Hits and misses of DIY projects, both big and small.


Partially daubed wattle, Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

Houses take a lifetime to pay off these days, and even a prosaic shed, barn or coop requires a heavy investment of money, time, skilled labour and imported materials. For thousands of years, though, people around the world used an ancient technique to build homes and other structures quickly, using nothing but local material and simple, easily learned skills.

“Wattle and daub,” as it’s called, takes its name from its two components; a “wattle” was a wicker fence or wall, and the “daub” was the clay plaster – often containing hair and straw -- used to fill in the cracks of the wicker for insulation and privacy, until a smooth wall was created.

Even without the daub, wattles were useful by themselves; farmers could make them as modular, lightweight “hurdles” a metre or two high and across, and then uproot them, carry them to a new position, and stamp them into the ground where needed.

According to author Una McGovern, farmers usually began building wattle hurdles by putting the posts – called sails or zales – into place. Boards of wood with post-sized holes in them, called gallows, kept the posts steady while the farmer wove slim cuttings – “withies” – of willow or hazel back and forth between the posts. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

McGovern writes that hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops. (1) Fourteenth-century woman using a wattle hurdle, from the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

The same technique could form the walls of a house; typically logs or timbers formed a skeletal frame, with zale posts set in a row between the floor and ceiling. Builders wove wattle between the posts and smeared in the daub, which hardened around the wattle like concrete around rebar.

Not all ancient builders loved it; the Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century BC, moaned about its hazards in hisTen Books on Architecture:

“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Vetruvius wrote testily. “…But since some are obliged to use it either to save time or money, or for partitions on an unsupported span, the proper method of construction is as follows. Give it a high foundation so that it may nowhere come in contact with the broken stone-work composing the floor; for if it is sunk in this, it rots in course of time, then settles and sags forward, and so breaks through the surface of the stucco covering.” (2)

Vetruvius’ disdain notwithstanding, however, the technique proved popular throughout the ancient world, among Sumerians, Chinese and Mayans alike. If kept dry the walls would last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings in Europe sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.

The technique is similar to building in cob, that mixture of sand, straw and clay, mixed with water and squeezed together – usually by humans walking on it. In cob building, handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – are stacked them on top of each other in a row, stomped solid by people’s feet, and then another layer of cob added, until people have a wall.

The straw binds the clay and sand together; instead of a wall’s mass hanging on a few large structures like girders or beams, it hangs on the many tiny structures of the straw. Once the cob dries it can be almost as durable as stone. Bricks are basically cob that has been baked in an oven, and concrete uses a similar principle with gypsum powder, sand and gravel.

Wattle and daub shares most of the advantages of cob: It is completely ecological, requiring no chemicals, no pollution, no machines, generates no toxic waste and is, one might say, dirt cheap. Such walls share cob’s ability to act as a thermal mass, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it slowly at night. Moreover, while cob walls are often very thick to hold the weight of the house, wattle walls can be much thinner and require less material.

Of course, wattle and daub is probably not suitable for modern homeowners unaccustomed to mud walls. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has no relevance to today’s homesteader; animals don’t tend to mind such all-natural surroundings, as long as the interior remains warm and dry, and neither do garden tools.

Such do-it-yourself building methods require almost no money and little skill, only time and labour – which made them practical choices for thousands of agrarian years, but impractical in an age of wealth and convenience. In this age of widespread unemployment, however, many households have less money and more time than they are used to, and might find some older techniques to be viable once again.


1 – Una McGovern, Lost Crafts, published by Chambers, 2009.

2 – Vetruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Chapter 8, Section 20.

Top photo: Partially daubed wattle. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Bottom photo: 15th-century woman using a wattle hurdle. Courtesy of Wikicommons.



When a storm threatens in the country, you know the power is likely to go off at some time – it’s really more a question of when and for how long rather than if, so those of us who have lived out here long, know it’s best to get ready. We keep a lantern on our bedroom dresser all winter, candles and matches in ready supply, a plug-in flashlight – that turns itself on immediately when the power goes out so that there is a little light while you get things together and the trusty Coleman stove with filled propane tanks. Since the well water (powered by electric) will not be working, filled coffeepot and jugs of fresh water have to be stored nearby.

