Last I wrote, we had just readied our permaculture garden in a couple of inches of snow, which is to say, it has been a while since I've recorded our progress, and also that we have been very busy this summer, but luckily a lot of that has been preparing ourselves for our homestead.
Easter weekend, Dan and I traveled north for the holiday to see family but also to check out the garden we built last summer. As I mentioned then, we are hoping to foster a suitable enough environment for sandy soil hardy plants to grow without too much fuss and attention, as the family's visits to the site are more sparse than perhaps they'd prefer and tending to the garden is relatively out of the question.
Serendipitously, one of Dan's clients asked that he pull out a blackberry bush and a few strawberry plants from her garden the day we were leaving, so Dan uprooted these for transplant and threw them in the back of the pickup. Though it was hardly an ideal time for planting - mid-March and with a newly fallen inch of snow covering the garden - it was the time we had and figured it best to give it a try. The day was mild - in the 50s - so shoveling snow out of the bed was not quite the ordeal it would have been in the preceding months.
Dan's grandfather had thrown up a makeshift fence to demarcate the perimeter so that no one would drive over it during the winter months.
Kind of severe looking, no? In fact, we chanced upon a few macabre vignettes throughout the day that distracted just a little from the calm of birds calling and catching the occasional crane flying over head.
And this little scene inside their dilapidated shed:
What even are those?
Anyway, did I mention the cranes? They were really beautiful, and so was the rest of the vista, particularly a little deeper into their land.
Very dramatic indeed, and so quiet, a real far cry from the bustle of North Avenue.
But back to the garden. After clearing the snow off the top, we gave the soil a turn to loosen it up for planting. Of course, it was a lot more moist from the snow cover than it had been at our last visit, but seemed healthier overall. It was also a lot less clumpy and the pine needle mulch we had covered it in was really breaking down nicely. We gave it all a turn, shook organic fertilizer over it, and turned it again before planting.
On the left is the soil last summer; the right is from this past weekend. It's hard to tell with all the snow, but it does seem to be looser and perhaps more habitable for the plants. We shall see.
We wanted to plant berries, as they like a sandier soil and that is what we had to work with. So here is the blackberry bush:
And the little strawberries:
And one of the many worms we found, which we took as a very good sign of the soil's health:
This time, we brought in some straw for mulch, to lock in the moisture of the soil and perhaps hamper the weeds just a bit. We distributed this evenly over the garden using the flat side of the rake to push it around. And Dan, ever the consummate professional, cleaned off the loose straw from the frame.
Our next goal was to install a fence, rather more of a deterrent than rabbit or deer proof necessarily, as we didn't want to go crazy with the expenses on this garden. Also, this was more an exercise in using what you have than making things look too nice (Joel Salatin might be proud). Dan heard that deer, while they could easily jump our low fence, don't usually make the effort if there isn't a clear landing spot on the other side. Since the garden is rather small, perhaps this will be the case.
We used stakes at all four corners of the garden and ran chicken wire around them, laying the wire flush with the ground at the bottom about 6" or so. Rabbits are slightly more deterred from burrowing under the fence if it extends out like this.
We also found an old pallet by their shed that we co-opted to use as a gate.
So there it is in its entirety. I guess that you could say the whole thing is very "upcycled", as most everything, including the plants, was repurposed. It's an important reminder to look at and use what you have or can easily find as opposed to buying more.
Hopefully we'll get up north again in the next few months to check out the plants' progress. But for now, we wait.
I hope you all had wonderful holidays and feel prosperity, industriousness and spiritual renewal for this new year! Life has been both busy and somehow satisfyingly slow these past couple of months. Much time to be both reflective about the past and present and ponderous about what's to come and how to get there.
The chill of the Midwest winter has prompted a natural hibernation in our home, a perfect excuse to practice more indoor pursuits and homemaking. I've taken up sewing thanks to the addition of a beautiful Singer machine to our living room, and while I've accomplished little more than running straight stitches down an old t-shirt and sewing the sleeves shut very lopsidedly, I am looking forward to trying my hand at some patterns soon.
We've also been undertaking some woodworking projects geared towards the garden. About a month ago, we built a two-bin composter out of rough-sewn cedar modeled after one Dan's company has built for a couple of their clients.
