Little by Little

“Then God looked over all that He had made, and it was excellent in every way. This ended the sixth day. Now at last the heavens and the earth were successfully completed, with all that they contained. So, on the seventh day, having finished His task, God ceased from this work He had been doing, and God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he ceased this work of creation.” (Genesis, 1:31, 2:1-3)

I’m starting to notice a difference. I tackled a too-big landscaping project last summer; it has carried into this summer. And I’m still not finished, still not caught up. But I’m learning not to cringe at the over-grown state of affairs, and to notice the subtle changes along the way. As time and resources allow, I build another raised bed, add more compost, cover more walkways with pseudo-garden cloth (recycled/re-purposed feed bags). In the meantime, I’ve been harvesting blackberries in season, clipping back invasive bittersweet as it threatens to choke out everything else under the sun, and weeding the one little 4′ x 8′ garden bed presently under cultivation. The green beans are thriving. The cheap Walmart squash seeds are dead in the water, so to speak, so that half of the bed will soon be planted in beetroot and leafy greens. I also have some heirloom beans that will have enough time to grow before winter’s freeze, maybe some broccoli and cauliflower as we head into August.

Something unusual is happening here. I’m not worried about being Super Girl anymore. I’m learning to let go of what other people might think. Who cares? I think it has finally sunken in that I’m not Samantha Stevens; twitching my nose won’t make everything perfect…I can’t even twitch my nose like that. And this acceptance is sweet. I have 1/4 of an acre in the middle of a Do It Yourself construction zone. I also work off-site and am in the middle of a degree program. The 2-3 hours I give to this DIY project each morning from dawn until feeding time may not seem like much to some but, for me, while I still cringe from time to time, those 2-3 hours help to break it all down into manageable bites. And, little by little, I’m seeing results. It is taking shape. And I’m even resting on that seventh day.

That’s the truly unusual thing. I usually push myself until “burn-out” sets in and then I waste more time trying to recuperate. Instead, though I don’t consider myself a couch potato type, I’ve been spending part of my days off from the dealership in front of the boob-tube watching You Tube videos about gardening and landscaping…and learning a lot, getting ideas and, yes, on Monday morning when I’m back in the garden at dawn, implementing some of them. Now that I’m not stressing and worrying so much about making everything perfect, I can actually enjoy the journey better. And I actually get more done. Who knew?

And that’s a lesson worth learning.

May God bless you & keep you!

Dates with Monty Don and Charles Dowding

“Rest in the Lord; wait patiently for Him to act. Don’t be envious of evil men who prosper.” Psalm 37:7

Forgive the redundancy but I really am a bad patient. As this leg continues to throb and ripple with muscle spasms, and my toes turn all tingly through the lack of circulation and swell and give me all manner of discomfort, I have been forced to spend most of my time on my duff, feet propped up to take the pressure off the leg. I could’ve taken out stock in the amount of Ben Gay I’ve slathered on knees, shins, ankles, feet and toes. Ditto for the aspirin. I look at the fine weather we’ve had the last couple of days and I growl at this forced convalescence, thinking of all the gardening I could be doing and various other farm chores. Since Thursday, it has been the bare essentials only.

And, yes, I know…Ben Gay? Aspirin? I am an herbalist, after all. But, while I almost always choose herbs over what’s become conventional medicine, as deeply as I believe that herbs are a better, healthier choice, sometimes they don’t work as fast. I needed more immediate relief just to walk up that hill Thursday night after work. Last night it was a warm bath to ease sore muscles (still no clue exactly what I did to the leg…); tonight there’s a jar of oil in which Plantain, Comfrey, St. John’s wort, Calendula and Cayenne Pepper have been slowly brewed. The first four ingredients are good for the skin. When combined like this you have the perfect combination of emollient, drawing power, anti-scarring agent, natural sunblock, and rash relief. I don’t have any of these but, whenever I make something to put on my skin, I add these four. Our skin is the largest organ of our body; we often neglect it. The cayenne is for improved circulation and for relieving sore muscles.

