Choosing Wood Carefully

All wood will burn eventually. There is no doubt about it. Create a hot enough fire and you can stick anything in the wood stove. It may not burn immediately or well, but it will burn eventually. However, if you’re heating your home with wood, you don’t want it to burn eventually, you want it to burn now. Burning the wrong sort of wood has these negative impacts.

 

  • The wood will burn inefficiently, which means you’ll need to cut more wood to obtain the desired number of calories to heat your home.
  • You’ll see additional soot accumulation, which could end up closing your chimney and causing carbon monoxide buildup in your home.
  • The wood stove will require additional costly maintenance because of the way wet wood doesn’t burn.
  • Wet wood tends to mildew, which isn’t particularly good for your health.
  • All of these factors tend to pollute the environment to a greater degree, increasing your carbon footprint.


The problem isn’t strictly confined to wet wood. Choosing the wrong wood can also cause all sorts of problems. For example, if you burn wood from conifer trees extensively, you’ll find that you use more wood and that your chimney tends to soot easily. The creosote produced by conifers is especially hard to remove from the chimney. Of all conifer trees, cedar tends to be the worst. However, even kiln dried construction lumber isn’t good for your wood stove. Although these woods smell wonderful as they burn, you’ll want to burn them with high heat hardwoods to reduce their negative impact. Never burn treated wood in your wood stove. The chemicals in treated wood are truly terrifying and you don’t want to pollute the air with them.

When obtaining hardwoods, make sure that the moisture content is low enough so that the wood will burn efficiently. If nothing else, use a moisture meter to check that the wood is in the 10 percent to 15 percent range before burning. Sometimes wood looks like it’s perfectly dry, yet contains a significant amount of moisture. One of the worst woods in this regard is oak. The wood can exhibit all of the characteristics of fully dried wood, yet contain enough moisture that it won’t burn well.

One of the questions you need to answer when looking for wood to cut is whether that wood is dry. Generally speaking, a tree is starting to dry out sufficiency when the bark comes off easily from the trunk. It should literally peel off in large pieces. Before that time, the tree is still quite green. If you get wood from someone else and that wood has tightly attached bark, make sure you check it with a moisture meter. The wood may be green and you’ll find that it won’t burn well. Some less reputable woodsmen will try to sell you green wood because they have run out of good dry wood to sell.

Cut and split the wood into the size chunks you want to use in your wood stove. Measure the moisture to determine whether additional drying is required. Some woods, such as black locust and most species of elm, are ready to use almost immediately after you cut up the trunk. The wood dries thoroughly without cutting it up. As mentioned earlier, oak always requires a drying period after you cut it up because the tree would rather rot, than dry, when in trunk form.

A few trees will burn acceptably at higher moisture content levels. Maple falls into this category. It doesn’t burn as well as fully dried wood, but it does burn well enough not to cause a creosote buildup on your chimney. Even so, you should never burn these woods with greater than 20 percent moisture content. Lower moisture content is always better.

Another way to tell if wood is properly seasoned is to look it over carefully. Wood that has been stacked for two or three years (the recommended drying time for most woods), is usually blackened on the ends. The cuts won’t look fresh. The wood itself will feel somewhat light; although, some woods, such as locust and oak, are heavy no matter how dry they get.

The weight of the wood is important. A heavier wood normally has more calories to offer when burned. Consequently, if you have two pieces of wood the same size and dried to 10 percent moisture content, the heavier piece is worth more from a heating perspective. Heavier woods tend to be hard to start, burn more like charcoal, and burn long. Maple, box elder, and other moderately light woods make good kindling for starting a fire based on these heavier woods. If nothing else, use some of that pine for starting your fire.

Some woods smell better than others do when burning. For example, oak and maple both smell wonderful. As previously mentioned, all conifers smell good, but there is a price to pay in this case for the good odor.

A few woods smell truly horrible when burning. For example, I’d rather not smell poplar or paper birch again. Fortunately, both of these woods tend to be light when dried, so they offer few calories than other wood types—making them good woods to avoid.

