Saturday, April 14, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: April!

Violets— my favorite flower

Welcome to my new series, “Celebrate the Seasons”! Each month, I’ll be posting a few suggestions for how to fully appreciate the changing of sunlight, weather, flora, and fauna. Being grounded in the seasons helps us to connect more deeply with the natural world, and to appreciate the ebb and flow of the year.

I’ll plan on writing these posts early in the month, but it’s not too late to celebrate April! Check out these six suggestions for welcoming spring.

1. Take a walk, even if it’s just around the block. Spring is an expression of the miracle of life, and you want to soak it all in. You’ll find blossoming trees, honeybees buzzing around dandelions, fluffy robins searching for worms, and more flowers than you can count (many of them “weeds”!). As you walk, take the time to really look and enjoy the emerging life.

2. Plant something. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, try planting something easy to grow like mint or other herbs. Or just grow plants from your kitchen scraps— that was my first gardening adventure. If you do enjoy gardening, now is the time to start thinking about summer crops: squash, dill, basil, cucumbers, watermelons, corn...

3. Forage for dandelion greens. This is the best time of year to do some edible foraging! Dandelions are easy to recognize. Just be sure you don’t get them out of yards that have been sprayed with chemicals or from contaminated soil. I like the snack on the flowers, but I’m determined to try the greens again. They are very bitter, but I want to try frying them in butter, which helps any hardy leafy green. Here are some dandelion recipes to try!

4. Find a local source of eggs. Did you know that chickens don’t lay very much over the winter, but start laying more again in the spring? I had no idea eggs were seasonal, but the arrival of my chickens’ first eggs several weeks ago signaled the start of spring like nothing else. This year, why not look for a source of eggs from hens who are raised under natural conditions, in tune with the seasons? Check out the listings for local farmers’ markets (St. Louis list here), or Google “eggs for sale” in your area. (If you live in St. Louis, Cackle Farms has wonderful eggs, and I’m sure there are dozens more. Someone in your neighborhood might raise chickens, too!)

5. Open the windows and air out the house. I’m very grateful that the past few days I’ve been able to do this, blowing away the mustiness of winter. (Some spring cleaning might be an order, too.)

6. Make plans to attend an Earth Day event. There are thousands across the country to choose from. If you’re in St. Charles, check out free yoga in the park, and everyone in the area will get a kick out of the St. Louis Earth Day Festival

What are you doing to celebrate April? Share in the comments below!


Friday, April 13, 2018

What I've Been Reading: Winter/Spring 2018

I’ve been reading so many books that it’s hard to keep up! Here’s a rapid-fire version of some of my favorites.

Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat by Tanya Denckla Cobb

If you have any interest in local/sustainable food systems of any kind, please read this book! Cobb, along with several contributing authors, profiles dozens of different local food operations around the US: Navajo farmers preserving traditional drought-tolerant corn seeds and planting rituals; inner-city internships that encourage people of color to farm; organizations that coordinate organic farmers’ deliveries to schools and hospitals; nonprofits that create a local-food “brand” in order to encourage local commerce; college-run farms that train a new generation in organic agriculture; community gardens of all sorts; and everything in between. (I was happy to see St. Louis’s Good Life Growing featured as a photo essay in the middle of the book!) If you want hope for the future of food, inspiration for how to get involved, or just an overview of the methods that work together to create a better food system, this book offers it. Check it out!

Homegrown Pantry: A Gardener’s Guide to Selecting the Best Varieties and Planting the Perfect Amounts for What You Want to Eat Year-Round by Barbara Pleasant

This book is an encyclopedia of common veggies, fruits, and herbs, all focused about how much to grow if you want to can, pickle, and freeze. It includes great planting, growing, and harvesting tips, as well as recipes for preserving the harvest. I’ll be referring to it often throughout the growing season!

The Hands-On Home: A Seasonal Guide to Cooking, Preserving and Natural Homekeeping by Erica Strauss

As the subtitle suggests, this book is a manual for home organization, natural cleaning, cooking, canning and preserving. It’s beautiful, features a lot of fun recipes (both for food and for cleaning/bath and beauty products), and has a great no-nonsense approach to running a household. Since reading the book, I’ve become obsessed with Erica’s gardening blog, Northwest Edible Life.

