in a greased 8-inch cake or pie pan, pressing down until dough fills pan. With a razor blade or sharp, floured knife, cut crosses in tops of loaves about 1/2-inch deep. Bake at 375 degrees F for 35-40 minutes, until a straw or toothpick inserted into each loaf comes out dry. Makes 2 loaves.     

So, what are you going to do for St. Patrick’s Day this year?