You Are What What you Eat Eats…

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You are what what you eat eats. – Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food)

Here at the Little House on 17th Street, we’ve been thinking quite a bit about the above quote after finding the neon red honey in our hive in the past couple of weeks.

We’ve come to realize that this urban homesteading experiment we’ve embarked upon – however noble – has the potential to unravel before our very eyes with certain factors that are outside of our control, and frankly, that is somewhat unnerving.

You Are What You Eat

The age old adage is certainly true, you are what you eat… We began this renovation of our home and yard in an attempt to get the adulterants out of our food supply. We weren’t interested in eating food-like substances chock full of all of the preservatives, chemicals and genetically modified components they can cram into them. All of that can be mitigated by simply growing your own and purchasing intelligently. The problem with that concept however is when the surrounding environment – in our case, suburbia – decides to slowly interfere with your plans…

You Are What What You Eat Eats:

The truth is, when you live on an urban homestead – you have no control of what is being done beyond your fence. You don’t know if the flowers that your bees are visiting have been sprayed with insecticide, you don’t know if they’re visiting trees treated with Safari, whether they’re invading the local cannery and drinking long and deep at the vats of HFCS and Red 40. You have no control of where the roots of your plants go – if they leave the boundaries of your fences, and absorb glyphosate from individuals attempting to keep their weeds down in their little corner of manicured suburbia. For that matter, you don’t really know what the previous homeowner did in the soil… you have no idea whether your chickens are eating bugs that have been sprayed at the neighbors house and simply immigrated across the border to our homestead to die…

…things are truly outside of your control.

It’s a strange irony that at the times when you try to control for all these variables by raising your own chickens and growing your own foods, that the foundation you have built your homestead upon can erode so easily with the coming or going of food chain elements, or the past sins and indiscretions of the homeowner… in all honesty it makes you feel particularly vulnerable.

It has also got us thinking – what is truly organic? Can every little variable be controlled for and guaranteed that what you’re buying in the store that is labelled organic is truly organic? Don’t get me wrong – it’s got to be significantly better than what is being done conventionally – it’s not being sprayed directly, it’s not GMO, the list goes on – but it’s kind of scary to think that even if you do wish to opt-out of the conventional industrial farming model – that it may not be possible to keep it completely unadulterated due to the actions of those who don’t wish to opt-out…

Food for thought. You are what what you eat eats…

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The Morning After…

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Photo Credit: Mark Collier (Associated Press)

Yesterday, May 25th, over 1 million people took to the streets of 400 cities worldwide to angrily protest the growing political influence and seeming unwillingness by regulatory agencies to actually DO SOMETHING about an increasingly powerful Monsanto Corporation.

I first became aware of Monsanto through Michael Pollan’s book, “The Botany of Desire” in the early 2000’s – I had no idea of their existence prior to that, they just weren’t on my radar – but even by then, the Monsanto corporation had a long and illustrious history of producing products that bettered people’s lives gave people cancer.

First came the artificial sweetener Saccharin (later found to cause cancer), then they moved into the PCB market (later found to cause cancer), the 30’s and 40’s saw them enter the nuclear weapon age as they worked with the Manhattan project (later found to cause cancer if the blast didn’t get you first), the 50’s and 60’s saw the advent of Agent Orange (later found to cause cancer – are we seeing a pattern here?) and DDT (which nearly wiped out the raptor populations in the world – putting numerous species on the endangered species list, oh yeah – and it’s been linked to breast cancer…) The 70’s brought the development of the herbicide Glyphosate (RoundUp – which recent studies have linked to both cancer and Parkinson’s disease…) and additionally Monsanto has done work in Bovine Growth Hormone (where do I even begin? No really, where?), as well as genetic modification of seeds (which is the primary reason for yesterday’s march, P.S – GMO corn was recently linked to cancer in lab rats…)

To be fair – it hasn’t all been bad – they’re one of the first groups to mass produce LED lights, (they’re fun – and as far as I know don’t cause cancer), as well as numerous medicinal drug advances within their pharmaceutical division, etc, (some of which are anti-cancer drugs… which.. hmm… well… wait… so they make numerous products that CAUSE cancer, then develop significantly expensive chemotherapy drugs which help to TREAT the cancer they have caused?!?! Just making sure I’ve gotten this correct…)

The reality is – if there is a dollar to be had – Monsanto will be there, tongue lolling ready to fetch it.

