13 in 13 Update 1/3/12

I’ve been off work for the past couple of weeks, which has been nice.   I did a few small things around the house, did the Christmas thing, spent a lot of time catching up on sleep and relaxing,  spent some time at the dog park and got a lot of reading in.    

So I’m a few days into 13 Skills in 2013.   Here’s what I’ve got done so far:

– Read some books and listened to a few podcasts on meteorology and observable astronomy.   I started compiling some notes and bought a cloud guide off Amazon.  I’ve learned a little bit and scratched the surface on this one.   I’m going to quantify this one by being able to identify weather through the clouds and interpret all the data that a site like Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com) gives.   

–  Ordered two nuc hives of Russian bees from a guy who lives about a mile away from me.   These will be ready to pick up late in May.   I haven’t ordered my hives yet, but I’ll get around to that soon.   This guy is starting a home-based business selling bees and beekeeping equipment.  I’m glad I’ll be able to have someone nearby for “tech support” and to pick up supplies if I need them.   So I guess I haven’t done anything on this one except commit myself to it.    There’s a relatively high entrance cost to beekeeping, so I’m justifying it by unloading a lot of books, cds and dvds I’ll probably never read again on Amazon.   So far I’ve done alright in that department.  

– Winter gardening.   I said I’d consider it a success if I had a salad on New Year’s Eve and that happened on New Year’s Day.   Arugula, spinach, dill, cilantro and green onion.   Very nice.   We’re still going.   I might be able to make it through the winter and get a good start in the spring.   It can get colder than it has been, but usually not that much more.   The days are getting progressively longer too, although the days are still short this time of year.

– Spanish.  Started listening to some instructional podcasts from the beginning.   As long as I stick to it consistently I’ll be fine.   I’ll have to try not to cram a lot into one sitting.

–  Woodworking.   I put knife and jigsaw to wood the other day to get a feel for the saw.   Maybe tomorrow I might try to make something simple instead of just playing around.

– Dairy.   Picked up a bottle of kefir the other day.  It said it had four servings and I meant to just try a sip on the way home.  Ended up downing the bottle by the time I got home.   I’m going to try to make “the champagne of dairy”.   Flipped through a book on cheese making, looks like I’ll probably have to get some cultures and maybe make a press (woodworking!).   Right now I’ve got some yogurt sitting out that I’m going to use to try my hand at yogurt again.


Winter Gardening


Over the past couple of days we were hit with a big snowstorm.  I think we got about a foot or so of snow, strong winds and single digit temps.    Today was sunny and 15 degrees so it was a great day to make a video today of some of the things I have going on in the way of winter gardening:

Last year I built an insulated cold frame in a woodworking class with an old window.  I used it to start some seeds in the late winter, which worked out pretty well.  It’s keeping some arugula, beets and spinach alive right now but I think it doesn’t get as much sunlight as it should for a few reasons.   Either way, it’s working


Petco had a sale on aquariums earlier in the year so I picked up a 40 gallon one for as many dollars.   Honestly, you can probably find used aquariums on Craigslist or whatever for dirt cheap but I figured the price wasn’t too bad and if I did decide to do an aquaponics system, I could use it for that during the other three seasons.    I like the idea of using an upside down aquarium for a greenhouse because it’s really simple AND effective.


Close up of arugula and spinach under the aquarium

The greenhouse I’m using is this one:

So far I’m into it.   It’s a little over $200 (Amazon’s free shipping really feels like a deal on this one), 8′ x 6′ and 7′ high.  It was easy to put up and it held up just fine with the heavy snow on it and the winds blowing.   I bought the stakes and put a couple of them in.    I need to put a thermometer in there, but it definitely feels a lot warmer in there than it does outside.   I have 4′ x 8′ garden beds and it fits comfortably over one of them, with enough room to move around on one side.  You can enter from the front or the back, so it’s easy to get around.

I’ve got snow peas, pac choi, turnips, beets, carrots, spinach, lettuce and radishes as well as some random dill, cilantro, onions and some kind of brassicas.

I go out and check on the plants just about every day, but I think I could get away with letting them go for a week or so between visits.   They don’t need much water because the covering keeps a lot of the moisture in.   The greenhouse is very humid and the aquarium always has condensation.

