Green Promise

So You Call Yourself a Homesteader

Rachel“You've only been doing this for how long?”
“Oh, you live in town...”
“Seven chickens, three beehives and a garden and you're an expert huh?”

I've heard it all before. Sometimes I've even felt insecure about it. We are smaller than the tiniest homestead and we probably have no business assuming the grand title of “Homesteader”. I admit that I have even doubted myself, thinking they're right. Then I slap myself and shake off those homsteadier-than-thou haters and remind myself: Homesteading is in the eye of the beholder.

Oatmeal, Myself, & Little J, wrapping up evening chores

So are you a homesteader?

You bloom where you are planted:
Maybe you are like us and the right place hasn't come along. You are stuck in town or a city. But you till yourself a garden patch or your container garden anyway, and you do your best to keep your family full of freshly grown produce, and you preserve it for the winter months. What you can't grow, you buy from local farmers who can, and you stock your freezer and your pantry with locally grown meat, fruit, and veggies while they are all in season. Doing your best to avoid the store for most things. You might even make your own noodles! If your town allows you may have some of your own chickens for eggs and meat and you could have bees, too. You strive to be self-sufficient. Playing around with goats milk soap recipes and researching beehives gives you a thrill. You are content with where you are or you wait and you save until you can buy your real dream farm.

Our size doesn't dictate our knowledge:
Whether you have a barn full of cattle, hogs, fowl, goats, or sheep, it doesn't mean you know more than someone with one or two, and it certainly does not mean you know less. A lot of us have spent hours upon hours brushing up on health maladies and researching behaviors and methods. For example, someone can have an animal for a number of years without knowing or noticing certain health maladies exist while someone who only has a few can recognize an illness. While, sadly, others don't know and some don't care. We are dedicated to the health and well being of the animals we care for. Big or small, loss can be devastating and we all try to avoid it. Experience is worth its weight in gold, and us newbies can stand to learn a lot from all of you wise sages who have been at this business for years, but please remember, you were once a beginner too.

To homestead is to dream:
Maybe you have a place in the country and you have been doing this your whole life, but, let's be honest, there are probably things you would still love to get into. Like adding that spinning flock, or perhaps a team of oxen, and you really want a couple nice, tart cherry trees. Daydreaming is akin to breathing for us. Starting that orchard, expanding the garden ... sunflowers? Ostriches! It is all so exciting and it makes us keep trucking along. We all hope to reach the breakeven point and eventually the magical time when the dream starts paying for itself. Until then, we sit on the porch snapping beans swigging a cold beer after a long day, and we enjoy what we have.

Hobbies may make you sound like a granny:
Did you say spinning and knitting, deary? Yes, the desires to learn the old ways of doing things tend to come up and slap you in the dentures. My grandmother -- “Newt” as we affectionately call her -- is a wealth of knowledge. She was born on a farm in the 30's, survived polio, and raised seven kids by herself. She is a tough ole bird. She taught us how to make bread from scratch from a recipe that isn't written down anyplace, and we can make enough popcorn and molasses cookies to feed an army. Grandmas can be really helpful to have around. You oogle over fermentation crocks on the internet, dry and preserve herbs, and talk to butchers about lard. If someone says they have a tummy ache, you scurry over to your pantry to whip them up some obscure concoction. Hell, I even have a giant sun hat I wear in the garden, an apron for in the kitchen, and lord help me, I have developed a taste for beets ... roasted not pickled ... baby steps.

You love what you do and you love to share it:
People who are truly happy with what they do can't wait to share it with you. I've found myself sidling up to strangers to talk about bees. I get so excited when someone asks me a question I could just about burst! It makes me so happy to share the information I have stored up and my experiences, especially since I take a different approach than most folks do. Isn't that what its all about anyway? To be happy doing the work that you love? If this life doesn't make you happy, you need to find what does make you happy and go do it at some point. So go on and become a Master Gardener. Breed and show those fancy sheep. Get a booth at the farmers market. Smile.

None of us do all of this because its easy:
Finally, trying to take the homestead approach is a long road rife with difficulties. From caring for livestock, gardening, and canning, living this life is hard work. Big time or small hobby or urban, we all have our heartaches and disasters along with our victories. Being self-sufficient is the end game, and it's what we all hope for. The work pays off and you can taste it in the beef roast and vegetables with blueberry pie you make for dinner in mid-January. It won't hurt to be a bit more supportive of each other regardless of what stage we are in.

In the end we all have the same goals in mind.

Instilling Love For Growing Things


As parents, we have hopes for what our children will be when they grow up. Some hope for their children to have unbridled success in high paying jobs like doctors or engineers, or maybe even president ... though I can't say I would be too proud of raising a politician.

