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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!

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Herbal Preparations

Happy holidays to all, and I hope this post finds you well and in good health! Today I’m writing about herbs and an exciting new path in herbalism that I started this month.

Since we started gardening, I’ve been more and more curious about herbs and their properties for healing and general health. It started with aromatherapy – my bathroom cabinet has probably close to 25 bottles of essential oils for anything from a Christmas seasonal blend that doubles as a defense for the immune system to a blend for bug spray and plenty of my usual favorite, lavender. I keep a diffuser at home and one at school, and my kids always comment on how inviting our classroom smells with lavender and lemon blends.

(From what I read, you have to be careful with aromatherapy and pets – our endocrine system can process the oils while our fur babies can’t, so if you use aromatherapy in your home, at least provide adequate ventilation and allow your pets to leave the space as needed – but check with your veterinarian for details, of course.)

Seasonal Defensive Blend of Essential Oils

add to a diffuser or a pot of steaming water to fill your home with seasonal warmth!
  • 5 drops rosemary essential oil
  • 5 drops cinnamon bark essential oil
  • 5 drops orange essential oil
  • 2 drops clove oil

Aromatherapy is just that, though – for your smell-izer, not to be taken internally. As we started learning more about the importance of food and the vitamins, antioxidants, and more that the right foods provide, the same suggestions kept popping up alongside the vegetable and fruit recommendations: yarrow helps with circulatory health, echinacea is immune-boosting, dandelion root is good for your liver. I had no idea what to really do with the recommendations, and they usually came as vague as I presented them here. Am I supposed to just gnaw on a dandelion? (Ew.)

Dried chamomile flowers.

I could find dandelion tea and echinacea tinctures at our co-op, so I was at least able to start utilizing the recommendations, but it still seemed like such a grey area – ideas obscured by a lack of knowledge and the cloudiness of contradiction that comes from scanning through Pinterest posts.

I started experimenting – last spring I tried my hand at a nettle tincture to help with my miserable seasonal allergies, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and how effective it seemed to be! I’m blessed to have quite the selection of bulk herbs at our local co-op, so I purchased some dried stinging nettle (it only stings when its fresh) and infused it with vodka for about a month, shaking occasionally. Keep in mind, our household bartending experience means that we’re comfortable setting up infusions on a regular basis, but what I didn’t realize is that alcohol can be specifically used to unlock properties in herbs that aren’t otherwise available through water (or aren’t as potent). After straining off the nettle menstruum (the liquid), 2-3 droppers a day helped greatly abate my miserable sinuses and watery eyes during ragweed season.

This fall, I saw a post from Herbal Academy about how to make homemade fire cider and I was HOOKED. I had seen too many sketchy-looking recipes or non-specific ingredient lists on Pinterest so I jumped right in. “At its most basic, it’s a zesty infused vinegar, packed with powerful immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and circulatory herbs” – it is a treasure chest of defense, and as an elementary teacher tired of getting the gastrointestinal joy every winter, this sounded like a win.

Homemade fire cider – red onions, whole lemons, a bazillion pieces of ginger, turmeric, ginger, thyme, pepper, cinnamon sticks, elderberries, and apple cider vinegar. It warms all the way down!

After reading and researching more about the Herbal Academy, I signed up to take their intermediate herbal course to learn more about herbalism. I’m two units in and loving all the information so far – the recipes, monographs about herbs, history, and more. So today, I experimented on two recipes – a calendula flower oil (to later be a salve for sore muscles, bruises, and aches & pains) and a immune support tincture made from elderberries, echinacea root, ginger, and yarrow (yarrow grown from my own garden this year!).

Calendula oil and an immune tincture in the works!

If you have ever been curious about herbs, I highly recommend checking out herbalism or the Herbal Academy website. Here’s to a healthful winter – happy holidays to you!

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Winter Reflections

Our first thick snow is on the ground, so naturally, the seed catalogs have been ordered and we’re spending hours with our noses pressed against the windows dreaming of next year. We’re only a few days away from the winter solstice and during this time of the year, when it’s dark and cold, we find ourselves reflecting on warmer days and successes of this summer’s garden.

I did poorly at updating everyone – again – as things went this summer. It was a busy one – finishing a master’s degree over the summer meant that by the time I could sit down and enjoy the garden, it was time to start planning for back to school.

