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Organic Transition Tips: Composting, Clothes Washing, and Canning 101

Learn how to rely less on the system and more on your own abilities. In this week's issue, we have three articles, all of which are below.

1) How to Make Compost
2) Washing Clothes Without Electricity
3) Canning 101

How to make compost

Courtesy of Ohio State University

Composting is a great way to discard yard waste and kitchen scraps. In many cases, it's more economical than paying to have these wastes hauled away. And you can improve the health of your soil by adding the compost to your garden or yard.

To construct a composting area, determine the size. "A large compost pile will insulate itself and hold the heat of microbial activity," said Joe Heimlich, environmental science leader for Ohio State University Extension. "Its center will be warmer than its edges. Piles smaller than 3 feet cubed (27 cu. ft.)will have trouble holding this heat, while piles larger than 5 feet cubed (125 cu. ft.) don't allow enough air to reach the microbes at the center. These proportions are of importance only if your goal is a fast, hot compost. Slower composting requires no exact proportions."

First, remove the grass and sod from the designated area. This allows decaying materials direct contact with soil microorganisms. Heimlich suggests the following "recipe" for constructing compost heaps that work the fastest:

    * First layer: about 3-4 inches of chopped brush or other coarse material on top of the soil surface allow air circulation around the base of the heap.

    * Second layer: About 6-8 inches of mixed scraps, leaves, grass clippings or sawdust. Materials should be "sponge damp."

    * Third layer: One inch of soil serves as an innoculant by adding microorganisms to the heap.

    * Fourth layer (optional): About 2-3 inches of manure will provide the nitrogen needed by microorganisms. Sprinkle lime, wood ashes and/or rock phosphate over the layer of manure to reduce the heap's acidity. Add water if the manure is dry.

    * Fifth layer: Repeat steps 1-4 until the bin is almost full. Top off the heap with a 4-6 inch layer of straw and scoop out a basin at the top to catch rainwater.

Your compost heap should reach temperatures between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit in four to five days. The pile should then begin to settle-a sign the heap is working properly.

After five or six weeks, move materials into a new pile and turn the contents so that the outside of the old heap is now the center of the new heap. Add water if necessary.

Your compost should be ready to use in three to four months. For spring compost, start a heap in late autumn. For fall compost, start a pile in early spring. The more often you turn the pile, the faster you will have compost. Check the internal temperature regularly and if it changes substantially (usually after about a week), turn the pile.

You'll know when your compost is done "baking" because it will be dark brown, crumbly and earthy-smelling. Be sure to let it stabilize for a few extra days and screen it through a half-inch screen if you want a finely textured material.

For more detailed information, read Composting at home


Washing Clothes Without Electricity

By S. Britton
The 20th Century Homekeeper

Well it's wash day again and you've got piles and piles of laundry that needs to be taken care of right away! But you have no electricity! Now what?

First of all, don't despair! Great Grandmother did it, so can you! She had the tools of the trade though, and you can too with a little ingenuity...

The very first thing to do is gather all your equipment. You will need: 3 large tubs, water tight. These can be made of any material. Years ago iron pots were used for this, but I use galvanized tubs or even plastic for rinsing. Laundry Soap. Of course, lye soap was used many years ago, but if you only have regular laundry soap, so much the better! You can even use bar soap like Ivory. A washing board. Yep, you really need this little contraption. Unless that is, you want to take your clothes and pound the dirt out of them with a club! Yes, some ladies actually did this to clean their clothes! Wore the fabric out pretty quickly, I'd say. Believe me, you will get very tired of rubbing your clothes on your hands, get a wash board. You might want to get a bottle of bluing for the whites, and some fabric softener. You'll need a supply of wood for a fire and a safe place to build a fire. One of your pans needs to be able to sit over a fire. You will also need a long stick with which to move clothes out of the hot water, and to stir them in the wash water.

Now, you're ready to start!

Build a good hot fire. Wait a little while and let it burn down a bit so that there are plenty of hot coals. Fashion a way that you can set the tub on the fire, keeping the fire underneath the tub. It is really best to have a tub with feet on it, but you can rig up a good set up using an old grill off of a BBQ or something. Even cinder blocks or large rocks can be used. While the fire is heating, you can separate your clothes, by color and by least to most dirty.

Fill two rinse tubs with cool, clean water, away from the fire.

Fill the wash tub about 2/3 with water. Let it heat until very hot, even boiling. You may even want to boil very dirty clothes like work pants, jeans or white socks. Add laundry soap. Remove carefully from the fire and to a table or to the ground. This normally takes two people.

