How to Make Potpourri

Hipsters have a bad reputation for smelling bad. Whether it’s the ironic love of cats, the homemade laundry detergent, or the refusal to have a personal hygiene regimen doesn’t matter: the reason for stinking may change from hipster to hipster, but all hipsters still share that same tendency for olfactory offense.

As a house husband, this is a difficult part of the hipster culture to fully embrace. It’s true that I only wear deodorant occasionally, but that’s mostly because I’m allergic to a lot of commercial underarm deodorants. Still, I am generally aware of the way our home smells when visitors come over. This became a more serious affair earlier this week when we noticed that the refrigerator in our apartment wasn’t working. A fridge that doesn’t keep things cold is like a hipster that doesn’t wear skinny jeans: it just doesn’t work.

All of our organic chicken breast, cage-free eggs, and locally-sourced milk had spoiled. It was in the disposing of the wasted food that I couldn’t ignore the stench of rotten food. The occasion was ripe (pun intended) to make use of the potpourri ingredients that I had been saving. Being resourceful often means planning ahead. Over the past year I have kept little tidbits of aromatic dried goods squirreled away in a coffee tin for just such an event as this.

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When I saved my basil seeds, I saved the dried basil stems. When I gave my wife roses, I dried and saved the rose petals. When I eat oranges or clementines, I dry and save the peel. Throw all of these things in a pot, cover with water, and turn the burner down to the lowest setting. Within 20 minutes, the whole house has a sweet aroma, and the only stench remaining is that of lost time and money.

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My Modular Rooftop Garden, Part 2

A lot of hipsters like to think of themselves as poor kids trying to scrape by. The reality is that most hipsters are twenty- and thirty-somethings that work enough to blow their money on craft beer, vinyl music, and custom moped parts. Because of this, you often see a hipster’s living conditions as either a run down row-home that was bought with friends as a communal living space, or an appropriately sized city apartment. My wife and I fall under the latter category, having lived in the same nice apartment for the past few years.

One of the favorite features of our apartment building is the flat rooftop. In fact, as soon as we moved in my resourceful mind went right to work devising ways to utilize that space as a garden. My industrious side had visions of building a deck over the black rubber roof, where we could create a green garden getaway in the middle of our little city. Incidentally, due to just another technicality in rental contract law, the roof is not actually part of our lease agreement. So instead of heading to Home Depot, I started by asking the permission of our landlords. It just so happens that the owners of our property are really great people, and they granted my request with only one caveat: every winter all garden-related materials should be removed from the rooftop.

There went my big vision, but my creativity was jump-started into action. I talked a lot about the self-watering containers that we use (originally described in The Urban Homestead), but the majority of what we grow is in pallets. A lot of people use pallets in the ground to garden in nice even rows, or stand them upright to put out on a patio. I use them because I can move them. Yes, they are heavy when they are full of dirt, but two people can carry a pallet down the stairs with a little effort. Over the winter, I can remove them from the roof and stack them on top of each other under our pergola.

Pallet gardening is a great way to organize your space. In choosing a pallet, I look for one that is in decent condition, and one that looks “fresh.” A lot of pallets are treated with chemicals so that they last longer, and the wood in these pallets has a distinct discoloration (similar to pressure-treated wood), so it’s easy enough to avoid. With a roll of fabric week-block and a staple gun, I go to town on the bottoms and sides of the pallets. Weed-block is perfect because it allows the water to drain so the plants do not get over-watered, but it also helps keep moisture in so the pallets don’t dry out as quickly.

The biggest downside to growing vegetables out of pallets is that you don’t have the “depth” that you typically would have in larger individual gardening containers. The upsides for using pallets vastly outweigh this: the larger square footage means that the soil doesn’t get as overheated from the black rubber roof, and the moisture retention is significantly better than even a large planter. This is only our second season using pallets, but we’ve seen good yields both years. All of my suspicions were confirmed about the ability to garden in shallow soil when I heard Mel Bartholomew on the radio talking about his book Square Foot Gardening, in which he says that all you really need is 6″ of perfect soil to grow a nice garden. Our “perfect soil” is a mix of potting soil and compost, and it’s only about 4″ deep, but we do pretty well nonetheless.

