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Our 'Cool Season' Annual Gardening Report Card 2021

Snap Peas on Vine
Sugar snap peas on the vine.

By Lisa Brunette

Last year we got a very late start on our vegetable gardening, so we didn't enjoy much of a cool season, outside of some arugula and a heaping supply of chervil. But this year, I was determined to plan things better. Armed with this extremely helpful vegetable planting calendar from Gateway Greening, I updated my sowing schedule, shifting everything earlier.

For those of you new to the idea, the "cool season" is the first planting season of the year, in early spring here in the Midwest, when you can sow seeds and seedlings for vegetables that like cooler temperatures. A lot of people wait until May or June and plant everything in one go, but you can make better use of your space if you stagger your plantings in successions, starting with the early cool season vegetables in March, continuing with warm season vegetables in May, and then sowing a fall crop to last through the first gleanings of winter.

Early Spring Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is my new go-to for seeds.

The other change I made was in where I source my seeds. Last year I'd scored most of our seeds at the Missouri Botanical Garden Shop, using our 30% member discount to purchase seeds put out by Botanical Interests. I supplemented that with seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. But this year I took advantage of Gateway Greening's super-duper seed offerings, getting them for $1 and $1.50 a packet, an even better deal than I'd had with the botanical garden member discount. I also purchased more than half our seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Because SESE operates out of Virginia, they're much more focused on plants that do well in hot, humid conditions, a better fit for our zone 6a/7 needs than Seed Savers, which is in northern Iowa, and Botanical Interests, which is more of a mass-market outlet.

What stayed the same: I still don't have an indoor location to grow seedlings that will stay warm enough, get enough sunlight, and stand up to the cat's tendency to dig in the dirt. So again, we sowed seeds directly into the ground.

Last year I graded us a C for our spring food gardening; this year, I'm upgrading us to a solid B - maybe even a B+? You decide. Let me break it down for you by harvested crop, in order of when they went into the garden.

Spring Food 21
An open-faced sammy made with herbed cottage cheese on a bed of arugula, topped with violets.

Arugula

Remarkably, we're still getting arugula from that one packet of seeds sown last spring. Remember my tarp method? I repeated it again with the fall 2020 crop and got a third harvest this year already. So by using a simple tarp, I've turned otherwise annual arugula into a kind of self-seeding perennial. It was a great food to pair with the edible violets, blooming at the same time in March and April.

Peas

The first planting in earnest this spring was peas, and I opted for two kinds, both from SESE: 'Sugar Snap Tall' snap peas and 'Green Arrow Dwarf' English shelling peas. These vining plants need support, and that's where our free supply of bamboo from a neighbor came in handy.

Pea Tripod w: Anthony
Anthony, setting up the bamboo tripod supports.

I'd never built a pea trellis before, but I know the tiny pea tendrils need a rather slender something-or-other to grab onto. So we wound the bamboo poles with twine.

Pea Trellis
Winding the twine.

This method worked, but I don't know that we'd do it that way again. It was time-consuming to build and used a LOT of twine. If you have any great ideas for low-cost pea trellises, tell us in the comments below.

In 2020, the rabbits ate the peas as soon they emerged from the ground, way too tempting a treat early in the spring when there are not as many other choices. So this time, we fenced in the peas. I scored a set of modular fence panels on clearance at Menard's; these have stakes that fit into the ground, and the fences can be easily lifted up and moved wherever you need them. They're attractive, too, with a hummingbird-and-flower motif. The chicken wire sections in the panels proved to be a perfect climbing surface for pea vines.

Pea Trellis with Fence
The trellis, surrounded by fencing to keep out rabbits. The added benefit is that the fence also acted as a vine support.

We put the peas in the ground on March 6 and harvested them in late May and for most of June. Our pea harvest was pretty phenomenal, with a high germination rate and productive vines. First we ate some of the shoots, as they can replace beef kidney pills as part of my treatment for MCAS. By the end of May, we had an excellent crop of both snap and shelling peas. They tasted better than any peas we've ever bought from a grocery store! We will definitely grow them again, probably even doubling up on the quantity. While my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou doesn't rate peas highly, saying they take up a lot of space for the amount of food they produce, we grew them really close together and had both high germination and yield. It's enough to put them back on our list for 2022.

Peas on Vine
An English shelling pea, ripening in the sun.
Pea Flowers
Pea flowers.
Shelling Peas
Shelling peas is a meditative and satisfying activity.

We did have one area of abject failure related to peas. I made the mistake of putting in black-eyed peas at the same time as the peas above, and none of them germinated, probably because the soil was still too cold. Later, I learned they're not a classic Southern dish for nothing; black-eyed peas (and crowder peas) like it hot and humid. Next time, we wait till May for those.

Lettuce

Whoa, lettuce! We had a bumper crop this year, with all three varieties from SESE thriving: 'Jericho' romaine, 'Bronze Arrow' loose leaf, and 'Crawford' bibb. It was actually too much lettuce for the two of us - I don't think I've ever eaten so much salad in my life - so we ended up giving away a lot to friends and family. All three varieties we sowed as seeds directly into the soil on March 13 and began harvesting in early May. We put them in right next to the peas, a good companion plant.

