Monday, June 25, 2012

Simplicity in the Suburbs

The odd thing about Simplicity and Simplifying is that it is not simple for me.  In order to simplify my life and that of my family, we've all taken on additional tasks that we used to not do. 

When I first started studying simple living and simplicity, it was to save money.  We had young children and one income.  I began doing lots of what I called "Laura Ingalls Wilder stuff".  I sewed a week's supply of cloth napkins so that we didn't have to buy paper.  I cut up holey flannel sheets and made rags and pajama pants for the little ones.  I baked from scratch, and cooked from scratch and started gardening and preserving.  My preserves became Christmas gifts.  In the process of learning and relearning these new skills, I realized I actually enjoyed the control I had over what I was consuming.  Not everyone was as thrilled.  I could tell when Christmas rolled around and relatives made remarks because they got 8 cloth napkins and a half dozen preserves, that not everyone valued time spent on making a gift the same way I did.  So we adjusted, a bit.

All of this time spent on making things myself didn't simplify my time. It takes more time to sew and wash cloth napkins than it does to use paper.  I had  the time to do these things.  I was home all day with my girls so I treated the time during the day as my job.  When my husband got home from work, everything household related was done and we could all relax (as much as anyone with 3 kids can relax).

In the process of doing everything from scratch, I realized the environmental benefits of living a simple life.  I walked to the store because it used less gas and saved money, but then I realized it also used less gas.  Making my own bread meant the finished product wasn't trucked to a store.  Cloth napkins meant less paper and less garbage. Canning food meant fewer food containers went to a recycling center.

By the time my youngest daughter started kindergarten in 2004, I had turned my focus of simplifying the household because it saved money, into simplifying household tasks because it was better for the environment.

We still take vacations and buy things.  I feel the consumerist pull to have nicer new stuff as much as anyone.  I have an iPhone.  We have a Wii.  I'd like to be that person who doesn't care about material things.  I'm not.  I like shoes and purses and chocolate and presents for no reason.  However, I'd like to think that because I started down the simple living road 15 years ago, that material goods are not a need.  I don't like shopping for fun.  It seems pointless to me.  I'd rather have friends over for wine and food from my gardens (it's always about the food for me).

Last year, we had to adjust our budget, like everyone else, due to the economy.  This year we have had to make further adjustments as paychecks get smaller and medical and school costs go up for our oldest.  I was feeling frustrated about that this morning when I looked up and saw the "Simplify" sign that hangs in our kitchen.  It was a great reminder for me to remember what is a necessity and what is a want.

I'll close with one of my favorite quotes:

 The trouble with simple living is that, though it can be joyful, rich, and creative, it isn't simple.  ~Doris Janzen Longacre

Live Deliberately

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  ~Henry David Thoreau, 1854 

We don't have to go to the woods, as Thoreau did, to live deliberately.  We don't have to build our own cabin and live off the land in order to learn about life.  We do, however, need to find a way of living and thinking, that is authentic to us; that is, in order to be content, we need to be ourselves, acknowledging our talents, as well as those nasty bits we'd rather suppress.  

Thoreau's Walden has always been a tough read for me.  The narrative sounds pompous in my head, probably because I know he relied on his mother and sister to wash his clothes and on Emerson to feed him from time to time. However, I love the concept of living life fully and honestly.  For Thoreau, that was living alone in the woods.  For others it may mean something completely different.  What is important is how you live.

"Who are you?" is an important question. It's a more important and more interesting question than, "What do you do? (for money)" which is generally what we ask others.  Personally, I find the second question to be a rude and boring question to ask someone upon first meeting.  When I'm asked that question, I respond back with something like, "What do you mean what do I do?  I do lots of things."  A smartass response, yes, but I hate that question.  It's a lazy one.  We are not our jobs.  If we are, time to rethink our lives.

Instead, I like to ask who people are.  What brings them joy?  What would they fill their day doing, if given the chance.  THAT speaks to who we are at our core.  Jobs and careers are important, but who we are, is more so.

