Honoring Rachel Carson

Today would have been the 108th birthday of Rachel Carson. She was a lover of nature, a writer, an ecologist. Born 1907 and died in 1964, she is best known for her highly influential book Silent Spring. This book, which called the alarm on the use of chemical pesticides and eventually helped get DDT banned, has been touted as the start of the grass-roots movement to protect our environment.

It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the down chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays and wrens…there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

I was first introduced to her during my college Environmental Literature class where I read Lost Woods and later Silent Spring. As I read more of her writing and learned more about her, I immediately felt a connection to her and began to see her as a role model. As a kid, I never looked up to astronauts, baseball players or movie stars, but instead filled the need for a mentor with admiration for Ms. Carson.

What I loved so much about her was that she was an outsider in the scientific community and faced great adversity, but still maintained such passion and dedication to the natural world. She was an ecologist and a naturalist, combing beaches and writing to teach people about the wonder and beauty of the living world. She wasn’t a chemist or a nuclear physicist, the “important” scientists during the atomic age she lived in. As a women, she was often disregarded. When writing Silent Spring, she was routinely attacked by the chemical industry and the government called her an alarmist. She was called a “bird and bunny lover, a woman who kept cats and was therefore clearly suspect. She was a spinster who was simply overwrought. Simply, she was a women out of control”. Yet she persevered on, courageously speaking out and taking action to remind us that we are all connected to the ecosystem.

rachel carson

While she lived decades before me, I feel we had lots in common. We both grew up without affluence, and spent childhood observing nature- her in Pennsylvania and the shoreline of New England, me the redwoods and beaches of California’s central coast. From an early age, she loved to read and write, just as I do. But she also possessed characteristics that I admire and wish I possessed, yet struggle with. She never gave up and wasn’t afraid of trying. She was one of only 2 women to work for the Bureau of Fisheries (now the US Fish & Wildlife Service) in the late 1930’s, showing that women are equally smart and important in the scientific field. She continued to write even though she feared she wouldn’t be taken serious because of her sex, and she became known as a trusted voice. When she sensed something was wrong, she researched and wrote and deliberately challenged the popular thought that chemicals in our environment were safe. She questioned the right of the government to expose the public to such substances, and called that such arrogance would only end in the destruction of the living world.

While writing Silent Spring, Ms. Carson was dying of cancer. Yet despite this hardship, she did not give up, and published the book in 1962. The public’s uproar after its release caught the attention of the president and investigations were launched to test the validity of her claims. Communities organized against the use of the chemicals and pesticides. Legislation was passed. Earth Day and the EPA was established. But sadly, she was not around to see the difference she made, as she passed away shortly after the book’s publication. Yet she left behind a wonderful gift, and compels us all to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world.

Happy Birthday, to Rachel. I know I’m not alone in those who admire and honor her. Think of how different our world would be today if there were more people who had the strength that she did, or what our world would be like if there were those who didn’t.

Homestead Happenings: Being Frusturated

To often the world of blogs, pinterest and instagram depict the garden or urban farm as cheery, rainbows, and everything is perfect. And sometimes things are just absolutely wonderful. But not right now. Right now, I’m feeling very frustrated.

Why? Because of roly-pollies. Also known as pill bugs or sow bugs, they are a touted as a helpful, or at least a benign, garden bug (actually, they aren’t a bug, but a crustacean, but whatever) because they are decomposers. Gardening books and blogs will tell you they won’t eat your plants, and to just leave them alone. Well, I’m here to tell you that is a big fat LIE. They may be decomposers, but they also eat EVERYTHING. I can’t blame it on slugs or birds- I’ve seen them in action- swarming over newly planted seedlings like a B-horror movie and eating the life away of young plants. I’ve lost a whole seeding of beans. Several of my asparagus spears were stripped away. My amaranth is raggaded and struggling, all of my delicata squash were devoured within a day, and most of my zinnias that have been reduced to just the veins. And they have gotten to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF MY STRAWBERRIES!

roly polliesIMG_8083 IMG_8085

I worked hard on planting out my strawberry bed. And we are now in peak strawberry season. Daily I walk around the bed, observing the almost ripe and perfectly formed berries. I know that by tomorrow, or maybe even that afternoon, they will be perfect! Except when the time comes comes, the bottom half of all those berries are pot-marked, gnawed on, and covered in roly-polies. Often I’ll find the damn things all curled up in the little munched cave that they created, as happy as can be. My strawberry harvesting has been either reduced to picking not quite ripe, or I have to cut away half the berry and eat within minutes to escape the inevitable fast tracked decomposition these decomposers have created.

