Thursday, May 28, 2009

Read Me Like a Book

Recently I had a gift card from Amazon which was slowly but surely burning a hole in my pocket. It is not often I find myself in such a spot and I was determined to savor this opportunity to shop for whatever titles held my fancy. As a former librarian I was foaming at the mouth pouring over lists of books trying to top off my summer reading book shelf. I was like a kid in a candy shop changing my list with each new volume I spied. A few days later as I ripped open the boxes and waded through my new books I realized how my choices were a reflection of the homesteading lifestyle I had chosen as well as the dreams I hold for the future.

My current endeavors in the garden were covered by Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew and the newly released Growing Your Own Vegetables by Carla Emery and Lorene Forkner. These two texts have helped me get my garden off to a great start and answered all my questions about growing veggies from Aphids to Zucchini.

Putting Food By written by a trio of canning and preserving wizards, Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg and Beatrice Vaughan, was an old standby on my wishlist for ages. It is chock full of all the info and advise needed to successfully and safely pressure can, water bath can, dehydrate, or freeze food for storage. It now stands proudly beside my battered and stained copy of Ball's Blue Book of Preserving, hands down the Bible of pressure canning and preserving.

Around this time, deep in volumes of guides and texts, I was glad I had ordered some lighter fare to even things out. A recent article in Mother Earth News highlighting Jenna Woginrich's Made From Scratch caught my eye and after checking out her blog at I quickly added it to my shopping list. I am now half way through the book and thoroughly enjoying Jenna's take on living her farming dreams on her rented rural homestead amid chickens, sheep and beehives.

Moving to a rural location to expand my homestead and literally get away from the crowds and chaos is my topmost long term goal. Knowing that each day I am closing in on that goal often makes the difference between a bad day and a good day for me. So into the shopping cart went How to Find Your Ideal Country Home by Gene GeRue. This guide to searching out the perfect relocation spot is very thorough and covers everything to consider from water to weather and taxes to toxic waste sites. It should be a great tool for me to narrow down the area I choose to replant myself in the next few years.

And having just a few dollars left on my giftcard I finished off my order with the very comprehensive guide to homesteading The Encyclopedia of Country Living by the great Carla Emery. This hefty volume covers so much information I am in awe- gardening, beekeeping, livestock, this book has it all. Not to mention it contains some of the best recipes I have ever tried. If there is one all inclusive manual for living off the land this is it.

As I look over this pile of weighty material I have to wonder where I will grab the time to curl up and free my brain to soak up all the wonderful bits of wisdom. Most likely it will be consumed in small bites in dentist's waiting rooms or pre-dawn hours waiting for the chickens to call for me. However I do it I know I will come away much better prepared to tackle a more self-sufficient life.

Chili Con Carne Canning Recipe

Well Chili Gremlins struck in the middle of the night. Out of the nine pints we canned for my daughter's camping trip only 7 survived. No one's fessing up but its alright as I have several jars in the pantry in reserve for chili emergencies such as this.
For those who requested it here is the recipe I use when I can chili. It is from the USDA Complete Guide To Home Canning and Preserving. Since our family are spicy chili wimps this recipe is mild. Those of you who feel it ain't chili unless you get third degree burns to your tongue will have to fiddle with the spices a bit. By adding more chili powder, some real chili peppers and a few other spices I'm sure you can raise the recipe by a few alarm levels.

This recipe makes 9 pints of canned chili. One of my sons is a vegan and so we have made several batches omitting the ground beef and substituting an equal amount of various beans.


3 cups dried pinto beans or red kidney beans
5 1/2 cups water
5 teaspoons salt, divided
3 lbs. ground beef
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped bell pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
3-6 teaspoons chili powder
2 quarts canned crushed tomatoes or canned whole tomatoes

1 . Wash beans well and put in a 2 quart pan.
2. Add cold water 2-3 inches above beans and let soak 12 to 18 hours.
3. Drain and discard water.
4. Add 5 1/2 cups of fresh water and 2 tsp. of salt to beans and bring to a boil.
5. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.
6. Drain and discard water.
7. Brown the ground beef, chopped onion and peppers in a skillet.
8. Drain off the fat then add 3 tsp. salt , pepper, chili powder and any optional spices, tomatoes and the cooked beans
9. Simmer 5 minutes. Do not add any thickening agents.
10. Fill jars and leave 1 " headspace.
11. Adjust lids and process in pressure canner at 10 lbs. (0-1000 ft.) for 75 minutes.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Weekend Chili Canning

