Category Archives: Conservation

Dog-Eared: My Favorite Urban Homestead Reading

Many years ago I picked up a little green book called Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein. I have written here before about how that book transformed my relationship with my garden. Before reading it, I thought I had to attack the soil with my rototiller, then defend the conquered earth against the onslaught of weeds the tilling then cultivated, only to have to repeat the entire battle over again the next year after my labors had tamped the earth into a hard pack. After reading Noah’s Garden, I traded the sword and the ploughshare. Instead, I mulch deeply with layers of organic matter and let the worms do all the work. My soil stays more microbially rich and aerated as a result.

I thought I’d share a few more of the most beloved titles from the collection that guides and inspires me. Some are very practical how-to’s, some are philosophical manifestos, some are just damn fine stories.

Pragmatics

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day, by Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg. I heard a segment on The Splendid Table about this book in 2010, and I don’t think I have bought bread in a store (except for when we were in Italy, duh!) since. It is the easiest, quickest thing in the world to make bread with this method, and the variations are endless. I have made pita loaves, hamburger buns, olive bread, pizza crust, ciabatta, plain white loaves, wheat loaves. I have loved this book to pieces — literally. The spine has cracked in three places.

The Backyard Goat: An Introductory Guide to Keeping and Enjoying Pet Goats, from Feeding and Housing to Making Your Own Cheese, by Sue Weaver. A very practical and detailed guide to acquiring, caring for, breeding, and benefitting from goats on a very small scale. It was just the thing I needed to show me that this is, perhaps, a project for my retirement, when I have lots more time.

Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces, by Barbara Kilarski. When the idea first hatched in my head in 2004 that I wanted to keep a few chickens in my backyard, this is the first book I acquired. It was a great and accessible introduction to the ins-and-outs of flockkeeping, and I have loaned it out and referred to it time and again over the years.

Living with Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock, by Jay Rossier and Geoff Hansen, was my next acquisition in the chicken care library. Also very practical and accessible, and offers much more detail than the Kilarski book, including butchering advice. For 200-level flockkeeping studies.

Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock, by Judy Pangman. I own a copy of this book because I helped the author with one of the designs. She uses the coop at the Oakhurst Community Garden (now the Wylde Center) in Decatur as one of her plans. So I connected her with some information, and my neighbor Bill contributed some photos. It’s an excellent resource — another that I have loaned out several times.

Clark Howard’s Living Large in Lean Times: 250+ Ways to Buy Smarter, Spend Smarter, and Save Money. Okay, I know he isn’t exactly Mr. Back-To-Nature Homesteading Make-Your-Own-Granola Man, but I am a total Clarkhead. He is the ultimate penny-pincher, and if you have read any of this blog, you know how I love me some frugality. This is the man who will make one disposable razor last an entire year by drying it off after every use (it turns out that it’s moisture more than use that dulls a razor). And yes, I now dry off my razor.

Manifestos

Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver. This marvelous little 2002 volume predates her better known Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but for me, it was the more important book. It’s an unflinching but loving and holistic look at the earth in all its glory and woe, from the Grand Canyon to Kingsolver’s vegetable patch. One essay in particular, titled “Lily’s Chickens,” was especially inspirational for me, and it helped me understand and articulate the reasons large and small I wound up helping to start a chicken revolution in Decatur.

(I also count the aforementioned Noah’s Garden amongst my favorite manifestos . . . manifesti?)

Damn Good Stories

A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food, by Elizabeth Englehardt. Read this book not just for the damn fine stories but also for some serious scholarly illumination on the complex issues that weave together women, food, health, power, class, race, and region. There’s moonshine, cornbread, biscuits, and more. I especially love the chapter on tomato clubs. In fact, I want to start a tomato club. Who’s in?

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter. I have written here before about this delightful tale of how Carpenter took over a vacant lot in a sketchy part of Oakland, California, planted an insane overabundance of fruits and vegetables, and started keeping chickens, bees, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats, and pigs. I think of her when I need to remember why I want goats — and why I should never, ever want pigs.

What’s on your bookshelf?

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Emory Magazine: Recalculating the Cost of Living

I am pleased to share this essay, adapted from a blog post on the Southern Urban Homestead, now in the spring 2012 issue of Emory Magazine. I especially love the illustration. Check it out:

“Recalculating the Cost of Living,” Emory Magazine, Spring 2012

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A Wish Come True

Well, y’all, I did it! I installed a solar-powered rain barrel pump, my second wish on my wish list. It was surprisingly simple. Just plug in the battery, cut the hose to the proper length, connect a few wires, drop the hose and pump into the barrel, position the panel. Within two minutes I was pressing a button to see what would happen and I squirted myself with 13 psi of stinky rain barrel water. I laughed out loud with happy happy joy joy! What a wonderful way to celebrate Earth Day, don’t you think?

