Connecting with the Earth

Today (at least here in the US) is Earth Day, a day traditionally used to inspire and motivate people to lighten their environmental footstep. Chances are, your social media and blog post feeds are filled with advice on how to “live greener”, causes for activism, and a variety of other tips. We’ve all heard and read about all the things we can do to make a difference. This is not another one of those posts. sun energy

Instead I wanted to write about the way I think will lead to positive change: how to get to know nature.

In my experience, if you know something or someone, you are emotionally involved and you CARE about what happens. You might see a lost cat poster and feel sad, but you continue about your day. Yet if your own cat goes missing (or child, if you are more in the camp of human children than furry creatures), you will be more deeply affected and go out looking or make calls or post notices. You might read about a wild area being developed a few towns away, but it makes no difference to you. Yet if you played hide-and-seek there as a child and picnic there with your family, you might show up to the planning commission meeting and share your voice on opposing the project. road home

While I have no psychological training, I’m going to say you have different reactions because you are emotionally connected and involved. I think thats what our earth needs; more emotional connection between the people and the spinning rock we call our home. We don’t need more advice on how or what to recycle because our landfills are filling up, we don’t need more news stories about sea otters dying in oil spills. We need more intimate relationships so we care and these things don’t happen in the first place. IMG_3666

Wether by nature or nurture, I have always loved the natural world and have always felt an deep connection with our Mother Earth. I sum it up to growing up in the middle of nowhere without electricity as an only child: nature was always there, and therefore became by constant companion. I know nature. Nature is a friend. And because of this, I care. This is what drives me for every single choice I make every single day. How are my actions affecting my friend?

But not everyone has made these connection, Mother Earth may still be a stranger to you. And that’s ok, she’s always willing to make new friends.

Here are a few of my tips to get to know your earthly surroundings:

Get outside. This could be an open space preserve, a state park, a local park, a garden, even a well designed parking lot landscape. Spend actual time outside. Once you are there, sit or walk, it doesn’t matter. But get outside. Put your phone away. If you can’t sit still or need “something” to do, write or draw on actual paper. top of the world

Look, Think. Look carefully. What kind of things do you see? Journalling is always a good way to capture what you observe. Too much to focus on, or don’t know what to look for, start with this: How many shades of green can you count? Actually try to count them. Why do you think some are lighter than others? Are there similar leaf shapes or sizes in the same shade? Do you have any objects or clothing items that match one of the shades? What other colors do you see? If you were a bird, what leaf would be best to hide under when it rains? If you were a bug, what leaf looks like it would be the yummiest to eat? If you were an animal that lived in this area, where would you go to get water? Where would you sleep? What kind of animals do you think stood in your same spot?IMG_2744beeIMG_3254

Give things names. Knowing= caring, and names help that. Learn the names of local plants and animals in your area. If you see them again, refer to them by name. If you aren’t sure the correct name, make one up. No idea what that little brown bird is that you see in your garden every morning and the one that pecks at your car side mirror? It might be a towhee, but you could call it a “long tailed mirror bird”. Ever plant has a botanical and a common name; consult books or a local naturalist for the correct name, or make one up that has meaning to you. For years, I knew the weed Dock as Indian Tobacco, because I heard once that the native people smoked it. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the correct name, but I had a name and being able to identify it made me more connected with the place I was in. Give places within places a name. If you have a bench you sit on during lunch break, give it a name. A favorite section of a regular hike? Give it a name. Notice what it is like in those areas: what you see, hear, smell, feel. Is that similar to other places? When out and about, do you see or feel similar things as that place? IMG_3273 IMG_4079Listen. Sit and just listen. How many sounds can you hear? If you are in a wild space, your list might be long with bird calls and wind. How many different birds are making those noises? Do you think its a large bird or a small bird? If you are near civilization, your list might include people or sirens. How might the sounds change based on the time of day? What do you think it sounded like 20 years ago? What will it sound like 10, 20, 100 years from now? IMG_4757moon and joshua treeNotice. If you are in an area long enough, check out where the sun sets each day. Where is the last place to get a beam of light? What is growing there? What is the first flower to open up in the morning, or the season? Make mental notes. Look to see if that flower grows in other peoples yards or in other wild spaces. Do you think it opens the same time? IMG_4897IMG_1162Repeat. Often. Very few of us can become forever friends with someone by only meeting once. Get outside and critically observe. Regularly. IMG_9019_2


