Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Weathering the storms

Return to Shadows End

Some of you may have noticed that I stopped blogging the last few weeks. Consider it a combination of existential crisis and horror at the latest American disaster to be made a media event and little more. The oily devastation of the Gulf of Mexico and its critical wetlands and estuaries is an epochal event. At the very time that our environment is facing culminating crises at sea and on land – at the very time when the environments ability to support wildlife much less ours is in very real doubt – at this pivotal moment we face the deepwater horizon catastrophe.

Many words have been written about the disaster. Much has been said in rhetorical, scientific and political terms. I will not attempt to add more. Suffice it to say that in a world where Wall Street whiz kids get hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars in bonuses for successfully scamming people into buying worthless paper I do not find solace in the 20 billion that has been set aside to rectify the loss of jobs, food and one of the very largest and richest sources of natural fecundity in the entire world. This shocking collision of American values makes me sick, angry, sad and depressed. It haunts my vision of the future as a world of bad decisions waiting to come home to roost every bit as surely and my dear hens.

The result has been a sure and almost complete withdrawal. I still shelter in the simple live of Shadows End and I still relish each morning as my gardens return from the devastation of last winter’s bad weather. I just cannot seem to lend that optimism beyond the borders of my shady sanctuary. Other calamities beyond winter storms have beset us and more loom on the horizon. I still fuss over the hens and nurture the garden. But I am feeling very much haunted by the follies of my fellow man and I feel we shall all have storms to weather. I only pray we can be as resilient and my garden.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shadows End and Backyard Chickens

It has been 9 months since the great experiment began at Shadows End. Grimalkin and I actually took the plunge and adopted 2 little chicks into out tiny homestead family. In those few months the chicks have grown to be Millicent and Abigail – two very large and healthy hens. The family name is a bit vague when it comes to the girls. They are specifically Plymouth Rock chickens going back to 1868 New England. Most of them today are bred with the barred feather pattern – hence the common name Barred Rocks. But their heritage can also be drawn back to an older variety. The Plymouth Rock breed was developed by crossing the Dominique hen from Southern England with Cochins and perhaps others. The Dominiques are the oldest breed in America. In some parts of the country the name was localized to Dominikers. With that lineage I am sure Abigail would be happier referred to as a Plymouth Rock or a Dominique, while Millie would prefer the in your face Barred Rock or the homey Dominiker. Abigail prefers a little decorum while Millie is quite the tom girl.

Well, whatever you call them they are large chickens beautifully striped in black and white. They are very friendly and follow me all around and have on more than one occasion even snuck into the house when I left the back door open. Their first experience with Grim the cat was a little disturbing. Not that either party acted badly. Beyond one brief moment of utter disbelief on Grim’s part and Millie being interested in Grimalkin’s front toes, no real drama ever occurred. Ironically, this is a little concerning for me. I was pleased to see them get along so well but maybe it was too well. I mean Grimalkin’s only concern for the hens was that they did not usurp his favorite chair in the garden or disturb his lounging patch of Liriope. The girls basically consider him a mobile lawn ornament and ignore him utterly. This is the problem. Although I love the peace and harmony I worry if the hens are too unconcerned. I mean should they ever meet another cat he most likely won’t be as unimpressible as Grimalkin is.

Of course, balancing out their peaceful nature the girls do have other features. First they are very large close to 6 pound now and headed for 7 or 8. Secondly, they have claws that would make a Velociraptor proud. Finally, any predator would have to deal with a sister bond so strong that one could easily assume them to be a giant two headed chicken as they prowl around completely merged on one side. They lean into each other so much they really do look like conjoined twins. Surely that would count for something against an aggressor.

Speaking of large that is one of the very reasons I chose the breed. Plymouths are known to be large hens and I felt that size would help them deal with suburban dangers like dogs and cats. This is no doubt true. But when I see the amount of garden soil they excavate in a single outing I wonder if smaller hens might not have advantages. In fact, were I to know how well Grimalkin would behave I might have chosen bantam versions. Bantam is not a breed it refers to chickens from many varieties that have been selectively bred to a smaller size. Bantams are anywhere from 75 to 50 percent the size of the original breeds. They are identical in all other aspects. If one was really pressed for space that can make a difference. Also if you felt secure enough about predators, bantams would definitely do far less damage to the home garden.

As profoundly destructive as the girls can be when they break into the violets, as much as I miss casual patches of impatiens and as angry as I get when I see a heather ripped from its bed and tossed on the path to clear their way for digging – despite all this Abby and Millie are great joys. They provide me with gracious amounts of delicious eggs. They are great joys when you see them waddle out together from the coop. Millie is very sweet and gentle when she decides she would rather sit on the nest than run around the yard. I will miss her and go check the coop, sure enough there she is all spread out over an egg or two and looking sleepy and supremely happy. Abigail always seems to know when I am upset at some excessive behavior (usually Millie’s). She can be very calming and tolerant of whatever ungraceful way I scoop her up as I chase the unrepentant Millie back to the chicken house.

Backyard chickens come with plenty of responsibilities and some real problems. But if good healthy food is important or being self sufficient is what you seek then hens are a great answer. If by chance they also become loving and loved pets then you get a truly double blessing. Be diligent in your life’s work but do not forget to stop and enjoy the wonder of it all. Hens grazing in the backyard, cats half asleep in the lacey shade of a maple tree and the smell of basil wafting over the summer breeze – these things are all there for us. If we can stop rushing about for a while and allow ourselves to be aware, the world offers many balms for the trials we all must face.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Tree Butchers Came Again

I got up before dawn this morning and just could not go back to sleep. I decided to fix a cup of tea and see what time the chickens get up. So I sat out in the garden and watched for a head to pop out of the coop. I waited, drank my tea, ate more cornbread and molasses and waited still more. Gee whiz I thought hens were early risers. The soft glow of dawn began to lighten as the sun peaked over the horizon and sent hints of day creeping over the treetops into the garden. Finally a full bright ray of sunlight slide down past the honeysuckle and ivy and into the chicken run tucked in the tiny space between my house and the neighbors.

Still no chickens. Well heck, I thought and I must have actually voiced out loud some complaint because at the sound of my voice out they came. Bouncing and colliding with each other like overdressed fat ladies in a three legged race Millie and Abby came bounding out. It is so comical to see the way they walk in unison each leaning into the other so that they merge into one clucking unity of cuteness.

Well for the sake of the moment I will skip over the rest of the event. That would be the two of them flinging themselves against the pen door. Jumping up and pounding the panels with their chests like drunken frat boys celebrating a new release of rockstar and demanding to be let loose in the garden. They really are getting spoiled.

Well, from there I went on to hanging winter blankets on the line so that I can fold and put them away finally. I moved on to other chores – mopping, waxing and was generally pleased with such a good start to the day. 
Then I heard the truck. Somehow I swear I felt a shiver go down my spine. I went to the study windows and peered out onto the street. Sure enough the Huns were back. There parked right in front of my house was a tacky red truck with a cheap sign declaring “tree cutting”. I was half panicked and half furious. Surely, they did not think the city was going to put its ham handed butchers loose on my crepe myrtle. I marched barefoot to the sidewalk and asked what their purpose was. One annoyingly polite young man pointed to my neighbor’s drake elm. I felt a guilty sigh of relief.

That poor tree had been hacked into an unsustainable shape by an earlier crew. Now that they had torn it into a ragged wreck they were shocked to find that it was sending out limbs willy nilly and had dared to encroach upon the miles of wire that we drape our world in. The bright faced fellow assured me that my tree was fine and in no danger. I was repelled by his good nature; I would have preferred a dour dirty little creature to be wreaking this ruin. I thanked him and went back into the house. I sat back down at the desk and tried to work. But every crash I heard brought me peeking through the window blinds to see what they were doing. They moved the truck several times and each move had me convinced that they were preparing some sneak attack upon Shadows End. I do not think I did anything at all for the hour they spend trimming the sad remnant of that tree. Finally as they were finishing I had to see it for myself. I sortied out to the mailbox and gathered a week of junk mail. The smiling assassin waved across at me and said they were done. I smiled back and said good day while staring at the poor tree and imagining what it must be like to live where power lines are kept underground. In a city with the outrageous rates we pay you would think our lines could be safe and secure and unintrusively placed underground. But no, the nice young crew will go on trimming trees. Honestly, they did seem to have some knowledge and they corrected some of the worst butchering of the past. But still the tree is amputated and unnatural – truly sad to see.

They ruined my morning. So I sat down to write this post. When I am done I am going out to water the 9 baby winged elm children of my tree Jack. Soon some moonlight night they will be planted randomly in the city. My own secret war of guerilla tree planting will continue. Although I know each individual sapling I sneak into some alley or roadside hedge has little chance of surviving at least it is a chance. In my own pursuit of simple living this is my own version of rage against the machine.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gimme some mo Molasses please

This post starts with me sitting at the table on an early Sunday morning in May. The sun just rose a few minutes ago. The hens are making a racket to be let out in the garden because they can see me through the kitchen window. I really should let them out but this is a busy morning for me. I could not sleep well last night and today is a big day at church for me. Plus I woke up starving to death.

