All posts by Robinson

Potato Bug Prevention the Organic Way

There is nothing more disappointing than doing all the work of planting and tending potatoes for them to be a large healthy meal for the Colorado Potato Beetle rather than you. Before we began gardening organically we fought these hungry pests with a barrage of noxious chemicals. Every old gardener I know told me “Dust those potatoes with Seven.” Well we did…and it didn’t work. This was around the time we were discussing going organic. The more I read about the pesticides and commercial fertilizers we were using the more scary my vegetables seemed. So we just quit using them.

 

I will never forget the last time we used commercial pesticides; it was a desperate attempt to save the potatoes. Those potato beetles ate the Seven dust and my beautiful plants. There were so many of them; we had been over run. The garden seemed a large mess to me when the idea to clean it flashed through my mind. I dug out the shop vac and towed it to the garden. My husband gave me the look he gives when questioning my sanity; but, he said nothing and fetched the extension cord. Within thirty minutes the hungry horde of beetles were snug in the vacuum and we were able to eat potatoes at the end of the season. As much fun as vacuuming your garden can be; there are things that can be done to prevent such excessive methods.

 

Crop Rotation

The Colorado Potato Beetle is a very adaptive insect. Despite Colorado getting all the blame, this insect likely came from Central America and it has been all over North America for a long time. They prefer the warm weather so they go underground for the cold months. In warmer areas they may have as many as 3 breeding cycles. Wherever you plant your potatoes they will show up; however, you can cut down on the infestation by practicing crop rotation. The potato beetle prefer plants of the nightshade family so it is best to rotate your tomatoes and potatoes together if you have limited rotation space. The suggestions on space of rotation vary depending on what you read; .3 miles or .5 kilometers is a safe distance. However if you have more limited space just rotate the best you can. The goal is to hinder these pests because really there is no stopping them completely. The other benefit of crop rotation is that you will be able to keep your soil nutrients more balanced. Each type of plant takes particular nutrients to grow; so if you keep the same type of plant in the same location the ground will get robbed of that nutrient over time.  

Mulching

As with crop rotation, mulching is just good practice. Mulching slows the weeds down and heavy mulching will keep you from having to till the rows. Every time you till the soil, nutrients are lost so less tilling means healthier soil. Mulching also keeps the ground from getting hard and holds moisture. If you are not sold on mulching at this point there is more. Mulching also attracts the insects that eat your plants; it is a natural pesticide. Beneficial bugs like Ladybugs love hay and they also love to eat the Colorado Potato Beetle’s eggs.

Hand Picking

When it comes down to it hand removal of the Colorado Potato Beetle is the best method to protect your plants. The potato beetle is a slow mover so getting a hold of them is not an issue. If you have bug phobia wear gloves. These critters also cannot swim so as you pluck them from your plants put them in a can with an inch or two of water in the bottom. The adult beetles move a little faster than the young ones so you may have to tap the side of the can ever so often until you are finished and can dispose of them. The adult beetles and younger ones are easy to spot because they are bright colors that stand out against the leaves; however, you will have to look under the leaves for the yellow eggs and the newly hatched. The adults are striped and the younger ones are red. Be aware that if you dump the freshly picked beetles anywhere near your garden or your neighbor’s garden they will seek and destroy any potato and tomato plants they can get to. We have chickens. So I usually take the can of beetles far from the garden, in the barn where the chickens are fed and I place it next to their feed for a little extra treat.

Bug Police

Chickens are some of the most neurotic and hungry animals on the planet. Our chickens are true pasture range which means they do not have any fences and have the run of the place. There are issues with free running chickens such as sometimes they dig up your lovely mulch, eat your tomatoes and cucumbers, or follow you all over asking for more food; but, the benefits clearly outweigh all of that. Chickens eat bugs from sunrise to sunset. And while they are eating bugs out of the garden they scratch around and act as miniature rototillers. All that labor and then they pay you in eggs. Eggs from pasture raised chickens are much more nutritious than free range eggs.

BT and Neem Oil

Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacteria that attack the larva of the potato beetle and can be used in the early stages of breeding. And Neem Oil can be used on the adults to prevent their breeding cycle. Be cautious however with the usage of Neem Oil because you can harm pollinators such as bees that are necessary for your plants. The last thing we need is for bees not to reproduce. If you do use Neem Oil choose a time of day when the bees are not around and giving ample time for the oil to dry before they show up.

