Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Free Wood!

When we first bought this little place here and began building it from a bare farm field and 10 acres of woods into a homestead, we considered putting in an outdoor wood boiler.  We had all that wood, so why not?

Well, because if we heated solely with wood, we would have to never go away for a weekend during the winter or our plumbing would freeze!  Either that, or we'd have to have two heating systems: the wood one and another (oil, propane, or electric) that would be a back-up for when we were out of town.  The construction budget was rather tight, so putting it two systems was not feasible at that point in time.

We went with a propane boiler instead, and used that exclusively until we got a great deal on a used wood boiler about four years ago.  So now, if we want to go away in the winter, we can let the fire in the wood boiler go out, and just flip the switch to turn the propane boiler on.  The propane boiler also heats all our domestic water in the 'non-heating season' (During the heating season, that is done by the wood boiler--'free' hot showers!).  For the last three winters, we haven't paid hardly a cent to heat our home.  And we haven't needed to cut down any of the trees in our woods, either!

How have we done that?  Well, it took a little time and some talking to people, but now we are known as people who will come with chainsaws and haul off any downed limbs or dead trees you have.

At first, DH talked to one of the neighbors who had had some oaks lumbered off a few years prior.  The tops of the oaks were still laying in this neighbor's woods, and DH asked him if he was going to use them.  The neighbor said no, and generously offered us all the tops we wanted to cut and haul away.  For the last four winters, we have spent a few weeks each January cutting tops in the neighbor's woods.  We still haven't cut up half of what is out there.  And, being oak, the wood is still solid even after about six years of laying on the ground.

Then, in October of 2007, a tornado went through the town 8 miles north of us.  We knew several families who lived there and had trees fall in the storm.  The day after the tornado, DH showed up with his chainsaw, offering to help.  He not only cut up and removed trees for those families, but also from dozens of their neighbors.  Many of those people gave him the wood for his assistance in cleaning up the downed trees, saving them the expense of hiring a tree service to do it.

A few of the people he met during that time have contacted us now and again about removing trees for them after other storms.  Some of the people DH works with have heard him talk about cutting wood, and have offered him their own unwanted trees.  Friends of ours who had too shady lawns call us up when they are contemplating removing a few trees to let more light into their yard.

DH has also answered ads on Craigslist about hauling off wood when people have had land cleared of trees for landscaping or building purposes.  Last year he got 8 trailer loads (16' utility trailer) of oak from one person that way.

This spring, there have been several rounds of strong storms go through our part of Michigan, and again, we have sprung into charitable clean-up.  Most people don't have a use for the wood, so offer it to us in exchange for our assistance in getting their yards back to normal.

At this rate, we'll never have to cut down a living tree (or useful dead snag) in our own woods.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


It came to me unexpectedly, in an 'annual flower' seed mix that, I think, was a freebie with a vegetable seed order back in 2005 or 2006.  Just starting a flowerbed behind the garage at the time, I tossed the contents of that free package onto the soil and lightly raked in the seeds.  Mostly weeds came up, but I did get some statice and some very robust looking calendula.

The statice evidently didn't set enough seed that year to ever come back in subsequent springs.  The calendula, however, did. 

 And did again.  And again.  Now I have so much calendula that it's taking over that flowerbed.
 It's pretty.  It's sunny looking.  It grows really really well. It blooms profusely from June until a hard freeze somewhere around Thanksgiving.  And, supposedly, it has a myriad of uses, from cut flowers to herbal salves to tinctures to skin toner to tea to dyeing wool or fabric.  The petals are edible, and I recently read they can be used as a substitution for saffron.
Sounds like I have a great opportunity for some more experimentation here: learn how to use calendula!

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Walk with the Camera

It is a chilly cloudy evening here.  First time in about four days that it's gone 12 hours without raining.  Even though the sun didn't show up today, I did a lot of work outside.  After picking about 8 quarts of strawberries and washing four loads of laundry (all of which went to the 'solar/wind powered clothes dryer' aka the clothes line), I decided to grab the camera and do an impromptu photo shoot of the current sights at this little place here.