An hour ago when I first woke up, I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But between the cat and my anxiety it was no use. So I decided to watch television and all that was on were cooking shows. 10 minutes later I jumped up from bed with a craving for ribs. Well, ribs were not to be found in my refrigerator – nor was much of anything else but cheese and eggs. Not fancying an omelet, I considered making some grits or Irish oatmeal for breakfast. No, nope that wasn’t sounding right either.

Frustrated by my hunger I decided to take a chance on making biscuits. Biscuits are a true southern food, the essence of good simple living meals and the bane of my existence. I have never had so many trials and tribulations with any other food than biscuits. True, lately some of my attempts have been quite good. Far from the heavy over short bricks I used to bake. In fact my first biscuits may have served as heat tiles on the space shuttle.

I snatched down my old Ohio pottery mixing bowls, hoping they would bring me luck and prayed for success. A few minutes later, the biscuits were rolled, cut and on the baking sheet waiting for the oven to heat up as always. Grimalkin the cat was sitting there with his paw covered in flour and yet still trying to look innocent as I wiped the counter clean.

Finally the oven came up to temperature and in went the biscuits. I washed up and went out to toss some corn to the chickens. When I got back in the kitchen was filled with a delicious smell of fresh baked biscuits. I prayed and opened the door – they were lightly golden and seem nicely risen. I love nice soft high rise biscuits. Soon I had them off the pan and onto an old plate from my grandmother I always serve biscuits on. Butter was on the table and I went to get jam. I was craving strawberry but there did not appear to be any. I shoved aside 2 kinds of apple butter, pear butter, plum jelly and tons of blueberry jelly and jam. No strawberry – this was not a morning for my cravings to be happy.

So I decided to forgo jam and jelly and just do honey. I reached for the honey and as I was taking it off the shelf I knocked off a jar of molasses. Thankfully, I caught it before it hit the floor and I decided that was a sign. It has been years since I ate molasses and I thought – oh why not. So now there I was with fresh hot biscuits, fresh orange juice and a saucer full of molasses. I took one of the biscuits to slather on the molasses.
This would be a good time to tell you how delicious molasses is on cold cornbread. Yes, you guessed it the biscuits were heavy and undercooked. So while the hens were busy eating my erstwhile breakfast I was planning on breakfast in a restaurant. Then I remembered church and I sat down in utter frustration. This was going to be another granola bar breakfast – ugh. Resigned to eating what seemed to me like chicken feed with sugar I opened the refrigerator to replace the butter. There sitting in front of me was a few pieces of cornbread I had made Friday.

Ok, so now its cornbread and molasses. I buttered the bread well and then put a spoonful of molasses on it. Thick and rich and dark as dreams of avarice the molasses slowly spun down onto the cornbread. I poured myself a huge glass of milk and sat down - sat down to bliss. Gosh I had forgotten how delicious molasses and cornbread was. For years the two southern specialties had been the breakfast of poor families, busy farmhands and impatient children. It may have been a matter of economy or time back then but let me tell you – today it is delicious, as well as cheap and quick.

For those of you who do not know about molasses it is the dark super thick product of boiling down sugar cane or sorghum syrup. The first boiling goes to make light syrups. But in the strict waste not world of small farmers, they would add more water and reboil the cane or sorghum several times. These boiling would result in molasses. Each batch darker and richer than before. By the time you had made blackstrap molasses it was black and smoky and so thick it would set on a spoon forever. To get it off you have to claw it out with the back of another spoon. Blackstrap is not for beginners. But for those of you with a taste for history and adventure go out and get a jar. It can be bought everywhere from factory made in the store to home made in farmer’s markets and country fairs.

Molasses is great on cornbread. It is like cream to strawberries – a match made in heaven. But it is also a key ingredient in real baked beans. It is essential to gingerbread and it makes delicious moist cookies. For the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks you can have a pint jar tucked away in your pantry waiting to explain to you in slow dulcet tones just exactly what simple living is all about.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bok Choy Surprising Simple Living Success

Early this spring, I planted my first ever patch of Bok Choy. It was a pleasant surprise from the beginning. First it responded very well to some simple care and very little of the kind of pampering lettuce requires here in Central Florida. The plants grew well and did not seem to mind a little neglect now and again. The soil I planted them in is not near as rich as that in the flower beds. Very little organic matter in it so far. I have never seen earthworms in the vegetable garden and that is the ultimate sign of soil health to me.

Other plants have rebelled at the poor conditions which also include very little good sunlight. The vegetables are crammed into a small garden on the east side of the garage. A giant oak shade them in the morning and the garage blocks late afternoon sun. Still the bok choy prospered.

With the summer heat approaching I should have began harvested a week or two ago. I meant to, but the side of the perfectly symmetrical heads of light green leaves was just too pleasing. Salad greens are a hard thing to grow in our subtropical heat. So far the bok choy is exceeding the performance of the Swiss Chard and it supposed to take heat far better. Well, today I had to quit admiring and start eating. One head bolted this weekend and that is a sign the greens are getting bitter.

I harvested 3 heads late this afternoon. They were crisp and clean and I loved the sight of them in my harvesting tub. I use a galvanized washtub to harvest it. My Nanny always used one and it makes me feel good and proper to use one of my own. Plastic would be easier but just all too wrong. Hauling the greens and a few radishes and tomatoes into the back yard I was swelling with pride. I brought them to the tiny patch of grass that yet remains under the maple. There I spend a lot of time washing and rewashing them. It is amazing how many leaves and dirt can get stuck down between the tight circles of bright bok choy leaves.

After cleaning, I whisked them off to my mom’s where I prepared a nice Chinese salad with sesame ginger dressing. I dressed them with small strips of chicken breast dredged in flour, finely chopped pecans and 5 spice powder. There was a small disaster with the first batch of chicken do to an uncooperative stove. But the second was bold and crisp and served to make a full meal of the bok choy.

I think they would have been sweeter if I picked them earlier. But I intend to use the remaining heads to make a simple stir fry with sprouts and broccoli and a white sauce. I am going for a moo goo gai pan type of thing. Hopefully it will work, but in any case bok choy has proven to be a simple living winner and will be a new staple in the home gardens of Shadows End.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Holy cow! I just got back home from my mother’s house and as I was opening the gate to the back garden I almost fainted. They home is sweet home – but this place is ridiculous. The confederate jasmine is in full honey scented bloom as it has been for a month. The sweet olive hedge surrounding Deidre’s patio is back in bloom with that luscious sweet apricot smell. The cloying scent of honeysuckle is drifting over from the bunny trail. That is three very strong very sweet smells and I have been used to them but tonight is different, tonight the gardenia has decided to open up its first blossom.

The gardenia is new to Shadows End – it was put next to the inside gate to replace a hibiscus I lost during the freeze. It has been doing very well and lately has put forth a dozen huge blooms. Well gee whiz; this is too much of a good thing. If the night blooming jasmine starts to bloom I will have to seek shelter.

I guess I should not complain – the honeysuckle blooms very sparingly since it is on the side fence in a very dim and dry area of the garden. I know it will eventually wreck the fence but I just love the smell of honeysuckle it reminds me of the vine outside my bedroom window as a small child. Now the sweet olive is probably only blooming because I am once again threatening to replace it with something a little more interested in putting on leaves. My sweet olives are twisted sticks scantily covered with leaves but every time I plan to replace them they burst into bloom.

Well to be alive you need to fully exercise all your senses and I think breakfast in the garden tomorrow will certainly be an experience in sweet smells. One of the greatest joys in simple living is breakfast in the garden.  But tomorrow, I think I will skip the jam and just have biscuits and butter.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Life Returning to Normal in the Gardens of Shadows End

The back garden at Shadows End is normally packed with as many plants as I can squeeze in. The long freeze of this last winter put quite a dent in it however. Even though more and more it is coming back to life as the summer approaches, I still miss the great swaths of grape ivy that hung upon the fence. All the periwinkles that line the fence along the alley are gone and not yet replaced. Many old friends are gone.

The one that has me the most worried is the bleeding heart. She was from the old homestead plantings and I fancy her to be the spirit of the woman who along with her husband built the cottage I know call Shadows End in the 1920s. That bleeding heart has survived and prospered from the day I first began to bring the garden back to life. It has managed to force a coexistence with 2 confederate jasmines on the large arbor entryway to a side yard. It has always been so vital and strong – anything that can beat back confederate jasmine has to be vigorous and determined. No freeze ever touched her much until this year. So far, I have seen no sign of revival. I water and I pray.

But not all is bad news. The freeze killed so many plants that the soil in some areas is exposed to sun for the first time in years. Amazing visitors from the past have sprung up in surprise. The little patch of flowers right where I enter my car now has several successful wild primroses fluttering among the strangely unsuccessful thyme patch. The Swedish Ivy was on a big comeback until the hens discovered it. I really do have to do something with those girl’s feet. Native Florida violets are again peeking up in strange little places all over the yard. God I hope they spread again, I just love the shape of violet leaves and mine used to bloom very large and bold for violets. Again, the violets are a big hit with the hens - sigh. Even an old potted rose I had thrown out has burst back into renewed vigor and is back in a place of honor by the red gate..

