Late Summer glory

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

This season, we find ourselves focused on crop storage and preservation. Being at home at the beginning of spring meant a re-invigoration in cooking at home and experimenting with recipes, and consequently the summer preserves and cabinets became dry and dusty by April. Our diced tomatoes and chicken stock were gone, sauerkraut running low, jams obliterated, storage potatoes long gone to eye, and pickled garlic a distant memory. And yet other freezer items remained untouched, a testament to food items that lost appeal after the growing season. (Frozen corn and I do not see eye to eye…)

So, at a time when the garden is bountiful and grocery bills minimizing, we face the real testament of dedication – setting about preserving the extra food before us.

In typical Kansas July’s, the bog-like humidity and soaring temperatures make it nearly impossible to want to spend time tending the garden beyond a quick dart outside to nab a tomato or two. To this end, we have found that morning routines are essential. Waking up around 7am, letting out the chickens, taking time to exercise and then turning our eyes to the garden has been the easiest way to avoid the stifling heat and still accomplish a lot before breakfast. It then lets us focus on the rest of our day with energy and relief that the chores are done – chickens fed and watered, garden weeded, fruit gathered, pest inspection/eradication completed. This could easily be flipped to evenings depending on your family need – this is just what works best for us when I am home on summer break from teaching and when E mostly works evenings.

This regular garden routines has helped us stay ahead of herbs bolting, vegetables rotting on the vines, and pests that would eradicate early crops, and honestly, this dedication is what we have lacked in recent years. Being proactive was not always our strong-suit, and previous reactivity led to diminished yields in the past. For example, I would do so well as monitoring my basil plants in May and June, only to be forgetful or tired or hot as we drew closer to August. I would finally check over the plants to find them flowering profusely, miserable, and yellowing from lack of attention, so the meager yields I could gather were bitter and sad. This year alone, I’ve done at least three thorough picking of basil heads just before flowers to encourage strong growth. Because of this, I’ve made multiple batches of pesto and enough dried basil to last us at least through the next winter, and here, in mid-August, we are still producing incredible flavor.

Our main “potager”, or vegetable patch – close to 700 square feet of garden beds.

This also means being willing to set aside time to process and can or freeze what we are able – it is so easy to let excess rot, get eaten by birds, or toss into compost, but we are really trying to process as much as we can for storage as we go into this fall. And yes, this means a commitment to heating up the kitchen in the middle of August with boiling stock pots and being willing to spill tomato guts all over the counter – but if it means that I have access to homegrown tomatoes in January, then I need to be willing to put in the time now.

These are some of my tips for processing foods through canning methods:

  1. Create a spill-proof area. When you are ready to can, move your warm jars out of the warm water-bath and line them on a kitchen towel and pull that up close and tight with the stockpot of whatever you are canning. That way, you can quickly ladle in your produce into all your jars and have zero clean up – just toss the kitchen towel into the wash.
  2. If you have a partner to help you, create an assembly line. For tomatoes especially, have on person in charge of a hot/ice water bath to pull off skin, and have the other in charge of dicing/chopping. It keeps the whole assembly line moving.
  3. Pick your favorite podcast, Netflix series, or movie to have on in the background. Time flies when you are having fun!
  4. Use Siri to set timers. Your hands will be sticky and wet and you’ll be preoccupied with all your batches and processes so you won’t watch the kitchen timer. Keep your phone on the counter and ask her (or Alexa) to set the timer without you having to touch a thing.
  5. Read instructions AHEAD OF TIME. Preferably, the day or night before. We like to maximize the time we have with a stockpot full of hot water – once it’s hot, keep it hot, and process as much as possible. To tackle multiple recipes, be aware of the processing requirements and which batches you can overlap. Peaches and tomatoes usually need 10-15 minutes of processing time – but meat can take 50 minutes. So I know that I can make peaches and tomatoes together, but my soup and stew recipes probably need to be processed separately.
Dilled carrots, blackberry jam, pickled beets and carrots, pickled peppers, and fermenting hot sauce.

To help maximize our produce this year, E’s daily monitoring for pests (and subsequent eradication) has been so crucial, and our lovely chicken ladies have been more than obliging to take care of the extra bugs for us. You may recall that our suburban chicken coop setup means that they are in a chicken tractor 24/7 – they are in a controlled free-range setup, but don’t have total access to the garden. Subsequently, they have been delighted by the dessert offerings we will bring them – cabbage loopers scraped off kale leaves, bagworms from the patio, grasshoppers nabbed from sunflowers and hops, Japanese beetles and squash bugs from the vines, you name it. Now that our darling girls celebrate six months in the Epperson household today (happy birthday, chicklets!), they have begun laying the most gorgeous egg yolks thanks to all the yummy protein sources (including what they scavenge) and nutritive content they glean from the yard. We are still working on converting the grass to clover and other nutrient-rich sources that double as carbon-capturing plants, but even so, the quality of their eggs is a huge testament to what lawns have lurking beneath the green carpet.

To my fellow suburbanites out there – your grass is not just grass! There are so many beneficial organisms and life cycles occurring in your yard – it deserves your love and attention, too! (And, you should know, that we haven’t done a single thing to prep the grass areas they roam – it is untreated and unfertilized, and yet they are finding so much good from this green habitat!)

I hope your late summer is proving to be bountiful and beautiful!

Showers & flowers

What a season! Our spring garden is winding down and our summer garden is beginning to thrive. In just a few months, we transitioned from a bare, cold patch of soil to a thriving space of early spring crops. This has been our most successful year of spring crops yet, and we think we can credit this to a few new methods this year:

  1. Companion planting, 2.0
  2. No-dig gardening
  3. Staggered garden seasons

Companion Planting, 2.0

Many gardeners use companion planting as a method of supporting plants in their gardens, or, at least knowing which ones to avoid planting together (tomatoes and potatoes don’t mix!). With the help of companion planting research and permaculture studies, Evan put together a mix of spring plantings designed to support one another and deter pests from the garden.