We garden out of two “types” of pallet gardens: standing pallets and flat pallets. The standing pallets are constructed by taking two pallets and fastening them at the top before weed-blocking them on the back. Flat pallets are simply single weed-blocked pallets laid flat on the rooftop. The standing pallets are of course lovely space-savers, and are perfect for climbing cucumbers, herbs, and lettuces. We’ve also had success in the flat pallets with squashes, radishes, and chards.

There’s something about a constant breeze that plants seem to love. I haven’t been able to scientifically quantify it, but up on the roof, our plants are happy. When I’m up on the roof, watering or weeding or harvesting, I’m happy. Not to get too meta or anything, but there’s a peace to helping and watching things grow. And when you live in a city, big or small, it’s good to have a place where you find peace in the midst of the busyness.

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Lettuce in a standing pallet. I angled the the boards on this pallet because I specifically knew I wanted to fill it with lettuce.

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Radishes ready to harvest in a flat pallet garden.

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A climbing cucumber uses the boards on this standing pallet to make her ascent.

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Ten kinds of our favorite herbs grow on the front side of this standing pallet.

What’s in my Window #5: Sage

There are many ways to hipsterfy yourself around a particular topic. The most common way to is to find obscure things and make them part of your everyday routine (such as mopeds and mustache wax). Alternately, you can use more common things in a very obscure ways (bicycle polo and stemmed beer glasses). For the very artful hipster, however, doing the obscure thing is way too hipster-mainstream.

Take for example the humble sage plant. Hipsters of course have found the most historic and obscure uses for this herb and made it part of their routine: brewing it in tea, burning it as incense, using it as a natural preservative, and even naming their babies after it. This is one instance where I like to pull a reverse-hipster: since any hipster can do something obscure; it’s even more hipster to do something absolutely common with sage. I like to cook with it.

Sage has been a staple in our garden since I first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair. Cut fresh, I’ll throw it into stews and soups. Fresh chopped sage mixed with a little olive oil and fresh cracked pepper makes an excellent wet rub for grilled chicken. In order to keep a ready supply of sage year-round, it’s important to be able to harvest and preserve sage properly. Because the sage leaf is more fibrous, I find that it takes a little extra effort to dry it out fully.

Fresh lungwort hangs between bunches of sage that have been hanging for a week or more.

Fresh lungwort hangs between bunches of sage that have been hanging for a week or more.

This year I did a two-step drying process. First, I tied bunches of larger branches to hang dry in the window until the leaves were mostly dry. Second, I removed the leaves from the stems and branches and allowed them to further dry by placing them in my Costa Rican seed-drying gourd and hanging it in my window for another week or so. This little gourd was a gift from my in-laws, bought from a farmers’ market in Costa Rica. (If you don’t have a Costa Rican seed-drying gourd, you can alternatively use a brown paper bag with holes poked in it).

Dried Sage

After further hanging in the drying gourd, this sage leaf is ready to be processed.

When I am convinced that the sage has dried sufficiently, it goes into the mortar and pestle. To maintain an even consistency, I push my crushed sage through a sieve before storing it in a spice jar (similar to the way I harvest basil).

Sure, I don’t do any of the most obscure things that you can do with sage, but that’s just fine. You’d expect every hipster to do that, so instead I use my hand-picked organically-grown sage for common culinary uses. If it’s not obscure, at least it’s ironic.