Our hopes are smaller, much more simple things. I want them to love all things green and growing. To care for and respect all creatures whether they have feathers, scales, or fur. I hope that they are unafraid to work hard, make mistakes, or try something new. And that they know saving up for a dream is worth it no matter how long it takes. I want them to know how to do things. I hope they will be strong men with rough hands and big hearts. Above all we want them to grow into decent human beings.

I knew from when Little J proudly presented me with a carefully selected rock from the driveway, and when Little O picked his first wild violet this spring, and how they both are mesmerized by the chickens that we have a really great opportunity for showing these two little fellas the beauty of the world. I want to be sure we nurture this born-in appreciation for nature in hopes that it will be a lifelong love affair.


Boy, do I have plans! Next year they are each going to get a large pot to grow whatever their little hearts desire. They each have their own little watering can and they can water their mini garden when I water my flowers on the porch. Our garden center has some neat little figures and decorations for tiny gardening that I think they will enjoy ... but it might just end up being a hot wheels car or a dinosaur. I've also been thinking about a children's garden, and Matt is working up plans for an upgraded swing set complete with a climbing wall. They can even help gather eggs.

But right now, we go outside and watch the robins. They are 1-1/2 after all and we don't have any expectations about what will occur on our trips to the yard. We know for sure they will run straight for the chickens and watch them for a long time, and they have to kick the tires on the car. There may even be a wagon ride or swinging. Sometimes we spend time in the garden; I love watching them pick a weed here and there and put it in the bucket to go to the chickens. They play in the dirt, fall down, run, and swing. Right now we watch them grow. We watch them wonder at the grass and the tiny black fly buzzing by, and appreciate the tiniest things that we as adults may find annoying. They don't see grass as simply something to be cut or a fly just something to swat.

They see something amazing.

I hope we can help keep it that way.

Black Walnut Toxicity And Your Garden

Rachel8 years ago I chose the location of my garden based on two factors. The first being that a house was demolished years ago on one end of the property, so I wanted to put it far away from any hidden debris and avoid the clay that was turned up during the demolition. The second, was that my hose had to reach. In the end I really didn't have much choice where it went. I had no idea that I had to take into consideration the trees growing near my garden. I found out, however, after a crappy first year of tomatoes and a conversation with the lovely gal who runs the garden center, that the young black walnut tree right next to my garden was likely the culprit.


Black Walnut branch with nuts.

Its called alleopathy. And it's an interesting trait where some plants produce one or more biochemicals that affect growth, germination, and reproduction of other plants. Known as alleochemicals, they can either support the growth of neighboring plants or kill all the competition. Additionally some plants use alleochemicals to protect themselves from being eaten by animals. Black walnut trees produce a biochemical called “juglone” that kills many types of plants (including tomatoes) in an effort to ensure that the tree can get the most nutrients from the surrounding soil with little competition. The biochemical works by inhibiting respiration, and essentially starving out sensitive plants. Juglone exists in all parts of the tree, bark, roots, leaves, and of course the walnut hulls. Underneath the tree's canopy is where most of the danger lies, however it can be as far-reaching as 50-80 feet from the trunk of the tree. Even if the tree is cut down, it will be years before the toxicity declines, as it is impossible to remove all of the roots from the soil.


A look up into the canopy of a young Black Walnut tree.

Plants suffering from juglone toxicity will show wilting and yellowing of the leaves that doesn't improve with thorough watering. And eventual death of the plant. There are many lists of juglone-sensitive and -tolerant plants out there and this is a very short one at that. There is also some debate about what plants belong on the list and ones that don't. It seems that some varieties of tulips, for example, are juglone tolerant, while others still are sensitive and won't survive near the trees. Most of the studies regarding juglone sensitivity have focused on tomatoes and a few other popular crops. Check out state extension services for more lists.

Juglone Sensitive Plants:

Juglone Tolerant Plants:

I admit that my juglone sensitive plants have still done quite well despite this toxin being present in the soil, besides peppers, that is, never did have much luck with peppers. I attribute my success to not allowing leaves/twigs nor nuts and hulls to decompose in my garden. Also, my whole garden gets tilled twice a year, and in between rows several times in the season.. The aeration and well drained soil goes a long way in aiding the decomposition of juglone. Making sure your garden is nutrient-rich and has lots of healthy microbes from lots of compost helps a lot, too, but it only delays the inevitable. As the tree grows the toxin will spread and I will be forced to take action. Luckily there are ways to get up and away from juglone. Raised beds lined with weed/root proof liner or even container gardening are possibilities, along with the obvious: Moving the garden.

