November 27, 2021

Cooking Our First Sweet Potato Squash

I promised to let you all know about the sweet potato winter squash I grew this year (see the comments of "Not Pumpkins"). Our first taste test was a pie for Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie is supposed to be the tradition, but I prefer sweet potato or winter squash pie, so that's what I make instead.

I chose the largest of the small squashes for my pie. 

This small one weighed in at 4 lbs., 5 oz.

The outside color wasn't impressive, but the color inside the squash was nice.

It contained a good amount of flesh. I saved some of the seeds and then chopped and fed the pulp to the goats and chickens. 

Next came cooking. I've tried both the oven baking method and the steaming method for cooking pumpkin and winter squash. Since I usually manage to make a mess in the oven from seeping juices, I prefer the steaming method.

The bonus with steaming is that the water in the bottom pot collects some of the juices and color. So I always use it for something, even if it's just watering plants after it cools. This time, I used it to make a pot of split pea soup.

I let it cool after it was cooked. It scooped out easily and made a smooth puree with the help of my Foley food mill. I needed two cups for my recipe, which is exactly what I got.

I might as well include the recipe! It's an adaptation of the Betty Crocker cookbook "old-fashioned pumpkin pie." Mainly, I omit the evaporated milk or cream, because I find that fresh homemade pumpkin or squash puree is more liquidy than commercial canned pumpkin. 

Not Pumpkin Pie

  • 2 cups winter squash puree
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup unbleached sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp cloves

Mix well and pour into a prepared, unbaked pie crust (my recipe is here).

Bake at 425°F (220°C) for 15 minutes, then 350°F (177°C) for 45 more minutes or until an inserted knife comes out clean. Cool and serve with whipped cream or ice cream (traditionally, we like cinnamon ice cream).

How was it? I have to say it was the best winter squash pie we've ever eaten! Better than pumpkin, better than cushaw, better than North Georgia candy roaster (which is awfully good). 

Now, I'm looking forward to trying it in pancakes and cake. I will definitely plant it again.

November 23, 2021

A Few Fall Photos

November has been the month of frost and falling leaves. Most of the trees on our place are oaks and pecans, which don't produce very spectacular autumn color. But I can still find bits of it here and there, so the goats and I took a trek. The girls hunted for acorns and I hunted for color. 

Here's what we found.

We have a nice seasonal view from the front porch, too.

A few other fall photos.

The last of my sweet potatoes are harvested.
There are from the African keyhole garden.

Sunday morning French toast. I love cooking on my wood cookstove.

Classic Sam

I have so much to be thankful for.

A Few Fall Photos © November 2021

November 19, 2021

Learning How to Make Biochar

First, a bit of irony from something I wrote a year and a half ago.

"There are many good ideas for homesteaders out there, but they often require significant time and energy to maintain. Brewing compost tea or making biochar are two things I considered. They are excellent ideas, but would I be able to balance the time they required with everything else? Would I be able to provide all the components myself or must I continually buy something to maintain them? The answers to projects like this are subjective because there are many individualized factors to consider. We chose other soil building methods because they worked better for our homestead goals and routine."
"Re-evaluating Our Priorities," 5 Acres & A Dream The Sequel, pg 27.

The advice remains sound, but now I have to move biochar as an example into the never-say-never category! It was Dan, actually, who decided to undertake the project. We have a lot of waste wood, and the question is always what to do with it. How do we put it to good use?" The answer is to make biochar.

What is biochar and why would we want to learn to make it? Good questions!

What it is. Biochar (biocarbon) looks like natural charcoal (as opposed to commercially made briquettes), but it isn't. Charcoal contains wood resins, which make it combustible and give smoked food its flavor. Biochar is a step beyond charcoal. The resins have been baked out, leaving a stable, porous, carbon char. Its most common use is for soil building, where the pores become habitats for beneficial soil microorganisms and store water and nutrients.  

What it's used for. It has lots of uses.

  • In the garden (needs to be inoculated first - see below)
    • sequesters carbon
    • provides a habitat for beneficial soil microbes
    • retains soil moisture and nutrients (reducing runoff and erosion)
    • decreases soil acidity
    • removes soil contaminants such as hydrocarbons and heavy metals
    • increases microbial life
    • binds soil nutrients
    • improves physical structure of soil
    • provides long-term soil productivity
  • Water purification
    • rainwater tanks
    • greywater systems
    • aquaculture
  • In barns, kennels, cat litter, and composting toilets
    • odor control (absorbs ammonia)
    • absorbs moisture
    • reduces pH
  • Feed additive 
    • absorbs toxins in the digestive tract
    • improves digestion
    • improves feed efficiency 
    • reduces nutrient losses
    • reduces methane production
    • improves animals' overall health
  • Poultice additive to draw toxins out of a wound

How is it made? Biochar is made by heating biomass without oxygen. This is called pyrolysis and can be achieved in a number of ways. Some people make it by simply putting corncobs or woodchips in a lidded dutch oven on the stove and baking it. Others burn it in pits or in retort kilns. To make ours, Dan built a top-lit updraft kiln, also called a TLUD (tee-lud).

