One summer night, just before dawn, a bat found its way around the storm window frame and ended up on the inside of the window screen. The sound of it scurrying around on the screen was such a weird thing to wake up to. Before it worked its way into the room, we pulled the window down and went back to sleep. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes of scurrying around on the screen, the bat found the way out and was off again in the night.
We have a lot of bats here and enjoy watching them race around after sunset. Small brown bats, like the ones that live around here, can eat up to 2,000 insects per night. Without them working at night and without the dragonflies working by day, we would be completely inundated with mosquitoes. According to the Bat Conservation International, "Bats are mammals, just like humans, which means that all bats are warm-blooded, have hair, bear live young, and feed their babies milk."
As you may have heard, bats have been dying off in unprecedented numbers this year. It seems like they share the same troubles as our beloved, although non-native, honeybee. In our efforts to have a well-rounded backyard garden area and support these important pollinators, put a bat house on a deciduoubats, bat house, Audobon Cedar Bat Shelter, mosquito controls tree or pole in your yard. It's okay if it's in the shade for the summer but the house needs to receive direct sunlight during the winter.
This bat house from Audobon is a good choice. Similarly to a bluebird house, a bat house needs to be built with specific dimensions for the health and safety of the bat. This house is made from cedar and will provide a home for approximately 20 bats. Available from Amazon for $35.99.
There's no better way to begin a cold day than with a hot cup of tea in front of the bay window. This is where we hang all our bird feeders and, as time permits, grab the binoculars for a couple minutes of birding meditation. Observing birds up close takes me out of the people world and into the bird world for a quick mental vacation.
The Audubon Sheltered Wings compact binoculars are a good choice if you're looking for binoculars because they are lightweight (10 oz) and small enough to tuck behind a book on the bookshelf. They will focus down to 8.5' which is perfect for those birds just outside the window. This pair of binoculars is small (2"x4.2"x4.5") and will fit nicely into most jacket pockets without weighing you down. Bring them along walking or biking. At $69.99, they won't weigh your wallet down, either.
If you plan on heating with wood or you use a fireplace or woodstove for weekend ambiance, you're in need of kindling. The Fiskars 8-inch hatchet makes quick work of preparing kindling. It's small, lightweight and maneuverable - perfect for the little pieces of wood that help start a fire the first time. We use leftover cedar shingles and slice them into 1" strips with our hatchet. They work better than fatwood!
If you've raised a pig this summer or bought a half or whole one from a farmer, you might be wondering how you will use all that pork in one year. Or, you might be wondering how you will keep your food from spoiling if the power goes out for an extended period of time, assuming it's all frozen. An easy and alternative way to use and preserve a ham is to cure it in salt and air-dry it. This is called proscuitto crudo ("raw ham") in Italy and it would make a fantastic gift for that special "foodie" in your life. Here's how to do it:
Assemble your ingredients and tools:
1 ham, 10-20 lbs boned or with bone still in
1 plastic or wooden container
50 lbs of coarsely grained sea salt (your local health food store can order it for you)
plastic or wooden board that fits just inside the container
2 bricks or other heavy item weighing approx 15-20 lbs
1-2 yards of cheese cloth
at least 9 months worth of patience and self-restraint
Rinse the fresh ham well with water and towel dry. Setting the ham on a clean counter surface, hand rub salt into all the nooks and crannies and crevaces of the ham.
Fill the container with 1"-1 1/2" of salt and put the ham into the container.
Fill the container with the rest of the salt making sure there is at least 1/2" of salt between the ham and the sides of the container.
Put the plastic cover or wooden board on top of the salt and put the bricks or rock on the board.
The salt will work its way through the entire ham, flavoring and preserving it. The length of time the ham is left in the salt determines how salty it will be at the end. You want to leave it in long enough to be completely preserved, but not so long that it becomes excessively salty. The typically ratio is 3 days for every kilo or 1 day for every 2.2 lbs of ham and then take off a day or two. Our ham this year is on the small size (14.5 lbs) so we will leave it in the salt for 18 or 19 days.
