Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review - Root Cellaring

In anticipation of attending the Root Cellar Construction workshop at the Field to Fork Festival earlier this month I decided to reread Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Bubel. It had been a couple of years since I first read the book, and so wanted a refresher before the workshop.

This book seems to be one of the most often suggested books on the topic of root cellars, and I can understand why. It is very well rounded, covering everything from selecting and harvesting storage crops to actual root cellar construction, including alternatives to traditional structures. It was the sections on root cellar construction that most interested me, but I found useful information in the other sections of the book as well.

Some of the alternative root cellar discussed included surrounding and covering vegetables with straw bales, piling them in a mound and covering with soil, and burying containers in the ground, such as a barrel, trash can, or even refrigerator. Anna, over at The Walden Effect has some good info on the buried refrigerator method, and she has recently compiled her experience with that, and other cheap root cellar solutions into the $10 Root Cellar: And Other Low-Cost Methods of Growing, Storing, and Using Root Vegetables ebook, which I hope to read and review soon.

I found the section on traditional root cellar construction to be especially helpful, as it covers important factors such as temperature, humidity, ventilation, and condensation. The benefits of a smooth ceiling really stood out in my mind, and I am now seriously considering a poured concrete roof when we build our root cellar, and would love to be able to make this a rounded roof if possible.

The longest chapter of the book is that on Root Cellaring Experiences, which gives real life examples of root cellars being used in a variety of situations. I found this chapter to be helpful because it provides a glimpse into what works and what does not work, allowing the reader to take advantage of the experiences of those using the cellars profiled.

My biggest disappointment after reading the book is not due to any shortcoming of the book itself, but from what it made me realize about the foods that we eat. Aside from potatoes, we do not currently grow many foods that would be well suited to long term storage in a root cellar. While this hasn't changed my desire to eventually construct a root cellar, it does make me wonder if we need to seriously expand our gardening horizons if we are to take full advantage of the benefits of cellaring. I also suspect that we'll need to construct a separate structure for storing some of my favorite crops such as garlic and chili peppers, which require a warm, dry environment, rather than the cool, damp environment preferred by root crops.

I believe this book is well worth reading for anyone with a garden or who wishes to be able to stock up on fresh in-season vegetables purchased from local farmers. Even if you have no intention on ever constructing a root cellar, the tips in this book for alternatives, including some that require nothing more than an unheated basement, garage, or spare room make this book a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rural Living vs City Living Series - Transportation

For my second post in the Rural Living vs City Living Series I am focusing on the topic of transportation. Even when I lived in a small city, transportation opportunities were limited. There was no public transportation available, other than taxis. The city was also fairly spread out, making biking or walking less attractive options than might be the case in many other locations. For this post I will be looking at transportation options is larger cities, though, that do have adequate public transit services.

From an environmental perspective I feel that cities offer a clear advantage. The most obvious advantage is the previously mentioned access to public transportation. While the options vary from city to city, most large cities provide either bus or train service. Choosing the bus or train is the ultimate form of carpooling, and has much less environmental impact than each individual driving a car. Public transportation also benefits from government funding as well as a budget that allows for investing in newer, more efficient, technologies, which reduces the environmental impact even more.

Even if public transportation is not a viable option, traditional carpooling is more likely to be an option in a city than in a rural setting. Due to the housing density, as well as the grouping of businesses it is likely that someone who lives nearby needs to go to the area you wish to go. On the other hand, for those of us living in rural areas, with only a few families located within a couple of miles, it could take days or weeks before someone nearby was headed to the specific area needed for carpooling to work.

Due to the large number of people living in a fairly small area, cities also tend to have more business located within walking and/or biking distance of housing. While the large supermarket or your favorite restaurant may require travelling some distance, chances are good that there are alternative options within walking or biking distance for many urban dwellers.

In the event that public transportation, carpooling, or walking/biking are not an option due to the need to travel outside the city or to transport heavy or bulky items, many cities now have car sharing programs that fill in the gap. While using a car sharing program may very well result in burning the same amount as fuel as using your own car, the benefit is that fewer cars must be manufactured to fill the need, as a single car is able to serve several people, rather than everyone needing their own.

The ability to live car-free also means that city living may be a better fit for those interested in simple living, at least from a transportation standpoint. Car ownership comes with its own set of responsibilities and regular tasks that can be avoided by living car-free. When more than one person in the family commutes to work, or sometimes even when only one does, the ability to juggle transportation with a single car in rural areas can become quite complicated. The many transportation options in large cities provide great flexibility in these situations, even if one choose not to go completely car-free.

When it comes to natural living, my initial inclination was to give the nod to rural living. After all, how can city living beat rural living in any situation relating to natural living. As I thought about it, however, I realized that human powered transportation, such as walking and biking, was the most natural form of transportation available. Human powered transportation isn't as viable in rural areas, due to the long distances that are often travelled. Even a brisk walker, with good stamina, would need three to four hours to make a trip to town and back on foot from my house. Pack animals have traditionally be used for transportation in rural areas, but those comes with their own challenges. A horse, for examples, requires a great deal of care and food, while still being a fairly slow form of transportation. Most places, even in rural areas, aren't exactly set up for people to ride their horses into town anymore, either, which could also present challenges.

I don't think there is a clear winner when it comes to the sustainability and self-sufficiency. The ability to use human powered transportation in the city is the ultimate form of self-sufficient and sustainable transportation, but the travel options are limited. Any other form of transportation within a city requires being dependent upon many people, from those maintaining the infrastructure to those providing the service. In rural areas, however, human powered and animal powered transportation are options, although with similar, if not more, limits to those faced in the city. On the other hand, while owning ones own vehicle may require some dependency, for a source of fuel and parts, for example, the level of dependency is far less than in a city. Infrastructure maintenance isn't as important in rural areas either, and could, theoretically, be carried out by a group of area residents if needed. The use of an automobile powered by either renewable energy, or a fuel source that can be manufactured at home would also reduce the dependency on others.

In the end, I don't think that there is a clear cut answer to the question of which provides the most transportation advantages, rural or city living. The transportation needs of each individual is going to play a significant role in this determination, as is his/her own priorities. Whether you're zipping beneath the city in a subway car, walking across open fields, or bouncing around in an old rusty pickup truck, though, remember that there are always things we can do to make our chosen mode of transportation better fit our priorities.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I didn't really accomplish anything on Saturday. It rained overnight, and looked rainy when I got up. We had talked about going out for the day, if it was raining, so that is what we decided to do. We hadn't done anything for our recent anniversary because the weather was nice and we chose to spend the time working on things around here instead. We took Saturday has an opportunity to have a meal out, and get a bit of shopping done.

Today was a very different story. I spent the entire day on the tractor, trying to get the spot for the future shed ready. It is starting to look good, although it currently has a slight grade to it. I think I'm ready to mark it out, so I can start digging post holes, though. I came in a bit earlier than normal today, because I was worn out. I know that it doesn't seem like riding around on a tractor all day would be hard work, but it can  be.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

2013 To-Do List Update #2

I've managed to let time get away from me, and am a few weeks late doing the second update on our progress for the to-do list. We're just over half way through the year and less than half way through the list. Out of thirteen items on the list, only four have been completed. Two others are half complete, and one, at least, is going to be postponed until 2014. I think its clear that I need to start focusing on this list if I'm going to complete it before the end of the year.

Build a chicken coop
No progress has been made towards this goal. I have a coop design, but have not started construction. In fact, I still need to do some work to prep the area where the coop will be located.

Build a hugelkultur bed
The only progress I have made here is to partially fill in the initial hole that I dug. I still haven't figured out where the best place will be for a hugelkultur bed, but am hoping that this will become apparent when we do an overall garden plan.

Repair the ditches and gravel the driveway
I have made further repair to the ditches, and am seeing a big improvement. It is now possible to walk through the backyard following a heavy rain, which was impossible before. I still need to get a load of gravel for the driveway, which I hope to do within the next couple of months.

Complete the expansion of the herb bed
This project is complete. We didn't get everything planted that we had hoped, but the herb garden itself is finished. There is a bit of finishing work that can still be done, such as installing the rock border for the section in front of the porch, but for now we have a temporary border of landscape timbers. We did not install a trellis, since we did nott plant the hops that require it.

Make and install rain barrels
This goal is roughly half finished. I have installed two rain barrels, and have two left to construct. I also still need to install gutter and downspouts on the front porch and shed. I have the gutter, now I just need to install it.

Buy and start using a lawn sweeper
As discussed in Lawn Sweeper vs Landscape Rake vs Pine Straw Rake I was considering alternatives to the lawn sweeper. I did end up buying a landscape rake, but then found that it wasn't as good of an option a I had thought it would be. I eventually gave in and bought a lawn sweeper as well, and have found that to work much better for collecting grass clippings. I'll be doing a post about that, once I test it in taller grass. Since I've now bought two pieces of equipment for this task, I think its safe to say it is complete.

Finish clearing along the front edge of the yard and plant bushes
This project is complete. We have planted twenty-five bushes along with a green mulch of clover. It appears that some of the bushes may have to be replaced, but that should be relatively easy compared to the process of getting the area ready for the planting.

