Category Archives: Townie homesteading

Victory garden

I’d planned to start seeds indoors this year, but after the growlights I bought from Amazon turned out to be defective, I moved the whole operation outside, with the help of some new tools.

First, I took Mom’s advice and did some winter sowing, which involves turning plastic bottles into miniature cold frames. I’d been saving 96-oz. cider jugs for this purpose all winter. They turned out to be just the right size to slip down into the holes in some cinderblocks I had on hand. The blocks provide thermal mass while keeping the jugs from blowing away. I need to thin the plants, but they’re doing very well.

Tomato plant growing in makeshift cloche
A 96-oz. cider jug just fits inside a cinderblock, creating a mini-greenhouse for sprouting tomatoes.

My little cider-bottle cloches are parked in a raised bed made from a $45 feed-store fire ring and filled with a mix of potting soil and chicken litter — a technique I first used in my juglone-contaminated garden in Cape. Come planting day, I’ll mulch with cedar shavings to discourage bugs.

Raised beds made of fire rings
Note the fence to protect certain beds — necessary because Ramona is obsessed with destroying every plastic bottle she can reach.

I found a bargain I couldn’t pass up at Tractor Supply a couple of weeks ago: $40 walk-in mini-greenhouses.

Small greenhouse
This little greenhouse cost $40 and took less than an hour to assemble and anchor.

To keep it warm and protect it from the wind, I parked mine in a sheltered corner next to my office window and anchored it with cinderblocks and bungee cords.

Greenhouse interior
Cinderblocks anchor the greenhouse in place and provide thermal mass.

The new greenhouse is proving to be a nice place to start herbs:

Chives sprouting in a container
Chives are beginning to come up in a dollar-store pot.

Cilantro sprouting in a container
My cilantro is starting to come up.

Out of an abundance of caution, I decided to grow a Victory Garden this year, focusing on reliably heavy producers: okra, green beans, cucumbers, collards, zucchini, and potatoes. If supply lines get screwed up, we’ll still have plenty to eat; if they don’t, we’ll have plenty to share with people whose incomes have been compromised by the coronavirus-induced drop in tourism.

Emily

Duck update

I haven’t really moved in until I have a fire ring full of compost in the backyard. The five-gallon buckets are the latest in my epic quest for an acceptable duck-pond filtration system.

Plan A: Adopt four ducklings, free-range them in the backyard, and give them an $8 kiddie pool to play in and a $60 doghouse to sleep in, because it’s cheaper than investing $300 in the prefabbed chicken coop that I want but Ron says we can’t afford.

Plan B (four weeks later): Get tired of draining the kiddie pool with a bucket every two days. Build pond and biofilter — with hose bibb attached to the top to make water changes fast and easy — out of a $60 stock tank and another $60 worth of gravel, plumbing parts, and other materials. Feel terribly clever.

Plan C (12 hours later): Discover that biofilters made from five-gallon buckets float, even when filled with water. Cuss. Add sand, gravel, and various other media to try to get submersible filter to stay submerged.

Plan D (12 hours later): Discover that five-gallon buckets full of waterlogged sand and gravel also float, because to hell with the laws of physics, that’s why. Cuss. Jury-rig $4 system for anchoring filter in place.

Plan E (12 hours later): Discover design flaw in anchoring system that keeps pump from functioning in new filter. Cuss. Spend another $30 on parts to build an external biofilter.

Plan F (5 days later): Discover that ducks generate way more particulate matter than a simple biofilter can handle, thus choking down the pump approximately 37 times a day. Cuss. Rummage through shed, find small plastic tub and some bungee cords, and construct mechanical filter to protect the pump.

Plan G (3 days later): Discover that pump is way too powerful to get away with using half-inch fittings for the entire project. Cuss. Blow another $70 on parts and materials to construct a finer mechanical filter, a clarifier, and a filter with outlets of increasing size. Damage filter while building it. Cuss. Repair it with duct tape and caulk, because hell with it. Watch in amusement as duct tape and white-trash engineering one-up all previous efforts and filter works better than all previous attempts, ostensibly because of better engineering, but probably because duct tape fixes everything.

