Welcome to the Garden

Last week I told you that my first homesteading step at our new home was to put in a vegetable garden. This time I’d like to go into more detail regarding what I’m doing, as well as the usual assortment of how’s and why’s. We live in zone 9b in central Florida, which means that I’ve had to shake up my knowledge of gardening a little bit to make this work. The winters here are very mild, with only a slight chance of frost in December, January, and February. In the last two winters there had been no frost here at all, and we had only two frosts this winter. This means that most vegetables do great here all winter long, and others need only a little frost protection. On the other hand, the summers here are brutal. The temperatures don’t rise as high as some parts of the country, but from May to October the average high is above 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and in this period we we also switch from bone-dry to steam oven, with nothing in between. So, most folks here garden from September to April.

The other thing for me to get used to is the soil, or lack thereof. The ground here is sand, and dries out very quickly if I’m not careful. Both of these issues, along with the fact that I’m not home much to weed or water, have shaped the way I plan to do my gardening here. I’ve borrowed strategies from the organic and permaculture folks, as well as local conventional agricultural practices, to build my garden.

I set a few goals for myself, some borrowed from permaculture, others are just common sense to me:

  1. Anything I do in terms of producing a yield this year should be done in the way that will produce the best possible yield next year.
  2. Set things up to reduce, as much as possible, the time needed to care for the garden.
  3. Keep the price down, without cutting corners.

The first thing that needed to be done was to get rid of the lawn. I used glyphosate to do this, hopefully as a one-time deal. Before you begin throwing stones, let me explain my reasoning.

There are a few ways to remove a lawn. Lasagna gardening (layering with cardboard, and then adding compost on top to smother the grass) would take longer than I wanted to wait, since there is a season’s wait for the cover to break down unless you either build raised beds or add a large amount of soil on top of the cardboard. In addition, the grasses here have incredibly tough rhizomes, that could push their way back up regardless of any barrier. I briefly attempted to solarize the lawn by covering with clear plastic. The air and soil under the plastic heat up like a greenhouse to temperatures high enough to kill the grass, and you’re left with a clean slate to garden in. Unfortunately, we bought the property in September and the temperatures were too low to pull it off. Digging up the grass was a non-starter, for two reasons. Firstly, the creeping grasses we have here will regrow from the smallest bit left in the ground, and digging exposes a lot of weed seeds to the surface, where they will germinate, leaving me battling with weeds. In the end, I decided to go with a single controlled application of generic glyphosate to kill the grass. Since I already use glyphosate on the invasive species in my lot (air potato and Brazilian pepper), I have a good bit of experience using it safely and preventing wind drift. Glyphosate breaks down quickly in the soil, so it won’t affect my future plantings. As for health effects, the big concern is with agricultural spraying onto growing vegetables (think Roundup-Ready), which leads to herbicide on the plant itself. Treatment when there are no crops present avoids this.

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I’ve killed the grasses, and am using cardboard to line the paths to reduce weed growth and compaction.

Once the grass was dead, I ordered a delivery of topsoil to get started. I ordered four cubic yards, which gave me just over an inch of soil on top of the dead grass. I used our moving boxes to lay out and mulch paths between the beds, and put the soil just where the plants will go. A key point in no-till gardening is avoiding soil compaction, so I will avoid walking on the beds if at all possible.

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Just a thin layer of topsoil to get things going for me. The plants and worms will do the rest.

I decided on a (mostly) no-till garden for many of the same reasons that I didn’t want to dig out the grass. Firstly, tilling allows more weed seeds to germinate. Secondly, it breaks up what little soil structure I have, increasing erosion and allowing water to drain nutrients through the sandy soil, out of reach of most annual vegetables. Thirdly, it damages or kills the soil organisms that are responsible for many soil processes. Lastly, rototillers are expensive and digging is a lot of work, and I’d rather avoid either if I can. With a no-dig system, plant roots and soil fauna (worms, insects, and such) work the soil for me, and I just add whatever amendments I need to the surface. Key to this process is mulching, which I’m doing with whatever leaves happen to be available to me. By mulching heavily, I can reduce leaching and erosion, and suppress any weeds that do come up despite not digging (there are always a few windblown seeds), thus reducing the amount of time I have to spend as well.