Lettuce Going In
A row of lettuce, next to the peas.

In case you had any doubt about this, rabbits love lettuce. So it behooved us to enclose them in the fenced area. While we enjoy the rabbit family we're fostering through wildlife conservation habitats, we do have to set boundaries. There's plenty else for them to eat without snacking on our food plants.

Teacup
We can't help it. We named this one Teacup.

But rabbits and people can coexist; it's a matter of finding out what the rabbits like to eat that isn't your food plant, giving them plenty of it, and then cordoning off your tasty veggies. Yay, modular fencing!

Peas and Lettuce
Lettuce and peas, fenced.

As the pop star Prince once sang, "Sometimes it snows in April." We had a freak snowstorm late that month, and many a leaf withered. So there is that risk in putting in the seeds as early as mid-March. But the Jericho and Bronze Arrow were virtually unfazed by this setback and indeed seemed to strengthen in response to the sudden burst of chill. 

We likely won't grow the bibb again, though. It didn't yield as much for the space it takes up, it withered the most during the cold snap, and even though it sprang back no problem, those dead leaves were still wrapped into the bibb head, making harvesting more of a challenge. The bibb also bolted; whereas, the other two lettuces did not.

Spring Veggies Sprouting 21
From left to right: Beets, carrots, lettuce, peas.

Beets and Carrots

On the other side of the lettuce, we planted rows of beets and carrots, which also need protection from rabbits. We sowed these seeds on March 20, easily moving the fence line over a space to accommodate the new row. The carrots are a variety called 'New Kuroda,' and they come from Gateway Greening. GG staff grow the carrots in their demonstration garden and save the seeds to sell to the public each year. The New Kurodas also had a high germination rate, a good yield, and are quite tasty.

Carrots
The 'New Kuroda' variety is tasty and attractive. We also eat the greens; they're great chopped up in rice.

The beets, however, haven't done well. I might have to throw in the towel, as this is my third failed attempt at beets. Or maybe I'll try a SESE variety next year; these were an inexpensive Ferry-Morse seed packet I got in the Gateway Greening super sale - called 'Tall Top Early Wonder.' The only wondering I did about them was why they didn't come in better!

Kale 21
Kale growing in a strip on the side of our house.

Kale

Kale was one of our few triumphs last year, and some of those same plants continue to produce to this day. Also on March 20 of this year, we sowed a new row along the side of our house. It took off and is still producing. This was SESE's 'Premier' kale.

Cabbage Patch Obelisk
An obelisk, in the middle of our cabbage patch, because it's too heavy to move.

Green Cabbage

We unearthed an obelisk of sorts when we dug up the bed for cabbage. It looks like the rebar and concrete foundation for some large structure - perhaps the garage that once stood in the backyard. We recently found out from a neighbor that the garage was destroyed by a fallen tree. That might explain this obelisk and definitely tells us why we're constantly digging up bricks.

We planted cabbage on March 20 as well, a busy day for the garden. It had a high germination rate, seemed to also improve from that late-April snowstorm, and has given us lovely heads of cabbage. 

Cabbage Head 21
'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage.

I read that you can cut the main head once it's grapefruit-sized, leaving the plant and its outer leaves, and more heads will form. I'm happy to report this is very much the case.

More cabbages
After cutting the main head, several more smaller ones form on the laterals.

We sowed 'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage (Ferry-Morse seeds) and harvested our first heads on June 19, with more still forming as of July 17. It's been a steady stream of cabbage dishes and sauerkraut up in here.

Sauerkraut
Anthony's been perfecting his sauerkraut recipe, and I reap the benefits.

Potatoes

On March 27, we put our seed potatoes in the ground after a round of chitting. Chitting is how you prepare them for the garden; first, you cut them into wedges, with each wedge possessing at least one eye. Then you let the cut sides heal over, which protects the seed potato from rot. Once healed over, you plant them.

Potatoes Going In
Seed potatoes going in.

We planted the potatoes on either side of a plot of horseradish, a perennial and good companion, as it's supposed to ward off potato beetle. We ordered half the amount we'd sown last year; after the 'poop potato' incident, I wanted to make sure we have this thing down before investing too heavily. I ordered two varieties from SESE: 'Keuka Gold' and 'Banana' fingerling.

Alas, our yield this year was poor. This could be from a number of factors:

  1. That snowstorm in April withered the plants. Even though they seemed to fully spring back, this might have had an effect.
  2. We didn't realize it, but there was quite a bit of rubble underneath where we'd planted the seed potatoes, from that aforementioned garage destruction. These might have inhibited their growth.
  3. We got really busy this spring running our company (Brunette Games), and we forgot to hill up around the plants.
  4. The potatoes were planted in soil that had been converted from lawn the previous year, so nematodes likely still present ate the potatoes.