The solar/wind powered clothes dryer in action.

A very zoomed in (and thus blurry) picture of cranes flying over head.  Yes, the sky really was that white.

DH and DS2's summer project: a pile of storm damage (aka free fire wood) to split and stack.

Kittens hiding in a hollow piece of wood at the top of the stack.

Pansies needing to be rescued from the weeds that loved all the rain this week.

The volunteer mulberry tree (3 yrs old, about 6' tall) near the garden has mulberries this year!

The onions are looking good.

The cascade hops are about 10' tall now.

Vetch in bloom.

Looks like it will be a good year for peaches.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Frugal Food #4: Loving Leftovers

Hand-in-hand with cooking and eating at home comes learning to use and love leftovers.  Allow me a few examples from my own kitchen:

Original Meal: 3.5 pound chicken, roasted in oven.  Mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, corn.
Leftovers: chicken carcass, approx 3 cups of meat picked off bones, 1/2 cup mashed potatoes with a few tablespoons of gravy, 1/4 to 1/3 cup of corn.
How to use: 2 cups meat becomes all the meat needed for a chicken pot pie.  Or chicken and dumplings.  Or chicken tetrazzini.  Or chicken fettuccine Alfredo.  1 cup meat and the chicken carcass are the base for chicken noodle soup. The gravy can be tossed into the soup for added flavor. The mashed potatoes can be formed into two patties and fried up to eat with a breakfast of eggs and toast.  Or mixed with the gravy (if not used for soup) and corn and heated up for a quick snack.  Or put into a lunch box as part of a school or work lunch.  The corn (if not eaten with the potatoes) can be put into cornbread batter for added appeal.

Original Meal: Easter ham (or any 4-5 pound ham for dinner).
Leftovers: ham bone, about 4 cups of meat, 1/2-1 cup pan drippings not made into gravy.
How to use: 2-3 cups meat for scalloped potatoes and ham.  Or slice thinly for sandwiches for lunches.  Or dice and add to omelets for breakfast, or for pizza toppings.  Note that you can freeze the cooked meat and use at a future date.  Use ham bone in split pea or bean soups.  Use the pan drippings and some meat as a base for a ham soup with assorted veggies.

Original Meal: Beef pot roast, gravy, mashed potatoes, steamed carrots.
Leftovers: 2 cups meat, 1/2 cup carrots
How to use: meat can be used for sandwiches as is, or shred and add barbecue sauce for sandwiches (or over rice or boiled potatoes).  Or, use the meat in a beef barley soup.  Carrots can be part of a lunch, or added to a noodle dish for added color and flavor.

Original Meal: tacos with seasoned meat, refried beans, shredded cheese, lettuce, diced tomatoes, sour cream, salsa, etc.
Leftovers: 1 cup meat, 1/2 cup refried beans, 1/2 cup shredded cheese, some lettuce, salsa, sour cream.
How to use: if you have tortilla chips, you can make nachos with all of the above leftovers.  If no chips, the meat, beans, and cheese can be stirred together heated, and eaten like that for lunch.  The lettuce can become a small salad with the tomatoes and the addition of other veggies like carrots, celery, cucumbers, whatever you like.

Original Meal: Open house fare!  1 pig--approximately 200 pounds on the hoof--roasted, 20 pounds of potato salad, 16 pounds dried beans made into baked beans, salad, veggie tray, cake.
Leftovers: 1 large bowl potato salad, 1 large bowl salad, 1 large bowl baked beans, about 7 gallon bags worth of pork.
How to use: repeat of original meal!  Of course, you can only have that until the potato salad, salad, and beans are gone.  Then you still have all that pork!  I freeze it in gallon bags, then take out 1 bag at a time, usually 2-3 meals in each bag.  Here's some things we do with a bag of pork:  add BBQ sauce and make BBQ pork sandwiches.  Don't add BBQ sauce, and have regular pork sandwiches, LOL.  Dice and add to rice and veggies for a stir fry/fried rice type of dish.  Add BBQ sauce and serve over rice or boiled potatoes.  Use it in any recipe that calls for 'cooked, diced pork'.  Throw it in a soup made with tomato juice and whatever combination of veggies you have on hand. But, mostly we smother it in BBQ sauce and use it that way.

