Seed starting in silicone A cheap, reusable, Earth-friendly alternative

It’s January in the South, which means time to start seeds. I’m already behind on starting many of my cold season spring seedlings, but I’m less overwhelmed than last year after a successful experiment using silicone molds to start my fall seeds.

After all the work was done last spring–the peat pots purchased, soaked, and seeded, the saved black plastic cell packs carefully sterilized after last season, the broken ones sadly discarded with a sigh and an apology to the planet–I had my yearly bout of frustration and fist waving. THERE MUST BE A BETTER WAY!

And no, it can’t be a better way that requires me making them by hand out of newspaper.

I have replaced a lot of the plastic in my kitchen with silicone over the years, so I wondered if anyone made silicone seed starting containers–that would be genius! No, no one does. I wondered whether I could buy some of the DIY kit and make my own using the traditional black plastic cell packs as molds? That seemed like a lot of work. After ruminating for a while it occurred to me that I could just buy silicone molds at the thrift store and punch holes in the bottom.

How could anyone have discarded this fabulous gem? Their loss!

I tested it this fall with my onion and shallot starts, with tremendous success. The silicone is warmer and and softer than the black plastic cell packs. Write the variety right on it with a Sharpie–it comes off with alcohol or repeated washing. They take up no space, are easy to handle when transplanting, and best of all can be sterilized in the dishwasher.

This fancier 2″ ice cube tray was harder to cut holes in and can’t be cut apart into individual cells. In this case, the cheaper options are perfect.

Ready for seeds and labeling

Happy planting <3

Summer’s Passing An (only slightly bitter) ode to the southern garden

Every year is different, but the momentous shifts always resonate in the same way. There has not been a day that quite felt cool yet, but the sun hangs lower in the sky. In our home–designed to suck in the winter rays–the shift is not subtle. The tulip poplar leaves have started to fall; a few places that are usually shaded now see dappled sunlight.

The anticipation of my favorite time of year builds every day. I can almost smell it–though not quite yet.

Past are the exhausting weeks of late July when you resent planting such a big garden because every spare moment is spent frenetically processing the harvest and the heat and mosquitoes make it miserable to be outside. There’s no time to enjoy anything because all your hard work will have been in vain if you let it rot in the field because you didn’t make time to put it up.

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The people who write garden books do not live in the South. If you leave your beans to dry on the vine, you get sprouted beans. Though Weston A. Price would pat me on the back, I can’t save these for next year’s crop.

Past are the ugly weeks of early August when everything is diseased and you want to move to Maine. The weeks where you almost pull out the tomatoes because half of them are blighted, but you don’t because you have a vague memory that there comes a point where some of them overcome adversity and make something else worth eating. The weeks where nothing is fun because it really is too early to do any fall garden preparation of any kind, so you can’t even pretend like it’s time to move on.

We are nearing the end of the long, wretched couple of months when doing garden tasks actually requires having childcare or just hoping the kids don’t kill each other because no one will even contemplate coming outside with you. You’ve also uncovered various nests of baby copperheads among your vegetables and the fire ants are everywhere, so you don’t really want them to join you, anyway.

Radical acceptance is not just for parenting. There came a point when you realized that you clearly planted your garden just so the bugs would be well nourished. They eat different things each year, and you mourn and try not to count the hours you spent getting the crop established.

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It’s okay, you can have the beans. You are really lovely and there are a lot of beans.

Well, I was excited about my sour gherkins and have gotten almost none because of you. But I think you are eating them instead of my squash, so...

Well, I was excited about my sour gherkins and have gotten almost none because of you. But I think you are eating them instead of my squash, so…

Tasty fennel.

Tasty fennel.

No, really, go right ahead.

No, really, go right ahead.

Tomato horn worm being eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps. Justice. Is. Served.

Tomato horn worm being eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasps. Justice. Is. Served.

Eating all my parsley. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great.

Eating all my parsley. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great. Butterflies are great.

The history of the Great Plains.

The history of the Great Plains.

It has taken a decade to become proficient in the garden. My expectations and time horizon for doing and learning have stretched with each season that passes. In the early years I was likely to be more upset when things went “wrong.” I still cried when the birds ate my entire sorghum crop this year, but I’ve learned to start enough experimental crops that something is likely to go right.

Being a scientist means that I don’t like taking other people’s word for things, so I often try to grow crops that everyone says can’t be grown here or attempt what seems an ingenious solution to a problem, only to realize there’s a damn good reason people don’t do it that way. But there are also successes, and I take note of the failures and move on. My soil gets better every year. The garden gets bigger with less effort each year as I become a better steward of the earth I work with.

They say don't plant moldy ginger or turmeric roots. Well, some of it was moldy so I planted it separately to study performance. In the foreground you see the handful of survivors in the moldy plot; in the background are the healthy roots. Don't plant moldy roots.

They say don’t plant moldy ginger or turmeric roots. Well, some of it was moldy so I planted it separately to study performance. In the foreground you see the handful of survivors in the moldy plot; in the background are the healthy roots. Don’t plant moldy roots.

This lone chard plant was still going strong when the rest bit it. I left it in. Turns out it made an excellent trap crop for the bugs that might otherwise be feasting on my new tender seedlings.

This lone chard plant was still going strong when the rest bit it. I left it in. Turns out it made an excellent trap crop for the bugs that might otherwise be feasting on my new tender seedlings.

My bean trellis turned into an arbor and starved my entire pepper crop.

My bean trellis turned into an arbor and starved my entire pepper crop, but it turned out to be the perfect place to start late summer lettuce for the fall.

All my fig fruit was killed by a late frost, but now they are trying again. Fingers crossed!

All my fig fruit was killed by a late frost, but now they are trying again. Fingers crossed!

At some point this summer I stopped worrying and started bringing the camera to the garden. It’s early September. The plants that are going to survive have made up their minds to do so. Much of the fall garden is planted and this year the seedlings are actually thriving. Arugula, radishes, tatsoi, collards, carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, kale, and lettuce are raising their tender heads.