The TLUD is a type of gasifier and works just as the name says; it's lit at the top and draws air up from air holes in the bottom. It's not as complicated as it sounds! It's actually very simple. There are numerous variations on this, but this is how Dan made ours with two barrels with lids and some old ductwork.

Outer 55-gallon steel drum (burn barrel) with air holes
(primary air intake is at the bottom and secondary at the top.) 

Inner 30-gallon steel drum holds the biomass. Fire burns in the outer ring.  
(Note: This was our first try, and we've learned that smaller pieces work better.)

The wood inside the inner barrel will become our biochar. It is filled with "feedstock" (the biomass to be baked into biochar) and the lid put on the small barrel. Fuel wood is packed under and around the inner barrel, with kindling on top. The kindling is lit, and the chimney is placed on the top. 

A hole cut in the barrel lid accommodates the chimney.

The process goes through several stages.

Initially, smoke is emitted as the fire
burns out residual moisture in the wood.

The red glow indicates that the temp is
hot enough to begin burning wood gases.

Once the gases are burning well, there is no smoke.

The kiln is allowed to burn itself out, and once cool, the chimney is removed.

This is the biochar which is basically char with the wood resins burned away.

How do we know we've made biochar? 
  • Crushes easily
  • Has a fragile, almost tinkling sound
  • Has no smell or taste (it's sterile, so it's safe to eat)
  • When crushed with bare hands, the black residue washes off easily. With charcoal, residue is difficult to wash off because of the wood resins.

What other materials can be used to make biochar? 

  • corncobs
  • corn stalks
  • woodchips
  • twigs
  • bamboo
  • basically, any dried biomass; small pieces work best

How long does the process take? Once the TLUD is going, it needs no tending and will burn itself out in several hours. So the only time involved is in loading the barrels, starting the fire, and later unloading the biochar.

How do I inoculate it for the garden? Making biochar burns away all life and nutrients. So when first removed from the kiln, biochar is sterile and void. If added to garden soil at this stage, it will begin to absorb soil nutrients. Unfortunately, during this time it is competing with plants for those nutrients. Once charged with absorbed nutrients, it will begin feeding the soil, but the process takes at least 3 to 6 months. 

The best and quickest results are seen when biochar is inoculated (charged) first. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Soak in liquid fertilizer. Fastest way, takes about a day.
    • compost tea
    • comfrey tea
    • nettle tea
    • manure tea
    • compost worm casting tea
  • Urine - place it in a bucket with drain holes and cover with pee. Takes 2-3 weeks
  • Mix 4 parts biochar, 1 part rock powder, 1 part worm castings, and ½ part flour or molasses. Cover. Takes at least 2 weeks.
  • Mix it into the compost pile (10-50%). Takes 2-3 weeks.
  • Deep litter. Mix it into the chicken litter in the coop, where it helps deodorize. It will be inoculated by the next time the coop is ready to be cleaned out.
  • Mix with equal parts fresh grass clippings. Cover and let sit until clippings are decomposed. Takes about 2 months.
  • Worm castings - equal parts with biochar. Sprinkle with flour, corn meal, or molasses. Cover. Takes about 2 weeks.

When I first looked at biochar years ago, I found only the complicated ways to inoculate it. As with all new endeavors on our homestead, it must be asked whether the benefit outweighs the time and expense. (See my post on "The Time to Benefit Ratio.") There are only so many hours in a day! Finding simpler ways to inoculate biochar changed that ratio. For us, simply adding it to the compost pile and deep litter significantly increased the benefit factor.

How do I apply it in the garden? Since ours is mixed in with the compost, I'll apply it as I do compost. I'll use it to cover seeds and top dressing. For new beds or transplants, I'll mix it into the soil. Some no-till people prefer to make slits in the soil with a shovel and sprinkle it in. It can also be tilled in or worked in by hand. Mixed with compost, it makes good potting soil.

Caveat. Various biochars are not equal, so results may vary. From what I've read, some benefit can be seen the first year of application, with continued improvement over the years.

Okay. That's all my notes about biochar! It isn't all there is to know, of course, and it's another fascinating subject to study. But it's a start and a good homestead solution for our woods and garden "waste." 

November 15, 2021

Propagating Fruit Trees

My winter project this year is working on my first food forest garden. Fall and winter are the best times here for planting trees and shrubs, so I'm working toward having a variety of things to plant. And not just in my designated food forest. I'm looking to plant food producing species in our woods as well. 

There are several ways to obtain these. One is to buy them. Another is to raise them from seeds, and I'll have more about that in a future blog post. Still another way, is to propagate them from cuttings. I recently found a video on how to do this and gave it a try with cuttings from one of my pear trees.

Lengths of branches are cut and stripped of existing leaves.

Live sticks are placed in a sealed jar with an inch of water.

The jar is stored in a dark place until sticks begin to grow nubs.


These are then planted in pots.

Once they develop a good root system,
they can be transplanted into the ground.

