Isa Delahunt

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since Jan 21, 2014
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Recent posts by Isa Delahunt

In the San Juans we've got the same situation as Victoria right across the strait, with unusually heavy snow and a polar front that is keeping it around longer than normal, all coming very late for us as well.  Snow is an issue here because we're not set up very well for it, unlike other places I've lived, where it was more common.  General snow stuff is well covered above, I can add a few off-grid and PNW specific things we sometimes forget between snow events.

Try to clear off the solar panels and keep them clear, which is easier said than done, depending on where they are!  Snow blocks them, so no power.  If this was a problem this year, figure something out for next time that is long enough and soft enough to clear without damaging them. My water drain freezes, though mostly the water in will keep running in a Northeaster.  We have great weather forecasting now, so I do all the water-intensive things like dishes and laundry beforehand, then carry water outside to dispose of it (not where it will make ice I'll slip on!).  After the snow/freeze begins, I try not to let water go down the drain.  Then when things thaw, the drain will work.  There is a time lag between when the thaw starts and when things like drains and hoses thaw--better to not let them freeze in the first place.  In this storm we're in now, I drained most things, but my 55 gal static water supply for the shower is frozen solid, so though it is warmer now, there won't be a shower for quite a while.  Dang--dishpan baths work fine, though.    

If you have duplicates of things like chicken waterers you can trade out thawed ones for frozen, and then you have to haul less liquid water around.  I always get metal chicken waterers because I can set them on the stove to thaw. This is hard on the valves though, so I also sometimes switch to metal baking pans, same idea.  Think small, easy to carry back and forth, and able to be on the stove.  Alternately, use containeers that are really flexible, that you can dump the ice out of easily.  There is no point to filling water troughs completely, though if they are frozen solid it takes less water to make the level high enough for short animals to drink from, so that can be an advantage.  I water large animals what they will drink, several times a day rather than trying to keep a constant supply thawed.

Snow is heavy, especially our snow, especially when the rain starts and is soaked up by the snow.  Clear off traps and costco sheds and flat roofs, or they will collapse.  Clear off shrubs and trees you care about, or they will break under the weight of the snow.  Be aware that limbs and trees will break and fall, especially if we get freezing rain on top of the snow load, plus a little wind.  It sounds like a war zone in the woods sometimes!

Allow extra time to do chores, because breaking trail and moving things heavily covered with snow and cold and sticky will take more time and effort than usual.  Double if you are hauling water too.  Be aware when you are getting sweaty and adjust clothing as needed, or you end up getting damp and colder.  (People with real winter are laughing now, but mild-climate people don't get this!). Drink enough water!  Especially if you are hauling water and don't have as much as usual, it's tempting to not drink because you use it up faster.  But it's dry in a northeaster here like it is in our hot dry summer, as the moisture is the air is all sucked up in ice.  Keep your gloves and socks dry, rotate them out for spares if needed.  

I offer no hints on driving--we have no plows here, and it's a tiny island anyway, so I just walk and enjoy the scenery!  
4 days ago
Be aware of what you're doing and what's around you while you're doing it, stop and rest if you start to space out, learn to anticipate where the tool will go if it slips, or what you'll fall onto if you lose your footing.  Go get help if you need it, even if it takes more time, because if you tweak your back out it will be more trouble in the end than fetching the neighbor to lift whatever it is.  Spend the money for proper safety gear and wear it--you'll look way better in chainsaw chap orange than bloodsoaked jeans! Where I live if you are injured and need medical attention you either have to find someone with a boat to take you off, if it's not really serious, or get medivacced out, which is really expensive.  Getting hurt is a huge deal, logistically.  We have remarkably few accidents here, despite all the chainsaws, sharp tools, tractors, and physical labor, because people are pretty cautious, for the most part, and have learned to work smart and safe.  
2 weeks ago
It's a sign of the times that the choice is even available to not cook from scratch!  Holy cats!  When my four boys were small and I was farming and homeschooling, everyone worked.  A lot.  Between the garden, milking and cheesemaking, churning, hunting and butchering, dealing with firewood, doing all laundry by hand and heating water to do it, and no electricity or vehicles to haul anything with, there was always a thing even the smallest kid could do to help.  It was great, and the results are awesome!  As grown men they can do everything, and do, thinking nothing of it.  They all know that a real cook is someone who can size up what is available and make a nutritious, tasty meal out of it.  

I cooked for years on a two burner propane unit in summer and a woodstove if baking and in winter.  Six loaves of bread, twice or three times a week.  Three pies at a time, made for dinner, gone by breakfast.  Ten pounds of potatoes for a meal.  Granola made in 5 gallon lots.  Anything bought in a quantity smaller than 25 lbs not worth considering.  Eat the food that is served, or wait until the next meal, or go forage in the garden or on the beach, no arguments.  Besides eating what we'd hunted or grown, we ate pasta, bread, beans, and oatmeal.  As I look at my work log notes from that time, it was plain, hearty fare, and lots of it.  We worked hard, and ate a ton of food, and everyone thrived.

