You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘The Microstead’ category.
We have a pretty big house, since we both work at home. 1400 sq ft. It’s outfitted with a boiler and baseboard heating, but we hardly ever turn the thermostat on. That’s ‘cuz we heat with wood, and love it.
When we chose this house, a key convincing element was the very nice (if a tad small) woodstove, and 2 cords of truly dry firewood in the backyard. We moved here from a tipi-in-the-woods, creek-running-by lifestyle, and let me tell you– that woodstove saved my life. It’s not just the sight and sound of fire, which are pretty much universally loved, but the way a wood stove heats that I adore. When you heat with wood, there are lots of temperature fluctuations. It gets cold at night and when you leave for very long, but you can always make it toasty when you feel like being warm. The house is heated unevenly—the bathroom’s always freezing in winter, and I kind of love that too. I love the way a wood stove makes it warm and cozy in the middle, but chilly around the edges. The even, constant temperature of heating systems is just not my gig.
I always think of heating with wood as a preference, something we do because we love it. But we are also motivated by saving diesel. We never thought much about it until last winter. Before we left for three weeks at Christmas we had 100 gallons of heating oil put in our tank and set the thermostat at 50 degrees. When we got back, the tank was out! 100 gallons in less than a month, just to keep the house at 50?!?!?!
We burn through probably 4 cords of wood per winter. Say it took 150 gallons a month to keep our house at a reasonable 65; that would be 1200 gallons for 8 months of winter. Meaning a cord of wood- which G can cut and haul home in less than two trips (one day’s work, plus probably 4 gallons of gas) is worth 300 gallons of oil! Aside from the environmental aspect, each cord of wood saves our family more than $1200! A winter’s worth of heating with wood saves us almost $5,000!!!!
We burn mostly regular firewood- spruce and hemlock- which my husband cuts with a small chainsaw. But we also burn whatever scavenged leftover building materials I can find, and sometimes pallets. We have a Community Burn Pile here, which is awesome- keeps all lumber scraps, cleared brush and cardboard (not recycleable here) out of the dump. It could be much, much better (it’s not set up to scavenge, even though lots of people do, and often the best bits are already in the fire half burned) but it’s better than nothing. A few people are conscientious and put good stuff off to the side, and the fire’s not always going. So there’s often goodies.
This is where you city people come in. You maybe don’t have a burn pile to peruse, but there’s doubtlessly plenty of wood scavenging opportunities. Cities are full of new construction, just stop and ask one of the guys where their scrap pile is, every piece you haul off is one they don’t have to haul. Plus, I’ve found that most people have, somewhere in them, a voice of thrift. They might not want to go to the trouble themselves, but they like it if someone else reuses what they’re throwing out (exempted from this basic human decency are most grocery store owners, who will go to great lengths to keep you from getting their trash).
Also cities must be full of out-of-commission pallets, what with all that stuff getting trucked in, day in and day out. Look in the phone book under shipping companies, or freight. Call and ask first, or just go by. Of course, to get pallets you’d need a truck, a rack on your car, or a burly bike trailer. The standard size pallet is 3 ft x 4 ft. They’re pretty easy to cut up with a skill saw, just be careful not to hit any nails or staples.
If you live somewhere not too cold, you could easily heat your home with scrap wood. One big benefit of scrap is it’s already dry and cured. Even when it is wet, from sitting out in the rain, for some reason it burns better than similarly wet logs.
Anyone have advice, tips, or good stories to share about scrap wood scavenging?
So now, on to how to freeze your pipes!
It’s been cold here, 5-15 degrees, for more than two weeks. Pipes are freezing all over town. But how we froze ours was like this:
First we ran out fuel (the boiler, which we don’t much use to heat the house, we do use for our hot water) on a Saturday night. They’ll deliver on Sundays, but it’s extra expensive, so I waited till Monday morning to call.
They came Monday afternoon, put in our usual can’t-afford-to-fill-it 100 gallons, I fired the boiler back up, we had hot water, no problem.
