Saturday, June 23, 2018

Homestead Update 6/23/18: Summer Begins Dramatically

Fluffy Buffy, who did not die, in all her buffy fluffiness.

What an intense month (and a bit) this has been! Not only did the weather make an abrupt and rather traumatic shift from spring to summer (then, mercifully, back to spring these past few days), but the past several weeks also saw us spending a week in Hawaii, rearranging the whole house (I fit almost all our books onto one shelf, a feat I formerly thought impossible), and dealing with all sorts of personal drama, from our nephew breaking his femur (he's in a cast for six weeks) to our car’s fusebox melting into a puddle (it’s been in the shop for a week, with nearly a week to go). We harvested our first tomatoes, celebrated Zach’s birthday, and one of our chickens almost died. Like I said, things have been crazy...

Chicken butt.
The Saga of Fluffy Buffy

We arrived home from Hawaii on a morning when the heat index topped 100ºF. Zach and I, thoroughly jet-lagged and not having slept at all on our redeye flight, checked on the chickens that morning, who were fine after being “chicken-sat” by my parents all week. Zach and I took a nap. However, when we woke up mid-afternoon, we walked outside to find Fluffy Buffy’s limp body hanging halfway out the henhouse, her eyes shut, her beak open, her whole body heaving. I freaked out and threw open the door to the coop, grabbing her limp body and pulling her into the shade. We sprayed her with water and dragged a fan outside and blew it on her, while she laid there limply. Tears streaming down my face, I begged, “Stay with us, Fluffy Buffy! Stay with us!” Although our chickens are certainly not pets, I hated to see her suffer, and I couldn’t stand the thought that my negligence might mean death for her. (Meanwhile, our incredibly compassionate other chickens kept on coming up and aggressively pecking her until I shoved them away.)

At last we carried her inside and placed her in a cool bath. She didn’t exactly perk up, but she began to look less distressed, and just laid there quietly, blinking at us. Finally she began making soft, inquisitive noises. We pulled her out of the bath and set her on the cool bathroom floor. She laid there in a fluffy pile, staring straight ahead and blinking. There wasn’t anything else we could do, so we left her in there and tried to make sure the other chickens were okay. I was already mentally writing a post titled, “A Eulogy for Fluffy Buffy.”

Trying to take a chicken portrait is challenging...
Thank goodness, she began to perk up after that, and by the next morning, she was able to walk again. We turned her loose with the other chickens and watched her carefully. She moved a bit more slowly than usual, but picked around in the compost and generally seemed okay. 

That’s when we realized that we needed a better way to combat the heat. We have a tarp over their whole coop, but shade wasn’t enough. We now have a fan hooked up, and I place a shallow basin of water in front of it for evaporation. We put ice in their drinking water every day and I hose off their enclosure to help cool it down. I’m happy to say that a few days ago, when we were gone all day, the chickens all lived through the day, even though the heat index was 105ºF! Fluffy Buffy has even started laying again. (Bobbie Dylan, on the other hand, seems to be on an egg-laying strike. She does noooot like the heat.) So, crisis averted, and Fluffy Buffy lives to tell the tale!

Summer crops

While our peas died and our lettuce and spinach bolted, our summer crops are taking off in a big way! Seriously, in the week we were gone to Maui, our cover crops grew a literal foot, and our tomatoes were so bushy that I’ve had to give them a major pruning— twice. The squash we planted (cucumbers, butternut, and pumpkins) are crawling in giant piles all over the yard. We harvested our first tomatoes of the year— two “mystery tomatoes” I grew from seeds at the seed swap. They are small slicing tomatoes, and very delicious! I baked them into an omelet with some basil from the garden and brie. Yummy!

I’ll be posting photos of the yard soon: I thought it had “exploded” before, but I had no idea what it would look like come summer.

Radishes and their greens— great for stir-fry!
Cucumbers attempting to take over the world
We'll have ripe cherry tomatoes soon!
Our hibiscus just starting flowering

One of the stops
I learned about this event earlier this year, and it was really cool! Basically, people all around the St. Louis area sign up to open their backyards to the public from 11-4 on a certain Sunday. The backyards feature anything related to sustainability: native plants, edible landscaping, permaculture, chicken- and beekeeping, solar energy, rainwater harvesting, and so on. The event puts out a guidebook listing where the yards are and what they feature, and you can put together a route of yards that interest you. 