They are a corporation, and a many tendriled – very large, unethical corporation at that. As a corporation, profit drives their bottom line. That’s just simply the nature of the beast, and I’m not one to pound the podium and rail against corporations, but with Monsanto in particular – I have to draw the line.

Monsanto has put their products and their profit on a higher pedestal than the human food supply itself.

I have a problem with that.

Frustratingly, the very people who should be regulating them, the USDA, the FDA, Department of Agriculture, Congress, the Senate, and the President are the ones in bed with them. The US Congress recently passed HR 933, and the hotly contested Section 735 a few months back – a spending bill to prevent governmental shutdown which just so happened to have a provision in it which shielded Monsanto and allowed a run-around of current law – to allow the planting of GM seeds without USDA approval. (Because you know… those are two closely related things…)

HR 933 basically handed the keys to the Ferrari to a drunken Monsanto and said, “Have Fun.”

With the passing of HR933, and the unsuccessful attempts at repealing the section of the bill that shields Monsanto, the United States has told Monsanto, do whatever you want. We won’t even attempt to regulate what you’re doing.

The big irony in all of this is that the First Lady is on a big campaign for healthy kids, good nutritious, organic food in all inner city neighborhoods – yet her husbands own actions are contrary to that message.

This is business and politics… Pure and simple, and politically, Monsanto’s influence goes straight to the top. Former Monsanto employees make up a large portion of administration appointments to the USDA and FDA, (The very regulatory agencies that supposed to regulate companies LIKE Monsanto) Senators on both sides of the aisle are taking significant campaign contributions from Monsanto dollars… Notably Missouri’s Roy Blunt who received nearly $100,000 from Monsanto employees, and is believed to be the one who added Section 735 to HR933.

… but how did it get to this point. Why are we here?

It’s simple, because WE let it happen.

We desired the perfect food. Completely pest free, uniform in shape and color — the same exact fruits and vegetables, regardless of what store we purchased them at… with no imperfections. Strawberries that weren’t that proper shade of red, lumpy misshapen potatoes, grapes that were a little soft or half-raisined… no thank you, perfect… every time.

We want them NOW and we want them in large quantities, and we want them year round.

The problem is, the only way to make that happen is to mono-culture huge tracts of these fruits and vegetables, spray them and continually amend the soil with chemicals to reduce the disease and pests that plague them – OR – genetically modify them to be resistant to pests and diseases… so as to produce the food that the purchasing populace desires.

Have to ship a tomato from Argentina in the middle of winter to Wisconsin, because you’ve just got to have a tomato to make that special dish for your Christmas get-together?  Monsanto has the answer to your quandary… you’ll need shellfish genes spliced in to resist bruising in transit since it has to be shipped so far, additionally, if there are any pests or diseases it’ll be rotten by the time it arrives, so we’d better make sure we eradicate any of the pests or diseases that might affect it.

…You’ll need an herbicide, pesticide, fungicide, and gene modification – so we’ll invent them, patent them, and sell them for a BIG profit.

As a corporation, they are providing a solution to what WE have asked for in our food supply and they’re making billions in the process.

WE allowed Monsanto’s rise to power… and as hard as that pill is to swallow, it’s basic economics – simple supply and demand…

So, while I can appreciate the anger and outrage found in yesterday’s march, it’s too little too late.

It’s like waking up after a night of drunken revelry and getting upset that your friends let you get a tramp stamp…

We’re the ultimate cause of this… but we’re also the solution. Because their political influence goes straight to the top, politics and marches will have little to no effect. If we want to make lasting change, and we want to slow down the Monsanto juggernaut, it has to be grassroots.

Here’s the battle plan.

1) Grow your Own: We have to get to the point where we produce our own food. Organically, in our backyards, front yards, side-yards, guerrila gardened in the yards of foreclosed homes, hell strips, or parking lots.

