Farmhouse Feed

A Peek Inside Our Sloooow Living Room Redo - Finally Finished This Fall!

Living_Room_Sweep

By Lisa Brunette

We just passed the three-year mark here at the Dragon Flower Farmhouse, and I'm excited to announce that the living room is finally 'done.' And it only took us two years

I realize that timeline flies in the face of every home improvement reality show HGTV has ever aired, not to mention every slick interior design blogger claiming to have completely redone a whole house in one weekend, etc. But this is real reality here, folks, and like us, I'm sure you've done your share of slow reno - the kind that takes place in between things like raising children, launching your own business, or planning a wedding. You know, life.

The work began in earnest in the fall of 2018 when we tackled the living room window frames. They were a muddy brown hue, not wood stain but dark brown paint on top of a faded, cracking stain from a previous era. I'm not sure what the developer who flipped the house was thinking, but trying to amend scuffed-up wooden features with a thin layer of brown paint should never have been the solve. For the whole first year, we lived with a bad curtain job as well, high-water drapes on rods drilled right into the moulding. So much wrong, as you can see. Plus that dirt-colored paint had a dreary, darkening effect. 

Living Room Windows Before

I know you're thinking that 'before' shots are always dark and out of focus to make sure the 'after' looks great. But seriously, there was just no brightness to the living room between the wood floors (which we love, but they are dark) and all that muddy paint.

Even though it devoured the room's light, and that black box covering the fireplace hole super depressed me, I always thought the mantel, which as far as we know is original to the house, was a stunner.

Living Room Mantle Before

We chose to go with white to match the trim in other parts of the house. Now I know there are wood purists out there who shudder at the thought of painting wood trim, but we went white with good reason. First of all, the floors. They are original hardwoods, refinished and stained with a deep walnut tint. Natural wood trim paired with them would just seem dull by comparison, and again, together they'd eat the light. White by contrast looks fresh; to use that interior design buzz word, it pops. Second of all, stripping layers of paint over layers of antique stain and then sanding, re-staining, and sealing would have been a nasty, toxic job, and nobody here wanted to do it.

You can see how the white primer already begins to lighten up the room as we transformed the front window frames from dreary to dapper. 

Living Room Painting

By the way, I find Emily Henderson's design blog really helpful when it comes to the right way to hang curtains. Her treatise on the subject, "Hanging Curtains All Wrong" is my repeated go-to. Here's how the windows looked with the fresh coat of paint and new drapes, sized and hung more appropriately. 

Living Room Windows

And that was kind of it for 2018. I founded Brunette Games that year, and going into start-up mode here in middle age proved to be a huge distraction from home improvement. As evidenced by the holiday styling photo below, the mantel was still all chestnut-y for Christmas that year.

Living Room Mantle Before

It remained brown for most of 2019 as well, along with the rest of the trim in the room. Still, I think I was able to do the best with what we had. Early on, I realized I wanted to base the room decor on two paintings given to us by my late mother-in-law. As I mentioned last week, the main inspiration came from the Marta Gilbert painting of a young woman holding a slice of watermelon. Its vibrant pinks really got my imagination going. The other painting is also from A. Grace - a Georgia O'Keefe-esque bloom closeup by the artist Nance Allison Cheek. Here they are side by side.

Living Room 2 Paintings

At this point I'd decided on a pink-and-green color palette for the room. Green is a complementary color to pink, and it pulls in the green tile fireplace surround. It also for me harkens back to the colors of the bedroom from my childhood, when my mother called the décor shots. The interim green and pink living room, still waiting to be fully transformed, was a work-in-progress.

Living Room Interim Sweep

Obviously, the mantel and trim needed to be painted, but so did that shelf you see on the right in the photo above. That was an antique mall find, and with its redwood stain, it just didn't fit.

In late fall 2019, we had a string of days warm enough to open the windows for ventilation, and we found a pocket of time to complete the painting. We also scored big on some winter clearance sales, so we splurged on half-price bookshelves and chairs. We got everything done in time to host Christmas at our place. But the last piece of the puzzle didn't fall into place until this fall, when we swapped out the curtains - the navy blue arrow pattern didn't mesh with the green-and-pink plan - and painted the vintage swirl lamp pink. Now the room is officially done.