In practise, I agree with Alex, above, that people tend to have a set bunch of meals they make as a rule, in rotation.  I had maybe ten to twelve main dishes, seasonally determined, supported by a variety of baked goods, which seemed to be an area I put more creative energy into.  Once you learn what spices and herbs make up a particular "style", the same basic ingredients can taste completely different, which keeps things not boring. It was a busy, happy routine--you just have to learn to work efficiently and prep ahead, and always have your staples in order.  Feeding yourself and your family is such a basic activity that fits seamlessly into everything else, that when looking back, I marvel at how I could have turned out all that food, day after day, it was just part of life at the time.  Part of the trick is to realize that things like cooking and washing clothes and getting up wood and doing the schoolwork or whatever aren't the things you do and then get on with your real life--they are your real life, or at least a big part of it.  We have turned things around so much nowadays that we forget that.
2 months ago
Years ago, my family and I lived in a place where I purchased staples yearly, and they were barged in.  Other than that, we ate what we grew, raised, or hunted.  It's the mother-of-all-shopping lists, but then you're done with that!  Now I still do this, but living a bit less isolated, I replace as things run out rather than all at one go.  I always have at least a year's worth of food on hand or on the hoof, so to speak.  

Two things I've learned over the years are to just grow or store what you will eat, and to use what you have stored or grown and not be buying fancy treats all the time.  It seems obvious, but if you don't like beets, for example, don't bother raising them, and certainly don't bother preserving them.   It took me a while to work through this, though.  It's really critical to align your diet and your food storage so they match up.  Over the years I have refined my list, and my cooking/eating so I don't waste time and money on things I "should" eat.  There are so many choices, even within your food growing area, it's not a nutritional nor a moral problem to decide you just don't really care for lima beans.  There are other things you can grow or buy that will fill the same niche.  

I also eat in season as much as possible, and eat almost nothing that wouldn't actually grow where I live, though I might not personally grow it, for whatever reasons.  This is a philosophical decision, but also turns out to be very economical.  I usually eat things that were raised on the island where I live--the three mile diet I like to call it.  Saves on transport costs!  I have developed a standard pantry staples inventory, and I cook from that plus whatever I have fresh or seasonally stored.  If you get your basic list right, you can make everything you like to eat, whenever you want to, except you can't eat fresh strawberries in the dead of winter, of course.  This system works great for me, and I am always tweaking it around, too, mind.  I love to cook and experiment, so I have anything but a boring diet.  What I do have is a comprehensive stock of basic ingredients suitable for my tastes and climate, and from there, I can go wild!  

Glass is great storage, of course, and I use gallon or half gallon stores to stock the kitchen supplies of things.  For bulk, I like lard tins, which are rat and insect proof and last forever if you keep them dry and don't store salty things in them.  Food grade plastic buckets with those lids you can get that screw on are good too, though I don't like to get more plastic in my life.  I abhor packaging, so I buy in bulk, and hardly get anything in cans or bottles unless it's essential and I can't work around it.  (There is no "away" where I live--if you make non-compostable or burnable trash, you have to figure out what to do with it, as you can't just throw it away to become someone else's problem.) Canning is great, freezing is good too (I have great solar, even in the Pacific Northwest, so freezers are an efficient tool here).  Salting and drying meat is good, and economical in storage space.  A root cellar or two is helpful, though it's possible to do without.  Store grains whole and grind as needed, whole grain keeps better.

Another thing I do that helps keep food moving through in a timely way is to keep an inventory, with dates, so I know what I have and how old it is.  You have to rotate stock, or things go bad.  I think it's pretty cool to have the food situations under control at all times, and I like knowing the quantity of food I need for a year, and best of all is to know exactly where it came from and ate before I ate it.  I've grown to feel a little weird about eating food that is from somewhere else, over the years, rather than the other way around.  

How to start?  One staple at a time, and seasonal food as it comes to you.  What do you eat, on a regular basis?  Next time, buy fifty pounds of rice instead of 5.  Keep a list, build up gradually.  Don't go shopping daily, if that's an option where you are.  Shop weekly, then at bigger intervals.  You'll soon see what your patterns are, and you can go from there.  If you list what you like to eat you'll see what the typical ingredients are, and you can start to build a stock of those in bulk.  Cook from what you have, rather than going put to get what you need to cook a certain recipe you saw on Facebook.  Learn the subtle art of substituting things in recipes.  It's a cliche where I live that at some point, you will inevitably find you've substituted every ingredient in the recipe, and thus have an entirely new food!  It's far from boring, which is what people seem to think working from a set food stock would be.  

4 months ago
If it's important, I like to have a physical copy.  No electricity required, which if you make your own you are very aware of, and no internet required, which if you live in an area with sketchy or limited access, you are also aware of.  

I don't really like reading onscreen, though I love e-books for travelling, since most of my luggage always seems to involve books or references of some sort.  I grew up before computers--they came into common use in the nick of time for me to integrate into the culture but still be conversant with the 'old systems'.  Though I can finally edit onscreen, I still do it much better on paper where I can navigate faster and scribble on the pages, and I find physical books easier to actually study carefully.  For me, reading onscreen seems to prompt me to skim.  Good for getting a general idea, but bad for absorbing details.  Plus, books are great insulation!  The several thousand I have line my walls (and every other available nook and cranny) and help keep the place warm.

