Sunday, July 31, 2011

It Can Be Done

My second attempt at canning was better than the first time, but I still need a little practice perfecting my jam. The first time I tried canning last fall I made homemade pizza sauce, but not all of the lids sealed. This time around I didn't have one faulty lid.

I used the bread and butter pickle recipe from Put 'em Up, and even though it came out good, it wasn't as sweet as the homemade bread and butter pickles that were given to us from a friend of Lee's mom last year, and we loved those pickles. So I think next time I will try another recipe.

My first solo jam session was a bit of a mess, as I wish I had a couple extra sets of arms. I think I may have crushed the strawberries a bit too much because the bottom half of each jar is jelly and the top half is jam. I didn't get all of the foam out either, but I read online that foam isn't too much of a big deal. It's going to take some practice to get it perfect, but at least right now it's still edible.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dumping ScAmazon Right Back

I've been waiting for a kickstart, the push to finally get me to dump Amazon, and it's finally come. You have probably heard by now that Amazon has dumped all of it's California sales affiliates. When I first got my rejection letter from Amazon, it didn't really phase me at first. I only put up with them for my reader's benefit. I put their widget on my blog and links in my book reviews to make it easier for readers to find these books, but it was really just lazy of me. I should have taken the time to support a better bookseller, but instead I sort of put it on the backburner and forgot about it. Yesterday I read a fellow blogger's post and was instantly reminded that I needed to find a better bookseller to refer people to, pronto, because I am so sick of big corporations getting away with everything.

I should have previously found another online bookseller (that I felt better about) to link to, it's just that Blogger makes it a little too easy with their built in Amazon Associates dealio. It's not that I really care about the commission either, I think I made, like, under $10 in the last year, and I've yet to see it! They have never paid me. Really, for me, this is about a company throwing a hissy fit because it doesn't want to do the right thing and pay it's taxes like you and me. As if they aren't making enough money? And what are they doing to give back to the communities that are pouring money into them?

Personally, I have rarely, if ever, used Amazon other than as a quick look-up guide to find new books that I can check out at my library or request an order for at my local bookshop. Now I don't even think I am going to use them for that anymore. I would encourage you, dear reader, to do the same because supporting your library and local bookshop is so much more important than supporting a big corporate monster. There are many other Amazon alternatives to choose from that are actually doing something to give back, if shopping online is what works best for you. Also, try out an online book swap like Basically you just pay shipping. I've gotten a handful of cool books that I wanted through this site, which saves a whole heck of a lot of trees! (You can also swap music, movies and games!) If you'd like to add me as a Swap friend, you can find me under the username: amandinemai. I do need to update my available books though, I haven't done so in a while.

Anyway, you will notice that the Amazon widget in the sidebar on this blog is fini! I will be working on going through all of my posts and removing the Amazon links one by one, which may take a while. If you happen to read an old post that has an Amazon link, please use another online bookseller for purchase.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Stovetop Soap Results

Last night before I went to bed, I checked on the soap, which had solidified into a rubbery circle in the pan. I added water and stirred. Then stirred some more. Finally it obtained a slime-like consistency. After that, I decided to leave it alone and go to sleep.
This morning, I still had a pot of thick slime, so I added three more cups of water and heated it up again.

After allowing it to sit for a few hours post boiling, it was at a honey-like consistency, to put it nicely. Otherwise, it was kind of like a big pot of snot, thanks to the color. It seemed like I had to keep stirring and re-stirring to keep it at a normal consistency, but when left alone it would separate from the water and return to a thick chunk of slime.