Pretreat any stains as you normally would. Add your clothes to the hot water, starting with the least dirty ones first like shirts and underwear.

Be careful of burning your hands in the hot water! Rub the clothes on the washboard. Adding soap as needed. Rub then plunge, rub, then plunge.....remember Far and Away?

Take the hot clothes out of the wash water with your stick, place them in the first rinse. Rinse and wring as best as you can. Place the clothes in the second rinse, adding fabric softener or bluing if desired. Don't wear yourself out wringing, just hang up the clothes, dripping, outside. If it is in winter or rainy weather, you will have to wring them as well as you can.

Continue through the dirtiest clothes, re-using the wash water as many times as you can get away with it. Just re-heat it until you have to start over with clean water. You can use the second rinse water many, many times. The first rinse water will have to be changed frequently depending on how much soap you use.

When I get to the point that I need to change my wash water, I try to find something I can use it for instead of throwing it out. Usually I end up washing the porch, patio or outside of the house. You could wash your deck, boat, or dog kennel, I guess.

The key to clean clothes is plenty of elbow grease and plenty of rinsing!
Happy Washing!


Canning 101
pickles, fruits, jams, jellies, etc.

By Jackie Clay    

For some reason, (definitely unknown to me) canning, as a method of very long term food storage, fell into disuse. Maybe it’s the hurry/rush syndrome many folks have become addicted to, necessitating “instant” foods, microwave ovens, and mixes for everything from pancakes to casseroles. But for people of a self-reliant inclination—raising a good portion of their own wholesome, chemical-free food and establishing a storage method that is easy and results in tasty food, even years down the road—home canning is the way to go.

Check each jar after it cools with one finger, being sure it is tightly indented; if it is not, it is not sealed, and must be redone or eaten soon. It needs refrigerating until then. Check each jar after it cools with one finger, being sure it is tightly indented; if it is not, it is not sealed, and must be redone or eaten soon. It needs refrigerating until then.

And remember, no power outage or mechanical failure will cause your pantry full of home canned food to go bad, as can happen with frozen food. This is the reason I do not freeze food now. I lost half a freezer full of food due to a two-week-long ice storm power outage. Besides, where food only stays good for a year, max, in the freezer, it stays great tasting for years on the pantry shelf neatly packaged in shining glass jars. I regard home canning as essential to self-reliance as any other facet of my lifestyle. Canning allows my family to eat chemical-free, delectable fruits, vegetables, nutmeats, pickles, preserves, jams, and jellies, as well as meats and fish, already cooked and tender, just waiting for a meal.

I can year-round, making up such things as chili, stews, dry beans, (like pintos for refried beans), spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, smoked trout, elk stew, etc. Whatever the season, there’s always something special to can up for later meals. Nearly anything you can find on a store shelf can be canned easily at home. When I tell this to people, I’m usually met with the same blank stare and the questions: Isn’t home canning hard to do? Won’t eating home canned food give you food poisoning? Won’t the canner blow up? No. Canning is very easy. If you can boil water and tell time you can home can. Properly canned food will not give your family food poisoning. I’ve canned for 35 years and no one has ever suffered from the least bit of ill effect from my delicious home canned food. And no, the canner will not blow up despite the old cartoons to the contrary. My old canner is 20 years old, has received very heavy use, and is still going strong, with no repairs necessary.

It is simple to start out. Canning doesn’t even require a pressure canner, which can be a bit expensive—about $130-$150. (Remember, though, that this is often a once-in-a-lifetime expense, bringing the cost down to less than $10 a year.) A person may begin canning with a water bath canner, available at most discount stores for under $20. These are the big blue pots with a lid and wire rack you may already be familiar with. You can also find them at yard sales for as little as a dollar. Just hold them up to the light and stick your head inside to be sure there are no small holes allowing leakage.

Tomatoes: 15 minutes from garden to spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, tomato paste... Tomatoes: 15 minutes from garden to spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, tomato paste...

Jars do not have to be purchased new. Just get word around to your neighbors and friends that you are going to be canning and need jars. A note tacked up on a grocery store or feed store bulletin board or placed in your local advertiser paper will also work wonders. Any jar that a canning jar lid and ring will fit on—and is chip and crack free—will work. Despite rumors, such jars—previously containing such things as honey, mayonnaise, Sanka, etc.—will work for home canning. I have used them for many years even for such things as corn, meat, and fish, all of which require long, pressure canning. They do not break any more often than do brand name canning jars. And canning jars last for generations. I am canning with a few of my grandmother’s old blue Mason Jars.

