Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: November!

Between sub-freezing temperatures and a four-inch snowfall, this November has been anything but ordinary, but there are still many ways to celebrate it! Here are some good ways to embrace the month of changing winds and oncoming winter:

1. Celebrate Buy Nothing Day. While many people are stampeding to the sales on Black Friday (and don’t even get me started on stores that have “Black Friday” on Thanksgiving) choose to do the opposite: Buy Nothing Day! This is a great way to protest consumerism and to remember all the wonderful things you already have. You might choose to take a hike, stay at home playing board games, pack a nice leftover Thanksgiving meal as you go to work, read books, or create something. (I always spend Buy Nothing Day at St. Charles Christmas Traditions!)

2. Go bird-watching. With the leaves falling or down, it becomes a lot easier to spot birds flitting among the bare branches. When I’m biking down the Katy Trail, I’m treated to flocks of cardinals, juncos, white-throated sparrows, mockingbirds, robins, and downy woodpeckers. You’ll also spot huge murmurations of starlings drifting through the sky. 

3. Find a winter farmers market. Although most farmers markets are closed for the season, if you Google “winter farmers market near me,” you might be surprised at what you discover! For instance, St. Louis features Creve Coeur, Tower Grove, and Lake St. Louis. These are great places to pick up hardy greens, preserves, meat and dairy, and other winter fare.

4. Make fire cider. Cold and flu season is upon us, but homemade remedies can really help! My mom and I swear by this Cold Kicker Remedy, otherwise known as Fire Cider— it tastes terrible but is a tremendous immune system booster.

5. Embrace the cold weather. The environment and your wallet will thank you if you take some time to bundle up over the winter, even when you’re indoors. There’s no reason to walk around indoors in a t-shirt when it’s freezing outside— put on a long-sleeved shirt and a cozy sweater, turn down the house heat, and allow yourself to feel part of the season. Zach and I keep the house at 60-62 most days and 57 at night, and I use a space heater and/or a hand warmer when I’m sitting at the computer for a long time. I wear two layers of pants and three layers on top all the time throughout winter, and sometimes more when it’s really cold. Consequently, when I step outside I’m not as shocked by the temperature. Winter is coming, after all!

How do you celebrate November?


Saturday, November 10, 2018

How to Murder a Lawn: The Scintillating Sequel

For the record, that "Grateful Thankful Blessed"-style shirt I'm wearing is my Halloween cast shirt, which says "Lose your head to the Queen of Hearts." I don't wear that font unless murder is involved.

Ever since Zach and I murdered our backyard lawn in February, the question has hovered over us: When would the front lawn meet its demise? Aside from the construction of a 5’x12’ sweet potato bed in May, we bided our time, waiting, as Jack Sparrow would say, “for the opportune moment.”

That moment came in early October, when my parents and their neighbor were having a couple trees taken down in their yards. Mom asked the contractor what he was doing with the wood chips, and later that afternoon we got a call from the guy asking where we wanted them dropped off. Within the hour he had dumped about fifteen cubic yards of freshly-chipped wood and leaves alongside our house— a value of at least $400, for free! (He left his business card, too, saying he’d be happy to drop off chips anytime. I feel like I’ve won the jackpot!)

Zach and I scrambled double-time to try to get our mulch pile into action. We disassembled the sweet potato bed and rearranged the blocks to enclose one half of the yard. We bought a bunch of cinderblocks for the other half (thank you Dad for letting us borrow your SUV!), which I think look cool in an industrial sort of way. We laid down cardboard he’d picked up for free at Walmart, and spent hours shoveling mulch. Zach even bought some mushroom spawn to inoculate the wood chips, in hopes of getting a crop in the spring, but we’ll see. 

We weren’t able to completely finish the yard, due to our square foot gardens still having veggies in them. After the greens die (which will be a while yet; kale and chard are hardy), we’re going to pull up the square foot gardens and remove the weed cloth underneath them, using biodegradable cardboard instead. But, for the most part, the yard is finished.

