Striving for Zero Waste

I strive to keep a zero-waste home and waste

Whenever I mention this to someone, the immediate response is “oh yea, I recycle everything, too!” But living zero waste means much more than recycling; it means first refusing, reducing, reusing, repairing, composting, and then recycling as the last option before the landfill.

scrap bowl, destined for the compost or chickens, depending on contents.
scrap bowl, destined for the compost or chickens, depending on contents.

Recycling is certainly the better choice compared to throwing an item “away”, but the recycling system isn’t the solution for everything, and it has its own long list of complications. Regardless of recycling efforts, 32 percent of all plastic packaging ends up in the ocean. This, combined with chemicals in plastic, concerns me, so I try my hardest to avoid plastics, particularly single-use. There is no need for most of these products. As seen on an unlinked meme on Pinterest: “It’s pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it, and bring it home is considered to be less effort that what it takes to just wash the spoon when you’re done with it.”

Living a zero-waste lifestyle means sending nothing to the landfill (or incineration, depending on what area of the world you’re in), and minimizing waste in the first place. I don’t shop for the sake of shopping. I wear things out and I try to do without. I reuse what I have and repair what I can. I say no to single-use and bring my own, everything. And I don’t feel like I’m inconvenienced or deprived.

Here are some of my habits to make this possible:

If I don’t buy it, I won’t use it. Instead of buying ziplock bags, I own about a million mason jars, which get used for food storage and freezing. I own about a half a million Pyrex and Anchorware for leftovers. I take my school snacks in mason jars. Sandwiches get packed in stainless containers. I have little cloth bags for light snacks like nuts for hiking. What does go into my trash is ‘dry’, because my food scraps go either to the chickens, the compost, or the municipal stream, so I don’t buy trash bags. I don’t use paper towels, and instead opt for a solid supply of tea towels, cotton napkins, and wash cloths.

enjoying a zero-waste snack of carrots and hummus while learning how to calculate static and dynamic water pressure in irrigation class
enjoying a zero-waste snack of carrots and hummus while learning how to calculate static and dynamic water pressure in irrigation class

Bring your own: mug, silverware, straw, bag, water-bottle, napkin, containers. There is almost always a metal or bamboo fork in my purse. If I go out for coffee or tea, I either patron places that use real mugs and I can sit there, or I take my insulated Klean Kanteen for drinks to go. I’ve also had just a normal mug from home filled. If I get something cold, like an iced drink or a smoothie, I bring in a mason jar and a glass Dharma straw. Our house has a collection of metal water bottles. If there isn’t one in my bag, there is one in the car. I never, ever buy bottled water. If my bottle is empty, I’ll fill it from a sink. I order my drinks without a straw (the server will get it right 50% of the time). I never, ever take a carry out bag. If I don’t have one with me, I’ll shove items in my purse, carry them with my hands, or put them back in the cart and wheel them out to my car, and set on the seat.

basics of zero waste- reusable everything
basics of zero waste- reusable everything

Choose products with paper or glass packaging. If I have options, I choose items that are packaged in glass instead of plastic, or paper instead of plastic. Oil, vinegar and condiments all come in both options, but I choose ones that are in glass. I use bar soap to wash my hands, body and shave with, and choose a simple bar that’s wrapped in paper. When I need notebooks for school, I opt for ones with a cardboard cover instead of plastic. I buy Strauss milk in returnable glass. I use a brand of chicken feed that comes in a compostable paper bag that I use in the garden.

Buy in bulk. This is probably one of the largest ways I’m able to reduce my waste. I buy almost everything in bulk, and I bring my own containers for waste shopping basket

For the dry goods, I use cloth bags that I sewed from reclaimed sheets. I have the tare weight (how heavy the bag is) labeled on the bag so I don’t have to pay for the weight of them at checkout. Sometimes I use tape to mark the bin code, which I then have to throw away, but mostly I use the twist-ties and I reuse them at home or in the garden.

the tare weight is written on the bag, but I often write it on the twist tie to make check-out easier for the clerk
the tare weight is written on the bag, but I often write it on the twist tie to make check-out easier for the clerk
checkout, zero waste style
checkout, zero waste style

For produce, I choose loose goods over packaged ones. I either stick items straight into my basket (I usually shop with an African market basket) or the cart- no individual plastic bags necessary. If I see your cart loaded up with things like bananas, avocado, and onions each in their own individual plastic bag, sorry I’m not sorry, but I’m silently judging you. If I’m getting lots of individual items, like mushrooms, I use one of my cloth bags.

citrus with or without plastic packaging
citrus with or without plastic packaging
Banana bag of shame. Seriously, if you do this, you suck.
Banana bag of shame. Seriously, if you do this, you suck.

