Homebrew Hard Cider

Homebrew Hard Cider

IMG_2569So…I started writing this post in November.  Taking advantage of the snowy Portland weather to finish it up….

(I sit drinking my first glass of hard cider that I brewed myself while eating Roasted Gorgonzola crackers from Trader Joe’s….it’s the right thing to be doing).  This fall I slid into a cider obsession.  It all started when I was sitting at my computer, uploading datasets for about the seventh straight hour, staring at the wall…..and I had an inspiration.  I need to start brewing hard cider.  My aunt and uncle own a cherry orchard called High Rolls Ranch, and have about 80 apple trees “for personal use” (totally unfathomable to those of us living in the city).  They said we could come pick as much as we wanted.  My cousin and his wife have a cider press.  All the pieces were there….I just had to learn how to make cider.

I bought this book, which was pretty helpful, but a little dry and doesn’t have enough pictures.  Then I found this book that I am now obsessed with.  Explains things simply, has beautiful pictures, and tells you how to brew homemade soda, kombucha, beer, wine, sake, cider….everything.  Also helpful is this online article on how to brew hard cider from Mother Earth News.  These are all great resources to check out.  For what it’s worth, here is my version of the steps to make hard cider:

1.  Pick some apples.  A mixture of sweet and tart is best.





2.  Grind them up, and press out the juice.  You can do this with a traditional apple cider press, or some other way.  It takes about 15-20 pounds of apples to make one gallon of juice.




2.  You have  a few options with the fermentation process.  You can let the unpasteurized juice do its thing and ferment with whatever wild yeast is in there. But you run the risk of having it end up apple cider vinegar rather than hard cider if there were more vinegar bacteria than yeast in the batch.  To avoid that risk, heat up the juice to between 165 F and 180 F for 10 minutes.  Then let it cool down to under 100 degrees (so it is not too hot for the good yeast you are adding to survive) and pitch the yeast into the bucket.  You can use champagne or white wine yeast; or even beer yeast.



3.  Yeast eat sugar and poop alcohol.  So they can only make as much alcohol as there is sugar.  Most apples have enough natural sugar to make a weak (around 5 or 6% alcohol) hard cider.  It is best to dump in some sugar.  Any kind will do; I used brown sugar.  Adding maybe two pounds to a five gallon bucket of apple cider will only increase the potential alchohol maybe 1% I’d guess.  Yeast also need some nutrients; you can buy yeast nutrient to add to the brew to supplement whatever is in there naturally.

4.  Put on the lid and a water lock, and wait a couple of days for it to start bubbling.  Primary fermentation will last about 2 weeks to one month.  You will know the yeast have eaten all of the sugar and turned it into alcohol when the water lock stops bubbling.



5.  You can bottle it at this point (it may not have bubbles; you will have to do some additional steps that I won’t outline here to get bubbles), or drain the cider off of the lees into a new container, and let it sit and mellow out its flavor for awhile.

6.  Bottle or put into a keg.



There are countless variations you can try that will change the flavor of the finished cider.  We tried four or five different styles.  My favorite was a light, citrusy one with floral notes.  One turned out more dark and nutty that a lot of people liked as well.  (And no, I will not share my secret ingredients….).

Some lessons learned:

Just because you have access to free apples does not make it cheap to make hard cider.  There were many costs we did not consider at the beginning that would have been good to consider.  Since the apple orchard was almost 2 hours away, we wanted to get as many as we could at one time.  A friend brought a van and we picked about 600 lbs. each.  But there is the gas to consider as a cost of driving a van full of apples for two hours.  Then once we had that many apples, and the friend with the van was at his own home with his own apples, we didn’t know how to transport them in our Subaru to the friend with the cider press.  We decided it would be easier to rent a cider press; another $40.  Then we didn’t have enough fermenting buckets for 20 gallons of cider, so we had to buy more equipment.  More cash gone.  Then once it was done, what do you put 20 gallons of cider into??  We didn’t want to buy a keg, we were just done with spending big chunks of money at that point.  Plus, we had 4 different kinds brewing, so we didn’t want to mix them all into one keg, we’d need like 4 kegs.  But the cost and time to bottle that much cider!  We drank five gallons (with help from friends) over the course of a few months, without bottling it.  We bottled another 8 to 10 gallons and gave it away for Christmas presents and drank it.  (Many hours into that…sanitizing bottles…filling….capping…cleaning up….).  Then…..sad moment…we ended up dumping out another 5 gallons because it had sat so long in the buckets, and had this film on top that were weren’t sure was OK or not.  After all the time and money to just dump it out!!  But nobody wanted to be the guinea pig to check if it was still OK….

Next time….smaller batches.  It would be really cool to have our own press.  Pressing the apples was a really fun, community time.  Lots of friends came by.  Good excuse to get together.  Plus, if we had our own press, even if we picked 600 lbs of apples, we could spread out the pressing over a few weekends.  Do one batch at a time.  That’s more like 5 gallons to heat, ferment, bottle at a time.

Or…just go commercial.  :)  I am here publicly admitting that I have a small fantasy now of starting my own label and doing this for a living.  I made some damn fine cider for my first time.  All the legal stuff of getting approved to sell your cider, even just at a small scale, seems a bit overwhelming.  But this is Portland:  there must be some co-ops or something where you can do that, right?  This is my mission to figure out….



Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Brewing, Community, Fermenting


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Some Good Ideas and Some Things You Should Avoid at All Costs: Lessons from My Summer Garden

Some Good Ideas and Some Things You Should Avoid at All Costs:  Lessons from My Summer Garden


This blog post might be more aptly named “Everything-I-took-photos-of-since-May-but-never-blogged-about-because-the-summer-was-too-crazy-and-I-wanted-to-look-at-the-sky-rather-than-a-computer-screen”.