This was our first year with the raised beds around the patio in place and ready to thrive – and boy, did they THRIVE! We had so much luck with herbs and then some late summer flowers that I’m going to have to spend a lot of time thinning out the perennials that started to root. In past years, I’ve been worried about getting any echinacea or rudbeckia to take, since they are some of my favorite perennial flowers, so I overcompensated by sowing extra alongside established plants. I may have some potted flowers to give as gifts this spring after all!

Our goal with the raised beds is to cultivate flowers and herbs for kitchen usage, as well as to create a natural privacy area around our patio. We put in the raised beds 16 months ago after digging out a large fencing structure that provided privacy but no opportunity for growth or for interacting with the yard. This year we added the privacy fence (step 1 for Operation: Backyard Chickens!) so it’s provided a beautiful backdrop for our bursting garden.

If you’ve done much research into companion planting, you’re probably familiar with the three sisters combination planting of beans, corn, and squash. The squash provide ground cover and can grow on the stalks of the corn, while the beans love to shoot up the sides of the corn and trellis themselves. Well, that’s what it does for everyone else – on our suburban homestead, we ended up with a mess of corn, a couple of limp bean plants, and some teensy squash plants that didn’t want to take off. We must have miscalculated the timing on planting, so we pulled all the corn towards the end of August and let the squash finally take over. Did this mean that we were harvesting zucchini at the October frost? Perhaps.

All in all, we had a great crop of corn, a medium stock of potatoes and radishes, a handful of carrots (most of which went into the freezer and have snuck into some delicious pot pies), and a fabulous stash of tomatoes. We’ve been able to cook this fall more than we ever have before and having the supply of food in our house from this summer is so exciting (our work schedules are finally syncing up decently and I am discovering the power of saying ‘no’ to school committees and commitments!). Nothing beats knowing exactly where the food came from, and knowing how much love and care went into developing the plants and crops. #growfoodnotlawns

Speaking of harvest, a new development that is going to revolutionize our canning & storing processes is the pressure canner! Our deep freezer croaking was the final catalyst towards learning how to pressure can low-acid foods so we could avoid the freezer burn and save on energy. Hopefully this means a large selection of canned stock and carrots and such in the future.

We’re never done learning, in the Epperson household: In addition to my master’s degree this summer, Evan spent some significant time working on his own education. Evan finished a permaculture course through the Kansas Permaculture Institute and brought home so many new ideas and concepts for us to try next year in the garden, including swales and more experimentation with companion planting. I’m about to start an online herbalism course to build up some practical skills for healing and health capabilities from the garden, which will mean for quite the expansion in our herb collections, for sure! Along with all of this, we’ve been doing a lot of reading and research on small-scale chicken operations – come spring, I’m going to need some help naming 4-6 new members of the Epperson household! (I feel like a theme is going to be in order: female versions of Star Wars characters, Greek goddesses, female musicians – the list is endless!)

My hope is to keep everyone updated every couple of weeks about our little suburban homestead and be more regular about journaling. There is always so much happening that it’s hard to sit down and put down thoughts, but it’s so important to stop and reflect on how far we’ve come.

Stay warm!

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Patio Makeover

When so many people think of homesteading, they think of gardens and land space – and when we moved into our suburban homestead, we didn’t have acres of open land. We have space to work with, but what we saw most prominently before us was an empty, closed-in patio.

A line of boxwoods and a handful of yew bushes are all that were growing in this cramped patio area. It provided some lovely private seating, but not much else. We had done some research into permaculture work and decided that we should take on our patio as one of our first major homestead projects and convert these big, plastic fences into some beautiful growing spaces.

All of the posts were held in by concrete, unfortunately – so while the lattice work came down rather easily, Evan about lost his sanity trying to pry out the concrete bases from the posts, which had started to rot.

Then it was time to remove the old yew bushes – while the birds loved to hide in the bushes, they were keeping us from growing food and plants that would sustain us and, ultimately, more pollinators and birds. Thankfully, we paired up with a farmer friend who would re-plant the yew bushes elsewhere rather than chop up a perfectly good, mature plant. (Olivia helped, too!)

(We found TONS of clay buried around the plants – so we scooped up a couple of buckets-worth of clay to experiment with cobb building in the future.)

Ta da!