Plan H (Somewhere in the middle of all that): Discover, on first warm day, that duck poop attracts a veritable plague of flies. Research problem. Determine that deep-bedding method will control flies while generating good compost starter. Make plans to invest $250 in enough fencing to confine the ducks to a comfortable corner of the yard with their pond, their house, and their favorite tree.

I’m so glad we didn’t waste $300 on a prefabbed chicken coop we could have assembled in one afternoon….

Emily

Duck yeah!

I can’t believe I got away with this.

They already smell weird, and I’m pretty sure they are going to annoy me beyond belief, but don’t act like these aren’t the cutest little things you’ve ever seen.

I hired some help for the garden.

Complaining already. It’s gonna be a long four weeks.

Walter is a bit more curious than I’d like, but I can lock him out of my office easily enough to keep them safe when I can’t supervise.

“Mom! Mom, what is that? Is something alive in that crate? Can I make it dead?”

We’ll see how this goes. The good thing about ducks is that they grow faster than chickens, so they should be big enough to kick out into the backyard in a month or less.

Emily

Broody.

My late buff Orpington hen, Pushy Galore, was one of the funniest animals I have ever owned.

As I do every year at about this time, I’ve gone broody.

I need chickens.

Actually, what I *really* need is quail, but they aren’t available locally. Failing that, I’d like a duckling. Or two. Or six. Whatever. Ron is balking, but I’ve seen a couple of people in town raising them as backyard pets, and they appear to be thriving. Sure, their wading pool will probably add a coupla bucks a month to the water bill, but that’s still cheaper than buying eggs at the grocery store. Plus if I ever adopt that Border collie I’ve been thinking about since January, it will have something to herd, so it won’t get bored and spend all day annoying me. And if we end up hating them? Duck is DELICIOUS. I’m not seeing a down side here.

Anyway, one way or the other, it is that magical time of year when a Rubbermaid tub full of shavings and a screen are supposed to appear in my office, and a heat lamp is supposed to hang over them, warming a flock of stinky-yet-adorable balls of fuzz.

My favorite chicken breed, as anybody who’s spent much time on this blog knows, is the buff Orpington. Orps are good layers with great personalities — curious as cats and almost as friendly as dogs. They get along well with other chickens, they’re decent foragers, and they’re entertaining enough that I could probably cancel my Britbox subscription if I had a flock. WIN.

Tractor Supply — the only local source for chicks that I’m aware of at the moment — does not carry buff Orpingtons. Or any other variety of Orpingtons, for that matter. They do, however, have a few barred Rocks, and if I’m completely honest with myself, I’ll admit that Rocks are probably a better choice for our yard than Orpingtons, because they’re much more aggressive foragers, and I’m told this neighborhood is lousy with scorpions in the summer. A flock of feisty barred Rock hens would happily knock down the scorpion population for me.

I think I’ll head out to the shed to take a quick inventory of my chick-rearing equipment, and then I’ll cruise down 66 to Tractor Supply and see what kind of feathered friends I can rustle up.

Emily

Small Homes

Remember when we had a friend over to take pictures of our house for possible inclusion in Lloyd Kahn’s new book, Small Homes?

We were included, and two copies of the book arrived in the mail today. Eep!

This is a cool book. We’re on pages 142-145.

It was fun to look at the pictures, which showed how the house looked in December 2015, before I redecorated four rooms, swapped out a bunch of furniture and discovered the magic of cheap IKEA shoe bins. Sometimes I forget how far we’ve come in here, and seeing old photos — accompanied by a narrative showing my thoughts at the time — gives me a nice sense of accomplishment to counterbalance all the times I walk in here, see what needs to be done and get frustrated with myself because I haven’t done it yet. (Yeah, kitchen floor, I’m lookin’ at you.)

The photos were taken near Christmas, obviously.

I’m amazed we got four whole pages. Not bad for a house we didn’t even build.