Blessing the Hands that Feed Us: Lessons from a 10-Mile Diet by Vicki Robin

I was surprised to learn that the co-author of Your Money or Your Life had recently written a book about local agriculture. This memoir talks about her journey toward eating more locally, starting with a month-long challenge to only eat food grown within a ten-mile radius of her house. Although the book discusses some of the practical challenges of the diet (such as not having access to grain!), her stories are mostly a jumping-off point for talking about community, reliance on each other, and the reasons that local food is something worth investing in. Her writing borders on being overly sentimental, but it’s hard to resist the stories of deeper connection and communion that she shares in this book. It was also refreshing to hear a financial guru arguing that we should be spending more on food, not less, if we want to support a better world. Overall, the book was fun to read and charming.

What have you been reading lately?


Monday, April 9, 2018

Homestead Update 4/9/2018: Cover Crops, Wild Greens, and Easter Eggs

Brown eggs make the best Easter eggs!

The past couple months have been the most consistently cold spring that I can remember. And while I’m pretty happy that the weather hasn’t done its usual one-week-long “Oh it’s winter but SURPRISE now it’s summer and you get no spring!” thing, I am starting to wonder if the tomato seedlings crowding each other out in our seed-starting trays are going to get planted anytime soon. Sure, the temps this week will be climbing, but there’s another frost coming!

At any rate, there’s still plenty happening on our little homestead:

Spring crops

Despite the sub-freezing temperatures every night, some of my spring crops are starting to bravely show their leaves. My square foot garden has tiny lettuce, arugula, and radishes coming up. The perennial plants, like yarrow, dandelion, and clover, are doing famously.

Cover crops

Nature hates bare earth, and even though mulch doesn’t really count, it does look pretty drab. So a few weeks ago, Zach planted some “cover crops” right into the mulch: winter peas, vetch, and oats. These fill in the spaces between some of the trees, and hopefully will provide food for both wild birds and the chickens. We fenced the chickens off from the cover crops so the plants would have a chance to get established. After a couple weeks, the seeds finally germinated and we are seeing tiny sprouts! I have a feeling that once the weather warms up, this area will explode with life. 

We also planted several comfrey plants a few weeks ago, but have yet to see any green. 

Me showing off the cover crop beds
Wild greens

Like our cultivated perennials, wild greens are popping up everywhere. I’ve begun snacking on dandelion flowers when I’m out and about, and I want to gather some greens soon to try making pesto. We’ve also discovered tons of stinging nettles in the nearby woods, which I hadn’t seen there before. After touching a leave to confirm its identity (and having an itching, stinging welt the rest of the day), we covertly dug up one small plant and transplanted it into our side yard. When cooked or dried, stinging nettles lose their sting and are a tasty addition to lasagna. We’re waiting for the nettles to get bigger before we forage them, but I’ll let you know how our wild-greens cooking goes!

Zach planting some foraged nettle
Easter eggs

As you can see by the cover photo, I don’t think I’ll ever dye white eggs again— Easter eggs look so much cooler when you start with brown (and bluish-green) eggs. Thank you, chickies!

The chickies really like sunny days.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

FAQ about Our Chickens

Our girls love to "dust-bathe" in the mulch!

Chickens are the best conversation starters. Whether chatting with the neighbors over the fence, talking to people in cars who slow down to catch a glimpse of our girls, or showing off the beautiful eggs, I find plenty of opportunities to talk about the joys of keeping these fluffy fowl.

People are often eager to learn more about both our specific chickens and chickens in general, and the same questions have come up several times. So, as a public service announcement, here are the top ten questions we get about our chickens, with answers from yours truly!

1. Where did you buy them?
We bought our chickies last September from the Fenton Feed Mill, which sources their chicks from the Ideal Poultry Hatchery in Texas. Although a lot of books and articles will tell you to order chicks via mail, most hatcheries won’t sell you a small number of chicks because shipping them in small numbers is much more stressful to the birds. So I was glad I came across the mill! They post updates about shipments of chicks on their Facebook page, so if you’re in the St. Louis area and are interested in getting just a few birds, I highly recommend them.

