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!

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!

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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