Category Archives: Gardening

My exciting laundry

Resurrected!

Today almost felt like spring. So I did almost-springlike things. I started a flat of seeds, fixed the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent after its unfortunate collapse beneath the weight of snow last weekend, and weeded and harvested a few bits of yum from inside it.

I hunted around for helleborus and other signs of almost-spring.

But my most ambitious act in celebration of almost-spring involved laundry. I have been excited about laundry this week.

Why, you ask, would I be excited about laundry?

A few months ago, a friend of mine gave me a recipe to make my own laundry soap. I’ve been meaning to try it and finally got around to it this week. It’s easy, and my laundry detergent now costs $.01 per load. This is the kind of thing that really excites me.

You can get all these ingredients (except the lavender oil) at most any grocery store.

So I mixed up a batch. Here’s the recipe:


  • 3 pints water (6 cups)
  • 1/3 bar Fels-Naptha soap, grated
  • 1/2 cup Super Washing Soda
  • 1/2 cup borax
  • 2 gallon bucket
  • 1 quart hot water
  • 6 cups + 1 gallon hot water

Grate the bar of Fels-Naptha as you would a chunk of cheese.  Mix the grated soap in a medium sized saucepan with 3 pints of water, and heat on low until dissolved.  Stir in Washing Soap and Borax.  Stir until thickened and remove from heat.  Pour one quart hot water into a two-gallon bucket. Add soap mixture and scented oil (optional) and mix well.  Fill bucket with additonal hot water and mix well.  Set aside for 24 hours until mixture thickens.  It will have a slight gel consistency.  Use 1/2 to 3/4 cup of mixture per load, depending on the hardness of your water (harder water, more detergent).  This is a non-sudsing, fragrance-free (unless you add the optional scented oil) laundry product.

I added some lavender essential oil I happened to have on hand. Here’s the result. (And a word of warning — if you try this, wash your hands thoroughly before putting them anywhere near your eyes. Trust me on this! But that’s a whole nother story.)

Turns into a very scoopable gel

The ultimate cheapskate: I store the detergent in a recycled cat litter container.

And then the most exciting almost-spring part. In classic Southern Urban Homestead style, I washed my laundry with my homemade detergent, and I hung it out to dry in the winter sun on my clothesline. I love doing this so much that I actually wrote a song about my laundry last year. Here, in case you don’t believe me, are the first few lines:

I like my laundry on the line;

Prayer flags in the spring sunshine.

When I get to heaven,

I’ll hang my laundry on the line.

It will be on my next CD, due out later this year.

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Filed under Conservation, Gardening, Making things

Brokeback Net Tent

“Freeze your ass off tonight,” Snow said to Broccoli. “Better off sleepin in the tent.”

As the tent descended, Broccoli felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall.

“Old Brokeback got us good and it sure ain’t over.”

“You’re too much for me, Snow,” Broccoli said. “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

But nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to pick the broccoli.

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The Land of Ooze

Mud pie, mud in your eye;
Mud on a snake bite, don’t you die;
Take a little rain, take a little dirt,
Make a little mud, get it on your shirt.
We’re all just slogging through the mud.

—Guy Clark, “Mud”

Songwriter and truth-teller Guy Clark was never so right — after a year of record rainfalls following years of dusty drought, we are all just slogging through the mud. It has rained here for most of the week. Most of the month, maybe even. The cats don’t like it, the dog doesn’t like it, the chickens don’t like it. Everyone’s getting a little crazy from it. And Georgia’s small farmers have been devastated by flooded fields and lost topsoil and fertilizer (to contribute to the Georgia Farmer Flood Relief Fund, please click here).

Me, I just pull on my big yellow galoshes and get out there. I miss my garden, and I want to watch the broccoli grow. There is only one way to get scraps out of the kitchen, and that is to slop through the mud to the compost bin at the back of my lot. We try to keep the floor of the coop dry with a box fan mounted overhead, but this much water seeps in under the foundation, and the mucky mess needs to be scraped and shoveled out. The hens stay inside or up on roosts as much as they can, but they can’t help but get some of the ooze on their feet and feathers.

