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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,

                        Silence

 

Are you up to this? July 25, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Becca sent us the most wonderful quote the other day. It’s from the revered sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, and it says:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. 

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood agree with the general thrust of this comment, though we have no clue how to conn a ship or program a computer, and Silence thinks the part about cooking a tasty meal comes rather late in the list. We feel passionately that what made humanity great was our aptitude for generalization—look at our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, or, say Leonardo da Vinci—and that our downfall as a species has been our increasing pigeonholing into extremely specialized functions.

We might add a facility with writing and communicating and a knowledge of the world, both natural and historical, and world affairs to Mr. Heinlein’s list, for how can you understand alien cultures if you don’t understand the diversity of cultures here on Earth? We would also add the ability to grow a ripe tomato, or any produce, to Mr. Heinlein’s list, and to harvest, preserve, and enjoy it in every season.

What’s your ultimate short list?

Lights out! October 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It was about 6:30 on Saturday morning, and still black as pitch, when the furnace cut off. The sudden quiet was enough even to rouse our friend Ben. “The power’s out!”

Well, yes, it certainly was. As I understand it, power outages in the city are damned inconvenient, especially if the weather’s extremely hot or cold and the a/c or heat shuts off. But you should try one here. We have a well and septic system here at Hawk’s Haven, which means that the second the power goes off, we’re confronting no light, no heat, no water—and that includes no running water—and no flushing toilet. No power to the greenhouse, no aeration or filtration for the fishtanks. Our parrot and parakeets freezing in their cages. And did I mention, NO BATHROOM?!!! Oh, okay. Just checking.

As you can imagine, this isn’t the first time this has happened since we’ve lived here. In fact, the first time was during an ice storm one February when a friend was staying over.* Until then, I thought we were in comparatively good shape. No, we didn’t have a generator. But we had a well, a gas stove, oil heat, and a septic system. None of these said “electricity” to me. Until the power failed and none of them worked. Water, heat, and the stove all switch on electronically. Oh, no.

To say the least, that first power outage was devastating. But it was also a wake-up call. By the time the power came back on, we had a plan to avoid feeling that helpless ever again. We installed a highly efficient woodstove in our living-room fireplace, and bought a heat-powered fan to blow even more of the woodstove heat into the room. Our living-room sofa is also a sofabed, so if worse comes to worst, we can pile on the blankets, crank up the woodstove, and stay there until further notice. And, oh yes—we make sure we always have a cord of dry, split wood on hand, just in case. It’s amazing how fast a woodstove can go through wood when you have it burning 24/7. We also now have a propane heater for the greenhouse, which would be fine without additional heat during the day (unless all the panels were covered with snow, which at least would be insulating), but on a winter night, temperatures can plummet fast.

Moving on to the water issue. We have some fairly elaborate water filters here, in case we ever have to drink creek water or roof runoff. But let’s hope that day never dawns. Meantime, we have spring water delivered every month, a practice I began way back when I lived in an apartment and our water source was contaminated. So we have backup, drinkable water in case the power fails, for ourselves and our animals. Our friend Ben pointed out that we could use it for brushing our teeth as well if we had to, and of course he’s right. And obviously, we can use it for cooking, too. I try to keep eight cases on hand at all times, which adds up to 48 gallons.

What about that toilet issue? Well, we keep recycled plastic juice and water bottles full of tapwater in the laundry room in case we need to pour them into the toilet to flush it. And okay, we also have two “alternative” toilets: An antique chamber pot I got at a flea market and a camper’s toilet we bought at Cabela’s, the huge sporting-goods store in nearby Hamburg, PA. (Cabela’s has a mail-order catalogue and many other stores around the country; check them out at www.cabelas.com.) I wish to God we had a composting toilet and an outhouse, as well, but you need a basement or second storey to install a non-electric composting toilet and we have neither, and of course outhouses are illegal. Damn.

Light? We have two battery-operated Coleman lanterns and a world of candles, including some that are very long-burning. We also splurged on reflective candleholders, with mirrors behind the candles, for the mantel to amplify light if needed. And one reason we bought this house to begin with was that it was designed to let in lots of light, from numerous windows and pass-throughs and the kitchen skylight and deck doors. OFB and I were able to read Saturday’s paper by the light streaming through the deck doors.

