Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Small Failures: Sauerkraut, Septic Tanks, and Caterpillars

I try to post about the failures that occur around here. I think it's really important for us all to acknowledge that failures are a part of life. I don't ever want this blog space to make it look like my life is too shiny and perfect. It's dirty and flawed and I screw up a lot. And that is okay. Here are a few things that have happened lately.

1) Kraut Gone Bad
Oh, sauerkraut, I bragged about how easy you were. And then I tried to make you again. And you produced a foul-smelling white mold. What went wrong? Maybe it was because I read almost nothing about how to make you and then I attempted it anyway. I will try again.

Sauerkraut gone bad just a few days after starting to ferment

I was especially excited to try making a carrot ginger sauerkraut, inspired by this post from SouleMama. Once again, the white mold.

Carrot ginger sauerkraut

2) The Big Rain
We had A Very Big Rain here two and a half weeks ago. In case you live elsewhere and haven't heard, most of Texas has been in a severe drought for the last few years. While 2013 has been much better than 2011 in terms of rainfall, we still need a lot more rain to bring lake and aquifer levels up. Two Fridays ago, in the middle of the night, Austin received up to 12 inches of rain. In one night. Our neighborhood got about 8-10 inches. Two of our neighbors' houses flooded, one severely, and we had some minor water problems here, too. Worse than the puddle seeping through our back door was the fact that our septic tank filled with rainwater and the septic alarm began sounding at 5:00 a.m. Mr. Chanclas ran outside in his pj's with a shovel to dig ditches around the house, turn off the septic alarm, and rescue a chicken that roosts on the ground. I ran around inside the house with all of the extra towels mopping up water coming under the back door. Then I noticed a palm-sized bulge of water forming behind the latex paint on the living room wall. It was slowly moving down the wall. I did the only thing I could think to do, which was to poke a small hold in it and let the water out. Now my living room wall has stretch marks.

The septic system being pumped out through the green hose.
After all the excitement, and with more rain coming two days later, we had to get the septic tank pumped. No big deal except that it costs $330. Sigh. When you have city sewer you don't have to worry about these things. With a septic system your own poop is your own problem.

The septic truck parked in the driveway.
3) The Cabbage Loopers
This isn't officially a failure yet, but I'm struggling with caterpillars in the garden. Cabbage loopers, I suppose. I've started smooshing the little buggers with my bare hands, which startled Mr. Chanclas and the children. One corner of the garden appears to be too shady to grow anything but the other end is doing well. We will see.

The holey tat soi.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Creating Community in Your Neighborhood: The Why and How

The quality of my life hinges on the quality of my connections to my community. At the core of this is my connection to my immediate family (my husband and children), and to my extended family (our parents, sisters, etc). Beyond the realm of family and friends are our neighbors. We choose our friends but, as with family, we do not often get to choose our neighbors. And yet I feel my neighbors to be vitally important to my well-being and that of my family.

My tree full of neighborhood kids

In all of the places I have lived in my lifetime I have always found good neighbors. There have been bad ones, too, of course, but there have always been good ones and those are the ones who have mattered. Years later I am still friends with several of my old neighbors in (now) faraway places.

What I have learned is that you don't have to grow up in a place to feel at home there- to feel a sense of community. You don't have to be just like your neighbors, or even share their interests. Age, family structure, race, religion, politics, and education do not matter when it comes to neighbors. You don't need to have the same hobbies or read the same books. You live in the same neighborhood- you share physical space- and that is enough common ground to form the basis of a good neighborly relationship in most cases. Proximity creates common interests and common challenges.

This blog post has been brewing in my mind for weeks and last night I read two things that pushed me over the edge into writing it. The first was a post by Teri from Homestead Honey. She wrote,

"I notice that when people talk about homesteading, there is a huge emphasis on "Self-Sufficiency". Feed yourself, create your own power, collect your own water. And yes, these tasks are very important, particularly in this age of GMO crops and climate change. But in this year of homesteading in Missouri, I have come to recognize that the most important task I have as a homesteader is to create networks of interdependence in my community. Last week we helped raise Mike and Julia's round pole timber frame home. This week they are helping us. John grows my pork and beef. I help educate his children. When someone needs help, we give, and when we need help, we receive." (italics mine)

I would say her observation extends beyond homesteaders to people in general. I think that the most important task we have as neighbors, as citizens, is to create networks of interdependence in our communities. We were not made to live this life alone. We were not made to struggle independently in self-contained, self-sufficient bubbles. Indeed, we evolved to share the burden (and the rewards).

