Friday, September 4, 2015

That Darn Squirrel

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but there is a VERY unwelcome visitor in my gardens!! It has utterly destroyed my sunflowers and digs ditches in every single container I have. I'm also fairly sure it ate the last of my strawberries before the heat stressed my plants out and they stopped producing anything, even runners.
I'm not the first to complain about them, and the myriad number of suggestions on the internet for driving them away are just boggling.
There wasn't any money for a system that shot pellets at them. I didn't want to put up a sonic alarm because it might disturb my own pets. And programming a water gun using Python to shoot them when they showed up seemed awesome and geeky, but I just don't have the time or appropriate equipment to get it done.
So I resorted to chemical warfare.
After every rain, which sadly but perhaps conveniently for my memory and schedule has been VERY infrequent, I run out and sprinkle cayenne in the pot of every single plant I have. And it has worked! When I only did the lower plants and forgot the plants on my upper deck, I saw the little bastard bypass everything there and scale my deck posts to get upstairs. As soon as I sprinkled it up there... boom, he left that alone and paced back and forth along the cement brick retainer wall that pretends it is my back yard.
I just have to stay on top of it to make sure he leaves things alone, as I just got a SECOND sprout on my ginger and my pumpkin is finally flowering like crazy (I shall have to run outside and do some artificial insemination to see anything by Halloween at this point. Bees are disturbingly few and far between.)
I was upset and sad that he came and ate the flowers off of all the sunflowers I'd grown from seed, the ones that my daughter had helped me plant in the spring with such happy abandon, when Nature did that awesome thing she always does.
She showed me I was pretty stupid in thinking she just gave up that easily.
My sunflowers are atrocious and would win no awards, but currently they have new growth sticking out of the top of the stems that were chewed down to nothing and the leaves stripped. And in the middle of all of that.... a single flower perked open as if to say... "F*** YOU SCIUROMORPH!!"
I am going to protect that tiny flower, and any of its brethren that show up, with my life. And the cayenne wars will continue, because I want this bastard OUT OF MY LIFE.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Fodder for Worms

So it turned out I needed to break out the second tray for the worm bin sooner than I thought, and it turned out to be a better learning experience than the first tray.
A warning, this will be pretty image intensive, as I documented everything this time in an attempt to give people an idea of what goes in to working a worm bin.
After I had loaded up the first bin with a ton of corn husks and other things that apparently take a great deal of time to break down, it became very obvious that the worms weren't going through the stuff in the trays as fast as I thought they would. This is probably because I bought less than they recommended and they hadn't had a chance to ramp up reproduction just yet, despite the plethora of food they were being given.
SO... I decided to start a second tray because I had a scraps bucket brimming to full and a pile of cardboard and newspapers ready to go and taking up space in my small-ish kitchen. I figured the worms could travel back and forth between the two trays through whatever looked yummier to them. Or tasted, since it's pitch black and they like it that way.
As you can see, it was pretty darn crowded in that first tray.
I began with the recommendation to create the food and roughage mix for the worms out of the stuff they included; the rest of the paper shreds (I tore up the paper bag they came in, too, because hey the entire point of this is not to waste resources!), the pumice, and the rest of the coconut coir, which I realized I had only used perhaps 1/4 of instead of half and probably explained why the worms were having a rough time in the first tray... not enough stuff to get a footing in.
Everything thrown together in a bowl...
This is me adding "worm minerals" on top of everything to give them some extra nutrition. I prefer gummy vitamins.
Then wet everything down and stirred it with the handy pitch fork they included.

I then went about shredding the mail, the egg cartons, the extra newspapers and everything else available and tossed it in the bottom of the second tray I was prepping.

