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HOMEGROWN Life: 10 Repurposed (Free or Cheap) Items You Should Have

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

I was puttering around in the yard when I realized that we sure have a lot of random crap around our yard. I guess you can’t call it crap because it’s all really, really useful stuff. None of these items’ primary use is for gardening or livestock keeping but here we are using them all the time. So here’s my list of items that you should keep around if you are an avid gardener or own livestock.

5 Gallon Buckets

I honestly don’t know how I ever got through life without 5 gallon buckets. The food grade ones are awesome for storing food of course, though you need to take care to keep rodents out, but even the non-food grade ones are indispensable. I use them to mix potting soil, tools, irrigation supplies and pipe, and garden supplies. I also use them for harvesting larger amounts that my basket can’t handle (like the 70lbs of apricots we harvested this past weekend) and for collecting weeds in when I’m weeding. You can upend a bucket over a tender plant overnight if you’re suspecting a frost (just remember to remove it in the morning). We also cut them down, hook up a float and use them as automatic waterers (a very wise goat breeder told me that goats prefer to drink out of white buckets). You can even use them to make self watering planters!

Burlap Bags

These are the big bags that they ship coffee beans in. You can ask your local coffee roaster if they have any they can give you or sometimes the dump has pallets of them. We use them as weedblock (doesn’t work very well for bindweed or Bermuda grass though) and in our mushroom garden to keep logs moist. For events we use them as rustic table cloths but when we’re home they are useful for anything we need fabric for outside use. With the animals it works well for insulation on cold nights and for calming animals in distress when we have to isolate them. We also use it to help keep the chickens from sleeping in their nest boxes at night (in picture). By nailing one edge above the nest boxes and attaching a heavy bar to the opposite edge we can roll it up in the morning and bring it back down in the evening when everyone is done laying. Helps keep the boxes nice and clean because the girls can’t sleep in the boxes. Additionally you can use them as temporary planters by setting them upright filled with soil. The jury is still out though on whether they are good for potatoes.

Electrical Conduit

This is probably one of the most useful items we have around here. Tom works for an electrical wholesaler and so any bent pieces they receive he squirrels away until he has enough to bring home. We use it for making trellises for climbing veggies. When making trellises you lash together two pipes (pound them into the ground some) on each end of the bed and then stabilize them with a pipe running through the crook made by the ends. Lash it all together and it should be pretty stable. Then we use line to run back and forth or up and down depending on what we’re planting. Beans and other twining veggies get a vertical trellis while grasping vines like peas, cukes and squash, get a horizontal trellis. Polyester line works well but we like to use the lines off of hay bales because they are stronger and last longer. Electrical conduit also works well for fence posts. When it involves keeping chickens out they are too thin for the chickens to jump up onto. We use it as the “rails” in our feed mangers for the goats and we even used it for building the chicken run. It is strong enough to support the wire that covers the run and was easily attached to the posts with pipe straps.

Stucco Wire

Similar to chicken wire, stucco wire is cheaper and stronger (after all, it has to hold the weight of stucco to a buildings). We primarily use it for temporary fencing and of course for poultry housing. It’s also good to wrap around newly planted plants to keep critters from digging them up. We use it in planters to keep the squirrels out and then we also tie scare tape to it to keep the birds away from by blueberries. It’s useful to use to for impromptu compost bins by wiring it into a circle because it allows for lots of airflow. It’s also a cheaper alternative to hardware cloth under raised beds to keep gophers out and also as cages under new trees and shrubs that you may plant to also keep gophers away.

Concrete Reinforcement Fabric

By far the BEST tomato cages available are the ones you make at home from a wire mesh meant for pouring concrete slabs. The spacing between the wire is perfect for reaching your hand through to pick even the biggest tomato but it’s also strong enough not to collapse under even the largest plant. We also use this mesh for tomatillos and you can make nice arbors with them. We’ve had ours for well over 5 years with no issues. At the end of the season you can open them back up and lay them flat or stack them in an out of the way place, which is what we do. There’s also an option to cut them into four pieces of equal size and then wire them into square cages which can lay flat for storage. It also works well for potato towers because it’s strong enough to hold hay, soil and lots of potatoes!