This is half our harvest.

Potato harvest
At least it was enough to make a big potato salad for my family's 4th of July party.

I'm still thinking on whether or not we should shift the potatoes back to May... or even just April. Our friend Claire doesn't get started out there in her garden until May, but her location offers cooler temps and very different soil, plus she has a greenhouse where she can start seeds for transplanting; whereas, we sow seeds directly into the soil. Decisions, decisions...

I think we'll start the lettuce, peas, kale, and carrots at the same time next year, as those all worked out great. We can improve on the carrots by being more diligent about thinning them early on, but otherwise, everything was stellar. I'll do some research on beets, and I also want to find something else that can coincide with that early lettuce. It really makes you realize how dependent we are on the fossil fuel system and grocery stores for our modern ideal of the "salad." A lot of salad ingredients - tomatoes and cucumbers, for example - come in much later, when it's too hot (here, at least) for lettuce. So eating with the seasons means your salad won't feature those veggies.

Well, that wraps the 'cool season' annuals. We had great success with arugula, peas, lettuce, kale, carrots, and cabbage. Black-eyed peas, beets, and potatoes challenged us, however, so perhaps we should stay at a solid B. What do you think?

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Poppies and Whimsy on the St. Louis Native Plant Tour

NPT_glimpse
View of a woodland bubbler in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra, also featured in Doug Tallamy's book, Nature's Best Hope.

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I attended the St. Louis Native Plant Tour for the first time this year. It was a masked, socially-distanced, outdoor (of course) affair in early June, with a wide range of gardens to view. A joint offering by both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Wild Ones St. Louis, this year's tour included nine residential gardens located across the St. Louis metropolitan area, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. We made it to six of the nine.

NPT_celadine poppy
Celadine poppy growing in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra.

I've talked about the Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program on the blog before - most recently when we scored platinum status for our own garden. Many BCH gardens were included in the tour, with a nice smattering at every level, from silver through gold and up to platinum. One of our favorites on the tour was Dan and Mary Terpstra's woodland oasis. It's easy to see why this .62-acre property has achieved platinum status - and why it attracts so many birds - 150 species and counting.

NPT_platinum
View across the woodland toward the gazebo in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Here's a video of their pond, which features a bubbling cascade into a naturalized area for native water-loving plants.

 

While the Terpstras obviously take conservation seriously, they haven't neglected the whimsical aspects of gardening.

NPT_mushrooms
Garden art tucked into a rock in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Speaking of garden whimsy, while the Terpstra's property offers a stunning example of what can be done, my favorite of the tour was actually the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky, which had whimsy in spades.

NPT_music stand
In the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky.

This garden clocks in at the BCH gold level and comes with a wonderful personal story, to quote the tour brochure:

Established in 2010, Carolyn's Garden is a living memorial to Christina's mother, an avid gardener. Diagnosed in 1996 with stage 4 breast cancer and given six months to live, she proved doctors wrong, living with the disease until 2011... a testament to being a lifelong gardener.

Many of the plants in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden were transitioned there from her mother's garden over in Illinois.

NPT_pathway
A pathway beckons in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.
NPT_glass ball
A glass ball emerges from penstemon in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.

Another highlight was getting to tour the garden belonging to Robert Weaver, editor of The Gateway Gardener, which features this lovely water bubbler.

Now, a note about these bubblers, though: You don't need them. While it's true that birds are attracted to the sound of bubbling water, the problem with bubblers is they need a power source in order to, well, bubble. And that means a) you have to be able to afford to install (or have installed) an electrical bubbler connected to your home's power system and b) you're adding to your home's draw on the electric grid, not the best option, eco-wise, unless it's also solar-powered. Our garden achieved platinum status without a bubbler; as mentioned previously, we have four bird baths, all fashioned out of repurposed items and not costing a dime.

Here's a perfectly nice non-bubbling bird bath, also in the Weaver garden.

NPT_birdbath
In the Weaver garden.
NPT_shade
Shade-loving Virginia sweetspire in the Weaver garden.

One of the best aspects of garden tours like this one is you get to see first-hand fine examples of plants that thrive in challenging areas, such as deep shade (above) or intense sunshine, like these native prickly pears.

NPT_prickly pear
In the garden of Susan and René LaVoise.

While honeybees are not native to North America, it was cool to spot these beehives in the garden of Jim and Judy Stroup, where we started our tour.

NPT_beehives
Beehives at the Stroup garden.

And last but certainly not least was the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka, avid conservationists whose gold-certified property features many a bee hotel in addition to bird bottles, bird and bat houses, and more than 30 woody native plant species and 95 wildflower species.

NPT_beehotels
A stunning array of bee hotels in the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka.
NPT_Indian pink
The common name of this native plant is 'Indian pink,' though it's neither pink nor from India!
NPT_Ninebark
Ninebark growing in the Tylka garden.
NPT_smooth sumac
This smooth sumac grows in part-shade in the Tylka garden.

