A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Season Finale: Moving In

    Our fall season on the land has fully fallen: we just closed up the house and packed up our car to head east for a little winter break. Truth be told, September, October and November have flown by in a flurry of activity, and subsequently I have fallen way behind in my updates. So—warning--this could be a marathon blog post. But like all good season ending episodes, there is an unexpected twist at the end, so keep reading!

    First and most importantly, we finally moved in to our house! Far from being my dream moving-in scenario (fully finished floors and walls, closets and shelves, all polished and ready for our belongings to be unpacked), our “moving in” is happening in fits and starts. We semi-finished one bedroom first—one clean space amidst the construction chaos—to sleep in. That means the wall surfaces are still rough plastered and partly sheetrocked, and the floor has underlayment nailed down but not a whole lot else. We set up extra strawbales as a bedframe and relocated the contents of our falling-apart-at-the-seams tent into the space and spent our first chilly night indoors (still chilly, but less so). It was then that I realized two things: having relative quiet whilst sleeping is such a luxury, and we weren’t quite there yet since our house apparently already had several occupants. Mice. Ugh.

Campsite cooking on the rocket stove

     Thus far we have coexisted with a lot of animal and insect co-inhabitants to varying degrees of annoyance and tolerance. I can shrug off big black rat snakes, marauding opposums, bats, hornets, and even palm-sized spiders hanging on the outside of our tent. But mice? I have never gotten past the point of total revulsion with them. Once when I was “home” alone, a mouse chewed through our tent and I came back to find it running around on our bed. I slept in our car that night until Mike could come back and get it out. Anyhow, fast forward through many hair-raising encounters with mice to the glorious point in our tenting existence when two stray cats showed up at our campsite. Within a week there were no more mice within a 20 ft. radius. Hallelujah! Apparently they all had moved into our house instead. (For the record, they are now out again, escorted by traps…)

     Not that our cats have been without their own challenges. For example, once in a classic “Pepe-la-Peu” style error, a local skunk started courting our black and white cat: every morning for a week at 5 am, the skunk would let off a blast of “come hither” scent in the direction of our campsite. This is not a pleasant smell to wake up to, but what could we do? We soon learned that if we pulled on surgeon’s facemasks in a state of half-lucidness, we could sleep through the worst of it. Yes, I’d say there is quite a bit that I won’t miss about campsite living: trying to start a fire in our rocket stoves in the driving rain, the spring explosion of ticks, the soot, the mildew, the flies… (I bet I’m really selling you on the great outdoors, aren’t I?)

     But honestly, the vast majority of our experiences living outdoors have been amazing. There are so many moments of jaw-dropping beauty and wonder that I have lost count. Waking up to the sherbert sky of sunrises and the beating of hummingbird wings. The dazzling night sky that arrests you when you stumble out of the tent at night. All of the perfect mornings spent in the sunshine and crisp air, eating pancakes and reading to each other, stopping to watch a hawk or V of geese or inchworm on its slow path. Waking on the first morning of frost to find a glittering world transformed. A low-flying night heron swooping in overhead on its way to our pond. I have to wonder if I will notice as many of these small wonders once we are living indoors…

Julia applying the watersealing "surface bond" coating

Form work and rebar ready for the cistern roof pour

Post concrete pour, the overflow pipe sticking out

Mike and the trencher, digging out for the clean-out drain pipe

Clean out drain pipe going downhill
     But I digress. Our “moving in” progression was furthered by two more major developments. The first was finishing our water cistern and setting up a wash station inside (yay!). This process probably deserves its own blog post since it was so involved, but suffice to say, a big learning curve behind us, we now how have a tank holding rainwater behind our house! The second development was finally getting our wood stove fully installed. This seemed like it would be more straightforward than it actually was. Moving the stove in was fairly easy… that is, with a neighborhood of people helping. I built the hearth out of slate while Mike ground the rust away out of the old stove and got it in shipshape with new firebricks. Neighbor Don came with his tractor and hoisted the stove to porch level and from there a team of strapping young friends completed the move indoors. The complication came when it came to installing the stovepipe itself. It had to snake up to our roof through two stories and around several key load-bearing beams. Guessing angles and taking the plunge of actually cutting holes through the floor and the roof metal (ack!) was difficult and took three trips to an Amish-run stove parts store in Iowa to get just right. The cost of the pipe too was a doozy, almost three times what our stove cost (ack again!) But the feeling of heat emanating from the stove when everything was finally installed just right? Priceless.

