DIY denim draft dodger

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Ugh. What a dismal picture. The hallway needs repainting pretty badly and the carpet needs cleaning again. The divots in the floor are from Matt’s weights, which don’t fit anywhere else in the house.

The door to the back room stays shut year round because it doubles as a pantry: it’s where I keep our garlic and potatoes and onions, as well as overstock foods in cans (like coffee, cooking oil, canned goods). It’s dry, but it needs to stay cool, too.

To help with that I decided to make a draft stopper. There’s a lot of different names for these things when I ran across a few sites that called them draft dodgers I couldn’t resist.

I followed the simple tutorial on The Little House in the City to make my draft dodger. My tube was not as wide as hers because I was putting mine at the bottom of a narrow door, so I had a little rice left over. (About that: I didn’t really want to waste food on this project but the price of beanbag filling was prohibitive and long grain white rice was only $0.53/pound in the bulk department at WinCo.) Getting the rice in there got interesting. It involved a death grip, a canning funnel, and some quick work. I spilled a little, but just a few grains – nowhere near the catastrophe I was anticipating. (I should have waited until Matt got home to take pictures of my contortions to fill the tube and then machine sew the end shut.)

While I was at it I threw a knee patch on my work jeans.

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Before.

During.

During.

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Part of my old sewing machine detaches from the sewing arm to make it narrower. Good for working on sleeves and legs.

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After.

— Amanda

Dead red pig: FYI

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Most of Red looks like this now.

Interesting facts:

  1. Red’s problem was not an illness or a disease.  It was, as I originally suspected, a dislocated hip.
  2. You can safely give pigs plain, uncoated aspirin at a rate of 5 mg per pound of body weight once every 6-8 hours.*
  3. Sausage-making really is disgusting.  Matt’s making some right this very second and the noises are both horrific and hilarious.  Lots of squelching and squealing and ketchup-bottle-farting sounds are coming from the KitchenAid.

— Amanda

*My reliable source is Texas A&M’s Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences school.

Carrots on the move

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Apparently this is a sign that the root cellar is too moist. (I’ve been so worried about the temperature being too high and I didn’t even think about the humidity level!) The carrots are sprouting – which will make them mushy – and the paper bags that the potatoes are in tear at the slightest tug.

The bottom of the fridge that we use for a root cellar (well, what would be the bottom if it were still a fridge, but which is now a side because it’s laying on its back in a hole in the ground) was missing when we rescued it from the garbage heap at the fairgrounds. We tacked some crap wood over it (not a typo – that’s what I call my scrap wood pile because so much of it is damaged and/or unusable) and called it good but that’s not doing anything to keep ambient moisture out.

For now I think I will move the carrots to what used to be the freezer compartment of the root cellar/fridge. The potatoes themselves seem just fine (hard as rocks) so I will try to devise a way of keeping them in the root cellar. The quick fix, of course, is just to put them in new paper bags (since I have no less than a dozen) but I think a better long term fix would be cloth bags (although those will need support to keep them upright and out of any water that might pool under the grate on the “floor”) or feed sack bags.

And next spring perhaps I will overhaul the root cellar into something more, you know, root cellar-ish. Something involving bricks or concrete blocks and a vent tube and whatnot. I’ll have to see what people are trying to jettison on Craigslist.

— Amanda

Storing potatoes

Bad, bad spud.

Bad, bad spud.

Most of the little scrapes on the skins of our potatoes healed over a few days after harvest. But those with big holes, either from pests or from getting stabbed with the compost fork during harvest, cannot be stored. They will, if they haven’t already, start to mold and fester around those gaping wounds.

Here’s what to look for when inspecting your homegrown taters for long-term storage: Pick them up one at a time a give them a good, thorough once-over. This is worth the time, trust me, because just as one bad apple can spoil the barrel one rotten potato can infect its neighbors and leave you with an inedible, hard-to-clean-up, stinky-ass mess.