Lots of women will answer those questions with what their kids are doing and their accomplishments.  I have three daughters.  I teach piano.  I love children and I want to hear about your children, but your children are not who you are.  Your daughter's straight A report card or making the volleyball team is not who you are.  Your 6 year old son winning his class spelling bee does not make me think you're a fabulous person.  Those are your children's successes, not yours and don't confuse the two.  Those kids, if you've done your job correctly and they're healthy, will leave home and begin lives separate from yours.  Then what do you have?  We need to know ourselves from within.  

What are your political views? Religious views? Do you love the outdoors or avoid it?  What music/art/literature speaks to you? Do you volunteer and if so, how? It's through these types of questions that we get to know each other and ourselves.  

It's important to answer these honestly.  Many of us will answer with what we think we should like.  Be real.  Be genuine.  I find a person who is a a fervent vegetarian who admits to secretly craving a hamburger once in awhile more interesting than someone who only lectures on the health benefits of a no meat diet.

For instance, I like a nice homebrew or microbrew.  I'm a beer snob.  That said, my favorite summer beer is Schlitz.  It's not fancy. I just like it.  Lucky me, it's also cheap.  

I also am a voracious reader, mostly nonfiction: economics, environmental science and gardening. However, I also like to read smut books/romance once in awhile.  I call it my brain candy.  I don't have to think.  It's escapism.  I don't pretend that these books are well-written with good story lines, because they aren't.  The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, and The Catcher in the Rye are well written with good story lines.  Contemporary Romance/Erotica is not, and it doesn't pretend to be.

Showing others who you are when no one else is around is liberating.  Young children are so delightful because they only know how to be themselves.  As we get older, our parents, friends, teachers, and media tell us who we need to be, which results in many of us being unhappy and not understanding why.  Only when we fully accept all parts of us, without judgement, can we be authentic and live deliberately.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Urban and Suburban Reading List

Over the years I have collected an assortment of books on gardening and homesteading in small places.  Most of the time I check out a book from my local public library and then decide if I need to purchase it for my own home library.  These are the books that I have actually purchased:

LIVING ON A FEW ACRES put out by the USDA in 1978.  This was on my parents' bookshelf in their basement for years (my father worked as a Soil Conservationist for the SCS, now NRCS, most of his career).  I filched it a few years ago.  They'll never notice.  I love it for the pictures and the 1970's attitude.

Storey's BASIC COUNTRY SKILLS  There is such a variety of information in this book and not just for country dwellers:  How to deskunk a dog, tap a maple tree, and cleaning your home.  I found the part on raising raspberries especially helpful.

THE URBAN HOMESTEAD by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen.  This is for those of us living in the city or suburbs (the authors are in LA).  Details about building a raised bed, preserving and fermenting food, using greywater, and vermicomposting.

TOOLBOX for SUSTAINABLE CITY LIVING A large of chunk of this book is dedicated to Waste, Energy, and Bioremediation.  I haven't yet had to use much of this information, but I like knowing that I have a primer of sorts if and when I do.

THE BACKYARD HOMESTEAD Learn the ins and outs of raising food and animals in a small yard. Information on cidermaking, homegrown grains, vinegars, and dealing with neighbors.

There are numerous other books that I check out from my library on a regular basis, but these are the ones I have at home that I most frequently read and read and read. I'd love to know what your must-have books for backyard gardening/homesteading are.

Happy Reading!

***My Updated Reading List 10/17/2012

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Streusel-Topped Raspberry Chocolate Chip Muffins

I adapted this muffin recipe from one by Brenda Hoffman in A Taste of Home Cookbook. 

1 T. soft butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup sour cream
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
1/2 cup chocolate chips

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cold butter, cubed

1.  Beat butter and sugar until crumbly, about 2 minutes.  Add egg and sour cream; mix well.  Combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda; add to sugar mixture just until combined.  Fold in rapsberries and chocolate chips.

2.  Fill muffin cups 2/3 full. Make the topping and spoon over batter.

3.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.  Cool for 5 minutes.

