A new/old beginning

I’m going to be moving this year, back to my old house. I like this little rental house where I am, but my personal life has had a change of course and my wife and I will once again be living as, well, husband and wife. So, what does this mean for this casual homesteader?

First, it makes absolutely no sense to plant a garden where I am now. However, I do need to till the area up and replant it to grass for the next tenant to enjoy. Maybe the new tenants would like to have a garden, but it will be halfway through the summer before they move in and I am more inclined to leave things as I found them, rather than leaving a bare plot of tilled up ground. Then again, as we all know, if you leave a plot of tilled ground bare, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Without having planted a garden last year I wound up having to mow it.

So is it the end of the garden? Nope. I had a garden before at the old house and my wife is chomping at the bit to have one this year. There will be a lot of work to get it ready, though, as there are many small, weedy trees that have grown up around the outside of the garden over the years. Too much shade for a garden, so they have to go. I guess the garden is in as bad a shape as I am. We’ll see which one of us prevails, but at least I have my wife as an ally in this war.

I have more space and less risk of people messing with the garden where I am now. For the new garden it would really be nice if we could put a tall fence at least across the back of the property. I’ll have to see if the budget will bear that burden. Moving alone is not going to be cheap. In reality, I really wish that we could buy a house out of the city with a good space for a garden, but financially that ain’t gonna happen. Oh well. At least there is space for a garden. I’ll have to take some pictures as we get along with that project.

So what’s the first order of business for this new/old garden? For Valentine’s Day I took my wife to the store to buy whatever seeds she wanted, so we are off to a start there. She even bought seeds to start tomato plants. I have not had great success with that lately and would be more likely to just buy plants, but what the heck, we’ll give it a go. We can always fall back to buying the plants. We should start those plants in a few weeks, so we need to set up an area for that. We’ll see if we can stick to that schedule.

So that’s the new/old beginning. I’m looking forward to living with my wife once again, but not so much to all the work the place is going to need to whip the garden into shape (not to mention other parts of the old house that really need work). Thankfully, it’s not the acre garden that we once had, so I think we will be able to handle it. I’ll be following up with pictures in later posts. Wish us luck.

First Snow

Outside my window the snow is coming down pretty well right now. I don’t think there will be any accumulation, but there are definitely more than just a couple of flakes, such as the usual “first snow” is. We have had decent weather this fall. As recently as Saturday, the 12th, it was 70 degrees, but we have hit a cold patch. I sure hope we have some warmer days before December comes. I still have yard work to do. There isn’t anything unusual about these weather changes, but I wanted to make note of the first snow.

Tis’ a Fair day

I went to the Sandwich Fair today. It’s located in, oddly enough, Sandwich, Illinois. While it is technically the DeKalb County Fair, it is widely known as the Sandwich Fair. In fact, it wasn’t until I looked it up just now that I discovered it was the DeKalb County Fair, and I’ve not only been going there for years but have also entered a competition in the past.

SandwichFair_090813The picture above is of the Home Arts building, where they display the items for the needlework, clothing and foods competitions. The tent set-up is for the culinary competition. On the other side of the tent on the right you can just barely see a model of the Home Arts building – here it is closer up –

SandwichFair2_090813Yep, the fair has been around since 1888 – the oldest continuing fair in Illinois. It always takes place the week after the Labor Day weekend. That, in my humble opinion, is a great time for a county fair. When you have a fair in the middle of July you may not have been able to harvest some of the crops for which they hold competitions. You don’t have that problem at the beginning of September.

This is a real county fair. It has competitions for home arts as already noted, and for crafts, photography, art, collections and all sorts of similar things. The main point of a county fair, though, is the produce and animals, and there is no shortage of those. Produce of every kind is entered into competitions, as well as things like flowers. Animals are the biggest draw, with goats, sheep, dairy, beef, pigs, rabbits and poultry. Almost every category has both a junior and open competition. It’s a great place to bring the city kids to see real farm animals.

Of course there are rides and so many things you can stuff your face with. All sorts of vendors are there, as well as farm equipment dealers and RV dealers. There are midway games to play, too, for young and old. I actually ran into my niece and her husband as their three young kids played a game simple enough for them to win. While I occasionally go to the fair, my brother and his family have made it a yearly tradition and his kids carry it on. My father-in-law even gets in on the act. He won a red ribbon (second place) for a wood carving he entered this year.

The fair is a slice of country life. Just walking around and looking at things cost me $9.00 to get. If you enter a competition your general entry fee of $15.00 gets you an exhibitor’s pass which admits you for all five days of the fair. If you want to spend more money, then hit the food vendors and let the kids go wild on the rides. Then take in the shows in the grandstand for extra $$$. If you want, you can take advantage of special discounts on different days and at different times.