One side will be used for compost that is still "cooking", or scraps that have been newly added, and the other will be storage for finished compost that is ready to be added to the garden. The boards in front are about 6" wide and stacked on top of each other so that they can be slid out the top. This allows for easy access to the cooking compost, whatever level it is at, to turn with a rake.
We used hardware cloth, or wire with 1/2" squares, to keep out the rodents all around the sides, top and bottom of the composter. Initially, we were going to put a board along the bottom but got the advice that it was good to have air flow underneath the compost and that the wire would keep out anything that might be tempted to burrow into it from below anyway. The lids are secured with hooks to deter curious raccoons as well.
I've been reading a bit about the science of composting and the importance of having the right ratio of nitrogen to carbon, which is pretty interesting. Additives that are high in nitrogen, also called "green" matter (like garden waste or weeds), should only comprise about 1/3 of the mix, while the more carbonaceous ingredients, or "brown" matter (like newspaper, straw or leaves), should be the rest of the 2/3. This ratio would yield the most fertile, sweetest smelling mix. A common mistake is to add too much "green", which leads to slushiness and odor.
As we don't have a yard ourselves, we built the composter for my brother's family as a Christmas gift, but it was very good practice for our future homestead. I definitely feel a lot more comfortable with a table saw and drill now - it's pretty empowering!
Dan also built a cold frame to fit on top of one of the containers we use for our porch garden. This he made of rough-sewn cedar as well, with a plastic window and latches on the side for easy securing and snapping off once the weather is warm enough to remove the frame. It will help us extend the season perhaps a good month or two on either end.
We are looking forward to more projects in the coming months. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for updates!
Listening to the news the other day on my drive to work, I heard something that really struck me. A USA Today study suggested that the leading three adjectives that high school students used to describe their feelings throughout the school day were "tired", "stressed" and "bored".
Now this is in no way some revolutionary concept. I am not in the least surprised to hear it, nor do I think it particularly enlightening. But in the past few weeks I have been doing a lot of thinking about today's youth and the education system in this country, and hearing this report reinforced what I've already been feeling: that surely it is time for standardized, state-run learning institutions to be rethought and replaced by education that might inspire our youth to become freethinking, self-sufficient adults.
These thoughts were prompted by a few things, most prominently my reading of Joel Salatin's book, Folks, This Aint Normal.
Salatin, a Libertarian permaculture farmer and natural foods speaker/promoter in Virginia, was raised on the farm he now runs, land on which he has for many years hosted interns and offered community learning opportunities. He preaches the import of humans being stewards of the land, of returning to natural animal and land care that has historically nurtured the environment instead of destroying it the way government-backed chemicals, fertilizers and antibiotics do.
Growing up, Salatin was expected to carry out farm tasks from a young age, and in turn raised his children to do the same. For his homeschooled kids, what started out as farm tasks turned into small businesses that instilled in them a sense of responsibility, creativity, independence and confidence. His daughter, Rachel, baked breads and cakes for farm customers and his son Daniel bred and sold rabbits.
Salatin states: "I'm a big believer that children should have autonomous businesses. This teaches the value of a dollar, persistence, thrift, and good math skills. The earlier someone learns the difference between profit and loss, the better...Both of our children hit twenty years old with $20,000 in the bank. I don't believe in allowances - nobody should be paid to breathe. This was not pay for chores. It was self-earned, saved income from their businesses and provided a wonderful nest egg for future pursuits. That, my friends, is liberating and launching."
Salatin's kids were able to express their creativity and individuality through the different ventures they sought, and though Salatin oversaw the businesses, he let them take the reigns.
Now I know that's not the whole story (What kind of resistances did they put up? Were they ever bitter about their separation from the mainstream media? Did they ever feel they missed out on the school experience?) and I am not yet a parent, but I certainly think this model deserves attention. Dan and I talk about homeschooling our future kids and when we tell people this, are often greeted by confused looks, a narrowing of the eyebrows or a sardonic "Why?"