We planted four rows of the following plants, but in varying starting orders: spinach, onions, romaine, carrots, beets, radishes, and “Four Seasons” lettuce. The rows had the same order, but each row started with a different plant so that the location of the individual species were staggered. While we had kale and peas obliterated one bed over by rabbits, these beds of spring crops were virtually untouched! We had some issues with slugs on deteriorating lettuce leaves, but in all, we had a lot of great success with companion planting.

Companion planting at work! Onions, radishes, Four Seasons Lettuce, romaine, beets, and carrots, staggered in plantings.

We started these seeds inside with a method suggested by Charles Dowding, a no-dig gardener on YouTube. In February, we sowed multiple seeds per pod and didn’t thin until much after we transplanted. This allowed us to grow many more plants and take advantage of young lettuce leaves, spring green onions, and tender spinach leaves as the plants grew up.

Because we harvested slowly and for individual meals rather than one fell swoop of harvesting, we counted our harvest by the number of portions – and this year alone, we harvested over 100 salads! For the price of a couple of seed packets, we saved weeks worth of greens we would’ve otherwise bought from the store – and, we have seeds ready to save for next year to ensure another round of growing. This is the kind of sustainability we are working for – though we could eventually expand to selling to friends and family. But for now, it’s about providing for ourselves and ensuring we know how the food is produced.

No-Dig Gardening

This is one that will take some time to reap the benefits – but believe it or not, in just a few years we will be virtually weed-free. Isn’t this the bane of many gardeners, spending hours in the burning sun, trying to save your tomatoes from the weeds encroaching upon them? For me, it’s what makes me give up mid-season – gardening is all well and fine until your beds look like a quarantine haircut. So, to cope with weeds now and in the future, we are trying to commit to putting at least an inch of compost down on our garden a year, which serves two purposes; 1) to deliver amazing nutrient benefits to our garden, and 2) to work as a mulch to suppress the weeds.

The more we have learned about tilling and hoeing, the more we learn that it just brings growth and seeds to the surface and scatters the weeds further. So, instead, we will be using the compost as mulch to suppress the weeds over time, which takes commitment to creating compost. In May, we added a vermicomposting bin to the process – 1000 red wrigglers are here to help break down compost and excrete worm castings and worm tea over time, which will only add beneficial nutrients and micronutrients to our soil. What others buy at the store for $10-15 a bag, we will have ready for free in 6 weeks or less!

Come fall, we can also turn our chickens loose in the garden to work on spent plants and any extra growth. Evan built them a temporary “play pen” in the corner by our pond, and in three days they ate all the chives and yarrow we had growing around our new apple tree. Our yarrow is more than prolific, so we weren’t worried about it growing back, but it was a good practice run to see how they would do with full grown plants. It’s been confirmed – they will definitely eat them. 🙂

15 week old beauties! Golden, Silver, and Red Blue-Laced Wyandottes. Eggs will happen anytime between 18-24 weeks.

Staggered Garden Plans

For the last couple of years, we tried (in vain) to grow three seasons of crops in one bed. We tried starting the seeds indoors and transplanting, but inevitably the plants in the garden needs longer to mature and finish off and our seedlings got choked, leggy, and root-bound while waiting for transplant. Our spring crop always trailed into late June when we needed to have our summer vegetables in by mid-May, which delayed our fall crops into practically non-existence or frosty, undeveloped remains. Last year our summer crops were so late, we harvested corn and zucchini in October!

Anise hyssop, thyme, blueberries, and blackberries.

So, this year, we staggered our bed usage into either 1) one long season production, or 2) two “normal” season production setups that were sandwiched or alternated with cover cropping for rejuvenation. Here’s this year’s layout:

Bed 1: Perennial berry bed, exempt from the current rotation.

Beds 2 & 9: Used to be a walking path, is being sheet-mulched this year with cardboard and compost to ready the soil. Will be a cover-crop in the fall when the sheet-mulching is done.

Beds 3 & 4: Long-term spring veggies, extra short summer cover crop, fall veggies. This started with potatoes, kale, and peas this year – peas and kale have been attacked pretty harshly by rabbits and cabbage moth worms. The potatoes will be ready to harvest in July, so we’ll be on a tight turnaround to work a cover crop through and then sow fall crops.

Beds 6 & 8: Spring veggies, summer cover crop, fall veggies. We finished harvesting spring veggies (lettuces, carrots, beets, spring onions, radishes, spinach) in mid-June. This will have a short-lived cover crop (like buckwheat or clover) for the summer and then will transition back to transplanted fall veggies in August/September. These two beds will lean heavily on spring & fall production with soil revitalization happening in the summer/winter.

Beds 5, 7, & 10: Spring cover crop, summer veggies, fall cover crop. These are our polyculture summer beds and the ones that we dream about in the wintertime. Bed 5 has a polyculture blend of tomatoes, peppers, basil, and calendula, which work together to support one another nutritionally as well as ward off pests. 7 & 10 follow the “Three Sisters” Native American model of corn, beans, and squash (with melons, luffa, zucchini, and cucumber). These beds were sown & transplanted while our spring crops were still going strong. They will lean heavily on summer production and focus on soil revitalization in the fall and winter with winter wheat and red clover.

Bed 11: Pollinator mix, one of our newest beds, also exempt from our current rotation.

It sounds complicated, but it actually makes our lives simpler by spacing out the work! We will only be turning over a few beds at a time and don’t have to have massive amounts of seed starters going at a time.

Our new favorite morning routine has been getting up early, letting out our beautiful, soon-to-be-egg-laying ladies, and working through the garden. We hunt for berries, inspect vegetables, watch Evan pull weeds, harvest a few daily veggies and herbs, and make coffee and a breakfast full of garden-fresh food. During this confusing and anxious time, this small routine has been so soothing and reconnecting – I hope your green space can bring you the same comfort and ease that ours has.

Freshening up

Panorama of the garden in spring 2020. You can see our garden beds with leftover spring crops, young tomatoes, an occasional rogue sunflower, the chicken coop in back, compost bins, and our herb patio.

Back when this blog used to be a generic blog about teaching music and our meager attempts at gardening, “Sing to Your Plants” was my creative moniker for a space that tried to play host to two big elements of my life. But as time went on, I found that while I love teaching, I don’t necessarily love writing about it, so my blog became increasingly focused on the plant side of cultivation rather than the cultivation of young minds.

