Homestead Junction

Waste Not, Want Not in a Throw-Away World August 12, 2014 14:47

Unlike us modern urban homesteaders, our homesteading forebears didn't live in a consumer society.  They didn't have the range of specialized products and fancy gadgets that we have available now.  For having to make do with what they had, they were probably more creative about solving problems.

Here are two problems I've run into recently: what to do with those ratty old t-shirts that are too gross to donate; and, needing to stake my overgrown tomato plants.  A proper member of consumer society should throw away the former and buy some kind of ties or tape marketed specifically for use with the latter.  However, the frugal homesteader will see at once that these problems cancel each other out.


The t-shirts can be cut into strips to be used as plant ties instead of being thrown away.  Then, not only are the t-shirts not wasted, but there's no additional waste from manufacturing and transporting goods that are unnecessary.  Don't get me wrong: lots of consumer goods are wonderful for bringing convenience and ease to the hobbies of self-sufficiency, and many of them are absolutely necessary, but plant ties are not.


In fact, t-shirt strips make the best plant ties I've used.  They're soft so they don't bruise or damage tender young plants and they're flexible so they stretch as the plant grows.  Furthermore, if your t-shirts are 100% cotton, then your plant ties will be 100% biodegradable!

I look forward to sharing more savvy tips for creative homesteading in future posts!

Canning isn't actually that scary. August 03, 2014 17:10

I'd always been a little iffy on the idea of canning. I'd wanted to like it, and I'd spent ages coveting the photos of tidy shelves filled with brightly coloured jams and preserves I'd seen online, daydreaming about the day I would have a pantry like that of my own, and the ability to give away personalized jars of tasty food. It just seemed so intimidating.


I love to bake and cook, but those who know me know that I am pathologically incapable of following a recipe. I make my own spice blends, design my own cakes and muffins, mix all sorts of weird and interesting flavours into eggwhites to make custom meringues, and even make up my own knitting patterns rather than following someone else's directions. If I made it up myself, any mistakes I made were just a part of the creative process, not actual errors. I also sense a slight issue with authority rearing its head here, but whatever.

 Anyway, there's the problem: canning means following a recipe. You can make jam any old way you like, but the moment you want to put it up and expect it to be safe and shelf-stable, you need to be using a tried and true formula. You need the correct amount of acidity to prevent botulism from growing, you need the correct amount of sugar to make the jam firm, and you need the right amount of cooking and processing time to protect against food-borne illness. No experimenting, no “I'll just add a bit of this...”, no substitutions, no forgetting to add an ingredient. I wasn't sure I could do it! And then, magic happened. I started reading a canning book that used Pomona's Pectin.

Put 'em Up

Pomona's doesn't rely on a specific amount of sugar in order to gel the jam, and their recipes allow you to use a range of sweeteners, in a range of amounts. If I wanted, I could mix brown sugar, honey, and maple syrup into my plum jam. I could use stevia, or even make a diabetic friendly jam with artificial sweeteners! It doesn't allow me a large amount of free reign, but it's just enough to make me enjoy canning. I can personalize the recipes, and I can play with the flavours til I have something that is both tasty and safe. How fun is that?


So I decided to start that snazzy looking pantry I'd always dreamed of.

In one weekend I put up 5lbs of blueberries (using a mix of honey and plain white sugar), 6lbs of plums (with brown sugar and maple syrup), 4lbs of pears (with honey, maple, and molasses), and 5lbs of green beans made into dilly beans (not using pectin – that would be weird.). I discovered that the most handy tool in my arsenal is the jar lifter, that boiling and processing the jars is actually rather easy and satisfying, that the recommended amount of lemon juice in blueberry jam actually makes it taste better anyway, and that the most wonderful sound in the world is that distinctive “pop, pop, pop” that means your jars have sealed safely.


I learned that doing a mad hunt for a dish rag to wipe down my filled jar rims - while balancing a ladle of hot jam and a canning funnel – is not fun, and that there's nothing more frustrating than not prepping enough jars and having leftover jam with nowhere to put it. Give yourself lots of space and lay your tools out ahead of time, so you know where everything is. You'll be much happier.


The plum jam was my favourite, and also the first one I made. I sat down in front of the tv and watched a movie while halving and pitting all 6lbs of plums. An alternative way to make this chore suck less is to invite some unsuspecting friends over for drinks and then hand them a paring knife and tell them to get to work. The whole jam process, from prepping to that lovely “pop” sound, took me about 3 hours, and I only got faster from there.

 So, I'm well on my way to that rad looking set of pantry shelves, and local fruit all year round. And it wasn't nearly as scary as I thought!



There's a Fine Line Between Salami and Dog Treats July 31, 2014 18:10

Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for... Today's the day we sample the salami my husband and I made several months ago! While I've been making fresh sausage for years, the process of fermenting and dry-curing salami is a lot more involved than just grinding meat and mixing in spices.  This was our first attempt at making a fermented aged meat product (read about it here), so we'll be trying to figure out and learn from our mistakes.

 This is what the salami looked like at two weeks old.
This is what the salami looked like at two weeks old.  Pretty good, eh?

First impressions: The surface is quite shriveled; it's obviously lost a lot of moisture, perhaps too much, making it kind of tough to cut.  Oddly, it seems that the fat pieces didn't shrink at all, or not noticeably.  The meat is much darker than you would see in a store-bought salami.  Strangely, it has an almost nutty aroma that's not unpleasant.

