When we bought our house, I had dreamy visions of gardening, egg-collecting, and happily tending to our chores as a family. It will be perfect, I said. We will homeschool and homestead and my children will learn how to live a nature-filled life that carries the perfect balance of freedom and self-discipline.
As you may imagine, it isn’t always as dreamy as I had originally hoped.
Reality: My sink runneth over and so does the poop. I change diapers and clean coops. The rabbits escape and we have to choose whether we should chase the bunnies or the babies. Decisions, decisions.
I was lamenting the truths of our less-than-ideal scenario to my sister-in-law, and wished aloud, “I just hope the kids get something out of all this.”
“Isn’t that how all parenting is?” she replied.
The revelation struck me. I really want to see character development in my kids, especially in relation to all of our homestead efforts. But I must remember that most character development doesn’t happen overnight, or even over months or years. It’s the nitty gritty, day-to-day stuff that forms a person.
How important it is that I don’t give up too quickly.
I have to be honest, I haven’t been thinking about the land since the fall. I have been so involved in other projects that I STILL have not given more than a fleeting thought to planning our garden.
But, no matter how negligent I may be, spring calls me now. It has wooed me back to the land, and I know now that the problem was truly me–not it.
I have foraging on the mind once again, though I feel a bit rusty after a winter in the damp, dark tool shed of my own isolation. Seeing green popping up and out all over has reminded me that I need to be present among these growing things, that I need to learn what they are, what they have to offer, and how our family can best use them.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) has done much to draw me out of my wintry malaise. When I first noticed it peeking out from beneath our slumping retaining wall, I suddenly felt the urge to tour our yard and greet all the new plants bursting up. We love this plant in our household–stings and all.
Identifying Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle is fairly distinctive. Like any plant it looks different at different times of the year. At certain points it may be easier to identify than others, but stinging nettle has three distinguishing attributes all year long that make it pretty easy to ID. There are a few other varieties of nettle that it can be confused with, but if you pay attention to the following features, you can be pretty confident of a correct identification.
First, the leaves. They are mostly oval or slightly heart-shaped and heavily toothed or serrated at the margins. They come to a point and are covered with fine barb-like hairs. The leaves are heavily veined and the undersides tend to have a purple hue between the veins.
Compare this leaf to some of the older leaves in this image from the USDA, which are more distinctly heart shaped:
Next, the stem. The stem of a stinging nettle, just like the leaves, is covered in small, barb-like, stinging thorns or hairs. And the leaves attach to the stem opposite one another.
Finally, the sting. If you touch a plant that looks like nettle and gives you a noticeable sting, it is probably stinging nettle. The sting is not excruciating, but it is real, and the pain from it does hang on for some time–from a few minutes to hours. The small hollow hairs contain the chemicals that cause the sting, so to avoid the sting, avoid breaking them–handle with care. A UK chemistry teacher writing at the blog Compound Interest has done a great job explaining some of the chemistry behind nettle’s sting. Check it out for more info. (Note also that the sting is removed during cooking.)
Of course there are other things to pay attention to if you want to be absolutely sure of your identification of stinging nettle, but out of the many plants you can forage, stinging nettle is pretty distinctive because of the thorny, hairy, toothed stinging leaves. For help distinguishing it from the other nettle lookalikes, I heartily recommend this article at Identifythatplant.com.
Stinging nettle lives up to its name, so if you want to avoid the sting, either:
Wear decently thick gloves, or
Carefully fold and grab the leaves while pulling toward the leaf tip. The goal here is to avoid breaking the hollow barbs off in your skin–that’s when you get stung. Here is a video demonstrating this technique:
With both of these techniques, you can–and perhaps should–use scissors or some other suitable cutting tool, though you may gently pinch the leaves off as well.
Following the simple foraging rules, remember to be sure that it is free to harvest. Are there critters living in it? Is it on your grouchy neighbor’s property? And be sure to harvest no more than 1/3 of the plant. Leave some for it to thrive and propagate.
The young smaller leaves, which emerge from the very apex of the stems, are usually the most tender and palatable. Choose those over the older ones, unless you don’t mind a more robust experience. Don’t harvest the stems. It’s not that they will poison you, they are just not very palatable. The stems are apparently useful for making rope because the fibers are so strong. If you’re interested in doing that, have at it.
