Culturing Your Own Sourdough Starter

Sourdough pizza

Sourdough pizza

Using organic whole wheat flour and water, you can easily culture your own sourdough starter from scratch.  Organic flour naturally contains plenty of wild yeasts. In culturing a sourdough starter, you are simply providing an environment in which those wild yeasts can thrive and reproduce. Below is a step-by-step process to produce a starter that you can use in making all kinds of sourdough, including breads, bagels, pizza dough, pancakes and waffles.

Ingredients and Supplies

Ingredients for culturing sourdough starter

The ingredients

  • 1/2 cup room-temperature, purified water. Be careful not to use chlorinated water because it may hinder the growth of your sourdough culture.
  • 1/2 cup freshly ground organic whole wheat flour.
  • Plastic wrap
  • Clean, half-gallon glass jar


1. In the half-gallon jar, combine 1/2 cup flour with 1/2 cup water. Cover the jar with plastic wrap and let it sit 3-5 days until you begin to see bubbles forming on top of the mixture.

2. Once you see bubbles, discard all but 1/4 cup of the mixture. The jar may have a lot of dried starter on the side by this time, so you may want to transfer the 1/4 cup of mixture into a clean, room-temperature half-gallon jar. Feed the mixture by adding 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup room-temperature, purified water.

Sourdough Starter

Active sourdough starter

3. Once a day, discard all but 1/4 cup of the starter and feed it by adding 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup room-temperature, purified water. Continue to do this daily until the yeast can double in size within 4-6 hours.  One way to keep track of the results is to mark the outside of the jar with a permanent marker immediately after feeding your starter. Then you can easily compare its growth to its original volume.  When it becomes vigorous enough to double in size within 4-6 hours, the starter is ready to use in making breads, bagels, pancakes, waffles and other recipes.

How to Start Your Top Bar Hive

We now have plans and an instructional video on
How to Build Your Own Top Bar Hive
based on the improved top bar hive design discussed in this article.


Preparing the hive for the package of bees

Preparing the hive for the package of bees

How to Start Your Top Bar Hive

There are several ways to start your top bar hive. One is to begin by buying a package of bees from a bee supplier. When you order packaged bees, your supplier will set an arrival date, and he will mail the bees to you in time for them to arrive on that date. The bees will be shipped in a wooden box with wire screen on two sides for ventilation, and the package will contain three or four pounds of worker bees and a queen. Each package ships with a can of syrup to feed the bees during transit.

Three-pound package of bees

Three-pound package of bees

Preparing for Arrival

Before your bees arrive, there are several things you need to do to be ready for them.  First, paint your hive, allowing enough time for it to dry thoroughly, and set it in place. When your bees arrive, you will need to have each of the following on hand:

  • Hive tool
  • Pliers
  • Spray bottle of sugar water (recipe below)
  • Bee feeder for feeding sugar water to your bees (recipe below)
  • Sugar water. To make sugar water, mix one cup of sugar with one cup of room-temperature water in a quart jar. You will use sugar water in your spray bottle and in the bee feeder.

Installing a Package of Bees

When your bees arrive, remove ten top bars from the hive, and place the bars next to the hive.  Your hive has one divider board. Place that divider board in the space that had been occupied by the tenth bar.  Since the new bees will have to work to keep the hive warm, it is best not to give them too much space.  Using the spray bottle of sugar water, lightly spray the packaged bees through the screen.  This helps calm them.  Remove the cardboard shipping label that covers the top of the bee package.  With a pair of pliers, remove the can of syrup.  Spray the bees again with sugar water. The queen will be in a queen cage that is hung in the package next to the can of syrup.  Using the hive tool, remove the staples that hold the queen cage in place.

Spraying the bees with sugar water

Spraying the bees with sugar water through the screen.

There are two common types of queen cages.  One is wooden with three sections in it.  Two of the sections will have the queen and a few worker bees. The last section will be filled with sugar candy.  On each end of the cage is a cork.  Remove the cork on the end of the cage that has the candy.  After you have finished setting up your hive, the bees will eat through the candy and release the queen.

Wooden Queen Cage

Wooden queen cage

The second type of queen cage is made of plastic and has a candy-filled tube extending from the bottom of the cage.  On the end of the tube is a cap. Remove the cap.

