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!

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

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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!

 

We’ve put down roots!

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I think my first post back can be summarized in a series of emojis, most of which would just be a variety of crying/worried faces and ecstatic faces, followed by an exhausted face. Exhausted is where we are now, because we’ve finally moved!

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I last left you hanging with hopeful thoughts about a previous home – all in all, since we met our realtor this past January, we’ve browsed hundreds of homes online, seen dozens in person, and tried to buy FOUR homes. Yes, four. And that comes to the point of why I stopped writing this summer – between grad school and my emotional instability from swinging from ecstatic excitement to utter disappointment, I was more in the mood to live under a blanket and sleep rather than face the stress. I had zero motivation and zero interest in writing or doing anything but attempting to hold on to my cats for emotional support.

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My moving helpers. 

Thankfully, the fourth home came through for us – and it’s probably the nicest and most well-kept option we had seen. I’ve previously discussed what Evan and have been looking for in a homestead, and while this house doesn’t have the acreage, it has the beautiful patio, blank backyard ripe for gardening, and plenty of space for the three of us (me, Evan, and Evan’s mother) to spread out and enjoy a variety of spaces. We have a formal dining room, an ample studio space in the basement, a two-car garage, gorgeous patio, front parlor, and a master bathroom off our bathroom (this is one of my favorite spaces!).

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We love our patio time – and I love my cat mug. 

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Olivia is testing out the fireplace ledge. 

We’ve already experienced our first power outage and survived happily with the help of some oil lamps my mother gifted us, but we found out that our fire alarms work a little too well – the little bit of smoke that comes off the lamps set them off! There’s a lot of little things to get used to – stuff like the heat settings on the stove to the white carpet (and yes, my cats have christened this multiple times…). It’s been an adventure, and we’re so proud and excited to finally be homeowners and to be happily located in a central location for both our jobs.

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I fondly call this dining room the Audubon Parlor – the wallpaper is flush with birds!

 

Our plans for our suburban homestead include developing narrow beds with no till practices, building a chicken coop in the spring and adding a couple of chickens to our family, developing our patio with permaculture like blueberries and blackberries plus herbs, and so much more. We’ve been outside on our gorgeous patio almost every night, enjoying the beautiful sounds of the night insects and cicadas, even here in the heart of our town. Welcome to the suburban Epperson homestead!

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Summer Goals

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It hasn’t quite hit me yet – that the usual, daily grind has been postponed for a couple of months. Part of it has to do with my current misery – I’ve been coughing and sick for a couple of days now, coming to a head last night when I came down with a low fever and spent most of my evening huddled beneath blankets and binge-watching HBO. Tonight, I’m at least upright, and this time it’s binge-watching Hulu, but still – I’m not poolside, or even gardenside, by any means.

When I have unbooked time, I habitually create goals. Sometimes it’s just vacuuming and laundry, others it’s plant a whole garden. With two and a half months ahead of me, let’s see what I can do with the time and willpower I have.

1. Grow food!

With the homestead shopping spree still remaining that – shopping, not purchasing – we have piles of seedlings in our window sill with no destination. If we plant now, we’ll move without our seedlings (I joke that’s the only way to find “the” house – by planting the garden, we’ll jinx ourselves into finding the “one” the next day). We had hoped to have a plan by now, but to be honest, there isn’t one. I’m thinking we’ll go ahead and resort to what we did four years ago at our last house – a patio garden! It’s hardly sustainable, and goes against almost all of our hopes and dreams for improving soil, but growing in pots does provide homes for our seedlings and food for our table.

2. Finish my certificate.

For the last two summers, I’ve been working on levels I and II towards my Kodaly methodology certification – each level is offered for 5 hours graduate credit at Wichita State with a two week, ultra-intense course in the beginning of June. Since getting my level I, I have found a wonderful and satisfying new path with my teaching – a child-centered approach that uses folk songs from our student’s cultural traditions, all while enhancing their music literacy abilities to the fullest. This year will be my last of three levels to complete – which will bring me not only my status up to “Kodaly-certified teacher” but also my master’s degree status to “15 hours completed” – and this fall I’ll start in on the rest of my coursework to finish a master’s.

