Making Ethical Butter

Vegan butter!

Vegan butter!

I’ve labeled myself an ‘ethical vegetarian’ for nearly two decades.  I stopped eating animals when I became horrified at the dichotomy of having glue traps under the house to catch wild rats and mice (and any poor, poor animal that happened upon it, such as lizards. Glue traps are horrendously cruel. I hadn’t put them there.) and a cage with an exercise wheel and specialty food for ‘pet’ mice in the bathroom. Justice is a man-made effort, and by not eating animals I was no longer approving of mass torture by buying into it. Although I no longer ate animals, I have still indulged in animal products, namely dairy products. Slowly it has sunk in how badly animals are treated for those, too. As someone who loves cooking, it has been difficult for me to wean away from dairy products. Butter is especially difficult. Unlike hens who have been bred to continuously lay without needing the services of a rooster, dairy cows must be lactating to produce milk. Cows are usually artificially inseminated, then after giving birth their calves are replaced by milking machines. The calves are most often slaughtered for veal. This process is repeated until the cow is used up from the constant pregnancies and lactating, and then she is slaughtered. This horrible practice is disguised by advertisements showing happy cows grazing in fields. That is a fantasy. ‘Grass fed’ and ‘pasture raised’ are sly terms that give you an image that is nowhere near to the truth. Please read Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma to understand where your food comes from and why.

To find an acceptable butter substitute has been an expensive and frustrating endeavor.   For awhile I used a dairy substitute from Trader Joe’s, who I swear keeps tabs on what I buy the most and then discontinues it. All other butter substitutes either taste horrible, can only be used for spreading, or more commonly contain palm oil. The sudden fad for palm oil has created extreme clearance for the growing of palm in the areas which are habitat for the orangutan; indeed, if we don’t curtail our consumption of palm oil quickly the orangutan will go extinct within our lifetimes.

I finally found a recipe for a butter substitute that works pretty well for both spreading and baking. It is made mostly of refined coconut oil. At this point coconut oil is sustainably produced – please make sure that you support companies that do so. Refined organic coconut oil has no flavor or scent; unrefined has a mild coconut flavor and a toasted coconut scent. If you are using a batch of this butter for baking where coconut flavor is desired, then use the unrefined.

This recipe is by no means my own. I found it and a detailed description of the science behind it at VeganBaking.net . There are several options listed and a lot of cooking science behind the butter.

The mouth-feel is amazingly creamy and satisfying.

The mouth-feel is amazingly creamy and satisfying.

I used the basic recipe, Regular Vegan Butter, Coconut Oil Base. The recipe calls for curdling the soy milk, which will drive the butter flavor. I tried the full teaspoon of cider vinegar, then half cider vinegar and half coconut vinegar, then just half a teaspoon of coconut vinegar, and finally no vinegar, and thus no curdling, at all. I found for my taste that the vinegar flavor carried through and was much too dominant. Even at just half a teaspoon it was so noticeable to me that I didn’t like it on toast. It was good, however, when my daughter used it on sourdough and topped it with fresh avocado. The slight vinegar flavor enhanced the avocado deliciously.

The batch I made without vinegar seemed perfect. The mouth-feel of this butter with or without the vinegar is creamy and all that a high-fat butter should be. It looks, cuts and spreads like butter. The flavor is creamy and very mild, almost like a slightly salted sweet butter. This was a winner for me. For the soy milk I used Trader Joe’s Organic Plain, which does have some sweetener in it. I’ll try with an unsweetened plain organic soy milk another time.

I keep my butter on the counter. I know that organic butter holds its shape better in the heat than processed butter, but both stay stable unless the temperature is in the 80’s. Coconut oil melts at 76F, and in my summertime Southern Californian kitchen, this vegan butter must be kept in the refrigerator. The butter is hard when needed, so the next batch I will take the author’s advice and swap out a tablespoon of coconut oil with regular oil to make it more spreadable.

I wanted to test the butter in cooking and baking. I melted it in a pan and cooked eggs and other breakfast items in it successfully. I used it on toast and on mashed potatoes with great success. The experiment with shortbread cookies went wrong, however, but I don’t think that that was the butter’s fault. These were lemon rosemary shortbread cookies, and contrary to my baking sense I followed the author’s (another blog) directions and didn’t sift the powdered sugar before adding it. There were lumps, therefore, in the batter and I mixed it extra to try and beat them out, which I believe was responsible for making the cookies tough. They were flavorful, but not crumbly. Oh well, I’ll just have to try again! The cookies rolled out, cut, and baked well, retaining their shape and performing as well as with cow’s butter.

Shortbread didn't spread using this butter, which was great.  I don't have a finished photo of the lemon-rosemary cookies because,  well, they were eaten.

