Mail Call: March/April 2014

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Laying hens and farm-fresh eggs are possible in the middle of the Dallas-Forth Worth area.
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Bantam chicks with their mother in attendance.
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The wood of the Kentucky coffeetree is multicolored in streaks when sawn into lumber, and is of ideal working hardness.
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Finished jewelry box that Larry Trekell made for his granddaughter.
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Kevin Hamilton put three knives together for his children, amde with high-carbon drop-point blades and scales from marble wood.
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Geoffrey Smith’s family raises white Dorper sheep near Houston.
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How do your youngsters help out around the farm?
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White Dorpers on pasture with electric fencing in the background.

Gardening Passion

I just read your editorial, “Gardening Passion” in the November/December 2013 issue. Thank you for your magazine and all the great information, inspiration, and community you build through your magazine. I also follow your page on Facebook. Thanks for all the great links and photographs.

I have developed a passion for gardening over the past couple of years. I grew up in the rural panhandle of Texas, where my parents were teachers at the local school. We lived in town, and I grew up with farms an arm’s length away.

Flash forward 25 years, and I find myself in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs with three children (2, 4, and 6 years old) and a loving husband. We’ve bought a farm, but it’s two hours away. This has been a huge frustration to me over the six years we’ve owned it. We have tried to move on the farm, but there’s no house, no running water, and we just don’t have the money to build. Plus, our jobs are in the heart of the suburbs.

So I decided to bring farming and gardening to me. We live on a typical 0.2-acre lot in the middle of city limits. I went to the local feed store to buy dog food (we have four bird dogs) and saw baby chicks. I had to have chickens. My husband thought I was crazy, but offered to build me a coop. I was thrilled and bought chickens within a few weeks. I even used your Guide to Backyard Chickens to better my chicken farming skills. We ate our own meat over Labor Day last year!

Two years ago, my husband built me a garden box on the side of the house for a Mother’s Day gift. I was thrilled, but I had no idea what to do with it. I planted late, and the sun and heat burned up everything, including the blueberry bushes I planted. Instead of giving up, I had my husband build me more garden boxes in the back, and we put up a hot-wire fence so the dogs wouldn’t dig things up. I hauled in all the composted manure I could get my hands on.

This past spring I learned of your magazine and have been reading it thoroughly and diligently. Through a local permaculture group, your magazine, Facebook, and a few other sources, I have read about everything from composting, worm farming and aquaponics — and the list goes on and on. My two gardening successes thus far are cantaloupe and grape tomatoes! I have so much to learn and can only do it through time, trial and error, and, of course, guidance from great resources such as your magazine.

I’m learning sweet potato vines are used for land-scape groundcover, but you’re growing food at the same time. Blueberry bushes would look just as nice as shrubs, and instead of monkey grass around my front trees, I want strawberries.

My husband and I are also looking to build our first cabin out on our farm this spring during spring break. We are excited to have a place to stay other than a tent when we’re working on our farm south of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

I have just begun my garden and urban farming journal recently, and your invitation to share it with your blogging communities on GRIT and Capper’s Farmer are calling my name. My adventures with chickens, cattle farming and beekeeping have kept my urban friends laughing and intrigued.

Thank you to you and your staff for all you do for learning, dreaming urban farmers like myself.

Amanda Stoffels
Keller, Texas

Your story is inspiring, Amanda, and take it from us, you aren’t the only folks in our community dreaming of the day they can finally leave city living behind. But doing what you can now, with what you have, is such an important and worthwhile endeavor. Enjoy it! — Editors

Good Wood

When I was a boy in Enid, Oklahoma, some 60-plus years ago, there was a Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) in the alley on the 200 block of West Oklahoma Street. We kids would go down there and get the huge bean pods for the seeds inside. The seeds are dime- to penny-sized, dark olive green in color, round and thick, and as hard as a rock.

We would acquire them to trade at school, or give them to other kids with which to pester the girls. You could rub one vigorously back and forth on the concrete sidewalk until it got hot, touch it to one’s skin, and it would burn.

Kentucky coffeetrees were not unknown in Oklahoma then, but they are mighty scarce now. These hard seeds must be mechanically scarified, or go through a grazing animal’s digestive tract for chemical scarification, or they will not germinate.

The bean is not the real prize from the tree, as I learned in woodworking shop class. The wood is the real, distinctive, exquisite prize. In the 1980s, my uncle lived on Lake Eufaula, and he towed a washed-out tree to his homemade sawmill behind his boat. It was a Kentucky coffeetree, and I fell heir to a batch of the wood. The tree is one of only three in the genus Gymnocladus worldwide and has become rare. The wood is multicolored in streaks when sawn into lumber, and is of ideal working hardness. It is white, cream, tan, brown and pink — and the pink does not fade away. It’s also one of only two species that bears the pink coloration in streaks in the sawn wood. The other is Honey Locust, of which I have a good supply.