IMG_7986 IMG_7991

And another thing I’m frustrated at? My chickens. For some background info, my flock of 15 have access to the fenced off back half of the property, that they access via a tunnel from their pen. This gives them free range area, but keeps them out of the garden. One bird, however, has decided that walking her fluffy ass back to the hen house to lay eggs is beneath her, so she started laying under a bush. It was cute the first time, in a “oh how pastoral, the hen is laying out in the meadow (which in my head is spoken with a Downton Abbey old-school British accent)” kind of way. But the second time, when I forgot to check and found a handful of eggs, I was not amused. So I recently moved their tunnel to a different fenced off section of the yard, in hopes to break the habit but still give them free range access.


bad chicken
bad chicken

But yesterday we found this bird in question out of the fenced off pasture area. We thought she had just flown over the fence. It happens sometimes, I didn’t think to much of it. Except this morning, while inspecting and swearing at above mentioned strawberry bed, I found cozy little circular indentation, with a brown egg right in the middle. This fucking chicken made a jail break out of the new pasture area to lay an egg in my strawberry bed.

egg in strawberry bed

I have no solutions. I’m just here to tell you the truth. Sometimes homesteading sucks. Thank you for listening to my rant. Carry on.

Returning from the Eco-Friendly Garden Tour with Plant Lust

This past Saturday was the Eco-Friendly Garden Tour, and I was able to check out a handful of gardens. I saw some varieties of beautiful roses, milkweed, and new-to-me varieties of mullins, clematis, and grasses. One plant that many of the gardens had in common was Aristolochia californica, or Dutchman’s Pipe. This plant was one I had read about, and knew it was often an important feature in wildlife gardening, but I had never seen one growing before. Or if I had, I didn’t notice it.

Dutchman’s Pipe is a rather unassuming deciduous vine, native to Northern California. According my Sunset gardening book, it can cover a 8-12′ fence with training, or climb 10-16′ by its thin shoots into surrounding trees without harming them. It has small somewhat pitcher-like flowers that bloom in winter or early spring, before leafing out. The leaves are then heart shaped and bright green.

And it is the host plant of Pipevine swallowtail butterflies.

photo source: http://www.genehanson.com/butterfly9.htm
photo source: http://www.genehanson.com

This species of swallowtail will lay their eggs on the pipevine, and when hatched, the caterpillars eat the plant’s leaves and seedpods. We saw several caterpillars on the plants viewed on our tour, munching away.

pipevine swallowtail larva

pipevine eating seedpod

After the caterpillars have their fill, the pupate, then emerge as the butterfly to complete the lifecycle.

Hungry caterpillars will munch the leaves down to the vine, which could leave a rather ugly centerpiece in the garden. Interplanting seems like the best solution. One gardener had her pipevine planted with a rose, so the ragged leaves were not as noticeable. I would have walked right by it had I not seen bright caterpillar hanging from the unique seedpod.

pipevine interplanted with rose

Apparently, this vine will grow in any soil, needs partial shade and while it does best in regular to ample water, it can be drought tolerant once established. My goal is to create a wildlife-focused garden directly out my kitchen window, which will be watered by greywater system from the laundry, and hope to include this pipevine. I was concerned that such a concentration of caterpillars in one spot would be a beacon for hungry birds, but after doing some research on this species, I learned that many, including this species, of caterpillars are poisonous to birds, so they avoid them.

photo source: http://www.genehanson.com/
photo source: http://www.genehanson.com/

Wondering about the beautiful yellow swallowtail we are more familiar with? That’s likely the Anise swallowtail, whose host plant is the Apiaceae family, such as dill or fennel and sometimes citrus. Our beloved Monarch’s host is milkweed. I’ll be sure to include those plants in my butterfly garden as well!