I do plan to make one exception to the no-till rule. Since I built the garden I have come to realize that some previous owner of this property loved to use pebbles for fill, so some regions in the yard are almost entirely composed of rocks. This poses a problem for root vegetables. In addition, there is a compacted layer about a foot down that is so dense it feels like hitting stone when I dig post-holes. If this is also present under the vegetable garden, that is going to pose a drainage issue. To fix these problems, I am going to dig each bed out once, probably incidental with the harvest of sweet potatoes, and screen the soil before placing it back. Since I will rotate the crops each year, I will have dug and sifted each bed by the end of the sixth year, after which I can continue with a true no-till.

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Getting ready to harvest some daikon radishes with my friend Dana.

One permaculture concept I’ve borrowed is the use of cover crops to improve the soil. This first season, to bring up deep nutrients, I planted daikon radish in as much of the garden as I could spare. Daikon put their roots down deep, bringing up nutrients from far below the surface. They then store these nutrients in large, carrot-shaped taproots. These roots act as a type of tillage, breaking up the soil slowly without chopping up the worms like a rototiller would. At the end of the season, you cut them down and let them decompose in the soil, concentrating the nutrients near the surface where other plants can use them. I will also be using sunn hemp (a legume that fixes large amounts of nitrogen, reducing my fertilizer needs, and sudangrass, which kills harmful nematodes and weeds, as well as adding biomass when you cut it down at the end of the summer. Both of these will provide mulch until they decompose and fertilize the soil. This will cut back on the amount of fertilizer I add around my plants. By adding these carefully to my crop rotation, I can build up my soil structure during the off season while also out-competing the weeds.

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The male flower of a corn plant. Female flowers come out from between the leaf and stem.

I was too late to put in tomatoes, peppers, or squashes this year, but I plan on growing all of these next year. For those of you who are curious, here’s a list of the varieties I put in this year:

Turnips – Purple Top White Globe

Beet – Cylindra

Mustard – Southern Giant

Kale – Nero di Toscana

Cabbage – Charleston Wakefield

Broccoli Raab – Rapini

Pole Beans – Rattlesnake and Old Homestead

Asian Beans – Thai Purple Yardlong and Winged bean

Peas – Sugar Snap

Peanut – White Spanish Pearl

Corn – Country Gentleman

Sweet Potato – Boniato

Okra – Burgundy

Cowpea – Blue Goose and Big Red Ripper

You’ll notice that these are all heirloom varieties. I chose these varieties for a variety of reasons, including climate of origin, yield, and ease of growth, and while I probably won’t save seed this year, I would like to do so in the future. By using heirloom vegetables, I can be confident that the seeds will be the same as their parents, something that I cannot do with hybrids.

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This is what 25 pounds of daikon looks like. Of this, 9 pounds were root, and the rest makes delicious greens.

Besides daikon radish, which yielded about 25 pounds, my best producers so far have been the mustard greens and kale. So far I’ve gotten about 8 pounds of mustard greens and 5 pounds of kale. On the other hand, cabbage and rapini barely yielded at all, and the beets and turnips were small. The corn is finally starting to grow well, as are the beans and peas. As the weather warms, I will be replacing the greens with okra and sweet potato.

April

Sometime in August, I’ll cut down the remaining plants and use them for mulch, and let the chickens range in the garden beds for a month or so before planting in September. The chickens will hopefully eat any pests that remain in the beds, while fertilizing the soil and turning the top layer as they scratch for insects. Then, I will remove the chickens, clean up the beds, and plant for the next season, rotating each crop by one bed to reduce diseases.

Keep watch for my next article, featuring cute chicks!

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Welcome to the Homestead

Well… It’s finally happened. It’s hard to call yourself the Homesteading Hippy without a homestead, especially while living in an apartment or a friend’s spare bedroom. It’s hard, even when you rent enough space to make a garden, when you move every other year. Last fall, my wife and I made the step into homeownership, buying a place of our own. Now, I can finally get homesteading for real! All my practice runs, which some of you have followed over the years, can finally be put to proper use. Let me give you a tour.

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This is our house. It’s cute, isn’t it?

This is the house. It’s a sturdy little double-wide in near Tampa Bay, Florida. That’s USDA zone 9b, for the gardeners. It sits on a few acres of tupelo and live oak, with a good amount of grassy lawn. The previous owner obviously cared for it very much, and with a little paint job and new curtains it quickly became home.

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The vegetable garden is about 800 square feet.