What about food? Fortunately, our ancient gas stove is prepared to come to our rescue here. We have two solar ovens in case of long-term emergency, but have never yet had to try one. (One of my goals is to learn how to cook with them before we absolutely have to depend on them.) Ditto for the propane grill our friends Chaz and Delilah reconditioned and gave us a few years ago (bless their hearts). It’s true that our stove is electronically started, but fortunately for us, in an emergency you can turn the gas on under a burner, light a match, hold it to the gas, and have a perfectly functional cooking surface. Whew! I was able to make coffee for OFB on Saturday morning, not in his decrepit but beloved coffeemaker, but by heating a teakettle of water on the stove, then pouring the hot water through a ceramic cup filter fitted out with a paper filter and coffee grounds into his coffee mug. He proclaimed it to be better than the coffee from his coffeemaker!

How else have we prepared for a power outage? We have insulated curtains on our windows, and use tacked-up bubblewrap to augment the curtains as needed. We have draft-stoppers at every door. We have wind-up clocks and watches. We try to keep plenty of food staples on hand to make sure we and our animals can survive if we can neither get out nor have power.  We have tons of warm coverings on hand to layer as needed (both blankets and clothing). We also try to have plenty of emergency supplies, be they medical or simple board games like chess or marble solitaire, so we won’t panic even if the outage continues for several days.

In this case, the weather had bounced back from unseasonably frigid to typical fall temps, so one concern was alleviated. My big concern was the bathroom, OFB’s was taking a shower before heading off for a meeting. Thank heavens, the power came on again at 9:30, so we weren’t in the dark all that long. But still… what if we had been? A power failure is always a good wake-up call. Are you prepared? Prepared to survive a day, 24 hours, a week in comparative comfort? If not, it’s not too late to look at your situation and think about what you could do to make it more power-outage-proof.

          ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

* And yes, this isn’t the 1800s, so you’d have thought any decent human being would have packed up his guest and taken him or her to a warm, cozy hotel with all the amenities if the power failed at home when it was way freezing outside. But the ice storm made it impossible to travel, so we were all stuck.

White Veggie Farm?! March 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Call it the Year of the Vegetable. Our friend Ben was amazed to receive the latest edition of the always-luscious White Flower Farm catalogue earlier this week and see that not flowers but veggies were on the cover, with the caption “Grow your own fresh vegetables this summer.”

White Flower Farm, that ultra-upscale Connecticut nursery, has always been up with the trends. Always an icon of perennial and bulb gardeners, a few years ago it added trendy annuals and container combos to its listings. If White Flower Farm is highlighting veggies, veggies have finally crossed over from truck garden staples and reached iconic status. Thank God!

Admittedly, there are just seven pages of fruits, herbs, and veggies (most notably heirloom tomatoes) in the 144-page catalogue. But still. This is the equivalent of Yo-Yo Ma suddenly performing “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Margaritaville” in the middle of a Mozart symphony. Veggies have arrived.

In a faltering economy, subsistence gardening has historically been a popular option. Roses become more valued for their vitamin-C-rich hips than their lovely blossoms; people start eyeing daylilies and nasturtiums for their edible buds rather than their flowers. “Victory gardens” spring up in yards that would have disdained the “white trash” connotations of the truck garden. Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden on the White House grounds is a testament to the trend.

We applaud the White House kitchen garden and are thrilled by the trend back to food gardening. But there’s an ironic underside to this happy trend: Agrimonsters like Monsanto are trying to make it impossible to even grow backyard vegetables to feed your own family. If you’re not aware of the scary legislation they’ve muscled into Congress, our friend Ben suggests  that you check out recent posts on the subject by Alan Roberts (www.robertsroostecofarm.com), and on Jackie Clay’s blog at Backwoods Home Magazine and Granny Miller (click on them on our blogroll at right to see what they have to say).

These monsters are the worst examples of modern take-all businesses, concerned only with their own take-everything bottom lines. We at Poor Richard’s Almanac tend to keep quiet about politics, since we feel that our own views aren’t necessarily the end-all and be-all, and we hate being dictated to, even when we agree with someone’s stand. But when corporate monsters try to tell us that we can’t raise our own animals or grow our own vegetables without their express permission, we beg to differ. We have exactly one thing to say to them: Go **** yourselves, and burn in Hell afterwards, you monstrous, selfish, sinful swine!!!! You’re destroying our world, and you’re doing it for personal profit. We hate you, hate you, hate you!!!

