Friday, July 31, 2015

Mommy Isolation: From Fear to Fierce

Mommy isolation.

An overwhelming loneliness brought on by having children. The sense that nobody understands despite vehement evidence others have, indeed, raised children. That moment in the middle of the day when all the "successful" women are busy at work or shuffling their children to the museum or creating another beautiful art picture with muffins baking in the oven and you are standing in front of a window, glassy-eyed, contemplating jumping through the ground-level pane of glass just for giggles because seemingly every miniature being in your care cries, poops, and hurts themselves all the same time.

Mommy isolation.

Your child-free friends have plans every. Single. Weekend. Which makes saying no more frequent than saying yes. Which makes your friends think you're an asshole. Which makes you feel pretty friendless and alone. Your friends with children are only marginally better, gently reminding you of overdue playdates that you never seem to find the time for, when in reality you get so freaked out about adding yet another thing to your to-do list that you stutter out excuses before you even have a chance to really think about what you're saying. A self-sabotage that makes you doubt yourself and feel like you probably just shouldn't have friends since you suck so bad at putting in the effort to keep them.

Mommy isolation.

You're at the point where screw it all, who needs extra stress? I'll stick with my family. Blood ties forever. But then your family has their own troubles, their own opinions on how you should do things, and you start to realize you couldn't possibly ask them to take your kids when you feel like drowning because they, themselves, are barely floating on the waves and you're not even sure you row the same ocean as they do. And so you do your best to continue wading water even though what you really need is for some Great Aunt Beverly who thinks and looks just like you to randomly jump out of the woodwork like Mary Freaking Poppins and decide to take your kids so you can breathe again and figure out what it is you are these days.

Mommy isolation.

So you say the heck with all of it, stop depending on others and make this about the kids! Your beautiful children! Think of how precious these moments are and how much you longed for them when you were working outside the home! Take them out! Go have fun! And so you get up early so you can still sneak a workout and then start to pack for the fun day ahead when the little one gets up, screams violently, and pukes all over her bed and then the older one starts sneezing uncontrollably and then crying about the sneezing while pushing her younger sister and saying "she ran into my arm!" And so your day begins with the kids, the loves of your life, who can't possibly understand how much pressure is on them to make mommy's day.

Mommy isolation.

I've read articles on prevention. Get active. Get social. Get out. Hire a babysitter. Take time away from the kids. Spend more quality time with the kids. Have a date night. Ask for help when you need it. Take up a new hobby.

These are good tips.

But what if you're like me? What if the thought of meeting other moms with their kids in tow makes you want to run into oncoming traffic? What if going out at night with your friends makes you so anxious and self-conscious that you need to down a couple glasses of wine before even heading out the door? What if you try and spend time with your kids and it backfires in your face? What if you have a hard time justifying the money spent on a good babysitter, let alone the effort of finding and trusting one? What if the thought of asking for help makes you feel so ashamed and burdensome that you'd rather just deal with it yourself?

Like I said, those were good, generic tips. And I've tried each and every one of them. And I will continue to try them....in moderation. Because despite my suspicion-laced attempts at doing what my therapists and friends and family tell me (be more social! get out of the house! ask me for help!), I still fall deep into my own little hole of isolation. Even when I'm standing with a group of my friends. Even when I'm surrounded by my family. When I'm with other moms.

When push comes to shove, we're all different. What soothes me doesn't soothe everyone. What constitutes life and living for me doesn't mean the same to everyone else. And these differences, while beautiful, act as barriers to understanding. She may love eating somewhere fancy. I prefer a home-cooked meal any day. He may be perfectly fine with his kids staying out with him until the stars come out. I can't fully relax until my kids are warm and snug in their beds. She may use Crest. I make my own toothpaste. Differences. It doesn't mean we can't all get along. But when a person starts to feel like those around her are on totally separate playing fields, the game definitely gets lonely. And scary. What if nobody comes back to play on your team. What if they start to play against you. What if your team consists of only you. What should you do?

The answer isn't to change yourself. This blog is all about self-acceptance, remember?

I think I might be on to something. I think the answer might be to move from fearful and anxious to fiercely confident. Don't shake your head. You can do it. We can do it. Because this is my new plan for the next few months.


1. When I make a decision, I need to stand by it.

I'm not going to keep this super-open, empathetic mind that's nineteen steps ahead each time I make a decision anymore. I am getting to the point where my decision process looks like this:

Should I do this to make Person A happy? Because if I do that Person B might be upset. Well and because Person B and Person C are together, both Person B and Person C will be pissed. But what about Person D? Should I just tell Person A to deal with it so I can make Person B and C happy? Or what about the invite from Person E?

Honest to gosh, that is how I make plans in my head. I weigh who I perceive will get the most pissed and then typically do what that person wants. How about deciding what I want without taking into account everyone else's needs and desires? Is that even possible these days? I know I've never mastered that skill. Hell, I've never even apprenticed in that skill. Until now.

2. Time to stop defending my choices.

Wonder why she chooses to stay married? Wonder why her kids need to be in bed by 8? Wonder why she doesn't do her work at so-and-so-time so she can be free to do the things I want her to do? Wonder what she does all day since she doesn't really work?

Well, keep wondering.

3. People, we don't need to prove ourselves to anyone other than...well...ourselves.

So you are pretty. Awesome, love on yourself. So you've got a good man. Awesome, love on your man. So you've got sweet babies. Awesome, love on your babies. So you're taking a vacation. Awesome, enjoy your vacation. I am happy for you, and I mean that with all sincerity. But don't think your achievements make you any more of a person in my eyes. Just like your falls, your epic falls from whatever tower of doom you've built for yourself, will not change who you are in my life. You don't need to prove yourself to me. If I love you, I love you, end of story. And that should be a two-way street. 