For peanut butter, spices and olives, I have a jar weighed at the front service desk and they write the tare weight on the lid or on a piece of tape. If I’m concerned with the lid not always being used for the same jar, I’ll have them use a dry erase marker (that I bring with me and hand to them), but you have to keep the jars upright and not rub on anything or the writing will come off.bulk olives bulk peanut butter

For lotion, shampoo and castile soap, I buy bulk as well, either using tare weighed glass jars or the original plastic container. bulk beauty products

Coffee and tea also gets purchased in bulk. Matt goes to Eureka once a month for work and takes a few jars with him to fill at a great herb and tea shop up there. Coffee gets purchased in bulk at the grocery store, although I’m sure a local roaster would also refill containers. You can buy Bella Rosa coffee by refilling (their) containers at Oliver’s.

Bulk shopping can extend past the grocery store. I buy Stella’s biscuit treats in bulk from Western Farms, refilling an old bread bag. Other treats, like hoofs and ears come package free.

bulk treats
Stella helps me pick out treats

Bring my own container for counter service. Now that my parents are raising meat on their hobby farm, I don’t buy very much meat anymore. But when I do, or when I buy fish, I bring in a large pyrex and ask them to fill that instead of wrapping up with their plastic-backed butcher paper. They still give me the square of plastic that they used to grab the item with, but its much less waste.

Bring my own container for take-out. When I worked downtown, I’d often buy my lunch from one of 3 places. Instead of calling in a order, I’d walk to a local restaurant with bowl. I’d order my dish, and have them dish into my own instead of their takeout containers. On the rare occasion that we eat out for dinner now, I’ll bring Pyrex containers for leftovers.

Leftover Indian food, packaging free
Leftover Indian food, packaging free

We are very lucky that in Sonoma County, most of us have access to a wide variety of grocery stores. I choose to primarily shop at Whole Foods. Not only because I make eating organic a priority, but because they are the most zero-waste friendly store. They have a bulk section for just about everything, and they are happy to tare weight any container I bring in at the front service desk. Oliver’s also has a great bulk section, but in order to get a tare weight, you have to weight in line, as there is no scale at the customer service desk. Depending on the clerk, some don’t know how to deduct tares when ringing up. Oliver’s has also straight up refused to fill my own container at the fish counter. I would love to support a local store, but the hassles of shopping there make it a stressful experienced.

zero waste shopping basket, with carrots

As much as I’ve been consistent in my habits, I still make trash. For at least the past 5 years or so, my family of 2 has been producing about a half a pound of trash a week. I could certainly do better, but considering the average person produces 5 pounds of trash A DAY, I want to share what I have been able to accomplish.

This is what I’m sending to the landfill from the week of January 18-24. This shows the waste of my 2-adult household, plus pets, including 3 meals a day of plus snacks. Total weight: 5.5 oz.

5.5 oz of trash
5.5 oz of trash

This is what I’m sending to the landfill from the week of January 25-31. This also shows the waste of my family, including 3 meals a day plus snacks. Not pictured or included in the weight are two poop bags from dog walks, and bag of litter-box cleanings. Total weight: 4.9 oz.

4.9 oz.
4.9 oz of trash

Some things I can work on developing new habits for, some I can’t change. Plants bought at a nursery usually have plastic tags. I will never have enough time to make my own butter. The prescription cat food I need for Gaia only comes in plastic. The meat that I get from my parents is wrapped in a sheet of plastic. We still buy bags of tortilla chips and tortillas. I buy a loaf of sandwich bread in plastic once a week, which I could also make, or buy direct from a bakery in paper or my own bag. For now, I settle on reusing the bags for pet waste. I have yet to master making my own laundry and dish soap, but its possible. Same with toothpaste and deodorant. Buying yogurt or ice cream in returnable glass is out of our price range, so I buy in recyclable plastic, but both I could make myself. Matt’s customers often give us (delicious) samples of goodies, but they are often wrapped in plastic and he can’t say no. Cheese is my favorite food  so I still enjoy it but choose the least packaged option. Sometimes my anxiety is high and I just can’t manage life, and I reach for a frozen or packaged meal. We aren’t perfect but we try.