I have the solar panel anchored in the ground in a spot I think will get about 8 hours of sun in the morning through mid-afternoon, but I can move it if it doesn’t work. But here’s how it’s working now.

Now I start saving for beekeeping equipment. In the meantime, if you live near me, cover up your seedlings, because it’s supposed to get down in the thirties in the next few nights!

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Upside-Down Economics

For me, one of the great rewards of the “urban homesteading” lifestyle is that it enables me to live pretty frugally. Or perhaps “frugal” is not exactly the right word. More accurately, I have greater control and choice over where my hard-earned dollars go. It shifts some of the variables in the cost-of-living equation.

For example, instead of spending lots on utility bills and things like Tide laundry detergent, I use a clothesline and make my own laundry soap. There is some meat in my diet, but it isn’t a daily thing. I get a lot of protein from other sources (eggs, beans + grains, and my dearly beloved cheese)—which is much less expensive, so when I do buy meat, I can splurge on something local, sustainable, grass-fed, and fabulous. If I grow a lot of my own food and buy from local farmers, I’m putting my money into a local organic chicken feed co-op and Saturday farmer’s market instead of the fossil fuel industry.

One of the conundrums, though, of the “locavore” movement is that it has upscaled quality basic ingredients. Restaurants that feature locally and sustainably grown foods tend to be very pricey. Unless you are at a certain income level, a McDonald’s hamburger meal is still going to be the more practical option than, say, a Farm Burger  meal—which is an incredibly good value but still more expensive than McDonald’s. I love that Decatur’s local farmer’s market accepts Electronic Benefits Transfer  (EBT — the electronic version of food stamps from the state) cards and that it is strategically located within easy walking distance of the city’s public housing development. But then again, if you’re stretching your EBT allocation as far as it can go, and you can get a much bigger bunch of carrots at Kroger, where would your common sense take you?

These complicated questions about food, sustainability, class, culture, accessibility, and economy are beginning to filter into the media. NPR recently ran this story about Hardwick, Vermont, a town many think of as a kind of epicenter for local food production in the Northeast. But as one Hardwick high school student observed, “There’s the side of the town that’s for the local food movement, but I think there’s an even greater side of the town, with more people, that can’t afford the local food. I work at our local supermarket grocery store, and I see most of the people in town there.” One farmer in the area is responding to this concern by introducing a more “industrial” edge to his processing: more frozen, pre-washed fruits and vegetables that will be packaged specifically for the local supermarkets.

And yesterday, a piece in the New York Times about locavore queen Barbara Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, who has struggled in the last several years to start a restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia, where they live, in the heart of the Appalachians. The concept for Harvest Table is noble: locally sourced produce, meats, and cheeses; other stuff that they ship in is organic and/or fair trade. His vision is egalitarian, “built by and caters to the community,” the article explains. But Harvest Table has yet to make a profit in its four years. It’s too expensive for the locals. The average annual income in the area is $15,750. From the article: “‘If you go over there and eat, you have to pay $20,’ said Kay Thomas, 69, who has been farming in Meadowview with her husband for a half-century. ‘You can go to Pizza Hut and eat for $6. With the economy the way it is, you have to watch what you do.'”

What kind of upside-down economic system renders the most basic, most simple, most easily produced food the least accessible? What can you do to turn it aright? For me, it goes back to that question of redirecting my resources — and it goes to thinking about my lifestyle in simple economic terms. If I make some kind of purchase for my garden — for instance, a Growcamp that I spent $600 on earlier this year — I think of it in the long-term, and as an investment for future food production. Last year I hired someone to help me improve my rainwater catchment system — a significant up-front expense, but I haven’t watered my garden from a spigot on the house at all this year.

Maybe “frugal” is the right word, after all. I want my food to be cheap. So I consider the flow of goods and funds in a different way. If I sell a few dozen eggs, my fancy organic chicken feed is paid for. As regular readers know, I’m always on the hunt for a good barter and the alt-economy it helps create. The value of goods and services seem more real somehow, and so maybe in some scheme it helps bring the greater system back down to earth.

And while I love and appreciate  the upscale restaurants that have embraced the local food trend, especially the ones right around here in Decatur, I also love preparing great meals at home with food I have grown myself. They are very cost-efficient if I think about what ingredients I have on hand and build a menu from that: Flour, water, salt, and yeast. Mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant from my garden.

Suddenly, my pizza is cheaper than Pizza Hut’s, and much more delicious.