Fitting the stove pipe
Moving the stove in

Making the cut through the roof (teeth gritted)

Installing the chimney cap

     I love this stove. It seems like the warm heart of our home is finally in place. I love cooking on it (imagine a giant hotplate with zones of heat, from “rapid boil” to “crock-pot slow cook” to “keep my mug warm”). I love that scrap wood from our land can power it. I love that it heats up our house in no time and keeps things toasty all night as it slowly releases its heat. I love that there is a water tank that sits on the back of it that keeps us in steady supply of hot water. I can’t imagine why these stoves were phased out in favor of kerosene and then gas ranges, except the one obvious caveat about it: someone needs to be around to keep it going. And without a personal Mrs. Patmore in the kitchen, I suppose that is an inconvenience. Still, it is a perfect fit for our house and homestead and I feel grateful for the heat it provides us.

Mike cooking pancakes and Autumn Olive syrup on the stove top

      Other developments on the house have been finishing our little dormer window area, starting the finish flooring (thanks to Mike and my father who have been nailing away at it, row by row), starting the finish plastering (now up on 2/3 of our downstairs walls), getting sheetrock up and mudded in various parts of our house where lath and plaster just wasn’t in the cards, and installing a gutter along our roof so that we can begin catching water in our cistern (thanks to our friend Augustine!).

Gutter installation

Our friend Beth leading a finish plaster demo

     My parents came to visit and were once again willing to help with construction. My mother pointed out to me that home construction has been a long family tradition, since her parents bought an old farmhouse on Washington Island, WI and hauled her and sisters up every summer to work on it, little by little. It took them ten years to complete and move in, during which she would sleep up in the creepy unfinished snake-and-mouse infested attic, so I suppose the construction compulsion is in my genes. My epigenetics too, since my mother was a construction project manager, working on sites up until the day I was born.

      I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I have been hard at work, hammering and sawing and hauling this and that: the complicated and intricate relationship between genes and in utero environment that partly shape who we become. Am I attracted to the creative, hands-on process of building a house because I spent so much time at construction sites in utero and as a young child, tagging along with my mom? My preschool teacher would take notes about my play tendencies—“playing alone with blocks again”—and my friend’s parents would also predict that I would become an architect or builder. And here I am, to nobody’s surprise.

    So I have to wonder about my own child, how is all this filtering into his or her life? Because, you see, I am pregnant! And have been for five months now, five months of almost non-stop construction. This has not always been easy, balancing the needs of a growing fetus (rest and non-stress) and the need to have a functioning home to raise a baby in (requiring much activity and accompanying stress!). But we have come a long way this year, and all has gone well so far with the baby’s growth. Now I can feel that the baby is quiet through the active parts of the day and moves around and kicks quite a bit when I am not moving. Has the noise of hammering and saws whirring become a muffled lullaby to this baby? Or has it been an annoyance? I have so much curiosity about this most amazing miracle unfolding within me, and it truly has added another dimension to an already full and special time in our lives. This baby and its arrival will become a part of the story of this house, and vice versa.

The second floor awaits our return...

     So with that revelation, I will leave you until mid-January, when we return to finish work on the inside of our house—the final push before a different kind of "final push", as it were. Until then, happy holidays and may your lives abound with small wonders too!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Three (not so) Little Pigs

     We woke up early this morning with anticipation of the day to come. Today is butchering day! (Warning: somewhat graphic images of the day follow). As I write, a fire has been lit under the scalding tank, scraping bells are ready, and our friends and neighbors who have volunteered to help are probably eating breakfast and will begin trickling over. Only our pigs are blissfully unaware, and are probably sleeping in.