Ready to throw in the towel, I tested it out with a pump and it didn't seem to clog the pump at all even though it was slightly clumpy. Basically I gave up trying to get a perfect consistency like store-bought liquid hand soaps. I didn't seem possible, at least with this brand of soap that I found at Big Lots. It was made from 100% vegetable oils & no animal fat. Different soaps will do different things though, so if you try this you may very well have different results. A clear glycerine soap might work at lot better? I added a little colorant so that it didn't look so much like, ugh, well... snot. Even though it's not the most attractive liquid soap, it does seem to work okay but I don't think my soap experiments have come to an end just yet.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Stovetop Soap

Few items needed. Mess potential: minimal.
For a while I was using Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap, Basil  because I absolutely adored the scent. That is, until I realized it wasn't Winter weather that was drying out the skin on my hands so badly. My suspicions were confirmed after reading three other consumer reviews by people who had experienced the same problem with this soap. Bummed out, I replaced it with bar soap, and my hands went back to normal. (I reused the leftover handsoap to make a spray cleaner, since the stuff was obviously so tough.) Though, eventually the icky, sticky mess of bar soap on the sink counter was not pleasant or convenient, and because I didn't want to buy anything that had a lot of weird chemicals in it, I decided to try a homemade recipe. 

Now, I've made soap from scratch in years past with success, but I have to admit that handling lye freaks me out and isn't something I care to do on a whim. So when I was desperately looking for a liquid soap recipe, I decided to go the easy way out with a mix and pour type of project. You know, something really simple and nothing that would create a huge mess or burn my eyes out if accidentally splashed into my face. I found a recipe for liquid castile handsoap that was easy to make, and luckily I had everything on hand for it. Unfortunately it still dried out my skin. On the same webpage though, there was another recipe for making liquid handsoap from a bar (which I avoided the first time around because it required boiling and I didn't want to wait for my soap.) Today I made a batch. It has to sit overnight, so I'll let you know how it goes tomorrow.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Crafty Cheese

After watching a video on Etsy about Urban Cheesecraft, I was inspired to dedicate this post to my friend Sarah, who, for as long as I have known her, has always wanted to have her own organic dairy goat farm. She thinks that the idea of her owning a goat farm is a dream at best, but I think that she could so very easily make this a reality if she just dreamed a little harder.

By now you probably know that I'm not a huge fan of dairy for dietary and health reasons. Not that I will deny that the taste of cheese is good, I just can't eat it with digestive success. Still, I've been curious about home dairies and backyard dairy goat keeping for those who do like and can eat dairy. I think keeping your own animals and producing your own milk products is the much more responsible thing to do than buy your milk from a big industrial dairy where the animals are treated horribly, and live in nasty conditions. The second best thing would be to buy from a humane farm, but unless you can actually visit that farm yourself and see what goes on there with your own eyes, you really just don't know. A label will tell you anything you want to hear.

Of course, there is still one sticky thing about dairy. That's the fact that animals have to be pregnant and produce young to produce milk, and a lot of the time those babies are going to be byproducts. I'm not so sure I could deal with selling babies to be eaten or otherwise just so that I could have cheese, so I don't know if I'd ever actually breed my pets for that purpose. It's interesting when you take responsibility for your food choices, you really begin to question the way things are done and sometimes the food really doesn't seem that appetizing when you fully understand where that food comes from and what it takes to acquire it.

Anyway, I was on a fairly long library waitlist for Homemade Living: Home Dairy with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Make Cheese, Yogurt, Butter & More, and was thrilled when I went to the library last Friday and found that it had already come in. Like all of her other books, I thought this was a great book, especially for beginners. It is full of photographs, stories about real dairy product makers, and step-by-step instructions on how to make everything from butter to yogurt. The only thing that I felt was missing, was how to care for the animals that produce the milk to make all of these products. I guess I just assumed that because her books on beekeeping and keeping chickens were mainly about the care of the animals, and only partially about the products they produce, this one would be the same way. Unfortunately there wasn't anything about tending goats or cows in this book. There are other books I hope to check out on that particular subject though, like The Backyard Goat: An Introductory Guide to Keeping and Enjoying Pet Goats, from Feeding and Housing to Making Your Own Cheese. Just waiting for it to pop up on our interlibrary loan system.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Early Garden Tally

Our lovely Rainbow Swiss Chard, that we added to a curry dish.
Okay, so right now the garden tally is really wimpy, but we've only just begun to harvest a few things and the best is still yet to come, as we salivate in anticipation of all those green heirloom tomatoes on the vine turning their true hues. Here's what we've collected thus far:

