Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fruit Trees for Warm Climates

Want to dabble in permaculture? I can't think of a better first step than adding a fruit trees into the landscape. Whether you only have room for a few potted citrus and peach trees on a porch, or want to create a living fence or edible arbor for a large space, fruit trees are an easy way to grow a bit of your own food with minimal long-term tending.

Here in the South, the challenge is often getting the right fruit trees for the climate. Many fruit trees require a certain number of "chill hours" to know that winter has passed and it's time to start blooming. There is a range for each time of fruit, but beyond that a particular fruit can have a wide variation. Take apples, for example. The Israeli varietal Ein Shemer requires only 350-400 chill hours each winter, while most others require upward of 750. If you live in a warm climate and buy a varietal that requires too many chill hours, you will probably have a healthy tree -- but will only get fruit on perhaps the coldest of years. If you are in a cold climate and buy a low chill hour tree, the problem gets worse: you're likely to get beautiful blooms far too early in the spring, which will be levelled by a killing frost. Ouch.

Thankfully, most nurseries tend to cater toward the middle of the road, and have the higher chill hour fruit that most of the country needs. The best solution for gardeners in warmer climates is to learn your chill hours and buy accordingly. And when I say local, I mean: your neighborhood. Here in Austin, chill hours vary by as much as +/- 100 depending on what part of town you're in.

Big box stores often insufficiently adjust their stock for local needs, and I've even had trouble getting the best varietals for my particular part of town at my beloved local nurseries here in Austin, so you may need to consider buying online. Desert dwellers may want to take a peek at the Phoenix Permaculture Guild's online fruit tree sale, which continues through the end of the week, and of course there are a number of commercial online resellers. The important thing is to do your research, find the best spot for the tree, dig the best hole for that tree you can, and actually plant it. As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago. But the second best time is now.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tiny Houses!

I have very little time to write this week, so you'll need to get a peek at my random interests instead.

Here's one: Tiny Houses. For me, smaller is better. I adore Sarah Susanka's ideas behind the Not So Big House, but what I'm talking about is actually much smaller -- things like vardos, or the little, tiny, but exceedingly well designed Tumbleweed Tiny House Company designs.

I'm in love with houses which are perhaps 1/5th to 1/10th the size of my current 1,600 square foot home, which can live on a tiny footprint and may even be portable. Way back when I lived at Arcosanti, I lived in a string of such small houses -- from a small bunkhouse to an 8' x 8' cube to (finally! the piece de resistance!) a much beloved Airstream trailer alongside the Verde River under a grove of cottonwood trees. I was in heaven.

There are drawbacks, of course. There are only so many books you can fit in a tiny house, for starters. When I lived in those small spaces, I only managed by the grace of some very understanding family a few hours away. But there are advantages, too -- not least of which is these spaces are perfect for a strong introvert like myself who does best with a room of her own. Also: think of all the room you save for the garden! Not to mention the economic advantages of building well, but small.

Anyway - this is a long post for what was supposed to be a very short post. Now, I am off into the day, perhaps to daydream of a future with little, tiny houses!

Post Script: Just after I posted the link to this blog on my facebook, a friend shared another amazingly cute, hobbit-like cob house. Some people think baby kittens or sneezing pandas are cute? I'll stick with this house!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

New Permaculture Documentary: Permaculture, the Growing Edge

It's no secret I love permaculture. (It was? Okay, it isn't now!)

It's also no big secret that I'm a bit of a leftie, and a bit of a poly-religious mystic type.

Put all these together, and (despite the fact that I adamantly believe permaculture is ideology-neutral) I have a soft spot for permaculture with a spirtual bent. Sharon Astyk's musings on the connections between homesteading and Judaism? Yes, please! The folks at New Life on a Homestead openly exploring their Christian faith? Yep! (And of course I have my own very sporadic spiritual and mystic musings over at Tending the Hearth.)

I study a bit of everything. But the modern thealogian (sic) who has had perhaps the strongest influence on my life is Starhawk. I devoured her writings as a young feminist, later affiliated with the Reclaiming tradition she co-founded, and am influenced by her work in ways that I probably am not even aware of. It was Starhawk who first got me thinking about the sacred as something which is immanent, an idea which permeates all aspects of my personal practice, including my practice of Judaism. And of course I've already declared her one of my Permie Heroes.

