Sunday, December 15, 2013

Seeking Peace and Simplicity During the Holidays

Holiday Craziness
Let’s face it: the holidays are extremely busy, and for many, it can be a very stressful time.  The intentions of the holiday season are supposed to include sentiments of gratitude, love, family, and faith, but with the push for shopping and a list of almost endless activities, it can end up as anything but those things. 

Peace and Simplicity Begins with a Thankful Heart
For those like myself, we are seeking a path toward greater peace and simplicity during the holiday season.  What I have been learning a lot about lately is that we must begin with gratitude in our hearts and minds if we are ever to truly achieve that peace and simplicity.

For the majority of us in the developed world, we have been very blessed to have much more than our basic needs met.  We have a bed to sleep in, a roof over our heads, often more than sufficient food to eat, and enough clean water to drink and even bathe in.  We have sufficient transportation, and can even indulge a bit in a little entertainment every now and then.  Sadly, for far too many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world, this is not true for them.  While for many of us, our lives are far from what we would consider to be perfect, we can still take a step back and humbly acknowledge that we are blessed in a number of ways, and that we should be thankful for what we do have.

Once we start to cultivate gratitude in our hearts and lives, we can begin to examine our values and then prioritize them.  To have any sort of balance in life, it is important to decide what is most important, and then decide if what you are spending your time and energy on is really that important.  If whatever you are doing is not ultimately supporting your values, then you must let it go.  This will free you to focus on those things that truly are the most important things to you- your family, friends, loved ones, your faith, your passions, etc.

Simpler Holidays
I’d be willing to bet that on the whole, what people remember most during a particular holiday season is not all of the gifts that they received, but the memories that were made and the times that were spent together with those they care about.  My advice is to keep it simple, cut out what isn’t most important, and instead focus on what matters most. 

So, what can a simpler holiday with fewer gifts look like?  Perhaps you could decide as a family or a group to limit the spending on gifts this year and focus more on making memories together.  Perhaps as an alternative, you might focus more on doing something special, such as Christmas caroling, sledding, or holding a holiday movie marathon where each person picks out their favorite holiday film and everyone watches them together while drinking hot chocolate and enjoying homemade holiday goodies.  You could pop some popcorn and make treats for the birds in your neighborhood, or bake and decorate some cookies and give them as gifts to some of your neighbors.  You could participate in the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, share a special meal together at your favorite locally-owned restaurant or cafe, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or make some homemade Christmas cards and then take them to your local retirement home and visit with some of the residents.  Other options are to see a holiday presentation by your local high school, or attend a concert by your local orchestra or string quartet.  There are so many things that you could do as an alternative to focusing on gifts.  Be creative, start a new tradition, and make some memories together!

A Homemade Holiday
While it is not for everyone, homemade treasures made from crafts that you make yourself, or from items harvested from your garden can also make excellent gifts and can help to simplify gift giving during the holidays.  For example, this year I am going to give as gifts some basil seeds that I collected from my basil plants, some homemade dairy-free pesto sauce made from my garden-grown basil, some lacto-fermented pickles made from cucumbers that I grew, and some tomatillo salsa that I made from tomatillos that I also grew in my garden.   I will also be baking some homemade goodies and giving them as gifts in reusable decorative holiday tins.

The Season of Our Hearts
Memory making and gift giving aside, the most important thing during the holiday season is to remember why we are celebrating in the first place.  For myself and many others, this process of remembering centers on our spirits and God’s gift of His son to us.  For others, family matters most, and for others still, showing love to our fellow human beings and cultivating peace and kindness for a better world are very important. 

From my favorite holiday movie, “The Muppet Christmas Carol,”* I really appreciate a song entitled, “It feels like Christmas.”  There is a line in it that I really I love which says, “Wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas.”  As a later line in the song says, I believe that such a sentiment applies not only to this time of the year, but ideally should last all year long.  Love is what everyone needs deep down within their very soul, and it is what we all crave- genuine relationships where people are truly loved for who they are.  To me, that’s ultimately what life is all about- showing love to others now and always.  Taking the time during this season of the year to remember what it means can be a refreshing way to make the holidays more meaningful in our lives, and can serve as a valuable reminder of what’s most important.  I encourage you to make that your holiday focus this year, and where I believe true peace and simplicity in the season can be found.  

 Video of "It Feels Like Christmas" from the film, the "Muppet Christmas Carol."

May you and yours be truly blessed this holiday season!  

*If you’ve never seen it, I recommend that you rent it and enjoy the humor and the Muppets’ heart-warming portrayal of the classic story, A Christmas Carol.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Eating Gluten-Free and Navigating the Holidays

The gluten-free pumpkin pie that I made and brought 
to my family's Thanksgiving gathering.

My Gluten-Free Journey
I have been eating a gluten-free, as well as a mostly milk-free diet (I cannot tolerate any milk products except butter) for about seven years now.  The digestive issues and brainfog that I experienced about an hour after eating revealed that something wasn’t quite right.  Although I was tested for Celiac Disease and the results were negative, I just knew that my body didn’t do well whenever I would eat anything with gluten in it.    

