Solstice

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Today is the shortest day of the year, and our chickens are celebrating by taking time off of their egg-laying and exploring the last vestiges of fall in the yard.

Our chickens are nearly a year old and are so far making the transition into cooler weather rather well – Wyandottes are a cold-hardy breed and haven’t minded the chilly mornings at all! What they have minded, however, are the decreasing daylight hours. When all nine girls were at their laying peak in late summer, we gathered 39-40 eggs in a typical week – ever since November, our production has plummeted to 30, 25, 20, 15, and, most recently, 5 eggs last week. With today being the solstice, we will hopefully see an increase in production again soon!

(Nothing makes you pay attention to the day length more than having chickens! One watches the sun carefully when you are in charge of letting out the shrieking and clamoring dinosaurs at dawn and ensuring they are tucked away safely from predators at dusk. In June, we were up at 6:15am and in bed at 9:30pm – in December, we are out at 8am and in bed by 5:15pm. How remarkable!)

With the decrease in rain and temperatures, the grass hasn’t bounced back nearly as well as in spring and summer. We’ve parked the coop in a new area of the garden that we need “tilled” and fertilized, so heavy and focused work from the ladies is welcome! The adult birds have quite the tilling power – we have found that two weeks in one location clears most of the growing material (9 birds in 80 sq. feet). To decrease boredom and keep them occupied, we’ve consistently added leaves and straw to scratch through and explore. The straw doubles as insulation in their roosting area upstairs for cold nights (so far nothing cooler than 18 degrees). No dangerous heat lamps here!

This fall, we are celebrating new successes with cool-weather crops – in the past, our seedlings have been mis-timed, struggled with germination, or simply got eaten by pests. This year, there were several successful interventions that we attribute to a steady supply of lettuce greens, kale, and carrots:

  • Seed trays in part, but direct sun, on the back patio (as opposed to germinating lights in the basement)
  • Seedlings transplanted in mid-September (by the moon)
  • Extra seedlings kept in case of failure
  • Mosquito netting added early on to protect from insects and larger pests (rabbits and squirrels)

The pest-netting is still on our crops even as our temperatures hit the twenties – the cabbage moths are gone, but the rabbits and squirrels still regularly patrol the gardens. A thick mulch of leaves have kept most of the greens going strong – the kale is still decently tasty, but the lettuces have turned rather bitter. One frustration is our brassica family – our broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are big and strong, but did not yield fruit before the freeze and substantial daylight decrease. We shall keep them in the ground and see if they will start reproducing in the spring.

We are especially excited to continue season extension strategies with a new structure on our property! E has installed a new greenhouse structure! It is anchored into the ground for security with long, looped paracord strapping the greenhouse film in place. It keeps everything mildly warmer than outside (we are still exploring and monitoring this) and will hopefully be where we can start our seedling trays in late winter – they do immensely better with true sunlight rather than germinating lights, no matter how bright. Come spring, we will remove the greenhouse film and stretch cattle panel over the top for an epic trellis structure for squash, loofah, tomatoes, and more. Tunnel O’ Squash, here we come!

Happy Solstice to you and yours!

Late Summer glory

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

Ah, the joys of late summer! So many popular crops come into season – tomatoes, corn, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, and more! For us, this summer has been surprisingly mild and wet, but we are making the most of what we have.

This season, we find ourselves focused on crop storage and preservation. Being at home at the beginning of spring meant a re-invigoration in cooking at home and experimenting with recipes, and consequently the summer preserves and cabinets became dry and dusty by April. Our diced tomatoes and chicken stock were gone, sauerkraut running low, jams obliterated, storage potatoes long gone to eye, and pickled garlic a distant memory. And yet other freezer items remained untouched, a testament to food items that lost appeal after the growing season. (Frozen corn and I do not see eye to eye…)

So, at a time when the garden is bountiful and grocery bills minimizing, we face the real testament of dedication – setting about preserving the extra food before us.

