Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Keeping heat in and near your body in a cool residence

In the first post in this series, I focused on clothing that will help to keep you warm in a minimally-heated residence like ours. We typically heat our home to 60F / 16C from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., 63F / 17C from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and 50F / 10C overnight. The method of clothing I discussed was based on keeping myself acceptably warm under those conditions. Dressing properly has the advantage that it is equally accessible to renters and owners, and it is one of the cheapest solutions to staying warm if you can find well-constructed clothing in your price range.

Clothing isn’t the only way to keep warmth close to your body, however. In this post I’ll discuss some other ways to keep heat inside and near you that don’t involve any structural changes to the building you live in. All of these means with a minor exception will apply to both renters and owners. Some of them are free or nearly so; others can be cheap or expensive.

A much-overlooked way to stay warm is exercise. OK, stop groaning already; I heard you. You’re thinking, not another guilt trip for not exercising. No, not at all. I’m merely pointing out that moving your body around generates heat. Dressing properly or using some of the other strategies I’ll discuss below will help you keep some of that heat close to you after you finish exercising, allowing you to keep your residence cooler for the same comfort level.

When I say exercise, I don’t mean you have to use machines or buy any special clothing to do it. How about doing some housework? Yes, I see you glaring at me. You don’t like housework any better than I do. Nevertheless, sweeping the floors, vacuuming the carpet, dusting the furniture, or picking up the various loose items scattered around your residence and putting them where they belong gets you moving, and that effort warms you up. You might be surprised by how warm you can become with this modest amount of activity. I find myself peeling off a layer or two of clothing even in midwinter when I get into the housekeeping groove. Put on some music and move a little more while you work and you might find yourself sweating! For that matter, take this as an excuse to dance without the housework component whenever you need to warm up. Just put on your favorite music and shake your booty!

Taking a walk, if you can do so safely, is one of the best ways I’ve found to warm up icy-cold feet. It’s best to dress a little cooler than is comfortable when you first step outside, because the effort of walking generates heat. You’ll want to wear a hat, either gloves or mittens, and sturdy, warm shoes or boots along with whatever layers of sweaters, coats, pants, and so forth are needed for the conditions. If you become too warm while walking, removing a layer should help you adjust to conditions. Depending on how cold your feet are, it may take only a few minutes to warm them up through brisk walking, or it may take a half hour or more (sometimes more, for me). For those of you who own property, raking leaves or shoveling snow also get you moving and warmed up if you use human-powered leaf rakes and snow shovels for the task.

A good way to keep your body heat where you need it most, inside your body, is to choose the right kinds of food and drink for a cold residence. Ice-cold drinks and a cold house do not mix well. It so happens that water must suck up a lot of heat energy in order to raise its temperature, a property that scientists call a high heat capacity. This is good when your favorite lake is absorbing the heat of sunlight during the summer to make it warm enough to swim in, or the water in those 55 gallon drums on your glassed-in porch is absorbing the heat from sunlight and then releasing that stored heat at night in winter. It’s not good when the cold water is in your stomach, sucking up the heat from your core, which causes the arteries in your hands and feet to constrict, making them feel cold. I suggest making all the liquids you drink in the winter no colder than room temperature, and warmer than that whenever possible. Forget that your ice trays or icemaker exist when your residence is cold. A nice warm mug of your favorite drink will warm your hands as you hold the mug and keep the heat inside you from being diverted to warm up a cold stomach.

As for food, I realize you may have a medical need or other reasons that determine your choice of foods, and I honor those. In our case, neither of us have any food allergies and we do not follow any special diet. Around here we like to eat substantial foods during the winter such as chilis, stews, casseroles, and carbohydrate-rich roasted vegetables like carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash, all served hot and sometimes containing some meat or served alongside a meat course. These foods are warm when they hit my stomach and my body can convert them into the energy needed to help keep me warm after the meal. Further, the vegetables are the same ones that store well for weeks in our root cellar or in the basement or living space. We don’t eat many salads or other raw foods in winter, except for the fruits or vegetables we have in storage that we typically eat raw, like radishes or apples, or a piece of fruit at breakfast that we’ve purchased because we have eaten all of what I grew. In winter my body wants heavy, spicy foods. If you have no medical or personal reason not to eat this way, try it and see if it helps keep you a little warmer than you would have been otherwise.

