Sunday, July 31, 2016

Summer Foraging: Blackberries

Hopefully everyone can remember a time of picking and eating blackberries with their grandparents.  For years my Grandma had a secret patch, that was guarded by a big red bull.  We were always warned to stay away from the bull.  I'm pretty sure she just wanted us to stay away from the blackberries.   If you don't have a great blackberry story with an older relative, now is the time to get out with someone, (a wife, kids, Grandma/Grandpa) and make some.  I remember plenty of times being at one of my Grandparent's houses, and wandering through the woods, and munching on blackberries. 

Blackberry Plant
Blackberries are one of the foolproof berries to harvest.  As far as I can tell there are no poisonous look-a-likes, although there are a few other berries that look very similar, but they are edible and delicious.  Blackberries can be identified by the dark colored berries that are clustered together at the end of the cane.  They have between 3 and 5 leaflets per leaf.  Blackberry stems (called canes) are a light green, with alternate leaves, filled with thorns (never ever forget they have thorns, they can be quite painful), and the canes are filled with ridges and angles.

Blackberries grow from second year canes, meaning a blackberry cane will grow one year, then the next year it will produce fruit.  Depending on where you are foraging (ie, private vs public land), if you have picked all the berries from a cane, you should cut that cane off at the ground level to prune it back.  Blackberries are prolific growers, spreading from roots underground.  I've collected a few specimens of blackberries, that I am going to try and propagate in my own back yard.

3 Leaf Blackberry
Almost all blackberries I have found have been growing in the shade of larger trees.  They are not always growing in the deep forest, but the particular patch I've found are.  There are also issues of legality, if you are on private land, you must obtain the owners permission to harvest any of the berries.  On National Forest land, it is illegal to harvest berries.  On State owned lands, you will need to see what the laws are in your particular area.  In my area, harvesting berries on state land is illegal.  I wish it wasn't, I find it to be an unjust law, and while I am hunting I find it perfectly ethical to harvest a few and pop in my mouth.  I would never harvest bucketfuls though.

I've found the best time of the year to harvest blackberries is the second or third week of July.  You will find some that are ripe in June, and you will find some that are ripe all the way into September, but I find the most are ripe in the middle of July.

A few things to be wary of are snakes and bears.  Bears can be an issue depending on where you live.  They love berries, and you can easily run into them in a thick berry patch.  Snakes love to hunt and hide under the thick patches.  Make sure you are careful where you put your feet, and always look before grabbing any berries to make sure a snake is not hiding.  And always make sure you are protected from bugs.  Blackberries are infamous for chiggers and ticks.  And always look out for the thorns.  They can be quite painful.

Now to the fun part.  Blackberries can be eaten raw, made into a cobbler, and made into jellies and jams.  Here are links to a few recipes.  Try one, try all, and share your own in the comments section. 
I hope you can find a place near you to go and harvest some blackberries this weekend.  Take your kids, take your wife, take someone elses kids.  It's an easy fruit to find, and harvest, and the berries are delicious. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Permaculture Thoughts: Borage Plants

I've managed to plant a few trees around my urban homestead, and one of the big movements is permaculture.  I like the idea of permaculture, and I think it help my trees look better.  One idea I keep seeing is planting plants around your trees for compost.  The big plant that is mentioned is comfrey (Symphytum officinale) or Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum, or Symphytum asperum x officinale).  Comfrey has lots of uses, it can attract beneficial insects, it can ward off bad insects, and the most important part in my opinion is it's fast growing and can be composted right where it grows.

When discussing plants, one problem that always crops up is identification.  Many plants can go by many common names, but plants will typically only go by one scientific name.  This is not always true, as our genetic science gets better, our understanding of plants and animals gets deeper.  Things can and will be reclassified in the future.  It will be much easier to identify and use Symphytum officinale  even if it gets reclassified into  Borage officinale (this is facetious, I know of no plans to do this), than it is to look back in a hundred years and try to decipher whether they meant Symphytum officinale  when they listed medicinal usages of Comfrey, or whether they meant Cynoglossum officinale.  I am going to do my best in the future to give scientific names to all the plants that I discuss in the future.