Even though the city’s Community Development truck drove veeery slowly past our house the first day, no one’s hassled us about it, and I’m hoping in the spring to plant a cornucopia of flowers, herbs, and veggies that will beat a boring ol’ lawn any day. In the meantime, I’m excited that we’re continuing to expand our permaculture dreams into the front yard, where all the world can (hopefully) see the beauty and joy of growing your own food.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Foraging Oyster Mushrooms

November is in full swing, complete with leaves showering down, juncos (pretty gray songbirds who migrate from Canada) flitting about, and northern winds blowing. Until this week the weather has been cold but not freezing, punctuated by downpours that soak the many-colored woodlands. It’s not exactly what comes to mind when I think of foraging, but as Zach and I were walking along the Katy Trail a few miles from our house, we stopped short at the sight of a fallen log.

Not the original log; we discovered these today!
Huge clusters of pearly-gray mushrooms billowed out from the rotting wood, shaped like shelf fungi but with delicate gills underneath. Zach and I immediately recognized them as oyster mushrooms, an edible species native to Missouri.

We stared at the log and the literal pounds of free nutrient-packed food just waiting for the taking. But we hesitated. Collecting nettles, garlic mustard, elderflowers, or mulberries was one thing— very few plants will do more than give you a bellyache. But if you eat the wrong mushroom, it will straight up kill you.

We debated for a couple minutes, racking our brains to remember what we’d read in the Missouri Conservation Department’s guide to mushrooms, the other foraging books we’d read, and the countless articles we’d scrolled through. Oyster mushrooms don’t resemble anything poisonous. This mushroom perfectly fit the description of the growing habits, shape, features, location, and time of year. At last, knowing that simply touching a mushroom isn’t dangerous, we pulled off one of the several clusters and dumped it in my backpack.

Once home, I chopped the mushrooms while Zach checked and double-checked and cross-referenced. I’m not used to cooking with mushrooms, and I was struck by how un-plant-like these fruiting bodies are. They inhale oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, just like us. Their meat is fleshy and has a rich, woodsy, musky scent. The gills are delicate, like some sort of sea creature. I had to remind myself that I was harvesting the fruit; the real body of the mushroom is in the threads of mycelium underground.

I sautéed the mushroom pieces, then mixed them with some shredded carrot and stirred them into some miso soup along with a few chunks of tofu and some chives. Zach and I sat down to eat, and I found myself trembling with anxiety. All sorts of wildly improbable scenarios ran through my head: what if there really was a deadly oyster mushroom lookalike that literally no one on the Internet or in any of the books had mentioned? What if this were some strange new invasive species that had only recently been introduced? What if either of us had a horrible allergy to oyster mushrooms and just didn’t know it? 

I kept trying to shrug off these wild ideas, but at last I couldn’t do it any more. After a few bites (with the chewy, earthy bits of mushroom included), I pushed my bowl away and told Zach and I’d eat more tomorrow, after confirming that a small amount wouldn’t kill me. He laughed and finished his bowl of soup.

Now he’s dead.

Just kidding! (The plot set-up demanded that Zach die at this point.)

It turns out that, while you should be extremely careful when foraging for mushrooms, eating a ‘shroom that can’t be mistaken for anything poisonous, which you’ve double checked from almost twenty different sources, isn’t the worst idea in the world. (But still, BE CAREFUL! Don't be stupid! Don't be like us; go find an expert to help you!) The next day I used up the rest of the cluster making oyster mushroom chowder, which turned out deliciously.

Now that we’re more confident about what they look like, we’re keeping our eyes open. Today we ran across a dead tree that was chock full of them! We harvested just one cluster, which I’m currently drying in the dehydrator, but we might go back for more tomorrow (as well as bringing a bag for nettle, which was growing abundantly along the trail). We follow the forager’s rule of taking less than 10% of what’s around, which ensures that the plant (or fungi) will bounce back. 