Purchase or build a shelter for the tractor
We had decided to purchase a metal carport to use as shelter for the tractor. Recently, though, we've started to think it might be better to build something. Both my dad and uncle suggested this, and gave some good reasons for going that route. What really made me think about it, though, was my recent visit to HomeGrown HideAways for the Whippoorwill Festival. I had the opportunity to look at one of the sheds there, and see how simple the construction was, which has made me realize that building one is definitely something we could do.

Fix a route to get across the road with the tractor
I haven't done any work on this since the last update, but am now considering it complete. I have had the tractor over there several times, and have not had any problems. I worried that an implement attached to the tractor might drag, due to the steepness of the road, but that turned out not to be an issue.

Build the pallet compost bin
I have made no progress on this project. For a while I was thinking that my plans to build such a large compost bin were unnecessary, but I've now realized that it is going to be needed after all. Between the compost pile and the piles of straw and grass clippings, I will need a large bin to keep it all contained.

Make a worm bin and start vermicomposting
We have made no progress towards this, and have actually started to question whether we want to do it or not. I think, though, that it is worth doing, if for no other reason, to have the worm castings to use for seed starting in the spring.

Install solar panels on the shed
Still no progress here, and as mentioned before, this will likely get pushed back to a 2014 goal.

Replace the siding on the shed
No progress has been made towards this goal. I think this is a task we can complete in a day, once we actually get started. I keep thinking of other tasks to get my Dad's help with, but should probably try to make this one a priority and get it knocked off of the list.

Friday, July 26, 2013


I was suffering from a lack of motivation this evening, and likely would not have accomplished anything if not for Andrea. She went out to work in the herb garden, though, and so eventually I went out to help her. We ended up spending the rest of the evening working outside. I just needed that help to get going.

One small section of the herb garden, which had not been planted in anything, had gotten out of control with weeds. When I mowed weeds a few days ago Andrea had me mow that area of the herb garden as well. Today she put down cardboard, to prevent them from coming back, then planted some flowers so there would be something there. Once that was done she applied a layer of paper mulch, so the entire herb garden will have a consistent appearance.

Once that was done I helped her work on the next section of the herb garden, which also was suffering from not being planted. This is the small area directly in front of the porch. Our plan was to plant sunflowers here, so they would provide some shading of the porch. We never got around to that, however, and now its too late.To keep the area from being over taken by weeds again, though, we decided to plant it in something. We used two old landscape timbers to define the edge of the bed, since we haven't been able to extend the rock border out that far yet. We then put down cardboard. We wanted to apply a thin layer of topsoil on top of the cardboard, so started thinking of places to get it. I suggested we go ahead and harvest the potatoes from the potato tower, and use that soil. It turns out that the soil from the tower was just the right amount. After using it to cover the cardboard Andrea sewed a mixture of Marigolds, Calendula, and Echinacea. She chose those primarily because she had extra seed that needed to be used up anyway.

I'll be discussing the results of the potato tower in more detail when I do a post on our potato growing results, but thought I'd go ahead and share a bit here. The results weren't as great as I had hoped but they weren't bad. The tower had held four plants, which yielded twenty-two potatoes plus a handful of tiny ones. Four of the potatoes were good sized, with the others being approximately golf ball sized. Total yield was just under two and a half pounds. Assuming we planted 7.5 ounces initially, based on the average weight of what was planted, the yield was just over five times that, which is respectable. I'm looking forward to seeing how the other plants of this variety performed.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Andrea and I had a nice evening outside today. She picked some blackberries, then we went in search of wildflowers to photograph for her wildflower log. After this we worked in the garden for a while. We watered the tomatoes, then weeded and fertilized the peppers and added another row of twine to the trellis. We have plenty of green tomatoes, and are hoping our fingers crossed that they ripen without issue. Some of the peppers are starting to do well, with a few having unripe fruit, but many are still not showing much promise. We're just trying to be patient and give them time.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


For the past few days I've been waking up with a headache, which hurts my motivation to go out before work. I don't know if the weather is causing it, or something else.

Andrea took a soap making class today as part of Berea's Festival of Learnshops. She has been planning to start making soap for some time, and thought that taking a hands on class would be a good way to get started. I'm excited, because this means that she'll be able to combine all of my favorite attributes from various soaps I've tried into the ultimate soap :-)

I spent the evening after work mowing weeds. Fortunately that isn't  task that I have to do often, but it is needed from time to time. My primary goal was to mow around the trailer, and along the edge of the herb garden, but while I was at it I went ahead and mowed around the recently planted bushes and around the garden as well. While I was mowing weeds Andrea worked on applying more mulch to the herb garden as well as planting some flowers in vacant spots.

Utilizing the USDA Cooperative Extension System

During one of the workshops I was attending at the Field to Fork Festival the topic of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service was brought up. The gentleman leading the workshop was a local CES agent, and one of the participants began asking him questions about the Master Gardeners classes that are offered by some of the CES offices. As I listened to the conversation I realized that there are many people who are unaware of the learning opportunities offered by the organization.

The Cooperative Extension System is part of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The system has existed, in one form or another, for the better part of a century. As it was explained to me, the purpose of the CES was to provide a way for the agriculture research being performed at the land grant universities to be shared at the local level. Over the years it has been expanded to include programs that focus on a variety of topics including agriculture, home and family, economic development, and even the arts. Each state has one or more Universities in the CES system, and local offices at either the county or regional level.

My first memories of hearing about the 'extension office', as they are locally referred to, are from my childhood. I can remember my parents calling the extension office to ask various gardening questions, such as when is the best time to plant green beans or how to treat a specific pest or plant disease. I remember being skeptical that an office existed that one could simply call up and ask routine garden questions and receive a reply without having to pay a fee. It has only been during the past couple of years that I have began really utilizing the local extension office myself, and understanding how they work and the services they provide.

So far we have primarily used the extension office as a source of learning. We have taken several gardening classes through the CES, including classes on growing strawberries, growing blackberries and raspberries, growing rhubarb and asparagus, using cover crops, composting, and raising chickens. We are currently enrolled in the eleven workshop Gardening 101 class, which meets every other week. Andrea is also enrolled in the KYFarmStart course, which is a ten session class focusing on farm management topics for beginning farmers. She will also likely enroll in the Master Gardeners class next year. In addition to agriculture and horticulture workshops our local offices also offer several classes under the Family and Consumer Sciences department on topics such as quilting, food preservation, and even cake decorating.

I have learned, however, that the learning opportunities offered varies a great deal from one county to the next. While this can partially be explained by differences in the agents themselves, I believe it is caused primarily by the interest, or lack of interest, shown by the people in the community. For this reason, I believe it is important to reach out to your local CES and let them know the types of programs that you would like to see offered. If the local office doesn't have the types of classes and programs that you want, don't be afraid to see what the offices in neighboring counties have to offer. In fact, the office where we take most of our classes is in an adjacent county, and the KYFarmStart course Andrea is beginning soon is being offered through an office two counties over.

Of course the CES offers many services beyond classroom based education. They do answer the types of questions I remember my parents calling with as a child. They do so much more, than that, however. The local ag agent provides help with identifying pests and diseases, even if that requires a visit to the farm. The office provides very reasonably priced soil tests for both farmers and home owners, that is returned with customized recommendation based on the crops the individual wishes to raise. Our local office takes orders for various plants, to take advantage of volume pricing. The office also serves as home base for several clubs, including the local Cattleman's Association, beekeeping club, quilting clubs, etc.

If you're not already familiar with your local Cooperative Extension System office, and the programs and classes offered there, I urge you to check it out. Many offices, at least in the state of Kentucky, have websites and Facebook pages that list their programs and classes. Alternatively, you can always give them a call or stop by in person to see what they might be offering. The CES was created to educate people like you and I, so we might as well take advantage of it.

Electrical Outages - Why Do I Enjoy Them So Much?

A couple of weeks ago, during a storm, our electricity went out for a few hours. While it was out I read for a while, and then Andrea and I played a board game. I remember, at the time, remarking that I really enjoy such electricity-free periods. Since then I have been thinking about why I enjoy these power outages so much.

The most obvious reason for enjoying electricity-free time is the peacefulness that comes with it. Andrea needs noise, either via the tv or radio, to help her relax. This means that there is almost, always, some sort of noise in the house if she is home. When the electricity is out, however, these noise sources are not available, unless we get out the hand-cranked radio, which we usually do not do for short outages.

When Andrea isn't home, however, I often work in silence and have not noticed the same good feelings as during electrical outages. It seems to me that if the lack of noise was the answer, I would experience the same moods when I'm home alone as when the electricity it out. This leads me to believe that there is more to the situation than simply a lack of noise.

The next most logical reason for my enjoyment of electrical outages is that not having electricity forces me to seek out more simple entertainment, such as reading, playing board games, or simply thinking. An evening spent in front of the television or computer becomes something entirely different when faced with a lack of electricity.