Because when I was a teenager, in addition to being anxious and self-conscious, I was also "tired, stressed and bored" at school. Uninspired and directionless, I figured I had to go to college because I was in Honors and AP classes and made good grades. I can relate to this interaction Salatin conveys in the passage below:
"I will never forget the last time I conferenced with my high school guidance counselor and told her I wanted to be a farmer. I thought she would go into apoplectic seizures. 'What a waste of brains. Are you going to throw away your academic ability?'"
More and more often I hear about programs and see in schools shifts towards preparing everyone for college (by "college" I mean the four-year university), a curriculum and pathway that just doesn't make sense for everybody. Why when we place so much emphasis on supposed "individuality" in our society, do we see college as the best pathway for all of our youth? Yes, I believe those who have a clear goal for and interest in college studies should most certainly be prepped and helped along the way for entrance into university. I am all for bettering oneself in this way, but it should be a choice and not the mandate or at least strong suggestion it seems to have become.
There are so many different intelligences and avenues that nurture these intelligences. My father went to a vocational high school in the 1960s and opted to work his way up in the electronics field in which he had been training as opposed to going to college. As a motivated, engaged and eager young man, he worked hard and eventually became a successful self-built business owner, and surely one of the smartest people I know. He trained in a skill from a young age and has been doing what he loves his whole life. I sometimes feel his is a story that couldn't or at least doesn't exist these days.
In my high school, they pushed us to pursue degrees that would, they intimated, lead to vaguely-outlined white-collar desk jobs. If you had good grades, it was a waste if you didn't go on to college.
Remember, colleges are businesses like any other. They want to make money and to make money they need students. It is not always in people's best interest to take this route, particularly now that student debt is crippling millennials, causing us to postpone buying houses and having children. I pursued a degree in English because I liked to write but didn't have any clue what I would do once I graduate. My first job out of college, nine months after I graduated, required a degree but I was paid $11 an hour and waitressed on the side for money. I ended up waitressing full time because I made almost double the money doing this, something that didn't even require a high school degree. Does this seem backwards to anyone else?
Society was built on people offering different intelligences and skills. To homogenize people, or to demonize or disgrace some roles over others is shameful, and is a detriment to the health of our nation. As Salatin says: "For decades we've shipped our best and brightest off to town to become white-collar doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers, and reserved food production to society's dolts. Does that make sense? Do we really want society's bottom feeders to be in charge of our air, soil, and water?"
So what about other avenues? I maintain that we need craftsman who are willing to take on apprentices, to pass on their trade to this generation of kids that have grown up on technology and haven't been introduced to these pursuits. We need to reintegrate the industrial arts back into our society. Because when the whole system collapses, and it will, would you rather be able to program a computer or chop wood to heat your house?
Not everyone can grow up in some bucolic existence where they're expected to milk cows or feed chickens - nor should they. That is not the point. The point is to help guide your kids towards meaningful, rewarding pursuits that are confidence-building and that engender in them an independence and freedom of thought. How might we do this as a culture? The reality of this country is that most of us need to be two-income earning families, so homeschooling is obviously not the most practical choice for us all. Alternative learning schools like Montessoris are a good start.
We need more alternatives to government-run education. We need more training for young people in jobs that will allow them to provide for families and feel fulfillment in their lives' work. Let us look to Joel Salatin's model of raising children to be entrepreneurial and independent. To have them doing work and chores from a young age so that they grow up with a sense of responsibility, not entitlement. These are the types of things parents should be doing at home, but what if our schools also fostered these types of real-world skills instead of merely preparing students for standardized tests and yet more schooling? Would they still feel "tired, stressed and bored"?
Hello readers! Fall is nearly here and the cooler weather, though quite welcome, also means some changes to our porch garden.
A couple weeks back, we harvested about 1/3 of our herbs - oregano, lavender and rosemary - to dry. We hung them in the kitchen on the window rod behind the shades, where there was air flow through the window and it was relatively dry and hot to avoid mold growth. Upon inspection, everything looked good except the rosemary which had some white fuzz on the leaves, so we decided to forgo that.
I think mostly our deck garden was successful, but the one thing we realized was lacking was enough direct sunlight throughout the day. Our nasturtium, though the leaves grew tall, never formed flowers, and I read that their growth was probably more a response to them reaching out for sunlight than the plant's health. Anyone else have nasturtiums that didn't flower?