There. Have we made our position clear? We’re so glad. Meanwhile, thank you, Obamas, thank you, White Flower Farm, thank you everyone who promotes backyard fruit, herb, and vegetable gardening. Garden power to the people!!!

Can’t we do anything for ourselves?! March 21, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, critters, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about perceived helplessness. The other night, my girlfriend, Bridget, and I were heading over to Hawk’s Haven to have dinner with Silence Dogood and our friend Ben. We decided to stop in at Petco and pick up some parakeet treats as a “Welcome home!” present for OFB and Silence’s new parakeets, Taco, Belle, and Laredo. The colorful trio—Taco is blue and white, Belle is yellow, and Laredo is bright green and yellow—have been brightening the lives of Silence, OFB, and their yellow-naped Amazon, Plutarch, since their other much-loved parrot, Marcus Hookbill, and parakeet Willow died.

Silence had told us how much the parakeets loved millet sprays, so we thought we’d pick up a bag, and maybe get a can of honey-, fruit-, or veggie and greens-enriched treat while we were at it. But we were a bit stunned by the giant rack of parakeet seed, pellets, treats, and toys in the Petco, and it took quite a while to decide that we were sticking with our original choices, since we knew they’d be hits. While Bridget was choosing the treat mix, my eyes strayed to the huge wall display of wild bird seed and feeders nearby. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

There, prominently displayed in packed ranks, were 2-liter plastic birdseed dispensers. Let’s backtrack for a second here: Several years ago, I’d heard that a company was making an inexpensive kit that let you convert the ubiquitous 2-liter soda bottles into birdfeeders. I loved the idea of creative recycling, but wanted to make sure it would work. So I went to my local Agway and plunked down about $3.99 for a kit, which included a plastic feeder tray with perches and a hanger. If this worked, instead of spending bazillion dollars for a high-end feeder, you’d have a capacious feeder that would only require weekly (as opposed to daily) filling, and you’d be turning trash into birdfeeding gold.

Here’s how you put one of these kits together: First, rinse out an empty 2-liter soda bottle and discard the cap. When the bottle is dry, use a scissors to cut off the plastic soda label so you have a clear bottle and can monitor the seed level. Use the spearlike ends of the plastic hanger to punch holes on two sides of the soda bottle near the bottom and insert the hanger. Next, fill the bottle with birdseed. Finally, screw the feeder tray onto the cap end, take the bottle feeder outside, hang it up (I used a metal hook suspended from a branch, as I do for all my feeders), and you’re done. I ask you: Does this sound hard?!

Well, some manufacturer must have decided that it was too challenging for the average American, since they’d gone to the trouble to preattach the empty 2-liter soda bottles. And, if the number and prominence of them in the Petco display is any indication, they’re a hot seller. Yikes!

I went over to see if the manufacturer had included any improvements over my little kit, but no. My homemade feeder had worked beautifully, but I could have suggested two improvements: A bigger seed tray, which would have created more perching space, and one of the dome-shaped clear plastic baffles that wild bird companies typically sell as squirrel deterrents. I never saw a squirrel at my bottle feeder, but if it rained or snowed, the moisture gummed up the seed outlets and I had to take the tray off and clean them out. A baffle might have helped the seed stay dry.

But these bottle feeders’ trays were identical to my kit’s and there was no rain baffle in sight. The good folks who made them simply saved us the trouble of recycling our own bottles, doubtless adding at least a few bucks to their bottom line in the process. Sheesh!

Poor Bridget, OFB, and Silence were subjected to quite a tirade from me on this subject all through Silence’s wonderful dinner. (She’d sauteed mushrooms, sweet onions, diced fennel bulb, yellow bell pepper, minted artichoke hearts, and kalamata olives in herb-infused olive oil, then served the sauce over pasta with shredded Asiago cheese and accompanied it with a huge, fantastic salad and Cabernet Sauvignon, in case you’re wondering. She calls this a “simple” dinner!)