Concrete Pavers or Bricks

We put in a patio in our backyard and ended up with a whole bunch of leftover pavers. People are always trying to offload extra brick and pavers on Craigslist and Freecycle so they are fairly easy to obtain. They can be used as small stepping stones through the garden if you don’t want to put down a path and just want something temporary. We also use them whenever we need a hard, level surface such as under water buckets. They are great for keeping wood and metal off of the ground as well. While galvanized metal is rust resistant it isn’t rust proof so we like to keep our metal pails on the pavers to reduce their contact with moisture from the soil. I also find them helpful protect our irrigation system, particularly where the risers come out of the ground. We stack them around the risers so that we don’t trip on them (makes them more visible) and also to keep us from damaging the rises with tools or wheelbarrows.

XL Wire Dog Grate

If you have livestock this is a must-have item. We have two of them plus a wire pen and all of them are in constant use around here. For rabbits they work well as temporary pens when you’re cleaning out hutches or just want to give them some time in the grass to play. We use the pen most often for this because it’s large enough to let them romp around. If you have chickens (same for turkeys and ducks) they are great for brooding chicks in. Unlike plastic dog crates, the wire ones have a removable bottom tray so you can get those chicks on the dirt as soon as possible. Plus this eliminates a slick footing which can cause splay leg in your chicks. They are also great for isolating a hen if she’s injured or broody, without separating her from her flock which is much less stressful. For goats it’s perfect for keeping the kids off of mom at night if you’re milking her in the morning. They sleep comfortably while still in full view of mom. I also use the crate for transporting the goats to the vet or breeder. It’s large enough for two dwarf goats to move around plus water and food.

Concrete Christy Boxes

These are the those boxes you see set flush in the sidewalk that have a concrete cover over them that usually says something like “Electrical” or “Water Meter.” They come in all different sizes from several feet long to 9″ rounds. The larger ones are the most useful for us as they make great deep raised beds in small spaces. The bonus is that they are concrete so they don’t disintegrate over time. They are also small enough to move around.

Old Recycle Bins

Remember back in the day when the recycle bins were just a small crate that you carried out to the curb? When we moved into our house we found over half a dozen of these boxes in our backyard. They’ve turned out to be extremely useful to us. We use the majority of them as storage bins for garden and irrigation supplies. We use them when weeding large areas because they are great for storing a lot of weeds between dumping. Flip them over and use them as a garden seat. We keep them out in the goat yard to either sit on or let the kids play on or in. I can also foresee making nest boxes out of them in the chicken house. Because they already have drainage holes in the bottom they can work as movable planters. Drill large holes in the sides, fill up with coffee grounds and grow oyster mushrooms in them as well. The uses are endless with these.


The ubiquitous pallet can be had for free from many places. Tom’s work can’t get rid of them fast enough and has stacks of them in their yard waiting to find a new home. Pallets have been getting a lot of attention lately for their usefulness in the garden. From making vertical garden walls to temporary beds for lettuces they have a multitude of uses. We use them for a lot of things here. We built Turkey Town almost entirely out of pallets and burlap. We store our hay on them and we made a hive stand with one. We used them to make our potato bins, which we’re hoping increased yield this year. The uses of pallets are only limited to your imagination.

My friends in college used to call me a Renaissance woman. I was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. I still am. My focus these days, instead of arts and crafts, has been farming as much of my urban quarter acre as humanly possible. With my husband, we run Dog Island Farm in the SF Bay Area. We raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. We’re always keeping busy. If I’m not out in the yard I’m in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

HOMEGROWN Life: The Richness of Farming

Thursday, April 7th, 2016


HOMEGROWN LifeMy Grandmother’s saying, one she borrowed from Benjamin Franklin, “the only two things certain in life are death and taxes,” came to mind this week. Yes, it’s tax season.