I then walked it outside and set it on top of the first tray, adding the coconut coir/paper/pumice/worm minerals mix over top of it in a surprisingly thick layer. They say this tray, being second, didn't need newspaper on the bottom of it because the worms would want to crawl up in to it so... I figured that was enough prep of the base!
Thankfully it just looks like dirt that survived a music festival.
I tossed in my scrap bin stuff to give them the "greens" that were needed to make proper compost , and to give the worms something interesting to actually find once they journeyed upwards.
Point of note here - "Greens" are plants, fruits, vegetables, loose tea, coffee grounds, anything that is wet and organic in nature. "Browns" are things like newspaper, junk mail, cartons, cardboard, anything that has been processed and is flat or "dead", if you will. It provides the proper balance of nitrogen and carbon within the wormy environment.
Yum yum yummy..... for them, anyway!
I then layered wet newspaper on top of everything per the recommendations to keep down fruit flies and pests and to help keep the environment nice and most. Plus it helps keep the inside of the lid clean.
The county newspaper - where I find out about deals on groceries from last week once it gets to me.
And voila! Finished! And seriously easy. I was able to do it with a toddler underfoot and a husband milling around trying to figure out what on earth I was doing with perfectly good mixing bowls.
Capped off smartly for that warm, dark environment your worms love!
I have noticed that within a week of putting the second tray over top of the first that the VERY full first tray dropped down at least an inch in height. A check of the contests -which I have spared you a picture of- shows everything as being wilted and a LOT more dark matter in the bottom than previously. I didn't stick my hand in it because I had a toddler there watching me and did not wish to have an emulatable moment, But it seemed to me giving them the extra space to move around actually made the digesting go faster. I call that a win!
And a fun side bit that I found out after this: I was telling my Dad about venturing in to vermiculture during our weekly phone call. He grew up on a farm, so everything that I talk about doing is stuff he has already done, including ringing the neck off a chicken when he was 6. HARD CORE.
When I explained to him that I had red wrigglers in my garage, he grew excited and told me about how HIS father used to have a huge compost pile that he raised worms in, just a pile of leaves and food scraps and whatnot in the middle of a pit made from cinder blocks. Nothing NEARLY so fancy as the small contraption I dumped money in to. But what he did was go through and not only sell the worm castings, but he also sold the worms themselves to an outfit that sold fishing bait out of vending machines all over the South. Apparently it made him a LOT of money.
"But I bet you've never seen one of those. They wouldn't be down where you live," he said softly.
"Actually, there's one right outside the car wash about a half mile from here," I told him, laughing.
It was an odd thing to learn about family history over, and do a bit of bonding with, but it was definitely cool to learn about. And also kind of funny to find out that I'm not doing anything new right now, and that this sort of thing is apparently in my DNA!
Anyway, I'm hoping this helped some folks out in getting an idea of what it takes to set up and maintain a worm bin, and I'll update again when we go to harvest the worm castings from the first bin!

~An end note; I negotiated to borrow my husband's travel laptop and will be using it write updates going forward. Thank you to everybody for your patience!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Technical Difficulties

I actually have a backlog of topics to cover here, but keep running in to the same problem... My computer has nowhere to go in our new place and both laptops I had been using previously are finally just sooo old, they can't be bothered to load anything without a 5-10 minute wait. Seeing as I'm usually pretty image-intensive, using my tablet isn't really a good option either (nevermind that it's also aging and starting to do things like freeze up or just refuse to admit I tapped something. Eight times.)
I'm going to look in to finding a cheap laptop to allow me tokeep writing, or else figure out a way to get my desktop set up ina closet for the time being. Because I am really in to these homesteading projects, and crafts, and everything that's been going on but you wouldn't know that by checking on here.
It's almost embarrassing to be a techie without functioning equipment, to boot. So trust me when I say I'm really trying to work this out.
Bare with me, and I'll have a solution of some sort by next week.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Vermiculture and Lactobacillus

