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So … yeah. Three years between posts. My excuse? We’re just too bloody busy. So busy, in fact, that while we continue to adhere to a more or less environmentally friendly lifestyle, we haven’t really done anything new since that last post. We’re just maintaining.

That said, we have discovered a new product or two, and we’ve seen our efforts pay off in several practical directions. As winter settles over us and my hippie instincts kick into high gear (an annual occurrence for as long as I can remember), I’m feeling inspired to write about the joys of living lightly. A few quick updates:

1. Product endorsement: LED lights have taken a quantum leap forward in terms of quality and price since we bought our first one in 2007. Back then, they were hard to find, expensive (over $30 apiece, plus shipping), and ill-suited for general illumination. Today, LED “bulbs” are much cheaper ($10 to $20), readily available at big-box hardware stores, and will illuminate a room as evenly and effectively as the spiral CFLs we’ve been using since the late ’90s.

2. Solar panels: Still going strong. We still have cheaper power bills than any of our friends, and we’re still delighted with the performance of the system.

3. Chickens: Hot weather and old age took their toll on our flock, so we bought two buff Orpingtons and a barred Rock from an ol’ boy down at Broken Arrow. They’re producing well and seem to be getting along well with our rooster, Bond, who is a remarkably quiet chap.

4. Bees: We had a record honey harvest and captured an incredibly strong, productive Buckfast swarm this spring.

5. Garden: Droughts, heat waves, blossom-end rot, fusarium wilt, and an intolerably busy schedule have more or less destroyed our tomato crops every year. Someday, when I’m not a teacher any more, I will have time to baby my plants and get them through these issues. Until then, the best I can do is support the local farmers’ market.

6. Woodstove: We haven’t had to pay for heat since the ice storm of 2007. Between that and Oklahoma’s frequent tornadoes, we find a steady supply of firewood piled up on curbs, readily available to anyone with a truck, a chainsaw, and a little initiative. I just used some of the money we saved on heat to buy a ridiculously expensive teakettle from Lehman’s.

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Apologies for the long delay between posts. Things have been pretty crazy here at the House of the Lifted Lorax this summer, with a lot of travel and a lot of projects to complete.

Our big sustainability news this spring was the addition of three new beehives — one in the backyard and two at organic farms near Bristow.

It’s been a great season for honey, with lots of rain and lots of plants blooming for our girls to work, so we decided to do an early harvest from our biggest hive to make room for some new Bee-O-Pac frames, which are a type of plastic packaging that you install right in the hive to allow for easier collection of comb honey.

We bought an inexpensive plastic extractor and put 10 frames through it this week, ending up with about 30 pounds of honey. I brought the camera along, and we made a digital video of our project, which I posted to YouTube and also turned into a Podcast.

I’m hoping to do more Podcasts about our sustainability efforts in the future, so check back often or subscribe here.

Emily

Adopting a small flock of hens last spring was one of the most rewarding steps we’ve taken toward sustainability here at the House of the Lifted Lorax.

We got our chicks from the feed store and raised them in a large guinea pig cage with a deep plastic bottom and a heat lamp suspended above it. This was a good setup, but a large washtub or plastic storage tub with deep sides would have served us just as well and probably would have been less messy. (The girls got very good at flinging litter out of their cage as they learned to scratch for imaginary bugs.)

A brooder should be deep enough to protect very young chicks from drafts and heatproof enough that it doesn’t pose a fire hazard when you hang a heat lamp above it to keep the chicks warm. You can control the temperature in the brooder by adjusting the height of the heat lamp and/or switching to a higher or lower wattage lightbulb.

The temperature should be around 100 degrees when the chicks are very young. Lower the temperature gradually as they grow; by the time they’re six weeks old, they should be fine at room temperature.

The brooder needs some kind of litter (pine shavings are great); a perch; a feeder; a water dispenser; and a screen or hardware cloth lid to provide ventilation while preventing the chicks from jumping out.