 To be honest, I'm kind of scared of it...
This is what the salami looks like now.  To be honest, I'm kind of scared of it...  That's why I brought it to work so the Homesteader's crew could share in the experience.

 The first taste is... well, it's not horrible.  It's definitely too dry; it's chewy and jerky-like and the fat pieces are much too large and separate easily from the meat.  The taste is not bad, but it's not good either.  Actually, it's kind of bland and lacking in that tangy sharpness of a store-bought salami.  On the plus side, it's been several hours since first ingesting it and I'm not experiencing any symptoms of food-borne illness. I'd say this attempt at home salami-making was not the success I'd hoped for.  So, what went wrong?

  1. It's too dry.  Before we hung the salami to dry, we should have recorded their weights.  By comparing their weights throughout the drying stage to their initial weights, we would have been able to monitor the rate of moisture loss.  Obviously, we let it hang far too long.  Why?  Frankly, the salami was out-of-sight and, therefore, out-of-mind.  We didn't exactly forget about it, but every time we thought to check on it, we put it off thinking that one more day wouldn't make a difference.  Next time, we'll be more diligent about our salami stewardship.
  2. The fat pieces are too large.  The back fat, which is supposed to be diced by hand rather than ground like the rest of the meat, should have been diced much finer.  Before starting to make the salami, we read that the diced fat has a tendency to "smear" (melt into the meat mixture due to the warmth of your hands and the friction of using a stand mixer).  As this is a common problem for beginners, we assumed our fat pieces would be reduced somewhat from their original size... but they didn't shrink at all.  Before starting, we placed all equipment into the deep freezer and worked quickly to avoid the problem.  I guess we got this part right!
  3. The flavor just isn't quite right.  For one, I don't really taste the spices.  Perhaps the overly-long drying time caused the seasonings to lose their effectiveness.  Secondly, since salami is a fermented product, it should have an acidic tanginess that just doesn't come through in our version.  Did we remove the salami from the warm fermenting chamber and place it in the cooler drying room prematurely, that is, before the pH had dropped low enough?  I don't think so...
 After 36 hours in the moist heat of the incubation box, the bacteria have produced enough lactic acid to lower the pH to about 4.7.
The test strips from before and after the initial fermentation period indicate a marked decrease in pH (increase in acidity).

The salami were placed in a warm moist chamber to ferment for 36 hours before we moved them to the cooler drying room.  In that time, the bacteria had produced enough lactic acid to lower the pH of the meat to about 4.7, which should be low enough to lend a noticeably tangy note to the overall flavor.  Perhaps the sourness mellowed considerably due to the overly long drying time... I've read that sausage-making techniques in North America differ greatly from those in Europe.  The North American practice is to use bacterial cultures that achieve a relatively low pH (high acid) in a very short amount of time and at high temperatures (around 100 deg. F).  European sausage makers use bacteria that result in higher pH (lower acid) and that are active over a longer period of time at around room temperature.  Safety-wise, the difference between the two methods is that the North American technique relies on high acidity to prevent contamination, whereas the European method uses moisture loss to kill off harmful contaminants.  Taste-wise, American salami will be noticeably more sour and, to the European palette, less flavorful.  In contrast, European salami is supposedly less sour and, perhaps to the American palette, bland.  Maybe we inadvertently made European salami!

Whatever we made, it's not great salami.  Chalk this one up to experience!  At least now we are familiar, not only with the process of making and stuffing the salami, but also the physical and chemical changes that meat undergoes to become salami.  And, it's not a total loss: I can always dice it up and call it dog treats... that is, if none of the Homesteader's crew comes down with botulism in the next few days.

From Chicken-Keeping to Wine-Making: How One Homesteading Project Inevitably Leads to Another July 24, 2014 14:55

When I picked up my first chickens in Maple Ridge two years ago, the woman I was getting them from insisted that I take about twenty pounds of fruit from her heavily-laden wild golden plum tree.  I didn't know what to do with so many plums, so I froze the fruit while I considered what homesteading project could possibly use them all up.  When my neighbor offered me red grapes from his vine and said he was using the rest to make wine, the answer became clear: a golden plum wine tinted pink with the addition of the grapes. I have to admit that I never even bottled the wine: after letting it ferment for about nine months in the carboy, I tasted it and found it to be so delightful I couldn't resist having a glass.  Then, night after night, I kept sneaking "just one more glass" until, lo and behold, the carboy was empty!  I can't say that it was particularly sophisticated or nuanced, but to me--who made it from start to finish and even picked the fruit that went into it--it was the best wine I'd ever tasted! Since my first wine was half plum, I guess you'd call it a "country wine," that being the term for a wine made from any fruit other than grape.  This summer, I'm starting a tayberry country wine--my third to date (the second was a wild fermented blackberry wine, which is described below).  

 They are bigger than both raspberries and blackberries and have a rich tart flavor and deep wine-red coloring.
Tayberries are a hybrid cross between raspberries and blackberries.  They're larger than both and have a tart flavor and deep wine-red coloring.

When I made the plum wine, I scoured the internet for recipes and because I couldn't find one that called for the exact combination of fruits I had on hand, I settled for making an educated guess about how much sugar to use.  According to Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation (my go-to resource for all things fermentable), for 3 gallons of crushed fruit, you'll end up using 10 to 12 lbs. of the sweet stuff.  For the tayberry wine, I'm following his recipe for elderberry flower wine, which he says can be used for a wide variety of country wines by substituting whatever berries, flowers, or veggies you have in abundance.  In fact, Katz lists a fascinating variety of country wines that he's tried: dandelion, tomato, carrot, even jalapeno!

