Simply Resourceful

Simple ways to be more conscious about how we use our resources.

How to Crack Walnuts the Easy Way!

This year we had a great walnut harvest!  In a recent post we describe the details of collecting and removing the hulls. 

The nuts were stored in a paper bag in the basement for four months before the nutmeats were removed.  Black walnuts have a very hard shell.  Without spending money on a nut cruncher, we found the best way to remove the shell is to crush them in a vice.  Placing a cloth around the nut prevents the shells and nutmeats from shattering everywhere.  Note: the cloth you use will get torn up in the process so choose an old rag. 

After cracking you can see the four chambers of the nutmeat. 

We don't have a nut pick set so I used a large sewing needle to pick out the smaller pieces inside the shell.

A paper grocery sack about 2/3 full gave us 1 pound, 7.6 ounces of ready to eat nuts!  The nuts are stored in the freezer.

After all the cracking, I was ready to toss the shells in the woods when I read online to burn them in a fire because they make hot coals.  They were used this year for making maple syrup.

Maple Syrup Summary 2014

This was our second year tapping maple trees for syrup.  We boiled sap three times and netted 20 pints and a few flasks for the refrigerator.  You can see a change of color in the syrup indicating the different grades with the syrup on the left being from the first boil.  If you look closely, you can see a cloudy appearance in the bottom of the jars.  The cloudiness is a result of tapping silver maples.  We only have one sugar maple on the property. 

Silver maples have about a 60:1 ratio of sap to syrup.  Boiling syrup takes put it plainly...20 hours of boiling gave us 8 pints of finished syrup.  Of course, we don't sit in front of the fire all day.  We have other projects around the property so we check on the fire about every 20 minutes and add a log, so our boiling time is probably longer than others. 

We aren't hardcore enough to stay up all night (a nice cozy sugar shack would make this more appealing), so we put a piece of tin roofing over the pan leaving about an inch exposed in the back to let the steam out.  The covering keeps animals from drinking the sap and Jon's worst fear is a mouse leaping in for a suicide dive that will ruin our hard work. Luckily this has been just a fear so far.  In the morning, the pan is usually half full because the heat from the coals continues to evaporate the water out of the sap overnight. 

This year we received a lot of snow but the days we boiled were warm so the snow melted before we had a chance to eat "sugar on snow," a process which you drizzle finished syrup on top of snow to make a chewy maple candy. 

With the cold weather, we had the unfortunate experience of collecting overflowing buckets of frozen sap.  We do have the perfect terrain for using plastic tubing since the property is hilly, but we like the traditional way of collecting from buckets. 

When the sap isn't frozen, we transport the sap in plastic carboys (water cooler containers) with our hiking pack.  We have 24 sap buckets on the trees at all times. 

Last year we used a cast iron pot for boiling which wasn't time efficient and seemed to leave a sediment and smoky flavor in the syrup no matter how much we filtered it.  This season we decided to purchase a pan designed for boiling maple syrup that has a thermometer and spigot.  We purchased it through Smoky Lake Maple Products.  We really like the pan and are glad we spent the extra money. 

And the fact that the pan was made in the USA makes it that much more enjoyable. 

And why do I include a picture of our woodpile?  Well, because you need a lot of wood, and also a reminder to cover it in the fall.  Last season we forgot to cover it and learned the hard way with longer boiling times, so this year we were prepared!

While gathering the sap I couldn't help but notice that the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also enjoy the maple tree sweetness.  The holes in this picture were made by the birds.  

Spring is around the corner even though while I write this snow is falling.  The buds on the maple trees are swelling and the maple syrup supplies are washed and stored in the basement.  Making syrup is a labor of love, but we will be excited to begin the whole process again next year.   

Simple Homemade Water Mister for Seedlings

Have you ever squeezed a spray bottle until your wrists ache?  With our new greenhouse and plans for an even larger harvest, Jon came up with this clever way of watering the seedlings without completely washing away the seeds and dirt.  Repurposing a water bottle from Jon's work, we simply drilled 12 holes using a 1/16 inch drill bit near the opening of the water bottle. Shaking or squeezing the bottle makes for easy watering without all the wrist pain.  There are automatic misters on the market, but with our recent chemical spill making our city water undrinkable, we came up with a clever way of watering the seeds using our well water.

Quick and Easy Handmade Seed Starting Trays

If you plant dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of seeds every year but don't have enough of those mini plastic pots to grow your seeds in, then making your own seed starting trays is an economical and efficient way to raise all of your little seedlings.

The trays are fast and quite simple to make:
1) Find some old pallets or scrap wood (we use pallets since we have a huge pile of them at the end of our road). The dimensions are roughly 1/2" thick x 2.5" width. The length of the sides are 17" and 12.75".
This will hold 48, 2" square soil blocks.
2) Assemble wood like this - but it really doesn't matter which direction you put the slats on the bottom just be sure the long side piece (17" gets screwed into the shorter 12.75" piece as shown in green below). The nail gun is not necessary either, but just makes it faster. You could just as easily use a hammer and nails. That's all there is to it.

You should end up with something that looks like this. Toss a single layer of newspaper down and then you're ready to make some blocks.

The soil mix is pretty simple. Feel free to experiment, just remember to not put too much vermiculite, perlite or coir in, or your blocks will fall apart because they will be too porous.  If you don't know what coconut coir is - it's a more sustainable approach to peat moss. It's made from ground up and shredded coconuts and is renewable. We use Beat's Peat ( This stuff really swells after you add water and becomes this fluffy gold!

Last spring we tried making our own soil block maker but discovered the round shape wasn't ideal because the blocks tended to dry out from the empty space between the circles.  This year we decided to go ahead and purchase a soil block maker with a square shape from Green Planet Naturals.  The soil blocker above makes 4 mini soil blocks at a time.  You can whip out a couple hundred blocks in 10 minutes - so there is no need to go much larger.

Pushing down on the spring-loaded handle releases the soil blocks.

One box holds 48 mini blocks with a dimple in the center for placing the seed. 

I place a spritz of vermiculite in each hole then place the seed and add a spritz more of vermiculite then press down on the seed with light pressure.

To keep accurate records, I write numbers on the perimeter of the box using a grease pencil.  The number corresponds with whatever is planted in that row and is recorded on a separate piece of paper. 

The record sheet.

About this blog

A weekly update on our adventures of trying to be more self-sufficient by using resources wisely. We explore a variety of topics that most broadly fit in the "Homesteading" category, i.e. beekeeping, organic gardening, edible landscaping/fruit forest, food preservation/canning, woodworking, soap-making, and environmental stewardship.

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