‘Guests’ Category

Winter Compost

Posted on December 29th, 2010 by Tonia 3 Comments

Christmas 2010 has come and gone, and our house now looks like a compost pile of wrapping paper, fur tree needles, and cookie crumbs.  It’s time to start thinking about cleaning up, taking down the tree, and regaining our normal daily life…but I don’t want to!

I’m not quite ready to stop listening to Christmas music…not quite ready to stop scouring the internet for new, scrumptious cookie recipes and staying up way too late baking…not quite ready for the steady stream if Christmas cards and letters to stop filling our mailbox…not quite ready to stop pinning pictures of eco-friendly ways to wrap gifts.

The end to the holidays marks the beginning of a long, cold, dark stretch of winter with nothing to distract us from the fact that we live in an icy tundra.  We’ll be shoveling our walk, scarping ice off our cars, chopping wood with frozen fingers, bundling up in a million layers…for three more months with no reprieve.

Thankfully, we have several {rather wonderful} things to carry us through to spring:  a warm home, plenty of firewood in the woodshed, friends and family that occasionally drop in for visits, a warm little snuggle-bug dog, an ice-rink nearby for impromptu games of one-on-one hockey, a wood-fired sauna {the only way to REALLY get warm in the middle of January}, and a cookbook dedicated to crock-pot stews.  These are our secret weapons for surviving the post-holiday part of winter.

I actually enjoy the quiet, cozy activities of winter, but I can’t help feeling a little restless…This will be our first spring at the farm, and we can’t wait to sink our shovels into the earth for the first time.  There isn’t much we can do to prepare for the growing season right now, so we’ve just been wistfully staring out the window at the spot we cleared for our future garden, imagining it bursting with new life come May and June.

Meanwhile, our compost bin on the back porch is steadily filling up.  Every time I contribute to it, I get excited for the moment when we’ll finally scoop piles of it into our new garden.  Yummy yummy plant food, that’s what that is right there.

Speaking of compost/winter…how do you compost in the winter, anyways?  Jared is back to talk to us about this.  Thanks for paying us another visit, Jared!  It’s always a pleasure to learn about composting from you, and I’m extremely excited to be able to swap gardening stories this spring!

When I began to write this I had spent the morning pulling sleds full of kids up the hill in knee-deep snow so they could tumble down the hillside in clouds of fresh powder as many times as their numb-noses would allow.

I had spent the afternoon with neighbors, heaving shovel-loads of snow from behind cars so that those who needed to get somewhere wouldn’t be trapped behind the massive ridges of snow left behind by the plows.

When the work was done we threw the shovels aside and dove off the massive plow-piles outside our apartment, landing in snow so deep and soft we almost disappeared.  It was the biggest snowstorm I’ve experienced since I moved to Minnesota, and it’s days like these that make winter so incredibly exciting.

Ohh… and did I mention I trudged my way up to the garden so I could mix and turn the compost pile?

Yah, it was weird to be in the garden wearing full snow gear; weird to dig around for the pitchfork that had fallen from its place along the fence; weird to have to chop through the icy top-layer of the compost pile, using the shovel like a sledge-hammer; and weird that in the middle of a blizzard, with temperatures barely above zero, I found warm compost and worms still slowly at work.

Composting in the winter can be tricky.  Compost thrives in warm muggy weather, needing both moisture and heat in order to sustain the process.  It’s no surprise then that the frozen winters of the upper Midwest pose quite a challenge for those who want to continue turning their organic waste into luscious soil.  But it can be done.  And although the return is a lot slower and the work a little harder, you’ll thank yourself in April when all of a sudden that pile you’ve struggled to keep alive for 4 months bursts with fresh dirt just in time for spring planting.  Here are some things to consider:

First, if you’re using an official compost bin, complete with an instruction manual and nifty diagrams, I’d suggest consulting that for cold-weather compost tips.  Most of those can be used year-round, so you’ll just need to shovel yourself a path and go mix the things occasionally.  Again, it may take a little longer because the heat is harder to come by, but with a little attention, the compost process should continue.

