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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

April 15th is the last frost date for our planting zone, which means most of the gardeners in Tulsa will be busy getting their hands dirty this weekend.

If you’re planting this weekend, resist the temptation to put your peppers in the garden this early. Most crops will tolerate cool weather, provided the temperature doesn’t dip below freezing, but peppers do best if you wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently in the 50s or higher before you plant. Putting them out early won’t kill them, but it definitely stresses the plants, and it doesn’t do anything to speed up their growth; if anything, it slows them down.

I generally wait until early to mid May to plant peppers. Waiting a few weeks doesn’t hurt the plants (provided they’re not rootbound; if they are, just transplant them into bigger containers), and they get off to a much better start if you wait and put them out when it’s warm.

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

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Here at the House of the Lifted Lorax, we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day with flowers and candy. We celebrate it with potting soil and seed packets.

Feb. 14 falls two months and a day ahead of the last frost date for our zone, which makes it an ideal time to start seeds indoors. We buy our seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, which is a great organization dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, flowers and more.

Tomatoes are our favorite crop. You can buy a decent cucumber at the grocery store, and you can find passable squash, peppers, and eggplant at the farmer’s market, but nothing can stand in for a homegrown tomato, fresh from the vine … so regardless of what else we may or may not put in the garden, we always grow tomatoes.

Most years, I get a little carried away, trying new varieties, but this year, I exercised some restraint and confined myself to four varieties: two kinds of cherry tomatoes (Risentraube and Mexico Midget); Silvery Fir Tree (an early slicer with pretty foliage); and my all-time favorite, Black from Tula, which is a Russian heirloom that produces unspeakably ugly but indescribably delicious fruit.

I haven’t grown the first three varieties in the past, but I’ve yet to see a cherry tomato that wouldn’t thrive in all conditions, and Silvery Fir Tree just looked too beautiful to pass up, so we’ll see how they do.

There are two secrets to great tomatoes:

1. Horse manure. Find a nice person with horses and ask if you can scoop stalls in exchange for manure. A mix of manure, urine-soaked sawdust, and spoiled hay is the world’s finest compost starter, as the nitrogen-to-carbon ratio is as close to ideal as you can get without a chemistry lab. I’ve grown tomatoes the size of softballs, on vines that looked like kudzu, with the help of horse compost.

2. Deep holes. Use a posthole digger to dig down two to three feet. Most tomatoes’ roots will grow down until they hit hardpan, and then they start to spread out sideways. In hot, dry weather, the top layer of soil dries out very quickly, and the roots dry with it. If you dig a posthole to a depth of about one foot below hardpan, your tomatoes’ roots will be able to reach the moist dirt that lies below instead of spreading out to bake in the sun.

I’ll have more on the tomatoes as they progress, but at the moment, the seeds are tucked quietly into moistened potting medium in a seed-starting flat. As soon as I finish converting our potting table to a temporary cold frame, I’ll move them outdoors.

Emily