Our primary consideration when we were searching the market, besides the commute, was lot size. We wanted something large enough to grow into, to provide food and fuel, and still have space left over for us. Of course, the first thing I did was to take out a 30 foot square of lawn to put in a vegetable garden, which is very different here in Florida in that we have a reversed growing season with mild winters and summers hot enough to kill most vegetables. I’ll write more about the garden soon, but here’s a picture of what we’ve got going on so far. Since I wasn’t able to plant until December, I only planted half of what I intend to be my future crop, and focused mostly on greens.

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We built this run onto the side of the garden shed. The coop is inside, and the birds can go back and forth through the door I cut in the siding.

This is our chicken coop. We have chickens! Everything I’ve read says that chickens are well worth it, so we decided to give it a shot. We ordered 20 Barred Plymouth Rock chicks, and ended up with 21 unsexed chicks (they sent a few spares, although we lost one early on). At this point, I can pretty well see which ones are going to be roosters. The plan is to butcher all but one or two of the males, and keep the hens for eggs. They have a 90-square-foot coop that I built into one of the sheds, and a 160-square-foot run built onto the outside of that shed. The plan, when they get old enough, is to free-range on the weekends, when I am home to keep an eye on them, but I want to make sure they have enough outdoor space to run while we’re at work. More on chickens coming soon.

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Sleepy chickens…

There are a fair number of banana plants around the property, but we are also putting in a small orchard in the back field. Currently, besides two little bananas that were already there, we’ve added a mango, a kaffir lime (since we cook a lot of Thai food), and two kumquat trees. They are growing slowly for now, since we’re in the dry season, but I hope they’ll pick up when the rains start in June/July.

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This is our little pomegranate. Hopefully it will get bigger.

We also have a few other fruit trees here and there. There are a few wild calamondin, a fertile cross between a mandarin and a kumquat, and some other wild citrus that I won’t be able to identify until they fruit. The previous owner also had a dwarf pomegranate and a small loquat tree, and we’ve planted a carambola (starfruit) by the front porch, that we’d been keeping in a pot until we moved.

One thing I’m doing differently this time is that I’m keeping meticulous records of what I am spending on homesteading projects, and what I’m getting back. I really want to try to reach some level of self-sufficiency, and that’s not going to happen if I don’t get back more than I put in. I fully expect to come out in the red for the first year or two while I build myself up, but my goal is to offset our grocery bill eventually. At this point, I have cost and yield spreadsheets for the vegetable garden, the chickens, and the fruit trees. I am not tracking our herb garden, since it would be a pain to weigh every pinch of thyme when I’m in the middle of cooking.

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Our herb garden has drip irrigation, inspired by my time in Arizona.

The herb garden is new, we just put it in two weeks ago. The local extension office was nice enough to give us a free microirrigation system for going to one of their water conservation workshops, and since I had plenty of experience with irrigation in Tucson, I was able to put all of our herbs on a micro system. In the morning, when I feed the chickens, I set the watering timer for 15 minutes, and the plants are watered without any effort on my part. We’ve got rosemary, oregano, thyme, two types of lavender, three types of basil, stevia, and citronella.

Anyways, I’ve rambled long enough. This is supposed to be part one of a short series. I’m working on future posts to go into more detail about these projects, so keep an eye out!

~The Homesteading Hippy

Pleco for Lunch

It’s been a while since my last post, and a lot has happened in that time. First of all, I moved again, this time to Tampa, Florida. I went to college in Saint Petersburg, just across the bay from here, so this is somewhat like coming home for me. Yesterday, I had an experience that I felt was worthy of my first blog post in a long, long time.

As you may know, Florida is just packed with invasive animals and plants from all over the world. Some of them are not so bad, living out their lives without doing too much damage. Others, like the pythons, snakeheads, and Brazilian pepper trees either consume or out-compete native species. Yesterday, I was fishing in one of the lakes near my house and while fishing for bait with a net I brought in this marvelous looking non-native fish.

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Meet the sailfin pleco, more precisely the Vermiculated Sailfin Catfish, Pterygoplichthys disjunctivus. It is a close relative of the algea-eating plecos sold for aquarium use, and that is almost certainly how it was introduced to Florida from its native home in South America. They look cute when they are a few inches long, but when they reach their adult size of nearly thirty inches, most people cannot keep them as pets, and someone must have dumped a few in a local river. They survived, bred, and now they are found throughout central and southern Florida. Plecos can be quite damaging because they dig out burrows in the banks of ponds and rivers, filling the water with mud and causing bank erosion. For this reason, when caught they should not be released back into the wild.