Even before all my projects last year, our house looked fairly spacious, and I’m proud to have it featured in the book, where hopefully it will inspire somebody else to experiment with minimalism and downsizing. It isn’t carved out of the side of a hill, sculpted by hand from cob, rescued from the brink of demolition or located in a picturesque forest or desert, but Kahn’s justification for its inclusion delighted me, because it sums up my reasons for sending him photos and information in the first place:

“As you may know, our building books are generally heavy on graphics and light on details. However, this meticulous rendering by Emily and Ron of their ideas for living in a small space, and the cost-conscious ways they’ve carried out their goals is rare and useful, practical information.” — LK

I hope people do find it useful and practical, and if anybody found out about this blog by way of the book, I strongly encourage you to search my Eco-Saturday and Tiny Tuesday tags to see more examples of our efforts to save space and live lightly on the planet. And, of course, if you found out about the book by way of this blog, I encourage you to support Kahn’s work by buying a copy or clicking over to The Shelter Blog to see what else he’s got up his sleeve. He’s done some great work over the last few years, and we always keep a copy of his Tiny Homes book handy to fuel our daydreams.

Oh, and mad props to our friend Laura Simon, photographer extraordinaire, who shot a bunch of the photos that ended up in the book. (We’ll be giving her the second copy of the book, of course.)

Emily

Sunday Self-Care: Making the beds

As I mentioned several weeks ago, I don’t stop gardening in the winter. Time spent working in the sunshine is a necessity if I’m to keep seasonal depression at bay, and winter is an ideal time to work on a garden’s infrastructure. My focus this year has been adding raised beds. I had six last year, and my goal is to have a dozen by planting time this year — a task that should be accomplished easily enough, as we generally buy one every paycheck, and we’re still five checks away from Planting Day.

I think the bird's-nest concept takes up too much room to work in the garden itself, but it'll be cute around a raised bed in the front yard later on.
I think that bird’s-nest concept takes up too much room to work in the garden proper, but it’ll be cute around a flowerbed in the front yard later on.

I’ve been filling the beds with compostable materials, peat moss, and finished compost. A third of a bale of peat on the bottom provides filler as well as drainage and aeration, and three bags of compost on top will just about fill up the bed, for a total cost of about $8 per bed.

I can’t say enough good things about these beds, which are just plain old 36-inch fire rings. They run between $30 and $45 apiece, depending on where you buy them and whether you catch a sale, and they’re lightweight, easy to position (just roll them where you want them), and make planting and weeding very easy. I installed them out of necessity — the juglones from the neighbors’ black walnut and pecan trees have rendered the soil in my backyard worthless for growing most vegetables — but they’ve proven so advantageous in so many directions, I’m not sure I’d go back to traditional rows even if I had the option.

As you can see in the picture, I’ve also started mulching with cedar shavings in between beds. They look neat, discourage pests, and smell nice when I walk over them.

Emily

P.S.: The tin cans you see in one of the rings in the top picture are leftovers from last year’s plantings. Besides being a good way to start seeds, the cans help protect young plants from marauding squirrels, which love to dig through my raised beds in search of nuts. My tomato plants wouldn’t have survived without them last year.

Looking ahead

I was standing in a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel with a paintbrush in my hand one bright afternoon in April when the managing editor of the local paper dropped by to talk about the mural I was working on. When he found out I was a professional journalist, he mentioned he was planning to retire soon.

One might, at this point, question why I am posting this from Cape Girardeau and not from Tucumcari.

The answer: I’d have had to take a 30 percent pay cut, and the income just wouldn’t have been enough to cover two car loans, two mortgages and the $5,000 transmission bill we’d gotten stuck with last winter. We live pretty frugally, but I know from experience that moving cross-country is an expensive proposition when you already have an existing mortgage.

A few weeks after we got home from Tucumcari, I picked up a book called Possum Living, which is about a young woman and her father who spent several years living without any sort of regular income. I loved it, partly because it validated my long-held belief that a sensible financial plan depends more on eliminating expenses than amassing wealth, and partly because it inspired me: If I paid off our debts, I could afford to move without undue stress.