After discovering that I was intolerant to gluten, I eliminated it from my diet and a number of my health issues cleared up.  While some of my health issues still persist, eliminating it has been a major positive step along the path of my health journey.  Although avoiding gluten has been good for my body, making the transition to being gluten-free was not easy for me.  It can take a lot of learning and will power to change your eating habits, although my experiences with digestive difficulties from eating particular foods were a major motivational factor for me to stay on track.  In my former eating life, I loved to eat bread, pasta, cookies, pizza…, you name it. 

How I Eat Now
These days, I cook a lot from scratch at home, I eat primarily whole foods including meat, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and I include a lot of traditional nourishing fats in my diet like coconut oil, organic & grassfed butter & ghee, and cod liver oil.  I also enjoy making fruit and veggie smoothies with lots of healthy greens like kale and adding super foods like raw cacao powder, chaga mushroom tea, chlorella powder, and hemp and chia seeds.  

I don’t eat a lot of snacks and desserts, and I generally don’t crave them anymore because I’m eating nutrient-dense foods and eating according to my protein nutritional type.  Having a garden has been a huge blessing, and being able to harvest fresh greens and herbs for dinner or for adding to my smoothies from right outside my back door is awesome.  I have learned to eat and love a much wider variety of foods than I ever did when I was eating a gluten-dominated diet, and today I am much more at peace with the food that I eat.  I know that most of what I eat is nourishing my body, and I am investing in my long-term vitality and longevity.

Treats Happen
Every now and then, occasions do happen when I make the occasional gluten-free treat.  The Holidays are one of those times when I believe it’s okay to treat yourself and be a little indulgent, as long as it doesn’t get too out of balance and doesn’t continue as an everyday habit.  There are so many resources out there for those of us with food sensitivities now, and I’m so very grateful that if I must live with food sensitivities, we live in a time when there are many options to choose from, even at most major chain grocery stores.  

For both the food-allergic and non-food allergic, my best advice is to cook from scratch as much as possible, since you then have complete control over what goes in your food.  Chances are that the taste of your homemade goodness will outshine most items from the store just about every single time, and will likely be much less expensive as well. 

Gluten-free apple crisp, also brought to Thanksgiving.

Making Gluten-Free Goodies
As I have learned, gluten-free baking is somewhat of an art form.  My advice if you are new to the gluten-free baking scene is to start out with some pre-made baking mixes to gain some confidence, and then branch out and find a good gluten-free cookbook or online recipe source such as Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, which is one of my favorite resources for gluten-free cooking, recipes, and advice.

There are a few tips that that you should know if you are a newbie to gluten-free baking:  
  • Exact measurements matter!  Gluten-free baking success is very dependent upon the ratios of your various ingredients.  
  • Be aware that the texture of your dough may be much stickier and more difficult to handle than when baking with gluten-based flour.  You may need to do more scooping and spreading than kneading and handling than you may be used to.  Do not freak out about this; accept that it can be a part of the process and make peace with it.  Sometimes adding a little bit of rice flour or other gluten-free flour to the dough that you are handling can be helpful, and using these to “flour” your working surface can also help.   
  • In most cases, you cannot simply replace your wheat-based flour with a single type of gluten-free flour and be good.  Most commonly, you'll need a mixture of several different gluten-free flours plus a binding agent, such as xanthan gum or guar gum to help the gluten-free flours “stick” together and stretch like the gluten does in wheat-based flour.  There are many great gluten-free cookbooks out there that can help you to navigate through the different types of gluten-free flours and on how to make your own flour mixes for baking.  After my copy of Nourishing Traditions written by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, two of my favorite cookbooks that I own are 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes by Carol Fenster and Gluten-Free Baking Classics by Annalise G. Roberts. 
I have found that with good gluten-free recipes, and the gluten-free flours or flour mixes that exist, you can often make goodies that taste delicious and rival just about anything made with wheat flour.  In fact, I prefer my own gluten-free pumpkin pie to any gluten-based pie.  Due to my milk sensitivity, I use canned coconut milk instead of the sweetened condensed milk that pumpkin pies generally call for, and I think that my pies turn out even tastier than the original.

My homemade cranberry sauce

Being Social
One of the most challenging issues with my diet has been attending social gatherings.   However, I have found that many of the traditional holiday favorites can easily be converted to be more friendly for those with food sensitivities.  In fact, as I write this, I am visiting family for Thanksgiving, and I enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving meal with mashed potatoes, lots of veggies, organic turkey, corn, homemade cranberry sauce, and gluten-free pumpkin pie and gluten-free apple crisp that I made and brought to the family function.  Others in the family seemed to really enjoy these treats as well.  I did not feel deprived in the least, and I fully (and thankfully) enjoyed my meal.

Sometimes, having dietary restrictions can feel quite lonely and socially isolating.  The following steps can go a long way in helping you to approach eating in social situations and can help you to feel more included:

  • Plan, plan, plan!  Eat before you arrive, bring your own tasty food that you can enjoy while you’re there, or bring yummy pre-tested food that you can eat and share with others.  
  • Many foods such as fruits, veggies, and nuts are naturally gluten-free, so they are a good place to start and are healthier for everyone anyway.  
  • Cook from time-tested recipes that you know are good.  Don’t try out new recipes when bringing food to share at social occasions (just be sure to get some before everyone else gobbles up your goodies!).  
  • Bring snacks with you in case you can’t find suitable foods.  