My Modular Rooftop Garden, Part 1

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One of my favorite parts about being an urban-dwelling hipster is being able to have a roof garden. Seeing as how hipsters are generally a self-aggrandizing group, I manage to work it into many of my conversations. Examples below:

Example 1:
Other person: I sure do love this spring weather.
Me: I just hope we don’t get a late frost again this year. My organic heirloom radishes have already begin to sprout on my rooftop garden.
Other person: Oh that’s cool! Rooftop gardens are really popular now.
Me: Well, I had a rooftop garden before it was mainstream. You’re just jumping on the bandwagon.

Example 2:
Other person: I’m thinking of getting a burger, what are you doing for lunch?
Me: I packed a salad with organically grown lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, and cucumbers. I grow my own salads at home in my roof garden since the produce they sell at the farmers’ market is never fresh enough for my refined vegetarian palate. Meat is murder, murderer.

These are extreme examples, surely. Especially considering that I don’t think I have ever turned down an offer to grab a well-made burger, and I am rarely that obviously vindictive about other people’s life choices. The point remains the same: I have a roof garden.

The truth is that everyone can grow stuff. As a matter of fact, stuff has been growing all by itself for a long time. Roof gardening only has a few adjustments to compensate for the fact that you’re on a roof instead of on the ground. The biggest adjustment I had to make is moisture control. Our garden is on a black rubber roof, and I have had to employ various strategies in order to keep my vegetables well-watered. I had read about self-watering containers in The Urban Homestead a while back, and tried them out for the first time last year. This year we went into high production and tripled the amount of self-watering containers we use.

Building a SWC is a fairly simple process, and consists of two nesting 5-gallon buckets, a wicking chamber, and a piece of PVC. I only caution you to make sure that you use food-grade plastics so as not to leach any harmful chemicals into the vegetables you are growing. I found old pickle or sauerkraut buckets from a local restaurant that didn’t charge me to take them off their hands. The smaller wicking chamber we made out of 32 oz yogurt and sour cream containers.

The way they work is really ingenious, and unfortunately I can’t even take credit. Between the two nesting buckets there forms an open reservoir. The smaller container, drilled with many holes, goes into that reservoir. When everything is put together, a PVC pipe goes from the top of the bucket lid down into the reservoir, allowing you to easily fill the reservoir with water. After filling the inner bucket with dirt, the smaller container acts as a wicking chamber, drawing the moisture up from the reservoir and delivering it to the growing vegetables. This closed system keeps evaporation to a minimum and an even moisture level in the soil throughout the hottest days of summer.

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This year we have six tomato plants, four pepper plants, and an eggplant all growing from SWCs. Since our roof gets so hot, we also put them on top of pallets to avoid heating the water unnecessarily. The best part about it all is that I didn’t spend a dime to build them!

What’s in my Window #4: Lungwort

When I finished hanging a fresh harvest of lungwort leaves in my kitchen window this week, I came to three telling realizations.

#1: I realized that I’ve posted a few things already about what’s hanging in my kitchen window. First, I talked about basil seed; next, basil leaf; then stevia.

#2: I also realized that I have hung many things in my kitchen window the past few months that haven’t received a post: sage, roses, and my all new Costa Rican seed-saving gourd (more on those later, no doubt).

#3: My third realization was more poetic: this kitchen window often acts as a window into the Hipsterly habits of this House Husband. There’s always a frugal/industrious/resourceful reason for my efforts to preserve the various things that hang in my window. I have an obligation to share these things.

So starts this recurring “series” in which I will detail the items in my window and the ways I plan to use them.

Back to the lungwort. Over the winter, I was looking up different kinds of teas that we could add to our little rooftop garden in the spring. I found some information on lungwort, which grows in large quantities in our backyard already. I was taken aback by all the benefits that this plant offers when dealing with the ailments of the lung: coughs, congestion, asthma, etc. It can also be used as a poultice on open wounds. This is a plant all hipsters should love: it’s European in origin, and you’ve probably never even heard of it. In fact lungwort is given credit for helping to curb the Black Plague in Europe in the 1300s. Who knew? I do, now.