4. Be responsible for my own happiness.

Time to stop thinking a "good day with the kids is all I need!" or "a date night is all I need!" or "a relaxing night out is all I need!" because let's face it, that's not all anyone needs. And when you put that much pressure on something you can't control (like, say, another person), you're setting yourself up for failure.

It's time to immerse yourself in the things that bring you, yourself, alone, joy - regardless of how happy they make other people. So you love reality TV. So watch it. So you would kill for the chance to sit alone in bed wearing only a pair of fuzzy socks and a bumpy blanket made of unread novels. Go for it. This is your happiness, your life. You alone are responsible for ensuring your own happiness. This is my happiness, my life. I alone am responsible for ensuring my own happiness. 

5. Can't be everything to everybody. Just accept it.

I can't be the greatest daughter, sister, aunt, friend, mother, spouse, employee, church member, table leader, co-op contributor, chicken-raiser, and 2-mile runner. It's just not possible. There's so much to experience in this life - so much awesomeness - that I often find myself overwhelmed with "callings" to be this, do that, be there, do more. And the people I meet along the way always want just a little something more. Some time. Some work. Some favors. At some point, I really do think I will learn to accept that I will never be exalted as the Queen of the Volunteers. Nor will I ever get an award for being The Best Daughter Ever. Or even The Greatest Friend Who Ever Lived.

But I have a theory that if stopped caring so much about the awards and started living without all the approval-seeking, that I might end up nabbing one of those honors. Or at least get to a point where I just don't care about them anymore. To be honest, either outcome would be fine because both would mean I've learned to accept I can't make everyone happy.

Because fierce chicks don't wake up and say "I'm going to let everything else run my life today!" No. No they don't. They run it themselves. And take responsibility for it. And gain the confidence they need to know that, alone or not, they've got this. Let's see if I can make it happen :)

What do you do to beat isolation? It doesn't just happen to mommies! I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading.
Jen

Friday, July 24, 2015

An Affordable Chicken Hoop House

This is a tale of woe and further woe, followed by a pretty sweet lesson that might save you some hardship if you're looking to keep your hens safe.

My 5 girls liked their little coop of white-trim love.


It was a gift, purchased through MyPetChicken and given to me as a goodbye present last year when I left my full time corporate job to pursue writing and homesteading and kid-raising. I painted the cute coop and kept it tidy, but alas, less than six months after being outside, the wood pulled up in places where it should lie flat and the joints cracked. It worked out in my favor, actually. Gandalf, my surprise rooster, grew to the size of a dog and was crowding my ladies in there like sardines. I knew it was time to look into alternative living arrangements.

I must've read about 50 articles and blog posts on hoop houses. Everyone did something a little different and I fell in love with the customization options for a DIY playpen for my girls.

And then, because apparently someone up there knows I am a procrastinator, I was given a huge, giant shove a little push of motivation to get this hoop house done.

We came home late from church on Sunday (that's right, I went to church, and no, I didn't ignite or anything....Hallelujah!) and as I was changing out of my nice clothes I was informed we had chickens in the front yard.

Now my entire backyard, where I let my flock free-range, is surrounded by an 8-foot privacy fence. These are huge, heavy breed birds, we're talking here. They typically don't fly higher than 4-5 feet, max. But no, somehow, our birds were in the front yard. My roo was actually across the street under a pine tree. Took some work getting him home, let me tell you.

Panicked, I ran from the front to the back yard, moving my overheated girls (did I mention it was almost 90 that day) as fast as I could, one by one. I counted, recounted. Four girls, one rooster. I see two barred rocks, one white rock, one silver-laced wyondotte, and a buff orpington. Where's my other buff?

I must've ran up and down the street 10 times. I yelled out to neighbors like a basket case. "HAVE YOU SEEN ANY CHICKENS!" I was sweaty, my dress was crooked from throwing it back on in haste, and I had that wild look in my eye that makes most people run the other direction. Goes without saying my neighbors didn't say anything back to me at all - just stared. Can't blame 'em.

I came back home defeated. No buff. No fifth hen. I began to worry I was never going to find her. And then I went in the backyard. And found the trail.


There were piles upon piles of feathers under a tree, then right in the middle of the lawn, and then finally a long, clear trail leading up to the tall prairie plants we have growing in the back of the yard. No blood. Just piles upon piles of feathers. And no bird.

I googled and read the surprisingly common answer to my question: fox. A fox leaves piles of feathers with no blood. I'd spied foxes in our hood before. I just never imagined they could get through my huge fence. No wonder my flock flew higher than they ever had before.

After bushwhacking the perimeter of my fence line with a machete, I finally discovered my little lady. Neck broken. Left under some bent plants. Right in front of a hole in my fence that I'd casually put some hardware cloth over earlier in the spring....except now the hardware cloth was swatted aside, lying in the mud. And my sweet little Sunset was dead, hidden for later, cut down only 3 weeks from when we expected her first egg, a symbol of what would come to the rest of my girls if I didn't get them protected.

The need to create a bigger, better living space became urgent.

I'd already purchased chicken wire. You know. To keep the chickens in their run and to keep hawks away and stuff. No need to plan for larger animals that could eat through chicken wire, such as opossums, raccoon, and foxes. No need. I have a ginormous fence. Riiiiight.

