Monday, October 20, 2008

We Can Do It! Don't Get Scared! (How did I become the cheerleader for optimism?)


Okay. The “they says” are taking over. I know that people are stressed and everything because of the stock market, etc. But look at the short term. Gas is down. That means food will go down. And is anyone really not going to Christmas shop? Really? My sister and I have been roiling our hands waiting for the Black Friday ads to come out on this special website she goes to where they post all the flyers as soon as they go to press. Except no one’s posting them this year! I know, I know. Buy Nothing Day and all that. I have Buy Nothing Year, and I actually like to shop the day after Thanksgiving. It’s like a giant party. With DVD’s for $3.00 that usually cost $20.

Anyway, I keep hearing all this horrible stuff. No one will be able to get a loan. No one has cash to get paid. Blah, blah, blah. Did anyone really not get a pay check last week because there was no cash? I think we would have heard more than just the random “they says” about it. The whole thing reminds me of this story that we read in 4th grade about the Depression. (I know it was 4th grade, because that was my favorite year of school. my teacher gave me a pile of her textbook samples and a couple reading books from the high school side of the building and told me to finish them by the end of the year. It was the last year I learned anything in school. She also gave me great books to read like the ones about the little kids who smuggled the treasury of their country out from under the Nazis buy sledding the gold bars one by one down the hill to the port. That was a great one.)

The gist of it was a guy had a hotdog stand and was doing good business and went out and worked hard all day and sold all he could get. When he went to expand and maybe hire someone to run another stand, all he heard was about how there was a Depression, and he shouldn’t spend money. So he didn’t expand his business and he cut back on what he bought to sell, and he didn’t go out to work as much, because there was this Depression, so he didn’t make as much and wouldn’t you know it, the Depression ruined his business. The moral of the story being, don’t believe the “they says” until you see if for yourself. Don’t be reckless or anything, but if you’ve got a good thing going, go with it until you see something different.

I have been preparing for the “next Great Depression” since I was about eight. It’s not weird. I grew up with stores about how my grandfather only got an orange for Christmas and had to go and live in a CCC camp in Pittsburgh so he could send money home to his mother. He served stateside in the war, so he didn’t have any WWII stories he could repeat over and over. And, again, most of my teachers in elementary school were kids during the Depression, so they had some really harrowing “when I was your age” stories. At least they sounded awful to a seven year old.

Needless to say, student loans have ruined my finances, have for years, and I was able to finance an older truck at a good interest rate and, contrary to what the TV news was saying this morning, I was also able to finance a warranty plan for it. You don’t need $3100. You don’t need a 700 credit score. Yes, I had to join a credit union. It was one extra piece of paper I signed when I picked up the truck. If I’d listened to the “they says” I would have been paying high rates at a U-Pay-Here or I would have been roped into buying a vehicle that cost two or three times as much as the one I ended up with. I am not Miss Optimism. But Plan A worked this time, and if it hadn’t? That’s why there’s 26 whole letters in that alphabet.

Speaking of which, about Plan M came through on that goat shed, and it’s done. Except for a door. Here is my mom with her fantastic architectural creation. (And some appreciative goats who will not have frost on their furry behinds this year!)

But, in response to the “they says” I’m going to have a little episode of what I call “They Say if You ....” I have a couple of these up my sleeve, so I’ll label this one:

Experiment #1: They say you can make your own vanilla, and it’s cheaper than in the store.

Yes, it’s true. Kind of. If you use a lot of vanilla, which I do.

How to do it:

1. Plan ahead. Save an old vanilla bottle. My mom threw mine away, so I actually bought an empty bottle at the Whole Foods Co-op. It also takes about 6 weeks to get started, so if you expect to have homemade vanilla for holiday baking, START NOW.

2. Get 2 (or so) vanilla beans, some vodka, and a pint jar. Later, you’ll need a funnel and a coffee filter. The vodka should be okay, nothing too expensive.