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I am not a fan of wasting any animal I kill, so I decided to try eating pleco. I knew they were edible, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife website had a vague reference to “cook them ‘in the shell'”, so I gave it a try.

The first challenge was cleaning the fish. Plecos belong to the family Loricariidae, the armored catfish. As the name suggests, the entire fish is covered in bony plates, which simply cannot be cut through. The underside is relatively soft, though, so I was able to open the body cavity through the belly and clean the fish that way. The armor meant that there was no chance of cutting fillets, though.

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For spices, I mixed sea salt with thyme, rosemary, oregano, and paprika, with which I coated both the inside of the body cavity and the outside of the shell. The whole fish went into a 400 degree oven for about 40 minutes.

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The process of eating pleco is very similar to eating lobster. Most of the meat is in the tail, so I broke the tail off (easy once the meat is cooked, just twist until it separates). Then, using a fork to jackknife the shell open, the meat was pretty easy to remove. The texture was very similar to juicy lobster, but the flavor very like pork, with a mild  fishy taste. Overall, a delicious meal that is totally different from any other fish I have eaten. I will definitely do this again if I ever catch another one. As if that wasn’t enough, my girlfriend also gave it her seal of approval. Not only is it delicious, it is also environmentally sound as a way to control a harmful invasive species which would otherwise damage the habitat that our native animals and plants depend on.

~The Homesteading Hippy

Sauerkraut with my Mom

I love sauerkraut. Besides its delicious taste and many health benefits, it is also, in a way, the reason that I began this blog.

It all started several years ago, when I was not working and bored out of my skull. In an effort to be productive, I started making some of my own food. I baked some bread, and posted the effort on my social media. I caught and cooked fish, and shared that. Then I made sauerkraut.

This involved a lot of explanation and photos, and by the time I was done, I had a small story posted on my social media page. I decided then that a blog would be a better platform for sharing my adventures, so I started writing longer stories, with more pictures, and The Homesteading Hippy was born.

Fast forward a few years, and I may be neglecting my blogging duties, but my adventures continue.

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I would like to interject here with a shout-out to the grandfather of modern sauerkraut, Genghis Kahn of Mongolia. Besides possibly being a direct ancestor to one out of every twenty of us in the world (more like one in ten in Europe), he is also responsible for a major culinary tradition. While people have been fermenting vegetables for a long time, Sauerkraut the way we think of it today was unheard of in Europe until dear Genghis, according to one form of the story, introduced it from Asia, where it had originally been invented in China.

During a recent visit to my parents, who inspired my interest in home-grown food (see their beekeeping blog here), my mother and I decided to make sauerkraut. She had received a fermentation jar with an airlock, and the first batch of sauerkraut had turned out wonderfully. But, as it had run out some time back, it was time to make more. We tried a slightly more advanced recipe this time, using a German-inspired recipe.

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It turns out that while Sauerkraut is loved throughout northern and eastern Europe, as well as parts of Asia, each region has its own traditional recipes. In eastern Europe, for example, they make a slightly sweeter variant that also includes shredded carrots. In Korea, there is kimchi (a whole other monster; I love it, but it’s not for everyone). In Germany, one of the local ingredients is juniper berry.

Off we went to the local health food store, bought a cabbage and a few tablespoons of juniper and carraway, and went to work.

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We first mixed the spices with a rather large amount of salt. For five pounds of cabbage, we used 1/3 cup salt, a tablespoon of juniper berries, and ½ tablespoon of carraway seeds. As I have mentioned in previous posts, salt creates an environment in which the only organisms that can thrive are the lactic acid bacteria that we want. They will ferment the cabbage and pickle it into sauerkraut

Next, we shredded the cabbage. During my first attempt, I did it all by hand using a knife, but we saved some time by using the grater attachment on a food processor. Into the fermentation jar went a layer of cabbage, followed by a generous sprinkling of salt and spices, and then more cabbage, etc. Each layer was firmly pushed down to the bottom of the jar.

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Once all the cabbage was in, we sealed the jar and waited. Sauerkraut has an important waiting step right in the beginning. During the fermentation process, it is important that the cabbage is submerged in liquid. This liquid is mostly released from the cabbage itself, drawn out by the salt to create a brine solution. Depending on the cabbage used, this is often enough liquid to completely submerge the cabbage.