      In the interest of full disclosure, our pigs are no longer “little” and they are no longer “three” in number, but that is how they started out back in early summer; three very cute little pigs. Now they are enormous hogs and one has already been harvested a few weeks ago and delivered to Mike’s parents in Ohio where he may already be making appearances on a breakfast plate. That was Stubby (yes, we named them against our better judgment), and being the mischievous bully ringleader, he has not been missed by the other pigs or us (he often “hogged” all the food). He was adept at breaking out of their enclosure and leading the other pigs in romps through our woods and fields as we went chasing after them, coaxing and trying to round them back to the pig pen. So needless to say, he was an easy choice for first culling.

The day begins--scalding tank is heated and the pig has been killed

Pulling the pig into the scalding tank

Our other two pigs on the other hand were quite sweet and I feel sad at their parting. Smally and Spotty have definitely grown on me over the months, despite their horrible smell and their oafish clumsiness, stepping in their food dishes and knocking their water over time and time again. We have raised them on a diet of mostly ground corn, apples, whey left over from our neighbor’s cheese making, and food scraps, plus whatever they discover rooting up the ground since we never ringed their noses. Our good friend John Arbuckle has further perfected his hog raising system, planting fields of forage crops, and then rotating his pigs around in them. Doing this, he has managed to decrease their need for outside grain inputs considerably, to a quarter of former rations. Let me just plug his awesome pig product here, ROAM snack sticks (http://roamsticks.net/roam-snack-sticks/), made from pastured happy pigs, coming to a health food store near you. (Let me also just point out that the alternative snack sticks on the market are made from pork bought at discount when it is recalled. And yes, the FDA apparently allows this. You truly get what you pay for in our food system!)

Rolling the body back and forth in the scalding tank by using chains
Using bell scrapers to remove the hair

I have come to appreciate pigs as ultimate food composters. I used to feel frustrated when some food item went bad before we could eat it, but now I think, “bacon!” and toss it without remorse into the scrap bucket. Imagine if every restaurant or cafeteria had a few pigs out back to take care of food scraps… We would have a much more efficient, closed-loop food system. Instead, we send almost all food scraps to landfills where they become methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they break down, and farmers grow massive amounts of corn and soy and other grains that go to feeding hogs (and other animals) in CAFOs. That would be “Confined Animal Feeding Operations”, not very nice places to be in if you are a pig, or a human for that matter.

We have been learning more this year about food systems, and looking into all of the uncomfortable dark corners that most people would prefer never to become aware of. One fascinating read if you too would like to delve deeper is Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat.  The author, Barry Estabrook, mentions a hog CAFO that he visited near us, “Smithfield Foods” in Milan, MO. We were aware of Smithfield’s existence before now, mostly because we know an elderly couple of environmentalists who have the total misfortune of having built their homestead on land that became adjacent to the CAFO. You can imagine how their air quality quickly deteriorated as the manure lagoon started filling from the excrement from thousands of hogs. That lagoon spills over in heavy rains, washing into the local watershed and seeping into groundwater. Ugh. Our friends have filed and won lawsuit after lawsuit against Smithfield and yet Smithfield just keeps paying out and returning to business as usual, undeterred. They are one of the largest CAFO operators in the nation, running several of the 20,000 CAFOS that currently exist in the US.

The pig is hoisted up to working level as baby Johanna and Regina watch

Mike and Brian saw the pig slowly in half after removing the head and organs

We have also been hearing about the human side of Smithfield’s operation from labor organizer and former CAFO worker Axel Fuentes. He makes an appearance actually in Pig Tales, and he also made an appearance recently at a local event viewing and discussing the film about hunger in America, A Place at the Table. He is part of the Latino community in Milan, which has exploded to 4,000+ since Smithfield started in the last decade. Most of these workers are illegal immigrants lured over to the US by promises in advertisements in newspapers and billboards that these factories put up in Mexico and other countries. The reality they find is pretty horrible (if they make it) and then they become trapped here.