Are my habits going to make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps I’ll inspire others to take up a similar habit. Maybe eventually the store will notice the highly-packaged items don’t sell, and let the company know. Maybe more and more options will be offered packaging free as people request them. Perhaps you’ll consider analyzing your trash and consider how to make less of it. Regardless, I believe in doing all that I can do, if for no other reason than when the end comes, I know I tried my hardest.

If you’re interested in learning more about zero waste or avoiding plastics, check out Beth Terry’s blog My Plastic Free Life, or Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home (which they have at the Sonoma County Library).

how to achieve a zero waste life

Pomegranate Molasses

You may remember that a few weeks ago I crossed off a bunch of resolutions and discovered that I had 25 jars of pomegranate juice in the abyss of my freezer. While we don’t have our own (producing) pomegranate trees, they are one of those produce items I can always seem to round up if I need them. They are like the lemons, albeit harder to come by and much more expensive if you have to buy, but if you put it out there, they will come. Some get eaten fresh, but most get juiced. Check out this post from 2012 on my juicing process. 

2015 was the first year in many that I did not concoct up pomegranate source, but I didn’t need one, since I had some much juice frozen from the past 2 years. The reason I had so much juice, in addition to all these artisan cocktails I think I’m going to but never make, was to make pomegranate molasses.
pom molassas

Like the preserved lemons I make, pomegranate molasses is staple condiment in my kitchen. I make a batch once a year or so, then I use it to add all kinds of deliciousness to my meals. The taste of pomegranate molasses is a bit hard to explain: basically, its reduced pomegranate juice, so its the same flavor but more concentrated. It is tangy and sweet and you have to taste its amazingness to really understand.

molassas pouring off spoon

And its super easy to make.

Pomegranate Molasses

In a heavy pot, combine 6 cups pomegranate juice with 3/4 cup sugar and 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice. Cook at a low simmer, stirring regularly, until thickened to a consistency of syrup. This took around an hour for me. I know its ready when my spoon can leave a slight trace when I pull it though the pot. You can also check by pouring the contents into a measuring cup. You want to reduce it to about 2 cups. Pour into a clean glass jar, let cool, and store in the fridge.

juice, sugar, lemon
gently simmer
gently simmer
stir regularlly
when you can see a line left from you spoon in the bubbles, its probably ready.

Its easy to scale up or down the recipe, but I use between 1- 2 cups of it a year. According to the interwebs, its good for 6 months, but I’ve used mine that was over a year old and it was perfectly fine. As it gets older, the sugars crystalize a bit and thicken, but that is easily remedied by heating the jar in a pan of warm water and stirring (like how you would warm honey).

olive oil, lemon, pomegranate molasses salad dressing
olive oil, lemon, pomegranate molasses salad dressing

I use pomegranate molasses in many ways, and it naturally pairs well with Middle Eastern cuisine. Here are some ideas was that I use it in my kitchen:

  • Toss or drizzle over roasted veggies, with or without browned butter. I like it with carrots or winter squash.
  • Add to vinaigrette. It’s great with olive oil and lemon. A favorite to use it on is this Arugula and Halloumi Salad.
  • Brush on meat as a glaze. It works with beef, chicken, duck, and particularly lamb.
  • Add to sauces or relishes for meat or veggies.
  • Drizzle over grains and greens. Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem has a great Wheat Berry & Swiss Chard with Pomegranate Molasses recipe.
like any jar of sticky stuff, if it gets on the jar threads its quite likely your ring or lid will get stuck. I keep a square of parchment over the lid but under the ring to make it easy to open
like any jar of sticky stuff, if it gets on the jar threads its quite likely your jar will be a pain in the ass to unscrew. I keep a square of parchment over the lid but under the ring to make it easy to open

How do you use pomegranate molasses?

How to Make and Use Pomegranate Molasses

How I Plan My Garden

As much as I love the rain, enjoy the slowness and solitude that comes with the dark winter afternoons, and appreciate the times spend cuddling on the couch with a cat, book and tea, I start getting antsy for spring about mid- January. I want to dig in the dirt and be surrounded by color, besides the vibrant green that only winter rains can bring, and have new flavors to eat. Coincidentally, seed catalogues start arriving right around the same time that I start feeling the urge. Or perhaps it is the seed catalogues that nudge me from that comfy spot on the couch and give me the urge to be doing SOMETHING.