If, however, you are composting in some sort of container you’ve developed yourself, you can try a few things:  First, you can move the container to some place where it won’t freeze, perhaps a shed or garage.  Again, compost needs heat, moisture, and organic waste, so as long as you keep it from freezing up or drying out, you should be fine.  However, if you are worried about the stink or the critters, you might not want it indoors.  If that’s the case, you’re next best option is to insulate the container in some way.  You might pack a bunch of snow around the container to keep the temperature relatively stable or wrap the thing in some sort of insulating material.  My favorite idea, however, is to use hay-bales as insulation.  They’re thick, they’re natural, and they can be used in the spring for mulch or weed cover.  If you can get your hands on some hay bales, do so, and use them to keep your compost warm and cozy.  And remember, as long as you’re adding to and mixing your compost regularly, the odds of it freezing into one solid chunk of organic ice are pretty slim.

This leads us to our last consideration.  If, like me, you prefer open-air compost (no container, just a pile of organic waste), then you will face quite a challenge keeping that compost alive all winter.  But I intend to try; I mean, what’s the worst that could happen – my pile freezes solid and some giant raccoon drags it into its den and waits for the compost to thaw so it can feast for weeks?  Give me a break, do raccoons even have dens?

Anyway, my plan is fairly simple.  Currently a few fellow seminarians and I collect our organic waste in our homes and bring it to a large, lidded tub behind our building. When this fills up, I bring the tub up to the community garden (currently buried in two feet of snow), and add the new organic waste to the compost pile.  The pile is covered by a tarp and I’ve laid two bales of hay across the tarp for insulation.  Whenever I add new material I simply pull off the hay bales, lift the tarp (which carries the snow with it), and mix in the new compost.  This usually takes a little hacking and poking with the pitchfork, but once I’ve broken the frozen layer, the underlying material looks fairly lively.  As I mentioned, I was up there during the blizzard last weekend and found a few worms still wiggling away deep in the warmth of the pile.  This was encouraging, and just like container composting, frequent mixing will keep the process working as well as possible.

So it takes some effort, I’ll admit that. But I think it’s worth it.  Most of us will host parties, bake piles of goodies, and cook delicious feasts these next few weeks.  The holidays are a blast, but with the celebrations come a lot of trash and waste.  Winter composting ensures that in this season of excess we maintain some level of responsibility.  Oh, and if you’re anything like me and absolutely love winter weather, then hey, it’s one more excuse to go outside and enjoy this awesome season!

To read Jared’s other post about composting, click here.

Backyard Chicken Farm

Posted on November 29th, 2010 by Tonia 10 Comments

As you all know by now- because I basically never stop blabbering on about it- we live on a little hobby farm as of a month ago.  This new and exciting chapter of our lives is going to effect the blog in big ways.

We used to discuss how to cut back waste and minimize our impact while living relatively “normal” urban lives.  But since the urban bit is no longer part of the story, the blog will naturally be focusing more and more on rural life, subsistence farming, and of course as always, low-impact living.

So, today, I am so excited to present our first real farm-focused post, written by…well, actually she does a great job introducing herself, so I’ll just get out of the way and let her do the talking.

Welcome to the IttyBitty chicken tutorial!

chix

My name is Beth, and I am the proprietor of a small and completely over-funded corner of the internet called six orange carrots. My husband and I live on a small, adorably weedy half-acre in semi-urban California, where we grow our own vegetables, cook food obsessively from scratch and raise our own chickens.

Full disclosure, this isn’t the first tutorial Tonia has asked me to do for IttyBitty. We’ve talked about my limited adventures in worm farming, composting, and home canning, and each time I was flattered, but not sure I was the right person to pull together a tutorial. But chickens? Where chickens are concerned, I left dabbling (and moderation, self-restraint, all sensible behavior befitting an adult…) far behind long ago. I can totally do a tutorial about chickens, and I’ve been harassing Tonia for weeks to give me the chance.