 

Resources

An excellent article on the entomology of the Colorado Potato Beetle from the University of Florida:

http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/veg/leaf/potato_beetles.htm

Coconut Milk Shampoo

Making your own shampoo is simple enough to take only a few minutes of your time. Depending on the type of shampoo and conditioner you use, making your own shampoo can be an excellent cost saver as well.

Supplies

Small Bottle

Castile Soap

Unsweetened Coconut Milk

Essential Oils

You will need a small bottle (I use a 4 ounce bottle) to put your shampoo in. I use plastic because we have small children that drop everything. If we had no children I would use a glass jar with a pump. The bottles we use have a small opening. Homemade shampoo is thinner than commercial shampoo because it has no thickeners in it, just simple ingredients.

The soap portion of homemade shampoo is Castile soap. You can purchase Castile soap on line or at your local whole foods market. I make my own Castile soap and it reduces the cost greatly. I spend around $20 to make a gallon and the market price is around $50 to $60 for a gallon. That being said, making Castile soap is tricky and I am still learning.

The moisturizing portion of homemade coconut milk shampoo is coconut milk. I use organic coconut milk, but you don’t have to use organic. However, you do need to use unsweetened coconut milk. I purchase small cans of coconut milk so there is no waste. If you only have access to larger cans use the excess to cook with; coconut milk is great on chicken and a tasty replacement milk in baking. Before you open the can be sure to shake it vigorously as this will mix in the thick parts if your milk has been sitting on a shelf for any length of time. Shaking will make it pour more easily into your bottle eliminating the need to mix in a separate bowl.

It is not necessary; but nice to use essential oils for scent and health properties. I like to use Rosemary because it is good for the scalp and hair growth. Lavender is a great scent for calming. Or if you want an energizing effect use citrus oils. If you have little ones that are in public school or enjoy running in the woods, Tea Tree oil is a great lice and tick deterrent. I get my essential oils from the Now company. They are a little more expensive; but, they are all food grade, safe, and they are a pure product. With essential oils usually you get what you pay for; if it is a very cheap product than it is likely not a pure product. I typically go with the rule that if I could not safely eat it than I don’t want it on my kid’s skin. Your skin is a porous pathway to the inside of your body.   

Mixing

2 ounces of Castile soap

2 ounces of coconut milk

15-20 drops of essential oils

This recipe is very basic, just half soap and half coconut milk. I mix mine right in the bottle so there are no extra dishes. If you have dry hair a little more coconut milk will be more moisturizing; if you have oily hair cut back on the coconut milk and add more Castile soap. Add the essential oils in stages with shaking in between so you can get the level of scent that you want.

You will not have to use conditioner with this shampoo, it is very moisturizing and does not strip all of the natural oils out of your hair. We noticed after using it for a while that every head in the house had a much fuller head of hair and healthier scalps. I recommend making it as you need it because the ingredients are all natural with no preservatives so it will have a shelf life. This is why we use a 4 ounce bottle versus a larger container. It only takes a few minutes to mix so it’s not any trouble to make it as you need it. If you have excess put it in the refrigerator to store it a little longer. I like to use ours within a one to two week window. With five people in the house that is never an issue. If you have less people you may consider using a smaller container. The homemade shampoo is well worth the effort for your health. Having control of what goes into your personal care products is a beautiful thing.  

Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the most versatile plants a garden can have so ensuring a high yield is worth some extra precaution with your planting methods. Setting up tomatoes to be successful initially will result in less work and more fruit as the plant matures.

Starting from Seed

It is important to use seed that has been preserved properly. If seed has been dried with proper methods it will have a natural fungus on it that will aid the plant in being resistant to disease. If you have a natural source for your potting soil it will likely have mycorrhizal fungus in it. Mycorrhizal fungus is a symbiotic organism that assists plants in absorbing nutrients and water. If your tomatoes are lacking in nutrients not only will they not grow properly they can be susceptible to disease. If there is any question about whether your soil contains mycorrhizal fungus you should add the fungus when plant your tomatoes.