Check the chicks’ food and water at least twice a day, replacing the water as necessary to keep it clean. When the chicks first came in, I changed their litter every couple of days. As they got older, I found it necessary to change the litter at least once a day to keep the brooder clean and dry. Chicks are very good at spilling water, so try to find a dispenser that won’t tip over easily.

When the chicks are about two months old, you can move them outdoors. We use a chicken tractor — a type of portable henhouse — to protect our girls from predators while giving them access to fresh pasture every day. This is a great system, as it allows us to move the hens around to prepare our garden plot before planting time. Hens are good at removing weeds, controlling pests, and fertilizing and aerating the soil.

In addition to grass and weeds, our hens eat vegetable scraps, stale bread, crackers, lawn clippings, bugs, and anything else they can put their beaks on. We supplement their diet with commercially prepared feed. A growth-formula feed is good for young chicks, but once they start laying eggs, you should probably switch them to layer crumbles or pellets. For a treat, we give our hens some chops (chopped, dried corn kernels) now and then.

Our hens started laying eggs in mid-July, when they were not quite five months old. That’s a little later than normal, but we had record rainfall last summer, and the lack of sunlight may have slowed them down.

Six hens will produce an average of four eggs a day during sunny weather. They will also supply you with weed control, pest control, and constant entertainment … and once you’ve tasted fresh eggs, you’ll never settle for the store-bought kind again.

Given the nasty environmental impact of big factory farms and the innate cruelty involved in large-scale production methods, there’s something very satisfying about raising your own eggs in the backyard.

Emily

I know it’s a little early to be thinking about lawn care, but spring will be here before we know it, and some of us will be in the market for new lawnmowers.

One terrific — and easy — way to reduce your environmental impact and save a lot of money is to use an old-fashioned reel mower instead of a gas-powered mower.

Contrary to popular belief, a properly maintained reel mower is a delight to use. Lightweight, quiet, and efficient, they use no gas, require no effort to start, can be used without remorse on ozone alert days, and are much safer than gas-powered mowers, as the blades work in only one direction, making it virtually impossible to cut yourself while mowing.

A decent reel mower can be had for less than $100 at most hardware stores. (If the big boxes don’t carry them, try your local mom-and-pop.) Try to find one with a U-shaped handle, rather than a T or Y-shaped handle, as they tend to hold up better.

The biggest complaint I hear about reel mowers is that they are hard to push. This is true of dull mowers, but it’s a non-issue if you keep the blades sharp. If the mower starts getting a little balky, simply use a kit (available online for $25 to $30) to sharpen the blades.

You’ll also want to be aware that reel mowers are not good at handling very tall grass, so don’t neglect the lawn for three weeks and then expect your reel mower to do the work of a sling blade.

If you want to save clippings to use in your compost pile, many models come with grass catchers, which can also be purchased separately for around $30 apiece.

It’s been our experience that you can get about three seasons out of a reel mower before the gears start to wear out, although this obviously will depend on the size of your yard and how often you mow it.

I’m not sure I’d want to use a reel mower on a large property, but for a typical suburban backyard, I consider it an ideal tool.

I took temperature readings inside and outside our passive-solar henhouse on New Year’s Day. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the outdoor air temperature was in the high 40s, the temperature in the sunshine on the ground in front of the henhouse was 61, and the temperature inside the henhouse was 72.

Getting the hens out of the chicken tractor and into the new structure was something of a trick. We were using pavers to hold the door shut, and our barred Rock, Solitaire, proved much stronger and much more willing to squeeze through a small space than we’d expected. We’d put Solitaire into the henhouse, carefully secure the door, and as soon as we turned our backs, she’d come sauntering back out the side. It was pretty funny. We finally gave up on the pavers and used a couple of big logs from the woodpile to hold the door shut, which worked a lot better.

Once the girls were back together, they calmed down and quit trying to sneak out. The quarters were a little tight, and I don’t think they liked being walled in like that — after all, they’re used to being outdoors — but their temporary home did a good job of protecting them from the elements when temperatures dropped into the teens for a couple of nights, and I slept better knowing my girls were safe and warm, even if they weren’t very happy with me.