The best tests of the wood you cut yourself or obtain from a third party is seeing how it burns. A sample or two will tell you about the entire load in most cases. The wood should start relatively easy (keeping in mind that truly dense woods such as locust, hickory, and oak start harder than less dense woods such as maple). It should produce some amount of blue flame, along with the usual orange and yellow. The wood should leave little ash behind (less dense woods tend to produce more ash than denser woods).

The ultimate insult in getting wood from a third party is when they sell you punky (partially rotted) wood. This wood tends to be really light when fully dry. You can’t typically see the rings as well and the wood itself has a papery feel. The wood will start with extreme ease, burn brightly for an incredibly short time, produce little heat, and produce copious amounts of ash.

Sometimes you’ll find that wood sellers talk about a “load” of wood, as if that’s a precise measure of anything. Most places have statutes in place the define wood as being sold by the cord or measured faction (such as a half cord). A cord is 128 cubic feet and is typically stacked 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long (although, any stack that measures 128 cubit feet is a cord). Beware of the seller with face cords. In this case, you’re only getting 64 cubic feet. When someone insists on selling you a load of wood, make sure you measure the tightly stacked load yourself and pay appropriately.

In short, if you thought all wood was the same, you’re quite wrong. Choosing the wood you use in a fireplace or wood stove carefully is extremely important. Don’t let someone sell you wood that’s wet, punky, or simply unfit for burning. Inspect the wood for insect infestations and make sure you know what kind of wood you’re getting. What sorts of experiences have you had obtaining wood in your area? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Entering the New Year

Today is my first day back from vacation. I’ve been looking forward to telling you everything that has happened during my down time! In fact, unlike many people, I really look forward to getting back to work. Well, the crammed inbox is a bit of a pain, but even the e-mail surplus is a reminder to me that you’re finding the help in my books useful.

Vacation is a bit of a misnomer for me. Yes, I do unplug from the computer as described in my Learning to Unplug post, but there is plenty to do outside. One of the new experiences I had during vacation was working on a large tree. My uncle had an oak with a 44″ diameter trunk fall several years ago. It was time to cut it up this winter. I only have a 22″ bar on my chainsaw and a 22″ bar doesn’t quite reach 22″ into the trunk, so we had a bit of trouble getting the rounds cut from the trunk. Cutting as much as I could and then using wedges to do the rest worked fine. Moving pieces that large is also a problem because you can’t lift them (or barely budge them for that matter). I learned how to use a cant hook to move the large pieces of wood onto the splitter (my uncle has a hydraulic splitter attached to his tractor). I still use a 20 pound splitting maul and splitting wedge to hand split all of my wood. Most people use a lighter splitting maul, but the abundance of white and red elm, black locust, and hickory on my property makes a heavier maul a necessity. Lets just say that between helping my uncle and cutting a bit of my own wood, I didn’t lack for exercise during vacation .

This year we did get to spend quite a bit of time with family and friends, especially since the weather here is Wisconsin is unusually mild. We don’t have any snow on the ground to speak of at the moment and none is in the forecast. Of course, the lack of snow makes travel easy, but it’s also worrisome because our plants will miss the moisture come spring and we could experience problems due to the lack of cover. However, each winter is different and I’m sure we’ll get clobbered by a snowstorm or two before all is said and done.

Rebecca and I also spent time putting a puzzle together (a review will appear later this week) and we had some fun watching movies. Of course, the tea kettle received a workout as we spent time in front of the wood stove enjoying something good to read. Overall, a nice way to rest during vacation. We didn’t just stay at home though. The new Sherlock Holmes movie called to us, so we went to see it at our local theater. Of course, there were visits to Deli Bean (a local coffee shop) and Stone Hollow (our local restaurant), where we enjoyed some nice treats.

