Archive for ‘Sustainability’

June 11, 2015


Well, it’s actually been finished for awhile, but let me present the final layout of the vegetable garden:

Finished! And it's mostly straight 😋. Now, to plant.

Truly, I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I know that, technically, I could fit in more if I did a long rectangle with straight rows, but because I spend so much time back there, I wanted the garden to be something that was aesthetically pleasing. Eventually, we’re going to enclose it with a good fence, and incorporate some built-in benches and trellises. Right now, I’m just really proud that we got this far!

Some practical stuff: I use free mulch from the Milwaukee self-help recycling center. I know that not everyone is comfortable doing that, but we’ve always used mulch from their pile and never had any problems with it. I laid down thick layers of wet newspaper underneath to help smother the weeds. I do my mulching this way for two reasons 1). It’s free. Duh. 2) Both the mulch and newspaper decompose eventually, adding more organic matter to the soil. In essence, it turns a functional pathway into another potential thoroughfare for earthworms, which are really important in my heavy clay soil. I need to do all that I can to give them cool, damp spots in the garden!

May 20, 2014

Fresh Spinach…finally!

Remember this?

Yeah. I do. I tried planting another round of greens in the fall but winter came so soon that they never got very big. So, aside from a bag of spinach from my dad’s garden, I never got a fresh salad last year.

This spring, I noticed that the spinach I planted in the fall had somehow lasted through the winter and was growing quite well. After a few weeks of sporadic warm weather, it looked like this:

I picked one of the two rows and we ate fresh salads all week! After last year’s disastrous attempts at growing greens, I was ecstatic.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had gone fishing with my dad the weekend before and had a couple pounds of walleye fillets that we ate with the salad. I also made fried potatoes – obviously, those were store bought.

It’s great that two things I really enjoy doing – fishing and gardening – produced such a delicious meal. Mmm. I would eat this every night, if I could.

September 30, 2013

‘Tis the Season

For mums and cornstalks and gourds, naturally:


Yesterday, I went over to Bayside Garden Center to pick up some tulip bulbs and seed garlic, and while I’m not usually one to spend money on flowers that are just for a short season, they had really good prices on mums, asters, and ornamental cabbage, so I loaded up. I’m waiting a little while longer to harvest my three Cinderalla pumpkins – I want to decorate with them, but I also want one or two to last long enough for making my own pumpkin puree. I’ve also been harvesting the corn bit by bit, and as after I take the ears off I cut down the stalk, so they’ll be more bundles in the upcoming weeks :).

We’ve had beautiful weather the past week – warm and sunny. As is normal in the fall, I find myself mimicing the squirrels and trying to get everything in order for winter. It’s mostly looked like a lot of cleaning – the poly house, the front porch, the gardens that are done producing…I’m also feeling the urge to go after my closet in a ruthless manner and have a serious decluttering session. More on that later.

Well, the only issue with all of this is that it’s also the season for colds. Neither Jason or I often get sick, but we were on vacation earlier this month and spent many, many hours on planes and buses and trains and I think the result of it was that we came into contact with a bad virus that’s kept us functioning at minimum efficiency for the past week. The fact that I felt good enough to go run errands AND clean the porch all in one day is progress :/. I’m not a fan at all of taking over-the-counter stuff; instead, I’ve been loading up on herbal teas, raw honey, apple cider vinegar, Vitamin C, and LOTS of rest. Even though it’s taking a long time to kick this cold, it’s nice to know that I’m building my body up while I heal instead of messing around with weird-colored syrups and pills. True story: I once cured myself of a 4-month cough that antibiotics, inhalers, and cough syrup hadn’t helped at all by drinking diluted ACV every night.

Anyway, autumn is going to be a season of planning for the garden and I’m excited to share some of those plans! As I start to feel better and have more energy, look for more posts.

September 10, 2013

More pickles

Two weekends ago, I set aside an afternoon for harvesting and pickling.

I know that pickled food isn’t exactly “healthy” – you’re cooking out most of the nutrients from the fruit in the water bath. However, home canned pickles are a much more sensible treat than potato chips, and we enjoy eating them all winter long.

I ended up with quite a haul:

Yum. I’ll have one more round of bush beans before the cold weather comes, and should end up with a few more pints worth to pickle. Not only will we have enough to snack on, but I should be able to give some as gifts.

