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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review of "The Backyard Homestead"

The Backyard Homestead edited by Carleen Madigan is a 366 page guide to growing and raising food in small spaces.

Storey publishing produces books geared toward a country lifestyle. Madigan used her experiances with Storey in order to create a beautiful manual toward those who wish to grow some of their own food.

The Backyard Homestead is based around a 1/4 acre backyard. While this is extremely large for some yards, for those in the country or on a homestead 1/4 acre is quite small. However, many of the ideas elaborated in The Backyard Homestead can easily be scaled up if necessary.

The book is divided into chapters that make sense for someone looking at raising food.

The first chapter of the book is on the Vegetable Garden. This section gives ideas on the yields of different plants, as well as information on how deep to plant, and the spacing that individual garden plants need. Madigan gives sample garden plans and example crop rotations. information on container gardening, and the manufacture of hot beds, cold frames and trellises is also provided.

After the general information about the garden, she focuses individual vegetables giving information on the varieities and how to use individual vegetable types.

The next chapter focuses on fruits and nuts. Madigan looks at fruit ranging from small fruit to full size fruit trees. She gives recommended varieties for various climate zones. She also provides pruning advice and storage times for various fruits.

In this section Madigan also gives instructions for wines, ciders, and vinegars. This gives ideas for broadening the types of food and flavors that someone can get from their small homestead.

Nuts is the second half of this section. While the section is not anywhere as large or indepth as the fruit section, Madigan does give a few ideas for different kinds of nuts that can be grown in a small space.

The next chapter of the book focuses on herbs. Herbs are extremely important to someone growing their own food as plants which take up a very small space can make a huge impact when added to the food. Madigan gives ideas on preserving herbs, and provides a list of "32 essential herbs". These herbs are both culinary and medicinal, and there are ideas for their uses both inside and outside the kitchen.

Chapter 4 is on homegrown grains. Grains are one of the last things that someone would probably think of growin in their backyard. However, Madigan provides the amount to plant and the expected harvest for 1000 sq. ft and for the acre. She provides ideas on varities to plant, as well as ideas on using your homegrown grains. Bread and Beer making are also covered in this section.

After the grains, Madigan begins to investigate the animals that can be raised on a micro-homestead. The first chapter on animals is on poultry. Madigan looks at both meat and egg breeds of chickens, as well as turkeys, ducks and geese. Madigan gives information on butchering and preparing poultry.

Chapter 6 is on Meat and Dairy. In this chapter Madigan looks at Goats, Sheep, Cattle and Sheep. She gives information on finding good milkers, and on varieties of animal and their main uses. Madigan also covers the raising of rabbits for meat. Between Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, almost any animal that can be raised on a full sized farm can be raised on a backyard homestead and Madigan shows you how.

In this Chapter Madigan gives information on butchering, sausagemaking, and smoking the meat. She also gives information on making cheese, butter, yogurt and icecream from the dairy products provided.

The last chapter of the book focuses on food from the wild. This section begins with beekeeping, and goes through edible wild plants, and even how to make your own maple syrup.

Madigan gives a list of resources broken down by chapter, making it easy to find tools and more information. In this section she also gives information on climate zones and even on laws regarding raising chickens within the limits of various U.S. cities.

Overall the book is great for anyone looking at growing some of their own food. The book is however, a very general overview in any particular section, and while this book is great as a general guide, it does not provide information that is in depth enough for someone who is really dedicated to any one aspect of the book.

Two of the main benefits of the book are its beautiful illustrations which show everything from garden designs through poultry breeds. The other great part of the book is the small side panels which give more information, or give tips that may be useful for the reader.

This is definately a book for anyone looking to grow some of their own food.

Live a hands on life,

The book can be found at

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book Review of Landscaping with Fruit by Lee Reich

Who wouldn't want to have a beautiful landscape that was as productive as it was pretty. This is what Landscaping with Fruit is all about.

At 192 pages, Reich provides a substantial amount of information at the fingertips of the reader about choosing varieties to plant, both for aesthetic reasons, and for the fruit that they provide.

The first part of the book provides garden plans, with ideas on how an edible landscape can be laid out. These garden plans provide practical advice on how small shrubs and bushes can be used as hedges, while larger trees can be used as speciman trees in a landscape.

Reich also provides list of trees and bushes with their planting zones, parts used, yield, and best features for an edible landscape. This is great for those who are designing an edible landscape as it provides easy to access information in a list form, and quickly rules out species not adaptable to the particular area being landscaped.

The second part of the book focuses on individual plant types. This is the in depth version of the lists provided previously. Reich looks at each plant type individually and makes notes on how and where best to grow it, how to prune it, what the yields and uses may be, and generally makes a small chapter devoted to each plant.

On the whole, the book is well illustrated, with some splendid photographs. Reich investigaes both common and rare fruit varieities and does so in a way that anyone can understand and take advantage of the edible landscaping ideas.

The book can be found at

Live a hands on life

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Acorn Flour

Have you ever seen the mess that the squirrels leave and wondered if people could eat acorns too?