After the ham has been salting for the determined number of days, take it out and rinse it thoroughly under running water. Then pour a wash of vinegar over it and towel dry it. Take a handful of salt and rub it into the cut side of the ham, especially around the ends of the bone. This is where disaster will strike if it's going to. The bone area is more prone to harmful organisms entering and ruining your ham. Occasionally, this will happen despite the most scrupulous handling and attention to details. You'll know because the affected area will be black and smell bad. As heartbreaking as it is, just throw it away (yes, the whole ham - don't take any chances) and try again. There's no use in crying over rotted ham.
After the vinegar wash and extra spot salting, wrap the ham in cheese cloth and hang in a well-ventilated place to dry for at least 9 months. Ours is hanging in the kitchen.
If this is not possible or permitted (the comfort of your ham should be of the utmost importance and should take precedence over any decorating schemes), try the basement or back porch. You'll have to bring it in for the winter so it doesn't freeze. If you live in a mild climate, hang it outside but protected from the rain. You must construct some kind of wire (hardware cloth) box around it, though, because animals will surely devour it otherwise.
While drying, the ham will develop thin layers of mold which are harmless. You might want to unwrap and check on it every few months. At this time, gently brush off excess mold with an old toothbrush and then wrap it back up and hang it. Try to wait as long as possible before trying your ham but at least hold out til the 9 month mark. Some people wait as long as 18 months before they start eating their air-dried ham. Our dried ham from last year has been drying for 12 months and weighs 12.5 lbs (down from 21 lbs fresh). It is ready to eat!
Curing and drying your own ham is quite an unusual thing to do nowadays. It is also a practical and sensible way for the homesteader/do-it-yourselfer to preserve a large portion of food without using fossil fuels.
A note on cheese cloth: Some fabric stores sell "cheese cloth" which is really more like a gauze. The holes are too big and the cloth is not sturdy enough for your ham. Real cheese cloth is a light weight, tightly woven (high thread count) cotton. The easiest place to get it is from Ricki The Cheese Queen's online store, www.cheesemaking.com.
Everyone is talking about hope and change for the future. Governments and organizations are certainly necessary for society, but I prefer to store my hope for the future in the form of seeds. They are a tangible sign of what's already working and good in this world and they need to be preserved!
Tomato seeds are a fun way to start seed saving and, over the years, you can improve upon the flavor, color, size and keeping quality of your favorite tomato with careful seed selection. Here are pictures of two of GardenSnob's best tomatoes from the summer. They were huge, beautiful paste tomatoes weighing about 14 oz each. Oh, sure, there are 3 lb tomatoes but they are mostly juice. These were solid and dense -just like a paste tomato should be. Unfortunately, all the tomato seedlings were mixed together so we don't know what kind they were, but we will develop them over the years and come up with our own "GardenSnob special".
The basic steps to saving tomato seeds are as follows:
1. Choose the best tomato with the qualities you like and keep it on the vine til just past ripe.
2. Cut out the seeds and pulp that comes with them and put it in a drinking glass or glass jar.
3. Cover the top of the glass with a cloth and an elastic or use a jar cover.
4. Leave it on the counter for approx. 5 days to ferment. A mold will be growing on the top of the seeds. This is supposed to happen.
5. Rinse the seeds until all the pulp and slime are gone. The good seeds will stay on the bottom.
6. Place the seeds on a paper towel or kitchen cloth to dry for a few days.
7. Pick the seeds off the towel and place in an airtight container (pill bottles work well) and label it.
8. Store in a cool place or, better yet, the freezer.
Here is a 5-minute video that shows how to save tomato seeds.
Here is a short video on collecting seeds from pole beans, artichokes, cilantro, marigolds:
What does spinning yarn have to do with gardening? Alright, this isn't really a garden topic, but the goats are on the farm producing manure to be turned into compost for the garden. They also grow fiber which needs to be used. Plus, selling handspun yarn and yarn products can be a profitable addition to a small farm or backyard enterprise.