We’ve had some warm days this winter and some cold ones that probably would’ve killed these plants if they weren’t protected, but from what I read solar exposure is the key factor for winter growing over warm temps.   My plants are growing slower than they would in the spring, but that’s because the days are so short.

I read this book a month or so ago, which gave me some good insight on winter growing as well as some interesting history about market gardening and great photos:

I think it’s geared towards commercial growers over backyard growers, but there’s still a lot of good info in this one.

I’ve been using what I’m growing very sparingly, just because it’s not growing very fast.   I’ll have a small salad every now and then or a few leaves of kale with a stir-fry.  Oh yeah, I’m still using kale and collards from the garden, but that will be gone in a matter of days.   The arugula tastes really good right now, the weather makes it a bit milder.   The stuff that we had growing through the summer tasted like gunpowder.

Leafy things are doing better than roots.   I thought my radishes would do better, but they aren’t.    The spinach looks great and I’ll probably start eating it next week.   There’s quite a bit of it too, so if the sunlight picks up I might be able to make it until spring.

It will probably get consistently colder from here on out, but since today was the winter solstice we’ll get a little more daylight each day.   My original goal was to at least make it to the new year, but it looks like that shouldn’t be a problem.   Maybe I’ll check back in later in January.

So that’s what I have going on right now.    It’s nice to have something to tend to during the winter and to be able to go out and see that vibrant green in the middle of the snow.   EAD, Jack Frost.

13 Skills in 2013 Launched

My 13 in 13 Profile


Ok, so the 13 skils in 2013 page has been launched and I made my page.   The main website is www.13skills.com.   A general overview of the site is that people are pledging to learn 13 new basic skills or improve existing ones in some way in 2013. 

Over the past couple of years I’ve really started to take an interest in this kind of stuff and making a point to learn basic skills.   I’ve learned how to do quite a bit in the past few years and I know I’ve only scratched the surface.   Not everything I’ve tried has been a success, but when something does come out right, it feels good – even the small things like sprouting mung beans, picking something from the garden or making your own bread from scratch.   Since I’ve decided to make an effort to practice basic skills, I’ve incorporated several of them into my day-to-day life and I think I’m better off for it.  

Part of me wants to learn these kinds of skills “just in case”.  A bigger part of me wants to learn these skills to improve my daily life and to preserve our heritage.   If we don’t learn how to grow things, make things, do things and so-on, who will do it for us?  I’d rather not leave that up to Wonderbread, the Jolly Green Giant and whoever makes particle board furniture from China.     I think that practicing the kinds of skills that were part of our ancestors’ daily lives helps us to better understand who we are as humans, Americans or whatever group we belong to.   Plus it feels good to be able to bypass some of the systems of support that most people depend on.  

  So here’s what I picked:


1.  Gardening.   In my case I’m making this goal into “winter gardening”.   Right now I have a 6×8 greenhouse up, a cold frame and an aquarium I’m using as a mini-greenhouse.  I’m hoping to extend my growing season at both ends and have a salad sometime in January.  Of course I’m going to work on regular seasoning gardening stuff as well.

2.   Building Community.    I’m going to reach out a little more this year to like-minded people.   I went to a preparedness meetup last month that I’m excited about, so that’s a good start.   I know there’s a lot of people around here that do things I’m interested in, it’s just a matter of getting in touch and all of that.   I want to do a better job of talking to my neighbors and reconnecting with people I’ve kind of fallen out of the loop with.   I’ve been really, really bad about this.     I’m kicking around the idea of a Des Moines urban homesteading website/forum, but we’ll see.

3.   Beekeeping.   I’m going to get 2 or 3 hives in my backyard.   The wife says 2, I say 3.   The goal with that is to end the year with two functioning hives and a little bit of honey.   I’m still not exactly sure what kind of hives I want, but I found a guy a mile or so away from me that breeds Russian bees, so I’ll order some nucs from him after the new year.   I’m a little apprehensive about this with the dogs (they have a tendency to get into things they shouldn’t), but I think I can make it work.  I have a couple ideas to make this happen.