Interested in having your own butterfly or wildlife garden? Here are some great resources:

Canning Lid Plant Tags

I have about a 1 week memory span when it comes to my garden varieties. Every year, when planting out transplants or seeding, I tell myself “remember, these are such-and-such variety.” While I’m pretty confident I can tell a tomato and a squash apart, I promptly forget which variety is planted where. Until they are completely ripe and I eat it, for example, I have no idea which type of melon I’ve got. Not knowing, of course, can be a fun experiment, but it makes recording  “first to bloom” or “promptly devoured by rolly-pollies” in the gardening journal much harder when you don’t have a name. And because “the third plant to the left” is of no use to future years, I end up not recording anything. Which causes a problem when I go back to consult an empty journal to see what variety did the best.

canning lid plant tag

The solution, simply label my plants! Not a hard or new concept, I know. The small tags I use when starting seeds, made from cut up mini-blinds, get lost in my beds. The plastic tags that come with plants from the nursery inevitably break off at soil level or mysteriously disappear. So I took a material that I have in abundance, canning jar lids, and made some clearly visible and durable plant tags!

canning lids upcycled as plant tags

The flat lids from home canning can only be used once for the actual canning process. While I use a handful of them again to store dry goods or things in the fridge, I have an insane amount, and they pile up every year. This is the perfect upcycle project for them!

To make your own upcycled plant tags, first make the stand section. Round up some bailing wire. I got mine from Home Depot- it’s in the hardware section. If you were super industrious, you might upcycle some wire hangers. Bailing wire comes in different gauges, or thicknesses, so find one that you can easily bend but not too flimsy that it will bend on its own. Using wire cutters, snip off a length of to your desired length, mine were about a foot. Then, using needle-nose pliers, create a curl at the top to hang the tag from. You can get creative on what shape you use.

Next, make the tag. Place your lid on a scrap piece of wood, and punch a hole in the edge using a nail or a drill. Then, write your plant variety on the tag with Sharpie. Thread the tag onto the wire stand, you might have to bend the wire a bit, and proudly stick in the ground next to your plant!

materials needed, stands

plant tag stands made from bailing wire

materials needed for tags

use a nail to drive a hole

They do fade a bit in the sun after a season, but that makes them even more reusable- just write over last season’s variety! I’m sure you could seal them somehow to prevent the fading, but I’m fine with just the Sharpie. Maybe one day I’ll muster up more creative energy and use paint, or add glitter or rhinestones or googly-eyes. I could probably even glue sections of mirror to them to ward off birds.  But for now, I’m now satisfied with the fact I know what variety I’m growing, right from the start! The lids can easily be removed off the stand and stored away until the next season, and the stand can be used again for a different tag. As a bonus, they make a nice soft tinkling sound when the wind blows, so I’ve added a gentle noise element to my garden as well!

plant tag


how to make upcycled plant tags from canning jar lids

In Which I Need a New Relationship with My Recipe Collection

For years, I have collected recipes. I have a handful of scribbled notes transcribed on scratch paper while on the phone with my mom who would read me the very few family recipes we have. I cut out recipes from magazines. If it is a borrowed magazine, I photocopy it. If there was a dish I read about on a blog or a website, I print it out. Then, when Pinterest came along, my YUm! (yes, capitalized U, as well, because I mistyped and have yet to go fix it….) board was one of the first to be created. I also own many, many cookbooks, which, to my defence, I do cook from most of them.

the cookbook section of my bookshelf wall
the cookbook section of my bookshelf wall

Recently, I have become interested in minimalism and reading about it and de-cluttering. Although I haven’t made the plunge to apply those principles to my home, my closet or (omg. so. much. stuff) in the garage, I know that for sure, my recipe organization needs a cleanup.