So all in all, I guess we are slowly shaking off the disasters of those 11 days of freezing. I worried so much when it was over. My garden looked horrible. I had just lost a long battle to keep the school I ran alive and it was a most depressing time. Mood and money were missing for a big start over and I just reconciled myself to a smaller plainer garden. But William Alexander Percy (uncle of Will Percy) once wrote of his preference for old fashioned gardens that thrived versus the hybridized over colored spectaculars of modern breeding. As he put it “After all, life is a primary color”.

The realities of deeper shade every year from 4 major trees all within spitting distance of each other and the depredations of my killer hens notwithstanding, it seems Shadows End will continue to have her gardens. She is bringing them back on her own, without my money and despite my mourning. I really only have to sit and watch in awe. Well, and do something about those two wrecking machines Millie and Abby.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Buttered Eggs - Heirloom Skill From County Cork

This is an intriguing way to help keep eggs fresh. It is an heirloom skill from the homesteads of county Cork in Ireland. The small farmers of Ireland had to be extra careful with every resource they had at hand. Chickens have always been the best friend to anyone trying to be self reliant. They are an excellent and cheap source of ready protein both as eggs and “that other way” (I’m writing this in the garden and Millie doesn’t like to hear the word ).

But even with the best efforts of our hens we sometimes run through dry spots where they just do not lay as well as usual. This may be associated with extremes of weather, age or sickness. But whatever the reason, a sudden drop in egg production can leave a small farmer in a real fix if they depend on eggs for a food source.
The grand old ladies of county Cork found a simple and elegant way to solve this problem by stretching the amount of times that eggs can be kept fresh. They would take their eggs – preferably still warm from the hen and rub them with butter. This coat of butter would seal the pores in the eggshell and thereby reduce the exchange of air in and out of the shell. This worked to slow day the natural aging process. The original purpose of buttered eggs was to preserve eggs without refrigeration; but I see no reason why it would not work in modern kitchens. In fact the constant drying flow of air in a refrigerator is almost as bad for eggs as keeping them cool is good for them. Many people never refrigerate their eggs at all – but I wager they don’t live in Florida.

Butter really is a wonderful thing – it has amazing abilities to seal and protect. Do not underestimate the ability of this to help a small homestead in its search for self reliance. The original concept of potted meats came from medieval cooks mincing up meat into fine pieces, packing them tightly into small crocks and then sealing them in with a thick layer of butter. Before the modern hygienist in you begins to rebel - listen to this – butter is highly resistant to bacterial growth. That was the reason old people used to put butter on burns – not to act as a lotion, but to act as a barrier to infection.

The best way to use butter in this type of role is to clarify it. Clarified butter is simply the clear yellow part of butter separated from the little bit of white that shows when it begins to melt -think pancakes. In fact clarified butter called Ghee in Indian cooking is a stable in their cuisine and will remain good even in tropical heat. To produce clarified butter, you simply slowly melt butter and skim off all the solids, leaving only the clear yellow liquid. This is Ghee or clarified butter. The solids are loose proteins and they are what can allow butter to spoil. Remove them and butter is sterile and will last indefinitely.

I cannot imagine a better way to merge heirloom traditions with modern needs. Honestly, I am not sure how often I would use this idea since I get more eggs than I can possibly eat. But even if you are not trying to extend the shelf life of your eggs further into the future, delaying the aging process would mean eggs stay fresh tasting longer. The artisan food movement is huge in modern Ireland and the people there report a big return to this tradition. The claim is not only do eggs stay fresh longer, but that the butter imparts a subtle flavor to the eggs.

An heirloom trick to eat better for longer– that’s sounds like a win/win to me. I am going to try buttering my first batch of eggs this week. I will have to set up a simple experiment. I will butter 8 eggs, and then cook them 2 at a time in 2 week intervals. This way I should be able to compare 2, 4, 6 and 8 week old buttered eggs against eggs laid that very day and compare freshness. I will report back to you on how it fares. So science marches backwards to the Middle Ages in search of simple living here at Shadows End.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Richilieu Gets A Girlfriend

I have known Richelieu (don’t laugh - his parents were exotic), since he was first born. Heck I helped his mom out all the time when she was pregnant and I helped his dad get into their first house. I had known his dad for years and years and I watched as he and his mom raised Richie. They we over at my place practically all the time, so it sort of seemed like Rich was my little one too. Recently, mom and dad have not been around as much, they moved to a new place last year. But now Richie has moved back here into their old place and I have been looking after him a little while they are away.

Well, this may be silly- but I am worried about Richie's new girlfriend. She seems awful old for him. Richie is barely out of adolescence. Sure he was raised by two very careful and diligent parents. Certainly, he has shown great maturity in sticking close to home and places he knows and understands. But lately, he has gotten, well let’s just say colorful. No, no tattoos or piercings yet but that hair! He wears it in a giant upswept mound that reminds me of Flock of Seagulls from the 1980s. Also he has changed it from a nice normal brown to bright red. Not golden or auburn or even just Irish red – but god awful Chinese firecracker red.

Mind you Richie is a very attractive young male and I am sure he would be sought after by many females. He has many talents, he is quick witted and diligent, and he gets up very early to go to work each day. He does spend a lot of time hanging out and singing - but only after he is back from work. Actually he sings very well and really much better than his mom who was the one who taught him to appreciate a good song years ago.

Maybe that was what attracted – “her”. Certain women have always been attracted to the boys in the band. Richie definitely croons a good love tune. But this new lady in his life just doesn’t feel right to me. Heck I do not even now her name even though she has come over dozens of times lately. One day I walked in and she was just helping herself to everything she could find to eat. I mean I always say make yourself at home – but gee whiz. Richie had brought her over because his place never has any food and he knows I’m always stocked up. But still, who start rummaging through your snacks without at least saying: Hi – I’m so and so.

Plus, I just really think she is much older than he is. She still has a nice face but she has already started fading a little here and there. Oh and god knows her tail end has definitely started to spread. Oh yeah, ok now here is the clincher – she is constantly nagging Richie to take her out to eat all the time and she is a total pig. I do not know how she is in public, but she was eating some sunflower seeds at my place and just spit shells everywhere. Of course so did Richie, but I mean what else does a 2 year old cardinal do?

I dunno maybe I am over reacting. But I still think that hussy is too old for him. Just wait till I see his parents.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


I finally planted my radishes while the moon was waning ( declining from full moon to new) as I was instructed to do by my grandfather ages ago.  I never followed any lunar cycles in planting and have generally been a blessed gardener.  The one glaring exception to that has been root crops.  Year after year, I've planted onions, carrots, leeks and even radishes and been stunningly unsuccessful.  This year I planted with the waning moon and by golly - success.  Today i noticed real live swelling at the base of my leeks and I ate my first home grown french breakfast radish.

The plan is simple: plant above ground producers like pepper during the waxing (rising from new to full moon) phase.  Conversely, you plant below ground producers like radishes during the waning (declining from full moon to new) phase.   Simple, clear and precise - I should have listened to all those old people all these years.

Pappa was right and I finally get to break a decade long drought on root crops.  I love all types of root crops and this will lead me to retry beets and turnips this fall.  Obviously, my sweet little radish is clear proof that higher powers do exist and will work with you if you will work with them.   I am going to set out a bowl of cream for the faeries and see if I cannot get a house brownie to ignore my 23 pound cat.

The debate over diety is resolved.  Praise be to the shining ones and all the spirits of the soil! At least for me - I mean dammit radishes don't just pop out of the ground.  Well, I mean - well you know what I mean.  Go get a farmer's almanac and plan on fine meals of roasted beet and onions in the first cold nights of winter.

Homestead wisdom, or folk tale - it does not matter to me.  All I want is root crops in my home garden.  One cannot be self reliant with lettuce and tomatoes only.  Simple living can mean taking the simple way out and it looks like planting by the moon is the way to go for me.

In faith, from Shadows End

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Mayday Tomato Celebration and Confession

Well, Saturday was Mayday 2010. I celebrated but weeding my home garden. May 1st is not only associated with Mayday celebrations in their modern form but it is the ancient Gaelic celebration of Beltane. Beltane is a cross quarter day, that is it marks the transition halfway from Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. This made it the very heart of the growing season for the ancient Celts. The day varied from year to year but May 1st is close enough.

Unfortunately, I think this May 1st marked the very last of our pleasant and cool spring and the beginning of hot humid Summer here in Florida. But that is not the reason for celebration, I would think the heart of growing season is best marked by the very first fresh tomato of the season. On Saturday evening as the bonfires of Beltane were being lit I picked two crisp scarlet grape tomatoes and fed them to Abigail and Millicent. They seemed to enjoy them immensely and the feeling of first harvest was really extraordinary. Sure I have had some salad greens and radishes already but the first tomato seems a serious start to the harvest season here in my tiny homestead.

So that was the celebration of tomatoes as harbingers of the garden season. Probably this would be a good time to make my confession. I grow tomatoes very well; I grow a wide variety and usually get good to excellent results. I have canned them, dried them, sauce and juiced them, I have feed them to worms, chickens, and birds. I have grown them in water, pots and in all kinds of soil. I have grown huge ones, thick Italian one, green one and even some purplish ones – and I have hated every single bite I ever took of any fresh tomato I ever ate.