 Freezing the berries right after picking them keeps them fresh and actually helps break down the cell walls so they get juicy faster.
Freezing the berries after picking them keeps them fresh and speeds the juicing process.


 Cover the berries with boiling water and stir to get the juice out and to kill wild yeasts that may produce off-flavors.
Cover the berries with boiling water and stir to get the juice out and to kill unwanted pests.

Making wine is no different from making any other fermented product: bacteria and/or yeast convert sugars into desirable by-products--the acid that makes yogurt tart, the carbon dioxide that makes kombucha effervescent, or the alcohol in wine and beer.  Usually, you add some type of yeast or bacterial culture (a.k.a. SCOBY or "mother") to start the fermentation process.

 Champagne yeast will tolerate a higher alcohol content than other yeasts.
I'm using a champagne yeast because it will tolerate a higher alcohol content than other wine and beer yeasts.


 Wait for the yeast/juice mixture to start bubbling and then add it back to the bucket.
Wait for the yeast/juice mixture to start bubbling and then add it back to the bucket.

However, there are always wild yeasts clinging to the outer skins of fruits--most noticeably on red grapes and blueberries as a whitish bloom--so it is possible to make a "wild fermented" wine without the addition of commercial yeast.  The resulting wine, however, is not guaranteed to taste good and will likely be inconsistent from one batch to the next.

On the other hand, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that the jug of bubbly fermenting juice you feared would turn out something like gut-rot prison hooch has instead aged into a fine-tasting fruit cordial.  Anyway, that's what I'm calling my wild-fermented blackberry wine from last summer--the result of an over-zealous blackberry-picking outing in Pacific Spirit Park.  I had more than enough berries for fresh-eating, for jam, syrup, and ice cream.  Afterwards, I ran the too-soft berries that remained through the food mill and intended to save the juice for flavoring smoothies and who knows what else.  However, when I opened the jar a few days later, it was bubbly and starting to "turn."  Not really knowing what I was doing, I poured it in a 1-gallon jug with a couple lbs. of sugar and topped it off with water.  I stoppered it and put on an airlock and left it to sit in the cool dark basement and hoped for the best...

 Wild-fermented blackberry wine from last summer.
Wild-fermented blackberry "cordial."

That was last summer.  Having no idea what to expect, I brought the jug to the Homesteader's Emporium 2-Year anniversary party last weekend and opened it for the first time in almost a year.  To my surprise and delight, it was not gross at all!  In fact, it was sweet and clear and definitely alcoholic.  It could stand to ferment for another year or more to reduce the sweetness.  Only time will tell how well that particular cordial will age. But, I digress...

After adding the yeast to the tayberry wine, we let it sit undisturbed at room temperature for a few days.  Sandor Katz claims it is best to let the yeast chow down on the naturally-occurring fruit sugars before adding granulated sugar.  So, several days after starting the wine, an entire 4kg. bag of Rogers white sugar went into the bucket!  Well actually, we first dissolved the sugar in a pot of water over low heat, then when the syrup cooled, we mixed it into the frothy fermenting tayberry juice.

 Here, Hubbie and Homebrew Veteran shows off his siphoning prowess.
Here, Hubbie and Veteran Homebrewer shows off his siphoning prowess.


 Check out the beautiful color of the tayberries.  As yeast and fruit particles settle over time, the wine will become much clearer.
Check out the beautiful color of the tayberries! As yeast and fruit particles settle over time, the wine will become much clearer.

All that's left to do now is wait... and wait... and wait some more.  In a month or so, when the wine has clarified considerably, we'll transfer it to another 5-gal. glass carboy identical to the one pictured.  That way, we'll remove the fruit debris and dead yeast that accumulate at the bottom.  For now, this homesteading project is going into the fermentation cellar to keep the sake and salami company.  Let's hope I have the patience to get it to the bottling stage!

Camping, Dehydration, Romance, and the incomparable Excalibur April 17, 2014 16:54

Thanks to guest contributor Christine McLaren for this one! 

My obsession with dehydrated camping food started where every good story does: with the quest for love. I’d met a dude and everything was sunshine and rose petals from day one. We both loved camping, and were excitedly plotting out a summer of multi-day hiking trips by the second week of the relationship. But when packing commenced for the first trip, we struck a monumental battle of wills: I have uncompromising standards for the quality of food I eat when I camp; he was utterly obsessed with ultra light camping. While I was planning to happily heave cans of coconut milk and potatoes to through the Stein Valley for the sake of delicious curry, he was cutting off the ends of the straps on his already ultra light backpack to save weight. The arguments that ensued were out of proportion. The pre-packaged dehydrated meals from MEC are far too sugary and artificial for my tastes, but this guy meant such serious business when it came to ounces-to-nutrient ratio that I genuinely feared it might end the relationship. I was determined to have the best of both worlds and to learn to do it myself.

I got my hands on an Excalibur food dehydrator – the gold standard – and though the relationship eventually, er, dried up (it turns out the personality clash extended beyond hiking weight—go figure) my life as a hiker changed forever. Dehydrating food for camping is one of the simplest, most rewarding processes around, and a perfect off-season activity to while away the wet winter days until hiking season comes again. You can dehydrate individual ingredients—including meat and other proteins!—and build a meal on the trail, or dry up full meals that are ready to go. But there are some important things to note.  