I know I’m not alone in my recipe hoarding, but I like to think that compared to most, my recipes are uber organized. Yet, this highly organized system has always been my excuse, that I didn’t need to get rid of things and I didn’t need to purge. My thousands of pages weren’t just in a pile, they were organized, and therefore should be exempt from any de-cluttering projects. Behold: the binders.

the recipe binders: 3, 4" binders A-Z
the recipe binders: 3, 4″ binders A-Z

Instead of filing pages under the usual designations like “soups, meat, desserts,”, etc., I’ve gone one step (maybe leap?) beyond. My recipes are organized by ingredients, in 3, 4″ binders with alphabet tabs. And each of those tabs have tabs of ingredients.the B section

Now before you start calling me crazy, let me explain. When I was first learning to cook with local, seasonal food, I was getting overwhelmed with having to look through the index of countless books and stacks of notes in order to find something that used up all the kale/carrots/tomatoes/squash/whatever the food of the week was. So I decided to put all my cut-out pages together in a binder, but sort them by the seasonal ingredient. For example, a cut out for a pasta dish with zucchini and carrots would be stored under “Squash, summer”, and then listed on the binder paper that I kept behind the squash tab. I would THEN go to the carrot tab, and write “Pasta with zucchini & carrot, see zucchini”. If I made something from a cookbook I owned, I would record that: “Chicken with tomatoes and kale, see blah blah book, pg. your insane”.

winter squash section

Over the years, I’ve collected lots and lots of recipes, and this system has worked well for me. However, now it is time for a change. For example, I have 7 recipes for tomato soup. I have 8 recipes for chai (which I DON’T EVEN DRINK ANYMORE!!!)  There are a handful of recipes that I go back to, like spicy roasted squash with lentils and goat cheese (from Smitten Kitchen), but most of these dishes were only made once, or totally forgotten about and ignored once they were filed away. I also came to dread adding new things to the binder, because of its laborious process- which is why I also stacks of torn out pages in my craft room. I simply don’t care or want to keep these binders up.

one of (several) piles of cutouts
one of (several) piles of cutouts

Since these binder’s inception, I am more confident in my cooking. I now know how to adapt most recipes to what’s currently in season. My cooking style and homekeeping philosophy has also evolved, and I no longer feel pressure to put a different dish on the table every night.I rarely follow recipes step by step, but use them as inspiration. I put a higher value on a dish that will only dirty one pan over a dish that uses a new technique. I don’t need 7 different versions of tomato soup. What I want now, is easy access to that damn tomato soup recipe (which, by the way, is from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) that I love!

So this is my project for the next few months: go though these binders, pull out what I regularly make or can see making in the immediate future (Martha Stewart’s Beets and Yogurt with Pickled Rose Petals?….yeah, not so much), and creating a well-organized collection of recipes that I turn to regularly.

recipe binders

Now wish me Godspeed, I’m off to the purging! I’ll keep you updated on the project, and how I decided to organize my new life with recipes. If you have a favorite way of organizing your recipes, please leave me a comment, I’d love to hear about it!

What to do in the Garden: May

Happy May Day! Traditionally, May Day was a pagan holiday that celebrates the start of summer (the Solstice was a celebration of midsummer). Today, the secular version of the holiday is to celebrate the fertility of spring, flowers and community. Growing up, my friend Diana had a May Day party every year, and we would dance around a Maypole and play other games. Now, its a great day to kick off a fabulous gardening season! Here’s the list of things to do in the garden for May:

Northern California Gardening Checklist for May:

Plant summer annuals, and flowers for cutting. Sow flower seeds like nasturtium, zinnias, cosmos, coreopsis and sunflowers, or transplant from 6-packs or 4″ pots from the nursery.

Plant veggies. If you haven’t already, hurry and plant out any of the summer foods: squash, beans, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, peppers, and eggplants.

newly planted corn and squash

Thin veggies. If you direct seeded last month, make sure the seedlings have enough space and thin as necessary. Pinch or cut out plants, don’t pull, to protect the root systems.

Plant subtropicals. If you have a south-facing wall or an overhang and want to growtropical or subtropicals, now is the time to plant out tender plants like bougainvillea, hibiscus and plumeria. They will have the warm season to get established before winter comes. Now is also a good time to get citrus in.