In the meantime, I’ve actually become a bit of a couch potato–well, armchair is more like it. I’ve been relaxing (there’s a novel concept), feet up, in front of the TV and trying, albeit a little in vain, not to feel guilty for it…even as my leg throbs with a life of its own after another round of feeding and watering the farm. No, we don’t have cable/digital/satellite (i.e. so no reception) but Mom received Roku for Mother’s Day from my brother. Roku allows you to access shows via the Internet and broadcast them onto the TV screen. While there are some stations that charge a small fee, many of them are free. One of those is, of course, You Tube. To be honest, I haven’t really paid much attention to the Roku since helping Mom set it up when it first came here. She’s been enjoying episodes of her favorite HGTV shows and country music videos. Over the weekend, she handed me the remote to the Roku unit after watching me trying to watch music videos on my cellphone via the You Tube app I downloaded. (Eh, it was keeping me off my feet…)

First of all, Mom got a little bit of culture shock as my answer to not being able to walk to church yesterday saw me tuning in to Christian music videos by today’s contemporary artists as a way to still connect and worship Him. I listen to a lot of these artists on Pandora during the week and it always soothes me…despite the hard-rocking sound many of them produce: Casting Crowns, Lauren Daigle, Francesca Battistelli, Barlow Girl (which was much heavier than she expected), Meredith Andrews, Big Daddy Weave and Kari Jobe. I even got a little rap in there with Brandon Heath. After a while though, I got tired of constantly surfing You Tube for the next video and decided something a little lengthier would be better.

I have a thing for British television. If I lived in the UK, I would likely be a couch potato a little more often simply because I love their sense of humor and style…and, especially, their gardens. Charles Dowding caught my eye first. I believe it was an article in Treehugger, advocating the No Dig Gardening method, that turned me on to his You Tube channel; I’ve been a subscriber ever since. This was not my first initiation into the No Dig method, but I love the practical advice Mr. Dowding offers just for gardening overall but, more specifically, for the No Dig method. He gets beautiful fruits, vegetables and herbs. His gardens are so lush that I am frequently jealous at the yields. He makes a lot of compost and that’s helping me in that area of homesteading. And, I’ll admit it, for an older gentleman, he looks pretty darn good in a pair of jeans. He reminds me greatly of Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon. I had Kevin Cronin wallpaper as a girl, both in my bedroom and in my locker in school. Enough said (chuckle).

Anyway, it was through Mr. Dowding’s You Tube channel that I learned of the BBC’s “Gardener’s World” program, which is in its 50th year of airing (pretty remarkable, actually). Mr. Dowding’s homestead was featured on “Gardener’s World” one Friday evening and I fell instantly in love with the show. Now I watch an episode each week on You Tube. Host Monty Don, like Charles Dowding, is a wealth of information about gardening. Being forced to stay off my feet these last few days, I have been doing a marathon of back episodes I missed earlier in the year…and introducing Mom to the show, too. She’s been enjoying it. And we’re both learning a lot of cool gardening tips. I’m especially enchanted with Nigel and Nell, the two golden retrievers who follow Monty around his, roughly, two-acres of gardens…usually with a tennis ball, or one his trowels in mouth. It’s a bittersweet enchantment as I miss the big dogs that blessed my life over the years and hope, God willing, that things will get back on a more even keel in my life–soon–so that I might provide a forever home for another pair of dogs. All in all, despite this enforced convalescence, I don’t feel that the time has been completely wasted. Again, I’m watching, learning, and gaining more confidence through the pseudo-mentoring of these two gentlemen (we switched off at one point to watch some of Charles’ videos, too).

And, believe it or not, yesterday’s rock and roll religion did feed my soul, touch my heart. I’ve actually felt myself drawing closer to Him, taking deep breaths…because letting go and letting God is the hardest lesson of all for me, to give up any kind of control…and just surrendering my will to Him. I may not like the enforced convalescence but He is using it to mold and change me, to grow my faith in Him…something I’ve been yearning for. And praying for.

It was an interview I read with Lauren Daigle in “Young Salvationist” where she talks about how she surrendered her dream of music to Him that really touched my heart. When she finally surrendered her will to Him, doors started opening for her. Maybe I’m feeling “stuck” in my life because I haven’t truly surrendered my will to Him. That’s what I felt when I read this article over the weekend, that He was trying to tell me to just let go; He’s got my back. And it was the lyrics to Kari Jobe’s “Steady my Heart” that, well, steadied my heart:

Even when it hurts
Even when it’s hard
Even when it all just falls apart
I will run to You
‘Cause I know that You are
Lover of my soul, Healer of my scars,
You steady my heart, You steady my heart

That’s worth a few muscle spasms and tingly toes.

May God bless you & keep you!

References

Jobe, K. (2012). “Steady My Heart.” worshiptogether.com Songs, Ariose Music.

