Monday, January 29, 2018

You Label Me, I'll Label You

Sometime around 1970, my parents acquired a "high tech" device known as a Label-It. Manufactured by the DYMO Corporation, the Label-It was an embossing tape printing system that produced a sticky-backed plastic strip onto which the user could custom-print words or short phrases; or for that matter I suppose all the great works of literature, given enough patience and an unlimited supply of tape. The Label-It was gun-shaped with a horizontal alpha-numeric wheel on top. You loaded a spool of plastic tape into the back and fed it through the embossing head. By arranging the wheel so that the desired number or letter was over the tape and pulling the "trigger," the head forced the tape against the raised character and, due the physical properties of the plastic, a white image of the character was transferred to the tape. When the entire word was finished, you hit the "cut" button and removed the label. It was fairly primitive by modern standards, but it was iconic in its own way. In fact, modern graphics meant to evoke the 60's and 70's often use this embossed look as a design element. Later versions of the device offered interchangeable wheels with different fonts and even simple graphics, the emojis of their day, and the variety of tape colors grew to include hot pink, florescent orange and lime green. For some reason, though, we always bought the same color, a moss green about the same as (hey, I never really thought about that before!) the homestead logo.

I will admit that as a 7 or 8 year old, I became slightly obsessed with the device and labeling things. I recall putting my name on every single item in my desk at school; folders, Prang paint kit, scissors, glue, even pencils! At home, G.I. Joe became super organized, as all of his accessories got a label, and the fad even worked its way into my favorite hobby, fishing; although the necessity of labeling a tackle box, "TACKLE BOX" is still subject to debate.

If you are wondering why I'm taking a walk down this particular memory lane today, it's because DYMO embossing devices are still available, and guess what, they have a very real and practical place around the modern homestead. For most household and office purposes, the inkjet or thermal transfer printer is a better tool for label-making, but those labels don't hold up well in the garden, where moisture, heat and sunlight conspire to make them illegible after just a few weeks. Embossed plastic labels, though, remain legible for years, even under the harshest conditions. For a quick seedling label, I affix an embossed strip to a Popsicle stick, and have labels that remained attached to clay pots for multiple growing seasons. As a bonus, the embossed labels, which are still available in many colors, give handcrafted items a retro look, so they can be used as a cost-effective method for labeling goods for resale.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Day The "S" Really Did "HTF"

The homesteading community is made up of several different camps: some take to it in an effort to eat healthier; some want a simpler, less materialistic life and some are preparing for a global catastrophe that will wipe out civilization leaving the ultra-prepared and self-sufficient to inherit the earth. That last group can be a little over-the-top in their beliefs, but there is no doubt that one of the key advantages in living a more sustainable lifestyle is being able to more easily deal with natural and man-made disasters, situations often referred to as "when Sh*t Hits The Fan" or by its acronym, SHTF. I personally experienced one of those SHTF moments 40 years ago this week, January 26, 1978; what those of us who lived through it call the Great Blizzard of '78.

I was a high school sophomore at the time, living with my parents and older sister in the tiny hamlet of Gypsum, Ohio. Gypsum was, and is, an isolated community of 50 or so families located along the shores of the Sandusky Bay about five miles from the nearest town, Port Clinton. If you asked either of my parents whether they were "homesteaders" they would have looked at you like you were crazy, but the way our family lived had a lot in common with what we would today consider modern homesteading. We had a huge garden -- about 1/4 of our half-acre lot, did most of our own mechanical and home maintenance work, canned or froze our excess produce, bartered goods and services with our neighbors, and, although we did not raise livestock ourselves, we annually bought a side of beef from a local farm, had it butchered and kept it in our basement freezer.

Our morning routine was pretty consistent. Dad would get up around 5:30, make a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and coffee so strong you could use it to remove a rusty lug nut, then pack his lunch and head off to work at the U.S. Gypsum plant a half-mile down the road. Somewhere during that time my mother would rise and get me up to catch the school bus which stopped at our house right around 7:00. My sister, who worked the late shift at a diner in town, was generally still asleep when I left.