The mild weather also made it possible for me to walk in the woods. During one of my visits to the woods, I kept track of a fox. Cody (see Many Hands Make Light Work) and I had spotted a dead raccoon near a den in the woods, so I perched a distance from the den to see if anything came out. The den had a fox in it last winter and it appears that the same fox is there this winter. So, I sat on my stump for a while and watched. I find nature amazing. The woods provides us with food, heat, and entertainmentwhat more could anyone ask?

However, in addition to these activities, I also worked on some ideas for upcoming books, which is one of the focuses of this post. I’m planning to write some books on self-sufficiency. The books will have the same focus as my blog posts. I want to make things simple and to demonstrate ways you can also receive a financial benefit from your activities. Self-sufficiency is great because you help the environment, improve your health, and get a better product. For many people, these reasons look attractive until you start considering the financial element of self-sufficiency. Surprisingly, many people are unaware of the fact that self-sufficiency saves considerable money—enough that you really need to consider it as a source of income, rather than as a money sink. My new book will emphasize what you get in exchange for your efforts and how to optimize the benefits you receive. If you have some ideas on what you’d like to see in my book, please be sure to write me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Vacation is a time for equipment maintenance as well. I was able to get a few necessary maintenance tasks done during vacation. Another week off would have been nice, but I did get the essentials done.

One of my favorite activities during vacation was baking cookies with Rebecca. She makes the most delightful cookies and it’s always a pleasure to give her a hand when I can. We made sugar cookies this time around, but next time we may do something a bit more exciting.

Today is the first in-office work day of the year for me. Please be patient if you’ve sent me an e-mail while I’ve been gone. I promise to answer every e-mail that I’ve received while I was gone, but with a little over 900 reader e-mails in my inbox, it takes a while to get the job done. In the meantime, I hope that you’ve had a great start to the new year and I’m looking forward to presenting you will all sorts of really neat posts this upcoming year on just about every topic imaginable!

 

Learning to Unplug

It’s the last day of the year for me. I won’t be writing any new blog entries in until next year. Rebecca and I take each Christmas off and don’t come back until after Epiphany, which is the actual 12th day of Christmas (just in case you were wondering about the songs that use it). If you send me an e-mail, I won’t respond until January 9th—the first work day after Epiphany. I completely unplug while on vacation and you should too. Here are the top reasons I unplug during my down timeperhaps you’ll find a reason that works for you.

  • Rebuilding Our Marriage: Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m devoted to my wife. I consider my marriage far more important than any other element of my life here on earth. Rebecca patiently waits for me the rest of the year, but vacations are devoted to her and our marriage. I look forward to our time together and count the days until we can spend time doing something interesting together.
  • Focus on Family, Friends, and Neighbors: My family has always been good about working around my schedule. There are times during the year where I simply tell them that a book deadline is far too important to visit with them and they understand. My closest friends and even my neighbors are equally cognizant of my need to work. I try to make up for the lack of attention during the rest of the year with visits throughout vacation.
  • Personal Health: I want to provide my readers with the best service that I can. That means taking care of my personal health: spiritual, mental, and physical. Disconnecting from everything gives me time for self-reflection and helps me to grow as a person. It also provides me with much needed rest. No one can do a job well unless they have received the proper rest and nourishment.
  • Personal Projects: It seems as if too many people wait until retirement to work on anything fun. I’m not planning to wait. During vacation, I take time to work on personal projectsthings I want to do for the sheer pleasure of doing them. I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to retire anytime soon, unless an injury or some other unforeseen issue makes retirement necessary. So, I plan to do a few of these projects while I’m still able to do them. Vacation provides the opportunity.


During this holiday season, whatever your beliefs or wherever you live, I hope that you take time to unplug. Do something interesting, exciting, spiritual, or simply satisfying. The world of work will still be here when you get backyou’re truly not indispensable. It may seem as if the world will come down around your ears if you disconnect, but that’s a lie. I’ve been doing it for many years now and nothing terrible has happened. I have no cell phone, no computer access, no connectivity of any kind to impede my efforts to relax and recharge.