Similarly, the lavender grew strong, woody stems, but only one stem flowered, and they all reached through the deck rails towards the sun.
What can one do? You gotta work with what you got. Maybe next year, if we're still in this apartment, we'll build an over-the-rails type of container for some of our plants.
Beets and carrots seem to be doing alright without so much sun, and they will be the steadfast remainders into the cold weather when everything else is harvested and, in the case of the lavender and mint, overwintered.
Sometimes I feel very antsy about the fact that we are not living our farm life now. I feel I'm mostly just gaining theoretical knowledge, which I have never really been a fan of. It feels like college all over again, reading but never actually applying the skills, which is a frustration at times. It assuages my anxiety somewhat though to read about others' experiences, and I have found some great resources through talking to other people, finding articles on the internet and, of all things, following folks on Instagram.
One of my recent favorite discoveries is Longest Acres, a farm located in Vermont, whose Instagram is updated by the female partner and not only features gorgeous photos but seriously good advice and honest, funny stories about the highs and lows of farm life. It's a fount of knowledge and a really inspiring read. The couple both worked at desk jobs in the Bay area (one at Facebook, the other as an engineer) before deciding in their mid-twenties that they wanted to get closer to the land and pursue their true passions. Thus began a series of farm adventures that ultimately led to their own 120-some acres in Vermont where they raise livestock like cows and sheep and, though they have a lot of knowledge from years of practice, they seem to learn quite a bit as they go.
Anyone have any other inspiring reads to share? And how are you preparing your gardens for the cooler weather?
I've written before about rising food costs and the imminent need I feel to start building skills related to cooking, baking, food preservation and at-home food production. While some of these prove more difficult than others in an urban area, I feel it's important to practice and improve those I'm capable of doing in my apartment so that once we own land I will be ready with an arsenal of go-to recipes and techniques.
So one thing I've become conscious of recently is that I go through about one 11-oz. bag of granola a week, as I have yogurt and granola for breakfast every morning. While I'd one day love to have farm fresh milk from which to make my own yogurt (does anyone reading this make their own yogurt?), I've settled for practicing making my own granola, as this seems a more attainable first step. I've never really found a granola I've particularly loved, so thought it would be nice to be able to control all the ingredients myself and make something more personal to my tastes.
I followed the general guidelines of a couple of recipes, one from Kitchn that was submitted by a Seattle baker that was dry and I actually ended up burning the heck out of, and one from Martha Stewart's site, which I actually had really great success with. It's a little on the sweeter end, but I balanced that with a healthy pinch of salt and cut the brown sugar a bit the second time around.
The recipe calls for cooking down the wet ingredients - oil, honey and I actually added a little maple syrup - with brown sugar until the mixture boils, and then adding a teaspoon of vanilla at the end. This seemed to make the granola come together and be a little stickier than the other recipe, which I tend to prefer.
Incidentally, I love this honey from Mt. Horeb, WI which has a really nice, spicy clover flavor to it. Of course, the finest ingredients always yield the best outcome, so I'm really not sure if this has saved me money or not! The next step is to price it all out and compare, though either way I think I'll keep making my own.
I also made my first tentative venture into the world of canning, which I am particularly excited about. I am borderline OCD about things like botulism so was always pretty nervous about undertaking this endeavor but I think we were successful. My mom and I harvested close to the last batch of tomatoes from their garden and she cooked them down using this recipe for tomato jam, which was a nice balance of sweetness, heat and spice from the cinnamon and ginger. She started it while I was on my way over, as it needs to cook for 40-50 minutes, at the end of which time we got a nice gelatinous consistency that lightly coated the back of a spoon.
While I stirred the mixture, I read aloud canning preparation and instructions from both Paul Virant's The Preservation Kitchen and Irma S. Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking, to make sure we got a couple sources of information on the sterilizing process. Though Chef Virant claims one needn't sterilize the jars and rings when the mixture is being processed (or cooked in boiling water) for at least 10 minutes, which ours was, we sterilized to begin with anyway out of nerves, though in the future we'll probably be a little more lax.