But first, a little bit about my own situation: We bought this house two and a half years ago and intend to stay here for a very long time, possibly the rest of our lives. Our neighborhood is tiny; there are sixteen houses and, of those, four are businesses, leaving us with twelve households. There is a somewhat rural feel here (each house has an acre or two or three) and we don't get any through traffic in the neighborhood at all. Several of my neighbors have lived here for over thirty-five years. I have met all of the people in my neighborhood except for the ones who live in the house furthest away from mine. (Some neighbors welcomed us to the neighborhood and some I had to seek out on my own.) Six of the households regularly get together for potluck dinners. Those are the numbers.

A crawfish boil potluck. The kids are holding crawfish races on the driveway.

My neighbors are weird, quirky, crotchety, independent, stubborn, resilient, funny, and generous. I hope they would say the same about me. We are very different in some ways and we are alike in many others. But, above all, we know we can rely on each other. Our elderly neighbor, Ms. B, has health problems that keep her inside. Mr. Chanclas mows her yard (over an acre of it), I clean her house, and the neighbors on the other side do her grocery shopping. When it rains hard the text messages fly: "Do u need help? Need the shop vac?" because we all know whose houses are prone to flooding. Hundreds of pounds of materials are carted up and down these streets in little red wagons, wheelbarrows, and strollers: deliveries of entire dinners, bags of used clothing, fire wood, or even bags of actual garbage for a neighbor's trash bin. My neighbor Jessie and I have a certain bag of coffee that has made its way between our houses at least 4 times, usually preceded by a 6:30 a.m. text message, "Do you have any coffee? I have lost the will to live."

Skinning a roadkill fox with my neighbors. I told you they are weird.
The other passage I read last night that rocked my world was a piece from Sharon Astyk's Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place. In it she talks about the importance of loving our neighbors. I would not have used that word- love- myself, but I found myself swayed by her argument.
"Because rather than talking about "working" with your neighbors or "getting along" I want to talk about the problem of actually loving them, despite the difficulties that the word love raises. It is the right word- it is no accident that we speak of moral obligation in these terms. In this case, I would suggest that we all think about "love", not as a particular feeling you have to evoke but as a larger structure for our relationships, a way of organizing our world."
"… it is not loving people to express things lovingly all the time. It is not loving one another simply to articulate your common ground, or to allow everyone to "express" their differences, or to be universally supportive, or to fall backward off a chair. Love is needing each other- not in easy or cheap ways, but really, truly needing one another. It does not require that you share beliefs, or even like each other- all of us can call examples from our biological families that support this fact...
In this, love is not a feeling or a particular social practice. It is the replacement, at least when possible, of a world that thinks in terms of maximization of personal profit and extraction with one that maximizes interdependence and the well-being of the group, not just the individual. And it requires that we risk depending on one another- that we give up owning every single item we might ever need personally and trust that our neighbors will share with us and we with them." (again, italics mine)

When you read this don't get too hung up on the word "love". If the thought of loving your neighbor who mows his lawn in a Speedo next to your bedroom window at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning is just too much to bear, let's start with something smaller. We can create a valuable, lasting sense of community right here in our own neighborhoods. We don't have to move to the perfect town or the perfect neighborhood or join a co-housing group or a commune. We can just start knowing our neighbors and sharing with our neighbors. It is very simple. We can do this with just three simple actions:

1) Talk to your neighbors.
2) Share food with your neighbors.
3) Depend on your neighbors and let them depend on you.

I’ll talk about these three steps in more detail in a follow-up post. For now, I charge you all with one simple homework assignment: Talk to a neighbor. Pick a neighbor you haven’t met or don’t know well and talk to him or her. Maybe you can just holler a “hello” across the driveway or maybe you can make some small talk about their dog/cat/car/hairdo. Just improvise. But the first step is to make verbal contact.

Okay. Report back with some details.

No Goats Today

So I guess this isn't going to happen:

Mr. Chanclas' Volvo with a goat on top of it
By the time I contacted the owner of the free goats they were already gone. Which shows that it is entirely possible to get rid of two dozen goats in under two and a half hours. Impressive. And that is exactly why I have given up on the Austin Craigslist "free" listings. That stuff moves fast. And in case you were wondering, I wasn't going to take all 24 goats. I just wanted two. Although, now that I think of it, I would have been smart to take all 24 and then sell off 22 of them for $100 apiece. I suppose I could have kept 24 goats in the dog run for a few days, although that would have meant the end of my fig tree, the sage bush, and everything else within nibbling range.