Since there were a ton of yards in Tower Grove, Zach and I drove to Tower Grove Park, left the car there, and hoofed it around the neighborhoods. (This was the day the heat index was 105ºF, so we both got mild heat exhaustion, but it was worth it!) We saw all manner of amazing gardens and permaculture projects, as well as unusual animals like quail and rabbits. The owners were around to talk about their projects and answer questions.

Our favorite yard was pretty much the same concept as ours: sheet-mulched, with an emphasis on fruit trees. But the cool thing was that this yard was two years further along than ours, so we could see what it would look like! We plied the owner, Matt, with questions about his blackberries and passionfruit. 

My favorite moment of the whole day, though, was when Matt pointed out his Illinois Everbearing Mulberry, the same tree we planted this year. It stood about fifteen feet tall, and he said, “I pruned the heck out of it this year.” He told us to find a ripe berry and try the fruit. Now, wild mulberries are nice if you find a perfectly ripe one, so I was hoping that the cultivated kind would be a slightly stronger version of a good wild mulberry. However, when I plucked the fruit, which looks like an elongated blackberry, and popped it in my mouth, I was treated to an explosion of tart-sweet fruity flavor that was so intense I nearly cried for joy. (Okay, eating good fruit when you have heat exhaustion is a pretty euphoric experience, but still.) I couldn’t believe how delicious it tasted! It gave me a lot of hope for our yard. 

That’s what’s been going on the homestead this month! What have you been up to?


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: June!

Wild mulberries, free for the taking

It’s that time of year again... when you bless the inventors of air conditioning! (We try to keep our house at 80, but have a window air conditioner for nighttime.) But seriously, there are lots of ways to enjoy this month that brings us into the official start of summer. For instance...

1. Observe the summer solstice. The European winter solstice celebrations have been immortalized in our celebration of Christmas, but the summer solstice got lost in the shuffle. Time to bring it back! The solstice traditionally involved a bonfire, feasting, and communing with nature, so take some time to do one or all of the above on June 21st. (See more fun ideas here.)

2. Start carrying a water bottle. No, you won’t die if you go out without one, but as the heat intensifies, having water close to hand is helpful. There’s no need to waste a bunch of plastic, though! Get a reusable water bottle and get into the habit of carrying it around. I use a Nalgene my brother brought me from Yellowstone, but you can almost always find water bottles at thrift shops. Or you can follow Zach’s lead and use an old kombucha bottle.

3. Go berry-picking. If you live in the Northwest, berry-picking is as easy as walking to, well, pretty much anywhere, and grabbing delicious blackberries straight off the vine. In the Midwest, we have a glut of mulberries, which are less tasty but still fun to pick. Or you could try a U-Pick farm! (Here’s a list of U-Picks in the St. Louis area.)

4. Catch fireflies. It’s prime season for fireflies— they light up the woods like crazy around our house! (If you happen to live west of the Rockies, I’m sorry that you don’t get fireflies. Maybe you can eat some wild blackberries to console yourself.)

5. Choose humanely-raised meat for a barbecue. You guys know I have a thing with meat— I’ve written about it here, here, and here. And while I love barbecues, I think there are better ways to celebrate that buying cheap meat made from an animal who lived a life of suffering. Ideally, it’s best to buy meat from a local farmer whom you trust (for St. Louisans, check out the package Thies Farm offers, and for everyone, look at EatWild for more ideas), but in a pinch, choose something labeled “Organic,” “Grass-Fed,” or “Humane Certified.” Yes, it’s a lot more expensive than CAFO meat, but you could make up for it by buying less meat and filling in with side dishes. 

How are you going to celebrate June?


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Stories from Maui

Burying Zach in Makena Beach!

The week before Memorial Day, Zach and I were able to hop a plane to Maui to spend time with his brother Dustin, sister-in-law Tessa, and niece Margot, who recently moved there. (It was my first time visiting Hawaii, and my expectations were largely shaped from calendars at the mall and Disney’s Moana. I was interested to see the real thing!)

After the eight-hour flight, we met Dustin at the airport and he drove us toward their house in Maui’s upcountry. Wide prairie stretched out on either side: this area had once been sugar plantations, but were now covered with grass that looked similar to normal lawn grass back home— except five or six feet tall. 

We quickly wound up the side of the Haleakala Mountain (volcano), past surprisingly familiar-looking landscapes of evergreens and eucalyptus trees, like you’d see in California. At a glance, you’d never know you were somewhere tropical unless you spotted a glossy red-leafed ti plant, a chameleon hiding in the bushes, or a fifteen-foot-tall yucca. I pointed out all the birds— Myna birds, francolins (a kind of partridge), pheasants, and, best of all, red junglefowl (chickens)! (And yes, we did see a rooster who looked exactly like Heihei, buggy eyes and all.)