Shortbread didn’t spread using this butter, which was great. I don’t have a finished photo of the lemon-rosemary cookies because, well, they were eaten.

As with all substitutions, there is always a difference and vegetarians and vegans have to embrace it. Of course fake bacon and ground ‘meat’ is not quite the same: the great part is that it is far more healthy for your body (lower fat, few preservatives if any, often organic, and not the pesticide-drenched and drugged animals that people eat) and doesn’t perpetuate the extreme cruelty to animals about which humans have become nonchalant. Yes, other animals aren’t kind when feeding off of other animals (those which aren’t vegetarians). Yet we as humans have the option the others don’t, to make eating choices.

Here is the basic revised recipe; please see the original blogpost on VeganBaking.net and give the options a try. I found xanthan gum from Bob’s Red Mill at my local grocery store, and liquid lecithin and coconut vinegar online through Amazon.com.

You can double or triple the recipe with no problem!  Enjoy.

Ethical Butter
Author: 
Recipe type: Condiment
Cuisine: Vegan
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
 
A wonderful vegan butter with no palm oil, but lots of options. My version is without curdling the soy milk. Please see the original excellent post for more explanations and options.
Ingredients
  • ¼ cup + 2 teaspoons organic plain soy milk
  • ¼ + ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup + 2 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon (130 grams) refined coconut oil, melted to room temp.
  • 1 teaspoon liquid soy lecithin or liquid sunflower lecithin or 2 ¼ teaspoons soy lecithin granules
  • ¼ teaspoon xanthan gum or ½ + ⅛ teaspoon psyllium husk powder (I used xanthan gum)
Instructions
  1. Combine soy milk and salt in a food processor or blender.
  2. Melt the coconut oil until it is just room temperature and barely melted.
  3. Add the coconut oil and the rest of the ingredients to the soy milk.
  4. Blend or process for about 2 minutes on low.
  5. Pour into ice cube trays, or into butter molds or trays.
  6. Freeze until firm, about an hour.
  7. Serve.
  8. Keep wrapped in refrigerator for a month, or frozen for a year.
  9. Makes one cup.

 

 

Watermelon Radish

It looks a little like an alien species!

It looks a little like an alien species!

We’ve planted a lot of new varieties this year.  Still there are seed packages left unopened!  So much fun, though.  One veggie that we bought from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is a beautiful radish called Chinese Red Meat Radish, or Watermelon Radish.

The green/white/pink outer color on the swollen roots is a little disconcerting.

The green/white/pink outer color on the swollen roots is a little disconcerting.

I’m not a huge fan of radishes.  They grow quickly, help identify rows of slower-growing seeds, and are great for kids to plant.  Still neither me nor my tummy really likes the strong radish flavor.

Slicing into them is a little creepy.

Slicing into them is a little creepy.

The Watermelon Radish, however, are large, crisp and  sweet on the inside.  My daughter  cut them into small triangles and  stir-fried them.  They had a little of the bitter radish flavor, but if you expect that you will be delighted at the taste and color.

These brilliant little wedges don't hold much heat and are great raw, in stir-fries, or lightly cooked on their own.

These brilliant little wedges don’t hold much heat and are great raw, in stir-fries, or lightly cooked on their own.

Younger ones have more of a starburst of red in the center.  Older ones  grow brilliantly red, set against the green outer  skin, as dramatic as a dragonfruit.

The brilliant center color is fantastic.

The brilliant center color is fantastic.

Radishes are cool-weather plants; these I planted late but were shaded by vigorous volunteer currant tomatoes that are taking over the bed!

When planting annuals, plant your favorites but don’t forget to play.  There are so many varieties of veggies, herbs and flowers available now, especially heirloom and organic (non-GMO!).  Why not try some and share the seed with friends?

 

 

Striving for Healthier Hens

Nora and Branwyn enjoying the sun on our windowseat.

Nora and Branwyn enjoying the sun on our windowseat.

The last six months have been very difficult chicken-wise.  We lost Chickpea to a coyote, who snatched her a few yards from us, we lost Miss Amelia and Madge from unknown ailments, and we’ve nursed chickens back to health as well. Mulan had a prolapsed uterus, which we cleaned, stuffed back in coated with honey from our own bees and bandaged.  She recovered and is laying happily, thank goodness.  Viola and a couple of others had impacted crop, which means that they swallowed something like long pieces of grass which have blocked up the exit from their crop to their stomach.  There have been many mornings I’ve spent making a chicken throw up, without breaking her neck or suffocating her.  We’ve been frazzled with the health of our hens, all purchased through feed stores.  Our past chicken experiences had no egg binding, no septic peritonitis, no crossbill (which should have been bred out of the hens) and no infected eyes.