You can also offer to prepare some of the foods for the feast when you get there.  For example, in my husband’s family, I have become the official Mashed Potato Maker.  Due to my dairy-related issues, I started preparing mashed potatoes in the way that I could tolerate them by replacing the traditional milk with a natural, gluten-free chicken broth.  The family has requested that I make the mashed potatoes for many of the family dinner gatherings where mashed potatoes will be served because the way that I make them is so flavorful and yummy.  They actually prefer my potatoes to the regular kind.  You never know what might happen when you step outside of the gluten- and allergen-filled boxes!

Do you or someone you care about have a food intolerance of some kind?  How have you approached social eating?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Vanilla- and Spice-Kissed Sweet Potato Puree

It's Thanksgiving time here in the U.S., and I thought I'd share with you one of my latest yummy seasonal creations.  I'm sure I'm not the first person to create their own version of sweet potato puree, but here is mine.

Growing up in my family, we always had some version of sweet potatoes as a part of our Thanksgiving celebration.  Most often, it was my mom's sweet potato casserole, which I have always loved, and with all of the cinnamon and spicy goodness that she added, it is reminiscent of pumpkin pie- yum!  While I absolutely love my mom's sweet potato casserole, its preparation requires more work than I care to invest sometimes when I just want an easy sweet potato dish that I can get on the dinner table in fairly short order.

I must admit that when I'm creating new concoctions in my kitchen, the process typically ends up being more of an art than a science.  Many times, I will add my selected ingredients to texture and taste preferences.  Therefore, I apologize to those of you who feel the need to have exact measurements to work with.   For this recipe, I have tried to estimate the quantities of ingredients that I have used before.  My advice is to start with smaller quantities of the salt, butter, and the spices and add more according to your own taste and texture preferences.  This recipe is fairly simple, so please feel free to make it your own.  Be my guest and be creative.

I've served this dish three times for guests, including my parents and my mother-in-law & father-in-law, and it was a big hit every time.

Vanilla- and Spice-Kissed Sweet Potato Puree
  • 3-5 lbs fresh sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 3 tablespoons real butter (grass-fed is great, if you can get it)
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
1.  Place sweet potatoes into a large pot and fill with enough water to completely cover the potatoes.
2.  Cook the potatoes in lightly boiling water until tender.
3.  Remove the cooked potatoes from the cooking pot and place into a large mixing bowl.  Reserve the cooking water for later use.
4.  Using a mixer, beat the potatoes until smooth.
5.  Add the butter and beat until well-mixed.  Season to taste with vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and sea salt and stir well.
6.  Add 2 tablespoons of the reserved cooking liquid to the mixture at a time and beat well until the potatoes are light and fluffy.  Alternatively, you could use milk or a milk substitute, such as coconut milk in place of the cooking liquid. 
7.  Serve and enjoy your sweet potato goodness!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Permaculture Herb Spiral

Our herb spiral at the peak of the growing season.

I Love Herbs! 
One of the things that I was looking forward to most once I started gardening is growing herbs.  I have been into natural health for a long time, and have used a lot of different herbs to support my own health.  I have recently begun to learn a lot about herbs, including which herbs you can use for various health conditions, and I have started to learn about how to make my own herbal remedies at home.  Just like my food, I want to take back the control of my own healthcare as much as possible.  For me, a part of that means learning as much as I can about herbs and their uses for myself and my family.  I also love to cook with fresh culinary herbs.

The Permaculture Herb Spiral
When I started learning about permaculture, one of the first books that I read was Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway.  While much of the permaculture literature prior to the publishing of the book focused on larger-scale land holdings, Gaia’s Garden focuses on permaculture projects that most people can do in their own backyards.  The author includes a lot of information on doing small-scale projects in limited spaces.  The permaculture herb spiral was one example that was particularly intriguing to me.  To me, it looks really beautiful, and it's a great way to grow a lot of different herbs or other plants within a small space.

The permaculture herb spiral concept was first designed by one of the co-originators of permaculture, Bill Mollison.  As with everything else in permaculture, the herb spiral design is based upon principles found in nature, and takes advantage of the “edge effect." In nature, when two or more different ecosystems come together (such as a prairie and a forest), you have an ecological “edge,” or an “ecotone.”  The edge is where you will find the most biodiversity and ecological activity, since you have several different systems coming together in one place.  The herb spiral uses edge to create different microclimates in which plants with varying ecological requirements can grow, and the spiral pattern makes premium use of the space with which to grow plants.  You do not end up wasting valuable growing space with paths like you would in a typical herb garden.  The plants at the very top of the spiral receive the most direct sunlight and the most water drainage, so the most sun-loving, arid plant species thrive well there, such as rosemary.  At the bottom of the spiral, the wet- and shade-loving plants do the best, such as parsley.

Calendula blossoms are used medicinally for skin conditions, 
such as wounds, rashes and burns.