3. Slice the vanilla beans from end to end. Stuff them in the jar. Fill the jar with vodka. Shake.

4. Put the jar in a dark place. A cupboard, closet or pantry should be fine. Give it a shake every few days. After about a month or so, you should have vanilla-y vodka in the jar that you can use in recipes like normal vanilla.

5. Line the funnel with the coffee filter and pour the liquid through so you don’t get beans and seeds in the finished product.

6. When you end up with more vodka than vanilla, fish out the beans, and add fresh beans.

Is it cheaper? One ounce of fair to middlin brand name vanilla extract costs about $7.00. To get set up with vodka, vanilla, and a funnel, it’s about $15-20. I buy the beans in bulk for a couple of bucks a piece. If you don’t have bulk vanilla available they can be a lot more, though the expensive ones that come sealed in glass taste better and last longer. You get a lot more than an ounce when you make your own, though. I run through about one bottle of vodka every six months. I bake everything at home, and I also make a lot of vanilla flavored frosting for cakes. I definitely save money. Tastewise, they are about comparable if it’s real vanilla extract and not imitation. But if you’re short on cash and all you can get is imitation vanilla, you’re better off using that than nothing or not baking at all.

There are a ton of things out there that are like this, and I’ll definitely be trying some more “You can make your own ___” experiments in the future. But on this one, “they” are right!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wood Burning Heat, Pt. 2


Here’s part two of my ongoing story about wood heat. Which I am writing as I should be actually moving a load of wood into the house. I’m sure the gorgeous fall weather is not going to hold. and there’s the wood, just sitting there!

If you’re going to burn wood and not pellets, the whole woodburning heat scene gets a little complicated. You can go about getting wood a lot of different ways. You can buy loads of just long logs that you cut and split yourself which have to be delivered on a log truck. You can buy precut and split wood. You can get “slabwood” which is basically the leavings from when sawmills square off the trees they are cutting for boards. Again. the slab can come in long planks or cut. Ideally, you can be cutting firewood all the time from your own wood lot or one closeby where you live where you have permission to cut downed trees.

There are a few considerations when deciding where you’re going to get your wood, the most important being, will it burn right? Do not use evergreen wood in your wood burning stove. The wood is full of pitch and sap, and that will gum up your stove and chimney when it burns. A gummy, flammable chimney is a very bad thing. You can get hemlock slabwood a lot of places around here because it’s a good rough framing wood (our new goat shed -ha! ha! We did get something done around here! - is made of rough sawed hemlock) but I asked my uncle who is my mentor on all things wood, and he said don’t burn hemlock slab.

The next consideration is if the wood is dry enough to burn. Ever since we’ve started with the wood heat, and we’re going into our fifth winter now, we’ve burned trees from summer blowdowns about three year s previously. We live in a wooded area, there is at least one bad windstorm a year, and the big trees that com down during those storms are excellent firewood after they are on the ground a couple of years. My uncle does maintenance on a wood lot for his neighbor who is a retired forester, and they get along really well. You would never guess that the woods around the house over there were actually really heavily utilized, providing heat for about five different households. All he does though is cleans up down trees and trees that are unhealthy or hanging.

The wood had to be properly seasoned for a couple of good reasons. Wet wood doesn’t burn as hot, and isn’t as efficient. Also, the greener the wood it, the more creosote will build up in your chimney. Creosote, as my stove man has told me many the time, is the solid form of natural gas. It’s like a shiney, bubbly, glassy layer that builds up in the stove pipe if you’re burning green wood at lower temperatures, and it is the reason that chimneys catch fire. Even a little creosote burning can make a greasy, tarry buildup in the chimney that can never really be scraped off. I’m not sure if the creosote buildup have something to do with greener woods just never reaching the temperature of burn they need to be at or the chemical combination of the wood before it has aged, but firewood needs to be seasoned.