{Ha! Yeah, ok, Beth! If I (Tonia) may butt in here- I was the one harassing you, not the other way around.  And I’m SO very pleased you’re doing this series on my blog!!}

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Because there’s a lot to say, we’re planning on doing this in installments. Here in this post I want to talk about my experience as a backyard chicken farmer, why I chose to become one and the reasons I think you might enjoy it yourself. Then moving forward, we’ll cover:

  • Building a coop and gathering supplies
  • Choosing, finding and buying your chickens
  • Raising baby chicks
  • Caring for your laying flock

In addition, Tonia’s been kind enough to set up an FAQ page here, which has few starter questions that we’ll add to as we go.

Why chickens?

A good question to start with. Though they are surprisingly easy and rewarding pets, the most common answer is eggs!

Delicious, delicious, delicious eggs. However, given that a dozen eggs is clearly something you can find in your corner supermarket, the real question might be: Why go to the trouble of raising chickens yourself?

See the FAQ page for more about this, but eggs you raise yourself are tastier, better for the environment, kinder (x 1,000,000) to the chickens that lay them, and are actually more nutritious than eggs you buy in the store. This year’s salmonella epidemic brought the low standards of industrial egg production into the spotlight again, which makes it very easy to doubt the safety and humaneness of eggs widely on offer.

You could say that the goodness of your egg depends on the life of the chicken that laid it—and therein lies the part of raising chickens that’s good for your soul. They’re no Einsteins, but chickens are alert, personable animals. They talk among themselves, have distinct and occasionally hilarious personalities, and some (like the one napping on my Billy’s lap above) take obvious pleasure in human companionship. Most of all, they have an incredible capacity for pleasure and enjoyment of life—good food, their time outside, and their connection to each other.

What I thought would be a hobby has become a great and unexpected source of happiness in my life, because it comes with the knowledge that the food that sustains my family is based in happiness and health of animals we know by name. Not everyone has the space, time or inclination to add chickens to their family, and that’s completely okay. For those that can, I hope what this has meant to me will inspire you to set out on a new adventure, and that our tutorial helps you out along the way.

Thanks very much to Tonia for letting me share my hobby with you—feel free ask questions in the comments, especially if there’s something you want to make sure we cover. Until next time!

Composting 101 with Jared

Posted on October 27th, 2010 by Tonia 9 Comments

Remember when Mike and I visited my parents and I came back home all bummed about the fact that we didn’t have our own compost pile?  That was just one year ago, but it seems like ancient history.  So much has happened since then…we got married, we moved out of the city and into the woods, and, we started our first compost pile!! 

 We’re so excited about the fact that we can finally compost.  Cooking and eating together is even more enjoyable now because we no longer have to endure the awkward moment after every meal when we solemnly scrape our food scraps into the trash.  I always dreaded that moment.

It was very rewarding to scrape those scraps into our shiny new compost bucket for the first time.  However, almost immediately Mike and I realized we don’t know the first thing about composting.  I could just Google it and read a bunch of boring science…or, I could call upon a good friend of ours who happens to be a serious composter. 

Jared is a husband, father, bocce champion, blogger, and avid gardener.  His family grows everything from strawberries to squash in their hill-top garden, and his two young daughters are growing up the best way kids can- with their hands in the dirt.  He has taken time to educate us on the fundamentals of composting here on the blog.  Thank you so much, Jared!

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My favorite chore growing up was mowing the lawn.  I sat on the front step on Saturday mornings as the sun slowly burned the dew off the grass, and as soon as the Colorado landscape went dry, I pulled the cord on our family’s old Toro and I made our lawn look like the outfield grass where the Rockies played.  I took a lot of pride in that chore, and if I wasn’t satisfied with how our lawn looked, I fixed it.  Sometimes the wheels from the mower pressed the grass down without cutting it, and the next day, when the grass had straightened, there were narrow rows of long, messy grass where the wheels had trod.  I hated this.  Those unkempt strips of grass tormented me.  On Sunday afternoons I could be found on my knees in the grass, pulling those uncut strips down to size with my bare hands.  It was an obsession.  And to this day I can’t help but notice when a lawn has been sloppily tended.