Today my nineteen year old daughter and her two friends joined me in the kitchen to pressure can a batch of chili con carne. I've been canning this chili for over a year now and I can never seem to keep it stocked in my pantry as it is my kids' favorite meal. All three girls are busy planning a camping trip next week and wanted some chili for a tasty yet easily prepared meal for their outdoors adventure. I agreed to whip up a batch and they agreed to help out with the canning session.
We chopped, sliced, browned and simmered and two hours later we had produced 9 pints of delicious chili. It was a fun afternoon for all and along the way the girls learned all about the process of pressure canning food. Now all we need is some cornbread and we're all set.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Keeping the Girls at Home

Chickens love to explore. Mine will escape when given the chance and since my neighbors have a problem with chicken poo on their neatly manicured lawns I have to be the warden. When they were younger gals and not quite so plump they could easily fly over the four foot fence surrounding our backyard. It is truly amazing how well a Rhode Island Red on the lamb can play chameleon in a residential neighborhood. It wasn't long before I grew tired of chasing down escaped inmates. That's when the scissors came out and the girls got their first "haircuts". Clipping their right wing feathers put the brakes on unauthorized flights and made for happier neighbors and less stress for me.

I've also had to reinforce my fence line several times as my chickens will dig along the edge with such energy it would put Rover to shame. In several areas planting a line of plumbago along the fence has provided a barrier and put an end to our real life "Chicken Run" drama. Its been quite a while now since anyone has made a break for it and I think they've realized all attempts are now futile. Perhaps they've learned that the grass is not any greener on the other side of the fence even if its cut a little neater and prettier over there.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Grow, Baby, Grow

Two pumpkin plants only made it into the garden due to the pleas of my son, niece and nephew. They will enjoy watching the growth of these giant pumpkins. I planted them on separate corners so they can sit just outside the raised bed once they grow beyond the confines of the planter.

The squash plants have just blossomed this morning. I know it won't be long now before I have plenty of squash and zucchini. Even if all other veggies fail you can always count on those two to prosper.

Cherry tomatoes are now visible on all the tomato plants. I can't wait to taste these babies in a tossed salad with dinner. My early girl tomatoes got a late start and most will likely end up canned for sauce.

Lentil Soup for a Rainy Day

Another day of much needed rain today provides as good an excuse as any to cook up some Lentil and Veggie Soup for dinner. This recipe is very quick and easy. It also tastes absolutely delicious. I am always looking for ways to add more non-meat sources of protein to our diet and lentils fit the bill perfectly. Unlike many beans lentils, which are actually legumes, don't require lengthy soaking times so this works as a great spur of the moment soup. It is a variation of a recipe from the Betty Crocker website.

1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. chili powder
1 large onion chopped
1 green pepper chopped
2 garlic cloves chopped
1 cup tomato juice
3 cups water
1 cup dried lentils
28 oz. can diced tomatoes undrained
1 can (4/5 oz.) chopped green chilies undrained
1 cup whole kernal corn
2 small zucchini cut into julienne strips

1. Combine the first seven ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and let simmer for 5 minutes.

2. Next add the water, lentils, diced tomatoes, and chilies and return to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered for 20 minutes.

3. Add the corn, cover and simmer for 10 minutes followed by the addition of the zucchini. Cover and allow to simmer 5 more minutes. Eat and enjoy.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Double Dog Dare Radish Challenge

Our first veggies of the year are of course the radishes. I think most gardeners plants a few each year as they are so easy to grow and mature so quickly. Radishes give an early payback and help to reassure that all the sweat and toil are indeed yielding results. The only problem is that few people in my family really enjoy radishes. A tiny detail forgotten at planting and suddenly remembered at harvest.

So yesterday the radishes were ready for picking. My brother was visiting with his children so we took the opportunity to make it an event. My six year old niece excitedly grabbed the green leaves and yanked the radishes one by one with a dramatic flair only a kindergartner can muster. She helped me wash and slice until we had a bowl to share with the other kids. Two of the group were radish newbies and the rest were pretty sure they weren't big radish fans though they couldn't recall why. That's when the gauntlet was thrown down. Five kids spanning ages six through nineteen (I know technically not a kid) challenged each other to see who could win a radish eating contest. The face off was quiet at first but after those first few bites memories were suddenly refreshed and you could almost see the light bulbs coming on as the peppery taste warmed their mouths, "Oh, yeah NOW I remember!"