I cannot help it. I like the taste of tomatoes and will consume them in any way they can be processed. I love ketchup, tomato sauce and paste – heck I even like the taste of tomato juice. But biting directly into a fresh tomato will send chills down my back. The flavor is not the problem – it is the texture. Fresh tomatoes feel exactly like rotten fruit and that is exactly the way I register them every single time I have ever tried to eat one.

Shocking confession and one I regret to make. Tomatoes are such a homestead staple it is a shame to waste them at their peak of flavor. Believe me I have tried, from a tiny boy at my Nanny’s table to a grown man staring down his own fears, I have clinched by jaw and bit into them. Uck - yuck - pooey – I real am sorry but no way. I love the simple life and I’ll keep on growing tomatoes, but I’ll be eating them over pasta or in soups and not fresh from the vine with salt and pepper.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Water Frying – A gift from Wei Bo and Lou Ellen

Does water frying sound like a contradiction in terms? Well it is not, it is a wonderful technique taught to me and my mother by a very old friend of hers. Wei Bo Chen came to America in the late 70s during some of the very first cultural and scientific exchanges with the People’s Republic of China. Those days trade with China was unknown and his visit to the Lake Alfred Citrus Research and Education Center was part of a very tightly controlled exchange of scientific visitors.

Wei Bo was a very astonishing person and he worked with my mother developing a mathematical model of Aphid population in citrus. My mother and Dr Jon Allen were using the IBM personal computer in its very first generation and Wei Bo was writing programs in machine language since none existed to serve their purpose. Mom was her ever gregarious self and held to her firm belief that no one should be alone and certainly not lonely. So, Wei Bo became a common visitor at my house.

Once mom decided to give Wei Bo a great treat so she took him to dinner at Lei and Ping’s Chinese restaurant (Lei and Ping is another story entirely – Vietnamese boat people – my mom – it all fits together naturally, but it’s still a tale for another story) Mom was so excited to let Wei Bo experience some good home cooking. When the feasting was over, she asked him how he liked it. He smiled that slim smile which was all refugees from the Cultural Revolution could ever risk and said “this was very good – what kind of food is this?” Mom told him it was Chinese and Wei Bo stated “well, it is very good, but it is not Chinese”

Thus the tale was set for next Saturday when he and mom went to the store and bought many vegetables, a few spices, rice vinegar, tiny bits of meat and brought them all to our kitchen table where Wei Bo proceed to thinly slice and chop and prepare mounds of food. What all was made escapes our memories except for one stuffed dumpling dish we remember as “dragon” Dragon was delicious and it was crisp and brown and made entirely without oil.

I imagine the concept of oil free frying developed out of economics but develop it did and Wei Bo Chen was right there in our kitchen miraculously turning out crispy dumplings as fast as my family could eat them. Eventually Wei Bo had to return home to his family and mom parted with her dear friend. Wei Bo Chen and my mother stayed in touch for decades. Unfortunately, I think they have lost touch in the last few years but I can guarantee if Wei Bo still lives he would smile that timid little smile if he read this. My mother of course still loves him as she is want to do with anyone she ever cares about.

Well Wei Bo Chen is gone from the Hedley household but not all of him. We still know how to water fry. I propose to teach this truly simple method of cooking as a tribute to him and his love for my family. It is really simplicity itself. There are only a few key elements – timing is what is essential.


1) First, one can only do small batches at a time – do not crowd your skillet. If the items are touching to much they will sweat and not fry

2) Secondly, it will work best with food cut into Chinese style bit size bits

3) Get your skillet or pot very hot – at the high end of your cooking range

4) Keep a cup or two of water nearby. Add three tablespoons of vinegar (rice is nice) to each cup

5) Once the skillet is hot test it by sprinkling a few drops of water in it – they should immediately skitter around the pan and disappear into steam almost immediately. If they sit and bubble – it is not hot enough,

6) Once the pan is ready toss in your first batch of chicken let us say

7) At the same time the food hits the pan splash in a bit of the water

8) A few seconds after the first splash has flashed off into steam dash in another sprinkle

9) Keep this up – never allowing water to stand and moving the food to help prevent sticking

10) Keep flashing the food with water until it turns nice and golden brown

11) Remove first batch and continue with others if you have more to cook

You can use this technique to cook any food you would like to brown or crisp without using oil. You can also stir fry veggies using this method just don’t cook them as long and keep them wetter. The amount of vinegar is highly variable and depends on taste in large part. I have done it with no vinegar at all and also with more than half vinegar. The trick is keeping the pan scalding hot.

This truly is an heirloom skill and one which fits perfectly into simple living and frugal cooking on a small homestead. But more importantly it is a lesson taught with love across continents and across generations. I hope others learn it so it can cross time and remain a living tribute to Wei Bo Chen and his dear friend Lou Ellen.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Watercress as a home garden green

Watercress – good news and bad and still unknown

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to start a small hydro culture experiment here at Shadows End. I am always thinking of ways to make my tiny little homestead more self reliant. With a plot of land barely 1/12 of an acre I do not have a lot of room to waste. However, I do have a tiny patch surrounding my water fountain that seems to be doomed to infertility. There is an unusual concentration of tree roots from Deidre, she is a Florida maple and since they are a swampland tree, they have very shallow roots. Basically, the entire area is a mass of quarter inch roots tangled into a dense mat.

To make matters worse, the fountain is prone to constant splashing and the soil surrounding it has become waterlogged and sour. I have tried many things to correct it but not even heavy lime treatments seem to help only a little. Well, between these two obstacles I mostly grow things in pots around the fountain.

Then I decided to try out an idea I have been bouncing around in my head for years. Why not grow watercress? It is a plant that can grow wild anywhere there is fresh running water. Well, with all the birds that bathe daily in my fountain I do not know how fresh it is – but it does run. Watercress can grow in damp soil all the way to 2 inches of water of running water. So I read up on the subject and it seemed to me that a fleshy plant that grows in water would surely root from cuttings. So I ran down to the store to pick up a package of cress from the vegetable department. $2.28 and it was mine and on the way home.

For the sake of experimentation I planted it three ways. I took the weakest third and planted it directly in the soil surrounding the fountain. I used the worst part because frankly I was sure it was doomed to fail in that miserable soil. It wasn’t very kind of me and truthfully I did such a poor job I do not think the little plant had much chance to survive.

I took the best third of my watercress and planted it in a 6 inch plastic pot with some sandy soil. I then took the plastic pot and placed it within a snug fitting ceramic pit with no drain hole. The idea was that water splashing from the fountain would catch in the drainless outer container and overflow. Thus I was hoping to recreate the environment of a creek bed.

The middle portion of cress I took and cleaned well. I removed all the dead or damaged leaves and removed any decaying edges from the stems. Then I placed the 5 or 6 largest springs of watercress directly into the largest bowl of the water fountain. Nobody said that cress will grow directly in water with no soil, but it seemed like a logical gamble.

Those were the three methods I used and these are the results one month later. The poorly planted little scrub that went directly in the soil has died. I cannot honestly tell if it died from the sour soil or if I simply did not plant it well enough. I intend to try again, but this time I will use rooted baby plants and be sure to work in enough soil to give the roots good purchase.

The second attempt to grow it directly in the fountain has had mixed results. At first it seemed a huge success. Roots began forming within 3 days and it seemed destined to be a great way to grow watercress. However in a couple of weeks I noticed that even though I was still seeing signs of coming growth the plants were not getting any bigger. In fact after the 3rd week it began to look like they were disintegrating as fast as they were growing. I was very disappointed. Then, I realized why I was always finding little bits of cress in the water. I had inadvertently put out a nice salad bar for the blue jays. I saw two of them settling down for brunch one day and realized that’s why they never seemed to grow. So technically, growing cress directly in a water fountain is a success. It would be a great way to supplement home garden greens in a small homestead. But practically, it may not yield much food for me – as the blue jays harvest it daily. All in all, I still see it as a step forward to self reliance. If for no other reason than that it reduced my bird feed bill it is a small homestead success.

The last method using a regular pot and a non drained one is a total winner. The fountain splashes have kept the water in the two pots fresh and clean. The cress has grown strong and swiftly. The leaves are dark green and have a wonderful peppery taste. It is awesome tossed into tomato soup or on salads. Watercress has many traditional recipes associated with it and I will be trying some more soon. I would have to say this seems a great way to keep a gracious supply of watercress at my fingertips and also get something green and wholesome to grow in that dreary bog around the fountain.

Using free floating cress in the fountain not only feeds the birds but also adds color to the fountain - it is a great idea. Raising it for human consumption using the 2 pot method seems a great success also. I am even going to try planting it direct in the soil next week and give that method one more chance. Watercress may not be fields of wheat or a silo of corn, but it is a tiny step towards self reliance in my tiny homestead in the city.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chicken Behavior - What Have We Wrought?

Chickens Can Learn - a case study of two
Unlike, many humans I know, chickens can indeed learn from their behavior. I know it is fashionable to consider chickens one of the sillier creatures with which we share the earth. Well if so, it is only because we have taken them from nature and bred them for centuries under our influence.

