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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; it’s been an insane year.

Anyway, we are now getting ready for winter here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. We had more insulation installed in the attic a few weeks ago, so we should be able to stay warmer while consuming less energy this winter.

This afternoon, Ron winterized the chicken tractor by installing a little corrugated plastic around one end to block the wind while letting in the light. Here’s a picture of his handiwork:

I was cleaning the kitchen this afternoon and found a couple of styrofoam trays I’d saved, so I turned them into insulation for the outlets. If you want to try something similar, here’s a quick how-to:

1. Gather your materials. You will need styrofoam trays (the kind that come with meat or mushrooms), an Xacto knife, a pen or pencil, an outlet cover, and — if you want to be really precise — a ruler.

2. Lay the outlet cover on the tray and trace around it with a pencil.

3. Cut along the lines. You can use the ruler if you want. I didn’t bother, because the styrofoam cutout is concealed between the outlet cover and the wall anyway. To install it, just put it under the outlet cover and screw both into the wall. (The notch in the middle is for the screw to go through.)

We had the chimney serviced in September to make sure it was safe and ready for winter. Aside from a few spiders hiding out behind the stove, everything was copacetic.

I was chilly this afternoon, so I burned a little cardboard and a couple of pieces of bark in the stove. It wasn’t a big fire or a particularly hot fire, but it was just enough to warm me up and remind me of the nicer parts of winter: toasted marshmallows, slow-cooked posole in the Dutch oven, and Red Zinger brewed from water heated in the teakettle.

Emily

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

A classic, in honor of Earth Day.

If you haven’t already, go do something nice for the planet. A few quick, easy ideas:

Replace an incandescent lightbulb with a CFL.
Take a shorter shower.
Shut off the water while you brush your teeth.
Bring your lunch to work in a reusable container instead of ordering takeout.
Consolidate errands to reduce the amount of driving you do.
Walk, bicycle, carpool, or take the bus when possible.
Try a vegetarian or vegan recipe.
Support your local farmers.
Shop at Goodwill.
Recycle.
Precycle.
Buy a Terrapass.
Calculate your environmental footprint.
Unplug the computer when you finish using it to reduce phantom loads.
Take your own reusable cloth bag when you go shopping.
Install a water filter on your kitchen faucet and use it to refill water bottles instead of buying more.

Emily

The House of the Lifted Lorax got a little publicity in yesterday’s Sand Springs Leader. The article isn’t online, but the lead story in the homebuilders’ guide that ran in yesterday’s paper was all about our efforts at sustainability here in Red Fork. The story starts with a well-written little riff about me turning the compost pile, and it goes on to talk about our chickens, bees, lightbulbs, solar panels, Energystar appliances, etc., etc., etc. It’s a pretty lengthy article, with several photographs (including shots of a CFL, an egg, a red wiggler worm crawling around on my hand, and two images — one color and one black and white — of me turning the compost while decked out in tie-dyed hippie regalia) and a list of tips for making your own home more energy-efficient.

If you happen to be in Sand Springs in the next couple of days, you might pick up a copy. The article contains lots of good information.

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

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.

Here is a quick, free way to eliminate tiny drafts around the house. I learned it from my mom when I was about 4, and I’ve never forgotten it:

1. Save the polystyrene trays that are used to package meat, mushrooms, and other foods. (Polystyrene egg carton lids will work for this purpose.)
2. Take the plastic cover off an electrical outlet.
3. Use the cover as a pattern to make a polystyrene cutout the same shape and size as the cover.
4. Put the cover back on the outlet, wedging the polystyrene cutout between the cover and the wall.

Do this on all your outlets — especially those on exterior walls — to help reduce heat loss.

This seems insignificant, but it really helps, it doesn’t cost anything, and it’s an easy way to recycle polystyrene that otherwise would end up in a landfill.

If you have a lot of styrofoam trays, you could even make some of these for your friends.

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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.

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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