Russian comfrey is a natural cross between two different types of comfrey (rough comfrey and common comfrey, Symphytum x uplandicum, or Symphytum asperum x officinale).  Russian comfrey is high in protein, (20-30% dried).  This is a great food for chickens and rabbits.  It is also very high in biomass.  While alfalfa can yield 18 tons per acre,  Russian comfrey can yield up to 100-120 tons per acre.  The plant is also high in potassium, somewhere between 5 and 7%.  The NPK ratio is also very similar to manure.  All of this sounds great, but I do have one problem, it is a hybrid plant, so the seeds won't produce true.   It is cultivated by the root stems.  I still prefer open pollinated, seed bearing native plants.  Russian comfrey is a cross, not a GMO, so you could plant the different kinds of comfrey, and make your own hybrids. 

If I could find some locally to purchase and grow, I probably would just for testing purposes.  I like the idea of it, but I'd have to order it.  I've never ordered live plants or seeds before, but I prefer to deal with locally owned and operated business's.  This leads me to search for alternatives.  One thing I have learned is that Comfrey is in the Borage family of plants.  And Borage plants are native to my area.  The one I am most interested in is Cynoglossum virginianum (Hound's Tongue, or Wild Comfrey).

This plant sounds promising to me, it has a very similar common name, it is in the same family, and while I may not be able to buy it locally, it is a native plant that I can probably find growing wild nearby.  But how does it compare to Russian comfrey?

This is a good question. While many people have done studies on the "true" comfrey's, I can't find any research on the Cynoglossum's.  I did find one article that discussed the nutrients of the plant when eaten.  (  When using these numbers to calculate the percentage of protein was about 3%, while the potassium was about .3% and the phosphorus was .01 to .02%.  I'm not positive that this is a one-to-one ratio as I originally intended.

There are other benefits to using the native comfrey.  It is attractive to bees, both honey and native bees.  This is a huge benefit to growing it around your fruit trees.  It also puts down long taproots, so it will help to add trace minerals closer to the surface.  Cynoglossum virginianum also is purported to have medicinal benefits.

There needs to be more research done to determine if native comfrey can replace the other comfreys in my garden, but any renaissance person worth their salt can do research.  Hopefully, I'll get a chance to get in the woods next weekend, and do some foraging for wild comfreys.   


Sunday, May 8, 2016

How-to: Fishing Jugs

With temperatures steadily rising, and the Sun starting to shine more and more everyday,  my thoughts are turning to fishing more and more.  My whole life I've been focused solely on pole fishing, and while fishing with poles will always be my go to fishing method, but one thing that every Renaissance man should know how to do is efficiently gather large quantities of food.  One way to do this in the summer is with passive fishing methods.  Since I just recently acquired a boat, my horizons have been opened a little further. I'm now able to try more methods of fishing, jug fishing, trotlining, even netting.

As always, before you do anything described below, make sure you read up on all the rules and regulations for fishing in your area, and state.  At a minimum, you probably need at least a fishing license.

In my opinion, jug fishing is pretty easy.  Get an old jug, tie on some line, a hook, bait it and throw it in the water.  The first thing you need is some type of large floating item.  I save old bleach bottles.  I like them the best since they have a screw on lid, and lots of ample storage inside.  You could also use coke bottles.  I would use anything that is waterproof and has a screw on lid.  You could use milk jugs, but I would be careful simple of the snap on lids.  You wouldn't to hook a giant catfish, only to lose it by having your jug fill up with water, and the catfish sinking the jug to the bottom of the lake/river.  You can also use pool noodles, just cut them to about a foot or two in length.

Where I live,  you have to have you name, address and either fishing license number or drivers license number.  I like to number my jugs,  that way I know how many I jugs I've set out, and whether I've missed any.  Another thing I like to do is either add some reflective strips, or paint a fluorescent strip on them, so you can shine a flashlight and find them at night.

My set up right now consists of tarred bank line, some swivels, and 30lb test monofilament line, and circle hooks.  Use your favorite fishing knot,  I tie the tarred line to the jug, and then add a swivel to the bottom.  Tie a length of the 30 lb test line to the swivel and add a circle hook at the bottom.

There are many variations you could use to this rig.  Testing is needed to match the conditions at your local fishing hole.  I'm using a one foot length of bank line, and then another foot of monofilament with a 2/0 circle hook at the bottom.