For example they have carefully studied human behavior and learned to treat the environment just as we do. Give them enough time and they will ensure that no green thing remains upon the earth. This they obviously learned from our practices. One cannot blame them for mimicking their masters. They also have a great predilection for moving the soil from one place to another. Mountain top removal comes to mind.

Similarly a review of our habits has led them to toss their mess about indiscriminately and expect someone else to clean up their quite extraordinary messes. This does man leave his waste and wreckage upon the earth and expect other people or other generations to find a way to deal with it. Chicken messes at least are small, local and can eventually replenish the soil. Ours have a way of being huge, international and generally inorganic or render effectively so by burying it in plastic bags.

Finally, a close study of us has led them to develop a society based on a strict and brutally enforced pecking order. Fortunately, in this case my little flock defies the norm. Millicent and Abigail go happily about leaning into one another so close one can only assume they are joined at the hip. Millie seemed quite docile and restrained during Abby’s recent sick day. My girls seem to be socialists as heart. Or at least dear old spinster sisters who look after one another while keeping up a constant dialogue of disapproval, warning and general clucking. There is something warm and heartening about these two little exceptions. I feel blessed to have them gouging about in my home garden and leaving little suprises on my pathways.

By the way, don’t assume chickens to be simple ciphers of our molding. Don’t think chickens can’t be bright. They may have limited resources, but they want to learn and can learn– at least simple things. Chickens are smarter than I would ever have thought. Millicent has become so used to me clucking “Milly” right after she has done something wrong – that is has now become the code word for stop with both the girls. If I hear them making way to much noise early in the morning, I have only to lean into the kitchen window and say Milly and the noise stops. Well, for like 3 minutes at least – hey I did not say they were geniuses. But it is true they have made a connection – one sharp “milly!” will cause them both to stop in their tracks and hunker down like 50s school children hiding from the bomb. On further consideration this could be a problem. I hope I don’t have to send her into therapy. Poor Millie.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

New Blog Roll for Shadows End

I just created a blog roll page.  You will see it as a clickable link just above the posts and below the title area.  That upper middle area is where I am already placing fixed pages that state information about me and the website.

The blog roll is short right now - but I find all the links to be useful and I hope you do also.  I will be adding to it in the near future.  I hope it can be a simple single resource for accessing information on gardens, homesteading, simple living etc.  I may add relevent links to other subjects such as peak oil and finances.

I hope you find the blog roll to be useful and the sites to be informative or at least entertaining.  I know I did.

Best wishes from Shadows End

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yellow Zucchini - the gold standard for home gardens

The spring is being very kind so far. The Weather is cool and we have gotten several nice rain showers. My home garden is doing very well. I am afraid I have planted too many zucchini plants though. I can think of few vegetables as prolific as zucchini. Once the plant is established and bearing it can flood you with produce. Fortunately, zucchini is a favorite of vegetarians and many recipes have been contrived to use up their bounty. Still, I have to confess that zucchini is not my favorite. I much prefer yellow crookneck squash.

I always assumed it was a matter of taste. But recently, I have begun to wonder if like in so many other cases taste is not strongly influenced by color. You see humans have strong attractions to some colors as attractive and others as unappealing. Mind you, I do not have anything against green vegetables. But zucchini tends to have that grey tinge and yellow squash is just what I grew up eating and so it defines appetizing for me. I know this association to be true because I can also eat the white Petti Pan squash and it is a strange shade of white and shaped like a scalloped flying saucer. Yet it is appealing to me because I ate it as a child from my mother’s garden.

Well, be that as it may. The good news is this. They have bred a variety of zucchini that has all the prolific vigor of the traditional ones but with a beautiful golden yellow skin. Turns out it has been around since the 1970s but it’s still a great new idea to me. If for nothing other than variety, next year I am going to plant half my crop in the golden variety.

Color may not be an issue with you, but I would definitely recommend any one with a home garden and an eye to self reliance to plant a goodly amount of zucchini of some sort. Nothing is so reliable and so abundant. Recipes abound for fried zucchini, zucchini bread and muffins and it makes a mean lasagna also. Simple living and zucchini are best friends and I have a brand new golden one to look forward to next year.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Care of Wooden Cooking Utensils

Wood is an ancient material adapted to make beautiful and serviceable utensils. It does however, require more care that either of the other choices available. The trick is, the care is very simple and not at all hard to do – but it must be consistent. One big goof can relegate your treasured olive soup spoon to the craft drawer. Perhaps I should say goof off – because it is usually laziness that leads to tragedy with wooden utensils. Let’s examine the things needed to keep our wooden items spotless, safe and useful.

As I said in my last post, I really do believe that all forms of cooking utensils have their place. I meant that, but we all have our favorites. I still support plastic in certain circumstances, especially for trying out new things or outfitting a kitchen on a budget. However, my love of tradition and quality has led me to a collection of wood utensils supported by a few key pieces in heavy stainless steel.

My collection includes a pair of cheap spoons I use when I worry about staining. The plan was to toss them, but they have stayed stain free so far – who knew? I also have several pieces that my father carved for our family out of oak. These handmade pieces are true reminders of quality, family and self reliance. I treasure them, but I use them. The bulk of the collection is good solid beech wood items I got from Amazon.

The whole secret to keeping your wooden cooking utensils in great shape is simple but consistent maintenance. Here is a list of three things that will keep your utensils in peak shape and turn them into heirlooms.

1. Hand wash your wooden utensils. Use a mild detergent and wash in warm water

2. Dry them immediately and thoroughly. Keep them in a dry place

3. Oil them with food grade mineral oil at least twice a year – or as needed.

These simple things will keep your wooden cooking items sanitary, stain free and will help to keep them smooth and waterproof. However, eventually time and use will begin to raise the grain on your utensils. They will begin to develop a fuzzy feel to them. This is natural and is easily remedied. All that is needed is a little piece of fine sand paper. Anything from 400 to 600 grit will work. Simply sand the surface lightly and gently and it will remove all the fuzz. Be gently and take your time.

The number one way to really damage your wooden cooking utensils is to leave them in standing water. Even a well oiled spoon will absorb water if left overnight. The wood grain will darken and the surface grain will be raised and made rough and therefore able to absorb even more water the next time it gets left wet. If you do make this mistake, you can save the surface by careful and complete sanding. The dark stains are most likely permanent, although I have some success with coating them salt and lemon juice and placing them in the sun for a few hours. Bleach could be used as a last resort. Odds are that the color will remain dark but you can lighten it up a little. The key is never ever leaving your utensils soaking in water!

Finally, let’s go into a little more detail about oiling. First be careful not to use any cooking oils. They will all go rancid eventually. Some of the nut oils may be ok, but then you run the risk of allergies. There are special oils for cutting boards that sell in the hardware and home improvement stores. These are great, but you are paying a whole lot extra for nothing except maybe a little beeswax. No, plain simple mineral oil is the best choice. Be sure to get it from the pharmacy – that way you can be sure it is food grade. To oil the utensils simply coat them with a generous layer of oil. It should be put on until it is running off freely. Place them on a rack or raise one end so the excess oil runs off. You don’t want the excess to puddle on them because it can cause uneven coloring. Allow the oil to soak for at least 10 minutes and up to overnight. Then wipe them all with a clean cloth and admire the rich grain and intense coloring. Do this at least twice a year or whenever a piece begins to look dull. Also certainly, one will need to oil them after any sanding is done. Maintaining your kitchen tools is a big step towards self reliance.

A purchase of good wooden cooking utensils is an investment in tradition and beauty. Wood may not be the space age answer to cooking. It may not be as durable as steel, or as cheap as plastic, but wood is magic. That’s right, magic. When I use my wooden spoons I stand with memories of my father, my grandmother. Centuries of love and care were stirred with spoons just like these. Descendants ages past used them to stir porridge on a cold morning and dish it up with little pats of butter and heaping spoonfuls of love. Simple living may not always mean doing things the easiest way. Simple can relate to more than just output divided by effort. Sometimes it is turning away from the efficient and towards what feels best. Sometimes simple living is magic. Give it a chance.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How to Pick Cooking Utensils – Wood, Plastic or Metal

Picking your cooking utensils is a personal thing. But the first decision you need to make is what material to choose. Gleaming stainless steel seems so solid and enduring. Wood – especially higher quality like olive or beech looks timeless and homey. Plastic looks, well it looks serviceable and easy. The trick is to decide which material is best for you. Here is a quick overview of the pros and cons of metal, plastic and wooden versions.

Kitchen utensils are a key tool for anyone planning to become more self reliant by learning to cook from scratch. What type of utensils to buy can be a little overwhelming. There are a few absolute basics like a ladle, a large flat spoon, spatula, slotted spoon, and a fork. Toss in a whisk and some measuring spoons and that kit is probably sufficient for living simple. Everyone needs these and it is probably all one really needs to have. But eventually you end up with a huge variety of gadgets. To be honest, the type of utensils one buys is really a matter of how much stuff you want to shove in your drawers. It is a matter of personal tastes and you are really on your own deciding what is best for you.