In between birthing 2 more sets of twins (that makes 4 in all), I’m tending the flocks and herds, starting up the dairy, chasing lambs, and howling at the goat kid antics. I’m wondering if the day will ever come when I actually sleep 8 or even 6 hours in a row. It’s time I bravely face the pile of paperwork that’s been patiently waiting on my desk.

Even though I am a tiny micro blip on the farming radar screen, I still keep track of the reality of what it costs and how much can be made working at this thing we call farming. I am proud to say that Bittersweet has been a sustainable operation since its second year! No, it didn’t happen because I have some magic formula for the farm supporting itself. It happens out of the sheer terror that if that changes, I won’t be able to continue.

The realities farmers face each year are enormous. The biggest realities are always: how much each year will cost? Can I continue year after year without at least making it pay for itself? That’s the very least farmers expect, because if we can’t say that – if we aren’t at least growing or raising beasts or plants to feed ourselves to cut down on the grocery bill –it’s hard to continue justifying the effort. Most people will say, you’ll never get rich farming.

After sitting down with all my piles, sorting through the slips and bits of paper with numbers scratched on them, I add up the two columns. One is what it costs to open my barn door every day. The other shows how much wool and cheese and milk and jam and pickles and soaps and other things I’ve sold. Turns out, at the end of the day, every day, 365 days a year, I am earning 91 cents an hour. That’s my definition of sustainable. I am earning, not losing, 91 cents an hour.

Now you may say, “You’re kidding, right? 91 cents an hour? Who would work for 91 cents an hour?” As it turns out, there are a lot of folks who do, and they wouldn’t trade it for 9,100 cents an hour. I’ve met a lot of them and we all seem to have something in common. We love what we do.


There’s a certain pride and satisfaction in farming. Things almost never go according to plan. When you’re relying on Mother Nature in the form of living things, whether it’s beasts or plants, it’s all a crap shoot. I think it’s hard to explain why we do it to someone who thinks we’re all crazy for choosing the farming life style.

I’m frequently asked, “You can’t go anywhere, can you?” My reply is always, “I’ve been other places. I’m happy right where I am.”

I’m not a person who spent their life dreaming of having a farm. I did set out to get some sheep 20 years ago for a property I bought in Southern Pennsylvania. It was an old stone house Jacob Flohr built in 1855 and I/we were restoring it to its original state. I’ll never forget the day my husband came home and I was pitching the 1950’s oak flooring out the front door. There were wide pines boards underneath that needed to be revealed.

The house sat 10 miles south of Gettysburg and was on Lee’s retreat route. It had been a farm, and it was a hospital during the Civil War. All farms were. Every inch of space was utilized for tending to wounded soldiers. I found blood stains in the old crumbling plaster ceiling, blood that had dripped through the floor from above where probably more than one of them had lain, maybe dying.

The stone foundation for the old barn was still there. The original barn had burned down, maybe more than once. I found a gorgeous post and bean barn further up the road that would fit the foundation perfectly and the people who owned it just happened to want to take it down. The plan was to use it for sheep who would graze up above in the old apple orchards. But, the dream for sheep ended along with the marriage. We never got around to rebuilding the barn.

Twenty five years later, as I sit with my bits of paper, I gaze across the pasture watching my newborn lambs leap in spring’s cold morning air. The flock doesn’t have a post and bean barn with a stone foundation to lamb in, but they do have a view of Mosquito Harbor leading out to the Penobscot Bay. Some mornings, their fleeces are misty with the dew coming off the water and often they are treated to dried seaweed treats from Drift Inn Beach down the street. I think it’s a good trade off.


I think I’ll take a break from my paperwork for an hour or so today and invest my 91 cents or even $1.92, in snuggling lambs, sitting with a baby goat in my lap, or running the brush over the girls’ backs. I might even bake a custard on this cool spring day with eggs from the coop and milk the girls gave me this morning.

After all the other jobs I’ve had and all the paychecks I’ve gotten over the years, it’s today that I receive the largest paycheck I’ve ever had, plus 91 cents an hour. That’s the richness of farming.


HOMEGROWN-life-dyan-150x150Dyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Bittersweet Heritage Farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Her farm is also an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.


