Archive for June, 2011


You may not have grains in your garden like I talked about in my last post, and you may not be ready to build a solar food dryer that I talked about in the post  before that.  Solar cooking, however, should be possible for almost everyone, unless you really do live with a cloud cover every day.  I have been playing around with solar cooking for several years, learning a bit each year.  Now I’m ready for more commitment.

There are plenty of designs for solar cookers to choose from.  All you need is some cardboard and aluminum foil and you’re almost there.  Well, it’s not quite that easy.  I thought about it a long time before I took any action.  My life was already overflowing with projects and each project takes time and attention.  Learning to cook with the sun is no exception.  I finally bought a CooKit from Bountiful Gardens.  It is cardboard with foil covering one side.  You put your container of food in the plastic bag that comes with it, but you can use any oven cooking bag.  I never liked using the plastic bag and this year came up with a terrific solution.  I am using the top to a glass cake saver.  It works great!   

solar box oven

Because I didn’t like to fold and unfold the CooKit and I didn’t like the plastic bag, I made a solar box oven from two  boxes with newspaper insulation in between.  That was a project I started one day with my grandson, thinking it would be something fun to do for the morning.  He quickly lost interest and I worked on making that thing ALL day.  I never had as much success with it as I thought I would.  The slightest breeze would bring down the lid that was held up by a rod cut from a clothes hanger.  I would frequently lose that rod and have to make another one.  But it worked well enough for me to know that if I made some refinements, such as adding more reflectors and securing that rod, things could be better.  In the end, though, I would still have a cardboard box that needed to be brought in each day since we have such heavy dew at night.  To really make solar cooking a part of my life, I  needed  a weatherproof solar oven that I could leave outside all the time. 

I learned a lot from these two solar cookers. 

  • Most importantly I learned that, although they can be left unattended for long periods of time, they work best if you can adjust their position at least every hour to follow the sun.
  • If it is windy, the flap on the box oven might close or the CooKit might be repositioned.
  • Clouds might move in and cool things quickly.
  • The best time to cook means that dinner is ready before we’re ready to eat it. 

Global Sun Oven

Last summer I had the opportunity to borrow a Global Sun Oven for a couple of months.  It worked well, although I would have liked it to be bigger.  Since I had borrowed it, I brought it up to the porch each night to protect the finish.  It worked so well, I bought one when I visited Lehman’s Hardware in May.  I believe I have used that more in the past seven weeks than all my solar cooking efforts in the past several years.  I fold the reflectors in when I’m not using it, but if I’m using it day-to-day, I leave it outside.  If the weather is threatening or I know it won’t be used the next day, I’ll bring it onto the porch.  I still would like to build a larger solar oven on its own swivel, so just a tap will turn it with the sun, but I knew I didn’t have time to do that this summer. 


I have cooked quiche, brownies, rice, potatoes, polenta, meatloaf, and melted cheese sandwiches.  I hardcook eggs, brew tea, and make applesauce from dried apples.  The tomato sauce on my recipe page cooks up well in a solar oven.  One thing that may make some people hesitant to get started is the lack of proper cooking vessels.  I find I cook a lot in wide-mouth quart canning jars or glass casserole dishes that I already have.  Early in my solar cooking experience I bought a black enamel pot with a lid and a small black enamel roasting pan.  I like the jars or casserole dishes because I can see what’s happening.  I’ve discovered that the lids on casserole dishes will fit pie plates.  When I cooked the quiche, I used a deep dish glass pie plate with a casserole lid on it.   I solved the problem of food being done before we we’re ready to eat by putting the dishes in a hotbox once the solar cooker starts to cool, usually around 4pm.   We happen to have an insulated “Fresh Eggs” box on our porch. I made it to fit a styrofoam cooler years ago when I sold eggs.  I would leave them in there for my customers to pick up.  I have newspaper and a towel to further insulate the hot dishes.  Our meal stays hot until we’re ready for it.  You could use any large picnic cooler for the same purpose.  The most wonderful thing is that the kitchen stays cool on these hot summer days.

Before you make a major purchase of a solar oven, do some internet research, read some books, and make a solar cooker.  Just do it.  A good place to go for information is Solar Cookers International.  Every new skill you learn is something to build on.  It is the learning that’s important and the learning comes from the doing.  By cooking with the sun you can save fossil fuel, keep your house cooler, and become more attuned to the natural world around you.  I’m really enjoying my new Sun Oven, but now that I’m using the cake saver with the Cookit instead of a plastic bag, I’ll continue to use that, also.  I gave my box oven to a friend.  You can make a solar cooker from a car window reflector and a bucket, or so I’m told.  There are adventures to be had, so what are you waiting for?