In typical Kansas July’s, the bog-like humidity and soaring temperatures make it nearly impossible to want to spend time tending the garden beyond a quick dart outside to nab a tomato or two. To this end, we have found that morning routines are essential. Waking up around 7am, letting out the chickens, taking time to exercise and then turning our eyes to the garden has been the easiest way to avoid the stifling heat and still accomplish a lot before breakfast. It then lets us focus on the rest of our day with energy and relief that the chores are done – chickens fed and watered, garden weeded, fruit gathered, pest inspection/eradication completed. This could easily be flipped to evenings depending on your family need – this is just what works best for us when I am home on summer break from teaching and when E mostly works evenings.

This regular garden routines has helped us stay ahead of herbs bolting, vegetables rotting on the vines, and pests that would eradicate early crops, and honestly, this dedication is what we have lacked in recent years. Being proactive was not always our strong-suit, and previous reactivity led to diminished yields in the past. For example, I would do so well as monitoring my basil plants in May and June, only to be forgetful or tired or hot as we drew closer to August. I would finally check over the plants to find them flowering profusely, miserable, and yellowing from lack of attention, so the meager yields I could gather were bitter and sad. This year alone, I’ve done at least three thorough picking of basil heads just before flowers to encourage strong growth. Because of this, I’ve made multiple batches of pesto and enough dried basil to last us at least through the next winter, and here, in mid-August, we are still producing incredible flavor.

Our main “potager”, or vegetable patch – close to 700 square feet of garden beds.

This also means being willing to set aside time to process and can or freeze what we are able – it is so easy to let excess rot, get eaten by birds, or toss into compost, but we are really trying to process as much as we can for storage as we go into this fall. And yes, this means a commitment to heating up the kitchen in the middle of August with boiling stock pots and being willing to spill tomato guts all over the counter – but if it means that I have access to homegrown tomatoes in January, then I need to be willing to put in the time now.

These are some of my tips for processing foods through canning methods:

  1. Create a spill-proof area. When you are ready to can, move your warm jars out of the warm water-bath and line them on a kitchen towel and pull that up close and tight with the stockpot of whatever you are canning. That way, you can quickly ladle in your produce into all your jars and have zero clean up – just toss the kitchen towel into the wash.
  2. If you have a partner to help you, create an assembly line. For tomatoes especially, have on person in charge of a hot/ice water bath to pull off skin, and have the other in charge of dicing/chopping. It keeps the whole assembly line moving.
  3. Pick your favorite podcast, Netflix series, or movie to have on in the background. Time flies when you are having fun!
  4. Use Siri to set timers. Your hands will be sticky and wet and you’ll be preoccupied with all your batches and processes so you won’t watch the kitchen timer. Keep your phone on the counter and ask her (or Alexa) to set the timer without you having to touch a thing.
  5. Read instructions AHEAD OF TIME. Preferably, the day or night before. We like to maximize the time we have with a stockpot full of hot water – once it’s hot, keep it hot, and process as much as possible. To tackle multiple recipes, be aware of the processing requirements and which batches you can overlap. Peaches and tomatoes usually need 10-15 minutes of processing time – but meat can take 50 minutes. So I know that I can make peaches and tomatoes together, but my soup and stew recipes probably need to be processed separately.
Dilled carrots, blackberry jam, pickled beets and carrots, pickled peppers, and fermenting hot sauce.

To help maximize our produce this year, E’s daily monitoring for pests (and subsequent eradication) has been so crucial, and our lovely chicken ladies have been more than obliging to take care of the extra bugs for us. You may recall that our suburban chicken coop setup means that they are in a chicken tractor 24/7 – they are in a controlled free-range setup, but don’t have total access to the garden. Subsequently, they have been delighted by the dessert offerings we will bring them – cabbage loopers scraped off kale leaves, bagworms from the patio, grasshoppers nabbed from sunflowers and hops, Japanese beetles and squash bugs from the vines, you name it. Now that our darling girls celebrate six months in the Epperson household today (happy birthday, chicklets!), they have begun laying the most gorgeous egg yolks thanks to all the yummy protein sources (including what they scavenge) and nutritive content they glean from the yard. We are still working on converting the grass to clover and other nutrient-rich sources that double as carbon-capturing plants, but even so, the quality of their eggs is a huge testament to what lawns have lurking beneath the green carpet.

