How Can You Trim Your Food Bill?

We are shocked by the rise of many prices, especially food. Fortunately, we mute the cost by finding or growing groceries here at Winding Pathways. We’re lucky to own two acres, but folks living on tiny lots can produce an amazing amount of food, even if they aren’t passionate gardeners.

In a nutshell here’s what we do to tame grocery bills:

Foraging

It’s ironic that many people consider the most delicious and easy wild foods pests and spend time and money trying to eliminate them. We eat ‘em. Books and websites, including Winding Pathways, share tips on finding, identifying, harvesting, cooking, and eating wild foods. Caveat:  ALWAYS check that you have the correct plant, gather from unpolluted places, and consume only a small amount initially to be sure your body accepts the wild edible.

Here are our favorites:

  • Mid to late spring: Nettles and dandelions.

  • Late spring through summer: Lambs quarters, purslane, amaranth, and the bluegills and crappies we catch.
  • Early fall: Acorns, new lambs quarter growth, and walnuts. Watch this YouTube video for complete processing and eating the cookies!
  • Winter: Venison from the deer we harvest…..if we’re lucky.

Gardening

We’re not passionate gardeners and we don’t can or freeze vegetables, so here’s what we do:

  • Succession plant: Our small garden yields an enormous amount of food.  We don’t let a square foot be idle. When summer’s heat turns lettuce bitter, we pull it, feed it to our chickens, and plant beans or another heat-loving crop. Same with other crops that grow quickly and then fade.
  • Use vertical space: Pole beans, for example, produce much more food per square foot than bush beans, so we choose climbers and use vertical space. We have the pole high enough to reach up and pull off the beans.
  • Grow dwarfs: Some cucumber varieties, for example, are “bush” type, meaning they produce a crop without long vines that consume plenty of space.
  • Think of winter eating: Because we lack freezer space and don’t can food, we plant vegetables that need little care during the growing season and store them until late winter without being canned or frozen. Here’s our list:
    1. Winter squash. Pick them, let them curet, and store them in a cool spot. They keep for months. Same with pie pumpkins.
    2. Carrots and parsnips. In late fall we smother the plants with a thick blanket of dry leaves or straw that keeps the ground from freezing. We’ve harvested carrots in January by brushing away snow and peeling back the mulch and pulling them.
    3. Sweet potatoes. They love the South’s climate yet grow well up north.

We carefully dig them in the fall, cure them, and store them like winter squash.

Chickens

We can’t imagine living without a small chicken flock. Our six to 12 hens gift us a couple of dozen eggs a week. Their manure fertilizes the garden and garden weeds are a great hen chow. During warm months our hens forage in their large run eating bugs, worms, and weeds and transforming them into eggs. Sometimes we even stew down an old hen.

Wildlife

Lots of folks don’t like hunting.  For us harvesting a deer is a form of food gathering, not recreation.  After all, deer are free-ranging, local, and organic. Fortunately, we’re able to hunt on our property and convert a deer into delicious meat.  We also enjoy eating panfish.

Like most folks, we can’t grow or forage all our food but much comes from the yard and area. It takes knowledge and investment in elbow grease but trims the food budget.  Perhaps even better, knowing how to find and grow food makes us feel less vulnerable to national disruptions that make food either hard to get or expensive.

Can You Grow Sweet Potatoes in Iowa?

As we watched squirrels gleaning sunflower seeds from feeders in our backyard, we dined on 2021s sunshine!

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are a healthy vegetable.

Thanks to last season’s sun our crop of sweet potatoes produced a bountiful crop, and we ate them until our last one became part of our February 8th dinner. We’ve only been growing sweet potatoes for a few years because we’d heard they need a long southern summer to mature. We now know that’s not true.

We love sweet potatoes. They come in many varieties and color shades from white to purple and the common ones with deep orange flesh. This nutritious plant originated from tropical South America and is now grown in warm regions all over the world.  Sometimes they are called yams, but these two plants are distinctly different. Yams originated in Africa.

 

Nutritious Vegetable

We love the taste and nutrition of sweet potatoes but here are some other ways we love this plant:

  • They are easy to grow. We buy “slips” and plant them in late May or early June.
  • The plants and flowers are gorgeous, and slips are sometimes sold as ornamentals.
  • They store well. We carefully dig them before the first frost, let them cure for a couple of weeks, and then store them in a cool dark place. They last all winter.

Sweet potatoes are easy. No freezing or canning is needed. We plant, weed a bit, dig, cure, and store and then enjoy eating them all winter. This year we’ve ordered a variety of sweet potato slips from Sand Hill Preservation Center and look forward to a larger harvest.  The company also sells heritage chicken breeds and vegetable seeds.

 

November Makes 12

Meeting a Challenge

A few years ago, we received an email from the National Wildlife Federation asking us, and millions of others, to camp in the backyard once during the summer.

Upping the Ante

Man by tent

November makes 12.

We took it to heart and then went further. Over the past twelve months, Rich and occasionally Marion camped out at least once a month. The first time was on an unusually mild December night in 2020. The last one as November 2021 ended. In brilliant sunshine, Rich set up his backpack tent about 20 feet from the garage and spent a night punctuated by coyotes and owls vocalizing in nearby woods. The night completed his camping every month for the past year.

 

 

Some months – like in the dark of winter – Rich tented in the back yard.  After an evening of reading or watching a Great Courses DVD Rich bid “Good night” and stepped into the cool evenings, snuggled into the thick sleeping bag – preheated with “Hot Hands” packs, and enjoyed the evening serenades.