Rebecca and I will spend the next two weeks putting puzzles together, baking cookies, working on crafts, and sitting by the wood stove reading. We’ll spend part of the holiday in church, addressing our spiritual needs. Yes, there will even be some movie watching on our television, but that’s going to take second place to getting reacquainted after months of hard work writing, gardening, and generally making a living. Of course, I’ll need a little exercise after my lack of restraint in holiday eating (I hope my doctor doesn’t see this), so I’ll do a little wood cutting too. I’m sure that we’ll spend plenty of time with family, friends, and neighbors as well. See you next year!

Many Hands Make Light Work

I’m not sure who first came out with this bit of wisdom, but it’s true. Dividing a task amongst many people does make the work a lot lighter. You get the task done a lot faster for a number of reasons, some obvious, some not. Of course, with multiple people doing the work, the task is completed faster and with less effort from each individual. The people working on the task can encourage each other and a gentle gibe can prompt less motivated individuals to work a bit harder. However, I’m not talking about a team here. Teams are organized and often rely on one really skilled person to carry other less skilled people along. What I’m talking about is a group of individuals, with relatively the same ability, getting together to accomplish a task without the usual trappings of the team environment. There truly is a difference.

I was reminded of this difference when I read the post of my friend Bill Bridges, entitled, “The Good Cheer Drive.” It’s precisely this sort of example that I’m thinking about when it comes to the expression, “Many hands make light work.” These people came together and in a dizzying array of disorganization managed to get food together for those who are less fortunate and need a bit of a helping hand during the holidays. There is no concept of team (and the associated ego) here—simply a group of people getting together for the common good. It sounds like my sort of event.

Self-sufficiency sometimes requires a touch of this sort of environment as well. Whenever I can, I try to get someone to help when I go into the woods. To do otherwise would be foolish. When I’m cutting wood, I fell old trees that no one is using (no animals or helpful insects have made the tree a home). The trees sometimes do unexpected things, especially when the crown is caught in the branches of another tree. If someone is there helping, they can at least go for help should a tree decide to fall on me. There is safety in numbers.

Trying to wrestle a large trunk is also quite an experience. It doesn’t take much tree to produce enough wood that it’s nearly impossible for even a well-muscled man to move it about. Since I don’t use any sort of heavy equipment, I have to rely on careful cutting techniques and the help of others to move some of these large trunks around. Most of the time, the time in the woods is spent with others who enjoy being out there as much as I do. We’re a group of individuals working together to get the wood down from the hill without disturbing other trees in the safest manner possible.

This year I’ve been relying on the help provided by a new friend, Cody. He’s been out at least once a week (and often twice) to help me get my wood in for winter. As a result, for the first time ever, I have almost all of the wood I need for the winter already stacked, and it isn’t even Christmas yet. Even Rebecca has been able to get out to help a little this year, so a number of us are involved in getting the wood done up. Many hands do indeed make for light work.

WoodCutting

When you start your self-sufficiency effort, consider the need to help other people and to ask others to help you as needed. Yes, you do need to do as much as you can, but when there would be an immense risk in doing the work by yourself, look for those individuals who are willing to help. Make sure they get something out of it too. Exchange labor as you would exchange products (see my Sharing and Swapping Food post for details). The most important gift you can get out of the exchange is a friend you can rely on and believe me, they’re scarce in today’s world.

How do you work with others? Have you ever contributed toward a group effort of the kind I explore in this post? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Flying Squirrel Antics

This is the time of year that I spend a good deal of time in the woods cutting fallen trees as fodder for my wood stove. Not only is cutting wood good exercise and a cost effective way to heat our home, but using wood can be better for the environment because it’s a renewable resource. We do our best to replace the trees that we use to heat our home. In fact, some areas of the woods that we initially began using 15 years ago are already growing back quite nicely.