The best time to harvest it for eating is now–in the early spring when they first start to emerge, and especially before they flower. Some believe that after nettles have flowered, consuming them in great amounts can lead to kidney stones. Which is ironic because they are also used as a prevention against kidney stones… But, to be safe, if you mean to eat it or drink a tea made from it, harvest nettle before it flowers.
In case you are wondering, it looks like this when it flowers:
Since nettles are best in the spring, you’ll want to preserve some to enjoy year round. Nettles can be preserved by:
Dehydration: We simply dry nettle in our food dehydrator, but any other method for drying herbs will work.
Freezing: Blanch and freeze whole nettle leaves in freezer bags. Alternatively, you can freeze nettle pesto in an ice cube tray, or nettle soup in glass containers.
Uses and Recipes
You may be wondering about the sting. Why would you want to consume something that leaves you tingling? Surely that must be unpleasant. Be assured that cooking removes the chemical compound that causes the sting, and nettle leaves are perfectly safe to consume once prepared.
Nettle is highly nutritious and can be enjoyed as a fresh or dried tea, a pesto star, in a vinegar, or even as medicine. Give it a try! Here are some recipes & resources to get you started:
I love a good black tea in the afternoon, but herbal teas are my friends for various health benefits. I have paid premium prices for a small bit of tea ($9 for 15 tea bags?!?)- and would continue to buy said tea if it was something we couldn’t easily access at home- but there are so many home-grown and wild options to try first!
You can either plant a specific area as a tea garden, or you can simply look around your yard to forage for flowers, plants, herbs, and weeds that can easily be turned into teas.
As always, make sure you double and triple check the identification of any wild plant you find before consuming it, and consider consulting with a local foraging expert. It’s also not a bad idea to try a new plant in small amounts to see how you tolerate it before overdoing it.
Here’s my list to get you started- though it will likely continue growing. 😉 (This post contains some affiliate links.)
Lemon Balm– This iced tea recipe is good for anxiety, wounds, and sleep disorders. You could also try this recipe for lemon balm-green tea and learn about why lemon balm is just a great plant to cultivate in your yard. Plus, it tastes and smells good. (It’s also a member of the mint family.)
Chamomile– This flower makes a relaxing tea that is also renowned for many health benefits.
Stinging Nettle– I first tried dried nettle tea from a local bulk tea and spice boutique. I had a light bulb moment when my husband suggested drying the stuff in our yard (or boiling fresh leaves) instead of continuing to buy it!
Dandelion Root– I actually haven’t tried making this one at home yet, but I’ve got some dried dandelion roots sitting under my spice cabinet, waiting to be tasted. I’ll have to give these instructions a whirl.
Red Raspberry Leaf– This tea is famous for uterine health. I’ve been enjoying a daily cup of homemade “Mama-to-be-tea” from a local boutique that features raspberry leaf.
Carrot Greens– This is one that you’ll have to do your own research on. Some say that carrot greens are toxic, others say that they’re a market vegetable in many countries. This article pulls in favor of consuming carrot tops, and references several other discussions on the topic. I won’t tell you that you should consume carrot greens. I’ll just say that we’ve made iced tea out of fresh carrot greens several times and haven’t died (or gotten sick) yet.
Echinacea– I didn’t realize for a long time that those gorgeous summer purple cone flowers are actually echinacea! Known for immunity benefits, echinacea is easy to harvest and prepare for tea.
Basil– Apparently, this tasty herb works well for sore throats, headaches, and upset stomachs! I didn’t know that before reading this!
Wintergreen– Here’s the secret to enjoying foraged wintergreen tea that’s full of flavor.
Catnip– We drank catnip tea all winter long to help get over colds faster. Between that, homemade stock, elderberry syrup, and raw honey, none of us stayed sick more than a couple of days. Here’s how to identify catnip.
Red Clover– This medicinal plant grows wild all over the place! Just look down!
Drink your fruits– This post covers instructions for blackberry, raspberry, strawberry leaf, elderflower, and orange peel teas. How exciting is that?
