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Breathe Easier: Tips for Better Indoor Air Quality in Winter

A portrait of Susy, the author of Chiots Run.I've read many places that indoor air may be more polluted than outside air. This isn't surprising to me because I'm very sensitive to smells and really notice the off-gassing of chemicals from anything new I bring into the house (the laptop I'm typing this on being the most recent). That's why this time of year when I start seeing all those articles about sealing up the drafts in your home I kind of cringe – when you do this you're only keeping in all the pollution!

Open Window Season

Over the past couple years I've been thinking more about indoor air quality because I've been searching for ways to detox my life. We started with food, getting rid of any non-organic, non-local, prepackaged items. Then moving on to personal care and cleaning products. We have also been replacing items in our home that were made from pressed wood, plastic and other materials. Thankfully we never used non-stick cookware, but I have been replacing my stainless steel with enameled cast iron (even stainless steel can leach baddies in some instances). I've been using VOC free paint and only painting in the summer when I can have the windows open. I also replaced any CFL lightbulbs with incandescent *gasp* I know - but I'm no longer comfortable with the risk of any pollution they cause and I've noticed they also cause sleep issues and headaches for me personally. The FDA and EPA tell us all these toxins and pollutants are within "safe" levels for healthy humans, but I believe that while each individual level might be "OK" they all add up to a toxic overload for our bodies. All the toxins increase our risks for cancer, nervous system problems, lung and breathing issues, headaches, colds and flu, allergies, and all sorts of other health problems.

Houseplants and Clean Air

Since we spend so much time indoors, especially during the winter, it actually doesn't make sense to over insulate your home and seal out all air flow. This traps all the VOC's and other air pollution inside. As a result of all of these things here are some tips I came up with for keeping the air a little safer in your home this winter:

  • Don't seal up your house too tightly, allow some air flow. Spending a few extra dollars on heating is well worth it and you will most likely more than make up your savings in health care costs!
  • Don't caulk too much (this also off gasses chemicals into the air, don't over insulate, don't use draft dodgers). Little cracks here and there throughout your home will allow fresh air in from outside.
  • If you're going to add more insulation to your home consider using a natural material like wool. Wool itself can help mitigate VOC's and other pollutants.
  • Crack a window, even in winter, especially if you're doing something like printing, painting, cooking, using a ventless heater, etc.
  • Change your furnace filter often and consider switching to an activated charcoal filter, these do a better job mitigating air toxins.
  • Run exhaust fans when cooking/baking/showering (if you don't filter your water the chlorine and other pollutants in your water get into the air)
  • Do not use ventless free space heaters (especially gas), if you have one make sure you crack windows. There's a reason these have been outlawed in many states and most other countries beside the US! We have one in our home but it's only used in emergencies if the electric is off.
  • Do not paint, stain or use any kind of chemical inside your home. Do not store lawn or other chemicals in your house.
  • If you haven't already make the switch to non-toxic cleaners (you can save tons of money here by making your own).
  • Have lots of houseplants. Plants are one of the best ways to keep the air in your house clean and purified. On average each houseplant will clean 100 sq feet of air. Try to have at least one plant in each room if possible. (here's an article on my blog about which plants can mitigate different chemical pollutants).
  • Avoid running printers, photocopiers, etc in your home. If you do have a home office make sure you have some plants in the office and keep a window cracked especially during printing.
  • If you purchase new items, let them off gas in a garage or outside before bringing them indoors.
Houseplants help with clean air

So if you're thinking of sealing up your house against drafts to save money on heating - think again.  That exchange of fresh air might just be what's keeping you a little healthier!