July 31, 2013

Busy Bees

Hey friends…sorry for the lack of posts. Summer seems to breed a lot of insanity when you’re a gardener!

I’m happy to say that my back is 95% better. I’m able to run and lift and do pretty much everything I’d normally do with very occasional soreness. Must be all those tart cherries!

While out in the garden the other evening, I noticed that my Bee Balm was in full bloom. The stuff sure does live up to it’s name! There were no less than three bumblebees hanging out on the one plant.

I was starting to worry about the low level of pollinators I was seeing in our yard, but with almost all of the curcubit vines blooming, as well as the tomatoes and peppers, I’m constantly seeing a few varieties of bees in the garden. It’s a very welcome sight!


July 17, 2013

Dirty Work

I’ll admit, round about January I’m wandering around starry-eyed as I plan out my garden for the upcoming spring. And while I grew up gardening, I did have a few years where I wasn’t able to do much of it and kind of “lost touch” with a certain reality about growing your own food: it’s dirty work.

Case in point, this was my largest cabbage that I harvested this past weekend:

See those little holes? Something made those holes. Something small and green. Or maybe it was one of the many slugs I picked off of them. Or maybe it was one of the many earwigs that crawled out from the base as I uprooted the plant.

Don’t even get me started on the sticky mess that our cherry preserving turned our kitchen in to. I had to wipe down every surface – including the entire floor – after we were done.

When someone walks up to me dreamily and says, “I want to garden! And I want to can what I grow!” I try to be as gentle as possible. Because really, it’s cool that they want to try. Some people discover that gardening is a really fun hobby for them, and you get lots of health benefit aside.

But gardening is more than just doling out cute little seeds from their packets and then picking the fruit as it ripens. Growing your own food involves lots of physically demanding labor. It involves bugs – lots of bugs. Good bugs like worms and lady beetles, bad bugs like slugs and ants and earwigs. It involves very dirty hands and short fingernails. It involves hours of chopping, of boiling water and lifting hot, heavy jars out of your canner. It involves sweat. Sometimes, it’s not pretty.

Growing my own food is humbling for me. It reminds me to be thankful, and to make better choices about where I buy food that I can’t grow myself. It’s very easy for us to “disconnect” from our food. We go to the grocery store and buy clean, perfect-looking produce with nary a thought to how it got there, who picked it, what it was sprayed with…

It’s harder to do things this way. It takes more time. Some days, I’m pretty certain it’s a tad more expensive. I don’t want to ever “glamorize” growing your own food. I want people to be realistic about what it involves.

But I’ve found it to be worthwhile because I’ve learned to enjoy the process. The years that I spent not gardening softened me up a bit – I’m getting to be much tougher these days about squishing bugs with my bare hands and hauling buckets of horse poop around. I’ve even learned to find humor in it. Because it’s funny to squat down in your cabbage patch and flick slugs over the fence for your neighbor’s dogs to harass.

I get genuinely excited about coming home and checking on the progress of things – especially this time of year. The first tiny cucumber or tomato is just as thrilling to me as the end product. Seeing my pumpkin vines growing 6 inches a day makes me really happy.

So, if you want a cheap and easy way to get organic produce, gardening is not my first recommendation by any means. But, if you’re looking to commit to spending many hours outdoors, to watching life happen in your backyard, and to getting dirty on a regular basis….

Go for it!

July 16, 2013

Cabbage and kimchi

Saturday evening, I finally got around to harvesting my “Red Express” and “Gonzalez” cabbages.

I planted six of each variety, and all of them ended up forming heads. Most of the “Red Express” heads were much smaller than the “Gonzalez”, but I didn’t want them to bolt so I harvested everything all at once.

I didn’t weigh the total before I cleaned/chopped the cabbages, but I’m thinking it was somewhere around 12 pounds. The biggest cabbage – a large Gonzalez, weighed 1.5 pounds. Some of the Red Express were on the small side and likely weighed around half a pound. I’m assuming it’s safe to average out at one pound per cabbage.

After getting cleaned and cut up, I used this recipe to make 2 half-gallon jars of kimchi. I LOVE the stuff, but I have a hard time finding it without going on a sort of “treasure hunt” around the city. Because it’s fermented, it should keep for a long time in my fridge.