And so starts the planning process for the year’s garden. If I can’t be outside creating my garden, the kitchen table surrounded by seeds, notes, catalogues and calendars is the second best thing.

garden planning

This is the process that I undertake in order to get organized for the year:

Brainstorm what I want to grow, and create a garden wish list. Before I even open a catalogue or start pursuing the racks of the Baker Creek Seed Bank, I think about what I want to grow. And I make a list. What will I actually eat? No need to get tempted by the colorful glossy pictures of turnips and chili peppers if they won’t actually be eaten. For spring, its arugula, spinach, kale, chard, radishes, carrots, lettuce, beets, potatoes, green onions, cilantro and peas. For summer/fall, its bell peppers, winter and summer squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, corn, cucumbers, melons, beans, basil, and dill. For winter, its celery, cabbage, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, bok choy, peas, onions and garlic. This year, I also want to focus on cutting flowers and having blooms year round for the pollinators.a year of gardening

Read though the gardening journal from the following year. I remind myself what varieties did well, what I didn’t like, when things were planted and harvested, and other random notes.

Assess the current garden, available space, and approximate harvest dates. This is a crucial step that in the past I’ve overlooked. I need to consider what I currently have growing, think about when it will be harvested, and therefore when that space is available. In a perfect world, I would have about half the garden beds either fallow or with cover crop, giving me a blank slate to plant out new crops. But I’m not there yet, and have to work with what space is available. Since I’m in a year-round gardening climate, most of my beds are filled with food I’m still eating, or aren’t ready to harvest yet.The garlic, for example, will be growing until late June or July, so that space isn’t available for my early spring crops, or my main April plant-out.January garden

Approximate what can go where, and when. This is where puzzle skills come in handy. Now that I know what space I have, I brainstorm what can go where. I try to keep my beds rotated, making sure I don’t plant the same crops in the same beds for 3 seasons. I keep my space and timing in mind, and when the bed is available dictates what can get planted. I have one bed planted with cover crop, which will be the first to be planted- with potatoes in March. They should be harvested by June, which will be replaced with beans and flowers. The brassica bed that’s almost spent will be replaced with tomatoes in April. The bed currently filled peas and greens will be planted with melons in May. To help me keep track of this, I keep sketches of my beds from season to planning

Create a seeding calendar. Being slightly obsessive with details and planning, this is my favorite part of getting ready for spring. I print off a blank Google calendar for the year, then fill in expected frost dates and the moon phases. Then, working back and forward from the frost dates, I make note of -1, -2, -3, -4…-12, 1+, 2+, etc, to denote how many weeks until the last projected frost and weeks after projected frost. Then, I fill in the seeding details. Tomatoes, for example, I seed 7 weeks before last frost. I try to align my seedings with the coordinating moon phases, which for tomatoes would be the waxing moon. That puts me at February 21. They will get transplanted outside 1 week after frost, also waxing moon, which puts me at April 17. Lettuce can be seeded 5 weeks before, and under a new moon, so I schedule it for March 8. Things won’t always happen on the exact schedule date, but it gives me a good guideline so I don’t miss something.

seeding calendar

Inventory & sort seeds. If you are a gardener who grows from you seed, it is guaranteed you are also also a seed hoarder. Its nothing to be embarrassed about, we all suffer from Seed Acquisition Disorder. Its just part of the job requirement. However, our homestead is on a very tight budget this year, so I just can’t go buy more melon seeds when I already have 8 different types. So the next step in my planning process was to go thought all my seeds. Varieties that I didn’t like, such as Corne de Belier snow peas, get set composted. Because seeds also don’t last forever, anything that is past their recommended germination date gets composted. I had pepper seeds from 2011. Pepper seeds are only good for 2 years. Why they hell do I still have them??? So those went, along with about half the seed stash. What was still viable got composed into a list.

organizing seeds

Determine what is needed. Browse seed catalogues. Make shopping lists. Now that I knew what I had, I can finally treat myself to looking at the pretty pictures of catalogues, and choose what is actually necessary. This year, I’m needing to buy carrot and radish seeds, and am allowing myself to try 2 new squash, 2 new tomatoes, and 1 new type of cucumber. I don’t need lettuce. I don’t need beets. I don’t need beans. I don’t need melons. If you see me buying these things or trying to justify I need them, remind me that I wrote I DON’T NEED ANY. (with a support system and accountability- we can do this!)baker creek

Inventory seed starting supplies. Next, I check to make sure my grow lights are working, I have seed starting soil, and I have enough flats and 6-packs.

Shop. Wheeeeeee!!!!!!!!! Remember to stick to your list…….

Patiently wait. 

Hows planning going for your garden?