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Suburban Homesteading - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire in Garden
Claire Schosser in her garden.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: It seems most people who elect to reduce their energy consumption and practice homesteading do so in rural settings, going entirely or at least partially off-grid. You live not far from the city limits of St. Louis, which isn't exactly a small town. Why forge this path in such a suburban setting? 

CS: Mikes a city boy. Hes lived within 10 miles of where he was born his entire life, and he cant imagine living anywhere else. When I married him, I accepted that. It wasnt difficult because I had lived most of my life in cities of around 100,000 people before I came to the St. Louis area. 

Living in an urban or suburban area has a lot of advantages. Its easier and cheaper to hook into existing infrastructure than to live partially or totally off-grid, and urban areas provide other material and human services that rural areas do not as well as more people to be friends with. We can walk to some places and bicycle to others a little farther away as well as use the public transportation system. Because of this we have only one car for both of us – and we can walk to our mechanics shop when it needs service. We have an acre lot with good soil and a small older house which we bought for a very cheap price, so property taxes and insurance are lower than most people have to pay. I have plenty of space for gardens and have enjoyed watching more animals moving through and living on the property as the gardens develop. While I miss seeing the stars and being in or near a less disturbed ecosystem, and I dont like city noise and pollution, where we live offers us most of what we want at a price we can afford.

Greenhouse
Claire and Mike enclosed their front porch in glass, turning it into a greenhouse. A rain barrel catches runoff from the roof to the right.

LB: That explanation makes a lot of sense to me. One of my frustrations with permaculture - and I know you have your own as well - is that it seems to primarily be practiced by people with the means to purchase numerous acres of rural land in a climate conducive to food foresting and employ heavy equipment to reshape the land for a particular kind of off-grid homesteading. Well, most of us can't do that. Most of us have to (or need to) live in or near cities, and indeed, your model is a better fit for what's in the realm of possibility for the majority of people today. I understand that you and Mike are certainly on-grid, if you will, but that you practice some resource efficiencies that would seem extreme by most suburban standards. Can you give some examples in terms of your home heating, cooling, water, and other utilities?

CS: I’m happy to do that. 

For home heating, after experimenting with various combinations of thermostat settings and extra layers of clothes, we’ve settled on keeping the thermostat set to 64°F during the day when we are at home and 50°F while we are sleeping. This is a little higher than we’ve kept it in the past, but I tend to feeling cold, so at 64°F I wear four or five layers unless I’m engaged in grinding grain, the most strenuous thing I do indoors. 

Many buildings aren’t properly sealed against air leaks, so residents feel a constant cold draft that they compensate for by raising the thermostat. Back in 2005 we had a contractor check for and seal the air leaks throughout our house and then blow insulation into the uninsulated walls and extra insulation into the attic (walls weren’t insulated in 1928 when this house was built). Result: there is almost no detectable cold air draft, so that 64°F feels warmer than it otherwise would, and the furnace runs less to keep the space at the same temperature. As a side benefit, with the house tightly sealed and the walls insulated, it became much quieter inside. Since the furnace uses natural gas to heat the air and a fan to blow it through the ducts and vents, setting the thermostat low reduces both electricity and natural gas use.

Greenhouse 2
Citrus, such as this kumquat, overwinters in the greenhouse. The greenhouse also helps keep their house warm in winter since it's attached to the front of the home.

For cooling in summer, we spend as much time outside as possible, so we are acclimated to prevailing temperatures. With an acre property that I actively garden this is easy to accomplish! Five years ago we added on a large back porch that faces north, so it is a shady and breezy location that we spend most of our waking hours on from mid-April into late October. We also keep our windows open and augment the breeze with fans to push cool morning air through the house. When it becomes warm enough, we sleep with fans blowing air from the open windows on us. In this way we avoid running the AC until highs reach the mid-90s, with lows in the mid-70s. When we do run the AC, we close all the windows and set the thermostat to 80, sometimes as high as 82. The same air sealing that prevents cold drafts in winter prevents hot, humid drafts in summer; combined with the insulation, the AC does less work, and we still feel comfortable. When the weather cools enough to drop nighttime lows back into the low 70s, we turn off the AC and open the windows again. Adding up all the days that we run the AC in a typical summer amounts to two to four weeks.

By using the furnace and AC less and by having them properly maintained, we prolong their lives. We replaced the 1970s furnace and AC when we bought the house in 2002; we’re still using the same furnace and AC to this day. Even though more efficient models now exist, it is not cost or energy effective to replace them as long as the current units can be maintained and repaired as needed.

Greenhouse 3
A view from the home's front door stoop, looking out through the greenhouse to the acre beyond.

Our water heater uses natural gas. By saving on the need for hot water through using as little as necessary for proper cleaning of dishes, clothes, and our bodies and by setting the thermostat to 125°F, we keep the use of natural gas for this purpose low. 

