Growth is a double edged sword. Unchecked, growth can be cancerous and destructive. It is this type of ceaseless expansion that has put our society into the precarious environmental and financial positions in which we currently find ourselves. On the other hand, growth can be regenerative and life-giving. Following a forest fire or a bitter winter, the first green shoots to emerge from the earth bear witness to the earth's ability to restore life in the wake of disaster.

My goal for this blog is pretty simple and open-ended: I want to document and share with family and friends my efforts to incorporate an ever increasing degree of self sufficiency, voluntary simplicity, and environmentally-conscious design into my life as a would be urban homesteader.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lay of the land

Whenever I'm looking at other people's homesteading/gardening blogs, I love seeing pictures of what they're growing and building. I get lots of ideas and inspiration from seeing what other people are doing. The thing that I get curious about, though, is how everything is laid out and arranged. One of the things I like the most when reading through garden and permaculture books is the maps that show how the different areas fit together.
In the course of gardening and working around the house, I've drawn countless sketches and plans for the arrangement of garden beds and structures and such, but nothing artsy or nice. Having a bit of extra time at work, I decided to create a map of the 'Burbstead that's nice enough to put up on the blog. I looked up my house on Google Earth and copied the image into Photoshop. Then I cleaned it up and added some gradients and text, and viola!
Not only will give you all a chance to see what the 'Burstead looks like (although to be honest, at this point "you all" consists of my brother, and you're already somewhat familiar with the place, having lived here and all), but having a clean map that's drawn to scale will come in super handy when making future plans.

Monday, March 29, 2010


One of the most frustrating things about being a part-time urban homesteader is that the part of my time that I have to devote to gardening, self-sufficiency, and the like never seems to be enough. Being a high school teacher, I am very fortunate to have a job that affords me a lot of time at home over the summer. I can spend time with my children and working on my goals for self reliance in a way that people with office jobs generally can't, and that's awesome. Spring and Fall, however, tend to be rather stressful, something anybody who's splitting time between a job and a homestead can relate to. Balancing the responsibilities of work, family, and home can be quite the juggling act.
To this effect, I have a growing list of partially finished (or yet-to-be-started) projects. Building the expanded fence is moving apace with a sprinting snail. There are seeds to plant, seedlings to pot on, and transplants to harden off. My 275 gallon rain catchment container has been awaiting installation for over a month. The compost bins need repairing, etc, etc, etc...
As the weather warms (we're in the upper 60's-low 70's this week in St.Louis), the kids are finally able to be outside most of the time. I love spending time with them riding bikes, drawing sidewalk chalk murals on the driveway, and playing ball. The boys are starting T-Ball this year-yikes! And yet half the time that I'm doing this, I keep noticing that the wood pile needs to be cleaned up, and the chicken coop oughta have new straw, I need to till manure into the garden beds I want to plant in a few days. That shit tugs at me, and yet I don't want to short change my family. Thanks to a commute that is muuuuch longer than I'd like, my time during the week is very limited. I wind up picking and choosing what will get done, and what will get set aside for now. It's frustrating, but it's where we are right now. Hopefully with more practice, I'll get better at juggling.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Milking Goats

The kids spent the past four days down at my parents house. They had the chance to spend time with Grandma and Grandpa Lorenz collecting eggs, shoveling manure out of the mules' stall, and playing with farm cats. One of the highlights was getting to go over to some friends' house to help milk their 3 goats. The boys got to try their hand (literally) at milking and bottle feeding the baby goats. They had so much fun the first time, that they wanted to come back this morning.

Squeeze and Pull, Squeeze and Pull

Alex gets a turn

These kids are hungry!

They got to bring home 3 quarts of fresh goat milk. I thought it would have a tangy flavor, but it didn't. Tater Tot and Alex liked it. Erik thought it tasted like a goat (although he's notoriously finicky about his food). Even though we don't have room for goats at the 'burbstead, it was cool for the boys to get a chance to experience first hand where milk comes from. A big reason I'm interested in the urban homesteading lifestyle is that I want my children to have a direct and honest connection with an authentic food system. I want them to see beyond the grocery store and the over-packaged, over-processed food inside it. Little things like this can go a long way toward that goal.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mending Fence pt.1

One of the things on my seemingly unending list of projects to do around the 'burbstead is to fix the fence on the south side of our house. My dad built it about 5 years ago when my parents were living in here. It replaced a tall privacy fence and a neglected raised flower bed that had been there since my Mom bought the house several years prior. Dad built the new fence with a double gate that was big enough to drive his truck through, and a 10 foot high entry way that made it look like entrance to a ranch. All that was missing was a couple of wagon wheels and a cow skull mounted on top. It was a good fence, and it made a handy support for Snap Pea trellis, but unfortunately the posts weren't made of pressure treated wood. Within the past year, the two tallest posts started to rot through pretty bad, and the fence began leaning.