  • Cook the food before you dehydrate it. Some vegetables, like peppers, can be dehydrated without prior cooking, but most (broccoli, carrots, potatoes, kale, and most others) should be lightly steamed before you put it into the dehydrator. This will shorten both the rehydration and cooking time. Also cook grains (rice, quinoa, or anything else) and pasta before dehydrating as well. While it might seem counter-intuitive to cook already-dried food, then re-dry it, if the food is already cooked it will reduce the cooking time on the trail significantly which will save a lot of time, water, and fuel.
  • Cut the food into very small pieces before dehydrating. It will not only reduce the dehydration time, but it will prevent the outside being over-dried while you wait for the inside to finish.
  • Adding bread crumbs to ground meat before you dehydrate it helps it dehydrate and rehydrate.
  • Food dries more quickly on the outside of the drying trays than the inside, so a little babysitting is required to make sure that everything dries equally. This may require either taking some of the food out earlier than the rest, or mixing the food around occasionally.
  • Some foods take significantly longer to dehydrate (and rehydrate!) than others, so be careful when dehydrating entire meals. If you’re making stew or other meals with large chunks of meat, potatoes, carrots, or other things that take much longer than other veggies in the meal, its probably best to dehydrate them separately and build the meal on the trail.
  • Food generally rehydrates on a 1:1 food to water ratio, but when rehydrating full meals, start with less water and add more as necessary, otherwise you risk eating a very watery chili or curry.
  • Avoid using butter, or too much oil in full meals for rehydration. Most food can keep up to six months once dehydrated, but oils and dairy shorten shelf life. Either way, it’s best to vacuum pack, but in a pinch, ziplock bags in a tightly sealed container work.
  • Use hot water to rehydrate (boiling, ideally). This works best if you make a pot cozy ( for your pot out of foil insulation.
  • Dehydrating food takes time. Some foods take up to 20 hours, so plan well ahead.
  • Dehydrating food also sucks energy. Having the Excalibur on 24 hours doubles my house’s energy bill for the day. That said, the daily bill jumped from $1 to $2, so the cost is minimal, but still worth keeping in mind.


With the Excalibur Paraflexx drying sheets, you can also dry semi-liquids, like pasta sauce, fruit leather, mashed potatoes, soups and stews, chili and even yogurt (this is better than you might think – slice it up and roll it into tiny, tight balls for amazingly delicious chewy snack treats) or flaky things like tuna, quinoa, ground meat, etc. A few of these sheets are a very worthy investment, and absolutely essential if you’re looking to dry whole meals or grains. The Backpacking Chef ( is a great resource for other ideas and tips along the way. Now go forth and dry. May your backpacks be light, your bellies full, and your hearts and relationships the best of both. Have fun!

Literature Guide 1: Small Space Gardening April 17, 2014 16:21

Since no two readers are the same, we try to offer several books on each homesteading topic. The problem is, all the choices can be intimidating!  Enter the Literature Guide blog series.  In each installment, we read and examine a selection of books on a popular topic.  We summarize each book in bullet points to help you pick the one that's perfect for you.  Read on to find a great book on Small Space Gardening! Contributor: Melissa Waddell

The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell

  • This is a good starter book, appropriate for the experienced container gardener looking to branch out into edibles. It appeals to the senses, and will get you excited about new projects
  • Inspiring, beautifully artistic photographs.
  • Offers general info and lots of specific, easy-to-follow project plans.

EAT UP! by Lauren Mandel

  • This is an outstanding book, inspiring and empowering. It could open pathways for you that you hadn’t thought possible.
  • All about rooftop agriculture, small to large scale operations across North America.
  • Loads of information, yet compelling and easy to read.
  • Includes rooftop beekeeping and livestock information.
  • Best suited to the experienced grower, as focus is more on how to get a rooftop operation going than how to have success with a particular crop.

The Edible Front Yard by Ivette Soler

  • An excellent sourcebook for converting a front lawn into a beautiful, edible growing space. Good for homeowners with some growing experience.
  • Design-oriented, which can benefit anyone who needs to consider aesthetics and property value in addition to yield.
  • Easy to follow instructions for converting lawn into farm
  • Includes an A-Z list of the author’s favourite edible plants, plus companion plants for visual appeal.

Urban Agriculture by David Tracey

  • This book is an immersion in the culture, politics and practice of sustainable urban agriculture, useful for anyone with an interest in the topic.
  • Offers climate-specific advice for winter farming in Vancouver.
  • Touches on the full spectrum of potential sites for urban growing: from windowsill to empty lots to rooftops, and what you can do with them.
  • Includes background on the political struggles of urban agriculture movement.

An Adventure in Home Salami-Making February 20, 2014 16:07 2 Comments

There is already a wealth of information available online about making your own sausage, so I won't cover all the details here.  What follows is a set of photos of my first attempt to make salami at home.  Actually, it's my husband's salami. For Christmas, I assembled a kit for him containing everything he would need to make his own salami (except the meat; we bought that fresh). The recipe and method that we used are described at length here.  So as not to waste too much meat and money on our first attempt, we halved the recipe, starting with 3 lbs. pork shoulder and 1/2 lb. back fat. And, although it can be done all at once, we decided to spread the work out over three evenings. The first night, we prepped the meat and tossed it with the salts, dextrose, and seasonings.  We also placed the grinder and stand mixer parts into the freezer with the back fat.  The following night, we just ground the seasoned meat and placed it back into the refrigerator. On the third night, we thoroughly mixed everything in the stand mixer, stuffed the casings and tied them up.
 Removing fat and sinew from meat.  It's partially frozen to make cutting easier.
Removing fat and sinew from meat. It's partially frozen to make cutting easier.
 Clockwise from top-left: kosher salt, dextrose, curing salt #2;  sausage casings soaking in water; spice blend (ground black peppercorns, bay leaves, fennel seeds)
Clockwise from top-left: kosher salt, dextrose, curing salt #2; sausage casings soaking in water; spice blend (ground black peppercorns, bay leaves, fennel seeds)


 Mixing the cubed meat, salt, cure, dextrose, and spices.
Mixing the cubed meat, salt, cure, dextrose, and spices.