We follow the same theme to save on electricity: First we use less of it by, for instance, only turning on lights when we really need a light. Since we don’t have a TV, that also reduces electricity usage (today’s huge TVs are electricity hogs!). We chose to replace the 1960s-era refrigerator and clothes washer when we moved in because of their age and the much greater efficiency of their 2002 replacements. We’re still using that same fridge though we had to replace the washer after it broke beyond repair. We did not replace the electric stove because the 2002 models were no more efficient than the stove in the house. Each time we need to replace a light bulb, we replace it with an LED bulb and then we don’t use it any more than we used to.

Greenhouse 4
Seedlings awaiting transplanting.

To reduce water use, I don’t water any area that gets mowed. We capture some rain that would otherwise run off the house and garden shed roofs in rain barrels and use that water for watering container plants, newly planted shrubs and trees, and the vegetable garden for as long as we have it. The water in the barrels isn’t enough to keep the vegetable garden going during a drought; then I will water it with municipal water to maintain the plants and get some yield. As for the perennials, if they can’t make it without supplemental watering, I replace them with other plants that have demonstrated their ability to thrive without being watered. 

LB: I've been very intrigued by the gardening chronicles on your blog, which stretch back to 2012. In particular, as someone who's dabbled a bit in permaculture, I find your reports on how to grow food crops fascinating. At one point, you mention that annual vegetables need to grow in disturbed (at least surface-tilled) soil, and that these plants evolved as basically early succession plants. That means that trying to grow them in polyculture "guilds" might not produce the best results. Can you talk about your own evolution as a gardener in this regard? 

Food Garden
The food garden.

CS: When we moved to this house in 2002, I wanted to grow an edible forest garden by permaculture techniques, so after a year of observations I developed a permaculture plan for the property. Permaculture practitioners like to use perennial vegetables because most forest plants in our climate are perennials and because perennials live for several to many years, reducing soil erosion from annual tillage. Asparagus is one of the few perennial vegetables in our climate, so I started growing asparagus … an entire 100 square foot bed of it. Only after the bed came into full production did I discover that Mike doesnt like asparagus, and that I didnt want to eat that much asparagus myself. Not to mention it was only available for a month or so. Neither of us likes rhubarb, the other common perennial vegetable. So I shifted to growing the vegetables that we like in the sunny conditions that they prefer. 

Most of the common vegetable plants are annuals or biennials. To understand why this matters to gardeners, consider what happens to a forest after a forest fire occurs or the forest is bulldozed to the ground. Now the soil is mostly bare and the sun beats down on it, drying it out. Natures first-aid kit for bare soil includes annual and biennial plants that grow rapidly from seeds already existing in the soil. As the plants grow they re-establish the water and mineral cycles that gradually heal the soil. By winter the annual plants go to seed and die; the biennial plants go dormant, then grow and go to seed the following season along with other annual plants.

As the soil becomes healthier, slower-growing perennial plants also begin to appear. Over the next several years, decomposing plants mulch the soil and shade it. As the mulch layer develops, the annual and biennial seeds are buried in it and find it difficult to germinate. Gradually the balance shifts to perennial plants, including shrubs and trees as the years go by. 

Perennial Leeks
Perennial leeks after overwintering in Claire's garden.

Permaculture was developed in the subtropical climate of Australia, where a wider variety of perennial vegetable crops can be planted in guilds according to their needs and habits. Annual and biennial vegetable plants, however, are not just more ecologically suited to bare soil; they have been bred and grown in weeded gardens and fields for hundreds or thousands of years. Providing them with the conditions to which they are adapted makes ecological and garden sense, and its easier on the gardener as well. 

LB: That makes a lot of sense to me, and I don't mind telling you that binge-reading your entire blog last year really helped me put some of my permaculture leanings into perspective. Last year we hardly disturbed the soil at all, and we could have had better results. This year we've already surface-tilled the pea, lettuce, and cabbage/chamomile beds and deeply tilled the beet and carrot beds. (We have a lot of clay that needs aerating, for sure, unlike your loess.) We're also now growing mostly in rows, for the ease of maintenance and harvest; whereas, last year it was a lot of permaculture keyholes and circles. That said, for something like arugula, permaculture can be helpful; I mulched the plants in place after a spring harvest, covered them with a tarp for a couple of weeks in summer, and then in fall, I pulled back the dying plants, which enabled it to reseed for another harvest, with minimal work on my part and no extra expense.

A few followup questions: Have you tried horseradish (a perennial vegetable)? I realize it's a condiment, so not a huge source of calories, but it's a great medicinal, and I can't believe how much better it tastes fresh. I'm also wondering if you've employed some permaculture touches in your orchards, such as growing alliums and herbaceous plants, or including native nitrogen-fixing perennials such as Amorpha fruticosa. And do you grow any medicinal herbs? I know you make elderberry wine... By the way, we have a huge asparagus bed, but luckily, we both love asparagus! And I'm fostering rhubarb; hoping to harvest this year.

Witch Hazel
Native witch hazel growing in Mike and Claire's garden.