The subject of my rant was this: Have we become a nation of aging infants? Must we be spoon-fed everything in our lives? Pre-packaged, pre-cooked, pre-portioned, pre-digested (wait, Bridget says I have to take that out): Why buy a bag of carrots, slice them, and eat them as snacks when we can buy pre-packaged carrot sticks for three times more? Why buy a box of cereal and pour our own when we can buy “convenient” cereal paks, or stick a potato in the oven when we can buy dried, flaked, frozen, “boil-in-bag,” or even get a cold potato pre-cooked and stuffed from the deli counter? Yuck.

And on and on. Remote controls, electronic car keys, blah blah blah. Why exert yourself at all when you can punch a button instead? Why screw in your own empty soda bottle when you can buy one that’s pre-screwed? I guess it’s obvious that I think that, if we’ve really come to that, it’s not the only thing that’s screwed. Our poor blog mentor and hero, Ben Franklin, must be spinning in his grave.

God speed the plough. February 10, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were doing a bit of recreational antiquing this past weekend. We were exploring a local antiques mall with the priceless (and true) sign out front “Go Green, Buy Vintage” when our friend Ben came upon an extraordinary plate. Well, not really a plate, one of those Victorian soup bowls with the wide, flat rim and comparatively shallow, flat bowl.

Mind you, our friend Ben was not looking for bowls, plates, or any form of dishware, nor would I normally have given it a glance. But this particular dish displayed an Eighteenth-Century farm scene, with the farmwife churning butter, the farmer holding some old implement, and between them, all the old hand tools, from scythes and flails to sieves and hay forks, that were an essential part of daily farm life. Underneath them was a farmyard scene with cows, pigs, horses, chickens, geese, a barn, and a wheelbarrow full of what our friend Ben presumes to be manure. And between the farmer and his wife and the barnyard scene was a ribbon with the legend “God speed the plough.” The flat edge of the bowl was bordered with grains and grasses.

The whole thing was colorful, primitive, and charming, and Silence and our friend Ben were captivated. We thought it would make a delightful addition to our own little homestead, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. But it was when we turned the bowl over and saw what was on the back that our friend Ben realized that I just had to share our find with you.

There’s a verse on the back that would make our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin, proud. Let it be an inspiration to all of us who strive not just for a more self-sufficient lifestyle, but for everyday contentment. Between the heading “B&L Farmers Arms England” and a ribbon bearing the slogan “Industry Produceth Wealth,” and flanked on both sides by sheaves of wheat, is this:

“Let the wealthy and great

Roll in splendour and state

I envy them not, I declare it

I eat my own lamb

My own chickens and ham

I shear my own fleece and I wear it

I have lawns, I have bowers

I have fruits, I have flowers

The lark is my morning alarmer

So jolly boys now

Heres God speed the plough

Long life and success to the farmer.”

A catalog takes a stand. September 22, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, pets, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I confess, I’m a catalog junkie. I love to relax with a good catalog, losing myself in the fantasy of fabrics from Keepsake Quilters or homey cookbooks from Gooseberry Patch or a totebag from Orvis’s dog catalog with an embroidered golden retriever and our Molly’s name on it. I find it a great way to unwind before bed, to put something peaceful and pleasant in your mind instead of something that will keep you up, like the news or work anxiety or even an exciting novel.

My favorite catalogs fall into three categories. The first is practical old-time products, and my all-time favorite catalog, the Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog (www.Lehmans.com), falls into this category. It feeds into all my pioneer and self-sufficiency fantasies, and I look forward to each new catalog and read them cover-to-cover. Then there are the food and cookware catalogs, like the Trappist catalog of cheeses, fudge, and fruitcake made by the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemane (www.monks.org), the King Arthur Flour baking catalog, NapaStyle, and Williams-Sonoma. And finally, there are the garden catalogs: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Worm’s Way, Edible Landscaping, Charley’s Greenhouse, White Flower Farm, Logee’s, Nichols Garden Nursery, Wellsweep Herb Farm, Plant Delights, Wood Prairie Farm. The list is endless, and each one is a delight to me.

The Vermont Country Store catalog (www.vermontcountrystore.com) falls into the “practical products” category. They specialize in reviving old-time products that customers love and miss. I love the catalog’s retro feel, and can enjoy the nostalgia of the products even if they were in vogue before I was born. Unlike the Lehman’s catalog, which specializes in down-to-earth goods like lanterns, woodburning cookstoves, and canning equipment, The Vermont Country Store’s niche is more along the lines of old-time turkey toothpick holders, penny candy, Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgowns, Tangee lipstick, Body on Tap shampoo, and Evening in Paris perfume. (And yes, there really is a Vermont Country Store. It’s in Weston, Vermont, and it’s a lot of fun to explore if you’re up Green Mountain way. Been there, done that, would do it again anytime.)    