Watching the Weather

January and February 2021, Rich camped back to back.  The predictions were mild for January 31st and February 1st. And, cold was on its way. So, Rich pushed away snow and set up his tent next to the barn where the chickens sleep.  He was aroused at 4:00 a.m. when the light we use to wake the birds did just that.  Between the bright light shining in his tent and the rooster’s crowing Rich gave up and came in about 4:30 a.m.  Still, the overnight counts!

Combining Interests

In warmer months when fishing beckoned, he would head to NE or SE Iowa and come back with a string of trout or panfish.

The few times we traveled further afield, we tented – March in Kansas with the campground to ourselves; September and October in the East under beautiful stars and in the pouring rain.

Why Backyard Camp?

Backyard camping is great fun, even in a tiny urban yard.  It also has these advantages over trekking to a distant state or national park:

  • Spontaneous decision. No need to take time off work or school. Just set up the tent behind the house, add a sleeping pad and bag, and camp.
  • Choosing the weather. If it’s cold, hot, windy, rainy, or (gasp) snowy, wait for a more pleasant night.
  • No camping fee or need to drive anywhere.
  • Easy to drag in many blankets and pillows that might not be taken on a camping trip somewhere.
  • During winter’s long dark nights just stay inside to watch tv or read before sleeping in the tent.
  • It’s an adventure….at least for kids.

With 12 months down, will Rich’s streak of every month camping continue?????    We’re not sure, but likely it will.

How Hardy is the Eastern Red Cedar?

On a windy cold Thanksgiving afternoon, we did something nutty. After tossing buckets and shovels into our pickup we drove north until we spotted greenish foliage popping through the road ditches dry grass.
There, we rescued six red cedar trees that are now at home in our yard.

A Hardy Tree

Few American trees have such a love-hate relationship with people as the red cedar, which is actually a Juniper. Perhaps it’s unpopular because of the plant’s amazing adaptability. Sure, it needs full sunlight but given that it thrives in heat, salty roadsides, and terrible soil it is one hardy plant! Even stiff grass competition that snuffs out other baby trees doesn’t seem to bother it.

Red cedars thrive from the Great Plains eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. In many places they are small bushes, but sometimes the tree grows big enough to interest loggers. The  aromatic wood  is used to craft cedar chests, closet linings, and even pencils. Fence posts made of it last for decades.

Why Ranchers and Farmers Dislike Cedars

Ranchers curse cedars because they spread in pastures. Cattle don’t like dining on prickly cedar twigs, and within a decade or two cedars replace the grassy food that cows love with a green desert of scrubby trees. 

What’s to Love About Red Cedars

But, a cedar grove isn’t really a desert.   Birds, especially cedar waxwings, love eating their tiny blue berries, and dense stands of cedars protect many species of wildlife from howling wind, searing sun, and predators.  

There’s more. We live in Cedar Rapids, a city named for the rugged trees that grow in rocky bluffs over the Red Cedar River. They’re small and twisted but some are over 400 years old.

We planted our cedars on the edge of our property where they will form a screen from the wind and passing car headlights. They also will give us privacy, and be a  safe home for birds that visit our feeders.

In mid-December, we’ll return to the road ditch and cut a six-foot red cedar for our Christmas tree. Cedars are scraggly and unsymmetrical, but we don’t put our tree up in the house. It will grace the Holiday season on our back deck. Pouring a few cups of sunflower seeds in its foliage creates a  living stream of ornaments as goldfinches, chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches come and go.   

For information on red cedars and many other trees visit the website of the National Arbor Day Foundation.

How Can You Catch Nature’s Miracles?

A camera is an outstanding tool to see change. Plant a tree or prairie and it grows so glacially slowly that noting change is hard. Photos help by compressing time.

In August 2020 a derecho felled 47 of our 53 mature trees. We spent much of last fall converting them into firewood and piling up brush. Knowing that the land would be sunny after years of leafy shade, we planted a blend of savanna wildflowers last November.

The area didn’t change much from last fall until April of this year. Then nature put on a glorious show. Here are three photos of our yard taken in April, May, and September 2021. Most of the growth didn’t come from the seeds we planted last fall.   Seeds long dormant in the soil sprouted with enthusiasm once they sensed the sun’s springtime warmth.

 

Using the Sad ‘Ole Jack-O-Lantern

As we entered our driveway a frustrating sight greeted us. We were looking forward to picking the enormous seed heads of sunflower plants towering over the garden. Not this year. While we were gone, a windstorm toppled them a few weeks before they’d ripen.

That’s the way it is with gardening. Sometimes there’s a great success resulting in delicious meals. Then there are flops, like our sunflowers. We found more wind mischief. Several almost ripe pumpkins and squash had broken stems, dooming them to rot instead of ripening.

A Silver LIning

All wasn’t lost. We pitched the sunflower heads, pumpkins, and squash into our chicken run.  Enthusiasm erupted as the hens eagerly devoured them. They pecked a hole in the squash and pumpkins, ate all their seeds, and then made quick work of eating the soft interior flesh. Soon all that remained was the tough outer skin of the pumpkin and the sunflower’s now seedless head. These went into the composter.

Chickens love garden debris and vegetables that don’t quite make it to our table. When fall closes down our garden we turn in the chickens. They chow down on bugs, weed seeds, and unripe vegetables. This makes clean-up easier and probably reduces next year’s insect and weed problems.  A few days after Halloween our hens love snacking on our shriveling Jack O Lantern. They also relish seeds scooped out of winter squash and most vegetables left in the refrigerator a bit too long.

It was frustrating losing our sunflowers, pumpkins, and squash. Thanks to our industrious hens we were able to put them to good use.