Warning: don’t read this next paragraph if you want to keep eating cheap meat as usual, as it is a bit graphic!

At the film viewing, Axel Fuentes said something I find very disturbing. He pointed out that we quite literally still have slavery in this country, in fact, in the very county I live in. Illegal immigrants are abused and taken advantage of in all sorts of ways. At Smithfield, they work 12 hr. shifts and have a single 5 minute break in that time. That means many of them wear diapers because there are no bathroom breaks. And the work is dehumanizing, desensitizing, and brutal. I can’t begin to imagine. As a society, we can do way way better than this!

So! With that cheery news in mind, there are alternatives! There are so many amazing small family farms springing up all over this country with hardworking people like my friends John and Holly Arbuckle treating their animals with dignity, honoring their animal instincts for rooting and pecking and being able to move around. These people deserve way more support and frankly, they deserve to make a living whereby they can support their families from farming income. (CAFOs set meat prices so artificially low that it is hard to compete. Farming is mostly a labor of love as most farmers are just breaking even at slightly higher prices!) I know there are ways to access these alternatives in almost every part of the country and it is worth making a little more effort to seek them out. 

Dan and Mike work on carving up one pig into smaller cuts of meat

Teri, Brian and Steve work on the second pig, ribs in the foreground
Well, this is all getting a bit preachy and big picture, and as I write, the little picture is unfolding right outside: a group of neighbors has gathered to relearn forgotten skills and participate in a new yearly ritual. Our Amish neighbor Jake is going to be leading the first part of the process, scalding the skin and scraping the gristly hairs off (after the pigs are quickly and humanely killed). Then our friend John will help give pointers for butchering each hog into many smaller cuts which will be wrapped and frozen. While Brian and Teri have raised pigs before and have more experience, this is our first year and the help is really appreciated! Once wrapped and labeled, we will store the meat in a chest freezer at our friend’s house with hopes of one day powering a freezer with solar panels at our house. While this day will be hard in ways, we are taking our turn doing the unpleasant work of eating meat so that someone doesn’t have to 12 hrs. a day, 7 days a week.  

Brian, John and Mike holding future prosciutto?
Note from the end of a long day: Success! As the photos show, the day went really well. We are really fortunate to have many hands in the community willing to make light work of our arduous task!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Moving up and down

    I am squeezing a blog update into what has turned out to be a very busy September. We have been leaping forward and making discernible progress on multiple fronts, inside our house and out. First, we have a second floor! It is official, as you can see, and has totally transformed the space inside the house (not to mention greatly increased safety when working upstairs!) We looked for some time for second-hand wood to use for the second floor subfloor, but we ended up purchasing some newly sawn oak from our local mill, run rather appropriately by an Amish man, Ivan Miller. Ivan has supplied our house many times with necessary components, from our joists to our porch decking to our wainy-edge siding, always squeezing our little orders in a timely fashion in between his massive orders for mostly pallet wood. (It is a little saddening to see such beautiful large oaks milled down to pallet components, but such is the demand that keeps him and his fleet of sons in business!). At any rate, we are grateful for such an affordable local resource a few miles from us, and our house is far more beautiful and sturdy for it.

     Credit goes to Mike for laying the second floor while my mother and I have been a plastering machine the last few weeks, (make that month+). While we finished the first floor plastering, Mike raced us to finish half of the upstairs so we could get started there. Then as we worked on that half, he raced us to finish the second half. While we were pushing to execute these goals, I did a somewhat imprudent thing. I agreed to teach a half day "natural building" class to a group of 25 students who were taking a two-week Permaculture class up the road. The class was to have a hands-on component and I thought it would be perfect to work on building our upstairs partition walls, trying out lath caging with woodchip-clay infill, as well as another technique of stuffing straw-clay in temporary plywood forms. But all of this meant considerable prep work: stud framing the walls and ripping down scrap wood into lath, as well as getting the floor complete enough for 25 people to work on. And deadlines never go over very well in this building process, nor in Mike and mine relationship. Nonetheless, despite some considerable stress and long hours leading up to it, the class went well and 25 people were unleashed on buckets of slip and bags of straw. It was a frenzy of woodchips flying and buckets being passed every which way, but in the end, we filled the walls half way and had a successful demo. 