On the morning of January 26th, all this played out more or less according to script until dad returned home from work just about the time I was heading to the bus stop. He said that they had closed the plant because a blizzard was moving in from the west. That seemed a little weird, because it wasn't even freezing and there was just a mist of light rain in the air. Within minutes, though, the rain turned heavier and began to freeze, laying down a sheet of solid ice on everything. The electricity went out about the time it began to snow around 8:00 and shortly after that the wind picked up and the temperature plummeted. In that part of Ohio, snow, wind and cold were hardly a novelty but this felt different. The wind blew violently against the wooden siding of our old house, giving the sense that the whole structure was shaking apart. Dad switched the portable radio we kept on the kitchen table over to battery power and tuned in the local station. WRWR was a low power FM station that served greater Ottawa County with local news, gossip, farm reports and an occasional top-40 song from a tiny studio and transmission tower located a couple miles from our house. It featured the sort of hodge-podge programming where Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit might be sandwiched between an update on corn futures and "Out and About in Vacationland with Karen Messner." On that particular morning though, all attention was on the weather. Two huge depressions had merged over the upper Midwest, creating a winter storm of almost unprecedented fury. By the time the leading edge of this storm had reached us in the early hours of the morning, places farther west like Ft. Wayne, Indiana and Lansing, Michigan were already experiencing a "white hurricane" with wind gusts up to 100 miles per hour, whiteout snow and wind chills plunging to -60 degrees. It was right around that point we realized this wasn't going to be just an inconvenience, like most of the winter storms we endured, but an actual life-threatening event.

Our house had a gas furnace, but the pump that moved the heated water through the system was electric, so it was of no practical value without electricity, and the temperature inside the house was falling rapidly. We did not have a fireplace upstairs, but dad had installed a pot-belly wood stove in the basement so that he could keep it warm while he worked down there during the winter. We woke my sister and all moved down to the basement where we gathered around the stove while dad got a fire started.

Our basement wasn't exactly "finished," and it wasn't the sort of place anyone wanted to spend much time. It was a dark and damp with cement block walls and a concrete floor. There as a rusty old 1950's refrigerator where dad kept beer, nightcrawlers and dog food, and a gas oven that mom used as an auxiliary when she was canning in the summer or baking in quantity, as she did every Christmas and Easter. The walls were lined with shelves of canned goods and mower parts and the ceiling rafters were studded with nails festooned with junk dad had picked up from clearance bins at discount stores, a sort of hobby of his. It was also where we stored our lawn furniture during the winter, so we quickly set up a circle of web chairs and lounge recliners around the now-roaring fire. We had brought the portable radio with us and listened as caller after caller chimed in with their stories of being stranded at work or in some gas station along the highway. Despite our rather meager conditions, we felt fortunate to have roof over our heads and a warm place to sit down.

I was going through my marine biologist stage at the time and had a rather impressive collection of tropical fish in two 20 gallon aquariums. A couple of hours into the ordeal it dawned on me that without electricity to run the heaters the water would cool below the survival zone (60-80 degrees) for my fish. Sure enough, the air temperature upstairs had fallen to 50 degrees and the water in the tanks was around 60 and dropping. It is for all practical purposes impossible to move a 20 gallon tank filled with fish and water. I got the idea of boiling tap water in a pot on the gas stove and then adding that to the tanks to keep the temperature in an acceptable range, but tap water is chlorinated and I wasn't completely sure whether heating it would remove the chlorine, which is poisonous to fish. Then it hit me; what was snow? Frozen water. For the next few days, I kept a pot of hot snowmelt on the stove, replenishing the water in the fish tanks and keeping them at an ideal 70 degrees. While I didn't really grasp it at the time, I had given myself a task and a purpose which helped to pass the time.