Herb Spiral Construction
The construction of the spiral is fairly simple (for more detailed instructions on how to build an herb spiral, check out these two links.)  Lay down some cardboard on the ground to block out weeds.  Then, lay down bricks or football- to fist-sized rocks one by one in a spiral pattern, building up vertically as you go, with the highest point in the middle.  You then fill the inside of the spiral with potting soil and some organic materials such as straw and leaves which will compost over time.  I recommend that you also add and mix in compost and other nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings or composted chicken manure, which will provide nutrition to your plants.  Spray down everything with water from your garden hose each time you add another layer of compostable material to kick-start the composting process with an increase in microbial activity. 

You can add a higher percentage of potting soil for additional growing medium.  Just a warning:  If you fill your spiral with mostly compostable materials, your organic material will compost down over the course of the growing season, and your plants will start to physically “sink” down as the material composts down.  This happened to me during my first growing season this year, and as the season progressed, I had to remove some of the top layers of bricks so that the plants got the proper access to sunlight as they physically sunk down.  If I had it to do over, I would have added a much larger percentage of potting soil than I did (while still maintaining a large amount of mulch and other organic materials to build quality soil, block weeds, and retain moisture) to keep things from physically sinking down so much.  We also put some wood mulch around the base of the herb spiral to help block weeds, and to make it look even more aesthetically pleasing.

The construction of an herb spiral can easily be done within an afternoon, and requires no adhesive to hold the stones or bricks together (although I believe that some people have done so).  It only took my husband and I a single afternoon to build it, and our neighbors, never having seen one before, thought it was really cool-looking.  You can plant using either seeds or starter plants.  As is the case with a vegetable garden, be sure to double-check the growing and space requirements for your plants.  

The herb spiral is especially useful for growing herbs, as the name suggests, but I have heard of people growing other plants in them as well, such as strawberries or even lettuce.  I recommend drawing out a diagram and planning where your plants will go based upon their growing requirements prior to planting.  I also recommend placing your herb spiral near the location of your kitchen, so that it is convenient to run outside and harvest your tasty herbs or potent herbal remedies right near where you will be using them.

Our Experience 
We were able to grow quite a lot of different herbs, and were fairly successfully at that.  My absolute favorite was our sweet basil plant, which I made some tasty basil lemonade and dairy-free pesto sauce with.  After experiencing my own home-grown fresh basil, I have vowed to grow my own basil for the rest of my life.  Fresh basil is so expensive at the store, and it is therefore more than worth it to grow your own from home.  

We also grew sage, oregano, thyme, three other varieties of basil, calendula, parsley, German chamomile, catnip (It’s not just for cats, but people too!), caraway, cilantro, and lemongrass (also one of my favorites for both cooking and herbal medicine).  I have transplanted a number of these herbs into pots and am hoping to overwinter them inside my house for replanting into our herb spiral next spring.  At the end of the season, I added some straw, organic fertilizer, and compost that we had left over from our gardening activities this season.   This will add some fresh organic matter to feed the soil in the spiral and prepare it for next year's growing season.

What are your favorite herbs to grow and use?

Straw, organic fertilizer,  and some organic compost added to the growing medium within 
the spiral will provide a great growing environment for my herb plants next year.  The two remaining plants 
shown in the spiral are catnip and calendula, which I chose not to overwinter indoors.

Friday, November 15, 2013

My Straw Bale Garden (Part II)

(For My Straw Bale Garden (Part I), please read last week's post)

Kale (center), grown in our straw bale garden, end of summer.

My experience with growing a straw bale garden

I found straw bale gardening to be a fairly productive method of growing a garden.  Although the two-week prep time at the beginning of the season required a lot of initial work, most of the remainder of the growing season was fairly low-maintenance.  The vast majority of the work involved was monitoring for insect pests, watering, harvesting, and of course, eating!  Due to the lower maintenance, I feel that Straw Bale gardening is an especially good way to grow a garden when you are a new gardener.   It is a nice way to grow some things without having to worry much about soil quality since straw bales allow you to start with a clean and uncontaminated growing medium without weed seeds.  It is also a great way for elderly or disabled people to garden, since it provides the same height advantage of a raised bed garden, and avoids the need to excessively bend over to tend to the garden.  

Despite the heavy rains that we received during the spring, we were able to have a fairly successful garden and get a much earlier start than many of our neighbors.  This was because straw bales are great at draining excess water, and thereby avoids many of the problems associated with flooding due to an overabundance of rain.  Many other gardeners in my area were experiencing flooding and had a tough time getting off on the right foot for the season.  

Please note that you need to use straw bales, not hay bales.  Hay is what farmers feed to their livestock, and it contains seeds that provide the necessary nutrition for these animals.  Straw is what farmers often use for their animals’ bedding.  It should ideally contain no seeds.  You want to use straw for your straw bale garden, as this will eliminate seeds from becoming a source of weeds for your garden.  Unfortunately, the straw bales that we purchased from a local garden center did have some seeds remaining, and I found myself weeding a few of these plants as they came up during the season.  Be diligent and ensure to the best of your ability that your straw bales do not contain seeds.

Garden Productivity

Potted plants, such as the peppermint, spearmint, ginger, and
lemon balm plants shown here, allowed for even
greater productivity in our garden.