There were other things too.  I would reset the Nintendo no matter how far into my Tecmo Super Bowl football season if I lost a game or if Barry Sanders didn’t rush for 100 yards (yah, I was always the Lions).  And after a snowfall, nobody was allowed to walk in the part of the yard visible from my bedroom window.  I didn’t want to see footprints or exposed grass.  I needed to gaze out over a smooth, pristine blanket of white.  It was an obsession.   

Why do you care?  You probably don’t.  But I tell you this to give you an idea of why I can sometimes be found digging through my own trash looking for potato peels or apple cores that may have gotten thrown out within the chaos of trying to clean the kitchen before our two-year-old climbs her little sister’s hi-chair and force-feeds her a biter biscuit.  Composting has become a bit of an obsession of mine, and it bothers me when I see a luscious piece of organic scrap being truly wasted in the trash.  So I shake out my rags over the compost can, and I empty the sink-trap the same way, and sometimes I paw through our trash looking for those precious, forgotten kitchen scraps.  That’s just how it is now.

can-of-compost-stuff

So I warn you now, before you read any further, if you are anything like me and tend to get carried away over certain fascinations, composting may become an obsession.  A worthy and fun and rewarding obsession, but one that may have you chasing the garbage truck down the road because you just realized you accidentally dumped all your watermelon rinds in the trash the previous night.  The horror!  The horror!

With that being said, here’s an overview of some basic composting guidelines which should serve as a helpful starting place for reducing waste and generating healthy soil for your garden or houseplants. 

What is compost?

I’ll spare you the scientific details and give you the gist of it:  Compost is the nutrient rich dirt that’s produced when organic material undergoes the natural decomposition process.

We all paid attention in middle-school science class, we know that any material that was once alive, if left outside long enough, will break down and become dirt.  And we’ve seen the cool Sun Chips commercials where the bag decomposes in time-lapse.  Pretty nifty.  What composting does, however, is expedite and intensify that natural process by combining a healthy mix of organic materials into a single system — perhaps a pile in your backyard, a large bin in your garden, or a crate on your porch.  It’s really that simple. 

What kind of stuff is compost-able?

The short answer:  Anything that was once alive. 

apple-in-hand

This is what amazes people when they start composting – they can’t believe how much stuff can actually be composted.  The internet is full of these lists so I won’t offer an extensive summary here, but some of the more common items are: fruit and vegetable scraps; most paper products (including coffee filters, brown bags, egg cartons, etc.); most baked goods (yah, those burned cookies should go in the compost, not the trash); plant waste (decorative flowers, wreaths, leaves, grass-clippings); and even clothing scraps (cotton, wool, silk). 

In the majority of households, the things that can’t be composted should be rather obvious:  glass, metal, plastic, rubber (although, latex can).  Also, I would avoid heavily soiled paper products like pizza boxes.  And as far as food goes, meats and dairy aren’t good – they take a long time to decompose and tend to attract the wrong kinds of pests.

So that’s the general breakdown between compostables and non-compostables.    And while that seems pretty simple, there are a few other things to consider. 

First, healthy compost requires a good mix of “green” (nitrogen) and “brown” (carbon) materials.  “Brown materials” are those that are woody – things like leaves, paper, dry stems, dead grass and hay.  “Green” materials include fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, fresh flowers, green grass, and egg shells.  Again, you can find more extensive lists elsewhere, but as a guiding concept, those more juicy, luscious scraps tend to be nitrogen based, while the dry, crinkly scraps tend to be carbon based.  An even balance of both types of materials is needed for healthy compost.