2. Do you have a rooster (and do you need one)?
After finding five eggs in the nest box in one day, we can officially confirm that we don’t have any roosters! An expert can tell the gender of a baby chick right when it’s born, but there’s always a small chance that you’ll get a male. Fortunately, all five of our girls are laying, so we are officially obeying the St. Charles prohibition against roosters. Hens will lay eggs without a rooster, the eggs just won’t be fertile— which is fine with us.

3. How much work is it to keep chickens?
Getting the whole set-up together took a lot of time and money, and raising the chickens until they were old enough to be put outside was probably about as much work as keeping a hamster or other small animal. Now that our system is put together, it’s not much work. Every morning I bring them a small plastic bin of food, rinse out and refill their water, and check for eggs. I’ll go out around noon to let them forage in our compost pile and to gather eggs again, and usually once more at night, although three times a day isn’t necessary. We clean their henhouse about once a week.

4. Are you going to eat your chickens?
At this point, we are planning to cull our chickens once they get past laying age, but I’ve never killed an animal before so I’m not sure how it will come down— we may end up giving them to someone who will humanely butcher them for the soup pot. Chickens can live upwards of 20 years, and since they are livestock, not pets, we don’t want to continue feeding them if they are not going to lay.

5. What?! How could you eat something that’s so cute?
If you’re a vegan, this is a good question. Our relationship with meat is very complex, and I wrote about it more in these three blog posts (part 1, part 2, part 3). If you are not a vegan, it’s true that the idea of killing these cute creatures is hard for me, but I remind myself that they live happy lives, unlike industrially-raised chickens, who are usually cramped, fed a diet of antibiotics, and routinely starved to force them to molt. Looking an animal in the face before eating it is emotionally and mentally weighty— and again, I’m not exactly sure how I’ll handle it— but I firmly believe that this face-to-face interaction is necessary to be intellectually and morally honest about eating meat.

6. Are chickens vegetarians/insectivores?
Nope, they are avid omnivores! (See this video for proof.) The idea that chickens are vegetarians is a myth reinforced by the proud, “100% Vegetarian Fed” labels on grocery-store eggs. Chickens eat a lot of grains and greens, but they also love bugs, worms, spiders, mice, snakes, and carrion (although ours have mainly just hunted grasshoppers and worms so far). Traditionally, people would feed chickens small animal carcasses during the winter when there weren’t any bugs out, in order to keep their protein levels high. In fact, if you dropped dead in your chicken run, your chickens would happily eat you. They’re basically little scavenging dinosaurs.

7. Are brown eggs healthier than white eggs?
I used to think that brown eggs were a sign of chickens having a healthier diet— and organic grocery-store eggs perpetuate this misconception by only marketing brown eggs. In fact, the color of an egg is dependent on breed, not diet. Some hens lay brown eggs, some white, and some bluish-green, like our girl Bobbie Dylan. 

8. What do your hens’ eggs taste like?
Brown or blue, all chicken eggs taste roughly the same. Eggs laid from happy chickens who get to scratch and eat greens all day taste like regular eggs— except much richer, fuller, and more intense. The yolks are bright to dark orange and stand up tall in the pan, and the white is very white and not very runny. This is due to diet and exercise, not shell color.

9. Are these eggs healthier than eggs at the grocery store?
Yup! See this study about pastured eggs vs. store-bought eggs. Even the organic eggs at the grocery store are usually taken from chickens who live in cramped quarters and don’t go outside very much.

10. Are you glad you got chickens?
Absolutely! They aren’t that much work, their eggs are delicious, their poop makes rich compost, and they are downright hilarious to watch. I’m so glad we finally made the plunge and brought chickens into our lives!


Monday, March 19, 2018

Homestead Update 3/19/18: Eggs, Tomato Seedlings, and Trees

It’s March in St. Louis, which means, weather-wise, that anything can happen. It’s been cold overall, fluctuating between hard freezes at night and mild temps during the day, forming a frost-pocked landscape on the square foot garden that I planted a couple weeks ago. Zach and I follow a familiar pattern: I kvetch about the gray weather, and he points out that it was sunny just five days ago, and we have a well-worn exchange about the difference between the Northwest and the Midwest, and then I say that my hands are cold and go put on a fluffy bathrobe. 

Overall, though, we’re pretty well on track for our garden goals for the spring, including...