I’ve attached photos of a jewelry box I made for my granddaughter, Kayla. Another is in the works for my granddaughter, Jennifer. The wood and the seed are still available on the internet from back East, where the tree has been planted for landscaping and has not become so rare.

Larry Trekell
San Augustine, Texas

Beautiful piece, Larry! Those streaks really bring the thing to life. Thanks for sharing such a worthwhile pursuit. — Editors

Making Heirloom Knives

Hank, I enjoyed your story about your love of knives. I share your appreciation of good blades. Your Damascus blade with the Osage orange handle is beautiful. I recently put three knives together to give to my children — Zack, Dillon and Shawn — when they are old enough. I wanted them to remember their first knives as “the knife Dad made for me.” I used high-carbon drop-point blades, and made the scales from marble wood. Before I started cutting down the handle blanks, I let each one of the boys pick out the blank they liked. These were the first set of knives I have made, and I’m very proud of how they turned out. I’m excited to give them to the kids when they’re older.

Kevin Hamilton
via email

Your sons are going to love them, Kevin; some lucky youngsters! — Editors

Don’t Sass, Sassafras!

In reply to Sassafras Tea, per Orval Dean, the best time to dig sassafras for tea is between November and March, when the sap is down in the roots. Look for red tree bark; white is not good. Wash and peel the roots after digging it up — wash good first, and use only the peeling. Throw away the woody part of the root. Place a small handful in a quart of water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add sugar to taste.

Fred Hollandsworth
Cowen, West Virginia

For more on sassafras and other seasonal foraged foods, check out Take the Family Foraging for Wild Edible Plants.— Editors

Cast-iron Tip

Your article on cast-iron cookware and cooking (January/February 2014) brought to mind some fond memories of Mom’s home cooking and of Boy Scout campouts. I still use cast iron in the kitchen.

Some time ago, I was given a tip about cleaning old cast-iron pots and pans: Run them through a self-cleaning oven’s cleaning cycle. The cast iron will come out of the oven looking brand new, without any scrubbing needed beforehand.

It will then need to be re-seasoned, of course. I have used this trick numerous times — and always with great success.

I got the tip from a worker at a general store in an Ohio Amish community. She told me they have several self-cleaning ovens on the back porch for nonelectric customers to use to refresh old cookware with baked-on debris. She said it would even restore pans that had crayons melted in them.

Albert Woodall
Hillsboro, Oregon

Cast-iron Tip, Take 2

Over the years, I have collected and cleaned old cast-iron utensils; some of them filthy and crusty. The best and easiest way I have found is with heat. In Michigan, in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, people would rake the leaves in their yards into large piles and burn them. Just put the cast iron in the middle of the pile — leaves underneath and above — and burn. I’ve had them come out looking like new with just a quick rinse. Now I use a burn barrel. Burning paper and cardboard works the same. So does a fireplace.

David Akins
Talkeetna, Alaska

Good tips, Albert and David! What are some other favorite cast-iron cleaning methods our readers are willing to share? Email your tips to, and they might just end up in a future issue of the magazine or on our website. — Editors

Adapting a Recipe

I wrote last month to say that the breads I had tried out of GRIT’s Guide to Homemade Bread turned out really well. To add to that: I have been trying for some time to make a good loaf of rye/pumpernickel bread.

I have tried many recipes, and none came out with just what I was looking for in texture and taste — it was just never quite right. Well, this week I tried taking the no-knead sourdough from your bread issue that met with rave reviews and changing it into a rye-based bread.

NOW, it tastes like what I was looking for. I have found my recipe that will live in my cupboard for years to come!

Christine Mohn
New Providence, Pennsylvania

Sheep Farming

One aspect of sheep keeping that can’t be overstated is that it can be a real family affair for those of us with young children. My kids help out in almost every aspect of raising the sheep on our farm. They are 7 and 9 years old.

We raise registered white Dorpers in Houston. My daughter Layla is in the photograph holding the lamb. You can get a little overview of our family and our passion at the blog.

Geoffrey Smith
via email

Some of the most important lessons in life, Geoffrey, can easily be learned on the farm. The discipline will serve your children well. For others with a similar story to tell, email to see how you can share your blog with our rural community.

Share Your Thoughts

GRIT welcomes letters from our readers. If you would like to comment on an article or share your opinions, send a letter (with high-resolution photographs, if available) to GRIT, Mail Call, 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609, or email us at

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