Orb weaver eating a grasshopper. I've not harvested near this spot for weeks so this lovely won't be disturbed.

Orb weaver eating a grasshopper. I’ve not harvested near this spot for weeks so this lovely won’t be disturbed.

Butterfly weed going to seed.

Butterfly weed going to seed.

Sickly ladybug

Sickly ladybug

I have fallen in love with beans. These Cherokee Trail of Tear beans make my heart sing.

I have fallen in love with beans. These Cherokee Trail of Tear beans make my heart sing.

Hello baby tree frog!

Hello baby tree frog!

Camouflaged dragonfly resting

Camouflaged dragonfly resting

The Common Wealth Seminole Waltham F5 cross is going strong despite squash bug pressure.

The Common Wealth Seminole Waltham F5 cross is going strong despite squash bug pressure.

Mini pumpkins! Ancient seed I planted with no expectations, and the only thing that survived besides the winter squash.

Mini pumpkins! Ancient seed I planted with no expectations, and the only thing that survived besides the winter squash.

I still suit up in my loose long sleeves and pants tucked into my socks before heading out. I still end up with ant bites in odd places. But this morning it was 67 degrees and the winter squash and pumpkins are screaming autumn. So much of the spring is spent planning for summer, but it’s the least pleasant time to actually be in the garden.

Goodbye summer, thank you for all the fresh food you gave us. We’ll remember you all through the fall as we enjoy the tomatoes sauce, pesto, pickled cucumbers, and gallons of beans I’ve put up these past few months.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m not the slightest bit sad to see you go.

Growing ginger and turmeric in the home garden an easy crop for new and seasoned gardeners

It’s the first week of June–the perfect time to plant your own ginger and turmeric! These two are some of the hardest to get truly fresh anywhere other than your own garden and are also expensive. I have a bad habit of wanting to grow everything, even if it’s far flung, but this was one of those that turned out lovely. I’ve been growing my own ginger and turmeric for three years and it’s easy and satisfying. They are pest and disease free plants that don’t even need full sun.

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turmeric from the garden, ready for eating or preserving

As long as you have a decent summer (probably Zone 7 and up), you can get a good crop in one season outside. The pros overwinter it in a greenhouse (by nature this is a tropical plant so letting it get cold is a no-no), but it works fine to plant around the time you’d put sweet potatoes in and then harvest before the first frost.

Ginger and turmeric like humidity, moisture, good drainage, and filtered sun. If you have spots in the garden too shady for full sun crops, these will be happy there.

Conventional turmeric and ginger rhizomes may be irradiated, which makes them hard to propagate, so buy organic or from a farmer.  Our local natural grocers carry both, as does a vendor at our local farmer’s market.

What you need

  • healthy (not shriveled or moldy) organic ginger and turmeric rhizomes with lots of happy “eyes”
this ginger isn't perfect, because i'm not perfect and i was busy with other parts of life and left it in the fridge too long. but if it has a nice eye like this it'll do.

this ginger isn’t perfect because i’m not perfect and i was busy with other parts of life and left it in the fridge too long. but if it has a nice eye like this it’ll do.

  • a sharp knife
  • large pots or garden bed with rich, well drained soil (3:1 organic potting mix and compost works well for pots)

What you do

  1. Cut the roots into pieces at least one inch long with at least one eye, ideally two. It’s tempting to cut them too small because they are so expensive, but if none of them sprout you lose the investment anyway. Eight ounces of turmeric provides 20-30 eyes, ginger a little less because usually the roots are fatter.oh look, i said that and then i still cut them too small. oh well, i did this last year also and they grew anyway.
  2. Plant them 3x their length deep. They are slow starters so give them a month to show above ground. I often add hardwood mulch to keep down the weeds while you wait.
  3. Keep them well mulched, weeded, and watered.
  4. To harvest, gently loosen the soil with a digging fork as late in the fall as possible before first frost.
  5. Separate big rhizomes from those too small to be useful. Repot the small ones in a large pot and put it somewhere out of the way. Water about once a month and next spring you can jump start planting with these little buggers.

    rinsed, with roots, and ready to be processed

    rinsed, with roots, and ready to be processed

IMG_20151017_200212097Wash harvested rhizomes and eat fresh, without peeling. They’ll last a few weeks in the fridge wrapped in paper towels. To preserve longer, cure by leaving out for a day or two inside, then store in brandy. This also gives you turmeric/gingered brandy to flavor soups and sauces or take as a tonic for colds.

But wait! Don’t compost those green stems. They are lovely dried or fresh in teas or soups, or sautéed fresh with veggies.

The Gardener’s Mantra

It was like a horror film slowly playing out, with one shock after another sucking the juice from my adrenal glands.

One day there were nibbled pea shoots. A bunny or mysterious insect perhaps? Then the strawberry leaves. The defoliated mulberry gave it away. The squash and melons that mysteriously never came up but had nuzzly nose prints in the holes and dainty hoof prints beside the bed.

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I had thought I was safe. We’d taken all the precautions and for three years never had a security breach. The 7 foot fence around our land received regular inspections and had 3 foot welded wire reinforcement at the bottom.

I tromped down the yard furiously with a fresh roll of fencing under my arm to raise the barrier at a spot that looked jumpable, tears welling as the image of my sweet, innocent strawberries–decapitated with cold hearted viciousness–swam across my vision. My fists clenched at the thought of those soft hearted suburbanites who croon over them and post pictures of their babies on Facebook. The rage begins to take over. Okay, okay, reign it in mama. Deep breaths. Do your mantra.

They are also alive. 

They were here first. 

They are feeding their babies, just like you. 

And you will kill them all when you learn how to shoot with a bow and arrow. Vengeance will be yours. 

I breathe deeply to drown the blood lust and nearly stumble over her. My little blue Orpington looking frazzled and missing feathers on her back. “What has your sister done to you?!” These two had gone broody and been moved into a light-weight tractor in the yard for a few days to keep them off the eggs. Maybe they were fussy about the move.