Two shell-less eggs fused together
In case you missed the big news, Bobbie Dylan laid her first egg on February 26th! The other hens soon followed, and now all five of them are laying, collectively giving us three to five eggs every day. Although we’ve had some shell-less eggs here and there (they are enclosed in a tough membrane), for the most part the eggs have been strong-shelled and beautiful. Not to mention absolutely delicious— the orange yolks stand up tall in the pan when you’re frying them, and the whites aren’t runny. Home-grown eggs are the best!

Indoor seed-starting

This year I’m trying to grow tomatoes from seed, which I’ve never done before, and so far they look great! I also have cabbage, basil, peppers, and a couple sunflowers in the seed trays, although they are looking a little less enthusiastic. I’m also starting some zinnias for my mom. We’ve got a florescent shop light and an LED grow light set up on some old shelving in our spare room, with the lights on a timer that allows about 16 hours of light a day. I’ll be planting the cabbages outside soon, but the other plants are warm-weather crops and will be inside for about a month more.

Outdoor seed-starting

I’ve planted one square foot garden with arugula, lettuce, carrots, radishes, kale, and peas. So far nothing’s come up because of the chilly weather, but I can be patient!

Planting trees

Soon after the long-awaited murder of our lawn, the trees we ordered arrived in the mail, and we spent a weekend, plus a few days, frantically trying to get them in the ground. We had pored over scale maps of our yard for a while with little scale drawings of our trees, arranging and rearranging them to figure out the best configuration. At last we marked the spots in our yard with bricks, and set to work.

We had to clear the mulch, cut away the cardboard, chop out the grassy sod, dig a hole, plant the tree, cover it with water and fertilizer, fill the hole back in, surround it with some hardware cloth to keep the rabbits (and hopefully voles) away, and rake the mulch back over the top, so each planting was pretty labor-intensive. I’m glad we only have to do this once! 

We got covered in dirt and our backs ached for a week afterward, but we managed to plant seven trees— mulberry, tart cherry, nectarine, two pears, and two hazelnuts— and six shrubs— a red currant, three elderberries, and two false indigo. We’re hoping to keep the pear trees small, using the techniques in Grow a Little Fruit Tree, but we are going to let the other trees and shrubs grow as tall as they like, at least for now. Right now they all just look like sticks, but I’m hoping that will change once the weather warms up.

Have you gotten your garden started yet?


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What I've Been Reading: "No Impact Man" and "How to Be Alive" by Colin Beavan

(I actually read these books out of order— How to Be Alive first and No Impact Man second, even though the latter takes place before the former. I’d recommend reading them chronologically.)

No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process follows author Colin Beavan’s one-year experiment to live, along with his wife and toddler daughter, completely carbon-neutral in the heart of New York City. Through his somewhat snarky narrative of the trials, challenges, and great rewards of the year, he gives a great introduction to the basic concepts of low-impact living: muscle over motors, plastic-free alternatives, secondhand shopping, local foodshed support, and doing good to outweigh the environmental harm that we inevitably cause. 

Although his descriptions of his wife sometimes felt passive-aggressive, he narrates overall with a lot of genuine vulnerability, talking about the compromises he made, the guilt he felt, and how his attitude toward himself, other people, and the world in general changed over the course of the year. The growing sense of joy and community that they experienced is truly inspiring. If you’re interested in what environmentally-friendly living looks like in a city, this is a great place to start.

His next book, How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness that Helps the World, is a philosophical treatise rather than a memoir, and his tone is distinctly less biting and more Buddhist. He describes life as being a series of relationships— with ourselves, with other people, with our minds, with our physical possessions, with our food, etc.— and that we can be truly happy when we align each of these relationships with our true, authentic Selves. 

Although I don’t agree with everything about the premise, I do love the image of going through life in tune with a complex web of relationships. I’ve seen this interconnectedness firsthand in my learning journey over the past few years: I first learned about the problems with plastic consumption, which led me to use less plastic, which affected my diet to veer away from fast food, which brought me into food justice issues, which circled back to environmental issues, which brought up human rights issues, which got into politics, industrial agriculture, and theological perspectives on farming. Everything is one giant tangled beautiful mess.

