Part 2: Feeling Irish with Potatoes

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Yep, you read that right. Today is the first day of spring, and it’s 81 degrees out. We’ve had an abnormally-toasty weekend, and the plants are loving it! The average temperatures in March are usually in the 50s and we tend to experience our last frost date in mid-April, but we might be lucky this year. We had a couple of bad cold snaps last week, but we’ve been unseasonably warm for a couple of weeks now, so we decided to jump in and plant our potatoes and onions this weekend. We’ve typically gone by the idea that we should start onions and potatoes as soon as the ground is warm enough to work, but I also love the fun saying that you should plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day.

 

 

Last week, I wrote about how we were gearing up for growing and waiting out those last few cold nights to venture out and plant potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day – and the warmth this weekend meant it was finally time!

We like to start with seed potatoes, and I like to let mine sit for a while to really encourage the eye growth and start the development process. When they look sprouted and begin to get a little shriveled and I go ahead and cut mine, usually in half, but enough so that each piece has its own growth.

 

In the past, I’ve had good luck with a modified-raised bed for potatoes where they can grow up rather than out, so we headed out to our city’s compost pile to collect supplies. We’re really lucky that our city not only collects compost but also provides the finished compost back to city residents at no cost – there’s a small fee if you want it by the truckload, but otherwise everyone is welcome to come load up pots and containers.

The finished compost is beautiful – warm, rich, light in your hands, and deeply nutritious. We filled 6-8 pots, which was more than enough for my potato pile.

Back at home, I took a small roll of 12″ tall chicken wire and used it to create a ring that would be the home for my potatoes for the next six months or so. To keep all the dirt from spilling out of the chicken wire, I lined it with some old newspaper from the garage.

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In addition to the compost, I used some old peat moss that we needed to get rid of, and I think it’ll help to have a little extra water retention in a raised and isolated “container.”

I put down a layer of 2-3 inches of dirt and then laid down my first layer of tubers, keeping 4-5 inches in between them for room to grow. I added another dirt layer of 4 inches or so and put down another layer of potato cuttings, trying to offset them as best as I could remember so they wouldn’t run into each other as they grow up through the soil. All in all, my 8 potatoes (16 cuttings) ended up in three growing layers.

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Up next, the onions! When we weren’t grilling and hanging out on our patio with Evan’s best friend, Cole, we were sowing rows of onions in the garden. We are planning on trying to grow the onions intermixed with tomatoes and peppers rather than give them their own dedicated patch – they can make great companion plants for peppers and tomatoes and help them fight off disease and pests. I am a little nervous about the tomatoes blocking their sunlight, but I’m excited to find a new way to use as much space of our tiny patch as we can. Intensive gardening methods can help you get so much more yield out of your square foot than traditional gardening methods (think rows and lots of empty soil between plants), and so far we’ve enjoyed reaping the benefits.

I picked up a big bag of baby onion bulbs a couple of weeks ago, though I’m kicking myself because I forgot to count how many we planted! I’m guessing that we put close to a hundred in the ground… (Thanks, Cole!)

This beautiful weather and the lack of freezing – or even frost – forecasted in the next week meant it was time for some of my indoor plants to soak up some sunshine. They rejoined the patio after a cold winter indoors and basked happily with us in the warm rays – a pixie grape vine we rescued from a garden center clearance sale (no longer the sad stick – now blossoming and growing strong!), cilantro seedlings, some rose of sharon seedlings I propagated last fall, St. John’s Wort, and a new growth of lilies of the valley (the bed & breakfast at which we were married let us take a few as a wedding keepsake).

 

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Spring has sprung, and it is a beautiful time of year to spend outside.

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Time to Explore

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The calendar says we are still weeks away from spring, but our cats assure us that spring is most assuredly here. They beg by the back door to be let out into the warm air, rotate from window to window in search of warming sunshine, and stare in fascination at the growing flock of birds that frequent our feeders outside our front window. This morning the three of us – Cattigan, Olivia, and I – ventured out into the unusual warmth to do a little spring tidying out back.

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Early buds on our lilac bush.

We mulched many of our potted plants with leaves and sheltered them by the house from the worst of the cold winds this winter (and even then, we didn’t have many). This fall, my husband raked a bunch of our oak tree leaves into a DIY cage up-cycled from some old fencing wire so we can always have mulch at our disposal – we fell in love with using grass clippings on our garden beds to add nitrogen and this summer we might mix in some leaves as well. We tend to get very hot and dry in August and September, and our poor cucumbers can use all the help they can get to shelter their roots from the heat.