She looks at me with head cocked to one side. “What sister?” she seems to say. I gather her up in my arms to return her to her tractor…the tractor that is not where I left it. The tractor that has been dragged in a semicircle and is full of feathers, but no hen.

What sister, indeed.

I follow the piles of feathers in their meandering path into the neighbor’s yard and out into the driveway. I trace little tufts of sadness toward the woods until I can find no more.

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It isn’t even 8 o’clock in the morning.

I feel a strong desire to burn down the forest, so I tell myself wise stories about how we share the world. Time for the mantra again.

How my homesteading is a healthy engagement with the natural world that forces me to be humble, to remember that we are out here at nature’s mercy.

How the choice to be here in deer and fox and coyote and owl and hawk territory means so many good things.

How I love looking up at the sky and watching graceful hawks circling…and smile when a murder of crows chases them off.

How I listen to the coyote pups calling to each other at night and marvel at how happily unconquered the wilds really are, no matter how we try to fool ourselves.

How the spring peepers sing us to sleep after long spring rains.

Mostly, my mantra works. l say the right things when it’s time to explain it all to my children. I’m sure life will go back to normal, it always does. I am a loving person. A kind person. Yes, I am.

Deep down I believe my mantra. This is all a balance and we humans have taken more than our fair share.

But you, deer and you, eater-of-hens, you are real damn lucky I don’t know where you live.

In the mean time, we are perfecting our barriers. As I walk the fence with my father in law he says out of nowhere, “Now this is something Trump would actually be good for!” I doubt it, but the image makes me smile.

Neighbors and family together, moving the offending mulch mountain and raising the deer fence.

Neighbors and family together, moving the offending mulch mountain and raising the deer fence.

UPDATED:

For two more days this deer breached the fence, but with vigilance and team work we patched the holes and got her out again. The third day she appeared with her brand new baby fawn beside her. It was very very very cute. If I’d had my camera I would have shared pictures. The mantra is good.

After polling the neighborhood my brother in law informed me he’d seen a fox crossing our driveway with a “chicken sized something” in its mouth. Mystery solved!

Following my bliss, inspite of myself

When I was young my mother used to talk to me about “following my bliss.” It was eye-roll worthy in the most adolescent way. I was a pragmatist and a realist and cynical and tough. I did not do bliss-following. I didn’t care if Joseph Campbell was some sort of genius. If my mother suggested it, it could not possibly be a good idea.

I still have a slightly allergic response to the phrase, perhaps because it just sounds so…mushy. I do not do yoga. I do not meditate. I do Useful Things and am Very Efficient. I am a planner; I always think wayyyyyy ahead. Following your bliss sounds like something a long haired hippy does while wandering barefoot through a field of wildflowers. The very image makes me itch. Who does that? There are chiggers and ticks and copperheads and how do you plan for health care needs or retirement just chasing bliss (whatever that is) wherever it leads?

Yet when I sat down to write this post about gardening (yup, that’s where this was headed. We get there eventually), I was surprised to find I had misrepresented my own story…to myself. My biggest and best life-altering decisions had, in fact, been made by following my gut when it was in sync with my heart, which is really the crux of what Campbell meant about following your bliss.

When I was 21 my then-boyfriend and I planned to walk the Camino de Santiago during the summer. Five hundred miles in 28 days across northern Spain. He was from the Basque Country and had walked parts of the Camino with his own father as a teenager. We trained together, walking 15 or 20 miles in a day along the roads and paths in our town. Then he found out he couldn’t get the time off from his lab. It was terrifying, but I decided to go by myself. It had become something I needed to do.

On the way to Spain I was robbed of everything I owned except my backpack of clothes and gear for the Camino. After a harrowing adventure securing a new passport and ticket with no identification and no money, I finally arrived…and promptly came down with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I was forced to seek refuge with my boyfriend’s family, the only people I knew in the whole country. After 5 days in bed I had  lost all the stamina built up from months of training. His mother nudged me out of the house to walk around the village and I was exhausted and ready to crawl back in bed after ten minutes. But there was no more time. I had to go or not; I couldn’t postpone indefinitely. The trip had an end date.

I convinced my boyfriend’s sister to drop me off at the tiny village of Roncesvalles at the French border with no money, no cell phone, no credit card, and my insides glued together with Fortasec. I got up at 5am and walked 15 miles the next day. Other pilgrims offered me food because they thought my diet of plain bread was due to lack of money, which was also true. The first day a couple from Barcelona saw my feet and showed me how to sew a loop of thread through a blister after treating it with iodine in order to keep walking without getting an infection.

Going alone was the best thing I could have done. I saw in ways I would not have with a partner and interacted with others in ways I would not have, had I gone with company. The people I met became dear friends. Those 28 days remain the most formative of my entire life. It was–literally and figuratively–a moment of choosing a path, and one that would have been so, so easy to say no to.

Three years later, I made another unlikely, uncomfortable, path-shifting decision. I was about to move to Chicago to work with an amazing scholar in a PhD program I was deeply excited about. I had found a roommate and we were apartment shopping. But I had just fallen in love with a hometown boy. After two weeks dating we knew. He was going to commute between North Carolina and Chicago to be with me while I was in graduate school. I was on my path!

And then one day I was out for a run and, on the side of a busy road, I just stopped. My life with this person was the path. Why was I continuing on the old path as if nothing had changed?

I decided in that moment to stay in my home town and not go off to school. I felt my brain doing somersaults. All my plans and expectations shifted in the blink of an eye. A week later we moved in together. He was so excited he promised never to eat fast food again–a promise he has mostly kept (except on our wedding day when his friends kidnapped him and took him to Bojangles).