Now, I should preface the next section of work by clearly stating that we will probably never build garden beds using trapezoid bricks – ever – again. This was a miserable project, and while it turned out beautifully, we could have done a lot better with bricks that fit together more easily and are better orchestrated to curve and connect in circles. If you want specifics, please reach out!

We purchased three pallets (something like 500 blocks) of trapezoid bricks from Home Depot and had them delivered to our side yard, where we painstakingly loaded them into the backyard and set up building various raised beds. Some of our beds were designed to be one brick deep while others would be closer to three bricks deep. To help keep things as level as possible, we dug down into the soil and laid several inches of sand, tamped it down, and then set up a base layer of patio stones while checking with a string level to maintain height against the existing concrete patio slab.

See how each level shrinks slightly because of the lip on the stone? That caused us a marriage-testing, sanity-questioning level of frustration that we now recommend others avoid at all costs, because each level now needed stones to be cut or chipped in order to fit the next level.

Once we figured out that the geometry of fitting smaller layers on top of smaller layers was exhausting to calculate, we finally settled on just breaking stones to make the layers fit together in the odd spots. At this point, it was well into summer, so getting the work done quickly wasn’t easy in sweltering temperatures. Things finally came together in July, with four beautiful beds ready to plant!

We quickly mixed in local compost from the city and some top soil and transplanted some herbs since we were so late in the season to get started on plantings (July is headed deep into summer in Kansas). I also added some river rock and patio stones from the side yard to transition the concrete patio slab to the yard and topped things off with some solar lights to add a lovely glow in the evenings. This spring, though, is when we’ll get to really unleash the loveliness of our patio, complete with plenty of herbs and some garlic and perennials we started this fall. Stay tuned!

From Seed, 2019 Edition

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Every year I seem to go missing for months at a time and then show back up when it’s time for seed-starting – but better late than never!

Growing season #2 at the Epperson (suburban) homestead should see lots of diversity this year – we are going to pop open a Seed Saver vault that we got around 4 years ago to try out some of the seeds. Not familiar with these fabulous seed storage containers? They are designed to be bug-out insurance for the farm – dozens of varieties of seeds that can be stored in the refrigerator for years at a time and used to start over the family farm after the latest pack of zombies, health crisis, or Russian invasion.If you haven’t read about the doomsday seed vault in Norway, you should!

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Our miniature seed bank might be heading just past its peak usability level, being just over four years old, so we’ve decided to crack it open and plant. We can’t possibly plant it all, but at least we can create quite the variety on our new beds this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up first, beefsteak tomatoes, yellow sweet onions, and California Wonder bell peppers. They’re joining some young seedling friends – lavender and echinacea to replace the handful I lost at the end of last summer in heat wave (I transplanted too late and the poor things weren’t established when the heat hit). Between two graduate school classes and work, hopefully I’ll have time to keep you all updated!

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Thanks for reading – and hopefully the sunlight will come out and warm the earth soon.

Patio Permaculture

Copy of plant room

When I realized it’s been over six months since I last blogged, I realized that I had two choices when it came to my first post back: 1: Attempt to go back and re-visit every single moment that I didn’t journal, or 2: just start writing again.

Alas, those of you looking for your next novel to read will be sorely disappointed.

I’ve decided to just pick back up and start where we are now, not where I left off. It’s now the end of March, and we’re squirming to see the fruits of some early garden labor. We have four beds prepared with some cover crops to kickstart our summer grow season – radishes & turnips, oats, peas, spinach, and even some potatoes for summer! We moved to our new home in August of last year, so when the ground got cooler we set up some beds with fall cover crops to start introducing some nutrients.

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We knew three years ago that wherever we ended up, we wanted to have a main area of our garden rooted in permaculture. This idea of never-ending food and food that cares for itself is exciting for us – how else to help nature but by helping nature help itself? Plus, after the initial energy of planting, all it takes is some general upkeep and the plants will take care of themselves. A big aspect of permaculture has to do with planning and utilizing the land fully – tracking the run-off and grading of the area, plus the availability of sunlight and wind, etc.

For us, our permaculture will be our patio. We are blessed with a beautiful patio area, sheltered by two gum trees (we now hate gum trees – and are now taking recommendations for using those damn sticky balls!) and until spring break it was enclosed by a plastic and wooden lattice system that provided privacy but not much else.

So, we attacked it! Evan did most of the heavy lifting, while my mother-in-law and I undid screws, zip-ties, carted the lattice to the side yard, and cleaned the beds of the sticky gum balls, mulch, and excess leaves.

