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.

Sugar pie pumpkins and apple chips
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.

Elderberries, which got boiled down into syrup, an immune system booster.
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? 


Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Picture of Contentment

(I discovered this in my “to post” folder, long neglected because of computer drama. The weather has been much cooler since, and our hiking much more pleasant.)

One Sunday, despite the predictions of a heat index of 104ºF, Zach and I decided to go hiking. I had been longing to take a trip to my favorite hiking place— Pere Marquette State Park— for a while now, since we hadn’t been out there since January. The thought of the scenic drive there— a quiet two-lane highway wending between corn and soybean fields, past fruit stands with homemade signs saying PEACHES, through the tiny towns of West Alton and Grafton, and between the limestone bluffs and the glittering waters of the Mississippi River— sounded like it was worth it, even if the hiking was too hot.

As we scrambled to get our packs together, it occurred to me that we’d need dinner. Since we’re doing an Uber-Frugal Challenge right now, I figured that we shouldn’t cave and get Taco Bell on our way out. But I didn’t have any of the normal fixin’s for making a proper picnic dinner— no cheese, no olives, no tuna, no hummus. The idea of getting Little Caesar’s pizza crossed my mind. Five bucks for a whole pizza isn’t much, and then we’d have pizza! But when I ventured this idea to Zach, he said, “Don’t we still have some bread left? We can make peanut butter sandwiches.”

I balked. Sure, it was good homemade whole wheat bread, but I think it’s best when it’s fresh from the toaster, not eaten out of a backpack. I just wanted a pizza. Was it too much to ask to buy a pizza? Fortunately, there were no Little Caesar’s directly on the way, so it helped make it easier to assent to Zach’s idea and start making sandwiches. I put a ton of honey on mine, packed it up in Tupperware, threw it along with some trail mix into our packs, and we headed out.

The drive was everything I hoped it would be— I stared at the fluffy clouds through the rows of corn flickering by, spotted snowy egrets hunting for fish in shallow water, and smiled as we plunged through a brief rain shower. The hike was hotter than I expected it to be, with sweat dripping from every pore as I struggled up the hills after Zach. We slapped mosquitoes and dodged poison ivy as we hiked through the breeze-less forest, our conversation about the predominance of pawpaws in the understory punctuated by spluttering and smacking as we ran into yet another spiderweb.

By the end of the multi-mile hike, we were ready for some air conditioning. Fortunately, the park features a historic Civilian Corps lodge, and we had confirmed on a previous visit that you’re allowed to hang out in the great room and even eat your own food. Sweat literally dripping from us, we stepped into the icy room and found some seats by the window. We pulled out our sandwiches, Zach said grace over them, and we began to eat.

I had never tasted a peanut butter sandwich so delicious. It was warm and sticky, full of honey, with crispy edges because I’d toasted the bread. I ate slowly, gazing out the window at the Illinois River floating by in the near distance. The lodge’s great beams rose above our head, decorated with tapestries depicting the wildlife in this region. I looked at Zach’s glasses and saw the trees and the river reflected in them. We didn’t talk, concentrating on how delicious our food tasted.

When we finished eating, and just sat in our seats, looking out at the river, I was almost staggered by how content I felt. Just a few hours ago I had been whining because I wanted pizza, but now I had been stunned to silence by the perfect simplicity of a peanut butter sandwich, eaten with my husband in a beautiful place. How many other moments like this had I missed in my quest to find something to make me happy?

We drove home along the same scenic route, listening to Steely Dan and still enjoying the air conditioning. It was a perfect day.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Our Yard: May vs. July

I’ve enjoyed keeping a photo record of the continuing explosion of our backyard. Looking back at my April vs. May post, I chuckle at how excited I was about the growth then! Now that summer is in full swing I see tomatoes ripening, trees leafing out, spring crops withering, and squash bent on world dominion crawling over everything. Enjoy!


July: Hibiscus, popcorn, elderberry, tons of butternut squash, beans along the fence, watermelon, comfrey, and a patch of withered spring chicken forage crops that we just mowed down (we planted sweet potatoes there; we'll see how it goes).

July: Volunteer squash, pear trees, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, hordes of tomatoes, cucumber, watermelon, yarrow.

