Monday, December 26, 2016

Winter Catchment update

Last spring I created a catchment system (or rather, finished and upgraded the existing system) to catch rainwater off the house. I made some changes during the summer and into the fall as I realized certain aspects of the system wouldn't work as designed.

But I knew I needed to go through at least one winter to finalize everything.

We live in an area that gets extremely hot and dry during the summer, but we also have extreme cold during the winter. Not what some would call extreme (it rarely gets down below 0 degrees) but cold enough to have three or four months of solid freeze in a normal year. I don't want my tanks to freeze and possibly crack, so I needed something to stop the water flowing into the tanks during the winter.

I set up the systems so the water runs first into a primary drainspout, otherwise known as a first flush diverter because it catches the debris, bird poop, etc, that comes off the roof in the first "flush" of any storm. During the winter my first flush system is open, so nothing (or very little) gets past it and into the tanks. The tanks are also open so any water that does get into them will hopefully drain right back out again.

A few weeks ago the whole system in front came crashing down, mainly because I hadn't used the right screws to put up the pipe under the drainspout. So I got that fixed, all screwed in, and this week I ran into another problem--the water backed up into the pipes and froze, backed up more until the rain gutter itself was full of ice.

I got all the ice out and figured out the problem--somehow the horizontal arm of the drainspout/first flush diverter had gotten angled so it had a slight upward tilt. This was enough to have water pooling in the elbow, which of course froze during the night and formed a plug for more water coming down.

It's been a learning process.

1) People living in cold climates will need a way to shut the system off during the winter
2) Even a slight upward angle is going to cause problems, winter or summer
3) If you live in a cold climate, try to make sure the drainage pipes are in the sun
4) Don't finalize the system until you're sure it all works together
5) Monitor the system at least weekly during the first year

Monday, November 28, 2016

Leaf Mania

This year I decided to make some major changes to my yard. I eventually want to convert the whole yard into usable garden space, but a first step is making sure the existing garden space is fully used. To that end I decided to collect leaves this year and cover all the existing garden space. Right now it's mainly sand, even after 30 years of intensive composting and tilling.

So for the last month I've been on a leaf hunt. I figured 60 bags would do the whole

I've collected over 100 bags of leaves (only two of which had nasty seeds, which I had to sort) and spread them over the forest garden, the main garden, the western gardens, and actually decided to do the narrow section (apx 10 x 20) between the grapevines and the western garden. The leaves will be mulch for next year (I'm hoping to reduce water usage in the gardens by at least half, reduce water use by another third in the yard as a whole) and soil the year after.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I'll do about six inches deep (instead of 18) next year and expand the gardens a little more. The front yard will be another forest garden once I'm finished and the only "lawn" will be the section under the ash. Which should technically be the main garden, since that's where all the leaves fall, but it's also the only piece of the lawn that stays green all summer.

I'm excited for the changes. As I convert to plants that actually thrive in this area our water needs will shrink to what the land itself can support. My greenhouse will be next, then small livestock will be added as I can support them from the existing land. The only remaining "need" will be electricity, which I'm working on. Once electricity is taken care of we can be completely self-sufficient in suburbia. :)

Well, except for inside water, but that's another story.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Catchment system update

Last night it rained. I went outside and the front catchment system wasn't filling. The drain had come off (which since I haven't cemented the system together yet was rather expected) but no water was draining out.

Of course the first thought was that the system was plugged. I pulled it apart, but all pieces appeared clear. The water was running down the outside of the pipes rather than the inside.

This morning I went out to check. Got out the ladder and climbed up to look in the rain gutter, and sure enough the drainspout fitting had been pushed up so the water was draining around it rather than through it. So if there's just a little water, it's not going to get into the pipes. If there's a lot of water it'll rise high enough in the rain gutter to go over the lip.

Pushed it down and it should drain correctly now.

The catchment system is still a work in progress. I want to make some changes, build in a way to flush the system for example, but that will have to wait. I have other projects at the moment. Right now I'm going out during and after each storm to identify any weaknesses. Some of the pieces will need to be cemented in before the cold hits, but most will remain just as it is until next spring.

Part of the testing is making sure that the system will drain appropriately when everything freezes. This means I have to go through at least one freeze-thaw cycle to understand how the system works and how it needs to be changed to accommodate unforeseen variables.