To my fellow suburbanites out there – your grass is not just grass! There are so many beneficial organisms and life cycles occurring in your yard – it deserves your love and attention, too! (And, you should know, that we haven’t done a single thing to prep the grass areas they roam – it is untreated and unfertilized, and yet they are finding so much good from this green habitat!)

I hope your late summer is proving to be bountiful and beautiful!

Showers & flowers

This has been our most successful year of spring crops yet, and we think we can credit this to a few new methods this year!

What a season! Our spring garden is winding down and our summer garden is beginning to thrive. In just a few months, we transitioned from a bare, cold patch of soil to a thriving space of early spring crops. This has been our most successful year of spring crops yet, and we think we can credit this to a few new methods this year:

  1. Companion planting, 2.0
  2. No-dig gardening
  3. Staggered garden seasons

Companion Planting, 2.0

Many gardeners use companion planting as a method of supporting plants in their gardens, or, at least knowing which ones to avoid planting together (tomatoes and potatoes don’t mix!). With the help of companion planting research and permaculture studies, Evan put together a mix of spring plantings designed to support one another and deter pests from the garden.

We planted four rows of the following plants, but in varying starting orders: spinach, onions, romaine, carrots, beets, radishes, and “Four Seasons” lettuce. The rows had the same order, but each row started with a different plant so that the location of the individual species were staggered. While we had kale and peas obliterated one bed over by rabbits, these beds of spring crops were virtually untouched! We had some issues with slugs on deteriorating lettuce leaves, but in all, we had a lot of great success with companion planting.

Companion planting at work! Onions, radishes, Four Seasons Lettuce, romaine, beets, and carrots, staggered in plantings.

We started these seeds inside with a method suggested by Charles Dowding, a no-dig gardener on YouTube. In February, we sowed multiple seeds per pod and didn’t thin until much after we transplanted. This allowed us to grow many more plants and take advantage of young lettuce leaves, spring green onions, and tender spinach leaves as the plants grew up.

Because we harvested slowly and for individual meals rather than one fell swoop of harvesting, we counted our harvest by the number of portions – and this year alone, we harvested over 100 salads! For the price of a couple of seed packets, we saved weeks worth of greens we would’ve otherwise bought from the store – and, we have seeds ready to save for next year to ensure another round of growing. This is the kind of sustainability we are working for – though we could eventually expand to selling to friends and family. But for now, it’s about providing for ourselves and ensuring we know how the food is produced.

No-Dig Gardening

This is one that will take some time to reap the benefits – but believe it or not, in just a few years we will be virtually weed-free. Isn’t this the bane of many gardeners, spending hours in the burning sun, trying to save your tomatoes from the weeds encroaching upon them? For me, it’s what makes me give up mid-season – gardening is all well and fine until your beds look like a quarantine haircut. So, to cope with weeds now and in the future, we are trying to commit to putting at least an inch of compost down on our garden a year, which serves two purposes; 1) to deliver amazing nutrient benefits to our garden, and 2) to work as a mulch to suppress the weeds.

The more we have learned about tilling and hoeing, the more we learn that it just brings growth and seeds to the surface and scatters the weeds further. So, instead, we will be using the compost as mulch to suppress the weeds over time, which takes commitment to creating compost. In May, we added a vermicomposting bin to the process – 1000 red wrigglers are here to help break down compost and excrete worm castings and worm tea over time, which will only add beneficial nutrients and micronutrients to our soil. What others buy at the store for $10-15 a bag, we will have ready for free in 6 weeks or less!