All of the probiotics in fermented food are really good for you. I even read recently that they can be effective with treating anxiety – something both of us struggle occasionally. It doesn’t hurt that the stuff is tasty as all get out :).

I know this is a more “Americanized” version of kimchi – I used regular red and green cabbage instead of traditional Napa cabbage, and I used cayenne pepper in place of Korean peppers. But I’m sure it will still taste great – the recipe seems pretty forgiving.

This is my first foray into fermenting, and while I’m a little nervous about the idea of something just sitting in my basement uncovered, I’m also a tad excited about it. It was so much easier and less sweltering to ferment than to water-bath can. Maybe I’ll try some fermented pickles this year, or some sauerkraut if I ever get around to starting some fall cabbage.

July 10, 2013

The Animal Kingdom – chickens and eggs

For awhile, my dad was getting his eggs from a family up the road who were raising chickens. We took home a dozen once or twice. If you’ve never eaten a farm fresh egg, then you can’t begin to imagine the difference in taste/texture from a store-bought egg. I don’t really know how to describe it…the farm eggs just have more to them. The yokes are heartier, the whites actually taste like something.

Since then, I’ve entertained the idea of having some chickens of my own. Milwaukee recently passed an ordinance allowing urban farmers to raise up to four hens (no roosters) at a time, provided you apply for a permit and get permission from your neighbors. We certainly have the backyard for it!

Yet, I hesitate. Not because of the potential concerns that I’ll list below, but because, honestly, I am not a fan of the rampant irresponsibility I’m seeing amongst people like us – white, overly-ambitious punks who spend more time fantasizing about building a cute chicken coop than doing their research about the realities of raising chickens.

“I’ll be sustainable! I’ll have fresh, organic eggs! I’ll provide the chickens with a better lifestyle! I’ll have cruelty-free dairy! And if I’m REALLY lucky, I’ll someday have sweet little chicks!”

Here’s the deal, kids: the average chicken lays eggs for 2.5-3 years. After that, they don’t lay regularly. However…the average chicken’s lifespan can go up to 9 years, provided a predator doesn’t get them or they don’t acquire some disease. So, something has to be done with that chicken for the remaining six years of it’s life. You either keep it as a pet and provide it with free housing and food in exchange for really, well, nothing (except maybe help tilling the garden/eating insects), try to pawn it off to some poor soul on Craigslist by running an ad for “Six 3-year-old chickens, no longer laying regularly, free to a good home, NOT FOR KILLING PLEASE!”, or…or…you toughen up like a real farmer would do and look up some good chicken stew recipes.

Oh, and by the way, those sweet little chicks that might come along someday? Chances are, some of them will be males. Which aren’t allowed in the city. Rarely, some rural hobby farmer will be looking for a rooster to keep the flock in order, but most flocks only can handle one rooster, so this is kind of unusual. You will be responsible for your male chicks. Even organic, free-range chicken farmers have this dilemma. If you can’t give them away, chances are you will have to end their lives before they get too old.

The bottom line is: don’t get chickens if you aren’t willing to kill them. Seriously. You are not doing anyone – yourself, your neighbors, the food industry, even the chickens – a favor if you plow full-speed ahead into dropping a ton of money on a cute coop and a mini-flock without having a very mature understanding of the responsibilities associated with raising them. I’d recommend this article for more information on the subject.

Which brings me to the point of my whole rant: I hesitate to get chickens because I want to be able to say, for sure, that I could kill them myself when the time came. I don’t want to pawn it off on Jason. I want to commit to attending a class and learning how to do it. I want to commit to finding a slaughter facility (because we can’t slaughter them ourselves in Milwaukee) and taking the time out of my schedule to drive there, kill my chickens, and butcher them myself. I want to commit to using the meat – old egg layers are not at all like the broiler chickens you find in the store and therefore need special culinary care.

As of right now, I am about 75% committed to these realities. I’m getting there. I’d like to visit a few friends who are raising urban chickens and see how it plays out. I also think a good next step would be to attend said butchering class and get my hands dirty to see if I can actually handle it or if I’m setting myself up for a miserable cry-fest that may or may not also involve vomiting or dizziness from all of the blood.