So here we are.  End of August.  Rain outside for the first time in months.  Oak leaves all over the lawn.  And I am coming to terms with the summer ending.  I am pulling things out of my summer garden and getting fall/winter crops going (a little tardy on that, but will see how it goes; am hoping for an Indian Summer).  This has me reflecting on this growing year, and what went well, and what went poorly.  Every year I start the spring with high hopes and new ideas.  I spend January pouring over seed catalogs; then in March I watch the first triumphant seeds push out of the ground.  It is all hope and ideas and joy.  Then by this time of year, everything is a little dry and tired looking.  This year I feel a little dry and tired too.  It feels good to pull out the dead stuff and put the gardens to rest for the winter.  The rain is welcome.  Let’s all hibernate so we have energy to feel hopeful again next spring.

Like most people, every year I try new things in my garden.  Some things work, and some things do not.  There are usually unexpected problems as well.  In a short and sweet fashion, I’d like to try to share as much of this as possible, mostly with pictures.

Things that Went Well and Good Ideas

Rather than having half of the 3/4 acre lot fenced off as pasture, including the only area that gets full sun, we moved the fence to the corner behind the greenhouse.  We sold our goat Lucy and decided to just get gardens and chickens figured out this year.  Master one thing before moving on to the next.



Still plenty of room for the chickens, but this opened up the whole middle, sunny area for raised beds.  So in March, while my husband was in Nepal making a film, my dad came over and helped me make raised beds as a birthday gift.


IMG_2056I used the same Hugelkultur method I blogged about previously, and that worked really successfully in my greenhouse.  Basically, you throw logs in the bottom of your raised beds to act as giant sponges.  They absorb moisture, and you have to water less often.  As they break down, they also release nutrients and heat.  I threw some composted chicken manure on top of that.  Then my dad built the raised beds around that.

IMG_2063(And yes, I dug out that entire pile of rocks just from beneath this one raised bed).  Once the bed was constructed, I scooped in horse manure my dad had picked up in his truck on the way over, and soil.  It ended up being about 50% manure and 50% soil.

IMG_2065My dad then tilled it all together in each raised bed.  We were both a little worried that it was too much manure, but that’s what it took to fill the beds, so we just decided to try.

IMG_2080Then a couple of weeks later, on Easter, my mom and my son helped me plant seeds.  My parents are divorced, but I loved that somehow they were both involved in helping me create our summer garden.

As I mentioned, the hugelkultur garden in my greenhouse did really well in the spring.  In about February, I planted snap peas, kale, carrots, spinach, lettuce, arugula, and swiss chard in the ground.  Everything came up and did really well.



IMG_2088I taught my two year old son which plant was kale, and he loved coming in the greenhouse with me to pick and eat some kale.  (To any parent:  if you have trouble getting your kids to eat veggies, let them plant something in the garden, and I bet they will go pick it and eat it).


IMG_2085I had a great harvest of French Breakfast Radishes this year.  However, I am actually not much of a radish eating fan.  I always plant them because they are one of the first seeds you can put in the ground in the spring, and you get a harvest so quickly.  So it’s rewarding.  But I don’t like eating them that much.


HOWEVER, inspired by Korean BBQ cooked by our friends Jesse and Bo, I decided to try pickling radishes.  This went very well; we went through them very quickly.  I can’t find the recipe I used (as this was a couple of months ago now and I wasn’t smart enough to bookmark it), but here is one that is very similar.  Basically, you slice up radishes, put them in a jar with garlic and peppercorns.

IMG_2148You then heat vinegar, water, salt and sugar in a saucepan.  You pour that over the radishes and close up the jar.

IMG_2149These were so good!  I will be growing WAY more radishes in the future, and will be pickling them.  We ate this on sandwiches, salads….all kinds of things.


I also decided to set aside some fruit this year.  My friend and I went fruit picking one day and ended up with 30 pounds of blue berries, raspberries, and boysenberries.  We split it between the two of us, and and I froze most of it.  I did not have time to can it at that time, and decided I can always thaw it and make some jam later.  At least is is safely tucked away for winter.


Let’s see….what else was successful?  I guess we just had an all-around good harvest.  Things grew and produced flowers and fruit.  Here are some pics…..then on to the “what went not so well”…






Things that Went Poorly and Should be Avoided

I previously posted about how to hatch chicks and raise them using a broody hen.  This went fine.  But the only place I had to put them, separate from the flock, was in an old rabbit hutch in our yard.  I let the mamma hen roam freely with the chicks.  When they were about a month old, I put them in with the other chickens.  What I learned:  NEVER, EVER allow chickens to roam about in an area you later do not want them to be.  I don’t think that chickens have very big brains, but they are tenacious creatures of habit.  These chicks have grown into master escape artists.  I have spent the whole rest of the summer trying to keep them out of my garden.  I have not had ONE SINGLE ripe tomato.  Just as they start to turn color, I come out to find this:



So I fix every hole in the fence I can find one weekend, sure I’ve solved the problem.  Next morning, they are strutting around the yard again, more harvest eaten.  I work full-time, so it is a few days or weeks before I can try again.  I clipped wings.  Twice.  I fixed the fence.  I added height to a section of the fence I thought they were flying over.  Still, they are out in my garden.  I resorted to trying to fence off each individual raised bed itself, and even that did not work.  They ate almost all of the red tomatoes.  All of the baby cucumbers until I fenced around them.  They annihilated all of my lettuce.  Pecked holes in most of my winter squash.  And scratched up all of the second planting of lettuce I tried to put in.  It has turned into an epic battle.

Only the chicks that were allowed to roam the yard get out, all of the others don’t even try.  All they know is their pen, and they are content with that.  But the ones that know the outside world cannot be stopped.  If you raise baby chicks, never let them roam in an area you do not want them to roam later.  I do have to say that the roosters of this bunch have been destined for the freezer from the beginning, but I am now going to feel much better about that fate.  I will get to eat my ripe tomatoes after all.

Also, although the hugelkultur experiment went well in general, I learned that using green cottonwood branches was a mistake.


The branches sprouted all over in my raised beds!  A cottonwood forest was trying to grow in my raised beds.  Almost every day I had to weed out the sprouts of baby trees trying to grow out of my beds.  By mid-summer, when it was dryer, the rockets of sprouts slowed down.  In hindsight, however, I’d not use freshly cut branches again.  Find stuff that has sat out long enough to not want to sprout.