CS: The previous owners left us some horseradish plants. For the first few years we lived here I dug roots in spring and fall and Mike ground them into their condiment form. I moved some plants to the garden and they did well there, proceeding to move outward the same way mint plants do but being harder to control because of their deep roots. Frankly, as much as we like horseradish, we don’t like it that much. I’ll let the farmers in the American Bottom, who grow something like half the horseradish consumed in the US (a fun fact we learned at the annual Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, IL!) grow it for us.

I included a nurse Amorpha fruticosa with most of the fruit and nut trees I planted. As the trees have matured, and especially in the backyard forest as the canopy has closed over, the A. fruticosa shrubs are dying, an example of the succession process I discussed above. I grow some plants like purple coneflower, yarrow, goldenrod, and elderberry for their traditional medicinal uses and for other benefits, for instance their value to pollinators, their beauty, and in the case of elderberry, for the delicious wine Mike makes from the berries.

Comfrey
Comfrey in bloom.

I’ve tried some other plants that permaculture practitioners suggest for fruit and nut tree guilds, like comfrey, walking onions, perennial leeks, wild ginger, and sorrel. Except for the wild ginger they haven’t prospered in the semi-shade of the trees. That may be because the loess soil I garden on is so well drained that it becomes too dry under trees for the plants’ liking. Sorrel and the alliums have performed much better in the full sun of the vegetable garden, where they get some water during dry spells. The comfrey has walked out over the years to sunnier areas near the edge of the trees’ canopies. What does do well under the trees are violets, ground ivy, and wintercreeper. People diss wintercreeper (euonymous) for its expansiveness, but I have too much of it to control except when it starts growing up a tree or into one of the garden areas that I actively manage. The violets provide some nibbles, they and the ground ivy support pollinators, and the wintercreeper mulches the ground, so I have a working guild under the trees, even though the plants aren’t the classic ones in the permaculture books.

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Part 1: A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity'

Part 3: The Most Food for the Time and Space


A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire and Mike Schosser
Claire Schosser and Mike Gaillard.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: You call your way of life "voluntary simplicity." For Cat in the Flock readers, explain how you live, and how it's different from mainstream expectations.

CS: Voluntary simplicity means that we decide what our values are and how to live to express those values instead of allowing mass culture to tell us what we are supposed to value and how we are supposed to live. It also means doing our best to live within the limits of what the earth can provide. 

The less time we spend on earning money and on all the activities, like commuting, that are required to earn money, the more time we have for our own interests. Spending less time earning money means we have less money to spend, so we limit the goods and services that money buys to the lowest level that we can manage. The less we spend on any particular good or service means the more we have to spend on something else we might need or want, so we prefer goods that are high quality and last for a long time and/or require little or no maintenance and/or are secondhand and/or are human powered. We do our own cooking and cleaning and as many other basic household services as we have the skill to do. These choices generally entail using less energy and less energy intensive materials than we would otherwise use, which also means we cause less pollution and waste to be produced so we come closer to living within the earths limits.

Violets
While others might see wild violets as weeds, Claire regards them as an early spring source of nibbles, as well as a food for pollinators.

LB: That sounds great. I have two followup questions for you on this. First, removed from the dependence on a job, how have you spent your time instead? Second, what sorts of modern conveniences have you decided are not important? Do you wash your dishes by hand? Line-dry your clothes? I ask because Anthony and I began hand-washing our dishes last year since dishwashers are so weak these days that we ended up washing them ourselves after a wash cycle anyway, and we wanted to save money as well as use the wash water in our garden afterward. We were surprised to find we both actually enjoy washing dishes - it's meditative and satisfying. 

CS: The house didn’t include a dishwasher when we bought it, and the kitchen is so small I didn’t want to lose any space to a dishwasher, so I decided I would wash the dishes by hand. Although I had a dishwasher most of my adult life, I find I don’t miss it at all. I often mull over ideas while I’m doing the dishes, or I listen to music.

After washing the dishes, I put as many as I can on a rack and let them air-dry. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but it’s satisfying to find a way to arrange the dishes on the rack so I don’t have to dry any of them myself!

Dish Rack
The dish rack at the Schosser/Gaillard household.

While we have a clothes dryer - it came with the house - I dry our clothes on clothes racks most of the year. Because they aren’t abrading each other as they tumble around in the dryer, our clothes last many more years than they did when I used the clothes dryer all the time. My three pairs of fleece-lined blue jeans that I wear for five to six months of the year are well over 10 years old, and I can still wear them in public!

I don’t use a vacuum cleaner. Our floors are wood and linoleum, so I sweep them with a broom and mop them to clean them. We rake leaves with a rake and shovel snow with a shovel. I dig garden beds with a shovel instead of a tiller. Mike splits wood by hand. Sometimes he saws it by hand, too, although he uses an electric chainsaw when sawing by hand becomes too difficult. 

We don’t have a television. Instead, we each read a lot and have particular interests that we pursue.

