Five dollar compost bin

Every day, I pile kitchen scraps and farm waste in the same spot. But there is no pile. Each time I take the compost out to the compost heap, the chickens make short work of spreading it around, after which it dries out and doesn’t actually compost at all. As compost is a very important part of improving soil and gardening, I clearly had to address the situation sooner or later.

So today I addressed the situation. Most compost container designs are predominantly wooden or plastic, neither of which really work in my situation – wood is expensive and plastic deteriorates fast in this equatorial sun. Wire mesh seemed like a good option, so I based this compost container off of a design I saw in John Jeavons’ book “How to Grow More Vegetables.”

This container is great because it is cheap to make and it is easily movable, making turning a compost pile easy: once it fills, you can remove the wire, set it up again nearby, and turn the pile into the new location.

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What you need:

  • About 3 meters (or yards) of chicken wire or other metal mesh, with a width of 1 meter/ yard
  • 5 pieces of wood (1x2s would work well; I used log-type wood I had), length of 1 meter or yard (however wide the mesh is)
  • Small (2-inch) finishing-type nails; they should be easy to bend
  • 2 metal latches (the kind with the swinging hook and eye)
  • Hammer
  • Saw (if you need to cut the wood to size)

How to put it together:

  • Take each piece of wood and hammer several nails in a line down one side (the more the better, really; I probably didn’t use enough). Leave about an inch of each nail sticking out.
  • Start with one end of the wire mesh and line the nails of one piece of wood up to pass through the mesh. I then curled the mesh around the wood and passed the nails through again.

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  • Bend the nails with your hammer and hammer them down flat. They should face both up and down, not all in the same direction, so the wire doesn’t slip out if the nails start to lift up.

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  • Lay the length of mesh flat and repeat the above steps on the other end. If the mesh has been rolled up, I put the wood on the inside of the curve, because the wood will be standing inside the circular structure once finished.
  • Eyeball where the halfway point and the quarters of the mesh are, and secure the pieces of wood on the inside of the mesh’s curve. Again, make the nails face in different directions, not all one way.
  • Join up the end pieces and screw in the eye screws for the latch. If the wood is hard, ding a starter hole with an extra nail to get the screw to go in.

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(Above: these are the hooks and eyes I ended up using because I couldn’t find the swinging-hook kind anywhere. The kind with the movable hook is ideal because it’s easier to open and close the container.)

  • Decide where you’re going to set up the compost pile (if you haven’t already!) Clear the area from weeds and dig up the soil a little with a hoe or shovel.

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(Above: where my old compost pile supposedly was. Don’t see it? Neither do I. Darn chickens.)

  • Set up the mesh container. It may be a little unsteady until it gets partially filled, like mine was. If this is a concern, you can brace the top with sticks or lengths of wood crosswise in the inside if you like.

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  • I stood inside the mesh circle and straightened out the mesh with my foot, that worked pretty well, as it had been folded.
  • Start filling your new compost container!

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Some tips for composting:

  • 1 cubic meter (or roughly 1 cubic yard) is the ideal size for a compost pile.  A pile smaller than that cannot generate enough heat to decompose properly; larger and it may get too hot, or there is not enough surface area for it to respire properly.
  • When adding anything that might attract flies, cover it with a layer of finished compost or garden soil that it is not exposed. This also helps to conserve moisture.
  • Your compost pile may get hot, but don’t count on it to kill insect pests, microbes that cause plant diseases, or noxious weeds (such as Bermuda grass or wild morning glories). For those kinds of wastes, you can burn them in a pit and then compost their ashes, which do have beneficial minerals and nutrients.

Some other things not to compost:

  • Leaves or cuttings from plants that have antimicrobial properties, such as eucalyptus or neem
  • Feces from carnivorous animals like dogs and cats
  • Meat and cooking oil (small amounts of oil or cooked meat is ok)
  • Glossy paper or chemically-treated wood

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That was pretty easy, wasn’t it?

What style of compost bin do you use? What techniques do you use for turning and finishing your compost?