  1. Look. Is the skin intact? If there are any small abrasions have they healed over (that is, is the spot darkened and dried to a tan color? It should not be damp and it should not be the color of the spud’s interior flesh.)? If yes, it’s OK to store. If there are any deep holes in the skin set it aside to be mashed for freezing or to be eaten in a week’s time.
  2. Feel. Are there any squishy spots? A good potato, just like a good apple, should be rock hard. If your potato has any give it needs to be eaten stat or, if too squishy, relegated to the compost heap.
  3. Smell. Perhaps the nick in the skin that let in the bacteria that are molding your potato was too small for you to see and perhaps the rot is deep inside and the structural integrity of your tuber is not yet compromised. How do you know? Smell it. A healthy potato smells like dirt or has a pleasant mustiness (like fresh straw or a used bookstore). There is no mistaking the smell of a potato that has started to turn: it smells quite powerfully like bad fish.

Potatoes store best in moist darkness (light will make them sprout) in a temperature range of 36 to 40 degrees (Fahrenheit). It’s still a lot warmer than that in our root cellar, but the root cellar is a lot cooler than the back room while it’s still summer.

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Not the ideal temperature. (You want it in that green zone) But our root cellar is cooler than our house!

This year’s potato triage resulted in three piles: 1) Gotta use it ASAP, 2) Better use it up in a week or so, and 3) Looks perfect, throw it in the dungeon. If it had a big hole or a squishy spot I carved those off and made plain, unseasoned mashed potatoes. Plain, raw potatoes don’t freeze well at home (commercial growers have flash freezers) because they form large crystals which thaw into watery mush. Boiled and mashed, with just a touch of milk, they thaw out a lot closer to the consistency of fresh mashed potatoes and can be used as is or in potato soup.

The tubers that needed to be used quickly, but not that very minute were kept in the kitchen and used within a week. (Thank goodness for the Labor Day BBQ that gave me an excuse to make a crapload of potato salad or we’d have gotten pretty sick of taters by the end of the week.)

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Inside our root cellar. There’s potatoes in those bags.

The magnificent specimens were bagged (in paper) and set in the root cellar where they should (fingers crossed) last for a few months. Remember that long term storage does not mean abandonment. Once every few weeks or once a month you need to get in there and root around and make sure everyone is still OK.

— Amanda

Double-duty onion drying rack

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We use a lot of onions around here. When we don’t have our own on hand it’s not unusual for me to burn through a three-pound bag of medium yellow onions in a week. But our own are better. We grow just one kind, called ‘Copra.’ ‘Copra’ has two great characteristics that have won me over forever: 1) They taste great. Not too sweet not too pungent – they caramelize well but they also hold their own when they need to. 2) Under the right conditions they keep for a year. A year. Really. When I have a large harvest of these bad boys I am sometimes still pulling and cooking seemingly fresh-from-the-garden onions off the braid in the back room on the same day I am digging up the new crop.

Last year, however, I didn’t get them dry enough before I braided them. I dried them, as usual, in the woodshed on my home-built compost sifter. But the ambient moisture must have been too high or I didn’t rotate them often enough or they weren’t out there long enough or (argh!) something. One of the gajillion variables of gardening turned on me and my pretty plaits molded and withered within a few weeks of moving inside and I didn’t get to use but a handful of my crop.

So this year I am trying something a little different. Inspired by the way that the professional growers at Heartsong Farm dry their garlic, I decided I would make a rack out of scrap wood (which, given the state of my pile, we increasingly refer to as “crap” wood) and leftover turkey netting (same as chicken wire but with 2″ holes). But that would have been a heck of a lot of work on a hot day for a great big rack that will just take up a lot of space when it’s not in use. So I made it up to fit the third raised bed in the front yard. Two of the beds have been planted with perennial crops (Jerusalem artichokes and asparagus) but one is currently empty, awaiting garlic planting time. I have learned the hard way that the Boll Weevil (our half-wild barnless barn cat) loves nothing like a freshly tilled and planted raised bed. So I make “cat proofers”: chicken-wire screens that fit snugly over the top of the raised bed and allow whatever’s been planted to grow up through the screen without letting Ms. B’s filthy little paws get purchase on my lovely compost and seeds. When the crop looks big enough to hold its own against our tiny tortoiseshell terror I remove the screen so that I can weed and cultivate as necessary.