Bob Vila would not approve

This coming week is Spring Break, so I've decided to knock down the Ponderosa fence before it falls over on somebody. I took it all apart today, and I'll be able to salvage most all of the slats. I'm thinking about moving the fence out a little towards the front of the house, thus expanding the back yard (and also allowing me to expand my garden - see how nice that works out?) I'll have to run that one by the next door neighbor first, though.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Planting Peas at a Chicken Party

We planted some Sugar Snap Peas in the garden, while the chickens had a party in the compost bins (which are in dire need of repair). A good time was had by all.

"Scratch, peck, eat bug, repeat"

Alex is the MC for the chicken dance

Alex and Dad

Planting Peas

Make sure there's one in every hole...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Black Gold

I took my father-in-law's truck to a nearby horse ranch to help myself to some of their manure pile. I've been getting manure from there for the past 3 years, but I've never really seen anyone around when I loaded up (aside from the first time when I went to ask permission). Today, however, there were some guys having their truck loaded by an old man with a tractor and bucket. I talked with them for a bit, and they mentioned that they were getting the manure for their garden plot that they were just starting up this year. I congratulated them on getting into growing food, and they left. The gentleman on the tractor was kind enough to scoop me two bucket loads, thus saving me a half hour of work. I noticed that the manure pile was quite a bit smaller than it had been in the past. There could be a couple of reasons for this. The ranch might not be stabling as many horses as they used to. In these economic times, a weekend horse is a luxury that more and more people are having to give up. Fewer horses = less poop. Also, there's never been somebody using a tractor scoop to load up the manure. I know I wouldn't have taken as much as I did if I'd have had to shovel it all.
I wonder though, as gardening and home food production increase in popularity, how many people are taking from that pile (and other similar sources of fertilizer and compost ingredients) that weren't a year or two ago? As we head into a future where growing at least some of your own food is a necessity, how much competition will there be for those sorts of organic materials in urban and suburban areas? At the beginning of the 20th century, most cities were awash in horse manure from all of the draft animals that were used in daily life. The French Intensive Gardening method that so inspired Eliot Coleman was made possible by having access to massive amounts of horse manure. Now as we're a decade into the 21st century, that resource is all but gone from most urban centers. I think urban homesteaders will have to become more thoughtful and creative about producing some of their own organic fertility via crop rotation, green manures, and small livestock.
At any rate, I now have a shit-load (pardon the pun) of grade A manure ready to go into the garden and compost bins. All I have to do now is keep the kids from digging in it.

Playing in the dirt again

The high temps are flirting with 60 degrees this weekend, so finally I can get back out in the garden. I'm experimenting with using newspaper as a weed barrier this year. I tried it last summer in the tomato bed with a fair amount of success, so we'll see how it works on a larger scale.

I loosely spaded the bed to break up and aerate the soil up a bit. Next I added a couple of inches of compost on the surface. I'm not a "No-till" purist, but I'd like to maintain the soil structure as best I can. That's why I was happy to find a Big Lil' Hoe tiller on Craigslist for cheap last August. It lets me work up the top few inches and mix in compost and manure without digging down too deep.
After a couple of passes, I laid down newspaper 3-4 layers thick. I got it wet as I went to prevent it from blowing away.Once I was done, I put some straw over the top. This will keep the newspaper in place, help retain moisture, and makes it look a little nicer. At this point, I can plant seeds by clearing away a little of the straw and poking holes in the newspaper. Later on, I'll be able to transplant seedlings the same way.
You could use weed cloth or plastic ( I've tried both), but the cloth is kinda pricey, and I hate throwing away all of that plastic at the end of the season. Not only are old newspapers environmentally friendly, but they're free - my favorite price range. Hopefully this works out as well as it did last year.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Planting Seeds

It’s the time of year when a lot of people who plan on growing a garden start thumbing through seed catalogs or eyeing the displays in home improvement stores. While organic gardening is gaining in popularity every year, the seeds that most people buy from Burpee, Fields, Home Depot, etc are still hybrids. Hybrid plants are the result of cross-pollinating two different parent strains. The seeds from these hybrids won’t grow new hybrid plants, rather they will revert to one of the two parents types, or something different. Growing heirloom and open pollinated varieties of fruits and vegetables gives gardeners a measure of control over their harvest by allowing them to save seed from year to year. It also gives gardeners access to a vast array of plant varieties. Heirloom plants come in different colors, sizes, and flavors that make hybrid varieties seem plain by comparison.

There are numerous places where you can buy heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. I’ve gotten most of mine from Baker Creek, Seed Savers Exchange, and Heirloom Acres. I’m also using an increasing amount of my own seed that I’ve saved from previous years. This year, I’ve started to package up some of the seed that I’ve saved to sell and swap with other people. It’s part art project, part tiny business venture, part evangelizing effort on behalf of sustainable, small-scale agriculture. All of the packages are handmade, and the seeds were all grown at my 'burbstead organically (organic with a small "o"). Anyone interested in buying or swapping seed can email me.