Three days later, during the night, the pipes to the kitchen and bathroom froze. But not bad, there was about half an hour of panic, with the faucets on full but nothing coming out. Then, sputter, sputter, all’s well! Checked under the house, no burst pipes, phew!
We turned the thermostat up, thinking to really heat things up.
But it wouldn’t come on.
The long and short of it is that (I think) the baseboard pipes get a residual heat from the hot water system. When we ran out of fuel and didn’t use any hot water for 36 hours, the baseboard pipes froze, somewhere under there. Probably didn’t help that the corners and edges of our house were freezing cold, as I mentioned above loving. Anyway, we didn’t notice because we don’t use the boiler for heat. So they had a good three more days to get a nice, hard freeze going before we caught on. Then it took a few more days of running a heater under the house to thaw them.
Still seems to be no burst pipes though. Lucky us. But we’ve learned our lesson, when it’s really cold, we’ll keep the sink running, and keep the thermostat set high.
This may seem a strange time to be thinking garden, but the deepest depths of winter is when I think most about my garden. I do my best to keep notes all summer, but I don’t sit down and process what I’ve learned until January. So now, as you can see by my garden review, I’m processing. In preperation for a dive into the seed catalogs.
We might as well get this out of the way: I adore seed catalogs to the point of addiction.
I try to limit myself to ordering from just two catalogs, and two or three varieties of each vegetable, but it’s hard. All those different colors and shapes of carrots, how could I choose just one? In my defense, I’ve found that in our marginal climate, variety can be hugely important. Tuscan Black kale, gorgeous and delicious though it is, freezes out months earlier than Red Siberian (I grow both, and just harvest my Tuscan first).
Next summer though is going to be a very different garden. We’re leaving for some as yet unknown big city down south in early August (my husband’s going to law school!), and around here, not much matures before August. Lettuce, radishes, broccoli, bunching onions. Going through the seed catalogs is going to be a serious lesson in restraint!
So, my point was to share my faves, and I definitely think you should order real paper catalogs– there’s nothing like curling up in a chair by the woodstove with a hot cup of coffee and a stack of seed catalogs!
Seeds of Change is by far the most eye-candy garden catalog. And all their seed is organic. But I get some “too-smooth” vibe off of it and wasn’t too surprised to hear it’s owned by Mars.
Seed Saver’s Exchange is the folks I feel best buying from. Their main thing is an actual exchange you can sign up ($30) to be a part of– you get a giant book of varieties grown and offered by other seed savers all over the country. You basically just pay for shipping and they send you some. But for the rest of us, SSE also has a regular catalog, full of beautiful heirloom varieties.
However, considering all the varieties I need to try, I can’t afford to order all my seed from the above two, so I also order lots from Pinetree Garden Seeds. Their deal is xtra small packages of seed, for a very low price. Who really needs 500 broccolis anyway? Their seed packets are plenty big for most things (except carrots, and anything you plant real thick to harvest as a baby salad) and cost around $1.
Well kids, enjoy! And be careful!
Well, when I look at this list of my garden harvest, it makes me feel pretty good. But when I compare it to my early spring garden plan, it makes me want to cry. Some things did great, but there were some huge disappointments. That 4 heads of cabbage looks fine to someone who just thinks of cabbage as a marginal crop. But cabbage here is a mainstay, and I planted 13!
I had some horrible thing happen to my starts this spring, they were so dwarfy. I mean, not just small or leggy, but freakishly miniatured. Like bonsai starts. Not all of them, thank god, but a lot of my cabbages. I eventually (while reading Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth) came to the conclusion that my seed had been attacked by some kind of mold or other moisture villain. She really stresses that seed must be kept dry, and I always just kept mine in a box in our Cordova ambient air (some of the wettest air on earth). The thing is, I thought if seed survived, it was fine, so I pre-sprouted all my old seed, and then blithely planted those that germinated. Sometimes only a few out of a whole pile would germinate. And I’d plant ‘em. But she says that seed vitality is compromised long before a seed is truly killed. Which makes perfect sense with my this-summer experience. I had a range of vitalities to be sure. Much reflected the age of the seed, ie: fresher seed grew better. But not entirely. One variety of cabbage that was this year’s seed didn’t germinate at all. I suspect this is because when I got it in March, I put it in the box, right next to the other infected cabbage seed, and the nasties just jumped straight in.