We were able to grow quite few vegetable plants in a fairly small space.  In our eight-bale straw garden, we grew cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, broccoli, four cabbages, bok choi, kale, rainbow chard, tomatillos, jalapeños, two heirloom tomato plants, celeric, basil, a few carrots, radishes, beets, and red kidney beans.  Because straw bales allow you to grow things in the sides of the bales as well as on the top, this added to our total available growing space.   In addition, I grew some plants in pots within the fenced in garden area, including peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, lavender, and an additional heirloom tomato plant.  The trellis wires that we added to the support poles of the straw bale garden were an especially helpful feature for vining plants such as cucumbers, or plants that needed extra support like tomatoes. 

Due to the many resident rabbits that seem to thrive especially well in our neighborhood, I wrapped some wire and plastic cloth around the metal support poles and the outside of the bales to form a makeshift fence, securing it in place with bendable heavy duty garden wire.  This was quite successful in keeping out rabbits, but apparently was not very successful in keeping out all of our neighborhood squirrels, as my next story will explain. 

My "Squirrelly" Story

image by <a href="
squirreljpg-0" target="_blank"> - fmanto</a>

For a couple of weeks during the summer, I noticed that our sweet potato plant that I had planted in a large tall pot was getting the daylights eaten out of it.  I couldn’t figure out what was eating it.  At first, I blamed rabbits, but thought that the pot was too tall for any rabbit to reach.  Out of fear that the entire plant would be decimated, I decided to move the pot within the gated community of our fenced in straw bale garden area.  Then one day, I caught the culprit red-pawed (or rather, "gray-pawed").  

Early one Saturday morning, I looked out of our kitchen window at our garden and noticed a Gray Squirrel climb up the fenced side of one of the bales, into our straw bale garden area, and then proceeded to sit on top of the pot that housed our sweet potato plant and chow down on the sweet potato vines and leaves.  I knocked on the kitchen window and yelled at it in an effort to startle the squirrel and frighten it away.  Unfazed, the squirrel continued it’s ravenous eating of our sweet potato plant vines.  I then ran outside, dressed in a coat and my pajamas and yelled at the varmint, in the process giving my next-door neighbor a show and a chuckle.  Startled, it ran off, leaving the injured plant alone.  From that moment forward, I was on squirrel patrol.  I don’t think that it bothered the plant much after that, but it’s possible that it snacked on a few leaves when I wasn’t at home.  The plant seemed to recover fairly well after that, but I’ve yet to check to see if we’ve gotten many sweet potatoes in the pot.  Stay tuned; I’ll let you know.

A Few Lessons Learned

Our extremely prolific cucumber vines (front) growing on
the trellising wires and the wooden support beam
of our straw bale garden.

Since this was my first season gardening, I must admit that my overzealousness to plant as much as possible within the available space led to some overcrowding and shading of certain plants, and therefore, smaller vegetables in some cases.  The need to follow sun and growing space requirements may seem like an obvious necessity, but at times the excitement of gardening (as was the case for me during my first growing season) may entice you to push the limits that plants can grow in.  I have learned that sometimes, crowding plants may work and you will still be successful, but sometimes you won’t be- your success will depend upon a multitude of factors, including the plant variety, the quality of your soil or growing medium, and the environmental conditions.    

During the preparation of the bales in the spring, we received a lot of rain, and many mushrooms grew out of the bales.  According to Joel Karsten's Straw Bale Gardening book, the sight of mushrooms is actually a good sign that the organic matter is breaking down within the bales and that things are going well with the preparation for growing.  Unfortunately, with the mushrooms also came a particular odor that was somewhat offensive to our neighbors on one side of us.  Although we were aware of this possibility, and we warned our neighbors ahead of time that there might be some odors temporarily, they were less than thrilled about the smell of the mushrooms wafting over to their driveway and backyard.  This was, of course, not the best way to keep good relations going with our new neighbors.  

To try to make amends, I apologized profusely, and on a daily basis cut down the mushrooms with a trowel.  This seemed to help a lot, and soon the odor dissipated significantly.  Throughout the season, I also would give my neighbors a share of the produce that I was growing to show signs of good will.  The lesson learned here:  There can be a temporary odor associated with the preparation of the bales, and you many wish to seriously consider how this may impact your neighbors around you.  Plan for this possibility, warn them about the odor, and take some actions to cut down on the mushrooms if the odor is persistent for a longer period of time.  Because I live in a more urbanized area, my straw bale garden was practically right next to my neighbor’s driveway (we do have some bushes between the two properties, but this apparently wasn’t sufficient to restrain the odors), so this made things interesting to say the least.  You may wish to consider the placement of your straw bale garden to reduce potential conflicts with neighbors. 

One of our heirloom tomato plants, mid-ripening.

Eventually after the air cleared, our next-door neighbors really did find our straw bale garden, as well as our herb spiral (which I will discuss in a future post), to be very interesting.  Our unique garden gained the attention of numerous neighbors on our street, and I had a number of curious onlookers come over and check out the garden.  Our unconventional gardening ways were a great icebreaker in our new neighborhood and helped us to build some valuable relationships with those around us.  In fact, at least one of our neighbors has purchased the Straw Bale Gardens book, and intends to try it next year in their own yard.  Our next-door neighbor’s son also wants to try Straw Bale Gardening when he moves down to Arizona!