As claustrophobic as the situation seems to me now, I don't remember going "stir crazy." We had the radio and we had books and some oil lamps for light. I guess I was too young and naive to be frightened, although looking back on it I probably should have been. After all, it was nothing more than dumb luck that we had enough wood to keep the stove going for several days. Dad had felled a dead tree for an elderly relative the previous summer and had stacked the wood out against our shed. It as more wood than he would have normally used in five years, but there it was. Food wasn't really an issue either. We had weeks worth of canned vegetables and the better part of half a side of beef in the freezer. That did beg the question; how long will it stay frozen? It turns out that dense frozen goods like beef will stay frozen for days in an insulated freezer. And we really weren't that concerned because if worse came to worst it was zero outside and we could always just bury it in the snow.

The snow let up on the afternoon of the 27th and eventually gave way to crystalline blue skies and an otherworldly, snow-blasted landscape. As we started to dig out and check on the well-being of the neighbors it became apparent that it would be days before we could reach town. The snow was drifted up higher than the roof of our neighbor's single story house. Unfortunately, he worked the 11 to 7 shift and was one of those stuck at work when the storm hit. Thankfully, all of our other immediate neighbors were in a similar position as us; gardens and canning and oil lamps and firewood were basic ways of life in rural Ohio in the 1970's.                     

As reports came across the radio, the magnitude of the disaster began to hit home. Millions without power across the Midwest. Roads closed from Chicago to Buffalo. Dozens dead. In our own neighborhood, drifts fifteen feet high rippled across the fields like dunes across the Sahara. The mechanics of airflow had left the side of our house facing the road in relatively good shape, just a foot or 18 inches, and we quickly dug that out, but the other side as buried halfway up the first floor windows. We did not have a garage at the time and our cars were all but completely buried. It would be another two days before the plows and earth-movers finally managed a single-wide trench down the road connecting our house to the main road a half-mile away. Dad and I bravely volunteered to make the treacherous trip into town for "supplies." In retrospect, I think by that point dad would have gladly stormed the beach at Normandy just to get out of that basement.

We knew from the radio that only a couple of stores were open, one of them being Greene's Drug in downtown Port Clinton. Mom made up a list of things she needed, including a refill of her diabetes pills (I don't think she was close to running out but wanted them as a precaution), batteries and a couple of magazines. The drive into town was unlike anything I have experienced since. There were places where the drifted and plowed snow formed banks along the road 20 feet high as we navigated a trench only slightly wider than our car. The road was a rutted mosaic of ice that cracked and popped under our wheels. It took us half an hour to make what was usually a 10-minute drive, but it was nice just to be outside and moving.

The drug store, as you might imagine, was pretty well picked over, but at least we got mom's medicine. I bought a couple of cheap paperbacks for myself; nothing all that interesting, but reading material at least. We were having difficulty finding one of the  magazines mom had requested, True Confessions, so we asked the pharmacist about it. He said, "oh yeah we have those, just ask for it up at the front counter." True Confessions was a popular magazine with women back in those days. It was a collection of short PG-13 romance stories; think Hallmark Channel. True Life Confessions, on the other hand, was a magazine tailored more toward, shall we say, male interests; think late-night Showtime. And that, my friends, is how on the 30th day of January, 1978, my father and I bought and delivered a porno magazine to my mother who was, to put it mildly, somewhat less than amused.

Eventually, the work crews got the roads plowed and the electricity back on. I was out of school for at least a week and remember how strange the first day back was, as it seemed like I had been away for a month. A couple of weeks later things had more or less returned to normal; school, home, TV, bed. On February 15th, we huddled around our TV and watched Leon Spinks' historic upset of Mohammed Ali. A few weeks after that, spring had sprung and the nasty winter of 1978 was in the rear-view mirror.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Plant A 3X3 Square Foot Garden For $50 (Or Less)

It's that time of year when many of us are beginning to solidify our gardening plans for the upcoming growing season. If you are planning to plant a traditional single-row garden this year, I hope you will consider trying Square Foot Gardening instead. One of the frequent concerns I hear about Square Foot Gardening is that it is expensive to get started. My response is that while there is certainly an up-front cost associated with the method, that cost is relatively modest when compared, over time, to a similarly productive single-row garden. Further, many of the costs can be mitigated or eliminated entirely if the gardener is willing to do the work themselves and be creative about acquiring materials. 