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I spent some time raking out the leaves from the woodpile and straightening up the logs, while the cats lounged and explored. Olivia has a new favorite task – she loves patrolling the neighboring fences and rolling in any dirt patches she can find. The cats only go out under our watchful gaze – we don’t need any “presents” or complaints from the neighbors about digging into garden beds, plus it’s bad for the bird population to allow the cats to kill for pleasure rather than need. (Trust me, they’re well-fed.) Here, on the outskirts of town, we get the occasional coyote visitor and birds of prey, and while I don’t worry about my hefty Cattigan I do worry about how petite Olivia will fare against a hawk.

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Olivia, mid-roll in the dirt.

Tomorrow, our task will be to sort and turn our compost pile. We take any organic matter from our kitchen – egg shells, onion peels, wilted spinach, juicing remains, coffee grounds, tea leaves, you name it – and deposit it into this giant compost pile. If you haven’t invested in a compost bin, I cannot recommend it enough; we store all of our kitchen scraps (no meat) in a sealable container in the kitchen, and when it gets full we take it out to the yard and dump it in this bin. Every few months you should turn the pile and make sure that it stays moist so the decomposition process can move speedily along. Adding compost to your garden is one of the best fertilizers you can give it, and it’s absolutely free. It gives new purpose to your kitchen scraps, and the chopped up taco topping leftovers that you left in the fridge for too long no longer stare guiltily up at you from the bottom of your trashcan – they return back to the earth they came from and give your plants new life.

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This bin is one of the cheapest I’ve found in the process of looking at building or buying our own – when we purchased it, it cost $30 on Amazon. “Geobin” is made of 50% recycled plastic and comes as a roll of mesh that you open to your desired width and hold together with plastic keys on one side. Unless you’re sticking your nose over the top of the pile, there is absolutely no smell with this open air compost – I can be standing right next to it and not notice it is there. It’s a big capacity bin, holding up to 216 gallons and measuring 4 feet in diameter, as you can see with Cattigan as a size comparison in the picture above. I highly recommend checking this one out! We purchased our Geobin from Amazon here.

Cattigan and I checked on our crop of garlic from last October – we planted some hard neck garlic and let it overwinter, and these last few weeks of warm temperatures have made them thrive. Their bright green stalks shot through the leaves and they basked in the sunlight after I fertilized them with some of our smelly fish fertilizer. (The cats always sniff the bottle very curiously when it comes out of the cabinet!)

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When our garden is full to bursting, we’ll find the cats navigating the maze of tomato plants and investigating the strange smells of peppers and bean flowers. They love to lounge on our warm patio stones and sniff the breeze – we can’t wait for more warm days that we can spend outside as a family to relax and explore what we’ve grown and cared after.

 

But now, for a nap.

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Why Homestead?

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Tonight, we’re visiting the third house on our house hunt. No, not our house hunt – our homestead hunt. We’re finally getting close to being able to declare our hunt as officially in season, but with that comes the question of what we’re looking for – a homestead. But with that comes the question of, “Why?”

Although society is starting to relax and open up in so many ways, there are still these stereotypes about life and your success in life depending on getting that college degree, getting a well-paying job that provides you with retirement accounts and 401(k)s, settling down and having two kids in a nice neighborhood, and spending your weekends at a furniture mart shopping for bedroom sets. Your food and supplies come from big mart stores that provide convenience and ease, your social media provides inspiration and social status. Your backyard is perfectly groomed and has the occasional flower garden and there’s no point in creating items when you can buy them at a store on sale.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting this or even wanting this – it’s just not for us.

For me, my journey started three years ago when Evan and I first moved in to our current rental home. We were in the middle of the zombie apocalypse craze – with the TV series and movies chronicling the events of a small group of people following some kind of world collapse, there was suddenly this thought:

“Wait, what if this ACTUALLY happened? How WOULD we live?”

It was unsettling to say the least. I can’t even cut firewood (thank goodness I chose a partner significantly more skilled in that arena), much less know how to build shelter that would keep me alive for the night, not even thinking about a zombie attack. It started us thinking about not having the life skills that our grandparents had – keeping livestock, growing and tending crops, using resources on the land, creating the items you need for your survival or day-to-day happiness.