Freshly-harvested mullein leaves – the mucilage content of this soft-leafed herb makes it fantastic for supporting mucus membranes and respiratory complaints.

Like all dreamers, we were dreaming big when we first set out to buy a house – we wanted sprawling acreage with streams, trees, meadows, and more from where to start a small homestead. But the price tag was just too much, and we realized that perhaps the more feasible path was to buy a home in town and build equity and skills until we could afford a move. Fast forward to a modest garden and a blossoming patio area full of pollinator flowers and culinary herbs, and we realized we had an opportunity staring us in the face. We could dream and wait for the perfect farm 5, 10, 15 years down the road, or we could practice and explore the dream on a smaller scale with the space we do have. Plus, as we have found out with the spring of 2020, sustainability and self-reliance can’t wait for the dream farm. (My husband jokes that we are “Farmin’ Charmin'” by including mullein, often mislabeled as lamb’s ear, which can be used as toilet paper in a pinch.)

And so, our permaculture practices really got underway and our plans for the yard spanned multiple pages of maps, sketches, and measurements. We became determined to make the most out of the space our corner lot could offer, one square foot at a time. And so, welcome to Corner Lot Cornucopia.

While all this provides beauty, medicine, and food to our family, it also provides a thriving habitat for wildlife. We are excited to announce that as of May 2020, we are a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Foundation. Yes, even here in the center of town, we have a habitat that provides for birds, bees, chipmunks, skinks, butterflies, rabbits, toads, and so much more!

Excuse the blurry photo quality of the Eastern chipmunk that has made its home in our backyard.

We weren’t endeavoring to qualify as a Certified Wildlife Habitat, but our work to grow and provide through a permaculture lens naturally resulted in a flourishing habitat right here in our backyard. Believe it or not, getting the certification was surprisingly easy – fruiting trees & bushes, perennial herbs and pollinator mixes, our bird feeder, our water fountain, and a small pond all help establish an environment for wildlife to flourish and grow. Our setup provides food through feeders & bushes, cover & safety, water, places to raise young (mature trees and bird houses), and sustainable practices like encouraging native plants, capturing rain water, and organic practices.

Certification is certainly not necessary, and there was a small fee to be recognized, but we are glad to do it for two reasons: 1) by certifying, we are supporting the National Wildlife Foundation, and 2) displaying our sign and pictures helps inspire others to do the same for their backyards. We mounted our sign outside our fence so its viewable by onlookers using the sidewalk, and my hope is to inspire a few curious minds to look up the NWF and maybe start exploring simple ways to support wildlife in their own home. It is SO easy to get started – add a hummingbird or bird feeder, install a bird or bee house, let the dandelions grow, add a native perennial to your front yard or backyard patio (if you are a Midwest gardener like me, I would love to give you recommendations!).

All of this on less than a quarter acre. You can do it, too.

And to help, along with updating the blog layout and title, I included a new Resources page to help catalog some of our favorite resources along the way. From YouTube videos about herbs to my favorite books on chickens and even some websites on worms, I want to make it easier for those striving to move in the same direction. Check back frequently, as I will endeavor to keep adding items as we discover new allies in the fight to #growfoodnotlawns.

Spring Foraging

Did you know that you likely have a stockpile of medicine in your yard?

Red clover blossoms are known for their blood-cleansing and alterative abilities.

No, I didn’t bury ibuprofen and steroids out there. It’s time to push back on the traditional concept of “medicine” as pharmaceuticals and pharmaceuticals alone. Before we go too far, I need to say that Western medicine absolutely has a role in our lives and should be utilized any time you, or a family member, feels uncomfortable with the health situation at hand or is in grave danger. But seeing as how Western medicine tends to treat symptoms of a larger issue in our bodies, we can turn to herbs and food to promote wellness in our bodies to help prevent the symptoms in the first place.

Let’s take heart problems, for example. Years of eating a fatty, inflammatory diet, lack of a exercise regimen, and perhaps even hereditary issues like high blood pressure and diabetes has lead to a heart attack. Western medicine can absolutely patch you up, put in stints, prescribe blood-thinners or anticholeretics, and send you home with instructions to eat better and exercise more. But what they don’t necessarily do is help provide direction for how to heal your body, your arteries, and your heart rather than cope with your heart symptoms by thinning your blood and suppressing bile production in your liver.

Eating the right food and working with an herbalist can help provide the yin to Western medicine yang by addressing the rest of your body while your heart heals. What your doctor could not treat was your weight gain, the inflammation in your body that lead to your organs working harder, your skyrocketing stress from work that overburdened your heart, and probably a lot more that was contributing to the buckling of this particular organ under all the issues that were piled onto your body. Your heart is likely not the only thing that’s broken – it was just the last Jenga piece that caused your system to crash. Your Jenga puzzle was teetering to begin with.

A simple bouquet? Or a bundle of medicine? Calendula flowers, yarrow, and oregano all have medicinal properties – and chives work wonders in your garden as pest control.

I have loved studying about herbs and herbalism the past several months through some online coursework, and it has really helped me delve into trying to support my body holistically rather than target particular symptoms. For example, I tend to get headaches and neck aches that, I realized, derived from stress or lack of sleep. Once I started focusing on eliminating the stress and supporting my sleep system, the headaches started going away (or at least occurred less frequently or less intensely). This is sometimes the opposite approach of conventional medicine – just think of the commercials: Tennis player pops a few painkillers so they can keep up their game despite serious arthritis and muscle deterioration. Did you dull the pain? Yes. Did you fix the problem, which is inflamed joints and painful muscles? No. (Did you also guarantee that you will have to continue purchasing said pain medications for the rest of your life, or worse, develop addictions to pain relief? YEP.) We’re approaching our bodies with only half the solution – you can treat pain, but you need to heal your body, as well.

And again – we need Western medicine. We need the amazing abilities of our doctors to treat illness, mend our bones, monitor our vitals, vaccinate against deadly disease, and more. But we need to help ourselves with the right herbs and foods so we don’t get so sick and need their help for the processes our bodies can handle on their own if we would give them the chance.

