May 312012

Mother Earth News has a big cover story on canning in their most recent issue. The crux of the article is that canning, like vegetable gardening, is rapidly gaining in popularity. If one has a vegetable garden then doing something with that excess food is something we all need to do. We are very happy that we learned to “put food by (the old expression for canning, freezing, drying and fermenting food). There are lots of helpful books out there which one can find by using Google or Bing. Some methods of putting food by are more complicated than others. Freezing, for example, is quite simple. Blanch it, dry it and bag it.

Although I am convinced that anyone can teach themselves how to master any food saving technique, as with any new skill it is always helpful to have someone show you the ropes and lead you through the process.

As part of the Grange Country Living Series we want to teach people how to put food by. You don’t need a garden to do this. Already you could have been drying nettles for winter tea or making pickles from fiddlehead ferns. Later in the summer there’s wild berries for jam and jelly (we haven’t bought a jar of jelly in a year). In fact, we are still opening the last few jars of pickles and finishing off green beans, beet greens, squash and pesto from the freezer.

It’s difficult to schedule canning sessions far in advance. Normally, a canner decides only a couple days ahead of time that they are going to make some cans (jars) of food. What we would like to do is poll the island and find out who would like to learn to put food by and also get an inventory of people who are willing to share their knowledge. Then, we can match up those who want to learn with those who want to teach. The teachers can let their “apprentices” know when they are going to go to work and invite them to come help.

We will also try to organize a couple of general introductory classes.

But, for now, I invite those who are interested in canning, freezing, pickling, etc. to contact me as well as those who are willing to mentor one or two people in the processes with which they are familiar. You can contact me via the comments section or by calling the number in the island phone book.

May 282012

There’s a White crowned sparrow who has nested in the vegetable garden. She’s picked a spot in the oregano of all places, a nifty well-made nest with four tiny eggs. Of course, every time I walk into the garden she has to leave the nest. She flies to the top of a fence pole and chirps until I’m done with what I’m doing. Then she will make her way back to the oregano taking a cautious and circuitous route. One has to admire her courage. Some of her babies might make it; others won’t. For a tiny bird life must be a continuous episode of TSHTF.

Surprisingly, the sparrow reminds me of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day just sort of pisses me off as I think about the people I personally knew who bought it in the “service of our country.” Clearly, WWII was the last “good war” if there is such a thing. That’s the last one that anyone can give a good explanation for why we fought. That big machine we created in WWII didn’t want to wind down. It had momentum and kept on rolling through Korea, Vietnam, lots of podunk skirmishes (Grenada), Iraq (twice), Afghanistan.

As an AF intelligence officer I was once invited to speak to the Officer’s Wives’ Club at a big Tactical Air Command base. Most of these young ladies were the wives of fighter pilots already deployed. They wanted some understanding of why. I told them about the “domino theory.” Remember the domino theory? A very useful theory that is in continued use with a number of variations. We had to stop the commies over there before they came over here. Subsequently we lost the commies as an enemy but then found a better one—the terrorists. The terrorists have been extremely useful in helping business and government build up a huge and expensive counter-terror apparatus and keeping our gargantuan military in growth mode.

The White crowned sparrow has a few enemies; her own vision of terror. I’m certain the crows and jays will be watching, trying to get those eggs. She has few defenses besides stealth and watchfulness. No huge defense organization for her.

I stepped off a C-130 at Cam Ranh Bay in October of 1965. There were eight body bags lined up on the tarmac. Eight dead Army guys waiting for transport home. Died in the service of their country. Eight stories. Eight families multiplying the grief. Was glad I didn’t have to brief those families on “the domino theory.”

A month later on an approach to NKP in Thailand I could see smoke billowing up from the end of the runway. I was the only passenger. We had an hour layover before continuing to Ubon. I got off and had a bowl of ice cream at the club (the Air Force enjoys recreating America wherever it goes). When I got back on the C-123 there
was a body strapped to a stretcher which was strapped into a rack across from me. The pilot from the crash that made the smoke. No body bag. Just a tarp cover over the body. The C-123 tends to vibrate a lot. The dead pilot’s left arm kept shaking out from under the tarp and hanging into the aisle between he and I. I didn’t want to look at the arm so I tucked it back under the tarp. But it vibrated out again. It vibrated and I tucked. Vibrate and tuck. A macabre flight to Ubon. The dead man had a new gold band on his ring finger. I was happy that I didn’t have to explain the domino theory to his widow.