Pick up a good, fairly recent canning book. This is a “must,” as it contains time tables, specific directions for many, many different foods, as well as a lot of recipes for home canned goodies. You can also ask your county extension office for literature on home canning. It’s usually free for the asking. Or go to your library. But, if you plan to keep up with your new endeavor, you will want a detailed book or booklet of your own. Do not try to can using those “country style” cute jars with zinc lids, glass lids, and rubbers. Not only are they expensive, but you cannot tell if they are properly sealed. A jar improperly sealed will allow the food to spoil—not a good thing.

Often, when your friends or neighbors give you jars or you buy them at a flea market, auction, or yard sale, you will also get some rings. These are reusable for years and years, serving only to hold the flexible metal lid down on the jar rim during the canning process. The rings need only to be solid and strong. Rust is of no consequence, unless it is so bad that the rings are flimsy.

Green beans: 15 minutes from garden to canning jars! Green beans: 15 minutes from garden
to canning jars!

Lids need to be bought new for each use, for if the lid has been bent on opening it will not reseal, and the rubber is usually only good for a one-time use. Further use may result in seals which come loose or a lid that will not seal. Both conditions are a waste of money, time, and the result can be dangerous, i.e., food spoilage.

Canning with the hot water bath is a simple process: cleaned, sterilized (boiled) jars are filled with (often) hot high-acid food. The jar rim is wiped clean. A hot, boiled new lid is placed on the jar. And a clean ring is screwed firmly onto the jar. The filled jars are then placed carefully in the boiling water bath of the canning kettle and settled into an individual place on the wire rack. When filled, the water level needs to be one to two inches above the top of the tallest jars. The cover is put on the kettle and it is allowed to return to a full rolling boil, at which time the processing time is begun.

At the end of the processing time each jar is carefully lifted out and placed on dry folded towels where sealing will occur as the jar cools. Usually you can hear the loud, musical ping as each jar seals. (I’ve noticed that my wide-mouth jars usually seal first). Leave the jars alone until they are cool. Don’t wipe, poke or move them, or you may end up with an incomplete seal. And do not screw the rings tighter thinking it will “help” the jar to seal. Tightness doesn’t equal good sealing. It happens due to the vacuum caused by the processing.

David filling jars with green beans David filling jars with green beans

After the jars have cooled (usually overnight), you may remove the rings, wash the jar, and place it in a cool, dark, dry area to store. It is a good idea to mark the lid with the contents and date, in order to allow for the best rotation. Often, foods such as spaghetti and taco sauce look alike, and you really don’t want spaghetti sauce in tacos.

What foods can you can with the hot water bath? A lot! This processing method will be good for all high acid foods—jams, jellies, preserves, nut meats, pickles, tomatoes, tomato sauce, (without mushrooms or meat), all fruits and fruit products such as butters, conserves, fruit cocktail, juices etc., barbecue sauce, chili sauce, catsup, relish, and more. This list would be huge if we took into consideration all the possibilities with fruits and pickles. I can prickly pear jelly and jam, chokecherry jelly, corn relish mix, barbecue sauces, tomato relish, eight types of pickles, watermelon pickles, six fruit juices, and combinations such as raspberry-apple and many more, often forgotten by countless home canners.

Hot water bath tips

· A combination of hot and cold will crack and break jars. Put hot food into hot jars, cold into warm jars. Do not put hot jars onto cold surfaces or in cold drafts.

· Using a jar with a tiny chip in the top or a small crack in the side will result in either a broken jar or an incomplete seal. Before filling them, check each jar carefully. I routinely run my clean finger around each top as I am about to fill it, just to double check.

· Be sure to adjust your processing time according to altitude. Most charts are calculated to altitudes of 1,000 feet or less. You must increase the processing time by five minutes for altitudes of 1,000 to 3,000-feet, ten minutes for 3,001 to 6,000-feet, fifteen minutes for altitudes of 6,001 to 8,000-feet etc.

· Do not remove the jar rings for those pickles that are not processed before placing in jars, such as some types of dill pickles. Again, read your canning book.

· If the boiling water does not come over the tops of the jars by at least one inch, add more boiling water to accomplish this.

The finished product being lifted to a folded dry towel to cool and seal. The jar lifter prevents burns. The finished product being lifted to a folded dry towel to cool and seal. The jar lifter prevents burns.