Some people get the idea that I keep my nose to the grindstone while out there, which would be a true waste. For one thing, not paying attention to what’s going on around you is a really good way to get hit by a falling tree. They all have to fall sometime—there isn’t any unwritten rule that states they’ll wait until I’m no longer around to hit. However, the thing I like best about being in the woods is seeing all of the animal life. You might think that Wisconsin in the winter is a dead place, but life abounds in all its forms. So, it was with a great deal of glee that I watched flying squirrels glide between trees the other day.

It’s a common misconception that flying squirrels actually fly. They’re fantastic gliders, not fliers. A flap of skin between the front and back legs provides lift for them to glide between trees quite swiftly. In fact, of all the squirrels, I think they move the fastest (we also have red and gray squirrels around here). Trying to grab a picture of them is a near impossibility. I’m sure someone has done it, but they’re more skilled than I am .

I haven’t seen much of Woody, the pileated woodpecker this year. He often watches me work on trees. I can differentiate this particular woodpecker from the others in our woods in two ways. First, the bands of colors on Woody’s head are different from other woodpeckers in our woods. Second, he has a habit of looking at me sideways with the right eye. I’m not sure if his left eye is damaged or it’s simply a characteristic of this particular woodpecker. What attracted Woody is unknown to me. Most woodpeckers want nothing to do with me (granted, Woody does keep his distance and isn’t in any way tame).

Of course, there are always rabbits, endless assortments of birds, and all sorts of other animals in the woods. Sometimes I’ll see opossum. On one occasion I saw a fishersomething that is extremely rare from what I’ve been told. The fisher seemed to be chasing after rabbits, but it was far enough away that I don’t know what it was chasing with absolute certainty. On rare days I’ll see a deer, but because I make so much noise cutting wood, such sightings are incredibly rare for me. I’m most likely to see a deer on days when I go to the woods for the sheer joy of observing nature, rather than cutting wood.

Some people question why I’d go to the woods to sit on a tree stump in the middle of winter when I could be inside safe and warm. Nature offers considerable entertainment for anyone willing to take the time to view it. During this particular day, the antics of the flying squirrels had me chucking quite hardily. You just don’t get that sort of entertainment on television. Do you ever observe nature and all it has to offer? What are your favorite sights? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Sharing and Swapping Food

One of the centerpieces of self-sufficiency is, surprisingly enough, sharing and swapping food with neighbors. Yes, it’s possible to grow everything you need yourself, but absolutely everyone has a bad year in something. In addition, your soil and gardening techniques may produce copious quantities of one item, but prove dangerous, or even fatal, to other items. Your neighbors will have similar luck with other items. Consequently, swapping items between neighbors is one of the hallmarks of a self-sufficient community. The community as a whole benefits in such a situation because everyone ends up with a greater variety of food to eat. So, while you can grow what you need, you’ll eat better when you swap with someone else.

It isn’t just the garden though. Just about everything is swapped at times. One person may have an abundance of chickens and trade a chicken or two for some beef. These swaps aren’t done on a strict accounting system. People tend not to get too caught up on the price of the food—they’re more interested in exchanging something they have in excess for something they need. Of course, no one would swap an entire cow for just one chicken either . While the swaps aren’t strictly fair, they’re reasonably sono one tries to take advantage of someone else (otherwise, the community as a whole would stop swapping with them).

There are times when people simply share food, which is where the country ethic comes into play. We’ve shared wine, soap, or cookies with other people simply because we think they’re nice people and want them to enjoy something we’ve made. There is no other motive behind the act, other than seeing the smile on the other person’s face. It makes us feel good to see how others react when we do something nice for themacts of kindness are their own reward.

People have also shared with us. One winter we were extremely low on wood and I wasn’t able to get out and cut any. Our neighbors sent three cords of wood our wayan extreme act of kindness that we’ll never forget. We recently received a nice buck from some friends for nothing more than a smile. It isn’t often that you can fill your freezer with venison because of the kindness of someone else. The 65 pounds of meat is nice, being able to use the tenderloin for Christmas dinner is even nicer. I’ll make some lovely venison medallions (with wine we’ve made no less). It will be an extremely special Christmasone we’ll never forget.

