Rats!

Rats (excl.) Slang. (an exclamation of disappointment, disgust, or disbelief.)

Rats, rodents, vermin, plague-mongers, bane of my existence. Those of us who keep livestock(and some who just want to grow veggies) loathe these fur-covered, feed-thieving, disease vectors, and they(and their cousin, the mouse) have been known to harrie even the most seasoned exterminators and determined farmers. They eat crops, decimate seedlings, kill chicks, and carry a number of parasites and diseases. And they are infamously difficult to get rid of once they’ve found you vulnerable in any way.

I’ve struggled plenty with what seems like an ever increasing number of rats and I am praying for a wet and cold winter to bring them back down to a manageable population. In the mean time I have tried just about everything to get rid of them. I’ll give you the pros and cons of my experience with various methods I tried and there are a few at the bottom of the article which are still on the roster.

 

Methods I have tried:

 

1. Classic snap-traps

PROS: Cheap, natural materials(wood and steel), non-toxic, minimal environmental impact.

CONS: They didn’t catch a single rat and all the bait was cleaned off each night, however I have heard from others who had great success

CONCLUSION: conditional recommendation

 

2. Glue Traps

PROS: cheap, non-toxic, pre-baited, easy to set in small spaces

CONS: They didn’t catch any rats, but they did catch my dog. Otto tried to eat the peanuts off of it and it got stuck to his face, which he then tried to scratch off, so it stuck to his paw. He was covered in sticky goop and panicked.

CONCLUSION: Would not recommend

 

3. Tomcat II Refillable Bait Station

PROS: pet, chicken, and child-safe, low risk of secondary toxicity (bromethalin)http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/rodenticides.pdf

CONS: risk of poisoning to other animals, possible secondary toxicity to raptors and chickens, rats were not very interested in the bait station blocks caused inconsistent results

CONCLUSION: Results Mixed, conditional recommendations

 

4. Tomcat II modified bait in homemade bait station (mixed bromethalin pellets with chicken food in a bowl under a crate with weight on top)

PROS: rats very interested, effectively killed 1-6 rats per day

CONS: risk of poisoning to pets and livestock, possible risk of secondary toxicity to raptors and chickens, must be refilled daily and removed before letting out pets and chickens

CONCLUSION: Good results, conditional recommendation

 

5. Coyote Pee – 33-day dispensers

PROS: non-toxic, low environmental impact, supports zoos and rescues, natural deterrent, so far this seems effective in my chicken run

CONS: expensive, may attract coyotes, smelly, may aggravate pet dogs

CONCLUSION: Deterred rats for only a few days, would not recommend

 

6. Plaster ‘Grapes’ (made from plaster, oil, and peanut butter)

PROS: non-toxic, low environmental impact, easy to make, cheap

CONS: slow death for rats

CONCLUSION: unquantifiable results, no harm if ineffective, recommended

 

Other methods I have not tried:

Hire the Mongrel Hoard, a team of human and canine ratting experts who work with you in your property for several hours to eradicate rats. Rate is $75 and a 6-pack of beer, but he doesn’t recommend his service in urban areas since rats usually travel between smaller properties.

Some people also claim that barn-cats can be very effective with rats, however this is a heavily debated topic as others believe that cats will only go after mice and have no interest in rats. Unfortunately, with three people who are severely allergic to cats in our house, it isn’t a method I can test.

I have also been told that Havahart humane animal traps are very effective at catching rats. The downside of course is that you then have to dispatch those rats yourself.

 

Obviously prevention is the best way to go about controlling rats, and any deterrent measures should go hand in hand with removing the attractants like accessible feed, produce, and places to hide. And don’t make my mistake. If you find a nest of adorable baby rats, don’t leave them for the elements. Momma-rat will come collect them and raise them up to terrorize you for your mercy. If you must, find them a home, but whatever you do, don’t just let them go because you’re too much of a bleeding-heart to kill fuzzy babies. You’ll regret it. I certainly do.

 

Is there a method that I have not listed which works for you?

Please share it in the comments!