Living Room Left

Living Room Transom

Why does pink work in this living room? It's a good question. First, green is a complementary color, which means it's opposite on the color wheel. That provides great balance to the vivid blushes. Second, I've included a lot of masculine elements so the room doesn't feel too girly. There's a brass cobra candlestick on the mantle, a pair of horse head bookends on a shelf, one of the side tables has pointed arrow feet, there's a shield adorning the fireplace, and we've hung a leather whip on the wall.

Living Room Mantle
The cobra candlestick and that shield emblem give the room a manly touch. For Halloween fun, I added a spider, too.
Living Room Whip
Anthony found the whip on a tour of his father's childhood home town. Surrounding it are photos of his ancestors.
Living Room Horses
Horse heads: SO Jane Austen.

I also think the brass, marble, and gold accents ground the room with a little adult luster. It never feels like a kid's space, which is not to say that my six-year-old niece doesn't adore the pink. 

Living Room_Bracket

Besides the twin chartreuse chairs and bookshelves, which we picked up just before Christmas when no one is buying furniture and everything tends to be redline clearanced, the only thing we purchased for the renovation was the primer and paint. To get a consistent color palette, we drew on those two paintings we already owned, and then it was a matter of pulling from our own collection of items picked up over years. One suggestion I have is to move through your home looking for items by color and not being afraid to repurpose them in a different room. That's how I gathered together most of the green and pink things in the living room now. 

Living Room Details

To keep the room from feeling matchy-matchy, I brought in hues from across the spectrums for pink and green. And I kept brass, gold, and the white of marble and stone as accent colors. Since the bookshelves we scored were the same walnut shade as the floors, I foregrounded white objects against that background, as in this stone sculpture and ceramic bowl pairing.

Living Room Shmoo

All in all, I have to say that spacing out a reno over two years is actually a good way to do this. It allows you to live with your decisions piece by piece, with enough time to edit, alter, and tweak as you go. It's also fun to let your wanderings through junk shops and antique malls inspire you. While everything else came with us from the Pacific Northwest, those horse head bookends are new acquisitions, as are many of the holiday accents you'll see in my next post.

OTHER 'PEEK INSIDE' POSTS YOU MIGHT LIKE

A Peek Inside This 'Vivid Living' Bungalow

A Peek Inside the Dragon Flower Farmhouse

And You Might Want to Know More About That Hot Pink Lamp


'The Most Food for the Time and Space' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire in Garden 2
Claire Schosser, in her one-acre suburban homestead.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 3 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 mention a few times on your blog that May is your month of heaviest gardening activity, and in your recent email to me, you said you aren't really gardening much right now. I just spent the past two weekends putting in early-season peas and lettuce, along with arugula, chervil, and nasturtiums. Is your emphasis on May just a reflection of the types of crops you like to grow? I noticed dent corn is high on your list. Do you grow peas and other early-season crops at all? 

CS: Its partly a reflection of the crops that Mike and I like to eat and partly a reflection of the crops that yield the most food for the time and space that they require. Take peas, for instance. Both Mike and I like them, so I have grown them in the past. But for the amount of space that they need, even a good crop doesnt produce much food. Id rather spend the time and space on crops that yield a lot of food in late spring and early summer, for instance bok choy and cabbage. Even lettuce yields more food than peas do.

Its also due to the microclimate at my place being several degrees cooler than at your place. Ive lost enough seedlings to late freezes in April that I now avoid planting anything except potatoes before the middle of April, when the freeze risk lessens. 

Orchard
Claire and Mike's one-acre plot includes productive fruit and nut trees, in addition to the active annual fruit and vegetable garden.

 I grow dent corn because it provides a lot of calories compared to the vegetables, it grows well here, I have enough space to grow it and save seeds, and its the easiest grain to work with at the homestead level. By February or March, almost all the fresh food from the previous season is gone, but we still have dent corn available to make corn mush or cornbread if something like a natural disaster or pandemic were to make other sources of food scarce or expensive.

I harvest a few early perennial edibles starting in mid to late March: Profusion’ sorrel, a rocambole garlic that the previous owners left for us, garlic chives, mint leaves, and some wild plants like dandelion greens and violet flowers that grow in various parts of the yard. The strawberry harvest occurs in May; last year I harvested nearly 40 pounds of them from a single 100 square foot bed! Otherwise, my harvest season doesnt take off until June. But once it gets going it doesnt end until November or December.