Plus, what the heck else is there to do in the winter? Right! (Thanks to www.ibabuzz.com for the photo.)
So we will digress for a little while. . .
Here is a picture of Maizie's mohair. Notice the luster and crimp (waves).
Our girls have heavy but soft fleeces. Part of it is genetics and part is their feed. They eat excellent quality 2nd cut hay and get a handful of alfalfa every now. In the morning, they have 1/3 cup alfalfa pellets, 1/3 cup dried beets, 1 tbsp kelp, and an herbal mixture for general health and to prevent worms. They don't eat any grain, nor should they since they are ruminants. Occasionally, they will get 1/2 apple or a carrot as a treat. Another good thing for them is a clove of garlic every now and again.
The first 3 fleeces from a goat are the most valuable because they are the softest and finest. After that, the fiber is best used blended with wool. We have washed some fleeces by hand but this is time-consuming and requires very hot water. Another option is to send it out to a fiber mill for washing, blending and carding. This product, called roving, is then spun by machine or hand into yarn which is then knit (by machine or hand) into garments. It is a long process but there is nothing quite like wearing a sweater from your own goat or sheep.
In the picture above, there is an example of roving (the cloud-like gray mass on the left) which is 75% mohair and 25% wool, yarn made from that roving, and a scarf knit from 100% mohair - pure luxury!
Today was shearing day at the farm and the goats had all their summer mohair taken off. Here is Daisy hiding in the dark barn -they don't like shearing day.
Sheep are shorn once a year in the spring but angora goats are shorn twice a year. In Texas, where all the big flocks are, shearing is done in August and February but in the north it's May and October. We have to make sure they aren't out in the rain for a few days prior to shearing and for a few weeks after because they are highly susceptible to hypothermia.
I am always surprised at how white their clean fleece is and how small they look. The goats butt heads a lot afterwards, probably because they don't recognize each other.
If you are considering raising livestock or are looking for a pet, goats are a good choice. They are as smart as dogs, can be trained and are very personable. You must get 2 or more as they do not like to be alone. Goats can be rambunctious but the angora goat is significantly calmer than other breeds. Contrary to popular belief, they do not eat cans. For more information about raising angora goats, read Angora Goats the Northern Way by Susan Black Drummond. This is the fourth addition and includes chapters on cashmere goats.
Here is yet another option for cutting tree limbs.
The portable hand chain sawfits into a tiny canister (think chewing tobacco) and is very lightweight so it's perfect for the back country and camping. However, in the backyard or on the farm, it is also very useful. You can sneak into places an ordinary saw wouldn't be able to go such as in a corner, under a fence, or around a tree root. The blade is flexible so you can thread the blade around a limb or root, grab the handles and work the blade back and forth until it is cut through. Best of all, there's no noise, pollution or engine to maintain. The bright orange handles are a thoughtful addition to this tool, especially if you are working or cleaning up at dusk or at night.
If you haven't guessed, we have been busy at GardenSnob tiding up things for winter. This includes pruning dead branches and those that almost poked us in the eye every time we mowed. Obviously, in-depth pruning in the fall is a big no-no, but taking off stragglers and dead branches before they take you out is a good idea.
So, here we are again with the Bahco brand and their quality blades. This time it's a foldable pruning saw with a soft grip handle. The folding part might not seem essential but if you walk a ways to your next tree limb or shrub, stopping to pick up a load of brush or bucket of slop, or cut through the goat pasture, it sure is nice to have the saw tucked in your side pocket with the blade covered. And when you drop a few pieces of the brush and have to bend down and get them, again the covered blade is great. Amazon, you did it again! $19.79.
I always purchase an extra blade when I buy something. Here's the blade for the Bahco bow saw. It won't add much to the bottom line, but sure is convenient when you are in the middle of a job and want a sharper blade.