Things are finally winding down on the "moving our lives to new digs" forefront. We have most of the necessities finally, and as of yesterday we emptied out our smaller storage unit and got everything in to the mid-sized unit. That was a hell of an accomplishment and a nice milestone.
The homesteading activities did NOT go on hiatus, however! I am bound and determined to work on things even if we don't have the "traditional " setup just yet!
The two projects that have been consuming my imagination are... Yogurt making and worm bins!
The yogurt was started first because you basically need milk, bacteria, containers and a fridge. I had all of those components walking in the door to our new place so nothing else was necessary. (Although I will cop to buying a 12-pack of Ball canning jars. Because it's something I would like to do one day.)
After asking if anybody had any recipes for making yogurt and being INUNDATED with the recipe on how to make it -and I will be honest, everybody told me their recipe made THE BEST YOGURTS EVAR and it was all literally the same set up steps- I went ahead and tried with organic whole milk snagged out of the dairy section of the supermarket. Nothing fancy, In fact, the love/hate/love/omgendthispain relationship I have with dairy had me concerned that perhaps I should be trying raw milk. Or almond milk. Or goat's milk. More on this in a bit. But for that first batch I crafted 3 and 3/5ths jars of whole cow's milk yogurt. I covered them in towels to keep them warm, dropped a lobster pot over top of them and let them sit for 14 hours.
And in this photo you see our high-tech yogurt making operation complete with stripey towel.
It was an utter success, and the worst part was waiting for the milk to cool down. I went and stirred it every time I got fidgety and tested the temp with a meat probe thermometer, because we are FANCY around here. As my friend Jennifer said, yogurt making is something you do while you're doing other things. Because really it's like that thing where you go do other stuff while the dryer is running. Or paint is drying. Or your mother in law is giving you advice. That kind of thing.
I DID cheat and use a single serve thing of Fage yogurt instead of going the purist route and popping open probiotic capsules, but there are no regrets. I enjoy the Fage product (or could when it still agreed with me) and therefore their bacteria was desirable.
You will note a trend of me buying food from places I like then using it to make my own food. Constantly. The only reason I don't have blueberry bushes right now is because you can't grow them from blueberries at the farmer's market!
After seeing how easy it was to do the cow's milk, I opted to look up almond milk yogurt and goat's milk yogurt and give it a shot.
No. Never again.
Because THIS is what happened with the almond yogurt after I cultured it and stashed it in the fridge for 2 days....
The separation was noticable in all 4 jars, and only got worse as it "aged". 
....and the smell was not good. Not good at all. Given that eating the homemade cow's milk stuff has actually proven to not trouble my stomach in the least, I will give up trying to make yogurt out of milk alternatives.
As far as the goat yogurt? I made it from raw goat's milk, and a mere teaspoon of it left me with goat flavoring in my mouth for an hour. I'll be using it for casseroles coming up, but it's just too strong for me to throw granola and fruit in to and munch on in the morning.
Happily, my second batch of cow's milk yogurt turned out better than the first, and this time in order to keep my kitchen counter clean I put it in the oven and left the light on overnight. The jars were warm to the touch when I stumbled downstairs 14-15 hours later, and definitely firmer and creamier somehow than the first batch was. I'm looking forward to making my third batch tomorrow and rolling the last of the second batch in to it as the culture! I have a love of generational things, and having my own slowly personalizing yogurt bacteria culture pleases me.
A successful "jarring" occasion. Get it??
Now! On to vermiculture!
I hate food waste. This was probably instilled in me by my father, who had to make do with soooo much less as a kid than I did when he was growing up. You ate the watermelon rind, damnit, (pickled for a treat sometimes) and the corn cob was sweet so you chewed on that, too, to get a little sugar when 5 cent candy was outside of what you could afford.
This is why I was chafing at the bit that we would be losing our compost bin with the sale of our last place. There would be so many fruit skins and pits and vegetable peelings going down the road in a plastic bag to a dumpster, waiting to be transported to a landfill where they would just sit, removed from the energy cycle until the bag split open and things could properly rot and shift around. I am also looking to start as many projects as can be safely and sanitarily done in our diminished space so there's less downtime when we finally have a place we can muck about in the dirt on. So while a compost bin would not be doable due to the smell and potential seepage and the fact that we can't put anything out on the grass because the landscapers can't mow  -not to mention complaints that we're putting rotting food outside that might attract the wildlife- I knew that a worm bin was the way to go.
I found a very simple model, the Worm Factory 360, on Amazon. It was compact and expandable depending on the needs of the household, meaning we could stow it in a corner in the garage and have our neighbors be none the wiser.