Now that the lattice and posts are out, we plan on widening and raising the beds with pavers. We’ve already begun the research and have started sketching the different ideas we have for the beds – certain plants benefit each other, while others are unhelpful and attract more diseases or pests in combination. (For example, blackberries and raspberries pass diseases between one another and should be kept apart.)

As of now, we’ve planned on blueberries, raspberries, herbs of all varieties, pollinator plants for the bees, birds, and butterflies, a dwarf apple tree, hibiscuses, a rotation of peas and beans, lavender, asparagus, strawberries, and then maybe onions and garlic to tuck in between. It will take a season or two, but soon we’ll have a patio alive and thriving and also providing us with food and medicinal benefits.

Plant Nursery

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It’s officially been two months since we’ve moved into our new suburban homestead! The majority of our “must-handle-immediately-because-the-dryer-won’t-work” projects are over, and now it’s time to look to our potted plants and seedlings, because fall is officially here. We planted a couple of cover crop beds (I’ll share more later this week, after some better photos) and our lovely patio is bursting with happy plants – however, our forecast calls for rain and cold tomorrow, with a low pushing 40. Some of our plants can withstand and even want to overwinter outside, but so many of our lovelies just can’t handle temperamental Kansas weather.

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When we first looked at the house, we couldn’t imagine what we would do with a formal sitting room. Our rental had squeezed in a small living room between a bedroom hallway and the garage with an afterthought of a kitchen tucked in a corner, so suddenly having a formal dining room, formal living room, a large family room, and a full kitchen to spread out amongst was daunting! Naturally, we filled it all quickly, but the formal sitting room was rather pointless. It held my grandmother’s antique spinet piano and some assorted bookcases with an old loveseat hastily covered with a cheap sofa cover, but it was not the inviting, useful front room we were looking for.

Suddenly, having a patio full of plants that needed a home and a front room that needed a purpose meant that we have a new plant nursery. It won’t be a greenhouse by any means, but in combination with a bright, north-facing bay window and some plant lights, we have a way to home our plants for the winter and maybe even start our seedling operation come Christmas.

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Evan purchased a couple of grow lights to get us started – these bulbs fit typical light fixtures, provided they have some extra vertical space to come out of the fixture (they are much taller than typical bulbs). They provide the full spectrum of light that plants are accustomed to outdoors to help supplement the low to typical light the window would bring in and provide a brighter light for plants like my gardenia or our Pixie grape plant, which will come inside soon.

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Now, to address the white carpets, I decided to get sneaky with my carpet protection. I don’t know how long the carpet will actually stay white (thank you, cats), but for now, I’ve tucked a shower curtain beneath the rug so that we’ve got one extra layer of protection if our plant trays leak onto the floor. Every plant gets a plant tray, and I’m always careful to water so very little actually ends up in the tray – wet roots lead to decay and mildew growth.

I spent nearly five years working in a floral shop in high school and college, and one of my favorite watering tricks was actually to water over the sink and only water once a week. Watering infrequently but heavily helps create stronger roots that search more actively for nutrients, which is great for encouraging those vegetables in the garden to reach down further to gain nutrient access. With our houseplants, I like to remove the plant from the basket & tray (plant stays in the main pot, just not the decorative one(s)) and hold it under the faucet until the water is running out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. At that point, I keep running the water for about 5-10 seconds longer and then let it sit in the sink with the drainage holes over the drain. If it’s still pretty light in weight after the first watering, I’ll usually water the same way again, but otherwise it should be good to go for 4-7 days, depending on the warmth, size of roots/amount of roots, sunlight, and humidity the plants are exposed to on a daily basis.

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Not many plants on this side of the room yet – this’ll change quickly come November!

For now, we have just a couple of houseplants in our new plant nursery, but they’ll be more very soon with cool weather on the way! I’m also excited for our plant room come winter because our white wicker bookshelf and the large cafe table will provide wonderful places to set up seedling operations come Christmas and New Years. We visited different farms on a farm tour this weekend, and one of the farmers we visited recommended that we do fewer vegetables as direct seed and more as seed starters indoors, so I imagine we’ll use this space quickly if we’re to try more onions and such for the spring. In the meantime, while it becomes darker and gloomier outside, we’ll brighten up our house with lots of green on the inside!