December update

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Antibiotic resistance

A few weeks ago I got two books, one on antibiotic resistance and one on antiviral resistance.

When you think of anti-viral and antibiotic resistance, think of a tanning bed. Five minutes on a tanning bed isn't going to do much when you first start, but fifty and you're fried. But use that tanning bed five minutes per day for a year and the fifty won't be such a big deal. You've developed resistance. Now think of our use of antibiotics. I have a good friend who pops antibiotics when she needs to go out in public. Not because she needs them, but because she might contact someone who has something. She uses them for colds as well, although they're completely ineffective against viruses.

We do precisely that with livestock, poultry, and even bees. All are fed small daily doses of antibiotics to protect them against the decidedly unnatural conditions they live in. So those bacteria that do survive are resistant to the antibiotics, resulting in the use of an even stronger antibiotic the next time in order to have the same result. All of those antibiotics are excreted in one way or another--into our water, the air, the products those animals produce. All of those antibiotics encounter other plants and animals, and the diseases native to those naturally become resistant as well, over time.

Meanwhile in hospitals and doctors offices the numbers of resistant bacterial infections are growing exponentially. Diseases that would have been simple to treat a generation ago are now killing. It's a problem which people worldwide are trying to deal with in their own ways. In some areas any use of an antibiotic takes a hospital administrator's permission and the dose has to be administered by medical personnel. In other areas the people have turned to remedies that our ancestors used for thousands of years.

Whatever the solution, antibacterial resistance is a growing and well recognized problem. Anti-viral resistance is trickier.

The only real remedy we have against viruses is to keep the body strong and give it what it needs in order to fight the invader. Viruses are tricky things, with a massive arsenal of weapons. If bacteria are the armed robbers of the micro-biotic world, viruses are the terrorists. Bacteria are relatively straightforward. They get in there, they create a mess, the police stop them and it's over. Viruses turn the body's defenses against itself, and even use those defenses to get what they need. Once they get inside a cell (which they do by tricking the cell into thinking they belong there, "Oh, we're all one big happy family, you can trust me.") they turn the cell's own DNA into a viral replicating factory, creating millions of new viruses. Then when the body gets its act together and attacks the cell, they swarm out looking for new cells to infect. Macrobiological terrorists use the same kind of tactics, but that's not a rant for this blog.

Eventually the body does figure out what's going on and starts to fight the invaders. The trick is to keep it healthy long enough to get to that point. Pharmaceutical anti-viral agents focus on a few main points: Not letting the virus replicate, not letting the virus get into a cell, and triggering the body's defenses sooner. Because the pharmaceuticals are a single active constituent, with a single intended action, the virus finds them easier to counter. Antiviral resistance is also a growing problem as the viruses learn from our clumsy attempts to destroy them.

On the other hand, we have around us plants and fungi that have survived viral and bacterial attack for billions of years. They've developed their defenses against these invaders to a fine edge, and with a little ingenuity we can use those defenses for ourselves. Which leads to the idea of identifying the chemicals that create these reactions, isolating them, and making a profit from their use. The problem we run into is that plant defenses aren't just made up of one chemical--they may have one chemical constituent which solves the main problem but creates massive swelling, one which reduces or eliminates that swelling, one which helps the body recognize the intruders, and so on. It's not one chemical, which can be isolated and sold. It's a chemical symphony, and if you take out the violins or the drums it may not do its job right. So in the pharmaceutical industry we end up with a list of side effects often worse than the original disease because we're removing the axle to fix a flat tire.

The antiviral and antibacterial herbs target the invaders in a very different way than manufactured pharmaceuticals. They take what we might refer to as a holistic approach; building up the body, activating the body's defenses, killing the invader or making it incapable of replicating itself, healing the damage created by the invader and making the body more resistant to the same invader in the future. It's no surprise then that many of the antibacterial herbs are also antiviral on some level, and vice versa.

Herbal Antibiotics (Buhner)
Herbal Antivirals (Buhner)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Re-used canning lids update

Some time ago I started experimenting with re-used lids in canning. You can find the old post here.

I have continued to re-use lids when I can (pressure or water bath) and at this point I can say that the initial seal rate is higher than the new lids (100%) and only one has lost seal to this point, six months after I started. I've lost several of the bottles sealed with new lids during that same time.