So, the upshot is, either I have to order fresh seed every year, or I have to dry my seed as per Suzanne’s instructions with silica beads, and then store in an airtight container in the freezer. Either way I have to throw out all the leftover seed from this year and start fresh next spring.
My leeks sprouted fine and grew big healthy transplants, no mold scourge. The leeks and onions (Mini-Purplettes) more than anything else, showed their appreciation for the plastic cover. I really packed ‘em tight this year, and got lots more food/sqft. I’ve found planting distances different in this short, cold season. Most vegetables that I grow are simply not getting as big as they would elsewhere, which means they don’t need as much space. This is more or less significant depending on the vegetable. Brassicas I plant at pretty standard spacing. The alliums are the biggest difference. Leeks, which would normally, even in a deep bed get 8×8 inch spacing, I plant in doubles at 6×6, and then I put an onion (mini “spring” onions) between. I pull the onions in mid-late July. Then I start pulling the smaller of each of the leek doubles. Eventually I pull my as-big-as-they’re-gonna-get leeks, which are anywhere from green onion sized to small leek from the store sized. For the record, I did first try them at standard spacing, and they didn’t get any bigger. The difference in size between my leeks more reflects placement– those on the sunny side of my sunniest bed get the biggest.
I tried mulching some of my leeks this year, for the first time ever. I don’t know why, but certain common practices I shuck as stupid and unnecessary without ever even trying. But at least I am open to eventual convincing. And, of course, I found that mulching leeks does indeed make the thick white shank longer… So I will be a leek mulcher now. I promise. I should note that I use all the green part too, and love it. My leeks are small, so the greens are tender and tasty. Stronger and “greener” tasting than the white part, but quite good.
I trialed 5 different varieties of broccoli and definitely liked Small Miracle best. Yes, it is a hybrid, but I’m not sure I’m completely opposed to hybrids. I get such a small crop/square foot from broccoli, it’s not really economical to grow. But we love broccoli! You can only eat so much carrots and kale, and as you can see from my harvest list, I already capitalize on those powerhouses pretty well. So I grow broccoli, even though it doesn’t make sense. But this so called Small Miracle really is a significantly smaller plant (without being a much smaller head), which means you could plant it at maybe 1 foot spacing, instead of 18 inches. But more importantly, the plant- stalk, leaves, etc- is all smaller and more tender. Much better for eating. I was eating all my broc plants this year, trying to get more food out of ‘em. The central stalk is actually really good, crunchy like kohlrabi (basically is kohlrabi), but you gotta peel the incredibly tough skin off. By the time a standard broc makes it’s head, that “skin” is more like a thin layer of wood. A knife hardly cuts it. I daresay only really stalwart food rescuers would hazard the trouble, and possible flesh wounds. But the S.M. skin is much more manageable. I don’t much like the leaf stalks, but the leaves themselves, the peeled central stalk, and of course the florets, make a decent amount of food/square foot. Something I can live with.
One note here, I’ve always in previous years left my broc plants in to keep making side shoots, but they never make many, I think it’s the climate. Even though we don’t get frost till October, it starts getting cold and rainy in August (if it wasn’t cold and rainy all through June and July too) so things don’t do much more growing. This summer I decided to try pulling the whole plant when the main head was ready, and replacing them with kale starts. I really liked this, felt lots more productive even though my first batch of kale starts met a sorry end (I didn’t realize the tray I put all my 6-packs in outside was the kind without drainage holes. Then the rain came) and their replacements were started too late, so they never got very big.
Which brings me to another shortcoming. My main crop of kale was planted mid- May, and it matured beautifully. No complaints. But the kale I planted 6/16, to fill various garden holes, only got half-sized. Kale planted 6/25 never got bigger than baby salad sized. And that’s even in covered beds! This ought to give you an idea of what kind of climate I’m working with. (Kale and carrots are the only things I direct seed, the rest I start inside and transplant out.) Those generalized planting date guides always infuriate me. Here, anything planted after mid-June won’t mature, and anything planted after July won’t grow at all.