My preferred materials for building the raised bed box are cedar and cypress, primarily for their attractive appearance and rot-resistance. However, less expensive types of wood, composite materials or even concrete blocks could be used, with a significant savings in cost. If your community has a Habitat ReStore, you can often buy pieces of scrap lumber there for less than half the retail cost. Just be sure that the lumber has not been painted, stained or treated. With a little scrounging, you should be able to get the lumber for a 3'x3' box for around $5.

You can generally buy a 50' roll of landscape fabric at a discount store for around $7. That's about three times as much as you need for a 3'x3' garden, so you might be able to split the cost with a neighbor. In a pinch, you could use old burlap bags or even old cardboard boxes.   

The special soil mix is the one item you really cannot "skimp" on, although there are ways to shave a bit off the cost. Coarse-grade vermiculite for a 3'x3' garden is going to run about $20, and the peat moss is going to be around $15. If you make your own compost or can get it for free from a community recycling site, you can keep the cost of the soil mix to around $35. The obvious question is; can't we just use the much cheaper perlite in place of vermiculite? Unfortunately the answer is no. Vermiculite is a heat-treated form of mica. It's a rock basically. Perlite is styrene foam. Over time, and by time I mean a few months, perlite will work its way to the surface of the soil, rendering it useless, while vermiculite remains embedded evenly in the soil.

The "official" way to divide a Square Foot Garden into sections is wooden slats.You can buy 1-1/8" wood strips in 8' lengths for $1.50 to $1.80 each at almost any lumber yard. The grid for a 3'x3' garden would require three of these. In honesty, though, I stopped doing this a few years back. I didn't like the way the slats aged, warped and buckled. Instead, I use 1/2" eye bolts and thread paracord through them. The overall cost is about the same, but I think the appearance is better and paracord will last for a couple of growing seasons and is easy to replace. Others have used coated clothesline in the same way.

Finally, dollar stores usually sell packets of seeds three for a dollar. You may not be able to get the variety available from garden stores, but you can seed your entire garden for the price of one packet of those more expensive seeds. Alternately, variety stores like Walgreens put their remaining brand-name seed packets on clearance after early June, and you can often get them for half or even 75% off.  
Lumber for box = $5.00
Landscape fabric = $2.50
Special soil ingredients = $35.00
Grid = $4.50
Seeds = $3.00
Total cost = $50.00

Monday, January 8, 2018

Give Me A Seed Catalog On A Frosty Winter Evening

Like much of the eastern United States, Wynfield Creek Homestead has seen colder than usual temperatures this January, with lows on a couple of nights dropping into the unheard-of-in-these-parts single digits. We've also had our share of precipitation this month, but have been fortunate NOT to have the two at the same time... until today. Now, to be fair, the inch or two of "wintry mix" we are likely to get over the next few hours is nothing compared to the foot or two some areas of the country have endured this winter. Still, I've been saving up a particular item for an evening such as this, and, no, it's not a fifth of Wild Turkey -- although that doesn't sound bad, either. 

If your household is anything like mine and you do a lot of your Christmas shopping online and via catalog, you probably received an astounding number of catalogs between October 1st and December 1st. There were days in the early part of November when the mailbox was stuffed with a half-dozen each day. By Thanksgiving, however, that flow had dried to a trickle and had stopped entirely by mid-December. Then, right before Christmas, a new trickle started, the annual run of seed catalogs.

Now, to be honest, seed catalogs, like the start of spring training and the first robin, don't mean quite as much to me now as they did when I lived on the frozen tundra of northwest Ohio. In that dark and desolate land of chest-high snow drifts, sub-freezing daily highs and chill winds blowing across miles of empty farmland, the brightly colored catalogs with their pictures of bounteous crops and dazzling flowers were a sort of mini-vacation, a chance to leave the cold and snow behind for a few hours and lose oneself in the promise of spring and the smell of freshly-turned earth. Still, even in a place where "winter" lasts a couple of weeks and rarely involves more than a sprinkle of freezing rain or an inch of wet snow, there is a primal pull toward the promise of fresh vegetables growing tall and green under a Carolina blue sky. And that's why I save my seed catalogs for an evening such as this.