Well acorns have been used as food for thousands of years. However, like a lot of foods, they require a bit of processing before you can really enjoy them. Acorns are most often used to produce a type of flour, which can then be used to make breads, cakes, and pastries.

The first thing that you should be aware of if you are going out to harvest acorns is to harvest acorns from white oaks, and not from red oaks. White oaks have rounded leaves, while red oaks have points on their leaves. The reason you want acorns from white oaks is because they have much much less tannin in them and will be easier to process.

What is tannin? Tannin is a substance that makes your mouth pucker and is extremely bitter. If you eat large amounts of it, it can cause an upset stomach. Think of when you let your tea sit too long and it becomes puckering, that is tannin.

So we have already claimed that white oak has less tannin, but most white oak acorns still have enough tannin to make them unpleasent to eat. So what can you do. Well, you can leach the tannin out.

First you want to get a large supply of white oak acorns. Most people do not use acorns, and some find them annoying and messy, so all you usually have to do is ask if you can pick up some acorns. You want fresh acorns, although not green ones. You also want to be on the look out for holes. There is a grub that loves to eat acorns, and acorns with holes in them are likely to be completely eaten inside.

Then you want to take your supply of acorns and place them in an low temperature oven for a few minutes to an hour. You don't want to actually cook the acorns, what you are doing is allowing them to dry out a little bit to make them easier to handle. If you want you can leave them in a dry place for a week or so and you should get the same effect.

Next you want to get at the meat of the acorn. Alot of sites recommend cutting the acorns open. This is an effective way of getting at the meat because the shells are not very thick. However, being round, the acorns tend to roll one way or the other and you can cut yourself. So I recommend a hammer and lightly tapping the acorns. It won't take a lot of force to break the acorn, and if you cannot get the meat out, you can cut with a flat surface to help.

The acorns of white oak should be white, with a brown skin that easily comes off or even may stay in the shell. There is a good chance that you will find some acorns with grubs, you can easily throw these away. The grubs trails are dark and are easily visible against the white acorn.

Now that you have your white acorns ready, it is time to leach out the tannin. You can chop the acorns into small pieces or use a food processor to pulverize them into a rough flour. The reason is that the more surface area there is, the more quickly the tannin will be removed.

There are two main ways to remove the tannin, one is be boiling, the other is by drip leaching.

If you choose boiling, you set two pots of water on the stove and bring both to a boil, add the acorns to pot one and when the water turns brown, remove the acorns and switch them to the second pot. Empty the water from the first pot, refill and bring to a boil again. Keep repeating this process until you have clear water at which point all the tannins have been removed. Do not rinse with cold water or put the acorns in cold water and then bring to a boil, the cold will bind the tannins to the acorns making it very difficult or impossible to remove them.

Drip leaching is a bit less involved. Take a container and make a few holes in the bottom. Place the acorn pieces in the container. Cover with water, and slowly turn on a faucet to just keep the acorn pieces covered. Continue until the water running out runs clear, usually a couple hours, but it could be overnight.

At the end of either of these processes, place the pieces on in a pan, and return to the oven on low for an hour or so. This will dry out the pieces enough to make a good fine flour out of them. I find that acorn flour tastes like a mix of pumpkin and sunflower seeds with a little bit of sweetness. The flour can be used in place of part of the flour used in baking breads, muffins, cakes, etc.

A recipe from an article by Barbara Sykes in "The Forager" follows

Acorn Bread

Mix 1 cup of ground acorn meal with 3 teaspoons baking powder, a tsp of salt, 3 tablespoons of sugar or honey, and a cup of flour. Sepearetly to a beaten egg and a cup of milk add 3 tablespoons of oil. Stir this gently into the dry mix then pour into a well greased pan. Bake at 400 F for 30 minutes.

For more on acorns and their use as food check out



Live a hands on life,

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Beer School #3 Adjuncts

Adjuncts are any grain that is not malted but is used in brewing.

Each of the adjunct grains will be dealt with individually with what beer styles they are used in and what they contribute to the beer itself.


Wheat is used in a variety of beer styles, sometimes as a "head grain". Head grains are grains that improve the head retention in beers, and because wheat is full of protein it is perfect for creating a rich and flothy head on all sorts of beers. The beer often has a haze to it from the high level of proteins and many wheat beers are unfiltered, meaning the yeast is still present.

Wheat does add its own flavor to beer, and will add a characteristic that I think of as bready or doughy. This character is most notable in American style hefeweizens like Boulevard's unfiltered wheat. Besides american style hefeweizen, the German style hefeweizen (Konig Ludwig) is heavily reliant on wheat. These beers use a yeast strain which creates the wonderful flavors of clove, banana or bubble gum is a drinkable summer beer. Wit beer (Celis Wit) is another beer that needs wheat to exist, it is often brewed with spices like coriander and orange peel.


Oats are used as a head grain in some beers, but really come into their own in oatmeal stout. Oats add an increased mouthfeel, making any beer with oats in it seem smooth and silky in the mouth. It seems historically that oats were a large portion of the mash bill in medieval beers. I have been warned that too much oats in a beer lends an unpleasent grainy bitterness. Perhaps this was used to counter the sweetness of malt before hops came into wide use.