Strawberry Patch
Claire's big, productive strawberry patch.
Strawberry Flowers
Strawberry flowers.

LB: Oh, good... I'm starting some sorrel this year and am glad to hear it can work in this area. I can definitely see what you mean about peas. For me they are a cheaper way to get a DAO facilitator into my diet, necessary to combat a condition I have called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. The two food sources for DAO are pea shoots and beef kidney. Since I don't like the taste of kidney, I have to resort to (pricey) kidney pills. Pea shoots are a great substitute. By the way, don't you love our native violets? It amazes me that people treat them as weeds, pulling them out to make room for more grass. Besides their edibility, they are a host plant for fritillary butterflies. I also use the leaves in a tea with rose petals to combat heart palpitations. You're killing me with the strawberry story, though. Anthony can't eat them due to the oxalates (kidney stones), and they are unfortunately a Mast Cell trigger for me.

Question for you: What is the last thing you harvest in December? And could you briefly describe your food storage system?

CS: The last things I harvest are leeks, carrots, sorrel, and members of the cabbage family. Although I think it best to harvest the turnip, beet, and radish roots earlier, before temperatures drop below about 20°F, the varieties of kale and arugula that I grow will live through temperatures approaching 10°F. They and the sorrel are the last leaves that I harvest in December. I harvest leeks and carrots before the soil freezes, not because it would kill them, but because I can’t dig them out of frozen soil. 

If your seed-grown sorrel doesn’t produce much before it flowers and goes to seed – mine didn’t – I recommend ‘Profusion’ sorrel. It doesn’t go to seed so it grows new leaves for months!

Profusion Sorrel
'Profusion' sorrel.

I’m not fond of canning during summer’s heat, and Mike hasn’t shown an inclination to do it, so we focus on storing crops we can freeze; store whole in the basement, a makeshift cold cellar, or in the living room with us; or process by fermentation or making into wine. We only have one refrigerator and it’s rather small, so we don’t store many garden crops in it, only apples that we don’t turn into wine.

Cold Cellar
Entrance to the cold cellar.
Cold Cellar Interior
Inside the cold cellar, empty now at the start of the new season.

LB: We met via a mutual interest in the writings of John Michael Greer. Have you read Green Wizardry, and has it been an influence for you? How else has Greer's writings inspired you?

Yes, Ive read Green Wizardry, and I call myself a green wizard. Mike and I had already done some of the things that Greer writes about as part of our voluntary simplicity practice, and we are adding others as time goes on. We practice a Retrofit lifestyle, with a little Down Home Funk mixed in (who else do you know who has at least 25 slide rules – Ive lost count – sharing the house with them?). 

Before I read Greers first blog, The Archdruid Report, the only thing I knew about Druids was the Druid character class in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Fast forward four years after I began reading his blog, and I had joined the Ancient Order of Druids in America, the Druid order for which he was the Grand Archdruid from 2003 through 2015. Fast forward another eight years to now, and I am the Archdruid of Water for the same order. I owe Greer a major debt of gratitude for his work to revive the Order, which has become my spiritual home, as well as for his work on green wizardry and related subjects.

LB: What does it mean to be an Archdruid of Water? Can you explain what this spiritual practice is all about? And how does it dovetail with being a 'green wizard'?

CS: The Druidry that members of AODA and other Druids groups practice is a form of nature spirituality. The only thing that holds for all of us in AODA is that we all have a sense that nature is sacred in some way: that nature itself has a spiritual significance and has spiritual lessons to teach us. AODA is non-dogmatic; its members hold a wide array of beliefs, so we focus on practice.

The four Archdruids of AODA function as the board of directors of AODA. More importantly, because we are a teaching Order, the Archdruids establish, maintain, and as needed revise our educational curriculum, which is designed so that each member can make each of AODA’s seven core practices and values a part of their everyday life.

One of our seven core practices and values is nature reciprocation. Nature reciprocation means living in balance and harmony with nature. To do this we incorporate lifestyle changes that reduce our negative impact on the Earth and her cycles, and we also learn how to work with the Earth to increase her richness. This is a perfect fit with green wizard practices, which seek to do the same things.

Barn Shed
Barn shed and bamboo poles, grown onsite.

