Posts Tagged ‘urban homesteading’

Nettle Ale, and notes on the Drinkmate

One of the nicest things about having an active permaculture garden is that you have strange plants around you in all phases of growth and you’re led to read and to experiment. A couple of months ago I found myself eyeing my healthy nettle patch, where the nettles were almost three feet tall and well past the greens phase, and wondering what could be done with them. I got on the Internet and came across British recipes for nettle beer. I was curious about it because the cooking water from nettles has a strong and distinctive taste that I don’t find exactly pleasant, yet people reported liking the ferment. Well, no harm in trying. I started with three gallons of water in my huge stockpot, and picked (with sturdy leather gloves) about 75 nettle tops. I also added 10 large hops leaves and 10 large Concord grape leaves on grounds that, if the brew was revolting, at least it would contain some resveratrol and chalcones. I boiled all this at a full rolling boil for fifteen minutes, and then let it cool. I fished all the plant material out with a strainer scoop, pressed all the residual juice out and returned it to the pot, and gave the pressed mass of leaves to the chickens. No sense in wasting those nutrients.
I brew by instinct and not by recipe, and I think the next step is the most important: TASTE THE COOLED JUICE AND THINK ABOUT THE FLAVOR before sweetening the liquid. The sweetness will be fermented out, so it’s important not to think of it as part of the finished flavor.  Don’t think in terms of a recipe that you’ve read. Think about what it needs to improve the flavor, and try to supply that.  This juice was not promising, with a strong nettle taste and little other flavor. It lacked any acidity so I added the juice of four oranges and one lemon, giving it a light but pleasant acidity. I decided to go with the strong herbal flavor and added a large angelica leaf and stem, which would remain in the fermenter during primary fermentation.  I also added back the squeezed rind of one of the oranges. Use organic if you do this. Next, I needed to give the yeasty beasties something to eat. I sweetened with one pound of organic sugar per gallon of water, for an eventual alcohol level of 4-5%, just above near-beer, and pitched a yeast intended for hard cider. This all went into the primary fermenter, where it bubbled merrily for a couple of weeks. When the bubbling slowed, I racked it into a clean fermentation bucket, leaving the angelica leaf and rinds behind with the sediment. I tasted  the brew at this point,  and to my surprise the distinctive nettle taste was completely gone.  I could taste the aromatics from the oranges, a slight and becoming touch of bitterness from the angelica and hops leaves,  and an overall mild herbal flavor, and while the brew  still tasted raw and unfinished, it was pleasant.  After another two weeks, it was racked into a keg and put under carbonation.   Chilled and  carbonated, it has become one of our favorite choices for a quick glass of something-or-other in the evening.  It is blessedly  low in alcohol and good with light meals like salads. It tastes best sweetened slightly with a drop or two of liquid stevia or similar added to a glassful. We like it so much that I promptly started another batch dubbed Stinger Brew II,  but this time I left out the oranges and just added the juice of one lemon to a 4 gallon batch.  When primary fermentation is finished and I rack it off for secondary fermentation, I will taste and see if it needs any more acidity, and I plan to dry hop it at this stage because my hops should be in full bloom at that point. Where Stinger I is more like a light herbal wine, Stinger II will be more like a light true ale.  If you really want it to taste like a beer rather than a wine, you could use malt syrup  or malt extract  to sweeten the juice, but I like the more winey  quality that comes from using sugar.

So, as I am always saying, embrace the experimental nature of cooking, brewing, gardening, and life.  If I did this commercially, I would have to keep very exact measurements for consistency between batches and would have to try to maintain each batch exactly like the one before, since that is what customers expect.  But my ingredients are variable, my process is variable, I am variable, and I do not want two batches that taste the same.  This is very freeing.  Liberating yourself from the tyranny  of the recipe is one of the nicest things that can happen to a cook and brewer.

Beer, wine, and mead can be carbonated by charging with some sugar, bottling in swing-cap bottles, and waiting. But there are easier and surer ways. If I want a large quantity carbonated, my husband oversees a kegerator made for refrigerating and carbonating 5 gallon kegs, and then the bubbly stuff is dispensed via a tap. It’s very handy, but needless to say, you don’t necessarily want 5 gallons of any one thing. In those cases, I use the Drinkmate. It’s a sleek carbonation device that uses smaller CO2 canisters and special bottles to carbonate a liter or less at a time in just a couple of minutes. There are a number of carbonation devices on the market, and they all work just fine for carbonating water. The Drinkmate is different because it will carbonate any liquid. Carbonated juice could be delicious if you drink juice, and it occurs to me that sparkling mint tea would be delicious in the summer.You can read more about the device here. If you want to buy one, you can get it here. Replacement CO2 cylinders are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, and empties can be traded in there for half-price new cylinders. Order a few extra bottles when you order your Drinkmate. I’ve noticed that when plain carbonated water is available in the fridge, I drink more water in total, and sparkling water is better with meals than plain water. Carbonation also brings out the flavor of water kefir, which I make in large quantities. With or without a drop of sweetener, it’s delicious.