Carrots did great this year, which is key. I do love me a homegrown carrot. In fact, I can hardly choke down the store bought variety. I grew my carrots incredibly close this year, with the idea of harvesting babies out from between.
So back to the carrots, this year I planted my rows 2 inches apart, with the seed in one row spaced at 2 inches, the next (baby row) at 1 inch. After harvesting the babies out (late July) the rest were left at 2×4 inch spacing. You should know that I hate, and I do mean hate thinning. So I plant at the distance I want, with, okay, here we go, I’ll admit it… tweezers. But just ‘cuz I use tweezers doesn’t mean I use a ruler, so all these measurements are approximate. I should also mention that I’m planting pre-sprouted seed, so theoretically each seed I plant is viable and grows into a carrot.
Which brings me to the most devastating scourge of my 2008 garden: Slugs.
It’s not that I don’t have slugs every year. We have a disgustingly massive slug problem here. An imported species, called Black European slugs slime their way around in shocking, even horrifying numbers. We also have a little brown native slug, which until this year, I almost had an underdog-ish affection for.
I’m afraid it might be my compost. I finally, after three summers of composting had something worthy of the garden. I spread it around with joyful abandon. But had it been sitting in a pile in the backyard open and available for slugs to lay eggs in for three years? Yes. I don’t know if that’s what it was, but it seems possible.
I had thought that the plastic hoop covers would help with slugs, like- keep them out. But my garden was more full of slugs than ever before. Did they go in there and get trapped? Did they hatch in there and get trapped? Either way, since the beds were covered, I couldn’t maintain the same kind of slug patrol I usually practice. Whenever I did pull up the plastic, I found dozens of the little brown bastards, eating my crops.
And I don’t mean, nibbling unsightly holes, or eating all the outer leaves into leaf skeletons as they’d done in previous years. I can live with that. I mean eating entire transplants, down to the ground. NO THING left, bare dirt where a plant had yesterday been. In this short season, you don’t get a second chance. That’s part of how 14 cabbage starts became a mere 4 heads of actual cabbage. They also ate huge swaths out of my carrots, and even my kale. The lettuce didn’t seem to much interest them…?!?!
Just now, as I write this, I’m wondering if it wasn’t the fact of creating an artificially warm environment. Maybe, in the usual course of things, my plants are bigger by the time the slugs really hit. Maybe by covering my bed with plastic I hatched slugs out extra early….. dear god.
One thing I have noticed, which really creeps me out, is that even now, mid-December, when I pull kale or even leeks from under the plastic in my snow and ice covered garden, there are little brown slugs on it. Really fucked up looking zombie slugs that barely move, but do move. I throw them in for my chooks and try not to think about it.
While we’re talking failures, I’d better offer up my bean and zuke story. Every year I try to grow zucchini. The gardening books always make it sound like The One Sure Thing. Well, finally this year, I got a zuke. It was about two inches long, and about to rot. Damn tasty though, if I do say so myself.
The plants always look real good on my table by the window, jungle-crazy even. But when I put them outside in early June, they go downhill, and fast. It just ain’t warm enough here I guess. Well, this year I was going to be using protection! Surely my little jungle plants would be happy under that restructured petroleum! I was so cocky I even decided to try snap beans. I love home grown zucchini, but I adore home grown green beans. I restrained myself to two kinds, a green and a purple, oh I could taste them already, lightly steamed with glistening butter….
I’ll spare you the details. The long and short of it is that I put some very happy looking plants outside, the second week in June, under plastic, and they still withered to within an inch of their lives. They did manage to eek out a possibility for the next generation though. One 2 inch zuke, and about 7 baby green beans. Okay kids, dinner! Hope yer not too hungry.
So. That about wraps it up. 2008’s joys, devestations and heart-breaks, in a nutshell. Or, not so small, really. A coconut shell.