So aside from that huge flub in logic, what follows is a detailed description of how I (with help - you'll want at least 2 people on this job) constructed my somewhat-stable, affordable, and fun chicken hoop house.

I started by pricing my materials.

I wanted at least 8 "hoops" over my house to help distribute the weight of the snow we are no doubt going to get this winter. And yes, I am still disillusioned enough to think this might just hold up in the winter. I'll be sure to come back with an update once we get into the season. 

I also wanted it to be high enough for me to walk in comfortably. 2 10-foot pieces of PVC stuck together on top? That awwta do it. 16 x $1.41 = $23


And I wanted the base to be big...big enough for me to not feel guilty all winter when they are, quite literally, cooped up. I bought some treated pine (since this is not for my garden and the birds will not be consuming it, treated is perfectly fine by me, especially as this stuff will quite literally be touching dirt and prone to rot). 2 10-foot 2x4s = $12 and 2 12-foot 2x4 = $18


I wanted something strong to hold the PVC into place at the bottom of each "hoop." Rebar is cheap! 16 pieces of rebar = $18


I coulda built a door but I didn't wanna. New screen door = $22


I also purchased the chicken wire (mistake #1 - it was deceptively cheap at $36), corner brackets ($4), some baling twine ($4), two cheap-o tarps (mistake #2 - get better tarps as $10 2-fers already have holes), some nice bungee cords ($10), some really nice wood screws at 2" and 2 1/2" ($16), PVC fittings ($7) and some hinges for the screen door ($8). So right now we're looking at a total of $188.


You'll see I had some leftover, thinner boards found in my garage....they were maybe 1x4s? who even knows, not this girl....at about 8 feet each. I also had two old sliding closet doors, bricks, a cinder block, some old cabinets, a random piece of plywood, and tree branches galore.

The frame was first. I wanted framing along the back to help with stability and to secure the closet doors - those doors are to act as a makeshift windbreak at the rear of the hoop house (you'll see them in action later). We screwed metal corner brackets along all 4 corners of the frame. It wasn't enough to keep the wobbles at bay, however, so we added 2-foot wooden corner braces cut from scrap wood and fitted in at an angle. Can't see them yet. That's because I took this picture before I had to help cut wood on an angle. You know. Back when I was still happy.


Time to secure the PVC together. I used super cheap, 80-cent, 40-degree 1/2-inch fittings. So all I had to do was stick the two pieces of PVC into a fitting, hammer the rebar into the ground at equal intervals along each vertical side of the frame, and then shove the PVC over each piece of rebar. The setup was super easy and shockingly secure, even with the super-soggy soil we had at the time. Those fittings also created a bit of a pitch on top, which I hope will help with the snow and rain runoff. Here's a pic with the frame done, the doorframe getting all lined up and ready to cut, the PVC hooped and ready, and the closet doors prepped for attachment.


From there things got tricky and by tricky I mean, we had to get the door frame up, hang the screen door, wrap the bottom half of the hoop house in chicken wire (because why not, I had plenty...), and then get the tarps on. Too bad this happened:


Once things kinda dried out, we went back to work. We secured the tarps, tearing them on the baling wire in the process because I bought the super cheap kind. The door was secure. I even hung a cute lil' sign my mama got me.


You can see those closet doors along the back. Screwed 'em right into the frame. They also help hold the roost branches up there. Got my nipple waterer hanging for lots of fun water time. My electric waterer (unplugged for summertime) is chilling on an overturned, brick-filled plant pot. I took this pic and then realized the feeder was stupid high, so I replaced that overturned tupperware with some shorter bricks and put the tupperware under the old cabinets (far back corner there). Those cabinets were later filled with pine shavings and will (fingers crossed) become nests.


I became trapped in the hoop house so this stick did the trick of becoming an interior door handle :) Obviously one of my favorite parts.


The girls are over the moon about the structure. They happily roost, climb, eat, drink, and lounge in there comfortably with no hawk or raven threats. Ruby approves.


Now because of my fox issue, I re-wrapped the bottom layer of the hoop house and the screen door with some hardware cloth. I went and purchased 1/3 the amount hardware cloth as I did chicken wire....for $50. Yep. It's $14 more for 1/3 the amount of hardware cloth. You see why I was swayed into thinking it would all be alright if I just bought the super-cheap stuff? Right?

Also, I do not have an anti-digger mechanism in place for the hoop house. That frame is super easy to get under, especially in the uneven areas. My hope is to work on securing the perimeter of my fence line so my girls can still free-range. It's either that or employ some anti-digger methods in the fall when I can better afford getting myself into hardware cloth debt. Not sure which option is the better answer there. I'll also need to invest in some really nice tarps. Shoulda done all this to begin with, you know, but then this flaw-filled story would've never ended up on this blog now, would it? :)

When all is said and done, my $188 original total came closer to $250. Damn you Mr. Fox. Still better than the $450 total on the little website-bought coop, right? Right? That coop will become my chicken hospital for bruisers and babies :)

Lesson to be learned: know your predator threats and plan for all of them, even if it seems there's no way a sneaky fox could ever get into your yard. It'll save you time and money!


What do you guys think? Ever built anything like this before? And let's do a little poll for strictly my benefit....would you work on building security into the privacy fence perimeter or work on securing the crap out of the hoop house? Which one is the sounder investment in your opinion? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below.


Also trying something new - a blog hop! Check out these other awesome homesteading blogs :)

Hope you all have a wonderful day and as always, thank you so very much for reading!