Green Peas:  2 oz.
Round Zucchini: 2 lbs.
Romanesco Zucchini: 2 lbs.
Strawberries: 6 oz.
Rainbow Swiss Chard: .25 lbs.
Lettuces: 3+ lbs.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Earless, Long-Tailed Rabbit

ZuZu and Neeps curiously peer over at the "rabbit" next door.
While our male rabbit, Squirrel, was out playing in the yard, LuLu (who I thought was a cat?) snuck into his cage and began eating his alfalfa pellets. Now it's almost become a daily habit with her. She lays on top of his cage and waits until it's his turn to come out and play. She also loves to eat her catnip, not smell it and roll in it like all the other cats do. Naturally she goes crazy for cat grass. I've even seen her biting pieces of vegetables I throw out for the chickens too.

What's the deal? I thought cats were supposed to be true carnivores?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Save the Honeybees and Your Libraries!

I am sad that our library got the ax and this is the first week of the new cut-back schedule, which means no more wonderful Wednesdays for me as the library is now closed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Bees aren't the only things that are vanishing in this country! Our libraries are facing Library Collapse Disorder, and we need to recognize the importance of libraries. Help the cause here!
So now, about Vanishing of the Bees, which I finally did get to watch. This one was better than Colony. It looks like it is pesticides that are the problem folks. Scary, but something I've instinctively felt all along. It's not your cell phones, as much as I'd like to blame it on those blasted things. I did like that this documentary offered some tips at the end on what the ordinary person can do to help this problem, rather than just sort of leaving you with a feeling of despair. There is also a website that you can check out. Some things that you can start doing today are:

1. Stop using pesticides! Find natural ways to combat pests, like encouraging predatory insects. Using pesticides is only a temporary solution anyway. Those bugs are going to come back, and they are going to be bigger and badder next time to fend off your sprays. In the meantime, you've also killed off all beneficial bugs who could combat those pests.
2. Buy organic! If you aren't buying organic food, you are encouraging the use of pesticides. If organic isn't available or if you think it's too expensive... (see next tip below.)
3. Grow your own organic garden! Even if you don't grow vegetables, plant a some kind of garden that will produce flowers and provide food for the bees. Sunflowers are a favorite amongst bees.
4. Keep your own organic hive! Don't feed your bees junk food (sugar syrup) and don't treat them with chemicals. Help them to build up immunity and diversify the gene pool. A good book the check out is Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. The more people who keep bees in their backyards, the better chance we have at saving the honey bees... and ourselves.
5. Call a beekeeper when you encounter a swarm! Do not kill them!! I see ads on Craigslist quite often for people who will come to your home and capture the swarm. Check your phonebook. Check online. Commercial beekeepers may be too busy to bother, but backyard hobbyists and such are usually more than willing to pick up some freebees!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

GrOH My!

Just five weeks ago, things had only barely sprouted! We've got quite a jungle now!  I've been running out of space to plant new things, so I've started planting outside the perimeter of our fenced garden and in the flower beds around the lawn, hoping that the chickens and rabbits leave things alone until we can get more fencing up. We are finally reaping the rewards of our hard work with delicious produce, handpicked just minutes before putting it onto our dinner plates. Nothing more satisfying in the world that that!  The tomato plants are all doing great and bursting with green fruit, we just can't wait for it to turn color. Any day now. We have discovered that the mystery squash vine that voluntarily came up in the mini corn field is a butternut, for which we are very happy because we eat butternut like crazy and it stores well. Last year when we had a crazy, wild squash show up, it was a gray zucchini and we just couldn't eat it fast enough. Even the chickens were getting tired of it.

The garden just five weeks ago.

The garden two weeks ago.

The garden today!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Goodbye Bugsy, We'll Miss You

We didn't make it to the Renegade Craft Fair in SanFrancisco yesterday because we had another rabbit emergency. Bugsy got sick suddenly overnight and by the afternoon was not able to breath through his nose, was not eating or drinking and was very quickly becoming dehydrated. Just the day before, he was chasing his brother, Squirrel, around the yard.

I rushed him to my mom, who works with a veterinarian, but because the ride was a little over an hour, he barely made the trip (there are no emergency vets open on Sunday that are any closer.) Unfortunately by the time we arrived, he was already on his way out. I buried him there at the ranch. Sadly, I came home to find that Miss Flossy had finally given birth, but the two babies were stillborn. I felt so sorry for her, I could tell from her behavior that she was depressed.

