Insect love…

It’s rather distressing to read about the loss of insects. Like David Attenborough said, the planet can manage without humans but without insects, we’re toast.

In a small way, I see this in my greenhouse, in which I take an annual survey of paper wasps the third week of August. The reason is that if there are too many nests and too much activity I take out a few hives to make it a little safer for guests. The paper wasps are good neighbors but the one time I was stung I think she landed on me my accident and didn’t like being brushed off.

But the last few years have been low paper wasp. It’s got me worried. I rely on them to deal with caterpillars and they are good with aphids, too.

One thing that I may be doing is treating the peppers with Neem. While tomato and basil are very easy to grow, come late spring it’s an ongoing struggle to keep aphids off of the peppers and eggplants. Since you can’t sell plants with bugs, and hand-picking is an endless task, I’ve been using a bit of Neem, which is about as gentle as you can get. But I’ve seen the ladies looking for aphids on the peppers and I worry. So…

I’m going to give up trying to sell pepper and eggplant starts. The peppers have always been a headache since seed life and germination is so unpredicatable, I get so worried about their chills, and I just don’t find all that much excitement in pepper varieties. And perhaps the greenhouse can be an insect sanctuary. I stopped treating the scale since the times I had whitefly was after I used some kind of oil treatment on the citrus. In the small scale of a greenhouse the delicate balance of nature is more visible and throwing some chemicals in just has unforeseen and usually not great consequences.

Cold hardiness, as seen in late winter

The grass has started growing and the crocus are almost but not quite blooming, which means it’s late winter, even though we are technically just starting the middle third of winter.

We had a particularly low cold snap (18 degrees) in November, and most of the brasicas froze out. The Gigante Kohlrabi seems to be the hardiest, even more so than the regular kale; we have one ultra-tough kale (both texture and resilience) that has done fine, though, and cilantro is not bothered. An interesting and unusual green, Sculpit, looks better now than it did in the summer, it apparently loves the cold damp weather and adds welcome green. Sorrel also would be doing fine except for the chickens. Carrots were sadly damaged by the frost, the parsnips are fine, and we haven’t ventured a beet lately.

The Muna peppers (Mucho Nacho dehybridization/cold-tolerant pepper project) in the unheated greenhouse are looking rough, but it didn’t get as cold as last year, so there are green (if ratty-looking) leaves, and new peppers are showing. The senior (full blood) Mucho Nacho will be four years old in a few months. The impressive survival was the Great Cold Snap of ’13, when it got down to zero degrees here. I did run the small heater in the greenhouse, but there still light frost inside; the peppers died back to sticks, but they respouted come spring.

In the greenhouse, the holy basil has some green leaves left on it; that would never happen with real basil.

An a couple of trays of lettuce, brassicas and onions are starting to get their first real leaves.

Sheep death

Sad day Friday – we found the body of one of our sheep, lying in the stream.  It looked like she might have tangled her foot in her fleece and lost her balance, and fell into the water and couldn’t get out; probably on Thursday, a day of heavy rain.

This is our first large-animal death (well, other than being butchered for meat… which is different, somehow).  So it goes.  The unreasonable joy of lambs in the spring is balanced by cold dreary death in winter.

Lambs in happier days

Lambs in their younger, happier days of Spring

“Cooked” makes it sound harder than it is

Omnivore’s Dilemma was wonderful; while there were irritating bits, these were not so noticeable, in the wealth of wonderful information and perspective. Unfortunately, there’s much less wealth of information in Cooked, so the irritating bits are much more visible.

Yes, if you have hundreds of hours to focus on baking bread and take lessons from award-winning bakers you can make a great loaf, and I’m sure his are delicious, but not like the humble loaves I bake; and no, I don’t chop my onions finely for my stews, yet we eat them with enjoyment. It’s possible to cook from scratch ingredients (many home grown), and have it not take a long time; and while it may not be haute cuisine, it will taste pretty good. Pollan notes that as a culture we are interested in watching cooking even when we don’t do it; this book seems to fit right in, we are reading about him doing things that sound quite inaccessible (and I’ve done some of these things myself, so it’s not like lack confidence).

This book seems to make the divide in our food culture even larger, rather than bridging the gap; the line between those that take their time to cook wonderful meals with organic ingredients from the farmer’s market, and those that don’t have the time or finances and so don’t cook, and just eat fast food. There’s a whole lot of different interesting things that lie in between the San Francisco artisan sourdough loaf and Wonder bread. We’ve been making almost all our bread for years; it’s not exciting and artisanal and it takes very little time, we don’t gush over it and write about it or anything.

Having said all this, Pollan still is a great writer, I did learn somethings… I am more diligent about the wholewheat flour, and mix it with water and let it rest for a few hours before proceeding with breadmaking.