All in all, I enjoyed How to Be Alive more than his first book because it challenged my perspective, told interesting stories from several perspectives, and included a lot of writing exercises, some of which helped me gain greater clarity in several areas of my life. (I’ll probably post more about that later.) If you’re looking for a thought-provoking book about the nature of happiness, definitely check this one out.


Monday, March 12, 2018

My Story, Two Years Later

Chicken footprints in the late snow

Today Facebook reminded me that I wrote a blog post— A New Story— exactly two years ago. It was my public declaration that I had found a new passion to explore:

My new story is Home... It’s a vision of a lifestyle that is as self-sufficient as possible, with little waste and much abundance. It’s a vision of community, of roots in earth, of slow-bearing fruit. It’s a row of glass jars in the fridge full of homegrown snap peas. It’s a future full of apple trees and hazelnuts and quail eggs and solar collectors and enough watermelon to share with everyone at Bible study. It’s the beauty of a red-bellied woodpecker perched awkwardly on the bird feeder. It’s homegrown tomatoes eaten sun-warmed straight off the vine. It’s a vision of parties and potlucks and open doors for travelers. It’s a dream of sitting on the front porch in the sun, snacking on nasturtium blossoms and blowing soap bubbles into the breeze. It’s a vision of sourdough boles and fine aged mead and balls of fresh mozzarella, homemade in our little kitchen. It’s bare feet in the dewey grass while I water my carrots, it’s a compost pile turning eggshells into black earth, it’s a daily walk through the woods that brings to my attention every hue and shimmer of my beautiful Missouri River.

I’m happy to say that, two years later, we’ve made huge strides forward in developing this story. We just planted twelve edible trees and shrubs in our backyard, our chickens are laying every day, we eat almost exclusively home-cooked food, I have one square foot garden fully planted and another coming soon, we’re growing tomato and pepper seedlings in our spare room, and I’ve read dozens of books that help me connect the dots between what I plant, how I garden, what I buy, what I eat, and how it changes the world. 

Although the story has taken some unexpected twists (such as deciding to travel out west last summer), the focus has remained the same: create a life of abundance that spills over to other people, our community, and the earth. 

This is always a work in progress, but sometimes moments jump out to me, such as talking to a neighbor who drives by our house every day to visit her son in the hospital: she told me that she loves slowing down to look at our chickens before driving on. I see my story while sitting in the backyard with my best friend chatting about random stuff and using sticks to draw designs in the mulch. I see it when I’m able to share a meal of homemade sourdough bread and eggs that we gathered minutes before. 

Moments like these bring my life into focus, and help mark my way, showing that I’m on the right path. I don’t know how the story will continue to unfold, but I know that I’m excited to find out.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Timers: The Magical Focus-Creating Device

Using an iPod Touch like it's 2009...

I have a habit of rushing through things. Whether it’s eating lunch, finishing a chore, or saying grace, I tend to want to rush ahead with my mind spinning in a bazillion different directions. 

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that the simple act of setting a timer is a huge benefit. It keeps me from forgetting that I have sweet potatoes in the oven, or that I’m drying a cast iron pan on the stove. But beyond that, I’ve learned that timers help me to focus on the moment. Here are three areas of my life where a timer has been immensely helpful.

1. Stretching. It’s no secret that I have a really bad back (I throw it out so often that Zach has given me the regionally-appropriate nickname, “Lisa, Home of the Throwed Back”). I know that daily stretching is key to my health. But do I do it? No! I’ll get approximately 2.5 seconds in, remember something else I need to do, and completely forget that I’m stretching. Or I’ll rush through the stretches so much that they’re no use at all. This is where a timer comes in. I’ll set it for a short amount of time— sometimes as little as three minutes when I’m impatient— and focus on stretching well. If I’m tempted to do something else, I look at the timer and remember that I’m still supposed to be doing cat-cows, and can wait just a few minutes more to Google the planting date for strawberries.

2. Housework. When it’s late at night and the dining room/kitchen still look like a disaster, I’m always tempted to just go to sleep and deal with it in the morning, even though I know for a fact that a clean table and counter put me in a good mood when I wake up. I’ve learned that if I set a timer for ten, five, or even two minutes, and work really hard to clean up the mess in that time, I’m always shocked at how much better the house looks. Sometimes it’s even totally clean! And if it turns out to be a bigger project than I expected (I’m looking at you, massive pile of dishes), at least I’ll be able to clear enough counter space to make breakfast.