“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts” — Rachel Carson

Life in the Garden

The other morning, I ventured out in my garden. Walking down my mulched pathway, I didn’t get far before I was actually brought to tears. At that exact moment, I saw a hummingbird feeding from bolted broccoli, a flock of tiny goldfinches raising up from eating aphids off my kale, and a nuthatch was jumping around in is crazy upside-down posture on the sides of my raised beds (hopefully eating rolly-pollies).

The birds quickly scattered away, alarmed by my presents, but my garden was still full of life. I saw aphids heavy on my apple tree, but they were being consumed by ladybugs and ladybug larva, solider beetles, and lacewings. Closer examination of my volunteer dill revealed two larva of Anise Swallowtail; I had seen one flittering above a few weeks before. Honeybees, carpenter bees, bumblebees and tiny native bees forage on bolted plants and the handful of flowers I have scattered about. If I turn over soil, I find worms. If I turn over logs I find skinks and occasionally salamanders. There are ladybugs of all life stages in my garden. anise swallowtaillady bug larvaladybug metamorphosis anise swallowtail larva

People garden for many reasons. Some to collect the newest or rarest specimens, some for stress relief, some for cutting flowers, or some for edibles. While I garden for many reasons, supporting natural life is the main one. Right now I have only edibles and a very few ornamentals planted, but have plans for extensive habitat gardens, including a pond. And despite not having “official” space set aside for the natural creatures, I still have tons of life thriving in my garden. And nothing makes me happier to know that I am creating a safe and healthy place that meets the needs of all these creatures, and even though my yard is a created ecosystem, it is acting as a part of nature.

How Many Eggs Do You Get?

It is officially chick season! The brooders at feed stores are filled with fuzzy meep-meeps, and if you follow anyone on instagram that’s remotely urban farming/farming/homesteading related, your feed is likely blowing up with pictures of incubating eggs and hatching chicks. chicks

Despite the cuteness, if you are thinking of getting chickens it is very important to know what you’re getting into. While I am not adding anyone new to my own urban flock, I have had an idea incubating for quite some time (get it? incubating? Man, I crack myself up). I thought I’d share a bit more about raising chickens by doing a series of detailing answering some of the questions I am frequently asked.

Which starts us off on the number one question, as soon as someone hears I have hens:

How many eggs do you get?

It totally depends. This is probably the answer for almost every garden/chicken/homesteading question ever asked.

2 dozen eggs

There are many factors that determine your egg production: how many hens you have, the time of year, the type of bird, wether or not the bird is broody, the weather, health and stress, how old the hens are, and just general individuality. (Disclaimer: despite proofreading, I’m sure there is an effect/affect error in here somewhere. Just go with it). The number one factor that affects how many eggs I collect is based off how many hens I have. Currently, my flock contains 10 hens. I will never get more than 10 eggs a day. It takes 26 hours for an egg to develop in a hen, so you will basically get one almost every day, if nothing else is factored in. However, there many other things that should be considered. laying an egg