Plastic queen cage

Plastic queen cage with cap removed

When the bees and queen are packaged, they are taken from many different hives, so the bees are not familiar with the new queen. As the bees eat through the candy, it takes time, and during that time they become accustomed to their new queen.  Take a nail and remove some of the sugar candy. This will help the bees release the queen much more quickly. Next take the queen cage and hang it between two top bars.  Place the two top bars and cage in the hive.

Wooden queen cage in hive

Wooden queen cage hung inside the hive

Plastic queen cage between two bars

Plastic queen cage between two bars


Now take the package and begin pouring the bees into the hive. You will need to shake the package several times to remove all the bees that cling to the screen.

Shaking bees from the package into the hive

Shaking bees from the package into the hive

Once the bees are in the hive, spray them lightly with sugar water. This will keep them from flying everywhere. Fill the feeder with sugar water and place it in the entrance of the hive so the bees can access it from inside the hive.  It is best to feed your bees sugar water at least twice a week for the first three weeks. After that, feed them once a week until they fill one comb with honey. This full comb of honey will ensure that the bees have enough food.

Feeder at the entrance of the hive

Feeder at the entrance of the hive

Checking the Hive for the First Time

Check the hive six to seven days after you started it, to make sure the bees were able to release the queen. After removing the hive roof, take your hive tool and remove the top bar that is next to the divider. Then look inside. If the bees have not yet built a comb on the next top bar, slide it toward the divider board. Continue until you see the combs. Carefully remove the first bar with comb.

Brand new comb

Freshly built comb. Handle with care. The comb is very fragile at this stage.

This comb will be very small and fragile. To find out whether the queen is laying and in good health, check the comb that you just removed for the presence of eggs. Look for eggs at the bottom of the cells. Each egg will look like a very small grain of rice. Continue with all the combs. If for some reason there is no sign of eggs, check the queen cage.  If the queen did not get out, you can release her by removing the screen and letting her walk out onto a comb.

The inside of the top bar hive at the end of the first week

The inside of the hive at the end of the first week

The bees will start to build comb very rapidly during the first week, and they will most likely build three to four combs. The second week, there may be as many as seven combs.  It is important to make sure the combs are built straight.  If one comb starts to get crooked, all the combs adjacent to it will be crooked.  It is easy to fix this when the hive is first starting. Take your hive tool and straighten the comb by pressing on it in the direction that it needs to go. You can also rotate the whole bar and comb so the spot that started to get crooked will be adjacent to the straight part of the comb next to it.

It is a good practice not to harvest any honey the first year, even if the hive has extra. The bees need as much honey the first year as possible to make it through the winter.

Related Information:



Spoon Making Class on June 1, 2012

Wooden Spoons

Projects made in the class

After our recent article about making a wooden spoon from a log, several people expressed an interest in taking our class on spoon making, so we’ve scheduled an additional class on Friday, June 1, 2012.  If you would like to take it, you can register here:

Spoon Making Class

More About the Class

Carving a wooden spoon by hand is relaxing and enjoyable, and the spoons and spatulas you can learn to make work very well in the kitchen and make great gifts. My family uses wooden spoons and spatulas in the kitchen on almost a daily basis, and we have a few that are over 20 years old and still in use.

In our one day hands-on workshop, you’ll make the four projects pictured above:

  • a stirrer made of pine (top in the photo)
  • a spatula (third in the photo)
  • a spoon (second in the photo)
  • and a ladle (fourth in the photo)

For the spatula, spoon and ladle, we’ll be using kiln-dried hardwoods. The hardwoods will vary from class to class.

In making the projects, you’ll be learning the basics of how to use a spoon gouge, a drawknife, and a spokeshave to shape wood. These are skills that will help you in other woodworking projects down the road.

You can register through our website using the link below:

Wooden Spoon Making Class



Agricultural Projects

Perennial area in our model homestead garden

Gardening and farming are an important part of sustainable living.  When we farm and garden with traditional methods there is always more to learn that will help us raise food and care for our livestock and land more effectively. Therefore, we have a number of agricultural projects in progress right now, including:

  • Soil Amendments — We keep an eye open for soil amendments that work well and that are either inexpensive to purchase or something you can make, yourself. Ideally, we prefer soil amendments that you can produce on the farm.  Two soil amendments we’re currently testing are Biochar and Sea-Agra-90. Biochar is made from charcoal, and you can make it on the homestead. Charcoal is able to absorb nutrients, and the idea behind Biochar is that it will absorb nutrients and release them slowly over time, so it may be useful if you have poor or sandy soils. Sea-Agra-90 is a mined sea salt that contains many trace minerals and is reported to boost yields.  Some people might object to putting salt on their soil, but thus far, we’ve seen no reports of problems due to salinity, and the salt is not used in large quantities. We’re conducting a multiple-year test with these two soil amendments to determine their effects on the yields and health of various crops.
  • Low Gluten Wheat and Barley — Many modern wheats have been optimized for high yield and high gluten content. It seems that more and more people are experiencing health problems related to those high gluten wheats, so we’re conducting field trials of about twenty varieties of low gluten wheat and barley, some of which are rare and ancient varieties. Our purpose for this research is to identify varieties that will grow well here and that work well for making bread and other baked goods. We describe this project in more detail in A Wheat Trial of Ancient and Heirloom Wheat Varieties.
  • Hydrology Research — Dr. Yelderman, a geology professor at Baylor University and his students are working with us with this project. On our 500 acre farm, we have several wells for irrigation and domestic use. We’ve begun using a number of methods to improve our pastures and increase water infiltration into the soils. Our goal is to bring our farm to a higher level of productivity and document the effect that our land management practices are having on our water table, our wells and our ability to grow grasses and other vegetation as feed for our animals.
  • Micro-climate and Diversity — If you’re going to garden organically, it’s important to have diversity, both in regard to plants and in regard to beneficial bugs and other animals.  Frogs, lizards and bluebirds help control garden pests. Ladybugs and lacewings are very effective against aphids.  To attract the beneficial animals, you have to provide an environment that the beneficial animals want to live in — an environment in which they can flourish. That entails having plenty of ground cover and a diversity of plants, among other things. Micro-climate goes hand-in-hand with diversity and is also very important.  You can’t control the weather and the general climate for your area, but with things like windbreaks and mulch, you can make a difference in the “micro” climate of your garden, reducing wind speed so that plants don’t undergo as much stress and keeping soil cool and moist while improving water infiltration. In our model homestead, we’re planting a living windbreak composed of grapevines and fruit trees and considering putting in a small pond and taking other steps to attract more beneficial creatures.

If you’re interested in learning more about any of these projects, please let us know.

Recently Completed Weaving Workshop with Joanne Hall


Joanne Hall

Joanne Hall

Recently, Joanne Hall, nationally known weaver and USA distributor of Glimakra counterbalance/countermarche looms, gave a 5-day workshop for advanced weavers at our Fiber Crafts shop.  Several years ago, we were able to purchase a 63” wide Swedish countermarche/counterbalance drawloom with a  Myrahead  attachment for damask weaves. Our sturdy draw loom of golden Swedish pine  has given us a deep appreciation for its simplicity of design and function. For nearly 500 years, counterbalance looms have been in continuous use for cottage industries, production weaving and weaving sustainable goods. In addition to our jack looms, we have begun purchasing several countermarche/counterbalance looms for our classes so that our students can experience weaving on them.

The workshop was held by invitation, and our instructors, apprentices and several advanced students attended, 13 in all.  Joanne shared her extensive knowledge of warping and weaving on the counterbalance and countermarche style loom.

Prior to the workshop, she helped us choose 8 different weaves, which we pre-warped on the looms for the following projects:

  • Havdrall table-topper — a 2 block weave that looks similar to overshot
  • Fingertip towel in Crackle — traditionally used for linens, draperies and upholstery
  • M’s and O’s — a four shaft pattern also known as “poor man’s damask”
  • Swedish Lace bread cloth — a similar weave to huck lace
  • Monk’s Belt runner — useful for decorative borders
  • Rep weave table runner — traditionally used for rugs and thicker fabrics
  • Smalandsvav runner — Picking up the pattern threads with half heddle sticks, we were able to create drawloom style patterns on a counterbalance loom.

We appreciate Joanne giving this workshop, and we learned a lot from her during these 5 days.  Below are a few photos from the workshop. Click any photo to see a larger view. If you want more information on any of the above weaves, please leave us a comment.

Hand-Tool Woodworking

Frank StrazzaThis article is an excerpt from an interview with Frank Strazza, featured in the January 2012 issue of our SustainLife Quarterly Journal. Frank is an award-winning craftsman who teaches woodworking classes and seminars and develops woodworking curriculum at The Ploughshare.