Winter teas– This blogger details how to make teas out of four forage-able wild winter plants. How cool! (No pun intended.) Who says you have to grow and dry tea in the summer months?
A patch of stinging nettle- perfect for brewing a cup of tea!
(If you live in a warm area, you can grow regular “black tea” as well. Our northeastern area isn’t well suited to this warm weather plant, so that’s one tea I’ll keep buying.)
To enjoy your teas fresh, simply pour boiling water over the herbs. (It helps to have a tea ball of some sort to contain them.) You’ll learn over time to adjust the amount and steeping time to your liking. If you prefer to dry them first, you can hang them up, use a dehydrator (I have and love this one), or look up instructions for drying individual herbs in your oven. Then store and use as you would dried tea throughout the year.
Each year since we’ve been in our house, we’ve added something new. The first year it was a garden plot expansion. The next year it was a flock of backyard chickens. Next came the goat, then meat rabbits, then new garden plots.
Each year has also included some home DIY project. At first it was things like wallpaper removal, moving the laundry upstairs, and painting. Then it was a porch rebuild, a chicken coop, a garage rebuild, and creation of a music studio.
Last month, I wrote a post on considering which homestead projects are right for your family. As it turns out, we’ve had to bear this in mind too! As we considered a host of new ideas, we came to a realization- we shouldn’t add anything new this year.
Why? Well, we have a lot of balls in the air at any one given time. When we do too much, none of these balls land where they’re supposed to, and we’re left having to pick up the mess we’ve made. So many of the projects we have going really need major fixes to work more efficiently for our family.
We still have projects that we want to complete this year. However, instead of adding something new, we are focusing on improving the systems we already have. This way, we avoid burnout and make the projects we are already doing much more profitable and enjoyable.
That being said, here is our 2017 spring and summer project list:
Garden: Our main garden will likely lie mostly fallow this year- the soil needs some rest and revitalization to grow strong, healthy crops again next year. Instead, we will plant in our other newer plots and focus on building up the soil through lasagna gardening methods.
Chickens: Our flock has nearly outgrown their coop. Too many birds means needing to clean it more often, and overcrowded birds are unhappy birds. Also, the original coop was completely built out of re-purposed and scrap materials, so there were parts of it that didn’t function as efficiently as a standard coop.
It’s time to either 1) put some birds in the pot to make more space or 2) build a new coop. Since we’ve had high demand for selling fresh eggs (and since we’d like to expand our flock in a year or two), we want to keep the birds, but make them a new home. Preferably, this will be a walk-in coop.
Rabbits: Oh meat rabbits. They are a really great venture for so many reasons. However, our current housing system is not efficient. We started out with having them in hutches that were converted into “tractors” that could be drug around the yard. However, because of the design, they are extremely hard to clean and too heavy for efficient rotation.
We tried setting up one of the hutches on blocks to create a fertilizer collection system. However, then the rabbits don’t have access to the grass beneath them, so their diet is largely feed. Not ideal for a pastured meat source.
Our hope is to build a colony location for the rabbits. (Read about colony raising rabbits here.) However, because of the slopey nature of our yard, this is a really big project and one that might not get done this year.
Goat: I really, really wanted to breed our one goat this year so we could have 1) babies and 2) milk. However, I am realizing this just isn’t the right time for it. We are facing several complications, a positive CAE test being our main concern. While we are hoping the test results are false, we’re realizing that there are more things to take care of for the arrival and care of baby goats than we are able to commit to currently. This might just not be the year to take on this project.
House improvements: Our plan for the summer is to build a mudroom right outside our kitchen door. Currently, our closet-less house is spilling over with shoes, coats, and backpacks. A mudroom would give us a spot to put all that STUFF, plus it would provide a functional place to keep for outdoor/animal supplies that don’t currently have a home. Not to mention it might give us that little extra push to do a cheapie DIY kitchen remodel… 😉
Another eventual project is to put a greenhouse on the back of the house. We haven’t made it that far yet, and we’re not sure if we will be able to do it this summer. This falls into the category of expansion, not improvement.
Our main goal is to avoid burnout and try to improve upon the systems we already have. Once they are running efficiently, then we can consider whether or not we want to take on a new one!
What projects will you be working on this spring and summer?