I thought everyone would think I was crazy. Mostly they did. I had to arrange a meeting with my most beloved professor and tell him why I wasn’t going off to school, despite the wonderful letter he’d written me and all his advocacy on my behalf. He encouraged me to apply to the local R1 universities and find a way to make it work if graduate school was still what I really wanted (it was and I did).

I worried that my mother would worry about me giving up my life plans for a man. It was just about the least feminist thing a girl could do. But I should have known. My mother smiled and hugged me and said “I wondered whether you might consider staying.” She for sure figured I was following my bliss, but probably knew better than to say it.

I do not look back on these experiences and tell myself I should be a more impetuous and spontaneous person. They do not make me want to buy an open ended ticket to somewhere wild and hope it works out. Most of what has gone well in my life has been the result of good planning and research. But when it came to getting the really big, scary decisions “right,” planning and research only got me part way there.

There have been big decisions since then: choosing to have a baby while in graduate school, asking my family to uproot itself and travel with me for my dissertation, choosing to finish my program even after realizing that I did not want a career until after my children were bigger (if then), choosing not to work for money, having another baby…but all of these life choices were less loaded because the overall trajectory seemed “right.” The stakes were lower because of these pivotal moments where I gave myself permission to find out how strong and capable I really was and take a chance on what I really wanted.

What got me thinking about my mom’s well worn advice to follow my bliss was my gardening problem (told you we’d get here eventually).

Today I went to visit the backyard of our old house, which I fenced off when we let go of the house and moved further out of town. My gardening makes no sense. It is a liability. I spend way too much time on it, and when I am honest with myself I know this to be actually, truly true. My partner is more supportive than I could ask for and only periodically complains that on the weekends he doesn’t see me. I don’t need him to point out that paying for childcare so you can grow food is inefficient. Or that when I say “I just need to go grab a couple of herbs for dinner” it is for sure going to be at least half an hour. Or that maintaining a second large garden 15 minutes away from where we live is ridiculous. I tell myself and everyone else that it’s to save money, to be more self sufficient. None of that is untrue, but well, it kind of is.

What is real is that I don’t listen to the radio when I drive out there because my mind needs empty space. When I open the fence and stoop under the branches of the huge magnolia and into my secret garden, full of song birds and color, everything else disappears and my burdens fall away. Today I worked for three hours in a drenching rain. I worked until my fingers hurt. I didn’t think about anything except pulling weeds and planting sweet potatoes. It’s rare that I get alone time in the garden because I’m with my kids full time. When I head home after gardening alone it’s like coming up for air after being underwater for a long time.

I am not a religious person, or even especially spiritual. I find dirt and stars amazing and that’s enough wonder for a lifetime. I still don’t do yoga or meditate. Campbell suggests that doors will open to your path when you find your “sacred space” and give your mind uncluttered room to connect with your soul. I find it hard to get past all the mysticism, but once I do I can see the moments in my life when I’ve been in that place.

The long hours of solitude on the Camino were a concentrated dose of what I’d attained in fleeting moments throughout my childhood. Dancing vigorously. Doing physically arduous yard work for my dad. Sitting in the silent woods behind my mom’s trailer in winter. Playing hide and seek with my sister in the corn field across the road. Nights around a campfire in the mountains. The natural world and empowering physical effort were clearly at the heart of this. But now I’m busy so often I no longer make these opportunities for myself. Except that I’ve found a way: in my garden.

I’ve been “following my bliss” without realizing it, in spite of my disdain for the concept. I would call my mama to laugh about it together, but I think she already knows. Maybe I will anyway.

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Keeping backyard chickens even though it’s totally not worth it

It’s spring! Don’t you want chicks? Everyone wants chicks! When you first start considering backyard chickens (So cute! Eggs! I’ll save a fortune!), you find all the posts about the amazingness of backyard chicken keeping. If you are lucky, before you actually do the deed you’ll find the other posts about what a horrible idea it is and how expensive. About the predators. And the poop. And the having to be there to put them to bed every night. But what makes no sense is that people keep doing it. So here’s my honest take on why I keep chickens even though it’s arguably not worth it (my husband says it falls just on the far side of not worth it, I say it falls just on the near side of not worth it).

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To be fair, the reasons have changed over the 4 years I’ve kept hens. I am a researcher by trade and I did my homework before getting my girls. I browsed around a lot on my favorite homesteading forums and on the backyard chickens website. I knew I probably wouldn’t save any money. I knew I’d probably confront predators. I’d seen my soft-hearted sister have to nurse a hen back to health after a fox tore into her coop and ripped off its wing before she could chase it off. In the middle of town. Since I was halfway through graduate school, with a two year old, I don’t remember many specifics about what was going through my head. But I was obsessed with homesteading and I considered hens a gateway livestock investment to figure out whether I had it in me to care for the sheep I really wanted someday.

This is an excellent reason to have chickens, though not one that applies to most people: if you dream of keeping livestock, small poultry are the best way to figure out whether you can handle it. You WILL have losses to predators or illness or accidents, but you probably won’t need a livestock vet and for whatever reason, bleeding and dying big animals are just more intense than small ones. It’s more manageable. If you can’t handle a dying chicken, you definitely can’t handle a dying something bigger. The requirements on your time are intermediate, but consistent enough to give you a taste of what actually being a small farmer would be like and probably make you think twice about it. But that’s the kind of thing you want to know before hand, so it’s a useful lesson.

But you probably don’t dream of being a farmer. The reasons most people want backyard chickens are for their kids, for the eggs, for the cuteness. I had a kid. I wanted eggs. They were cute. So once I had them, what were the pluses? It’s a little hard to say, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

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“I’m gonna eat chickens!”

My toddler wandered up to the pen naked and got nipped in a very unfortunate place, which he remembers vividly to this day. They are not pets in our family, in part because I planned to eat them eventually and in part because I couldn’t tell them apart. Our dogs would break into their pen and eat their food (luckily not them, as domestic dogs are the biggest predators of backyard chickens). Housing them in a way that kept them safe and kept them healthy and clean took a lot of experimentation. I wasted a good bit of money.