End of Season Thoughts

End of season cleanup, with several kale plants remaining and the once bale-covered, 
bare soil revealed.  The landscape fabric has been removed, and the straw bales have composted down
(seen along the sides of the garden area).  The straw-based compost will provide excellent
organic material for next year's permaculture mandala style garden.

Since it is now fall and getting progressively colder, I have harvested nearly everything (except our kale, which is very tolerant of colder conditions), and have taken down the straw bales, along with the landscape fabric that we laid down underneath the bales prior to starting the garden.  I found the landscape fabric to be a fairly successful barrier to weeds underneath the garden, although a few rogue weeds still poked through the fabric, which I promptly removed.  In place of the landscape fabric, I have put down cardboard from boxes that were left over from our move.  This cardboard will continue to block weeds next year and will eventually compost down and make the worms in the soil happy.  

Broken down cardboard boxes with plastic labels and staples
removed will provide a great weed barrier underneath multiple layers
of mulch that will nourish the soil for next year's garden.

On top of the cardboard, I have spread the partially composted straw left over from the bales, added some purchased compost and organic fertilizer for added nitrogen-rich materials, and will be adding some autumn leaves from the trees on our property.  These materials will add important organic matter to the soil and help to prepare the soil for our next garden season in the spring.  I have taken a soil sample from the garden area and will have it analyzed by our local university’s Extension Service for various nutrients and lead (we live on the outskirts of an urban area, so lead in the soil is something to be potentially concerned about).  If contaminants are an issue, we will plan for a raised bed style of gardening next year, if necessary.

Although I had a great experience with growing a straw bale garden this year, I am a scientist at heart and enjoy experimenting with different gardening styles.  My garden plans for next year are to try a mandala-style, sheet-mulched, permaculture garden since we’ve now had a chance to get to know our property a bit.  My husband and I would also like to add some edible perennials to our landscape, such as a couple of fruit trees.  In the meantime, we are currently resting in the joy of our harvest, and a successful first growing season.  We are excited to see what we can grow next year.  Pumpkins, perhaps?  

Pictures From Our Straw Bale Garden

Our two potted lavender plants.
The excellent compost from the straw bales
that was produced by the end of the season.
Green bell peppers, secured to one of the straw
bale garden support posts.
Some organic fertilizer and compost with manure left over 
from the growing season, which add some nitrogen to the carbon-rich 
composted straw bales.  Great mulch for next year's garden soil!

Our huge green tomatillo plant that nearly took over one 
side of our garden.
One of our tasty cucumbers!

One of our four cabbages that grew in a single bale.

Composted straw from the bales, spread out to be used as mulch for next year's growing season.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

My Straw Bale Garden (Part I)

Cucumber Vines from Our Garden

This was a big year for my husband and I.  We moved into our first house in the spring, did some remodeling, and almost as soon as I could, I started my first garden.  I had wanted to have a garden for several years, but until this year we were essentially like nomads, in transition due to job changes and we had no permanent place to “put down roots.”

I wanted to garden for many reasons, among them frugality, quality organic produce, nutrition, and taking back at least some of the power behind what my family and I eat.  The more I learn about the craziness of the current food system in our world today, the more attractive growing my own food becomes.  I no longer wanted to be ingesting tasteless produce, grown thousands of miles away that was doused with who knows what chemicals, and had its entire genetic code altered by some lab somewhere.  It’s getting really scary out there in our food system folks!

I wanted to start growing my own food but I had never, and I mean never, gardened before.  When I was growing up, my mother had always grown tomato plants and every now and then some strawberries that she grew from starter plants, but I had much, much bigger plans.  I tell you, inside me beats the heart of a farmer, even though I grew up in the city.  There is something primal about this that I can’t quite explain, but it resonates within my very soul.  Once I reconnected to this primal urge to grow and tend to living things, I knew that this is what I needed to be doing, even if it required time and energy.  I knew that it would be well worth it. 

I think that for many of us, we are rediscovering these primal agricultural roots.  Growing something and being a part of nature is what we were born to do.  Our culture that we have all grown up in within our modern world has convinced us that we are somehow separate from this call, and we just need to have “those people over there” do our growing for us.  Well, we have all seen the mess that giving up our food sovereignty has done to us within the last few generations.  The degradation of the land that we depend on and our very own health have paid the price for this delegation of responsibility to grow and to obtain our food.  I made a decision that I was going to take at least a part of that responsibility back, and I would know what I was eating, where it came from, and how it was grown.  My long-term goals are to grow as much as I can myself, and to eventually seek out as many local food resources as I can that I have established a relationship with and know how they were produced.  Right now, I am in the beginning stage with learning how to garden and to preserve at least some of my own food.  The rest will come later, but at least I’ve started to do something.  You can start doing the same thing, beginning with TODAY.

Since my background is in environmental science, ecology, and sustainability, there was no question in my mind that the garden would be as organic and ecologically-based as possible.  I had learned a lot about the importance of soil ecology in school, and the Permaculture Design Course that I took last summer provided me with a great foundation of ecological principles to get things started off on the right foot.