HOMEGROWN Life: What the Fodder?! The Latest in Cheap and Easy Livestock Feed

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016



Have you seen the latest big craze in animal feed? Livestock fodder from grain seed takes only about a week to grow and increases your feed by up to six times in weight. (So far, I’ve seen five but I hear six is possible.) It’s highly nutritious and provides 20 percent protein by dry weight. You can feed it to poultry, rabbits, ruminants, horses—just about any grass-loving livestock around.

When my friend Brande first told me about it, I wasn’t so sure. I had heard great things about it but had only seen these huge, incredibly expensive setups for large livestock operations. I hadn’t even thought it was possible to do fodder without one of those setups.


Gathering round.

What in the hell was I thinking? Nowadays everything can be done DIY, so why not fodder? It would just require a bit more labor on my part.

There are really only three things you absolutely have to have: seed, water, and planting trays with drainage holes. There’s no need for soil or fertilizer. Because we have a mild climate, I’m just growing mine outside on a table. The best seed to use is barley, as it has the highest nutrition and protein of all the grain seeds. I can get an 80-pound bag of barley for just over $18. You can try to find hulled barley, but unhulled seems to work fine. When watering, I recapture the drainage water to reuse.


Cleaned barley with hulls intact (unhulled).

Before you start making your fodder, you need to soak the barley for six to eight hours in water. This degrades germination inhibitors in the seeds (also why you should soak peas and legumes before planting). You only want to put about half an inch of barley in your tray. It really does swell up, and I found that, with 3 pounds of barley, the tray was busting at the walls. You want to cover the barley with enough water so that it remains covered when it expands.

Soaking barley in a bucket.

Soaking barley in a bucket.

Once your barley is done soaking, pour the seed and water into your tray and rinse the seed. To help encourage germination, cover your tray so that it remains dark. I just use a burlap sack. The photo above shows the barley one day after soaking. Small root tips are beginning to show up at the ends of the seed.

Day 1: Just starting to germinate.

Day 1: Just starting to germinate.

Water your seed two to three times a day. You want to keep it from drying out too much. By the second day after soaking, you’ll start to see more of the roots.

Day 2: At this point, you’ll begin to see the seeds expand in size.

Day 2: At this point, you’ll begin to see the seeds expand in size.

The third day after soaking, small bits of green will poke their heads out of the layer of seeds and roots. This green stuff will soon be growing so fast you can almost see it lengthen. At this point, you’ll want to uncover your fodder to help the grass blades develop chlorophyll and energy.


Day 3: Time to uncover the seed so that it gets light.

On the fourth day after soaking, you’ll see the beginning of a nice little green carpet. It’s not much yet, but the following day you’ll be amazed.

Day 4: A nice green layer is beginning to form.

Day 4: A nice green layer is beginning to form.

Day 5, and it’s starting to look like turf. Keep watering at least twice a day.

Day 5: Day 5, and it’s starting to look like turf. Keep watering at least twice a day.

Day 5: Once it reaches this point, it grows quickly.

By day 6, you’re almost ready to feed it. Supposedly this is when the grass’s nutrition begins to peak.

Day 6: From day 6 to day 7, the fodder is at its most nutritious.

Day 6: From day 6 to day 7, the fodder is at its most nutritious.

On day 7, it’s time to feed your animals. You can see the awesome layers of roots, seed, and grass in the photo below. Poultry and ruminants will consume all of these parts. Rabbits generally only like the greens.

Roots, seed, and leaf in one tidy package.

Roots, seed, and leaf in one tidy package.

I started with 3 pounds of seed and produced nearly 15 pounds of fodder. It took my hens a couple of days to eat one tray’s worth. If you start a new tray every day or every couple of days, you’ll have a constant supply of fodder to feed your brood.

HOMEGROWN Life blog: Rachel, of Dog Island Farm

My friends in college used to call me a Renaissance woman. I was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. I still am. My focus these days, instead of arts and crafts, has been farming as much of my urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with my husband, I run Dog Island Farm, in the SF Bay Area. We raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. We’re always keeping busy. If I’m not out in the yard, I’m in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!