All this to say, I feel excited that we “leveled up” in our foraging ability. Even though it’s going to take a few more uneventful meals to convince me that I really can identify oyster mushrooms (maybe this batch is a weird invasive that no one’s ever heard of!), I’m enthusiastic about expanding our horizons and learning to identify the bountiful food that’s all around.

Carrying the cluster in my sarong, so the spores can fall onto the forest floor.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: October!

This is the craziest fall I can remember, with muggy 90-degree heat and lightning storms, but I am holding onto hope that autumn really is coming! Here are some ways to celebrate one of my favorite months.

1. Go hiking. In St. Louis, there is no better month for hiking than October (well, usually). Check out some of the amazing fall colors along the Lewis and Clark Trail, Powder Valley Nature Center, Pere Marquette State Park, or any local park, or make the drive to Elephant Rocks or Johnson’s Shut-Ins.

2. Make some cozy hot drinks. Tea, hot cocoa, fancy coffee drinks, apple cider, wassail... ‘tis the season for hot drinks! (If you don’t know how to make any of these, Google is your friend.)

3. Don’t rake your leaves. Just joking... sort of. Instead of bagging up leaves and setting them out on the curb, think about how you can use this huge pile of nutrient-dense carbon to your advantage. Start a compost pile, mulch your garden for the winter... or give them to a neighbor who likes to garden!

4. Learn how to roast vegetables. Autumn is the beginning of a season of hearty vegetables that are best roasted in a hot oven until caramelized. Try out butternut squash, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, onions, carrots, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower with the same method: chop into bite-sized pieces, spread on an oiled rimmed sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast in a 450º oven. Check after twenty minutes by piercing one of the pieces with a knife to see if it’s soft. Toss and roast the pieces further if necessary. Roasted veggies are delicious mixed with rice or pasta, spread onto toast with a sprinkle of cheese, scrambled into eggs, tucked into a burrito, or simply drizzled with sauce (kung pao, sweet chile, herbed melted butter, gravy, and more).

5. Press some autumn leaves. Gather colorful leaves that suit your fancy, and press them between any kind of paper in a thick book. In a couple weeks they’ll be dried out and ready for fall-themed decorations! You can glue them onto greeting cards, use them for crafts, or simply scatter them around the home for decoration.

How do you celebrate October?


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Thoughts from a Bike Crash

Today when riding my bike home, I misjudged the distance between me and the car ahead of me. I hit my brakes too hard. My tires slid out on the wet pavement, my mind registered a single, “Oh crap,” and then the world flipped sideways. My body smashed the asphalt.

I was off the ground in a second, yelling, “Oh that hurts, oh that hurts!” to keep from crying as I stumbled over to the sidewalk, Zach following me trying to gather up my bike and see if I was okay. I sat on the curb, blood dripping my from elbow, and began to bawl.

It’s pretty much a representative example of the entire past month.

Sometimes life throws crises in your way, and you marathon through them as best you can; sometimes everything goes well, or at least nothing goes wrong, and you get to coast.

But sometimes, like the past month, a bunch of small to medium-sized things go wrong in a long succession. Each one individually isn’t that bad, not enough to kick you into crisis mode, but after a while you realize that you’ve been swimming through a river of low-key bad events for a long time and you want it to stop.

It’s sometimes hard to recognize this fact, since each bad thing is haunted by the specter of how bad it could’ve been. In the bike wreck, I could’ve hit the car in front of me. I could’ve broken my arm, or broken anything if I hadn’t hit the ground first on the fleshy part of my thigh. In the past, two of my three siblings have been in horrible bike crashes that racked up thousands of dollars in hospital bills, so I look at the scrapes on my arm and the road rash on my thigh and count myself lucky.

But in the meantime, my scrapes hurt every time I move my arm. My shoulder aches. My thigh is throbbing. The wounds make everything a little more difficult. 