Wooden utensils are often relegated to the role of décor in many modern kitchens. This is a shame. Wood is not only attractive and traditional, it is really a marvelous material for the basic items one needs in a home kitchen. Due to the flood of cheap imports made from cheap soft woods, wooden utensils have gotten a reputation for being porous and quick to stain. They are and they do. You are much better off to look for good wood like olive, maple or beech when choosing wood as your material. Although, cheap wooden ones can be made serviceable if you heavily coat them with mineral oil as soon as you buy them. The point is to saturate the grain with clean, safe oil before they can get clogged with messier ones. It is the same principle behind seasoning cast iron. It will work, but it is best to buy better wood if this is your choice.

Metal utensils come in two basic versions. Aluminum alloys and stainless steel. Avoid aluminum at all costs. It is cheap, conducts heat too quickly and is possibly a health hazard. Stainless steel is superior on grounds of heat, durability and ease of cleaning. A good set of stainless steel will last forever. By the way, since longevity and durability are the keys to stainless steel – why add flimsy rubber handles to it? Take my advice and get a set with either solid metal handles or wood. The rubberized stuff will get tacky and discolored in no time at all.

Plastic is the last choice to examine. It has many reasons to not choose it. It is flimsy; it is easily discolored and tends to get grainy as fast as cheap wood. But, plastic does have its virtues. Namely it is economic to buy for the new cook and it easy to clean. It will not rust or stain if you leave it in a sink of dirty dished overnight. I would not have plastic in my house with the single exception of one silicon scraper I use to get batter out of bowls. But it really is a valid choice if it feels good to you.

So, there it is. You can make good sound choices that make sense to you. Just keep in mind the practical differences between the three materials and buy the set that fits your needs. It is ok to mix and match if your sense of esthetics will allow. Sometimes simple living really is simple.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Urban beekeeping - from lawbreaking to pioneering self reliance

Earlier this month, New York City finally reversed its ban on honeybees. Until now, honeybees have been classified as dangerous animal and banned from the city. Of course, there have always been people who defied this silly rule and kept bees in defiance of edict. Honeybees have been diligently pollinating plants and provided honey for people in the Big Apple since colonial days and they are still there today. But these pirate beekeepers were honestly in the same category as loonies who keep cobras in their bedrooms. Fines and search and destroy missions were commonly invoked when a neighbor called to report one of the numerous secret bee keeping operations.

All kinds of tricks were used to disguise the hives such as painting them with urban camouflage. One truly intrepid beekeeper painted his hives to look like air conditioning units. He would move them around the city, moving from rooftop to rooftop “pasture” so his bees could collect pollen from all over the city. He even had a fake worker’s jumper made up carrying the logo of a fake A/C company so no one would question him as he scurried onto rooftops.

Finally in a great blow for environmental logic, self reliance and urban homesteading, the city of New York has made it legal to keep hives. As of April 2010, the beekeepers of New York can come out of the closet and openly carry out their hobbies and livelihoods. It is late in coming, but this will set a good precedent for other cities.  It will make it easier for the rising tide of small homesteading and backyard gardeners trying to find some self reliance in a world of over-priced, over-packaged, over-transported, over-treated foods. Honey from central park is a great step up from some watered down, adulterated goo shipped across the pacific in filthy container ships.

Living simple is a great goal and as more of us demand the right to pursue it, it gets easier and easier to achieve. A small bee hive is no great risk or effort and its rewards would be great. I applaud the city of New York and its pioneering urban beekeepers. In my goal to make Shadows End as self sufficient as possible I am trying to find room for a hive in my limited space.  Hard to do on on 1/12 of an acre.  However, one day, I hope to hear the buzz of my very own bees as I prune in the backyard garden.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

White bean and Chard soup

The backyard garden at Shadows End is off and running. My latest experiment is a patch of Swiss chard. It has germinated and seems to be doing very well so far. Hopefully, it will prosper in the Summer heat which comes all too soon to central Florida.

In the meantime, I have had my appetite piqued by some of the recipes that readers have suggested so far. This weekend I managed to find a handsome bunch at the farmer’s market and tried the sauté with garlic and a spray of lemon. Sautéing the chard with a sprinkle of olive oil was delicious and so easy. It is a vegetarian dish that really carries some oomph with it. I was amazed at how filling it was – not to mention delicious.

I am an especial lover of soups and I have had many soups that incorporate kale so I decided to try Swiss chard in one of my favorite white bean and greens recipes. I rarely use formal recipes, tending to be a pinch of this kind of cook. But, since I did call on everyone to at least try some cooking from scratch, I feel obligated to render a solid recipe.  This is a simple, elegant recipe for those of you who like a solid formula to work from. I found the recipe in a lovely book about European peasant cooking called “The Old World Kitchen

Start with some fine fresh Chard – although if you cannot find it in the market or in your garden, you can substitute kale and possibly curly spinach. Do not use any discolored or wilted leaves. Also, if your chard is very young and tender you may want to simply chop it whole and not cut the center stalks seperately.  I tend to like my greens just coarsely torn, but I include chopping instructions in the recipe.


     1 bunch of Swiss chard about 1 pound

     2 or 3 Tablespoons olive oil

     1 tablespoon minced or chopped garlic (to taste – I use 3)

     1 quart chicken stock

     1 ½ pounds cooked cannelloni beans (you can substitute any firm white bean)

     1/2 cup fresh grated parmesan cheese

     Salt and pepper to taste


1) Rinse chard well. Tear leaves from stems into coarse pieces about 2 inches. Thinly slice stems crosswise.

2) Pour oil into a 4-quart pan over medium heat. Sauté the chopped stems and garlic until tender – this should take less than 10 minutes.  Be careful not to burn or it will be bitter.

3) Add the chicken broth and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil.

4) Add chard and cook about 5 or 10 more minutes depending on how firm you want your leaves to be.

5) Stir in the beans and stir for 3 to 5 minutes until hot.

6) Stir in the 1/2 cup parmesan cheese

7)  Salt and pepper to taste - top off with some red pepper flakes for a kick

Serve the soup in a bowl with a little more parmesan sprinkled on top and a big hunk of crusty peasant bread to eat it with. You can also add other ingredients if you would like cooked bacon or pancetta, onions, chopped carrots and crushed tomatoes all make fine variations.  Of course, if you saved your old cheese rinds like I told you to, a 3 or 4 inch peice tossed in will be magic.  Rich hearty foods like this make simple living a hidden treasure and I think everyone should try it at least once. Self reliance is a lot easier chore with a nice bowl of soup and some crusty bread.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Wiping out Natural Medicine

I just read a most disturbing article that states that 93% of the plants used in Indian traditional medicine are threatened with Extinction.  That is an astonishing number and an indictment of the careless way we treat the natural world. 

I cannot imagine I even have to argue what an ecological crime this is.  Wiping out 93 percent of any group of organizms is a terrible blow to any environment.  It is almost hard to imagine that mankind has that power.  Alas, we do and we weild that power with the thoughtless destruction of a child stamping through a flower bed.  We can do such incalculable harm to a ecological system and it doesn't even make it to the headlines.  One has to hear about it on a green blog.  We need to be ashamed, but I fear shame is as out of fashion as stewardship and responsibility.

But, I would argue that another crime is being committed.  We are not only destroying nature, we are destroying a natural way of dealing with the world. Indian traditional medicine or Arurveda is an ancient set of herbal treatments which have been used to maintian health in India for centuries.  It is time honored and respected by hundreds of millions of people.  Modern science can judge it as it will, but that does not change the fact that it is a system that people desire to maintain. 

Wiping out the physical basis of Aruvedic medicine is a cultural crime of unspeakable dimensions.  Who are we to interfer in this way.  These are not simply isolated plants, they are a coherent whole that constitutes thousands of years worth of folk medicine and cultural traditions.  Wholesale extinction of these plants will result in the destruction of an entire branch of natural medicne.

I can argue that it is also an economic crime.  Without access to natural healing, many people in the world will then have no access to any healing at all.  A villager in remote India may not have physical or economic access to a modern pharmacy.  More importantly, he may not want access.  But we will deny them any natural alternative.  The only choice will be to suffer without any treatment or to buy corporate medicine.

In a world where man's sins seem to pile up daily, this matter will probably flash by our concious and be lost in a sea of other horrors.  But if so, if no one acts to prevent this, we will have lost a treasure house of knowledge that none can replace.  Many people currently and possible even more in the future will need to depend on medical aid that can be derived from the local environment.  Herbal medicine is the choice of billion of people and commonly the only choice available to them.  Depriving the world of these plants is a sin and an indictment of human excess.  Simple living is not possible if we do not allow the natural world to simply live.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

BACKYARD CHICKENS - size does matter

What size chicken is best for the backyard flock?

Notice I said “size” not what "type" is best for the backyard chicken. Breed is pretty important in your selection of chickens for the small homestead, but if you are trying to tuck a few hens into an urban backyard then size is a critical factor also.

Chickens come in 3 basic sizes: small or bantam, medium and large.