2) Eat Real Food: The stores sell real food and they sell industrialized food. We have to eat the real stuff.  As consumers we have to make a change from purchasing the foods that are engineered and contain ingredients we can’t pronounce to the food that has single ingredients. (ie. Apple – “Contains Apple”)

3) Grow Heirloom Varities and Reserve the Seeds: Gardening is one of the solutions, but if we’re running out buying hybrid seeds each and every year, we’re actually helping Monsanto out as they have their fingers in the hybrid seed machine as well. It doesn’t make sense to grow plants that can’t reseed themselves. Why not spend a little extra money and buy heirloom seeds, and reserve your seeds each year – ensuring that you can grow more of that same plant in subsequent years. Trade seeds with others in seed exchanges, support seed companies that don’t sell GMO seeds, growing your own is only half the battle, growing heirloom varieties is the next step.

4) Buy Local, and Purchase in Season: If you can plan your meals around the seasonal offerings that your area has to offer, we avoid having to buy random vegetables from far-off locales. There will always be something you can’t get locally, but if we’re able to plan carefully we can help to reduce the need to ship food across the globe in the dead of winter.

5) Support Local Farms: In addition to buying in-season, support the local farms that you know offer organically grown fruits and vegetables and don’t use GMO seeds. If you support these farms, they will be able to expand and remain in business, money talks. Support your local farms by frequenting farmer’s markets and supporting those farms who share the same ideals as you do.

We have a responsibility to do better. We have to care more about where our food comes from, and we have to take a more direct role in providing for it in our own homes. If we hope to make any sort of lasting change in this battle, it won’t come from political protests or holding a sign and chanting. The only way that this gets changed is by taking a direct role as a consumer in the process.

So now that it’s the morning after, put down the sign…

…and get out and get your hands dirty.

Our journey into the world of Chickens…

When my wife came to me and suggested that we get chickens… initially – I thought she had kind of lost it. We’re in the middle of the city, I hadn’t taken the red pill of Urban Homesteading just yet, but at that time, there was a massive push by a local citizens alliance, “Chickens in the Yard” or C.I.T.Y. for short to get backyard hens legalized in the City of Salem. Shannon became very interested, we even attended a couple of the city council meetings… it was quite the battle, and the citizen alliance won out, but unfortunately, in the all encompassing wisdom of the Salem City Council, the first iteration of the ordinance involved a significant permit fee ($150), a bunch of legal hoops, semi-yearly coop inspections… all for 3 backyard hens. Realistically – the conditions were too onerous for the average citizen. Your die hard chicken keepers would keep chickens for that kind of money, but the average citizen would say no thanks. (which I think was kind of what the City of Salem actually wanted…)

Thankfully cooler minds prevailed, and the Salem City Council relaxed many of their outrageous expectations, and adopted a far more balanced approach. $40 dollar application for permit, a structural Coop Inspection prior to getting the chickens, then 5 birds. No complaints, no problem. Potential of fines if there are valid complaints.

Being that this was far more reasonable, Shannon wanted birds. Bad. We finally bit the bullet and started the project this past November once we made the decision to stay put and make this place our home.

For those of you who have been reading this blog since we started it, I have mentioned numerous times that we were in the process of going through the beginning steps, and getting it built. Due to many things: Scheduling, Weather, Material Acquisition, other projects that popped up, etc… it took significantly longer than we expected.

… Not to mention, the coop itself quickly became the flagship of our homestead, and as such – it became more of a precision project than a “slap it together and let’s get chickens” sort of deal. My brother-in-law is an incredible carpenter, and very giving person. So he agreed to help us out – and we are very thankful for that.

I’m happy to say that we built the entire coop save a couple of items from reclaimed materials. The only items we purchased for the coop itself were the fasteners to hold it together, the glass in the windows, the ring on the door pull, and the poultry netting. Everything else is recycled materials from torn down buildings, old fences, salvage parts from various places… all either donated, or salvaged ourselves.

I’m very proud of the work that we put into it, and the final product is truly beautiful.

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The process it took us to get there was exhausting, and took quite some time – some of you will look at it and go, “Oh, that’s nice.” Others of you are like me, and will want to see the process we underwent.  This will be a long post, but in case you don’t want to read the whole thing to get to the finished product, the TL;DR is above “Hey look we got chickens, and here’s where they live.” If you want to see more, keep reading…

With no further ado – here is our journey into the world of Chickens.

