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.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bumper Crop

As per usual, the garden has been a mixed bag this summer. The cabbage and squash have not cooperated so well, the tomatoes, kale, and peppers have - especially the tomatoes. I got a really early start on them this past spring, and they've been going strong ever since. I began weighing what I picked every couple of days, and so far we're just shy of 150lbs (but I have to pick some today). The Silvery Fir Tree and Purple Russians were the first ones out of the gate, and the SFT's are almost played out by now. Lately I've been picking a lot of Amish Past, Moonglow, Sudduth Brandywine, Hillbilly Potato Leaf, and Black from Tula's. Some of them are HUGE. The Green Zebra's have less than prolific this year, and the Beam's Yellow Pear's are so so. A couple of the plants seem like they have begun to develop some sort of disease (powdery mildew?). I'm going to trim the bad parts back, and hopefully they'll keep going into the fall.
31 pounds of 'Burbstead fresh tomatoes, all picked on the same day

A Sudduth Brandywine that was almost 1.5lbs, the biggest one so far.

The best part about having all of these tomatoes, other than eating them fresh, is that I'm putting up more tomato sauce, salsa, and preserve than ever. Speaking of which, I have a bunch sitting on the kitchen counter that need to be cut up before band practice starts. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Homesteading with kids

 Alex helps mow the grass

Tater helps plant pepper seedlings

One of the best parts about trying to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle is having the opportunity to pass on important lessons and skills to your kids. Resourcefulness, thriftiness, compassion, and the ability to think critically are all things that children gain from learning to garden and cook or having to take care of animals. Learning about food preservation instills that value of being prepared for the unexpected. Having chores or helping to fix things around the house builds self-confidence and responsibility. Considering the amount of time that most children in modern American culture spend consuming various forms of electronic media (7 hours and 38 minutes per day, according to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Stanford University), these are character traits that a lot of young people today are missing out on. My experiences in the classroom suggest to me much the same thing.

Once of my goals as a parent is to give my children as many character building opportunities as possible. I want them to have the chance to maximize their potential as intelligent, creative, responsible young people. That's not to say that other parent don't want those things for their children, but rather that I think a lot of parents today simply don't pay enough attention to actively fostering those things in them. With the hectic pace of modern life, it's easy to let things go on auto pilot. People are busy and tired, so they stop keeping tabs on how much time kids are spending online or playing xbox. Cooking from scratch and eating as a family become too much of a hassle, so they order out or heat something up in the microwave. Texting and Facebook updates replace face to face conversation. I suppose it is a time honored tradition of cranky old people to complain about younger generations, but an awful amount of my students seem to be self absorbed and completely disconnected from the world around them. They lack the ability to think and do things for themselves, and they are incapable of taking responsibility for their actions. Have kids always seemed like this? I suppose, but it doesn't mean that I have to idly sit by and accept it in my children.

Below is a short video of Erik helping me can salsa yesterday. I'm sure a lot of parents would squirm at the thought of letting an 8 year old do this. With all of that boiling water, hot jars, and bubbling salsa, there were ample opportunities for him to burn himself; and truth be told, he did burn his fingers a couple of times. But you know what? He didn't kill himself, and he learned how do it correctly in a way that he wouldn't have if he had simply watched me do it. True learning is born out of experience, and by doing it for him self, Erik learned that he is able to do much more than starring at a tv screen and pushing buttons. One of my greatest joys as a father is the look on my kids' faces when they find out what they are really capable of (look for it at the end of the clip).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Pending Abundance

Summer isn't technically here yet, but the garden is getting ready to explode. Two days ago, I was weeding around the tomato plants, and I saw this:

I was excited, because I've been looking forward to eating fresh tomatoes since I planted these seeds back in late January. Today, I got home from sumer school with one thought in mind - BLT's for lunch! I picked the 3 that were most ripe, and there were 4 more that will be good in a couple of days. A quick look around the tomato plants show that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

My blackberry plants that I put in 2 years ago are loaded with berries that are just now starting to ripen.

This is Das Cluckhaus 2. It is currently housing the 10 chicks that came from 2 different kindergarten classes this Spring. The 4 older ones are 7 weeks old, and the younger 6 are just over a month. I plan on butchering all of them (assuming the roosters don't get too noisy before that point). I've read that they should be good to go at 3-4 months of age, so that puts D-day sometime in early September. Good thing I don't have anything else going on that time of year...oh, wait.....

Monday, May 7, 2012

Garden Salad

The garden is growing like gangbusters. Here's a quick pic of the ingredients from last night's salad - all freshly picked.

Kale, Lettuce, Spinach, Radishes, and the first Sugar Snap Peas of the spring. The best part was that there was enough left over to take for lunch today.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Garden Pics

It's May, and the garden is alive and kicking. Here are some pictures from the 'Burbstead.