3. Editing papers. Most of you know that I’m a writing teacher, and sometimes, when my brain is fuzzy, the thought of editing a paper seems overwhelming. That’s when I set a timer for 15 minutes. The rules are simple: during those 15 minutes, I can either put comments on papers or stare blankly into space. No checking the phone, no trolling around other internet sites, nothing. Either working or staring. Again, this isn’t a foolproof solution, but nine times out of ten, I end up either making significant progress on the paper or even finishing it by the time the timer goes off.

Have you ever used a timer to help you focus? How did it go?


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Fever and the First Egg

I was recently sick for a week and a half. Not just moderately bad, but an all-out flu, with aches, extreme exhaustion, sinus congestion, and the worst fevers I’ve experienced in over a decade. My brain turned into a vat of porridge, my strength melted, and I spent my nights feeling like my skin had turned into sand dunes in the desert sun. All the while, I spent my lucid moments desperately trying to keep up with my teaching job (I managed, somehow), reading books, and scrolling through blogs. Food sounded and tasted terrible, and I ate very little. Zach and I watched some TV but mostly I just slept, slept, and slept some more.

Then, two days ago, it was like my immune system handed back the keys to my brain. “Here, just saved your life from a deadly flu— you’re welcome. Don’t try to get the body up and going too quickly.” I lurched back into my daily routine, fighting only the occasional nose-blowing and dizziness, and tried to pick up all the balls I had dropped while I was down.

On Monday I ate lentil soup that a friend from church brought over, and I felt like going outside and sitting in the sunshine for a while. I let the chickens out and sat on a straw bale and felt the warm sun. The chickies began dust-bathing in the mulch, occasionally crowding around me making inquiring little chirs and chirrups. It occurred to me that their nest box might need a bit of cleaning, so I lifted the lid.

It’s been clear for several days now that the chickens have reached or are reaching sexual maturity— whenever I pet any one of them, she’ll hunker down as if to be mated with. So we’ve been keeping their nest box clean, and Zach put some ceramic eggs in the box to help them adjust to the idea of these strange new objects before they actually lay one.

I lifted the lid of the nest box, and saw two brown ceramic eggs.

And, next to them, a small, oblong, beautifully pale sea-green egg.

I blinked. I wondered if Zach had bought a smaller-than-usual-green-ceramic egg when I was sick. I reached down and picked it up, turning it over, staring at the specks of whitish calcium on the surface. 

I turned slowly to look at Bobbie Dylan, who was pecking at a straw bale with the feathery “muff” around her face sticking straight out. She gave me a wild-eyed stare and a murmuring cackle.

“Good girl, Bobbie!” I burst out. If she were a dog I would have petted her, but Bobbie hates being touched, so I rewarded her by not giving her a huge chicken-y hug. Instead, I cradled her egg in my hand, feeling my heart beat faster. It was like picking the first pepper you ever grew from seed, but this one was even better because of the sheer unexpectedness of it. We knew they’d start laying soon, but there was no “ripening” to observe. In fact, if it weren’t for the distinctive Ameraucana color of the egg, I wouldn’t have any way of knowing which chicken laid it. 

Since then, one of the brown-egg layers has started laying as well, and going out to check on the chickens is a treasure hunt. 

I’d already felt like I was coming back to life after my long sickness, and the new development in my chickens’ lives seems like a sure sign of spring. Of awakening. Of resurrection.

Life is miraculous.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How to Murder a Lawn in Five Simple Steps

Zach works on Step Four while the chickens (and neighbors) wonder what the heck we're up to

Last week, we murdered our backyard lawn by smothering it.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Lisa, why on earth would you want to get rid of your beautiful green lawn that requires little care and maintenance, when so many people in the world want to grow a nice lawn but can’t?”

Privilege. Midwestern river-bottom-soil full-sun suburban yard privilege.

And also because...

1. We are going to plant a bunch of fruit trees, and we don’t want the grass competing. Sapling roots and grass roots occupy the same space in the ground, so we want to give our little trees the best chance.