The bow saw is a necessary tool on any farm or homestead. When I was trimming a few maple branches the other day with my pruning saw, boy did I wish I had one of these. It cuts almost as fast as a chain saw.
There is no better saw than the Bahco Ergo Grip Bow Saw. Formerly Sandvik, the Bahco brand is synonymous with quality. In fact, in 1996, Bahco introduced (they also hold the patent) Superior handsaws, a new and revolutionary tooth geometry - Xt - that saws faster than other handsaws, and has a coating of the blade that reduces friction considerably. I especially like the knuckle protector and the snap on blade protector that come with this one. Blades are replaceable so you don't have to deal with sharpening as you do with a chain saw.
Yes, this Bahco saw is twice the money of the Fiskar's saw but if you only want to buy your tools once, this is still a bargain at $15.96. Believe me, the other day, I'd have paid $35 for one on the spot.
It is one of those annual fall surprises - what will our honey taste like this year? Three years ago, it tasted sweet yet not overly floral or cloyingly sweet like clover honey. Everyone loved it and we should have entered it into a contest. I suspect that the fantastic taste was due to the Joe Pie Weed field the bees spent so much time in that summer. Last year, our honey tasted just like maple syrup. Could it have been the potato blossoms just outside their front door? Who knows.
This year's honey is a perfect balance of sweetness, flowers and hmmm . . . vegetables? I don't know, but it is good! It's a small harvest (approx. 25 lbs) but many hobby beekeepers didn't get any this year. We feel fortunate to have the little honey we do because of all the rain, diseases, and the fact that the hive swarmed in May and had to rebuild its population over the summer.
After we spun the honey out with the extractor, we set it outside so the bees could do the final cleanup. I wish they did windows! By the end of the day, the equipment was spotless.
We hope to add another hive or two next year so we can compare them and become more proficient in beekeeping. As one veteran beekeeper told me, "It's not how long you've kept bees, it's how many hives you have that makes you experienced."
The USDA (for what they're worth) considers bees as livestock. This strikes me as so funny because I imagine miniature corrals, fencing, trailers and such. Bees are, by far, the easiest "livestock" to care for considering time, initial investment and ongoing expenses. If you don't mind the occasional sting and aren't unnerved by the buzzing, it's a fascinating hobby that doesn't require a lot of land. In fact, it doesn't require any land. Some city dwellers keep bees on their roof decks and they don't have to worry about bears like we do.
Here's a link to a local bee supply company. We took a bee class from the owner, Rick Reault, through the Middlesex Beekeepers Association. These classes are very inexpensive and are a great way to learn about all the aspects of beekeeping. You will also meet experienced beekeepers who are usually very friendly and willing to mentor new beekeepers.
Now that you've read, Let It Rot, and you are thoroughly hooked on composting, you'll want your own thermometer to measure the temperature in your compost pile. The Luster Leaf Compost Thermometer is made of stainless steel and is 19" long. Knowing the temperature of the compost can help you decide when to water, when to add more material and when to aerate or turn the pile.
This thermometer can also be used in the spring to test soil temperature before you plant seeds and for checking hay bales (if they are warm, they have too much moisture and could eventually self-combust).
To keep the kitchen waste from sneaking into the waste basket and going to a landfill, one needs a well thought out plan that is easy to execute (and that doesn't smell!). It seems like no one has any time to do anything extra anymore, but if you set yourself up right, this process won't add much to your burdens and you'll feel great about recycling your kitchen scraps and making your own compost. Remember, the three most important components to composting on a daily basis are A) make it easy, B) make sure it doesn't smell, and C) make it beautiful (it can't be an eye sore in the kitchen or you know it will get tossed in a few months).
We've reviewed a bunch of containers from stainless to plastic to ceramic and have decided on this this good looking ceramic crock (Amazon $23.95). The ceramic one looks the best, won't leak, and can be sanitized in the dishwasher. The down side is that it is heavier but we have a solution for that . . .