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Humbled by bread: this week’s lessons

I’ve made the same simple white loaf three times in the past week and still haven’t gotten it quite right. Perhaps it’s due to the cold weather, my impatience, my inexperience, or all three. So instead of sharing my secrets for how to bake a perfect loaf, I am humbled to share the lessons I’ve learned while making my rookie mistakes.

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Lesson #1: Warmth or sunshine is not enough for a yeast dough to rise. I put the dough in its covered basin and plunked it on my sunny, breezy afternoon porch. Now, if you read good breadmaking advice (which I did) and then follow it (which I didn’t), you will realize the importance of choosing a location that is both warm and draft-free. That batch felt those drafts and languished low and cold.

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Lesson #2: Don’t make bread when you’re rushed or impatient. On days I started baking in the late afternoon, I didn’t give the dough enough time as I rushed to get it in the oven before dark. If you don’t allow proper time for kneading, rising, and baking, the bread’s quality will suffer. After that mistake, I realized that if I’m bothering to make homemade bread at all, I might as well do it right and not rush.

Lesson #3: The loaf should sound beyond-all-doubt hollow. When you take that beautiful golden-brown loaf out of the oven, flip it over, and give it a thump, it should sound definitively hollow. If it doesn’t, put it back in, find something else to do for a few minutes, and come back to check again.

Despite my misadventures this week with low-sitting dough and trying to beat the clock, nothing beats cutting off a warm slice of fresh-baked bread and tasting that delicious crunchy crust. You just can’t get in a store.

What are your best breadmaking tips or advice?

Ugly, cheap, low-water-use produce: the bag garden

About a week ago, as I was collecting wild amaranth for my post on foraging, my eleven-year-old neighbor boy showed up. “You mean, you don’t have any matembele?” He asked me, when he saw what he thought was my desperation for greens to cook.

Matembele is a type of sweet potato that is grown here. It is grown exclusively for its leaves, which are narrower and tastier than those of sweet potatoes grown for tubers. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring you some cuttings,” he told me. So a few days later, I had matembele cuttings, but no good place to grow them.

Container gardening is a great idea in theory, but the expense of pots and other containers may prove inconvenient, maybe even prohibitive, to some people who would benefit from having fresh vegetables growing in a small space. Here in Tanzania, buying big clay pots or large plastic containers to plant in would get pretty expensive, but nylon bags, which are commonly used for grain and legume storage, are pretty cheap – about 25 cents a bag.

During our pre-service training for Peace Corps, we were taught how to make bag gardens, which are a useful tool for improving household and child nutrition. Being watered with just a gallon or two of greywater per day from rinsing dishes or other household chores, bag gardens are ideal for growing greens and vegetables right outside your door, even in the dry season.

Here’s how to make one.

Things you need:

  • large nylon or burlap bag
  • gravel
  • garden soil, mixed with finished compost if available
  • a tube with about a 6″ diameter. A large tin can with both top and bottom removed works well.
  • bucket
  • shovel
  • small hand rake (optional)
  • knife/ utility knife
  • container-friendly vegetable seeds and/or cuttings
  • water (less than 10 gallons at the start should be enough)
  • 3 or 4 sticks or stakes to support the bag garden

Start out by deciding on a good site to build your bag garden, because once you fill the bag with soil, it will be very difficult to move again! I set mine up on the northwestern corner of our house, which gets very good sun. (We are in the southern hemisphere, so the north side is the sunny side.)

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Set the bag in its designated location and put a few inches’ worth of gravel in the bottom of the bag. Shake the bag so that this foundation is even and sturdy against the ground.

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Place the tin in the center of the bag, on the gravel foundation. Fill the tin with gravel, and fill the bag outside of the tin with garden soil/ compost. You are basically making a porous core of gravel at the center of the bag garden, for ease of watering and to help ensure the soil gets evenly moist.

Once the gravel in the tin and the soil in the bag are at the same level, lift the tin up, fill it with gravel, add soil in the bag, and repeat until the bag is filled. You can leave a few inches at the top to cuff/ turn down the bag to make the top sturdier.