I encourage you not to let this “green” and “brown” balance intimidate you.  After a little experience with your own compost and the type of waste generated in your home, keeping a healthy mix will become intuitive.  You don’t need to weigh and measure your greens and browns or run to the internet every time you come across some material you don’t know how to classify.  There is no exact science, and natural processes like composting tend to take care of themselves.  In general, if your compost pile looks like a heap of dead twigs, you need to add more juicy “greens.”  If your compost looks like a pile of wet mush and it smells like ammonia, it’s time to add some “browns.”   So really, it’s not all that complex; just be willing to experiment and adjust.

compost-pile

But we still need to consider a few other things when developing compost and deciding how to use the waste generated in our homes – we need to ask the question:  What is the best use of this “waste” item?

The driving consideration in our homes shouldn’t necessarily be whether or not something is compostable, but what’s the best use of any given item that we are throwing out.  So for this consideration, I offer four ways of categorizing the discarded materials in our homes.

The first question regarding anything we are throwing out should be, can this item be reused?  This applies to the usual things like plastic bottles, yogurt tubs, baggies, and jars, but even compostable items should first be considered for potential re-use.  Different sorts of paper products and fabrics can be used in all sorts of creative ways, and so for materials like these I would suggest ­re-use rather than compost.

Many compostable materials cannot and should not be reused, so once we’ve addressed that first consideration we should ask, is this material good for my compost?  Obviously, if it’s not compostable material then the answer is no.  But even with compostable materials, not all are good for your compost at all times.  Like I’ve said, compost needs a good balance of “green” and “brown,” so trying to compost your whole Sunday paper with only an apple core and carrot stick probably isn’t going to work.

Since most of our households do tend to produce a lot more “brown” material than “green,” the next best thing is to recycle.  Thus our third consideration is, can this material be recycled?  Most recycling services can handle a variety of paper products, so most of those “browns” that would dry up your compost can simply be recycled.  Familiarize yourself with your recycling service and take advantage.

And lastly, if your waste material can’t be re-used, composted, or recycled, it may just have to go in the trash.  But if composting becomes as exciting for you as it is for me, you could find yourself digging through that trash, making sure all your marvelous kitchen scraps find their rightful resting place, where they can someday become the soil that nourishes the peas and carrots that nourish you. 

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I hope this serves as a helpful introduction to the work of composting.  These tips should be enough to get you started, even if it means simply throwing your scraps in a bucket in the kitchen for the time being.  And please join us for my next post as we discuss in more detail the management and use of compost throughout the gardening cycle.

-Jared

My Fwavorite Tweople

Posted on August 25th, 2010 by Tonia 3 Comments

…And since we’re on the topic of Facebook and Twitter…

Oh, Twitter.  I used to make so much fun of you.  I used to swear I’d never be the type to update you constantly.  Or to check you nine-thousand times a day to see what my friends and fellow greenies are up to.  But I am the type, and I do.

I know some of you are reading this right now {mon & dad} and can’t believe your eyes because you’re under the impression that Twitter is the most obnoxious form of social networking, ever.  I mean, who really cares about what everyone is doing every second of the day??  I don’t need to know that you just bought a pair of new Chacos, or you just blew your nose, or your dog is super cute right this second.  But I’m here, as a former Twitter-hater, to tell you that if you use it right, Twitter can totally rock your world.

Itty Bird iconTwonia’s Twitter Twips {I’m really getting carried away with this, huh?}:

1.  Have a clear objective or reason for joining the Twitter community.  If your goal is to network with other homeschooling moms, your experience is going to be very different from someone whose goal is to connect with other organic gardeners.  If your goal is to spy on your ex-sig-other, your experience is going to be different than someone whose goal is to promote their pottery studio.

2.  Follow tweople who jive with your objective/goal.  I ONLY follow other green-living/minimalism/simple-living  folks.  My exception to this rule are a couple relatives who I like to keep in touch with.  I don’t use Twitter for random socializing.

3.  Don’t follow someone back just because they followed you.  If their tweets aren’t jiving with your goal(s), there’s no reason for your Twitter stream to be filled up with their random comments.  My stream is constantly full of pure amazingness because I’m not following anyone I’m not interested in.