Just like real estate, with chickens its all about location, location, location… but no. Really it is. At least with the regulations we have in Salem. The coop has to be a certain distance from all neighboring buildings, fence lines, etc.. but thankfully we had this large patch of grass and junk next to our shed that used to be the home of an old gnarly diseased plum tree that we removed the first year we moved in. We tried various things there, but nothing really did well. Except of course… Grass and kids toys. They multiplied plentifully… perfect place for chickens. Centrally located, easily accessible… perfecto.

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Once we had made the call to put the chickens there, we chewed up all the grass with the weedeater and laid down straw to choke out the grass, which worked remarkably well.  In future photos, that straw is what you will see piled in the middle of the lawn, in later photos, that is the reason for the large dead patch right smack dab in the middle of the back lawn. Ooops. 🙂

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I began the process by digging out and leveling the ground, and setting foundation blocks along the footprint of the coop (Yes the one closest to the camera is wonky… whoops). The initial design gave us a coop that was 6 feet wide and 10 feet long. We didn’t want an exterior “run” being that we’re in Salem and it rains buckets, frequently sideways. So we wanted to enclose everything, giving them an internal run with roost space, nestboxes, etc.. figured 60 square feet was modest digs for 5 birds. The problem was – we had no materials whatsoever to build from this point. I didn’t want to spend a fortune on the coop, and I desperately wanted to use recycled materials. (I’d love to tell you it was all because I wanted to save the planet, but its more that I’m a total cheapskate… saving the planet was a close second though…)

My brother-in-law Matt worked for a construction company here in town owned by another friend of ours, and I told him what we were doing, and asked if he could keep me in mind if they had any demo that needed to get done – I figured I’d go in at night and tear stuff out to save the studs and materials and save a little here, little there. He said – we’ve got a house down right now, and it hasn’t gone in the dumpster yet… lemme call my boss and see if we can go and get it. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…

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It was cold and wet, hence the fog on the camera lens, but we ended up with an entire truckload of old rough cut lumber…  (Which was CHOCK full of nails… there was much de-nailing to be done – but the coop building could commence!!)

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With the process just starting, our energy levels were high, (Of course we were downing energy drinks – so that may have helped), but we were excited, and worked HARD for a couple weeks to knock it out.

Walls went up.

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Beer was drank.

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IT GOT COLD!!!

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The roof went on – we cantilevered it out over the end closest to the house to shelter the nest box area from the driving rain of the Salem area.

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Old rustic looking cedar fence (complete with Sureno graffiti) became the exterior siding…

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At this point, there was a somewhat large break in time between the work, the weather got cold, rainy and nasty. Our schedules got busy, we ended up getting distracted with front yard projects and a bunch of other stuff. When we got back after it, much less pictures were taken – it was just focus and get things done. We trimmed out the windows and door, and cut in the chicken door, and built the 3 nestboxes. (Each nestbox is 12 inches high at the shortest point x 14 inches wide x 16 inches deep –plenty of space.)

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It came to the point it was time to get the windows done. We had some old windows – but they were covered in old flaky lead paint and kind of falling apart. I decided I didn’t want to mess with getting all the lead paint off of them, and shoring them up for use, so we built our own out of our leftover rough cut. I’m very pleased with how they turned out.

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For the floor, we have relatively unique flooring. Pergo. Yes. You read that correctly, we dumpster dove at a local business in Salem that chucked a bunch of boxes of Pergo flooring, and we salvaged it. We managed to get enough to cover the 60 square feet, so we had an easily cleanable floor in the coop. (We are using sand and spot clean as we go, like a big old litterbox)

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We framed in the door, and put the remainder of the windows in. We had to add the flowerboxes as well… only the absolute necessities. 🙂

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With the primary shell in place – we paid our fees and had the coop inspected – passing with no problems. Then it was time to finish outfitting the coop (feeder and waterer), add the ladder roost (which clips in place on the ceiling when you want to clean under it) and the poultry netting around the windows, sand substrate in – and of course getting our girls from their surrogate parents.