Come fall, we can also turn our chickens loose in the garden to work on spent plants and any extra growth. Evan built them a temporary “play pen” in the corner by our pond, and in three days they ate all the chives and yarrow we had growing around our new apple tree. Our yarrow is more than prolific, so we weren’t worried about it growing back, but it was a good practice run to see how they would do with full grown plants. It’s been confirmed – they will definitely eat them. 🙂

15 week old beauties! Golden, Silver, and Red Blue-Laced Wyandottes. Eggs will happen anytime between 18-24 weeks.

Staggered Garden Plans

For the last couple of years, we tried (in vain) to grow three seasons of crops in one bed. We tried starting the seeds indoors and transplanting, but inevitably the plants in the garden needs longer to mature and finish off and our seedlings got choked, leggy, and root-bound while waiting for transplant. Our spring crop always trailed into late June when we needed to have our summer vegetables in by mid-May, which delayed our fall crops into practically non-existence or frosty, undeveloped remains. Last year our summer crops were so late, we harvested corn and zucchini in October!

Anise hyssop, thyme, blueberries, and blackberries.

So, this year, we staggered our bed usage into either 1) one long season production, or 2) two “normal” season production setups that were sandwiched or alternated with cover cropping for rejuvenation. Here’s this year’s layout:

Bed 1: Perennial berry bed, exempt from the current rotation.

Beds 2 & 9: Used to be a walking path, is being sheet-mulched this year with cardboard and compost to ready the soil. Will be a cover-crop in the fall when the sheet-mulching is done.

Beds 3 & 4: Long-term spring veggies, extra short summer cover crop, fall veggies. This started with potatoes, kale, and peas this year – peas and kale have been attacked pretty harshly by rabbits and cabbage moth worms. The potatoes will be ready to harvest in July, so we’ll be on a tight turnaround to work a cover crop through and then sow fall crops.

Beds 6 & 8: Spring veggies, summer cover crop, fall veggies. We finished harvesting spring veggies (lettuces, carrots, beets, spring onions, radishes, spinach) in mid-June. This will have a short-lived cover crop (like buckwheat or clover) for the summer and then will transition back to transplanted fall veggies in August/September. These two beds will lean heavily on spring & fall production with soil revitalization happening in the summer/winter.

Beds 5, 7, & 10: Spring cover crop, summer veggies, fall cover crop. These are our polyculture summer beds and the ones that we dream about in the wintertime. Bed 5 has a polyculture blend of tomatoes, peppers, basil, and calendula, which work together to support one another nutritionally as well as ward off pests. 7 & 10 follow the “Three Sisters” Native American model of corn, beans, and squash (with melons, luffa, zucchini, and cucumber). These beds were sown & transplanted while our spring crops were still going strong. They will lean heavily on summer production and focus on soil revitalization in the fall and winter with winter wheat and red clover.

Bed 11: Pollinator mix, one of our newest beds, also exempt from our current rotation.

It sounds complicated, but it actually makes our lives simpler by spacing out the work! We will only be turning over a few beds at a time and don’t have to have massive amounts of seed starters going at a time.

Our new favorite morning routine has been getting up early, letting out our beautiful, soon-to-be-egg-laying ladies, and working through the garden. We hunt for berries, inspect vegetables, watch Evan pull weeds, harvest a few daily veggies and herbs, and make coffee and a breakfast full of garden-fresh food. During this confusing and anxious time, this small routine has been so soothing and reconnecting – I hope your green space can bring you the same comfort and ease that ours has.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Browse Pinterest or any manner of positivity quotes and you’ll likely stumble across this bit: “Bloom where you’re planted.” It may be cliche, but for this spring, it’s an apt assessment of our gardens – and my anxious mindset during this pandemic.

So much has developed over the past few months, and much of this has to do with the virus. My work as a teacher has shrunk considerably – and while it’s a relief to be able to work as I’m able, being trapped in this work/home bubble has been exhausting and miserable at times. At least when work was a location away from home you could turn off the light, close the door, and drive away. Here, at home, it’s hard to separate work hours from home hours or to relax when all the chores and tasks follow me from room to room.