I’ve purchased mostly organic feed for them, and given them greens in their large Fowl Fortress or brought them into the fenced yard for grazing.  Organic feed is amazingly expensive.  Since we don’t eat the hens and we use their eggs as one of our main protein sources, they need to be in good productive health.  Chickens can live ten years or more, and lay that long, too.  Ours seem to top off at three.

I tried fermenting their food.  Fermented food is all the rage and I read many articles about the health benefits of fermenting chicken food.  In a 5-gallon bucket I’d mix water and their lay crumbles along with some cracked corn and wait a couple of days until it smelled yeasty.  Then I’d give them some and replenish the bucket.  It took awhile for the hens to come to like the food, but it didn’t seem to do anything for their health.  In our warm San Diego weather it was tricky to not have the fermented food spoil.  Eventually I gave that up.

One of the hen’s purposes  in the garden  is to create compost.  They excel at pooing.  When the opportunity arose to be able to pick up discarded fruit and vegetables from the Fallbrook Food Pantry four times a week, I jumped at it.  Much of the produce is still edible for the hens; when mixed with pooey straw and dirt the chickens could grub out, well, grubs and fly larvae and eat more naturally.  Although we’re still picking it up, we are devoting hours a week lugging stinky veggies around.  It is hard and heavy work, and the fly population has exploded.  However we have seen more flycatchers hanging around the yard recently and the phoebe is truly fat.  I shovel and rake the produce mixed with carbon sources (paper goods from the house mostly) and then the hens kick it all over.  It is good exercise for them, they eat far less lay crumble, and they are producing some very good quality compost for the veggie garden.  Their health has been better.

One of the reasons that the hens came down with just about every known illness was because they were purchased from hatcheries.  Hatchery birds live in hell from the second they are born.  Since few people want roosters, the male chicks are swept into trash bags and thrown away, live.  The female  chicks are inoculated  and packaged up for shipment through the mail.  There are always extra chicks packed in because the heat of the ones on the outside keep the ones on the inside warm enough to possibly survive the stressful, hungry, thirsty and brutal trip.  Therefore the ones on the outside of the bundle are sacrificial.  I didn’t want to support this animal cruelty any longer.

I decided to find a local breeder who cared for her hens.  I found someone who seemed reputable; her  mother owns a feed store and the woman breeds horses, dogs and hens.  On conversation with her I learned that she had imported chickens from good stock and bred them at her place.  The hens weren’t inoculated, but that wouldn’t matter to us since we have a small isolated flock.  With glee I ordered four pullets, from several weeks old to a couple of months.  They were different breeds and were to lay different egg colors.  We sectioned out the back of the Fowl Fortress and happily put the girls in.  Not long after we found out they were crawling with lice.  None of our other girls had lice, thank goodness.  Upon contacting the woman she said that she’d put Frontline on the hens per advice from her vet.  We smeared Vaseline around the eggs that encrusted their necks and powdered  diatomaceous earth on their bodies.  We’ve repeated the treatment, but we haven’t won the war yet.  I noticed when we picked the girls up that the blue maran, Nora, had a watery eye.  That eye became infected, and we learned that it was probably a small eyeball, and now she’s blind in that eye.  Just a few days ago her other eye was bothering her so we are treating it.  She is underweight, and Miranda noticed that her beak was overgrown so it was hard for her to peck food.  Miranda trimmed it, having had lots of experience with our poor late crossbill, Belle.  So Nora lives for the time being in the house as we hope that she doesn’t go completely blind, and as we try to feed her up so that if the time comes when we can reintroduce her, the flock won’t attack her.

Branwyn balancing herself on her weak forelegs.

Branwyn balancing herself on her weak forelegs.

Then there is Branwyn.  She’s a feisty olive-egger.  A few weeks ago Miranda noticed that Branwyn’s legs were bowing out as she walked.  By the time she brought the bird up to the house she was paralyzed in both legs.  Our immediate fear was Merek’s disease, which is highly communicable and would have meant death for all our birds, sterilization of the coop and no hens for six months or more.  Within days Branwyn showed signs of moving her left leg.  Miranda configured a Rubbermaid container as a bouncy chair, tying a t-shirt across it and cutting leg holes through it so Branwyn could rest with legs down and feet touching the bottom.  Later, Miranda cut the legs from an old pair of tights and stuck Branwyn through to bounce her across the floor,  giving her physical therapy.  Sounds nutso, I know, but its working.  Branwyn’s left leg is much stronger and she’s beginning to force her right leg to work.  She can’t stand, but she can now get her feet under her.  We still don’t know what was wrong with her; some kind of neurological disorder or possibly vitamin deficiency.  We were giving her Vitamin E and B complex with selenium heavily for a week and saw her initial improvement.  Vitamin deficiency can be inherited; common chicken feed should have enough in it, especially when combined with vitamins in their water.