There is an understandable need to memorialize those who have died and try to rationalize their deaths as something worthwhile and heroic. Most of them were heroic to be certain but in most every case since 1945 I think they would have been better off to have stayed at home, planted a garden and observed the sparrows.

That little White crowned sparrow is probably smarter than I think she is. She senses that the garden is a safe place, a refuge with just enough human traffic to discourage her enemies. But even the government can’t leave the sparrow alone. DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department is studying the mechanism which allows the White crowned sparrow to stay awake for two weeks during its migration. They think it might be useful to help keep fighter pilots awake during their bombing missions.

I wish they’d leave the sparrow alone.

May 232012

I have an idea for a TV show that I would star in called, “The World’s Worst Carpenter.” It would be R rated because while I’m doing carpentry I curse continuously, berate myself, say un-self-congratulatory things as I note the inevitable continuum of mistakes. Plus, I talk out loud in an ongoing color (blue) commentary of what I need to do and how to do it and why it isn’t working for me. It might make for interesting and humorous TV though the show would have to be eight hours long—which equals the time it takes for me construct just about anything that has more than a handful of nails.

This morning our landscaping genius handed me a drawing for the base of an outdoor table that would go under one of those round things that make up a giant spool for cable or rope or whatever. I don’t know what they use them for but in the parlance of design Linda and the Rock Whisperer (the aforementioned  genius) said it would be “fun” to have it in the yard. It would be a place where the kids could do crafts and make more “fun” things. We have been doing lots of “fun” stuff around our place which, as far as I can tell, adds only minimally to my desire to create an environment of sustainability and self-reliance. It has added mostly a lot of commotion and the repeated question of, “What the f… are you guys doing over there?”

I stared at the drawing, realizing that I am not capable of converting two dimensional images into that important third dimension. I asked many questions. I confessed my ineptness. I worked hard to understand. One thing I could see was that there were angles. Many angles. Lots of pieces with angles. There were calls for 4″ x 4″s and 2″ x 4″s. There was the suggestion of carriage bolts and long screws, plus nails.

There is a chop saw in our shop. It belongs to our oldest son who graciously stores it here (along with his very nice table saw that I am deathly afraid of especially since our youngest son’s neighbor just cut the tips of all his fingers off on one). I have used the chop saw on a few occasions but had never cut an angle. Fortunately Adam, our contractor, happened by and schooled me on how you can actually move the chop saw blade. I had often wondered what those numbers were for.

I expect that in the future when there is no longer any gasoline and the electrical grid goes down (check out the trailer for this new network TV show) everyone will miss their chop saws.

After today I will miss the chop saw if the power goes off. I would hate to have to cut all my angles by hand. It was bad enough trying to notch some 4″ x 4″s with the hand saw which I did after a couple of unsuccessful tries. I try to do the “measure twice; cut once” routine but somehow I end up with pieces that aren’t quite the same length. And I’m sure that real carpenters have a way of scribing angles that works the first time. I, on the other hand, am stuck with the trial and error method.

Those of you who read about the recent “Grandma’s Sink of Memories” project will recall that I had help. Today, however, no help. Just that drawing and one or two consults with the designer. Linda, who was at the other end of the work table on another project enjoyed many good laughs and was slightly appalled at the stream of foul language which oozed like a foul inky cloud from my end.

The bottom line is that it is good to take on a challenge or two and try to see what you can do. It was a good project for a rainy day and a step up from my usual garden carpentry. We now have a really fun table for the garden.

It was a personal case study in self-reliance.

(Note: I’ve decided to try to build up readership with feeble attempts at humor as nobody really gives a shit about transition, sustainability and self-reliance. I will be inserting subliminal messages. Watch for them).

We Ain't Buildin' a Piano

May 202012

Making compost isn’t really so complicated. If you collect some green stuff and brown stuff and put in a pile it will eventually metamorphose into humus (finished compost). It’s magical.

Take your vegetable kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and fireplace ash and combine them in a pile with leaves, grass and other plant material and eventually, even if you do nothing, the detrius of your life will turn into a substance that is the holy grail of gardening. We don’t want to get technical here. We want to be lazy. You can make composting complicated if you want. If you do, you might get your compost faster.

