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!

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!

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.