July: Tomatoes, cucumbers, comfrey in pots, zinnias and popcorn in the background, and duckweed in the pond
July: Watermelon off to the left, apple trees, kale, yarrow, comfrey, pumpkins, and corn to the right.

July: Popcorn, zinnias, black-eyed susans, and a whole lotta cucumbers!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Celebrate the Seasons: July!

July is my birthday month, so I’ve always held a fondness for it, even though the summer heat usually hits an unbearable level at this point. I appreciate this month more than ever now that I have a garden of summer crops; I may wilt in the heat, but my squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and sweet potatoes are in heaven! As Zach so eloquently said, “The garden makes me realize what summer is for.” Here are some ways to embrace it!

1. Make hot-weather treats. ‘Tis the season for popsicles! I pulled out some old popsicle molds and blended some peeled and seeded cucumber, watermelon, lemon juice, and a bit of honey, then froze them into delicious popsicles that hit the spot whenever I come inside after a walk. I also love freezing chunks of watermelon, then salting them right before I eat them. Don’t forget drinks, too— peppermint-infused water, homemade ice tea or lemonade, sparkling drinks, and more!

2. Go swimming. Whether it’s a local pool, a river, or a natural water feature like Johnson’s Shut-Ins, this is a great time of year to be in the water! 

3. Ask people to show you their gardens. Anyone with a garden, whether flower or vegetable, is usually happy to show off what they’ve planted, and summer is the time for seeing gardens at their best. I enjoy strolling through my neighborhood and seeing coneflowers, zinnias, and marigolds blooming everywhere.

4. Swap food from the garden. On a similar note, see if you can find people who are willing to trade food; you’ll both benefit! Even if you don’t have a garden of your own, you can offer cookies or something; or, chances are you know someone who is absolutely swimming in produce, and will thank you for taking cucumbers or tomatoes or zucchini off their hands. If swapping isn’t an option, farmers markets are still full of increasingly cheap produce for the same reason.

5. Sweat. Some people pay good money to visit a sauna, but the Midwest offers non-stop sauna conditions— all you have to do is step outside! Seriously, though, a good clean sweat is helpful for the body every once in a while, and you might as well embrace it. Sunscreen and deodorant both inhibit sweat, so try to find a shady place outdoors, or on a hot night. Walk, jog, garden, or do whatever you need to do to sweat, and when you’re thoroughly soaked, duck into a cold shower. It’s like a sauna in reverse... and trust me, you’ll appreciate air conditioning much more.

What are you doing to celebrate July?


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Foraging Mulberries and Elderflowers

The spring greens have long since turned bitter with the summer heat, so it’s time to move on to different foraged goodies! (I’m still eating dandelions, however.) This month we feasted on mulberries and foraged elderflowers for the first time.


I already knew about this one— we had a mulberry tree in my backyard when I was a kid, so the taste of mulberries is synonymous with summer. These berries, which grow prolifically everywhere, are fairly bland, but they make up for that with sheer number. You can pick them every day for weeks! Zach made a mulberry infusion in Everclear and made some delicious drinks with the liqueur and some sparkling water. I simmered a bunch with some lemon juice and sugar to simultaneously make jam and syrup, the latter of which I used in homemade ice cream. You can also eat the berries out of hand, and I’m going to try to make a cobbler with them soon. Plus, they’re fun to pick, even if your hands get stained!


Once Zach and I learned to identify the elderberry bush— an important note, since it bears casual resemblance to hemlock, the plant that killed Socrates— we’ve started seeing it everywhere. We decided to visit a particularly dense patch to harvest some of the huge umbrella-shaped flower clusters. We shook off the bugs, picked off all but the smallest branches (the larger stems are mildly poisonous), and infused the flowers in Everclear. (We biked all the way to the liquor store before Zach realized he didn’t have his ID with him. I felt a bit self-conscious walking into a liquor store to buy Everclear, but the cashier didn’t bat an eye and I felt very grown-up afterwards.) The liqueur is excellent for mixed drinks, and we recently added a couple tablespoons to homemade ice cream for a delicate summer treat. Stay tuned for our adventures foraging elderberries in the future!

What seasonal foods are you eating right now?


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?