By the end of the summer, I also just fell down on the job.  I went from part-time to full-time work in May, and felt the change.  I struggled to keep up with the house and garden, I cried a lot (this concept of work/not work for moms deserves its own whole blog….I’ll do that one next).  And mostly felt like the garden didn’t quite meet up with the ideals I had for it this spring.  Much of my harvest got eaten by chickens.  I didn’t can a single thing.  I should have dressed everything with compost at some point in the summer and never got to it, so some things were not as prolific as could have been.  AND YET, I must remember that I made totally new raised beds from scratch, tried new techniques, grew new varieties of crops, discovered pickling radishes, and raised up 12 new chicks hatched from my own hens, all while moving up to full time work .  I did OK.

And now I am ready for the rain, for pulling out the dead stuff from this year and putting in a conservative fall crop.  For taking a deep breath and resting.  Resting until the spring brings back more hope and new life…..


Posted by on August 27, 2013 in Chickens, Gardening, Greenhouse, Preserving


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How to Make More Chickens the Old Fashioned Way: With Chickens.

I always have had a strong fascination with seeds and eggs.  These beautiful inanimate objects that create new life.

They all like to lay in the same nest box

They all like to lay in the same nest box

When I was a kid, I loved to climb the apple trees at my Oma’s house and look in the Robin nests.  All those beautiful, small, perfect orbs that little baby Robins would come out of.  My Oma had some German friends who owned a small bakery in the country, and we would go to buy bread from them.  They also had a pond with resident ducks who had eggs nestled in the cattails around it.  I remember asking if I could take some eggs home to hatch them.  They agreed; probably knowing it was hopeless but willing the humor me.  I made a nest in my room.  I didn’t really know the specifics of hatching, just that they had to be kept warm.  I covered the eggs with blankets. I was SO excited to hatch the babies.  I’d daydream about it all day long. I’d check on the eggs all the time.  And then….the eggs started to stink.  My dad had to break the news that meant it was all over.  We had a tearful funeral in the backyard for my eggs.  And somehow I’ve never lost that fascination with hatching eggs…..

When our first hen went broody, I felt like my kid self again; checking on her.  Waiting for the baby chicks to hatch out.  And the first year we failed.  None made it.  I cried.  My husband didn’t understand.  I explained how I felt like my kid self all over again–so hopeful, only to be disappointed.

Well I am happy to report that I am on my second year of successful chicken hatching with broody hens!  I’d like to pass along my lessons learned to any who are interested in learning how its done.

Photo credit:  Sean O'Connor

Photo credit: Sean O’Connor

There are some pros and cons to working with a broody hen to hatch eggs rather than an incubator.


You cannot hatch eggs whenever you want like an incubator.  When I say “working WITH” the hen I mean it.  Hens go broody on their own schedule, and each has her own temperament.  If you are only hatching with broody hens, this limits how many new chicks you have each year.

If you hatch your own eggs, statistics are for having 50% roosters.  When you buy baby chicks, they usually dispose of the rooster chicks so you are likely to get all hens.  I am fine with some roosters as we plan to put the roosters in the freezer (although that was the plan last year and it took us several months to try butchering for the first time and the neighbors started complaining about the four roosters crowing.  I think we will take them to Harrington Poultry Processing this year).  If you aren’t OK with eating your chickens, consider what to do with the roosters.


You do not need an incubator or heat lamp, or really to do much other than provide food and water for the mamma and chicks as the mamma hen does all the work.  She keeps the babies warm nestled in her feathers.  She teaches them how to scratch around for food.  And maybe other things:  A friend of ours works full time with California Condors.  He told me once that when they first released condors raised in captivity into the wild, they caused mayhem.  I believe he said they were destroying buildings and making messes in other ways.  The researchers realized they were being juvenile delinquents!  They needed to be raised longer with the older condors to teach them manners!  Doing that made all the difference.  So, I have no research to prove it, but I like to think that mamma hens are also passing along knowledge and skills about being a chicken that we cannot fathom.  Why not?

And watching the mamma with her babies scurrying around the yard is so entertaining!


Photo credit:  Sean O'Connor

Photo credit: Sean O’Connor

That said, here is the process for hatching with a broody hen:

1.  My hens tend to go broody in April or May.  You cannot really make a hen go broody (although keeping one or two eggs in the nest seems to help), you just have to wait.  A broody hen will not leave the nest, night or day.  She will kind-of flatten her body on the eggs and growl at you if you try to get too close.


Here is how I found my broody hen

My broody hen

My broody hen

If you go in to get eggs, and suspect a hen might be broody but are not sure, check on her again a few hours later, and again that night.  If the same hen is on the eggs every time, she is broody.

Also, my hens all tend to want to lay in the same nest box.  So when one hen refuses to get off, there is usually an uproar in the hen house as the hens fight over the nest box.

2.  You cannot leave your broody hen on the nest box to hatch her eggs.  You will need to prepare a new site for her.  The first year I thought, “well if that is where she wants to be, I’ll let her stay”.  But little did I know I had two hens going broody at the same time.  And they were fighting over the nest box and breaking each other’s eggs.  It took awhile to figure out why the eggs were getting smashed.  I went through a couple dozen eggs before I figured it out.  Or, the mamma hen might get picked on by the other hens and decide to get off the nest halfway through, leaving the half baked eggs.  Or many other scenarios.  It really is best to put her in a new location.

When we moved to our current house, the previous inhabitants left a homemade rabbit hutch that I now use for broody hens:


This year, a second hen went broody while this rabbit hutch was inhabited already.  So I used a dog kennel set up in the shed:


You need to give them some food and water.  However, they will rarely leave the nest to eat, drink, or poop.  Maybe only once every few days for all of these things.

One mistake I’ve made:  if the floor cannot drain, be very careful with the water.  The first year, one of my fails was for that reason.  I had one hen in a different, smaller dog kennel.  The water spilled.  When I checked on her, the eggs and her and the poop and food and everything was in about an inch of water.  I had to take it all out and try to put it back in, but the hen decided she was done and would not sit on the eggs any more.