Shrooms in Bloom

Almost a year ago, I took a class from the Mushroom Maestros, Patty and Ray, in which we learned all about cultivating edible mushrooms at home. The class focused on simple to grow everyday edibles including oyster mushrooms and king stropharia. It was actually the third time I had taken a workshop from them because they proved to include new info each time and I always got to go home with a kit to grow something. This workshop focused on not just the growing of the mushrooms themselves, but also on the propagation of mycelia and production of inoculation spawn.20140813-135410-50050075.jpg

The first two times, my kits proved prolific, often producing three or four full flushes of fruit before petering out. The third class took a different focus, so instead of coming home with a straw-based kit for fruiting out on (like the one pictured above), I headed home with several jars of fresh mycelial spawn and rye pucks for propagating mycelium on my own time.

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I few weeks later, when my spawn had fully grown out, it happened to rain, soaking the strawbale we were supposed to use as chicken bedding. Without much thought, I used a pick-axe to gouge a couple holes in the bale and stuffed it with oyster mushroom spawn. It being the late fall, I had assumed it would rain again, giving the mycelium the moisture it needed to run, but to my chagrin, we saw instead the driest winter California has had in over 150 years. Nothing ever came of that inoculated bale and being well into the summer I just assumed it had dried out too much for the mycelium and that other more drought tolerant molds had outcompeted it.

So, of course it was to my delighted surprise that I was greeted by a big flush of fresh oysters growing out around my corn and kale when I went to water the bed the other day! I had used the bale to create a small hugelkultur bed by digging a bale shaped hole, dropping it in, and covering it with the native clay soil and a few bags of freecycled chicken manure compost.

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I’m an enthusiast, but certainly no mycology expert so I’m only guessing here, but I think the boost of nutrients from the manure must have given the mycelium what it needed to finally fruit out. I know that many mushrooms, including oyster mushrooms like to grow off manure, but generally oysters prefer wood. One of the flushes came out around a stake that had been supporting bird netting, and I made sure to leave the moldering wood in the ground when I cut out the mushrooms. One of the others encapsulated a robust little kale plant while the some appeared to fruit simply from exposed straw.

Suffice to say I’m thrilled to have such a bounty come from what I thought was a dead end project repurposed for veggies. I’m hoping to add some wood chips or logs to this bed in the fall in order to encourage the continuation of mycelial growth in my garden.

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5 Garden Favorites

My garden is overflowing with greenery, and everything I planted this year serves a purpose. Some are food for me, some are food for my dogs and some are food for my bees. Some a pest deterrents, some are trap crops. Each one is uniquely useful, but there are definitely a couple plants that seem to be in my kitchen or on my mind almost daily.

1. Variegated Collards
20140718-140856-50936173.jpg Collards are a staple of southern cuisine and also extremely easy to grow. Most collards take 80 days to mature but the strain propogated by Fedco Seeds takes only 60, nearly three weeks less and we happen to sell them at Biofuel Oasis, where I work. It produces massive 12-18in long leaves whose waxy coating makes them both mildew and aphid resistant.

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They are juicy and tender and very flavorful but the ribs are tough and needs to be removed before cooking. I’ve been cooking these as a side  dish for almost every meal and added them to a quiche with excellent results. They add color and texture as well as a huge dose of vitamins K, A, and C and I also love dehydrating them in place of kale for chips for a crunchy snack that satisfies.

 

2. Yarrow

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Yarrow is a spectacularly undervalued herb in most gardens. It is often planted as an ornamental in its yellow or red blooming form. The colorful blooms are a beautiful contrast against its silvery green leaves, but the white variety is the most medicinally potent. For this reason, I planted two varieties, one for looks and one for use, though even the colorful variety is still an wonderful aromatic.Yarrow prefers well drained soil, and full sun, but can survive in partial shade. It handles our acidic clay soil in the East Bay quite well and can thrive in nutrient-poor conditions.

One of the most effective uses of Yarrow is for halting bleeding by applying crushed green leaves to the wound. The root is also an effective analgesic that can be chewed to alleviate toothache and reduce gum inflammation. A tea made from the leaves and/or flowers will open pores and raise body temperature and is said to air in breaking fevers. Dilute tea is also effective in regulating menses.

