Herb Garden Tips

We built some raised beds out of reclaimed lumber and parts out of an old washing machine. I thought they would be a perfect place for my herb garden. The one hitch was that the chickens were as fond of the beds as I was. I began to look at garden borders and small fences and was disappointed at how expensive they all were. I only needed a temporary diversion for my herbs until they get established. So I pulled from my historical experience and decided to construct a stick fence. We have a large pile of brush for cooking with the grill so I sourced that for my fence. Larger branches were used for the vertical posts and I used smaller branches to weave in and out of the vertical posts. The stick fence worked great. My chickens were extremely confused and moved on to easier pastures. It cost me nothing and  I can efficiently recycle the fence when my plants are big enough to expose to my bug patrol.

Uncovering Hops Plants for Spring

The hops on Hop Hill have been snuggled under a warm bed of hay all winter. With the last hard frost over we decided to uncover the hops today. Some had uncovered themselves  without our assistance but many were lying in wait. We will be stringing up some runners to the tops of the poles for them this week. Hops grow straight up so they need tall poles. We were very happy to see so many shoots on each plant. The shoots are edible and taste similar to young asparagus. We will leave three shoots per rhizome and cut the rest to eat.

Homemade Mayonnaise

We were getting ready to have burgers off the grill yesterday when I realized we had no mayonnaise. One of our kids is a true lover of mayo so I looked up a recipe and the kids and I did a little experimentation while the burgers were finishing. The first batch I followed the recipe exactly. I had heard that homemade mayo was tricky. Well it was awful! I think it was the oil I used; and the recipe called for a whole egg. Yolk does not whip up very well. So we decided to go on our own. And it turned out very good.

Just a few pointers before I share the recipe. Only use very fresh farm eggs. Store bought eggs have high amounts of salmonella in them that can make you sick if you eat them raw. And always be cautious with any raw eggs if you have a weak immune system. Use an oil that has a light taste. My first batch that set up correctly tasted awful because I used the olive oil that the recipe called for. Mixing your batch in a jar with a stick blender will save you dirty dishes to wash. Also don’t over mix. Once it looks like mayonnaise stop blending. Your mayonnaise will taste better after a day in the refrigerator because the flavors blend together. It will not keep as long as store bought mayo so only make it in small batches.

Ellie’s Homemade Mayonnaise 

1 Cup of Oil (I use Safflower Oil)

1 Large Egg White (or 2 Small Egg Whites)

1 Table Spoon of Lemon or Lime Juice

Pinch of salt to taste (I use Real Salt from Utah)

Pinch of Sugar to taste (Optional)

Blend with a stick blender until the mixture thickens to mayonnaise consistency. Store in the refrigerator. It should keep for at least one week.

Milk Storage for Everyday Use and Soap Making

The reliability of milk when you are getting that milk from your animal is vastly different than purchasing it from the store. Most animals have a peak in milk production for a time after giving birth and that production wanes as time goes on. When milking your goat or cow you will come to a point where you question the efforts put toward milking. At some point your nanny or cow will need to be “refreshed” or  bred again. There may be a point in your food pursuits that you will find yourself out of milk. If you have a freezer you can store that milk for later use. Here are a few tips that were gleaned from my doing things the “wrong” way before I figured out some more effective methods of milk storage. And as with all things; this is only one way to store milk, there are better ways out there.

Refrigerator Storage for Everyday Use

For refrigerator storage and regular usage of milk I have found wide mouth mason jars to be the most effective milk storage method. Glass cleans well and the wide mouth jars are much easier to wash than the regular mouth jars. I try not to use very much plastic because of the health hazards involved with plastic. You need to be conscientious about rotation of your milk in the refrigerator. Develop a system for rotation so you are always using up the oldest milk first. I also use my excess milk to make hard cheese that I wax and store in the cellar for hard times. Glass in the refrigerator is a good option; however, the freezer is very different. Just think back to basic science; liquid expands when it gets cold and glass gets brittle when its frozen.

