Thursday, July 29, 2010

New bicycle tees

A quick new sewing project, just in time for our 2 year old's birthday (one for her, and one for her cousin).  Simple "upcycled" t-shirts made of the softest cotton, with the added applique of a wee bicycle complete with safety flag.  A huge hit (the shirt went on right over pajamas first thing this morning!)  The shirt design was inspired by some wonderful crafters I found on etsy.  Do a search for "bicycle" on there, and you will find an amazing assortment of art celebrating two wheels - notecards, t-shirts, stickers, notebooks, pins, bags, prints, fabric, pillows, etc etc...

End of July homesteading herbal iced teas and fruit sodas...

Happy late July!  We can't believe that summer is half way feels like it's just now coming to it's peak. Our garden has become a jungle and days right now are full with tending to it, plus canning peaches, preserving jam, drying berries, making crock pickles with fresh cucumbers and dill, baking outside in the wood oven, harvesting our first ripe heirloom tomatoes & our favourite French filet beans, collecting seeds, wheeling mulch into our garden paths, weeding, drying tea herbs, watching bees, chasing the hens out of the garden (one has made a nest under our asparagus patch and needs to get in there to lay her egg each day!), picking edible flowers to decorate cakes...some breaks for homemade berry soda and herbal iced tea, a few jaunts off the property for some swimming to cool off, and of course lots of playing in the sand pile with our 2 year old...

Favourite Herbal Iced Teas & Fruit Sodas:

Make a strong herbal tea with 2 cups water plus large handfull of herbs.  Steep with water that has just boiled for at least 15 minutes, or for sun tea soak herbs in cool water in large glass jar for several hours in direct sunlight.  Add honey or sugar to sweeten.  Fill glasses with ice, add herbal tea, plus sparkling water if desired, plus fresh berries (raspberries, blueberries), peach slices, or lemon and lime rounds.  Add a sprig of mint or nasturtium to the glass and you have a gourmet art piece.  Delicious!

our favourite blends:
* anise hyssop, red clover, lemon balm
* bergamot blossoms, mint and lemon verbena
* lavender, honey and lemon

Another variation is to make a strong tea, mix it half and half with pure fruit juice (e.g. mango, blueberry, peach, raspberry, blackberry, pear), plus crushed ice and a dash of sparkling mineral water, for an amazing simple and refreshing healthful fruit soda.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Chicken love

We love our hens!  I think any urban chicken keeper, who has raised their birds from early on, given them names, collected their eggs, cleaned their pen, fed them by hand, watched them bustle around with their constant activity, and let them free roam in the garden, can attest to what wonderful additions chickens make to any homestead.

Here are ten reasons we love having hens at our little urban farm:

1) manure - chicken manure hugely benefits our gardens
2) permaculture - closed loop permaculture principle (i.e. hens eat compost scraps, turn it into manure, back onto the garden, grow more veggies, which we use in the house and compost goes back to the hens - and the cycle begins again)
3) companionship - hens make loyal companions and are incredibly social birds
4) pest control - hens are excellent fly, mosquito, snail, slug and earwig catchers
5) soil health - hens help till up our soil while scratching for bugs
6) eggs - wonderful omega-rich eggs provided every day!
7) new skills - teaching our children animal husbandry skills (feeding, cleaning, watering, animal care)
8) earth connection - greater connection to the rhythms of nature and cycles of life
9) entertainment and fun - hours can be spent watching the constant antics of our hens
10) food security - adding our small part to develop greater food security for our urban areas

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mid-July garden going to seed

Seed pods are works of art.  They are so beautiful shooting upward or nodding low in the garden paths, dusting off when you brush by or floating away with a strong breeze, perfect, compact, and with all the potential in them to start the next generation of hardy plants for another garden season...already, now in mid-July, various plants are at seed stage in our garden and here is a sampling of what I saw yesterday.  We try to collect many of these to use next year (e.g. lettuces, spinach, kale, chard, peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, coriander, and many herb varieties), to give away, or to broadcast back into the beds as we slowly develop our permaculture self-perpetuating gardens...

Pictured here - sorrel, purple ruffles basil, chives, lettuce, dock, plantain.