There are a TON of tutorials out there on making worm bins and some of them could be made with something as simple as a rubbermaid storage container. If you have the room or can have your worm bin outside, it's a much cheaper option and I highly recommend it. I only went with pre-made because it needed to be very compact and very clean. The model we got has a small bowl at the bottom to catch drippings if the compost gets too wet which you can pour off courtesy of a spigot as "worm tea" and go make your houseplant and garden plants' day by adding it to their regular water.
It arrived with a lot of bells and whistles, and a VERY in depth booklet explaining how to go about starting up the bin, caring for the worms, setting up the substraight, etc. I was so excited that I got to work immediately despite not having purchased the worms yet.
I started out by mixing up the coconut fibers, crushed mineral and shredded paper that they included in to a damp mound to help keep moisture and air in to the initial pan.
I then set down a few layers of wet newspaper to keep the worms from falling through the bin floor since there would be no soil yet for them to roll around in, added the substrate in, then tossed on all of the vegetable and fruit scraps I'd been saving up that week so the worms could start out with something yummy. I'd made chicken chili, so there were a LOT of greens to deal with.
Fun fact, you can throw in newspapers, flyers and junk mail for them to chew! As long as it's not glossy!
As you can see, we opted for the orangey-red model, because that seemed more fun to me than black or green and it would also stand out in the garage for people not to kick or bump accidentally. It lives right by the door going in to the garage currently, but I'm hoping to move it to the far wall after we get the mess in there from moving better organized.
After all that was complete, the only thing left to do was wet down some more layers of newspaper, lay them on top, then replace the lid. Voila! First pan started!
Looking respectable and slightly short.
One of the nice things about this model is that when one pan fills up, you just add another on top, and eventually the worms get done chowing on what's below and move up through the grid on the pan's bottom. It came with 4 pans but can expand up to 8 high. Seeing as you can sell the castings and that I will definitely be needing it to amend pot and garden soil in the future, I suspect we'll need those full 8 pans. But for now, we start with just the one!
 I then had to figure out how to get worms since it did not come with them. I opted to buy 500 live red wrigglers off of Amazon and opted for rush delivery because it's damned hot out currently and I didn't want them to get too stressed. There are cheaper ways to get your worms, such as having a friend dig a bunch out of their worm bin, or visit a vermiculture or bait place and snagging them there. I was in a hurry and didn't think I had the time to sit down and research where to go to get cheap or free worms. In hindsight, I could easily check it out. If something happens and I need to repopulate this bin, or a second or bigger bin when we're finally truly settled, I'm going to go the non-website route. You'd rather have local worms anyway, aclimated to the soil and climate.
When the worms arrived, it turned out they were from a worm farm north of here in PA. I was highly amused at the thought of those little guys traveling through the mail to come to rest still within the same state they started in. It was a cool day, and I popped open the bag ASAP to check on them.
As mentioned by the fabulous in depth booklet from the bin, the worms were in a ball in the middle of the peat and not feeling up to doing much. I quickly took them out to the bin, popped the top, peeled back the newspaper and just dropped them on in. To help rehydrate them I also drizzled half a cup of water over the peat and the ball of worms. They began to move immediately, to my relief.
Smile for the camera! Or... not.
Over the next 48 hours I checked several times to make sure none were making a run for it. Some explored out to the edges of the bin, but nobody fell all the way to the floor. As of tonight when I went to put this week's compost pail of goodies in, they had all disappeared down in to the greenery and were munching away happily.
So there you have it, my adventure with tiny, tiny creatures and learning to make my own food and make best use of what has already been consumed and left afterwards. When the first tray is mostly turned to worm castings I'll take a few pictures so everyone can view the transformation. The more I look at the amount of food in there and the number of worms I bought, I'm starting to think the advice of buying at least a pound of worms was wiser. about 1,000 worms equals a pound, but I didn't think I would have enough for 1,000 worms to eat so I hedged. I could take stuff out to the bin every day if I wanted, between junk mail and deliveries and cooking dinner. They'll catch up eventually, I'm just not sure how quickly. A mini science experiment, perhaps!
As far as the yogurt, in the near future I'm going to do a post showing all the things I've been doing with that on top of just maufacturing it. It is the single most popular thing I make currently, with Girlchild requesting "Yoguh" every morning when we start making breakfast. She downs it like it's going out of style, prompting me to make more each time! But I digress, this post is enormous, and that's it for now.
Thanks to all for reading!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Further Adventures in Altered Couture