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shock of wheat

Growing grain in your garden is great for both your soil and for you.  Your soil gets the benefit of the roots left from the cover crop, the straw goes to the compost pile which ultimately gets returned to the soil, and you have seeds to grind for flour or to save for another planting.  I grow both wheat and rye, but since I wrote about cutting rye early to lay down for mulch on 5/17/11, I’ll direct my comments today to wheat.  The process I’ll write about is the same for both.  Gene Logsdon is the first person I knew of talking about growing wheat back in the ‘70’s when he wrote about growing a “pancake patch”.  His book, Small–Scale Grain Raising, was published in 1979 by Rodale Press.  It promptly went out of print, which is why I was thrilled when the second edition was published in 2009 by Chelsea Green.   Gene Logsdon’s writings had a huge effect on my evolution as a gardener in the 1970’s-80’s.  I encourage all of you to read as many of his books as you can, both the new and the old, and visit his blog at http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/

I plant winter wheat in the fall, trying to have it in by mid-October.  I  broadcast it into a prepared seedbed and gently chop it in with a cultivator or rake.  It could also be sown in furrows.  Whenever I’ve tried transplanting it, the results were not as good, so I don’t transplant small grains.  The time to harvest here in zone 7 is about the second week of June for wheat and the next week for rye.  I cut it with the same Japanese-style sickle that I told you about in the post about the rye.  Keeping all the grain heads going the same way, I put it in bundles, tying each with a wheat straw.  My video, Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden, shows me doing that.  The grain needs some more drying time before it is threshed.  You could store it in a building, but make sure to protect it from birds and mice.  I’ve gotten better at putting the bundles into shocks, so I do that and leave the shocks in the garden for about a week, then thresh.  It’s okay if it gets rained on, and of course, the dew will fall each night.  This weathering is all for the good and the changes in the grain make it better for your body to digest.  I believe one of the reasons so many people have problems digesting wheat is because of how it is handled in our industrial food system.  All the more reason to grow your own.

threshing-bat method

Until now, my favorite way to thresh wheat and rye has been with a plastic baseball bat.  I lay an old sheet on the ground and put a piece of plywood on top, with the other end leaning against the picnic table.  From a standing position, I hold the wheat, heads down, against the plywood and hit the seedheads with the bat.  The grain falls down to the sheet.  I gather the sheet and can pull off a lot of the larger chaff with my hand.  Everything else gets poured into a container for winnowing.  That way is shown in my cover crop video.

threshing-foot method

My newest method allows me to sit down on the job and use my feet.   I use an old bread tray and insert a piece of 1/2 “ hardware cloth, but you could make a frame of 2×4’s with a 1/2’” hardware cloth bottom.  I lean the tray against the picnic table bench as shown, sit in the chair in front of it, and use my feet to shuffle against the grain heads. The wheat seeds land all in one spot behind the threshing tray.   You can see the bundles of wheat on one side of the chair and the threshed straw on the other.  I wear clean shoes that I save for that job only.  As before, I also used a sheet under everything so that I could gather it up and pour the grain and chaff into a container for winnowing.  That frame with the hardware cloth will come in handy to hold vegetables for rinsing right in the garden.  You can just spray them off and let them drain.

The easiest way to winnow (separate the grain from the chaff) is to pour it from one container to another in front of a fan, making sure the bottom container is a deep one so the grain doesn’t bounce out.  Do that a couple times.  Don’t worry if every bit of chaff doesn’t come out, because it will all come out in the wash.

floating off the chaff

I’ve never read of anyone washing their grain, but I do. I’m not a clean freak when it comes to food, it’s just a practical management technique for me.  I put the grain in a large bowl and add water.  Any remaining chaff, underweight seed, insects, etc. will float to the top.  You might even find a bird dropping that you threshed out of the straw. It happens.  Pour off what has gathered on top and fill again, giving the grain a stir to release more stuff.  Once you are rid of what floats off, you may notice some grit in the bottom of your bowl. That is from dirt you’ve harvested with the grain.  Pour it all through a strainer or colander that will keep the grain in and let that grit out.  Having different sizes of sieves and colanders is good for using with many seed saving activities.  Watch for them at yard sales and thrift stores and build your collection so you can accommodate the different sizes of seeds you will be saving in the future.

Now for the drying.  I first pour the grain out onto towels to air dry, then I put it in large cake pans or wooden bowls and let it set out until I’m sure it’s good and dry, stirring it around when I think about it.  When I’m sure it’s dry, I put it in glass jars.  There are faster drying methods, but that’s how I do it.  I put the jars of grain in the freezer for three days to ensure there will be no insect problems.  Then I store the jars in the pantry.

Grains are an important part of GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-farming.  John Jeavons of Ecology Action has posted some GROW BIOINTENSIVE videos on his website at www.johnjeavons.info/video.html.  In Session 6, part B, you can see my friend Dan harvesting and threshing rye.  The Ecology Action Booklet 33:  Grow Your Own Grains:  Raising, Harvesting and Uses by Carol Cox is full of good information.  You can find that in the Bountiful Gardens catalog.  The best yield I’ve gotten for wheat in my garden is 4.4 lbs. per 100 sq. ft.  and for rye it’s 6.3 lb. per 100 sq. ft.  It’s usually less than that, but I know I can do better and I’m always looking at different varieties.  No matter what you’re growing, it’s important to find the varieties that do well for your particular climate and soil.

Growing your own grain adds a new dimension to your garden.  Even if you don’t want to grow it to eat, you could let some of your rye grow out to seed to save for your next cover crop.  Growing even a small amount of wheat is especially fun with children.  One year when my grandson was helping me thresh, we decided to read up on The Little Red Hen and were surprised to find several different versions of the same story at the library. We read them all. Make your garden an adventure and have some fun.  Maybe you can use some of your wheat for pizza dough.  I have some tomatoes and peppers in the garden.   Now if I could just grow some cheese.

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