Miranda walking Branwyn in her sling made of old tights (to the tune of Surrey With The Fringe On Top).

Miranda walking Branwyn in her sling made of old tights (to the tune of Surrey With The Fringe On Top).

Lark, who was huge with sterile peritonitis, was drained by the vet and is several pounds lighter and much happier.  She’s with the rest of the flock.  Since we have no idea what caused the condition (she’s barren), it might happen again but for now she’s back kicking fruit around with the rest.

I still don’t want to participate in the hatchery butchery and torture.  Anything mass-produced, be it animals, food, plants or products, are rooted in cruelty: sweat shops in other countries, underpaid workers, poor root stock, diseased, malnourished and maltreated animals, unhealthy chemical-laden food.  I’m holding off on purchasing any new hens, even though I wanted a  lavender Americauna.  I still think that buying local, while more expensive, is better.  For whatever reasons this batch have all been ill.  In fact, the only hens we’re treating right now are all four of the new girls!

Chickens have wonderful personalities and make great pets, and they are pets; having a few hens for eggs and meat sounds easy but just like any living thing they require work.  Especially OUR hens, who must know we won’t cull them and have decided that we are an early retirement home with personal nursing care.  I wish I could look forward to such a deal!

Permaculture Lectures At Finch Frolic Garden, June 2014

Tour Finch Frolic Garden!

Tour Finch Frolic Garden!

Permaculture Lectures in the Garden!

Learn how to work with nature and save money too

Finch Frolic Garden and Hatch Aquatics will present four fantastic, information-filled lectures in June.  Join us at beautiful Finch Frolic Garden in Fallbrook, 4 pm to 6 pm, for refreshments and talks on…

Saturday, June 7: Introduction to Permaculture and Finch Frolic Tour: We’ll take you through the main precepts of permaculture and how it can be applied not only to your garden, but to yourself and your community.  Then we’ll tour Finch Frolic Garden and show rain catchments, swales, plant guilds, polyculture, living buildings and so much more.

Saturday, June 14: Your Workers in the Soil and Earthworks: Learn the best methods for storing water in the soil and how to replace all your chemicals with actively aerated compost tea and compost.

Saturday, June 21: Aquaculture: You can have a natural pond – even in a tub!  How natural ponds work, which plants clean water and which are good to eat.  Even if you don’t want a pond, you’ll learn exciting information about bioremediation and riparian habitat.

Saturday, June 28: Wildlife in your Garden: What are all those bugs and critters and what they are doing in your yard?  We’ll discuss how to live with wildlife and the best ways to attract beneficial species.

Your hosts and lecturers will be

Jacob Hatch  Owner of Hatch Aquatics. With years of installing and maintaining natural ponds and waterways, and a Permaculture Design Course graduate, Jacob has installed earthworks with some of the biggest names in permaculture.

Miranda Kennedy  OSU graduate of Wildlife Conservation and wildlife consultant, Miranda photographs and identifies flora and fauna and maps their roles in backyard ecosystems.

Diane Kennedy  Owner of Finch Frolic Garden, lecturer, consultant, Permaculture Design Course graduate, former SDC Senior Park Ranger, Diane educates homeowners on how to save money and the environment while building their dream gardens.

Each class limit is 50 attendees, so please make pre-paid reservations soon before they fill up.  Fee for set of four lectures and tour is $45 per person.  Single session fee is $20 per person. Contact Diane Kennedy at dianeckennedy@prodigy.net for reservations and directions.

 

      You will not want to miss this fascinating and useful information!

The Albedo Effect: How Bare Earth Causes Wild Weather

This week's 100F+ temperatures and high Santa Ana winds have fueled three fires close to us.  It is May, not October.

This week’s 100F+ temperatures and high Santa Ana winds have fueled three fires close to us. It is May, not October.

Albedo is a reflection coefficient.  In layman’s terms it is the effect that happens when sunlight is reflected off of white areas.  There is the high albedo of bare earth, snow and ice, and clouds, and the low albedo of water and vegetation.  There is less reflection from dark areas such as off of water and green areas, and darker areas, just like dark clothing, absorbs more heat rather than reflects it like white clothing does.  There are arguments that we should cut down all the trees to increase white space to stop global warming.  NO!  The plant life that occupies the green spaces transpire water and excess heat into the air, causing cloud cover. Clouds, of course, insulate the earth from the sun and their albedo effect is cooling to the earth, not to mention that clouds amass moisture and – bingo – you get rain.  It is the loss of green areas and the desertification of large masses of Africa, and the in-progress desertification of the already drier areas of the world (such as California) that makes the albedo effect one that is helping warm our climate.  Great tracks of land now reflect light into cloudless skies; water sources dry up and plants die so transpiration disappears.  The loss of air-borne water (evapotranspiration)  allows areas around the desert area to also dry out.  The rapid change of climate due to desertification, loss of topsoil and the resulting erosion and the melting of our ice caps (creating larger oceans and thus larger thermal masses to reflect heat) causes severe weather patterns – weather patterns that balance out huge dry desert areas with destructive rain and wind storms in other areas.  Drying areas ignite… here in San Diego North County there are five fires burning as I sit, and heavy smoke and ash rain down on everything between them.  My house is not threatened at this time, but we may be evacuated.  So many people are evacuated right now and the highways are packed.  There is another fire near San Diego, and two between here and Los Angeles.  It is May – usually we have these temperatures, wild winds from the desert called Santa Ana winds, and fire threat in October.  Our lack of rain doesn’t bode well for California.