Rye is a grain that adds a phenolically or spicy character to brews. It is needed for the German beer style "Rogenbier" which melds the spicyness of rye with the clove and banana flavors of hefeweizen.

Corn and Rice-

I lumped Corn and Rice together because they are mainly used for the same reason, as adjuncts that lighten the body and the flavor of a beer. These are used mainly in American style pilsners (Budweiser, Coors, Miller) to make a light bodied and light flavored drink.

There are many other grains used as adjuncts in brewing, but mostly in small regional styles, and none as widely as these adjuncts.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Making Crab Apple Jelly

Crab Apples are a part of nearly any city. These trees are planted for their unique foliage and beautiful blossoms. It is a shame that so many people think of the crab apples themselves as little more than a nuisance.

The upside to so many people not using the fruit themselves is that they will often let you scour their trees as well as any you might be so lucky to have. This was my first attempt at Crab Apple Jelly and I would like to thank Suite 101 ( ) for the recipe that I used as my starting point. I changed the recipe slightly however.
The recipe I used was

9 cups crabapples
Zest of 1 small lemon
3 cups sugar

Clean the crabapples removing any unusable apples, along with stems and leaves. Cut the crab apples in half if they are small, or quarters if they are very large. This will allow the most flavor to be extracted from the crab apples. Place into a pot, and add water until you can see it, but not to the point that the apples float. Add the lemon zest. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain through a cheesecloth and strainer saving the liquid. You will have about 4 cups of liquid remaining. If you press the apples in the strainer, you will have a cloudy jelly.

Return the liquid to the heat and bring to a boil for about 3 minutes. Add the sugar. Heat until the liquid is 220 degrees F. Pour into sterilized jars and seal the jars in a water bath.
Out of 9 cups of roughly cut crabapples, I made approximately 1 and 1/2 pints of jelly once some of the liquid had evaporated.

Here are the crabapples and lemon zest. I used mostly an orange yellow crabapple with a few very small dark purple crabapples. I do not know the varieties, but the yellow seemed to be a bit sweeter.

Here is the liquid after extracting the juice. A bit cloudy and a pale pink, I reheated it to boiling and then added the sugar.
The finished Jelly in jars. Notice how much darker the color became. This is my first expirament with jelly making and I am extremely please with the results. The color is gorgeous and the flavor is like a sweet apple, with enough tartness to make it interesting.
I hope that you all enjoyed my little jelly making adventure.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Beer School Part 2 The King of Beer Grains

In my last Beer School entry I said that this time I would focus on different grains used in beers and brewing.

This is a little like saying that a blog would focus on how grapes affect wine. Grains are integral to brewing, and beer itself would not exist without them.

Beer has been known as "liquid bread" and that is essentially what it is. Both bread and beer go through many of the same processes to arrive at very similar ends. Just as a brilliant baker has both art and science to use in pursuit of great bread, so a brilliant brewer uses both in pursuit of amazing beer.


The first grain that we will look at is Barley, the undisputed king of brewing grains. Barley is a short season grain that grows well even in northern climates. This is part of the reason that beer is predominately in cooler climates than wine which needs warmer climates for the grapes. Barley in its raw form is still attached to its husk and is difficult to seperate from it. This makes it less pleasent to eat, and is the reason that barley for eating is often "pearled" or has the husk removed. However, the husk of barley is indespensible for making a good beer.

Barley is first malted in order to be made into beer. Essentially, malting is sprouting the grain, and then drying or roasting to stop the sprout. This allows all of the enzymes to form which convert starch into sugar, but does not allow the plant to use up the sugars. Depending on the roasting process after malting, you can arrive at vastly different colors and flavors of barley malt.

The first of these is base malts. Base malts are so named because they are the foundation for nearly any beer. These malts are dried at very low temperatures so as not to change their color. They provide most of the sugars (that are then turned to alcohol) in any given beer, and provide malty sweetness. Base malts will often create a pale yellow beer.

Next come kilned malts. Kilned malts are roasted at a slightly higher temperature for longer. While still contributing a yellow color (in most cases) kilned malts often have more forward flavors and aromas than base malts. They may contribute toasty, nutty, or graham cracker aromas and flavors to a beer.

Next are caramel malts. In caramel malts, the sugar conversion happens at the maltster prior to the roasting. The roasting then causes caramelization of the sugars. These malts will add a red or orange color to a beer. Their flavors range from toasty, to caramelly sweet, all the way through to dark fruit or raisiny flavors.

The dark malts are the last of the colored malts. These malts are used in small amounts to give a dark color to a beer. In addition to the color, these malts will add dark chocolate, roasty, or coffee notes to a beer. Too much dark malt can contribute an unpleasent astringancy to a beer.

Last are the dextrin malts. These malts are created in such a way as to have a large amount of maltodextrin, a non-fermentable sugar. While these malts add their own sugars, flavors and aromas to a beer, their primary contribution is to body or mouthfeel. Without dextrin malts, some beers would taste too thin for their flavors.