LB: Living Low in the Lou is definitely the writing of someone with a deeply scientific bent. What's your background? How has science and the scientific method shaped your gardening, as well as other aspects of your carefully chosen lifestyle?

CS: Ive been interested in nature and science from as far back as I remember. In my late teens and twenties, I focused my college and graduate studies on chemistry, which drilled the scientific method into me and showed me how to use it to solve problems.

In my blog I describe the scientific method as a conversation between me and the garden. Each year, based on the results I obtained from previous years and my research on how to become a better gardener, I form questions (hypotheses) for the garden to answer. With the questions in mind, I decide what I can do to help the garden answer those questions (experiments). As I observe the plants in the garden and measure the weight of each days harvest, the garden is answering my questions and teaching me how to garden. 

In the same way, when Mike and I were learning how to live more simply by using the nine-step YMOYL program, every month we had a conversation with our categorized income and expenses about whether they were fulfilling and in line with our values. Based on the answers, we made changes in what we spent our money and time on. Then we asked the questions again the following month and made more changes. Like the garden example, its a process of asking questions and determining what action to take depending on the answers. The process taught us how to live in a way that allows us to pursue our interests and express our values. 

Mint
Claire grows 'mojito' mint for the both culinary and medicinal use.

LB: That's fantastic; I love it. Can you give some examples of expenses you realized were in conflict with your values? And others that were in harmony?

CS: Payments for utilities were among those that conflicted with our values. Noticing this resulted in our beginning to change the way we live to use less electricity, natural gas, and water. 

We also realized that the mortgage payment conflicted with our desire to retire early. In 1996 we paid the remainder of our mortgage debt. Since then we’ve lived debt-free.

I enjoy spending money on books and on plants and seeds. Mike finds fulfillment in spending money on musical instruments and on his motorcycle. Both of us enjoy contributing to organizations whose work we value.

LB: Claire, thanks so much for taking the time for our wonderful conversation. It's been a real privilege and pleasure!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Part 1: A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity'

Part 2: Suburban Homesteading


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.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

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


A Small, Good Thing You Can Do to Fight Climate Change - Without Breaking the Bank or Changing Your Diet

Pipewrap6

By Lisa Brunette

It's become fashionable these days to opt for trendy eco-solutions, such as driving a hybrid gas/electric vehicle or becoming a vegan. I'm guilty as charged - we still own a Toyota Prius, and I was a vegetarian for about 13 years, and a vegan for a good portion of that. However, as is the case with a lot of shiny new objects, they might not do any more good than the original thing they replaced, or the gain is minimal at best and usually involves some tradeoff.

Without traveling too far down the rabbit hole, you probably have already heard that the Prius (and other hybrids like it) isn't all it's cracked up to be when it comes to eco-friendliness. Its mass production, which requires parts from all over the world shipped to assembly plants all over the world, itself carries a huge carbon footprint, and of course its expensive battery is comprised of toxic materials. Even the Prius' energy-efficient status has been a matter of debate. There's a now-infamous Top Gear episode that illustrates all of this, fashioned for its gearhead audience, of course, but the point is that the Prius ain't no eco slam dunk.

And neither is going vegan. While a lot of ire has been directed at meat-eating due to methane's effect on climate change, the truth is livestock is a relatively minor contributor in the overall picture of emissions versus heavyweights like energy use by industry and transportation. Check out the below chart, showing data compiled by the independent, reader-supported organization Our World in Data (shared via open access through the Creative Commons BY license).

Emissions-by-sector-–-pie-charts

 

Given the above, let's say you decide to replace your meat protein with plant-based sources. What little you remove from that 5.8% currently in the Livestock & Manure category gets shifted over to the other categories under Agriculture, Forestry, & Land Use - that is, unless you plan to sustainably grow all of your plant-based protein sources yourself, or commit to sourcing them all from completely sustainable soybean farms and tofu makers using artisan, small-batch techniques, etc., and not from the usual suspects, since soybeans are a huge monoculture crop, and these contribute to soil depletion and water-supply contamination. You see how it is.

It's not that I'm against vegetarianism or veganism. If that's what you want to do, there are a lot of reasons for you to do it, and more power to ya. Not everyone's health supports that diet (mine doesn't, as it turns out), but if yours does, yay for you. Just don't think you can switch to veggie burgers and then call it a day on the climate front.