The stainless ones were too expensive and sometimes the cover didn't fit very well. Also, there are those pesky seams that could open up sometime in the future. You might want to buy a stainless composter anyway if your kitchen has stainless appliances. (remember, make it beautiful!)
The plastic one we found was green and it just looked too junky and cheap to keep in the kitchen (even the GardenSnob kitchen with hay on the floor, honey supers stacked in a corner, a prociutto hanging in one window, and a bucket of wheat waiting to be flailed). Plus, we don't trust plastic tabs or "living hinges" to last more than a few weeks, especially with daily use. Then you have a plastic item to throw away and part of this practice is to reduce trash so we won't even include a link to it.
Now that you've put your ceramic crock on the counter or even tucked it in a corner on the floor somewhere, the subject of taking the compost out to the pile comes up. This is the weak link, the part that has to be easy, because if it isn't, the habit of taking the compost out will surely die the day after the first snowfall. And so, behold the BioBag!
These biodegradable, recyclable bags will fit nicely into your ceramic crock and when it comes time to empty it, just take out the bag and drop it into the compost bin. The bags are a 3 gallon size so there is plenty of extra material with which to tie a knot and hand it off to the nearest youngster (before dessert, of course).
This picture doesn't lie - it's easy! If you could see his face, you would see a giant smile on it. We recommend taking the bag out every 3 - 5 days, depending on what you've put in it, because the bag will start to decompose (the next weakest link). In my experience with humans and their nature, that mess would only be cleaned up once and by throwing everything out once and for all - crock, bags and scraps. Talk about defeating the whole purpose! These bags are $8.33 for 3 packs (total of 75 bags for a savings of 37 cents per pack over buying them singly).
If you are ambitious or a horder like me, buy 12 packs at the wholesale price of $37.01 (300 bags). It's not a great savings - only 30 cents per box - but you won't have to worry about compost bags for four years and who knows how much shipping will be in 2012.
As for those charcoal filters that come with all these kitchen composters, use them if they come free with it until they wear out. Then, forget about them and put the saved money under your mattress. Using the biodegradable bags keeps the odors contained if you twirl the ends together before you put the cover on and renders the charcoal filters unnecessary.
It's always somber after the pigs leave. Everything feels quiet and pensive but edgy. The goats wonder why those smelly creatures that got all the treats suddenly disappeared. It's a good time to reflect on the cycle of nature and how we are intertwined with all other living things. It reminds us that plants and animals die everyday so that we may live and that we need to respect and celebrate this transfer of life.
This is a picture of the pigs' last night with us. It was relatively balmy for mid-October and the almost full moon illuminated everything with a silvery blue wash. They enjoyed the last of many buckets of drops from the neighbor's apple trees and slept on a thick, fragrant bed of hay and red maple leaves.
This is the 3rd edition of the classic book on composting, Let It Rot and probably on Storey Publishing's best seller list. Entertaining to read and humorous, this book by Stu Campbell will instruct you on many ways to make compost and how to tailor it specifically for the needs of your garden. It is technical enough for the seasoned composter but within reach of the beginner and has lots of ideas and "recipes" to keep you busy all year long. Who knows - we may find you canvassing the neighborhood with a wheelbarrow in search of others' throwaways. Available from Amazon for $10.36.
The Ringer All Purpose Compost Plus Activator (at Amazon for $8.78) is a great addition to your compost pile if you've added things such as sawdust, wood chips, pine needles and twigs. It will jump start your pile by adding beneficial organisms that already exist in there but in smaller numbers. It would take some time for them to multiply and start working so this is a way to speed up the process. Think of it as a compost organism "troop surge". You may need to lightly water your compost pile from time to time. Moist is good - soaking wet is not. If it is going to downpour, you may want to toss a tarp over it so it doesn't get too wet.