My point is that to help balance nature out again, we need to hurriedly lessen the amount of reflected light in areas where we were traditionally covered by plants.  We need to plant.  We need to plant native plants.  We need to re-green our landscapes, in each backyard and vacant lot, as quickly as we can.  Allow the plants to keep moisture in the soil, to slow flooding, to transpire moisture into our atmosphere so that rain comes back to the desert areas.  We need to hold what rain that falls in our soil by burying wood (hugelkultur), by creating level swales and mulching, mulching, mulching.  Yet on trash day I see bags and bags of leaves set on the street ready to go to the dump. We need to stop erosion areas by using whatever means we can to keep the topsoil back.  We need native trees with long roots that will hold the soil, build topsoil and transpirate.

Of course you probably can’t afford lots of plants, so plant natives that will quickly grow large.  Between the slower-growing oaks, plant sages, mallows, ceanothus, quail bush and other bushes that cover 10 -15 feet of dry earth.  Under them will be moisture, protected soil with mulch from their leaves, and habitat for lizards, frogs, small birds and hundreds of insects.  These bushes will help shade young oaks, sycamores, and other trees and keep their trunks from scorching.

Throw down seeds of California fescue (Festuca californica var. parishii) to hold soil and cover the dry, reflective areas.  This native grass is tough and doesn’t cause trouble like non-native grasses.  You can seed it with California poppies, lupine and other native flowers.   Aggressively weed out non-native species.

Since I was little, in the 60′s, I heard the mantra ‘plant a tree’.  Obviously we haven’t been doing that.  I think it should be changed to ‘plant a tree and don’t cut down any more because the earth can’t afford it’!

Please plant!  And all my hope goes to you and yours who are threatened or have had losses from our severe weather.

Fruit Flies – How To Be Rid of them Naturally

 

A jar, plastic and ACV.  Works like a charm.

A jar, plastic and ACV. Works like a charm.

It is fruit season and citrus and stonefruit are becoming ripe in the garden.  When the fruit comes to the kitchen, and particularly when the peels and pits go into my open compost bucket, fruit flies appear as if by magic.  It is amazing how quickly they show up and how quickly they reproduce.  Fruit flies are busy laying eggs in any spot on any fruit or juice vegetable such as tomato.  Gross.  Here is a quick and inexpensive method of trapping and -unfortunately- killing the little things.  I don’t like to kill anything, but I don’t know of a way to get around this, even when I drape towels over the fruit.

Take a small canning jar or baby food jar – something like that.  Use the rim of the lid of a canning jar, or just a strong rubberband.  You’ll also need a small piece of plastic to cover top of the jar; you can reuse some cellophane or part of an old plastic bag.

Fill the jar only about halfway with apple cider vinegar – not white distilled vinegar.  Place the plastic over the top and secure with the lid rim or a rubber band.

A fruit fly finding a way in.

A fruit fly finding a way in.

Take a toothpick and prick tiny holes in the plastic.  Set the jar near where the fruit flies accumulate and forget about it.  Be sure to remove other lures such as old kitchen scraps or fruit, or cover it with dishtowels.  That’s that.  The flies swarm to the jar and eventually disappear into it and can’t get out.

A kind of blurry photo of lots and lots of fruit flies queuing up to get inside.

A kind of blurry photo of lots and lots of fruit flies queuing up to get inside.

Urbanite, the New Name for Chunks of Cement

Urbanite stepping stones work beautifully in the garden  allowing plants to grow in between.

Urbanite stepping stones work beautifully in the garden allowing plants to grow in between.

Just as old LPs or records are now called vinyls, so are chunks of a neighbor’s patio called urbanite.  I like the term because it makes the mental transition from a waste product – cement chunks – to building material.  Put an ‘ite’ at the end, and you can use it.  The name urbanite also makes me envision pieces of nature-less cities being used for more natural landscapes.  There are spaces around chunks of cement for plants to grow.

Urbanite lasts a long time, too, and it is free.

Urbanite lasts a long time, too, and it is free.