Lee and I decided that rabbits are really complicated little animals because by the time we notice symptoms in them, it's way too late (it seems that ailments hit them overnight, and once afflicted they go down so quickly,) and we don't live close enough to a vet to save them in time. We agreed that these will be our last Jersey Woolies. No more breeding, no more replacing them. Originally we wanted pet rabbits who could help us out with the garden compost and provide a little wool to practice spinning with, on top of being our pets, but I think a Pygora goat (which we were planning to get eventually anyway) would be much better for us in providing the same things, without the fragility of the bunnies. We are wimps and can't take losing those little sweet fluff balls because we get so attached to them. We might be willing to try some larger, less fragile rabbits like a Flemish Giant, but a little more research is going to be required before we even think about that.

I can't emphasize enough to people who think they might want a pet rabbit: please, do your homework and really determine if they are the right pet for you. They are not an easy pet to keep and are the third most euthanized pet at animal shelters.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Collapsing Colonies

Another very hot afternoon finds me inside waiting to see if Miss Flossy, our mama rabbit, is going to give birth again. She may have possibly been contaminated by Bugsy exactly 28 days ago, so I prepared an indoor hutch and nesting box for her, just incase she explodes with little baby Bugsies. Since there's not a lot to do inside, I was hoping that I might get to watch Vanishing of the Bees this afternoon, but it wasn't available for streaming on Netflix, so I watched Colony: The Endangered World of Bees instead. It was an interesting documentary, but doesn't give a whole lot of answers to the questions that we have now about CCD.  The film came out in 2009, and was probably filmed when beekeepers were just starting to raise the issue. One startling thing I learned was that beekeepers have known of this problem for about 20 years, but they weren't willing to talk about it for fear of being dubbed as bad beekeepers. You can read more about this in the article for Vanishing of the Bees, where there was a live Q & A forum, and also a trailer for the film as well. So Colony is like a documentary of the problem, but it sounds as though Vanishing of the Bees offers solutions. It's next in line in my disk queue, so I look forward to seeing it.

One thing that made me very happy to read in the Q & A article is that civilian backyard hive projects are doing good for the bees. Of course, like the film says, it's better to have 60,000 people with one backyard hive each, than to have one beekeeper with 60,000 hives, because it encourages genetic diversity. So watch the documentary and get inspired to keep a hive!

Oh, and if you have a swarm in your yard, for crying out loud, don't spray it! Catch it and put it in a hive! In the future, Lee and I are planning to keep an empty nuc hive on hand for such occasions. Call a beekeeper if you don't know how to capture it yourself. Spread the word to other people not to spray stray swarms. We need those bees! I got word from my mom recently about an almond farmer she knows who called out the local pest control service to exterminate a swarm. I cringed when I heard about it and then told her in an exasperated voice,"why didn't you have him call me!?" You would think that an almond farmer would know better!?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Fairly quickly, as you can see in the comparison of the top photo taken exactly 3 weeks ago, and the bottom photo taken today. So far we've only harvested 3 pea pods, 3 strawberries and several plates full of salad, but the tomatoes have begun appearing on the vine and the potatoes started blossoming, so it won't be long before the produce is pouring in. Oh, and those strawberries were like juicy sugar cubes, haven't tasted a sweeter strawberry that I can recall.
The garden 3 weeks ago.