I did some quick math and realized the best way to accomplish that goal would be to stop eating meals out.

In the span of five years, we’d eaten the equivalent of a new Volvo. If I took the money we were spending in restaurants and applied it to my credit-card bill, we could pay off the transmission by spring. With that paid off, we could use the newly freed-up money to pay off the car — then roll that money into the mortgage. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, we could be debt-free by Oct. 15, 2021, at which point we could start shopping for land in New Mexico to build the tiny house of our dreams.

Since early August, we’ve sent about $1,850 to the credit-card company. Every time I cook at home, I write down what that meal would have cost at a restaurant, and once a week, Ron sends the credit-card company the money we didn’t spend on dinner. It adds up fast: We’re averaging about $100 a week, and I expect that to go up in April, when our cellphone contracts will expire and we can switch to cheaper phones with cheaper plans.

I’m also losing weight (I’ve dropped 20 lbs. since July) and generating less trash via paper wrappers and cardboard boxes, which is better for the environment.

If we keep going at this rate, we should be debt-free in 2,119 days. Go, us!

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Kitchen composter

As we work toward our long-term goal of building a tiny house someday, I’ve turned our small-but-not-tiny house into a sort of de facto laboratory for experimenting with products and tools that conserve space while increasing convenience. I’m blogging the ones that work here, in case anybody else is looking for ways to save space and time.

Over the years, I’ve tried several strategies for collecting compostable materials as we generate them in the kitchen.

I started with my mom’s tried-and-true approach: Keep an old ice-cream tub on the kitchen counter and throw peelings and cores  into it as you work. It’s not pretty, but it worked fine when I was a kid, and Mom and Dad were cooking for a family of five and sending a kid out to the compost pile with a full tub of scraps every day. It doesn’t work so well in a household with only two people in it, as the tub takes the better end of a week to fill up, during which time it will start to smell pretty raunchy.

To reduce the odor problem, I tried keeping kitchen scraps in a half-gallon Mason jar. The jar took up a smaller footprint on the counter, but it also had a smaller mouth (making it hard to scrape things into); depending on what was inside, it could look pretty gross; and while the lid sealed in odors well, it also encouraged anaerobic bacteria growth, which made opening it extremely unpleasant after a day or two.

I finally resigned myself to daily trips to the compost bin (which ultimately resulted in a lot of perfectly good scraps going down the garbage disposal during crummy weather), but one evening at work, when I was killing time after deadline, I stumbled across the Kitchen Compost Caddy on Amazon.

I really need to pay more attention to what's in the crisper. Throwing strawberries in the compost bin is just depressing.
I really need to pay more attention to what’s in the crisper. Throwing strawberries in the compost bin is just depressing.

It’s expensive (I gave nearly $60 for mine with shipping), but it’s really well designed, and I’ve used it a lot more than I expected. I like it because it doesn’t take up any space on my counter; the filter keeps it from smelling weird; and it has a little metal gizmo on it that holds the lid open while you scrape plates and stuff into it.

If it makes you feel better about the price, you can think of it as a steampunk garbage disposal.

I take ours out about once a week and empty it into the big compost bin at the same time I change the litter in the quail pen (thus striking a nice carbon-nitrogen balance in the pile) and hose it out while I’m refilling their big water dispenser.

Emily

P.S.: Nobody’s paying me or giving me free products to get me to endorse anything. I just posted this review because I bought this thing and liked it and thought somebody else might, too.

Quail update

As promised, here is the update on my quail project. As those of you who have been around here for a while know, I’ve kept quail off and on for two years now, with varied results.

Based on my experience, quail have three major drawbacks that make me hate the city’s anti-chicken ordinance with the fury of ten thousand Africanized honeybees:

1. Coturnix quail chicks are incredibly stupid, which makes them difficult and frustrating to raise.

2. In addition to being tiny, quail eggs have very thin shells and very thick membranes, which makes them difficult to crack without breaking yolks and getting flecks of shell in your breakfast.