Ploughshare: Can you elaborate on why you have more of a hand tool focus?

Frank Strazza: Working with hand tools really does slow down the process to where you can understand how the tools work and how the joints work. It gives you greater sensitivity to your work because when you’re working with a machine, a lot of times you’re disconnected from your work. You’ve got on all the safety equipment—ear protection, eye protection, dust protection—which tends to disconnect you from what you’re doing. You don’t experience it the same way as you can with hand tools.

When I’m working with a hand tool, there’s a whole different feeling. When I teach woodworking, I try to get students to listen to the sound of the plane when it’s going through the wood. They learn to feel how much or how little pressure to apply. They have to look, and see, “Oh, the shaving’s thicker on this side, and it’s not as thick on this side.” They have to feel the blade protruding. “Is it coming out more on this side?” So they’re using their senses. They’re smelling the wood; they’re experiencing it. You get to experience the work in a totally different way, a way that you don’t with power tools.

And what’s interesting is, a lot of times, people have a misconception about hand tools: that it’s a slow, archaic way of doing things. It’s not that hand tools didn’t work, but they just didn’t keep pace with the industrialization of society. So hand tools slowly fell by the wayside, and power tools took their place. And also, what a lot of woodworkers do is set up a mini-factory in their garage. But I find that many students say, “This is what I want to do. Hand tools are just so much more enjoyable”. You can do that in a small space, and it’s safe. You can still get cut with a hand tool, but it’s going to be far less severe than if you were to get cut with a machine.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a workbench class, and one of my students was hand planing the top of his workbench. Just imagine, this is a hard maple top, and it’s 31 inches wide and seven feet long, and he’s been planing it for quite some time. Someone walks in and says to him, “Well, what is that? That probably takes at least twice as long to do it by hand doesn’t it?” And I kind of just laughed inside because he’s missing the whole concept here. There are some things that the best way to them is by hand. All woodworking can be done totally by hand. Only part of it even can be done with a machine. If your aim is to mass produce something, it may be worth it to set up a machine that can efficiently mass produce it, but the finest pieces of furniture that were ever built during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were done entirely by hand.

I don’t mind using power tools for rough stock removal, but hand skills are necessary to do the finer joints and the finer details, such as the hand planing of the top. The truth of it is, there really would’ve been no mechanized way to flatten that workbench top without a huge industrial machine that very few shops could even have.  It would have to be something big enough to run the top through, in order to get it perfectly flat. But a hand plane will do it; it’ll get the top perfectly flat.

For more information, see our list of woodworking classes. To preview or subscribe to our journal, visit: SustainLife Quarterly Journal.

Essential Beekeeping Tools

Cap, veil, suit and gloves

Cap, veil, suit and gloves

If you are looking to get started with beekeeping and do not yet have equipment, here are the tools you’ll need:

  • Hive Tool — This is a small, steel pry-bar. Because bees are always producing wax and always waxing the inside of their hive, the parts of the hive get stuck together by the wax.  In the winter, I’ve had Langstroth hives waxed together so well that you could pick up the hive by the lid, and the entire hive would come up in one piece, and these hives weren’t light. The hive tool is what you use to pry the parts of the hive apart so that you can work on and inspect the hive.
  • Smoker — The smoker is a metal cannister you can fill with wood chips, grass and leaves then ignite. It makes smoke in a controlled way.  Whenever bees sense that something is coming to their hive (such as a bear or a beekeeper), they react by putting out an alarm pheromone–a scent that tells all the bees: “Danger is present.”  The smoke masks, or covers up, this alarm pheromone. When getting ready to look inside a hive,  I always use  a smoker, even at times when you could get by without it, because it keeps the bees calm, and that makes it safer–both for them and you.
  • Cap and Veil — The veil protects you from getting stung on the face and neck.  Some beekeepers go without any protective gear, but it’s safer to wear it. In my classes, I always ask students to please wear a veil.
  • Suit — The suit is not essential. I don’t wear one, but many beginning beekeepers will feel more comfortable around their bees if they do.  It’s basically a set of coveralls with a zipper front. Just be aware that it’s not foolproof–you can occasionally get stung, even with a suit, veil and gloves on.
  • Gloves — Beekeeper’s gloves are usually made of leather and cloth. They protect your hands and extend up to the forearm so that if you’re wearing long sleeves, which I recommend, they’ll cover the end of your sleeve well, so that bees don’t crawl in.
  • Bee Brush — When inspecting the combs or harvesting the honey, you can use this brush to gently brush the bees off the comb.