After the wreck a police officer stopped and insisted on calling an ambulance even though I didn’t hit my head. But after a few minutes of shivering in the cold rain (I was wearing short sleeves, of course), I decided we should just bike home. Once inside, I curled up on the couch and began to cry. I laid down for a while and cried, then I got up and put the load of laundry in the dryer and cried, then I walked upstairs and heated up Zach’s lunch and still cried. At last this dissolved into whimpering and occasional bursts of tears, but by the time he left for work I felt downright calm. 

Because when you’re swimming in a tide of small bad things, you just have to keep going. You bike home. You finish the deadline. You pay for the car repairs. You feed yourself. You do what’s right in front of you and try not to think about the rest.

It’s not a long-term solution, but sometimes it’s all you can do. So that’s where I’m at right now, doing one little thing at a time and knowing that someday, eventually, I’ll swim out of the current and find my feet touching solid ground.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: September!

To be honest, this year it’s been hard to celebrate September because summer has draaaagged on. We’ve finally started getting a few cool days now, so I thought I should post this before the month is up. Cooler weather is coming, and that’s always something I like to celebrate!

1. Air out the house. The stupidly hot weather can’t last forever. Let the fresh air rush in, and the scent of falling leaves and bonfires will help get you in the seasonal mood.

2. Celebrate the autumnal equinox. September 22nd (this year) is the halfway point between the summer and winter solstices, so for those of us of European persuasion, it’s time to party! Try cooking some seasonal food, go outside, and make a bonfire if the weather/fire regulations allow.

3. Go apple-picking. ‘Tis the season to head for the orchards! I know Eckert’s is a time-honored St. Louis tradition, but a quick Google search will reveal many more. And, as long as you have a ton of apples...

4. Learn some sort of food preservation technique. In September the summer harvest reaches a breaking point, so whether you’re working in your own garden or buying the cheap surplus at the farmers’ market, learning how to preserve some of it is a great idea. Freezing is one of my favorite ways, although I’ve been doing a lot of dehydrating, too. Other techniques I’m learning include curing (for sweet potatoes and winter squash) and fermenting. I’m also interested in preserving tomatoes in a confit. I haven’t tried canning yet, but I know it’s a great skill to learn! Whatever you do, learning to “put food by” for the winter is an ancient art that will keep you eating healthy, delicious food all year long.

5. Explore a new park. The nicer weather is a great chance to get out and explore somewhere new in your area. If you’re in St. Louis, check out the county parks or state parks (and, of course, Pere Marquette State Park right across the river)!

How do you celebrate September?


Friday, September 14, 2018

Homestead Update 9/14/18: Summer Abundance

Me, carrying the weight of the watermelon
on my shoulders.
 I’ll be honest: the past month or so has been rough. Really rough. Although no major crises have occurred, lots of smaller (and medium-sized) things have been piling up, which have caused or exacerbated my anxiety and depression. Car breaking down. Computer breaking down. Sickness. Friends’ heartbreak. Existential angst. Things that should be simple turning out to be very complicated. Phone calls. More angst. Life decisions and no clear direction. Apathy. Exhaustion. Did I mention the angst?

I’ve been dealing with all of it the way I usually dealt with climbing mountains on the PCT: keep walking, stop for lots of snacks, cry every once in a while, and keep walking. Do the bare minimum to keep your life running, and eventually things will get better. I can’t say I’m over the mountain pass yet, but at least I’m continuing to walk.

Anyway... homestead updates!

One of the biggest bright spots this month has been the garden. I can barely keep up with the tomatoes (I’m making and freezing so much tomato sauce!), and I’ve started harvesting butternut squash, pumpkins, kale, peppers, herbs, elderberries, sweet potatoes, huge tasty watermelons, and the occasional onion. My neighbor gave us some apples, so I made apple chips, which I’ve been eating incessantly. Our dehydrator is running almost every night. Also, I picked a couple pumpkins from my garden, roasted them, and turned them into pumpkin pie. I think that’s kind of unbelievably cool.