We had a pretty wild snowstorm last week– we got about 2.5 feet of snow dumped on us at once, everything shut down, and our county was in a state of emergency with a travel ban due to avalanches on nearby roads.
Thankfully, our power did NOT go out. But it made me think about whether or not we would have been prepared if it had. With no ability to leave the house, an outage would have made things a bit complicated!
Candles & oil lamp- check. Water bottles- check. Shelf-stable food- check. Extra blankets and layers of clothing- check. Shelter- check. And, happily for us, we also had the ability to cook without power if needed.
Almost four years ago, my husband built us a beautiful mud oven in our back yard. (You can read the post on that process here.) It was made with mostly found materials and runs on small logs and manpower. It’s delightful to use for cooking any day of the week, but it would be especially useful during a power outage.
Of course, power outages don’t only happen in winter, and there are other reasons to use alternative cooking methods besides an outage. Saving money on bills, reducing heat in the house in the summer, or just enjoying the charm of cooking outdoors- cooking without power is a skill for all occasions.
Thus, I present to you: cooking options that don’t involve electricity. (This post contains affiliate links.)
Open Fire Cooking
Sounds obvious, right? However, I’m often ashamed of how long it takes me to start a fire, and I know I’m probably not alone in my challenges. Here are some posts with tips on cooking over an open fire:
Solar ovens are what they sound like: cooking with no fuel but the sun! Now that’s cheap power! I have never tried a solar oven, but they are apparently a popular off-grid cooking option. Here are several posts with more information & solar oven recipes:
Obviously, a dutch oven can be used indoors in a conventional oven. However, its durability lends itself to alternative cooking methods very well. If you’ve managed to find yourself a good cast iron dutch oven, be happy. You can do a lot with it! Here are a few examples:
I am not a healthcare professional. This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Please use common sense and do not rely on any internet remedy if you have serious reactions to stings. Please consult with your doctor for medical questions.
Did you know that you may have a natural remedy for bee and wasp stings growing wild in your yard? Wild plantain (not the banana variety) is a very common weed that also has some great health benefits (not to mention nutritious too!).
Though there are many varieties, the photo above features Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)- the type that is most common in my yard. (Note: the Broadleaf Plantain stems are covered in a long patch of many teeny tiny seeds.) The leaves are- you guessed it, broader than another common variety, Narrowleaf Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), as featured below:
Narrowleaf Plantain has much longer leaves and taller stems. (Note how the seeds on the Narrowleaf variety grow in a conical shape atop the long stems.)
Plantain is pretty simple to identify. In both of these common varieties, it grows in a rosette pattern. Its leaves have smooth edges with parallel veins. Typically, you’ll find it in places with bad soil, or coming up through cracks in the driveway.
This post has some really wonderful photos to help identify wild plantain (as well as an awesome idea to make plantain vinegar for future use!), so please pop over and check it out if you would like some close up shots of individual leaves and stems.
According to the all-knowing and highly reliable Wikipedia, 😉 “The active chemical constituents are aucubin (an anti-microbial agent), allantoin (which stimulates cellular growth and tissue regeneration), and mucilage (which reduces pain and discomfort). Plantain has astringent properties, and a tea made from the leaves can be ingested to treat diarrhea and soothe raw internal membranes.” (Don’t worry, if I hadn’t heard it other places and seen it in action, I wouldn’t be quoting Wikipedia to you.)
Plantain has historically been used for all types of wounds, as it has many benefits, including being anti-inflammatory and analgesic (source), but one of our favorite uses for the plant is to help treat bee stings.
The quickest way to treat a sting with plantain is to grab a couple leaves and start mashing them in your mouth. (This makes a poultice of the leaves.) Take the mashed up bits and plaster them over the sting. They will actually draw out the venom of the stinger and help to alleviate symptoms quickly. As the poultice dries, reapply to continue to help with pain and swelling.
Remember, this remedy is meant for people who are NOT threatened with a serious reaction to stings. If you have a severe reaction, please do not hesitate to call 911 or use your EpiPen. While plantain can help to delay a severe reaction, it shouldn’t be relied upon if you’re at risk for anaphylactic shock.