 The grinder parts were kept in the deep freezer for several hours prior to use to ensure meat would stay as cold as possible.
The grinder parts were kept in the deep freezer overnight prior to use to ensure meat would stay as cold as possible.


 Stand mixer parts were also frozen before use to keep meat mixture cold and prevent fat from smearing.
Stand mixer parts were also frozen before use to keep meat mixture cold and prevent fat from smearing.


 We used a bacterial starter called Mondostart, which we let stand in filtered water for 30 min. to "wake up."  The water and bacteria were mixed into the ground meat along with a chilled port wine and some of the frozen diced back fat.
The original recipe called for bactoferm T-SPX starter culture, but we used a culture called Mondostart instead, which we let stand in filtered water for 30 min. to "wake up." The water and bacteria were mixed into the ground meat along with chilled wine and some of the frozen diced back fat.


 To get an even mix, the fat was added a little at a time.
 To get an even mix, the fat was added a little at a time.


 This wasn't the easiest way to stuff a sausage, but it worked.  Yes, that's my canning funnel.  Beware of trapped air with this method.  Just in case, I poked holes in the casings once they were stuffed.
This wasn't the easiest way to stuff a sausage, but it worked. Yes, that's my canning funnel. Beware of trapped air with this method. Just in case, we poked holes in the casings once they were stuffed


 Leave enough excess casing to fold over for a "bubble knot."  This will prevent the contents of your sausage from spilling out onto the floor.
Leave enough excess casing to fold over for a "bubble knot." This will prevent the contents of your sausage from spilling out onto the floor.


 Tying the sausages helps them keep their shape, which means they'll dry evenly.
Tying the sausages helps them keep their shape, which means they'll dry evenly.


 Incubation of the fermenting bacteria requires warm temperatures and high humidity.  We placed our sausages on a rack in a storage container that we filled with warm water.  Heat was supplied internally by an aquarium heater and the whole set-up was placed on op of the refrigerator.
Incubation of the fermenting bacteria requires warm temperatures and high humidity. We placed our sausages on a rack in a storage container that we filled with warm water. Heat was supplied internally by an aquarium heater and the whole set-up was placed on op of the refrigerator.


 After a 36-hour incubation period, the texture of the meat has already changed as the rising lactic acid levels cause the meat to coagulate.
After a 36 hours, the lactic acid produced by the bacteria had already begun to coagulate the meat.  The texture was no longer squishy like raw meat, but was firm like salami.


 An unused and unheated basement shower now doubles as the sausage curing room.  The wire sensor hanging between the sausages leads through a hole in the door to a Hygro-thermometer that reads the ambient temperature and relative humidity of the room.  A standard household vaporizer provides moisture.
An unused and unheated basement shower doubles as the salami curing room. The wire sensor attaches to a hygro-thermometer that reads the ambient temperature and relative humidity of the room.  A standard household vaporizer provides moisture.


 For the first two weeks, the salami cure at relatively high humidity to prevent case hardening.  After 2.5 weeks, the salami are now firm to the touch; the humidity has been lowered and the casings are beginning to dry and shrink.
For the first two weeks, the salami cure at relatively high humidity to prevent case hardening. After 2.5 weeks, the salami are now beginning to dry and shrink.

We found that breaking up the work over three days allowed us to take our time, be more careful and have more fun than if we had stayed up late into the night doing it all at once. The whole process was pretty straight forward and easy to do, although the same cannot be said for maintaining constant temperature and humidity levels. The instructions we were following said to cure the salami at 80-85% relative humidity (RH) for the first two weeks, which proved impossible to achieve with our humidifier--except on really rainy days.

After that, the RH is supposed to be lowered to 70-75%, which is still difficult to manage even if we run the humidifier 24/7.  After reading a lot of online forums, I've come to the conclusion that people are able to produce great fermented sausages in a wide range of conditions and what works for one person doesn't always work for others.  We'll continue to let our salami cure at about 50-60% RH, depending on the weather, and we'll see what happens. I'll post a follow-up when they're ready!

Update: There's a Fine Line...

One Year on: 2013 Mason Bee "harvest" February 19, 2014 17:10

It's late February, and here in Vancouver that means spring blossoms are starting to appear!  If you're planning to set up with mason bees in your garden this year, that means now to a month from now is the time to do it. I had tons of fun with my mason bees last year.  I started with just a dozen cocoons from Blessed Bee Farm (same as the ones we carry) and a house I got from Duncan of (not just chicken coops).  From those dozen I ended up with over 80 cocoons!  This year I'll be starting with about 50 (I had to give some away) and I've seeded some dutch white clover to feed them, so I'm optimistic for a great year! Cleaning your mason bees after each season helps keep their population healthy and parasites in check.  It's also a great learning experience if you've got a microscope!

 2013-10-05 19.05.00
The wooden nesting trays before I split them apart

The trays weren't much to look at at first.  With only a few mud caps visible, I expected a disappointing population.