3.  Choose which eggs to put under your hen.  This is the fun part!  A hen will hatch any eggs you put under her.  I have even heard of them hatching duck eggs.  Last year I went on Craigslist and found someone selling fertile olive colored eggs and dark chocolate colored eggs who was in the same vicinity as me.  I went to her house and bought a dozen eggs for $5.  They hatched under my hen, and those chickens are laying this year.

This year I bought a dozen “farm fresh” eggs from one of my favorite places:  Portland Homestead Supply.  I asked if they were fertile, and explained my plans, and she said I wasn’t the first.  Out of the dozen I bought, I picked some that were colors I don’t have yet, plus added some of the olive colored ones of mine.  Here is the final assortment I decided to put under my hen:


I have read that eggs are good for up to 10 days.  You can put eggs under hens after they have been refrigerated.

4.  Find a place to put your hen, get it set up with a nest box and some food and water, set in the eggs, then once it is dark, go get the broody hen.  Chickens seem to mostly forget what happens to them at night.  If you need to clip wings, introduce a new hen, move them, etc. you always do it at night.  And when they wake up in the morning, they seem to accept whatever the new situation may be.  That is why you move a broody hen at night.  Try to be as quick and quiet as possible.  Pick her up, put her on her new clutch of eggs, leave her alone.

The next morning, go check if she is still sitting on the eggs.  This year, the second broody hen, the one I put in the dog kennel, did not cooperate at first.  I moved her, and in the morning she was scratching around the dog kennel, and had pooped on the eggs.  So I put her back in the coop.  But when I checked on her throughout the day, she was setting back on the nest box again, and at night she still was.  I realized that the nest box I’d put in the dog kennel was much shallower than the nest box in the coop.  So I made her a different nest box and tried again the next night.  This time it worked.


The problem with a deep nest box is that once the chicks hatch, they cannot get out.  So I broke the back off of this one, but put the chicken in facing the tall side so she would feel like she was sunk down in her old nest box.  It worked.  When the chicks hatch, they will be able to get in and out still.

5.  The eggs will hatch in 21 days.  Resources I have read say you should “candle” the eggs at around day 10.  That means you go in at night, and one by one, you hold a bright light behind them, and are able to see if there is a heart beat and veins radiating out from the center–that the egg is alive.  You remove the ones that are not alive.  I guess the possible threat is that the rotten eggs could turn into bombs that explode all over the other eggs, and suffocate them or introduce bacteria.  So far this has not happened to me, but may just be luck.

6.  The eggs may hatch a day earlier or later than you mark in your calendar.  It is a good idea to be around the day the chicks hatch.  For one, it is really exciting to keep checking on the hen to see which new little face is peeking out.  (This year, the first chick to hatch just sat with his head poking out of his mamma’s feathers, looking around, for hours.  I wondered what he was looking at.  Then I realized he was seeing the world for the first time, and I got the chills watching him.)  The other reason you want to be around is that chickens are stupid.  I had one hen roll half the eggs out from under her while they were hatching, and I had to shove them back under her before they died from the cold.  Or the really young, weak chicks can fall out of the nest box and not be able to get back in.  Things like that.  It is just better to be around if possible to check on things.

7.  Make sure you have water and chick starter feed around for the baby chicks.  They are not quite ready for adult food when they first hatch.

I usually leave the mamma and chicks in the cage for a week together, then start leaving the door open for them to choose to roam around the yard.  I wait until they are about a month old before I introduce them back into the flock (at night).  I think they are much healthier to get the exercise and to eat the free-range food of bugs and seeds that can be found in the yard.

8.  The new chicks will start laying at about 4 to 7 months old, depending on the variety.  For mine, this fell right as the days got short enough that the hens stopped laying, and they did not actually lay their first eggs until this spring.  But the first time I found a small, slightly different colored egg this spring, it was so exciting!

Well, good luck!  And let me know how it goes!

My second hen is due to hatch the eggs I bought from Portland Homestead Supply in three days.  I’ll post photos.


Abiqua the dog keeping watch over the chicks.

The chicks are nearly a month old and starting to get feathers.  They look like awkward juveniles.

The chicks are nearly a month old and starting to get feathers. They look like awkward juveniles.


Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Chickens


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Old World Easter Eggs


This is the way Oma taught me to make Easter eggs.  They are made using vegetables found in your refrigerator and garden weeds.  No chemicals.  And so simple that my nearly two year old helped me with these.  There is less than a week left until Easter.  I thought I’d pass this along just in case anyone else out there wants to fit some more Easter eggs in before Sunday.  (I thought of posting something about this when my neighbor Susan posted a link to something similar–so thanks Susan!)

My Oma always made these using onion peels–the flaky, brown covering around yellow onions that you throw away.  The dark brownish-orange eggs were the ones made with the onion peels.  I also experimented with making purple ones by using beets/blue berries/and cherries all mixed together.  The purple colored turned out pretty nicely.  Maybe red onion peels would be even better?  I tried to get green by using grass from the lawn.  It didn’t really work.  The water turned green but the egg shells were not absorbing the color.  So I also threw in beet greens, spinach, and finally yellow beets.  The resulting color is the light beige colored egg in the picture.  Anyone out there know of something that works well as a great green egg dye?

Here is what you will need to make these Easter eggs:

-Eggs (I bought cheap white ones because I knew I’d boil them longer than I’d want for eating)

-Old nylons cut into strips

-Leaves from your yard for the design

-Onion peels (or other veggies/fruits for dye)

-Cooking pots and water

Here is how you do it:

1.  Put the onion peels in a pan and cover them with water–enough for also boiling the eggs.



I also tried beets and grass:




2.  Start the pots of water boiling while you start working with the eggs.

3.  To prepare an egg for dying, lay out a strip of nylon.  Put a leaf or flower in the middle and tie the nylon around an egg.




(I also let my nearly two year old help with that step.  Amazingly, we only lost one egg to the floor…..)

4.  Put the eggs in the boiling pots of water.  I didn’t know exactly how long this was supposed to take, so I just kept checking them.  After even 5 minutes, the ones in the onion peels looked like they had taken on color and could have come out.  I left them in closer to 10 minutes.  But the ones in the purple and green pots looked almost unchanged by then.  I ended up boiling them closer to 20 minutes to get them to take on color (that would be too long for eggs you are planning on eating).  Towards the end I ended up pouring in a few cap fulls of vinegar to try to get the egg shells to take on more color.  I’m not sure if that helped or not.