This spring, it has been particularly exciting to start poking around our corner lot and see what kind of herbs are sprouting in the yard on their own. A trip to the neighborhood park yielded even more exciting discoveries. I know a lot of you think that herbalism is expensive and chock full of essential oils, and sure, it certainly can be. (Reishi mushrooms can sell upwards of $25 per POUND and the tincture at $10 per OUNCE. It is glorious, though.) But when there’s so much free stuff just in your backyard, why not start there?

These are some of my new favorites from my yard and the neighborhood. Now, while I have studied herbalism extensively and will soon have my certificate, I am not allowed to prescribe, diagnose, or treat you. I can, however, happily talk to you about suggestions for how these herbs are traditionally used and give you a glimpse into some of the benefits of using them for yourself. (Working with a herbal practitioner is always the safest route for specific conditions, just as working directly with your doctor is just as important.)

Dandelion Root & Leaves

I know you all saw the “tea craze” a few years back – “Drink this tea daily, and you’ll shed 10 pounds of water weight a DAY!” If you truly want to detoxify your body – and when we say detox your body, we are really focusing on kidney & liver detoxification, then dandelion root and/or leaves are wonderful for supporting this.

Will you lose a crazy amount of water weight? Probably not. (And if you did, you’ll gain it right back unless you have seriously altered your diet.) But dandelion root tea can be an excellent way to support a healthful liver and flush the byproducts from your liver and kidneys. Your liver is key to your whole system, because it takes what you consume and breaks it down into monosaccharides, amino acids, and fatty acids & lipids that your body needs for energy, nutrients, and vitality. The more processed foods and alcohol we feed it, the harder it has to work and the more of the toxins are left for your liver to try to expel out through your elimination system. Dandelion root or a combination of root and leaves, often taken as a tea, can help serve as a diuretic that flushes your system and doesn’t strip your body of its potassium in the process, unlike traditional diuretics. (But you should still eat your banana.)

Plantain

This is nature’s bandage. And holy cow, is it everywhere! Plantain loves to grow in damaged, disturbed soils by roads and sidewalks. (If you gather some, herbalism communities suggest you gather fifty-feet from the road to avoid pollution and to know whether the area has been treated for herbicides/pesticides before attempting to use it.)

If you are outside and get a burn, blister, sting, or a scrape, you can grab one of these leaves (wash it first) and wrap it over the wound. To be most effective and, therefore, release plantain’s astringent and cooling actions, chew it up in your mouth and apply to the wound directly (this is called a “spit poultice” – works well in a pinch!). Evan burned his hand on a stripped screw to the point of blistering, and he immediately put plantain on it – after twenty minutes, it was almost numb! The subsequent application of a fresh plantain leaf, aloe, and a pain salve almost completely healed the blister. I’m collecting and drying leaves now so that I can use them in tinctures and dry poultices this fall and winter when the plants die back.

Mullein

Pandemic friends, fear hoarding no more – for the toilet paper plant is here! This often gets mistaken for lamb’s ear, but mullein is much bigger and actually flowers in its second year. It has a very soft leaf, so yes, it makes the short list for a toilet paper substitute. If you can keep it long enough, it can also provide wonderful lung and respiratory support.

Mullein is an example of a plant that can be identified for use according to the Doctrine of Signatures – this was a very old way of trying to identify what part of the body the herb would support by observing the herb. Yarrow leaves, for example, looks like veins and capillaries, and so early herbalists (correctly) theorized that yarrow specifically targets circulatory support.

Mullein is covered in tiny hairs all over the leaves, and these hairs were believed to mimic the cilia of your respiratory tracts. And so it works its wonders as a tincture or in a tea as an expectorant and anti-inflammatory support system for your lungs. If you do try to work with mullein at home in an oral fashion, make sure you fine strain the mixture very carefully, or the tiny hairs will irritate your throat!

Mullein is known as a pioneer plant – it is one of the first plants to grow in an area that has been disturbed by fire, heavy tilling, or some other kind of soil destruction, much like plantain.

Cleavers

I love learning about the different names for plants, because many of them are, as you know, named for their distinct appearance or role. You have probably angrily pulled cleavers from your garden to realize that they cling to your skin, your clothes, and your pets – “sticky willy” or “catchweed” is very accurate, indeed!

I have not yet worked with cleavers directly, but I have some drying in my kitchen as we speak. I was surprised to find it pop up by my fence and happily took advantage of a few pieces once it started flowering.

Cleavers is known to be a wonderful tonic for your lymphatic system. Remember when I mentioned addressing your whole system rather than a symptom? If you are always catching a cold or suffering from frequent infections, having a hard time recovering from illnesses, or suffering from immunity issues, analyzing your immune and lymphatic systems becomes very important. Keeping your immune system in healthy working order helps you possibly not get ill in the first place, or at least be able to fight the illness more easily.

Your lymphatic system, in particular, helps remove waste, dead blood cells, and pathogens from your system (and connects your various lymph nodes, spleen, and T-gland, which can produce cancer-fighting cells, throughout your body – your lymph nodes swelling are often a sign that your body is fighting off something). If your lymphatic system is struggling, it can mean your immunity and health is struggling, too – and suddenly the Jenga pieces are getting yanked out rapidly.

Calendula is one of my favorites – although it probably doesn’t grow in your backyard, it’s easy enough to find calendula seeds or plants at a nursery. They are in the marigold family, have edible petals, and help deter garden pests – and for the herbal world, are wonderful for topical pain relief.

Are you interested in learning more about herbs and herbalism? This book is a great place to start – Rosemary Gladstar is often considered a Mother of Herbalism in the herbal world and has some great literature and recipes to get you started with things in your cupboard now. Or, jump right in with me and take some herbal courses online! It’s never too late to learn more about what’s growing around you – and how you can use it to keep your body whole and thriving. (Jenga pieces not included.)

Be well, friends!

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Browse Pinterest or any manner of positivity quotes and you’ll likely stumble across this bit: “Bloom where you’re planted.” It may be cliche, but for this spring, it’s an apt assessment of our gardens – and my anxious mindset during this pandemic.