So, of course I'm delighted that this self-described "dirt worshipper" also teaches permaculture, in a way that integrates spirituality and activism. The good folks at Belili Productions are apparently impressed as well, and they have supported Starhawk's recent permaculture documentary Permaculture: a Growing Edge.

Permaculture: The Growing Edge is an antidote to environmental despair, a hopeful and practical look at a path to a viable, flourishing future. The film introduces us to inspiring examples of projects, including a visit David Holmgren’s own homestead, tracking deer with naturalist Jon Young, sheet mulching an inner-city garden with Hunters Point Family, transforming an intersection into a gathering place with City Repair and joining mycologist Paul Stamets as he cleans up an oil spill with mushrooms. We interview some of the key figures in the Permaculture movement, including David Holmgren, Penny Livingston-Stark, James Stark, Paul Stamets, Mark Lakeman, Dr. Elaine Ingham, Maddy Harland, and others.

Interested in seeing for yourself? Hop over to the Permaculture: a Growing Edge website to check it out and view the trailer!

Intro to Small Scale Permaculture: Thinking in Systems

I promised sometime back to write more about permaculture principles over the winter. A lovely post today -- ostensibly not about permaculture -- brought me back to that idea.

What is permaculture? Is it just another eco fad? A kind of organic gardening? Something about back to the land?

My personal definition is that permaculture is a systems theory for living which integrates agriculture and human culture. Permaculture is to gardening what urban planning is to architecture: a way of thinking about the elements of a design in a larger, more integrated context which allows for the creation of synergies and minimizes waste. Any time we allow for more sustainable systems within a design -- by digging swales to retain water, for example, or planing more perennials or integrating small scale livestock to eat garden pests -- we are increasing overall yields while at the same time minimizing the need for the gardener's intervention and future work. We are, as the businessmen like to say, working smarter not harder.

So, back to that example I mentioned. Over at Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op it's Batch Baking Day:

On the day when I need to make bread, every 5 days or so, I also bake one or two pizzas, a main dinner dish ... and often a cake or some cookies, too. I slip in odds and ends, too, like the stray potatoes that I keep finding in the garden after we harvested the main crop, or the hot peppers that I'm drying out before grinding them to make chili powder.

I bake in a batch to conserve electricity . . . But I also like this system because grouping all my baking in a batch is a more economical use of my time.

Yes, yes, yes! That's it in a nutshell. Planning and design ultimately allow us to get more nomnoms with less effort. Yes, that might mean a lot of effort all at once -- I am not sure I want to be doing the dishes on Baking Batch Day! But ultimately all that effort pays off in a week full of lazy days and delicious food. That's a systems theory I can really chew on!

Getting My Daylight Back Where I Wanted It

Oh, today is glorious! It is early, and I am here saying hello to the sun which has beaten me to rising. I have light by which to do my household tasks, and it is early enough to even garden a bit before work without doing so by the porch light.

Frankly, I would like the government to pay me interest on all that daylight they were saving for me.

I should note that I was born, raised, and spent the first part of my adult life in Arizona. Arizona is known from many cranky things, it is true -- but it is also known for one quite sensible one: Arizonans see no sense in 'saving' daylight. They have plenty of it as is, and are willing to spend it while they have it. Yes, this means sunrise at 4:45 in summer, but that's . . . well, sensible. Light but not heat yet. And farmers just roll with it, driving their tractors in the early mornings and ending the day in the heat of the afternoon. Working in agriculture, my grandfather had this schedule his whole life. Because of this, I'm not even sold on Daylight Saving Time having an agricultural benefit -- at least not one that's universal to all regions.

So, it's pretty obvious I'm not partial to Daylight Saving Time. I've never been accustomed to it, I don't see the sense in it, it doesn't make sense for even agriculture in very hot climates, and I get cranky every spring when I lose my precious morning sunlight.

How about you -- particularly the smallholders and farmers out there? Do you like Daylight Saving Time? What do you get out of it?

Friday, November 5, 2010

First Freeze

We had our first light freeze last night, and baby it's cold outside!

Inside, I've retrieved a lap blanket for my sitting, the little space heater from office closet, and have wrapped a kitchen towel around the hand drip coffee pot to keep it as warm as I can. (It may be time to go back to electric drip coffee for a while, but I honestly prefer my hand drip!) The kitties are huddled in their little breadloaf yoga poses, and step onto the kitchen tiles reclutantly as I try to coach them onto the rag rugs to keep their little feet warm.