We usually keep our entry full of firewood but at this particular time it was low, so Rolfe shoveled a trench through the 14” to the wood storage area and we loaded up a couple wheelbarrows-full of wood and brought them in for immediate use. Another way he spent his day was in shoveling snow off the roofs of our two greenhouses. They are made of plastic and aluminum and 14” of snow is a little heavy for sitting atop them! He has a long-handled broom for this purpose and had to pile up and pack the snow to make him taller so he could reach nearly to the top of the greenhouses. This task had to be performed more than once daily, so even though he’s skipped his exercise in the morning, he felt assured that he’d gotten more than enough of a workout by day’s end. In the greenhouses, in fall, we install some extra posts for holding up the greenhouses in case of these events, but in times of deep snow, one must do more! If the snow is soft, you can tap gently on the ceiling from the inside to get the snow to slide off, but this snow was not going anywhere without his help!

When we lost the electricity, it was 5 o’clock or so, so we decided a vodka-lemon-tonic was in order. And, since the work day was done – it was time to celebrate the night!! Happily, I had shopped on Wednesday, for food and supplies to bolster us through the coming weather. Rolfe and I have two different methods with our computers when the power goes out, he (intelligently) has a backup battery on his computer which gives you a couple minutes to save everything and then turn it off. I, on the other hand, just save like crazy at the first sign of a “brown out” or “flicker” of lights and turn everything off ‘til things become more reliable. Anyhow, the computers were safely shut down and it was time to relax! We got out cards and played, til time to “rough it” and make dinner on the Coleman stove. But, after dinner, we wanted to relax and began to think a little harder.

We invested in a generator several years ago, it was a used one and unreliable to begin with, but we followed up with investing in a total tune-up (a must) and we were ready to put that baby to use. A benefit of Rolfe’s earlier shoveling to the woodshed was that the generator was in a building nearby and it wouldn’t be very hard to hook up and give us availability to a movie night! We had a heavy-duty extension cord already coming across the drive nearby (relative to our fairly recent Christmas lights – serendipity rocks!!) so with a quick trip down the trench, we were soon set up for a night of relaxation with all the creature comforts. I must admit, the more ready you are for a winter storm, the more life in the country remains a fun and glorious adventure. We’ve also weathered storms without these comforts and trust me, it is sometimes much less enjoyable. In particular I am reminded of a November storm in the 90’s where my parents were visiting. We hung very close to the fireplace, working on puzzles while we had daylight, to the point that my Dad commented that he really needed the power back on so we could “quit having all this fun having to work on puzzles”, not his favorite pass-time. We had given he and my Mom our master suite upstairs (we lived in another location), where we had a skylight over our waterbed, on the floor, and we laughed at their challenges of getting a wave going to surf their way out of bed.

As husband dearest and I laid on the floor of the living room “sleeping”, I spent the night awake, listening to the trees as they groaned and bent and swayed dangerously and limbs crackled to the ground, and pretty much trying to hold up all the trees and spare my parents having a great one crash in through their skylight! In the morning, when I inquired how their sleep was, they said great!! They had the blessing of being sound sleepers and while I waited up and worried, they slept the night away, no problem and had not even been aware of their imminent danger.

As we finished the movie, the power came back on – what a happy surprise, we could turn off the lantern, brush our teeth with the lights on, wash our dishes, flush our toilets, refill our water set-ups and in general celebrate this moment of power but get set up for the power when it was gone again, and settle in for a great night’s sleep.Red Beets

And, as quickly as the power returned, it was gone again. By morning we were back in pioneer mode without computers, lights or power and this time, a first in my memory, the phones were down too. (We live in a cell-phone free zone). When you can’t be on the phone, it’s very different than not wanting to be on the phone! We did use the snow to our advantage, though, and did a "flash chill" on some red-beets for lunch - they just taste better cold!