New garden projects & the family hammock

We've been working on the side yard (former construction site while our straw bale addition to the house was being worked on), and have slowly started to map out what this new section of the property will look like - new keyhole garden beds, a large area to expand our lavender production, map out where another fruit tree or two can be planted, perhaps a new bicycle shed/wood shed for easier access, and a winding path of flagstone throughout, and a little patch of lawn (well, clover, grass and wildflower seeds interplanted) with just enough room to put down a picnic blanket, kids playing, and setting up a small tent for hot summer nights.  It's exciting to have this whole new area plot of land to dream about - little by little this property takes shape.

And, after the busy weekend, we spent some time relaxing in our favourite spot on the back porch, the family-sized hammock!

Solar cooking/drying workshop

Yesterday we hosted a short workshop on solar cooking/drying.  Our guest facilitator had spent time ahead of the workshop building various models that were home-scale size, made of inexpensive materials and simple construction.  The idea was to give participants an idea of the range of possibilities, inspire creative thinking and experimentation (and tinkering), and make solar cooking feel like something easily accessible to a wide range of people.  There are so many books out there about solar cooking, and it really seems like a topic with few difinitive answers - there are so many variables, such as climate, sun exposure, time of year, humidity, what you are cooking/drying, etc.  He had made a solar dryer, using wire cooling racks (used for baking) as his screens, with wooden frames built around the screens to fit snugly.  The bottom was painted black, the top had plexiglass sheeting to trap heat.  This dryer box could be used for drying herbs, fruits, vegetables.  As well, there were several examples of simple solar ovens to demonstrate cooking and baking (for vegetables, soups, breads, etc) - including a foil-lined box cooker and a solar collector dish.  By the time we got to this stage in the workshop we were running short on time, so all we had time to cook was an egg - but this was done in an astounding matter of seconds using a cast iron frying pan held directly over the solar dish (note - while wearing sunglasses and long protective gloves!)  The solar collector dish was tilted toward the sun, reflecting several hundred watts off it's mirrored surface!  The idea was that a roasting pot or other cooker could be rigged up on a frame over this solar dish. You would have to keep this solar dish covered with a tarp when not in use, as it would easily be a potential fire hazard!  Needless to say, this was an interesting introductory workshop that peaked more questions...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Homesteading tasks - making applesauce

A portion of this morning was spent cutting up apples for our first fresh homemade applesauce of this season.  We had been gifted with a bushel of newly picked apples from our friend's farm.  Turns out these are real old-fashioned baking apples from a very old tree, tart and a little dry for eating, but perfect for saucing or baking into pies - the batch transformed quickly (in less than 30 minutes) into a smooth creamy rich sauce.  You can't find apples like this at the store, that's for sure!  Our little one couldn't help but try a bite out of apple after apple, putting each one down with another look of disappointment on her face at the unexpected sourness of the flavour - I guess having a whole bushel of gleaming apples standing on the floor was just too
irresistable.  She was amazed at how the flavour changed into delicious sauce, after the apples cooked down.

Here are a few simple techniques for making perfect homemade applesauce to you liking:

Method A) Quarter, core and chop apples, including skins.  Place in large pot with enough water to cover the bottom.  Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, and then simmer on reduced heat until softened.  Check to ensure the sauce does not burn on the bottom, stirring occasionally and adding a little more water if necessary.  Sauce can be pureed in food processor or food mill if you want a uniformly smooth texture.  Optional, add sugar or other sweetener, and/or cinnamon.

Method B) Using an apple coring device, peel and core apples.  Then chop into smaller sections.  Follow above directions for cooking down into sauce.  This sauce, without skins, creates a slightly smoother texture.