A hen will usually start laying at around 6 months. A good layer produces about 20 dozen eggs her first year. In the 2nd year, she will produce 16-18 dozen. And so on, with about a 20% reduction each year. A hen can live to up to 15 years old, but usually at around age 3 you’ll notice a significant egg reduction. Commercially, hens are kept until about 2 years. This is the factor that people need to think the most about when getting chicks. What will you do with them after they stop or decrease laying? Some people are fine to keep as pets, some will turn their birds into soup. Either is perfectly ok, but just think about it first. circle of eggsEgg production is also affected by weather. Most lay best between 45-80 degrees. Any colder or hotter, you might see egg production drop. They also slow down or stop completely once daylight hours drop below 14 hours. I have found that younger layers seem to be less affected by daylight hours than older birds. You can extend the daylight by lighting the coop at night, but keep in mind you are disrupting the natural cycle and period of rest. Chickens need 6-8 hours of rest a day. eggs in a basketMolting also affects egg production. Molting, or the process of growing new feathers, takes lots of energy and she usually won’t lay during this time. The first molt is around 18 months old, then happens yearly or so. Some birds molt fast, just a few weeks, some take 2-3 months. If a hen goes broody, or the desire to hatch eggs, she stops laying- sometimes for months. This is why you may hear or read about chicken keepers trying to “break” their hens from being broody. If you can discourage the hen, she abandons hopes of hatching, and resumes normal laying. If she does sit and hatch a clutch, production also stops until the chicks are adult enough to not need her, usually a few months. If a hen is sick, bullied, diseased or malnourished, her production will obviously also be affected. Good animal husbandry makes happy, healthy hens but it also makes for a higher egg production. white eggSome breeds are known for being excellent layers, such as the commercial Leghorns, others known for being poor, such as the fancy feathered Polish. In my current flock, my best production comes from my easter-egger, my Maran-Australorp cross, one of my Leghorns, and my Delaware. However, I have one Leghorn who’s just mediocre, and in the past I had an easter-egger that only laid maybe 5 times a year. laying birdsIn my flock, my birds are not pets. I keep chickens for eggs, bug control, weed control, leftovers disposal, and occasionally meat. I rotate though my birds by hatching new ones each year and culling out the older ones, usually around age 3. That way, I almost always have hens laying within their first year while the 2nd year group is molting, and the 3rd year is tapering off. eggs in a panIn the dark winter months, I usually get at least an egg a day, usually 1-3. This is plenty to keep my family in eggs. The rest of the year, I get anywhere between 6-10. The average is 8. This keeps us in eggs, as well as extras to barter, gift, and sell.

full egg productionAnd now you know, all the things that contribute to egg production! Stay tuned for my next FAQ. Thinking about keeping chickens but have a question? Let me know! I’d be happy to answer it for you!


 

What Affects Egg Production

 

Gardening By the Moon

This past weekend, I made sure that I planted potatoes, carrots and radishes. Why this weekend? Because it was the full moon, and I try to plant based on the cycles of the moon.  full moon

Also known as agricultural astrology, it is the practice of sowing, transplanting and harvesting according to the cycles of the moon. Evidence of its practice dates back to the early civilizations of the Euphrates River valley and it can be found in the folklore of ancient societies ranging from the Celts in Britain to the Maoris in New Zealand. Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote about planting by the moon in his History of Nature.

growing potatoesThere are two factors that agricultural astrology takes into consideration: the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac. The phase of the moons effect the amount of light and, just like how the moon effects tides, it moves the water present in the soil. The zodiac gets factored in because different signs are associated with the different elements, which correlate with different crops and garden activities.

Confused? Here are some of the main guidelines:

  • New Moon (1st quarter): Gravity from the moon is pulling water up, which balances root and leaf growth. Plant those plants that produce seeds outside of fruit, such as lettuce, spinach, cabbage and grains during this phase.
  • Waxing Moon (2nd quarter): Increasing light from the growing moon is good for leaf growth. Plant those that produce seeds inside of fruits, like beans, melons, peas, peppers, squash and tomatoes at this time.
  • Full Moon (3rd quarter): Energy is drawn down, and after the moon has peaked, the light starts to decrease, good for root growth. Plant root crops, such as beets, carrots, onions, and potatoes. This is also a good phase to transplant.
  • Waning Moon (4th quarter): This is the time of rest and maintenance. Harvest, weed, prune, fertilize, and graft during this moon phase.
  • Zodiac: Consider that water signs are preferred by many plants, roots like earth signs, flowers like air signs, and fire signs are good for harvesting and destroying pests. moon part

There are many nuances to the moon astrology, and, like everything, there are exceptions for certain plants or certain cycles or periods of transition. I am in no way an expert. A great resource to learn more and see detailed guidelines is from Caren Catterall, at www.gardeningbythemoon.com. She also produces a great calendar that has detailed info for different growing zones and exactly what to do each day based on the zodiac and the moon phases.