      When the stress of trying to meet our goal of finishing the house gets to be too much, it has been nice to sit and begin to imagine what each of the finished spaces will look like. The bones and flesh of each space are now there, and as light moves through the house on sunny days, it is easy to mentally fill in the details. This is fuel enough to keep me going for now, because truth be told, I am really beginning to fall in love with our house. It is my favorite place to be actually, even despite the fact that it is a mess, looking rather like a giant muddy dog shook itself off in every room. After a few more necessary components get scratched off the to do list (ahem, heat and water?), we will really be in the home stretch, trimming windows and putting on our finish flooring. Okay, it will be a long home stretch, but it is all relative anyhow.

    So on top of all of this progress inside the house, we decided to take another leap forward while the great weather and available assistance were all favorable. Thanks to our fairy-godmother parents stepping in to help organize necessary funding (our house funds start drying up at this time of year before their winter replenishment), we have been able to start another construction project. You know, in our spare time... And that is, our water catchment cistern. Our plan has always been to catch rainwater from our roof and funnel it into a below-ground cistern that we could pump into the house from. Neither of us are masonry experts or plumbing experts however, so our learning curve has been pretty steep on this one. At first it seemed so overwhelming that we just mentally kicked it down the field into next year. But then the thought of daily breaking the ice on our pond this winter and carrying 5-gallon buckets the long walk back to our house started nudging us back into the "wouldn't it be nice just to get it done now?" mentality. I mean, we had the hole already, how hard could it be?

     Immediately, we started consulting everyone we knew who had some knowledge about cisterns. It turns out one of our sister communities 45 miles away, Sandhill Farms, had just undertaken a large cistern project the year before and everything about it had been successful. At the lead of the project was an experienced guy named Laird, who had several cistern builds under his belt. He downloaded his brain on the topic to us, and we soaked up the details of construction. We also read Art Ludwig's book, Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Ponds and Groundwater and soaked up his recommendations as well. We consulted plumbers and masonry contractors and lined up a team of semi-experienced helpers and took the plunge. The first step was squaring out our hole and ensuring the ground would hold a gazillion pounds of pressure. I stepped into the role of project manager while Mike would lead construction. Whenever stepping into unfamiliar terrain, every step seems like it could be a misstep. And here too, we have been second-guessing ourselves every step of the way. Is it firm enough? Maybe a little more gravel. And a little more. Next was setting up formwork for our slab floor pour. We ordered "readymix" to come delivered in a truck with a godsend of a driver who took one look at our questioning faces and jumped off the truck to start showing us what to do with the giant puddle of concrete. That went well too thanks in part to him. Our blacksmithy neighbor Brian worked a little rebar magic for us on his anvil and helped with the pour and within a few hours we were breathing sighs of temporary relief.

     The next hurdle would be the walls. We decided on the safe strategy of copying exactly what had worked for our Sandhill friends, and that included borrowing our friend Tyler from them, who had been on their team last year. Thankfully he was more than willing to join us for a week (it doesn't hurt that his sweetie Cynthia lives just down the road from us). Tyler and Mike started laying out the blocks, the key being leveling each course and block, as well as grinding the blocks smooth for a tighter fit. Every third hole gets rebar running the height of the wall as well as concrete mortar. The goal is to then do a fiberglass-reinforced surface-bonding cement plaster inside and out along with an additional water-tight interior coat. And what I have been doing in this crazy cement circus? Alternating between trying to finish the plaster inside and running around sourcing all of the pipes, obscure ingredients, to keep things on track. On top of needing an inlet and outlet pipes, the cistern also needs a clean-out valve and overflow pipe. Another puzzle has been figuring out how the outlet plumbing will clear the airspace between our house (on piers remember) and the 2.5' underground safe zone where ambient ground temperature will keep it from freezing. Luckily it turns out the Home Depot plumbing department consultant is someone I know (Sparky from Neighbors United!) and has spent hours with me hashing out ideas. We are going to try a series of insulation layers around the 3/4" PEX tubing (which won't burst when frozen) with a strip of heat tape for insurance on those extra-cold days.