I think there is some merit to this idea, as I do thoroughly enjoy simpler, slower-paced, forms of entertainment. I do these things much less often than I'd like, partly due to the constant temptations from technology. It isn't that having electricity prevents me from doing things like reading, but in order to spend time with Andrea in the evenings I tend to do things I can do with the distraction of the tv in the background, since having that noise is important to her. I do tend to read more when she isn't here, but I still find that sometimes I give into the temptation of the computer or television, even though those are rarely as enjoyable as technology free entertainment.

I do enjoy the time that I spend alone, which I think is primarily because of the lack of television and often less use of the computer. This doesn't apply when I am working, however, since I sit at a computer eight to ten hours a day for my job. It is only during evenings and on weekends, and to a lesser extent during my lunch break, that I am able to enjoy some electricity-free time when she isn't around. I also find that time spent outside working, especially when doing a repetitive task that requires little thought, is often very enjoyable. I think I enjoy this type of work so much because it gives me time alone with my thoughts. This is likely one of the reasons I also enjoy camping and hiking alone. Still, though, spending time alone, either inside or outside, isn't as enjoyable as spending electricity-free time with Andrea. Yes, I like to having some time to myself, but I also enjoy spending time together, even if that mean just sitting across the room from one another reading.

Lastly, I am starting to wonder if maybe there is a physical reason that I am happier and seem to feel better during power outages. I have been vaguely aware that some people believe wireless signals and electrical lines are harmful. I've never been one to put much stock into those ideas, although have also never really done research on the topics. As I become more aware of the way I feel during power outages, however, I am starting to wonder if maybe there is something to it. Maybe I am sensitive to electromagnetic fields or radio waves, but have become so accustom to them that I don't directly notice their impacts.

I would like to do some experimenting to see if notice any difference in how I feel when performing the same tasks with and without electricity. I'm not going to force Andrea to go along with my experiments, though, so will need to limit them to times when she isn't home, and when I'm not on the clock for work.

I suppose I should also acknowledge the possibility that my improved mood during electrical outages is all in my head. Could it be that my romanticizing of a simpler lifestyle has resulted in me feeling better in those situations just because I think I should? I think this is certainly a possibility, and unfortunately is one that is not easy to test for. If feeling better, in a certain situation, though, is all in my head, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Maybe I can just learn to feel better more often.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


I haven't accomplished anything around the house during these past few days. Andrea and I were both exhausted on Sunday, following the Field to Fork Festival, so used the day to recuperate. It rained on Monday, which prevented me from getting outside.

I worked in the office today, then attended the Gardening 101 class afterwards. For today's class we met at a local farm, where we were allowed to explore the fields and really see what a working farm looks like. Our instructor estimated the farm to cover approximately 30 acres, which is a large vegetable operation in our area. The gentleman who runs the farm is clearly ingenious, as shown by the processes he has developed and the efficiency with which he runs such a large operation.

As impressive as the operation was, however, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by the waste and overall unnatural field to the place. The majority of crops, with the exception of sweet corn, was being grown using plasticulture, which I am not a fan of. Yes, it helps to keep things looking orderly and relatively weed free, but I can't even imagine the amount of waste that the process generates on a large farm. While I make the effort to reduce my use, and waste, of plastic, it is unlikely that my efforts will even come close to offsetting the amount of plastic a farm like this uses in a single year. In addition to the use of plasticulture, the farmer also relies heavily on pesticides and chemical fertilizer, which was evident by looking at the soil. I have to admit that I was somewhat impressed with the juxtaposition of row after row of healthy-looking vegetables and the dead soil, which appeared to be entirely lacking organic material.

There has been mention of touring a local organic farm as part of the Gardening 101 class. I think I'll remind the instructor of this, in hopes that it can be fit into the schedule. I'd love to see how it compares to the farm we saw today.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Field to Fork Festival - 2013: Root Cellar Construction

As mentioned in my Field to Fork - 2013 post, I attended an all day Root Cellar Construction workshop on Friday as part of the festival. This was the first time the festival offered an additional day of half-day and all-day workshops, and I think it was a nice addition.

The Root Cellar Construction workshop was led by Daryl Pifer. I was already familiar with Daryl, as I have followed his blog about construction of his straw bale home, and attended his straw bale workshop at the Whippoorwill Festival just a week earlier. During the straw bale workshop he mentioned the root cellar he constructed for his own use, and indicated that it was built using dry stacked concrete blocks, which I was very interesting in learning about.

There were approximately ten to twelve participants in the workshop. I was very glad to see a good turnout, because when I had talked to Deborah, the festival organizer, a few months ago she told me I was the only one to pre-register up to that point. I wasn't really looking forward to building an entire root cellar as part of a two man crew.

When we arrived at the build site, we found the tools and materials waiting for us. The site had been excavated by a backhoe a couple of days before, and the block, bags of concrete, etc were all stacked nearby. After a quick round of introductions, and a summary by Daryl of the plan, we started work.

The first task was to level the base of the site, and, in a couple of spots, expand it somewhat. Since everyone was well rested and eager, this took very little time to complete. Once the base was fairly level we begin taking measurements and setting stakes in order to get a rough idea of the boundaries of the structure. Unfortunately the excavation was not large enough for the original design, so it had to be adjusted somewhat. The original plan called for interior dimensions of 8' by 6'. Instead, Daryl decided to go with exterior dimensions of 8' by 8', which actually provided more interior square footage than the initial design. Had the plan included a concrete floor and/or footers, this would have had to have been done in advance. Rather that concrete, we used gravel for the floor and as a base for the foundation.

With the stakes in place we next added several inches of gravel. With three people shoveling, two wielding buckets, and another pushing a wheelbarrow this was completed quickly. While we were moving the gravel, a couple of others were spreading them. After the workshop I was talking with the instructor and he suggested that when I build my own root cellar I might consider digging actual footers, and doing a rubble trench before adding the gravel base. I think I might very well do this, even if I only end up making it a relatively shallow footer.

With a base of gravel to work on, we next arranged the first course of block, using the stakes as guides for the position of the corners. Several rounds of measuring and adjusting were required to get everything squared up. This included measuring not only across both directions, but also measuring diagonally.

Once we had everything square, we next had to level each block. We started by levelling one corner block, then proceeded to level the next, while also ensuring it was level with the one next to it. This was a fairly time consuming process, which was made worse by the fact that no more than two people could work on it at once. Before finishing with the first course we mixed some concrete which was then poured into the holes of each block. Short, approximately 20' long, pieces of rebar were then inserted at strategic points, such as the corners, etc.

Daryl explained that if we had a concrete floor we would have used mortar on the first course of blocks, which would have made it easier to get everything level. Even though the first course was fairly level, we went ahead and used mortar on the second course to ensure everything was nice and level from that point on. Interestingly, though, we did not use mortar between the blocks, only below them. The second course went more quickly than the first, but still took a bit of time. Before we had it finished we had a couple of visitors to check on our progress, and I'm sure that, to them, it didn't look very promising.

Once we started on the third course of blocks, however, everything changed. The next two courses went up very quickly. I served as the primary block distributor, and tried to make sure the block layers had the correct block, whether a normal or corner block. There were at least two people positioning the blocks at most times, with a couple of others going behind them and ensuring the blocks were level. Sometimes leveling was as simple as turning the block around. Other times it required scraping off tiny debris from the blocks themselves, or adding a small amount of mortar.

The remaining courses of block would have gone up quickly, but after the fourth we had to stop and do another step of the process. Dry stacking concrete blocks requires the use of surface bonding cement, which helps to bind the blocks together. This gets applied to both the outside and inside surfaces. normally this would be done once the blocks were all laid, but in our situation there wasn't enough room between a couple the walls and the hillside to do this. Instead we had to work from the inside, and reach over the wall to apply the SBC to the exterior surface.

The remainder of the process was much the same as that for the third and fourth courses. After every couple of courses we would have to stop so the surface bonding cement could be applied to those hard to reach exterior walls. This continued until we had completed ten courses of block, which gave us the desired height. With the walls completed we finished applying the SBC to the other exterior walls, as well as the interior. It was while we were finishing this up that people started calling it a day.

There were still a few remaining steps that we didn't get to, but Daryl described them so at least we know how to finish up if build our own. The plan was to add additional lengths of rebar, inserted from the top, in the locations where the shorted pieces were added earlier. Those holes would then be filled with concrete, so that sections of the wall had solid codes of concrete, reinforced with rebar. Anchors were also to be mounted in this concrete, that would be used for attaching 4x4 beams around the entire top of the structure. These beams would later serve as anchor points for the above-ground pitched roof that was planned. For the blocks that did not get filled with concrete, I wonder if adding sawdust would be a good solution for adding insulation. I am considering trying this when we build our root cellar, although I may reach out to the instructor first to ask why he chose not to do this.

I made it a point to try my hand at nearly every task, so I would be sure to know how to do each step in the future. The only thing I did not try was applying the mortar for the second course of block and using it to help achieve level. I'm confident however, that I can figure that out.