We put on boots and suited up to go down to get the morning paper – surprise – it wasn’t there. But, already our exercise for the day had begun. As I mentioned, each time we ventured out, it was more comfortable to be out in the snow and at this point it was still all intact and virgin looking except for the few trenches that we’d constructed. In addition to the trench to the woodpile/generator, we had to dig our way out to the chicken house. In these cold times, their water freezes and has to be served up fresh and food must be supplied. We did not choose to let them out of the house to walk in the 14” of snow, so they too were stuck indoors. And, the path to the greenhouses, so we could check on the temperature and keep the roofs snow-free. The only other sign of us was boot tracks from our trudging. As lovely as everything was, this storm came with no sun or blue sky, so photography was difficult, things were mainly in shades of black, and white and gray.

Rolfe feeds the birds and though we threw out bird seed, it was getting sunk down in to the snow and our little friends were having a hard time retrieving it. So, we cleared off the entry porch and fed the birds there, a real joy to have them so close as we lay on the couch to read – our only possible entertainment being once again without electricity, and not wanting to run the generator all day.

I was snuggled up with a blanket, deeply involved in my book, as was Rolfe, enjoying our little mini-vacation where no one ventured out. There were still no sounds of vehicles going by and our driveway was still 14” deep with now, our little car buried. Then, to my amazement, there was a knock at our door. A friend of ours said that they were on their way to Portland (2-1/2 hours north of here and experiencing a much deeper snowstorm) and had a flat tire and their jack wasn’t working so since they were sitting in the middle of the highway, could we please help them out. So, off the couch we go, Rolfe had to brush the snow off our car to get into the trunk and locate our car jack and as they returned to fix it, another car had happened along and by the time we reached their car, the problem was already taken care of.

We advised them to go back home (only 15 minutes into their journey) and forget the long aggravating, possibly car or life threatening task ahead of them. But, she is a new Grandma and it was baby’s first birthday party. So, who knows which way they decided to head. I have an e-mail in to her to find out how that story wrote itself. But, the funny thing is, even living way out in the country, you are really never alone. Someone can come by even when you least expect it!

By Sunday at 12:30 in the afternoon, our power came back with the phones not far behind and it is amazing how quickly we forget what it’s like to be without power. But, on this occasion at least, we had found this to be an excellent, restful, but with busy-ness holiday from normal life.

And, now it’s Tuesday. Amazingly, due to a little warm up in temperature, and the beginning of rain the snow is almost gone and we can go about our normal lives – driving, computing, etc. But, with a heavy winter rain storm, the creeks arising, and I gotta go do dishes and fill water pots. It’s not only snow that causes power outages!

How to Power Up for Power-Free Day

Coleman stove
Extra propane tanks for lantern and stove
Filled teapot for coffee and filled jugs of water
Generator, filled with gas
Extension cords to run generator
Groceries and necessities so you don’t need to go out
A good book to read
Backup batteries for flashlight


Sign In The Snow

We moved out to the Pacific Northwest from Ohio oh so many years ago for many reasons, but one of the big ones was a milder climate. At that time, Rolfe (husband dearest) was a builder and the winters seemed mighty long to his cold fingers, toes, legs, ears, nose, well, you get it. Anyhow, most years, we are blessed with receiving that mild kind of weather but this year, along with the whole rest of the country we received the Artic Snowfreeze Storm. It landed on Thursday and shut just about everything down. Then, it continued on Friday and by Saturday we had 14” out here in our mild climate.

I had a lot of fun watching the depth grow and change – looking out the window behind my computer, I could see the snow fast overtaking everything. Our espalier (pruned early this year and looking great!) had almost no remaining trunk with all that snow, and looked like it sprung out with its side-flowing branches almost immediately from the ground. My little fig tree (not even knee high yet) kept building snow until less than 1” of its highest limbs were showing – could determine its location mainly by the marker stick beside it. We live over a mountain pass off a State Highway where they take great care of the road, but during this particular storm, things became mighty quiet and there was hardly any sound of passing cars. This storm was serious, and a time for all to be home.Snowed Over Green Houses

We hunkered down, happy to still have electricity – an iffy thing during our infrequent storms. Workers were called off; after all, even if they could make it here, how could we know what conditions would prevail by the time they wanted to return to their own home. And, much of the work is outdoors. What’s a person to do under 14” of snow? The first day, I could barely stand to go outside. It was cooooooooooold and we’d recently returned from Mexico where we experienced 85 degrees daily. So my body was quite rebellious to the whole outdoorsy idea. But, there are necessities that draw you out (we are, after all, a mail-order seed business — — with a functioning computer and thus wanted to get those orders off to our customers at the earliest possible moment.