My 4 buff orpingtons were not ideally suited to the heat of southern summers and one of them never laid again after having some kind of heat stroke her first year. They ate all winter without laying. It took a while for me to iron out the kinks in my feed system because I was committed to feeding them in a way that minimized waste and maximized nutrition, so I made an organic sprouted whole grain feed myself. And it wasn’t cheap. They required a whole different kind of pet sitting if we wanted to go anywhere, and we travel a lot. One time I let them out of their enclosure into the (enclosed) vegetable garden to clean up the late-summer bugs and weeds (supposedly one of the best things about them) and just as twilight fell heard a strange sound. I ran into our backyard in central Durham and saw a pile of feathers in the garden and a raccoon running away into the dark night. Luckily I’d been fast enough and she was just in temporary shock and missing some feathers, but the nights were never the same after that. Whatever time of day sunset was, someone had to be home before that to lock them up.

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But I’m really committed to keeping chickens, and I’ve had to think about why, given all the downsides. Because the downsides are big and obvious and in your face, especially if your partner thinks your homesteading notions are thoroughly unromantic.

My eggs are the best eggs I’ve ever had. They are orange yolked and delicious. I know exactly what’s in them and feed them to my kids with pride.

Keeping hens forces me to appreciate how labor intensive the production of animal protein is and how to use it more sparingly and not take it for granted. The inputs required for keeping a flock of layers in good health, with pasture, is substantial in terms of space and feed. I know that nothing I ever get at the store, even those $8 a dozen pastured organic eggs from Whole Foods, comes close. Currently my 8 hens rotate around on 1/4 acre of land and they wear it down in the blink of an eye. We gobble up eggs and chicken without thinking twice about the tremendous amount of inputs it takes to grow that animal. Doing it ourselves has been humbling and sobering, which I value for myself and my kids.

They eat all my kitchen scraps and almost-too old leftovers. I am a compulsive food not-waster. It hurts me in a deep, physical way to throw food away or let things go bad. But if you have kids you know that they will mush things around in ways that make it no longer edible to any other human and then reject 80% of it. No guilt, the girls take care of it. While you don’t want to give chickens things that would make a human really sick to eat, there’s a lot that technically wouldn’t hurt us that we don’t eat. Nothing gets wasted here. I will admit to keeping edible compost in a ziploc bag in the cooler or mini-fridge when we travel domestically and bringing it home for the chickens. My marriage has taken a beating, but my soul is in good shape.

I get free fertilizer for the garden. This is a huge one for me. I have a big garden and as it has grown I have struggled with the notion of purchasing and shipping in soil amendments. Now I just buy a big load of straw every few years and use it for their bedding, then compost it in the garden when I clean out the coop. My soil is so so happy and unlike anything I buy, I know exactly what my girls eat and what’s in their manure and it’s exactly what I want in my compost.

My family is probably healthier. Living among livestock is one of the few clear correlates of decreased asthma and improved immune health (here’s a nice lay person’s summary). At the very least when I was 9 months pregnant and cleaning out the coop I told myself the poop smell was good for baby and it became more bearable.

It’s a lesson in long term planning and commitment. Most of the investments and wasted money are upfront, so you really lose money if you don’t keep going once you’ve set up housing and learned the ropes. I’ve got my feed system rolling efficiently now. I maximize their consumption of weeds and scraps to minimize food costs. My eggs are half the cost of pastured organic eggs at the store, even factoring in my original set up costs. I do save money now.

We learn to be humble about the challenge of taking responsibility for life. Chickens have just about zero capacity for self preservation. If you have a rooster, he’ll help out, but there are a host of other challenges that come with him, like having enough hens so he can ravage them all the time and not wear down more than the feathers on their backs, or your neighbors hating you. The decision to keep backyard hens begins a pendulum swinging back and forth between protection and freedom. If you want to give them any freedom, you take the risk of something eating them. You and only you bear the responsibility for that when it happens.

I did a bad job of trying to integrate my flocks when I expanded and lost a hen to fratricide. Two years in a row when the hawks were trying to feed their own new babies, I lost a hen to their hunting. I caught them in the act the second time and explained to my son, who was with me, why I was recovering the decapitated body of my hen and throwing it out in the woods near where the hawks roost. I wanted him to understand that they have to feed their babies too. That if I’ve already lost her, they will be less likely to return if they can finish their meal. That we don’t let a life be lost for no reason and in nature, nothing is wasted. We don’t put light bulbs in the nesting box to kill the black snake that steals eggs in the summer, even though it’s super scary and makes me cringe to think of the lost investment. Sharing is a part of life. The black snake eats rodents that damage our garden. And baby copperheads that could kill my children. These have been poignant and valuable lessons for him, particularly when so much of the world is presented to children as a fallacious black and white.

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nothing to see here, just dinosaur cannibalism as a hen cleans up the bits and pieces of her sister that the hawk left behind

Keeping hens connects me to my (and most of our) roots. Most farms were diverse and had chickens before the industrialization of our food supply beginning in the interwar period. Pretty much everyone has rural roots, if you go back far enough, no matter what your culture. I’m not mystical about this stuff, but there is something grounding about doing some dirty, real, work in your own backyard the way your ancestors did.

To most friends who ask about backyard chickens, I give it a resounding and honest no. But if any of these reasons resonate with you and you are willing to have their lives in your hands, then give it a shot. Try and do housing on the cheap (I find a homemade roost inside a craigslist dog kennel with a nice kitty litter dome for nesting works great to start out). I’m still doing it and, perhaps surprisingly, finding it more and more satisfying as time passes.

 

Climate change gardening: Tips for planning ahead

In the past two decades our USDA hardiness zone has shifted from zone 7 to zone 8. That’s an enormous change. Despite the Bush administration USDA’s attempt to muffle the information, the Arbor Day Foundation published real maps using the same data and you can see what an enormous movement we are talking about.

