Hugelkultur Garden

Our yard is natural and also very small so when branches come down we tend to pile them up.  This takes up valuable room and I had been watching a particular pile for almost a year.  Upon re-reading parts of Gaia’s Garden by Tony Hemenway I came again across the Hugelkultur section and finally made the connection – a way to build a garden and get rid of the sticks! 

Hugelkultur are a method of piling wood up and putting soil on top to create a garden bed.  They are very versatile; I had small sticks so that is what we used but some use huge logs.  The idea is that as the wood breaks down it holds water and provides nutrients for your plants.  My neighbor has a backyard she doesn’t use with sandy fill soil and a couple of orange trees.  It gets nice sun, is accessible to us, and she had been asking us to put a garden there for years so this August we began. 


I got large old boxes from the cardboard recycling bin and laid them out on the grass, then piled all the sticks up on top and stamped them down to about a foot high.  I loaded three 40 quart plastic bins into the trunk of my Honda Civic and headed over to the nearest stable to get some horse manure.  It was really raw manure so I figured this garden wouldn’t produce much the first year.  About 5 manure runs later I was blessed with a friend and his pickup who came to help finish the job with much less driving.  We then got a load of rough mulch from the county and added that on top. 

Hugelcultur with squash seedlings

 A week or so later I planted Calabasa squash, each seedling in a hole of good soil.  I knew they would go all  over but I didn’t think much would grow this year anyway so might as well try the squash.  As time went by hundreds of mushrooms came up from the pile and I could pick up a handful and see the mycelium running through the soil.  I started thinking this garden might be better than I had hoped now that mushrooms were helping us out.

My mom and neighbor got involved and all kinds of plants went in, from tomatoes to kale, even a spaghetti squash from a random seed.  The squash overran everything to some extent but stuff grew anyway.  I have been amazed by how much this garden had grown in its first season.  Here is the garden from January, about five months after we loaded on the manure.

The tomatoes look like they will go until summer, kale is great, we got a spaghetti squash last month and today I harvested a broccoli and a huge Calabasa.  I’m hopeful that the beets and onions will take off once the squash is gone.  I think it worked so well because the sticks were aged and had fungus already started on them so the manure was quickly broken down.


Ice Cream!

I’ve finally gotten good at making ice cream that I like and can eat!!!  As some of you know I’m on the GAPS eating method to restore my inner ecology (for a longer explanation click here)  which doesn’t permit cane sugar or lactose (so no unfermented milk) so ice cream has been something I’ve been doing without for 9 months.  One discovery is that cream definitely makes the best ice cream, the rich jersey cow milk will do but full cream is a lot less icy.  The next discovery is that when using cream the freezer works almost as well as the ice cream maker and is easier. 

Vanilla and Chocolate Yogurt Ice Cream

First thing is to make the fermented cream or you can use unfermented cream and jump to the end to make unfermented ice cream.  Raw cream is nice if you can get it, pasteurized store cream will do but I’d avoid ultrapasteurized.  There are three cultures I use: yogurt, buttermilk, and kefir. 

Yogurt: Warm a quart of cream (or use still warm from the cow if you are so lucky) no higher than 110 F.  Add 1 tablespoon of store-bought plain yogurt with live cultures and stir in well.  Then put in a glass quart mason jar, cap tightly, and put in a cooler to which you add hot tap water.  Let sit 12-24 hours, replacing the hot water if necessary, then move to the fridge.  It will set to yogurt consistency when it cools. 

Buttermilk: Allow a quart of cream to come to room temperature and add 1/2 cup live culture buttermilk from the store or starter culture purchased from someplace like New England Cheesemaking Supply or from your last batch.  Stir in well and sit on the counter at room temperature for 12 or so hours, then refrigerate.

Kefir: Add 2-3 tablespoons kefir grains (you can get these from me if you’re  in the Tampa Bay area) or starter culture to 1 quart cream.  Let sit at room temperature about 24 hours.  Strain out grains (use for next batch) and refrigerate finished kefir.

Once you have the fermented cream simply stir in honey and other flavorings until it tastes good.  I like chocolate made with honey, cocoa, and vanilla extract (about 3 T. cocoa per quart, 1 t. vanilla, and honey to taste) or vanilla made with honey and vanilla extract.  I also just made a peppermint one with honey, vanilla, and peppermint extract. 

Then put into a container that is shallow or square shaped, cover and place in the freezer.  Every few hours, or whenever you think of it, take the cream out and stir it up.  Eventually it will be frozen through and ready to eat. YUM!