It is touted that when plants are sown at the right timing of phase and sign, they will show increased growth, better resiliency against pests, larger harvests, and take longer to go to seed. But, there is not much scientific evidence that astrological gardening has any beneficial effects. I have honestly not taken enough detailed records to notice if it has made a difference in my garden. Of course, there are many other factors that effect plant growth- like seasons and weather and chickens who scratch up your beds. IMG_3074

But in my opinion, a practice that has such deep roots must have some value, so I always take the moon into consideration. At the very least, it makes me more in tuned with the natural cycles of the earth, and you can’t go wrong with that!


How to Garden based on the Moon

Three Years Ago We Bought A House

Three years ago we bought a house. If you’ve been a reader for a while, thanks for following along on this crazy adventure! If you are a new, here is a quick summary. My husband and I bought in 2013. The house was built in 1945 and we are the second owners. When the original owners passed away, it rented for a few years, the kids half-assed flipped the house with the cheapest materials possible, then sold it to us. The lot is a bit over a 1/2 acre, and had clearly not been touched in at least a decade. Since day one, we’ve been battling invasive weeds, no drainage, poor soil, and general disrepair in effort to create our urban homestead, to grow our own food, live sustainable and intently.

You can read about our first year accomplishment here, and year two here.

Here is what we’ve accomplished in year three:

The big project of this year was installing 3,650 gallons of rainwater harvesting systems. The 825 gallon Blue Barrel System is off the chicken coop, and a 2,825 gallon tank captures the runoff from my house. Right now we are just using a hose to fill watering cans and to slowly water the fruit trees, but soon I’ll get a booster pump and feed though drip. Both were filled from the first big storm, in January.

blackberries where compost is, then.jpgchicken coop, nowthe jungle, thenrain tank

Every year has been dedicated to fencing. Year 3 saw the completion of the fence on the West side of the property line. We also built the permanent chicken pasture fence, as well as the arbor for the kiwi and a double-swinging gate.

backyard from very back corner.jpgyard, now

On the garage side of the house, we started tackling the “jungle”: an overgrown mess of privet, blackberries, quince, rose, boxwood, wisteria and cranium lily. We built a side fence and gate with an arbor, which hopefully I’ll get the wisteria trained onto sometime this year. side of house, thenside of house

Another big project was getting the disaster of a concrete patio/weed maze broken up. You can read about that project here, and I have been slowly using up the pieces, like in the most recent planter bed and lining pathways. In the area now clear, I’ve established mulched paths and I started to establish planting beds, but haven’t quite finished. This area is a total mess, with uneven surfaces, partially sheet mulched, partially planted, and scattered chunks of concrete. But now I have only a small bit of concrete surrounding my well; permeable surfaces = happy Melissa.

patio, then

patio, nowThe garden continues to grow. Right now, it sees the transition between winter and spring. We just started to build the second row of raised beds on the East side of the pathway, which will hopefully be finished before the big summer plant out. With diligent pulling and sheet mulching, we’ve done some major weed control and soil improvement, but still battling with Bermuda grass (as we probably will be for life.)

garden thengarden nowPersonally, I feel the biggest accomplishment for this past year is that I’ve brought my soil to life. In the first two years, even with digging almost every day, I only saw maybe 10 worms. Now, I find several regardless if I’m digging in my raised beds or the native soil. I hold the 15 yards of horse manure, 40 yards of arbor mulch, 50 yards of compost, about a billion sheets of cardboard, and several plantings of cover crops responsible. I’ve also seen lizards, salamanders, butterflies and caterpillars, tons of beneficial insects, and of course, bees. Nothing makes me happier than to know my garden supports life.  IMG_3041 IMG_2445