Freezing Milk for Soap and Lotion

I hate being mid winter, without an animal in milk, and a strong desire to make some soap. So I freeze some of my goat milk to save  for making soap and lotion. For cold process soap, having milk that is partially frozen is beneficial to the outcome of your soap so I like to have it frozen anyway. There are times when you may not be able to drink your goat’s milk. If your goat has issues with a worm overload and you have to medicate the goat you will need to withhold milk for seven to ten days. Rather than throwing the milk out you can save it for soap and lotion. Milking is a lot of work to have to throw out the results of that work.

I try to use as little plastic as possible so I store my frozen milk in aluminum foil. To do this you must use a two step process. I measure out the amount I need for my soap recipe and pour it in to metal bread pans and put them into the freezer. The metal bread pans are somewhat pliable making the removal of the milk cubes easier. Once they are frozen solid I wrap the frozen milk in aluminum foil and place it back into the freezer for later use.

Navigating a No Landfill Waste System

The United States produces more waste than any other nation. To change at this point is to fight a tidal wave of cultural norms that threatens to bury each of us in a sea of trash. Feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin we decided to start where all good things do…at home. Before moving to the farm we had always recycled and reused because that is what we were told was the responsible thing to do.

The more I educated myself about environmental issues the more I felt that recycling alone was little different than sending all of our trash to the landfill. A good deal of plastics cannot be recycled due to cost. And depending on market demand other recyclables may or may not get recycled. Most landfill trash is product packaging and food waste. Humans have always produced trash; but, not in the massive amount they do today. The real problem with us being so trashy is not just the amount of garbage, it’s the dangerous chemicals in our plastics, inks, and metals that are leaching into the soil and water that we source our nourishment from.

When we moved to the farm and decided to move toward controlling our own food chain as much as possible the tail end of that chain was the waste we produced. We decided not to hire a garbage service. Dealing with our own trash forced us to consider heavily where our waste was going and the accumulation of it through our purchases. I started to make smarter purchases with waste removal and recycling in mind. The following breakdown is how we currently process our trash. We are ever moving toward better practices with the goal being almost no trash to remove. And as I say with everything it is only one way to do it; there are many wonderful ideas out there and more that are coming.

Food Waste

Having a garden fairly demands having a compost pile. The work that goes into growing and cooking your own vegetables can pay off double if you use your scraps to feed next year’s plants. There are many ways to compost your food waste. If you live in an urban setting you may want to purchase or make a rotating compost barrel so your compost does not cause an odor issue. If you have more space having your compost in a pit or on top of the ground is fine too. The important thing is to have your compost contained or far enough away from your living space so the smell is not bothersome.

A very large variety of things can be composted. What should not go in your compost is more important than what to put in it. Do not put any meat or dairy products in your compost with the exception of egg shells. You should also not put anything in your compost with sugar or yeast in it; so pretty much no baked goods. Our food waste that is not suitable for the compost goes to the animals for scraps. Chickens, dogs, and cats will be more than happy to take care of your meat, dairy, and bread scraps. Coffee grounds and tea bags are great in compost. Some paper products can also go into the pile just make sure they do not have any ink or plastic on them and do not compost paper products that have human waste on them. Human waste can be composted; but, it has to be done with more caution to prevent the spread of disease.

Depending on how fast you want to be able to use your compost factors into how much work you will have to put toward the decomposition process. For decomposition, earthworms will be your most useful tool. If they come of their own accord that is the best scenario. A permanent compost pile on the ground will draw decomposers naturally. If you have a lack of worms you can purchase them. Heat aids the decomposition process; you can add a layer of straw or hay on top to hold the heat that is naturally generated by the breakdown.

Once you have a manageable pile, one that partially fills your barrel or that you can easily handle with a shovel you will need to add new waste to a different spot. If you have an open compost pile it is helpful to add new waste on one end and rotate the compost when you turn it. Compost needs to be turned so it decomposes faster. Once your compost looks like soil it is ready to use in the garden.