So yeah, for me, both have a place, but if I had to choose, physical books all the way.  And I also listen to recorded books a lot, as I work on projects requiring hands and eyes but not necessarily brainpower.  A good story helps keep the work going.
4 months ago
Nothing grows under cedar trees, but things grow fine next to them.  They are not such 'field suckers' as firs, for example.  They seem to share water better.  Plus, cedars are huge trees, so you have to stay on top of pruning them or they will take over your hedge and shade out whatever is next to it.  Locusts spread, beware!  I agree, more species is better in a hedge.  There are some really good books on hedge laying out there, which you might want to read as you plan.  Even of you are making a less traditional version it will help a lot to understand the whole process of how it's done and maintained over time.  It's a very old craft, and there are proven things that work, and things that don't. Maybe I'm just getting old,  but when I plant something big and permanent these days I consider what will happen with it when I'm not there to keep it in check and maintain it ideally.  So maybe not a hedge of something that if you stop trimming it will overgrow your house, or block the solar panels or shade out the garden?
5 months ago
Nicole, that's exactly what I use my sawbuck with the long top arms for.  You jam in a huge pile of small stuff, all the way to the top, as tightly as you can pack it in, and you can safely slice through it all without it rolling all over, and the stuff is at working height so you're not bending over all the time.  If you alternate big ends and small ends it helps, and use the saw dogs to help suck the pile together as you cut.  Load it so the the logs are all even on one end, and hang them out one or two lengths worth that you are cutting.  The other end will be raggedy, but you can eyeball things so as to get the most efficient size cuts there too, and square that end up as you go.  Work in from each outside end, or the pile will imbalance and start falling off the longer end.  On my sawbuck I have marks for the length of wood I need, so once the wood is cut off the ends, I just follow the marks.  See how on the bucks above the arms are not even?  That's so you can cut the final cut between the narrow arms, which should give you exactly two lengths the right size with the last pieces still held securely.  One thing, sometimes I have to switch the side I'm cutting from to be clear of the arms because the bar on my saw is a little short and I run into an arm with the saw body, which is a nuisance, but just don't place your set-up where you can't do that, or use a saw with a longer bar.  I'm pretty small, so there's a limit to what I can control safely in the chainsaw department!  Using the sawbuck like this is just like slicing up a pile of carrots for stew.  
5 months ago
My sawbuck is pretty much like Ingram's in the photo.  I make them with long top pieces so I can pile in a huge bunch of smaller wood, like fir branches or small thinned trees up to 6ish inches diameter. (Fir limbs are like 'rocket fuel' in a wood cookstove, and are great when you want a quick, hot fire that goes away soon.)  It's annoying, slow, and dangerous to saw small stuff up on the ground, or in a pile on the ground.  If you put it in a big sawbuck made with long top arms you can safely process an enormous amount lickety-split, and when the area around the sawbuck gets too clogged up with wood you can just pick it up and move it over to a clear spot and keep going.  Big logs are safe and pretty easy to buck up on the ground--I wouldn't lift them into a buck, generally.  
5 months ago
In my experience, ants love particle board (aka 'chipboard' or 'composition wood').  The ones I've seen consistently go for it are the tiny little ones.  We call them sugar ants, here.  I think it's the adhesive they use to make it that is so appealing.  Not only do they break it down very quickly, you have to work with teeming ant nests amongst your plants.  We can also have massive pillbug infestations using logs or other wood for bed sides, but this is the Pacific Northwest, so maybe in a drier climate there would not be so many.  I still use wood or whatever is handy to shore up beds, but keep an eye out for known problems.  Rocks work well, but can be high maintenance if there are many small cracks to host weeds.  

My garden is on a slope, so I tend to terrace the flatter parts gently by digging out the paths on the lower side and throwing the dirt up onto the bed, so at the top edge of the bed there is little rise, but on the lower edge it's eight inches or more.  Then I weed and throw trimmings as I harvest etc right onto the paths, which mulches them and tends to keep things from sliding down the slope.  Beds are reconfigured every year, depending on what I'm growing.  Only beds in the steeper parts get real shoring up, and also they tend to be more permanent plantings.  

We have lots of rats, and I have learned the hard way to make hugelkultur mounds nice and tightly packed!  They can become excellent rat condos.  
5 months ago
Stainless steel or wood are the things for cheese.  It's expensive, but they last forever, and SS is easily sanitized.  It's possible to find pots and utensils at the thrift store for cheap, too.  Stainless steel colanders lined with butter muslin are perfect to drain cheeses.  Cheese is like bread--a very flexible, situation/environment dependent process, so think about the intent of what you're trying to do rather than the specific gear to do it and look at what you already have that could work.  

New England Cheesemaking Supply ( is a great resource for equipment and fabulous recipes, which are very user-friendly and step-by-step.  They have lots of cultures, both instant and the "perpetual", which are like sourdough starter.  

If I were only spending serious cash on one thing it would be a long stemmed thermometer.  Other stuff you can lay hands on, usually, but temperature control is absolutley key.
6 months ago