So much has developed over the past few months, and much of this has to do with the virus. My work as a teacher has shrunk considerably – and while it’s a relief to be able to work as I’m able, being trapped in this work/home bubble has been exhausting and miserable at times. At least when work was a location away from home you could turn off the light, close the door, and drive away. Here, at home, it’s hard to separate work hours from home hours or to relax when all the chores and tasks follow me from room to room.

When faced with anxiety, I get busy – I bury myself in work, chores, cleaning, anything to distract me from myself. And with warming temperatures, I’ve turned to the backyard and the garden to chip away at the worry of it all.

Chiefly, our main focus has been in the main garden, where the majority of our annual crops will be growing this year. Last year, we had 4-5 twenty-foot beds that we expanded to 8 beds this year. Not all will be planted for crops this year – several will have cover-cropping to get them started after sheet-mulching, but already we have greatly expanded our growing space.

From March – to May! The seedlings we started in February are now growing big and strong. We have radishes, Four Seasons lettuce, romaine, onions, beets, and spinach that we transplanted in March and are just now coming into their season. We are so excited by the success of transplanting – last year, we direct sowed much of our spring crops and had only mild success. This year, we are bursting at the seams with salads and greens, and we think that we have much to thank for planting seeds thickly and transplanting.

Outside of the garden, two of the bigger projects continue to be the chickens and a permaculture staple: swales!

Our chickens are turning 10 weeks old this weekend and have been frolicking in the sunshine for the last three weeks in their coop. Several weeks before transitioning out, we made it a point to take everyone out several times for longer and longer periods so they had experience with their run and the sounds outside. Once they were over the initial shock of car sounds and other bird calls, they were positively buoyant – flying from one end to another of their coop, flapping their wings, sunning themselves, chasing after worms, and snipping at yummy herbs and morsels.

Sunning oneself requires ample stretch room, the fanning of feathers, and several siblings to poke and wiggle around you.

When the temperatures were finally stable with lows in the 50s, we moved everyone out for good – and they haven’t looked back!

It’s hard to believe these goofy girls have fourteen more weeks of growing. At their prime, they’ll be 6-8 pounds – Wyandottes are known for being a dual-purpose breed, meaning they’re good for egg-laying as well as a meat bird, but we’ll keep them only for eggs.

The coop, as you can see, gets moved throughout the yard for the chickens to free-range safely but also work our grass and our soil with some of the best fertilizer you can find. One element of the yard that we will navigating carefully are some new water catchment systems called ‘swales.’ A cornerstone of permaculture includes evaluating your resources (or lack thereof), and over the past couple of years we have realized that we have an overabundance of water when it rains.

Water runs down to our yard from several neighbors to the west, pooling and flooding over half the yard during heavy rains. But, as it is Kansas, we can go weeks during the summer without a drop of rain. So, we need a system to slow down the water, trap it, and absorb it in the places we need it – and swales are the answer!

Evan developed and dug a system of trenches in the yard as well as in the garden itself – and it didn’t take long for them to fill up. The dirt from the trenches is mounded on the other side of the trench for additional growing areas and then benefit directly from the water being absorbed just behind it, cutting down immensely on the need to water.

Our swales border new permaculture additions to the backyard – two goumi bushes, two dwarf apples, a mulberry, and three cherry trees, surrounded with chives and garlic to keep away munching predators.

One neat trick about these trenches, though, is that they don’t have to stay empty to work – fill them with mulch, and the trench can still function but remain even with the rest of the ground.

But where does one get mulch during a pandemic?

The answer: tree companies! Here was yet another example of examining your resources and the resources of your community. Our city compost center has mulch, but has been closed for nearly seven weeks now due to stay-at-home orders. Hardware store mulch is prohibitively expensive and labor-intensive to load, haul, unload, and de-bag. Tree services will always have an abundance of mulch, so I contacted a local service and arranged for a delivery of a truckload for $40. My husband said that I looked like Smaug sitting on a bed of gold and riches after the delivery.

The past few weeks have been so exhausting but so fulfilling. In a time when all we can do is stay at home, I am so grateful that it has at least been at a time of warmth and growing things to keep us occupied.

If this pandemic has got you thinking about your own self-sustainability, from gardening to chickens to preserving foods or even just buying locally, please reach out. We were lucky to have started these dreams long before this pandemic and we are so grateful for the resources we have already begun to amass. Evan and I believe not just in the stewardship of the earth, but in the stewardship of each other – we are here to support you on your journey to self-sufficiency in any way we can.

(Or, you know, to commiserate over Midwest freezes and ice storms over Easter weekends.)

Be well, friends!

Teenage Girls and Coop Plans

This spring has proven to be the most surreal experience. We had been gearing up for spring break, trying to plan all our big projects and organizing for one week, only to find out that Kansas closed schools for the rest of the school year due to COVID-19. My brain hurts, I slept terribly last night for nightmares and uncertain dreams about missing my kiddos at school, and I’m exhausted, so I won’t go into details here and now. Needless to say, until we start semi-teaching again online in two weeks, I have a lot of time on my hands.

While the girls are growing, I’ve been trying to accomplish various tasks and projects around the house. We brought home chicks just over two weeks ago, but I have a sneaking suspicion we are actually closer to three weeks old. We’ve recently started establishing the pecking order with two of my Golden-laced girls doing lots of chest-bumping and surprise landings to spook and intimidate.

2 weeks old! Dandelions are yummy, especially when they come attached to dirty roots that might have some creepy crawlies left in them.

To help with the pecking order chaos, I’m trying to keep them occupied with an extra feeder, lots of sticks to climb and play on, and a variety of engaging treats. We love hard-boiled egg so far (yes, you can and should feed cooked egg to babies!) and are especially excited by Daddy’s leftover seedlings from thinning. We will pick up a little Romaine seedling and run peeping through the brooder with the rest of the girls at our backs!

Our brooder set up for 12 chicks, expanded at 2 weeks old: now featuring chick grit, a dust bath, extra feeders & waterers, lots of sticks, fun greens, and their favorite place to drop excrement – the top of the brooder warmer plate.