If you can feel a dampness in a newly split piece of wood or notice a big color difference between the inner core of the wood and the outer layers, the wood could be dryer and should be set aside long enough to dry out better. Seasoned wood can have been rained on, and still burn fine, but you need to make sure the moisture is dampness because of rain or dew and not “tree juice.”

Guessing how much wood you need is tricky and kind of scary if you are going to rely on wood heat entirely. it’s one of those things that you really can’t have too much of, though. If you’re cutting from your own wood lot, just keep cutting. It won’t hurt to have like a year’s supply of wood on hand just in case something happens, and that way you’ll never have to worry about a lack of cut, seasoned wood. My grandfather was a poor planner when it came to wood, and tended to get enough wood to last right up into the middle of winter. My poor mother and uncle were traumatized as children having to scrape snow off logs and get them in the house so they could get some heat. We’ve never really hit the right formula for getting a whole winter’s worth of wood yet. Our old stove ate wood so much that even twelve pickup truck loads was not enough. With our new stove, I’m thinking ten will be plenty, but of course I only got eight last year and ran out in March.

When you buy wood, it is generally measured by the “cord” which is an even stack of split wood 4’ wide by 4’ tall by 8’ long or 128 cubit feet. A “face cord” is a little more subjective: 4’ tall by 8’ long but only as deep as the individual pieces of wood, which brings me to a really important point:

You need to know what size wood fits in your stove.

If you have a door, the wood needs to fit in. If you have an open fireplace, the wood can’t just stick in kitty corner or it could fall back out. Find out what size wood your stove should burn and made a “template” either a stick or a dowel or a piece of yardstick that you can hold up against the wood to make sure that it fits inside the stove.

You can always ask for advice about how much wood you need to get to make it through the winter, but I guarantee that you will not get the same answer twice and those answers will be so far apart that it’s not even funny. The answer should be: get as much as you can get someone to bring to you fro the price you can afford. If it’s too much, you can always burn it next year! If it’s not enough, just make sure you have a backup heat source.

If you get your wood delivered already cut and split, you will pay a lot for it. If you have a chainsaw and can get a triaxle to deliver logs that you cut yourself, it costs less. You can also have the logs cut to size and then spilt them yourself. I’m five feet tall and a total wimp, and I can split wood., so anyone without major physical disabilities should be fine with this, if they’re motivated enough.

To split, you need exactly two pieces of equipment (three if you count work gloves): a splitting wedge for tough pieces and one of the best tools ever. The head of it looks like an axe on one half and a sledge hammer on the other. In the south, they call this a “maul” but in PA, we’d call a tool like that a “go-devil”. These come in different weights, and I have kind of a medium weight one at 8 pounds. It’s little heavier than some of the ones I’ve used that belong to a lot bigger people than me, but I also don’t put as much oomph into it as a bigger person can, so I need to make up for that in weight.

Splitting is one of those things that someone should just show you. Essentially, there are little stress cracks in the logs. Hit a crack really hard. If that doesn’t do it, hit it again. Try to hit the same place. If the wood doesn’t split, use the hammer end to pound in the wedge and just keep hitting that wedge. They have mechanical splitters which is definitely an option if you’re doing a ton of wood and you have health problems, but you can split a lot of wood with a go-devil before you need to think about getting a hydraulic splitter.

Getting around to splitting, this is as good a time as any to talk about exactly what kind of wood to use. Again, never burn evergreen in your stove or fireplace.
Ash splits the easiest and makes a nice fire. Locust wood, if the tree is too big for fence posts can be burned pretty well after it’s seasoned. Locust has a distinctive green stripe in the wood grain. All the nut woods are okay, but they split hard. Hickory burns really hot and had a great smell, but it splits hard and also really tends to pop very forcefully, so if you have a rug or an open fireplace, it might cause some problems to have coals explode out of the fire. We have mostly red maple and sugar maple this year, and as long as they are nice and dry, they are both good wood. Sugar maple splits hard, though. Cherry wood makes decent firewood. I have burned cotton wood, too, and it’s okay. Of course, you never cut down a walnut tree or a cherry tree for firewood. Plenty break and fall down all on their own, all people need to do it clean it up after it already falls down.