One things that has not improved in the three years is the front. We’ve made it worse. Much worse. When we bought, it was a nice mowed lawn, albeit Bermuda grass. We neither watered nor mowed. We drove across it and have used it as a deliver zone. Now, its a mess of weeds in assorted heights, various naturalized bulbs, and suckers from assorted trees. The Blenheim apricot is 75% dead and we’ve got black drainage pipes and ditches from the gutters running all over the place. Plus, its perpetually the home to a giant pile of either mulch or compost. Honestly wouldn’t be surprised to hear if neighbors wonder about our mental state. Hopefully this year I’ll get out there and do something, even if its just sheet mulching the whole thing. front of house, thenfront, now

As we embark on year 4, my goals are to (successfully) keep bees, install irrigation, build a habitat pond, build the rest of the raised beds, and hopefully plant berries. Make sure to follow along!

Homestead Project: Urbanite Planter Bed

In between rainstorms, I’ve been working on a new project on the homestead: an urbanite planter bed. stacked urbanite wall

This has been a high priority project because this is where I’ve planned for kiwis to be planted. Fuzzy kiwis take about a billion years before they start producing fruit (ok, 5-9- basically a billion), so I wanted to get them as soon as possible. We got the arbor for the female kiwi built when we redid the chicken pasture last year, but just now started on the planter bed.

To prep the bed area, first I weeded out Bremuda grass by hand, then laid a thick layer of cardboard for further weed suppression. Under the area where the concrete was going, I used strips of cotton sheets, to act as further weed barrier and prevent the concrete from cutting up the cardboard (and giving the Bermuda an easy way in). Then, I pieced together chunks of concrete and the occasional rock I’ve hauled home from various adventures, to stack a perimeter wall about 1′ high. The bed isn’t completed, as I first need to MOVE the pile of concrete I’ve been pulling from (placement fail!!) but I’ve backfilled the area that’s created with purchased well-draining soil.drystacking the bedfilling the bedOnce we had the planting area prepped, we went kiwi shopping! In the pouring rain, we picked out the pair of fuzzy kiwis (you need both a male and female for fruit) and managed to load the tall vines into my Civic. They rode shotgun while Matt sat in the back. We planted the female fuzzy kiwi alongside the arbor, using twine to support the branches until it can twine itself. She’s “Vincent” variety, and her mate “Tomuri” will get planted on the other side of the bed to trellis along the fence. buying kiwiskiwis ride shotgun

We also planted one of our potted pomegranate trees into the bed, a Kashmir, and I’ve planted some prostate rosemary to trail down the rock front. I have plans for other plantings, including a handful of strawberries, additional herbs, and pollinator friendly flowering perennials. pomegranate kiwi urbanite bed

Why did we use urbanite, instead of imported stone? There are several reasons, the main being it was free. Last June, we broke up our concrete ‘patio’, yielding me with giant piles of urbanite. You can read about that project here. Reusing materials is an important aspect of ecological gardening- no new materials needed to be mined or transported, reducing the environmental impact of my garden. I also chose to use the urbanite because the stacked concrete and stone will create habitat for lizards and other invertebrates. It’s a multi-use function to create a usable space and a wildlife habitat. stacked rocks for habitat home

The bed still needs to be finished, but I’m glad one more aspect of the homestead has moved from “planning” to “in process!”reach for the sky

How are your spring projects coming?

Getting Rid of Crap

Like millions of other people out there, I have too much crap. Not to the point of being a hoarder, or needed storage sheds or storage units, but I have lots of stuff. I’ve been reading lots of minimalist blogs recently and watching TEDx videos, and really resonating with the concept of less stuff.

