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.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


More simple living tips on how to clean green.  Simple ways to make you self reliant and free from corporate consumer products that destroy the environment.

Ok guys, I have given you two great uses for boiling water, one for laundry and one for drains. Now lets use water in the opposite form – frozen. This next trick definitely qualifies as simple, and it helps you become self reliant because it frees you from hiring outside help, but I am not sure it can be called green. It certainly uses green ingrediants – in fact it can be just pure water. But the term, green, or even simple living is not defined the same by all people. We have variations – some avoid frivolous technology, some do not. One of those questionable items is the garbage disposal. It is definitely, not green as its wastes water and add organic matter to the waste stream instead of the compost pile where it belongs.

But, if you have not given up on this little sin, then here at least is a quick, green way to keep garbage disposals clean, sharp and freshened. Sharp blades mean the disposal will do a better job and use less power. Clean blades mean none of that nasty disposal smell that so often arises. Both clean and sharp blades will make the machine work easier and last longer and that means no visits from the repairman and longer time before you need a new one. Keeping items clean and in good working order is the key to self reliance and freedom from repairmen.

Ok, so what is this trick? Ice cubes, yes simple ice cubes – toss a cup or more of them into the disposal once in a while for instant results. The noise will be horrific, but it is perfectly safe and harmless. Honestly, that’s it. You can add vinegar to the ice for a little extra kick if you wish. Coarse salt added to the ice cubes works too, just be sure to rinse after.

If this simple trick does not get your disposal clean and fresh, then it means only one thing – you are putting too many improper items in the disposal. Hard things like shrimp shells, popcorn kernels, or fibrous things like celery and banana peels. You are also warned not to put things like potato peels, artichokes, even egg shells unless you remove the inner membrane because this tends to get wrapped around the shredder.

Even if you misuse your machine - try my trick, a great lot of ice cubes can scrub away an awful mess. But, if my tip isn’t working, you should take that as a divine sign. Either you should be composting, or you will need a new disposal soon- welcome to the wonderful world of consumerism.

Take the self reliant course.