As I noted in the previous post in this series, adding layers of clothing will help to keep heat closer to you for longer periods. You can also do the same thing by covering up with a blanket or throw whenever you are sitting down. These have advantages and disadvantages relative to clothing. If you have some blankets or throws in storage, for instance, it costs you nothing to haul them out and begin to use them if you aren’t already. However, blankets will not keep your arms warm if you are, for instance, typing away at your computer. For this purpose a plush, thick, long bath robe large enough to fit over your usual layers of clothes would work better. A blanket or throw might not do as good a job at keeping your legs warm as fleecy jeans or other warm leggings if you are sitting in a chair, because the blanket doesn’t surround your legs. But they are a good way to add an extra layer of warmth to your core, where you need it most.

I prefer blankets to throws because throws aren’t large enough to keep me as warm as a blanket does. But you could sew a couple of throws together to make a larger covering.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: wool blankets and throws are warmer than the more common cotton or acrylic versions. Of course the wool versions are also more expensive if you buy them new. But you may be able to find used wool blankets at thrift stores or yard sales, or you may know someone who has a wool blanket they aren’t using who would be happy to pass it on to you. We have wool blankets that belonged to Mike’s dad when he was in the military.

If you have a cedar chest or closet, that’s where to store your wool blankets when you are not using them. I keep ours in my cedar chest, washing them before I store them over the warm months. I keep wool clothing in between slabs of cedar that hang from the pole in my clothes closet. These are cheap and readily available, and so far they have prevented the insect attacks on my wool clothing that I had noticed occurring before I had the cedar slabs. They would probably also work to keep wool blankets folded to drape on hangers from insect damage in a clothes closet.

Mike bought a wool blanket that fits a single bed at a yard sale, which he modified to form a wrap for use when he is sitting in his recliner. The inspiration for this was an old comforter I had when we met, which had snaps along the edges to allow it to be snapped together into a large robe-like wrap when desired or unsnapped and used as a comforter. It was a clever design. However, after time the thin cotton cover separated from the snaps, allowing the batting to ooze out. Rather than use sewn-on snaps for his wool blanket, Mike used grommets and washers to create rows of holes along certain edges of the blanket. Then, by threading a long shoelace through the grommet holes, he created an opening through which he places his head at the top end of the blanket, and an opening for his feet at the bottom. I’ll show photos of the modified blanket first, then describe how he put in the grommets and washers.

This photo shows the modification at the top end of the blanket. Notice that the blanket is folded in half along its length. There are two rows of grommet holes which extend a short distance along the width of the blanket close to the edge.
This photo is a close-up of the grommet holes with a foot-long ruler laid alongside for the dimensions. The grommet holes begin about 1 inch / 2.5 cm from the long edge and are about the same distance from the short edge. The holes extend about 6 inches along the width on both sides and are laced together with a long shoelace, leaving an opening for Mike’s head to fit through.
This photo shows the modifications at the bottom of the blanket. It remains folded along its length. One row of grommets extends along the entire width, about 1 inch from the edge. The other rows of grommets extend up the length of the blanket on both sides.
This photo shows the rows of grommets along the length of the blanket and the shoelace that ties them together. These rows of grommets are about 10 inches / 25 cm long. In this configuration, Mike puts his feet through the bottom opening. The blanket forms a tube around his lower legs. He can change the configuration of the lacing to close off the bottom edge to form a pocket for his feet if he so desires.

Mike says that he could have bought a grommet setting kit to set the grommets in place, but he chose to use tools he already had instead. He used a sharp, sturdy metal point, such as on a metal skewer or a very heavy sewing needle, to open up a hole in the felted wool. He then inserted an aluminum grommet through the hole and placed a matching aluminum washer on the appropriate end. (It’s necessary to use the same metal for the grommet and washer to avoid corrosion.) Once the washer was in place, he put a center punch on it and tapped the punch with a hammer to set the washer against the grommet. I hope I’ve done justice to his description. He’ll read the post eventually and let me know if I need to change something.

This size of blanket works well because Mike is about 5 feet 6 inches tall. I suspect a taller person would prefer a double or queen size blanket for a similar wrap.