As for what we do instead of a job, we have lives. Granted, part of the time we do the not-so-fun things like cleaning, paying the bills and keeping track of expenditures, and mowing the mix of grass and weeds that isn’t part of one of the gardens. Most of the time, however, we are doing something that we enjoy and that furthers our life goals. This includes each of us having an active spiritual practice and doing volunteer work. We enjoy reading and creative pursuits such as writing and playing music. I spend a lot of time working on the various gardens and watching the birds who live here or visit.

Birdhouse
A birdhouse beckons over Claire's garden plot.

LB: You and Mike shifted to this lifestyle back in 1994. Taking such drastic steps as you have to get off the hamster wheel was, I'm sure, rarer back then. What made you decide to do it? How hard was it, initially? What are your biggest struggles now?

CS: I came to St. Louis in 1984 to work as a research chemist for a large multinational corporation. If I had been happy with corporate life, perhaps Id still be working and we wouldnt be having this conversation. But I wasnt happy. It wasnt just that I didnt like my job; nothing about corporate life appealed to me. I could see how every step up the corporate ladder restricted further what employees could say, do, or think. The only question was how long I could stand to continue working there. The answer: eight years.

When I quit my job, our household income dropped by almost two-thirds. We adjusted our spending downward, but within a year, it became clear that we were spending more than Mike earned. We tried to determine where we could reduce expenses enough to live on Mikes wages, but we couldnt seem to find any place where we could cut spending. 

Luckily I found the book Your Money or Your Life in early 1994. By applying the nine-step program in the book, we learned which expenses really were fulfilling and in line with our values and which werent. Knowing that, we dropped or reduced the most unfulfilling expenses. Within six months we were saving money, which by itself was a big boost to morale. Since we had dropped unfulfilling expenses, we felt better from that as well. 

Mike retired in 2001, when we calculated we had enough income from savings to cover all of our expenses. Then we moved in 2002 to our current house, drawing on savings to make energy-saving improvements. Interest rates declined in the early 2000s, reducing our income further. We went through some lean years, until we aged enough to begin drawing our pensions. Right now were doing well, while we continue to increase our resilience to economic fluctuations.

Canoe and Red Buds
A canoe under the red bud trees at Claire and Mike's place.

LB: That's an incredible life trajectory, Claire! By the way, Anthony's mother used Your Money Or Your Life (YMOYL) to retire early at age 55, pursuing a spiritual path and involving herself in a community called The Red Door that she helped found. She was active in both pursuits until she died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. So Anthony has read YMOYL as well. The problem for our generation, however, is that a lot of the advice in that book is no longer valid. Generation X has seen a dramatically widening wage gap between corporate leadership and the worker base. Pensions are no longer a thing (no employer has ever offered either of us one). Ours is the first generation in many to do less well than our parents. Finally, there are no longer any safe investments; savings accounts, CDs, etc., earn next to nothing, so we're left with very little besides the (rather volatile) stock market, and even today's 401Ks are tied to it. All that said, is there any advice you can give us as we work toward a hopeful kind of retirement? Also, I'm curious whether you had ever thought about leaving corporate life to go into a softer career, such as non-profits, or teaching? I've done both although in the end I had to opt for corporate work in order to pay off heavy student loan and other debt. 

Garden
A view of the tidy food garden.

CS: YMOYL worked for Anthony’s mother and for us because we could take advantage of pensions and good interest rates on safe investments. Without those the YMOYL goal of living off of interest from savings for many years becomes impossible; ordinary people cannot save enough money to do that at the current very low interest rates. 

I think the changes you’ve described are likely to continue and bring with them further changes that make the kind of retirement that my parents’ generation experienced a rare thing. To put it in ecological terms, previously stable economic patterns have been disturbed and are becoming more so with time. One of the things that permaculture teaches, a concept it borrowed directly from ecology, is that diverse ecosystems are more resilient to disturbance: they handle it better, it doesn’t tear them apart. 

Dogwood Blossom
Dogwood blossoms.

 What you and Anthony are doing and what Mike and I are doing increases resilience to economic disturbances by increasing our options to respond to it. The only form of resilience many people know is to earn more money. That is becoming more difficult to do. However, a more potent form of resilience is to need, and spend, less money and to increase our skill base so that we can more easily adapt to changing conditions. By growing some of your own food, you spend less at the grocery store; you eat better so you are healthier; you learn a skill that you can share with others; and you enjoy the satisfaction of gardening. By refurbishing patio gliders you saved the money you would have spent on lower-quality patio furniture and their replacements when they broke, you learned another skill, you have sturdy and beautiful patio furniture that will last for as long as you have a patio, and you have the satisfaction of doing it yourself. Everything you write about shows the different ways in which you and Anthony increase your resilience and maximize your options for later in life. The best advice I can give you is to keep doing what you are doing!