"Please dry my feet."

Yesterday I dragged Caleb out into it for a brisk evening trot around the neighborhood. He protested at first, but we both resigned ourselves to getting wet, and I am quite sure it was glee I was seeing on his face as he shook all that mud onto my kitchen floor and cabinets when we got home.

You have to get out there. You have to get a little mud on you. It helps if you remember that we came from mud — the primordial ooze. We all just crawled out of the mud, Guy sings.

But we enjoyed coming in from the rain and mud, too. Caleb loves a good toweling off. For me, it was dry socks and the braised cabbage, roasted sweet potato wedges, and biscuits I had made earlier in the week.

Maybe I’ll make a mud pie for dessert.


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Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening

A Paean for the Pea

I try to heed the wisdom in not wishing one’s life away, but I confess my chilled bones are giving a little leap of joy at the prospect of January finally ending this weekend. February should bring a little stir of activity — my seed orders have arrived, and I’ve begun to clean out the potting shed and make room for flats on top of the warming mats and beneath the grow lights. Soon they’ll be chock full o’ Swiss chard, salad greens, kale, arugula, and cilantro. For starters.

Sugar snap peas, a cool season joy

And in keeping with my grandmother’s no-fail practice, a ritual I have adopted as my own for the past sixteen years, I will plant four rows of peas — sugar snap peas, to be precise — on Valentine’s Day.

Indulge me for a moment whilst I lift my voice in praise of the pea. There is so much about it that is gratifying. The pea is eager to please — the sugar snap, in particular. Peas aren’t picky about soil; they like a generally balanced pH and whatever you may happen to have put in their bed in the way of compost a few months before. And in fact, peas themselves are fertilizer.  After harvest, if you turn the spent vines back into the soil, they happily bestow a bit of nitrogen for future crops. This is what we are delighted to call “green manure.”

You can plant them in a spot that is shady in the summer, because right now, all the leaves are off the trees and the sun fills your prospective pea patch. Pea seeds are relatively large, so if you spill some in planting, they are easy to recover. They sprout quickly and consistently. As you know, dear readers, I have had many problems with squirrels consuming my crops, but the peas they don’t seem to care about. If you want to be extra-sure, though, a layer of human hair clippings over your rows seems to keep them unmolested.

My friend Daphne julienned fresh, raw sugar snaps from my garden last year . . .

You can start eating almost within a couple of weeks after planting. How is that, you ask? You have planted your pea seeds an inch apart, and now you need to thin the seedlings. Who knew those pea sprouts were so delicious? I love them in a stir-fry with lots of other veggies and some tofu. Eager to please, those peas!

The only real TLC your peas require are some good trellises to hang onto as they grow. I use my tomato cages folded out flat. They work well because by the time the peas are done, the tomato plants are ready for caging. You might want to watch the weeds, but a good layer of mulch (I just use newspaper and leaves) will keep that from being an issue.

This is when the peas really start to show you some love. Lest you think Valentine’s Day is just too darn early to plant a spring crop, I remind you, Southern Urban Homesteaders, to trust the pea. It knows what it’s doing. A cold snap? Worry not. The peas love a good freeze. It seems to invigorate them. March winds and April showers? The thriving pea does a happy little pea-dance. Pests? None that I have ever encountered. Disease? Nope.

. . . which she then put into cous cous along with some garden mint, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. We ate it with our fish and salad. Amazing.

And then the best part. One mid-spring day, tiny little pea blossoms turn into tiny little pea babies, and then a week or so later, you’ll find yourself standing in the midst of your pea-patch, plucking a plump sugar snap and taking a crisp bite, hull and all. The sweetness! The crunch! You think you want to eat them all right then and there, but they grow so abundantly, you have plenty to bring inside for even more stir-fries. Or you might steam a few and drench them in butter. Or saute in a little garlic, or maybe ginger. And still they will be sweet, crunchy, pleasing little peas.