Sugar Snap Peas growing on a trellis that I made from reclaimed lumber, old porch swing parts, and a piece of an old soccer goal net. The Aster flowers are all volunteers, and they're ALL OVER my garden. I also have tons of volunteer Marigolds and little yellow flowers (Dwarf St.John's Wart?). This isn't a problem by any stretch. I try to sprinkle flower seeds around every year, and I let the volunteers grow wherever I'm not growing food. Not only do they attract pollinators, but they make the garden look nice.

 I've got 5 Blueberry bushes planted on the edge of the garden. Two of them have little berries on right now. I'm hoping to get enough to make a pie this year (assuming the damn birds don't eat them all). In a couple of years, they should be big enough that I can have enough to eat fresh and preserve some.

 Early Flat Dutch Cabbage. There are about 12 plants. I'm hoping that enough of them get big so that I can make a lot of Sauerkraut. Right now, something has been munching of the leaves, so I need to figure out what sort of pests are hanging out there.

 Fordhook Chard and Buttercrunch Lettuce that I planted in the hoop house last fall. It over-wintered, and took off once the weather started warming up. I'm not sure how long the lettuce will go before it bolts and turns bitter. In any case, it's awesome that I can get a really early Spring harvest thanks to the hoop house.

Curly Blue Scotch Kale. This year is the first time that I've grown Kale, and it's doing great. I put some in vegetable soup the other day, but other than that, I'm not sure what to do with it. Joe Rogan always talks about drinking Kale and fruit smoothies for breakfast. I'll have to try that sometime.

 French Breakfast Radishes and Olympia Spinach in the front, and Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce in the back. You can also see some Kentucky Wonder Pole beans poking up on the left side. I've planted them around the base of the hoop house so that they'll (hopefully) climb all over the frame.

Yes, that is a tomato. It's a Silvery Fir Tree. You might be saying to yourself, "But it's only May 2nd. Isn't that crazy early for outdoor tomatoes to be starting to put on fruit?" Yes, yes it is. The crazier part is that since I transplanted these in mid-March, I only had to cover them with a sheet ONCE! If I had known that this Spring was going be so warm, I would have transplanted all of my tomatoes back in March. It's funny to look back a couple of years at how excited I was to find a little tomato in early June. At this rate, I'll be eating fresh tomatoes before June. This must be what it's like to garden in southern California. Yeesh...

Monday, April 30, 2012

Hatch day update

Today is the official hatch day for the eggs that Tater Tot's class were incubating. Renee called this morning to let me know that when she dropped Tater off, 5 of the chicks had hatched, and 2-3 more looked like they were in the process. So this Friday, we'll be getting another shipment of up to 8 more chicks. It's a good thing that the earlier batch were moved out to Cluckhaus 2 yesterday. It's an A-frame tractor style coop that should serve as a good transition home for the new chooks. Once I get the roof shingled this afternoon, I'll post some pictures.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

New Arrivals

Tater and Erik smile for the camera, while Alex tries to put a voodoo hex on the chicks.

Right about 1 year ago, we got a delivery of 10 chicks from the kindergarten class at my children's school. 5 of those (4 hens and Brown Spot, a rooster with permanent laryngitis) are currently hiding from the soggy weather in the chicken coop out back. Well, a friend of the kindergarten teacher decided to hatch chicks for her class, and about a week ago they moved over to the 'Burbstead. The kids were all very excited to get more chickens. I had to explain to them that we weren't going to be keeping all, if any, of them. Our current flock lays more then enough eggs for our family. Besides that, at least a couple of them are going to be roosters who will no doubt be noisier than Erik's beloved Brown Spot. We'll have to wait and see how many boys and girls we get before we make any plans. We also have to wait for...Tater Tot's class eggs.

Tater is in kindergarten at the same school that Alex and Erik go to, and the teacher is once again hatching a dozen eggs. The estimated hatch day is April 30. So in about 2 weeks, we'll have a whole bunch more chicks. Hmmm, I smell a mid-Summer butcher day coming...

The latest 'Burbstead additions warming up under the lamp

Monday, April 2, 2012

A hot Spring: Going topless in the Garden

It's April 2nd, and the high today is going to be 90 degrees. Something is not right here. The warm weather has afforded me the chance to work outside with my garden girl, aka Tater Tot. She is always happy to work in the dirt with me. Here she is helping to transplant Kale seedlings a week or so ago.

