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!

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!

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!

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

Copy of Copy of plant room

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.