A big point of excitement, and relief, for us was to finally finish building the coop. We purchased plans online and hoped to build it ourselves, but this ended up being a big and expensive project! We knew it wouldn’t be cheap to buy a coop anyways, but I was hoping to spend less than $500, and it cost closer to $700 after materials.

It was our first carpentry project, and we didn’t bite off an easy one to start. We had to make some alterations as we went because some measurements were off and we made some mistakes reading the plans, but we are very happy with how it turned out!

All I need is a sign for the front, and we’re complete!
Nesting boxes to the right (I’ll fill with burlap later), roots in the middle (hardware cloth tacked underneath), and a ramp at the front. It’s my understanding that we will not need to close the bottom of the coop up in the winter – circulation is essential for them and their little bodies will provide a lot of radiant heat. Another bonus to buying Wyandottes – they’re cold hardy, featuring smaller combs and fluffier feathers.
Nesting boxes, pre-burlap sacks.

The coop is moveable, even by me – I added a rope to the front so I can pull it around the yard. The girls will have full access to the soil, bugs, grass, and snacks while staying confined and safe from neighborhood disturbances and at night they can climb the ramp to sleep above group for added safety. It combines so many elements I was looking for in a coop all into one package, and fingers crossed that it works well for the gals!

With some extra time the last couple of days I’ve continued to do some prep to the garden – cleaning out the leaves and large debris in the garden and building a larger woodpile, now that we’re low on wood. Now’s a time to keep busy in between the rains.

In the midst of all this chaos, being stuck at home and without much to do invites us to slow down. We’ve been stuck in a whirlwind of engagements, to-do lists, meetings, expectations, long days, for months. As miserable as a time as this might be, what with social distancing and all, perhaps its a call to heal, to slow, and to be thoughtful. While working in the garden this week I had so many opportunities to admire tiny sprouts, little feathers, and wee mushrooms.

3 week old Golden-Laced Wyandotte.

I’ll leave you all with this quote from Kitty O’Meara for tonight:

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

“And when the danger passed, the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed. “

May you dream and heal wonderfully over the next few weeks and months.

The Chicks are Here!

Silver-laced and Gold-laced Wyandotte chicks!

Years of dreaming and months of planning have finally come together – we’ve brought home chickens!

We’ve been talking and dreaming about our eventual farm for years. The more we’ve learned and read about sustainable farming and gardening, the more we’ve realized that animals needed to be a part of our agricultural process. So much of our time is spent working on improvement of the soil, making it not only easier for plants to grow and to increase the yield but also to increase the healthiness of the plants themselves; we want plants dipped in microbiology and infused with minerals and vitamins soaked up from a nutrient-rich soil. Conventional farmers add fertilizers to their top soils, and not only does that not solve the problem, but it’s expensive and unsustainable. So how do I make the soil healthier?

In short – chickens! Chickens, ideally paired with larger pooping machines, like cows and goats, add wonderful, rich fertilizer to the ground through their waste matter. Chickens are also great walking composters – they dig and scratch and turn over the ground, working through vegetation and soil as they move. So in our plans for a diverse global network of herbs, vegetables, and fruits out back, we decided that chickens seemed like the logical next step.

That next step, however, came with some realizations. By buying chickens, I was consigning myself to a set schedule every day. Up around dawn to let the birds out and collect eggs, and back home at sunset to reverse the process. Being home later because of a meeting or hanging out with friends doesn’t just mean that the cats are hungrier for an extra hour, now it means that predators can start hunting my flock in the gathering dark. On top of that, chickens aren’t something many people are comfortable watching over for vacations – dog-sitting is one thing, but chicken-sitting? (It’s not unheard of, but certainly not the most straight-forward of jobs.)

Taking the leap into chickens meant giving up some of the independence away from home, but ultimately the benefits outweighed that negative for us. Free sources of healthy protein (eggs), a possible side gig selling extras, improved soil health, and giving some living animals a chance at a happy, fulfilling life spent foraging and eating truly healthy, organic food sounded so invigorating and exciting that we couldn’t help but finally say “yes.”

We are lucky enough to live in a city that allows chickens, goats, ducks, and bees, all within city expectations, of course. According to the square footage on our 1/4 acre lot, we could technically have 20 birds (whoa!). We decided to settle on 6 as a decent starting point, fully aware that we could lose a bird in the process or gain a few if we felt generous.

As you may know, a very traditional way of ordering birds is by having them shipped through post. At a day old, they have enough nutrients left over from the egg to last them 24-48 hours in the mail, provided conditions are kept just right. (And yes, all sorts of things go wrong this way – hence why I immediately crossed this off my list of possibilities for picking out birds.) Farm supply stores often get shipments of chicks, though they are not always healthy and don’t often have the heritage and unique breeds. (These, as another Facebook poster reminded me, are also often sent to the stores through the mail – hello, stress!)

So, I turned to Craiglist and Facebook, searching for hatcheries or other local farms who would have some chicks. I was lucky enough to find a hatchery only a couple of hours away and, better yet, they had a chick day scheduled at a feed supply store just north of town! I called ahead and ordered 8 Wyandotte girls – and yes, I sprung for 8, because when we started putting together the coop we felt like we could very comfortably put 8 birds inside.

Silver-laced darlings.

If you haven’t seen a Wyandotte chicken, you absolutely must stop reading and Google search them! We ordered silver-laced Wyandottes and gold-laced Wyandottes, though I would have gladly taken some blue-laced if they were a variety that could be sexed at birth easily (city limits prohibit roosters here.) I will include some pictures of these beauties when mine are full grown so I don’t break any copyright usage from other chicken mommas. 🙂

And so the day came to pick up the baby girls – and naturally, we got there and couldn’t resist getting an extra two birds (plus, there was a discount to get at least 10). Evan and I thought this would be a gamble, but hey, sometimes things happen while they’re growing! What we didn’t expect was for the hatchery gentlemen to toss two extra birds into our box as a fail-safe in case sexing didn’t turn out correctly and we had some roos. My husband and I looked at each other like we had just been told we were having twins – we were bringing home TWELVE birds, not the six we had planned on?!