Our swapping and sharing often extends outside our local village. Other good friends recently sent us a decadent cake that we’ll share with family and friends here. We’ll send a fruitcake their way later this week. I wish that our friends could have seen the smile on our faces when we received the cakeperhaps they felt the warmth of our feelings from afar (and certainly we’ve thanked them for their fine gift).

If you choose to become self-sufficient, don’t get the idea that you’re an island. No one is separate from the entire world. The more self-sufficient you become, the more you realize that the self-sufficiency of the community in which you live is important. It doesn’t matter if you live in the country, as we do, or in the city. The need to depend on others and also experience the joy of giving to those in need is possibly the best part of being self-sufficient.

Does your community swap and share? How are you experiencing the kindness of others during this holiday season? Have you done something kind, something totally unexpected for someone else? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Working the Fall Schedule

There is a misconception that anyone who works in a farm-like environment simply takes a vacation once the crops are in (no matter what those crops might be). It’s true that I’m slightly less frantic now than during the summer months when I need to be doing three things (or more) at once. However, the work continues throughout the fall and winter. The fall period begins after the garden is cleaned up, tilled, and planted with winter rye. Our winter rye is just showing above the ground at this point. It’ll stay that way until spring, when it’ll take a growth spurt. The winter rye roots will keep our precious soil in place and also provide “green manure” in the spring when we till it under.

A lot of people are surprised to see the two buckets of what appear to be shriveled bean pods in our basement, alongside the potatoes and squash. They actually are dried green beans, which might seem like a less than helpful use for them. However, the beans you buy for soup in the store come from this source. When we’re done canning green beans for winter, we let the remaining beans dry on the vines. We then pick them off, shell them, and use them in soups or for baked beans. In fact, anywhere you’d normally use dried beans you can use the dried green beans from your garden. Our dried beans are a beautiful shade of brown this year. We’ve had speckled beans, solid black beans, and a number of other colors, all of which contribute to a colorful soup, even if they taste mostly the same. You simply remove the pod by shelling the dried green bean and you end up with handfuls of beans you can store without much fuss at all. In short, green beans are an extremely efficient way to produce food—you can eat them green or dried and they require no special storage when dried (an airtight container is helpful).

Of course, this is also the time of year that I start getting into the woods to cut wood for winter. I’m actually bringing down wood that I cut and stacked last year (or two years ago in some cases). It won’t be quite enough for the entire winter, but it’s a good start. I’ll look for dead, dry trees to cut up to complete our wood supply for the winter, and then begin on next year’s wood. Rebecca helps by carrying wood from the cart, wood pile, or from the edge of the woods and throwing it into the basementsaving me a ton of time. Some of the wood has to be split, a good job for my maul on days when it’s too windy to cut wood.

Self-sufficiency relies on a lot of equipment as well. During the summer months there is little time to maintain it. Yes, if something breaks, you have to take time out to fix it, but that’s not the same as maintaining it. During the fall and winter months, I’ll sharpen shovels and spades, repair equipment, change the oil, and tune everything up. These maintenance actions are essential if you want to have a good summer. Nothing is worse than trying to dig with a dull spade. Anything I can do to make our hand, electric-powered, and gas-powered equipment work better is money in my pocket and time to do something else. So these winter months are an essential time for me.

This is also the time I’ll be working on new projects. For one thing, Rebecca needs a bit more storage and better lighting in the larder. I’ve been wanting some shelving for my equipment for quite some time now and I may get to it this winter. The chicks need something better than a refrigerator boxI’m planning to build a box that we can use as a combination of brooder (to keep young chicks warm) and rabbit house (during the summer months after the chicks are put outside).