3. Coturnix quail are messy and will waste more food than they eat. I spent an outrageous amount of money on feed and bedding last year after my poor little stupid birds threw their food all over their pen instead of eating it.

I solved the first problem by purchasing adult birds from an ol’ boy out near Little Grassy Lake who raises quail for hunters to use in training bird dogs. Babies are cute and fuzzy, but adults are the only way to go if you don’t want to drive yourself crazy.

I solved the second problem by ordering a pair of quail-egg scissors from Amazon.com. No more broken yolks, and no more eggshell in my sandwiches. Best eight bucks I ever spent.

That little blade just guillotines the end of the egg right off. Handiest gadget in my kitchen, to be honest.
That little blade just guillotines the end of the egg right off. Handiest gadget in my kitchen, to be honest.

The scissors make a nice, clean cut so you can dump the egg right out into the frying pan.
The scissors make a nice, clean cut so you can dump the egg right out into the frying pan.

The third problem took a bit of research, but I was delighted beyond belief to find the solution on YouTube:

If you’re considering quail, buy yourself a cheap soldering iron and a 99-cent plastic shoebox and make this little feeder. The whole project will pay for itself in less than two weeks. (I already had a soldering iron in the garage, so my feeder paid for itself in about a day.) My birds went from wasting a cup (or more) of feed a day to maybe a teaspoon.

I live too far from Wisconsin to buy this guy the beer I owe him for sharing this design, so I’ll do the next best thing and send some traffic to his website, Homesteading Ways. Seriously — go check it out. He and his wife have some good stuff on there.

Emily

Checking in

Good Lord. Did I really just go almost three months between posts? Ridiculous. I promise I’ll try to do better.

Since my last post, I have:

* Spent a week in October painting murals in Tucumcari — one on the side of Tee Pee Curios and one in a garage at the Blue Swallow. It was a great vacation and a wonderful way to relax without slacking. I also established some good habits while we were out there — namely, walking a lot more and getting up a little earlier — which seem to be paying some health benefits I’ll discuss at length in a future post. I’ll try to put some pictures up soon, too.

* Swapped my chickens for another flock of quail. I swore I wouldn’t mess with quail again, because last year’s flock was a pain in the arse, but some ratfink snitched to the city, the very week our chickens FINALLY started laying, so Hazel (whose parents live in the country, and whose mommy wanted to start raising chooks again anyway) now has her very own flock of buff Orpingtons. Rather than give up fresh eggs altogether, which would be letting the terrorists win, I dragged the quail pen out from under the deck and exploited that loophole in the city code, with the help of a couple of small tools that proved to be a giant help. I plan to have a post later this week on everything you need to know to make quail as easy and fun to deal with as chickens.

* Held my first book signing. I sold 31 copies and raised about $350 for my hometown library’s history room, which was cool. I also got to see my sixth-grade English teacher, who is one of my favorites, and whom I hadn’t seen in the better end of 30 years, which was even cooler.

* Created a detailed plan for paying off debt, reducing our environmental footprint, and prepping for an eventual move to a tiny house somewhere in or near Tucumcari (which, for the record, doesn’t have any ridiculous anti-chicken ordinances in its city code). I’ll be sharing some of that over the next few weeks.

* Lost 19 pounds, mostly by eating at home more as part of the aforementioned debt-reduction plan.

I know I’ve scoffed at New Year’s resolutions in the past, but the one I made two years ago (to blog recipes and eco-friendly projects every week) resulted in a lot of good, useful content, some of which has been shared pretty extensively on Pinterest, and the one I made at the start of 2015 (to develop a taste for hops) resulted in drinking a lot of high-quality craft beer and making friends with some really interesting local business owners, so I think I’m going to unveil a few goals/resolutions/projects for 2016 in the next couple of weeks. At least one of them will involve posting here more regularly, because I miss it. 🙂

Emily