It is pretty much guaranteed that our food supply will continue to experience pressures from a rapidly changing world climate (wikipedia has a nice summary with article links). It’s also quite likely the rate of change will pick up, perhaps in unexpected ways.

While many of us garden to save money or get outdoors, with a nod to self sufficiency or local food movements, figuring out how to garden for climate change is a different mindset. It’s not as simple as expecting it to be warmer a few years down the road. It means planning for greater variation, greater disease and pest pressure as plants and soils try to adapt, and building connections to the people in your area who are really good at what they do so that you have the resources you need, when you need them. Luckily a lot of what decreases the environmental footprint of my garden and makes it more resilient will make it cheaper and more successful, whether or not the climate creates new challenges.

Nowadays many of us live in cities that are densely urban with little green space. You can’t do any kind of major gardening under these circumstances, though there’s a lot you can do in pots and in community garden spaces…but that’s another post.

Start small but start now

I’ve been passionately gardening for a decade. My mother is a skilled and experienced gardener, as are many of my friends and neighbors. I still experiment in disastrous ways and make mistakes every year that cost me money, time, and harvest. Probably the biggest things I’ve learned from all this are be organized, keep notes on successes and failures, ask advice from local experts, and don’t buy anything that with a bit of creative thinking you could make, borrow, or substitute.

I watch new gardeners make the same mistakes I did with great gusto and zero interest in hearing people tell them to be more conservative. I was also deaf to words of wisdom at those same stages in my gardening journey. Give yourself time to figure it out, especially if you worry that at some point it will need to be something more than a hobby.

Don’t put off gardening for years because your space isn’t just how you want it, your neighbors might object, or you don’t have time or money. When someone on your local listserv says “I have extra such and such plants if you’ll come get them,” go get them if you think you might have a place and a use. Grow what you can in the space that you have and work on developing the site bit by bit.

Don’t invest too much at the edge of your hardiness zone

This is a classic gardeners’ dilemma because everyone wants to do as much as they can for as long as they can. But there’s a reason southern food culture revolves around sweet potatoes, sorghum, beans, watermelon, okra, blackberries, and dark leafy greens (chard, beets, turnips). These are crops that tolerate hot summers and dry spells while staying fairly disease resistant in our humid climate. These are crops homesteaders could grow reliably before the advent of chemical farming; they are crops you can grow that way now.

If you are going to tinker at the low edge, do your research and do it from multiple sources. Nurseries are inclined to tell you a broader hardiness range than is realistic. If no one is doing it in your area, maybe you’ve hit upon the world’s best-kept secret, but more likely old timers have tried it and figured out it didn’t work.

When I wanted to grow raspberries, all kinds of sources told me their varieties were everything-resistant and happy in my zone. Then I dug into the always-awesome NC Cooperative Extension resources (all available online, often with separate commercial and home gardening publications) and found that certain types of raspberries would be way more high maintenance with our humidity and disease issues (which will get worse as the planet warms, not better). So I emailed a small local biodynamic berry farm down the road and asked my neighbors what raspberry varieties worked for them. Caroline was the only one they’d had consistent success with, they said, and gave me advice on how to manage it.

I wanted to plant a cherry tree and several well recommended local nurseries claimed their interesting and funky sweet cherry varieties could be grown, with a little effort, up to zone 9. I let those exotic and enticing varieties sit in my cart for a few days while I bummed around online reading people’s experiences growing cherries in the south. Sweet cherries, and even the more curious varieties of tart cherries, just didn’t produce well here and were plagued with high maintenance disease issues, especially if they weren’t grafted onto very particular root stock. I don’t know anyone with sweet cherries. I ordered the classic, low maintenance, heat tolerant Montmorency tart cherry. And I still might be pushing it. In 10 years I may feel I shouldn’t have been planting cherries at all.

Raspberries and cherries are borderline too cool for my garden reality, but I think I’ve found varieties that work. Still, these are my side experiments, not the work horse plants of my garden. For that I focus on what I know works.

The temptation on the warm side is just as dangerous. Most of the things we can’t grow in zone 8 because it’s not warm enough are things that can’t tolerate freezing at all, or buckle in an extreme cold snap. While the winters may be getting milder and shorter on average, extreme weather and broad swings are becoming more common. I’ve had success growing ginger and turmeric as annuals and overwintering the roots inside. I do the same with my key lime tree, bringing it inside for the winter.

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ginger and turmeric. large roots were preserved in brandy, small ones repotted to overwinter, and the greens dried for tea and soup.

Plants like malabar spinach are new to this part of the world but thrive in our climate. I love trying a few new things every year, but as always–do your research and choose low maintenance plants that fit your garden ecosystem. Otherwise you waste your time creating an input-intensive system (water, fertilizer, pest and disease management) that will only become harder to maintain as resources become more constrained.

Plan for a quasi-closed system

We didn’t realize how far we were from this until a few years into it when I actually started paying attention. And I don’t suggest this in an apocolyptic kind of way (though deep down I lust for the elusive 90% self sufficiency just like the best of ’em), but rather in terms of thinking about the ways in which we contribute to an unsustainable system and may find ourselves, at some point in the middle future, with less access to things that have previously been easy to get.

Be frugal for when it matters. Learn to take care of your tools. Most tools have a lifetime guarantee–take them back if they break and any store will replace them. But start taking proper care of them now. Use bamboo for garden stakes, trellises, or chicken runs instead of buying a bunch of nasty pvc or investing money in lumber. The impulsive, unplanned DIY purchases are the kind of things that keep a million Home Depots and Lowes in business. Some things you have to buy, but not as many as you think. Especially when you are mucking around and experimenting and don’t know what you are doing, the mistakes can be cheap or very expensive, you choose. I’ve had plenty of both.