Each time I ventured out, I became more accustomed to the temperature and began to find it more and more delightful with each experience. Rolfe may not have found it quite as pleasant since he was the one who was in charge of getting up on the 8 ft ladder with a push broom to get the snow off the greenhouses so that they wouldn't collapse. That's tough work but he survived and the greenhouses did too. Sadly, many in our area did not fair so well.

Snowy AdventurerWe also were very proud of our post office and delivery person for staying open and carrying on following their old adage “Through rain, and the sleet and snow…….” It is hard to imagine fulfilling one’s job under these conditions – pulling over to each unshoveled individual mailbox to deposit our orders and bills and junk and to take away our fulfilled orders. Kudos to the mail-persons!! And, it was actually a treat for my husband and I to work just the two of us, a rare event these days in our business. Happy is the couple who can work together after 41 years and call it a treat! As darkness drew near, real darkness came when the lights (and all electric) went out in late afternoon. Then, our “pioneer” skills were really called upon.

Posted by Janet

Continued next time. . .


Three baskets made by the author

When I was growing up in the USA, people used “basket-weaving” as slang for insultingly easy busywork, like the college courses given to ringers on the football team. The implication was that weaving a basket requires no intelligence and has no purpose – the ultimate time-waster.

Few people today have ever woven a basket --- even the insult sounds antique, a relic of an age when schools taught practical crafts. Fewer people still have any idea how vital basketry was to human survival for tens of thousands of years, or how many things can be made from basketry beyond decorative containers.

Homestead Uses for Baskets

For example: Animal traps. Armour. Beehives. Boats.

Cages. Chairs. Chicken coops. Coffins. Fences.

Hand tools. Hats. Huts. Sheds.

Tables. Wagons. Walls. Weirs.

You get the idea. Basketry has been used to make all these things at one time or another, and a few aficionados still make many of these things out of woven wood here in rural Ireland.

Basketry History

Because wood decomposes, we don’t dig up basket bits as often as we do arrow heads or sculptures, but they were probably much more commonplace and vital to our ancestors. Archaeologists have found basket pieces as old as 13,000 years ago, and woven impressions on ceramics – indicating fibres or baskets – from as much as 29,000 years ago. (1) We also know that humans reached Australia at least 40,000 years ago, and must have either woven a basket-and-hide boat, as the Irish did into the 20th century, or made a raft with the related technology of knots. For all we know, the technique could be as old as hominids; certainly some apes use primitive tools, and I know of no reason that Australopithecines could not have woven baskets.

Thus we know that at least some of our forebears practiced the craft while they still lived alongside mammoths and sabre-toothed cats, and might have slept in basket-framed huts, and kept predators out with basket fences. Some might have caught eels in basket traps, which they might have gathered while paddling rivers in a basket-frame boat. They might have begun their lives rocked to sleep in basket cribs and returned to the earth in basket coffins.

 “The technology of basketry was central to daily living in every aboriginal society,” wrote Neil Sugihara, and baskets “were the single most essential possession in every family.” Early humans must have regularly cropped basketry plants as they would edible plants, and burned woodlands to encourage their growth, according to anthropologist M. K. Anderson. Anderson even proposes that some of the first agriculture might have been to grow basketry crops, not food crops – baskets might have created civilisation. (2) (3)

Starting a wicker basket

Let’s clarify some terms: basketry involves weaving thin sticks or wood strips in some way; if it used only plant fibres, it would be “cloth.” Baskets can be woven with any one of hundreds of plant species; here in Ireland writers spoke of using dogwood, privet, larch, blackthorn and chestnut branches; broom, jasmine and periwinkle twigs; elm, and linden shoots; ivy, clematis, honeysuckle and rose vines; rushes and other reeds, and straw. Perhaps the most popular, however, was willow -- highly pliable when steamed, lightweight and tough when dried, and growing so quickly that a new crop of branches up to two to three metres long can be harvested each year. 