How to Plan Your 2016 Garden

When Life Gives You Lemons…

It’s Meyer lemon season here in Northern California!lemons in red bowl

Meyer lemons are a cross between a lemon and a mandarin, which is why the Meyer has great flavor with less sourness than traditional lemons. They arrived to the US in 1908, when USDA “plant explorer” Frank Meyer encountered a dwarf lemon tree near Beijing, and returned home with it. Mr. Meyer mysteriously drowned during another expedition, but his namesake tree became a California favorite. Commercial growers deemed the lemons to soft for shipping, but they won the hearts of home gardeners. Now no longer a California secret, you can find them used in menus all over the country or have them shipped to you, like from the Lemon Ladieswashed meyer lemons

While I don’t have my own tree (we lost ours in those few weeks of hard core frosts a few years back), I always manage to find a supply of them each winter. In my part of the world, people are happy to share their bounty. If you put it out to the Fates at be that you’re looking for lemons, you’ll come home to bags on your porch from neighbors and Facebook messages offering trees that can be harvested. While Meyers are technically available from November though April, they are their best right now. I love taking advantage of local fruit, that I no aren’t sprayed or waxed. But despite their long season, they don’t last forever off the tree. I use as many as I can fresh within a week or so of harvest, and then I try to get the most out of them as I’m able; preserving them in various ways to use throughout the year.

How I Take Advantage of Meyer Lemon Season:

Make Preserved Lemons. I did a post on this last year, you can read it here. Preserved lemons are packed with salt and cured, and are a staple in my kitchen. preserved lemons

Make Limoncello. This is actually my first year making this, but pretty sure you can’t go wrong with lemon, vodka and sugar. My research yielded a wide range of ratios and techniques, but I settled on 2 cups of vodka (I went with 80 proof, I can’t stand the “traditional” 100 proof Everclear) and 5 lemons. I took the zest of 2, peels of 3, added the vodka, and stuck in the back corner of the pantry. I’ll let you know how it turned out in 3 months once I add the sugar! IMG_2691IMG_2690

Dry the peel. Using a vegetable peeler, I strip off the peel, and lay on cookie racks and sheets to air dry for a week or so. I’ll store in a glass jar and will add to my loose leaf herbal teas. I’ve also thinly sliced whole lemons and dehydrated, also to use in tea or in glasses of water.

drying lemon peeldried peels

Freeze the zest. I regularly use zest while cooking, so I spend the time now to use my microplane zester to grate off the peel and freeze in glass jars. When I need to use some, I simply scrape some out with a fork and add to my dish. Based on my freezer inventory, I had a lot left from last year, so I didn’t freeze anymore from this batch.

IMG_2697Freeze the juice. Once the peel is removed, don’t forget about the juice! Using a wooden hand juicer, I juice all the fruit. Other than a jar for the fridge to use immediately, all juice gets frozen. I’ll do some in ice cube trays for single use portions, and some in various sizes of jars. juicing lemonsMake cleaning products. Those juiced and zested lemons might not look like their good for much, but they still have a use! While most end up in the compost, a few get put in a jar and covered with vinegar. This will sit on a windowsill until needed, then strained, and then used in my homemade cleaning solutions that use vinegar as their base. I also take a whole lemon, cut in half, and rub over my cutting boards to clean and disinfect. lemon vinegar

Of course, there are lots of more traditional ways of preserving, like lemon curd or marmalade. I usually make a small batch of curd and eat it fresh with scones, but I’m still well stocked with jams to bother with the pain of marmalade.

I’d love to know, how do you extend the lemon season for year round?

Killing 4 Resolutions with One Stone, aka- how everything is solved with meal planning

January is always about resolutions, new goals, and fresh beginnings. Although I’m actually a big fan of resolutions, I did not make a formal list this year. Yet regardless of resolutions of not, in January, I find myself succumbing to an invisible pull, creating the need to purge, clean, organize, plan.

Maybe because the cold and wet of outdoors forces me inside and the normal levels of clutter make me claustrophobic. Maybe my mind is tired and does not want to be burdened down by the pages and pages of recipes I saved and piled “to make one day”. Maybe the blank slate of the coming year is overwhelming, and I need to create order by coming up with plans and lists.

So yesterday I killed 4 typical New Years Resolutions with one stone: organized, purged, planned, and saved money. Chances are, your list of resolutions includes the exact same things. Here’s how I did it, at least in one aspect of the homestead: food.