From Pot to Garden

It is beneficial to your plants to “harden” them off before setting them into the ground. To do this begin exposing your greenhouse plants to the outside in the warm parts of the day, with each exposure being longer until you are leaving them out at night. Before planting be sure you have the supplies you will need.

  • Hoe and Shovel – Tomatoes need a deep hole with dirt pulled up around them.
  • Dried Egg Shells or Organic Calcium
  • Organic Fish Fertilizer   

The Hole

Setting up your hole is the most important part of planting successful tomatoes. You will want the hole to be roughly two times the height of your tomato. That sounds excessive; but, you will need room for the additives and to sink your plant almost to the top leaves. At the bottom of the hole crush up a small handful of dried egg shells or calcium and drop it in. Then if you are using solid fish fertilizer drop the recommended amount into the hole with the calcium. If you are adding mycorrhizal fungus be sure to put that in as well.  Fill the hold until you can place the tomato into the hole with only the top three branches of the stem being level with the top of your ground.

Placing the Plant

In the pot, tomato plants may look large and fruitful so it can be disappointing if you plant them with proper depth as it will make your lush plants seem very small. Tomatoes will root out along the stem if the stem is underground resulting in a much larger root base for nutrient and water collection. So to give your tomatoes the best start they must be planted as deep as possible. Prune all of the lower stem branches leaving the top three. If you do not prune before setting it can cause rot and disease in your plant. Set the plant in the hole and gently fill in the dirt being sure to crumble any clods and remove any rocks that might cause air pockets or impede root growth. When you get to the top gently hand pat to secure the plant.

Water, Mulch, and String

Depending on the dampness of your soil, and imminent weather, will determine if you water heavily. Tomatoes do not like excessive water; but, they do need some to ease root shock. If you are using liquid fish fertilizer you need to apply that after getting your plants set. As soon as possible you will want to mulch around your tomatoes with straw or hay. Mulching helps retain water,  keeps the dirt from packing, hinders weed growth, and it promotes “good bugs” that will eat the bugs that will eat your tomatoes. There are all sorts of ways to string your tomatoes. I have had almost equal success with cages, stakes and twine, or using fence panels. When considering what to support your plants with take into account the breed of tomato. If your plant will be producing large tomatoes you will need a stronger support system.   

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.      

Websites Resourced

http://www.usi.edu/recycle/solid-waste-landfill-facts/

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/magazine/winter10plastics/

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.  

How to Plant Onion Sets

Onions are one of the most healthy foods in our human diet; they are an immune system booster. Growing your own onions is simple and they act as a natural pesticide in your garden making for a more successful garden. You can seed onions and allow them to grow into onion sets; but, this takes time. Onion sets should be planted in early Spring, depending on your planting zone, so if you plan on starting from seed you need to take that into account. Onion sets can be purchased just about anywhere that sells seed. I prefer to purchase organic and non GMO onion sets. This year I have started some onion seed in the greenhouse for our Fall garden. We have a long enough warm season in Kentucky to be able to have two cool weather gardens.

Preparing the Soil

Your soil needs to be loose enough to allow your onions to expand in the soil until they get rooted enough to pull the dirt out from around them. We have two large gardens so we plough with the tractor. Your dirt needs to be turned over the first time before the last freeze and again just before you plant. We grow our onions in rows. When making your rows you need to pull the dirt up and create a furrow to set the onions. Growing onions in an onion bed is also a very efficient method as you can keep the soil loose and water more efficiently. You can also grow onions in planters.

Garlic and onions grow good in raised beds. And apparently so do farm dogs named Sunny.

Setting and Covering 

If you are planting for whole onions you will need to space your onions three inches apart; you can space them two inches apart if you want green onions only. Be sure to plant the root side down and set them firmly in the ground. Some people do not cover their onion sets at all; however, I have found that mine don’t stay where I put them unless I cover them some. When you cover the onions just pull up a little dirt leaving the very top of the onion exposed.

Pulling Dirt

When your onions begin to grow green tops and start to show bulb growth you can start to pull some of the dirt away from them so the bulb can grow. Be cautious about pulling too much dirt and disturbing the roots. I use a fork set aside for garden because it is a more precise tool. From this point in the growth process all you can do is wait, weed, and water. I usually put mulch around our onions to keep the soil moist and the weeds down. If your soil gets too hard packed be sure to hand till it or the bulb will not grow.