Alright, now that I’ve stood up on my soapbox for too long, let me proceed with the facts:

Well, duh, eggs.

But also, chickens make great little mini-tillers in the garden. They pull weeds, eat insects, and turn up the soil. Their manure, once composted, is really good fertilizer.

I can also see chickens as being a really cool, fun experience for kids in the neighborhood. Obviously, I would be up front about it from day one – that someday I will kill these chickens and eat them – but during their time in our yard, I think it would be awesome to share the eggs and the entertainment.

Everything mentioned above. But also, I worry a lot about predators in our neighborhood. I worry about the responsibility of them. I worry about the diseases they can contract. I really worry about the stink, and the potential that it has to irk my neighbors. I would really like to be able to let them roam semi-free range, but I’m not totally a fan of the idea of them pooping all over and digging where they shouldn’t.

I definitely have to look more into the cost. I see layers going anywhere from $10-$15 on Craigslist, and so four of them would cost us around $40-$60. There’s also the equipment, including a coop. Again, I think we could potentially build an awesome coop that would serve it’s purpose well, but even building your own stuff costs some money.

Feed is another cost. As with the rabbits, I’d like to supplement their diets with most scraps and produce and avoid buying pellets as much as possible. I know that it might be inevitable, but the more I can reduce pellets, the better, so I’ve read.

Rhode Island Reds, , and Ameraucanas top my list. I allow myself the luxury of saying that I would really get a kick out of having a basketful of pretty, pastel eggs. That’s about as sentimental as I get about it. If I start thinking of any of them as being “handsome” or “pretty”, it impacts my ability to see them as future stew meat.

Despite my general pessimistic tone about the subject, raising chickens is something that I do sincerely want to try at some point in my life. I don’t know if they would be a permanent fixture in my yard, but I do think it would be worthwhile to have at least one flock and go through the whole process with them.

To leave you with something humorous, check out this cartoon strip.

July 6, 2013

The Animal Kingdom – crazy cat lady

I figured I would start with the most reasonable animal I’d like to add to the mix – a garage cat. Clarice is a pampered inside cat and likely wouldn’t survive for five minutes outside. Besides, with all of the possible diseases or vermin that an outside cat would come across, I would prefer to have one that lived exclusively outdoors.

This is one animal that I think could quickly become a reality. As I mentioned in my introductory post, cats are fairly low-maintenance – an outside cat wouldn’t even require a litterbox (although it might be a good idea to provide one so they stay out of the garden).

Here is the rundown of my barn cat dreams:

From time to time, I see mice running around in our garage and along the border of our property. I don’t see them much, but the very fact that I see them occasionally tells me that they’re definitely out there. We’ve also chased a chipmunk out of the garage on several occasions who dug up some of my seedlings in the poly house. A garage cat would very likely put a stop to this!

I also enjoy cats as companions – it would be nice to have company if I’m working in the backyard alone. We almost always had outdoor cats growing up, and as long as the population stayed down they were pleasant to have around.

Potential Concerns
Obviously with outdoor cats there is a greater risk than indoor cats. I think it’s safe to say there’s even a greater risk than raising something that you would contain in a coop or a hutch – we wouldn’t be able to necessarily keep track of it or shelter it. It could easily get run over. It could decide to leave the yard. It could have a very unpleasant encounter with any of the wild animals that roam our area – squirrels, hawks, raccoons, feral cats, velociraptors…plus, almost all of our neighbors have dogs and I’m not sure how that would play out with a roaming kitty.

I have a little bit of a concern about it digging in the garden or doing it’s business where it shouldn’t, but one cat is fairly simple to clean up after if that’s the case.

We also have a lot of birds in our neighborhood, with my favorites being several cardinals that sing to each other all day. It’s just part of nature, but I know that a cat has the potential to be deadly for some of my feathered friends.

This wouldn’t be a concern for us, but it’s worth mentioning: you should always spay/neuter your outdoor cats or the population can very quickly get out of control! I for sure wouldn’t keep a garage cat unless it was fixed. They tend to roam less if you do this anyway, so it’s a good practice all around.

Well, we’d need to clean our garage first…ha. No, seriously, our garage would need to be cleared out and organized, for the cat’s sake and for our own peace of mind. We would need to do some tweaking, too – a kitty door for it to go in and out and a warm box for it to sleep in when the weather got bad.