All we are saying is . . .

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Filed under Feasting, Gardening

Reminding us that life springs back

Zinnias from my garden last summer, along with a touch of eucalyptus and rue, the herb of grace, which we could all use from time to time.

Alas, my dear friend, my laptop, has developed a case of the vapors and has taken to the spa, where she remains for at least a week. So my blogging capacity is somewhat limited.

Know, however, that life still stirs on the Southern Urban Homestead. For one thing, my seed orders have begun to arrive. For another, I have knitting news to share soon.

In the meantime, let us keep the people of Haiti in our hearts with this vivid reminder that life has this way of springing back — always.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Gardening

Seeduced

Seed catalogs ought to come in the mail in brown paper wrappers. That’s how shameless they are: gardener porn. Growing season aside (I start my spring garden in February), it’s a devilish trick to send such prurient reminders when we gardeners are at our most vulnerable.

It’s 25 degrees outside this morning, and the garden is shriveled and still. There are no sleek curves, deep hues, or tantalizing perfumes of a basil plant at its most succulent; no juice dripping down your fingers from that perfectly ripe strawberry you have just plucked; no enormous yellow squash blossoms opening themselves to the honeybees’ promise of fertility. But the seed companies have deliberately stirred my desires. And shortly I will give in to my cravings and order more seeds than I will ever have room to plant, ever. And it will feel good.

Inside front page

So it begins in the bleak midwinter (as a great poet of the sensual, Christina Rosetti, once wrote), when the earth stands hard as iron and water like a stone. Shockingly vivid catalog covers assault the eye — ripe, round, bulging fruit, glossy vegetables in colors so vibrant that they couldn’t possibly be found in nature. But they really get you when you flip open the first couple of pages to the new offerings for the year, in all their exotic color, flavor, and texture — the bluer berry, the sweeter tomato, the plumper pea. And all I want to do is hold them in my hot, trembling hand.

And then there’s the prose that is purpler than a pingtung eggplant — a pepper is a “cayenne hottie”; a beet has “sweet, juicy flesh”; a cabbage says come hither with its “pure white ribs.”

Are you panting yet? A little feverish? Here — here’s an order form. I’ll give you your privacy. Go ahead. It’s perfectly natural, and everybody does it.

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The Winter Garden: Waiting

Goodbye, summer garden

Several nights of temperatures in the twenties last week blackened the remnants of my summer garden — pepper plants and a few herbs. I covered most of the area with rotted chicken manure and hay. It’s brown and flat. A pitiful sight.

Strawberries abed

Broccoli buds wait

This is a pause, a frozen moment, in which the garden doesn’t have much to say or do. If you study on it, however, you see life stirring in small ways. There are a few sturdy broccoli plants with tiny heads buried in the center, waiting for a bit of warmer weather to coax them out. They will wait until spring if necessary.

Swiss chard waits

There remain some arugula and salad greens, although I stripped much of them for a little dinner party last weekend. There are parsley plants thriving, as well as some new cilantro. The strawberry plants are buried under (what else?) straw, still green, waiting for their time. Carrots, beets, Swiss chard — all established, having grown some in the fall, now also wait. Everything waits.

Cilantro waits

Last week a friend asked me if I had ordered my spring seeds yet. I haven’t even thought about it. A few catalogues have arrived, but I will wait until well into January.

Carrots wait

Like Advent itself — the true season now passing on the Christian calendar (Christmas doesn’t start until December 25) — this is a period of gestation before the new birth, the transformation. It requires patience, and stillness, and continued watchfulness on those signs of life. Any little movement — a broccoli bud is slightly larger, the top of a carrot pops up out the ground — is cause for quiet rejoicing.

The garden is dead; long live the garden.

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“Even girls can be farmers?”