Plant herbs. Plant annual herbs like basil, cilantro, and parsley, as well as perennials like oregano, sage, thyme and rosemary. For fresh herbs all summer, succession plant by transplanting out cilantro every 2 weeks, basil every 4 weeks. Pinch of basil flowers as they appear. To keep established woody herbs producing fresh growth, regularly snip off steam tips.

Harvest and dry herbs. As summer gets closer, herbs are in uber growth mode, producing lots of aromatic leaves. Harvest foliage for fresh use, or trim as mentioned above, and also dry some for later. I’ll be doing a post later in the month on what I make sure to preserve, and the best ways to dry the different varieties.

lemon balm, right for harvest

Buy lavender and salvias. Nurseries, like Cottage Gardens in Petaluma, who propagate their own stock, now have wide varieties available.

Buy roses. Most are in bloom right now, so you can see and smell the flowers. King’s Nursery in Santa Rosa has a great selection.

Bring inside cut flowers. Fill vases or jars with whatever’s blooming. Right now, I’m picking roses, sweet peas and bachelor buttons.

garden fresh bouquet

Take your clothes off. May 2nd, apparently, is World Naked Gardening Day.

Watch out for pests. Spray aphids with a hose, hand pick slugs and snails, and curse at your strawberry bed because something keeps eating your fruit.

Wrap tree trunks. If you observe ants on your fruit trees or citrus, wrap the trunk with sticky tape or tanglefoot. Make sure to wrap low so that birds and bees won’t be affected.

wrap tree trunk with tanglefoot to avoid ants

Be aware of water use and check drip systems. If you missed it, check out this post for gardening tips during the drought. Let your lawn die. Convince your neighbor to let their lawn die, too. Check your drip systems to make sure they are working properly. First, remove caps and flush lines, then replace caps and turn on the water- look for leaks or clogged lines or emitters. Repair as necessary.

Make time to enjoy your yard. Set up a fire pit, buy some new patio furniture, and get some citronella candles so you can enjoy the sunny mornings and lengthening evenings.

enjoy the evening

Tour and Learn. Check out what others are doing and get inspiration at a garden tour this month. Check out all our great local farms and producers during the Farm Trails Weekend, May 2 & 3. Check out Russian River Rose Company before they close up for the season at the end of May. Bring Back the Natives Tour happens in the East Bay on May 6. The Eco-Friendly Garden Tour of Sonoma County and North Marin takes place on May 16.


“The world’s favorite season is the spring.  All things seem possible in May.”
–  Edwin Way Teale

what to do in the garden in May

Introducing…my Blue Barrel Rainwater Catchment System!

April has been a good month for finishing projects: first the fence, and now, a rainwater catchment system off the chicken pen!

blue barrel rain catchment system

Capturing rain is a no brainer. Regardless of your climate, it is an easy way to be a steward to the environment. If you are unfamiliar with rain catchment, you can read about the benefits here, or check out Brad Landcaster’s work. In California, where we have a (in theory) wet season and a dry season, it allows us to spread the rainfall out a little bit longer, and delaying the need to use municipal or well water.  However, this active method of capturing and storing water some planning and infrastructure to make it happen. Installing a rain catchment system been a project on the want list for a very long time. When we built the hen house and run during the first year, we left enough space between the structures and the fence with the intention of locating a system there. Finally, its done!

blue barrel system behind the coop

I chose to put in a Blue Barrel System because I wanted an easy to install system that I knew would work- I didn’t want to have to figure out what parts were needed and how to piece something together myself. Plus, I’m supporting a local Sonoma County business, and my friend, Jesse, who founded Blue Barrel Systems. I met Jesse in the fellowship program of the Leadership Institute for Ecology & Economy, and our fellows project was to analyze the policy surrounding existing rainwater harvesting codes in Sonoma County, and provided recommendations for amending or implementing legislation for making harvesting easy and legal.