Maynor, C. P. (2015). “Interview: Lauren Daigle.” Young Salvationist. Retrieved June 26, 2017 from:
http://www.youngsalvationist.org/2015/02/04/interview-lauren-daigle/

Naming Trees and a Quest for Cardboard

And so the gypsy moths have completely denuded one of the big Norway maples in my front yard. Not Helen, mind you. Helen is the grandmother of all the Norway maples here. And, yes, the Master Gardener here knows Norway maples are invasive and not native to Connecticut. I didn’t plant them; they were here when I purchased said property back in 2001. Invasive or not, they provide much-appreciated shade in the summertime, and a nice bit of windbreak in the winter. So nobody touches Helen & Co.

Except the gypsy moths.

And there’s not much I can do about that. They’ve completely denuded Ollie already. Ollie is a slightly younger Norway maple, if one judges by the size of circumference (don’t trees grow a new ring every year??). And quite lovely…despite his invasive nature. The Japanese dogwood…or maybe it’s a flowering cherry tree…is also completely denuded. I’m not sure of the species because it is one of about a dozen saplings I received as a “Thanks!” for donating several years’ ago to the Arbor Day Foundation. Only three of them survived. They’re all part of the under story near Ollie. I’m almost positive the one closest to the house is a Japanese dogwood…and, so far, the gypsy moths have left it alone. It’s the other two–one denuded, the other on its way to becoming–that worry me. And Ollie. Can they all recover from this? Or will I have a rotting Norway maple stump next spring? Horrified at this finding this morning, I tried hand-picking some of them off of the smaller trees. But it was a futile endeavor; just too many of them. I may have to invest in some bird netting and then try to pluck em all off before I cover them. It’s heart-breaking as they are all part of the latest landscaping endeavor, an effort to beautify the area closest to the interstate with ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers. Eh, if it’s visible from the road, it has to be pretty…not that the current state of Tobacco Road could be called attractive, but I digress yet again…

And, yes, I’ve named some of the trees in my yard. Here’s how it started.

I won’t get into all of the spiritual changes within that brought this about–that could take a whole week’s worth of posts–but, several years’ ago I studied Wicca. For those of you who only know Wicca through TV and other pop culture mediums, Wicca is NOT any sort of devil worshipping. I am, and always have been, a Christian, accepting Christ as my Savior back in 1995, shortly after my first divorce. But, for some reason, the tree-hugging nature lover in me has always been drawn to Wicca. And I can only conclude because Wicca is a nature-based religion.

Anyway, to keep a long story short, I took a course at the local community college entitled, “Introduction to Wicca” after a long theological discussion with the then-deacon of my church, Brother Bob. I was expecting sermons as regarding fire and brimstone raining down upon my head for even considering such a course but Brother Bob encouraged me to take it instead. The reason? Because it is the fear of what we don’t know, or understand, that breeds distrust, hatred and violence. It is fear that the enemy of my soul uses to bring chaos into my life…and into the world. So, for four weeks, I drove to Mansfield, CT and attended class. And I loved it! I learned so much, so much that I can accept and appreciate…even to how the good Lord used this experience to help me re-connect with members of my own family (I have an aunt and a couple of cousins who are practicing Wiccans). I’m not afraid anymore; there’s no reason to be.

“His disciple John came to Him and said, ‘Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons. And we told him not to. After all, he isn’t in our group.’ But Jesus said, ‘You should not have done that! For anyone who is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)

Getting back to the naming of trees, this class sparked an interest so deep that I started reading every book that I could find on the subject. Some, I will admit, were a bit “darker” than others. Not necessarily sinister, or diabolical, but more like a sort of prejudiced attitude towards any religion other than Wicca (and haven’t we all experienced a similar attitude in other religions–including Christianity!). There was one though, written by a fellow Master Gardener, that talked about naming trees and how trees actually have spirits. Most Native American tribes believe trees, rocks, etc. have spirits and, as I’m part-Mohawk, part-Narragansett, it resonated within. More, I had been finding myself drawn to “Helen” and this book made me stop and think. Maybe Helen was giving me little mental nudges. Anyway, she was christened “Helen” shortly thereafter.

Now, before anyone thinks I’ve completely gone off the deep-end, and maybe I have, if you head over to http://www.treehugger.com and type in “trees” + “Melissa”, you’ll find a host of articles featuring the research of various scientists about trees. And how they share resources, protect one another, and even communicate with each other. There’s quite a number of them; they’re interesting reads…whether you believe in such or not.