I have to admit that when I first signed up for the workshop I worried that I would end up feeling like the  boys from Tom Sawyer who were tricked into paying for the opportunity to whitewash the fence. That was not the case at all, however. I actually found the work to be enjoyable, and learned a great deal. I am confident that I could build my own root cellar now. Without the hands on experience I doubt that I would have ever felt comfortable trying it on my own, even if I had plans to work from. This hands on experience alone made the workshop well worth the investment. After having completed this all day hands on workshop I am also much more likely to sign up for similar workshops at other venues. I'm probably not quite ready for a week long natural building workshop, but an all day workshop on building a cob oven or applying an earthen plaster would be something I would be interested in now. If all day workshops are offered at the 2014 Field to Fork Festival I am fairly certain I will be attending one of them.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Field to Fork Festival - 2013

Andrea and I attended the third annual Field to Fork Festival this weekend. We have attended the festival every year, and I've written about it each time. I described my experience at the 2011 festival in a blog entry on Earthineer - Field to Fork Festival 2011, and last year wrote about it here - Field to Fork Festival - 2012.

As I mentioned in my post about last year's event, the large number of students visiting as part of the Governor's Scholar Program made it difficult to really gauge the turnout. Without the GSP students attending this year, it seemed like the number of participants was down quite a bit. Most of the workshops I attended were small, with maybe four to six people total, with the largest having maybe ten to twelve participants. I found this to be much better than the larger crowds from last year, especially since the participants this year all seemed to be very interested in the topics being covered. The smaller groups allowed for some good discussion, and for the instructors to target the material based on what those in attendance were interested in.

The number of vendors also seemed to be less this year, although I know that was, in part, due to some last minute cancellations. There was still a nice selection of vendors, but I would loved to have seen even more in attendance. Hopefully the festival will continue to grow, and will attract more and more vendors each year.

The facilities used for the festival were also improved for this year, with additional classrooms added, most of which were completely enclosed. Unfortunately, however, three of the new classroom areas required walking up a fairly steep hill, which I suspect could have been daunting for some festival-goers.

Another significant change from previous years was the addition of all day, or half day, workshops on Friday. I was eager to take advantage of the opportunity, and Andrea decided to sign up for a couple of the half day workshops and tag along. Initially I planned to attend the Chicken Coop Design & Building workshop on Friday, but after having already designed a coop I decided instead to take the Root Cellar Construction workshop. I will be doing a blog entry dedicated to that workshop. Andrea took Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Berries and Basic Fruit Tree Care.

Andrea and I both signed up for five workshops on Saturday. Andrea attended Livestock First-Aid, Grow Your Own Vegetable Starts, Rain Gardens, Pawpaws & Persimmons, and Ricotta Cheese Making. She's shared quite a bit of information with me about those workshops, so I think its safe to say that she enjoyed them and found them to be informative. While I can't really provide any details on the workshops she participated in, I can for those that I attended.


  • Blueberry Basics - The instructor for this workshop was Aaron Shapiro of the Kentucky Blueberry Growers Association. She came prepared with a power point presentation, but the lack of projector made it difficult for everyone to see it. After being asked several questions by participants she eventually abandoned the prepared material, and the workshop became a more informal discussion and Q and A session. This seemed to work very well, as it allowed those in attendance to have their specific questions answered. I was the only one there not currently growing blueberries, so I learned a lot about the issues that new growers face and gained info on the pitfalls that we need to look out for. My only complaint with this workshop is that the $15 fee seemed a bit on the high side, especially since the only supplies used was the blueberry plant the instructor brought for illustration purposes.
  • Farming on 5 Acres of Less - This workshop was led by Larry Swartz of Windhover Farm. This two hour workshop was very interactive, with the instructor engaging each participant to understand his/her current situation and future plans. Interestingly, the instructor does not currently, nor has he ever, farmed on anything approaching 5 acres; his current farm is 100 acres. However, he was very knowledgeable, and had plenty of useful information to share. The session was much more of an informal discussion, than a structured workshop, which worked very well. I gained some useful knowledge, but more than anything, was inspired by what he had to say. I was actually late getting to my next workshop, because the conversation was so enjoyable. In fact, this workshop was, by far, the most enjoyable one of the day.
  • So You Want to Raise Chickens - This workshop was changed at the last minute, as the original instructor was unable to make it. Rick Griebenow, of Eastern Kentucky University, stepped in to fill the void, however, and did a good job. Like the previous workshops, this one was more of a discussion and Q and A session than anything. I learned a great deal from the workshop, especially about long term egg storage. Again, though, I found the fee, this time $20, to be excessive. This may have very well been due to the change in instructors though. I suspect that the original instructor had more planned, especially since the workshop was scheduled for ninety minutes, even though it ended up only lasting an hour with the Mr. Griebenow substituting.
  • Seed Saving - The seed saving workshop was led by Jay Hettsmansperger of the Garrard County Cooperative Extension Service. The focus of the workshop was the wet method of seed saving, presumably because the dry method, which he did mention, is so simple. He used tomatoes as the specific example, but described other fruits and vegetables which require the same methods. There wasn't a lot of material to cover, so the last several minutes were discussing the cooperative extension service in general. The workshop was informative, and well worth the time investment, however.
  • Urban Composting - My final workshop of the day was led by Markus Cross of Eastern Kentucky University. Obviously I have little need for information on urban composting specifically, but I suspected that much of the information covered would be useful in any setting. I was right, and even though I had more experience with composting than the other participants, I learned some useful tips. More important than the information, however, I left the workshop with the motivation to actively seek out additional materials to add to the compost. After hearing about the instructor's experience with adding meat, dairy, and oils to his compost with no negative effects, I've decided to give that a try, rather than adding an additional composting process for those items. My only complaint with this workshop is that it ran short, lasting only half of the scheduled two hours. By that time, however, I was getting tired and was glad to find that Andrea's last workshop also let our early, allowing us to get on the road, and therefore back home, earlier than anticipated.
While my primary goal when attending these events is to learn as much as possible from the workshops, I also enjoy browsing the offerings by the local vendors. I had a two hour break, between the chicken and seed saving workshops, so I used this time to get a bite to eat and look around. Unfortunately there wasn't really anything available that I was interested in having for lunch, but I had brought along some snacks just to be safe.

After having a snack I took a stroll through the vendor/exhibitor area, and stopped and chatted with several. My first stop was at the Kentucky Blueberry Growers Association booth, where I chatted with Aaron Shapiro for a few moments. Next I stopped by and chatted with the folks at England's Orchard & Nursery, a local nursery offering fruit and nut trees for sale. Perhaps the most interesting thing, however, was the rotatable beehive designed by Carl Jackson of Royalty Hives in Corbin. 

I still had an hour to kill after finishing up with the vendors, so I used the opportunity to listen to the performance by Western Kentucky roots rock band Heath & Molly. They put on a great show, and were a lot of fun to watch. We ended up picking up their latest CD, Truth?, before leaving the festival. 

Lastly, as if the workshops, vendors, and entertainment weren't enough, I can't accurately describe my festival experience without talking about the people. I really enjoyed meeting many of the instructors, including Darryl Pifer from Friday's root cellar workshop, and Larry Swartz and Markus Cross from Saturday. Darryl invited me to come visit his straw bale home sometime, which I will most likely take him up on. In addition to the instructors I met several interesting participants as well, including Sarah from the KY Earthship Group, whom I was only to talk with briefly. There was also a lady, whose name I failed to get, who is planning to open a holistic retreat on a sustainable farm where guests will be able to spend the night in cob cottages. This is very similar to an idea I had in the past, so I am very interested to see how it works out for her. Last, but certainly not least, it was nice to chat with Deborah and Ron, from Halcomb's Knob, which hosts the festival. 

I will definitely be attending next year's festival. In fact, we were asked, by Deborah, to join the planning committee for 2014. I hope that my experiences, both with the Field to Fork Festival as well as the many others I have attended, can help to improve on what is already a very enjoyable and informative event. If you haven't attended before, and you're within driving distance, I suggest that you check it out next year. I will certainly be there.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


I've had a busy few days, so haven't had a chance to write an update.

Thursday morning I tried out the chainsaw, not that its working again. It is running much better than it has in a long time. I cut some branches that had grown out over the path to the garden. While they weren't in the way of the RTV, they were for the tractor. The bigger problem with them, however, is that they were preventing me from using my long-handled tool carrier on the RTV.

Thursday evening was spent preparing for the Field to Fork Festival, which we attended on Friday and Saturday. I'll be writing a couple of detailed blog about the experience.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Today was one of those rare days when I start a project and complete it in the same day. It seems that at times I'm lucky to complete a project period, much less on the day I started it.

I went out before work this morning and worked in the garden. The area where the garlic and first two rows of potatoes, that have been harvested, were grown needed to be cleaned up. I started by pulling weeds, and loaded them into the RTV to be taken to the compost pile. I ended up with a full load of weeds, from that relatively small area. Next I raked the area, which, in addition to smoothing out the soil, resulted in the collection of a lot of loose straw that I had missed when I had removed the mulch originally.

After work Andrea helped me in the garden by planting buckwheat in the area I had cleared earlier in the day. While she did that I loaded the straw I had collected and added to my straw pile. It took longer to haul the straw that I expected, so once Andrea finished spreading the seed she used the rake to lightly cover them.