My family isn’t a big spender on “stuff”, so when we need to save money, the first thing we cut back on is our food shopping. Cooking what’s on hand is not a hardship for us, certainly not for most of the month. I keep a well stocked pantry, plus I have my garden. My mom keeps me supplied with random cuts of beef, lamb and pork depending on who got butchered at their rural hobby farm. There are almost always a stewing hen or two from my birds. At any given time, I have enough ingredients to feed a neighborhood. Yet with no plan, I often resulted to “easy”, which means buying new ingredients.

GOAL: Save money by cooking what I currently have in the house, organize the freezers, purge and organize the piles of recipe cutouts I’ve saved, and create a meal plan.

First order: organizing and inventorying the freezers. In the garage, we have 2 chest freezers. In the kitchen, we have a small bottom freezer on the fridge. I’m pretty great at not forgetting about what’s in the fridge, and some frozen things, like chicken stock and beans, make quick rotation. But otherwise, the freezers may as well be a black hole. Things go in, they rarely come out.

black hole of the freezer

The first step to figuring out exactly what I had, and make a list of what the discoveries were. If you’re bad at labeling, this also becomes a game of “what is this???” I’m pretty lax about the “use by” guidelines, so other than a bag of berries that spilt everywhere, I kept it all. But that’s just me, make your own call. There are lots of resources available if you are concerned about food safety.

jars of juice

Some of the fun things I found were: 2 partially full jars of peas (which got consolidated into one damn jar); 16 half pints of pomegranate juice, labeled from 2014 and 9 jars without labels that I can only assume were from 2013; 4 cups of pitted plums; a gallon sized bag of cherry tomatoes, and a jar of something green that I’m 90% sure is tomatillos.


I didn’t bother to inventory my pantry, because I’m pretty well versed in what’s in there, but now would be a great time to check yours or your cabinets if you tend to forget about things also have black holes in your kitchen. I typed up my inventory list, and intend on crossing off items as I use them.

listSecond Order: organize, purge and plan. Now, armed with my inventory list, I sat down in front of my stack of recipes. I’ve written about this before: I have serious hoarding problems when it comes to recipe cutouts and printouts. Not as bad as I’ve been in the past, but I still have a lot. I went though both the stack of “recent” pages and my binder, and pulled out anything that didn’t sounds good anymore or I know I won’t ever make. I also pulled out anything that used one of the ingredients that was on my freezer inventory list. The goal was to plan for as many meals that I had stuff for, and try out as many new recipes from my stack as possible. 

Now this is impossible for me to do during summer, because what the garden provides is different each day, but in winter its totally feasible. I have limited options: kale, chard, spinach, arugula, lettuce, bok choy, carrots, beets, last remainder of fall broccoli. From the pantry: winter squash, onions, garlic.  I also don’t have any of the urgency that summer produce causes: as in, OMG I HAVE 25 POUNDS OF HEIRLOOM TOMATOES THAT WILL GO BAD IN 5 MINUTES. Winter basically suspends everything in slow motion, so it won’t really matter if I pick beets tomorrow or next week.carrotsIf you are new to meal planning and trying to prevent food waste, the key is to think about how much of an ingredient a meal uses. If you know you won’t finish something up, use it in another meal within a few days. For me, feta, milk, and (if I didn’t have it growing) cilantro are my downfall. By the time I thought of another meal, they usually had spoiled.  To prevent this waste, I make sure I have at least two dishes that use up a highly perishable ingredients.


Third Order: save money. Now that I had a meal plan together, I made a grocery list for any fresh or new ingredients needed. For my 14 nights of dinner, which will inevitably stretch for longer because of leftovers, I only needed to buy 7 new items. If I don’t have a giant shopping list, particularly without expensive cheese, I will guaranteed save money.

Mission complete! 

broccoli salad

In case you’re wondering what my dinner meal plan looks like for the next two weeks? Here it is, and what I need to purchase:

  • broccoli-quinoa salad with buttermilk dressing (buy buttermilk, use extra for blackberry and peach scones)
  • tandoori-spiced leg of lamb, with chard and naan (buy ginger)
  • udon noodle bowl with bok choy, ginger, and fish
  • leftover lamb, arugula and roasted squash salad with pomegranate molasses dressing
  • barley bowl with roasted cherry tomatoes, kale, avocado and poached egg (buy avocado)
  • burritos with beans, salsa, corn, charred cherry tomatoes, avocado and cheese (buy tortillas)
  • quiche with kale, feta, sun-dried tomatoes, and bacon or sausage (buy milk, feta)
  • mustard crusted rack of lamb with pomegranate glaze, polenta and green salad
  • chickpea and bulgar soup
  • beef shank chili and cornbread
  • chicken pho
  • leftover lamb, lentil and chickpea salad with feta and tahini
  • curried meatballs, naan, beet and carrot salad with curry dressing and pistachios (buy yogurt)
  • pasta with greens, beans, and sun dried tomatoes

    Do you have resolutions this year? What steps are you taking to make sure they are fulfilled?

