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!