Perhaps I’m too jaded, the first time you read about fermentation may be that much more exciting than the umpteenth time (but I do recommend you go directly to “Wild Fermentation” if you want to be inspired to ferment)

Happy Earth Day!

We observe Earth Day by planting trees. This year: a standard apple and american persimmon, a gingko, elderberry, oregon grape, and willow down by the stream, and the Mirabelle plum in the flowering border. Also planted the mystery tree up by the street, where the fig didn’t make it. The mystery tree came north with us but I have NO idea what it is… though the buds do look like those on the linden.

Today was very warm and sunny (and humid… after weeks of rain) so planting trees was mostly endurance. Especially the ones in the far pasture, since we have to ford the stream and cross soggy pasture with the wheelbarrows of dirt.

But when not planting trees in the hot sun, what a beautiful day! The bees are buzzing in the cherry tree,s maples, and kale (two of the three hives made it through the winter), birds are chirping and carrying on, everything is budding or blooming or growing.

The garden paths are built or cleared, and all are mulched. Planted potatoes, and mulched onions and other early plantings… the broccoli/cabbage was looking droopy but responded well to watering. Jay’s working on a second door to the duck room, which will be used for the meat chickens that are now in the brooder (after the ducks move into the old coop). He’s also working on fencing for the north-side pasture, but the grass is over knee-high so we’ll have to get it mowed before sheep can deal with it. They will move out there sometime after the other two sheep give birth, which could be any day now.

The project that ate winter

I’ve been working on a Garden Resource Guide for East Linn County.  This is stuff I love – collecting information and spreading it around – but boy, I didn’t realize how much time it would take.  But I’m very happy with the results.  I just hope that this information will be helpful for people!

We haven’t started looking for a permanent online home for this – since it’s done under TRFW, presumably their site, but since their website is kind of a blog I don’t know how I’d integrate it.  But I put in on the farm site to stake a place.

Meanwhile, while working with the rest of the TRFWEL group to get the information collecting, fact-checking and reviewing done, I’ve been using dropbox.  I don’t get a kickback from them, but I really, really like it – such an easy way to share large files on the internet and between computers.

Now, back to the sadly-neglected spring garden work!  Over the last months or so we did get a bunch of trees, shrubs and groundcovers planted – probably two dozen; prepped and/or dug two garden beds, topped off with dirt and planted about 3/4 bed’s worth (seeded roots and a few starts), and started 2 trays of cabbage family and lettuces.  But we are behind in garden prep and orchard attention, and the tomato and peppers will begin starting this week, eek!

Is it spring?

We’ve had some warmer weather the last couple of days, the frogs are making a lot of noise and the grass is starting to grow.  This afternoon I checked on the beehives, and all three hives had bees coming in and out, enjoying some sunshine.  Then this evening when I went out after dark to pick some kale for dinner…. the garden is full of… slugs!  And cutworms and even a few earwigs.  So I did the first slug pick of the year, into a jar to dispose of by duck in the morning.  Not many huge brown slugs, it was mostly the striped ones that don’t get as big, but they were full size, many an inch and some two-inchers. The cutworms were fat and healthy looking.  In Portland the cutworms were a problem, but I saw more cutworms tonight than I’ve seen in the last decade.  But it really seems to early to have to deal with this, it’s January.

For dinner: meatballs made of lamb heart, cooked with onions and garlic and kale and served over spaghetti squash.  That’s the last of our “offal” from the sheep butchering, we ate liver and kidneys over the weekend, I think I’ve figured out how to cook these parts so they are pleasant in texture and flavor. The squashes are starting to go, at least the large ones have some spots, so we have to cut out bits before cooking.  The delicatas in the garage seem to keep better, maybe it’s too cold in the “root cellar”  The onions are keeping well, but the garlic is getting dry, and the kale is at an awkward stage (as well having to inspect for slugs).  The onion and lettuce starts are spending their first night in the greenhouse tonight.  It does seem to be rolling along for spring.

What, exactly, do I do with a lot of turmeric? Or, I love the greenhouse

So our greenhouse is wonderful, but it’s not heated.  The “tropicals” I’ve been growing are mostly happy, but not all of them.

Both basil are dead, as is the tomato.

There are 5 citrus which are all doing very well, insofar as I have been able to keep the scale and aphids under control.

Of the 10 peppers that started into fall, 6 are alive.  There were 5 jalapenos, of which only one died (two of these jalapenos overwintered last winter too), and at least one is making baby peppers.  The anaheims are both dead, but the Yankee Bell, while fruitless and ratty looking, is alive, and the Nardello keeps ripening but not making more peppers.  Since we have lots of hot sauce, I’m not sure what to do with all the jalapenos.