Elderberries, which got boiled down into syrup, an immune system booster.
Cutting, cooking, and processing these vegetables gives me something to focus on and helps me lose myself in the rhythms of the tactile sensations, which is good when my head is spinning— nothing like veggies to keep you grounded.

The chickies are doing fine, and Bobbie Dylan even started laying again! We took down the fence that had previously divided our yard in half, and the chickens have enjoyed exploring the tomato and Jerusalem artichoke forest, as well as gobbling up squash bugs (we are infested with them) and managing to find the, like, two things in the yard that they’re not supposed to eat and eating them.
Popcorn! We haven't tried popping it yet, though.

Pretty much all of our fruit trees are struggling, which is pretty stressful. I’ve spent many days staring at the leaves with a copy of What’s Wrong with My Fruit Garden? in my hands, clicking my tongue and fretting and trying to find pictures that line up with what I’m seeing (while the chickies run around me and try their darndest to get me to step on them). The remaining hazel has leap hoppers, the nectarine has spider mites, the cherry is covered in powdery mildew, and I can’t figure out what plague is sweeping through my pome fruit (apple and pears). Fireblight? Pear slug? More DEATH? 

When vegetables die I shrug my shoulders, but trees are an investment in more ways than one, and I want them to do well. I’m trying to catch up on all the information about organic disease control, but it’s a steep learning curve, and I hope I can figure out what I need to do before it’s too late.
Zach harvesting sweet potatoes

Despite life (and the garden) being out of control, I’m grateful for the abundance of summer, the cuteness of my chickens, and the fact that life goes on even when I don’t think I can take one more step. Be well, my friends!


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Our Yard: July vs. August

Look what our backyard’s been doing!


Late August: Popcorn almost ready to harvest, butternut squash and sweet potatoes (and, in the background, watermelon) vying for world dominion


August: More butternut squash, 10-foot mulberry tree in the background, random Mayfeather chickie at entrance of their coop. The pink thing in a sunshade for our poor hazel, which was basically getting sunburned.


August: Volunteer squash getting wildly out of control, 10-foot tall Jerusalem artichokes, black vernissage tomatoes.


August: Newly-pruned tomatoes, zinnia explosion, lack of cucumbers because I pulled them up.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: August!

'Tis the season for tomatoes!

August has historically been my least favorite month because it’s the time when summer just... keeps... going. However, as with most things, the problem isn’t with the month itself, but with my attitude about it. This year, I’m determined to make the most of the things that make August special!

1. Scour the farmers’ market for deals. By late August, farmers (and gardeners!) usually have a glut of tomatoes, zucchini, and corn, and prices for these seasonal items drops. I’ve found organic heirloom tomatoes for 75¢ a pound at the market this time of year, or freshly-picked sweet corn for 10¢ an ear. Check out a market and see what you can find!

2. Sample some seasonal fruit. Yes, this is related to the previous point, but it bears repeating because August is peach season. If you have never tasted a freshly-picked peach, you are missing out.

3. Make your own celebration, since there aren’t any holidays. As a kid, it always depressed me that August had no major holidays. But now I realize that I can’t celebrate anything I darn well want! Make up your own holiday, or try one of these...
National Friendship Day- first Sunday of the month
Book Lover’s Day- August 9th
National Thrift Shop Day- August 17th
National Honeybee Awareness Day- Third Saturday
Just Because Day- August 27th
National Eat Outside Day- August 31st

4. Attend some live music. A lot depends on where you live, but most cities have free live music if you know where to look. For instance, St. Charles’s municipal band plays every Thursday in Frontier Park, for free. Festivals and free outdoor music events are pretty common this time of year, too.