One of the big ways to better steward the environment and stop hauling in garden inputs is to become self-sufficient in water and soil amendments. A few years ago our family installed 1350 gallons of rain water cisterns. IMG_4827

Every summer we have dry spells where we come closing to tapping both of the big 550 gallon tanks. But we use well water and I neither want to put more pressure on the aquifer than necessary, nor worry about my food supply when we have intense heat and drought. It also means I can let my kids mess around with the hose as much as they want without stressing out about the waste. If I had unlimited time and money (and county inspectors who would look the other way), I’d have full house gray water systems. But this is close enough.

When we have trees taken down, we have them chipped on site. Usually this saves the tree folks money too and so makes the job cheaper. There’s a few year’s worth of mulch, right there. We mow our clover yard and bag the clippings to feed the hens and use as green manure in the garden. I plant rye and vetch cover crops in my beds to build up the soil without fertilizer and protect the soil without mulch.

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two beds planted with rye and vetch, a pile of green manure, and some hardwood mulch mountains

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planting basil directly into dying cover crop (no till)

Keeping chickens has been the best way for me to become less dependent on buying compost and fertilizer. Livestock manure is a crap shoot, depending on what cocktails of drugs and feed people are giving their animals. Municipal compost loads I’ve used in the past have had all manner of unspeakable things in them, not to mention everyone’s RoundUp-ed yard waste. But mostly the issue is how to produce fertilizer on site. If you are really ambitious, eat a clean diet, and it wouldn’t ruin your marriage, humanure is how the world did this for a long time before we forgot how. It’s clean and plentiful, but it takes time and space.

Plant disease-resistant perennials

Every year add a few low maintenance perennials to your space. Every year they will take less work, you’ll know more what you are doing, and you will be closer to harvests. Low maintenance perennials will begin to form the backbone of your garden. Three years ago I planted persimmon trees, herbs, comfrey, and perennial onions. Two years ago I planted strawberries, rhubarb, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, hardy kiwi, nettles, and jerusalem artichoke (the latter two in pots to keep them from invading). This year I am adding globe artichokes and fennel. Every year I have more food of my own, in my own backyard, that only requires some weeding, watering, mulching, and harvesting.

Learn about foraging wild edibles, pass-along plants, and seed saving

At this time of year, my new lettuce isn’t ready to eat, if I’m lucky I have some spinach, but because I didn’t take care of my overwintered tender greens during a cold snap, I don’t have much. Yet because there are dandelion greens and yellow dock in the yard, I can still put together dishes with nourishing greens. It’s easy to learn online about wild edibles. Ask the old timers in your neighborhood. Dandelions will probably be the last thing to go when the apocalypse comes.

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dandelion greens and roots

Plant things that folks around you are giving away, or that can be divided. Pass along plants are the best. They are tried and true. Your neighbors and (new) friends will teach you about what has worked for them. Things that are fussy or hard to grow don’t make good pass along plants, so you will  end up with a collection of useful and adaptive plants (though still do your own research…don’t go letting some friendly looking stranger convince you to plant their extra running bamboo).

Some seeds are easier to save than others, so start slow. I keep garlic, ginger, turmeric, and sweet potatoes to replant each year. I’ve found sorghum, kale, radish, beans, peas, lettuce, and cilantro to be easy and reliable savers. I try saving a few new things each year, decreasing my dependence on purchased seed.

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coriander and radish seeds

Understand microclimates

Pay attention to the microclimate of the space that you have and make appropriate choices. When we moved out of town we kept our urban garden space. It was a farm a century ago and the soil was magnificent. Plus, the climate in town was a good 4° F warmer than out in the country on our sloped land. I started my little orchard there with two persimmons and two pomegranates–these were trees that could withstand drought and that were not picky about harvesting times. I chose them for these qualities because I knew caring for a garden not in my backyard, with two kids under foot, would not be a daily affair. I couldn’t afford to baby these trees.

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fuyu persimmon and ‘wonderful’ pomegranate

But I didn’t take into account that we’d have two back to back winters with 5° F cold spells. The persimmons were the right choice–they are disease resistant, tolerate drought and cold, and can hang around waiting to be harvested until I have time to visit. The pomegranates were not. Like my beloved figs, they die all the way back to the ground in cold snaps like that. While they like hot weather and don’t mind our sometimes dry summers, they do not like being cold. While my 3 year old persimmons gave me an excellent first harvest this year, there’s been nothing close to fruit on the pomegranates.

This was the perfect example of naive expectations about climate change. I thought “it will be warmer!” but didn’t think “we will have bizarre highs and lows.”

In contrast, I knew planting rhubarb in the south was iffy. The experts said 25% might make it through the summer. I chose a north facing slope of a berm that runs across the bottom of our sloped yard. It’s in partial shade during the summer and cooler air flows down and pools at the foot of the berm. Instead of 25%, I’ve had 80% survival. Knowing your microclimate and using it wisely can make all the difference.

Choose multi-use plants

Get the most bang for your buck and avoid waste by growing plants with several usable parts, and use them!

Sweet potatoes are an easy crop requiring little care. They are one of my favorites because their growth smothers weeds and their greens are delicious at a time when most of my leafy greens are suffering heat stroke. Sorghum is also a new favorite. It’s incredibly drought and poor soil tolerant. The seeds make a delicious gluten free flour and the stalks produce molasses (even with just a small patch and no press you can do it like this). Elderberry flowers and fruit can be used to make food and medicine. Comfrey makes excellent forage and mulch, and the leaves and roots are center pieces of basic herbal medicine. Herbs attract and feed beneficial insects and are used for seasoning food and making teas. I use my lavender, rosemary, and sage to make anti-bacterial cleaning supplies with vinegar. Raspberries are delicious and the leaves are edible, historically used for teas during pregnancy.

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sweet potato beds with my first experiment with sorghum in the background

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first elderberry harvest. seeds and stems are toxic, always process properly

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sorghum. maybe the prettiest seed ever

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sweet potato slips rooting

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last year’s garlic

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comfrey root and leaf, just dug

If you need to plant big trees, plant something with useful wood, bark, and nuts. We don’t eat the nuts from the mature walnut and hickory trees shading our house, but the squirrels do, which keeps them out of our garden. And we could eat them. Black walnut tincture is also a useful anti-parasitic for animals and people, and externally for treating ring worm and skin yeast infections.