Finally, I’ll discuss bedding as a means of being as warm as you like for several hours each day. I find that after hours of being colder than I prefer, I especially appreciate the chance to be toasty warm while I’m sleeping and to begin and end my day in warmth. Having the right bedding makes that possible.

These days it’s easy to find electric blankets and mattress pads to keep you warm while sleeping. I have used both in the past but no longer use either. Besides the fact that they only work when electricity is available, they have other disadvantages. I found that the heat from electric blankets dried my skin to the point of redness. This wasn’t a problem with the electric mattress pad, but after several years of use the plastic-wrapped cords separated from the pad, breaking the wires and rendering the pad useless. Rather than replace the pad right away I tried not using it and found that it was no longer necessary. I think that’s because we no longer use a cotton comforter during the winter, so I no longer need any source of warmth beyond my own body heat to stay warm. Cotton does not hold in warmth in winter; you need wool or down for that.

If you can obtain a down comforter and have no allergy issues to prevent you from using it, it is the best choice for winter sleeping comfort. It’s because we now use a down comforter in winter that we no longer need the electric mattress pad. I find that one thin blanket under the down comforter keeps me as warm as I like even though the bedroom drops below 55 F/ 13 C during the winter. If you can only obtain a cotton comforter, then I suggest putting wool blankets under or over it, as many as necessary to keep you warm enough. Failing that, use multiple acrylic blankets in the same way. Again, check thrift stores if you are looking for bedding at a price you can afford, as well as yard and estate sales if you have time for them. If cold feet keep you from falling asleep, hot water bottles are available from specialty retailers.

The next post in the series will widen our viewpoint to keeping heat longer in a room-sized space.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Of voles and sweet potatoes

When we arrive at this, the most colorful time of autumn, I enjoy one last glorious show of reds, yellows, greens, and purples before the gray-and-brown monotony of late fall and winter. Above you can see two dogwoods (the red leaves) flanking a spicebush (yellow-orange). In back the fading green of silver maples and in front, the still-green grass sets off the flaming colors.

A few days ago, I awoke to a light frost covering the ground around the vegetable gardens. As the season’s first frost, it toasted the sweet potato leaves, signaling time to harvest. This year I planted three different varieties. So far I have harvested all of two of them and a few of the third. Of the two I have harvested completely, ‘O’Henry’ suffered from extensive predation by a ground-dwelling creature whose identity remains unknown (though I suspect voles because they are said to eat succulent root systems such as sweet potato tubers). For some of the plants, all of the tubers except for the skins were eaten. Other tubers have large craters eaten into them or show signs that what I was left with was less than half of what had been there. The few that were undamaged or only lightly damaged are quite large, evidence that had I been left most of the tubers, this variety would have outyielded ‘Ginseng’. ‘Ginseng’s’ tubers are smaller but they suffered much less predation. Both of these varieties made most of their tubers under the central portion of the plant, while ‘Hernandez’, the variety which remains to be harvested, has already yielded a number of small tubers that formed on parts of the vines that intruded into ‘O’Henry’s’ part of the bed. We haven’t yet done a taste test of the varieties; it’ll be interesting to see how they compare.

I was quite disappointed and humbled by the evidence of extensive predation of what would have been the high-yielding variety. Those of you who have been reading along with me know that I have been trying to grow crops that can provide lots of calories for the space they take up, to understand if it’s possible to grow something close to a complete diet in a backyard-sized garden. Sweet potatoes should fill an important niche in this regard: they grow well in our long, hot summers and they store longer and in warmer, lighter conditions than regular potatoes. Part of growing a complete diet is eating the right foods at the right time, and that means having at least one high-calorie staple crop to eat at all times of the year. The potato varieties I grow aren’t ready till August and they begin to sprout and rot as the basement warms up in spring. Grains can be used year-round, but it takes much more space to grow a grain crop than a tuber crop. Ideally sweet potatoes could be stored through winter and then eaten in spring through early summer, when the regular potatoes are no longer available. Grains could fill the calorie niche from then till regular potatoes are harvested. But if the sweet potatoes can’t stand up to predation, that strategy won’t work. Hence my disappointment and humility. Beaten by small mammals ... I’ll have more to say about this when I write up the results of this year’s garden and what I’ve learned from it.