It's not quite cold enough to worry about any garden plants, but probably is getting to the time I should pull the potted fruit trees into the garage.

I am extraordinarily grateful to have two kinds of soup on standby. Now, to coax myself away from this little pocket of warmth and off to get ready for the day . . .

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Of Slow-Cookers, and Tortilla Soup!

Tonight, I entered the house to the most amazing smell!

I'd started dreaming of tonight's dinner at work, content to know that much of the hard work would already be done. I hadn't quite decided yet what do to with my prepared slow-cooker chicken yet, but was leaning toward enchiladas. On the drive home, I got some sour cream to add a decadent touch.

Having cooked for about 11 hours on low, the chicken was falling off the bone tender, and the veggies very well cooked. I opted to make tortilla soup. While it's finishing, here's a quick recipe for two - three servings. More people? Layer in more stuff! The recipe is extremely forgiving.

  • Get thee a slow cooker
  • Add five garlic cloves, minced
  • Add one onion or two shallots, diced
  • Add one quartered chicken leg
  • Sprinkle with salt and pepper
  • Add kernels from one corn cob, a diced small zucchini and sliced poblano or bell peppers
  • Salt and pepper again
  • Add about a cup of liquid or frozen veggie stock

At this point, you can proceed with slow cooking, or refrigerate up to 12 hours. When you are ready, put the slow cooker on low setting, and cook for 8 to 12 hours. Enter your home to the most amazing smells. Then . . .

  • Remove chicken leg(s) from the slow cooker, take meat off the bone, and coarsely shred
  • Set meat aside for a moment
  • Add 1 tbsp cumin and 1-2 tbsp chile powder to the broth in the slow cooker
  • If you like, and you're not keeping kosher, add a few tablespoons to a half cup of sour cream to the slow cooker and stir in -- the amount depends on how decadent you feel
  • I also added a bit of leftover bechamel sauce, but it's not likely you'll usually have this!
  • Add the shredded chicken back into the slow cooker and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper as needed. If you are me, add some Louisiana-style hot sauce like Red Devil, because without hot sauce, it's just not soup.
  • Cut 5 corn tortillas into halves, and then strips. Add to the slow cooker.
  • Bring back to a simmer long enough to heat through.

And then, I suppose, write a blog post while anticipating your yummy dinner.

Mmmmm, yep! That's enough blogging! Time to eat!

Living Frugal: When Not to Buy in Bulk

Lately, I've been rethinking my lifelong habit of buying in bulk.

If this does not sound like a big deal, you are lucky enough to never have been shopping with me! Shopping with me involves several neurotic steps: writing a list of general topics, getting to the store, revising the list significantly based on what's on sale and what coupons are available, and then squinting through my oh-so-sexy trifocals at that 8-point font stores use on the shelf fronts to tell you the per unit price.

Then there's the mental math: so, if the 32-ounce jar of spoo is $0.30 per ounce and the 8 ounce jar is $0.34 per ounce, which should I buy? Will the extra 24 ounces go bad before I use them? And so on. (At least I don't pull up Excel on my phone! Yet.)

These habits didn't arise in a vacuum. I learned much of this watching my dad shop, and honestly it was one of the best things he ever taught me about money. In my adult life, I've almost always lived with other people and cooked for a family or a crowd. On that scale, buying in bulk makes a lot of sense.

Lately, though, I'm rethinking this, for a few reasons.

The catalyst was a post at Get Rich Slowly. (Sadly, I can't find the article now that I'm looking for it, but you should read them anyway!) Coming back from a European vacation, J. D. suggested that his household might be best buying like he said many do in France -- keeping a relatively empty fridge and buying as things are needed. Given the proportion of my meals that come from gardens and farms -- and take up all the real estate in my fridge -- this made sense to me.

I began thinking, too, of my trend toward unprocessed foods. You have to hand it to processed foods: they last longer. But even the 'long term storage' items on my list -- such as rice and cornmeal -- are more likely to go rancid the less processed they are. It might make sense to buy white basmati rice by the 10-pound bag if you use a lot of it. But unless you're cooking for a co-op, it's unlikely you'll go through a 10-pound bag of brown rice before it begins to smell 'off'.