I am keeping the bottles with the reused lids in a separate area of the cupboard so I can keep an eye on them. I have not started using the lids a third time yet (that would mean opening a bottle!) so that and using badly damaged lids are for future experiments.

But at this point I feel confident enough to keep the old lids for future use. At the moment I'm using most to fill the bottles with sterile water for storage.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Water conservation

I live in a desert, with the average rainfall being right around 12 inches (about 30 centimeters) per year. That's ALL year, not just during the summer. I have to laugh when people talk about a drought, then say they ONLY get 10 inches of rain per month. The last time we got rain was about the beginning of May.

Under those circumstances, water use is extremely important. I try not to use anything from outside--no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, I harvest my own seeds...and then I have to cancel out all my gains by buying water from the city. During the summer, I use about 60,000 gallons of water per month. A great deal of that is used to water lawns (a long story that I won't go into at the moment--sufficient to say that the lawns will stay for a while longer).

So let's round (just to make the calculations easy) and say I have a quarter of an acre. That's 10,890 square feet, or 1.5 million inches. If each inch receives just 10 inches of rain, that's more than 15 million inches or 68,000 gallons falling on my property. If I were able to use all of that (and assuming that I'm no longer feeding thirsty grass that needs to be watered three times per week) I could last much of the summer without supplemental watering.

Several problems with that scenario. First, water runs off. Second, water runs down (through the soil and into the water table) and third, water runs up (through evaporation).

The first is relatively simple--slope and grade the soil so that the water has to stay. A dip in the soil of an inch will prevent a great deal of water from running downhill. Fill that dip with mulch, you have a handy catchment area that will slowly drain that water into the soil over time.

The second, there's nothing I can do other than strip off the top 30 feet of soil (well honestly it's sand and rock, not soil), put down pond liner, and put the soil back.

The third, again, is relatively simple. Mulch. Lots and lots of mulch. Mulch every year. Seriously, if I wasn't buying 60,000 gallons of water per month how much mulch could I buy? LOTS.

On my property there is one area that is consistently hotter than anywhere else. I have never been able to do anything with it--everything I put there died. Repeatedly. But this year I did something different. I mulched it. As deep as I could, and this summer every bit of extra plant material I could scrape up went up there. Right now it's requiring one deep watering per week, as opposed to last year when I was watering it every single day and STILL everything died.

Now I'm seeing mushrooms in the mulch, and weeds I've never seen before. The plants are thriving--except in the areas where I haven't finished mulching deeply. There, they struggle, but they're still alive and kicking.

So if I could mulch the garden area like that, could I get away with once a week watering? I already water only twice a week in the main garden, and it has much better soil than the hill area. I'm guessing every other week, or even less once the system is established. That right there would cut my water usage a great deal.

This year I tried something new. Well, several somethings, but this year I didn't till the garden. I planted, and waited. And the plants thrived, with no additional water at all. I didn't water the main garden until the end of May, and everything grew just fine. So if I mulched it deeply, would I be able to stretch that to the end of June? The middle of July? The whole summer?

I don't know, but it's worth a try.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Five rings and Plant Guilds

It's been hot for weeks. Up in the hundreds, dropping some nights only to the low eighties before going up again.

The tanks are empty. The apricots are long gone and the plums and early grapes are coming on. Not quite ripe yet, but almost there.

It's full summer. The squash are producing, the corn has tasseled, the tomatoes are turning red and I'm a little melancholy today. It's too hot to plant, and there's nothing to harvest so I have to be content with a little weeding. Except this morning I was watering the almond and I noticed that the water was just running away from it, down the hill. So I mounded up the soil into a semi-berm to hold the water. Then I planted beans in and around the berm.

I was thinking the other day about five circles as part of a plant guild. A plant guild is a group of plants, usually centered on a particular tree, that is supportive in nature. Plants that attract pollinators, plants that clean the soil, plants that put nitrogen in the soil, and so on. So I've got the beginnings of plant guilds but I was working on designs and came up with five rings--tree, protective ring, annuals, perennials, and herbs.