Edwin Way Teale in his book A Naturalist buys an Old Farm has a really sweet chapter about wood and his fireplace, and he gets into all the different colors and sounds and smells of different kinds of wood. The book is not terribly exciting, but it is really nice and kind of a good depiction of the sorts of things that people do to amuse themselves when they have a lot of nature around.

There is also a nice web site called (copy and paste, I don’t feel like trying to make a link). It’s obviously propaganda placed on the web by a stove dealers’ and chimney sweeps’ PAC, but the information is still good.

I guess there are a lot of rules and regulations about whether or not you can have a wood stove if you live in town. And you are not technically able to have a mortgage or house insurance unless you have something other than a wood stove for your primary heat. I’ve talked to more than a few people who were fiercely against wood heat because of pollution, but if a stove is smoking enough to cause bad problems for people in the neighborhood, there’s a problem with the stove. A hot fire in a well built stove and chimney will be nearly smokeless. And if there’s not a problem with the stove, the complainers are just never going to be happy about anything anyway!

That’s why we live in the country. We can light anything we like on fire and shoot guns in the yard. Yes, it’s a little hard in winter and the roads are bad and all that stuff, but I can fish in the back yard, and the kids next door walk all of about a quarter mile from the house to go deer hunting, and I have room to plant anything that comes into my head, even if the rabbits just eat it. And I can also drag the chainsaw back into the swamp and cut down some trees to keep my house warm for a while.

Monday, October 6, 2008

First Frost, Garden Wrap-Up, and a Woodstove Primer

The first frost of the fall season was the other night. I was coming home from my incredibly silly job, and there were quite a few cars parked out on the street with a lot of frost on them. It seems very counterintuitive, but on those clear, still nights in fall, the cold air just lays in the valleys and they get a harder frost down there than we do here. It was 29 when I passed the bank at 3:30 AM, but I think it was a hair warmer up at home, because I was able to get my plants moved in off the porch without them getting frost damage.

In my Three Sisters garden, most of the pumpkin leaves withered up and called it quits. I only have a few pumpkins down in there, though I was still picking ears of corn. We had some with Sunday lunch yesterday, and it was okay. I planted “Incredible” this year, and it turned out really nice. My grandmother planted some freebee corn seed I got for ordering early from a seed company. They sent peas and beans and corn and cukes and something else which I can’t remember. Oh, yeah, tomatoes! All the varieties were really good, small and tender. Unfortunately, they were just labeled “Early Experimental” so unless they come out and say what they were that was that for those.

Tomatoes have been over for a while. I still have some corn standing, and it seems that the goats have eaten my popcorn, so I won’t be trying that this fall. Three are still some peas and spinach in the garden, both of which have not bee affected by the frost. I need to dig potatoes and carrots, but I haven’t resolved my carrot storage issues from last year. That, and I dug a whole bunch of carrots for a snack a while ago, and one of the kinds I planted tasted just like dish soap. Awful! I need to find out what they were and make a black mark in my garden notebook about that one.

I don’t know what the problem is with the pumpkins. I have had no kind of luck with them. next year, I’m going to just have to load the hills with every kind of manure I can find. I’m also thinking about getting bees, and if I do, I’ll park those hives right by the pumpkin vines. The vines got lots of flowers, and on vine crops like that, you can see the little balls that will become fruit at the bases of the the female flowers. The baby pumpkins on my vines just got yellow and fell off, though. Just like they did last year and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that. I think this was a difficult year for pumpkins and for pollinators, though, since it was hot early and when the growing season actually started kicking in, it was cold and wet, then hot and wet, and then very dry and neither hot nor cold in August when things should be growing out really well. When the weather is wet, understandably, things don’t get pollinated like they should because bees and other pollinating critters are hunkered down in their hives and hidey holes.

