May 27, 2020

Gardening Between Raindrops

I'm guessing most folks will agree that it's been a strange spring. When the trees leafed out early, I thought summer was right around the corner. Not so. We've had a few warm days, but mostly it's been rainy and cool. It was so damp and chilly last week that we started a fire in the woodstove one evening, something we've never done in May before!

As my blog post title suggests, gardening has been sporadic because of the rain. Still, I'm getting things done. Another thing that's strange, is that everything seems slow to germinate and slow to grow. I thought it was just me, but we bought some hay last week and the farmer mentioned how slow-growing everything has been. But slow or not, here's what's happening in my garden.

I still have a few things from my fall and winter garden.

Fava beans and lettuce. This is the first time I've grown favas.
They are a lot of work to prepare, but they are very good to eat.

That's the lettuce I mentioned in my "Ricotta Ranch Dressing" blog post.
Now that I figured out a salad dressing, it's decided to bolt! Oh well, lol.

Multiplier onions ready to harvest.

They are smaller than globe onions, but they do better for me than globes.

A few beets, volunteer potatoes, and horseradish. I thought I dug
all the horseradish root out last fall, but it's come back with vigor!

In the other end of that same bed, volunteer tomato
and a bunch of violets. All volunteers get to stay.

The winter wheat was also planted last fall and is beginning to turn yellow.
We're just hoping we get a string of nice days when it's time to harvest it!

March-planted snow peas are in full bloom. No pea pods yet.
The flowers in the background are collards, radishes, & turnips.

Also blooming, April-planted bush beans. These had severe
insect damage when first sprouting. The survivors look good.

I also planted three hills of watermelon last month. 

And these, Tatume summer squash. The seed was saved from 2013, so I
wasn't sure of viability. I dumped a bunch in two hills and it's growing well!

April-sown cucumbers.

I started tomato seeds early in April as well. I planted saved seed and Matt's Wild Cherry tomato to grow on my front porch trellis. Of that first planting of the Matt's, only one seed grew. I reseeded my little pots with the rest of the seed and transplanted the one.

First Matt's Wild Cherry tomato transplant.The picnic fly
dome is to keep the cats from using this spot as a litter box! 

A couple more from the second planting are sprouting, so I should get three plants from one package of seed.

This month (also in between raindrops) I've planted corn, okra, summer lettuce, borage, Swiss chard, calendula, dill, sweet basil, marigolds, pumpkins, peanuts, amaranth, black turtle beans, and more cucumbers and tomatoes. Dan planted sunflowers and potatoes. Also, I've been transplanting my tomato starts, but my sweet potato slips have been slow to grow. Still to transplant—sweet peppers, cayenne, and tomatoes as the seedlings get big enough. Still to harvest—garlic. Soon, I should have pictures of all that to show you.

How about you? Is the weather letting you garden?

May 23, 2020

Ricotta Ranch Dressing

May has been unusually cool and rainy, so our lettuce hasn't bolted yet!

I've been experimenting with making salad dressings for awhile. My goal is to make them from ingredients I commonly have on hand. I haven't come up with anything particularly noteworthy, but I keep on trying. Are they even necessary? I don't know, but they sure do dress up a salad, and we like them for a veggie dip too.

Ranch used to be a staple at our house, until the ingredient list on the bottled brands convinced me I no longer want to buy it. Homemade recipes for Ranch dressing call for mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk. The problem is, these aren't ingredients I keep around. I recently stocked up on coconut oil mayonnaise (75¢ a pint!), but I don't buy or make sour cream, and my buttermilk is from butter making, not the cultured kind used in salad dressings. Since I'm not inclined to go to a lot of trouble making individual ingredients for only one recipe, I'd given up on one of my favorite salad dressings.

The other day I made a soft creamy ricotta from my mozzarella whey and wondered why it wouldn't be a good base for a salad dressing. I experimented with an idea, and both Dan and I agree it's a keeper! I won't miss store-bought Ranch any more!

I'm posting the recipe here, so I'll remember what it is. With whey ricotta, skimmed milk kefir, and no mayo, it could be almost zero fat. With the kefir, it's probiotic! My measurements are in parenthesis, but this could be adapted for any amounts and taste preferences.

Ricotta Ranch Salad Dressing

Equal parts of:
  • ricotta (that recipe here) (¾ cup)
  • kefir (and that recipe here) (¾ cup)
To taste:
  • Himalayan salt (1 tsp)
  • black pepper (¼ tsp)
  • onion powder (1 tsp)
  • garlic powder (⅛ tsp)
  • parsley flakes (sprinkle)
  • pickle juice (1 tbsp)

Blend all ingredients until creamy. Add more kefir if needed for the desired consistency. Pour into a recycled salad dressing bottle, and refrigerate until serving. This would also make an excellent veggie or chip dip.