So, now that Ollie is suffering from an attack of gypsy moths, and I prepare to possibly mourn the loss of him in the not-so-distant future, I can’t help worrying if Helen will eventually fall prey, too. She’s the grandmother here because she’s so enormous. I would be willing to bet she’s stood in this yard over 100 years or more, such is the size of her trunk. To lose either shade tree is a heart-wrenching thought. Invasive or not, trees don’t grow overnight. It’s one of the reasons we treehuggers object to things like over-harvesting from forests and the current annihilation of the rain forests in South America due to our hunger and greed for more wood; such important eco-systems can never hope to recover at the rate of said destruction.

But before this becomes one of my environmental rants (I’ll save that for another post…chuckle), I’m switching a few gears here. Helen, Ollie & Friends are a part of this very local landscape. As I’ve moved rock walls and started building raised beds, I’ve designed everything here to work with the current landscape, rather than any clear-cutting. I’ve been using something called the the No-Dig Gardening method, developed and promoted by Mr. Charles Dowding of England. Mr. Dowding is not the originator of this method but he has developed it to a level that has proven effective and efficient for any home gardener. Another name for it is lasagna gardening. Mr. Dowding has a wonderful You Tube channel that takes you from soup to nuts on how to landscape and grow fruits, vegetables and herbs without digging…or rototilling, which is very bad for the soil and will encourage the growth of weeds and invasive species.

Like Helen.

No-Dig, or lasagna, gardening requires the laying down of flattened cardboard boxes, which slowly decompose but act as a weed barrier while in that decomposition, directly atop the compacted soil, or grass, or weeds–wherever you decide to create this raised bed. Like any good lasagna, the next step is to layer everything: leaves, kitchen scraps, compost, etc. If you wish to go the more traditional route of bags of peat moss, potting soil, etc, that’s okay, too…even if it isn’t quite as sustainable. Once you’ve created a good six inches of layers, you simply plant your seeds directly into this mix or, if you’ve started seeds indoors, or purchased plants from the local nursery, you may simply part some of the layers and set the plugs into them. They will grow.

This initial landscaping project encompasses about 1/4 acre of my property; I have another 1/2 acre planned but in much smaller stages. This 1/4 acre is probably a bigger undertaking than Mr. Dowding would have recommended in the beginning but I’m committed to it. I spent most of last winter squirreling away every empty box that walked through the dealership where I work afternoons and early-evenings. I would pack the trunk of the car, the backseat, and throw them into what was once a garage, now storage room. One would think, with so much pack-ratting activity, that I would have more than enough to finish said project but, alas, I am on a perpetual quest to find more. Though empty boxes still travel through the dealership, walking everywhere now, I’ve been searching a little closer to home; flat-packed boxes are a prime example of dead weight. So, every now and then, I’m petitioning nearer neighbors and, hopefully, saving them a bit of the expense to have their cardboard waste hauled away…and keeping much of it out of the local landfills. It’s a design I can be proud of.

Even Helen agrees…

May God bless you & keep you!

Who’s Really in Charge Here Anyway?

“We ought not to insist on everyone following in our footsteps, nor to take upon ourselves to give instructions in spirituality when, perhaps, we do not even know what it is.” St. Teresa of Avila

I’ll admit it. “Charles in Charge” has nothing on me. I’m in control, or so I tell myself, and then hear the echo of what can only be God laughing as I tighten the reins…and chaos erupts.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I think I remember reading somewhere that 98% of us have at least a touch of it. Some of us have a bit more than a touch, unfortunately. Oh, it comes in handy at times. The alphabetized CD, DVD, VHS and book collections make finding whatever I’m looking for a snap. Because, really, who wants to waste time looking for something that may be right in front of your nose? I have bigger fish to fry, as they say. And, maybe it’s a bit extreme but my closet is color coded with all the yellow garments together, all the red, all the green, etc. Again, it makes finding that outfit easier. And I’m all about economizing my time. However, these little impulses and neuroses also tie me in knots and can make me a rather difficult person to live with.

Poor Mom.

This feeble attempt at perfectionism often manifests as criticism. I hear myself and cringe. Criticism was definitely NOT the intent but that’s what surely came across if I put myself in her shoes. And really, how important is it if the buttery popcorn bowl wasn’t rinsed first before it went into the sink? Or if the spoon rest is backwards on the stove? This latter “pet peeve” doesn’t get spoken; I simply turn it around again but then I think, as I’m doing it, does it MATTER???