2. We want to plant tomatoes and squash, and smothering a lawn is a lot easier than double-digging a bed. Instead of breaking our backs hoeing up the ground, we just break our backs once hauling in mulch. In the summer we’ll plant the seeds/seedlings into little pockets of soil in the mulch.

3. We want to grow chicken forage/cover crops. Although chickens will eat grass, there are a bazillion other crops that are more nutritious and have flowers for the bees and nitrogen-fixing properties. It will be easier to sow these crops into mulch/soil rather than trying to hoe up the grass.

4. We want to preserve our reputation as the neighborhood weirdos.

The technique we chose, known as “sheet-mulching,” involves putting down a thick layer of cardboard (much more eco-friendly than weed cloth) and organic material in order to smother what you don’t want to grow. Eventually, time, weather, microorganisms, and the rotted remains of the lawn will break the materials into rich soil suitable for growing all sorts of delicious food. I’ve done mini-sheet-mulching before in our asparagus bed, but a whole backyard was a project on a much bigger scale. I’m pretty darn pleased with the results.

Here’s how we did it.

Tape peelings
Step one: Gather more cardboard than you could ever possibly imagine.

A few months ago, Zach started making rounds at Walmart after he got off work, gathering cardboard boxes from the stockers (ask a manager or any employee if you can have some. I’ve also heard of people asking large-appliance stores and bike shops for their boxes). A pile of cardboard steadily grew in our garage.

As we neared our date for killing the lawn, we spent a whole evening dragging cardboard into our warm house (it was freezing in the garage) and tearing off all the plastic labels and tape. As I peeled, Zach counted the boxes and made rough calculations. It looked like one more load of cardboard would do the trick. After that evening, we had transferred a pile of plastic-free cardboard to the basement, waiting for the next step.

Step two: Find a source of mulch (or any kind of weed-free organic material).

This turned out to be tricky. People online and in gardening books always talk about how tree-trimming companies will give you mulch for free if you just call them, but the few leads I chased turned up nothing. At last, we settled on buying mulch instead, from R. Schroeder Sod Farm down the road. It looked like pretty low-grade mulch, which is exactly what we wanted because we want it to break down quickly. It was only $15 a cubic yard, much cheaper than anywhere else I’d called. Since the somewhat-hefty delivery fee was the same regardless, we ordered the maximum single delivery, which was 14 cubic yards, or enough to cover most of the yard in several inches. It was almost time.

Step three: Cover the yard in organic material.

You’re supposed to lay a bunch of high-nitrogen material down first, like grass clippings, but since it’s winter we were in short supply of green stuff. We settled for a layer of autumn leaves, gathered from my parents’ house. This would encourage worms and other microorganisms to take interest in the underside of our sheet mulch. It felt weird to dump leaves all over our lawn, making it look like an un-raked yard in autumn. But the chickens loved it!

Step four: Layer cardboard over everything.

On the day of our big project, it was time to add the cardboard layer. We began by soaking the ground with a hose, then laying out the cardboard, trying to overlap the edges so that weeds won’t be able to sneak through. We had to spray the cardboard frequently to keep it from drying and curling up in the sunlight. Our mountain of cardboard turned out to be enough to cover the entire backyard (minus the chicken coop), with some left over!

Step five: Add and spread the mulch.

The delivery truck showed up at noon on the dot, and dumped a massive pile of finely-ground mulch next to our yard, blocking half the street. Zach and I grabbed shovels and tote bins (lacking a wheelbarrow) and set to work, shovelful by shovelful. We worked for an hour non-stop, then my brother Christian joined us, him shoveling and us carrying tote bins, for another couple hours. My arms and back ached and I started grunting louder and louder with each load, but at long last we had covered the whole backyard with several inches of mulch. 

Next, we leveled the mulch with garden rakes, turning the chickens out to help us (they didn’t). We left some mulch in a pile at the edge of the yard, for use on later projects, and smoothed out the rest as much as we could. 

Our yard now looks somewhat naked, with its smooth carpet of blackish-brown mulch. But if I squint at the blank canvas, I see a utopia of fruit trees, nut trees, veggies, herbs, and cover crops. It’s hard to wait until spring!

And there you have it— five simple steps to murdering your lawn!