Have you ever considered indoor air pollution? Do you do anything specific to keep the indoor air clean and fresh in your home?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, maple sugaring, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Your Day Magazine, Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter and on Facebook


The Nature of the Task

"That which we persist in doing becomes easier,  
not that the nature of the task has changed,  
but our ability to do has increased."  
Ralph Waldo Emerson 

It never fails that people often wonder how I know how to do so many different things.  It's not that I was born with the skills to do everything I do – I've spent a lot of time and effort learning.  Just like you, when I started doing many of them, I had no idea what I was doing.  It took much longer and I made mistakes.  Sadly that's where many people stop.  They meet one failure or think that it will always take a lot of time and they abandon their efforts.  The thing is, if you persist, eventually it will become second nature.  It's not that you won't ever make mistakes, but you develop a proficiency for that task and you will be able to complete it with less effort, fewer mistakes and a better final product.  

Whole grain cinnamon raisin bread 

Enriched roll dough 

Garlic sage roasted chicken 

Cooking is a prime example.  I've been cooking for so long that it's second nature to me, I don't have to think about what spices to add to the chicken I'm roasting.  I know that thyme and lemon will be really great, or sage and butter would also work well.  When I make beef, a healthy dose of freshly ground pepper and salt is usually all I add if it's good pastured beef.  When I'm cooking tougher cuts of venison, I usually braise them in wine or bitter beer to enhance the flavor.  When I make bread I know what how the texture of ciabatta dough differs from regular sourdough or a sweet roll dough.  It's not that I always possessed these skills.  I baked a few sourdough bricks and ciabatta with no holes until I got a feel for the dough.  I had some OK chicken until I discovered what ingredients work best.  It takes time, it takes persistence, it takes the willingness to try again and again after defeat, and it takes observation to notice the small differences.

Front Flowerbed 

Getting a little crafty 

Sunset from Our Campsite 

The longer I persist in doing these things, reading and trying to learn how to do them better, practicing and learning from my failures, the better I will get.  I will most likely never: take a photo with the skill of Ansel Adams, cook a meal as delicious as Ina Garten, paint something as beautiful as a Monet, bake a loaf of bread as good as Peter Reinhart, have a garden as beautiful as Longwood, or write as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson – but that's not going to stop me from taking photos, cooking, painting or writing.  I won't let the fear of not being great steal the joy of the creative process, the growth that comes from learning and the contentment that comes from being proficient.  I believe that our minds are like a pool of water, if we keep them active they stay clean, clear and able to support life, if we stop learning we become stagnant, murky and devoid of life.

What new skills have you been working on or what are you planning on learning soon?  

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, maple sugaring, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at You Day Magazine, Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.  

Mixing Up Your Own Mulling Spices

Here at Chiot's Run fall means an abundance of local unpasteurized cider. We have a local mill that makes fantastic cider and sells it out of a little cooler out back. We've thought about trying to make our own, but with someone doing it so well, it's not worth trying to top it.

Fresh Sweet Cider 

Having cider in the house means we'll be enjoying mulled cider every evening. There's something so comforting about a nice cup of hot cider warmed with delicious spices like: ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cardamom. I usually just add a few bits of each spice to a pot each evening then fill it with cider and allow it to steep for a half hour to an hour. Sometimes however I like to mix up a big batch of mulling spices to keep on hand and to fill small decorative jars to have on hand for the perfect fall hostess gift. This mix can be used for cider or wine. This year I decided it would be my gift of choice for friends & holiday parties. This is super quick and simple to make, as long as you have all the spices on hand, which I always do. You can even customize it to the person you're giving it to or to your own tastes. I use the same recipe for these jars as I use for my own cider. I keep all of the organic spices on hand since I buy in bulk from Mountain Rose Herbs. The vanilla beans I get very inexpensively from

Mixing Up Some Mulling Spices 

These are also fairly inexpensive. I spent more on the jar itself than the spices inside. I could have used regular canning jars, but I really wanted to make look a little different. I also thought these beautiful little jars would be ones that people would save and reuse as well.


I don't like the flavor of citrus in my cider, if you do feel free to add orange peel. You can also add dried ginger chunks or nutmeg if you like, use what you've got on hand and what you like in your cider.