Many of the trees I have in my yard are fruit or nut trees, which are susceptible to bores. Each spring (as early as I can work the soil) I go out, dig down along the fruit tree and try to kill any bores that have overwintered there. Most of my life I've been a traditionalist, because that was how I was raised, but traditional isn't doing it. Traditional is bare dirt around any tree. But the bores lay their eggs in the dirt around the tree...Traditional is dry soil, but the bores need dry soil. The larvae then dig in to the tree and overwinter there.

So last year I planted chives around the trees. They still got bores, but I noticed that most of the bores were on the bare side of the tree, where the chives hadn't grown yet. So...circumstantial, but possible.

This year I expanded that, planting chives, garlic and tansy around the other trees. It'll take two or more years to know if it's working, but I'm hopeful. So that's the 2nd circle. Protective.

The third circle is the human care circle. Technically the whole thing is, but this circle is annuals--tomatoes, beans, beets, whatever I choose to grow. They will be in full sun during the spring, dappled shade during the rest of the summer so productivity might suffer a bit...but they will be a little protected from the full heat of the summer sun, so I think that will offset the losses. Less burn, less evaporation, etc.

The fourth circle is the other trees or bushes in the guild. Planted probably at or close to the tree's drip-line (the edge of the tree where the drips stop, not the soaker line that brings water to the tree) these would be the perennials that support the tree and are supported in turn. The tree provides shade, mulch (in the form of leaf-litter) and in turn is cared for by these plants.

The fifth circle is other perennials that fill out the guild. Medicinal herbs, insectaries to attract pollinators, nutrient accumulators, etc.

It's a slow process, but necessary. This small yard has to take care of itself, and me, and still maintain soil fertility and increase nutrient levels without outside input. No fertilizers, no herbicides or pesticides. I bring in bags of leaves in the fall. Other than that, the main inputs are water and light. Soon, soon I hope, water use will be reduced. That's another topic.

I'm learning as I go.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Spring fever

I planted the last of the corn, squash and melons. There's been enough cool weather that I transplanted some of the yarrow seedlings and they're well established now. I think the rest will have to wait for fall, but if all the seedlings survive I should be able to do at least the park-strips and the front lawn. I checked and the water from the downspout is stretching all down the length of the perforated pipe, which is about 2/3 of the distance. I need to get another pipe to finish it, and I've been thinking of digging down and creating a small pond in that corner.

It's raining again today. I hear the constant drip of the water running out of the drainage pipes on the tanks. Yesterday there was a duck and a quail on the roof. At opposite ends and facing away like they were trying hard to ignore each other.

This morning there were birds in the garden, busily eating the lettuce I'm letting go to "weed." I decided if I'm going to have weeds they may as well be weeds that I can use. The lettuce and leftover potatoes from last year's harvest keep the other weeds down.

The baby apricot is about three inches tall and leafing out. I don't know what it is about a garden, really. I struggle when it struggles. I rejoice when it thrives. I'll watch for the seedlings and protect them (just enough so they can care for themselves) and then go plant something else.

Monday, May 9, 2016

It's raining

I'm listening to thunder. It seems to roll on forever, until it reaches the edge of my hearing.

This month it's been raining. It rained, then quit for two weeks, then rained again, quit for two weeks, and now it's raining. More rain than we usually get in a full year in the last month. Texas is washing away, California is drying up, and the desert blossoms.

I hear the rain start, and it's almost a pain to know that the tanks are full. I can't get any more water in them, so this rain will soak down into the aquifers and pile up on the mountains as snow. It will feed my plants for weeks to come, trapped in the soil where it's cool.

There's the thunder again. I want to go outside and dance in the rain, but I won't. This week I'll probably cover the beans with leaves. Weed barrier, mulch, and hopefully protection so the mushrooms will start to emerge. The lawn needs to be mowed again so that's more grass to cover the garden.

The beets and carrots are still tiny, just barely showing as a line of green against the brown. It will be some time before they can be covered.

I look at everything growing and it's as if I'm connected to the earth. Like I could sink my feet into the soil and take root. Winter has its own magic, but I'm not connected the same way.

I stood in my food forest the other day and looked down across my gardens to the fruit trees, and I just wanted to stay there all day. It makes me happy.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Permaculture (in a sense)

Over the winter I started doing research into permaculture, learning that we've been using permaculture principles for some time without knowing it. :) Very little organic matter leaves this yard--it's all recycled, one way or another. Leaves and grass are compost, food debris goes in the compost pit. Thicker wood that can't be composted is burned for ash or used for any number of other things. The land is sloped so that there is very little runoff, and xeric plantings deliberately placed where the sprinklers don't reach.