Probably the best time to do this will be spring, since everything is going dormant now. But at least I know it works. I tried it with redbud branches, but they never sprouted, so this may be best for fruit trees. Starting with larger sticks would be better, because the plantings would be larger.

I can see this as being an ongoing project and good way to plant more food producing trees. And all for free! It doesn't get any better than that. 

Propagating Fruit Trees © November 2021

November 12, 2021

Outdoor Wood Cookstove: Testing and Tweaks

Continued from here.

Once the chimney was in place, it was time for a test fire. Since this build was a first for us, we were curious as to how well it would work! Dan started a fire and put a saucepan of water on the stove. I attached our magnetic woodstove thermometer to the chimney, and we watched and waited.

Typically, a woodstove fire will be smokey at first, until it gets going well. Happily, no smoke came back out the firebox door, (backpuffing) which means we had a good draw.

Where we did get some unexpected smoke, was under the stovetop. You can see it if you look closely at the photo above, with a close-up below. 

The fix for this will be to add more rock wool to seal any air gaps that are there, although once the fire got going the smoking stopped.

The other place we got smoke, was when Dan removed the oven door.

This actually wasn't a surprise because the oven is what is called a "black" oven. In the world of rocket stoves, baking ovens can be either "white," (completely enclosed so that the heat and smoke pass around them), or "black," (where heat and smoke pass through them). Once the fire got going well and the stove heated up, the smoking stopped. Since I won't be using the oven until it's completely heated anyway, this isn't a problem.

The other thing we were curious about was the temperature of the chimney. Batch box and rocket stoves are designed to retain heat in the stove for as long as possible. This is done by 1) how the smoke and heat are routed through the stove, and 2) thermal mass (typically brick or cob).

In a conventional wood stove, the flue (exit from firebox to chimney) is located at the top of the stove. So heat and smoke go directly from the firebox to the outside via the chimney. This is not a very efficient design. In the batch box or rocket stove design, heat and smoke follow an indirect path. Heat is retained in the stove, where it is absorbed by the thermal mass. Only the coolest air exits the stove because the flue is located near the bottom of the stove.

In our stove, the flue is built into the bottom of the oven.

Photo from the core construction phase. Heat enters the
oven on the left, and exits to the chimney on the right.

Heat and smoke follow a convoluted path from the firebox through the core and enter the oven by the archway on the left. The heat circulates in the oven and the air sinks as it cools. The coolest air exits through the opening on the right (the flue). The chimney is directly above it.

If our stove was properly constructed, the chimney temperature should be much cooler than a conventional stove. Here's what our test run showed us. While water was simmering on the stove, the outside of the chimney pipe measured less than 100°F.

Once the fire got going, there was no smoke from the chimney. 

Smoke from a batch box or j-tube rocket stove is very clean, because its design enables wood gases (primarily carbon monoxide, methane, and hydrogen) to be burned rather than emitted through the chimney. (Detailed explanation here.) The result is a hotter fire with less wood, no soot, and clean exhaust.

Using less wood is one of the appeals of this kind of stove, so that's something else we were curious about. For the fire, Dan used paper, kindling, and half-a-dozen inch to inch-and-a-half sticks. It burned for about an hour, but the stove remained warm for the rest of the day.

Besides the leaky stovetop, two other tweaks were needed. We decided to reset the firebox door so that it is now flush with the stove front. The second was to fill in the air gap under the door. The only opening there should be the one in the secondary air tube.

Unfortunately, I won't get much use out of it (yet!), now that cold weather is settling in. Instead, I'll use my wood cookstove in the kitchen because it helps warm up the house. 

Our future plan is to replace our living room woodstove with a batch box masonry design. Hopefully, that will be next summer's big project.

November 9, 2021

Outdoor Cookstove Chimney & Secondary Air

Continued from here.

Almost done! For the cookstove chimney, Dan used the old ductwork we saved when our HVAC unit was installed. Why didn't he use double-wall stovepipe? Primarily, because the stove is in an open outdoor space; the chimney doesn't pass through walls, ceiling, or roof. In a house, building codes would require it to keep the house from burning down. Outdoors, we just want the smoke vented away from us as we're cooking. Secondarily, because the design of a masonry stove is such that 90% of the heat is retained in the stove rather than going up and out the chimney. That means that the stovepipe doesn't reach the high temperatures of a conventional woodburning stove.

Part of what helps the efficiency of our design, is the secondary air intake.

Secondary air tube

It fits into a channel built into the bottom of firebox (core). Click here for core construction photos here.

Dan welded an L-bracket to the tube to
keep firewood from hitting the air pipe.

When the door is closed, air is drawn through the tube under the door to the back of the firebox, where smoke and heat exit through a narrow side opening called the "port." This narrow opening slows the exit of the smoke, and when combined with heat from the fire and the extra oxygen from the secondary air, allows wood gases to be burned. The result is increased burn efficiency. (The concept is better explained at this website.)

Next, the chimney.

The insulation is non-combustible rock (aka mineral) wool.

How well did it work?!?!?!?!? More on that here.