Friday, January 30, 2009

Dirt Digging Dreams...

We have been pondering the best way to lay out the gardens for this year. Do we build raised beds? Should we double dig? What will we use to support the really heavy plants? Last year, all of our local garden supply stores ran out of tomato cages. We had a heck of a time trying to support tomato and pepper plants with whatever we could find around the house. One feeble attempt included tying twine to our chain link fence and to wooden stakes pounded into the ground.The twine stretched almost daily so we were constantly re-staking and twine tightening. It was a never-ending (and losing) battle.

I have drawn up several versions of possible garden layouts for 2009 and I am almost at my wit's end. (I may just be desperate enough to just scatter two fistfuls of seed in the wind and eat whatever sprouts!)

I am really looking forward to warmer weather just so we can commit to one design and start planting. Until then, our gardening plans change every time we see something online that looks like a good idea. Unfortunately, I am online all day, everyday and there are a lot of good ideas to be gleaned.

Today, I actually had an opportunity to do a little digging in the, peat, that is. I started some onions and leeks in my cute little seed starting kit that uses peat pellets. I found the replacement peat pellets last year at the end of the growing season for 59 cents at Kmart. I am usually not a fan of overly packaged products but when I opened the package, I found that there were some extremely sturdy plastic trays. I am determined to re-use and re-purpose them for a hydroponics project another day.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Yes, there are mealworms on Mars...

I was so excited to receive a box of mealworms as we head into the Valentines Day season. I know that many of you are probably thinking that my hubby, TheMartianMan will be sleeping in the car for all of eternity with no hope of a reprieve due to an un-Cupid-like gesture. In actuality, I ordered 1000 mealworms from

After doing some more reading, I discovered that mealworms don't always reproduce quickly. I decided that it would be prudent to purchase worms now, so that I would not be in danger of feeding all of my mealies to my baby chicks about ten minutes after their fluffy butts arrive. (Everyone knows that baby chicks are awfully cute when they beg for food. How can you possibly refuse something so cute?)

Here is a picture of the mealies in their new home:

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Incredible, Edible Eggshell?

We used to be really good at "making do" with what we happened to have at hand. Of course TheMartianMidgets were toddlers then and we were frugal out of necessity, not because we really preferred to be. This urban farmstead project is really forcing us to take a hard look at ways to pull things together on a shoestring budget.

As I go through the planning stages, I am constantly tempted to just buy certain things that we'll need.Instead, I have to rein myself in and Re-think, Re-use and Re-Purpose ordinary items that we happen to have around the house.Today, I decided to begin saving eggshells for our future flock of chickens. Eggshells can be washed, dried, crushed and fed to laying hens to provide calcium. The mineral is critical to ensuring that eggs laid will have strong shells. I could purchase calcium for poultry (also known as oyster shell), but that is an additional cost, albeit a small one at around $5. However, I do have about nine months before our chickens will begin to lay. (This is an extreme version of counting your chickens before they hatch, since the chicks that we will get in the Spring haven't actually hatched yet!) Hopefully, all of these small savings will add up and enable us to meet our farm-building budget of $1000.

Groovy Mushroom Madness!

TheMartianMan and I have quite the affinity for mushrooms...If you are having hazy memories of your time spent at Woodstock, now is the time to stop. I am not talking about the psychedelic shrooms, just the everyday kind that you might top a pizza with. We like to buy them from the local farmer's market in the summer, but have difficulty in obtaining them during the winter unless we get them from the chain grocery stores. We hate to do that because they really aren't as fresh. Anyway, some weeks back we ordered a mushroom kit. Essentially, it was a cardboard box of dirt and manure that had been inoculated(or seeded)to grow button mushrooms. I checked on the kit a few days ago and it had several smallish white clumps.They were rather disappointing to look at then, but not anymore! Some of these are about 3 inches across. Mmmm...gotta figure out what to make for dinner...

I decided to add a picture of the mushroom that I actually cooked for dinner. These things grow exponentially.A few hours really do make a difference. For scale, I placed a quarter next to it. Keep in mind that these are the same kind of button mushrooms that commonly come in a cute little can. I really don't think that one of our "Martian" mushrooms would even fit in a can!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fast Food Nation

My daughters (collectively known as TheMartianMidgets) have spent the past month at home from college for winter break. The biggest difference that I notice is the dwindling amount of foodstuffs in my house.Over the summer,I spent an inordinate amount of time stocking my deep freezer and two refrigerators with fresh veggies from the farmer's market and from my garden. I shopped every sale at the grocery store to put away bulk quantities of chicken, fish and beef for the main carnivore and chief grillmaster in our house, TheMartianMan. I truly thought that I had squirrelled away enough of the basic ingredients to get us through the majority of the winter. Apparently, I was wrong.

During the summer, there were more daylight hours to prepare food for storage and I was able to create my own convenience food items. My frozen containers of macaroni and cheese and pasta with sauce are far superior to any purchased in the freezer case at the supermarket. (If I do say so myself!) With shorter winter days and longer working hours, my convenience foods provide me with a quick way to start dinner and something healthy (and inexpensive) to carry to work for lunches.

Peering into my nearly empty cabinets , refrigerators and freezers, I determined a few days ago that I will again need to re-stock. I began by making cookie mixes. I know that cookies aren't really necessary to survival but they do make life worth living for, especially if there is chocolate involved! I filled plastic Zip-Loc bags with the basic ingredients for chocolate chip walnut, oatmeal chocolate chip walnut, oatmeal(no raisins), chocolate chip peanut butter and sugar cookies. On the outside of each bag, I listed the additional wet ingredients that would need to be added to complete each recipe. It went very quickly and I soon had 12 bags of cookie mix assembled.Once the mixes have been used, I save the bags for re-filling.