At first, our journey was about being stocked with emergency supplies – stockpiling rope, freeze-dried food, duct tape, portable cookware, propane lanterns, a hatchet, and desalinization straws. I began looking into how to prepare food for long-term storage – dried noodles can only go so far in survival packs. One of my family members joked with us that we were becoming doomsday preppers. As we were growing our stores, I still had a feeling that this wasn’t the right direction – we were missing something. Then, I came across this eye-opening read:

The Prepper’s Cookbook: 300 Recipes to Turn Your Emergency Food into Nutritious, Delicious, Life-Saving Meals

“The Prepper’s Cookbook” by Tess Pennington introduced me to a whole new direction – while you should be preparing for the worst, the worst may not be a zombie apocalypse but a staggering veterinary bill or major car repair. What will you do next week when you’re suddenly at the emergency vet’s office facing the possibility of a $900 bill for an overnight stay to monitor your diabetic cat? (This was us three weeks ago – thankfully, Cattigan is now home and happy.) Suddenly your grocery money goes out the window – so you should be growing, harvesting, and storing the food that you will eat every week rather than bags and bags of cheap noodles and salty flavor packets or cheap, overly-sugared cans of baked beans that no one would want to touch on a good day.

This book helped us count and calculate which foods and how much of them to grow, preserve, and/or purchase for the house. We started keeping bulk dry beans and pasta as well as cans of pickles and diced tomatoes to pull from when we cook. Just last week, we cracked open a can of sauerkraut I made last summer when we were grilling bratwurst during a freak February warm spell. The idea is to be able to sustain your own lives and lifestyle despite any type of emergency – from wrecking your car to a zombie in the garden.

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A harvest of black beans and a stash of peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers from last year’s garden.

I finally had the right plan.

I was canning from our garden and stocking up on bulk rice and nuts or jars of peanut butter when it went on sale at our co-op. We’d buy bags of potatoes or peppers when they were put in the price-reduced bin and slice and freeze them for later use. I up-cycled this beautiful book shelf and now stock it with supplies like pasta and sugar or boxes of onions – it stays cool and dark in our basement and provides us with a pantry supply of food. Plus, now I don’t have to worry about staring at bare cupboards while planning dinner – I have so many options for soups, chilis, Mexican, roasted vegetables – you name it.

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A few of our ‘pantry’ items – we’re running low this time of year, but this is how we get started at sustaining ourselves with our own pantry and goods. (And yes, there is still a package or two of noodles for a true emergency.)

But that wasn’t the end of it – the next step became whether or not we can continue to produce that kind of food on a regular basis and provide for ourselves every day, and not just during times of shortage.

It was time to think big picture and long-term, and this is where we’re doing most of our learning – what did our grandparents do to keep their plants alive during sudden freezes? How did they keep chickens alive while roaming pastures to avoid buying feed all the time (which makes them more expensive than just buying organic eggs at the store)? Before power or even during power outages, how did they keep their house cool in the summer or warm in the winter? While we want to live with the modern conveniences of air conditioning and internet (we are very much a Netflix/Hulu household), we want to reduce our carbon footprint and our dependency on the grid to heat and cool our house or power our cars. Especially in light of recent political events, I want to control where my money is going and how my money is buying my energy if the government won’t protect our environment. This can be a whole conversation on its own – but, for example, we believe whole-heartedly in the sustainability of solar – so let’s invest in solar panels and get our money out of coal power plants.

What’s wonderful is that anyone can do this – my husband has been pouring over this book about finding self-sufficiency on 1/4 acre. It’s been essential to us as we do calculations and come up with ideas for maximizing space and the power of our dollar, and is jam-packed with everything from gardening to canning and dehydrating to soil health and composting, and more.

 Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre

Rather than 1/4 acre, however, are aiming for 2-3 acres for our future homestead. A homestead of this size gives us the breathing room and space to do so much, from keeping a goat or two to including a cottage for my mother-in-law. I want the space to sew more t-shirt quilts for family or floor cushions (that my cats steal – thanks, guys…) when we’re not outside tending patches of tomatoes or harvesting black beans (Let me digress for a second – black beans are one of the easiest plants to grow and take care of – you literally water it all summer and wait for it to die in the fall before you know you’re ready to harvest – I love ’em!). We can work with a local energy company to at least lease solar panels to power our property and maybe even invest in an electric car. I dream of free-range chickens that provide us with fresh eggs, pest control, and soil maintenance (small amounts of manure but lots of scratching and stirring soil). Over the years we can use crops and crop rotations to improve the soil health of our land so that every vegetable or fruit we grow is bursting with nutrients that are missing from commercial and mass-produced foods – plus, doesn’t farm-fresh just taste better?

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My husband left me a note last fall when I came home from work – better than any box of chocolates or vase of flowers, in my mind!