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In our case, the cabbage was a bit dry, so we had to add a little brine, made by mixing 1 ½ tablespoons of salt with a quart of water, and add that until the cabbage was fully submerged. To keep it from floating, we added zip-lock bags filled with water on top of the cabbage.

At this point, all that is left to do is wait several months for the sauerkraut to mature!

~The Homesteading Hippy

Simple Lacto-Fermented Onions

My favorite type of pickling is lacto-fermentation, where bacteria break down sugars and produce lactic acid. These bacteria are not only incredibly healthy (they’re the same type that folks eat Greek yoghurt for) but they also add flavour to the food. It’s been a while since I’ve done any pickling, and I believe the last time was when I made corned beef right when I first started this blog.

Let’s start with a bit of biology. Normally, when critters, including us, use sugar for energy they need to take in oxygen to use in the reaction, and produce carbon dioxide. When the oxygen supply is cut off, the process comes to a screeching halt. For some organisms, lack of oxygen is no problem because they use a process called fermentation, which is simply the breaking down of sugars without using oxygen. We can use fermentation for short periods of time, when we are using lots of energy (say while sprinting) and can’t take in enough oxygen to supply all of the energy we need.

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Yeast performs one of the best-known forms of fermentation. They break down sugars and release ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide. For obvious reasons, this is called ethanol fermentation. Lacto-Fermentation, or lactic acid fermentation, is similar, except that the byproducts are lactic acid and carbon dioxide. This is the type we use when we sprint. Lactobacillus, the bacterium that makes yoghurt, also uses this reaction.

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To begin with, I built a new fermentation bucket. This is a food-grade two-gallon bucket with an airlock in the lid. The airlock allows carbon dioxide to leave the bucket, because the lid would pop off if the gas built up pressure inside. It also prevents oxygen from the outside air from entering, because as we covered, fermentation only occurs when there is no oxygen available.

We shredded six onions, three red and three white. I used this ratio before and liked the result, so I’m sticking with it. Using a mandolin makes the process quick and easy. Here’s Ace slicing onions.

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In the meantime, I prepared three quarts of brine. I got the salt/water ratio from this website, except that I used ice cream salt for one of the quarts and sea salt for the rest. The reason to use salt is that we don’t want ethanol fermentation in this recipe. Yeast is killed by salt, while Lactobacilli thrive in it. This is a simple way of selecting which form of fermentation we want. You can add spices, but I prefer not to, so that I can use the onions in any recipe I want.

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The onions go into the bucket and are covered with brine. To keep the onions submerged, place a plate over he onion and press down. It is important to keep the onions submerged to keep it from spoiling. Next, place the cover tightly on the bucket, and let it stand.

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The process can take over a month, so I will check on it every now and again. The easiest way to see that the reaction is occurring is to watch the airlock. If air is bubbling out you know that there is fermentation occurring.

~The Homesteading Hippy

Making Jackrabbit Sausage at Home

A few posts ago I promised you a recipe for Jackrabbit. Having played with a few dishes, I decided today to try making Jackrabbit Sausage. Ace’s parents gave me a meat grinder for Christmas, and this seemed like a good way to try it out. Since I don’t have a sausage stuffer, I decided to make bulk sausage instead, but if you wanted to this could just as easily go into links. Continue reading

Wild Flowers and Wild Greens

The weather has been unseasonably warm the last few days, and although we’re supposed to get some more rain soon, I enjoyed a hike though Catalina State Park last weekend. Because we’ve had such a wet winter, the desert is really springing into life!

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Carry Me Back to Old Virginia

The title is from the folk song “My Clinch Mountain Home” which describes how hard it is to leave Virginia permanently. Luckily, I have many reasons to come back to visit often.

Last week I went back to visit my family, where I spent most of my childhood. It was nice to see everyone again, and I got a little time to relax and take a break from work. Now that I’m back in Arizona, I’d like to share the few pictures I took while I was gone. Continue reading

Hunting Part 3: The Meat

This is the last of three articles on my hunting adventures in Arizona. Firstly, I had described how and why I got into hunting for food. After that, I described the hunt itself, and how I find and catch a rabbit. This time, I’ll explore how I prepare the rabbit once I’ve caught it. Continue reading

Hunting Part 2: The Hunt

This is part two of a three-part series on my recent introduction to hunting for food. The first article explained my reasoning and purchase decisions. This time, we will focus on the process of hunting itself. The next article will be on preparation of the animals once they are caught. Continue reading