Non-gardeners should also consider composting. Since all islanders are on septic systems it’s really not such a good idea to use your garbage disposal. Flushing all those veggie trimmings down the sink is adding an unnecessary load to your system. That garbage can be recycled. If you don’t have a vegetable garden you probably have a flower bed or a flower pot. At the very least you’ll have a friend who will come get your finished compost. It’s best to put kitchen scraps in a closed container for a period of time until they begin to break down unless you enjoy visits from rats and raccoons. When you can’t tell what it was anymore you can dump this gunk on your pile. Rats and raccoons will not bother the compost heap.

Leave the pile for a year. Let the rain, worms and bacteria get to work on transforming it from waste to richness. The elements and the critters do all the work. All you have to do is collect the material and pile it up. It is the ultimate act of recycling with a result that can provide a material benefit to you.  It’s an easy way to practice conservation and sustainability.

(Printed in The Tome for the Lummi Island Conservancy).

May 132012

The centerpiece of my transition plan is food. If our economic debacle gets even worse, if gas prices rise tremendously, food will be our biggest concern. Everything we can do to produce food locally will be crucial. So, for me the garden is where I’m putting my energy.

A Blank Canvas

I can’t decide which phase of the garden I like best. In early spring the garden beds are like a blank canvas. The gardener gets to decide how to paint the picture. I’m fortunate that my garden is big enough that I can rotate plants. So, I try not to plant the same stuff two years in a row in the same place.

Garlic, onions and shallots do better if you move them around. (So do potatoes).  I’ve tried to eliminate the types of garlic that are rust prone. Once you get rust I’ve read that you need to keep garlic out of that bed for three years.

My planting plan is haphazard. It’s not necessarily logical. Again, the advantage of having plenty of room. There are aesthetic considerations as well. I like to see the three dimensionality of the garden develop. This year I’m putting all my pole beans in one bed instead of spreading them

Bean Poles

out.  There are four trellises: an old TV antenna, a sloppily built tower of scrap wood, an old ladder, and a tripod my grandsons and I lashed together a few weeks ago. So, four poles of beans (two Blue Lake that we can eat fresh and freeze and two dry beans from the Krista Rome collection). One advantage to putting them side by side is that I can wrap row cover material around the outside to keep the rabbits out until the plants start to climb and aren’t so tasty. I think this will look pretty cool if everything grows to the top.

This year we dedicated a bed to asparagus. The SE corner of the garden has become a perennial area with raspberries, blueberries, Jerusalem artichokes and a big bed of Bee’s friend.

Bee's Friend

Bee’s friend is a very showy flower that really does attract pollinators as advertised by Uprising Seed. This patch self-seeded in a very thick mess of two foot high stalks that is just about ready to burst open. When in full bloom you can hear the buzzing from some distance away. It’s fairly delicate and I have to watch out how I water as it gets knocked down easily. As for the asparagus, I didn’t really know what to expect. The planting instructions vary from source to source. So I carved out some trenches with nice spacing and laid in the crowns. Was surprised a week or so later to come out and find spears a foot tall. It’s all coming up. But with asparagus one has to be patient and wait a couple years to enjoy it. Then, you can expect many years worth of spring spears.

I love to grow potatoes. They grow like weeds. Once you plant them in a bed you will deal with them for a couple of years because you can never get all the tubers out of the ground and in the spring they will pop up everywhere they’ve lived before.


I like the showiness of potato vines. They really are quite spectacular in their own way with a beautiful flower. Prepping for potatoes is fun as well. I dig a trench and pile as much soil as I can on each side, plant the seed potato in the trench then use that piled up soil to hill the plant as it grows. If all goes right the trench, over the course of the gardening season, turns into a mound with  big spreading potato vines on top. Once they bloom out I quit watering. I plant one variety of crescent potatoes which we eat up during the summer and another row of storage potatoes to extend the eating season.

The spectacular yellow bloom to the right


is a turnip blossom. This particular turnip was the size of a bowling ball and I left it overwinter to see the result. A very healthy bloom that the bees of all types love. Will collect the seed and try to grow more bowling ball turnips. I also left kale and chard to bolt to flower which one can use in salad or leave for bees and seed.

Strawberry Pots

I keep strawberries in pots in a mixture of potting soil and bokashi. This way I don’t have to dedicate a bed to them and it’s easier to keep them under control. This year I separated the plants and have twice as many pots as last year. The strawberries are the gardener’s snack. Probably don’t get as many as I would were they planted in rows and I have to fight the birds for them. But they make a tasty reward for hanging out in the garden.