While these ideas were important, the clincher for me was the math. The same tendency toward doing the math finally led me to a blinding flash of "Duh!" As a rule, it makes no sense to buy in bulk while I am paying down a substantial amount of debt.

Right now, I am paying off umpteen thousand dollars in credit card bills and loans that I ran up in more profligate times. I already have a fairly aggressive payment strategy, and have started exploring snowflaking as a way to accelerate the paydown by making multiple small payments as I save up a bit throughout the month. (More on that in future post.) Because I am basically putting every penny that I do not spend to paying off the debt monster, by extension every penny I spend is a penny I remain in debt.

So back to the grocery store. Let's run a few numbers on that 8-ounce and 32-ounce jar of spoo.

  • Let's say my highest credit card debt is at 17% (insert your number here).
  • Again, we need to run the assessments on bulk buying -- if I buy a bigger jar or package, but most of it goes to waste because I can't use it before it spoils, it's no bargain.
  • Assuming the larger portion makes sense from that perspective, I need to compare the per-unit prices again. My 8-ounce jar of spoo is $0.34 and my 32-ounce jar is $0.30. Is the 32-ounce jar a bargain?
  • The math says . . . no. Not unless I need more than 8 ounces of spoo right now. When I multiply my 32-ounce jar's per unit price of $0.30 times the interest I will pay on my debt, I get a per ounce price of $0.351. Bad spoo!
  • Because I'll save $6.79 by buying less spoo right now, and I have no long-term benefit from buying more spoo, I'm better off buying the 8-ounce jar I need and applying that snowflake payment to my debt.
  • Mitigating factor #1: Let's say my highest-interest debt was only 10%. Then, my break even point would be $0.33 for the smaller vs. larger jar -- much more reasonable.
  • Mitigating factor #2: Let's say the Super Jar o' Spoo only cost $0.24. Well, golly - that's a spoo bargain regardless of my debt monster! 32-ounce jar it is!

Obviously that's a lot of math to do in your head -- but once you have the principles down, it's much easier to make a relatively accurate guess in the aisles. With no Excel sheet. I promise. Just think: every dollar I spend is $1.17 (or $1.10, or whatever your interest rate is) and the math gets pretty simple. If the eyeballed premium for the smaller package is less than 17 cents on the dollar, anyone with carrying debt with a 17% interest rate should by the smaller package. As you pay off the debt and attack lower interest rate debt, adjust accordingly.

While doing this math, wild fantasies of your amazing future debt-free life are strongly encouraged.

Stay frugal, my friends.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Chicken in (Almost) Every Pot

I've been in a pensive mood today. The weather is blustery, and the holiday and election seasons intense for pretty much everyone. The solution? Classical music and cooking, of course.

At the grocer's on the way home, I bought a few supplies. I joked with the butcher about the 'recession special' chicken leg quarters for $0.69. He said they were flying off the shelf today, and quipped that everyone at the (natural foods) store was probably panicking: "OMG! Must buy chicken before the new party outlaws it!" Or something like that. Still, it was a bargain -- especially for the only one leg this near-vegetarian could feasibly eat in the next few days. That, some chicken livers, a bit of dairy, some probiotic corn tortillas and I was set.

I haven't been cooking up quite the storm I anticipated, but I'll be set for tonight, tomorrow night, and a few lunches.

For tonight, a butternut squash & white bean stew with rosemary is simmering on the stove. I had to make something with the butternut squash beginning to take over my pantry shelves, and with a few minor modifications, Jack Bishop's recipe was perfect -- butternut squash, alliums, a tomato out of the freezer, a can of cannelinis, a bit of my homemade stock, a Parmesan rind, and some rosemary snipped straight from the front porch. Perfect.

For tomorrow, I've set up a slow cooker chicken recipe for that quarter chicken leg: a few shallots and garlic diced in the bottom of the cooker, topped with the chicken leg, a few cubes of my frozen veggie stock, and then some peppers, corn cut fresh from the cob, and a diced half-zucchini that needed using. Tomorrow morning, I'll take the pot out from the fridge, set it in the slow cooker, and be set for tomorrow's dinner, and then some. (I may, in fact, use the contents to make enchiladas with those lovely probiotic tortillas. Time shall tell!)