Since juglone exists in all parts of the tree, be sure to never ever compost any part of the tree and never use it as mulch. Black Walnut trees aren't the only juglone-producing tree you need to look out for either. Butternut, hickory, and English walnut are also guilty of producing the toxin. So if your garden is a little sad and wilted,, look up and take a gander at the trees that surround it.


Blackberry Pruning Demystified

RachelThis year we got a rather large number of free blackberry canes given to us from our lovely next door neighbors that were moving. My husband Matt and his friend dug them up and planted them in their new location early this spring. While all bramble fruit seem pretty no muss no fuss, they actually do require some tender loving twice a year. They will continue to fruit and reproduce without pruning of course, but they won't be nearly as vibrant from season to season if you don't devote just a little time to them. These pruning methods can be applied to raspberries, too, since the plants' growing habits are the same.

There are several kinds of blackberry plants that behave in all sorts of different ways. The three main types are Erect, Trailing, and Thorn-less. It helps to know what type you have when it comes to trellising the canes. I happen to have erect blackberries, they have tall arching canes and I do not trellis them. I find that they do just fine without it for our circumstances, though perhaps in the future it would be nice to do an upgrade. No matter the type you have, they all like to be pruned in the same manner. Pruning has many benefits including helping ward off diseases, larger berries, and higher yield.

Before we get started you might want to consider purchasing a pair of kevlar sleeves, I was given a pair and I love them. They save your arms from getting cut and scraped by those nasty thorns when you are working with them, whether pruning or picking, and if you have a big berry patch they can really save you from looking like you got beat up by that cranky old barn cat.

Blackberry canes are “biennial” meaning that the canes live for two years. In nearly all varieties first year canes will not bear fruit and are called “primocanes”; they are easy to spot because they are nice and green. In the spring you will want to tip prune the first few inches from the primocanes when they are shorter than 3 feet tall. This makes the primocane grow a thicker stem that will support a larger fruit load next year, and grow more lateral branches where more berries will grow. You will notice in the fall that the primocanes will have grown their thin brown bark in preparation for the winter and next year
Blackberry primocane
Blackberry primocane

Some varieties of blackberries send runners or “suckers” off a few feet away from the patch. If the suckers look nice, we like to dig them up and plant them back in the row. Its a nice free way to expand our patch. Suckers are primocanes.
Blackberry sucker
Suckers will pop up around 2 to 3 feet from your blackberry patch.

The current year's fruiting canes are called “floricanes”. Besides blossoming and bearing fruit these canes can be identified by their thin brown bark. After their fruit ripens the leaves on these canes start to fizzle out. In the winter trim the spent floricanes back to the crown. In winter when there are no leaves and the brand new floricanes for the coming season look the same at first glance as last year's dead floricanes, pruning can be a little tricky. Last year's spent floricanes will look brown while new floricanes will have a purplish tint when compared with each other. Another way to tell them apart is to look for the remnants of last years fruiting blooms. And if that isn't quite enough to make you certain you are about to chop the right cane, you can take your clippers and scrape a teeny bit of bark off. If it is green underneath the bark you have a new cane, if its brown you have a dead cane that needs to be pruned. Getting rid of the spent canes in the winter before fruiting helps the plant to focus nutrients on the new floricanes.
Blackberry floricane
Current year floricanes.

Dead Floricane

A spent floricane in need of pruning. Notice the thin stems with buds on the ends.

When you are finished pruning the spent floricanes be sure to collect them all and burn them or have them hauled away. Be sure to wash your clippers too. Do not try to compost them as they could possibly spread disease. Blackberries and raspberries are notorious for contracting all sorts of fungal diseases. Better safe than sorry. Seriously how simple was that? Just a little work for bigger and better berries!

Me Oh My, I Love Pie

RachelLittle O Sneaking Some Blueberry Pie
Little O sneaking some blueberry pie with whole wheat crust.

July is blueberry month. Those tasty blue orbs that they call a super fruit are finally back. I remember when my Grandparents got me and my sister so excited to go blueberry picking in Paw Paw Michigan. We were going to stuff our faces with blueberries then head to Lake Michigan and swim and try to climb the dunes. It sounded like so much fun!! If you have never picked blueberries, well you are in for a treat, let me tell ya. One of my favorite comedians, Jim Gaffigan, put it something like this: “Picking blueberries isn't like picking pumpkins,” and he's right. We were out in the blueberry patch on the hottest flippin' day of the year picking blueberries all afternoon and I swear we never even ended up with a quart of stinkin' berries. See, they send you out into the part of the patch that has already been picked over by the machine and about 100 other kids being tortured by their lying “this will be so much fun” grandparents. That was the last time we did that. And by God we earned that trip to the lake.