These squeaky, squirrelly girls have been a delight the first couple of weeks – we set them up in a round brooder that can accommodate additional panels as they grow older and a heater panel rather than a lamp to provide warmth as they grow. I liked the heating panel because it resembles a mother hen’s warming abilities – chicks scurry underneath to cuddle and then can emerge and explore as they are comfortable, and I can lower the temperature as well as raise the panel as they grow. Heat lamps do not have heat control and can overheat and start fires – no, thank you!

Brooder, all ready to go!

We did not choose to vaccinate or provide medicated food for the girls – but I have been putting apple cider vinegar in their water and providing grit and dust baths in addition to an organic feed. So far, out of 12 birds I have only had one issue with pasty butt (where a diarrhea-like fecal matter builds up on the feathers, dries, and blocks the vent so that the chicks cannot eliminate and can potentially die) but we cleared up immediately. That little one is definitely the smallest of the birds we brought home and I have affectionately named her “Squirt” (get it?).

Hello, Squirt! (With that comb development 2 weeks along, I have to wonder if Squirt is actually a boy…)

Our adventures have only begun with these silly girls, and we are so excited to see them grow and blossom! Stay tuned, because I have so much more to share about their coop and their adventures as younglings.

Late Winter, 2020

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I hope this day finds you warm, well, and excited for spring! We are gearing up for an exciting season of growing and expansion. February finds us deep into seedling cultivation and baby chick planning.

This spring, we have three main goals:

  1. Sheet mulch and cultivate new growing areas in the backyard #growfoodnotlawns
  2. Establish hundreds (if not thousands!) of seedlings so that we can get a head start on spring planting
  3. Start a flock!

Sheet Mulching: #growfoodnotlawns

Setting landscape timbers on the edge of the garden, February 2020.

Thanks to Evan’s new research in permaculture, we’re trying a new method to help create a mini-food forest in our own backyard. Later this spring, we will be adding Nanking cherries, apple trees, Goumi bushes, and mulberry trees, but in the meantime, we are focusing on our “potager,” our garden area full of herbs, flowers, and vegetables. We previously had four long beds of single-row vegetables and this year we will be trying more of a keyhole style with much more integrated and dependent vegetables and herbs. More on this in the future!

Sheet mulching involves building organic matter through the decay from a three-bean-casserole style of mulching: cardboard (no plastic or stickers), green matter (grass & compost), and leaves. Early spring rains have been a perfect catalyst for the process – and the robins have been eagerly monitoring the decaying process!

Seedlings

We are extremely excited about a new method we are trying for seeds this year! In the past, we have started tomatoes and peppers inside and not much else. Our plans for checking and maintaining them daily were inconsistent due to rough schedules, so some days they struggled to thrive. We managed to keep them alive along enough for outside, but seedlings sown outside took so long to get started that we couldn’t fully exercise a three season garden between spring, summer, and fall – by the time the spring crops were healthy enough to produce, we were supposed to have summer crops sown, and the timing was just all sorts of off. (We were harvesting zucchinis in October…)

By sheer luck of letting YouTube play suggested videos one evening, we stumbled across a cute English gardener with hundreds of videos about no dig gardening. If you haven’t watched or read anything from Charles Dowding, then you ought to look him up – if nothing else, than for the way he pronounces “compost”with an English accent. Dowding starts everything in a greenhouse – kale, lettuce, beets, onions, you name it, it’s started ahead of time, and with 4-6 seeds per cell at a time. We realized that this method would buy us an entire extra season of growing if we could start things indoors and move out as young-to-teenage plants.

Fast forward to February, and we have two table-tops of seedlings laid out and thriving! Every day we turn the lights on and mist/water the trays and check it all again in the evening. On warm days, we move trays to the mini cold frame we constructed this fall to enjoy some true sunlight.

DIY cold frame with herbs and black bottles to absorb heat. On a 50-60 degree day, this cold frame can get to 90 degrees!

Currently in the trays: Detroit dark red beets, lettuce (Romaine and 4-Season Marvel), yellow sweet onions, Champion radishes, Bloomsdale spinach, Darkibor kale, and Lincoln sweet peas. My herbs: Valerian, bee balm, sage, lemon balm, St. John’s wort, chamomile, with elecampane and marshmallow on deck.

Mini Manure Makers

We have talked and dreamed about chickens for YEARS, and it’s finally time! (My mother and I joke that we should throw a baby chick shower for the girls!) We are in the process of building a big, beautiful coop courtesy of Kelly at the Green Willow Homestead – the best example I could find of a chicken tractor that provided protected ranging and a roost above the ground with minimal plastic usage.

With all our focus and work towards creating a food forest in the backyard, the first area of focus has to be soil. And what better way to help improve the soil than to employ mini manure makers and tillers to clear the path? (I am also incredibly stoked about the mosquito and garden pest elimination!)

With much research and reading, we’ve decided to bring home 6-8 Wyandotte chickens. I picked them for their ability to forage (enclosed run will be moved every day through our yard), cold hardiness, docile nature (though they apparently need some extra space and can be domineering with other breeds), and consistent laying, even through the wintertime. They aren’t a typical household breed, but they sure are gorgeous!

MyPetChicken.com has a lot of fabulous resources for your coop – this brooding “box” came from Amazon and is easy to clean and store.

We have a brooding box of sorts set up (circles keep the babies from getting stuck in corners) and have been sanitizing and cleaning with a gentle detergent this week in anticipation of bringing them home this weekend. Wish us luck on the first day at home!

If you are interested in reading more about raising birds, I’ve been a fan of two particular books in my research thus far:

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens provides an encyclopedia of knowledge through basic care, illness, troubleshooting, and is a fantastic how-to guide for chickens. It really is an all-encompassing guide for a lot of traditional methods for raising birds in a variety of situations.

After reading Storey’s Guide, I picked up the Small Scale Poultry Flock based on recommendations for how to provide a more holistic and natural setup for the birds. Harvey Ussery digs into free-ranging, creating homemade blends of food with a scientific basis, and suggestions for more natural and holistic approaches, like how to assist molting and wintering processes with food and supplements rather than fighting the natural systems with lightbulbs to lengthen the days. (Let’s not also forget that this book includes a forward by Joel Salatin, one of our favorite authors and farmers in the sustainability and farm-focused movement in our times.)