I suppose I should be relieved since I had decided not to keep goats for the time being. But those damn free ads are so seductive!

And I really do think Mr. Chanclas' Volvo looks perfect with a goat standing on it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Free Goats

Oh, dear. There is a very interesting ad on the Austin Craigslist tonight. In case the ad has been removed by the time you read this, here is the screen shot:

The listing reads: "I have 2 dozen goats I need to get rid of. I had no idea raising goats would be this hard. These little bastards keep eating all my wife's flowers and climbing on our goddamn cars. Nobody told me they were such good climbers. The first person to get these damn goats out of here can have them."

I can't stop laughing about it. This man has obviously been tested beyond his limits. Two DOZEN goats? No wonder!

I just texted him about the goats. It's possible I could be the proud owner of two car-climbing flower-eating goats tomorrow. Oh dear.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Fall Garden: 2013

It's official. My fall garden is fully installed and growing. I went all out this time. My spring garden, which was my first gardening attempt at this location, was a total flop. It started out okay but quickly went to hell in a garden basket. So a few weeks ago I went to The Natural Gardener and quizzed the nice ladies there about why my garden had sucked so badly. My plants had been yellow and stunted and some of them overly leggy. They thought I probably needed some more nitrogen as well as a big load of compost. So I had two cubic yards of turkey poop compost delivered and also bought a bag of organic fertilizer and a bottle of liquid seaweed.
Compost ready to be moved into the garden beds
It felt outrageously decadent since I've always just made do with the soil I have and the materials on hand. But I was just tired of working so hard and getting such paltry returns in my Texas gardens. I need to build up the soil so that it can provide for us. In addition to spreading at least 3 inches of compost in all of my veggie beds, I turned my giant upper bed into two separate beds with a path down the middle. Now I don't have to walk through the bed, which compacts the soil and disturbs the plants.

BEFORE: The upper bed last spring

AFTER: The upper bed converted into two long beds
I dug out the pathway, lined the sides with bricks I scavenged out of the trash, and lined the floor with paper chicken feed bags and scraps of cardboard. I may throw some mulch down on top of the path at some point. I even have some gravel piled up in the materials yard that I could use here.

New garden path made with scavenged materials
After I got all the beds ready I planted about a dozen seedlings and several packets of seeds. I had a really sweet and enthusiastic helper.

Little Sister reigns at the garden shed

Next time I'll share some photos of the growing vegetables. We had 10-12 inches of rain fall OVERNIGHT on Saturday night but my garden weathered it well.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

What Goes Around Comes Around in the Compost Pile

My compost pile is constantly reminding me that this earth is a closed loop system. Our garbage is never really gone; it just goes somewhere else. Sometimes it doesn't go very far and it doesn't hurt anything in the process, as is the case with the vegetable peelings that break down in my compost pile. But I'm always finding things in my compost pile that didn't break down, notably the plastic liner inside my paper tea bags (all those years of chai and I never knew) and those annoying plastic stickers that are found on all supermarket produce. Those things never go away. They aren't meant to be composted in the first place but they sneak their way in there.

A giant pile of horse poop five months later

Today I used up all of that great horse poop compost that I started back in May. It was nicely finished and no longer hot. I read that if horses eat grass contaminated with herbicide and then you use their poop as compost in your veggie garden you can risk poisoning your garden for a long time to come. So I got nervous about the horse manure compost and decided to spread it around our four crape myrtle trees instead of the vegetable garden. I don't usually pay the ornamental plants a bit of attention around here so those trees got lucky.
Look at that beautiful ring of compost around that tree!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Fall Gardening in Central Texas: Eat Your Heart Out, Northern Friends

Most folks think that in Texas we got one long, blissful gardening season due to our mild weather. Actually, in Central Texas, we get two short ones. The beastly 100+ degree days of August and September are incompatible with life. So we plant our spring gardens in March, harvest through July, rest in August and September, and then start all over again in October. Our average date of first freeze is mid-November but those are just-kidding freezes. Fall veggies like broccoli, cabbage, radishes, and the like scoff at those cooler temps. We do get a few killing freezes in January and February but by that point our fall gardens have had 3-4 months to do something for us.