One morning this past week, at the request of a friend who teaches at the elementary school near my home, I hosted a visit of the school’s kindergarten class. According to our state’s department of education, as a southern urban homesteader, I apparently count as a “community helper.”

Kinder in the garten

The first thing the kids saw when they arrived was the garden. I explained that some plants like lots of hot weather to grow, and some plants like cool weather. And since this was November, what was growing right now was broccoli and salad greens and beets and Swiss chard, because they like it cool. (I also explained about the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent, and that squirrels eat more than just acorns. I tried not to use bad words, but it was not easy.)

Tasting vinegar and salt in homemade dill pickles

We then moved on to the canning and preserving demonstration. We talked about what happens if you pick some green beans in the summer and then leave them in a bowl in your kitchen, thinking you’ll eat them in November–you get rotten green beans. Then we talked about how salt and vinegar helps keep food from going bad so quickly. Finally, everybody got to taste some homemade dill pickles made with homegrown cucumbers: salt and vinegar.

Mutual curiosity

After the taste test came the highlight of the visit—the chickens. There was lots of chicken talk and good questions (“What do the chickens eat?” “Are there baby chicks in those eggs?” “Why do they peck?” “Do you have any roosters? Why not?”). The chickens were just as curious about their visitors as the visitors were about the chickens. We looked at how different colored chickens lay different colored eggs. We also talked about how the eggs weren’t the only benefit from the chickens, but that their poop is great for fertilizer for the garden, so the chickens help the vegetables grow, and then they get to eat some of the vegetables. We cracked an egg open so they could see that it looks just like the ones they eat, only better!

We got the guitar out (apparently this fulfills another state requirement) and all sang a chicken song together. This is a little tune I wrote for my adorable niece. It has many verses, but here’s the one we sang:

Bok bok baaack!

What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
They peck outside, they peck indoors
Take a little break then they peck some more
They’re happy and they never get bored
Peck and peck and peck and peck!

Then we sang a verse with the chickens, in their own language:

Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok baaaahk, bok bok baaaahk!
bokiebokiebok, bokie bok bok bok!
Bok bokie bok bok bok bok bok,
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!

It was quite the rousing chorus. Some even threw in a few funky chicken moves.

As they were leaving, one little girl asked, “So this is a farm?” I said, “Well, it has gardens and animals that are living and growing and giving us food, so I think it counts as a farm, even in the city.” Then she asked, “Even girls can be farmers?”

Here’s hoping that’s a seed sown.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening, Putting Up

Squirrels: Just want to have fun?

If you have ever tried to grow a few tomatoes here in metro Atlanta, then you probably know how grateful the squirrels are for the easy handout.

I was in denial at first. It was about six years ago that I began to notice my produce mysteriously disappearing from the vine. At first I thought–in true, scary, cranky old-lady gardener style–that some pesky neighborhood brats were sneaking onto my property and raiding my patch. Then I decided if some poor starving person (or teenager who suddenly craved my tomatoes instead of fast food) was going to all that trouble to take my vegetables, he or she needed them more than I did. I tried to make peace with it.

But then one summer morning, from my upstairs window, I saw what was really going on.

That little bastard was hanging upside down by his toes from the tomato cage, plucking a nearly-ripe fruit from the vine, taking one bite, then throwing it down on the ground. Taking another nearly-ripe fruit, one chomp, toss. No compunction whatsoever about the abundant waste, not to mention the flagrant theft. No consideration at all for the fact that I had, back in January, carefully selected those seeds from the bedazzlement that is the Totally Tomatoes catalog, nestled them in organic seed starter on top of a warming mat and under a grow lamp in February, transferred the delicate little seedlings to larger containers in March, and finally in late April moved my green toddlers out into the sunshine and prepared earth. All that work so that the evildoers could steal my fruits–every single one.