These days my grandparents still make that trip to Paw Paw every year but they buy us a 10lb box of blueberries and we laugh remembering blueberry-picking hell. Even though I could sit down and mow down that whole box of blueberries with the boys I have to preserve some by freezing for the dead of winter when we need a little sunshine.

To Freeze Blueberries:
1. Wash berries thoroughly; you can use a fruit wash, but I just dump them into a sink full of water and white vinegar and swish them around.
2. Line cookie sheets with freezer paper waxy side up
3. Drain blueberries and spread evenly over cookie sheet. Avoid clumping. Nothing is worse than a blueberry brick.
4. Put in freezer for about two-three hours or overnight
5. Put in freezer safe containers in portions of your choosing marked with the date. Store in freezer.

I like to freeze my berries in pie and muffin recipe sizes so I don't have to mess around measuring.

Frozen Or Fresh Blueberry Pie Recipe

The trick to a great blueberry pie with frozen berries is allowing the berries to thaw and draining the excess liquid from them before beginning. You will want to measure your berries while they are still frozen, then allow them to thaw.  The same applies for muffins and anything else you want to bake with frozen blueberries.

1-1/2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons Crisco (or lard/fat of choice)
1/3 cup cold butter
1/4 cup cold water

Place dry ingredients in food processor and slowly add water while pulsing the mixture. Pulse until dough looks crumbly, you may need to add a teeny bit more water. Dump contents of bowl onto plastic wrap or into a bowl and form into a ball. Allow to chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. (I let mine chill for as long as it takes for my berries to thaw. Also I always double this crust recipe so I have extra for making pretty pie tops)

4 cups blueberries (if using frozen berries, thaw before use)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons milk
4 tablespoons tapioca powder (I use pearls, they work just fine)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg beaten for brushing crust.

Preheat oven to 400F. Mix all wet ingredients in a large bowl, add cinnamon and tapioca whisk thoroughly. Fold in thawed or fresh berries until they are coated, let rest for 10 min. Pour filling into prepared pie crust. Add top crust if you wish. Brush with egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 min. Reduce heat to 375F and continue baking for 30-45 min or until filling is bubbling. Allow it to cool before digging in. It's always a good idea to put a pan under your pie as it's baking to catch any spill overs.

Add a little vanilla ice cream and you have yourself the perfect summer treat. Enjoy!

Learning From Mistakes

RachelApple Cider Vinegar
Jars of apple cores and peels ready for fermentation.

Sometimes homesteading can feel like a giant blooper reel. At some point in your journey you are going to feel like a complete moron, it's an inescapable fact of this green-growing, furry, feathery life we live. I have taken some time to list a couple things that I have totally screwed up and learned from. Maybe it will take the sting out of some of your mistakes.

Apple Cider Vinegar
You may remember my post about making applesauce last year and how I rattled on about making apple cider vinegar from my peels and cores. After we made all that applesauce and prepared all the peels and cores that we could fit into our big 1/2 gallon jars I was feeling pretty high on life. ACV, after all, is pretty easy make. I researched different ways to make it and I was confident that I chose the route right for me. All I needed was peels and cores, water to top off the jars, cheesecloth, and a big ole rubber band, a warm dark place, and time. About a week after I got the process going I discovered that my ACV had bubbled over and made a mess on the floor; turns out the room was much too warm and also that I had filled up my jars too full of water. If a smelly sticky mess on the floor wasn't bad enough two weeks or so later I went down to do a taste test and possibly filter and bottle my ACV and discovered that the jars had become a nursery to roughly a bazillion fruit flies ... INSIDE the jars under the cheesecloth. Turns out I needed to layer my cheesecloth a little bit thicker than just two ply. Next time I plan on using a flour sack towel. All in all I ended up with 1 jar of usable vinegar. If you want a great book on things to do with apple cider check out Apple Cider Hard and Sweet by Ben Watson, it covers brewing hard apple cider, facts about cider and yes, even complete directions on making vinegar.

The Chicken Tractor
I could go on for days about how chicken tractors are not what they are cracked up to be. Don't get me wrong, they certainly have their place and I love the concept. Fresh grass! Safety! Super cute! We ordered a totally adorable fancy chicken tractor from some page we found on the internet. It's got a nice roofed detachable run and the floor has trays that you pull out to make cleaning easier and four nest boxes, and wheels to push it around the yard. Except this puppy is heavy and it is a total five-letter-word to move around the yard. The ramp going from the coop to the run was fixed, not hinged, so to move the tractor you had to have two people ... one holding the coop up while the other pulled the run out of the way. The handles to move the tractor are on the same side as the run attaches on so it's awkward to pick up and move out of the way. And you have no choice but to move it to a new location every day because the run is so small the birds eat and scratch the grass down within 12 hours. Now that we have our big coop our tractor is used as a maternity ward, broody breaker or integration pen depending on the need. But it serves as a constant (expensive) reminder that what looks good in theory is not always good in practice.