Future experiments:

Parting shot: Here's what I served that salad with. . . .

Ricotta gnocchi and meatballs in pizza sauce sprinkled with
grated fresh mozzarella. The links will take you to the recipes.

A yummy meal (if I do say so myself).

Ricotta Ranch Dressing © May 2020 by Leigh

May 19, 2020

Paddock Mower

Here is Dan's latest contrivance, a paddock mower.

How is it different from a regular lawn mower? By adding oversize wheels, Dan was able to raise the mowing deck to almost six inches, rather than the typical two to four of a regular mower.

To use larger wheels, he had to extend the axles so the wheels wouldn't hit the mower deck. He made the extensions out of ¾-inch bolts. The spacers (blue below) are pex pipe.

What's the point? Well, with intensive rotational grazing, the idea is for the paddock to be grazed down about 50% of the forage height. Cattle will apparently do that, but I find goats less consistent. They take top bites off a lot of it, but ignore a lot of it too. Then seed heads start shooting up.

Before mowing.

Once plants start putting energy into producing seed, the leafy parts lose nutrients and palatability. The idea of mowing tall is to simulate grazing. This stimulates leaf production and delays seeding, although we're transitioning from winter forage to summer forage right now, which means everything is determined to finish its life cycle and produce seed anyway.

After mowing. This is how it should look after grazing.

We tried this last year with our regular lawn mower, but it cuts too short. It scalps the forage so that it takes a long time to recover to good eating height again. By cutting taller, I hope we can continue to improve grazing, and continue to improve the soil because the clippings are left where they're cut.

That's the theory, anyway. We're in another rainy spell at the moment, which means no grazing or mowing. But hopefully, it will get my summer pasture seed going.

Paddock Mower © May 2020 by Leigh

May 15, 2020

The Pantry: Starting on Phase 2

Last summer, I blogged about my pantry problems and plans. The goal at the time was a "solar pantry," by which I meant putting the auxiliary fridge and freezer located in the pantry on solar power. After much analysis and planning, we moved the fridge and freezer onto the back porch and set them up on solar there (phase 1).

Phase 2 of this project focuses on the energy efficiency of the pantry itself. As part of my analysis last summer, I kept track of the pantry air temperature, and discovered it can get into the lower 90sF (upper 20sC) in the heat of summer. Not ideal for food storage.

The plan for phase 2 is to replace the old single-glazed windows with energy efficient windows, increase insulation in the walls, and experiment with passive cooling methods. It's going to be another pay-as-we-go project, so it won't happen overnight. But we've made a start.

Dan started with this wall.

My 4-foot chest freezer used to live along this wall.

Our first idea was to take down the paneling and put this stuff between the studs.

The 4-foot by 8-foot foam board sheets come in several thicknesses, with this 2-inch having the highest R-value. At roughly $30 a sheet it's pricey, but Home Depot carries it so we could buy a few sheets at a time and gradually work our way around the room. Unfortunately, Dan found it extremely frustrating to work with.

The ad video makes it look super easy to install. The sheets are pre-scored at 16-inch intervals, so just cut and pop in. Except, our studs are 16 inches on center, meaning that 16 inches is the measurement from the middle of one stud to the next. Our wall space between the studs is more like 14⅝ inches. On top of that, it was difficult to cut the foam cleanly, and Dan completely lost enthusiasm for the project after finally finishing that one wall.

So the project sat for awhile, until one recent rainy day, when we headed over to our discount builders supply warehouse to look for replacement windows.

One of two original pantry windows.

We found two brand new, still in the wrapping, energy star rated windows, the exact same size as the old windows, for $80 each. Perfect!

The first step was to remove the window trim and wall paneling.

Old window.

We had the old window removed and the new one installed in less than an hour! That's a first for this old house, where replacing windows usually takes several days from start to finish. Having the same size replacement helps!

New window. The first thing we noticed
was how quiet the room had become!

We have the other window to replace, but also, we have to decide what to do about the walls. Adding the 2-inch foam board is out for several reasons, the first because it was so difficult to work with. Even if we did want it, Home Depot is now out of stock, which no projected restocking date. Another deterrent is that the current batting insulation is stapled to the outer wall, which would make it a mess to remove.

So the plan under consideration right now is to apply 1-inch foam board directly on top of the studs. We'd lose a couple of inches of floor space, but it would still work. The batting is R-11 and the 1-inch sheets are R-5, which would give us and R-16 insulation value for the outer walls. Then we'd have to replace the old paneling, because it pretty much splintered when Dan pulled it off. (Ha! Not heart-broken over that!)

While we're mulling that over, Dan is replacing the window trim on the outside.

Old window out, new window in.
We had a beautiful day to do this!

Besides the walls, we still have to figure out a ventilation system and explore passive cooling ideas. More on that one of these days.