There was actually a light drizzle of rain when we went out, which continued the entire time we were working. When we finished with the buckwheat, neither of us was eager to go looking for another project to do in the rain, so we decided to call it a day.

What if We Didn't Have a Septic System?

Today's post in the What If....Series focuses on septic treatment systems, including both individual septic systems and municipal sewage treatment systems. I have used both in the past. The house I lived in while growing up had a single family septic system. Once I got married and moved to the city, we lived in apartments and houses that were connected to the municipal septic treatment system. When we moved back to the country, we switched back to an individual system.

I have never lived in a house that was not connected to some sort of sewage treatment system. I can barely remember the outhouse at my grandmother's house, but it was rarely used when I was a kid because they had installed indoor plumbing years earlier. We actually have an old outhouse on our property, but I have never even stepped foot inside of the structure, because I can never think to check it out during the winter when it would be easy and safe to get to it.

I think of a septic system as more of a luxury than a necessity. Yes, it is technically necessary to have one, to comply with many local building codes, but aside from that, one really isn't necessary. My primary concerns with not having a septic system are environmental, but as long as waste is handled, stored, and dealt with properly there is no real reason for concern. Other than that, the biggest downsides to not having a septic system appear to be the inconvenience and the perception of others. I will readily admit that walking to an outhouse in the middle of the winter is a big inconvenience, and is not something I'm eager to do. However, there are many options for composting toilets that can be installed inside, including the simple saw dust and bucket toilet.

As surprising as it might seem, there are actually several disadvantages to installing a septic system. These apply specifically to individual systems, and not municipal systems, which have their own disadvantages that I will not go into here. 

The first disadvantage is the cost. Having a system professionally installed can be quite expensive. Our system cost approximately $3500, including materials, labor, and permits. When compared to a thousand dollar composting toilet, or a five dollar bucket, that is quite expensive. 

Installing a septic system also requires a great deal of disruption to the surrounding area. This wasn't an issue when we had our installed, because the entire area had been worked by a bulldozer to make a spot for the trailer. In some situations, however, the disruption may be much more of a concern. I expect this to be the case when we build our house, since we plan to build in a wooded area and want to minimize the impact to the surrounding environment.

Septic systems also waste water, even if the most efficient fixtures available are used. Every flush uses water that would not otherwise be used. Gray water, from showers, sinks, etc that is sent to the septic system could have been used, instead, to water plants. 

Last, but not least, is the issue that by using a septic system we are missing out on the benefits of using the organic material and nutrients included in the waste being flushed away. I do currently collect urine, to be used on the garden and in the compost. Having a septic system certainly does not prevent me from doing this, but having a composting toilet with urine diverter would make it easier. I understand that many people are squeamish about collecting and using solid waste, especially on food crops, but when composted it can be safely applied to trees and non-edible plants used for landscaping. 

When we build our house, we intend to install a composting toilet and gray water system rather than a septic system. The thought of living without a septic system seems like a minor inconvenience, at most, if properly planned for. Granted, we may discover that the sacrifice is greater than we imagined, since neither of us have lived with a septic system before, but we will happily take that chance. People survived for thousands of years without septic systems, and millions of people still do so today. Surely we can manage to get by without one.

There are some good resources available on the topic of recycling or composting human waste. I have previously reviewed the book Liquid Gold, about collecting urine so it can be used on plans. I have also read a great book on the topic of composting solid waste, called The Humanure Handbook. I look forward to reading through other titles on the topic, including Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind and The Toilet Papers.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


When I woke up this morning and looked out the window I saw Rosa by the car. I was relieved to see that she wasn't missing, so woke Andrea up to get her to help me relocate her to the porch. By the time we got out, she had climbed back up inside the engine compartment. After trying for quite some time to coax her out, we finally gave up and Andrea laid down on the ground and managed to reach her and pull her out. We think that she must have been in the car when we moved it, and spent the night in there.

Once we got Rosa out of the car, I headed to the office in London. Normally I don't accomplish much of anything in the evenings after I work in the office, but I was feeling good today so I decided to mow a bit after dinner. Unfortunately the mower stopped working again, after about half an hour of mowing. I would really have liked to have been able to at least finish mowing everything one time before it stopped working again. I think I know what the problem is this time, but will have to tear into it again to find out for sure.

Monday, July 15, 2013


I overslept a bit this morning, but still managed to convince myself to get outside for an hour or so before work. I collected the remaining straw that I had removed from the garlic, as well as that from the two rows of potatoes that we recently harvested. I added this to the straw I already had piled up near the compost.

During lunch I hooked up the lawn sweeper and collected the grass clippings from the section of the yard I mowed on Saturday. I can certainly tell a difference in the quantity of clippings collected on the section mowed with the big mower as opposed to the push mower, but the big mower is so much easier that I'd never considering using the push mower just to generate more clippings.

After work I got the mower out again and got caught up on mowing around the garden. The mower worked well, so I'm hopeful that we have the problem solved. After finishing up the mowing I hauled the grass clippings collected earlier and added them to my pile of other clippings.

We spent an hour, after dinner, in the dark, trying to locate all of the kittens. They have been sleeping under the car, and in the engine compartment, which is not good. Knowing that I needed the car tomorrow, I wanted to get them all out, and then move the car so they would be less likely to go back to it. Mari was already out, and we found Tiger and Lilly on top of the engine, so they were easy to relocate to the porch. We never did find Rosa, so after verifying that if she was still in there, she wasn't near the belts or fan, I went ahead and moved the car. Hopefully she is just out on an adventure and will show up tomorrow.

Whippoorwill Festival - 2013

This year I attended the Whippoorwill Festival for the first time. Organized by Dave Cooper, the festival is described as an earth-friendly, sustainable living skills festival. The annual festival takes place at HomeGrown HideAways, near Berea Kentucky, which I had the opportunity to visit last year during the 2012 Berea Solar Tour.

The festival lasts four days, but I only attended for one. I wanted to get a feel for things before committing to spending four days there. For those who do attend multiple days, spots for onsite camping is available. There were several tents still set up when I was there on Sunday, so it appears that several people did take advantage of the camping opportunity.

Workshops at the festival each last two hours, with three workshop sessions scheduled each day, with the exception of Thursday, when there are only two. I attended two of the workshops on Sunday: Straw Bale Construction and Repurposed and Reused Materials.

The Straw Bale Construction Workshop was led by Daryl Pifer of Cedar Ridge Farm in Edmonton, KY. I found this workshop to be very informative, and took away a couple of very useful bits of information. One thing I learned was how to re-tie a straw bale, using a straw bale needle. While this was illustrated for the purposes of creating custom sized bales to fit into small spaces, I can see an immediate use for it as a method of allowing me to use less than a full bale, without having the remaining bale get scattered before I use the rest. By far the most useful thing I learned, however, is that the state of Kentucky has special exemptions for farm dwellings and structures that allow them to be built without conforming to the building code. I have verified the information, and found that we will just have to do a few things to have our place classified as a farm, which should not be difficult. It will be more than worth it to be able to build the house we want, without worrying about the inflexibility of the building code regarding alternative building methods, composting toilets, gray water systems, etc.

The Repurposed and Reused Materials workshop was led by Lori Beard. This workshop was a good example of why I believe that festival literature should provide a description of the workshops. I, incorrectly, assumed that the focus would be on things like building supplies, which is something that greatly interests me. Granted, there was no indication in the name of the workshop that it would focus on that, so that was my mistake. Instead, it was about repurposing materials for craft projects. It was still a very enjoyable workshop, and I learned a lot. Andrea would have loved it, so I tried to remember as much as I could to share with her.

There were approximately seventy-five workshops in total, so my experience is based on only a very small percentage of what was available. Some of the others I would have liked to have attended include Tracking And Wildlife/Nature Awareness, Snakes and Salamanders of Kentucky, Walk: Tree Identification and Forest Ecology/Ecological Design, Top Bar Beekeeping, Backyard Chickens, Recycling Humanure, Identifying Collecting and Growing Kentucky Wildflowers, Running a Successful Small Business in Appalachia, and Simple Living: Getting Your Needs Met.

In addition to the workshops, the festival featured nightly speakers and music, as well as a dance and stargazing opportunities. While the workshops were informative, I think that the best way to experience the festival would be to camp on site, or at least stay late enough to take part in the evening activities. The festival also seemed like a very social event, which is not exactly the environment in which I strive. Yes, I enjoyed the festival, and I think that I would enjoy spending the weekend, but I believe it would be more enjoyable for someone at ease in social situations, rather than an introvert like myself.

I plan to attend the festival again next year, although I am not yet sure if it will be for the entire weekend or just specific days. I will wait to see the workshop schedule before making my final decision. It may also depend on whether I can find someone wanting to camp out for the weekend with me.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


I had a very productive weekend, even though it rain several times on Saturday and was very hot on Sunday.

When I got up Saturday morning I decided I was going to harvest garlic. Since it was the weekend, though, I wasn't in a huge hurry, so was taking my time eating breakfast and getting ready. That was until it started thundering, and then I decided I better get moving. I managed to get the garlic harvested and get back inside before the rain began, but only barely.