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*Please don’t do what I did, which was to use a long plastic pipe as the core tube. I filled it with gravel, then the rest of the bag with soil, thinking I would be able to pull it out easily… well, I was wrong! After five or ten minutes of huffing and puffing and even wrapping a rubber strip around the tube to get a better grip, I finally hefted it out. So to avoid a struggle… just use a tin. I promise it’ll be easier!

Use sticks or stakes driven into the ground to support the finished bag garden. There are none in these pictures because mine is leaning against the house, but I will add two or three stakes to make sure it doesn’t fall forward.

After the bag is filled, water it through the gravel core in the center. It may take several gallons to get the soil evenly moist. I left mine overnight so that the water could absorb well before planting. (Okay, I planned to get the whole thing done in one evening, but the sun set and I still wasn’t done!)

Take a utility knife or razor and cut horizontal or slightly diagonal slits in the bag. Don’t make them too long or too close together, or you may have a blow-out situation. Plant a few seeds or cuttings in each slit. I planted the sweet potato cuttings as well as bush-type garden bean seeds in the sides, and broadcast spinach seeds on the top.

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You might call it the world’s ugliest container garden; I call it not having to buy greens during the dry season. We will see how this bag garden goes.

What are your favorite cheap containers to use for gardening? What techniques do you use to conserve and reuse water in the garden?

Laundry list: handwashing from start to finish

Run four loads of laundry through a washing machine and that’s about two or three weeks’ worth of water, for all our needs, for the two of us. 

We do not have running water. Being off-grid is not a choice at this point in time; the water line has not yet reached our property. When it does, trust me, I’ll be the first to break the ground for that trench. We currently have a 500-liter water tank, which is roughly 130 gallons. When it runs low, we have a guy bring more water for us, which costs 12,000 shillings – about $6. That’s 5 cents per gallon if you price it out.

Today, as I was procrastinating actually doing laundry, I looked up how much water a typical clothes-washing machine uses per load. A relatively efficient washer uses 30 gallons per load. My mind, which now thinks in increments of buckets, reeled: that’s six five-gallon buckets! For one load!

Since we have neither electricity nor running water, all our laundry is handwashed (as is probably 99% of all clothing in Tanzania). For about ten largish clothing items (pants, dresses, shirts, etc.), I use a total of less than five gallons. Maybe even three. Again, this is out of necessity, but in any case, at least now I know how to clean clothes with no electricity and minimal water. I think it’s a valuable skill.

All you need is a wash basin and a rinse bucket. Pour about a gallon, maybe two, of water in each. I typically use just bar laundry soap (an American brand would be Fels-Naptha), but if clothes are exceptionally dirty, I use detergent powder as well. The powder is harder on your hands, though. If using powder, put about a quarter cup in the basin and agitate the water so the suds appear. You’ll scrub clothes in this water, using the bar soap for stains and dirty sections.

The rinse bucket can be either plain water or water with a cup or so of white vinegar. Using vinegar makes your rinse water go much further, as the vinegar removes all the soap, keeping the rinse water from getting sudsy and slick and having to be dumped and replaced. It’s also great for removing sweat stains and deodorant residue from shirts.

After destroying my hands a couple times from washing jeans, I added a scrub brush to the operation. It comes in handy for heavy fabrics like denim and twill, which can hurt your skin when you’re washing them with your bare hands.

For each article of clothing, turn it inside out and put it in the wash basin. Scrub it against itself in your hands (or use the brush if it’s a sturdy fabric). Use the bar soap for especially dirty areas. Wring out, then rinse in the rinse bucket and wring again. Hang up on your laundry line (clothing still inside out to prevent fading from the sun) and move on to the next one.

Bleach I find is typically unnecessary if I’m line-drying clothing outside; the sun bleaches white fabrics naturally.

Take care with fabrics that may bleed color or shrink, and also with sweaters or other clothing that may get stretched or warped by wringing and line drying. 

So there you go. You might have to develop some handwashing muscles, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not such a bad chore for a beautiful sunny afternoon. And now you know you can keep your clothes clean – off the grid as well as on.