Weavers here in rural Ireland traditionally cut their willow from massive century-old stumps that had never been mature trees, but kept growing each year, fed by their roots and new shoots. The shoots were trimmed each winter and left to dry for several months, then steamed to make pliable again – the wood shrinks as it dries, so simply weaving the green shoots would result in a loose and rickety basket.

Types of Baskets

Baskets come in several types, classified by the way they are woven, like coiled, plaited, twined or wicker. Modern Westerners are unlikely to have seen most of these, although once I knew what “twining” was I realised I had seen it in home-made floor mats. In twining – an old Native American technique -- are wound around a stick, twisted, and wrapped around the next one, until a row of fibres going in one direction wrap a row of sticks going the other. The sticks would seem to limit this approach to flat surfaces, but bending and shaping the sticks allows twining to create a variety of containers and shapes. 

Coiled baskets wind flexible wood strips or fibres in a spiral, starting in the middle and working outwards. The spiral pattern limits them to circular objects like bowls or hats, but that still leaves many uses. For thousands of years beehives were made this way, called skeps – it was only in the 19th century that humans discovered how to make modern beehives with slats that can be removed, allowing beekeepers to collect honey without destroying the hive. Straw hats are still made this way, using bits of straw that are plaited – braided – together and then sewn into a spiral. Victorian children earned money this way, and contemporary writers described gangs of teens loitering on street-corners gossiping while folding straw together, as teens today might stand around texting.

Wood and other fibres could also be plaited, with flexible materials criss-crossed like threads through cloth. The Irish flattened and plaited bulrushes for hundreds of years into mats and curtains; rushes were harvested each year, flattened and interwoven, and set to dry. Here too, the approach would seem to limit plaiting to flat surfaces, but as the rushes must be woven while green and flexible and harden as they dry, they can be plaited around a mould to create boxes, bags or many other shapes.

Wicker, however, probably remains the most versatile technique, weaving flexible but sturdy material like tree shoots around upright sticks that provide support. Wicker is the form used for fences, walls, furniture, animal traps and most containers – when I say “basket,” you’re probably picturing something fashioned wicker-style.

All of these techniques could be practiced today, and while that’s true of many traditional crafts, most of those require substantial training, infrastructure, and an investment of money and time. Basketry, however, requires only a few days of training to learn basic techniques, and can use materials that be harvested naturally from almost every biome on Earth. It can be practiced around a modern working schedule, and can beautiful, durable and sustainable tools and furnishings for all areas of life.


(1)    Archeologické rozhledy, 2007, Baskets in Western America 8600 BP: American Antiquity 60(2), 1995, pp. 309-318.
(2)    Fire in California's ecosystems, By Neil G. Sugihara, p. 42
(3)    Anderson, M.K. – The fire, pruning and coppice management of temperate ecosystems for basketry material by Californian Indian tribes. Human Ecology 27(I) 79-113. 1999.

Furnishings made out of wicker (courtesy of WikiCommons)


This article was originally posted in Instructables and is reposted with permission from Scott D. Reinhardt.

Most of the time I work alone, so clamps are my imaginary helper. 

bar clamp 1Sometimes my ratchet clamps break. Not being a person to throw things away, I keep them in a scrap box.

Well, I was in the need of clamping some oddly shaped items and I remembered my box full of broken clamps.

I came up with a simple solution. I bent some S-hooks onto an O-ring and mated them with the broken ratchet clamps. This allows me to clamp in many directions for oddly shaped items.

In this configuration I am using three clamps, but I could add more if I wanted to. In the past I've made several holding fixtures and most of them take up valuable space when not in use. This assembly breaks down for easy storage and to create other configurations.