5.  Fish the eggs out of the pots with a slotted spoon.  Put them on a towel you don’t mind staining or back in the egg carton.  I’d recommend pulling them out one by one and removing the nylon and leaf.  I did it the opposite–I took them all out at once, then went down the line untying them.  But because they were so hot, by the time I got to the last ones they had evaporated off all their liquid and dried.  I could not get the flowers and leaves off!



Then I tried wetting my finger and rubbing the leaves off, and it smudged the color on the egg.  Also, the fatter, wetter leaves came off more easily.  Though I only had a problem with this on the two colors I boiled for 20 minutes.  I didn’t have any trouble removing the leaves from the eggs boiled in the onion skins.  So maybe the moral of the story is to stick with tradition!  The good old fashioned onion peel way worked the best!

May you be thrilled by new life this Easter!


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Posted by on March 27, 2013 in Crafts, Decorating


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How to Get Free Seeds

How to Get Free Seeds


Have you started planting yet?  This was my seed table about two weeks ago.  The seeds have been popping up throughout this week.  I don’t have artificial light heat in my greenhouse, so seeds are a little slower to come up.  But my theory is natural selection:  I am saving my own seeds, so am most interested in the plants that thrive without too much attention.  I will save seeds from the plants that thrive in the conditions I have to offer, and over time my system will become more and more successful.


Here in Oregon, it is already time to plant some seeds out in your garden such as peas, radishes, beets, and other early spring crops.  And it is time to plant some slower, heat-loving things such as tomatoes and peppers in your greenhouse if you have one.

If you haven’t already purchased and planted all of your seeds for this season, here is some beta on how to get free seeds, and plant them in free stuff (as promised in the title):

Save Your Own Seeds:


The best way to get free seeds is to collect them yourself.  I got these melon and tomato seeds from produce I purchased at New Seasons (and got to eat the melon and tomato too!).  I’ll let you know how they do.  The tomato was beautiful green and red striped, and advertised as “heirloom”.  Anything truly heirloom should grow true to type of what the parent looked like.  The melon was organic, but not heirloom, so there is no guarantee it will look exactly like the one I ate, but it was so beautiful that I’m going to try planting them and see what happens anyway.  (To learn the difference between heirloom, open pollinated, and hybrid, watch this Seed Savers Exchance webinar.  And the very next webinar on the list is seed saving for beginners.  Both great resources.)  So I guess it wasn’t totally free because I purchased the produce, but since I would have purchased it anyway and eaten it, I consider the collected seeds a bonus.


Free Seeds Online:

If you like heirloom tomatoes, my friend Katy Larkins turned me on to a website called Winter Sown that will send you free heirloom tomato seeds.  I filled out the form and sent in my self addressed stamped envelope, and I really got an envelope full of heirloom tomato seeds.  Here they are:


“Grow Portland” Seed Club

I have yet to participate, but I know that a local non-profit called Grow Portland has a Seed Club.  They order organic, open-pollinated seeds in bulk.  Local gardens come help re-package them into smaller packages, and take home a certain amount.  I don’t think it’s totally free, but the price is much reduced from purchasing the same seeds anywhere else.  I plan to try this next year.

Start Your Own Seed Club!

I am really interested in doing this.  Anyone else?  Post a comment or contact me somehow if you are interested.  How this would work would be some group of people get together and pledge to all save seeds, and all give each other a portion of the seeds they save.  So maybe I have some really cool tomatoes and cucumbers, and someone else has interesting beans.  If there are 5 of us, at the end of the growing season once I have saved my seeds, I divide them up into 5 packets, and we all exchange.  So we all get a bunch of stuff we didn’t have before.  We could even do this long distance and mail them to each other.


If You Must Buy, Buy Seeds to Save:

I cannot resist buying new varieties of seeds every year.  Even though I am trying to be good about saving my own seeds, I love looking through the seed catalogs that come in the mail, and always find new things to buy.  However, from now on, I am only buying heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.  That means I can save the seeds and they will grow true to type.  A package of these good seeds is more expensive; it can be $3.00 or $4.00 dollars.  But if you buy a cheap package of Ed Hume seeds, the math would be “How many pounds of produce will I get this year from the investment of these seeds?”  And the math for buying heirloom seeds would be “How many pounds of produce will I get for the rest of my life (and the lives of my children if I pass on the saved seed to them) for the investment of these seeds?”  If you really do save the seeds, it plays out.

Seed Savers Exchange also has a great guide to seed saving techniques for many individual varieties of veggies.

If you live in Portland and want to buy some good seeds, my favorite place is Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply located at 2615 SE Schiller St  Portland, OR 97202.

If you are ordering online, here are some places to check:

Seed Savers Exchange

Territorial Seeds (these are not all open pollinated and heirloom, so you have to read the description.  But they specialize in varieties that will thrive in the Pacific Northwest)

Siskiyou Seeds

Uprising Seeds

(I was also going to blog about free/recycled things to plant seeds in–which ones work and which ones don’t–and free dirt to plant them in.  But this is already long.  That will be the next blog post!)



Posted by on March 12, 2013 in Community, Gardening, Seeds


Tags: , , , ,

Meeting my Meat: Reflections on Our First Rooster Butchering

If you eat meat, hopefully you are aware that it is not created in a factory and it does not originate in Styrofoam packages.  It was once a living, breathing, animated life walking this earth.  So if you are willing to eat it, you must be OK with its life ending for that purpose.  But are you willing to take its life yourself?  And if you eat meat, should you be willing to take that life yourself?  When my husband and I (meat eaters) reflected on this, we came to the conclusion that yah, we should.

(WARNING:  Though I strive to be tasteful in the photos chosen, there are some photos below that could offend sensitive readers.)