Method C) Quarter and chop apples, but do not take the time to core them.  Follow directions for cooking down into sauce.  Then, using a food strainer, or apple sauce sieve, strain the sauce through the mesh and compost the seeds/peels.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Herb harvesting

Our greenhouse has turned into a solar herb drying facility - we've hung up a tarp to block out the sunlight, and have converted our shelving into herb drying racks, plus a long series of hooks for herb bunches to hang from the rafters.  Herbs dry quickly in here, as it's dark, breezy and very dry in the greenhouse when the door is left open.  I remember volunteering as a WWOOFer one summer about ten years ago up at the Algonquin Tea Company near Ottawa.  Interning with the WWOOF program (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is an excellent opportunity to try out life on a real working farm and do some travelling, with organic farms listed across the globe and as diverse as your interests may be - from sheep farms to biodynamic dairy farms, to herb farms, to farms with working draft horses, to market gardens and large-scale CSA's, there is bound to be a farm in the WWOOFing guide that suits your needs.  The experience at Algonquin Tea was probably one of my biggest inspirations for delving further into the world of herbalism and wild foods.  They had converted an old barn loft into their herb drying studio, with rows and rows of shelving to dry all the plants for the six beautiful loose-lea teas they produce. 

For proper herb drying you just need these conditions: pick herbs when at their peak (determine if you are using the leaves, flowers, roots, berries, etc);  pick late morning when dry but not too late in the day when they may be wilted from the heat; dry in small hanging bunches with proper air circulation around them, or in paper bags with a few holes punched in as air vents (bags are useful for collecting flowering herbs like lavender which drop their petals while drying); or on racks or old window screens, again with lots of air circulation.  They should be dried out of direct sunlight, and when herbs are dried crisp yet still with colour intact, they are ready.  Herbs should never be stored if they are not completely dry as they will mold and spoil your whole batch!  Today we were harvesting herbs on our property for our teas and salves: bergamot, mints, lemon balm, catnip, lavender, calendula, red clover, anise hyssop, sage, yarrow, plantain, comfrey, oregano, thyme, marshmallow leaf, sweet grass, plus basil and wild grape leaves (to eat).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oregano honey, anyone?

My daughter and I spent a long while yesterday watching (and photographing) a beautiful group of busy bees making their way through our oregano patch.  They carefully went looking for pollen in each and every tiny blossom on the plants, hundreds of blossoms for them to visit.  I had been complaining about the ever-spreading oregano that's taking over a large section of our herb garden, but here was my answer.  I needed to be reminded that all the plants we may be tending have more purpose than just for our own interests, and these bees were obviously very happy to have found this oregano abundance!  I searched online for oregano honey, and there is quite a niche in the health food market promoting wild oregano and garden oregano honey as a health tonic - beneficial for healing coughs, colds, flu, bronchitis, arthritis, and it's antioxidant properties.

Speaking of bees, here is a link to an interesting project in New York City called the Great Pollinator Project.  They list information on how to become a "bee watcher", a land manager, or participate in other ways to increase the abundance of bees in urban areas.  They write that 1/3 of our food depends on the  services of a pollinator (bee, other insect, bird, or mammal).  Increasing the diversity in our gardens with pollinator-attracting plants and blooms, plus water features like ponds, is incredibly important for food security.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

New comfrey healing salve

Just finished a custom order of  a pure comfrey healing salve - but it turned out to be such a beautiful salve that I think this is one I'm going to keep making in my regular line-up of herbal items for Homestead Herbals.  Comfrey has been used for generations to heal all manner of skin conditions, from eczema, to cuts, scrapes, burns and bruises.   It is also known as "knit bone" from it's reputed ability to help heal broken bones and sprains when applied regularily as a poultice.  It's somewhat of a wonder plant, and should be part of every urban garden (both for it's medicinal uses and also it's benefits to the compost pile, making compost tea, etc).  It grows wild in many urban areas and although it is often overlooked as a common weed, it should be given due respect.  Generally this plant is only to be used externally as there is some controversy among herbalists and other health practitioners about it's safety when taken internally.

Making kombucha - the "elixir of long life"

This past week we had guests from an urban farm in Ottawa staying with us at our bed and breakfast.  They said for them it was like "coming home", and we too thoroughly enjoyed their company and had long conversations about permaculture, cohousing, land trusts, food co-ops, and lacto-fermenting foods.  They shared their home-brewed kombucha with us and left a bottle so we could get our own batch started!  Kombucha is a wonder drink, known by some as "the elixir of long life" because it is full of antioxidants and probiotics (along the lines of kefir, live culture yogurt, kimchi, etc).  It promotes healthy intestinal flora, stimulates the immune system, boosts energy levels, and has been reputed to heal a long list of health issues by detoxifying and cleansing the blood/body. 