Jen


Friday, July 17, 2015

5 Ways to Deal When You Just Can't Deal

I strongly believe everyone has a specific tolerance level for BS. Some people, like Mother Teresa, are experts at weeding out the BS and not letting it disturb their lives. Other people, like me, dwell on the BS to extreme levels and pretty much let it run the show.

I just can't tolerate the BS. I totally suck at it. 

Take the light to moderate piles of BS, for example. These smaller piles of BS include things like:
  • Screaming kids and sales people showing up at my door at the same time
  • A check I wrote two months ago clearing today
  • Kids skipping naps (aka: mommy's work time getting blown up)
  • A package with expensive 2-day shipping getting delivered to another house
  • Someone's stupid dog walking into my yard/garage/life with no leash
  • Hurting my toes somehow (it happens more often than you might think)
  • A super-clever and/or passionate Facebook post getting 2 likes
  • Anything related to Kanye West
  • My neighbor's kid screaming bloody murder outside like an asshole at 10PM

Now I can handle about 5-6 of these in one day before I start to lose my cool. They're petty, irrelevant irritations, right? No big deal. But then you've gotta add in the big, sometimes enormous piles of BS:
  • Feeling like I have no control over my kids
  • Dealing with an insecure marriage
  • Worrying about how much money I can afford to spend on groceries
  • Hurting for a family member struggling with illness
  • Hurting for a friend struggling with death
  • Balancing what I want with what other people say I should want
  • Juggling demanding relationships
  • Feeling like nothing I do is ever enough to make anyone happy, including myself
Those are a few of the big, steamy, smelly piles of BS that sulk in the background of my mind. Combine a couple of those huge piles with a few of those small piles (especially when the small piles hit upwards of 5-6 a day, which is pretty much every day) and you get me - a woman who needs to deal but just can't deal. My grace is gone. My energy is gone. My drive is gone. And it's humiliating and shameful and annoying all at the same time. 

But I've found a few ways to make it work. A few methods to keeping my head up. A few mechanisms to moving forward even when you want to head indoors and just say screw it. Here we go.

#1: Just say screw it.
No, seriously. It's important to care about others, but every now and then, you need to tell everything and everyone to just piss off for a while. I did this once and it was glorious, honestly. Take an hour to get away from people and phones and laundry and work and any influence of negativity or obligation and just let it all go. Nobody is going to hate you for it...and who cares if they do. This is about keeping yourself sane, here, people. We're not trying to make you blissfully happy at other peoples' expense...we're trying to keep you sane so you don't end up doing something dangerously destructive to yourself or to someone else. This is helping those you love even if they don't understand or appreciate it. 

#2: Eliminate the cupcake.
If you don't want to eat it don't have it in the house, right? This same mentality can be applied to my primary mood-killer - comparisons. I don't mean to do it, but I compare myself to everything....especially when I'm already feeling down about myself. I let the outside world influence me way too much and to reduce the temptation to compare and be destructive to my own self-worth, I often need to eliminate the source. Turn off the TV. Stay off Facebook. Spend less time with electronics that connect to the endless world wide web and the vast number of shaming sources. Don't go into online forums for answers to your questions - trust me. Get the overexposure out of your world for a little while so you can refresh.

#3: Hang out with a puppy.
Or some flowers, or a forest, or a kid. The only kids I'm amazed by are my own. I get a distinct sense of awe from watching them figure things out. When they say funny stuff I laugh real hard - like a belly laugh times a thousand. Sometimes just their faces, the curve of their cheeks, their tiny fingers, is enough to bring me back to reality. The BS isn't the reality, people. "Peony starts with P, Mommy!" Puppy feet. That's what life is all about. Bees on buds. Tree shadows. Find something that isn't tainted and dip into the purity for a little while.

#4: Develop your talent.
Did you enjoy an art class in high school? Dabble in creative writing in college? Have a thing for dancing in your car, in the kitchen, or at weddings? Where is your happy place? A dear friend of mine danced ballet for years and to this day, running through her positions makes her feel at ease. Granted, she uses the back of a chair instead of a barre these days, but it doesn't matter. Her talent is in her feet and her arms and her heart. What do you love? Do more of it. Make time for it even though the BS piles are telling you there's no time for it. Ignoring BS piles is a surefire way to destroy their power over you. 

#5: Set one goal and take one step.
Redirect all the energy wasted on BS. What do you want? Pick something tangible, concrete, specific. Figure out one thing you can do this week to help you achieve that goal. I, for example, want to travel to a one-bedroom cob cottage I found on AirBnB and stay there for a full week with very limited contact with the outside world. What do I need to do to get there? I need more cash. How can I get more cash? More clients. How can I get more clients? Visit them in-person with some well-researched proposals. How can I visit them when I have kids? Use their time in school this fall wisely. You get the point, right? Find something you want and create a path, however long-term it is, to get what you want. Take the first step this week by just making the plan. Redirect your anxious energy onto something gloriously all about you.

Obviously I'm no expert here. I still can't deal on almost a daily basis. But you know what? I fake it. I say screw it. I try to set my attention on things that make me who I am....because as much as I love people, the only thing in the world I can control is myself. And I want to be happy. I want to stop doubting every decision I make. I want to stop feeling the pressure to defend myself. I want to deal with the BS like a boss. Isn't that all any of us can ask for?

What about you, dear readers? What is your favorite way to deal when you just can't deal? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

How I Created a (Mostly) Maintenance-Free Food Garden

Guys. I don't know about you, but I am getting smothered in rain. I mean seriously. It rains at least every 2-3 days....and I'm not talking about wonky little rain showers or super-fast storms (although we get those, too), I'm talking about flash flood rain levels that leave my yard nice and soggy despite the heat and harsh summer sun.