Did I mention that this is urban farming, so we live in a neighborhood.  We are actually the only ones on the block with chickens and doing the whole urban farming thing (that I know of).  But we are carrying on the style of our landlord who lived in this house before us.  When we moved in, and our neighbors saw that we also got a goat and had chickens, they stated, more than once, “You aren’t going to kill your animals like (fill in name) did, are you?  Our kids would go over and pet the animals and get attached to them, and it was traumatizing when they realized they were eaten.”  I didn’t know how to tell them that we were not totally opposed to doing the same thing.  I also didn’t know how to respond to their request.  I can almost guarantee that these same neighbors who are super eco-friendly and locavores prefer to purchase meat from local farmers who “have a relationship with their animals”.  Do their children not know what this meat looked like before it ended up on their plate?  And being a mother myself, I had to wonder, what is the appropriate time for them to know?

Cedar Chickens

My 86 year old German grandmother, Oma, grew up in rural Yugoslavia in a largely self-sufficient farming family.  When I shared my reflection with her, she said “You know, I was responsible for butchering chickens by myself by the time I was 12, and it was not traumatizing to me.  It was completely normal because that was how I was raised.”  This makes so much sense to me.  If eating chicken is normal, shouldn’t it be normal to participate in this process and understand that the meat was a chicken?  It’s like we want our meat to have had a good life and have had a relationship with someone, but with someone else.  Not us.

And yet, when it came time to consider butchering our own chickens, I did not feel right about having our nearly two year old present.  To see death and blood at the hands of his parents.  I didn’t want him to see it either.  So then, at what age does it make sense to introduce this (really, any comments on this would be interesting to me)?

When I was in early grade school, my Opa (Oma’s husband) taught me how to fish for trout and how to clean them.  It was not traumatizing to me; I felt very proud of my catch and my ability to do the grown-up task of cleaning it.  Here is a picture:


I do think that having this experience as a child made the thought of butchering our chickens more tangible.  I am thankful to Opa for that experience.  And yet, it was a pretty big and overwhelming task for me.  Here we are in our early thirties, having eaten meat most of our lives, and this was the first time for both of us to kill it ourselves.  How ridiculous, really.

We decided that if it was too gross and sad for us to think that the thing on our plate used to be alive, then we need to become vegetarians.  And if we are not going to become vegetarians, then we need to participate in killing and processing our own meat.  On an intellectual level, I do not have a problem with being an omnivore.  This is how the entire ecosystem functions:  everything must consume other things in order for the whole system to work.  If I don’t eat the chicken, one day something else will, such as a raccoon or hawk.  If it lives to old age and one day its heart stops, once it is in the ground worms will eat its body.  Just as worms will eat mine.  I think our culture likes to pretend that death isn’t normal; like it is shocking when something dies.  We talk about death in a whisper.  And yet, the only thing that is guaranteed is death.  Everything will die.  Every plant, every animal, every human, every star.  And its carbon and energy will be repurposed into something else.  We are all just a bunch of spirit-filled carbon waiting to be consumed.

And yet, to be the hand actually taking a life raises all kinds of other thoughts and feelings.  My friend shared the story that someone she knows routinely butchers her own chickens, and she cries every time.  But she does not feel that means she should not butcher chickens, she feels that is the correct response.  It is correct to feel emotion about it, and to be reverent about what is happening, and to understand the cost of that meal.  It is more correct than getting a package that no longer resembles a chicken and consuming it without any reflection or any emotion.

Well…enough reflecting.  The long and the short of it is we decided we were OK with butchering our own chickens to eat.  Here is the story of us meeting our meat:

Last May I had two hens go “broody”, meaning their natural instinct to sit on a clutch of eggs and hatch them kicked in.  This instinct has been bred out of most modern chickens because we want them to produce eggs for us to eat, and if they sit on the eggs, we lose a month of production.  However, if a chicken does go broody, this is your chance for free new chickens.  So I bought a dozen fertilized eggs from a woman who had copper marans, Easter eggers, and olive eggers, hoping I’d get some new egg colors in my flock.  Ten hatched, seven made it to maturity.  Of those seven, four were hens and three were roosters.  We already had one rooster, so that meant we then had FOUR roosters.  As soon as that became obvious, we decided that meant we would have at least three roosters in our freezer one day.

Broody hen

Broody hen

Roosters are big enough to eat at about 4 to 6 months of age.  But we just never got around to butchering these roosters until last weekend, 9 months old.  It seemed an overwhelming, messy task that we never made time to do.  A month or two ago they all found their crowing voice.  Every morning at 4am all FOUR roosters had a crowing contest.  Did I mention we live in a neighborhood?  Most city or county ordinances about having farm animals within city limits have some clause about “unless the neighbors complain”.  If that happens, they can come take it all away.  So an important part of URBAN farming especially is being respectful of the neighbors.  A few weeks ago a neighbor that lives three houses down the road called my husband and asked if he could buy the roosters and kill them himself.  I objected to raising the roosters that long, and paying for their feed, for them to end up in someone else’s freezer.  But we realized it was time.

(An aside is that a few weeks ago one of the roosters almost got killed by the other three, but I saved his life.  He recovered and rejoined the flock.  Part of the reason I saved him was so all my previous efforts would not go to waste.  If he was going to die, shouldn’t he provide for my family rather than the scavengers?)

On the chosen day, I kept watching the roosters out scratching around in the sun, enjoying life, thinking, “I’m about to end all this for them.  Little do they know that this is their last day.”  Then I thought, “How different will it be on my last day, whenever it comes?”

We waited to feed the chickens until we were ready to butcher them.  In my research, it seemed that the two best ways to kill a chicken were to either slit its jugular vein with a quick slice while it was upside down in a killing cone or other way to restrain it, or chopping its head off on a chopping block.  Trying to hold the chicken still on a chopping block and getting a clean swing seemed difficult, so we chose to try a quick slice.  As recommended, we tied the bird by the feet upside down, which calms them.  We used a razor blade.  I was too shaky (I actually don’t do well with blood), so my husband gave the slice while I held the bird so it didn’t move.  There was a cut and bleeding, but not as much as it seemed there should be.  We didn’t get deep enough.  I started saying, “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”  But the rooster actually didn’t seem too bothered.  He didn’t squawk or anything, he just cocked his head and looked at us like, “Is that all?”  I yelled at my husband that this wasn’t working and we needed a chopping block.  He ran and got something to chop on and a good, sharp hatchet while I held the rooster.  We took the rooster down and put him on the block.  He held remarkably still, and with one quick, decisive chop it was over.