As you can see, Barley alone can create a huge variety of beers. Barley varieties and maltsters can create variations even in the same category. For this reason, brewers often use the same suppliers for their malt, as a variation in supplies is often a variation in the finished product.

Some specific varieties of barley are even named so that brewers may find the barley variety even after it has been malted. Golden Promise is an example of this. This barley hails from Scotland and the UK and has a light malty flavor, with a good grainy sweetness. It differs enough from other varieties that it is worth finding for brews that require its particular characteristics.

In the next installment of Beer School, we will look at adjunct grains and sugars that add their own characters to the beer.

For more information on beer and brewing grains I highly recommend

How to Brew by John Palmer

Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher

Eyewitness Beer

and Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A little bit about herbs

My yard is not very big.

Something I realized when we moved in was that the neighbors oak tree makes it even smaller. But one great thing about herbs is that they are small but mighty. A small amount of herbs can change a dish from ordinary to amazing.

The first things that I planted in the yard was mint. Now mint is the perfect herb for beginners. It is nearly impossible to kill, and the only care that it really needs is to make sure that it is not spreading too far. I built a raised bed with different sections for my mint, because I have a variety of different kinds.

Chocolate mint and Peppermint, close relatives of eachother grow side by side. Chocolate mint smells almost exactly like peppermint with a musky dark chocolate note to it as well. Then comes my favorite, eu de cologne or orange mint. This mint has beautiful round leaves and a subtle, not overpowering, mint aroma. It really does smell like it could have oranges in that aroma.

Then come Spearmint, Gingermint, and Applemint. While they are not my favorites, all of these are wonderful to have if just for the variety. Ginger and Apple mint make particularly good bath salts.

One warning about mints, they do have a tendancy to spread. I have divided my bed with wood dividers and they have found ways around it, and in some cases, have even pushed through it. Keep that in mind when planting mint.

Now my different mint plants have a variety of uses. Bath salts are simple to make, rock salt and mint are layered with each other, and then left to sit for a month. A little Epsom salt can be added for good measure. In addition to that, with a few mint plants you will find an endless supply of dried and fresh mint, as well as mint for teas (what I usually use it for).

Next I have my chives. Chives provide a mild onion flavor, and grow back when clipped. Chives also provide a lovely flower in the spring time. The Pink flowers are edible and can also be used to create a beautiful pink chive vinegar.

Next year I plan to plant garlic chives next to my chive bed. Garlic chives are similar to chives in that they provide a subtle onion garlic flavor to dishes. They are flat like grass rather than round like onions and chives, and have white flowers.

I have the Mediterranean garden in a sunny dry spot. This garden has lavendar, thymes and lemon balm. Thymes are like mints in that different varieties can smell massively differently. French thyme and lemon thyme are the two that I use the most. Lavendar is not often considered an herb for cooking, but as long as you have "English" style lavendars they have their own place in the kitchen. A great lavendar aroma and a slight bitterness can be added to a variety of foods, but shortbread cookies are the traditional way to eat lavendar. Lemon balm provides a lemon scent to tea and bath salts, and grows profusely.

The backyard garden has basil, oregano, tarragon, salad burnett, and sorrell. Basil can grow profusely and the trick is to keep picking off the flowers so that more leaves are formed. Tarragon can only be grown from roots or plants, as French Tarragon is the herb that you want to use, Russian Tarragon can be grown from seed but the flavor is not good at all. Salad Burnett is a pretty little plant with scalloped leaves. It tastes nutty with a hint of cucumber. It makes a useful addition to herb butters and to salads. Sorrell is another herb that can be used to add acidity to any dish.

The potted herbs are next. I have bay, rosemary, sage, and lemon verbena in pots because they must come in for the winter hear in Kansas. Bay forms a regal tree and will keep producing bay leaves that taste better than anything you can buy in the store. Bay tolerates very dry weather and seems to keep growing stronger. Tuscan Blue rosemary creates an upright bushy plant with wonderful rosemary flavor. I find a lot of rosemary has a flavor that is too intense or too resinous. Tuscan blue is subtle and pleasent. Rosemary also resist drought, and so makes a good plant for areas with hot dry summers.

Sage is the essential poultry herb. In addition to flavouring poultry and stuffing, it can be added to sausage to give its flavor. A careful hand is needed when you add sage as there is a fine line between just enough and way too much.

The last herb is lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is a tropical herb that smells exactly like lemon dum dums. I am not kidding. The aroma is sweet and lemony, and makes a wonderful addition to tea. Lemon verbena also keeps its aroma when dried and can be used to give a sweet lemon flavor to dishes like chicken and fish. I use my lemon verbena as a water meter. It requires more water than most, so when it is starting to look dry, everything gets a dose of water. Lemon verbena comes back wonderfully from being dry to perking right up.

My small yard provides me plenty of herbs for cooking and tea without much effort on my part. Whether in a yard or in pots, fresh herbs will help inspire you to cook in a whole new way.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Beer School Part 1 What is Beer

As part of my job as an assistant brewer, I teach the new hires about beer and brewing so that they can be informed when talking to customers.