This chile pequin bush has done really well despite my neglect

Although I'm a native Texan, I started gardening in Maryland and Wisconsin so I still find that Texas gardening throws me for a loop sometimes. In those cooler northern states my gardens actually received good rain and grew in wonderful native soils. (The topsoil in Wisconsin is the stuff of dreams, people. It feels like it goes down for miles and you can double-dig beds like nobody's business. In my yard you can't dig a hole deep enough to bury a goldfish without using a pickaxe. Trust me, I know.)

Last night I was leafing through a library copy of The New Central Texas Gardener, which is not new at all and whose authors, based on their names (Cheryl Hazeltine and Barry Lovelace), probably are not either. So I was surprised when I started laughing out loud while reading the section on soils. I quote it here (pgs. 144-145) for your enjoyment and to further your understanding of Central Texas gardening conditions:

First, and always, there is the soil. It is the foundation of all gardening, especially vegetable gardening. In Central Texas we have two basic choices of soil: poor and worse. Poor soil is what one of our gardening friends calls "ten o'clock dirt": at 9:55 a.m. it is too wet and heavy to plow; at 10:05 a.m. it is dry and concrete-hard. The only time you can till it is at 10:00 a.m. It is, in short, thick black clay.

The "worse" (and these terms are relative) is caliche, which anyone but a Central Texan would call rock. Actually, much of it is rock- limestone- mixed with expansive clay. While it is only a few inches deep in some parts of the area, many gardeners find that it goes down about a half-mile in their yards.

I have caliche. Which is why I can really only garden in raised beds. But I'm going to garden the living daylights out of those raised beds. Mark my words! My next post will be about my fall garden, which I planted this week. Like a dog (all dogs), my motto is "Ever Hopeful".

The oregano that refuses to die

Thursday, October 3, 2013


I made sauerkraut on Monday. It was ridiculously easy.

I was recently flipping through the book Homesweet Homegrown: How to Grow, Make and Store Food, No Matter Where You Live and I read some really general instructions on how to make sauerkraut. The author, Robyn Jasko, says to shred up some cabbage and/or other root vegetables (like carrots, etc), sprinkle salt on top, and use your hands to really crunch that salt into the shredded veggies. Put everything in a jar, push the veggies down so the liquid covers the solids, and let sit for a few days. (The liquid is produced when the salt draws the water out of the veggies. There is no extra liquid added.)

So the other day while I was cooking at least four other things for dinner I threw a half of a purple cabbage and two carrots in the food processor and shredded those babies up. I added 1 Tbsp of salt for what I guessed to be about a pound of veggies. This turned out to be a little too salty. The guideline is 3 Tbsp of salt for 5 lbs veggies, which is approximately 2 tsp per pound. When I had a minute or two between the other cooking activities I stuck my hands in this salty veggie mix and crunched it up as best I could. Everything started to look soggy and limp. When I got tired of doing that I stuffed it all in an old pickle jar and pressed it down with the back of a spoon. The liquid level was not high enough to cover the veggies, which worried me. I left the jar sitting on my kitchen counter at a room temperature of 79-80 degrees. (Fall hasn't really arrived in Central Texas yet.) I thought for sure I'd have a nice mold layer growing by morning.

Sauerkraut fermenting in an old pickle jar

But no. I ignored the jar of mush on Tuesday and on Wednesday (two days after making) I gave it a sniff. It smelled pungent and delicious! My mouth watered. I dared to take a bite and it was delicious. It tasted nothing (I mean nothing) like store bought kraut and it was a beautiful bright purple color. To me it tasted like good kim chi, which I adore.

Fermented foods are very nutritious. Wikipedia's entry on sauerkraut says:
"It is extremely high in vitamins C, B, and K; the fermentation process increases the bioavailability of nutrients rendering sauerkraut even more nutritious than the original cabbage. It is also low in calories and high in calcium and magnesium, and it is a very good source of dietary fiber, folate, iron, potassium, copper and manganese."

I'm going to start making kraut with all of my leftover cabbage and root veggies. It was easy, cheap, and it's going to be a great condiment for salads and as a flavorful little side dish.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Poultry Predators: The Dog Attack of 2013

Over the six years we have kept poultry we have lost birds to hawks, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, and possibly owls. Predation is a fact of life for poultry owners. Humans are not the only animals that think chickens are delicious. Thursday was the first time we had ever lost a chicken to dogs. 

It started when I went down the street to pick up the kids at the bus stop. I saw a large, furry black dog and a brown pit bull wandering in the street. I am really cautious about dogs I don't know. Mr. Chanclas has been bitten twice by large dogs as the owners told him "he doesn't bite"!  This doesn't exactly inspire my confidence in dogs or their owners.