Frankly, I was skeptical, but it wasn’t until late April when my wife and I both caught a springtime flu that we were able to put this to the test. Both of us suffered from the flu-induced cough and congested lungs. What a prime opportunity to give this lungwort tea a try. As soon as it had begun to grow back in early spring, I had harvested a few handfuls of leaves and let them dry. To make tea, simply steep in boiling water for 10 minutes. While the flavor is unique, it isn’t bad. Honey helps, or even stevia if you have any of that growing. More importantly, it really helps reduce the cough! Awesome, now I make my own medicine. (Also, I should probably put in a disclaimer about not being a doctor and how you should always consult with a physician, etc.)

Lungwort flowering in early April in my backyard.

Fast forward 30 days, and the lungwort in our backyard is loving life and growing like crazy. This week I harvested a huge amount of large leaves and tied them like a ristra of chiles to proudly hang in my window. Now I can’t wait to get a cough again…and that’s what’s hanging in my kitchen window.

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Tacos and Styrofoam

I like tacos. No, I really like tacos.

Reading this, you might think that we have something in common, but I’m still pretty sure that I like tacos more than you. This particular culinary curiosity has led me to be a bit of a taco snob. In terms of hipsterisms, being snobby isn’t something new. Lots of hipsters are beer snobs or coffee snobs or music snobs or technology snobs or bicycle snobs or etc etc. You get the point, right?

I’m going to say this here first: I am a taco snob before it is cool.

This taco snobbery has kept me in pursuit of the perfect taco: authentic, flavorful, meaty; juicy but not wet, loaded but not messy, soft but not chewy. I’m not talking about the kind wrapped in a Dorito shell or the “$1 taco Tuesdays” at the local pub. My taco has to have the right aroma, the right mouthfeel, the right finish.

The trouble is, all of the places where I have found the most flavorful and delicious tacos tend to be less environmentally minded and more focused on making great tacos. That’s all well and good until you order something To Go and you get a pile of styrofoam containers. As a responsible hipster, I can’t just throw a styrofoam container in the trash where it will end up in a landfill for thousands of years. My disdain for styrofoam even quashes my quest for taco goodness. And this is no isolated problem: gyros, falafels, curries, phos…all seem slated with the same styrofoam situation.

Worry no more, for this resourceful hipster has found a solution. Just because the curbside recycling won’t accept styrofoam doesn’t mean that I can’t recycle it. I just needed to put a little more effort into where I could go to get it recycled. After a little bit of research, I found a drop-off location not far from our apartment. In fact, the joy that I felt was so great, that I had to share this with the neighbors in our building. We printed out an announcement and distributed throughout our building. Now everyone recycles styrofoam!

My guilt-ridden taco-eating days are gone. I can enjoy my [warning: bad pun ahead] Hunt for Best Tacober free from the tyranny of the toxic container. Speaking of which, writing this post has made me really hungry for tacos. Gotta go.

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Seed-Starting Terrarium, Part 2

Spring is certainly taking its time out here in Lancaster, PA. The temperatures at night still dip below freezing, and even the robins are shy to come out from hiding. But I’m not going to let a silly thing like the weather hold me back from starting my fun in the sun.

Last month I whipped up a little seed-starting terrarium to get a head-start on spring. The best place for growing things indoors is typically any south-facing window, but all of ours have a tree right in front of them. The next best thing for us was a window in our dining room, which unfortunately wasn’t good enough. Only one tomato seed managed to germinate in the few weeks that it sat by the window, and the way this little seedling stretched his neck up to the glass I could only surmise that it wasn’t getting enough sunlight.

I could have put a little lamp overhead, but by this time the weather was cooperating enough for me to place the terrarium outside in the real sun. Before I did so, I wanted to build out the glass into a dome. I found a couple of old windows and ripped two two-pane sections off with the table saw for the sides. This worked great except that they weren’t quite long enough. In order to complete the dome I had to carefully remove a few pains and use a glass cutter to resize them. Then I built a simple frame for each new pane. A little bit of fun with the nail gun and all done.