We washed the cans in soap and water and then filled them with the tomato mixture, tightening the rings and then twisting them a quarter turn the other way, as Chef Virant advises, so that they aren't too tight when they go into the boiling water. We used a canning pot and the structure that holds the jars upright and processed them for ten minutes, starting the timer when the water came back up to a boil. After killing the heat, we left the jars in the water to sit for a minute or two before pulling them out, so that the temperature change wouldn't be too drastic.
When we pulled them out, we did hear a few of the lids "pop," where the button in the center of the jar indents, but not all of them which sort of worried me, though we did find that several other indications of them having been successfully sealed did occur: one, that buttons in the center of the lids were indeed all depressed; two, there was no visible sign of any seepage occurring around the lid, where some of the tomato mixture's contents might have escaped; and three, when we tested a jar by opening it, we found the lid suctioned to the top, unable to be popped off with just our fingers. So I believe we successfully canned? Does anyone have any surefire ways of telling if this is the case? I'm probably a little too paranoid; people have been doing these things for millennia and hardly dying that often from tainted jam.
Paul Virant is teaching a workshop on canning at his restaurant Vie in Western Springs next Monday, September 21st that I'm thinking of attending. If you're interested, you can find details here.
And in case you're interested in cooking or related classes like gardening or floral design, I came across this venue, Elawa Farm, in my search of gardens in the Chicagoland area that has such offerings. Since we were up north on Saturday, we visited Elawa in Lake Forest, as they have a weekend market where they sell preserves, produce and some food prepared on site. We had a nice time strolling through their garden and prairie habitat; the perfect place to spend a brisk fall morning and a really neat event venue as well. It was very stately!
As I mentioned last week, Dan and I made plans to visit his family's hunting ground last weekend to see what we could do to make a permaculture garden there. Intending only to check out the land and do a little nominal moving around of things, we weren't quite prepared for what we actually ended up doing: building the entire garden framework, digging up the sod and spreading mulch over the bed. It turned out quite nice all the same!
What we had perceived as the biggest challenges of the land - marshy areas, dense forest and supremely sandy soil in the clearings - we decided to work with instead of trying to fight, which I think is the key to not only gardening but life in general.
Listening to the land and looking at what it actually has to offer, we noticed the forest floor was covered in fallen pine needles and underneath this layer, we found the soil to be really moist when we plunged our hands into it, though it hadn't rained in the past week. This was important to notice, as we realized the pine needles could be used as a great mulch for our garden, as it helped the soil beneath retain water so well. Moreover, the pine needles were so abundant and readily available, it was as if they were there waiting for us to use them for this purpose.
Following this line of thought, we figured that using fallen tree logs to form the bed made sense, as they were likewise so available. As chance would have it, though, Dan's grandfather had several 4x4s tucked into the woods behind their shed that he had intended to use long ago for a project he'd abandoned. So since we had these 4x4s and a general idea of how we might mulch, we just got to work and built the garden.
Luckily, they also had a number of tools in their shed for our use. We really only had to cut one board down to size, as the rest were uniform and we weren't all too worried about the aesthetic of the garden in this case. We nailed the boards together like so, and then proceeded to dig out all of the sod within the frame. It was hot, hard work! The whole thing only took about 4 hours to make though and, having not really planned to do this, I think it came out pretty awesome.
So what's next? We're thinking one more trip up to the land before the first frost to bring in some compost, which we'll put in between the sandy soil and the pine needle mulch and then recover with the needles. Bringing in this organic matter should help enrich the soil further for spring planting.
We've been researching the best plants to grow in sandy soil and they are: brambles, herbs and root vegetables. I am hoping to further my lavender pursuits, as the lavender I currently planted I actually bought cactus soil for because it needs soil that drains well. We'll definitely do strawberries and maybe a raspberry bush. I'm hoping also to put in some flowers and wonder about roses, but I believe they require a lot more consistent pruning than we'd be able to do, though I think the soil would be pretty good for them.
I think the important lesson here was learning how to work with what you have, and I mean that on every level, from the soil to the wood to the tools. We just knew we wanted to create a garden and then we just did it. I think this was a really important breakthrough for me because I get hung up on doing things perfectly or envisioning a future state of being where the things I want to do will be easier or somehow come more naturally than they could at the moment, and this is perhaps the least zen I could be. I try to practice consciousness and staying present in the moment, but all of my actions lately have been contrary to this. It's really important to have moments of clarity like that to recenter oneself and practice conscious thought.