Anyway, after much wrangling and patching and taping, the plastic finally had to come off of the hoop house. I was hoping to use it as a staging ground for all of the various and sundry seedlings that are currently taking up space on the kitchen counter. Oh well. Everything that is in the garden seems to be doing well so far. I need to fill in some blank spots along the snap pea trellis. THings planted so far include: Silvery Fir Tree and Purple Russian tomatoes, Curly Blue Scotch Kale, Early Flat Dutch Cabbage, Amish Snap Peas, French Breakfast Radishes, and Olympia Spinach. Notice that with the exception of the tomatoes, all of those are cool season crops. We'll see how they handle this unusual weather. I put the tomatoes out in the middle of March, and I haven't had to cover them once. Gak! I suppose the silver lining here is my other tomato and pepper seedlings shouldn't have a hard time getting a good start.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Eat with the old, grow with the new

The weather is certainly starting to warm up (thank you Global Weirding). It's been all upper 70's and lower 80's this week. The early seedlings have graduated to bigger pots, the Kale and Cabbage are hardening off in a lidless cold frame out in the garden, and we've put Snap Peas in the ground. March 21st is still a week off, but Spring is in full effect around the 'Burbstead.

We're pulling the last of the Winter crops out of the hoop house. The lettuce, spinach, and radishes that I planted in there a few weeks ago are up, and Alex is getting set to plant some carrots in his little section. I patched the big hole in the plastic, but some heavy wind and rain opened part of it back up. Considering how warm it's been, the holes are actually providing some much needed ventilation. I'm hoping to have the whole thing replanted in the next week or so.
Erik with some freshly picked Turnips and Carrots

The first round of Tomatoes that I planted consisted of Purple Russian and Silvery Fir Tree varieties. They're off to a great start, and I want to get them transplanted under some row cover this coming week. The second batch of tomatoes have mostly all sprouted. The list includes: Beam's Yellow Pear, Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Large Red Cherry, Pineapple, Speckled Roman, Black from Tula, Green Zebra, Amish Paste, Moonglow, Cream Sausage, and some Ground Cherries (not tomatoes, I know). Altogether it amounts to about 95 tomato seedlings. That's way more than I can grow, but I enjoy giving the extra plants to friends and family members. Next up, Peppers... bring on the warm weather!

6 good looking Purple Russian Tomato seedlings

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hoop House Fail

To say that the weather this "Winter" has been odd would be a gross understatement. Yesterday it was almost 70 degrees, then a front moved in and it dropped down into the 30's. It was also freaky windy. Given how degraded the plastic on my hoop house is becoming, I was a little worried about how it would handle the abuse. This morning when I was feeding the chickens, I walked over to inspect it and this is what I found:

I've had to patch up the hoop house numerous times, but they have all been tears that were 18" or smaller. I'm not quite sure what the best way to fix this gaping hole is going to be. I suppose that will be a job for tomorrow morning. I need to patch it quickly because I have a bunch of seedlings on my kitchen counter that are going to make their way out there before too long. Once Spring is in full effect, the plastic is going to come off, and eventually the frame will serve as a giant green bean trellis. For now, though, I need to seal it up.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Free Online Garden Planner

There are tons of resources on the internet to help people plan their garden. Mother Earth News has a pretty cool program on their website...but it costs money. I was poking around (ie. wasting time) on the internet tubes yesterday when I stumbled across a somewhat simplified version of that software on the Gardener's Supply Company website. It doesn't have all of the bells and whistles of the Mother Earth program, but for the low, low cost of nothing, I thought it was pretty cool. You can save individual beds and whole garden layouts. The plant list is a bit simplistic, but there is space for making notes about what varieties you're growing. My first inclination was to use it as a way to work out crop rotation, or play around with different garden arrangements. At any rate, it's a fun way to satisfy the gardening itch that seems to crop up this time of year.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Starting Seeds (and ordering more)

It's February, and I'm chomping at the bit to start planting things. Assuming that the plastic on the hoop house manages to make it through the spring, I plan on utilizing that space to start seedlings and harden off plants without over-crowding the kitchen counter. At this point I have 2 1/2 trays of seeds planted. They include: Early Flat Dutch Cabbage, Green Sprouting Broccoli, Silvery Fir Tree and Purple Russian Tomatoes, Curly Blue Scotch Kale, and .... I forget, there are 2 more. I'm also going to try to build a frame out of 1/2 inch conduit to hold the grow lights over the seed trays. I've had schrechlich gluck with starting broccoli in the past, so hopefully having a little more control over the lighting will help ward off tall, spindly seedlings.