This was actually the very first thing I decided I wanted to do when I got sick of my maternity clothes - a Beehive Shirt!
It was a boring button down with the same boring horizontal stripes on it that damn near every maternity shirt sports that isn't a solid color (WHY?? Why are they all like that??). And I decided I wanted to embroider it a bit...
There are photos but they are buried in the depths of the internet right now, so I'll just show you the finished product. Replaced some buttons with bee buttons including one on the shoulder for decoration and went with a honeycomb theme across the shoulder and neckline.
This is a detail of the shoulder. It's hard to tell, but the thread is variegated butter yellow to goldenrod.

This is the entire piece. I'd intended to do more, but would have given birth by the time it was finished.
So it's a really nice alteration, it's cute, and I intend to wear the hell out of this thing for the duration of having tiny humans in side of me.
The only tricky thing was embroidering on knit fabric, which required tearable stick-paper to put on the back of the areas so the fabric didn't pull and stretch too much. I have a ton left over, and fully intend to use it on other non-maternity t-shirts once the ideas strike.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

We're Not Dead Yet!

I AM still around, and have still been taking pictures and doing things that warrant blogging but the move has taken up the entirety of July and is creeping in to August like that cousin that wants to make sure he gets food before it runs out. We're still unpacking boxes, making such lovely discoveries as we go ("Why in the actual 9 hells did we pack this stuff and not donate it??") and realizing how much downsizing we need to do in order to be comfortable in our new place.
I am actually looking forward to it, because there's just so much STUFF that I can't possibly see how I would use or enjoy all of it. Somebody else can, so we're going to try to sell it/donate it/gift it as best we can.
Right now everything that we sell is going right back in to the "Homestead Fund", since we had our AC unit explode and basically cost us $10,000 out of the house closing price. We're dead in the water and having to save up like mad in order to have a decent down payment for our next place.
In the meantime I am still creating, cooking, drying, planting and proceeding as planned. I can't have chickens, and there's no land to plant things in but I've managed a bit of a container garden on the deck and have plans to try and grow fruit trees in containers until we can get them in some good earth somewhere.
Lots of projects with photos to come, and I'm excited at everything that's been going on now that our lives aren't centered around leaving our old place. Can't wait to share.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