The idea of working with cement chunks doesn’t sound aesthetically pleasing, but done well it always has visitors to Finch Frolic Garden enthusiastic.  A pathway and two retaining walls were made of urbanite, and they are all wonderful.

A friend and former co-worker called me a few weeks ago to offer urbanite from a piece of her patio that had to be repoured.  It took awhile but I found some help to go pick it up.  With a small pickup truck we managed two loads; the pieces were stacked on the patio, but the only way to access them was to drive the pickup below the patio wall.  Unfortunately, the ground was at an unnerving angle, and quite sandy so there was little traction.  I handed pieces of urbanite over the wall and down to Jacob, who loaded them into the tilted truck.  It was quite warm that day so we were well cooked.  There was a lot left.

You can see the retaining wall and stairs made from urbanite peeking out from under the plants.

You can see the retaining wall and stairs made from urbanite peeking out from under the plants.

Then Jacob arranged for me to borrow an old 2-ton pickup with 4-wheel drive.  My daughter and I headed over two days ago during a cloudy morning intending to get the truck very close to the wall.  No way.  The truck tilted dangerously and began to slide, so I had to park it out on the driveway.  Of course the sun came out.  We spent three hours taking turns tossing huge chunks of cement over the patio wall, shot-putting the pieces so that they wouldn’t hurt the plants at the base of the wall, and then picking them up (finding some of them that had rolled downhill) and carrying them across the shifty dirt to hoist the pieces up and into the bed of the large truck.  We swept rubble into nursery containers and dumped them into the truck as well.

Well cooked and completely exhausted, we made it home with the whole load, the truck tires just a little squished.  Now we have urbanite to replace some of the stairs made from palms that are beginning to soften or which have been eaten by bunnies.

Ugh!

Ugh!

Unfortunately, we still have to unload the truck.

Happy Easter!

Heirloom irises from my good friend Jean are blooming.

Heirloom irises from my good friend Jean are blooming.

A Western fence lizard suns and guards his territory atop a clary sage leaf.  See the flash of blue under his chin to attract the ladies?

A Western fence lizard suns and guards his territory atop a clary sage leaf. See the flash of blue under his chin to attract the ladies?

This green calla lily is gorgeous.

This green calla lily is gorgeous.

Framed by curly willow from the Withy Bird Hide, two drakes swim in the pond on Easter morning.

Framed by curly willow from the Withy Bird Hide, two drakes swim in the pond on Easter morning.

Sweet peas are still blooming.  They hold the permaculture precept of everything having three purposes: they are nitrogen fixers, they are edible, and they are gorgeous.

Sweet peas are still blooming. They hold the permaculture precept of everything having three purposes: they are nitrogen fixers, they are edible, and they are gorgeous.

A fancy drake who showed up this morning.

A fancy drake who showed up this morning.

The irises surrounding the pond are spectacular right now.  Blue, dark blue and yellow flag.

The irises surrounding the pond are spectacular right now. Blue, dark blue and yellow flag.

Baby bunny has been growing out his ears. He's enjoying a warm dirt bath.

Baby bunny has been growing out his ears. He’s enjoying a warm dirt bath.

Mulan has gone broody.  Such a large chicken puddles out over the wooden egg she's trying to hatch.  We're feeding her an oatmeal mixture in a dish because she won't come down during the day.

Mulan has gone broody. Such a large chicken puddles out over the wooden egg she’s trying to hatch. We’re feeding her an oatmeal mixture in a dish because she won’t come down during the day.

Easter breakfast.  Hard boiled eggs, naturally colored by our hens, fresh tangerine juice, our traditional stollen from my mother's recipe, and Peanut in his chicky robe ready to launch into the food.  Peanut doesn't act his age, of about 40+ years, but has traveled and been photographed extensively in Europe and Ecuador.   Its nice that he wakes up for holidays.

Easter breakfast. Hard boiled eggs, naturally colored by our hens, fresh tangerine juice, our traditional stollen from my mother’s recipe, and Peanut in his chicky robe ready to launch into the food. Peanut doesn’t act his age, of about 40+ years, but has traveled and been photographed extensively in Europe and Ecuador. Its nice that he wakes up for holidays.

 

Actively Aerated Compost Tea

Aerator, molasses, a paint strainer full of compost and a bucket of water.

Aerator, molasses, a paint strainer full of compost and a bucket of water.

There are many teas for the garden.  Manure tea is made by steeping… you guessed it… well-aged manure in water for several days.  Well-aged is the key.  Many years ago I gathered horse manure, made a tea and righteously spread it – and all the Bermuda grass seed that was in it – all over my vegetable garden.  I’m still battling the grass.  With fresh manure you are also brewing some nasty bacteria with which you really shouldn’t be dealing.  Allowing well aged or composted manure to brew for a couple of days will produce a nice nutrient tea for your plants.  There are better brews for your effort.