Refusing, Repurposing, and  Recycling

Recycling should not be the first option in waste removal. Before that trash even comes into your hands the best practice is to refuse it if possible. This is extremely difficult in our throw away consumer culture. If you are creative you can find ways to reduce the amount of trash you purchase. Some businesses will put products in your reusable containers. The coffee shop I purchase my beans from, Berea Coffee & Tea, fills my mason jars rather than bagging my beans. If everyone did that my coffee would be a little cheaper because we would not have to pay the packaging price. Some grocery stores will also fill your containers eliminating the packaging all together. The more you are your own grocery store the less need you will have for packaged store items.

Berea Coffee & Tea fills up my mason jars with beans eliminating excess packaging.
Old wine bottles cleaned and reused for spring water and homemade castile soap.
Metal coffee cans make great feed cans.

When I have to purchase items that are packaged I try to find products that have containers that I might be able to reuse or at the very least packaging that is recyclable. Glass packaging is always the best because it is easier to clean, safe for food products, and more easily recycled. Be cautious when reusing plastic packaging. Many plastic containers have BPA in them, a chemical that is hazardous to your health. Buckets and larger metal cans are useful for feeding animals. Cardboard boxes that have safe ink or no ink are excellent for putting down in between garden rows. The boxes keep weeds down, water from evaporating, and they compost into your garden. Plastic bags can be reused many times or they can be crocheted into reusable shopping bags.   

Crocheted plastic bags make strong reusable shopping bags.

Plastic is the least recyclable packaging and styrofoam is not recyclable at all. The more you can avoid these forms of packaging the better. Most recycling facilities will not take plastic that does not have a recycling number on it.

Last Resort Trash

No matter how conscientious you are there will be some trash that you cannot do anything with. For that small amount of unusable trash we incinerate it. Having a burn barrel is a very old farm tradition. If you have a good barrel that is well aerated the trash will burn fast and efficient. We use the ashes for fill dirt. We do not use it in the garden because it is not healthy. We do use our wood stove ashes in our compost; but, we only burn clean wood in the stove. We do not use plastic garbage bags for this burnable trash. Our trash cans are metal so they clean out easily. Realizing that at some point you will have to burn trash that you cannot reuse or recycle is a powerful motivator in your purchasing habits.      

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A Moment of Sustainable Zen

There are many forms of sustainable living; from apartments in the urban setting to full on, off the grid homesteading. No matter what level and form of sustainability you practice there is work involved. The benefits of that work well outweigh any negative aspects. Some important things to keep in mind when moving toward a sustainable life are; you can only do so much in one day, sustainable living is a journey not a destination, and a sustainable life is a balanced life.

You can only do so much in one day. It is tempting to work as hard and as fast as you can while working toward a sustainable living situation. Many of us make greener choices initially to improve our health and then promptly forget to engage in an activity that is crucial to your health, rest. It is best to set some boundaries for your work day. We wrap up our outside chores before the sun starts to set and we lessen the workload on Sunday’s. The labor intensive work of farming and gardening can and will, break your body down over time if you do not plan ahead. Pace your work day with breaks and implement proper tools to lighten the load of manual labor. If it is going to hurt you to lift something, don’t lift it. While farm work can get you in really good shape it can also send you to the chiropractor. It took such a trip for me to come to an epiphany. A hearty amount of common sense is necessary when you are leading an independent lifestyle.

A sustainable lifestyle is more about the journey than the destination. We were more than a year into building our farm when we finally realized that we will never get everything done. As soon as we understood the unfinished nature of a sustainable life we began to appreciate each day’s tasks for their independent value. This mindset has transferred to other areas of lives. The ability to enjoy each task and each moment of the day without the anxiety of gain has opened a much wider doorway to our ability to be truly happy. There will always be things to do, more to improve, new skills to learn; and there is an enduring beauty in that way of thinking.

While hard work is crucial to the success of your sustainable ventures; the necessity of balancing it out with fun will keep you invested in your bigger goals. Being creative in a way that is enjoyable to you is a wonderful way to break up the monotony of farm labor and it is good for your state of mind.

Sometimes I just walk the farm and enjoy watching the animals. Each of our animals has as diverse of a personality as the people on our farm and they are all very entertaining.  Fun time is especially important if you are teaching your children how to be sustainable. A sure way to make your children not want to live sustainably is all work and no play. Your chores can be fun; but, sometimes you just need to have fun for fun’s sake.