May 11, 2020

African Keyhole Garden

While I took a week's break during the book giveaway, I worked on my own book and we finished our African keyhole garden. I told you about our plan in my Spring Clean-Up post, and Dan got right to work on.

What exactly is an African keyhole garden? It's a brilliant concept for raised bed gardening. It combines growing, composting, and watering into one manageable system. It's ideal for areas that have inadequate rainfall. The round bed is roughly 6-feet across with a compost container in the middle and a built-in path to easily add compostable materials and water. It can be any height one chooses.

Resembles a keyhole overhead, hence the name.

The keyhole wall can be constructed from anything: stone, logs, boards, sticks, wattle fencing, metal or fiberglass roofing panels, even sheets of plastic. Dan decided to use brick for ours because we still have a huge pile of bricks leftover from when we tore down the old fireplace and chimney ten years ago. Here's how he did it.

The first step was to level the ground and calculate how many
bricks would be needed for a 6-foot diameter keyhole garden.

He leveled a base for the footer with gravel and sand.

Brick footer filled in with clay subsoil.

The brick wall goes on top of that.

It took about three days to get to this point.

Compost bin made with ½-inch hardware cloth. It's about 20" across.

Keyhole gardens are typically filled lasagna garden style, but we
did ours more hugelkultur style with chunks of wood on the bottom.

Spaces between the wood chunks were filled with woodchips & topsoil. I
tossed in old corn cobs and husks, and bones leftover from making broth.
Almost done. Topsoil, compost, and fine woodchips continue
the fill. A cover could be added to the compost bin if desired.

The beauty of this system is that the compost bin is built in specifically for the keyhole bed. Contents of the compost are higher than the soil, which is sloped from the edge of the compost to the keyhole wall. Because the bin is made of hardware cloth, moisture, nutrients, humus, and organic matter automatically leach into the soil.

Planted with calendula, sweet basil, Jericho lettuce,
borage, and Five Color Silver Beet Swiss chard.

And there it is. Every day now, I'm out there inspecting for little seedlings! I'll keep you updated on how well it works.

Parting shot: Dan got his blueberry bushes transplanted too.

For more information, pictures, and ideas, check out this article, "Keyhole Garden" at

African Keyhole Garden © May 2020 by Leigh

May 8, 2020

Giveaway Winner & Bonus Prize!

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway! Lots of great ideas and enthusiasm in the comments. The special bonus prize is for you! Firstly, the winner. To choose from the 27 entries, I used a random number generator.

Congratulations to Nina!

If you didn't win, keep reading! The bonus prize is for you!

BONUS: Shawn has a series of free podcasts that explore positive ways to build a better world in your backyard. In them, he discusses many of the ideas in this book. You are invited to listen to them at his Building a Better World website. You'll find the podcasts at the link below.

Lots of interesting titles and lots of excellent ideas. Here is a sampling:
  • The Most Effective Way to Make Your Voice Heard
  • A Millionaire Life Without a Million Dollars
  • Replacing Petroleum with People
  • Pampering Animals for Increased Plant Growth
  • Strategies for Early Retirement

You can also listen to the podcasts at your favorite podcast venue.

If you'd like to buy a copy of the book for your own home library, click here. 

Thank you to everyone who entered and shared their ideas!

May 1, 2020

Book GIVEAWAY! Building a Better World in Your Backyard

I'm pleased to announce a book giveaway!

I've been in contact with Shawn Klaussen-Koop, co-author of

and he has graciously offered to give away a free paperback copy of his and Paul Wheaton's book.

If you missed my review on the book, you can read it here → Book Review: Building a Better World in Your Backyard. You'll understand why I'm enthusiastic about this book, especially now. It's difficult to read how so many people are uncertain and afraid because of the pandemic. Not only about getting sick, but about their jobs, their homes, and where their lives are headed. This book will help you take back some control in a positive, productive way. For example: you might be interested in cutting your electric bill without sacrificing comfort. You might be interested in cutting your water bill by learning how to water your lawn less, or simple, safe uses for graywater. You might be interested in free ways to increase your garden's productivity. These are the kinds of ideas you'll find in this book.

Interested? Here are the particulars for the giveaway:
  • It runs from today, May 1st through Thursday, May 7th
  • It's open to anyone (whole world) with the caveat that some places have delayed mail service because of lockdowns.
  • You can enter to win a copy for yourself, a friend or family member, or to donate to your public library.
  • The winner will be announced on Friday, May 8th.
  • The winner will have two days to respond to claim their prize. I'll need an email address to pass on to Shawn, and he'll need a mailing address for you to receive the book (no strings attached).
To enter:
  • Leave a comment and tell us one way you'd like to build a better world in your backyard. 
  • You can score extra entries by sharing this giveaway on your favorite social media, then comment here to let me know.
UPDATE: Congratulations to the winner!