20140718-140444-50684714.jpg Of course Yarrow has a whole other usefulness too. It’s an excellent pollinator attractant and one bloom will often play host to numerous bees at once. The blooms are long lasting and numerous, and can provide nectar and pollen even during dry times as the plant is extremely hardy and drought tolerant. This plant is also very easy to propagate from small root segments which is exactly what I did by pulling up small shoots in neighbors’ yards to plant it in my own. I also use Yarrow in my herbal infused bee food which I make fresh every couple weeks.

 

3. Scarlet Runner Bean

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This one is pretty straight forward. Scarlet runner beans are highly productive and will continue to bloom if beans are harvested continuously. The blooms attract all manner of pollinators including honeybees, native bees, butterflies, and humming birds. Vines grow up to 20ft with bright red blooms and lush green leaves along the entire length.

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When pods are picked young, before they begin thickening, the entire pod is edible like any green bean. Later, when beans mature, they can be left on the vine or picked to dry and storage beans. At this point, the pod walls become hard,  fibrous and undigestible, but the beans are large and flavorful when cooked in soup or chili, or as a dish on their own.

According to Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetable, runner beans can overwinter in climates that remain above 23 degrees Fahrenheit, however I don’t know anyone who has tried to do this. I plan to try it once these beans have spent themselves out by mulching them over for the winter to keep them cozy and warm.

 

4. Mullein

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Mullein has nearly three dozen names including Our Lady’s Flannel, Clown’s Lungwort, Shepherds Staff, and my favorite, Hare’s Beard. The leaves and flowers of the plant contain most of the medicinal potency, though some applications for the root are said to exist. Mullein is mainly used as an anti-spasmotic which works wonders to alleviate coughs and or gastrointestinal cramping. It is also a mild sedative, so it is best taken at bedtime, lest it leave you feeling drowsy. However, combined with catnip, mint, lemon verbena, sage, and lavender, it makes a soothing and delightful sleep tonic. The leaves and flowers can be used fresh, or hung to dry for later use.

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The plants can grow up to 3ft wide with a single flower spike up to 8ft tall, whose lemon-yellow flowers are appealing to hummingbirds and butterflies as well as honeybees. The leaves are large and velvety soft and, because they grow as weeds in many places, hikers and backpackers have often used them as trail-side toilet paper.

Mullein has a two-year growth cycle but isn’t a true perennial as it only blooms its second year, however it does reseed itself prolifically. Fear not, it is easy to weed out when it is young and is easily shaded out by faster growing plants which keeps it from being aggressively invasive. It grows best in full sun and is another plant which can thrive in nutrient-poor clay. It does however prefer moderate water, especially in its second year while blooming.

 

5. Zucchini

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Okay, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Zucchini is a big food-producer. It takes almost no effort to grow and is easy to cook in a wide variety of ways. Our plants are producing huge sweet zukes every day and we can’t keep up with harvesting them so some have gotten a bit bigger than intended. I recommend every beginning gardener plant a few because it is incredibly rewarding to produce such a bounty as one’s first experience and even as an experienced backyard farmer it is good to know you have one fool proof crop in the garden in case everything goes haywire. All they need is sun and rich soil. They don’t like their roots disturbed to place them in a area where they have plenty of room to spread.

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In my home zucchini is used in just about anything from quiches to curries, and dog-food to fritters. It freezes well for later use in zucchini bread or pasta sauce and also keeps whole for quite some time. It ripens in perfect time with grilling season and there is something almost magical about plucking a vegetable and taking to straight to the grill without ever touching a kitchen counter or pantry. Somehow home grown veggies will always taste sweeter.

 

Right now, these five are my big favorites, though there are certainly many others in the garden that I love having quick access to. I expect that there will be a whole different set of favorites as the seasons change. What are your favorite garden products?

 

 

Artfibers yarnsplosion!

This post was supposed to go up February 14th but yet again, I was foiled by technology. The following was written while in line for a total of 4 hours.

It’s a sad day when an incredible yarn company goes out of business. The only bright side is the sale. At 9am February 14th they opened the doors to their workshop in order to clear out the last of their stock, supplies, and equipment. Fortunately this closing was by choice, not hard circumstances, and the owners are moving on to new projects and less responsibility. That means no guilt for those of us benefiting from their closeout!