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Piling It On

Years ago I read a wonderful book called Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our Own Backyards, by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin 1995). Stein (who, sadly, died of lung cancer in 2005) tells the story of how she began to completely reinvent the way she gardened in her five acres in Westchester County, New York. Instead of endlessly struggling against the local ecosystems to create some kind of idyllic English garden-style suburban lawn, Stein began to garden with her local habitats, to restore biodiversity right there in her backyard and coax it into a more naturalized landscape.

The layers, from ground-level view, before I dug through them

One of the topics Stein devotes some attention to in her book is soil. Rather than tilling up the soil of her vegetable garden and compacting it down year after year, she began to try to mimick a forest floor with her garden—to help it become dense with layers of biomass that fall to the earth and break down into loam. Stein made like a tree: she deposited deep layers of leaves, along with kitchen scraps and other compostables, onto the soil and left it there for months on end. When she stuck a spade through the layers, she found rich, fluffy soil that was teeming with microbial life.

I own a tiller, but I have rarely used it after reading Noah’s Garden. Instead, every fall I heap leaves, chicken poo-soiled hay, and half-broken-down compost onto my garden beds. Last fall, before I spread the leaves, I also put down several layers of paper—mostly some old chicken feed bags, but those paper lawn waste bags work great, too—right on top of the soil after I had pulled out all the spent summer vegetable vines and stalks.

Here's a peek at the soil after I hoed through the layers to plant peas.

It went like this: a layer of paper, a layer of leaves, a layer of poo/hay and half rotted compost, then another layer of leaves. I kept piling it on, adding more throughout the fall and winter, so that the layers were about a foot deep. I have heard this method called “lasagne gardening.” It’s also called “sheet composting” or “no-till gardening.” Sally Wylde would have called it mulching. The woman did know how to mulch her garden.

A view of the rows hoed out and ready for peas. The layers of mulch will remain between the rows.

Whatever you call it, it is some kind of magic. Last weekend I planted peas, which meant it was time to send a hoe through those layers and see what was beneath. And what it was, was worms. Big, fat, juicy ones. The earth itself practically wiggled, there were so many earthworms in it.

Those earthworms basically do the job that the tiller would do—only they do it much better, without damaging the soil structure, without leaving the soil vulnerable to later compaction when you walk through in your garden clogs. They are also a sign of healthy dirt. And my favorite part? Throwing a bunch of paper, leaves, and poo down to grow the worms is much easier and less stinky than handling a tiller. It’s also, I think, a much easier way to get worm compost than with a worm bin. I am all about the lazy.

The other thing about all those layers is that they will stay there all summer long. They will slowly break down and become pure compost, too. Worried that your garden will offend the neighbors because it’s piled high with your recyclables? Consider this: in late summer, while your neighbors’ gardens are dessicated and pitiful and the weeds have taken over in the relentless heat and drought, the “trash” you piled in yours will be holding in tons of moisture and helping keep weeds to a minimum. Your garden will be thriving and green.

Here’s a little clip of me saying howdy to the worms:

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Slide Down My Rain Barrel

Tomorrow, October 22, is the Southern Urban Homestead’s first blogiversary. Thank you, gentle readers, for a fun and inspiring year!


After months of relentless rain and even some snow, last spring dried up, and once again we have endured a long bout of drought. These periods seem to be coming more frequently in the past few years, along with increasing public awareness for the need to conserve water (and, rightfully, bans and crackdowns on outdoor watering). Even though it’s mostly still permissible to water a food garden from a faucet, rainwater recapture just makes more sense, environmentally and economically. So a few years ago I started accumulating rain barrels.

My first one — purchased during one of those desperate dry periods maybe six years back — had had a previous life as a shipping container for olives, and it arrived actually smelling like olive oil (yum). I set it up to catch flow from my garden shed downspout and waited. When it finally did rain, the 55-gallon barrel filled up quickly, so I bought another one and set it up to catch the overflow from the first one. And then a friend gave me a third one, which I added to the chain. And then last year, another friend gave me a fourth one (that last one is my favorite — it was actually painted by a local artist and auctioned off as a fundraiser for a community nonprofit, which is how I ended up with it.)

They got it going on in Sri Lanka

A rain barrel is a nifty thing. You fill them up by draining water off of a roof when it rains. A screen covers the barrel top to keep debris and leaves from getting inside and hatched mosquito larvae from getting out. Then you draw the water from a tap toward the base. I recently visited the water exhibit at Fernbank Museum and took this photo of a rainwater jar from Sri Lanka. It holds several thousand liters. A girl can dream, right?


My poorly installed rain barrel system


Obviously this rain barrel needed a little TLC.