Cooking liver: offal isn’t awful at all

The people who knew me in America, when I was at times pescatarian, vegetarian, and flirting-with-vegan, would be low-key horrified, or perhaps morbidly fascinated, if they saw me now.

On market days I stroll through herds of goats and sheep and their Masai herdsmen, squeezing goat flanks and stroking sheep backs to see how much meat they have on them. I barter jokingly with the men and tell them I’ll come back and buy one another day. They always seem to think I need several goats, ASAP, and tell me so.

I eventually pry myself away from the livestock yard and head to the butcher row. Sheep are tethered together at the neck by sisal rope, waiting for their imminent slaughter. Raw meat hangs from the wire mesh in the windows of the butchers. The smell of grilled meat fills the air. Most of the butchers wear white coats, which by the afternoon are pretty dirty-looking.

Today, I hunt down goat liver. I buy half of a raw liver, weighing probably about a pound, for 4,000 Tanzanian shillings – about $2. I head over to another section to pick up soup bones for my friend’s dog who’s staying at our place, then head home.

Being a previous vegetarian who was then transplanted to Tanzania was one of those experiences that may be best described by the phrase “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Seeing cows and goats being slaughtered in the mornings on my way to the village cafe was something I quickly got used to. I would watch cows being butchered from start to finish. I gained a new appreciation for this type of slaughter: the entire animal was used. Hardly any part was thrown away.

The hides go to a man who buys them up for tanning. The head and feet go to mamas who specialize in cooking various soups with them. A Masai butcher would collect the blood which can be drunk, whereas a Muslim one would let it flow into the ground, which is part of halal slaughter. Stomach and intestines are cleaned, then grilled or cooked. The liver and heart are sold along with the muscle meat at the butcher’s. Everything else is thrown to the village dogs, who make short work of it. What’s left – the horns, maybe? I once told a Tanzanian man that some cultures in parts of the world clean and polish animal horns, then use them as drinking vessels. He was more or less horrified. Guess you have to draw the line somewhere.

I realized that if I truly appreciate this kind of slaughter, and if we will probably butcher our own goat one day, I need to be okay with cooking and eating some of these non-muscle-meat parts that come along with a slaughtered animal. I figured liver was a good place to start.

Many people balk at eating liver because it is the organ that removes toxins from the body. If toxins are a concern, in general it’s best to choose liver from smaller and/ or younger animals; for example, better to eat a young rooster’s liver than an old pig’s. Also, if possible, try to make sure the animal was raised organically; at the very least, not in a toxic environment. Interestingly enough, some studies show that animal livers do not always have a higher concentration of toxins and heavy metals than muscle meat does; the levels can be variable.

Liver is an excellent source of protein, iron, vitamin A, and vitamins B12 and B2; in fact, its vitamin A levels could potentially be harmful if you eat too much. Liver is suitable as an occasional dish, maybe once or twice a month for the average person. See this article for more information and advice.

Upon researching how to cook liver, here are the top tips I learned:

If parasites are a concern, cook liver all the way through – it should not still be pink inside.

If the liver comes from an adult animal or if toughness is a concern, soak in milk for up to four hours before cooking.

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(Above: what we’re working with. You might be thinking that this liver is unusually large; in fact, my cutting board is unusually small!)

It’s recommended to peel off the thin outer membrane before slicing. Slice liver thinly so that it cooks quickly and evenly. Cut out any white tubes you may come across when cutting up the liver.

When cooking or frying liver, don’t move it around too much as it will either break or get tougher the more it’s moved during the process.

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(Above: sliced and ready to be cooked.)

I cooked liver and onions, which was really easy. Saute onions until soft or slightly caramelized (however you prefer). Remove the onions from the pan, add more oil into the pan if needed, and turn up the heat. Fry the thin slices of liver, about a minute on each side. Remove from the oil and combine the liver with the onions again. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

How easy was that? What are your favorite liver recipes?