Step 1: Components and Tools

bar clamp 2You'll need the following components and tools for this bar clamp project:

  • 2-inch diameter O-ring with a 1/4-inch wall thickness
  • S-hooks: 1 3/4-inch length S-hook with a 1/8-inch wall thickness. (I used three — but not all S-hooks are made equally. I purchased a few sets and discovered they sometimes broke in the bending process, therefore, I went with S-hooks from rubber tie-down straps.)
  • Ratchet bar clamp (I used two 6-inch clamps and one 24-inch clamp. I used broken clamps and removed the damaged/broken finger end. Note: clamps that can take the one finger off will work for this project.)
  • 5-inch bench vise (almost any vise will work)
  • 15-inch adjustable wrench
  • Large Channellock pliers

Step 2: Bend the S-Hooks

bar clamp 4

Here's how I bent the S-hooks so they'd work for this bar clamp project. 

First, I placed half of the S-hook into the vise. Using the 15-inch adjustable wrench, I put a 90-degree bend into it by pulling the wrench towards me. 

I repeated this process on all 3 S-hooks. 

Then, I put the same part of the S-hook that was in the vice onto the O-ring. 

Using my large Channellock pliers, I closed the end permanently to the ring. I did this for all 3 S-hooks. 

I choose to keep them mounted all in the same manner and direction.

Step 3: Assemble the Bar Clamp

bar clamp 12I choose to make a 3-clamp multidirectional ratchet bar clamp system. (Wow, that's a mouthful.)

Because I designed this bar clamp to take apart, "assembly" is a loose term.

The clamps have holes in the end of the bars; the bent S-hooks are mounted into these holes.

The S-hooks on the ring are all facing in the same direction, so all the clamps are positioned correctly to close around an oddly shaped item.

Note: Setup for clamping might be easier if you permanently squeeze the S-hooks to the ratchet clamps. I didn't try this myself, but I do know that if they were kept permanently all together, the bar clamp would collapse nicely to hang on a wall.

Step 4: Clamping Options

Keep in mind that I used ratchet clamps from my scrap box. I'm pleased to have a new use for them.

bar clamp 13

bar clamp 14

Different lengths of bars and different size clamps, along with different rubber pads, can be used for specific applications.

You can see more photographs of this project on my original Instructables post. Check out other projects on my blog, Fikjast.


Cheese press mark 2

In Part 1 of this blog post, you will have seen the first cheese press we made that worked brilliantly. The problem was, for us, the cheeses were too small. From 5 litres of whole milk I could make two cheeses, since our friend always brought 10 litres of milk with him … four would be made at a time. This led to the problem of where to store all the cheese. It was taking over the fridge, as this was the coolest place (especially in Summer) to allow the rind to form.

We set about making a bigger press that would allow us to press all of the curd in one go. Kev found a plastic box and a massive screw. He drilled a hole, where the screw would push down and fixed the screw to the box.

We then made two circular pieces of wood to fit inside a large piece of drain pipe. This wood had lines carved from the centre to the edge to allow the whey to run off. We measured out the centre of the wood and put a dent in it so that the screw would sit dead centre.

Big cheese

When pressing the cheese for the first time, we realized the whey was running into the box and staying there. We decided to use another piece of wood under the back of the box to tip it forward a little. This allowed the whey to run off into a container placed underneath.

As we pressed our first cheese we found that the pressure on the plastic box was too great, owing to the size of the screw and handle. This resulted in the plastic box starting to crack. So using palette wood Kev built a frame around the box to strengthen it.

We can now make one massive cheese with the 10 litres of milk and cheese storage is becoming less of a problem.


sproutsIn my last post, I listed some ways we preserve our fruit and vegetables for vitamins during the winter. It is possible, however, to grow fresh crops through the dark months – even without a greenhouse, and even where we live, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, where the winter sun brings only brief and meagre light.