Water is our Achilles heel, but permaculture has a cure for that.

We live in a desert. It rains in the spring and fall, a bare handful of times per year. Snow during the winter mostly runs off rather than soaking in. In all we get about fifteen inches of water per year. Summer temperatures run easily into the 90's and 100's, with near 0 humidity.

This year water prices are going to double or triple, and with more than a quarter acre of lawn and garden that's going to hurt. With that in mind, a few years ago I invested in a water catchment system to catch water off the roof. It's nearly complete. I also finished one of the drainage systems, carrying water from the downspout on one corner of the house across the grass and into the raspberries.

Two years ago we put in the drip system, and the secondary garden is watered by the lawn sprinklers. I'd much rather water vegetables than grass.

So this spring I ran a test. All of the vegetables were put in the ground--and left alone. The only water they've gotten was the rain two weeks ago. With temperatures in the 70's and 80's, I would have expected the water to evaporate quickly, leaving the seedlings languishing. If that had happened I would have watered, but they all appear fat and happy. As of last night (before the rain) the soil in the main garden was dry only two inches down, and in the western garden one inch. Seedlings are all up and amazing. Two transplants have been lost--one tomato, broken when a wall-o-water fell over on it, and a licorice seedling that something ate. Neither died from lack of water.

Last spring we were watering constantly, and the water just seemed to drain away, leaving the soil dry again within a day or two.

Something has changed.

I think we're working with a combination of things. First, each year early in the spring we till up the garden, which allows air in, fluffs the soil so to speak, but also creates more space for water to evaporate from. All that water that's settled deep in the soil during the winter evaporates off. We then plant into this aerated soil, and keep it watered until the seedlings come up. Because of the tilling the soil is broken up deep, allowing all the water to drain off. This year we didn't till, so the water that was in the soil is staying there.

Second, I mulched the surface as much as possible. Grass went down all last summer, and leaves in the fall. This year we will again mulch deeply with grass and leaves, as well as continuing with the deep compost pit.

By planting so that all soil is covered by something living (or a good thick layer of mulch, or both) we should minimize evaporation from the soil. With the use of consciously recognized permaculture principles (rather than just doing what feels right), I'm hoping that water use will be minimized this year.

The recipe for a water-wise garden:

Soil with plenty of organic matter
Mulch (next year's soil)
Plant densely
Catch and reuse (catchment tanks)
Water wisely (drip lines)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Re-use canning lids

I did an experiment last night. For years I've wondered if the advice not to reuse canning lids was just advertising hype, and I finally decided to test it. Those who preserve food by canning hear it all the time. It's on the boxes, it's on the bottles, it's even on the blogs and boards where canners meet. DO NOT ever re-use canning lids. It's dangerous, they won't seal, buy new, buy new, buy new.

Right now the prices on canning lids are low. One commenter said "A few cents to assure my family's safety isn't too much." But I see no reason to buy into the "it's unsafe" hype without any logical reasoning behind it. The best "logic" behind the ban of old lids seems to be "They won't reseal." I can find nothing that really leads to a safety issue.

I chose lids that had been used previously. Some had only a very slight bump in the rubber seal, others had an indentation about half the depth of the rubber. Lids with deeper indentations will be tested later. None had any damage to the metal or the ring, other than the indentation from previous use. I discarded several that were either damaged or too stained. I chose to use pressure canning because I was planning a batch of chicken soup anyway and I figured the fat content would make a better test.

I chose not to scald the lids. I seldom scald lids (Note: with the Tattler lids you MUST or they won't seal properly) and I wanted the experiment to be the same as my usual process in every way. Otherwise it wouldn't be a fair test. I used half new lids (6) and half old lids. 9 pints (4 old, 5 new) and 3 quarts (2 old, 1 new). I used 15 pounds pressure for 90 minutes.

When I took them out, all but one were boiling and continued to boil. I turned that one on its head to keep the heat near the seal and it started to boil, reluctantly. When one of the bottles doesn't boil after being taken out of the pressure canner it often means that particular bottle doesn't have enough vacuum and won't seal. The one that threatened to fail was one of the new lids. It did seal overnight. All the others sealed within half an hour. Ping, ping, ping! :) Love that sound.