The coffee tree is very unhappy; I brought it into the house but I think it’s too late to save it. Too bad, it was looking really good and probably 4 years old.  It did fine in the garage the last two winters.

The turmeric – well, I’m impressed.  The leaves all died down so I harvested the tubers, and there’s almost two pounds of pretty good looking roots!  That’s from a 2-3 gallon pot, after repotting 3 smaller plants, although it was 2 years in the pot since I thought it was all dead last winter. I don’t know what to do with it all!  I can see that it should have been harvested earlier, there’s some browning.   Tumeric is a beautiful plant, with big, tropical banana leaves.  I put the pot inside a larger pot with no holes, elevated on some rocks.  So it usually had water under the roots, which helped when the greenhouse gets so warm in the summer.

The aloe and scented geranium are doing fine with this degree of chill.  The vietnamese coriander is okay (better than the spearming and peppermint, actually).  The unknown variety of banana plant that Don gave me seems unphased by the cold, although it’s not actually growing.

After a week of cold but sunny weather, today was a mix of snow with cold and some sun and some gray.  Winter in Oregon…  I’ve got most of my seeds orders done, started onion seeds already, and some arugula and lettuce… but it’s time to work on the greenhouse floor, rather than play with seeds.  We worked on the duckhouse floor and foundation yesterday, so we’ve got the really heavy work done for that.

Diet and Forks over Knives

I was recently annoyed by a video called Forks over Knives. I’ve been reading off and on about nutrition over the past few years, and so I did come into the movie with some existing beliefs (I tried to keep an open mind, but I am not sure it was successful). But the movie didn’t give much information, it was dramatic and entertaining with lots of graphics, but not much convincing argument. Over and over, it set up a comparison between “industrial food including animal products” and “natural foods with no animal products”. The message seems to be that the problem is the animal products, not the industrial food!

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Forks over Knives is by a Dr. Campbell, who did write a book with the same material called the China Study, and that book caused some uproar and discussion in the paleo-nutrition blogosphere that I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to at the time. Here’s the article: China Study Response (pdf).

When I was looking for that article, I found a critique of the science in Forks over Knives, written by the same writer: forks-over-knives-is-the-science-legit-a-review-and-critique

It’s great; it expands and goes into excruciating detail on many of the points that bothered me, so I don’t have to even start trying to figure out the problems. Warning, though, it’s very, very long and full of data.

Myself, I’m kind of with the Dr. Weston Pricers, and believe that animal meat and fat are healthy. Dr. Cate Shanahan wrote a book called “Deep Nutrition” that is by far my favorite; it’s against sugar (including starches) and seed oils, and in favor of meat especially bone broth and organ meats. While I see her points (and some of the data from the Paleo people) about the problems with starches and especially wheat, I’m just not sure – I don’t do well without some starches.

The bottom line for us, though, is that any sort of diet philosophy has to work with the foods we can grow for ourselves at different times of the year. Since we do grow so much, it’s a reality test that makes more sense for us than for almost everyone else (at least in the industrial world) who just buys food at the store. I was reading another book that said to avoid root vegetables since they were too startchy. Well, that’s what we have right now, and no one’s going to take away my carrots!

And don’t forget to get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly.


Soap is not difficult to make, though it does require some care and careful measurements. Soap is made from mixing any kind of fats and oils with lye. A chemical reaction takes place between the lye and the fats to create soap. There are a number of things that need to be done to make sure that this chemical reaction can take place, and that it happens not to quickly nor too slowly.

Different oils and fats have different qualities that will affect the final product. For example, coconut oil makes good lather while olive oil makes a moisturizing soap. Animal fat, such as lard, makes great soap. And of course the fun part is the scents, colors, herbs and other things you can incorporate into the soap!

The trick in measuring and developing recipes, is that in the final product, you cannot have extra lye (it will burn the skin) and you don’t want too much extra fat or you will have a soft, greasy bar that won’t clean very well.

Spicy Green Tea
and Oatmeal Rosewood Herb Lily of the Valley Heather and Hyacinth Citrus Poppyseed

Soap Molds

I usually use a stiff cardboard box about 5″x8″x2″, an old box that christmas card came in, as a mold; larger batches require two of these. I line this with wax paper or plastic wrap for each batch. The wax paper tends to soften and stick, but it can produce a nicer finish, especially if your recipe doesn’t have too much water.

I once purchased a nice plastic mold, but – perhaps again too much water – the soap never solidified on the side facing the plastic. With the lined cardboard box, I remove the soap the next day and can usually cut immediately, so the soap can dry all on all sides.

Do NOT try using aluminum foil. Aluminum foil dissolves in soap and it’s quite a mess.