Thirty minutes later I looked out the living room window and said, "What is that lying in the driveway?" It turned out to be one of my young laying hens, dead, and the two loose dogs were busy rampaging the rest of the birds in my coop. Our chicken run is four feet of chicken wire on posts with deer netting above to keep the hawks and owls out. (See photos and details in this post.) The black dog had jumped up on the chicken wire, torn a hole in the netting, and jumped inside the run. Thankfully, most of the chickens had escaped through the back of the nesting boxes, which the dogs had already torn open. The black dog was going crazy inside of the run, climbing up on top of a small coop and collapsing one end of it in the process. 

Torn netting where the dog jumped in
While the black dog chased the chickens inside the pit bull ran circles around the outside. I grabbed a mop hanging on the fence and started screaming at the dogs, which scared the pit bull off a dozen yards or so, but I was not about to go and get in the middle of things. All three of my kids were inside and I didn't want them coming out and getting hurt and I sure didn't want to get attacked or bitten either. I went inside to secure the kids and when I stepped back out the black dog had managed to get out of the run and both dogs had just run off. I was so, so angry.

I called my neighbors down the street who have chickens and ducks to give them advance warning. Then I went outside and found three of my young hens dead in the yard. I called Animal Control and they totally blew me off. Then I called and texted my neighbors to see if they would pester Animal Control along with me. (The old squeaky wheel getting oil.) My elderly neighbor, Ms. Bobbi, told me I should call the sheriff.

The sheriff? What exactly is a sheriff anyway? Do I actually live somewhere that has a sheriff? This was somewhat amusing. It seemed weird to call the cops on some dogs but she told me that if I mentioned a rampaging pit bull in a neighborhood full of children they'd pay attention. She was right. Then Ms. Bobbi called the sheriff, too, and after being transferred three times, gave him a piece of her mind. Ms. Bobbi might be 72 years old and wear giant granny classes but I would *not* have wanted to be on the receiving end of that particular phone call.

Before I could even get off the phone with Ms. Bobbi the sheriff's deputy was cruising down my street. The deputy was really nice and he pulled out a little notebook and wrote down a description of the dogs, the number of chickens killed, and my name. I couldn't believe he even cared. When I lived in the city and my car was broken into the cops didn't even come out. Then he took photos of the crime scene and my dead hens, which I thought was hilarious but nice because the dogs' owner owes me a hundred bucks.

While I was talking to the deputy the neighbor girl from down the street ran over to tell us the dogs were near her house. So the deputy headed down there for a little round up. Later he returned to my house with a dog collar in his hand. There were no tags on the collar. Crap. He had caught the pit bull but when he started to lead it by the collar the dog backed right out and ran off, leaving him holding an empty collar.

The chickens had scattered farther than usual out of fear and at nightfall I was still missing two, which I found dead in another part of the yard the following day. It's a shame because all five chickens that were killed were my young hens that were about to start laying. They were five of the ten chicks I had slipped under my broody mama hen back in May. A young layer is worth $20 so I lost $100 in chickens plus the time spent repairing the coop and run.

I found out later that the dogs were the same ones that had destroyed my neighbor's coop last fall and killed several of her chickens. That neighbor, who we call Granny D, came over to apologize for not warning us when she saw the dogs running loose. And she offered us some replacement chickens from her own coop. Of course, none of this was her fault at all, but we were touched that she came over and made us such a generous offer. And really, I am not typing up this whole account just to tell a story about chicken-killing dogs but to tell a story about community. About what it is like to be part of a neighborhood in which everybody knows each other and relies on each other in moments of crisis, both small and large. (This one small, but there have been large ones.)

Now I am wondering what I can do to prevent future dog predation. I have considered all options. Fencing my whole property (expensive and unappealing), keeping a livestock guardian dog (expensive and would require the previously mentioned fence), shooting the dogs with a bb gun, or shooting the dogs with a real gun. I have no desire to shoot dogs and I don't think I could bring myself to shoot one with a real gun under these circumstances. The sheriff's deputy mentioned that I do have the right to shoot a dog rampaging on my property. My cousins, who live in the country and know far more about these things than I do, said that a roaming, chicken-killing dog will always come back for more and that really you just have to shoot them.

I'm not ready to build a fence, buy a Great Pyrenees, or buy a gun, so for now I have just reinforced the coop. I'm thinking about that bb gun, though. Maybe the neighbors would like to join me for target practice.