What's most interesting about the above emissions data is that such a high percentage - 10.9%, or nearly double what's attributed to livestock and manure - comes from residential buildings. But don't waste time feeling guilty about that; rather, think of it as an eco-opportunity: Now this is an area where an individual can make a big difference - and without a whole lot of effort. That's encouraging!

I realize this was a long lead-in to the small, good thing I promised you with the headline on this post, but I really wanted to make the case for it since what I'm about to suggest you do might make your eyes glaze over. I mean, if energy efficiency were as sexy as Priuses and vegan cafés, we might not be in this climate change mess in the first place.

And here it is, my big eco tip of the day: WRAP YOUR PIPES.

Pipewrap1
On the left, an insulated, or "wrapped" pipe. On the right, not wrapped.

That's right. I said wrap your pipes. Not your windpipes or your half-pipes. Your water pipes, the ones in your house. The ones coming up from your basement or crawlspace, the pipes that bring water to your bathtub, kitchen faucet, washer, dishwasher - you name it. I'm suggesting you insulate those pipes so that when the water's heated by your hot water heater, it doesn't cool off while it's making its way to your shower head.

Pipewrap2
Voila! Both pipes wrapped. Yeah, you can wrap the cold ones, too. Colder water when it's hot out!

It's funny because I'm old enough to remember the 70s, when many people did this kind of thing like it was a given. But for some reason, hardly anyone does it anymore. But I just know you're going to, because it's easy, it can make a clear, positive impact on climate change, and to top it all off, it will actually save you money.

What if you don't own your own home? Ask your landlord if you can wrap your apartment building pipes in exchange for money off your rent. Keep your receipts and show him. Tell him to compare his utility bills before and after.

Pipewrap3
Pipe wrapping, in process.

OK, so how do you wrap your pipes? It's pretty durn easy. Don't hire someone to do this; you can do it yourself in one afternoon. The steps:

  1. Measure your pipe diameters. Our house is 117 years old, so we had several pipe diameters from different eras. This is important to know because the insulation tubes come in varying diameters. Make sure you get the right size. 
  2. Head to your local hardware store (ours has been in business as long as our house has stood here) and buy the pipe wrap tubes. They come in convenient sheaths that look like super-skinny pool noodles, but with a slit down one side. The slit has adhesive on both sides under a strip you can remove just as you get the pipe cover in place. There are also elbow joint-shaped covers and T-joints. You might need those.
  3. Come home and wrap the pipes, cutting them to size, bending them if need be. Even though the pipe covers stick together with that adhesive strip, you might also want to wrap the pipes with duct tape. We did.
Pipewrap5
The pipe wrap, like so many skinny pool noodles. Photo bomb, courtesy Chaco.

And that's it. That's all you have to do.

We spent just over $100 for the pipe wrap and tape, nothing more. And we've already seen results.

I launched us into this project at the very beginning of February, just as the forecasts for severe winter storms were trailing in. After we wrapped the pipes, we had single-digit and below-zero temperatures (Fahrenheit) for more than two weeks, with a foot of snow on the ground (a lot for this area). The cold temps persisted through much of February, and you know about the power outages in Texas and other parts of the country.

Amazingly, though, our water bill was 30% lower this February than last February!

Pipewrap4
A finished wrap job.

I will admit our gas bill (which covers our household heating) was higher this February than last, but the weather was a real anomaly, so that's not surprising. Our gas bill for March was 20% lower than March of last year, and I think that's more representative of what we will see outside of rare weather events.

One thing we discovered is that you can't get cocky about your utilities, though. We saw that February water bill, got too excited, and turned our hot water heater thermostat really low. Unfortunately that encouraged us (mostly me) to run the water too long, waiting for hot water. So our March water bill was only 5% lower than last year's. Lesson learned; it's a balance.

Also want to compare this return-on-investment to the quote we recently received for solar panels. Those would cost us $8,000 (!), and it would take 20 years to pay off our investment, and that assumes the solar panels never need to be replaced or repaired. (Right.)

Even if you're not ready to jump up and throw a pipe-wrapping party just yet, I encourage you to have a look at your water pipes. It's instructive to see where the water comes into your residence from the outside main and where it goes once it's here.