There was one big problem, however.  We had just moved into our house and didn’t really know the property very well.  We purchased our home when there was still snow on the ground, and we had no clue as to what the soil was like or if it contained any contaminants.  We also had not had many opportunities to observe the property (outside of checking satellite images on Google Earth) to determine where sunny and shady places were during different seasons of the year, where wind occurred, or where water collected.  This made it challenging in this first season to figure out where the most ideal spots would be to place more permanent plantings.  Then, I discovered Straw Bale Gardening.

I had first learned about Straw Bale Gardening on the Growing Your Grub podcast, when the host of the show interviewed the inventor of the Straw Bale method of gardening, Joel Karsten.  Joel praised how growing plants in straw bales is a particularly productive way to grow a garden, and there is very little weeding to do.  Intrigued by this idea, and upon discovering that this Joel Karsten fellow was giving a free seminar on Straw Bale Gardening at a local garden store near where I lived, I decided to attend his talk and learn more about it.

In his hour-long talk, Joel demonstrated how to grow a straw bale garden, how to set it up and prepare the bales to grow vegetable plants in it, and how to maintain it.  Joel’s book, Straw Bale Gardens, leads you step-by-step in how to grow a straw bale style garden, from prepping the bales, to incorporating growing space for specific types of plants, to maintaining the system, and harvesting.  The preparation of the bales for growing takes about two weeks, and requires the addition of nitrogen-rich materials, such as composted chicken manure, and watering the bales on a daily basis.

Two of the biggest advantages of growing a straw bale garden is that you can grow one just about anywhere (even on roof tops where there is no soil at all), and there is very little weeding required, which is one of the greatest time-consuming activities in traditional-style gardening.  You can also set up a soaker hose (a hose that will drip-irrigate your plants) on a timer in your system, which reduces your work even further.  In the end, you will have extremely rich compost, as the straw and the other organic materials decompose over the course of the growing season.

My Straw Bale Garden at the Peak of the Season
(the mylar ribbons serve as bird deterrents)

My Experience with Growing a Straw Bale Garden and Lessons Learned Coming Next Week….

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How to Make Kombucha

Sweet tea + kombucha "mother" ready to be fermented

One of my favorite homesteading activities so far is making kombucha, a lacto-fermented beverage.   I had already been making and eating homemade sauerkraut for a couple of years when I learned about kombucha.  Intrigued by this brew and the health claims of detoxification and an immune system boost, I decided to buy some commercially-made kombucha at my local health food store, and found that I really liked it.  Not only did I really like the sour taste, but I noticed a slight increase in my sense of well-being after drinking it.

I began to purchase a bottle or two as a weekly treat and soon realized, like so many other kombucha drinkers, that $3-4/bottle was going to add up rather quickly.  So, I decided that once I had a chance to get a kombucha starter culture, called a kombucha "mother" or a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), I would start brewing my own at home for a lot less money.

The traditional way to obtain a SCOBY is to get one from a friend who makes kombucha at home, since a new "baby" SCOBY is produced each time you make a batch.  However, since I didn't know anyone in my area who makes kombucha, I found and purchased a SCOBY from an online vendor.  It's very important to get a quality and viable culture, so if you do order one online, I recommend doing some research and checking out product reviews before you buy it.  I purchased my original SCOBY for about $10, so it was a fairly inexpensive investment that has more than paid for itself in the several batches of kombucha that I have already made over the last few months.

Brewing kombucha is generally a 7-10 day process, but may take longer if the room temperature that you are fermenting in is cooler (less than about 70 degrees Fahrenheit).  This is because the cultures will not be as active in cooler temperatures as in warmer temperatures.

Taste will be your guide as to when the fermentation process is finished.  The brew should have a vinegar-like sharpness, the sweetness of the sugar should have decreased significantly, and the taste of the tea should no longer be evident.  After the initial fermentation period, you may choose to ferment further for another 5-7 days in glass bottles at room temperature, which will naturally carbonate it and make it bubbly, similar to the fizziness in a soda pop.

The ingredients needed to make kombucha are few, similar to most other fermented foods and beverages.  With only some tea, water, sugar and your SCOBY culture, you'll soon be brewing kombucha with the best of them.  As is usually the case, the higher the quality of ingredients that you use, the better.  Non-chorinated filtered water is generally recommended, as such chemicals can kill or adversely affect the SCOBY.  I have also used spring water quite successfully to ferment kombucha.  Organic black and green tea is best, since non-organic teas can have large amounts of fluoride, which can be harmful to your health.

It is generally recommended that you use organic white cane sugar, but I have used non-white organic sugar and it still produces a good brew.  According to Sally Fallon in her book Nourishing Traditions, white sugar, rather than honey or other non-processed sugar such as Rapadura or Sucanat, results in the greatest amounts of glucuronic acid, which is one of the healthful properties of kombucha that supports the immune system and bodily detoxification.

I make my kombucha a batch at a time, but someday I hope to start using a continuous brewing method, where I will always have kombucha on hand.