I think it's probably natural but also not an excuse at all to let the day to day "struggles" obscure your deeper meaning and the searching of your soul, and even hinder you from pursuing your external goals. Reconnecting to these internal sources is something I try to practice in my daily life, but it sometimes gets muddled until I'm out of my familiar surroundings and able to view things from a distance. In time, I hope to be able to find the source within me to gain this insight.
On our way home from the hunting land, we wound through Southwestern Wisconsin, the Driftless Region, stopping in charming Mineral Point and Dodgeville, up to a farm for sale near Spring Green that we have our eye on, out west to Platteville and down through Monroe, then into Illinois to check out Angelic Organics in Caledonia. We saw so much that inspired us on our drive - so many people living on farms that neighbored one another were each providing a unique service right on their property: from storage lockers to dog kennels to wedding venues and produce sales, it seemed a really interesting type of barter system might have sparked between them for a close knit, self-reliant community of people trading goods and services to one another.
This is the rolling landscape around Mineral Point:
And the Angelic Organics Farm land:
So while that was a restorative and empowering weekend, we continued the momentum yesterday with a visit to the Wisconsin Permaculture Convergence in Fredonia, WI, where we met up with two of Dan's coworkers from The Organic Gardener, and their friend, who is also interested in these sorts of efforts.
It was a supremely invigorating experience, being around these folks who all had similar frames of thought, but with varying takes on the theme and agendas quite different than our own. Thomas, for instance, was really interested in the communal living aspect of the conference, while the rest of us could not fathom that lifestyle. And Mike taught me about the amount of water we waste with reclamation facilities and almost convinced me of the merits of compostable toilets (until I had to use a porta-potty...ugh). Dan and I took the most interest in learning about permaculture on a farm-scale level and thus enjoyed the talk given by Iowa city farmer Grant Schultz.
Mr. Schultz owns Versaland, a silvopasture (whose definition I admit I had to Google), which is a form of permaculture in which one cultivates trees and animals in a situation that benefits both and enhances in the soil. A ton of it was way over my head and I spent the day alternately very humbled by my lack of knowledge and empowered to learn as much as I could. Anyway, it was interesting to hear the story of his farm, as he only began leasing his land 3 years ago, so the orchard is quite young still and his business just beginning. He undertook this effort with such meticulous planning, hiring folks to come do a topographical survey of the land so that he could utilize every piece of it in the most beneficial way.
It was also neat because he was in real Monsanto land being in Iowa City and literally neighbored mostly corn and soy bean fields, so was certainly forging a new path in that area. Another thing that he kept touching on was the high level of bureaucracy that he had to deal with not only securing the land but in the continued efforts to push boundaries of living off the land. His greatest advice was to "move to the Driftless and keep your head down," which is, of course, precisely what we intend to do. It got a knowing chuckle from the audience.
I'm stupid about not getting photos of people, but I do have some of the beautiful land from the convergence, held at Bur Oak Farm in Fredonia. Please enjoy!
I've also been meaning to share a photo of Dan's most recent project with The Organic Gardener, a garden the shape of a dodecagon. This is perhaps more akin to the sort of garden that we'd build on our own property, or should we go into this business together someday, for our clients.
We just returned home from a bike ride around our neighborhood, with a stop at the Logan Square Farmers Market, where we procured the most perfect, beautiful smelling cantalopue from one of our favorite vendors, Geneva Lake Produce, and it was really a delightful time, except that I can't help but long for a place to ride my bike without anxiously checking behind me for speeding cars, weaving around enormous potholes and smashed rats, and praying I don't get doored.
I went to an acupuncturist recently who suggested that perhaps my state of constant alertness may have served me well centuries ago but that modern life and the cacophony of the city is perhaps, to put it mildly, a little too much for my already heightened level of awareness.
Do any other city dwellers feel this way? It seems people are happily marching in and out of the trains (which my claustrophobia nearly prohibits me from taking!), going to work in tiny offices in tall buildings, standing in long lines for Sunday brunch, seemingly unaffected by the constant buzz and the absurdity of it all.