Plain compost tea is when you take samples of good soil and allow them to steep in water for several days and use that.  This brew has some microbes and basic nutrients in it and is better than plain water for enhancing your soil and as a foliar spray.

However there is a super brew called actively aerated compost tea.  It is very simple and inexpensive to make and it works wonders.  There are many recipes for it, depending upon how analytical you want to become.  Studying your soil under a microscope and following the advice of Dr. Elaine Ingham will give you the premium tea for your particular soil.  Dr. Ingham and Dr. Carole Ann Rollins have many books out on the subject of microorganismsin the soil which are all fascinating and well worth the read; if you ever have the chance to hear Dr. Ingham speak, take it!

I don’t tinker with my tea at this time because I just don’t have the time for it.  You may not, either.  So this is the basic aerated compost tea recipe that will revitalize your soil:

You will need a 5-gallon bucket, a paint strainer or cheesecloth or an old sock, a fish tank aerator or air bubbler, and some organic unsulphered molasses.

Fill the bucket with either rainwater or tapwater that has stood for at least a day for the chlorine to have evaporated.

Take the paint strainer or sock and fill it with samples of good soil from around your property.  If you don’t have any good soil, then add the best you have and then take good soil from areas as close to your property as possible.  If you will be using the tea on bushes and trees, then be sure to take soil from under the same.  Woody plants  like highly fungal soil.  If you will be using the tea for annuals and veggies, then go heavy on fine, well-composted soil that is bacteria-rich.  Do the best you can; you can’t go wrong unless you take soil that has been sprayed with chemicals, use treated wood chips, or anaerobic soil (you’ll smell it if you do).

Tie the top of the cloth and put it into the bucket.  You may tie twine or something around it so that you can haul it out of the bucket if you’d like.  This is important on larger containers, but not so much with the small bucket.

Place the aerator or bubbler in the bucket, making sure the air intake hose is clear, and plug it in.

Add about a tablespoon of molasses.  It is important that the molasses is unsulphered and organic for the same reasons that the water shouldn’t have chlorine in it or the soil any chemicals: those things will hurt the microbes that you will be growing.

Allow the aerator to do its thing for about 13 hours.  There is much discussion about how long you leave it, etc., just as there are hundreds of stew recipes.  This is the recipe taught me in my PDC and one I’ve heard elsewhere.  If your tea smells bad, any hint of ammonia or ‘off’ smells, don’t apply it to your plants.  You’ll be hurting them.  Be sure you have good compost, fresh water and proper aeration, and don’t let it sit too long.

What you are making is not just tea, it is soil inoculant.  The micororganisms in the compost will feed on the molasses and oxygen, reproducing until at about 13 hours their numbers will peak and begin dying off a little.  The tea should be used within a couple of hours.

Brew the tea for 13 hours then gently apply as a soil drench or foliar spray.

Brew the tea for 13 hours then gently apply as a soil drench or foliar spray.

What this tea is doing when applied, is establishing or boosting the fungus, bacteria, amoebas, nematodes, and other soil inhabitants in your dirt, all of which are native to your particular area.  If you have decent soil already, then you can use this tea 1:10 parts dechlorinated water.  If you have rotten dirt, use it straight along with a topping of compost.  Compost, whether it be cooked composed compost, straight leaf matter, shredded wood, logs, damp cardboard or natural fabrics, all provide shelter and hold moisture in so that your microbes have habitat.  Compost, of course, is the best source of food, moisture and shelter for them.

Apply the tea with a watering can, or a sprayer that has a large opening for the nozzle if you are using the tea as a foliar spray.  A squeeze-trigger bottle used for misting has too narrow an opening and will kill a lot of the little guys you have just grown.

Using the tea as a foliar spray will treat disease, fungus and nutrient deficiencies, and help protect plants against insect attack.  Instead of spraying sulfur or Bordeaux solution on your trees as is preached by modern gardening books, use compost tea on the leaves and around the drip line. When applied to leaves, the plant’s exudates hold the beneficial microorganisms to the stomata or breathing holes protecting them from disease and many harmful insects. You can’t overdose with compost tea.

All the additives that are recommended to ‘improve’ your soil are bandages not solutions.  Think of the billions of soft-bodied creatures living in your soil, waiting for organic matter to eat.  Then think of the lime, the rock dusts, the gypsum, the sulfur, the NPK concentrated chemical fertilizers (even derived from organic sources), poured onto these creatures.  It burns them, suffocates them and kills them.  Your plants show some positive results to begin with because they’ve just received a dose of nutrients, both from what you applied and from the dead bodies of all those murdered microbes.  However the problem still is there.  The only long-term solution to locked-up nutrients in the soil, hard pan, heavy clay, sand, compaction, burned, or poisoned soil, is good microbe-filled compost.  Remember that microbes turn soil into a neutral pH, and allow more collection of neutral pH rainwater.  Nutrients in the soil all become available at a neutral pH; there is no such thing as an iron-deficient soil.  The nutrients are just locked away from the roots because of the lack of microbes and the pH.

