Midwest Feed

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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Now's the Perfect Time to Start That Sourdough

Sourdough6

By Lisa Brunette

A sourdough starter is a thing of beauty and seeming magic. All it takes is a bowl of water and flour, and you can 'catch' wild yeast from the atmosphere, claiming it as your own to use in everything from a simple loaf of bread to pancakes and pizza dough. 

If you've never done this before and are relying on commercial yeast packets for your baking projects, you don't know what you're missing. I highly encourage you to give wild sourdough a try. Not only is the flavor and texture far superior, but it's a lot healthier for you, too. As someone who suffers from Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, I can tell you that wild sourdough is pretty much the only bread I can eat without triggering symptoms. Since I love bread, creating my own sourdough has been more than worth the effort to bring bread back into my life. As it turns out, the process is also thoroughly satisfying.

Spring is a great time to start sourdough because the yeast thrives in the mildly warm temperature range of 65 to 85°F (18-29°C). Any colder, and it can be tough to capture that yeast; any hotter, and the flour/water mixture can quickly become acidic. I captured my culture last spring - over a week in late May to early June during relatively mild weather for my region at that time of year. I've nurtured it over the course of the past 12 months, baking with it, letting it go dormant, and then reactivating it to bake again for what I like to call MY YEAR IN SOURDOUGH. Now I can confidently report back to you on what works and what doesn't. This is a four-part series starting with... what else? The start.

Sourdough3

It's something of a miracle that you can stick a flour/water mixture outside and voilá! You've got yourself a sourdough starter. Of course, it's not quite that easy. There's a fair amount of babying, coaxing, feeding, waiting, babying, coaxing, feeding, and waiting some more until the magic happens. 

What didn't work for me? YouTube videos. Unfortunately, in this case, the algorithm's highest-ranking videos all tell you to do things in kind of silly ways, using methods that at best fail to rely on the collective historic wisdom of true sourdough artisans and at worst just don't work at all.

What brought success in spades? Following (and modifying) the advice laid out in Ed and Jean Wood's excellent book, Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. We inherited this book from Anthony's mother, A. Grace, when she passed in 2011, and it's just a pity I hadn't cracked it open sooner. We don't get anything in exchange for this endorsement, but here's the book if you want to check it out, with a link to where you can buy it used without involving the almighty 'Zon in the purchase.

ClassicSourdoughs

One of the best things about Classic Sourdoughs is that it doesn't present a one-size-fits-all approach but rather educates you on the nature of sourdough so you can adjust and adapt to your own environment. And that's crucial.

I live in a Midwestern river town, and even by late May, our air gets steamy, the humidity index high. But luckily, the temperature stayed under 85°F for that week or so that I successfully captured a sourdough culture. If you're in a more northern area, you might need to create a proofing box, which you can do with a standard Styrofoam cooler and socket light. This is outlined in Classic Sourdoughs, but I have not done it myself.

Another option is to capture the culture in the candle warmth of a (solar) Sun Oven set up inside, which is on my list to try as soon as we can. Cat in the Flock might receive a commission if you purchase a Sun Oven through this link, at no extra cost to you. Sun Oven is doing important work to promote solar energy and bring sun ovens to villages that dearly need them.

Sun-oven-black-homepage

But if you've got a lovely springtime range of 65-85°F (18-29°C), you should have no problem starting your culture. I strongly recommend doing this outside, as indoor air can be drier, less biodiverse, and laden with household contaminants, especially if you don't have the windows open. We tend to wait until the last minute to turn on the A/C, so our windows were open last year in late May, but I started the culture outside anyway. 

STEP 1

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (280 g) of flour
  • 1 1/2 cups (380 ml) warm water
  • A glass bowl
  • Cheesecloth or another type of screen to cover the bowl
  • Something to use to secure the screen over the bowl

A note about flour: I've used both unbleached all-purpose white flour and whole wheat flour, as well as a mix of both. You might have to add more water for whole wheat once you get to the dough stage, something you can sense if the dough is too hard and thick instead of a nice doughy mound you can easily knead. In all cases, I prefer organic, non-GMO if I can get it.

Vigorously stir the flour and water together, introducing enough air into the mix. A sourdough starter consists of both bacteria and yeast, and they need air to thrive. Don't freak out that I said "bacteria." Some bacteria is good for you, and in this case, it's what gives the sourdough its flavor. The yeast provides texture.

STEP 2

You shouldn't cover the bowl with a lid or plastic or anything else that will prevent the organisms from finding your flour and water. If you're worried about insects getting into it, cover with cheesecloth or another fine-mesh screen. I used a splatter shield held down with a rock to keep both insects and critters out. Now, you wait...

Sourdough2

STEP 3

Give the mixture a good stirring at least twice every 24 hours. During this time I checked it occasionally, eyeing its consistency and sniffing to make sure the odor was right. If the odor heads south, that means it's been taken over by undesirable organisms, and in that case, you'll need to start over. This happened to me once; actually, what happened was I had a great start pretty much right away but didn't understand that's what I had and left it out too long, at which point it went bad.

The mixture should begin to bubble a bit after 2-3 days. At this point, add 1 cup (140 g) of flour and enough water to maintain consistency. I had to repeat these "feedings" a few times before I got a fully active culture on my second round. Let this take the time it takes, even if you go beyond the four or five days recommended in Classic Sourdoughs. As long as the culture's trending toward activity and doesn't look or smell bad, you're on the right track. A fully active culture will look spectacular and alive. To some this means "bubbly," but to others it means "foamy." Here's an example.

Sourdough4

You might experiment with different locations, too. While the photos above show my culture mix sitting on top of a garden table, because it wasn't protected from rain in that location, I eventually moved it to under our back porch, in the walk-down stairway to our basement, where it seemed to thrive, out of both rain and sun.

Once you've got a nice, active culture, you can bake with it immediately, but definitely reserve some of the original for future baking. You can also store it in the fridge to use later. I recommend labeling it as sourdough starter and including the date. This is now your start, your buddy, your friend; it will stick with you through life if you keep feeding it. The Woods recommend doing this every couple of months even if you're not baking, and I concur. I had two starts, one of which I baked with every two months. It's still my winner. The other one went four months' dormant in the fridge, and I opened it this spring to find it had gone bad: black fuzz and a terrible smell. I had to pitch it.

But the good one! Oh, the things I've baked... I'll tell you all about it in a future post.

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'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!

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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.

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Part 1: A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity'

Part 3: The Most Food for the Time and Space