I sat in the corner and smiled watching the tangled web of flailing arms grabbing for glasses of water to quiet their burning tongues. Our first garden produce of the season, while not a fave among the youngsters, generated such laughter in our kitchen that I consider it a definite hit. It certainly created a lasting memory for the cousins to share. Next year when planting time comes I may even plant a few radishes again- just for fun.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ditch the Tide: Homemade Laundry Detergent

Everything you need to make your own laundry soap

Grating the bar of soap

Adding the soap mixture

Adding the washing soda & borax
The finished product after sitting overnight

With three teenagers in the house I find myself on perpetual laundry duty. As a genuine cheapskate I never pass up an opportunity to save a buck. Recently I decided to try out a recipe for making homemade laundry detergent and kill two birds with one stone. There are numerous variations of this recipe floating around on several frugal living sites. I pulled this particular one from as it was simple and cheap. Using just three ingredients you can produce a five gallon bucket of laundry soap in only fifteen minutes at a cost of just pennies per load. One batch kept my family in clean clothes for eleven weeks and I was a little heavy handed with my soap. I found no difference in cleaning results compared with the name brand detergents I had used in the past. This soap is low sudsing but does a great cleaning job without the bubbles. Also do not be surprised if your soap appears to have a gloppy uneven texture. The mixture will still work just fine. I use one and a half cups of detergent per load with excellent results. The hardest part is finding a store that carries the washing soda.

Ingredients: Bar of soap, Borax and Washing Soda (Not Baking Soda).

After grating the bar of soap place the shavings in a saucepan with 4 cups of boiling water until melted. While the soap mixture melts place three and a half gallons of very hot water in a clean five gallon bucket. Add the melted soap mixture to the five gallon bucket and stir. Next add 1 cup of washing soda and a half cup of borax stirring well after each addition. That's it! Just let the whole concoction sit overnight and in the morning you will be ready to hit the spin cycle.

Finally it rains!

Yes, those are rain drops on my kitchen window looking out at the yard. After six weeks with no rain we finally got a visit from the rainman yesterday. Perfect timing as our fire threat has been high and we have several brushfires flaring up in the area. I've been watering the garden each night as the temperatures have been in the 90's most of last week. I hope that the rain keeps up the entire week as we need to replenish the local water tables. I almost think the chickens had forgotten about the wet stuff falling from the heavens as they ran from one end of the yard to the other seemingly perplexed by the showers. With any luck they will grow used to it in a hurry. I believe this calls for a Precipitation Pizza Party at our house tonight.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Momma Wannabees

On this Mother's Day I felt a tinge of sadness for my hens. Raising chickens in an urban area restricts me from keeping roosters on my land. So each day my hens labor steadfastly to lay an egg in an effort to bring forth new chicks just as nature intended. And yet despite their best efforts all this work is in vain at least from the hens viewpoint. While my family enjoys the results of their industrious work the hen is doomed to repeat their daily effort like a scene out of the movie, "Groundhog Day".

My sadness is short lived though as I recall the hen who stuck her head in a wide mouth mason jar my son had left on the grass while catching bugs. Poor thing lacked the grey matter to back its head out of the jar and ended up stuck there for over an hour. Yes, poultry are definitely not the smartest animals by far. For chickens ignorance truly is bliss. Thankfully, they will never know that they have missed what has become my greatest experience- motherhood. Happy Mother's Day to all.

Yard Sale Wrap Up

Saturday I held my first yard sale of 2009. This past month during spring cleaning frenzies we have steadily added to our yard sale pile until finally this week I had had enough. As much as I dread holding a yard sale I needed to reclaim the corner of my living room taken over by my family's trash soon to be someone else's treasure.

I was pleased with the turnout. Economic times what they are many parents were looking for kid's clothes at bargain prices and I had plenty of that. I was able to unload most all of the clothing, ten pair of shoes, a basketball hoop, a file cabinet, storage bins, stuffed animals and a respectable amount of odds and ends - half of which I do not even remember buying and all of which will NOT be replaced. The bonus of the day was selling my daughter's first car, a 91 Mazda, which we had recently replaced with a slightly newer ride. Thankfully, that windfall will cover my daughter's summer college tuition and books.

An unexpected perk was meeting up with a neighbor who came by just to talk chickens. She had just acquired four chickens from a friend and was thrilled to find another urban chicken owner nearby. We spent twenty minutes comparing notes and during a lull in the yard sale I showed her my backyard setup and introduced the girls.

At quitting time I surveyed the aftermath and tossed the leftovers in my trunk for a quick trip to Goodwill. I was completely exhausted, slightly sunburned and totally pleased to have parted with so many items. A cleaner house, less knick knacks and a few extra bucks in my pocket-not a bad return for my investment of one Saturday morning spent playing Let's Make a Deal.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cats, Kids, and Chickens

Hunter stalking the 10 week old chicks.

My daughter hanging out with the cat and chickens. All one big happy family now.