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The girls (Lady Gray, Java, Bekah, Arugala and Chicken Nugget) moved in during the first part of May. They’re total mutts, so it’s hard to nail down exactly what they are, but one or two look like they’re crossed with jungle fowl, the rest maybe English Game, one’s got some Ameracauna, the rest maybe Barnvelder, they might even have some Silkie in em… who knows. If it walks like a chicken, clucks like a chicken… it’s a chicken. 🙂

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… and of course the fruits of our labors.

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We’ll get into more on the chickens as time goes on, I’m sure – but for now – we’re happy with where we are. We’re learning a lot in the process, and it’s really too soon to do a ‘Here’s what I would have done differently” analysis. For now, we’re getting eggs, the chickens are happy, the kids are happy, most importantly my fabulous wife is happy… therefore I’m happy. 🙂

Winter Doldrums…

WELL!! It’s been quite some time since I’ve done an update on here and the primary reason for that is… well… nothing has been really happening. Seriously… I could tell you all about the minutia of my daily life. Getting up, having breakfast, going to work, having dinner, going to bed… but it’s boring enough at times living it, let alone trying to make it sound interesting to you guys… but the reality is, both Shannon and I have been working like crazy and nursing Thing 1, Thing 2, and Thing 3 back to health as they’ve all been sick with colds and obnoxious.

… keeping our sanity of late has been tricky.

With the MLK Jr. holiday today, I had a day off, and a chance to sit down and put together an update.

The past few days weather have been unseasonably cold for Oregon in the winter. We’re on what feels like our 12th consecutive day of below freezing temperatures and freezing fog and It’s been hovering between 28 and 32 degrees for almost a fortnight, with a periodic increase to 37 or 38 degrees, but even those days are few and far between. In the decade or so that I’ve been in Oregon, this seems like the coldest its been for an extended period of time – at least that I can remember.

I know some of you will read this and chuckle to yourself, because in your world, winter is 0 degrees and below. Turns out in Oregon, we’re not much different than Southern California sometimes when it comes to whining about cold weather. Just see the recent Jimmy Kimmel video about Southern California’s weather issues for an example… (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6t-EjrtD3U) That’s what it sometimes feels like in Oregon… We get a dusting of snow and our whole world shuts down (as a teacher, don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily complaining… but it is humerous nonetheless)

Growing up in Spokane, this kind of weather was fairly standard, with much of the winter spent significantly colder, and I don’t remember what we did there during the winter. I lean in the direction of nothing… which is about what we’ve gotten done here in the last week. I’m definitely excited for things to warm up a bit so we can get back at the outdoor projects, and get to checking some things off. The chicken house is pretty well stalled out at this point, and the yard can wait – the ground is frozen solid; the lager is well… lagering in secondary. (actually, if we want to get technical, it’s in the midst of its diacetyl rest before lagering) I bottled some wine yesterday that we had made from some Concord Grapes we got from a friend, and I’m in the process of brewing a Stout today. Well.. I will be as soon as finish this and figure out the mechanics of the protein rest, I’ll be starting that this afternoon.

Shannon has been experimenting a bit in the kitchen, and we’ve had some successes, and a couple of “wait and see’s” that are worth sharing.

First, a huge success. Colcannon.. perhaps you’ve heard of this before, perhaps you haven’t, but this recipe was obtained from Mother Earth Living, and is unreal. It also happens to be another really good way to eat kale.

I had never heard of this stuff, but it turns out Colcannon is a traditional Scots-Irish dish that consists of primarily potatoes and greens like Kale all mashed together. It’s a fairly simple dish, (tasty enough to inspire a song) and its typically made during the autumn and winter when the Kale was harvested. It is nourishing as well as filling, but most importantly, with the sweet potatoes, leeks and orange zest – this particular version is absolutely delectable.

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Sweet Potato Colcannon

Ingredients:

-3 very large or 4 medium Sweet Potatoes
-2 Medium Leeks
-1 Bunch Kale
-3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
-Zest of 1/2 Orange
-1 or 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
-2 Tablespoons sweet cream butter

Directions:

Boil a large pot of water. Peel Sweet Potatoes if desired. Cut potatoes into 1 inch cubes. Set Aside. Trim bottom 1/4 inch and top 2 inches from leeks. Slice each in half lengthwise and soak in a bowl of water, swishing to remove sand and grit. Repeat with clean water if leaks are gritty. Dry leeks, then cop into 1/4 inch half-moons. Rise greens, shake to dry and tear each leaf from thickest part of stem (discard stems). Gather leaves, roll like a cigar and chop roughly.