More Pota-tosity (???? if that's a word) and Second Tries

The potato is actually doing just fine, completely negating my fears that it would get damp and all of the leaves would get moldy, rot, and kill off the plant. The weather has been all about the summer thunderstorms, and always in late afternoon or evening, which could have potentially exacerbated the problem.
Nope. It's fine.
A quick peak under the earth just shows the leaves yellowing like anything that isn't exposed to light anymore. Apparently there's plenty of drainage and the potato vine is incredibly happy to have dirt to wiggle around in. So all is well.
On a sad note, my betta fish died the other night. He'd been suffering from bloat and no treatment was working, so I knew it was coming. It didn't feel right to just flush him because he was so pretty and because he'd been around long enough that even the baby asked to see him when I fed him. I took a spade and put him down deep in the potato pot to help fertilize it. Weird? Maybe. But it was done with other plants by aboriginal tribes, and they didn't even use pet fish. So I felt it was appropriate to bury one thing my daughter had liked to help perpetuate something else she brought in to my life. We'll see if there's a sudden jump in growth in a week or two.
I decided to start over with a different tactic on all of the other projects that had seemed to fail, since I HATE not being able to get something to grow. Especially when internet articles and uncharismatic YouTube bloggers insist that it's super easy and stuff. So I began with the sweet potatos, this time trying the "shove it in a jar of water" method. This was decided on based on a photo a friend sent of her potato she upended in to a jar and just left for a week, which is now growing vines that would make a kudzu plant jealous.
Very artfully set up and whatnot.
I don't think this leaves me enough time for them to develop slips, get potted and produce actual sweet potatoes this season, but maybe I can rig something so that they can continue to grow indoors, then start the process early next year.
I also decided to try again with another piece of ginger, this time doing the soaking it overnight trick that I avoided last time because it was supposedly organic ginger and therefore wouldn't have any growth inhibitor on it. And I purposefully bought a very wide, deep colored container that would catch and warm the soil and allow lots of space for roots and rhizomes to spread out. But since I was starting to run out of dirt, I decided to use the peat mix from the old pot with the ginger that seemed to never prosper.
As I knocked the soil out of the small pot, though, I noticed that it was clinging to the bottom of the pot strangely. And then I saw roots. And after I carefully extracted the roots, I saw..... a small green shoot coming out of the end down lowest in the pot! !!!!!!! Excitement!!
I quickly moved it and the soil in with the last of my regular potting soil and some coffee and cocoa bean grounds (it said ginger loves compost, so....... maybe it won't kill these guys.), mixed thoroughly, added in the newer ginger rhizome, and patted the soil in to place. I moved it out to the picnic table where I knew it would be kept warm in the sun all day today, and the rain from the crazy storm would keep the soil moist but not sopping. All in all, an excellent tropical start!
I walked out today to see that the shoot had poked it's way above the soil line by about half an inch and was a brighter green than it had been last night. So maybe I'm not a murderer of ginger after all? Nothing would make me happier than to discover all was well with it and it went on to provide us with years of fresh and lovely ginger!
Look at that lovely green bud!
 We (Girlchild and myself) also took the time to grab two new Opal Basil plants from Home Depot to replace the ones slowly withering in the Italian Herb Bowl out on the picnic table. The heat and humidity served to wreck the previous plants and grow fungus on the top of the soil, causing the plants to drop leaves. I'm going to take the old ones down to the raised garden beds, plant them and wish them well. Then I'm digging out all of the water logged earth and obvious fungus patches and putting in better draining soil. It is annoying and unheard of to me to not have basil in my garden, so I'm FIXING it, damnit. And having widened drainage, it should be a lot dryer this time.
We spent this afternoon repotting all of the pumpkin and watermelon starts, as well, as we had meant to give them to people attending Summerween at our place this past Saturday as party favors. Alas, mega sickness canceled the event, one of my favorite non-holidays (a fabulous excuse to celebrate Halloween in the summer, courtesy of my beloved cartoon Gravity Falls). But the seedlings didn't get the memo and went crazy, so today they got moved to their own individual pots. I'll be distributing them like some gourd-wielding crazy lady on Thursday and Friday as I see my friends. We also took the opportunity to repot the rosemary snagged from Trader Joe's in to a container twice as large so it would have a happy home over the winter. There were also big pots snagged to move the baby apple tree that has survived and let it spread out a bit, and smaller pots to replace the broken ones, as I intend to start some new apple trees from seed again falling the strange death of all but one.
Coming up on the list of Gardening To-Do's:
~pot new fuji apple seeds to get starts
~transplant leftover pumpkin and watermelon starts in to much bigger pots for their summer lifetime on the deck at the new apartment.
~get the Savage Garden Terrarium's base gravel and fast-drain soil mix set up
~order plants for Savage Garden Terrarium
~repot Teddy Bear Sunflowers in to their own, much bigger pots.
~start peach trees from seed
~start pomegranate trees from seed
~start a second avocado
~bury potato vines up to lip of the pot
~trim dying secondary leaves off Swiss Cheese Plant
~get everything safely moved to new apartment and happily situated.

After that, we have Everyting Else To Do:
~treat betta tank with Melafix to finish off whatever disease is in it
~pack up kitchen, art room, garage, closets and storage spaces
~get pink washi tape to mark items going to storage for movers
~find a new betta as pretty as Momotaro was
~take extra food and bulk items to food pantry
~take donation items to Good Will.

So there's a lot to do between now and the 7th when we move, but now that I think I've finally kicked the crappy dragging illness that was long suffered, stuff should fall in to place quickly. Especially the gardening stuff, because my little helper enjoys coming outside with me just to touch the soil.
And as a final note, today we did the anatomy ultrasound for the baby inside of me, and this one's a boy. I'm happy to get to experience being mom to both a boy and a girl, and look forward to finding out what kind of cool things he'll be in to, too.