And here is where the knots get tied because, as one voice is asking about the importance of such an act, another voice knows how much of a mental distraction it will be if I leave the spoon rest backwards…or the toilet paper feeding from under, rather than over.

Of course, I’ve never really sat down with Mom and tried to explain exactly what it’s like to live with OCD. Sadly, such a conversation tends to veer off into why mine is so intense in the first place: it’s a response to the molestation I grew up with. And that is a subject Mom would rather forget about altogether. As a child, I couldn’t control what was happening to me so I acted out by adopting these little “habits”. It gave me a false sense of security. And I was desperate to feel secure. Not only the abuse but also the alcoholism, the drunken accusations that told us all that we were “stupid” and couldn’t do anything “right” and to “look a little harder than you have to”. Like many children who grow up with some sort of substance abuse…as well as the abuse of their bodies, minds, and spirits, I turned all this negativity onto myself and shouldered all the blame. If I was a better student, he wouldn’t be so angry. If I kept my room neater, maybe he’d leave me alone. If I did all the chores around the house, all this chaos would stop.

Who was I kidding?

I’ve been tied up in knots since I was a very little girl. Is it any wonder that I’m still tying myself in knots? Unhealthy though it may be, it’s also a comfortable numb. It’s familiar. And, if I don’t grasp, and clutch, and sterilize my whole life, I start to relax…and then chastise myself for being “lazy”.

The paradox of all of this is that my property from the roadside looks like tobacco road. This is another coping mechanism from dealing with alcoholism. It keeps people away. But such a desire never cropped up until a few years ago when I had a live-in boyfriend…who was also an alcoholic. He seemed a nice enough guy when we met. And there was an instant rapport. This last one should have been a red flag…heck, it should have been flashing in neon red. Because that kind of comfort level so early on, well, they say a girl looks for her father when she dates…or, in this case, father figure. I was embarrassed. The sometimes-arrogant self, who would never allow herself to be caught in such a situation, got caught in it. How did this happen? How did I let this happen? And, worse, it took me forever to finally get out of it. The same mind control that I grew up, manifested again in this romantic partner. The same self-doubt and shame crept in. And I felt sorry for him. He, too, had grown up with abuse in the home. I knew what that was like. And, while I had had a network of family and friends behind me as I sought therapy and tried to claw my way into some sort of normalcy of life, he was still wallowing in the beaten-down misery he grew up with. He even threatened to beat me physically…and I still let him stay. It wasn’t until, in a drunken stupor, he cut down a beloved shade tree in the yard that I snapped and gave him the boot.

Tobacco road’s been growing ever since…because I’m mortified that I allowed myself to be caught up in this unhealthy situation. I fell down on my principles. Every stitch of therapy went out the windows. Though I have no actual proof, I even suspect he was abusive to one of my cats as Trooper’s behavior while he was here was almost unbearable. And it stopped almost immediately once this man was finally gone for good.

A little bit at a time. That’s what friends tell me as I tackle this overgrowth. It’s a little bit like that “One Day at a Time” motto advocated by both Alcoholics’ Anonymous and Al-Anon. A little bit at a time, one day at a time.

This homestead is healing me as well as it is healing the land. My OCD says I should be able to perfectly landscape the 3/4 of an acre I’ve set aside for fruits, vegetables and herbs in a weekend’s work; it’s not good enough otherwise. Reality says, as I am implementing Charles Dowding’s “No Dig Gardening” method to bring as low an impact to the earth as I can, that such an enormous undertaking simply cannot be done in one weekend…not to the scale I envision. And not by one single person…especially one on a part-time income.

No, the “No-Dig” method isn’t expensive. Quite the contrary. It uses flattened cardboard boxes laid out on the ground (something easily had for free from many of the local businesses who don’t mind not having to pay out to cart the cardboard away instead) and then composted waste, from both the kitchen, and the animals, layered on top of the cardboard to create a raised bed. I’ve been dismantling a broken section of stone wall that runs along the front of my property to outline the beds once they’re made and using old feed bags that I’ve cut open and laid flat for the walkways in between. As funds permit, I buy a bag or two of red mulch and lay it atop the bags. This is where the part-time income comes into the picture as I cannot purchase enough at one time to cover all of the walkways at once. And, as I am on a major interstate, as well as in the commercial district, it has to be “pretty”.

So, a little bit at a time, one day at a time.