Also want to credit John Michael Greer's outstanding book Green Wizardry for planting the energy-efficiency seed; in other words, reminding me of what I should have already known, having grown up in a time when energy efficiency was on everyone's mind, as it should be.

9780865717473.jpg

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3 Great Gifts for Gardeners from Small, Indie Shops

Copper_label

By Lisa Brunette

Springtime is a great point in the year to remember the gardener in your life - yes, even if the only gardener in your life is you! As the soil warms up enough for seeds, and bare bark begins to leaf out, we gardeners get ridiculously busy and might not have time for self care as we're busting sod and ripping open seed packets. Even if there's no gift-excuse day coming up, like a birthday or anniversary, a sweet little basket of gardening gifts is just the thing.

With that in mind, I've put together a trio of my favorite things - gardening items I've personally, thoroughly tested and love. I recommend these without reservation, and in fact all the below links are both 1) stuff I am currently using, or exactly like it and 2) items available right now in Etsy shops. I'm including affiliate links, by the way, so if you do purchase them using the links, Cat in the Flock might earn a commission, at no extra cost to you. So you can support this blog, show small, indie shops some love, and get a great garden gift, too!

Gift Idea No. 1: Name That Plant

Copper Label
As a way to train myself to learn them, I like to write the Latin names for native plants in permanent marker on these elegant copper labels.

Last week, I gave a tour of our garden to a local journalist interviewing me about the Shutterbee project, and it was really handy to have so many of our plants labeled for quick reference. I use these copper labels only to identify native perennials, which warrant the permanent treatment. They're real copper and weather well to a lovely patina as the seasons change.

You can order the same through the Etsy shop TheCelticFarm - they come in a pack of 30. Just remember to pick up a permanent marker somewhere, too.

Copperlabeletsy
Photo courtesy TheCelticFarm.

I don't bother to label annuals, as it's just not cost-effective since they're short-lived and change location each year with our rotation gardening. For those I find it's better to keep a planting chart (digital spreadsheet) and gardening diary (spiral where I paste seed packets with notes).

Gift Idea No. 2: Quick, to the Bat House!

Bat House
Our bat house.

It sucks (and I don't mean 'suck' as in vampire!) that bats got a bad rap just because of our overactive imaginations and superstitions. Bats are safe and worthy pollinators to encourage in your garden. Here's the official word from the Missouri Department of Conservation:

Bats are an important part of the natural world. Bats that feed on fruit are the primary means of seed dispersal for some species, and nectar-feeding bats are responsible for the pollination of many species of plants. In fact, more than 400 products used by humans come from bat-pollinated plants. These products include bananas, avocados, cashews, balsa wood and tequila.

Missouri bats help control nocturnal insects, some of which are agricultural pests or, in the case of mosquitoes, annoying to people. Many forms of cave life depend on the nutrients brought in by bats and contained in their guano.

In our yard, bats pollinate and eat our native passionflower vines. (We have two.) One of my favorite things to do at dusk in summer is to sit in the garden and watch as the bats come out, flittering overhead.

You can get your own bat house from JoesWoodWorksITC - this one is made out of cedar and features a double chamber.

Bathouseetsy
Image courtesy JoesWoodWorksITC.

Once you get the bat house home, here are some handy tips for how to hang it properly.

Gift Idea No. 3: Face Plant!

Face_plant

You might remember our face plant pot from "After a Lifetime of Frequent Moves, The Importance of Staying Put." Besides the awesome visual pun in 'face plant,' these just look really cool because whatever you plant in the pot becomes the hair atop the face. Think ChiaPet, only a lot less kitschy.

Unfortunately, mine was a recent casualty when I accidentally kicked it while trying to perform what my physical therapist calls "that kicky thing you do with your leg." Yeah, it's something I do to manually adjust my right hip (scoliosis issues). Too bad the plant pot bit it in the process.

Luckily, Etsy has a few replacement options, most notably these rather more whimsical versions from vintagebohemianstyle.

Vintagebohemianstyle
Image courtesy vintagebohemianstyle.

You can find more recommendations on my Etsy 'favorites' page, most notably some wonderful wearable wool in the form of a 'coatigan' and some merino wool long underwear. I like to buy a lot of things out of season when it's cheaper, and wool's a good one for that tactic. 

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