Food Independence Day

Gardening is a pleasure and a labor of love, and it’s also part of a bigger picture of resilience. I think about resilience a lot these days, on every level from national and international to personal. Much of the time there is little or, arguably, nothing that I can do for those larger systems, but on any average day I can attend to my own household system. I can make reasonable plans for the future and remain as flexible as possible about things that can’t be predicted.

One thing that can be predicted is aging. We can do a lot toward aging well, but *spoiler alert* we will still age. I realized this when I had a few years of orthopedic issues that made it painful to walk and impossible to dig. It made me start shifting toward a permanent mulch system in part of my yard, so that as long as I can kneel to plant and can spread some straw around, I can harvest food. I started the mulched beds by heaping animal manure and bedding a foot thick over the whole area, but this was a one-time job and the labor involved can be hired.  Straw bales can be delivered and set where you need them for a small extra fee, and spreading them is light work. Let the whole setup mellow for several months if the manure was fresh, and start planting the following spring. Straw breaks down quickly and has to be replenished a few times a year, which is great because it builds the soil and creates an incredibly active layer of worms and tiny critters of all sorts. It also holds water tenaciously, which is critically important in my desert area.

Some perennial weeds come up through thick mulch, so there is some pulling to do. In my area, silver nightshade is the chief invader. I have started letting it flower before I pull it, because bumblebees love the flowers.

Other perennial weeds are far more delightful. Common milkweed was my favorite perennial wild edible when I lived in the Northeast, and I’m creating a few patches of it here to feed us if there are years that I can’t plant annual vegetables. As the seedpods mature I’m moving them to new parts of the yard. This spring I noticed that some seedlings struggled up through thick mulch, saving me the usual labor of weeding around the tiny plants for a couple of years while they get established, so this fall I will try just “planting” seed pods here and there under mulch to see if I can start new clumps that way. Once well established a clump of milkweed takes care of itself, and it’s pretty hard for other weeds to get a foothold. The delicious shoots emerge late in the spring, so be careful not to dig them up by mistake  when the early-spring digging fervor hits you.

Nettles are a perennial vegetable that I have yapped on and on about until there’s little left to say. So all I will add here is: site them where you can control them and not get stung, cook them in spring when young and tender, whack the plants back aggressively to keep them in place, and harvest more shoots later on. I freeze the young leaves in large quantities to eat all year.

I’m always experimenting with things that may save work later on. I don’t eat potatoes very often but do like a few treats of new potatoes in season. I’m trying out the Chinese yam or cinnamon vine, a robust perennial vine that has sprays of cinnamon-scented flowers and then, on established vines, a large crop of tiny bulbils borne from the leaf joints that are said to taste like new potatoes. My vine is three years old and hasn’t formed any bulbils yet but I am hopeful that next year will be the year. The vine also forms a huge underground tuber that I can dig up and eat if I ever get that hungry. I understand that it tastes good, but digging is no longer my favorite thing.

Old established hops vines produce huge quantities of edible and delicious shoots in spring. They are much less work than asparagus, which tends to need a lot of weeding, but they are big heavy vines that want to romp away 20’ high if they get a chance, and require a really sturdy fence. I don’t brew beer anymore because we no longer drink much of it, but if you brew, there’s another clear advantage to growing them.

A deep permanent mulch creates a living and lively ecosystem and you can watch its capacities change over the years. I’ve tried for years to grow blackberries, but in my very alkaline clay in broiling sun they were a no-go. Now, in mulch with some shade, they are thriving.

European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, are another desired plant that I was never able to grow until the mulch provided a more hospitable habitat.

My fruit trees appreciate the even moisture under a deep mulch. In our hottest summer so far, after our driest winter in memory, my apricot tree was loaded. I had to fight my local squirrel family for them but I don’t mind a little healthy competition. I made Indian pickles out of some of the unripe fruit, rather like the ones made from green mangoes, and they were good enough that I wish I had made more. I also roasted a lot of apricots for use in savory dishes. They are very delicious in this form, and freeze pretty well. Below, they harmonize with roast chicken in saffron cream sauce.

My old friend lambs-quarters is still everywhere. There is no leafy green that’s any better or any easier to grow or any more nutritious. I wish that some ambitious breeder would get to work on it and create a form that held longer without shooting to seed, but it’s just fine as it is. It can be seen somewhere in nearly every photo taken on my place, and is my living daily assurance that I’ll never starve. If I can’t grow anything else, I’ll rake the mulch off a patch of earth, add some water, and reap the resulting harvest.