Place sweet potatoes in boiling water, and boil for about 15 minutes. Place olive oil in a large frying pan on medium heat. Add leeks and stir regularly for 3-4 minutes until they begin to soften. Add greens and continue to stir until wilted, no more than 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside. Cut largest potato chunk in half. If center is hard, cook for another 2-3 minutes. When soft to center, drain and return to pot. Add orange zest, salt, pepper and butter. Mash with a handheld potato masher or large fork until you reach desired texture.

Add greens and leeks, stir and adjust seasonings to taste. This can be made a day ahead and heated in a covered casserole dish.

Secondly, a “Wait and See”.

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We’ve been reading a lot about lacto-fermentation, so we thought we’d give it a shot. We started simple, at least I think we did. We started with some cabbage in an attempt to make some sauerkraut, and the jury is still out on it. We’re not super familiar with lacto-fermentation, but it doesn’t taste like sauerkraut to me. It’s really salty, and I’m not sure that we’re fans of the caraway seeds. So for those of you who have done more lacto-fermentation than us… is this normal? Should it be all sauerkraut-y? Or more wilted and salty? We’re going to let it sit a bit longer in the fridge fermenting to see if that makes the difference since we tried it pretty early, but suggestions are greatly appreciated.

With that, I’m going to wrap it up. I have some beer to make. Hope you’re all finding more to do on the home front than we are – soon the weather will warm and we can take care of the projects – until then… we plan and get ready for when it finally does.

Too Cold to Work Outside…

Things have ground to a halt here at the Light Homestead — as the temperature has dipped into the below freezing realm, the ground became the consistency of finished concrete, and our will to work outside in yard has waned considerably.

The lager is bubbling away happily out in the garage, it’s about halfway through the primary fermentation at this point despite the fact that the beer is sitting at 42 degrees — well below the optimal range of the yeast — they’re chugging away quite nicely. A tasting of the wort last night when I took a specific gravity was good – the beer has good taste, good bittering, good mouthfeel, just needs to finish doing its thing, and this should turn out really good.

Other than that, the work on the chicken coop has come to a stop until the weather gets a bit more hospitable. Retaining Wall and Patio Projects are not going to progress until Spring or if/when we get an unseasonably warm period… so as my wife and I looked around for something to do that is semi-progressive – move the chains a bit so to speak — we looked more towards the planning and preparation realm.

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The other day I put together this file in Excel that maps out and divides our back garden into one foot squares in order to Square Foot Garden the back beds. A planning template. We haven’t fully utilized this method in the past, but have experimented with a combination of what we knew of Bartholomew’s methods, and John Jeavon’s biointensive methods. Since reading Mel’s book, we realized we didn’t know half of what we thought we did. This year we’re going to spend more time focusing on the square foot gardening principles, for the sheer fact that it enables you to divide a very large space up into more manageable chunks. For us – as busy as we are, it will be easier to go out and weed/cultivate/prepare/harvest a few smaller chunks here and there, than to feel like we have to do the entire bed in a sitting. Realistically – it all still has to get done, but it’s like the old adage about eating an elephant… one bite at a time.

So we are spending some time planning out the garden using the new template. Shannon spent a good part of the day making her absolutely awesome homemade hamburger buns. We used some tonight for our dinner of smoked tuna boats. (A good friend gave us the tuna, and we canned up a BUNCH of it this past May.) My favorite is the smoked jalapeno and garlic.

We also went through our old grocery receipts today and figured out how many pounds of dry beans, rice, flour and other staples we used in 2012 – which will help us figure out from a preparation standpoint how much to have on hand to help fill the larder, as we’ve set a goal to work towards having 6 months to a year of our staples on hand.

Today was one of those days where it was hard to see progress, despite having made some. Most of it was on paper, and not where it counts. Hopefully the weather thaws a bit in the near future, enabling us to get back to our normal 40-50 degree winter weather. Seriously… the kids need to go play outside…

…Bad.