The garden today.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

No Impact Slush Puppies

I'm on a 'No Impact' kick right now, so bear with me. I guess the book did have a big impact on me after all. Anyway, last weekend Lee and I went to check out our local Grocery Outlet to see what they had. For us, it's a hit and miss store. Sometimes they have something worthwhile, like organic liquid castile soap, other times it's just a lot of food on the verge of expiring. This time we found a solution to our summertime Slush Puppie habit: refillable BPA-free 16 oz. cups for only $2.99 each. (Yeah, Slush Puppies are probably evil for our health, but they sure taste good on those triple digit days!) Unfortunately our local old-school drive-in burger joint only uses styrofoam cups, and they were beginning to stack up on our counter because I feel guilty about throwing them away. (Trying to think of something to do with them.) I know, the refillable cups are still made of plastic. Glass would be so much better, but getting Lee to carry around a mason jar to refill would be like asking him to drive to work naked. I have to get him to do this sort of thing gradually, baby steps. Eventually we'll work up to the jar maybe, when these cups wear out. One thing that makes me feel less guilty about buying a plastic item like this from the Grocery Outlet is that most of the stuff that ends up there has been discontinued or didn't sell well in the original store that it was in. That most likely means that my purchase will not create more demand for more plastic cups to be made. These are essentially discards, and hey, someone may as well get some use out of them since they've already been made and the damage has been done.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Are Pets Sustainable?

Which came first? The chicken or the dog?
Yesterday I read about how San Francisco is proposing a ban on the sale of pets, and while I may be losing some fans by saying this, I don't entirely disagree with it. I can't say I've ever visited any pet store where I didn't feel sorry for the animals being kept there. I have also known people who have bought a pet on impulse, became bored with the animal, and then forgot about the poor thing. In fact, I know someone who just did this recently. Banning the sale of pets in pet stores isn't really going to set anyone back except the pet store owners, but I am sure they are making plenty of cash on pet food and accessories. If you really want a pet that badly, then you will adopt from a shelter or do the homework required to find a decent, humane, and reliable breeder who is not in it for a quick profit (are you going to tell me that pet stores sell pets for any other reason?)

So, this article sparked another thought. There must be a lot of pets being purchased on a whim, then being given up to a shelter, and euthanized. That can't be sustainable? That sounds like an expensive burden on tax payers!? I began to wonder if pets really are unsustainable, especially after reading No Impact Man. I wondered how Mr. Beaven & Co. could be so radical about a few things (like not using plastic bags,) but still keep a dog in the city who obviously had to poop on occasion, most likely on some sidewalk where people walk, and which would have to be cleaned up and collected. Generally people use plastic bags for this task, but the No Impact dude didn't exactly specify how he dealt with it.

I came across the real poop on dogs, and I must say that even if the guy seems like a Grinch when it comes to pets, he has a point. Dog poop is gross. Last summer while doing lawn patrol, I had a similar thought myself. I also began to think how goats would make more sensible backyard pets, especially if we had Pygoras (a Pygmy/ Angora cross) for fiber. Unlike dog poop, goat poop is valuable to the organic farmer and is completely recyclable. Goats are also excellent non-gas, non-electric weedeaters. If we consumed dairy, that might be another benefit. It seems like we put a whole lot of money and feed into our dogs just to get a bunch of poop that we can't do anything with. My dogs have useless fur and none of them produce milk (and even if I did drink milk, there's something especially unappealing about the thought of drinking dog milk.) Of course, I can't deny that they don't give us a lot of love and affection. What about cats? Well, this article covers all the cat statistics. It also has a list of the defining qualities of a sustainable pet, and includes a hilarious video short that you just have to see (James, I thought I'd include that for you since you appreciate British humor.)

I haven't bought a pet from a pet store since I was a kid (but I did order my chickens from My Pet Chicken.) All of my animals, aside from the chickens, have been adopted or have been strays that I felt sorry for (written across my forehead: sucker) and took in. I could always try and justify my unsustainable pets by pointing out the fact that I haven't given birth by choice (the two young ones belong to Lee,) and therefore I figure that I'm making a fairly decent tradeoff. Is there anything more unsustainable than a human being? Think of how much junk has to be produced for babies and kids... all the clothing, toys, diapers, and nonsensical gimmicky thinks like Diaper Genies that you are made to believe that you must absolutely have. None of my animals have used diapers, therefore I've prevented 8,000 packages of plastic-wrapped poop from ending up in the landfill per child I did not have! If owning a dog is like driving an SUV... then having a kid must be like flying in a jet! I do enjoy having my pets around, which makes it hard to think about the impact the production of their food has on the environment, but it isn't something I am ignoring either. I will probably consider replacing my dogs with goats when they pass on. In the meantime though, I will try and green them up as much as possible.