Terrarium

Now that my terrarium is getting lots of sun, my seedling is growing strong. In the day I keep the top pane open slightly to allow for ventilation, but even so I’ve got a warm and cozy little environment for my seedlings to do their germination thing.

Waiting for things to germinate

I added a few more seeds now that I have a little more room. I’ve been craving fresh basil for a while now, so I planted the basil seeds that I had saved. I also planted some more patio tomatoes and bell peppers that will go up on the roof in their self-watering containers when the weather allows it.

Spring may be a little shy this year, but not totally forgotten. Even last year’s thyme is starting to perk up, and the lungwort has already flowered. It won’t be long now until the roof garden is in full force. To think that soon I’ll be battling the heat of summer instead of the chill of winter only encourages my industrious side. Come on, little seedlings, time to grow up before summer is here!

Have a Deep and Meaningless Conversation

Last week, I was using some reclaimed lumber to build a desk. Already this post is pretty hipster, but just wait.

I ripped my last piece of lumber through the table saw to square the edges. I used a belt sander to take down the rough patina of the lumber. I started cutting out a drawer face with my jigsaw. In doing these things, I would notice a stray and random carpenter ant appear on my work surface or on the floor of my workspace. This didn’t strike me as odd right away since I was in the old garage building.

When I completed cutting out the drawer face I found that I was cutting exactly through the center gallery of a carpenter ant nest. I found about a dozen hungry, confused, and shaken carpenter ants ambling about. While this clearly was not an active nest, it must have been six months ago in the porch from which I took this old lumber. Since removing it, these few remaining ants had been huddling in their homes…doing what?

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I started to ponder this and other questions in the classic hipster conversation method: too abstract to have practical application, just intelligent enough to make it sound like I know what I’m talking about. For the ants that were left behind when I removed the old lumber, was this some sort of ant apocalypse (“antocalypse” maybe)? Was this the promised and long-prophesied day that the old nest would be made new? I’m sure that’s what it must have seemed like. A terrible End of Days, a period of tribulation and unrest, followed by a glorious and pure new order being put into place for the 1000 year reign…just as it was foretold in the book of Revelantion. What about the ants that were taken away from the porch inside this old beam? Did they consider themselves to be the Dorothy in a new version of the 1939 classic The Wizant of Oz? On which set of feet do they wear the ruby slippers? Am I the wicked witch or the great and powerful Oz? One thing’s for sure, she can’t wait to get back to Ant Em. What would make a good Toto parallel? Probably a termite named Terter.

More AntsAnd just like that, I’ve had a deep and meaningless conversation. You can, too. Here’s how:

  1. Pick any topic. In this scenario, I chose “ants in wood.”
  2. Choose any other topic that you know a little about. In this scenario, I chose two: “end times” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
  3. Parallel the two topics.
  4. Use random facts about either topic. In this scenario, I chose to use the phrases “the old would be made new” and “1000 year reign” in regard to the end times, both taken from the book of Revelation in the Bible. I also used the date 1939 and the names of minor characters from The Wizard of Oz.
  5. For extra points, add puns.

Congratulations, you’ve just had your first deep and meaningless conversation!

Everyone Should Make their own Candles

It has been a little while since I’ve had the opportunity to show off my unique homemaking and homesteading skills. I took a week off from my full-time job in order to take care of a number of little projects and get started on one big project. All this to say, my industrious side took over for a week+, and sitting in front of the iMac was a little too sedentary for the time being. Don’t worry, here I am back in the usual routine so that I can flaunt my pearls of hipster wisdom with the world.

So today we’re making candles. Well, more accurately, last week. The title of this post claims that everyone should make their own candles. While this is true, it is not as mandatory for everyone as it is for hipsters. And here’s a few reasons why:

  • Hipsters can smell bad. Whether it’s the fixed-gear bike riding, the hemp shampoo, or the lack of deodorant is not important. The bottom line is that hipsters smell bad. Candles can cover up those unseemly body odors.
  • Hipsters like cats. You can photoshop ironic mustaches and captions on them, and they warm your lap in the winter when you are too cheap to pay for heat. A cat’s poop smells very bad. Candles can cover up this disturbing yet natural part of pet ownership.
  • Hipsters like to talk about the weird things they do. Making candles qualifies.