4 Tablespoon cinnamon chips (I prefer sweet cinnamon over the regular cinnamon)
4 Tablespoon allspice berries
1 Tablespoon cloves
1 Tablespoon black peppercorns
8 cardamom pods slightly crushed
1 vanilla bean cut into small pieces

Mix spices in small half pint jar, label and give away with directions: Mix 1 Tablespoon of mulling spice for every 2 cups of cider or wine, heat till almost boiling, reduce heat and steep for 30 minutes, enjoy.

Mulling Spices in Jars 

When it comes to cider are you a mulled cider kind of person or do you like it cold?  

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter. 

Traditionally Fermented Pickles

A portrait of Susy, the author of Chiots Run.Traditionally fermented food are super healthy.  It's always nice when you can make something using these methods.  Not only is it quick and easy to make, the end product is healthier than it's more time-consuming processed counterpart.  Pickles are a prime example.  I make one kind of vinegar pickles that are canned.  The rest of the pickles I make are fermented.  Basically you put the pickles in a jar with whatever herbs you want to flavor them and cover them with salt water.  A few weeks later you have a probiotic feast!  Adding fermented pickles to your meals will help with digestion and increase the amount of nutrients you can absorb from what you eat.

Traditionally fermented pickles 

When it comes to making pickles there are a few things you want to consider.  First of all, you don't want the cucumbers to be too large.  The smaller the cucumbers the crisper the end product with be.  You want the cucumbers to have distinct warts or bumps and no yellow on them.  The smaller they are the less developed the seeds will be inside as well.  Freshness also counts, if you can process them the same day you pick them that's best.  If you can't process them right away make sure to put them in the refrigerator to keep them cool and process as soon as possible. The cucumber on the left is perfect for pickling, the one of the right is a little overmature (but you can still use it if you'd like).  You can still use it for pickling, but there will be more seeds and the final product most likely won't be as crisp.  

A cucumber perfect for pickling on the left, the one on the right is a little overmature 

Second you want to make sure you scrub the blossom end of the cucumber well.  It is believed that it can harbor bad bacteria increasing the risks that your batch will not ferment properly.  It is also thought that it can make your pickles not as crisp.  Some people cut the blossom end of the pickle off, I simply scrape it with my nail until I can see the clean end of the cucumber.  You can see the different between a cucumber with the blossom end cleaned (left) and one that hasn't been cleaned enough (right). 

Blossom ends of cucumbers, left, cleaned enough, right, needs more cleaning. 

Gently wash cucumbers. I usually just wipe with a damp cloth to remove all dirt.  You don't want to scrub them too much as they are delicate and they have beneficial bacteria that aid in fermentation in their skins.  Place cucumbers and spices in a fermenting crock or a glass jar.  Typically I avoid the use of any kind of plastic when pickling as the acidic brine encourages leeching of BPA's and other chemicals from the plastic into the foods being fermented.  I use 1 Gallon Glass Barrel Jars for fermenting pickles and sauerkraut.  Wide mouth half gallon mason jars work quite well also.  Depending on the size of container you use for fermenting you can use small plates, glass jars, or drinking glasses to weigh down the vegetables and keep them submerged in the brine.  

Wide-mouth jars with a smaller jar used to weigh down the vegetables and keep them submerged 

I also always put my fermenting jars on a plate that has a lip to contain any brine that spills out of the jar.  This seems to happen most of the time when I'm making pickles, sauerkraut or kimchi.  Do not be alarmed if you see white mold or green mold floating on top of the brine when you're pickling or in the brine that spills out of the jars onto the plate.  This mold is common (some cultures even prefer it) and harmless.  You will want to skim this off of the top of the brine daily, but don't worry about getting all of it as it has a tendency to break up and float away.  Since I use wide mouth pint jars to weigh down the vegetable I usually just push down on the jar, when the brine overflows out of the fermenting jar the white mold usually slides down the side of the jar.  Every few days I add some extra brine if needed to keep the level up.  