BANTAMS – Bantam hens usually weigh 1 to 2 pounds. Chickens vary widely in height but all bantams are shorter than average. Some can be as short as 6 inches; although 9 -10 inches is more common and are shorter than the average chicken. Bantam is not a breed of chicken. It is a breeding selection and theoretically any breed can be had in bantam sizes.

STANDARD – Medium or standard sized hens weigh around 4 to 6 pounds. A standard chicken probably stands around 12 to 15 inches tall.

LARGE – Large hens can run 7 to 10 pounds. Larger breeds of chicken do not tend to run much taller than standard perhaps 14 to 18 inches tall. Much of their extra size goes into their girth. I am very familiar with that concept.

Now, why does this size data matter to the person seeking to become more self reliant by producing their own healthy, cruelty free eggs? Again, it can be a simple matter of taste if you have a real homestead with plenty of room and systems in place to protect your flock from predators. But, if you are just planning on a pair of two hens tucked away in your backyard garden, then size matters. Here are a few reasons why size can be a major decision in the urban environment.

First, you need to think about safety. A cat is much more likely to attack your fluffy 2 pound Cochin bantam than he is a 10 pound Jersey Giant. Size matters when it comes to safety.

Secondly, you need to think about fencing. If you are not able to put up a high secure fence then you may want to go to the larger breeds like the Buff Orpington. Larger tends to equate to heavier and that makes them a lot less likely to fly or at least to fly high.

Third, you need to think about housing. Obviously you can house more bantams in a small space than a large breed

Lastly, you need to think about grazing. Allowing your hens to graze in your backyard or even in the gardens has many benefits. The chickens get exercise and superb nutrition. You get pest control and better tasting eggs. The downside is that your plants get an enormous amount of scratching. Actually scratch is an understatement – those feet can really dig. So again, size matters because large breeds like my Dominique hens can dig holes almost as deep as a small dog. Milly is a ferocious miner and has dug up 2 of my blueberry bushes looking for worms.

So, size does matter and you will need to add that criteria into your search for the perfect backyard chicken. Sorry to complicate things but not one ever said the simple life would be simple all the time. Deciding what size chicken is right for you will allow you to make your home flock the best possible choice for you and your circumstances. A good flock of backyard chickens is a great way to maximize your health, self reliance and sustainability. But the sound of your own hens clucking gently as the sun sets is a joy beyond measurement and a giant step down the road to a good life.

Milly says "seriously, I may dig - but I'm loveable once you get to know me"

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Backyard Chickens and Fashion?

Backyard chickens are sweeping the nation.  For the most part, this is a great source of joy to me.  I want others to learn how rewarding the simple life can be.  It is deeply rewarding to be responsible for your own food (well, the girls do help).  Not to mention how fun and funny they can be (more to come on that soon).  But, I just hope we realize that this is a real undertaking.  A homestead flock is not like an expresso machine - you can't just buy it then leave it out for your friends to drool over.

The trend towards a couple of chickens in the back yard has gone from an underground trickle to a mainstream phenomenon. I first started seriously scheming to get my own little flock the year I moved into Shadows End. That was around 2000, and I was uniformly told I was crazy. The only encouragement I could get was from such things as Mother Earth News and a few websites – mostly based in England. Last year, by the time I was actually working out the plans for my urban chicken coop, my friends and family still thought I was crazy, but there was a much larger support group out there and several excellent websites with information specifically designed to help enthusiasts.

Well now it is 2010 and backyard chickens are the subject of books. Even books actually available in our local library! The legal entanglements are being swept aside in many cities. Most telling perhaps, the hen has become an A list accessory now. Martha Stewart recently dedicated an entire show to chickens. To her credit she has had her flock for years and years and seems genuinely engaged in the subject. Additionally, Martha was her usual fact filled self and I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

But, I cannot help but think many chickens coops are sprouting up in yards where the fashion is to show off your exotic pet hen before you leap into the SUV to do lunch before the Junior League meeting. Chickens are adorable, funny and can actually be affectionate. But they are also a daily responsibility. They need fresh water every single day. They must have their coop looked after. Of course, there is the issue of poop. Even my deep bedding system needs a little scooping to help it out. In short, chickens are work, work with a wonderful reward both tangible and spiritual. But they are work – not fashion accessories.

Well, I didn’t mean to really complain. For the most part, the increase in backyard chickens is a good sign of Americans taking more responsibility for the food they eat and how it is produced. I am so very happy to see the information growing and all the media attention.  Just please don’t let me see designer names start to show up at Tractor Supply Company. I bet Paula Dean is already signing an endorsement deal as we speak.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

SHADOWS END - how I found a home and how my home earned its name

Shadows End – How my cottage got its name, why I kept it when all the reasons for the name vanished and why that matters to anyone else.

I had always wanted a little cottage so I could garden and plant and order things the way I wished them to be.  When I finally took the plunge and purchased a home it took a lot of persuading. I am a pretty inertia riddled guy. I do not run to change by any measure. To get me to actually buy a home took the combined resources of my family and friends. My dear friend, Sue had urged me to come out with her to look at a small cottage she had found in Dixieland, one of Lakeland’s historic districts. Well, I had to admit it was quite charming. A classic cottage with some French influences like a tall barrel vaulted porch and semi hipped roof adding a little elegance. Inside it had all the things I wanted, a fireplace, wooden floors, built in bookshelves, etc.  
The point is I bought the place. Since I am enamored of all things English I decided my cottage had to have a name. I scanned through all the classics names I could remember, most were too cliché or inappropriate. I considered dove cottage due to a trio (formerly quartette- but that is a tragedy for another story) of doves that hang out in my back yard.

Finally, one day, after a long morning gardening, I was walking to a local restaurant for lunch. I noticed how cool it was under the trees. The alley running past my house was lined with huge old oaks. It emptied into a large parking area also packed with giant oak trees. Walking back home, I realized that it was like passing through a shaded tunnel and only when you reached my house did the sun break through and allow you to see your shadow.

That’s when it came to me “Shadows End” Well that was the summer of 2001. I spend many days and nights walking through that oak glen. It was cool and dark and comforting to be under so many grand old trees. Then came 2004 and the hurricanes. No the storms did not destroy the oaks. One old and sick old man succumbed to the winds and lost major branches and one hollow camphor tree collapsed. But that was all, dozens of healthy trees remained in my block. They were strong and well branched, not pruned into the long singular sticks the power company loves to line our streets with. So like all things natural they were able to deal with natural things like hurricanes pretty well.

But hurricanes were not the only things to hit Dixieland that year. Also came fear and following that came the tree services. I say services, but mostly they were just untrained men with a truck and a chain saw. It started out slow, with just a few oaks falling down in thundering comment on the power of men’s machinery. Then because some insurance company called them a hazard, they began to fall like wheat before the scythe.

In one horrible day 11 huge oaks were felled in the parking area. A grassy spot where no one ever parked and no one parks even yet. It went from a shaded glen to a gutted ruin in one day. Finally by that winter there seemed to be very little reason to call my cottage shadows end anymore. The shadows were gone, and the shade, and the oxygen, and the birds, and ironically the protection from windstorms. In a great blaze or irony the next summer 2 houses in the block lost their roofs to summer windstorms. But ironic revenge was a passing thing; the trees were gone – forever. I mourned.

A tiny remnant of the oaks remained scattered about – limbs no longer touching and swaying in unison. The highway of the squirrels was gone, the sanctuary of the dove and the playground of fairies was in ruin. I was blessed to have one of the few trees left sitting right on my property edge. The confusion over ownership may have saved the old man. He is a great tree. He has been much hacked at and one limb has been sorely butchered. The many clumsy prunings have reduced it to a great swaying lever than threatens to wrench loose and fall on my workshop. But he remains and I love him and cherish the gifts I receive. Unlike the trees on my land, I never named the old oak. It seems presumptuous of me and so he remains aloof from the pet names. I am sure he has a name, one of his own choosing and not ours. I can only assume one day the grand old man will whisper it to me as I work beneath his shade. It was probably because of that tree that I decided to stick with the name Shadows End, despite the loss of so much shade.

Then in spring 2002, I went out one morning to have tea. I sat in the chair and was turning it around to avoid the morning glare, when low – there was no glare. There was no morning glare because my backyard was becoming embraced by the gently mottled shade of the many trees I had planted since moving in. Deidre the maple was a sapling from the first tree my mother planted in the home I grew up in. She had grown magically tall and still kept the sweeping curves she had developed in her youth. Jack, the drake elm was shooting up straight and tall and they had both began to touch outer limbs with Myrtle the crepe myrtle and the old man. A gently lacey canopy was forming over my back yard. It bode ill for my sun loving flowers, but oh it was a great feeling. Like a big green hug the shade of those trees made me feel safe and covered and cool. Cool is a lovely thing on a thick summer afternoon in Florida.