In terms of cost, most of these tools are fairly inexpensive. Smokers will run about $30-40, a veil and cap together are about $22, gloves are around $15 and a bee brush is under $5.  After you’ve gotten a hive, which you can purchase or build yourself, the bees are the biggest expense. A 3 pound package of bees, which is a good size to start with, runs about $110-130. Altogether, you should be able to start your first hive for under $400.

You can click any photo in the gallery below to see a larger view.

Learn More about Beekeeping

To learn more, see our online beekeeping videos or see our classes on beekeeping and other agricultural skills.

What Makes Weaving “Fun”?

One of the contributors to a weaving magazine described her recent project as the “most mundane piece [she’s] ever undertaken … non-creative and repetitious beyond belief,” yet later in the article, she goes on to say “it’s one of the most engaging projects” she’s ever undertaken. This project, she tells the reader, is cloth for a pair of colonial breeches her brother will wear as a blacksmith at a living history museum.

She is discovering something we get to experience every day in our weaving shop.  Every project on our looms is either for a particular person or for the furthering of our skills as we teach and support and exchange knowledge with each other. This gives meaning to every project and task, so we would never be able to describe any project as “mundane.”

One of our apprentices wove a 4 yard sample of cotton cloth. She did this in preparation for weaving 9 1/2 yards of fabric to be made into a dress for her cousin to wear at the rehearsal dinner of her upcoming wedding. The 9 1/2 yards included enough fabric to make a shirt for the groom.  In the “tedious” job of threading the heddle, she was assisted by her sisters, age 10 and 18 and a number of friends, who handed her the more than 1,800 warp ends to be threaded onto one of the 6 shafts of our Dobby loom.  We were excited about her progress every step of the way, and when the beautiful dress and shirt were completed, we all felt a sense of fulfillment.

Yohanna, one of our weaving teachers,  just finished a commissioned piece on our drawloom.  (We purchased the drawloom 3 years ago and are still exporing its potential.)  Yohanna was asked to design an upholstery fabric to match some unique Italian tiles in peach, green, and beige tones.  On the drawloom, you can replicate any pattern that can be drawn on graph paper.  Yohanna warped up 45 pattern shafts to produce 3 different patterns simultaneously.  One of the patterns was threaded in straight draw, and two of the patterns in point, at 51 warp ends to the inch.  In creating this lovely cloth, Yohanna pushed the limits of all of her knowledge of the draw loom, and at the same time, the project opened the way for all of us in the shop to see new possibilities for this loom.

Our “work” here at Fibercrafts is never boring.  It’s a joy to wind the warp, beam on, thread heddles, adjust tension, weave within a limited time frame, deal with minor (and sometimes, major!) setbacks, put on the finishing touches, and get ready for the next project. Knowing that each project has a purpose or that we’re making it for someone we care about — that’s what makes weaving fun.

The Ploughshare Booth at February TOFGA Conference

The Ploughshare will have a booth at the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Conference (TOFGA) in Mesquite, Texas on February 17-19, Friday through Sunday. Two of The Plougshare’s staff, Butch Tindell and Aaron Alexander will be managing our booth.  We welcome you to drop by and say, “Hello.”

TOFGA is an organization that seeks to educate and facilitate networking between organic and sustainable producers (farmers and gardners) in Texas. The Ploughshare is a TOFGA member and one of the sponsors of this conference.

At the conference, there will be three days of sessions or seminars. We can’t be sure exactly what the content of these will be, but a few that looked interesting to us are:

  • Intensive Grazing (Sabino Cortez, Erath Earth)
  • Organics on a Budget (Justin Duncan, Prairie View A&M)
  • Poultry Production (Jules Assata, Shades of Green and Jennifer Huf, Slow Food Farm)
  • Goats and Lamb (Ty Wolosin, Windy Hill Farm)
  • Microogreens (Hans Hansen, Twin Persimmons Farm)
  • Drought Management Resources (Alyssa Burgin, Texas Drought Project)
  • Edible Ornamentals for North Texas (Leslie Finical Halleck, Halleck Horticultural)
  • Vermicomposting (Heather Rinaldi, Texas Worm Ranch)

To see the full list of sessions, visit:


The conference will be held at the Mesquite Convention Center at Rodeo Center.