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!

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.

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!

 

Staying Busy

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We had the house inspection on Friday, and while there were a couple of minor plumbing and electrical issues the main hiccup is the roof – some unfixed hail damage and improper flashing installation means we need a second opinion, and maybe a new roof. Seeing as we’re already at the top of our price point, if the seller (in this case, a bank) isn’t willing to work with us, we might have to back out of this property.

I find myself relieved to know the details of the house – to know what needs attention, how old the furnace is, all sorts of things that foreclosed houses can’t tell you. While some of the best deals can be foreclosures, they can also be scarily silent about what’s transpired under their roofs – if you haven’t lived there, you can’t disclose anything about the property, so they bank can’t share a thing about the state of the fuse box, what’s hiding behind the dry wall, or the quality of the garage.

But, of course, seeing as how it’s the weekend, we must simply twiddle our thumbs while we wait for news from a roofing specialist on Monday and then begin the terrifying process of negotiating with the bank. We can’t pack, we can’t plan, even dreaming can be dangerous if the house falls through – so what can we do? Garden and keep busy, apparently!

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Early blueberries

The last couple of weeks have been so hectic and trying that our poor seedlings haven’t gotten much attention. They have really taken off and are tangling together under the delicate warmth of their plant light, so it was time to start transplanting to larger pots with more nutrients to offer. We picked up some compost from our city compost center and I spent some of Saturday afternoon in the sun, with the kitties, transplanting the scraggly seedlings into reused pots from last year. Evan planted double what we will end up needing, so I sorted out the weaker ones for compost and planted the stronger. I spent time transplanting our butternut squash, spaghetti squash (which got pretty shocked by the transplant – hopefully they bounce back!), our Roma and heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, cayennes, and jalapeños. Our bell peppers are still too young – we had a late start planting – to be ready to move just yet.

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My potatoes are flourishing in their potato “cage”  – I hope that we can gently disturb this cage and move them successfully to the new place, because I would love to see how successful of a crop we have this year. Hopefully, the garlic will be somewhat close to ready when/if we move, as well, because WOW! My garlic is gorgeous! Thick, hefty stalks and green growth that stretches high to the sky. I’d hate to miss out on our first batch of one of my favorite culinary ingredients.

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My mother-in-law is moving up here on Friday – wow, how the days fly! – so I’m feeling anxious to clean and purge. Even if we do not move in a couple of weeks, it’s always a good exercise to step back and ask yourself if you really need seventeen different purses and that garage sale book of which you only read half. There’s no point in packing items I’ll just get rid of at the next house, so I started a big pile for Goodwill out in the garage of clothes, shoes, purses, and random electronics we haven’t touched in ages. I also spent a good deal of time vacuuming and prepping the guest bedroom for her – I’m going to be really grateful for a companion during my evenings home alone since Evan works so many evenings! Not only will I have a friend to help decode those strange sounds out in the country, but Sharon is being unbelievably generous in how she is helping us with our downpayment. We would not be looking at the land or houses we have without her love and support!

As I’m purging, however, something I can’t be too quick to get rid of are bottles! My batches of cider are starting to come around – they’ve spent somewhere between 2-3 weeks fermenting, and are now bubbling happily away! My first batch was just bread yeast and apple juice – the latest batch substituted a cup of apple juice with a cup of rosehip syrup, which I think made things very tasty and upped the level of alcohol content, as the additional sugar gave the yeast more to eat off (there didn’t seem to be much alcohol at all in the first batch).

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As you can tell, I was trying to keep busy with things around the house. I have a lot of worries and anxieties swirling around this potential new property, from the lack of closet space and small bedrooms (it was designed as a vacation home, therefore we have to get creative!) to flood insurance because of the river to just the sheer responsibility of owning such a large home, acreage, and the accompanying mortgage and fees. I’m in love with the place, but oh my, am I drowning in the potential adult responsibilities, plus my checkbook is steadily leaking cash throughout this process. All the calm thoughts you can send my way, the better!

I’m going to continue to keep myself busy – that’s not hard to do this time of year when you’re a teacher – and hopefully that will mean some additional blogging, as well. It’s surprisingly soothing, to take the time to document and share my journey – while it does take time, it certainly helps me understand, express, and explain our challenges and dreams. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be one step closer to a bunch of our dreams, and I will be busy in a different sense – by beginning our work on our homestead.

6 Weeks Later…

Happy birthday, seedlings!

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Our little tomatoes are six weeks old today, and they’re looking strong and healthy. Their main stems are a little squiggly, but we only lowered the seed tray so they could extend their growth upward yesterday. If all goes well, these little Romas and Italian heirlooms will be in the ground by the time the next six weeks rolls around!

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Our cayennes came up in good time, but our saved seed from our jalapeños and bell peppers last year never had any luck. We purchased a new batch from Botanical Interests and they’ve taken off with gusto. Underneath the plastic wrap (my mini, DIY greenhouse cover to lock in moisture until sprouting) are germinating butternut squash, cucumbers, and spaghetti squash. I’ve fallen in love with winter squash, which really can last the winter under the right circumstances. What other kind of perfect crop is there, that only requires growing, watering, and then a cool, open-aired and dark spot to lay low for the winter? No preserving, no processing required. Easy!

Speaking of birthdays, my new project is turning 3 days old – hard cider! I’ve no clue how this will turn out – I know that you are supposed to use a wine fermentation yeast packet to have best luck, but I read that bread yeast can make for a tasty brew as well. It was easy to set up – acquire apple juice without preservatives (these will kill the yeast) and a packet of yeast! This has to sit for at least 2-3 weeks before I can pour siphon off the yeast and then ought to rest for another 2-3 weeks to “age.” Apparently, there is a lot of fun to be had with trying different yeasts, honey, fruit mixtures, sugars, you name it. I’m looking forward to kicking off my summer break with a sip of my own homemade hard cider!

If you want to see the recipe and thoughts I’m following, take a peek here and let me know what you think. I’ll be sure to keep you updated! Cheers!