 2013-10-05 19.20.46 HDR 
A tray showing numerous healthy cocoons and several parasitized cells


But there were more cocoons there than I thought!  Among the healthy cocoons I found quite a variety of non-conforming cells.  There was doughy brown stuff, powdery orange stuff, granular orange stuff, and wiry brown stuff accompanied by white maggoty creatures.  A few of the cocoons were small and crinkly, indicating wasp parasitism.

 2013-10-05 19.15.44
A close up of another tray. Note the brown wiry material near the centre - if you look closely you'll see several white larvae just below it. This "wiry" frass (bug poop) is characteristic of certain beetle larvae known to invade mason bee nests.

Here's the best photo I got of the larvae.  Kind of interesting, right? Margriet Dogterom of Bee Diverse had some similar photos featured on her blog, so I think maybe these larvae belong to the houdini fly

 2013-10-05 19.22.55 HDR
These roundish, cohesive balls were the size of cocoons but found in cells that contained neither cocoons nor evident parasites.  They are seemingly comprised of stuck-together pollen. I didn't know what to do with these so I ate them. They were pretty good, short of delicious. See below for what they look like under 400x magnification.

I'm not sure what happened with these.  Under a microscope it looks like partially broken down pollen grains, which reminds me of what I've read about honeybees fermenting pollen with honey to make it more digestible. Perhaps they're provisions for cells that where the bee eggs didn't hatch. They certainly tasted like bee pollen.

 2013-10-05 19.24.40
Giving the cocoons a good rinse helps to further rid them of pollen mites

All the cocoons and much of the debris went into a small bowl of water for rinsing.  Some sources recommend a mild bleach solution, but I've just used water here in the hopes of drowning any pollen mites still clinging to the cocoons.

 2013-10-05 19.32.12
Healthy cocoons clean, dry, and ready for overwintering in my refrigerator!

 The cocoons can be dried by gently rolling them in a towel.  Not a bad crop for starting with a dozen bees, I'd say!

 400x of a cell overrun with pollen mites
 400x of a cell overrun with pollen mites

The much reviled pollen mite.  This was one of the cells that looked like orange sugar to the naked eye.

 2013-10-06 11.32.22
400xA sample from one of the glob like pollen balls (the ones I ate). Note the rounded edges of the pollen granules.  Perhaps this indicates their cell walls being degraded?

More pollen!  This was a smear from one of the pollen balls.

 2013-10-06 11.33.57
Wiry frass from larvae that invaded several cells.

A magnified view of the frass.  It still doesn't look like much under the microscope.  I had a video of a larvae moving around too, but I don't think I can upload it.

 2013-10-06 11.44.14
The body of a parasitic wasp. I damaged the specimen getting it on the slide. Sorry.

A tiny wasp just a few mm long.  Presumably this was the adult that laid its eggs in some of the cocoons!  I broke it when I was getting it on the microscope.

 400x of a sample from one of the cells containing powdery, light orange pollen.  Note the distinct shape of the pollen grains.
400x of a sample from one of the cells containing powdery, light orange pollen. Note the distinct shape of the pollen grains.


Last slide: this one was from the powdery orange material. Looks like pollen grains with the cell walls all intact. Anybody know the significance of the various pollen appearances?

Guest Contribution: Composting your Pee February 04, 2014 14:11 4 Comments

Follow guest contributor Dylan Rawlyk at his blog,

For the past while I've been composting my pee as a way to increase nutrients for my garden, to reduce my water use, and to reduce my wastewater impact. I plan to walk you through my current method, as it works quite well. This may not be for everyone, but some of you may become inspired.  

Why I compost my pee instead of flushing it down the toilet. Our toilets are filled with drinking water. This water comes from three finite reservoirs near North Van that are replenished solely from snowmelt and rainfall on the mountains, and is treated before reaching our toilets. How ridiculous is this that we use a finite resource, treat it with more resources and energy, waste it, to just treat it again, and leaving the end wastewater not as clean as it started! Furthermore, as our population in Metro Vancouver continues to grow, our water treatment and wastewater treatment centres are strained, needing very expensive upgrades and expansions to keep the system running properly. By composting our pee, we can reduce our water consumption, while keeping our nutrients in a closed-loop system benefitting our gardens, instead of polluting our waterways.  

What you’ve got to know. Urine by itself is sterile, as opposed to poo, making it easier to safely compost. It is also very high in nitrogen (great for plants), and is water-soluble. So if we were to just put our urine on our garden, there’s a high chance we’d overdo it with nitrogen, and might kill the plants, and any excess nutrients will leach from the garden with water infiltration, and will be lost, potentially polluting other areas. So, to compost your pee, we need to get it in a less mobile state, and reduce the nitrogen concentration. Typically, an efficient compost system relies on having a balance of carbon and nitrogen. In compost, this means balancing your waste products to have a 20:1 – 35:1 carbon:nitrogen ratio. Urine, by itself has a carbon:nitrogen ratio of about 0.8:1. That being said, we must add a lot of carbon (woody material) to balance it properly for our compost systems. So I’ve experimented with multiple woody materials. I suggest using waste products from around you if possible, such as twigs, fall garden stalks, local sawdust, leaves, maybe even cardboard. These days, I’ve been using a bought carbon source. It’s cheap, compacted so takes up less space, and works extremely well. It’s called pet bedding or wood pellets. It’s very easy to see when this carbon source is balanced with your urine because it expands, and all the liquid should be absorbed into the sawdust. Lastly, if you are dumping the pail often, and balancing your urine with carbon, this will not stink up your bathroom.