· Always use the wire rack of your canning kettle, as the boiling water must circulate well under, over, and between jars. The wire rack will also prevent overheating (and possible cracking) of the jar bottoms and will keep the jars from bumping together while processing, which might result in breakage.

· Always check the seal as you store the jars. Each jar lid should be indented in the center, having no give as you gently press down with a finger. If it makes a noise on pressure, or if it can be moved downward, it is not sealed and must either be reprocessed with a new lid or eaten soon.

· When canning tomatoes or tomato products, use “regular” high-acid tomatoes, not low-acid tomato varieties. If unsure—for instance if you bought them at a farm market—add two tablespoons of lemon juice or ½ tsp. citric acid (vitamin C) to each quart to ensure the product is acid enough not to spoil. Neither product affects the taste a bit and only increases the nutritional value.

· Don’t try to double recipes or otherwise alter them. You may run into trouble, especially if inexperienced.

· Always be careful of steam and hot jars as they can burn you. Lift canner lid away from you to allow steam to escape safely, away from your face.

Two easy projects

Bread and butter pickles:

(Called thus because they are good enough to eat at every meal)

7 slim medium cukes
5 crisp medium onions
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 small sweet red pepper (chopped)
¼ c salt
cracked ice

Pickling solution:

2½ c white vinegar
2 ½ c granulated sugar
1 Tbsp mustard seed
1 tsp celery seed
½ tsp whole cloves
¾ tsp turmeric

Mix veggies, mix in salt and cracked ice. Put in fridge or a cool place and let stand for at least three hours, then drain.

Mix pickling solution. Add to drained veggies in kettle. Bring mix to boiling, remove veggies to clean, sterilized jars immediately. Pour hot liquid over to cover leaving ½-inch of headspace (no more). Wipe jar rims, checking for nicks, with a clean damp cloth, then place hot, sterilized lids on and screw the rings on firmly-tight. Place filled jars on a dry folded towel. Quickly repeat this process with the rest so that the veggies do not cool down. If pickles in the kettle are allowed to boil, they will soften. These pickles are very crisp and fresh tasting. Our favorites. (I also slice a batch of smaller cukes lengthwise for spears, and use the same recipe with great results).

Canned tomatoes:

Fill a large pot with water up to ¾ full and put on to boil. Fill a clean water bath canner ½ full and bring it to a boil, with the wire rack in place. Wash the jars in warm soapy water and rinse. Check each one for minute cracks and nicks in the rim. Leave the jars in the hot water until needed. Separate the lids and place them in a sauce pan of water. Bring to a boil, then leave in the water until you need them.

Wash sound, ripe, high-acid tomatoes and dip them in the boiling water of your large pot (I use a wire basket) for about a minute or until the skins crack. Then place the tomatoes in cold water. This allows the skins to slip off easily. Core out the stem and discard. Leave the tomatoes whole or cut, depending on size and preference. Pack into jars and either mash down, so that the juice covers them, or cover with hot water leaving a ½-inch of space between the product and jar rim.

Canning tools of the trade: lids, jars, wooden long handled spoon, canning funnel, jar lifter, measuring spoons, jar rings Canning tools of the trade: lids, jars, wooden long handled spoon, canning funnel, jar lifter, measuring spoons, jar rings

Add ½-tsp of salt to each pint or 1 tsp. to each quart, if desired for taste. Remove any large air bubbles with a wooden spoon. Wipe off jar rim with damp cloth, place the lid on, and screw ring down firmly. Place the jars into boiling water bath carefully and process pints for 40 minutes and quarts for 45 minutes counting from when the water returns to a full rolling boil. (Remember to adjust time according to altitude). Remove carefully and place jars on dry folded towel until cool and sealing is complete.

See how easy canning is? Neither of these projects takes a rocket scientist or over an hour of your time. The total cost to me is about 10-cents a quart canned on the wood range, or 12-cents a quart on the propane stove. Not bad for really great eating—picked fresh from our garden 15 minutes before, and absolutely no chemicals added. Even my seven-year-old son, David, can put up a surprising number of crops with very little assistance. So you see, canning truly is for everybody, men included. After all, some men are our best cooks. Just look at Richard Blunt, Backwoods Home’s illustrious food editor. Like I said, if you can boil water and tell time, you can definitely learn to can on your first try. My oldest son, Bill, who is unmarried, makes fantastic meals including wonderful apple pies from scratch. And he, like David, learned to can at an early age. Home canning is a definite life skill worth developing.