One of the first things that must be taught is "what is beer?".

Put simply, beer is any alcoholic beverage made from grain and not distilled. So if it is made from corn, wheat, rye, barley, oats, or any other grain, it is beer. If you distill it, you get whiskey, vodka, etc., but undistilled it is beer.

If an alcoholic beverage is made from fruit, and not distilled, it is a wine. If you distill wine, you get brandy, or eau de vie.

There are drinks that fall into a gray area. Sake is typically considered rice wine, but it is grain based and therefore should be a beer. What about country wines made from parsnips or rhubarb? They are often considered wines as well.

Now that we have a general rule for what beer is, we can work on the various types of beer and what makes them unique. Beer can be divided into two basic categories depending on the type of yeast used in fermentation, ale and lager.

Ale yeast lives in the foam on the top of the fermenting beer, and like relatively warm temperatures (about 70 F). It can create fruity or spicy aromas and finishes fermentation in approx. 2-3 weeks.

Lager yeast lives in a cake on the bottom of the fermenting beer, and likes cooler temperatures (about 50 F). It typically is described as having a crisp or clean character. It will finish fermentation in 2-3 months.

Ales and Lagers are now based upon the type of yeast used in fermenting, but this was not always the case. If you read historical books about beer or brewing you will find that in England, Ale was brewed without hops, while Beer contained hops. In some states, Ale is higher alcohol percentage, and Beer lower (although the types of yeast have little to do with alcohol percentage).

There are also beers that do not fit into these two categories. Lambic is one such beer. Lambic is to beer what sourdough is to bread. Lambic uses wild yeasts picked up from the air in order to ferment. Because it uses wild yeasts, it is typically considered an older beer style than those beers that use yeast saved batch to batch.

But how old is beer really? Well, beer is older than recorded history. Some of the first civilizations to possess writing were already accomplished brewers. The Babylonians and Egyptians relied on beer as their drink of choice, and even had a wide variety of styles to choose from.

So you see that beer is a varied drink with a long history, but it can be divided into different categories to make it easier to understand.

The next Beer School post will look at the grains used in beer and the effects that such grains have.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Time for the Autumn Garden

One thing about living in Kansas,
The seasons sure seem to change quickly.

This spring I tried to grow some cool weather vegetables, like spinach and lettuce, but just as the ground is warming up, it seems that summer is upon us and the greens go to seed. So I am expiramenting with an autumn garden this year.

An autumn garden is basically a garden for cool weather vegetables that grow fairly quickly and most of mine will not be harmed by a little frost. I have a patch of the yard dug up and waiting for the transplants and seeds.

One of the first things I want to plant is mache or lambs lettuce. This is a small tender green that is not killed off by frost, although it can't take too much frost either. In addition to the mache, there will be spinach and arugula. I figure that little patch will be more than good enough for a few salads as fall appears.

I then have my cooked greens garden. I have Chard and Collards already planted, and more are getting ready to be planted. I have kale growing and getting ready for transplanting as well. Between these few plants, I should have plenty of cooked greens to munch on for the fall.

I have also sown beets and turnips, as well as some scallions.

Had I planned a little bit better, the garden would have carrots, kohlrabi, brussel sprouts, cabbages, and squash to go with these, but unfortunately, most of those crops have a growing season longer than what I am expecting before frost, and I hate to see a crop die simply because of my lack of planning.

We will see how my little garden progesses through the fall. I will keep you all updated.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Creating Infused Vodka's

Hello again everyone.

This time I decided to blog on a hobby that has occupied me for a while, and it seems to simple that anyone should be able to do it. I create my own flavored spirits or vodkas. One of the reasons that I do this for myself is that it is incredibly cheaper than to buy all of the flavored brand name vodka's at the liquor store. The other reason that I do it is because there are such limitations of flavor, and just like with home brewing, when you infuse your own spirits, you only have to please a pallete of one.

To creat an infused vodka or spirit is incredibly simple. Basically, you take the flavoring ingredient; fresh fruit, herbs, spices, etc. and you allow it to steep in the spirit for a certain amount of time. The longer the ingredient steeps in the spirits, the more intense the flavor will be.

Currently my personal favorite is my French Tarragon and Lemon Verbena vodka. Simply from the name you can tell that this is not a vodka that will show up in liquor stores, and yet it is incredibly tasty.

The first step is to begin with a measured amount of vodka or neutral grain spirits. Basically, neutral grain spirits are flavorless alcohols. If you are using pure alcohol, be sure that you dilute it to a drinkable proof before using. I like to steep my flavorings in a gallon glass jar. The glass does not react with the alcohol, it is easy to clean, and the wide mouth allows easy access to filter the flavorings out of the spirits.

For the French Tarragon Vodka, I used 6 long sprigs of Tarragon from my garden, and the Lemon Verbena was 4 tips of the plant that I obtained by pinching out the plant in order to keep it bushy. Normally the pinched out tips would be thrown out, but this way I get to use them as flavoring.