How I do it. 1)   Find a large pail that can be stored next to your toilet. 2)   Cover the bottom of the pail with your chosen woody material. 3)   Urinate in the pail. If you prefer to sit when you pee, you can attach a toilet seat to the pail. 4)   Put a handful of woody material on top. 5)   Repeat until pail is close to full. 6)   Dump it onto your compost pile. 7)   Repeat.

Things to keep in mind. This is a very simple process and if you are a bit off on your nutrient ratios, your compost system should be able to still balance it out. It is very important to have a diversity of waste products going into your compost system, so don't overload it with your urine mix. Make sure you have other waste products going in too. It’s helpful to have a wingdigger or similar tool to mix and aerate your compost bin. It’s good to have the balanced urine/wood mix distributed within your compost system. The nutrients found in our urine came from the food we ate, which in turn came from farms and gardens. Composting our urine returns those nutrients back to where they came from, instead of them getting lost to the ocean. Experiment. Observe. Learn.

Easy Homemade Applesauce! October 31, 2013 11:48

There's nothing like homemade applesauce: you can add cinnamon and sweeten it just the way you like--or not at all.  It's the perfect solution for all those half-rotten wind-fall apples that nobody's going to eat. For years, I've followed the same recipe, which calls for coring and peeling the apples before slicing and cooking them.  It's time consuming and doing it by hand gives me a cramp every time.  An apple peeler/corer makes the job easier and faster, but there's a better way: the food mill!  Never again will I core and peel apples destined for the sauce pot. Step 1: Wash your apples.  Since the peels are going into the pot, any dirt on them will end up in your applesauce.

Removing Yucky Spots

Step 2: Remove rotten spots and bug holes.  So, yes, the food mill method still requires some peeling, but the work is reduced to a fraction of the peel-and-core method. Step 3: Rough-chop apples and throw them into the pot.  Small apples can be cut into fourths and larger apples into eighths.  

Cooking Apples  

Step 4: Add small amount of water (about half a cup for a large pot) and cook apples at medium heat until soft (about 20 minutes).  Stir frequently so apples soften evenly.

Step 5: Remove from heat and ladle apples into your food mill.  I find it easier to mill the apples in many small batches instead of a few large ones.

 Cooked Apples in Foodmill Stems, Seeds and Peels in Foodmill


Turn handle clockwise to press softened apples through the sieve (shown on left).  When the sieve gets clogged with stems and peels, simply turn handle counter-clockwise to scrape debris from the sieve so it can easily be removed and composted (shown on right).

Stirring in Sugar and Cinnamon

Step 6:  Depending on how sweet or tart your apples were and how sweet you like your applesauce, you may want to add sugar at this point.  I used about one-third of a cup for the whole pot and added a teaspoon of cinnamon.  Mix thoroughly.

Preparing Water Bath For Canning    

Step 7: Eat now or process in hot water bath for 10 minutes to enjoy year-round!

A Year's Supply of Applesauce?

Saving Tomato Seeds September 07, 2013 12:37 2 Comments

A few years ago I was a volunteer with the Vancouver Farmer's Market.  When the market held its annual Tomato Festival, I manned the sampling table where customers could see and taste some of the more unusual tomato varieties sold by market vendors.  The most frequently asked question was whether the farmers growing these heirloom tomatoes also sold seeds; people wanted to be able to grow these unusual tomatoes themselves.  Unfortunately, the answer was 'no' and many people were disappointed.
 Their fleshiness makes the German Red Strawberry a great eating and cooking tomato.
 Their fleshiness makes the German Red Strawberry a great eating and cooking tomato.

I was disappointed, too, because I had found an heirloom tomato variety that I really liked--the German Red Strawberry, which is large, pink and meaty, everything I ever wanted a tomato to be... and the flavor is delicious!   After four hours of slicing tomatoes and clearing my cutting board of gelatinous goo and seeds, it dawned on me that every tomato contains the seeds for growing more tomatoes like itself!  It sounds so obvious, but as a newbie gardener, I was used to buying seeds in a little paper envelope with detailed instructions.  Some seeds, like beans or peas, come out of their pods looking just like they would from a seed packet, but seeds straight out of a tomato are anything but clean and dry. Obviously there was some process required to save tomato seeds.  When I got home from the market that day, I decided to find out what that process was.  It turned out it was quite simple and when I worked the tomato booth at the next market, I shared what I'd learned with anyone who asked.  Then, I took my own advice: before leaving the market that day, I purchased several of the meatiest German Red Strawberry tomatoes I could find and I took them home to save their seeds.  That was five years ago and I have planted this unique variety of tomato every year since then and it is still my favorite tomato.

So, here's how you do it: 1. When choosing tomatoes to save seeds from, consider that you are selecting the genetic traits of your future tomato crop, so select fruits that are a good representation of the variety you've chosen.  Or, select fruits that display traits you are looking for in regards to size, color and disease resistance.

 If you're careful not to mangle your tomatoes when scooping out the seeds, you can still eat them for dinner. 
If you're careful not to mangle your tomatoes when scooping out the seeds, you can still eat them for dinner.

2. Cut each fruit in half across its middle and carefully scoop the seeds and goo into a jar or small dish.  I use the tip of my knife to do this.  If you're saving seeds from more than one variety, be sure to label your jars!

 Tomato seeds with germination-inhibiting goo.
Tomato seeds with germination-inhibiting goo.

3. If you don't have much goo in your jar, add a splash of water so the moisture won't evaporate during the next step, leaving you with a dried-out, stuck-on mess.