It's been a few years now that I've acquired produce entirely from my garden, CSAs or farmer's markets, and I have to say it's entirely changed my approach. I start from what I have, and build meals around that -- not the other way around. For other edibles, I save a fair amount of money by only buying what's abundant, and therefore on sale. Because of this, my eating is tied pretty closely to the seasons. Tomatoes in fall and winter are a treat, for example, and have their limits -- choosing one for my meal tonight means not having one later in the winter. Over time, I've become far more synced with the seasons -- an added blessing.

I'm pleased to have a few meals in the works all at once. Despite the cold and the changing of the seasons, I feel blessed with abundance. A bit of classical music, a simple stew at home: when the winds blow cold outside, these are blessings of the season. I'm still okay with a chicken in every pot. Including, on odd days like these, my own.

Fall Gardening: Home-Grown Salad Bar!

In most of the southern US, it's not too late to put in a fall garden. Seeds will generally take more time to germinate in cool weather, but will reward you with low-maintenance plants that you can eat all winter long.

Seeds/bulbs to plant now in the South (or in a protected greenhouse elsewhere):

  • Alliums: Garlic, chives.
  • Greens and herbs: Spinach, lettuce, chard, parsley, cilantro.
  • Legumes: Peas.
  • Roots: Beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes.

It's too late to plant them by seed, but it's also not too late starts for the cole family: brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, cauliflower and the like.

Gardenatrix tip #1: Get a mesclun salad seed mix or two that you really like. (Organic, heirloom seeds? Yes, please!) Define a small salad patch in the garden - for urban gardeners, a windox box will do. Sprinkle seeds on a couple of feet every 3-4 days until you've planted the whole patch. Cover on the coldest of nights if you want. (I rarely do.) Keep the patch well moistened as the seeds germinate, and re-seed any patches that don't come in well. Look forward to having baby greens for a lovely Thanskgiving salad -- and with a bit of protection, all winter long.

Gardenatrix permaculture tip #1a: To get the most out of your salad garden, place it as near as possible to the kitchen door. If you can easily get out to snip a few salad greens without getting your house slippers wet, you've found the ideal placement -- and are more likely to harvest early and often. If your garden plot more than 15 feet from the house, you're unlikely to give your garden the care it needs nor get from it the yields you want. Save those more distant plots for plants that are harvested less frequently.

Gardenatrix tip #2: Beet greens make an amazing salad -- more delicate than chard, and easier than lettuce, these greens make a great replacement for romaine or leaf lettuce either on their own, or along with some of that mesclun. Plant a row or two of beets, and as they grow in use their leaves as cut and come again salad. Once the beetroots are to the size you prefer, you can harvest and eat the beetroots with a bed of their own greens. Yum!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Cool Season

Different places have different seasons.

I'm not talking about the big obvious ones, like the fact that my readers in Australia are entering an exuberant spring. I'm talking about the somewhat less obvious ones, the little macroclimates and microclimates that exist with my own country and probably most countries.

I've just returned from coastal California, where the temperature varies little throughout the year but the rains dictate several mini growing spurts. In those parts, the best answer on when to plant something is probably always: last month.

Here in Austin, we are entering the cool season. This is the best time to plant most perennials and trees, which will benefit from the cooler temperatures and relative lack of water stress to put down their best roots. It's a great time to subdivide many perennials, and also to plant cool-weather annuals, like most leafy greens. In fact, it's nearly the only time to grow proper lettuce successfully.

In my own garden, the little arugula starts are popping up their green heads over the soil, hopefully to be joined soon by beets and a mesclun mix of lettuces. Germination is slower in the cold, but once established these plants tend to do well with a minimum of fuss. I look forward to having a salad bar just outside my own front door.

What are the seasons like where you live?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Frugal Cleaning Tip: Herbs!

If you're a gardener, you probably have some fragrant herbs around.

If you're living in modern times, it's likely you have a garbage disposal in your sink -- probably a bit less fragrant.

Herbs like to be pinched back, and garbage disposals like to be sharpened and cleaned. Hmmm. That's what we call turning waste into a resource! How about giving that long-haired basil, tarragon, mint, or rosemary (non-woody tips only, please) a trim and running it through the garbage disposal along with some ice cubes and a bit of salt?

Happier herbs, fragrant kitchen, happy gardener. Done!