Meanwhile, Mike continues working on the woodshed. The photo below shows the framing almost complete.

Next he’ll add some more bracing and the roof purlins (the pieces that lie on top of and at right angles to the roof rafters), followed by the roof deck and top. It’ll have a metal roof because he says that’s the easiest kind of roof for him to install. Then he’ll need to add some kind of floor framing to hold shorter pieces than the four foot width. We have made one fire in the wood stove so far, the evening of the 18th (it frosted that morning). That one fire, made with dry wood, heated up the house several degrees so we did not need to run the gas furnace. With this week’s warm weather, the house is warm enough to not need any added heat beyond what we let in through open windows during the day. Take that, electric and natural gas providers!

Most of the vegetable garden is no longer producing food. I’ve picked the popcorn, most of the blackeyed peas, and all the squash. The frost was not heavy enough to kill the tomatoes, peppers, or pole snap beans. They continue to make some food, though as the soil and weather cool and hours of sunlight diminish, less is available at each picking. I may get another two or three weeks of slight production from them before frost kills them. However, the two beds of fall greens and roots are full of beautiful food, as you can see below.
The purple is ‘Purple Rapa Mix’ mustard greens. I’ll have to figure out how to preserve some of them; even then I expect there will be enough to give some away. The other greens are turnips, radishes, and arugula. Outside of the picture we have large bok choy and smaller kale for stir-fries as well as lettuce for salads.

Another autumn project, now mostly complete, has been to dig a new rain garden to accept overflow from the 500 gallon water tank that collects rain from the garden shed roof. Around here it’s suggested to make a rain garden about 1/3 of the area of the roof if it were flat. Our shed is 120 square feet, so the rain garden is about 40 square feet. I dug it by hand, with the tools in the photo below. It took a couple of hours because I wasn’t working that hard.
Unlike summer, autumn has been very dry. I measured about 1.1 inches of rain in September. So far October hasn’t brought enough rain to measure. In order to give the rain garden plants a good start, I first ran over 100 gallons of stored rain water into the depression to moisten the soil before adding the plants. I chose a mix of appropriate native plants suggested by a publication titled Native Plant Rain Gardens co-produced by the Missouri Departments of Conservation and Agriculture in 2004. After planting them, I ran another 100 gallons or so of stored rain water into the depression, to settle the plants into their new home. The last step will be to mulch them; when that is complete, I’ll post a photo. I’m hoping that the claimed weather pattern change, to a more normal mix of occasional rainy days, will materialize to help the trees and shrubs I planted in spring settle into late fall and winter.

The tea camellias I talked about in this post died, alas. So this past spring I bought and planted new ones from Camellia Forest Nursery. They’ve done very well and are supposed to be at least marginally hardy here. But I want to improve their chances to survive winter cold. So I did what I should have done years ago after I first read it: I bought Palms Won’t Grow Here by David Francko. (I suggest searching for a used hardback edition so you can see the beautiful color plates rather than the print-on-demand paperback version with its blurry black-and-white photocopies of said plates). Anyone who is trying to push their hardiness limits to grow plants that aren’t supposed to grow in their location needs this book. Not only does it tell me how to protect my tea camellias (mulch them in early winter with a foot or so of oak leaves and consider surrounding them with a wind barrier and coating the leaves with an antidessicant), and how to keep the flowerbuds on my hydrangeas alive (cover the plants with oak leaves to overwinter the budded branches) but it tells me how to grow palms, bananas, and other plants in the ground here in the St. Louis region. Sure, people grow bananas here; I’ve done it myself. But we dig them up after the first autumn frost, keeping them in the basement for the winter, and plant them back out in May, after the last spring frost. This book tells us which kinds of bananas we can wrap up for winter, sheltering them in place in the ground. And while no one here bats an eye at the sight of a crape myrtle (they seem to be everywhere) or a southern magnolia (less common but still many examples around town), I haven’t seen anyone growing a camellia of any sort outside, much less a palm. Maybe a few palms in the front yard, out where passersby can see them, would be fun to grow. And now that we had the dying blue spruce removed, I finally have space for a southern magnolia!

Next post I will continue the series on keeping warm in a minimally-heated house.