So you know what that means, don't you. That means high levels of standing water. That means high humidity. That means....oh yes.....that means mosquitoes. And what do you get when you combine pouring rain with high mosquito levels? You get an Indoor Jen. Yep. Indoor Jen loves to stare out the window and plan vicious attacks against any mosquito who happens to pass her threshold of doom. Indoor Jen doesn't like to sit out back and enjoy her yard. Indoor Jen doesn't like to BBQ. And worst of all? Indoor Jen won't go outside to weed.

Now normally I love to weed. I mean, it's hard work, and it makes me sweaty, and when I get done my hair looks like I just banged out Beethoven's 5th symphony or whatever, but it's peaceful for me. Calms my nerves and makes me feel accomplished.

But I won't weed among skeeters. I'd rather take an alternate route to maintaining my garden.

So I did some research. And I decided I was going to create a maintenance-free garden.


I started by buying the best seeds out there - heirloom seeds. Do you know what an heirloom seed is? When I first started this whole thing I had to Google it - no shame. An heirloom seed is a seed passed down from generation to generation, as opposed to made in a factory by genetic engineers. They are pollinated by the wind and bugs and consequently, any seeds found in the resulting plants are viable for replanting the next year. Cool, right? Explains why I was never able to get those apple seeds to grow into anything when I was little. Most of the seeds you find in produce from the grocery store won't actually grow into anything. Crazy, isn't it? Those seeds in the store produce are mostly sterile and incapable of producing strong, healthy plants. Heirlooms seeds, however, depend on seed saving for their survival. Any seeds collected from an heirloom veggie or fruit will indeed produce another plant with the same traits and growth. Isn't that interesting? I had no idea any of this crazy seed stuff was going on until I started this little gardening project. So much to learn! I purchased my seeds from Seed Savers and Baker Creek. They send gorgeous catalogs filled with things that make you go "GIMMIE NOW!" So what do seeds have to do with less maintenance? Well, with heirloom seeds, you can save the seeds from plants that grow well in your yard/window/planter box. Try new seeds each spring and soon enough, you'll only have seeds for plants that require the smallest amount of work.

I have a short growing season where I live, so after I selected my seeds I planted everything indoors in March. Grabbed some cheap little wire shelves and a shop light to get those little seedlings sprouting.


My first outdoor no-maintenance structure was my herb spiral. You can read about it here. The herbs have taken off, no joke. Added bonus? My hens and roo love to drink from the water basin at the bottom of the spiral. I added some water hyacinth to help filter that noise. Don't want them drinkin' larvae water....although knowing them, they'd like that.



The herb spiral is great, but I needed something sturdy to hold my veggies. I made some cinder block raised beds. I started with two beds this year; eventually I'll have six. These puppies are the best. I also have a raised wooden fence plank bed. It's still holding up, which is awesome cuz I needed the space.

After making sure I had free and clear structures to hold my maintenance-free food garden, I went ahead and built up the earth using compost, pine shavings, free mulch, and any other decomposing material I could get my hands on (minus, um, dead bodies). I did use a few bags of dirt (Happy Frog brand from my local feed store) to top off the beds and create a nice medium for the seedlings.

Then, it was go time.

The #1 way you can create a maintenance-free food garden, in my opinion, is to companion plant. Let nature do the work for you, man.

Wanna see how I diagrammed who would go where?


Go on Google and type in companion planting and you will easily find who is besties with who at Veggie High School.

In my wooden fence plank bed I planted my cauliflower with my kale and inter-planted spinach between them. (I also had this unmarked seedling that I didn't know what to do with....so I planted it in the front and it's obviously become a tomato monster. Oops. Mark your seedlings people. And don't use broken crayons on peat pots and expect it to still show up come planting time.)


My first cinder block raised bed holds my strawberries, onions, carrots, and far, far away from the strawberries, my sweet pepper plants. Strawberries and peppers do not mix.....but strawberries and onions? Bangarang. And carrots with peppers? Rad.


I planted dill, marigold, and nasturtium inside the little holes in the cinder blocks. Why? Well, because those three little plants have a ton of stink and veggie eating bugs don't like stink. Plus, the nasturtium can be eaten. You read that right. I can eat my flowers like lettuce. So pumped.

The tomatoes in the redneck Home Depot buckets were supposed to go in the ground, but I ran out of space. So buckets was what they got. The leaves are yellowing because of all the rain we're getting, but I'm hopeful these suckers will pull through. Maaaay have over-pruned those guys. Newbie alert.


My last cinder block bed is probably my favorite. It's showcases the best companion planting method ever. In my I Love Summer post I posted a little picture of this gardening technique - it's called the three sisters method.

Get this.

So you plant the first sister (corn). She grows tall and strong. Then you plant the second sister (pole beans) she climbs the first sister and provides nutrients to the soil (beans are nitrogen-fixers...and veggies love nitrogen). Then you plant the last sister (squash...or in my case, zucchini, cucumber, and pumpkin). She grows big and leafy to shade the ground and keep weeds from growing.


You guys. This is the best thing I've learned thus far in my adventure. Way back in the day Native Americans planted like this because it was a self-sustaining feast in the ground. You can make an entire meal with almost all the necessary components of a healthy diet just by planting these three crops. You get your sugars/starches from the corn, your veggie vitamins from the squash, and your protein from the beans. Are you about to jump out of your chair right now with excitement like I did when I learned about this? No? Anyone? But honestly, how does everyone not do this?? These were all direct-sow seeds, too, meaning you just put them in the ground after your last frost, no need to start them inside. I didn't need to do anything!