Remodeling the Chicken Tunnel

My chickens’ living quarters consist of a windowed hen house with roosting sticks and nesting boxes, and a large, partially covered enclosed run. This gives them outside access at any time they like, plus dirt to scratch and bath in, regardless if I’m home or not. But, like ANY enclosed chicken run, it is a wasteland as far as growing plants and bugs go. And I like to give my birds pasture access. Not only does this keep them happy and healthy and prevent boredom, it also cuts down on feed cost.

free range chicken butts

Regardless of what you read, if you are in suburban or urban lot, there is no way you can harmoniously grow food and have free-range chickens. Chickens will do what chickens do, and if they don’t eat your plants outright, they will uproot them up with their scratching or tare them apart with dust bathing.

chicken scratching

So the solution? Give them free range access to limited part of the yard. For me, that’s the back half of the property, on the other end of the garden. I have nothing planted, so the chickens are free to be chickens. When we first started the garden, I petitioned this area off with a janky concoction of scrap wire, lattice and pallets. The space is large enough that they can’t decimate the area. But, its about 100 feet from the chicken house. So to get the birds from their coop to the pasture without destroying my garden, I use the ingenious idea of a chicken tunnel.


The first version, tunnel.1, was constructed from 2×2, scrap 4×4, and chicken wire. The lumber was built to make a long rectangular cube, with the fence acting as one of the sides. We could pull up sections of the wire to let the chickens out in designated areas, and put them to work to clear weeds, or, they could move down the length of the tunnel to the back of the yard.  It worked perfectly well for about a year and a half, but as time went on, a few sections of the 2×2 broke and weeds intertwined in the wire, making it so we couldn’t pull them or weedwack the area.

chicken tunnelroosting

Tunnel version.2 abandoned the chicken wire and was made from no-climb welded wire. It was bent into a hoop and attached to a basic rectangle frame made 2×2, reclaimed from tunnel.1. This time, instead of placing it directly against the fence, I pulled it out about 18″, and planted a jasmine vine behind it, against the fence. I had the intention of planting more vines further down the line. Thankfully, I didn’t get far in the construction of this version before I realized my error. In version .1, the birds had access to the fence line, and therefore kept the rampant bermuda grass that perpetually invaded from the neighbors yard at bay. With the tunnel set back off the fence line, the weeds soon started to infiltrate my proposed planting area. So it was demolished and we remodeled.

tunnel version 2chicken in tunnel 2

And this weekend, we finished our third remodel, and I think we finally have a design that works the best: chicken tunnel.3. I still used the no-climb wire, because that shit is expensive and I already bought it. Plus, the wire is stiff enough to hold its shape without built framework. I simply bent it at a slight curve towards the fence, used U-nails to attach it to the boards, and garden stakes to anchor the bottom to the ground. I didn’t like how the galvanized wire was shiny and stood out, so Matt spray painted it a rusty metal color before we tacked it up. I transplanted my jasmine back to in front of the tunnel. Eventually, I’ll have a line of vines and shrubs that cover the run.

chicken tunnel long viewtunnel version 3

In addition to the removing piecemeal partition fence, we also built a low fence and an arbor. In the spring, I’ll plant kiwi vines on the arbor, and drystack urbanite to make a low bed in front of the fence to grow pollinator-friendly flowers.

arborbackyard free range

The only problem to any of these tunnels are they aren’t predator proof. More than once I have found Gaia in the chicken pen, looking for bread and pizza crusts. It would be just as easy for a raccoon to go to the pasture side of the yard, walk down the tunnel, and get into the hen run or house. So to keep them safe, we only let them out during the day and when I’m home. There is a door inside the run that is opened to let them out, then closed before nightfall.

IMG_2890gaia in tunnelIMG_2469

One more project finally finished this year! Happy New Years from my homestead to yours!

how to build a chicken tunnel

Preparing for El Nino, part 2. Plus, a quick lesson in soil sciences.