I repeated the same steps to make cornbread mix, biscuit mix and a basic muffin mix. For muffins, any mashed fruit can be added to the mix to add flavor. Over the next few days, I will set about the task of restocking the freezer with main dishes like the aforementioned mac and cheese, lasagna, soup, chili, stew, and anything else that I can think of. I'm already watching the grocery store sales for meat. In this tight economy, a well-stocked pantry buys me some peace of mind. The kids will be going back to college in a few days. Then the countdown begins for spring break when my pantry will take another hit...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Breaking Bread (A Cautionary Tale)

A few days ago, I was reading some of the posts on the forum. Someone had asked about a recipe for making No-Knead Bread. I've been making it for awhile and find that it fits into my busy lifestyle without making my hands hurt.The conversation somehow turned to using a bread machine and it sort of served as a reminder to me that I really should use mine occasionally. I've had it for several years. It was a gift from my dear husband, TheMartianMan. (Well, what else did you expect his name to be?)

Although I have quite a collection of appliances, most of them rarely see the light of day simply because I hate the chore of cleaning them after use. Anyway, I decided that yesterday would be the day to utilize the bread machine. I gathered my ingredients together to make a simple white loaf, loaded the machine and three hours later, I had bread. It was a decidedly tall and fluffy loaf that we would later enjoy with dinner. I decided to immediately re-load the machine and start a 2nd loaf.This is where I ran into a problem.

The bread machine was unwilling to start the 2nd loaf and the display just had the word WARM on it. I tried everything that I could to turn the machine completely off but nothing worked. I was concerned about the yeast being killed off by the high temperatures in the machine and went tearing through the house in search of the instruction manual for a machine that hadn't been used in over a year! Once located, I discovered that the machine must be allowed to cool down before starting the next loaf and could be turned off by holding the stop button for about 10 seconds straight. I started the 2nd loaf about 20 minutes later after sprinkling a little extra yeast in the machine to compensate for any yeast killing that I might have done. Three hours later, the loaf was finished. However, the quality of the 2nd loaf was nowhere near as high as that of the first loaf. Although the second loaf did rise...It only got about half as tall as the first and feels DENSE. I will freeze it and use it as chicken feed. The lesson to be learned here is to at least skim through the manual before using an unfamiliar appliance and make sure that you have the booklet handy when you are using the apparatus.

A picture is worth a thousand words...The two at the top of this post are screeching volumes.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Our Own Mealworm Farm...

Remember the ant farms that kids used to have? I haven't seen one of those since the 1990's. There were a lot of lessons to be learned from an ant farm. The biggest eye-opener for me was learning that the ants didn't actually come in the farm kit and had to be mail ordered from the manufacturer. Today's project is similar to an ant farm but it centers around being able to provide chicken feed that actually costs, well...CHICKEN FEED! Poultry can be a wonderful addition to any farm, but when you are only allowed to have a small number of birds due to zoning restrictions, costs can outweigh the monetary savings of buying fresh eggs at the farmer's market. We are going to try to minimize our costs by growing much of the supplemental foods for the chickens ourselves. We already have seeds for sunflowers, broomcorn, amaranth and a variety of garden veggies. Now, we need to grow some protein of the insect variety for our birds.

We selected mealworms for the simple reason that when we go to the local pet store, we NEVER see mealworms scampering around the store enjoying their newfound freedom. Crickets? Well that's another story! Crickets are just too darn fast once they escape. They have a remarkable ability to disappear from view and then will proceed to serenade you when you are trying to sleep. Nope! We can't have crickets keeping us up. We have to get up too early in the morning to go to work.

So,on to the mealworms...

We will be using an old plastic aquarium with a lid as our mealworm farm. The worms eventually turn into beetles so a container with a well-aerated lid is essential to ensuring that the cycle of life continues inside the aquarium as opposed to outside of it. We will add several cups of organic bran and organic oatmeal into the aquarium and cut up a few chunks of home grown potato to provide moisture for the worms. Meal worms can be purchased from your local pet store, but for best results, we will order some online to ensure that they are in the best of health. After all, when starting a farm, you really want to get the best quality livestock that you can find! The mealworms should grow fat and happy in there. We will just scoop out some worms whenever we need them as chicken feed. *PLEASE NOTE* If you don't see anything in the aquarium, you do not have a vision problem. We won't set this project up for another month or so. Because we don't have chickens yet, we don't have a use for too many mealies. We do have a turtle named Jake who will eat them but due to the cold winter weather, he isn't very interested in eating much of anything!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Quick Homesteading Project

Today was a beautiful day. The sun was out in full force, though we have received about 8 or 9 inches of snow over the past few days. Maybe the sunshine went to my head, but I was in the mood for a homesteading project. With the cold temperatures outside, any project that I was going to undertake needed to be completed indoors.

I decided to put together a heated base to keep a chicken waterer from freezing during the winter. A galvanized poultry waterer would be placed on top of the heated base to keep the water temperature above freezing. I used the heating element from a potpourri simmerer. The element was already pre-wired to a plug in cord. I inserted it into an old cookie or candy tin and used tin snips to make a hole in the tin. Once it was assembled, I caulked around the hole to prevent water or other foreign materials from getting inside. That was it! The entire project took about 25 minutes and most of that was spent looking for the tin snips! This project could also be completed with the parts to construct a small lamp. In that case, a low watt lightbulb (rather than a heating element) would provide the heat to keep a metal waterer from freezing. Now, I just need to get a galvanized waterer and some chickens!