And the best part? I truly don't need to weed that bed at all. Not at all. The squash leaves are so huge I actually pruned a few back so the beans could grow (I planted them too late...ooops). No watering, no weeding, no seed-starting, nothing.

Now how easy is that? Here I am, almost halfway through July, and I've only gone out there to weed twice since planting. The other beds are doing well, too. All my seedlings are growing, which is incredible seeing as how I've never grown 90% of this stuff before. Insane. Easy. Practical. Healthy. And did I mention easy?

The bottom line? Find out what you like to eat, carve out a small space to plant (even if it's a balcony flower box, people), and then grab some seeds...or have them delivered to your door like I do. Figure out what you can plant with your favorite herbs and veggies to help them grow. Some companion plants prevent disease, others keep predators away, and some even add nutrients to the soil so your favorite veggies can go wild with production.

Speaking of production, I'm so excited for harvest season. I'm on pins and needles waiting to see what does well and what flops. Can't wait to show you. Can't wait to eat it. Can't wait to can. I'm ready!

How about you? What is your biggest barrier to growing your own food? Talk to me about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so, so much for reading :)
Jen

Friday, July 3, 2015

Why the 4th of July Makes Me Crazy

Disclaimer: This is a reality check post. If you'd like to stay in your lil' bubble of red, white, and blue dollar store decorations and WalMart stars and stripes cupcakes that is your prerogative. I don't fault your for it. Live your life and be free. But for those of you who can stick with me and expand your perspective, I promise to end this post on a happy note and maybe, hopefully, leave you inspired.

4th of July. What are the top 3 things that pop into your head when you think about Independence Day? BBQ? The American flag? Parades? Swimming and sunblock? I think of those things, too. And I always picture little redcoats running toward the Atlantic with American soldiers whooping and hollering behind them like banshees. And if I'm feeling particularly patriotic, I'll occasionally think of my fellow men and women in arms who might get a celebratory non-alcoholic beer when they return from patrol.


But if there's one thing I tend to appreciate with every fiber of my being, one thing I never forget to consider on holidays like this, it's that I live in a country that allows me to say what I want, eat what I want, love who I want, and yes, be an idiot whenever the heck I want. I'm thankful. But not everyone is.

The First Reason Why the 4th of July Makes Me Crazy:
Anti-American complainers sittin' around eating hamburgers

Yes, America has some pretty terrible flaws. Yep, we ain't perfect, as Yahoo commentors and all other "I hate America" people tend to remind us every chance they get. But do you wake up every morning and wonder if today is the day your home is going to be razed to the ground? Do you lose family members as they make their way to church? Do you worry your baby girl will be mutilated because she is female? Do you struggle to get to the grocery store without getting blown up?

Reality check, people. We don't live in this kind of fear each day. We have the privilege to worry about things like equal rights, organic food, and global warming. We have the privilege to protest, donate to charities, and run for special causes. We have the privilege to act on behalf of what we think is right and just and moral and good. We have the privilege to live here.

And why do we have this privilege? Well, because we have the best goshdamn military this world has ever seen. We have men and women who fight, and train, and learn, and conduct covert missions, and disarm, and negotiate, and yes, kill those who want our freedom dead. We have a group of people who dedicate themselves to protecting your right to say what you want, eat what you want, love what you want, and yes, be an idiot whenever the heck you want. And these people ask nothing of you. Matter of fact, from my experience, they don't even live in the same world as you. They run in the background of your life, rarely considered, occasionally honored through embarrassing parades and assemblies, but infrequently thought of when you're planning BBQs and fireworks displays and camping trips. And that's ok, you know. Most of the servicemen and women I know don't want to be acknowledged on the daily show. They don't want fame and fortune and to be called "heroes." You know what most of them want? Peace. They want peace, people. And the love they fought to protect. And maybe a little bit of respect for mastering something you are privileged to never know anything about.

The Second Reason Why the 4th of July Makes Me Crazy:
Money, money, money, money

You know what is the complete opposite of the peace, love, and respect I mentioned above? Half-price mattresses. Furniture blowouts. Annual 4th of July sales.

A soldier doesn't risk her life so another guy can get rich.

How about we stop commercializing and monetizing our patriotism. How about we make our patriotic holidays less about flag-covered paper plates and more about respecting the freedom we've been given. A discounted bedroom set doesn't do anyone any good. You know what does?

Spending money on wounded service members: http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/

Or homeless veterans: http://www.supporthomelessveterans.org

Or this homeless Marine who is also a musical genius: http://www.gofundme.com/yc3p2e6

And it's not all about the money.  Which leads me to the third reason the 4th of July makes me crazy. Lemmie explain.

The Third Reason Why the 4th of July Makes Me Crazy:
Our freedom isn't free, but respect and courtesy doesn't cost you a dime

Those soldiers who fought overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan? Well, most of them experienced some pretty loud booms, occasionally accompanied (post ear-ringing) by the screams of their fallen battle buddies. This is not an easy holiday for them. I'm a firsthand witness to what happens to a solider during fireworks season. It's not in any way pretty. So while it's unrealistic to think fireworks should be limited to large-scale events, try to be considerate. If you know you've got a veteran in your hood, especially a veteran of our current fight in the middle east where bombs are more common than guns, consider lighting off something with a little less firepower. Those homemade cannons you shoot off in your backyard might inadvertently send your neighbor straight back to Iraq. What a way to show respect for all she or he did.