Makes a little less than one gallon of kombucha

Spring water, organic sugar, and tea bags
to be used for brewing kombucha

  • 3 quarts filtered water
  • 12 grams loose tea or 12 tea bags (recommend 9 grams organic green tea and 3 grams organic black tea (can use reusable tea bags, or 9 green tea bags and 3 black tea bags) 
  • 1 cup organic sugar (organic white cane sugar is best, but I have used organic non-white sugar successfully as well) 
  • 1 kombucha mother (SCOBY) + 1/2 cup of kombucha from a previous batch

1.  Boil the 3 quarts of filtered water, remove from heat, add the tea bags and steep for about 10 minutes.  Remove the loose tea or tea bags and press the tea to extract any extra tea "juices."

2.  Add the sugar and stir until all of it is dissolved.

3.  Let the sweet tea cool until it is close to room temperature and is no longer hot.

4.  Poor the cooled tea solution into a clean gallon size glass jar, add the pre-made kombucha liquid, stir to mix and with clean hands, gently place the SCOBY into the jar.  You may add some additional unheated filtered water at this point to increase the total volume of your brew, but be sure to leave about an inch or so of space below the neck of the jar.  Stir to mix.  Be gentle with your SCOBY if you happen to stir when it is present in the jar.

Sweet tea + SCOBY
ready for fermentation

5.  Wipe down the outside of the jar to discourage any insects such as fruit flies from having a party in your brew.

6.  Cover the jar with a clean towel, and secure with a rubber band.

My kombucha chillin' out
and fermenting on a shelf

7.  Place the jar in a warm, dark place, away from any contaminants.  If you don't have an  appropriate dark place to let the fermenting kombucha hang out, you can wrap clean dark  colored kitchen towels around the jar and  secure in place to help keep it in the dark  ( I use twist ties).   Be sure to leave the bottom of the jar unwrapped to allow the jar to sit level on a flat surface.  Also, be careful when transporting your cozy kombucha from one spot to another to avoid dropping it.     

I lift up the towels before carrying it with both hands to it's final "fermentation destination," so I'm less likely to drop it. 

My cozy kombucha

Kombucha ready to be bottled for
it's secondary fermentation stage

8.  Let the kombucha ferment for about 7 days, and then taste it.   It should taste sour, resembling vinegar, with the sweetness having decreased dramatically, and no tea taste should remain.  If the kombucha still tastes fairly sweet, continue to let it ferment and check daily until ready.  Initial fermentation can take as long as 14-21 days, if the room temperature is relatively cool.  

Your kombucha mother should have grown a new baby SCOBY during the fermentation process that you can use to either ferment a new batch with or to give one to a friend.  A single kombucha mother can be used to ferment dozens of batches, so you will have plenty of baby SCOBYs to share.

Congratulations!  It's a SCOBY!
My SCOBY "hotel," where I store
extra SCOBYs in my refrigerator

9.  With clean hands, remove the SCOBY(s), and use one to start a new batch of kombucha, or store in a SCOBY "hotel" (a glass jar containing one or more SCOBYs and enough brewed kombucha to use as a starter for your next batch, which you can keep in your refrigerator until you are ready to brew more).

Using a funnel makes bottling the
kombucha much easier

10.  If you wish to drink the kombucha as is, you can pour it into clean glass bottles or jars and store them in your refrigerator.  Pour the kombucha through a nylon or plastic strainer before bottling to remove larger kombucha strands and spent yeast cells.   

You may wish to let your kombucha-filled bottles ferment (put caps/lids on tightly) for an additional 5-7 days to enhance carbonation, and to give your kombucha some fizziness.  After this secondary fermentation, the kombucha's sharp acidity should have mellowed a bit.  Be sure to leave several inches between the top level of the kombucha and the top of the bottle during the secondary fermentation phase to allow for the expansion of carbon dioxide gas and the build up of pressure within the bottles.  

When the second fermentation phase is done, you can enjoy it right away or store the bottles of kombucha in your refrigerator.   When you are ready to drink the kombucha, open the bottles slowly, possibly over a sink in case there has been a lot of carbonation built up within the bottle and your kombucha overflows when you open it.

My freshly fermented kombucha.  For storage, I reuse glass bottles from commercial
kombucha that I have purchased in the past.

Note:  If the kombucha mother develops any black or moldy-looking spots, it has become contaminated and should be thrown away or composted, along with any potentially contaminated kombucha.  If you have your SCOBY hotel in the refrigerator, you should have plenty of starter cultures to use as a backup.

The sugar gets "eaten up" by the culture during the fermentation process, so do not worry about consuming all of that sugar.  I have also read that the caffeine in the tea gets reduced during the kombucha fermentation process as well, so for those of us who tend to be sensitive to the caffeine in things such as coffee, it is much easier on the body.  I don't drink coffee or regular tea because of the high amounts of caffeine that are so stimulating to my system, and I've never had any such issues when I drink kombucha.

Kombucha is a very healthy, but also a very potent detoxifying beverage.  I recommend trying a small amount of kombucha at first to see how your body tolerates it, and then increasing the amount that you consume over time.  If you have a strong reaction to the kombucha, your body may be fairly toxic and you may need to detoxify a bit before trying it again.  Eventually, you may be able to drink larger amounts when your body is ready for it.  Be patient and gentle with your body, and listen to what it is trying to tell you about the state of your health.  Our bodies have a lot of innate wisdom, if we are willing to pay attention.