The Lemon Verbena is added to keep the vodka from being simply a one dimensional flavor.

For two weeks I allowed the herbs to soak in the vodka, being sure to shake it occasionally to eliminate air bubbles and to keep the herbs submerged. Then I inserted on sprig of Tarragon and a few Lemon Verbena leaves into a clean vodka bottle. I filtered the infused spirit through cheesecloth and poured it into the clean vodka bottle.

The bottle is easily identified by the sprigs of herbs in it, and the flavor is a wonderful mix of anise, lemon, and "green". I store the bottle in the freezer, and the drink becomes increasingly complex as it warms in your mouth.

This is just one example of many different vodka's that could be created at home, all using essentially the same process. I hope that you all have fun expiramenting with your own flavorings.


Live a hands on life with

p.s.- For more information on creating flavored liquors check out

Classic Liqueuers-


Cordials from your Kitchen


Lucious Liqueuers

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The little mediterranean garden

A spot in our front yard is always dry, and the grass does not grow there well. It gets about 5 hours of sun, but that is mainly in the afternoon, when the sun is at its brightest, and most plants that are put there get baked. It drains very well, and is next to the concrete wall holds the lawn back from the sidewalk. Passers by are at just the right height to touch this spot as they move past it, so I figured that I would create a mediteranian garden there.

Now some of the herbs and plants from the mediteranian will not hold up to our cold Kansas winters, but a variety of them will, especially if the area is well drained. I planted thymes and lavenders to allow the passer bys to enjoy the wonderful aromas and textures that these plants produce.

Thyme is a plant known for its mimicry. While most people know of thyme as just the herb that is usually found dried and nearly tasteless in kitchens, in reality it is a group of plants known for their oils. Thyme oils have been used in everything from cooking, to perfume, even as an antiseptic.

The Thymes I have are spreading and cascading over the wall. Their small flowers hum with butterflies and bees in the summer, and the varieties provide a number of variations in the kitchen. First I have culinary or english thyme. This is the thyme that most people have smelled or tasted. I grows about 8 or 9 inches tall and spreads out. It is not a flat plant, but produces a wonderful savory scent. If I put straw over it in the winter to insulate it, I have found that it will provide fresh leave throughout the year. In the spring it is covered in pale purple flowers.

Next I have red creeping thyme, a variety of Mother of Thyme. Mother of Thyme is named that because it is the wild thyme that all others come from. This Thyme creeps along the ground, barely an inch or two high, and has red stems as well as red flowers. The flowers are born on spikes a little higher than the plant itself, and are some of the most pretty of Thyme flowers.

Then I have Lemon Thyme. Lemon Thyme grows fairly upright like English Thyme, but has the scent of lemon candy. When used in cooking, it infuses the lemon scent with the woody resinous flavors of thyme to create unique and interesting dishes. I find that it goes especially well with Chicken or Fish.

Next is Elfin Thyme, another low grower. This thyme is interesting because it is barely an inch tall, and spreads as a dense carpet of firmly packed leaves. The plant springs back when pushed against and has a wonderful texture. It is not as aromatic as other thymes are however. Another unique thing about Elfin Thyme is that it creates small mounds, the elf mounds, in which the elves and pixies hide and live in.

Some other Thymes that I am interested in including in my little area of thyme are orange, lime, and caraway thymes, all name for the aromas that they exude. There are a huge number of thymes out there, and a dry sunny spot is perfect for them. Be sure to read descriptions however, as some are more hardy than others, and all will appreciate a good mulch in the winter.

Behind the Thymes I have lavender plants. I prefer English lavender to Spanish lavender. Spanish Lavender has "bunny ears" or petals above the spikes of flowers. I find that the flowers smell much more resinous and less pleasent than English lavender. I have munstead, provence, and an unnamed variety growing currently. These lavenders provide purple flowers in the summer time, but also have the wonderful lavender arome throughout the whole plant.

If you have more mild winters, it would be possible to grow rosemary and sage as well.

This style of garden is ideal for dry spots, and allows a number of variations to create a wonderful garden of color, aroma, texture, and even flavor.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My little garden

The backyard at our house is not very big, and the majority of it is shaded by a large oak tree, so there is not a whole lot of space to create a vegetable garden. None the less, this year, we decided that we would grow vegetables and set about clearing a plot for them.

The plot is about 8 ft square. Not large by any means, but I found that I can grow an impressive number of vegetable varieites if I put my mind to it.

The garden plot itself is shaped like a large horseshoe. This allows me access to both sides of the plants to weed or water, but also helps to increase the growing space. In the south end of the U are mostly short plants while the taller plants are toward the north. I did this so that the large plants would not shade out the shorter plants, but now I realize that some of my shorter plants would do better with a little shade.

I have found that I can fit a huge amount of plants into the growing space if I did away with rows and planted small beds. I have leeks, shallots, and garlic in one area of the garden, allowing me to rotate the area next year if I need to. I planted these onion relatives because it doesn't take a whole lot to completely change a dish.