You asked if I considered other options for paid work such as teaching or working for a non-profit organization. Although I enjoy teaching on an informal basis, I never considered teaching in public schools. Even when I attended them in the 1960s and 1970s, it was clear that you couldn’t teach what or how you wanted. In grad school I did my research with a professor who began his career the same semester I started, so I had a front-row seat to watch the pressures that are involved in obtaining tenure. That was enough to discourage me from becoming a professor. Non-profit work didn’t seem much different from corporate work to me, except that it didn’t pay as well.

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Part 2: Suburban Homesteading

Part 3: The Most Food for the Time and Space


How You Can Help the Bees This Spring: Shutterbee, Pollinator Planting

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By Lisa Brunette

As the bees come out this spring, your thoughts might return again to how to help these crucial pollinators. And when I say help them, I really mean help ourselves, since we utterly depend on them to pollinate our food plants. Well, here are two ways you can do this right now: 1) by participating in a backyard bee survey called Shutterbee and/or 2) simply planting more pollinator-supporting plants this spring.

Shutterbee

The citizen-science program to study backyard bee populations - AKA 'Shutterbee' - is now open for registration! Participants like me who are returning from last year have already taken our refresher courses, and we're getting ready to begin bee surveys again in May. But if you live in the St. Louis area and would like to sign up for the first time, now's your chance. 

A reporter for the Webster Journal conducted a video interview with me about Shutterbee this spring.

I've also written about Shutterbee previously:

10,000 and Counting: How the Bees 'Almost' Redeemed 2020

Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

To sign up, all you have to do is register. To learn more about Shutterbee, visit the program website. Shutterbee researchers also publish a Bee Brigade Bulletin full of gardening advice and fascinating bee research tidbits. 

If you're worried about getting stung, I suggest putting those fears aside, as Shutterbee focuses on rather harmless native bee populations. Honeybees may send some running for the hills for fear of being stung, but most native bees are harmless, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “Most don’t have stingers long enough to penetrate human skin,” said MDC Community and Private Land Conservation Branch Chief Bill White. 

Mining_bee
Mining bee on Hansen's bush cherry blossom.

Bee-Friend Native Pollinators

One easy thing you can do to support native bee populations is plant more pollinator-friendly plants. Native bees are doing their agricultural duty by pollinating flowering plants that provide food, fiber, and even medicines, and the more we can do to support them, the better.

MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Erin Shank explained that native bees, such as the bumblebee, are effective pollinators because of a technique called buzz pollination.

“It’s a vibrating movement involving their wing muscles that allows the bumblebee to free pollen from the anther, the flower’s pollen-producing structure,” Shank said. “This strategy causes the flower to explosively release pollen. There are some flowering plants that will release pollen only through buzz pollination. One favorite, the tomato plant, requires either buzz pollination or visitation by a larger bodied bee, such as the bumblebee.”

Eastern carpenter bee on passionflower
Eastern carpenter bee on native passionflower vine, which produces edible fruit.

Bee a Friend

There are several ways the public can support native bees. Shank said the best way is to get floral.

“It’s all about the flowers,” Shank stressed. “Provide native companion plants, and especially those with colorful blossoms, because color attracts bees.”

Companion planting, in which one plant helps the growth of another, can help facilitate the pollination of fruits and vegetables. For example, planting bee balm can help pollinate tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Other examples of flowering companion plants include sunflowers, wild hyacinth, blue wild indigo, purple prairie clover, and common milkweed.

There are several options of flowering trees and shrubs, too.

“Redbud, American plum, and golden currant are great for pollinators,” said White.

It's a good idea to plan for blooms throughout the year. The first native plant to bloom in Missouri is the American witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, which produces ribbony orange-and-yellow blooms as early as February. They give off the strong scent of cloves. What could possibly pollinate these flowers so early has been a bit of a puzzle for botanists, but research shows native bees carried the highest percentage of witch hazel pollen of all possible pollinators, once again showcasing the importance of native bees.

American witch hazel
American witch hazel, an important plant in the Midwestern native landscape.

Shank noted that providing more flowers can also mean not mowing the lawn as much.

“Clover, violets, and dandelions are some common lawn plants that provide vital food for bees – especially in the spring before most flowers appear,” Shank explained. “Delaying mowing or mowing higher can help bees by letting the plants grow. Even allowing access to the ground by not mulching every inch can help. Some bees need access to the soil to excavate their nests.”

No Yard? No Problem!

Shank said residents who live in urban areas without access to a yard can still be a big help to native bees.

Surprisingly, St. Louis, for example, has one of the most diverse bee populations in the Midwest, with more than 200 species found in the city limits alone.

 “You can offer bees native flowers in a planting box or pot,” Shank explained. “Getting involved in a community garden or helping plant at a nearby park is great, too.”

For those without a green thumb, it may be tempting to buy the bee houses or hotels being offered in stores. However, the real need is not nesting sites, but native flowering plants. Many of the commercially available bee hotels contain the wrong length of tubes or wrong diameter for many native bees. Find out how to build your own by following the guidelines offered by the Xerxes Society.

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Our Garden, Featured in a Story on Shutterbee

10,000 and Counting: How the Bees 'Almost' Redeemed 2020

Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program