4.  If you want, drizzle glaze over the muffins.  I add heaping spoonfuls of powdered sugar to a bowl and whisk with a tiny amount of milk.  Or use about 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1 to 1/2 tsp. milk)

Makes about 20 muffins.

Happy Summer Solstice!

Daisies lining my front sidewalk
Today is the longest day, and the shortest night.  In our home, we have always celebrated the Winter Solstice and the lengthening of the days.  When we remember, we celebrate the Summer Solstice, as well.

The focus of our "Solstice Feast" tonight will be the food.  The focus of every meeting/celebration/holiday is always the food for me.  Especially tonight, most of our food will be local: grass fed beef hamburgers from the farmer we know, carrots, broccoli, potatoes and strawberries and raspberries served over cake for dessert.  I haven't yet decided whether to have sangria or a local beer for my husband and myself.  Our girls will get to make smoothies from our garden berries for their special beverage.

It's much too dry to have a bonfire tonight.  Many days of 90+ temps, low humidity and no rain have made that a dangerous option.  But stringing fairy lights outside on our deck is a safe alternative.

It's important to celebrate the seasons as they change.  It connects us in this technology infused modern world back with our primitive roots.  Eating in season gives us an appreciation for each food and stops us from taking our food for granted.  Being out in nature and celebrating, calls to us in our very core, and soothes.

A Blessed Litha to you all!

Monday, June 11, 2012


My sister is moving to Utah next month.

Utah's population, according to The Salt Lake Tribune is 62.2%.  Mormons are commanded by their prophet to have a one year supply of food storage on hand.  While I doubt very much that my sister will become a Mormon (and it's even less likely that I will), the idea of preparedness is not a crazy one, nor should the practice be limited to those extreme Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel.  We all should have some sort of food and water storage in our homes.

My form of "prepping" happens to be growing and preserving my own food, from my backyard and from the farmer's market.  I learned how to sew when I was 12 thanks to required Home-Ec and a mom and grandma who sewed many of my dresses in grade school.  I learned how to cook from scratch out of necessity-we were very poor when we were first married-and I ended up liking being able to turn flour into bread and vegetable peelings into soup stock.  I know how to teach (I'm a teacher) but more importantly, I know how to learn.  Once the harvest is done in the fall, I spend a lot of time reading about gardening, preserving, home remedies, and once basic homesteading skills.  I can cook over an open fire (and start a fire) and know how to put up and use a tent. 
One of my canned food pantries.

What I don't have, is a year's supply of food and water in my house.  That's a lot of real estate to take up in my tiny home with five occupants.  What I do have is enough food to last us about 2-3 months.  In the fall, there's much more food because of my garden harvest.  By late spring and early summer, my canning pantry is down to the bones.  Right now there are 3 jars of pickles, 3 jars of jellies, 2 jars of fruit syrup and 5 jars of salsa. The freezer has strawberries, pumpkin, apples, broccoli and peppers from last year along with around 40 pounds of grass fed organic beef from a local farmer and a little bit of venison from my brother-in-law.  The canned and frozen fruits and vegetables will be gone within a couple of weeks, in time for peas and green beans from my garden.  Right now, I'm adding young carrots and early sown peas to our dinners for something fresh.

Because I grow so much of our own food, I also have begun to store some of the seeds at the end of the harvest for added security.  So far I've had the most success with peas.  Each year I watch to see which plants are doing the best and save those seeds.  I also have pie pumpkins coming up from last year's seeds and most of my salad greens are saved seeds.  This year I plan to save some seeds from the heritage tomatoes that I grew.

Besides preserving my garden produce for food security, I also have become an almost year-round gardener.  I use a cold frame and a hoop house on two 4 x 8 foot beds next to my house on the south side. From early August to late September, I am planting peas, carrots, and salad greens in these beds.  I then have been able to harvest these vegetables into late December, sometimes into January.  Then in late February or early March, I plant the same seeds and in April, I start getting fresh veg again, right about the time when my family is getting tired of stored food. 