The next area is filled with rat's tail radishes. I always enjoyed radishes, but I found that usually, they were too woody or set seed by the time that I wanted to eat them. Rat's tail radishes solve this. So far, they have produced several crops of the edible seed pods that taste just like radishes. In addition, they have drawn the flea beetles away from the rest of my garden.

I then have the peppers. My wife loves sweet peppers, so I have 8 plants in staggered plantings. Two are of miniature green pepper varieties, while the others are sweet cherry peppers. As long as I keep them picked, the peppers keep wanting to produce more.

Next come the tomatoes. I love tomatoes and planted several different kinds that I had growing up, so I knew what they would be like. Mortgage lifter and Beefsteak are some of my favorite tomatoes for eating on sandwiches and for eating plain. I have roma tomatoes for sauce, as well as an heirloom called amish paste. I also have a few oxheart tomatoes to expirament with. So far, the only producer of Red tomatoes has been the patio but the tomatoes are a little bit watery for my taste.
Here are some Mortgage lifters still green.

I have two cucumber plants climbing up tomato cages, so far they have produced 3 Big cucumbers and have several more on the plants.

I attempted to grow a patty pan squash next to the cucumbers, but it seems to have died out.

Turning the bend in the U, I have Swiss Chard. The leaves are a fair substitute for cooked spinach, and they keep producing. I also have a salad burnett plant. For those of you unfamiliar with this plant, its young and tender leaves taste distinctly like cucumbers, and are great to add to a salad without watering the whole thing down in cucumber juice.

I then have several areas that I sowed with mesclun mix, and Spinach. Unfortunately, my plants went to seed almost immediately, so I dug them under and replanted. I planted mesclun mix, but spaced the seeds well and am keeping the bed well watered to hopefully prevent the plants going to seed. I have also planted bibb lettuce, and am treating it just like my mesclun.

The last part of the garden is devoted to herbs and flowers. I have Genovese and Lime basils, which are growing well as long as I remember to remove the flowers. I have a nasturtium plant in the corner of the garden which is wild with both leaves and flowers. It creates and attractive little plants, and is edible, though a bit spicy for my tastes. I have an oregano plant and French tarragon a little ways away, with sand dug into the soil to improve drainage. I have never used tarragon in cooking, but the flavor of the leaves is quite unique. Just be sure that you get French tarragon. Russian tarragon tastes like grass.

Last I have a lovage plant that is just starting to take off. Lovage adds celery flavors to just about any dish that you can think of. A wonderful thing to have on hand. It does get quite big though, so be careful where you place it.

As you can see, the tiny suny spot in the back yard will help us with fresh vegetables and herbs throughout the year.

It is amazing what you can do with just a little bit of ground.

Let me know what you think of my little garden, and tell me about yours.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Free Resources for Homesteaders

It has been my experiance, that at least in the United States, the highest period of self sufficiency existed between the Civil War and the great depression. This was a time when Chemical fertilizers were being introduced, and mass-production/mass-transportation were being introduced as well. While these things were being used, they did not have the influence that they have in the modern world.

Now, thanks to other technologies, the knowledge of this time period is easily available through digitized books. These books cover a wide range of topics, and while some of the information in them is dated, (we may know better methods of curing animals, or building) much of the information is as good now as it was then.

This blog I will devote to buildings, and how they were built and used. These building plans were typically designed for those without electricity, but would be a great resource for homesteaders looking to make simple but efficient structures on their homestead.

These books can be found through the Internet Archive project. ( A quick search will provide the books, and they may either be read online, or downloaded to a computer. The books are public domain, and therefore can be provided free of charge.

Farm Buildings -W.A. Foster
This book published in 1922 provides plans and advice for the construction of a wide variety of farm buildings, from dairy barns to the farm house itself. The book also provides ideas and designs for home built farm equipment.

Modern Farm Buildings - A Dudley Clarke
This book, publishid in 1899, provides advice similar to fosters book on farm buildings. Clarke however, provides more insight into how the homestead should be laid out and how to best arrange a farm.

Practical Farm Buildings, plans and suggestions - A.F. Hunter
Published in 1905, this book explores ways to make farm buildings more efficient, such as creating a single chicken house with multiple runs, allowing the chickens to rotate from one area to another. At a small 40 pages, this book can provide ideas you may not have thought of.

The Book of Farm Buildings - Henry Stephens
This book provides an in depth look at the construction of everything from farm gates, to investigating "useful apparatus for the farm" such as furnaces and cranes.

Farm Buildings - Sanders Publishing Co.
This book covers a range of farm buildings from "general farm barns, cattle barns, all the way to feeding racks". The wide range of this book allows someone looking to add on to their homestead a way to do it while seeing how these buildings worked in real life.

Radford's practical Barn Plans - William A. Radford
These plans show not only the basic layout of the barn, but also how the beams are arranged, where feeding boxes or other structures should go, and many other great things for erecting your first barn.

Modern Farm Buildings - Alfred Hopkins
Hopkins looks at how to design farm buildings along not only efficient, but aesthetic lines, looking for beauty as well as function. In true homesteading fashion, art and work are mingled.