And, when the OCD starts kicking up again and stresses perfection, I need only look outside to see the rhubarb growing tall and strong in the three-tiered pyramid I built for it and the strawberries; I need only look at the green beans poking their kidney-shaped heads out of the ground in one raised bed and the beautiful purple flower heads of the chives, and the lush expanse of marjoram in another to tell me that, yes, one day at a time is good enough. It doesn’t matter that it’s not “perfect”. Obviously, these plants don’t care a fig if it’s perfect or not; they’re still growing in imperfection.

As for the grass?

Mankind has ever strived to tame and “control” Nature. I refuse to use anything gas-powered, or any chemicals, to kill it off. Even with the raised beds, the weed and grass barriers being laid down, there’s still the occasional blade that pokes up even amongst those sections already landscaped. This is a reminder that, despite my valiant efforts to control and manipulate this landscape, much like the landscape of my life, there is Someone greater than I who is really in charge. Someone who takes those knots I’ve tied myself into, lays them out flat…and helps me to grow.

May God bless you & keep you!

Chive Talking

“And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.” Genesis 1:11-13

I’ve been spending a little time each morning, building more raised beds, adding compost to the beds and, after mucking out chicken coops and rabbit cages and such, starting some new compost. Earlier this week, as I was transferring some of that compost into the new beds, I let out a “whoop!” that brought Mom to the door with a scowl!!??! Even when I explained my elation–the discovery of dozens of red wigglers in that compost pile–I could tell she didn’t quite “get it” as she shook her head and walked away. Even my assurance that worms in the compost bin are a very good thing didn’t convince her. She still thinks I’m addled. Worms aren’t her thing.

Oh, well. I refuse to let it daunt me.

Of course, some of the already established beds also got a dressing of this composted rabbit waste…with worms. I have a small bed about equal distance between the front and the side doors of the house. And my chives are up in it.

I love chives. I love the flavor they impart in cooking, as well as their aroma. They make a nice addition to salads. And I usually eat one raw coming out of the garden. Fresh like that, they really pack a punch. But my favorite use is in my favorite winter casserole: Spinach Mashed Potatoes. The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of chives; mine are usually “heaping” tablespoons but it’s all good. Usually I buy them dried from a local herb store as I haven’t quite mastered the art of drying them with a food dehydrator–until Tuesday of this week. It took a couple of tries; the first batch I cut and spread on the screen turned brown and lifeless using the recommended drying time. So I cut the time in half and voila! I have a half-pint jar of chives and will be drying another half-pint this weekend. So I’m feeling a little victory here. And this is one that even Mom can relate to a bit.

As I love chives so much for cooking, the herbalist in me has never really looked into them as a potential medicine. But, before writing this blog entry, I did do some research in some of my herbals. Not much there either except in Juliette de Bairacli Levy’s “Herbal Handbook for the Farm and Stable”. She recommends sprinkling some cut up chives into animal feed for the “expulsion of worms.” (Good thing the chives are well away from that wormy compost pile…)

And, unlike many cooks, I have no aversion to sharing that recipe for Spinach Mashed Potatoes; good food is meant to be shared.

SPINACH MASHED POTATOES

6 large or 8 medium potatoes, peeled and diced (if using white potatoes; if red-skinned, may leave the skins on them).
1 10 ounce package (or equivalent from garden) of spinach
8 oz. package of shredded cheddar cheese (or, an 8 oz block of cheddar and shred it yourself; usually about 50 cents cheaper (eh, I am ever the frugal fanatic…))
1 stick of butter
1/4 cup of sour cream
2 tbsp. chives
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. dill
1/8 tsp. black pepper
pinch of salt, to taste

Boil potatoes until tender. Drain. Add stick of butter, sour cream, sugar, black pepper and pinch of salt; mash (will be very creamy) In large skillet saute spinach, chives and dill in olive oil until just wilted. Fold into mashed potatoes until well mixed then fold potato and spinach mixture into casserole dish. Sprinkle cheese over the top and back in the oven for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Enjoy!

May God bless you & keep you!

References

De Bairacli Levy, J. (1952) “The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable.” Faber and Faber Limited, London,
England.

Spring Fever

It’s a little early. It’s only February. But this week the temps have been in the mid-50’s up to lower-60’s and it feels great after the snowstorm a couple of weeks ago that dumped 18 inches on us. Just walking out to the barn has been a challenge and, as soon as the rest of it melts, I’ll have a few minor repairs to attend to as the bottom board of the chicken coop came off. Actually, there may be a bigger repair in the form of cutting out the rotting wooden floor (ducks play in the water no matter the temps outdoors, leaving the floor around the waterer perpetually wet…) and pouring cement instead. This is murky territory for me; I haven’t done this sort of thing before but, homesteading equals a lot of DIY (do-it-yourself), especially on a very limited budget.