And speaking of fireworks, how many of you know what those booms are all about? Any of you tell your kids what fireworks represent? How about saturating those precious little minds with a bit of history and reference before they head out to the show this weekend? Beautiful display, yes. But what does it represent? Can you feel it? Can they?

The 4th of July is a day of celebration for our freedom - a freedom so many seem to forget comes at a hefty price. It doesn't take much to transform a day that's become a self-absorbed marketing ploy into a day worthy of the sacrifices our soldiers made. If you do nothing else to show respect to the real reason behind our independence, at the very least ensure your day is filled with love and peace. There's no better way to honor and respect those who died....and those who still live.

Happy Independence Day, America. May you forever be the land of the free, home of the brave.
Jen


Friday, June 19, 2015

So Your Kid Wants to Be a Farmer

Me: So, Ming, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Ming (my oldest, and no, Ming is not her name): I want to be a farmer, a teacher, and a veterinarian.

Me: Hmmm. Um, all three?

Ming: Yep. I can be a farmer and a vet and then teach people about farming and taking care of animals.

Me, after a short pause, eyes filling with proud tears: Be still my heart!!


I wanted to be a vet once. Yep. Even went to school for it for a couple of years until I joined the Army. Side Note: Contrary to what any recruiter will tell you, the Army does not allow you to just walk in off the street and be a service dog caretaker...

I had the opportunity to see fully-operational dairy farms, cattle ranches, hog farms, and poultry farms. I was able to bear witness to the educational entryway for anyone looking to become a vet through a large brick-and-mortar university. I gotta tell ya, it scared me a little bit....even then. Even then, back when I loved McDonalds, before I watched Food Inc., before I started ranting about how traditional meat production is literally poisoning our country.

I remember standing in animal science lab, staring at the vast number of bovine stomachs set out on display on the tables in front of me, thinking back to the heifer I'd just witnessed, the one with the huge (painless) hole cut into her stomach so we could study the devastating effects of corn on a ruminant's stomach, and I realized right then and there that I wasn't learning how to save animals. I was learning how to extend the life of animals so humans could make more money. Not animal welfare....human welfare. And not even welfare....profits. Money. Something I grew up without and never wanted to focus on ever again. It made me, the naive little college dreamer with a moral compass untouched by the harsh reality of profit-driven behaviors, sick to my stomach.

Not long after (because let's face it, I'm obviously only a few years older than that youthful college girl...) I swore off traditional agriculture, period. Seemed to be a lot of "feed the world" mottos covering up massive biochemical contamination and dollar-conscious ecological irresponsibility.

But see here's the catch ... the hiccup in my steadfast mission to change agriculture forever, at least in this home...

Many of the farmers I know and love farm exclusively using traditional practices, like monocropping (one or two crops over acres and acres of land, normally corn and/or soybean, all genetically modified so they can withstand heavy amounts of pesticide, some plants actually produced with the pesticide already inside their DNA, which we then of course ingest and feed to our kids). These farmers still operate cattle ranches with huge troughs overflowing with the corn I described above. They still raise chickens for heavy producers like Perdue, who shamelessly "believe in a better chicken" yet single-handedly monopolize the market, force farmers into poverty, and operate the nation's worst, most disgusting living environments for these "better chickens." PS, ever notice how f-you and Perdue rhyme? Neat, huh? 


But these farmers are my friends, you see. This is how farmers can make money in America, so this is how farmers operate. We've got biochemical terrorists like Monsanto on one end of the spectrum, consumers like me on the other, and the majority of Americans and farmers stuck right snack dab in the middle, just doing what they've always done because that's the way it's done and it's too hard and too expensive to do it any other way.

And my baby, my precious, naive little 4th grader, wants to jump right into the thick of it.

She quit Girl Scouts to join 4H. When asked who she'd like to meet if she could meet anybody, dead or alive, she told me she'd meet Joel Salatin. She stands next to me as I cook so she can write the recipes down into her little pink notebook. She wants in on the food movement and I'm just not sure how to feel about it. It's like a thrill ride....terrifying and glorious all at the same time.

What do I tell her? Do I expose all the deep dark secrets of the traditional educational model for agriculture? Do I enter her into the very testy conflict between traditional farmers and more forward-thinking minds, like Joel? Do I allow her to skip a brick-and-mortar college degree so she can apprentice with some of the best permaculture groups in the world? Do I say nothing and allow her to figure everything out on her own?


I wonder how long this farmer-in-training mentality is going to last (so far we're going on 3 years). She's not exactly the world's most motivated kid, I can tell you that right now. She doesn't even remember to take the compost out. Nothing like good ol' Ree Drummond's kids, who seem to always be working and working and working and smiling and working. So maybe my kid will change her mind. Maybe I say nothing, and she figures out how hard it is on her own, and hates it so much she walks away from it.

.....but hang on.....is that really what I want? Is that really what we need? More young minds turning away from agriculture because they see this impermeable wall of hardship and greed in front of them?

My job is to raise someone who can contribute to society and understand what it means to be content. So I think instead of passing this off as a MingMing oddity, or falling back on the whole "she'll change her mind," principles, I am going to nurture this little seed of hope. I'm going to share what I'm learning with her and...

  • Take her out gardening with me. 
  • Introduce her to my homesteading handbook. 
  • Teach her how to respect our farmers regardless of growing practices. 
  • Let her care for the chickens. 
  • Show her why I choose to buy my seeds from heirloom suppliers. 
  • Teach her how to articulately debate. 
  • Explain how I came to choose companion planting over traditional garden rows. 
  • Show her how to instruct others. 
  • Teach her how to install hardware cloth over raised beds so the chickens can't eat all of her future cauliflower. 