There are compost tea brewers of all sizes, and lots of discussion about how well they work and whether they actually kill off a lot of microbes.  See Dr. Elaine Ingham’s work for discussion on different brewers.  For large scale operations there are large tanks with aggressive aerators, and the tea is sprayed from the tanks from a truck bed directly on the fields.  If you can’t compost your entire property, then spraying compost tea is the next best thing.

If you’d like to be more involved with the biology of your tea, see Qualitative Assessment of Microorganisms by Dr. Elaine Ingham and Dr. Carole Ann Rollins.  This book has photos of different soil components as they appear under a microscope, identifying and explaining them.  By studying your soil’s balance through a microscope and then tweaking your tea to compensate you’ll be making the most powerful soil inoculant you can.

 

Curly Willow Trellis

A walk-through squash trellis.  The vines will give it stability, and hang through.

A walk-through squash trellis. The vines will give it stability, and hang through.

Thanks to generous friends, free seed opportunities and wonderful seed catalogs, we have many, many squash varieties to choose from this year.  We also want to grow vertically where we can to save space so my daughter and I are creating trellises.  No builder, I, but we’re hoping these will last for years to come.

This part of the trail was perfect for vertical growing space.

This part of the trail was perfect for vertical growing space.

This area of the upper trail isn’t lovely when not covered by vines.  It is also quite warm when people are touring and it could use some shade and interesting focal point.  Miranda had cut down a large curly willow tree a few months back (it was taking too much water from an avocado).  We used a couple pieces of the trunk to inoculate with mushroom spores, and the rest was fair game for a trellis.

Curly willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’) has wonderfully shaped branches that twist and curl naturally.  You’ll see it often in bouquets, where it usually roots while in water.  This willow enjoys more sun and a little less water than native willows do.  Willows all produce salicin, the pain-killing ingredient that  has now been synthetized as aspirin.  Willows also produce a rooting hormone which can be used to encourage sprouting and rooting of other plants.  Cut up a willow branch, soak it in water for a couple of days (if water is chlorinated, leave it sit for a day before adding willow) and use to water seedlings.

A friend recommended sliding the post pounder over the post before standing it up... for we short people who have trouble lifting the really heavy thing over our heads!

Miranda makes this look so easy!  After we’d put these in, a friend recommended sliding the post pounder over the post before standing it up… for we short people who have trouble lifting the really heavy thing over our heads! 

Wanting to avoid cutting wood and nailing things together, we sunk four T-posts into the corners.  The trellis is six feet across and eight feet wide; any wider and we would have put a center post on each side as well.

We wired on curly willow trunks in the corners, and wired long branches across the tops and the middle.

We wired on curly willow trunks in the corners, and wired long branches across the tops and the middle.

 

We wired on the side posts and cross posts, cutting long branches from the willow.  This willow was long dead; fresh willow could be sunk into the ground and it would root to make a living trellis, like the Withy Hide.  We didn’t want that here, though.

We laid long whips from a Brazilian pepper tree across, then wove curly willow through for the top.

We laid long whips from a Brazilian pepper tree across, then wove curly willow through for the top.

We stood smaller branches upright along the sides and wired them on, keeping in mind spaces where the squash vines will want to find something on which to grab.  Over the top we laid long  slim branches from a Brazilian pepper that is growing wild in the streambed and really needs to come out.  By pruning it and using the branches, we’re making use of the problem.  In permaculture, the problem is the solution!  I wanted to make an arched top and tried to nail the  slim branches in a bended form, but this was difficult and didn’t work for me.  I didn’t want to spend days finishing this… too much else to do!  So we laid the branches over the top, wiring some on, and then wove curly willow branches long-wise through them.  This weaving helps hold the branches in place, will give the vines support, and brings together the look.

We planted four kinds of squash along the poles.

We planted four kinds of squash along the poles.

And it was done. It should stand up to wind.  We may need  to add some vertical support depending upon the weight of the squash vines.  We planted four varieties of squash that have small (2-3 lb.) veg.  We planted four seeds of each, two on either side.  We also planted some herbs, flowers and alliums, and some perennial beans, the Golden Runner Bean.

Architecturally interesting when not covered by squash as well.

Architecturally interesting when not covered by squash as well.

If nothing else, it is lovely and interesting to look at; better in person than in the photos.  We can’t wait for the squash to start vining!  Now, onto the next trellis.