This morning I removed the rings and washed the bottles. All were sealed, all remained sealed when I lifted them by the lid and shook them gently. I've placed the bottles with the old lids in the pantry where I can keep an eye on them, and if any fail I'll have a better idea of how long the lids are good for. When they've all been used I'll use them again, and again until I reach the limit of their useful life.

I'll continue to buy new lids, but I'm glad to know that they CAN be reused if necessary.


Easy chicken soup (per pint):

1/2 c chicken
1/2 c carrots
1/2 c celery
1/2 c potatoes
1/2 c onion
If there's extra space, fill to capacity with chicken and fill the bottle with chicken juice.
Seasonings to taste. I used salt, pepper, garlic

This recipe assumes large chunks, there might not be enough space for 1/2 c of each if you cut the pieces small.

Double for quarts. I use the same recipe for beef.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vinegar Craving

Most of my life I've craved vinegar. I love pickles, pasta fazul with lots of vinegar, and vinegar in water. Salt and vinegar potato chips. During the summer we make sweet pickles--one cup water, one cup sugar, one cup vinegar and fresh cucumbers.

Heaven! We just finished up a batch (the last of the season, *sigh*) and then I drank the juice, although it's too sweet for me.

Out of curiosity I looked up vinegar cravings. A lot of women (it is apparently mostly women) get this craving at puberty. Those men who crave vinegar this way it's a lifelong thing.

The information was quite interesting, and absolutely anecdotal. For most of the women who had this craving, it's strongest the week before their period starts. A lot of them craved vinegar (or pickles) during pregnancy and then the craving went away. Several mentioned the fact that they don't like sweet foods (which applies in my case as well) and many were also lactose intolerant.

I know that people low on potassium (which is found in vinegar) get a lot of cramps. That was another similarity I noticed--many of these people exercise a great deal, and get cramps when they do. Several were marathon runners. When you exercise a lot, potassium and calcium are leached from the muscles if there's not enough in the system, which results in cramps.

Giving blood does the same, for some people (it does for me), but only if the nutrient levels in the blood were too low to start with. Vinegar might balance that. Vinegar also increases the absorption of calcium as well as a number of other essential nutrients.

Another possibility mentioned was an acid/base imbalance. Someone also mentioned the ability of vinegar to balance insulin levels (due to its ability to prevent the absorption of sugars).

Doctors say there's no physiological reason for the craving since vinegar is so low in nutrients, but it's important to remember that many people who crave vinegar aren't just taking a tablespoon (the dose the RDA values are calculated on) but drinking the stuff. Vinegar contains trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and iron. So if someone drinks a cup of vinegar they're getting significant amounts of these nutrients. I'm guessing that in most cases when people crave vinegar it's providing missing nutrients and trace minerals, but there are lots of possibilities here.

Whatever the reason, I try to listen to what my body tells me--if it says it wants vinegar and vinegar is available, that's what it will get!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Making sausage

I have this insatiable need to know stuff. If it catches my imagination, it is a lost cause. I will find out.

I'm not so much about blogging, but it's that curiosity bump that just won't go away.

I wanted to try my hand(s) at making sausage. Fresh sausage is no fun, but I don't have a sausage grinder or a sausage stuffer and really I try to stay away from things that might not be available at some point. Like electrical gadgets that do nothing but stuff meat into pig intestines...

I used a simple recipe I found on It was intended as a fresh sausage, but I figured it was worth a try.

The initial batch I used hamburger (20% fat) instead of pork because I couldn't find any ground pork.

Most of the fresh "sausage" I wrapped and put in the freezer. But I took two pieces a step further. I added a little more salt, since I knew it would be curing for a while, then wrapped one in plastic and stuck it in the back of the refrigerator. The other I packed tightly into a small jar, then inverted it into a larger jar so it had air on all sides, spread salt over the outside and left it, also, in the refrigerator.

Today, a month later, I pulled them out and put both pieces in a 200 degree oven for a couple of hours (since I don't have a smoker).

I made...sausage, or something. Not quite sure what I'd call it. It's not like any sausage I've ever had before.

The two pieces are very different.