So last night, I slipped into bed with the Vermont Country Store catalog, preparing to time-travel to the peaceful, happy land of nostalgia while our friend Ben read Paul Theroux’s latest travelogue, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I glanced at the Orton family’s editorial on the first page, expecting to see the usual cheerful commentary on the good old days and how they were bringing them back for all of us to enjoy. Instead, I saw that the Ortons, who own the Vermont Country Store, had taken a stand on a political cause I didn’t know existed. It rocked my world.

If there are political catalogs out there, I don’t know about them, beyond the highly entertaining Northern Sun catalog (www.northernsun.com), which sells pro-environment, anti-war tee-shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons that are a trip right back to the Sixties. (And yes, all you latter-day hippies, many of the tee-shirts are tie-dyed.) Most catalogs avoid politics and issues like the plague, since, after all, they could alienate customers. Pretty much the last thing I’d have expected to find in the Vermont Country Store catalog was a political diatribe. But I not only wholeheartedly agree with them—and I hope you will, too—I was electrified to read it, aggravating our friend Ben no end by interrupting his travel reading with numerous exclamations and excerpts.

You see, the thing that had gotten the Ortons all hot under the collar was clotheslines. Or, more specifically, ordinances that prohibit people from putting up clotheslines in their communities. Here’s an excerpt from their editorial:

“We’ve been promoting a new kind of civil disobedience to save energy and help the planet: Set up a clothesline and hang your wash out even if you live in a neighborhood where doing such is prohibited…

“Someone years ago in some rich, exclusive development decided that clotheslines with their hanging sheets—and, oh-my-gosh, underwear!—were declasse and declared them illegal. This was the turning point in America, when we started moving from the small-town feel of inclusion to the gated-community exclusion and buying of status. Such ordinances and association rules fly in the face of efficient energy use and it’s time to get rid of them.

“… This past year in Vermont we attempted to pass a ‘right to dry’ law but it failed. You can be sure we’ll bring it back this coming year and hope other states do the same.

“We are not trying to shame anyone into getting rid of their dryer but we are trying to gain the right for anyone to put up a clothesline and dry their laundry the old-fashioned way. It’s not only frugal but a common sense way to reduce our impact on the planet.”

Orton family, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac salute you. We believe that every American should have the right to grow vegetables, herbs, fruits, and nuts on their own property, to keep a few chickens, to compost. To put up a coldframe or greenhouse to extend the food-producing season as long as possible. To heat with renewable resources like wood, sun, water, and wind. To reduce the size of their lawn, let it grow taller so it sucks up less water, is less stressed, and requires less-frequent mowing, or to eliminate it altogether. To put out rain barrels to capture roof runoff, recycle greywater, and install composting toilets. To, in short, live as responsibly as possible. We deplore the use of toxic chemicals and the waste of water involved in lawn maintenance, not to mention the giant riding mowers and their gasoline consumption. We deplore the residential regulations that mandate sterile expanses of high-maintenance lawn and sterile, inappropriate, usually imported tree species. God forbid that someone living in a townhouse should plant so much as a marigold, much less, oh my God, a tomato plant or a dwarf apple tree!

We have one thing to say about this rigid, outdated, environmentally sterile and toxic stupidity: GRRRRRRRR. To all you bastards who perpetuate it, the environment and the economy are in crisis, have you noticed? How about encouraging a little environmental awareness and self-sufficiency instead of continuing to crank up your polluted immorality? Shame!!! Shame on you!!!!

Thank you, Orton family, for taking this stand. Thank you, everyone who puts up a clothesline or grows some veggies or refrains from dumping chemicals on your lawn or who tries, as best you can, to be a nurturer rather than a destroyer. If each of us does a very little, we can change the world. Perhaps save the world, so our children or their children aren’t condemned to the life of “The Matrix.” Now is our chance to “get back to the garden.” As Mahatma Gandhi so aptly said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” One clothesline, one tomato plant, one chicken at a time.

                     ‘Til next time,

                                 Silence