4.   Dairy.  I chose this one because I want to try to make a couple different kinds of cheeses and finally figure out yogurt.   I think I’m probably at somewhere less than 50% success whenever I’ve tried to make yogurt.    It would be cool to figure cheese out.   If we move out to the country in the next few years, I’d like to get a dairy goat and knowing how to use the excess milk will be a good thing.

5.   Knots.   I think this will be a good one I can do on a rainy day or something.   It would be nice to know a few functional knots.   I know I’ve been in situations where it would have been good to know the appropriate knot instead of just trying to fumble through it.  Right now I only know a couple, I’d like to know about 10.    I had some training on this in the Marine Corps, but I think most of that knowledge went by the wayside.   I think I could fumble my way through a Swiss seat, tie my shoes and do a basic square knot. 

6.  Second Language.   I’m going to improve my Spanish.   It’s hard to quantify, but I’d like to be better at it by the end of the year.   I’ll listen to podcasts, read some books, use Spanish subtitles and all of that.   I think I should set the goal to have a conversation in Spanish by the end of the year.   We were kicking around the idea of going to Spain in February, but I’m not sure that will happen.  

7.   Woodworking.   I picked up some carving knives and a few books.  I’m going to try to make some Welsh lovespoons or maybe a chess set or something.  I’ve always been terrible at drawing and other art-related things, so this one is a little daunting.   If I make some mistakes, oh well, it’s just wood.   Either way, we’ll see where that goes.

8.  Alternative Energy.   I’m going to learn more about it and maybe do some kind of small-scale project.    I have a few good books on the subject.   I have some small solar panels to play around with.   The kinds of projects I’m thinking about are making my shed solar powered, solar ovens and making my house more energy efficient.   I’d like to learn more about wind, solar, water and biomass.   Something like making alcohol for gas would be cool or maybe looking into small-scale wind, but I might be putting myself out a little too far with that at this point. 

9.   Carpentry.   I’m going to build a chicken coop.    I’m also going to build something to enclose the bee hives.   I might even try my hand at some furniture.   I’m hoping to learn a little more about building stuff and using hand tools throughout the year.   I think this skill is a good one because it will tie in to several of the other skills I’m planning on pursuing this year.   I like knocking out a couple birds with one stone.

10.  Plant Identification.    I will identify and use at least five new wild edibles.   I’ll also brush up on tree identification.  I used to be really good at that, now occasionally I get stumped by things a little out of the ordinary.   I picked up a book about this and will probably start this once plants start growing again.  

11.  Teaching.   I will speak in front of an audience and teach about something.   I’d like to do some interviews and in-depth blog posts on how to do some of this stuff.  I think this could be another multiple-birds-with-one-stone thing.   The best way to learn something is to teach someone else how to do it. 

12.  Animal Husbandry.   I’m going to get a few hens, keep them alive and maybe get some eggs out of them.   A co-worker will most likely start raising goats this year and I think I’ll also have the opportunity to get my feet wet with them as well.   If he does, I’ll volunteer some of my time to help out with the goats.   

13.   Science.  This option was originally “meteorology”, which I picked on a whim after looking at the list.   I’d like to learn more about identifying weather patterns and being able to look at a website like wunderground.com and really understand all the data they’re giving me.   I’ll broaden this out to observable astronomy, like really grasping the phases of the moon, movement of the sun, location of constellations, stellar navigation and so-on.  I already know some of this stuff, but I’d like to have it down cold.   I think this is something that I would use every day, so I’m excited and diving into this one.  

So that’s what I’m thinking right now.   There’s always the chance that other opportunities will come up and the list might change a little, but at the very least I promise not to cheese-dick out of things (i.e. picking origami or something over beekeeping).   I might be able to take a blacksmithing class or something like welding.   Either way, this should be a productive year.  

In addition to these 13, I hope to improve my blogging/web presence skills as I go.   Very few people know that I do this site and I don’t peddle it too hard.   At this point it’s more of an outlet for me to talk about some of the things on my mind instead of just reacting to what’s on other people’s minds.   I think I’ll be “public” about my site amongst people I know very soon.

I will be posting about some of the 13 skills related things along the way.   I will make a category and a tag on it to keep tabs on my progress.    I really think this is something that everyone should consider, even if they can only manage a few skills this year and I’m interested in hearing about other people’s plans.