When faced with anxiety, I get busy – I bury myself in work, chores, cleaning, anything to distract me from myself. And with warming temperatures, I’ve turned to the backyard and the garden to chip away at the worry of it all.

Chiefly, our main focus has been in the main garden, where the majority of our annual crops will be growing this year. Last year, we had 4-5 twenty-foot beds that we expanded to 8 beds this year. Not all will be planted for crops this year – several will have cover-cropping to get them started after sheet-mulching, but already we have greatly expanded our growing space.

From March – to May! The seedlings we started in February are now growing big and strong. We have radishes, Four Seasons lettuce, romaine, onions, beets, and spinach that we transplanted in March and are just now coming into their season. We are so excited by the success of transplanting – last year, we direct sowed much of our spring crops and had only mild success. This year, we are bursting at the seams with salads and greens, and we think that we have much to thank for planting seeds thickly and transplanting.

Outside of the garden, two of the bigger projects continue to be the chickens and a permaculture staple: swales!

Our chickens are turning 10 weeks old this weekend and have been frolicking in the sunshine for the last three weeks in their coop. Several weeks before transitioning out, we made it a point to take everyone out several times for longer and longer periods so they had experience with their run and the sounds outside. Once they were over the initial shock of car sounds and other bird calls, they were positively buoyant – flying from one end to another of their coop, flapping their wings, sunning themselves, chasing after worms, and snipping at yummy herbs and morsels.

Sunning oneself requires ample stretch room, the fanning of feathers, and several siblings to poke and wiggle around you.

When the temperatures were finally stable with lows in the 50s, we moved everyone out for good – and they haven’t looked back!

It’s hard to believe these goofy girls have fourteen more weeks of growing. At their prime, they’ll be 6-8 pounds – Wyandottes are known for being a dual-purpose breed, meaning they’re good for egg-laying as well as a meat bird, but we’ll keep them only for eggs.

The coop, as you can see, gets moved throughout the yard for the chickens to free-range safely but also work our grass and our soil with some of the best fertilizer you can find. One element of the yard that we will navigating carefully are some new water catchment systems called ‘swales.’ A cornerstone of permaculture includes evaluating your resources (or lack thereof), and over the past couple of years we have realized that we have an overabundance of water when it rains.

Water runs down to our yard from several neighbors to the west, pooling and flooding over half the yard during heavy rains. But, as it is Kansas, we can go weeks during the summer without a drop of rain. So, we need a system to slow down the water, trap it, and absorb it in the places we need it – and swales are the answer!

Evan developed and dug a system of trenches in the yard as well as in the garden itself – and it didn’t take long for them to fill up. The dirt from the trenches is mounded on the other side of the trench for additional growing areas and then benefit directly from the water being absorbed just behind it, cutting down immensely on the need to water.

Our swales border new permaculture additions to the backyard – two goumi bushes, two dwarf apples, a mulberry, and three cherry trees, surrounded with chives and garlic to keep away munching predators.

One neat trick about these trenches, though, is that they don’t have to stay empty to work – fill them with mulch, and the trench can still function but remain even with the rest of the ground.

But where does one get mulch during a pandemic?

The answer: tree companies! Here was yet another example of examining your resources and the resources of your community. Our city compost center has mulch, but has been closed for nearly seven weeks now due to stay-at-home orders. Hardware store mulch is prohibitively expensive and labor-intensive to load, haul, unload, and de-bag. Tree services will always have an abundance of mulch, so I contacted a local service and arranged for a delivery of a truckload for $40. My husband said that I looked like Smaug sitting on a bed of gold and riches after the delivery.

The past few weeks have been so exhausting but so fulfilling. In a time when all we can do is stay at home, I am so grateful that it has at least been at a time of warmth and growing things to keep us occupied.