I originally installed  all of mine myself, up on stacks of bricks and cinderblocks with downspout extensions feeding into them. But I didn’t do a very good job. I had put all of them back next to my small garden shed because that’s the highest place on my lot, which I’d hoped would help generate enough pressure for my harvested rainwater to flow out of hoses. But sometimes they would topple over, too heavy for their supports. My rickety perches weren’t high enough, either, so that when I tried to run a hose from a barrel to a nearby bed that happened to be slightly up slope, gravity was not working in my favor.

Then I found Ben. As in Barrels By Ben. Ben reclaims used barrels (whiskey barrels from Tennessee, recycled food-grade barrels, and recycled 275-gallon totes) and installs them in commercial and residential rainwater harvesting systems. I called him up, and together we put together a new and improved plan for my four barrels.

I have what is most practically described as a moat around the back of my house. It’s a small drainage ditch that is level with the top of the house’s foundation, so that the house sits slightly nestled into the grade of the surprisingly steep hill of my property. The problem is that the earth next to my house, because it is held up by a wall of stacked bricks and not much else, isn’t firm enough to support the weight of 165 gallons of water in three barrels — another reason I installed my barrels on the shed downspouts. The rainwater off my roof was a wasted precious resource.

Reinstalled: three on a deck over the moat next to the house, one next to the shed in the back.

Ben’s solution was to build a little deck of sweet-smelling, durable cedar off the back of my house next to a valley in my roof that would redistribute the weight of the barrels so that the ground wouldn’t collapse beneath them. And so that’s what we did. See how they are nice and high? I’ll get enough pressure going to run soaker hoses into the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent and water all day long. He also re-installed one on the garden shed downspout on a very high, very stable perch.

Now. If only some rain would slide down my rain barrel . . .

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The Southern Urban Homesteader Takes A Very Slow Road Trip

Caleb-dog and I took a lovely little road trip to the Georgia coast for a few days. We made it slow and easy; I decided in the interest of fuel economy to drive no faster than 65 miles per hour most of the way down on the Interstates. I loaded some audiobooks on my ipod, packed some snackage, and off we went. The trip down took about 5 1/2 hours, and I definitely got better gas mileage, but I got tailgated, honked at, and gestured at for going 5 miles under the speed limit. It took an act of will to maintain my steady pace. This while millions of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps in addition to raging at the BP machine, we should examine our own sick need to drive everywhere fast and consume more fossil fuel than necessary.

On the coast I stayed with my dear friends the Spratts, who own a bed and breakfast in Darien, Georgia. If you are ever looking for a beautiful place to stay in a sleepy little coastal Southern town, please check out the Open Gates Bed and Breakfast. Jeff and Kelly are both trained biologists and know much about the area’s rich natural resources. They can point you in all kinds of fun directions. They will also serve you some amazingly sweet locally caught wild Georgia shrimp (the area’s major industry) with grits for breakfast. I stopped by the Georgia Shrimp Company market and brought home five pounds of large shrimp and froze them in one-pound batches.

Oh, and saltwater swimming pool? Best thing ever — no chlorine!

We had a brief but thoroughly relaxing few days of early morning runs, a visit to the beach at Jekyll Island, a couple of dips in that marvelous pool in the heat of the day, and just hanging out and visiting. I goofed around with Kelly and Jeff’s kids a good bit. Here is a song that Hank and I wrote last year. We thought it deserved its own video.


Yesterday instead of trudging back up the interstate, I decided to make the journey part of the destination and took a meandering backroad drive home, going about 55 most of the way. Including some protracted stops, it took about 6 1/2 hours to get home. We broke up the trip by visiting some farm stands, where I picked up some Vidalia onions, peaches, cantaloupe, and pecans.

And as we passed through Milledgeville, on impulse I turned off US 441 into Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s beautiful 544-acre farm there. We spent an hour or so walking the  verdant grounds and spotted all sorts of wildlife, including four deer. Caleb happily sunk himself into the cool mud at the edge of the pond.

A self-portrait Flannery O'Connor painted in 1953. Gotta love a woman who loves her birds.

And joy to my heart, the peacocks are back. Flannery O’Connor was a passionate keeper of chickens, ducks, and especially peafowl. This is one of the reasons I feel a particular affinity for this writer. In her honor, we have a hen named Mary Flannery.

I have read that peafowl are wonderful for mosquito control, and indeed, I didn’t see — or slap — a single skeeter during the hot and humid hour we spent walking around.

Also captivating was Flannery’s mother’s milk storage house. Early on, Regina actually worked the property as a dairy farm and stored milk in this little structure. It was restored last year. I love the bottles in the windowsill.

Between the slow drive and staying with friends, it was just about the most frugal vacation I have ever had — yet completely enjoyable. Because of the money I didn’t spend on gas and lodging, I was able to take Kelly and Jeff out for a big splurgy seafood dinner my last evening there. Another mountain of shrimp followed by vat of peach cobbler and ice cream.

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