3. Buy a @#$^ house already!

Can you tell I’m feeling frustrated? I heard an NPR report that said in this past quarter of housing sales, houses have sold faster than they ever had in a decade. I can’t tell you how many houses we’ve looked at or gotten ready to look at only to arrive and find out an offer (or 3) was already on the house. It’s exhausting. It’s tiring. We’re at the point where we are happy to get a house with a big backyard just so we can build equity with something, but even that has been hard to find! It’s really stressing me out, so that means I probably ought to…

4. Take a yoga class or learn to meditate.

This school year, especially the last few months, have been stressful. I’m ashamed to admit how often I’ve broken down in tears or how often my husband has gotten some kind of exhausted or facepalm emoji through text the last couple of months. I. Need. A. Break. I’ve barely had time for myself, none for my friends or family, much less patience for any of the aforementioned. I’m going to start with some organizing to help me feel in order and then just some plain old sleep. It’s wonderful how therapeutic being in the garden can be, so as soon as I feel up for some exposure to allergens I’ll head out to the garden to weed and explore with the kitties.

Longterm, it would not be a bad plan for my mental health to establish a yoga or meditation routine. Even YouTube has some fabulous guides and gurus, and quite honestly I just need to step up and recognize how much I need this and do it already!

5. Get some thorough work done on my long-term planning.

In order to know what to teach, you need to have an end goal for your students – what do you want them to know when they leave your classroom at the end of your school year together? From there, when do you want to teach those goals, and how? With what resources or focuses? I want to take time to develop my concept plans and long-term planning, now that I’m entering my fourth year of teaching. My first several years were about experimenting, surviving, trying new things, and seeing what fits – how long it takes to teach a concept, that sort of thing. Now that I feel like I have the handle of it, it’s time to think broader, more deeply, and with more effectiveness.

 

Most of all, I want to spend time with myself, my friends, my family, and to relax. After all, it is summer.

All Quiet on the Home Front

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It’s been far too long since I’ve been able to sit down and write. In fact, this is the first night I’ve really been home and not been running off to meetings, concerts, projects, or heading out of town. My poor kitties won’t leave me alone when I’m home, they’ve missed me so much! Olivia, in the picture above, has missed going outside with me, so the last couple of days we’ve been trying to stock up on some more outdoor exploration time with her brother and I.

On the home front, all is quiet, unfortunately. We chose to retract our offer on the lake house we were pursuing a few weeks ago. It was relieving and disappointing all at once – we had made it all through the inspection process when we found out that it needed some significant electrical, HVAC, and roofing improvements in addition to nearly $200 a month in flood insurance. I’ve learned to always check the county website and verify flood insurance requirements and whether or not homeowner’s associations restrict the property FIRST, rather than find out what zoning requirements are on the land AFTER the offer has been made. To be honest, the stress of the financial burden we were facing was starting to physically and emotionally hurt. While there were 2.5 acres of promising land with which to be sustainable, the comfort gathered from growing your own food can only outweigh the risk of financial ruin so much.

We said ‘goodbye’ to this vacation home, this house with it’s own dock and hundred-year elm trees behind the pole barn. After letting go, we spent a week or so refusing to think about moving. The headache, the money we couldn’t refund from the inspection and appraisal fees, the dozens of documents we had to collect and upload to our bank – we just couldn’t do the exhausting, stressful cycle all over again so soon. We focused on moving my mother-in-law up from Wichita and being astounded at Cattigan’s new defensiveness towards the new cat in the house (a small child came to visit the house once and he hid behind the couch because the baby moved, and now the same cat is prowling around the door to the guest bedroom and is intent on jumping Sharon’s cat if she ever emerges).

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My mother-in-law definitely shares in our love of all green things – I drove back home with this happy jungle of hers in my front seat! 

After a bit, we began to see houses again, and the last handful or so have come close but not quite good enough – either no place for my mother-in-law, not enough space in the backyard, or out of our price range, or some combination of the three. We have another one to visit tomorrow, a fixer upper on 5 acres just 5 minutes from town, about which I am cautiously optimistic – there are apparently horrible urine smells and the house has been filled to the brim with hoarded items, but if the bones are good, we could do a lot with a cheap home and flip it to be our little dream home. It’s half the price of the lake house property – and we’d be paying 30% less on a mortgage than we currently pay in rent. Plus, what better time to create a truly green space – energy-efficient appliances, recycled materials countertops, energy-efficient windows, solar panels, and more.

In the meantime, I’m spending my afternoons shoving my new little flower plantings back into their containers and shooing the scavenging squirrels away as we wind down the school year. Only five more days with students and then it’s time to take 5 more hours of my masters program – and we’re off to summer!