Emily

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As I think we’ve mentioned before, we keep a half-dozen backyard hens here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. We usually keep them in their chicken tractor — a kind of portable henhouse — to give them access to fresh forage while protecting them from the neighborhood cats. (You can see our chicken tractor to the right in the photo above.)

During extreme cold, the hens need a little more protection than the tractor offers, so with forecasts calling for temperatures in the teens on Tuesday night, we spent this afternoon finishing up a project I started a couple of months ago: a passive-solar, biodegradable henhouse.

We started by arranging six hay bales  to form three thick walls:

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(You can see another view of the chicken tractor to the left in the picture above.)

Next, Ron cut a piece of half-inch plywood to fit over the top. I think the dimensions were something like four feet by five feet.

henhouse1.jpg

I used some leftover spray paint from other projects to seal the plywood, which hopefully will help keep it from delaminating in wet weather.

Using L-brackets and T-brackets, I screwed some 1x2s together to form a simple frame that’s reinforced in the center. I attached two hinges at the top and stapled some half-inch hardware cloth to the back side of the frame to make a screen door. (You could probably use chicken wire, but we thought the hardware cloth would be a little sturdier.)

I screwed the hinges to the plywood, we put two more hay bales on top, and — voila! — a little house:

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I will run out to the hardware store later and pick up a roll of clear Frost-King plastic and a couple of cinder blocks. I’ll use about a yard of plastic to cover the door, stapling it to the plywood to make a flap we can raise and lower as necessary to regulate the temperature inside the henhouse. The cinder blocks will be used to secure the door, as there’s not much way to attach hardware to hay bales to make a latch.

I’m guessing our girls are probably the only hens in Tulsa County who will be spending the coldest nights of the year in a passive-solar house with an R-value somewhere in the neighborhood of 45. 🙂

I’ll pick up a couple of thermometers at the hardware store this afternoon and take some readings inside and outside the henhouse to get an idea of how it will perform. Stay tuned….

Emily

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I think our hens may have been even more popular than our solar panels this afternoon as we led tours of the House of the Lifted Lorax. They certainly made a big hit with my young neighbor, who has been watching them from afar (or at least from across the easement) for months. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of petting them when we took them out of the chicken tractor, but he definitely liked watching them through the chicken wire. When his mom and grandma got ready to leave, we had to coax him inside with the promise of a cookie (oatmeal-cranberry-chocolate-chip, made with honey and eggs from our backyard).

Between 20 and 25 visitors from all walks of life stopped by to see the house and yard. We had some old friends show up, we made some new friends, we got to know a few of our neighbors a little better, and we had a surreal but utterly wonderful moment shooting the bull with a pair of self-described “old hippies” who could have been us in 20 years.

One of our visitors told us she’d come more for the chickens than anything else, and one couple on the tour walked out to the backyard to see the solar array but shifted their focus to the chicken tractor the minute they saw it. As it turns out, they’ve been thinking about keeping chickens but weren’t sure how to start, being city dwellers. I think our feisty, funny Bond Chicks offered them as much encouragement as anything I might have said. I hope they’ll post and let us know how they’re doing when they get a flock of their own.

Our bees were a big hit, too, and several people were interested in the LED “lightbulb” in my desk lamp, which isn’t the brightest light in the world but is pretty whizbang nonetheless.

If you missed the tour, the organizers are already planning to do another one next fall. I am also hoping to get a hand free in the near future to put together a kind of virtual tour to give you a sense of what’s possible … and in the meantime, you can
click here
to see a copy of the flier we handed out, explaining the various things we’ve done to reduce our ecological footprint.

I’ll leave you with one more dose of cute:

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Have a good weekend, and go do something nice for the environment.