I have used disposable coffee cups as a mold to make round soaps (see picture above).

These are some recipies I used to make soap. I wasn’t able to find recipes that made betweeen 1 and 2 pounds of soap and included the fats I had available.

I used the Majestic Mountain Sage Lye Calculator, and double checked with another Lye Calculator, which unfortunately is no longer available.

I have not included the detailed process on how to make soap; please consult the online references if you don’t know how, and observe all the warnings and precautions.

My scale is accurate to either 1/10 ounce or 1 gram, so I use gram calculations in the recipes for greater precision.

All these soaps came out very well, are a pleasure to use, and were much appreciated by recipients, although none is really perfect. I’ve been making all our soap for three years, almost every batch different, and so far they have all been fine.

NOTE: if you want to try these recipes, you MUST run them through a lye calculator! I do sometimes make mistakes in typing and it’s very important that you get the quantities correct, especially when working with such small recipes – there’s very little margin for error.

Spicy Green Tea and Oatmeal soap

This was my very first soap; a simple, mostly lard soap.

280 grams lard
112 grams coconut oil
56 grams olive oil
64 grams lye
198 ml water

1/2 cup oatmeal, coarsely ground
chlorophyll (for color)
green tea fragrance oil
patchouli essential oil
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon coriander

Oils were at 95, lye at 105 when mixed. Took 1.5 hours to trace.
I beleive this soap did not reach gel stage, hence its slightly opaque look. It was tinted pale green with the chlorophyll and has kept its color nicely (the picture does not show the color very well).

Rosewood Herb Soap

Another lard soap, this one has a greater variety of oils. It made an excellent soap with great lather.

151 grams lard
135 grams olive oil
70 grams coconut oil
68 grams palm kernal oil
31 grams castor oil
11 grams beeswax
66 grams lye
175 ml water
1/4 cup dried calendula petals
1/4 cup dried parsley
chlorophyll (for color)
rosewood essential oil
patchouli essential oil
lavendar essential oil

Oils were at 118, lye at 110 when mixed. Trace time 45 minutes.
It was beatiful dark green when mixing, after gel it cooled off to the lighter green shade. For some reason the shade of green in this soap is much grassier green than soap 1, though they were colored with the same stuff.

Nag Champa Soap

A non-lard soap with great lather! And a nice hard bar. Turns out the missing ingredient is palm oil; which can be found as organic shortening in the grocery store. Unfortunately this soap came out, well, cosmetically challenged, and I don’t like the Nag Champa scent very much. I’m including the general composition, since this is a great recipe.

150 grams olive oil
60 grams coconut oil
50 grams palm kernal oil
30 grams palm oil
25 grams castor oil
14 grams beeswax
60 grams vegetable shortening
20 grams shea butter
55 grams lye
160 ml water
18 grams Nag Champa Fragrance oil

Took a long time to trace.

Heather and Hyacinth Soap

One of my several attempts to get a good non-lard soap. This one selected just since it smells so nice.

44 grams olive oil
105 grams coconut oil
50 grams palm kernal oil
46 grams sweet almond oil
50 grams castor oil
15 grams beeswax
194 grams vegetable shortening
21 grams shea butter
70 grams lye
200 ml water
18 ml Fragrance oil
1/3 cup lavender flowers
Purple oxide soap coloring.

10 grams of the castor and all the shea were set aside and added at trace to superfat.

This soap is pretty nice – but has a couple of flaws.

First, I had read this, but had to make the mistake myself: NEVER add lavender buds to lye soap! Mine turned either green or black and are really unpleasant soggy nasty pellets in the soap.

Also – mix powdered soap color with some oils before adding to soap! otherwise you get lumps of purple.

I had intended to do a swirl. However, the uncolored soap is translucent and faintly greenish (from the olive oil). So swirling with the uncolored soap does not work. The point: make sure what both colors of a swirl will look like.

Online Soap Suppliers

I started off using Red Devil lye from the grocery store. Alas, the Red Devil folks no longer produce lye drain cleaner, so currently (as far as I know), it’s just not possible to buy lye at local stores. Some soapmaking supply houses carry it. I ordered lye from Rainbow Meadow but Brambleberry also carries it.

Since it is a hazardous material, there are shipping restrictions, but it’s worth it to make soap. You cannot make soap without lye (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide)! You can extract a form of Potassium Hydroxide from wood ashes, but ordering the stuff in jars is a lot easier.

I like Rainbow Meadows, they are responsive and helpful. They are in Michigan.

I’ve ordered a few times from Brambleberry and been quite happy. They are in Washington State.

I am also very happy with Oregon Trail Soap Supplies; the selection is not as large as Brambleberry.