It's fall cleanup time and time to put it all somewhere. No, don't blow it into the street! Not onto the neighbor's lawn, either. Keep it yourself and turn it into great compost for next year's garden.
This Bin composter is the easiest to set up, move, mix, and see what's going on and how much room you have. It's made with PVC coated steel wire panels and comes with easy slip-in rods for the corners. At $38.99, it seems a little expensive for what it is, but, then again, there is something to be said for clicking a button and having it show up at your house. Also, you don't have to waste half your Saturday at some store wondering which composter will fit into the hatch of your car or figuring out how to build your own with rolls of wire. This one is a great height - 30" - and when the leaves, grass, etc., is finished composting, you just pick up or take apart the panels and move it to another location. Or shovel the compost out of the bin and leave it where it is. Your garden will love you next year!
Kill 3 birds with one helmet assembly. The Pro chainsaw helmet assembly protects your head, eyes and ears, all with one piece of gear. This is much easier than having safety goggles, ear protectors and a helmet that might not fit well together. Also, you won't be tempted to skip the goggles or ear protectors because they are all attached to the helmet. Nice bright color is also easy to locate.
These chaps are a must-have for anyone who uses a chain saw, even if you aren't a professional woodsperson or don't have 6 cords of wood to cut for the winter. They are designed to unravel into the saw and stop the blade before it cuts your leg.
I've seen them displayed at a tractor store with the material tangled around the chain bar as a frightening way of encouraging people to wear their safety equipment. (The guy was okay, thanks to his chaps).
The bright orange color is another safety feature so you can be spotted easily by hunters or emergency personnel. This is a bargain at $62.75, especially with the high cost of prosthetics these days.
This little saw looks like just the right size for backyard chores of trimming and cutting down a few trees. There's no struggling with a 2-cycle engine or dealing with a gas/oil mix either. Weighing 9.5 lbs, it's well suited to the smaller person who is tired of asking someone else to cut things for them (as long as the steel toed boots, chaps and safety glasses are worn).
If you have a few trees that need to come down, or one that needs cutting after falling down, consider purchasing this saw rather than hiring someone else to cut the wood. You'll save money (the Makita goes for $192.00) and have a great tool for the future.
However, all chainsaws can kick back and if you've never used one, consider having an experienced person with you when you first try it. Another source for safety tips is Kevin K. Eckert's book, Chain Saw Safety and Field Maintenance: A Photo Guide.
It is loaded with pictures and information on how to safely operate a chain saw. Available at Amazon for $39.95, which is a lot cheaper than buying a new leg or arm.
Steve Connolly of Sharon, MA is not having any of the problems most pumpkin growers are having this year. In fact, he's preparing to break some substantial pumpkin growing records. But he only has one to worry about. One giant pumpkin, with an estimated weight of 1,878 pounds. Steve has protected it from rain and sun and fed it a special formula of bone meal, molasses, manure and who knows what else, all with the hopes of smashing the current record weight of 1,689 pounds.
Giant pumpkin growing has turned into a big obsession over the last 10 years. There are clubs and contests and prize money all over the country.
Read more at
For information on how to grow your own giant pumpkin, consult Don Langevin's book, "How to Grow World-Class Giant Pumpkins", available from Amazon for $29.35. Sounds like good, clean fun and hours of entertainment over the summer for the cost of a book and a few seeds.
It's getting to be that firewood hauling time of year. After getting stabbed in the thighs countless times last year, we've decided to invest in a log carrier that doesn't have the reinforcing rods along the sides. They poked through the fabric within the first week of use and then poked us and/or the door as we entered with a heavy load.
So, this year we've decided to try this great carrier from Northline Express for $32.50 plus shipping. Or you can go to Plow and Hearth and pay $39.95 for the same thing. This carrier looks like it can hold more than I can carry and it'll also stand up on its own for easy loading and unloading. Because of the high sides, it can also be used for gardening supplies, newspapers, knitting projects, livestock feed and even a chicken or piglet.