When I first set out to do this, I did a little bit of research (aka google search) and I found this article. This made candle making seem complex as it dealt with different kinds of waxes and temperatures and etc. I promptly disregarded most of this and decided to do it my own way.Spent Candles

I collected all the spent candles that we had accumulated over the years and broke down the leftover wax into chunks. These I threw into a coffee tin that was heating up inside a pot of water on the stove. As the wax began to melt, I used a cooking thermometer to keep a gauge on how hot the wax was getting. This turned out to not really matter, but it averaged about 180 degrees the whole time.

 Cooling candles

Once all the wax was completely melted, I tied some string (I call it kitchen twine, though I’m not sure exactly what it’s actually called. I also use this to tie and dry all my herbs, etc) to a couple of cheap chopsticks and centered them over the candle jars that I had cleaned out. I spooned the wax slowly so as to not move the wick from the center of the candle.

Burning candle
After that, I was just a matter of letting the wax cool and cutting the string. In a matter of a couple of hours of active work I was able to repurpose a bunch of old candles into perfectly good new candles. Not only was I surprised at  how easy this was, but it made the whole house smell pretty wonderful as I was doing it. With this first success, I’ve begun collecting spent candles from friends and neighbors. This not only gives me a steady supply of wax for candle making, but also a steady supply of hipster credibility. I’ll let you decide which is more important.

 

Seed-Starting Terrarium

It’s that time of the year again: when March hits, I immediately begin pining for the Spring planting season. We still have a few months before we can actually plant anything in the open, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a head start now. With all the seeds I’ve been saving from last year, I have plenty stocked up to allow me to get ahead of the frost.

A few years ago, I started my garden early with a store-bought seed starting kit. It was basically a black plastic basin with a clear plastic domed lid. I set it in front of a window and it worked really well. It gave the seeds everything they need to get started: a temperature controlled environment, light, and constant moisture. It also cost $40, and when I brought it out from storage the following year the clear plastic lid had broken in half and had to be sent to the recycle bin.

This year I decided to make my own. I was planning to build a complex frame system into which I could set panes from an old window to replicate that clear plastic dome. As I looked around our old attic for a junk window, I found this old transom. I decided to switch gears and save myself some time.

Transom Window

What is really awesome about this old transom is the way the paint peeled off the glass. At some point the whole window was painted, and over the decades the paint peeled itself off most of the way, leaving these “fingerprints” behind. I have never seen anything like it, and was tempted to just hang it on the wall as-is. But instead, I moved ahead with the project. Sorry Art; Utility wins today.

Terrarium base

I have a lot of tongue-and-groove porch boards left over from a project last year. It’s yellow pine, which has a good tolerance for moisture, so I decided to use that to build the frame for the glass top. The trusty table saw came out and zipped off the groove and half the tongue on each board, leaving a flat surface on one end and a nice frame on the other. I mitered these together so that the transom would fit snugly inside the frame without gaps. I screwed the frame onto one of the hutch shelves that was left over from the hutch project.

Ready for seeds

Everything fit together nicely. I may end up building some more frames for additional glass panes around the sides to give it a dome shape once the young plants get too tall, but that can wait for another day.

Finished Terrarium

I was limited on space inside my new terrarium, so I started with the plants that need the most time: tomatoes and peppers. I also planted a bunch of lettuce since that’s a plant we can continually harvest as it grows.

In total, this project cost me zero dollars and about two hours from start (looking for an old window in the attic) to finish (seeds planted and dirt cleaned up). Take that Winter: two cubic feet of Spring just started inside my dining room. May the germination begin!