Their house was perched 3,000 feet up the mountainside with an amazing view of the plains we had crossed. We could see the south shore of Maui to the left, the north shore to the right, and the west hills, perpetually shrouded in clouds, straight ahead. Other islands were scattered in the distance. Being from a landlocked state, I wasn’t sure if I would feel nervous being surrounded by water, but Maui is a big enough island that I never felt like we were on a speck of land in a limitless ocean (even though that’s pretty much the truth). 

See the hang-glider?

We spent most of the week having fun hanging out with family. Margot, who is 21 months, has a huge vocabulary and loves to talk, and we bonded over repeated readings of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Dustin and Tessa took us to two different farmers markets (I bought vegan ice cream made from local coconuts, and Zach tried a delicious vegan miso soup topped with fresh veggies and flowers), two different beaches (the waves were perfect for jumping, and we saw a sea turtle!), and a few hikes (the woods reminded me of the Northwest, except with the sound of roosters crowing). 

We also spent a lot of time enjoying what Hawaii has to offer: perfect weather, nice breezes, and the best fresh fruit ever. I’d eat four or five oranges a day, plucked straight from the tree in their backyard, as well as fresh avocados, grapefruit, and bananas. In the afternoons I’d often sit in bed and read (Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra by Lewis; the latter was an exceptionally good choice for Maui), glancing up every once in a while to see the silver-gold light of midday gleaming on the water.

Another notable day trip was a jaunt to the West Maui hills. This involved a drive to the opposite side of the island, and I was shocked at how different the ecosystems were here. Gone was any comparison to the Northwest or California— this was sheer volcanic rock hills blanketed in a riot of tropical growth, from coconuts and bananas to all sorts of shiny-leafed plants I’d never seen before. We toured a decorative garden and hiked up to a viewpoint where we could see down the volcanic gorge toward the center of the island.

After, we ate a picnic (samosas from the farmers market) in a nearby garden that highlighted the different cultural heritages of Hawaii. We sat by the pool in the Japanese section of the garden and walked through a little bamboo forest.

On our last day, we visited Haleakala National Park, driving a long and winding road up past the evergreen treeline and through barren-looking windswept prairies to the crumbling volcanic top of the mountain. We walked to the rim of the crater and were astonished to look down into it— it fell away at our feet, marked with miniature mountains inside. Clouds spilled over the edges. It gave the illusion that the bottom of the crater was the ground, and the clouds were actually fog, or waves of the sea. We walked for a while along the rim and admired the beauty from several angles. It was definitely worth the drive!

This plant only grows on the top of Haleakala!

Inside the crater, with clouds
One of my favorite moments of the whole week, though, happened when I woke up in the middle of the night. It was the only night during our trip that wasn’t cloudy, and through the open windows I could feel the cool air and see the stars. Half-asleep, I looked up at the sky, and saw a constellation hanging above the West Maui hills: Maui’s fishhook. The constellation jumped out like diamonds woven into a tapestry. 

I blinked a few times, not believing my eyes. I had read the legends of Maui standing on Haleakala and hooking the sun, and of course this constellation was in Moana, but I had just assumed Disney made it up. What was this strange constellation, which I had never seen before? How could it be so bright, so unmistakable, hanging in the air and giving witness to the story of the demigod’s achievements? A sense of mystery, a sense of myth and legend and Otherness of this new place, fell heavy on me. I was a stranger here; this was Maui’s island, clearly claimed by these glimmering stars.

I sank back into the covers, still disoriented, and slipped into sleep with the fishhook casting faint light on my face.

The next morning, I realized that the constellation I saw was called Scorpio in Europe, the same constellation that I had watched with Zach in Bryce Canyon nearly a year ago.  But somehow that added to the magic rather than detracted from it; the same stars tell different stories to different people. 

I was grateful for the chance to get a glimpse of the stories that make up the island of Maui, shown in the stars, the menagerie of flora and fauna, and the ocean all around.


Friday, June 1, 2018

My (Almost) Waste-Free Hair Care Routine

Between Zach and me, we have a lot of hair to take care of. And while I’ve never paid too much attention to this stuff growing out of my head, I was in the habit for most of my life and applying shampoo and conditioner whenever I washed my hair. If you add it up, that’s a lot of plastic bottles. Yes, they’re recyclable, but they can only be “downcycled,” and will eventually end up in the landfill. When I did an eight-week “Show Your Plastic Challenge” in 2016, switching hair care products was an obvious choice. Also, using alternative methods is good for our shower-to-garden greywater system, which I’ll describe in detail in an upcoming post. 