Cream Separator and Milk Break


The common method of separating cream out of whole milk hasn’t changed in a century or so.  It’s basically centrifuging the mixture, the heavier milk gets flung out to the edge and the lighter cream stays in the center.  If you get unhomogenized milk you can just leave it in the fridge and the cream will rise to the top for you to carefully skim off – this low tech simple way was used by all for centuries prior to centrifuge cream separators – and still a method I like.  Our cream separator from the 1930’s is all mechanical and though you could attach it to the power take off of a tractor we just hand crank.  It has about 40 parts, mainly due to the stack of 30 cone-shaped discs which are part of the spinning apparatus.  I took pictures of the assembly when we were taught it a few weeks ago so I would be able to put it together myself next time.  We separated 27 pounds of milk (about 3 gallons), which is one days worth from April, our 100% Jersey cow.  She gives very high butterfat milk and we got about two quarts of cream that day.  

Here she is eating while I milk her.

Now for the assembly of the cream separator:


The cream comes out the top spout and the skimmed milk out the bottom.  You can send the skimmed milk though again to get a second run of lighter cream.  So far I have made butter a few times, cultured creme fraiche, whipped cream and plan to make panacotta soon. 

Here is a video of the cream separator:

Link at: 

Our cows have been getting hormone shots  so that they can be breed on July 1st – the shots are to sync their cycles so the breeding can be done all on the same day (I know, seems like a less than perfect method and I’d like to see how Amish or no chemical farms cope with this).   Sadly for them they don’t get to do it the old-fashioned way since Jersey bulls are very bad-tempered and cannot be kept on the farm.  One benefit I guess is that they can sex select the sperm so they get female calves.  With the cows being given synthetic hormones I do not want to use the milk so I haven’t been collecting or using the it for these 10 days.  This is different from the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) but still not natural.  Our manager feels the milk is fine and even took some home to make ice cream today so I’m thinking that other dairies use/sell the milk while the hormones are being given which is worrisome and something I’ll ask my milk farmers when I’m back home buying milk.  In the meantime we’ve been trying milk baths and tossing lots of milk.   I miss the fresh milk and cream and the break has made me realize that I need to make a lot of butter and freeze it or make it into ghee once the hormones are gone.  I also made my first hard cheese 2 weeks ago, it’s a fast one so I tasted it recently and other than being too salty due to an error on my part it’s pretty good, my family even eats it!

Mulberries again!!!

These are probably my favorite “wild” fruit because they are everywhere!!!  In Florida Mulberry trees fruit around tax time and our well-loved tree at home gives us enough berries (with diligent picking) for many jars of canned berries, a freezer full, weeks of smoothies, and 15 gallons of wine. 

Now I’m in Illinois for the summer and here they are again!  Fruiting all over at the end of June.  Here I find them on fence rows, lots of them and some white ones too.  It is also the very start of the black raspberries sharing the fence rows at the farm and I see grapes coming along though I may be back home before they are ripe. 

We gathered a very modest few quarts of berries Saturday, could have done better climbing up into trees rather than picking off the hay wagon but I was wearing my 1930’s appropriate dress so stayed on the wagon.  I decided to make them into jelly since we had so few and I’m sure I’ve made jelly before but can’t really remember so it must have been long ago.

Back in the summer kitchen I got the stove going and let the berries soften over the warm area while I made some scrambled eggs over the hot firebox on the left.  We also added some rhubarb, black raspberries, and unripe apples to hopefully give us enough pectin to make a good jell. 

In the pot I smashed them up and let them warm awhile to release the juice.  Then I strained everything through cheesecloth and got about two cups of juice.  We didn’t really have a recipe for mulberries so made our best guess and added 1 1/3 cups sugar, then brought it to a rapid boil while stirring.  The stove did beautifully here, I wish I had a picture but I was distracted with stirring and trying to avoid the heat pouring out of the stove (I still love the wood stove but it was hot).  After 10 minutes or so it seemed thick enough and I poured it into a sterilized pint jar and capped so it would seal. 

We have very hard water from the well, I didn’t realize how hard until I saw all the lime built up from just boiling the jar to sterilize it.  Our jelly was a lovely color and I broke my no sugar rule to taste it – pretty good! 

I think my next try will include more black raspberries as they get ripe and I’d like to find a recipe using honey.

Wood Stove

One of the neatest things about working at a farm from the 1930’s is the wood stove.  In most museums there is a velvet rope and the room set up beyond where no one can go.  Not so here.  This is living history and when we want to boil some water or bake biscuits we fire it up.  I have long wanted one of these, one of the reasons I keep trying things out is to see if I really do want what I think I do, and in this case I can now say confidently that I would love a wood stove.