Then I went to get a second rooster.  We chose the one whose life I’d saved a few weeks before.  (We chose the two loudest crowers).  That was a little difficult for me.  And yet, I had to think, that this was why he was alive.  Without my intervention, his egg would have been an omelet instead of stuck under my hen to be hatched.  All of his experiences of being alive and running around in the sun were due to that action.  And I’d saved him from being pecked to death, a much more painful and violent death than this would be, for this purpose.  Now it was time.

We went straight to the chopping block method for this one.  I held him and talked softly while my husband did one quick, decisive chop.  And it was over.  I felt a little shaky.

I thought about shepherds who live intimately with their flock and care deeply for each sheep.  But who are ultimately raising them for slaughter.  How do they deal with that?  I also thought of Hemmingways’ “The Old Man and the Sea” that I recently read on a vacation.  The old man talks about his great love for the fish, and how unfortunate it is that he was born a fisherman and life required that he must kill the fish.

After the killing part was over, the rest of the processing was relatively easy for me.  Once the chickens bled out we dipped the carcass in hot water (“scalding”) so the feathers could be removed easily.  Plucking them was then pretty quick and easy.  Once the carcass was naked it looked more like something from the grocery store and less like an animal.  I followed the step by step instructions in a book for how to clean it.  We froze one bird and cooked one bird that night for dinner.

chicken1 chicken2

I first soaked it in a brine for a few hours.  The brine was a jar of salt and other spices (including garlic and juniper berries) meant for a turkey at Thanksgiving that we never used.  I then simply rubbed it in olive oil and baked it at 350 until it was done.  Both my husband and I admitted that cutting into the bird to eat it felt a little strange, a little different.  But let me tell you, that was the most amazing tasting chicken I have ever eaten.  I ate the dark meat of the leg.  Maybe the brine had something to do with it as well.  But that meat was so tender, and the flavor was slightly gamey, like mild duck.  The gamey flavor was probably due to our chickens ranging freely over almost an acre.  They eat bugs and all kinds of plants and acorns and kitchen scraps.  That is a much different diet than the confined hens fed only chicken feed.  This was a totally different experience than eating any other chicken I’ve ever tasted.


Photo: Sean O’Connor

I’d so braced myself for the task, that is wasn’t until that evening that emotions started seeping in.  I didn’t exactly feel sad.  I felt changed.  Similar to the way I’d felt after I’d lost my virginity or after I’d given birth.  Something was different, though you couldn’t see it from the outside, and couldn’t pinpoint how.  I’d passed into some other realm of human experience that I couldn’t undo, and that separated me from all other people who had never passed into it.  It wasn’t necessarily bad, it was just big.

So would I do it again?

I’m honestly not chomping at the bit to do it again, but am not opposed to it either.  I think that like all other human experiences, the more I’d do it, the more normal and quick and easy it would become.  I’d get sharper kitchen knives before I’d do it again. It was messy and took a long time.  And back to my discussion at the beginning of this post, it might not make for good relations with the neighbors if we were slaughtering roosters all the time.

But it is economical.  I made four meals from that one rooster:

Meal one:  roast chicken with potatoes and vegetables (fed two adults and one child)

Meal two:  chicken tacos (fed four adults and one child)

Meal three:  chicken coconut soup (made from the chicken stock I made with the bones and meat scraps) (fed two adults and one child)

Meal  four:  chicken pot pie (made from very last chicken meat scraps boiled off when I made the stock and the chicken stock) (fed two adults and one child with leftovers)

And there is a second in the freezer.  In the interest of trying to feed my family fresh, organic, non-hormone, local food on a tight budget, raising our own chickens for meat makes a lot of sense.  At the farmer’s market, whole birds cost $4 to $6 a pound; so $12 to $30 a bird.  Say we raise enough to eat just one of our own chickens a month.  That saves some money and is high quality meat.

There are local slaughter houses that will butcher chickens for pretty cheap.  (Someone recommended one that charged $2 per bird awhile back, but now I can’t remember the name of the place or find it again).  However, if we are only butchering a few a year, the cost of gas and driving them over might be more trouble than it’s worth? Plus, it might be more traumatizing to the chickens to be boxed up and transported and handed over to someone else than to have a quick end here.

Are we really going to make this a part of our urban farming lives?  Jury is still out.  I’m not sure.  I will keep you posted.


Posted by on February 23, 2013 in Butchering, Chickens, Cooking, Livestock


Tags: , , ,

Growing Food Year Round For Free and Without Watering: Reclaimed Windows and Some Rotten Wood

Today it smelled like spring outside here in Oregon.  And when I went into my little greenhouse, I saw that my experiment was working, and I had hope for this year’s crops.  IMG_1348[1]Last summer some neighbors were replacing all of their windows, and gave us the old ones for making a greenhouse.  Neither my husband nor I have much experience with construction, so we recruited some friends to help us in exchange for future garden starts from the greenhouse, and being fed while on the job.  A beautiful greenhouse was created, and I was able to grow the promised starts.  Now that it is spring and some of you may be in the mood for planting, I thought I’d share some lessons learned on greenhouse building from reclaimed materials.  And I think I’ve also found a way to never have to water again using rotten wood.  Yes, I’m serious.  So here are Part I and Part II below.