I'm also getting set to oder some more seeds from Baker Creek (what can I say, I'm a junkie). Right now I'm planning on getting Golden Giant Amaranth, Extra Dwarf Pak Choy, Nero di Toscana cabbage, and Fordhook Giant chard. I also want to increase the quantity and variety of flowers around the 'Burbstead in order to attract more pollinators. I'm not sure what I'm get for that. Most of what I plant right now are Asters and Marigolds.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Last week one of our hens, Scratchy, died. I knew something was up with her the day before, when she hadn't come bounding out of the coop as I opened the door. Rather, she quietly hung out in the chicken run drinking water and occasionally pecking at the food. This was the first I'd noticed anything being amiss with her, and by the next day she was dead. That same day, the kids noticed that one of the white chickens we had raised from the batch of chicks this past Spring had hidden a few eggs in the leaves under our wood rack. In light of Scratchy's passing, they asked if we could try to hatch a new baby chick. Having looked into the matter previously, I was a bit dubious about our prospects for two reasons:

1. Incubating eggs is surprisingly tricky, and seemed best done by either a store bought incubator or a live chicken.

2. Brown Spot, our rooster, is so hen pecked - both by actual hens and our well intentioned children - that I doubt he has actually gotten his groove on enough fertilize many eggs.

Nevertheless, it seemed like a fun project to do with the kids on a day off school. We built the incubator completely out of materials that were laying around the house. The only thing we had to purchase was a 25 watt light bulb. Everything was put together, and in went the 3 eggs. We counted out the 21 days it should take for them to grow, and as luck would have it, the prospective hatch day is the boys' 8th birthday. Will anything come of this? I hope so, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Monday, January 16, 2012


The art of preserving vegetables by fermenting them is something that goes back thousands of years, and is prevalent in cultures around the world. Considering my family's strong German heritage, it's sort of strange that I've never really learned how to make Sauerkraut before now. The process is incredibly simple: shred or chop vegetables, add salt, squash to release the veggies' juices, top off with some water, cover it, and let it set. As the vegetables ferment, the beneficial microbes and bacteria that are present help to break down the ingredients, preserve it, and make it easier to digest when you eat it. If you cook or can it, all of those organisms are killed. I decided to make my kraut with some carrots and radishes, along with the cabbage. Why? I had them sitting around and I thought it might be good.

I cut the veggies coarsely with a kitchen knife

I used coarse kosher salt to mix them in a large bowl.

This is what the mixture looked like after a few minutes of squeezing. There was a fair amount of liquid that formed as a result of this.

I put it all into this large jar and topped it off with a little water. I used a small plate and a cup to keep the veggies submerged. I covered it with a thin dish towel, and let it sit in my basement for about 3-4 weeks.

Once the Kraut was fermented, I put it into mason jars to keep in the fridge. From 2 cabbages, a handful of carrots, and 6 big radishes I ended up with 2 1/2 quarts of Sauerkraut.

The fermented Sauerkraut is crisp, tangy, and delicious.

I'm not certain how long this stuff is good for in the fridge. At the rate I've been eating it, I don't think I'm going to find out. It's darn tasty. Making it in smallish batches like this seems to be the smart way of doing it. Cabbages and root vegetables store really well on their own, and this is something that lets you make use of them throughout the year. Below is a video featuring the eclectic fermentation guru, Sandor Katz (who may or may not have been the narrator for the infamous "Honey Badger" video). It lays out the process that I followed pretty clearly.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Growth in the New Year

Fun at home on Christmas Break

The Christmas/New Year's holiday rush is finally over, and now we can settle back down into the routines of regular life. I'll do a bigger post in the next few days looking back at what happened around the 'Burbstead in 2011, and what I'd like to see happen in 2012. For now, a quick update about a few random odds & ends.

Hoop House:
I got the hoop house covered with the salvaged plastic a while back. I knew that it wouldn't last more than one season, and the fact that the weather here has been remarkably mild up until this past week was certainly helping things. Since New Year's, the temps have been getting down in the 30's (which by itself isn't a big deal), and they've been accompanied by 40+ mph winds. That's started to test the strength of the plastic. I've repaired a number of small tears and holes. Yesterday I found a large opening in the back wall. I'm trying to keep in mind that this is an experiment and that we often learn more from failures than quick success, nevertheless, it's frustrating to have to continually break out the transparent duct tape. The plants have taken it all in stride thus far. I've pulled a ton of radishes, lettuce, and other greens out. The carrots and turnips are looking good, and I'm curious to see when the spinach that I planted in November will start to take off.

Swiss Chard, Black Seeded Simpson and Winter Density Lettuce, Beet and Turnip greens fresh from the Hoop House.

Cool Christmas Gifts
I had the good fortune of receiving a number of awesome Christmas presents this year. I'm not the sort of person who needs a lot of material things to be happy, but it's still nice to get some things that I probably wouldn't have bought for myself. A few of the "Burbstead related things I got were:

Food Mill with 3 different sized sieves.

A couple of books that I'm looking forward to reading