I had never cooked on a wood stove prior to 3 weeks ago and it is much easier than I had expected.  The wood goes into the open door on the left and door below is to remove the ash which is dumped out by a hinged opening floor under the fire. 

The door in the middle is the oven and the round black thing on the door is the thermometer.  The box hanging off the right is the water tank which can be kept full of water to heat for washing.  In this stove, which has a rather small wood box, about every 20 minutes more wood must be added and after about 30 minutes with a nice strong fire you can close the vent and heat up the oven.  We got it to over 500 F pretty fast the other day and had to lower the temperature to bake some biscuits and later some rhubarb from the garden.  I haven’t baked anything that needed a steady temperature for a long amount of time yet but with a little practice, and a big wood pile, it wouldn’t be too hard.  Now I just have to see if there are some tricks to chopping the wood!

Clover Hay

I am spending the summer working at a 1930’s living history farm in St. Charles, Illinois.  This is my third week at the farm and while my intentions were to write more often my tired body and ideas of perfect posts stopped that.  So, in order to get the ball rolling here is my start, not perfect and the body is still tired but I guess I’m getting stronger.  I will say that these farm posts may not be interesting for anyone but me or those in Florida who wonder what I am up to but when I worry about that I don’t write so feel free to delete and I’ll feel free to write.

Today I hopped on the Ford tractor, same engine as the model T they tell me and runs like a charm.  Now, this thing is cared for by a good farm mechanic but can you imagine a vehicle made today being put to work in 80 years?  I love my 17-year-old Honda but no way.  Anyway, the Ford started right up and off we went to turn some clover hay.  It was cut on Friday and two days later needed to be flipped to help it dry out.  I was pulling a hay turner which raked up all the cut clover and put it into long rows.  The hay flipper had some trouble, it turns with the wheels and sometimes the wheel would slide along the ground rather than turn, finally I figured out this seemed to happen when we went over patches of unmown clover, I think it was too much work to rake through the uncut stuff so once I avoided these patches things worked pretty well.  As I’m driving along I’m remembering the beautiful field of red clover this was a few days before and thinking of the Rats of NIMH – since this wasn’t a plow any critters living in this field should have been just fine I figured but for the beautiful red clover flowers all cut down I mourned a bit.  Clover hay is a really good feed for the winter, around 18% protein and the honey bee’s were loving it before it was cut so overall I was happy it was planted and I was having fun with this nifty hay flipper.  It was a beautiful day in the 80’s and while I was wearing a hat I am getting quite the farmer tan.  Here is a picture of my finished field with the Ford in the middle, tomorrow someone will drive in the opposite direction and flip the hay again to dry out more before we bail it and store it in the barn for winter.

New home for the bees

I got a call from St. Pete Beach about a swarm that had moved into a wall and the owners didn’t want to kill the bees so they asked me to take them out.  Since the colony is in a location where I can silicon caulk up all the holes except one I was able to set up what we call a trap-out.  Over the one entrance I have left I put a cone made of screen. 

The bees come out to go foraging and walk to the end of the cone to leave their home.  When they return they go back to the entrance they are used to and find it is covered with the wide end of the screen cone and can’t figure out how to get back in.

I put a box with a frame of eggs and baby bees (called brood) by the door.  When the foraging bees come home and can’t get in their hive they smell the brood and go into my box.  There they will realize there is no queen and will begin to raise one, which takes 16 days until she emerges as a bee and another week or so before she is mated and laying eggs.  In the meantime the hive in the wall is emptying out.  Eventually they will all be gone, the queen there may decide to leave with anyone left.  After about 6 weeks the hive in the wall will be empty, all the honey there will have been consumed and I can block it up and take the box, which should have a new queen and be doing well, to an apiary.  You must check these regularly to be sure the cone has not gotten blocked with a dead bee and, for large hives, to be sure the box you left is not completely full, in which case you’d need to put another box there.

As I was putting the cone and box up these bees were so calm and gentle I didn’t even think to put on a veil and the home owner was so surprised.  I do usually use a veil with hives I don’t know but this is a pretty small colony and were not very defensive of a home they had only moved into a few weeks ago.  I do not want to advocate being unsafe but I like to work with honeybees with as few barriers between myself and them as possible.  I am more connected to them and can be more gentle and calm with less equipment on.

I took a video of this and put it on YouTube, you can see it at the link below or embedded.