I had already learned that traditional shampoos and conditioners make your scalp greasier. I couldn’t go two days without a shower because my scalp would start to itch and my hair would get unbearably greasy. Now that I’ve switched to non-traditional methods, I can go several days without washing my hair, and I have fewer problems with my scalp. There’s definitely a transition period where your scalp freaks out, but it will balance over time.

Here are the three items I use for hair care:

Nice soap.

I originally started with shampoo bars, which are specifically designed to be used on hair, but now I just use high-quality soap which I buy locally at Frenchtown Secret Garden or Elements Herbology. (I just bring my own bag— no plastic packaging needed!) I’ve read that soap isn’t that great for your hair, but it works just fine for me.

How to use: Lather up the bar in your hands, massage it into your hair for a few minutes, and rinse. I shower every few days and usually wash my hair. Zach rotates between simply rinsing his hair, using the soap, and applying shampoo about once a month.

Apple cider vinegar.

If you try to wash your hair with just soap, your hair will turn into a stiff, squeaky mess. But a strategic dose of apple cider vinegar will turn your hair magically soft! And no, you don’t smell like vinegar afterward; the scent immediately dissipates.

How to use: I keep an old plastic bottle, which I refill from the glass bottles of ACV that we buy. (Apparently it’s best to choose the ACV with the “mother” still in it.) I also keep an old 32-ounce yogurt container in the shower. When I’m ready to condition, I splash a tablespoon or two of ACV into the yogurt cup, then fill the cup to the brim with shower water. I pour the pint of vinegar-water on my head, and don’t rinse it off. This seems to be the perfect balance for my hair, but you can play with the ratios to see what works for you.


I’ve read that frequent hair-brushing is very helpful is you’re using natural products, but I’m just too lazy for that. Some days I only brush my hair once in the morning, braid it, and then leave the braid in all day and all night. 

And the result? Well, I certainly don’t look like a L’Oreal model, but my hair is downright presentable, and over the course of my life I’ll be keeping hundreds of plastic bottles out of their fast track to a landfill. I’m happy that I’m preventing waste and supporting local businesses... and challenging cultural norms just a tiny bit, too. 


Monday, May 21, 2018

I Have an Unfair Advantage

My life is full of unfair advantages.

I have supportive family and friends.

I live close to parks, walking trails, woods, and a beautiful river.

My health is good.

I was raised in a stable home.

Our house has climate control, electricity, gas, and running water.

We have a car that someone gave us for free.

I have a wonderful husband.

I have an incredibly flexible online job that I got by working as an intern with my mom.

I live in a climate well-suited to growing vegetables.

I was taught good spending habits early on.

I own a house in a beautiful part of town.

I belong to a great church.

I have access to tons of free resources, from Freecycle to Couchsurfing to the library and clothing swaps with friends.

The list could go on and on, but you get the point: every one of these was given to me with none or very little of my own volition. I do have some advantages that I chose— not having college debt, for instance, because I didn’t go to college— but sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how many parts of my life are wonderful in ways that have nothing to do with cause and effect.

It’s important to be aware of unfair advantages for three reasons. First of all, awareness creates gratitude. I’m thankful to God for placing me where and when he did, and thank him for all the good things he’s given me. Realizing that I don’t deserve these good things helps me to be more aware of the grace in my life.

Secondly, it’s important to pinpoint our unfair advantages because these are crucial leverage points. In permaculture, one of the core design principles is to make the least amount of change for the greatest impact. If you already have an unfair advantage in an area, leveraging it creates a huge impact for very little work. For instance, if you’re healthy to begin with, any changes you make to further your health are a lot more effective. If you’re not paying off a car, you can use the money you’re saving to improve other areas of your life.

Access to an oven + money for flour + library books = delicious bread
Finally, understanding your unfair advantages also gives you awareness of people who don’t enjoy these privileges, and gives you the means to help. Money is the obvious example; if you find it easy to make money, this allows you to give money away freely. However, there a countless other examples: if you’re emotionally stable you can be a strong support for friends who are struggling; if you have a beautiful house you can invite people to live with you; if you have access to a park you can take walks there to improve your emotional wellbeing, which ripples out to other people. Unfair advantages create abundance, and abundance is meant to be shared.

What unfair advantages do you have in your life? Are you making the most of them?