Roses have edible petals and the hips are wonderful in tea and rich in vitamin C–the rosa rugosa variety is best at producing these. There are tons of options, just please don’t plant boxwoods and crape myrtles when a thousand useful and edible options exist. Just google “edible landscaping” for ideas.

Takeaway

Start small but start now. Get to know your neighborhood gardeners and farmers for plants, help, and pooling resources. Don’t invest heavily in exotic or high maintenance plants; choose varieties that are disease resistant and can tolerate variation in climate. Try to wean yourself from buying and shipping in resources for your garden. Learn to make mulch and compost with what you have. Start eating seasonally and from plants that thrive in your region. Learn about caring for your soil. Learn about the microclimate you are working with.

The best part of all this is it turns out all the things that decrease the carbon footprint of your garden and make it more resilient and abundant in a less certain future also make it cheaper and less work. Who’d’ve thunk it? 😉

 

 

 

Gardening on a Budget: 10 ways to save on seeds

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Durham County, NC free seed library

It took awhile, but it’s finally cold in the piedmont of North Carolina. It’s been gray and mushy for weeks. Now it’s gray and the mush is crispy frost in the morning. But the seed catalogues have come and there’s a reason people call it garden porn. It’s my winter solstice dance. Planning the garden for spring brings a little warmth and light back into my sun-deprived life. But the paying for seeds part always brings me down.

Now is the time to start gathering seeds if you want a spring and summer garden, even more so if you are trying to be frugal. It seems early, but it’s just the right time, especially if you are a parent or a procrastinator and taking action takes several weeks. Here are some tips for how to get seeds without spending a lot of money.

  1. Crowdsource. Just ask. Even if you don’t know what you want, asking will bring out all the garden crazies and then you’ll know who to ask for help and who to organize seed sharing with next year. If you don’t do a lot of social media or live somewhere that doesn’t seem to have a lot of active gardeners, get on an online forum and ask. Homesteading Today is my absolute favorite. It’s wild and woolly and full of incredibly thoughtful and helpful people. They’ve got a perpetual seed swap going in the gardening forum.
  2. Ask your neighbors. Maybe ask for gardening tips first, then hit them up for some spare seeds. Just look for who has plants around and spends time paying attention to them. Most people are thrilled to get more folks into gardening and can’t wait to help you grow a million more things than you have room for. It’s a great way to make friends.
  3. From the library. For free. That’s right, the library. There are now over 200 public libraries organizing seed catalogues where seed deposits are made and can be “checked out” and “returned” at the end of the season with some you grew or can contribute. There’s even a social network for it. The fabulous city of Durham has an incredible website full of resources to accompany their seed library. Here’s an article about another NC seed library.
  4. Go in with friends. I keep a little list of gardener friends to coordinate with before buying seed. My first year growing sweet potatoes I ordered slips with a neighbor who needed a bigger order for discounted prices.
  5. Organize or get in on a seed swap. If you’ve ever gardened at all you probably have spare seed. Keep a list going and hook into your network to find other gardeners who want to share. What one person tried and didn’t like much, another might love. And since seed don’t keep forever but most of us don’t need as many as come in a pack, costs can be kept way down this way. But this brings us to #6, which is a stealthy but important money saver.
  6. Take proper care of the seeds you have. To keep seed from going bad they need to be kept dry and at a constant, cool temperature. You can buy neat little containers for this, or just keep your seeds in a tightly closed glass jar in either your fridge or freezer. I have seed that I purchased 6 years ago still germinating perfectly because they’ve been happily tucked away in the fridge. I pull them out twice a year usually and organize for the coming season and then keep what I’m using immediately in the door of my refrigerator to pull out at planting time. The rest goes back in the freezer. Over time this is probably the way I’ve saved the most money on seed, and is most helpful for those crops you really like and plant over and over again.
  7. Save seed. Some plants are easy to save seed from, others not so much. Some things cross-pollinate with other varieties to produce useless seed. You can do more or less of this depending on how much time and interest you have. I  do a little more seed saving every year, but it felt overwhelming when I was first getting started. I also had a few bad experiences with sweet peppers crossing with a fiery guindilla I brought back from the Basque Country and making every bite of my paprikas a terrifying game of Russian Roulette. But this year I saved kale, radish, cilantro, and sorghum seed, which are all very easy to let go to seed and easy to harvest. The lettuce was a bit more labor intensive and I forgot what varieties I had by the time they were bolting. I save sweet potatoes, garlic, ginger and turmeric through the winter and use my own saved root to plant the next year.
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    Turmeric and ginger being separated and either processed for preservation in brandy or repotted for over-wintering

    Here is a short and sweet intro to seed saving. This is a great comprehensive take. The Seed Savers Exchange also has a lot of information on their website for beginners, including this nifty video.

  8. Buy off season. Often grocery stores or other places that sell retail seeds will put them on sale at the end of summer. Now that you know how to save seed, just buy things then and save for next year!
  9. Join an exchange. If you are a more serious gardener or homesteader and you buy enough seed and try enough new things, joining an exchange can make sense. I finally made a regular annual commitment to Seed Savers Exchange last year and used the exchange to get seed garlic in interesting varieties. Membership also gets you a 10% discount on seeds.
  10. Let wild edibles go to seed. I eat and make herbal remedies from a lot of wild greens. They tend to be the most nourishing. I notice the dandelion, chickweed, yellow dock, plaintain, purslane, creasy greens, and other greens that reseed themselves readily in my yard. Don’t cut them all down or pull them all up, you can nibble them year round, especially in winter when not much else is growing. I let too much dandelion go in my garden and thought I’d regret it, but after a long rain I pulled them from the loose soil and now have a lovely harvest to dry out for soups and smoothies this winter. Here’s a neat list.