Still, nothing beats sitting by the wood stove after a day of cutting wood and feeling it’s warmth hit tired muscles. I’ll break out my Knifty Knitter to make some hats, scarves, blankets, and socks (you can see some of the things I’ve made in my Knitting for the Gentleman Farmer post). I may even engage in some latch hook this winter to make a rug or wall hanging. Winter is a time of crafting too! So, how do you enjoy the fall and winter? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Berries in the Woods

Many people see a woods and think about the trees. In fact, that’s all they think about. However, a healthy woods is more than just the trees. A healthy woods has a significant biodiversity of all sorts of plants and shrubs that rely on the woods for cover and environment. Along the ground you’ll see interesting plants such as the bloodroot shown here:

BloodRoot

There are a number of sources that tell you what a useful plant bloodroot is. Of course, the woods are also the source of foods such as the morel mushroomnot that I was particularly successful in finding any this year. When I do find them, they cook up nicely in a stew or simply sauteed in a bit of butter. The woods provides this amazing bounty without any effort on my part, except in preservation efforts I take on the wood’s behalf.

Keeping the woods happy is incredibly important. One food source (and the reason for today’s post) is the humble berry. My woods is simply packed with berry brambles. A personal favorite is the gooseberry shown here:

Gooseberry

The gooseberries have already blossomed and set fruit. I won’t pick them though until mid-summer. I prefer a mix of dark black and green gooseberries for use in preserves (jam) or pie. We have both European and American gooseberries. Even though the European gooseberry is larger, the American gooseberry doesn’t suffer from mildew problems and produces more fruit per bush. I’ve found that the American gooseberries are a bit more tart than the European variety and that they’re better a bit on the green side. Mixed, the two kinds of gooseberry produce a delectable treat you won’t find in your local store (at least, not without a lot of looking). Gooseberries are terribly hard to pickthe long thorns will rip up your arms, even with long sleeves. Gingerly picking up the individual canes and picking the berries underneath works best.

A berry that ripens earlier is the blackcap (also known as a black raspberry). They also flowered and set fruit quite some time ago. I keep a watch on them because they tend to ripen quickly and don’t last particularly long on the bushes. Blackcaps are the easiest berries to pick and have an amazing flavor that differs from their red raspberry counterpart. They’re a bit smaller than red raspberries. We have a few red raspberry canes in the woods, but not enough to do much, so we mix them with the blackcaps. Because we don’t have a lot of blackcaps, we tend to use them for preserves.

The last berry of the season is the blackberry. It’s larger than the other berries. In fact, in a good year, a blackberry will be about the diameter of my thumb and about half as long. The blackberries are still in bloom and won’t set fruit for another week or two as shown here:

Blackberries

In a good year it’s nothing for me to fill two or three gallon buckets with blackberries in an early morning picking session. We’ll use them for pie, preserves, wine, and just eating. The thorns of the blackberry are a bit longer than those of the blackcap. The longer canes make it harder to maneuver amongst the plants. In addition, our blackberries tend to grow on the sides of the hills, making them a little inaccessible at times. Of course, the taste is worth all of the effort.

I’ve only touched on a few highlights of the woods in this post. The biggest reason to maintain a healthy woods is that the majority of our pollinators live them. Every spring I count the number of different pollinators that visit our fruit trees. This year I counted eleven. Some I knew, such as the bumblebee, mason bee, black bee, and sweat bee. There were also a number of wasps and a few other varieties of pollinator that I haven’t researched as of yet. The point is, the majority of these pollinators come from our woods, so a healthy woods is essential to our health. Interestingly enough, the berry brambles in the woods are an important food source for pollinators in the early spring, so my delicacy is their delicacy too. What sorts of berries do you like? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Early Spring in the Woods

I’m sure many people are ready for spring. I know that I am. The ground is getting muddier by the second and the large drifts of snow have that decidedly tired and dirty look. Of course, winter will hang around for a while yet. We’re supposed to have another snow storm tonight. Just how much snow we get depends on the vagaries of nature. I don’t mind the snow; just don’t give me any ice.