5. Visit a butterfly garden. It’s prime season for butterflies— here in Missouri, the monarchs are passing through, but my garden is also full of black swallowtails, cloudless sulphurs, common buckeyes, and red-spotted purple admirals. You can hunt for butterflies anywhere that wildflowers grow, but a lot of conservation areas (and even public buildings, such as libraries) have gardens specifically dedicated to attracting these winged beauties. 

How do you celebrate August?


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Homestead Update 8/8/18: Cukes, Tomatoes, and Dying Things

A single day's harvest of cucumbers (the yellow ones are lemon cukes).

Yet another single-day harvest.
I told Zach yesterday, “I think I’m less fed up with summer right now than I ever have been before at this point in August.” Thanks to a two-week cool snap that allowed open windows and even— just once— long pants, I’m recharged and ready to take on the last several months of summer. (Haha, just kidding. I know summer is only going to last two more months.)

And the garden? Well, that’s a mixed bag. We have the “thrivers” (which are the majority, fortunately), the “barely survivors” (not many, but mostly the more expensive plants), and the “totally dead” categories.

The thrivers.

Our cucumbers have been producing so quickly that I can’t keep up with them, even with making a few gallons of pickles and foisting cucumbers off on everyone in close proximity. At long last the vines turned yellow and I decided to tear them up, thinking there weren’t that many cukes left on the vines. However, the vines showed me I was wrong:

The pumpkins and butternut squash show no signs of slowing down. It’s kind of terrifying how quickly they’ve eaten both the front and back yard. Not that I’m complaining— I’m just subconsciously nervous that we’re going to wake up one morning to a shattered window with butternut squash vines crawling into our room. (Plus, I found out that if I touch squash leaves I get a rash, which means I have to do all sorts of gymnastics to safely walk through the back yard.) I’m excited to have a store of squash for the winter!

Who needs a front lawn, anyway? (Butternut squash on the left, sweet potatoes on the right.)

Our tomatoes are another plant totally out of control. They are bearing so quickly that we can barely keep up, but I’ve been drying them, making them into sauce, and throwing them on pizza. We eat a lot of tomatoes these days, savoring the flavor of the season.

The Jerusalem artichokes are kind of insane. The tallest one is probably eight feet high, and they still have several weeks of growing left. We’ll see how big the tubers end up being, but the biomass alone is enough to make them worthwhile. Birds love to perch in them, beans twine up the huge stalks, and our tomatoes have started trellising on them. An all-around good plant.

Other successes include the sugar baby watermelons, peppermint, and massive sweet potato bed.

The chickens have also been happy in the cooler weather. Bobbie Dylan even started laying again, after months of striking! (It might’ve been the weather, or it might’ve been her overhearing us talking about putting her in the stew pot.)

Zach pruning out squash so we can walk in the backyard. Note the yellowed cucumbers and completely dead apple tree to the right of the photo.
The barely-survivors and totally dead.

A lot of our fruit and nut trees are in pretty dire straits. The pear trees and elderberries are growing mottled (I think it’s spider mites), our currant is covered in blotchy patches and has lost most of its leaves, three hazels are covered in spots and bug-eaten edges, our blueberries are just about to die of sadness (and acid starvation), one hazel is super dead, and one of our apple trees just dropped it leaves and flat-out died before we could figure out what was wrong with it. Losing a plant is one thing, but losing trees is really disheartening. Zach reminded me, though, that we shouldn’t be keeping plants that require babying; they have to be tough or they shouldn’t be in our yard. 

Still, we’ve got to do what we can to prevent anything else from dying. In the past week I’ve been frantically flipping through a copy of What’s Wrong with my Fruit Garden?, trying to figure out the plethora of maladies sweeping through my yard. 

The downside of planting a bazillion things is that it’s hard to keep track of them. The upside of planting a bazillion thing is that something is sure to succeed. Knee-deep in tomatoes and cucumbers, I can’t feel too sorry for myself.

What are you growing this time of year?