Any large quantity, say 1 cup or more, of pan drippings (aka 'meat juice' at this little place here), can be a soup starter.  I've made some awesome soups with 1.5 cups of 'juice' from a pork shoulder roast (which became shredded BBQ pork sandwiches), a few cups of added water and 1/4 to 2/3 cup each of assorted veggies on hand: corn, beans, peas, carrots, onion, potatoes, celery, etc.

Leftovers are great snacks, and lunch fare.  Most smaller quantities of leftovers at this little place here get used up in lunchboxes. DH has brown bagged it (actually, a small 6-pack sized cooler) to work for 18 years now, since getting out of college. My kids don't eat hot lunch at school, they eat whatever they pulled from the fridge or pantry at home (also toted in small coolers).

Larger quantities of things such as goulash, spaghetti, lasagna, soup and stew, pizza, casseroles, pot pies, etc are often put out on Sundays for an after church lunch buffet.  I line the dishes up on the counter, each member of my family puts dibs on something, we all get our preferred lunch, and the leftovers get eaten.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mmm, Strawberries!

The strawberries are on at this little place here.

We first picked about a week and a half ago, just a quart the first day.  Then on Sunday afternoon, it was five quarts, and I made 4 of them into 18 half-pints of jam.  The other quart went for strawberry shortcake.

This afternoon DD2 and I picked about 7 1/2 quarts.

Four of those quarts are now 19 half-pints of jam cooling on the island in the kitchen.  I'll take 12 to the farmers' market next week, and keep the rest for us.  We don't ever buy strawberry jam from the store.  Not in at least ten years. Mine is better ;0) .   I try to make at least 24 jars for us, and if the kids eat it all by January, well, they just have to wait until June to have more.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Something New

Yesterday I finished a new quilt block pattern for a swap I'm involved in.  The block is called Kaleidoscope, uses fabric scraps, and is paper pieced.  This is the first paper pieced block I've done, as well as the first scrappy block (although in these swaps I do try to incorporate pieces from my scrap box that are too small to do even a baby quilt with).

I think I'm hooked!  It was really fun to make, even with ironing after each and every new fabric strip was sewed on.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Homemade Pig Roaster

I mentioned our pig roaster in my last post.  At DS2's open house, a few people were interested in how it was made, so I thought perhaps readers might want to know too.

It began life as a fuel oil tank.  I'm not sure how many gallons, it's the 'normal' size from my experience of having oil heat at a few student rentals back in DH's college days.  When it was ready for a career change, DH picked it up for free from a place he happened to drive by one day.  I believe from time to time you can also find them listed on Craigslist or Freecycle. . .

DH brought it home, and cut it in approximately half, as this picture shows:
If you were wondering which 'half' I meant for cutting, the feet of the tank (where it used to stand on the ground when it held fuel oil) are now on the front of the roaster.  I don't remember for sure if he used the sawzall with a metal blade or his angle grinder to cut it apart, but it was one of those two.

He welded on a handle (seen in picture above), and on the rear half, hinges as shown here:

He cut air vents in near the bottom of the left and right sides (I think he used an angle grinder for that) as shown below:

So, now he had a bottom half, a top half (aka hinged lid with a handle) and air vents to supply oxygen to the fire.  Then he welded some scrap angle iron to the front and back of the inside of the bottom half.  That made supports for some old t-posts we had laying around from when we removed an old fence between our field and our woods.  The t-posts are not welded in, they just sit on the support loose so they can be adjusted from side to side to hold the grate where the pig lies during the roasting process.