I came with a budget and am blowing that out of the water but it is well beyond worth it! I have pounds and pounds of silk, viscose, modal, bamboo and alpaca undyed yarn cones coming home with me along with a couple amazing super-skeins of luxury yarn that I would normally never be able to afford.

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Of course I’m not the only one who came to Vallejo, CA to score. I am 2/3 through the line and have already been waiting nearly two hours.

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We’ve camped out in yarnville and kind coconspiritors have taken to passing around cookies and holding places during bathroom breaks and last minute additions.

Suffice to say I’m excited and will of course be starting up my active knitting life again. One project has already been completed.

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This scarf for my partner Michael is made entirely from my handdyed and handspun yarns. I’m proud of it despite it being messy because it’s the first project I have finished in a couple years. I’m expecting many more to come.

Hey there, Honey!

A couple days ago, I joined my friend Kitty Sharkey in extracting her honey. Last winter she lost her bees but was able to save the frames of honey in her freezer. If you’ve ever stored honey, you’ve probably noticed that it crystallizes if it gets cold. Interestingly though, it only does that between 40-32 degrees Fahrenheit. Below freezing however, the water crystalizes and leaves the sugar in suspension and when thawed it returns to its liquid golden state. That’s what Kitty did with her frames to store them for a time when extracting the honey was actually a possibility.

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One of the perks of my job at the Biofuel Oasis and Urban Farm Store is that I have access to the equipment needed to extract the honey from the comb, so I offered to help her out.

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Together, we uncapped the comb and used the extractor to spin out the liquid gold. The honey runs through a filter to remove all the stray wax, leaving only pure raw honey in the bucket.

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Unfortunately my recent back injury made me unable to finish the project with her and she was up til the wee hours of the morning before she was done, but overall, the haul was around 45lbs from about 20 frames. Not bad for a lost hive.

Of corse this called for celebration so we dipped glasses under the stream of unfiltered honey and filled up with bourbon. Cheers!

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I’ve still got it!

I know its been a long time since my last update but that doesnt mean I’ve been idle! Quite the opposite in fact. I’ve been keeping busy with all manner of projects. My favorite as always is foraging. Two trips in the Oakland hills had me come home with quite a handful of Candy Caps and several pounds of Fly Agaric.

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Candy Caps are pretty self explanatory. Delicious ruddy little mushrooms that smell like butterscotch and maple and caramel and dark brown sugar. Dried, they can add a sweet nutty flavor to butter cookies, ice cream, and are amazing mixed into chevre and left to sit overnight.

Candy Cap (photo by Don Loarie)

The Fly Agaric, also known as Amanita Muscaria is renowned the world round as a poisonous mushroom. It is unmistakable with its brilliant red cap, and white speckles and stem. There is nothing quite as striking as this toadstool.

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“But it’s poisonous!” you say. “Why would you collect it?” you say. Because while it is poisonous, it is also very tasty. The toxins in this particular Amanita are water soluble and can be removed through a simple, but time consuming process. Before I explain, let me say that this is NOT TRUE of any other poisonous Amanita, and I do not recommend taking this sort of risk lightly(and no matter how careful you are, wild forage always comes with risks… like getting your sparkly hat muddy).

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Following directions from this blog by Hank Shaw, I processed my Amanitas. I started by trimming all the muddy bits off and rinsing them very well in cool water.

IMG_8018Next, the caps and stems get sliced into 1/4 inch pieces and tossed into a big pot of water.  I used a 3 gallon stock pot filled most of the way up. It seems the key to making these babies safe is to be generous with the amount of water you boil them in. I added 1/2 cup kosher salt and a few tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to the water and brought the whole witchy concoction up to a gentle boil. I let the pot roll for about 10-15 minutes then dumped the water. At this point the water was dark yellow and the caps had begun to lose their distinctive color. They also lost more than half their size: 6 cups down to just over 2.