This year will make my 8th garden. In that time I have tried just about every single method of trellising that I could come up with. All of them were miserable failures. I love those photos in the gardening magazines with the plants neatly growing up string and bamboo posts. I quickly realized that while those string methods of trellising may work well for others they do not work for me. I lack the time, and patience. Any strong wind would knock over all my hard work. I ended up using a roll of fencing zip tied to T-posts for my peas to grow up. It ain't pretty but it's sturdy.

Crush and Strain
The first year that I harvested honey it's fair to say that I had no real idea what was involved. At that time my kitchen had brown shag carpet in it. I had the gist of it, you get the honey comb and you crush it, then you strain out the wax chunks. No big deal. No one told me that everything in the house would be sticky. Someone told me they used a big potato masher to crush their comb. I quickly learned how much of a pain that was and after I busted my potato masher I grabbed my lunch lady gloves and started crushing by hand. Turns out the gloves were the only thing I had right. I then used a flour sack towel to strain the honey because I could NOT find cheesecloth anywhere! And while it was effective it was painfully slow. That was 4 years ago. Crush and strain is a slow process anyhow, but these days the straining takes significantly less time. After that first year my husband made me a honey press and I found a reliable source for cheesecloth. This year I got a mesh strainer that fits over a 5 gallon bucket after my father-in-law got one, and dang, does that thing make quick work out of straining.  I highly recommend getting one. I had my highest honey yield yet because of the combination of the strainer and honey press.

The big benefit of crushing and straining your honey is that you get a lot more wax that way. The first time I processed wax from my honey I used my hot water bath canner. STUPID. I knew how to do it. What I didn't know how much of a pain it was to clean up. I got my job done and the wax was cooling in a bucket into a giant puck. Then I noticed that I had a nice lemon yellow ring inside the canner. Nothing, and I mean nothing, got it off. I scoured Google for an answer and failed. I chalked it up to a learning experience. Now I use an old garage sale crock-pot for wax processing. I also recommend using silicone measuring cups and molds when working with wax. You can peel the wax right off, making clean up a lot easier.

These are only a few. I hope that my mistakes maybe made you feel better about some of yours. I can say I don't regret them (except maybe the water bath canner ...) because I learned from my screw-ups and I do things a better way now and I always feel like my methods are improving. Bottom line! Don't give up just because you failed, or did something the hard way. No one is perfect.

Growing Our Patch Of Green

RachelBumble Bee On Buckeye Bloom

This season has brought us many new things. Probably the newest and most exciting thing is the arrival of our third son mid-May. This makes us not only outnumbered, but the parents of 3 kids under two. If you are the praying sort and feel so inclined, send some our way ... lord knows some days we need it.

Besides family expansion everything else seems to be expanding too. The garden got bigger and Little One being a mere week old helped me plant the potatoes, tomatoes, and sunflowers. Of course my husband helped too because bending over isn't too easy with a baby carrier. It was a real family affair! We also acquired about 100 or so established blackberry canes from friends and are looking at about the same number of red raspberries to be added to our existing raspberries. It is a really nice thing when folks share their bounty with their neighbors, whether they need to thin out their raspberry patches or a clump of rhubarb; it's how to keep things going and inspire others.

I started home-brewing my own kombucha. It's almost crazy how easy it is! I named my SCOBY Jessica (SCOBY stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, in case you didn't know) and when she isn't working she hangs out on our counter. My husband calls her “the placenta”, which is not very kind to our dear sweet Jessica. She perseveres however, making me and the boys some very nice probiotic goodness. So far I have only done pomegranate and it has been really tasty!

We had a very mild winter and early spring and all of our bees made it through the winter! YAY! Then tragedy struck with freezing temps after the bees had un-clustered for the season and two out of the three hives died. There is a silver lining though. I got a phone call from my husband who had been out helping my grandfather get his drill around for this season's planting and the dead hives at his place each had a new wild swarm in them. This isn't the first time my grandfather has been blessed in the bee department; since getting a hive in 2012 he has had a total of 5 swarms come to his property and 4 of them have made it into his hives or bee tree. We are planning on putting a lure up at his place since he apparently has prime honey bee real estate!

I can't wait to see what else this year brings us!
I hope your summer is bringing you bigger and better things!