Well, despite all intentions I have wandered in my story. Let me return. So, the heedless, reckless hand of man destroyed the mighty oak glen that once covered my little part of the world. It remains a sad thin memory of its former glory. No one plants trees but me so far, but hope remains. In the meantime I have the shade of my own little forest about me and I revel in it. Ironically, I originally called my home Shadows End, because it was the only place around where you could see your shadow – the shade of the trees ended here. Now, it has earned its name in another guise. It is Shadows End, because on a sunny day your shadow follows you all about the neighborhood. Until, you reach home. Then on the edge of my patchwork homestead, as you smell the rosemary and hear the fountain, you enter the gate and then – Shadows End.
Sometimes simple living is about the simplest things like sun and shadow, growth and rest, living and dying.  We have to take them all in their cycles as the wheel turns about us.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Aral sea - 4th largest freshwater body in the world 90% gone

The Aral Sea was a shallow island dotted inlands sea for thousands of years. It was the 4th largest freshwater lake in the world. Then the Soviet Union decided to boost cotton production in Uzbekistan. It was a noble goal in that it sought to increase crops and bring prosperity to a desperately poor region. But it was also base goal, driven by a model of capitalism as ruthless as America’s mountain top removal coal mining; it has irretrievably devastated the environment.

The Aral Sea is no longer larger than Lake Michigan. It is barely 10% of its former size. Nor, is it even a fresh water lake any more. It is so salty that it can barely support life. Concentration through evaporation has changed it from fresh water lake to a shallow pool of water 2.4 times as salty as the Ocean. In fact it is actually just 2 separate fragments of its former greatness.

It is also still dying. The situation is so bad that all efforts to save the southern remnant have been given up. The huge area of dry lakebed has become a giant desert covered in salt flats. The fishing fleets that used to feed millions are rotting on sand dunes. 73 species are extinct due to the collapse of the lake.

Why does all this matter to us? Because it is a warning. Base, thoughtless exploitation of nature just to increase short term profit for some corporation is rampant in our own nation. We have to face the facts that we are destroying things that we cannot remake. Coal companies can tear down mountains, but they cannot put them back. All so that they can keep profits high and we can continue to waste more electricity than most countries produce. Giant factory fishing ships can dredge the ocean clean of fish in nets miles across, but they cannot replenish those oceans when the breeding stock is ground up for cat food or just tossed overboard as a waste product. There is a direct line between healthy oceans and that Mahi Mahi you ate last Saturday.

Am I saying, sit at home in the dark and eat raw potatoes? No, but you can lobby to stop mountaintop removal. You can reduce your electric waste and push our lawmakers to make polluting coal power plants pay the full cost of the pollution they cause. You do not have to give up Mahi Mahi, but you can be willing to pay the real cost of harvesting it in a manner that is sustainable.

If we do not learn how to live more gently on the land, we may see the land turned into something we do not recognize. Simple living is not always easy - but it is simple. Wake up to the disasters our greed is causing and try to be a part of an answer, not the problem.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

SWISS CHARD - summer greens

Swiss Chard – easy to grow! – takes southern heat! – strong like ox?

Part of simple living is learning how to adapt what you want to what you have. I am constantly experimenting in the home garden to match my dreams of a lush English homestead to the sub-tropical weather I have to work with. As is said before, I was late in getting most of my spring garden planted this year. I am praying for nature to grant me a gentle spring and keep the 90 degree weather until June. Well, I’ll keep my fingers crossed. In the meantime, I have decided to experiment. Even in the best of years, it is hard to have any salad greens in Florida after winter and the early spring have left us. Scientifically, lettuce seeds have a natural system that prevents them from even germinating once the soil begins to warm up. Apparently, unlike me – the lettuce is wise enough to know when “kind of late” is too late.

Never one to give up easily, I have been researching alternatives. The result is a brave new plot of Swiss chard I just planted this weekend. Swiss chard is a fairly tough large leaved plant that resembles loose spinach in taste. It is so attractive and trouble free that it is commonly used as an ornamental. In fact there is one variety called “bright lights” that is so colorful it is almost garish. But the key point for me is its ability to handle the heat of summer.

If my research holds true, chard should be able to deal with the heat much longer than regular salad greens. Rumor has it that it has even made it through the San Antonio summer. I am excited to see if it is true. Of course, Swiss chard is hardly a substitute for true salad greens like romaine and leaf lettuce. However, it is not as one sided as collards are. As much as I love collards, I cannot bear them in a salad and view people who eat them that way as touched by some strange malady. Some people say that chard – like collards can last for more than a year and still be productive. I have had collards last for 3 to 4 years before succumbing so this will also bear watching.

I sowed the greens in my “salad in a drawer” method and planted a 2’ X 3’ intensive patch of red and green Swiss chard. All that awaits me now is to wait and see. Swiss chard is an old heirloom plant and it may be just the thing I need for summer greens. In the meantime, I will do some research on recipes using chard. If anyone has experience with chard or any good recipes, please share them.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Baby greens by the drawer full - sound crazy?  No, not at all and I think you will love this simple living idea.  It reduces waste, reuses, recycles and gets you a great caesar salad for your trouble - who could ask for more?  The trick is intensive planting of salad greens in re-purposed dresser drawers culled from throw away furniture in the garbage stream.  It is a great simple living way to reduce waste, maximize garden space and hopefully cheat the summer heat.

Well, I must confess, this is more of an early press release than a report of success in the home gardens of Shadows End. Due to many things, mostly related to inertia, I did not get my spring garden planted until the middle of March. This puts me back into the age old dilemma – is it too late to plant “that” in Florida. It can be quite a challenge because the Florida spring can easily turn fierce and hot long before summer actually gets here. For the most part – planting guides that one finds on the seed packets are totally useless for Florida. You can check the Florida extension service for local planting dates – or you can gamble.

I had so wanted to get in a good heavy crop of lettuces before the heat hit. But all I have managed to get out is a small patch of Bok Choy. It is doing quite well and I am sure I will be fine as long as I monitor the heat and start harvesting before we hit 80 degrees as a nighttime low. But unfortunately, I did not get any leaf lettuce, or arugula or spinach set out in the regular garden.

I could just give up of course and move on to warm weather crops like field peas and collards. But I really want some salad greens this year and so I am going to try a trick I have in mind. My goal is to become more and more self sufficient and self reliant and this is a perfect opportunity to work on both.

What I have in mind is this. I am going to fill small portable containers with potting soil and compost. Then I will randomly sow a fair amount of lettuce, arugula and spinach seed. I will place the containers in the cooler, semi-shaded areas of the home garden to keep them from getting over heated. Starting in the second week, I will begin to clip out baby greens until I thin them enough to grow, eventually I will have a properly spaced bed and I will see if the final plants can make it to full maturity before the heat hits. If not, I will still have been able to harvest an early supply of baby greens which will be great in salads. Here is how I intend to do it.


My plan is to use dresser drawers that I rescued from roadside garbage. It is common to see old dressers on the side of the road as I drive home at night. I managed to collect five drawers and I intend to re-purpose them as lettuce beds. Drawers are shallow and light and perfect dimensions for easy portable seed beds. Lettuce and in fact most greens and herbs all have shallow root systems and can easily prosper in the 4 to 8 inches of rich soil. All you need to do really is poke a few drainage holes in the bottom. Of course, they will not last forever exposed to the rain and elements. But that is not the point; they were headed to the landfill. I can use them to grow seedlings, until they rot and then they can be composted. People will likely laugh, but let them. This is one simple living idea that is a true win / win solution.


The soil will need to be rich and light. I filled the bottom of my drawers with a shallow layer of leafs raked from my neighbor’s yard. Next I sprinkled on a thin layer of composted chicken manure. (I used chicken, but you can buy cow manure from the home store if you lack chickens). Then I filled the rest with a mixture of store bought potting soil and rich organic matter from my composter. The final mix needs to be rich, but light and the leaves and manure really help with this.


Pick your favorite mix of greens. You can do a pure lettuce crop or mix in mustards, collard, arugula etc. Do not use seed from any type of head lettuce and it can take almost twice as long to mature as leaf varieties. If you can find it, buy the seeds in bulk. You can get 4 to 20 times as much seed in bulk as you would get for the same money spent on the packets. Rake the soil loosely and sprinkle in the seeds fairly liberally. In a perfect world you would like one seed every square inch. Just shake and pray, it’s what I do.


Keep the soil lightly moist – not wet. Keep it out of hot sun. If needed you can move the drawers into a semi shaded area on really hot days. Remember heat is the bane of lettuce. If they have to do with a little less light – so be it. Just do not let them overheat or they will bolt. Bolting is when a plant starts to set seeds, it will send up flower shoots and get bitter and tough.


As soon as the seeds sprout and get to be about 3 to 4 inches tall, begin to harvest. Due to the relatively heavy seeding, there will be a lot of baby plants. The plan is to quickly thin them out to around 2 to 3 inches apart by the end of the second week. Begin a second harvest phase when the plants hit about 5 or 6 inches and pick until you have them thinned out to around 4 to 6 inches apart. Then, if weather allows, I should be able to let these final plants grow to maturity. It should take approximately 40 days from seed to maturity. The odds of harvesting fully mature lettuce depends on the late spring weather. It is a gamble, like I said. But in the meantime, you will have had 2 ongoing harvests of salad greens.

A couple of big bowls of salad may not sweep you into self sufficiency. But learning the principles of intensive planting will go a long way towards giving you the garden skills that can make you more self reliant. Day by day, as your home garden grows – so will your confidence.