Perennial onions are another food that will never desert me. In fact, I’m having to weed some out to make room for other things. Besides the usual ways to use scallions, they are awfully good sliced finely, stewed in butter with some salt until they sweeten, and eaten as a vegetable.

Animals can add greatly to your resilience and they help “close the loop” in keeping nutrients on your property. It’s amazing how much garden waste and food scraps they will eat and relish, and their manure passes on the left-overs to your plants in a form that they can use. If legal in your area, a rooster increases resilience by making it possible for you to grow your own chicks if you ever really have to, or want to.

I am no survivalist and don’t want anything to happen to society. We need each other. But if our current overly lavish food supply should be threatened, the ability to grow something to eat might once again become a necessary skill. And even with every grocery store crammed with food, growing your own is satisfying on a far deeper level than shopping.

A happy and healthy Independence Day to all.




Animals, Waste, and the Urban Homestead

Many years ago now, in one of my earliest blog posts ( hard to imagine that I’ve been doing this for eight years now,) I posted the picture above of a carrot from my hard soil, because I thought it was funny and I had little else to talk about that day. Now, I think that my ardent carrot is part of a much bigger picture, and that picture is the ugly landscape of food waste.
Globally, unbelievable amounts of food are wasted, enough to feed a lot of hungry people, and you can read about that and about what one lively activist is doing about it in this article.
My own interest in the subject is smaller and more local. What can be done to reduce waste around our homes and neighborhoods? Start with the carrot above, and with imperfect produce in general. Are you willing to buy it and eat it? If your favorite grower at the farmer’s market sold imperfect stuff at a somewhat reduced price, would you buy it? Let them know.
When you are the grower, the task can be more satisfying, and small livestock can help. Eat what you can yourself, and share with others. People have been so market-conditioned to demand perfect produce that I can end up giving my friends the most perfect specimens and eating the imperfects myself. Get yourself a good nose-to-tail vegetable cookbook to help you eat and like the “nasty bits” of your veggies. Then look at what’s left and who will eat it, because a lot of it isn’t ready for the compost yet.
Chickens are your best friends when it comes to reducing waste. They will eat and relish greens in huge quantities, and will eat carrots, winter squash, and other chunky things if they’re cooked soft or ground in the Cuisinart. They love the residue out of the juicer, and will dispose of most of your table scraps if they are chopped finely. Personally I do not limit my chickens to a vegetarian diet because chickens are among the most profoundly omnivorous animals around, along with pigs and we ourselves. Any arguments that feeding them “garbage” is inhumane are absurd when said “garbage” was on my own plate and would have gone down my own gullet if my appetite had lasted a bit longer. They scratch over, poop on, and compost what they don’t eat, providing you with increased bounty down the road. I have read the argument that feeding them in this informal way malnourishes them, and can only reply that as long as extra calcium is supplied, my little flock shows admirable vigor and my hens lay industriously through age 4. A good laying pellet is available to them free-choice.


Goats occupy a different place in the waste-eating structure. Contrary to general belief they are fussy eaters and will nose at and play with anything but will only eat things that are choice in goat terms.  Goat treats include anything that’s woody and fresh, which is why you don’t keep them loose in your yard: all trees and shrubs will be killed in short order. It is also why they effortlessly absorb things that you have no other use for, such as rose prunings (unsprayed, of course.) My goat loves rose trimmings, corn stalks, carrots, pumpkins, celery and other things that the chickens have no use for, eats all my fruit tree trimmings and some excess fruit, gnaws every edible bit off broccoli stems and other large coarse plants that are otherwise hard to dispo, and will eat some large coarse weeds but only the ones that she personally selects. Amazingly, she rejects kale, lambs-quarters, and other things that I consider delicious. We do have a major trash tree in my area, the Siberian elm, and she adores them, so I cut down the ones that are growing where I don’t want them and leave the stumps in place, coppicing them for future goat food. She also eats a lot of expensive alfalfa, so believe me when I say that there is no such thing as a free goat. On the contrary.

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Pigs are among my favorite animals, and throughout the third world they are prized for turning waste into human food.  I wish that I could recommend them for the urban homestead, but they smell too bad when kept in small areas and get too big. A full-grown hog of breeding age is practically the size of a dining room table but stronger and more determined. Urban Farm Online has a good brief summary of why  they don’t recommend pigs. I have heard it suggested that the much smaller Vietnamese pig might be good for urban bacon, but I don’t know anything about that and don’t know if anybody has tried it. If it could be made to work, it could be interesting.

I would not want any of the above to be taken as saying that you can feed animals free on household scraps. If you have animals, you can plan to spend plenty of money on feed. You will also spend time learning to care for them, and then attending to their daily needs. But they will utilize some garden and kitchen leavings and supply you with a nice end product.