Growing Chicory Root

The white leaves of chicory, for example, make a refreshing salad in winter, and can be grown in a pot in the shed or closet. Start by planting chicory in your outdoor garden in spring, and let its broad green leaves grow out all through the summer and autumn. These green summer leaves are edible but bitter, and exist only to swell the root underneath.

Around November, dig up the now-massive root, decapitate the leaves and throw them into the compost. Plant the root in a bucket and scoop in soil — damp but not soaking — until the top of the root lies even with the surface. Set the bucket in the closet or other cool, dark area, and place another bucket upside-down over it to make sure the root remains in darkness. The plant has spent all year storing energy in the root to grow more leaves in spring, and when placed in warm soil should ideally sprout a head of white leaves, like a small cabbage. It worked for us, although not as well as we had hoped. It certainly sprouted leaves, although they came up at different speeds and ended up looking more like unkempt hair. You should get a few crops of the chicory from each root, but we learned the hard way to check under the bucket daily – leave it too long and the leaves can rot quickly. Having satisfied ourselves that we could do this, we decided not to grow more the next year – the summer chicory took up space in our garden we would rather devote to other things. Try it yourself, though, and you might have more productive results.

Growing Rhubarb in Winter

Other crops like rhubarb can also be grown outside and then brought indoors, and while rhubarb farmers usually do this to encourage the stem to grow long and tender, you could do the same thing to keep rhubarb fresh in winter. I have not tried this one myself, but give it a try and see if it works for you. Or you could grow sprouts – not Brussels sprouts, but beans or seeds that have been soaked in water and begun to germinate into seedlings, as they would in soil. Sprouting might be the only kind of kitchen gardening that almost anyone can do, almost anywhere, even a rented room in the city, a bunk, a barrack, a shed or wherever you happen to be. Sprouts require no land, yard, garden, tools, infrastructure or practice, the crops come to fruition in a few days rather than a few months, and most can be eaten with no cutting, peeling, cooking or preparation. * Best of all, they are one of the cheapest healthy foods you can get – I once calculated that a 500g bag cost me 1.60 euros and lasted four weeks. That’s 40 cents per week, or eight cents a day for lunch.

Sprouting Seeds Indoors

You can sprout the beans or seeds of most edible plants — I favor mung beans — but avoid any plants whose leaves would be toxic, like tomatoes or potatoes. The details of how to sprout will vary depending on what kind of seeds and containers you have, but the basic idea remains the same – keep the seeds wet until they are a good size to eat. School-children are often told to let them lie on a wet paper towel, but I use plastic tubs - discarded from a nearby take-away restaurant, with holes poked in the top to allow the sprouts to breathe – or you could use pottery, a plastic bag, or just about any food-safe container. I rinse the beans first, and then let them sit in a tub of water for about 12 hours or so. Then drain the water and let the beans sit, damp but not in standing water – rinse and re-dampen them every 12 hours if possible, and every 24 if necessary. If you forget for a day or two the beans will probably recover, but tend to start growing roots, making them tougher and less tasty.

In addition to mung beans I recommend lentils, although they grow a day or two more slowly and I find them less tasty. I occasionally sprout the seeds of fenugreek, broccoli, alfalfa, or clover, but generally find them too expensive for the small amount of sprouts they yield, and they run a higher risk of moulding before fully sprouting. Larger beans also presented a problem; Adzuki beans were even slower and less tasty than lentils, I found, and soybeans – the common sprout of Chinese stir-fry – often rotted before there was enough living sprout to make it worthwhile. Of course you can grow other kinds of plants inside - young herbs in the window, or cress for a bit of extra greenery on those sandwiches. You can bring established plants or even small trees in from outside and keep them in pots, if they will continue to flourish in the window or greenhouse. Come up with your own ideas and let me know how well they worked.

What all these methods have in common, though, is that they allow people to have enough vitamins to get by during the winter, on almost no money and without the refrigeration and convenience stores upon which most of us depend. If anyone wanted to live independently, or were hard up for cash or transportation – or if the winter power went out, as happened to half a million North Americans this winter – they could continue to feed their family healthy foods until the first shoots of spring. Soybean sprouts, I’m told, are an exception – they must be cooked.

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