My uncle has been bringing firewood a lot this fall. Ever since we moved here and started heating with wood, we’ve been kind of silly about it. We just kind of pop off into the winter all half cocked and end up running out and having to do things like go down to the swamp in three feet of snow and cut damp snags or make a run out to the sawmill and bring loads of slabwood home in the back end of the station wagon. i know a lot of people are thinking about heating with wood this year, because everything is going up, but it is something that needs more planning than a lot of people are used to. I mean, if you’re going to use gas or electric, you just turn it on and hope you can pay your bill. With wood, you need to actually go out and get it or find some one to bring it to you or you don’t have heat.

We have a plain firebox that can be used for coal or wood. You can get stoves that are either EPA rated for emissions or not. The rated stoves are more expensive, but according to my stove guy, the difference between them it the rated stoves are approved for a longer burn time, and the non-rated ones just have a few extra draught holes drilling in the door so they burn faster and don’t have to be EPA rated. Of course, we don’t care what the EPA says (just kidding) but we do want to be able to leave the stove for eight hours and still come back to a live fire. To get around the cost issue but still get a longer burn time, you can try to go through a dealer that also stocks repair parts and have them sell a non-EPA rated stove with a replacement door with no extra holes.

A lot of people are putting in pellet stoves, which is kind of a nice choice. They burn these little pieces of pelletized sawdust that you can have delivered by the ton or get a few hundred pounds at a time. The town where I used to live has a pellet manufacturing business, and they are absolutely thriving. With pellets, you don’t have to chop wood. They’re clean. They are also regulated so that you get a specific amount of heat from a specific amount of wood. When you are burning raw wood, you get vastly different amounts of heat from different kinds of wood. Also, most pellet stoves have an electric hopper that feeds a controlled amount of pellets into the stove which regulates the temperature and keeps the fire going when you’re not home. You can even get a little adaptor which allows you to run the electric hopper off a car or boat battery for several days in the case of power outage or national emergency when nefarious government forces cut the electric in midwinter to freeze the rebellious population into submission.

The drawback of pellet stoves it that they only burn pellets. A few winters ago, when the pellet stove craze really took off, there was a bad pellet shortage, and a lot of people were stuck with no way to get fuel. Similarly, there was a big craze that year for corn burning stoves, which has backed off a lot since corn has gone up so high. Another problem with corn burning stoves is their propensity to Explode! if the chaff isn’t cleaned off the corn and the dust builds up inside the stove. This isn’t just one of the things that “they say” can happen. My sister’s husband works with a guy whose corn burning stove blew up, luckily with no injuries.

There are also these outdoor stoves that look like little outhouses which you can hook up like a boiler. You can use them to pipe heat into multiple structures, but they are not cheap, they use a lot of wood, they take a lot of electricity to move the heat, and you still have to have a backup furnace installed in your house to get insurance. I have also read a couple different places (and this is a “they say”) that outdoor furnaces can burn up and still take your house with them, that some states won’t give you insurance if you have them, blah, blah, blah, but I think that might be kind of like conspiracy theory stuff. (ha.)

You can get really nice and fancy stoves. Really pretty ones that also have like built in cook tops and brass picture windows so you can see the pretty fire. You can also get stoves that look like a plain old heater but they open up and have a fire inside. You can get really high tech ones like the “woodchuck” that, if I read the literature right, will completely vaporize the wood at high temperatures and convert every bit of that wonderful stored solar energy into heat for your home. You can get blowers and thermostats and everything that you expect from a regular furnace but just have wood as your heat source. I don’t have any of that. I have a box with fire in it that sits in the basement. Warm air goes up stairs and up through a vent in the floor of one closet. It works for me. Of course, it has only frosted once or twice and daytime temps are still in the fifties and sixties, so I haven’t needed to run the stove, have i?

In our next episode, I’ll talk about what types of wood to use in a wood stove or fireplace. And it really does matter!