On the right is my Pea House, another brilliant piece of garden carpentry. Last year the cutworms and rabbits got everyone of our little pea plants. This year I was determined to beat them. Instead of starting from seed I started the peas indoors. When I put them out I put a plastic cup around each one (I am becoming a big advocate of plastic cup gardening). Then, I wrapped the Pea House Christo-like with row cover to keep the rabbits at bay. It’s working. It appears we will have peas although my contraption is so cramped that I will have to send in a small child to do the picking.


Garlic and shallots were planted in the fall and are doing famously. Planted a section of onion sets this spring and they are catching up. The last couple of years I’ve learned that shallots are a lot easier to grow and have fewer problems than onions. They don’t seem to rot or get rusty and they store a lot longer. We still have a mess of shallots left over from last summer. I like onions but am dedicating less space to them and much more to shallots.

The garden is a magical place in spring. The variety of green shades, the many interesting leaf shapes, pink apple and pear blossoms, the bright yellows of the flowering kale and turnip, the tiny strawberry blossoms are a cause for wonder. I caught myself staring at the raspberry leaves the other morning. Beautiful symmetry. I think I over pruned my raspberries last fall and I can’t quite get them to bend over like the big boys in Lynden do. They were all tied up to the various cross wires in the raspberry patch and looking a big skimpy just a couple weeks ago. But now there is a profusion of leaf growth and many tiny buds appearing and the new canes are fighting their way towards the top. There will be raspberries.

Plants want to grow.

May 102012

I’ve reached that time of the year when it’s hard to concentrate on blogging. Lots of work in the garden, new bees to feed and then there’s that fence on steroids that’s happening in front of our house. The Project Manager and Designer keep coming up with new ideas and things for me to do like carve totems and build fake birdhouses. I try to stay away from them but they keep finding me.

Then there was the “historic monument” project. Here’s the story:

About eight years ago Linda was driving through Sedro-Woolley where she spent many happy days, days of safety at her grandmother’s house. She can get very nostalgic about old Woolley. The thing I don’t like about Sedro-Woolley is that it took me many years to learn how to spell it. Just remember, “Two O’s and two L’s.” But, I digress. She was driving past her grandma’s old house and a contractor was there tearing it down. The house didn’t stay in the family, you see. Linda’s parents inherited it, sold it and bought a Cadillac and a mink coat. So, the house was gone and now it was being torn to the ground. Linda spotted her grandma’s kitchen sink in the front yard. She had, in fact, had her first bath in that very sink. Our oldest son had his first bath in the sink. She had spent many, many happy hours in that kitchen watching grandma make jam, learning how to cook and being loved. The sink symbolized all things warm and fuzzy: food, warmth, shelter, a wood stove, the fruit room. (Don’t get her started on the fruit room). She stopped the car, jumped out and asked the guy how much he wanted for the sink. She wrote a check on the spot for $170. Unfortunately, the car was full of booty and there was no room for a 150 lb., one hundred year old, cast iron kitchen sink. Chuck, the contractor, kindly agreed to store it until she could pick it up.

Did I mention this was eight years ago? The subject of the sink sort of faded into the background. I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t want the dang sink. What were we going to do with an old sink? I had horrors imagining what might be conjured up: a sink in the garage perhaps, or nailed onto the side of the barn. It seemed like the sink had been forgotten.  I was relieved. Linda had actually lost Chuck’s name and phone number. But then he called. Did she still want the sink? Well, of course she did. The warmth, the love, the first bath— the fruit room. Apparently, all that was all still in the sink.

I’m no dummy. I knew it was going to be up to me to retrieve the sink. As it happened I needed to drive a couple of grandson’s home to Everett, visit my mom, then drive back to Burlington to pick up bees. Chuck the contractor lives in Clear Lake. It’s on the way to Burlington—sort of. Linda arranged a rendezvous. I would meet Chuck at the Clearlake School. I presumed he would have the sink in the trunk. We would transfer the sink from his trunk to mine and I would be on my way. Not so easy. Chuck got out of his car, a younger man than I expected, shook my hand and told me to follow him. The sink was stored up at his place. It was one o’clock. I needed to be at Belleville Honey by 2pm to get the bees. Chuck had told Linda he would store the sink for her. “Store the sink”, the beloved sink, conjured up a vision of a nice dry building. Perhaps a mini storage unit or an old barn. Not to be.

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