But before I go into “overwhelm”, this caress of warmth on my skin has me planning out this year’s garden and getting itchy fingers to finish landscaping the front and side yards for more raised beds. I do everything “no-dig”, which puts more traditional gardeners off, but this year I “discovered” a man named Charles Dowding in the UK who has landscaped 4 acres using this method. He gets a significant yield; fewer weeds; good, rich soil, and he has a plethora of videos on his YouTube channel. I’ve been obsessed with watching them.

What is “no-dig” gardening?

Exactly as it suggests: no digging, no rototilling. Instead of digging up, or rototilling, the sod–something that seriously disturbs weed seeds in the earth and causes more of them to grow in your garden (i.e. more work to do), you lay a piece of cardboard down (or several sheets of newspaper if no cardboard is available) and start layering compost (or you can layer kitchen scraps, leaves, etc.; things that would normally go in your compost bin), vermiculite, potting soil, etc. on top of it. Another name for this type of gardening technique is lasagna gardening. The cardboard acts as a weed barrier but, as it is biodegradable, it also feeds the soil. You simply plant your seeds, or a plug if you’ve started seeds indoors, directly into the layers of compost and soil. Charles Dowding uses straight compost; I don’t have quite as much of that as I will need to finish this landscaping project. However, each spring, these beds will need a new dressing. And, with several rabbits, some goats and a flock of chickens and ducks, that situation is rapidly being remedied.

I scored yesterday. When I went in to work, there was an enormous box being readied for the trash compactor out back of the automotive department. I claimed it immediately and am grateful, indeed, for the help of a fellow co-worker for taking it home for me. This box housed the liner for the bed of a pick-up and was too big for transporting in the backseat. I am envisioning the healthy vegetables and herbs I can grow atop of this box.

And that only gets the fingers itching even more. I am ready for spring. How ’bout you?

May God bless you & keep you!

Aquaponics 101…or Dreams of Fish, Flora and Fauna.

I am pumped.

Fueled.

Psyched.

I’ve been viewing some videos produced by a man named Murray Hallam, who hales from Australia, about Aquaponics. I’ve had an interest in this for some time but, for some strange reason, have not satisfied my curiosity about it…until last week when I decided to type “Aquaponics” in the Facebook search engine and came across his Facebook page. He provides a link to his website and a host of videos that provide a good introduction to this phenomena.

And, yes, phenomena would be the perfect terminology when one considers what this man–and others–are growing in such a system: potatoes, squash, cucumbers, papaya, and even bananas and mangoes! Who would’ve thought? As a Master Gardener, I am well-familiar with hydroponics, which uses a “raft” (a square of styrofoam with circles cut out with which to “plant” the plants) in a tub of water to grow greens, strawberries, and some herbs. But, because there are no fish involved–fish, which supply the much-needed nutrients each plant requires–there is a limit to what can be grown in hydroponics. From what I have been able to learn from these videos, hydroponics is designed for growing lots of a single crop, or a handful of crops in a rotational manner, similar to the big agribusiness farms out West. And, because it is designed for monoculture, nutrients must be added to keep the plants healthy. Oftentimes, especially in commercial operations where a large output is needed to stay afloat (no pun intended), synthetic fertilizers, plant feed, and even pesticides are added. They’re not needed with aquaponics. The only additive that Mr. Hallam added to his tanks was a bit of either compost tea or worm tea.

What is compost tea? It is very simple. You take a handful of composted waste from your compost bin, place it in a mesh bag, tie it off and steep it in a barrel of water–much like a giant bucket of tea. Then you pour that water into your tank (or, for those of more traditional garden means, you can pour this nutrient-rich “tea” into the soil around your plants). Worm tea is the run-off from a vermicomposting set up. Vermicomposting is using worms to digest kitchen waste. It is very easy to do. Get a square box, drill a small hole in the side towards the bottom and put a plug in it. Layer strips of newspaper (non-shiny…i.e. no glossy advertisements), and/or wood shavings in the bottom of the box (PS Box should be wooden or plastic, not cardboard as the worms may eat that, too, and it won’t hold up to all the moisture inside) and then add some worms. Red wigglers work best. Now start adding in all of your kitchen scraps: vegetable peelings and cores, eggshells, spent tea leaves and coffee grinds (minus the paper filters or actual tea bags) and those little guys will start eating it up. As they eat, they do what every other creature does after eating–they excrete. This pools up into the bottom of the box and this is the reason for the plugged hole. This worm excrement is the consistency of tea, a liquid black gold that has nothing to do with the petroleum industry and everything to do life. After about 2 weeks of steady feeding of these scraps, you should be able to harvest this “tea” by simply placing a bucket under that plugged hole and pulling out the plug. This, too, may be added directly to your soil as a natural means of fertilizing it. Also, for those of you in more northerly climates, you may also cover this worm bin with straw to help insulate it but there are companies out there that sell vermicomposting systems at a fairly low cost. They are designed to actually sit in your kitchen, being a fairly attractive apparatus, with a handy little spigot at the bottom for extracting the “tea”.