We’re big dreamers – I often happily imagine a snowy, Kansas Christmas around a fireplace with our family out on our glowing homestead – but we’re ready to be realistic. We know that to get a piece of heaven so close to our city means that we’ll probably be sacrificing on the quality of house we’ll find to stay in our price range – no 5 bedroom mansion with a 4-car garage and heated barn for us. (We will likely be stuck with a cramped ranch-style home with a scary basement and overgrown property that screams “RUN AWAY” rather than “Future Garden of Eden”.) We’ll be starting small, and our first garden will probably be terrible with very little production on this nasty northeast Kansas clay soil. But every year we’ll plow a few more garden beds by hand, search the internet for second-hand chicken coops, and maybe even save up for a pressure cooker to help with canning or a new patio table to fit more than 3 people out back.

The idea of the American dream is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps – that hard work pays off and gives you the life of which you have always dreamed. We’re unlucky compared to most farmers – we’ve inherited no land and we haven’t hit rich with any lottery ticket to give us a head start. We’re going to be moving forward with the love and support of our family and it’s going to take time, and we’re okay with that. We’re building the Epperson Homestead from scratch – and every little thing I learn how to fix or make means I am that much more proud and invested in my home. We’re getting back to our roots – valuing the work our hands can do, cherishing the seedlings that sprout in the plant tray on my bookshelf, reading and expanding our knowledge and imagination, putting the importance back on happy animals and happy soil that, in turn, only make us healthier and stronger.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this quote to ruminate over as we all dream of spring and greener things:

“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ” -Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”


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Juice Blend

My students are thoughtful, sweet, and love to share everything with me… including their germs.

I’m home sick today with a killer sinus bug. I’ve had a terrible sinus headache for two days, ran a low fever two nights ago, and I’ve been so congested that my head feels like it weighs 50 pounds. (Ironically, we watched a Korean drama with my mother-in-law on Saturday night where a serial killer used a kettle ball to club his victims in the head – I’m not so sure whose headache is worse at the moment…)

Last summer, my husband and I got a juice kick – we bought a $150 juicer and started researching new recipes and new ways to get extra vitamins and supplements in our diets. Evan likes to quote something he read that says our carrots are nothing like our grandpa’s carrots in terms of nutrition – our soil is less healthy, plant varieties and species are limited, and we ship our products across the globe (the longer the food goes unpreserved – frozen, canned, you name it – the more nutrients it loses). Today I was reminded that the juicer is a great way to help give me a boost of extra vitamins and nutrients that can help my body when it’s not at its fighting best.

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Nothing like the blood of my enemies to cure a cold. (Thank you, beets, for your ability to turn all juices into a ‘True Blood’-themed drink.)
My juice had the following ingredients, pictured below, plus a carrot: 2 oranges, two stalks of celery, an extra large carrot, an apple, a beet, and around an inch of ginger. It made about 16 ounces of juice, not counting the extra foam. Beets have a tendency to take any juice and turn it instantly dark red – and it sometimes shows up in your own waste later, so don’t be alarmed!
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Also, did you know that you can cut an ‘X’ into an orange and it helps the peeling process immensely? No more getting clumps of rind stuck under your nails or pulling off little bits at a time – it helps get your peel started a little more smoothly.

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Some argue that juicing adds a lot of sugar to your system – that is true, but I am willing to bet my system can handle natural sugars from plants ten times more easily than processed sugar and other added-sugar treats. Plus, let’s be honest – if I wanted some fruits and vegetables to snack on, I would have sliced up maybe two stalks of celery and added peanut butter, eaten maybe one whole orange (definitely not the two above), and maybe half an apple, also with peanut butter. I wouldn’t have gnawed down on a piece of raw ginger or an entire beet. But juicing let me bypass all the extra peanut butter I would’ve added and allowed me to bulk up on addition servings of vitamins and minerals.

Another argument against juicing – “You’ll just pee out most of those vitamins!” Yep, not all that I throw at my immune system will stick, but it’ll do much better than the organic bean burrito I was eyeing in the freezer. (Beans, cheese, and tortillas sure are delicious and filling – and add some good protein and carbs – but I seriously doubt that supports my immune system the way this cup o’ deliciousness did.

Juicing is also a great way to help get rid of those produce odds and ends – you can throw almost any of your veggies or fruits through your juicer (after cutting off the pieces you wouldn’t eat, like stems or rinds) and add an orange or apple or two to sweeten things and end up in good hands. I’ve juiced the end of a box of spinach that’s about to turn, parsley, stray carrots, a squishy pear, overripe strawberries, floppy celery – you name it! Do be cautious with garlic, onions, or ginger – these get potent FAST, so I’d generally suggest just sautéing your garlic and onions separately and maybe adding a tad of ginger at a time to your juice. Then, don’t forget to add the juicing remains to your compost – all that chopped up & processed fiber will break down quickly and does wonders for our garden and soil health.

Cheers!