Happy Halloween from Black Cat Cottage!
Friday, October 28, 2011
With only the glow of a small flashlight she slowly makes her way down the aged, moss covered stone stairs. Her hand reaches for the door, which creaks as it slowly opens. She sees a mouse scurry, a spider climbs back up to its web in the corner of the dark room. The smell is damp, musty, … lifeless.
An eerie feeling comes over her as the light flickers, suddenly she turns around and screams…….... “this place is a mess!”
“What?” my husband asked making his way down the stairs.
“I said, this place is a mess,” I answered back.
This spooky room, which has been known to frighten many a guest, and sometimes repairmen from the Gas Company is our cellar.
We live in an old Victorian farmhouse, which boasts a cellar with a dirt floor under the house. Aside from the modern furnace which takes up most of the middle of the room, it’s relatively roomy. After cleaning out some refuse from past homeowners last summer I noticed it was lined with multiple wood shelves, as old as the house itself. It dawned on me. It’s a root cellar.
If you don’t know what a root cellar is, you’re probably not alone. They are not exactly something most people use anymore. Root cellars were the refrigerators of the past; the place to store fruits, vegetables, herbs, home-canned goods, etc. long before electricity was ever an option. Using the naturally stable, cool and semi-moist temperatures down below people kept their produce from spoiling. People have used everything from cellars to caves, crawl spaces to basements (different than a cellar) as root cellars; any cool and dark underground place with ventilation will do. If you’re looking to construct one or use an existing room there are plenty of resources to guide you.
“Root Cellaring: Natural cold storage of fruits and vegetables” by Mike and Nancy Bubel is the best book I’ve found about root cellaring. From construction to recipes, its exhaustive content will answer all of your questions and then some. There’s also “The Complete Root Cellar Book: Building Plans, Uses and 100 Recipes” by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie, which I’ve heard is also good.
Our root cellar will receive its first official makeover in the coming winter months. Earlier this week we discovered that our shower was leaking into the cellar causing moisture, mold and all kinds of "fun", so we're working on resolving that. But I am looking forward to the overall overhaul. My husband has courageously agreed to vacuum up all the webs and debris (spiders?!) hanging from above. I will tackle cleaning up and reinforcing the shelves. I would also like to bring in some rock for the floor and replace the broken screens that lead to the outside. We’ve talked about growing Portobello mushrooms and storing wine down there along with our fruits, vegetables and canned goods. The cats will monitor the mice population and a mounted thermometer will monitor the overall temperature and humidity throughout the year.
Our spooky cellar will once again become what it was created to be, a lovely root cellar perfect for decades of harvests to come.
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 11:23 AM
Monday, October 17, 2011
We retired our accidental pumpkin patch in the backyard just in time for fall. I say accidental because I never planned or intended to have a pumpkin patch there. But after haphazardly throwing a pumpkin into a compost pile, I noticed some seedlings emerge in the spring (I blame lazy gardener disease). The small plants soon grew into vines that covered a space about 17 long and 8 feet wide.
It was my first time growing pumpkins and it was definitely a learning experience. So here’s what I found out about pumpkins…. They love full sun, plenty of water and they love to be pampered with nice rich compost (I'd feed them a nice dose of compost tea once and a while). I also learned that seed saving is easy. I guess I should also say I learned not to throw pumpkins with seeds into relatively shallow compost piles.
Anyway, growing your own pumpkins is not only fun, it’s cheap since you can just use seeds saved from this year’s jack-o-lantern for next year’s patch. To save the seeds simply scoop out seeds into a bucket of warm water. Let the pulp settle and pick out the seeds. Let them drain, and then dry for at least few days (I usually just set them on newspaper or a paper towel). Then store them in an envelope in the fridge till you’re ready to plant. Easy right? The rest you can bake with some sea salt, butter and garlic. Soooo good!
If you’re going to grow pumpkins make sure you have the space (some varieties require more than others so check the seed packet or Google the variety). Pumpkins come from the squash family whose members tend to be space hogs in the garden. Plant seeds in May through late June or plant transplants at the beginning of July. Most varieties will take 85-125 days to reach maturity, though some heirloom and large varieties take longer. Seeds should emerge in 7-10 days. Water deeply in the mornings to prevent fungal diseases, side dress with rich compost throughout the season and keep a look out for squash bugs, cucumber beetles and aphids. I would just scoop squash bugs/beetles into a glass of hot water and dish soap (RIP bugs), and then spray the leaves with water to get rid of aphids. Catch them early and you’ll be fine. I had the worst problem with earwigs though! They slowly ate through the skins and ruined some of our pumpkins. Jerks.
Anyway, there are plenty of varieties to choose from when it comes to pumpkins. Certain ones work better for carving, eating, etc. You might want to save the seeds from several different types or order a few packages online. See which varieties grow best for you and your family.
I will say that while pumpkins are space hogs, they are definitely well worth the space they take up. In fact, I think we’ll plant some on purpose next year.