What happens to Swiss chard seedlings when they aren't inside the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent

And they didn’t stop there. Once they had wiped out the tomatoes, they moved on to the squash, cucumbers, lettuce, chard, kale (anything leafy green, really), peppers. During the summer droughts of 2006 through 2008, they would dig up entire plants and gnaw on the roots. (I placed shallow pans of water for them outside in hopes of deflecting their interest. They thanked me then went back to decimating my green bean population.)

After three or four years of watching my optimistically started spring gardens reduced to vast wastelands, it finally got to me. I would come home from work after thinking all day about the delicious pasta sauce I would make that night–or the fabulous stuffed chard leaves, or just a salad of fresh cucumber–only to find stuff half-eaten, fruits stripped off their plants, plants dug out of the ground. I’d stomp and yell and shake my fist while the squirrels sat nearby and laughed and chattered. Tears actually flowed along with the curses.

And then there was the evening I stood, bereft, under the oak tree near my kitchen patch, my eyes scanning the landscape for the giant almost-ripe mortgage lifter that had been there only hours before, when a mushy bit of its remains fell out of the tree and landed on the ground in front of me. A final, cruel insult.

My crack team of squirrel assassins

Friends and neighbors had many creative suggestions. The best idea (supplied by my dear friend the executive director of the Oakhurst Garden) was to pay the seven-year-old kid next door to sit in my yard all day with a BB gun and have at it. His unenlightened parents, however, did not see fit to take him out of school for said violation of child labor laws. Others suggested I get cats, not knowing that indeed I already have two cats, who lounge in their window bed and watch the squirrel raids for recreation between naps. If I happen to be around, they say, “Hey–look. Those squirrels are eating your garden. You really should do something about that.” Then they turn over and go back to sleep. Helpful, those guys.

I hunted around on the internet for solutions and ended up paying actual money for (hold your nose) granulated fox urine. Turns out you can get anything on the internet. I sprinkled the granules throughout and around the garden. The cats informed me that it stunk to high heaven and then turned over and went back to sleep. Caleb, my Australian shepherd, thought it was the most Exciting! Smell! Ever! And could he have a little with his dinner? The squirrels, on the other hand, didn’t even seem to notice and continued to cut their swath.

There were other ideas: dried blood spray (as effective as the granulated fox urine). Plant double everything so that there’s enough for me and the squirrels (I got double squirrels). Used cat litter (Caleb thought he’d died and gone to heaven). Human hair clippings (actually worked on direct-sewn seeds until they sprouted). My Rabun County friends had lots to say about .22s and squirrel stew (the .22s are illegal to fire in these here parts, and I haven’t adjusted to the idea of squirrel stew just yet).

It was while watching a PBS special on Ronald Reagan and his crazily misguided Strategic Defense Initiative that it came to me: I needed to intercept the missiles before they got anywhere near the garden. To paraphrase the Great Communicator himself, I needed a program to counter the awesome squirrel threat with measures that were defensive.

The Squirrel-Proof Net Tent

What I needed was an SDI for my garden.

Since I couldn’t get permitted for satellites with laser beams, I settled for a giant nylon tent made of garden netting. After pondering on it for a few months, my then-boyfriend and I hatched a plan, which we implemented last March.

Pegged and weighted down the edges

The Squirrel-Proof Net Tent is made of nylon garden netting, PVC poles secured into the ground with some short lengths of rebar, some of those plastic lock ties, and a few garden fabric pegs. To add a little prayer to my pragmatism, and to let the squirrels know I wished them no ill, I festooned the whole thing with a few strands of Tibetan prayer flags.

The center pole of the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent

Yessiree, folks had their doubts. My father told me I shouldn’t underestimate the ingenuity and determination of a city squirrel (this is the man who once built an entire carnival for the squirrels in his front yard–zip lines, ferris wheels, whirligigs–all baited with dried ears of corn). Others delighted in reminding me that squirrels can dig, chew through wood, and fly through the air. They were sure the squirrels would chew holes in the net.

Corn and Squash

O ye of little faith. Ye just want the terrorists to win.