We first tried plantain when my son encountered several bumblebees poking about in a flower patch. The poor guy got stung three times and immediately began developing some hives around the sting sites. My husband applied a plantain poultice in the manner described above and within about 20 minutes you couldn’t even see where the stings were. It also seemed to alleviate little J’s soreness at the sting sites.
See this attractive mash?
Since then, we’ve used plantain for stings multiple times each bee season. Each time we’ve tested it, it has been very successful.
What are your favorite uses for plantain? I would love to hear your experiences!
We’ve been talking about garden planning recently. Gardening is a great hobby for some of us adults, but have you ever considered making a garden just for your kids?
When my son was four, he proclaimed that he wanted to have a garden, just like Dada. What joy to see him taking in an interest in growing food! It made my little heart flutter to hear him talking about planting, watering, and weeding.
But, as with many involved children’s activities, the logistics seemed daunting. Where would we put his plot? What could he grow easily? Could we trust a preschooler to successfully grow a garden? What if he kills it all? What if all he wants to do is rub dirt on his belly?
Dirt on the belly. It’s a dangerous thing.
Needless to say, it didn’t take long to decide that the learning process was far more important than the outcome of the garden itself, and we got down to planning.
We decided we would ask him what he wanted to grow in his plot. His interests? Tomatoes, peppers, spinach. Maybe a melon too. Fair enough- those are his favorite edibles from our big garden, so why not let him grow them?
The chickens had conveniently decimated their rectangle of run right near the big garden. This area became my son’s garden patch.
We planned to have our son help with layering the ground to build healthy soil, starting seeds indoors, transplanting, watering, and (maybe) careful weeding. Later, he could help with the harvesting and eating of his homegrown food. 🙂 Sounds good, right?
You’ll be pleased to know that our little experiment turned out well. In late winter, he helped to dump layers of leaves and straw on his garden patch to help enrich his soil. He loved watching Dada start the seeds in early spring, and even helped a little bit here and there. He watered away all through the summer– maybe a little too much– and ate every single cherry tomato that grew by the end of September.
(My little guy working away at bringing straw to lay in his garden.)
There may have been a few mistakes- a few plants pulled instead of weeds, broken tomato stems, premature carrots… But he learned a lot and took pride in his patch. I think that I want my kids to enjoy gardening far more than I want them to have a perfect crop each year.
Two years later, he’s already talking about this year’s garden. His three year old sister also wants her own garden– and she wants to paint it purple. 😉
Here are some considerations for planning your own children’s garden:
Whattypes of plant would your child like to grow? Try to pick low-maintenance plants, but feel free to try something your child wants, even if you don’t really think it will grow. Letting them pick and plan (within reason) helps to generate enthusiasm.
Where would a good location be for the garden? Pick a good growing spot that’s easy for your child to see and get to. Ideally, it should be near where you are working so you can work side by side.
What would be a good size for the garden? You want it to be fairly manageable for your little one, but not so limiting that he doesn’t feel like it’s a “real” garden. We did a small patch, maybe about 4′ x 6′- just enough to call his own.
What garden tasks are age-appropriate for your child? Try not to pick tasks that are so advanced that they become frustrating. A three year old delights in spraying a hose or using a small watering can. An older child might like the delicate care required for transplanting.
How can you make this a positive, bonding experience? You can use this a teaching tool, but try not to fret too much if your child makes mistakes. Your cheerful attitude can turn an accidentally snapped tomato plant from a disappointment into a bolstering learning experience. Likewise, working together should be an encouraging, happy time- not a time of barking orders or miserable complaining.
Consider alternate gardens. A flower garden, rock garden, small pond, or herb garden can all be great places for your little one to tend and care for! Be creative and have fun thinking of gardening ideas together. You could go a step further and find ways to decorate your little garden after it’s planted.
Have you made a children’s garden? What did you include? I would love to hear your ideas!
P.S. Don’t forget you can grab your free seed starting printable here.
I created this printable last year to help us keep better track of what seeds we started, when we started them, and how soon we should transplant them. It’s easy to loose track of what’s what when you’ve got tray after tray of tiny green seedlings.