Part I:  Greenhouse Building


We wanted to build a greenhouse using only reclaimed materials (read:  free).  I decided I didn’t want to use electricity in the greenhouse both because I didn’t want the added heating cost and because I didn’t want to run an extension cord all the way out there (the only way there would be power).  The inspiration for this greenhouse came from a wonderful book my friend Cathy Currier gave me, published in 1977, called “Build it Better Yourself”.  It is over 900 pages long with detailed directions on how to make anything homesteady that you could desire.  On page 830 it describes the “solar greenhouse”.  (If you search online for the terms “passive solar greenhouse” you will find lots of info). From pages 831 and 839:

IMG_1354[1] IMG_1353[1]

The basic idea is that the south facing side needs to be perpendicular to the angle of the sun’s rays.  “The angle of your latitude is related to the angle of the sun at the summer solstice.  At winter solstice the sun is 23 degrees lower in the sky” (p. 836).  This book advocates for figuring out the angle at winter solstice, and making the angle of the roof perpendicular to that.  Here in Oregon we are at about the 45th parallel, so we decided it was close enough to have the roof at about a 45 degree angle.  The other major component of a passive solar greenhouse is insulation in the back to capture the heat.  So all the sun is coming in the front of the greenhouse, and the back is retaining the heat.  One recommended way to insulate the back is to fill black plastic buckets with water.  The sun heats them during the day, and they slowly release the heat at night.  The book also recommends making wooden frames covered with plastic that can be placed inside the clear, angled wall to provide an extra layer of insulation that can be removed when it is too hot.  I also read somewhere about filling burlap bags with straw and laying them over the windows at night to add extra insulation, then removing them in the morning (way too much work for me).  The overarching concept is to maximize heat absorbed and retained during the day, and minimize heat loss at night–and to also have some sort of venting system for when it gets too hot so you don’t bake your plants.

Here are pictures of my greenhouse being built:


In the back the three wood panels are old concrete forms that my husband pulled out of a dump pile.  This made the back wall fairly simple.  There is no foundation.  They placed chunks of concrete on the ground, and moved them around and dug them down until the base was level, then made a simple frame.  The base of the front is a row of windows framed in simply, but the way it is constructed they can be opened for ventilation if needed.  The picture on the right is the construction of the 45 degree angle wall.  My husband came across someone removing an awning downtown, and asked to have the old plastic panels.  They just attached these to three simple wooden frames and lowered those over the top of the greenhouse.  (Much of the genius of this design must be credited to our friend who helped us, Paithen Larkins).

IMG_1814 IMG_1813

I will re-insert the photo of the finished product here:


Here you can see that the sides are constructed of a sliding glass door on it’s side at the base.  The triangle at the top is one window that can open surrounded by pieces of that plastic paneling cut to fit.  Here is a picture of the inside:


This first year the greenhouse did OK.  I never got around to adequately insulating the back wall.  There were also lots of little gaps around the greenhouse that let in drafts that I have slowly been fixing throughout the year.  But it worked to grow starts for the garden, and on chilly spring days I would sometimes sit in it to work, which was very luxurious.  Then this summer our goat rammed her head through one of the windows, and we never fixed it until just last month.  So I didn’t start any winter veggies, and it sat unused for several months.

About the time we fixed the window I also stumbled upon some brilliant information that will help me both heat the greenhouse and reduce how often I have to water it by a lot:

Part II:  Hugelkultur

I was searching the internet for drip irrigation systems, trying to find a way to use less water, and to also have the watering be more automatic.  But it all involved so much plastic and electricity and fancy gadgets.  It just seemed that there had to be a simpler, more natural method.  Then I found hugelkultur.  Here is the website that will tell you everything you need to know.

The basic idea is that you make a huge pile of wood (up to six feet tall) and cover it with dirt, and plant on top of that.  The wood acts like a giant sponge that absorbs water, and your plants put their roots into that and can absorb it.  As the wood breaks down it also releases heat (like a compost pile) and warms the soil.  It also releases a lot of nutrients that fertilize the plants.  According to that website, if you build the beds six feet tall you will not have to water them all summer (after the second year).  If they are two feet tall, you will only have to water once every three weeks (which sounds great to me!  I can handle once every three weeks.  Even once a week would be fine).  You can also dig down into the ground and bury the wood rather than piling it on the surface, which reduces the height.

I also found this blog called “NW Edible Life”, and one post was called “Half-Ass Hugelkultur“.  She threw a bunch of rotted logs on cardboard, and piled on chicken manure, compost, and other debris, then buried it.  And here is the follow-up post 7 months later raving about how well it was working, including that just one month after she made the beds, soil temperatures were at 78 degrees (in Seattle, in April!).

So I thought:  What if I make a hugelkultur bed inside my greenhouse?  It will act like a giant heater, helping to warm the whole greenhouse.  And within that bed, with the combination of warm soil below and greenhouse overhead, I should be able to grow stuff all winter.  In the summer I should be able to grow amazing peppers and melons.  So I tried it on New Year’s Day; great way to start the new year!

IMG_1162[1]I started by digging a long trench on the inside of the front windows, and filling it with cottonwood branches we happened to have around.  (You don’t want to use Cedar or anything else that might resist breaking down).


I then laid down smaller branches on top of that, hoping they will break down more quickly and fill in the gaps.


On top of that I filled in a load of chicken litter (I use the deep litter method, so this should be partially composted and not burn my plants.  These are pine shavings).  I also added some scoops of decomposed compost to seed microbes into the mix and get everything breaking down.  I then covered it all back over with the soil I’d dug out of the ditches.  Then I soaked it with water to get it going.


I planted seeds the first week of January.  We then had a cold spell where temperatures were below 32 degrees F for awhile.  Since the composting hadn’t really gotten going yet, and my greenhouse doesn’t totally regulate the heat, it took about a month for things to start sprouting.  But now they are growing really well!  Here are some photos from today of baby kale (left) and swiss chard (right):

IMG_1350[1] IMG_1352[1]

I only planted things that will tolerate cooler weather and a shorter photo period.  Last week only the snap peas poked out of the ground.  Then we were out of town for a week.  When I checked today there were also carrots, kale, cilantro, lettuce, and endive that had sprouted!!  I don’t have a soil thermometer, so I don’t know how much the hugelkultur is heating things up.  But the little plants seem happy.  Usually these seeds couldn’t be planted outside in the garden until March or April, so this gives me a two or three month jump on the growing season.  If the ground really warms up by next winter, and I do a better job of insulating the greenhouse, I am hoping I will be able to grow food in there year round.  I’ll let you know how it goes…..

And I also plan to make some hugelkultur raised beds outside.  Why not do this under every new garden bed??

Update:  To see how this technique is going, see this new post.


Posted by on February 14, 2013 in Gardening, Greenhouse, Reuse


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