If this pandemic has got you thinking about your own self-sustainability, from gardening to chickens to preserving foods or even just buying locally, please reach out. We were lucky to have started these dreams long before this pandemic and we are so grateful for the resources we have already begun to amass. Evan and I believe not just in the stewardship of the earth, but in the stewardship of each other – we are here to support you on your journey to self-sufficiency in any way we can.

(Or, you know, to commiserate over Midwest freezes and ice storms over Easter weekends.)

Be well, friends!

Teenage Girls and Coop Plans

This spring has proven to be the most surreal experience. We had been gearing up for spring break, trying to plan all our big projects and organizing for one week, only to find out that Kansas closed schools for the rest of the school year due to COVID-19. My brain hurts, I slept terribly last night for nightmares and uncertain dreams about missing my kiddos at school, and I’m exhausted, so I won’t go into details here and now. Needless to say, until we start semi-teaching again online in two weeks, I have a lot of time on my hands.

While the girls are growing, I’ve been trying to accomplish various tasks and projects around the house. We brought home chicks just over two weeks ago, but I have a sneaking suspicion we are actually closer to three weeks old. We’ve recently started establishing the pecking order with two of my Golden-laced girls doing lots of chest-bumping and surprise landings to spook and intimidate.

2 weeks old! Dandelions are yummy, especially when they come attached to dirty roots that might have some creepy crawlies left in them.

To help with the pecking order chaos, I’m trying to keep them occupied with an extra feeder, lots of sticks to climb and play on, and a variety of engaging treats. We love hard-boiled egg so far (yes, you can and should feed cooked egg to babies!) and are especially excited by Daddy’s leftover seedlings from thinning. We will pick up a little Romaine seedling and run peeping through the brooder with the rest of the girls at our backs!

Our brooder set up for 12 chicks, expanded at 2 weeks old: now featuring chick grit, a dust bath, extra feeders & waterers, lots of sticks, fun greens, and their favorite place to drop excrement – the top of the brooder warmer plate.

A big point of excitement, and relief, for us was to finally finish building the coop. We purchased plans online and hoped to build it ourselves, but this ended up being a big and expensive project! We knew it wouldn’t be cheap to buy a coop anyways, but I was hoping to spend less than $500, and it cost closer to $700 after materials.

It was our first carpentry project, and we didn’t bite off an easy one to start. We had to make some alterations as we went because some measurements were off and we made some mistakes reading the plans, but we are very happy with how it turned out!

All I need is a sign for the front, and we’re complete!
Nesting boxes to the right (I’ll fill with burlap later), roots in the middle (hardware cloth tacked underneath), and a ramp at the front. It’s my understanding that we will not need to close the bottom of the coop up in the winter – circulation is essential for them and their little bodies will provide a lot of radiant heat. Another bonus to buying Wyandottes – they’re cold hardy, featuring smaller combs and fluffier feathers.
Nesting boxes, pre-burlap sacks.

The coop is moveable, even by me – I added a rope to the front so I can pull it around the yard. The girls will have full access to the soil, bugs, grass, and snacks while staying confined and safe from neighborhood disturbances and at night they can climb the ramp to sleep above group for added safety. It combines so many elements I was looking for in a coop all into one package, and fingers crossed that it works well for the gals!

With some extra time the last couple of days I’ve continued to do some prep to the garden – cleaning out the leaves and large debris in the garden and building a larger woodpile, now that we’re low on wood. Now’s a time to keep busy in between the rains.

In the midst of all this chaos, being stuck at home and without much to do invites us to slow down. We’ve been stuck in a whirlwind of engagements, to-do lists, meetings, expectations, long days, for months. As miserable as a time as this might be, what with social distancing and all, perhaps its a call to heal, to slow, and to be thoughtful. While working in the garden this week I had so many opportunities to admire tiny sprouts, little feathers, and wee mushrooms.

3 week old Golden-Laced Wyandotte.

I’ll leave you all with this quote from Kitty O’Meara for tonight:

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

“And when the danger passed, the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed. “

May you dream and heal wonderfully over the next few weeks and months.