We have so many more exciting things planned this spring and cannot wait to tell you more about them. In the meantime, follow me on Instagram @singtoyourplants for more daily updates, including the new dinosaur babies!

Bottom of the coop frame is built!

pH Testing with Butterfly Pea Flower

Homemade apple cider vinegar, several weeks in (left) and freshly-started (right).

I’ve been experimenting with making my own apple cider vinegar lately – on the surface, it seems very straightforward: ferment apple cider into vinegar. But, how do you know when it’s done, or that it’s actually vinegar and, therefore, actually beneficial?

Apple cider vinegar has so many health benefits as well as cleaning uses. It helps regulate blood sugar levels, is a natural disinfectant, contains gut-boosting bacteria strains as a fermented product, and might even boost weight loss. And while ACV can be expensive at the store (costing 25 cents per ounce), it’s incredibly easy to make at home for the cost of a few apple cores.

My mixture is a jar half full of organic apple scraps (peels, cores, you name it), filled to cover with water and 1/4 cup of sugar to provide food for the natural yeasts on the apples. Yeasts consume sugar and excrete alcohol, so letting them feast on all the sweet stuff is a necessity. To speed up the process, I tossed in some Bragg’s ACV (known for containing the mother, a group of established bacteria that help kick the fermentation process off). Then, it’s time to wait!

After the bubbling concludes (4-6 weeks), remove the apple scraps and let it continue to ferment and age past the alcoholic cider level to the vinegar level. But, this is the point makes me nervous – how do I know when it’s actually done, and that I’m not just scrubbing my counters with alcoholic cider? It tastes acidic and sharp, but definitely not identical to something like Bragg’s ACV. It was cloudy, which is what I expected to see if it’s growing a mother, but also did not have the expected cloudy, film-like top that would indicate it had achieved full mother-status.

An idea struck us this weekend – rather than wondering if my homemade ACV is vinegar, why not compare it to other vinegars and try to test what’s happening?

Surely, a quick way to test my vinegar would be with a pH strip – vinegar should be at a lower pH level than wine or beer, so this would help distinguish where we are in the process of aging/fermenting. l I searched the house high and low for a pH test strip – I thought I had some buried from kombucha work, but no luck. I found some at the grocery store…for the pretty price of $12. And then we remembered what we have in the cabinets – butterfly pea flower!

Kitty helpers are never hard to find.

This beautiful, deep-blue flower that grows on a particular variety of pea can be used to dye things a brilliant shade of blue, and we’ve been playing with dried butterfly pea flower at the restaurant to make cocktails. Butterfly pea flower, when used in an acidic state, is brilliant blue, but add levels of acid to it and you gradually turn it pinker as it responds to the acidity change. The cocktail we made with it was nicknamed the hydrangea, because hydrangeas depict the acid change of soil through the colors of their petals.

Butterfly pea flower tea, in alkaline and acidic states.

I made an infusion with the butterfly pea flower and hot water to make a tea (bright blue). At the restaurant, we would use lemon juice (i.e. citric acid) to alter the chemical composition of the blue drink to a bright pink, and luckily, lemon juice and vinegar are actually very close to each other in pH levels.

0: Hydrochloric acid
1.0: Stomach acid
2.0: Lemon juice
2.2: Vinegar
3.0: Apples, soda
4.0: Wine, beer
5.0: Black coffee
6.6: Milk
7.4: Human blood & tears
8: Seawater
11: Ammonia
12.4: Lime (calcium hydroxide)

I had Bragg’s ACV on hand, so I split my butterfly pea tea into two batches so I could compare my homemade apple cider vinegar against something I knew definitively was apple cider vinegar. I added an ounce each to the cups, and in a blink of an eye, I had my results!

I had achieved vinegar status! YES! Upon close examination, I think my ACV might be a smidge under-done (on the right, ever-so-slightly more purple/blue), so I’ll have to let it go a couple of more weeks, but at least I know that I haven’t been dumping cider into my smoothies every morning.

Nature can provide us with so many fixes and options, if only we know where to look for it – and butterfly pea flower can be such a pretty fix to play with!

Growing Loofah

Have you ever grown one of these squashes in your garden? We tried growing loofah this year for the first time and got to get a tantalizing glimpse into growing our own sponges.

Loofah grows just like cucumbers and zucchini and other squashes – in fact, you can harvest young loofah and eat them just like a squash! (Though, I haven’t tried eating them myself.) Our loofah barely had time to take off due to some unfortunate circumstances with corn overshadowing them, but once we got up and going the blooms turned to fruit in no time.

Loofah flowers on the vine.

Before this summer, black beans and potatoes had been two of my most favorite vegetables or legumes to grow, but now loofah has joined the ranks. These three plants have got to be some of the easiest plants to grow – plant, water, and they proclaim to the heavens that they’re ready to harvest by dying off. It’s that easy. No guessing game of lifting the tomato or pepper and seeing if they give away in your hand easily, trying to not touch the fruits of the blueberry too soon or risk knocking them off or eating sour fruit, not trying to hide the ripe strawberries from the birds.

Black beans, or turtle beans as some know them, grow until their pods turn papery thin and the beans rattle, and by then, the rest of the plant has usually died to a crisp husk anyway. Potato greens yellow, die back, and fall to the ground when it is time. And loofahs? They steadily turn crispy and yellow themselves – drying and hollowing out with seeds falling free inside the skin. And so you have it – they tell you when it’s time to pick!

The freeze came on quickly in October and I still had a loofah growing, so we didn’t give it a chance to finish its drying process on the vine, so I tucked it into a well-ventilated area of our kitchen where it could stay cool and dry while it finished drying. Finally, in January, it was ready – seeds rattling away in the crunchy husk on the counter. I pulled off the husk by hand and did my best to pull out the seeds (because it hadn’t fully matured on the vine, many seeds were under-formed and therefore stuck), rinsed thoroughly with water, and set the loofah pieces out to dry.

And voila! Not only do we have some sponges for cleaning grown from our own backyard that will decompose beautifully back into the soil when we’re done, but I have even more seeds to plant to grow more of them next year.

Happy cleaning!