You mean I don’t have to buy greens again? Forays into foraging

A few weeks ago I didn’t have a clue that there were edible weeds growing on our property. I came home one day and found Omari and one of our house painters preparing themselves a meal. I did a double-take at some small, bright green leaves in a bowl waiting to be cooked. “What… what are those?” I asked. The painter laughed. He had harvested them right off our property and was cooking them for lunch.

I had never tried to forage before, either in the States or here in Tanzania. I guess I was too scared I would accidentally poison myself and anyone else I had over for dinner. But once I learned about one edible green growing abundantly and freely on our property, I started getting interested in what else was growing out there, ripe for the taking. I can now identify five different local greens that can be cooked and eaten in various ways.

(Above: this amaranth plant has already put out seed heads.)

Those delicate leaves the painter cooked are called mchicha pori – wild amaranth. They grow rampantly in this part of Tanzania, where cultivated varieties are also grown. Both the seeds and leaves of amaranth have a wide variety of health benefits, having high levels of protein, iron, and vitamin A, among many other vitamins and minerals.

(Above: this purple amaranth is similar to the cultivated varieties here in Tanzania. This is a volunteer growing on our farm.)

Once you know what you’re looking for (and where you’ll be looking for it!), the actual collection process is pretty easy. This is what I did:

Snip off young, healthy-looking branches or leaves of the plant. Many wild greens (at least in my area) have a tendency to be bitter. The youngest growth will typically be the best-tasting. Also, don’t decimate one single plant; take a little from many different plants, if possible.

Once you’ve collected enough greens, remove the leaves from their stems if necessary. To “stretch” the greens, you may be able to peel or de-string the stems or stalks so that they cook quickly. But remember, you’re eating weeds. You’re getting something for nothing. So don’t make yourself crazy. If you just cook the leaves and throw out or compost the stems, that’s fine.

Rinse well in cold water and drain.

Saute or cook however you want. I saute onions and garlic in sunflower oil first, then add the greens and salt and pepper and cook until the water is all gone. Cook to taste; and if it tastes awful, remember, you didn’t buy those greens anyway! You can try again another day.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert. I know what grows on my property, but not on yours. If you’ve never foraged before, please go with someone knowledgeable about the edible plants growing in your neck of the woods!

That being said…

How empowering does it feel to be able to walk out your door and into the backyard, alleyway, or fencerow, snip a few wild greens, and go back and cook them up for your next meal?! So cool. 

What can you forage for in your area, and how do you like to cook it?

Seeking new tenants: feathers, not scales

Inspired by an article I read recently about how songbirds are struggling to adapt to climate change, I set out to build and install a birdhouse. Scrap wood was hammered together and a perfect tree was painstakingly selected. (Okay, maybe not so painstakingly; there were only two viable trees to choose from.) Then I opened my wildlife guidebook and realized that it looked like I was building a perfect home for the fifth most venomous snake in the world.

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Black mambas are native to Tanzania. I have never definitively seen one in real life, nor do I want to; the venom from a mamba bite can dispatch you to the next life in about fifteen minutes or so. They like to live in termite mounds, abandoned animal burrows, and hollowed-out trees.

And what is a birdhouse imitating, after all? A hollowed-out tree. I went back outside to size up the birdhouse; instead of cheeping baby birds I started having visions of gunmetal-grey snakes curled up in a cold mass inside.

But I remembered the ozone layer and the climate change and those poor birds who are showing up too late to the insect bounty every year, and no black mamba will stop me from trying to help these garden friends. So the acacia with its grassy, snake-friendly environs was scratched. The birdhouse will be installed on one of our tall fenceposts, in a very open and non-snake-friendly location.

I based the dimensions loosely on an American titmouse-sized birdhouse, but I have no idea what kind of Tanzanian birds might make it their home. I consulted my East African bird guidebook to help me guess. My grandmother gave it to me; it dates back to when my grandparents lived in Somalia for a few years. It has already proven indispensable for helping to identify the many different birds I see every day.

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We will see what takes up residence in this new birdhouse. All I hope is that it will have feathers, not scales.

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