Hoop house and cold frame in October
I like the idea of having enough food on hand that if we couldn't leave our home for an extended period of time, for any reason (fill in the blank) that we'd at least be able to eat.  Or if we hit a rough patch financially, that we wouldn't have to decide between medicine and food.  Or if my neighbor hit a rough financial patch (like many people have), that it would be easy to help lift their burden.

Most important to me, though, is knowing that none of the produce that I have grown, has e-coli on it from a cattle operation upstream, or herbicides or pesticides on it that I can't wash off.  Harvesting the food minutes before it's eaten means my family is getting the very best type of preventative medicine and they're healthy from the inside out.  That, in turn, makes everyone more likely to fight off the common cold and scarier diseases.

 It's a lot easier to prevent and prepare, than to fix something.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Prepare Your Home and Yard for Climate Change

View from the SE corner of my yard

I've been spending a lot of time recently, researching on the web and in books for ways to prepare my little homestead for climate change.  Unfortunately, there is no book or website dedicated to this subject (at least none that I found).  Everything is about how to stop Global Warming/Climate Change on a global scale.  I can write my political representatives, I can protest, etc., but I personally feel that while these things are VERY IMPORTANT, I also need to be prepared.  Precious little is happening to halt CO2 emissions and policy isn't being written or passed to halt emissions.  I've worked with politicians and with public officials and understand the reality of "how things really work".  Basically, policy is verrrrry slow.  Especially policy that will be seen by many as inhibiting the growth of business.  So, I need to plan for how my life as a suburban homesteader will be impacted by more frequent extreme heat events, droughts and floods.

When we bought our home in Southern Wisconsin 8 years ago, there was a modest sized maple tree in the front of our pie-shaped yard (we live on a cul-de-sac) and some dead birches in the back southeast corner.  That first year, we planted a second maple on the south side of our house for shade in the future.  Our neighbors do not have trees or do not have trees that shade ANY part of our yard.  Over the next few years, we added an ash to the southwest corner of our lot, and  3 apple trees and a cherry on the southeast portion of our yard and a white pine seedling my 4th grader brought home to to SW corner of the yard.  The fruit trees don't provide much shade so we planned for them to be where the shade was less needed.  Our deck is on the south side of our home and heats up 10-15 degrees hotter than the yard in the sun.  Great in the fall, winter and spring, but it is nearly unusable on 80 degree sunny days.  Next year, we hope to plant a semi dwarf fruit tree at the southeast corner of the deck for some cooling effects.  We can't plant a shade tree there due to the proximity of our house.

The backyard maple and ash have really taken off in the past couple of years and should start to shade the deck and the house from late afternoon sun within the next few years (I hope!).

Another benefit of planting the additional trees is when it comes to heavy rain events.  Our home sits at the bottom of a steep hill, near a creek and former wetland.  Thankfully, my house sits 4-8 inches higher than my neighbor's in the cul de sac, so we've not had any basement flooding.  Having those additional trees also provides some flood insurance.  Trees' roots take up copious amounts of water during rain showers.  Grass doesn't take up much AT ALL.  So the more trees you have in your yard, the less waterlogged your yard will be. 

We had a very dry summer last year.  On the upside we had very few mosquitoes!  On the downside, every plant and tree suffered.  Grass went dormant and turned brown.  Lots of drinking water got wasted on grass WHICH WE CAN'T EVEN EAT!  That is insanity, people.  In our yard, we have installed rain barrels to capture rain and use it on our vegetable and flower gardens.  Rainwater is free, you might as well use it.  If you live in a community that imposes water restrictions during droughts, it's ridiculous NOT to have a rainwater collection system.  It'll keep those shade trees and vegetation alive and healthy (and less prone to disease).

Also, make sure to pay attention to your hardiness zones when planting.  My microclimate in my backyard is more like southern Iowa, than Wisconsin, so I plant accordingly.  Herbs that should be annuals in my area have turned out to be perennials (oregano, thyme, sage, lemon balm).

I'll try to write more about things you can do to prepare your yard and house for extreme weather events as I have time.  It's June in the growing season and I am a happy Sisyphus in my gardens.