Because that's all any of us can do, right? Grow within ourselves, respect others, and then share our knowledge with our kiddos? I gotta tell you, I think that's what parenting is all about.

And who knows, maybe I'll get a little homesteading partner out of the whole deal ;)

Any of you have a good story about what you wanted to be when you grew up? How many of you have kiddos that want to be farmers? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)

Jen




Friday, June 12, 2015

I Love Summer Break (and Might Be Nuts)

As I type this, my two kids are fighting. One stole something from the other (a fuzzy from her pants?) and the other is passively-aggressively retaliating in the hopes I won't realize what she is doing. This morning they argued about cereal. Later, the smaller one got kicked in the face by the older one who was "just dancing, mom!"

This is the way it is with those two girls. It just goes on...and on....and on....each time they are together and I can't regulate their interactions, arguments quite often ensue.

So you'd think the thought of spending an entire summer with both kids at home all day would make me want to invent a Mom Ship capable of blasting me into the next universe and replacing myself with a robot that sings and can cook dinner.

But that's not the case. I am so, so excited for my big girl to be home from school. I am honestly ecstatic about this summer. Yep. I might be nuts. But hear me out.

Older Kid Help
My big girl is 9. She washes things, can carry things, clean things, read things, make things, replace things, feed things, entertain things, and pretty much care for herself. She is an immense help. I don't get this kinda help when she's in school all day. No, during the school year I get a tired kid at the end of the day with piles of homework and not enough time in the day to complete her schoolwork and chores. It's exhausting to her and to me. Having her home frees up her time so she spends only a little bit of time working and the rest of the time being a kid. It's glorious. I get my help and she gets her relaxation. Win-win. Her help allows me to find the time to do stuff like this with my lawn mower:

Education
Oh yeah, I'm going there. I get school. I love school. I feel blessed to have the educational resources we have in this country. But some stuff, some stuff I truly value, isn't taught in school. I am an art-biology-music person. School these days is a bit more math-and-technology focused. I get it. I support it. But you know what I'd support more? A school that allowed my kid to take some time at the end of her long school day to be focused on home, family, and freedom. She is gone from 8:20AM to 4:00PM Monday through Friday. When she gets home she's obligated to complete at least another hour's worth of homework. In 3rd grade.

So what does that mean for me? It means I can't have her learn how to cook during the school year because she needs that hour after school before dinner to do more schoolwork. It means I can't show her how to cage up the chickens at the end of the night because she's in the shower early so she can get up early and head back to school. It means I choose not to give her as much responsibility because I'd rather she take the 60 minutes leftover between dinner and shower time to go outside and .... I dunno.... play.

Now again, I am thankful for her public school. But I am also thankful for the opportunity each summer to teach her how to plant her own food.


I am thankful for the opportunity to teach her how to wash dishes, do the laundry, make a meal, clean the chicken coop, identify edible weeds, and learn more about actual living.

Excuses
I love summer because I finally have the excuse to go to museums, the library, botanical gardens, arboretums, and any freakin festival I want.


I don't need to feel like I'm breaking routine, or worry about getting home in time for the bus, or freak out if I serve dinner late. It's all good - no school tomorrow. Might as well stay at the museum a little longer - no school tomorrow. Might as well let them stay up a little later - no school tomorrow. It's great to have the excuse to be childish and semi-irresponsible for a couple months.

My First Time
This is the very first summer I've personally been able to experience my two kiddos without work or school. Don't get me wrong, I am still working at night, on the weekends, and for 11-12 hours a day 3 days a week, but those other 2 days of the week? Glorious. I look forward to them with the brilliance of a thousand suns. I am gloriously happy to have those 2 days each week to love on my kids. I'm overwhelmingly grateful to even have the chance to experience them like this.


Book and Movie Days
It rains a lot here in the early summer. Nothing is better than waking up to two sleepy-eyed kids who want nothing more than to stay under blankets all day to read books and watch movies. It's a dream come true, people...especially for those of us who write for a living. Best of both worlds - happy kids and the ability to work? Fantastic.

Endless Possibility
I thrive on my imagination. For a while there, when things got truly rough for me, I went on AirBnB and just scanned thousands upon thousands of places I could potentially someday go. It's calming for me to think of the future, dream of the possibilities. I wake up each day with this huge sense of "maybe"....as in, maybe we'll go to the park today...or maybe we'll have an adventure in a new town....or maybe today will be the day I get an email from someone who wants to give me a book deal to write things like this (I'm tellin' ya, imagination rules).

These thoughts are lovely and comforting and help me realize there is more to life than just sitting around, doing the same thing every day. There is more to life than a job that keeps you from the things that in life that really matter to you. There is more to life than worrying about your kids arguments for the nineteenth time today. There is more to life...and since I'm in charge of my life, I can make this life whatever the hell I please. The freedom is exhilarating and motivating....even if nothing actually changes because of these early-morning summer thoughts. It's a beautiful way to start the day nonetheless.


So yes, the arguing sucks. The vast amount of yard work sucks. The bored whining sucks. The fact that the best weather days never seem to happen on the weekends sucks. But there are many more amazing things about summer break that can transform it into a time of renewal and learning for you and yours.

And what about you guys? Do you love summer break? Hate it? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below! Thank you very much for reading and I hope you each have an amazing weekend :)
Jen