Perhaps, too, I want only what I don't have and the grass will perennially be greener wherever I am not, but I think or at least sincerely hope that this is not the case. I believe it's possible to find a place in which one feels a sense of belonging, and that it is one's duty to oneself to meet this challenge.
Meanwhile, I'm preparing for this idyllic place I have in my mind, where I can ride a bike like this with my kids someday without fearing for our lives, through extensive research and trying out the methods I hope one day to hone. This place I envisage is about a 10 acre farmette with wild and farmed flowers, an organic vegetable patch, some farm animals and, in the perfect dream, this.
At the end of August, we'll take a trip to Wisconsin for a permaculture convergence and also visit the farm my friend and her husband recently purchased in Southeastern Wisconsin. I'm excited to see her property and find out what interesting things they intend to grow and keep, and also see what struggles they encounter as former city dwellers turned rural residents.
Though I'm more than aware this lifestyle takes so much hard work and dedication (my other farmer friend had to even plan what month they could try to get pregnant around the work required of each season), there also seems to be such a satisfaction in producing one's own daily needs without being dependent on a store. I had sort of an existential nausea while grocery shopping today, where we ended up buying organic milk at $7.39 and a small tub of yogurt for $6.99! With such rising costs on everyday goods, it seems more important than ever to develop the skills to produce these items at home, or purchase them as close to their source as possible. We talk about either having our own cow or doing a cow share, where you share access to a cow with neighbors and all take turns milking, which produces more than enough milk for drinking, yogurt or cheese production for a small family. Alternatively, just the option of being able to buy the milk from the farmer himself is perhaps appealing enough.
For now, though, we must content ourselves to grow our little garden and cook our own food and think and plan.
I find that I get the most joy of anything in my day (besides Dan!) from our garden, from tending to it and watching it grow. I'm especially proud of the lavender, which I started indoors back in March and is now just beginning to form flowers, though they are green still.
We also strung up some clothesline for drying our clothes, in an attempt to save a little bit of money and be a little greener. Also it seems very European on our balcony, with the ivy-covered coach house in the background.
And just for fun, this song keeps running through my mind and I thought it fitting to include.
As the Fourth of July weekend wraps up, I feel a shift happening. Maybe it's finally being in full-fledged summer with steady 90-plus degree days on the horizon, but it also feels like something more. It's almost a heightened consciousness, the ability to see and feel the past, present and future of my life all at once and to work with all of them to build something meaningful and true to myself.
Being back in my home state, only a half-hour drive from where I grew up, I am reconnecting with a life I shucked off when I made the decision to leave and the later series of decisions that led me to stay gone for as long as I did. I was afraid of facing past "demons", old versions of myself I wanted to forget or deny, confronting the fact I hadn't "turned out" like I had planned. All part of a very shallow rationale, as it turns out.
Being back has actually been a very different experience. Sure, when I pass the park district I remember my traumatic attempts at playing softball there, or the ill-conceived attempt at braiding all my hair to look like this, or the series of awkward interactions between me and...well, nearly everyone all the time, but none of that really matters. There's also been a tremendous opportunity for growth, for re-evaluating and re-centering myself, connecting to forgotten childhood dreams, and spending nourishing, quality time with my family and getting to know my incredible nephews. I see the suburbia I for so long rolled my eyes over as comforting and familiar now, and I'm able to see the things and people from home through a new lens, devoid of the counter-productive snark and cynicism of my early twenties.
I feel this may be a common tale and one of the reasons I so connect with the PBS show A Chef's Life. Do you know this show? It's about an NYC chef, Vivian Howard, who returns to her hometown in Eastern North Carolina because her parents offer to help her open her own restaurant but only if she does so where she grew up. She says right in the credits it's "where [she] swore [she] would never return" but each episode is about her exploring the unique community, ingredients, landscape and nature of her hometown with a fresh perspective. Vivian encounters and learns from people who fish for their livelihood, shuck lima beans, grow strawberries and hunt for ramps - all things that connect the chef to the land from where their products came. It's interesting because she sort of seems humbled by these people who are doing these seemingly small, tedious tasks but executing them so wonderfully and taking pride in their products.