Today was sunny and warm; well, warm for this time of year. I think the temperature got all the way up to 40 today, so there was more than a little melting underway. After checking my e-mail, getting all of my morning chores done, and making sure my wife didn’t need to go to town, I decided it would be a fine day to get up into the woods. I didn’t actually get there until afternoon, but I was still able to get quite a bit done. I keep cutting until the saw runs out of gas, then I start lugging the wood down the hill, 80 pounds at a time. Did I mention that my day in the woods normally involves walking six or seven miles (half of which involves lugging this 80 pound load)? It isn’t a bad workout for a 50+ year old man. This is the view from the hill where I’m cutting wood now.

WoodsToday

A day in the woods wouldn’t be complete though without some time spent looking at nature. I didn’t run into friend badger today. In fact, badger isn’t my friend and I try to give him a wide berth. I did see Woody though. Woody is the pileated woodpecker that hangs out in our woods. I tried to get a picture of him, but he’s shy. However, here’s a picture of his current favorite tree:

WoodysTree

Actually, Woody has a number of trees he attacks, most of which are snags like this one:

Snag

I have a personal rule that I don’t cut any trees that someone is using, so I’ll leave this snag in place. Eventually, someone will move into the holes that Woody has made. I’ve found all kinds of interesting things in trees over the years. We have several bee trees in the woods right now and I depend on the bees in them to help pollinate my garden and trees, so I definitely won’t cut the bee trees down.

One of the more interesting things I noticed in the woods today is that the buds on some of the trees are starting to swell. Of course, this is a sign that spring is near. The berry brambles are also turning quite red; another good sign. Here are some of the buds that I saw today:

SwellingBuds

I hope you enjoyed your tour of the woods today. I promise other trips as time allows. The woods is one of my favorite places to go. We not only get wood from there, but also a number of food items. I’ll show you some of them as I gather it this summer. Let me know about your favorite places in nature at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Health Benefits of Self-Sufficiency

I remember the discussion well; my wife and I were on a short vacation in the mountains of California one day (Julian for those of you who know the little town in Southern California) and we were talking about gardening. It sounds like a topic that is a long way from self-sufficiency or health, but there is a connection; even we didn’t know it at the time though. That discussion happened over 15 years ago. Today, we’re living a different sort of reality, much of it stemming from that innocuous discussion.

At the time, I weighed in at a gargantuan 365 pounds (perhaps a little more) and had a 54 inch waist. It was hard to find time to exercise and even harder to find money for a gym membership. Exercise consisted of walks, when time allowed. Today, I’m much lighter, having lost 127 pounds (so far) and my 42 inch waist is much smaller. My blood pressure has gone way down, my heart rate as well. In addition, I take far less medication today than I did at one time and my diabetes is under control. The technique I’ve used has also naturally decreased my LDL cholesterol and increased my HDL cholesterol.  The entire process has required a little over 12 years to complete; a long time granted, but the process has been slow and continuous.

You might wonder how much it cost to lose that much weight. That’s the interesting part. My wife and I now grow about 95% of our own food. We eat higher quality and fresher food and spend a whole lot less money in the store. In short, instead of paying for a gym membership, we exercise and earn money (in the form of store and medication savings) while doing it. You won’t find that sort of deal anywhere on TV.

The interesting thing about the approach I’ve taken is that my weight loss has been slow and continuous. The exercise I get by producing the things I need has actually increased my stamina and strength, while reducing my weight. I never get bored exercising this way because each day brings something new. One day I’m stretching while picking weeds in the garden, another day I’m lifting bushel baskets full of produce. Each day brings something new and the tasks I perform change by season. There is no falling off the cart because the change I’ve made is a part of my lifestyle now; I wouldn’t consider living any other way.

This entry has been short, but I wanted to introduce you to the idea behind self-sufficiency. It’s a method of producing what you need, gaining some substantial health benefits, and making money while you’re doing it. No, you won’t get a pile of cash from your garden, but wouldn’t you like to spend less at the store? What would you do with the money you save by reducing the groceries you buy in half? That’s what self-sufficiency is about; it’s about doing for yourself.

Keep your eyes peeled for additional posts in this category as I have time to write them. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your thoughts about self-sufficiency. Write me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.