If you don’t know anything about starting your own seeds, or if you just need some extra help (like me!) I highly suggest you pop over to the Ultimate Seed Starting & Garden Planning Guide. There you will find wisdom, tips, and resources from some of the smartest gardening bloggers I know.
Just join our mailing list for homestead inspiration, tools, deals, & freebies. Your free printable planner will be delivered to your inbox.
One problem with this hobby of mine is proper storage. I am a huge lover of mason jars and use them for all occasions. But there are times that their shape is just not practical.
For instance, I recently traveled to my grandmother’s with an 8-oz jelly jar full of body butter rolling around in my suitcase. I suppose I could have just brought enough for the weekend if I had a smaller container.
Don’t get me wrong- mason jars are FANTASTIC for canning, gift giving, hot meal packing, etc. However, they are just not really meant for herbal storage. I’ve had herbs go moldy on me because of accidental exposure to moisture. They’ve also gotten pale and lost their verve over months stored in a clear jar on a windowsill. Oops.
I was recently introduced to Infinity Jars, a company offering a variety of glass storage bottles that would meet my needs. They seemed to be a great storage solution for my tinctures, sprays, and other homemade herbal products.
I was offered a free set of Infinity Jars in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are 100% mine.
Here’s what makes Infinity Jars unique:
Ultraviolet glass: The pretty violet glass blocks out harmful rays that degrade food, but allows infrared and UV-A rays.
Airtight: No air can get in to gradually deteriorate products.
Smell proof: Foods, herbs, and cosmetics retain their original scent.
Freshness guarantee: Infinity Jars guarantees that your products will remain fresh and protected for at least 6 months.
It seemed to me that Infinity Jars could serve as an effective storage method for some of my most precious herbs and concoctions. They promise to preserve their contents’ freshness for considerably longer than your average container. Not to mention, glass jars won’t taint the good stuff inside with gross plastic smells!
These are some serious jars, and they are definitely an investment for frugally minded people. If you’re interested in trying them, I would recommend purchasing one or two at a time for your favorite herbal products to see how you like them. Bonus: Infinity Jars is currently offering 10% off your purchase on their website.
Here’s what I got from Infinity Jars & how I plan to use them:
My order arrived packed so well that you could probably drop it from the second story without breaking anything! So far, my containers have also proven to be quite sturdy. Additionally, the jars came with a soft cleaning cloth and a stick-on label for each container- that’s so you tell what’s inside that dark glass.
I’m enjoying my Infinity jars, and I think they will really come in handy for my herbal adventures. Infinity Jars offers quality containers with an impressive shelf-life promise, and they are as beautiful as they are functional. You can order your own ultraviolet glass jars here.
Have you tried Infinity Jars? Share your feedback below!
The year after moving in, my husband built us a handsome, highly functional cob oven (or “mud oven”) in our own backyard. It was quite the task, but one that he undertook with willing hands. He has written up a post describing some of this unique and exciting (though laborious) project. (Note that he keeps saying “we”- really he’s just being sweet, because I was in my last month of pregnancy and didn’t do much more than sift a little dirt and bring him water!)
Note that I think this would be a fabulous project for a group of friends, a community center, or even a gang of homeschoolers to complete. Who would you invite to come play in the mud with you? 😉
This post contains affiliate links.
Being outside. Dirt. Wood. Fire. Bread. Pizza. Food. We love all of these things. We also love making just about anything! Somehow all of this love, moved by some Youtube videos, forum posts, and ultimately Kiko Denzer’s website and book Build Your Own Earth Oven gave birth to the idea of building a cob (earth, mud) oven.
With the exception of the firebricks and some sand and straw, ours was made exclusively from the clay about a foot beneath our feet and various objects found or gathered from the land around our house. While the building process seemed daunting, it was an enriching experience which we would wish upon anyone. Do try it yourself! If you follow through, you’re sure not to regret it.
Now that we have built one, we hope to adjust the design (to improve efficiency) and build more.
This is not the place for detailed instructions–for those, please get Denzer’s book–some pictures of our building experience follow.
First we chose a site. We wanted it to be conveniently located near the kitchen, but at a safe distance from the house. Our original intent was to build it at the base of the retaining wall outside of our kitchen (you can see the stone-filled hole at the base of the wall in this image), but we finally decided to put it at the top of the retaining wall. This position raised it to a decent height for working and eased the roofing process.