Anyway, I guess I like this because Vivian is coming full circle, back to her roots but armed with everything she learned while she was away, and I guess that is what I would say I'm doing as well. Because without coming full circle, how does one ever feel complete?
I've also been making a very conscious effort to expand my knowledge of the world around me and with each new revelation, it's like an awakening of the spirit that propels me forward. Mostly what I've learned is to be humbled by my lack of knowledge but not afraid of it. To read about and explore topics that I don't understand immediately and forge ahead until they start to soak in.
One such example is a documentary we watched last night called The Garden of Eden. This film presupposes a certain amount of knowledge of organic farming and permaculture that I don't know if I fundamentally yet understand, but I made a decision to not back away as I may have in the past, but to allow these things in and to let them kind of sit for awhile and have faith that they will click and lead me to an "aha" moment of understanding.
The Garden of Eden is a beautiful film about a farmer, Paul Gautschi, in Washington state, who spent his life perfecting organic growing practices and, after observing the way trees grow in nature, started practicing the art of non-doing to mimic that natural state of the world. He observed that the forest floor was made up of decayed leaves, wood chips and other plant matter in the state of decomposing and in this death, new life was formed without man's intervention. So he started using this same matter as a mulch over his compost in his own garden and now never even has to water his soil because it retains moisture so well and he has the most perfect, juiciest and sweetest plants you could find. He's a very interesting guy and the film is definitely worth a watch. You can see it here.
This week, we'll get some wood chips to add to our own garden, which incidentally has undergone some changes in the past few days. We decided to harvest all of the swiss chard and arugula, not having enough space for it to grow any larger. Besides, the arugula was beginning to go to seed, which you can see below.
I love those papery white blossoms so much, they're so delicate and exotic looking. I figured this was probably my favorite part of growing the arugula and so decided to plant some flowers as well. I bought just a wildflower mix that wants partial shade and sowed the seeds into the pallet garden, which we pulled the cilantro, dill, chives and parsley from because they were overcrowded and sad looking. I must be more regimented about pruning, because this is really the best way to maintain the health of the plant.
We had an Elaine-sized Big Salad. We've also had our green beans (or haricot verts, if you will) shoot up, and the mint, thyme and lavender have all been going pretty crazy too.
We also added some worms and compost to the soil this weekend to keep everything healthy and ready for the impending heat wave. Luckily, everything has partial shade so won't get too baked in the sun.
That is all for now. As always, please share any thoughts of your own gardening or homesteading adventures!
Dan and I were lucky enough to have yet another opportunity to travel this weekend - my lovely and dear friend, Lauren, got married in a barn in Somerset, Wisconsin, just across the border from Minnesota. It was a beautiful wedding and she a beautiful bride, and the drive through rural Wisconsin was a most welcome reprieve from city life.
What's more, Dan and I have been flushing out a lot of our future plans and aspirations, and one of the things we talk about doing on our future homestead is using the land as an event space: as a place for chef dinners, weddings and charity events. We'd like to have a learning and sharing space that promotes community and connection to farmer and land alike. It was nice and motivational to see this idea in action.
I've been reading a lot about flower farming and we've of course been working on our vegetable gardening, and we'd like our homestead to have both of these elements, as well as chickens, ducks, and either goats or a cow or two. I try not to get too ahead of myself, as the most prevalent piece of advice I keep coming across in my reading is to start out small and build a little with each year. I am attempting to curb my tendency to want to do everything all at once and as soon as possible. This is difficult to do.
One of my goals for the summer is to visit local farms, and when we returned home from Wisconsin this evening, there happened to be an article in the Chicago Tribune about just that. I'm particularly interested in the Soil Sisters event in late July where "women from a dozen or more small, south-central Wisconsin farms (all 150 miles or less from Chicago) team up to share their stories about career transition, self-sufficiency, good cooking and resourcefulness." How encouraging!
Mother Earth News will also be descending upon the Dairy State Aug. 8-9 to teach attendees about "how to age cheese, make butter, can jam, cook eggs and eat organically on a slim budget. Learn the basics about starting a farm, butchering a hog, using herbs for first-aid treatments, raising chickens or alpacas, and building an electric car or motorcycle." I'm excited to check this out too.
Lots of planning and plan-formulation are going on at our house these days.