My favorite things to see there? Well, I always have to check out the vegetable and home arts competitions. I like looking at the photography entries, too, and trying to figure out why in the world someone voted that entry a blue ribbon. I always like to see all the animals. As a frustrated, used-to-wanna-be small farmer, I enjoy them. And there’s nothing like going by a rooster’s cage when he lets off a cockadoodle-do right in your ear. It all makes me feel a bit more “country” than I really am.

Last time I was there was in 2005, so it’s been a long time for me. Next year, if my brother and his wife go, I think I’ll tag along with them. It’s always nice to be able to go with someone else. So rustle up someone and come along. Next year it runs September 3 through 7 – here’s the link – Sandwich Fair. And no, I’m not paid to promote the fair. It’s just great family entertainment, unless, of course, you’re one of those jaded city folk.

Conundrum

First, let me say that it is Wednesday and it’s the first day since last Friday that my back has not been limiting my movement and activity. I can finally think about getting back out in the garden, among other things. I know there are more green beans to be picked but I think I’ll have to figure out a way to do that other than bending over at the waist, otherwise I’ll wind up immobile again.

So, the conundrum? My green bean crop, or more precisely, canning my green bean crop. To can green beans you need a pressure canner, and I have one. Actually, I’ve had it for many years, since the late 1970s in fact. I went for broke – almost literally – when I bought my canner. I wanted the best so I bought an All American, large capacity, cast aluminum canner, which was a significant investment at that point in my life. Heck, look at the prices on them today; they are still a significant investment, suitable only for someone who is serious about food preservation.

The pressure in a canner is usually managed one of two ways. The first is with a steam vent that has a weighted regulator that sits on the vent. Usually the weight will accommodate 5, 10 and 15 pound pressures, though not always. This system works by letting the steam escape through the vent tube in a controlled fashion. You know that the amount of pressure is right by listening for the number of times per minute that steam escapes from the vent with the regulator weight in place.

The other way to regulate pressure is with a gauge. The gauge displays the pressure in the canner and you have to keep a sharp eye on the gauge and keep adjusting the heat under the canner to keep the pressure in the right range. Unlike the weighted regulator that lets you know by sound what the pressure is, you cannot do something else in the kitchen while using a gauged canner because you must keep your eyes on that gauge. With many years of experience, believe me when I say that the second you take your eyes off the gauge, the pressure will go wrong.

Nowadays, a great many pressure canners have both weighted pressure regulators and a gauge, but the pressure is supposed to be regulated by the weight. The gauge is used more as a reference, particularly when the canner is cooling down and you need to know when there is no more pressure in the canner. Why don’t you use the gauge to regulate the pressure? Because they can be inaccurate, and proper pressure can mean the difference between good food and food poisoning.

My pressure canner has only a gauge, which was common when I bought it. To use a gauge alone to regulate pressure, it has to be checked to make sure it is accurate. Everything you will read says that this should be done yearly. The truth of the matter is that I have never had the gauge on my canner checked and it has never failed me. But I have not used the canner for many years and I do not want to trust the gauge alone. I need to get the gauge checked. Usually the recommendation is to contact your County University Extension office, and I have, but mine doesn’t currently check pressure gauges. So what to do? Buy the parts to turn my dialed pressure canner into a weighted canner.

This is pretty simple to do. With the gauge arrangement on my canner, there is a petcock that vents the canner. Once the canner is producing steam, you let the steam escape for ten minutes and then shut the petcock, which allows the pressure to build in the canner. Current models have a steam vent instead of the petcock. To convert, you need to buy the steam vent and the regulator weight. Depending on where you buy the parts, this will probably cost you at least $25., plus whatever shipping, tax, etc.

I had been planning on using the pressure gauge on my canner to put my beans up this year, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea. After failing to find a local source, I fired off my order for the conversion parts to a online merchant whose web site said the parts were in stock, and were reasonably priced.  You’ll note that I harvested my first green beans on July 27th, but I didn’t place the order for the parts I need until July 30, and I wasn’t about to pay for exorbitant express shipping, either. This obviously meant that I would have to wait to can my beans, and hope that they would still be in decent shape to can. And then on the 1st I picked more green beans, still with no parts in hand.

As is almost always the case, just when you count on something being “in stock,” you are sure to be told that something has been back ordered. Damn! So I get the steam vent in the mail on Saturday, the 3rd, but the regulator weight isn’t expected in stock again until that same day, so I’ll have to wait for that part to ship, too, before I get a chance to do any pressure canning.

Do I just wait until the part gets here, or do I do something else? No, I just can’t feel good about using the gauge alone. I would if I could have gotten it tested, but not without. The only other alternative I can think of is to buy another pressure canner. Well, if I got a smaller canner, that could be useful for smaller batches, rather than having to drag out the big canner.