My parents almost always have outdoor kittens available, but they would need to be fixed. This typically costs between $75-$125 per cat. Some vets offer discounted rates for spaying barn cats, but I have yet to find one in Milwaukee that does this.

Other than that, the only other cost would be food. We already buy food in bulk for Clarice, plus a hunting cat wouldn’t eat quite as much food as she does. I would estimate that we’d maybe spend another dollar or two per month (an $11 bag of food lasts Clarice a good 2-3 months).

Like I said, getting an outdoor cat is a pretty real possibility for us in the near future. Maybe if I help Jason clean out the garage I can get him to come around to the idea 😉

July 5, 2013

The Animal Kingdom – A girl can dream!

After Tuesday’s very epic ladybug release, I thought it would be appropriate to do a series on different animals we’re considering sometime in the future. I’ll devote a day to each type of animal; the benefits, the costs, the stuff I’m worried about, and the things we would need to learn or adapt our home to.

As of right now, in addition to 1,500 aphid eaters, we have a cat, Clarice:

I’ve already blogged about her usefulness as a member of the homestead – she really, really keeps pests down in the house. Even with the wet weather we’ve had, I’ve seen very few insects inside this summer.

In my opinion, cats are perfect companions, if you find one with the right temperament. Clarice is extremely low-maintenance; she likes her pets and getting her bowl filled every day, but it’s no stress at all for us to be away from her all day or even all weekend. When we go on trips longer than four days, we arrange for someone to come by and check her food, but that’s nothing compared to the needs of some animals.

Which brings me to a more sobering point when it comes to the animal world – our current lifestyle isn’t exactly conducive to owning anything other than a cat. It’s a hard reality that we’ve struggled with. Both of us are away at work during the week, and sometimes we have evening commitments as well. We also enjoy the freedom of being able to get away some weekends, and we try to take a nice, long vacation once a year. If we owned even half of the animals I’d like to own, every one of those days we’re gone represents the need to coordinate care for them at least once a day, if not more in some cases.

When I try to research what the practicalities are of raising some of these animals, I often run across blogs from some of the more diehard types who gush on and on about the amazingwonderfulglorious benefits and delights in their livestock. Or, I come across some extremely embittered soul who tried raising ducks or goats and had a terrible time with it because they just weren’t prepared for the responsibility. What I would love to find is practical research from someone right smack in the middle of those two lines of thought. Preferably someone who lived in a major city and maybe also held a job outside of the house, even on a part-time basis. And took vacations once in awhile.

This is one of my biggest beefs (haha) when I read homesteading blogs – it seems like some of these modern farmers just aren’t able to have a life outside of their barnyard. Which, please, don’t get me wrong, if that’s what you WANT your life to look like, then that’s fantastic. But that is NOT what Jason and I want our lives to look like, at least not entirely. I’d like to be home more, I’d like to be in the community more, but traveling and having adventures is a big part of who we are also. You can’t just pack up a flock of chickens into your car and drive down the road…

That being said…good things do come to those who wait. The reality is that neither of us want to continue with our current work situations forever. We’re both doing small things to help make these changes happen, and in an ideal world both of us are able to be home more and work less. I won’t get into the specifics just yet, but I have good faith in the idea that within five years one (or hopefully both!) of us will be home throughout most of the day.

Of course, changing our work situation doesn’t exactly solve the problem of animals needing daily care while we’re on vacation. Enter the virtue of patience once again – in our ideal world, we have really solid relationships with a few of the neighbor kids and allow them to earn some cash and some mad skills by hiring them as temporary farm hands. Now, granted, this has the potential to be messy (escapee chickens and runaway pups come to mind) and would require a LOT of trust for both parties involved. Trust that takes time to build up. But how cool would it be to be able to provide eggs for all of our neighbors? Or to show rabbits at the fair that were raised not just by me, but by the community?

When I think of homesteading being done this way, it gives me the freedom to dream bigger dreams. This is how it should happen in the city. This is how someone could learn the art of self-sufficiency – by actually reaching out and saying, “I need help. Let’s do this together”.

So, with all of that in mind, tune in tomorrow for our second installation of the Animal Kingdom (aka Johanna’s delusional dreams about being a crazy pet lady).