When I got back in I called my Dad to let him know it was raining, because I knew he planned to ride his motorcycle down to help me work on the mower. He had already left by the time I called, though. Somehow he managed to miss the rain, but said he ran into wet roads several times. While he was here we managed to get the mower working, although we aren't sure what we actually did that fixed it, which is frustrating. I certainly have a better idea now of how the mower works, and feel more comfortable replacing various parts if needed. Before he went home I asked him to look a my chainsaw, which wouldn't run the last time I tried it. He managed to get it to start, and after a few adjustments, it is now running better than it ever has.

After my Dad went home, I decided to go ahead and mow the front yard, or at least the section I hadn't already mowed with the push mower. I was able to finish with no problem, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the mower is indeed "fixed". After mowing Andrea and I went over to the garden and dug some potatoes. We went ahead and dug the two rows of Yukon Gold. The results were much better than we had seen from the half row I had harvested before, which I am attributing to the use of composted horse manure. Overall, however, the total yield was disappointing. I don't have final counts and weights yet, but I know that the yield is nowhere near what I was hoping for. Maybe we'll get lucky and the other varieties will do better.

On sunday I attended the Whippoorwill Festival in nearby Berea. This was my first time attending, but I enjoyed myself. It was very hot, though, and I came home exhausted. Because I got home earlier than I anticipated, I planned to work on something this evening, but just couldn't motivate myself to do so. After a nap, I rode over to the garden with Andrea so she could dispose of some weeds she had pulled from the herb garden. When we got back I hung the recently harvested garlic from the porch rafters to cure. It had been laying on top of the book shelves in the living room, which Kitty was not happy about since that is where she likes to lay. I figured I could at least take care of the garlic, for her, even if I didn't manage to accomplish anything else.

Friday, July 12, 2013


Today while browsing Facebook I found out, via a post by Rock Bottom Stables and Soap, that the 32nd Annual Berea Craft Festival is going on this weekend. Due to other plans this weekend, today was our best chance to go. It was only open until 6:00, so I took off from a work a bit early so we could check it out.

We were back home in time for me to get some work done in the garden. I had noticed some of the corn was leaning, so I decided I needed to give it more support. I pulled away all of the straw mulch, and then used a hoe to pile up some soil around each plant. While the mulch was gone I went ahead and fertilized each plant with some urine. I then mulched with grass clippings, rather than reusing the straw, because I wanted to provide extra nitrogen.

Some of the straw that I removed from the corn, and that I had previously removed from the garlic, was then used in the herb garden. Andrea has been mulching it primarily with shredded paper, but there is one large area, where the mint use to be, that she wanted mulched heavily, so I applied a thick layer of straw there.

Before finishing up for the day I decided to finish harvesting the Inchelium Red garlic that we had started a few days before. Removing the mulch really helped the soil to dry out. I didn't plant a lot of this particular variety, but I might have to change that next year. A couple of the bulbs were the biggest I've grown, which, admittedly, isn't that impressive of a feat.

Book Review - Tomtoes Garlic Basil

I just finished reading another book that we purchased at the 2012 Mother Earth News Fair. It is taking me a while, but I am slowly getting through everything we purchased at the event. Finishing Tomatoes Garlic Basil: The Simple Pleasures of Growing and Cooking Your Garden's Most Versatile Veggies by Doug Oster is my most recent accomplishment.

This book caught our attention when we were browsing at the publisher's booth. We realized that Andrea was planning to attend a workshop led by the author, so decided to wait until afterwards to decide if we wanted to buy the book. She apparently enjoyed the workshop, because she stopped back by the St. Lynn's Press booth later and picked it up.

After several book reviews I am coming to the realization that I have generally high expectations, or at least different expectations that most. This book is yet another that was not quite what I expected. Fortunately, this time, I found myself pleased with the book, even though it wasn't what I thought it would be.

The book is divided into five sections: "Food, Family & Gardens", "Some Garden Basics", "Tomatoes", "Garlic", and "Basil". The first two sections, which take up roughly a quarter of the book aren't really about tomatoes, garlic, and basil at all, at least not directly. These sections, however, were very enjoyable. I felt that they were a great start to the book, as they provide some insight into the author's background and his passion for gardening.

The largest section, by far, was the one on tomatoes. After reading the first couple of sections, this was expected, as it became clear that the author has a special passion for tomatoes. This was the least interesting section to me, since I do not eat tomatoes. It was still informative, though, and I picked up a few useful tips for the few tomatoes that we do grow.

The sections on garlic and basil were less informative, but still contained some useful information. Of course, after having read Ron L Engeland's Growing Great Garlic, its hard not to be somewhat disappointed in the coverage of the topic given in any book that isn't dedicated entirely to the subject.

I had hoped that the book would focus more on the three plants as a group, rather than focus on them individually. While there were some recipes that include all three ingredients, the coverage of them was otherwise separate. The section for either plant could be presented on its own, and one would never realize that it had originally been presented as part of a book on all three. I had hoped to find some information on companion planting, as I've heard that basil and tomatoes are good companions.

Speaking of recipes, I wasn't overly thrilled to find that the book dedicated many pages to the thirty-one recipes scattered throughout. Maybe I would have enjoyed the fact, if more of them had been appealing to me. I found, though, that there were only a few I would be interested in trying, and two of those were pesto recipes. Of course part of the reason for this is that I do not eat tomatoes, which was an ingredient in the vast majority of the recipes presented in the book. I suspect that if I weren't such a picky eater, and especially if I enjoyed tomatoes, I might have viewed the recipes differently. Other readers may enjoy them.

While I didn't learn as much from the book as I had hoped, I still enjoyed reading it. I suspect that someone more interested in tomatoes might enjoy the book even more. I am certainly glad to have picked the book up, and think it is a worthwhile read.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Even though it rained on us just a bit, Andrea and I were both able to work outside this evening. She worked in her herb garden, weeding and spreading more mulch. I worked in the garden, removing the mulch from the garlic, so it can start drying out a bit before I harvest the rest of it. I'm piling up the used straw, to either use as mulch somewhere else, or to use in the compost as needed.

After finishing up those little projects, we ended up spending much of the rest of the evening watching the kittens play. At first we were just standing by the back porch watching them. Then, after we had gone in, Andrea noticed they were in the backyard exploring. This was the first time we had seen them all in the yard at once. I guess Daisy felt comfortable since Kitty was inside, and the dogs weren't home.

The Chair Saver

This isn't normally the type of product that I review, but it actually does fit into the theme of the blog, I promise.

Several months ago I bought a new office chair, because we wanted to move mine to the living room to replace the broken one there. After trying out dozens of chairs, I decided on the one that was most comfortable, and that was suppose to be heavy duty. After a while, however, the cylinder that allows the height adjustment began to fail. I found myself having to get up to re-adjust the height several times each day. As the frequency increased I became more aggravated with it, until finally deciding that I had to do something.

I looked for solutions online, and did find a few suggestions. The common suggestion was to replace the cylinder, which can sometimes cost as much as a new chair, but not in the case of a fairly expensive chair like mine. My concern, though, was that the new cylinder would fail just as quickly as the original one, which was not something I wanted to deal with.

Other DIY solutions required doing things that could damage the cylinder further, or even make it so that it could never be adjusted again. One of those suggestions was to adjust the chair to the desired height, drill a hole through it, and insert a bolt to prevent it from moving. While this should definitely fix the problem, I couldn't bring myself to doing something that would all but guarantee the chair would not be suitable for donating or reselling in the future.

Likewise, I was having a hard time justifying buying a new chair, since the old one still worked fine, aside from the cylinder. Fortunately I found a solution that was priced low enough that I thought it was worth trying. The ChairSaver is an incredibly simple product that promises to work on almost any chair, requiring no tools and less than a minute to install. It seemed gimmicky to me, which normally causes me to lose interest in a product. If it did work, however, it would be a simple, fairly inexpensive, solution to my problem.

Ultimately I decided to order a ChairSaver kit to see for myself if it would work. The kit consists of 5 plastic rings that simply clip around the cylinder. Four of the rings are one inch tall, and the other is one half inch, allowing for heights between one half inch and four and a half inches to be set. Once the desired number of rings are in place, the chair cannot drop below that level, regardless of the state of the cylinder itself.

My chair required three of the one inch rings for my desired height. After installing, which required very little time, as promised, I sat down in the chair and was pleased that it did not sink. It has been a couple of weeks since installing the ChairSaver, and I haven't had to adjust the chair once. The only downside is that the chair now has no give to it, aside from the padding in the seat, so makes it a bit firmer. I had never before noticed how much the cylinder impacted the feel. This is a minor inconvenience, however, and likely would have barely been noticed if not for the fact that I still occasionally get sore from the injury I sustained back in the winter when I fell on ice. Another downside for some is the fact that the chair is no longer easily adjustable. If multiple people share the same chair, and each require a different height, they may find it annoying to remove or install rings to get their desired height. At least adjusting the height is possible, however, unlike with some of the other solutions I saw suggested.