As far as the catalogs themselves go, everyone has a favorite among the dozens out there and everyone has an opinion on why that one is the best. For reasons that I cannot entirely recall, my catalogs of choice when I lived in Ohio were Johnny's Selected Seeds and Park Seed. I still order from Johnny's, which is based in Maine, but, strangely, no longer order from Park, which is based in South Carolina. In the place of Park I have added Landreth's, which bills itself as the oldest seed company in America, as my second favorite. These catalogs take entirely different approaches and have entirely different target markets. Johnny's targets the larger-scale home gardener and the small-to-midsize "professional" grower; the kinds of people you might see hawking their wares at a Farmers' Market. Their catalog is more technical in presentation, with detailed information on yields and productivity along with presentation, marketing and selling tips. Landreth's catalog is a work of art, with wonderful illustrations that are clearly designed to appeal to the recreational gardener. One thing I particularly like about Landreth's is that it offers an entire section devoted to container gardening, including several varieties cultivated specifically for this purpose. It also offers a number of "heritage" seeds for traditional colonial-era plants.

I also occasionally order from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. Located in Mansfield, Missouri this family-owned company is relatively new to the game, having printed their first catalog in 1998. I like their commitment to homestead values and their "village" concept. 

Most recently, I have been entranced by the Territorial Seed Company catalog. I ordered a single pack of specialty seeds from them last year over the internet and just received their full catalog for the first time. It is the first catalog I have run across that offers a selection of hops, which I suppose has to do with them being located in Oregon. 

Whichever seed company is your particular favorite, I hope you enjoy some frosty down time perusing their catalog and making your selections for the coming year.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Homestead 2018: New Book, Market Garden and Custom Tackle Change

As we flip the calendar over to 2018, I want to mention some of my plans for the homestead in the coming year. 2017 was a year of transition, as I started a professionally challenging new role as executive director of a startup economic development group, AnsonEDP, in a town more than 60 miles from the homestead and chose to split my time between the two. This arrangement was a little tricky at first, but as Janet and I came to an understanding about shared duties things smoothed out and we actually had a reasonably productive year in the garden. Buoyed by that success, I am looking to take on a couple of additional challenges in 2018; a new, full-length nonfiction book and a market garden, as ell as some minor changes to my custom tackle business.

I started work on the new book, which will be called Ben and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance, in earnest this past September, although the origin of the project can be traced back to an essay by that title I published on the Porch Dog Journal blog back in 2015. If everything goes as expected, I plan to publish Ben in late April or early May, and follow it up with a "book signing" tour of hardware stores and garden centers over the summer. Although it will be the fourth book I have published, it will be the first book of original material since Breakfast at Midway in 2008. Part memoir, part short-fiction and part humorous (but legitimate) lawn care guide, it will be dedicated to my father, Bennie Marek, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday in July.

Beginning just after the first of the year, I plan to start work on a market garden. Although it will nominally be part of the Wynfield Creek Homestead, the garden will actually be planted on some land adjacent to my "weekday" apartment in Wadesboro. I will come right out and say that I have no idea how well this is going to work as it has been 30 years since I attempted anything of this scale, and quite honestly it didn't work out so well back then. Given the somewhat unusual circumstances, it is entirely possible that it will be a complete bust, but I am hoping to be lucky enough to have produce to sell at the Uptown Wadesboro Farmers' Market this summer. I will definitely keep you updated on the project, however it may ultimately turn out.

The final change for 2018 will be the retiring of the "Porch Dog Custom Tackle" brand. As many of you know, for the past five years I have been making and selling custom fishing tackle under that name. For the sake of simplicity, I've decided to bring that business under the Wynfield Creek umbrella. It doesn't really impact anything other than the packaging and the Facebook page, which as discontinued right after Christmas. I hope that those of you who previously followed the Porch Dog Custom Tackle page will switch over to Wynfield Creek Homestead.

Well, that's it. Let's get this 2018 thing under way

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...