Friday, May 18, 2018

What I've Been Reading: Winter/Early Spring 2018 (Part Two)

Aaaugh, I cannot keep up with reviewing all the books I’ve been reading! Here is my backlog of the most notable books I read in late winter/early spring. Two and a half of them were read in a three-day span when I had a raging fever. It also helps that we recently switched from TV shows on DVD from the library to old-fashioned Netflix where you only get one movie in the mail per week (we’ve been watching a lot of Akira Kurosawa films). It’s amazing how much reading time is freed up when you have no TV shows singing the siren song.

Anyway, here’s what I was reading... a couple months ago!

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

You guys. This book. It made me feel simultaneously outraged, duped, and fiercely liberated from cultural expectations. My mind has been hacked! Your mind has been hacked! We have all been hacked! (Not that I wrote a three part blog series on this, of course.)

Anyway, the book is a detailed history and analysis of the processed food industry— from soda and candy to cereal and “diet food”— showing how they have manipulated the public in every conceivable way, from using scientific research to engineer food with the highest possible “pleasure point,” to lobbying politicians about federal food policy, to creating stories of nostalgia or wholesomeness around their products through advertising. 

Despite my strong response to the book, the author approaches the topic in a fairly evenhanded and compassionate way, showing that the people responsible for these advertisements are real human beings who don’t have any intention of causing harm. However, Moss points out the great problem with the industrial food complex: it is driven by the constant reach for more, more, and more, and we can only eat so much food. 

Another takeaway from this book is that while government policy change can be helpful, only major changes in the food industry can occur as a response to consumer demand. We, the eaters, can change things from the bottom up. I highly recommend that anyone who eats processed food read this book. 

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber

Eccentric and radically-local gourmet chef Dan Barber takes on the food system in this delightful book of stories. He chronicles his adventures in trying to figure out what a truly sustainable agricultural system looks like, and it takes him to some surprising places: the Iberian penisula of Spain, where he learns about the symbiotic farming of hogs and meets a wacky farmer who raises foie gras without force-feeding the geese; nearby in Spain, where fishermen and fish farmers stand in the middle of a massive global debate about the future of seafood; both east and west US coasts, where he looks at heirloom crops and carefully-chosen hybrids; and his own restaurant in New York, where learning how to cook truly sustainable food is often difficult, sometimes embarrassing, but always worthwhile.

If I had read this book when I was first starting out on my journey to agricultural consciousness, I would have been overwhelmed— “What do you mean it’s not as simple as creating more farmers’ markets?!” However, if you’re fairly familiar with the issues that we face in our food system, this book shows that the way forward will be messy, diverse, and somewhat unexpected— and we can use all the help we can get.

Kiss the Ground: How the Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body and Ultimately Save Our World by Josh Tickell

I loved, loved, loved this book. It’s a fairly standard format of “Save the world through better agricultural” kind of books, but it’s brand-new so a lot of the information was very current. If you want an overview of various pressing issues, such as desertification, increasing pesticide use, or food safety, this is a great resource. Tickell writes with passion and enthusiasm, insisting that we can still save the world if we act now. (Are you noticing a theme in the books I’m reading?)

The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More by Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb

What a joyful book this is! Based on the premise that joy and intense pleasure can be found in everyday moments of life, this is a delight to read. It’s broken down into mini-chapters that cover different aspects of how to master Frugal Hedonism, such as, “Create Your Own Normal,” “Hate Waste,” “Beware Fake Frugal,” “Grow Your Own Greens,” and “Don’t Be a Snooty Bum Bum.” (I love Australians.) This book makes me want to break free of cultural norms and lay in a field watching clouds go by all day. Click here to read an excerpt that gives you a feel for the style and insight.

Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It by Anna Lappé

This is a follow-up book of sorts for Lappé’s mother’s book, Diet for a Small Planet (which I’ll admit I haven’t read yet). It’s about how agriculture affects global warming. It’s a great primer for the basic tenets of the agricultural/environmental connections, but most of the material I’ve already covered in other books. However, her chapters focused on bioengineering and GMOs, while a bit outdated, give an excellent comprehensive argument against them. After so many inflammatory articles using the phrase “frankenfood” way too many times, I was pleased to read some actual science-based arguments that explain in detail what the negative effects are. Worth reading.

What have you been reading?


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Our Backyard, April vs. May

March of this year

I’ve decided that I’m going to try to take photos of our yard on a consistent basis to help me visualize how everything is growing. Here are some side by side comparisons to show how the plants have grown just in one month!








May (Zach just set up a duckweed pond today...)

Pear trees: April

Pear trees: May
Apple trees: April

Apple trees: May