Fermented pickles with mold 

When fermenting you want to use pickling salt or sea salt.  You do not want to use iodized table salt or any kind of salt that has anticaking agents in it.  Many places will tell you to only use pickling salt, but I prefer to use an unrefined sea salt called Redmond Real Salt with the minerals in it.  I purchase this salt in 25 pound bags directly from their website.  

Fermented pickles ingredients in the jar 

For my recipe, see this post on my blog.  You can certainly change the spices in the recipe above to suit your tastes.  Add some sliced onions and mustard seeds, or perhaps mixed pickling spices instead, some horseradish would be nice as well.  When making more than one batch of pickles, always make sure to label your jar with the type and date started.  I also include the page number that the recipe was on.  If you're interested in learning more about both traditional fermentation and other kinds of pickling I'd highly recommend purchasing The Joy of Pickling: 250 Flavor-Packed Recipes for Vegetables and More from Garden or Market. It's full of all kinds of recipes from fermented vegetables to gravlax and so many other interesting things.  

Do you make or enjoy any traditionally fermented foods? 

Grow for Change in Your Community

A portrait of Susy, the author of Chiots Run.I grew up with parents that grew a lot of the food we ate because that's the only way they could afford healthy food. When they could afford to buy food they staring purchasing more at the grocery store and the size of their garden shrank. While growing your own is kind of posh in urban area, this hipness has yet to trickle down into some rural areas, especially among the younger generations. People in our area still have the view that if they can afford to buy it they will, growing your own is for people who can't afford to buy food at the grocery store and the few random hippies that talk about something called "organic". In some areas all across the country it's even outlawed by home owners associations to grow edible food in your yard (we're not allowed to have chickens).

Strawberries in Raised Bed by Chiots Run

It's kind of funny because when we started to add edible plants to our gardens here at Chiot's Run my neighbor came over to see what I was doing. When she saw all the red ripe juicy strawberries she asked where I got the plants. The next year they cut down a bunch of trees and put in a strawberry bed and a small garden. When I started growing tomatoes, cabbages and onions in my yard, they doubled the size of their garden and added corn, cucumbers and beans. When I added another garden on one of side of my driveway, they increased the size of their garden once again and added a small orchard as well. I also noticed that their friends down the street added some tomatoes and broccoli to their front flowerbed. I notice that every year a few more people in the homes around me are putting in small edible gardens in their front yard. I'm happy knowing that I helped break the ice or pave the way to make them feel comfortable doing so. I guess all they needed was someone go ahead of them, perhaps help to break the stigma that surrounds the growing of food in your yard. It's nice to see my neighbors getting into edible gardening and being excited about it. My neighbor across the street was even telling me she started canning for the first time last summer and she's retired.

Planting by Chiots Run

Growing your own can open doors with your neighbors, especially if you take them homegrown tomatoes and veggies or eggs from your chickens. Growing some of your food out in the open can also encourage others to do the same. Perhaps your neighbors have always wanted to, but feared what people would say if they saw a few tomatoes growing on the front porch. In some areas growing your own will make you the talk of the beauty parlor (yep I've been told I'm frequently the topic of conversation there) and in other places it's what everyone is doing. If you live in an area where it's not common and people look down on it - grow out in the open, put your garden in your front yard and talk liberally about the joy of growing your own. And don't be afraid to talk about how much money you save either! Be the one everyone is talking about so others can start to feel comfortable doing it as well. Sometimes all it takes is one person to hold up the torch so everyone can see!

What's the Grow Your Own climate like in your area? Is it looked down upon or is it the thing to do?   

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, maple sugaring, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Ethel Gloves, Not Dabbling in Normal, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter

Installing a Package of Bees

A portrait of Susy, the author of Chiots Run.Two years ago we added bees to the Chiot's Run Family. We picked up 10,000 ladies from Dave, a local guy who sells them. He knows what he's talking about, these were the hives in his front yard.