I love my wall to wall bookshelves, but its filled with books I don't need, games I won't play, and egg cartons that need a better place.
I love my wall to wall bookshelves, but its filled with books I don’t need, games I won’t play, and egg cartons that need a better place.

Overall, I think I have a good relationship with stuff. I regularly purge out clothes I don’t wear and I hate shopping so I rarely buy for the sake of “stuff’. Yet my house is cluttered, and because of that, its filthy with physical dirt and dust. I have no empty shelves or blank space. It doesn’t help that I use my 1000 square foot house for a potting shed, a greenhouse, a brewery, a cannery, a butcher shop, a craft room, a wood working workshop (there are no lights in the garage), and (two different) offices plus normal living day-to-day things.

embarrassing closet photo: there is clothes, bee suit, camping stuff, boxes of carded wool, purses, blankets and rain jackets.
embarrassing closet photo: there are clothes, my bee suit, camping stuff, boxes of carded wool, purses, blankets and rain jackets.

I approach free piles with glee, and can think of all kinds of useful things I could do with a particular item. A reflective shade from a giant grow light? I could take it apart and make a solar oven! Half dead vintage Christmas lights? I can wrap my non-existent lemon and avocado tree for frost protection! And into the garage they go. Like most homesteaders out there, I really struggle with getting rid of things because “I might need it one day”, both of inexpensive and expensive items. Some people might be able to just go buy something if they need it again, but that doesn’t work for our budget. A waste-not mentality equals accumulating things, and keeping things around. But something needs to change.

Free houseplants! I must take them all!!!!
Free houseplants! I must take them all!!!!

It seems that one of the basic guidelines to achieving the goal of less crap is to get rid of anything you haven’t used in a given time period. Sometimes its 3 months. Sometimes its a year. Because I live very seasonally, there are things in my house that don’t get used on a daily basis but are certainly crucial to homesteading. My food mill or canning pots or seed starting equipment are only used seasonally; certain tools might only get used a few times a year but make a project possible. So purging based timelines never resonated with me.

Super embarrassing picture of the garage. Its not this bad all the time, but it has its moment.
Super embarrassing picture of the garage. Like most Californian’s, we don’t park in the garage. I promise isn’t this bad all the time, but it has its moments.

A friend recently suggested that different categories of things get assigned a different time bracket. Clothes, 1 year. Tools and craft supplies, 2 years. Etc., etc., etc. This made sense, and made me excited to work on this project. There is rain in the forecast and I’m on spring break, so I’m declaring it spring cleaning, and I’m going to go room by room and purge out crap, clean, and organize the things I’m keeping.

Jewelry boxes and dressers:  black holes for things not needed.
Jewelry boxes and dressers: black holes for things not needed.

Here are the guidelines I’ve set for getting rid of things:

  • If it hasn’t been used in 3 years, it goes. We moved here almost 3 years ago, and undertaken every type of project we have the skill set for. If we have a tool or kitchen item that hasn’t been used yet, it won’t be used.
  • Clothes not worn for 1 year.
  • Books that I haven’t looked at, for reference or made something out of, for 1 year goes. I will not (GIANT CAPITAL LETTERS!!!) flip though the book to see if there is something interesting, then deem it “worth keeping”.
  • Fabric bits and other “things” (like scraps of wood) that I have no immediate and concrete project planned for. I will not spend time brainstorming how I can use it.
  • Anything broken or needs repair that I’m not actually going to fix.
  • Duplicates, or the old version of something that was upgraded.
  • Things will immediately be donated/freecycle listed/street free pile/recycled/landfilled. They will not get put in boxes and put in the garage to “do later”, which inevitably means it will sit there, taking up space, or worse- migrate back into the house.
  • Establish designated spots for the things “I need”. Put the item back to its designated spot when done with it! Novel concept, I know……
  • For projects half done or still in the “collection rest of materials” phase get an assigned time limit. Dedicate time to finishing the project.

I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have a favorite de-cluttering tip, please leave me a comment and let me know!