Speaking of the grate, here it is:

DH had it made to his specifications at the local farm repair shop (have I mentioned before how I love the local farm repair shop?  They can weld anything you dream up!)  In the picture above, it is standing up, ready to be cleaned with a stiff wire brush and a hose.  Behind it is the sawhorse/old store shelf "table" used to support the cutting board we set the pig on when it was done roasting and we were separating the meat from the bones before serving.

As you can see, this is not a rotisserie roaster.  The pig must be split down the backbone and laid out flat (skin side down) for roasting.  The fuel (charcoal and/or wood) goes in the bottom half of the roaster, and there is room between the sides of the grate and the left and right sides of the roaster for adding more fuel during the roasting process (about 12 hrs for the 200# pigs we've done in it so far).

This year, DH added an improvement: he drilled a small hole through the top half near the handle and installed a thermometer so he can monitor the temperature inside the roaster and know when it's starting to cool off, indicating more fuel needs to be added.  You can see the thermometer a little better in this picture:

  He also put it up on some cement blocks just so he didn't have to bend down so far to lift the pig out when done roasting.  His back isn't what it used to be ;0)

So, with a little time, a free fuel oil tank, some scrap metal, and about $50 in parts and custom welding from the farm repair shop, we have a pig roaster than has so far lasted four years and will foreseeably last for many more.  At DS2's open house last weekend, we had someone ask if we would be willing to roast a pig for their daughter's wedding in 2013. 


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

And Miles to Go Before I Sleep (or Post!)

There is so much going on at this little place here lately that I barely have time to check my email, let alone sit down and write posts for the blog.  I'll be back, I promise!  Hang in there; after this week is over--and DS2's graduation open house is done--I should be more regular in posting again.

For now, here's a few tips on cutting costs when putting on a graduation party.

1.  If you have the space, have the party at home instead of renting a hall.  Our garage is large enough to seat about 60 in inclement weather, and we have a large yard for outdoor seating. 

2. Check with your church/religious institution about borrowing tables and chairs instead of renting them.  Ours loans certain tables and chairs at no charge to members.  We are saving about $200 by borrowing them from church rather than getting them from the local rental place.

3. If you have the time/space/talents, do the food yourself, from scratch.  I haven't tallied up my grocery bill for this party yet, but I'm banking on it being about 1/2 the price of buying prepared heat (or chill) and serve foods.  Mother-in-law has raised the pig for us--it is over 200 pounds (translating into about 120 pounds of meat) and started as a $20 30-pound weaner pig from an Amish man.  DH built the pig roaster four years ago out of an old fuel oil tank he acquired for free.  I think we invested about $50 in parts into retrofitting it with a grate/rack for holding the pig, hinges, and a handle for the lid.  (The roaster will be used for all future open houses we put on--2 more graduations after this--and has been used for family reunions.)   We will be using a small amount of charcoal (about $15 worth?) and lots of free wood to provide the heat.  The rest of the food I am making from scratch, which will take a few hours of active work on my part, and several more of cooking while I'm doing other things (like weeding the flowerbeds!).

4.  Beverages don't have to be fancy.  Like we did at DS1's graduation party four years ago, we are serving soda (Faygo, cheap but tasty and a large variety of flavors) in cans, ice water in 5-gallon cooler jug (ice made in advance, bagged, and stored in the deep freezer and water right from the tap), and homebrew.  Total beverage cost for 168 cans of soda, and 10 gallons of beer:  about $80 (and will return the soda cans for 10 cents each, reducing the cost to about $63).  The water and ice are basically free; costing only pennies for the electricity that drew the water from the well and froze it into ice cubes.