4. Cover the jar with a clean cloth and let it sit out at room temperature for 2-3 days, or until it smells like rotten tomatoes.  I know it's gross, so maybe find an out-of-the-way spot where the smell won't be too offensive, but the goo needs to ferment to come cleanly away from the seeds.  (Technically, the "goo" is a growth inhibitor, which keeps the seeds from germinating inside the tomato.)

 This tomato goo is broken down and ready to be rinsed.  Be glad you can't smell this!
This tomato goo is broken down and ready to be rinsed. Be glad you can't smell this!

Do not let your seeds soak in this mixture for more than 4 or 5 days or else they will start to germinate and it will be too late to dry and save them.

5. Once the goo has broken down, it's time to rinse your seeds.  Add some water to the jar and swirl it around gently.

 Viable seeds sink; duds and debris are rinsed away.
 Viable seeds sink; duds and debris are rinsed away.

Viable seeds will quickly settle to the bottom; duds and debris will float and can be poured off with the excess water.  Repeat this step a few times until no debris remains and the water pours off clear.

 These seeds are clean, dry and ready for storage.
These seeds are clean, dry and ready for storage.

6. Lay the seeds out on a paper plate or saucer lined with a paper towel.  After a day or two, separate any clumps of seeds by rubbing them between your fingers and allow to dry for another day or two.

7. Store clean, dry seeds in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place.  Be sure to label the container.  In addition to the variety name, record the year in which the seeds were saved as well as any notes that might be useful in the future (bush vs. vine, early vs. late, etc.).  Tomato seeds are viable for 3-5 years or more, with a declining germination rate after that.

Summer Gardening Workshops August 24, 2013 11:45

If you haven't made it out to one of our summer gardening workshops, you're missing out!

 Summer Harvest
A share for the DTES Neighborhood House

Last week everyone got to go home with a bag of mixed-variety tomatoes, some sprigs of rosemary, and one or two deliciously crunchy cukes. Participants learned all about plant sex and how it affects seed saving on a small scale.

 Snap peas are eaten whole--pod and all--and these were so sweet and delicious!
Snap peas are eaten whole--pod and all--and these were so sweet and delicious!
In July, we pigged out on super-sweet Oregon Giant snap peas; luckily, we overcame the urge to eat them all so we could save some for seeds, which we planted last week for a late fall crop.  Now, the question came up whether pea seeds need to be exposed to freezing temperatures before they'll germinate and I didn't honestly know the answer.  Essentially, would August be too soon to plant peas that had just been harvested in July?  In Nature, of course, most seeds dropped at the end of a plant's life cycle would be exposed to winter weather before conditions are right again for them to germinate.  Some seeds, like asparagus, seem to require this, but many others clearly do not or else seeds stored indoors over winter would never germinate.
 Planting peas for a late fall crop.
Planting peas for a late fall crop. These pea plants were harvested in July and hung upside-down to dry.

 Will the lack of a winter rest period prevent our peas from germinating or will we get a bumper crop because the seed we used was so fresh?  We'll see... Experimentation is part of the fun of gardening and the results can be surprising! I did consult one of my favorite gardening writers on this question of whether pea seeds need some freezing temperatures before they'll germinate.  In her book The Zero-Mile Diet, Carolyn Herriot does recommend freezing pea seeds after they're thoroughly dried out, as a way of killing the eggs of an annoying garden pest, the pea weevil; but she doesn't say freezing is necessary for germination.  

In looking through The Zero-Mile Diet I did, however, find the answer to another question that came up in the gardening workshop: what is the difference between snap peas and snow peas?  Basically, both are edible pea pods, differing from shelling peas in that you don't remove the peas from their pods.   Snow peas are harvested when the pods are full-sized but the peas inside have only just begun to swell, whereas snap peas are harvested and eaten with fully formed peas inside. Peas, by the way, are one of the easiest garden plants to save your own seed from because they have "perfect" flowers, meaning they're self-fertile.  

Participants at last week's gardening workshop got a lesson on flower anatomy and will remember that self-fertile plants reproduce true-to-type, meaning the next generation of plants will be like the plants from which seeds were saved.  Self-fertile plants like beans, peas, tomatoes and lettuces are the best place to start for small-scale gardeners wishing to save their own seeds. Participants at last week's workshop also went home with a list of things to do in their own gardens at this time of year.  Late summer garden chores include: Sow seeds for a fall crop and over-wintering for a spring crop Add compost or manure to top-off fertility for late-season fruit production "Deadhead" flowers and herbs to keep them producing longer Harvest herbs to use fresh or hang them to dry for later Leave some annuals to self-sow for next year Plant trees, shrubs and perennials and keep them well-watered Start saving seeds as they become ready

 The addition of a few ripe mangoes makes a great salsa out of home-grown tomatoes, onions, peppers, and herbs.
A few ripe mangoes makes a good salsa great!

To this list, you might add harvest-relevant food preservation projects.  If you're into home canning, you've probably already put up some jams or jellies since we're coming to the end of the season for all of the local berries--although you'll still be able to find lots of blackberries!  Mangoes are apparently in season somewhere since they're so plentiful and cheap right now at local markets; of course I'm a fan of local produce rather than imported, but I do love the way a few ripe mangoes dress up a home-grown salsa recipe.  We're now into tomato harvest season, so get your quart jars ready! I'll address in a later post the question of how to save seeds from tomatoes.  The farmer's market is brimming with interesting heirloom tomato varieties and since many of them won't be available from seed catalogues next year, saving the seeds from your favorites is sometimes the only way to be able to grow them yourself.  Stay tuned!