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.