4.  Be there to learn.  Every day I log onto Twitter, excited for what I’ll learn.  The folks I follow are brilliant, insightful, inspiring, and are constantly finding and sharing the coolest links.  If you’re on Twitter purely to socialize, that’s fine, but that is not how I choose to use it, and I am so I happy I made that decision.

I really want you to get off on the right foot with Twitter, so I am going to share with you my Fwavorite Tweople.  Hehehe…but really, all joking aside, these folks will light up your stream with all kinds of awesome.  You’ll be retweeting and hashtagging and replying like crazy before you know it.  GO FOLLOW THEM RIGHT NOW! :)

familyonbikes– Nancy Sathre-Vogel | Between North & South Poles
“Homeschooling family biking from Alaska to Argentina.”

gohometoroost– Bonnie Forkner | North Carolina
“Author of Going Home to Roost- a blog dedicated to the handmade and living simpler life.”

mygreenbean– Karen E McKelvey | Toronto, Canada
“Passionate about our planet earth. This is my journey. One person stepping out of their personal comfort zone to try to make a difference.”

josie_maran– Josie Maran | Hollywood, CA
“Becoming a mother inspired me to take a look at my life and ask, ‘What can I do for the world? How can I contribute?’  Josie Maran Cosmetics products are made with superior ingredients and housed in chic, biodegradable packaging, and embrace eco-friendly initiatives wherever possible.”

LowImpactBetty– Monica Schrock | Los Angeles, CA
“Low Impact living advice blogger & tip provider. I love our Earf! I’m a Vegetarian, composting treehugger that loves to bike around L.A. & help you live green!”

LocalHarvestorg– LocalHarvest.org | Santa Cruz, CA
“Guillermo Payet, founder of LH, twitters about coding, eating, and family life.”

jdblundell– Jonathan D. Blundell
“Husband, author, blogger, podcaster.”

welivesimply – We Live Simply
“We live simply, so others may simply live. www.welivesimply.info

RowdyKittens– Tammy Strobel | Portland, Oregon
“Author of Simply Car-free, blogger at RowdyKittens, tiny house enthusiast, cat-lover, and coffee addict.”

LiveGreenMom – Live Green Mom
“Mom. Working towards making our lives GREEN! Recycling, organics, composting, natural & preventative healing options, and getting rid of excess. Bring it on!”

SomewhatCrunchy – Cheryl | Pennsylvania, USA
“I’m a happily married, Christian, crispy not crunchy, homeschooling mom of two boys. Blogger, Influencer, PR Friendly, Social Media Extraordinaire.”

CanarsieBK– Mike Lieberman | Los Angeles, CA
” I am documenting my passion for eco-conscious living on my own blogs. Also helping other individuals and small business to extend their online presence.”

RawBoutenkos– Raw Family | Ashland, Oregon
“We are the Boutenko Family or The Raw Family & have invaluable experience in living on a raw food diet. We also started the Green Smoothie Revolution”

EpicBeautyGuide– Epic Beauty Guide | Las Vegas
“Hello! I’m Stephanie I write Epic Beauty Guide, an awesome and free how to blog on getting and staying naturally beautiful.”

CAGW – San Francisco, CA
“THE home of sustainable crafts!”

GreenTravelHub – Orlando, FL
“Feel good about green travel! We donate 20% of the proceeds from every trip to green non-profit groups!”

melisheath – Melissa Allen Heath | Atlanta
“green warrior – born tree hugger, and 25 years work experience in all environmental stuff, esp climate, energy, green building, wetlands.”

 thegreenbeanie– GreenBeanie | CaliforniaGreen
“Home and Lifestyle Consultant with a bit of Southern sass! Will discuss tips, hints & products for leading a greener & healthier life.”

autumn_normal SimplerLiving – Naomi Seldin
“Feature editor & blogger for the Times Union, a Hearst publication in New York. Living well with less, sharing what I don’t need and writing about it.”

There are so many more of you that I love as well…too many to possibly list!  You’re all an inspiration to me.  Thank you!