reclaimed barrel

Using these 55-gallon drums that would normally be destined for the waste stream, you join as many barrels as you want together, by daisy-chaining them with simple plumbing. All the barrels fill and empty as one, and are filled via a diverter on an existing downspout, so you don’t have to worry about creating an overflow pipe. You’re responsible for the 3/4″ schedule 40 PVC and the cinder blocks that make the foundation, but Blue Barrel Systems coordinates the pickup of the barrels, and then ships you all the plumbing, tools and parts needed to install them yourselves.

picking up barrels the in Healdsburg
picking up barrels the in Healdsburg
Stella helped
Stella helped

The first step to getting the system is to order online. The website is super easy to use, and you simply select how many barrels you want. Each barrel needs a 2×2′ space, and I could fit 15 in the space behind the chicken coop. I already had two barrels, originally from Kendall Jackson, that I traded eggs for with a neighbor, so I only ordered 13 barrels but plumbing for 15. Then, you get an email with a location of the barrels. Mine were located in Healdsburg, and were previously used for hot sauce. Then, a few days later, I got a box with detailed instructions, all the plumbing parts, tape, and glue!

IMG_7248box of parts

Next step was to create a level pad for the barrels to sit on. I used scrap 2×4 to build a box, and then filled that with broken up tile that was saved from the kitchen remodel, and topped with pea gravel.  Each barrel sits on 2 cinder blocks, which are centered on 2′.

using tile

cinder blocks

Then, I followed the step-by-step instructions! It took me a couple of days, working on mornings before I had to go into work. None of it was outside of my physical capability, which was awesome because I could work on it by myself and not have to wait for Matt. It is recommended to glue all the main plumbing chain together, but I had a hard time keeping everything aligned, so I decided to connect the piping and barrels one by one. That worked great for me, and I was able to hook up all the barrels with no problem. I choose to locate the spigot on the garden side of the barrel chain, but I had a hard time committing to that, so instead of following the instructions and joining the last barrel with an elbow fitting, I extended the pipe and capped it. That way, if I want to move the spigot to the other end, I’ll just cut the cap off. I also accidentally pushed the rubber seal that was supposed to hold the inlet hose INTO the barrel, so I either need to get a new one, or unhook the barrel and fish it out.

following instructions

setting up plumbing

The final step to completing my system was having the post inspection by the city for their rain harvesting rebate. Some places don’t allow rain harvesting, but thankfully, I don’t live in one of those places. It is highly encouraged in Sonoma County, and Santa Rosa will give you back $0.25 for every gallon of capacity you can harvest. Two very nice women came out this morning from the Water Use Efficiency Department and took note of how many gallons I set up, had me sign a form, and let me know I’d be getting a check for $206. For more information about the City of Santa Rosa’s rebate programs, look here. Even though I’m in county, because I’m on city water, I’m eligible for their rebates.

setting up blue barrels

My roof catchment area is 200 square feet. In one inch of rain, that will yield about 125 gallons. My barrel system is 825 gallons, so I’ll need about 6 and half inches of rain to fill it. Based on the past winters, it seems that is about our new winter average. When they are full, I’ll get a small pump to pressurize the system and run through drip to my fruit trees. If you want to find out how many gallons you can collect off your roof, follow this simple equation: catchment area x inches x 0.623 = gallons harvested. (ex: 200 square feet of roof x 1 inch of rain x 0.623 = 124.6 gallons)

blue barrel system

I spent $612.00 for my 15 barrel system, but I already had 2 barrels and all of the tools (except the bung wrench- which I had to borrow from Jesse). If you put in a system, make sure to buy one with your kit, you can’t find them locally. I didn’t price out how much it would have been for me to buy the barrels and all the parts on my own, but not having to take a billion trips to the hardware store was priceless, so I consider it a well worth it purchase. With my rebate factored in, I paid about $0.50 for a gallon of capacity, by far the least expensive option when it comes to buying tanks.

blue barrel system

I poured water down the gutter to make sure everything worked, and found out that my gutter isn’t level, so it didn’t drain as well as it should have, and I think I need a larger downspout. The diverter is designed for a rectangular 3×4″ or 5×6″ pipe, but I have a 3″ round one, which didn’t seem to give enough gap between the pipe and the diverter inlet. I’ll be fixing those things soon, but otherwise, I’m just waiting for it to rain!