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The soggy slices went back into the pot with a round of fresh water(no salt or vinegar this time) for another 15 minute boil. By this time the mushrooms have lost all but a faded caramel color and the stems go slightly grey. Unappealing as is, but fried slowly in butter they get remarkably crunchy as I have never known mushrooms to get.  They have a delightful nutty flavor almost like hazelnuts and unfortunately for you, I munched them all down before taking a good photo! I did freeze and dry some to see how these mushrooms are best stored and will get back to you on that when I decide to test them.

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If you decide to try this yourself, do the research, and proceed with caution. Amanita Muscaria are widely recognized as a poisonous mushroom and while I had a positive experience preparing them, be aware that this may not be the case for everyone. Consuming wild mushrooms is as much about the preparation as it is about the person. Everyone reacts differently, so be careful, and eat small amounts the first time to be sure you don’t react poorly.

Keeping Up With Putting By

I love preserving foods. It’s a meditative process for me that brings me so much joy in the process alone and then I’m rewarded for the energy I’ve expended with tasty treats! This weekend I have made jam, jelly, curd, kombucha, and more. It’s been a weekend of doing what I love despite hardships and putting aside my worries for just a bit in favor of some really rewarding and happy time.

Left to Right: Vanilla Pear Butter and Lavender Quince Jelly

Saturday was spent with the son of my gracious hosts jamming and curding (if it wasn’t a word before, it is now). With him as my diligent assistant, we managed to make 4 separate batches of delicious sweet preserves. First among them was a quince jelly scented with lavender. It’s a gorgeous rosy red and smells divine! Next was a batch of pear and apple butter with candied ginger and vanilla bean and two different batches of citrus curd. The old standby is a lime curd for which I used the USDA recommended recipe which is shelf-stable. The newcomer is adapted from the shelf-stable recipe and uses grapefruit zest and some of the ruby grapefruit juice mixed with mostly high-acid lemon juice. The grapefruit flavor is delicate and almost floral, but the lemon brings enough tartness to balance the sweetness of it. I’m a fan and am definitely going to make this recipe again! Next time I may even share it with you, but I want to be sure of it’s stability before I do.

LIMES!!!

While slaving in the kitchen, we broke into my new kombucha made with black tea and honey. I’ve heard many times that kombucha won’t consume honey, or that it will kill the SCOBY. However, my boss/coworker who generously gave me this new pet has always fed it with local honey (instead of sugar as is usually recommended) and the nuttiness and caramel notes in her kombucha are definitely something special, so I figured I would go ahead and do the same. I was anything but disappointed. In fact I was thrilled and drank up almost a quart of it across the day! One cupful even got a generous splash of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice that would otherwise have gone to waste. Yum!

Grapefruit Curd

Sunday was just as productive and fun. My place of employment hosts a lot of amazing classes and as an employee I get to attend them whenever there is an open space. Yesterday’s awesome class was Advanced Fermentation taught by Nishanga Bliss, author of Real Food All Year. Nishanga is a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese medical practitioner AIMC Berkeley and is about to complete a doctorate in Nutrition. Wholesome holistic living seems to be her passion and it was a pleasure to learn a bit from her.

Along with a short presentation about the history, health benefits and biology of fermentation, Nishanga shared a few really spectacular recipes with the class. We got to taste a few yummy ferms from her kitchen and started two of our own: Bok Choy  and Butternut Kimchi, and Ginger Bug.

Feeding my new pet.

The simpler of the two is a Ginger Bug (also sometimes called a Ginger Beer Plant) which is a wild yeast starter made from shredded organic ginger root and sugar water. This starter can be used for making all kinds of delicious sodas and fizzy juices. To make your own Ginger Bug, grate  two about tablespoons of organic ginger with the skin on. In a 16oz jar or larger mix the grated ginger with an equal amount of sugar and about a cup of water.  Leave your bug in a spot that stays between 68 and 78 degrees. Every day for the next week add more ginger and sugar until bubbles form. This is a sign that you starter is strong enough for you to start making sodas with it, and you’ll want to put it in the refrigerator unless you plan to use it and feed it right away. Even with refrigeration though, you will need to feed it every week.

I am just so excited to be getting my groove back. I’m finally starting to feel like myself again.