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 11:14 AM
Monday, October 10, 2011
We are slowly (emphasis on slowly) saying goodbye to our large patch of grass that resides in our front yard. You may remember my column a few weeks ago detailing our plans, but if not, no worries (I barely remember). Since our lawn takes way too much work, water and time to maintain we decided to rip it out. We’re replacing it with water savvy roses and perennials on the perimeter, and raised beds with vegetables and herbs in the inside area. We’ve also set aside a play area for future kiddos, a nice sitting area and a place for just for the birds. No grass needed.
You might be wondering what you can plant in your front yard besides lawn and a few select shrubs. My answer… almost anything! If you’re yard gets full sun and you’d like to replace that burning patch of lawn with veggies, go for it. If you hate the glaring afternoon sun pouring into your house from the west, plant a shade tree. If people’s pooches keep mistaking your lawn as a restroom, plant a living hedge to deter them. No matter what you need or want there’s a way to utilize your yard in the best way possible.
We will be using most of our front yard as a vegetable and herb garden. Maybe you’ve never thought of growing food in your front yard, but there are many ways to integrate edibles into your existing landscape or plot out a special area specifically for them. I’ve mapped out several beds and labeled them according to the amount of sun they receive and what grows well with what (I know, OCD). But all you have to do is think about what your family really loves to eat and somehow incorporate that into your yard. For example, we’ve planned several beds on one side of the yard: one for tomatoes and hot peppers, one for corn, pumpkins and beans, another for lettuce and broccoli, one of carrots and onions and another for potatoes and more beans. On the other side garlic will be planted underneath an Gala apple tree and certain herbs will be planted in pots (those that tend to get invasive like rosemary or catnip). These are things we use/eat on a regular basis.
What does your family eat? Write a list and think about what you can grow yourself.
Edible elements can also act as problem solvers in a yard. Herbs act as great groundcovers. A fruit tree will provide shade, a windbreak and of course fruit. Plant some garlic underneath your rose bushes or some tomatoes or corn in a spot that gets lots of sun. Try some lettuce in a small raised bed or line a fence with berry bushes. Artichoke plants produce large foliage and beautiful purple flowers. There are also plenty of edible flowers that look nice and taste good too. There’s an endless array of options, no matter the size of your yard.
For more information check out the following books, The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden by Ivette Soler, Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn by Will Allen and Diana Balmori or Gaia's Garden, A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. There are plenty more to list, but instead I’m off to dig up more grass and investigate the clearance rack at Lowes. Happy planting!
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 11:00 AM
Monday, October 3, 2011
This past Sunday, the 5th annual Green Home Tour in Three Rivers showcased some of the greenest homes located amongst the oaks. I was lucky enough to tag along and learn from the helpful homeowners willing to show guests the ins and outs of a green home. What makes a home green? Well, while many of the homes boasted things like LED lights or solar panels, what really made each house green was the owners themselves. Each prioritized lessening their carbon footprint and working with their surroundings rather than against them.
The first house was owned by Rob and Loretta Liefved. The entire home and machine shop are off-grid, meaning all power is generated by the Liefveds and not Edison. Their log home has a 360 view of the foothills and is powered by a 21.6 kW Off-Grid Power System and a liquid cooled generator. Their solar modules are mounted on dual axis trackers which sense the sun and move accordingly. Impressive huh? The solar power then feeds into 16 batteries which store power for use. The couple also raises chickens, grows food in the garden, uses a woodstove for heating and recycles everything.
The second home belonged to Carol McGrew. The custom home features fire-resistant materials, maximum insulation and a maintenance-free exterior. A Blue–Max wall system (Styrofoam + rebar + concrete) was used to build the home along with a metal roof and beautiful stained concrete floors. The house flows seamlessly amongst its surroundings. It also features a solar panel system and some of the best views I’ve seen in Three Rivers.
The third home is owned by Kristina Roper and David Graber. This home, built in 1989 is nestled among the many native plants David collects and transplants there. The home also features an attached solar system on the roof and a wood stove for heating the home in the winter. The native plants require little water and fill the property with lovely buds and blooms.
The fourth home belongs to Stan and Jaclyn Johnson. The comfy, cozy southwestern style home includes a large solar power system, a foil-wrapped roof and walls and double-insulated exterior walls. A large overhanging on the south side of the home helps keep it cool during the summer and screens utilize the breezes coming down from the mountains. The home’s design also makes it so the Johnsons can shut down heating and cooling in each section of the house. The master bedroom features a gas-heated stove for chilly nights and several ceiling fans help filter air throughout the whole house. The exterior is also gorgeous. Landscaping by Annie Hayes includes charming native plants and flowers.
The fifth home owned by Kathleen McCleary is an extension of its beautiful surroundings. Fragrant native flowers and herbs scent the air with a magnificent potpourri, while birds and bees fly about. McCleary says she sleeps outside half the year on the large porch that wraps around the house. Extended overhangings provide protection from the elements throughout the year as well. A clothesline is used to dry clothes and downed trees provide a constant supply of firewood for cool nights. The open space design of the house maximizes breezes and light. The house is a great reflection of the nature that surrounds it.I wish I could include all the details of every home on the tour, but I’m already running out of space. Keep your eyes open next Oct. for the green home tour in Three Rivers. It’s a great learning experience to see local green homes and ask questions related to green construction and solar. You can also get more information by going to www.threeriversvillage.com/trew.html.
Posted by Black Cat Cottage at 3:49 PM