Off I go on a hunt, and wind up right back where I was. Yes, I could buy a decent pressure canner locally. The best price for what I would consider to be an acceptable canner runs around $89.00. Do you have any idea how many cans of green beans I could buy at the store for that much money? The idea is to be saving money, not investing in something new; something that I would probably not be able to come out ahead on in the remaining years I have left on this earth. Nope, makes no sense.

So here I sit, waiting for the company to tell me when they get the part in. I’ve sent an email to them today, hoping to get some info, but so far, nothing. I’m playing a waiting game here. I would hate to lose all the green beans I grew (except those that my neighbor and I have eaten) but if that’s what happens, so be it. At least I’ve had the pleasure of growing something.

Laid low

It is a beautiful weekend here. I’ll enjoy it, but only from the comfort of my bed or chair. Somehow I have managed to screw up my lower back and I can’t move without pain. It’s hard to do anything around the “homestead” when there is a risk that your legs will give out from the pain of doing nothing more than taking a step.

Living in my suburban world this isn’t the problem it would be if I were living in the wilderness. When your life depends on being active every day, being laid up for a few days could be disastrous. It is the risk one assumes when living an independent lifestyle.

While I know I will eventually recover, it is terribly inconvenient, and is a cautionary event that should make me rethink the way I do things. I am not sure exactly why my back is feeling this way, but I did pick green beans the other day and, I must confess, I do so by bending over at the waist. It was a fair amount of picking, and I had picked beans just the weekend before, too. The fact that I had to keep standing up and stretching to keep on picking should have told me I was pushing it.

Then again, maybe it was the 50# sack of sunflower seeds that I had to lift into and out of the trunk of my car. Or maybe it’s that I’m just plain out of shape, or that this weight on the front of me is hard on the backside of me, or maybe just a combination of all these things.

So, the idea of a roll-along seat that I can use while picking green beans is very appealing. Ideally I should do more squatting (lift with the legs) when working in the garden, but with these knees that would put me down for sure. Stretching and exercise is definitely called for.

Take this as a warning to look at the way you do things, too, and look for ways to make things easier for you. You’re not less of a woman or man for doing so and might actually extend the number of years you can be active.

In the beginning

It was the early 1970’s. My wife and I were newly married and trying to make a life of our own together. We started out living with my mother-in-law but when she remarried shortly thereafter it was time to strike out on our own. A cheap, too hot all year around with a guy across the hall constantly coughing like he was losing a lung, basic, concrete block apartment was next, which was then followed by a considerably more pricey apartment in a newly built complex.

At the time we moved into the latest apartment I was working with a guy by the name of Bill Hardacre. He was living on a farm in a rented house that was once the farmhand’s house. The farm buildings were no longer being used and the fields were rented out. The old farmer lived in the main house on the property. I visited Bill in his house and was instantly envious. Plenty of elbow room and an actual house – not an apartment – and when he told me what he was paying for rent my envy doubled down.

growitTo make matters worse, Bill loaned me a book – Grow it!, by Richard Langer (apparently out of print now, and probably a bit dated anyways). This is what started it all. I was hooked. Homesteading was the way I wanted to go. Now all I needed was a place to do it, because it’s a little tough doing it in an apartment, or at least I thought so at the time.

Timing is everything, and it wasn’t long before Bill and his wife bought a house of their own and through him my wife and I had an “in” to rent the house they were leaving. We jumped on the chance and soon found ourselves in an old, uninsulated, oil-heated, propane fueled farmhand house – and loved it. I have Bill to thank for my introduction to homesteading and for the place to do it.

We lived in that house for ten years. Though the old memory is a bit foggy, I believe we gardened there every year we were there, having at one point in time enlarged the garden to an acre in size. I tried growing almost everything, and what I grew that I couldn’t eat right away, I canned. There were also a couple of old apple trees near the house that provided apples for apple jelly, apple butter and plenty of apple crisp.

While we lived there we were constantly searching for a place to buy for our own small farm. That never came to pass, and looking at it from this point in time I know it was a good thing, because the reality is that I would never have had the self-discipline to make a real go of it. Instead, we moved into a house in the city.

But out on that farm it was great! Sure, we had a really long driveway that I had to spend long frigid hours on my neighbor’s lawn tractor plowing, and the wind would blow through the house like there were no windows, and the ground near the side door would turn to nasty mush (we let the dogs out there) in the spring, and we would run out of propane repeatedly and not be able to cook or have hot water, but it was all the price we had to pay for a little bit of heaven.

It was the start of my homesteading state of mind, and though time has probably improved my memories of the place, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it were not for that experience.