Cottage Residences - A.J. Downing
It is difficult to discuss books on house construction from this time period without mentioning A.J. Downing once or twice. Downing wrote unsurpassed books on architecture and landscape, and if you want to design a home that is convenient, with a minimum of the modern trappings, Downing would be a good place to start.

The Architecture of Country Houses - A.J. Downing
In this book, Downing looks at country houses from around the world, and gives designs and recommendations on how to build similar houses in the United States.

Last but not least

Handy Farm Devices and How to make them - Ralph Colbeigh
This book is not necessarily on farm buildings, but should be on every homesteader's radar. Colbeigh provides wonderful contraptions and devices that make life on the homestead easier, and often they are made from cast off materials!

I hope that you all enjoy the book list I have provided, and explore the internet archive to find your own favorite books.

Never Stop Learning

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Seed sources for gardens and farms

It is getting to be that time of year, when a young man's thoughts turn to growing things.

What did you think I was talking about?

Anyway, I have found more than a few good sources of seeds and plants that I would like to share with you all. One thing to note is that typically, you should pick a seed source that is close to you over one that is far away, mainly because it seems that plants and seeds do better when in similar climates over vastly different ones.

Here are a few of my favorite seed sources. - Baker Creek Heirloom seeds- Run by a 27 yr old with immense success, Baker Creek does indeed have rare seeds. I find that they are extremely useful for foriegn seeds or plants that you may not have seen before. -This seed caralog provides access to a large amount of heirloom and organic vegetables, offering a bewildering variety of them all. - If you don't know about seed saver's, you should. This group has helped preserve more heirloom and heritage varieties than anyone else I know of, definately look into and support the seed saver's. - If you are looking for heirloom seeds or just about any other variety of seeds, this company will help you find them, with collections and educational programs too, sustainable seed company definately helps when it is time to lay out the garden. - While they do have a wide range of seeds and plants, I find Johnny's seeds most useful for their tools and for their farm plants, such as grains and cover crops, as well as their mistures for pasturage. - Nichols has been in business for over 50 years and provides a large amount of plant varieties for anyone interested. - Park seed offers many of the vegetable varieties that others do but I enjoy their flowers the most, after all, what is a garden without a little beauty in it. - One of the first and still one of the best for promoting heirloom seeds, territorial will help you find the seeds that you won't find other places. - A seed company that aims for cooks rather than for gardeners, the cook's garden provides interesting items for all you foodies out there. - Another company for the foodie in all of us, providing rare and useful herbs and vegetables for the kitchen.

For medicinal and culinary herbs, and for those rare herbs that are hard to find, I recommend these two sites, - Providing herb seeds as well as roots and extracts, Richter's gives access to many herbs that are hard to find but are useful, either in the kitchen, or for health products. - Sand mountain herbs was my first experiance with the huge varieties of herbs that can be presented. If you know that most garden stores won't carry it, Sand Mountain Herbs is likely to.

For trees and fruit, I recommend these three sites - While they have a wide variety of trees, I find that Trees of Antiquity focuses on apples and does a great job of having a huge selection of heirloom apples. - If you are looking for a rare or unusual fruit tree, from honeyberries, to elderberries, to paw paws, it is likely that Rain Tree has it. - Stark Brothers provides fruits of all types, from trees to shrubs to plants, and also has a great selection of ornamentals.

And last but not least, heirloom flowers - with plants and flowers organized by beauty or fragrance, you know that you are on to something special. - Old house gardens provides heirloom flowers by planting time, and lists the date of the variety if known, so this is a great way to bring the history of homes to life.

I hope that you all enjoy the sites that I have suggested and let me know if you know of some that I have missed. I hope that you don't get overwhelmed and enjoy the growing season that is coming up.

Get out there and grow something

and don't forget

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Welcome to the Uncommonskills blog

Welcome everyone to the uncommonskills blog.

This blog is desgined to explore the wide range of skills historic and new that are uncommon but are necessary for life as we know it. These skills range from growing food, to playing music, to weaving cloth. All of these skills were necessary for society to function, before the industrialization of the economy and these skills were sent out to specialists or machines.

The purpose of the uncommonskills blog and website ( is to help return these skills to those who desire them.

I believe that the debt economy that we live in has asked the common person to live in a higher standard of living not by becoming producers (which they easily could) but by becoming consumers who help to fill other peoples pockets, while emptying their own. A person with the knowledge to brew beer for instance, could buy beer if he or she decided it was worth it in terms of conveniance and money. However they also have the skills to evaltuate beer, and the skills to make a beer to their personal liking.

This creates an economy based upon individuals and communities. The economy as a whole would benefit because the vast swings that national economies are heir to (surges and recessions) would be partially leveled out by the small local economies. In addition, with the knowledge and ability to grow food, provide shelter, entertainment, etc., the swings in the economy would affect the common person much less.

I believe that the common person could benefit from learning these skills and I hope to help teach people not only to be able to perform these skills, but also to enjoy what they have more. A shirt or a meal is so much more enjoyable when it was designed and planned by a person for themselves or their family and friends.

Thanks for reading

Never stop learning