Yes, this post is about a specific product to solve a specific problem. However, the thinking can be applied elsewhere. Just because an item is broken, doesn't mean it has to be thrown out, or reused in a different way. Often items can be repaired for a reasonable price, and even when that isn't possible, you may find that others have developed creative solutions for the very problem you're trying to solve. Throwing an item away should be a last resort, even if the item is broken.

Edit: Within a week of posting this, I started thinking my review was a bit premature. The clips began to separate, so that one was able to slide over another, allowing the chair to lower. Just when I was about to give up, Andrea asked if I had thoroughly read the instructions, which I had not done. it turns out that there were special instructions for user above a certain weight, that I had not followed. The instructions suggested to wrap duct tape around the assembly once the clips were in place, to prevent them from separating. Once I did this, the chair performed well for a couple more weeks, before it happened again. I re-applied duct tape, taking care to do a better job of it this time, and am hopeful that it will hold for longer. Even if I do have to reapply every two weeks, that is preferable to the other options I was facing.

Update: Shortly after the last edit the problem with the Chair Saver became worse. Eventually it was evident that duct tape wasn't going to be sufficient to correct the problem. I suspect this was because I allowed the rings to lose some of their strength by not applying the tape from the start. I gave up and threw the kit in the trash.

I recently had another chair start sinking and decided to try the Chair Saver again, this time applying duct tape when first installing the kit. I have written about the new kit here, and will post updates there as time passes.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I worked in the office in London yesterday. While out for lunch I stopped by and picked up my boot from the repair shop. He charged $10 to replace the broken lace hooks, which seemed reasonable to me. I definitely prefer that to buying a new pair of boots. After work I met Andrea for dinner, then we went to our Gardening 101 class. By the time we got home it was trying to storm.

I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get out this morning or not, but I was able to get out for an hour or so. I hauled the grass clippings I had collected on Monday over by the compost pile. I'll use some of them for mulch, and the rest for covering food scraps when I add them to the compost. Having material available to cover additions with is much easier than trying to dig into the pile to create a space for food scraps.

It started storming this evening, around the time I quit work for the day. Our electricity went off soon thereafter, and stayed off for a few hours. I find that I always enjoy these periods with no electricity. I read for a while, then we decided to play a board game. I'm sure that after days without electricity, or during periods with either very high or low temperatures I would change my mind, but for a few hours at a time, when the temps aren't bad, I really love having a break from the normal routine.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Today was another productive day. I think I'm getting spoiled :-)

At lunch I picked up and hauled off some rocks that I collected while mowing the grass over the weekend. It was good to mow with the push mower, because I found several rocks that I had overlooked when mowing with the big mower.

After work Andrea went out with me to work on the new lawn sweeper. I was certain that I had assembled it incorrectly because it wasn't wanting to roll forward. Turns out, however, that it was working just fine. It seems that the problem I was experiencing only happens when it isn't sitting level, as it would when connected to a tow vehicle. She helped me put together the bag assembly, and then I tried it out. It worked very well, and I now have two large piles of grass clippings ready to use as mulch or on the compost.

Before finishing up for the day I rode down to the neighbor's house to talk to him about the plot of land he has for sales that adjoins our tract. Unfortunately someone else has already expressed a strong interest in it, but if that falls through I told him to let me know. We are mostly interested in just to keep someone new from moving into the house that is there, but would also likely use the land for a small orchard or tree farm. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we have an opportunity to purchase it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Yesterday was much more productive than Saturday had been. When I woke up, I could tell that the creek was up, by the sound. I walked down to see if anything had flooded. While our crossing to the garden was high, it didn't look like water had gotten into the garden from that side. When I walked down to the road, though, I found that the ditch had overflowed again, causing water to backup into the garden. I couldn't tell if the entire garden was impacted or not, but the tomatoes, peppers, and onions were definitely under water.

After that I decided to get out the push mower, and try to mow the front yard. I was about to get in about an hour before it started raining. It wasn't very hot, but with 99% humidity, it was miserable. After lunch, it stopped raining and the sun came out, so I mowed a bit more. It had warmed up considerably, so after mowing for a bit I decided to take a break and see if I could get to the garden. I was a bit hesitant driving across the swiftly flowing water, until I saw that the dogs had crossed it with no problems. By that time the water had gone down, and it appeared that the only damage was that a few onions had broken blades.

My plan was to resume mowing after checking out the garden, but the mower would not start back. I suspect the problem is the spark plug, because I had this happen before. Since I don't have an extra plug, I just left it sitting and went back into the house. A few hours later I went back out to try again, and it fired right up. It was still hot, so I didn't mow for a long time, but was able to get everything close to the house mowed, including around the bird feeders, clothesline, and herb garden.

This evening, once it cooled off, Andrea and I went back over to the garden to take care of a few things.  The biggest thing that we needed to do was to add some levels to to the trellis for the tomatoes. Some of the plants have grown as tall as the posts, so we added two more levels. We also added the first level for the peppers, although only a couple of the plants are tall enough to actually use it at this point. The corn is looking good, but I wanted to give it a shot of nitrogen, so I poured nine ounces of urine around the base of each plant. My goal is to use nothing by urine and bone meal as nitrogen sources for the corn this year, to see how well that works. While I was fertilizing the corn, Andrea fertilized the peppers, with some balanced organic fertilizer.

Before finishing up we dug the rest of the onions, which were all decent sized. I then dug some more of the Yukon Gold potatoes, because we need some to eat on. I finished digging up the half row that was not prepped with compost, and the results were fairly disappointing, although there are a few good sized ones. I haven't weighed them yet, to see what the total yield for that row was. We also dug up a few of the Inchellium Red garlic, before I decided that they really needed a few more days before harvest so the paper could thicken up.

It was nice to have a productive day, after so many days of being rained out. Hopefully this trend will continue, but I'm not all that hopeful, since the forecast still calls for a chance of rain every day.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Variables That Impact Purchasing Decisions

Some time ago I described a situation in which Andrea and I had to weigh multiple factors when trying to decide which chicken to buy at the grocery store. The chicken from our preferred, local, farm, was only available in small packages, which meant a lot of waste over the alternative, which was also priced lower. In the end we decided to buy the larger packs of the cheaper chicken, even though it wasn't locally produced.

This dilemma caused me to think of other variables that impact our purchasing decisions. While priorities vary from person to person, I suspect that many of these are factors for most people when making a purchasing decision.

Price is the variable that most people consider first when making a purchasing decision. While I often prioritize other factors above price, I find that in some situations price is the primary factor in my decision. I was thinking of this recently when checking prices for guttering. I always say that I need to buy products from locally owned stores, but when the price is double that of the large home improvement store, I find it hard to justify the extra expense.

When it comes to food, our top priority is usually finding a product that is certified organic. We have also recently started trying to buy non-GMO products, whenever possible, although we still have a lot of work to do in that area. We prefer to buy meat and dairy products that are produced from grass fed and free range animals.

Environmentally Friendly
Obviously the organic label applies primarily to food, with a few exceptions such as clothing. For other products we prefer buying items that are environmentally friendly. Sometimes this might mean choosing a product made from a material other than plastic, or it might mean choosing a product that uses less energy, either in its production or daily use. Unfortunately, though, it is sometimes difficult to choose products that are truly environmentally friendly, since many manufacturers have found that they can market "green" products as a way to charge more for an item, even if it isn't particularly environmentally friendly.

One of the things that we love about doing our grocery shopping at the Good Foods Market in Lexington is that many items can be bought in bulk, and placed in reusable containers, rather than being prepackaged. This includes everything from nuts, flour, and spices to shampoo. This is also one, of the many, reasons that we prefer buying our milk from JD Country Milk, a Kentucky based dairy. Not only does JD use glass bottles, but they require a refundable deposit to motivate people to return them so they can be reused. I wish that more products were available in reusable, or no, packaging.

There are several reasons that we like to buy local products, whenever possible. The first is that we like to support the local economy, especially when those producing the items are small businesses. I consider a dollar spent on a locally produced item to be worth much more than the same dollar spent on an item produced on the other side of the country, or the world. In addition to economic reasons, we also prefer locally produced items due to the environmental impact of having items shipped around the world. While we do still buy items produced in other countries, such as bananas, we make the effort to buy items that do not require being shipped long distances.

Any, or all, of the previously mentioned factors can be superseded by quality, in our decision making process. If an item is not effective, or in the case of food, does not taste good, then it isn't worth buying, regardless of price or any other factor. I also prefer to buy items that can be expected to last a long time, even if that means paying more for them. I have tried to especially consider this when buying tools, as I know that it should be possible to build a tool collection that will last a lifetime, if done carefully.

Politics and/or Social Concerns
Lastly, I wanted to mention the topic of politics and social concerns as they apply to purchasing decisions. I have recently found myself avoiding specific brands that are produced by companies with leadership who are actively engaged in political activism that I disagree with. This is also sometimes a reason to avoid buying products from a specific country, or to at least make sure products are certified as being fair trade. These moral or principle-based factors can sometimes cause a great deal of disagreement, and for that reason I try to avoid discussing the details of my preferences.