#1, packed sausage. Very solid, and very dark. VERY salty. The texture is like jerky, or one of those "beef sticks" that are sold in supermarkets. The outside is chewy but not tough, the inside more like pepperoni but not at all soft or smooth as pepperoni would be. I can tell it could do with a higher percentage of fat. The flavor isn't familiar but it doesn't taste "off" or bad in any way. The color is a uniform dark brown all the way through. The core temperature was up around 160 degrees.

#2, wrapped sausage. I can tell the two were from the same batch, but good grief the difference. This one is visibly raw (although it doesn't smell like it's gone off either) and crumbly. The outside inch is dark gray, the inside still slightly pink so I'm guessing that either it didn't age long enough or the air getting to the outside is necessary for aging. The core temperature on this one was also around 160 degrees after 4 hours in a 200 degree oven.

I'll cook #2 for dinner tonight to make sure it's safe. The other--I think it's fine the way it is. Now I need to get some glass or metal tubes to use for molds and try it again. A higher percentage of fat this time, and a little less salt.

I know now that sausage CAN be made without the casings. Now to experiment...

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Back pain

I have a bad back. When I was about twenty I worked at a mower shop and someone had wedged a full sized lawnmower into a tiny car-- I think it was a VW Bug or some such thing, but I don't remember. What I remember is twisting as I worked the mower out of its nest and feeling something pop.

It didn't hurt then, but it certainly did later! Ever since then I've struggled with back problems. If I twist wrong, lift wrong, the stupid thing pops out of place, and the muscles then hold it out of place with muscle spasms. I can spend anywhere from a few hours to a week flat, struggling to even turn over.

In all the years between I've learned a few things, however.

  1. When your back is out, sleep with a flat pillow under the small of your back to hold it in the proper curvature. If you sleep on your side, sleep with a pillow under the arch of your waist.
  2. Walk with one shoe off and one shoe on. When my back goes out one leg appears shorter than the other because of the way the spine curves. If I can lift that side, there isn't as much pain and the muscles heal faster as the spine is forced back into the proper position.
  3. Roll off the bed (or couch) onto your knees rather than trying to sit up. Much easier to get into a standing position from your knees. My bed is high enough that I can roll off into a crouching position, making it that much simpler.
  4. If you must sit up (for example you're on the floor exercising) pile cushions on that side to help with the lift. Roll up onto the cushions, then onto your knees.
  5. For those times when your back is good, always exercise. Get some exercises to do and do them every day. Remember to exercise the whole body, not just the back muscles--this means abdominal too. If you feel that twinge that's your back saying "Hey, I'm here!" be proactive. Try to get that thing popped back into place BEFORE it becomes a problem, and be careful how you lift or twist. Increase your exercises, and include some leg stretches that will help in popping it back in.

Years ago I went to a quackopractor for this problem, and while he didn't impress me at all there were a few things he did that I was able to use. This isn't a condemnation of chiropractors by any means, but this one was a waste of time. Thus, quackopractor. One thing he did was to put my knee over the other knee and push it down.

I thought, hey, I can do that. So when I feel that twinge I lay flat on the floor, hook one knee over the other and gently press the upper knee toward the floor. Then repeat on the other side. Often this pops it back in, but most often I just use it as addition to my regular exercises.

The spine is really a set of cushioned hinges, held in place by muscle like stretched rubber bands. Many of our back problems are caused or exacerbated by muscle problems. If one muscle isn't strong enough it can't maintain the tension and the opposing muscle can't relax, which pulls the spine out of place. If a lot of muscles aren't strong enough (or one is too strong) they can snap the spine out of place by themselves. Thus, the reason for exercising evenly on both sides. However, if the spine itself has a weakness and slips out of place the muscles (stretched rubber bands, remember?) will contract and hold it in place--the wrong place.

This puts additional strain on the muscles, and together with torn muscle tissue and swelling cause a great deal of pain. Most people reach for the painkillers.

While ibuprofen and acetaminophen are generally used as pain killers, ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory and acetaminophen is a muscle relaxant or anti-spasmodic. Taking the two together (as many people do) gives you the pain killing, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic relief needed for mild back pain. However, I hate taking medicine for any reason. I react to some of the more common ones, and since I don't take them on a regular basis they often have unexpected consequences. One ibuprofen will put me to sleep for twelve hours or more, and they both make me groggy and irritable. I don't like the way they make me feel, I don't like the aftertaste, and I don't like staring at the world through a cotton-candy screen.