We had been talking about starting kombucha after reading about it in the Wild Fermentation book, so I was extremely pleased to receive this gift!  Hopefully, if all goes well, in several weeks we will have a "mother" mushroom which we can pass on to others who want to start their own brews.

Here's a recipe for making your own kombucha at home.  It's also readily available in various flavours from health food stores.  I have not found information yet about whether kombucha can successfully be made without using refined sugar - this is one down side of this drink, as it does contain a fair amount of sugar sweetener, but the sugar is needed (as in wine making) for the microbes to multiply and assist fermentation.

1) Get some live kombucha (e.g. if you don't have someone to give you a starter culture, they can be purchased online, or you can use 1/2 cup from a kombucha tea you buy at the health food store)
2) Steep 4-8 tea bags (black or green, not herbal) per 4 litres (aprox 1 gallon) water.  Tea can be made with cold filtered water and let tea bags steep until tea is desired strength; or make a hot tea and let it cool before adding starter culture.
3) Add 1-1/2 cups sugar, which helps fuel the kombucha microbes (the more sugar, the stronger the sour flavour will be in your finished kombucha).
4) Add kombucha starter culture, or the 1/2 cup kombucha tea from your last batch or store bought bottle. 
5) Stir well, then cover with cheese cloth - securing cover so flies can't get in, but allowing kombucha to breathe.
6) Let sit for one week (or more) on kitchen counter - if "mushroom" grows it has worked.  Save mushroom ("mother") and use to float in your next batch of kombucha.  In another week or so the mushroom will grow another small mushroom on it, which can be saved and used, or given away!
7) Bottle kombucha (siphon into glass jars) and store in the fridge.  At the point of bottling, you can add various interesting flavour additives such as chopped ginger root, raspberries, or lemon slices, into each bottle.  The finished kombucha will taste like a fizzy carbonated sour-sweet iced tea drink.  Drink 1/2 cup each day for health benefits.

Beautiful garden blossoms - mid July colours at Little City Farm

Here's a quick list of the plants in these photos, from top to bottom:
marshmallow, feverfew, echinacea, calendula, green tomatillo, dill, purple basil, lavender, bergamot, black eyed susan, onion, wild bergamot, purple lambs quarters, wood sorrel.

Lovely fig tree

Our Chicago Hardy Fig is bearing fruit!  We can't believe the gorgeous figs sprouting all over the little lovely tree, and hopefully, if the squirrels don't discover them, we'll be enjoying fresh figs in a few weeks!  This was the tree we bought as a wee seedling from Richters Herbs last spring (it's now about 4 feet tall).

* Note about the fig tree - we wrote about this tree last year and talked about how to care for it during the winter months.  To recap, these trees are not winter hardy outdoors - they lose all they leaves in the fall and need to be brought indoors, in our case into the greenhouse, and covered with a thick layer of straw mulch until spring.  

Kale chips

I've seen "raw" kale chips at various health food stores - they are basically dehydrated kale leaves with assorted delicious healthful seasonings such as tamari, hemp seeds, parsley, omega rich oils, garlic, hot pepper flakes, etc.  We have abundant kale in the garden, and though we try to eat our share with most dinners (steamed, in soups, stir-fried, etc), we are always looking for new and exciting ways to use it.  I thought I'd try out some kale chips myself, drying them for use over the winter months.  Here is my recipe, a compilation of various recipes I found in several raw cookbooks and online.  I found this dressing to be a bit rich for my taste (it's very strongly "cheesey" in a raw, vegan kind of way), so I think for the next batch I make I'll just use hemp oil, hemp seeds and some sea salt for a lighter flavour.  Yum!

Kale Chips
2 heads of kale, washed and torn (I suggest discarding the stalks)
3/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup tamari
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 green onions or scallions, sliced thinly
1 clove garlic, minced
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced

Combine all ingredients other than kale in a blender, and blend until smooth.  Pour over kale and mix well using your hands to completely cover the kale pieces evenly.  Dehydrate at 115 degrees for about 12 hours (depending on how thickly you layer the kale on the dryer tray).  When completely dry and crisp, let cool and store in glass jar for winter snacking.