We dug out the area and outlined the location in bricks (the stake marks the center of the oven floor). While the crushed stone atop the wall provides excellent drainage–much needed to keep moisture from wicking up the cob–we punched holes in a found piece of corrugated drain pipe and used it for drainage around the periphery of the future oven floor. This drains to daylight through the retaining wall.
We next built a base out of cob for the sand that would underlay the bricks of the oven floor. So, we had to dig a hole deep enough to get adequate clay…this was the most laborious part.
Each shovelful was sifted through a screen or doubled chicken-wire mesh.
While the screen was finer than necessary, it yielded a good result.
We tried a few simple methods to gauge the clay content (Denzer outlines these in detail).
One method involved making sample bricks which we then baked to observe the shrinkage (more shrinkage=more clay).
The brick on the left was pure clay, the right had some sand mixed in (sand reduces shrinking and cracking). Having found an adequate mixture, we mashed up some cob for the base.
As this was our first time dealing with cob, we were careful to follow instructions…
You must love dirt to do this! We do!
This base was filled with sand so as to properly lay the firebrick. The method is similar to laying pavers. The floor of the oven is critical–it is the hardest working part–and must be quite even to avoid catching oven tools on the edges of the bricks. Just think of the all the pizzas, breads, pans, and peels that will grace the oven floor in addition to the scraping it will receive from cleaning, etc…it’s important to take your time.
We then made a sand-form mold of the inner cavity of the oven. The height of the door is roughly 63% of the peak of the interior cavity–this allows for a sufficient draft when firing.
(The door was made of samples of kiln-dried hardwood and a twisted branch.)
We covered the sand form with wet newspaper in order to differentiate it from the next layer: the thermal layer. This is helpful when digging out the sand after the thermal layer has dried enough (you don’t want to dig out the clay!). Next we built the thermal layer. This is pure clay because it has a higher thermal mass (it holds more heat) than sand.
Because I initially overestimated the amount of material I should construct this layer with, ours ended up with a thicker bottom portion (it doesn’t hurt anything).
We then covered this thermal layer with an insulation layer consisting of a thin clay slurry and cedar sawdust. This slows some of the heat loss. We dug out the sand form and gently fired the oven. We generally use wood from pruning or other small pieces as fuel.
This is the inside of the oven just prior to firing.The next layer just consisted of cob–a mixture of clay, sand, and straw. Here’s the oven as it originally looked after completion.
The flat angled piece in the front is a steel plate we found on the property. It is placed there to help direct the coals and ash into the funnel directly beneath it when cleaning out the oven.
Note the crack that forms over the door when it’s been heavily fired. This is due to a normal and harmless expansion of the clay; it actually helps to keep track of the oven’s temperature. There is a piece of galvanized material above the door to protect the temporary roof (branches and tarps) from igniting.
The oven was used for a year in this form…even through the winter (it is so pleasant to use it while it is snowing):
Here’s a clip of some bacon corn-muffins going in on a snowy night (they didn’t really need the live fire, but we decided to put them in on a whim after baking earlier that day–they turned out great!).
The temporary roof was finally replaced a year later with a more permanent form (the reclaimed materials were also free to us). We made a table out of part of an industrial wire spool and raised up the ground level in front of the oven to improve the working space. We also resurfaced the oven with a bit of sifted clay (there were a few drips through the temporary roof). Here is the final form as it is today: Expect great pizzas, breads, roasts, soups, and just about anything you can bake in a conventional oven. One of the greatest aspects of cooking in the cob oven is that the heat it absorbs after a firing remains for quite a long time, so you can cook progressively according to the temperature of the oven–pizzas to breads and pies to roasts, all the way on down to drying herbs. We certainly have not used our oven to its full potential but it is a joy to use it. It is deeply satisfying to craft something with your own hands and feet from the most mundane, neglected materials and cook wholesome food with a bright crackling wood fire. Don’t be afraid to build one yourself. Do what you can with what you have, and don’t be concerned if it turns into something you didn’t quite expect at first–you’ll be sure to learn through every mistake and every problem solved.