The Urban Goat

Goats are a practical dairy animal to have in a small setting, and they are delightful company, but there are a few things to keep in mind before you run out and get some. If you have a job as well as an urban-farming impulse, pay close attention to the timesaving techniques listed here.
1. Goats require excellent fencing, because they prefer brush, shrubs, and trees to grass and will destroy your plantings if they get a chance. The fencing also has to be sturdy enough to protect them from other people’s dogs, as well as coyotes and other wildlings.
2. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t “eat anything,” and in fact are picky eaters who can be expensive to feed.
3. They are very productive. This doesn’t sound like a problem until your refrigerator is crammed with mason jars of milk and you have no time to do anything useful with it.
4. To have milk, they have to have babies, and you have to have a plan for what to do with the babies.
With that in mind, here’s how I manage my “yard goats.”
They have a long thin pen, about 8 feet by 50 feet, very well fenced. There is an inside fence and gate allowing the paddock to be subdivided 1/3 to 2/3rds.
Housing is a large old wooden doghouse. They go inside in wet weather, but most of the time they lounge and sleep on the roof.
The bulk of their diet is good alfalfa. During the green season I cut armloads of Siberian elm branches and various weeds for them. I take care to know all the toxic weeds in my area so that I can avoid them, and there are some perfectly wholesome plants that they won’t touch. In late pregnancy and when in milk, they get a daily grain ration. I would like to produce milk completely on green feed, but they get too thin, so I haven’t pushed it. All grain ration needs to be formulated specifically for goats, since they have exacting mineral requirements.
They get routine clostridium and tetanus vaccinations yearly, twice for kids.

I don’t invest in milking stands or other expensive equipment. I just chain the doe to her feeding post, kneel down on a pat of straw, and milk directly into a stainless steel milk strainer with filter in place; this is set in the mouth of a sanitized mason jar, and I have a second jar ready. The jar, filter in place, is set in a clean food-grade plastic bucket to prevent kicking and to avoid any contact with the ground. Each jar is capped as soon as it’s full, and I put them in the refrigerator as soon as I’m done. This only works with quart jars, because they are small enough to cool rapidly in the refrigerator. If you use bigger containers, you would need to chill the containers quickly in an ice bath. This adds up to more hassle and expense. I prefer to keep it simple. I use standard udder wipes to clean the udder before milking, but I don’t dip the teats afterwards because the babies are going to be nursing.

Now here’s the part that is a little unusual compared to standard practices. I only milk once a day. This is because my career doesn’t allow me the luxury of milking twice daily and bottle-raising the kids. So I let the kids grow as nature intended. After the does freshen (give birth,) I leave the kids with mama full-time and milk out any excess milk once a day. For the first two weeks, I feed the milk to the chickens because it contains colostrum. There isn’t a lot of milk these first two weeks anyway. After that the milk supply will gradually increase, reaching full production after two months. I continue to milk once a day, and about a month after the birth, when the kids are growing fast and drinking nearly all the milk, I start to shut the kids in the small end of the pen for about 12 hours a day. I do this in the morning before going to work, and in the evening I milk and then let mom and kids back together overnight. Both doe and kids have access to all the alfalfa they can eat, and the doe gets a grain ration while being milked.

By the time the kids are two months old, I can take a day off milking here and there if I want to, just by not separating them in the morning. If I have to go out of town, doe and kids stay together and, as long as a reliable person feeds them, they do fine until I get back. Managed in this way, my Saanan doe Magnolia gives two quarts of milk a day plus what her offspring drink, and the kids are raised with no trouble to me, which seems like a good deal. After about 8 months the doe will start kicking the kids away when they try to nurse, but at this point I’m ready to quit for the year anyway, so I let her dry up. Along the way she’s been bred, and we can all wait quietly through the winter for the next batch of kids. It wouldn’t work commercially, when a steady supply is crucial, but it suits me fine to be free of milking chores during the short days of winter.

If you are thinking of getting goats, keep those kids in mind, because you have to do something with them. You may be able to place the females as “yard goats” for others, but about half your kids will be male and the only real market for them is for meat. If you don’t eat them yourself, someone else is likely to. Goat is one of the most widely eaten meats on the planet, and the meat of young goats is delicious, so do consider having your excess kids butchered for your own use. It’s a good healthy meat source

To get milk you need babies, and to get babies you need access to a buck. In my opinion, it is unwise even to think of keeping a buck in an urban or suburban setting. They smell terrible in breeding season, and your family and neighbors will not appreciate it. This is the sort of thing that gives urban homesteading a bad name. Find a breeder with a buck, or pair up with a rural pal who is willing to keep a buck.

Set a firm limit on how many goats you are going to keep, and stick to it. For me, that limit is two adult does, with kids in season, but no additional goats kept over the winter. And get the wonderful cookbook Goat, to help you stick to your limit.