My beautiful Roma tomatoes

But I had faith. I planted strawberries, Swiss chard, beets, salad greens, and my beloved tomato plants. Then I got really bold and put in four rows of corn. Cucumbers, squash, peppers, sweet potatoes. Then I held my breath. And guess what? It all grew. Thrived, even. I had a gorgeous tomato crop, and even the corn was delicious. I had won!

Rainbow Swiss chard

And then one night the outside light over my driveway threw a few sparks and died. The squirrels were mad. Livid. Banned from my garden, they took their frustration out on my wiring. Chewed right through the insulation. Got it fixed. Chewed threw it again. Have to fix it again.

Time to make that pasta sauce

And so, the squirrel wars continue. A few holes did appear in the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent by this fall, and the insurgents did do some damage to my broccoli crop. I patched it up this past weekend, however, so we’ll see if she holds.

Sam has his own BB gun now. Hmmmm . . .

Maybe I’ll get new prayer flags. Or a hired gun.

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The sun and the rain and the salad greens

Welcome to my Southern Urban Homestead, a long, narrow lot in a beautiful neighborhood of Decatur, Georgia, a small town situated fifteen easy minutes east of downtown Atlanta. Over the past fifteen-plus years this little slice of urban earth and I have had quite the partnership. We have rejoiced together. We have exchanged magnificent gifts. We have argued, even fought (I usually lose). But I have come to understand myself and my homestead better. I have, I like to think, become more awake, more patient, and more respectful of the nuances and cycles of my immediate natural surroundings.

I grew up in Rabun County, Georgia, in the southern tip of the Appalachians, and for most of my adult life, I have searched for ways to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. So it made sense that I would have a garden. My mother and grandmothers kept gardens.

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

They also “put up”–that is, they canned and froze the produce from the garden. My dad planted an orchard–another lesson in patience–and decades later, we are still harvesting apples and pears and blueberries from the trees and bushes he planted when I was a teenager. And the offspring of his blueberry bushes now thrive in my yard here in the city.

Blueberry bushes, a fig tree, and a small garden–that is how it started, when I moved here in April 1994. Soon I had expanded the garden, added a second one, and was cramming vegetable beds into every sunny nook I could find. I improved soil and began starting all my seedlings indoors each winter, as soon as the catalogs started arriving. I started canning like my mother and grandmothers had done. I composted obsessively.

Then in 2004, my neighbors and I acquired our first batch of baby chicks–fulfilling a dream I’d had for several years. We all wanted the eggs, of course, but my garden wanted the chicken poop. Thus launched an exploration of what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into an exciting local movement of folks who wanted to model a certain kind of ethical living and to connect with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.

Our latest spring chicks

Our latest spring chicks

This blog will tell stories of how we connect and interconnect around food–where it comes from, how it circulates, brings us together, shapes our identities both as individuals and as communities. There will also be stories of how we struggle with food–how it challenges us, disappoints us, forces us to work hard and get creative, even alter our understanding of what food is. There will be tales of my war (well, not war exactly; more a kind of gunboat diplomacy) with the squirrels. Chronicles of my close encounters with other beasties great and small. Legends of my ongoing quest for free water. Shocking revelations of unimagined thrift. Inspiring accounts of efforts to establish a local barter economy. And culinary adventures that will, I hope, drive you to the garden yourself.

My intention here is not to live “impact free”–no extremes, no gimmicks. Rather, I aim to share my daily search for ways to live effectively, efficiently, and responsibly in an urban landscape. Growing numbers of city dwellers are becoming more thoughtful and creative about their own environmental impact as it relates to quality of life. I can think of no better reason in this world to be optimistic.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

For me, it all begins with the act of providing–of feeding ourselves and those we care for. This goes to the core of how we live on the earth and with one another. It’s a daily invitation to be mindful of labor, consumption, and reward. Even here, in the heart of the urban South, we can be aware and grateful.

Grateful for the things I need–the sun and the rain and the salad greens.

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