Right now, I'm going after crappie in the shallows.  If I was going after catfish, I would probably add a little more length to both the lines, and go with a bigger circle hook.

Baits can be just about anything you want,  for crappie, bass, and walleye I would use minnows.  For catfish or turtles, I would go with panfish, liver, or stinkbait.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Seed Starting

I've got spring fever here lately,  even though our winter wasn't particularly cold, it was still too cold to do the things I really like to do.  Woodworking, fishing, gardening, and foraging.  I did spend some time trying to figure out how to get my seeds started early for my gardening adventures.  I've wanted to do square foot gardening for a long time, but I always seem to get really small seeds, and I just scatter them in place.  I figured this year, I would start my seeds early, and the plant them in a square foot combo.  Here are a few of the ways I've found of trying over the winter.  I always like to experiment, here are three methods, I wanted to try this year.  You may remember the blog on using plastic coke bottles as a way to start seeds.  And if not here is a link Coke Bottle Seed Starters

Egg Carton

Egg Carton Method
This method is pretty easy. Get an egg carton, I try to buy the papery type egg cartons.  Add some dirt, and plant a seed in the middle.  This method I think may be best if you buy the egg cartons that are not plastic.  That way you can just cut the carton apart and plant it in the ground.

The plastic egg cartons can potentially be reused.  I think my wife actually bought some eggs in this carton last week, so I'll see how it does.

Update:  The egg carton method didn't seem so promising at first, but as of today I have quite a few seedlings sprouted.

Plastic Bags
I really like the plastic bag method.  You take a paper towel, wet it down, place your seeds on it, and then put the paper towel inside a ziploc bag.  I like doing this, I can make a ton of these very quickly, they are relatively cheap, and they can be stacked in a warm dark place out of the way.  I've had good luck with these in the past.  The bags can be reused for years, and they take up no storage space.

Toilet paper rolls
Toilet Paper Roll Method
This is a method, I've wanted to try out for a few year, but every time I try and save the rolls, some one always throws them out.  Well, this year I finally found a good spot to save them that won't let them get lost.  This also seems like a good way to start seeds, cut the rolls down, add them to a cheap plastic container, add some dirt and a seed and let them go.  One nice thing about this method is that they are very stackable, but they do take up more room than a plastic bag.

Bonus: Potting Mixes
A long time ago I used to keep various species of Reptilia in terrariums, and one my of my favorite seed starting mixes comes from this era.

1 part ground coconut husk
1 part partially composted leaves

Just mix it thoroughly together, and add water.  It will hold moisture for days.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Money Making Apps, part 2

Last week I wrote about apps that I use to make extra money on the side.  While none of these apps will make you rich, they can help to pay off debt, start an emergency fund, or just buy fun stuff you won't spend "paycheck" money on.  Another way I make some extra money is through survey sites.  There are lots of good and tons of bad survey places.  I have accounts with four of them that I like an use.  Each has it's pros and cons, but by using all of them, I can generate some extra cash as needed.

SurveySavvy has some very nice rewards, but they can be few and far between.  Even when you get a survey, they are very hard to qualify for.  The plus side is they usually pay very well.  All the rewards are paid out as a check that is mailed to your home.  I usually wait until I have at least $25 in my account to cash it.  One nice thing is that you can refer other people to the site, and get rewards from when they complete surveys.  I've never really used this feature, but it could generate a nice income if you have a lot of friends that are willing to take surveys.

SurveySpot has been mostly miss for me lately, I've found it very hard to complete a survey and get any points.  Each survey is typically worth 75 points (which translates to $.75 cash)  The rewards can be paid out in Gift Cards or Paypal.  I personally like Paypal.  I can pay for things like Netflix and never have to worry about spending any real money on it.   The nice thing about SurveySpot is that if you have time to kill, you can click on a link to take multiple surveys in day.

I've used Toluna for a long time now, and recently I feel like it has gotten a lot better.  The surveys pay out less in points, but they seem to be easier to qualify for.  Surveys vary from anywhere from 1,000 points to 3,000 points.  3,000 points seems to equal about $1.00.  I like Toluna because of the sheer number of rewards.  You can get gift cards to Sears, Walmart, they will mail you a check, they will pay you in Paypal.  You can even get merchandise from the site.  