Emily

From a strictly mathematical standpoint, our new grid-tied solar panels did not give the environment the biggest possible bang for our buck. Donating $10,000 worth of CFLs to the Salvation Army to distribute to needy families probably would have made a much bigger impact. But part of my motivation in shrinking our personal environmental footprint was to serve as an example to those who operate under the mistaken belief that taking care of the Earth means sacrificing all your creature comforts and running away to live in the woods with the Rainbow Family.

A year or so ago, I arranged for John Miggins of Harvest Solar to give a presentation on alternative energy to Tulsa’s local Mensa chapter. It was a great presentation, and most of the members asked good questions and had interesting things to say. But John and I were thoroughly dismayed by the reaction he got from a member who claimed to be an environmental science teacher, but whose comments on the subject made Jim Inhofe look like Gaylord Nelson.

When I described for this woman the simple changes I’d made to reduce my environmental footprint, her response was something between pity and raw contempt. It was pretty clear that she thought I was living in a hovel unfit for human habitation, and no amount of explanation was going to convince her otherwise.

Her attitude and ignorance were appalling, but they made me realize the desperate need for real-life examples of ordinary people living ordinary lives without wreaking havoc on the environment in the process. I realized that every dinner party I threw, every basket of produce I took to the office, every bouquet of flowers or jar of honey I shared with a friend could serve as a testimonial to the benefits of doing right by the environment.

Life is good here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. As I write this, our power meter is running backwards, watermelon is ripening on the vine behind the back fence, and Scout and I are enjoying an omelet Ron made for us out of the eggs our hens laid yesterday. I just brought in five enormous cucumbers, a dozen ripe tomatoes, a half-dozen hot peppers, and a handful of fresh okra pods from the garden.

Last night, I canned a gallon of homemade salsa made from my heirloom tomatoes and peppers, and this evening, I’ll bake a blackberry cobbler — sweetened with honey produced by our bees — while I put up pickles and hot sauce. I need to scrub down the dehydrator so I can dry some basil and peppermint.

We’re going to get in Ron’s Honda Insight and take a Sunday drive in a little while, because I want to check out the LED lamps and camping gear at the Bass Pro Shop. (I’ve got a couple of energy-saving ideas I’m experimenting with; more on that later.)

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to collect photos and sounds for a virtual open house that will give all our blog readers a glimpse into the realities of life in the carpool lane. I’ll also be doing a series of posts on simple ways to reduce your environmental footprint.

Stay tuned. 🙂

Emily

I never was the most liberal, tree-hugging member of any party. So how did I become the type of person who now recycles, drives a hybrid, and is about to place power-producing solar panels on my home?

I guess I could say that I married into the environmental movement, which is true. But that’s too easy of an explanation.

One of the first inklings of my interest in alternative housing was in college, when a newspaper article told about actor Dennis Weaver building a house in Colorado made with discarded tires. I distinctly recall reading that Weaver’s house had a constant, year-round temperature like a cave, so that it would cost much less to heat and cool during seasonal extremes. I remember how cool I thought that was.

I didn’t have the chance until the Internet age to further research Weaver’s house, which I discovered was an Earthship. Emily and I ultimately didn’t build an Earthship (maybe someday), but it sparked a lot of ideas on how to lessen our power consumption and improve our home’s climate control.

But my interest in environmentally friendly methods goes back further, while growing up on the farm in the Midwest. My grandfather used passive solar heat to help dry the grain that he harvested instead of relying so much on noisy, power-eating electric dryers. A few dozen miles away, another farmer erected a wind turbine and generated enough power during some months to get the electric company to pay him.

But it wasn’t just neato gadgets and new ways to pinch pennies. My parents also instilled in us that we were stewards of the land, that it was our duty to leave it in as good or better condition for the next generation of farmers. That led to no-till planting to conserve the topsoil. That led to cutting back on the use of herbicides and insecticides because my family instinctively knew that overuse of such chemicals was harmful.

It wasn’t Al Gore or Iron Eyes Cody or, God forbid, Earth First! that ultimately led me to being more environmentally responsible. It was my years on the windswept Illinois prairie.