So I've come up with herbal alternatives.

A cautionary tale. Many years ago I was just starting to work with herbs. I was under the impression that they were perfectly safe and nothing could go wrong. I had no idea about herb-drug interactions or herb-herb/herb-food interactions. It had simply never occurred to me that such a thing was possible. I looked through my books and found a handful of herbs I had in the garden that were listed as anti-inflammatory or anti-spasmodic. I made a tea of them, and while it tasted absolutely nasty it did help the back pain. Great. One more thing nailed. Happy with that, and high on herbs, I went to work. At work, sitting for hours on end, the herbs wore off. Without thinking about it I reached for the ibuprofen and acetaminophen. It helped a little. Wanting to make it all better, I drank some of my herbal concoction. A few minutes later spasms started that made it impossible to do anything except sit there and cry. Instead of being an ANTI-spasmodic, the combination had created a spasmodic.

I somehow got home, and it was months before I dared do anything more with herbs. I have since narrowed it down to one particular herb in my concoction. The herbs alone are fine. The pharmaceuticals alone are fine. But add in this particular item, on top of the herbs and pharmaceuticals, it reverses the effects and turns into a VERY strong spasmodic.

Back Pain Recipe

This was my first (and worst) experience with interactions, and it is the reason I warn beginners to be very cautious when working with herbs. They are much better for you than pharmaceuticals, and often work better, but they don't come with warning labels or dosage charts. Any warnings are either the voice of experience or bitter experience. One or the other.

The most important thing with back pain is prevention. Exercise every day, exercise evenly (front and back, both sides) and at the first twinge take preventative action. Be careful how you stand, bend and twist. Be careful how you lift. Don't take on things that will strain your back and don't be afraid to ask for help if necessary. The last thing you want is to have to have help for the rest of your life because of a few minutes of I-can-do-it-myself pride.

When prevention fails, be gentle and stay down as much as possible. Move slowly and carefully (as if you could do anything else!) and try to keep the spine in its normal shape. Heat helps. Anti-inflammatories and anti-spasmodics help.

Keep exercising.

Friday, January 22, 2016

And not a drop

I got my Berkey water filter today. Aside from having a new toy, I'm hoping that the lack of chemicals in the water we drink will make a difference for various health problems we're currently experiencing.

The thing was expensive (as my BIL explained to me at exhaustive length) but since the main filters will filter up to 3000 gallons each we could easily get two years worth of water out of a $50 filter rather than paying $20 for a set of five that are used up within a year. Of course, I may be seriously underestimating the amount of water we drink (which he also said, ad nauseum) but well worth it anyway.

The other filters don't take out viruses, bacteria, or fluoride and chlorine. Those last two were my main concern, along with pharmaceuticals (yes there are pharmaceuticals in most municipal water systems) pesticides and heavy metals.

You see, our water doesn't poof out of nowhere and suddenly appear in our faucets. Water that comes from snow melt goes into rivers and streams that are contaminated by runoff from farms and manufacturing facilities. Even sewage finds its way into our waterways. The water then goes into purification systems, but simply from the volume of water they're working with they can't catch everything. Instead, our municipal water systems focus on a few main problems--particulates (basic filtering), viruses and bacteria (chlorine) and reducing metals like iron and lead. They want to make the water safe to drink by federal standards, not necessarily good for you.

The in-house filter is a hopeful step in that direction. We try to eat healthy as much as possible, not using most pre-processed foods, boxed or packaged meals, etc. But I've become concerned over the years that what we drink isn't nearly as healthy as what we eat. Unfortunately I don't have nearly enough money for a whole-house filtering system (and don't talk about debt--that's as toxic as the junk most people eat) so I saved up and got the Berkey.

There are a lot of good filtering systems out there that have high ratings in removing chemicals, metals, etc. The reason I chose the Berkey is that it is entirely gravity fed--no power. Put the water in the top, it comes out the bottom.

My next toy will be a solar generator, but it'll probably be years down the line. I can't save much at this point.

But when it happens I'll be chortling, just like when I signed for that package this afternoon...