I'm certain that I have left out several factors that may impact purchasing decisions. Their absence from the list is not meant to imply that they are less important than those I've listed. In fact, I suspect that there are missing variables that I consider on a regular basis that just slipped my mind. Sometimes our decisions are made so quickly, especially for small, inexpensive items, that we are only vaguely aware of the factors that went into the decision. That, however, doesn't mean those factors are unimportant.


I accomplished next to nothing today. I tried mowing grass at one point, but it just wasn't meant to be. With the big mower not working properly, and since I don't know when I'll get it repaired, I decided to go ahead and mow with the push mower. Unfortunately, however, by the time I had the mower out and gassed up, it had started to rain. I went ahead and mowed a bit around the shed, in hopes that the rain would stop. Once I saw that wasn't going to happen, though, I put the mower back in the shed and went back inside. It rained on and off the rest of the day, so I wasn't able to get back out to work on anything else.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Introducing Tiger, Mari, Rosa, and Lilly

It was nearly a year ago that I first wrote about the feline and canine companions that we share our home with. Since then I've mentioned some additions, but have yet to officially introduce them, via the blog. I thought that now was a good time to do so.

As I mentioned before, we had a new cat start hanging around several months ago. For a long time we weren't sure if she was going to stay or not, but she finally decided that we offered a good home. At first we thought she was a kitten, due to her size, but the vet told us she was likely a couple of years old. We are terrible at coming up with names, so Andrea had the idea of following a theme to help us come up with them. She suggested using the names of flowers, so the new cat was named Daisy.

As Daisy began to put on weight, we debated about whether it was due to having an ample source of food, or from being pregnant. She had disappeared for a couple of weeks at one point, early in her stay here, and Andrea was afraid it may have been because she was in heat. The debate was finally settled one weekend while I was out of town, and Andrea woke up to find four newborn kittens on the back porch.

After a few weeks past, as we got to know their personalities, and as Andrea became more comfortable with her ability to identify their genders, we finally came up with names for the them.

Tiger is a gray and black tiger-striped male, who is the most active of the bunch. He was the first to approach us and the first to eat "real" food, which led us to choose the name. He is named for the Tiger Lily, which is one of my favorite flowers, and which are currently in bloom between our yard and the road.

Mari is the other male. He is white and gray, and most resembles Daisy. He is the shyest of the bunch, and still hisses at Andrea when she gets too close. Due to his shyness, we chose to name him for a character from the tv show Psych, Marion "Mary" Lightly. The strange spelling that we chose for the name is because it is actually a shortened form of Marigold.

Rosa is an almost entirely gray female. She is the smallest, and furriest, as well as being the most adventurous. She has already made several trips down the steps to explore the area under the porch, and tries to get inside the house anytime the door is open. Andrea chose the name, just because she liked it. It is based on Rosa Rugosa, which is one the bushes we recently planted.

The last to be named was Lilly, who is a somewhat muted calico, female. We considered several names for Lilly, and just couldn't find one that stuck. Finally Andrea suggested Lilly, which we tried out for a few days, and it stuck.

The kittens are six weeks old today. They have been eating "real" food, which means raw meat, for several days now. They all seem to be very healthy, but we will be taking them to the vet next week just to verify that. So far the only concern, other than Mari's shyness, is that Lilly appears to be slightly cross-eyed.

We're slowly introducing the dogs to the kittens, from a distance. We don't necessarily expect that they will become friends, since that hasn't happened with either Dairy or Kitty, but do hope that they learn to co-exist. At the very minimal, I want to be sure that the dogs learn that the kittens are not to be bothered, so that we don't have to worry every time they end up in the backyard together.

Book Review - Microbusiness Independence

Like Trailersteading: Voluntary Simplicity In a Mobile Home, which was reviewed in a previous guest post, Microbusiness Independence is an ebook by author and blogger, Anna Hess. It is very possible that I never would have ran across this book, if I were not already familiar with Anna's work. I am, however, glad to have found it.

Knowing that Anna and her husband Mark manufacture and market their own line of chicken waterers, the Avian Aqua Miser, I knew that it was very likely the book would focus on those wishing to sale a physical product, rather than those wishing to profit from something like blogging or providing a service. Given the low price, however, I thought that it would still be worth reading, and I was right.

Much of the material in the book is not directly applicable to Andrea and I, as we aren't likely to invent a new product that we can market the way Anna and Mark have, even though the book does provide some tips to help those who wish to follow that path. There are many tips that are applicable to us, however, especially as we consider things such as building a small garden stand down the road, or Andrea's crafting side business, which is still in development.

The book covers topics such as developing your idea, making your idea a reality, budgeting/bookkeeping, marketing and customer service. In addition to provide some useful information, the author also manages to provide motivation, which might be the most important thing for a lot of people.

If you have any interest at all in the topic, I suggest checking the book out. Its really hard to go wrong with a book that features the combination of an interesting topic, a passionate author, and a low price.

Rural Living vs City Living Series - Housing

For the first post in my Rural Living vs City Living Series I will be focusing on housing, since that is the topic that led me to the idea for the series. I realize that there are single family houses in cities, and there are multi-family housing options in some rural areas. I will, however, be focusing on the more common arrangements of high density housing in cities as opposed to single family houses in rural areas. Also, when I use the term apartment as a substitute for the term multi-family housing, I also am including things such as condos, townhomes, etc, including both those rented and owned by the occupants.

I have lived in both single family houses as well as multi-family units. I grew up in a single family home, and live in one now. For a brief period Andrea and I rented a single family house while living in the city. However, most of our time in the city was spent living in apartments. The townhouse in which we lived was in a building with four other townhouses, and an apartment under each, for a total of ten units in each building. When we lived in the married housing on campus, there were forty-two apartments in each building. We also lived, for a time, in an apartment complex with sixteen units in each building.

From an environmental perspective, I think that cities have a clear advantage when it comes to housing. While it is true that constructing an apartment complex requires many more resources than a single family house, there are a lot of efficiencies gained.

The use of shared walls, ceilings, and floors is the most obvious efficiency. This not only allows for reduced materials use, but also provides improved insulation of interior apartments, as well as allowing some units to gain warmth from surrounding units, although it is possible this is outweighed by increased heating requirements of those outer units as the heat is transferred to other units in the complex.

Another significant efficiency is the use of shared infrastructure. Providing utilities and heating/cooling to multiple families in one building requires less equipment than providing them to the same number of families in single family homes. At the very least, less cabling, wiring, and pipes are required as the distance from one unit to the next is greatly reduced over even the most densely populated rural areas. One of the apartments in which we lived had a community pool, which is another example of a shared resource that is much more efficient than each household having their own. Clearly not every house is going to own a swimming pool, but one pool is more efficient, to construct and maintain, than even two or three smaller ones.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to city living is the fact that multi family housing exists, in great numbers. As our population continues to grow, it is going to become more and more difficult for everyone to live in a single family house, especially in desirable areas. The more land area we take up for housing, the less that is available for other uses, such as food production, and for other species to inhabit. That forty-two unit apartment complex we lived in certainly took up much less space than forty-two of even the most modest single family houses would have.

I think that city living also has some real advantages when it comes to simple living. Living in a multi-family complex that has its own maintenance crew allows an individual or family to own far fewer tools than would be necessary if living in a single family home. It is difficult to really simplify, especially if one is striving for minimalism, when living in a single-family home.

When it comes to natural living, though, rural living definitely comes out on top. One problem with multi-family housing is that natural building methods are not very practical, especially with apartment complexes that are several stories tall. Even in cases where natural methods might provide sufficient strength for the structure, it is unlikely that US building codes will ever allow such methods to be used. Of course this isn't the case everywhere, and there are multi-story structures made from cob and other natural materials in some other countries. Modern cities are also plagued by an abundance of asphalt and concrete, with few, if any, natural areas. Even the parks in most cities seem to be landscaped, and criss-crossed with roads and concrete walkways, rather than allowed to be true natural areas, where inhabitants can get away from the artificial life that is city living.

It is in the areas of sustainability and self-sufficiency, however, where I believe that rural living has the clearest advantages over city living. I've already touched on some of these advantages, such as the ability to build with natural methods. In a city everything is artificial. Not only that, but the buildings, roadways, etc require upkeep that an individual can't do on his/her own. It is nearly impossible to be self-sufficient in an urban setting, due to the very nature of cities. Add in the fact that cities generally have much more restrictive regulations than rural areas, and any this becomes even more difficult. There are many people living completely off-grid, self-sufficient lives, in rural areas of the United States. I have yet to hear of anyone accomplishing this in a city in the US. I suspect that things may be different in other countries, especially those that are less developed. In this country, however, I believe that cities have evolved in such a way that requires some level of inter-dependency.

When it comes to housing, which is better, rural living or city living? I don't think there is a simple answer to the question. There are many factors to consider, including ones priorities. For me, rural living is the clear winner, especially since I hope to, eventually, construct a house using natural building materials. For others, however, the environmental advantages of city living likely make it the best option. I expect that we'll continue to see people living in both settings for many years, perhaps until population growth makes rural living all but impossible.