Ohio Honey Farms


On our way home Mr Chiot's looked at me and said, "This has the makings of a horrible nightmare. The story would go something like this, 'I picked up my package of bees and all was going well. I heard something in the back of the car and then a swarm of bees attacked my face. I ran off the road into a ditch ....'" We had a good laugh about that on our way home. Such a common misconception that bees are dangerous!

Our Package of Bees


When we arrived home we proceeded to follow Dave's instructions for, "the easy way to install a new package of bees". It's much different than the way the books tell you to do it. We decided his way sounded great, and since he's a veteran beekeeper we figured he knew what he was talking about.

Opening the Package of Bees


First we pried to lid off of the box of bees, then we removed the can of sugar syrup and the queen cage (the queens come in their own little cage inside the bigger cage of bees). Then you put the small wooden lid back on to keep the bees inside until you want to release them.

Removing the Sugar Syrup


Then the box of bees is placed in an empty super on top of the bottom board of the hive (lid on it's removed after we get the queen cage suspended above). This process takes the place of banging the box of bees and then dumping them into the hive, this seemed like a much "nicer" option both for us and the bees.

Installing Our Package of Bees


We taped a piece of wood over the opening of the hive to keep the bees inside until we move them outside (this afternoon when it's warm).

Blocked Hive Entrance


We then proceeded to hang the queen cage in a super with frames (the part the bees build comb on) above the empty box that has the bee cage in it. We wired her in so that the bees could still reach her. She will be released into the hive in 3 days (thanks for the question Christy).

Wiring the Queen Cage


Her cage gets placed over to the side so that the jar of sugar syrup that you put on top to feed them doesn't drip on her and get her wet.

Wiring the Queen Cage


After placing the super with the queen on top of the box that has the bee cage in it, remove the lid from the box of bees below, then place a the inner hive cover with a jar of sugar syrup on top so that the bees have something to eat.

Feeding the Bees


Then you put an empty box or two (we used 2 because they were small ones) and then the hive cover to keep them warm and to keep them inside. It was a much easier process than we were expecting, thanks to Dave's great installation instructions and the cold weather which makes the bees pretty lethargic. We'll definitely be using this method whenever we instal bees from now on!

Checking on the Hives 

We kept our bees in the garage for a few days as Dave recommended because it was really cold outside (dipping down into the teens). When the weather warmed up after 2-3 days we moved the hive outside into it's finally destination. Then we released the queen a few days later. Our bees did well that summer and last summer, but they failed to survive this past long cold winter. That means we'll be doing this again, only we're hoping to build Warre hives to put them in (an old fashioned top bar hive).

Do you have bees in your garden or would you ever consider getting them? 

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, maple sugaring, and other interesting things. You can also find me at Ethel Gloves, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.  

Falling in Love With Wild Food

"People simply fall in love with wild foods. Lord knows these wild things swept me away. Folks want to be seduced by their mystery, their freedom from the bonds of agriculture. Our human civilization, based on agriculture, has struggled for millennia to no longer depend on foraging in the wild. But here at the start of the twenty-first century, the old hunter-gatherer luring in all of us just won't let go."  – Connie Green (The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes) 

I'm really enjoying reading through this book right now. Every year I try to learn a little more about wild edible food that I can forage for, it's delicious and super healthy, and not to mention free.

 Handful of Morels 

We hunt for morels every spring and enjoy those thoroughly. I'd love to learn about more edible mushrooms in my area, from what I've been reading there are a few varieties I should be able to find. I'm looking for someone local that can teach me, as mushroom hunting from photos in a book can be difficult. I also harvest wild plants like plantain for salves along with dandelions, garlic mustard and wild violets for salads. We have a plentiful supply of wild blackberries and black raspberries close by that we freeze and enjoy all winter long.

 Wild Violet Salad 

Winter time is when I focus on learning about more wild foods that I can find in the woods around our home. I haven't decided what new wild foods I'm going to be searching for this year, any suggestions?

Do you eat any wild foods? Where do you learn about them?  

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Ethel Gloves, Not Dabbling in Normal, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.  

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