5.  Decorations don't have to be fancy.  If you drag out pictures of the graduate growing up, and pics from any sports or extracurriculars they have done over their life time, plus any awards/trophies/certificates they've received in their childhood, you will probably have quite a display.  I'm going with cheap rectangular table covers in the school colors to tack up on the garage wall behind the table where DS2's diploma, framed graduation picture and basket to receive cards will sit.  On those table covers on the wall I will mount pictures and other 2-dimensional memorabilia.  The tables themselves will have white table cover (bought in a 100 ft roll for about 13 cents a foot; leftovers will be saved for the next child's open house) and a twisted streamer run down the center, the length of the table.

6.  If you bake, you can make the cake yourself instead of buying it.  When DS1 graduated, I invested in a sheet cake pan and decorating tips for doing frosting.  I think it was about a $20 investment, and I made a cake that would have cost more than double that from a bakery (cake for 100 people).  So, for the younger three kids' graduations, my only cake cost is in ingredients.  And I've had a lot of fun playing with cake decorating and can go into doing custom cakes for other people (and cash!) if I so wish.

7. Plan ahead as many details as possible.  For instance, I know that I need lots of ice.  Ice for the water jug, the coolers the pop will be in, and to keep the cold food cold while it sits on the buffet for a couple hours during the party.  I could buy ice at roughly $3 a bag (and need about 10 bags), or, with planning, I could use the ice my fridge/freezer makes daily in it's icemaker.  By investing in a box of large plastic storage bags, I can dump the ice from the icemaker into bags, and store in my deep freeze.  The icemaker will keep making more ice unless the bin is full, so by regularly emptying the bin, I get a constantly remade supply of ice.  By starting this enough days in advance, I will have all the ice I need for the party without buying any.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Silence. . .

Eerie, dead calm silence.  No birds trilling, no tree leaves rustling in the breeze, no frogs singing in the numerous puddles.  Just unnatural silence.  Then, within a half hour, roaring wind, pounding rain, tearing wood, crashing trees.  Then, more silence.  But the second silence was a technological silence: no electricity, no Internet.  The people were not silent, the people were busy surveying damage, checking on neighbors, calling insurance agents, firing up generators and chainsaws.

A huge storm moved through this little place here around 5 p.m. on Sunday evening.  It had been a nice day, if a bit hot and humid. Okay, a lot hot and humid.  Temperature near ninety, and humidity somewhere up there to match.  The kind of weather that predictably breeds storms during Michigan summers.  The storm itself was expected; the magnitude was not.

While this little place here did not sustain any damage to buildings, trees, or other possessions (even a tarp left on the ground behind the garage was unmoved by the gale force winds), we were without power for 48 hours.  Changes in living needed to be made.  Opening the fridge and freezer were forbidden in order to keep the contents as cold as possible as long as possible.  Eating was done from the shelves of the pantry and cellar (55 degree apple juice is mighty quenching when you are conserving water).  If it's yellow, let it mellow, also applied to if it was brown, with flushing being done about once every 12 hours or so.  No electricity means no well pump, so all the water you have is what is in the well tank.  Use it sparingly.

Several of our neighbors had many trees broken or blown down.  Some had damage to their outbuildings.  A few miles to the Southeast, part of a dairy barn collapsed, killing some cows.  The roof of an indoor riding arena at another neighbor's house was partially torn off, and one wall now leans in at an angle.  We were lucky at this little place here to only have the inconvenience of no electricity.

During daylight hours, we worked outside, cutting up fallen trees and hauling brush home from neighbors who did not have chainsaws or whose health prevented them from being able to do the clean-up themselves.  DH ran the saw, the kids and I toted branches, and the cut-up tree trunks and limbs to the trailer, loaded it, tied it down, took it home, unloaded into a 'firewood' pile and a 'bonfire' pile, and drove it back down the road to load again.  Six loads the first day, more on consecutive days as the weather and our 'free time' after work allowed.

In the evenings, we used oil lamps to cast a dim light on the dining room table and played games of Scrabble.  I won them all :0)

We went to bed earlier than usual, lamplight being hard on the eyes after a few rounds of word making.  A hard time, a busy time, but also a good time.  Good neighbors, good friends, good family ties.