Harris Poll has one very nice pro.  Whether you qualify for a survey or not, you will almost always get 15 points.   Every 125 point is worth $1.  So every ten days, just for clicking on a link and answering a few questions you could potentially make $1.00.  Not bad for not doing much.  Most surveys are worth between 50 and 125 points.  The only payment methods I've ever used were the gift cards.  They can be slow to arrive, even though they are all digital.  No worries though, I've always gotten my gift cards.  One thing that they do every once in while is send out special community invite surveys.  If selected for the community, you take at least 4 short surveys every month, and they reward you with a $10 Amazon gift card.  

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Foraging: Morels

Warning: Never, ever eat wild mushrooms until you have had an experienced guide help you positively identify them.  Mushrooms are never to be taken lightly,  they can and will kill you if you do not harvest them correctly, do not cook them correctly, and do not identify them correctly.  While some species are considered "safe" (meaning they have no poisonous ones that are very similar), it is still not safe to consume them until you have had them identified.  

Spring time means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but here in the outdoor community in Arkansas it means at least one very important thing.  Turkey hunting and Morel Mushrooms.  There are lots of turkey hunters in the spring woods, looking for a big old tom turkey to harvest.  When that turkey doesn't want to cooperate, those same hunters will start to look for morels.  They are considered a delicacy of the mushroom world, and what's more, to my knowledge, they are almost impossible to grow commercially.

Morels are one of the "safe" mushroom species.   There is a poisonous look-a-like, the main difference being that the Morel is completely hollow inside, and yellow or black, while the poisonous ones are usually brown, and are not hollow inside.  Never eat morels raw, morels contain chemicals that are used in jet fuel.  This can be safely cooked out.  

Morels only grow in the spring, and they are here today and gone tomorrow.  There are two species, the yellow black.  The yellow ones seem to grow mainly on deciduous trees, while the black seem to prefer evergreens.   Here in Arkansas, I suggest looking for Elm or Ash trees.   The yellows seem to prefer them.  

I took my son out this morning, we had some serious rain, but I regret to inform you we didn't find any morels.  You will have to use your favorite search to get some pictures of morels, ash and elm trees.  We did get us some wood for making our own primitive bows and arrows, I'm looking forward to working on and writing about this. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Money Making Apps

I am obsessed with finding new ways to earn money with little effort on my part.  Right now, I've got a few different ways that I use to make money.  I'm never going to get rich with apps on my phone, but I can use the money to help in other ways.  Last year, I saved as much money as I could with apps, and was able to buy a Playstation 4.  This is a greedy use of "my" money.  After that purchase, I decided to start using the money to pay down my debt.  Basically, get all the money I can in either Paypal, or Walmart gift cards.  Use the money at Walmart instead of cash, and put the cash towards a debt.  I'll write about paying down debt in another post.  So far this year, I've made almost $200.  It's not a ton of money, but by the end of the year, I will have made at least one extra car payment.  On to the apps.

The best way to make money on Swag-bucks is by watching videos on your computer.  Just click on the Watch link, and start watching videos.  You can earn up to 500 points a day, which equates to $5.  You can redeem the money by purchasing gift cards to Wal-Mart, Bass Pro, and a bunch of other places.  I personally like the Wal-Mart gift cards, simply as a way to pay off debt.

Receipt Hog & Receipt Pal
These two apps are very similar.  You take a picture of a receipt, and you get points.  Receipt Hog pays out in Paypal and Amazon, while Receipt Pal pays out in Amazon gift cards.  It takes a while to earn any money from either app, but it can be a good way to bank cash for a large purchase.  Or you can just use Receipt Hog to pay for Netflix.  I haven't had to spend a single dime from a paycheck on Netflix in several years.

Walmart Savings Catcher
This app is genius idea for Walmart.  You take a picture of your receipt, they price match and give you the cash back on a gift card to Walmart.  Some weeks, I get no money, some weeks I've gotten back as much as $8.00.  I've manage to make over $300 since the app was launched almost a year and half ago.  Again not a ton of money, but every little bit helps

I've got a few more apps, and sites that I like to use for making money.  I'll post them up soon.