    So that is basically where we have gotten to! The next puzzle to figure out is how to set up framework to pour a roof over the cistern. And all of this before we start getting into frosty weather which is not great for cement curing.  If only we could hit the toggle switch on our superhuman powers of moving twice as fast with twice the limbs.... Until then, we are steadily plugging along.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Pigs, solar panels, vegetables and a ceiling

The pigs arriving by trailer with Teri and Everett waiting in excitement

    As some of you readers may have figured out already (from some photos leaked to facebook… those paparazzi!), everything that I said in my last post about “the pigs not working out” has turned out to be false. The pigs actually “worked out” the day after I wrote my last post. Our not-so-excited-about-more-responsibilities neighbor Brian and I were just breathing a sigh of relief that we had one less thing to worry about this year, just as our pig-enthusiast partners, Mike and Teri, were doubling down on their plot to bring pigs into our homesteading lives. A little ad buried in our local buy/sell newspaper “The Nemo Trader” announced piglets for sale for a buck a pound of body weight and before you know it, they were backing down our driveway: one pig for their family and one for us, as well as one for Mike’s father. For years I have been putting off Mike’s fantasy of raising pigs, telling him, “next year, next year…” so I didn’t feel I could fairly put up a fight against them. But sigh, gone are the pig-free days when I could walk through the meadow without wafts of pig aroma hitting my nose or I could hear birdsong without squeals and grunts in the background. 

The pigs have been working on this synchronized rooting routine...

     Now we are beholden to the pigs, or I should say Mike is since this is his dream. We have opted to let them root freely, which they love and is usually kept in check by ringing their noses. That means however that we have to move their pen and hutch around every few days as they transform their turf into mud in no time (which they also love, but best to have some of both). Mike dutifully feeds them our table scraps and overgrown cucumbers twice a day as well as some grain mixed sometimes with weigh left over from cheese/butter making if we can get it. Pigs are pretty ideal in that their will eat almost anything and require very little in terms of fencing/housing requirements. Brian and Teri and the kids come down to feed them too, and we have pen-moving sessions as well. It all seems quite manageable, but slaughter-day is still looming, which I have my doubts about. If all goes according to plan we will be “harvesting” these pigs around Thanksgiving, once they are very large, and Mike and Brian hope to do some much of the butchering themselves. If we were sensible, we could opt to pay a professional to come and do it, but once again we are testing the limits of DIY culture and planning on the extra mile. Updates to come on how all that goes down, but for now I am determinedly not getting attached… no cute names like “Wilber” or anything.

The demolition post-pig, hopefully a future garden site!

    What else have we been working on? Well, progress has been chugging along on the house. We buckled down to business, making a list of all that needs to be done with highest priority going to those must-haves to get through winter, like “install stove” and “plaster behind the stove so house doesn’t catch on fire”.  The fuzzy area seems to be our water system. We have agreed we need to at least have a functioning drain pipes attached to sinks and tub, but we aren’t sure that we can feasibly get a functioning cistern ready by winter. It keeps raining, our giant hole keeps filling up, we keep draining it, but at no point has it seemed like, “ah, this is good weather to cure concrete!” For two winters now Brian and Teri have figured out a system of hauling buckets of water from the pond and then warming it on their stove for bathing and dish washing or filtering it for drinking and cooking. This is not their ideal, but they have managed it for now, until they too construct a cistern.  We figure if it has worked for them, it should be able to work for us too if need be. Still, water on demand would be nice.