When we brought our baby chicks home from the feed store last year I had my doubts that all God's creatures, especially the ones at Little Ant Farm, would get along. I prepared myself for a bumpy adjustment as our cat, Hunter of all names, was sure to see our new additions as more of a happy meal than family members. Those first few weeks while my room doubled as a chick nursery, I was extra vigilant about keeping the door to my bedroom closed in order to keep Hunter from making off with one of the chicks. Once they had feathered out and were ready for the coop we had to be careful to lock the chickens away whenever we could not keep our eyes on them.

As they grew bigger the chickens were allowed to free range more which allowed the cat to see them as just part of the family. Occasionally, I would catch Hunter stalking quietly through the tall grass pretending he was some cougar from a Wild Kingdom episode. But a few quick pecks from a full-grown fowl put him in his place and they mutually agreed to call a truce. Now, our birds free range all day long in our backyard returning to their coop only for egglaying and sleeping. Neighbor cats who climb our four foot chain link fence and think they will stop off for some birdfood soon find their stay shortlived. These girls can sport some attitude when pushed!
Now that peaceful coexistance has been achieved with cats and chickens perhaps I can begin work on the tougher challenge of getting my own teenage sons to get along with one other.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Watching our chickens dustbathe is always good for some cheap entertainment. And at Little Ant Farm we're always up for cheap entertainment. Several times a day they will make their way over to a corner of the yard dubbed the sandbox. They will toss and turn in the dirt, kicking their legs and throwing clumps of sand and dirt hurling through the air covering themselves with sand like kids at the beach. After a nice bath of dirt they will stand up, stretch in the sun and then shake themselves much like a soaking wet dog- just substitute dustcloud for watershower.

Dustbathing was a most unexpected perk of raising chickens. Chicken novice that I was it surprised me when one day my kids came running into the house screaming that one of the chickens was dying. Not sure what was wrong I turned to the forum at and quickly learned that dustbathing is a very normal behavior of poultry and one that serves an important function. By throwing the dust between their feathers chickens are able to suffocate parasites and mites. It is do it yourself pest control for chickens. Beyond that it truly appears that they really enjoy the activity. So if you've had a bad day and are in need of a good chuckle just pull up a chair and watch the birds take a bath, a dust bath that is.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Thoughts on Laundry Day

Yesterday was a perfect laundry day-the sun was shining, a slight breeze blowing as butterflies danced around the backyard flowers.
it was only a year ago since our family began a concerted effort to forgo the dryer and go back to letting Mother Nature do the drying for us. While the dryer had afforded us the convenience of doing a quick load at any hour its days were numbered when I learned the true cost of that convenience. According to Alexander Lee, a lawyer and clothesline activist from my native N.H. using a clothesline and washing with cold water saves the average family 15% of their annual energy costs. Lee started Project Laundry in 1995 to promote the benefits of hanging clothes to dry. Fifteen percent of my electric bill was enough of a benefit for me to bring out the post hole digger and set up some line.
So with some grumbling from the kids I started drying all our clothes on a solar clothes dryer . The electric dryer still sits in the utility room though it now has a few boxes piled on it. Occasionally, we use it when we have a string of rainy days or one of the kids remembers at dinner that they need a certain shirt for school the next day. And my teens have now discovered that the triangular device with a handle and a cord sitting on the utility room shelf has a use. It is great at removing wrinkles in their favorite jeans. My seventeen year old son has even become quite the expert at pressing a shirt.

As for myself, I have rediscovered the joy of folding a basket of sun-dried clothes freshened with Mother Nature's scent. The smell of fresh laundry straight off the line-that alone will keep me forever a clothesline gal. Few simple pleasures reap such rewards.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Garden Update

Well the garden is coming to life and I couldn't be happier. Most every square has some green blooming and if won't be long before I have fresh veggies on our table. The radishes are just about ready to pick. I'll need to add the trellis netting this week as the vining tomatoes, squash and cucumbers are really coming along.
The only problem I've noticed so far is that something is snacking on my swiss chard. I've lost a few seedlings over the last few days and I am debating how to nip this problem in the bud, so to speak.
I was also a little disappointed that my herbs don't want to cooperate. I've planted one square each of oregano, rosemary and parsley. So far there's no signs of germination. I decided to reseed and cross my fingers. All in all, despite these annoyances, I am quite pleased with my first try at square foot gardening.

Eggs for Onions

This week I made my first real barter of homestead goods when I traded a coworker some onions from their garden for some of my free range eggs. Both my coworker and I are relatively new to homesteading and this is the first time either of us has made a barter trade of homegrown items. He was able to start his garden earlier than I so he had onions ready to go. I have had my chickens laying now for almost a year and he just started with some chicks this month. They won't be laying for a few months yet. It was satisfying to be able to trade the fruits of our labor and everyone gained in the bargain.