You may remember that my yard floods when in rains. The conventional solution is to treat the water like a problem, and drain it off the property as quickly as possible, usually to a storm drain. I however, wanted to keep it in my garden, allowing it to infiltrate into the soil to replenish the ground water supply. My initial solution was to grade the yard, directing the water into a swale, which would direct the water into a created lower elevation at the back of the yard, creating a vernal pond. This, obviously, has yet to happen. And El Nino, with its forecasted 3-months of solid rain, is coming.

wheel barrow

Since last winter, I’ve spent some serious time thinking about my situation, and revisiting my resources on land-based water harvesting. Swales, the go-to solution for allowing water to infiltrate into your soil, are used on contours of sloping ground. My ground is not sloping. Its dead flat. We had it laser leveled, and had only a 1/4″ differentiation in certain areas. In addition, one of the first rules in using earth-works for water harvesting is you need soil that drains within 48-hours, such as mentioned in this great Sonoma County stormwater management resource document. We all know that’s not my yard! In addition, swales are usually used to slow water that is usually coming FROM somewhere, like a hillside or a pipe. My issues is my water source is the sky, and starts when it rains faster than the ground can absorb it. Instead of contemplating how to shape the earth to solve my flooding issues, I shifted to focus my thinking on my soil in general.

Now Entering Soil Science Lesson!

Soil is the thin outer layer of the earth’s crust, made up of weathered parent rock and minerals, living and non-living organisms, water and air. The amount and type of parent rock present determines the soil texture: sand, silt & clay, listed in decreasing order of size. Think of it as the ingredient section of a recipe. The ideal (and elusive perfect soil gardeners all dream about called loam) would have a combination of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. From there, those soil ingredients adhere together to form larger particles. How those particles are arranged can affect things like nutrient availability and drainage. Sand particles, for example, are either rounded or angular, but they have lots of space between them for air and drainage. They could be compared to the balls in a ball play-pin, they move around each other freely, with gaps between each individual unit. Clay particles, however, are arranged in a way that could be compared to a stack of plates. They have the greatest surface area, but water is held very tightly and passes though very slowly. Which is why my half-acre of Adobe clay can’t absorb heavy rain!

So I started a new way of thinking: I needed to turn my soil into a giant sponge. In the ideal world, I would have thought of this from day one, and gradually worked my soil. But I didn’t, I thought of this about a month ago when I started El Nino Prep Mode. I needed a relatively easy, inexpensive (ideally, free), and fast way to increase water absorption throughout my yard.

My solution: spreading horse manure everywhere in the areas where the standing water is the worst. If you’ve ever had to muck out a stall in the rain, you know how heavy that crap can be, because it holds liquids. I connected with a horse stable nearby. They had a tractor and were happy to load our truck with as much of their manure as we wanted. From there, we squeezed the truck past the house to the back yard, and unloaded and spread the manure around to a layer of about 6″ thick. After several trips, we spread about 15 yards, covering most of the major flooding area. Its days like this that I really miss my dad’s dump truck.

dumping poop



From there, I threw out rye cover crop seed, and gently raked it in. This manure wasn’t composted, but horse manure doesn’t run as hot as other types of poo, so I felt it was unlikely to burn any seedlings. I’ve seen oat grass grow from manure piles, undigested in the poop and dropped feed, so I was pretty sure the rye would sprout despite not being planted in soil.

rye seedsowing seedsraking in seeds

I chose rye because it germinates in less than 45 degrees, is cold hardy down to the 20s, and fast growing. I was planting these seeds late, the last week of November, and we had frost expected. I wasn’t concerned with nitrogen fixation, often the purpose of planting cover crop, but with improving drainage and loosening the clay soil. Rye has long roots, which will help break up the underlying adobe and help integrate the manure down into the clay. Rye can also deal with poor drainage, which is always critical in clay soil. When we cut it down in the spring, it will add significant organic matter, furthering the improvement of the soil.

The rye seeds sat for about a week, nothing happening. I was concerned they weren’t going to sprout, but once we got some rain, it started to pop right up. Now, its about 4″ tall. We’ve had about 4″ of rain to date from a handful of rainy days, which I think is more than half of what we got in totally last year, but I don’t have any standing water issues. I don’t think this quick fix has completely solved my problem, but I think its going to help!


In case you were wondering, why didn’t I just add sand to my soil to increase drainage? It seems like common sense- water does drain very quickly in sand. But sand and clay make cement, so it would actually make things worse. If I wanted to add sand, I would need to have mixed in equal amounts of organic material: difficult (and expensive) to do by hand.

Next up, on El Nino Preparedness: digging ditches to drain the downspouts!