     Some big steps have been crossed off of our house list this past month, and it feels good to have made some progress. Since our insulation was all blown in, we were able to put up boards and a bit of sheetrock on our ceiling, which is now all covered. We procured the tongue and groove pine boards last year (another Nemo Trader score) from someone’s tear-out job. We simply flipped them over to the unfinished plain pine side and we hope to eventually give them a lime wash to lighten up the space. Other parts of the ceiling got sheetrock, where we framed in an attic storage area. After all that, we were done teetering around on ladders and so we started in on our first floor framing and finishing notching in joists to finish the second floor framing. All of this has probably taken as much time scratching our heads as it has swinging hammers, trying to figure out the subtleties of space allocation in a small house: an inch in one direction or another could make all the difference. The big question mark to come this week will be the stairs, a tricky bit of carpentry in ordinary circumstances for sure, but combined with round logs soaring through the house and a rotation mid-stair…. Well, let’s just say this may take awhile. After the stairs however, and our second floor’s sub-flooring, we should be clear into plastering work for another month or more. It is slowly coming together and I think by the time the weather gets nippy again, we should be comfortable and snug inside a relatively finished space.

The second floor joists all finished and awaiting flooring

Recognize a bathroom? Well, maybe not yet...

     The last thing I wanted to mention in this post is how truly wonderful it has been to have a garden this year! I am only frustrated we didn’t take the time to create one sooner! The majority of the work of a garden is on the front-end, prepping and planting beds, and then in the fall, doing a second planting, and cleaning out beds and adding in compost. The summer is mostly a time of harvest and no maintenance as long as you don’t mind a few weeds here and there. The rain has been doing water duty for us, leaving harvesting and keeping up with eating the produce as our only chores. July seems to be the month when everything is ripe and ready. We have virtually stopped shopping, designing meals around what is pouring forth. Last night it was a delicious eggplant parmesan with fresh tomato sauce with a kale-cucumber salad. The night before I was dreaming of a Japanese-style beef stew. When I realized we were out of carrots and potatoes, Mike pointed out that we might have some ready in the garden and sure enough, he brought back fistfuls of rainbow colored carrots and some muddy but huge purple potatoes and some Thai yard-long beans, asking, “can you work these in?” Maybe it is because I have never grown such a range of things before, but I am just amazed by how easy it is to provide for almost all of our food needs with a relatively small space. We end up purchasing meat once or twice a week, eggs from our neighbors, dairy products that keep well (cheese and yogurt), and chips (because, um, fresh salsa? Need I say more?) I can just imagine the grocery bills if we were still buying all of this organic produce from our fancy Philadelphia food co-operative… So all of this is to say that I am feeling ambitiously up for trying to plant a fall-winter garden so that we might continue the harvest into the colder months. It will involve some row covers to keep things warm and a different set of veggies, things like cabbage, parsnips and broccoli that love cooler weather. But the fall/winter garden experiment is underway already as seedlings get started in little cups. It is hard, even with one garden already full planted, not to dream of the next garden to come.

     Last but not least, we have an exciting new addition.... more exciting than pigs you may be asking? Why yes, in my opinion at least. We have a solar panel! This was a gift from some wonderful family members of mine who were possibly concerned for our off-the-grid sanity. And I can truly say that now that we have electricity enough to recharge batteries of all kinds and power a radio, I don't know how we were doing it without one before. It has definitely made life easier. In fact, I am writing this in my house instead of at the library thanks to our solar panel! The hook-up for one panel was very simple and took us only a half hour. It consists of a battery to store power, a charge controller and an inverter. They all hook up in a line and then you can plug in anything that can run on a certain amount of voltage (for example, to run a fridge we would need more panels, more batteries and a larger size inverter). The great thing is we can add more panels/batteries into our system as we feel the need in the future. So we are still off the grid, but with a little more power now. Three cheers for the sun!