Turns out that the really tricky part wasn’t making the screen but single-handedly hanging it from the rafters of the woodshed! One last thing: turkey netting has 2″ diameter holes and ‘Copra’ is a medium-sized onion averaging 3″ in diameter. Naturally, not all the bulbs got that big. But turkey netting also has half-sized holes along its edges and down the middle on either side of the reinforcing wire so I was able to put all but the very puniest onions up to cure.

— Amanda

P.S. The wood I used was originally part of our old box spring, which means I dismantled our bed to help make a garden bed. The rest of it has found its way into the garden, too: the wire grid is now a pleasantly rusty trellis for an espaliered rose, the “springs” themselves (actually just heavy-gauge wire trapezoids) have been repurposed into landscape staples, and the wood ribs were just put to use in the root cellar yesterday as a floor rack to elevate my produce off the plastic bottom. Only the grody-ass fabricy bits got sent to the dump. (I’m patiently awaiting that phone call from Amy Dacyczyn (author of the Tightwad Gazette) asking me tearfully to be her adopted daughter.)

Potatoes are up (in more ways than one)

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A portion of the potato harvest being weighed in the front yard using our new old produce scale.

We both love potatoes, and as long-time readers of this blog will know, we have had difficulties growing potatoes. We had a year where the seed spuds rotted in the ground before sprouting and two years where we lost all or most of the crop to flea beetles.

This year, thanks to crop rotation, pig poop, beneficial nematodes, and sheer luck, we got a decent crop. Not exemplary, but enough to make me grin like a fool even as I was sweating like a pig to fork up my treasures. In 2010 we had no potatoes. In 2011 about 28 lbs. This year we managed 67 lbs! We planted ‘Yukon Gold’ and ‘Red Lasoda.’ (Both tasty and good keepers, too.)

The trick now is storage. Last year I just stuck the taters in a milk crate in our storeroom and called it good. We don’t heat that room so it stays cool but not cold over the winter. It’s also where we keep packaged emergency foodstuffs, onions, and garlic. But temperature wasn’t the problem – light was. So this year the potatoes are being stored in paper and/or cloth bags. But where remains to be seen. Right now they are taking up most of the floorspace in the kitchen. If I can sort out whatever is keeping our as-yet-unused root cellar‘s temperature so high (that is, if I can get it down to 40 degrees from its current 60) I can put them in there for long-term storage. If not, they go in the storeroom – where it is also 60 degrees or better because its 90 degrees outside!

But that’s all for later. Right now I need to get out there and harvest the onions while the morning is still somewhat cool.

— Amanda

Yes, peas!

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A 4-quart ice cream bucket full o’peas on the shady back porch.

This morning I picked, shelled, blanched, and froze the first bucketful of fresh peas. We grow pole peas, instead of the much more popular bush peas, because we have more vertical than horizontal space available these days. The variety that has stolen my heart (by way of my taste buds) is ‘Alderman’, also known as ‘Tall Telephone.’ Fresh from the pod they are sweeter than sweet corn!

This year I am doing something I forgot to do last year, which is to save all the pods. If you are familiar with the Britcom ‘The Good Life‘ then you will understand my mad ambition to brew “pea pod burgundy.” This first picking yielded 10 oz of peas and just over 1 lb of pods so three more pickings will give me enough pods to try my hand at brewing! (And then, in sixth months, I can tell you how it tastes.)

— Amanda