Anyway, I’ve veered a little off subject but that’s what happens when I get all fired up about something. My enthusiasm takes me away. And that’s what has happened with the viewing of these videos. Now that I have a better understanding of how it all works, I want to plunge right in and get started. But I may need a greenhouse for that as New England is rapidly approaching winter and the freezing temps that go along with it. And I have no desire to go ice fishing–even if it is a popular endeavor with many fishermen.

So how does it work? The system is comprised of multiple tubs, or basins. There are actually three types of grow “beds”. One is a raft system with the styrofoam “grid” (picture a square of styrofoam with 16-20 circles, about the size of the bottom of a styrofoam cup, cut into it in neat little rows). Another is called a media bed that has gravel or clay pellets and you plant directly into them. This is for more “permanent” plants like squash or corn, whereas the raft system is more for quick-growing plants like leafy greens and strawberries. The last is a wicking bed, which is used for growing root vegetables. It is similar to the media bed with its gravel but the plants are placed in a basket of gravel and then the basket is set inside a media bed (water and gravel). This keeps the roots from becoming too soggy and rotting. Some systems also have towers, which are basically PCB pipes with holes drilled in them for planting so that you can take advantage of vertical spacing…but you need a stronger pump for these. And, of course, you also have a tank or two of fish. Mr. Hallam recommends jade perch, tilapia, or carp as being the most hardy for these systems. In short, waste water from the fish is pumped up into the grow beds. The plants filter this waste water, extracting the nutrients from the fish waste, and then the filtered water goes back into the fish tank. In the media and wicking beds, the water is actually drained and then re-filled in a constant cycle, which is how the roots are kept from rotting; in the raft beds, you need a means of aerating it. (Not sure if the latter are also drained; still learning…)

What I liked best about this is that it is a perfect eco-system. Yes, you will get bugs–both beneficial and some not-so-beneficial. But, if your system is maintained properly, you’ll strike a good balance in keeping those harmful bugs to a minimum.

Yes, an aquaponics’ system does require energy to run. Mr. Hallam has a video about using solar. He had four batteries connected to 20 solar panels to power his Indy 23 system (he designs aquaponics’ systems). He also talks about using wood pulp/shavings/mulch in a pile that you keep moist–basically, green compost–and burying some geothermal coils in it. As the moistened mulch heats up, it heats the water in the coils and that keeps your plants at a nice, even temperature. So there are definitely alternatives and, with a little Yankee ingenuity (even if you’re not a Yank!), it may be easy enough to set something up at a reasonable cost. When one considers how much food can be grown in such a system, that certainly outweighs the cost of operation. You’re getting both vegetables and fish to eat, as the fish are also harvested regularly, and both are free of harmful chemicals. In one of his videos, Mr. Hallam, talks about feeding his fish naturally (i.e. no commercial fish feed), using some of the greens grown in his beds, vegetable waste, steel-cut oatmeal (dried oatmeal) and, occasionally, some finely-cut chicken. Fish, like chickens, eat just about anything. For fish, it simply has to be cut up a little smaller.

There is also a segment about the yield one of these systems can produce: 19.8 lbs. of Swiss chard from just 3 plants; 88 lbs. of tomatoes from 5 bushes; 22 lbs. of beets from 60 plants; 33 lbs. of lettuce from 30 plants; 6 lbs. of radishes from 60 plants. Those were some samples. It’s pretty impressive. And it’s food security at its best. In today’s market, with so many herbicides and pesticides killing our rivers and streams, animals, plant life, and human life, finding healthier ways to grow food is a worthy endeavor.

For more information, you may visit Mr. Hallam’s website at https://murrayhallam.com

May God bless you & keep you!